I am one of those nerdy types constantly looking for new information. When I decided to start writing fiction again after many years of writing business and marketing-related materials, I scoured the Internet for every morsel of writing advice I could find. The amount of material I found was overwhelming, but I dove in without taking a breath. I wanted to learn.
What I found fulfilled my needs, but I also found that, apparently, everyone who has ever written considers themselves an expert. The myriad of articles, blogs, podcasts, and YouTube videos are mind-bogglingly confusing, with almost all of these ‘experts’ saying the identical thing. The difference is how they offer their “expertise.”
My background is in science, so I took a rudimentary approach. I had taken creative writing in high school and college, but I decided to start with general information. I researched topics such as writing fiction for beginners, components of a good fiction novel, and how to write mysteries or science fiction. After looking at overviews of the craft, I pared my searches down to the basics.
Among my first questions were these:
How to write an opening sentence
How to write a hook
How to write an opening paragraph, a first chapter
Well, you get the idea—totally back to basics.
I wasn’t a novice, but years of writing nonfiction suck the soul out of writing fiction. I needed to relearn how to put the reader into the story for more than information. I needed them to feel the emotion of what they were reading. I searched for information on developing characters, plots, world-building, voice, structure, and grammar, among other topics.
Whether a beginning writer or one who believes in continuing education, the resources available to us are amazing. We can have information from the Internet in seconds that could take hours to find the conventional way open to us—libraries.
Libraries had librarians. Those individuals who spoke softly and always found the answers you sought. If you needed information on any subject, there would be stacks of books or periodicals in front of you, ready for exploration within a blink of an eye.
Today, while my love of libraries will never wane, my librarians are more often Internet search engines. The process is not as personal, but the information is instantaneous. It is also confusing.
There are basic steps to writing. While all of us like to be creative individuals, the art of storytelling is an ancient one and varies little from the beginning of the spoken and written word. Stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. That pattern does not change. Our creativity is in how we construct our story.
With the Internet’s assistance, we can learn the basics and the nuances of storytelling by asking questions. For example, I typed in this search request. How to write an opening line for a novel.
The result? “About 373,000,000 results (0.67 seconds)” was the response from the search engine for all results.
For videos? The results were—“About 3,720,000 results (0.46 seconds).” That is a lot of videos for a very narrow topic.
For videos? The results were—“About 3,720,000 results (0.46 seconds).” That is a lot of videos for a very narrow topic.
I admit to a love-hate relationship with writers and videos. There is one author who I came across a few years ago whose advice I found to be excellent and delivered in a fun and irreverent manner. I followed this author and her advice for a long time, until recently. Her videos have become solely marketing tools for her books and merchandise. There is nothing wrong with promotion, and she has built her following and has every right to market her work to them or anyone.
However, when I am going to her for advice on a topic, having her book discussed before she addresses the subject is annoying, and she lost me as a follower. Not like there aren’t more writing advisors out there. Unfortunately, there are.
For example, one author is bright and cheery but distracted during her rushed delivery. Her camera fell during a taping and, instead of starting over, she frantically grabbed the camera, placed it where she had it, and kept talking. It was annoying and distracting, and she should have stopped and started over, but she did not. Another time, she yelled at her dog for barking. If you want me to respect you as an expert, conduct yourself like one. Her advice was nothing we haven’t heard before, so delivery and connection to the audience are imperative.
There is another famous video writing guru who has produced many YouTube videos. This is more of a personal quirk of mine, but please don’t talk down to the listener and don’t declare how proficient you are on a topic, prove it. In one video, she discussed outdated genres and tropes and noted that some genres are dead in traditional publishing but do well in self-publishing. As her focus and her professed expertise concern traditional publishing, her bias is there as well. If a genre is not selling one place but selling in another, it is not dead but subject to other markets and readers. As a writer, never forget, your success in traditional publishing is at the whim of agents, publishing house editors, and marketing staff. Your novel may be exceptional, but if it does not fit their cubbyholes, the odds of receiving a publishing contract are slim. When reaching out to find qualified advice, read the author’s bio and listen to their intent, as not all advice applies to your situation.
I am not saying that any of the abovementioned writers’ videos don’t have good advice. Advice is subjective and how we learn varies from one person to another. However, I want to offer a word of caution as many authors imparting their ‘knowledge’ do not provide sound advice.
To appear unique, people want to take the basics of writing and spin the ideas into a new way of thinking or processing the information. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but when two plus two equals four, there is little room for stating that fact any other way. Overembellishing a process often leads to confusion, especially for a novice writer.
There are hundreds of processes offered as the way to write the best novel ever. The list is endless. There are numerous character development or world-building forms, specialty writing programs, name or plot generators, and different ways to plot—all ways to accomplish the same goal we all have, to write a novel.
When researching the writing process, you should read all the information you can but be wary of who you are listening to when you take lessons away from your reading. The first Internet search results will be the most popular ones, and often you will see the same writing websites or blogs listed. Popularity does not always mean quality, but if writers use the same sites for advice, there is a reason. You should read all the articles, watch all the videos, take a writing class, and read books with one thought in mind. Take the information that you gather and apply it to your writing process to fit your style. You should be unique, not the person providing writing tips.
The US Navy came up with an acronym, KISS, which stands for Keep It Simple, Stupid. It applies to writers. Learn all that you can about your craft but remember the basics of writing. There is a beginning, a middle, and an end, and only you can write your story.
This short story is based on the June 2021 image prompt for Writers Unite! Write the Story’s project. I hope you enjoy it!
D. A. Ratliff
My earliest recollection of Aunt Estelle was in the summer of my sixth year. My parents took my younger and annoying brother and me to visit our grandparents in a small south Georgia town.
We lived in Los Angeles, and the trip was memorable as it was my first time on an airplane. My grandparents had visited us until then so that my parents didn’t have to lug two small children—did I mention my four-year-old brother was annoying—through airports. Or so I overheard them saying.
Cameron and I—I’m Samantha—were excited about being on the plane. Although Cam did get scared on takeoff and cried, I loved how the plane went faster and faster until it lifted from the ground. Seeing the trees and roads and tall buildings of LA get smaller until I could no longer see them was exciting.
The flight was long, and Cam became fussy, but the captain came to the passenger cabin and calmed him. Our father was an Air Force pilot, and he and the captain had served together. Cam and I finally fell asleep a couple of hours from the Atlanta airport, and it was dark when my parents woke us. As we walked through the nearly deserted airport, I wondered if we had arrived in another world. Funny how that thought would come back to haunt me.
My dad rented a car, and off we headed to my grandparents’ farm. Cam and I fell asleep again, and I vaguely remember arriving at the farm a few hours later and my grandfather carrying me into the house. He smelled of Aqua Velva aftershave, and I felt safe in his arms.
The following morning my grandma cooked the biggest breakfast I ever had, and afterward, we headed outside to play in the yard with Nutter, my granddad’s Labrador Retriever. That big black dog was only about a year old then and became our best playmate over the years. As I write this, Nutter’s great-great-grandson, Sirius, is lying on the deck beside me. And no—I named him after the star and not a wizard from a fiction story.
Later that morning, we were playing, under the watchful eye of our father, on a trampoline that grandpa had put up for us when our great-aunt Estelle arrived carrying a basketful of something that smelled quite tasty. We stopped jumping as she approached. Holding out the basket, she removed a cloth napkin, revealing a pile of cookies. She had our attention.
She hugged my father and then us. “Children, I am your great-aunt Estelle. Let’s go inside and have some milk and cookies.”
We needed no further prompt. Cam and I climbed down from the trampoline with our father’s help and followed her into the kitchen. It’s funny now, thinking back on those days. We knew so little then and now—well, now it’s only my story to tell.
We spent two weeks on the farm, wandering the peanut fields, pecan groves, and the acres of watermelon and cantaloupe. Cam and I feasted each day on a watermelon that our grandpa would pick for us. He always whispered to me in the morning after breakfast, want to pick something pink and green? That phrase became one he whispered to me until he died. Cam’s favorite treat was grandma’s soda biscuits with butter and honey from beehives on the farm. I liked watermelon better.
Aunt Estelle was my grandfather’s sister, and she lived in a cottage just a stone’s throw from our grandparents’ home. The path to her house led from my grandma’s flower garden to a wrought iron gate set in a hedge and into a flower garden in Aunt Estelle’s yard. At six and for many years later, I imagined I was walking through the world of the fairies when I visited her, and we would imagine fairies in the garden and tell each other stories.
We spent a lot of afternoons at Aunt Estelle’s house during that first visit and later ones. She loved to play games with us and taught us to make kites. We would take the balsa and silk kites to the peanut fields and run between rows to watch our colorful creations fly. She took us walking through nearby groves of trees and taught us about plants and birds, and over the years, Cam and I became quite the ornithologists and botanists. And did I mention, she made the best cookies ever.
There was, however, one item in her house that always intrigued me. On a cabinet in her living room sat an old-time radio. My mother called it an art deco piece which I didn’t understand then, and she marveled at how beautiful the radio was. It was shiny black with gold trim and in pristine condition as if she had never turned it on. She once asked Aunt Estelle if it was a reproduction and my aunt just smiled. “Oh no, my dear, it’s an original.”
It wasn’t until my tenth year that I felt something was amiss. We had come for another summer visit, and it was the first time Aunt Estelle did not meet us with a basket of cookies. We didn’t see her until the third day after we arrived. My grandma said Estelle was traveling, as I had learned she often did. When she came to see us, she was carrying two large boxes wrapped in shiny paper and ribbons and a basket full of chocolate chip cookies, our favorites.
“Children, I am so sorry I wasn’t here when you arrived. However, I have a surprise. I was in Germany, and I brought each of you a present.”
Excited, we opened our gifts. Now eight, Cameron was the proud owner of a tree fort with tiny platforms, branches, a staircase, ladder, a bridge, elf-like figurines, and a crow’s nest on top. After seeing his gift, I was anxious to see my own but carefully untied the ribbon and peeled away the paper. Inside the box was a miniature fairy village. There were five houses, patterned like an acorn, honeycomb, tulip, pinecone, and mushroom, along with five fairy girls and five fairy boys.
“Aunt Estelle, I love it. I have just the place in my room for this.” I hugged her, and she squeezed me tightly.
“My darling, I wanted something for you to treasure and remember me and our fairy walks by in years to come.”
Her eyes glittered as she looked into mine. I would remember that look as even then I realized there was more to Aunt Estelle than I knew.
Wonderful memories filled the years to come. When I was fourteen, I begged my parents to spend my school vacation in Georgia. With Cam going to camp, my parents allowed me to spend my summer at the farm. Looking back, it was the best summer of my life.
My grandmother, Aunt Estelle, and I made jams and jellies, relishes, baked cakes and cookies, and tended the personal garden. Thank goodness I had taken up running, or I would have gained a hundred pounds. We wandered the countryside, visiting antique shops, and had lunch at quaint little cafes. I fell in love with the area and the two women sharing the experience with me.
One week, in late July, my grandparents traveled to Chicago for the wedding of a close friend’s grandchild, and they decided I would spend the days they were gone with Estelle. That was the week my journey to my present life began.
The first evening, Aunt Estelle, after dinner and yes, cookies, took me outside. There were no security lights in the area, and the sky was midnight blue and sprinkled with glittering stars. We settled into reclining lawn chairs, and while sipping peach tea, Estelle took me on a tour of the Milky Way spanning the sky above them.
She spoke of the constellations Sagittarius, Scorpius, Ophiuchus, and Scutum and the wandering comets glistened with ice in the reflected light of distant nebulas. She described them as if she had seen them with her own eyes, and her words filled me with wonder.
I had always had an affinity for space and excelled in science as Cam did. Now, listening to my aunt, I felt a growing need to learn more about space and the wonders it contained. It wasn’t until the second night that I discovered a secret about my aunt, and that secret sealed my fate.
We had remained outside until nearly one a.m., and then Aunt Estelle shooed me to bed. I was too excited to sleep, and thoughts of my future spun in my head. I sat, legs beneath me, on the window seat in my room, staring out at the night sky. When I heard a whining sound, I worried my aunt was in trouble. I rushed from my room and down the stairs stopping on the landing to see into the living room. Estelle stood before the radio with only dim light from a single lamp illuminated the room. She wore a pale green gossamer scarf over her head and held a small metal disk in her hands.
I knelt on the landing, peering through the banister, afraid to move. My body became rigid, and all I could do was watch.
Aunt Estelle touched a dial on the radio, and it began to glow. Within seconds, a voice spoke from the radio. Unlike any I had heard before, a voice spoke in a sing-song language as though it was part music and part speaking. Stunned, I watched as Estelle spoke into the metal disc using the same language. The conversation went on for several minutes before Estelle touched the dial again, and the amber light faded. It was then that Estelle turned toward me, and the room went black. I wouldn’t remember the radio incident from that night for a long time until she allowed me to remember.
My high-school years were a blur. I only saw my grandparents on the holidays as I spent my summers in science camp. My attention was solely on science and my desire to attend the Air Force Academy and become a pilot or an astronaut. The day I received my acceptance letter from the Academy, I called Aunt Estelle after I celebrated with my parents and my still annoying brother. She was as excited as I was.
“My darling Sam, I felt your connection to the stars from our nights gazing at the sky. I had a feeling you would want to visit the Milky Way.”
“You instilled that desire in me long ago when we sat in your front yard under the stars.”
“I did, didn’t I? And for a good reason, it is where you belong.”
I ended the call full of wonder and something else, an awareness of Aunt Estelle’s sing-song voice. I wondered why I had never noticed it until that day.
Five years later, I was an Air Force Academy graduate with a physics and aeronautical engineering degree, and I could fly aircraft. I had just come off a training mission when word came that Aunt Estelle had died. My heart shattered as my family and I left for Georgia.
We spent sad days there, as so much had changed. My grandfather had suffered a minor stroke only a few months before Estelle died. After the funeral, my parents talked him into selling the farm and my grandparents moving to California with my parents, including two handsome dogs that were the late Nutter’s offspring.
The day before I left to return to Nellis Air Force Base, my grandmother told me that something was waiting for me in Aunt Estelle’s cottage. I walked the path between the gardens, now lusher than when I was a child. Memories of fairies and twinkling stars fill me with nostalgia.
I walked into her home for likely the last time, and tears streamed down my face. I loved all of my family, but Aunt Estelle filled a piece of my heart that I knew would now remain empty. I found a package wrapped in shiny paper and ribbons. My heart pounding, I sat on the couch and opened the box.
I gasped at what was inside and, with trembling fingers, lifted the beautiful clock from the box, along with a strange metal disk and a letter. Day turned into night as I sat in Estelle’s home, processing what she had written.
Now, years later, I pulled the letter from a zippered pocket on my uniform and read it once again—my heart both breaking and full of love simultaneously.
My dear Samantha:
First, I must tell you. I am not dead. The body I left behind was a non-animated clone. I knew this day was coming from the moment I met you, and I will admit I refused recall until you graduated from the Academy and your future set. You see, Sam, I am not truly your aunt. I am not from Earth. I am from a solar system that your planet has yet to discover. Our sun is much like yours, and my planet is very similar to Earth.
We have visited Earth for many generations, but we are not little gray beings, as we look very similar to you, only requiring minor alterations. We observe your species by becoming part of your family for a while. Then we leave and erase the memories of our existence from those we interacted with but not with you. I petitioned for the right to remain in contact with you as I was certain that you would reach for the stars one day.
You will not be able to discuss me with your family as they will no longer remember me. In a matter of days, they will not remember me at all—but you will. As you might have guessed, the radio is a communications device, and the metal disk is how to operate it. There will come a time when we talk again.
The one thing I did leave with you was the fairy village, as the myths of fairies are common in your world. They are also common in mine. A love that we shared from our childhood.
Samantha, whatever life brings you, remember I will be with you. And we will meet again when you are among the stars.
I wiped the tears spilling from my eyes. As Estelle faded from my family’s memory, it was so difficult not to scream she was here, she was real, but it was futile. I gazed across the cramped captain’s office where the fairy village sat on a shelf, the radio on the shelf below. I had refused to leave Earth without either item or Sirius. Earth Space Command had given in, they wanted me, and I wanted Sirius and Estelle with me.
The comm crackled. “Captain, helm informs me that we are about to cross the boundary of our solar system.”
“Thank you, Commander.”
I scratched Sirius’s head and rose. Before I stepped onto the bridge, I touched the radio, still shiny and new. “Don’t worry, Estelle. I will be calling soon.”
This short story is based on the April 2021 image prompt for Writers Unite! Write the Story’s project. I hope you enjoy it!
A Thousand Nights
D. A. Ratliff
Amir Farsi was a happy man.
Blustery icy wind from the churning Irish Sea sprayed the sleepy village, empty of summer tourists. The winter weather was so unlike the warmth of his homeland, yet he was happy.
He sat at a table next to the window watching the sea and the few souls braving the outdoors, with Finn, his five-year-old Golden Retriever, at his feet. The pub would open at eleven a.m., and he still had an hour before the regulars arrived. While revenue during the summer tourist season kept the pub in business, Amir loved the winter months with the lads who lived in the village year-round and came by for a pint and a chat. In the forty years he had been in Ireland, he remained enamored with everything Irish.
He smiled as he turned to look at the portrait hanging over the bar. The Red Fox was the pub’s name, but the painting was of his beautiful wife Colleen as she was when he met her—fair of skin and red of hair. Lovely then and lovely now, and he loved her as much as the first time he met her. He missed her as she had left the day before for an archeological symposium in the States. He poured another cup of his favorite Bewley’s Dublin Morning Tea as his mind wandered to the day his fate changed.
Colleen O’Hara was an archeological student on a dig in his homeland when they met. He had been passing through the valley when he found the dig site. He had been alone for so long, enduring a life not worth living. Then he emerged into daylight and found his Irish beauty.
She had been a sight that day. Knee deep in a trench, face soiled with dirt and sweat, bright red tresses contained in a red bandana. Curious, he approached the trench to see what she was doing, and the moment she looked up at him, her eyes the color of sapphires, she captured his heart. A warmth he had never felt swept through him, only deepened when she spoke, in an accent he had never heard and one that gave him joy. He closed his eyes and remembered.
Amir hadn’t realized he had kicked dirt onto the area she was sweeping with a brush. She stood with her hand on her hips. “Feck off…don’t be bothering me work.”
He had taken an awkward step backward, never taking his eyes off of her. “I am sorry. Forgive me for disturbing you.”
She continued to stare at him as a grin crossed her face. “You can stop gawking.”
He responded, confused. “Gawking?”
She laughed. “Not from Ireland, are ya?” She reached out a hand. “Help me up out of this hole.”
He pulled her up, and for a second, they were standing close. At that moment, he understood love. At a loss for words, he muttered his name. “I am Amir Farsi.”
“Glad to meet you, Amir. I am Colleen O’Hara.” She wiped the sweat from her brow. “Your country is scorching hot. I need a cold drink—come with me.”
He had followed her that day and would for the rest of his life.
Lost in thought, he jumped when Ray, his bartender, tapped him on the shoulder. “Sorry, guv, but time to open. You look like you are a thousand miles away.”
He rose and grabbed his tea mug. “This weather will do that, lost in the sea.” That was only partially true. He had been lost in time as well. “Come on, Finn, time to go to work.”
Amir unlocked the front door a bit after one a.m. With Colleen gone, he had remained at the pub until it closed. Finn ran toward the trees as soon as he jumped from the car, and Amir stood in the doorway waiting for the big dog to make his rounds.
He shivered but not from the cold. The shiver emanated from his core, and he attempted to shake it off, but the tremors remained, leaving him anxious. He yelled a bit louder for Finn than usual, and once he had the dog inside, he closed the door quickly.
There was never a question that he felt as if part of him was missing without Colleen, but this was different. Something else was happening, a sensation creeping into his soul that he didn’t recognize, and it filled him with fear.
Finn whimpered and nuzzled his hand. “It’s okay, boy. Let’s go to bed. I’m likely just tired.”
He woke at five a.m. from a restless sleep. He thought perhaps the storm awakened him, but he knew better. Dreams had invaded his rest, blurred images, random sounds, nothing clear, and nothing made sense. He lay in bed until nearly six before a persistent Finn managed to get him up and outside.
When they came in, Amir was making tea when his mobile rang. It was Colleen.
“Amir, good morning, my love.”
“What time is it there?”
“Almost eight-thirty in the evening. We just got back from dinner, and I am exhausted. Going to try and sleep. I will call you later.”
“I miss you.”
“I miss you, too. Oh, something came up at the last minute, and I need to tell you… Hold on.” Amir could hear muffled voices before she came back on the line. ”Darling, gotta go, just found out an old colleague is here. I haven’t seen him in many years. I’ll call you again as soon as I can. Love you.”
He held the phone to his ear for a few seconds before he put it down. He missed Colleen. Perhaps that was why he felt so out of sorts. Maybe it was loneliness. He needed to shake off his doldrums.
“Finn, let’s have breakfast, and then off to the pub.”
His day was long and tedious. At least it was delivery day, and he insisted no one help him put away stock. His skin was tingling and felt as if there was a coiled spring inside him. He hadn’t planned on staying late to close and clean the place, but he sent everyone home again and did everything himself.
Driving home, pellets of icy rain struck the windshield, and despite turning the heat up in the Land Rover, he shivered. Finn, asleep in the passenger seat, stirred and turned his belly toward the warm air blowing from the vent. Amir chuckled. That dog loved his creature comforts.
Turning onto the narrow cobblestone drive leading to the house, he shook off a feeling of dread that washed over him. The reason he should feel so anxious wasn’t apparent. He missed Colleen, but she had gone on digs for weeks at a time before, and he had not felt this way. He hated to go to the doctor. Always in fear that they would discover…. Well, they hadn’t yet. If he didn’t feel any better soon, he would go.
The imposing stone house loomed in front of him. A sight that always made him feel warm inside but not this time—if anything, he was colder. He and Finn dashed to the front door, the dog much faster and pawing at the door by the time he reached the stoop.
“Finn, you are one spoiled dog.”
Once inside, Amir decided a hot shower might help. He poured a double of Irish whiskey and headed upstairs, surprised how winded he had become when he got to the top of the stairs. He stripped and turned on the faucet. As the bathroom steamed up, he glanced in the mirror, surprised to see how pale his olive skin appeared—his crystal green eyes dull. He shook off his worry, downed the whiskey, and stepped into the shower.
Fifteen minutes later, Finn beside him, Amir slipped into sleep.
For the second morning in a row, he woke after a restless sleep, but this time in a cold sweat. He struggled to sit up, his head was spinning. Finn was gone, no doubt gone outside through the doggy door. He pulled on a robe and made his way downstairs to make tea.
The light in the kitchen drew Finn back inside, and as his tea steeped, Amir fed the ravenous Golden Retriever. A pang of hunger hit him, but he shuddered at the thought of food. However, he had to eat and pulled a hunk off of a loaf of soda bread, poured his tea, and sat at the breakfast table. Images from dark dreams floated in his memory.
The images were fuzzy but familiar ones from his youth. Why would his past be haunting him? It had been forty years since he left that existence, never expecting to relive it. He missed Colleen more than usual and thought that had to be the reason for his unease. He finished his tea and hurried upstairs to dress. Better to be at the pub and busy than sitting around the house brooding.
As he left the house thirty minutes later, Finn didn’t follow him. He ducked back into the house. “Finn, where are you?” He walked into the front parlor, where the dog sat in front of the library door. “What are you doing? Mum’s not in there, she’ll be back in a couple of days, and all will be well. Come on, let’s go to the pub.” He turned to leave, and Finn followed but not before looking back at the library door. Amir shook his head—yes, boy, I miss her too.
By mid-day, Amir was so weak he couldn’t take another step without nearly passing out. He told his staff that he hadn’t slept well, and he was going home to take a nap and would be back. On the drive home, he wished Finn could drive. Arriving home, he could barely crawl out of the Land Rover, and when inside, knew he would never make it up the stairs. He stumbled to the parlor, dropped onto the couch, and fell asleep immediately.
His ringtone shattered his sleep and he awakened abruptly. In the darkness that had fallen, he groped toward the glow of his phone screen. He exhaled —it was Colleen. He had been avoiding her calls because she would know he was not feeling well from the sound of his voice.
“Darling, how are you? I hate that we keep missing each other and voice mail is not enough.”
Mustering all the energy he could, he responded. “Been busy, love. Sorry. How’s the meeting going?”
She hesitated, uttering a short grunt as if she wanted to say something else but spent the next few minutes telling him about her presentation. He was getting weaker by the moment, and when she finished, he decided he needed to end the call. He managed to say, “Darling, no problem here. Let’s… talk tomorrow.”
“What’s wrong, Amir? Tell me.”
“I’m fine, just been busy.” He took a breath. “You know me, love, hate the cold, but I have to go.”
“Okay, but I want to talk to you later.”
“Of course, I love you.”
He fell back against the cushions, his breathing shallow when he realized that Finn was sitting in front of the library door, nose against the door frame. He struggled to stand. “Finn, she isn’t in there. I’ll show you, boy.”
Opening the door, Finn’s reluctance to enter surprised him. The dog sniffed the air, a deep growl coming from this normally gentle creature. Amir flipped the switch to turn on lamps and walked in, Finn close on his heels.
The house they lived in had been Colleen’s ancestral home for several generations. She loved this house and this room in particular. Bookshelves lined the walls, leaving only a few spaces for family portraits. Amir stood in the middle of the room as hairs on his neck bristled. Something felt wrong—something was missing.
Amir turned toward the one thing in the room connected to him—the earthenware jug. It was gone.
The alcove Colleen had constructed to hold the vessel was empty. He had told her it was a precious family heirloom, an earthenware water jug handed down through generations of his ancestors. It was not.
That it was aged was a fact Colleen confirmed, but he had hidden the actual use of the jug from her. It had not housed water. The jug had been his prison.
He stumbled to an armchair, sagging onto the seat as fatigue overcame him. Where was the jug? Did someone steal it? Was that why Finn seemed so interested in the room? He glanced at Finn, now leaning against his legs, the hair on his back ruffled. What did Finn sense?
His head felt too heavy to hold up, and he rested it against the chair back. He should have told her. The Master warned him that he needed to remain connected to the jug. He could be gone from its proximity for short periods, but the transformation would dissipate if too long, and the jug would trap him forever. He had feared traveling with Colleen as she begged him to do, until one day, when cleaning the jug, a small piece of the handle chipped off. He dropped the piece into the jug for safekeeping.
Colleen was traveling to his old home and pleaded with him to come. How could he tell her that he could not go unless the jug went with him and not tell her everything? Then he thought of the small fragment of the jar—would it be enough to protect him? It had been. Now he traveled with her to digs, they vacationed, and all was well. When he returned, he hid the small piece in the jar until the next time he needed it. Now, everything was gone.
Memories overwhelmed him as he thought back to those days—when he was a jinn or genie as some knew them. Amir was a mischievous spirited genie, often in trouble because he loved to create havoc by possessing humans or haunting the places they dwelled or worked. He had relished the fact that humans were afraid of him, but once he took his revelry too seriously, and the Master imprisoned him in the jug as punishment. Once granted his freedom, the Master required that he keep the jug with him at all times as a reminder to behave.
Then he met Colleen when he was on a walkabout, trying to stay out of mischief. He had never been in love. Although jinn could live as a human, marry, have children, and die, he had never found anyone that made a settled life seem more exciting than his wanderings.
Colleen changed that with one look into her blue eyes. He wanted to spend his life with her, grow old with her, but he feared his jinn ways would lure him again, and he couldn’t risk losing her. He petitioned the Master to banish his skills, and the Master had agreed but warned him. The jinn soul was powerful, and his life only sustained if his jinn essence remained close. Amir had agreed, and the Master cast out his jinn and entombed it in the jug which he must keep close.
Exhaustion overtook him, and he fell to sleep. Finn’s guttural growling woke him up hours later. Moonlight streamed through the trees, casting shadows in the room, and for a moment, he didn’t see the figure standing near the alcove. When he did, his blood ran cold.
Amir shushed Finn, who obeyed but continued to lean against him as he rose as if to offer support. He bowed.
“Master, I am honored to stand in your presence.”
The figure stepped from the shadows. Tall, muscular, his olive skin glistening in the moonlight, the Master folded his arms across the silk vestment covering his chest. Adornments of gold and silver disks jangled as he moved.
“Amir, you were warned. Explain yourself.”
“I have little to explain, Master, as I do not know what has happened. I have honored your command that I keep the jug close by, but I will admit, I tested its limits to find out how far away I could travel. Then a small piece chipped off the handle, and by keeping it with me, I was able to travel anywhere I chose. I do not know where it has disappeared or why.”
“You were always quite resourceful, Amir. You could have continued to live as jinn and accepted a moral life without the purge of your spirit, but I understand your fears. We have changed over the eons and allowed others to rewrite our story. We would have never caged our kind in vessels if that French writer had not translated the mythology of our kind and added his special twist. Since we are shapeshifters, the idea of a tiny genie in a bottle was humorous. Thankfully, we do not do it often. The stories of a thousand Arabian nights were enough to tell our history, but as myths to many, embellishment is expected.” The Master sat in the other armchair and motioned Amir to sit as he continued.
“I have maintained a connection to you all these years. I came to warn you, but I can do little to help you. You have forty-eight hours at best to reunite with your jinn spirit, or the life that it sustains will cease to exist.” As he began to vanish into the air, the Master said, “The jug is not lost. That I do know.” With that, the Master of all jinn was gone.
Amir struggled to get to the couch in the living room, and as he collapsed on the cushions, he noticed his phone. A missed call from Colleen, but she left a voicemail.
“Darling, I am worried about you. Please, please call me. I have so much to tell you. I tried to tell you the other night that I took the jug with me to show to my colleagues on a whim. They were so excited and impressed with the artifact. Call me.”
His heart seized. Colleen had the jug. Perhaps there was hope. He called, nearly too weak to talk, and when she answered, he stopped her. “Bring the jug home, now. I need it to survive.”
The fright in her voice was evident as she reacted. “Survive? What do you mean? Of course, I will be home as quickly as I can. Amir, I love you. What is wrong?”
“Just bring the jug.” He hung up and willed himself to last long enough for her to arrive.
The sunlight was glaring in his eyes as he slowly raised his lids. He was breathing and felt stronger. Finn whimpered, and he realized the dog was lying next to him on the couch. But who was holding his hand?
He turned his head to look into the beautiful blue eyes of his love. “Colleen, you made it.”
“Yes, and I have the jug right here.” She picked it up to show him, and he brushed the fingertips of his free hand across it, feeling his energy rise.
“Thank you… I needed it here.”
“I don’t understand. What is happening? Why do you need this jug with you?” Her voice trembled and her eyes wide with distress.
He smiled as relief washed over him. “I will tell you all, my love, but it will take a thousand nights.”
This short story is based on the February 2021 image prompt for Writers Unite! Write the Story’s project. I hope you enjoy it!
D. A. Ratliff
Gabriela swung her legs from the taxi and stood for a moment on the corner, taking in the activity swirling around her. It was spring, sunny, warm, and the world was alive once more. Walking across the plaza toward the Paris Beaubourg café, her stiletto heels clicked as she crossed the dark cobblestones.
Her contact had not arrived. Contact. She chuckled—Bruce Layton, junior Foreign Service Officer, was hardly the kind of contact she expected on an assignment. Brash and jovial, he attracted a great deal of attention in the embassy. She would love to avoid him, but she was in Paris for a reason, and while an annoyance, he was part of the situation. When he clumsily asked her to a late lunch using the code phrase, all she could think of was there was no accounting for who the agency was hiring these days.
Only a couple of tables just outside the restaurant were vacant, and she wanted space around them. She chose a table under the pavilion across the walkway from the restaurant and facing Centre Pompidou. She could see the plaza fountain filled with colorful artwork and a few strolling musicians entertaining the tourists from the table. No one would notice them, she hoped.
A loud voice told her he had arrived. “Serveur, deux grands espressos, s’il vous plait.” He called out to a server in less than stellar French as he strode toward her. Cocky, he was.
“Gabriela.” Bruce sat, leaning on his elbows on the table, and smiled. “Been wanting to get you alone since you arrived at the embassy.”
She took a deep breath and counted to five for control. “You know the drill.”
“Ah… yes. I’ve heard about you—beautiful, but all business.” He cleared his throat. “Lovely weather, I was afraid it would rain.”
She responded, “I brought an umbrella just in case.”
He laughed. “Good, now that nonsense is out of the way. Let’s order lunch.”
“I am going to assume that your foolish behavior is a cover?”
“My behavior? What do you mean, sugar?” This time he spoke in a heavy Southern US accent. She must have had a disgusted look on her face because he burst out laughing.
“Ms. Gabriela Jones, may I introduce myself, Bruce Layton, spy.” He spoke in a quieter, more resonant voice. “And yes, the Bruce you see at the embassy is a cover.”
The glee on his face as he admitted his embassy persona was fake turned her stomach. In a profession that often required her to be someone she was not, she still cringed at what she and others at times became. She thought she might like Bruce less than any of the covers they assumed.
The server returned with the coffees, and before she could speak, Bruce ordered the café’s famous pizza for them and waved the server away. He sipped his coffee and, with a serious look on his face, spoke.
“Gabi, you know the target. What can you tell me about him?”
She sipped her coffee and then responded. “I am the senior agent here. I believe you need to report what you know about the target to me.”
Bruce’s eyes narrowed for a fleeting second. He was not happy that she pulled rank. That not only told her he was disgusted but the accompanying tightly drawn lips told her he was angry. She kept her face impassive.
He nodded. “I have watched Thomas Quincy for two months since he transferred to the embassy. He served four years in the US Embassy in Russia, and we were able to ascertain that he turned and is now a Russian asset.”
“I’ve read the reports. What have you observed since he arrived?”
“Quincy keeps to himself but has begun to meet a woman, a Russian woman, Galina Ivanov, at this very café each morning before he leaves for work and sometimes for lunch. Why I thought it was smart to establish the café as our favorite.”
Her stomach flipped at his emphasis of ‘our.’ “What is the woman’s significance?”
“I followed her to Turgenev Mekhovshchiki, a Russian furrier. The owner is a known Russian agent. She arrives there about seven and leaves at ten p.m. We believe she is passing information that she receives from Quincy to Moscow.”
She sat back in her chair. “How do you know he turned?”
“Planted a report about troop movements in the Gulf on restricted access area of the computer. One that Quincy has access to so he could prepare reports for NATO. We later intercepted that data in a communique between the Russian military and the Russian ambassador to France. Oleg Turgenev and the ambassador are close friends and see each other often.”
“Do you have direct proof that he passed on the information to this woman, and she passed it on to Turgenev?”
Bruce pulled a small recording device from an inside jacket pocket and pressed a button.
A woman with a heavy Russian accent spoke. “Thomas, Oleg will be thrilled to get this information. He will be most pleased and reward us both.”
A voice she recognized as Quincy’s responded. “That’s what I am here for, Galina. If I make them happy, it makes you happy.”
He shut off the recording. “I think Galina is a honeypot, and Thomas fell for it.”
The server arrived with the pizza, and for a moment, they ate in silence. Gabi took a drink of her coffee before she spoke.
“I’ve been in this business, and nothing surprises me, but Thomas Quincy has an impeccable record of loyalty to our government and his service.”
Bruce scoffed. “Well, his wife died a few years ago. Man’s gotta have fun, and Galina is a looker, got a rack and a half on her.”
Gabi had enough and pushed away from the table. “I need more proof before I take this to my supervisor and order a larger operation. Continue surveillance and report back to me in the morning at the Embassy.” She rose. “Thank you for lunch.”
“I’ll return to the embassy with you.” He started to rise.
“No, I have a few errands to do and then a reception to attend. I will see you in the morning.”
She walked along the cobblestones, her heels clicking in a quick cadence. She was well aware his eyes were boring into her back as she walked away. Disgusted, she picked up her pace. Once out of sight of the café, she slipped her phone from her purse.
“It’s me. I made contact.”
“And was I right?”
“Yes, my instinct tells me that you are correct.”
“I always did like that gut of yours. Keep to the plan. If this is how the information is getting into foreign hands, we need to stop it now.”
“Yes, sir. I will call you with more as soon as I have more.”
She ended the call and hailed a cab. There were things to do.
Gabi walked into the embassy office she was using with a cup of Starbucks coffee in hand. The familiar aroma made her think of her home in the US. A home she hadn’t been to in a long time. She had just tossed her purse on the desk when the assistant assigned to her came to the door.
“The Ambassador wants to see you now.”
She sucked in a breath. “Thanks, on my way.”
Gabriela’s cover as a US State Department attaché for special projects allowed her to travel to US Embassies without creating undue notice from the host countries. Sixteen years of experience had taught her to lie low with the political appointees. Still, she discovered the current ambassador was no one’s fool and had suspected something was going on within his territory as soon as she arrived. Rumors were that he had been agency at one time himself.
She walked past the ambassador’s assistant’s desk and down the short hallway to his office. This time her heels quiet in the thick carpet. She chuckled silently. At least, she could sneak up on someone on oriental rugs. She rapped on the door to a quick “Come in.”
He rose as she entered, and walked around the desk, extending his hand. “Thanks for coming to see me on such short notice. Please sit.” He motioned to two chairs next to the large windows.
“What can I do for you, Mr. Ambassador?”
He smiled and adjusted the French cuffs of his shirt. She noted they were the precise distance from the sleeve of his suit coat as fashion dictated, yet she didn’t sense he was a vain man. He was, she thought, a true diplomat who played the part, including the costume.
“Gabriella, I have been in diplomatic service for forty years and ambassador to four countries. My stint here in France is something of a reward from the President for my service,” he paused, “and I suspect because we have been friends for years. Because of that friendship, I may be privy to more than meets the eye.” He grinned. “I also was a special attaché in my early career.”
Gabi smiled. “I am aware of your background, sir. It is quite impressive. Again, what can I do for you.”
“I have been briefed on the security problem that may exist within the embassy and that you are here to solve this problem. I want you to know you have my full cooperation. Whatever you need is at your disposal.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Are you certain that the target is who you suspect?”
“Without a doubt.”
“How quickly can you wrap this up?”
“Quite soon, Mr. Ambassador. We have put certain measures in place to forward planted data that will reveal our quarry.”
“I am glad to hear that. I look forward to this security issue going away quickly.”
“As do I, sir.”
He rose. “Good. Then you will report to me soon?”
She stood as well. “Yes, sir. Soon.”
As she walked toward her office, she stifled a laugh as she reduced in her head the formal conversation where they tap danced around the subject to three sentences.
“Gabi, do you know the traitor who’s selling US secrets?
“Yes, I do.”
“Then nail that bastard.”
Reaching her office, Gabi dropped into her chair, grabbed her coffee, and took a big swig of the lukewarm liquid.
“Ah, diplomats,” she whispered as she took her phone from her suit pocket. “Time to put this plan in motion.”
It was nearing ten a.m. when Bruce walked into her office unannounced. “Hey, beautiful, what’s happening this morning.”
“Mr. Layton, beautiful is not a proper way to address a co-worker.”
He laughed out loud. “Sorry. I’ll do better.” He sat down. “So, everything a go?”
“Yes. Information planted, and our target has accessed the data.”
“Surveillance set up?”
Gabi nodded. “Yes. His phone tap tells us he is meeting with Galina for lunch at the café at two p.m.”
“Good. Then it’s a date. Let’s get this jerk.”
“Yes, let’s do that.”
Gabi told Bruce she would meet him at the café and arrived before he did by design. It took her a few seconds to spot Quincy and Ivanov at a table under the awning where she had been the day before. A glance around told her the surveillance team was in place. A quick conversation over their hidden mics told her nothing had happened yet. She took a table on the edge of the main outside seating area. Bruce arrived a moment later.
“Has he passed it yet?”
“No. Surveillance says they talked and ordered lunch. Almost finished.”
Bruce ordered lunch, and he and Gabi waited. Another half-hour passed before Quincy reached into his jacket and pulled out a flash drive. Ivanov smiled and kissed him. Quietly, Gabi ordered the team to move in.
Within seconds four men surrounded the small table. Quincy tried to protest, but an agent opened his jacket to show his badge hanging around his neck and the gun at his waist. Quincy stood with his head bowed, resigned to the situation. An agent pulled Ivanov to her feet, and the team escorted the pair to a black van parked nearby. Once seated, the van pulled away.
“Woohoo!” Bruce fist pumped and called a server over and ordered champagne. “This calls for some bubbly. Excellent job, beautiful.”
“Good work in spotting what Quincy was doing.”
“Only doing my job. Can’t let spies get Uncle Sam. Now let’s finish lunch and enjoy the champagne.”
Gabi began to relax. She decided to enjoy the champagne and the Paris afternoon. They dallied over lunch for forty minutes before she turned to her companion.
“Ready to go back to the embassy. I might even let you buy me dinner.”
Bruce grinned and responded in his fake Southern accent. “Why sugar, I would like nothing better. Dinner it is. But I’ll meet you back at the embassy. Have an appointment in a bit.”
Gabi nodded. “Okay, just don’t forget dinner.”
He leaned down and kissed her on the cheek. “I would never forget dinner with you.”
He walked away, oblivious to the man and woman who followed him or the white van that was rolling slowly behind them—two more people inside.
Gabi was watching as a voice sounded behind her.
“He doesn’t have a clue, does he?”
Gabi smiled at Thomas Quincy. “No, he doesn’t. Took you long enough to drive around the block.”
He plucked a tomato from her salad. “Took you long enough to finish lunch.”
Galina Ivanov sat down at the table. “On behalf of my government, I thank the United States. You helped us catch the spy who was not only trading your secrets but ours to the Chinese.”
“You are welcome, Ms. Ivanov, but it is Thomas who you should thank. Had he not spotted the information tampering at the Moscow embassy and traced it to Bruce Layton here in Paris, we wouldn’t have known any of this. At least, not this quickly.”
“Our collective hero.” Galina smiled and stood. “I am going to report to my government now. Do svidaniya.”
They said goodbye, and Thomas shook his head. “Been a long time since we worked together, Gabi.”
“That it has, Tom. I only heard about your wife’s death after I arrived in Paris. I am sorry.”
“Thanks. It’s been three years, Gabi. I have learned that life goes on.”
She smiled. “Good, and it’s also a good thing the agency assigned you to the embassy in Moscow. Great catch on those discrepancies in the programming.”
“I was lucky. The Russians are usually better at this than we are.”
“At least better at the sneaky part. Working with them might have helped warm up the relations a bit.”
He smiled. “At least for a moment, we have a common enemy—the Chinese.”
“That we do, and I…” She stopped as her comm activated. She listened then told Thomas the message, relief evident in her voice. “The agents have Bruce Layton in custody along with his Chinese contact and the flash drive with the planted data. Got the transfer on tape.”
“Well done by all. Thanks for stepping in to coordinate all of this. I just want to know who hired Bruce.”
“I think the better question is who turned him?”
“We should go back to the embassy and debrief with our people, and I promised the ambassador a quick response.”
“The suit will be happy.”
Gabi laughed. “Oh, he will.”
They rose, and Thomas took her arm. “How about dinner after we get through with the paperwork?”
“You know, I had a dinner date, but I think my date might not be available. Dinner would be nice.”
“Then dinner it is.”
As they left, he slipped her arm in the crook of his. “Those heels have to be killer on these cobblestones. You could trip.”
Gabi felt her heart flutter just a bit. “Then good thing I have you to keep that from happening.”
She glanced around the Beaubourg café and the plaza. Paris was a beautiful city. Perhaps, she might stay for a while.
Author’s Note: Please forgive any incorrect French or Russian words or grammar. I am solely at the mercy of online translation for the phrases or names.
WU! Admin Deborah Ratliff will review books by Sandra Brown, Nora Robers, and Bradley Wright on tomorrow’s Dr. Paul’s Family Talk” on Impact Radio USA.This is the final segment of a five-part Expert Series.
A second story from the image prompt for Writers Unite! Write the Story’sDecember 2020project. I hope you enjoy it!
A Special Ride
D. A. Ratliff
It was a fluke. Jake Riley was supposed to be at this friend Will’s house for the afternoon, but Will’s mom was baking Christmas cookies and said she needed their help. A phone call from the hospital sent his mom, a Cardiac Cath tech, to work for an emergency, so Will went to his grandparents, and Jake walked home.
Icy snow was spitting in the air, and he picked up his pace, hoping his mom would take pity on him and make cocoa. He was a few houses away when he saw a delivery van from the local sporting goods store parked in front of his house. The driver raised the truck’s roll-up door as his mom walked out of the garage to join him. He ducked behind a tree, hoping his mom wouldn’t look around.
Jake’s heart thumped in his chest as he saw a bicycle in a rack on the truck—not just any bike. It was the black mountain bike he had wanted for months. The driver took the bike out and rolled it into the garage. His mom signed a receipt and closed the garage door. He waited until the truck left and then continued home.
He dropped his school bag on the entry floor. “Mom, I’m home.”
His mother appeared at the kitchen door. She appeared flustered. “What are you doing here? It’s only six. I thought you were at Will’s making cookies?” She glanced toward the door to the garage.
“She was on call and had to go to work. She dropped Will off at his grandparents, and I walked home. We never got any cookies baked.”
“Oh… well, so sorry, no cookies, honey. Maybe we can make some tonight or tomorrow. Take your bag upstairs. I know you left it in the entry hall. Your dad will be home in a bit, and we’ll order our usual Friday night pizza since you’re here.”
Jake trudged upstairs, took a quick shower, and managed to play a bit of a video game. When he heard the garage door come up, he knew his dad was home. He closed his laptop and headed downstairs.
He stopped short of the kitchen door when he heard his father. “He came home early? Did you get it hidden?”
“No. I came in to check the washer, and then go back to put it in the storage room, but I didn’t want to go into the garage and have him come looking for me. So, I thought better to wait until one of us can keep him out.”
“Yeah, smart move, Leigh. Glad we decided to get him the bike this year.” He paused. “I remember when I was fourteen, I got a new bike for Christmas. My dad and I took a ride together after breakfast. He died the following winter, and we never got to ride again.”
“Jeff, we should’ve gotten you a new bike too. Jake would love it if you rode with him.”
“I don’t need a new bike. I guess I should drag my old bike out of the shed, but….” He took a deep breath. “Never rode it again after my dad died. Just couldn’t bring myself to get rid of it.” He smiled and kissed Leigh. “Gonna change now… order that pizza, I’m starving.”
Jake raced up the stairs and into his room before his dad had a chance to leave the kitchen. His heart raced as he thought about his dad’s words. He had seen that old bike in the shed—chain rusty, seat cracked, and tires flat. He had no idea his dad hadn’t ridden his bike since his grandfather died. He sat down on his bed, angry that he rarely thought of his biological grandfather. His grandmother had remarried, and Pops was the grandfather he knew. Pops had adopted his father when he was sixteen, and he changed his name to Jeffery Dawson Riley to keep his real dad’s name too.
Thinking back, he always thought his dad didn’t have time to ride bikes with him. He was just a kid, and he had Will to ride with, so he’d never considered his dad might want to ride with him. Will’s dad was a doctor and rarely home, so it worked out for both of them.
He went back to playing a video game when his mom texted him. Pizza will be here in a bit. Come on down. He found his mom in the kitchen.
“Hi, honey. Can you take the plates and napkins into the den? We’re going to eat in there and watch a movie.”
“Sure, Mom. Where’s Dad?”
“Uh…. He’s in the garage, putting away the paper towels and toilet paper I bought this morning.” She reached for her purse, which was sitting on the small desk in the kitchen. “Here is five dollars for the tip. After you take the plates in, wait for the pizza. Should be here any moment.”
The pizza arrived as Jake heard his dad enter the kitchen. His mom told him to take the pizza to the den, and his father followed with drinks. They settled on a new action thriller movie on a streaming site while they ate.
Jake’s thoughts kept drifting to the mountain bike in the garage. He was excited. He wanted to join a bike club at school, and the bike was perfect. But his dad’s words echoed in his head. “Never rode it again after my dad died. Just couldn’t bring myself to get rid of it.” He wished he could ride with his dad.
Late that night, as he drifted to sleep, what he needed to do came to him. Sleepily, he decided that tomorrow, he would put his plan into motion.
Will followed Jake into the kitchen. “What was so important that I had to get over here now?”
“You have to help me get Dad’s old bike out of the shed.”
“Because he got it for Christmas when he was fourteen, and he only got to ride it once with his dad. Then his dad died, and he never rode it again. I want to fix the bike up so he can ride with me.”
“Why don’t you get him a new one?”
“I can’t afford a new one. Not even sure I had enough money to get this one fixed. But I wanna try. Come with me and help me get it out while Mom and Dad are gone shopping.”
They left footprints in the dusting of snow on the ground as they walked to the metal storage building sitting next to the rear fence. Jake had taken the key from the keyboard in the laundry room, and after fiddling with the lock for a bit, he got the door open.
“Darn it, dark in here. Will, turn on your phone light. I think the bike is in that back corner.”
The light showed Jake that he was right, but there was a lawnmower, snow blower, and a lot of garden equipment in front of it. “Gotta move this stuff. Help me. We need to do this quickly.”
After a few cuss words that their moms would yell at them for and a skinned knuckle or two, the boys managed to get the bike out and everything put back. Will had leaned the bike against the shed while Jake relocked the door.
“Man, Jake, this bike is a mess. It’s rusty, paint peeled, tires cracked.”
“Yeah, I know, but I want to get it to the bike shop and see if Mr. Mason can fix it.”
“It’s a week until Christmas! He can’t fix this in a week.”
“Gonna try. Now, how do we get it downtown?”
“No… how about Ray? He’s home from college, isn’t he? You think he would take us? Can you ask, please?”
Will made the call and twenty minutes later, his brother Ray drove up in a red pickup. He helped them load the bike, and they headed to town. On the way, Jake texted his parents they were going to get burgers with Ray.
The City Bicycle Shop sat on a tree-lined street on the outskirts of town. Jake and Ray got the bike out of the back and went inside. A small brass bell attached to the door tinkled, bringing the owner out from the back room.
“Hey, boys, what can I do for you?”
“Mr. Mason. This is my dad’s old bike, and I want to get it repaired before Christmas. Can you do it?”
Mason didn’t say anything as he walked around the bike. Jake’s heart was beating out of his chest. He had $247 in his savings account, and he was scared that he wouldn’t have enough money. He managed to eke out, “How much will this cost?”
The shop owner smiled. “You getting this fixed up for yourself?”
“No, sir. It was my dad’s. He got it for Christmas when he was fourteen like I am now. But his dad died, and he only got to ride with him once. I accidentally found out that I got a new bike for Christmas.” Jake took a breath. ”I want to get his bike fixed so he can ride with me.”
“You got a budget you can spend?
“I have 247 dollars.”
A slight smile crossed Mason’s face. “I can probably do it for under 200. Want the original color?”
“Yes, sir. Can you have it done by Christmas Eve?”
“Gonna be tight, but I’ll try. Let’s get some info before you leave.”
Christmas was in two days, and he was supposed to pick up the bike on Christmas Eve. Ray was going to drive him, but he needed to get the money from his savings account, which meant going to the bank. Since he was on vacation from school, he didn’t have to worry about skipping, but getting downtown was another. He told his mom he was going to Will’s and then walked seven blocks to the main road and waited for a city bus to take him to a branch bank.
He walked into the lobby, his stomach churning. He had never been to the bank by himself, but he was here for a reason. He stepped up the teller window and presented his bank book and his school ID. As grown-up as he could, he announced his intentions. “I would like to withdraw the money from this savings account.”
The teller looked up the account. She shook her head, a woeful smile on her face. “I am so sorry, but your father and mother are on the account, and it requires one of their signatures to withdraw these funds. I am sorry.” She pushed the bank book and ID back to him. “Perhaps one of them could come with you.”
Jake’s heart was in his throat. He only nodded, grabbed the items, and fled the bank. Once outside, he sat on the curb, fear overwhelming him. He had to figure out how to pay for the bike. But how…. He was staring into the distance, racking his brain for what to do. He didn’t hear the soft footballs of someone approaching.
He looked up to see Pops standing over him. “Pops, I uh…“ He scrambled to his feet. “Hi.”
“I don’t see your parents’ cars. Are you here alone?”
Jake could only nod, and his grandfather pressed him. “What are you doing here?”
Tears welled in Jake’s eyes, and the story spilled out. His grandfather listened without comment until Jake finished.
“So, the bike is now at the shop, and you are going to need to pay for it?”
“Yeah, I—I just wanted to do something for him so he could ride with me.” Finally, the tears spilled from his eyes, and Pops pulled him into a hug.
“Let’s go see what we can do. I’m your grandfather. Maybe I can be the other signature.”
Inside the bank, Pops told him to sit in one of the chairs while he talked to the manager. To Jake, the wait felt like an eternity as fear overwhelmed him. The sense of dread faded a bit as Pops motioned him to join him at the same teller window. Pops was smiling.
“I told the bank manager the money was for you to buy a present for your father, and it was a secret, so he’s going to let me sign with you.”
Five minutes later, they walked out of the bank with the money Jake needed and his nerves intact.
“Let me take you home. But before we do, do you have a present for your mom?”
“I got her a scarf and hat. Haven’t done any more shopping, and I don’t have the spare money.”
“Get in the car. I’ll spot you the money for another gift for your mom.”
Jake was pacing the floor. Mr. Mason told him that he would have the bike ready at four-thirty and be there on time as he closed the store for Christmas Eve. He told his Mom that Will’s mom wanted him to stop by and get his present and some cookies, and Ray and Will were going to come to get him. Fact was the gifts were already in Ray’s truck.
It was just after four when Ray pulled up. Jake called out. “Ray’s here, back soon,” and rushed out the door. He nearly slipped on the side as an icy rain was falling. He jumped in the cab.
“Wow, thought you weren’t coming?”
“Sorry, dude. This weather is getting worse. Let’s get there so we can get back.”
A sinking feeling came over Jake, scared they had waited too late. The icy rain turned into sleet, and the road was becoming slicker by the minute. As they passed by the park where there was little traffic, the truck began to slide. Ray tried to keep the truck under control but hit an icy spot. It careened off the curb and over the embankment into a thicket of bushes, landing on its side.
Pops and Jeff’s mother, Emily, arrived, followed shortly by Leigh’s parents, Gordon and Cheryl. They were placing gifts under the tree when Jeff’s phone rang. His shocked expression told all something was wrong.
“That was the police. Ray’s truck skidded on the ice near the park and landed on its side. Officer said the kids are fine but on the way to the hospital.”
Leigh began to cry, and Jeff hugged her. “They’re fine, a few scrapes and bruises, but fine. Just taking them to the hospital to get checked out. We need to go get him.”
Pops spoke. “We’ll finish dinner and get the rest of the presents under the tree. You go get our boy.”
The grandmothers busied themselves with finishing dinner while the granddads got all the presents under the tree. They had finished when the doorbell rang. Pops opened the door and smiled broadly. “I am happy to see you.”
An hour and a half later, Jake and his parents returned. He was sporting a bruised shoulder and cheek and a small cut above his eye. His grandmothers fussed over him until he blushed bright pink and pushed them away.
“Stop, I’m okay. It wasn’t Ray’s fault. The roads were getting icy.”
His mother nodded. “We know it wasn’t his fault, but we don’t know why you were out near the park?”
Jake glanced toward Pops. “Ray was going to pick up something.”
She hugged him. “Just glad you are okay. Hungry?” He nodded. She kissed him gingerly on the forehead. “I’m so glad you are okay.”
Jake held back as the family headed to the dining room to talk to his grandfather. “Pops, we didn’t get to the shop in time.”
Pops put a finger to his mouth. “I have it on good authority that Santa took care of it.”
“Mr. Mason had to go home, but he wanted you to have the bike, so he dropped it off here. I hid it in the bedroom we’re sleeping in.”
“Pops!” Jake threw his arms around his grandfather. “Thanks.”
Christmas morning was a surprise for Jake. The bicycle he expected was not under the tree, nor was his dad’s. He woke up and remembered he hadn’t paid for the repairs, so he had tucked the money from the bank into his robe pocket. He suspected Pops had paid Mr. Mason.
They opened presents, and Jake was pleased but confused. When there were no more presents, we looked toward Pops, who only winked at him. Then his mother approached and handed the savings bank book to him, which he had returned to the drawer without marking the withdrawal. He swallowed hard. He was in trouble.
“Jake, we know that you were saving money to get a new bike, but we had other ideas. We want this savings account to go toward a car for you in a couple of years. Your dad and I and your grandparents have contributed to the account. You now have a thousand dollars in the account, and all of us, plus what money you earn, will keep depositing to the account so that we have a down payment for a car for your senior year in high school.”
He couldn’t breathe. “Mom, no—no, I can’t…”
Pops interrupted, “Jeff, Leigh, don’t you have something to show Jake?”
“I believe we do.” Jeff left the living room and returned with the shiny, black mountain bike adorned with a red ribbon. “Merry Christmas, son.”
Jake hugged his parents and sat on the bike. “Wow, I love this. Thanks.” He looked for Pops, who had left the room.
“Dad, Mom, I have a confession to make. I overheard you talking about the bike last week and Dad, about how you got a bike for Christmas when you were fourteen but only rode with your dad once. So…” His voice broke. “I decided to do something… I took your bike from the shed and had it fixed.”
Pops rolled Jeff’s bike into the room to surprised gasps. Jake was shaking, so afraid his dad would be angry. He watched as his dad walked to the bike and ran his hand along the handlebars. “It looks like it did when I first got it.” Tears streamed down his face, and Jake ran to his dad, who hugged him tightly. Jeff looked over his son’s head toward his stepfather. “Pops, you have been my father longer than I had my real father. You have given me nothing but love and care over the years, and that means so much. Please forgive me for this moment when I can bring my father’s memory to my son.”
“Jeff, you are my son, but this is the right thing to do, and know that this was Jake’s doing.”
Jeff hugged his son again. “Might be a bit icy this morning, but it’s going to warm up this afternoon. Then we go for a ride.”
After breakfast, Jake found Pops. “The money, that day at the bank…” He pulled the money from his robe pocket. “This was from you and not my account, wasn’t it?”
“They weren’t going to let me help you, so I did the next best thing.”
“You paid Mr. Mason last night.”
Pops laughed. “No. When he found out you didn’t get there because you were in a wreck, he told me he never intended to charge you. He was a boy who rode bikes with his dad, and you brought back those memories for him.”
Jake handed Pops the money. “Hold this for next Christmas. Who knows what we might need to buy?”
The sun was out around two p.m., and father and son rolled their bikes to the sidewalk.
From the image prompt for Writers Unite! Write the Story’sDecember 2020project. I hope you enjoy it!
Author’s Note: I love murder mysteries of any kind, detective or cozy. While I write detective novels, I love to dabble in cozy mysteries, and I offer this story as an homage to the talented cozy authors who entertain us.
My English Rose
D. A. Ratliff
Vicar Addison Wakefield was not a fan of modern technology. One of the reasons he chose to relocate to Hampton Green was its quiet lifestyle and charm. However, technology caught up with the village, two hours by train from London, and it didn’t make him happy, especially when he was on his bicycle for an early morning ride.
The ding of a text message interrupted his daydreaming as he pedaled down Serpents Lane toward the weir on the river near town. He loved to sit on a flat rock on the bank, listen to the water cascading over the dam, drink his thermos of tea, and enjoy the early mid-summer morning. The only quiet time he had.
The message from his wife, Muriel, read: Mrs. Marcum called. She isn’t feeling well and would like for you to stop in when you can.
He sighed, texted Muriel he was on his way, and turned the bicycle around, heading toward town. As he sped toward the village, he considered what he knew about Edith Marcum. She was the widow of greengrocer Jasper Marcum and had taught botany at the local college. She owned the local florist and lived two blocks from the village square in Hollyhock House. The fragrance wafting from Edith’s garden reached him while he was several meters away.
Addison leaned his bike next to the gate and walked along the narrow cobblestone path, admiring the hollyhocks, pinks, delphiniums, phlox, and the other flowers filling the front garden. The hint of honeysuckle permeated the air. He rapped the door knocker on the heavy wooden door and heard a feeble voice respond to come in.
The parlor drapes remained closed to block out the early morning sun. Edith was lying on the couch, a knitted throw across her lap. Addison pulled an ottoman close to the couch and sat.
“My dear Edith, I am sorry that you feel ill. Have you spoken to Doctor Andrews?”
“No, he would just tell me to rest.” She paused. “I am glad you came, Vicar. I have to tell you that I feel my time on Earth is nearly over.”
“Now, now, Edith. That’s no way to talk.”
“Just a premonition, but I am rarely wrong.” She closed her eyes as a grimace crossed her face. She reached out for the vicar’s hand. “I am having serious headaches… dizzy… sick to my stomach. It is only getting worse. I have been trying to write my paper to send to the horticultural society about the new rose I created, but I was simply too sick.” She gestured toward her dining table covered with notebooks, papers, and a shiny purple laptop. “I need to finish that before….” She was too weak to continue.
“I insist on calling the doctor.” She protested, but he pulled out his mobile. “No argument.”
The doctor arrived within fifteen minutes. Addison waited outside while Andrews examined her. When the doctor exited the house, his expression revealed concern.
“Not certain what is wrong, Vicar, but I am glad you called me. She said she had been feeling poorly for about a week, and it is getting progressively worse.” He patted his black leather bag. “I drew some blood and gave her some medication for the headache and nausea.”
“Should someone stay with her, William?”
“Yes. She had me call her friend, Imogen Smyth, who’s coming over now.”
The vicar nodded. “Ah—good. She owns the florist along with Edith.” He stepped toward the door. “I should say goodbye.”
“No, she was getting drowsy as I left. Let her sleep. I’ll check on her this afternoon.”
The doctor was not the only one to check on Edith. Later that afternoon, the Vicar called, and Imogen said she was resting comfortably.
The call that she was not, came at three a.m. the following morning.
A misty rain fell as the Vicar raced on his bike from the vicarage toward Edith’s house. He pulled the slicker hood over his head and pumped faster, crossing the mile’s distance in record time. As he arrived, in addition to the doctor’s SUV, he saw two yellow and blue checkered police cars and a lone ambulance, blue lights illuminating the night. The ambulance crew sat inside, out of the rain. A sinking feeling in his chest told him the outcome could not be good.
Nodding to a policeman standing inside the doorway, Addison entered. Edith remained on the couch, but her pale face and blue lips confirmed his fears. Edith Marcum was dead.
Dr. Andrews turned, gesturing toward Imogen, sitting at the dining room table. “Imogen said she took a turn for the worst about two-fifteen a.m. and called me. I called the ambulance on the way, but by the time they got here, she was gone.”
“Doctor.” A voice from the doorway caused the men to turn around to find Detective Chief Inspector Gordon Winston entering.
He shook the doctor’s hand, then the vicar’s. “Tell me what happened here.”
The Vicar and doctor recounted the events since the Vicar first arrived. The detective had them step into the dining room while he spoke to the ME and then to Imogen.
Addison pulled out a dining chair and sat wearily. “Any idea what happened to Edith?”
“Could be a lot of things. A virus, but she didn’t have a fever—not sure. Blood work I sent off yesterday will be back in forty-eight hours, and the ME will likely do an autopsy, so we should know in a few days.”
An hour passed before DCI Winston released them. The vicar asked to say a prayer before the ME removed the body, then watched in silence as Edith Marcum left her garden for the last time.
Edith Marcum’s son, Liam, arrived later in the afternoon and called on the vicar. Muriel escorted him to the vicar’s office, then excused herself to make tea.
“Liam, it has been a long time.” Addison crossed the room to meet him. “My deepest condolences on your mother’s passing.”
“Thank you. It’s been quite a shock.”
“Please sit.” Addison motioned to a chair and returned to sit behind his desk. “How are your wife and daughter?”
“Good, but as confused as I am. My mother was a good woman, a healthy woman. We did not expect her to be gone so soon.”
“Have you spoken to DCI Winston?”
“Yes. He feels that her death is from natural causes.” Liam stared out the window into Muriel’s garden.
“I see mother’s roses in your garden. That yellow rose with the orange edges was the one she created for my father. He was able to see it bloom before he died.”
“Your father was a good man, as well.”
“Yes.” Liam sighed. “Vicar, the medical examiner said that it might be a week before he will release my mother’s body. I have a predicament. My wife has accepted a yearlong teaching fellowship in Sydney, and I’ve taken a job at the university as well. Our flight leaves in three days. We were coming to see my mother two days from now.”
“I am so sorry that you were not able to see her.”
“I’m not sure how to ask this, but I would like to have a memorial service before we leave. I have no other close family, but my wife’s parents have agreed to handle the situation when Mum’s body is released.”
Addison nodded. “That’s not a problem. We can arrange a memorial for your mother in two days. Do you have some ideas about the service?” Liam nodded, and the vicar continued. “Let’s get started.”
The morning of the memorial service was unseasonably warm and sunny. Addison breathed in the sweet fragrance of roses and other flowers that adorned the sanctuary. Imogen Smyth was standing next to an easel that held a large photo of Edith and her husband. She was placing flowers in a tall arrangement.
“Imogen, I am so sorry for your loss. I know you and Edith were best friends.”
She blinked away tears as she turned toward the vicar. “Thank you. I miss her greatly. This is why I asked Liam if I could use flowers from her garden to honor her.”
Members of the village filled the sanctuary for the service. Edith and her husband were well liked, and many came to say goodbye to her. After the choir sang and the vicar spoke, Liam rose to make brief remarks.
He stood at the podium beside the photo of his parents. A wreath of yellow roses adorned the easel. Fingers gripping the edges, Liam cleared his throat, then spoke.
“I chose this photo of my parents because they were inseparable in life and now joined again in death. As shocking as my mother’s unexpected death has been that they are together brings those of us who love her peace.”
He talked briefly about his life growing up and ended talking about Edith’s love for her family.
“The wreath you see below the photos is created from the beautiful rose that my mother developed, and the UK Horticultural Society recognized it. She named the rose Jasper’s Love after the love she and my father shared. My father called her My English Rose. May the rose live as a symbol of their love and of how we loved them.”
After the service, the vicar and his wife offered a light lunch to the family and mourners. Having refreshed his tea, Addison stood in the vicarage doorway, his eyes on Imogen and Liam, who appeared to be having a quiet but intense argument. He watched as Imogen angrily spun and walked away toward the village. He was surprised to see Liam spot him and head in his direction.
“Vicar, I have a favor to ask of you.”
“Of course. What can I do?”
Liam pulled a set of keys from his pocket. “My in-laws are returning to Cambridge with us and are taking us to Heathrow tomorrow. Would you be so kind as to look after Hollyhock House as well as the floral shop until my father-in-law can return?”
“Of course, I will.” Addison hesitated for a moment, unsure if he should question the conversation he had witnessed. “Liam, you seemed to be arguing with Imogen. Is everything okay?”
Liam blew out a deep breath. “My mother had told me she was unhappy with Imogen for some reason. We were going to talk about it when we saw her.” He seemed uneasy. “Imogen wanted to know what we were going to do about the shop. I told her that as far I was concerned, it was business as usual. I said we would have to see what my mother’s will says. Thankfully, my father-in-law is an accountant and will oversee my mother’s interest. Imogen doesn’t seem to want any interference.” Liam shook his head. “The timing couldn’t be worse, but I can’t send my family half-way around the world without me.” He handed the keys to Addison. “Thank you. You have all my numbers, and I’ll text you my father-in-law’s mobile number.”
Addison woke with a nagging feeling he was missing something about Edith’s death. The fact that Liam revealed that his mother was unhappy with Imogen had triggered unease. After breakfast and attending to church business, he kissed Muriel goodbye and headed to the Hampton Green Florals shop.
A white wreath with a ribbon bearing Edith’s name hung on the front door. He pulled the door open to the tinkle of a small bell. Imogen was putting an arrangement together and looked up as he walked in.
“Vicar.” Her eyes widened. “What brings you here?”
He noted her glance toward the small office behind the counter. The door was open, and he could see the desktop.
“Just wanted to check on you. I know you and Edith have been friends for years. This must be quite difficult to be back in the shop so soon.”
“Oh—yes, awfully hard. We—we were friends since childhood.” She looked away. “However, we have two weddings this weekend and several other orders. Martha has gone to the flower market for me this morning, and I have a part-time person coming in this afternoon to help. Business goes on.”
“Yes, it does, and while it is good to grieve, life must go on. If you need my counsel, please call me.”
“Thanks, Vicar, I will.”
The tinkle of the door faded behind him as he walked toward his bicycle, which he had leaned against the florist store’s marigold colored wall. Now he knew why he felt unease. The night Edith died, when he sat at the dining room table with the doctor waiting to talk to DCI Winston, the table was clear. Only hours before, the table was laden with numerous documents and a unique purple laptop. That purple laptop was now sitting on the desk in the florist office. Why was Edith’s computer from home, sitting on the business desk along with a desk computer and another laptop? Why indeed?
Addison rode quickly to Hollyhock House and let himself inside. He hated the pall of death that he felt walking into a room where a soul departed. Chills passed through him, and he prayed for the dead before he began to walk through the house. Perhaps the laptop he saw in the floral shop was not Edith’s, but he needed to find out. Room after room, no laptop and no sign of the papers and notebooks. He hesitated to call Liam but decided he needed to do so.
“Liam, so sorry to bother you, but I have a couple of questions.”
“No problem, we’re on the way to Heathrow. What questions?”
“I need to know if you removed your mother’s laptop from her house?”
“No, don’t remember seeing one. I know she had one, did all of her horticultural work on it and personal correspondence. Why? Is it missing?”
“I’m not certain. When I saw your mother the afternoon before her death, it was on the dining room table along with a lot of paperwork. When I returned upon learning of her death, it was gone. It’s been bothering me. Do you know what she was working on?”
“I do. She had created another hybrid rose and was applying for recognition from the Society. She was excited and told me that she had a surprise about the rose. My wife and I suspected she was going to name the rose after our daughter. Vicar, I’d appreciate it if you could locate the laptop and her notes. I want to see if I can register the rose in her honor.”
“I’ll do my best.” He took a breath. “Do you know if Imogen had any part in developing the rose? Could that be why your mother was upset?”
“I don’t know, but Mum was quite upset with her.”
“I’ll let you know when I find the laptop.”
Ending the call, Addison experienced another chill. This one, however, was more sinister. He was beginning to believe that evil was afoot.
Addison had resorted to pacing in his office. Muriel was chairing a meeting for the upcoming village fete, and while he was looking forward to the event, the chattering was annoying. He had called DCI Winston, but the detective chief inspector was testifying in court. He would have to wait.
What was he going to tell the detective? Well, sir, I suspect Imogen knows more about Edith’s death than she let us think? Edith’s computer is now at the floral shop? Edith was unhappy with Imogen. Was that enough to tell Winston he thought Imogen at the very least stole the laptop? No doubt, the detective would think him mad. Maybe he was. When his mobile rang, he nearly jumped out of his skin.
The ID screen revealed Winston’s name. Addison took a deep breath and answered, telling the detective exactly what was running through his mind. The detective listened and surprised him.
“Vicar, I must say I may share your concerns. I spoke with the ME this morning, and he decided to run a few more tests as he was also concerned about the cause of death. It doesn’t appear natural. Calling him now and then I’m coming to Hampton Green.”
Addison sat for a moment, staring out at the garden and Jasper’s Love rose bushes. He couldn’t sit by and decided to visit Imogen again. As he rose, his phone rang. A congregant needed him, so he detoured first to visit the caller and then go to the shop. He needed to know why the laptop was there.
It was four in the afternoon before Addison walked into the shop. A customer was leaving, as was the part-time clerk as he entered. Imogen again looked surprised to see him.
“What brings you back, Vicar?”
He noted her tone was sarcastic. He sucked in a deep breath and asked God to forgive him for telling a bit of a lie. “Liam asked me to locate his mother’s computer. There are important documents on it as well as personal photographs. In the chaos of Edith’s death and the need to leave the country so quickly, he forgot to look for it.”
“I wouldn’t have any idea where it is.”
“I believe it is an unusual color, purple. It was on the table with some papers the morning before she died. It wasn’t there after she died. The table was clear.”
Imogen held his gaze for a moment, then smiled. “Would you like some tea? Perhaps, we can think of where her laptop could be.”
There was a small seating area in the showroom, and she asked him to wait there. He sat where he could see if she went into the office. She didn’t but remained in the small area where there was a hotpot.
Minutes later, she brought two cups of tea, sugar, and cream on a tray and sat at the small table. “Hope you don’t mind that I poured your tea before bringing it. Please help yourself.”
While he added sugar, she chattered on. “Honestly, I don’t have a clue what happened to her laptop. I will say this. I had rushed over and realized I forgot my medications. I went home to get them. I didn’t notice the laptop, but she must have put it away while I was gone.”
“Was she strong enough to do that?”
“She must have been.”
He lifted the teacup. “Do you have a purple computer as well? I thought I saw one in the office this morning.”
“No, you must have seen some purple tissue paper. Drink your tea before it gets cold, Vicar.”
The cup was inches from his lips when a loud voice rang out.
“Don’t drink that, Vicar.”
DCI Winston stood in the doorway, an officer with him.
“Mrs. Smyth,” he handed her a document. “I have a search warrant for these premises and for your home.”
She stood. Her hands clenched. “How dare you.”
“I dare. And I…” A constable holding a bottle with an aged label arrived and a purple laptop tucked under his arm. Winston smiled. “Let me rephrase that. I’m here to arrest you for the murder of Edith Marcum.”
Her eyes flashed with anger. “Yes, I killed her. She took my favorite rose from my garden and created her new hybrid. She told me when she started working on it that she would name the rose for me. But no, her son had a daughter, and she decided to name it the Pink Eloise. I pleaded with her, but she said it was final. Then she said, I think it’s better that I buy out your part of the business. No—this business is mine too, and I wasn’t going to allow it.”
Winston told the constable to read her rights and take her away.
Addison found his voice after stunned silence. “How? How did she kill Edith?”
“The same way she was about to kill you. Arsenic.”
From the prompt for Writers Unite! Write the Story’sJuly 2020prompt. I hope you enjoy!
The Way Station
D. A. Ratliff
Mason Henley rocked back and forth as the camel he was riding followed their guide. The herky-jerky motion of the enormous beast wore him out, and he never forgot to take ibuprofen before getting on one. He valued his back too much to ignore.
The caravan stretched the length of twelve camels. In addition to the guide and his two assistants, a radio astronomer and two research assistants accompanied him with five camels laden with equipment and supplies.
Three days ago, he and his team had flown into Algiers, where they met Dr. Bernedetta Clark. The next day, they flew into the L’Mekrareg Airport in Laghouat, with connections in Ghardaia, which took them to In Salah, where their guide, Sami Taleb, was waiting. After they loaded the camels, the expedition set off for their destination, Jabal Alharam—Pyramid Mountain.
Mason chuckled, after ten hours in overcrowded planes, he was happy to be on a camel, back pain or not.
The trip was going to take nine hours, and they had knocked out six of those already and agreed to stop for the night. As Sami and his crew set up tents, he and his two assistants, River Monroe and Jackson Stewart, built a campfire and got dinner started.
He was tending a grill laden with strips of beef, while River was making couscous. He watched as Dr. Clark approached, her eyes on the food. He cut off a small piece and held it up to her. “Wanna taste, Doctor?”
Her nose wrinkled. “What is it? Not camel? My colleagues told me that’s all the Algerians eat.”
“Had you dined with us last night, you would have feasted on the best Tandoori chicken I have had.”
“That’s Indian food.”
“Yes, it is. Welcome to the internet and modern travel. River and Jack had pizza.” He held the bite of meat up again. “This is beef, strips of sirloin, to be exact.”
She took the morsel and tried it. “That’s good. Did you bring a spice cabinet with you?”
“No.” he held up a plastic zip bag. “Made my famous spice mix and brought it with me.”
“Quite resourceful, but as an archeologist, I guess you are used to being out in the middle of nowhere.”
Mason smiled. “Been on a few digs in my time. Spent a lot of time in some ancient place somewhere.” He flipped the beef on the grill. “Did you get your equipment set up, Dr. Clark?”
“Yes, part of it, and please call me Etta.”
“I’m Mason. Same signal?”
She nodded. “The same tones repeated over and over. Just as they have for the last two months.”
“And you guys suspect it’s a signal. For what?”
“That is for us to find out. The signal is originating from here.”
River stood. “The couscous is ready. I’m going to go get Jack and the others.”
The group ate dinner as the sun was setting. Sami and his team retired to their tents and rotating guard duty. Jack and River both had work to do and excused themselves. They had been scouring over the topographical maps of the area to become familiar with Pyramid Mountain.
Mason sat by the fire. He was tired but too restless to sleep. The desert night was turning chilly. He added more wood to the fire from the bundles Sami brought. Watching the wood ignite, he felt some satisfaction that at least he could make fire.
“Is there coffee left?”
Clark’s voice startled him. “Sorry, I didn’t hear you. Yes, there is coffee.” He reached behind him to retrieve a cup from a box of supplies and poured her a cup.
Taking it from him, she sat on a camp stool. “I am sorry that we didn’t have the opportunity to talk last night. The trip from the US exhausted me and, well, our mode of transportation made it difficult to talk. You have been to the mountain before, haven’t you?”
“Yes, I was part of a team that came here nearly twenty years ago. I’d just earned my Ph.D. at Columbia when a professor of mine heard from an old friend, a geologist he has known as an undergrad. The geologist, Dr. Hemsford from the University of Johannesburg, had traveled from South Africa to the Sahara in Algiers with a group of students to study the rock formations.”
“They found the hieroglyphics?”
“They certainly found what they thought to be hieroglyphics at the time. He contacted my prof, Dr. Riegel, and Columbia provided the grant for us to take a look.”
“They weren’t hieroglyphics?”
“No, at least not related to any previous glyphs or symbols we had ever seen. To be honest, I took another career direction and concentrated on historical indigenous archeology in the Americas. I haven’t looked at those old reports until I got a call from my department head at Columbia, who asked me to lead the expedition to the mountain.” He paused. “I wasn’t expecting to find out a radio astronomer would be part of the team.”
“I never expected to be in the middle of the Sahara Desert on a camel.” She rubbed her shoulder. “Not the most comfortable ride.”
“No, it isn’t.” He poked the fire. “What do you think we will find?”
She sat up, back straight. “I don’t know. Not even sure why they sent me to find out. I noticed the sequence first, but there are far more experienced people at the observatory.” She huffed a short breath. “I think I might have been the expendable one.”
“I read your bio and some reviews of your work. I don’t think expendable is an apt word to describe you.”
“Newest member of the team, so who knows.”
“The signals are coming from the mountain?”
“They appear to be. I have some portable equipment with me, and the signal is still cycling.”
“Well, we won’t know anything until we get there. Get some sleep. We need to start early in the morning. We were lucky today. The winds kept us a bit cooler—tomorrow, not so much. “
Sweat poured down Mason’s back, and he was decidedly uncomfortable. His camel lumbered along as if it was a day in the park, just not his idea of a park. Wiping sweat from his brow for the umpteenth time, he gazed around the area. The flatter terrain of yesterday had given way to mounds of hard compacted sand with deep trenches where the wind had eroded the surface. Wouldn’t be long before they would have to resort to walking to the mountain.
His eyes never strayed far from the mountain looming ahead. The cornflower blue sky was cloudless, allowing the sun to beat down relentlessly. He chuckled. The mountain reminded him of a large soft ice cream cone, twisted as if someone spun it like a top.
Lost in thought of his last visit, he nearly fell off the camel when it halted suddenly, and he grabbed the saddle horn to stay on. Sami was dismounting his camel and walked to him.
“We go no more on camels. Too dangerous.” Sami tugged on the reins to Mason’s camel, and the animal began to drop to its knees. He dismounted and went to help Etta from hers.
She looked over his shoulder toward Pyramid Mountain. “We walk from here?”
“Yep, afraid so. It should be about a thirty-minute hike to the base. Jack and I will carry your equipment, Sami and his people will carry food and water. You and River will take the rest of the tools we need.”
“Are we going to camp there?”
“Not sure. If we decide to, Sami and his guys will come back for the tents.”
“They are going to leave the camels here?”
Sami overheard her. “We leave food here. They are good camels. They know to stay.”
Mason headed toward the camels carrying their equipment. “Let’s get loaded up.”
An hour later, they stood at the base of the mountain that loomed over them. Etta was setting up her portable radio telescope, opening the small satellite dish. Satisfied she had everything in place, she flipped the switch on the battery pack, and static began emanating from the speaker.
Mason listened with his head cocked. “There is a pattern there.”
“Yes, and it repeats every nine seconds.”
“So, if it’s coming from here, where is it going?”
“The observatory has the entire array focused on the direction it’s beaming. Listening for incoming signals. So far, nothing.”
“Okay. Let’s hike around the base. The spot where we saw those symbols is around the east side.”
Leaving their guides with the equipment, Mason and Etta started toward the area where the symbols were located. River and Jack began a cursory review of the site, comparing it to the photos from the dig many years before. They were looking for any sign of an opening, if such a thing existed.
The footing was treacherous as they left a level area. What Mason remembered struck him as odd when he was there before. He gazed up at the mountain’s pentacle, wondering how the flat round rocks that capped the mountain formed. He had puzzled about the structure on his first visit, and it puzzled him now. A climb up the mountain might shed some light, but he was not in the mood for rock climbing.
They reached the area where Mason remembered finding the symbols carved. At least, he thought they were in the right place. A rockslide covered the place where he remembered the carving.
“I think the symbols are here. Help me move these?”
After some effort, they rolled away a couple of large rocks, revealing sand covering the slope. Mason pulled a brush from his backpack and swept away the sand. The symbols appeared.
“I had seen photos of these, but I didn’t expect they would be so precise—such sharp cuts in the rock.”
“Yeah, that’s what Dr. Riegel thought, definitely precise cuts. We’ve seen that before in the pyramids and at Puma Punku in Bolivia. I was fortunate enough to work on that site. The builders of that temple used interlocking stones so precisely cut when assembled you can’t get a razor blade between them. The skills existed, but we aren’t sure how or the tools they used to make them.”
“No idea what they mean?
He shook his head. “Nope. Again, I didn’t stay with the project long, but I followed up with Dr. Riegel after NASA contacted me. He said they found no reference points at all to these symbols.”
“They have to mean something.” Etta took a 35mm digital camera from her backpack and took several shots of the symbols and the surrounding area. She slung the camera around her neck and laughed. “Anyone tried pressing the symbols?”
Mason raised his shoulders and grinned. “No idea, but it couldn’t hurt.” He pressed the first symbol, and nothing happened. He pressed the rest just in case, then placed his palms against all nine symbols and pushed at once—nothing.
Etta sighed. “It was worth a try.”
“We’ll figure this out. If the signal is coming from within the mountain, there has to be a way inside. Let’s find River and Jack and see what they found.”
They decided to camp next to the mountain. Sami and his men retrieved the tents and set them up. Before returning to spend the night with the camels, Sami left a flare gun in case they needed him. Dinner was bread, cheese, and coffee brewed over a fire. River surprised them with cookies she brought.
The sky was magnificent, dusted with glittering stars from the Milky Way, its luminous and dark streams hanging above them. They dragged their sleeping bags into the open and lay on their backs, staring at the mysterious sky.
River asked Mason to recount his first trip to Pyramid Mountain. He talked about his first look at the symbols.
“I was enthralled, thinking that the symbols could be Egyptian hieroglyphics this far into the desert. Dr. Hemsford was a geologist but thought the symbols looked Egyptian. Dr. Riegel determined quickly that the symbols were not Egyptian, but I will never forget the first time I saw those nine symbols. I….”
Etta bolted upright. “Nine symbols. The signal repeats every nine seconds. What if….”
Mason bolted upright as well. “What if the signal represents those symbols.”
Her voice excited, Etta responded. “Maybe the signal is the key to opening a way inside.”
“What I don’t get is why the signal just started out of the blue.” Mason shook his head. “It makes no sense.”
“I might know.” Jack jumped up and grabbed a tablet sitting on his backpack. “Not knowing what we would find, and after being in that earthquake in Mexico last year, I downloaded a file about seismic activity in the Sahara.” He pulled up the file. “Dr. Clark, when did the signals start?”
“About two months ago, on the fourteenth.”
Jack was silent for a moment as he searched. “Got it. The same day, two months ago, there was a 5.2 mag earthquake with an epicenter about ten kilometers from here and only a half mile down. What if it triggered something?”
“It had to have.” Etta rose. “We need to go check this out.”
Mason stood. “Not until the morning. We’ll break our necks trying to get to the symbols. Get some sleep. We will do this in the morning.”
Dawn was breaking as Mason heard Etta and Jack talking. He shook off his grogginess from waking up and joined them. River handed him a cup of coffee.
Etta smiled. “Nice to have Jack along. I was trying to figure out how to lug this equipment to the symbols, and he suggested I record the sound on my phone. Haven’t used it since I left the hotel, so I have power. Can we go now?”
“Let’s stay until the sunlight is brighter and I get some coffee. Then we will go.”
She looked disappointed but agreed. While he finished his coffee, they made plans. River and Jack were to stay where they camped. Mason had a nagging thought that the flatness of the rock there meant something—an entrance perhaps. Once they agree on how to proceed, he and Etta headed for the symbols.
“Well, no time like the present. Hit play.”
Etta turned on the recording, and after it played through twice, the symbols began to glow. Both of them uttered a gasp. “It worked, Mason. It worked.”
“Yeah, but what did it do.”
A flare soared over their heads, a signal from the others. Something was happening at the camp. As quickly as they could cross the rough terrain, Mason and Etta raced back.
Pyramid Mountain had opened.
Jack ran toward them as soon as they appeared. “We heard a crack like the rock was breaking. The sides slid away, and the opening appeared.
His heart pounding, Mason walked toward the perfectly square opening. It was nearly ten feet tall, and while dark beyond a few feet, it was evident from the shiny dark blue polished floor that mother nature wasn’t responsible.
He jumped when Etta pushed past him, heading for the door, and managed to grab her arm. “Hey, no, not yet. We’ll go in, but let’s get a flashlight first.”
Etta frowned but nodded and hurried to her backpack. “I have a flashlight, water, and an energy bar. I’m ready.” Turning to Jack, she handed him her phone. “Keep this. You can open the door again if we can’t.”
Mason grabbed his backpack and turned toward Jack and River. “If we don’t come out in one hour, try to open the door. If it doesn’t, get back to civilization and contact NASA.” He joined Etta. “I’ll go first.”
They were no more than ten yards into the corridor when the opening closed. They could hear Jack and River’s anxious calls behind them but couldn’t get back to the door. Etta started to say something, then stopped when a door opened farther into the mountain, dim light spilling into the passage.
“Looks like an invitation to me, Etta.”
The opening revealed a large circular room. Their flashlights revealed murals on the walls and an empty chamber except for a round dais sitting in the chamber’s center.
“What is this place?” Etta’s voice quivered.
“I don’t have a clue. Let’s walk the perimeter.”
They were feeling their way around the wall when bright light filled the room. Stunned, they gazed at the panels depicting what could only be humanoids adorned on the walls.
“My goodness, Mason, this has to be alien.”
Mason didn’t have time to answer. A fluorescent circle of red light dropped from the ceiling over each of them, scanning from head to foot then retreating into the domed ceiling. Before either could speak, a tall, slender figure dressed in a gray tunic appeared on the dais.
“Greetings, travelers. Welcome to the Orbis Way Station. May I ask your destination?”
Etta approached the figure. “Who are you?”
“I am Automated Attendant 804. What is your destination?”
This time Mason spoke. “Could you tell us where we are and how you can speak to us in our language?”
“You are on Orbis and seeking transport. My scan revealed you are natives of Tanus. I translated your language, although you do speak an obscure dialect. Do you wish to return to your homeworld?”
Mason and Etta exchanged glances. She responded to the attendant. “No, we would like to leave the station to remain on this world.”
“Entering the station activated the portal for departure. You may not exit again. Please state your destination.”
“Could you give us a minute.” Mason waited until the attendant deactivated. “Jack will open the door in one hour.”
“And if he doesn’t?”
“Then, they’ll get help.”
“And we’ll be in here for a long time.”
Mason looked at the dais, then back at her. “There is an alternative.”
“Go through the portal? You can’t be serious.”
“Etta, I get the feeling we are not going to get out of here any other way. If there is a chance we can travel somewhere and then turn around and come back here, this might be our only way home.”
“I don’t know. What if we can’t get back?”
“If we can’t leave here, and the door doesn’t open in one hour, then it’s not going to open. We will die here.”
“But our families, our friends…”
“Is there someone close to you, someone you love?”
Etta dropped her eyes. “No, no one anymore.”
“Well, me either. I’ll miss my parents, but if we don’t do this, we’ll never see anyone again. This is an ancient way station that must have been offline until the earthquake. I don’t know what we will be walking into but it’s history making. Let’s wait to see if the door opens. If not, we go through the portal.”
Etta gave him a wan smile. “The book we’ll write—bestseller, guaranteed.”
They waited an additional hour before Mason summoned the attendant.
“I am Automated Attendant 804. What is your destination?”
Mason responded. “Tanus.”
Behind the dais, the portal, a swirling kaleidoscope of blues and greens, opened. The attendant stepped aside. “Enjoy your transport.”
Mason took Etta’s hand, and they stepped through together.
Authors are able to discuss the journey that leads them into the enticing world of words through a website run by author and publisher, Elaine Marie Carnegie. She has graciously asked me to join her platform to share an article on the path I took to become a writer. Please click on the link to learn about my journey.
Please click on the link to read about my journey.
Musings of a Southern Writer’s Journey by Deborah Ratliff
I am an unabashed lover of books.
My journey into the world of words began when I was five years old, and I have never stopped. Granted at five, the books I read were golden or comic, but I loved each of them. As I grew older, I progressed from Chip ’n Dale and Justice League of America comics to reading Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, and The Adventures of Tom Swift. A neighbor, Miss Boozer, a retired librarian, recognized my passion for reading and on my birthday and at Christmas gave me money to buy books, several books. I liked her. ………………… Please continue reading at https://bit.ly/3jgXTpz.
About Elaine Marie Carnegie
Elaine Marie Carnegie, a Paralegal, and Private Investigator worked on the side as a Newspaper Journalist, history and foodie columnist for a decade before accepting a publishing partnership; then opening her own SPPublishing and Author Services. She has worked with both the FBI and Texas Rangers, written for Discovery ID on Human Trafficking, and works for the PI in a consultant capacity today. Her articles have been used in the Texas Legislature, utilized in regional Texas school systems, published in both print and online venues, as well as in anthologies, charity and collaborative projects. She is honored to have been included in the “Who’s Who of Emerging Writer’s 2020.” She makes her home in the idyllic East Texas Piney Woods… on a private lake, doing what she loves and living her best life! You can find her online at https://www.authorelainemarie.com/