Stories in order of appearance:
1/ Puppy Love. School reunions are bad enough but when you also have a dirty job to do…
2/ The Guardians. Ever wondered what that voice in your head is that sometimes whispers to you?
3/ The Bitch. Obsession doesn’t always have to be human based.
Light seeped from the bar entrance, trickling red neon over wet pavement like blood from an open wound. An arterial thumping filled my chest and music pumped into the street.
I swallowed. This wasn’t how I’d envisaged meeting her. Twenty-five years had passed and the memory was stuck in my thick skull in full colour while real photographs faded to sepia. The damned woman was still in my head. I paused, staring into the blackness of my shadow and remembered.
I was twelve. Standing stupidly, staring in awe as she’d moved languidly through sunlight like an angel.
That little bastard Cupid, wielding not a bow and arrow but a heavy piece of 2×4 wood studded with rusty nails, whacked me directly over thehead. I’d discovered girls.
But I was way too young. A whole year too young. Obviously I didn’t stand a hope in hell. Sentenced to five long school years of tragic attempts to prove I even existed while attempting not to go blind.
But that was then. I patted the cold steel of the thirty-eight holstered against my chest. This was now the thing closest to my heart.
I looked at my watch, a battered Seiko Dive Master. It was nine pm and it was time. But I was suddenly twelve years old again. All that awkwardness flooded back. Of trying to speak, to impress. Gurgling in a hormonal strangled daze to say something, anything, as she wafted by. I was always invisible to her. But it wouldn’t be like that, not tonight. I shook my head clear of the ghosts and walked inside.
The atmosphere was a fetid wave, blasting away the coldness but not my darkness of spirit. I stood there trying to recognise faces from the past. But the ghosts of my memory had aged beyond recognition. The first school re-union I’d been to and probably the last – especially after I’d done what I’d come here to do.
A figure, a woman, detached itself from the crowd and came over. She was a sophisticated brunette with calm, confident eyes and a drink in her hand. But the drink wasn’t for me.
“Hi! Oh do come in, don’t be shy, you here for the re-union? I’m Sue, Sue Jackson, left in ’78, what year were you in?”
“Well, I left in 86 …”
“Oh, I was in third year then, you look familiar … Jack, Jack Spalding, right?”
I tried to hide my surprise and embarrassment because I didn’t
recognise her, or even her name.
“Yes, Jack Spalding,” I held out my hand and she took it with a firm grip, “you’ve got a good memory, I’m impressed!”
“Don’t be,” she shrugged, giving my hand an extra squeeze before
releasing, “I’ve been studying the school mug shots and I’d
recognise you anywhere, you haven’t changed all that much. Here,
take this, everyone has one, they’re name cards, in case anyone
Her eyes sparkled with amusement as she pinned my name-tag to me as I searched my memory to find any trace of the young third-year girl standing next to me. Then she sighed.
“You don’t remember me, do you?”
“You don’t, do you?
Being wrong footed is something I hate and shrugged helplessly. It had beena long time since I’d felt myself blush.
“I’m really sorry, but did we, erm, know each other, back then?”
Sue shook her head, and stared at her drink. An awkward silence was forming and I began to look around for an escape.
“No, not really … but I had an awfully huge crush on you back then.”
“A crush!” Sue repeated, grinning. “You were Head Boy, and I thought you were the best thing since sliced bread. Used to try and provoke you. Anything to get your attention I guess.”
I closed my eyes and the image of a skinny girl pestering the life out of me began to swim up from the depths. My embarrassment deepened as I remembered… I hadn’t been very kind to her at the time. I’d dismissed her, brushing away her attempts to talk. To be friends.
“No, I’m sorry, you’re right, I don’t remember your name, but I do
remember you now – I must have seemed a real bastard back then.”
“Yes you were. I really hated you for a while afterwards as well, but I know it’s not your fault, we were kids after all, and I was, what? All of three years too young for you.” Sue’s sudden and
infectious laugh broke the awkwardness and I found myself beginning to relax. But I still had a job to do.
“Childhood crushes eh?” I said, rolling my eyes.
“Here’s to them!” Sue raised her glass. “You’re still not too bad
looking you know. I mean for your age. I can see the hint of a
paunch, but not too bad overall.”
I patted my stomach ruefully. “Well thanks, and I have to say,
without a word of flattery, you do look fantastic.”
“Why thank you …” Sue’s eyes twinkled over the rim of her glass as
she took a sip.
“Married?” I asked.
“Yes,very happily.” But somehow she didn’t sound as though she
“I’m glad.” I said, “Kids?”
“No, and you?”
“No, not now and no kids.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“These things happen, my job just got in the way.”
Before Sue could ask awkward questions, I asked her if she had seen Fiona.
“Ahh, the lovely Fiona, all the boys had a crush on her I think, didn’t they?” she said, giving me a knowing look. “Oh no, not you to? That why you want to find her?”
“Not really. But you’re right, I did have a crush on her, I guess very boy did, but that was a long time ago.”
“FIONA!Someone here wants to see you!”
I closed my eyes for a second, I really didn’t want the whole damned room alerted to what I had to do, but it was too late. And there she was. Walking towards me with that familiar swing to her hips, looking just as damned attractive now as she had back then. My gun felt tight against my chest. Or perhaps the tightness was in my heart? Shit.
“Oh hello, yes, I remember you, Jack Spalding isn’t it?”
Her perfume invaded my lungs and teased out the remnants of forgotten emotions. Hurt and longing swam up and grabbed my throat. I forced them back down into the depths, into the past, where they belonged. No room for sentimentality. Not now.
I nodded, my throat dry. Then she smiled that smile – half mocking, half seductive. She hadn’t changed a bit.
“Jack, you know, I always thought you were going to ask me out, but you never did, such a shame,” she said in honeyed tones, but darker, more seductive than I could remember. She leaned forward to kiss my cheek, her hand upon my chest.
Her hand froze and her eyes locked onto mine. I guess the shape and feel of the gun beneath my jacket was unmistakable. I didn’t return the kiss. She slowly stepped back, looking at me quizzically.
“Jack? Why are you wearing that?” Then she turned in alarm towards Sue, “Sue, he’s got a gun…”
“What?” Sue’s eyes widened.
I didn’t want to do it this way, but now I had no choice. I reached inside my jacket and pulled out my wallet, flicking it open. Fiona’s eyes widened as she saw the badge glinting inside the leather. She turned to escape.
“Don’t! Don’t make me draw my weapon, stay where you are! It’s over Fiona…”
Her beautiful eyes flickered rapidly between the badge in my wallet and my face. Calculating the odds, weighing her chances. Then her body relaxed as the tension burst, flowing out. I took her arms, turned her around and snapped on the cuffs behind her back.
Sue was staring open mouthed. Within an instant, she had composed
“No wonder your wife left you. What has she done? And why do this here? At our re-union?” Anger and shock had replaced the sparkle I saw earlier in her eyes.
“Yeah, I’m not to happy about it either Sue, believe me. But she’s been on the run for years. This re-union, well, she was the queen of our high-school after all and when this invitation came through I just had a hunch she couldn’t miss it, whatever the risk.” I was
gabbling. It was suddenly important to me that Sue understood.
Fiona began twisting to free herself.
“Let me go Jack, you can do it, just say I wasn’t here… Sue, help
I almost let her go right there and then. Almost. But I knew how she used that soft and so-sincere aura of vulnerability to entrap her victims. I wasn’t buying. Maybe the jury would.
“I’ve chased you longer than you’ll ever know Fiona – you don’t know how sorry I am that it’s ended this way.”
“You’re one real bastard, Jack”
“Yeah, I know.”
I started to leave, but Sue stopped me in the entrance.
“Look, I’m sorry I spoiled the evening Sue…” I shrugged hoplessly, meaning every word.
Sue stared at me, hard, for three long heartbeats. Then she reached into her purse and gave me a card, her number.
“Call me. That is, when you’r free. You can buy me a drink. We can catch up on old times…”
Sue turned and left, her scent lingering in my brain as I dragged Fiona out into the dank night and her date with a judge. Time to put her and the past away, I had my own date to think about.
Her mother had always told her she was a lucky child.
‘Listen to your instincts, Sara, and you’ll be just fine. You should always trust in yourself.’
Of course, a mother’s advice is often not heard by their children. But Sara was different. She listened. And now sixty-three years later if she listened hard, that inner warning voice, was still there.
It was busy nibbling at her equilibrium as Sara sat alone at a table close close to the door in one of the many small coffee houses hidden down one ancient side street in Jerusalem. She had discovered this spot only the previous day and because she liked to watch the bustle of life passing by outside, it was perfect.
Placing her pen on a still blank postcard to her grandchildren, she brushed her greying hair away from the droplets of moisture beading her forehead. Her thoughts drifted back to that day when her mother saved her life, but lost her own.
Sara shivered. The noise and heat of the Middle East wasn’t entirely extinguished by the cafe’s rattling air conditioning, each new customer brought a blast of heavy heat. But the shivering intensified. Once again she was immersed in the numbing grip of the Irish Sea, her mother desperately holding her head above the waves, telling her again and again that everything would be fine. Everything would be fine. But it was never going to be fine. Never again.
Sara pushed the memory away, drained her coffee and picking up her pen, began to write. Again the cafe door opened letting more hot air wash over her. Her chill grew colder as she looked up. A young man dressed in traditional Jewish attire had entered the shop. But there was something different about him. It was there in his eyes. Large and dark, they should have been beautiful and serene; instead they were dull, almost blank. As if time had run out.
Sara dropped her pen, stood and wrapped herself around him, her mouth close at his ear, whispering rapidly the few words and phrases of Arabic she had learned: ‘Salam alaikum , La! La’
He jolted back at her touch, trying to twist away. But she held him, repeating the phrase rapidly: ‘Peace be with you, Peace! No! No!’
His eyes wide and the two of them, as if in a grotesque dance, began to spin. Chairs, tables all fell to the floor as the stampede for safety began. It was as if everyone understood at once. The boy’s hand, for he was no more than a boy in reality, began forcing its way between their bodies, searching. Sara felt the ugliness of what could only be explosives beneath his clothes as she clung even tighter, anything to deny him his twisted goal.
In a sense, Sara knew, she’d been lucky; the café now almost empty. She whispered again into his ear, pleading ‘La! No!’
Only then did he speak.
‘ALLAHU AKBAR!’ God is Great!
A timeless moment after her death, Sara watched a newborn child cry against his exhausted mother’s breast and she fell in love. There could be no other person, he was for her and she would remain devoted to this new born babe throughout his life.
And then, in less than a heartbeat, he was no longer an infant but a grown man. But still a child.
And right now, the child was struggling.
‘When will you be back home?’
‘WHEN later? Tonight, tomorrow … ’
Mike’s mother drew her hand through her hair in exasperation, ‘Your dad and I need to know, Mike.’
He snarled at his mother over his shoulder in frustration, refusing to meet her eyes, ‘I DUNNO when! I’ll call ya. Gota go now, ok? See ya.’
Slamming the front door behind him, he stalked off. The bike was waiting and he wasn’t listening.
Viciously twisting the throttle, he let he engine drown his mother’s plea in a scream of defiance. Dropping the clutch and pulling on the bars, he let the front wheel lift. Then, leaning into the sudden acceleration with the front wheel high in the air, he powered away.
Sara quietly watched Mike’s mother shake her head as she moved back inside the house and closed the door. Then she was riding alongside him, whispering into his mind. Like the Sara of old, perhaps he listened. He slowed, reaching that first intersection a fraction later than he otherwise would.
The car of course had appeared from nowhere, as cars always do. Mike’s quick reflexes saved his life: a touch of front brake, a push on the left bar and the bike answered enough for him to pass without contact. For the next few miles of road to his girlfriend’s house his heart was thumping and Mike rode that little more carefully. Sara smiled.
There was Janie, waiting. He could see those intense dark-brown eyes of hers fixed upon him as he pulled up alongside her. He’d barely removed his helmet before her lips found his own as the engine pinged and popped between them, the engine cooling even with the heat of their embrace.
Mike’s heart was still racing from the near miss, or from meeting Janie, he wasn’t sure.
He let her brush a single matted hair from his forehead. ‘Mike, you’re sweating like a pig!’
‘Yeah, I was pushing it a bit, nearly lost it back there …’
Janie’s dark eyes narrowed.
‘What do you mean?’
Mike twisted his head away, ‘Jesus, don’t start …’
‘Why the shit shouldn’t I start! You know how you scare me sometimes riding like that.’
‘For Christ’s sake Janie, you’re beginning to sound like me Mum …’
‘Mike, if you don’t take it easy on that thing, I just know you’re going to get killed!’
He couldn’t defeat her, so instead pulled her to him. She rested her forehead against his chest.
‘No, no I won’t,’ he reassured her, ‘I always know when to ease up – it’s my “sixth sense.” ’
‘Sixth sense my arse… you’re trembling,’ she said, looking up into his face.
Mike checked his hand. ‘Yeah. So I am. Shit.’
Janie stood on tiptoe and kissed him again.
‘I want you fully functioning Mike, not injured or even worse. In fact, I want you right now.”
‘I thought you wanted to go for a ride?” Mike laughed.
‘Oh, I do,’ Janie giggled. ‘But the bike ride can wait – this one can’t. You do know my parents aren’t in, don’t you?’ she said, her smile radiating more warmth than the summer’s evening.
‘Oh, well, that’s much more interesting,’ he said, smiling. ‘I guess the bike can wait …’
Later, in the evening dusk, they walked to a nearby pub. Mike felt more content at that moment than he’d ever been in his young life. But, just as he thought that awkward question wouldn’t be asked by Janie, it was.
‘So, any news about the job then?’
Mike rolled his eyes as his heart sank.
‘Janie, you know this job is my ticket out of here …’
‘Yeah, and away from me.’
Traffic rumbled past them unheard and unnoticed.
‘That’s not true,’ sighed Mike. ‘It’s only a couple of hundred miles away, we can still see each other.’
‘You’ll find someone else, I know you will …’
‘Look, we’ll see each other at weekends or you could move down with me, why not?’
‘You know why not – I’m not yet eighteen, my folks would never let me go and I’ve got Uni and … oh, why can’t you just stay?’
‘Because, well, because …’ He said, unable to find any words she would understand. ‘It’s the opportunity of a lifetime …’ he finished off lamely.
‘It’s the opportunity of a lifetime …’ she mimicked. Folding her arms and pouting.
Janie stared into the sky as the silence between them deepened. Finally she spoke, ‘Fine, it doesn’t matter, I don’t care, you just go, don’t think about me, just do what you want …’
‘Janie, look, you’re being silly …’ Mike bit his tongue as he spoke that last fatal word.
‘Silly?’ Janie growled. ‘Oh, I’m being ‘silly,’ am I? Well screw you, Mike!’
Mike stood stock still, hands balled into fists as he watched her march away across the road. He was furious with her and himself. He turned away, determined to leave her to her tantrum, yet something stopped him walking. As he paused, the sudden and deafening sound from a truck air-horn rent the air. He swivelled and saw a huge truck, on the wrong side of the road, and bearing down upon his beloved Janie.
Janie saw the truck at the same instant, but froze. Mike reacted instantly.
Her eyes met his for just an instant as he launched himself across the road, knocking her sprawling and out of harms way. There was a brief blowtorch of pain from his shoulder as he hit the tarmac which was instantly erased when the truck passed and with it took his life away.
Sara had, as always, had been watching, even as he gave his life to save another. It was the hardest thing she had ever done. Knowing that her whispered insistence into his mind for him to wait, to not walk away. All of that she knew, would lead to his death.
A timeless moment later Mike watched as a newborn child took her first breath. He knew, as Sara had known before him, there could be no other. She was for him, he was in love.
Jack secretly thought of himself as a bit of a lad. A lovable rogue. One of the lads. His wife on the other hand, had told him in no uncertain terms that he was being a prick.
Now, sitting alone, he sighed at the memory of their argument and picked up his pint, sipping at the bitterness rather than dranking its full. She’d left him to go out shopping, to think about it. To do as he was told more like. But she was right, damn her. Their was room for only one other love in their life, and The Bitch had to go.
Sitting across the road from him, leaning nonchalantly, provocatively, The Bitch was silently mocking him. In the evening glow she looked wonderful. The light wrapping around her curves in a lustful caress. Damn it, what seductive, desirable, intoxicating infatuation. Why couldn’t his wife understand? ‘My wife doesn’t understand me’ he muttered ironically to himself. He knew why.
The Bitch had let him down constantly. And he’d always forgiven her. With the excitement she’d given him, how could he not? Jack took another sip from his beer, relishing the bitterness of the memory of that first time together. How she had trembled beneath him as he’d coaxed her to perform for him. Her screams music to his ears as he’d rode her mercilessly.
After that he knew he was in love. But now the wife had told him it had to end. She was history. She had to go. Even his mates had started mocking his devotion. This time he took a deeper drink of the bitter beer.
But it was true The Bitch had let him down too often. It was time someone else cursed her capricious nature. And of course delight in her charms he thought. It was hard to let go. But, he had to do it. And there were compensations he reminded himself with a smile. The wife had agreed to that at least. Maybe she did understand him after all.
He watched The Bitch and her new lover exchange caresses and then leave. To her he was already history, forgotten. But he too had found a new love, and he hoped soon The Bitch would be just a pleasant memory.
He looked over to his new mistress waiting patiently not far from him. It had to be said, she was just as gorgeous, and would be a damned sight more reliable. He finished his pint in a long satisfying gulp, picked up his keys and walked over.
Smiling, he threw his leg over her, inserted the ignition key and rode off.