SOUTH

south

SOUTH by Chris Green

On occasions, just for a moment, everything seems in place. For this brief spell of time, a supernatural force seems to be at work. There is equilibrium in the universe. It might be referred to by some as an epiphany, an insight through the divine. Here at the top of the mountain, Gregory North enjoys such a moment. Gregory’s mountain may be metaphorical, as might the moment, but briefly, space and time conspire to offer him that sentient feeling of arrival. He is where he wants to be. It, of course, cannot last. Destiny cannot allow contentment. All actions from here on in are bound to burst the bubble.

So, how is it that Gregory finds himself at the summit of the metaphorical mountain? What is the back story? Gregory is born into a steady middle-class family in a small town in the south of England. From an early age, he displays an inquisitive nature and a creative spirit. He passes all the right exams with appropriate distinctions and wins a scholarship to a revered English university. His tutor describes him as a genius. He quickly lives up to this weighty kudos. He invents a life-saving product that the world desperately needs. The life-saving product not only makes him at twenty five the youngest person to win the Nobel Prize for Medicine, it makes him a multi-millionaire. Money does not necessarily buy you love or indeed happiness, and fame and fortune are notoriously fickle. Nevertheless, Gregory meets a beautiful woman who in addition he feels he can communicate with on a spiritual level. He marries her. Fairy tales proliferate. Clichés abound. He has his crock of gold. There is equilibrium in his universe. The fame of a Nobel scientist, however, is low key. You will not have heard of Gregory North. His name is never in the papers.

Where there is light, there must also be shadow. They are interdependent. Gregory might like to stay exactly where he is but life insists on change. Change is the only certainty. Hidden forces are already at work. It can only be downhill from here. There are different paths down the mountain. The west would be the best but Gregory North might go for the east putting himself in peril. The compass points may be metaphorical. The trouble that lies ahead may not be metaphorical.

Crime can take many forms. The view that crime is the province of those that do not have a large enough stake in the system, or that there is some biological or psychological explanation that accounts for deviant behaviour misrepresent the evidence. Criminals lurk everywhere. There is one not far from you now. There are many in the vicinity of Gregory. He is right in the firing line. They want to plunder his ideas, hack his computer, or forge his documents. They want to steal his money, burgle his house or steal his identity. They want to beat him up, burn his house down or kidnap his wife.

The descent begins. Gregory gets a phonecall. He does not recognise the voice. It has been disguised by software called geocrasher. You can download geocrasher for free. It makes your voice sound like a robot. The robot voice tells him that they have kidnapped his wife. The caller does not specify what the demands are for her safe return. He says he will call later. He tells Gregory he is not to contact anyone about the call and he should not try to trace it. The whole strategy is calculated to cause maximum uncertainty, something that the kidnappers have been working on. This is not something that should be happening to a Nobel Prize winner who has invented a life-saving product that the world needs. He does not want to be heading south.

Gregory’s wife is Italian. She is called Allegra, which translates as happy. Allegra is not happy, as she is locked in a windowless space miles away from home. She is being held captive by two ruthless villains. One of them seems to do all the talking. He barks orders at her. His accent is hard to place but may be eastern European. The consonants seem to crowd the vowels. His Heckler and Koch handgun has the look of one that has been fired. He is covered in tattoos and has a scar running down one side of his face. He is disarmingly tall and has to stoop to get through the door. His drainpipe trousers are tucked into a pair of jackboots, somehow making him look even taller. He does not look like he would blend in easily anywhere. The stocky one wearing the camel coloured overcoat with the fur collar and the large white Stetson does not say anything. He just slaps her now and again to establish his authority. His eyes seem to point in opposite directions. His skin is pale, like an albino. Allegra thinks perhaps he may be wearing a mask. She is not sure which of the pair is the more sinister. She is terrified.

Psychology is an important weapon in the kidnapper’s arsenal. Abduction can be viewed as a transaction. The relationship is between captor and prisoner, owner and chattel. The captor holds absolute power. He knew the moment was coming. The captive who had no idea the moment was coming holds no power. To show his cards too soon can take away the obvious advantage in negotiations that the kidnapper has. The mechanics of human nature is something these kidnappers have been working on.

Gregory waits for the follow-up call with the ransom demand, but this does not materialise. He waits by the phone. He checks his emails and his social media. He even checks the newspapers, but the Hollywood celebrity divorce and the resignation of the England football manager over match-fixing allegations have kept everything else of the front pages. But even if it got out, it would not be here, would it? Nobel prize winners are not household names.

The finger that arrives in the mail comes as a shock to Gregory. This is not what he expected the next step to be. He thought that there might be a phonecall asking him to meet at a remote location with a case full of unmarked notes, as it is in films. This is much more horrifying. He is violently sick. He cannot help himself. Whoever has sent it wants him to believe that it is his wife’s finger. It is Allegra’s finger, isn’t it? He cannot be sure. It is the little finger of the left hand. It looks about the right size. There is no message to accompany it, but an hour later the robotic voice comes on the line.

‘You’ve got the message, I believe,’ says the menacing voice. ‘Stay put. Don’t talk to anyone. We will be in touch later.’

Gregory attempts a reply but the call ends. How can things have changed so much in just twenty four hours, he wonders?

Allegra has not told Gregory she is pregnant. She was saving it for the coming weekend when they would be away together. They were going to their favourite hideaway, the one that no one else seemed to have discovered. The fact that Gregory does not know she is expecting makes her situation seem all the more wretched. There are two lives at stake. Jackboots and Overcoat, of course, do not know. It would probably up the ransom demand if they did. Allegra has no idea what their plans are. They have not mentioned the reason for her internment or what any ransom demand might be. She is in a dark room, about ten feet by ten feet. The room has a hollow sound. It could also be below ground level. Although she was blindfolded, she recalls going down some steps when they arrived. She is no longer blindfolded but she cannot see anything except when her captors visit. She can hear them approaching now. She shivers with fright.

Gregory’s phone rings. He picks it up. The scrambled voice issues a demand.

‘Twenty four hours is not long to come up with five million,’ Gregory protests.

‘In used notes,’ spits the voice. ‘None of your electronic transfer or bitcoin.’

‘That will be impossible,’ says Gregory.

‘Each day you don’t deliver you will get another finger through the post.’

Gregory mumbles something. He is not sure what he is saying. He has the idea that he needs to keep the conversation going. To what ends, we can only speculate. No-one is tracing the call. The phone goes dead. Black clouds tower in the morning sky. There are distant rumbles of thunder. The forecast is not good.

Gregory takes his portfolio and every form of identification he can muster to his local bank branch. He has never actually visited the bank before. He knows nothing about banking. He is not optimistic that he will be able to liquidate his investments, but he feels he has to try something. His wife’s captors seem to be uncompromising, but at this stage, he does not want to risk going to the police. Mr Leach, the bank manager is unavailable without an appointment and he is told there is a three week waiting list. Mr Cash, the deputy bank manager sits him down and goes on at length about money laundering. Every question or request that Gregory makes is greeted with a round the houses no. Mr Cash is full of suspicion. He clearly knows that something is amiss, but will not come right out and say so. Gregory gets up to leave. He wonders if Mr Cash will call the police as soon as he has gone. He returns to the Pay and Display to find his Lexus has been stolen. The rain is torrential now.

Sergeant East seems more concerned about the theft of the Lexus than about Allegra’s kidnapping.

‘Which model is that, Mr North?’ he says.

Gregory tells him it is the Lexus LS.

‘Very nice motor, sir. Would that be the LS460 or the LS 600?’

‘The 460, but what about my wife’s kidnapping?’

‘One thing at a time sir. Is that the long wheelbase model or the sport model?’

‘How many Lexus 460s do you see on the road around here? Look! You’ve got everything you need to know you have the registration and the colour and even the chassis number, now what about my wife?’

Jackboots holds Allegra down. Despite her struggles, he begins to force her rings off over her swollen knuckle.

‘We need these, lady’ he barks. ‘I think they might help with our negotiations.’

It is only when they are being taken away that Allegra realises that rings are more than just tokens of affection. They represent her marriage. Everything that she and Gregory have built together. Ties that bind in this way are sacred. She experiences the symbolism of the loathsome act that is taking place. It feels to her like murder. She screams. Jackboots covers her mouth with his hand. Her instinct tells her she should bite it. Quick as a flash, Overcoat pulls out his pistol. It is now pointing at her. She has never been more terrified. A trickle runs down her leg.

Jackboots has the rings in his hand now. He holds the engagement ring up to catch the light that filters through the open door. He forms the impression that it is a valuable one. Allegra knows it is a valuable one. It is a single stone Cartier diamond.

‘You’ll get your money,’ stammers Allegra. ‘My husband will give you the money. For my safe return.’

‘You think so,’ barks Jackboots. ‘You don’t know how much we are asking for, lady.’ Overcoat stands there, pistol still raised. Unlike the pistol, his eyes still seem to point in both directions.

‘I could speak to him if you like and tell him that I am safe.’ Allegra bursts into tears once more.

‘That will not be necessary, Jackboots says, a smile emerging from the wreckage of his features. ‘He will get the message soon enough,’

Using his pistol, Overcoat motions her over to the back of the room. Without further ceremony, they leave. She is thrown into darkness once more. According to historian Thomas Fuller, things seem darkest before the dawn. Is he stating the obvious or is this axiom more profound?

The ring finger with Allegra’s engagement ring and wedding ring on it arrives by courier, early next morning. It is freeze wrapped in muslin inside a small cardboard package. The courier does not have the sender’s address. He seems a bit vague on everything. Gregory suspects he is not a real courier, but before he has chance to quiz him further he has disappeared on his Honda. Gregory does not have a car to pursue him.

Max Tempo of The West Detective Agency is not what Gregory expects a private detective to look like. The West is the Best is the agency’s slogan, but the diminutive middle-aged figure with the receding hairline, the crumpled blue linen suit and the red and orange striped sunglasses, that the agency has sent along, does not seem to fit with this image at all. As he introduces himself, Gregory who is six foot tall towers over him. Max cannot be more than five foot two.

‘Let’s get down to business,’ says Max, offering Gregory some chewing gum. ‘How did you find out about the abduction?’

‘I got home and found a crude note in red marker pen, at least I hope it red marker pen blu-tacked to the fridge. It said, ‘We’ve got your wife! Stay put!’

‘Any sign of a struggle?’ Max asks.

‘Now you come to mention it, no,’ Gregory says.

‘Could mean nothing. Could mean nothing. Does she have a laptop, tablet or anything? Any sign of her phone?’

‘I’ve looked through her phone, but found nothing out of the ordinary, but laptop and tablet both have passwords.’

‘You don’t know what they are. Am I right?’

Gregory says he does not.

‘No worries,’ says Max. ‘Let’s have a look, we’ll be on in no time.’

Max is able to get in straight away. ‘John the Ripper,’ he says. ‘Great little app.’

In no time at all Max has scanned the emails, recent documents and pictures. Nothing remarkable shows up. This is often what he finds in cases like this. The good detective has to come up with more imaginative methods, he says. Meanwhile, he has wired up a device to record the phone.

Time, of course, is of the essence here. Gregory is impressed with the speed that Max works. First impressions can be misleading. He lets Max know.

‘It’s not every day I get a Nobel Prize winner as a client,’ says Max.

‘How do you know that?’ asks Gregory.

‘I just sensed it,’ says Max, cryptically. ‘Now tell me about the phonecalls, and while you’re at it show me the fingers. We can get to the bottom of this I’m sure.’

Gregory explains the phonecalls and how he is unable to cash in his portfolio.

Max nods, while he examines the two fingers. He draws no conclusions from these. He is more interested in the diamond ring. Why have they returned the ring, he wonders, when it could be worth a hundred thousand in itself?

‘It can mean one of two things, he says. Either they are very confident that they will get the money or they are amateurs.’

It would be difficult for the observer to guess the power relations between Jackboots and Overcoat. Although Overcoat does not, perhaps cannot speak, they communicate effectively. They are a good fit as a team. They operate with a strange telepathy. Perhaps Overcoat has peripheral vision and his function in the team is to be watchful. The observer would not be able to pinpoint their country of origin. Jackboot’s accent might make Romania favourite. His tattoos too are in an Eastern European language. If you are looking for sartorial clues, you wouldn’t know where to begin. There is something theatrical, perhaps filmic about their bizarre appearance. In everyday life, they would be as inconspicuous as a pair of tarantulas in a bowl of fresh cream. All in all, they are an enigma. The indications are that, as in many kidnapping cases, the motive is money. It is time for Jackboots to make another phonecall. He once again makes it over VoIP using geocrasher.

Allegra wonders how it has come to this. How has she moved from her work with Dior and Dolce Gabbana in the high-flying fashion world of Milan, weekends on Lake Garda and skiing in Cortina D’Ampezzo to being held captive in this darkened room, not knowing if she will live or die? It is quite a descent. It all started when she came to London for a fashion shoot. How had she come to meet a Nobel scientist? She didn’t have the slightest interest in science. She was into the arts. Gregory might cut a dashing figure but perhaps she should have found someone that looked after her better. Why hadn’t he come up with the ransom? It was hours since they had taken the rings as a bargaining tool. Why had she fallen for him? Certainly, he had a lot of money, but she was not exactly poor herself. The fashion work brought in a decent income. And she gave all this up. They didn’t even socialise that much. Gregory was always working on some paper or had a meeting with the board. If he hadn’t been working, these two murderous villains would not have been able to just walk in and bundle her into the van. She thinks she has been here now for nearly two days. She is hungry. She has had nothing but water for the duration. Even if she could find a way to relax, she cannot sleep. The room gives off a continuous hollow sound like amplified tinnitus.

‘You will have taken delivery of the ring finger,’ says the metallic voice. A green light appears on Max’s device to show it is recording. ‘Quite generous of us to return the valuable rings, do you not think. But, my friend, that is all we will be returning until we have five million.’

Gregory says that he is working on this. Max has advised him to do so. He has said that you should never show defiance in such a situation.

‘Good! I’m glad you are beginning to see things our way. I expect your lovely wife will be glad too. I will call at exactly five o’clock and we will arrange a time and place to pick up. You will have the money by then I am sure.’

Gregory says that he will do his best.

‘I expect you would also like your nice car back too. When you deliver the money, we will deliver your wife in the boot of your car.’

On that note, the conversation ends. The green light on the device changes back to red.

‘That was great,’ says Max. ‘Watch this!’

He presses a couple of keys on his device and plays the recording. It is now a proper sounding human voice. ‘ModulatorPlus. Great little app,’ he smiles.

The voice, they both agree, does sound Eastern European. Max explains that Eastern European languages have consonant clusters so they tend to shorten the vowels when speaking English. To Gregory, it just sounds Eastern European. Max takes a gigantic pair of Sennheiser headphones from his bag to listen more closely. His bag must be dimensionally transcendental, Gregory thinks. He appears to have a whole workshop in there. Max says he is listening for background noise. He closes his eyes in concentration and begins playing with the frequency sliders on the side of the headphones. Finally, several minutes later, he takes them off.

‘I think I’ve got it,’ he says. ‘The call was made by a mobile phone redirected from an unlisted landline from a blue Ford transit van near a railway station, but what I’m not getting is which railway station or the registration of the van.’

Gregory wonders how Max can tell that the transit van is blue but he doesn’t like to ask.

Iancu Emanuel Constantinescu’s career as a lion tamer ended when circuses stopped using wild animals. The Romanian International Circus, which had built its reputation on dangerous stunts, folded. Iancu’s appearance, the legacy of years of taming ferocious big cats and a long relationship with Silvia Daciana Vacilescu, the circus’s tattoo artist, left him with little prospect of getting a job. In a word, he looked scary. He felt he might as well use his intimidating stature to frighten people. Kidnapping seems to be the obvious place to use his skill set. His friend, Dragomir Stan Antonescu had been a clown with the circus. As he was mute, his chances of getting a job when the circus folded were also slim. Dragomir’s lack of speech was however compensated by remarkable eyesight. He had long been a collector of handguns and was a crackshot. It seemed natural that he should team up with Iancu.

The only way that you can learn kidnapping is by going ahead and doing it. There are no training manuals or kidnappers’ colleges. If you get it right, you can make a good living and you do not need to work long hours. Iancu and Dragomir start small by kidnapping a pub landlord in a popular seaside town and asking for £500. They find that this does not cover their expenses. Their next outing is a football manager of a Championship team, where they manage to get £5000. They brush up their technique by watching a number of kidnapping films. After watching Fargo, it occurs to them that it might be a better idea to abduct a partner rather than the target himself. They get £20,000 this way by kidnapping a minor celebrity’s wife. They manage to convince the celebrity to pay up when they send him a lock of her hair. Allegra is only their fourth victim. They are thinking of asking £50,000 when they find out that Gregory is an incredibly rich man. He has reaped the benefits of inventing a life-saving product that the world needs. To up the ante, Iancu feels that they need to employ scarier tactics, so he purchases a preserved hand from Stelian Serafim Albescu, a former reptile trainer with the circus who is now working as a mortuary assistant. With so much inexperience, the potential for disaster is immense.

‘How do we find the blue van and what do we do if we find it?’ Gregory asks.

‘We follow it,’ says Max. ‘What we do when it takes us to Allegra is probably the question you should be asking. But don’t worry I’ll think of something. That’s what you are paying me for. Now come on! Let’s get to the station. They might still be there.’

‘But, you said you couldn’t tell which station.’

‘Have you any better ideas? Next, you will be saying what if there are two blue vans. There! I’ve diverted your phone. Now let’s get going.’

Max packs his bag, cracks open a new pack of chewing gum and off they go in Max’s grey Yaris.

‘Nobody notices you in one of these,’ he explains. ‘Not even with tinted windows. Inconspicuous but fast.’

Allegra’s miscarriage is sudden. Jackboots and Overcoat arrive just after it has happened. She is covered in blood. At first, J and O have no idea what has happened. It slowly dawns on them both. She seems hysterical. They do not know how to handle the tirade of verbal abuse she subjects them to.

‘ I need a fucking doctor,’ she screams at them. ‘Get me a doctor, You fucking scum.’

They sense that pointing guns is not the appropriate response, but are not in a position to offer understanding and tenderness. They back off. They decide they can wait in the van. It is parked just down the road by the railway station. They can go back in a few minutes. Allegra, they reason, will have calmed down by then.

Max and Gregory arrive at the railway station car park just in time to see Jackboots and Overcoat getting into the blue van. There is only one blue transit van. They must be the captors. What an odd looking pair they are, though.

‘How’s that for timing,’ says Max.

He parks the Yaris a few bays behind the van, in preparation for it driving off. He can follow at a discreet distance. The van, however, does not move. Although the van is fifty feet away, Max manages to rig up a device up to listen to their conversation.

‘A friend of mine borrowed the device from the secret government base,’ he explains.

Jackboots and Overcoat’s conversation comes through loud and clear. Unfortunately, they are not speaking English.

‘It will come with a translator in a couple of years,’ Max says by way of apology.

One voice seems to do all the talking. It is the same voice that made the phonecall earlier. The one wearing the overcoat and the Stetson seems to be nodding or using sign language.

Had Max’s hypothetical translator been operational the conversation they would hear would go something like this.

‘Perhaps we should reduce the demand.’

Silence

‘Count our losses.’

Silence

‘Down to ten thousand. What do you think?’

Silence.

‘We can make a bit more on our next job, maybe.’

Silence.

If Max’s hypothetical translator had been operational, the substance of the phonecall that Gregory receives on his mobile would not have been so unexpected. As it is, he feels he has been let off the hook somewhat. He is sure that Mr Cash will let him have ten thousand pounds from his assets. Why, he wonders, have they reduced the sum so drastically. It feels like bargain basement.

‘Three hours time, that’s five o’clock, Used twenty pound notes’ says Jackboots, establishing the upper hand once more. ‘At the entrance to the disused airfield. Look out for a blue van. Your car will be close by. You won’t be able to see your car from the road. Your wife will be in the boot. No funny business or you know what will happen.’

No-one makes a move. Max wants to stay put so as not to lose sight of the villains. Gregory thinks that he should probably be at the bank, but is dependent on Max for transport, and it seems J and O are in no hurry to move business along.

Max has been in stakeouts before. He understands the terrain. A good deal of patience is necessary. You need a cap to pull down over your forehead. And a pack of cigarettes. Gregory is a stranger to the underworld, university did not prepare him for this. To him, the underworld is something that Orpheus got himself into in Offenbach’s operetta. Gregory does not have a cap to pull down over his forehead. And he has never smoked.

Jackboots and Overcoat sense that they still have a lot to learn. Things are not going as planned. And now a police car has drawn up a few cars away. How long will it be until they spot the stolen blue van they are in, or for that matter the stolen Lexus 460 about a hundred metres away, and who are those people in the grey Yaris? Are they watching them?

Miscarriages can be psychologically damaging. It is said that the attachment to the foetus begins very early into pregnancy. Women are often reported to lose themselves after such an event. Given the circumstances of Allegra’s loss, this might be the expected consequence, but she finds that there are immediate and more profound results of this cruel termination. Her soul has gone. Science now believes that the soul could be the link that connects individuals to the universe, a dynamic connection that explains consciousness. If nothing else, the soul is a poor thing to be without and Allegra’s has parted company with her physical body and disappeared into the ether. When she screams it is not now her that is screaming but something that is happening as a result of a bodily impulse. She does not inhabit the scream. It is no longer her scream. It is not her who finds that she can push the door to her prison open, where Jackboots and Overcoat have not secured properly. It is not her who finds herself staggering up an unfamiliar street.

Whoever it is that has managed these things finds herself in the vicinity of a railway station. Something tells her she should recognise it, but she can’t connect with this part of her. The link has been severed. There are a lot of people about. She spots a blue van and a police car. The police seem to be asking the people in the van to step out of it.

‘My God! There’s Allegra,’ shouts a shell-shocked Gregory, making a move to jump out of the Yaris.

‘Stop! No! Don’t,’ yells Max, grabbing him by the shoulder to restrain him. ‘Kidnappers have guns, remember.’

This is a pivotal moment. From here, it could go any way. It depends on how competent the police are. It depends on how desperate Jackboots and Overcoat are. It depends on whether Max has anything up his sleeve. Certainly, Max is aware that the kidnappers would recognise Gregory, but perhaps he should have let Gregory go and talk to the police. Is it his professional pride that is urging against this?

Max seems to have subdued Gregory for the moment and they duck down out of sight. J and O seem reluctant to get out of the van. Allegra lurches on zombie-like and disappears into a throng of people emerging from the station. Gregory and Max’s attention is drawn away by a squeal of tyres and a scattering of police officers. In a daring attempt at escape, the blue van speeds off. With a squeal of tyres to match, the police car gives chase. By the time Gregory and Max focus back on the station, Allegra has disappeared out of sight. There are hundreds of people now, jostling one another for position around the station entrance. Why hasn’t Max got an app on one of his devices that can find someone in a crowd?

As he and Max dash here and there searching for Allegra in the bustling station, Gregory asks himself how this reversal of fortune has come about. Circumstance has up till now always favoured him. He rose to elevated heights with so little effort. There was never a struggle. Doors opened easily. His discovery of a life-saving product that the world desperately needed felt as if it were something he just plucked out of the air. He has never knowingly taken advantage of anyone or abused his position. He has always looked for the best in people. He has paid his taxes, given to charity and been kind to animals. He has even on occasions said his prayers. What is happening in the cosmos to deliver such a cataclysmic volte-face?

The station has a staggering seven platforms, each one swarming with restless passengers. Trains are arriving from everywhere. Trains are leaving to go to all points of the compass. Allegra finds herself on one of the trains. She does not know where she is heading. She may be going east or she may be going west. It does not matter to a person who has no soul. People stare at her. They do not understand what has happened. Everyone keeps their distance. They know that something is wrong. They make up their own stories about her from the true life magazines in their heads. Gregory North continues frantically to search the station but cannot spot her. He will never find her. He has lost her. He will continue on his way on a train of his own. It will be heading south.

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved

CHEKHOV’S GUN

chekovsgunChekhov’s Gun by Chris Green

Having signed off my latest story, I am on the lookout for characters for a new one. A writer’s mind is never idle. Even though Jodie and I are on holiday in a small seaside town in Norfolk to catch up with her family, the search is on. In the shop next to our cottage, the fishmonger gets up to take the delivery of fresh fish at about six thirty and starts throwing crates around the yard, waking us up. He has a weather-beaten face with deep creases from years of hard fishmongering. But, I have my readers to consider. A story about a small town retailer would not be in keeping with the Philip C. Dark brand. My stories usually revolve around time shifts or altered states, not matters you could ease into a tale about the price of fish.

John, the ageing caretaker for our group of holiday-lets comes by to see how Jodie and I are getting on with the cooker. He says that it has been on the blink. On the blink? We hadn’t realised it worked at all. It’s an odd looking piece of kit. Perhaps the newer models haven’t reached these remote parts yet.

‘It’s the timer that’s broken,’ John the Caretaker says. ‘You have to turn it this way and then that way to get it working.’

John is ineffectual, apologetic. He looks as if he has been trying to become invisible all his life, not the kind of character you could fit into a speculative fiction or a psychodrama.

The couple in the holiday apartment across from us with the two point three children, the Debenhams shopping bags and the Ford Focus are also non-starters. How could you create intrigue in a story about them? Ditch-water and dull are words that spring to mind.

Lord Nelson grew up around these parts and as we make our way through the town, everywhere we look, we are reminded of this. Even though the nearest harbour is a few miles down the coast, here they are proud of North Norfolk’s maritime heritage. We have a cup of tea and a light breakfast in the Trafalgar Café on the seafront. As they throw chewed balls for their excited dogs, the early morning dog walkers down on the shingle beach look exactly like early morning dog walkers on shingle beaches look the world over. Nothing for the story there. Neither do the ramblers on the coastal path provide inspiration. In their expensive padded waterproof jackets screaming with logos and identical uncomfortable-looking heavy boots, they are clones of one another. It probably isn’t their fault. Years of relentless leisure-wear promotion featuring sporty looking models in expensive padded waterproof jackets screaming with logos and uncomfortable-looking walking boots has put pressure on them to conform to such rigid sartorial uniformity.

The man in the brown SuperDry windcheater looking out to sea with snazzy binoculars regales us with a story about two Polish men who drowned out there because they were calling out for help in Polish. He says that the onlookers did not understand that they were in trouble. They thought they were just waving to them and started waving back. Perhaps I could save this anecdote up for later. Meanwhile, I need a punchy opening and some quirky characters.

While the fiction writer must recognise the importance of Chekhovian realism, he must also be aware that nobody wants to read about someone whose actions are predictable. A successful character in fiction requires an element of contradiction. Oxymoronic inconsistencies are necessary to create unforgettable characters, the honest thief, the philanthropic murderer, the frightened hero. When drawing a character in a short story it is vital to establish their complexity. You must do so quickly. What better way to hint at latent duality than in the initial description?

Names are often a good starting point. A well-chosen name can go a long way to suggesting the type of person, the type of story or even the content of the story itself. Dickens understood the importance of names. Think Ebeneezer Scrooge, Wackford Squeers, Harold Skinpole. As does Martin Amis. Think Clint Smoker, Spunk Davis, Lionel Asbo. I have a long list of names lined up for possible characters. Chadwick Dial, Guy Bloke, Lars Wimoweh ………

The old man with the big green beard walking down Station Road has potential. Most men around his age in these parts do not have big green beards. I’ll pencil him in as Tom Esso. Tom Esso will have an unusual background. A circus performer, maybe, or wayward scientist or necromancer. Perhaps he had an illustrious career as a Naval spy in war-torn Asia before double-crossing the wrong people. Perhaps he lives in a yurt or is Lord Lucan. But this is to jump ahead. He could be any of these. There is no point in getting into plot detail yet but I will keep Tom Esso in mind.

While Jodie is doing the rounds of the shops with her sister, I find myself chatting to the man pushing the yellow cart along the sands. He is collecting debris that he finds on the beach. Amongst the assorted food wrappers, he has miscellaneous discarded plastic, several umbrellas, a raincoat, a dead seabird and a Nike trainer in his cart. He says he goes back and forth along the three mile stretch twice a day. I tell him I’m Philip C. Dark, the writer. He says he has not heard of me. I tell him not to worry, not many people have.

‘I’m looking for some inspiration for a story,’ I say. ‘I bet you meet some odd characters around here.’

‘I certainly do,’ he says. ‘There’s a fellow who comes down early in the morning in Naval uniform to practice his martial arts. First time I saw him waving his sword about, I was a little worried. But, he’s OK. Is that the sort of thing you are looking for?’

‘Uhu,’ I say, making a mental note.

‘And there’s the old lady with the leopard print coat who comes down, to feed the dolphins,’ he says. ‘Except that there aren’t any dolphins. She has bats in the belfry but I think she’s safe.’

‘Uhu.’

‘Oh, and there’s a couple of weird musicians, buskers I suppose you’d call them. They come down on a Sunday afternoon. The fellow plays the bagpipes and the woman plays the sitar.’

‘Bagpipes and sitar,’ I say. ‘That’s an odd combination.’

‘They have a raccoon, at least that’s what I think it is,’ he says. ‘It dances to the music.’

‘That sounds like a bit of a tourist attraction,’ I say. ‘I expect it draws the crowds.’

‘Local people seem to make an effort to stay away,’ he says ‘Round here, you see, folks mostly like sea shanties. Now, if they were to play some sea shanties, they’d be in business.’

‘Perhaps it’s hard to play sea shanties on bagpipes and sitar,’ I say, as I try to visualise the image of Rob Roy and Rani struggling to adapt their musical style to the work songs of merchant sailing vessels. Meanwhile, I am already writing the duo into my narrative.

‘Perhaps you could take a didgeridoo along,’ he says, with a straight face so I can’t tell whether he is joking or not. ‘I noticed they have a couple of nice didgeridoos for sale in the window of the charity shop up the road.’

The idea of the trio does add to the possibilities. I passed the British Heart Foundation shop on the way down and, although I can’t explain why I was tempted then to pop in and buy one of the didgeridoos.

‘Jodie and I will come down and have a listen to them tomorrow,’ I say. ‘We’ll bring the family.’

So, I have Tom Esso, Rob Roy and Rani in the bag. Between them they can add colour to the story but I am still looking a central plot to tack the pieces on to. I need an apocalyptic theme, an eerie backdrop, an unexplained emergency, the trademark elements of the Philip C. Dark brand. Where will I find the Hitchcockian McGuffin, the psychological uncertainty, the unexpected twist?

We have been to visit Jodie’s family in these parts many times now and the streets of the small seaside town are familiar. I make my way back to our cottage via British Heart Foundation taking a short cut off Nelson Street but unfortunately, they have sold both the didgeridoos.

‘A lady came in earlier and bought them both,’ the Saturday girl says. ‘She said they were for a present for her husband.’

Could it be Jodie, I wonder as I start to wander back to the cottage? Might I have mentioned the didgeridoos to her earlier?

As as I make my way along Victory Street towards Temeraire Terrace, everything that has over the years become so familiar begins to look different. There is little traffic on the roads and what cars there are all seem to be vintage models. Is there a classic car rally, perhaps? I haven’t seen one advertised. The health food shop has disappeared, along with the electrical store with the display of digital devices in the window. The cinema has changed its name and is now showing a Greta Garbo film. There are a number of horse drawn vehicles on the approach to the farriers. Farriers? There wasn’t a farriers here when I passed by earlier. And none of those game birds were hanging up outside Biggs Butchers.

When I arrive at the cottage, the door is open. Inside, John the Caretaker is fiddling with the controls on the cooker. He appears to be in a panic.

‘The timer is playing up big time,’ he says. ‘It seems to have gone back to 1935.’

Epilogue:

To paraphrase the principle of Chekhov’s Gun:

A writer should not introduce a dodgy cooker in the opening paragraphs of a story unless it is going to be used to to good effect in the story.

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved

 

Time and Tide Wait for Norman

timeandtidewaitfornormanTime and Tide Wait for Norman by Chris Green

Good Lord! There’s Liz Boa. I haven’t seen Liz since…… Well, since she left Grace and Favour, where we both worked. That must have been, what? Ten years ago? She went off to live in Ireland. Skibareen, I believe. Strange choice, I thought but her partner was a psychologist. Or was it a ventriloquist? Anyway, something like that and he had a job over there. …… No. Wait. He was in shipping and it was a three year contract in Cork. That was it. …….. There was always something simmering beneath the surface between Liz and I. Given different circumstances, who knows what might have happened? We came close on one or two occasions and even met up after work but we held back because we were both married.

What’s Liz doing here in Newton Abbot? She has looked after herself well. She doesn’t look a day older than when I last saw her. She still looks about thirty nine. She’s moving around the platform now. She hasn’t seen me waving. She doesn’t appear to be getting on this train. Should I get off and have a word with her? I could always catch the next train to Plymouth. There are plenty of them going that way and my appointment with the publisher isn’t until eleven thirty.

Before I have chance to act on my impulse, Liz boards the train that has just pulled in on the adjacent platform. She is heading north. I am still speculating what she might be doing in these parts when I hear a familiar voice beside me.

‘Hello Phil,’ the voice says.

It takes me a while to realise that the figure in the crimson Paul Smith suit is Andy Mann. In fact, in the end, he needs to prompt me. Andy and I used to play Sunday league football together many years ago. This, of course, was before I became lazy and my girth started to broaden. And, as you do, Andy and I lost touch. What is he doing here? When I moved down here to Devon, I hadn’t expected to see anyone from back home. After all, Scarborough is three hundred miles away. First Liz and now Andy. What are the odds?

‘Hi Andy,’ I manage to say finally as he sits himself down beside me. ‘I didn’t recognise you for a minute.’

‘I haven’t changed that much, have I, Phil?’ he laughs.

I don’t quite know how to respond to this. The thing is, that apart from the Paul Smith suit, Andy still looks the same as he did back then. Not a day older. Well, perhaps a day or two, but he certainly looks trim. He has obviously been eating his five a day and getting to the gym regularly. Ten a day, maybe along with a morning swim and an evening run. Or perhaps he has made a pact with the Devil.

‘No,’ I say. ‘You are looking well, Andy.’

‘Well, I do my best. None of us is getting any younger, Phil. Still working on that newspaper, are you?’

I have to think hard to bring to mind what he might be referring to. I conclude he must mean the Whitby Gazette. I was a sub-editor there for a short while. Now, that was a long time ago. Nineteen eighties, I’d say. Surely I’ve seen Andy more recently than this.

‘I’m a writer now,’ I say. ‘Short stories and novels. My pen name is Philip C. Dark. You may have come across something of mine. Time and Tide Wait for Norman, my last collection of short stories sold well. In fact, I’m just off to see my publisher now to discuss some amendments to my new novel, The Knee of the Idle.

‘Hey! A novelist. That’s fantastic, Phil,’ Andy says. ‘I’m pleased for you. You’re not on holiday down here, then?’

‘No, Andy. Shelley and I moved down earlier this year,’ I say. ‘We live in Topsham. By the river.’

‘Good Lord! That’s just up the road from me. I’m in Exeter. We’ll have to meet up for a drink. I’ve just done some business in Newton Abbot and now I’m just off to Totnes to look at a car. A vintage Apparition. From a fellow from up north, as it happens. Brent Struggler.’

‘Brent Struggler! Do you know what? Brent Struggler was the name of the guy that I bought my Marauder from. Back in Scarborough. It must be the same guy. There can’t be two car salesmen with a name like Brent Struggler.’

‘I wasn’t aware of him until I moved down south. But I’m sure you are right. Brent is definitely from those parts. I’ve spoken to him a few times now. It’s a small world Phil, isn’t it?’

‘How long have you been living down here then, Andy?’

‘I came down about seven or eight years ago. I had a trial with Exeter City.’

‘Seven or eight years ago?’

‘About that, yes. It was just coming up to the General Election. 2010, it would have been.’

I start to do the maths. Andy Mann would have been forty something at the time of the trial. I realise Exeter City are in one of the lower leagues and not able to recruit young talent so easily, but still ……

Perhaps Andy has sold his sold his soul to the Devil after all. I feel suddenly strange being in his company. I avoid his question about whether he is a character in any of my books. I imagine he is joking, but with a writer, the familiar does have a habit of slipping into the narrative now and then. I continue to make superficial conversation with Andy about the issues of the day while I try in vain to come up with a plausible explanation for the apparent slippages in reality. I can’t concentrate on anything he is saying. Words bounce around in my head and rogue thoughts float in and out. I feel light-headed. As we pull into Totnes station, I feel pleased that he is getting off the train. I offer him one of my business cards. With an old friend, it seems like the polite thing to do. He takes it, shakes me firmly by the hand and tells me he will call me. He will take me for a night out, he says, in Exeter.

……………………………………………………

I think the train may have come off the track once or twice between Totnes and Plymouth or taken an unscheduled detour because when I arrive, it is half-past three in the afternoon. Perhaps I fell asleep and have been going backwards and forwards on the same train for several hours. Time is all over the place and no-one at the station seems to be able to explain what might have happened. They just look at me as if I am mad. My brain is certainly doing somersaults, my clothes are a mess and I seem to have lost my phone. I’m not sure what to do but I don’t want to get back on a train so I start walking into the city looking for a place to have a snack and a cup of tea.

I went to Rex Cardiff’s funeral, so I know that he is dead. I listened while his close friends delivered heartfelt eulogies. I watched the pallbearers lower the wooden box into the ground. So, what is he doing here at Costa Coffee in Plymouth? Living and breathing. And by the looks of it enjoying a double espresso. I do a double take but there’s no mistaking Rex. He has looked exactly the same since the first time I met him. He has the same 1970s haircut, the same round glasses and the same brown leather bush hat. Those are probably the same pair of shiny looking skin-tight jeans from back then too. And, of course, he has the ubiquitous Sainsburys carrier bags, three of them inside one another apparently, to carry around his hip flask, his paperback books, his soldering irons and his Tom Waits album. It is Rex Cardiff’s voice, though, as he holds forth about the history of the Isle of Wight Festival, that really gives the game away. That strident articulation of flowery language that he is using to familiarise the unsuspecting stranger in Costa with one of his favourite topics. His BBC voice has the faintest trace of Scouse vowels to dampen it, the legacy of his three years at Liverpool University reading Oceanography, he once explained. Rex was the inspiration for Reuben, a character in my short story, Wolf in Cheap Clothing. I can see the stranger is feigning interest in Rex’s monologue but at the same time seems anxious to get away. I want to get away too.

Seeing Liz Boa and Andy Mann, unexpectedly, out of context and untainted by the passing of time was, to say the least, unnerving. Seeing Rex, long since dead and buried, is in all its implications, terrifying. As my tea cup crashes to the floor, I am conscious that my body is making involuntary movements. People are staring at me. How can they know what is wrong? How can they know that the man with the loud voice three tables down is supposed to be dead? His voice is echoing around the walls. The room is spinning. The floor is where the ceiling should be. I feel I am going to pass out.

I find myself on a bench on Plymouth Hoe near the imposing statue of Sir Francis Drake, looking out onto the Sound. How long have I been here, staring into the beyond, I wonder? The water in the historic bay, silver against the stacked cumulostratus, seems still as if there is no tide in these parts. The ship on the horizon, moving slowly from side to side, is little more than a dab of battleship grey. There is barely a sound, save for the blackbird’s song from a nearby tree. This situation should be calming but I can’t shake off the feeling that something is very wrong. How can I dismiss the unlikely series of events leading up to this? Is there a common thread that links the sightings of Liz, Andy and Rex? And where does Brent Struggler fit in?

‘You only have yourself to blame for your …….. fragile state of mind,’ says a tall man, who appears out of nowhere. ‘What goes around, comes around.’

I don’t recognise him. Yet, at the same time, something about him is disturbingly familiar. He wears a scuzzy seersucker suit several sizes too small. He has an unsightly scar leading up to his forehead. He walks with a limp and wears an eye-patch over his left eye. Where, I wonder, can I possibly know this reprobate from?

‘You don’t appear to know who I am, do you, Phil?’ he says. ‘But, you should. Oh yes! You definitely should. You should know me very well.’

‘I have the feeling that I ought to recognise you,’ I say. ‘But, I can’t for the life of me work out where from.’

‘You should know me like a father knows a son,’ he continues. ‘I’m practically family. After all, Philip, I am your brainchild.’

‘N n n norman,’ I stammer. ‘You’re Norman? From my story, Time and Tide Wait for Norman?

‘Bravo, Philip! You’ve got it at last. Norman Norman. Your very own creation. I’m like flesh and blood and that should have counted for something. But, look how you treated me. Take a good look at me, will you? You made me half-blind. You gave me a limp. You made me wear these ill-fitting clothes. You gave me these hideous features. All in the interest of a story. Not only that but your title, the one that you thought was so clever, was misleading. Time and tide didn’t wait for me, did they, Philip? You subjected me to humiliation after humiliation. You were merciless. Wouldn’t you agree that it is payback time?’

I am scared. What’s written on the page should stay on the page and not leap into the everyday. I look anxiously around me, wondering what is going to happen next. It is then that I spot the brightly coloured Wessex Theatre Company van.

It takes me a few more moments to register that this is the direction that Norman came from. Didn’t I also see the same van earlier on my way to Costa Coffee? And somewhere else too? Might it have been Newton Abbot? Suddenly, everything seems to fall into place. I only wish I had realised at the time that Liz, Andy and Rex were actors too. Surely, I should have picked up on the niggling little things about them that did not add up. The whole business appears to have all been an elaborate set-up. I think I know who is behind it. If you are ever invited to be the guest reviewer of the literary pages of the Wessex Courier, be careful what you say about other writers’ works. Some, it seems, will stop at nothing to exact their revenge.

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved

(NOT) BEING DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH

notbeingdmitrishostakovich

(NOT) BEING DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH by Chris Green

The knock on the door at 3 am comes as a shock. This is the type of thing I associate with Soviet Russia. Unlike Dmitri Shostakovich, who famously kept a suitcase and a toothbrush beside him ready for the knock, in case he should be whisked off at a moment’s notice and interrogated, I am unprepared for such an eventuality. So far as I know, I have done nothing seditious or subversive. I am an English teacher, for Heaven’s sake. Teaching teenagers how to get the best out of D. H. Lawrence and Julian Barnes. Introducing them to the use of iambic pentameter in Shakespeare. In a Community College. In a small town in the south west of England.

I am not given time to put shoes on, let alone think about a suitcase and needless to say, I don’t know where I’m going.

‘What’s this all about?’ I keep asking, as stifling my partner, Hannah’s protests, two thugs in dark fatigues bundle me roughly into the back of a waiting black van.

‘We can’t tell you that, fella,’ says the tall one with the neck tattoos and the bad breath. ‘So just shut the fuck up.’

‘We are just here to deliver you safely to the interrogation centre,’ says the blubbery one with the cropped hair and the facial scar. ‘Now keep still, while I put this blindfold on.’

Bound, blindfolded and gagged, I am bumped around in the back of the van for about an hour before we arrive at our destination, which, from the acoustics, I take to be a large concrete building, perhaps a disused warehouse or something. Here I am tied to a steel chair and left on my own to contemplate my fate. I am subjected to a dissonant recording of trombone playing, which runs for about and hour then plays all over again. Popular songs like Fly Me to the Moon and What a Wonderful World are murdered over and over by a tone deaf trombone player with, to maintain the Soviet comparisons, the disdain you might expect from a dispossessed Menshevik. At first, I feel this is a strange way for security service professionals to behave if indeed they are security professionals and not just common or garden kidnappers. There again, why would anyone kidnap me? An English teacher with a twenty five year mortgage and a maxed-out Barclaycard. The idea is absurd.

As the hours pass by, I begin to see the wisdom of spooks using such a method. It is, in all probability, a tried and tested technique to break down a suspect’s resolve. It is far less labour intensive than the strenuous forms of interrogation you see in films. Clearly, after a few hours of this, if I did have anything to talk about, I would be likely to spill the beans. If they left it long enough, I would be ready to confess to anything, however outrageous the allegation, when my interrogators finally arrived. And more besides. If I thought it would get me out of there, I would probably invent some malefaction. But I keep coming back to the question, why me? Why have I been brought here? Who are they? What have I done?

It is difficult to see outside of my own desperate situation but in a few calmer, more lucid moments when I am able to shut the musical torment out, I wonder what is happening outside of my confines. What have they done with Hannah? Surely if she has been free to do so, she will have gone to the police or taken some appropriate action on my behalf and they will eventually find me.

It is in such a moment of contemplation that my interrogators arrive. Once again there are two of them. They turn off the recording and take off my blindfold. This pair are better turned out than the two thugs from earlier, if not any the less threatening. The dark uniform and dark glasses they are both wearing, though, make it difficult to tell them apart. They are both built like shot putters.

It is the one with the fuller figure and the tighter skirt who speaks first. Something about her reminds me of my old Economics teacher, Miss Stover. Miss Stover didn’t usually carry a gun, though.

‘You know why you are here,’ she barks. It is both a question and a statement.

‘I am briefly tempted to say, ‘Well, it probably isn’t speed dating.’ But, my bravado deserts me.’ Instead, I manage a non-committal guttural sound.

The one who has not spoken yet takes off her sunglasses to reveal a stare like barbed wire. ‘We have your laptop here, Mr Exe,’ she spits, taking a device out of the large shoulder bag she is carrying. ‘Perhaps you would like to comment on a few things that we have found.’

As she places the laptop on the table where both of then can see it, I recognise the scuff mark on the lid where the Dell logo has rubbed off at the bottom of the D. It is indeed my laptop. It occurs to me now what might be happening. In which case, what is playing out here is probably down to a huge misunderstanding.

A week or two ago, Hannah’s son, Geoff was writing an assignment on the Dark Internet for his Criminology course and she asked me if I would look it over. Not that I knew anything about the Dark Internet but being and English teacher, I was good at grammar and punctuation. It was Geoff’s first year at Coventry so it seemed only right that I give him a helping hand to set him on his way. I realised how difficult those initial assignments could be when all you really wanted to do was enjoy the social life and the wild entertainment on offer in a new city.

As a precaution, I saved Geoff’s attachment as dae5h.docx. In retrospect, perhaps this was injudicious but it was meant as a joke. It was an old personalised number plate I used to have, my name being Douglas Alan Exe.

Geoff’s essay introduced me to the workings of the Dark Web, The Onion Router, Bitcoin and the like. A clandestine new world had apparently opened up without me being aware of it. I was shocked by some of the things that went on in cyberspace, the drug dealing, the child pornography, the terrorist recruitment, the people trafficking. It seemed there was a web of corruption available with just a few keystrokes. The essay also suggested that the Dark Web was difficult to police with law enforcement agencies and security services always being one step behind.

Academic essays in the social sciences can be a bit verbose, weighed down by interminable sentences with successions of long words. Each field of study introduces a staggering lexicon of new terminology to obfuscate the lay-reader. Readability can be further hampered by having to accommodate quotes by international academics with a poor command of English. To help make Geoff’s essay more readable, I shortened some of the sentences, made a few changes to the wording and tidied up the grammar a bit. I suggested he reworked the conclusion to make it a little stronger.

‘Are you having trouble with the question?’ says Miss Stover. ‘Perhaps we’d better do something to help you remember.’

All I have to do is to find a way to explain to this pair of titans that my intentions were good. But how? I remember back then a little nagging thought coming into my head about the security services. I was aware that under monitoring by organisations like GCHQ and NSA, certain keywords and expressions used on social media could trigger an algorithm that rendered you a suspect to be investigated. I had also read that security services checked up to three hops from anyone who became a target of interest, one hop being Facebook friends, two hops being friends of friends, with the third hop dragging in their friends too. If GCHQ or NSA decided I was a target of interest, for example, that could drag in 240 Facebook friends, 43,120 friends of friends, and 6.6 million of their friends. Geoff’s profile might well generate similarly humongous numbers.

I had reasoned that security services would need thousands of employees to go through that lot and anyway, we were not even talking about an inflammatory social media post. We were talking about an attachment to an email. However, for my own peace of mind, I had taken the precaution to save the file again under a different name before I emailed it to Geoff. Thinking back now, the original file, the dae5h one had somehow mysteriously disappeared from the computer but I had decided to think no more of it. These things sometimes happened.

I am still trying to think of a response to Miss Stover’s remark that might settle it, when I remember Geoff and I had had a brief exchange of private messaging about the essay, more specifically I had commented that our government was probably secretly selling weapons to DAESH over the dark web. This might not sit so well with them. But, private messaging was private, wasn’t it? The idea of an investigation by listening centres on such a flimsy premise was preposterous. Unless of course, Geoff was already under investigation. This seemed even more unlikely. Perhaps then, someone else on his Criminology course was up to something nefarious and had drawn Geoff in. When on home visits, Geoff had spoken about his friend, Tariq, he had sounded like a suspicious character, someone who could conceivably have underworld connections. But I reassured myself that it was being fanciful to think that anything subversive was going on at a respectable institution like Coventry University. Nothing untoward could possibly happen under the noses of qualified criminologists.

Have the spooks taken Geoff in for interrogation too, I’m wondering? Are they now treating him to the same regime of torture in another location? Geoff would find it much harder than me to cope with hours of tuneless trombone playing. He only listens to dance music and dubstep.

‘I am beginning to lose patience, Mr Exe?’ says Miss Stover, now taking out a sinister looking electrical device. ‘Perhaps your memory needs a jolt.’

She is coming towards me. Where is she planning on putting those electrodes?

‘OK. I’ll co-operate,’ I say, my natural cowardice coming to my rescue. I begin to tell her about the Dark Internet essay and explain that she has got the wrong end of the stick. That it was all a huge misunderstanding.

‘Is that really why you think we have brought you here?’ Miss Barbed Wire says, interrupting me before I have finished. ‘You cannot be serious. We don’t care about any of that stuff.’

I struggle to think of another reason why they might go to so much trouble. Whatever it is, it seems to revolve around my laptop, but what else could be there?

‘Tell us about your emails, SMS’s and Skype calls to Yulia Kuznetsova, Mr Exe,’ Miss Stover says.

‘You mean Julie. ….. Julie is an admin assistant at the school,’ I say.

‘That’s as maybe. But, she is more than that, isn’t she?’ Miss Barbed Wire says. ‘You have been sleeping with Yulia Kuznetsova and making dissident plans.’

I had not thought this brief extra-marital fling would come to light or be of any interest to anyone other than the two of us. Well, of course, there was Hannah. It might have been of interest to Hannah. But, Hannah had not found out and this was the main thing. Dissident plans, though. What are they talking about?

‘We want to know what you mean by, I think I have a way to get rid of Putin,‘ Miss Stover says. Meanwhile, she appears to be adjusting some controls on the electronic device.

‘Putin. ……. That’s our nickname for the head,’ I say. ‘We call him that because of his dictatorial style. …… Plus, his name is Puttman. Quite similar, I think you’ll agree. Julie started using the name as a joke and I just went along with it.’

‘A likely story.’

‘And, he does look a little like the Russian President.’

‘What about the trip to Moscow, you mention?’

‘This was just a fantasy we had. We both like Russian music, you see. Julie said that although her family came from the land of Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Stravinsky, she’d never been there. It was a spur of the moment comment. I wasn’t serious.’

‘That’s not how it sounds here. It says ‘We’ll have Putin at close range in Moscow. This time for real. Real, Mr Exe. You are the English teacher. Tell me what does real mean?’

‘You’ve got this all wrong.’

‘What about, I’ll fire the first shot if you like?

‘Sometimes Julie’s English is not so good. What she means is ……..’

‘What about your English, Mr Exe? We have here, Putin will be dead in the water.

‘It’s just an expression. It means …..’

‘I know what it means, Mr Exe.

‘And here you have, We could finish him off next month, we’ll have more ammunition by then,Miss Barbed Wire says. Perhaps you could try and explain that.’

‘I didn’t mean literally and anyway ….’

‘But, there’s more, Mr Exe. You are not going to get out of this one, so you may as well come clean.’

The English language, it seems, is littered with pitfalls, made up as it is by expressions with multiple meanings. Metaphors, puns and double-entendres are so much a part of our everyday parlance. You have to be really careful with your language, especially on the Internet where there is a record of everything, endlessly scrutinised by listening centres the world over. Clearly the Onion Router and the Dark Internet have been set up so you can evade this scrutiny. By not using TOR, Julie and I were remiss. It occurs to me that Julie might be undergoing a similarly vigorous interrogation somewhere.

Perhaps things would not have been so dire had the attempt on the Russian president’s life last week not come to light. A case of bad timing, really. I imagine this is what it must have been like all the time for Dmitri Shostakovich. Under Stalin, he must have constantly lived with the threat of the knock at 3 am and the subsequent interrogation in a remote location regarding something he knew nothing about. Attempts on Stalin’s life were weekly. But who would have expected the knock at 3 am here in the south west of England? Oh well! There’s probably no point in holding out. If I manage to survive the electric shocks and the kneecapping, they probably have plans to subject me to songs from the shows on the euphonium or the tuba. I might as well own up now, tell them it was me. I was plotting to kill Putin. In this post-truth climate, where black is white and right and wrong are interchangeable, my confession will seem no more unlikely than the other improbable things that are happening in the world.

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved

Rainy Day Women

rainydaywomen1

Rainy Day Women by Chris Green

How many roads must a man walk down, wonders Dylan Song? He feels he has been trudging around the streets of Dalmouth for ages, yet he still can’t find the café where he is due to meet Frankie Lee. He seems to be going round in circles and getting nowhere. Perhaps he should not have left the car in the car park, then he would have been able to drive around slowly, keeping an eye out for the place. There seem to be a few streets without double yellow lines and at this time of year, plenty of spaces, so he could have easily nipped in once he had found the place. Or better still, he should have bought a map. To add to this, there is next to no wi-fi coverage here in Dalmouth. Why does he always imagine that things will be simple when they never turn out to be? Due to the nature of his quest, he could not use his phone to call anyone even if he were able to get a signal because of the security implications. Who is the Frankie Lee he has to meet, he wonders and why on earth are they meeting in the small coastal town of Dalmouth anyway? For that matter, who are the people he is working for? So many questions.

The early morning February drizzle has now turned to rain. At least Dylan Song had the foresight to wear his Drizabone overcoat. This will protect him against hard rain, torrential rain even. But, he can’t keep walking around hoping for the best. Maybe he took the name of the road down wrong or something. The thin man with the pill box hat selling newspapers outside the Tesco Metro looks as if he might be familiar with the area.

‘Do you know where Grand Street is,’ he asks?

‘Sorry, guv. Not heard of it,’ says the thin man. ‘Where is it you are looking for?’

‘The Bean Me Up Café,’ Dylan says.

‘No. That’s a new one on me,’ says the thin man. ‘You sure you got the right name?’

Dylan shows him the piece of paper that it is written on, along with the name of the street.

‘Don’t know it, I’m afraid, guv, but if you want a good cup of tea you could try the Silver Saxophone Café on Fourth Street.’

Surely there is not a café called the Silver Saxophone, he thinks. Does he mean the Silver Kettle, perhaps? Anyway, he doesn’t want a cup of tea. He wants information from someone called Frankie Lee.

He asks two rain-drenched women waiting in the queue for the Number 2 bus and the man in the trench coat selling The Big Issue outside of Peacocks but none of them have heard of Grand Street or the Bean Me Up Café. Dylan thinks it would be a good idea to try the library. He can log on to a computer there to find what he is looking for. But, he finds that since the cuts, Dalmouth Public Library is only open on Tuesday morning and Friday afternoon, and it is Thursday. A pretty poor service, he thinks, for a town of 12,000 people. It suddenly occurs to him that he may have even got the name of the town wrong. This might explain why he cannot find The Bean Me Up Café. As he recalls, he did take down the details in a hurry. It would be an easy mistake to make. There are several rivers coming down from the moors, each meeting the sea at a town ending in mouth. Might it be Drainmouth he is looking for? On the Drain estuary, Drainmouth is just fifteen miles along the coast, just past the historic village of Touchwood.

Apart from being a favourite place for invasions in years gone by, Drainmouth is mainly famous for its annual Jazz Festival which takes place each February. Out of character perhaps for the otherwise sleepy town, the festival attracts some of the bigger names in international jazz. As Dylan drives along the coastal road he sees advertising for the festival everywhere, banners, posters and roadsigns. The local radio station is broadcasting live from the event. Today is the first day. The headliner is Belgian saxophonist, Toussaint Thibault and at the weekend, The Milton Chance Quintet are playing.

His worry now is that when he finds Bean Me Up, he is going to have missed the rendezvous. He was supposed to be meeting Frankie Lee at 11 and the midday news is now coming on the radio. As he drives across the road-bridge over the estuary into Drainmouth, his phone springs into life. This is the first time he has had a signal today. The area has the worst coverage in the whole country, the chatty traffic control officer told him when he picked up his car. One after another, a dozen or so messages ping. He decides these can wait. He is still looking out for Grand Street, when a call comes in. It is not a number from his phone contacts but he takes the call.

‘Jones here,’ says the voice. He cannot recall having heard Mr Jones’ voice before, yet somehow it is familiar. It sounds muted, as if it is coming from far away. But at the same time, it seems very close. ‘I’ve just had Lee on the phone. I’ll overlook the breach in security for now but where in God’s name were you?’

‘Mix up with the towns,’ says Dylan Song. ‘I am in Drainmouth now, on my way to the café.’

‘Well, Song! Let’s get down to it then. Time is of the essence. We know that there is a jazz festival taking place in Drainmouth but some other very strange things are also going on. Your mission is to find out what these are, how they might be connected and who or what is behind them. Lee has the details. She will assist in anyway she can.’

She? Did Mr Jones say, she? He had assumed that Frankie Lee was a man.

‘You’ve got that, then,’ says Mr Jones. ‘You’re on to it.’

‘Yes, I think so. Something is happening and you don’t know what it is,’ says Dylan Song. ‘Do you, Mr Jones?’

‘Exactly!’ says Mr Jones. ‘Now I’ve told Lee she has to wait at The Bean Me Up Café until you get there, so get your arse down there PDQ. And no more slip-ups.’

He parks the car and takes a look at the street plan in the car park. Grand Street is close by and fortunately, the rain has stopped. Although it is still early in the day, there is a bustle about the place as animated groups of colourfully dressed people file through Drainmouth’s higgledy-piggledy streets.

Dylan Song finds Frankie Lee at a table outside the Bean Me Up Café. Her table is under a striped awning and sheltered from the rain. She is drinking a posh coffee, a doppio ristretto or something. Although they have not met, he realises who Frankie is straight away. He was told to look out for a blonde and this woman is blonde but she also has that mystifying blend of charisma and aloofness that you find sometimes with people working in covert operations, that unexplainable curiosity and otherness that makes for a successful psi investigator. In a word, she seems like someone who can find things out. Dylan Song orders a banana pancake, sits himself down and introduces himself.

‘So, what’s it all about,’ he says?

‘You are familiar with jazz and its characteristics, I take it,’ Frankie Lee says.

‘I have a few Bill Evans CDs,’ he says. ‘And the odd tune by Miles Davis, but I wouldn’t say I was an expert.’

‘Jazz is, of course, a broad church but basically, it uses syncopation,’ Frankie continues. ‘Rhythmic stresses are placed in the music where they wouldn’t normally occur. Improvisation and deliberate distortions of pitch and timbre make the music unpredictable. Jerky and smooth at the same time if you like. This is kind of hard to get your head around but it looks as if jazz might be spilling over into real life here in Drainmouth.’

‘I couldn’t help but notice a little merriment and frolicking on the streets,’ Dylan says. Look at those guys over there. They are really going for it.’

‘That’s not quite what I mean,’ Frankie says.’According to the regulars at The Jack of Hearts, the tide didn’t come in at all last night.’

‘But it is a pub,’ Dylan says. ‘They probably had a lock-in to sing sea shanties or whatever it is

they do round here and had one or two too many.’

‘That’s as maybe,’ Frankie says. ‘But the landlord tells me the tide is coming in like a freight train this morning.’

‘He’s probably mad as a hatter.’

‘Maybe. But, there are other odd things going on. You may not have noticed it yet but all the clocks in the town have stopped. Now, this in itself might have a simple explanation if they hadn’t all stopped at different times. Take a look at your wristwatch.’

‘It has stopped. Five to twelve. That’s about the time I arrived here.’

‘Mine says 11:11.’

‘And look! The one in the café says 3 o’clock.’

’12:35 on that one. That’s about right, isn’t it?”

‘How long do you think we have?’

‘I don’t know. The traders at the market say it has been raining ……… time. Minutes and seconds falling from the skies, they are saying. Something is definitely wrong here.’

‘It is an odd place, isn’t it?’ says Dylan. ‘There are one or two mysteries for us to solve.’

‘But connected, wouldn’t you say?’

The barista brings Dylan Song’s banana pancake over. A familiar tune is playing inside the Bean Me Up Café. In a strange time signature. Dylan Song racks his brain but he can’t make out what it is and he feels it would be helpful to know.

‘You’d better be quick with that pancake,’ Frankie Lee says. ‘It’s time to go.’

As they leave to make their way through the town, they are sucked up into the carnival atmosphere. Jazz is playing everywhere. Dylan is overwhelmed by the confusion of tunes on offer. It is hard to separate one from another. He can even hear a Salvation Army band playing a Dixie tune. That’s the band, he thinks. Trombone, tuba, piano, bass, percussion. That’s the one.

‘Time’s up, Mr Jones,’ says a familiar voice. ‘Please, can you answer the question.’

The answer comes to him. ‘Rainy Day Women Numbers 12 and 35,’ he says. ‘The track on the album, Blonde on Blonde where Dylan uses a Salvation Army-style brass band is Rainy Day Women Numbers 12 and 35.’

‘Correct, Mr Jones,’ says the smiling host. ‘Congratulations! You have got all the questions right on your specialist subject, The Songs of Bob Dylan. You have won the South West Quizzer of the Year 2017.’

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved

NIGHT

night3

NIGHT by Chris Green

In the middle of the night, Hank hears voices. He is not sure if this is the chatter of revellers coming home from the clubs, blown in on the wind or if Mrs Oosterhuis has left her television on. Alongside this, there is the noise from the night workers laying the new cables for the listening centre and the beefy Alsatian from two doors down barking flat out at a visiting fox in the garden. As if this weren’t enough, the ghost of crooner, Randy VanWarmer is at it again. Hank puts his wax earplugs in to try to block the noise out but still, he can hear voices. He tosses and turns. He knows from experience when the insomnia demons visit like this, they do not easily go away. Even if the voices stop, the door is open and they come flooding in. He is at their mercy.

The voices don’t stop. Nor does Randy VanWarmer. Hank gradually becomes aware that he is not going to get back to sleep. Finally, he wakes Linda up. It annoys him sometimes that Linda can sleep through anything, even Mrs Oosterhuis’s television on loud at 3 a.m.

‘Can you hear anything,’ he asks?

‘You’re not going to go on about Randy what’s-his-name again, are you?’ says Linda, moving restlessly in the bed. ‘Look! I can’t hear a thing. Now, can we go back to sleep?

Are the voices in his head, perhaps, Hank wonders, this not for the first time? Nothing more than figments of his imagination?

Clint, a colleague of Hank’s at Desperados, the country and western club where he helps out behind the bar at weekends tells him about Rose Pink, a therapist that his wife, Betsy Lou has been seeing and suggests that Hank makes an appointment to see her. Betsy Lou has come on in leaps and bounds, he says and can now even go to the gun shop on her own.

Hank makes an appointment to see Rose Pink the following Thursday morning. He is a little apprehensive as he has not done anything like this before. He has always seen therapy as some kind of punishment for drug addicts and psychopaths. Not something for average Joes who live a normal life. Despite his reservations, he steels himself and goes along to the house in the suburbs where Rose Pink practices. At first, she does not appear to hear him over the Black Sabbath track that is playing, an odd choice, he feels, for a psychotherapist. In the break between tracks, he manages to get her attention. She comes to the door. She is wearing ripped jeans and a Breaking Bad t-shirt. Hank guesses that she is a few years younger than him, the right side of forty, perhaps.

She turns the music off and apologises for keeping him waiting. She sits him down in a comfortable chair and after a shaky start, Hank begins to tell her about his nocturnal demons.

‘Who is this …… Randy Van Wormer,’ Rose Pink asks?

‘Van Warmer. It’s Randy VanWarmer,’ says Hank. ‘He’s a singer-songwriter. From Colorado but grew up in Cornwall. He’s a bit of a one-hit wonder. He had his big hit back in 1979. It was called Just When I Needed You Most. When my father left her and ran off with a waitress from Hungry Jacks, my mother played it over and over for days. It’s a truly heart-wrenching song. Have you never heard it?’

‘No, I don’t believe I have,’ says Rose Pink.

‘You are lucky, then,’ says Hank. ‘The ultimate unwelcome earworm.’

‘I see.’ says Rose Pink.

‘Anyway, Randy VanWarmer died in January 2004 on the very same day that my mother died. I was seven years old. From that time I became aware of his ghost.

‘Come on now, Hank!’ says Rose Pink. ‘You don’t believe all that crap, do you? You’re a grown man. I mean, look at you. You must be six foot, even without your Stetson. Don’t you think it’s time to get a grip? Pull yourself together!’

This is not the type of response that Hank expects. It says on the Internet that empathy and understanding are the bedrock of psychotherapy. Rose Pink’s take on it seems to be an unnecessarily aggressive one.

‘Look, here’s an idea,’ she continues. ‘Before you go to bed, why don’t you play Guns N’ Roses, Paradise City a few times. That’s what I do if I feel stressed. Paradise City will see off any other potential earworm. Guaranteed! Now! About these other things that stop you sleeping.’

Although he is beginning to lose faith in Rose Pink, Hank gives her a brief account of the things that keep him awake at night, the night workers laying the cables for the spy base, the singsong of chatter of revellers coming home from the clubs, Mrs Oosterhuis’s television, the neighbour’s Alsatian.

‘Let’s look at these one at a time,’ Rose Pink says. ‘There’s not much you can do about the cabling, or perhaps the revellers, but the other issues are easily resolvable. You could threaten Mrs Oosterhuis. You could tell her that the next time you hear her TV you’ll come round and put a hammer through the screen. And the fellow with the Alsatian. Why don’t you just go round and punch his lights out?’

‘But once I get the idea that I’m not going to be able to sleep, it stays there,’ says Hank.

‘For Christ’s sake, man! The answer to that one is easy,’ says Rose Pink. ‘Don’t get the idea in the first place. Drink a tumbler of rum or something before you go to bed.’

Hank suddenly begins to realise why Clint’s wife, Betsy Lou is usually swaying from side to side when he sees her.

Despite this, Hank decides to give the rum cure a go. He buys a bottle of Captain Morgan from BargainBooze and while Question Time is on, pours himself a generous tumbler. Although Linda gets upset about him shouting ‘post-truth’ and ‘fake news’ at the politicians, the public, the pundits and even the presenter throughout the programme, the rum seems to do the business. By 11:30, he is sleeping like a baby. He did not even need Gun’s n’ Roses.

Hank wakes at 3 am. however. Against the background of the neighbour’s Alsatian dog barking madly at a fox in the garden, he can hear the raised voices of revellers coming back from the late-night clubs and Mrs Oosterhuis’s television turned up louder than ever. Perhaps she has been out and bought a new 56 inch model. As if this weren’t enough, he can hear Randy VanWarmer’s ghost belting out his erstwhile hit. And more. The elaborate sonic picture reverberates around his aching head. Next to him, Linda is sleeping the sleep of the just.

Hank gets up and makes himself a cup of tea but it is no good, the demons are with him now. No matter what he does, he knows he will continue to be at their mercy. If just one of them would stop. For instance, why can’t the fox just slink off somewhere and what are people still doing coming home from clubs at 5 am?

Although it is the busiest time of year at the surfboard repair centre, Hank tells them he is sick. He says it must be something he ate. He phones Rose Pink and she manages to find a lunchtime slot in her schedule, one that she says she sets aside for emergencies. She does not hear his knock at first but eventually, the Sonic Youth track comes to and end and he knocks again. This brings Rose Pink to the door in her black t-shirt and punk Goth leggings. He notices that her hair is a different colour to the previous day, more purple.

‘This had better be good,’ Rose Pink says, by way of a greeting.

‘Thankyou for seeing me at such short notice,’ says Hank. ‘It’s very good of you.’

‘Just get on with it, will you?’ says Rose Pink. ‘Did you do what I said?’

‘I did. I drank nearly half a bottle of rum but I woke in the night and there was what I can best describe as a new intensity to the disturbance,’ says Hank. ‘As if it’s all closing in. And getting louder. And going on for longer. Added to which, Randy VanWarmer seems to have also found a new song. It’s called I Never Got Over You.’

‘Sounds pretty miserable,’ says Rose Pink. ‘But you do seem to like this …… slit your wrist country and western stuff.’

‘I like real country and western,’ says Hank. George Jones, Merle Haggard …… ‘

‘Now you are splitting hairs,’ says Rose Pink. ‘It’s all indulgent, self-pitying drivel. You have to distance yourself from all of that crud. You need to rock a little.’

‘But …… ‘

‘You have to take the rough with the smooth. Tackle things, head on. Take control of the situation.’

‘But ….. ‘

‘Christ, Hank! What are you, a man or a mouse?’

‘I thought that therapists were supposed to show understanding and compassion.’

‘Oh that’s what you read, was it? Well, buster! That’s not therapy, that’s babysitting. Real therapy requires shock and awe tactics. Goddammit! How else is anyone ever going to address their shortcomings? How do you think anyone is ever going to change if someone constantly mollycoddles them and says there, there?’

Following the session, Hank decides it is time he did something about his sorry situation. He wants to be a man, not a mouse. He begins by phoning Clint.

‘I’m not going to be able to help out at Desperados any longer, Clint,’ he says.

‘That’s a shame,’ says Clint. ‘Why’s that, Hank?’

‘All the songs we play at the club are so depressing,’ says Hank.

‘What! Willie Nelson depressing? Surely not,’ says Clint.

Next, Hank goes around to see his next door neighbour but one.

‘About your dog,’ he says.

‘What dog?’ says the neighbour. ‘Bruiser died three months ago.’

‘Why have you brought that hammer round?’ says Mrs Oosterhuis on his next call.

‘I’ve come to give you an ultimatum about your television,’ says Hank.

‘I don’t have a television,’ says Mrs Oosterhuis. ‘In any case, a television wouldn’t be much use to me. I’m blind.’

Hank thinks he spots a flaw in her argument.

‘If you are blind, how did you know I had a hammer?’ he says.

‘I have very good hearing,’ says Mrs Oosterhuis. ‘I grew up in the veldt in the Transvaal.’

Following on from his bout of assertiveness, Hank finds that things are a little better that night. Just a trickle of revellers speaking in hushed tones make their way home from the clubs, Mrs Oosterhuis’s television is much fainter and the dog comes out with little more than a muted ruff when the fox comes in the garden. And Randy VW barely gets past the opening line of his hit. This is, of course, comforting but Hank wonders why he can still hear any of these noises at all. At breakfast, Linda suggests that he must face the possibility that he is delusional. Quite forcefully, he feels.

Hank debates whether he might need another session with Rose Pink to clarify exactly what is wrong. Her unconventional approach to therapy appears to have given him a nudge in the right direction but perhaps there are more holistic ways to address his …… what should he call it? Confusion? Anxiety? Phobia? Neurosis? Not that he thinks it is going to be a walk in the park but half the battle, as he understands it, is admitting that you have a psychological problem. He is pleased to see on Facebook that a group of neuroscientists have discovered a song that reduces anxiety by sixty five per cent. If he could perhaps replace Randy VanWarmer’s heartfelt lament with this, then he might be in business. He could play the tune, say five or six times during the day and then another five or six times before going to bed.

After several hours of listening to Weightlessness, Hank’s breathing is barely discernible. When Linda comes home late from the salon and finds him motionless in his chair with his eyes closed, she thinks he is dead. She turns off the ethereal music that is coming from the hi-fi system and calls the NHS out of hours service. She tells them that she does not know what has caused Hank’s catatonia but that lately, he has been showing signs of ……. confusion.

‘Don’t do anything until the doctor gets there,’ she is told.

To steady herself, she pours herself a glass of the rum that Hank brought home. She calls out his name repeatedly to try and rouse him but he remains immobile.

‘I’m sorry about this morning,’ she says. ‘You haven’t gone and done anything silly, have you? You haven’t taken anything?’

She goes over to him and puts her hand on his wrist. She thinks she can detect a faint pulse but not being medically trained, she can’t be sure. She might also be imagining it but thinks she senses a slight movement in his chest.

‘Hank!’ she says, gently shaking him. ‘Hank! Wake up, Hank!’

There is still no response. It is at this moment that the doorbell rings. Linda rushes to the door.

‘I’m Dr Spurlock,’ says the diminutive man in the overcoat and the large black bag standing there.

‘Thank God you’ve come,’ says Linda. ‘Come on in.’

‘Any changes with your husband, Mrs Hank?’ Dr Spurlock asks.

‘No. No changes.’

‘Shall we take a look?’

Dr Spurlock puts his bag down and begins to examine Hank. He feels for a pulse and then takes out his stethoscope.

‘Now, tell me,’ he says. ‘How long has your husband been like this?’

‘It is hard to say, Doctor,’ says Linda, pushing her tumbler of rum out of sight, behind a potted plant. ‘He was like it when I came home from work a little while ago.’

‘It looks as if he is …… floating, Mrs Hank. My guess is that Mr Hank is somewhere up there on the ceiling. Not usually a common condition but we’ve come across this a lot lately. Has he been listening to …… Weightlessness by any chance?’

‘He did have some strange music on when I got home, yes.’

‘That will probably be Weightlessness, Mrs Hank,’ laughs Dr Spurlock. ‘Now if you’ll just stand back, I’ll just give your husband a shot and that should do the trick. It will bring him round and in no time, he will be as right as rain.’

In the middle of the night, Hank hears voices. He is not sure if this is the chatter of people coming home from the night shift at the foundry, blown in on the wind or if Mrs Oosterhuis has left her television on. Alongside this, there is the thumping bass from the Reggae sound system at number 44 and the fierce Rottweiler from across the way howling defiantly at the moon. As if this weren’t enough, the ghost of crooner, Randy VanWarmer is at it again. Hank puts his wax earplugs in to try to block the noise out but still, he can hear voices. He tosses and turns. He knows from experience when the insomnia demons visit like this, they do not easily go away, even if the voices stop. But, the voices don’t stop. Nor does Randy VanWarmer. Hank gradually becomes aware that he is not going to sleep. There’s something inherently treacherous about night.

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved

The Rhubarb of Doubt

the-rhubarbofdoubt

The Rhubarb of Doubt by Chris Green

I have nothing scheduled for the day and am just catching up on my Minecraft when Tara Vain pushes open the door to my office. I have my feet up on the desk and a blunt burning down in the ashtray. I was not expecting anyone. Since the downturn, there has been a lamentable drop in business. No-one can afford to hire a private detective any more. Custody battles are no longer pursued. Cuckolded spouses are tolerating greater degrees of infidelity. People are more readily relinquishing their identity to computer fraudsters. Things are so bad I have had to let my assistant, Brody go and have had to auction my prized Mercury GM. If things become any worse I will need to consider downsizing my premises.

The sight of a stunning babe in a summer dress and designer jewellery standing there takes me by surprise but not so much as when she comes out with her request. Not perhaps her request per se. She wants her husband found and tailed. No problem there. This is the kind of thing that Mason Edge Associates do as a bread and butter activity. The bombshell comes when she says that her husband is in Devon in England. We, of course, are based in Los Angeles.

‘This might seem like a stupid question,’ I say, ‘But why not hire a private detective in England? In Devon, perhaps. Surely they must have them over there.’

‘Because, Mr Edge, I live in New York,’ she says.

‘New York?’ I say. ‘This is LA, lady. Or didn’t you notice Sunset Strip on the way in?’

‘I liked the name,’ she says. ‘Mason Edge Associates suggests integrity.’

‘That’s good to know, Mrs …..’

‘Vain,’ she says. Tara Vain.’

‘Well, Mrs Vain. We do have a certain reputation around these parts,’ I say. ‘But I was unaware that this stretched as far as New York.’

‘I have a house in Los Angeles too, Mr Edge,’ she says, sitting herself down and adjusting the hem of her dress – upwards. ‘I mean, who doesn’t? But I no longer live there.’

I slide a leaflet across the desk. Is this to pretend that I have not noticed her long legs or might it be to get a little closer? Perhaps, it is a little of both. Maybe the gesture is unintentional. I can’t say that I’ve completely taken to Tara Vain. Well, apart from the legs. Everything seems to be a bit of a game to her. Perhaps I am missing Belinda more than I thought, at least in the physical sense. Belinda moved out to pastures new at the onset of the downturn. She was not ready for hardship.

‘This will explain my rates,’ I say.

‘No need, Mr Edge,’ says Tara Vain. ‘I’ve been on your website. This gave me the low down on the numbers. I’m sure you will do a fine job. Now, let’s get on.’

‘And the expenses will of course need to include flights,’ I say. ‘I assume they do have airports in Devon, England.’

‘Very droll, Mr Edge,’ she says. ‘I’ve booked all your flights and hired a car for you. I’ve even found you a comfortable hotel in Exeter.

‘Exeter. Yes, I do believe I’ve heard of Exeter,’ I say. ‘In the south-west, isn’t it?’

‘It’s a little way from London, yes, but I’m sure you’ll manage to find your way around. And they even have electricity there these days.’

‘And you believe this is where your husband is?’

‘Somewhere around there, yes. I’m sure you will find him. Devon is not a big place.’

I have the Google map up on the computer. Devon is a huge space but I let it go. After all, she is paying for my time.

‘Tell me! Why do you want me to tail your husband, Mrs Vain?’ I say. ‘Marital indiscretion?’

‘In a manner of speaking, I suppose,’ she says. ‘But it’s more complicated than that.’

Supremely confident up until now, she seems suddenly uncomfortable. She pulls the hem of her dress back down and leans forward. ‘Look, Mr Edge. I’ll be honest with you. OK? Matty has run off with my lover, Yannis. They are having …… an affair.’

‘Ah! I see,’ I say, not flinching. Deviation in one’s proclivities is becoming more and more commonplace in matrimonial cases.

Tara Vain bluetooths me some photos of her husband along with some of her and Yannis together on a yacht somewhere. She says she is not able to give me much more information on what exactly they might be up to as she has lost touch. They have both changed their phones, she says and she suspects they are both using different names for their social media activities. She suggests that Matthew Vain and Yannis Milos or whatever they are now calling themselves might be embarking on a new business venture together in Devon and this would be a good place to begin my investigation.

‘What line of business is your husband in?’ I ask.

‘Matty’s a bit of a wheeler-dealer,’ she says. ‘He’s done a bit of everything. He doesn’t stay at anything long.’

‘What about Yannis?’ I ask.

‘Yannis’s an entrepreneur too,’ she says. ‘A rather dashing one. Yannis’s full of ……. surprises. That’s why I fell for him, I suppose.’

I am fortunate with the choice of hotel in Exeter as, on arrival, I discover a nearby one burned down the previous week. The oldest hotel in the country, apparently. We don’t have anything like that in LA. Everything is new. My room is quite small but the bed is comfortable and there are some paintings on the wall. Modern stuff, I suppose you might say. A bit like Dalí. There’s one called The Rhubarb of Doubt and another called The Damson of Hope. There are another two in the lobby, The Onion of Despair and The Marrow of Certainty. Lord knows what they mean but they are quite vibrant. Apparently, the manageress’s son is doing joint honours in Horticulture and Fine Art at Dartington College nearby.

I do not have a particular strategy for my investigation but I feel it would be a good idea to start with the gay clubs in Exeter to see if Matty and Yannis might be around. After all, the gay scene in Devon is unlikely to be an extensive one. It’s more of an urban phenomenon. I look in at a gay sauna place near the hotel. This is not at all like the establishments in you find in LA. No razzmatazz here. It is little more than a shed. There is no steam room, no jacuzzi. Just as well as I was not anxious to try these out. I have a quick look upstairs at the relaxation rooms and the so-called cruising area but clearly, Matty and Yannis are not there. I do not feel inclined to linger. In the evening, I do a whistle-stop tour of the two clubs in town that Google lists as gay haunts but again there is no sign.

After a similar foray into the unknown in downtown Torquay the following day, I begin to think that I might be barking up the wrong tree. Perhaps I am just showing my preconceptions of what gay life might entail. Belinda always used to maintain I was homophobic. They are the same as anyone else, she would say. She has one or two gay friends so I’m sure she’s right. There is no reason why they should be any different. There is certainly no reason why two men who have not hitherto come across as gay, at least to Tara Vain, would have habits that are different to two straight men. They might even play soccer or go fishing. They would not necessarily frequent gay haunts. I realise I’m not going to find them by pursuing this line of enquiry. It looks as if I might have to do some real detective work after all.

I wonder why Tara wants me to find her husband at all, especially as she intimated she does not want him back. My understanding is that under New York law, divorce is easy as finding a police officer in a doughnut shop. But, she is paying for the service so why should I complain?

Tara phones me from Chicago to find out how I am getting on.

‘Chicago!’ I say, ‘What are you doing in Chicago?’

She says that her hairdresser is in Chicago, so she has flown out to get her hair restyled. It is clear that while the rest of us are struggling, Tara has money to burn. I don’t pursue it. Instead, I give her an update on my progress, or lack of.

‘Matty and Yannis are probably looking to start some kind of business over there,’ she says. ‘In which case, they will be looking for premises. Why don’t you start looking around the commercial property agents?’

This was more or less what I had planned for the next day but I find it is often best to let the client feel they are in control so I agree with her and tell her I will report back. I take a careful look through the commercial property to let on Rightmove for a twenty mile radius of Exeter and come up with hundreds of selections. On the assumption that the pair would hardly come over to Devon to embark on a small venture, I filter the results by price, top down. This still leaves a sizeable number of choices. No-one seems to be taking up commercial property. The downturn seems to have hit them harder down here in the south-west. Business, it seems, is centred around London and the south-east. I decide to take a drive around the major towns and look at a few of the options. If I engage one or two of the agents in general chat, I might be able to find out something.

The Nissan Micra is smaller than I am used to, but everyone over here seems to drive around in these miniature cars. Something to do with the narrow roads, I suspect. It isn’t so much that they drive on the wrong side of the road over here as they are forced to drive down the middle. They do have something called the Devon Expressway but it’s more like a country lane. No need for my Pacific Coast Highway playlist on these roads. The other thing I miss is a dank-ass burrito. You can’t get one for love or money in these parts.

‘What line of business are you in?’ asks Myles Harman of Travis and Babb in Newton Abbot.

‘Import and Export,’ I tell him.

‘Aha,’ says Myles. ‘I guessed that it might be something like that. You’re not from round here are you?’

‘You noticed the accent, then,’ I say. ‘Look! I don’t suppose a colleague of mine from back home called in recently. A Matthew Vain. Perhaps with his er, partner, Yannis Milos.’

‘To be honest, Mr Edge, we don’t get a lot of Americans here in Devon.’

‘How many square feet of floorspace do you think you might need for your operation?’ asks Richie Lunsford of Creamer and Vest in their Dartmouth branch.

‘I was thinking we might need a large premises and perhaps one or two smaller units as well,’ I say, hoping that this might perhaps remind him of a recent enquiry by other Americans. It doesn’t. I broach the subject directly but he all but ignores it. There seems to be some kind of language barrier. I’ve noticed it once or twice since I’ve been here. It’s as if my accent masks the fact that I want a normal conversation. It’s as if I am speaking to them from behind a TV screen and they don’t know how to respond.

‘Are you OK with premises on an industrial estate or do you need to be in town?’ asks Ben Shaver of Sadler Betts in Paignton.

‘I’d need to consult with my clients, Matthew Vain and Yannis Milos,’ I say. ‘I don’t suppose they’ve called in themselves, only I know they’re in the area.’

‘No. I don’t recall the names,’ says Ben. ‘In fact, you are the first one to enquire about commercial property for some time. There’s been a bit of a slump in the market, recently.’

‘The south coast of Devon has a rich history of smuggling,’ says Kieran Wagstaff in the Salcombe branch of Sadler Betts. He clearly does not get a lot of opportunities to chat and sees himself as something of a local historian. As I am a visiting American, he sees it as his duty to educate me.

‘And there’s talk that on dark nights it still goes on today in these waters with all the remote coves and no coastguard patrols. Contraband, drugs and lately even people come into the country this way. When Sadler Betts took on those units you are looking at the particulars of, I did wonder if this was what they had once been used for or perhaps what they would be used for in the future.’

‘But you have had no enquiries,’ I say.

‘No I’m afraid not,’ he says. ‘Not even from a developer. And we’ve had them on our books for several months now. The market is a little weak at the moment.’

Kieran Wagstaff’s words set me thinking, though. What greater entrepreneurial opportunity for two American wheeler-dealers could there be in these parts than a bit of good honest smuggling? Granted, Matty and Yannis had not taken up any of the Sadler Betts units but they could well be based somewhere around here. I decide to concentrate my search on this particular stretch of coast.

YMCA is an odd name for a juice bar, I think to myself. A juice bar? A brightly-coloured juice bar surrounded by lush vegetation, screaming out its presence, here in the otherwise sleepy village of Wembury? Could this be it? Y.M.CA? Of course. Yannis and Matty from California, with the underlying tongue in cheek gay connotations? It has to be. Perhaps it is the start of a chain of juice bars they are setting up all around the south coast. And beyond. I peer inside. There, amongst the palms and yuccas that decorate the place, are several young people sitting at tables, sipping smoothies. I can just make out the two figures behind the counter. These match the pictures I have of Matty and Yannis.

I call Tara Vain, half expecting she will be in Miami buying a crystal chandelier or in Denver buying chocolate confections, or something. How would she like me to proceed? But, her cell is switched off. I discover I don’t have another number for her.

I take another look inside YMCA, my eyes right up to the glass. This could easily be a tourist stop-off in L.A. The walls are bedecked with pictures of Malibu and Venice beaches, the Hollywood Sign, The Beach Boys, orange groves and all things California. It looks as is if Matty and Yannis might be trying to establish a brand. This is probably how Burger King, KFC, Subway, Papa John’s all got started. Begin with a small outlet somewhere by the coast where rents are cheaper than in the capital and slowly but surely expand the franchise worldwide.

I’m thinking, it won’t do any harm to go in and have a healthy smoothie, avocado and strawberry or kiwi and almond, or perhaps a purple power smoothie with mixed berries and vanilla extract. I step inside. West Coast singer-songwriter Jonathan Wilson’s Gentle Spirit is playing softly. I quietly sit myself down at a table near the window. To my surprise, Matty and Yannis come straight over to greet me. In his striped apron, Matty looks taller than I imagined and Yannis seems to have filled out a little since the photos of him were taken.

‘Ha! A fellow American,’ says Matty, even before I have spoken. How can he tell, I wonder? Is it the way I carry myself, the way I dress, my haircut?

‘From downtown L.A.’ says Yannis. How does he know? Has he seen me around the city, perhaps?

‘The game’s up, dude,’ Matty continues. ‘It’s over. We know Tara sent you.’

‘You were quicker than the last guy,’ says Yannis, smiling. ‘The last one took nearly two weeks.’

‘What! ………. ‘ I say, trying to take aboard what he is saying. ‘Why?’

‘I agree,’ says Matty. ‘You’d think she could find something more worthwhile to spend her inheritance on, wouldn’t you?’

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved