Category Archives: #SampleSunday

#SampleSunday 19th June 2011


After a hiatus from #SampleSunday, I’m back again.

This is a chapter from my current, as yet untitled, work-in-progress. It might be called “Buried”, but it might not. This is from the first draft of the novel, so there may be some elements which will change (hopefully, for the better) in the final version.

If you enjoy this small piece, I hope you’ll consider my two collections of short stories and flash fiction. They’re only 71p (UK) or 99c (US).

For Kindle in the UK:
.: BMT 1 :. and .: BMT 2 :.

For Kindle in the US:
.: BMT 1 :. and .: BMT 2 :.

On Smashwords:
.: BMT 1 :. and .: BMT 2 :.

And in print:
.: BMT :.

Anyway, here’s this week’s #SampleSunday:

Chapter 10

“Where the fuck have you been?”

Sean looked at his watch. He knew that he was a couple of minutes late, but that didn’t excuse the outburst from Henri Jarvinen.

“We tried to call you from your dormitory. You weren’t there.”

Sean shrugged his shoulders, unsure of what to say.

“Take a look out there.”

Sean moved to the large windows overlooking the site, and saw what he imagined the aftermath of armageddon might look like. There were around a dozen ambulances, stationary near to the mine entrance, lights flashing in the early morning gloom. He could also see several mine safety trucks too. People were running around with pieces of equipment.

“Jesus Christ, what happened?”

“We don’t really know, except there was some sort of collapse in one of the tunnels in the early hours of this morning. We got one guy out, but …”

Sean turned, and started running for the door to the mine entrance.

“There’s no point – let the emergency crews do their work,” Jarvinen called, but Sean was already out of the door.

Sean approached the mine shaft at a run, and approached one of the safety crew, Bill Crane, who he knew from the induction sessions they’d shared.

“Bill, do we know what happened?”

Crane shook his head. “Not really, Sean. At about one-thirty this morning, some of the guys in the dormitories felt a shudder. They wondered whether it might have been an earthquake.”

“Is that possible?”

“No. Some of the geology guys have been onto a seismological centre in Stockholm, and although they registered something in this area, it definitely wasn’t an earthquake or even an earth tremor. The next thing they knew, the alarm was sounding, and we were on the scene about five minutes later. I was here a bit before that – I felt the vibrations, too, so I was on my way over to make sure everything was all right.”

“I presume you’ve got a team down there?”

“Yes. We’ve got the off-duty team coming in too. It doesn’t look good.”

“A collapse?”

“Yes. And a bad one at that.”

Sean looked around. “Jarvinen said you got one guy out?”

Crane nodded his head in the direction of one of the ambulances. “He’s a bit shaken up, but he’ll be all right. He’d been taking a break up top, and had just arrived back down at the bottom of the shaft when all hell broke loose. I don’t hold out much hope for the rest of them,” he said.

Sean walked over to the ambulance, and saw the mine worker sitting on the step, the ambulance doors open. Sean didn’t know him, but he thought he was Turkish or something. Poor bastard.

He looked up as Sean approached. Sean sat down next to him.

“Do you know what happened?”

For a moment, the man kept shaking his head. “Terrible,” he said, eventually.

“Looks bad?” Sean asked.

Still, the man shook his head.

Sean carefully tried again. “You had just arrived back down?” he said, in slow English.
The man looked at him. “I come for break. Up top. You know. Coffee. Cigarette. Just ten minutes.”

Sean nodded. “Then you went back down.”

“Yes. I go back down. Then …”

He turned his head down, tears rolling down his dirt-stained face.

“Were they blasting last night?”

The man didn’t answer. Sean touched his arm, and the man reacted as though jolted by an electric shock.

“Yes, blasting. I was here. I heard blast. I put out cigarette, and go down. Much work.”

Sean knew. In particularly difficult sections of the rock, they needed to blast it to create fissures and crevices, so that the drilling and boring machines could get in and do their work. But he knew that before they could do that, there was a lot of clearing away of blasted rock to do, to keep the floor area clear for the heavy machinery.

“So I go back down. I arrive at the bottom. I hear the machines, so I get on buggy to drive to face. Then it happened.”

Sean frowned. “Are you sure? Could it have been another blast? Something else?”

The man looked at him, staring into Sean’s eyes, trying to find some answers to unasked questions. “You know. After blast, you clear. Then drill.”

“And you went back down as soon as you heard the blast? You didn’t wait? Or go down before?”

The man leaned away, shocked. “What you say? I am a lier? I told you. You know. I heard blast. I put out cigarette, and go down. Five minutes.”

Sean knew the personnel lift took a little under five minutes to descend from the head of the shaft down to the mine floor. So what could have caused the collapse? Could they have set another charge? Not in five minutes. He had to believe this man, they had no other information to go on.

Sean patted the man on the shoulder. “You should go to hospital. Get checked out.”

The man shook his head. “No. I stay here. No hospital. I wait my friends.”

Sean nodded. He would do the same – had done the same, some years ago. That time, most of his colleagues got out all right. He had the feeling that it wouldn’t be the same this time.

© Gerald Hornsby 2011

#SampleSunday 20th March 2011

It’s back to #SampleSunday for me after a couple of weeks off. I hope you enjoy them. If you do, please consider my two collections of short stories, from which they are taken. They’re only 71p (UK) or 99c (US).

For Kindle in the UK:
.: BMT 1 :. and .: BMT 2 :.

For Kindle in the US:
.: BMT 1 :. and .: BMT 2 :.

On Smashwords:
.: BMT 1 :. and .: BMT 2 :.

And in print:
.: BMT :.

DREAMS OF CHILDREN

Pauline insisted. “I know we’re going to have a child. It was like a premonition.”

Roger sighed. He’d heard this most mornings for the past month now. “Pauline, you know that’s impossible.”

“But Roger. The dreams, they’re so real! I can feel it inside me already. I absolutely know I’m pregnant. You know I’ve wanted this for so long.”

“Pauline, its one thing wanting a baby. It’s another thing…”

“You men, you’re always like this. You just can’t believe we have these feelings, and that they’re so real.”

“Look. Maybe you should see the doctor. He’ll be able to tell you better than I can.”

“Roger. When you go out at lunchtime today, I want you to get a pregnancy test kit. I’m going to prove to you that we’re expecting our first child.”

“I really don’t think …”

“Just do it, Roger!” she screamed.

“Okay, okay, I’ll go out at lunchtime, and get the test kit.”

“Thank you. And then you’ll see.”

Roger smiled, and left the room, locking it behind him. “All right, Roge?” His colleague, Staff Nurse Wallasey, enquired.

Roger shook his head. “She’s still adamant she’s pregnant. Every day, she’s like this.”

“Shall I have a word? Maybe she needs some stronger meds?”

“Nah. I don’t think so. She’s fairly harmless.”

“Whatever you say, Roge.” He stared at Roger for a moment. “Just one thing – you haven’t, you know, actually…?”

“Jesus, Peter. What do you take me for? Put everything at risk for that?”

Wallasey smiled. “Sorry, Roger. I had to ask.” And he wandered off down the corridor, not able to see the worried expression on the Roger’s face.

DAMNED

I am sitting on a low, dilapidated brick wall, before an inconspicuous, two-up, two-down terraced house. I am deep in thought, but I know what’s going to happen.

I go inside the house, and try once more for a reconciliation, which fails. As it always has done before. Despite my pleading, and putting on my best tortured soul expression, Daniella doesn’t want to know. She jabs an accusing finger at me, individually listing the occasions I had promised fidelity, starting with our marriage eight years ago. She then lists the occasions, equal in number, I had failed to keep those promises.

So I skulk out, head down, oblivious to the world around me. I walk into the street, straight in front of the large juggernaut being driven by a man talking on his mobile phone. There’s no time for the horn to sound, and the squeal of breaks and screech of tyres makes we wince. It’s not a pretty sight, parts of me splattered across the front of his cab and smeared across the road.
I watch as the images fade to black. My eyes adjust to the new picture, and I understand what damned for all eternity means.

I am sitting on a low, dilapidated brick wall, before an inconspicuous, two-up, two-down terraced house.

SAILING

The wind gusted and howled as Tom strode confidently down the wide, serrated-metal gangplank. He sniffed the salt-laden air, and an involuntary smile creased his pale face.

It was normally quiet this time on a Saturday, but the marina seemed almost deserted. Nylon halyards slapped and clanged against aluminium masts like some high frequency Lutine bell, whilst blue plastic tarpaulins whipped and cracked. Passing other moored boats, he greeted cabin-bound sailors, shouting “morning” as he went.

The single-cylinder diesel engine started easily, Tom following the written instructions more carefully this time. After reminding himself which rope pulled up which sail, he moved slowly away from the berth.

Tom breathed deeply, relaxing, motoring up the empty channel towards the open sea. A couple of boats came the other way, their captains’ greetings and hails lost in the stiff breeze. One of them shouted something like “weather” and “VHF radio”. Tom didn’t know what he meant, so he ignored it. He was going to get a radio next week.

Tom was pleased. With so few boats out, he’d be able to sail without looking a complete novice.

He remembered what Maria had said earlier. “You should wait until Andy can come with you. At least, until you’ve got a bit more experience.”

What did Maria know? Despite her concerns, he knew the decision to sail today had been a good one.
© Gerald Hornsby 2011

#Sample Sunday 6th March 2011

Something a bit different this week. Less dour than most of the other stories in my collections, it has elements of humour in it. Which is a bit unusual for me. It deals with faded celebrity, but with a slightly uplifting tone. I hope you enjoy it. If you do, please consider my two collections of short stories, from which this piece is taken. They’re only 71p (UK) or 99c (US).

For Kindle in the UK:
.: BMT 1 :.
.: BMT 2 :.

For Kindle in the US:
.: BMT 1 :.
.: BMT 2 :.

On Smashwords:
.: BMT 1 :.
.: BMT 2 :.

And in print:
.: BMT :.

JUST ONE MORE TOUR

I guess you could say music was my first love. Way before I got interested in girls, drugs and drink, I could sing along with those crap tunes which came out of the dodgy radio my mom and dad owned. They’d sing along with me in the parlour, encouraging me to do my little dances. I suppose I would have been around three or four. I’d stand there, short trousers even when the inside of the windows were frosted with a thin layer of ice. Central heating had yet to come to the Stevens household. I can see myself now, jerking erratically, la-la-ing to Frank Ifield, the Bachelors, Val Doonican – all the greatest. My mom said: “Our little Jackie’s going to be one of them pop singers when he grows up.” My dad stopped puffing on his pipe for a moment. “Aye, I reckon tha’s right.” Oh joy.

Many thousands of hours later, Celia was practically begging me to go to the doctor. I used to say: “As long as I can stand to take the applause, and lift either of my arms to my mouth, I’m okay.” Celia had other ideas. I ignored her for as long as I could, but when she got the record company involved, and they started hinting at loss of revenue and increased insurance premiums, I saw the doctor they’d brought to my hotel room.

He took blood and a bucket-full of other fluids, and sent them off for tests. But I asked him straight. And he told me straight. And I wished he hadn’t. A couple of weeks later, his straight-talking summary was confirmed. My liver was shot to hell. “Barely functioning,” he said. Actually, he said a load of other crap, with bits of Latin wedged in. The bottom line – it could fail at any time. Either I did something to help my liver, or I didn’t. The latter sounded more fun, if only I could get the thought of dying out of my head.

Celia didn’t know. The record company certainly didn’t know. They did everything by the board, but I wouldn’t give them permission to approach the doctor. “Doctor – patient privilege,” I quoted. The sideways glances were the start of the rethink. How much did they really need Screamin’ Stevie Jack cluttering up their books and languishing in their back catalogues?

When they called me in to the meeting, I knew what was coming. I think Celia did too, because she was very quiet in the cab on the way over. The driver recognised me – most of them do, and I did the obligatory signature thing. “Not for me, you understand, it’s for me missus. She’s got all your records. Plays ’em all the time.” To Deirdre Cabdriver, keep this and sell it on Ebay in a year or so’s time – maybe less if I’m unlucky. It’ll be worth a fortune then.

“Things have moved on,” the suits started. “We’ve done the retro tours to death. There’s only so many times you can force-feed ancient history to the punters. They all realise now that nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.” Nice joke, music-man-in-a-suit.

“You’ve spoken to the doctor, haven’t you?”

“Why? Is there anything we should know, Stevie?”

Bastards had stitched me up like a kipper. Round our way, in the new money of Essex, they had a phrase for every eventuality. So they ditched me. The press release spewed some crap about me wanting to pursue other avenues. What they didn’t say was that this avenue was a dead-end street and I was already facing the graffiti-daubed brick wall with the disused railway sidings behind. End of the line, Jackie-boy.

I did one of those stupid newspaper interviews the other day. “What do you do when you get up in the morning?” “What car do you own, or would you like to own?” “Which was your favourite album?” That sort of crap. I can answer those questions, easy-peasy. I have a shit; I’d like another Ferrari; and “The Screamin’ Stevie Jack Band – Live!”

I remember when they recorded it. Our manager at the time, Tommy Marchiaro, waddled onto the stage, managed to quieten the boos enough to shout “We’re recording this gig live.” No exclamation mark needed – the crowd erupted with a roar, right on cue. We left his announcement in the recording. “We want you to make the biggest noise this place has ever seen.” Noise? Seen? He was an okay manager, but he was no Brain of Britain.

Well, they made a huge amount of noise (which was electronically enhanced in post-production, of course), and the band played out of their skins. The whole place was hyped up beyond belief, and we had it down on digital for all time. The final number, before the encores, still makes me cry. Every so often, I stick the CD on, and kneel down, miming to the final chorus. “I need you so much. I can’t live without you. You are my…” and the crowd roar “ONE”. Not a dry eye in the house, cue fans screaming, obligatory dash off stage, down half a bottle of JD, and straight into the encores. Fantastic times. Really fantastic.

Once Celia had left, I kicked around the palatial mansion, drinking, playing pool, swimming. Occasionally some of the old gang would come over – Tez, Jimbo, Kak, and we’d sit around, idling our time away, reliving the memories. Occasionally, we’d go out to the studio, fire the desk up, do a few bits and pieces. I told them I was in negotiation for a record deal, a sort of “Back From The Dead” album. They seemed to believe me.

After that, they’d all head home to their own places, leaving me to mix the tracks. They should have known the only mixing I did was out of a few bottles. Nothing could ever improve the mess on the tapes.

The tabloids got it nearly right. Drink and drugs hell of former rock star. Usual stuff. Photos of me faded down, sunken cheeks, and heading for The Priory. Celia came over, looking pretty. I told her so, and most of the other stuff too, expecting her to fling her arms round me, telling me we’d work together to beat it. In real life, and away from my pipedream, she turned and walked out. She does it so well. Practice, I suppose.

It was time to clean up my act. In the studio, I drank water for the first time ever. I wrote self-indulgent acoustic tracks called “Hold On For A Cure” and “This Ain’t The End (Baby).” Some weird independent label signed me for a three-album deal, gave me new management, and sent in a housekeeper a couple of times a week. I went out and about a bit more, generating headlines like “Return of Screamin’ Stevie?” and “Jack’s Back.” The lads weren’t interested in doing anything serious any more, so the management got a new band together – a bunch of young hopefuls, so desperate for success they’d put any old drunkard out front, if it got them noticed enough to get a proper deal.

We start the major tour next week. We’ve done a few local gigs up and down the country. I’ve got the all clear for three months, which they said was the best I could expect. “Just keep the Status Quo, Mister Stevens.” Even the doctor’s a comedian. It’s fine by me. The album’s “bubblin’ under”, according to one music magazine. It had been for many months, but that was fine too. All in all, everything’s fine. Celia’s shacked up with some minor celebrity in LA, but the boys behind me attract enough female attention, some of which is curious to know if the rumours about me are true. I just give them a knowing wink, and put the “Do not Disturb” sign on the door behind them. Just one more tour, please God, just one more.

© Gerald Hornsby 2010

#SampleSunday – 27th February 2011

I really do love Sample Sunday. I don’t do a lot of marketing in the week, but on Sunday, it’s a chance for me to share some of my writing, perhaps with people who aren’t aware of my work. Sometimes I post new writing, sometimes it’s writing I’ve had on my books for a while.

This week, as last week, it’s a selection from my two current collections, .: Bleak Midwinter Tales :. and .: Bleak Midwinter Tales 2 :. . They’re also available from Amazon.com in the US on .: BMT :. and .: BMT 2 :.

The first of this week’s stories is nasty. This could possibly make it into a longer work at some point, but it shows the depraved and sick minds that some people have. The second shows how an innocent, spur-of-the-moment decision can have grave effects on the rest of your life. The third story is a very sad tale, told through photos in an album, and shows how things can change over the years. The final story is back to nasty. I sometimes wonder where I get these ideas from.

Anyway, without much more ado, here’s the pieces for this week:

ADDING TO THE COLLECTION

Lightly, he stroked his index finger across her skin. Milky-white skin, perfectly smooth. He traced her lips, her beautiful, red lips. How he longed to kiss them. But they should be unsullied.

Her hair was briefly caught by a breath of wind, and a strand or two flicked hesitantly across her cheek. He impatiently brushed them away, and tucked them behind her ear. Nothing should spoil her beauty.

Satisfied, he stood up, and stretched his aching back. He was getting too old for this type of work. It was time he found someone who might be interested in taking over. There was always too much to do, and time was short.

Above, the branches of the trees shook with the portent of the coming storm, causing leaves to rustle and hiss like tree-bound vipers. He breathed in the fresh, cool air. A touch of chill foretold the advent of winter, and with it, the inevitable snow. Maybe even as soon as this afternoon. The last thing he needed right now was a whiteout.

He hurried to where the camera stood, poised, observing the scene like some impotent Big Brother. Two photos, identical, one for the cops, and one for his growing collection.

Collapsing the tripod, boxing up the camera, he took one last look. Such beauty, tainted with a rapier-like slash of red. Quite possibly his best yet.

ONE FOR THE ROAD

“So what is it, Connor? Another pint?”

“No thanks, Trevor, I’m driving. Anyway, I should be getting off. I have to pick Jamie up from swimming in twenty minutes.”

“You’ve only had a couple. Another won’t take you over the limit. And it’s not very strong beer.”

“You sure? Okay then, maybe just a half.”

“Don’t do halves, Connor. So another pint it is then.”

“Okay then. One for the road. But I’ll have to down it pretty quickly. I don’t want to keep Jamie waiting.”

“He’ll probably be talking to his mates outside until you turn up. You’ll be fine.”

“I suppose you’re right. Ah. Cheers, Trev.” “Cheers, Connor. Good health.”

Ten minutes later, and Connor lost control of his car, driving too fast because he was late, and because he was over the legal limit. And because he was trying to answer a call on his mobile phone.

Jamie, rather than wait around in the wet, had decided to catch the bus home with his mates. He called his dad’s mobile phone, to ask him where he was.

There was really no need for the phone call anyway as, for a split second, Jamie knew where his dad was, and Connor knew all about Jamie catching the bus.

A WISH FOR JENNY

Opening the faux-leather album, a sliver of tissue paper spilled out, and wafted lazily to the faded floral carpet. Many years ago, she could have picked it up, maybe, but not now. The restrictions of advanced years and infirmity meant that all movements needed to be carefully considered. Each time, a value judgement was made – was the hoped-for result going to be worth the effort involved? The ratio increasingly tilted towards the effort being greater. Someone would pick it up. Later.

The first page was all bumps. Grainy black and white stomachs, stretched and enlarged. With each photo, the smile became more strained, with more forced happiness.

And then a change. Colour now, and a small cotton-wrapped thing, a creature, a new life. It grew, it pulled funny faces, it smiled. It ate, sitting in a high chair, more food on the white plastic tray than in its mouth.

Later, the photos were clearer, better quality. A young girl now, not a thing. New school uniform, knee-length socks and pleated skirt. A bright red ribbon held pigtails tight. Later still, the girl added a straw boater, braces on her teeth, glasses for her eyes. A party, and a large “Happy Birthday, Jenny” banner across the width of the room.

As the pages turned, the story of a life unfolded. Graduation day, broad grins, cap and gown, rolled-up certificate tied with red ribbon. Another face appears by her side, handsome, sparkling eyes. Hair cut short, and then very short, to go with the uniform he wore.

And now there was a lump again. Crystal-clear colour images, but the same bloated stomach, covered in designer maternity wear. Parties, celebrations, sometimes matching stomachs from friends. Plenty of uniforms around.

And then the same cotton-wrapped bundle. But somehow not the same. The smiles were all mouth, but the eyes were sadness. Photos of the small thing, tiny hands and feet, but not quite right. Proud parents, but their expressions said: “How long?”

She closed the book, and looked at the tissue on the floor. She wished she could have picked it up, but she wished more that Jenny could have had a book to chart a life, rather than record a death.

A VILE AFTERTASTE

Vince dug the teaspoon deep into the jar, and scooped up a big heap of garlic and dropped it into the hot olive oil. Vince always liked lots of garlic. He thought it added a special flavour to the food he cooked. Jenny didn’t – she said she hated the taste, even hated it on his breath if he’d been eating it. He inhaled deeply, with a smile on his lips.

He stirred the oil, turning the crushed garlic a light brown, before he added the chopped onions, and then stirring the whole mixture. Vince loved cooking, and tonight was spag bol night, his favourite. Jenny never liked his spaghetti, but tonight he was eating alone. He turned to the cedar chopping block, and cubed the meat carefully. Bringing the block to the cooker, he began dropping the chunks of meat into the pan, stirring as he did so.

“So, Jenny.” Plop. Sizzle. Stir.

“You never liked garlic.” Plop. Sizzle. Stir.

“Did you?” Plop. Sizzle. Stir.

“So what do you think of this then?” Plop. Sizzle. Stir.

He bent his head down to the pan, listening intently. He wrinkled his nose. He didn’t like the smell of this meat, although he might just have to get used to it. There were a good few pounds stored in the freezer.

© Gerald Hornsby 2010

20th Feb – #SampleSunday

This week, I have a small selection of short fiction from my two books, comprising Bleak Midwinter Tales. They’re all of $0.99 or £0.71, from all good Kindle sales outlets everywhere. That’s Amazon to you and me. Also available from Smashwords for other e-readers or PC reading. Click on the little pictures on the right for details.

It’s also available in print form from Lulu – where you get both books, plus two more pieces of short fiction, plus the prologue to my forthcoming novel “Death in Print”. Sounds like a bargain to me. See .: THIS PAGE :. for more information.

Anyway, here are some short pieces of fiction. I hope you enjoy them.

ALONE AT MIDNIGHT

In the darkness, the faint, soft glow of the screens lit his face, and a small area around it. He stared at the words and numbers on the screen, wishing they were different.

He knew he’d been stupid. Inspired by the acts of 9/11, he’d realised that the only way to get people’s attention is to make a big bang. Sitting in his tiny bedsit on the outskirts of London, it was easy to get high on good ideas and the rhetoric of commanders who sit on committees and dictate to others. Now, there was no doubt that he, Robert Banning, was deep in the shit, and scared to death.

He’d first developed a sense of right and wrong when he was at college. He and his close friends joined Amnesty International, and then after college, he’d progressed to an organisation more in keeping with his increasingly extreme views.

From there, he’d been recruited. He’d attended clandestine meetings in back street cafés, there was even talk of a training camp in the middle east. “Probably next year,” they’d said. “But the time for action is now.” Those were the words that had galvanised him.

He’d been stupid to admit he’d had flying lessons. And they were all stupid to think that a single-engined Cessna was the same as a Boeing airliner. He recalled the words. “How different can it be? I’ve played with the flight simulator on the computer. All planes are the same.” How stupid, how stupid?

The walkie-talkie on his belt beeped. “How are things, Captain?”

He forced a calm voice. “Very good. Everything going according to plan. How are things in the cabin?”

“Everything under control. This is truly going to be a glorious day in our organisation’s history. You will be a great hero.”

Sitting alone in the middle of the night, doing his damndest to keep the thing flying level, he hadn’t a clue where he was. And he was scared.

WHAT’S IN THIS?

Russell Davis was charming. Everybody said so. All the girls in the office fancied him. He was tall, well built, and had dark-brown hair, always cut expensively. His position as accounts manager meant that he was respected by his peers, and was on a rapid promotion programme. He had his own house, a nearly new BMW. All in all, he pretty much had everything.

But Julia wasn’t attracted to him. She couldn’t say exactly why, but there seemed to be something about him that made her feel uneasy. Of course, she was polite, and whenever he gave her some work to do, she did it as efficiently as she could. But she hated to be near him.

At the office Christmas party, she was having a great time with her mates, when Davis came over. “Would you like a drink?”

“I’m okay, thank you. I’m with my mates.”

“Go on, just one drink.”

Julia’s best friend, Sam, nudged her. “Go on,” she whispered in Julia’s ear. “He’s a real catch. You might get to like him. Just one drink. It is Christmas.”

He brought over a glass with an umbrella sticking out of it.

“What’s in this?” she asked.

“Ah, it’s a special cocktail. Try it. You’ll like it.”

She sipped, thought it was okay, and drank some more. Davis watched her, intently. “Shall we dance? And then I’ll get us another drink.”

Later, everyone agreed that Julia had had a little too much to drink. It was good of Davis to look after her, and see that she got home. After all, he was such a catch.

ONE MORE STEP

That’s all it needed – one more step. Overhead, white, wispy clouds decorated a clear, blue sky. The sun had risen just over an hour ago, and sat low on the horizon, watching, waiting.

On his drive down here, Tim had blinked away tears of frustration, and of rage. They had turned single-point streetlights into starbursts. They turned the warmth of his unshaven face cold and wet where they touched.

He stood on the edge for a moment, hands in pockets, hunched up against the early morning chill. In his trouser pocket, his hand creased the car park ticket, and the insanity of paying to park his car hit home, as a culmination of everything that was wrong about his life. About him.

“It’s all your fault,” she had said. “How long did you expect me to wait for you? I have my needs. I have to feel loved.”

He had loved her, even from a hundred miles away.

But everything had been his fault. Even that first time, when he had come home with the early signs of flu, and caught the two of them? Yes, even then.

He had wanted to punish Charles. Punish him for being a good friend to her when she needed it. Punish him for sleeping with her when he was working hard to pay the arrears on the mortgage, or to pay her credit card bills. He had needed to punish Charles, to feel like he had some control over his life. And he had punished him, well.

And now, after the fifteen years (time off for good behaviour), she had remarried, had children, and had forgotten about him.

He looked at the sun. It smiled at him, and he took that last step.

DARLING DAUGHTER

I should have known she would do it. Despite all of my best efforts to put her off, and make her see sense, she still went ahead and did it.

I know divorced husbands no longer have the same stigma associated with them as they used to, but there was always something about him that I didn’t take to. When I was young, if you were the product of a failed marriage, a “broken home” we used to call it, you stood out from the crowd. These days, a family with two parents still together is the exception rather than the rule.

Simon, he’s called. I suppose I could see what attracted her to him – smart, always well turned out, clean-shaven, nicely groomed. “Very presentable”, my mom would have said about him. He was a little taller than Suzy, and fairly trim. The slight limp he had, favouring his left leg, was caused by a bad tackle in a football game. He still goes to his club, watches the matches, has a drink with his mates after the match. Suzy sometimes goes, too. She used to go every week, nowadays she uses the time to catch up on the washing, or the cleaning.

I can still remember the first time Suzy went on a date with him. I could tell something was on Suzy’s mind – mother’s intuition, they used to call it.

“So, Suzy, what are you up to tonight?”

“Tonight, mum? Nothing special. Well…”

“You’re going out somewhere. I can tell. Where are you going?” I tried to make the question non-threatening.

“Just to the pictures. With Mandy.”

I knew it was a lie, but I thought I’d let it go. I suppose she had to take an interest in men eventually. It was, after all, her life.

“What’s his name?” So much for good intentions.

She let out a sigh. “It’s Simon.”

“You will be careful, won’t you? You know what I mean by that?”

She smiled at me. “Of course mum. I’m off now. I’m meeting him outside the pictures. I won’t be late.” She gave me a kiss, and looked into my eyes. “I’ll be careful, mum. He’s a really nice bloke. You’ll meet him soon.”

She skipped out, relaxed now that her little secret was out. I loved to see her happy, but I can’t help being a mother and trying to protect her, can I? I waited up, but not so she’d see me. I didn’t want to frighten her off.

A few more dates, and he came round to the house. Sponge cake, tea and polite conversation. I suppose he was charming, in a way. Very deferential, and careful not to sit too close to my Suzy. When she saw him off, I made lots of noise in the sink, drowning out any possibility of overheard sweetheart talk.

“Do you like him, mum?”

“I suppose he’s quite nice. I’m not sure about his tea drinking, though. ‘A man who takes two sugars is trying to sweeten down some bitter character’ – my mom used to say that.”

“Oh mum! He’s really nice. You’ll see, once you get to know him. Maybe next time he visits, he can bring his daughter.”

It took only a few moments to pick up the pieces of the plate, but the shock of what she had said couldn’t be fixed that quickly. From then, things went from bad to worse.

I tried talking to her, pleading with her, forbidding her. She called me overprotective, interfering – and worse. Nothing made any difference at all. Even when I became ill, I tried to use it as an excuse for her to stay close to me, and not see so much of Simon. Bless her, she did stay with me, helped me, held my hand. But I could tell she wasn’t listening to me at all. Nothing I said had any effect whatsoever.

And now, she’s done it. She’s married him, willingly taken responsibility for his daughter. Simon’s obviously happy his precious daughter has a new mother. Everything I tried to do, every note of caution I sounded, he was there, whispering in her ear, turning her against me.

My reminiscences were interrupted by the front door banging, and I called out. She ignored me, as she always did nowadays. She came breezing into the kitchen, looking around at the empty spaces where the appliances used to be. I felt it was time to try to make up, and put our differences to one side.

“Darling. Suzy. I think we need to talk.”

Nothing. No reply, no recognition even that I’d spoken. Just Suzy, moving around the kitchen, touching work surfaces, mind elsewhere. Eventually, she spoke.

“Mum. I really wished you could have liked Simon. It could have been so perfect to have you there at the wedding, giving us your blessing. It’s all too late now”. Tears formed in her eyes.

My heart melted, and I moved towards her, my arms wide open, ready to hug her for her forgiveness. My arms passed through her. I’d never get used to it. As I watched, she wiped a tear from her cheek, picked up her handbag, and stepped quickly towards the front door. I called out, so desperate to have her stay here with me. I was the only one to hear my voice. She could go wherever she wanted now, with or without Simon. She had the choices. I had none. I was stuck here, forever, on my own, with my regrets.

ONE SPARE PLACE

Daniel laid the table, placing knives, forks and spoons carefully opposite each chair. Force of habit made him lay out a fourth place, before he stopped, and reconsidered. Ordinarily, he wouldn’t have done this – it had been nearly eight months since Angela had died, and he and the boys had got very much used to being on their own.

As Christmas approached, there had been plenty of offers, some insistent, of a Christmas with friends and family, especially for Christmas dinner. But Daniel had always prepared the dinner on Christmas day, and didn’t want to change the normal run of things for this year, even if Angela wasn’t going to be around.

He prodded things in pans on the hob, and turned to look out of the large window onto the garden. The two boys were playing football with Joey, their Jack Russell terrier. As usual, Joey’s lack of skill was more than made up for by his enthusiasm, and the boys cackled with laughter as they dog ran round and round, pushing the ball with his nose.

Daniel watched them for a while, and knocked on the window. When they looked his way, he moved his two fists alternately up and down at the front of his chest. There was a muffled cheer, and the three boys (including Joey), raced to the kitchen door.

“I want all three of you to stand there while I check for mud on your feet”, said Daniel. Two complied, but Joey ignored him, and ran into the living room, leaving a small trail of muddy paw prints.

As he checked them for dirty hands and feet, he felt so proud of the two of them. At nine and seven, they were still small children, but in some ways, they were grown up. This year had been both terrible and enlightening for them all.

“I want to ask the two of you a question. It may seem a bit silly, and I don’t mind the answer, but I’d just like to know”.

The two boys stood shoulder to shoulder, prepared for anything that life could throw at them now.

“By mistake, I’ve laid an extra place at the table. I suppose I was just used to doing it at Christmas. I don’t know whether to leave it, or take it away. What do you think?”

Ryan, the eldest, and the natural leader of the two, looked at his younger brother. James shrugged his shoulders. It wasn’t that he didn’t mind, he just didn’t understand the significance of the question.

Then Ryan spoke. “Dad, we know why you asked the question. But there’s just the three of us now. We know mum’s dead, and we won’t ever forget her. But you don’t need to lay a place for her. She won’t be there.”

Daniel patted both of them on the shoulder. “Fine by me. Now go and wash your hands, and I’ll serve this little lot up.”

He turned back to the cooker as the two boys raced upstairs to the bathroom. Lucky, really, because he wouldn’t want them to see the tears in his eyes.

GOING THROUGH MY DRAWERS

Michael and I had returned early. We’d been to a fundraiser, for the local hospital, but Michael had felt ill, so we came home early. I drove. Michael had drunk a few cocktails.

When we got home, the first thing I noticed was that the alarm was off. Michael normally sets it as we go out. He swears he did so last night.
So we go into our house, and there’s no noise. A few security lights had been left on – Michael’s idea – to deter burglars. So Michael says to me: “Stay here, darling. I’ll search the house.” So I did. For a while, anyway.

The door to the basement was still locked, like it normally is. He checked the kitchen and the family room, and everything was okay.

So he starts to go upstairs. I say to him: “Michael, let me go. You’re drunk.”

But he said: “Don’t worry. I’ll be careful. I feel okay now.”

So he climbed up the stairs, very slowly, and very quietly. And then – nothing. No sound at all. So naturally, I got worried. So I went upstairs too. Slowly and quietly just like he did.

When I get to the first floor landing, I hear this sound in our bedroom. Sort of moving around sounds, if you know what I mean. So I head in that direction. When I open the door, there’s this guy, going through my drawers, one by one. And Michael, he’s creeping up on the guy, like on tiptoe.

Well, I tried to keep quiet, but the sight of that guy, looking through my underwear, I just sort of made a sound. And he turned around, saw Michael, and shot him with this gun he was holding. Just like that.

I was so upset, I just broke down, and the guy pushed past me, and ran out of the house, And there was my husband, lying there, dead. And that’s when I phoned you guys.

Whaddya mean, he’s not dead? Talking? Oh shit.

© Gerald Hornsby 2010

#SampleSunday – 13th February 2011


First draft to Chapter One of “DEATH IN PRINT” – out soon.

This is preceded by the prologue, also made available as a #SampleSunday on the 16th Jan – .: CLICK HERE :.

Robert Casey stood facing the double doors into the main body of the bookshop, and took a deep breath. It was always like this, meeting his fans, the great unwashed who had given him his comfortable lifestyle. The bookstore owner, James something-or-other, bow tie adjusted perfectly around his bulging neck, stood at Casey’s right elbow, peering in through the window. Casey knew he was mentally counting the punters and the pound signs they represented. Stan Lillywhite, Robert’s long-suffering agent, stood on Casey’s left side.

“Good crowd tonight, eh Robert?”

Casey grunted. This was by far the worst part of his author’s existence. Lillywhite and the publisher said that it was an essential part of marketing. Both of them were hanging off Casey’s coattails, taking their percentage. Casey thought it was just bullshit.

“Okay, let’s do it.” Casey followed the bookstore owner through the doors, Lillywhite peeling off to one side.

“Ladies and gentlemen”, bow tie announced, “Mister Robert Casey!” A small round of applause fizzed into life from a few sad and lonely claps.

Casey allowed himself to be led towards the rear of the shop, where a large table waited, covered by a pristine starched white tablecloth. To one side, several neat piles of books were positioned, and an empty space had been created on the other. Casey sat down on the utilitarian, orange plastic seat – why couldn’t they ever use a decent chair for once? – and then stood up again, when he realised he would need to say something to the crowd.

“Ladies and gentlemen”, bow tie began, rubbing his hands together Shylock-fashion, despite the oppressive heat in the shop. “I’d just like to welcome our esteemed guest for this evening, who I’m sure will need no introduction. Mister Robert Casey.”

He started another ripple of applause, less effusive this time, following the introduction which apparently wasn’t required.

After the applause had died down, Casey cleared his throat.

“Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen. You’re really kind.” He stopped, looking around the twenty or so faces, wondering what they hell they were doing out on a cold and wet night like this. Do they think some ethereal stardust is going to get wafted from his aura? Are these people really that sycophantic, that they wanted to see their favourite author, up close and personal?

He realised that there was the beginnings of an uncomfortable silence, and everyone was waiting for him to do something, to show them why he was one of the country’s favourite authors, an honour bestowed upon him by some nonsense chat show he’d done a couple of years ago.

He picked up his dog-eared copy of “Death by Drowning”, and opened it at the first page marked by a tiny yellow Post-It. “I … err … before I start, I’d like to give you some background to this book. Does anyone mind if I sit down?”

Of course they didn’t. As always, he had them eating out of the palm of his hand. It was just a shame that all he had was a few cracker crumbs. Book sales were dropping off, and reviewers had begun to call his writing “formulaic”. He thought they had a point. His formula had stood him in good stead for some years now, and he saw no reason to change. The publishers disagreed.

He sat down again, seemingly idly flipping through the book. “This is my seventh ‘Death by’ book, and I personally think it’s my best yet, despite what the critics say.” There was a murmur of amusement, and Casey glanced at Lillywhite, who was staring back at him.

“I do like to try and push the boundaries of crime writing, whilst keeping my finger on the pulse of modern society.” He paused. Christ, he was a walking cliché. “Perhaps the best way of telling you what makes me write a book like this, is to read some sections from it”.

Casey went through the motions of making readings; he tried to inject some enthusiasm into it, he really did. But this was about the fifteenth book signing on his present tour, and any tiny bit of enthusiasm he’d had when they started the tour had all but evaporated. He could see bow tie man getting twitchy. No one was enjoying this evening. What was the point?

The publishers had said that they wanted to get him in touch with his core audience. Publishing speak for admitting that the big city centre stores didn’t want him cluttering up their stores, when they could have a celebrity chef, an ex-MP, or a footballer who’d recently been photographed with a team mate in a fairly compromising position. Some old has-been bean crime writer just didn’t cut it any more.

Eventually, after the last reading, he sat down, only to be encouraged to his feet again.

Bow tie led the applause, if it could be called that. “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m sure before Mister Casey begins his book signings, he would welcome the opportunity to answer a few questions any of you might have.”

Casey looked towards his agent, but Lillywhite just shrugged his shoulders. Bastard! He knew about this. Casey made a mental note to grab a bookstore complement slip on his way out, so he could be sure he would never come here again.

He sat down again, and waited. There was a moment’s silence, before bow-tie opened up the questioning.

“I suppose I should have the pleasure of starting with the first question. Mister Casey, Robert, who would you say was your greatest inspiration? Where do you get your ideas from? I’m sure I speak for a number of people here when I say that we enjoy your books immensely, but we couldn’t imagine where some of the concepts and plots come from for your books.”

Casey groaned inwardly. This was probably the most common question he was ever asked, and usually he had a smart answer for the people, to keep them quiet, to satisfy their desire to ownwon a piece of him. Tonight, the smart answer eluded him, and he struggled to come up with a satisfactory answer to this first of a number of boring, inconsequential questions.

“Of course, I read a lot.”

“Which authors do you read mostly?”

Oh Christ. “I suppose I read a wide variety of authors. From, of course, Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler and James Elroy, to modern authors. A wide variety, I suppose, would be my answer.” He paused, as if to think. “I always try to inject as much realism into my books as possible. I put myself in my character’s shoes, so I can see what they’re seeing, and feel what they’re feeling.”

Sweaty bow tie man laughed. “I hope that’s not true for your murderers, Robert?” The audience shared the joke, politely.

“No, of course not.” Was it time to get out of here and back to the hotel bar yet? “Now,” Casey said, with a bright tone to his voice, “are there any questions from the audience.” He threw his arms out wide, either embracing them or throwing himself on their mercy.

“What time of day did you find best for writing?”

Bloody hell. What a stupid, stupid question. “I mostly write in the mornings. These days, I have timescales and targets and deadlines to meet – my agent, Stan Lillywhite over there, sees to that.” He nodded in the direction of Stan, who stood at the back of the group, impassively. Probably thinking about the hotel bar, too. “So I try to get as many words out in the morning as I can. That way, I can edit and rewrite at my leisure in the afternoon and evening.”

Please God, get me out of here soon.

“What sort of computer do you use for your writing?”

Bloody hell. That’s a weird one.

“I dunno, really.”

“Is it a laptop? AnA PC or an Apple?”

“Oh, I see. It’s a laptop PC. Nothing special.”

“Wouldn’t an Apple MacBook be better?”

Casey looked over to the man asking the questions. Nondescript, boring features, wrapped in what looked like an old plastic mac. Dark, wet hair, earnest expression. Christ, what a saddo. This question was important to this weirdo. Fortunately, bow-tie came to the rescue.

“I’m sure Mister Casey has more important things to do than discuss the type and styles and makes of computer. Wouldn’t you say so, Mister Casey?”

“Well, I suppose that’s true. I don’t pay that much attention to the details of the computer. I just buy something that has a good screen that I can read for several hours a day. Nothing special at all.”

The same guy spoke up again. “Are you proud of your books, Mister Casey?” The quiet buzz of conversation in the bookshop dies away completely.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, it must be difficult to maintain standards over a long series, wouldn’t you say? Do you think the critics are right to describe your book as ‘outdated, belonging to a era of steam trains and Harold MacMillan?’

The was quiet, before bow tie came to Casey’s rescue.

“Well, thank you, Mister Casey – may I call you Robert?” He’s been calling me Robert all fucking evening so far. To the audience – “Now if you would so kind as to form an orderly queue in front of the table here, and Mister Casey – err, Robert, will be pleased to sign your books for you.”

“Lovely to meet you, Mister Casey.”

“I’ve read all of your other books, Mister Casey.”

“I do love the way you bring a sense of adventure into your books.”

Casey smiled dutifully, but watched out for the strange, aggressive man in the plastic mac. He seemed to have left the shop before the signings. “Probably a journalist,” Casey thought.

Casey kept his head down, signing away on the hardbacked source of income. Good work, Peter. Cheers, Diane. Hope you enjoy it, Davina. Davina? He looked up. No, it wasn’t THAT Davina. Thanks, Charlie. Cheers, Brian. And so on. He licked his lips. He could taste the beer already.

#SampleSunday – 6th February 2011


This week’s #SampleSunday piece is something new. In a lovely little writers’ group we have on Facebook, called “Writing Kindle Books”, we chat about writing, marketing, and football. One day, someone asked “What’s the next big thing in fiction?” We’ve had wizards, we’ve got vampires and the like, and … well, it seemed obvious. Gnomes. That’s right, gnomes are going to be The Next Big Thing in fiction. Just remember, you heard it here first.

Here’s my piece. I hope you enjoy it.

GERRY

Steve took the tissue paper wrapping off it.

“What do you think?”

I looked up from the book I was reading. I thought it was hideous.

“It’s hideous,” I said.

Steve looked genuinely shocked. “Do you think? I think it’s kinda cute. Look at his big, bulbous nose.” He gave it a playful tweak. “OW!”

He looked at his finger, where a tiny, red bubble of blood was just appearing. “There must be a sharp edge. I’ll go and smooth it off.”

“And not throw it in the bin?” I asked.

“No,” Steve replied, cradling the thing in his arms protectively. “I really like it. It’ll look good in the front garden.”

I stopped reading, and closed the book cover.

“It’s NOT going in the front garden.”

Steve looked hurt. He looked genuinely hurt. In our six years of marriage, we’d had few disagreements, and even fewer full-blown arguments, but this looked like it was going to be one of those times. But Steve backed down.

“Okay, okay, I’ll put it in the back garden.” He turned and started walking towards the back door, en route to the shed. “I like you, Gerry.”

I called after him. “You’ve given it a name? Jerry, like in ‘Tom and Jerry?’”

Steve stopped. “No, Gerry as in … well, my old schoolmate Gerry. With a ‘G’”.

I gave up. There was no point in digging my heels in. If it went in the back garden, no one could see it from the road. Appearances were important in this area. Old Alan, next door, got a letter through his door two days after one of his fence panels blew down, reminding him to put it back up, and suggesting he attached it more securely in the future. Nice. That’s what it’s like in this aspirational area.

Steve liked it here. He was the closet, sometimes overt, snob, being brought up my hard-nosed middle-class parents. Everything needed to look right. I was different, rigidly working-class, and proud of it, and people could tell. My accent was genuine. Steve’s accent was .. well, constructed.

I still remember the shock on the day that Steve took me to meet his parents.

“But you’re just good friends, Steven. Flatmates I thought,” his mum had said, shaking her head.

Steve, bless him, hadn’t beaten around the bush. “We’re partners, mum. We’ve been living together for nearly a year now.”

“But … but …”

“Mum, I’m gay. Robert and I are going to be married in a civil ceremony”.

I don’t think she ever properly recovered. Whenever she talked about me, I was Steve’s “friend”. I don’t know how she annunciated the quotation marks, but she did. Every time.

Steve came back in, holding his finger.

“Gerry looks nice in the back garden. Anyway, it’ll be quieter for him. Come and see him.”

I said nothing, but closed the book again, and walked to the back window, overlooking the back garden, my domain. In my younger days, I would help mum and dad in the garden at home, and later help mum in the kitchen. I enjoyed the physical work, and the creativity involved. Steve had probably been too busy with the Young Conservatives or the local hunt, or whatever it was that he’d done in leafy Surrey. I grew our own veg, and I cooked.

The gnome was sitting … what am I saying? it had been placed in the middle of the lawn. It was turned so the face looked towards the house. I hated the grotesque, exaggerated and gaudily-painted features of its head. And the fact that it was sitting on a faux-mushroom, red with white spots, made it look ridiculous in my eyes. Steve stood by the window, his finger wrapped in a handkerchief, proud as any father could be. I didn’t want to cause an argument.

“It looks okay. Probably the best place for it.” I knew that as soon as Steve had gone to work on Monday, I would move it to the side of the garden, and when Steve had forgotten all about it, it would be in the bin.

“You’re not going to move it, are you?” he asked, his face wincing with pain.

“What’s the matter? Is it your finger?”

Steve unwrapped the handkerchief, the bright-red Rorschach growing bigger against the starched white linen. What had been a tiny globule of blood, hiding a small cut, had now exlarged, and the cut was now a deep and widening gash in the end of his finger.

“Jesus, Steve. You need to get that seen to.”

He looked at it, and rewound the handkerchief around it. “It’ll be all right. Nothing to worry about. But what about Gerry? Doesn’t he look magnificent?”

I looked again at the gnome. At the time I swore that his … it’s expression had changed. The happy grin had morphed into a leer, tiny porcelain teeth showing, and the cornflower blue-painted eyes seemed to have taken on an unpleasant glint.

“Well?” Steve asked, getting impatient.

“I said. It looks fine.” But I was still staring at his hand, where the red stain was growing larger, where now there was little white left on the handkerchief.

“Look, Steve,” I said, “let me run you down to the hospital. That cut looks like it’s getting worse.”

He instantly pushed his hand into his jeans pocket. “It’ll be fine. Don’t you think we need to make a pond? For Gerry to fish in?”

I frowned. What the hell was he going on about? I looked back to the gnome. What I was sure had been a benign, smiling gnome, sitting on a fake toadstool, was now a maniacal creature. The toadstool had gone, and now he was standing, fishing rod in hand, with a quizzical look on his face. Shit! Now even I was anthropomorphising it. How can it have changed? Had it changed? What the hell was going on?

“I’m going to make a pond for it. I won’t be long.” And he disappeared out of the door. I called after him, but he was on a mission, ignoring me, and everything around him apart from that gnome. He disappeared into the shed, and reappeared with gloves on his hands and a stainless steel spade.

I had no idea what was going on. As I watched my partner, my lover, attack my pristine lawn with the spade, I gave up trying to make him see sense. As I turned away, I noticed a dark stain appearing on one of the gloves as he feverishly worked at the hole in the lawn. I shook my head, and headed back to the lounge, where the telly was showing some football.

Two hours later, it was starting to get dark, a threatening grey-black cloud heading in from the sea, slowly but surely blocking out any of the light from the sky. The football had finished, and I’d temporarily forgotten about Steve and his quest.

Walking into the kitchen, I raised the kettle, testing the wait, and flicked on the switch. Outside, it was almost full dark. What the hell was Steve doing, working in the dark like this?

At the far end of the kitchen, I switched on the security light. There was a brief flash, and then darkness again. Shit! The bulb had gone. But in that split second of bright, white light, I’d seen something that defied logic.

Passing through the outside door, I descended the steps to the garden. Well, it had been a garden. Now it resembled a building site. Piles of earth, some five or six feet high, rose from what remained of the lawn. I leaned into the shed, and grabbed a torch. In the light of its beam, I surveyed what remained of the back garden. It was as though a mechanical digger had been left in gear. It was a huge mess. I was almost too shocked to speak.

“Steve?” I asked, quietly.

Nothing. No sounds of digging, no friendly response. Nothing. Off in the distance, I could clearly hear the white noise of cars on the motorway. And nothing else.

“STEVE?” I now shouted, starting to move among the piles of earth.

I stopped moving as I walked around one pile, probably the biggest, and gazed at the biggest fucking hole I’d ever seen. It was … well, it must have been at least twenty feet across. No sign of Steve.

I edged closer, granules of dry earth and tiny stones rattling down the steep sides. The torch beam shone down into the hole.

“STEVE!” I screamed. The beam of the torch caught something … something smooth, shiny, colourful on the other side of the hole. Gerry now had his fishing line out, dropping down into the hole.

And the benign smile on his happy little face changed. Yes, it did change, as I stood looking at it in the dim light of the torch. And the eye. Slowly closed. And opened again.

© Gerald Hornsby 2010

#SampleSunday – 30th January 2011

TWELVE DAYS (– First draft –)

Chapter 1 – 6:38pm, Monday 14th December

The long-awaited and well-predicted fall of snow had finally arrived, and Detective Chief Inspector Danny McGregor turned up the collar on his overcoat, and jammed his hands back into his pockets. He hated winter – he hated the cold, he hated the rain, and he especially hated the snow. And he hated being called out on a cold, rainy, snowy night.

Behind him, buses idled noisily at bus stops, steam rising lazily from their exhausts, and beyond that, cars on the dual carriageway created slooshing white noise as they dashed home, oblivious of the dramas being played out on the quiet back street.

Head down, he passed several other similarly-hunched pedestrians, walking away from the station, and presumably back to the warmth and comfort of their houses. It would be several hours before McGregor would be able to get home tonight, if at all. Christmas was a time of contrasts, but most of McGregor’s Christmases had been far from happy.

Up ahead, he could see the flashing blue lights bouncing off the tall buildings and reflecting off the settling snow in the quiet back street. He stepped into the road, and cold, wet slush rose over his shoes and soaked through his socks.

“Shit.”

He hurried across the road, and in the limited light he made out the silhouette of Detective Sergeant Pauline Bennett.

“Bennett”, he called out.

The silhouette turned, and moved. “Glad you got here OK, guv. I was beginning to get worried.”

“Sometimes, I hate Christmas. What have we got?”

“Dead body.” She referred to a small, black notepad. “Student. Maria Stama. Nasty slit throat. Almost took her head off. She’s over here.”

Bennett led the way past uniformed officers, stamping their feet, awaiting further instructions, trying to keep warm as the evening turned into night. The two detectives ducked under striped blue-and-white tape, and they turned into an alleyway between a bar and an empty department store.

Maria Stama was lying face down amongst some cardboard boxes and litter. It almost looked like she was sleeping peacefully, blissfully unaware of the enormous police activity going on around her. Her head rested against a cardboard box, a manufacturer’s name partially hidden by a growing dark shadow. She wore jeans and a thin top, totally unsuited to the weather. To one side, a handbag lay open, some of the contents spilling out.

“Maria …?” McGregor asked.

“Stama,” Bennett completed. “Italian. Been over here two years.”

“SOCO?” McGregor asked.

“You mean the Crime Scene Examiner? About ten minutes away, guv. Caught up in traffic.”

McGregor tutted at the continual redefinition of titles and roles within the police service. “How come do they take so long?”

“You know these Scene of Crime people, boss. A case like this, the figure the deceased isn’t going anywhere, and it’s likely they’re going to spend most of the night here, anyway.”

“Get on the radio to them. See if you can’t get them to hurry up.”

“I’ve already done that. They say they’re doing the best they can. And then they asked if I realised it was Christmas.”

McGregor muttered something obscene under his breath, and moved back out of the alleyway, Bennett behind him, as always.

“Who found her, Pauline?”

“One of her friends.” She looked at her notebook. “Laura Chapin. There were a bunch of them, out celebrating in the pub just over there.” Bennett nodded across the road, and McGregor saw a brightly-lit, modern bar, where a number of people were standing around, beer bottles in hand, watching what was going on. Each of them was dressed just in trousers and shirts, no coats, and not for the first time in his life, McGregor wondered what it was about the younger generation that made them impervious to this freezing weather.

“Where’s Chapin now?”

“In one of the squad cars. I figured you’d want to speak to her as soon as you could.”

“Cheers. I’ll go and have a word.”

As he walked to the squad car Bennett had indicated, McGregor again looked at the small crowd of people outside the pub, being held back behind Scene of Crime tape by a couple of uniforms. One man, young, with an angular, clean-shaven face, lifted his bottle towards McGregor, and nudged the man standing next to them. The two watched McGregor with interest.

“What’s going on?” one of them shouted across.

McGregor ignored him, and also the larger piles of slush to get to the lime green striped Vauxhall, where he could see a young girl with her head down, and a female officer sitting next to her on the back seat, arm around the young girl’s shoulders. McGregor nodded to the officer stamping his feet by the car, and he got into the front passenger seat.

“Hi, Laura,” he said. “My name’s Detective Chief Inspector McGregor. I’m in charge of the investigation, for the moment. My associate tells me you found your poor friend?’

The young girl looked up. She was attractive, or at least had been before her mascara had run from her eyes and down her cheeks. Short blonde hair, and somewhat hollow-cheeked, she looked like a small waif, completely out of place in this crime scene.

“Maria was a friend of mine. She was going back to Italy for Christmas tomorrow. This was a celebratory drink. Just a few of us.” She looked down again. “Who the fuck would do something like that? There are some sick fuckers around this crappy city.”

McGregor nodded. “And you’re not from round here, are you?”

“Cheltenham. That’s where my parents live. I shared a flat up here with Maria and a couple of other mates. We all got on.”

“Can you tell me what happened? Was she with you in the pub?”

Chapin sniffed. “Yes. We’d been there since around six. Just drinking, you know?”

McGregor nodded.

“Well, anyway, Maria got this text message. On her phone. When she read it, she looked confused. Said she needed to go outside for a few minutes. She gave me some money for the next round.”

“And you didn’t see her after that?”

“No. Well, not until …” She looked out of the side window, before turning to McGregor again. “After about five minutes, I bought the next round, but she hadn’t returned. I left my drink on the table, and went outside to see where she was.”

“Could you see her?”

“No. Not at first. I called out to her. She didn’t answer. I walked up the road a bit. And that’s when I found her.”

“I see. Listen.” MecGregor looked at his watch. Seven-forty, How’d it get to be that time? “I’m afraid we’re going to need to take a full statement from you. It’s probably not what you want to do tonight …”

“But I’m due to be going home tomorrow. To Cheltenham,” she added.

“If you want to do it tonight, then that’s okay. But you’ll need to come down to the police station. We need to write everything down. Do you feel up to that?”
She nodded.

“Okay, you just stay here for a moment. I’ll get someone to pick you up, take your statement, and then drop you wherever you need to go tonight. Is that okay?”

She nodded, again, more slowly this time.

McGregor looked at the female officer, who said: “I’ll stay with her for the moment.”

“Thanks. I’ll get a DC over as soon as I can.” He put his hand on Chapin’s arm, who flinched as if an electric shock had passed through her.

“Sorry,” McGregor muttered, and climbed out of the car, to find Bennett waiting for him.

“We need at least one DC here, female, to take her to the station for a statement.”

“Tonight?” Bennett asked.

“Yes. Tonight. Is that a problem?”

“No,” Bennett said. “If you like, I’ll do it now. Get it over with.”

“No. I need you with me. Get someone else over to do it.”

He walked off, leaving Bennett to make the arrangements. Once again, he had to pass the crowd of young people outside the bar.

“How long are we going to have to wait here? We’ve got some serious drinking to do.” There was a subdued cheer, and shouts of “dead right”.

McGregor stopped his march towards the crime scene, and slowly approached the group.

“You’d better watch it, Carl,” one of the group said. “He’ll arrest you if you’re not careful.” More cheers.

McGregor addressed the whole group. “I’m sorry you’re having to wait around on a night like this. As you may, or may not know, a young girl has been brutally murdered a few yards from here, and all of you are potential witnesses to what went on.”

There were groans, and the one who shouted before, Carl, spoke up. “So what, we have to wait here to give a statement or something? This is ridiculous.” There were more groans from the group.

“I’m sorry that you’re being inconvenienced,” McGregor went on. “You’ll be seen as soon as we can get someone here to take your statements.”

“Can’t we wait inside the pub? At least we’d be able to get a drink then. It was Carl’s round.” More cheers, answered by a “fuck off”.

“I’m afraid not,” said McGregor. He looked at the two uniformed officers keeping the group in check, but he didn’t need to say anything. They knew their job. McGregor carried on towards the crime scene, and was caught up by Bennett.

“Julia Trent will be here in about two minutes, guv. She was on her way anyway.”

“Good. Make sure you get the rest of Stama’s group identified and isolated from the rest of them.We’ll need to get them interviewed tonight as well. Drag in as many as you think you need. I don’t want to risk any potential witnesses leaving the scene.”

He looked around, and up at the sky, where snow was once again falling.

“Why would anyone want to murder a student just before Christmas?” He shook his head. “Sometimes, I hate my job.”