A Test

Steve looked at the foul imp digging its claws into his expensive suit jacket.  “Are you sure it is this way?”

Armani belched, spat and scratched the dirty, tiny t-shirt covering his stomach.  “That’s the way.  Lord Darcy is through there.”

Steve stared at the wooden planks across his path.  Why the hell had an elfen decided to call himself ‘Lord Darcy’.  Where had he picked up the stupid name?  The elfen lord would no doubt be wearing a velvet jacket and a lace up shirt.  Steve leaned closer to the planks.  The trouble with these older faerie lords is that they were insanely powerful.  They were insane, they were powerful and this one wanted Steve to do something for him.

Steve considered turning back.  A large trunk of guaranteed genuine medieval prayer books would fetch a very good price – but he had to strike the deal first.  Was the money going to be worth the risk?

“It isn’t real, boss.” Armani looked bored.  “Just walk straight ahead.”

Steve tentatively touched the wood.  The grain of the planks ran from left to right, he could feel the tiny ridges and valleys and smell the pungent creosote.

“Seriously, boss, not real.” Armani chuckled coarsely as Steve pressed his fingers against the unyielding wood.  Stretching out his wings, Amani hovered in Steve’s eye line.  “Watch this.” Armani flapped forward and passed through the barrier as if it was mist.

Steve pressed his palm against the cool, grooved wall.  It was still solid.  Armani flapped back into view.  He tugged nonchalantly at one of his tattered ears.

“Actually, boss, there’s a forty-foot pit with iron spikes on the other side of this.  I think we need to find another way.”

“A pit with iron spikes?” Steve said levelly.  “I was asked here, I don’t need to do this trade.  Why are we getting these tricks?”

Armani shrugged.  “Powerplay, ego trip, practical joke, fear that if he looks weak you’ll rip him off, placating an awkward courtier, worried about werewolves, forgot he put it here, someone else put it here to screw the deal, proving that you were up to making a deal with an elfen lord – take your pick.  You’re the one that makes the deals with elfen.”

“How would it look if I just turned back?” Steve stepped back and looked at the barrier.  Armani shrugged again.

Steve took a deep breath.  He hated the elfen playing mind games, but this was a test.  He strode confidently forward and through the planks as if they were just a dream.  For a heartbeat his foot seemed to hover above the steep sided pit and the iron spikes and then was placed confidently onto the solid stone floor.  He glanced at Armani.  “Since when did ancient elfen tolerate iron.  The older the faerie the less they can bear it.  However, I don’t like being tested.” Steve was well aware he was being overheard.  “My commission has just gone up.”

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Iron Crown

The legendary Iron Crown was now just rusted metal.  He pushed aside the rubbish on the floor and picked it up.  It was still surprisingly heavy.  He turned it over in his hands and even though it was so decayed he could feel the power in it.  It was heavy with more than the physical iron.  Centuries of being the loadstar for every ambitious heart had left their mark.   Had it been worth it?  Had all the scheming and plotting been worth the pain?  Had the brief season of rule been worth rending the world apart.

He glanced through the gaps in the ruined castle walls.  The sun was getting lower.  He had to leave before night fell and the Dark Ones walked.

Haunted

Many walk past his statue.  School children sketch it and history teachers wave wildly as they walk its bounds.  His name is in legend.  But for those who have the sight, his ghost huddles at the foot of the bronze, sobbing inconsolably, his hands shielding his head, as he remembers the blood shed in his wake.

The Door

 

“Can you see the door?” The guy lounging against the tree seemed to have always been there, but I was sure he hadn’t been there when I stopped to get my water bottle.  I needed to pay more attention,

“Of course I can see the door.  It’s an art thing, isn’t it?” I took a quick mouthful of water.

“An art thing?” The guy straightened and moved over.  He looked skinny under the designer jeans and fancy sweatshirt and his eyes were dark blue and slanted under his thatch of fair hair. He moved like a cat.

“Yeah, an art thing.  You know, some installation or thing where they make the world brighter.” I wiped the sweat from my face with my bandana.  It was warm even in the shade.  “I mean, it’s a steep drop the other side.  That’s a door to nowhere.” I leant over the rails and looked down at the steep, bracken strewn slope.  The door had a handle the other side and I wondered what was the point of a handle that no-one could reach.  Then I wondered what the point of a door was in a fence above a drop.

“A door to nowhere?” The guy beckoned me closer and against my better judgement I followed him to the door.

“It’s just a junk door.” I glanced up and down the path.  There was no-one else around and I started to feel uneasy.

“It’s the door to fairyland.” The guy grinned mockingly and bowed before pulling the door open.

What the…” I couldn’t guess what I was going to say.  The door opened onto a level path that cut across a clearing in spring woods towards a stream that gurgled in sparkling sunlight.  I moved back and looked to the side of the door.  The steep drop remained in the late summer shade and the bracken was looking tired.  I stepped back in front of the door and I could feel a fresh breeze on my face and the scent of spring woods and violets wafted past.

“Welcome to fairyland.” I felt a sharp shove to the small of my back and I staggered forward through the door and into the spring clearing.  I heard a door slam behind me and I whirled around.  There was nothing.  The woods continued into the deeper thickets.  The door was gone.

Grave Insight

“I miss him.” Geoff said, looking around the hall.

“So do I, but I hate admitting it.” Stephanie took off her Chanel coat and hesitated for a moment before hanging it on the peg next to Uncle Jeremiah’s dusty jacket.  “He never approved of me.”

“Or me.” Geoff took off his own faded jacket.  He thought it was quite a spectrum as he hung his jacket up next to his wife’s fuchsia model.  Uncle Jeremiah’s old jacket was probably older than most vintage cars.  Stephanie’s up to the minute coat was probably worth more than most vintage cars and was absolutely right for a top flight barrister.  His own humble raincoat was not as old as Uncle Jeremiah’s but was far more battered and had been bought only with practicality in mind.

“I looked over the will.  It’s not worth contesting, but what was his solicitor thinking?” Stephanie ran a finger over a dusty table and shuddered.  “I mean, the house is signed over to us, all the bank accounts are closed and the estate is considered settled.  But there is still around a million pounds unaccounted for.”

“It’s not unaccounted for, according to Colin.” Geoff had not had a good opinion of the solicitor.  “It’s hidden in the house.”

“To be precise, the whereabouts is hidden in this house.” Stephanie sighed and got out her phone.  I suppose I had better start making a list.”

“What do you mean?” Geoff opened the door into the sitting room and wandered in.

“Well, a list of what we need to do.” Stephanie followed him, automatically straightening some sagging cushions.  “It all needs a deep clean and we should probably redecorate.  This is a beautifully sized room with a great view of the garden and we could strip out all these bookcases and go for something more minimalist.” Stephanie trailed off as she checked the side table and adjusted an ornament on the mantelpiece.

“It wouldn’t be the same.” Geoff said.  He stood motionless in the centre of the room, an older, greying man with a nondescript sweater and faded jeans as his curated, blonde wife darted around the room, unable to stay still.

Stephanie paused.  “No, it wouldn’t.  I can’t imagine it changing.  It would be like losing another member of the family.”

“It needs a good clean,” Geoff said, “And perhaps a lick of paint, but I can’t imagine it ever changing.  There has always been a sofa at that angle, so that you can watch the birds in the apple tree outside.”

Stephanie tested the sofa with a cautious hand.  “Do you know how hard it is to get hold of a decent upholsterer these days?  But it’s sound.” She checked the small bookcase in the corner.  “I mean, I can imagine replacing the sofa but putting the new one in the same place.  I can imagine different books in the bookcase, but I there always has to be a bookcase here.” She sat down suddenly.  “I wish we had seen more of Uncle Jeremiah in the last few years.”

“My nerves couldn’t stand it.” Geoff said, sitting next to her and taking her hand.  “He would be arguing that you should be at home in the house and why wasn’t I in the London office.  You would be arguing that he was an old fossil and when was he going to get out of the nineteenth century.  He would be complaining about how much you spent on handbags and you would be complaining that he hadn’t replaced his wreck of a car.  It would be murder.”

“He didn’t understand us.” Stephanie looked around.  “But he was always there.”

“I know, my dear.” Geoff said.  “The problem was, he was always there with an argument.  And then your career took off and I was busy with the kids.  There was never the time.”

“At least you called him.” Stephanie’s thin fingers clung to Geoff’s sturdy hand.

“I rang for a listen at least twice a week.” Geoff agreed and smiled.  “Come on, let’s look around.  According to Colin, we need to have a grave insight.”

Stephanie snorted.  “I suppose we need to look out for stone crosses.”

“That would fit Uncle Jeremiah’s sense of humour.” Geoff helped his wife up and they wandered back into the hall.

It was hard, going from room to room.  Every room had a ghost of an argument and a swathe of happy memories.  The study was the hardest.  It seemed to have become Uncle Jeremiah’s living space, with a tray for his meals sat on a table near the door with a salt cellar perched in the corner.  Photographs were everywhere you looked.

“Look, do you remember this?” Stephanie picked up a picture.  “It was the summer after we married.”

Geoff looked over her shoulder.  They looked so young in their dated clothing, sprawled on the unkempt lawn at the back and filled with joy.  “I remember.  We had the most amazing time.  We had most of our meals in the garden, played cards for matchsticks every night and you and he had a ding dong battle about the Children’s Act.”

Stephanie shrugged and put down the picture, wiping her dusty fingers on a tissue as she wandered around the room.  “Geoff, come and have a look at this.”

Geoff followed her to a dim corner.  “That’s a lovely picture, and it’s full of graves.  Perhaps it’s a clue.”

Stephanie looked hard at the painting.  It looked nineteenth century, with dark, small leaved trees and sprawling shadows.  Graves framed the path to a ruined church and it pulled you in to its sombre centre.  “If Uncle Jeremiah was here, we would be having an argument right now about Romanticism versus Classicism and I would be quoting Byron and he would be talking about Tchaikovsky.” She swallowed a lump in her throat.

Geoff leant forward.  “I bet this is the clue.  This tells us where the money has been stashed.”

“I suppose so.” Stephanie straightened the picture.  “It’s got graves on it.  Perhaps we need to count them or something.”

“At least it doesn’t refer to his grave.” Geoff said, his head to one side as he studied the picture.  “He was cremated and his ashes scatted at sea.”

“He said he was going to do that so I couldn’t dance on his grave.” Stephanie took a deep breath.  Hardened barristers did not cry.

Geoff frowned.  “It’s not a very good clue.  I mean, shouldn’t it have a map or a motto or something?”

“You are a genius with numbers, my darling, but you never worked out how Uncle Jeremiah’s mind worked.  The grave is a red herring.” Stephanie lifted the picture down.  It was surprisingly light and left dust marks across the sleeves of her silk blouse.  “He would never give us a plain clue.” She turned the painting over.  On the back was a small key and a nondescript envelope taped to the corner.  She laid the picture face down on the desk and picked at the tape holding the key as Geoff worked the envelope free.

“It’s numbers.” Geoff said, spreading out the slip of paper.

Stephanie wasn’t paying full attention.  The key was small but well made.  She looked around the room and the large, mahogany desk had keyholes in its drawers.  She found which lock the key fitted on the third attempt.

“At least, it’s numbers but I don’t think it’s about the numbers.” Geoff said.

Stephanie turned the key in the oiled lock and pulled open the drawer.  It held a handbag, a beautiful, Hermes Birkin bag, in her favourite fuchsia pink.  She picked it up and stroked the immaculate surface.  The clasp moved easily under her fingers and nestled inside the perfect lining was a note addressed to her in Uncle Jeremiah’s spiky handwriting.

“It’s a bank account number.  I’m pretty sure it’s international.” Geoff said but Stephanie wasn’t paying attention.  She unfolded the note.

Dearest Stephanie, Over the years I’ve come to appreciate more and more that while you may not be my idea of a good wife, you are perfect for Geoff and an asset to the legal profession.  Please forgive an old man his mistakes.  And don’t go spending all the money on handbags.  This one should be enough. Jx

Behind her, Geoff was checking his phone.  “It’s a Swiss account.  We’ve found the money.  Stephanie, we’ve found the money!” But she couldn’t answer.  All she could do was choke back the tears as she hugged the bag.

File:Cemetery by a Ruined Gothic Church.jpg

 

Image taken from WikiCommons, Cemetery by a Ruined Church by Hermann Lungkwitz, in the public domain

Not As It Seems

Jeff kept his professional smile as he showed the couple around the car dealership.

“It’s a very reasonable price,” he said.  The Ford Fusion gleamed.  “Very low mileage and we include a full service before delivery.”

India’s lips were pressed together so hard that you couldn’t see her lipstick.  “I don’t see why I have to pay out for that kid.”

“Sweetheart, it’s my godson.  He’s seventeen, he has a hobby…”

“He’s a spoiled brat.”  She turned back to Jeff.  “The kid is just going to take it to pieces.  He hasn’t even got his licence yet…”

“He’s got his test booked…” Jason said helplessly, taking a swift mouthful out of a small flask as India turned back to Jeff.

India hadn’t noticed the flask.  “I have to scrape by and make do, but when it comes to the kid he can’t say no.”

“His name’s Oliver.” Jason muttered.

India shrugged then turned to Jeff.  “Honestly, something a little cheaper.”

“He should have been called Nancy.” Jason mumbled.

Oliver can see it as a project.  What have you got that needs work?”

“I wouldn’t let them call him Bill.” Jason managed another crafty mouthful from the flask.

“You’re making less sense than usual.” India looked at Jeff.  “Anything?”

Jeff smiled.  “Between you and me, there’s one vehicle we weren’t thinking of selling at this moment,”he said with absolute truth.  It was booked for the scrapyard.  “It’s a fixer upper, but at a very good price.”

“What do you mean?” India followed Jeff to where the wrecks were stored.

“It’s a nice little car.” Jeff waved a hand at the wreck in front of them.  “Once it’s done up it could be quite desirable.  Is the lad handy?”

“He’s a good lad.” Jason said quietly.  “Good with his hands.  I was thinking of taking him on as an apprentice.”

Jeff watched India’s hands clench into fists and then slowly unclench.  Then her shoulders slumped.  She nodded.  “We’ll take it.”

“Why don’t you look it over while I sort out the paperwork.” Jeff didn’t like leaving people alone, but today was an exception.  “I’ll be back in five minutes.”

Jason slumped against the Toyota, shielding India as she knelt next to the wheel arch and quickly felt inside.  She looked up.  “Keep talking to cover me,” she whispered.

“She could have called him Sikes,” Jason said, his voice getting a little louder. “She never called him after me.”

“Hang on.” The woman struggled a little then nodded.  “I’ve got it.”  She pulled out a small, tightly wrapped package.  “Okay, let’s stage the argument and get out of here.”

Jeff was shuffling the paperwork on the when he heard them shouting.

“What do you mean, he’s your son?” India yelled.  “I can’t believe it.  After all these years!” She stormed over to their car and threw herself into the driver’s seat.

“Sweetheart…” Jason scrambled into the passenger side as the car rattled out of the yard and screeched around the corner onto the main road.

Jeff shrugged.  He may have lost a sale, but at least he didn’t have a headache.

Originally published June 5th 2017

Domestic Demon

“I’m sorry, darling.” Darren smiled nervously at me.  “But it is only twice a year, and it is only from Thursday to Tuesday.”

I took a deep breath.  “Of course, I know.  Your mother and I don’t see eye to eye, but that’s okay.  She’s your mother and we both love you.  That’s why I’ve got the day off to get the house all set up for her.”

Darren winced.  “I’ll pick her up from the airport.  I’ll pick up a takeaway on my way back.”

“Absolutely not.” I said firmly.  “I’ll make a lovely casserole and that way it doesn’t matter if you are a little late.”

“Thank you, darling, I do appreciate it.” Darren gave me a quick kiss and hurried off to work.

Pamela, my mother-in-law, did only visit twice a year, the first weekend after the Christmas break and the first weekend in July.  It was some awful ritual where a demon was unleashed twice a year.  They could make a Nicholas Cage movie out of it.  As for the takeaway, I was not falling for that again.  Four years ago I had made the mistake of allowing Darren to pick up a pizza on the way back.  For the last four years I had been hearing about how a proper wife made her husband meals, no matter what the circumstances.

I slouched into the kitchen.  I had never felt less like being a domestic goddess.  It was all so humiliating.  I was far too particular, according to my friends, and wasted far too much time cleaning.  According to Pamela, I was a slattern.  Every inch of this house would be scrutinised.  Last time I thought I had her.  There was no dust on the top of the kitchen cupboards and the walls had been washed down.  I had put brand new bedding on her bed and I had dusted behind every stick of furniture.  I had had the oven professionally cleaned and steamed the carpets.  The old witch had actually taken the drawers out of her dresser and found dust on the inside of the frame.  She had been so smug, sitting opposite me in my kitchen, eating my food which I had cooked, while Darren sat between us, twitching.

I looked around my lovely, clean kitchen.  Not only would she go over the room like a forensic detective but she would also sigh and complain that it looked too bare.  “It’s a shame you don’t have any knickknacks around,” she had said last time.  “Of course, not everyone has a flair for decorating.  Perhaps it is just as well that you haven’t tried.” She had smiled a wide, fake smile and patted my arm.  “I’ll bring you some nice things next time I come.  Then you won’t have to worry about getting it wrong.”

The old trout had great taste – for 1972!  I knew that she would have a suitcase full of cheap tat when she turned up, and that it would have to be in the same place she left it when she returned six months later – and she would know if the plastic grot had been moved an inch.  I swear the old bat had a photographic memory.

I threw together a boeuf bourguignon and put it on slow.  I’d already taken out every removable drawer in the house and cleaned behind them.  All the carpets, curtains and rugs had been steamed last week.  Not only was the bedding in her room new but so was the curtains.  I’d cleaned all the lampshades yesterday and dusted all the lightbulbs.  I sighed and started to pull out the fridge.  Then I paused.

Why was I playing her game?  Why was I running round in circles trying to get her to like me when nothing short of a sharp blow to the head would ever make her accept the woman who stole away her baby boy?  I’d been doing it wrong for years.  If she ran out of things to check I swear she would pull up the floorboards.  Okay, if she wanted something different, she could have something different.

By the time Darren’s car pulled into the drive I was finished.  I ached with the efforts, and I had had to get a few friends to help out.  It had been entirely worth it.  I looked around as I heard Darren carefully reversing into the garage.  The kitchen was smeared with jam and I had done my best to give a greasy feel by spraying the wall with the oil spray I used in cooking.  I had found some kitchen curtains in a skip which were now drooping at the window.  I had gone to every friend and neighbour and scrounged the contents of their vacuum cleaners.  After some trial I found that a light mist of water helped the dust of a dozen homes cling to walls, sink and bath.  I had put a mouse trap at the back of her dresser, just where it would get her if she checked, and I put the contents of four dryer filters under her bed.

The trip to the charity shop had been the most fun.  The house was awash with ‘accents’.  Our house was now a temple to the worse taste that ever landed on an Oxfam donation table.  There was plastic everywhere.  I had also got some extremely washed bedding from the charity shop and begged some curtains for Pamela’s room that they were going to send to the rag man and rubbed damp instant coffee granules along the edges for an added artistic touch.  I had had fun, and so had my friends.  Everyone had got photos.

I turned round as Darren unlocked the door.  “Darling, my mother’s plane has been delayed and she has decided not to come until the Christmas break after all…” He stopped as he walked in to the kitchen.  There was a long pause.  “Darling, would you like a drink?”

Originally posted May 15th 2016

Slot A

That is one of those instructions that are so much easier to write than to carry out. ‘Just pop the pill down the cat’s throat’ is another one.

The Housewife’s Handbook, 

Rachel Simhon

“Insert Tab A into Slot B.”

“Where’s Slot B?”

“Is that it?”

“That’s the housing for fixing G.”

“How about that?”

“That’s where you put in the backing, I think.”

“What’s this?”

“I think it’s Panel D.”

“What do we need Panel D for?”

“I think it’s to rest Housing M on.”

“I think we have too many screws.”

“I think you’ve counted them wrong.  See, this size is Screw R and this size is Screw S.”

“Why do we need different sized screws?”

“Because this was designed in Hell.  Next time we need furniture we are getting ready assembled.”

 

Originally published June 7th 2014