Saturday, 25 May 2019

Kidnap

by Anne-Marie Swift

a cup of jasmine tea

The plane is full, the way planes always seem to be full nowadays, people crowding and jostling to get on, scrabbling to squash bags into overhead lockers. 
 
Danny sits in seat 10C – his regular business travel seat. Today, however, he is wearing orange shorts, blue flip flops and a fake Armani t-shirt. Seats A and B are empty in spite of the full plane. 

Danny is heading home.

On the way out, his plan had seemed so very clear, so very straightforward. He was fuelled by anger and a sense of being absolutely in the right. He knew, without a doubt, that what he was doing was the right thing, it was what anyone in his situation would do. 

On the way out, he travelled in his business suit. Wearing the linen suit, he was strong and in control, and if the leather shoes with the long, pointed toes did hurt a little, they also said “money” in clear loud tones and money, Danny knows, means power. 

The plane took off and Danny looked at the crossword in his newspaper instead and though the black and white squares seemed to be moving and blurring into each other, he did start to feel calmer and relaxed, just as he had felt when he first sat down.  

For the rest of the twelve hours Danny tried, and failed to watch a movie on the four-inch screen in front of him. He took his laptop out of his briefcase and tried, and failed, to concentrate on a complex quote he was putting together for a customer. He’d taken leave from his job, but it if you wanted to get on, Danny knew, you’d better be there, be available the whole time. 

Keep working, keep pushing forwards, keep phoning the customers, keep the deals coming, keep the money coming in. This was Danny’s philosophy and though Sunisa had left him, taking the children with her, so his home and his soul were both empty, it was what he clung to. 

An airline meal arrived: yellow sauce concealing a piece of chicken; chewy formerly-frozen bread roll, a dizzyingly sweet pudding. Danny took a mouthful of everything, just enough to keep his energy levels up. He noted that the guy next to him had eaten everything on the tray and washed it down with a Coke. Danny tried, and was surprised to succeed, in obtaining an additional helping of wine, which enabled him to sleep soundly for a couple of hours. 

He was woken by the gentle sobbing of the guy next to him, who was looking at a photo album and crying softly. He could see the photo of a Thai girl – or was a boy really? – and he could guess the whole sad story and he just didn’t want to know. He had his own stuff.  So, he closed his eyes again and the guy stopped crying and drifted off to sleep, his head lolling amiably onto Danny’s shoulder and Danny had to fight the urge to give the guy a strong hard push, enough to hurt. And of course, there would be a greasy mark on Danny’s expensive-looking light linen jacket and his neck was still hurting where the laptop had crashed onto his head. 

But then they had landed and everyone was rushing for the overhead lockers and the stewardess was pleading, “Please don’t stand until the plane has come to a final standstill” and Danny felt wired and hot and ready for action and he didn’t care anymore about the fat sad loser, who never would find the girl or boy he was looking for, he was just ready to go and do what he needed to do. 

Now, on the way back, the doors closing, stewardesses performing the emergency ritual, screens dropping down, air already stale, Danny still can’t work out what went wrong. 

In Bangkok he got off the plane, pushing his way out through the Business Class, one of the first through passport control, his papers in order of course, they always were, then racing to the taxi rank. He was travelling hand luggage only, as always. Danny laughed at the guys he worked with who needed to check luggage in. What a waste of time. Though it was true, he spent hours at the weekends decanting toiletries from big bottles to smaller. He hadn’t known how long it took until Sunisa went and he had to do it all himself. There were a lot of things he hadn’t known until she left him. 

“Blimey” he said to one of the blokes he worked with “I had no idea how bloody complicated the house is. Can’t work the washing machine to save my life and I had to drive round the block with the top down and my shirts on the back seat to get them dry in time for work”. 

They laughed at him and his boss said, “You’d better get online, get a new wife” and they laughed again. Nobody asked where she’d gone, what had happened to the kids. Sunisa was gone and that was that. 

She hadn’t left a note, but then again, she didn’t need to. She’d talked enough about taking the kids to Thailand, letting them meet their Thai family, letting them learn to speak some Thai, and what Danny had done each time she mentioned it was basically to agree. Yes, he said, yes it would be a great idea and they could all go for a year or so, and he could probably work out of the office in Bangkok, what difference did it make where you were working from nowadays? Yes, he always said, yes, but don’t go on about it, I’ve had a hell of a week and there’s this big deal coming up and after we’ve done the deal I’ll have some time to think about it. 

Once she’d gone, he realised he didn’t have a clear idea of where, but it hadn’t been too difficult to find out, just a few quid bunged to a secretary in the Bangkok office. It wasn’t rocket science He knew now where the kids were, what times they went to school, what classes they were in. He probably knew more than he had when the kids lived at home.

The taxi stopped outside the school. There was Thai pop music on the taxi radio.  They waited. The driver turned the engine off so there was no more air conditioning. Danny and the driver both smoked. Danny sat and sweated into his business summer clothes. He didn’t want to look like some dickhead tourist in shorts and flip-flops. He wanted the kids to see him as he saw himself: strong and powerful, the kind of guy who made things happen. He’d had to take the jacket off when the fat bastard had sweated all over it but he was still in shirt and trousers and even if his feet felt as though they were being boiled alive, he knew the shoes spoke loud and clear.
At 4:30 the school day ended. Children pouring out of school doors, a sense of slight chaos, but everyone knowing where they were going. Not so different from the end of the school day at home though Danny had rarely been around to pick them up and even when he was supposed to, he’d often ended up sending one of the secretaries or occasionally even a colleague. He watched the stream of kids. Would he even recognise his own two?

He did, of course he did. Suddenly there they were, coming together in the playground.  His stomach lurched, as if he’d been punched. He hadn’t imagined this, this sudden feeling of what he could only describe as love. 

His kids were slightly taller, slightly paler than the others. They looked happy and relaxed, they were talking to their classmates. How could that be? How had they learnt Thai? How long had they been gone? Danny realised that nine months had gone by since Sunisa had decamped.  

Both boys had grown, both were slimmer. They smiled with their friends; there was a little game of football. His younger son, a little pudgy and slow before, dribbled the ball easily around another, larger boy. There was laughter. 

This was the moment that Danny was supposed to step out of the taxi, grab his children, bundle them into the taxi, and tell the driver to head to the airport. This was the moment his children would thank him for the rest of their lives. This was the moment that he would be re-united with them and live happily ever after with his two children. The kids would be pleased to be home, they must hate it in Thailand, hot and smelly and they don’t speak the language even if their mother does.

And the bitch that was his ex-wife could stay and stew on her own in Thailand. She could see how she liked waking up to a house empty of kids, how she liked looking at unplayed-with toys, how she liked not telling bedtime stories, and not being expected to know everything about everything.  She could be happy with her Thai family. Danny would be with the kids and everything would be fine at last. 

Danny looked at the children, his children, looked at their happiness, their young gentle faces, and saw how it would really play out. He closed the taxi door. 

‘Hotel, mate’ he said. 

Seat 10C, two empty seats between him and the window, he tried to work out what had gone wrong and why he was flying home alone.

Friday, 24 May 2019

Rear View Mirror

by Paula R C Readman 

Ting with a Sting (a St. Kitts drink from the West Indies. Rum & grapefruit soda.)

The journey I am on might not have happened, if it had not been for a couple of coincidences. Firstly, Alex’s phone lay as dead as a dodo in the kitchen charging.  The second came after I had shown Alex’s work colleagues into the living room for their monthly meeting and carrying in a tray of refreshments. As soon as everyone had their drinks, Alex dismissed me from the room.
I hastily back to the kitchen to catch up on household chores. By chance, I was standing at the kitchen sink filling a jug ready to water some tomato seedlings I had potted on, when I saw the light on the kitchen phone flash red, alerting me to an incoming call. I snatched it up before it had time to ring. Alex hated any interruptions once the meeting had begun so I had disconnected the landline in the living room as a precaution.
“Hello yes,” I whispered.
“Good morning. This is a courtesy call from the garage.Your car is now ready to be collected,” said a pleasant, but authoritative voice.
Suddenly, the opportunity I had been waiting for arrived. I glanced towards the closed living room door, fearing Alex could hear the relief racing through my body.
“If it’s possible you could collect it now? We’ve a backlog of cars waiting to be collected?”
A burst of laughter echoed into the kitchen, making the skin on my arms crawl. I froze with apprehension. Now the drinks are flowing nicely maybe I have enough time. Alex would be entertaining for quite a while. As the voices softened, returning to a light easy chatter they seemed almost alien to me in their gentleness.
“Hello, are you still there?” the voice demanded in my ear.
“Yes,” I said firmly, my decision made. “I’ll come now.” 
After hanging up, I crept slowly upstairs. My thoughts raced as I wiped the back of my hand across my cheek in an effort to stop the tears. With no time to rationalise my situation, I needed to remain focused on the moment. It broke my heart the thought of running away from the only home I have known.
The sudden death of my parents meant I had to work hard to pay off the mortgage to make it my own. Yet, the pain I had endured at their loss was more bearable than the physical abuse I was suffering now that had finally broken me.
The only option left open to me was to skulk away like a beaten dog. With my heart thumping as I pulled my hidden overnight bag down from the top of the wardrobe and swung it onto the bed.
As I did so, I caught sight of the framed photo on the dresser next to the mirror. Taken only seven years ago, it depicted us standing on a golden beach, dressed in our wedding finery and locked in an eternal embrace, smiling into the lens, our eyes bright with love and happiness.
Stunned I was unable to recognise the person reflected in the mirror.The harsh dark lines under my brown eyes, the tightness across my brow and my sunken cheeks set my nerves on edge.  In my head I heard the echoes of Alex’s jarring, unforgiving voice.
“You’ve no backbone. God only knows, what I saw in you, Harper.”

Seven years ago, everything had been so perfect, so beautiful. Alex’s gentleness had been a sweet joy, but where had it all gone?
I rubbed the small dark circles of unfathomable pain that scarred the back of my hands and ran up my arms. They serve as a reminder of why I was leaving. I checked the holdall again to make sure I had everything I needed.
Another burst of laughter echoed up the stairs. I shot out onto the balcony and tossed the bag into a shrub below. Back in the bedroom, I inhaled deeply, mentally searching for a friend, someone I could speak to, maybe put me up for a few days, but there was no one.
As a couple, we shared everything apart from the pain. I am certain that my so-called friends would not understand the situation I found myself in as much as it is unbelievable to me. I have no doubt that they would find it hilarious. Oh, how they would laugh and mock me. “Harper, where’s your backbone?”
With the utmost care, I went back into the kitchen. Slipping into the garage, I collected the rest of my secret stash before retrieving the bag from garden. At the bottom of the garden, hidden by trellising, I climbed over the locked gate and dropped into the alley that led to the main road to collect the car.

Once I had settled the garage bill, I filled the car with petrol. On checking the rear view mirror, I moved out into the busy morning traffic. As I accelerated, my mind screamed at me. What the hell are you doing! You have nowhere to go!
 All I possessed was now was an old car and a bag. At the next roundabout, I decided to head for home. Panic gripped me. Could I get back in without Alex knowing? Would there be a scene?
I gripped the steering wheel,focusing on the oncoming traffic waiting for a break in the flow.  I caught sight of the dark cigarette burns marking my arms and hands.  A small voice of reason crept into my skull.
“There’s no one to save your sanity but you, Harper!”

Eight years seemed like a lifetime ago, when Alex first walked into my life. My mates couldn’t believe how lucky I was, and neither could I
I wasn’t anyone special. Yeah, I had a good job, drove a decent car, owned a nice house, but I’m not what some would call, ‘flashy’. Part of my upbringing, I guess. My parents were simple, hard-working folk from the West Indies. Mother always said ‘Love is more important than material things.’
As I was an only child, my parents were able to overindulge me, but not once did either of them raise a hand to me. I was not perfect, what child is. With both of them working long hours at a local hospital, home life was a little fraught at times when they came in tired. Tempers a little frayed, especially mother’s after constantly being positive, polite and happy. The only punishment they saw fit to bestow on me was sending me to my room without a television.
I can’t begin to explain to anyone what Alex has done to me. How loving someone soon turned into a weapon of self-destruction. How every uttered word she said carried a double-edged sword straight into my heart.

I glanced into the rear view mirror ready to pull out to overtake, and caught sight of the scar above my left eye. Suddenly, I’m back in the moment when a plate caught me on the side of my face. It was the first time Alex showed me there was a dark side to her. 
I stood frozen to the spot as blood trickled down my face a second before the pain kicked in. I’m not sure what horrified me most; the amount of blood or the fear of losing my eye, but what cut me the deepest was the coldness of her words.
“I saw that look of betrayal in your dark eyes. Don’t ever let me see it again,” she said slamming the kitchen door as she went back to her guests leaving me to clear up the mess. I heard her laughter as she explained my clumsiness.
Not one for making a scene, I didn’t protest my innocence, but sat alone in the kitchen feeling confused, holding a bloodied napkin to my face, staring one eyed at the remains of the meal as I questioned my behaviour. Had I chatted too long with Maureen, smiled or laughed too much. What else could I have done? The woman was seated opposite me. Should I have ignored her when she spoke to me?

On one occasion, I had been peacefully asleep after coming off a long night shift. The next moment I was wide-awake in agony and covered in blood.  Alex stood over me holding her red stiletto shoe, looking pleased with herself.
“What’s wrong with you, Alex?” I had asked holding the sheet to the side of my face, knowing she had split open the recently healed wound. For a fleeting moment, I wondered how I was going to explain away my clumsiness to my work colleagues. 
“Get your lazy ass off the bed,” she snarled her ice-blue eyes no more than nigrescent slits. “If you think you can laze around all day while I’m working, you’re darn crazy. I’m expecting a clean house and my dinner on the table when I get home. It’s good that you get a taste of the crap us women have to deal with daily.”
That was just the start of it. What could I do? It’s not as if I could talk to my work colleagues about it.
“You what? What sort of man are you? God, if she was my wife I would hit her back.”
Hit her back? And what would that make me?
Night after night,I asked myself why?  Why had she felt the need to abuse our loving relationship? What had I done?

Now I’m on the road to nowhere,leaving Alex and my old life behind. For the first time in a long time, I had made a decision for myself. Though, I’m devastated at the thought of breaking all the promises I made.
It seems like a lifetime ago when I asked Alex to marry me.What a fool she must have taken me for, but I truly believed I could give her the security she seemed to crave. After listening to her sad tales of a broken childhood, unfaithful lovers and the abuse she suffered, all I wanted to do was give her a loving home, and when the time came, our children too. Now I’m not so sure what happened to the promises we made on our wedding day.
I tried to understand it from her point of view.  It had hit me hard been made redundant, to lose the only thing that kept some sanity in my life. As a fire fighter, I was there to help others in their moment of need.  Then along came the Government’s cutbacks to destroy the only thing that kept me sane.
I know for sure if Alex had lost her job, I would’ve supported her through the free fall when self-doubt robs you of your confidence.

I accelerated wanting more distance between my pain and a new future.  I began to focus on what I wanted from life. I still love Alex, but what’s the point of staying when I’m no longer the person she said ‘I do’ to all those years ago.
Humiliation wears you down. The difficulty I have is why others do not see the pain I 'm carrying.
I was constantly checking myself as Alex questions everything. She scrutinised dates, times and facts, adding to my misery. At first, I blamed myself for everything, even the loss of my job, and the fact I was unable to find another. After years of long night shifts, I wanted time out to pursue other avenues. It wasn’t as if we couldn’t afford it.
“What do you need another job for when you have a perfectly good one here?”
I stared open mouthed, nervous about questioning her logic.
Her eyes narrowed as her lips thinned. “Well, Harper isn’t it what you men expect of us women, to stay at home and be subservient to you.”
“Never!” I said, believing us to be like my parents. Their marriage had been like a partnership, working together to create harmony in the home.
“You thought I was going to be like your mother!”she spat the words out. “Don’t make me laugh. Me staying at home doing menial jobs like domestic chores.” She leant forward, her face taut with rage. “Why, Harper, should I keep a dog and bark myself. After all you told me you would look after me. Isn’t that what you wanted?”
“But I…” I trailed off, knowing if I questioned her logic, I would suffer more. The side of my face ached as the tension in the back of my head grew. I lowered my eyes.
“Good,” she said extending her hand, her fingertips seeming to burn my arm. I felt myself flinch and step back, but she still caught the side of my face with her other hand.
“You’re such a wimp, Harper. You should man up. Now haven’t you got something you should be doing?”
Oh, I so wanted to hit back, but I knew the moment I did my world would cave in. I would be the one the police took away.
It seemed such an insane situation when I believed in equality for all to find myself with no one to turn to for help.The soundtrack in my head constantly reminds me ‘there must be fifty ways to leave your lover, but all I needed was just one desperate bid for freedom.

Tired, hungry, and homeless, I stood a little fearful before a blue-chipped door. I hoped for compassion or at least someone who understood what I had been through without judgment.
Months ago, I’d been given a password by a small organisation I’d discovered online. But until now the opportunity hadn’t arose for me to be able to use it. Was it still valid?
How crazy it all seemed for a man of my stature to be broken like a beaten dog shaking before a door. My hand trembled as I reached for the bell.Anything could happen to me now, and no one would be any the wiser. 
Somewhere deep within the building a bell echoed. On realising, I was still pressing the doorbell I stepped back.

The door opened.  A young woman with a bright smiling face greeted me with a happy, “Hello, how can I help you?”
Fear welled up in me as I heard myself apologising. I muttered, “Looking Glass?”
The smile dropped from the young woman’s face. She stepped forward and peered up and down the street. With a hurried gesture, she said, “Come in,”
I stepped into a narrow corridor.
“Harper Newman?”
“Yes.”
“Hello. We’ve been expecting you. I’m Nicky.”
My legs slid beneath me. Seated on the floor with my back against the wall, I sobbed uncontrollably. A hand touched my shoulder and I involuntarily pulled away.
“It’s all right you’re among friends,” she said. The door opened behind her and a tall lean black man entered the hall.
“Harper, this is Markus, he’ll show you to your room. When you’re ready, we’ll talk.”
Markus helped me to my feet. Within his eyes, I saw the same lines of pain that mirrored my own. With a nod, he acknowledged what I had been through and that he understood how I was feeling. At last, I had escaped not only my abuser, but also the fear that I was alone. 

Thursday, 23 May 2019

Seeking an Answer in the Night


by David Gower

iced tea


The nights in the Middle East are cold beneath clear sky. Two figures huddle as they peer into the darkness of the desert. A sliver of Moon tonight giving a feeble glow across an arid landscape. Desert may have romance and beauty but not from a hole in the ground far from home. Not on Christmas Eve.

Frank ‘When I get out of this God forsaken lot I am gonna use all this mob has taught me and make a telly series. Just like all them other smug geezers.  I will bite the tail off a scorpion, dip a biscuit made of flour made from grain milled under me size 10 boots into a bottle of water filtered from a muddy pool and then jump into the Land Rover back to me bleeding 5 star hotel.’

Nobby ‘Been a long day then? You are never happier than when you are complaining. How long have I known you? If you stopped griping we would think you was dead’. I have to sit in this OP all night with you. There are people I would rather be in bed with right now than sitting with you in an ‘ole. Did you ever see that cartoon from the First World war? Some geezer with a moustache called Ole Bill sitting in a shell hole. The caption was ‘if you knows a better ‘ole go to it’’

Frank replies grudgingly. “You know what I mean. Sitting here looking like a pair of Peeping Toms, hoping to God no one sees us and breaks our cover. Ready for a firefight but the job is to slip away with intel and no one know we was ‘ere’. Leaving not a sign. Only if we see Target 1 do we act otherwise. Join the Special Forces and be invisible!’

Nobby whispers urgently ‘Quiet. If she’s is gonna scream and shout all night all the women will be in that hut. The blokes will  keep to themselves until the kid pops out. Then they will either jump around firing guns in the air if it’s a boy or commiserate with each other and wonder what sin the father committed to deserve a girl. Poor cow.’

Frank ‘How do you pass the time on observation when you do not have the likes of me to brighten your day?”

Nobby “I think about the Meaning of Life. About what I am gonna do with me pay and invent crosswords.”

Frank “Crosswords?  Well, you never do!. How do you do it?”

Nobby “I like the cryptic ones – you know they make you think a bit. I used to know a bloke who did The Times ones every day in his head on the train. I never believed he could do it but when I asked him he gave me every answer and told me how he had worked it out.’

Frank “I never understood those cryptic ones. I can manage the simple one in the Sun and the telly magazines.’

Nobby “If you are gonna mix with the nobs and film producers of this world you will need to ponce about with the Guardian crossword. At least until you con Piers, Julian or Tarquin to send you and a crew to some flash hotel when you have your scorpion for starters. They like officer class, mate.’

Frank “So give us a lesson then. We got sod all else to do but sit here freezing while she wails through the night.”

Nobby “Blimey, I thought I was the only Wise Man round these parts tonight. Let me see if I can get you to use that blob you call a brain’. Ready for your first clue? Remember these things work in about three different ways. You have your anagrams where you mix letters in a word or phrase to make another word. Let me think now. Here’s one ‘In a hurry on the gent’s lip - 9 letters’.

Nobby “Think of how you might say in a hurry. Must dash - puns so moustache sounds like must dash on a gent’s lip”.

Frank groans.

Nobby “Or there’s anagrams where dogs might be turned to gods’

Another groan from Frank

Nobby “Quotes from Shakespeare and his mates but I never go there!”

Frank “Thanks be to God for that!”

Nobby “Try this one. Sounds like a local alien at Christmas, 8 letters”

Silence in the foxhole and they are unnoticed in the camp below.

Nobby “Have I found a way to keep you quiet at last? Another word for local might be native. An alien could be E.T. Put them together at Christmas and you get Native ET, gettit? Nativity! Just like what’s going on down there.”

Frank spits in disgust but then makes an urgent hand gesture for silence.

Frank whispers; “The women have brought the baby out and given it to one of the men. He’s in better light now. Bugger. It’s Target 1. Orders are if we see Target 1 we take him out. What a birthday for the poor little kiddy.” 

Frank breathes out slowly ready to squeeze the rifle trigger.

Wednesday, 22 May 2019

Moore's Riverboat

by Phyllis Souza

house red


As Norma drove along the road beside the river, Amy looked out of the open window. The banks were dense with ferns and giant reeds. The scent of anise drifted into the car. A sign reading 'Moore's Riverboat' came into view. Norma slowed the vehicle and turned onto a rutted, graveled parking lot.
"The place is packed. Look for an open space."

"Oh look, people are parked over there." Amy pointed to a lawn around the back of the parking lot. Some cars were parked on it, but there was still space.

"Yeah, I see one." Norma parked between an old pickup truck and a motorcycle.

Amy glanced at the riverboat. People dressed in tank tops and shorts hung near the entrance, listening to the carefree sound of Dixieland Jazz.

Norma, clutching her back, slowly walked up the wooden gangplank behind Amy. She groaned, “Got to lose some weight.”

Amy sprinted ahead. When she reached the deck, she stopped and waited for Norma to catch up. She noticed Norma's baggy polyester pants swung against her ankles and showed her white socks.
Reaching out, Amy offered Norma her hand. She brushed it away. "I'm fine."

They stepped into a paneled passageway.

Along the back wall was a glass showcase filled with boating memorabilia and old photographs from the Gold Rush days in the mid-nineteenth century, when steamboats ran the waterways of the San Joaquin River in Northern California.

Across from it, saloon doors led into the restaurant and bar. Amy walked up to the doors and pushed.
"Look at the bandstand. I see the fat, blind drummer still's here," Amy declared.

"You mean Orlie?"

"Yep. Still here. Come on; let's grab a couple of seats at the bar."

Headed toward the back, they strolled by tables pushed next to a bank of windows overlooking the river.

Ladies' panties of all shapes and sizes were pinned to a clothesline above the horse-shaped bar. They billowed in the breeze from a fan attached high on the wall.

The bartender tossed a couple of napkins on the bar. "Hello, ladies. What can I get you?"

Before they could answer, a man cried out, "Norma."

Norma turned, and so did Amy.

"I didn't see you standing there," Norma exclaimed.

Frank, a robust, silver-haired man holding a bottle of beer, with his back against the wall asked, "Who's your friend?" 

"Oh, this is Amy."

Frank glanced at the bartender. "Give these ladies whatever they want. I'm buying."

He came in closer; so close that Amy could smell the woody fragrance of Ralph Lauren’s Polo. He reached between Norma and Amy and tossed a twenty-dollar bill on the bar. "Keep the change."
The bartender picked up the bill, gave a tapping "thank you" with his fist on the bar, and asked, "Okay, ladies, what can I get you?"

Norma turned in her seat. "Thanks, Frank," Amy repeated the sentiment.

"Excuse me," Frank said. "I'll be right back. Enjoy your drinks." He walked over to a table where several people sat.

"Red wine. House is fine," Norma said to the bartender.

"What about you?" he asked Amy.

"Oh, let's see..." Amy pressed a finger to her cheek. "Maybe... vodka tonic." She smiled at the bartender. "Yes, I'll have a vodka tonic. Oh, yeah, with a squeeze of lime, please."

Just then, an announcement came from the lead guitarist, "We'll be back after a short break."
After ten minutes, the band started its next set.

The elevated dance floor sloped. But that didn't matter, especially to the man wearing nothing but blue spandex trunks and boat shoes. His partner wore a sarong tied around her waist and a flowered bra top. They were doing the twist.

"Norma, look at them."

"That's disgusting," Norma replied.

Amy poked at the ice in her glass with a swizzle stick. "But very entertaining."

"I know that guy." Norma sneered. "His name is Gordo. He's filthy rich and owns a Pontiac dealership in Sacramento."

Amy took a sip of her drink. "Mmm… This is good." She put down her glass. "Do you think Frank'll come back?"

"Who knows?"

The trumpet player blew enthusiastically, the piano player plinked keys, and the singer began a lively rendition of "Goody Goody."

Frank swaggered to the bar, half his mouth in a grin. He extended out his hand. Amy surprised, raising her eyebrows at Norma, hoping for a smile and nod from her. But Norma's face dropped. Amy decided to ignore it.

Keeping time with the music, Frank maneuvered Amy under his outstretched arm. She twirled under and around. He laughed, and so did she.

After the dance, he showed Amy back to her seat, took his business card out of the pocket of his polyester shirt, and handed it to her. In bold blue letters, the card read: Raviscioni Real Estate, Frank Raviscioni, Broker/Owner.

"Thanks for the dance. Gotta go to my boat. I'll be back." Frank passed through the crowd and left.
Amy looked over at Norma. "That was fun. I hope he comes back."

"Well, if he does, you won't be here," Norma said. She picked up her purse. "We're leaving."

"Why? What's wrong?" Amy asked.

"I've got a headache. I'm sorry, but I need to go."

Amy searched the room for Frank. She wanted to tell him she was going. He was nowhere in sight.
Norma was silent in the car on the way home that is until Amy decided to talk.

"Frank gave me his business card. Do you think it would be okay if I called him?"

"No. If Frank wants to see you, he'll call."

"He doesn't have my number."

"Did you tell him your last name?"

"Yeah. But it's not listed."

"He's in real estate, believe me, he can find out where you live."

"I guess. But, I still might give Frank a call."

"I'm warning you. He's a playboy. A confirmed bachelor. Besides, he's too old for you."

"How old do think he is?"

"Around fifty."
"I'm thirty-nine. That's not such a big difference."

"You're asking for trouble. Throw Frank's card in the trash."

"I suppose you're right," Amy said. I'm not throwing his card in the trash.


One week later, when Amy was on her hands and knees scrubbing her kitchen floor, the doorbell rang. She got up, wiped her hands on a dishtowel, brushed a long strand of hair from her face, and looked out a window facing the street. There was a shiny black Cadillac parked at the curb. Whose car is that? She answered the door.

"Frank, what a surprise. How did you know where I lived?"

"I have my ways." He laughed. "Would you like to take a ride to my office?"

"Yes. Just give me a few minutes to freshen up. I must look a mess."

"You look fine. Have you had dinner yet?"

"As a matter fact, I haven't."

"Good. I know a great place. Villa Basque."

"That sounds wonderful. Come in. Take a seat in the living room while I change."

When Amy returned, she had on a pick blouse trimmed in lace and tight fitting jeans. She smiled. "Ready."

Frank got up from the couch. "Wow! You look—" He rolled his eyes. "Fantastic."
"Thank you." She curtsied and smiled.

Amy followed Frank into his real estate office. He flipped on the light. They walked to his private office in the back. The first thing she saw was 'The Godfather' spelled out in bold gold letters and a golden hand pointing an index finger stenciled on the glass window in the door. Her thoughts shifted into overdrive: Godfather. Playboy. Confirmed bachelor. Well... if this wannabe mafia don wants to play, he just found himself a playmate. Confirmed bachelor? We'll see about that!


A Life in Shreds



by Gill James

cold coffee

Gladys switched on the shredder. Why did the darned machine keep overheating and keep stopping? She looked at the pile of papers still sitting on the dining table. Would there ever be an end to it? The intention had been, hadn't it, to do this every January and clear out anything over six years  old. She wished she'd done that. Well, once this job was done she would be more disciplined. And perhaps it wouldn't be so bad the next time. She received most bills and statements electronically these days. Thank goodness. That might help to save the planet. Who needed all this paper?
The papers were strange to touch. They'd gone brittle. Presumably keeping them in a cold but dry garage had made that happen. They hadn't burned to an ugly brown colour like her old paperback books. It was almost as if they were coated in plastic. Was that what made the machine keep overheating?
She counted out four more papers. The manufacturers said that it would take eight at a time but it seemed to overheat more quickly if you put in eight and as it took nearly an hour for the machine to cool down again it was actually quicker if you only put in four papers at a time. She fed them into the machine. It crunched and grunted and what looked almost like smoke filtered out of a tiny hole between the cutters. Paper dust. Better not breathe that in. Then came the familiar clunk that meant it was shutting down. She touched the top. Yes, it was pretty hot. The bin was full too. She busied herself emptying it and pulling the trapped slivers of paper from between the blades. Hopefully the new shredder would come soon. Would she get this all done before it was time to move?
An hour later, after much rummaging through her wardrobe and deciding to throw away two thirds of its contents Gladys sat down again at her machine. She picked up the next four papers. Store card statements from nine years ago. Had she really had that many? And just look at the amounts of money on them. Thousands of pounds. Just a little paid off each month. She remembered the juggling. That awful day when all of their bank cards stopped working. She'd tried to log on to Internet banking to transfer some of her savings into the current account but all of her cards were frozen. Somehow she'd managed to get petrol into the car - one card somewhere must still have had credit on it. Later, she'd gone into a branch in another town far away from home. It was soon sorted. There was enough in their savings account to bring their current account back within its overdraft limit. But it was still tight. It wouldn't be long before something similar happened again.
It was enormously satisfying so watch the papers being shredded. That was all in the past now.
On the next batch she noticed she'd been paying PPI. Scoundrels. At least now she'd got it all back and had used it to help pay off her unsecured debts and in fact some of their mortgage.
"There you go," she muttered to herself as the blades started crunching.
Just why had she needed all that? Now, she hated shopping. She couldn't stand all that fiddling around in changing rooms. She hated looking in the mirror and seeing how she'd aged. She wore things now until they fell to pieces. She only fitted in a bit of clothes shopping if she had to wait for a bus or if she got stuck at the airport. She smiled to herself. There would be even less of that after they moved - eighteen busses an hour would go between their home and the city centre. And Brexit probably meant she wouldn't bother going abroad again.
She guessed the need to spend, spend, spend had had something to do with her demanding job. She had had to compensate for it somehow. Treat herself. Now, every day was a treat: a garden full of birds, a walk along the river with the retired guide dog they had taken on and interesting sessions with her local U3A group. It wasn't difficult finding the five things to be grateful for each day. Her Buddhist friends had taught her about that.
she was grateful for this shredder as well, even if it was limping along. She was putting a questionable life behind her.              
It was sobering when she came to letters about her properties. Failed mortgage repayments, but only once, thank God, on their own home. Repossessions. Some of the properties sold off really cheaply meaning she had to pay bills even though she was getting no income. They should have tried harder, shouldn't they, to sell them for a reasonable price? Does it really help anyone if they do this? How might it affect people who needed to rent? Was there any point in making landlords bankrupt?
Thankfully this was all in the past. She'd paid off those debts too and even got one of the properties back which she'd now managed to sell and she'd paid the capital gains tax. All was in order. She needn't look at that again. Into the shredder then.
Next came a County Court Judgement for non-payment of a service charge on one of her flats. Hmm. The service charges were scandalous. £2000 a year. That was the problem with flats and leasehold in general. The leaseholder could do what they liked and you just had to pay. What happened if you couldn't? Well,here was what happened. How would those ex-council tenants manage? If she couldn't she didn't imagine they'd be able to. A lump sum from one of her pensions had settled that bill nicely and now it was more than five years since the judgement. Into the shredder, then.
Next came that annoying letter from a solicitor. They were demanding £600 + for non-payment of £50 worth of ground rent on a flat she owned - well at least paid a mortgage on. The person she'd spoken to at the solicitor's office had been quite sympathetic.
"I've never been billed for it," she'd said.
"Can you prove the ground rent invoice was formerly sent to you home address rather than the property?" the young woman had said. It seemed as if she'd had quite a few of these queries. Solicitor and head landlord after a quick bit of cash? More scoundrels.  
She probably could have if she'd had the time to go through the garage. In the end, she'd paid the bill. It had been easier than taking the garage to pieces. And yes, as a result of the particular decluttering exercise she was doing now she'd come across the evidence she'd needed back then. Another reason to be tidier in the future.                 
                  
The shredder stopped again.
Next in the pile were her late father's papers. She should sort through those carefully anyway. A lot of them are out of date now. But she should keep the death certificates and the copy of his will.
He'd scribbled on his bills. She noticed the handwriting getting more spidery as time went by. What happened to the notebooks, she thought, the ones where they used to write things down that he needed to know because they couldn't make him hear? Perhaps she'd find them soon. They would make good reading, wouldn't they?
Ah yes. The bill for the nursing home he stayed in whilst they took a week to move house. And then the bills that kept on coming after he'd moved back in with them. It might have been funny if it hadn't been so serious. Was there some other old gentleman sitting there? Still? Had his relations forgotten him?
It had got sorted eventually, hadn't it?
He smiled to herself as she remembered the hankies, underpants and socks she had bought him all labelled with the days of the week.
"So you know which ones to wear, and so that you can figure out what day it is," she'd said.
Her husband had arrived that Friday with her dad and the cat.
"They both snored all the way up here," he said proudly.
"Where are his meds?" she asked as they unpacked.
"What meds?"
Was that why they wanted to carry on charging for her father because they still had his tablets in their drug cabinet?  
There's been a dash to the emergency doctor to get a prescription. At least it had helped her to get to know the area.                  
The doorbell rang. Would that be it? The new shredder.
She heard her husband go to the door. Yes, he was definitely taking delivery of a parcel. Seconds later the front door closed and she could hear him dragging something across the hall.
"Here it is, then," he said as he opened the door to the lounge. 
"It looks sturdy enough."
"Shall I set it up?"
She nodded.
As he moved the old one out of the way, plugged the new one in and switched it on she studied the next batch of papers.
Yes it was getting lighter. Now the monthly payments were going down. Statements were showing a surplus in the bank at the end of the month.  She remembered conversations with the mortgage provider about "spare money".
"What's that?" he'd asked.
"Just what I have left at the end of the month. I want to use it to pay off the mortgage."
"Must be nice," he'd mumbled.
It was. But it was only because she'd had help. There had been some painful conversations, then regular payments and no interest.
Yes, it had been better for a few years now.
And here she was shredding some of the more respectable statements. 
It didn't take long. The new machine was much better than the other two they'd had. It gave a final clunk. The table was now clear.
At that precise moment the phone rang.  She heard her husband go and answer it. What might it be? She hoped it wasn't a problem with the new house. 
She held her breath as she waited for him to finish.
She heard him put the receiver back on its cradle. The he opened the lounge door slowly. He grinned. "We complete on Friday," he said.
They were safe now.
They would soon be living in a house that they owned.
She patted the new machine. Her old life was now in shreds.    

About the author 

Publisher, writer, creative writing lecturer and editor of CafeLit, she likes finding the bizarre hidden beneath the veneer of everyday life. 

Tuesday, 21 May 2019

The Cat Burglar



by Jerry Guarino

martini shaken not stirred 

 
Alex was suave and polished, the type of man women long for.  Prepped and pampered since he was a child, he grew up in a fine New England home to parents of distinction.  He attended the finest private schools and vacationed in Europe.  His hobbies were magic and tennis; in fact he was professionally acclaimed at both of them.  Alex was just about perfect for any refined woman looking for a mate, except for one fact.  Alex was a thief.
            You may remember the David Niven character from The Pink Panther movies.  Alex was a cross between him and James Bond.  Not only did he steal from the rich, but he bedded beautiful women along the way, all while avoiding capture by various law enforcement groups.  He traveled the world stealing from the elite and super rich, in Europe, Asia and the U.S.  He became a minor celebrity, playing as an amateur in tennis tournaments and entertaining the wealthy with magic shows at posh parties.  Alex seemed to have everything. 
            Often, he would sneak out of these parties to look for fine jewelry and other expensive items, only to return innocently to the festivities.  He used his skills as a magician to appear and disappear at will and his sleight of hand to palm valuables from unsuspecting men and women.  He never got caught.  He was never even suspected, proven by the fact that he was invited back to the rich and famous parties everywhere.
            Alex had a criminal rival, about the only person who knew what Alex was doing.  Her name was Sorana, a dark-haired beauty of Italian descent.  Alex and Sorana seemed to run into each other at these wealthy homes.  One night, Alex and Sorana slipped away from the party to make love in an upstairs bedroom.  Alex tried to take a necklace as they were getting dressed when Sorana caught him.  It was either confess or be turned in to the owners.  Sorana told Alex that she was also a thief, that she stole from the wealthy around the world too.  They made a mutual pact, not to turn the other one in.  Whenever their paths crossed in Paris or Belgium or Palm Beach, they would always make time for some romance during the party.
            It was at one of those parties that Alex asked for a volunteer from the gathering for a trick, the familiar make someone disappear act.  Naturally, he chose Sorana and while the crowd applauded with laughter and admiration, Sorana was upstairs stealing jewelry.  When she returned, after discreetly hiding her stolen loot, Alex slipped away to break into one of the owner’s computers and take financial credit information.
            Alex and Sorana seemed like a pair that movies are made about.  The beautiful jet set couple traveled the world, making love and stealing from the wealthy.  If they weren’t criminals, you would even admire them.
            Little did Alex know, but Sorana was a secret agent for Interpol, splitting her time on both sides of the law.  She gathered evidence against Alex, all while stealing at the same time.
            One night in an upper Manhattan soiree, Alex seduced the wife of a billionaire banker, even slipping out to make love with her during the party.  Feeling scorned by her partner in bed and crime, Sorana decided to end this arrangement.  A week later, police planned to raid his home in Greenwich.
            The police surrounded his home around midnight.  Officers with machine guns, dressed in protective gear, announced their presence and then opened the heavy front door with a battering ram.   They threw a flash-bang grenade inside, then rushed through the rooms, laser sighted red lights pointing the way.  They found Alex in bed, cowering with fear.
            “I give up” he said.  “Don’t shoot me.”
            “Where’s the loot, Alex?  We know you have everything stashed here because none of it has been recovered.”
            “In the room in the back of the house.”  Alex was crestfallen, his reign of crime now over.  They led him out in handcuffs and put him in the police van.
            The detectives went to the back of the house, and prepared to see a room full of treasure.  They opened the door, flipped on the lights and were immediately attacked by a dozen cats.
 

About the author

Jerry Guarino’s short stories have been published by dozens of magazines in the United States, Canada, Australia and Great Britain. His latest book, "The Best of Café Stories", is available on Amazon.com and as a Kindle eBook. Please visit his website at http://cafestories.net