Since it's so close to Halloween, I thought I'd keep 'em coming! Here's some background for those just joining us.
The Thin Grey Line
“There are no such thing as vampires, Ellen”, said Claire, ruffling her daughter’s hazel curls. “Who’s been telling you these stories?”
“Neil Higgins”, said Ellen.
“Don’t listen to him”, said Claire. “In fact, the less you talk to him, the better. Now, go and make your supper.”
Ellen skipped towards the door, her curls bouncing, her slippers flopping on the carpet.
“I’ve never heard of a five-year-old that makes her own supper before”, said Norman.
He was sitting in his favourite armchair, browsing through a thick file of papers, a glass of sherry in his hand. His face was drawn, his eyes hooded with fatigue.
“I want her to grow up independent”, said Claire. “Not a helpless little girly. The world is a tough place, sweetie. I want to give her the gumption to go out and get what she wants.”
“Just like her mother”, said Norman, giving his wife a look that was fond and resentful at once. She didn’t see it.
She was sinking into the armchair before the open fire.
“But, honey, maybe she’s getting a bit too independent. Answering me back. Eavesdropping. Demanding pocket-money.”
“Don’t be so Victorian, sweetie”, said Claire, drowsily. She could feel sleep stealing on her like a slow tide.
“Well, there’s a danger of cramming a young mind with ideas that it can’t understand, isn’t there? We don’t to make her an adult before she’s a child.”
“Are you going to pour me a sherry?”, asked Claire, looking towards the coffee table. “Sweetie, you look so tired.”
Norman took the bottle of sherry, rose sluggishly from the armchair, walked towards the cabinet, and took out a glass. “Work is pretty intense, all right. But..” He looked towards Claire, with a strange shy look on his face.
“Yes, sweets, what is it?”, she asked, dreamily, gazing into the flames.
“It might sound ridiculous after ten years in this line of business, but I’m…well, I’m beginning to have doubts about what I do.”
He crossed towards his wife, a glass of sherry in his outstretched hand. She didn’t look at it as she took it from him. Her eyes were on his face, and they were bright with a keen lustre.
“What do you mean?”, she asked, almost sharply.
“You know what they call people like me”, said Norman, shambling back towards his armchair. “Ambulance-chasers”.
“Jealous people”, said Claire. “And who cares? Journalists are hacks, doctors are quacks...”
“But what if they’re right?”, asked Norman, lowering himself into his chair. It groaned with his weight, though he wasn’t heavy. “I mean, today I was preparing a brief against a shop that didn’t put up a Wet Floor sign. A woman slipped and cracked her skull. Now, that’s OK if it’s a big supermarket. But it’s just a little cornershop, family run. The damages will probably ruin them.”
“And that makes it OK for them to put the public in danger?”, asked Claire. All her sleepiness had gone from her now. “Norman, remember, you serve justice. You make the strongest case you can. The defence makes the strongest case they can. The best case wins.”
“And what about the truth?”, asked Norman, his voice rising a little. “What about fairness? Sometimes I think I’m a monster. A monster.”
There was silence for a moment, except for the crackling of the flames. Claire knew a critical moment when she saw one. She wondered how long this had been brewing, and rebuked herself for missing the signs. She planned her words carefully.
“The truth is a thin grey line”, she said. Her voice was soft but steady. “My mother used to say that. And fairness...don’t talk to me about fairness. Fairness is a word that feckless, irresponsible people like to use when they’ve drank and gambled their lives away. Norman, you’re a good man. A good man.”
She rose from her armchair, strode towards the coffee table, and poured herself another sherry. She could see that Norman was coming around. She’d always known how to handle him.
* * **
They listened to old records after that, and both of them got pleasantly drunk. “You always make me feel better”, Norman whispered in her ear, just before he fell asleep in her arms.
Twenty minutes later, she woke up to screams. Her husband’s screams.
There was blood all over the bed. Ellen was kneeling on Norman’s chest, plunging a steak-knife into his neck, over and over again.
“He’s a monster, Mummy”, she cried. “I heard him say so. Daddy’s a monster!”
The Firing Squad
“You have refused the offer of a priest?”, asked the guard.
“That’s right”, said Walter, rising from the bed.
“You’re an atheist?”, asked the guard. He seemed surprised at the idea.
“If there was a God,” said Walter, “do you really think he would have let the world have gone to hell like this?”
The guard didn’t reply to that. He was a young man, perhaps no more than twenty-five. His skin was pale and his eyes were gentle.
“It can’t do any harm”, said the guard, as though disturbed by the thought of Walter going to his death without priestly attention.
“Do you know a Lutheran priest tried to persuade me to enlist?”, asked Walter. “He told me that the real sin was throwing my life away. He told me that the responsibility for my actions would lie with those who commanded me. That a soldier was just a tool, a servant.”
“You should have listened to him”, said the guard. “He was trying to help you.”
Walter laughed. It was more a sorrowful laugh than a bitter one. “Nothing on heaven or earth can convince me that men murdering other men is ever right, ever, under any circumstances. The taking of human life is an absolute evil. I no longer desire to live in this world, my friend. I’m tired of cruelty and pain.”
The guard looked embarrassed. He stared at the wall past Walter. “In that case, and if you have no desire to speak to a priest, it is time to go.”
Walter nodded. The guard opened the cell door, and he trudged out. Outside, there were three more soldiers.
Executions, he thought, were always held at dawn. But the guard’s watch read three o’clock. When they emerged into the yard, the sky was a perfect blue, and the sun was hot on his face.
A line of six soldiers were already standing in front of the wall. They didn’t look at him as he was marched past them. Even as he took up his position against the brick wall—that, too, was warm in the afternoon sun-- they didn’t look at him. They fiddled with their guns, or stared at the stony ground.
An officer read the charges in a bored voice: “Walter Kaisen, you have been found guilty of treason in refusing to bears arms for the Reich. The sentence for treason is death. Soldiers, take aim.”
Six rifles were raised and aimed towards Walter. He pressed his eyes shut, instinctively.
Walter's stomach lurched. But nothing happened.
He opened his eyes. The execution yard and the firing squad were gone. Somehow, he was somewhere else.
It was no longer a summer afternoon. It was a winter’s morning, but a winter’s morning unlike any that Walter had ever seen. Black clouds filled the sky, enormous black clouds tinged with a volcanic red.
He seemed to be standing on a mountain, a mountain of dark, jagged rock, studded by patches of stubby grass. There were others standing around him, perhaps two or three dozen. They all wore coarse woolen cloth, like that of a medieval friar. There were disheveled, malnourished, and wild-eyed. Many of them leaned against each other for support. Others were slumped on the ground.
“You’re new, aren’t you?”.
He turned. A young woman, whose pretty face bore several deep scars across it, was staring at him. She looked exhausted.
“Where the hell is this?”, he asked.
The young woman gave a wild laugh. “Hell is exactly where it is! Or hell for us, anyway. I suspect that it’s a heaven for them.”
She pointed. A murmur ran through the small crowd. It was the most sickening sound Walter had ever heard; it was horror gone far beyond the point of horror. It was like the groan of a tortured, half-dead dog.
Walter looked in the direction the woman indicated. There were moving figures on the horizon. At first, there were too small and too shadowy against the red light of the sky to make out. But a few moments later, he saw that they were riders. There was perhaps a dozen of them, and some were brandishing swords in the air.
“Who are they?”, he asked.
“Warriors”, said the woman, leaning down to pull an old, barely conscious man to his feet. “They hunt us. They hunt us, and then they slaughter us, and then they hunt us again. This is their Valhalla, I think. This is their happy hunting ground.”
As the band grew closer, and the crew of fugitives began their hopeless flight, Walter wondered why he had never felt the impact of the bullets. Had he passed out? Was all this some kind of terrible dream? The cosmos itself couldn’t be built upon cruelty and violence. Could it?
(Note for American readers; the crackers in this story are not Graham crackers, but rather the party toys which I understand are not well known in America. Wikipedia describes them thus: A cracker consists of a cardboard tube wrapped in a brightly decorated twist of paper, making it resemble an oversized sweet-wrapper. The cracker is pulled by two people, often with arms crossed, and, much in the manner of a wishbone, the cracker splits unevenly. The split is accompanied by a mild bang or snapping sound produced by the effect of friction on a shock-sensitive, chemically-impregnated card strip (similar to that used in a cap gun)". The cracker usually contains items like (dreadful) jokes, paper crowns, and little plastic toys.
Maybe you knew that already. But just in case...)
“Who would have thought it ten years ago?”, asked Mary-Ann, looking across the crowded room at Neville. “Back in colllege?”
“Not me, anyway”, said Derek, taking another swig from his glass of mulled wine. “To be honest, I think it’s damn mag—mag---“
“Magnanimous?”, suggested Mary-Ann, smiling fondly. Derek was drunk on mulled wine. He was dreadfully cute.
“Yeah, that”, said Derek, grinning carelessly. “We were never exactly nice to him, were we?”
“Oh, we were a bunch of enormous snobs”, said Mary-Ann. “We only let him into the club because of his uncle. Let’s be honest. None of us thought he’d make anything of himself. He seemed so...dim.”
“And he achieved more than any of us”, said Derek, looking around the enormous, oak-panelled living room, now bright with expensive Christmas decorations and a crackling fire. “Through a comics website, for crying out loud!”
“It’s hard to believe, alright”, said Mary-Ann, staring across at Neville. The small, unattractive man was enjoying himself, the master of ceremonies. “But nerds obviously have cash, and are willing to part with it.”
Derek giggled. He put his hand on Mary-Ann’s knee. She brushed it off immediately, glancing across the room to Derek’s wife, Sheila. But Sheila was lost in Neville’s photograph albums, along with four or five others. “For God’s sake, Derek”, she whispered. But there was a smile on her lips.
A series of loud raps filled the room. Everybody looked up. Neville was drumming a ladle against the edge of the enormous punch-bowl.
“Time for crackers, everybody”, he announced, his face glowing with pleasure.
There was a murmur of anticipation. Everybody had noticed the crackers, laid out on a table of their own. They were so sumptuously made, with trimmings of silk and velvet, that it seemed a shame to pull them. Each one of them was labelled with two names, engraved in gold ink.
“The Frascatti sisters first,” called Dean, Neville’s lover and business partner.
The Frascatti sisters-- a solicitor and a financial journalist-— squealed in theatrical excitement, and everybody laughed. They each took an end of the cracker that Neville handed to them. The gathering counted down from five, and with a satisfying crack, they pulled it apart. There was a loud cheer.
A packet of Jester cigarettes fell on the thick carpet. The cheers died, and there was silence.
The father of the Frascatti sisters had died of lung cancer, only months before. He was famous for favouring Jesters, a rare brand.
“You bastard”, whispered Helen Frascatti, staring at Neville. Her sister, June, began to cry. “Is this your idea of revenge, Neville?”
Neville stared at her, the colour draining from his face. “I don’t know what...”
He trailed off. They all stood around, staring at the remaining crackers. Nobody seemed to know what to do.
“Oh, sod it”, said Derek, drunkenly. “I’m going to pull mine. Sheila?”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea, Derek”, said Sheila. Her pretty face was paler than usual.
“Let’s play Neville’s game”, he said. “Let’s see what his twisted mind has come up with. Screw him.”
Sheila argued, but Derek was not to be resisted. She took the other end, her face a mask of reluctance. Another tiny explosion rang through the room.
A photograph fell on the carpet, face upwards. Sheila cried out and stamped her foot over it, but everybody had seen the picture of her passionately kissing another woman.
Derek lunged at Nevile, but before he could reach him, his best friend Gary had grabbed him around the waist. Neville had already stepped backwards. He was staring down at the picture, pure bafflement on his face.
“I didn’t...I didn’t...I don’t know...”
“You swine”, spat Gary. His voice trembled. “You think because you’ve made some money, you can insult us? We’re going to crush you, Neville. Three months from now you’ll be answering telephones, or working a cash
register, just like you always should have been. I hope you enjoyed your little moment.”
“I didn’t put any of those things in there!”, wailed Neville. His eyes bulged. “They were gifts ..watches...bracelets...tie-pins! They were gifts!”.
“Hey, there’s a cracker here for you and your lover boy”, said Mary-Ann, her voice taut with fury. “What’s in that, I wonder? Want to show us?”
Dean and Neville looked at each other, their eyes filled with suspicion and doubt. Dean gave a dazed nod, and they gingerly lifted the cracker between them.
In the silence, the miniature explosion echoed through the room.
And a small plastic bag filled with white powder fell onto the carpet.