[Posts separated by rows of "=" signs. Post titles not included unless they're meant to continue the previous post, in which case they're in square brackets, like this note. Descriptions of pix/videos omitted unless likewise meant to impel the story somehow. Wish I'd thought to copy-and-paste the author's name and date/time of posting but, well, didn't!]
[Main Title: The Way Home]
Beyond the glass, snow fell on the silent platform as his train pulled in. As he dozed through the hours, he had charted the journey he never expected to take again - every familiar station, every tunnel, every checkpoint. Now as the brakes hissed, he stretched, easing his aching limbs and he gazed along the lamplit empty carriage as the train shuddered to a halt. This wasn't quite the end of the line, but it may as well have been.
He paused in the doorway of the train, halfway between the warm stale fug of the carriage and the crisp bite of the December night air. He remembered other homecomings when the sunlit platform had been packed with people, when he had leapt from the still moving train, running to her, swinging her round and round in his arms. This time, he stepped alone from the train, everything he possessed in the canvas holdall on his shoulder. As the train pulled away, he slipped his hand into the warmth of his trouser pocket, and traced the outline of the key in the manila envelope. He turned his face to the sky and closed his eyes. Snow fell softly on his cheeks, cool on his parted lips, catching on his eyelashes.
'Hey man, don't I know you?' the station guard ambled over.
He opened his eyes as if waking from a dream. 'Maybe.'
'Yeah, sure I do! Joe, you're Joe aren't you?' he cocked his head, smiling. 'We went to school together. Where you been man?'
Where had he been, he wondered? Nothing had changed, and yet everything had. Would the house be the same as he remembered? What about her? Even if she hadn't moved away he wondered if she ...
would agree to see him. He had only a few days to convince her.
"Look, Joe, my man. I got a break coming to me here in 20 minutes. Let me buy you a beer. I know you can't say no to me after all this time."
Joe nodded, searching for an excuse but agreeing to the beer. He had so little time to find her and didn't remember this guy's name. One drink on the guy's break though couldn't take too long. The guy took Joe by the arm and led him around the corner...
And he stopped. For a moment, he stood frozen staring out at the town; it was just as he remembered. McGilligan's Tavern which had been owned by her family stood on one corner; the little brick building outlined in Christmas lights. There was the small diner in the center of town, The Jailhouse Stop, which was once owned by an old couple who wore blue suede shoes every day of the year in honor of their hero, Elvis. The hardware store with the giant picture of the owner Roy on its sign was still there. Roy had served the best chocolate biscuits imaginable which was unusual for a such a store but Roy, who had agreed to take over the family business when his father fell ill, secretly harbored a desire to be a pastry chef. The biscuits and his famous holiday brownies were as close as he got to keeping his dream alive. From where Joe stood, this place he had longed to leave so long ago appeared to be the one area of the world that had yet to be changed by corporate giants and consumerism and he found himself quite surprised to be so thankful for it.
Then his eyes fell upon the flower shop she had worked in when they were teenagers. He remembered the way her hair once carried a faint smell of fresh Earth and strawberries. With that thought, he felt a tug at his feart and an unexpected urge to run. The last time he'd seen her she'd been standing in front of those very windows. Things had been so different.
"I'm cold," she'd said, clutching her coat tightly around her.
"Yes, you are." Those were the last words he'd said to her. He remembered the way she'd closed her eyes as though hoping to stop the pain and shuddered at the memory.
"Hey, you ok buddy?" Joe had forgotten about the friend whose name still escaped him.
"Yes, a little cold is all," he said.
"Well, you're not gonna get any warmer standing here. A nice pint will take the chill out of those bones so let's get moving."
As they walked toward the tavern, the door opened and a man stumbled out into the night. The sound of laughter hung in the air for a second before the door closed and he wondered, what were the chances that her family still owned this place? Was he ready to see her or any of them?A moment later, a second person emerged from the tavern.
"Frankie!" she called to the man stumbling down the street. He knew that voice. After all these years, he still knew that voice and before he could stop himself he shouted.....
"I'm sorry, Violet!" and then he wished he could take the words back, but they were there, hovering in the sharp air. She turned, as if in slow motion.
He looked around for a place to hide, but there was only the guy, whatever his name, in his guard uniform. He considered for a moment ducking behind those boxy shoulders and stout frame, but knew it wouldn't work. So he had to stand his ground.
"Randy?" she asked, and the sound of her voice made his knees weak. "That you?" She peered through the dark of the night, the hush of the snow. She didn't see him. "Did you see which way Frankie went?"
"Yeah it's me," Randy said. Now Joe remembered him. The football team. He had tutored Randy in History so he didn't get kicked off the team. Randy had befriended him, and he was no longer the odd one. The one everyone looked askance at. Everyone but Violet. "Sorry, Vi. I didn't see him."
Randy took a step towards Violet. Joe was just a shadow, standing there in his dark hat and coat. This was his last moment to escape, he knew, before she saw him. He could slip down the alley and go over the fields, and that is when Violet turned to the shadow that was Joe and said...
"No, I'm sorry man -- don't have any spare change on me now, left my purse inside. Maybe on my way out, 'kay?" She did a little finger-wave at him then turned and went back into McGilligan's, Joe's humiliation hanging in the air behind her.
He slumped against the wall. Why in the hell had he thought she'd even remember him, let alone that she'd care if she did? Cripes. If she'd been here with that lout Frankie, then clearly she'd moved on.
He cupped his hands around his face and looked through the plate glass. McGilligan's looked the same -- the jukebox at the far end, the little electric train running on the track elevated all around the walls, up by the ceiling, the jars of unnameable pickled food on the bar. Violet was already at the dartboard on the back wall, pulling darts from the target and laughing like crazy.
Ah, he loved her laughter. The way she'd throw back her head, as she was doing now, and the way the full-throated guffaw would push listeners backwards just a half-step or so -- as they were doing now, on the other side of the window. She could bottle that laughter, sell it to television sitcom producers.
And God help him, he even remembered the last time he'd heard her laugh like that at something he'd said...
[Rowena's "In The Snow: 1969, Great Bradley, Suffolk" photo]
. . . the key . . . he carefully took the manilla envelope from his pocket and kissed it . . . this would solve everything. Surely this would make her understand why he'd had to leave.
Was that really Randy?
Or were the voices playing tricks with his mind . . .
The jukebox in the Tavern, he could hear . . .
He couldn't help himself. Forgetting Randy, he pushed through the doors, and the warmth, the music engulfed him. The conversations stilled for a moment as he walked through the doors, but Elvis sang on, and Violet turned to him. His breath caught in his throat as he saw she recognised him. Without looking, Joe sensed the bar door open. Some small part of him woke up. He still knew every creak and motion of this place as well as the home he grew up in. Randy was at his wing again - just like old times.
She folded her arms. He noticed she was wearing an apron. She was obviously working in the bar these days. He thought she might have moved away years ago.
'So, look who's blown into town.' Her voice had an edge to it, a harshness he didn't remember. As he moved closer he saw she was just as beautiful as he remembered - her eyes had dark smudges now at the corners, fine lines, but his heart still leapt. After all these years of thinking of her everyday, then every few days, every once in a while, here he was again ...
["...lost in her magic."]
Oh sure, she had laughed at him every time he said she was magic, but he knew there had to be something to her that was not like other people. They way she smelled like carnations whenever she came home from the flower shop. The way those dark eyes sparkled whenever someone was drawn to her, the way he was always drawn to her. And the way he was always, forever, enraptured by her every motion and sound.
It was her, wasn't it, that made him forget all of his once-upon-a-time goals of college and a career. It was her who turned him into this thing he was now, leaving him no choice but to come back.
The key weighed heavily in his palm.
"You look beautiful, Violet," he said, and the bitterness in his throat didn't change the truth of it.
She tossed her head and threw a bar rag on the scarred bar. He thought he could smell a waft of floral perfume reach out to him.
"Bullshit," she said.
Joe didn't know whether to...
...slap her or hug her. She had the power to infuriate him which brought with it a certain excitement or calm him like no one else in the world. He could not battle with her now. There was too much to share, too much she had to know. In the end she could do what she wanted with the information and the years of emotion and questions she had built up but right now she deserved the truth.
He reached into the manila envelope and withdrew a picture. Its edges were frayed and in the center of the picture was the subtle imprint of the key it had been wrapped around. He smiled slightly as that imprint seemed fitting.
Standing in this space beneath the tree looking out at what most would consider heaven, he'd found the answers both of them had been seeking and when he did he believed that both heaven and hell could co-exist.
"It's been a long journey, Violet. I've traveled to both Heaven and Hell and back but not without this," he said, laying the picture and the key on the bar.
She gasped and brought her hands to her heart. She looked from him to the picture and key and back.
'Is this what I think it is?' she said.
He didn't know whether to walk away now while he still had a chance, or cup her jaw in his palm (he remembered the fit, the flex of the bone and warm flesh as he kissed her). There was nothing standing in their way now was there? It all came flooding back to him. He hesitated, remembered their last conversation. The recriminations: 'I gave up everything for you, everything!' he had cried, rubbing angry, hot tears from his eyes.
'Did I ask you to stay?' she was shaking with cold and fear. She was wearing a thin cotton summer dress, sat on a tree trunk near the river, arms crossed, hugging herself. 'Did I? Everyone said you were too good for me, and now I've just gone and proved them right ...'
'But I love you.' The words tore from his throat. He caught his breath. 'I love you. We could have done anything, gone anywhere ...'
'This is where we belong,' she said firmly. 'Your family owns this place. This is your town, your land ...'
'And all I wanted was you,' he hit out, clasped the warm air like a lifeline. 'Why? Why him? Wasn't what we had enough?'
Then he was there again, in the bar. Everything had changed, but nothing had changed. Was she still with him? Perhaps he should bide his time. 'What have you got to do to get a drink in this place,' he asked ...
. . . Clive, the hunchback dwarf, who stood uneasily behind the bar balancing on his IKEA step ladder.
"Well", Clive said, "you could start by saying hi to an old buddy."
"Huh? Jesus, is that you, Clive? You've, you've grown - you're full sized!"
Clive merely shook his head wearily. The things he had to put with.
"Ladder, Dude. I'm standing on a ladder." He pulled out a bottle of St. Pauli Girl Special Dark, capped it and pushed it across the bar top. "If I remember correctly", he said, winking. He leaned back a moment, almost toppling off the step ladder, but regained his balance with a graceful swipe and grab at a Heineken spigot. Bending over the bar he looked not unsympathetically into Joe's eyes.
"From the looks of you, my friend, I'd say it's time to bring out the heavy artillery". With that he demounted his trusty ladder and began to rummage through his secret cabinet under the bar. "Here it is," he mumbled to himself. Climbing up again, he slapped a dusty, 16-year-old Lagavulin single malt between them.
"This here? I bet myself that you'd be back. The others said no, he's gone, but I said you'd be back. And I said to myself - when he comes through that door, we're gonna do this baby. Like the old days."
Joe took a long drag on his beer, and then took the filled glass that Clive handed to him. The whiskey sparkled with a wicked amber. He looked over at Violet and then demonstratively upended his glass. Turning to Clive, he said; "The last time I saw you, you were . . .
"The last time you saw him he left my daughter in pieces," said a voice at the door.
Joe turned round and gave a jolt as he saw a man standing in the doorway.
"Dad, dad...don't. Please..." begged Violet, her eyes filling with tears.
The man at the door stared straight ahead, eyes tightly focussed on Joe.
"What's he doing here?" he said, not moving his gaze from Joe.
Joe turned round and faced the man. A man he had last seen on the day he left. A man he knew he'd have to face again one day.
"I was born here. I have every right to come back," Joe said, his hands making a fist to stop them from shaking.
"You have no right, no right at all," Violet's father said as he walked towards Joe, closing the pub door behind him.
'Why don't you just go back to wherever you came from, eh Joe?' Violet's father squared up to him. He had always been shorter than him, but with the solid pugnacious strength of a bulldog. Joe didn't move.
'This is my home Jack,' he took a sip of the single malt Clive had poured for him. Randy hid his face, disappearing into the shadows of the bar now.
'It was your home,' Jack's moustache bristled above chipped teeth, stained from years of tobacco.
'No,' Joe took a deep breath, placed the glass on the bar, slipped the key from his pocket. 'It is my home,' he said slowly turning it in his fingers.
'Please Daddy ...' Violet cut in. She thought of all those lonely nights she had spent alone. He was back now, she could make it good again if only her father would leave it to her to break the news.
'Oh, so now your Momma's died, you've come back for the money like the big fella is that how it is?'
'No sir, it's not like that at all.' Joe's eyes focussed resolutely on the key in his hand.
'Then what is it? Why are you back here when we ...' Jack glanced at his daughter. 'When everyone has written you off?'
'This is my home,' he said quietly.
'If this is your home,' Jack raged, 'then what the hell are you going to do about your baby ...'
Joe looked over at Violet. She had covered her face with her hands and turned away.
No, he thought. No, it couldn't be.
Clive filled Joe's glass up again without anyone saying a word.
Joe tossed it down in a blink of an eye. He was starting to feel the warmth in him, now, and god, did he need it.
He looked at Violet again. She was still looking away.
"Is it true?"
All he heard was a mumble.
And that made him mad. He slammed his glass down on the bar and...
the glass shattered. He cursed, and...
moved close to Violet.
"There is a baby, a child? We have a child? Oh Violet, tell me that's not true. Tell me that all these years you have not kept this from me? Tell me that when I sent letters, letters I BEGGED you to respond to, you didn't at least try to respond, try to tell me about ...him? Is it a him or her? God, in heaven, after my own father....you knew how I felt being left by someone...you knew how I swore I'd never abandon a soul and now this?"
His head began to spin. He leaned on the bar and focused on breathing. As tears fell to the wood below his hands he realized he was crying.
"Tell me, Violet," he said, his voice now barely a whisper....
knew that no matter the cost, he would see this through to the end. He just needed to...
That's all. Just go home.
He clenched the key in his fist.
He couldn't look at any of these people anymore. They all knew him, knew things about him that he didn't know himself.
He shook his head in disgust, whether at himself or at them, he didn't know, then he shouldered his duffel, and went back out into the dark and blowing night.
Before the door closed on the Pub, he heard Jack.
"Go ahead! Just like before. Run! You bastard. You left my daughter a whore and then---"
The door closed and the blowing snow made the night muffled.
He cut through the alley and
. . . he felt for the comfort of the key inside his coat pocket, but it was gone. His heart began to race. How could he have been so stupid? Randy! Of course it had been Randy who had caused this chain of events. Not nice guy Randy after all!
It had all begun on a hot Summer's afternoon in Suffolk . . .
Randy and Joe had been best friends ever since they were babies. Their mothers had been friends, and Randy's father had tried to fill the gaps that Joe's father had left.
That summer Randy and Joe had been joined by Violet, who they met in class on starting school. Within days the three were inseparable. They spent all their time together, a close knit little unit, running in and out of each others' houses, turning each of their families into one larger family. Each child had the love of three families, each child felt they had five parents instead of the usual two. But only Joe really needed the love of five parents, his father long gone leaving a deep emptiness that would haunt him forever....
His mother was nice enough in her own way; she was good at making costumes for the school plays; always cheered him on on sports day, but she was fond of vodka Martinis and many a time he came home to find her prostrate on the kitchen floor humming tunelessly along to her favourite song on the radio. He, Violet and Randy would have to pick her up, dust her down. What was that song that she used to hum . . . ?
Everyone in town knew about Alice's drinking, but because they knew Joe's father Bill had walked out on her, they looked the other way. Bill had just got in one of his trucks one day, driven out of town on a long distance run and never come back. No explanation, no letter, no goodbye. No one knows where he went. All they saw was the damage he left behind - a lonely, heartbroken woman and a boy who had to grow up too quickly.
All Alice and Joe had was the big old house overlooking the shingle beach. Alice had been a showgirl - after a few cocktails she would put an old 78 on the record player in her room and disappear into the comfort of her memories. Joe would find her sometimes, still wearing her sequins and feathers, half asleep in front of the dressing table mirror, red lipstick smudged where she had lain her head on her arm. Alice knew nothing about business - Bill's haulage company went under, and they lost everything. From being one of the town's most respected families, Alice had to endure the pitying stares of her neighbours. If it wasn't for some money left to Alice by her godmother, the boy would have been on the streets. Alice clung to Joe like driftwood. 'You're the man of the house now,' she told him, face blotched with tears and booze.
There was talk, of course. A woman like Alice, alone in a small town. Everyone wondered how she got by, and there were plenty of gentlemen called by in the afternoons doing odd jobs for her. Still the house seemed to fall into decay. The paintwork peeled, leaves went unswept, snow settled deeply around it every winter. But Joe adored his mother, and he was a tough kid who wouldn't hear a word said about her. All the children knew not to tease him about his parents. When Frankie - a skinny ginger kid with sly eyes - had once dropped a remark about how he had seen Alice asleep on the lawn in her nightdress within earshot of Violet, she had laid into him, tiny fists pummelling him until he cried like a girl. Randy stood by, just watching. When Joe heard what Violet had done, he gave her his most treasured possession ....
[...his wilderness pocket knife.]
It was a boy's most treasured possession. And the girl? She had merely said thanks and tucked it into her overall bib pocket, before putting her wiry arm around the boy Joe, and taking him to her house for crackers and milk. Randy followed behind. Always following behind.
Joe cursed under his breath as his feet crunched on the snow covering the fields. He wouldn't let Randy do it to him again.
The problem with Randy had started when they entered Junior High. The big school that was shared by all the counties around, not just their little Village elementary. He was suddenly the big athletic star, not the slightly dim, too big shadow to Violet's bright light and Joe's intensity.
Once Randy left them, to be the cool kid, adored by others, and Violet's beauty brought its own followers, Joe was left on his own.
No one wanted to be friends with him by the time they moved on to High School. And it had all started with stories that Randy started about his mom. All those new kids, he thought he had escaped it, but they started over again. And on that schoolbus every day after his advanced courses held him late, well, there was not even a more distant Violet to defend him.
Joe thought he had left this all behind. No one ever was there for him. Not his dad, not his mom, not Randy or Violet, who were supposed to be his two best friends in the world... they had sworn on it.
"Randy!" he said under his breath, and the breath puffed out bigger than the words.
He should have known. He should have known. Randy had stabbed him in his back once. But he wasn't going to let Randy stop him again, even if he pretended to be his friend later.
And then he was home.
The house seemed both smaller and more run down than he remembered. He could hear the surf crashing in the distance, and he shivered, blowing warm air on his cold hands.
Joe circled the house, looking for...
...the broken window on the first floor. The pane wasn't broken, but the latch was. It had been broken by him on purpose when he was a kid. Wanton vandalism wasn't Joe's style, this was one of his many survival tactics. Joe wasn't so much a latch-key kid as a forgotten kid.
Some days his mother wouldn't return for hours. He assumed she was at The Neptune bar downtown, but he couldn't bring himself to go and get his Mum when he came home from school to find an empty house. He didn't want to be that kid at the bar door, sending a stranger in to find his mother. He'd rather wait in the garden til she stumbled home. All apologies and smelling of cigarettes, beer and men.
As his first school year went past, he also grew tired of waiting outside and broke the latch on the window, so that he could let himself in. In fact, as he looked up, he remembered that it was Violet that suggested it. She stood back as he took his father's old hammer to the lock. And she shrieked with delight as he hit it.
[Rowena's Who/Where sanity check post :) ]
....kind of liked violence, now he came to think of it. Always the first to intervene when a fight broke out in the playground. Always punching little ginger Frankie when he stepped out of line. And she always liked to wrestle with Randy out the back in the cornfield. Often for hours at a time. Sometimes Randy would walk away with purple bruises from their tussles. Violet would laugh and call him a sissy.
Violet's charm was that she wasn't a push-over; she was a fighter; she was a survivor. He needed some of her fighting spirit now.
Damn, he thought, where the hell had he left that key... it was..
... in Randy's pocket he just knew it. Randy who had always had such a chip on his shoulder because of his name - Randolphf with an illiterate f (named after his American grandfather who emigrated to Suffolk, England, UK).
This was home. No matter how many people challenged him, no matter how hard it was, no matter how many supercilious idiots with their own agenda appeared to challenge him and say he wasn't good enough for Violet or their baby, Joe had to stand his ground. He was back. This was home ...
Clive busied himself closing up the bar. He kicked his ladder across the floor, smashing to pieces the pink Barbie castle that stood in the Kiddie Korner. His mood was as black as the outside night, if not darker. His brow was a tangled mass of knotted furrows. How could they all be so goddamned stupid? Were these idiots in possession of functioning brains, or what? Clearly not. No matter. After all these years, it was finally coming to a head. Joe was back. That meant basically one thing. The paradigm was going to shift; it could go this way, it could go that way - who could tell? It was if events had taken control of themselves and fate had cast itself to the wind. Someone needed to guide it.
He slowly opened the door to his secret cabinet, the one place he could call his own. As he withdrew his .44 Magnum Colt Anaconda he knew intuitively that things would not, could not, ever be the same after this. Dull metallic silver, the firearm was preternaturally heavy in his hand. It felt good, right. There was a score to be settled. Perhaps several, he wasn't quite sure. There was so much happening at once - Rowena was the only one who understood the big picture. But she was out there, out on the web, he couldn't talk to her. It was against the rules, wasn't it? He felt miserably alone.
Having packed the piece in an old rag, he picked up the phone and began to dial. There was nothing for it. Fate had just gotten a direction. He had to get hold of . . .
That's right, Bill.
The guy who had started this whole mess before most of the current players were even born.
Bill, Joe's father. Bill. Clive's own father.
No one knew that Clive was Joe's older half brother. No one knew that Bill had left Clive's mom when she had born a baby who was a monster.
He rubbed the weight of the gun through the fabric.
When Bill had left Joe and his mom, and coming running back to Wilma and Clive, Clive couldn't take it. All he could think about was poor little Joe, all alone. Abandoned just like Clive had been.
That's why, as soon as he was old enough, he had moved to Little Hamptonpoint Valley, and befriended that lonely kid.
Now, he knew it was time for everything to come out and everyone to
know the truth.
Bill's sounded tired, worn out.
"It's me," said Clive, "I need to talk now. I'm on my way."
He hung up, threw on his coat and slid his gun still in the rag into the inside of his coat pocket. As he turned the lights out and locked the bar, he headed toward Joe's house. It was time. He would tell Joe and then the two would...
..go and see Dad. For years Clive had wanted to tell Joe who he really was, but the time was never right. Then, when Joe left after everything blew up, he thought he would never see him again.
Clive had found part of his family just to have them disappear again. Poor unloved, social misfit Clive, always looking for the people who couldn't refuse to love him; his own flesh and blood.
Everyone was shocked to see Joe that night, but Clive was inwardly ecstatic. Joe...everything Clive wanted to be.
Joe would love him like a brother. He had to. Together, they would become a family and show the rest of them what a force two brothers could be.
Two brothers and a father, all of whom needed some old scores settled...
... they would drive out to Bill's farm, and Wilma would cook them breakfast, and they would be a real family, just as Clive had always dreamt it could be. It was time for Joe to know - there was nothing stopping them now that Alice had finally drunk herself to death. He remembered going round on Christmas Eve to Joe's place, bringing him a Santa present - though it was really from Bill of course. He found Alice half conscious in a mess of unwrapped presents and paper.
As Clive limped through the street, snow crunching under his specially made thick black leather boots, he imagined a brighter future, where he and Joe would hang out together, go shooting, or just play some pool, watch the game. He saw Joe put his arm proudly round his hunched, deformed back and say 'Have you met my big brother Clive?' He pictured them, laughing round the Christmas tree as they exchanged presents. Maybe this year Bill would even get them that puppy he had always wanted.
He was lost in his thoughts as he cut down the alley at the side of Alice's house. He didn't notice the figure appear from the shadows behind him, or hear the footsteps following him, drowned out by the sound of the crashing surf.
'Hey Clive, where you going?'
Clive turned, confused. The street lamps flared behind the man as he approached. He squinted his eyes, trying to see who it was.
'Oh, it's you ...' he grumbled, and walked on.
The man caught his arm firmly. 'I said, where you going?' his voice was low, menacing.
'I'm going to tell him everything. He has a right to know ...'
'You don't want to do that.' As Clive fought to free himself, the man felt the gun knock against his hand. He pushed Clive hard against the alley wall and dragged the gun from his pocket, shook the rag free. Moonlight glimmered on the barrel
'Now what's a dirty old cripple like you doing with a beauty like this?'
Clive watched the gun, mesmerised, eyes wide with fear as he realised what was about to happen. 'My Daddy gave it to me,' he said quietly. The other man was bigger, stronger, there was no way he could outrun him. 'Please, I won't say anything ...'
'Sorry. I just can't take that risk,' he said and as Clive opened his mouth to cry out the man pulled the trigger ....
. . . calmly shot Clive in the head. The Dwarf lay dead. His blood soaking into the snow, making it raspberry ripple slush. The man tapped the body with his toe and turned and walked away. It had to be done. Clive had no idea how many people the truth would hurt.
It was Violet who found Clive. And by the side of his frozen body was a key. A key she recognised from the past. A key to a security box that she and Randy had buried almost 16 years ago in the copse behind The Neptune Bar and Tea Rooms.
But surely . . .
...the key was still in her father's safe. How could Clive have gotten hold of it? Why would Clive even want it?
A couple of miles away, back at the old house, Joe was inside. The place was filthy, and no-one had bothered to remove any of the debris left by his mother. Still, who would? There was only him. That was his job.
When he heard the distant shot he turned around with a start but quickly dismissed it. Farmers were forever scaring off foxes, here. He would have to re-acquaint himself with old familiar noises, and the ways of the country. He wasn't used to it anymore.
He walked through to the kitchen.
Most of all he noticed the silence of the house. It was strange to him. When he was a boy, the radio was always on in this house. On minute his mother would be dancing around the kitchen in the throes of an drunken high. She could be fun, twirling her son around with her, making him laugh. But slowly Joe began to associate the highs as the precursor to the lows. He would come home later that evening after visiting Violet, to find his Mum crashed out in the living room. The radio still blaring.
The silence was too much. He couldn't stay here, with the silence.
He went over to the kitchen window and switched the radio back on. He didn't expect it to come on, but it did, with a startling volume. A volume that masked the noise coming from the back of the house...
[Scarlet's "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" post, entitled "Masking the noise coming from the back of the house..."]
The snow squeaked and crunched underfoot as the heavy boot pressed down.
The darkness of the long neglected garden, was punctuated by a beam of light coming from the kitchen window. Inside the sounds of a late night DJ playing Christmas songs filled the space inside and beyond the house. The watcher moved slowly but deliberately towards the back door.
One step further and a foot struck something, bringing a small pile of cut logs tumbling down in front of the visitor. A look up to the window saw no movement. A short wait but still nothing.
Treading onwards, the visitor noticed that several more lights had been switched on indicating the path Joe had taken round the house. He was upstairs now. A chance to get inside.
As the watcher moved towards the door, he stopped. He noticed....
A car was coming down the long, dead end street.
He swore under his breath, and went off.
He didn't want anyone to see him here, not on this night.
The car pulled up to the house. Joe still did not hear, as wrapped up as he was on the life that had been lived inside to the house.
He didn't hear the knocking, either.
It was only when Joe turned around to a person standing in his mother's kitchen that he
["Noticed the woman standing there"]
"Pardon me," she said. "I was informed that there was a resident here."
Joe peered at the woman. He did not know her. She must be new in town.
"I am Inspector Smith-Jones. There was an incident in the field behind your house."
"An incident?" Joe said, "I--
"I'm sorry. I've only just got here. My mother died. I'm back to arrange her funeral. I live...I mean I lived here," Joe said, realising he was maybe giving away more than he needed to.
"Oh, I'm sorry to trouble you, it's just we thought this house was empty," she said.
"It's a little unusual for the police to break and enter, Inspector." he said pointedly.
"Oh, I didn't. Your door was already open. I thought maybe there had been a break in. I was as surprised to see you as you were me."
Joe narrowed his eyes, "That door wasn't open, I would have noticed"
The inspector turned round to look at the door.
"I can assure you, I am not in the habit of making up stories. I need to see some ID. I'm sorry. I can't take your word for it" she said, reaching out her hand.
...the music that they'd been talking over came to a stop and as Joe looked over the shoulder of the woman and beyond the open door he saw a glimmer of some sort. At first he thought it was a flashlight but it was too quick. Then a moment later, as the moon colored the newly fallen snow and the surrounding world a pale blue, he thought he saw a dark figure move across the front lawn.
"Sir, you're ID," said the inspector said.
He ignored her and moved forward slightly.
"Sir, I'm going to have to ask you to step back.." she started, placing one hand on her hip.
Joe stopped and looked at her as though woken from a sleep.
He looked at her hand which rested on her hip. He wondered if there was a gun under that jacket. That's when he noticed the ring. It was an antique, silver with a rare red stone. There was only one person who'd ever worn that ring.
"You...how?" Joe began.
Suddenly, a loud sound rang through the house and ...
CJ ran in. CJ: everyone's name for Clive, Jr., who was if anything even more gnarled than his late Da. CJ: the most twisted member of his diminutive bloodline.
"Sorry for slammin' the door, youse," said the young dwarf. "Come to take me ring back, I have."
He grabbed her hand, pulled a pair of garden snips from his hip pocket, and...
"That’s not your ring, who the Hell are you?! Don’t you dare say that’s your ring! Give it to me. That’s mine. That’s mine by birthright!” screamed Joe, stressed and exhausted from the last hours.
The dwarf recoiled, still clutching the ring to his little chest. “It’s mine. My father gave it to me.”
The Inspector drew her gun on both of them.
“Stop! Stop it! Give me the ring. Go on, you- throw it on the floor beside me,” she gestured to the dwarf, who looked sideways at Joe, “The two of you, hands on your head. I don’t like the way this is going. I don’t like it one bit.
“You, how do you know this boy?” she asked Joe, nodding towards the child-dwarf.
“I don’t, I’ve never seen him before. I don’t know what he’s doing here” said Joe, tired and wanting this to end.
“Well that’s strange. Everyone knows this face. It’s on every bulletin of every news show. This is C.J. Burke. He’s wanted for....”
. . . impersonating a police officer in Kent, Surrey and Bedfordshire. The Detective Inspector stared hard at the diminutive dwarf.
"I recognise you, C.J Burke.." she said squinting at him.
Before she could arrest him, C.J was gone... he melted into the darkness still clasping the ring that rightfully belonged to Joe.
"So how come you had the ring?" Joe asked DI Monica Smith-Jones.
...I think you’d better sit down, Joe” the inspector said, as she laid down her gun.
“You’ve been gone a long time, a lot has happened in this town since you left. A lot has happened concerning your family”, she motioned for Joe to sit down at the kitchen table.
“I don’t understand, I don’t have any family, just my Mum, and she’s gone. That’s why I came back.”
“What do you know about your father, Bill?”
Joe stared at her incredulously. What did anyone know about Bill? He didn’t even know what Bill looked like, except a hazy black and white wedding photograph that his mother showed him once. She took the photograph out of her box. The metal locked box that he would see her looking in occasionally, late at night, when she thought he was asleep. The box with the big brass key.
He must’ve have only ever seen that box opened once, maybe twice. He didn’t even know where she hid it.
“There’s a reason that dwarf wants that ring, Joe. And there’s a reason that I want to make sure he doesn’t keep it...”
Joe put his head in his hands. What was going on?
“But that’s my mother’s ring. It’s been in our family for years. What would anyone want with it? Other than me, who would care what happened to it?”
The inspector reached into her pocket and handed Joe a slip of paper.
"There’s a lot you need to find out, Joe. It’s not my place to tell you your family history. There are things you should know. I suggest you look at this....."
[Son's "The Photograph" post]
and dropped the picture.
"What the hell is that?!"
Inspector Smith-Jones stuttered and picked it up. "I'm sorry. That was not what I meant-- I-- that's my study for a painting. I'm an amateur painter," she said and was having trouble keeping herself from babbling.
"I should say so. Keep that thing where it can't frighten people. I think I prefer your gun-- hey! How did you know who I was? I never even gave you my id."
The inspector seemed to get her feet back under her.
"I'm a detective," she said, one eyebrow cocked. "It's my job to notice details. Like that old photo," she pointed to a picture Joe had sent his mother when he was in Vermont. His mother had pinned it to the refrigerator. "And you're wearing the same hat. And I do, after all, know who used to live here. In fact, I was the one who found her body."
"You did?" Joe asked and that one detail made it all start to seem real. This woman had seen his mother's body.
"I did. I'm sorry. She was a lovely lady."
"She was not."
"She was, she just wasn't always able to show it. But there were reasons." The inspector reached into her pocket again, this time checking the note before she gave it to him. "And it may be connected to the murder in your field."
"Murder?! Who? When?"
"Clive. Clive Burke. The dwarf."
"No!" He was aghast. "I was just talking to him."
"Maybe you should look at this, and then we should talk about what you might know."
He unfolded the paper warily, and saw
“It’s a page of a legal document. A will, maybe” said Joe.
“Yes, that’s what I think” the Inspector said. “I think it’s your mother’s will. I found it in the top pocket of Clive’s shirt. That’s why I’m here. Look that’s your mother’s maiden name, isn’t it?”
“Yes, it is. But my mother had nothing. Except this house. She had nothing. I’m amazed she didn’t even drink this house away.” Joe stifled the cracking of his voice with his fist.
“ I want to know why Clive’s dead. I want to know why Clive had this in his pocket and I want to know why CJ was here when I came in. I think you know why....”
Inspector Smith-Jones looked down at her feet. She sighed. Size 43 boots. Ever since she was a little girl her feet had been a problem. What had the specialists called it? Supermegapodiatry, that was the loathsome terminiology. The other kids had called her SuperMeg. These monstrous feet had been following her around her entire life, hounding her. No matter where she went, there they were. Another sigh. Well, everybody had their cross to bear.
“I’m sure you’re familiar with those popular films, ‘Lord of the Rings,” she finally said.
“Lord of the Rings? Of course - those fantasy movies with all those weird creatures and what-not.”
“That’s right. You might remember that there were dwarves featured in that film. Well, the director, Peter Jackson, is a real stickler for details. So he hired several real dwarves as consultants, to, you know, add authenticity to the film. Clive was the assistant to the head of the dwarf division.”
“I didn’t know that. I’ve been out of touch for years. I’ve been abroad.”
“Then you also couldn’t know that Gideon Stone, Head Dwarf, befriended Clive; he became his mentor. The two were inseparable, two peas in a pod. It went so far that Gideon re-wrote his will, making Clive the sole inheritor of his rolling estate in Northumberland. As you might imagine, that didn’t sit too well with everybody. What I’m now going to tell you is, at this point, confidential information. I didn’t say it, and you didn’t hear it, is that clear?”
“I’m not so sure I want to hear it. I’ve got a lot on my mind just now,” Joe said. He felt himself sliding further down the hill, closer to an opening abyss.
“Oh, you want to hear this, my friend. Because at the very last moment, the name on Stone’s will was changed. Clive was removed and your mother’s name written in. Yes, your mother had become Gideon Stone’s secret lover.”
“What? No, this can’t be!”
“Yes, and what’s more, two days after the will was changed, Gideon Stone was found murdered, shot fifteen times in the heart with a .44 Magnum.”
“Do you think Clive . . .”
“No, Clive had a solid alibi. And anyway, he loved Stone as his own father. Who shot Gideon Stone? I thought that should be pretty obvious by now. But perhaps even more interesting for you is Clive’s alibi. He couldn’t have killed Stone. Joe, I just lied to you about that horrid painting. I thought I had to. That painting is Clive’s alibi. It’s part of the will. You see, on the night Stone was murdered, Clive was . . .
“....In art class. I’ve found fifteen different variations on that portrait done by other amateur artists in the area. Admittedly Clive’s is a little surreal, but then dwarves have a tendency towards the surreal. I can’t lay any blame on Clive for Stone's death. This painting is evidence that he was in life drawing class. He was nowhere near the scene of the crime.”
“Why is this important? Why is it part of the will? I don’t understand” said Joe, looking deeper into the mysterious print of the painting.
“This painting was given to your mother as a gift. Until we saw this painting, we had no idea that Clive had any previous direct connection with your mother. Before her relationship with Stone, that is,” the Inspector said, still conscious of her feet hitting the objects around them occasionally.
“Are you now saying that Clive and my mother were involved with each other?” Joe asked fearing the worst for his mother’s mental state before her death.
“No, not at all. Your mother was involved with Stone, and that's it, as far as we are aware. No, I’m not saying it was even Clive that gifted the portrait to your mother. I mentioned your father earlier. It seems...”
She never got to finish her sentence.
From the front of the house, they heard the door bang open. A man's voice called out, "Inspector! Sorry to interrupt but I think you must come see this!"
Joe shot Smith-Jones a panicky look; in a practiced move she deftly snagged it in mid-air and tucked it into a bulging little evidence rucksack which Joe had not previously noticed on her back.
"That," she said, "that would be my assistant DI, Manders. Suppose I've got to save the rest of the story for later, eh?"
Joe followed her up the hall to the front door, out onto the porch. A portly parkaed figure -- the aforementioned Manders, no doubt -- stood some distance away in the snow at the foot of a utility pole. Something large and dark and at this distance not quite identifiable lay at his feet.
As they approached, Joe continued to stare at the thing on the ground. Now he could see that several power lines had collapsed under the weight of the snow and lay fizzing and popping all around--- No, could it be?
It was the body of a woman, her face hideously made up in some ghastly black-and-green mudpack. She was dressed only in an orange towel and -- how odd -- a purple shower cap. Sparks from the downed electrical lines formed a corona all around her head. Queen of the Dead.
Joe peered more closely at her. Lovely, she was. Something familiar, too. Could she be the woman in the painting...?
My God, he thought, I know this woman---
Manders was speaking. "...and I swear I didn't touch her, Inspector. Learned me lesson, I have, after that last one I mean."
"Thanks, M," said Smith-Jones, and Joe noticed that her feet were not breaking through the crust of the snow at all. Amazing. "But I need to remind you--"
"Inspector Smith-Jones," he interrupted. "There's something you need to know about this woman. You see not only do I know her, but she" -- he paused to emphasize the point -- "she is known to me. This is---"
Meanwhile, some distance away, a cell phone jingled a game show's theme song....
"This is me, Violet . . .
"Listen Randy, I found the body of Clive this morning . . no I didn't report it to the police... I think they've found him now in any case... what? No, I bloody well didn't... what do you take me for? Look, will you listen to me and stop getting in a flap... I found a key next to his body..... I'm sure it's the key to the security box that we buried in the copse behind The Neptune bar and Tea rooms... SHUT UP, for crying out loud... will you let me finish... okay, okay I'll let you get back to 'Deal or No Deal' in a minute... you are obsessed with that programme... what I want to know is how Clive got that key. It's important. I thought it was in Joe's father's safe or something... really... why am I always the last to know?? Oh, and another thing... have you ever heard of a bloke called Gideon Stone... yes, that's right he's a Dwarf agent... really... well that explains everything. Have you seen Joe? I think he's up at his mother's place dusting her gin bottle and being morbid... police swarming all over the place... yes, best to keep a low profile but I'm going up there later... you know how I can always twist Joe round my little finger... look everything will be fine... have you got clean pants for tomorrow? Good... yes and you. And don't forget... meet me in the copse tomorrow night... you know where... bring a spade, a pick axe and..."
Violet looked round to see her son standing in the doorway.
“Right, James is here. I’ve got to go”
As she put the phone down, she moved over to James and gave him a hug.
“Up already? It’s early...could you not sleep?”
She brushed his cheek lightly and looked at her son, the image of his father, as she remembered him as a child. James was the same age Joe was when she met him, all those years ago at school. He had the same uncontrollable dark hair. Double crown, they called it. Just another term for unmanageable and difficult to tame. It was these days in particular, that when she looked at James that she felt the most guilty about what they’d done to Joe. James was a constant reminder of the part they’d played in the way his life had turned out.
“Who were you talking to, Mummy?” James said as he hoisted himself up on a kitchen stool, as he always did when he wanted breakfast.
“Uncle Randy. He couldn’t sleep. Just like you,” she said forcing an airy demeanour.
“Is he coming round here now?” James said as he took the spoon handed to him by Violet.
Violet never knew how to handle questions about Randy from James. She felt she was being interrogated by Joe. Something in her wondered if James would instantly recognise Joe as his father, in some primeval way. Would he just sense that Joe was his father? He had never taken to Randy as a substitute, no matter how much they tried. She worried that James would see his real father and turn his face to her and ask her the question she'd been dreading. He was only six, but she worried all the same. Time was running out for her and her secrets.
Randy, was reluctant to accept James anyway, and perhaps it was this more than anything that fed James’s quiet suspicion of him. James was a complication that Randy had put up with for Violet's sake. He'd rather he didn't have to. Violet knew this.
“James, Randy’s not coming round. I was talking to him about plans we’ve got later on. Eat your breakfast. You’ve got school and guess what! Grandad’s picking you up from school today!”
James smiled. His Grandad was his favourite person in the world. He seemed to be his protector. James just accepted that every granddad was like him. He didn’t know that there was a reason his granddad wanted to shield him from the harsh reality of life.
“Will Randy be here when I get back, Mummy?”
Violet smiled and shook her head.
“No, Randy won’t be here for a while.....”
...a good long while." She tousled her young man's hair, mashing the double crown into a single one. "Now then, got your galoshes right? Right. Off you go."
James left the house and Violet watched him go, and a hint of a tear sprang to the corner of one eye. Everything was about to change for the lad. Everything.
Meanwhile, a short distance away, Detective Smith-Jones was staring in shock first at Joe, then at the hideous remains in the snow and back again. "No," she said. "No. I don't believe it. You mean to tell me..."
“Yes...Maybe...I don't know. Well clearly someone is trying to frighten me. This woman is supposed to look like my dead mother. But I know that she died over a week ago. We’re supposed to be burying her tomorrow. This is...this is sick.”
“Is this your mother? Is it, Joe?”the Inspector asked, hand on his shoulder.
"I don’t know. I’m not sure. I don't know anything anymore. This whole thing’s gone crazy. First I come home and get the reception committee from Hell. Andthen I get told I have a son. Then a dwarf breaks into my house. Then you arrive and you both try to get my mother’s ring. Then you tell me Clive’s been killed. And now this??”
“It’s certainly been a very confusing night” said the Inspector, bending down to get a better look at the corpse in front of her. She poked the body with her index finger.
“This person’s been dead a while. They’ve been moved.”
“So it could be my mother.” said Joe bending down to join her, "Christ."
“I don’t know, could it? You knew her best, Joe. Could this be her?”
“I haven’t seen my mother in nearly seven years. She’s been dead a week. Who knows what she would look like. I couldn’t say for sure. But it certainly could be. Who could want to upset me like this? Who would do such a thing?” Joe struggled to hold back a tear.
Joe mentally went through a list of people who would want to hurt him. Up until tonight that list would have been small, but after coming off that train, he realised that quite a few people had a problem with him. Not least....
[Jack, Violet's dear old dad.]
Old Jack never liked Joe much at all, especially when he'd started seeing Violet, and now, he seemed to hate him with a passion... what with Joe abandoning Jack's bastard grandkid and all.
If Jack hadn't already been seated, he would have needed to grab a chair.
He kept managing to forget that little detail. And then it would come back at the most inopportune moments. Like now, sitting at his dead-- maybe twice dead mother's table in the middle of her mouldered kitchen, talking to the inspector about as many murders as he could think about in a night.
Now would be a good time to find a stash of his mom's booze, but it seemed to be gone. All of it.
He looked levelly at the Inspector.
He didn't spend all those long years doing Special Ops for the British Army without learning a thing or two.
He just didn't think he would need his military training now, in his rinky dink home town.
could do with a drink. As they settled at the bar, James Taylor took to the stage on the portable TV by the optics.
'I love this song,' the Inspector sighed.
'Me too...' Joe said thoughtfully. 'I wonder if...' he hesitated. 'Maybe that's why Vi called him James.' He took a swig of his scotch. The new bartender wasn't a patch on CJ and he waited impatiently for a refill. 'So, what are we going to do about all this..."
...murder and mayhem?"
"Inspector Smith-Jones, I am painfully aware that this is a most inopportune time to say this, but has anyone ever told you what lovely eyes you have?"
Inspector Smith-Jones turned away, tears suddenly welling up in the corners of her left and right eyes. She removed the tiny rainbow-colored paper umbrella from her glass and took a sip of her gin and tonic.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to..." Joe said, reaching out to her. Smith-Jones waved him away.
"Oh, it's nothing," she said, and then began to laugh. "Mostly I get comments on the size of my feet."
"How rude. I hardly noticed them. Your feet, that is. Well perhaps when you tripped down the stairs, but that could happen to anyone. I don't know why I said that just now about your eyes. I guess it's all the stress, all the weirdness that's going down. Lovely music, though."
"It's okay, I understand. People say strange things in situations like this. And yes, it is quite lovely. The music, that is. I've always been rather fond of James. Especially the old stuff."
"Right. What we need to do here is focus. In fact I learned a special technique for focusing back when I was doing Special Ops for the British Army."
"You were in the army?" she asked, somewhat surprised."Yes, but it's not something I like to talk about. Some really bad stuff went down back in '96. We were on the Menlung Glacier, hunting Yeti. I assume that you're familiar with mountaineer Eric Shipton and his 1951 Everest Reconnaissance expedition?"
"I've heard the lads talking about it in the pubs now and then."
"Well, we were doing a follow-up. What I'm now going to tell you might help you understand a little bit of what is going down here. You see Jack, Violet's father, was my commanding officer. The second week out we came to a small village called Panda Town. That's not what it was really called, but we named it that. You know how it is in the army. Anyhow, Jack met a lovely little native lass. She swept him off his feet. I think he was going through a mid-life crisis at the time. Anyhow, there was a third member on our team who was also a local boy."
Inspector Smith-Jones drew in a large quantity of air; "You don't mean..."
"Exactly. So you see, in a way, this all makes perfect sense." Joe raised his St Pauli Girl and drank deeply.
"What do you mean, all this?" Asked the Inspector.
"Rings, dwarfs, keys, shots in the dark, I'm tired... you know Inspector, I'm sure I've seen you somewhere before..."
"Erm... well, yes, we were at school together... but I doubt you'd remember me..."
Joe looked more closely at the Inspector.
"Monica Smith-Jones!!!" He exclaimed, nearly knocking his rum and coke off the kitchen table
"Yes, that's right, Swotsy Mondy..." Monica reddened and turned away from Joe trying to hide her embarrassment.
"Oh, my God, you've changed. Filled out a bit as well. Didn't you used to have a crush on me?"
"Erm... well... I think we ought to talk about the case, I am on duty you know. Perhaps we can put our minds together and work it all out."
"Perhaps we can," whispered Joe as he leant across the table and covered Monica's hand with his, "perhaps when this is all over we can...
[...talk about old times?"]
At first the flush rose in her cheeks, and he could tell that the insinuation had gotten to her. But then, she slipped her hand out from under his, much larger one. Despite her outsized feet, her hands were remarkably dainty and manicured. He wondered about other parts of her.
"Perhaps we should first talk about the matter at hand," she said, and it was all business again. Joe found her mix of procedure and intimacy to be quite heady. "I know that you have just gotten back to town, but I smell a whiff of old grudge and secrets, here."
Joe took a slug of his drink and then eyed her. Then he eyed the corners of the room. He just did not feel safe here, anymore. Maybe he never had, come to think of it. He let his hand brush the firearm at his waist, as if for comfort. She caught the gesture and their eyes locked. There was a jolt of tension between eachother. Was it that they were both armed, or was it something else?
"This is a very difficult town to be a stranger in, Joe," she said. "I have worked long and hard to be let in, and still, I can feel the secrets pulsing under the skin."
He leaned forward. "You have no idea," he breathed.
And in that moment Violet walked in the door.
She stopped in her tracks and
loosened the belt around the trench coat she was wearing. Keeping her eyes locked on Joe's, she shrugged it off her shoulders. His breath caught, a tight ball in his throat and he licked his dry lips as she sashayed across the room like a slinky balanced on a jelly, dragging the coat in her wake. The red dress clung to every curve. She stopped at their table, tossed the coat onto the empty chair and glared at the Inspector.
'Well, well, Swotsy Mondy. Shouldn't you be doing your homework..?'
The Inspector stared uncomfortably at the table, the colour rising in her cheeks. 'We're not at school any more Violet.'
'Might as well be. Nothing's changed has it? She was crazy about you even then Joe.'
'You never noticed me ...' she said quietly, glancing at Joe. 'All you ever saw was her.'
'I wonder why,' Violet leant on the table, her blonde hair swinging forward in a pale curtain. Joe's head swam as her red lips moved so close to his own.
'Where's the boy?'
'With Dad, he adores him,' Violet brushed her finger across her bottom lip. He was mesmerised, didn't hear the words, lost in his desire to kiss her. 'I said,' she repeated. 'What's a girl got to do to get a drink on her night off?'
'Oh, I'm sorry,' Joe stammered, knocking over his chair as he stood. Violet watched him walk to the bar. She calmly sat down and turned to the Inspector.
'He's going to find out ....
about us, isn't he?" Her knee touched the Inspector's, briefly, and she smiled secretively. "My favorite girls' camp ever."
'I hate you...' the Inspector glanced over her shoulder to check Joe was still busy at the bar. She clasped Violet's hand, pressed it briefly to her lips. She was trembling. 'No, no I don't. I love you Violet, I always have... I was never looking at him. It was you, always you.'
Violet glanced slowly from Joe to the Inspector. 'What time do you get off?'
'Good.' She reached into the pocket of her trench coat, slipped a key across the table. 'You know where I'll be.'
'Shh...' Her eyes darkened.
'If anything happens to me...'
'Don't be silly, why would anything happen to you?'
Joe was walking towards them now.
'Call this number,' the Inspector whispered as she pressed a folded piece of paper into Violet's palm...
The Neptune B&B,
I'll be there from 10.oopm onwards, after I've been to...
...She shook her head
"Well, you don't need to now about every boring detail of my life. I like to keep an air of mystery about me. You know," she licked her lips. "A glamour."
Monica couldn't help but be mesmerized by the ruby red of her lipsticked mouth.
"Let's just say" she said with a quirk of those luscious lips, "I'll be ready for, uhm..." she laughed throatily, "A workout."
Violet looked up and saw Joe making his way back to the table. "Whatever I tell him, don't you believe it."
Joe could not help smiling as he saw Violet sitting at his table, looking sexier than any woman had a right to look. Especially not in a dive bar like McGilligans. Was this really the woman who'd had his son?
He put two straight whiskeys and a kir royale down on the table. She fluttered her immensely long lashes at him and he almost missed his chair. "I remembered you liked these," he said as he slid the kir across the table to her.
"I've grown up a lot since you left me," she said and reached for his whiskey, downing it in one shot, staring at him the entire time.
"I didn't leave you. You left me," Joe said, angry because he'd thought he had buried the pain. But there it still was. Damn, he needed that whiskey, but Inspector Smith Jones had already taken hers. He picked up the kir royale and tossed it back.
"You're not supposed to have a man's baby and never tell him."
"You never belonged in this town, Joe. Never. You needed to leave."
"Not like that. Not after you
humiliated me in front of the goddamned world. Wasn't it enough that I...
...that I ....no wait, I don’t even need to ask. I know the answer. It was never enough. Nothing was ever enough for you. If I couldn’t be there, if I didn’t jump when you said jump you were on to the next guy, the next warm bed,” Joe said, a hint of defeat in his voice.
“I needed some security. You were never around…” Violet said, rolling her eyes.
“First of all you knew what I was dealing with at home and when I wasn’t there…” Joe started.
“Really Joe, I wish you’d stop acting like such a bitch. It’s a real turnoff,” Violet said, running a hand through her hair.
Joe slammed his fist into the table and stood.
“I can’t believe I came back here with such high hopes. This is not what I had planned. I came here wanting to...”
stay here for good. To stop running away from everything. My mother...my deranged family background."
He looked over at Violet and shook his head.
"What happened to you Violet? What happened to my best friend?"
"I grew up, Joe. I suggest you do the same and stop living in this rose tinted past that you seemed to have dreamed up for yourself. This town was never normal. I'm surprised you have such fond memories of your childhood. Your childhood-my childhood- was fucked up," she signalled to the bar for another round.
"I want to see my son," snapped Joe.
"Oh do you now. Who are you to make demands of me?"
"Well, let's see now. I'm his father. That surely entitles me. Where is he?"
The Inspector grabbed her coat and made to stand up, "Joe, I'm afraid you won't be seeing your son just yet. You see...."
... Well." The Inspector stopped, looked down at the table. Her gaze flicked once to Violet, briefly, and then back to Joe. She cleared her throat.
"I regret to inform you, Joe, that your presence here must soon draw to a close."
Joe couldn't decide which more disoriented him -- the bizarre statement, or the gruff official tone in which she'd delivered it. Old Swotsy? This was what she'd become, this parody of a broomstick-spined bureaucratic DI? He looked out the corner of his eyes at Violet but she was sitting, apparently mesmerised by Smith-Jones's sudden transformation.
"I don't understand," he said, pausing as the new round was delivered. He grabbed one of the shots at once and downed it. Let the two women fight it out between themselves who got stuck with the kir. "This town is my town too. I keep trying to tell everyone that---"
Smith-Jones interrupted, rebuking him with her upraised palm. "Stop. It's not the town I'm speaking of. It's McGilligan's. The injunction which Jack swore out against you takes effect in just thirty minutes. He doesn't want you anywhere near his daughter. And if I were you, I'd stay a good 100 yards from young Master James as well."
Why did these people all seem to hate him so? Joe wondered, his mind reeling.
And as that question came to his head, the first glimmer of an answer glimmered at the horizon. The mist in his head started to clear, and he suddenly began to recall the circumstances under which he'd left the last time. What an idiot he'd been not to remember sooner. That utterly ghastly day when
. . . he’d been caught spying into the girl’s locker room at St. Mary’s Of The Majestic Holy Lamb. That fateful Friday he had been manning his post, a tiny hole drilled in the wall of an adjoining unused broom closet. Yeah, Swotsy had been there, but she hadn’t been alone. Violet had been there, too. They were both swathed in towels, giving each other facials with some kind of weird, gooey black stuff. But that’s not all they were doing. Joe could hardly believe his eyes: the scene before him was almost surrealistic. Suddenly Swotsy stood up, her towel falling about her enormous feet. Joe gasped loudly. The two girls’ heads spun about, turning towards his spy hole. Without thinking he reeled backwards, hurtling through the closet door and spilling out into the hall. There he lay, blinking in horror, at the feet of . . .
...St. Margaret....otherwise known as St. Margaret McGilligan. She bore such a striking resemblence to her brother, Jack, that they could have been twins.
"Lesbians! They're lesbians. Not just men, she likes women. They like each other. They're together," Joe could not stop the words from spilling from his lips.
She grabbed him by the ear and pulled him to his feet.
"What is this nonsense?" she muttered.
While still holding his ear, she peered into the closet. She saw light coming through a tiny hole in the back and when she peeked in, she saw her neice Violet and another half-clothed girl running through a doorway.
Sister Margaret backed away and grabbed her rosary. She closed her eyes and appeared to be praying. Then a moment later, she opened them and slapped Joe across the face.
"The Lord dislikes punks like you," she sneered. Still holding his ear, she dragged him down the hall. "You will be punished," she said, leading him out a side door and down the stairs to ....
the headmaster's office.
This was it. He knew. Father Donohoe hated him. The memory of the scene in Father Donohoe's office played out again in his head, the yelling, the recriminations, the oft heard, "You're just like your no-good wastrel of a father. A Sullivan is a Sullivan and will always be a Sullivan."
And just like that, only months before he graduated, Joe Sullivan had been kicked out of school Back then, Joe had thought that it was because Joe was a bad seed, like Father Donohoe had always told Joe.
But he'd learned a few things about the world, ever since he entered the army.
The world needed bad seeds.
He looked at the two women, so sure they had him figured out, thinking he was the same abandoned, neglected, studious and needy kid he was when he was last here, and said
. . . "I'm out of here."
The two women looked up, surprised and watched Joe storm out the house. As soon as the cold winter air hit his face, Joe felt better, he knew that he was in control of the situation. He knew exactly where he was heading. To the copse behind The Neptune Bar and Tea Room. He'd had a bug on Violet's phone for some time now. The box was going to make his fortune because in that box was a miracle recipe for an anti-aging face mask that Violet had been using for the last 10 years, Christ, he thought, she doesn't look a day older than 16. It was his mother's recipe and Violet had stolen it.
As he approached the copse he could see a flash of torch-light. Randy. Randy was a major obstacle but this time Randy's time was up.
Joe felt for his...
mobile phone, ripped it from the velcro wrapped around his calf. He pressed 1 - the number dialled automatically. It connected.
'Yeah, it's me, Monsieur.' he paused. As a barrage of questions hit him, he held the phone further from his ear. 'Shut up,' he said finally. 'Shut the fuck up. We both know what this is worth. My mother died looking not a moment older than the day she married my father Bill and the secret lies in this town. My mother was beautiful ...' he hesitated. 'I don't care what you say. After everything she'd been through, it was amazing she didn't turn out like her sister:
The voice on the other end of the line died down. 'You need me.' Joe said. 'That's why you dragged me home from Afghanistan. My mother knew how to keep herself beautiful - naturally.' The voice on the other end protested. 'Yeah, I know it will be hard to sell - it's black, it's sticky, it looks like tar - but what would you rather? To look like Alice's sister? Yeah she was famous but ..' Joe took a deep cool breath of the night air. Nothing was how he remembered. Everything had changed.'My mother died beautiful. You need me because ..
“You need me because I am the key to what you want. I am the key to finding Bill.”
Bill Sullivan and Jack McGilligan left Cork in 1950. The two friends hatched their escape from a life promising nothing but farm labouring and dead ends, and put all their money together to buy two one way ferry tickets to Liverpool. They hitch-hiked from Cork to Dublin, and ate nothing for two days except a small stack of sandwiches made from bread and cheese taken from Jack’s father’s larder and two batches of soda bread that Bill's mother had given them. Jack knew his father would be livid, but he doubted he’d ever see him again, much less face the beating that he would dole out for such a show of disrespect.
Bill, however, didn’t sneak out in the dead of night without so much as a word. He woke his mother in the early hours and explained himself.
“I’ll send you what I can Ma. Don't worry about me. Wait and see, I’ll come back a millionaire. You won’t have to worry about a thing” he said as he bent down to kiss his mother goodbye.
His mother wiped away the tears that streamed down her face, and knew there was nothing she could say that would make Bill change his mind. He was just like his father. Charlie Sullivan had been a stubborn and determined man, right up until the day he died, and Bill was just like him. She wouldn’t have Bill any other way. She knew he'd be alright.
When the two friends landed in England they vowed they would never let each other down. They would work together to make their decision to leave their hometown the best decision they ever made.
“Nobody and nothing can come between two friends like us,” said Bill.
“Next time we see Ireland, we’ll be rich men. We’ll buy the whole town!”laughed Jack.
Neither of them even saw Ireland again.
Ten years later Bill and Jack...
Were in Liverpool, both driving trucks for a local haulage company. The boss loved Bill like his own son, and had them on an easy route down to Suffolk. One of the stops was picturesque village, where Jack had fallen in love with a pretty florists daughter, named Elizabeth. He called her Bitsy. And she had hair like spun gold and the sweetest disposition any one had ever seen.
Bill's wife Wilma was pregnant. She was the light of his life.
He was thankful every day that Wilma agreed to leave the circus to be with him. He couldn't believe that someone as beautiful as she, the trick rider, dancing on the back of a herd of horses in her spangles and ribbons, wanted to be with him, but she did.
Most people run away to the circus when they want a new life, Wilma had run away from the circus. She said her da would hate that she wanted to be one of the regular people, and that was why she had to cut him out of her life. Just leave the circus behind for good, even though he saw her, looking wistfully at the posters on the walls, every time the circus came to town.
She said he was making it up, and all she really wanted was to live in a small town with him, have his baby, and be ordinary. The boss said he'd bankroll a truck depot down there in Suffolk, and put his best guys in charge.
Everything was starting to come together like a dream, until
. . . until Wilma turned on the radio [the reception is very poor in Suffolk] and started crying for yesterday . . . But Wilma realised she could still make something of her life when she found a book under the floor boards of her ancient cottage; it was called 'The Witches Brew'. Wilma set herself up as the local soothsayer and apothecary. People flocked from miles around to hear her visions and to sample her healing potions. She also became a drunk. One day whilst mixing a brew she accidentally spilt her afternoon cocktail into a mixture of...
baker's yeast, the mercury preservative known as thimerosal, a pinch of salt, hydroquinone skin lightener, a teaspoon of vanilla extract, 1,4-dioxane, a quarter-cup of whole milk, and coal tar.
The mixture looked quite vile -- and oh Jesus Mary and Joseph the smell! It actually bubbled in the pot and (Wilma would recall later) she could have easily imagined an eye of newt bobbing about on the surface. Her first instinct was just to dump it; she was sure dinner was ruined.
But when it cooled enough to discard safely, she had touched the surface. It tingled upon her index fingertip. Taking a chance, she smeared a bit on the back of her left hand. More tingles...
...and then that little half-inch square went suddenly hairless.
That had been the start of something big, very big. She carefully wrote down the ingredient list as she remembered it, and sealed it in a little box. She'd give it to one of the kids -- just in case anything happened to her, and perhaps they'd be able to make something of it...
But that had been years ago now.
[Fig. 01: One of the Early Trials]
Unfortunately the first test results were less than entirely satisfactory (Fig. 01).
But it wasn’t merely the outside that was altered in these failed attempts.
There were modifications on the inside as well. The DNA of the testee's ova often mutated, producing offspring with achondroplasia, commonly known as . . . dwarfism.
Wilma's pregnancy went smoothly. Everyone commented on her beautiful complexion: 'You're blooming!' the vicar shook her hand warmly at the end of the Christmas Eve service. Wilma smiled wanly. Her contractions had started during 'Hark the Herald Angels Sing.' As Bill helped her down the icy church path, gulls wheeled in the leaden sky. She gripped his arm.
'It's time, Bill,' she said. Alarm filled his eyes.
That night, he paced the waiting room floor smoking filterless Camels. By the time the nurse came in to break the news, he was well into his second packet.
'Mr Sullivan ...'
'Where is she?' he barged past the nurse into Wilma's room. She smiled weakly. The dawn light made her pale skin seem luminous. 'It's a boy ...' she whispered as he kissed her.
Bill gazed into the cradle at the side of the bed. The boy's open, beautiful face gazed back at his father - his dark eyes filled with what seemed like inifinite wisdom. To Bill it seemed like he was capable of anything, everything. The blankets were tucked tightly up to the baby's chin.
'Wilma,' Bill murmured, holding back tears of relief and joy. 'He's beautiful.'
'They wouldn't let me hold him ...'
'That's crazy,' Bill smiled down at his boy. 'Come on little fella, let's show your Ma how handsome you are ...' The baby gazed quizzically at him. Never again would he face the world with such openness. Overtime the looks of revulsion and fear would beat Clive down. Never again would he be able to look the world in the eye. With infiinite gentleness, Bill peeled back the blankets. 'Gosh you're a wee little fellow aren't you?' he said slowly as he peeled the last sheets away.
'Mr Sullivan ...' the nurse hovered, uncertain what to say. 'You should wait for the doctor.'
Bill's breath caught in his throat as he exposed his son's tiny, disfigured body. The boy's beautiful face gazed at him. 'Oh no, oh god no ...' tears choked him as he recoiled.
'Bill?' Wilma tried to sit up, her face contorting in pain. 'Bill what is it ....
"Nothin', Plum Puddin', nothin," he said, putting the wee, now squalling infant back in the basinet. "Listen to the doctors, Bright Moon of the Night." His voice was soothing to her, but when he turned to the doctor, there was a note of panic. "Can't you give her something to calm her down?" he whispered.
The doctors, looking on him with sympathy, nodded and added something to her IV.
"What is it, Bill? Why will no one talk to me?"
"Relax, Light of the Fairy Circle. Just rest," Bill said, "I'm goin' to head home to the flat and ready it for your arrival, when you wake up, we can go home."
"Okay, Bill," Wilma said, as she floated dreamlessly into the darkness.
That was to be the last time she saw her husband for 16 years.
On the day she and her baby, (whom she loved beyond the moon and the stars, and whom she named after her carnie father,) were to be released, Joe had a taxi waiting for her. The driver had no answers, just that he was to pick up the lady and the babe and take them home.
Where Bill was not.
Until he returned to her 16 years later, hat in hand, saying he had never loved anyone more than he loved her, begging for
...forgiveness. But it was too late for that, and the fact that Bill couldn't bring himeself to ask for it until she couldn't deny him, was a tragedy.
At Wilma's funeral no-one saw Bill enter the chapel. He stood at the back with tears in his eyes. And as her casket was lifted by six men, he only recognised one of them. His old friend Jack, who he hadn't seen since the day his first son was born.
When the mourners disappeared, Bill went to Wilma's grave and wept, "Forgive me, my darling. Please forgive me.I just couldn't. I'm sorry. "
Bill sunk to his knees and shook with grief and guilt. He knew that nothing he could ever do now, would make it right. Wilma had died of cancer. She had never remarried. His son was sixteen. He had never seen him, except as an infant.
He knew the only thing he could do now was make it right with his son. But how....
The question tortured him as he dropped tears on Wilma's still and beautiful face.
She looked just like he remembered her. His moon, his stars, his delight. He didn't understand how he could have tossed her away like that.
"I know who you are," someone said, over his shoulder.
Bill turned around, burdened by the weight of his grief and loss. He saw no one.
"I know you," the voice said again, from below. He looked down at what he first thought was a young girl.
Her eyes were wise. And she was shaped like a woman, dressed in a from fitting black dress and tiny heeled shoes.
She was a dwarf, he realized. He could not help but shudder with revulsion, and then the guilt ate at him.
"What?! Who are you?"
"I'm Rowena, The Gypsy," she said. "And I won't let you hurt him again."
"Clive. Your son. He's mine, and was fated for me. I will live with him and bear his babies. I don't care if he is ten years younger than me, he is mine and I won't let you hurt him again."
"My son? My boy? The dwarf?"
"And what if he is a dwarf?" Rowena the Gypsy spit at him. He stepped back involuntarily and then felt a fool. She could not be taller than 3 feet. "I am one too and you know not what you play at."
He backed away again as she reached into her black clutch purse. Did she have a gun?
She pulled out a tarot card.
"You will always destroy the ones you love." Her voice sent shivers through his spine. "That is your fate. I warn you now--
Do not doubt my powers just because I am shorter than you."
Bill glanced at the Tarot card and then he looked more closely, from the card to its tiny wielder, back and forth. Good Lord. It was Rowena herself depicted on the card. What was she trying to tell him? Was she trying to tell him anything at all, for that matter?
"What are you trying to tell me?" he said aloud finally. "From what I remember of the Tarot, The Devil is the card of self-bondage to an idea or belief which is preventing us from growing. Is this somehow related to your and Clive's... condition?"
Rowena hissed, she actually hissed at him. The Devil indeed. "Do not try my patience," she said, "and remember what I have told you. "Leave Clive be!" She melted back into the darkness.
So he had lost his wife. He apparently had lost his son Clive as well, if he didn't want to risk the microscopic but probably quite annoying wrath of Rowena. There was still Joe, he supposed, but
he was just a boy, and Alice had moved on too. Last he'd heard, she had stayed sober long enough to film some TV film, some kind of dancing. It sounded spooky to him - something unexpected, tarot cards, but it was very popular on TV in Suffolk ...
Bill stumbled out of the churchyard, his legs as heavy as lead. This is when you want your children to support you, he thought angrily. And what've I got? A hunchback and a bastard. 'Bill Sullivan, you're an idjit, ye get what ye deserve,' he imagined Wilma saying to him in her little sing-song voice. Already he was picturing her up there with the angels, her halo setting off her unnaturally beautiful skin.
Strangely, when her will was read the next day, she left her notebooks to Alice. Everyone knew Bill had been carrying on with her for years, so why Wilma would have left her anything, who knows? Alice was visiting family in Holland with her boy Joe when Wilma died. She'd had a tough time of it since Bill went back to his wife, and her sister May had come up from London to take care of the house and cats. May was in her element - everyone said she was more cat than human. When Wilma's notebooks were delivered by the solicitor's clerk, she couldn't resist reading them. By the time Alice returned with little Joe, her sister was unrecognisable because ...
. . . of, well, in a sense, because of her jealousness. And infamous curiosity. How does that old saying go? ‘Curiosity killed the cat.’ Yes, and it continues, ‘But satisfaction brought her back’. But there is little satisfaction to be found here, that’s for sure.
No-one knows the exact story, but it is thought to go something like this: May, ever envious of her gorgeous sister, discovered the recipe for the secret beauty potion in the notebooks. She immediately decided that she’d have to try it out for herself. Alice was gone; what's to stop her. After a trip to Marwell’s Groceries & Greens, a short stop at the Chemists, a larcenous stroll through the neighbours’ herb garden and an amphibian hunt in the backyard frog pond, she was ready. She filled the oversized blender that Alice kept parked under the sink with the diverse, and somewhat unsavoury, ingredients. As she turned on the blender, it swirled into action, eventually liquefying everything into an amorphous black sludge. ‘Yuck’, was all she could think. ‘I’m going to smear that shit all over my face? Not very likely.’ Just then the phone rang. She left the blender running. It was Alice – she was going to be a few days late in coming home. She and Joe were having such fun together. The sisters chatted for a bit; May was a tad lonely, what with just the cats to talk to. Little did she know that as they spoke, Shadrach, the jet black Abyssinian, was leaning precariously over the blender from the overhanging shelf, fascinated by the swirling black mess. The cat became dizzy and slipped. And then Shadrach was falling, and then she, too, was part of the churning mess. It all happened so fast that she hadn’t even managed to squeeze out a solitary meow.
May came back from the phone conversation, more determined now than ever to smear the horrid stuff on her face. Alice had ended up blathering about how all the lads had been turning their heads wherever she and little Joe went. Since May was alone, she could have it on for the entire time Alice was gone, day and night. She'd just close the curtains. And then she’d surprise her at the door, ten times more beautiful than big Sis ever had been. In fact, she wouldn’t look at herself in the mirror the entire time, either. What fun! She’d surprise them both!
The sludge felt different than she expected and it smelled foul. Well, beauty was worth anything, especially now. Perhaps if it hadn't been for Joe, she wouldn't care, but for him, she would...
do anything to be the perfect aunt. On the day he was due back from Holland with Alice, May tidied the house, imagining all the wonderful adventures that lay ahead of them. She just had time to wash the last of the facepacks off before she heard Alice's key in the door. She ran downstairs followed by a liquid stream of cats, rushing down the steps like mercury in her wake, yowling a greeting, relieved not to be alone in the house any longer with this maniac who blended their mother.
Joe rushed into the lamplit hall, glanced up as his aunt ran to greet him and froze in horror. As Alice pulled the key from the lock, he began to scream.
May left soon after that. Small town Suffolk was no place for her. She married an octogenarian billionaire with a feline obsession. Alone at home with a small child, Alice's high spirits didn't last long.
'Go play,' she would push Joe out of the kitchen door as one of her gentlemen arrived to do odd jobs around the house. 'Go find some friends your own age.'
And he did. When Randy and Violet were busy with their own families, Joe would wander out to the trailer park to play with Clive's kids. CJ became like the kid brother he never had. It was the only place he felt accepted, the only place where people didn't joke about his crazy cat aunt and Alice's drinking. The only place in the world he felt like the normal one. There were eight of them in one trailer - Rowena, Clive, their five children and her mother, poor Wilma's best friend .........
Really I’m probably wasting my time writing this down. Joe’s unlikely to ever need a recipe for a skin cream. But who knows? Maybe he’ll have children; my granddaughters. Ha! Ha! What a thought. Me, a granny! Anyway, granddaughters if you’re reading this, then my love to you. And enjoy making granny’s skin formula. I think it’s been a wonder. It would be unfair not to share it with you, my loves.
This is enough to do a week, applying both morning and night.
Willow bark- small shavings- a teaspoon full
Cow’s milk- a pint
Grapeseed oil- one teaspoon
Olive oil- half a teaspoon
Oats- half a cup
Demerara Sugar- 1 tablespoon
Garden Moss- a clump
Frogspawn- (freeze a healthy batch in spring to last the whole year)- 1 tablespoon or one ice cube worth
Garden Mint- three leaves
The next ingredient is very important but quite toxic and difficult to find. I suggest....
At this point the page is roughly torn.....
. . . Randy held the torn recipe in his hand, the open security box at his feet. He trembled as he read the words. As he reached the bottom of the page he swore under his breath.
"Why can't things ever be simple." he muttered.
Angrily he threw his pick-axe onto the ground and slumped on his knees.
"Randy!" Yelled Joe
Randy lept to his feet knocking he torch over and losing his light. Joe was fast and was quckly behind him his arm tightening around Randy's throat.
"Remember how good I am at this Randy." Hissed Joe in his ear.
Randy fought for breath; as he felt his last moments of life being squeezed out of him, Joe snatched the recipe from Randy's hand.
"Is this it Randy? Is this what all the fighting has been about? Can't breathe can you? You bastard. Violet doesn't love you, she's using you, like she's used us all. Do you know what Randy babes, I'm going to let you go. Violet's with Swotsy. You go and see for youself. She's making a fool out of you."
Joe released his grip on Randy and the two men faced each other.
"Why are you letting me go Joe?"
"Because it's going to be worth it." Laughed Joe.
"Go on get out of here, go and see what that bitch is up to."
Randy stumbled through the trees, still trying to catch his breath, Joe remained, found the torch and lit up the scene... there was something else in the box... it looked like a....
[Rowena's updated family tree post 2008-12-09]
An old photo book.
He opened it up, knowing it came from his mother. Knowing that whatever it was, it was his very own legacy.
And there, in all the pictures, was his mother.
Young, so young. A girl, even. He didn't remember seeing pictures of his mother as a girl, ever.
He wondered why. She seemed to be having such a lovely time. Running around a carnival with another young, beautiful girl. A crowd of girls, it seemed, but most specifically, just one. No, it wasn't a carnival. It was a circus.
He saw the other girl riding on the back of the horses. He saw his mother, amazingly, up in the air, on the high wire. It looked like she was dancing. And then he saw both of them together, their arms clasped and in them middle, a tiny girl, no taller than his arm, standing on their clasped arms. All three of them with the huge, innocent smiles that can only come with youth, with the hope and dreams that exist before the world comes crashing down.
Was it possible that his mother, before she met old Bill who ruined her life, had been a circus performer? It seemed impossible, but here was the evidence right here in front of him.
He turned to the last page, and pasted there, was a key.
He had seen it before. He didn't know where. It wasn't the key to this, his mother's old lock box... that was still stuck in the box in front of him. It wasn't the key to the house-- which he just remembered that idjit Randy still had. But he knew
he'd seen it somewhere, damn it, somewhere...
Then he had it, from all those years ago. The girls' locker room, the hole in the wall, the broom closet. Sister Margaret. She'd had just this key hanging around her neck; he'd seen it clearly as she pinched his ear and got her own eyeful. For the few seconds she'd watched the two girls at play, she'd clutched this key inside a muscled fist, her lips moving soundlessly: this key, with the crossed hands forming the ring through which the simple loop of twine passed. There was no mistaking it.
As he looked at it now, he suddenly realized it wasn't a key after all. It had a tiny, was that a hinge along the shaft? He removed it from the box, dug with a fingernail at the little bolt or hinge or whatever it was. The "key" sprung open, revealing a narrow hollow chamber.
And rolled up inside the little tube was a tiny white cylinder of paper.
Sister Margaret. Mother Superior's right hand lady...and the school's most feared teacher. How long had she been there. No one really knew for sure. There were rumours that she was Father Donahoe's sister, but no-one dared ask her. For sure, if she was, she was a great deal younger than him. But then, a large age gap between siblings was not uncommon in Irish Catholic families. Who could guess at how many other brothers and sisters separated them?
Not for nothing were Father Donahoe, Sister Margaret and Mother Superior jokingly called "The Holy Trinity". They knew everything that went on in school, and in the towns and villages in the area. The school was the only catholic school for miles and children came as far away Newmarket and Felixstowe. They came for two reasons; religious instruction for those children of families of the Catholic faith, and high quality schooling for those pretending to convert for the sake of their children's education. St. Mary's Of The Majestic Holy Lamb was one of the best schools in the country.
When Mother Superior died, it went without argument that Sister Margaret would take over the headmistress's role. She had been in that position since Joe could remember. She was dry, cold, fierce and unapproachable, but Sister Margaret was also an incredible beauty. Every boy who ever went to St Mary's could attest to this; Sister Margaret had probably been their first forbidden object of desire.
A Bride of Christ Sister Margaret may have been, but she knew the men of the area looked longingly at her. Her power over the children that were her charges gave her life purpose and structure. But it was the power over the local men whose eyes fell lustfully upon her, as she walked through the neighbouring villages,that fortified her life with a secret and wicked satisfaction.
Sister Margaret never changed, she never aged, she never looked anything less than perfect. And she still ran St. Mary's Of The Majestic Holy Lamb to this day....
Randy could hear Violet and Swotsy talking loudly inside the house. He crept up to the window and could just make out Violet doing up the buttons on her blouse.
"...we've got to do this for Sister Margaret, we promised." Finished Violet.
"But... it would mean killing another dwarf...did, did you kill Clive Violet?"
"Oh for pity's sake, why does everyone keep asking me that. No. I didn't."
At this moment Randy slipped, he was shocked that Violet was so intimate with Swotsy. His whole world was blurring. Had Violet told Swotsy about him? Did Swotsy know his secrets?
"What was that? There's someone spying on us... again."
Violet peered out the window.
"Swots... it's Randy, he's hiding in a bush by the window. Have you got your gun?"
"Yes... but... I can't kill him Vi."
"Give the gun to me... he's got an ingredient that we need. Stop crying... remember this is for Sister Margaret."
Randy tried to get up, but he tripped over a dwarf... it was...
..odd that so many dwarfs seemed to be in the area. Why?
Dwarfism can be caused by more than 200 different medical conditions. The most common cause of dwarfism is achondroplasia, a bone growth disorder responsible for 70% of dwarfism cases. Conditions in humans characterized by disproportional body parts are typically caused by one or more genetic disorders in bone or cartilage development. Forms of extreme shortness in humans characterized by proportional body parts usually have a hormonal or nutritional cause such as growth hormone deficiency, once known as "pituitary dwarfism"
The most recognizable and most common form of dwarfism is achondroplasia, which accounts for 70% of dwarfism cases and produces rhizomelic short limbs, increased spinal curvature, and distortion of skull growth.
Achondroplasia is a result of an autosomal dominant mutation in the fibroblast growth factor receptor gene 3 (FGFR3), which causes an abnormality of cartilage formation. FGFR3 normally has a negative regulatory effect on bone growth. In achondroplasia, the mutated form of the receptor is constitutively active and this leads to severely shortened bones.
(Source: Wikepedia- various)
"Listen," CJ said as he jumped up from the ground underneath the window, "they're coming. Get that great footballer lump you call an ass up and going. We've got to get out of here."
"What?" Randy said. Confused. He was always confused. He needed to talk to Violet. She would straighten everything out, he was sure.
"Don't question me!" CJ said. "We've got to go to my mother's, and we've got to go now! Move."
Randy was used to taking orders. He followed the little man, who was surprisingly fast and fleet on his feet.
They disappeared into the copse behind the Neptune.
Violet and Swotsy tumbled out into the garden behind the B&B.
"He's gone!" Violet said under her breath.
"They're gone, Vi." Swotsy-- it was so easy to forget she was a detective, what with her big feet and insecurities stemming from High School-- was examining tracks in the snow. "Randy, and a dwarf."
Violet swore. "The dwarves! Now we're going to have to
bring them in with us on our little secret. No pun intended."
Swotsy pointed at a spot where the snow was particularly disturbed. "I'm not so sure about that, Vi. Look here. What's that you see?"
Violet leaned closer. She couldn't quite see... As she reached out to brush some of the loose snow aside, Swotsy batted her hand away. "But I was just trying t0---"
"I know what you were trying to do. But this is a crime scene now. Look, sweetheart. Look. You don't need to see anymore than that little bit sticking up there... the two crossed hands..."
Violet clapped a hand to her forehead. "Sister Margaret's key! And is that...?"
"Yes. Blood all right."
"Randy's or CJ's?"
Swotsy leveled a squirrely gaze at Violet. "Might as well ask is it yours or mine or Sister Margaret's for that matter. How the hell should I know whose it is? Red, isn't it?" She sat back on her heels, and sighed deeply. (Violet loved Swotsy's sighs. The deeper the better.) "Now I'll have to get hold of Manders and that lot, and we'll have the bulls traipsing all over the garden here. It appears, love, that we shall have to seek out a new trysting spot."
A crash from around the side of the B&B brought the conversation to a close.
What the hell was that?” Swotsy scanned the evening gloom.
“Cats. Just a bunch of cats. This whole town is filled with godamned cats.”
“Yeah, well, looks more like rats to me. If those little fur balls are cats, they’re the smallest ones I’ve ever seen. What are they, pygmies?”
Violet looked at her and then began to laugh. She bent over double, coughing as she sucked in the cold air. Despite the pain she couldn't stop and howled even louder.
“And what, may I ask, is so funny?” Swotsy was in no laughing mood. The situation was coming apart at the seams and it looked like Violet might be doing the same.
“Not pygmies.” Violet tried to stand upright, but didn’t manage. Her entire frame shook with manic laughter. “Those are, they’re . . . dwarf cats,” she finally choked out and then burst into tears.
Joe sat by himself, stretched out on a town square bench, hidden behind a cluster of snow-clad maple trees. It was cold, biting cold, but somehow it didn’t register with him in the least. His mind was far from snow and cold. The tiny piece of paper he held in his frozen fingers fluttered carelessly in the wind, a miniature white flag.
He had a nasty burning sensation in his stomach, as if he’d eaten lava for lunch. It briefly crossed his mind that he might get sick; that he might in fact vomit. He took a deep breath. The air was glacial, yet his mind was on fire. He felt like he’d been strung up in a furnace and hung out to burn. Slowely. ‘I’ve gone to Hell’, he mumbled out loud to no-one. Pearls of sweat beaded across his forehead.
That last ingredient in the beauty facial. The Black Mask. It couldn’t be and yet there it was, written in the unmistakable flowing script of his mother. No wonder she had kept it a secret. Christ, not secret by half enough. Dwarf juice. Crème de Nain. It couldn’t be, yet . . . A hormone, an enzyme, a molecule – what did he know? Something particular to the dwarf metabolism, something unique. Something found only there. Alice probably didn’t know exactly what it was either. It was just something that worked. The final ingredient leading her down the path to preternatural beauty.
His mind turned over, puzzling pieces falling into place like a bang-up Tetris session. But of course! Gideon Stone. Murdered. The papers had mentioned that he looked more like a prune than a human being when they found him. Sucked dry, a mere husk. And now Joe had uncovered the culprit. His mother, his own loving mother. Loving? Had he said that, thought it? She had murdered Gideon Stone - mariticide. She had milked Stone's diminutive body of its precious life fluids, like he was some kind of chemical cow. But not only Stone. Surely there had been other ‘suppliers’ as well. Ten, twenty; how many? It was too awful to imagine. How many batches of that evil concoction had she brewed over the years? A witch, that’s what she was, straight out of Macbeth. Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble. Those chemistry classes at night school when he was a kid; it had seemed so absurd at the time. Not now. And the circus, of course – a plentiful supply of ‘small people’ for her to sample from. Yes, all falling into place, the blocks tucking snugly together, arranging themselves into a horrendous satanic structure. And then it dawned on him. Why had they moved here in the first place? What did this sleepy little town have to offer that a hundred others couldn’t give more of? One thing and one thing only. Dwarves, this town was chockfull of dwarves.
Rowena cut the cards as Sister Margaret stubbed out her cigar. 'You should stop that you know ... terrible for your skin.' The circle of women round the card table fell silent for a moment, before they burst out laughing.
'As if we have to worry about that,' she blew a final plume of blue smoke into the air. On Wednesday nights, Rowena dealt poker cards rather than tarot - it had become a good excuse for the women to get together in the back room of McGilligans, and the only place where Vi and Swotsy could openly show their love for one another.
Violet affectionately kissed the top of her head. 'I've got a surprise for you love,' she whispered, and she slipped her thumb and forefinger between her lips, letting out a low whistle. 'Happy Birthday,' she said as a well built guy strutted onto the dancefloor.
The women shrieked with laughter, and Sister Margaret clapped her hands in delight. 'A strippogram!'
'No - better than that,' Vi smiled as he began his routine.
'Your feet's too big ...' Swotsy laughed, her eyes dancing with love as she turned to Violet.
'Not for me,' her lips parted as she closed her eyes and kissed Swotsy.
'Get a room,' a low voice growled as a tiny woman approached the table.
Rowena looked up. 'Mum, where've you been? We started without you.'
'You have no idea ...' she shook her head and poured a shot of Schnapps from the bottle on the table. Lindisfarne had its mead, but Sister Margaret ran a nice sideline in Little Hamptonpoint Valley Schnapps - the nuns had become quite adept at distilling over the years, and the schnapps was a good front for what really went on in the distillery behind their convent near the school. They had been excommunicated years ago once the Church became suspicious, but no one in Suffolk seemed to care or even to have noticed that the links with Rome had been severed. Schnapps went out the front door, and the key ingredient for Creme de Nain out the back while successive generations of East Anglian children passed through the shady corridors of the school. She waved a surprisingly wrinkle free finger at her daughter. 'All day, the same card, every time I dealt. Death.' Everyone shifted uncomfortably. 'I told you, the moment that boy arrived back in town it would be trouble.'
'We'll sort it out,' Sister Margaret said firmly. 'We always do.'
'We were getting so close,' the old dwarf shook her head. 'What with Wilma and now Alice gone, I'm the last one left from the circus days. I miss them,' she wiped a tear from her eye.
'He wanted to know why I had his mother's ring ...' Swotsy said quietly. 'If CJ hadn't been looking out for me ... I think we threw him off the scent.'
'We have to get him out of here,' Violet's eyes glinted. 'Donohoe, Bill and Jack have made a fortune out of Wilma and Alice's discovery. Dad's always said they promised to go back to Ireland millionaires, but I'm damned if I'm going to let him corrupt my James.'
'And let's not forget it would have been too dangerous without your mother Bitsy's help,' Sister Margaret patted her niece's hand. 'If she hadn't suggested adding catnip to counteract some of the obvious problems of using dwarf cat instead of dwarf human in the recipe ...'
Rowena laughed. 'All these years, there was the men thinking Alice was the Sweeny Todd of Southwold, bumping off dwarves when they came to 'visit' ...'
'When we've been helping them escape over the channel to safety in Holland.'
'To the Dwarf Liberation Front!' Rowena's mother raised her glass. 'And happy birthday Swotsy, bravest of all our agents. That's why Alice loved you like the daughter she never had.'
'What are we going to do now?' Swotsy said quietly. 'It was only a matter of time before this French buyer - Monsieur ... No one knows his name do they?' she turned to Violet for confirmation. 'Bill and Jack have been whacking up the price of Creme de Nain for years. No wonder he's come looking to cut out the middle man ...'
'Greedy bastards,' Rowena's mother hissed. 'They'll get what's coming to them. Especially after they bumped off Sister Mary ...'
'She was the spitting image of Alice wasn't she?' Rowena said sadly. 'They got him to ...'
'The dwarf catcher?' Violet paled.
Rowena nodded mutely. 'He killed her as a warning to us. Just like he killed the love of my life, the fire of my loins, my Clive before he could tell Joe how brave dear Alice had been ...' she disolved into tears.
'All the women in this town are beautiful ... and long may it stay that way,' Sister Margaret looked at each woman in turn. 'The men will get what's coming to them, but Joe Sullivan is an innocent in this. This 'Monsieur' is using him to get to the secret, and we must remember Alice's dying words, the reason she left him Gideon Stone's estate ...'
"The reason she left him Gideon Stone's estate is inconsequential. We no longer need him. Finish him."
"I do not care 'ow you do this. I have 70 Dwarves to freeze dry. Do you think I worry about your piffles? Get on with it. I want to hear no more about it until it is done."
"Yes... You heard correctly a new acid peel will be ready for mass marketing in January. It will wrinkle everyone who uses it and they will pay me huge sums for the anti-dote, ha ha ha. World domination of woman kind in within my grasp ha ha ha.
"I have to go now. Bunty is calling and has prepared Angel cake for supper. I will ring again tomorrow. I want to hear how he..."
"I want to hear how he is going to get the boy" he said, "We have the boy, then we have the ultimate leverage. Those women will do anything I ask".
The boy was with his Grandad. James lay on the floor colouring in a homework assignment. As he coloured he sang to himself. James had an extraordinary voice. A God-given voice. It startled all who heard it.
Sister Margaret had long encouraged Violet to let him audition for the school choir.
"He is an extraordinary little boy, Violet. You're too protective over him. He'll start to notice. You must give him some freedom."
Violet always declined. "Sister, I know you want the best for him, but he's too good. He would stand out. I want James to remain as anonymous as he can possibly be."
As he lay on his Grandad's carpet, James sung and his Grandfather watched him, rapt. His eyes filled with tears, and he looked at his watch anxiously.
long gone by the time Violet got home. As she paused in the porch to find her key, Kitten LaBouche and Daisy Ladds, Rowena's twin teenage daughters called out a greeting - they were obviously on their way to work. Violet smiled wistfully as she watched the girls stroll by, their tiny little stilettos clicking on the icy pavement. She felt old suddenly. The street lamp shimmered in the glitter they had sprayed into their backcombed peroxide blonde hair, and the sweet scent of 'Angel' lingered on the cold air long after they had disappeared into the bar. As the bar door swung closed behind them, the street fell silent. Violet shivered. She wished Swotsy was with her.
Violet knew something was wrong the moment she walked through the door. Someone had left an old record playing, but only James' dwarf hamster remained. Roy, at the hardware store had given it to the boy as a gift six months or so ago. James loved that little hamster, taught it all kinds of tricks. It liked popcorn, but it went wild for Roy's holiday brownies - well, who didn't? A trail of crumbs traced across the parquet floor to the old piano Bitsy had loved to play. Violet scooped the hamster up and stroked it gently in the palm of her hand as she looked around the room.
Jack had clearly left in a hurry. She had just missed them. James' homework assignment lay strewn across the floor. Violet's hand trembled as she reached down and picked up his colouring. James was planning to breed hamsters, sell them down at Roy's to earn a little extra pocket money. Everyone knew how hard it was to sex hamsters - especially dwarf hamsters, and James was reading everything he could on the subject. He was supposed to take Hammy in to school the next day, give all the kids a presentation. She'd have to ring his teacher ... she'd have to tell Sister Margaret.
Violet slumped onto the floor. She couldn't believe her own father would do this to her. He had threatened her time and time again, but she had never believed he would take her baby away from her. Tears pooled in her eyes as she stared at James' work. Of course! It was a message. James had left her a clue. She looked deep into the hamster's glistening eyes. This was the answer to everything ...
Joe was furious. He was horrified and he didn't know what to think.
What had he been thinking, coming "home?" He should have just come in, taken care of his business and disappeared again. Hadn't he learned over these last years that it was best to just BE the job. People always tore your heart out again and again.
He didn't know how long he had wandered over the fields and woods and village streets, searching his mind for some kind of sense in all of it, searching the town for answers.
There was no one here he could trust. When he thought about his mother, a muderess... he thought maybe there was no one here he ever could have trusted. He thought back to the drunken days, the days of neglect and grubbing around, trying to find family anywhere he could, and instead finding dwarves and lunkish sidekicks and the love of his life--
No! That bitch was not his love. She had betrayed him worse than anyone. A son, he thought. He had a son. And was he to start the same story over again? Abandoning the boy to the vagaries of his mother? Just another barmaid, twisted sexual tendencies and who knew what else.
He gasped. She hadn't aged a day since he left.
She was in on it!
And then he had a direction. A place to expend all his fury. He found himself at the McGilligan's door, not even pausing to knock. He slammed it open, his gun, out of instinct, comfortably in his grip.
There was Violet, gaping at him, mascara running down her face.
"Joe!" She said and
And he instinctively went to her.
“Joe, he’s gone. James has gone!”
Joe, so full of anger and hurt one minute before held onto her and let her sob into his jacket. He held her tenderly and waited for her to look up at him.
“Joe, I’ m so sorry. I’m so sorry but I did it for your own good. You had to leave.”
Joe looked down at her. He couldn’t believe that he could still feel such love for this woman after all she’d done, all she’d hidden from him.
“Vi, I don’t understand. Where’s James?”
Violet broke away, and turned her back on him and he saw her shoulders heave with grief.
“Dad’s got him. I know he has. He said he’d take him if he felt he was in any danger. He said he’d take him away if I put him in danger. If we put him in danger.”
“What do you mean ‘we’?”
Violet turned back round and said. “Us, Joe. You and me. If anyone found out you and I had a son. If he found out, he might take him. And Dad said he’d die before James would be a pawn in all this”
McGilligan had feared the worst and had taken James away. Violet knew that her Dad had contacts. He and James could be a world away in 24 hours and there was nothing she could do to stop them. James would be safe, but would she ever see James again?
She thought of....
that night back in the bar and the moment it could've all been stopped
It was the night before Joe left town the last time. McGilligans had been packed - somehow there were more people in this part of town in those days, it was like a regular circus. It was more like a ghost town now, but Joe had always loved this place - being around all the dwarves, the bearded ladies, the contortionists, well - it made him feel normal. The only place in the world that did.
Gideon Stone's family money had built this coastal haven for distressed circus folks thirty years ago. There used to be so many circuses, but these days people wanted to go to places like Alton Towers. Where were all the circus folk to go now that no one wanted to see their acts anymore? Stone took them in - news of the new town spread like wildfire. It was tucked on the side of the 'normal' old town - the Neptune and the convent marked the division, and beyond the school that took everyone in, the two sides rarely mixed. When Bill and Jack chose to settle on the circus side of town, eyebrows were raised. But Wilma loved visiting from the farm while she was alive, and Bitsy had circus blood in her too. Apart from the nuns, they were the only ones to pass freely from one world to the next. Bill's haulage trucks would rumble through the town, heading off to France - his depot was near McGilligans so he'd often drop in of an evening. That, of course, was how he got together with Alice. She was drinking even then, even before she had to bear the pain of being cast as the Sweeny Todd of Southwold.
This was the world Joe grew up in - just like Violet a 'normal' kid born in anything but a 'normal' town. However, just like Joe's brother Clive, each of the children born in this town carried a special secret in their genes. Certain powers. Randy and Frankie came from the 'normal' side of town, but Joe and Violet were the only kids to have been born on the circus side that looked - or at least - appeared normal. Everyone else - every kid their age, every cat, every hamster in this place was a dwarf. What was so special about them? Joe had first noticed this last summer - he'd never taken much notice of girls up until then, but suddenly, watching Violet going through her contortionist routine on the beach, he began to feel something. Randy was doing push ups nearby, grunting and sweating, but it was Joe Violet was looking at as she did her backflips.
'Come on Swotsy!' Violet had laughed, and raced her friend into the warm water. It was always tropical, the sea along this stretch of coast. A few miles up towards Norfolk, or down towards Felixstowe and the sea was icy cold, even in summer. Here, though, you could swim on Christmas day and it was like a warm bath. They said it was something to do with the nuclear reactor around the bay.
Swotsy clumped after her friend leaving huge footprints in the sand. Once she was in the water though it was a different story - she flipped and dived like a mermaid, leaving a plume of spray in her wake as she swam off into the distance overtaking a speedboat. Joe saw his chance - they were always together those two, and he jogged effortlessly down the beach towards the girl who had stolen his heart. Violet bobbed in the surf, smiling slowly as he ran towards her. His eyes never left hers as the warm sea engulfed him, and as she reached up and pulled him to her, they fell underwater, limbs entwined, kissing hungrily.
That was the happiest summer of Joe's life. In a few short months he would be in the army. They soon realised what he was capable of, and he was selected for Special Ops. Joe sometimes wished he could have gone back to that night in the bar. If only he could have turned back time, he would have never had to leave. He could have stayed with the girl he loved, he'd have known about his son. He'd never even seen his boy. As he held Violet in his arms now, he closed his eyes and thought back to that fateful night ....
Violet and Joe had spent the day alone, frolicking on the beach, wandering through the woods looking for soft spots to lay, doing things that came naturally to two young, handsome, virile specimens. He didn't know about Vi, but he was dizzy with her nearness. Every time she leaned in to brush sand from his shoulder or kiss his ear, he felt as if his mind was floating 6 inches above his body.
But the day had to end, and then came the night.
Joe was walking Violet to the McGilligans where she was supposed to help her mother with the bar that night. Violet's steps slowed as they got closer to the pub.
"My father doesn't like you, Joe." Violet said.
His heart, which had been like a balloon in the sky all day long with her sunk like a lead weight. "He doesn't?"
She shook her head and looked away.
He knew there was something about him that made a person not like him. First his father left him, then his mother drank herself into oblivion so she didn't have to be his mother. Then Father Donohoe and Sister Margaret, and all the other adults of the village looked askance at him. And now Jack McGilligan? After all those dinners he'd had pulled up to Mr McGilligan's table along with his passel of kids, an extra son he'd been almost. And now he was now despised. He should have expected it. There was something wrong with Joe. Something inherently defective.
The only thing Joe really had was Violet.
"I don't think you should take me into the Pub, Joe. Maybe we should just say goodnight now."
They had stopped walking across the street from the pub. He turned to look at her. Her pale blond hair framed the heartbreakingly perfect face, the dark blue eyes, large and almond shaped, with the thickest lashes he had ever seen, and the rosy mouth, pink and full and so luscious it reminded him of things he shouldn't be thinking about in this conversation. He was mesmerized by her beauty. He felt trapped in a spell.
"I love you, Violet." It was the first time he had said it, although it had been burning in his heart all summer.
She looked afraid. For just a moment. Then she smiled. "Joe, I..." he saw a sadness in her eyes. Tears formed. He knew she loved him too, why did he have the feeling that she wasn't going to say it back? "I--" she stuttered, glancing toward the pub. "I love you to." The words came out in a rush, as if she didn't want anyone to hear them, to have evidence. But then, that moment, the moment that Joe would think back on for the next 7 years, it seemed to disappear as Violet threw her arms passionately around Joe and they kissed as if it was death not to.
"Violet Bridget McGilligan!" Jack's booming voice echoes across the empty street and Vi and Joe stepped apart. "I told you I did not want you doing this! I told you to leave that boy alone!"
Joe took in a deep breath and stepped forward. "I love your daughter, Mr McGilligan. I want to marry her."
"Joe!" Violet gasped as Jack's angry face got redder, almost purple.
"Violet!" Jack roared. "I. Said. To. Leave. This. Boy. Alone."
The yelling must have drawn attention from inside, because the front door opened and out poured the entire village, including his mother and, most improbably, Sister Margaret.
In the back alley, a tall figure watched the scene unfurling on the street from the shadows. Big Bill Sullivan was not a happy man. He was not a happy man at all. As he cursed quietly under his breath and walked away unseen, back on the street Jack strode over to Violet and Joe. His fists were clenched, short bursts of breath steaming in the night air. He said ....
"I'll not have you touchin' my little girl!" He grabbed his daughter roughly and a little too familiarly around the waist and hips. "Not when I myself have barely---"
He caught himself just as someone playing an organ offstage hit about fourteen keys simultaneously, musically (if not exactly euphoniously) underlining the shock registering on the faces of those present. Violet's eyes were darting left and right and even -- as a tiny figure scampered by her, headed into the pub -- downwards for a sec. Sister Margaret looked as though she was about to pop Jack one in the snoot. Joe's mother fell backwards through the door still swinging from the dwarf's passage.
And from the alley came a roar: Bill, unleashed by fury, of a sudden moved by hatred of his rival more than he was content to let his disappointment of a son be beaten to death, it was Bill now leaping into the fray.
"He'll be touchin' whatever he wants to touch, Jack McGilligan," Bill's voice boomed, "and whoever come to that!"
Sister Margaret, cool as usual but a little disoriented by the turn of events, turned and popped not Jack but Bill in the snoot, and the old drunk crumpled to a heap there on the sidewalk. The organist, having dropped and then reassembled the sheet music for all this month's shows, struck up "Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling." It was a weird but not-bad selection.
Violet writhed out of Jack's grasp and bolted into the pub. Sister Margaret, rubbing her knuckles, seemed to forget her position for a moment. "What," she wondered aloud, "what in the hell
"What," she wondered aloud, "what in the hell is going on here?"
Joe could hear Sister Margaret outside in the street berating Bill and Jack as he chased after Violet and ito the bar. He found her crouched and trembling by the jukebox.
"Vi, I love you so much; I want to show you how much."
Violet looked up at Joe and held out her hand...
"The sex scene only lasted 44 seconds, but he was a good snogger," said Violet to Swotsy as they sat in their special place inside the nuclear reactor.
"I've heard it can be that way the first time, I've been reading Cosmopolitan in the Doctor's waiting room," replied Swotsy.
"Oh Swots, was I expecting too much? Is that how it's supposed to be?"
"No Vi, I think it's supposed to be more like this...."
That was when the girls learned about the terrible hunger the Black Mask incited in its daughters.
"No they are too young," Bitsy had argued before the council introduced the mask to Violet and Swotsy early that summer. And the council had nodded, knowing what a heavy price the mask demanded.
That was when Sister Margaret stood up.
This was the Black Council, and it was the one place that Sister Margaret could be free of the secrets that plagued her life.
"This is the only thing I have to give my daughter," her voice echoed in the suddenly quiet room. "For eighteen years I have had to hide the fact that I even bore a child. Even her name that I gave her has been forgotten for that ridiculous nick name. Swotsy Mondy." She spat on the floor in disgust. "I seduced Gideon Stone would be the answer to the blood price, but his blood and his seed was too weak. Magdalena was wrong."
Magdalena, Rowena's aged and still beautiful mother shook her head. "We were never sure about him. It was your own yearning, Margaret."
Sister Margaret frowned, and even that did not dissipate her loveliness. "Neither was that Bill the answer!" she spat.
"He was never the man that I thought he could be," Alice said. Then looked sister Margaret in the eye, "But I know that you still wanted to be chosen for him. Don't you deny it. You always wanted him, even when just a girl."
Margaret looked away.
"Bill was not the answer to our struggle," Magdalena said. "Wilma's son, Alice's son, and your secret daughter Swot-- Monica, they were the result of our risk. All for naught. The hunger remains for human blood. My prophecy was wrong and I am sorry for it. I must have misread the signs."
"But my son..." Alice said. "He could be the key!"
"We cannot depend on another man to remove the curse of the blood lust from the blessing of beauty. We must do this ourselves. The girls must be introduced, and the boy--"
Magdalena stood up. They all had to look down to see her, but that did not matter.
"The boy must leave," Magdalena said and the women of the council...
turned to Margaret. She thought of Bill, of that one kiss that had sent the blood rushing in her veins like lava. When he chose Wilma, then Alice over her, she was devastated. That was when she entered the order. Still, her face betrayed no emotion. It was an impassive, beautiful mask. 'Joe must go,' she said. 'It's no good. We hoped he, Clive, or one of the girls would be the answer, but the hunger is still there. Maybe if Clive and the girls had a child ...'
'No!' Bitsy said. 'It's too risky.'
'We've dabbled enough,' Magdalena said. 'Anyway, I've seen the way Rowena looks at Clive. Leave them be. Let dwarves be with dwarves.'
'Then Joe ...' Margaret mused.
'No!' Alice said sharply. 'I know he loves Vi, but I won't let him be destroyed, not like all of us.'
That night before she set off for McGilligans, Alice held her son close, knowing she had little time left with him. It was the only way to keep him safe. She thought of his beauty, the way men and women were drawn to him. She had seen the way Randy looked at him sometimes, always goading him into Greco Roman wrestling on the beach...
Only little Clive understood what it meant to have a face that stopped traffic. When she saw them laughing together, she wished she could tell Joe Clive was his big brother. But Joe could never know.
He had to leave before he too fell prey to the black mask, the desire to keep that beautiful face just the way it was. People would do anything for eternal beauty. Why, they'd sell their soul. He'd be fine, Alice told herself. His unnatural strength and circus skills would come in handy in any number of jobs ...
It was up to Violet. That was the one thing she knew, when the Council introduced her to the black mask and told her all the secrets that hid in Little Hampton Point Valley. That summer, her beauty, which had been considerable to start with, suddenly seemed to entrap every male who looked at her, she knew she had the power to free Joe.
And that night, behind the bar, with their few, brief stolen moments, her heart was breaking, even as she lay twisted in his arms in the shadows, with a brawl going on just outside.
"Joe," she said, and she knew she could do this. "I don't love you." The words were cold and strong, although she was weeping inside. She thought maybe it was the powers of the black mask that allowed her to be not quite human. She looked at his face, flushed from sex and love, and all of a sudden she wanted to bite that throbbing vein in his neck. Her cool evaporated. She leaned in to him to smell the blood pulsing through his body.
"I don't love you, Joe," the words were a vicious hiss as she tried to control the bloodlust. They had warned her, the council, but this was the first time she had felt it. "I won't ever marry you."
"What?" He said, dazed, confused. This did not make sense. What about the summer that seemed to last forever and fill with with joy? "That's not true Vi." He said. He saw her clench her hands together and grit her teeth.
"I was USING you," she spit out, "to make my father jealous. Obviously it worked. I am done with you."
"Yes, I don't ever want to see you again. No one does. Even your mother can't stand to be around you. Why do you think she drinks so much. She tells everyone at the bar what a waste you are when she's on one of her benders and you're not around." Violet had gotten control of herself finally and was spilling all that hunger and heat into her words, watching the reactions on Joe's face. The hunger was feeding off of his pain, but inside, Violet thought that she would never have happiness again. She was not good enough to be happy. She was not good enough to have Joe in her life.
"Face it," she said as she rearranged her clothes and pulled bottle caps out of her mussed hair. "There's no reason for you to even be alive." With that, she stormed off. She ran home and threw herself on the bed to cry and cry and cry.
But he didn't know that. All he knew was that he had to get out of this town. He snuck out the kitchen door (everyone was still watching Bill and Jack brawl, so there were no witnesses) and disappeared into the night. No one ever saw him again...
Until 7 years later.
And here he was, with Violet's arms wrapped around him, watching her sob. And he knew. He knew without knowing how he knew that she really did love him and always had. What he didn't know was why she had lied all those years ago and why she had chased him away.
"What are we going to do?" she asked him, their hearts beating as one as their chests pressed together. "My father has kidnapped our son."
The fury rose in him and his hands itched for his gun. That was when the door burst open.
Randy stood there, covered in blood, holding a gun.
He should have been shocked, he should have reached for that gun in his waist holster, but oddly, what came out of his mouth was, "That's my father's gun."
Randy smiled, cold and hard. "I know. I took it off your brother Clive when I shot him."
"You!" Violet gasped.
"That's right. I'm the Dwarf Catcher. You thought I was too stupid to be a danger. You thought I was so stupid you wouldn't even look at me, not the way you're looking at him," he waved the gun at Joe. "Or the way you look at that freak Swotsy. She's a lesbian, you know, Joe. She's never going give it up to you again."
"You don't know what you're getting into, Randy. Don't listen to the Monsieur. He's using you."
"Oh, no more than I'm using him," Randy said and smiled. "And I do know what I'm getting in to. You bitches on the freak side of town always thought you were better than anyone else, and now I know why. Oh yes. CJ told me all about it, thinking he was saving me. Then I shot him. One more dead dwarf to send to the Monsieur."
While Randy bragged about murder, Joe was getting into position
While Randy bragged about murder, Joe was getting into position to whirl Violet around the dancefloor...
He didn't know why he did it. It was a nonsensical choice, the opposite of everything he had ever learned in the Special Forces. It was almost as if he was possessed by the spirit of his mother. He could hear her voice in her head, as she led him through the routine, just like she had when he was little. Oh, those days were the best days, his mom, in her sober moments, in the yard of the house, teaching Joe and Violet the routine that they would perform every year for the Christmas pageant.
He remembered how their little circus number had made Randy feel uncomfortable. They had always laughed at him for it, but he could see the deep unease in his eyes when they did it. Right now, Randy thought he was in control, covered in blood, holding Bill's old gun steady on the pair of them. Gloating.
He whispered into Violet's ear, "remember the lift."
A flash of understanding entered into her tear stained, shocked eyes, and all she had to do was blink to tell him she knew what he wanted. And then, with a tensing of his muscles and an effortless grace on her part, they started the routine.
Randy by name
Randy by nature. That was always the joke at school. Everyone knew about Randy. What is it they say? Those who protest too much? Always on at Swotsy because she was good at football. Always too keen to wrestle with Joe. Now, watching them take positions again, Randy's hand shook on the trigger.
Daisy stubbed out her cigar and flicked a coin over to Kitten. She slipped it into the Wurlitzer by the bar knowing just which song Vi and Joe would want. It was their tune.
A reverent hush fell on the bar as they began to move. Joe's graceful, unearthly strength, Vi's feline flexibility. They circled one another like panthers. As Vi performed a triple flip across the bar-room floor, Joe caught her easily in his arms, her smooth caramel thighs wrapped round his waist. Her head rested for a moment on his shoulder - cheek against collarbone, parting lips, darting tongue over aching canines. As Violet blinked it was like she could see the blood coursing in Joe's jugular only a couple of centimetres from her mouth. Ultra-violet that's what the women called her. If you ever needed to find a vein, Vi was your girl.
'I love you Violet,' Joe whispered hoarsely as he spun around and around. She knew this was the time for her to lean back into the twirl, fling her arms back away from him when every cell in her body hungered for him. Her thighs tensed. Something else - the woman, not the hunger in her, surfaced. She looked at him, her pupils fathomless and black. 'We can leave, just you, and me, and James, it's not too late ...'
'It is Joe.' As she straightened up, and the room revolved around and around them, blurring and spinning, she whispered, 'it's too late for me.'
'No,' Joe tightened his grip on her. 'My mission. Your father's mission ...'
'Jack?' Vi's eyes snapped open.
'He's not your real father Vi. I found out a couple of years ago. He was Special Ops, just like me, but he's been under cover right from the beginning. This goes back centuries Vi. This time we have a chance to catch the big man himself. Jack loved you like a daughter,' Joe whispered in her ear as they caught their breath before the big lift. 'But there was a switch. Bitsy and Gideon ...'
'Gideon Stone? He was my father?'
Joe glanced quickly at Randy to check he still stood at the other end of the bar. As he turned away from Vi, backing towards Randy, one leg swung lazily behind the other. 'Jazz hands!' he hissed. Vi, stumbling, began to shimmy.
'Only biological,' Joe whispered as they grapevined. 'He hoped, as a Dwarf Prince ...'
'You know, like the Romany's have princes?'
'I had no idea ...' Vi slipped her arm around Joe's muscular waist and they span together, his arm around her, his beautiful face smiling sadly down at her.
'He hoped with pure dwarf blood he'd put an end to this curse, this hunger that has plagued women for centuries ...'
'The hunger?' Vi bluffed.
'Eternal youth,' Joe's eyes narrowed. 'Women will spend anything on face creams, that's how the Monsieur came to hear about the Creme de Nain - the dark face mask, the extraordinary beauty of the women on this part of the coast. He had no idea what he had started. Women will do anything ...'
'You have no idea,' Vi licked her lips. As they danced, she could smell him, his warm tanned skin like a perfect crust, like creme brulee, and beneath the hot sweet blood.
'Vi, look at me.' Joe cupped her hand in his face. The routine was reaching its climax. 'I know.' She hissed, baring gleaming fangs. Part of him wanted her to bite him then. Then he would be with her, and she with him, and he would be just like his father Bill. Bill, who had brought all of this trouble here after he picked up a lone traveller one night on his run north from Suffolk to the Irish ferry. Monsieur he called himself. An Eastern European. Just passing through. Transyllvania, originally, he said. Bill picked up hitchhikers all the time in his lorries. A bit of conversation helped to pass the time, he said.
Like the stars in the heavens falling into alignment, the hunger of Bill's passenger, and his mother's fabled beauty recipes using Irish bog mud (some called them spells, but not to Bill's face) met in a coastal seaside town of circus folk famed for its warm radioactive waters.
'I know what you are Vi. I know what my father has done to all the women in this town ...'
'Go!' she hissed. Her eyes were like pinpricks now, the irises glowing emerald green. 'He's just a pawn. It's the Monsieur you have to stop. He knows what women will do to preserve their beauty. If the secret Creme de Nain goes into worldwide production, mankind is doomed and vampires will rule the earth, just as the books have warned. Save mankind, Joe.' For a moment, he saw the girl he had never stopped loving, heard their laughter in the backyard, felt the warm summer air embrace them as they danced together one last time. 'Save yourself, save our son. There's a boat coming at midnight to take the next boatload of dwarves to safety.'
'Why? Why do you still save them?'
'It was a promise to Gideon, just before the dwarf catcher ... Randy,' Vi glanced over Joe's shoulder, 'killed him. It's too late for us. The women of this town are doomed to eternal beauty, but in exchange we take only what we need to survive - dwarf cats, hamsters ... Bill still thinks the nuns are catching people ...'
'No,' Joe shook his head. 'He's a monster.'
'We all are,' Violet tossed her hair. To Joe as he began to back away from her for their final lift, she had never been more beautiful.
'I love you Joe,' she whispered. 'Swotsy will help you. Take our son, you must get away tonight. James is the real key, don't you see? Second generation. He is the end to the hunger.'
Joe shook his head. 'I can't leave you.'
Violet tilted her head, a sad smile playing across her lips, her arms outstretched to him as he backed away. Joe stopped a couple of paces in front of Randy. It was like he could feel the barrel of the gun between his shoulder blades. 'Go,' she mouthed, as she ran towards him. Joe braced himself, ready to take her in his arms one last time, to lift her free. But the moment his strong hands touched her stomach, felt the muscles flex beneath his fingertips he knew she had something else in mind.
Vi used Joe's arms like a vaulting horse, flipped over and kicked Randy hard on the side of the head just as he pulled the trigger. Vi took a bullet for Joe. But it wasn't a silver bullet, unfortunately for Randy. As she crumpled to the floor, she shook her head, touched her wounded heart, licked her fingertips. At the scent of fresh blood, every woman in the bar turned towards him. Randy's eyes widened in horror as the gun fell to the floor, spun towards the door and landed at Bill's feet ...
Randy looked on as Joe and Violet swirled around the dance floor at a hectic pace. A sugarpush followed by an underarm turn, a kick ball change and a Lindy whip lift and then . . . a throwout and Violet flew through the air . . . and before Randy knew it he could feel Violet's muscular thighs crushing his windpipe . . .
Randy grappled with Violet, aroused and choking at the same time, he somehow managed to loosen her grip. Violet fell backwards onto the floor. Randy struggled for his gun and had Joe in his sights. But Vi, as ever, was too quick for Randy and with a simple star jump that she'd learnt at aerobics, she jumped and kicked Randy hard on the side of the head.
"Of course what happened after was all a bit of a blur . . . but the gun landed at Bill's feet . . . " Said Kitten to Swotsy sometime later.
"I know what happened." Said Daisy confidently.
"Come on then, from where Bill picked up the gun."
Daisy looked at Swotsy, happy to be of service to her idol,
"Well it was like this . . .
[Kate's ADMIN: Wordle post]
"Bill picked up the gun, you see," Daisy said, slanting her eyes back and forth, conspiratorily, and then he pointed it at Randy and he just fell down!" She said it like alittle girl telling secrets at a sleep over.
But her identical twin Kitten, dressed in abbreviated black leather, instead of Kitten's white lace and feathers, smacked her on the back of the head with her tiny clutch purse.
"Wot!" Daisy cried.
"You great ninny!"Kitten growled. "Bill didn't just fall down! That bloomin beefsteak boy Joe tackled him. I never thought he had it in him, what with how scrawny he'd been in high school, but he brought his big old drunk daddy down to the floor and whipped that gun away from him." Kitten chewed on her black painted acrylic tips, looking at Swotsy thoughtfully. "It's almost as if someone's been giving him a magic potion that made him so big and hunky and gorgeous--" Kitten gasped as her eyes went wide. Kitten was not nearly as good at maintaining a poker face as Detective Inspector Swotsy Smith-Jones, but then, that was why Swotsy was a detective inspector, and Kitten just wiggled her miniature ass in front of horny dwarf lovers.
Swotsy glared at Kitten as the officers around her continued to examine the crime scene. "So how did Randy get shot?"
"Well, I'm not sure," Kitten said, looking down at the floor.
"I told you I knew!" Daisy jumped in, practically wiggling in joy as Swotsy's attention swerved back to her. "Y'see, they were fighting and knocking each other about, and Joe gets the gun--"
"And Joe yells, 'we keep him alive to answer for his sins!'" Kitten yelled, getting another glare from Daisy. "I remember."
"So who pulled the trigger?"
The dwarf twins exchanged looks and shrugged. "Don't know," they said in unison.
Just then, Assistant D.I. Manders came barreling in the door. Swotsy looked at him, thinking, well, he definitely has had no magic potion.
"Detective Smith Jones," he said. "We found CJ Burke. He's not dead."
"What?" Swotsy asked, sitting up straight. The entire bar, witnesses all and mostly dwarves, leaned forward in attention.
"CJ's not dead ma'am, he's
"CJ's not dead ma'am, he's drunk as a skunk and perched half way up his old man's Ikea ladder behind the bar."
Everybody in the dimly lit bar gasped and immediately turned to face the bar. CJ sat precariously on the step-ladder, blood dripping from his wounded arm.
"Randy always was a crap shot," he sniggered; his eyes were heavy and drowsy; his words mumbled and slurred.
"I've still got this ring, though. Do any of you know what's in this ring? Look."
All the people in the bar OOO-ed and AHH-ed as they clustered around the Ikea ladder. Daisy and Kitten kindy held it steady as CJ took a ruby ring from his pocket, everybody watched as he dislodged the fake stone from it's setting and took out a tiny box which had been hidden beneath.
"In this box is a piece of paper that was ripped from an ancient recipe book. This is the ingredient that will save dwarves of all species. The Monsieur thought the secret ingredient was based on the genes of dwarves, but you can get the exact same age defying, pentapeptide effect from . . .
the blood of a bog unicorn."
"But I thought they were extinct!" This, from a tweed-jacketed bloke down the end of the bar who looked like he might know what he was talking about. He puffed authoritatively on a long clay pipe, as though for emphasis.
"Well now, old fellow," CJ said, his eyes twinkling, "maybe if you knew as much about dwarfish culture as you did about zoology you might not be so hasty to judge."
"Shut yer piehole, CJ!" said Daisy. "You've said enough for one evenin' and I don't care if you're back from the dead or just back from the loo."
CJ defiantly took a step up his ladder. 'Now see, dwarves and bog unicorns have a symbiotic relationship going back to the dawn of time, we do ...' he glared at Daisy.
'Really ..?' Mr Tweedy chewed the end of his pipe. 'How ... fascinating.'
'Aye,' CJ folded his arms. 'It's like the Masai and their cattle. We take just enough blood to cure all our ills, and in exchange we keep them safe, give them all the food they need. The fact we are eternally beautiful ... well that's just a bonus.' He tossed his head of luxuriant blonde curls.
'Is it true they eat only Northumbrian moss?' the man asked, smoothing his ginger beard.
'Precisely,' CJ waved a perfectly smooth little index finger at him. 'That's why Gideon Stone bought half the county. They're safe there in a secret location known only to our dwarf princes ...'
'Moss my arse,' Bill snarled from the floor where Joe still had him in a headlock. 'Takes too fricking long to pick the stuff. Let the unicorns starve. Much quicker to kill dwarves ...' Joe tightened his grip, Bill's legs writhing in the sawdust.
'No, let the dwarf speak,' Mr Tweedy, slowly placed his pipe on the counter. 'So, where precisely are these unicorns?'
'Now why would I be telling you that ...?' CJ began to say, as the man ran his hands through his ginger hair.
'Because if you don't, the life of every dwarf man, cat and hamster in this godforsaken town is mine ...' he hissed as he ripped away his latex mask.
'Monsieur!' Bill gasped ...
And then the door to the pub crashed open and in stepped a gloriously blond Amazon, aiming two gleaming silver pistols at the Monsieur. She was at least six foot six, and every curve on her was exaggerated, her tiny rock hard waist, her bountiful bosoms that pulled at the constraints of her button down shirt, her ass, oh her ass with it's firm and rippled glutes that reminded Swotsy of nothing less than a prize race horse. Her muscled shoulders filled the door frame.
All the little people looked up at her and gasped. As did Swotsy. Poor confused Swotsy, her head spun, her loins burned.
The Monsieur, however narrowed his eyes and stalked the floor. Dwarves scattered to all corners.
There was no time for confusion. Swotsy pulled her weapon, as did all the other police in the room and the Monsieur just laughed.
"Those will not harm me." He tossed the nearest police man into the wall, and he grunted and slid down to the floor, unconscious. The hail of bullets that followed, he just laughed off. When it quieted, and the dwarves all peeked from behind their cover,
The blond goddess spoke. "But mine will. They are silver... that would be poison to your system wouldn't it?"
"The Giant Queen!" they dwarves whispered in awe from their hiding places. "The Giant Queen."
From her great height, the Amazon, looked down upon them and the whispers ended.
"I've got your back, Captain Velkiris. I don't know how you knew what was going on, but I'm ready," Joe said, his trusty gun warm in his hand.
"Stand down, Sargeant," she said, her steely eyes never leaving the Monsieur's. "I sent you in here without knowledge and without the proper equipment. Your bullets will just pass through him. If I had prepared you, if you had known, the Monsieur would never have exposed himself by following you in here. I needed you to be too attractive to his needs. I needed you as bait. And he was, wasn't he, Monsieur?"
The Monsieur hissed.
The Monsieur hissed.
Suddenly the doors of The Neptune Bar [and tea-rooms] opened again and in staggered Bunty with a heavy tray of freshly baked macaroons for the Monsieur.
" What's all this nonsense about a Bog-Unicorn? Everybody knows that the Bog-Unicorn is a mythical creature and that it's blood is made from lemon curd and a sprinkle of nutmeg. The only thing that keeps a mythical beast such as a Bog-Unicorn alive is belief. Belief in the implausible; belief in the impossible."
And as her words registered with the collection of dwarves, humans and the Amazon, all the women began to wrinkle and age . . .
Violet screamed as Swotsy . . .
beautiful Swotsy, fleetest of foot of all the Dark Circle became mortal and began to disintegrate before her eyes. Even her size 46s couldn't escape the ravages of time ....
That was when Violet awoke from her delirium caused by the rapid healing of her bullet wound, too see all the beautiful women around the bar, the dwarves and their precious blood, and the police, stunned by these revelations.
It had been a dream.
But the Monsieur was not.
"It IS all about belief," she said. Glancing quickly at Magdalena and remembering all her lessons about the power of dreaming, and how answers can come in the most seemingly ridiculous moments.
She stood up and she was strong. The only evidence of her bullet wound the jagged hole in her red dress, and the dark stain down her front.
She stepped towards The Monsieur.
"Belief," she said. "You had us believe that you had power over us. But you do not."
"Out of the way, girl!" The Amazon captain growled.
"He is nothing to be afraid of," Violet simply said, and with that, she embraced him as his teeth bit into her neck.
As Violet's body slumped in Monsieur's arms, flames engulfed McGilligans. The dwarves ran for the exit, clambering over Randy's body. Joe watched in horror as his father transformed from a wild eyed drunk to a bloodthirsty vampire in his arms. The Captain swung her pistols in a slow arc around the bar, uncertain where to shoot first as the women turned, howling with blood lust, clawing their way towards the dark Master. The Captain needed Joe now. As she cocked her pistols he yelled 'No!' releasing his hold on his father. Bill leapt forward towards her with superhuman strength. The bullet caught him mid-air. Joe staggered to his feet as his father fell to the floor, turning to dust before his eyes.
Magdalena caught at his sleeve as she ran for the door. 'Come with us, there's a boat waiting' she said. 'Jack has the boy, you must save your son!'
'But Violet!' he cried.
'It's too late, boy. She was a half blood. Only dwarves are immune to the power of the dark mask.'
Joe's face crumpled. 'I don't understand ...'
'I'll explain later.' She took Joe's hand dragging him from the bar. 'Don't you see? She's sacrificed herself for her child. She always said she would if it came to it. The Captain and her troops will sort this lot out. Only we have the recipe, and only James has the ability to save the world from this ever happening again. We need you to protect us.'
Joe's crazed eyes flickered from Swotsy where she straddled some poor man by the bar, feeding hungrily, his limp body jerking beneath her. He took one last look at Sister Margaret who was on her knees praying by the pool table, fighting the blood lust with every ounce of her beautiful soul.
Violet's arms hung limp now, and Monsieur raised his face towards the Captain ...
His inhumanely beautiful eyes danced with the light of the burning flames.
"You have lost, my Giant Queen. We will conquer the world, my beautiful slaves and I."
The Captain spared no glance for the marauding vampires. "Fuck that," she said, and blew a hole through his head with a silver bullet. Then, she stepped up closer, and brought her second gun to bear... blowing what was left of his head to a fine mist of red.
His body slumped to the floor, and the blood frenzy throughout the room
swelled as the women turned on the Captain. 'I don't understand,' her eyes narrowed. 'In all the books when you kill the vampire that infected the rest, they all lose their powers ...' She cocked her bespoke Remington 870 Police Combat rifles and checked the magazine tubes. There was no way she had enough silver bullets left for all of them. Her hand shook slightly on the trigger. 'It wasn't him Joe, we've been tricked,' she yelled over her shoulder. He held her gaze for a moment, remembered that summer they had spent training in the desert together, the nights huddled close for warmth on the frozen sands beneath a sky of endless stars. 'Go,' she said. 'Find him ... or her ... find the one who started all this.'
'I can't leave you,' Joe broke off a chair leg and drove it through the back of Dilys from the bakery as she reached hungrily towards the Captain. She disintegrated just as one immaculate hand touched her arm.
'We've been in worse situations than this,' the Captain raised her chin, smiled briefly. 'Trust no one but the dwarves. Go with them, Joe, save the boy. You need to find the person who started all this.' Her eyes narrowed as the women closed in. 'Don't worry about me, I can handle this ...
Suddenly there was an insidious hissing, gurgling noise coming from the floor. Was it possible? The red, mangled chaos that was Monsieur's splattered head - there was movement. Something was slipping and sliding about, like maggots at their meal. With an obscene sucking noise, it was suddenly airborne.
"Oh my god, what the fuck is that?" Joe was petrified.
It was flapping about, slinging blood and gore from its satanic, leathery wings. He had seen some pretty weird shit these last few days, but this took the preverbal cake. This was evil incarnate. It was glowing, rays of dark, malevolent light emanating from the travesty of a one-eyed head.
The Captain turned and her face fell. She looked with horror into its cyclopean orb.
"No, please, sweet Jesus, no." She raised her Remington 870s impotently, intuitively realising that the situation had just left the ‘handle it' stage and entered the hopeless one.
"Who, what is that thing?" Joe turned to the Captain in panic, imploringly.
"What? Don't you recognise Lucifer when you see him?" she stammered.
The thing made a sickly noise, its voice an open wound. It let out a wet, choking laughter, sounding as if were coming from the rotting throat of a putrescent corpse. The room stood still, everyone motionless, transfixed.
"Frailty, thy name is woman?" It said. "Ha-ha-ha, that's so rich! These women make you pathetic men look like arthritic mice. Like sclerotic earthworms! Seriously! Vanity, that is thy true name, woman. You can't kill that. Nor me. No one can; we're as old as time itself. Tits, ass and a pretty face. That's what makes the world go round. Especially a pretty face. Helen's launched a thousand ships. Not bad. How many have you launched, dwarf-lovers? And please, let's have some sympathy, let's show a bit of taste. Use all your well-learned politesse or I'll lay your souls to waste. I'm pleased to meet you, I'm glad you guessed my name. But what's puzzling you is the nature of my game."
"What??? Game? Lucifer? Like, the Lucifer?" Joe was in denial. He was overloading, his fuses were being tried.
"At your service." The Thing made a mock bow in midair, its hideous leathery wings folding over the singular bloodshot eye. The air smelled of stale farts and sulphur. "THEY called me up, wanting their eternal beauty. THEY invited me into THEIR house. I cannot enter uninvited, you know. Against the rules, it is. But once invited, I delivered the goods. And please - your garlic, crosses and silver bullets – these are silly fairy tales, my friends. Spare me the humility.
Now, I kept my word. I gave you all boundless beauty! And now the bill is due, my lovelies, in blood money, if you like. Or dwarf meat, I don't care which. I just want what is mine! And I intend to take it. A deal is a deal, especially with Lucifer. So, who is going to pick up the tab?"
Yes, Monsieur, or Lucifer, or whatever in the literal Hell his real name was -- he was a bad boy, through and through...
...except, apparently, for his current state, which was about as unboyish as it could be. His leathery wings flapped once, twice. His malevolent eye scanned the room, confident that he could start anywhere, uncertain just which victim to choose. Sparks and flames radiated from the upper portion of his "body," what served as his "head," and smoke filled the eyes of all present, blinding them all.
All but one.
It is a curious and little-known fact that dwarves, creatures of the underworld and comfortable with darkness as they are, should be so naturally immune to smoke and fumes of all sorts. But through thousands of generations, natural selection has been doing its work: preserving the bloodlines of those dwarvish types most able to work in the bowels of the earth, with all the sputtering of magma and natural-gas emissions and digestive ailments which follow naturally when one cannot easily get to decent plumbing for weeks at a time.
A curious fact, yes. Little-known. And very convenient.
"Ah, shut yer piehole," said a coarse voice from behind the bar. Only Monsieur/Lucifer could see who it came from.
"You!" he cried. "No! All the dwarves fled for the exit just moments ago---"
"Miscounted, did ye?" said CJ. "Pity."
With that, the little fellow now standing upon the bar unbuttoned his trousers. "See ye back at yer place," he said, "someday. If yer lucky." And he unleashed a warm stinking stream straight upon the creature of sparks and flame and brimstony smoke. No one in the bar could see any of this, save for the diminutive executioner and his satanic victim, but they all could smell it, and they all heard CJ's continued muttering. "Blood of a bog unicorn, sure. Always helps. Maybe a little mead at the right moment. But a little piss never hurt, neither."
Then they all heard the hiss, and the long and seemingly endless and really, when they thought about it later, quite satisfying shriek of anguish:
"Nooooooooo! Look what you've done, you wicked little man... I'm meeeellting! Melting I say...!"
Then all was silence, stunned silence.
The shriek that pierced the air over the whole village, the whole country side brought the fleeing folk to a stop.
And in the following silence, they were drawn backward, in curiosity and hope back to the bar.
Joe was the first back on the scene.
He took it all in.
The women, their bloodlust suddenly released into the smoking and steaming air, all blinked and looked up. The captain, he could not believe that she was what the dwarves called Giant Queen-- he'd just thought she was big boned, her guns silent now, as the men who had been attacked slowly got up from the floor-- or laid still never to stir again.
And then he saw her.
Bleeding on the floor. Unmoving.
"No!" Joe cried and ran to her side.
She stirred as he reached her. "Joe..." she whispered. "I'm sorry... I ruined it all."
The door banged open and all the people, shock-sore, jumped and turned at the sound.
"I couldn't do it!" Jack cried. "I'm sorry Violet, I tried, but I couldn't leave you. Violet?" He too saw her lying on the floor, and so did James, stepping out from behind him.
"Mommy?" he said, and ran to her side.
“Mommy, what’s wrong with that man?”
Joe opened his eyes to see who was speaking. Several faces, including that of a little boy, were bent over him, their features blotted out by a blinding overhead light. He recognised no one.
“Where am I?” he asked groggily. His head felt like the wrong end of a three day absinthe bender. A shadow crossed over him, momentarily blocking out the light. Focusing, he saw it was a young man in a conductor uniform.
“Well, sir, you are presently lyin’ on yer back on the Newton Dee train platform. You took a nasty fall on them icy steps there.” The conductor’s accent was distinctively Scottish.
“Newton Dee? Where the hell is Newton Dee? Am I am in Scotland, for Christ’s sake?”
“Aberdeen, sir. And you’ll be wantin’ ta watch how yer speakin’, what with the wee fella and so.” The crowd had backed off and Joe, now sitting up, could see that he was in fact situated on a train station platform. Newton Dee? He had no idea how he’d gotten here. Nor did he particularly know where here was. His last thoughts were like a fever dream residue; vampires, devils and hideous blackened faces. And dwarves, hoards of dwarves. It seemed like reality, but that of course was preposterous. Had he had some sort of lucid dream after bumping his head? But what was he doing in Aberdeen, of all places. He rubbed his head but found neither bump nor sore spot.
Suddenly a tall, thin man in a dark gabardine overcoat was at his side offering him his hand. Joe took it and pulled himself up.
“Thanks,” he said, dusting the snow off his own jacket. He noticed a satchel by his side. Mine, he wondered.
The man kept a solid grip on Joe’s hand and began shaking it.
“Egidius Owl, medical doctor, in case you should be needing one. That was a bit of a nasty spill you took there. Saw you from the waiting room. I’m headed for London myself. Shall we travel together?”
“Am I going to London?” Joe asked. He neither knew where he’d come from nor where he was headed. How did this stranger know?
“Well, according to the ticket that you just purchased in there, I’d say you were. Unless, of course, you happen to buy and collect train tickets as a hobby.”
Joe felt about in his pockets and extracted a train ticket. Examining it he saw that London was indeed his destination.
“Yeah, I guess. I have to admit I’m feeling a spot of amnesia. I can’t seem to put anything into place.”
“Well then, it’s settled. I shall accompany you. Call it serendipity or perhaps synchronicity, I get them confused, but my specialities are hypnosis and amnesia. Fancy that. In any case, you are in good hands, Joe.”
The train was suddenly pulling into the station. Joe had hardly heard it coming.
“But I didn’t tell you my name, did I?” he said. Egidius Owl took his arm firmly in hand and guided him towards the coach.
“I know lot’s of things, Joe. Lot’s of interesting things. And we have plenty of time to talk.” The two men mounted the coach steps; the door shut behind them. A whistle was blown, the train lurched once, twice and then it was leaving the station. A light snow had begun to fall.
The young conductor took out his mobile phone and punched in a number.
“He’s off,” he said. “I don’t think he suspected nothin’. Right foggy in the head. You shoulda seen him when I tol him he was in Aberdeen. Fuckin’ gobsmacked, he was. Looks like yer Owly boyo knows his shite.” There was a voice on the other end, a woman. “Yeah, bye then,” he finally said; “See ya at the meetin’.” Pocketing the phone he started off across the platform. A glimmer of light caught his eye and he bent down to see if it was a coin or piece of jewellery. Nothing special, just a common brass key. He kicked it out on to the tracks. What’s more worthless than a lost key, he said to himself and, descending the steps, disappeared into the shadows. Behind him the platform quietly gathered the falling snow.