Categories
Members Free Fiction

One Last Job

Dave Sivers

This has been the worst year of my life.

In January, my erstwhile friend Arthur succumbed to a cancer that, by all accounts, he’d never seriously resisted. Even though we’d been estranged for years, it still felt like the final severing of a link to my old life, and it made me sad.

But that was just the beginning.

In April, my poor old dad somehow slipped out of the nursing home I was paying a fortune to look after him, in the middle of the night. They found him at the bottom of the ornamental pond he’d always liked. How’s that for irony? His cruel illness had already stripped away so much of his memory that he’d long since forgotten who I, or my sister, Rose, were. But he never seemed to forget that he liked sitting on the bench by that pond, especially on a sunny day. It had seemed to calm him when he was agitated. When Rose and I visited on days like that, and sat there with him, he seemed happy enough and we even fancied that at least he knew we were acquainted in some way.

The home, and the investigation that followed his death, concluded that he must have had a hankering to visit his favourite spot on the one night when some fool had managed to leave a door open. Whether ranks had closed, or whether it was genuinely impossible to say who’d made the mistake, I never knew for sure. If I‘d known who was to blame, I would have taken steps.

Rose and I were both devastated, of course. Mum died when we were young, and Dad raised us as best he could, on his own. The three of us were very close, especially Rose, who’d never married and had looked after him until she could no longer cope. Still, I didn’t know how hard his death had hit my big sis until that day in June when I went round to see why she wasn’t picking up the phone. I had a key and, when she didn’t answer the door, I let myself in. She was on the bed, surrounded by booze bottles and pill packets.

I might have found comfort in the thought that she and Dad were together again, if only I believed that stuff.

July, and it was my best friend, Sonny, simply disappeared without trace after he got separated from friends in fog on a moor down in Devon; a beautifully desolate landscape that harboured all manner of traps for the unwary.

August saw Anna, the woman I’d led something of a double life with for years, fall under a Newcastle Metro train. I couldn’t even go to the funeral. There was too much risk of people wondering who I was and word getting back to my wife, Terri. And, even though I was cheating, she and the kids meant the world to me.

I wasn’t to know that, just six weeks on, Terri, Luke and Sasha would be dead too, a terrible house fire while I was away at a conference that was part of my legend.

Sorry, yes. Legend. This whole lucrative import and export business I’m supposed to have, a business that everyone thinks made me my fortune, was a sham for years. Convincing enough for anyone who doesn’t have reason to dig too deep, and I’ve always paid my taxes to the last penny.

No one suspects that for years my real living came from killing people.

It sort of started after the army, when settling back into ‘normal’ life was a challenge, after the things I’d seen and done. I met people who were also back in civilian life, people who knew people, and my slide across to the dark side was so gradual that I hardly noticed the transition myself.

It was like one minute I was helping out with things that were maybe a bit dodgy, the next I was part of a murder squad and then, before you knew it, I was a killer for hire anywhere in the world, charging an obscene amount of money per hit and always able to stay under the radar. No one – not my dad, not Rose, or Anna, or even Terri – knew the truth.

I suppose the change started twenty five years or so ago, with the Eastley family. George Eastley was an up and coming gang boss on the north east coast, and the hit was supposed to send a huge ‘hands off’ message about the turf he was trying to muscle in on. Taking out a whole family had never been my style, but the bonus on offer was too attractive to turn down, and I thought I could handle it.

I really couldn’t.

It was the kids that made me sick to my stomach, especially the little boy, Ben. Two years old. My hand shook as I looked at his bewildered little face. I like to think at least I made it quick and clean.

A family of five and two henchmen. Gone.

I sent Arthur and his clean up team in afterwards. Arthur was always efficient, discreet and touchingly anguished about the corpses he disposed of for me. Really inventive, too. He made George Eastley’s yacht disappear too, and the assumption was that they’d all gone out in conveniently rough weather, and were now somewhere at the bottom of the sea.

Local gang bosses seemed to take the hint though. To this day, no one else has made a move on that particular territory, nor on George’s old patch, which subsequently fell under control of the people who let the contract.

I know that watery grave will give up its secrets one day, and the truth of their deaths will come out. But they’ll never be connected to me.

Still, I can’t pretend it wasn’t a bad business.

I’d always thought there was something awry with my humanity; that there was an ingredient missing from my makeup that allowed me to kill without compunction or conscience. I found out that day that I wasn’t quite as cold as I thought.

Since then, my dreams have often been haunted by those children, especially the boy.

And it affected me in other ways too. Arthur refused to work for me again, saying the three kids had broken his heart. I found a new clean up team, but it wasn’t the same.

Worst still, I found I lost my taste for the work, and some of my touch, some of my sharpness too. I made a couple of mistakes: tiny ones, nothing I thought would come back to bite me, but you have to know when the writing is on the wall. I retired, made import/export a real business instead of just a cover, and became boring and ordinary for over twenty years.

I knew a kind of peace, if not fulfilment.

Now, in less than a year, everyone I cared about is dead.

And now, in a sense, my bloody past has caught up with me. Someone wants somebody out of the way and it seems that Arthur, of all people, recommended me to them if they ever needed a professional hit.

My instincts when I got the call were first, to insist the caller had got the wrong man, then to be angry that Arthur had spoken out of turn, and finally to admit my curiosity.

One last job?

I don’t know. Since Terri and the kids died, my life has just been shuffling by without point or purpose. I’ve been wondering what it’s all about. And, somewhere along the way,  it occurred to me that, up until the Eastleys, my old profession had given me a satisfaction, even a buzz. Maybe recapturing something of that buzz is exactly what I need.

So here I am, in a clearing in a wood on the outskirts of Northumberland National Park. It’s November and I’m wrapped up warm. The leaves make a gorgeous carpet of many colours under my feet. It’s slightly damp and there’s a hint of mist in the air. But what I can see of the sky is blue and it’s a day that once I would have taken pleasure in. Now I only appreciate it in an academic way.

It gets dark early here at this time of year, and the light is already fading, along with the day’s little remaining warmth. Neutral ground where no one is likely to disturb or overhear our conversation.

I hear the brittle crunch of twigs and dead leaves, an indication that someone is approaching. He steps into the clearing, a man who is difficult to nail an age upon. He could be anything from mid twenties to late thirties. There’s a woolly hat jammed over his ears. He stops, standing a few feet away, and nods an awkward greeting.

We’re going to have to go through a slightly silly ritual now. It’s like something out of a bad spy film, but essential to ensure neither of us is the wrong person. I don’t want to blunder into a comedy conversation about murder with some bewildered passer-by.

“Not bad for the time of year,” he says, shoving his hands deeper into the pockets of his padded jacket.

I give him the agreed response. “I wonder if we’ll have snow this year.”

He lets out the breath he’s been holding, his exhalation misting in the chilly air.

“You brought what I need?” I check – a discreet reference to the fifty per cent up front required for the job, along with details of the target.

He moves closer. “Let’s talk first.”

I feel a stirring of unease. It was sometimes like this, I remember. Like they had to explain what the job was about, why they needed this person – or these people – dead. I was never interested. They didn’t have to justify themselves. Sometimes, like with the Eastleys, I could work it out for myself. But the less personal it is, the better I like it.

“Don’t get me wrong,” I say, “and no offence. But we’re not here to talk. We’re here to transact business.”

He gives another barely imperceptible nod. “Sure. I just wanted to say something about our mutual friend. Arthur Cooper?”

I feel curiosity stirring. The recommendation was certainly a surprise after the way things had been left between Arthur and me. He’d made it clear he didn’t want any more to do with me or my work. Yet this client was here because of him.

“I was sorry to hear he died,” I say.

“Me too. He’d become a good family friend. I was with him when he died. There was a lot he wanted to get off his chest.”

I’m not sure where this is going, so I say, “Uh huh.”

He raises one hand and removes his hat. Uses the other to push back a lock of hair. The scar above his left temple is quite something.

“Can you guess where I got that from?”

I don’t want to engage. So he wants to take out the person who gave him that scar. So what? I just want the target’s details and my up front payment. I tell him so as he replaces the hat and shoves his hands back in his pockets.

He smiles then. “Oh,” he says, “there’ll be no money. There’s a target, but I’ll be doing the job myself.”

He pulls his right hand out of his pocket and it holds a gun. He points it at my head.

“Arthur thought you weren’t as stone cold a killer as you thought you were,” he says. “He thought you were so squeamish about shooting a little boy that your aim must have been off. And you were so keen to get away that you didn’t make sure you’d done the job properly.” He smiles. “And here I am, with nothing but a scar to mark your failure.”

I stare at him, remembering the wide eyes, my shaking hand, trying to recognise the child I’d left for dead.

“You’re Ben Eastley?”

“Arthur found a conscience that day he found me still alive. He took me to an uncle of mine, who got me fixed up by a dodgy doctor and then raised me as if I was his own. He kept it quiet that I’d survived, so no one came after me again. I don’t remember any of it, of course. I actually thought my uncle was my dad until he told me the truth when I was eighteen.”

“So this is revenge?” I sigh. “You do know that I just pulled the trigger? If it hadn’t been me, it would have been somebody else.”

He laughs hollowly.

“I’m not stupid. I know who gave the orders, and they’ll pay too, some day soon. But I didn’t know who carried out the contract until Arthur decided to cleanse his soul. I’ve been planning this for a while.”

I search his face. “Planning is one thing. Taking a human life… are you sure you can do that?”

He smiles. “I’ve already taken everyone you loved. All those tragic accidents…”

I stare at him, a sudden anger sparking and blooming into flame. “That was you?”

“Guilty. And a crueller man might have left you grieving longer. Think of this as a mercy. Twenty five years on, and it’s just you and me again. But I wanted you to know why, before I kill you. What comes around, comes around, don’t you think?”

“You’re right,” I say, pushing my hands deeper into my pockets.

And he is right. I failed to kill him when he was a helpless child. Now he’s a grown man. And he’s come for me. It’s like a circle has closed.

The single shot scares dozens of birds into the sky, its echo mingling with their cries.

I look down at my coat, at the hole in the fabric, slightly singed where the bullet passed through.

I look Ben Eastley in the eyes and see that child at last.

“You talk too much,” I say. I remove the still-smoking gun from my pocket and shoot him again.

His lips move and then his eyes glaze. His own gun falls from his hand. He collapses like a puppet without strings.

I feel like a burden has been lifted from my shoulders. There is none of the guilt and horror I felt when I thought I’d killed his child-self. This time, it had been him or me. And, if he’d only wanted revenge on me, maybe I’d have let him.

But he had to bring my loved ones into it.

I wonder if his uncle knew what Arthur had told him. What Ben intended to do about it. If so, then maybe others will come after me. Maybe I’ll spend the rest of my time on earth looking over my shoulder.

I find that I’m okay with that. It’s a purpose in life, of sorts. Maybe the constant sense of threat will make me feel alive.

And there’s another thing. What I’d imagined was my last job wasn’t exactly what I expected, but it’s shown me I’ve still got it. Killing people is what I was born to do.

I’ve still got contacts. People who know people, but who can be very discreet.

Maybe I’ll put the word out that I’m back in business.

THE END

© Dave Sivers 2020

Categories
Members Free Fiction

Resistance

Eve Smith

‘Do you reckon it was that burger, Dad? At the footie?’
My dad is King of questions. Ask him anything.
How many miles is it to the Sun?
Who’d win: Romans or Ninjas?
What are toenails made of?
He frowns at my duvet as if I’ve scribbled on it again.
‘Jimmy said it didn’t taste right,’ I add. Just to help.
Dad’s jaw pumps like it’s gearing up for something big. He clamps me tight to his chest: too tight, like Jimmy used to sometimes, when we played rough.
Air whooshes against my cheek but no answer comes.
I go with my burger theory, because of what Jimmy said. And
because I had the hot dog. And I’m still here.
‘Do you think the cow shivered like Jimmy?’
I’ve never seen a cow shiver.
I picture a quivering, black bulk with paintbrush splashes of white, breath rattling out in coiled, misty heaves. Angry spots marching up knobbly legs. As if someone’s just splattered them with ketchup.
Dad grinds his knuckles into his eyes so hard it must hurt. He once told me if bacteria were the size of plates, I’d be 125 miles tall. They call them superbugs, but it’s not because of their size.
His whiskery throat bobs. ‘I don’t know, Son.’
Yesterday, I smelt bacon frying next door. A tap turned on in my mouth. Next came the tears. They wouldn’t stop. Not until I was gasping, like Jimmy.
I think of those bacteria, floating around the cow, waiting in plastic packets, just for him. Another question sneaks onto my tongue: can superbugs hide in vegetables?

Dad’s panda eyes are busy climbing curtains. So I swallow it. Like one of Jimmy’s stupid pills.
I’ll eat paper. Blu Tack. Glue.
In case the grown-ups are wrong about that, too.

Categories
Members Free Fiction

The Uninvited Guest


by Ian Skewis

The old man stared out of the window. Except he wasn’t old. It just felt that way. He hated this time of year. It always set in motion the same chain of events: the promise of a celebration then the bitter disappointment. The same old birthday card and cheap socks, and the novelty wears off all too quickly. The entire day becomes an exercise in hopelessness. It reminds him that once upon a time he had the entire world at his feet. Now here he is, grovelling at the feet of the entire world. The great grandfather clock ticks in the background, counting down from hero to zero.

He was someone to be reckoned with once: young and confident, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Suited and booted, armed with a flash car, and the freedom to do as he pleased. He loved that car. It raced him from one success to another. Peak after peak after peak. It took him on far-flung holidays and to life-changing business deals. He was the king of real estate. Property developer extraordinaire. His wrists were sore from all the handshaking, his jaws ached from all the smiling. There was fire in his heart, a twinkle in his eyes, and a very definite spring in his step. He didn’t have to wait in queues or take a taxi or even book a table for dinner. Everyone knew his name. Everyone wanted to be him.

So how the hell did it come to this?

His head was held high then, his sights set on the next big thing, the blood coursing fast and uninhibited through the highways of his arteries. Now his arteries were clogged up with the slow-moving traffic of fat and sugar. Too many takeaways, alcohol and not enough exercise had pulled his sights down. His distended belly weighed like guilt on his spine, causing a stoop in the roof of his shoulders and a constant pain in his neck. He could only stare at his feet now. Bathing was a near physical impossibility and he couldn’t bend over to tie his shoelaces anymore. Even breathing was difficult, and he could barely feel his fingers or toes. His skin, once smooth and bronzed, was now pale and blotchy, as if suffering from a case of rising damp. His body was like a condemned house. Unfit for human occupancy.

He couldn’t bear to look in the mirror anymore. On the rare occasion when he did manage it, he would see the expression of regret hanging limply from his yellowing, bloodshot eyes.

‘Derek, I’m going out.’

‘Okay,’ he called, in the polite voice he reserved for all those who did not know him, and yes, that was his wife calling him. They were complete strangers now. The dry rot of their marriage had finally taken its toll. How he wished he’d taken heed of those warning signs. But the truth was that Derek didn’t know who he was either. He had undergone something of a change in recent years, and not just a physical one. The man who he had strived to be was long gone, and in his place was someone he barely recognised. All that staring at his own two feet had turned him into someone else. He had become apologetic for his own existence. He could rarely leave the house anymore.

His wife had always been the most obvious and visual measure of his prosperity. She had dressed in couture and had the finest things that life could offer: champagne and caviar; first-class seats; endless parties and charity balls. Now she was dressed in clothes that were a season or two old, and inexorably falling further behind as each year passed. She could barely look at him these days without casting what would no doubt be a disapproving press of her Botoxed lips, had they been capable of such a manouevre. Her gaze was always distant, her hopes and dreams trapped in the grandeur of years past. She made small talk when it suited her, and not much more. She was always occupied. Some days he would be lucky to bump into her at all. She was more an absence than a presence these days. She rarely stayed at home anymore.

The house, which he had arranged to be built from scratch, and which had once been filled with the excited voices of all those who wanted to bask in his glory, was now deathly quiet. His birthdays had once been a sight to behold; champagne towers, classical musicians and his hostess with the mostess. That sweet smell of success had once been easy to measure against her. It was as evident in his wife as it had been in his investments and holiday homes and American Express card. But how do you measure the stench of failure? Failure is hush-hush. Failure is a silent house. A card, and cheap socks. Or perhaps your wife dressed in faded glamour, slinking out of the house in last season’s clothes, and never wanting to talk about it. It left him feeling lonely and dejected, as if he was living in a vacuum. An imposter in his own once successful life.

Left to his own devices, he felt vulnerable, and constantly on the edge. He didn’t believe in anything much anymore, least of all himself. He tried to recall what it had been like to be him, the him that he still wanted to be, but that he calculated he would never be again. It seemed so long ago now that he wondered if it had actually happened. Perhaps it had happened to someone else.

His wife didn’t even bother to lie to him anymore. When she was going out they both knew that it was to be with someone, anyone, but him. She looked different now; bored, irritable. Never quite looking him in the eye, the spirit level of her gaze always slightly askew. She had been doing some bad things behind his back. It had been going on for some time now. She had tried to hide it from him at first, but she soon grew careless when she saw how little he did to defend his honour. He didn’t blame her. After all, what did he have to offer her now?

Nevertheless, he was hurt, deeply so. When he found out, his life was rocked to its foundations. He sobbed his heart out. He even thought to kill himself. Her lover, typically younger, better-looking and wealthier, had been picking her up in his flash car at the edge of their estate for some time now, and dropping her off a few hours later. It was almost a daily occurrence, and in time they grew so blatant about it that he had even begun dropping her off at the doorway. Derek suspected that her lover had even stayed the night once, but he couldn’t be sure, since he and his wife now slept in separate rooms, on separate floors.

He wondered how long until his wife decided to put him through a messy and expensive divorce, and rob him of everything he had ever worked for. He knew she had been planning it for some time. His bank had notified him of her attempt to withdraw all their cash without his signature. She had made quite a scene, apparently. He never mentioned it. What would be the point? It was clear that her mind was made up. It didn’t make it any easier though, knowing of her intentions. He had been nothing but kind and gentle towards her. He knew this because she had told him so, once. Perhaps he had been too kind. He held back his tears and looked around him, taking comfort and pride in the elegant cornicing that he had imported from Italy, and the mahogany staircase and the beautiful oriental mosaic on the wall. He hadn’t done badly.

Then one day, she formally introduced this lover of hers, declaring that he would be a regular visitor. Her gaze was insolent, almost daring him to defy her. Unbelievably, the wrecking ball of his marriage had the audacity to extend his hand for friendship. On shocked autopilot, Derek actually complied, thus sealing the unwritten contract of this new and highly questionable tenancy agreement. Afterwards, he heard them both laugh about it behind his back. His kindness, his inability to say no to his future ex-wife, was being taken advantage of. His rival had come home to roost. A cuckoo in his nest, and Derek was the cuckold. With the demolition of his marriage now well in progress, Derek felt marginalised to the point of non-existence. Dissociation had begun to set in, like some new strain of mould. He felt like a tenant in his own home. He might as well start paying rent.

That night, he caught sight of his reflection in the window; distorted and murky, another version of himself staring back from a parallel world. Something furtive was hiding in that dark place. Or maybe not hiding. Waiting perhaps, mulling things over. The more he stared at it the more real it became. An intention lay there, in the blackness, in the glint of his eye, gazing back from the twilight world beyond the glass. But what was that intention? Derek did not know. He did not want to know.

But then, he knew. Oh, he knew. And it terrified him.

Derek turned away from the window in fear and his other self vanished, but at the same time so did he. When he shuffled off to his bed he shuffled off what seemed like an old skin. When he switched off the lamp, soft-centred Derek ceased to exist.


The next day he was up before the sun. He went for a jog around his estate, taking in the fresh, botanical air, and marvelling at the fact that all this land was still his. He was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed again. Nothing was going to get to him. His wife and her lover viewed this new version of him with suspicion, but he didn’t care, not anymore. He had tried, how hard he had tried, but she just hadn’t been prepared to build a bridge between them. It dawned on him that the power had been in his hands all the time. This was his house, not hers. As with their bank account she couldn’t do anything without his planning permission. But he could do what he liked. The renovation of the house was an inspiration. He couldn’t think why it hadn’t popped into his mind sooner. He’d been employing builders for years, not realising that he was rather adept at it himself. It soon became an obsession, so much so that he lost touch with the last few friends he had, and even his closest family. Phone calls were ignored. Emails unchecked. There was no one left to talk to, except his wife, of course, but the conversation between them had dried up a long time ago. And sex was but a fond and distant memory. How apt that he should take up DIY.

With renewed vigour he spent entire days and nights sawing, sanding and painting. He began to feel useful again. Better than that, it was fuelling his desire to succeed. His ambition was elevated and so were his sights. He sweated and strained and in doing so he began to lose weight again. His body and his libido were functioning once more, and, rather fortuitously, he had found a weapon to use against his two conspirators. In time, sick of the hammering and the dust and the constant smell of wet paint, she stopped bringing his rival home. Derek was master of the house now.

But it wasn’t enough. No matter how many layers he applied, he could not paper over the cracks that had begun to appear. A shapeless and persistent presence haunted the back of his mind. It was no longer easily disposed of by keeping himself in work around the house, carrying out his repairs and improvements, doing his best to keep his thoughts in a dormant state. All his efforts were in vain because as soon as he stopped, the presence was still there, like a ghost in need of exorcising. It was neither random nor benign. It had a purpose, and that purpose was secretive and dangerous. And it was slowly seducing him.

No matter what he did, the dark thoughts seemed to emanate from every nook and cranny; whispering from the pitch-black cellar, breathing in the eaves and forming ice-cold condensation on the window. Now that he had almost finished renovating the house he had more time to think, and that was the last thing he needed. It was always at these times, when his guard was down, that his doppelgänger would come to darken his already shadowy life, dredging up old grudges again and again, over and over: he had no children; she had never wanted any. Too vain, she had admitted. He had always resented her for that. It was just another brushstroke in her long streak of selfishness, the latest of which was her trespassing boyfriend. How he envied their bright, colourful lives. They were exciting in comparison with his, which
despite his new-found momentum, still remained unfulfilled. He tried to forget what he had barely dared to think about, but the whispering continued and he would be forced to busy himself around the house once more, performing unnecessary surgery on a perfectly healthy home.

It should have been simple. Like ignoring a phone call or deciding not to read that email. But drowning out those voices in his head wasn’t easy. It was an indelible stain on his mind, and no matter how many times he tried to scrape it away there was yet another layer underneath. In his latest bid to keep his mind occupied, he explored his house, admiring all his most recent constructions; the extra staircase that led to nowhere, the cupboard that touched the fifty-foot high ceiling and the overcomplicated water slide that dropped rather too sharply into the indoor pool, and he began to wonder if he was taking things just a little too far. He knew all too well why he was avoiding the eye of his alter ego. Therein lay a dreadful, wonderful idea, and a mind not yet made up. But something had to give. He would be forty soon and what did he have to show for it?

The question was monumental.

Of course, he had a house filled with lovely things, but other than that he had absolutely nothing. The front door slammed shut, making him wince. He could hear his wife’s shrill laughter, and her high heels clacking annoyingly on the marble floor, accompanied by the loud and somewhat pompous voice of that oaf she now called her lover.

Another slam, the bedroom door this time.

Seeking escape, he stomped into the study and gradually calmed himself down. Afterwards, he gazed around the room, cherishing the chaise longue in the corner, recently upholstered and draped, just so, with a burgundy throw; the grand marble mantelpiece, adorned with old photographs elegantly framed in gold leaf.

And then there was the great grandfather clock in the corner, now counting from zero to hero. He loved it because she loathed it. It had become a unique symbol of their difference. He felt a sense of pride at his handiwork, at his good taste, his expertise in choosing just the right accoutrement, for this, his perfect house.

He hadn’t done badly.

But increasingly, he felt trapped on all sides by an enemy who would not be vanquished. His wife meant nothing to him. Derek had come to that conclusion a long time ago. He was fighting an increasing desire to run away but he had nothing and no one to run to. So he just sat tight and the uninvited guest would gatecrash his mind once more. Yet tonight felt different somehow. It’s just that he couldn’t figure out why.

The sound of his other half’s approaching Jimmy Choos made him sigh wearily, and he made a concerted effort to appear relaxed, turning to smile at her as she surveyed his surroundings with an air of disgust, cigarette poised in her perfectly-manicured hand.

The clock began to chime midnight, almost but not quite drowning out the creak of her other half’s footsteps as he sneaked out the front door. Derek ignored him, as he always did, besides, he was somewhat preoccupied. The clock was counting down to his birthday. He wondered if she was going to give him his obligatory socks now.

She lit her cigarette, and took a careful draw, narrowing her eyes at him. ‘He’s moving in and there’s nothing you can do about it.’

Derek felt the world spin a little too fast on its axis, and watched helplessly as she clacked off to the doorway, then turned and said to him with a cruel smile, ‘Oh. Happy Birthday.’

The front door slammed shut. He heard her being driven off to somewhere probably very exotic. The smile was still fixed stupidly to his face, even when the tears began to fall. He remembered when he was training to be a real estate agent all those years ago and there was one of those A4 posters on the wall which read the legend, It takes 46 muscles to frown and only 7 to smile! It all seemed so pointless now.

The clock had finished chiming.

Suddenly, he knew what was different about tonight. It was his turn to play the host. He listened for the first time to what his guest had to say, and he accepted it, wholeheartedly. It had been a long time coming. They would return soon, no doubt inebriated and unable to defend themselves very effectively, and when they did he would be waiting, and he would give them a present instead. Something they would never forget. There, his mind was made up.

He glanced round the room once more, noting the crossed swords that hung on the wall above the chaise longue, and the heavy iron poker in the fireplace, and the gilded paper knife on the table beside him. And the ticking of that great grandfather clock.

His smile broadened into a rictus grin. He hadn’t done badly, not bad at all.

But what he was about to do was bad.

Really, really, bad.

The End

Categories
Members Free Fiction Uncategorized

Bay Tales Christmas Competition Runners Up

We had some great entries for our first Bay Tales Christmas Competition…Here’s four for you to enjoy over the holidays!

Simple Gifts

DC Smith

There’s not much to do in an immigration queue. Even less in an American immigration queue, with its hour long wait and strict no-mobiles policy. Fortunate for me, I don’t need entertainment; I have a husband.
“I think we should do Old Faithful tomorrow and then the snowmobiles later. I think that type of itinerary worked well in Iceland, did it not?” Dominic’s dark eyes focus on the Neanderthal at the head of the queue, the one with the passport stamps.
Sure, pet, I think. The Algarve is more my speed, but you insist on winter holidays in places with ‘proper winter.’ Which apparently means, in order: Lapland, Iceland, and Yellowstone. Not your typical family Christmas. What’s next, Antarctica? The frozen Zone of Death?
“I think we should have time before our connection to have a bite to eat, but is there any food for which Chicago is famous?”
“No idea.” Two foods, actually: hot dogs and pizza, both in greasy, oversized styles. Good Neanderthal food.
We shuffle forward, the herd around us snuffling discontentedly under excessive lighting.
“I do wish -” I tune him out. Dominic’s sentences usually start the same way.
People say we’re “a study in contrasts.” I suppose they could mean his Mediterranean features next to my freckles and blonde hair, or his ebullient manner and my near-silence at parties.
They don’t. They mean two things: his posh London accent next to my unvarnished Geordie, and that his father was a barrister while mine knocked my mam up at seventeen and worked in a shipyard until it closed, then worked at an auto repair shop for a few years before dying at
forty. My mother left me alone the day I went off to uni. Time to seek new adventures, she said.
‘Can’t hide behind your family forever, Cass,’ people used to tell me.
Hide behind what? And from what? I’d think. I’ve never fucking hidden from anything.
That’s how you go from a council house, childhood run aground on the shores of Maggie Fucking Thatcher’s 1980s, to the law faculty at my local university. Where, I might add, my husband is also a professor. Contrasts indeed.
So I agree to the hot dogs on the condition that we take a day of rest before the geysers and the buffalo and the snowmobiles. I’m exhausted already. What ever happened to a fruity cocktail with an umbrella?
My husband gives me a quick hug. It’ll be okay, I think. I pat my suitcase and stare at the bright lights.

I’ve survived the geyser. I’ve survived the food. I’ve survived an encounter with a herd of bison on a two-lane road. I’ve worn a Santa hat the whole time. I’ve started to talk like Dominic.
“I’d like to see if the snowmobiles might be ready early,” says the man himself.
Sure, pet. If it goes vrooooooom, you want it, even if you can’t afford it and have no idea how it works. “Surely they’ll be happy to move a rental to Christmas Eve,” I say.
The man at the snowmobile place is twenty stone of American working class. He reminds me of my father, in that he looks like two of him amalgamated into a single mountain. He likes my accent; I like his hands, weathered and leathery despite his young age. He does not like Dominic, but he agrees to load two Polaris vroom-vroom machines onto a flatbed and drop them by morning.
I wait up while Dominic is knocked out by a sixth glass of Riesling. Bradley – that’s the mountain’s name – smells like wood smoke and sounds like gravel. Riesling is probably not his tipple. He tells me what I need to know.

“I’m glad you’ve come around to my idea of Christmas,” Dominic says. We’re ten miles from any road, somewhere on the Idaho side of the state line. Our mobiles have zero service. His nose is red. His breath steams. His smile is as white as the unbroken snowfield around us. “It’s all about family. Great suggestion, this holiday.”
I unzip my parka and remove an envelope. “Merry Christmas.” Pet.
His eyes meet mine. Then his face drops.
“The first twenty pages are letters my mother sent me the last six years. Nice of you to intercept them. Nicer still that she kept copies. The hole in that plan came when she found me
on Facebook.”
“I…Cass, I-“
“Yes, I know, nobody listens when Cassandra brings bad news. Keep going.”
Next are photos of Dominic with a student. They’re naked, of course, but that’s not awful: at least the younger man has nice pecs.
“I…This isn’t…”
“No, it’s not what it seems. It’s worse, Dominic.”
Next is a letter to me – left anonymously on my car, but CCTV doesn’t lie – demanding £9,250 in Bitcoin or the video would be on Pornhub. Fuck that, I said after tracking the little wazzock down. If you’re that hard up for tuition, I’ll pay. Just give me the videos.
“So, Dominic. Now we get to the fun part.”
“I’ll give you whatever you want.”
“Listen carefully. We’re in a unique place. Under U.S. law, crimes committed in national parks are under exclusive federal jurisdiction.” I reach under the seat and pull out a wrapped bundle.
“And trials must have jurors from the state and judicial district in which the crime is committed.
You with me?”
He exhales. Clouds of steam gleam against weak winter sun.
“Yellowstone is part of the Wyoming judicial district. But we’re in Idaho now. And nobody lives in the Idaho section of the park. Understand?”
“I understand.”
“Perhaps you’ll sum it up for me, Professor.”
“I believe there is no way to put anyone on trial for a crime committed here.”
“Precisely. This place is known as the Zone of Death.” I unwrap the bundle, pointing the Glock.
Thanks, Brent, I think.
“We were an odd match from the get-go. Now I understand, of course. But there’s one problem with marrying the only child of a grease monkey.”
“I think there are many problems.”
“Here’s another. See the fuel gauge on that snowmobile? Says half-full. Is it fuck, Dominic.
You’ve barely got fumes in there. And now I’m either ‘going for help’ – I attempt air quotes, but the gun makes it difficult – or we make a deal. Which is more valuable to you: your reputation or your life?”
“I’m wondering how much my reputation is worth to you.” Good answer.
“Ah. One detached house – ours is fine. An Audi – yours suffices. Three-quarters of our other assets. Your departure for a different job by next academic year.”
“I think we have a deal.”
“Oh, and a flat in Faro for two weeks next December.”
“I still think we have a deal.” His eyes fix on the gun.
“Very well, then.” I reach into my coat and hand him a pen. “Sign the last page.”
He signs.
“Hand me the documents and wait here. My half-brother – you know, Brent, the gadgie with the snowmobiles – will be waiting for me at the road.”
“I…Cass. I’m-“
“No, you’re not. Don’t lie. We’ll come back and get you. Then I’ll spend the rest of the day with my mother and half-brother. Because Christmas is all about family, isn’t it?”

DC Smith

DC Smith has been a 2019 CWA Debut Dagger Finalist, a Bloody Scotland Pitch Perfect ’19 Finalist, and featured in 2019 Capital Crime New Voices; LL, 2020 #SFoW Friday Night Live. He’s also got a quite brilliant story in Noir from the Bar, an NHS fundraising anthology featuring 30 authors from Noir at the Bar.

Alternative Christmas Story

Angi Plant

Julie Sathwell was dreading this Christmas. She had to endure a long weekend every year, with her partners family. And boy it was a long weekend. All sitting there pretending to like one another. Pretending to like her. The Australian. Or the gold digger. Which was actually dryly amusing as the money in the household was hers. Not strictly legitimately, but a mere point. Their nasal voices called her that when they thought she wasn’t
listening or couldn’t hear them.
It was the same year in, year out.
Oh God, was it boring. Everyone sat around the table to force dry Turkey and soggy sprouts down their scrawny necks. Every year she’d smile and ignore the jibes. The convict jibes.
She’d feel Andy put his hand on her leg, thinking that would stay her if she lost it. Still, the support was welcome.
Nobody knew about her past. The things she had actually done. When her name was Nicole Salter.
Nicole was there under the surface, but legally she didn’t exist. Not any more. Nicole was wild and untamed. Julie was careful, controlled and the person you would take home, whereas Nicole was the secret girlfriend. That had been the problem.
Julie shook herself from her reverie, and began to get dressed for day one with ‘the family’. The mafia in makeup. She chuckled to herself. Well, it was all going to change. She wasn’t going to take it anymore. No more selective deafness.
She took a deep breath and surveyed herself in the mirror. Everything that caused comment, she had gone out of her way to do this year. She was determined she’d not be invited again. Royal blue was only for the Queen and moonstone was unlucky. Ticks times two. Killer heels made three.
Julie went downstairs looking for Andy. His eyes widened. Then he smiled and said ‘Rebel’ She grinned in return. Kissed him hard on the mouth, in front of them all. Another thing that was frowned upon. They’re going to be shocked to find out I’m having a baby, she thought. One way to
knock the smug expressions from their faces.
The dining room was way overdone as ever. No comfort, just chairs that held you ramrod straight. Starched linen. Too many sets of cutlery. This was more of a who was most impressive. Not a family gathering with any intention of fun or relaxation. It was like a formal business meeting looking at whose assets outstripped whose this year.
Everyone was gathered in the living room. This lot called it the drawing room. She hadn’t even told Andy that she was pregnant, yet. The thing was they had an agreement, that should she become pregnant, this circus every year, would cease. Julie knew this was no reason to have a baby, but she
wanted one and this would stop Nicole coming out to play. She was easily hidden at home when she was happy. Even Nicole yearned for a child.
This year the atmosphere was charged. It was always tense, but under the surface something was brewing. Julie put it down to hormones. Recently, she was going through a stage where she could cry at the slightest thing.
Her own parents were long gone. And best forgotten. They’d been overbearing, bullying and hurt Nicole and her younger brother until one day, Nicole killed them both. Messily, bloodily and with total gusto. Her brother sat watching in abject horror, as on Christmas Day, Nicole took the carving knife first to mummy and then to daddy. They were no match for the 12 year old, in their drug and alcohol induced states.
Harry, her 9 year old brother, sat there and watched. Saying nothing, doing nothing. Nicole was encouraged by his silence. After she was finished Nicole had carved an N raggedly, into each of their foreheads. To make it pretty a small slash either side. She’d heard a lot about graffiti. She was just
signing her work. So much fun. Until Harry started screaming and the neighbors had called the police. Then the circus began. They didn’t accept that Nicole or Harry were abused in any way. They said Nicole was insane. A fact that still infuriated her. She went through the system. Young offenders pretend prison, as she called it. Nicole’s other secret passion was drama. Inside, when they sent her to prison for real, she learned to play the system. Saying she was sorry, saying that someone else had put her up to it, but she didn’t hear bad voices any more.

A model prisoner, Nicole Salter now Julie Sathwell was given a whole new identity. She adopted an Australian accent, and people, idiots, marvelled at her cleverness. She didn’t see Harry again. He was given a new home, a new family, doubtless forgetting all she’d done for him. It grieved her, but she understood.
Shaking herself back to the present, Julie caught the stares at her dress, heels, everything about her and smiled.
‘Anything wrong, Eddie?’ She asked Andrew’s gaping father.
‘No, you look lovely, Julie’ He stammered.
Everyone carried a bowl of something to the table and began sitting down and passing the bowls around. The starter was always a 70’s style prawn cocktail, all wilted lettuce and stale bread.
Every year there were different family members at the table who were selected by the family as ‘suitable’.
What a pompous lot of arses, thought Julie.
During the meal Julie gave the family her news, which usually drew polite smiles, or the occasional ‘that’s nice’
Not this time. Their jaws dropped wide open. Bluntly, Barbara , or Barbaric as Nicole termed her commented that they’d no idea they were trying yet!
‘Well, Barbara it’s not polite conversation to say that one slept with ones husband last night, is it?’ replied Julie, aping Barbara’s stuffy speech patterns.
Dinner was pretty much in silence after that, barring Andy kissing her, and grinning. At least he was happy.
All night a cousin of Andy’s had watched Julie with an amused expression on his face. She knew he was vaguely familiar, sure he’d been at one of these horrific events before.
In the kitchen afterwards, Julie was pouring herself an orange juice with soda.
Behind her she heard a burst of applause. She turned abruptly, expecting his mother, recovered and ready to bite, like the rabid dog she was. Julie laughed inwardly.
It was the cousin? Nephew? Whoever.
Feigning innocence, Julie looked at him. ‘What?’
She was tired and games were beyond her now.
‘Well done on the announcement. That really shocked them for once.’ The dark haired man said. His coal black eyes bore into her. ‘Your surprise was marvellous, but it won’t top mine, I’m sure!’ His eyes gleamed with pleasure. He crooked his finger, irritating Julie, and she sighed about to refuse, as he caught her elbow, walking with her from the room. His grip was uncomfortable and Julie felt Nicole telling her to run. But she couldn’t.
There was a small room, a second, smaller living room and she was relieved to see Andy sitting on it. He didn’t turn to smile at her as they entered behind him.
‘Andy? What’s this about? What’s going on? Your cousin just dragged me here to…’ the words dried up in her throat as she walked around the sofa to the front of Andy. Blood ran down his face. When she looked for the origin she saw something she’d not seen in a long time.
In the centre of his head was carved the letter N with a small slash either side. Julie dashed forward, wondering if shock had killed him. She smelled the iron like odour of blood and opened his jacket.
The knife, almost identical to the one used to kill both of her parents was dug deeply into his chest.
Her hand grasped the handle, and she realised too late that she could do nothing.
The cousin looked at her. ‘Recognise me now, dear Nicole? I always intended to finish you too, that day, but you tried to stop me, and screamed like a banshee. So I. carved your initial. When you remembered nothing, it was put down to denial. The police are on the way, already. I’ll be telling
them what I know and say he’d realised who you were. You’d threatened me, too, after worming your way into this family. They need never know the truth’ he smiled in victory.
Julie sunk to the floor, realising that this was her brother, or rather Nicole’s brother Harry. Suddenly the truth of what he said hit her too.
She was about to try and stand as in through the door marched the police, as Harry had said. They picked Julie up, read her her rights and started to take her from the room.
‘Thank you officers for arriving so promptly. Should you need anything at all..’ They nodded, thanking him.
As Julie looked back to find his eyes boring into her, he said ‘Merry Christmas’ Smiling he turned his back and held court with the family.
Julie was now on her way to prison for the second time, for something she hadn’t done.

Angi Plant

You can find out more about Angi at her website: http://ailsacawley.com on WordPress, on Twitter at AilsaCawley and Facebook Ailsa Cawley Poetry 

She Could Make a Killing

Rose Cullen

It had been sleeting all day. An evening when Sue might prefer to stay curled up watching TV. But she had been doing rather too much of that since her divorce. She needed to get out -get a life as her brother so elegantly put it.
But where to go? A lone woman sitting at a bar counter, that cliché of American romcoms, -too terrifying a prospect for someone of her diminished confidence. The same went for dating sites, never mind being the friend everyone wanted to match make with their socially inept
work colleague.
Join a group! Rania instructed. So, she had.
Italian for Beginners, Life Drawing, Book Club which only produced an invitation to join two lovely gay men on the annual Pride March.
The lure of Corrie was strong as Sue finished off her microwave lasagne. But, a local writing group had invited her to attend that evening. Now or never. And writing was something she was doing quite a bit of since the break-up, angst-ridden poems reminiscent of her teenage jottings.
The membership was larger than anticipated and more men than women. That was heading in the right direction. In the tea break Sue found herself surrounded by chatty, friendly people. Hard to equate them with the dark and murderous writings which characterised most of their work …
Slashing swords dripping blood and gore, thrilling pursuit by a paid assassin through an abandoned warehouse, the horror of murmurs emanating from the attic in the dead of night.
Sue was relieved not to be asked to read from her own rather whiny, pallid scribblings. By the end of the session she was feeling inspired to consider more savage themes in her own writing. And, she had caught the furtive gaze of a not unattractive man with greying temples.
Robert had read a rather disturbing piece about a young woman held captive in a cellar by her innocuous neighbour. She wouldn’t hold that against him; it was fiction after all.
It was snowing hard when Sue emerged from the hall. She zipped up her jacket and wrangled with the umbrella.
‘You’ll come back after Christmas? Not put you off?’ Molly, the admin, enquired breezily.
‘Yes, I think so.’ Sue replied.
‘Good-oh!’ Molly sprinted towards her car.

Sue launched across the dark forecourt, a plethora of ideas already jostling in her mind.
Spurned woman stalks ex. Too much of a stereotype? Needing a twist. He kills her in an act of self-defence – then her sister returns and exacts revenge. Or, woman suspects her husband is a serial killer – the only catch, he’s the investigating police officer! Yes, that might be a goer. Some of the group had been published. A whole new career beckoned as a popular
crime writer. She could make a killing. There would be no shortage of suitors then!
Thudding footsteps behind caused her a sudden jolt of apprehension but it was only the young sword-slasher hurrying past with a quick wave.
She reached the shelter of the bus stop. In the distance the lights of the hall switched off; various cars swung out from the side street and disappeared into the night. She was alone.
The nearest street lamp wasn’t working. A thick velvety darkness enveloped her. The snow eased and she could hear a rustling in the bare tree branches which hung over the footpath.
A sleek car emerged, dazzled her and crawled to a halt, its engine purring like a predatory cat. The passenger window slowly wound down.
‘Need a lift?’
She peered in to the dark interior. It was Robert.
‘We’re neighbours I believe.’
Sue hesitated, but all at once recognised him. The pharmacist at the local Boots. Not a stranger after all.
‘Thanks.’
They set off. The central locking clunked on. Sue felt a ripple of anxiety.
Robert threw her a sidelong glance; his smile oddly crooked in the reflection of the dashboard. ‘There’s been a spate of car-jackings.’
Her mind raced. Robert was a chemist. He knew all about drugs. How to knock a woman out. The chloroform-soaked cloth ready to hand in the driver’s side pocket. Perhaps he really did have a cellar? And how did he know where she lived? Her eyes widened. Had he been watching her from a distance? She sneaked a look. His brows were creased, intently focussed
on the road. Wipers whipping back and forth. Did anyone even know where she was that evening? Would anyone miss her? It was the long Christmas break from uni. Possibly not for days.
Then Sue sighed with relief; her prescription for anti-depressants of course. That’s how Robert would know her address. Nevertheless. ‘Drop me here at the top of the road.’ She blurted.
Robert shook his head, ‘Allow me to see you to your door.’
The car drew up outside her house. Dark and empty. Robert switched off the engine.
‘It’s not easy is it?’
What was he saying?
‘My wife left me last year.’

Had he unlocked the car? Sue surreptitiously grasped the handle.
No.
‘Can leave you in a dark place …
Shit. Her heart thumped in the deafening silence which followed.
‘Writing’s helped. And – meeting new people.’
His hand fluttered between them. Was he about to place it on her knee? Would the chloroform follow?
Sue gulped.
The central locking was released.
‘See you next time, then?’ He sounded hopeful.
She nodded, a little too quickly, ‘Sure.’
As Sue stepped out of the car, she thought that perhaps after Christmas she might make enquiries at the local Amateur Dramatic Society. Their next production, Arsenic and Old Lace, that would be fun.

 

Rose Cullen

Rose Cullen is on Instagram as rosiewriter

She will be publishing The Lucky Country, (not a crime novel) soon, so be sure to keep an eye open for it!

An Intruder for Christmas

Jon Park

Christmas morning, 2.01am. Tynemouth.  Police Officers Jack Price and Peter Murray stand in the living room of the beautiful Victorian home of James and Tracey Barwick. The Barwicks had called 999 to report an intruder in their house.

All four of them stand staring at the vast marble fire place, the centre piece of this cosy room. They are transfixed by a pair of stout black boots that hang down from the chimney. Occasionally the boots will give a wriggle followed by a muffled cry from above.

“This is how we found him,” said Mr Barwick, looking at the bemused Officers.

“I’m a light sleeper,” Mrs Barwick adds. “I was just coming back from the toilet when I heard a thump on the roof. I woke James and when we came down stairs to investigate, well….”

As if on cue, the boots gave a kick and a cry emits from the fireplace.

“Okay, Mr and Mrs Barwick, if I could ask you both to step back.  We’ll take it from here,” said Officer Price, pulling his torch from his belt and flicking it on.

The two officers cautiously approach the boots. Officer Price stoops down into the gaping mouth of the fire place and shines his torch up into the darkness.

He calls up to the owner of the boots, “Right sunshine, I need you to drop down here so we can have a word.”

“Oh dear,” came the voice from above. “This is a rather embarrassing predicament I find myself in.  It would seem I have added a few pounds since last year. Normally I’m in and out of here in a jiffy.”

The two officers glanced at each other.  Officer Price calls again, this time more forceful. “Right, this is your final warning. I need you to get your arse down here or we’ll be forced to drag you out.”

“Now, now, Officer Price” replied the voice, “there’s no need to use such colourful language. Keep this up and I’ll be forced to add you to my naughty list and that means you won’t be getting the PlayStation 5 you’ve asked for.

“Did he just say Officer Price?” asked Officer Murray.

“How does he know I asked for a PlayStation 5?”

“He must be one of our regulars,” Officer Murray said to his partner, who now stood looking confused at his recent exchange with the disembodied voice. “Right pal, we’re dragging you out and you’ll be spending Christmas day in a cell.”

“Sorry, Officer Murray. I can’t be doing that. I’ve still got too much to do. If I’m locked in one of your cells, how the Dickens will you get the golf clubs you asked for,”

“What the hell?” exclaimed Officer Murray.

“Language Peter. Don’t make me add you to the naughty list. Now, I must be on my way or I’ll never be done.  Heave away Rudy my sweet boy.”

And the boots shoot back up the chimney with a departing cry.

“What did he say?” Mrs Barwick asked the Officers, as they emerge from the cloud of soot.

“HO! HO! HO!” they both replied.

Jon Park
Categories
Members Free Fiction

THE DEEP, DARK DUNGEON WHERE NO ONE CAN HEAR YOU SCRABBLING

Louise Mangos

We’re thrilled to share Louise Mangos’ winning short story, as featured on the Christmas Virtual Noir at the Bar show.

You can find more of Louise’s short fiction on this site here and read more about her here.

You signal to me as the apple crumble is brought from the kitchen and placed bubbling on the sideboard. Your over-excited niece, chasing her brother on all-fours, knocks into my legs under the table, but I don’t look away from your eyes locked with mine across the juniper wreath. Your hard look keeps me silent.
You stand up, begin gathering the plates from those either side of you and jut your chin towards my side of the table. I follow your lead, trying not to clatter the cutlery onto the top of the pile amidst pools of congealed gravy, crumbs of stuffing and the occasional Brussel sprout. I swallow and wonder if anyone has noticed my trepidation.
In the kitchen we place the dishes next to the sink and you leave through the door into the hallway, tipping your head, commanding me to follow. My heart pounds as I trip over a row of boots of ever-decreasing size, muddy water pooled around their soles from the traditional Christmas morning walk on the windy moor. I draw in my breath as their
regimented order scatters across the Victorian tiles. Will someone come through and see what caused the noise? No, they’re making far too much of a ruckus in the dining room.
This is your perfect cover.
You place your hand between my shoulder blades and shush me, before squeezing past to open the door leading down to the basement. My socked feet test each step on the way down in the dark, arm stretched out to steady myself against the wall. You seem so familiar with these stairs.
The harsh smell of the paraffin heater hits me as I enter the rear cellar behind you.
You must have lit it earlier. The air has warmed enough to take the chill off. But it has made the room heavy with a humid fug from the subterranean walls. The atmosphere between us is thick. What would they say upstairs if they knew you’d brought me here?
What would they do?
You slide the bolt closed across the door. I know what’s coming, but I’m surprised to see you’ve prepared everything in advance. The tools of your trade. I’m imprisoned in here now, and look at you with nervous anticipation.
You lift your arm, turn your wrist. The dim light glints off the face of your watch, a reminder perhaps, that in less than an hour it could be over. I lick my dry lips. You strike a match to the candle on the low table. Sulphur stings my nostrils as shadows flicker in a macabre dance across the walls. The flame reflects red and orange flashes in your eyes.
My teeth clamp down on the inside of my lips.
You push me down onto the old sofa by the wall. As my body unfolds I note the sensation of too much roast turkey pushing at the waistband of my skirt.
You turn to an old wooden cabinet in the corner. The drawer screeches open. I gasp at the abruptness of the noise in this confined space. In the ensuing silence we hear the purr and splutter of the heater. You bring out a box, place it on the table, and prise off the lid.
You beckon, two sharp snaps of your fingers, and pass me a blood-red velvet pouch, secured with a thin rope. It weighs in my palm, contents rattling. You lean over, undo the knot and reach into the bag. You pull out your hand, make it into a fist. You nod once, indicating I should do the same. Keeping my eyes on yours I reach inside.
As I pull out my hand, I open my fingers and show you what lies in the curl of my palm.
The letter A.
I get to start.

Categories
Members Free Fiction

Night Watch

Louise Mumford

I have to wait until Mother is asleep.

I am a prisoner in my own home. Every fifteen-year-old girl feels that way at times, though, don’t they? “You are grounded, young lady,” their parents say with a sad shake of their head. Then they close the door on the carefully decorated bedroom and temporarily halt the pocket money. 

I don’t have pocket money. 

I don’t have a carefully decorated room. I think it might have been, once, before we moved in. Now the flowery wallpaper is faded and peeling away from the wall, the petals that would have once been pretty colours wilting towards the floor. Mother has let me keep the bed, and I have a blanket when it’s cold, but everything else was cleared away years ago.

There is something wrong with Mother. 

The problem is when there is just the two of you, and one of you is only a child, it takes a while to realise something like that. A mother is a mother. What they do is what they do.

I haven’t been able to compare.

There is a rattling at the windows.

School stopped when I was six. “We can’t carry on like this,” is what Mother said when she took me out of there. She said “we”, but what she meant was “I”: “I can’t carry on.” What about me? I would have been happy to stay. I had friends, I think – at least I remember sharing colouring pencils at blue plastic tables and the teacher’s necklace dangling down as she bent to talk to me: big, fat, plastic beads that fascinated. School had smelled of waxy crayons, tuna sandwiches and a tang of something that might have been urine, might have been bleach. 

We home-schooled. Mother bought textbooks second hand from the internet, they still had pencilled notes in them from the old owners, and every morning she sat me down to learn. Except the learning never lasted very long: it soon turned into shouting and me hiding the sharp pointed pencils.

Mother doesn’t have friends; she doesn’t smooth a slick of glossy red onto her lips and spritz a cheap perfume to go out with the girls. She stays at home and watches television, irons, paces, wrings her hands, pulls out bits of her hair and scratches red welts into her skin.

Paranoia. Morbid anxiety. I’m sure a doctor could fix any number of handy labels on her. We don’t see doctors.

She’s nailed my window shut. 

I can’t remember when she cleared my room, maybe I’ve blocked that out. Too painful. I’d had toys and dolls, a wicker chair that was too small for me to sit in anymore, posters on the walls, a bookshelf with books. All gone. She probably didn’t sell them. She probably gave them to the church.

It’s the only place we go. 

Sunday morning, hands fixed in prayer, eyes skyward. The place itself is a miserable enough block of concrete just off the high street, something that looks more like a council building than a place of worship. There isn’t even any stained glass. 

She holds my wrist the entire time. Not my hand, because that would look affectionate, no she doesn’t want that, instead she grips my wrist hard enough for me to know. “We do not court speculation, Nia.” We do not want to be noticed.

Oh, but I notice. I notice the boy my age with floppy brown hair and eyes I easily snag. Mother cannot stop me from looking, and from being looked at. And, when she trots up to greet the priest, dragging me in her wake, the brush of his fingers against mine are a static jolt. 

I am sixteen soon. I know birthdays mean cake and a present wrapped in shiny paper with one of those bows made of coloured foil. It means singing and candle blowing and cards in envelopes sent by distant family. We don’t have relatives. Last year Mother gave me a new copy of the bible and a sprinkling of sugar on my morning porridge. 

I tiptoe to my door. There is no point trying the handle, it will be locked. It is always locked after eight in the evening. But, in the dark (Mother unscrewed the bulbs) I feel the rough wallpaper under my fingertips, my hands brushing over unseen roses, and I come to the wall that separates my room from hers. It is a thin, plasterboard thing, easily dented with a fist. Easy to listen in on the next room. I press the side of my face to it.

I will know when she is asleep. 

Sweet sixteen. That’s what the cards say. I know, I’ve seen them in the shop windows. And sweet is what I want. Anything. Life here is just grey, from the porridge, to the walls, to Mother’s complexion. Stale. Dust in my mouth. I can’t live like this. I shouldn’t have to.

There is another life out there for me. I’ve seen it, briefly, at church, in-between the eyes skyward, palms held together. 

Eyes can do other things than look for God. 

*** 

I have to wait until Nia is asleep.

I am a prisoner in my own home. Every middle-aged mother feels that way at times, though, don’t they? “What happened to my life?” parents ask with a sad shake of their head when they finally understand that their child’s life has swallowed their own. 

That’s what she did. She gulped me down whole.

Such a beautiful baby. Good. She would sit quietly, her eyes following me as I cheerfully went about my little household tasks, because I was cheerful then. I thought her to be docile, a placid baby, not easy to smile but not easy to cry either. I was wrong. She wasn’t docile. She was watching.

There is something wrong with my daughter.

I don’t like to think of her up there in that room. She’s nearly sixteen, she should have a room with posters of pop stars on the walls, clothes strewn on the floor, a dressing table with pots of glittery eyeshadow on it and a teddy still somewhere, because even when you’re nearly sixteen you still need your teddy. I should have been yelling at her to keep the place tidy.

I yell. But it’s not about that.

Her things had to go. I have discovered, through painful experience that, in her hands, most objects can turn into a weapon when I let down my guard. Better to allow her nothing to work with. Bare walls, bare floor. Bed.

I remember the day they called me into the school when she was six, the look on that teacher’s face, though it wasn’t her face we were there about. She told us what had happened, haltingly, as if she herself was still trying to piece it together, like the broken beads from her necklace. She wore it all the time: a long dangling thing that would have easily brushed the desk when she bent to speak to Nia. 

We don’t know why. All we know is how. 

Before the woman had had a chance to take a breath Nia had gripped onto the glossy necklace and twisted hard, pushing those big acrylic beads into the soft part of the woman’s throat, twisting with such a fierce and sudden force that the woman had started to choke, and the other children began to whimper. I can picture the scene, even now. The teacher stumbling backwards, the child – my child – latched onto her like a parasite, her face inches away from the woman’s, teeth bared. A thing from a nightmare.

I cannot blame the school. They offered us therapy and specialist teaching, safely away from the other children, of course, but I was adamant: I told them we had another school lined up.

That was merely the start. 

I turn off the lamp in the living room after my television programme has finished and brush the new hair I’ve pulled from my head onto the floor. I don’t even notice I’m doing it now, all I notice is the little pops of relief it gives me as each new clump comes away in my hand. I deserve the pain.

I can only blame myself. People say that when they say sorry, “I blame myself” they say but they don’t mean it, it is merely a cue for someone else to jump in with, “No, no – it’s not your fault” and pat their hand.

There is no one to pat my hand. I am to blame. I am her mother. I did something wrong, in the raising of her, or before that, in the womb. There are labels, I am sure. Syndromes, conditions, something to pin on her and stand back to see if it fits. But the responsibility is mine, and mine alone. I created her, I grew her there in my core and so my core, my very soul, must be corrupted for it to have produced… her.

That is why I cannot give up church. I hold on tight to her wrist the whole way through, determined for no one else to end up choking on their own necklace. I wish I could put a hand over her eyes because there are too many other young eyes around. But I have to pray. Of course, I pray alone for hours here in the house, on my knees until I cannot feel them anymore and have to massage my legs to get them working again, but I cannot shake the feeling that prayer is more powerful in a place of worship. Maybe I think some of the calm, the peace of the place, might rub off on her. 

I’ve tried everything else. We avoid over-stimulus, we keep our diet plain and free of additives and sugar, we keep to a routine, we read the bible and rote learn parts to repeat like meditation. This I do with her, for this is my penance as much as hers. This is my eternal five Hail Marys and an Our Father on a rosary, my very own choking necklace. I keep faith. I keep hope. Something will work. Though she is now nearly as tall as me. And cleverer. 

I go to my room with the bed I never sleep in. I know she is locked in but still I sit by the wall that connects my room to hers and I press the side of my face to it. In her head I must be the troll under the bridge, standing in her way, stopping her from crossing over into an exciting new world she could try to manipulate and then destroy, like everything else. She destroyed my marriage, my friendships, my job… me. I crumbled to dust under her gaze. 

I doze and in my dreams there is a faint rattle. 

I wake to the sound of the window opening. A window I’d nailed shut. And I’m out of my seat, the last fog of sleep making me wobble, through my door and across to hers, the keys in my hand, and all the while I’m thinking, thinking: which mistake did I made this time? What did I do wrong? 

I stagger into her room and the curtains flap in the cold air, stroking over the nails so painstakingly worked free without my notice. My hands reach the windowsill and I barely hold myself up as I see two figures running in the pool of light from a streetlamp. Nia and a boy I vaguely recognise from church. 

I blame myself.

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A Special Preview of ‘Sleepless’

Louise Mumford

Chapter One

There was already a gridlock of cars stretching away behind the accident. Her accident. Thea felt a weird ownership over it, like a cat licking at her poor dead kitten.

Her fault – no doubt.

It had to be. In total, she’d probably only slept for four hours . . . that week.

Behind her was the three-vehicle sandwich in which her car was the crushed metal filling. She staggered back and tried to close the mangled door.

Someone pulled at her elbow: a man, dragging her back from the road where she stood gazing into the traffic. He was uninjured but shouting something, and Thea couldn’t focus, her mind slipping off him in the same way his glasses slid down his sweaty nose.

The actual moment of impact had been strangely soothing. Thea couldn’t remember any sound really, so there had just been this lovely, pillowy-white cushioning as the airbag deployed and then – whoosh! – like a fairground ride, she was spun around.

She hadn’t done it on purpose. She’d thought about things like that quite a few times, in those dead, red-eye hours of the night when she felt like the only person left on earth who was still awake. Ironically, as her car smashed into the one in front, she had actually been congratulating herself that she’d got through the day, that she could do this living thing, even without any sleep, with just a cold sponge for a brain and sandpaper balls for eyes.

She could do it.

But clearly, she couldn’t.

How many years of sleeplessness? Too many. Too many achingly long nights that then smudged themselves into joyless, grey, listless days before lights out and another eight hours of frantic panicking. Too many nights etched into the bloodshot spiderwebs in the whites of her eyes.

There was a woman with the man now and Thea looked for blood on her, expecting broken limbs and jagged wounds, but there was nothing, not even a torn blouse. The both of them worked their mouths madly, like gulping fish, expectantly looking at her and then the cars and then back to her again. She should respond, she thought, but she didn’t know what to say. The words were there, but they were busy dancing in her brain, enjoying themselves – shaken loose by the impact and free to partner up however they chose.

Her car was concertinaed. It was a shock, how impressively the whole thing could crumple, yet keep her whole as a seed inside its tattered fruit.

But, if she was fruit, then she was the rotten kind, she realised with a gulp that turned into a choking gasp. She could have hurt that man and woman staring at her now. She could have killed them. Up until that point, the only damage her insomnia had done had been to herself – her social life, her concentration, mood, skin, memory and general joy in living. It had never affected someone else, never nearly crushed them in a smoking metal box.

There was pain now. Her nose, a tender, pulsating blob, her knees suddenly shakier than they had been, blood on her collarbone where her seatbelt had taken a bite.

Abruptly, she sank to the cold ground at the roadside. Soon there would be flaring emergency lights and sirens; there would be gentle fingers prodding at her and questions asked and, dimly, she realised she would have to get herself together for all of that. More people gathered, but from her viewpoint sat on the ground, they were just feet, their voices so far above her they may as well have been stars.

There would be so much to do after something like this, Thea thought: the forms and phone calls, appointments and claims. The effort. She didn’t have it in her. She felt so light there was nothing left of her and dealing with all of this needed solidity; it needed heft, a person who felt like they left a footprint when they walked. If someone blew on her she would simply dissipate, like dust on the wind.

Idly, she watched liquid seep from under her car and with the same blankness with which she’d thought of everything else, she wondered if the liquid was flammable, or if it was merely water.

She should have cared, one way or the other.

At that moment her hand buzzed. She blinked. Maybe it was an injury of some kind, she thought slowly. She would probably need to get it checked out, once she got up from this really rather comfortable bit of damp ground. It buzzed again and this time her eyes managed to get the message over to her brain that she was still clutching her phone. Looking down at it, a notification flashed up, some advert from one of her apps, something she’d probably seen a thousand times before. At first, she thought it was the universe’s idea of a cruel joke. But then, as she sat there amongst the twisted metal and shattered glass, she came to think of it more as salvation:

Morpheus. Dream your way to a better you – one sleep at a time.

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The Retreat – Part 2: Into the Darkness

Chris McDonald

Please note: this is the second part of a story featured in Noir from the Bar but it can be read alone.

For John, it had been a strange day so far.

Not twelve hours ago, he and his boss, Simon, had left New York in high spirits, excited for a team building weekend at Simon’s ranch. Only, the team that were supposed to have arrived by now hadn’t ever been invited and Simon had somehow found out about the million or so dollars John had been siphoning out of the company over the years… he hadn’t been happy.

John scrambled through the trees, his mind trying to make sense of the horror that had just unfolded. His thoughts drifted to the words his boss had uttered fifteen short minutes ago.

I’m going to give you an hour to disappear into the woods.

The appearance of a knife as long as John’s forearm had put paid to the idea that this whole trip had been organised as some sort of practical joke. Apparently, the area of trees contained within a tall, circular chain link fence that John was currently hurrying through was some sort of arena Simon used for enacting revenge on those who dared wrong him.

Their conversation earlier had hinted at three things. Firstly, that John was not the first person to have been brought here. Secondly, that his boss was pretty handy at finding his way around this forest and, finally, he didn’t greet his prey with a warm embrace upon finding them. 

John shuddered and picked up the pace, keen to put as much distance between Simon and him as possible.

The alarm clock on the folding table beeped to signal that John’s head start had come to an end. Simon smiled and stood up, twisting this way and that in order to stretch his back. He loved this bit – the anticipation of the hunt. It was almost better than the actual kill.

Almost.

He gazed into the tree line and was glad to see that John was not there, muttering apologies as some of the others had. He’d been disappointed with those guys. He’d taken his time with them, keen to make them pay for wasting his time.

John was different – he was an animal at work. He didn’t care who he upset or climbed over, as long as it pushed him up one more rung on the career ladder. Simon was pretty sure that John was going to give as good as he would get in this forest, and that excited him.

None of the others had.

He picked up his bag, slung it over his shoulder and grabbed the knife. This was going to be fun.

At least it’s not raining, John thought.

He glanced down at the forest floor, content that he wasn’t making it easy for Simon to track him. The mossy carpet ensured that his footprints wouldn’t linger and he’d made sure not to break or bend any branches. If he was being forced to flee and fight for his life, he was going to make a good go of it.

He emerged from a dense patch of trees into a clearing. Tree stumps littered the ground and in the middle was a small log cabin.

Two steps led to a narrow porch upon which a camp chair, covered in bird dropping and insects, rested. John passed by the chair and tried the door, which was thankfully unlocked. Inside, the cabin was basic but clean. He supposed that Simon came regularly to keep the place in order. A camp bed sat in the middle of the room with a red blanket tossed over it. A chest of drawers rested against one of the walls and a wide window filled most of an other. Framed pictures of men who looked a lot like Simon adorned the walls, staring down at him with evil in their eyes.

John launched into action. He flung drawers open, searching for anything that could be used as a weapon, but came away empty-handed. He tossed the bed onto its side and felt around inside the canvas, but again, there was nothing to be found. Frustrated, he began kicking holes in the wooden walls. Once his anger had abated, he slid to the floor and let the tears flow.

What sort of punishment is this? Whatever happened to a good ol’ fashioned, not to mention legal, tribunal?

He sat there for longer than he meant to, before a sudden thought forced him to cut his wallowing short.

He imagined that the others who had been brought here had probably stumbled upon the cabin, just as he had. There hadn’t been a path, per se, but the vegetation had been cut back enough to hint at one.

Had he subconsciously been led here?

Just as that thought entered his mind, he heard a twig snap from outside.

He was trapped.

Simon walked through the woods, at ease in his surroundings. He reminisced on the justice that had been doled out under the watch of these ancient trees to those who had thought that taking advantage of him would be a good idea. Each corner of the forest held a bloody, special memory.

And right now, he was about to make more of them. He pushed the last branch out of the way and the cabin that his grandfather had built with his bare hands came into view. Every time he saw it, he imagined the man himself, sitting on the porch after a day’s work, sipping a beer or simply watching the world go by around him.

He slowed his approach to make sure that he had the element of surprise on his side. He realized that he was holding his breath. He could imagine John inside, trying to keep an eye on the front and back door; his breath catching in his throat at the hoot of an owl or the rustle of leaves.

A snigger caught in his throat as he picked up a branch and snapped it. To hell with surprise – psychological warfare was much more fun! With the wheels set in motion, he tossed aside the snapped branch and ran at the cabin, knife grasped tightly in his right hand.

He barged open the door with his shoulder and was met with disappointment when he realized that John was not cowering where he thought he would be.

John had been safely ensconced in the crook of a tree, about seven feet up, for about forty minutes. Pins and needles were taking over the lower half of his body, and he was about to jump down to have a stretch, when Simon entered the clearing.

He watched his psychopathic boss suppress a giggle as he bent down and picked up a thin stick before snapping it in two. He then ran at the cabin’s door and slammed into it, before disappearing inside. He emerged from the back door a minute later, swearing and casting his eyes around the forest.

At ground level.

John’s plan had arrived fully formed as he’d left the cabin. He reckoned that Simon would assume the role of hunter and that he would expect his visitor to become the prey.

So, what would happen if the prey became the predator?

John was about to find out.

He watched Simon stalk around the back of the cabin, peering into the falling darkness in the hope that John would reveal himself. A few minutes of fruitless searching later, Simon walked around the front of the cabin and as he passed under the tree that hid John, John leapt into action.

Or to be more precise, fell into action.

He dismounted from the tree, feet first, and made solid contact with Simon’s shoulders. He felt the bones under his boots crack. Both men fell to the floor, though, having initiated the contact, John was first to his feet, ready for the fight.

Pain shot up his elbow as he stood over his boss, who was attempting to crawl away. The forest seemed to have closed in around them, creating some sort of natural arena, though John was not in the notion of letting this become a fair fight.

Instead, he picked the knife up that had fallen to the floor when he had ambushed Simon, and held it aloft.

Simon turned on the floor and settled on his back, looking up at the man who had just attacked him. His eyes locked onto John’s before moving to the silver bladed knife.

Time seemed to slow. John considered his options.

‘You don’t have the balls,’ laughed Simon from the ground, disturbing John’s thoughts.

John barked a hollow laugh which seemed to knock some of the bluster from Simon. Gone was the look of certainty that John would not use the weapon, replaced with a sense of doubt.

Before Simon could say anything else, John pounced, plunging the knife through Simon’s thigh and deep into the ground.

John was surprised at how easily the blade passed through the fatty thigh muscle. And at how quickly the blood began to pour.

Simon’s howls filled the darkening sky, causing birds to flutter away en masse, like a black cloud passing overhead. Blood was pouring from the wound in earnest now – the sickly metallic smell flooding the air. Simon looked on in horror as the scarlet puddle spread and clutched at the handle, unsure of what to do.

‘You could try pulling it out,’ John said. ‘Though, judging by how much blood there is, I’m pretty sure I severed the artery. You’re going to die very soon one way or the other, I guess it’s up to you how painful your final moments are.’

Simon’s face was pale as he glared into John’s eyes.

‘Oh,’ said John, as he began to leave the clearing. ‘Like you told me at the start of the day, no one knows where this place is or that you own it and no one knows that we were going away together so I guess… I’m in the clear.’

John sauntered out of the forest, wondering what he would spend a million dollars on.

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The Humber Convertible

Olga Wojtas

“I say, Unwin, isn’t that – ?”

“Indeed it is. Dawkins’ Aunt Phoebe.”

“No, I was going to say isn’t that the Mark IV Super Snipe?”

“I beg your pardon?” 

“The car – the Humber convertible – I’m sure it’s the Mark IV.”

“I really couldn’t say. You clearly have the advantage of me as far as vehicles are concerned.”

“And you have the advantage of me as far as Dawkins’ aunt is concerned. Should I know her?”

“You most certainly should. The Hon Mrs Ashton. Our Mata Hari during the Great War.”

“The portly elderly lady sitting in the Humber? She looks like an Edwardian relic.”

“Ah, but remember that her glory days were almost forty years ago, when she was neither portly nor elderly. One of our best operatives. They say she could slit a man’s throat and be twenty miles away before he realised he was dead.”

“How very alarming. No wonder Dawkins always looks so nervous. And her chauffeur has a very hang-dog expression.” 

“Keep your voice down, man! That isn’t her chauffeur, that’s her husband.”

“Oh, good lord, do you think she heard? She’s looking straight at us. Dear me, we’re being summoned.” 

“I’m sure she can’t have heard, but do please be a little more circumspect and remember that she is a national heroine even though the nation will never know it.”

*

“Mr Unwin! How do you do?”

“How do you do, Mrs Ashton? How do you do, Mr Ashton? May I introduce my colleague Pagett? He works in the same department as your nephew.” 

“How do you do, Mr Pagett? And how is our darling Freddie?” 

“He’s very well, Mrs Ashton. Very highly regarded in the department, and indeed in the organisation as a whole.”

“How kind of you, Mr Pagett. I hope he knows his duty. I must say it’s a great reassurance that the security of our country is in good hands. Mr Unwin, a little bird tells me you’re currently working on a matter of some delicacy. But forgive me – I fear I’ve embarrassed you. Please don’t imagine for a moment that I would ask you to divulge confidential information. Mr Pagett, I believe I noticed you taking some interest in our little car?” 

“Didn’t I tell you, Pagett? Mrs Ashton, I see you have lost none of your skills. I wonder how long you had us under surveillance?” 

“I was admiring the car very much, Mrs Ashton. A Mark IV Super Snipe, isn’t it?” 

“Good gracious, I wouldn’t have the first idea. It is entirely Mr Ashton’s province; I merely sit in the back and enjoy the passing scenery. My dear, is this a Mark IV Super Snipe?” 

“That’s exactly what it is, the latest model.”

“I see you know your cars, Mr Pagett. We had stopped to plan our route, and had decided on Richmond – would you care to come for a short spin?”

“Thank you, but I wouldn’t dream of imposing. And we must get back.” 

“Nonsense! Mr Unwin, I’m sure you’d like to see Richmond. Do persuade your friend that the safety of the realm doesn’t depend entirely on you two gentlemen, and you’ll be back by – how long will it take, my dear?”

“Back by half-past two.” 

“There, half-past two – that’s not too bad, is it? What do you say, Mr Pagett?” 

*

“Not one of our more elegant escapades, my dear.”

“But successful nonetheless. And remember, Phoebe, these young men are the elite.”

“I still thought we would have more time before they realised. Mr Pagett was easy enough, sitting next to me. But I really did think you were going to lose control of the car when Mr Unwin proved so difficult.” 

“I might have done, had it not been for you. You are really quite remarkable, dear girl. Unwin was quite correct when he said you had lost none of your skills.” 

“Oh, you flatterer! So, Harwich or Liverpool?”

“Holyhead and then Dublin. Leave the itinerary to me.” 

“I shall, my dear, of course. I’m rather sorry about Mr Pagett – such a charming young man and so complimentary about the car.” 

“I trust you’re not becoming sentimental – we needed Pagett in order to get Unwin to come with us. Unwin was proving far too thorough an investigator and tomorrow could have been too late.”

“You’re absolutely right, as always. But Mr Pagett was a colleague of Freddie’s. I suppose I’m just a little worried about Freddie’s reaction, and whether he’ll be very cross with me.” 

“Phoebe, my dear, if you’re so concerned, then drop him an explanatory note when we reach Moscow.”

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The Five Votive Candles of Joe Wray

Simon Bewick

Joe Wray pushed the heavy bronze door open, swapping the Park Avenue heat out on 51st St for the cool air of the church. He mopped at the sweat on his brow and stepped over to the old woman at the desk. He refused change from the $100 bill he passed over. The woman took the money and handed over the two long-stemmed matchsticks he’d asked for, and Joe walked through to the imposing nave. He hadn’t been religious in his forty-seven years but thought that was the term. He’d only been here once before—Christmas eight years ago when the four of them had stopped in spontaneously, or so he’d thought at the time, as they headed back to Grand Central Station.

That had been the night that made him come to St Bart’s today.  

As he walked down the aisle, his footsteps slapping against the stone, he saw two young men praying. At least they were what he considered young these days—they were probably somewhere in their mid-twenties. Neither raised their heads as he passed.

Joe walked slowly forward to the small, open-doored vestry left of the altar. He entered the room and sat stiffly. The display in front of him was old and rusted—a five-level table, ten candles in small glass jars spaced across each level. Around three quarters were lit, the smell of burning wax wafting on the air.

The sign above the display read, “Our lighted candles are a sign of the divine splendor of the One Who comes to expel the dark shadows of evil and to make the whole universe radiant with the brilliance of His eternal light. Our candles also show how bright our souls should be when we go to meet Christ.”

Underneath a small typed note read; “$1 per candle, please pay at reception.”

Joe sat for a moment re-reading the words, wondering what right he had to be doing this.

He thought of the $100 he had handed over for $2 worth of soul brightening—and that he had underpaid. He tossed the church matches into the tray below the display and took the small green book of matches from his trouser pocket. He lit one of the ten or so matches left in it and held it to a candle on the third from bottom row.

“For Bobby.” He whispered. Pretty boy Bobby. Three years his junior, a cocky grin and the mile-a-minute mouth.

When the small candle had started to burn, he blew out the match and took another one from the packet, igniting it from the burning flame, and holding it against the wick on the candle next to it.

“For Ellie.” He breathed softly. Beautiful, funny Ellie, with the most infectious laugh ever.

As the two candles began to burn in earnest the memories flooded through him. Memories of the good and the bad times they’d had together—of how much he and Judith had loved them.

Judith.

He tried to focus on Judith, instead of the bad times and the trouble Bobby had brought them towards the end. He thought of Judith. Of Jacob. Of Thomas. And, although not a religious man, prayed for their safety.

But mostly he thought about Bobby and Ellie. And their murder.

***

It had been a cold December morning when the call came through to the small Maywood, New Jersey one room office they’d been in for almost two months, the tiny printing area below them presently silent. Joe had answered, still enjoying the autonomy of being able to announce to any caller that they had reached “Wrays’ Print and Design Studio: Providers of Corporate Communications”—an exaggerated description for their offering, but it was what they aspired to. He had talked the caller through their services and agreed to send a range of pdf samples on. It was only when he’d put the phone down and Bobby asked him what the caller had been looking for that Joe realised he hadn’t thought to ask.

“I’ll write you a script.” Bobby had laughed as they shared takeaway pizza at his desk half an hour later, “like I used to for my more retarded new starters back at AT&T.” Joe had tossed a pizza crust at him, but when the caller rang back the following day he’d told him to hold while he transferred him to ‘Wray and Wray’s Head of Sales’, passing the phone to Bobby who mouthed ‘Sales President’ before taking the phone from him and going into his full-on sales mode. By the time he put the phone down with a final, “Look forward to seeing you then, Mr. Leonard.” they had an invite to lunch two days later.

“So, who are they? What do they do?” Joe asked, putting a mug of coffee down in front of his brother.

“They’re called Marshalls. They’re a joke.” Bobby said nonchalantly.

“A…joke?” Joe asked.

“Yeah, they’re a Joke Company.” Bobby expanded, “Seriously.”

“Shit.” Joe said.

Bobby laughed, “No. Seriously, they’re a Joke Company. You know? Itching powder, whoopee cushions, fake noses, masks, outfits, all that shit.”

“An honest-to-God Joke Company?” Joe asked, “Do they even exist anymore? Like the old place out by the summer house?”

“Yeah, Ray’s Jokes and Smokes.”

Joe smiled, remembering the vacations they’d taken with their parents; long days of him and Bobby making up adventures and occasionally getting into trouble. “I’m pretty sure we were the only ones who bought the jokes,“ he said, “– it was the smokes that kept that place going…”

Bobby shook his head, “Not according to this guy.” He brought his PC back to life and typed briefly, “You know how much the joke industry is worth?”

Joe shrugged, and took a wild guess, “$50 million nationwide?”

Bobby looked up from the screen, “According to this Retail and Trade report, the sales value of gift, novelty and souvenir stores in the US is $15 billion, estimated to rise to 17 by 2008.”

Billion?” Joe asked incredulously.

“Billion.” Bobby repeated, “See Joe, some people unlike you like to have fun.”

Joe ignored the jibe, “And these guys are worth how much?”

“Marshalls are apparently the fifth biggest players on the East Coast according to the guy on the phone. I have no idea how much that equates to…yet, but it doesn’t sound like chicken feed.”

“No shit.” Joe whispered.

Bobby smiled, “A lot of shit, all of it plastic — like one of those curled up specials we used to put on Dad’s chair.”

***

They taxied from Penn Station to the restaurant. Bobby matched the fare with his tip. Joe said nothing, hoping he was getting his ‘game face’ on and not just being ‘flamboyant Bobby’.

Joe was in the dark blue Calvin Klein suit he’d last worn for their recent bank loan interviews. Bobby was in a charcoal Dolce & Gabbana number which Joe suspected he’d bought for the occasion. The taxi dropped them outside the small Italian restaurant in Greenwich Village. They arrived ten minutes early and Bobby nodded to the small bar a block down.

Once inside the bar, Bobby ordered two Grey Goose vodkas, handing one to Joe, ignoring his protest.

“Act like we’ve already got this.” Bobby said, and seeing his brother’s look, smiled, “Don’t worry. Just one for courage… You look as if you need it.”

Joe couldn’t argue. They downed the drinks in one; Joe shuddered slightly as it went down, Bobby did not. Slamming the empty glass on the table and waving a hand in apology at the barman who looked over at the sudden noise, he stood, and said with a smile, “OK, let’s doooo this.”

The elderly man working front-of-house guided them through to a table at the back of the restaurant where three men sat laughing. When they saw Joe and Bobby the three stood and offered handshakes.

“Don’t worry—no hand buzzers. We take funny seriously. I’m Peter Leonard. This is Jerry, and Terry,” the stocky, shiny pated man said, gesturing them to sit. “Another round of Martinis Larry, and the same for our friends here.”

“Terrence.” The young black man said to Joe as they shook hands. “But Peter thinks Terry is funnier.”

Peter Leonard slapped him on the back, “Don’t you go whining back to HR, Terry, I’m one step away from the pink slip, and you know they’ll call racism.”

The three men from Marshalls laughed at whatever this in-joke meant, and Joe guessed the pre-lunch Vodkas were not going to be noticed.

Peter Leonard, who it turned out was the man who had called them and was clearly the boss, was not technically bald: he had ginger red hair, long at the back and sides. It could, Joe thought as he finished his Martini, be a clown hair gag.

The meal that followed was off-menu. Leonard told them to trust him and they’d enjoy the meal. They did both. Clams followed by homemade pepperonis, carpaccio, and large platters of seafood and steaks. Throughout it, they talked: family, the World Series, and some banter about the recent Heavyweight title fight at the Garden where Leonard had won money and his work colleagues had lost. Peter and Bobby were responsible for about ninety percent of the talk. It wasn’t until the biscotti and coffees arrived that the talk finally turned to business.

“We liked what we saw on your website.” Leonard said, lighting up a cigar, apparently not a problem despite New York laws eating laws as Joe understood them. “You guys do good work.”

“We’ve had no complaints,” Bobby smiled, his face slightly flushed from the Barolo, “A lot of satisfied customers.”

Leonard smiled back, “You’ve got three customers, all paying next to nothing. You’ve probably got a king-sized loan, and you’re working out of a little room in the backwoods of New Jersey…”

Bobby coughed slightly. “Well…”

“Relax,” Leonard continued, “I’m teasing. You’re new in business. We’d be pretty stupid if we didn’t do some checking, wouldn’t we?”

Bobby wagged a finger at him, his confident smile reappearing, “You got us. We’re new. But we’re good—Joe here was the most respected printer at Ottermans’ Publishing…”

Leonard cut him off, “Relax I said. Don’t try to sell yourself to us so much,” He gestured to the empty plates, “It’s like good food—let it speak for itself.”

The waiter brought over glasses of Amaretto. “Compliments of the house.”

As he moved off Peter Leonard continued, “We want a business who can give us attention. To ensure we are a… preferred customer.”

Bobby nodded, “I can guarantee that our custome—”

Leonard raised his hand a millimetre, “When I say, ‘preferred customer’, I mean… favored, if you will. And of course,” he turned his hands over, palms up, “We would provide appropriate recompense to a supplier we worked so closely with…”

Bobby glanced at Joe and then to the other men at the table, “Are we talking exclusivity?”

Leonard looked to Terry / Terrence, who had barely spoken during the meal but now spoke, “No. Not exclusivity. As long as there was no…conflict of interest.”

“We’d sign NDAs,” Bobby said quickly.

“We’d take that as given.” Leonard said, “We’d expect you to drop everything… should the need arise.”

Bobby swallowed and looked at Joe, momentarily stuck for words.

Joe, who had drunk less than Bobby throughout the meal, wiped at his mouth with his napkin. “We appreciate the offer Mr. Leonard, and of course, would very much like to work with you…” As the men around the table nodded, he continued, “…however. The fact is we are, as you say, new in business. Part of the reason we decided to leave our previous roles was because we wanted some independence. The idea of working exclusively for you…” he saw Leonard about to speak, and corrected himself, “almost exclusively for you, would run the risk that we end up working for a company the way we always have…”

Leonard considered this, puffing on his cigar. “I understand. I’ll say two things and then you can decide. Firstly, I guarantee that working with us will not be like working for your previous employers. And you would be working with us, not for us. How you come and go? How you work? As long as you can provide us the service we need, we don’t care. Now, we’re likely to have a lot of work—which is good for you. We won’t have unreasonable expectations, but you will be busy. Maybe you won’t have time to take on other work…or maybe you will. How you manage that is up to you. We just expect discretion, integrity…” he smiled, “…and everything we want. Fair?”

The men around him laughed at the bon mot and Bobby cut in, “That sounds more than fair Mr. Leonard.”

Joe glanced at his brother, and then looked back to Leonard, “And the second thing?”

Peter Leonard nodded and handed an envelope towards Joe, “The second thing is our offer. I suggest you gentlemen review it, and we will get back to you tomorrow.”

With that Leonard, followed immediately by the two men at his side, stood from the table and dropped his napkin on his crumb spattered plate.

“Gentlemen, it was a pleasure to meet you…”

“Please,” Bobby said, holding out his hand to shake. “Let me take care of the check.

Leonard shook the proffered hand and gave a crooked little smile, “There’s no check to take care of.” He shook Joe’s hand. A firm, dry shake, placing his other hand over Joe’s. The two other men from Marshalls didn’t shake hands but both smiled, and the three of them left the restaurant. From presenting the envelope to exiting the door took them less than three minutes.

***

As the two candles burned down, both now a quarter gone, Joe Wray wondered what would have happened if he hadn’t spoken up on that day.

Would they have been offered the deal?

Would they have ended up working with Marshalls for a shade under eight years?

But mostly he wondered if he hadn’t spoken up that day would his brother and sister-in-law have been alive to celebrate Labor Day this weekend with them?   

***

Joe and Bobby left the restaurant with the envelope unopened. Snow had started to sprinkle during the two hours they’d been inside. Neither of them had spoken since their lunch guests had departed. Finally, Bobby broke the silence: “What time’s the train?”

“Every half hour.” Joe replied.

Bobby blew cold air out through pursed lips. “So we’ve got time before we need to head to the station.”

Joe shrugged, “It would appear so.”

“You want to open this now?” Bobby asked.

“And I’m sure you want to find a coffee shop to do it?” Joe asked innocently.

Bobby was already heading back to the pre-restaurant bar.

***

Joe looked at the two large glasses of whisky on the table in front of him. Bobby shrugged, “We’re either celebrating or commiserating. Either way we’re halfway in the bag already…”

Joe resisted the urge to protest that he had barely opened any bag yet, instead clinking Bobby’s proffered glass. “Who’s going to open it?”

“You should.” Bobby said, “You’re better with numbers.”

“You’re expecting that many zeroes?” Joe laughed, but his hand was shaking as he took the envelope, and it wasn’t from the cold. Or the drink.

“It’s won’t be anything special,” Bobby said. “This is theatrics—the old ‘take what’s in the mystery box’ routine…” He paused. “Joe? What does it say?”

Joe continued reading for a moment before he handed it over silently.

Bobby took the letter and looked at it nonchalantly for a full half second before he muttered, “Jesus Christ.”

***

They didn’t get the train home.

Two drinks later they ordered a taxi, or the bar ordered a taxi, or…a taxi arrived somehow. The driver gave them a suspicious look when they told him where they wanted to go, but when Bobby fanned out the money from his wallet (Joe guessed lunch money to avoid possible embarrassment of having their anorexic business card refused), he shrugged acceptance.

As they left Manhattan Bobby phoned Ellie. She asked him exactly how much he’d had to drink as he burst into giggles, but she was giggling too when Joe took the phone from his brother to speak to her. Joe, who had surreptitiously poured his final tumbler of whiskey into the pot plant behind him in the bar, assured Ellie that things were okay, and she should meet them at his and Judith’s and they would see them within the hour. She made him promise he’d get her husband home safely and blew a kiss down the line. He hung up and dialled Judy to warn her of Ellie’s imminent arrival and their ETA, assuming they didn’t need to stop for Bobby to throw up (the driver gave him a dirty look in his rear-view mirror). Judith asked him how it had gone, but he told her she’d have to wait, and that they’d see them soon. She reminded him that she loved him slightly less when he kept things from her, and he laughed, telling her he loved her no matter what. He clicked off as she started to blow a raspberry down the line.  

Joe had always been the careful one. So, on the taxi drive back to New Jersey, he asked the question he hadn’t wanted to ask because it might bring the whole thing tumbling down.

“Bobby. What exactly is it that Marshalls want us to do for them?”

“You heard them, bro—business cards, flyers, brochures.”

Joe sighed, “You’ve never called me ‘bro’ in your life Bobby. You’ve also never been stupid. You’ve been ‘sometimes right, sometimes wrong, but always certain’…But you’ve never been stupid, so don’t start now.”

“Remind me never to put you down as a reference.” Bobby said, “What’s your point ‘oh brother of mine’?”

“Business cards, flyers, brochures…catalogues, point of sale, letter heads, all of that. It still doesn’t add up to…” he took the paper from Bobby’s hands, “this.

“It’s just to get started.” Bobby said, “To get us on board. Tie us in.”

“Bobby—you’ve got the MBA not me, but don’t companies normally start low and reward suppliers once they’ve proved themselves, not before they’ve done anything?” He paused, “Remember what Dad used to say?”

“You don’t get paid to believe in the power of your dreams?”

“Not that one,” Joe said, smiling despite himself.

 “He really was a minefield of misery, wasn’t he?”

“I was thinking when he used to say, ‘If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.”

Bobby grinned, “You know something? I don’t think he made that one up…when he wasn’t being pessimistic or critical, he was stealing trite lines…Look, can we just live in the moment tonight? Let’s assume they’ve recognised your good workmanship and, I say with no false modesty, my pretty brilliant selling techniques. That’s what they’re ponying up for. Can we have tonight?”

Joe sat silently looking out the window, as the snow fell harder. Finally, he sighed, “Did you really just say ‘pony up’?”

***

They’d started the second bottle of champagne before Judith raised the question. Bobby had insisted on stopping at a liquor store to pick up two bottles of Dom Perignon. They made it up the pathway without slipping, and into the house to find Ellie with a Gin and Tonic and Judith–Joe guessed–a plain tonic, both apparently calming their own nerves.

By the second bottle, Bobby had slipped back to his pre-taxi level of intoxication, and Joe was catching up. Ellie had never needed much to drink to sparkle in all the time Joe and Judith had known her, but with the champagne and G&Ts, she was almost spinning. So it was Judith, patting her swollen belly and refusing yet another offer from Bobby of ‘just a taste’, who asked the question.

“Is this above board?”

Joe put his hand as far around Judith’s waist as he could manage with four months to go. “Marshalls are real enough. This isn’t some sort of wise guy set up.”

She shook her head bemusedly, “You think you know what a wise guy looks like?”

“Not like a drunken Irish Pirate.” Bobby slurred, and Joe burst out laughing at how well his brother had summed up Peter Leonard.

***

Joe woke late the next morning, with a mouth like a hamster’s cage. Judith had cooked him breakfast, but he did little more than push it around the plate.

“Mr. Gekko not hungry after his Wall Street success?” she asked.

Joe shook his head as gently as he could, “Breakfast is for wimps…”

She laughed and brought her cup of coffee to the kitchen table, “So how big a deal is this?”

Joe shrugged. “In the horrible cold light of day, it’s not that big a deal.”

“It seemed a lot last night….”

“Don’t get me wrong,” Joe said, “It’s great for us. But Otterman wouldn’t throw a worker’s holiday for it…”

Ottermans wouldn’t give a worker’s holiday if they knew the world was going to end. And they had an annual turnover of how much?”

“$65 million last year,” Joe conceded of his old company.

“And your projected turnover for this month before this was?”

He calculated, “The Manheim’s’ Bar Mitzvah decorations…. the Lambert corner store catalogue, possibly as much as $250. But that’s post-tax.”

She sighed, “I really married big time, didn’t I?”

He smiled, “If you believe Bobby, we’ll be rolling in four leafed clover…”

“Not if he keeps buying suits like he was wearing last night.” Judith said, her eyebrow raised.

“You noticed that?”

She nodded, “Even rumpled and whisky reeking it was a nice suit.”

“You know Bobby…”

“Oh honey, I do indeed.”

“Well, it certainly puts us on more solid ground,” Joe said, steering away from the well-trodden path of Bobby’s flamboyance, “assuming we can produce to the quality they’re expecting.”

Judith kissed him on the forehead, “I may have concerns about ‘Big Balls’ Bobby…”

May have?” Joe asked

“…But,” she continued, “I’ve never doubted you. You did the right thing getting away from Ottermans hun, and you know you’ve got my full support. All I’m saying is be careful.”

“Careful is my middle name.” he smiled.

“Yes”, she agreed, “but Bobby was christened Robert ‘Bullshit’ Wray.”

***

The documents were signed without amendments. They’d met at the Marshalls office—a Brownstone building just off Canal Street. Peter Leonard had met and ushered them into an expensive looking room on the first floor. He told them to sit tight as he went to get ‘Scott the Lawyer’.

Alone, Bobby looked around the room, “Ease your mind any?”

“What do you mean?” Joe asked.

Bobby smiled, “I’ve seen you the last few days, bro’.”

“Again, with the ‘bro’.” Joe sighed, “It’s called being careful, Bobby. You could try it one day.”

An hour later they’d signed. Leonard cracked a joke about invisible ink—not, Joe guessed, for the first time. Signed, sealed and delivered, they stepped cautiously down the gritted steps outside.

Bobby checked his watch, “Two hours before we meet the ladies. Time for a quick celebratory drink? A ‘careful’, ‘sensible’ drink? I promise I won’t put laxative powder in yours.”

It was ten to eight that evening, snow coming down hard on Park Lane when Judith, hanging on to Joe’s arm after almost losing her balance three blocks back, stopped them outside the middle doorway of St. Bart’s Church.

“Let’s go in.” she said, “I’ve walked past here a hundred times, and never been inside.”

“The bar’s next door, Judy.” Bobby laughed behind them, three cocktails in and his own arm around Ellie, resting on her behind rather than for support.

Ellie swatted at him playfully, “We’re not all alcoholics, hun.”

Judith didn’t move, “I’m serious. Let’s go in.”

Joe looked at her, “Really?”

“Since when did you get so Godly, Jude?” Bobby asked.

She turned, “Screw you, Bobby Wray. How’s that for Godly? I just think it would be…nice.”

She dragged Joe’s arm and he acquiesced, laughing.  Ellie bounced behind them, Bobby trailed behind a little begrudgingly, glaring at Ellie as she waved the Christmas hat a group of drunken businessmen had given her in the last bar. They’d begged her to model it for them as she bought drinks; she’d taken the hat and playfully given them the finger as she returned to their table, giving Bobby a lingering kiss.

Inside, the church was silent save for the faint sound of the organ gently playing carol music—not fully formed; apparently last-minute practice before the Christmas onslaught.

Judith shook her hood off, snow falling around her. Joe said nothing as he watched her, as struck as he was every time he looked at his wife, even after all the years they’d been together. She was no longer the seventeen-year-old he’d plucked up the courage to ask out in his first year at college—the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen, it was true. Now? She was more beautiful—everything they’d done, all the time they’d had together, showed in her and added to her allure. Looking at her, his heart almost hurt, his attention so all-encompassing he barely heard Bobby and Ellie giggling somewhere behind them.

Judith stared up at the enormous bright blue circle of stained glass above the old organ, and as he stared at her, at the light playing about her face, she whispered, “It’s beautiful.”

“That’s what the Nazi in Raiders said just before his face melted off,” Bobby giggled, appearing from nowhere and making them both jump. “Come on, next door is waiting…and they have drinks.”

“You go on.” Joe said, “We’ll be there in a bit.”

“Holy shit,” Bobby laughed. Ellie slapped him, telling him to remember where he was, and he muttered, “Jesus, I’m surrounded by religious freaks.”

“We’ll see you next door,” Ellie said, dragging Bobby firmly by the arm, “You want me to get you guys drinks?”

“Sure, “Joe said, not turning, “A beer for me, soda and lime for m’lady.”

When they’d gone, their giggles somehow growing louder the further away they got, Joe touched Judith’s shoulder. “You okay, honey?”

She placed her hand on his, “It’s so peaceful. This place—it’s…” She searched for the words, failed, and repeated, “…so very peaceful.”

Joe moved away from her, walking down the aisle to get a closer look at the window. He glanced over to his left, peripherally noticing movement and saw a small room with candles burning dimly; the flickering dancing shadows on the stone wall behind them.

“Judy.” He said, his voice carrying easily in the silence. She broke her gaze from the window and went to him, looking into the small vestibule.

“Should we light one?” he asked.

She looked at him, saw he wasn’t mocking her, “Are we allowed to?” 

“Why not?” Joe asked. “There’s enough already lit, and no-one to stop us.”

“Isn’t it…blasphemous? We’re not exactly the most religious couple on the block…”

“Do you need to be religious to make a Christmas wish?” he asked.

She laughed, “I don’t think it’s referred to as a ‘wish’ honey.”

He chuckled and took out the packet of matches he’d snagged from the last bar they’d been in. He lit a match, letting the flame catch and burn for a second before touching it to one of the unlit candles’ wick until he felt the heat touching his fingers, waved it out and dropped it in the tray beneath.

“So, if we don’t wish… What?” he asked.

“Maybe offer thanks for what we’ve got?” she suggested, “Say a prayer that this,” she gestured to the bump, “and everything else…” He nodded, not needing her to finish the sentence.

She looked at him, and brushed a hair out of his eyes, “I will make one wish, though. Not to…” she jerked her head up, “…him. To you.”. She took his hands, looked into his eyes, and he had a brief flashback to their last time in church.

“You made vows back then,” she said, as though reading his mind, and recited, “I can promise that I’ll willingly be your protector, your advisor, your councillor, your friend, your family, your everything. I promise you.”

“You…remember all that?” he asked.  

She shrugged, “I may have found it online afterwards…’original vow’ my ass…”

“Busted.” He smiled.

“But I remembered the important stuff anyway…” she said, “Do you still mean it? Will you always be those things?”

He didn’t smile, didn’t laugh. He squeezed her hands a little more and looked into her beautiful blue eyes and choked back emotion. “I’ll always be those things. And I promise I will always make sure you and ‘thingy’ there are safe.”

When he said it, he thought it would be true.

***

The work from Marshalls was steady and if not challenging in design or execution, challenging in volume. Marshalls was an unusual business model: providing promotional collateral as well as the materials themselves to their sellers. Work came in and they churned it out. It was Joe who produced the actual work, as Judith occasionally pointed out when he came home late again. On those occasions Joe explained that, while Bobby’s design skills didn’t stretch beyond sketching vague ideas on lunch napkins, he was the one looking into online and offline opportunities that Marshalls had not previously explored. When Judith asked why Marshalls didn’t have a Marketing Department to do all that, Joe didn’t have a ready answer.

***

Jacob Wray arrived into the world on February 19th.  Joe and Bobby had been in the office when the call came from Ellie. Joe had panicked; Judith was only seven months gone, and despite all the reading he’d done his mind went blank as to whether a baby could even survive at that age.

Bobby became an iceman—reassuring him all the way to Maywood hospital where Ellie had driven Judith, not waiting for the medics when her waters had broken as they shopped for nursery designs. By the time the brothers arrived, Judith was already in surgery and about to undergo an emergency C-section because the placenta was separating. As the doctor on duty told Joe, somewhat ominously he thought later, “Babies don’t have a lot of blood they can afford to lose.”

The following hour and a half were the longest of Joe’s life as he sat in the hospital waiting room; Bobby talking nonstop, and Ellie bringing a constant supply of shitty coffee, both of them doing their best to keep his mind from where it kept going:

Had he failed in his promise so soon? 

When the impossibly young doctor finally came back and told the three of them mother and baby were doing fine, and he could see them, amongst the hugging and crying and laughing as Bobby and Ella squeezed him, any doubt evaporated, the steeliness his father had always said he had springing into its place: They’re both okay. Now man up and keep your goddamn promises.

***

“Where’s our baby?” he asked, putting the question somewhere between his wife and the doctor when he saw Judith lying pale, sweaty, and alone.

“Mr. Wray,” the doctor said, “Your son has been born prematurely. When that happens we…”

Where’s our baby?” he repeated, his words iron-hard.

Judith smiled; tired and without her usual twinkle. “They’ve had to take him to the NICU Joe, because he was so small…”

“NICU?” Joe asked.

“The Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, Mr Wray,” the doctor said, “it’s perfectly normal when a baby is born so early…”

“Normal?” Joe said, “How can…”

“Love of my life?” Judith said, and he turned to her, “Listen to the doctor…and yes, that’s a nice way of me saying shut up.”

Joe turned numbly to the doctor.

“Mr. Wray, we ran an Apgar test…”

“A…”

“Apgar,” the doctor said, without waiting for the question, “Stands for Appearance, Pulse, Grimace, Activity, and Respiration. It’s an assessment of how a baby is doing at birth. The score can be anywhere from 1 to 10. A score of 7 or above is considered normal. Your son scored a 7 and weighed 3 pounds and 8 ounces. That doesn’t sound a lot, but believe me, it’s a perfectly reasonable weight under the circumstances.”

“You hear that, honey?” Judith asked from her bed, taking his hand, “he’s going to be okay.”

“He’s going to be okay?” Joe asked dully.

“He’s going to be okay.” Judith confirmed, laughing.

Joe Wray started to cry.

Over an hour later, two orderlies wheeled Judith’s bed to the NICU, Joe holding her hand as they trundled down the corridor. The visit was brief—little more than reassurance for them. Another couple of hours, once the catheter was out, they told them, and they’d have her in a wheelchair and they could hold him for as long as they wanted. Joe said he’d stay, and Judith barked a laugh. “You’ll not. What you’ll do is go home and get my stuff. I’m going to be here a while and I look like crap…”

“You’ve never looked more beau…”

“Uh-huh, save it honey. I know what I look like. Go get my baby bag. It’s in the walk-in. Good job I’m obsessively organised, huh?”

He kissed her:  not hard or long, but with passion, “I’ll bring flowers…” he said, starting to leave.

“Joe?” she said.

He looked back at her, “Something else you need, hun?”

“Could you pick up a candle…”, she paused, a slight blush rising in her pale cheek, “Will you…”

He nodded, “I will.”

***

He gave Bobby (stiffly-hugging) and Ellie (happy-sobbing) a quick update and then went out, After an update and hugs (Stiff from Bobby, happy-sobbing from Ellie), Joe left the hospital, picking up a pack of utility candles from the Korean 24-hour store closest to their home. In the house, he searched through the grab bowl on the end of the kitchen table, rummaging through knick-knacks until he found the green packet of matches. He found a small metal cake tin, lit the candle and held it at an angle, dripping hot wax onto the tin before blowing out the candle and standing it in the molten mess, holding it in place until it hardened. Then he lit it again; the thin hollow flame dancing before settling into a steady glow.

Joe Wray sat back, his field of vision winnowing in on the flame until the small candle burned out.

***

Jacob spent a month in the NICU, and Joe was there for much of it. He worried how Marshalls would perceive it, right until the bouquet of flowers had arrived for Judith with a simple note that said, ‘From your friends at Marshalls’. He had been relieved and touched, and any lingering doubts Judith held had been snuffed out like a…candle.

If he had been a man more given to poetry, Joe may have drawn an analogy between Jacob’s development in the NICU and his brother’s growth. Handed a challenge he could not shirk, Bobby appeared to have more than stood up to bat. When Joe returned to work the office looked professional: tidied, squared off and freshly painted. But it was under the surface that Bobby appeared to have spent most of his time—swelling with pride as he showed Joe the detailed minutes and memos he’d made from his meetings with Marshalls.

“Jesus, Bobby,” Joe laughed, “have you been camped out in their offices the whole time? It’s almost as if…I don’t know…they like you.”

Bobby grinned, “What can I say, bro? I’ve got the charm to disarm…”

Joe, leafing through upcoming projects murmured on auto-pilot, “Don’t call me bro.”

He looked at Bobby, “We’d better start making some of this stuff, huh?”

***

Marshall’s Fiscal Year ended March 31st. The invite for the end-of-year celebration dinner at Marshalls’ offices on May 17th arrived an exact month before. Looking at the guilt edged invite Bobby whistled, “Ellie and Judith invited too. And they know their names.”

Joe nodded, equally impressed—Judith had always been ‘Julie’ or ‘Gillian’ to his boss at Ottermans. For Marshalls to know their suppliers’ wives’ names was impressive.

Bobby smiled, “We could have done a better job on the invite though…”

***

The evening of the dinner, Bobby arranged a limousine to pick them up. Judith was giving final instructions to her mother, who was in turn shooing her and Joe into the arriving car, reminding them she’d brought up three children of her own without killing any of them. Ellie commented once the door had safely closed that she had seemed to have dropped Bobby on his head a few times. Judith laughed…slightly nervously.

“How much did you spend on this thing?” Joe asked, as their champagne glasses clinked in a toast—Joe was not sure whether it was for the business, or the normality of an evening out.

Bobby pulled a face to the women, “My big brother. Mr. Careful. Even when he’s celebrating…”

Joe joined the laughter and, Judith’s hand on his arm, promised them all he’d enjoy the evening.

Marshalls put on a good show—not overly ostentatious or crowded—Joe counted maybe 90 people in total—30 or 40 staff, most with partners. At their table there was just themselves and two other couples not directly employed by the company—one middle-aged guy from the Delivery Services company with his wife, and an independent lawyer and his husband.

As the meal reached its conclusion, Peter Leonard introduced Marshalls’ CEO. A thin, elderly man with a dapper bow-tie took to the make-shift stage to genuine applause and proceeded to give a short speech expressing appreciation for everyone in the room. As he concluded he said, “My father told me the joke business is no laughing matter…” a light smattering of laughter and Ellie whispered, “How many times do you think that one’s been rolled out?”

The old man went on, “…you’re all too kind. We made profit again this year: up 3% on last year. But times are tough—we’re the fifth biggest supplier on the East Coast. We’re some way behind the big three, but you know what? That’s fine. We avoid limelight we might not want…”

A smattering of laughter, and a few claps. Joe looked at Bobby enquiringly, and Bobby gave a nod, as if to say, ‘I’ll tell you later’.

“…So, thank you all. I’m going to sit back down now—and I swear if Peter’s put another whoopee cushion on my seat he’s fired…”

He sat down, and the room applauded warmly.

Peter Leonard stood up again, “I haven’t actually put a cushion on that chair for five years now…but whatever excuse you need…Lionel,” the old man laughed and slapped at him playfully, “…Enjoy the rest of the evening. The band will be starting once dessert is cleared.”

 “Lionel Leonard?” Joe said to Bobby as the room stood to applaud Peter, his father, and each other, “that’s some moniker. And he’s Peter’s father? So, Peter’s second in command? Did you know any of that?” 

Bobby shrugged, “Sure. I thought you did. I guess it came up when I was here for meetings. I’ve met the old man a few times…That limelight business? The owner of Baskeys got caught up in some hooker ring thing. Didn’t make particularly big news with the general public, but I guess it’s a bit of an in-joke in this business. Maybe it’s best not to be number one, huh?”

The beefy man in the suspenders to the left of Bobby had been listening, “Yeah, the guy was a bit of a clown, if you’ll excuse the expression—it all tends to get very punny. You guys must be the Wray brothers? The new blood?”

Joe acknowledged they were.

“Thought so,” the man said, “I’ve seen your names on a few documents. I’m David Hudson –the Independent Legal for Baldwins. For when they don’t want their names on things…”

Judith, sitting next to him took the offered brandy from the passing waiter, “So what exactly do you do for the company, Mr. Hudson?”

The lawyer’s chins wobbled, “This and that. Is that suitably vague and mysterious? I wish it was. Add a little excitement, huh darling?” he asked his partner, who nodded distractedly, returning to whatever he was doing on his phone.

“It pays for the summer home.” the man sighed.

“You have a summer home?” Ellie asked looking up from her Tiramisu, suddenly interested in David Hudson.

“Flirt an invitation with him,” Bobby whispered to her, “And I’ll be seriously impress…ouch!” as she dug him in the ribs.

“We sure do.” Hudson said, “We’ve had a place in Montauk for a few years now—gets us out of the city once in a while, you know?”.

By midnight Joe and Judith, used to being on ‘take sleep when you can get it’ time in recent months, were flagging badly. Bobby and Ellie on the other hand were apparently just getting into the swing of things and hadn’t been off the dance floor for twenty minutes.

Eventually they managed to drag Bobby and Ellie away by one o’clock and all four of them were asleep in the back of the limousine before they’d got out of Manhattan.

***

By the end of their first full year working with Marshalls (Bobby persisted on correcting Joe when he occasionally made the mistake of saying they worked for them), they’d settled into a comfortable if unremarkable routine—both at work and at home.

They spent Christmas together at Bobby and Ellie’s, and the New Year at Joe and Judith’s. The same routine as they had for each of the five years since Bobby and Ellie had been together, as Judith pointed out over post-lunch liqueurs, snuggling with Jacob and Joe on their sofa; Bobby massaging Ellie’s feet as she struggled to stay awake on the sofa opposite.

Five years since Bobby introduced them to Ellie; the stunning dark-haired girl four years—and six inches—his junior. They had met sitting in a bar, both of them having ditched blind dates. Bobby had called it fate, and while Joe didn’t know about that, he did know Ellie was the best thing to ever happen to his brother—calming his excesses, but with an untameable enthusiasm for everything they did. Bobby had fallen in love with her immediately. It had taken himself and Judith less than a month to do the same despite Judith’s initial misgivings; “She’s too beautiful to be that nice. There’s got to be something wrong with her.”

You’re beautiful and nice,” Joe had reasoned.

Judith had laughed. “You’ve got to say that. Hell hun, you’ve had to say it for fifteen years…”

And their love seemed to be reciprocated: at their wedding three years ago, Ellie made Judith her maid of honour and Joe was Bobby’s best man.  The honeymoon fortnight Bobby and Ellie spent in Jamaica was the longest the four had spent apart since.

***

Jesters announced bankruptcy in February. Joe read the news in the NY Times and passed it over to Bobby as they worked on the Easter push campaign.

Bobby read aloud, “…tough times…online purchases…traditional celebrating dying…blah, blah, blah.” He jabbed the paper, “Maybe you’re just a shitty businessman?”

Joe was more pessimistic; “Jesters have been around forever. It doesn’t bode well for the rest of the industry…”

Bobby disagreed, “They diversified too much with no strategy—not like us. Porter’s five forces, bro. Business studies 101.”

“I understood two bits of that,” Joe said, “one was you still calling me bro. The other was you’re saying, ‘us’ now.”

Bobby threw the paper at him, the pages fluttering to the ground, “Your fault. Bro. You’ve got me doing it. But seriously, how much are we earning from the other accounts? If we lost them all, we’d not even notice.”

Joe nodded, “That’s my point—what happens if we lose Marshalls?”

Bobby pshawwed, “We’re not going to lose them.”

“And if they do a Jesters?” Joe asked.

Bobby rolled his eyes, “Jesus. Look, if it’ll make you feel better, I’ll drop it into the conversation with Pete tonight—see what he thinks, Ok?”

“Tonight?” Joe asked, “I thought we weren’t seeing them until the monthly catch up?”

“I, ah, forgot to mention that,” Bobby said, “Pete’s got tickets for the fight at the Garden and asked me if I wanted one. I didn’t think to ask you…you know with Jacob and all…”

“Hey—don’t feel guilty.” Joe said, “You know me and boxing. Go enjoy it with Pete.”

Bobby smiled, “What was that emphasis?”

“Emphasis?”

Pete. “Bobby mimicked, “Is baby jealous…?”

“I think I prefer ‘Bro’ to ‘Baby’…enjoy yourself.” Joe checked his watch, “…you’d better move, traffic will be a bitch…”

“Yeah, I guess.” Bobby said, getting up, “Give Judy and Jacob a hug from me.”

“Will do.” Joe said, adding, “…don’t forget to mention Jesters over your beers.”

***

After Jesters went under, Brewsters, The Gag Shack, Pranks Incorporated and dozens more followed, but Marshalls carried on and, at the following year’s dinner, their table was a little closer to the podium. At home afterwards, Judith mentioned that most of the greetings from Marshalls staff were directed to Bobby, which Joe acknowledged with no bitterness. But that was later, after the limo ride back home. In the limo it had been David Hudson they’d talked about; his passing six months ago honoured in Lionel Leonard’s traditional speech.

“Can you believe it?” Judith asked in the back of the limo, “That poor man and his husband.”

Joe looked at Bobby, “Did you know about it?”

Bobby knocked back his drink, “Yeah, Pete told me when it happened. Heart attack they think, when he and his husband were driving up to his retreat. Both of them dead—his husband was pretty much Jayne Mansfielded. I thought I’d mentioned it to you?”

“Jayne Mansfielded?” Ellie asked.

“The actress. They said she was decapitated in a car crash…she wasn’t. It’s an urban legend.” Joe said quietly, and then turned to Bobby, “No. You didn’t. I’d have remembered that.”

Ellie sighed sadly, “It’s a tragedy…” She took a sip of champagne, “…I wonder what happened to the house.”

As the other three gasped she blushed hard, covering her mouth.

Judith snickered first. Joe tried to cover his own laugh with a bad fake cough. Bobby just stared at his wife before he too succumbed.

The next day, nursing hangovers, they put it down to shock, but wouldn’t look each other in the eye for fear of a relapse.

***

It was March 28th the following year that everything changed.

***

Marshalls were sponsoring part of the annual Mermaid Parade that June at Coney Island and Bobby and Pete had been meeting frequently to discuss plans. That was the official line, anyway. Bobby always turned up late and bleary eyed the mornings after. Joe hadn’t commented—he’d been taking personal time at home, fussing over Judith and helping out with Jacob until she would chase him out the house, insisting she was seven months pregnant not an invalid. But Joe remembered the last time she’d been seven months pregnant all too well.  

The night of the 28th he’d been in the office, searching through his Mac for some design files when he remembered emailing them through to Bobby earlier that week. He pushed his chair over to Bobby’s PC and logged on with his brother’s username and password. No secrets between brothers.

He had really believed that until he started searching Bobby’s inbox.

There were a lot of emails from Peter Leonard:  That didn’t surprise him. What did surprise him was how many were prefaced with Premises.

Premises: possible spots

Premises: real estate stuff

Premises:  permits and other

He thought about opening one, his finger twitching on the mouse. Bobby would never know…but he would. It was just then he realised he could have searched his sent folder for the files. Too tired, clearly. He logged off both machines, and headed home.

The next day a dishevelled looking Bobby arrived, sunglasses on despite the clouds outside. He collapsed into his chair.

“Late night?” Joe asked.

Bobby threw two Advil into his mouth, swallowing dry.  

“You look as if you need some hair of the dog.” Joe said, pulling on his jacket, “Let’s take an early lunch.”

Bobby followed miserably.

***

“So. Premises?” Joe asked, and Bobby choked on his Bloody Mary.

“Premises?” Bobby asked back, unconvincingly.

“I saw the emails,” Joe said, sipping his lime and soda, “I didn’t read any. I’d prefer you tell me.”

“Shit.” Bobby said.

“Shit indeed.” Joe agreed.

“I wanted to have the full details before…”

“And now you can’t. So spill.” Joe said.

And over two more Bloody Marys Bobby outlined the ‘premises’ thing.

The bottom line he said, was that Marshalls wanted to extend and wanted them involved. ‘Really Involved”, Bobby winked. Marshalls were happy with their work but concerned they were limited by premises and hardware. Joe pointed out the Lexmark had cost them $15,000 they were still paying it off. Bobby nodded: that was his point and reminded Joe about Thanksgiving and having to farm work out to ‘real’ printers. Marshalls wanted to help them. They didn’t want them to join the company. Pete said they needed more machinery and space. Pete said they needed new premises.

“We’re supposed to be in this equally, Bobby.” Joe said, “A joint venture. A partnership.” Joe said, “This. This doesn’t sound careful. Not careful at all.”

Bobby’s face dropped, looking like he was a ten-year-old boy once more being told ‘he couldn’t’.

***

“It’s just so Bobby.” Judith said, “So very Bobby.”

Joe didn’t have to ask her what she meant: Bobby:  Confident, convinced and self-assured. Or, over-confident, swaggering and cocksure. Take your pick

“If you say no?” Judith asked, “Do you lose the contract?”

Joe shrugged, “Bobby says ‘maybe’, he doesn’t know…”

Judith snorted, “Finally, something Bobby doesn’t know.”

“I’m going to speak to Peter Leonard myself.” Joe said, “I’ll have Bobby come too, but I need to hear this with my own ears.” He looked at her, “You should be there too.”

Judith shook her head, “No. I don’t want to be the little wife.”

“I didn’t mean it like that…”

“And I didn’t take it like that. But it’s your business. Yours and your shit-head of a brother—sorry; that’s just for tonight, you know I love him. It would look amateurish if you brought the whole family…”

“There’s an idea,” Joe smiled, “Maybe Jacob could throw up on him.”

She kissed him on the cheek, “Listen and decide. If you think ‘no’, then we’re out. If you think ‘yes’ then…we can talk about it.”

“You sure?” Joe asked.

She nodded, patting her stomach, “But do it soon, honey.”

***

They met at Per Se at Peter Leonard’s invite. He was not alone; sitting with his father at the bar.  After pleasantries, the old man suggested they move to their table, “I took the liberty of ordering the Salon tasting menu,” he said, “At my age I’m afraid the Chef’s tasting menu is too much.”

Joe had no idea what this meant, so simply nodded his agreement.

The meal was exquisite; but as the talk went on—all business this time, Joe found himself overwhelmed by everything—the food, the wines, the promises, and a subtle undercurrent of something not being said.

As the remenants of dessert were removed, Lionel Leonard dropped his napkin onto his plate. “You’ve heard everything we have to say Mr. Wray. May we know your thoughts?”

Joe thought a moment, “I know my brother. I know when he’s excited and when he believes in something. I know he’s ambitious—certainly more than me, and he’s probably smarter….”

Bobby smiled self depreciatingly, “’That’s my bro.”

Joe looked at him, unsmiling, “He knows me too; how I hate him calling me ‘bro’ for example.” Bobby’s smile dropped. “But I know him better. I have to. Because I’m the careful one. In everything.”

“You’ve been thinking a lot during this meal.” Leonard Sr. said, “And I think you’re…smarter than you say.”

Joe nodded, accepting the compliment.

“Do you have a question about our proposal?” the old man asked.

Joe nodded. “I do. My very simple question to you gentlemen is, what do you want us to do for you?”

Bobby laughed, too loud, “Joe, they’ve spent the last two hours telling us…”

Leonard Sr. barely lifted his finger and Bobby silenced instantly. Leonard turned to his son, “It’s time for this old man’s bed. Have the car come around. You may wish to take these gentlemen somewhere more… private… to talk further.” He stood from his chair and nodded to Bobby, “Good to see you again.” He turned to Joe, “And nice to meet you for the first time. Not the last, I hope.”

 “Gentlemen,” Peter Leonard said “Perhaps we could retire to my office. I have a particularly good single malt and some decent cigars.”

***

“Do you know how much profit Marshalls made last year?” Peter Leonard asked them when they’d sat.

“The annual report said in the amount of $8 million.” Joe said.

Leonard nodded, and worked at lighting his cigar, “It was indeed. A good amount, I’m sure you’ll agree.”

The Wray brothers acknowledged it was.

“It’s enough to look healthy. But we would struggle to pay for the life we have become accustomed to with just that, to do…” he shrugged, “…all the other things we do… or want to do.”

Joe nodded, “And for that you need… Alternative sources of revenue?”

 “Quite so.” Leonard said.

Bobby sat as silent as he had been since they’d left the restaurant.

Joe considered, “And you need us, or someone like us, to help you with this alternative source.”

Leonard gestured for him to carry on.

“Something you need high quality printers for, and a safe place to work. You need a secluded…”

Peter Leonard interrupted, “To be clear. We wouldn’t set up such an operation. We wouldn’t lend money to set up such an operation. That would be…” he looked for the word, “…noticeable. And we…”

“Don’t want to be noticed.” Joe finished. “Better it be an unrelated company. Someone with little or no ties to your, dare I say it, ‘frivolous’ company in more ‘serious’ eyes?”

A clock ticked somewhere in the background.

Peter Leonard blew out chocolate smelling smoke, “My father was right. You are smart.”

Joe did not acknowledge the compliment this time. “I’m guessing money? Is that it? ‘Funny money’? Is that the biggest joke Marshalls produces?”

Bobby coughed and gave a tiny shake of his head.

Joe glanced at him, “Bobby, we’re a little too far into this conversation to start playing coy.” He turned back to Leonard, “Is that what we’re talking about?”

Peter Leonard gave a small laugh, “Funny money. I like that. But no—it’s not money, but it’s something close enough as damn it.”

Joe Wray realised that his next words would probably put them across some invisible line, but in his heart knowing his suspicions, if not any action, had already crossed it, and some time ago. He nodded, “Good. Money is a bastard.”

Bobby’s jaw dropped as he stared at his older brother, but Leonard nodded, “It is indeed,” he said, “The Treasury estimates $70 million counterfeit bills in circulation: that’s one naughty in every 10,000 real. It’s too easy to get caught, too easy to trace back to the source, and is a pain in the ass to make. It’s also very…domestic. We’re talking about something easier, less risky and more international.” He cupped his mouth, “And it’s a lot more profitable.”

Joe smiled thinly. “I assume you have lawyers who will make that kind of business invisible?”

One lawyer,” Leonard said, “He’s new, after David’s untimely passing, but he’s thorough.”

“If I may, two more questions?” Joe asked

“Of course,” Leonard said, adding, “Depending on the questions, of course.”

“How many people in the company are aware of this?”

“It’s certainly not discussed at department meetings.” Leonard said smiling thinly, “In this country, seven people, all in the family. Overseas? There are more involved, but none who know who they’re dealing with. It all gets very complicated to be honest.  It’s enough to say this isn’t new.”

“I’m sure.” Joe said.  “So…why us?”

Peter Leonard steepled his fingers. “My father intends to step down next year. Before he does, he wants a domestic presence. Maybe it’s late onset patriotism. Without wanting to spook you, we’ve been watching you for some time.” Joe thought back to the first party invite—Judy and Ellie’s names…

“If there were an offer. Which of course, there isn’t,” Leonard said, “You would be the first producers it was ever extended to.” He stubbed out the cigar, “which there isn’t.”

Cigar extinguished, Leonard drained his drink, “And now gentlemen, the hour groweth late. A driver is outside. Discuss between yourselves; sleep on it. We need a decision sooner rather than later, and, at the risk of sounding redundant, everything said here must remain here. Regrettably that includes your better halves.”

***

Inside the car Bobby opened the liquor compartment, “I’m assuming you don’t…” he started, before Joe reached past, poured a whisky and sat back.

Bobby held his glass up in a toast, “You surprised me tonight, bro. I thought you’d walk when you realised…” he stopped, “when did you realise?”

Joe looked at him coldly, “The basics when I saw the emails… the detail around the fourth course. When exactly did you realise?”

“Pete’s been hinting a month or two,” Bobby said, “but he’s a cagey sonofabitch, even for a friend. I swear I didn’t know the full detail until tonight.” He laughed softly, “and I called you careful. You were like Don Corleone back there…”

Joe stared at him, “You don’t get it, do you Bobby?”

“Get what?”

“I was being careful in there. I doubt we’d be sitting here if I wasn’t. He’s not your friend, and we’re not partners with them.  There’s no decision to be made. Don’t you get that?” He rubbed his eyes. “What the fuck have you done, Bobby?”

The house was quiet, Judith asleep and Jacob’s gentle snuffling emanating from the monitor left on in the dining room. Joe reached into the kitchen cupboard for a tumbler for a drink he didn’t want but hoped would make him sleep. Looking inside he saw the candles, still only the one he’d burned on Jacob’s birthday missing. He took a candle, and the matches next to them, and forgot about the tumbler.

An hour later, as the flame burned out and died, Joe told himself he’d made the right decision in impossible circumstances to protect his family.

***

Thomas Wray was born 8 lbs 7 oz., one day overdue in New Jersey Medical Center on May 2nd. Joe was there for the birth as Bobby and Ellie waited outside with Jacob, as happy to snuggle into his Auntie as he’d always been. The photograph of them all huddled around Judith’s bed was, Joe thought, the last happy time they’d shared.

***

The brothers didn’t ask who’d done the scouting and sourcing of the building they visited; merely signed the papers placed in front of them. The required monies came and went from their business account off the back of selling their existing premises to an unknown buyer. In less than two months the business was fully functional: everything arranged through an independent ‘business consultant’. Joe gave up asking for invoices: it was against his careful nature, but he felt like Canute and eventually gave in, waiting to see if they would sink or swim.

They swam.

***

In late August that year, Joe and Bobby spent three weeks in Peru to walk the Inca Trail, a childhood dream hitherto unknown to an unimpressed Judith. Ellie had said she’d stay with Judith and the boys, and they’d be fine together. Her eagerness for them to go made Joe wonder aloud to Bobby if he had talked to her about their business as they flew in Business Class.

“I love her so much.” Bobby said, “She’s smart. Guys see her: and they think just because she’s beautiful she must be a bimbo…”

“Ellie? A bimbo…?” Joe asked, amused at the thought.

“Yeah dumb shits, right? But because she is so smart…sometimes I think she’s going to see through me. All my bullshit and she’ll be gone…”

That’s bullshit”, Joe sighed. “She loves you so much.”

Bobby pointed at his heart, “Here, I know, but here?” He pointed to his head, “Crazy shit in here, bro. I think too much. That she’s too good for me.”

“Well, that’s true.” Joe smiled, and Bobby smiled back sadly.

“I want to keep her happy. To give her the best I can to…”

“It’s not money that’ll keep her, Bobby. And she’s not going anywhere. For some crazy, unknown reason she loves you. Even though I agree, she is too smart.”

Bobby smiled sadly, “I think she knew something was up before I did…with Marshalls, I mean.” He considered a moment, “You need to talk to Judith about it too.”

“Judith doesn’t need to know.” Joe said, his smile disappearing instantly.

“You don’t trust her?” Bobby asked.

Joe looked at him hard, “I haven’t hit you since I was fourteen, Bobby, but say that shit again and…”

Bobby held his hands up, “I’m sorry, man.”

“It’s not about trust.” Joe said, “It’s about protecting her. Them.” He flicked open his newspaper, knowing as he did that he’d tell Judith everything.

Later, as he was nodding off, Bobby spoke, “It was when I tried to jump the bridge on that bet from the Nixon brothers wasn’t it?”

“You’d have killed yourself if I hadn’t stopped you. Idiot.” Joe mumbled.

“Always there for me.” Bobby said, no sarcasm in his voice.

But Joe was asleep.  

***

They spent two days on the trail—enough to snap some photographs. The rest of the time they spent at an installation in no way connected to Marshalls studying techniques the small group of local workers showed them during the long days. At night they talked—Joe’s remaining frostiness toward Bobby had thawed by the second day. They talked childhood, family, the future, and without ever saying it they talked around what it meant not just to be brothers, but best friends.

By the time they left they could repeat the processes flawlessly.  

***

As he opened the front door, Judith threw her arms around his neck and they kissed long and hard. Dropping his bags to the floor, Joe took her in his arms and said gently, “Honey, we need to talk…”

***

She’d been shocked, and she asked a lot of questions; pressing him on a number of things he told her—some areas he was still not sure of himself, and then she sat in silence for a long time.

“You did all this without telling me.” She said, finally.

“I did.”

“Not even the slightest hint.”

“I trust you more than anything in this world.” He said.

She nodded as though this was a given. “Do we need the money that badly to be doing something illegal? And it is illegal isn’t it?”

“Yes”, he said, “The ‘no-body gets hurt because of it’ kind of illegal, I think. The ‘screw the government’ sort. But it’s not for some noble cause, but it is out of…desperation.”

“’What desperation, Joe?” She asked.

He sighed, “Bobby. By the time I found out about this he’d….” he drifted into silence.

“Of course it was Bobby.” She sighed. “It’s always Bobby.”

 “I didn’t have a choice. I had to…”

“Protect him?” she interrupted, “You can’t always protect someone like Bobby.”

“It’s not someone like Bobby,” Joe said. “It is Bobby.”

She wiped her wet eyes. “You promised you’d protect me. Us. If…if I go along with this, and if things look dangerous, promise me you’ll never forget that.”

He swallowed. “I promise you on my life.”

She looked at him for a long moment. “Let’s go to bed.”

***

They produced the first finished set two weeks later. Joe rejected the first three batches because of imperfections Bobby could not see with his naked eye or a magnifying glass. He started to say so, stopping when he saw the look on Joe’s face.

***

The following year they weren’t invited to the Gala Dinner.

They were sitting at Joe and Judith’s dining room table flicking through holiday brochures, Thomas asleep, Jacob starting to flake in front of cartoons on TV, when the doorbell rang.

The man wearing a chauffer’s uniform handed over the large box saying only “Sir. For you.” When they opened the box, they found a hamper marked Fortnum & Mason. The label read, ‘Sorry you couldn’t be with us tonight.”

“Does it say who it’s from?” Ellie asked, and as they stared at her, burst out laughing, “Jesus! Does no one have a sense of humour around here?”

They spent twenty minutes unpacking the hamper; Oscietra Caviar, Hams, Foie Gras, Smoked Salmon, Terrines, Cheeses, Olives and Truffles: all before they reached the wines and spirits.

“I suppose,” Judith said wistfully, “this means the pasta I spent a whole half an hour preparing is going to go uneaten…”

Their laughter stirred Jacob from his cartoons enough to investigate.

***

In a ‘50s movie, calendar pages would drop from the wall, the adjacent scenery outside montaging through seasons, repeated again and again. And for Joe that was how the next four years felt. He worked on creative marketing projects for various small companies received via unknown references. But mostly he refined and produced ‘the product’.

Bobby’s time in New York decreased, but his time on video conferencing and later overseas travel grew exponentially. None of it could be connected to Marshalls. Between travel trips, he and Ellie bought a place; a downtown penthouse condo with a private veranda which Judith spent most of their first visit herding Jacob back from all the while saying how beautiful it was. Ellie whispered to her they may only be there a while… until they needed something more ‘family suitable’.

***

It had been December 28th when the phone call came: three days after they’d Christmas lunched in Bobby and Ellie’s condo, and one day after Joe had dropped them at Newark as they embarked on Ellie’s dream tour of Europe. Judith was bathing Jacob and Thomas upstairs, the boys engaged in a splashing fight that brought back childhood memories for Joe as he picked up.

“Wray residence.”

“Mr. Wray.” The voice said, “You need to be in Poughkeepsie tomorrow afternoon. Three o’clock. Use the following Sat-Nav details. Do you have a pen?”

Joe didn’t play dumb. There was no point. He used one of Jacob’s crayons to write the co-ordinates the man on the phone gave him and, as the phone clicked, he swallowed hard, thinking up his excuses for the following day.

***

The drive took an hour and a half. The bar’s name was lit on a shamrock hanging outside. Joe took a small Guinness and walked through to the back. He sat down silently, placing the glass in front of him.

“Joe,” Peter Leonard said, drinking a whisky much cheaper than the one in his office so long ago.

“Mr. Leonard,” Joe said. “Peter.”

Peter Leonard expelled air. “I’ve had to leave my family for this. As I’m sure you have. I want to get back to them as soon as I can.”

Joe nodded, “Is there a problem with the…publicity?”

Leonard smiled humourlessly, “Nice. No. The publicity is exemplary.”

“That’s good.” Joe said.

“The problem,” Leonard said, “is more of a ‘Personnel’ issue.”

“Personnel…?” Joe asked.

 “Your brother” Leonard said, “has been helping himself to the…publicity, setting up his own ‘window displays’.” He paused and took a drink, “Part of the reason we’re meeting is to see how much you knew of this.”

Joe shook his head firmly, “I swear to you, I have absolutely no idea…”

Leonard nodded, “I can see that by your face. I didn’t think you did. You’re different to your brother. You’re a family man… a man of honour, I think?”

“I’d like to think so, yes.” Joe said.

“I think so too. Your brother? Not so much. No, don’t bother to defend him. It would be insulting to both of us. I’ll make this simple Mr. Wray. A question and two observations.”

Joe waited.  

“The question. ‘Will your brother listen to you?’”

Joe didn’t ask about what. “I think so, yes.”

“Don’t think,” Peter Leonard said, draining his whisky, “My observation: Bobbys in this world are a dime a dozen. In a family situation like this, we expect you to fix this.”

Leonard stood and pulled his coat on. A large man emerged from the shadows behind them and walked ahead, probably to start a car, Joe thought.

“Mr. Leonard?” Joe said.

Leonard looked down at him, “Hmm?”

“You said two observations.”

Leonard nodded, “I already made the other one. You’re a family man. Speak to your brother as soon as he returns from Europe, Mr. Wray.”

 The entire meeting had lasted less than five minutes.

Driving home, Joe stopped three times to be sick. He told Judith he’d had bad shrimp at lunch with the Connelly’s discussing their New Year display.

***

Bobby and Ellie arrived back late on the second Sunday in January. Their flight was on time and Ellie shrieked with joy when she saw the ‘Auntie Ellie’ sign Jacob was begrudgingly holding. Thomas had one tied around his neck reading ‘Uncle Boddy’. Judith had scrawled the middle letters backwards, promising Joe it would be funny, and he had tried to smile. Bobby, Ellie and Judith talked non-stop in the car all the way back, Jacob chuntered along with them. Joe drove silently.

Unpacking the luggage while Ellie and Judith took the boys upstairs Joe said, “We need to talk, Bobby. Tonight.”

Bobby looked at him, “You got the January blues? You seem kind of pissed.”

Tonight,” Joe repeated. “Make an excuse why we need to go out for an hour.”

“Uh, sure. I’ll say…um…”

“Come on Bobby,” Joe hissed. “– do you need me to write you a script?

“Fine.” Bobby said, “I got a message from Campbells while we were away, and we need to go through it before tomorrow. Happy?”

“I’m very far from ‘happy’,” Joe said, lifting two of the larger cases towards the door.

***

“Oh Jesus,” Bobby said, his face suddenly ghost-white.

“Jesus indeed,” Joe said.

 “How did they find out? I was careful. I swear.”

Joe had said nothing until they’d sat down. He had laid out the bare details of the meeting.

“Careful enough not to tell me what you were doing,” Joe agreed. “What the fuck were you thinking?”

“I…” Bobby shrugged and rubbed his face, “It started as a mistake—I miscounted on a delivery. Emiliano called me—I think he thought it was a test of some sort. When he found it wasn’t he…well, he suggested, we could do some off-the-book business. Nothing much, I swear…but, you know…”

“No.” Joe interrupted, “I don’t know. I don’t know Emiliano,” he held up a halting hand, “I don’t want to know Emiliano, or how many Emilianos there have been before or since. But it stops now, Understand?”

Bobby nodded. “It’s over. No more…” He paused, “Should I apologise to Pete? Ring him tomorrow?”

“You shouldn’t do anything except what you’re supposed to do.” Joe said, “Don’t ring. Don’t message. Him or anyone else. You act like it never happened, and we never talk about this again. Right?”

“I’ve got it. Clean from here on out. I swear.” Bobby’s nod turned to a sad shake, “How the fuck did they find out…”

Joe clasped Bobby’s hand, spilling beer from his mug, “They found out. And they’ll find out again. So don’t.” He looked at his watch, “Come on. Let’s get back. Go clean yourself up first.”

Bobby said nothing, just stood and walked to the restroom. When he came back he’d washed his face and the shaking was less noticeable.

They started to walk back, Joe stopping Bobby walking out into the street as a black Sedan sped past.

“You with me, Bobby?” he asked.

Bobby stared back at him, his eyes slightly glassy, “I’m fine man. I’ve got you looking out for me like always…”

“What have you taken, Bobby?” Joe asked.

Bobby gave a jittery laugh, “Just a Xanax…”

“Jesus,” sighed Joe, “When I think it can’t get worse.” He steered Bobby across the road, “We get back, you say you’re jet lagged, and you go to bed. I’ll see you at the shop tomorrow… Lay off the pills Bobby.”

“I will, bro,” Bobby said, but he was already talking to Joe’s back.

***

Three weeks later, after his first trip into the City since his holiday, Bobby dropped his briefcase on the empty chair opposite Joe’s desk.

“How did it go?” Joe asked.

Bobby shrugged, “All good. How’s your day gone?”

“It’s gone,” Joe conceded, “Whisky’s over there.” He gestured with his pen behind Bobby, “Pour me one as well.”

“Wow, big brother drinking on a school night. Wild times in Jersey.” Bobby smiled, “Are we celebrating?”

Joe said nothing, taking the glass Bobby passed him.

“I met with Pete lunchtime.”

“I know. That’s why you were going in there.” Joe said

“Yeah. He seemed okay, you know?”

“Ok?”

“Yeah. He seemed okay. With me I mean.” Bobby said, “Same old Pete.”

“That’s good.” Joe said.

“The thing is. Well, he didn’t seem pissed off about the whole…you know, misunderstanding.”

“Good.” Joe said again.

“Do you think maybe you…” Bobby made a see-sawing motion with his head, “…over-reacted in what you thought?”

“No.” Joe said. “I don’t.  I didn’t.”

“Sure, sure.” Bobby said, “I was just wondering. But hey, good news, huh? Things back to normal.”

“Things back to normal.” Joe agreed, finishing his drink, “Let’s go. Judith’s got dinner on, Ellie’s been helping her with the kitchen decoration today. Make sure you say it looks good.”

***

Joe and Judith took a couple’s vacation that May. They drove up to Maine for a week. Bobby and Ellie stayed while they were away, looking after the boys. Ellie laid out an itinerary for the boys as detailed as the one she’d made for Europe. Even Bobby seemed excited.

Joe and Judith returned to homemade banners welcoming them home, and only two plasters on Jacob’s knees. They let Ellie put the boys to bed. “One last time,” she said a little sadly when she returned downstairs.

They left in Bobby’s new Porsche.

***

Joe and Bobby spent two nights in the City late July attending a trade fair, attending with minimal stand space, and manning it for the shortest time they could: a small company fighting for business in trying times.

They stayed at the Marlton Hotel, and on the first evening, searched for somewhere to eat.

“Jesus, will you look at that?” Bobby said.

“Want to see if we can get a table?” Joe asked.

Bobby shrugged. “Why not?”

The restaurant squeezed them in, but without the special treatment they’d had eight years ago.

“Guess we’re ordering off the menu this time, huh?” Bobby said, holding his glass in a toast. “Here’s to eight years of them. And a lifetime of us.”

The food was not as good as those years ago, but the meal was better. They talked about childhood back in Vermont, before university, before work, before much of anything. It was a nice evening.

Bobby insisted on paying, and Joe pretended he didn’t see the gold AmEx Black card in the back of his wallet.

***

It was a month to the day, he got the call about Bobby and Ellie’s murder.

***

Joe Wray sighed as the candles fizzled out, less than a minute apart.

He left the vestibule and walked up the aisle.

He stopped at a table at the rear where flyers lay, each headed “PLEASE PRAY FOR” with six lines beneath.

Much too late for that, he thought.

Walking out to the reception the old woman glanced up.

“Is the chapel open?” he asked, and she pointed left.

Inside, Joe stood before the small font at the front for a moment before walking back, counting the rows. When he reached the twelfth, he sat down.

Somewhere outside a bell rang.

He remembered Judith’s words that Christmas night so long ago—it was still silent here, but he felt no peace.

He leaned forward, his arms almost touching the cushion lying on the floor. Moving it aside he rummaged until he touched the package. He pulled at it: once, twice, and then a third time as it ripped away from the tape holding it. He slid the package into his jacket pocket.

Leaving the old church, the heat hitting him like a furnace, Joe switched his phone back on.

There was one message. From Judith. She and the boys had arrived at her mother’s. The three-hour drive had been okay, the pre-Labor weekend traffic not too bad. She finished the message telling him she was sorry she couldn’t be there with him and for him to get up there as soon as he could. There were blurting noises as the boys tried to blow kisses, and then the message clicked off.

Joe had barely clicked off the message when his phone started ringing. The Ramones—”Blitzkrieg Bop”. It was one of only three individual ring tones on his cell:  ‘It Had to Be You’ for calls from Judith, ‘Tom Waits growling out ‘Heigh Ho!’ for Ellie, who had thought it hilarious to download when they’d been out drinking one night, and…The Ramones.

Always his and Bobby’s favourite band.

When, after a moment, he answered, the voice on the other end was loud enough for him to move the phone an inch from his ear.

“Yo. Where you at ‘bro?”

Joe swallowed hard. “I’m just walking into Central Central.”

“What you still doing in the city, man?” Bobby asked, and Joe could hear him shouting to someone in the background, Ellie he presumed, “He’s still in the City…”

“I had to pick something up.” Joe said, his voice a monotone and his hand feeling the package in his pocket. “I’ll make the 14:45 train; don’t worry.”

“You been picking me up a birthday present?” Bobby hooted, “We said you didn’t need to.”

“No,” Joe said, wondering how long the package had sat in the church. He guessed not long after the order last week. Sitting there since: fully functioning and clean– but not so clean there would be any smell of oil on it. He sighed and spoke into the phone, “I know…but…I had to get this. No choice.”

“Sounds intriguing, bro.” Bobby laughed, and there was a muffled voice somewhere near him. “Oh yeah, that’s true…Ellie says I can’t call you ‘bro’ anymore. She’s got an idea for a new name…” And then there was more laughter down the line.

“I’ll let it go.” Joe said, trying to stop his voice hitching, “Just this last time.”

“Hey, got to get this BBQ sorted.” Bobby said, “Sorry Judy can’t make it… She got to her Mom’s place safe?”

“She did.” Joe said, thinking of David Hudson and his husband, and how treacherous he’d discovered driving could be, “They’re safe. They’re all safe.”

“Well,” Bobby laughed, “– you’ll have to give her the news yourself, but if there’s a liquor store open there you might want to pick up a bottle of something bubbly….” A pause, and then muffled, his hand over the phone: “I didn’t say anything!”

Joe closed his eyes and lowered his hand again to the packet that fitted it so terribly, horribly neatly. “I’ll be there soon, Bobby.”

He headed for the station, crossing the road carefully.

He was careful by nature.

Careful. Protective. And a man who kept his promises.

For Jacob. For Thomas. And more than anyone, for Judith.

He had promised he would do anything to protect them. And although only on the rarest of occasions a religious man, as he boarded the train Joe Wray thought in doing so he was going to burn as surely as his five candles. 

END