Fiction Fursday/Death Vision

Today’s story prompt was provided by JustAnotherTeenager over at Solitary Haven. The prompt was to write about characters who know that they are going to die, but not how they will die. I thought this was quite an interesting one so I dived right in. I ended up gravitating towards a fantasy story this time, which I’m always happy to to be writing. Thanks, Teenager! 🙂

I hope you enjoy what I was able to come up with.

P.S. If anyone would like to suggest a prompt for me to use in the coming weeks, please feel free to let me know via the comments section. I am using any and all prompts, so don’t be shy!

P.P.S. I currently have enough prompts lined up for four more weeks, so don’t be dismayed if I don’t use one of yours right away. I will get round to it, I’ve got a list and everything!

 

Death Vision

By Adam Dixon

“I remember the day you were born like it was yesterday,” the old man said, his rheumy eyes misting over. “You certainly gave your mother a hard time! Ten hours of labour and nothing the witch-doctor did seemed to make you want to hurry up! Ah, but you were always a stubborn one!”

“That’s great, dad, now will you give me a hand, please?” The young woman was painting an intricate warding spell on one of the bare walls of the small room. The paint was blood red and bold against the grey plaster. The old man sighed and placed the jug of water he was carrying on the windowsill. He leaned down and picked up a brush, completing the warding with ease. The room was not ventilated and the pungent, nauseating smell of the paint was strong. It didn’t help that it was so warm in the room, either, and the old man began to feel dizzy. The woman regarded the warding and nodded, brushing a loose strand of blond hair from her eyes.

“Great, thank you!” she said with relief. “You always had a better eye for these things than me.”

“Your mother taught me the difficult ones,” the man replied, rubbing the small of his back. The woman poured herself a glass of water and drained a huge gulp through a straw before picking up her paintbrush again.

“I’m going to miss you, Jennifer,” the old man said, his eyes brimming with tears. “I wish it didn’t have to be today.”

“Dad, it doesn’t!” Jennifer turned on the old man. She had a wild look in her eyes borne of desperation and determination. “I’m not going to die today, stuff what the doctor says!”

“Jennifer, I know it’s hard to accept,” the old man said, resting his hands gently on her shoulders. “Believe me, your mother and I barely accepted it ourselves, but the witch-doctor is never wrong. He tasted your blood the day you were born and we’ve known ever since. Why fight it?”

“Why not?” Jennifer retorted, glaring at her father. “I can do so much good in the world, so why shouldn’t I try to stay alive? Because some blood-drunk freak had a vision twenty-four years ago?”

“That’s exactly why, Jennifer, and you know it!” the old man said. “The witch-doctor’s Death Vision is never wrong, and it’s been that way for centuries! In a way, it’s a blessing to know when our lives are due to be over, that’s what your mother always said.”

“Yes and you didn’t try to save her either,” Jennifer said, shrugging off his hands and returning to her painting. The old man stared at her, deeply hurt.

“Your mother knew that her time was near, just like I did,” he said, his voice quivering. “We knew since the day we first met, but that didn’t change anything. In fact, she always said that it encouraged her to enjoy every day as much as she could. I was grateful to know that she wouldn’t suffer the indignities of age, something which you ought to be grateful for as well.”

“Well I’m not,” Jennifer replied, dabbing at her new warding. It was a powerful one, the strongest defensive spell she knew. “I want to grow old, I want to have that chance. Anyway, mum didn’t know the exact day like I do. You don’t know the exact day you’re expected to die, either!”

“That’s down to your rare blood type, my darling” the old man said, smiling. “It’s as if the universe singled you out as someone special and allowed the witch-doctor to be more precise! Come on, Jennifer, please don’t be like this. I…don’t want my last memory of you to be of us having an argument.”

“Dad, it’s not going to be your last!” Jennifer said in exasperation. The old man looked at his feet, his face the picture of misery. After a few minutes of listening to Jennifer muttering to herself, he approached her and pulled her into an embrace.

“Goodbye, my darling,” he said, smiling through his tears. “Be at one with Our Magic again, and I will join you soon.” Jennifer dropped the paintbrush, splashing her leg with red paint as she hugged him back. She broke down and began sobbing in earnest.

“Oh, dad, I love you,” she whispered. “But I’m not going anywhere without a fight!” The old man rubbed his weathered cheek against her smooth one, savouring her warmth and the wetness of their mingling tears. He pulled away and cupped her face with his hand, nodding and gazing into her eyes.

“I love you too, Butterfly,” he said. “I’ll be with you and your mother again soon.” Jennifer squeezed his hands tight and stepped back, drying her eyes on her sleeve.

“You’d better leave now, anyway,” she said quietly. “I’m about to set up a Circle and I don’t want you to get hurt.” The old man nodded again and moved towards the door. He shuffled past the threshold and took a lingering look at Jennifer as she began sprinkling a large sack of herbs around the room. She glanced up and winked at him.

“See you tomorrow, dad.” Her smile was weak. The old man smiled back sadly and closed the door. He sighed and leaned his back against it, suddenly feeling older than ever. Knowing that the day had been coming for years didn’t make it easy now that it had arrived. He stood listening to Jennifer casting spells and chanting incantations until the light faded. He fought the desire to enter the room and keep her company, warding spells be damned. But he did not. He became dimly aware of his knees aching and of his back sliding down the door frame…

He awoke sitting on the cold wooden floor with his knees bent and his joints as stiff as a rusty bike chain. He groaned and heard bone and cartilage creak and scrape together as he struggled to get up. His knees, hips and back cracked as he stood, dragging a rare expletive from his lips. He rubbed his body, fuming at its betrayal and thanking the universe for his wife’s early death. The thought stopped him in his tracks. He turned and faced the door, his heart heavy as he noted the silence behind it. He turned the handle and pushed it open, knowing what he would see. The room was colder than it had been the night before, and the stench of paint was gone. Lying in the centre of a huge circle of herbs, salt and animal bones was his Butterfly. Jennifer was dead.

The old man approached the corpse slowly, paying no mind to the crunch of the scattered detritus as he stepped on them. They were useless anyway, the spells would have died with the user. A mixture of scents assaulted his nose, some bitter, some sweet and others sour, but he barely noticed them. He fell to his knees, ignoring the fresh, angry waves of pain which lashed out from his bones. He looked at Jennifer’s beautiful, pale face and noted with relief that there was no trace of pain etched into her features. He hadn’t wanted her to suffer. He glanced over to the jug of water he had brought her the night before and saw that it was empty. He nodded.

“You drank it all,” he said, smoothing Jennifer’s hair from her face. “Good girl. I hoped you would do…it would have made it quicker.” He knelt over Jennifer’s body and gazed at her through hot tears.

“I love you, Butterfly.” he said. He took comfort in the fact that he wouldn’t live past the end of the year and so would have very little time before he joined her. He didn’t regret what he had done; the witch-doctor’s prediction had been fulfilled and everything was correct in the universe. Just as it had always been.

A – Z Challenge Day 24

The final day of this April’s Challenge is here, and I’ve got some catching up to do! Unfortunately, I have stumbled at the last hurdle this week and I will need to post three stories in order to complete the Challenge properly. But fear not, for I intend to pick myself up and sprint to make the finish!

I’m starting by uploading Thursday’s story, which was prompted by one of my email followers. The lovely Viki Allerston suggested “X” for “XENOPHOBIA”, and I think it’s a great word in such a restricted letter group! Unfortunately, this word is very relevant to the world today and so I wanted to treat with a degree of care. I have plans to explore this subject another day with a less restrictive word count, but I have come up with a short story which addresses it in the meantime. Thanks for the prompt, Viki!

Here’s what I was able to come up with. I hope you enjoy it.

XENOPHOBIA

By Adam Dixon

The good-natured chatter within the tavern hushed as the dark-skinned man wearing a turban walked in. He stopped as dozens of pairs of eyes turned towards him, most with open hostility. He gulped, took a deep breath and strode up towards the tavern keeper. The man ordered a drink in his rough accent and the other patrons reluctantly turned back to their own, grumbling to their companions about the “damn foreigners”. Two men seated close to the door glanced at one another and shook their heads.

“That was a close one, Rek” the first man said, stroking his waxed moustache. “It’s a good thing he isn’t armed or one of those fools at the back might’ve jumped him!”

“He is armed, Jarol,” the second man replied, gesturing towards the stranger with his mug of ale. He was taller than his friend, with a shiny bald head and a bushy beard. “He has a dagger hidden in one of his boots and another one up his sleeve. These are dangerous times, my friend.”

“By the Gods! I know I’ve been away for a while, but things are worse here than I could have imagined!” Jarol exclaimed. “It’s a sorry state of affairs when a man must come secretly armed in order to have a drink! And all because he is from the Eastern realms!”

“It is,” Rek agreed, patting the scabbard of his short-sword. “But there’s more to it than simple dislike. The Easterners have been causing tensions in these parts for decades but the High Lords won’t acknowledge it. The Northmen don’t appreciate the way that Easterners have been muscling in on trade and housing since they settled, but the Easterners do nothing to aid their cause. They strut around villages in large gangs, intimidating all but the bravest or the most foolish of the natives. It’s rather unusual to see an Eastern man come into a tavern alone, actually. Naturally, many Northmen have become embittered and are crying out to ‘reclaim their land’ from these ‘invaders’.”

Reclaim?” Jarol grimaced in disgust. “Invaders? What do these Northmen think their ancestors were doing in the Eastern realms a century ago, taking in the scenery? That is ridiculous!”

“It is, but keep your voice lowered, my friend,” Rek said quietly, turning to glare at the men in the tavern who had begun to pay attention to them. The men lowered their heads before his stony gaze. “These Northmen are fiercely proud, and arrogant. Do not make the mistake of questioning their ire in public.”

“You’re right, I’m sorry,” Jarol said, nervously glancing around the room. The other men had returned to their conversations, but they seemed to be keeping their ears open.

“It’s happening in my homeland, too,” he said, looking at his ale sadly. “The Southern Province used to be so accepting, so united once the Divide broke down. Alas, twenty years later and the liberators have become our new jailors! My own family had its farmland seized by the new lords and we were all but forced to move north. We don’t have as many issues here, but we are still seen as second-class citizens, even if it’s done politely.”

“It’s such a tragedy that your land couldn’t remain united, it was such a wonderful time to be alive when the Divide ended.” Rek’s mood was sombre.

“It truly was, wasn’t it?” Jarol smiled and his eyes clouded as he became lost in his memories. “We were all cheering, Southerners of all colours and creeds clasping hands and dancing together, sharing music and food. Brothers and sisters at long last! But now…the Divide is back, simply in disguise, coaxed back by ancient prejudice and grudges.” He sighed dejectedly and took a long swallow from his mug. His friend simply nodded, frowning.

“The trouble is,” Rek began, gesturing around the tavern. “Ordinary folk don’t understand what’s happening to their lands, but they are always eager to pin the blame on somebody else. Here, it is the Easterners, and in the Southern Province it’s your kind. We seem to have lost the ability to live amongst each other peacefully.” He stopped as some of the men began loudly talking about the turbaned stranger in aggressive voices. The man sat at the bar, keeping his head low and trying to ignore their comments. The big man stood up.

“Come on, friend,” he said. “Let’s go and sit with that fellow and give him some company. Perhaps he’ll appreciate another drink and a way to shut those braggarts up.” The Jarol nodded, also rising.

“Yes, that’s a fine idea,” he responded with a smile. “The world may have forgotten how to be friendly, but you and I certainly haven’t! Let’s help the poor fellow out.” So the two men strode over to the frightened Eastern man and made his acquaintance. The man was initially suspicious and then greatly relieved at their presence, gesturing happily at the stools next to him. The men sat, and the other patrons looked on in dumb silence.

Surveillance

The prompt for this story was provided by Esther Newton. I have had the pleasure of writing for her a few times now, and it has always been rewarding. Check out her blog at https://esthernewtonblog.wordpress.com/

Surveillance
By Adam Dixon

image

Dorothea hummed to herself as she folded her clothes and placed them into a suitcase on her bed. She straightened up and adjusted the towel wrapped around her head as it started to teeter to one side. Her damp skin smelled of luxurious bath salts beneath her silken dressing gown and her dark hair was enriched with the expensive creams and shampoos. As she brought the wayward towel under control she glanced at her reflection in the full-length mirror by her wardrobe. Dorothea was pleased with what she saw; she still looked twenty-five despite being almost a decade older and her blue eyes had lost none of their seductive gleam. She winked at herself and smiled demurely. Turning back to her suitcase she nodded in satisfaction and zipped it up carefully. She moved towards the bay windows of her bedroom and reached out to draw the curtains.
She froze. There was a black car parked in plain view outside and a man was sat behind the steering wheel, staring at the house. Dorothea blinked a couple of times and took a careful step closer to the window. The man was of medium height, somewhat scrawny-looking even from such a distance and he had a mop of ginger hair. The sunglasses perched on his beak of a nose were unnecessary in the dark street and they gave the man a sinister appearance. The man was looking directly at her bedroom window, and as Dorothea approached it his face broke into a grin. He raised a pale hand in a mock salute. Dorothea swore under her breath.
The phone on her bedside table rang, making Dorothea jump. Annoyed at her reaction, she strode barefoot across her shag-pile carpet towards it. A moment later, her mobile phone rang from its resting place on her bed. Dorothea stood for a few moments and listened to them ring. It amused her to hear the two phones sounding their distinct calls and competing for her attention, it was as if she were a doe between two warring stags. Well, if a stag ever sang “Spice up Your Life” by the Spice Girls, that is. She smiled and picked up the house phone.
“Hello, Dorothea Wilson speaking,” she answered smoothly.
“Evenin’, precious,” a man’s voice replied, high-pitched and cheerful.
“Detective McClean, what a pleasant surprise,” Dorothea said, lifting the handset and moving towards the window. The detective gave her a cheery wave with his free hand, holding his mobile to his ear with the other. Her own mobile continued ringing behind her, filling the room with cheesy pop music.
“Now, Detective, this is bordering on harassment,” she said, returning the wave lazily. “I know you were following me this afternoon and you are still hanging around. Surely you have a wife to go home to?”
“And miss a chance to keep an eye on you?” the detective grinned as he leaned back against his seat. “’Sides, she’ll have some trash on the box anyway, like that stupid sitcom with those losers in New York. Honestly, I’d rather just sit here.”
“Well then, colour me flattered,” Dorothea said, setting the handset down on the windowsill. She perched her rear next to it, lifting her leg to give her balance. Her dressing gown slipped and exposed her leg up to her thigh. She noted with the detective fidgeting in his car and smirked.
“Am I under investigation, Detective?” She asked. “You released me yesterday, so is there a reason that you’re keeping me company this evening?”
“Oh, maybe,” the detective replied. “But that’d be tellin’, wouldn’t it? For now let’s just call it surveillance.”
“Surveillance?” Dorothea repeated as she peered up and down the street. It was empty: the occupants of the highly desirable detached houses would be snoring in their beds by now. “Are you still on the clock then, Detective?”
“Nope, not this time, precious,” McClean flashed a toothy smile from below his thin moustache. “The boss won’t grant me any more overtime. Can you believe that?”
“Tragic, I’m sure,” Dorothea glanced back over her shoulder as her mobile stopped ringing. She stood gracefully and sauntered back to the bed to pick it up.
“Now, where are you off to, precious?” McClean said in mock disappointment. “You’re not gettin’ bored of me already, are you?”
“Perish the thought, Detective,” Dorothea answered sarcastically, smiling to herself. She flipped open the silver Motorola with her free hand. One missed call and one text message from the same number. She read the text.
R we gd 2 go? Boat will b ready in 30 mins. D x

Dorothea closed her eyes and sighed in resignation. She quickly thumbed a reply.
Fraid not. McClean outside. Will try again 2moz. Luv u x

“Why the sigh, precious?” McClean squeaked in her ear. “I’m not keepin’ you from anything, am I?” His voice had a mocking tone to it which tempted Dorothea to hang up. Instead she glided back to the window and smiled down at the detective.
“Of course not, Detective, I simply feel for your poor wife. All alone tonight because her husband would rather survey another woman. It’s almost sordid.”
“Yeah, almost,” McClean chuckled, and Dorothea could feel his eyes on her curves. “But don’t worry about my old lady, precious. She’ll have the brats keepin’ her company tonight. That’s if they’ve bothered to come home, anyway. Either way she’ll be fine, so I’ll just sit tight and keep an eye on you for a while.”
“Lucky me,” Dorothea replied sarcastically.
“Yep, it’s just like the lottery, ‘cept it’s free,” McClean leaned forwards in his seat, staring intently up at Dorothea’s window. They stared at each other in silence for several minutes. McClean’s smile faded and was replaced by a stony expression.
“I know what’s goin’ on, Mrs Wilson,” he said, the cheery persona slipping from his voice like a dropped mask. “Not the whole thing, I’ll admit, but I’m certain that I’m pretty darn close. You’re too smart to give anythin’ away but I’m on to you. I know your husband is contactin’ you, and I intend to keep an eye on you ‘til we catch him.”
“I’m sure I have no idea what you are talking about, Detective,” Dorothea said calmly, holding back the panic she felt with practiced ease. “I haven’t heard a word from David since the morning of the theft, as I told your department this afternoon. If I knew where he was I would inform you immediately.”
“Yeah, course you would, precious,” McClean replied, sneering. “’Cos you’ve got absolutely nothin’ to gain from keepin’ him hidden from us, do you? Nothin’ at all…’cept for those millions of dollars he got away with, o’ course. You’d be like that crook’s wife from the Great Train Robbery they had over in Britain in the 60’s…just without the messy divorce later on, I’m sure.” He barked out a laugh, clearly pleased with the comparison.
“Well this is all very amusing, Detective,” Dorothea allowed her voice to betray her irritation this time. She absent-mindedly caressed her diamond engagement ring and golden wedding ring with her left thumb. “But it is getting late and I have had a long day.”
“Sure you have, precious, sure you have,” the jovial tone was back as McClean slouched in his seat. “You must be all worn out, I know my boys at the station can be pretty darn rigorous with their questionin’. Maybe you should get some shut-eye and try to forget the whole thing. Don’t worry, ole Marty McClean’ll keep watch tonight!” He cackled down the phone and Dorothea wished she could reach an arm through it and throttle the smarmy bastard.
“Glad to hear it, Detective,” she said, pulling the curtains closed with calm, controlled movements, shutting out her view of the policeman and his black car. “Goodnight.”
“G’night, precious. I’ll be seein’ you again soon.” The line went dead as McClean hung up. Dorothea sat down on her bed in silence for a few minutes, allowing her brain to tick over this new problem. Eventually, she picked up her mobile phone and sent another text.
D, McClean knows something. Might need 2 b taken care of. B careful. Luv u x

Dorothea then removed the SIM card from her phone and snapped it in half. She replaced it with a brand new one from a stash of them in her desk drawer before turning off the light. Outside her house, Detective McClean smiled and sipped on a flask of strong black coffee as he maintained his lonely vigil.
***
Three days later, David Wilson sat in his spacious yacht and read a text message from an unknown number.
D, McClean gone, thnk God. R u ready? Luv u x

David hesitated, his thumb hovering above the keys. He took a deep breath and replied.
Gr8! All set, just w8in 4 u. Luv u 2. D x
David put his phone into his pocket, a faraway look on his rugged, handsome face. A cough from the man seated in front of him jerked him from his reverie, rattling the cuffs on his left hand.
“So, what’s the deal, bucko? Did she bite?” Detective McClean leaned forwards, his eyes bright with anticipation.
“Yes, she did,” David replied, staring at the beautiful wooden flooring of the cabin. His arm was handcuffed to a railing and he kept flexing his fingers in agitation.
“Well, doggone it if that’s not the best news I’ve heard since my old lady said she was goin’ on a diet!” McClean grinned, sitting back against the plump pillows of the cabin bunk.
“I’m pleased to hear it, Detective,” David said, flashing McClean a black look.
“So was I, she was gettin’ a little too fond of those Wendy’s burgers,” McClean replied, still grinning. “Anyhoo, now all we’ve gotta do is sit tight an’ wait for the Ice Queen to show up. Johnson!” McClean barked a name, and a moment later a swarthy uniformed policeman poked his head into the cabin.
“Yeah, Detective?” He answered quickly.
“Get your ass in the boat next to us an’ keep your eyes peeled for Mrs Wilson,” McClean ordered. “The moment she turns up an’ comes in here I want you outta there quick an’ blockin’ her escape. Think you can handle that?”
Yeah, I can handle it, sir,” Johnson answered, wincing at McClean’s mocking tone.
“That’s great,” McClean replied, waving him off. “Now get to it! An’ stay outta sight, for the love of God!” Johnson retreated into the morning sunshine, and McClean turned his smug grin on David once again.
“He’s a real peach, that one,” he said. “Not much upstairs, but he’s one reliable cop.”
“Fantastic,” David replied, fidgeting in his chair. “Did you really need to cuff me so tightly, Detective?” He asked, glowering at McClean. “I’ve done everything you’ve asked of me, surely I deserve better treatment.”
“You deserve whatever I decide you deserve, bucko,” McClean said, a threatening edge creeping into his voice. “I wanted you to sing and you went full Pavarotti on me, but that doesn’t make you anythin’ more than a dirty, double-crossin’ thief, so shut your yap or I’ll forget about our deal and let you serve your full sentence!”
“Alright, alright!” David sighed and slumped in his chair.
“Good,” McClean said, smiling again. He tucked his hands behind his head and gazed up at the ceiling. “It was pretty stupid of you to leave the boat, Mr Wilson. You musta known that the whole county’d be lookin’ for you.”
“I needed to eat,” David shrugged. “I wasn’t expecting to be waiting for Dorothea more than a day.”
“Well, thank the good Lord for sharp-eyed shopkeepers, huh?” McClean chuckled and shook his head. “I can’t wait to see the look on Mrs Wilson’s face when she walks in!”
David did not reply, and before long Dorothea appeared. McClean was not disappointed: the look on her face was priceless.

Don’t Look

Don’t Look

By Adam Dixon

I can’t turn on the light. I just can’t. I simply cannot risk seeing it again. Everyone knows that they can’t get you if you don’t see them. I’ll wash my hands in the dark, that way I won’t have to look. She’s taken down the bin liner I taped over it this afternoon; next time I’ll use nails. She doesn’t understand, but how can she? I mean, why should a grown man have such an irrational, crippling fear? It doesn’t make sense. She hasn’t seen it, but I have. I know it’s there.

I step into the bathroom slowly, my bare feet losing warmth to the cold tiles. Three steps and I’m at the toilet. My business is shortly concluded, I flush and move towards the sink. My eyes are lowered. I know she’s taken it down, and I hate her for it. It is my only protection. I turn on the taps with shaking hands, the thrill of dread running up my spine. I keep my head down, concentrating. I’ve nearly caught myself looking a few time before, almost seeing something in the corner of my eye… I will not look up! Warm water and lavender-scented suds calm me somewhat, but my shoulder-blades itch. I know it is there. But I won’t look up. I won’t…

A cat screeches into the twilight on the street somewhere. Startled, I look up.

It’s there! I’ve looked into the mirror and I can see it behind me! My wide eyes are pale moons in the glass, and over my shoulder stands the shadowy figure of my nightmares. It is tall and its eyes are a match for mine. Its grin is rictus, its outstretched hand a claw. I open my mouth to scream, to wake her up. She’s only across the hallway! But it’s too late. The claw pierces my shoulder and the darkness swallows me.

Golden Hair

Golden Hair

By Adam Dixon

 

I’ve been sitting here for hours now. The wall has made my back ache and my backside has gone numb from sitting on the floorboards, but I don’t mind. Not while I can sit here with her head in my lap, stroking her beautiful hair. I would happily sit here all day doing this and I’d barely feel the passage of time. I live for these moments, when I can relax, hold her in my arms and run my hands gently through her gorgeous golden locks. It seems that these moments don’t come frequently enough, but when they do…bliss.

I love my Bev. Beverley Watson, to be precise. Beverley Anne Watson, to be even more so. A name which has fallen out of fashion somewhat, but I can’t think of one any more beautiful. She doesn’t think so, my Bev. She thinks it’s a name for an old crone, a spinster. I always laugh and shake my head. A beautiful name for a beautiful woman, I insist. I’ve told her so often, which she loved at first. She seemed to weary of it over time, but I still tell her. She needs reminding, the silly girl. We met two years ago. Two years, two months and seventeen days, to be precise. I like to keep count, but Bev tells me it’s silly. I tell her that that day was the start of our lives together and that nothing on earth would ever make me forget it. I’m a little hurt that she doesn’t see it in the same light, but that’s okay. I can keep count for us, so there is no need to worry.

We met at Kingston University in London during our final academic years there. I was working on my dissertation in the library when a woman’s voice with an American accent nervously asked me a question. I had been absorbed in my work and so had missed the inquiry, and upon glancing up I found myself gazing into a pair of hypnotic blue eyes. My heart skipped a beat and my breath caught in my throat. I stammered lamely, asking the woman to repeat herself. It turned out that the owner of those mesmerising eyes was also a student there and she wanted to borrow the book I was studying once I had finished with it. It was a history book concerning the use of propaganda during the Second World War, and she said it would be very helpful for her dissertation in Film Studies. I had the last copy, it appeared. I had swallowed nervously and told her that of course she could. She had smiled at me, a relieved, grateful smile that was every bit as captivating as her eyes. From that moment I was under her spell.

Bev told me that she was from Miami, and that her family had moved to England roughly five years previously. She was amiable and chatty, and I was hooked on every word. We spent the rest of that afternoon getting to know one another, and we parted on pleasant terms after I had practically begged her for her phone number. She had been embarrassed, but I saw her hidden delight. She had given it to me, and I had floated back to my student flat as if on air, her smiling face filling my thoughts entirely. We instantly struck up a friendship and began to talk every day, via text messages, phone calls and on Facebook. Bev was committed to her studies, and so we often had to cut our conversations short so that she could focus on her work. I found it extremely difficult as my own studies were the furthest things from my mind at that point. I asked her out twice during our final terms, but she politely rejected me both times. She reasoned that she could not afford any distractions, no matter how tempting they might be. She had said it with a smile and a laugh, robbing any sting from her words in my eyes. I decided to be patient; I would wait an eternity to be with Bev. It certainly seemed like I had waited that long when results day came around. I had become less and less focused on my studies once we had met, and so my marks had dropped sharply. I had, however, worked hard enough previously to gain a second-class honours degree, but barely. I could have failed for all I cared. Bev had done fantastically well, with her hard work earning her a first. She was deliriously happy, screeching in my ear with joy and dancing round and round in circles with her friends, all of them whooping with excitement. Later that night, whilst we and hundreds of our fellows were celebrating in the student bar, I asked Bev if she would like to go out with me again. It was exactly four months to the day that we had met. I held my breath as she regarded me, a sly smile on her face and her cheeks reddened with alcohol. Finally, she leaned forwards and whispered to me gently.

“You betcha, handsome.” Then she had slipped her arm around my neck and kissed me. If I had died at that exact moment I would have died the happiest man on the planet.

Ah, what a sweet memory that is. I’d like to voice it aloud, but I don’t want to disturb her. I’ll leave her be, and keep stroking her hair. She’s always liked that and I’ll never tire of it. I’ll simply memorise my thoughts and write them down at a later date, just like Dostoevsky during his imprisonment.

I had lived for Bev from the moment I saw her, and now that we were together I felt like my life belonged to her. Unfortunately, the mundane structure of society had pressured me into finding a new place to live and seeking some form of employment. I hated being away from my angel, but they were necessary distractions. We still saw each other several evenings per week, as well as on the weekends. I took any opportunity to spend time with her, which irked her friends a great deal. I ignored them, whereas Bev good-humouredly laughed their objections away.  So many wonderful things happened during those few months: day trips to history museums, the sharing of our favourite films snuggled under blankets, the first time we made love…Bev was as much caught up in the whirlwind that surrounds new relationships as I was, and it seemed to me that during that time she never stopped smiling.

But things started to go wrong exactly six months into our relationship. I was thrilled that we had made it so far, and the months had flown by in a dizzying dream for me. I was complete with Bev, and wanted to tell her so. I took her out into London for a meal at her favourite Italian restaurant, the one with the garlic bread sticks and the live bands. I even booked it for the night the Elvis impersonator was on, because she loves that silly man. Personally, I’ve always thought that having an Elvis Presley impersonator in an Italian was a bloody stupid idea, but I’ll happily endure it for Bev. We ate well, with creamy carbonara for me and seafood risotto for Bev, her favourite. She even had two helpings of dough balls that night, winking and warning me not to tell a soul because of her diet. I told her that I wouldn’t dream of telling on her, and that she could eat dough balls morning, noon and night for all I cared. She laughed, her beautiful mouth raising up into a dazzling smile and her hair swishing to and fro. I ordered a couple of bottles of the best wine they had; no expenses were spared that night. We were sitting quietly at the end of the evening, comfortably full of good food and more than a little bit tipsy. Bev was sitting slightly forwards with a demure smile, nodding her head to a passable rendition of “Blue Suede Shoes” with her eyes half-closed. Drinking in her beauty, I sat there in silence just watching her. After the song had finished, Bev had noticed me staring and asked me shyly what I was thinking about. It was then that I asked her to move in with me.

Her reaction was not pleasing to me.
“Oh, sweetie…I don’t know what to say…” She looked shocked and perplexed, not in control of herself as she almost always was. “I mean it’s a great idea but…isn’t it a little bit soon for that? It’s quite a big step to take…”
I was confused and hurt. I told her that it didn’t seem like a big step at all to me, but the logical progression of our devotion to one another. Again, she seemed bewildered and extremely uncomfortable.
“Yes, I suppose, but still…have we reached that point yet?”
It was as if she had slapped me across the face with her words. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Of course we had reached that point, we had reached it months before! We were made for each other, and this was the correct step, a way to properly begin the forging of our life together. Romeo and Juliet had only needed one evening to come to the realisation that they were destined for one another, and she adored that story. Therefore I was at a loss as to why she would balk at my suggestion. I mean, six months was positively aeons in comparison!
Needless to say, the pleasant mood was utterly ruined. I made some bumbling comment about rushing into things in a half-arsed attempt to appease her before asking for the bill. We sat in a painful silence as we waited, with me struggling to come to terms with my injury.

Whoops, I’m gripping her hair a bit tightly now! That memory does that to me, unfortunately. The pain still feels fresh when I recall that night. I haven’t hurt her, thankfully. There, I’ve smoothed her hair back and resumed stroking it gently. She still seems quite content to just let me be. Bless her, I love her so.

Then what? Ah yes, things had become quite awkward for us after that. I was wracked with doubt and deeply hurt, but I couldn’t stay away from her. She meant so much to me. After a couple of agonising days we met up once again and laughed the whole thing off. Well, Bev laughed anyway. I smiled and held her hand, determined more than ever to never let her go. I had come to the conclusion that she had not progressed to the same emotional level as I had, which whilst unfortunate, was not a major cause for concern. I was certain that she would catch up before too long, and meanwhile I would patiently dote upon her and let our love cleanse away any doubts.

Only, that didn’t quite happen. I blame her friends, personally. Those shit-stirring, envious parasites she calls friends, anyway. They were constantly whispering amongst themselves about me, I know it. They disliked how much time Bev spent with me, which was somewhat understandable. Friends of new couples often tend to react to their changing time commitments with jealousy, it’s almost a rite of passage. However, these “friends” took it beyond mere jealousy. They despised me, and I know that they were trying to turn Bev against me in order to get her back. I’d often come back from using the toilet or buying drinks at the bar to see Bev laughing uproariously with two or three of them surrounding her, whispering. When I’d ask what they had been talking about, one of them would interrupt Bev and palm me off with some half-thought drivel. They were like vultures, bloated with lies and guarding their next meal.

They were no good for her, and I tried to tell her that various times. Bev brushed it off at first, then she grew defensive and finally angry with me for suggesting it. So I stopped saying anything to her about it, and instead began to check up on her whilst she was out with them. I’d arrive unannounced and uninvited to coffee dates, lunches and even cinema screenings, much to the chagrin of the friends in question. At first Bev was pleasantly surprised to see me, and was happy to have me tag along. However, she began to become visibly disheartened by my sudden appearances and grew frustrated with me. It led to heated rows, during which I insisted that her jealous friends were getting to her, and that by causing arguments between us they were getting what they wanted.

Damn it! I’m gripping her hair again and my fingers are tangled in it. It’s those bloody friends of hers, it still infuriates me to think about what they did to us. OK, I’m untangled now. Slow, gentle strokes…

I continued checking up on Bev, especially when she started becoming evasive. I was angry when she got like that, and knew her friends were behind it. A couple of times I called in sick or swapped shifts at work in order to sneak out and follow her. It was often simply a matter of touring her usual haunts, as I could usually locate her that way within a couple of hours. If she had gone out of town, I found out where she would be by contacting her cousins or her siblings and convincing them that I had something urgent to tell her. That worked like a charm, but eventually they became maddeningly unhelpful. Her brother even threatened me once, and told me to stay away from Bev. I had never heard such a ludicrous suggestion, and angrily told him so. She didn’t need her family anymore anyway, she had me. All they would do is get in the way. Presently, whenever I appeared to rescue Bev from her parasites I was pleased to see that they were becoming visibly shaken by it, even frightened. I would have revelled in my victory if Bev had not started exhibiting the same reactions towards me. As I watched from afar and out of sight, I could see her casting her head to and fro, restless and fearful. She started stammering when we were together, and she was reluctant to let me touch her at times. The smiles I craved became fewer and further between, and the laughter was strained if it was even there at all. I couldn’t understand it; I was trying to protect her from her “friends”, for her sake. For our sake.

Nine months and fourteen days into our relationship, something terrible happened. Bev told me that we needed to talk, and sounded very much on edge. When I met with her, she blurted out that it was all over and that she didn’t want to see me again. She said I frightened her, and that I needed professional help. As I think back on it, I must say that I was surprisingly calm about the situation. It’s because I knew that she wasn’t serious; this was merely another setback which we would get past and be stronger for. It would hurt me being away from her, but if she needed space then I could forgive her for it. I could also forgive her for her harsh choice of words, as they were uttered in a moment of passion. I love how passionate Bev is, and I could never fault her for it. No, I would just be patient and everything would be fine. Bev would come back to me and I would welcome her with open arms and a full heart.

After about a month, I had seen on Facebook that she had been writing statuses about losing weight for the summer time. She had blocked me by this point, and I had seen this by hacking into her mother’s account. Although Bev is rightly considered by all to be beautiful, charming woman, she has always been troubled by her size.  She has come from a society where beach-ready models with glorious sun-kissed skin and toned bodies were abundant and held up as the American standard, and she never really has been able to ignore that particular form of indoctrination. Her wonderfully curved hips, ample thighs and plump rear are anathema to her, and she has convinced herself that she is fat. No amount of argument on my side has budged that opinion, but I have been pleased to note that our relationship has inspired a certain confidence within her. Anyway, upon reading her status, I had bought her some fairly expensive summer dresses which would complement her figure delightfully and sent them to her address. I reasoned that even though she hadn’t come to her senses just yet it was still part of my duties as her boyfriend to make sure that she felt and looked good regardless of the season. It was a sweet, loving gesture. However, I received several furious messages on my own Facebook account, all from her friends and all insisting that Bev was uncomfortable with my gifts. Not a single message from Bev was sent to confirm their ramblings, though, so I knew that this was untrue.

All of a sudden, our first anniversary as a couple loomed overhead. After days of trying, I finally managed to contact Bev directly and arrange to meet for a meal. I told her that I needed to see her and that I loved her dearly, and that if she felt any compassion for me she would agree to see me that evening. She relented, and I eagerly booked a table at her favourite Italian in London once again. This time it would be a happy occasion from start to finish, with no awkwardness or disappointment. I was even looking forward to hearing that mediocre Elvis-wannabe again! I was a bundle of nerves as I waited for her. We had not seen each other properly for nearly three months, an excruciatingly painful length of time for me. But I was certain that once we started talking again Bev would come to her senses and stop playing her silly game. We would laugh and forget that anything ever happened. Imagine, then, my shock when Bev finally arrived, looking resplendent in a blue dress, flanked by her brother and her cousin. I was speechless with indignation; how dare they intrude on our celebration! I’d met her brother, Harvey, a few times but her cousin was nearly a stranger to me. Bev smiled at me weakly and mumbled something about us needing to talk, when her lout of a brother sharply interrupted her.

“Bev’s only here to give you some closure, creep, so don’t get any ideas.” He barked, folding his arms. “We’re watching you.” Her cousin stood next to him in much the same manner. To me, that had more than a passing resemblance to a pair of burly guards escorting a dejected prisoner to her cell.

For a few seconds I couldn’t respond, I merely sat at the table trembling with suppressed rage. I then managed to quietly ask Bev if she had planned for those two idiots to join us for the evening.

“No, sweetie, I had planned to come alone,” She began nervously. “But Harvey and Bob insisted that they-“. That was as far as she got. I don’t remember much about what followed. The red mist had descended and I had launched myself out of my seat and attacked Harvey. I vaguely remember knocking him off of his feet, and I think a woman nearby had screamed. Cousin Bob must have hit me because I ended up with a black eye. I was roughly seized by a hulking chef at some point and tossed unceremoniously out of the restaurant whilst someone called the police. I remember seeing Bev crying as I was taken away. Harvey was mopping at a gash on his eyebrow, trying to stop the blood trickling into his eyes and Bob had a broken wrist. As it turned out, neither of them decided to press charges, which I suppose was lucky for me. Lucky for them, too. I should have killed them.

I didn’t see Bev for a while after that incident. Her family and friends were on high alert which made it difficult for me to follow her, much less try to talk to her. I was forced to back off by those cretins. None of them seemed to realise that their actions would be hurting Bev just as much as they were hurting me. I had tried to warn her but she hadn’t listened! Just like Romeo and Juliet we were hindered in our love by the unreasonable zealotry of family. But also like Romeo and Juliet I knew that we would find a way around their oppression, a way to be together forever.

Blimey, look at me getting all romantic about it! That was almost thespian of me! Bev does that, her presence unlocks deep wells of emotion within, wells I didn’t even realise I had. She is my muse given exquisite physical form.

A little over four months later, I discovered through my various sources that Bev was planning on travelling down to Brighton to visit her aunt. My head was filled with fantasies of a tearful reunion on Brighton Pier and romantic walks along the beach as we inevitably reconciled. My heart ached for it, and I knew that it would be possible whilst she was away from her loathsome self-appointed guardians. I hacked into her email account and saw that she was getting a coach from London Victoria. I eagerly bought a ticket on the same coach and waited for the day with an impatience born of deep longing. The day finally came, and I excitedly boarded the coach a few stops out of Victoria. The overweight, bored-looking driver waved me on with little more than a grunt, hardly glancing at me. I was wearing my sunglasses and had my hood up so that Bev wouldn’t recognise me as I walked past her down the aisle, my heart leaping as I saw her reclining peacefully in her seat and gazing out of the window. I sat on an empty seat just behind her but on the opposite side of the coach, so that I could see her easily and day-dream about running my fingers through her beautiful golden hair once again.

Disaster struck on the way to Brighton. Firstly, the heavens had opened and deluge of rain had poured down on us as we cruised along the motorway. Secondly, we all overheard the driver panting heavily and attempting to discreetly contact his management back in London. He seemed to be in some distress, and some of the passengers started to become uneasy. I barely noticed any of this, I was too focused on my Bev. Suddenly, the driver lurched to the side, clutching his chest and dragging the steering wheel with him. The coach lumbered crazily across the road and into the fast lane. The screeching of brakes and the urgent blasting of horns filled our ears. Several passengers screamed in terror. The driver attempted to wrestle the wheel back, his ashen face and wide eyes visible in the rear-view mirror. Bev sat bolt upright, gripping her seat in panic. The coach swerved. A van collided with it at speed. The coach was spun around slightly on the wet asphalt, tyres squealing in alarm. Another vehicle hit the coach on the other side. Windows shattered. More people screamed. Another collision. I saw a section of the cabin burst inwards in front of me, and everything went black.

I came to in a hospital bed. My first thoughts were of Bev. My head was full of fog and I couldn’t think straight. I had vague memories of being pinned down under a cage of jagged metal and broken glass, soaked to the skin with rainwater and blood. I remember managing to look up and seeing another decimated coach seat in front of me, and a mangled body with golden hair streaked with red…I had been in a coma for almost a month with severe head injuries. When I asked about Bev, they tried to tell me that she was dead, and that her funeral had come and gone whilst I was unconscious. I refused to accept this information. She couldn’t have died. She simply couldn’t have. It was another heartless scheme conceived in jealousy by Bev’s family and friends. They were all in on it, every last muck-scraping one of them. They must have bribed the hospital staff to spin me that story, too. I was filled with disgust and contempt for them. They had taken advantage of a horrific accident and had faked Bev’s death, and all because they didn’t like me! All because Bev didn’t need them anymore! It was, and still is, unbelievable. The strength of some people’s vindictiveness is quite literally breath-taking.

I have since been searching for Bev. She was no doubt forced away from me whilst I was laid up in hospital, coerced or threatened to do so by her monstrous relatives. She is an exiled princess, and I am her lonely prince, tenaciously seeking her trail. She had previously discussed a desire to travel around the country in order to “get the full English experience”. The thought still makes me smile. So, I have been travelling from place to place, trying my utmost to catch sight of my beloved.

Which brings me, unfortunately, back to my present situation. I was so sure that I had found her this time. Those bright blue eyes, the welcoming smile, the gorgeous blond hair…But no, she is not Bev, and no amount of pretending will change that. I thought that perhaps she’d gotten amnesia from the crash and therefore needed some coaxing to awaken her memories, but I was wrong. I had realised my mistake eventually, but by then she was dead. My anger and frustration had gotten the better of me and I’d lost control. Still, she looked so much like my Bev that I was quite content to sit here on the floor, stroking her hair as the day grew darker and her body grew colder. It is nearly dark now, which is good; I can get rid of her more effectively in the dark, and then I can get back to finding Bev.

This young girl is the third almost-Bev I have stumbled across in the last six months, but I know that the real Bev, my Bev, is out there.

I will find her. We will have been together for two years very soon, and I must tell her once again how much I love her. Bev loves me too, I know it.

We’ll be so happy once we’re together again.

Pews and Paranoia

Pews and Paranoia

By Adam Dixon

It was October 1979, and Vasily knew that his life was in danger. He had no real proof to confirm it as of yet, but his recent occupations had as good as signed his death warrant. His colleagues and friends called him paranoid, but he knew better. Vasily was a journalist who had made it his business over the years to obtain valuable information and see it revealed to the world. This information was often top secret, and to certain parties it represented power. Vasily was a freelancer, which gave him a great degree of flexibility as he did not need to be chained to one corporation or another in order to ply his trade. Feeling chained down had been one reason why he had left the U.S.S.R. in the first place, back in the ‘50s. 1958, to be exact, the year he had realised how dangerous the Soviet Union had become and how the death of Stalin had done precious little to thaw the Cold War. Nikita Krushchev had ousted his rivals to become its undisputed leader, and that was warning enough for Vasily to flee to Western Europe. Just like the Western capitalists, Vasily saw his former government as bear-like: aggressive and prone to raging destruction. As a young, liberal-minded intellectual, Vasily had been the kind of man whom the authorities in the Soviet Union would have considered potentially dangerous. Inevitably, he had found himself being watched. However, he had cunningly evaded the authorities in Russia and fled to the relative safety of Paris right under their noses. Twenty years had passed, and now it was Leonid Brezhnev who held the reins in Moscow and Vasily was in London, determined to continue working against them.

Vasily was acutely aware of the danger that his line of work could attract. Persistent journalists who refused to be quiet were irritating to governments who had secrets to keep; they were like flies buzzing incessantly around their heads. Sooner or later, though, those flies would get swatted. Vasily knew that only too well, with the frighteningly recent example of Georgi Markov to prove it. Markov had been something of a hero to Vasily. He had admired him on a professional level, seeing as they were both dissenter-journalists, but it stretched further than that. Vasily had found himself inspired by Markov’s unwavering tenacity and his sense of justice; a man to emulate if ever there was one. But now Markov was dead. A tiny ricin-filled pellet on a crowded London street was all it had taken. Markov had believed himself to be safe in London, safe from the tyrants in Sofia. He had been wrong.

It had been a year since Markov’s assassination and it still weighed heavily on Vasily’s mind. He reasoned that Markov had underestimated the reach of the Bulgarian government, but he also reasoned that it would have been impossible for Markov to anticipate the manner of his execution. That was what frightened Vasily the most; he was afraid of the endless invisible agents of his own silencing. It now meant that Vasily avoided travelling via the London Underground whilst alone, he vetted his drivers thoroughly before employing them and he was overly suspicious of any meal he hadn’t seen prepared with his own eyes. Unsurprisingly, he also became nervous around anyone who carried an umbrella. He was aware of how unbearable his paranoia was making him, but he simply couldn’t take any chances. He planned to live to see Brezhnev overthrown, and he hoped to be a helping hand in the process, if possible.

A soft knocking on the door of his study made Vasily start.

“Come in.” He called, silently chiding himself for being so jittery. Vasily’s wife, Natalya, came gliding into the room. As always, Vasily’s heart lifted at the sight of her. She was tall, dark and strong-limbed with piercing blue eyes and the permeating will of a tsarina. She was a quite a bit younger than he was, and he still counted his lucky stars that she had agreed to marry him before their flight to Western Europe. He had been in his mid-thirties back then, and she had not quite been twenty. He felt that he didn’t deserve such good fortune.

“Some letters have arrived for you, my husband.” Natalya chimed in her slightly rough accent. “I also bring tea for you.” Natalya smiled and placed a simple stainless-steel tray on his desk. It held a steaming pot of tea, a single mug and a small pile of letters.

“Ah, thank you, my love.” Vasily smiled back and took her hand, giving it an affectionate squeeze. Natalya let her hand remain in his for a few moments before pulling away and moving back towards the door.

“Do not be working too hard, Vasily,” she called, with a trace of humour in her voice. “The world will still be here in morning if you decide to relax for one day.”

“Not if Brezhnev isn’t careful, my love,” Vasily replied, half-joking. The door closed behind him. He sat in silence for a few minutes, musing over his words. Vasily fully believed that Brezhnev was the single greatest danger to the world at present, and that it was imperative that the world became aware of it. People like himself had a duty to cast light on this danger, to illuminate it and force back any shadows of doubt or indifference regarding it. Of course, a large part of the peril was Brezhnev’s repeated baiting of the United States whilst under the pretence of friendship. The United States were hardly innocent or ignorant of the proceedings, however, as they had been playing their own games of guile and forced courtship for decades. Thus the insane Cold War was perpetuated, and smaller countries surrounding the two superpowers were dragged into the maelstrom it created with very little choice in the matter. The world was a vast cauldron set over a raging fire, threatening to boil over at any moment.

Vasily glanced down at the letters on his tray. Most were the uniform tan colour of bills, but one caught his eye. It was a small white envelope, with his name and address printed in standard black typing. Vasily picked this one up and carefully ripped it open. Inside was a single sheet of paper with only three lines. However, the contents of those lines caused Vasily to sit bolt upright in his chair. It was written in Russian.

“It would appear that you were correct. The bear extents his claws to the south. I have something for you. Meet in the usual place at the usual time. Be vigilant.

N.S.M.”

Vasily’s mind raced. His correspondent was a disgruntled K.G.B. man who had access to highly sensitive material regarding Soviet activities. This man had occasionally seen fit to throw Vasily a juicy bone in the form of government secrets, and those bones had been juicy indeed. The abbreviation “N.S.M.” was how he referred to himself, the letters standing for “New Soviet Man”. It was a term used by Communist ideologists to describe the desired modern archetype among the Soviet people. They were supposed to be intelligent, strong-willed and loyal, among other things. This seemed to be a joke, although from the half-a-dozen times they had met Vasily had become fairly certain that the man did not possess a sense of humour. “The bear extends his claws to the south.” There was no doubt in Vasily’s mind as to what that could mean: the Soviet Union was preparing to invade Afghanistan. Tensions had been building for months surrounding the country and it’s in-fighting, with the capitalists and communists of the world alike looking on with interest. It would appear that matters were not proceeding in the way the Soviets had hoped they would, and that they intended to force an outcome. The Soviets had invested a lot of time and money in Afghanistan and could not afford to let her slip away. An invasion would not come as a surprise for the rest of the world, but revealing their scheme before it happened would undoubtedly have serious ramifications, even if they attempted to supress the article. It would worm its way into the public attention, and it would humiliate the leadership in Moscow. The man had something Vasily could use, a potential rod for Brezhnev’s back. At the very least it could be another small fire to set under his feet.

Of course, that would also greatly increase the frustration directed at Vasily. He could embarrass them this time, and they may not take it lying down. The thought turned Vasily’s blood to ice, and he became aware of a fine sheen of perspiration forming above his eyes and his lips. He wiped his face with the back of a shaking hand and forced himself to calm down. There was absolutely no question of not taking advantage of such a potential game-changer; this was the kind of information that political journalists hungered for. Of course, Vasily would require some hard evidence to support any story he wrote on the subject, but he had faith that it would be provided; New Soviet Man had not let him down on that front yet. “The usual time” was two o’clock in the afternoon. Vasily glanced at his wristwatch; it was a quarter to twelve. He had plenty of time, and he simply had to meet him, even if he was frightened to leave the house.

Vasily stood up slowly, gripping the desk with one hand and holding the letter in the other. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his silver cigarette lighter. He casually flicked open the lid in an upward motion with his thumb before striking the spark wheel as he brought it back down. A flame ignited in his fist, and he paused only for a moment before passing a corner of the letter through it. The flame licked the paper greedily, leaping upwards to consume it like a starving animal. Vasily turned his hand to spread the flame more evenly, strangely soothed by the destruction it caused. He stood watching the flame devour the page before dropping it into the empty waste-paper basket at his feet. There it smouldered resolutely for a second or two before extinguishing itself. Vasily wondered briefly if his next report would have that effect on the U.S.S.R. He smiled to himself, shaking his head at the thought. Foolish for him to be thinking so ambitiously at this stage when he didn’t know what information he would be receiving, or whether anything he wrote would have that kind of tenacity. But still, he enjoyed the thought nonetheless.

Filled with new confidence, Vasily turned to leave, striding towards the door. As he reached out a hand to open it, he hesitated. Glancing back over his shoulder, he looked at the untouched pot of tea on his desk. He should leave Natalya a note, rather than just leaving without a word. He scolded himself for his lack of concern, and moved back to his desk. Pulling out a plain sheet of paper from his desk drawer, he wrote a short message in his characteristically spider-like hand. It was short and to the point:

“My dearest one,

I have left on business. I should not be gone for more than a few hours. The bear sharpens his claws.

All my love,

Vasily”

Vasily nodded to himself and placed the note gently on the tray. With that, he straightened up and left the room. As he walked through his front door and was embraced by the London air, his fears threatened to come back to him once again. He started, one hand still on his door handle as an old lady pulling a shopping trolley passed nearby. For one ludicrous moment he expected the arthritic, white-haired pensioner to rummage into her trolley and come up brandishing a pistol. She merely tottered past him, oblivious to his wild day-time fantasies. Vasily shook his head, angry with himself and feeling more than a little bit foolish. He pulled the door closed with a resolutely firm thud in order to take control of himself before striding off into the afternoon.

A couple of hours later, after two tense train journeys and a nerve-wracking bus route, Vasily arrived at the rendezvous point. It was an area of quiet countryside, with rolling green hills in the background and ragged woodland nearby. Vasily had trudged through said woodland for a few minutes, actually enjoying the solace it provided. He now stood in front of a small church, which had clearly fallen into a state of disrepair. It was a quaint little building, with the classic weather-worn stone walls and elegant stained-glass windows associated with English country chapels. Although abandoned, it was still a fairly impressive building, with its tower and steeple soaring proudly and defiantly above the landscape. Vasily was not religious, but he still felt a thrill of appreciation whenever he approached a church, which was often mixed with a feeling of sadness at their neglect in the modern age. They were examples of a cultural heritage, and should be preserved in his opinion. Perhaps he would write a paper on the subject one day, if he found the time. He sighed in resignation and set off up the path towards the entrance. As he passed through the graveyard, his mind whispered that the decrepit, moss-strewn gravestones must be an omen of some kind, a thought which he angrily and forcefully dispelled. There was no question of turning back now.

Vasily pushed open the heavy door and was immediately assaulted with a mixture of scents; a trace of spicy incense, a whiff of damp paper and the pervasive odour of mouldy wood. The stained-glass windows generated a soft glow within the church as the light passed through them, and dust motes swirled in front of him as a breeze disturbed them. Vasily walked inside the church, noting how his footsteps echoed ominously around the building. Leading up towards the altar were five rows of wooden pews with a pathway in between them. Vasily’s informant was seated on the second pew from the door on the right-hand side.

New Soviet Man was as Vasily remembered him: large. He was tall even whilst sitting, with broad shoulders and a shaved head. He had intimidated Vasily the first couple of times they had met face-to-face, as he had a dangerous quality about him. He supposed that was to be expected; after all, you could hardly expect an agent of a powerful national security organisation to appear meek. He was also wearing a tan-coloured trench-coat, which was odd. It looked like something out of an American sleuth drama on television. Vasily assumed it was just another example of the man’s strange sense of humour. He approached the pew behind the man, feeling nervous. Previous meetings with him had always been short and sweet, a quick relay of information followed by some form of proof. Vasily hoped today would be the same, as he felt distinctly uneasy this time. He sat down behind New Soviet Man, unsure what to do. The man was slumped forward with his head resting on the pew in front of him, his arms on his knees. He appeared to be praying silently, another surprise to Vasily. He glanced at his watch. It was ten minutes to two; he was early. He decided not to disturb him right away and sat in awkward silence as he waited.

Minutes passed slowly. Vasily began to fidget in his seat. He was sure the man must have heard him enter. He didn’t expect him to stop his religious contemplations right away, but he had hoped that he might hurry it up a bit. They had important matters to discuss, possibly world-changing matters. As the seconds and minutes dragged past, Vasily felt his impatience becoming unbearable. Perhaps his extended residency in Britain had caused him to absorb that country’s culture of excruciating politeness, as he found himself resisting the desire to interrupt the man and seize his attention. In fact, he was certain that five years ago he would have done just that without any such internal dithering. After nearly fifteen minutes had passed Vasily finally forced himself to clear his throat. The soft noise echoed weirdly around the church, reverberating duly off the cold stone walls. New Soviet Man did not move or show any indication that he had heard the noise. Vasily grew angry quickly. He repeated the action, more loudly this time. The man did not move.

“Excuse me, comrade,” Vasily broke the silence with a sharp, irritated outburst in Russian. “I see that you are occupied, but deliberately ignoring me is extremely rude. I have travelled a long way to speak with you and I will not treated in such a manner. Now, kindly end your prayers and tell me what were are dealing with today.” Satisfied, Vasily folded his arms and waited expectantly. Still New Soviet Man did nothing. He simply sat there, slumped forward in silence. Vasily started to feel uneasy again. He leaned forwards slowly, stretching out his right arm.

“Erm, excuse me? Are you listening to me?” Vasily grasped the bald man’s shoulder and gave it a vigorous shake. New Soviet Man’s upper body moved with the motion, his forehead scraping along the pew in front of him. Vasily let go, and watched with alarm as New Soviet Man began to slide to the right. His head lifted from the pew as his body listed sideways and he collapsed onto his side without a word. His eyes were wide open and glazed over, his mouth slack. There was an indentation on his forehead from the pew. New Soviet Man was dead.

Just as Vasily’s mind was feverishly attempting to process this information, he heard the muffled creak of a floorboard behind him. Without thinking Vasily threw himself to the right. As he moved he heard the rapport of a gunshot and a bullet smashed into the pew in front of him, passing through air where his back had been half a second before. The wood was old and belched out a shower of dust and splinters, coating Vasily’s prone body. He rolled to his left and fell to floor between the pews, his heart hammering in his chest. He heard a voice curse in Russian followed by quick footsteps. Vasily lurched forwards in a crouched run, barrelling down between the pews towards the wall. He reached the end of the bench and turned left towards the front of the church. Another bullet shattered the wood next to his head, ripping a cry of fear and panic from his lips. Vasily ducked his head and ran forwards, keeping low. Gunshots fired twice more, with one bullet ricocheting off the wall to his right and burying itself in the floor. Panic flooded Vasily as he ran; it was a trap! New Soviet Man had been murdered and no-one else knew where he was this afternoon. He was in an abandoned church in the middle of nowhere with a gunman on his heels. He should never have come in the first place!

As Vasily reached the front row, he was momentarily wracked with indecision. Now what? The pews had provided rudimentary cover from his assailant, but another step and he would be exposed. The door to the vestry was to his right, but it was securely locked with a padlock. The only thing in front of him was the stone altar, a mute sentinel observing the ensuing chaos with indifference. Vasily whimpered in desperation and ran towards the altar, making himself as small a target as possible. Two more shots were fired. He felt a bullet flash past his left arm, hearing the material of his jacket tear as it was nicked in its path. The second bullet hit him in the shoulder like a tiny freight train. Pain exploded through Vasily’s arm and he screamed. He dove forwards, landing heavily on his right and desperately scrambled behind the altar. Blood seeped out of his now useless arm, rapidly staining his shirt and jacket. He leaned his back against the stone, eyes closed, panting.

There was nowhere else to go. The pain in his shoulder was incredible and he knew that he was going into shock. Footsteps slowly approached the altar. Desperately, Vasily cast his eyes to and fro, seeking something, anything that could help him. He spotted what appeared to be a large piece of wood on the floor next to him. He reached for it, groaning as the movement sent fresh waves of pain through his arm. His fingers curled around the object and he hefted it. Blinking through tears, Vasily brought it close to his face and peered at it. Despite the situation, the realisation of what the object was caused Vasily to laugh weakly. Nestled in his trembling hand was a heavy wooden crucifix bearing a carved figure of the corpse of Jesus. So it had come to this: Vasily’s only hope lay with the physical symbol of a religion he had never believed in, despite the attempts of his parents and his country to force it upon him. He noted the irony of the situation with distaste. Not that it would be particularly effective against a gun, not unless he became impervious to bullets through divine intervention. Vasily judged that it would be somewhat unlikely to happen.

A shadow fell across the wall in front of him and steadily grew larger as the gunman crept closer. With an effort Vasily bunched his legs underneath him and rose up slightly. He groaned as his legs threatened to reject his body weight, but his right hand held the crucifix in a vice-grip. If his enemies wanted him to die, then at least he would not die a coward. God knew that he had nearly been reduced to one recently. But no more.

Vasily waited until the slow, cautious footsteps were right beside him. As a shining black boot became visible past the altar, Vasily sprung upwards, screeching wildly. He spun on his heel and struck out with as much force as he could muster. He had misjudged how close his attacker had approached, and so hit an outstretched arm instead of their skull. Wood struck flesh with a dull thud, and the hands holding the pistol were jerked downwards. The gun went off, punching a hole into the floor between Vasily’s feet. The attacker cried out in surprise and pain, but Vasily barely registered it. He raised the crucifix quickly, this time focusing his full concentration on the head of his assailant. He suddenly noticed that the head was covered with long, shining black hair. The head came up…and Vasily froze. That beautiful face, those hard blue eyes…

“Natalya?” Vasily croaked in disbelief. He couldn’t move. That face darkened, and the gun swung back up. The second-to-last thing to go through Vasily’s brain was a combination of shock, incomprehension and fear. The last thing was a bullet. Blood spattered across the altar, crimson droplets disturbing decades of dust on its surface. The crucifix dropped to the floor from his fingers, clattering on the ground just before his body thumped down heavily. He had fallen backwards, his body forced back by the fatal impact.

Natalya stood over her husband’s corpse. A strange mixture of emotions were bubbling inside her: elation, relief, sadness and pity. However, she did not feel regret. She had loved Vasily in her own way, but she would always follow her orders. Emotions could stand in the way of orders, and so she had learned to block them out. Besides, it had not been her fault that the foolish man had had such grand delusions about publically shaming the Soviet Union. His work had been noticed, and he had become a nuisance. Marrying him had been an ideal way in which to get close to him, to keep an eye on his findings and report back to her superiors. She had known this day would come, and somehow she knew that the task would have fallen to her. How terrifying it must have been for him during those last minutes to realise that he had been right all along, she thought sadly. His paranoia had not been unfounded.

Natalya gingerly felt her left wrist and winced. He had struck her quite hard with that damn cross, there was sure to be some bruising there. Strange how the mild little journalist had proven more difficult to silence than a large, well-trained K.G.B. man. She shook her head. Although she had not once panicked during the confrontation, she had still managed to waste seven bullets before she had managed to take Vasily down. She had not fired so many shots at a target since her very first kill. It had been sloppy work today, and her kind were not supposed to be sloppy. Perhaps it was due to her age – she was not old yet, but forty was old for someone in her line of work. No matter, the job was done. Natalya turned from the body of her husband and walked calmly out of the church. The Soviet plans would go ahead with one less threat. One less buzzing fly to swat. She did not look back.