The woman in the Boat

Lifeboat

In the cold, misty light of day the damage wrought by the storm became apparent.
Scanning the damage the bosun shouted out, ’All hands on deck! All hands on deck!’
They were stuck fast on the rocks, according to the charts they were a mile or more offshore yet, given the weather, there were no signs of the shore to be seen.

Appraising the situation, the bosun called for men to man the pumps. Since the storm had abated, they were no longer in danger from the weather, the real danger lay below the waterline where the hull had succumbed to the sharp rocks of the reef on which they now lay trapped.

‘Prepare the life-boats,’ came the cry from the bosun. ‘You know the drill, women and children first.’ He reassured the passengers, saying it was just a precaution. Maybe, if they were lucky, they’d manage to float free on the incoming tide. He’d sent carpenters below to do their best at making repairs. Maybe they could patch her up and keep her afloat.

In the meantime the bosun ordered the passengers, men along with their dependants, into the lifeboats. This kept them out of the way of the crew as they busied themselves with trying to save the ship. In one of the boats sat a solitary red-haired women alone with her child, a young boy. Unlike the rest of the passengers they were unnaturally calm. They sat silently watching all that went on around them Their boat hung from the davits, ready for launch but, for some reason, no other passengers went to join them.

No one on board could recall seeing this particular pair of passengers before the calamitous events of the previous night’s storm, but there they were. The sailors, superstitious bunch that they were, whispered amongst themselves as they went about their work, ‘Tis a sea witch I tell you, come to collect our souls and take them to the depths.’ Said one. Another was of the opinion that, ‘She’s a sea nymph for sure, she’ll wait until the ship goes down and then gather us up to take to Neptune himself.’ They couldn’t decide amongst themselves exactly what she was, but they were agreed that she was somehow supernatural and up to no good.

As the tide rose, so did the ship, noisily quivering and quaking as it pulled free of the rocks. The carpenters were hard at work, staunching every little leak and patching the more damaged areas of hull. Eventually, the pumps started to run dry. She was afloat and no longer taking on water. A cheer went up from the crew.

The bosun gave the order to ship the lifeboats. The passengers disembarked and stood around on the deck congratulating themselves on their lucky escape. No one mentioned the red-haired woman and her child but she was nowhere to be seen. Sailors crossed themselves and offered silent prayers for their deliverance. The wind started to rise blowing away the mist and they could see the shore and, not far away, a small port. Setting sail they made their way to land.

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Written in response to the Creative Writing Ink September 13th writing prompt competition

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Travis and the Cabin in the Woods

No coverage, not even one bar, the battery was dead anyway. It was still daytime, but there was an overcast and the sky had a perfectly even dullness, so there was no way to tell what time of day it was, much less which direction was north or south or anything else for that matter. A two-lane blacktop road snaked up into the distance and disappeared into some trees, or a forest if you wanted to get technical about it. It also snaked down toward some lumpy hills and disappeared there as well. What sounded like a two-stroke chainsaw could be heard in the distance, but it was impossible to tell whether it was up in the forest or down in the lumpy hills. This had been happening more often lately. Two different ways to go, with a dead battery and no bars, and nobody left to blame.

Travis felt like he’d been walking all day before he come across the road. He wasn’t really suited to hiking cross-country but needs must when the Devil drives. At last, he came across some signs of civilisation. He’d been hearing the sound of the engine for some time and had been using it to navigate. He figured that if he headed for high ground that he had a better chance of getting a signal. He just had to find some power to charge the phone first.

And why was Travis out here all alone hiking through the wild? Well, it was kinda embarrassing really. He had nobody to blame for his predicament but himself and he didn’t really want to dwell on it. Let’s just say don’t get into a disagreement with the driver when you’re travelling through the boondocks and leave it at that. He’d left the other road out of fear that the driver might come back and beat him up, or worse, and had headed for where he’d thought he could see a house. It turned out to be a tumbledown shack that hadn’t been lived in for years. Travis had then heard the distant sounds of a chainsaw, now here he was.

As he followed the road up towards the tree line, the sound of what he took to be a chainsaw grew louder and more intermittent. Travis guessed that whoever was up there had finished felling some trees and was now turning their attention to lopping off branches. The higher up the road he got the prettier the countryside appeared. He wondered if his mysterious chainsaw wielder was fixing to build a house up here. Yep, sure enough, as he crested the brow of the hill he found himself looking at a cabin in the final stages of construction. Over to one side was a pile of trees and there was a figure clad in safety gear deftly trimming them of their branches. Travis called out to the figure but over the noise of the saw and the protective headgear there was no way he was going to be heard. Question – how do you best approach someone with a chainsaw without startling them? Answer – carefully.

Travis moved himself so that he’d be in the direct line of sight of the figure when he looked up from his work and waited. After a while the figure looked up, saw him, and turned off the saw. As he took off his headgear she revealed herself to be a good-looking woman in her late thirties and asked, in a husky voice, if she could help him. Travis enquired whether she had any power available so he could charge his phone. He was in luck. Parked around the side of the building was her pickup, she said go ahead and use that to get a charge, and while he was at it bring her back a drink from the cooler and to help himself to one too. It was an up to date ride complete with USB ports so he plugged his phone in to recuperate and got a couple of sodas.

They chatted for a while sipping at their drinks. Travis said what a great place to have a cabin, she said it would be… in time. But at the moment it was taking longer than she’d thought it would to finish the basic structure. So far she’d done everything herself and was just finishing up cutting wood for the outbuildings she’d put up later. She’d wanted to build the cabin the way her father had shown her when she was little but from here on in she’d get contractors to finish off the interior, plumbing, and electricity. Travis explained that he’d had a falling out with a friend and as a result had been dumped in the middle of nowhere on the road that ran parallel with hers. Once his phone was charged he’d be out of her hair but in the meantime thanked her for her hospitality.

Finally, Travis’s phone was charged and he had a strong signal. He made his call. The phone rang out for a while and just as he was thinking she wasn’t going to pick up, she answered. He didn’t know what to say at first but then it dawned on him to just say that he was sorry and would she drive out here to collect him and take him home. He promised it wouldn’t happen again and eventually she agreed to come look for him. He told her he’d pissed off his last chauffeur and that someone might be looking for him with evil intent on his mind. Travis couldn’t help it. He could be a real asshole sometimes, mainly because he didn’t understand how normal people think but also because irony completely passes him by. He tended to take things literally, much to the annoyance of those around him. He thought he must be somewhere on that much talked about autistic spectrum. He reckoned he must be some kind of a high functioning asshole. At least someone loved him and was coming to pick him up

At last a late model Eldorado rolled up the road. The sun had broken through at last and the metallic gold car gleamed in the sunlight. It was at times like this that he could almost understand why Jean referred to it as El Dorado, the golden one, rather than it’s more mundane Cadillac given name. Before he got in the car, his hostess went to the pickup and came back with a small package. Handing it to him she asked him if he’d mind dropping it off at the sheriff’s office in town. It was something she thought he’d be interested to see. Being a well meaning simpleton and grateful for her hospitality he of course agreed. He put the package in the trunk; it was a regular cube, about a foot to a side. It looked tiny all by itself in that massive void. He got in the car and waved as they drove off. Jean asked him who that was and he said she was a good samaritan who’d given him a soda and allowed him to charge his phone. Then the next thing he found himself tuning out as he became the subject of a tirade about going off like that without telling her.

As they pulled into town, he remembered the package in the trunk, an unusual occurrence for Travis. He asked Jean to stop by the sheriff’s so that he could hand it over. Big mistake. Within seconds of him handing the package to the sheriff and him opening it he was slammed up against a wall and cuffed with his hands behind his back. As he was swung round to face a very upset lawman he saw what he’d been carrying… a severed human head in a cooler.

It turned out there was no woman in her late thirties building a cabin out there on that road. It was the property of a guy named Higgs who, coincidentally, hadn’t been seen around those parts for a few weeks. At least not until his head turned up at the sheriff’s office. Eventually they let Travis go with the standard warning not to leave town. After all, what sort of a moron’s going to turn themselves in like that? Besides, he’d got a history, everyone knew he was an asshole, albeit an amiable asshole who was no danger to anyone except himself. Jean was shocked by the incident and started being all sympathetic towards him. Yes, he was off the hook. Time for a beer with the boys and a chance to catch up on what everyone knew about this Higgs guy.

Unusually Jean joined Travis at the bar and even ordered a beer for herself. Most of the usual crowd were in and there was some joshing about him having been arrested by the sheriff himself. Travis steered the conversation round to the cabin and to Higgs. It seemed most folks had an axe to grind with the guy and it soon became obvious that he wasn’t well liked. It wasn’t that he was some criminal lowlife, at least not as far as anybody knew, it was just that he was a downright unpleasant character who never had a kind word to say to anyone. He mostly kept to himself and had been building the cabin for the last three months. Who the woman was nobody knew. It sounded as though Travis was the only person to have seen her. Wife, girlfriend? It didn’t seem likely from what was known of Higgs. And anyway, she’d told a total different story — there was a guffaw of laughter at this, the boys all knew Travis wasn’t the sort of person anyone would bother confiding in, and they all thought that he was as gullible as hell and that she’d lied to his face. They talked, and they talked. It got late. Jean had to pull Travis away from the bar before he keeled over.

Travis woke the next morning with one heck of a headache and swore to stay off the beer. At least until sundown. The previous day’s events were bothering him. It looked as though a perfectly nice woman had killed a ne’er-do-well that no one liked and then gotten Travis involved by asking him to deliver a head to the sheriff. He felt that he should resent her for having gotten him involved but somehow didn’t. He felt sorry for her and wanted to know her story. He decided he should go back to the cabin and do what they do on TV, search for some clues. He managed to talk Jean into driving him out there but when they arrived they weren’t allowed on to the property which had been cordoned off by the sheriff’s department. There were a whole bunch of deputies and the like poking around what they were calling the scene of the crime and Travis just wanted them to stop before they ruined all the clues for him. He’d have to come back later and hope he could still find out something about what had happened. They went back into town and he moped around for the rest of the day, Jean kept him company as though she was worried about him.

She watched from the shadows as two figures left the bar. One male, tall and gangly, moving with the slow deliberation of someone who’s had a drink or three; the second female, short and petite with her arm wrapped tightly around the man’s waist. She felt bad for the position she’d put him in and wanted to make amends. Difficult when the entire sheriff’s department was looking for her. It wasn’t as if it was her fault anyway. She’d just wanted people to know that Higgs was gone but hadn’t really considered the consequences. The silly old coot had thought he could still wield a chain saw, that metal spike embedded in the tree that had deflected his blade and ended up decapitating him had thought otherwise. She ought to just walk away from the whole thing, either that or turn herself in. It was an easy enough mistake to make. Wasn’t it? At the worst she’d get a fine for not reporting a death, and even that was a stretch.

As Jean helped Travis out of the bar, he thought he saw a figure watching them. Too befuddled to do anything he filed that bit of information away in the part of his brain where he stored his thoughts to ponder on. His pending file if you like. Things like the fact that he should be out looking for clues to exonerate the woman from the cabin. Jean saw him safely home and got him tucked up in bed. He didn’t sleep well, the events of the last couple of days busied themselves trying to keep him awake. He got up, made some coffee and decided to go out to the cabin at first light. He’d let Jean sleep in and cycle over on his old mountain bike, after all it wasn’t a long ride. It never happened of course… He found himself back in bed, waking about ten, with Jean up and about doing things around the house. The mountain bike idea was a non-starter too. Flat tyres and a rusty chain put paid to any ideas of riding out to the cabin. It was back to reliance on the kindness of others. If he was going back out to the cabin, he’d need someone to give him a lift.

Rather than put Jean to anymore trouble he decided to head down to the diner for a late breakfast. As he ate his ham and eggs, the sight of a few of the old timers hanging out drinking coffee and chewing the fat gave him an idea. He grabbed his coffee and moved over to join them. They were, as he’d hoped, discussing old man Higgs. Ironic really, from what he’d heard this crowd were contemporaries of his. He sipped his coffee and listened to their conversation. They talked about how Higgs had been a son of a bitch as a kid, something that stayed with him his entire life. He’d been a cruel husband to a wife who’d left him but had a soft spot for his little girl who’d been his pride and joy up until the moment she’d been taken away from him. Apparently it had been downhill all the way after that. Interesting, Travis thought, he wondered if the woman might be the daughter? From what he’d heard she’d be about the right sort of age. As he continued to listen, he heard tell of an incident about twenty years back when a bullion truck had mysteriously disappeared round this neck of the woods. It seemed that nobody really linked Higgs to the hijacking but around that time his lifestyle did take an upturn for the better, indeed it was then that he’d bought the land where the uncompleted cabin now stood. The waitress came around pouring refills for everyone, Travis included. As she did, he realised that he was nearly the same age as what he’d thought of as old timers and could see himself easily fitting right in with them. He finished his coffee, made his excuses and left before he found himself becoming a permanent fixture

He needed to talk with someone around the same age as Higgs’s daughter to find out a bit more about her. He thought back to his meeting with her up at the cabin and reflected that she’d been a little quiet, possibly sad and wondered if she’d been grieving. Was she trying to complete the cabin that her father had wanted? Trying to build it just the way he’d talked about when she was young? Travis went over to the bar to see if any of the lunchtime crowd were in yet. He was in luck, not only were there a bunch of guys standing around contemplating their first beer of the day but they were of the right age to have perhaps known Higgs’s daughter. He got himself a soda, he was being good today, and joined them at their table where they were sitting in between taking turns playing pool. They teased him for drinking soda but were friendly just the same. He asked them if they’d known Higgs’s family. Turned out that two of the guys had been in middle school with the daughter. There’s no such thing as a coincidence in a small town, it’s just small town connectedness. They remembered how upset she’d been when she learnt her mom was taking her away but couldn’t remember her name, was it Shania or Sheila or one of those other names beginning with Sh? That was it… Shona. Then one day she didn’t turn up and they never saw her again. What they did remember though was this all happened around the time of the infamous armoured car robbery. Funnily enough Travis had lived in this town all his life but never heard about this heist. It must have been during one of his times away. He thanked them for their help, ditched the soda, and left into the hot midday sun.

Watching from the shadows again was a woman. Once again she watched him leave the bar. Be it night, be it day, there were always plenty of shadows to keep you hidden from the world. She was trying to pluck up the courage to leave the shadows and confide in the man when she saw the petite woman crossing the street from the diner. She pulled back deeper into the shadows. The approaching woman was waving her arms about and looked angry. She walked right up to the man and started prodding him in the chest with a finger. He spread his arms in a pleading gesture and bowed his head as if in shame before leaning forward as if to kiss her only to be confronted with a hand waving back and forth in front of his face.

Damn it! Jean was never going to believe that he’d been in the bar without taking a drink. He tried breathing into her face to prove that there wasn’t a drop of liquor on his breath but she wouldn’t listen. He protested that he’d just been investigating and that he thought he’d found out who the woman was. Jean stopped ranting and gave him a pitiful look. Over her shoulder Travis thought he could see someone in the shadows. It was just like the previous night. He wondered who could be watching him. Someone from the sheriff’s department, perhaps? Thankfully it looked like Jean was in a forgiving mood so he tried again to explain about investigating and clues and all that stuff but it just came out garbled. Gently she took his hand and guided him home. One last look back across the road proved that there was someone there as he saw a figure duck back into the shadows.

Later that afternoon he was inspired. He rushed over to Jean and told her he was going out again, this time to the library. He reckoned he had a good couple of hours until closing time. Maybe he’d turn up something about Shona Higgs, her father or the robbery. Looking for clues, it felt good to have something positive to do. Going back to the cabin could wait for tomorrow. He got to the library and told the librarian what he was looking for. She remembered the robbery as happening about twenty or so years ago. It had been one of the biggest things to happen in this town back then. She settled him down in front of a microfiche reader and hurried off to find the newspaper files from around that time.

Time to emerge from the shadows. The woman slipped into the library shortly after the man had arrived. She was in time to see him set to work scanning the newspaper records from two decades ago. She made a decision and headed over to the local history section. She busied herself collecting the materials that she was after, two books and a sheaf of maps. Taking a deep breath, she readied herself to join him at the microfiche. Sitting down next to him she was struck by his kindly face. He turned to look at her and did a classic double-take before politely nodding at her acknowledging her presence. Words weren’t needed, he pointed to the headlines on the screen, the story of an armoured car heist. She spread one of the maps out and showed the position of the cabin, it was on the same stretch of road as where the robbery had happened. He started to say something but the librarian hushed him pointing to the No Talking sign. She saw that he had a notebook and pen. With the exception of two words written in a childish hand, both underlined — investigation and clues — he’d not yet written anything down. She grabbed the notebook and added; cabin, armoured car, loot. She also added a phone number. This caught his attention. They started taking turns jotting down brief sentences, turning it into a written conversation. The upshot of all this was that they’d meet up at the cabin the next day at nine in the morning.

So Travis was right. Someone had been following him. It was Shona, the woman from the cabin, who was Higgs’s daughter. Just as he’d guessed. He rushed home to tell Jean all about it and to enlist her help for the following day. As he arrived at the house, he saw that there was a sheriff’s truck parked outside. He tried to forget about his enthusiasm and act naturally. He’d never acted naturally his entire life so the net result was a suspiciously nervous bundle of neuroses staggering around on two legs. He almost knocked on his own front door… Sure enough it was one of the deputies enquiring what he’d been up to the past two days. He bit his tongue and muttered something about not yet having recovered from seeing the head.

When Jean and Travis pulled up at the cabin shortly before nine the next day everything seemed deserted. There were no signs of the sheriff’s department’s presence from a couple of days ago, no crime scene tape declaring the site off limits, he was disappointed. He thought it’d be like you see it on television, but no it was just an empty building site. They saw a figure emerge from the woods behind the cabin holding a pick and a shovel, it was Shona. He introduced her to Jean. She suggested parking the car somewhere out of sight and then indicated that they should move deeper into the woods. Jean moved the car then rejoined them and they walked among the trees.

As they walked, Shona told them her story. Apparently Higgs had decided to re-live his dream of a cabin in the woods and had persuaded Shona to come and see him, telling her in a letter that he had something important to show her. She never got the chance to talk to him in person as when she’d arrived she’d found him dead, the victim of an unfortunate accident. When Travis had first met her she’d still been in shock and, not being able to face going to the sheriff, had handed him the head packed into a small cooler and asked him to deliver it. Higgs’s body had been recovered by the authorities the next day and she bitterly regretted not having called them earlier. At that point she apologised for the trouble she’d caused Travis before continuing with her story.

Higgs had finally had some luck with his gambling, unfortunately for him it coincided with the robbery of the armoured car. He couldn’t tell anyone about the source of his new-found wealth as it had been as a result of an illegal wager. Nobody seriously suspected him of being the criminal mastermind behind the heist but what suspicions there were had stuck, making him increasingly embittered about his place in the town. He lost what friends he’d had and became isolated and apart from the townsfolk. It hadn’t helped that his marriage had broken up around the same time

In his letters to Shona, Higgs repeatedly hinted that he’d found something that would change his fortunes and clear his name for good. He also mentioned about the statute of limitations almost being up but, again, didn’t go into details. Her correspondence with her father led her to believe that he’d found the long-lost proceeds of the robbery and that, as he saw it, he’d be able to clear his name and at the same time lay claim to the bullion. Finding the cases of bullion intact would prove that he’d not been responsible for the heist and that he’d not benefitted from it.

Travis asked if she’d found anything yet and she said that she hadn’t, but thought that maybe it was deeper in the woods where the larger trees had been cut for the cabin. None of this made sense to him. Heck, there’re a lot of things that don’t make sense to him. But then he had one of his better ideas. They were looking in the wrong place. He told Shona that they had to go back to the cabin. He explained that there was something not quite right about its position. He remembered them drinking their sodas that first day and his saying that it was a great place for a cabin. At the time they’d been sitting by the woodpile, yards away from the cabin itself. The cabin was in the wrong place.

He thought he’d figured it out. A case of bullion is heavy. Two guys without lifting gear wouldn’t be able to move it any distance, certainly not deeper into the woods. If they’d left it anywhere, they’d have left it closer to the road. Travis’s guess was that Higgs had found his treasure and decided to build his cabin right on top of it to keep it hidden. As they got back to the cabin, they noticed that there were a couple of crows hanging around where the ground was disturbed by the woodpile. They flew off suddenly; Travis didn’t know what had scared the birds but was certain it wasn’t them. He caught a movement off by the road, an unfamiliar car had pulled up and was parked with its engine idling. It looked like someone was casing the joint. Stay hidden or brazen it out? He motioned for Shona to stay back in amongst the trees and then, accompanied by Jean, walked out into the open by the cabin. The car moved off immediately.

Well, that was strange. It hadn’t been one of the vehicles from the sheriff’s department. Who else would be interested in the scene of a recent death? Then it came to him. Higgs’s death would have been all over the local news. It must have been someone connected with the original heist still keeping an eye open for any sign of the bullion. Travis supposed that there must have been some sort of a falling out amongst thieves at the time of the robbery which had resulted in the proceeds of the robbery being lost. Like in any small town newcomers always stuck out. Shona had only got away with it by staying out of town at a motel and sticking to the shadows when in town. He’d have to check with the boys whether any new faces had shown up lately.

They followed Shona out to her motel and shared a meal with her while they discussed the day’s events. To Travis it seemed obvious that they should be closely examining the floor of the cabin looking for signs of hiding places. Jean thought that they should all go to the sheriff and get everything out in the open so that Shona could stop skulking around. She’d not done anything illegal and what she had done had occurred while in a distressed state. Going to the authorities would be best for everyone involved, especially if there were any of the original hold up crew sniffing around.

Back in town Travis went to the bar for a nightcap. He’d got beer at home but for some reason it always seemed to taste better when drunk in a bar. Of course the only problem with this was the danger of becoming drunk in a bar. He promised Jean he wouldn’t stay late and that he’d only have a couple while he made his enquiries. He got a beer at the bar and then went over to join the boys sitting around over by the pool table. Yeah, there had been two guys sniffing around asking questions about the Higgs place. A couple of older guys who gave off a don’t mess with me vibe, the sort you’d cross the street to avoid. Yes, right again, twice in the same day. These guys must be part of the original gang come back to see if their loot had turned up. Before he knew it that couple of beers had turned into four so he made his excuses and left.

Coming out of the bar Travis found himself face to face with two men who he immediately realised were the two guys he’d just been discussing. He suddenly found himself to be very much wanting to be on the other side of the street from them. One guy looked him up and down while the other just stared at him. The second guy asked if he knew who it was who’d delivered the head to the cops and whether he was in the bar tonight. He acted dumb, something that people say comes naturally to him, shrugged his shoulders and shook his head and tried to pass them by. He accidentally brushed up against the first guy and felt the unmistakable presence of a gun in his waistband, he pushed him away and told Travis to watch where he was going. They then turned and entered the bar. He knew he had to make himself scarce before someone said something to the effect that they’d just missed the guy they were looking for and they made the connection. He headed home by way of the back alleys and shadows, scared that someone might be following him.

Back at the cabin the next day Travis told Shona about the two men in town asking questions. She went silent before going back to her pickup saying that there was something she’d forgotten. She came back carrying a thirty calibre rifle, saying that it was her father’s and perhaps it might come in useful. He was unconvinced. Oddly enough, he was an excellent shot but the thought of shooting another person has always made him extremely uncomfortable. He picked the rifle up and gave it a once over. It seemed to be well maintained and, more importantly, loaded. He checked the safety was on and carried it into the cabin before laying it to one side.

They gazed at the bare cabin floor. It was made up of closely fitted boards and gave off a faint creaking sound as they walked around the building. The creaking acted as a springboard for another one of Travis’s better ideas. He started hopping around the room listening for any difference in sound, hoping to hear something that would give away the location of the bullion cases. It turned out that there were three separate areas of the floor where the sound was deadened, possibly indicating the presence of something solid underneath. Shona produced a tool box and he got to work carefully prying up the floor.

The crows were back. Their squawking alerted them to the arrival of a vehicle. Travis looked out of the window and saw a police car pulling up outside the cabin. They’d parked their vehicles well out of sight so it was a case of hunkering down and hoping they’d not be spotted. A deputy got out and started to walk towards the cabin before veering off to one side and heading for the woodpile. Travis wondered what he was looking for. He spent sometime walking around the woodpile, kicking the odd bit of debris to one side while occasionally squatting down to look at something more closely. Finally he headed back towards the cabin but as he approached the door, his phone went. He took the call, muttered that he was on his way, then headed back to his car and set off down the road at speed. They looked at one another and a mutual sigh of relief ran around the room.

It didn’t take them long to find the cases of bullion but getting them out would be an entirely different matter. It would certainly involve some sort of lifting gear, perhaps even some additional muscle. They replaced the flooring and considered what to do next; Jean wanted to tell the authorities and Travis was coming round to agreeing with her, yet Shona was still reluctant. Still fearful that she’d done something wrong for which she could be prosecuted. He had another of his famous bright ideas — how about getting some legal advice? A lawyer wouldn’t snitch on Shona and he might well have some useful advice to offer. They left the cabin looking as it had when they’d arrived and set off back into town.

The good news was that Shona shouldn’t have anything to fear from the law and, by extension, neither should Jean nor Travis. The only difficulty was knowing how to best go about their confession to avoid any misunderstandings with the sheriff’s department. The lawyer suggested that they contact the sheriff and arrange for the four of them to meet him at the cabin. He reckoned that it would be for the best if the bullion was handed over to the authorities for safekeeping, especially in light of the two dubious characters hanging around town looking for them.

They arrived back at the cabin, all was quiet with the exception of the cawing of the crows, and sat in El Dorado waiting for the sheriff to turn up. Jean and the lawyer were sat in the front, Travis was in the back with Shona and the rifle. A vehicle approached from the other direction, from out of town. As it passed, it slowed, as if watching them, then sped up again and disappeared down the road. Around ten minutes later the crows let out a squawk and Travis realised that there was a man standing next to the car pointing a handgun at him. A quick double take confirmed that were in fact two men, one each side of the car. Travis concluded that the men must have seen them as they’d driven by, parked up down the road aways, then doubled back through the woods to catch them by surprise.

As the others exited the car at gunpoint Travis reverted to his default setting of dumbass. With his back to the woods and the car now between him and the two gunmen he chanced it and set off for the trees clutching the rifle. He didn’t know what he was going to try to do but he knew he was going to be something, probably get shot at… There were shouts and threats and a couple of poorly aimed shots but he was out of sight in no time. The shooting set the crows off again, this time with a mixture of caws and squawks. He realised that he could use the sound of the crows to guide himself as he circled through the woods and before long found himself round the back of the cabin where they’d previously parked their vehicles, hidden from the road. The question now was what to do. Although the gunmen didn’t know it, the sheriff could arrive at any time. Should he wait for him or try and make his move now? He remembered his phone. Dammit! A dead battery, again. If he got out of this alive he was springing for a new battery. That, or a new phone.

Travis slowly shifted his position until he found somewhere from which could see both the front door of the cabin and the approach from the road. He could hear raised voices from inside. Just as things sounded as though they were getting heated in there the crows spoke up again, letting him know someone else was approaching. It was the sheriff and a couple of his deputies. Travis couldn’t let them walk into the middle of all this. He had to do something to warn them of the danger. He moved back and forth trying to see into the cabin then got a clear sight of an outstretched gun. Steeling himself he took careful aim, an easy shot at this range but he was still a little apprehensive at firing at a human target. He hesitated then squeezed the trigger. The pistol flew out of the gunman’s hand and a yell of pain rang out. Travis guessed the guy wouldn’t be using that trigger finger for a while. The sheriff shouted for whoever was in the cabin to come out with their hands raised. There was a momentary silence then a procession of people exited the cabin. First came the lawyer followed by the two women then the two gunmen, one nursing his wrist the other dangling his pistol from his index finger.

Travis was next in line for the attention of the law. He walked out from the tree-line holding the rifle by the barrel fervently hoping that there would be no more shooting, particularly shooting at him. He waved at the sheriff who glared back at him. His deputy came forward, relieved him of his weapon and then, for the second time in a week, he found his hands cuffed behind his back. Jean and Shona protested Travis’s innocence to no avail. The lawyer took the sheriff to one side and had a few quiet words with him. Travis didn’t hear what was said but moments later the sheriff signalled to the deputy to release him. The lawyer kept on talking and Travis went to join the women, rubbing his wrists where the cuffs had been as he went. The next few days promised to be interesting.

The gunmen were a no brainer for the sheriff. Funnily enough they’d acted prematurely, it was another couple of months until the statute of limitations was up and there was plenty of evidence of their complicity in the original heist to send them away for a long stretch. It was touch and go for a while where Shona was concerned but in the end she was let off with a caution. She’d not actually done anything illegal but there was a blurry area about whether she had impeded the law in any manner. Travis was let off with a warning not to get involved in any more shady activities or the sheriff would tell mom on him. Well, they were brothers after all. He also reckoned that Travis was letting the family down what with the bar fights and drinking, and that he was a blemish on his own reputation. Still, he was trusting in Jean to keep Travis on the straight and narrow. As was Travis. Unfortunately, given the nature of the original crime, the treasury was involved and they’d have to wait on a federal investigation before they could breathe freely. Shona went as white as a sheet when federal agents were mentioned and Travis too, felt a sudden rush of fear.

He’d never taken the sheriff’s department very seriously, what with the sheriff being his brother and all, but the Feds… That was a different matter entirely. With one long, stony stare from the federal agents Travis’s usual smart ass demeanour deserted him. They made him feel guilty just by looking at him. Guilty of what, he couldn’t say, but he definitely felt guilty of something. The feds questioned them for hours, both separately and together, until the head fed called it a day. Shona was still worried but had regained her colour and her equanimity. Jean was sure everything was working out fine while Travis was shaken but starting to come around to the idea that all would work out OK.

It turned out that the two gunmen were part of the original heist team. At the time of the robbery they had emptied out the cases containing the bullion at the side of the road. Camouflaged it. Then abandoned the armoured car miles from anywhere to lay a false trail to throw the authorities off their scent. They’d left it some days before returning to collect their loot only to discover that they’d hidden it too well. They’d returned many times over the years but never managed to find their big score. It had been shortly after the robbery that Higgs had bought the land. He might have accidentally done something at the time that had caused the cases to remain hidden; perhaps when marking out his boundaries, but it wasn’t until years later when he’d started to build his cabin that he’d discovered that he was sitting on a fortune. That was when he’d got back in contact with Shona.

The feds took the two gunmen off the sheriff’s hands and said they’d be in touch. Travis, Shona, and Jean were released on the understanding that they were not to leave town. Shona returned her pickup to the rental company and temporarily moved in with Travis and Jean to comply with the sheriff’s instructions. They went for a beer to celebrate the end of a long day and their release but ended up being mobbed by all the townsfolk who wanted to see the notorious Shona Higgs. They finished the day drinking beer on Travis’s back porch listening to the crows as they set down to roost for the night. As they drank they reflected on how those big black birds had warned them earlier.

They went back out to the scene of the crime. This time Travis was rewarded with the sight of crime scene tape, the sort that repeatedly says, Crime Scene. Do Not Enter. It made it all real for him. He’d been involved in an honest to god investigation, he’d puzzled out the clues and in doing so solved the investigation and helped bring the bad guys to justice. He started wondering about setting up as a private eye. He’d made a good job of sorting out the truth. In fact, come to think of it, he’d done the sheriff’s work for him. That ought to make mom proud. He could see in his mind’s eye the sign on his front door, Travis PI.

Travis ran the two women through his actions on the fateful day. He’d run for the woods knowing the car would between him and the gunmen. He’d not really thought about why he did so but it had felt the right thing to do at the time. He explained how he’d circled through the woods back to the cabin to spy on the gunmen unsure whether he had what it takes to shoot them. It all came to a head when he’d tried to phone his brother to warn him only to find his battery had died once again. And then, when the sheriff did turn up, it had left him no choice other than to take a shot even if it only acted as a warning, The extended gun had offered him an easy target and he was glad that he’d not been forced to actually shoot anyone.

There was a lot of to and fro going on between Shona’s lawyer and the insurance company but eventually she was awarded a handsome sum of money as a reward for her part in recovering the bullion. The federal agents involved in the investigation were happy to sign off on the case and the sheriff’s department declined to file any charges against them. They were in the clear and in the money. Although Shona offered to share with them, Jean and Travis had turned down the offer. Jean on the grounds that she’d just been trying to keep Travis out of trouble. And Travis on the grounds that, shucks, he’d only been doing his neighbourly duty helping out someone in trouble. But he did take her up on the offer of a new battery for his phone.

It was finally time to bury Higgs. There was a good turn out, probably out of curiosity, probably owing to all the stuff in the papers. Shona was looking good. She was composed and, for the first time since Travis had known her, dressed in a ladylike manner. The service was short and to the point, mourning the passing of a misunderstood man.

The plan was for Jean and Travis to take Shona on a road trip back east to see her mother as soon as the funeral was over. After that Shona was coming back to town with the intention of living in the cabin and making it her home. That wouldn’t happen straight away though. First was the small matter of taking down the cabin and reassembling it in the correct place. Something that Travis was going to take care of.

They made their way through the crowd, and back to the El Dorado. And as they approached it, a crow flew directly over their heads and landed on the hood and then looked at them. They stood some distance away and watched the crow watching them. Another crow flew directly overhead and landed beside it. The first crow squawked and then both flew away. They watched the crows disappear, looked at each other, and then got in the El Dorado. Only one way to go this time, with five bars and full battery.

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Written in response to the Owl Canyon Press Short Story Hackathon (June 2018). This is an unusual writing competition in that you are given the first and last paragraphs of a short story and obliged to fill in the intervening paragraphs, bringing it up to a total of fifty paragraphs.

420 – a Reverie

clock

It’s a little after four-twenty, lighting up time, and that first hit of the day is starting to take effect. This latest batch seems to be somewhat more hallucinogenic than usual and it’s doing weird things to my head. As I close my eyes I’m struck by a vision. Either that, or my mind’s gone a wandering. In my minds-eye I see an image of a girl holding a clock showing the time coming up to four-twenty two. Reflexively I check the time on my watch, four-twenty one and fifty-seconds. Spooky, my hallucination matches up with reality.

I take another hit and let my mind drift back to my vision. It has a very dreamlike quality. The girl is surrounded by mist yet her face is obscured by her wind-blown hair. I briefly wonder what the significance may be. Her hair can’t be wind-blown on such a still, misty day. She must have tossed her head to one side, making her hair flow across her face, moments before I’d conjured up the vision in my head.

As my mind continues to wander, I ponder the curious celebration of a subculture that has now extended to date as well as time. Nowadays, in the quest for legalisation, many an event is planned for the twentieth day of the fourth month, usually with the festivities kicking off at the honoured time of four-twenty in the afternoon. Across the world route signs featuring the magic number go missing every year, forcing the authorities to get creative. As a result of these thefts, road signs reading 419.9, or even 419.99, are not uncommon.

I still can’t get the image of the girl out of my head. Did it just come to me in my intoxicated state or was it some form of auto-suggestion on behalf of my sub-conscious, triggered by the time of day. Whatever the cause it was impossible to explain away the coincidence of the precise time in the vision and in reality. If it was purely the result of my imagination shouldn’t the clock held by the girl just indicate four-twenty? I suppose that it’s occurrences such as this that help imbue the entire subculture with a semi-religious quality, that and the ritualistic procedure of preparing a joint.

Still, enough of this meandering, back to the task at hand. As I finish off the last of my joint and settle back to enjoy the relaxing effects, I notice the unexpected absence of the living room clock. Moments later my wife walked into the room carrying the clock, she’d been changing the battery. Coincidentally, she was wearing the exact same clothes as the girl in my vision. When I described my vision to her, she posed briefly with the clock before returning it to its place on the wall.

Maybe it wasn’t just a dream after all.

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Written in response to the Creative Writing Ink September 6th writing prompt competition

Beeping in Tongues

What do you mean?

Lately, the microwave has been playing up. It started off with a few random beeps that were entirely unconnected with cooking. You’d be in the kitchen, maybe doing the washing up, when out of nowhere you’d hear a beep. After a time this became more frequent, as did the number of beeps. When cooking with the microwave, aside from the beeps associated with setting the program, random beeps started to occur during the cooking process.

Entering the kitchen late one night I was startled to hear a sequence of beeps that sounded reminiscent of Morse code, ‘Beep… beep… beep, beep, beep… beep… beep, beep… beep.’ The beeping became more insistent, so much so that I fancied that it was trying to send me a message. The next day I settled down in the kitchen with a notepad and spent the best part of the morning transcribing the emissions coming from the microwave. During the afternoon I made an effort to decode what I thought of as a message but to no avail. If it was Morse code it was complete gobbledygook. I ran the message through Google Translate but whatever language I tried it made no sense.

This went on for a couple of weeks. Before long I found myself talking back to the infuriating machine.
‘Beep… beep… beep, beep, beep… beep… beep, beep… beep.’
Me, ‘What do you mean?’
Microwave, ‘Beep, beep… beep, beep… beep… beep, beep…’
‘Yes, but what are you trying to say?’
‘Beep, beep, beep… beep, beep… beep… beep, beep.’
It was infuriating. I was sure the microwave was trying to communicate with me but I couldn’t make head nor tail of what it was saying.

I came across a story in the newspaper about signals being received from space by one of those large radio-telescope arrays that had baffled the scientists concerned. That is, until it was realised that they were actually emitting from a microwave in the observatory’s canteen. This set me to wondering whether aliens were bypassing Earth’s various arrays of receivers and were transmitting directly to my microwave. Although why mine, I couldn’t say. I contacted the Jodrell Bank Observatory and explained my theory but they weren’t interested. Over the course of two days I recorded the microwave’s entire output of beeps. I then sent the recordings off to NASA. I got a very polite reply a week later, basically saying they weren’t interested either.

I was at my wit’s end and, to be honest, starting to go off the rails. Again I found myself talking to the machine, only now I was having conversations lasting hours at a time. I was so frustrated that I switched the microwave off at the mains. Unfortunately, when it came time to cook the evening meal, I was forced to turn it back on again. The beeping started up again immediately I pressed the switch. It was as if it had never been away

I couldn’t live with it any longer. Interstellar communication be damned! I was unable to decipher any message, and the authorities weren’t interested. It was time to put an end to it all and replace the microwave with a new one. I unplugged the offending machine and went out and bought a new, updated model. Bringing it home I set it up in the kitchen, anxiously turning it on and setting the clock. Bliss, not a beep to be heard.

I was content as I cooked the evening meal. The new microwave performed perfectly and there was no errant beeping to be heard. Although I went to bed happy, this happiness was not to last. Going into the kitchen during the night to fetch myself a glass of water I was confronted with a familiar sound, ‘Beep… beep… beep, beep, beep… beep… beep, beep… beep…’

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Written in response to the Creative Writing Ink August 30th writing prompt competition

Hitchhiking Across the USA

I’ll never forget my trip to the US back in the eighties. I was young, carefree and, I admit, naive. For me it opened up a whole new world of experiences and, incidentally, introduced me to the novel experience of hitchhiking. At first, while I still had plenty of money, I travelled mainly by Greyhound bus. A fantastic way of seeing a new country for the first time. I travelled with a permanent soundtrack ringing in my ears, a soundtrack largely based on a well-known song that went something along the lines of, ‘…all gone to look for America…’ For weeks I lived that song, I saw the countryside and met many a character. I soon learnt that Americans can be some of the friendliest people on Earth. Unfortunately, my travels by bus drew to an end as I realised I was burning through my limited cash. I still wanted to travel, so following the example of those I’d seen by the side of the road, I started hitching.

Hitchhiking was an interesting way of learning about human nature, a way of learning to rely on the kindness of strangers, if you like. I was fortunate enough to confirm my view on the friendliness of Americans and survived to tell the tale. I have to admit that there were some slightly scary times. I’ll never forget the time when I was travelling around Florida when I jokingly asked the driver who’d stopped and picked me up, ‘How do you know I’m not a serial killer?’ My blood ran cold when he replied something to the effect of, ‘I don’t worry about it. The odds of there being two serial killers in the same car are just too slim to be worth considering.’ Before he turned to me and grinned.

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Written in response to the Microcosms 300 word competition number 133 with reference to the prompt: Hitchhiker; Florida; Memoir.

Lost in LA

Lost Angeles

It’s two years to the day since I arrived in Los Angeles for the first time and I’m on my way back to the Greyhound bus station, this time to leave. I came to town a dreamer, lured by the bright lights and the silver screen. I was hoping to find stardom but in the intervening time I’ve waited tables, worked as a valet, done all manner of superfluous job, I’ve even cleaned toilets. I’m luckier than most of the wannabe actors and actresses who come to this city, I’m getting out while I’ve still got my health and a modicum of optimism. I’ve been lucky. I’ve not become a casualty. I’ve not done the drugs or the booze and I’ve kept my self respect.

The competition is fierce. I realise that I’ve been part of a pretty interchangeable influx of wannabes. Just one solitary figure amongst innumerable others, we could have been stamped out of the same mould on a production line somewhere back east. Every stranger you meet is potentially a talent scout or some mover and shaker in the biz. The pressure is intense. Keeping that constant smile on your face becomes a full-time job. It’s a necessary part of the job, the hard sell. You can’t afford to let your guard down for a moment and heaven forbid that you should offend someone.

You meet people. People who know people. You angle to get invited to the right parties whereas, in reality, you’re more likely to be invited to don an apron and serve drinks. You kid yourself that’s OK, at least you’re getting closer to where you want to be. I’ve served those drinks and quickly learnt that unless you upset your tray over a guest that you’re invisible. You try to make friends with people who know somebody who’s made it onto the first rung of the ladder. You soon find that they’re terrified of jeopardising their own career to be much use and that, anyway, they’ve little power or influence to help anyone other than themselves.

That little job that hold so much promise turns out to be a bust, those times you auditioned for a part as an extra in a music video or TV advert, only to find the casting couch proves to be too much of an obstacle to your success. You soon find out about the number of sleaze bags working in the industry. Surely there must be some respectable men and women out there in Hollywood but I seem to have been fated not to meet them.

So, enough is enough. No more pushing my luck. I may have arrived here in wide-eyed optimism but I’m not leaving in dead-eyed defeat. It’s time to give in gracefully and accept that it wasn’t to be. It’s time to bid goodbye to Hollywood hopes and dreams and to Los Angeles itself. It’s time to buy that ticket home and make my way back to the Greyhound bus station. Time to give in gently to reality before the inevitable happens and I become just another victim lost in LA.

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Written in response to the Creative Writing Ink August 23rd writing prompt competition

The Wedding Dress

Wedding Dress

The dress was spoilt. Not ruined, as I was sure it would wash out, but for this time and place, it might as well have been. One simply does not turn up on one’s wedding day wearing a dress with a muddied hem. A quick bit of remedial work might do the trick. I slipped back into the house and made my way to the laundry. Fortunately, a maid was already in attendance. Aghast, she looked at me and the dress. When she had got over the shock she became all business, ‘Right, let’s get you out of that dress ma’am and we’ll see what we can do.’

She helped me remove the dress then set about cleaning the hem. I think I was in shock. I glanced at my wristwatch, I still had at least fifteen minutes before I’d start to eat into my fashionably late time. I was so embarrassed. I’d wanted get a glimpse of my husband to be, to assure myself that he had turned up to marry me. I had gone out the back of the house and made my way through the garden in order to spy on the wedding party waiting by the marquee when I’d awkwardly placed my foot and lost my footing. I’d been lucky not to measure my length in the puddle and it was only the hem that had been soaked. The shoes! What about the shoes? I was still wearing them. I looked down and inspected them. Left one, OK, right, caked in mud. The maid had finished at the sink, so I took her place as she set about drying the now damp dress. I carefully scraped off the worst of the mud with a scrubbing brush then set about the shoe with a damp cloth, wiping the remaining muck away. Not quite as good as new, but serviceable, if a bit damp. My stocking! I quickly removed my right stocking, as luck would have it there were clean stockings already hanging up to dry, there in the laundry. I washed and dried my foot and put on fresh stockings. They were perhaps not as fine as the ones I’d been wearing but nobody would notice other than myself.

The maid brought me my dress and helped me into it, fastening it for me at the back. The hem was still damp to the touch but, importantly, it was no longer discoloured. I slipped my shoes back on, again slightly damp, but not so anyone other than myself would notice. Checking my watch again, I saw that I still had time to spare before fashionably late became embarrassingly late.

I thanked the maid and went back to my room to finish my preparations. Mother was waiting. She seemed calmer than I’d expected and if she noticed anything, didn’t say. She helped me put on my veil and adjust it just so. I picked up my bouquet and went down stairs where I found Father marching back and forth, looking a little redder about the face than usual. He smiled with relief and took my arm. We left the house for the wedding, this time by the front door.

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Written in response to the Creative Writing Ink August 16th writing prompt competition