The Price of One – Short Story on Scarlet Leaf Review

The Price of One – my ghost story / lyrical tour around London’s South Bank is in this month’s online edition of Scarlet Leaf Review.

The narrator is dead, and still very much in love. When a street vendor offers him a potion that brings him temporarily to life he and his heartbroken paramour grasp it with both hands.

Please head over there, give it a read, show it some love.

http://www.scarletleafreview.com/short-stories1/category/ali-abbas

 

The Footsteps of the Valiant

I had a tilt at the Bartleby Snopes dialogue only writing contest this year, an entirely new format for me. The rules are simple – only dialogue, no “he said”, no directions, just conversation. They keep the top five entries on the boil and reject everything else. I clung on for a few days, but inevitably got tinned.

That said I had a bit of fun with this and I hope you do to:

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Studded Door

 

The Footsteps of the Valiant

 

“Who’s there?”

“Archon? Archon, is that you?”

“It is. Child, you don’t sound like one of my regular guards.”

“No, your holiness. Far from it. I have come to save you.”

“Bless you daughter, but you are taking a terrible risk. Flee, before they find you.”

“Don’t worry; no one will be coming for a while. Your long captivity is almost over.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“The guards on this watch have been bribed. They’re all looking away.”

“‘By their own greed shall they be undone’ as it says in Acolytes Three.”

“Yes, your Holiness.”

“What is it that you are doing? All I can hear is a scratching at the door.”

“Trying to pick the lock. This one looks like a regular forbidding dungeon door with a big unsophisticated lock that a halfwit gaoler can manage, but it turns out to be surprisingly complex.”

“Well, they have had me locked up in here for a long time, I’m sad to say you are not the first devout soul with fire in your belly and righteousness in your heart to try and save me.”

“I know, there are memorial cobbles hidden throughout the city with the names of the holy martyrs.”

“Cobbles?”

“They prise one up, engrave it and replace it overnight. There’s also a threnody that is sung by everyone in attendance: “The Footsteps of the Valiant”, it’s quite a moving tune.”

“Cobbles are not lacking in humility I suppose.”

“You are a prisoner of the state Holiness. They could hardly erect statues.”

“No indeed. How are you getting along with that lock?”

“It won’t be long; the Duke had a similar one on his strong room. There’s a trick to it.”

“I see. I take it the path of righteousness has not always been the one you have chosen?”

“No your holiness I’m a thief. I don’t actually have any of that belly or heart stuff. Your followers got tired of sending each other to certain death trying to save you. They hired me. I’m a professional.”

“So what about that business with the holy martyrs and the cobbles?”

“It never hurts to empathise with the client. Especially when the client thinks they have a cause. It can get you ten, maybe fifteen basis points on the price. Bitter, hard bitten pros with no emotional intelligence have to sell their services at a discount.”

“My goodness, I had no idea it could be so complicated. I must admit I’m not sure how I feel about being rescued by someone who has not been saved.”

“Oh it’s your flock that are saving you. The money was raised by subscription. As best I can make out, you’ve had everyone from widows and orphans contributing pennies, to businessmen putting an entire year’s profits into the fund. It was very touching, but of course it doesn’t pay to get sentimental.”

“But you are the one who is doing the saving.”

“‘Judge not the sword, but the hand that wields it.’ That’s from Ruminations Six.”

“You know your scripture!”

“Good research on the client, adds another ten points to the price every time. Those surly hero guys hanging around in taverns half drunk and unshaven really don’t know what they’re doing. I have an office, and a secretary. Prospective clients get cinnamon tea and a brochure.”

“I suppose that makes me feel better about it. How is that lock coming?”

“Nearly there. Just one turn…got it. Stand back your Holiness. There’s a torch out here, and the sudden light may be painful.”

“That won’t be a problem.”

“Oh.”

“To be fair, no one else has ever got this far. We’ll have to review security arrangements.”

“Gosh. It’s rather nice in here isn’t it?”

“Well, there had to be some trade-off for being locked up all these years.”

“Your carpets are as good as the Duke’s and I happen to know that’s a third century jade vase.”

“You’re an educated woman.”

“Well, yes. But that one I stole to order for…”

“That was you? God bless you. It was originally stolen from the Church by the second Hieromancy. ‘It will profit them not the things they take unto themselves. For all shall be returned to its rightful place in time for judgement.’ Divination Twelve, in case you were wondering.”

“It seems I’ve been an agent for the Church before then. It’s good to know we’re on the same side.”

“Indeed. If you like what you see here, you should come out onto the balcony.”

“How do you have a balcony in a dungeon?”

“Come and see.”

“Oh. Oh my word.”

“It’s quite something, isn’t it?”

“I never imagined there would be a cavern inside the mountain. Where does the light come from?”

“As I understand it there are crystals in the rock that run right the way up to the surface. Or they redirect light to each other or some such. It does give the whole thing a lovely glow. And the rainbow over the waterfall is almost permanent.”

“I did wonder why you stayed here.”

“I am a prisoner, child.”

“Yes, but there are stories about how you gave sermons in two villages at the same time. I always wondered why someone who could do that would allow themselves to be locked up.”

“You believe the stories? I’m surprised.”

“I stole some records from before the dissolution of the Church. The parishes kept records of who came and went.”

“You really do your research very thoroughly.”

“Thanks, I had an intern do the actual data work.”

“And these records showed me in two parishes at the same time?”

“Yes, and it happened more than once.”

“Unfortunately it’s not a miracle or some God given power. The truth is a little more prosaic. I served four parishes as a young priest, and I had to walk from one to another. I wasn’t actually that devout, and they were all about fifteen miles apart around the Sky Lake.”

“I know, I have the records, remember?”

“Yes, but what you have to factor in is that two of the parishes were in a different diocese.”

“So?”

“I got paid by the sermon. I knew no one would cross check the records from one diocese to the other. They used to hate each other.”

“You were fiddling your attendance to get paid more.”

“Wouldn’t you?”

“I’m a thief, not a fraudster.”

“I always thought putting around the story that I was able to perform miracles by being in more than one place at a time was quite inspired.”

“Divine inspiration?”

“I wouldn’t go that far.”

“I take it you aren’t coming with me then?”

“Not as such, no.”

“You can let go of my arm.”

“You see, the Duke and I have an arrangement. He needs the people to believe in something to stop them falling for heathen influences. And the firebrands have a predictable cause to rally around. It makes them easier to track.”

“You’re quite strong for an old man.”

“You see those spars and blocks in the corner?”

“Yes.”

“That’s actually exercise equipment. I also do yoga. I’m in pretty good shape for someone who hasn’t been outside in a decade.”

“Do you have to grip so tight?”

“The arrangement serves the church as well. Nothing keeps the people as devout as a live case of someone suffering for their souls. Donations have never been so high, even though the services are held in secret.”

“I imagine that saves a lot in overheads.”

“You’re very astute. Church buildings are in need of constant repair. This way the worthy lend us their houses, and I’ve cut an entire layer of management out of the structure. It’s very efficient.”

“My arm is hurting pretty badly, do you think you could let go?”

“I’m afraid not. There are very few people who know what is happening. Even the guards just pass what they think they’re feeding me through a hole in the door. My meals actually come on a dumb waiter from the palace kitchens.”

“I’m really pleased for you, but I really think I ought to get going. I only bribed one shift of guards and they’ll change soon.”

“And there’s the rub. The arrangement works because it is secret. And a secret is only a secret if no one knows it.”

“Penitents Seven?”

“Good guess. Penitents is a go to book if you’re in doubt because no one ever reads that one, but actually that is all my own.”

“It’s an awfully long way down.”

“‘He who dies to serve the faith shall live for ever.'”

“Does it matter that I’m a she?”

“Not to God. On the plus side, maybe you’ll get your own cobblestone.”

 

THE END

If you are interested in my writing take a look here

 

The Lesser Evil

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The Lesser Evil

(Harry Potter Fan Fiction)

 

“Why does she keep touching you?” Ginny asks the question lightly, as if enquiring about the weather. She doesn’t even look at me as she leafs through the newspaper. There’s no suggestion that this is different to the quiet routine of our evenings when the kids are away at school.

I don’t answer. The armchair has me in its grip, too exhausted to move. My work is meticulously filed, my reports thoroughly written. So different from my school days. Diligence delays the moment of my return to this place.

“I just think it’s odd. Any excuse to put her fingers on you, hold your hand.” Now she does look up. My eyes are closed but I can feel her gaze, still and curious. “At dinner on Sunday she wiped that smudge of icing off your cheek.”

The speech must have been rehearsed. All the while I was in the office she would have stared into one of my pictures and worked on the pacing and intonation. The questions are to put this into the realm of another’s fault. It’s not Ginny. It’s not me. It’s the other woman. How strange she is, this interloper in our lives. How maddening to us both the quirks of her behaviour.

Ginny knows if she brings the locus here, into our living room, into something between us, it would be to invite the blame to sit at our hearth and add its silent accusation.

“I hadn’t noticed.” The lie falls easily into the space she has left for it.

“I don’t mind for my own sake, but she’s married to my brother.” Sub text: your best friend. “You know how he can get.”

I do know how he can get. His anger I can handle. It is a red thing, a live flash that can be doused and cooled. The sister, my wife, she’s like me. Her rage is black, deep and lasting. You might mistake the coals as dark and cold, but put your hand on them and they will stick to your skin, burn through to the bone.

“I’ll tell her to stop.” I know she’ll reject my opening offer in this negotiation.

“That would be weird.”

“You tell her.”

“That would be worse.”

“Then I’ll stay away from her.”

“That would be best. Just don’t make it obvious you’re avoiding her.”

“Ok.”

“Ok.”

The silence returns, blanketing. For her the task has been accomplished. How could we possibly be to blame? The problem was outside of us, beyond our hearth. Accountability has been localised there, as has the response. There is no more to say on the subject. Unless it is a test, a tableau and trap, a probing of my own responses. Sitting by my own fire, I can’t let down my guard.

When there is a sufficient distance, the taste of the last conversation a memory, she asks “How was your day?”

“Tiring.”

“Still the same case?”

“Yes.”

“Any leads?”

“None. Just a trail of bodies.”

“There’s nothing in the paper.”

“Just the obituaries, otherwise we’re keeping it quiet.”

“Those were reported as old age and natural causes.”

“They weren’t.” I have to get out of this house. The constant wariness is kicking me deeper and deeper into a well of fatigue. “I’m going to get some air.”

“Would you like me to come?”

“It’s OK, I need to get the day out of my system. I’m not great company right now.” Subtext: It’s not your fault. You’re OK, I’m not OK.

“I’ll keep dinner warm for you.”

“Thanks.”

I leave the house without my coat. It is a miserable, frigid February. I consider going back for it, but the door opens and it floats out by itself to settle on my shoulders. The fact that she still cares only makes this harder.

Just outside the village a path veers off from the road and heads off across the fields and farms, shielded by hedgerows. A stream winds its way through, heavy with a month of rain. I stop on the little hump backed bridge and stare into the water. It’s too dark to see my reflection. That’s just as well.

Sometimes in the mirror I can see the shadows. He’s left his mark on both of us, a stain that can’t be removed. Funny how I can’t say His name any more. I used to shout out it so bravely, so cavalierly when He was something I could fight.

I wish there was something I could turn my anger onto now. Someone I could charge at, my head down, heedless of the consequences and howl invectives. A sink into which I could pour the constant bubble of my resentment.

I was forged and scarred in war; I can’t live in a time of peace.

The path here seemed so natural, so obviously correct, and as easy to take as the path to the bridge. We had won a war and lost half a generation. The bodies of our friends lay broken amid the ruins of Hogwarts. In that bittersweet aftermath how sane it seemed to grab whatever happiness was available, share it between us. We knew it might be lost in an instant. We married young, bore children to fill the void.

The danger did not return. How easy to look back now and say “Had I known then what I know now, I would have chosen differently.”

That is a lie. We did not have it in us to do that. Could we have walked away? Could I have said to my closest friend, my brother-in-arms “This happiness you have found is less than the happiness I deserve”? Could I have admitted to the girl who waited for me, “You were only ever a safe haven, a refuge I found from the sacrifice I made for your brother”?

She is here. The one. The destiny that was so obviously written for me that I resisted it, fought against it like it was a prison coming to claim me. The one who was the very best of us. She respected my need for freedom even though it meant she settled for an ordinary man.

Her arm snakes its way around my waist. There is warmth against the chill. I rest my head on the soft bed of her curls. She puts her head against the hammer in my chest. The skittering chaos of my heartbeat slows and steadies. The rest I should have found at home seeps into my bones, scorning the chill and the drizzle.

“How long?” I need to pace this respite.

“He’s discovered Netflix and Quentin Tarantino. He won’t realise I’ve gone for a while.”

The kiss is simple and sustained. An umbilical that feeds us both. A union.

The moon is up. She steps back and by its light pulls away a few hairs that have stuck to my coat. She drops them in the river, and then she’s gone. I wait, listening to the stream and then follow her back into the village, past the glowing windows of her house and into mine.

 

* * *

 

Ginny is curled, foetal against my back. Part of me wants to turn around and offer her some comfort. She is as much a victim of bad decisions and the change of time as anyone. And she has carried the burden of His presence, as I did. That deserves a bottomless well of compassion.

I can still smell the other lingering in my arms, on my breast. If I turn around and hold Ginny, she will know someone has been in her place. Not offering her comfort is a lesser evil, a mercy that she will not ever understand or appreciate.

Compassion, comfort, mercy. So easily confused with love in the fear and alarum of battle. So obviously not love when the dust settles.

Sleep has only claimed me for a little while when the tapping comes. A folded card is marking a regular tat tat tat on the bedside table. The words printed neatly on the inside glow gently in the dark.

“What is it?” A sleepy question. Night will reclaim her in moments.

“Work, I have to go.”

“Be careful.” Mumbled, and then she has drifted away.

I slide out of bed, careful not to let the cold in. I change in the kitchen, well away from the bedroom so I don’t wake her. I stir up the fire and add another log. When it is crackling I add a handful of powder. It flares green and I step through.

I emerge in a room which is frigid and dark. The small fireplace behind me, long unused, spits out dust. I step to one side. My partner appears. Best friend. Brother-in-arms. Cuckold.

Her perfume is heavy on him, beneath it their sweat. My hackles rise. I fight the urge to lash out.

“Harry? Is that you?”

“Yeah.”

Light emerges from wand tips.

The corpses are a couple. Very old. They could have died in their sleep, both sitting in their armchairs, a small coffee table between them. The man’s face is twisted in horror, as if he has been scared to death. The woman looks bewildered. There is not a scratch on them, no sign of violence. Nothing else has been disturbed.

There are pictures on the mantelpiece: the couple in younger, healthier times, a young woman who could be a grand daughter, and another couple with a toddler, who could have been the same young woman in her infancy. None of the images move in their frames. This is new; thus far all the victims have been wizards and witches, old and living alone.

I try to concentrate on the faces in the pictures, but my senses are flooded with the smells he has brought in with him. They cut through the cold air and the death stink. He moves around the room, knowing there is nothing to find. I stand still, jaw clenched. The ink stain on the inside of my ribs aches. It marks the place where the Dark Lord had his grip and was ripped out by my own death.

I feel it seep up and around me, loosening my grip on my magic. I stamp on it. Hard.

There is a change in the air, a scrape of claws on the carpet. A dog bursts in at ankle height and gives a single bark.

“Stupefy.”

“Silencio.”

He muffles the sound, I stun the dog. My spell blasts it back down the narrow hall, sliding across the floor into the kitchen to lie limp and still.

“Steady on Harry.” Ron’s spell was better, considered and proportionate to the threat. We are here to find clues and clear up the evidence of death by magic, not unleash our anger on a small West Highland Terrier.

“Someone could pick out its memories. Had to be sure.” Another lie that slips out easily. He falls for it, as he does every time. It is a lie that suits many purposes. He’ll tell his wife, who will know it is nonsense, and she will seek me out to comfort me. I’m getting too good at this.

“Good thinking.” He casts his light around the room. “Let’s finish up here, I doubt we’ll find anything, but we have to be sure.”

“Yeah.”

He goes out, leaving the ghost of her scent behind in the room.

 

* * *

 

Work passes slowly the next day. There is paperwork to file on the deaths, adding to the roll call of a serial killer. No one in the magical community has been stirred by them yet. The victims are all old, their deaths expected. Families are saddened but not surprised, the police have no evidence on which to hang suspicion. Only a few of us carry the burden of knowledge.

A junior Auror has left background research on the murdered couple on my desk. Brian and Edith Leahy of Gosport. Brian was in the late stages of terminal cancer, but refused palliative care because of Edith’s dementia. He would not let her live alone, or in a hospice. Fifty years of marriage, one son with his family had moved to Denmark. Brian had cared for Edith through years of his own illness. The bland facts of the lives snuffed out are an injustice. There should be more to show for that devotion. I leave the report on my desk.

On the roof of the Ministry, I stare at the leaden sky. The old couple had precious little time left, and their deaths were perhaps a blessing in disguise. I lean over the parapet and dry heave. A dribble of spit falls onto the streets of London. Once I fought for those precious moments of life. I should aspire to be like Brian Leahy, and if that is not possible then at least to mourn his death.

In the afternoon we gather round curled scrolls and notes pinned to a board. We scrub hands through our hair and over tired eyes. We have no leads, no clues. The only reasonable surmise is that there is a dark wizard at work. I know what I have to do next. Ron’s not happy about it, and he wants to come too. That would be an escalation. There is history here, and that needs to be respected.

I leave him at the office and appear outside the gates of the old manor house. It is as forbidding as I remember from the last time I came here, bound and beaten. They make me wait. It is an important part of a valid wariness, a demonstration of who is coming into whose domain.

Lucius sits at the head of his dining table. The only light in the room is from the enormous fireplace. He tries to sit up straighter when I am shown in, tries to sneer, but he is a broken shadow of a man. He has the dark rage too, but in him it is the pathetic whining of a cur. There is a goblet in his right hand, which trembles with the knowledge of his impotence. His left hand snaps onto his right wrist to steady the goblet, and then in a burst of furious action he hurls it into the fire.

There is a snap as a house elf appears, diving into the fire to retrieve the goblet and emerging with its rags a-smoulder. I don’t flinch and I don’t react. He mumbles to himself and then calls for more wine.

It takes a few minutes for Draco to appear. His is lean and tall and gaunt. Pale as a ghost. He shows me into his study wordlessly. Only when the door is closed and the unwelcoming halls are locked out does he speak.

“Why are you here?”

“I need information.”

“I thought ferreting out things you weren’t meant to know was your particular skill.”

I don’t rise to it. Eventually he motions me to a chair. From a sideboard he pours two drinks, and puts one on the coaster in front of me. He doesn’t sit. He stands at the window and looks at me in its reflection.

I take a sip. Fire-whisky. It is smooth and sharp like a goblin made knife.

“There’s a serial killer on the loose.”

“Should I be worried?”

“He’s targeting the very old and infirm.”

“Maybe I should invite him in. He could be doing me a favour.” He looks out through the walls to where his father sits.

“It looks like the work of a dark wizard. Killing curses. Six so far.”

“You think of dark wizards and you come here. Should I be flattered?” There is bitterness in his voice. His family are still wealthy beyond the dreams of avarice, but their power and influence is much diminished among ordinary wizarding folk.

“Six deaths. Someone is trying to emulate your old master.”

“Why would they tell me about it?”

“Because if there is a rising of dark wizards they will need you and your money.”

He laughs at that, a genuine display of mirth. “You never had real money. You don’t stay this rich by giving it away to every madman with fire in his eyes.”

I don’t have an answer to that. The black rage is in me, clawing under the surface, but I am in his domain and I need his help.

He keeps looking at me in the reflection and occasionally sips his drink. “The war’s over. Why are you still fighting?” He turns from the window to look at me directly and answers his own question. “You’re looking for a wall to bash your head against. You’ve won, and now you don’t know what to do with yourself.”

“There’s always something to fight for.” It’s a weak answer. I’ve ceded ground to him, and he knows it.

“No. The things you fight for in peace are simple, prosaic. Raising yourself to see to the kids at night, resisting the urge to shout at them, letting them grow into who they want to be.” He pauses, looking for the key to get in. “Keeping the fires of passion burning when the fuel is spent.” I know I have not reacted, but he nods slowly to himself with the ghost of a smile. “I lost in the war and I’ve won more from it than you have, because I can live in the peace.” He hasn’t taken his eyes off me. “That isn’t enough for the Chosen One though, is it? You need the big achievements, the cries of acclaim. It’s not enough to be a hero in your own household.”

He’s echoing my own thoughts from the day before. Knowing that his mind has taken him to the same place as mine makes me feel like I’m wearing soiled clothes. I’m running out of the patience to take his barbs. “Do you know who is behind the killings?”

“No. It’s not anyone who looks to me and mine.” He goes back to looking at me in reflection. “But there are whispers in the wind.”

“Tell me.”

“Whispers that tell me this is as much your doing as anyone’s.”

My grip tightens on the glass. It is goblin made, no pressure I could put on it would make it break. I could use it to hammer the manor house into rubble. “What do you mean?”

“I said your skill was ferreting out secrets. I learned about Polyjuice potion from you. Your exploits have launched a whole industry making invisibility cloaks. None of them a shadow on yours, of course.” He swirls the little that remains in his glass. “And then there was your odd behaviour in the battle. Everyone else was fighting for their lives and you were chasing round the school looking for a trinket. Word gets out, people make connections.” He laughs again. “You burst out of the bank on a dragon. People have worked out you were looking for objects connected to the Dark Lord. The word being whispered in secret places is “‘Horcrux’.”

“That’s not a word many people know.”

“You’re deluded. In any case you might take an interest in a book that went missing from the school library. Very dark magic, very highly restricted.”

“Do you know who took it?”

“‘Who’ could be anyone.” He finally moves away from the window and drops into the chair on the other side of the desk. “One of my own businesses is selling ready made Polyjuice potion. Just add a hair and you can be anyone you please.”

“Do you keep a list of your clients?”

“Just the interesting ones.”

“I’ll need to see it.”

“It’s at the shop. Stop by tomorrow. I’ll tell them to expect you.”

I put the glass carefully back on the coaster. He shows me out by a side door and we don’t exchange pleasantries.

The study was stuffy and the whisky was heady stuff. I walk for a few miles trying to come to terms with what is happening, trying to hold in the horror. Someone is trying to make a Horcrux. Someone wants to split their soul to make themselves immortal through cold blooded murder. Alone now, I let my body shudder and shake. It’s a hideous thought.

I don’t go straight home. I wait on the bridge. It’s late. She won’t come at this hour, but even the faint hope of it is better than the sterile confines of home. And then she is there, slipping into the circle of my arm. She gives me a fierce, tight hug and rests her forehead on my cheek, breathing heavily. The whisky still clouds my lips. She replaces her forehead with a kiss and then she’s gone.

 

* * *

 

“Any message for the kids?”

“You’re going to Hogwarts?”

“Following up on a lead. There was a book stolen from the library. I thought I might stay for lunch while I’m there.”

“Just tell them I love them.”

“They’ll hate that.”

“Then make sure you do it in front of all their friends.”

I leave with a smile. The kids do that to us. They give us a shared purpose; push the darkness into a corner. I go to the office first and brief Ron on the evening’s discussion. He offers to get the list of customers from the shop. He doesn’t like going back to Hogwarts, and I don’t press him on it.

The school gates show signs of repair. Ancient stones alongside fresh cut new ones. It’s like that throughout, except for those parts that had to be torn down entirely. I look in on Neville first. He’s elbow deep in muck in the greenhouse, but still puts out a hand to shake mine before withdrawing it with a rueful smile.

“How are the kids getting on?”

“They don’t have green fingers, but they pay attention. They’ll be fine. How’s Ginny?”

“Fine, she sends her regards.”

“This isn’t a social call.”

“No. What do you know about the book that was stolen?”

“It’s baffling really. Middle of the day, the library was busy. The alarms on the restricted section went off. We’ve accounted for all the children, and none of them set off the alarm.” He stops for a minute, washing the dirt from his arms. “The thing is the book went after we’d cleared the library, but before the detection spells were reset.”

“I’ve heard invisibility cloaks are becoming more common.”

“They are. We’ve confiscated several, but they’re not that effective. We had four teachers in there scouring the place. Someone got by us, picked up the book and got out again without us noticing.” He steers me out towards the hall for lunch. “We’ve told the students it was a drill.” He puts a hand on my arm to stop me. “I sent a report to Ginny, this used to be her department. Now she’s back at work I thought you’d know all the details.”

“Ginny didn’t come back to work.” That had been the plan, once the children were all at school and her days would be empty. “It’s not been the right time.” He doesn’t pry, and I thank him silently for that.

“The report will be on her desk.”

“I’ll look for it.”

After lunch I go to the library. My Auror’s badge opens up the restricted section for me. There’s thick dust everywhere. The house elves are not allowed to clean in here. Only one shelf has been disturbed. The stolen book is back in its place, and has been put there recently. Whoever put it back didn’t trigger the alarms this time. He’s getting better, more skilled, more cunning.

Before I leave I open up the map. I trace the familiar parts of the castle and look for names I recognise, the children of friends. The new additions to the castle aren’t on the map, and students seem to walk through walls and then disappear entirely as they pass through remodelled sections. I spot my sons moving between lessons. Another name catches my eye as I begin to fold the map away. Disappearing off the edge is Ginny Potter.

I open out the map again and rub my finger over the spot where I saw her name, but there is nothing there now.

I have a sick feeling developing in my stomach. By the time I get back to the office, Ron has gone. He’s taken the customer list with him. I sit at my desk for some time, rubbing my scar for the first time in ages. It hasn’t troubled me at all since the battle, but I feel its presence on my head now.

I go to the bridge first. I need courage before I walk into my own home. I need to be grounded, certain. I also need to see the customer list, to confirm or close the yawning pit of suspicion that is opening up in front of me. That means going to Ron’s house, which is a sweet torture all of its own.

I haven’t given her the signal. Somehow she knows I need her. She arrives out of breath, wearing a lighter autumn coat. She stops short of me, her expression haggard and wan. Suddenly her lips are on mine. Her kiss is not the chaste, dry connection of lips we have indulged in up to now. She is impatient and hungry. I ease her away, gently at first, and then a little more forcefully.

“Please, no,” I gasp. She pushes my arms away and begins pulling at my coat buttons. “Remember what we agreed,” I beg. It’s increasingly difficult to turn her down.

“I need you,” she growls.

“I know. I feel the same, but not now, not like this.” This time when I push her away, she stays back. Then in a swirl of her coat she has gone.

I gulp big lungfuls of air. On top of all the confusion I don’t need this right now. I give her ten minutes and then follow. Ron answers the door. He has a hollow look in his eyes. “There’s something I don’t understand,” he says.

“Ginny’s on that list of customers.”

“How did you know?” His jaw is slack in surprise.

“It’s just a sick joke. Let me handle it.” Another lie without a flicker on my conscience. I don’t take the list, I don’t need it. As I turn to leave I see the coat rack in their hall. There’s no sign of the autumn coat. I keep turning, avoiding the desire to stare, or rush over and check. I’ve been incalculably stupid.

At home Ginny is sitting in an armchair by the fire. Her wand is on the table, well out of her reach. I stand at the door to the living room. Where do I start this conversation?

She saves me the trouble. “I forgot about the map. The cloak doesn’t fool the map, does it?”

“No.”

“When they test my wand they’ll know it was me.” Her voice is matter of fact. There is none of the anger that bubbles inside of me, stifling me. I force out a single word.

“Why?”

“Be more specific.” It is a fair challenge. There is so much here I don’t understand. I can’t form a more pointed question. Eventually she offers information to break the silence. “They were all old. Very old, near death. I may only have stolen days from them, months at most.” There’s a glass of wine in front of her. She dips her finger into it and flicks the drops into the fire. The alcohol burns off, and then the drops sizzle against the logs. She does it six times over, once for every life.

“He’s still in here.” She sucks the wine off her finger and then points it at her chest. “The way He’s still inside you.”

“We don’t have to be what He wanted to make us.”

“No, we don’t. But to be free of Him I have to get Him out.” She looks up at me at last. Her eyes are calm, her breathing is steady. “It’s a fantastic idea, don’t you think? Carve out the diseased part of my soul into a Horcrux and destroy it.” She looks away. “Maybe then I can be the woman you need, rather than a fellow prisoner.” She looks at me again, still wholly in control. “I thought I had found a way to fix what’s broken inside me, and now I’m prepared to face the consequences.” She stands up and holds out her hands, wrists together. “Another successful case for the great Auror, finding the killer in his own home.”

“You killed six people.” It’s not a question. It’s barely a statement. I still can’t process what she has done.

“I admit it. My only regret is that I didn’t succeed. I just didn’t have the hate and malice it takes to create a Horcrux.” She puts her hands down at her side. “Just remember that I did it because you wouldn’t face our problems head on to fix them. Brave Harry, ready to die for the world but turns and runs from his dysfunctional marriage.” The turn of her head fails to hide a little sneer of disgust. “I haven’t indulged in the escape you’ve given yourself.”

“You know.”

“You’re an imbecile Harry,” she scoffs. “I knew before you even began. I cracked your little code ages ago. I’ve followed you out most evenings, watching your childish hand holding and baby kissing.”

“My cloak.”

“Our cloak. What’s yours is mine, what’s mine is yours. For better or worse.”

“Was today the first time you impersonated her?” This is safer territory, I can handle my own betrayal better than her brutality.

“Maybe.”

My mind races through every meeting on the bridge. How often was it my own wife in disguise? Which moments of infidelity were partial, of the heart and mind only, not of the body? That must have been so much worse. If I pick apart the reasons, trace her motivations, somewhere under the darkness and beyond the insanity I’ll find myself. I can’t run from this. No one can save me from it. We’re in it together.

“What do we do now?” I ask.

We stand facing each other for an age. The fire dies down to a dull glow. I pick up her wand from the table. There is an acceptance in her eyes. Through all this she has been more courageous than me. Mad and remorseless, but also courageous.

There is a need for accountability and a penance. Someone has to pay for what has happened. For the sake of our children I cannot let it be her. My question is not hers to answer. I have the answer inside me. The murders will go unsolved, but they will stop. We’re already in the prison we have built for ourselves.

I snap the wand across my knee and throw into the remains of the fire. The flames flare up briefly, and then sink back. Her eyes widen in surprise.

“What do we do now?” she asks.

“The only thing we know how to do. Fight the darkness.”

THE END

I initially put forwards the bones of the relationship theory in this story in this post

All the characters, components and paraphernalia above belong to JK Rowling and/or her publishers. The story itself is my original work, it is intended as an homage to the wonderful world Ms Rowling created.

If you are interested in my writing take a look here

Honour Over Love – Cluster Wars Vignette

For those of you following my Cluster Wars efforts, here is the the response to Luis’ letter telling Sebastian he is off to investigate a death, and clear his own conscience.

Luis,

I have propagated the appended message through all the fora and media I can think you may encounter. I hope you will recall how to access it.

Your friend, Sebastian

My dearest friend Luis

If you are reading this letter then my hopes are greatly lifted. That you remember the cipher we developed all those years ago at the seminary is a sign that some part of the man I knew survives. Your letter, and your recent behaviour, have left me deeply concerned. Rest assured that I have covered your tracks fully and if you return immediately you will find your leave papers have been properly filed, and Carolina will think you have been away on a mission. This much I have used my influence and my access through military intelligence to achieve. It is now for you to return to your senses and return to us.

You claim to have developed an obsessive interest in that junior officer from the action at Vennkiser, and that perhaps through the myth you have woven of his redemption you can find your own. You are not alone Luis. All of us who were part of the tragedy of the mines of Caorramoor have been left scarred by it. You were first on the scene, sent to be the force and presence of the military there, and you arrived too late. I have pored all through the reports, I have traced every step largely to aid my own reconciliation with what happened. You followed all the ordinances except those that would cost you time, and yet you were too late. What else could you have done? The man I knew had a great sense of responsibility, but was not so arrogant as to hold himself accountable against the laws of nature. Nothing could have saved those miners. And so I am lead to the conclusion that Damian and Caorramoor are a smokescreen, one you have thrown up to hide your true motives. Moreover I perciveve this was a smokescreen you intended me to pierce. You know your actions to be wrong, base and beneath your honour, and your letter to me was not to excuse your actions and make your excuses to your wife and children, but to save you from yourself.

Thr truth lies with Carolina, who frets for you day and night, and the woman you now know as Felicity. You say she reminds of the girl from the seminary, the one we both believed could be an Absolutist of the Atenaeum, I do not doubt it. You are not the only one who was much taken by her, although for different reasons. My friend, don’t doubt that I love you, but be assured I know you, and I understand what motivates you. You were always destined for greatness. Son of a war hero, and with the dashing good looks of a hero in the making. Far from being a burden for you I think the deaths at Caorramoor only added a shade of tragedy and depth of torment to your burgeoning reputation. Biut I get ahead of myself. At the seminary your exemplary scores and prowess in the courts martial marked you out. And in our midst there was this beguiling, mysterious and mind bendingly attractive woman. You were drawn to her for her own sake, as were we all;  and the danger we suspected she represented; and also because that was how the story of our seminary years should be told, The fated and tragic romance of Luis and Amanda.

Are you surprised after all these years that I have remembered her name? You should not be. I was caught in her web as much as you, but for different reasons, I grew up in the orbit of Carolina, and more than anything else Amanda reminded me of her. They both bear the aura of great strength and wondrous fragility. They were of similar build and carriage, their hair mimicked each other’s perfectly in how it fell and caught the breeze. You now see the same reflection in this Felicity, and who is to say they are not the same person. The Absolutists wield strange powers, and have gifts we cannot comprehend. But I was reminded every moment that I saw Amanda of my childhood love.

Does this surprise you? I wonder if the realisation ever pierced the legend you were weaving about yourself? You left the seminary for training on my home world, and I went to the intelligence academy in the Cluster Edge. When I returned the story had run its course, the suave junior officer had won the heart of the belle of the planet.. I had two dozen messages from her when I came out of my deep immersion. Two dozen messages without reply before she fell into your arms.

Had I asked her, before the boys were born, I think she would have left you and the reflected glory of your career for the shadowy world of an intelligence officers wife, and all the scandal be damned. Yet once she was the mother of your children she showed more dedication than you have. Does it shock you to think she would have left? Only once did she indulge in the most chaste of infidelity, and yet it held more meaning than any depths of sordid adultery.

Do you recall the ball held at the end of the NIsker action? I forget which of your medals you were awarded then, but you held the attention of every socialite and debutante, while husbands and lovers glowered from the bars and card tables. You did not notice your own wife was not among them. I found her watching from the shadows by the double doors into the cloakroom. It was a cool and solitary place and I saw her shiver, her pale, bare shoulders rendered ghostly. I took off my dress jacket and put it around her shoulders. She did not flinch, nor did she back away as my hands rested on her. Then, very slowly she leaned back into my body. Through my uniform and her ball gown I felt her trembling and then as the minutes passed it subsided and she relaxed into my arms, her forehead resting on the short hairs of my beard. All the while she did not take her eyes off you as you regaled your adoring audience, oblivious to her absence.

We never spoke of it, and a decade and more has passed since. Your sons have been born and yet that moment remains as a mute reminder that she made a mistake falling into the grand narrative of Luis, and losing her own voice in doing so. I did not have the courage then to save her from it, and now it is too late.

I love her still, but I will not be the agent of her abandonment and misfortune. I have told you this hidden history so that you may know what it costs me to call you back. And yet I have opened all the doors I can to lead you safely home. Leave this madness on Bruyne, or wherever it is you truly are. Remember the vows and the honour of your calling. You have fled on the strength of a fantasy, you have gone to keep alight the flame of your heroic tale. It is not so. All you have done is abandon your duty and your promise in lust, wherher it is for adventure or just this fey creature Felicity, who may be Amanda. Come to your senses man and come home.

I will know if you have opened this letter, respond swiftly my dear friend, for lives whose happiness is your responsibility hang in the balance.

I remain your friend and comrade,

Sebastian

END

More Cluster Wars material, and Luis’s original letter to Sebastian here 

A Sacrifice for Satire (Fiction)

JSB

A Sacrifice for Satire

Thibbauld finished the picture with a few bold strokes of his pen, and sat back to let it dry. Most of the desks in the small office were empty, staffers tended to roll in around 11am and the hangers on and friends would drop in during the afternoon. His gaze fell through the open double doors onto the girl sitting in reception. She was always sitting in reception, on the tired brown leather sofa with legs crossed, leafing through the magazines, never touching the lidded paper cup of coffee she brought in with her.

He had never quite worked out if she was a girlfriend of one of the cartoonists, or a Brian Vichy groupie, one of the oddballs that fetishized the satirical magazine’s creators. She was too pretty to be either, but every time he looked around there she was, in his eye line.

He shrugged, it wasn’t his problem. He reached over for a framing rule and drew neat borders around his work. The boys in graphics would look after the speech bubbles and the scaling. The older writers said it was so much easier now than the days of contact adhesive and bromides, but there used to be a real team effort to get the paper out and a real connection with the publishing process. Although he would never admit this openly it all sounded like nostalgic nonsense to Thibbauld, and when the day came he’d be quite happy to do the computer work by himself too, rather than handing it off to some nerd. That was why he was glad to see the back of the Framers. The magazine was well rid of the absurd closed shop of specialists that drew the borders around cartoons. Nevertheless he dutifully went out on strike on their behalf one day a week. Striking was as quintessentially French as cheese or wine, and he loved his country.

On his way out he poked his head into the accounting office. Anders was the only other person working this morning, a Belgian accountant appointed by the German owner who had pulled the French magazine away from the brink of bankruptcy. Keeping a job was worth the ridicule of working for a German with a sense of humour.

“I’m done for the day. I’ll catch you later.” He said to the top of the bald head leaning over a pile of invoices.

“Are you in tomorrow?” Anders asked, blinking as he looked up from the paperwork.

“On strike tomorrow, it should be in the book.”

“What for this time?”

“Runners, I think. You guys sacked the boys that took the artwork from one department to another.”

“You mean carried it a couple of meters from one desk to another?” Anders raised an eyebrow.

Thibbauld laughed, unlike some of the others he got on well with the diminutive Belgian. “How are the books looking?” He asked gesturing to the piles of paper.

“We’re one edition away from disaster, as usual. To be honest without the regular strikes Brian Vichy magazine be closed down and I’d be selling the original art on eBay to pay off the creditors.”

Anders seemed to be in the mood to talk, and Thibbauld had nowhere else to be, so he stepped into the cramped office and took the only other seat. “You’re saying strikes are a good thing?”

Anders sighed and scrubbed his eyes. He was usually first in and last out, trying to balance the books, putting off creditors and chasing debtors. “You’re a smart guy Thibbauld. Look around you. We barely shift fifty thousand copies in a month. We have no online presence because that would mean producing an English version, and if you remember we had a strike about that. To run this tin pot operation we have a dozen staff writers and artists, and as many editors as a national paper.” He pointed back out into the office. “And none of them are here half the time. You don’t get paid when you go on strike. Strikes are what make this business feasible.”

“So if we run out of things to strike about…” Thibbauld started.

“The business dies.” Anders finished. “So go and enjoy your day off. I’ll do the maths and make sure you don’t get paid for it, and we’ll limp on for another month.” With that Anders picked up a new stack of papers and Thibbauld took his cue to leave, but still did not make it out of the office. Henri had arrived and was shucking off his coat. The man was a BV legend. He wrote scathing parodies of current politicians cast as characters in famous books and plays. It was a mark of distinction for someone in public life to be referenced, however obliquely in Henri’s prose, even as they squirmed under the dissection of their character or policies. Until you had been Henried you hadn’t arrived.

Thibbauld had been meaning to talk to him for weeks, but the revered writer appeared when it suited him, sometimes only to drop a script on a junior editor’s desk and then leave again, the words hammered out on an ancient typewriter. They exchanged pleasantries before Thibbauld picked up one of the thin sheets of white paper that formed little mole hills all around the office.

“I’ve been meaning to ask you about something,” he said to the older man. “I’ve got an idea for a cartoon but I don’t know where to take it.” Henri gestured for him to go on so he picked up a pencil and sketched a face. The nose was hooked, the features long. He sketched it again on a fresh paper, and then turned them both to Henri. “The same face, the same characteristics.” Henri nodded. Thibbauld turned the papers back and drew in a few more lines. Around the first face he drew a turban and a beard, on the other a skull cap and curls dropping down by the ears. He turned them back to Henri. “I want to do something about the Arab – Israeli thing, drawing out their similarities.”

Henri looked at the pictures for a minute, and then very slowly he pushed the Arab picture back to Thibbauld, and crumped the other into a ball and dropped it into the bin beside his desk. “You’ve got a good eye kid,” he said giving Thibbauld an appraising look. “But take my advice and stick to things that will get you killed, not sacked.” With that he turned away and began pulling some typed pages out of his battered leather satchel. The audience was over.

On his way out Thibbauld passed the girl in reception, but she did not look up from her magazine.

~BV~

Thibbauld’s insight into the state of the finances took another sharp step when he came back into work a couple of days later. He hadn’t bothered picketing for the Framers, whose strike day fell immediately after the Runners, instead he had been reading some of the online journals that his colleagues frowned upon. Print, they argued, made things real and meant you could not hide behind an internet mask. He had barely settled into his seat when Michel, the editor in chief, called him in for a meeting, and in a rare breach of Brian Vichy protocol closed the door of his private office. With Anders’ words still fresh in his mind Thibbauld mentally prepared himself to be sacked, running through the money he had put by, how long it would last him, and wondering if anyone would strike on his behalf. It turned out things were worse than that.

“You asked me to give you more responsibility around here,” Michel said. “Well now is your chance.” Thibbauld searched Michel’s face for some sign of what was coming, but he just looked worn out. “Ralf is coming over next week and he wants some ideas about how we can save the paper. I think he’s ready to pull the plug on his investment.” Michel took off his glasses and cleaned them with the edge of his shirt. “I want you to come up with some ideas we can share with him.”

“Michel, I’m a cartoonist, I have a degree in design. What the hell do I know about how to save a paper?”

“You wanted a bigger role around here, earn it.” Michel stood up and went to the door. “Use your next couple of strike days and work on it from your apartment. I’ll square it with Anders so you get paid.” He opened the door and ushered Thibbauld out. “Call me with the details, and we’ll discuss it with Ralf this time next week.”

And that was that, from nowhere Michel had dumped the problem in his lap. Thibbauld sauntered out of the office, feeling much less at ease than he let on. He lit up a cigarette while he pushing through the swing door to the street. Behind him the girl sitting reception crossed her legs and went on reading.

He took a turn around the park. After five years drawing for Brian Vichy, the only nationwide satirical magazine left in France, he had some feel for the business but he wasn’t remotely close to the numbers. They paid someone to print the magazine and made decisions about which pages would be in colour. They sold adverts for t-shirts with radical slogans and favourite BV quotes from the last thirty years, and they tried to sell out the print run. That was all he knew. Michel knew that was all he knew. It was a cool day in Spring but a trickle of sweat crawled down his back. Thibbauld was being set up for a fall.

His mind wandered back to what Anders had said. Too many staffers, too many editors. He remembered his own early days sending off his cartoons to newspapers and journals, hoping that one would be picked up and he might make a few euros off it. The few times he had succeeded before landing the job at Brian Vichy everyone he knew had bought a copy of whatever rag had published his work out of friendship and solidarity. His mind began spinning with the germ of an idea.

~BV~

A week later Thibbauld was in a characterless meeting room in Ralf’s hotel. They were holding the meeting away from the BV offices because there was little room for privacy there, and conversations behind closed doors drew attention. Ralf was all German, tall and blond with piercing blue eyes that did not miss a thing. Thibbauld had discussed some of his ideas with Michel, and he opened with those, reading off a piece of drawing paper on which he had made notes, and trying to ignore the projector and screen that suggested Ralf had expected a PowerPoint presentation.

“I think the key issue is an editorial one.” Michel had not been happy about that line, but had nothing to offer in its place, which meant Thibbauld was free to run with it. “Our most controversial issues are the ones that sell the most, even if it is so people can burn them in front of our offices.”

He paused to look up at Ralf and gauge the man’s mood, but the new owner’s face was expressionless. He floundered a little, realising he should have been able to back this up with figures, he sensed Michel leaning slightly away from him, as if creating a distance. He’d have to wing it. “When we ran the Sarkozy and Merkel story and the last Mohammed pictures we sold the entire print run of those issues. The paper only works if we sell enough copies and we only do that if we generate publicity.” Ralf gave a faint nod, Thibbauld felt a relieved sweat flush over his body. Time to play the joker with a line he had come up with by himself.

“The problem is that the freshest, most controversial stuff we get is from kids and freelancers. But we can’t afford to use it because all the money we have goes on the staffers, and if we’re paying for them already then we may as well use the safer things that they produce.” Thibbauld threw the idea out in a rush, afraid that Michel, who had started forward in his seat, would interrupt him. “I think we can get the costs down, and get more fresh ideas in if we get rid of most of the staffers and the editorial team.” He didn’t dare look sideways to Michel, but he could sense the vein throbbing in the older man’s head. “And what is even better is that all those kids and freelancers will promote us to all their friends.”

Ralf looked at him over steepled fingers, and then turned to Michel. “What do you think?”

Michel swallowed hard, trying to get a grip on his fury. “I think,” he said through clenched teeth, “that if we get rid of a large number of people who have worked at BV for years we will lose the soul of the magazine and we will definitely have a strike.”

“You French are always on strike, I don’t really care about that, except that we need enough material to get the next edition out.” Ralf said dismissively. He looked Thibbauld up and down. “I like the way you think, very pragmatic. Have you got anything else?”

“There’s always the premises. We don’t need a central location, and the place is never more than one third full. Freelancers would work in their own homes, we could move somewhere cheaper.”

Ralf gave a little smile at that. He turned back to Michel. “Show me you can save the paper with the kind of material this guy is suggesting, and you can save your friends’ jobs, and the cushy office. You’ve got the next edition to get it right, and then we go for the nuclear option.”

Outside Thibbauld slung his coat over his shoulder and lit up a cigarette. It was cold but he still felt hot from the meeting, and he needed to gather his thoughts. He’d done better than expected. The new boss liked his ideas and he had shown Michel up as a dinosaur. Things might be uncomfortable for a while, but if the next edition sold well everyone would relax, and if it didn’t, well at least he was in Ralf’s good books. He was stubbing out the cigarette on the pavement when he was shoved from behind. Michel had come storming out of the hotel where he had had a further discussion with Ralf.

“What the hell were you playing at?”

“Saving my job,” Thibbauld replied nonchalantly, picking up his fallen coat. “And saving yours too.”

~BV~

A week later the editorial meeting seethed. Thibbauld could tell from the reactions of the senior staffers that Michel had shared some of the details of the meeting with Ralf. No one could say anything to him directly as Ralf was sitting in on the meeting, but the undercurrent was unmistakeable.

The last edition had hit the shelves and underwhelmed their audience. Boxes of unsold copies had started coming back within days of publication as shops and news stands stopped making room for BV on their shelves. The next edition was not coming together well either. They had little time before committing to the print run, and the only half decent material was a one page article from Henri and some of the regular cartoon strips.

They argued in increasingly heated tones and gestures as copies of submitted material were shoved under each other’s noses and waved angrily in the air. The noise grew to a crescendo until there was a sudden bang. Ralf had stood up, picked up one of the ubiquitous piles of blank paper and hit it against the side of the table. The ensuing silence was shocked and complete. The tall German towered at the head of the table, and then flung the entire ream across the room. “There is your famous French battle flag. The proud white eagle on the white background. You will sit here and bicker and argue while the magazine dies around you.”

Thibbauld felt the colour draining from the faces around him. If he was going to back up the bold statements he made to Ralf at the hotel, this was the moment. He took one of the scattered sheets, and as all his colleagues watched he drew the Arab face on a skinny body, and a bomb. He pushed the picture into the middle of the table. “If we’re going down, let’s go down in flames.”

There was silence around the table. The last time they had done something lampooning Muslims there had been protests and scuffles outside the building. One of the windows to the building was still boarded up while they argued with the landlord who should pay to get it fixed.

“Well?” Ralf asked mildly. His tone did not fool anyone, there was an axe waiting to fall behind it.

Thibbauld searched under the pile of papers and pulled out a sheet from a freelancer. “This is from a kid at university, it’s good and all his friends will buy a copy, plus all the other doodlers hoping we’ll publish them too.” It was a half page with the two Popes and a huddle of hollow eyed children.

Slowly the others picked up the theme, pulling out the most controversial prose, scathing poems and unfettered artwork. Over the course of the next two hours they laid out the entire issue, with no one leaving the room for a coffee or a smoke break.

~BV~

Every other man in the room had a beard. Thibbauld rubbed his stubbly chin self-consciously. He couldn’t really follow the rant from the animated speaker on the podium, but everyone else seemed to nodding along and agreeing, so he did the same. Streams of Arabic were inserted seamlessly into a flow of French rhetoric. The speaker, a young man with a long beard and ill fitting clothes, was waving around a book which Thibbauld assumed was the Quran.

The small lecture theatre was half full, with all the men on one side and the women on the other. The women were bold and defiant in their headscarves, and seemed as much in agreement with the speaker as the men. One of them frowned at him when she noticed him looking over, and he jerked his gaze back to the podium.

When people began to drift out Thibbauld edged his way to towards the speaker. He was jostled along the way by a couple of stern faced guys, one of whom indicated he should state his business with a sharp jerk of his hairy chin. “I need to talk to your man, I have some information he may find interesting.” They looked him up and down, and then one of them said, “Information goes to Saad,” he pointed to a bookish looking young man seated in the corner engrossed in a smart phone.

As Thibbauld made his way over he could feel the two men watching him, keeping a close eye on the outsider. He tried to suppress a shudder, this was his city, his university, and he shouldn’t have to feel like the stranger here. Saad was slightly built and earnest looking, his attempt at the long beard was only partially successful. “How can I help you?” he asked Thibbauld.

“I work for a magazine,” Thibbauld started, fishing in his pocket for a Brian Vichy card.

“We don’t do interviews.”

“It’s not that,” Thibbauld shook his head. “Look, it’s a satirical magazine, but I think this time they’re going too far with some stuff, and I thought you should know. Maybe if you make a complaint you can get it stopped.”

Saad seemed to gain interest. “What sort of stuff?” Thibbauld pulled out his own phone and showed some pictures he’d taken of the proof copies. The young man’s face went grim, then he looked at Thibbauld suspiciously. “Why are you showing me this?”

“I’m a sketch writer,” Thibbauld lied smoothly. “I took the job to write satire, but this” he pointed to the screen, “this is just racist. It’s not making a point it is just trying to provoke a response. The problem is that I’m too junior for anyone to take my complaint seriously, and I can’t afford to lose my job over it.” He gave Saad his trade mark shrug, “I have principles, but I’ve got to eat, so I thought if you guys made a complaint you could get this stuff taken out. They might put more of my work in to fill the gaps and I’ll get paid more too.”

His reasoning was greeted with a slow nod. “I’ll need some evidence to get people mobilised and make a complaint.” Saad said.

Thibbauld nodded and then took back his phone. “I can’t email you the photos, it’ll be too easy to trace them back to me, and I’ll lose my job, but I can Bluetooth them to your phone, and then you’ve got them without it being traceable.”

“Fair enough, thanks bro, you’ve done a good thing. When is a good day to have a protest? There’s no point turning up when you’re closed.”

“We have an editorial meeting to sign off the proofs next week, on Wednesday, that’s your best bet.”

They exchanged the pictures and then Thibbauld left, this time with a less frosty glare from the others. He’d already been to his local catholic church to get them interested. Over the next few days BV would be back in the headlines and they’d have a reasonable chance of selling the entire print run.

~BV~

There was a nervous buzz in the office; word of their intentions was spreading, partly through Thibbauld’s efforts and partly through the usual loose tongues in their gossipy little world. Some of the national newspapers had been sniffing around and they had also triggered the interest of intelligence agencies. The interior ministry had just sent someone round to tell them to be careful and take away one of the proof copies, and a day later a policeman was conspicuously placed near the front entrance. The British had their onion selling cyclist circling the block, refusing to sell anything to anyone in an appalling accent. That was at least better than the Americans who did not seem to realise that the French spoke a different language, and that minivans with blacked out windows drew even more attention than the bicycling British buffoon.

A couple of outlets had refused to take the copy just based on the rumours and early protests, but others had sensed the potential to make money and upped their orders, it finally looked like Brian Vichy would be able to pay off some debts.

On the day of the editorial meeting Thibbauld got a call from a withheld number just as the team were gathering. It was Saad. “Bro, I need to talk to you, come outside for a minute.” Thibbauld looked around; it would take a while for everyone to settle down. He waved his cigarettes at Michel, who saw him then pointedly looked away. Going through reception Thibbauld idly noticed the girl was no longer, there. A crowd had gathered outside, he dodged to one side, barely missing the perpetual dog mess on the pavement, and ducked into a side street, lighting up with a grateful deep breath.

There was no sign of Saad. He waited through the length of his cigarette, and then decided to head back inside. That was when the noise and the shouting started. There was a screech of tyres and the dull rattle of gunfire. A priest sprinted past Thibbauld followed by other protestors dropping their placards as they fled. There was more gunfire, punctuated by screams and glass breaking. In the distance there was a police siren. The firing stopped and the siren grew closer. Thibbauld leaned against the wall and sank slowly to his knees. His phone vibrated in his pocket. It was a text, once again from a withheld number. It simply said, “You’re welcome.”

~BV~

When he emerged from the side street the police were cordoning off the area, and there were already three ambulances pulled up at odd angles. Anders was sitting on the step to the building holding a cloth to a cut on his head. Thibbauld slipped through a gap in the cordon and sat down beside him. The Belgian stared at him numbly, not speaking for several minutes. He looked away and finally asked, “Where were you?”

“Smoke break.”

“And they say those things will kill you.”

“What happened?”

“Gun men, shouting some Arabic stuff.” He stopped as a stretcher was carried past. Thibbauld’s gut clenched as he recognised Michel’s limp hand hanging down. “They went straight for the editorial meeting,” Anders continued as they watched the stretcher being loaded into an ambulance as another pulled up. The paramedics were in no hurry, Michel was already dead. “I just got hit by flying glass.”

Thibbauld offered him a cigarette, which he refused. They sat together on the steps in silence as the police and paramedics bustled around ineffectually.

~BV~

He didn’t mention the phone call or the text, nor did he mention the trip to the student meeting at the university. The police weren’t that interested either, the gunmen were on the loose and questioning one of the remaining Brian Vichy heroes wasn’t high on the agenda. They all went through the motions and then let Thibbauld go with firm commiserating handshakes. As he left the police station his phone rang. He stared at it guiltily for a while before he realised it was Ralf. The German had flown home a couple of days before the shooting, with the production of the magazine supposedly well in hand.

“How are you doing?” Ralf asked.

“Ok I guess. It’s kind of difficult to process.”

“Well I need you to be better than OK, and I need that now.”

“What?”

“Orders are through the roof and we have very few people left. I’m going to let the current issue go out as is, and I want you to start working on a memorial issue. Dig up all the unpublished stuff from the ones who died and knock it together, I want to print in two weeks.”

“Ralf, you can’t be serious, we have nothing, no offices, no computers, no one to do the work.”

“Haven’t you been watching the news?”

“No, they keep showing faces of dead people that I used to work with.” He didn’t mention the churning guilt he felt every time they read out the names, or the image of Michel’s limp hand that haunted his sleep.

“Look kid, I know it’s hard, but we have offers of help coming in from all sides. We play this right and we can bank some big sales, and then with BV on your CV you could land a regular slot on one of the national papers.”

Thibbauld had to hand it to Ralf, the man could be very convincing. “How many sales?”

“My estimate is three million for the next one, then two, maybe two point five for the one after, depending on how sentimental people are feeling. Then we can cut straight over to your business model, smaller premises, fewer people and more money for everyone.” Ralf was in full flow now, there was no hint of residual sorrow in his voice, this was a business opportunity and smart practical people would take it.

Thibbauld found himself warming to the cold German. “I want to do the covers.”

He could almost sense Ralf smiling down the phone line. “You got it kid.”

END

If you are interested in my storytelling look here.

More thoughts on the growth of terror in I am Cassandra, you are Niemoller and The Cancer Magnet.

Some reflections on Satire and Faith in Islam Needs Satire

Tangential and sometimes more lighthearted reflections on faith can be found in extracts from my Hajj diary here scroll down a bit for the narratives.

The Sincerest Form of Flattery

Suspicions mount as a murder follows the plot of a short story which has not yet been published.

–>

The Sincerest Form of Flattery

“Who did you kill this time?”

Alexandria’s question is pitched low, inaudible to anyone else against the whine of hair dryers. She waits for me to answer with a lock of my hair pulled between two fingers.

“Eric, my neighbour. He insists on trimming the hedges at stupid o’clock in the morning on a Saturday.” I can’t gauge her response because my glasses are on the table, she’s just a blonde blur somewhere behind me in the full length mirror, so I plough on. “Frayed wire and a puddle, he wasn’t using a circuit breaker.” She cuts ends of the hair she is holding and combs up some more. “Measuring the distances to make sure Eric was standing in the puddle when the wire crossed it was the only tricky bit.”

“That’s eight so far this year. Is that enough to make you a psychopath?” I nod and she laughs. “I should fit a tape recorder to the chair and sell you out to the police.”

“There’s a recession on, you couldn’t afford to lose the clients.” I retort. She gives my hair a playful tug, because she knows I’m right. The other girls have been losing business to her since I left a copy of my book in the salon. Women waiting for their hair to set or their dye to dry read my short stories. When they find out the guy who wrote the book gets his wash and trim from Alex, they want her to ask me to write them into a plot line.

The real mystery is not in my murder stories, but that none of them go out and buy their own copy.

“So when does Eric meet his shocking end?”

“There’s a print magazine in Australia accepting international submissions, I’ll try him in that one.” She doesn’t comment on that, the rigmarole of submitting and waiting and rejections is one she has heard from me every six weeks when I come to see her, and she still finds it incomprehensible.

Gloria breaks the silence, hurrying over and clearly bursting with a choice bit of gossip. She swings her long legs to drop into the seat beside me and leans forward, the sudden waft of perfume makes my nose twitch, but my hands are trapped under the apron. “Something terrible has happened.” She gives me a meaningful glance, “this will be right up your street.”

From her expression it can’t possibly be terrible. In fact, as Gloria’s salon is the hub of local news, ill winds tend to blow in more business. Alex stops so that Gloria can talk.

“It’s George. He’s dead. Someone killed him.”

Alex gasps, her hand falling onto my shoulder. “How did it happen?” I ask. The Superintendent’s secretary is a regular at the salon, Gloria probably knows as much as the detectives on the case.

She looks around in case anyone else is listening, even though every stylist and customer in the salon will know within an hour. It’s only a good story if she is the one that gets to tell it. “It was at the park, on the mini golf course.” Gloria leans even further forward. If I had my glasses on I would be able to look right down the front of her shirt. “His body was trapped in the windmill, and he had been shot.” Her eyes are wide, but she’s so close I can see it is excitement not fear or sorrow.

Alex’s hand spasms on my shoulder; I’m glad I’m sitting because you could have knocked me over with a hair dryer. “Mini golf?” I repeat hoping my weak smile is the right expression for a time like this.

Gloria nods. “And the weird thing is the bullet went through him and was lodged inside the windmill.”

My heart rate has just spiked up and I’m struggling for air. I grasp for another inane question to stall for a little time. “That’s weird?”

“He was packed inside the windmill, there wasn’t room for a gun in there, and there is no sign of how the bullet got in. The kids complained their golf balls wouldn’t go through, which is when the attendant found him.” She puts a hand on my arm. “If anyone can work out how it was done it’s you.”

“Trust me, I’m the last person who could figure that one out.”

Then Alexandria comes to my rescue. “He was an asshole, he deserved it.”

Gloria makes a face but doesn’t disagree. George would come in every couple of weeks to have his hair washed by one of the girls and then trimmed really close. The stylists complained about his wandering hands and the customers about his serious body odour issues. “Whatever the girls say, he tipped well,” Gloria says with a shrug. She swings back and up in one movement. “If I find out any more I’ll let you know.”

I catch a blurred smile in the mirror as Gloria walks away. “See, people are reading your stories,” Alex says brightly.

I’m suddenly conscious that she is wielding a pair of very sharp scissors around my head, but I have to know. “Alex. I didn’t submit the story to that journal. I couldn’t get the method of the murder to work. You’re the only one I told about it.”

She doesn’t say anything; she just leans forward and trims the errant hairs off my eyebrows. The snip, snip sounds very loud. She puts the scissors down and sprays my hair damp again. I start silently cataloguing the myriad different ways to kill someone in a hair salon. Why the hell didn’t I think of this as a setting before?

“Will you turn me in?” She asks at last with a heavy sigh.

I turn to look at her, genuinely perplexed. “Of course not. I want to know how you did it.”

END

Prompt: Mystery / Mini golf / Bullet

If you are interested in my storytelling look here

ClusterWars Vignette – The Other Death

As part of my efforts to bring my space opera Cluster Wars to life I have been writing bits and pieces that aren’t part of the main plot. They are not intended to feature in the text, but to help me pin down locations and how things work.

I also recently read The Aleph by Jose Luis Borges, which is an awe-inspiringly beautiful collection of short stories. “The Other Death” I found peculiarly affecting and as a means of processing that feeling I tried to write my own version of the story – this is the result: the bones of Borges’ story fleshed out in my imagined world.

–>

Dear Sebastian

I am sorry to burden you with this, but you may be the only one who will understand what has happened. You may even be able to explain it to Carolina.

I have stumbled upon the most extraordinary mystery surrounding the debacle at Vennkiser Gap. You may recall my father served there with some distinction. I was approached ten days ago by a fellow officer of my father’s from that engagement: a sub Lieutenant Damian. He was a fighter pilot, and as he knew my father I felt compelled to meet him. We went to that bar in Port Seng you may recall from your last visit. Over a few brandies he asked me if I had the means to contact Admiral Sabian for it seems he was wracked by guilt over a dereliction of duty at Vennkiser.

Although my father was the Admiral’s confidante I couldn’t just approach him, even in his retirement, without doing a little checking. There was no mention of any dishonourable conduct in any of the reports on Vennkiser, even though some of them were scathing on the tactics the Admiral employed.

When I went back to challenge Damian on it I found him dead in the dingy quarters he had rented on the landward side. I was minded to dismiss the whole episode as the drink fuelled fantasy of a lonely and deranged man, but there were too many elements of what he told me that rang true. He had given me some papers to prove his bona fides, and they all looked genuine. I left it all alone for a day, but I found myself increasingly troubled by Damian. There was an intensity and an urgency to his request, and having waited with his body while the police arrived at his apartment I felt as if I had entered into a covenant with his soul.

Since I lack the authorisation to check the files myself, I took it upon myself to visit the Admiral and see if he recalled events that had not made the official record or the transcript of the court martial in which he was acquitted of the charge of incompetence.

I am glad I did, even though the interview only increased the mystery of the fate of poor Damian. The Admiral retains his granddaughter as his personal assistant, a singular woman who has affected me greatly. But I run ahead of myself and I must complete what I know of Damian. He had begun to weigh on me like a physical presence, and unless I discovered the truth I feared I would be crushed by him. You, Sebastian, will understand why.

The military facility for the retired is somewhat inaccessible on the far side of Primus.It is a little pastiche of military life where they still observe the hierarchy of rank. The non-commissioned officers’ rooms and mess hall are a far cry from the private suite the Admiral enjoys, and they all salute one another as if they were still on board their starships or on parade. The staff also indulge the Admiral’s penchant for fine cigars. The air in his study is thick with the remnants of the smoke. It was not altogether unpleasant, but it gave the place an otherworldly atmosphere.

He greeted me warmly and for a while we remembered my father; the Admiral smoked throughout, waving clouds of smoke with one hand in which he also gripped a glass of very fine whiskey, although I was surprised that he never seemed to drink it, just inhale the aroma occasionally between puffs of his cigar.

He was more than willing to talk about the battle at the Vennkiser Gap, despite the mixed reports of his leadership there, and the loss of life that lead to his court martial. In fact I think he alluded to some failings on his part that were not revealed in the initial despatches or subsequent proceedings. Of the sub lieutenant Damian he did at first seem to recall something.

With your intelligence role in the navy I am not sure how much you know about the tactics of close combat, but that is where our conversation began.

“Vennkiser should have been a classic takedown of a cruiser group.” He told me, “Whoever holds their nerve and gets their fighters into the action first wins, most of the time. Our textbook move was to deploy a fighter screen ahead of the heavy ships, backed up by a couple of shield generators, forming a protective arc.” Here he put down his cigar and glass for a moment to splay out one hand and cup another one behind it. “You see, the fighters are enveloped in the shield, and they are individually too small for the enemy to pick up. All the enemy can do is bombard the shield.” He moved his cupped hand to the other side of the splayed hand and pattered it with his fingers. “That is where the nerve and skill come in. The fighter pilots have to hold their position in the line as it advances, even if they see munitions coming directly at them. In most cases the munitions explode harmlessly on the shield, but breaking formation weakens the shield wall for everyone. And if someone does get hit,” he tucked in one finger from his splayed hand, “You need good commanders in the line who can rebalance the shield.”

This was the deployment he had attempted at Vennkiser and has since been superceded with the advancement in weapons. It also accords exactly with the version of history Damian shared with me. He claimed he had broken formation when he had seen missiles coming at him, not trusting in the shield, he fled in his close range fighter. He told me he ejected after setting a course for some battle debris which would credibly damage his fighter, and then discharged himself from the medical ship that picked him up. So few survived and the capital ships were so badly damaged his lapse was not picked up, or so he claimed.

The Admiral recalled something very different.  When I pressed him on the performance of his troops he was adamant that all of them, not least my father, had displayed exemplary courage in the face of new weaponry. He recalled Damian, and said he had held the line when the sunward side of the shield wall was broken, before the loss of the Brigantine Celeste.

It was then that he called for his personal logs and the crew manifests. While Felicity, his granddaughter retrieved the data files and the Admiral checked the details, I took the chance to examine the room we were in more closely. It struck me as unnatural, a created, studied thing. There was an unfinished game of chess in one corner, with crystal pieces. There was a thin layer of dust over it, as if it had been left undisturbed for some time. And yet the Brazen Knight had been cleaned, polished, and moved into a position it could not possibly have taken. Otherwise the formation struck me as a replaying of Vennkiser, with a shield screen of Brazen Pawns before their Primary pieces, and the Primaries of the Lustre forces pushing through on one side.

I thought the out of place knight must be Damian, and I could not shake that thought. I am ashamed to say it, while the Admiral and Felicity were busy I pocketed the Brazen Knight.

There were books, real books lining the walls, but all the spines were worn and faded and it was impossible to tell what they were, or who wrote them. Only one was slightly pulled out from its position, but other than the suggestion of three initials I could not make out any more details.

When I turned back from the bookshelf I was given such a measured look from Felicity I felt as I had been scanned from head to foot. In that one moment it seemed that she understood me, and in doing so had revealed herself to me entirely.

Do you recall the girl we saw that year in the Seminary? The one we thought was an Absolutist of the Atenaeum, and yet there was no record of her presence among the supplicants or students. Felicity reminds me uncommonly of her. You will think me mad and infatuated, as I was then, for her hair and her eyes are different, and yet there is something in the grace of her movement, the way her head moves to one side as she considers a question, that can only belong to the same person. And yet that was half a lifetime and two sectors away from Primus and the retirement colony.

The Admiral broke the moment by handing me the data card. “I misremembered the name, but there he is. Dameaous it was, and a full Lieutenant, I wrote the citation for his posthumous award myself. Steadied the line in the sunward shield at Vennkiser for vital minutes that boy did, and then took out the laser battery on the Starlight Web knowing he couldn’t get his flight back to the carrier, but buying me time to retreat with the Harbinger, and pick up survivors from the Celeste.

There is a picture of Dameaous, and he is unmistakably the same man as I met in the bar in Port Seng. In his personnel files is the distinctive tattoo, and those details of his early life with the Free Constabulary against the slave runners of Tharl. The eyes are the eyes of the broken man who fled his shame and grew crops in the high plains of Bruyne. The man whose body I had found in a damp single room in the landward tenements. And yet here was undoubtedly a hero of the Vennkiser debacle, honoured in his death.

I could not bear to withdraw my hand from Felicity’s hand when we parted that day, and she gave no sign the lingering contact distressed her. Indeed she smiled and simply said, “Sometimes if we have not lived a good life, all we can hope for is a good death.” I murmured my assent, lost in how the planes of her face reflected light in the same way as the girl from the seminary. I asked to see her again, and she concurred without hesitation. “It is still better to live a good life,” she said, and placed a single dry kiss on my cheek.

A new fever took me then. I spent the day in my bed, refusing all calls and twisting in sweat soaked sheets. I turned the crystal chess piece in my hand, over and over, sometimes seeing myself in the cut faces and angles, sometimes Damian, sometimes Felicity. I left  a message for Felicity to call me, and then another. I don’t know if I desired her, or if she held some power over me, or if it was just the realistion that Damian’s life, and Felicity’s and mine were bound together and I felt I could not be free until I had found some absolution for the guilt-ridden farmer, or militiaman, or deserter, or hero or whatever he was.

I drank nothing but water that day, my teeth felt too weak even to chew on a piece of fruit, and the sight of it sickened me.

The next day I felt recovered and I went back to the tenement to see if there were any belongings of Damian’s that I could use to unpick his mystery.

The landlord denied there had been anyone in the room, or that the authorities had removed his body. When I insisted and pushed my way up the stairs, I found in his room a sweaty half dressed family of Frian refugees who had plainly been there for some time, their religious symbols tacked to the walls and clothes drying from lines strung across the room.

I went to the bar, but it was boarded up, as if it had been closed for months, and yet I swear to you that I had been in there sharing a cheap and harsh brandy with the man who said he was Damian just days before.

When I met Felicity we walked out on the hills above the  bay. We said not a word for it seemed as if I had known her my whole life, and there were no more words to say. We held hands.

The knotted rope that held me and her and Damian sank into to a still pool into which I was compelled to dive, to retrieve it and try to open the knot even as the rope dried and tightened. It gnawed at me as I wished I could gnaw at it, gnash it open with my teeth. The unwillingness of any trail or document to evidence the things I myself had seen and heard was a burning frustration.

When I held Felicity’s hand that restlessness subsided. If sub Lieutenant Damian had found himself to be a coward when facing his death in Vennkiser, and then spent a penitential lifetime in Bruyne, or if Lieutenant Dameous was a hero whose valour had saved countless lives,  what difference would my knowing or not knowing make? But she could see in my eyes that something rebelled against this truth.

I handed her the Brazen Knight unwilling to meet her gaze in that moment, but she closed her hand over my extended hand and pushed it back to me. “I cannot take you from yourself,” she said in those simple, sparse words she used which for an instant seemed to hold the entire understanding of the world, and then like a scene seen in a flash of lightning the understanding was gone, and all that was left was an echo of a prosaic sentiment.

She went with me to the Hub where I queried the authorities on Bruyne. They had no record of anyone matching Damian’s description, either as a holder of property or someone who passed through their ports. When I found that Felicity herself had been on Bruyne I began to suspect that there was more she was not telling me, that my innate comprehension of her could not encompass, or that she herself did not know. And undoubtedly a further mystery around the Absolutists of Ateneum, I feel their shaodw over this entire affair. There is more, much more that I cannot yet say, and that I do not yet understand.

I am left with the sense that all I met was a memory, the echo of a regret. Perhaps I witnessed the salvation of this man. I am also determined to overcome my own regrets, which why I have written to you Sebastian.

You have been with me through the Seminary, we have faced mortal danger together. You were with me when my courage failed in the mines of Caorramoor, and you hauled me from the wreckage, past the shattered bodies of the people we were sent to save.  As Damian looked upon his death and failed the test of courage, and now leaves only the memory of Dameaous, perhaps I too can find  redemption.

I don’t know how far the rope unravels. What will become of my sons if I succeed? If you read this and think Luis is deranged, the miners of Caoramoor were saved, then perhaps I have succeeded. I go to Bruyne. If on reading this you burn as I have burned with the untold history of Damian then seek out the Absolutists. Felicity has promised to come with me, but I am already sensing that she is less substantial, less present in the moment than I am, and I fear I will find she is only a delusion, or the means by which I have come to understand there needs to be a penance.

Tell Carolina why I must go, tell my sons that all I taught them about honour and duty is true, but that sometimes a different truth needs to be lived to give life to a lie.

Farewell Sebastian, for our paths will not cross again.

Your friend

Luis

END

If you are interested in my storytelling look here

More Cluster Wars material including the reply to this letter here