Prize-Winning Story: “Henrietta’s Saving Grace”

One of our fellow bloggers has won a writing prize! There is a link in Liz’s post to read her award-wining story.

Elizabeth Gauffreau

Click Here to Read the Story in Coneflower Cafe (PDF, p. 3)

Am I Excited? Yes, I’m Excited!

I am thrilled to share that my short story “Henrietta’s Saving Grace” has won the 2022 Ben Nyberg contest sponsored by Choeofpleirn Press. The story was inspired one of my great-great aunts from Nova Scotia, who went by the nickname “Jen.”

I’d known early on from my mother that Aunt Jen had been a practical nurse and a closet drinker. In the final years of my mother’s life, she shared a few more choice tidbits about Aunt Jen’s life that were too good not to build a story around.

With apologies and all due respect to the late Aunt Jen, Henrietta was born, bringing her saving grace along with her.

The Inevitable Rejections

I sent the story out four times before it was accepted for publication by Coneflower Cafe, and the…

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Guest Post: Abbie Johnson Taylor

I am delighted to have received a guest post from wriiter and blogger, Abbie Johnson Taylor.
She describes it as ‘Creative non-fiction’. I enjoyed it, and I am sure all of you will too.


by Abbie Johnson Taylor

“Somebody stole our lawn chairs!” Dad announced.

For many years during the summer months, my family attended weekly band concerts at Kendrick Park in Sheridan, Wyoming, on Tuesday evenings after dinner. We brought lawn chairs and listened to the community band playing old standards, marches, and popular songs. Afterward, we trekked to a nearby ice cream stand for dessert, leaving our lawn chairs stashed behind a tree out of the way, sure in the knowledge that they would still be there when we returned to claim them before walking home. But now, all we could do was gape at the empty spot where we expected the chairs to be.

It was the summer of 1983, and I was home from college on break between my junior and senior years. My ten-year-old cousin, Shelley, who was visiting from South Dakota with her family, had accompanied Dad and me and our Irish setter Clancy to the park. She said, “Oh, no.”

Clancy had wandered off and was sniffing something nearby, blissfully unaware of this tragedy. Dad finally said, “Well, why don’t you two start walking home? I’ll look around and see if whoever took them dumped them somewhere else.”

With Clancy, he headed off in one direction while Shelley and I sauntered the other way toward home, which was only about a block away. While waiting to cross a busy street, Shelley suddenly cried, “Look, there are our chairs.”

“Where?” I asked, turning my head this way and that. With my limited vision, I couldn’t spot them.

“They were in the back of that pick-up that passed us. One of the guys in the cab just gave us the finger.”

“Let’s wait for Dad,” I suggested.

A few minutes later when he caught up with us, and Shelley told him what she’d seen, he said, “Well, I’ll be darned. Come on. Let’s go home. It’s safe to cross now.”

At home, we found Mother watching television in the living room. When Shelley excitedly told her what had happened, Mother asked her, “Did you see what the truck looked like?”

“Yeah, it was a green truck,” Shelley answered. “and there were two guys in the cab.”

Turning to Dad, Mother said, “Well, you should call the police. With Shelley’s description, they might be able to find the chairs.”

“Yeah,” Shelley cried, jumping up and down and clapping her hands.

Clancy, who always got excited when anyone else did, voiced his approval while dancing in circles and wagging his tail.

After shushing the dog, Dad said, “I suppose it wouldn’t hurt.” He made his way to the phone in the hall.

That summer, I’d been reading an Ellery Queen murder mystery which featured some police brutality. Not having had much experience with law enforcement, I wasn’t sure it was such a good idea to call the police about stolen lawn chairs. At least we didn’t have a dead body on our hands.

But Shelley was so excited about the possibility of helping find the lawn chairs. I didn’t want her to be scared. So, I remained silent while Dad made the call.

A few minutes later, when Clancy’s barking announced the arrival of the local constabulary, Shelley and I were sitting on the couch together. She must have read my mind for she moved closer to me, giggling. “You nervous?” she asked.

I should have told her there was nothing to be nervous about. Remembering what I’d heard a thousand times on the television show, Dragnet, I should have advised her to give them just the facts.

Instead, I only laughed nervously as Dad opened the front door while Clancy continued to bark and wag his tail. Grabbing his collar, Dad said, “Let me just put him on the side porch.”

To my relief, instead of an entire crew of policemen who arrived after Ellery Queen reported a murder, there was only one detective. Instead of barking orders at people like Inspector Queen, he introduced himself and engaged us in small talk before asking about the crime.

Shelley was a trooper. She described that pick-up truck and the guys in the cab as best she could, saying, “I didn’t get the license plate number, though.”

“That’s all right,” the officer said, scribbling in his notebook. “That sounds like Ricky Rodriguez’s truck.”

Dad described the lawn chairs and said, “My New Yorker magazine was in one of them.”

“Okay,” the officer said, scribbling some more. “I’ll see what I can do. It was nice meeting you all.”

The next day, Mother received a phone call from the detective. He told her they’d found the chairs, along with other contraband, in the back of that green pick-up. Unfortunately, they needed to keep all found items for evidence, and we didn’t get the chairs back until October. But miracle of miracles, that New Yorker magazine was still folded up in one of those chairs.

Although my paranoia was somewhat abated that night, I still harbor a little mistrust of the law, especially after hearing about numerous instances of white police officers killing black suspects for no reason. I’m thankful I’m not black, but a friend once told me she’d heard of disabled people like me also being victims of police brutality.

But in our small town, there hasn’t been any misconduct on the part of law enforcement personnel. I feel confident that as long as I obey the law, policemen won’t hurt me. I’m also encouraged by the fact that three lawn chairs and a New Yorker magazine reported stolen were found the very next day.


Abbie Johnson Taylor is the author of three novels, two poetry collections, and a memoir. Her latest novel, Why Grandma Doesn’t Know Me, is now available from Amazon and Smashwords in print and eBook formats. Her poems and stories have appeared in Magnets and Ladders, The Avocet, and other publications. Please visit her website at:

Please visit Abbie’s site to read more, and to connect with this very supportive and interesting lady.

Guest Post: Jim Webster

Today, I am delighted to feature another guest post from Jim Webster. He has kindly come up with a sequel to his previous story concerning a hermit who lives in a Norfolk village. Any similarity to my life in Beetley is of course intentional.

The continuing adventures of the hermit of Beetfield.

I have recounted before how I came to meet the celebrated Hermit of Beetfield. On my return to Port Naain I confess I didn’t give much more thought to him. I’d enjoyed his company and had been impressed with his wit and wisdom. What more can one ask of a hermit?
Still should you wish to know more of our meeting it is all recounted at;

You know how it is, life closes in on a chap. You get busy and before you’ve noticed a year or so has gone by. Obviously you have lived every day of it. It’s not as if you curled up in bed and next morning got up to discover a year had past. Still that period was a hectic time for me. I built up my practice, gathered more patrons, cemented my position as the leading poet of my generation, and got married.

Thus I wasn’t entirely surprised when I arrived home one evening to find a letter on the cabin table. People I had never importuned were starting to write asking me to perform.

Shena gestured at it, “It arrived just after I got back from the Old Esplanade. It was delivered by a deck hand from a night soil barge.”
To be fair I didn’t have to ask how she knew his trade. It rather announces itself. I must admit I rather expected some witticism about how I was starting to attract a higher class of patron. After all it’s the sort of remark I would have made had it been Lancet or one of the others getting such a missive. She merely said, “He said it was from Beetfield.”
I opened the letter with a clear conscience. After all it was some years since I had been in the hamlet of Beetfield. I cannot imagine them, after all this time, deciding that I was the obvious person to blame for the spoons going missing.

As an aside, this can be a problem. Certainly when I first started out following my muse, I was young and doubtless had a lean and hungry look. This was easily explained. I was normally hungry and that ensured I remained lean. But it meant that I was the obvious person to blame when something went missing in a house where I had recently performed.

The fact I had been constantly under the eye of a maid, and had only been in two rooms, made no difference. In one instance I was arrested in the street by the watch for stealing a four poster bed. It must be said that the two watchmen they seemed to consider it a somewhat unlikely feat, but they escorted me to the house where the accusation had been made.

The lady of the house was furious. Apparently the bed in the guest bedroom had disappeared. The staff had hunted throughout the house and could not find it and were sure that it was not there. This I can believe, a four poster bed isn’t something one can easily overlook.

Apparently they had decided it had to be me, because both the lady and all the staff had been present in the house for the entire day and I was the only stranger who had entered. The watchmen took notes and to be fair to them, asked what I would consider pertinent questions.

One I particularly liked was, “Did you see Mister Steelyard with the bed?”

“No, I assume he concealed it somehow.”

Things were getting vituperative, with the lady of the house pouring scorn on both me, and the watchmen for their scepticism, when her husband arrived. He was accompanied by a dray and six workmen. They had with him a four poster bed. His wife was triumphant.

“So you recovered it from wherever this villain had hidden it?”
“No dear, I collected from Massop’s. When you said your mother was coming to stay I thought I’d better check the bed. One of the posts was a little lose. So I contacted Massop and his men arrived three days ago and took it away to fix.”

Madam was mortified. As the watchmen and I tiptoed quietly out, she, with the support of the senior downstairs staff, were berating her husband for going out of his way to humiliate them. As one of the watchmen commented, “How in Aea’s name can six men carry a four poster bed out of the house without anybody noticing?”

But still, back to the letter. It was from the Landlady of the New Inn at Beetfield. Apparently her clientele remembered me fondly and would be delighted if I could drop in soon. Also, added to the bottom, as if it was something that she was mentioning in passing, was the comment that perhaps I could talk to the hermit for them.

Now Beetfield is not the easiest place to get to, even though it isn’t far from Port Naain. So eventually I did what I’d done on the previous occasion, I signed on as a deck hand on a night soil barge. It’s not a prestigious job, but given that my finances were in their usual parlous condition it seemed the sensible thing to do. So barely two days after getting the letter, I walked into the New Inn at Beetfield and was greeted by a smiling landlady who handed me a glass of ale without even asking me for money.

As I sipped her ale, I asked what exactly she wanted me to do.

“Well, Tallis, if you could just tell a couple of stories and perhaps give us a poem or two. Then when the time comes, if you could feed the hermit and listen to his new plans.”

“What’s wrong with his new plans?”

“Well we feel that it would make sense for somebody from outside the area to listen to them. We’d like an unbiased opinion.”
Well that seemed easy enough. As her guests came in I prepared myself and gave them what the landlady had asked for. I told them the tale of the four poster bed and a couple of other tales. Then I gave them some poems, one tragic, two comic. When my meal was brought to the table, I tucked in with enthusiasm. The rich spicy Toelar cooking was as good as I remembered it. Most of the others were eating at the same time, and we chatted backwards and forwards as we dined.

I’d just finished when there was an eldritch wailing from outside. I put down my empty glass. “I assume that is the hermit saying that he’s ready for his meal?”

The landlady appeared with a basket holding a pan of stew (hot in both senses of the word, Toelar cooking is known for the liberal use of hot spices) a bottle of beer and a good chunk of bread and butter. I took the basket and set off along the path through the woods, following the cacophonous wailing to the hermit’s abode.

I finally arrived at the well-built stone hut where the hermit lived and he put down his bagpipes and welcomed me warmly. As he ate he would ask me questions as to what I’d been doing. Then as he wiped the pan clean with the last of the bread I asked him what his plans were.

Here he became thoughtful. “Well you see Tallis, I’m wondering whether Beetfield needs something more than a hermit to draw people.”

I could see where he was coming from. I think the hermit drew people from a ten mile radius, but I’d never heard his name mentioned in Port Naain. Indeed I might well be the only person in the city who had heard of him.

“So what were you thinking of trying?”
“Well I thought I might become a mage.”

I confess that rather surprised me. He wasn’t an old man, but he was definitely in his middle years. As far as I knew, becoming a mage was something that took a lifetime of study.

“Have you any experience?”
“No, but I’d never had any experience of being a hermit before I became a hermit.”

Again from what I’d been told, this also was entirely true. Still I felt that becoming accepted as a mage was a somewhat more arduous process than becoming a hermit. Indeed in Port Naain, people studied for academic degrees and this was merely the start of their road. Admittedly there were other, often less savoury types, who replaced academia with sordid experimentation in a dingy boarding house bedroom, but the latter rarely ended well.

On the other hand, I could see a mage being a positive draw. “Have you any knowledge of herbs or minor cantrips?”

“None really, other than what is needed for cooking.”

“So what attracted you to being a mage?”

“Well,” and here he paused, “I thought I could have a wizard’s tower. It would be a landmark. If I make it tall enough, in this area it could be seen from miles around.”

Again I couldn’t fault his thinking. “What have you in mind? Something tall and dark with flames at the top?”

“I’d thought something more classical in a pleasant light-coloured stone would go with the area. Also I want to attract people, not scare them off.”
“But how would you build it?”

“That’s the clever thing. When I become a mage, I’ll build it using magic.”

It struck me that he’d got everything thought out.

“So how are you going to learn to do magic?”

“That’s the really clever bit, Tallis. When I became a hermit I sort of picked up hermitting as I went along. Also nobody really expects you to do anything, they just want you to be wise. So when I’m a mage, I’ll just be wise, but with my tower, I’ll be wise at altitude.”

“But what happens when somebody comes along and asks you to do something magical?”

“Oh I’ve thought of that. I can tell them to leave me for a day whilst I meditate and when they’re gone we’ve got two or three people in the area who are good with herbs. As for love philtres, soap and water often works as well as anything a witch can do.”
I persisted, “But what if they want serious magic?”
“I can talk them out of it. I’ll suggest other ways of doing the same thing, or if that fails, convince them that it’s unethical. If that fails I’ll have them bring me obscure ingredients found only in distant parts.”

Well he certainly seemed to have given the various issues proper consideration. I asked him, “So why does the landlady and others want my advice?”
“Well they suspect that I can smoothly talk them into things, but you, being a poet, are inoculated against it.”

I confess that this was a line of reasoning I hadn’t encountered before. “So what’s the first phase?”
“Making a start on the tower. I was thinking that we could add three more stories to my hut here, but in timber. I’d leave this roof on and have a stair up the outside. It’s more wizardly.” He paused briefly. “Apparently if you tell the landlady at the New Inn you think it’s a good plan, there is a boat that’s run aground on the shores of the estuary. They’ll rob the timber off that and make a start on the tower.”

I took the basket, pan and empty bottle back to the New Inn.

The landlady was waiting for me. “Well, is it a good plan?”

“Has he made a good hermit?”

Without pausing she replied, “Yes.”

“Then I would suggest you go with his plan then, it strikes me he’ll be a lot better mage that a lot of those we have in Port Naain.”

Jim Webster is just this guy.

I’ve got two blogs, one for Tallis Steelyard

Another blog for my assorted rural reminiscences and ponderings

I’ve also got two books to promote, available as ebooks or paperbacks

The first is a tale from Tallis Steelyard

And if you buy your ebooks from elsewhere than Amazon

Tallis Steelyard. A Fear of Heights.

In this novel, recounted by Tallis Steelyard in his own inimitable manner, we discover what happens when the hierarchy plots to take control of the Shrine to Aea in her Aspect as the Personification of Tempered Enthusiasm. Will the incumbent be exiled to a minor fane in the far north? Will Tallis end up having to do a proper job? Does ordination and elevation beckon for Maljie?
This story includes the Idiosyncratic Diaconate, night soil carts, Partannese bandit chieftains, a stylite, a large dog and some over-spiced food. On top of this we have not one but two Autocephalous Patriarchs and a theologically sanctioned beggar.

Then I have

And if you buy your ebooks from other than Amazon

Look what the cat brought in.

Yet more observations on rural life. We have cattle, environmentalists, a plethora of new thinking as Defra plunges into the new world but more importantly we still have our Loyal Border Collie, Sal. She is joined in a starring role by Billy, the newly arrived farm cat. As well as this we have diversification opportunities for those wishing to serve niche markets, living in the past, and the secret of perfect hair.

Please use the links to check out Jim’s books, and more of his writing on both blogs.

A Very Personal Ghost Story

I posted this in 2014, and reblog it most years around the time of Halloween. I don’t celebrate the festival myself, but I know almost everyone else does. This is a true story, and I have reposted it again for the benefit of the new followers who will not have seen it previously.

I have never really believed in the supernatural. Ghosts, apparitions, reincarnation, life after death, and all things associated with these. Not that I wouldn’t have liked to, it just didn’t seem plausible. Psychics can often appear to be very accurate. They claim to know things about you, even to be communicating with a family member, long since dead. Unfortunately, their ‘gifts’ are very easily debunked, and like most of these things, it has to come down to simple belief. And I don’t believe it.

My paternal grandmother was a great character. She had a very dark complexion, black hair, and a gravelly voice. Mother to three sons and two daughters, she had to fend for herself for much of her adult life, as my grandfather deserted the family home when I was a small child. When she was still a young mother, before the second world war, she was run over and seriously injured. Trapped under the vehicle, her leg had to be amputated at the scene. I remember being somewhat fascinated by her false leg when I was a child. It often stood in a corner of a room, as she was able to get around surprisingly well without it. Once she was going out, she would always wear this prosthesis, and other than a stiffness to her gait, you would be unaware that she had only one leg. She was a houseproud lady, and her home was usually neat and tidy. The step outside her front door was dark red, and she would clean this with a red polish, called ‘Cardinal’. This had a very distinctive smell, and on occasion, it would stain her fingers red, as she did not wear rubber gloves. We would often visit her on a Sunday, and she would accompany us on family holidays to the seaside, where we would go in a large group. On one of these holidays, she once showed me the stump of her thigh, and I remember feeling most uncomfortable having to look at it.

Much later on, after my Mum and Dad split up in the 1970s, I lost touch with my grandmother. Family differences made it very hard to keep in contact, and visiting her had to be arranged in advance, so as not to bump into my Dad, with his new ‘lady friend’. We made the trip a couple of times, and I was pleased to see that she hadn’t changed a bit, though she was no longer in good health. She was always happy to see us, and we tried as much as possible not to waste time discussing the problems we faced, as a result of the unexpected separation. By the late 1980s, other than exchanging Christmas and birthday cards, I hadn’t seen her for a long time. I was living in a small house in Surrey Docks, with my then girlfriend. I got a telephone call from my uncle, my Dad’s youngest brother. He informed me that my grandmother was in hospital. She had serious liver problems, and was not expected to live. I told my Mum, and we arranged to make the trip almost into Kent to see her. We checked that it would not clash with a visit from my Dad, to avoid any nastiness. On the agreed date, we struggled through the rush-hour traffic to the suburbs on the border with Kent. Caught up in delays, we arrived after the official end of visiting time. When we explained the situation to the nurse in charge, she was more than happy to allow us to spend some time.

It was a sad visit. We tried to look upbeat and casual, as we gazed down on this frail lady, yellow with jaundice, trying for her part to be cheerful, and obviously delighted to see us. We talked over old times, and about other members of our extended family, never once mentioning the advanced state of her illness, or her gloomy prognosis. After a while, she finally raised the subject of my Dad leaving us, and told my Mum how much she had missed seeing us both. She asked after my wife too, and I decided not to mention that we had split up, and that I had since met someone else. I wanted her to die thinking that all was well in my world. We said our final farewells, avoiding comments such as ‘see you again soon.’ We all knew that this was the last time we would see her.

I dropped my Mum off on the way home, and went back to tell my girlfriend, who had never met her, about the last visit to my beloved Nan. There were no tears, just fond memories; and frustration about the years lost, due to petty squabbles. We went to bed quite late, and I went straight off to sleep. In the early hours before dawn, I was awakened by an unusual noise. It seemed to be coming up the staircase from the room downstairs, as if someone was dragging something up, one step at a time. As my eyes opened, I was overwhelmed by an all-pervading smell. I recognised it immediately, it was Cardinal polish. Still sitting up in bed, I watched as my Nan’s head appeared at the top of the stairs, level with the bedroom door. She looked at me and smiled, continuing the difficult process of walking upstairs with a heavy false leg. She was dressed as I remembered her, and wearing an apron over her clothes. She walked into the bedroom, and sat down heavily on the bed, right next to me. Street lighting outside was enough to provide sufficient illumination, so I could see her clearly. She reached for my hand, and held it in both of hers, high up, near her shoulder. I could feel the roughness of her palms. She said one thing, ‘It will be alright’, and she was gone.

The next thing I was aware of was my girlfriend talking to me. She seemed confused. ‘Who were you talking to?’ She asked me. ‘Why are you holding your arm up, does it hurt?’ She continued. Then finally, ‘And what is that smell?’ The following day, my uncle rang me, to tell me that my grandmother had died during the night. ‘I know’, I replied.

I still don’t believe in ghosts. I suspect that it was a vivid dream, having just had the emotional experience of going to see my Nan, and knowing that she was dying. I can rationalise most of it to my satisfaction, but one thing has always been a mystery, and remains unexplained to this day. Why did my girlfriend smell the polish?

Looking back on Fiction: The latest serial

My recent serial, ‘Russian Sector’ concluded yesterday. Later this week, I will compile all 27 parts into one story, for those who prefer to read it all at once.

This was my first attempt at ‘Historical Fiction’, albeit modern history, from 1945-1990.

Choosing that genre came with its own challenges. Research is critical, making sure that dates and places are accurate, names are valid, and events around the characters actually happened.

Trying to put myself into the mind of someone born in 1935, seeing the fall of Berlin ten years later, then growing up under a Socialist regime in the former East Germany, that was a challenge too. When we write characters, we sometimes include a little of ourselves in one or more of them. Whether we do this deliberately or subconsciously, it does happen. However, this could not be allowed in an historical context, so I had to re-think how I would approach it.

The real-life aspects of much of the story also meant that I could not inject the twists that are usually so much a part of any story I write.

Despite all this, I am happy to report that this was actually my most widely read/viewed serial so far. It enjoyed a regular daily view in excess of 80, sometimes higher, and engagement in the comments was very satisfying indeed. And it has encouraged me to experiment with genres outside of my usual comfort zone in the future.

As always, my thanks to everyone who read the serial, left a comment, and shared on other platforms.

Best wishes to everyone, Pete.

Street Life: The Complete Story

I recently published a sixteen-part serial. This is all those parts, in one complete story, for those who suggested it, or others who might prefer to read it in one sitting. If you haven’t read any of it before, I hope you enjoy it.
It contains 18,500 words, so is a very long read.

He watched her walking in his direction. Made him smile every time. Peroxide hair sticking up all over, leather waistcoat over a fishnet vest, and a skirt so short passing traffic almost always had a near miss, as the drivers ogled her legs. She sat down in the doorway next to him, noisily chewing the gum in her mouth. Jack nodded, but she didn’t look at him, or say anything. He let her be, allowed her to take her time. Candy was that sort of girl.
“Good day so far?” He knew what she meant, as she nodded at the collection box between his feet.
“Not bad. Nineteen quid already. One guy gave me a tenner.”
She sniffed. “Must’ve been able to afford it”.

A young postman walked past, blatantly looking at the view up Candy’s skirt, and not trying to hide the fact. She yelled at the top of her voice. “Like what you see up there, postie?” He hurried away, pushing the large red cart in front of him. She stood up, and looking down on him asked, “Wanna coffee, Jack?”. He nodded, and she held out a hand for the money. Candy never had money. Ever. He gave her some coins, and she took off toward The Strand, in the direction of McDonald’s.

Three hours later, and she hadn’t come back with the coffee. Jack smiled inside. It was so typical of Candy. But he couldn’t refuse her, even though he knew what she was like. He fancied her so much, he couldn’t hide it. She knew it too, and used that to get around him. Others on the street might not be so kind to her, so she had picked her mark well. Not that he had ever tried anything on with her. For one thing, he didn’t believe she was sixteen. She told anyone who asked that she was, and rattled off her pretend date of birth so convincingly too. Jack reckoned she was a couple of years younger, perhaps fourteen at most. It was also unlikely that her name was Candy, he knew that as well. Somewhere, some people would be looking for her, posting pictures of a missing girl on lamp-posts, hoping to hear the good news that she had been found alive. Not my business, Jack had told himself. Keep away from the Cops, no good comes from dealing with them.

Jack had seen her around since April. Hiding from the rain in his usual doorway, when he turned up early one morning. She had asked to share his blanket, and he could feel her shivering for a long time after she sat down. She didn’t say much, and he didn’t ask anything. She seemed to trust him, perhaps because he was older. Old enough to be her dad, he had guessed back then. The next time he saw her, she had the spiky blonde hair, black eye make up, and funky clothes. Probably made her think she looked older. But it didn’t work. She looked like a kid made up to look older, like in a fancy dress contest or something. She had asked him for some money, and he handed it over with a smile. In return he got a kiss on the head; soft lips, and a body smelling of unwashed clothes. It hadn’t taken her very long to get some street knowledge, and a lot of confidence. He tried to place her accent, but it kept changing. Not local, for sure. Not a Londoner.

Then again, neither was Jack. Almost four years in the city, and he hardly ever left the centre. Despite all the other beggars, winos, tramps, and chancers, there was still money to be made in the capital. Most days, he never got less than forty quid, and on a good day, as much as ninety. It all seemed a long time ago now. Coming down to London for a job that didn’t last, a flat share he couldn’t afford. Bridges burned back home, no life to go back to in the West. A few nights on benches one summer had turned into a way of life, and he had managed to disappear off the radar of society. He started to learn who to avoid, who not to upset, and how to keep clear of the authorities. Cool spots for the summer, and warm places inside during the winter. He would walk up to Ironmonger Row, and use the public swimming baths to take a shower. For a couple of quid he could use most of the facilities, and it was a nice place to spend some time on a wet day. He claimed the unemployed entrance fee, and nobody ever asked to see proof. They only had to look at him.

Washing clothes was harder than he had expected. After a few tries at washing them in toilet sinks, and trying to dry them, he gave up bothering. When what he was wearing got too dirty or uncomfortable, he jumped the bus up to Camden, and bought replacements from the charity shops there. Food was the easiest. Discarded grub outside the KFC or any burger bar. Some cafe owners who took pity on you, and gave you the out of date stuff when they were locking up. Jack wasn’t proud, and he got enough to eat. Unlike most of the others around, in fact every other person he had met on the street, he hadn’t turned to drink or drugs to get by. He sat in his doorway with the sign, and was usually reading a book, easy enough to pinch one from Waterstone’s when they were busy. He never asked anyone for money, just sat still, and hoped they would drop some in. And they did, every day since, and not one day had he ever got nothing at all.

It was getting darker. He would give it two more hours, then go and grab his latest good spot, before someone else discovered it. He had to avoid Koz tonight. That bastard was always trying to rile him, asking for money to buy booze, or crack. Jack had started to stash any notes he got in the ventilation vanes behind the bank. Then if Koz and his mates decided to rough him up, all they would find was some small change. He stretched out his legs, and waggled his feet to keep the circulation going. Looking up and down the street, he was hoping to see Candy. He worried she was alright.

Candy liked Jack, though not like that, but it was so obvious he had the hots for her. She knew what doorway he would be in, and also knew she could get some money off him easily. Let him think he had a chance, give him a good look up her skirt, and sit very close to him. Easy. She said she was going for coffee, but that was never going to happen. As she turned the corner, she looked at the coins in her hand. Almost six pounds, that was a start. She would wander up to Aldwych, and see if Darius had any customers in the hairdressers. If he wasn’t busy, he would usually buy her a coca-cola, and sometimes let her wash her hair too. Dragging up the shoulder of her waistcoat, she wrinkled her nose. It was really stinky, but she couldn’t afford to get it cleaned, so would have to spray some perfume on it. Diverting into the big branch of Boots, she hovered around the counter until nobody was looking, then snatched up two testers, as well as a couple of eye liners. Bending down as if to lace up her Converse, she slipped them into the shoulder bag, turned around, and walked back out onto the street.

Playing the little lost girl had worked out fine at first. Sitting on a bench crying, someone would come over. Usually a concerned older couple, the woman feeling maternal, the man awkward. She would say that she had lost her train fare home after coming to London with friends. Scared to tell her mum, but twenty pounds would get her home. Lots of them fell for it at first, but others got wise. Offered to take her to a police station, or go with her to the train station, and buy the ticket. She couldn’t keep up the phony accent either. One minute she was putting on as if she was from Liverpool, the next it sounded Scottish. And they all thought she was a kid, even Jack. The joke was on them. She could be home in east London in twenty minutes on a bus, and she was almost eighteen, though she knew she looked much younger. Saying she was only sixteen made it seem as if she was pretending. Candy was a good name to choose too. It suited her, and made her sound silly and girly.

Mum treated her like an unpaid baby sitter. Knocking out kids with different blokes every couple of years, falling for all their sweet talk, and then they were off. Candy had stopped going to school, told her doctor she was depressed, and told her mum what she could do with her shitty flat, and four kids. She shacked up with Sammi and her boyfriend for a while, then headed off into the West End to earn some money. Looking sorry for herself had worked at the start. Jack had certainly fallen for it, though she had to be careful who she tried it on with. Then she met a girl who was clipping. Tash told her what to do. Hang about looking sexy, and wait for some bloke to ask her how much. Give him a price, and tell him “Money first”, then he could take her into Brewer Street car park and do what he wanted. Soon as you had your hand on the money, run away as fast as you could. If he chased you, shout “Help! Rape!”, and keep running. Chances are someone would stop him, or he would be too embarrassed. Not likely to tell the police either, as he wouldn’t want to admit to asking an under age girl for sex, even though she wasn’t actually under age. That worked out well for a while too. She could often get over a hundred a day, sometimes a lot more.

Tash was a good mate. She could doss down on her sofa most nights, in the squat where she lived near Waterloo. She taught Candy how to pinch stuff too, and helped with her new look. “Sassy and sexy, girl”, Tash called it. Except for the Converse of course, but she needed them for running. Trouble was Tash did like her crack, and it wasn’t long before Candy was on it too. Now she needed that hundred a day just to stay straight, and that took time, and work. Candy was on the go from morning ’til night. Cadging, fleecing, conning, pinching, anything to get money, or something she could sell or trade. If she had a slow day, Tash would help her with a couple of rocks, but she expected the same in return. So far, Candy had been lucky. Chased out of shops a few times, and spotted by people when she tried to nick their phone or wallet as they sat at a cafe, or waited to cross a busy street. But no arrests, not yet. A few talking-tos from some local policemen, but she copped an attitude, and they had to let her go.

Darius had a customer, but he gave her a wave through the window. Candy crossed the road, and branched left in the direction of the University. Under the big sign that read LSE, she saw a chubby guy texting into a phone. looked like he might be Indian, or something like that. Screwing up her face, she jogged up to him, arriving breathless and looking as worried as she could manage. She put on her posh voice, sounding like she came from Surrey, or some place like it. “Excuse me, I’m sorry to ask you, but do you think I could use your phone please? I got separated from my college group, and I’m scared I will miss the bus back, if I don’t contact them”. She finished with her sweetest smile, noting his eyes wandering up from her tiny skirt, to the fishnet top with no bra underneath. He grinned back, all white teeth and pink tongue. “Sure”. As he extended his hand, she grabbed the phone, and ran off at speed, with the dumb bloke just standing there, as if he expected her to turn around and bring the phone back.

Koz rolled out of bed, and lit a cigarette. The girl next to him was still sleeping, but he would wake her up soon, and throw her out. He could hear the others moving around; using the toilet, and talking downstairs in the kitchen. The smell of something cooking wafted up, and made him realise he was hungry. It was dark outside. Checking his watch, he saw it read 21:28, and he hadn’t eaten much since breakfast. He looked around at his room. A mattress on the floor, some clothes on hangers around the door handle, and three pairs of trainers lined up against the wall. Not much, for twenty-nine years, but he was sure his time would come. Eat first, then head off into the city as usual.

Candy doubled back on herself, and crossed Waterloo Bridge from the western side. Heading down into the pedestrian subways, she could see Clinton on his BMX bike, silhouetted against the opening in the distance. When she got closer, he grinned, wide lips opening as it he was about to laugh. “Wassup, fine lady?” His accent was contrived of course. She knew full well he was a local boy, but he liked to sound Jamaican, made him feel tough. She opened her hand, showing the phone. “An i-phone 8, Clinton, must be worth ten rocks”. He sucked his teeth, and grinned again. “Y’know how many of those phones I have, girl? I will give you five”. Candy moved her hand, as if to put the phone in her shoulder bag. “OK fine lady, six. But that’s it. Y’get me?” She handed him the phone, and put her hand up to his mouth. He started to spit out the wraps one at a time, until she had six in her palm.
Back at the squat, she gave two to Tash, who had only just woken up. They fired them up, and drifted away, both sitting on the floor.

Jack was settling down earlier these days. He waited until the last few commuters had walked past on their way to the station, then dragged both his black bin bags from behind the industrial waste skip. The dustmen never took away anything that wasn’t in the wheeled skip, so it had been a stroke of genius to stash his gear right behind it. The rubber mat had been a great find earlier that year. Rolled up behind the camping gear shop in Covent Garden, he had just strolled past and scooped it up. Much better than relying on old cardboard for a base to sleep on. His sleeping bag had seen better days, but was still serviceable. A quick check that everything was still there, and he walked off with the bags in the direction of The Strand. Once the small Travel Agent office had closed, he knew he would be alright to bed down in their doorway until the morning.

Koz ate three of the big Polish sausages, much to the annoyance of his house mates. But they didn’t say anything. Best not to cross Koz. Five of them shared the small two-bed house in Willesden, and Koz was the only one who had his own room. He had been in London for almost three years now. Lots of people from his home town in Poland had come there to work. But unlike the others, Koz had come there not to work. There was money to be made in England from doing nothing, Pavel had told him a long time ago. Pavel was Russian, and knew his stuff. It had been easier than he expected. Hassle the street kids for the money they had begged for. Steal the drugs off the junkies after they had bought them, even get a few girls working the streets for him. He told them he would protect them, a big lad like him, tough as they come. Finding some others to help him was even easier. Plenty of unemployed ex-army guys around from Eastern Europe, happy to think of themselves being in a gang, headed up by Koz. But nobody could ever say his surname right, ever. So he settled for the first three letters, KOZ, and used that as his name.
He looked around at the others, squashed into the small living room that doubled as a bedroom for two of them. “Come on guys, finish up now. Time to get going.”

Candy felt pretty good when she woke up. Tash was still out of it, so she checked there was nobody in the bathroom, and had a shallow bath, as there wasn’t much hot water left. She went over her make-up, and after rummaging through the bag of clothes she called ‘almost clean’, picked out a plain black skirt and white blouse. Adding some thick stockings that held up just over her knees, she admired the result in the broken half of the big mirror propped up against the wall in Tash’s room. She looked like a schoolgirl alright, but a raunchy schoolgirl. The desired effect. It was too cold to go without any coat all night, so she took the red anorak off the nail in the door. They shared that coat, so Tash wouldn’t care. Walking back over the bridge, she found a good spot to hang around on, just where Burleigh Street joined The Strand. She stuck one leg forward, so it could be seen outside the coat, then put on her best sexy pout, and waited.

Toby had worked late again. He didn’t mind, as it was good to be seen not to rush home. If you wanted to earn the big money, you had to stick it out, and be seen to be a grafter. He had pulled down over one seven five K last year, and was hoping to break the two hundred barrier for the first time, by next April. Leaving the entrance to his office, he knew there was no point trying to get a cab opposite the station. There was bound to be a big queue at the rank inside too, so he stepped out east along The Strand, reckoning he would do better on the one way system at Aldwych. Close to Burleigh Street, he spotted a girl leaning against the corner, by Barclay’s Bank. As he got closer, she stretched out a black-stockinged leg, and shot him a surly look; face down, but eyes looking right at him. He carried on walking for a few steps, then stopped. Smiling to himself, he turned around.
Toby liked them young and slutty.

Toby looked the girl up and down. Young face, tiny tits, and rather hefty legs. The sort of girl who was chubby at one time, but never managed to lose it off the legs. He reckoned she was no more than sixteen, but had been around the block a few times. He didn’t mind the big legs, and her face was pretty enough, in a retro-punk sort of way. She continued to give him her ‘Lady Diana’ look. Face down, eyes big, and looking up. Toby didn’t mess around. “How much?” She answered quickly, practiced in tone. ” Twenty for a hand-job, forty for a blowy, and a hundred for full sex. With a condom, of course. Money first”. She extended a hand, and awaited a choice from the man. Toby chuckled. “Yeah, like I give you a handful of cash, and you leg it in those Converse trainers. I’m not a tourist babe, get real”.

Candy thought for a moment. This guy was quite good-looking, probably under thirty, and seemed to be well-off. He had a smart suit on, and a watch worth a grand at least. She didn’t care that much for sex, not that she was a virgin. One of Mum’s boyfriends had seen to that, when she was fourteen. And then there was Darren from the flats, and not forgetting Black Francis. Though he was so big, it had hurt. But Candy thought sex was just something for men, and never understood why some girls seemed to like it so much. Still, if this posh bloke was up for it, why not? Take him for some real cash. She glared back, maintaining her grumpy look. “OK, but I haven’t got anywhere to go to do it, so unless you want to show me the money, you will have to come up with a better offer”.

Toby grinned, showing his perfect teeth. “Look, how about I take you for a late supper at Joe Allen? It’s just up the street, and they know me well enough to get a table. Then we can go back to my place, and I promise to show you all the money, before anything happens”. Candy considered what he had said. An expensive meal, and some booze, followed by a trip to this guy’s home. He looked as if he was good for the cash, so why not? She continued to glare. “Alright then. A meal and drink, followed by everything at your place, money first. Nothing painful or kinky, and you have to hand over a hundred first, or I will scream for the cops”. Toby, gave her his best smile. “Agreed”.

He raised his hand, shouting “TAXI!”. A cab stopped soon after, and as they departed, neither of them noticed the group of men crowded into the doorway of the nearby Travel Agent.

Jack hadn’t been asleep for that long, when he was startled by feeling something hot and wet on his face, and in his mouth. Spluttering, he woke up to find a grinning Koz, pissing on him. “Come on Jacky, what have you for me?”. Koz was laughing, relaxed, backed up by four of his mates. Jack waved him away, offended by the piss, but used to such things. “It was a quiet day, Koz. I didn’t get much, but here you go.”. He handed over a small bag of coins, less than ten pounds. Koz sneered. “Jacky, now the boys have to search you. That’s just silly, my friend”. Two of his cronies ran their hands all through Jack’s dirty clothes, but could find nothing more. Koz grinned again. “Jacky my boy, you have to try harder. See you tomorrow night. You can go back to sleep now, if you can stand smelling my piss”. The gang laughed on cue. Jack settled back down into the sleeping bag. None of them noticed Candy getting into the taxi.

She was impressed. The restaurant was only a couple of hundred yards away, but he had jumped a cab to get there. He paid the basic fare as if it was nothing, and wrapped his arm around her, as they entered the busy restaurant. He slipped the guy inside some cash, and they were shown to a table for two, with an obsequious waiter hovering around, attending Toby’s every need. “Champagne I think, the best in the house. What do you say?” Candy nodded. Champagne would do nicely, take the edge off her need for the next rock of crack. She looked at the extensive menu, amazed at what she might be able to stuff herself with. As she pretended to examine the menu, the man wanted to talk.
“My name is Toby, but that’s a bit much, I know. So call me ‘T’. What shall I call you?”
“Candy. That’s my name”. Toby roared with laughter. “What a great name, it suits you perfectly. In fact, I don’t even want to know your real name. Candy it is then.”

The champagne was good stuff, and went straight to her head. T looked more attractive by the minute, and when her choice of food arrived, she devoured it like a starving refugee. Toby topped up her drink, before ordering a second bottle. He didn’t seem to eat much, and didn’t say much more either. When he offered a dessert, she ordered a sticky toffee pudding, and ate it like she had never seen food before. It must have been late, but he seemed in no rush to leave. Ordering some expensive cognac, he organised an Uber cab on his phone. Candy heard him mention Canary Wharf, a smart address just east of the City. This might be a touch, if she played it right.

Jack managed to get back to sleep soon after the rousting from Koz. He was used to all that crap, and it no longer bothered him. The change he had handed over was enough to guarantee him a night of peace. Koz and the boys continued west in the direction of Adelaide Street. Plenty of potential victims there, heading for the night shelter, and the charity soup stall. A good few quid to be taken off them. He pushed out his chest, and lit a cigarette. Even though it was directly opposite the Police Station, he couldn’t care less. The local cops didn’t concern themselves with street people. They had enough other shit to worry about.

When they left Joe Allen, Candy was full of food, and drifting on the champagne and brandy. T was cuddling her in the cab, and not bothering her too much at all. Other than running his hand up her legs and under the hem of her skirt, he didn’t seem that interested. She hoped he would have a nice place, and wouldn’t turn out to be a bastard. She had experienced some of those, and didn’t feel like fighting. Not tonight, anyway.

Koz and his boys spotted Gay Terry trying to cross over the road before they had seen him. It hadn’t worked, and Koz wrapped a huge muscular arm around the emaciated frame of the boy. Gay Terry wasn’t even gay, but he worked as a rent boy on the streets, and that had got him the name. Punters liked his tiny body and schoolkid looks, so he usually earned well. Koz hauled the youngster back into the doorway of the phone shop. “Whaddye got for me, liddle Terry” he snarled, his accent slipping back. The others didn’t bother to wait for him to reply, crowding around and going through his pockets. People walked by, averting their gaze. It was obvious what was happening, but no chance anyone would intervene. Niki held up a handful of notes, grinning from ear to ear. Koz let Terry go, patting him on both cheeks. “Thaddle do for now, but you bedder get back out there. Earn Koz some more”. Terry sprinted off into the night, happy to have escaped a beating.

Toby’s apartment block was far grander than Candy had ever imagined. There was a uniformed doorman sitting at a swish desk in the reception area, and the floors were so shiny, she could see her face reflected in them. The doorman smiled at Toby, paying no attention to the girl under his arm. “Evening sir”. Toby ignored him. He didn’t speak to people like that, except to complain about something. And he never said please or thank you to taxi drivers, waiters, waitresses, or shop staff either. Why should he? If they didn’t like the job, they could do something else. He was the customer, not them. He paid their wages, he wasn’t their friend.

The high speed lift impressed Candy too, taking no time at all to whisk them up to the top floor. Only two doors on that floor, and Toby turned his key in the nearest one. Inside, it seemed like a film set or something to her. It was the biggest flat she had ever seen, and she stood with her mouth half open, taking it all in. On the left, a massive modern kitchen area was shining, all bright aluminium and steel. Blue lights illuminated the surfaces, and the central island was bigger than the whole kitchen at her Mum’s. Next to that, a huge glass table gleamed in the lights, surrounded by eight plastic-looking see-through chairs, and it was a long walk from there to the seating area, which contained no less than three enormous sofas, and a funny kind of chair that was in the shape of a banana. From the dining area to the far end of the room, the whole wall was made up of folding glass doors. Through those, she could see a massive balcony, and the lights of the city reflected in the river below. Toby watched her head moving around, taking it all in. “Impressive, huh?” Candy nodded, as no smart comment came to mind.

Jack couldn’t get back to sleep after the thing with Koz. He just couldn’t settle, and he was still thinking about Candy, wondering what she was up to. For some reason, he was thinking about his Dad too, and the time he had taken him to watch Bristol Rovers. So few happy memories of those days, but that was a good one. Then came the Army, as there was no other work to speak of. A tour in Iraq, then the real shit, twice in Afghan, the worst time of his life. Even worse than these last few years in London, and that was saying something. Good mates lost, Army bullshit, and all for nothing. He never signed back on, once his enlistment was up. They could stuff that for a lark. Back home, Bristol was no longer familiar. He had nothing in common with his old mates, and the family was scattered all over.
He squirmed around inside the sleeping bag, trying hard to get back to sleep. Why was he thinking of that football game, of all things? Maybe he might see Candy tomorrow.

“Here, give me your coat”. Toby stretched out a hand for the red anorak, and then flung it onto the banana chair. “Can I have a shower or something?” Candy asked, trying to delay the inevitable. Toby dropped his suit jacket on top of her coat, but had his wallet in his hand. “You look clean enough to me. Here’s your hundred”. He put the two fifty-pound notes in her hand, uncurling her fingers so she had to take them. She turned and unzipped a pocket of the anorak, slipping the money inside. Toby walked away, heading for a corridor on the right. “Come on, come through”. He didn’t even look back. The bedroom was bigger than any she had ever seen, and she didn’t even know they made beds as big as that. Candy reckoned that six people could sleep in it, and not even touch each other. More glass doors led out onto the balcony, and Toby picked up a remote control as he unfastened his tie. With a press, a powered blind rolled down, covering the glass. The lights had come on as he walked into the room too, didn’t even need a light switch. Candy looked around the room, which was bigger than Mum’s whole flat. “It’s like Star Trek or something”. She blurted it out without thinking.

As she started to unbutton her shirt, Toby turned and said sharply, “Leave it. Leave your clothes on. Just take off those trainers, and your panties. I want you still dressed”. She sat on the edge of the bed and pulled off her Converse without bothering to untie the laces. Her big toe was poking through the stocking on her left foot, but she didn’t care. She watched him as he got undressed. It looked like a routine; cufflinks and watch first, both placed in a tray on a chest of drawers. Then his shirt, dropped onto on a small sofa facing the glass doors. Shoes and socks next, placed together under some sort of wooden frame. Then his belt and trousers, both draped over the same frame. He looked fit, obviously worked out. Walking over to the cabinet by the bed, he slid open a drawer, and took out a wrapped condom. When his Calvin Kleins came off, he didn’t seem that ready for sex, but he nodded at the pillows. “On your back, in the middle. No need to pretend you are enjoying it, as I couldn’t care less. And don’t say anything either”.

Candy didn’t feel drunk anymore. The luxury of the surroundings had sobered her up.

Toby turned his back on the girl. She was lying on the bed, deliberately looking bored. He ran some of his favourite fantasies through his mind, and was soon ready. Climbing on top of her, he looked down at her cracked make up and spiky dyed hair as he entered her. She raised her legs, presumably to make it more comfortable or enjoyable, but he pushed them back down, when he got the smell of those old Converse trainers coming off of her feet. Maybe he should have let her shower after all. Candy was surprised that she was quite enjoying it. He had a nice smell about him, and smooth skin covering that firm body. She raised her legs again, and started to move with him. But then it was over. He bit his bottom lip, gave a small grunt, and seconds later was standing at the end of the bed, removing the condom. She was tempted to say “Was that it?”, but something told her to keep her mouth shut.

He walked across to a door in the corner. As he opened it, lights came on, revealing a big ensuite bathroom, all black marble, with two sinks, and a walk-in shower. She watched as he took a pee, then went over to the sink, and brushed his teeth. “Are you getting me a cab, or what?” She raised her voice, so he could hear her above the running water. He walked out, closing the door. “You can stay if you want, it’s late. And the bed’s big enough, let’s face it”. Candy didn’t need to think twice about sleeping in that nice bed, but refused to sound enthusiastic. “Yeah, alright then. Don’t mind”. She rolled down the stockings, then pulled off the shirt without undoing the buttons. By the time she had her skirt off, he was already in bed. As she climbed under the soft duvet, she wondered if he was going to want any more sex that night But he just turned out the lights and rolled over, without a word.

Koz and Niki were counting the money, arranging it in denominations on the small kitchen worktop. The others had gone straight to bed when they got back. It had been a long night, and it had felt chilly waiting for the bus this morning. Niki double-checked the piles of notes and coins. “Comes to one eighty three, and a few pennies. Not bad, Koz”. That was a bit under the ideal nightly amount, as far as Koz was concerned. He liked to pull in fifteen hundred most weeks, as he had to dish some out to the others for backing him up. Stifling a big yawn, he nodded at his right-hand man. “I would like to have seen more than two hundred, Niki. Shame we couldn’t find Gay Terry again later. He would have had more.”

After rolling up his sleeping gear into the bin-bags, Jack wandered across to his stash place behind the wheeled skip. Next stop was usually McDonald’s, use their toilet, and have a wash in the sink. He never caused any fuss, so the staff didn’t bother about him, even though he didn’t buy anything. Before that though, might be an idea to go up to Mario’s cafe, help him take out last night’s rubbish, and unload his van with the stuff he had bought at the market. He was always respectful to the old Italian, and normally got a bacon sandwich and a tea for his help. It was cold that morning, and didn’t feel like it was going to get much warmer. Jack was thinking about the coming winter, as he strolled through the back streets to Mario’s. He would need to find some new spots, as Koz already knew his old ones.
No sign of Candy yet. Bit too early for that girl. Jack smiled at he thought of her, and hoped she was alright.

Candy woke up with a start. She could hear a helicopter flying low, close to the river, and the sound had disturbed her sleep. T was nowhere to be seen, at least in the bedroom. She reluctantly climbed out of the comfy bed, and went into the plush bathroom, needing to pee. As she approached the toilet, the seat lifted up automatically, and some sort of scented spray puffed into the bowl. She grinned at the sight, and walked backwards. Sure enough, the lid closed silently, so she walked in again, and watched the same thing happen. Sitting down, she looked at the opulent fittings, and the huge shower big enough for two, maybe even three people. When she had finished, she couldn’t find a handle or button to use to flush, and as she moved her hands around, it suddenly flushed on its own. There must be a hidden sensor, she thought, but she couldn’t see anything obvious. Still naked, she wandered down the short corridor back to the living area. No sign of T anywhere. She called out, “T, you there?”. Nothing.
The clock on the oven read 9:36. Candy guessed he must be at work. She would make the most of the lovely flat for a while, before heading home. First things first, have a good look round.

Toby had been at work for almost two hours already. Things were sizzling on the markets, and he might earn a huge bonus today, if trading kept going at that rate. Rupert gave him a double thumbs up as he walked past the terminal, and Toby nodded in acknowledgement. If he was being noticed, then it must be good.

There was more to the place than Candy had realised. She found a corridor behind the kitchen that led to a utility room, and another bathroom. Further on, a big square room, decked out with weight-lifting stuff, and a fancy exercise bike. There was a desk in the corner, with a laptop and Tablet on it, both plugged in and charging, as well as one of those computer things that you talk into. She slid open the filing drawer underneath, to find a pile of plastic envelopes containing paperwork, each one neatly labelled with what it contained. Back in the living room, she went through all the various drawers and cupboards in the unit under the massive TV. Lots of films on DVD, and all sorts of pens and stuff, but no cash, cards, or jewellery. She moved into the big bedroom, in search of something better.

The drawers in the bedroom offered a selection of tie clips, cuff-links, and an old-fashioned watch that looked worn out, but might be gold. In the wardrobe that covered one wall, she found an expensive-looking weekend bag, with a designer logo on it. She picked up the bag, and dropped the watch and other bits into it. Walking back to the gym room, she unplugged the chargers, and placed them into the bag, together with the laptop and tablet. Then she disconnected the talking computer thing, and dropped that in too. Reasonably pleased with her haul, she got dressed quickly, and headed for the door.

But she couldn’t open it. It was locked, from the outside.

Jack finally got into his usual daytime spot a bit late. He had missed a good number of the fast-arriving commuters already, but it had been worth it. Mario had given him a cup of tea and two bacon rolls, then let him use the staff toilet for a wash. The old man was in such a good mood that morning, he had chucked in a nice Apple Danish, too, putting it into a paper bag as Jack got ready to leave. “Here Jacky. A nica-cake-a for you. Enjoy”. Jack had smiled at the put-on accent. Mario’s family might have come from Italy, and he could certainly speak the language, but he was born and raised in Clerkenwell, not far from his cafe. Jack put the cake in the pocket of his coat. Candy might like that, when she turned up later.

Koz thought about taking one of the girls to bed with him, but couldn’t be bothered. They were both still asleep anyway, one in the bath, and the other on the landing. Irina smelt pretty bad, and he reckoned Natalya probably needed a wash too. He would sleep alone, and get a better rest that way. Koz also thought he needed to call Pavel again, and tell him to get these girls out of the house. He had promised it would be for a few days, and that had run into months. He hadn’t seen any money from them, as they gave it all to Pavel, but he had to put up with them crashing out at his house every day, and all he got for his trouble was some occasional sex. Still, Pavel was a real gangster, and he had to think twice about upsetting him. Maybe he would just ask, not tell.

Candy sat down on one of the dove-grey leather sofas, and considered her options.
She could call Tash, tell her to come over and explain to the doorman that her friend was locked in. But that depended on Tash being in the zone, having enough money to get a cab, and managing to convince the doorman that she was telling the truth. That seemed unlikely. No point pretending otherwise, Tash was a skank. A crack whore who looked the part, in every way imaginable. Any doorman in this block was unlikely to even let her in, let alone take her seriously.
She could call the police, tell them that she had been locked in by some guy she met the night before, and they should ask the doorman to use some sort of master key, to let her out. They might take her seriously, but then again, they might think she was on the game, stitched up by some John, and just leave her to stew. Besides, they would want to know her real name, and all the details, and might even end up busting her for prostitution.
She could call T, and find out what the hell was going on. Problem was, not only did she not have a phone, she couldn’t find one anywhere in the flat, so all previous options were pointless anyway. On top of that, she didn’t know T’s number, so why was she even thinking that? She cursed herself for selling every phone she had ever stolen, and reexamined her options again.

She had to put all the stuff back as she found it, she was certain of that. Then wait for the bastard to come home, before giving him shit for locking her in his flat. She felt edgy, and scratchy. She had one rock, but no works. There must be something in this flat that she could use to smoke her crack. With renewed purpose, she started to look around again, once she had returned everything to where it had been.

Gay Terry woke up on the floor of Shepherd Market car park. His lip hurt, bruised from where it had been bitten, the night before. He had a few car park regulars here, mostly supposedly straight guys, who got off on something different. One of them was always around, usually parked on the third level. Terry reckoned he was just looking for him, liked his super slim body, and the skills he had learned with his mouth. He said his name was Gregor, but Terry presumed that was false. He was English, about fifty, and rather fat. But he treated Terry like a princess, and often told him “I love you”, as they had sex in his expensive car. Even though Terry only ever asked for forty, Gregor would give him at least seventy. Sometimes more, if he went twice. But last night he had got really passionate, and sucked on Terry’s lips, before biting down hard on them. He had obviously felt guilty, handing over five twenties, before driving back to his family, wherever they were. Terry was thinking about Koz, as he roused himself. He had to keep away from that Polish bastard, or he would never have anything for himself.

Toby was buzzing, like rarely before. If today worked out the way it was heading, he would earn over six grand. In one day. That was far more than most ordinary stiffs could pull in in six weeks, working for The Man in their shit jobs. Take the chances, get the rewards. That was Toby’s mantra, and he lived by it. Taking a quick break, he decided to text some of his cronies. Tamsin first. He knew she liked some girly action, and she wasn’t embarrassed to go for it in front of the guys. Always guaranteed to turn everyone on, into the bargain. Oliver was usually up for a bit of rough, as was Nigel. They would never tell their wives of course, but they loved a share of some little slag. Then there was Martin, a black trader from the big opposition firm. Never hurt to pass on some sweeties to the guys trying to outdo you, Toby was on to that. He checked the message, before sending it to all of them.

“Hi, everyone. I have got some juicy schoolgirl plotted up in my flat at Canary Wharf. If we give her a few quid, we can all enjoy her, separately or together. I reckon she must only be about fifteen, and I have already had a taste. Party at my place later? Let me know if you want in”.

Satisfied, Toby pressed ‘Send Message’.

By midday, Candy was getting fractious, to say the least. There was nothing around in this flat, and she hadn’t been able to have that rock after all. As frustration got the better of her, she decided to get some payback in the only way she could think of. Fetching a big knife from a block in the kitchen, she dragged it across the sixty inch screen of the television, pressing hard. Satisfied with the huge scratch, she did one the other way, leaving a cross marked on the shiny black surface. Then she started on the DVD films, taking each one out of its case, and making a clean cut across it, before flinging them over her shoulder. Then the few music CDs she could find got the same treatment, until the living area was littered with plastic cases, and shiny, damaged discs.

It felt great to be so destructive, and her eyes scanned around, wondering what to do next. She unplugged all the cables running into the back of the TV, and cut them off as close to the set as possible. Then she did the same with the satellite box, and DVD player. Moving into the kitchen, she repeated the process with the toaster, coffee maker, juicer, and fancy designer food mixer that he probably never used. Walking over to the huge American fridge freezer, she felt around the back, found the plug, and pulled it around to the front, slicing it off with a big grin. Her mind raced, what to do next? The huge row of wardrobes in the bedroom provided the answer to that. Seven smart suits, removed one by one, and cut to ribbons with that super-sharp knife, the resulting rags chucked carelessly onto the bed. After that, she did all the shirts and ties, before opening some drawers, and starting on the underwear, jumpers, T-shirts, and socks. By the time she had finished, the bed was piled high with ruined clothes, and Candy reckoned he would be left with only what he had worn into work that day.

Jack was having a slow day, one of the worst for ages. By lunchtime, he had less than four quid in his pot, and one fiver stashed in his boot. At least he didn’t feel hungry, Mario had seen to that. But the bacon had made him thirsty, and he would have to go and get a drink soon. None of the regulars has been around. Gay Terry hadn’t appeared, and there was still no sign of Candy. He tried not to let himself get gloomy. Days like these were common, when the loneliness kicked in, and the people walking past barely noticed him. It was on days like these he often thought about going home again. There was at least three hundred stashed in the ventilation slots behind the bank now. Enough to get some clean clothes, and a train ticket. Jack shook off the idea, and forced a smile. Candy was bound to be back later. She always showed up eventually.

After all her exertions, Candy was hot and sweaty, and the flat felt stuffy and airless. There was a big air conditioning unit on the wall, but she didn’t have a clue how it worked. Walking over to the long row of folding doors, she found a lever on one side, and jiggled it. The door opened, and she slid it sideways, amazed by how smoothly the huge glass rolled open. On the balcony, the fresh air was welcome, and that high up, there was quite a breeze too. She rested against the railing for a while, watching some boats come and go on the river far below. Glancing to her left, she spotted an enclosed spiral staircase that she couldn’t have seen from inside the flat. At the top of that staircase, she found a huge roof terrace, covered in tastefully-arranged plants in tubs, some wooden loungers with no cushions on them, and of all things, a full-size hot tub, inside a smart wooden building that was open at the front. Wandering around what seemed to be T’s half of the entire roof, she noticed a sign on a small concrete structure near the back. It read ‘Fire Exit’, and had a picture of a man walking downstairs on it. Candy folded her arms across her chest, and chuckled out loud.

Koz had only been asleep for a couple of hours, when he was awakened by a hand slapping his face repeatedly. Without opening his eyes, he grabbed the hand to stop the slapping, and then heard a familiar voice. “Come on Koz, wake up now, things to do my friend. Get up out of that stinking pit, I have a job for you”. When Koz looked up, Pavel was smiling at him. Dressed in his usual track suit, and wearing the latest expensive trainers, the gold chains around his neck swung around as he bent over. The huge spider tattoo on his neck looked darker than usual to Koz. Maybe it was the light in the room. “We have to go get some new girls, Koz my friend, and I need you to help me. Come on now, up, up, up”. No time for a wash, or a coffee, Koz pulled on last night’s clothes, and slipped his feet into laced up trainers. He followed Pavel outside, where his big van was parked. “I’m driving, you ride shotgun”. The Russian grinned, making Koz feel uneasy. Once in the van, Pavel handed him a chunky automatic pistol. “Just in case”, he said, turning the key to start the engine.

Candy was busy again. Back down in the flat, she got the bag back out, and started to fill it with all the things it had contained earlier, dropping the big sharp knife in first. She wasn’t sure about the small stuff, but the laptop, Tablet, talking computer thing, and that gold watch, they should all fetch a decent price, or a good trade with Clinton, at the very least. She found a laptop pocket at the back of the bag, and unzipped that to put the laptop inside. But something else was already in there. Excitement building, she scrabbled around in the pocket, dragging out bag after bag of white powder until the floor was covered in the large sealed plastic bags. There were nineteen of them, and she was betting it was coke, probably good stuff too, knowing T. She put them back into the main part of the bag under the Tablet, slipped the laptop into the pocket, and headed for the balcony and staircase.

When she pressed the big lever to open the fire escape, an alarm started sounding, all through the building. But Candy ignored that, and started to run down the stairs, jumping a few at a time.

Pavel drove his van into the yard of a run-down workshop, not far from Heathrow Airport. The only other vehicle there was a large truck, with a high roof. Two mean-looking guys stood at the back of it, smoking cigarettes. As he switched off the engine, Pavel turned to Koz. “Let them see the gun, but keep behind me, and say nothing, OK?” Walking across to the men, Pavel smiled broadly, speaking to them in Russian. After some debate, which got heated at times, he finally shook hands with the older one. Walking back to the van, he rummaged under the seat and returned with a clear plastic bag containing lots of cash. The older guy tipped it out onto the gravel, and counted it carefully. Satisfied, he nodded to his companion, who opened the shutter on the truck. Pavel helped three girls climb down. They were squinting in the daylight, and all clutching small sports bags. Koz thought they looked pretty rough, with lank hair, and all very skinny too. But Pavel seemed pleased, and showed them to his van, smiling and chatting to them in a friendly manner. When they were settled inside, he beckoned Koz to get back in. As they drove off, Pavel blew out his cheeks. “That went well my friend, better than I expected. I will drop you off back at your place. You can keep the gun. It might be useful.”

Candy was out of breath by the time she hit the ground floor, still running. That was a lot of floors to do, even going downstairs. She went through a door marked ‘Lobby’, and ran straight past the reception desk, through the already open door. The doorman was standing outside talking to some bored-looking residents, and didn’t even notice the girl in a red coat run past. Once clear of the building, she stopped and breathed hard for a while. She didn’t know the area too well, and didn’t want to chance taking the tube, with all that gear. Besides, she had the two fifties in her coat, so could get a cab. A slow walk took her north, up to the main road near Billingsgate Market. The third taxi she flagged down stopped for her, and she jumped in before he could change his mind. No chance she would give him the address of the squat, so she just said “Waterloo Station please, driver”. The cabbie decided not to talk to her on the way, which suited Candy just fine. The traffic was heavy, and by the time he dropped her at the train station, the fare had eaten up most of one of those fifties.

Jack was really worried about her now. He hadn’t seen Candy since she had gone off to buy those coffees he knew she would never buy. Not like her to not show up at some stage. The day had stayed slow, and his mood hadn’t improved much. He was angry at himself for depending on a girl turning up to make his day. She hardly spoke to him except to ask for money, and it was unlikely anything else would ever develop between them. But she did cheer him up, even though he hardly knew why.

Toby checked his messages. Tamsin was in, and Oliver and Nigel were both up for it too. Martin had turned it down, said he had ‘something better’ to do. Never mind, his loss. The day was just getting better and better. He had topped the seven grand marker, and the big boss had cracked open a magnum of Bollinger, to the cheers of the rest of Toby’s team. Now he had three takers for a fun night at his place, and enough blow stashed in his weekend bag to get everyone buzzing. He smiled, thinking about the girl stuck in his flat. No chance of her getting through two Banham locks, and it wouldn’t do much good screaming for help either. He would give her another hundred later, calm her down. She was probably enjoying herself anyway, that’s if she was even awake yet.

Candy made the short walk to the squat in under ten minutes. Something was wrong. Men were outside, and one of them was fitting metal sheets over the windows, using one of those cordless screwdrivers. A tall guy dressed all in black was sticking a big typed notice on the front door, and two huge shiny locks had been fixed to it. No sign of Tash, or any of the others, so Candy just kept walking. It was obvious what had happened. The owners had finally got the bailiffs in, waiting until everyone had gone out, and they had secured the house so that there was no way back inside. She thought of Tash, who was probably out scoring some rocks somewhere. All her stuff was in there, and she was going to get a shock when she got back. Candy thought for a moment, then headed back to the station. She would get the tube to Mile End, check out her old stamping ground for a while. No way was she spending most of that other fifty on a cab that far. Once on the train, she clutched the bag tight to her chest, in case some chancer snatched it. By the time she passed through Chancery Lane Station, it had suddenly occurred to her that she hadn’t smoked any crack since that last time at Tash’s. And she didn’t feel too bad. Not bad at all in fact.

Koz was feeling the lack of sleep, but pleased to have had an easy time with Pavel, and very happy about the gun. He knew about guns, and this was a SIG-Sauer .45, worth at least a grand on the street, and easy enough to get more ammo too, not that he expected to need it. Waving this around should be enough to get most people to hand over their money, or anything worth selling. He wandered upstairs to get a few hours in bed, before a busy night ahead.

The bloke in the shop didn’t even ask Candy for proof she was eighteen when she bought the vodka. She knew he would serve her, as she had been in there often enough when she had lived just around the corner. Leaving the shop, she turned left instead of right though. She would go and see her Uncle Brian, Mum’s older brother. He was an alcoholic, and a litre of vodka would settle any arguments about telling Mum he had seen her. He had lived alone since his girlfriend had walked out last year, and almost never went out if he could help it. Candy arrived outside his ground floor flat five minutes later, shaking her head at the filthy net curtain hanging askew at the kitchen window, and the signs of various attempts to break in around the lock, from when he had shut himself out. She couldn’t tell if the bell was working when she pressed it, so she banged her fist on the door, and shouted. “Uncle Brian. It’s me, Candy. Uncle Brian!” The door opened a little, and his unshaven face appeared in the gap.

Uncle Brian’s eyes lit up when he saw the vodka in Candy’s hand, and before she got to the filthy armchair to sit down, he had it cracked open in the kitchen. He tipped some old tea slops out of a mug, and splashed the booze into it, not even bothering to rinse it out. Candy pulled off her Converse, then dragged down the torn stockings and threw them over her shoulder, behind the chair. With any luck, Brian would soon be asleep. Then she could have a bath, and relax for a while.

Jack was going to pack it in early. Unable to shake his bad mood, still worried about Candy, he thought he would go and sit on a bench by the Thames for a while. Watching the dark river flow past usually settled his mind, and he knew he had some serious thinking to do.

Gay Terry had spent most of the day at the Oasis pool and leisure centre, in Endell Street. Not that he used the pool, or the gym. He hung around in the changing rooms and showers, earning a good few quid giving ‘quickies’ to regular clients. They had to be careful of the staff of course, but they knew the ropes, and for many of the punters, it was over quickly enough. As it started to get dark out, Terry checked all the cash he had accumulated that day, and secreted it in his underwear. He would go to Shepherd Market later, and see if Gregor was in the car park again. Show him the bruised lip, and shed a few crocodile tears. If he looked upset enough, he was sure old Greg would give him a hundred, if only out of guilt.

Koz roused Niki early. Still tingling over having the gun, he thought he would get into town before his usual time, maybe surprise a few of his usual targets before they could hide their cash and stuff. No need for the other three to come along. Now he had the shooter, he wouldn’t need all that back-up, and he could phase them out, tell them to find somewhere else to live. He pulled a bundle of notes from inside one of the trainers lined up against the wall. Him and Niki would get a taxi into the centre, arrive in style for a change.

It made a nice change for Toby to leave work early. It had been a memorable day indeed, finishing on a bonus of well over eight grand, his best figures ever. Not bad for a ten hour day, and lots to look forward to tonight, with that little slag ready in his flat. He hailed a cab, flopping down heavily in the back seat. Usual rush-hour traffic meant a long slog home. He fended off the anticipated inane chatter loved by cabbies, pretending to be dozing with his eyes closed. He had come a long way from his start in a small Essex town, that was undeniable. Mum and dad both worked hard, and he was an only child, so got the full benefit. There had been a sister, but he never knew her. She had died from meningitis, before he was born. Maybe because of that they doted on him, and made sure he got the best. The private prep school, followed by one of the better grammar schools in the county. He did well, and excelled at sport as well as academic work. Trouble was, most of the others came from real money, had posh families, and didn’t include Toby in anything. Always the outsider, he threw everything into his studies, and Mum and Dad were thrilled when he got no less than five top A-level passes.

Dad’s mate Graham from the golf club suggested financial trading. Toby didn’t need to go to university, he said. He would make an introduction into a good bank, get Toby started early. His aptitude for figures would stand him in good stead. Graham had been right. Toby grasped it all very quickly, buying and selling Yen, specialising in other Asian countries too, getting the feel for it from day one. The money had rolled in, and in amounts beyond Toby’s wildest dreams. By the time he was twenty-five, he was buying the penthouse in Canary Wharf, and also a weekend place on the Suffolk coast, which he hardly ever used. He paid off his parents’ mortgage, and bought Dad a new Jaguar car too. But there were still no friends, not real ones, anyway. One thing about his job, he might be working with more posh boys, the same family money silver-spoon kids, but cash was king, and if you had it, nobody cared where you had grown up. They included you in all the piss-ups, sex parties, and lavish restaurant meals. Nights out in clubs or casinos, meeting girls with names like Ophelia, and Arabella. But they never invited you to any family stuff, like garden parties or weddings. The line was drawn, somewhere in their minds. The cab pulled up outside his smart address. Toby handed some notes through the gap in the window, and walked inside.

Candy had to wear the same clothes after her bath, but she knew Brian had a key to Mum’s place here somewhere. He was snoring loudly on the sofa, the vodka three-quarters gone. She found two keys in a dish in the kitchen, and tried them in the door. One worked, but the other silvery one wouldn’t go in the lock, so she guessed it was for Mum’s door, though it wasn’t familiar to her. She put both the keys in the pocket of the red coat, and sat back in the chair to think, hardly able to do so over the spluttering roar of her uncle’s snores. In that area, Candy only knew one dealer who would buy that much coke at a fair price, Maurice. Not that she had ever met him, but she knew his face, and where she might find him hanging out. The problem was how to approach him, and not get ripped off in the process. She decided to get some sleep for a couple of hours, then go and look up Tyrone later. He knew Maurice, and would tell her how to play it.

Nigel and Oliver probably wouldn’t be there until later, but Toby wasn’t too surprised to find Tamsin waiting in the lobby already. He had sent her a text that he was leaving early, and she had replied instantly. “See you there, Tobester”. She took his arm as they walked to the lift, and as they watched the floor numbers on the counter showing its descent, she murmured in his ear. “Good call, Toby love. I am really looking forward to this”.

Toby turned his key in both locks, turning to grin at Tamsin as he did so. Opening the door slowly, he called out “Coo-ee, it’s only me”. Tamsin giggled. It was the plastic DVD cases and shiny discs he noticed first. Strewn all around, the paper inserts ripped up too, littering the main area between the sofas. Then he spotted that his expensive TV had a massive ‘X’ scratched across the screen, from corner to corner. He felt as if he couldn’t move, and clamped his teeth together, literally growling like a dog. “That bitch! You wait…” Tamsin pointed at the open doors leading onto the balcony. Elongating the word affectedly, she said “Daaarling, looks like you have had unexpected visitors. I hope the little girly is alright. Perhaps you should call the Police?”

He ignored her, and ran through the corridor into the bedroom. All the way back on the other side of the living room, Tamsin heard him scream. “OH NO! MY CLOTHES. MY CLOTHES!” When he staggered back into the kitchen, Tamsin dangled the chopped off cord of the huge fridge for Toby to see. “Looks like your electricals might have had some attention too, Daaarling.” She tried not to laugh, but couldn’t stop herself, finally emitting a cackle that reminded Toby of a witch on some film he had seen. He slumped onto the Chinese rug, surrounded by his ruined film collection, then started to pound his fists against the floor. He didn’t even notice Tamsin leaving the flat, or hear her on the phone to Oliver. “Oly daaarling, it’s Tams. Looks like tonight’s off, you better tell Nigel. The bird has flown”.

As he headed back to his spot to see if Candy was around, Jack spotted Gay Terry dart across the road onto Trafalgar Square. Not far behind him, he also noticed Koz and one of his mates, trying to look inconspicuous, mingling with the crowd as they kept Terry in sight, but made no attempt to catch up with him. Jack had a bad feeling about it, but stood looking for a while, to confirm his thoughts. They were definitely following the boy, he was sure of that. He waited for the green man to appear on the crossing signal, and walked across. They were heading to The Haymarket, if they carried on in that direction. He fell in behind Koz and the other guy, keeping at an angle, in case they looked back. Dodging the tourists around the square, Jack was having trouble keeping them in sight, but he caught up again as they crossed over into Charles II Street. Terry was moving fast, and Jack was already out of breath. He laughed at his own poor condition, a man who once did all-day route marches.

It was quite a walk all the way to Shepherd Market, but Terry knew all the side streets and short cuts. He wanted to get into the car park before Gregor gave up waiting, and drove home. He had no idea he was being followed, and hadn’t even looked behind him once since he started walking. Koz and Niki had kept up well, and as they watched Terry disappear into the pedestrian entrance, Koz stretched out an arm, halting his friend. “Let’s give him some time, he might earn us some more if we wait”. Niki, grinned, and both men lit cigarettes, shuffling their feet as they waited by the door. Jack pulled up short as he turned the corner, worried he might walk straight into Koz. He saw them not far off, standing outside the car park, looking shifty.

Candy hadn’t seen Tyrone for a while, and he didn’t recognise her at first, with the punky hair. “Hey girl, wassappening?” He grinned, then added “New look?” She kept it businesslike. “Ty, I have got some good coke to sell. The best stuff. I need you to front me up for a meet with Maurice. Can you do that?” The tall man nodded. “That’s a t’ing I can do girl. Wassforme though?” She opened the bag, showing him the i-pad, Apple laptop, and other bits. “You get this, just for arranging the meet. But you stay with me though, back me up. I don’t know Maurice, and I don’t want to get ripped off”. He eyed the goods, and sucked in his bottom lip. “I do that t’ing for you, girl. You know Tyrone. Come wid me now”. Candy felt pretty scared. These men were not the sort you messed with, but she had no alternative. So she put on her couldn’t care less face and followed the tall man as he headed off.

Toby had opened the bottle of rare cognac that had cost him almost twelve hundred at a charity auction last year. Not bothering with a glass, he was drinking it from the neck of the bottle, and was already halfway through. Inside, his rage was building, not helped by the fact that this overpriced French stuff tasted the same to him as a twenty quid bottle of Greek brandy he could get in any supermarket. He wouldn’t rest until he found the little slag, he promised himself. If she hung around near The Strand, he would spot her easy, with that hair. Then she would get the beating of her life. He could just imagine Tamsin telling everyone about how the bitch had stitched him up, all of them laughing and mocking him. He hadn’t mentioned the coke that had cost him the best part of ten grand. That would just give them more piss-taking ammunition. He took another swig on the cognac, and started to feel sick.

By the time Koz had decided he had waited long enough, and walked into the car park, Candy and Tyrone arrived at the quiet-looking council house that Maurice used as his headquarters. When Ty rang the bell, a face blocked out the viewer for a second, and the sound of heavy bolts sliding across gave some idea of the security inside the innocuous dwelling. Candy swallowed hard as the door swung open, and a huge fat black guy loomed large in the opening. “Ty my man, what you got here, your daughter?” The big man laughed at his own joke, and stepped aside so they could go in. Maurice was sitting on a leather sofa in the small living room. He looked older than she remembered, the afro-style hair turning grey at the sides. He looked up at Tyrone without speaking, then nodded in Candy’s direction. “She got summing to sell, Mr Maurice, summing good. White stuff, y’know, the best”. When Maurice spoke, Candy was surprised at his friendly tone, and posh accent. “Do you have a small gift for Maurice, young Lady? Something to show good faith perhaps”. She was tempted to offer the talking computer thing, but knew better than to show disrespect. Candy reached into the bag, and removed one packet of the powder. “This is for you, Mr Maurice, and I have more to sell, for the right price”. She slipped her hand back into the bag, and closed it around the handle of the knife she had taken from T’s flat.

But she had no idea what she would do with it.

Maurice opened the bag, and dipped his finger into the powder. Tasting it on the tip of his tongue, he nodded. He had been around this life for long enough to know the very best gear when he saw it, and this could be broken down into hundreds of small twenty-pound bags, earning big money. “How much of this do you have, young lady?” His voice was sonorous, hypnotic, and reminded Candy of the snake in the Jungle Book cartoon. “Nineteen, no eighteen bags now, less the one I gave you.” The man nodded, just a slight smile appearing on his lips. “And it is all here, in your bag?” Candy cursed herself for bringing it all along, but no way was she going to chance leaving it at Uncle Brian’s. She sat up straight, and patted the bag. “All here, Mr Maurice. Ty told me you were someone I could trust”. He blinked slowly, the lids seeming to roll across his bulging eyes. “I couldn’t go more than two-forty a bag, young lady. Shall we say four thousand three hundred for cash?” Candy held her nerve. She would have happily taken fifteen hundred for the lot, and had no idea he would offer that much. Best not to seem too keen. “I was hoping for six grand, Mr Maurice. This is the best stuff you will have seen for a while”.

Koz and Niki found Gay Terry on the second floor. He was walking back down, after drawing a blank. No sign of Gregor, or any of the others for that matter. Terry didn’t even try to run, as he could see Koz holding a mean-looking gun in his left hand. Stuffed in his tight briefs, Terry had almost four-hundred quid, the proceeds of last night’s jobs, and his morning at the Oasis. “I ain’t got much, Koz. My punter was a no-show. Here, take this, it’s all I’ve got”. He slipped off one of his trainers, and reached down for the twenty quid he left in there for just such an occasion. Koz was only with one other guy, so he might leave it at that for now. But Koz wrapped a strong arm around his neck, and placed the barrel of the pistol under Terry’s chin. “I don’t think so, Terry. This time I want it all”. He slipped off the safety, making sure Terry saw him do it. “Niki, why not see where our little friend has hidden his cash?” Niki walked up the stairs, shaking his head, and grinning at the terrified boy.

Toby stood up, realising he needed to vomit. But he didn’t get far before a fountain of spew flew out of his mouth, splashing all over one of his four-grand sofas. He staggered back to avoid the mess, and trod on the discarded cognac bottle. That caused him to fall backwards, striking the corner of the huge TV with the back of his head, before continuing down to where his neck made contact with the black metal of the designer unit it was standing on. He tried to get up, but everything suddenly went black.

The noise of the gun firing sounded like an explosion in the concrete stairwell. The left hand side of Terry’s face was all over the wall, and Koz was spluttering with the blood in his mouth, and covering his head. Pavel hadn’t mentioned the light trigger, and Koz hadn’t meant to shoot him. His mind was all over the place, and the gunshot had deafened him too. He had a random thought. Like they said in the films, ‘it had just gone off’. Niki fell backwards down the six stairs, surprised by the sound. He got to his feet, and started to run like the wind in the direction of the exit.

Outside, the sound made Jack jump. He knew instinctively that it was a gun, and Koz was his only suspect as the shooter. Shepherd Market was busy at that time. Lots of restaurants, bars, and cafes. People sitting at outside tables, or walking through the pedestrianised section. And modern life dictated that dozens of them were soon on their phones, calling the Police, or preparing to video what was happening. Many started to scream and run around in panic, suspecting some sort of terrorist attack. Jack wasn’t about to hang around either, so tagged onto a group running north, in the direction of Curzon Street. He was overtaken by the familiar figure of Koz’s sidekick, running fast enough to win an Olympic Gold.

Maurice chuckled softly, changing his opinion of the girl as he played for time. “Well, I might go to five of course, as you bargain so well. Or I could just take the stuff, give you nothing, and throw you out on the street. That might be one option for me, don’t you agree?” Candy had guessed that something like this might happen, and had already prepared her speech. Nodding at Ty, she held Maurice’s gaze, and replied in a reasonable and respectful tone. “He told me you were a man to respect, Mr Maurice. Said you would treat me fairly, pay me for the stuff with a good price. He reckons your word can be counted on, round here. But you could do as you say, and just take it all. I don’t think that would be the best option for you though. For one thing, you wouldn’t be able to get anymore, and I know people with unlimited supplies of stuff that good. And do you honestly think that I am working alone? The people who sent me out selling this stuff wouldn’t take too kindly to me being stiffed, and coming back with no money, and no gear too”. So, maybe best to think about those options”. Maurice sat back, and clapped his hands together gently, as if applauding. “You should take up Poker, young lady. You have a flair for such things. He turned to the big fat guy, speaking very quietly. “Edward, bring me five thousand.”

Koz hadn’t moved. The mess that used to be Gay Terry had slipped though his arm and down the wall. Leaving a huge stain as it went, his tiny body was now crumpled on the landing, folded over almost in half. Koz used his free hand to wipe the blood and goo from his face and neck. He still couldn’t hear anything, and stood up in a daze, staring at the gun in his left hand. In no apparent hurry, he started down the stairs to the exit. The street outside was empty and silent as he opened the door. He looked from side to side, wondering where Niki was, and where all the people had gone to. Shaking his head violently to try to return his hearing, he didn’t hear the warning. “ARMED POLICE. PUT DOWN THE GUN AND GET ON YOUR KNEES”. He turned to his right, flicking his left hand to get the thick blood off of it. A man was directly ahead of him, dressed like a soldier. His mouth was open wide, and moving, but Koz never heard the repeated command.

Police Sergeant Clive Taylor had shot two men before in his career. He kept his cool, followed procedure, and issued both warnings as loud as he could shout. When the big man didn’t drop the automatic, Clive fired two aimed shots from his assault rifle, both striking the man in the centre of his chest. Koz was dead before his body hit the street.

Candy couldn’t believe her luck. Maurice handed over the cash, and smiled. “I look forward to seeing you again, young lady, very soon. You have courage, and that is rare, in my world. Now go, and tell your friends that Maurice is interested in as much as he can get”. She had released her grip on the knife, and handed over the eighteen bags of coke as soon as Edward appeared with the money. Outside, she still had to deal with Tyrone. She correctly guessed that he might have decided to rip her off for the cash, but her speech inside had worried him, and he wondered who she might be working for. He took the computer stuff, and the tie pins and cuff-links, as well as the talking-computer thing. He didn’t have a bag, so stuffed it all in his pockets, carrying the bigger items wrapped in his unzipped jacket. Candy headed for Uncle Brian’s flat, hoping that he was still out of it. She felt a bit shaky on the way, and had to stop at the corner for a while. She hadn’t had any crack for ages, and despite the shivers, was wondering if she could get through this, and get off it.

Jack felt sick. He guessed Terry was hurt bad, or dead, and hoped that the fast-arriving Police units had captured Koz too. He decided to sleep in a park that night, well away from his usual haunts. Tomorrow, he would change his life for good. Time to try again.

Toby woke up, to find it was dark. He had a pain in his back between his shoulder blades, but only there. Below that, he couldn’t feel a thing. The smell told him that he had most likely shit himself, but there was no sensation inside his trousers. He couldn’t move his arms or legs, and looked at them helplessly, as his brain told him they might be moving, but they were definitely not. The metal unit was cutting into him, and he felt very thirsty. It suddenly occurred to him that the cleaning lady would not be arriving until lunchtime tomorrow, and then he passed out again.

Uncle Brian was still out of it, so Candy threw a couple of twenties on the sofa, and left with one of the keys. She took the short walk to her Mum’s flat, and looked up at the window. Despite the late hour, all the lights were blazing, so she walked up the four flights, and used the key to get in. Her Mum was sprawled on the sofa, two of the smaller children fast asleep next to her. She was watching ‘Big Brother’, and hadn’t bothered to turn down the volume. Even though she hadn’t seen her daughter for many months, there was little surprise on her face as she spoke. “Kerry. What are you doing here? And what have you done to your hair?” Luckily, Mum’s boyfriend was nowhere to be seen. Candy handed over a hundred in cash. “I just need to get some of my stuff, and stay over tonight, Mum. Then you’ll never see me again”. The shabby-looking woman waved a hand at her daughter, and returned to her TV show. “Do what you want. I couldn’t care less”. The last words Candy would ever hear from her.

Jack settled down in the private gardens that looked like a small park. Nobody was likely to enter them this late, and even without his sleeping bag, he could manage. He had climbed the railing, and settled down under the hedges at the back. Little chance of discovery in such a smart area, as long as he roused himself at first light. He was hungry and thirsty, but would just have to put up with it.

Candy’s little half-brother was sleeping in her old bed. He must have been around six years old now, and he was totally flat out. She stripped off her dirty clothes, then put the light on, to see what was left of her old stuff. She went through the bits in the wardrobe and chest of drawers, laughing to herself at how old fashioned it seemed already. But it was respectable, she couldn’t deny that. She changed into some leggings and a sweatshirt, putting everything else carefully into the bag, on top of the money. Grabbing an old stuffed toy from a shelf above the bed as a pillow, she settled down on the floor, trying to sleep. Tomorrow would be a new start, she told herself. She would stay off the crack, get herself straight, and try to begin again somewhere new. Sleep wasn’t easy to come by, but she eventually drifted off.

When Jack woke up, his first stop was the back of the bank, just behind The Strand. He had no idea that Toby worked there of course. He didn’t even know who Toby was. He felt inside the slots leading to the vanes of the air-conditioning. It was early enough for nobody to take much notice, and he soon felt the strings attached to the plastic bags of money. Sliding them carefully through his fingers, he retrieved the four bags one by one, and put them inside his coat. A short walk to outside the Quaker House just off St Martin’s Lane gave him the chance to count the money in private. He was happy enough. Four eighty five, and whatever change he had in his pockets. That would do. Maybe Bristol didn’t offer that much anymore, but at least he knew the city. And he had enough for a cheap hotel, something to get started with. His stuff in the bin bags could stay there. Whatever happened, he had no intention of ever coming back.

Candy left her Mum’s before eight. She was wearing some jeans and a pink top under the red coat, the comfy Converse on her feet, with no socks. Everything worth taking, including the leggings and that old top from last night, was in the bag. The old clothes felt loose now, making her aware just how much weight she had lost in such a short time. She would get a bus into town, and go to any station. Choose a destination, and start a new life there. She didn’t feel that clean, and could have done with brushing her teeth too. But that could wait. She had almost five grand, and the world was there for the taking. She ignored the increased tingling that was telling her body she needed crack. If necessary, she would shack up in a cheap hotel, and ride that out. On the bus crowded with rush-hour travellers, she thought about the various main line stations, and the destinations on offer. Perhaps East, or maybe North. She didn’t know much outside her small world, so it really didn’t matter. North was colder though, so maybe not there.

Jack was outside the barber shop in Soho before it opened. He walked in under the barely-raised shutter, and showed the Greek bloke some money. “I need a shampoo, full haircut, and shave. How Much?”
Stelios looked the guy over. “With that much hair, and how dirty it is, quite a lot. And that beard is more like gardening, than barbering. Let’s say twenty-five, or you can go somewhere else.” Jack counted out the notes and placed them on the sink in front of the chair. “OK, do it all”.

Carmela was surprised to find the door was unlocked. It had never been unlocked before. She had been cleaning for Mr Toby for over two years now, and always had to use the two keys he had given her. She only met him that once, and the agency paid her for twice a week. Carmela didn’t think he needed a cleaner at all. There was never any mess, and it took her no time at all. But still, it was easy money, so she always made sure to turn up. She opened the door just a little, and the smell hit her first. Screwing up her nose, she called out. “Meester Tobee, ees Carmela here, come to clean”. When there was no answer, she walked in, turning her face away from the odours that assaulted her nose. She saw him lying under the TV unit, with a bubbling sound coming from his mouth. Going no further, she took the phone from her bag, and dialled 999.

By the time Carmela was calling an ambulance, Candy had been walking around for a couple of hours. She had got off the bus long before any of the main stations, as for some reason she had decided to say goodbye to Jack. But he wasn’t begging in his usual spot, so she checked Mario’s cafe, but he hadn’t seen him either. She tried the KFC and MacDonald’s too, but Jack was nowhere to be found. After wandering aimlessly for a while, she made the trip up to Ironmonger Row. He had told her he sometimes used the facilities in the swimming pool there. She asked the attendant to check the showers and male toilets, pretending Jack was her brother, and their Mum was ill. But he was adamant that nobody of that description was in either.

Candy experienced a strange and unusual feeling. She was worried about Jack, and cared what happened to him.

The paramedics checked Toby over. He was unresponsive, and seemed to be paralyzed from the neck down, as far as their routine checks could establish. The lady one turned to Carmela. “It doesn’t look good love, he seems to us to be very ill, perhaps paralyzed. We are taking him into hospital, do you want to come?” Carmela clutched her bag to her chest, and chewed her lip. “I don’ reeley know heem. I just work here. I have to go to other jobs”. The woman looked up at her, smiling. “OK love, I understand. Can you tell us any details about him?” “His name Mr Toby, that’s all I know”. They started to put him on the stretcher, and before they left, took down Carmela’s details as a witness. The woman was kind. “OK Carmela, you go to work now, I will ask the doorman for more information”. Carmela nodded, pleased to get out of there, but wondering if she would lose her two easy afternoons now.

Jack hardly recognised the face looking back at him from the mirror above the sink. The barber’s work had taken ten years off his appearance, and made him feel clean and fresh. He thanked Stelios, and headed out from the shop. A short walk up to Oxford Street was in order, where he could get cheap clothes in Primark. Despite his overall shabbiness, nobody looked away as he walked along the famous shopping street. He was clean shaven, short-haired, and smelling alright for a change. In the shop, he bought a black jacket and trousers, more or less a suit. Two white shirts, some clean socks and underwear, and a pair of cheap black shoes. It all came to less than a hundred quid. He added a courier bag to look the part, and put the spare stuff inside. Once he had paid, he slipped back into the changing rooms, and dressed in his new stuff. Leaving the filthy clothes on the floor of the cubicle, he wandered back out onto the busy thoroughfare.

Candy had asked most of the people who knew Jack if they had seen him. But nobody had. She had got the news about Koz killing Gay Terry, and then being shot by the Police. It didn’t surprise her at all, given how everyone lived. Her craving for the crack was still there, but she had drunk three coca-colas, and smoked at least ten cigarettes. She decided she could cope. At least for a while. Refusing to give up on Jack, she carried on doing the circuit of his known hangouts. Despite being worried about carrying all that money around in the bag, she couldn’t shake the unfamiliar urge to say goodbye to the one guy who had always been kind to her. But if he didn’t turn up soon, she would have to get to a main line station, and decide where to head off to that evening. An hour later, and she gave up, heading for the bus stop that would take her to Paddington Station. Lots of options from there.

Tash was looking everywhere for Candy. She hoped that she might have a couple of rocks to give her. Since the bailiffs had secured the house, she didn’t have any of her things, and the others had all scattered, leaving her desperate, and alone. Her skin was itchy, and her brain was all over the place. She had tried one of the usual spots to earn. Some guy in a car said yes to a blow job for twenty, but after she did him, he punched her in the face, and pushed her out onto the street. She should have got the money first, but she had been desperate. In filthy clothes, wearing only flip-flops her on her feet, she was cold and tired, and hadn’t eaten for two days. She could hardly remember her last rock, and she clawed at her arms, throwing the soft shoulder bag around her back. Candy must be in one of the old haunts. She was counting on her to deliver.

Maybe it was sentimental, or just nostalgia, but Jack took a last walk around his spot, and the familiar places. After the clothes shop, he had wandered around for a while, before going into a reasonable restaurant in James Street, amazed to be called ‘Sir’, and shown to a table. The thirty-something waitress had smiled knowingly at him, and it took Jack a full ten minutes to realise that she actually fancied him. He had ordered a starter, main course, and a dessert too, all washed down with three beers. The waitress kept asking him if everything was alright, and he knew that she was up for it. But she wasn’t a patch on Candy. When he paid, he left her a good tip, and she all but followed him out the door.

Walking around the Piazza in Covent Garden for a while, Tash could see it was already packed with tourists, and the street entertainers were setting up, preparing to play to the crowd forming around the main square. She found a spot under the canopy of St Paul’s Church, and leaned against one of the huge columns, nibbling the fingernails on her left hand. Once everyone was sitting down in front, looking at the jugglers or whatever, she would get her chance. At the same time, and unknown to her of course, Candy was entering an outdoor clothing shop, only a couple of hundred yards away.

The new shoes were hurting his feet more than he had expected, but Jack didn’t let it bother him. The day was bright and clear, if a little chilly, and he was full from the best meal he had eaten in years. The beers had gone to his head after so long, and he had a sense of euphoria that he hadn’t experienced in a long time. The old spot was empty, but no doubt someone would find it soon, and take over from him. He only glanced at it as he walked by, not wanting to have any more thoughts about that old life today. Turning left into Chandos Place, he continued past the restaurants in Maiden Lane, then turned left again into Southampton Street, heading for one last look around The Piazza in the vain hope of bumping into Candy. He would love to see her before he left the city, and know that she was alright.

Tash sauntered over from the church, and sat behind a big group of tourists who had settled down to watch the free show. They looked like they might be Spanish or something, and almost all of them had rucksacks. One of the girls turned to look at her, wrinkling her nose at the sight of her filthy feet in the flip-flops, and the smell coming from her unwashed clothes and body. She said something in her own language, then her and her mate got up and moved. Tash slid forward, closer to an older couple. The bloke took off his rucksack to drink from a water bottle he removed from the inside, then just left it on the street next to him. As the show started, with lots of entertainers tumbling and shouting, and a girl in a leotard and fishnets doing some fire-breathing, she stood up slowly and walked off casually with the man’s rucksack held in front of her, heading for the public toilets on the corner.

Candy chose a good coat. Not a fashionable one, but one of those you see people wearing when they do news reports in bad weather. It had lots of pockets, and a big hood. She knew enough by now to realise that you had to have a good coat when you were travelling, and Tash’s old red anorak wasn’t going to last much longer. Candy asked the boy serving to take off the labels, and gave him the old coat to throw away too. She handed over the one four nine it cost, and waved away the bag he started to put the coat into. “Leave it mate, I’ll wear it, alright?” He smiled at the girl and nodded. She was pretty, and he watched her all the way to the door as she left.

In the toilet cubicle, Tash rummaged through the bag, unzipping the sections and pockets all over it. There was a foreign passport with Nederlanden on it, always worth a few quid, and a fancy camera with a strap that had ‘Nikon’ printed on it. She hung that round her neck, and dug down into the smaller pockets. An Oyster Card for tube and bus travel, that would be useful, but there was no cash anywhere in there. She found a packet of sultana cookies, and ate them sitting on the toilet seat, washed down with some sort of energy drink in a can. She didn’t recognise the brand, but it tasted sweet and cool. Stuffing the passport and Oyster Card into her jeans pocket, she left the bag on the floor of the toilet, and walked out with the camera bouncing against her chest. Avoiding the Piazza, she turned right into Southampton Street instead.

Jack spotted the hair. Dyed bright blonde, spiky and distinctive. It had to be her. He didn’t recognise the heavy navy coat, but his heart leapt, and he was sure it was Candy, just a few steps ahead of him. He walked faster, and reached out an arm to touch her, a huge smile forming on his face. As the hand grasped her shoulder, Candy turned, instantly aggressive. “Wotcher fink yer doing mate?” Her accent was deliberately harsh, and her voice loud, as she knocked the hand away. Some smart bloke was grinning at her with a stupid look on his face. She didn’t know him, but he wasn’t bad looking either, clean cut, lean, and suited-up. “Candy, it’s me, Jack. Don’t you know me?” She recognised the voice immediately. “Christ, Jack. You scrubbed up well. What did you do, win the lottery?” As her face softened, Jack gazed at her adoringly. “Got stuff to tell you. How about we go for a coffee?” Candy nodded, and looped her free hand inside his arm as they walked off.

Jack hadn’t been the only person to spot Candy in Southampton Street. Tash was just about to shout a greeting to her friend, when some bloke started talking to her. She stayed where she was, watching the brief exchange. Maybe he was a punter, and Candy was going to clip him, take him for a good few quid. She let them walk away ahead of her, and followed at a distance, keeping close to the shop doorways. After a few minutes, they sat down at a table outside a coffee bar, and a waiter walked straight over to take their order. Tash stood some way off, pretending to be interested in the window display of a shop. The bloke had a messenger bag, the sort you see office types walking around with. But Candy had a big holdall, and it looked to be the expensive kind. She kept it on her lap too. When the waiter came back with the drinks, Candy looped her arm through the handles.

Tash watched them in the reflection of the shop window, wondering what was in that bag.

Candy smiled at Jack as she lifted the cappuccino. “I’ve been looking for you all day, you bugger. Just as well you spotted me, cos I would never have recognised you. I thought you were quite old, but you’re not at all. What’s with the clothes and smartening up then?” Jack put his cup down. Her accent had changed again. Pure London, and very natural too. He had been right. All those other ones were just for show. “I decided to go home, Candy. Back to Bristol, give it another try. I’ve got enough to tide me over for a week or so, and might be able to get a job, live straight again. Can’t do another winter round here, can’t face it. Oh, and I am old, compared to you anyway. Thirty-two. Old enough. What were you looking for me for?”

She wiped the foam from her mouth with a paper napkin. “You don’t look thirty-two. Not anymore anyway. I was looking for you for the same reason. I decided to get off the gear and move away too. I can’t stay around all the old faces, or they will just drag me down”. I haven’t made my mind up what direction to head in yet, but wherever it is, it has to be a long way from here.” Jack watched her talk. She was calm, seemed older, and self-assured. Looked like she had made her mind up too, and wasn’t just spinning him a line. He was waiting for her to ask if he could give her some cash, but she didn’t say anything about money. He tried some more questions. “Where have you been anyway? I haven’t seen you since you went for those two coffees. And where did you get the money for that coat? Do you have enough train fare? How are you going to get by, wherever you end up? Candy drained the last of her coffee, and wiped her mouth again. “What’s with all the questions? I didn’t ask you where you got the money to clean yourself up, did I?” Jack blushed, and she reached over to touch his hand. “It’s alright, Jack. I went to see my family, and my Uncle Brian gave me some cash. Just about enough to get away, and buy this new coat. He’s solid, my uncle. The lie tripped easily off her tongue, and she watched as Jack relaxed.

“Another coffee, or a cake or something?” Jack offered. Candy shook her head, holding onto the bag on her lap. “Nah, better get going, if I am gonna be somewhere before dark. What station you going to, Jack? Or are you getting a coach?” Jack moved his empty cup in a circle around the saucer, as an idea formed in his mind. When he looked up, she was still smiling, and her eyes were sparkling in the late afternoon light. I’m getting the bus to Paddington, then take the five o’clock train to Bristol. Be there in under two hours, and it’s not dark ’til after eight”. He took a deep breath before continuing.
“Why don’t you come with me? I’ve got enough for your ticket. Better than heading off on your own”.

Tash was fed up waiting around. They had finished their coffees, and were still chatting away. Acting like friends, or relatives. Who was that guy? Why wasn’t Candy making her move on him? Maybe he had offered her an all-nighter, sweet talked her into stopping over at his place. Her legs ached, and she moved from one foot to the other, trying to decide whether or not to just go over and confront her friend. The woman inside the shop had walked by the window twice now, and was giving her funny looks. But she was worried about the bloke with Candy. He looked too clean cut, the sort who might make a fuss, or kick off if he didn’t like someone else pitching up. Instead, Tash moved back one shop, wondering who wasted their money on all the fancy teas and teapots displayed in the window.

Jack was amazed when Candy didn’t hesitate. “Yeah why not, you can look after me down in Bristol, I reckon. We might make a good team”. He wanted to jump up and hug her, but knew better than to go over the top. “Great, let’s go down to Trafalgar Square and get a number twenty-three then. I will get us Oyster Cards from the shop on the way. Shall I carry that bag for you, it looks heavy?” Candy shook her head. “It’s OK, it’s not heavy at all. Just some old clothes I picked up from home. I can manage”. As they headed off, Jack couldn’t get the smile to leave his face. Candy turned and grinned back. “What?”
He shook his head. “It’s nothing, I’m just happy. Makes a nice change”.

Tash turned, and jumped in surprise. They had gone, and she had been looking at bloody teapots. She ran over the road between a gap in the moving taxis, and craned her neck along the side of the street the coffee bar was on. They were up ahead, she spotted Candy’s hair. Hanging back a bit, she kept the spiky hair in sight. Two streets later, they both went into a newspaper shop around the corner from Trafalgar Square, and she waited across the road until they came out. They carried on walking, until they suddenly stopped at a crowded bus stop. Tash had no option but to wait until they got on a bus, and jump on at the last minute. She might get a chance to talk to her on the way, pretend to the bloke that she just had bumped into an old mate by chance. Maybe even grab that bag, and jump off before they could stop her. Fishing the stolen Oyster Card from her jeans pocket, she held it in her hand, and waited on the corner.

They didn’t have to wait too long. Jack had put just enough credit on the cards for the one-way trip. They were not going to need them after that. Candy jumped on first, beeped her card against the module, and walked upstairs. Jack followed, and saw that she had found a free seat where they could sit together. She shuffled across to the window, put the bag on her lap, and looked out. Tash waited until everyone else had boarded the bus, and ran in before the doors closed. She pressed the Oyster Card against the module, but it made a double beep. The driver turned to face her. “Sorry love, no credit left on the card. You will have to charge it up with some more money”. She couldn’t believe her luck. The Dutch bastard had used all the credit up. Thinking fast, she showed him the camera dangling around her neck. “Take this mate. Look the other way. I really need to get this bus”. He shook his head, eyeing up the smelly, dirty girl. “No can do. For all I know, you might have nicked it”. He pointed up at the CCTV camera. “Better get off, love, don’t make me radio for the cops”.

As the bus pulled away, Candy placed her hand over Jack’s, and put her head on his shoulder. Bristol might not be so bad. And she would let him buy the ticket.

No need to let on that she still had the best part of five grand. Not yet, anyway.

The End.

The Magic Pages: A story for Kim

This is a fictional short story, written especially for the lovely lady and great blogger, Kim. For any of you who follow her site By Hook Or By Book, you will know of her love for literature, libraries, and Pomeranian dogs. You will also be aware of the difficulties she faces, and her woes over the Trump presidency. This story is just for her, but I hope it will bring some joy to anyone who reads it.

Kim’s last day at the library was a far from happy occasion. Leaving behind her beloved books, her friends and colleagues, and most of all those thousands of children she had introduced to wonderful literature over the years. She had watched their discovery, fostered their love of language, and looked on as they gasped at amazing illustrations, and fantastic new worlds to explore. There was sadness and tears amid the celebration of her dedication, and the love she had given through her librarian skills.
But all those years of reading had taken their toll, and her health was not what it once was. Too many headaches, too painful, too often. She reluctantly decided she had to go, but her heart had never been heavier as she walked through the door for that last time.

Waiting outside, she saw the group she knew so well. The children of her Reading Club, trying to smile through the tears as they watched their friend leaving. Jay walked up to her, holding a notebook. She held it up to Kim, with a pen clasped in her small hand. “Write your wishes in this book, and we will make them come true, we promise.” Kim smiled down at the girl, and took the book and pen. On each page, she wrote a wish, using capital letters, and signing each page with a big heart design, and the letter ‘K’. She handed it back to Jay, and with a smile, simply said “Thank You”.

The kids took the book to where they liked to gather, in the clearing at the edge of the woods. Danielle took the book, and opened it. She read aloud to the rest. “Page One. I wish that I will always love books and reading.” She passed it to Michel, and he read aloud too. “Page Two. I wish that I will have so many friends that I could never meet them all”. Sophie and Rafael read the next page together. “Page Three”. I wish that the pain in my head would go away, and never come back”. Yesha could hardly read her page for crying, but she did her best. “Page Four. I wish that all my library children will never forget me, and always love books and reading.” Deanna and Robbie held the book together, and looked at each other, to see who would speak first. “Page Five. I wish that I will always read books, and tell the world about them too”. Laura, Vinnie, and Diane leaned over, and turned the next page. “Page Six. I wish that there will always be libraries, and they will have lots of books for children to enjoy”. Little Pete and Jay shared the last wish. “Page Seven. I hope that I will see my beloved dog again one day.”

The next day after school, they gathered again. Michel had a plastic bag, and Rafael had brought his father’s trowel. They dug a hole big enough to take the book wrapped in the plastic bag. Nice and deep, and marked with a special flat stone that Robbie had found nearby. Danielle spoke up. “Tomorrow, we will come back, and choose a page. We will wish for the wish on that page to happen, and know that it will. We must always be together, and stand by that pledge. Are we all agreed?” The rest of the group nodded seriously, nobody was smiling.

Soon after, Kim was sitting at home, thinking what to do. Now she no longer had to go to work, she had to do something with her time, as well as reading. “I know what I will do, I will start a blog about books, and spread my love of literature around the world, to people everywhere. Hopefully, they will become my friends too”. In the clearing by the woods, Michel tore up page two, and they all watched as he scattered the tiny pieces into the wind. Then they buried the book again, for another day.

Some time later, Kim finished reading her latest book, and took a while to think to herself. Finally, she spoke aloud, “I am always going to love books and reading, I just know it”. In the clearing, the children opened their eyes in time to watch Danielle scatter the pieces of Page One. Little Pete looked up, smiling. “Wishing this hard is tiring. Let’s go and get some ice cream”.

Kim often thought about the Reading Group, as the months passed by. She knew in her heart that all the children she had ever encouraged would always love books and reading. The rest watched, as Yesha tore up Page Four. This time there were no tears, she was smiling as she threw the pieces into the wind.

In the local paper, there was news of a new library opening. The first for years. The article said that books were making a comeback, and that children were reading as much as ever, if not more. The editorial concluded, “It is our contention that libraries will always need to exist, and that children especially should be catered for.” In the clearing, the smiling trio of Laura, Vinnie, and Diane each held one third of Page Six, before flinging the pieces into the air.

After two days of severe pain, Kim was tiring of the most recent migraine. It was hard enough to open her eyes, let alone read, and she was unable to enjoy writing her blog too. She decided to take a short nap, and was very pleased to wake up that afternoon, to discover the headache was gone. Back near the woods, Sophie and Rafael spoke to the others. They felt their wishing had not really worked, not as much as they had hoped. Everyone agreed that they should not tear up that page, but would come back to it another day. They put the book back into its bag, and buried it back in the hole.

The blog was going great guns by now. There were hundreds of followers, and the community extended all around the world. That made Kim very happy indeed, and she realised that she could still impart her love of literature, despite no longer being in her old job. Deanna and Robbie were pleased. They tore up Page Five, gazing up into the trees as the pieces swirled around.

Sitting quietly at home one day, shut in by the heavy winter snow, Kim looked at the framed photo of her beloved Pom. She smiled to herself, realising that in her heart, she knew she would see her little dog again, one day. Kneeling by the hole, Little Pete and Jay tore up Page Seven, throwing the small pieces out onto the snow-covered ground. The rest of the group looked at each other. “We still have Page Three” said Sophie, looking perplexed. Danielle reassured her. “We will come back to Page Three again and again until that wish is granted, have no fear”.

As Jay buried the book that afternoon, Little Pete muttered. “But what about the other pages, the ones with no wishes written on them?” Danielle and Michel exchanged a glance, and nodded to each other. She turned to Little Pete and told him, “They are for the wishes yet to come. We will know what they are when they are wished for, and we will come back until they are granted”.

The group walked away, thinking to themselves. None of them said any more. They just smiled.

Aurelia’s new job

This is another fictional short story. Science Fiction seems to be popular, so I thought I would try my hand at it. It is just over 1800 words.

She woke up to find someone removing the stickers from her body, and sliding out the various tubes. They were not being too gentle, but she hadn’t come around properly yet, and the plastic guard in her mouth made it impossible to talk. A torrent of water suddenly descended on her, hot and soapy, smelling a little of disinfectant. This was followed by blasts of warm air, powerful enough to make her have to close her eyes. She reached inside her mouth, and pulled out the guard. It was supposed to stop you grinding your teeth, and biting your tongue, but it felt like someone’s hand was in there, and she was immediately thirsty when it slid out.

The flight operatives helped everyone out of the cubicles. They gave Aurelia a micro-fibre smock to put on, and a large beaker of water, which she drained in grateful gulps. Her legs felt surprisingly strong, despite the lack of exercise, and she was able to walk over to the long row of tables without difficulty. Looking around at some of her fellow passengers, she mentally counted, ten tables, eight to a table. They were a mixed bag, mostly young women, with a few hard-looking guys dotted here and there. A bowl was placed in front of her. It looked like porridge, but smelt like cabbage. She wrinkled her nose in disgust. “Eat it slowly, take lots of time. Don’t bolt it.” The operatives repeated this like a mantra, as they put each bowl down.

She had seen the advertisement for the job on her thigh pad, as she sat reading through some Alliance News. It had popped up, offering jobs on a distant planet, at great rates of pay. Three million Yuan a year was more than twice what she got for supervising machines in the factory that made things that she didn’t even know what they were used for. Watching robots for ten hours a day, pressing buttons to confirm manufacturing targets, and nobody to talk to, except her complaining manager. The high spot of the day might be a breakdown, and having to call in the repair crew. After more than four years of this, Aurelia was wondering what she was going to do with her life, and the bright advertisement came just at the right time. She had never heard of the numbered rock, or the thing mined there, Magnatite, which was apparently used in the latest propulsion systems. Still, she had nothing to lose, so she pressed the button to be contacted by the company.

The interview process was more medical than academic. Scans, tests, and more tests. Access to her doctor’s records had to be allowed, and she was asked interminable questions about her health. It left her wondering how hard it was going to be. She was only twenty-two years old, and fit and well, as far as he was aware. The so-called ‘Space Training’ was nothing like she had expected. When she asked about space suits, they laughed. ” You won’t ever be outside.”, she was told. There was a lot of stuff she did’t really understand. Even with the latest and fastest ships, it still took over a year to get there. Most of that would be spent in a sort of induced coma, watched over by flight operatives from the airline. They were told that once they arrived, over ten years of Earth time would have expired, so that everyone they knew would be ten years older, but they would only have aged one year. Because of this, they wanted people with no emotional attachments, who would not be missing any partners, or family.

After fourteen days, she was told that she had the job, if she wanted it. They gave her twenty-four hours to decide. She would have to give up her apartment, settle her affairs, and prepare to live on the planet, according to the company’s rules and regulations. Food and utilities would be supplied, and the salary could be banked, to be drawn on as required. It seemed alright to Aurelia, so she entered her signature code, and agreed to the contract. Seven days later, she was due to report to the interstellar transport, and her new life. Part of her felt content. She was now employed by Magnatrix International, and they would look after her for the duration of her fifteen year contract. There would be room and board, and all training and uniform would be provided once she arrived. The job options were vague, but most involved service industries, like Hospitality, or Reception. She and her colleagues would make life run smoothly for the hundreds of miners that worked there. At that salary, she couldn’t care less.

Once they had been orbiting for a day or so, Aurelia felt stronger, and more like her old self. Some solid food had made all the difference, and she had been told that the planet shuttle would be there to collect them later that afternoon. Everyone had been given a grey trouser suit, and some toiletries. Before the transport arrived, she was excited to get the first glimpse of her new home, through the observation portal on the departure deck. It was a huge planet, twice the size of Earth, and completely black. No blue skies or water could be seen, as all the natural water was below the surface, and had been purified by years of industry and difficult construction. They had told her that the mining colony was only two square miles, just a tiny percentage of what she could see.

The trip was short, and once through the marginal atmosphere, it was very smooth. At the landing dock, the men and women were separated. The men went off to the mining camp and dormitory, and the women were sent along a mechanical walkway to the reception and welcome area. Her tag was scanned, and she was assigned to a group of ten. They were shown into an elevator that took them many floors below the surface. There was a lot of noise. The rattle of the fans, the excessive hum of the air circulation, and the constant announcements from the unseen public address system. After so long at peace, it felt like being in a busy market, and Aurelia failed to catch most of what was being said. They arrived in a large room, full of tables, and smelling of stale food. The walls were decorated with old posters, historical artifacts from the days when people went to buildings called cinemas, and watched things called films. They showed monsters and spacemen, fantastical aliens and unrealistic space liners. Everyone knew by now that there were no aliens. No monsters lurked in the distant reaches of the galaxy. There were only humans, and their quest for new minerals, and planets to colonise. They were told that this was called the Rest Room, and that they would eat here, on their breaks.

An attractive young woman came to talk to her group. She said that they would all be assigned a room, and that they would be expected to start work immediately. After all, they had been paid to sleep for a year, so they had to catch up on what they already owed the company. Aurelia thought about this, for the first time. Had she not been paid for the trip? Did they count the long journey as part of her contract, or expect her to owe them that time? She raised her hand to ask these questions, but was waved down by the supervisor. The woman slapped her hands together, and told them that the company expected full cooperation with their instructions, and that any refusal to carry out the allotted tasks would result in a return to Earth the following year, with a reduction in pay. Aurelia couldn’t understand why she was being so shitty about things. She looked at the other girls in her group. Heads down, staring at their sandals, they seemed beaten and compliant, and they had only just arrived.

She was taken away with the rest, and shown to a room in a long corridor. It was hardly larger than the double bed on a metal platform that almost filled it. A video screen filled one of the walls, and behind the bed, a partition hid a tiny bathroom, with toilet, sink, and shower. The supervisor told her, “Make sure that you keep the credit slips. They are the only way to prove that you have worked, and the only guarantee that you will be given food and medical support.” She indicated some stuff that lay on the bed, adding, ” Put on your uniform, and then press the green button on the video screen. That tells Central that you are ready to work. Make sure you press it correctly, and on time, or someone will come to check. And you don’t want that to happen.” The rest of them left, followed by the supervisor, and the door slid shut with a whoosh. Aurelia looked at the uniform. It was black, and completely see-through from neck to ankles. It resembled a gauze, floating and insubstantial.

She threw it back on the bed, and sat down, inspecting the small room. The bed was hard and uncomfortable, and too large for the space. It almost touched the door at one end, and was hard against the partition at the other. She checked the bathroom, running water from the sink, and splashing it over her face. There was a noise from next door. The screen had come to life, and the face of the young supervisor was there. “Put on your uniform now.”, she ordered, ” And press the button in the next two minutes, or there is going to be trouble.” Aurelia could tell by her tone that she wasn’t fooling. She removed her clothes, and slipped the flimsy dress over her head. Reaching out, she pressed the large green button at the bottom of the screen.

A few minutes later, her door opened and a man entered. He was huge, ugly, and dirty. He looked to be about forty years old, and his shaved head was covered in black dust. He started to unbuckle his trousers, not even looking at her. “What do you want here?”, said Aurelia, her voice high-pitched and assertive. His accent was strange, probably European. “What I have worked for, and paid for”, he growled, pushing her back onto the bed, and lifting her dress. He showed her the credit slip, then returned it to his pocket. His weight was unexpected, and drove the breath from her. As his tongue licked her neck, she shuddered. For some reason, she thought of the posters in the Rest Room. One of them had some strange words on it. She had thought at the time that they were unusual, and she had never heard anything like them.’In Space, No One Can Hear You Scream.’

The man slipped his trousers down around his knees.

Aurelia screamed anyway.