A time to die

Synopsis

The day started badly and went downhill from there

(Written for Round 2 of #nycmidnight #flashfictionchallenge2022 – submitted August 2022)


Suspect or criminal man with handcuffs being interviewed by detectives in interrogation room after committed a crime

‘You’re a saint, Shirley.’

Michael looked terrible. I’d known he was sick before I entered Michael Roche, Lawyers. We’d spoken earlier and the husky voice and wet hacking cough were solid clues. Now faced with the fug of germ-infested air, deeply sunken eyes, lank hair and BO strong enough to ward off zombies it was clear that today illness was the MVP.

He’d pulled an all-nighter, weighed down by his fever. There was no rest when dealing with the wicked and our criminal client list was long and scary. There’d be no patience with postponement. Michael had to pull it together, and fast.

I’d come prepared with freshly dry cleaned shirt and suit, mentholated ointment, paracetamol and homemade broth. I’d also brought in a ring burner to keep it warm through the day.

‘Boss, you smell disgusting and look worse.’ I opened windows. An avalanche of tissues had hidden his desk. ‘Do you have shares in Kleenex? That’s a lotta landfill.

‘Give me a break, I’ve never been so ill. I’m secreting green globs. I can hear the ocean and we’re 200 miles from water. My head is killing me, and Ma Jenkins is due any minute.’

‘Followed by Mo the Beast, Curly the Butcher and Samantha the Striptease. It’s a full schedule, boss. A dangerous mix’

‘You’ve brought food?’

‘Yeah. My grandmother swore by this meat bone tea. Pork ribs and Chinese herbs combined. It is guaranteed to pick you up, expunge ill humour and spit you back out bouncing and raring to go.’

‘I’m sure it’s delicious, but I can’t smell a thing. Don’t think I’ll be able to taste it either.’ He sighed. ‘I don’t know if I can get through the day.’

‘Get this inside you.’

I handed him a steaming bowl of broth, some paracetamol and cleared away the tissues.

After a moment, I saw he was slumped over the empty bowl, almost asleep. I roused him to standing and herded him toward his private bathroom.

‘Is he alright?’ Ma Jenkins, diminutive but deadly mob matriarch and mourning mother of Johnny Jenkins, drug dealer. Michael’s failed defence left Johnny languishing in Long Bay prison on a 10-year stretch. Always, anger blazed behind her pale eyes.

Michael appeared and took Ma’s limp hand. He appeared in better health, a real improvement.

‘Good morning, Mrs J.’ He gestured at me to leave. As I pulled the door closed, I saw Ma Jenkins peering into the herbal broth.

Ma was keeping her cool. It wasn’t always the way. She was a powder keg waiting to blow and it was a lottery which version we’d get on any given day. But as Michael guided her to the lift after their meeting, she was crying softly.

‘She was quite maternal,’ he whispered. ‘She asked after my health, told me I should be home in bed and topped up my empty bowl. Forced another couple of tablets on me too.’

‘A bit soon, boss.’ And very suspicious behaviour, I thought. ‘Do you know your skin is yellow?’

Michael shrugged.

‘She seemed resigned to Johnny’s fate. We won’t see her again.’

‘Mo is up next,’ I reminded him. ‘We’ll need to hurry him along, don’t want him here when Curly and Sam arrive.’

Mo the Beast was a local enforcer. As a favour to Ma, we’d taken his case of assault with deadly force a year ago, thinking him innocent. We should have known better. He treated me well, but he was brutal with the working girls under his sway. And he had history with Samantha.

I sensed Mo’s arrival before he’d stepped through the door. The air stilled, dust motes held in stasis, traffic noise abated. Then the tattooed bulk of Mo the Beast blasted into the room.

‘Morning, Shirley,’ he rumbled.

‘He’s waiting,’ I said. I treated our clients as naughty children, while braced to defend. They needed to know who was boss. I was not submissive but also careful to not poke the bear. We had cops on speed dial.

On parole, Mo had ‘allegedly’ roughed up a punter at the club where he ‘bounced’. Mo was desperate, disappointed, scared even. Michael couldn’t fix it.

My heart melted when I saw Michael had an arm across Mo’s shoulder as they exited his office. He could be so gentle with them. He’d removed his suit jacket and his tie was loose, he’d relaxed. Mo appeared subdued and defeated.

Then, catastrophe. A picture of dejection came face to face with the epitome of arrogant confidence in the form of Curly the Butcher, with Samantha on his arm. They were stylish, dashing and debonair – and deadly killers. They entered laughing, then stopped dead.

Sam sidled into Michael’s office, while Mo and Curly faced off. She had good defensive instincts.

‘Let’s take it down, gentleman,’ suggested Michael. Neither man was prepared to give. They were deadlocked.

Suddenly, Ma Jenkins rocked up. Great. The full circus was in town.

‘Boys,’ she said.

Immediately the tension released. Mo nodded to Ma, who inclined her head toward the lift. Curly swaggered into Michael’s office, reunited with Sam who was lazily stirring the hot broth. Ma joined them, whispered something to Samantha, patted Curly’s shoulder then floated back out.

Michael sighed deeply and broke into another wet cough. He was beginning to fade.

‘Boss, you should call it a day,’ I said. Curly and Sam lurched away from the broth. They seemed guiltily relieved.  

‘We can come back,’ Curly said. ‘No problem. Get better, slick.’

Michael slumped into his chair, slurped fresh broth, shook pills into his hand and waved us away.

He was sleeping when I checked back. He’d tipped his bowl. Broth spilled across his desk and dripped to the floor.

I closed the blinds, mopped up the spill with remaining tissues, and turned off the burner ring.

‘Time to go, boss’.  

He didn’t move.

‘Michael?’ 

Honest Frank

Synopsis

Frank’s ambition dwarfs his integrity and everybody knows it, but him.

(Written for Round 1 of #nycmidnight #flashfictionchallenge2022 – submitted June 2022)


Frank waited to be introduced by Beatrice, the bookshop owner.

Everything about him screamed loud. Bouffant orange hair, piano key teeth, hairy hands and orangutan arms. His tie matched his hair, his shoes were dressed in crocodile. He was tall. He was wide. He was sweating.

That moisture surprised me. By all other measures, Frank was a powerful man, on a mission, full of confidence. His trailing minions appeared toy like. Crisp, clean and smartly dressed. Barely a smile among them.

Something was wrong with Frank. He was grinding his teeth, and regularly clutched his stomach and moaned. Not in good health but needing to perform and not about to back down.

Frank and I go way back. Same small town. This one. We went into the armed forces straight out of college. He was the geeky last-to-be-called man, while I was the full commando. He served his time in supply. I was on patrol, hunting subversives, surviving by the skin of my teeth.

Yet here he was pushing an autobiography of his time in the military. I’d read it and didn’t recognise that Frank. It was embellished beyond belief. I understood it to be the cornerstone of his push for local Member of Parliament in the upcoming election.

‘Good evening, everyone,’ said Beatrice. ‘I am delighted to introduce tonight, an admirable man. One of our own, but so much bigger than us all. Hope you have read this book, it is just remarkable,’ she gushed. ‘He’ll have my vote this November. Hands together please, and welcome Frank Fraker.”

As Frank strode to the microphone, I sensed a latecomer drop into the seat beside me. It was Joe Honest, a wet-behind-the ears newspaper cadet with the local paper. I was reporting for the Herald out of the city, hardened, cynical and prepared to take Frank down. I noticed Frank’s first assistant, Jane Icare in our row. Interesting. I’d pin her down for quotes later.

‘Hello, friends,’ said Frank in his loudest, bonhomie voice. Pompous, bombastic and beaming. ‘How kind of you all to come out on this wet, cold night. I am grateful for your support.’

‘Came in out of the rain, Frank,’ called someone.

‘Tell us about that near miss IED, Frank,’ taunted another.

This was not a subtle crowd. Most understood the real Frank Fraker. I saw confusion on the faces of the few who were there to celebrate the hero of the autobiography, proud to be in the midst of the great man. Frank had his work cut out for him. I settled in to watch the show.

‘Some of you know me. I’ve lived most of my life in the neighbourhood, except for college, then army service. I’ve returned home to serve in this community and hope for your vote, as Beatrice has kindly promised.’

He smiled down at us, like Jesus himself.

‘As with all of my success, this book has been a team effort. My old friend, Jonathan helped. That’s him over there, dressed in navy.’ He waved vaguely at one of the suit guys. ‘My campaign team is here tonight, and if I run out of time to talk to you individually, please approach one of them.

‘The book speaks for itself, you know. Beatrice asked if I could read a selection aloud, but I don’t read. That’s why you folks bought the book because you read. However, I am happy to sign a few copies, slap a few backs and pose for your socials. I, …’.

Here Frank paused and groaned, grabbing his small paunch. He closed his eyes for a second, and bit down hard on whatever was in his mouth.

‘He has kidney stones,’ whispered Jane. I turned to see her grinning face. ‘You know what he’s chewing on? A kidney stone, coated in thick sugar like a gobstopper. It gives him something to bear down on when in pain. It psychologically convinces him that he’s already passed the blasted thing. He also thinks it makes him sound posh. A plum in his mouth. Idiot.’

‘Where’d he get the stone?’ asked Joe.

‘One of his numbnuts,’ she said.

‘I am one of you, which is why I’m running on a platform of “of the people and for the people”, Frank said.

‘Tell em how you were never picked for teams, Frank,’ yelled someone.

‘And how you cheated off Valerie Spark during finals,’ said another.

‘How your hair is a wig, your teeth veneers, how the novel was ghost-written by a playwright, your socials are manned by your court jesters, full of emojis and little substance,’ I added.

‘My autobiography, Stephen. It is a book of facts, not fiction,’ said Frank. ‘Ignore him friends, a member of the freaking press, purveyor of half-truths and fake news.’

‘His groupies represent all that he lacks’, continued Jane. ‘Ivy league, athletes, authors, an ex-marine. Frank is an empty vessel, a vampire. He’ll drain them of their usefulness, then bring in fresh meat. Happened to me.’

‘I am the sun, the moon and the air that you breathe. I will promise everything, give nothing and take all that you have to give,’ said Frank.

Wow, that’s honest, I thought. No, that’s in my head. It’s hot in here.

Frank walked down the aisle toward the signing table, using a handkerchief to wipe his forehead. A sprightly man in his 80s jumped toward him, grabbed Frank’s hand and began to speak excitedly. Surprised, Frank pushed him and the old man fell backward, landing hard.

For a moment, the audience was stunned into silence. Frank rushed to help, concern writ across his face.

‘Call for an ambulance. This man has suffered an attack,’ he called.

‘Well played, Frank,’ whispered Jane.

‘There’s my headline’, said Joe. “Fraker Attack! Candidate assaults 80-year old man at book signing.”

‘You’re catching on, buddy,’ I said to Joe. “You’re a fast learner.’ [979 words]

The Thief

Synopsis:

A woman thief trying to escape her past, to start anew, must fight a supernatural effort to derail her best intentions.

[WRITTEN FOR ROUND 1 OF #NYCMIDNIGHT #shortstorychallenge (max 2,500 words)
SUBMITTED AUGUST 2022]


‘Right, folks,’ calls our driver. ‘One hour. Grab a bite, hit the shops or queue for the loo. Take yer pick.’

I snort at that last one. No doubt another one-toilet town, for too many anxious women.

‘I thought we were stopping at the roadhouse,’ I say.

“Yeah, we usually do. I don’t know why I chose here. Impulse, I guess,’ says the Irish Bus Driver.

‘Shopping any good?’ calls someone from within.

‘Alright,’ he says. ‘Depends what you’re looking for.’

‘Ooh, darling. An antiques shop,’ coos Bertha, from behind me. I look up to investigate and feel a shock to my stomach.

‘Yeah, nah. I’d avoid that one, missus,’ warns the driver. ‘Not too welcoming.’

The gauntlet thrown, goosebumps, skin tingling, adrenaline piqued.

I’m on this bus because I’m a thief heading to Melbourne for a fresh start. Away from bad influences, the reputation that haunts me, the criminal environment I inhabit. One throwaway comment though clicks on my opportunity radar. The body replies, challenge accepted.

My heart and soul, however, hold different opinions.

Standing in the aisle, foot tapping, Malodorous Man mumbling at my shoulder. I ignore him, like we’ve all been trying to do for the last four hours.

When I reach the bottom step, I hover, one foot dangling in space, suddenly afraid. Caught between the urge to return to my seat and wait this one out, ignore the psychic challenge, and the hulking, angry passenger.

‘Another ‘nuthin town on the road to ‘nuthin,’ he growls, impatient.

I drop onto hot, sticky bitumen, eyes glued to the storefront of Gundegai Antiques. I feel the serpent of fear as it slithers through veins, hoovering blood, excited sweat upon skin.

I am unprepared for danger. One moment enjoying sweet harmony with the driver, his dry humour at his passenger’s antics, his amazingly acrobatic brows. Trapped in the twilight world of touring terror, too close to strangers with their snorts and farts and quietly urgent domestic disputes.

And Malodorous Man, whose loud muttering, forehead slapping, atrocious body odour and lack of sense of personal space, makes us uncomfortable.

This was a new chapter, an attempt at a better me, complete with the new job in hospital administration. Arranged by the friendly neighbourhood Klepto Anonymous group I’d fallen into before Christmas, when alone and desperate I’d landed a meeting with legs surrounded by shopping bags celebrating the best places to pilfer gifts.

Good daughter, great friend, brilliant student but pathologically unable to resist the genetic urge to steal. The merest hint that I should not, set me off on the wrong path. Like a true believer, I follow the anti-commandments as closely as a book of twisted Ikea instructions and the urge to thieve embraces idolatry, jealousy, greed, deceit and adultery.

I’d managed to obey, do not kill.

My life depends on taking a 180 degree turn, adopting a new attitude, a break away from the straitjacket of expectation. Blue skies, green meadows, a fresh start.

Yet here I was. Urged by opportunity to commit a felony, to pilfer trifles, invade the sanctity of the vendor’s domain. And the shop knows it.

It breathes. It waits. Eager. Hungry.

I fear yet want it. Danger, risk, reward. The rush. The shop was just another mark, but with attitude.

The paunch of Malodorous Man nudges from behind and I fall against the building, one hand on its window. Glittering treasures call my eye. I peruse the offerings. Junk. Nothing that I want or need. Yet, I hunger.

Vintage jewellery, wooden toys, items of agricultural equipment, scary looking dolls. God, I hate dolls.

And the building breathes. There’s an audible pop as I pull myself away.

Spooked and desperate not to steal, not to cave to the need, I race across the road without checking traffic. A bakery entices for all the right reasons. Delicious wafting smells. I buy a pie and coke, and snaffle a couple of sauces on the way out.

I perch on the outside bench. Directly opposite my opponent.

I eat, and I watch. And I hunger.

Neighbouring stores display a collage of advertisements and signs. Loud posters announce touring comedians and musos, ubiquitous SALE notices. Discounts publicised on oversized star icons.

The antiques store too is covered in paper. Fine print, too small to read, invites the unwary closer. Enticing. Curiosity to overwhelm the cat.

I was hardly unwary, but it was working. Spidey senses on high alert, I was still an idiot. The urge to steal versus malevolent warning – not good.

A dry gust of wind, gritty with sand, grabs at the brown paper pie bag. I lurch as it whips away from me, skitters across the road, under the tour bus and splat against the window of the antiques store. It holds, holds, and then slithers toward the door. When it suddenly opens, the bag flashes through and out of sight.

I chew on the pie and pick gristle from my teeth, swallow a grease clearing mouthful of coke and glare at the storefront. Movement to the left, a feral cat. Movement from the right, bored passengers, biding time. Shopkeepers hover on either side of that haunted store. One sweeps the never to be tamed dust. Another shakes out a rug. The hairdresser leans against the door jamb, with her takeout coffee.

The Irish Bus Driver rests against the grille of his bus, sucking on a cigarette like his life depends on the smoke flooding his lungs.

Malodorous Man sits beside me. I slide further along. He manspreads, and armspreads across the back of the bench, generally taking too much space.

‘Mate,’ he says.

I look in his direction. I hope for glacial disinterest.

‘I recognise the look,’ he says. ‘The eyes of a desperado. What’s your inclination?’

‘Get lost,’ I say. Classy.

‘I can’t work it out,’ he says. ‘I know you’re spiralling, but you’re staring at a bloody secondhand store. Not booze then, not drugs.’

‘Piss off,” I say.

‘Granted, there is something broody about that shop. Have you noticed? Nobody’s gone in since we’ve been here. It’s too quiet.’

A malevolence. It’s not just me then.

I give him proper attention. Turn toward him and gesture a waving hand that takes in his whole being.

‘What’s your deal then?’ I challenge.

‘Too long a story and not your business. But, I’m prepared to say that I’m pulling myself out of a dark place and getting there.’

‘I’m prepared to say, you could use a shower,’ I offer.

‘You’re a bitch, you know?’

‘Granted. Mum will be disappointed.’ I begin to stand, and say ‘I reckon I should investigate.’ Only to discover legs that won’t hold me and I fall into his lap. One large, hairy hand stops me falling further. The other rubs a filthy handkerchief across his face, removing sweat and crusted on dirt. He’s a decent looking bloke under there.

‘Have you a tenner? It’d be good to have a feed.’

‘Sure. There you go, ten dollars and ah, I picked up your wallet,’ I say, digging it out of my bag. ‘If I don’t come back  …’

‘I’ll send in the army,’ he says, grinning. Bad teeth!

Deep breath and shoulders back, I step onto the road. And sink, infinitesimally. I pause and think hot tar. Second step, sink. Lift, but more effort required. Another. Stuck.

I look down at my feet in surprise. The ground appears solid enough. I watch as tendrils of tar reach to hold me in place.

‘Wrong,” I say aloud.

‘You alright, mate?’ calls Malodorous Man.

‘Sticky,’ I call back.

‘Bloody hot, bound to be soft,’ he calls.

There’s intention here, holding me in place, keeping me from the shop.

‘I need to face it,’ I whisper. And step forward.

Freed to go to my doom, I cross the road. A zombie abandoning all hope.

Like a soldier on patrol I sweep eyes across the field of danger. The hairdresser could be my own mother, all compassion and concern. Except for her dead eyes. I falter.

The deli owner leans on his broom, paused in his pointless pursuit of standards. He shakes his head, no. In mute terror.

Under the blazing sun, I shiver, suddenly cold. Fingers of fear creep along my skin, into my hair, my legs become jelly.

Now I can read the warning signs that plaster the store. Shoplifters will be destroyed. Enter at own risk. No mercy to be found here.

An Australian, bastard, building. Direct. No bullshit. Fair warning.

‘I wouldn’t,’ says the hairdresser.

‘You’ll not come back,’ says deli owner.

‘You look like you’re gasping for a beer,’ offers some random.

Walk away, my inner voice warns. You are a lunatic. Yet the store beckons and I obey, like a mindless robot. Hair raised with static, tears falling, lizard brain fighting to be heard, stomach bitching.

I place my hands flat against the window and fall into the heartrending terror of lost souls. Pain, fear, dread. Trapped in fire, twisted, bleeding and flayed. Innumerable. Interminable.

Sucked into a hell of writhing bodies, the soggy mass of bodily fluids, poisonous filth. I can’t move nor breathe.

Vignettes of life flash in the dark. With my parents as a child, on the beach, laughing; burning. My mother birthing a monster, cackling maniacally. Bus passengers peering from windows, faces disintegrating, horror melting away.

A child calls, Mumma! My father calls, Becky!

My eyes open. And there he is, my long dead father. Distorted face, wretched in terror. Howling my name. Armed robber, killed in jail, knifed.

‘Go, baby,’ he howls.

‘Daddy,” I wail.

I try lifting a hand to pummel, to plead for my dad, but I’m stuck. All the strength of my body can’t pull me off.

A psychic energy pulses through me and I push. Beside me, I feel the presence of clean strength. Malodorous and Irish, hands against the window.

A high-pitched whine from the building, pleading No! Windows implode.

A tremendous howling wind blows inward, dragging me over the window frame. I feel the sting of glass splinters as they prick my skin. Then I’m blown viciously away from the store, into the light of hope.

Breathing hard, bent at the knees, fat hot tears land on the pavement.

‘Daddy,’ I whisper.

Strong arms support me, Malodourous Man to the left, Irish Bus Driver to the right.

‘Thank you’, I say.

Dusty and blood streaked both, they lead me back to the bus, push me gently up the steps.

Hands reach out to touch me as I pass. Before I fall into my seat, I hand her iPhone back to Bertha.

Someone gives me an icy coke. I gulp at it, feeling its soothing bite channel a way through,. Cleansing.

The Mercedes engine hums to life, while around me people settle.

I look out the window, afraid of what I’ll see, but all that is left is a rubble filled space, danger removed, malevolence disembowelled.

The storekeepers stand ghostlike in the street. Covered in dust, or fading away, surplus to requirements.

I stand the winner in this battle for my soul.

‘Thank you, Daddy,’ I whisper, as the bus pulls away.

[1864 words]