Call Wyatt On The Western Front

callwyattonthewesternfront2

Call Wyatt On The Western Front by Chris Green

Penny hits the button on the bedside clock. 4:33 AM. We’re hardly going to get up and answer the door at this unearthly hour, she thinks. No matter what is going on. She tries to drift back off but again the doorbell rings. She turns over to give Matt a nudge. But, he’s not there. Then she remembers. Matt is away at a Scriggler conference. Matt is a writer. You may have read him. Matt Black. Mystery stories. A little like Stephen King. Love him she might but if Penny is honest, perhaps not as good as Stephen King. Maybe that’s Matt at the door now, she thinks, having returned unexpectedly for some mysterious reason. Perhaps he has lost his keys again and is locked out. But surely, if this were the case, he would phone her. The doorbell rings yet again. The Mozart tune was a novelty when they first fitted the thing but now she finds it irritating.

She checks the clock again. 4:35. She wasn’t imagining it, it really is that early. Whatever the commotion is about, she thinks, it’s not going to be good, is it? She doesn’t like being alone in the house in the early hours at the best of times. Why does Matt need to go away so often? Perhaps it might have been different if they had had children. Even though it’s not her fault, does he still blame her? He seems to find any excuse to be out of the house these days. It should be Matt answering the door, when it’s dark. It’s a man’s job.

The tune starts up again. Her heart is thumping. Her mouth is dry. She braces herself. She takes a look out the bedroom window. It is still dark. The streetlight in front of their row of suburban villas has been out for several days so she can see very little. She pulls on her dressing gown and makes her way down the stairs. She peers through the spyglass in the front door. She can’t see anyone. Gingerly, she eases the door open. She takes off the security chain. Still she can see no-one but her attention is drawn to the package on the front doorstep. She picks it up and examines it. It is addressed to her, Penny Black. But, there is no indication who it might be from. It is square, well, cubic. Matt is always correcting her on her use of simple mathematical terms. A circle and a sphere and all that. The parcel is about ten inches, each way. Retro wrapping, brown paper, string, sealing wax. She tries to remember what she might have ordered from Etsy or Amazon recently. Something perhaps that might warrant period packaging. Whatever it is, why in God’s name, she wonders, has a courier delivered it at this time of the morning?

Suddenly, standing there in front of her is a man in a military uniform. She nearly jumps out of her skin. The soldier is standing just three or four feet ahead of her on the garden path. He can’t have appeared out of thin air. Was he there just now, when she first opened the door, she wonders? Lurking in the shadows of next door’s zelkova tree, maybe? Penny doesn’t know much about soldiering but she knows this is an old type of military uniform, First World War perhaps. He looks like someone from The Passing Bells that she watched recently. He looks as if he is trying to say something. His mouth his moving but she can’t hear what he is saying. The silence echoes. He is a ghostly presence, his figure almost transparent. She is terrified. This is the stuff of nightmares, the kind of thing that should stay in the netherworld where it belongs. Not sure what to do, she ducks back into the relative safety of the house. From round the front door, transfixed, she keeps the spooky soldier in her gaze. Then, before her eyes, his form disappears, bit by bit, like a digital picture breaking up when the Wi-Fi signal drops.

………………………………………

Matt is surprised to get her call or perhaps he is just alarmed that Penny is hollering down the phone at him.

‘What … t’time is it?’ he stammers.

Penny hollers down the phone some more.

‘I can’t make any sense of what you are saying,’ he says. ‘Slow down, will you?’

He’s probably had a late night. These mystery writers’ conference booze-ups can go on until the early hours.

‘There was a soldier at the door in one of those khaki uniforms,’ Penny says, more slowly. ‘You know. The ones with lots of buttons and epaulettes.’

‘What on earth are you talking about?’ he says. ‘I’m getting something about an old soldier at the door.’

‘Yes, Matt,’ she says. ‘A soldier. First World War. Dressed like the ones in Birdsong.’

‘Are you sure? What would a soldier in First World War uniform be doing at the door?’ he says.

‘Well! He was, Matt’

‘He didn’t have a gun, did he?’

‘I can’t remember if he had a gun,’ she says. ‘But he was scary, Matt. Like something out of a horror film.’

‘Where is he now?’

‘He’s gone. He disappeared just like that. You know, like when the TV goes funny. Pixelates. Is that the word I’m looking for?’

‘What the blazes are you talking about?’ he says.

‘And he brought a parcel,’ she says. ‘It was wrapped up in brown paper and string.’

‘A parcel?’ he says. ‘What was in the parcel?’

She realises that in her panic she never got around to actually opening the parcel. She put it down somewhere and got on the phone to Matt. She goes and searches for it in the hallway by the front door and on the path outside but it is nowhere to be seen.

‘Are you still there?’ says Matt.

‘I can’t find the parcel now,’ she says. ‘It’s gone.’

‘Are you all right?’ he asks. ‘Look! Stay put. I’m going to come back right now. I’ll be an hour or so.’

………………………………………

Penny can’t explain why she goes back to bed because there’s no chance that she will be able to sleep after an experience like she’s had. But, remarkably, she does. For five hours. When she wakes, it is 9:45. But, there is no sign of Matt. She realises the rush hour traffic can be bad, especially since they built the relief road to supposedly improve traffic flow, but he should have arrived by now. The conference centre is less than fifty miles away. She tries his mobile. He has a hands-free in the SUV. He should be able to answer.

‘The number you have dialled has not been recognised,’ says the message. Perhaps there is something wrong with the auto-dial. She keys the number in this time. Same message. Her sense of unease returns and when, moments later, she hears the doorbell, this becomes full-scale panic. She trembles with fear. She just knows it’s going to be bad. Perhaps it’s another spectral revenant or maybe it’s someone come to tell her that Matt has been killed in an accident at that notorious roundabout.

With trepidation, she opens the door and there is her neighbour, Lacey Tattler, clutching the brown paper parcel from earlier.

‘Are you OK, Penny?’ says Lacey. ‘You look as if you’ve seen a ghost.’

‘No. It’s all right,’ says Penny. ‘It’s just, er just that I wasn’t expecting you.’

‘No need to be like that,’ says Lacey. ‘Anyway, I found this by the hedge at the front. It’s addressed to you.’

‘You didn’t ….. you didn’t see who delivered it, did you, Lacey?’ she says.

‘No, I didn’t. I don’t know why it was left there,’ says Lacey. ‘I did try calling round earlier, but you didn’t answer.’

Penny is not sure how to play this. She doesn’t want to give too much away. She doesn’t want Lacey thinking she’s losing her marbles. It will be all around the neighbourhood in no time. Bilberry Avenue is a close-knit community.

‘I must have dropped off,’ she says. ‘I didn’t sleep too well last night.’

‘Oh dear! Is something wrong?’ says Lacey, fishing. She has probably noticed that Matt’s car has not been around for a couple of nights. ‘Anything I can do?’

A horse-drawn Red Cross ambulance like the ones in Parade’s End comes along. Its livery bears the scars of battle. The horses look to be on their last legs and the driver looks shell-shocked and exhausted. A rational explanation is difficult to conjure up. This appears to be a moving, three-dimensional image, not a projection. It really is a horse-drawn ambulance complete with the cippety-clop rhythm of hoofs along the street. As the ambulance trundles past, it flickers disturbingly from full colour to monochrome and back again. Penny is petrified. She waits for Lacey to comment but astonishingly she does not seem to have noticed it. Not for the first time today, Penny begins to doubt her sanity.

The anomalies are mounting up. She feels she’s too old to be imagining things that aren’t really there and too young to be doolally. She’s forty three years old, for God’s sake. Something apocalyptic is happening here. Why is she thinking that the Red Cross ambulance might be taking Matt to hospital after an imagined accident on the Western Front? That can’t be right. After an accident at the magic roundabout, perhaps? This is still absurd. But, where has Matt got to? She needs him here. She can’t make sense of this new world with its random strangeness alone. Being a writer, Matt might be able to shed some light on what is happening.

Lacey is going on again about the parcel like there is nothing wrong with the universe. Penny thinks she wants her to open it so she can see what’s inside. She’s afraid to open it. She’s afraid of everything that is happening around her. Why can’t Lacey see that there has been a colossal slippage in reality? She no longer cares what Lacey thinks of her, there are more important things to attend to. She gives her a summary thankyou and although she just wants to throw the confounded package as far as she can away from her, instead she takes it inside.

………………………………………

Penny is fearful of what might be inside the parcel. She turns it over and over in her hands. It seems inconceivably light. She has a sense of dark foreboding. But, she must open it. It has to be done. There’s no backing out now.

She has never opened a package sealed with red wax before. Instead of breaking the seal, she cuts through the coarse string with kitchen scissors and gradually unfolds the brown paper wrapping. Inside is a tightly sealed cardboard box. She manages to prise it open. It appears to be completely empty but she has the uneasy feeling that something is escaping, something ethereal. She is not normally susceptible to such mumbo jumbo but she can sense the atmosphere in the room begin to change. At first, she tries to tell herself that after everything that has happened, she is on heightened alert for weird. But, she definitely does feel something, a presence if you like. Someone or something is with her in the room. Something threatening and hostile. Not so much a physical presence perhaps, but something in the air. She finds it difficult to breathe. She’s burning up. She feels ……. faint.

………………………………………

‘Sergeant Wyatt on the front desk at Western Street police station took a call from the neighbour at 10:17, Sir,’ says P. C. Watson, reading from his notes. Watson is new to policing and is anxious to make an impression. ‘One Lacey Tattler. She felt something strange was going on. Sergeant Wyatt sent a patrol round but there was no response when they called at the premises. An entry team was subsequently sent round but Penelope Black was already dead by the time they gained access. That was at 11:19. The body was taken away at ……’

‘Thankyou for the history lesson, er, Watson,’ says the world-weary Detective Inspector Holmes. ‘Watson? Is that really your name?’

‘Yes, Sir,’ says Watson.

‘I see. Well, lad. I am aware of the details,’ says Holmes.

‘Sorry, Sir. I was just asked to stay on the scene and bring you up to speed when you arrived.’

‘Well, Watson. Things have moved on a little since then. Our crime scene people handed the forensics over to the M.O.D. I’ve just been talking to a fellow there. Brigadier something or other. Mustard gas, he reckons.’

‘Isn’t that what they used in the trenches in the First World War, Sir?’

‘Yes, that’s right, Constable. Deadly stuff, mustard gas. Killed thousands. The curious thing is, lad, Mrs Black’s husband, Matthew was found dead in his car, just up the road. The same thing. Mustard gas. In case you want to make a note that was at 12:39.’

‘That is a bit weird, Sir. …….. Look! I was nosing around the house a bit before you got here and I couldn’t help noticing all these boxed sets they’ve got. Parades End, Birdsong, Gallipoli, The Crimson Field, Our World War, The Passing Bells.

‘And?’

‘They are all First World War TV dramas.’

‘Ah yes, I see, Constable. Good thinking.’

‘Do you think there might be a connection, Sir?’

You mean, Those who use the sword shall die by the sword.’

‘No swords here,’ says Watson, looking confused.

‘It’s from the Bible, Watson. Jesus said it. When Peter cut off the high priest’s servant’s ear. I was using the expression metaphorically.’

‘Meta what, Sir?’

© Chris Green 2016: All rights reserved

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JAZZ

jazz

JAZZ by Chris Green

She came into Birth of Cool and asked if we had an original New York Prestige yellow label vinyl pressing of Webster Young’s For Lady. The precision of her request startled me.

Featuring Mal Waldron on piano and Paul Quinichette on tenor sax,’ I said. ‘Mellow album. We have a copy on CD.’

We had sold two or three CDs in the last year. Trumpeter, Webster Young’s 1957 tribute to Billie Holiday was becoming a classic; its smooth, lyrical lines latterly compared to those of Miles Davis. On release though the album had been overlooked. For a vinyl copy you would be looking at at least £500, and although we had some rare vinyl, we had nothing that rare.

That’s the one,’ she said. ‘But I do want it on vinyl.’

I explained its rarity and told her I could take her phone number and put out feelers. Meanwhile, she was welcome to browse the vinyl in the fifties selection. She might find something else she liked. I had Paul Quinichette’s On The Sunny Side and Thad Jones’ After Hours from the Prestige back catalogue as LPs. She smiled and thanked me. I thought I detected a trace of Spanish in her pronunciation. Her smile held a hint of flirtation. She flicked back her long dark hair and as she did so, her breasts rose up in the sleeveless chemisier she was wearing, offering a glimpse of cleavage. This girl was stunning.

She was a breath of fresh air. Birth of Cool’s customers tended to belong to the older age group and were predominantly male. Market research suggested that young urban males were drawn towards Indie Rock and young females went for R and B or Pop, neither of which we stocked. Young girls, in particular, seemed phased by the ambience of a specialist jazz shop. On the occasions that we did get a female under thirty, it was for the latest Gregory Porter CD or perhaps, something from Sadé’s back catalogue, and for reasons that I cannot explain these girls tended to be quite plain. This was strange really because on the occasions I had been to Ronnie Scotts or Boisdale Canary Wharf, I had been struck by the number of babes on display. Perhaps these beautiful young women went to these places because their boyfriends liked jazz and they did not themselves buy jazz records.

I watched her as she made her way through the albums, picking up one or two to read the sleeve notes. Although by this time I was serving another customer, I could not take my eyes off her. Her short skirt hugged her hips and shapely bottom and showed off her long tanned legs. As I bagged up the new customer’s Duke Ellington sheet music, I noticed that she had written her number on the pad on the counter. Her name was Maria.

I had been learning Spanish ahead of a holiday I was loosely planning in Spain. I thought I might go to Sevilla or Cordoba to take in the architectural treasures of the Moors’ Golden Rule. Since Easter, I had been attending evening classes at the local college. As Maria was leaving, I plucked up the courage to chance a little. I was serving an elderly customer with a Cleo Lane boxed set at the time, so it could easily have been embarrassing if Maria did not understand me.

Yo le llamaré tan pronto como encuentre el álbum. Hasta la vista,’ I called out. I hoped that the grammar was right, This was the area that I was having trouble with. I still did not know of course that Maria was Spanish.

Espero volver a verle pronto. Hasta luego,’ she said, as she blew me a kiss. ‘Besos.’

I was smitten.

The following day I was listening to Ghost of a Chance, by Zoot Sims, the first recording on which he had played soprano sax, in my opinion, a seriously underrated instrument. I had the volume turned right up and was singing along.

Cracking tune,’ said a voice in a thick Irish accent.

I turned around. Beside me was a short stocky geezer in a checked overcoat. Under his arm, he had a quantity of what I could see at a glance from the logos on the covers were old Prestige recordings. There must have been about twenty-five in all. He laid them down on the counter. I went through them. The sleeves appeared to be in good condition. There were albums by Billy Taylor, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane – and Webster Young’s neglected masterpiece. I did everything I could to hide my excitement.

I picked them up at an auction, so I did,’ he said. ‘What will you give me for them?’

I looked him up and down, mostly down. I was over six foot and he was about five foot four. He seemed a little fidgety. He did not look as if he was expecting much. I took one or two of them out of their dust jackets and inspected them.

Second-hand jazz record prices are at an all-time low,’ I said.

Not that low, to be sure,’ he said, hoping to gain some ground. ‘I’ve seen some of your prices.’

I’ll tell you what,’ I said. ‘I’ll give you twenty pounds for the lot. And you’re getting a very good deal.’

He grimaced, but to my delight accepted without trying to barter. I imagine he was heading to SportingBet three doors down.

I tried the number Maria had left right away. The phone rang and rang. No reply. No voice mail. To hide my disappointment I put For Lady on the Denon in the back of the shop and went back in to listen. What a sound! Vinyl provided a warmth and immediacy in its sound that digital could not match. Webster’s mournful muted trumpet sounded as if he were in the room, playing just for me. I could see why Maria wanted this record. It was sublime. When the album had finished and I had flipped it a couple of times, I tried the number again. There was still no reply. I tried phoning Maria every hour or so for the next two days. I realised that this was bordering on the obsessional, but I could not stop myself. On the third morning when I tried, I got the message, the number you have dialled is not available or not in service, please check the number and try again. I was devastated.

I started to keep the shop open late, listening to the best of the new releases I’d ordered along with classics from Miles or Mingus. I even bought some new Quad ESLs. Their three-dimensional sound was awesome. I played Webster Young. I lived with the hope that Maria might call in again. She did not. Sometimes people would trickle into the shop around seven on their way home from work and buy a few discs. They would chat about the music they liked and we would compare collections. It was good to have some company. It was certainly preferable to being home on my own.

Geraldine had left back in April. We had irreconcilable differences. She felt I spent too much time in the shop. I felt she spent too much time at the shops. Geraldine had never liked jazz much anyway. Perhaps I should have realised this from the beginning when I took her to see the legendary Herbie Hancock at The Roundhouse in Campden and she complained all the way home on the tube, that he seemed out of tune. She described Mulatu Astatke and the Heliocentrics magnificent set at Cargo, as a ‘bunch of buglers all playing different tunes’. John Coltrane she said sounded like someone treading on a cat. Certainly, I should definitely have registered our incompatibility by the time she took my clarinet to CLIC Sargent. It had been hard, at first, to adjust to the drop off in home comforts. I missed her chicken tetrazzini and her aubergine parmigiana, but on the plus side I was now spared The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent, and I was allowed to play my alto sax around the house and rescue my piano from the shed.

One afternoon I was in the shop listening to Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers with Wayne Shorter on tenor and Lee Morgan on trumpet while I was looking through some CCTV footage, following an incident outside Guy Coventry Gun and Sports Shop next door. Birth of Cool’s premises were in a downtown location, so it was not unusual for the police to ask me to check something for them. The Big Beat finished with the alternate take of It’s Only a Paper Moon. Apart from Tupac’s black BMW parked on the double yellow line, the cameras had not picked up anything suspicious, so I was about to switch back to live pictures. It was then that it occurred to me to look through the footage for the day Maria came into the shop. At least this way I would be able to see her again. I had the date and time etched into my memory, Monday, June 11th at 11:11 am, so I typed this into the machine and let the playback run. One or two customers came into the shop during the grainy footage, but to my alarm, there was absolutely no sign of Maria. I ran the footage again, adding a little time to both ends of the search. Still, it did not pick up Maria. What was happening? Had the Vigilant malfunctioned? Had I got the time wrong? I didn’t think so. The machine had picked up the customer I had sold the Duke Ellington sheet music to, and the one I had sold the Cleo Lane boxed set to. Could I have imagined the encounter? My heart was beating like an express train and I felt nauseous. I locked up the shop and went across the street to see Aziz in the pharmacy to see if he would let me have some valium.

I cannot be doing that,’ he said. ‘Islam forbids it.’

I pleaded with him but to no avail.

You must be pulling yourself together,’ he said. ‘Now please go, before my manager comes.’

Aziz would have been more accommodating a year or so ago. He had even offered to sell me skunk on one occasion. But, since he had joined the Muslim Brotherhood, he had changed.

I settled on a bumper pack of Kalms Day Tablets. I took handful right away. I went home and took the rest with a tumbler of Johnnie Walker. I may have refilled the tumbler. I did not go into work the next day.

When I went back in, I called in the engineer to check out the Vigilant recorder. He did some tests but could find no fault. He made a few adjustments to the focus on the cameras to justify the exorbitant call out fee. I got the feeling that he saw me as a weird jazz buff who had lost his grip on reality. I wondered if he was not right.

Maria haunted my unconscious. Night after night I went to sleep and there she would be, a nocturnal temptress. She featured in all my dreams. Some were easier to interpret than others. In one, she was on stage at The Hideaway Club playing the oboe and the instrument turned into my penis. In another, I was eating a bowlful of over-ripe peaches from her lap. In one of the more difficult ones, I was on a golden beach listening to Desafinado. Dolphins were playing in the surf. Maria, who I had met on a balloon trip, was rubbing olive oil into my back and talking in sultry Spanish. A man with a limp and a shamrock in his hair was selling doughnuts. He was dressed in a harlequin suit. Dwarf camels, as small as cats, were frolicking around pyramids that Maria and I had made in the sand. The scene changed to a crowded market place and a hooded figure riding a jet black quad bike and waving a dead fish was chasing me past stalls selling saxophones and clarinets. He was shouting at me in a language I did not recognise. I shouted back in a language I did not recognise. It was dark and I was trying to find my car. I could not remember what make of car it was or where I had left it, but the car had Barcelona plates. There was a large moon low in the sky and shapes of a craggy landscape were in silhouette. I was running. I had a battered leather suitcase in my hand. I had not packed it properly and Maria’s clothes were spilling out onto the cobbled stone street. I made an effort to look back but I knew the scene was disappearing. I realised that I was dreaming and I had the feeling that I had had this dream before, but as someone else. There was a faint light ahead, but this too was becoming fainter and more distant. I woke up in a sweat.

Weeks went by and I went through the motions of running Birth of Cool. My heart was not in it. I did not buy any new stock, and the number of customers dwindled. I now kept a bottle of Johnnie Walker out the back and went through to see how it was getting on regularly throughout the day. Caleb, a friend who I sometimes jammed with, told me I should stop moping around. I should get out more. It was easy for Caleb to say this, with his outgoing personality, and a seemingly endless procession of women wanting to go away for the weekend with him in his Winnebago. However, at the end of August, I decided to go for it. I closed the shop for a week and took a holiday in Barcelona. I had no idea which part of Spain, if any, Maria might be from, but for some reason, I had got it into my head that she might be from Barcelona.

Forty degrees was hotter than I was used to. I could not stop thinking about Maria as I ambled around the Barri Gòtic, looking for shade. Time and time again I thought I spotted her in the crowds, but it was just my imagination. I half-heartedly started to practice my Spanish in shops and tapas bars, but we were in Catalonia and I had difficulty in making my Castilian Spanish understood. I had even more difficulty understanding Catalan, which is to all intents and purposes a separate language. In the end, I stuck to English since everyone seemed to know I was English anyhow. How is it that people in Mediterranean countries always know where you are from before you even speak? August is probably not the best time to visit Barcelona. The streets are teeming and the pavements are like barbecue coals. Everywhere you go you have to sidestep African street vendors selling fake Gucci and Prada merchandise. It was good to get back to my backstreet hotel and the hum of the air-conditioning. On the evenings I didn’t fall asleep through exhaustion, I went to the Harlem and Jamboree jazz clubs. The Spanish have a drink called Fundador.

Everything about the plane bringing me back from Barcelona seemed anomalous. The cabin had unfamiliar livery, the crew were dressed in unfamiliar uniforms and I did not recognise any of the passengers from the outbound trip. I wondered if I was on the wrong flight, but the senior flight attendant assured me that we were going to the right airport. There seemed to be more turbulence than you might expect over the Bay of Biscay and the flight arrived a few hours late. In fact, I was asleep by the time we landed. I thought no more of it, but as I was driving home from the airport, little things seemed out of place. There seemed to be a number of new road layouts, the road signs were all in a different font, and the car radio wasn’t picking up my pre-tuned stations. I could not put my finger on what was happening, but little details in everyday life did not match those that I had grown used to. Tupac’s BMW was not parked on the double yellow lines outside, in fact, there were no double yellow lines outside, Guy Coventry Gun and Sports Shop had become a nail bar, and the cycle repair shop had been replaced by a Bulgarian supermarket and the railway bridge had disappeared.

Eventually, my birthday, September 11th, came around. It had been three months to the day since Maria had entered my life. I had dug out some of my favourite tunes and was playing Charlie Parker’s version of Out of Nowhere, when out of nowhere as if on cue Maria walked through the door. She was wearing a cream trouser suit and a dark blue floppy straw hat. She had a small travelling bag over her shoulder. The suit looked a bit crumpled, but she looked divine. My heart skipped a beat. I would be able to present her with the Webster Young LP. I would be able to take her in my arms and make love to her.

Maria, however, was not smiling. She had a serious look about her. Hesitantly she came over to the counter. I sensed that something was wrong. I turned the music down.

Quiero que matar a mi marido,’ she whispered.

Matar – kill, marido – husband. My brain worked it out slowly.

You want me to kill your husband?’

Sí. Me gustaría usted hacer esto,’ she said. ‘I would like you to do that.’ She looked me right in the eye. It seemed that her proposal was serious.

W – why do you want me to kill your husband,’ I stammered.

I will start at the beginning. Kyle has always been a very jealous man. Three months ago he came back from a business trip and found some tickets from The Jazz Café by the side of the bed and accused me of having an affair.’

From the way she had flirted with me earlier, I could appreciate how he might be worried. I said nothing.

I had been out with my friend, Yvette, but he didn’t believe me,’ she continued, her voice becoming a little shaky. ‘He completely lost control, called me a bitch and a whore and he took off his belt and beat me savagely. He stamped up and down on my phone so I couldn’t contact anyone and kept me in a locked room. Worse still, he would come in sometimes in the middle of the night and rape me. Es un bestia abominable. He does not deserve to live.’

She was crying now. I put my arm around her to comfort her.

But why me?’ I said.

I don’t know. I just thought of you. You seemed to care.’

There was a silence while I tried to assess the situation. Care I might, but murder was not something I had ever in my life contemplated, even in my darkest moments.

Why don’t you call the police?’ I queried.

I did call the police. As soon as I escaped from the house, I called the police. From a phone box. They were not interested. They treated it as a domestic matter,’ she said. ‘They took some details but I could tell they were not taking me seriously. Eventually, I ran out of coins.’

I was being drawn into the front line of Maria’s troubled life. It struck me there was a significant gulf between selling hit records and being a hitman. I had not bargained for complications like this in my ardent fantasy. I felt I had stepped into a nightmare. I told her I couldn’t give her an answer right away. This was something that needed careful consideration. Inasmuch as it was here and now, the experience in the existentialist sense was ‘authentic’ but there was an edge of the surreal about it. This world was out of kilter. My head was spinning.

Can I come and stay with you?’ Maria asked, pleadingly. ‘And we can talk about it.’

How could I say no? Given time, I reasoned I might be able to talk her round. After all murderous intent is not a rational state of mind. Maybe we could go away for a few days to lift her spirits, and she would have time to reconsider. We could perhaps go on the Eurostar to Paris and catch some of the programme from the Quai Jazz Festival. Once we had got to know one another better she would hopefully stop talking about murder. She didn’t. Once we had made love, she got right back on to it.

In the perfect murder,’ she said. ‘the murderer either has a trustworthy witness who can provide an alibi, or has no apparent motive and leaves no incriminating items or physical evidence at the scene of the crime.’

I could see that the trustworthy witness who could provide an alibi might be a problem. The no apparent motive was now quickly vanishing and DNA might be an issue regarding covering one’s tracks. Anyway I wasn’t considering it, was I? I had to bring forward the Eurostar idea.

We will go soon, cariño,’ she said. ‘Once my husband is out of the way.’

In this baffling world where there were new road signs, no digital radio stations, no double yellow lines outside my shop, a Bulgarian supermarket where the cycle repair shop should be, and someone who was invisible on CCTV staying with me, I discovered another anomaly: there were no trains. I do not mean that there were no trains running on the line over the old railway bridge, or even that the Eurostar service had been suspended; there were no trains anywhere. You would have thought something this important would have been newsworthy. I tried searching on Dogpile but could find no reference to trains, or the lack of. Perhaps there had never been any trains. I thought of asking Maria about it, but of course, she might not know about it because she had been kept in a locked room. I went in to ask Aziz, who I noticed was now clean-shaven.

There have not been any trains for months,’ he laughed. ‘Since the debacle over the franchises.’

Maria kept on pushing the idea of murder. Each time I came up with a plan for our escape, it encountered an obstacle. For instance, Maria did not have a passport and she had left all her papers behind. And after we had made love, she would once again return to the subject of killing her husband.

I can get into his electronic calendar,’ she said one time. ‘I can find out where he will be and when he will be on his own.’

What about leaving DNA?’

The next day she said, ‘One idea I have is a fast-acting poison that will simulate a heart attack.’

You have to be able to get to him to administer the poison. There’s the problem of leaving DNA, still. DNA is a real bugbear when it comes to planning murders. And what about CCTV cameras?’

This might not be an issue. Were you able to see me on your CCTV cameras?’

No, but …..’

You must have realised that some things are not the same as in the world that you are used to,’ she said. ‘You will surely by now have noticed subtle differences.’

Are you saying that this is not the real world?’ I asked, dumbfounded.

This is not an imaginary world, querido,’ she said. ‘To most of those around you, this is everyday just as they’ve always known it, but you have, as it were, crossed over from another temporal space.’

Am I able to return to the old reality, to cross back over?’

You might be able to return the way you came, but first, you have to understand how you arrived here. Only you can do that.’

And supposing I could return, would I be able to take you back with me to the real world.’

It is not the real world, mi bello, any more than this one is an imaginary world.’

But would I?’

No-one can say. There are no records of such matters.’

This was about as clear as mud.

I slipped out to the shops once or twice to help kit Maria out and to get our day to day supplies, but we couldn’t go out together for fear of her being seen. In fact, she couldn’t go out at all. She was in essence still a prisoner. I had been able to get Caleb to look after Birth of Cool for a few days, but he was becoming suspicious about what was going on. Caleb would be in the old world, with the gunshop next door to Birth of Cool, the one with the railway bridge – wouldn’t he?

Maria and I couldn’t hide out forever. We needed a resolution. There were two options: either I kill her husband, or we find a way to cross back over. First, you have to understand how you arrived here, Maria had said. I tried to think this through. The weirdness had begun when Maria first arrived in the shop back in June. But the day to day did not change too much until I returned from Barcelona. I had initially noticed big changes on the plane. When I had visited Barcelona I had been so preoccupied, I had scarcely taken in anything about the city, other than where the landmarks in the Gothic centre were, and the location of one or two jazz bars. Apart than that, all I knew that was that Barcelona had held the Olympics a while back and had a better than average football team. And weren’t there some connections with Picasso and Salvador Dali? I decided it would be a good idea to do some research on Dogpile. It was a long shot, but the hope was that it might throw up some links between the city and transmigration. Was this the right word? Clearly not! I found out that Barcelona was the sixteenth most visited city in the world and the seventh most important fashion capital in the world. I discovered that drivers in Barcelona were considered among the worst in the world, with an accident occurring in the city every nineteen seconds, this rising to one every sixteen seconds on a Friday. All very interesting from a cultural point of view, but not exactly the kind of information I was looking for.

On my return, security at the airport I recall had been lax, in fact non-existent. It seemed I was off the plane and straight into the car. I could not even remember picking up my case. Then there had been the missing motorway turn-off and the unmarked road that took me past the new logistics warehouse. Where were the old army barracks I should have passed? There were the changes I found on my return to my street to consider and to cap it all the mystery regarding the trains. I felt I could no longer be certain of anything.

Caleb phoned me to tell me he was sorry to leave me in the lurch but he had to go off to teach a weekend workshop in Experimental Jazz in North Norfolk. Ornette Coleman, John Zorn, The Cinematic Orchestra, that sort of thing, he said.

I’ll be alright on my own,’ Maria said. ‘There’s your film noir collection to explore. I can watch The Postman Always Rings Twice, and if I get bored I can repot your Phoenix Roebelenii.’

So, on Saturday I went in to open up Birth of Cool. Apart from the tree that was blocking the road and the new arthouse cinema that had opened across the street, everything seemed normal. I soon got into the swing of things, put on a Cool Jazz compilation and waited for the Saturday shoppers.

I did not recognise him right away, but something was familiar about his features. He had slipped in unnoticed and was browsing the CDs in the Be Bop section. He was a thick-set man, a little shorter than I was, perhaps five foot ten. He had short brown hair that was thinning on top. He wore a shiny grey suit and an open-necked shirt with a chunky gold chain around his neck. I moved around to take a closer look, being careful not to attract his attention. My heart stood still. This was definitely Maria’s husband, Kyle. I had been shown the photo often enough. This was the man Maria wanted me to kill. It was a shame Guy Coventry Gun and Sports Shop was no longer next door. I could have prepared for the encounter. What was he doing here? I kept my eye on his every movement. He did not look as if was about to attack me. He was not giving this impression at all. He appeared to be genuinely looking for a Jazz CD. He smiled at me, made his way over to the Hard Bop section and picked up a Horace Silver CD to look at the tracks. There was no one else in the shop now but the two of us. He ambled over to the vinyl section, a long rack holding a few hundred albums. He seemed in no hurry, flicking methodically through the discs. I busied myself sorting out the clutter that Caleb had left around the till area, casting furtive glances in Kyle’s direction now and then. Looks can be deceiving, but he did not look like a violent man at all and, I noticed, he did not wear a belt. I began to have doubts about Maria’s story about the beatings. She hadn’t had any bruises when she came to stay. It also began to seem questionable that anyone could be locked in a room for three months, and in our sexual relations, she had not shown the reticence you might expect from a victim of rape. Vacillation took hold.

Having selected a couple of Chet Baker CDs, White Blues and One Night in Tokyo with Harold Danko, Kyle came slowly over to the counter. Now was make or break time. Should I grab the Leak amplifier and smash him over the head with it? The moment passed.

I don’t suppose you ever come across the New York Prestige yellow label vinyl pressing of Webster Young’s For Lady featuring Mal Waldron on piano and Paul Quinichette on tenor sax,’ he said, in a quiet well-spoken voice. ‘I’ve been looking for it for ages.’

I was shaking.

No,’ I finally managed to say, ‘It’s quite rare, isn’t it.’

I’ll just take these then,’ he said, with a polite smile. ‘But if you ever do come across it though, would you be good enough to let me know?’ He handed me his business card, Kyle Clancy – Futures Trader, and slid his credit card into the machine. I was gripped by indecision. The bronze statuette of Louis Armstrong that I used as a paperweight was close at hand. This could deliver a savage blow. Should I or shouldn’t I? How could I kill someone who might well be innocent of any wrongdoing? How could I face Maria if I didn’t take this golden opportunity? Once more the moment passed. Kyle took his CDs and left with a cheery wave.

See you again,’ he said.

The mysteries were multiplying. What was I to believe? What would happen next? For all I knew Kyle might at this very moment be on his way round to my house to do unspeakable things to Maria. Anything was possible. I phoned home, using the code I had agreed with Maria. She was to let it ring four times, and wait for me to ring again a few seconds later. She was to answer on the third ring. She didn’t. Could it be that she hadn’t heard the phone? The Bose Cinemate home cinema system could be quite loud. Maybe she was making her way through my film noir collection.

I shut up the shop and rushed back home. The house was empty. There was no sign of Maria. All her clothes were gone from the bedroom. She had vanished. She did not appear to have left a note. Kyle had not had time to have spirited her away. There were no signs of a struggle. She must have left of her own volition. But why?

I noticed too the Webster Young LP was gone. What was it about this world-weary collection of tunes that had made it so sought after? Certainly, there were beautiful passages of light to punctuate its bleakness, and the counterpoint between Young’s trumpet and Paul Quinichette’s tenor was outstanding, but was it worth all the upheaval it seemed to be causing? After a settling pint of Johnnie Walker, I tried to assess the situation on a point by point, best guess basis.

My life had been normal up until three months ago when Maria came in and asked for the LP.

I was now in some kind of alternative reality at the mercy of unpredictable developments.

I had been completely obsessed by Maria at the expense of all else.

Maria may have had supernatural powers, or be a fraud.

I had resisted the opportunity to kill Kyle.

Kyle may have been a fraud.

Nothing made any sense.

I was bewildered.

I was drunk.

I think it was Alexander Graham Bell who said, ‘When one door closes another door opens, but we so often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door, that we do not see the ones which open for us.’ So it was I made the decision to try to forget about Maria, put the whole episode behind me, and get on with my life. I wrote out a shopping list and wondered about buying a dog. Later that day, out of the blue, I had a phonecall telling me that I’d won First Prize in a raffle. I didn’t even know that I’d entered a raffle. All I had to do, the girl on the phone said, was turn up at the airfield and do a short training course. Was there a hint of Spanish pronunciation in her voice? Or just my imagination again?

You will then be treated to a three-course lunch,’ she said, ‘before making the drop.’

The drop,’ I remember thinking, ‘what drop?’

My brain had for some reason thought she had been talking about a balloon ride, which would have been a more usual raffle prize than a parachute jump. What made me go ahead with the jump, I cannot say. I was terrified of heights, but the girl sold the idea well, talking about the enjoyment and the exhilaration of skydiving. It was a static line parachute, she said, which opened automatically, so I did not have to worry. It seemed churlish to refuse.

I put on my best metaphorical brown trousers and went along. Jumping out of the plane was among the scariest moments of my life. I blacked out for a split second. Once I regained consciousness, however, I found the experience oddly exhilarating. A static line jump from 3,500 feet from the moment you leave the plane to the moment you hit the ground should take about three minutes. Mine took over an hour. Albert Einstein once said, ‘Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity.’ I would have accepted this as the explanation, but my watch confirmed that an hour had passed. An hour in which I was able to play over in my head the events of the past few months and put them in perspective. An hour in which I had time to consider my desert island discs, should I ever be invited on to the show. An hour in which I was able to remember the whole plot of Inception.

One the way back home, to my astonishment, I noticed that the road signs had been changed back to their original font, and the car DAB once again picked up the pre-tuned stations. Jazz FM was running a Blue Note special. When I got back, Tupac’s BMW was once again parked on the double yellow lines outside my shop, Guy Coventry Gun and Sports Shop was open again and the railway bridge was back. A train zipped across it. Aziz was just leaving the pharmacy. He waved.

Hi Aziz,’ I shouted across the road. ‘It’s good to see that you’ve grown your beard again. I couldn’t get used to you clean shaven.’

The following day, I spruced up the shop a little. I sorted out the old stock and put some items in a Sale bin. I took down the out-of-date notices for the summer jazz festivals and put some colourful new displays in the window. I had just made myself a cup of lemon and ginger tea and put on some Miles Davis when a pair of tall men in badly fitting blue suits walked in. They appeared uncomfortable in the surroundings. They did not look like they had come in to buy jazz.’

We would like to ask you some questions relating to the murder of Kyle Clancy,’ said the one with the pencil moustache, flashing an identity card. ‘We would like you to accompany us to the station.’

This was not what I had in mind about one door closing and another opening. Perhaps Alexander Graham Bell had just lived in a very draughty house.

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

DARK

dark2018

DARK by Chris Green

I am in the garden at The Pig and Whistle on a hot August evening. About a dozen of us are sat around a table. Darkness is descending, rapidly, the way it does in mid-August. The English summer is so fleeting. Blink and it is gone. Every year it seems the locals try to hold on to the disappearing season by savouring these last moments. Soon it will end. It is not like this back home.

I have been holding forth about a painting of Jim Morrison that I have just finished. I have called it Lizard King. It is part of my Twenty Seven Club series.

I’m Matt,’ says the man sitting opposite me. ‘They call me Matt the Hat.’

I already know this of course because I have been sleeping with his girlfriend, Saskia. The last time, not two hours previously, as it happens. But Matt the Hat doesn’t know this. Nor does he know that I know who he is, but even if I didn’t, I might have been able to guess the Hat part of it.

I’m Sebastian,’ I say.

I love The Doors,’ he says.

I’ve just picked up on their music,’ I say.’They did some great songs.’

Did you know Jim had an IQ of 149,’ he says?

No,’ I say. ‘Clever guy, then.’

Or, that his favourite singer was Elvis Presley?’

I did not, Matt,’ I say.

I’m not sure where this conversation can go. I don’t want to come across as too friendly because I must remain incognito. I am not really Sebastian. I took the name from an old Cockney Rebel song that I heard a while back, Somebody called me Sebastian. Quite a dark tune, I suppose. Most of the others around the table know me as Clive and a few of them are amused by the situation, but no-one is letting on. For now, I am enjoying this subterfuge, although I am aware that Saskia, who I am fond of, will be leaving with Matt the Hat at the end of the evening.

I quickly dispense with the Doors conversation and guide the topic round to hats. I ask him if his hat is a Borsalino, knowing full well that it is not. It is not even a Fedora. Matt says he doesn’t know.

What are you doing with a man who doesn’t know what hat he’s wearing, Saskia?’ says Paddy the Poet.

Well, Matt, it’s not a sombrero, is it?’ I say.

Don and Gina chuckle. They are fully aware that I am trying to rile Matt. If it came down to it, they would be on my side. They only know Matt the Hat through Saskia. In fact, most of the people around the table only know Matt through Saskia. Saskia is a popular girl in these parts. The life and soul of the party sort of girl. Matt is seen here as a bit of an interloper. He is not one of the regular Pig and Whistle crowd, whereas I have been coming here for months. When did Matt appear on the scene? Where did he come from? Doesn’t he usually drink at The Blind Monkey along the road?

It’s not a crash helmet, Matt,’ is it?’ says Biker Dennis.

And it’s not a leopard skin pill box hat,’ says the guy who used to be in The Manic Street Preachers.

Hats move on to shoes, windsurfing and Damien Hirst via New York, Dark Side of the Moon, fairground rides, drink drive limits and aliens. The summer evening passes in the way that summer evenings do in the yard of the Pig and Whistle with details becoming more and more blurry. People come and people go, some familiar and some unfamiliar. Who, for instance, are the two Roy Orbison lookalikes dressed in dark clothes sat in the shadow of the brooding zelkova serrata? No-one pays much attention to them. Perhaps I am the only one to notice them.

We have Stella Artois and Fosters to fuel us, Old Thumper ale and something called Stagger scrumpy. Take your pick. They all seem to do the job. The noise level rises, drinks get spilt and spliffs are surreptitiously passed around. By and by, Saskia gets up to leave with Matt the Hat. She gives me a knowing look and says, ‘It was nice to meet you, Sebastian,’ This is the last I ever see of her. Or for that matter Matt the Hat. I’m not too concerned about Matt the Hat. He was never going to be a big feature in my life, but Saskia could have been.

Their disappearance is shrouded in mystery. No one seems to know what happened to them. I may have been distracted as they were making their way out of the pub, but did the two men in dark suits who were sitting under the brooding zelkova serrata follow them out? By the time I looked round for them, they too had disappeared. Might they originally have been looking for me, found out I was seeing Saskia and when they came to the Pig and Whistle formed the impression that Matt was me?

……………………………………..

I like to go walking in the hills, sometimes even when it is dark. It gives me time to reflect on my journey and how far I have come, since. ……. Well, that all seems a long time ago. I usually go walking on my own, although I have met someone called Abi who enjoys the countryside too. From time to time, when the weather is favourable, she tags along. Abi is a little younger than me. Sometimes it appears that everyone is younger than me, but I guess this is all relative. Einstein thought so.

I am fortunate that I can make enough money from my paintings not to worry about having a job or keeping regular hours. Watching the distress that working for some exploitative multinational corporation seems to cause the toiling millions makes me feel that I a blessed to have such a talent. If you should care to look me up on the internet, Augustus Dark, that is, not Sebastian or Clive, you will find my work referred to as iconic nostalgia, fantasy portraiture, outsider art and even pop art, but I am perhaps none of these things. I seem to have discovered a lucrative but as yet untapped market. I have an exhibition coming up at a top gallery. I’m quite excited at the prospect but I hope that it doesn’t attract unwanted visitors. They may have realised their earlier mistake and still be out there somewhere.

……………………………………..

What kind of car do you think that is?’ I say to Abi, pointing to the car in front of us. We are driving down Black Dog Way on our way to the hardware store for storage boxes. I have been living with Abi for a few months now and we are about to move into a new house, out of town. The car we are following appears at first glance to be a run-of-the-mill large hatchback with the tinted rear screen, triangular shaped red tail lights, centre high mount stop lamps and twin exhausts you would expect to find on such a car. Despite these consistencies, it somehow doesn’t look right. There is something unexplainably other about it.

It’s says Hyperion,’ says Abi.

I can see that,’ I say. ‘But Hyperion is the model name. What make is it? Who’s the manufacturer? I’ve not seen that badge before.’

Neither have I,’ says Abi. Abi is normally quite observant.

The design is a rounded M shape over a what looks like a rounded W inside a circle. It’s surprising how easily logos and trademarks from everyday life become ingrained in one’s consciousness and this one has not registered yet. I can’t make out who is in the car or how many of them there are because of the tinted rear window but I have a bad feeling about them. As soon as I get the chance, I take a left turn.

As we move through the slow moving traffic, Abi and I rack our brains, with each of us suggesting names of far-eastern car manufacturers that we are half-familiar with. None of these seems to be the right one. Something about this is not right. Perhaps I am being anal but when we get back home, I do a Google search for Hyperion. I am aware of course of what Hyperion is and my search does no more than confirm this. It comes up with nothing vaguely automobile-related. I then draw the logo design as I remember it and spend an hour or so trying to match my drawing with an image of it on the web, but to no avail. The brand apparently does not exist. The registration number I took down, I discover, belongs to a white Renault Clio. Next, I try to find a picture of a black hatchback to match the shape but this is hopeless. All cars of a certain size look similar these days, at least from the rear.

I am still searching, when Abi comes in, scrolling down her phone. She is wearing the anguished expression she wears when something bad is trending on social media.

Oh my God!’ she says. ‘Lol Popp has died. Under mysterious circumstances, it says here. Drugs, they think.’

Lol Popp? Doesn’t he live somewhere around here?’ I say. ‘Some big house on the hill.’

It says, the star who has sold twenty million albums was found dead by his bodyguard earlier today in his West Country mansion.’

That’s a real shame,’ I say, trying to stay calm. ‘I really liked some of his tunes, Men in Black and what was that other one? Lost in Space? Lol was quite young, wasn’t he?’

Twenty seven,’ she says. ‘I suppose you have to do a painting of him now.’

Does a desire to join the twenty seven club, that growing list of rock icons that died at twenty seven, explain his demise? Or could there be a more sinister explanation? Lol always seemed a bit …… other-worldly. The way he wore that black face mask. The way he always wore purple. The way he never gave interviews. I am back on my laptop now, scanning the news sites. To my alarm, there is a report in Huffington Post saying only hours after he had been found dead Lol’s body disappeared, along with the bodyguard. That’s weird. It was the bodyguard who found him. I don’t share the development with Abi or let her know what I am thinking. She will tell me I am being paranoid.

Over the next few days, I continue to look out for the car with the rogue badge. There are Buforis, Peroduas, Acuras, Hyundais and Ssangyongs aplenty and even an old Lada Riva, but no Hyperion. The thought occurs more than once that the original Hyperion we saw might just have been someone playing a prank. But, I have a nagging suspicion that this isn’t the case. I can’t get rid of the thought that there is a more sinister explanation. I hope I am wrong. I like it here.

……………………………………..

The black Hyperion is at the gate. Two men in dark suits and dark glasses step out. This is it. They have come for me. They will escort me to the landing craft. They will take me back home. It is time. I should be pleased that Abi has gone to Pilates, that she is not here. They would take her too. That would be unfair on her. She might not like it where I’m going. But, I can’t help wanting her to be with me, even though she is from this world and not from ours.

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

 

Twinned with Area 51

twinnedwitharea51

Twinned with Area 51 by Chris Green

Warchester – Twinned with Area 51, the sign said. This ought to have triggered alarm bells but it didn’t. Area 51 was just a remote place in the US that I had heard reference to in random conversations. At the time, I knew little about the clandestine goings-on there. Ignoring the yellow and black notices of some clandestine activity that took place behind a barbed wire fence, I drove on into the centre of the town. I was not planning to spend much time in Warchester. I was just using it as a stop-off so what could possibly go wrong?

Warchester seemed quieter than you might expect for a town of its size but I put the lack of people down to the heavy rain we had had earlier in the day. On the plus side, it meant I had no trouble parking the car close to a nice looking café called Dreamland. There was no signal to be had on my phone but this did not surprise me greatly. Coverage was not so comprehensive back then and my network had been having problems. As I ate my mid-morning breakfast, some soft jazz music played, Theolonius Monk or Bill Evans perhaps. A middle-aged couple on a nearby table discussed the previous night’s night’s episode of The X Files and across from me, a geeky man with blue glasses was doing the Guardian cryptic crossword. There was nothing I could consider out of the ordinary. It was not until I got outside and found that my car was no longer there that I got the feeling that things might not be going to plan.

……………………………………….

The bizarre conversation that was going on in Warchester police station did nothing to ease my concerns.

‘Where was it again that you said the craft landed, Mr Spayne?’ Sergeant Sargent was saying.

‘Up by the reservoir,’ the man in the cream windcheater raincoat in front of me at the desk told him. ‘I was out walking Trevor.’

‘And Trevor is your dog, I take it.’

‘No,’ Mr Spayne said ‘Trevor is my ferret. My dog is called Fenton. He’s a terrier. Fenton is a good name for a terrier, don’t you think? Much better than Fido or Rover. I used to have two dogs, Sergeant but sadly now I only have the one, Fenton.’

‘To save time, Mr Spayne, I won’t ask what your other dog was called,’ the Sergeant said.

‘Oh, that’s all right, Sergeant. I’m not in a hurry,’ Mr Spayne said. ‘My other dog was called Flynn. Flynn was a retriever. He died last ……. ‘

‘So let me get this right, Mr Spayne, you were out walking …. Trevor when you saw the little green men emerge from the landing craft.’

‘That’s right, Sergeant, except they weren’t little, they weren’t green and they weren’t men. More like big black blobs.’

‘Mr Spayne. I do appreciate that you may feel that you have witnessed something strange but I’m wondering if the police are the right people to deal with this particular matter,’ Sergeant Sargent said. ‘Is it your belief perhaps that these …… aliens have committed a crime?’

‘I was coming to that, Sergeant but you kept interrupting me,’ Mr Spayne said. ‘These black blobs tried to abduct Trevor. They were after my ferret. Abducting a ferret is a crime, is it not?’

I had been waiting a few minutes now and was anxious to talk to someone. ‘I have a real crime to report,’ I said.

Mr Spayne seemed equally keen to continue with his science fiction story. Landing craft. Big black blobs indeed. What a load of twaddle!

Eventually, Sergeant Sargent managed to placate Mr Spayne with the promise that he would look into the attempted ferret abduction and he left. I joked that perhaps Mr Spayne’s elevator didn’t go right to the top but he just shrugged. Maybe there were a lot of crazy people around those parts. I began to tell the Sergeant about my stolen car.

‘We don’t do any of that stuff here, he said. ‘Car theft is with a ……. private contractor. You could have phoned the details through to them.’

‘No phone signal,’ I told him.

‘Ah yes. That can be a problem around here. You may have noticed there are no phone shops. They don’t do seem to do very well in Warchester. Look. As you’ve been kept waiting, I’ll log your information into CarCrime’s page for you.’

I gave him the details and he keyed these in. Chat was minimal, but I did not feel particularly chatty anyhow.

CarCrime will be in touch,’ he said.

‘When do you think that might be?’ I asked.

‘Difficult to say,’ he said. ‘If you don’t hear from them by ……….’

Should I stay or should I go? I wondered. I didn’t think I wanted to be there. I couldn’t imagine for the life of me why the directions I was given had sent me this way in the first place. There must have been a more convenient place to break the journey, closer to the motorway. But what was done was done. I could have hired a car and been out of here in no time at all. But, I would have still had to return to Warchester when they found my car. I decided it was best to hang around until I heard something. I asked Sergeant Sargent about hotels. He told me he was not a travel agent but directed me to an establishment down the road.

……………………………………….

I found myself at the curiously named Paradise Ranch Hotel. The lobby, although large was theatrical like a 1920s black and white film set but disarmingly dark. A lugubrious man dressed formally in a long-tailed coat and a dress shirt greeted me. He was long and lean, perhaps six foot six tall and moved slowly. He had a dome-shaped forehead which served to emphasise both his age and his baldness. He stopped short of saying, ‘we’ve been expecting you.’ But as his deep voice echoed around the calignous space, his presence felt menacing in an occult kind of way. He handed me the key to Room 109 which he told me was on the third floor. The lift was ancient and instead of floor numbers on the four buttons, there were strange runic symbols. Another theatrical frill, surely. I assumed they must equate to Ground, First, Second and Third but still I hesitated a little before pressing the top one. As the lift ascended, I had a sense of foreboding. I couldn’t help but wonder why Room 109 was on the third floor.

Room 109 must have been the only hotel room I’d taken that had no window. As a result, it felt claustrophobic. An unpleasant aroma pervaded, organic, yet at the same time oddly metallic. To add to this, there was a disturbing background hum, a low pitched sound that appeared to be all around me. I remembered reading that our ears have trouble determining the direction low frequencies are coming from. This is why you can hear the bass from the Reggae DJ down the road from a long way off yet have no idea which house it’s coming from. I tried to get online but no luck. Nor was there a phone signal. How would I know when they had found my car? I needed to get down to some research about what went on in this town. I made my way down to the lobby to ask about it and to see if perhaps I could change rooms but the horror film character had disappeared, I rang the bell on the desk and waited around but no-one appeared.

How had I got myself into this odd situation? Why was all this happening? I had had plans for a fun weekend. I needed to take stock. My head was doing cartwheels. I really needed to get on the internet to find out more about Warchester. What, for instance, was it that went on at the place with the barbed wire fence that I had passed on the approach road? The one that I foolishly had taken no notice of. Was it a surveillance centre? Was it a research establishment? How could I get any information about it? There must be a library in town. They would have computers and they would be bound to have stacks of reference books, then this would all begin to make sense.

……………………………………….

I managed to find the library without too much trouble but it was boarded up. Closed Until Further Notice, said a sign. Cutbacks, I supposed. They were happening all over the country. But, why were the post boxes on the main street all sealed up and why were there no public phone booths? Everything about the town seemed wrong. I made my way back to Dreamland café. At least there were signs of normality here when I had dropped by earlier, although now I thought of it, the coffee had tasted a little bitter. Perhaps I was now looking for further anomalies and shouldn’t get too carried away. I could ask the proprietor what was going on.

Alas, I found that the shutters were down. Dreamland had closed for the day. Strange, it was only 1:30. Perhaps it was siesta time in Warchester. This may not have been the Mediterranean but everything else here seemed out of kilter. I considered asking a stranger on the street for information but looking around me there was no-one about I could ask. I’d only seen three or four people since I’d left the hotel and each of these had looked a little creepy. One or two shops had sign-writing in a strange alphabet but these too seemed to be closed. No Conspiracy Theorists Here read a notice in the window of a Cancer Research charity shop. At least it was open. I was about to go in to look around when I was accosted by two sturdy police officers. This pair were altogether different to Sergeant Sargent. They were dressed in urban camouflage gear and they had guns.

‘Get your ass over there!’ ordered the one with the gallery of face tattoos.

There was really no need as the one with the shaved head and the funky badge on his tunic, brandishing the handcuffs was already escorting me by the collar in the direction of the armoured vehicle parked on the corner. I was terrified but also baffled. If they had wanted to pick me up so badly, why hadn’t they done so when I arrived in Warchester or at the police station when I had gone in to report my stolen car? If they wanted me out of the way, why had they taken my car? I would have been long gone by now.

The one with the face tattoos tied my hands behind my back and blindfolded me. They uttered a few more threats and threw me into the vehicle. In the short journey that followed, I tried to retrace my steps since I arrived in Warchester. To see if anything fell into place. I had noticed very little as I was driving in. I had had no reason to. I was not aiming to be in Warchester very long. The first thing I could remember was the sign. Twinned with Area 51, it had said. Hadn’t I once half-watched a television programme about it on Channel 4? There had been something about the Moon landings having been filmed in Area 51. And, hadn’t an alien spacecraft landed nearby? Weren’t they reported to have captured the aliens? I seemed to remember some excited geeks in woolly hats banging on about all the things that were kept hidden from them. But this was all I can dredge up from the depths. I’d never been good with documentaries. Short attention span.

……………………………………….

We arrived at our destination and I was roughly bundled up some steps and into a building and taken up in a screaky stop-start lift. Because of the blindfold, I could not be sure but I was pushed into what felt like a dark room. I could smell the same disconcerting aromas that I had been able to in the hotel earlier. Might this be the same hotel, I wondered? Might this be Room 109 again?

‘Why don’t you tell me who you are?’ I spluttered.

No response.

‘What have I supposed to have done.’

No response. These paramilitary cops did not seem to engage much in conversation.

‘Why don’t you tell me why I’m here?’ I continued.

There was a lot of shuffling around as if they were rearranging furniture or something. And then they were gone. The door closed behind them.

‘Just tell me what it is you want from me,’ I shouted after them.

‘You might as well save your breath,’ said a voice from behind me. A soft female voice.

‘What? …… Who?’

‘I kicked off a bit when they first left me here,’ she continued. ‘No-one came. ……… And before you ask, I don’t know why they’ve brought me here either. I only came to Warchester because I was told there was a Farfetch designer outlet here.’

‘And I’m guessing there isn’t,’ I said.

‘No bloody shops at all, are there?’ she said. ‘Unless you count that joke shop.’

‘Joke shop?’ I said.

‘The one that sells the quicksand and the chocolate teapots,’ she said.

Was this going to be another of those surreal exchanges that ended up going nowhere, I wondered. But, thankfully things quickly moved on. While we were both bound and blindfolded, we worked out that with a little effort and ingenuity, we would be able to free one another. As we were doing so, realisation began to take hold. This was all part of the plan.

‘I’m Maddie,’ she said, meeting my gaze. A powerful surge of electricity seemed to pass between us.

‘I’m Jon,’ I said. ‘Jon Straight.’

‘Right, Jon,’ she said. ‘I don’t imagine you’ve been bending spoons or have walked through any walls lately. So, any teeny weeny suspicion about why you might be here? ‘

‘Same reason as you, I’m hoping,’ I said.

Arguably circumstances played their part but I was instantly taken by Maddie’s breezy personality. I was surprised that you could actually buy floral dungarees like the ones she was wearing but she was certainly attractive.

……………………………………….

‘So that’s how the two of you met,’ Simon says. ‘Cool.’

‘Yes. son. The Mystery Adventure Weekend Dating Service. Although, neither of us expected that the adventure part would be so ……. surreal. We thought it might involve a little orienteering or white water rafting or something. We certainly didn’t expect to be spending the time in a nightmare place like Warchester. I still don’t know how they did that. It’s not on the map, you know?’

‘Oh well,’ Simon says. ‘You can’t have everything. But, do you know what? I think Mum’s still got those floral dungarees.’

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved

 

EXTRA

extraEXTRA by Chris Green

How do they know there are only thirteen days left? How can anyone be so precise? And what exactly is the nature of the emergency? Why does no-one appear to know? Or if they do know, why are they reluctant to tell us? Not that I am able to do much about it, whatever it is, stuck on the third floor of this ill-equipped institution building in the middle of nowhere in a wheelchair with both legs in plaster. You can’t even get the internet in here to find out what is going on. Perhaps you can’t get the internet anywhere now. Perhaps the internet has been closed down. This would make sense if they, whoever they are, don’t want people to find out what is happening.

It wasn’t so bad at first when we were told there were nineteen days left. First thoughts were that it was probably a hoax or that, whatever the supposed emergency was, it would go away. There was plenty of time, nineteen whole days. There’s not much that stays in the news for nineteen days. But, as the days count down with no further revelations about the nature of the emergency, and seemingly no way of finding out what is going on, I can’t help but speculate. What are they hiding and why? Is there a colossal asteroid on a collision course? Has there been a nuclear accident? A biological attack? There have of course always been things that have been kept secret on the basis that it is not in the public interest to know. Rumours about unbearably loud sounds, antimatter on the loose, apocalyptic winds, blinding blue lights. Media silence seems somehow more sinister.

Of course, there were dozens of us here at first. Only those of us who are physically unable to get away remain, four of us in all. The rest have surreptitiously left. The ones who appeared to be in charge of the place also went today. We watched them go off in a minibus. Rats and sinking ship come to mind. None of us knows why we are here. Is the emergency worldwide or is it something more localised? There’s no way of finding out. To add to our distress, there appears to be a power cut. Maybe there is simply no electricity being produced in these final days.

………………………………………….

When you are faced with the prospect of annihilation in eleven days time, eleven feels like a very small number. It is impossible not to feel fear.

Burl Rector, if that is really his name, believes categorically that it is the hand of God.

‘It’s retribution for all our sins,’ Burl says, in one of his diatribes. ‘Revelations tells us that the fearful and the unbelieving, the abominable, murderers, whoremongers, and sorcerers, idolaters and liars shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone.’

I do not have the energy to point out that I for one am none of the above, well perhaps the fearful and unbelieving, but none of the rest. And although it is far from verified, what news we have is that everyone is going to perish, whether they are sinners or not, in just eleven days time. If I were to challenge Burl, he would probably have some other Biblical text at the ready. Burl’s God is a wrathful God. A vengeful and unforgiving God. Burl’s God put him in his wheelchair simply because he missed church two Sundays in a row.

Huey Minton is also not someone you would choose to be stuck in a lift with. Huey is not even half empty in his outlook. He is empty with a capital e. He is acutely paranoid. He doesn’t even think we should eat the food that we have access to. It is bound to be poisoned, he says, even the tins will be poisoned. What would he rather us do, starve? Huey is a seasoned conspiracy theorist. He can hold forth about 9/11 or chemtrails and mind control for hours. He started off by claiming that the present emergency was an alien attack but he has since switched his diagnosis to it being a rampant airborne disease started by the New World Order as a means of population control. It doesn’t matter he says whether we are out there or in here, it will still get us.

Mary Jane doesn’t have an opinion regarding the explanation for the emergency and I am with her on this. If we are going to survive, then its cause is perhaps secondary, we need to come up with a strategy for our survival beyond the next eleven days. Or at least be able to live out our remaining time in good spirits.

………………………………………….

Despite our limited mobility, Mary Jane and I somehow manage to get down to the second floor. The other two are not with us. We try shouting up the stairs but there is no reply. They have vanished. Perhaps they are caught in a wormhole between floors or an unscheduled timewarp but something has happened to them. In uncharted territory such as we are, perhaps we should expect strange things such as this to happen. At least Mary Jane and I are spared the wrath of God diatribes and the wild conspiracy theories for the time being. At least Mary Jane and I are spared for the time being.

It is eerie down here with the peculiar echo of silence you find in a large space when no-one is about. Although we are two floors up, it feels oddly subterranean. Three days on and there is still no sign of the power coming back on. It is dark down here and smells of decay. It looks as if it has been abandoned for a long time. Certainly, more than a few days. The paint is flaking off the mildewed walls and the windows are clouded with soot. Spiders’ webs hang from the furniture. Amongst scattered papers on a gnarled wooden desk, we discover a transistor radio. It’s one of those military looking ones with lots of wavebands. Despite its business like appearance, the only transmission we can pick up is in Spanish. This strikes us as ominous. Does this mean that everyone else has gone off the air? With the smattering of Spanish Mary Jane and I have between us, we try to make out what they are saying. They appear to be talking about a football match. A big upcoming football match. Mañana, mañana, El partido más grande de la historia.

‘Vamos a descubrir que Barcelona es el mejor equipo para la eternidad,’ one of them says. ‘Barcelona es el mejor equipo de futbol del universo entero.’

With just eight days to go before the apocalypse, it seems that this is the match to decide once and for all who really is the best team.

‘Perhaps this is something they should have done years ago and had done with it,’ Mary Jane says. ‘Rather than put us through the anguish every year for nine months of the year only to for it to start all over again.’

‘What do you think they would be talking about if it were a French station?’ I say.

‘Wine, of course,’ Mary Jane says. ‘They would be talking about appellation and terroir and all that nonsense.

‘German?’

‘Sausages and Pilsner,’ Mary Jane says. ‘What about a British radio broadcast? I wonder what we would be talking about.’

‘Still talking about Brexit, probably,’ I say.

‘It’s good that even in these last days, we still have a sense of humour,’ Mary Jane says.

The lightness of mood is short lived. Without warning, the Spanish station goes off the air. In mid-sentence, the excited voice dies. We are left with the hiss of static, this made up in part I recall by cosmic microwave background radiation from the Big Bang. There is nothing out there. It is a chilling moment.

………………………………………….

I can’t be sure of anything anymore, there are no certainties. Everything is in flux. But, according to my calculations, there are just five days left. I can’t recall how we came to be here, but Mary Jane and I now find ourselves on the first floor of the complex. First floor is probably not a fair or accurate description, in fact, no description at all. Before us, as far as the eye can see, there is open grassland. And it seems to go on for ever. It even smells like a prairie, with the scents of grasses, resinous shrubs, warm earth and sage. Yet, at the same time, we are somehow still within the confines of the monolithic structure. There are staircases both up and down. How have the wild open spaces come inside? We have entered the realms of science fantasy. The space is somehow dimensionally transcendent.

Like everywhere else around here, the prairie is deserted, if deserted is not a contradiction in terms. We haven’t seen anyone else for a long, long time now. The unspecified catastrophe seems to be playing out. This is surely the end. I can’t help but indulge in some reverie. There’s a sudden longing for the past. For better times. Those idyllic days when life was simpler. The odd thing is, I’m really not sure that I’ve done some of the things that are coming into consciousness. I seem to be flooded with ……. false memories. How could I possibly have been a Roman centurion? Or been in the trenches in the First World War? I wouldn’t have been born. Surely I didn’t really grow gourds in Somerset or have a dog called Kafka. And I can’t for the life of me place who some of these people are that are coming to mind, Philip C. Dark, Leif Velasquez. Certainly, they seem half-familiar. But, who are they? They seem one step removed from my experience. Like phantoms. There again, I do remember Vicki and the twins and Elm Close and Lee’s Bar. I believe these are real memories. And my job at the insurance office. Or was it music shop? I’m sure I had some kind of career. My memory is a laboratory of confusion. Mary Jane, on the other hand, says she doesn’t remember anything at all from her past.

………………………………………….

Somehow, I negotiate another descent. I try to get my bearings once more but I seem to have lost Mary Jane. I call out her name but she does not answer. The darkness makes it difficult see what is down here but it is no longer open prairie. This is an indoor setting – an indoor setting with a vengeance. All the windows have been boarded up. It is dark. Enclosed. Forbidding. Where is Mary Jane? I don’t want to be the last person alive.

I’m not.

‘Don’t move!’ yells a hollow voice, from out of the gloom. I’m thinking perhaps it is the Grim Reaper. My heart is thumping. I’m not ready for this. The seconds pass. The figure slowly approaches. In the slither of murky light coming from a split in one of the boarded up windows, I can just make out his shape. In heavy black uniform and protective headgear, he looks like Darth Vader. He is pointing a gun of some sort in my direction.

‘Oh! It’s you,’ he says, as he gets closer. Do I detect a sense of relief in his voice? Was he expecting someone more dangerous? I’m still too terrified to say anything.

‘You’re supposed to be in quarantine,’ he says, matter of factly.

‘Quarantine?’ I say.

‘Yes, quarantine. You are contaminated.’

‘What are you talking about?’

‘Don’t you remember what happened?’

‘Remember what?’

‘The explosion on set.’

‘What set? Who are you?’

‘I’m Site Security.’

‘What’s this about an explosion?’

‘There was an explosion. On the set of Nineteen Days. Two weeks ago.’

‘Nineteen Days? Two weeks?’

‘Oh, come on now! You were one of the extras in the big scene at the end of the film. I had to apprehend two of your oppos a day or two ago and take them back in. Difficult bastards, they were.’

‘What about Mary Jane? What have you done with Mary Jane?’

‘No idea what you are talking about, pal.’

Perhaps there was no Mary Jane. The only thing I am sure about is my confusion.

‘You say we were in a film?’

As I am saying this, I begin to understand the likely origin of the false memories I’ve been getting. The Roman centurion, the First World War soldier. They must be from bit parts I’ve played in films.

‘Look!’ Darth Vader says. ‘Are you a bit slow or are you pulling my pisser? All of you were in Leif Velasquez’s Nineteen Days. The film he was making of the classic Philip C. Dark story. The production was shut down following the accident.’

‘Accident?’

‘The apocalyptic explosion filming the final scene,’ he says. ‘It was like Armageddon.’

Suddenly, I find I am getting flashbacks about an explosion like the one he is describing. But I’m not even sure about these. In my state, they could easily be brought on through auto-suggestion.

‘They had to shut down the film and quarantine everyone involved in the scene,’ he continues. ‘Those of you that actually survived that is. Because of the alarming side effects you were experiencing. Toxic chemicals were discovered everywhere, some of them never known before. The area has been declared a no-go zone. All means of communication both in and out have been cut. Weren’t you told any of this?’

Communication cut. This explains the lack of radio reception perhaps but there are still a lot of things that don’t add up.

‘What happened to the others?’ I ask. ‘Where have they taken them? And where is Mary Jane?’

I do not get a reply. Instead, he raises his weapon once more. He uses it to point the way. Perhaps I am about to find out where the others have been taken. Or, is this all part of Leif Velasquez’s film? Are they still filming? You can perhaps never be sure if you are an extra.

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved

Oleander Drive

oleanderdrive

Oleander Drive by Chris Green

The black Mitsubishi has been parked there for several days now. Les Rubio first noticed it on Monday, when he came back from a business lunch at The Whistle Blower. The big SUV has been there in the same position, on the opposite side of the road fifty yards from his house, day and night. It has not moved once. The tinted windows have made it difficult for him to get a clear view inside but from occasional sorties to the park with his dog, Murphy, he has noticed that the two suspicious looking characters occupying the front seats are not always the same ones. They seem to be working in shifts. But, whichever pair is skulking behind their newspapers, they seem to be watching his house. What else could they be doing in this quiet suburban neighbourhood? Who else would they be watching? This is a select residential area. House prices start at about half a million.

There are only a handful of houses in Oleander Drive and the others are all occupied by respectable families. It’s a little difficult, Les feels, to imagine they would be looking out for Brice Shipley, who goes off to work at his dental practice at 8:30 sharp every morning or his wife Sally who so far as he can tell spends her time putting together the parish magazine. Equally hard to suspect Mr Masterson, the headmaster at St Sampson’s or Mrs Masterson who puts the little Mastersons on the red bus to Acme Academy every morning. And, as far as he knows, Dr Pilsner’s house has been empty for a while now. Les feels he is definitely the square peg in the round hole, here in this enclave.

The pair surely cannot be private detectives paid by Grace to see if he has another woman dropping by. Les and Grace have been separated for months. In any case, chance to get his rocks off would be a fine thing. He has been too busy trying to find ways to settle the galaxy of outstanding bills she left him with, not to mention having to deal with the descent into darkness that follows a break-up, when it was your decision or preference. At the same time, he has had to keep up with the changes to his way of life that the new government has brought in. They seem to have got it in for entrepreneurs and small businesses. All the forms you have to fill in and all the things you have to register for. Tax returns and VAT receipts. Are they kidding? This is not his forte. He is a wheeler-dealer. He’s been so snowed under by all the bureaucracy he hasn’t even had time to put the house on the market.

It’s equally hard to conceive that they might be hitmen, hired to eliminate him. He hasn’t, so far as he knows, upset anyone. He conducts business in a straightforward way. He might be a bit behind with his paperwork but that would be no reason for HMRC to send in the boys and even if this were the case, surely one marksman would be sufficient. It wouldn’t need Samuel L Jackson and John Travolta to put the bullet through his chest, or wherever it is professional hitmen choose to aim. And the hitmen would hardly be hanging around. They would have made the hit by now and gone back to their lonely hotel rooms to wait for instructions on further missions.

Les has become so paranoid, though, he’s not driven in to his warehouse for the past few days in case they tail him. Granted, he can do much of his day-to-day work at home over the phone or online. He is fortunate too that he can ask his oppo, Zak to step in for a pick-up or a delivery, like the fake Alibaba rugs or the bogus Sennheiser sound equipment that arrived yesterday.

‘You’ve got a bit of skirt up there, ain’t you, Mr Rubio?’ Zak said when he told him he wasn’t coming in.

‘I wish,’ he said. ‘Look, Zak! I will be in soon. In a day or two. Three, tops. Definitely Friday.’

‘I can come over if you like and we can go over things,’ said Zak.

‘You’d better stay away, Zak,’ he said. ‘I’ve got the …… Zika virus.’

He thinks it best not to let them see someone like Zak visit him. Zak is more Trotters’ Trading than reputable entrepreneur. He wouldn’t look right in Oleander Drive. He’s from Toker’s End. That’s the other side of the tracks. The Mitsubishi men would pounce on him straight away.

‘I thought you only got that Zika thing in Brazil,’ said Zak.

‘It has spread, mate, Haven’t you heard?’ Les told him. ‘But don’t worry. I think I’m on the mend now.’

…………………………………………

On one of this reccies with Murphy, Les manages to get a better look inside the SUV. They have the windows wound down and he can almost make out the men’s features. Just a feeling he has, but they do look like they might be police. They have police sunglasses and police haircuts. Beyond that though he is at a loss. There are so many facets to police work these days it’s pointless to speculate which squad these might be from. He recalls being woken by the resonant thrum of the police helicopter hovering over his house on Wednesday night. He pulled back the curtains and could just make out its shape above the back garden. It was so black it was practically invisible, but certainly not silent. His friend, Jimmy Jazz says it was probably a Chinook. The modern police see themselves as a military unit, Jimmy says. It’s to do with all those movies.

Les phones his friend, Robyn Constable downtown to see if she knows what might be going on. Sergeant Constable has helped him out several times before for a small consideration and makes sure a blind eye is turned to his nefarious schemes. Les does not like to think of it as bribes. It’s a bit like paying insurance premiums. Sergeant Constable does not think of it as bribes. It’s just another aspect of police procedure in these troubled times.

‘I’m being watched night and day,’ Les tells her.

‘That doesn’t sound good, Les,’ she says. ‘For a man in your position.’

‘It’s not anything to do with your …… officers, is it?’

‘I’ve not heard anything,’ she says. ‘But you better fill me in with a few details so that I can check if we’ve got the word out on you. No guarantee I will be able to stop it if its another squad, though, you understand.’

‘Two men dressed in dark clothes. Parked up in a black Mitsubishi outside my house. Round the clock, 24/7,’ Les says. ‘They do look like they might be plain-clothes, if you know what I mean. But it’s not always the same two.’

‘What are you saying, Les?’ she laughs. ‘Do we look different to others? Is it the prognathous jaw, or the third eye, perhaps? I tell you what. I will ask around and let you know if there’s a match. Your payment is due by the way.’

‘Again?’

‘Every three months, Les. The payment is due every three months. Unless of course you want me to…’

‘No it’s OK. I will get it to you. Just find out about these guys, please.

‘They might, of course, be security services, Les. Had you considered that?’

Sergeant Robyn Constable has a point. They could be from the nearby spy base, the so-called listening centre. There are thousands of people working at the base. Les has often wondered what they find for them all to do all day. Perhaps this is part of their outreach programme. Might it be something to do with the dodgy domain names he bought, the ones with the sensitive addresses? This is the kind of thing that perhaps might be of interest to intelligence services. But there again, given the nefarious things that go on in cyberspace, would the security services be especially excited over the innocent purchase of a few domains with names like bombisrael(dot)com? There was, of course, the domain he purchased that actually had gchq in the name.

Les hasn’t set up websites on any of the domains. He wouldn’t know how to. He just bought the domain names for his amusement after coming back from The Whistle Blower one night. There was a pop-up ad for buy one get one free offer on domain names. He bought forty eight of them for the price of twenty four. He bought them purely to see how far he could go with the names before someone would try to stop him. No-one did. He realises he shouldn’t have done it, but when you are drunk sometimes these crazy ideas come into your head, and he was very drunk, he recalls. Grace had not long packed her bags.

To cut a long story short, Les Rubio spent time in la-la land. Whisky and gin, along with his appointed psychiatrist Dr Pilsner’s powerful prescription drugs, temporarily got the better of him. He was in such a bad way, he feels lucky now to have pulled through. It was a mistake to stock those cheap spirits from China. You never know what you are drinking and God knows what the pills were. Perhaps he just took too many. It’s so easy to get a digit wrong when you are under stress. He might have taken ten a day rather than one a day. He wonders what has happened to Dr Pilsner. He hasn’t seen him around since his discharge. Perhaps he has taken a sabbatical to write a primer on anxiety disorders or taken a lucrative teaching post in his native Vienna or something.

Whoever the mysterious emissaries in the Mitsubishi are, if they want him, why don’t they just come and get him? What are they waiting for? Surely they don’t imagine he’s armed and dangerous. And why he wonders are they drawing attention to themselves? There must be subtler ways to spy on him. What about drones? Or a rotation of cars parked in different places. A plain white van. Bogus workmen digging up the road. There must be any number of ways for surveillance operatives to look anonymous, even in an exclusive residential area like Oleander Drive. Perhaps he should have driven normally past them a moment ago, then they would have followed him and then they would have to have it out. At least then he would know what was what.

Les is astonished that the well-to-do neighbours haven’t said something to him about it all. It’s not as if the surveillance could have escaped their notice on such a quiet street. Jarvis Heckler lives in the large detached house opposite where they are parked. He is a retired civil servant and he is always outside washing his Jaguar or manicuring his box hedges. You would have thought he would have been around or at least gone over and had a word with them. And the Mitsubishi is practically parked outside Stacey Aragon’s house. She is forever asking him about Grace and when she might be coming back, waiting to see what his reaction is. There only has to be an unexpected conversation in the street for Stacey to be rustling her Cath Kidston curtains to see what’s going on. But somehow the parked vehicle seems to have escaped her attention. Has she gone away to see an ailing relative or something, Les wonders? Why have none of the neighbours registered the intrusion to their settled lives? Perhaps they have all gone off to see ailing relatives. Might they all be in collusion? Maybe the mystery men in the car have phoned them all and got them all on side with the assurance that it will soon be over and they will be gone.

…………………………………………

Today is Friday and Les Rubio does have to go in to the warehouse and the men in the Mitsubishi are still outside. He drives slowly past, hoping that they will realise that he has spotted them and they will realise that he will be expecting them to follow him. So they won’t. Reverse psychology. He thinks that it is the original pair casting a furtive glance over their red-tops, the ones he spotted on Monday. To his relief, no-one tails him and there is no black stakeout vehicle waiting to intercept him at the warehouse. Inside the premises, everything seems to be as it should be. He logs into the computer, half expecting to find some gremlin in the system or some horror in the inbox, but there is nothing. Everything seems to be running smoothly. There are even some new orders. He takes a look around the stock. The silver saxophones are still in the storeroom along with the multicoloured Gucci handbags. The Alibaba rugs and the new sound equipment are there. He needs to get on to moving some of the internet TVs later to make room for the Japanese clarinets that are arriving.

Zak arrives in his beaten up old van, the one he uses to ferry his band, Corpse around. They are death metal or thrash metal or some kind of metal, Les can’t remember which. Zak keeps asking him to go along to gigs but he is delaying this particular pleasure. He comes in with his headphones on, singing along to some crashing guitar chords. With an air of distraction, Les greets him.

‘Whatcha, Mr R,’ says Zak, taking off his phones. They look suspiciously to Les like one of the sets that came in yesterday, but he lets it go. ‘You recovered from the Zika bug a bit quick.’

‘Well, you know, Zak. I do keep myself in shape,’ Les says, puffing out my chest and holding his stomach in. ‘Takes more than a virus to get the better of me.’

‘I drove by your place on the way in, Mr R.’

‘But you live in Toker’s End.’

‘I know. I took a bit of a detour. I was going to call in to see how you were, but there were dozens of Old Bill around.’

‘What?’

‘Old Bill. You know, the bizzies.’

‘What? Outside my house?’

‘Difficult to tell, Mr R. There were shitloads of candy cars around and more of them seemed to be arriving, so I didn’t hang around to find out. Some funky shit is going down, I’d say.’

‘Come on! We’d better go and see what’s happening.’

‘Are you sure, Mr R. What if……. You know ….. All right. We’d better go in the van, then. Incognito, like.’

‘No. It’s too late for that now. Get in the Merc!’

Over the three mile journey, traffic is slow. The atmosphere is strained. Conversation is sporadic and staccato.

‘How many police cars, Zak?’

‘Lots of them. ……. Wasn’t that a red light, Mr R?’

‘Can’t you stop blowing that in my face, Zak? What do you put in those….. joints?….. Wait. Pass it here! It might help.’

‘It’s called Northern Lights, Mr R.’

‘That’s skunk, is it?’

‘The best. ….. Are you OK, Mr R?’

‘I’ve not been thinking straight lately, Zak. I’m not sure what is real and what is not.’

‘I wouldn’t worry too much about that, Mr R. Reality leaves a lot to the imagination.’

‘I don’t know if I’m in a state to make decisions anymore.’

‘I can’t help but notice that you have seemed a little weird recently, Mr R. In fact, you’ve not been the same since Grace left.

‘Is it that noticeable? Tell me, Zak! Why am I going into the lion’s den?’

‘I think if it were me I might be doing a runner or at least lying low. ……. Didn’t you see that woman in the Toyota pulling out?’

Despite the advice, indecision persists. The Mercedes makes it way westward and before they know it they are approaching Oleander Drive. They are greeted by a battery of flashing blue lights. Police vehicles are everywhere. A bustling crowd has gathered to watch the unfolding drama, including a pack of press reporters and a TV crew. Amongst the confusion, it is difficult to ascertain what exactly is going on. As Les and Zak push their way through the mêlée, it slowly becomes clear that a handcuffed man is being led kicking and screaming by a pack of burly police officers to a riot wagon.

‘Mad doctor. Multiple murder. Motive unknown,’ says a disarmingly young reporter, bringing the new arrivals up to speed. ‘I’ll have my own byline.’

‘The thing is, they had been watching his house for days,’ says another whippersnapper, with a bag full of hi-tec accessories. ‘They were on to him a week ago and waiting for him to return home. What they didn’t know was that he was there all the time. This one is going to run for days.’

‘And night by night, he managed to get into his neighbours’ houses and murder them in their sleep,’ says the first one, as he keys the story into this phone. ‘Right under the noses of the surveillance team.’

‘Dr Pilsner,’ Les manages to say. ‘That’s Dr Pilsner. What…..’

‘Dr Pilsner. Yes, that’s his name,’ says the whippersnapper. ‘He’s a psychiatrist, apparently. This is going to sell some papers. They’ll fly off the newsstands. Do you live around here by any chance?’

 

© Chris Green 2016: All rights reserved

Out Of Time

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Out Of Time by Chris Green

The moment Kimberley steps into the refreshment room, she knows something is wrong. Railway station cafés should be a hub of activity in the mornings. This one is almost empty. There are five people and each is seated at a separate table, staring blankly into space. They all register an expression of boredom and gloom. As she casts her glance from one to the other, no one meets her gaze. The room echoes with the sound of silence. The are no signs of life behind the counter. The chances of a cup of tea or a sandwich for the journey are not good.

The colours of the room are just a step up from monochrome. It is as if an autumn fog has descended on the space, or years and years of cigarette smoke have accumulated. The bentwood chairs and grubby checked pattern table cloths belong to a bygone age. The timetable behind a pane of cracked glass is dog-eared and smudged. On the walls, there are a few railway posters like the ones she has seen in the museum. Is Your Journey Really Necessary, reads one of them. A vintage cigarette vending machine advertises Gold Flake and Craven A. It’s like a set from Brief Encounter. The clock on the wall appears to be stopped at quarter to eight. It is now half past nine. Her train is the 9:39. Kimberley checks her watch. Her watch also says quarter to eight. She feels a chill run through her.

She hears the roar of a train arriving. Perhaps it is her train. As she tries to get back onto the platform, she is held back by an invisible wall. She pushes and shoves and ducks and parries. However she tries to negotiate the obstacle, she cannot find a way through. Panic rises in her. Something is seriously wrong. Frightened and distraught she watches through the window as, without even slowing down, the train passes through the station. It is a long train, with perhaps sixteen carriages. She is used to seeing shorter trains. She is used to them stopping at the station. No sooner has the thunderous sound subsided than she hears the rumble of a train approaching from the opposite direction. This one too is a leviathan with sixteen carriages. It travels through the station at breakneck speed. After it has passed, Kimberley notices that both platforms are completely empty. What has happened to everyone? She is certain that there were passengers waiting when she arrived.

She thinks back to when she parked the Qashqai in the station car park. Was there anything unusual, any anomalies she might have picked up on? So far as she can recall, the car park was nearly full and there was the purposeful bustle you might expect at the station on a Friday morning. She even remembers passing the time of day with a man in a wheelchair and moving out of the way for an Asian woman with several small children in tow. She remembers the announcement about an earlier train being seventeen minutes late. It was not until she stepped into the refreshment area that she noticed anything out of the ordinary.

Kimberley desperately needs to talk to someone. She can’t really phone Dan. He is under the impression that she is going to her mother’s overnight. And she can’t phone Ramon. He might not have left for their tryst yet and his wife might pick up. She decides to call their friend Ben, at the secret base. He will know what is happening. Maybe she has inadvertently happened by a sophisticated military exercise. Perhaps there was something on the local news or in the local paper warning of this and she had missed it. She searches in her handbag for her phone. It is not there. Frantically she rifles through her overnight bag. It is not there. She doesn’t have her phone. She never travels without her phone. At home, she doesn’t even go upstairs without her phone.

She looks around the room. No-one has moved. Slowly the blurry figures come into focus. They are so motionless that they might be mannequins. The weary looking soldier in Second World War army uniform seems to be studying a poster on the opposite wall which is telling him to Dig for Victory. He has a khaki kitbag on the table beside him. It has a faded name and a number stamped on it. The middle-aged woman in the brown 1950s New Look twin set is nursing a bone china tea cup. She picks the cup up and returns it to the saucer. The cup appears to be empty. Is she waiting for service? Kimberley wonders. It doesn’t look like this is going to happen anytime soon. There is a thick layer of dust on the service hatch. The balding man in the checked jacket with the wide lapels and the disco collared shirt twists the sides of a Rubik’s cube this way and that. It seems he is doing so more to exercise his hands that with the hope of solving the puzzle. Kimberley ignores the Iggy Pop lookalike in the biker’s jacket and ripped jeans who is lighting a cigarette and goes over to the lady in the purple jumpsuit with the big 1980s hair. Somehow she looks the most approachable of the bunch.

‘Have you been here long?’ she asks. It seems a banal question, but how do you start a conversation with a dummy.

Big Hair continues staring straight ahead. Perhaps she did not hear. Perhaps she cannot see her. Perhaps none of them can see her. Perhaps she is invisible to them. Perhaps they are invisible to each other.

‘She don’t talk much, that one,’ says Iggy Pop. He turns towards Kimberley. Kimberley notices that he has about fourteen earrings in each ear to add to the copious nasal jewellery. ‘She was here before me. She’s been here a long time.’

‘When did you arrive?’ asks Kimberley.

‘Me! I’ve been here since 1995,’ he says. ‘I was the last to arrive.’

This is nearly twenty years. She was expecting him to say last night or yesterday afternoon, or something. She swallows hard, trying to take it in.

‘Time doesn’t mean a lot here,’ says Rubik Cube. I’ve been here since 1976.’

New Look picks up her teacup, puts it to her lips and then places it back in the saucer.

The cup and saucer rattle as another train speeds through the station. Kimberley watches it through the window. It is a perfectly ordinary present-day train, with modern livery on the carriages.

‘No use looking out there, love’ says Iggy Pop. ‘The trains don’t stop here.’

‘I’ve been here since 1945,’ says the weary looking soldier, digging around in his kitbag. He takes out small round aluminium pan and holds it out. ‘Here’s my mess tin. Are you going to cook us something nice? I’ve only had a bar of chocolate.’

‘You’ve been here since 1945,’ she repeats, aghast.

‘I shouldn’t worry about it too much,’ says Rubik Cube. ‘A minute’s the same as a year here. Why don’t you sit down? You’ll get used to it.’

‘It’s nothing at all really,’ says Iggy Pop. ‘Here have a cigarette love.’

‘Did they find out who shot JR?’ says Big Hair, breaking her silence. ‘I think it was Bobby.’

Kimberley goes behind the counter and into the kitchen area in the hope of finding an exit. There isn’t one. There isn’t even a back wall. She finds herself staring into a void. The laws of physics itself are being challenged here.

‘Could have saved you the trouble, love,’ says Iggy Pop, as she comes back in to join them.’ Don’t you think that we haven’t all tried to get out the back way.’

‘What is this place? What is going on?’ she shouts, at no one in particular.

No one in particular answers.

‘Or it might have been Pamela,’ says Big Hair. ‘She always hated JR.’

Working in an office, Kimberley is not used to thinking outside the box. Kimberley doesn’t even like sci-fi. She only reads romance novels. She wishes Ramon were here, or even Dan. Her head is pounding like a jungle drum, as she struggles to come up with some kind of rational explanation. This is not a dream. She is wide awake. She is trapped. There is no way out. She is really here, in this impossible situation with a group of people who say they have been stuck here for years. It is beyond supernatural or scary.

‘What do you do for food and drink,’ Kimberley asks.

‘Is someone making tea?’ says New Look, clinking her china cup against her saucer.

‘Blimey, you got her to talk,’ says Iggy Pop.

‘Make me something nice. I’ve got me mess tin. I’ve only had a bar of chocolate,’ says Weary Tommy.

‘You’ll get used to it,’ says Rubik Cube.

‘Have a cigarette, darlin,’ says Iggy Pop.

These people are looney tunes, thinks Kimberley. They have gone stir crazy. And she is stuck with them. When she was seven she had an imaginary friend called Lucy. Lucy went everywhere with her. Lucy became frightened by some ghoulish gargoyles in the stone mason’s yard that they passed on the way to school. Day by day Lucy became more afraid. She was obsessed, haunted even by the gargoyles. The problem was that this was the only way to school. There was nothing Kimberley could do about it. They had to go that way. They had no choice. This is exactly how Kimberley feels now, stuck here with this grotesque group of ghouls. Lucy of course eventually died, drowned in the lagoon when Kimberley’s parents took them to Venice.

The ghouls here in this twenty-first century railway refreshment room appear not to have aged at all during their stay. Their appearance is exactly as it would have been years ago. The soldier for instance still looks about nineteen. Kimberley does a quick calculation in her head. He should be about ninety. He has been here the longest and the others arrived one by one. They have all been trapped here since their arrival. They are all relics from times gone by. God forbid that she be destined to spend the rest of her days with these fossils in this decaying hell hole.

The windows rattle as a slow freight train pulls through. Kimberley frantically tries the exit again but finds that the invisible force still holds her back. How on earth did she get in here? Also, if there was an opening when someone new arrived, why hadn’t one of the prisoners used the moment as an opportunity to get out?

‘The windows are made of unbreakable glass too, in case that’s what you were thinking,’ says Rubik Cube.

‘Nothing’s going to change, love,’ says Iggy Pop. ‘Take my word.’

‘It might have been Cliff Barnes,’ says Big Hair. ‘He was always up to no good.’

Kimberley’s mind is in turmoil. Why did she arrange a dirty weekend with Ramon? If she had not taken to deceiving Dan, none of this would be happening. To take things back a step further, if Dan had shown more interest in her and not spent so much time training his virtual horses she would not have started having an affair with Ramon. Perhaps she should have spared a thought too for Ramon’s wife. Jackie, Janet, Jill? She can’t even remember his wife’s name. But, who can foresee a trail of consequences? It’s pointless even going there.

More to the point, why are these freaks here and what is she doing in this circus? What could possibly be the connection between them? Do they all share something in common? Including herself? There is nothing to be gained by being precious. She has to get to know them. She needs to test out her skill at detection. She was a big fan of heartthrob Italian TV detective, Aurelio Zen, and was mortified when the series was prematurely axed. Zen used to befriend the suspects to discover their deep dark secrets. With the thought of the dashing Aurelio Zen, she gains some composure.

‘Yes, I will have a cigarette,’ she says to Iggy Pop.

Iggy Pop offers her one from a Players Number 6 King Size packet. Kimberley is not sure, but she feels that this brand disappeared from sale about twenty years ago.

‘Out of interest, where do you get them? ‘ she says. ‘You can’t have an unlimited supply and the cigarette machine on the wall looks empty.’

‘Aha, that would be telling,’ says Iggy Pop. Might the edgy Aurelio Zen have delivered a swift blow to the head at this point? Perhaps, but perhaps not.

‘Can I have a fag too,’ says Weary Tommy. ‘I’ve only had a bar of chocolate.’

‘What does it profit a man to gain the world but lose his soul?’ says Rubik Cube.

‘It could have been Jock Ewing who shot JR, or was Jock already dead?’ says Big Hair.

Kimberley can see that even the sophisticated Aurelio Zen might have trouble getting information from this motley crew.

‘Has anyone else dropped by?’ Kimberley asks them, trying a new tack. ‘Over the years?’

‘The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once, and nothing happens here, so what does that tell you?’ says Rubik Cube.

‘It suggests that there is no time like the present, or no time but the present, or something like that,’ says Kimberley.

‘That’s right so its as if I’ve always been here then,’ says Rubik Cube. ‘And I still can’t get the red squares lined up.’

‘I’ve been here since 1953,’ says New Look. ‘Things were different then. They had tea dances with a caller and a proper band. Victor used to take me. Of course my husband didn’t know. I don’t think he would have approved.’

‘My, my,’ says Kimberley. ‘Is that why you are wearing that pretty brown dress? Is that for Victor?’

‘This is a Christian Dior dress,’ says New Look, apparently pleased to be getting some attention. ‘Victor and I used to go dancing every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon,’ she continues. ‘And sometimes afterwards, we would go to a hotel. But I can’t do that now the trains don’t stop.’

Kimberley is unnerved by this. This is too close to home. She is wearing a Jigsaw pencil skirt and has Janet Reger lingerie on for the very same reason. She has dressed to please Ramon. And were they not also going to a hotel later for their clandestine liaison?

Iggy Pop interrupts her reverie. ‘All I done was sell someone else’s Beamer,’ he says. ‘I had this duplicate set of keys, see, and a duplicate log book. I can’t even remember how I came by them. I’m not a bad man, not really.’

‘I think I’m probably a bad man,’ says Weary Tommy. ‘I deserted, you know. That’s how I came to be catching the train. I should have been in Normandy, helping to push back the Bosch to secure the new front, but I missed my Maddie. I thought she might be going with another fellow. She’d stopped sending me letters, so I had to come home to make sure there was nothing going on.’

The Aurelio Zen strategy appears to be working. She is drawing them out of themselves. They are no longer coming out with gibberish, but talking about matters that she is able to comprehend.

‘Anyway, to cut a long story short,’ Iggy Pop continues. ‘I drop the motor off with the geezer and have to catch the train, so I come along here to the station and next thing I know I’m caught up in this mad hatters tea party.’

New Look starts to say something about just killing time here but the noise of a passing express drowns her out.

‘Of course, JR might have shot himself,’ says Big Hair. ‘I never thought of that.’

‘I used to cheat at poker,’ says Rubik Cube. ‘I used marked packs of cards.’

‘So you think we are all here because we’ve done something corrupt or cruel,’ says Kimberley. ‘Is that where this is heading?’

‘We used to play Dealer’s Choice and then I would nominate wildcards that were the easiest to spot,’ says Rubik Cube. ‘So, I couldn’t really lose.’

‘I expect a lot of people cheat at cards. I expect casinos cheat at cards,’ says Kimberley.

‘The thing about it was that I played with friends,’ says Rubik Cube. ‘I used to make money out of my friends. I came here to catch a train to go and pick up a Triumph Stag that I had accepted in lieu of a debt from one of my best friends. I’d say that makes me an absolute cad.’

‘I used to tell my husband I was at the Women’s Institute,’ says New Look. ‘I knew that he would never look for me there.’

‘I didn’t tell Maddie of what I got up to in Montmartre of course,’ says Weary Tommy. ‘When I had a forty-eight hour pass. What those French girls can do would make your hair curl.’

It is becoming like a confessional. Kimberley considers the information they have shared. Herself included, they have all done things they know to be wrong. And they were all passing through this station in the process of committing their misdemeanours. You could say that there was a connection here, but millions of people must have passed through the station, and who hasn’t done something they know to be wrong? She remembers the time she sold her mother’s diamond cluster engagement ring to the Wurzel Gummage hippy at the antiques market when she was seventeen to get the money to go to a Robbie Williams concert at Knebworth. And worse, sleeping with Dan’s best man, Chas, on her hen night. She had definitely instigated this. She remembers she had turned up uninvited at Chas’s flat at 2 in the morning. Everyone has their dirty secrets.

So where does this leave her? Kimberley wonders if she might be looking for meaning where there is none. What they are experiencing could just an unexplained blip in the space-time continuum. And because something has gone wrong with relativity, there is no time in this space. They are out of time. This is nowhere. Cause and effect might have no place here. Perhaps there is no why. After all, no-one here has mentioned anything that might warrant a life sentence of this mind-bending purgatory. No one has killed anyone. Not even Weary Tommy, who was in the perfect position to have done so, appears to have killed anyone.

‘I think it was me that shot JR,’ says Big Hair.

Kimberley notices the clock on the wall has moved on to five to eight. Her heart skips a beat. Time is no longer standing still. Is the train that she can hear approaching slowing down?

© Chris Green 2016: All rights reserved