Another Time and Place

anothertimeandplace

Another Time and Place by Chris Green

I’ve woken up wondering just how far is it from Phoenix to Albuquerque and where did Glen Campbell set out from in the first place? Las Vegas? Los Angeles? San Diego? It’s 3 am. Where has this rogue train of thought come from? I’m not even particularly fond of the song, although I think I used to have an Isaac Hayes version on an album. Did I inadvertently hear By the Time I Get to Phoenix playing on a TV programme last night perhaps or on an advert? Whatever, for some bizarre reason my curiosity is raised and I can’t seem to get back to sleep.

Before I know it, I’m downstairs checking out the lyrics sites on the laptop and have the world atlas out to look at the spatial relationship between the cities described in the song. And Google maps. Google tells me that by the most direct route, it is 419 miles from Phoenix to Albuquerque. Either Glen’s wife must start work very late or Glen has his foot to the floor to cover this distance in the hours between her getting up and her going to work. Even so, surely they must have speed limits out west. And what about the traffic on the interstate? I’m wide awake now and I check out how far it is from Albuquerque to Oklahoma, Glen’s next point of reference. It is an astonishing 543 miles yet Glen manages to cover this by the time his wife goes to bed. He must have a Ferrari or something or access to some stonking amphetamines.

Is Oklahoma his final destination? Surely not. What would be the attraction of Oklahoma? It must be somewhere further on that he is headed. Atlanta maybe or possibly Miami. If this is so, why on earth did he not take a plane?

It might be that he had to transport all his possessions,’ Saga says, suddenly appearing beside me. ‘And to do so by air freight would be prohibitively expensive. And, who knows, perhaps he didn’t even leave her in the end.’

How did you know what I was thinking?’ I say.

I always know what you are thinking,’ Saga says. ‘I realised that you’d got out of bed and gone downstairs and thought, something’s come out of nowhere and sparked his interest and he’s gone off on one and then it was a simple matter of tuning in to your thoughts.’

Most people would be surprised, shocked even at Saga’s powers. But I am not. I’m used to it. It is difficult to keep a secret from her.

And in any case, it would not be Glen that was travelling, would it?’ she continues. ‘It would be Jimmy Webb, the fellow that wrote the song.’

Indeed,’ I say. ‘He wrote MacArthur Park too, didn’t he and Wichita Lineman? It takes a certain type of focus, don’t you think, to write a song about a day in the life of a telephone repairman?’

This somehow leads the conversation on to aardvarks and bees. From there, we move on to cacti and canoes. Saga suggests we ought to go back to bed.

We both have work in the morning,’ she says.

She is out like a light but I can’t get back to sleep. Although it would seem to be unlikely, I get the feeling that there is a crocodile in the room. A scaly yellow one, lurking in the shadows, just out of sight. Or is it a dragon?

Night terrors are the worst. Until you’ve experienced them, you don’t know how real they can be. What I need now is an extinguisher to erase the dragon. Why is the alphabet written in its particular order, I wonder? A,B,C,D,E in every language? I tell myself that it’s unrealistic to expect to have an answer to every question. For instance, who let the dogs out? What becomes of the broken hearted? Why do fools fall in love? The thought calms me a little and eventually, the dragon is gone and I am able to get to sleep.

But I wake at dawn wondering where Gene Pitney was when something happened to him. Where would he be that was only twenty four hours from Tulsa? As Gene was driving, it would obviously have to be somewhere on the American continent where he stopped at the small hotel. I open up Google maps again to find out where exactly Tulsa is. It’s in Oklahoma. Quite centrally placed on the North American continent. I begin to make some rough calculations. If he drove through the night without breaks at an average of fifty miles per hour, he might have been in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Las Vegas, or Salt Lake City (although the small hotel he mentions doesn’t sound very much like Las Vegas and dancing would probably not be permitted Salt Lake City restaurants). If he had only been forty eight hours from Tulsa, Gene could have been doing the dirty on his dearest in some exotic casa de huéspedes in South America. This would have opened out the possibilities for the song a bit.

Fortunately, Saga emerges from the shower and realises where I’ve got to with my research. Saga is like Google but without the Internet. She seems to know everything. She tells me that it was Hal David who wrote the lyrics to Twenty Four Hours From Tulsa and that Hal lived in New York. This then is probably where the guy in the song is driving from. This suggests the place he stops off at to rest for the night that is only twenty four hours from Tulsa would most probably be somewhere in Pennsylvania. She thinks it’s likely to be before you get to Pittsburgh.

One of those places with an English sounding name, perhaps’ she says to humour me. ‘How about Somerset or Bedford? They are both in Pennsylvania.’

I am from Buckingham in the heart of England. Saga is from …… well, far away, it seems. I’ve never been able to find her birthplace on the map. I sometimes think she’s from another time and place. Somewhere way out west. Yet at the same time, east of the sun.

So now you can get off for work without worrying any more about it,’ she says.

We have a quick chat about foxtrots, golf and hotels and I’m off. It’s a twenty minute drive to the Buckinghamshire Folk Museum. But, just as I get onto the A421, I find to my consternation that Hotel California comes on the radio. What in God’s name is happening there? I decide to pull over and sit in the lay-by to figure it out.

The first verse is relatively straightforward. Don Henley, the Eagles’ singer is driving into California from the desert, Arizona or Nevada perhaps or even Mexico. A cool wind is blowing. Perhaps Jackson Browne is playing on FM radio or maybe Crosby, Stills and Nash. I imagine Don is driving a convertible with the top down. He tells us he can smell marijuana. It is not clear whether this is blown in on the breeze or whether he or perhaps even a friend is smoking weed in the car. Whichever, he has probably driven hundreds of miles already that day and is tired after his long stretch at the wheel. When he sees a shimmering light in the distance, he decides it’s time to stop and take a break. He discovers the light is coming from a hotel. He checks himself in but right away alarm bells begin to ring. This is a hotel like no other. Has he inadvertently entered The Twilight Zone, he wonders? He is entertained by a sorceress who through a series of arcane rituals, initiates him into her world of decadence and debauchery. Her mind is Tiffany-twisted, for Heaven’s sake and she has the Mercedes bends. Don is not ready for this. Although he wants to, he learns that through some kind of Kafkaesque trickery he can never escape.

Why? I need to ring Saga. She will have an explanation.

Let me guess,’ she says, with an air of exasperation. ‘Hotel California. You’re stuck on the last verse.’

I skip the how did you know bit. She knows. Of course, she knows. I get the feeling that people from where she comes from always know.

Yes, I am stuck,’ I say. ‘Prisoners of our own device, the siren is saying. And the mad bit about the master’s chambers and not being able to kill the beast. What do you think is happening?’

Some say that the final verse is about drug addiction,’ Saga says. ‘And this is why you can check out any time but never leave. But that’s too simplistic. The whole song is a metaphor for the dark underbelly of the American Dream. The Hotel California represents the promise of the fame and fortune that brought outsiders to California in the seventies and highlights the pitfalls. California, in turn, is a microcosm for the excesses of late-capitalism. You could say it all started with the gold-rush and this set the scene for everything that was to follow.’

I think I get it,’ I say. ’California draws people in like a drug. What Don is saying is that once there, you’ll become a prisoner of the hedonistic lifestyle. The downside of excess is that you can’t escape.’

Something like that,’ Saga says.

It’s India, Juliet and kilo, next, isn’t it?’ I say.

Look! I’m going to be a little busy today,’ Saga says. ‘Perhaps we could move straight on to zebras.’

It could be a short conversation. I don’t know anything about zebras. I get an uneasy feeling that Saga might soon be going to return to that other time and place.

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

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Hunky Dory

hunkydory

Hunky Dory by Chris Green

Writers of self-help books are fond of telling you that life always offers you a second chance, it is called tomorrow. This is all very well. It’s something you can look forward to. But, what if you could have your second chance yesterday? This would mean that you still had the opportunity to avoid your untimely indiscretion, your unexpected misfortune, your sudden fall from grace. You might be inclined to think that such a proposition falls into the realms of science fiction. Time travel, you might say, is impossible. Ed West certainly thought so. This is until he found himself in a situation he was not able to explain. Déjà vu perhaps but here he was about to make the same mistake he had made previously, namely putting all his money on Jumping Jack Flash, a horse in the Grand National. A horse, destined to fall at the first fence.

This time around, despite Jumping Jack Flash being the firm favourite, Ed has second thoughts about the horse’s chances. Maybe he sees it limping a little as it makes its way down to the start. Perhaps something at the back of his mind tells him that the money might be better spent. He could pay back the money he owes to Frank Fargo and still buy a decent second-hand AppleMac. He could perhaps spend a week at Ron and Anne’s place in the Algarve. He could even take the kids. Did he inadvertently peek at a pop-psych article in the out-patients waiting room and realise that his gambling was causing problems and was something that needed to be addressed? Was there perhaps a write-up about impulsiveness in The Daily Lark? Whatever the reason for his decision, Ed puts the two and a half grand he is about to pass through the grill at BetterBet back into his jacket pocket and walks out of the shop.

Suzy Kew may have glanced at the odd self-help book in the hairdressers at one of her monthly Tuesday afternoon appointments but on the whole, she does not go for this sort of thing. Why would she need to? Friends often remark on her resilience, her unshakable air of self-confidence. She may have made the occasional bad decision. Everyone can be impulsive at times but if you make a mistake you have to live with the consequences of that mistake. This is an important lesson that it is a good idea to come to terms with early on in life. Whining about things never gets you anywhere.

Suzy has never to her recollection read a sci-fi novel. She may have gone to see a Star Trek film at the multiplex years ago with Toby or Tony or whatever he was called. But, if she did, she cannot remember much about it. The suggestion that she or anyone else might be able to go back in time is something she would instantly dismiss as nonsense. There is only one reality, she would say. There is a TV world of course but the things that happen in screened dramas have little to do with everyday reality.

Yet, Suzy finds herself driving the same Honda Jazz she wrote off the day before yesterday when she answered her phone while slowing down at the temporary traffic lights on Serendipity Street. She is in the same stretch of road behind the same truck that she ran into. The odometer reads 11111. She remembers noticing this shortly before the prang and the clock display says 11:11. The same as before. Once again, her phone rings. Although she is completely bewildered to find herself in the same situation, driving the car that by rights should be on its way to the breakers’ yard, she has the common sense this time around not to take the call. Instead, she parks the car a little way along the street. Conveniently, a space has just become vacant outside BetterBet.

She gets out and takes out her phone, just at the moment that Ed West, emerging from the bookies is taking out his. They collide.

‘Sorry,’ Ed says. ‘I wasn’t looking where I was going.’

‘My fault,’ Suzy says. ‘I had my head in my phone trying to find out who called me. Would you believe it? It was a wrong number, anyway.’

The same number as just before the accident, she can’t help but notice. The caller then had spoken in a language she did not understand.

‘You look a little flustered,’ Ed says. ‘Perhaps I might buy you a coffee or something in that café to settle you down’

‘That’s kind of you,’ Suzy says. ‘A camomile tea would be nice.’

Ed is not sure what camomile tea is but it sounds calming. Although he doesn’t like to publicly admit it, life can be a little too cut-throat at times. Perhaps Suzy will introduce him to a gentler world. Suzy meanwhile is thinking the same. She always puts a brave face on but secretly, the adversity of life often gets to her.

A notice inside the café tells them it has waitress service so they take a table by the window. A Bad Suns track is playing. Disappear Here.

‘I like this one,’ Ed says.

‘Bad Suns are my favourite band,’ Suzy says. ‘I went to see them last month.’

Disappear Here is followed by Catfish and the Bottlemen’s Fallout. They both like this one too. Ed tells Suzy, he saw them at Community Festival last summer.

‘Amazing! What about that? I was there too,’ Suzy says.

REM’s It’s the End of the World as We Know It meets with their approval too. They have both liked REM since their seminal album, Out of Time.

As they wait for someone to come and take their order, Ed and Suzy begin to discover more common ground. They were born in the same year, 1980. Uncannily, they were born on the same day too, February 29th. Both have recently become divorced from partners called Alex, even being represented by the same solicitor, Justin Case of Gallagher, Dreamer and Shed. Both have 2.4 children and own dogs called Bailey. Both follow the band, Franz Ferdinand and are fans of Fargo. Could it be a match, made in Heaven? Or might there already be a downturn in their fortunes? After all, things that seem too good to be true often are too good to be true.

Although the café is nearly empty, no-one comes over to take their order. An elderly couple in matching grey zip-up jackets and a jute shopping bag come in and sit at the next table and immediately a slim young waitress in a black uniform is at their table to attend to them. A tall man with a briefcase and a smart-looking laptop comes in and places himself at a table by the specials board. He too gets prompt attention. His fancy coffee with the chocolate sprinkled on top is in front of him before he’s had a chance to check his emails. Dr Petrovic comes through the door and for a moment looks as if he is going to come over. It can’t be him, Ed thinks. My little problem was all a long time ago. It isn’t him. It is a courier dropping off a parcel.

It is nearly lunchtime and a trickle of new customers come in and have the waitresses scurrying about. Meanwhile, no-one so much as glances in Ed and Suzy’s direction. Why are these people being served before them, they wonder? Why are they being ignored? Is it all part of an elaborate conspiracy? Or could it be something more forbidding? A fresh problem to frustrate their happenstance? They are able to see and hear each other and everyone else around them as you would expect but it appears that for some reason others are not able to see or hear them. They look around desperately in the hope that something will occur to suddenly solve the riddle. Nothing does.

Possible explanations for the anomaly, it seems, might depend on whether you get your science lowdown from Stephen Hawking or from Black Mirror. Perhaps it is a question of quantum mechanics. Perhaps the space-time continuum has been breached. Perhaps they have been thrown into another dimension. Something to do with wavelengths or superstrings. Or, perhaps there is a quirkier explanation. Something out of Kurt Vonnegut or J.G. Ballard, one might feel inclined to suggest. With their reality falling apart and nothing firm to hang on to, Ed and Suzy feel a sense of panic.

‘Someone called me on my phone just now, didn’t they?’ Suzy says. This means……’

‘You said it was a wrong number,’ Ed says.

‘That does not matter,’ Suzy says. ‘It’s important not to lose focus. It shows there must still be a connection with ….. what would you call it? The real world?’

Normality, you mean,’ Ed says.

On the other hand, the caller on that number did sound like he was from another place,’ Suzy says.

Like the queer voice that told me not to bet on that horse, Ed is thinking.

Well Suzy,’ he says, taking out his phone. ‘We have to try something. I’ll give my friend, Pete Free a ring.’

It is not Pete that answers. Pete is from Chudleigh. He has a broad Devon accent. This is not a Devon accent by any stretch of the imagination. Ed does not speak a lot of Russian but years ago he had some Russian neighbours and picked up the odd swear word. From this, he recognises that the guttural voice on the other end is not pleased at being disturbed.

Suzy phones her friend, Kirsty and is greeted by an unexpected voicemail message. This too sounds like it might be a Slavic tongue. They get responses in Russian too from Vince, from Carol and even from Gallagher, Dreamer and Shed.

Russia’s cyber-warfare activities are well documented. There is widespread speculation that Russian signals intelligence have targetted vulnerable websites to influence democratic elections, breached sophisticated banking security systems and enabled fraudulent transactions across the globe. They have also probably interfered with personal information on social media sites for as yet undiscovered purposes. We might find out what these are one day or we might not. But are there any limits to how far these attacks can infiltrate our lives? According to the papers, the Russians are to blame for most things these days, the Brexit vote, the hike in gas prices, the bugs on the new iPhone, the recent snowstorms and for Arsenal slipping down the table. Could their influence in cyberspace possibly spill over into our everyday reality?

I know that they can hack into Facebook accounts and emails and all that,’ Suzy says. ‘But surely they can’t manipulate our day to day experiences like this.’

They’ve been watching us through the cameras in our devices for years,’ Ed says. ‘Who knows what is possible?’

I guess that’s so,’ Suzy says. ‘Things are moving on all the time.’

I don’t know if you’ve noticed but the people around us are speaking Russian too,’ Ed says. ‘I’ve only just noticed it.’

You’re right. And look! The logo on the waitress’s uniform says Chekhov’s,’ Suzy says. ‘I’m sure that’s different from when we arrived. Wasn’t the café called Bean Me Up or something like that?’

Things seem to be changing before our eyes,’ Ed says.

Let’s get out of here,’ Suzy says.

Back on the street, Ed and Suzy find things have changed dramatically. BetterBet is now a bicycle repair shop. Next door to it is a waxworks museum. Tesco Metro is now a funeral parlour. Suzy’s car has vanished. There are now no cars on the street. It is unrecognisable. And why are all those soldiers here? What is it they are firing at? What has happened to bring about this madness? Things have spiralled out of control. The situation, they realise, is now grave. How can there be any way back from here? Ed and Suzy worry about what might now happen to the 4.8 children and the Baileys. Luckily, up ahead, they spot the illuminated sign of a new self-help bookshop. It is called Hunky Dory. It has a large double shopfront. It looks as though it might have a good selection.

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

Blackjack

blackjack

Blackjack by Chris Green

I open the front door to discover a large package on the doorstep. I did not hear anyone deliver it while I was getting ready to for work, or see anyone from the window. It’s huge. What can it be? I try to think of something I might have ordered. Something three feet by two that might warrant zebra-patterned wrapping. I can think of nothing I am expecting except a Keigo Higashino novel from Amazon and this would take up no room at all. More likely, it is something Promise has ordered. Promise is having a lie-in. It is her day off.

But, if for whatever reason we did not hear the courier, why has the package been left there in full view of the street and not taken back to the depot or deposited with a neighbour? I take a look at the address label. It is addressed to Darius Spayne. Him again. The Spaynes, Darius and Rosalind apparently, lived at our address previously, but not recently. The Spurlocks have lived here since then. And the Wilburys. The Spaynes must have moved out five years ago. We never found out who exactly they were or what their forwarding address was. Promise and I are occasionally reminded of their existence by a phone call asking for one or other of them. We have often thought that this in itself is strange as twice since we have been here we have changed our phone number.

The parcel has no return address nor does it appear to have a postmark. This suggests it must have been delivered by hand early this morning. Or possibly during the night. But why? As I continue to examine it, Stanislav Ruby from the black and white gabled house on the corner walks by carrying a fox. Perhaps it’s his dog but it looks like a fox. I call out to him and ask if he saw anyone arriving with the package. He mutters something about blackjack which I do not catch because at that moment my phone rings. I am instructed I need to get into work PDQ to handle an emergency. As I take the package inside, I can’t help but notice it is remarkably light. I shout upstairs to Promise that I have to dash and I am leaving it with her. I assume that she will deal with it but when I return home from a hard day at the research establishment, the package is still where I left it. What has Promise been doing all day?

‘I didn’t know what you wanted to do with it,’ she says.

‘Well, we may as well open it, don’t you think?’ I say.

‘Why is it so light?’

‘Let’s find out.’

Inside the large box is a smaller box, this wrapped in jungle-themed paper and inside of that one is another, this one in Mondrian print paper. We exchange looks of perplexity. What kind of bizarre pantomime is it that the Spaynes are involved in? Like a set of Russian dolls, each box reveals a smaller box, Sergeant Pepper album cover wrapping, Statue of Liberty paper wrapping, Psalm 23 wrapping, etc. until finally, ten minutes later, we arrive at the smallest one, a plain black box three inches by two. The box is empty. I shake it vigorously to make sure but nothing comes out. This surely is an elaborate prank but why? Who could possibly gain from it?

Empty the box may have been but as the evening wears on, inside of me the feeling grows that by opening it, a sinister force has somehow been unleashed. I know its irrational but I can’t rid myself of the unsettling sensation that the air around me has changed. Pins and needles creep up my spine. It feels as if there’s something other just out of sight. A demon gnawing at my consciousness. A slow train with an unmentionable cargo coming around the bend. I mention it to Promise and ask her if she feels anything. Has she noticed anything strange since …… since ….. the box? She denies that she has but I can sense that she feels that something is out of kilter too. She seems unable to concentrate on the plot of the Nordic noir we are watching on Netflix. Several times she has to ask me who one of the regular characters is. She doesn’t seem to realise that the private detective has arranged the abduction of the protagonist’s wife so he will need his services to find her.

The air of menace does not go away. Consecutive disturbing dreams keep me on edge through the night. Shadow dances of the kind you can never quite remember but nevertheless leave you terrified. Dark landscapes in which you are alone and lost. Vehicles out of control. Chilling reminders that something is wrong. Again and again, I wake in a cold sweat.

I finally get up at seven thirty. Promise seems to have already left the house. Sometimes she has to start work early. As you can imagine, hours can be unpredictable in the dizzy world of doily design. She probably realised I was having a restless night and didn’t want to wake me. While I am waiting for the kettle to boil, I take a look outside the front door. To my alarm, there is another package on the doorstep, albeit this time a smaller one. This one is matt black. It too is addressed to Darius Spayne. I go to pick it up but it is so heavy I cannot lift it. Although it can’t be more than six inches by four, it refuses to budge. Even if the contents were solid lead or even tungsten, it should not be so heavy. Rhonda Valée from number 27 saunters by trilling an aria from La Boheme. I ask if she noticed a courier struggling up the path to deliver my new parcel. She calls back something but I think it is in Welsh. Chick Strangler jogs past and I mention it to him. Annex J, he says without stopping. I’ve no idea what he’s talking about but then Chick has been a bit strange since his accident.

As I can do little about the black box at the moment, I decide to go to work and try to put it all from my mind. Things will work out. They always do. The Little Book of Mindfulness that Promise keeps by the side of the bed says it’s a question of positive thinking. I select Captain Beefheart’s Greatest Hits on my device and set off in the Seat. Crippling headaches plague me through the day but I somehow manage to weather the storm and arrive home in one piece at the usual time. The matt black parcel is still on the step and Promise is not yet home. I sometimes forget how demanding the cut-throat world of doily design can be. The competition these days is intense. It’s no longer a question of selecting a symmetrical pattern and a suitable substrate. But, when Promise hasn’t returned home by six thirty and her phone is switched off, I’m thinking there must have been an unforeseen glitch at the studio.

The phone call asking to speak to Mr Spayne comes as a surprise, more so as it is on my mobile. Previous calls for the Spaynes have all been on the landline.

”I’m sorry. This is not Mr Spayne’s number,’ I say.

‘Darius Spayne,’ the caller says, undeterred.

‘May I ask who is speaking?’ I say. I find it is always best to be polite at first. This offers options as to which way you wish the conversation can go. What I’m looking for from this particular caller, of course, is information about the Spaynes and hopefully the rogue deliveries. In this case, however, there are no options. The caller hangs up. They do not leave their number.

To distract myself while I am waiting for Promise, I do a little research on the internet. Spayne is a surprisingly common name. There are hundreds of them on the electoral register and although there are a few Darcys, Darrels and Darrens, there appears to be no-one named Darius Spayne. Nor is there a Rosalind Spayne. The pair do not appear to exist. So, what is going on?

I probably should have realised that the police don’t consider a person missing until they have been gone for seventy two hours. They will not even take details until then. Nor, Sergeant Ramsbottom tells me with an unwarranted air of impatience, do they deal with nuisance phone calls. It is with some reluctance that I decide to hire the services of Max Tooting, Private Investigator. But I feel that time is of the essence and Max comes recommended, not least by his flyer that comes through the door in the free paper which highlights Max’s astonishing success rate. I make an appointment to see him the following morning.

Although there is a black Jaguar XJ parked outside, I find Max Tooting’s offices are situated above a surgical appliance store. A little less salubrious than the flyer led me to believe. Tooting is a tall man, probably in his mid-fifties. He is dressed in a plaid suit that looks like it was made for a smaller man, perhaps a younger man. Unusual too, I can’t help thinking, to find a P.I. with blue hair. Max greets me warmly and shows me into a small room shielded from the outside world by a black roller blind. The room is lit by a bare light bulb hanging from the ceiling. Hip-hop music is playing. Loudly. On a chunky wooden desk in front of us are a miscellany of desktop computers connected by a Spaghetti Junction of wires to a phalanx of peripherals. Max apologises for the mess and mentions something about this being a temporary location while he waits for his new premises to be decorated.

He sits me down amongst the clutter and clears a seat opposite. A lop-eared house rabbit nuzzles against his leg. He seems undeterred. I idly wonder what might happen if bunny chews through some of the cables.

Max turns the Jay-Z track down and begins to run through his fee structure. A little more expensive than the flyer led me to understand. He swallows a couple of Ibuprofen caps with a glass of water. At least, I think it’s water.

‘Bad back,’ he explains, straightening his posture. ‘Operation Desert Storm.’

Presumably, this was before he decided on the blue hair. I give him a brief low-down on my two issues. On the basis that it might be easier to solve, I then go into greater detail on the Darius Spayne phone calls and the bizarre deliveries.

‘H’mmm. Darius Spayne, you say,’ he says.

‘That’s S P A Y N E,’ I say.

‘Give me a moment,’ he says. ‘Let me just try something.’

He reaches over to one of the computers, keys in a search and in no time at all he has images of lots of different Darius Spaynes on the screen. Although his hardware looks to be old school, it clearly packs a punch.

‘How did you manage that?’ I say. ‘Google came up with nothing.’

‘This is what I do,’ he says. ‘I’m an investigator, remember. But, before we get carried away, there are fourteen of them and we don’t know which one it might be. It would be easier if there were just one.’

I suggest we leave this for now and move on. I elaborate on the heavy parcel on the doorstep.

‘Perhaps I should take a look,’ Max says. ‘Things are not always what they seem.’

I agree he should take a look, not least because it would be good to get some fresh air. It’s beginning to feel a little close in here.

‘We’ll go in your car, shall we?’ Max says.

‘OK,’ I say. ‘I’m parked around the corner in the High Street.’ Perhaps it is not his black Jaguar ouside after all.

As we move off, Max takes a small dispenser compact out of his pocket and pops two purple pills. ‘Malaria,’ he explains. ‘East Africa.’

We arrive at the house and see the ominous black package is still there. I tell him how I imagine it must contain some kind of heavy metal, possibly even a dangerous one. One of those with a long name you can never remember when you are watching quiz shows. Yet, without flinching, Max is able to lift the black box. He hands it to me. Instinctively I flinch as he does so. I am expecting it to floor me but I find it is indeed light as a feather. I am completely unable to explain this turnaround. What magic has Mad Max managed to perform right here under my nose? I feel embarrassed. I put the parcel down and it blows down the street on the breeze.

Max repeats his maxim, ‘things are not always what they seem. ……. Now, tell me about this other matter.’

As I tell him about Promise not returning home from Dolly’s Doilies, he plays distractedly with his phone. I am beginning to wonder if he is actually listening to me when the device lights up and starts vibrating loudly.

‘Promise is nearby,’ he says. He hands me the phone. On the screen, I see a selection of pictures of Promise captured in a number of different locations, none of which I recognise. Each of the images has a date and time. The latest seems to be a mere two hours ago.

‘What’s happening?’ I say. ‘How did you get these?’

‘I’m an investigator, remember’ he says. ‘I’m paid to uncover things.’

‘But how…….?’

‘If I told people my trade secrets, I would be out of business,’ he says. ‘No-one would come to me.’

‘So what now?’ I say. ‘Where is Promise now?’

‘So I take it you want me to stay on the case,’ Max says, reminding me once more of his fee structure.

It suddenly occurs to me that there might have been a black Jaguar in the most if not all of the pictures of Promise. Maybe the same black Jaguar that was parked outside Max’s office. Also, perhaps earlier Stanislav Ruby had not said blackjack but black Jag. And Chick Strangler had not said Annex J but an XJ.

I can’t remember exactly who it was that said it but I remember someone important insisting that there is only one reality.

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

SNAKE IN THE GLASS

­snakeinthegrass

­SNAKE IN THE GLASS by Chris Green

Later

No one sees him arrive. No-one spots the silver Solstice slide silently through the streets on its way to the big house with the crow-stepped gables on Obsidian Street. It is night-time in the sleepy town. Seeing the sleek Pontiac Solstice outside the house the following morning, townsfolk might be likely to put its presence down to the visit of a wealthy race-goer. There are plenty of these around at this time of year, the racecourse being less than ten miles away. Yet, if truth be told, the locals ought really to see the car’s arrival as portentous. American muscle cars are not that common in these parts, even on race days. BMWs and Audis, along with the odd Bentley are the signature vehicles of the high rollers who visit. More significantly, the last time he appeared, it was under the cover of darkness. Three years ago he arrived by night in a black Camaro.

But, were it not for the feeling octogenarian soothsayer, Nicholas Ell gets when he senses trouble ahead, no-one would be aware that he was there. Nicholas no longer gets out much but on her morning visit, his cleaning lady, Magda discovers the old man in a state of agitation. She asks him what is wrong.

‘It’s happening again, Magda,’ he says. ‘I feel it in my bones.’

‘What’s the trouble, Mr Ell,’ Magda says. ‘What’s happening?’

‘All over again,’ he says. ‘Just like it did that time before. We have to do something.’

Although Magda has got to know Nicholas quite well, she has no idea what the old man is referring to. From the fact that he is shaking like a leaf and frothing at the mouth, she imagines that it is important though. She has worked for him long enough to know what she has to do to focus his thoughts. After a medicinal Snake in the Glass, a mix of Jack Daniels and Cointreau that Nicholas swears by, he manages to explain about the mystery man’s return and what it might mean for them all.

Word of the renewed threat spreads quickly through the small town’s informal networks. Despite the devastation he caused three years ago, no-one in the bar of The King Billy seems to know very much about the interloper. What was his name? Who was he? Where was he from? Why was he here? The feeling is that despite his penchant for American cars, he may not be American. He appears to have had an unusual accent, perhaps Central Asian. Tracey Looker, who lives in the candy coloured rock house with the owl sculptures in the garden is not sure where it is but she thinks he might have come from Shambhala. This is however on the basis of one brief encounter.

‘I’m sure it was a place with not many vowels,’ Shaldon Rain says. Shaldon works in the town’s Scrabble factory and in her spare time plays the flugelhorn in an experimental jazz band.

Shaldon and Tracey are the only two present who caught sight of him on his previous visit.

‘Perhaps we might get the opportunity to find out something about him this time around.’ Sol Reiter says. ‘Has anyone actually seen him yet?’ Sol Reiter, something of an entrepreneur in the town recently sold his virtual zoo to Idée Inc. for a tidy sum. He plans on spending more time at home with his capybaras and has taken to breeding albino ferrets.

‘We don’t think he’s been spotted yet,’ Darius Goy says. ‘We’re still going by what Nicholas Ell said.’ Darius is the town’s archivist, an authority on the painter, Lucien Freud and a staunch Captain Beefheart fan.

‘Are we even sure it’s him?’ Sol says. ‘You wouldn’t think he would have the chutzpah to come back here after what happened three years ago.’

‘Old Nick usually gets it right,’ Darius says. ‘Did you know, Nick has predicted every Eurovision Song Contest winner since 1958? He even foresaw the four-way tie in 1969.’

‘That’s as maybe, but he is getting a bit doddery, Sol says. ‘He must be nearly a hundred.’

‘Eighty six,’ Darius says.

‘After the trouble our unwanted visitor caused, surely he would stay away,’ Tracey says. ‘He must realise that he is likely to get pulled in if he sets foot in the town.’

‘But, is anyone aware of what he looks like?’ Sol asks. ‘He didn’t exactly mingle last time.’

‘Tracey saw him,’ Darius says. ‘And Shaldon. They would be able to recognise him and there must be a photo or two of him in the archive. From CCTV footage or something. Besides, presumably, he’s up at Obsidian Street. We just need to keep an eye on the place and the movements of his car and we will know where he is. I’ll let Inspector Boss know.’

Do you know, it all seems such a long time ago now?’ Sol says. ‘It’s amazing how easily we forget the bad things that have happened in the past and become complacent. Leah bought a book on Mindfulness. Maybe I ought to get around to reading it.’

‘All I remember is that everything went silent,’ Pearson Ranger says. ‘Like the flick of a switch, suddenly there was nothing. I couldn’t hear a thing, voices, television, traffic. All gone. It was so quiet, I wondered if next door’s dog was dead. Then I wondered if perhaps I was dead. Deadly silence. For days. And then I found out it wasn’t just me. No-one in the town could hear anything. Everywhere deadly silence. Inside. Outside. On the streets. Not even the bleeping to let you know when you could cross at the lights. I remember it very well. Being blind, not being able to hear was especially traumatic for me.’

I appreciate how that might be a problem,’ Darius says. ‘I was listening to Trout Mask Replica when it happened.’

‘Conversation was the thing I missed most,’ Tracey says. ‘Lip reading is incredibly hard.’

The thing is to this day, no-one knows how he managed to do it,’ Darius says. ‘I mean, how can you get rid of sound?’

Science isn’t good at explaining those kind of things,’ Sol says.

‘Science fiction is better with explanations,’ Shaldon Rain says. ‘I expect Ted Sturgeon or Philip C. Dark would have the answer. Or even that Chris Green fellow.’

‘Who?’ Sol says.

‘Chris Green. He writes speculative fiction,’ Shaldon says. ‘You might have read Time and Tide Wait for Norman.’

‘No. Can’t say I have,’ Sol says.

‘Look! I’ve just remembered something,’ Tracey says. ‘It may be nothing but Shambhala is the place we think of as Shangri La. I remember looking it up on the Internet.’

‘That’s a mythical kingdom,’ Pearson Ranger says. ‘In Tibet, I think.’

‘Might that help to explain how he managed to make everything go quiet?’ Tracey says. ‘Might he have magical powers?’

‘Mumbo jumbo’s all very well but how does it help to know that?’ Darius says. ‘Rather than rely on a number of unreliable accounts, perhaps we could piece together what actually happened three years ago.’

‘I remember his visit well,’ Tracey says. ‘I knew something was wrong when I couldn’t hear my Oscar burbling away. Oscar’s my parrot. He’s an African grey.’

‘My band was on stage at Max’s at the time,’ Shaldon Rain says.’When the audience couldn’t hear what we were playing, they started throwing things at us.’

We don’t want anything like that to happen this time around,’ Sol says. ‘Now, Think about it, guys! Have any of you noticed anything out of the ordinary yet?’

‘Well, there is the silver Pontiac outside the old house with the crow-stepped gables on Obsidian Street,’ Tracey says.

‘Apart from that,’ Sol says. ‘If we’re going to get to the bottom of this, we have to keep our eyes open.’

But why does he want to come back?’ Shaldon Rain says. ‘What do you imagine he might be up to this time?’

‘Old Nick didn’t say.’ Darius says. ‘But whatever it is, he has to be stopped. Inspector Boss should be on his way by now. I’ve told him to come armed.’

I don’t like to mention it but it seems to be getting rather dark in here,’ Shaldon Rain says.

You’re right,’ Darius says. ‘The light does seem to be fading. And it’s not even midday.’

‘It’s dark outside too,’ Shaldon Rain says. ‘So dark, I can’t see outside. Not even the window. It’s pitch black.’

‘I can’t even see you, Darius,’ Sol says.

‘I hope Boss gets here soon,’ Darius says.

‘But the police probably won’t be able to to see anything either,’ Sol says. ‘There’ll be bullets everywhere.’

Earlier

I don’t know how I come to find myself in Barton Stoney. I am on my way to see the film director, Leif Velasquez in Gifford Wells, twenty or so miles south of here. Leif wants to make a film of my story, Time and Tide Wait for Norman. In trying to avoid the race traffic on the ring road around Barton Stoney, I suppose I must have taken a wrong turn. There appear to be no road signs in the town and the one-way system is unfathomable. I keep going round in circles. To make matters worse, there is a madman in a big silver muscle car speeding through the streets and doing dangerous handbrake turns. No-one seems to be taking any notice of him. Where are the police when you want them?

I park the car and put my head around the door of a pub called The King William to ask for directions out of town. What a place! It’s bedlam. Everyone in here appears to be possessed. Or at least very, very drunk for this time of day. A woman in a brightly coloured dress and shocks of flyaway red hair starts banging on about Shangri La. A mythical valley of great bounty in Tibet, I recall, a metaphor for the perfect way of life, satirised in a song by The Kinks. I can’t make out the connection with anything that might be happening in The King William. A man brandishing a club of some kind grabs hold of me and starts raving about some terrible occurrence that took place here years ago. As if I might care. I can’t understand what he is trying to tell me anyway. He waves his arms about madly and says the police are on their way. He doesn’t say why. Is he the landlord? I don’t know.

There are about a dozen more revellers in here, all mad as hatters, it seems, or at least drunk as lords. Are the police coming to arrest them for affray? Is that what all this is about? Maybe they are going to arrest the crazy driver. Perhaps he has a history of terrorising the town during race meetings. It’s impossible to get any sense out of these people. They are all clearly three sheets to the wind.

As a writer of fiction, I’m constantly on the lookout for new material for a story. It occurs to me that there might just be something for me here. Let’s start by giving these people names. I’ll call the pale-skinned woman with the neck tattoos, Shaldon Rain. I’ve had that one kicking around waiting for a character for some time. She looks to me very much like she might be a flugelhorn player with an experimental jazz band. I have an instinct for these things. The stocky one with the lank hair and the big nose looks he might be Jewish. He can be Reuben. No, what about Sol? Sol Reiter. This would make the one he’s arguing with, Darius Goy. That’s been in the locker for a while. Darius looks like a Captain Beefheart fan if ever I saw one. The one with the white stick can be Pearson Ranger. This is the name of an estate agent’s I took down a while back when I was looking to move house. Informality is important in my writing. The King William can become The King Billy. I think I’d like to make more of the mad driver. He needs to be more sinister. He is responsible perhaps for an unexplained phenomenon that affects the whole town. A title for the story is going to be more difficult and how should I brand it? Chris Green or Philip C. Dark? Both these matters will need some thought. Nothing obvious comes to mind for a title without giving the game away. I may have to just come up with a short random phrase. The Art of the Matter? Bridge of Clocks? Detectives in Summer? How about ……. Snake in the Glass?

I can hear police sirens. I think it’s time to make my exit.

Later

‘We’ve been up to the old house with the crow-stepped gables on Obsidian Street, Mr Goy,’ Inspector Boss says. ‘And we’ve spoken to your muscle car fellow. He’s called Velasquez by the way and he’s from California. It turns out he has bought the place to turn it into an independent film studio.’

‘He says he came across Barton Stoney several years ago,’ Boss’s sidekick, Jagger says. ‘He was second director then for a movie called, Silent Witness. An apocalyptic thriller. Some of you may have seen it. It was about a town very much like this one where everything suddenly went quiet.’

‘Some of you may even have been in it,’ Boss says. ‘Velasquez says he hired some locals as extras. That crazy old man in the other big house was in it. The one who keeps predicting the end of the world.’

‘Nicholas Ell?’ Darius Goy says. ‘But he doesn’t go out, Inspector.’

‘This must have been before he became a hermit, Mr Goy,’ Boss says. ‘I haven’t personally seen the film but apparently Nick Ell had quite a big part.’

‘Velasquez already has a house in Gifford Wells,’ Jagger says. ‘So, he’s practically a local. I don’t think he will be any bother, Mr Goy.’

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

THE TWO OF US

thetwoofus

The Two of Us by Chris Green

‘There are no stars out tonight,’ Cindy says. ‘Why are there no stars, Matt?’

‘You don’t get stars every night,’ I say. ‘Perhaps there will be some tomorrow.’

‘But, it has been a clear day,’ Cindy says. ‘There should be stars after a clear day.’

‘That’s true,’ I say.

‘So what do you think is happening?’ Cindy says.

‘I don’t know,’ I say. ‘But I wonder if it has something to do with that explosion earlier.’

‘What do you mean?’ Cindy says.

‘We’ve always been taught to believe that the stars are, you know, out there in space,’ I say. ‘But what if it isn’t so? Lots of things that we are told turn out to be wrong, don’t they? We were told there was a bearded fellow in the sky who would get angry and punish us if we weren’t good. But no-one ever saw him. We were told there was a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. But no one ever found it. We were told that computers would give us hours and hours of free time and lead to a paperless office. But, we are still waiting on both counts. So, you can’t believe everything you see or hear. How do we know the stars are really there?’

‘You mean the night sky could be an illusion to fool us into thinking that the universe is bigger than it is,’ Cindy says.

‘Or perhaps to fool us into thinking that the universe exists at all,’ I say. ‘The universe could be a colossal projection.’

‘But what about the moon?’ Cindy says. ‘I can see the moon. The moon is still there.’

‘Difficult to say,’ I say. ‘Perhaps the moon is not part of the night sky projection.’

‘What do you imagine caused the explosion, anyhow?’ Cindy says.

‘It could be terrorist activity. I know we don’t hear a lot about it now but it might still be happening,’ I say.

‘Or it might be some kind of accident,’ Cindy says.

‘We will probably never know what caused it,’ I say. ‘I expect vested interests will want to keep it secret.’

‘But we might get the stars back one day if they repair the damage to the universe projection,’ Cindy says.

‘Could be,’ I say. ‘Who knows?’

‘There are a lot of uncertainties, aren’t there?’ Cindy says.

‘Shall we just enjoy the moonlight,’ I say.

Cindy and I decide to go about our lives as we normally would. Even if we don’t discover why the stars have gone, they will hopefully be back one day. Meanwhile, we still have the moon. And after all, it is in the nature of things to disappear from time to time. We ought to be used to this. It does not necessarily mean that they are gone forever. Cindy keeps losing her keys and I keep losing my glasses but they do reappear when the time is right. A while ago, the internet vanished for a few months. No-one discovered what had happened. But, eventually, it came back on and it was much easier to navigate. There were just a handful of sites rather than the millions there had been. Since then it has become simpler still. There is now just one site. TV programmes disappeared and when they returned they too were different, most of them in another language. But at least there were programmes to watch once more. There were fewer funny ones but heigh ho.

Days pass and the stars do not return. Then, after its regular monthly waning, the moon does not reappear in the night sky. Instead of a new moon, there is no moon.

Once more, Cindy says, ‘It has been a clear day. There should be a moon.’

Once more I agree that it has been sunny.

‘What do you think has happened to the moon?’ Cindy says.

‘Perhaps there was another explosion while we were asleep last night,’ I say. ‘I did think I heard something round about three o’clock.’

‘You think that the moon too was nothing more than a projection then?’ Cindy says.

‘It’s certainly a possibility,’ I say.

We have been led to believe that the moon exerts a strong gravitational pull on the Earth and it is this gravitational pull that causes the seas to rise and fall in what we call tides. More importantly, perhaps, we have been told that the moon stabilises the Earth’s rotation. But what if the moon’s function, all these years, has been a purely decorative one? It is too early to say yet if the Earth’s rotation is less stable but the tide seems to be coming in. In fact, there are quite big waves.

‘There’s something else I’ve noticed,’ Cindy says.

‘It’s not about the car not working, is it?’ I say.

‘No. It’s something else,’ Cindy says.

‘Ah! I think I know what you are going to say,’ I say.

‘There don’t seem to be any people,’ Cindy says. ‘I can’t remember when I last saw anyone.’

‘They became a bit thin on the ground after the stars went out,’ I say. ‘We had to change the seven a side rugby tournament to a one a side rugby tournament. And still, there were only two teams.’

‘No-one won the lottery last week because no-one bought a ticket,’ Cindy says. ‘And now there’s no TV.’

‘Even the internet has gone,’ I say.

‘What do you think has happened to all the people?’ Cindy says. ‘Where has everyone gone?’

‘It probably has something to do with the explosions,’ I say. ‘We could be the last two people left. Like in that book by the Australian fellow. They made it into a film.’

‘You’re thinking of, On the Beach,’ Cindy says.

‘That’s the one,’ I say. ‘I think this is it.’

‘So, that means it’s just the two of ……

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

 

Darkness on the Edge of Town

darkness

Darkness on the Edge of Town by Chris Green

1:

Tim Soft is walking home along Marlboro Street. He feels he has had a wearying day at the office. He wishes it were Friday, but it’s only Tuesday. A vintage Chevrolet Impala pulls up alongside him, one of the ones with the harmonica front grille and the big tail fins. Tim notices that it has recently had a door replaced. The replacement door is pink while the original colour of the car, so far as he can tell in the advancing dusk, is blue. It’s unusual to see an American car on the streets these days, he reflects, but they do look good even with mismatched doors. Tim is a big fan of Americana, American cars, American music, American films, Breaking Bad and of course, Twin Peaks.

A pale-skinned man with a lean angular face leans across the bench seat and winds down the passenger side window. He has a wavy nineteen fifties-style quiff and a long scar running down his left cheek. Bruce Springsteen’s, Darkness on the Edge of Town is blaring out, a song Tim remembers from back in the day when he was sharing a house in Slumpton with Sid Hacker and Susie Q. That all seems a long time ago now. He likes to think he has matured since then. He likes to think he is more successful now. The Chevy driver turns The Boss down and in a gravelly voice asks for directions to Twin Peaks. How strange is that? He even looks like a Twin Peaks character. He has a faraway look in his eye and may be on drugs, Tim feels, probably hard drugs. But surely he must have misheard him. It’s easy to experience a degree of dissonance after a long day in a noisy publishing house staring at an iMac Pro.

‘Sorry,’ he says. ‘Where did you say?’

The driver looks him up and down menacingly. For a moment, Tim thinks he might be about to leap out of the car, grab him by the lapels and force him up against the wall.

‘Quinn Street, buddy,’ he says, finally.

Was this what he said originally, Tim wonders? It would be good to clear this up but he is not going to ask. It would not be a good idea to question the ruffian’s powers of diction. He decides to put the misunderstanding down to a mondegreen and try to forget all about Twin Peaks.

Tim is sure Quinn Street came up in conversation recently but can’t remember how or why. Was it maybe in connection with Razor Ramirez, a notorious local drug dealer, who he heard might have moved into this part of town? But then, why would the dude in the Chevy be asking him. He is wearing a smart suit, albeit without a tie. He remembers finding out that Marty Quinn was a local councillor in the nineteen eighties, since disgraced for his kerb-crawling conviction but he doesn’t imagine that the dude will be interested in local history. Nervously, Tim explains the directions as the driver revs the Chevy’s engine impatiently.

‘Past the entrance to the park, second left, left again, then …… third right,’ he says, hoping that he has got this right.

2:

When Tim gets home, he finds Judy is flustered. She looks dishevelled. Her make-up is smudged. He’s not sure but it looks like she might have been crying. When he had phoned her from work earlier to find out if he needed to get anything on the way home, she had cut him short saying there was someone at the door. It had seemed inconsequential at the time. He had thought no more of it.

‘Are you OK?’ he asks.

Judy appears to hesitate before she replies. Tim puts the hesitation down to her being upset. Now he comes to think of it, she has been a bit up and down lately and very prickly. At times he has felt he is treading on eggshells. He is no longer sure how to react.

‘What’s wrong?’ he says, putting his arm around her. ‘Who’s upset you? ……… Was it something to do with whoever was at the door when I phoned?’

Judy pushes his arm away.

‘I had just got home from the …… hairdressers,‘she says, doing her best to avoid his gaze. ‘And someone …….. called round …… for you.’

‘Who?’ he asks. Having been married now for nine years, Tim does not get many casual visitors.

‘Big guy, black leather, slicked back hair,’ she says. ‘He had a …… a piercing stare. He said I’m looking for Tim Soft. I told him you weren’t here but he didn’t seem happy about it.’

Tim is taken aback. He’s pretty sure he doesn’t know anyone like the fellow she is describing. Not these days, anyway. One hoodlum lurking in the area was odd enough. Surely it is unreasonable for another one to appear so soon. This is a quiet suburban estate. He wonders whether Judy is making it up. But, why would she?

‘He was …… very threatening,’ Judy continues. ‘I asked him what he wanted to see you about and he said you would know.’

‘I wasn’t expecting anyone,’ Tim says. So far as he knows he does not owe money and can’t think of anyone he might have upset recently.

‘He had a strange accent,’ Judy says. ‘Foreign, yet not foreign. He looked like someone out of that David Lynch show you made me watch. The one with the man from another place and that ridiculous talking tree.’

Another reference to Twin Peaks. Working in publishing, Tim is of the belief that the fictional world should stay where it belongs, whether this be the written page, cinema or television and not spill over into real life. Especially now that he has completed the graphics and layout for the Twin Peaks illustrated publication and put it to bed.

‘The thing is, Tim, he said he was going to call back,’ Judy adds. ‘Perhaps we ought to go out.’

‘Good idea,’ Tim says. ‘What about that new bar?’

3:

After his third bottle of Double Bastard at The Sizzling Squid, Tim still feels nervous about returning home. Normally Double Bastard relaxes him but he has a bad feeling about something. He is not sure what but something is not quite right.

‘Surely no-one is going to call round after ten,’ Judy says, looking at her watch. Her three glasses of Albanian Shiraz seem to have calmed her. Tim suspects she may also have secretly taken one or two of the happy pills that Dr Ranatunga prescribed. Perhaps Dr Ranatunga might have been a little remiss. They appear to make her behaviour unpredictable.

‘But what if our caller is lying in wait?’ he says. ‘I think I’ll just have one more beer.’

‘We can’t stay out all night,’ Judy says when Tim returns from the bar. ‘Are you coming?’

Even though it is a short distance, chivalry dictates that Tim not allow Judy to walk home alone but chivalry has never been his strong suit. Especially after nine years of marriage. Besides, he now has another beer to finish.

‘I’ll be right behind you,’ he says.

Tim does not believe he has ever seen anyone quite so tall as the forbidding figure he suddenly finds standing over him. At first, he thinks the huge fellow must be some kind of hallucination brought on by the Double Bastard but the hallucination refuses to go away. The colossus stands silently, a good seven feet tall, not seven feet from him, staring fixedly in his direction. He is formally dressed. Like a club steward. Or perhaps even the giant in Twin Peaks. More likely a club steward though in this situation. Whoever it is, the big fellow seems unhappy about something. What has he done to upset him? Maybe it is time for him to leave. He might even be able to catch up with Judy.

4:

Tim makes his way unsteadily through the night. As he turns into Viceroy Terrace, up ahead of him, he spots the Chevy with the mismatched door. Right outside his house. His initial instinct is to make himself scarce. No sense in looking for trouble. He could perhaps drop in on his brother, Tom. He owes him a visit. There again, Tom’s partner, also called Tom seems to have taken a dislike to him. Tom and Tom probably wouldn’t appreciate him calling round drunk at ten o’clock at night. And, of course, there is Judy to consider. She might be in danger and it would be all his fault. For that matter, she might even already be bound and gagged in the back of the car. He steels himself and strides purposely up the street towards the vehicle. It has its engine running, Bruce Springsteen’s Point Blank blaring through the open window. As he gets closer, the driver gives a final rev of the engine and the car pulls away. Tim cannot see Judy inside the car but it occurs to him that the thug might have bundled her into the boot. This is the kind of thing that would happen in Twin Peaks.

He unlocks his front door. The house is in darkness. Not a good sign. He calls out Judy’s name. There is no reply. Frenziedly, he darts around the house looking for her. Surely she would be home by now even if she had taken a detour through Lark Park and along Chesterfield Avenue. Yet, she is not home. He dials her number but to his dismay, he hears her phone ringing in the next room. Why doesn’t she ever take the thing with her? What’s the point in having a mobile if you leave it at home?

He rummages around looking for clues. He does not know quite what he is looking for. He takes a look at her phone. There are several missed calls other than his. The phone does not record the caller’s number. He scrolls through the numbers she has dialled. He doesn’t recognise any of them. But then, he can hardly remember his own number. He opens up the Camera Roll folder. Flicking through, he sees that one of the photos looks like the hoodlum who was driving the Chevy. He can’t believe it. How can this be? He takes a closer look. It is a photo of him. There is no doubt about it. There’s the Chevrolet Impala in the background. And there’s another. In this one, he is with a group of people at some kind of outdoor event. He doesn’t like the look of them one bit. Here’s a selfie. Chevy Man has his arm around Judy. What is that all about? Is she having an affair? With that hoodlum? Should he have noticed some warning signs? Were there some clues he might have spotted. He comes across a random address scribbled on a scrap of paper by her laptop. Razor, 66 Quinn Street. Surely this can’t be right. How on earth would she know Razor? Then it dawns on him. She must be buying drugs. It’s the only explanation. If she is buying drugs, it would help to explain a few things. This would explain the happy pills. Her mood swings. How had it all come to this? He begins to wonder if perhaps he might have become too involved with the fictional world of Twin Peaks and taken his eye off the ball.

5:

Whatever Tim’s feelings might be at this moment in time, Judy is to all intents and purposes, missing. Unless she was on her way to meet her supposed lover when she left the pub and he was on his way to meet her when he sped off, it would appear she is not even with him. So there must be another explanation. Tim has a dilemma. Should he sit and back and thank his lucky stars that he has caught her out in her deceit? Or, should he set about finding what has happened to her just in case it is something calamitous? Clearly, he can’t report her to the police as a missing person. Given the circumstances, they would just laugh at him. He could phone around the numbers on her mobile to see if anyone has an idea where she might be but once again, given the circumstances, he would be subjecting himself to ridicule. He could take a trip round to 66 Quinn Street. Probably a longshot and wary about the hostile reception he would be likely to get, he decides to give it a miss. All he can do, he feels, is sit tight and see what happens. Judy’s phone rings. Unrecognised number says the display and when he answers it, the caller hangs up. Weren’t mobile phones designed to simplify life?

6:

When one parameter in your life changes, you often find that everything else changes. Perhaps it is linked in some way to chaos theory or a variation of the domino effect. When it is a negative development you might throw in the expression, slippery slope. Tim’s life seems to be on a downward run. When he goes into work the following morning, sleep-deprived and hungover, he finds himself summoned to his boss’s office. His work lately has not been up to scratch, Carson Gaye tells him and the work on the Twin Peaks publication, in particular, was shoddy, full of mistakes that should have been corrected before it went to print. His services are no longer required. He is sacked.

When Tim gets back home Judy still hasn’t returned. There are more missed calls on her phone from the same unrecognised number as the previous evening. Tim is now convinced that something untoward has happened. He is about to call the police when, to his puzzlement, they arrive mob-handed on his doorstep. They have not come about Judy’s disappearance however but to search the house for drugs. Detective Sergeant Badger shows him the warrant, issued that very morning. Acting on a tip-off, he explains. When asked the routine question, is there anything that shouldn’t be here, Tim tells him that he is wasting his time. Of course, there are no drugs in the house. D. S. Badger laughs and tells him that everyone says that but in his experience, it usually means the opposite. Tim continues to remonstrate as burly officers in fatigues begin to turn the house upside down.

‘Here it is, guv,’ the one with the buzz cut and the neck tattoos says, slitting open a sealed package the size of an airline bag that, like a magician, he appears to have pulled out from underneath the staircase.

‘Good work, Scuzzi,’ the Sergeant says. ‘That’s what we’re looking for.’

Badger tells Tim it is probably the largest cache of crystal meth he has ever come across. How can this have happened, Tim wonders? Crystal meth is something he thought only existed in Breaking Bad or spoof documentaries about fictional rock bands. The police must have somehow planted it. He suggests this is a set-up, breaking into a rant about police malpractice. His protests go unheeded. He is cuffed and taken down to the station to be charged.

While Tim is waiting for his solicitor to arrive, he feels that not even his brother Tom’s friend, Wet Blanket Ron could match the speed of his change of fortune. In just twenty four hours, he has managed to go from happily-married, devil-may-care, graphic designer living in a plush house on a well-positioned estate to paranoid, estranged, international drugs smuggler confined to a foetid cell, looking forward to a long stretch in Wormwood Scrubs or Belmarsh. Surely not even Ron could claim such a rapid fall from grace.

Is it Murphy’s Law, Tim wonders, that states that when you think things cannot get any worse, they do? Something along those lines, anyway. Is it Smith’s Law that suggests that Murphy was an optimist? While Tim is trying to remember exactly which of the amateur philosophers stated what, still believing in his heart of hearts that things can’t really get worse, he learns that Judy’s mutilated body was found earlier in the canal. Estimated time of death, Inspector Dawlish Warren from the Homicide and Serious Crime Command informs him was between midnight and 6 am this morning. The Inspector takes it a step further and tells him that he is the prime suspect. Can he account for his movements between those times?

7:

Tim’s solicitor introduces himself. ‘Dario Chancer of Gallagher, Shed and Chancer.’

‘Thank God you are here, Mr Chancer,’ Tim says. ‘I’ve been going crazy in this bloody place.’

‘OK. Let’s get straight down to it then, Mr Soft,’ Chancer says. ‘This drugs business first, I think. What’s the story with that?’

‘I’ve no idea where the package came from,’ Tim says. ‘The police must have planted it.’

‘Some work to do there then,’ Chancer says. ‘The police don’t often admit planting evidence. At least not voluntarily. Now! I think it might be easier to try and build a case around the drugs being your wife’s. After all, I understand Judy Soft is dead. She won’t be able to argue. For a small consideration, I think we might be able to get a few witnesses to testify to Judy’s drug activities, if you catch my drift. ……… Which brings us on to the murder. First question I have to ask you is, are you guilty? Did you kill Judy?’

‘Of course not,’ Tim says.

‘So you’ll have an alibi for last night,’ Chancer says. ‘Someone who can confirm where you were between midnight and six?’

‘Not exactly, no,’ Tim says. ‘I was at home on my own, worrying myself silly.’

‘Not so good. It would certainly make our job easier if you did have an alibi,’ Chancer says. ‘Still! We can work on one.’

‘Do you have any suggestions, Mr Chancer?’

‘Well. Let me see. … H’mm. …… I wonder. Listen! You might think this is a little unconventional but I’ve used it once before and it seemed to work then. ……. Do you happen to watch Twin Peaks by any chance?’

‘As a matter of fact, I do. I’m a big fan. I …….. ‘

‘Then you will be familiar with a character called Garland Briggs.’

‘Of course. Major Briggs was abducted by aliens.’

‘That’s right. He was sucked up into a vortex.’

‘Indeed. But how does this help?’

‘You could say that at 11 last night, you were walking home when you were suddenly sucked up off the street by a vortex and not returned until, let’s say to be on the safe side, ten this morning. And you can’t account for the time spent in the other place. It’s all a bit of a blur. Perhaps you might come up with some gobbledegook about the white lodge or the black lodge and perhaps throw in a dwarf or two and a talking tree for good measure. Now! Just one thing. You haven’t told them anything so far, have you? You know. Anything that might incriminate you?’

‘No. I’ve said nothing. I was waiting for you to get here.’

‘Good! Only if you had, it would be difficult to say that the alien abduction had just slipped your mind.’

‘You don’t think that perhaps, it’s a bit …… far out for a defence, then.’

‘We could back it up with some testimonies from expert witnesses.’

‘Expert witnesses?’

‘Hardcore Ufologists. And maybe a die-hard Twin Peaks fan.’

‘But, the thing is I didn’t do it, Mr Chancer. I didn’t kill Judy. I’m innocent. Not only that I want the bastard who did kill her brought to justice.’

‘But as you’ve told me, Mr Soft. You don’t have an alibi. You haven’t had much experience of the judicial system, have you? No alibi translates as guilty in a court of law.’

8:

In HM Prison Wakefield where Tim Soft is serving his thirty year stretch, he is allowed no visitors. Even the prison warders are vetted before they can enter his cell. He has been well and truly removed from society. But, if you were a fly on the wall in his cell, you just might hear Tim humming Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town. It appears to be an obsession. There are no posters of Rita Hayworth, but you would find the walls of his cell covered in posters of vintage Chevrolet cars. Another obsession. Then there is all his arcane talk about extra-dimensional connected spaces, the black lodge and the white lodge. Psychiatrists have been unable to penetrate the dark deluded world that Tim inhabits.

Some might argue that he was unfortunate to get a prison sentence at all as by many people’s reckoning, he could be considered insane. As it happened, Tim changed his story daily during the trial and kept changing his plea. He did not seem to know what time of day it was and on occasions, could not remember his name. But, as is often the case, his eventual plea of ‘not guilty by reason of insanity’ failed to impress. The court did not believe that he had been abducted by aliens or that he was being instructed by a talking tree. No-one was listening. It was felt that his crimes were too serious.

The court heard how Tim had weaved a web of deceit and treachery, taking in all those who had the misfortune to come into contact with him. He had pretended to be a respectable citizen while in reality, he was running a ruthless drugs empire. Countless casualties lay in the wake of his underworld activities. How he managed to get with his duplicity for so long was a mystery. By the time of his trial, even his friends and family were lining up to testify against him. His brother Tom explained how, as a boy, Tim used to torture the family pets, and not just the gerbils and hamsters. The court heard how his long-suffering wife, Judy had been the victim of his abuse for years. On that fateful night, Tim had gone on the rampage, killing two men in The Sizzling Squid in cold blood before brutally bludgeoning Judy to death and dumping her body in the canal. No matter how unbalanced he was, he was not going to get away with a soft sentence in a rehabilitation facility.

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

Chinese Boxes

chineseboxes2018

Chinese Boxes by Chris Green

The fire engine comes hurtling towards me. It is out of control. It has no driver. Conan Doyle Street is narrow and the precipitate leviathan gathers momentum as it heads down the slope. I dive for safety into the doorway of the antiquarian bookstore. The fire engine forges ahead, gradually slowing as the incline levels out. It comes to a stop in the dip where Conan Doyle Street meets Rider Haggard Street. Fortunately, there are no casualties as the streets are deserted. This part of town is no longer prosperous and a lot of the shops are boarded up.

I am on my way to the doctor’s in Bram Stoker Street, a block or so away. I don’t have an appointment, but when I phoned earlier I was told someone would see me if I came along. I let the sour-faced receptionist know of my arrival and sit in the grey waiting room. Afternoon surgery has finished and I am the only one there. For comfort, I take my Doc Martens off. I start to read a monthly military magazine, but I can’t concentrate. After a few minutes, Dr Bilk comes through and says that he will see me but he has to make a phonecall to the hospital first. He asks me to go wait for him in Surgery 2.

Realising I am in stockinged feet, I go back to fetch my boots. It takes a while to lace them up and when I return Surgery 2 is locked. Dr Bilk has disappeared. I look everywhere for him. I go out into the courtyard. I look up and down the street. Back inside, a dozen or so men in dark suits are having a meeting in the room down the corridor from the locked surgery. There is a hostile air about the gathering. I do not like to interrupt. I go out to the car park. I manage to collar Dr Bilk, just as he is getting into his car. Without bothering to listen to my symptoms, he hurriedly writes me a prescription. I have not heard of the medication, he prescribes. Perhaps he has made a mistake.

What makes me want to return the fire engine to the fire station I do not know. This is what happens sometimes, isn’t it? In a moment of madness, you find you make a decision that you just can’t account for. It’s as if a force takes over and you no longer have free will. It may be just me but I have noticed that these decisions are often injudicious.

I am not used to handling such a bulky vehicle and I have several near collisions with other cars on the way. I accidentally cross two sets of red traffic lights and manage to negotiate the Henry James roundabout on two wheels. When I finally arrive at the fire station, I find that it is closed. What would happen if there were a fire? I park the vehicle outside the book depository in Franz Kafka Street. I think about phoning my brother, Quinn to come and pick me up, as it is now after six o’clock and I need to get home for dinner. I am suddenly struck by the thought that my fingerprints will be all over the fire engine and they will think that it was me that stole it.

I come to with a start. I do not recognise my surroundings. Red would not be everyone’s choice of colour for bedroom walls and Francis Bacon’s mutilated torso prints would not be to everyone’s taste to hang on them. There is a large sagging woollen drape coming down from the ceiling and a silver saxophone on a stand in the corner of the room, alongside a device that looks like a medieval instrument of torture. Mr Bojangles is playing from a portable red speaker, a grunge version that I am not familiar with. The room has a musty smell.

The important question seems to me to be how did I come to be here? I have no recollection. Where is my beautiful house, my beautiful wife and my large automobile? How do I work this? Before I have a chance to get my bearings there is a loud knock at the door. I leave it at first, but when no-one else answers it, I conclude that I must be alone here. On the second or third knock, I go to to the door. A man is standing there holding a large metal plate. He doesn’t seem surprised to see me.

‘I’ve come to fix the cooker,’ he says.

‘You’d better come in.’ I say.

I don’t have any idea where the kitchen is, but he seems to know.

‘Did I wake you up?’ he asks as I follow him through to the kitchen.

‘No,’ I say, looking around to take in the funky chickens strutting about the place.

‘Good idea to keep them indoors,’ Cookerman says. ‘Stops the foxes getting them. There are a lot of foxes about round here.’

I don’t ask him where round here is in case he gets suspicious.

‘Rhode Island Reds, these little beauties,’ he says. ‘Good for laying brown eggs. Perhaps we might have breakfast when I’ve done the cooker.’

The kitchen is kitted out in an odd mix of styles, a startling hybrid of Scandinavian chic and Dickensian squalor. I have not seen a zebra patterned fridge, or a red cooker before. Cookerman takes it all in his stride. Perhaps he comes across vibrant appliances every day. Ducking beneath the cast iron pots and pans hanging from butcher’s hooks on the ceiling, he makes his way over to the cooker and opens the door. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a cooker explode. I’m guessing most of you haven’t. But I can tell you, it does wake you up.

Which is how I come to find myself in a barnacled beach hut in the middle of a storm surge, with the waters already sloshing over the sandbags. The wind is getting up again and it has turned round to the north. The spring tide is due to keep coming in for the next two hours. Looking through the gap where the window once was I can see more black clouds forming over the steep escarpment the other side of the bay. With the water already around our ankles and the roof leaking like a faucet, the last thing we need is another downpour.

Earlier, I tried in vain to rescue a struggling black Labrador that was being taken away by the rip current. My leg became trapped and I was thrown against the rocks. I was knocked unconscious. She is only slight and I am nearly fourteen stone but somehow Vision dragged me here to this beach hut, the highest beach hut in the row. Some of the other huts have already broken to pieces and been taken out to sea. I can hardly move my damaged leg, so we won’t be leaving anytime soon. We are at the mercy of the elements. We are trapped.

‘Don’t you know what time high water is?’ Vision asks, looking at her watch. ‘It must be soon.’

’14:05. Nearly two hours to go.’

‘We can’t stay here that long. We’ll drown.’

‘We’ll send out a mayday then, shall we? Where did you put the flares?’

‘I could go for help,’ she says.

We are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. If Vision goes for help we are both at risk. If she stays we are still both at risk.

‘No,’ I say, with some authority. ‘Don’t go.’

‘I guess we’re in this together then,’ she says. ‘That’s what we used to say isn’t it?’

‘It’s been a long time,’ I say. ‘Seven years, isn’t it? Or is it nine?’

‘Twelve, I think,’ she says.

As the waves continue to crash against the flimsy fabric of the hut, it feels like being aboard a ship going down. I have the urge to break into a sea shanty, to summon up the sailor’s spirit, Blow The Man Down, Haul Away Joe or something like that.

Is that a lifeboat I can see in the distance? ……. Is it? ……. Or is it just another phantom? Am I doomed perhaps to an endless chain of unfathomable nightmares from which I can never wake? Doomed to grapple feebly with this nest of interlocking riddles, that fit inside one another like Chinese boxes?

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved