Image by 3D Animation Production Company from Pixabay
Hi, I’m Tom and I’m a burglar.
But wait. Before you go, don’t you want to hear how I’ve ended up in the papers as a proper hero? On the front page, I’m not kidding.
Just picture this. Rewind to last month.
I’m sitting with my mates in my mum’s car. We’re smoking a joint because it’s Friday. There might have been a bottle of whisky going around too. We’re parked up behind the only nightclub in town and we’re loading up, thinking about whether to go in.
The radio’s on so we don’t hear him walk up, not until he hammers on the driver’s side.
“What the fuck?” I say, and wind down the window. “Oh, it’s you. Want one?” I point at the grass and Rizlas in my lap.
Baz is about fifty, pretty old for a drug dealer. He sticks his head in and locks in on Jim, my oldest mate. We go back to kinder, that’s how long we’ve known each other. “You still owe me, Jim Smith.” His voice is raspy from smoking. He’s not shouting but his eyes look wild.
I hear Jim’s voice behind me. “Er, how much was it again, Baz?”
My heart sinks. Jim isn’t the sharpest tool in the box at times.
“Six. Hundred. Due last week.” Baz’s voice was beginning to rise.
“Six hundred was it?”
“Six Jolly Green Giants. Six avocados. Coming back to you yet?”
I try to interject before Jim gets himself into deeper trouble. “Baz, I -”
Baz glares at me. As he speaks, spittle flies. “Shut up, Tyler. Just make sure your friend here gets me the money by tomorrow. Or else.”
“Or else what?” pipes up Jim.
“Or else this.” Baz recedes but before I can take a breath, I see a glint in his hand and he’s running a switchblade along the length of the car. The sound is like a rusty scream through my skull.
“Fark!” I shout. “Okay, okay, we’ll get it for you. Just stop, my mum’ll kill me.”
“Make sure you do. Give her my regards.” Baz keys the other side as he walks off, whistling.
My head’s pounding fit to burst. I turn around in my seat and now I’m shouting. “What’ve you done? Are you a freaking idiot?”
“Hey, no need to shout,” said Jim, holding his hands up. “It’ll be grouse.”
“How will it be grouse? Look at what he’s just done. He’s mad. He could do anything.”
“He’s right,” said Bob. He got out of the car and without looking back, walked off home.
For a few seconds we watch him go. I want to disappear too but there’s no way I’m going to leave Jim in this mess. Which means I’m involved.
“Are you ready?” I’m wearing a plain grey hoodie and jeans, a small backpack slung over a shoulder. Jim is going to be my lookout, lurking in Mr Chirnside’s front yard between the bins and the bougainvillea. I hope he gets scratched to bits, the little shit. I check my mobile is on vibrate. “Remember what to do?”
“Yeah. I’ll ring you if someone’s coming.”
“Make sure you do.” My voice is shaking and I wipe damp palms along my jeans.
“It’ll be fine. He goes out to play bridge with my uncle every Friday night, I told you.”
There are no twitching curtains or neighbours out on an evening stroll. No obvious burglar alarm. I leave Jim and jog down the side of our ex-teacher’s home. Rover is long-dead but the dog-flap becomes useful again tonight. I crouch down, breathe out till my lungs are empty. Then I shimmy like a lumpy snake through to the laundry. I retrieve my backpack from outside the door.
All of a sudden, I’m hyperventilating while my whole body trembles. I’m in someone’s house. I’m a thief. I’m as much an idiot as my mate, probably more. Calm down, calm down. Think logically. Jim says he has some kind of coin collection. And he’s always flash with cash, drives a Lexus. He’s got to have something worth nicking.
I tiptoe into the lounge. Just an outdated laptop and some loose notes in a jar. I take the money, stuff it in my jeans pocket. I find my way to the bedroom. Panic gives way to something dark. I need money for Jim and money to fix up my mum’s car. I’m not here for fun. I reach out towards a drawer.
My phone vibrates and I nearly jump out of my skin.
Are you in? - I read. Relief.
All good - I reply, and tuck the phone back in my pocket.
Heart palpitating, I take a good look around the room. Other than the chest of drawers and wardrobe, there aren’t any obvious storage places for precious items. For the next twenty minutes I open every drawer. At first, I’m methodical and and return things to their original position. But soon sweat starts trickling into my eyes and a tight band forms around my chest. A few jewellery boxes – his mother’s maybe – turn up a ring and a necklace. I haven’t a clue if they’re worth anything, but they go in the backpack. Then a watch, looks like a fake Rolex. I go through the room, even crawling under the bed in case I missed something.
Leaving the bedroom looking like the aftermath of a tornado, I rifle through the cupboards in the lounge, DVDs strewn around me. Nothing of value.
Hurry up. Mum says she’ll be back home soon - Jim.
“Oh God,” I say out loud. Baz will go off his head when he sees hot property instead of cash.
I hasten through the laundry towards the stupid dog-flap again, in a seriously bad mood, when I spot a cutout in the lino. It looks to be about a metre square, maybe more. A mixture of curiosity and Baz-fear urges me on. I kneel down to prise it away. A floorboard creaks beneath me. Then a rhythmic jangling sound… from below? Don’t be daft, it’s your imagination. Lift the floorboards, might be the coins.
But instead I’m hoisting up a heavy wooden trapdoor, and nearly overbalance into the blackness.
“Help! Help!” Clear as day, a girl’s voice erupts out of nowhere.
“Who’s there?” I’m not sure who’s more scared. I shine my phone torch in and see a ladder.
“I’m Alison Reid and I’ve been kidnapped. Please help me. Come down the steps. I’m tied up.”
I vaguely remember an Alison Reid in the papers a couple of years ago. But this was no time to wonder at the turn of events. Holding the phone in one hand, I descend at speed. It takes a short while for my eyes to adjust, and then I see a bare mattress, just a candle for light. My skin crawls. A teenage girl wearing a grubby grey T-shirt and leggings, bare feet on a bare concrete floor. A stinking bucket full of excrement. Her cuffed wrists are chained to a thick metal ring on the wall. Her hair looks gross.
“Get the key, quick. It’s on the wall by the ladder.” She was speaking so quickly I could hardly keep up.
It was simple to unhook the key dangling on the wall and with clammy hands I unlock her cuffs. I can’t imagine the frustration and despondency she must have felt all that time, looking at her only means of escape, so tantalisingly close. I send her up first, and then we are out of the house and running.
“Never mind who she is,” I bark at Jim as he rises, gaping at the girl who’s shielding her eyes from the daylight. “Get the car open for us now. We’re going to the police station.”
Dedicated to my friend, GT
It was an unusually warm autumnal afternoon. Martin sat by the pool, nursing a Bundy on ice, while his grown-up kids chatted over him. He was there, but not there. His 93-year-old mind was far away, remembering things that he couldn’t forget.
“Want some more, Dad?” said Greg, one of his four sons. He pointed at the bottle of spirits.
Martin shook his head. “Nah, I’m all right.”
Greg returned to his conversation, all the while keeping an eye out in case his father needed anything. Martin leant back in the garden chair and bathed in the sun, letting it soak right into his bones.
It wasn’t long before the sounds of the gathering faded into the background, and Martin was back in 1975, long after his work as a stoker on a minesweeper. Now he could smell coffee and doughnuts, and he was smiling at Lola, the young waitress in the diner. It was supposed to be American but the food was a shoddy London version. Plus he didn’t much like the coffee there either. Or the interminable rain. God, he missed home sometimes.
Every Tuesday for six months, he had taken the same table in the same diner, ordered the same fatty, over-salted food and sipped at the bitter coffee. Lola slipped him some apple pie from time to time, which made the whole experience bearable. Plus, she was easy on the eye.
Lola was a nice distraction, but an even better decoy in case anyone wondered why he was a regular there. He was watching a man who often came to the cafe. The man was called Harry Chu and he was known to have strong Communist leanings. He was also strongly suspected to be communicating British Navy defence intelligence to his comrades back in China. Harry was often in the cafe because he owned it. Probably explained why there were tasty dumplings and spring rolls on the all-American menu.
His handler had told him the job would take as long as it needed to, which might be years at this rate. Martin’s family thought he was doing carpentry or carpet-laying work in Queensland, while they stayed back in Melbourne. He phoned them occasionally from random payphones and told him the story “Frances”, his handler had given him. A believable tall tale of high-rise apartments with enough lucrative work to keep Martin busy for a long time. He felt guilty not telling them about his work as a CIA officer, but it couldn’t be helped. Their safety came first. He could not risk compromise.
Today, Harry Chu was hurrying about and barking at his staff.
“What up with you?” asked his wife from behind the counter. She waved the knife she was using to cut up burger buns in his direction. “You scare customer.”
“I have to go,” he said. “Urgent delivery.” He held a manila envelope and drew it tightly to his chest.
“Well don’t be long, lunch crowd come soon.”
“Yes, yes,” Harry said, walking out the door.
Martin put down a banknote next to his empty plate, entered the light drizzle of typical overcast day and followed his quarry from a safe distance. He resisted the temptation to double-check the wire was still in place inside his jacket.
“Following rabbit, holding intel,” he murmured.
“Better not be chickenfeed,” came Frances’ voice through the earpiece.
He ducked behind a tree when Harry stopped to light a cigarette. Moments later, Harry crossed the road towards the park. Martin felt his heart thud and his hairs stand on end. “He’s going for the dead drop.”
“Officers in position,” the earpiece crackled.
Now the hardest part of the operation that had been six months in the planning. First to swoop in and take Harry, second, gather the intel as evidence, and third, arrest Harry’s comrade. Too soon and they would lose any chance of getting the documents and taking out two of the major players. Too late, ditto.
On schedule, Martin sat on a bench partly so he faced away from the dead drop. At the foot of the largest oak tree was a fake tree root. This is where he glimpsed Harry bend down ostensibly to tie a shoelace, and tucked the rolled up envelope inside the tree root. Harry rose quickly and began to walk along the looping pathway. Nearly time.
Martin also rose and returned to shadowing him, all the while subtly watching for what would happen next. As he and Harry were now on the other side of the park, he could only watch from a tantalising distance. A minute later, a woman in a tan trenchcoat arrived at the dead drop, She was carrying a messenger bag. She casually dropped it on the ground and scooped in the package in one motion. As she stood up, two officers appeared as if from nowhere and smoothly grabbed her arms. They could have been friends meeting for lunch for the coolness of the arrest.
“Catch the rabbit,” said Martin, mouth dry. The three words he had been dying to say for six long months.
Seconds later a white panel van skidded into view and two more men jumped out and started walking rapidly towards Harry. It was on. Harry sped up and now Martin was running towards his prey. He pushed down a panicky feeling. He was going to get there before the officers. This wasn’t supposed to happen, he was only supposed to tail him. But there was a chance Harry could nip into the maze-like alleyways and be lost forever.
With a burst of adrenaline, Martin sprinted with every fibre of his being. Harry looked over his shoulder, his mouth gaping and eyes wide open when he saw his favourite customer in hot pursuit. He had slowed him down just enough for Martin to gain a little more distance, and with a final gargantuan effort, he threw himself onto Harry and shouted, “Stay down, stay down, you’re surrounded.”
The CIA officers were seconds away and then one said -
“Whose beer is this?”
“You’re drinking mine, you idiot.”
Martin jolted back to the sound of beer bottles clinking and more laughter. The sun was getting hotter. He caught Greg’s eye and nodded.
If only they knew.
This story was prompted by a writing exercise from a fabulous writing group based in Bayside, Melbourne.
Lean as a whippet, face furrowed by the detritus life had thrown at him, the man relaxed his hand around the mop handle. He used to do this job in half the time but now he had to keep stopping to catch his breath. He wondered if he might be getting too old for all this. Nah, that was daft, he had always worked. He shut his eyes as a memory shoved itself in his face. His old man standing over him, wagging his finger and shouting, “You lazy little bugger, get out from under your mother’s feet and get a job.” Well look at me now, Dad.
Someone came in to use a toilet. Their thongs deposited dirt on the previously gleaming tiles. He swore and carried on, stinging sweat dripping into his eyes. When he finished, he trudged outside into the forty-degree heat. His knackered hands and shoulders thrummed, but nothing a mid-afternoon beer wouldn’t fix. He gave a thumbs-up through the window of the manager’s office and headed to his trailer at the far end of the site. As he went, he kept an eye on the vermin, the ‘clients’ he was supposed to call them. But he preferred ‘vermin’. They came, they made a noise, they left a mess.
Soon he was in his favourite place in the whole of Beachside - ironically a hundred kilometres from the coast. Surrounded by rushes, the lake behind the trailer was a place of relative peace, aside from occasional annoyances from stir-crazy campers laughing and screaming as they splashed in the murky water. There were two teenagers there now, egging each other to jump in first. Idiots, he thought, and shook his head.
He leant back in his canvas camping chair and sucked down some lager, stretching out under the shade of a gum tree. The six-pack went down like it did every afternoon, an effortless glide south, a journey shared by both beverage and man. He nodded off between stubbies, and the teenagers pointed at him and laughed at the sight of a semi-conscious old man still holding onto his precious beer.
Eventually he had to get up when he ran out of grog. Aches and pains pushed aside for another day, he meandered back to his caravan as the sun set. It was lopsided and rickety, didn’t have fancy luxuries. But it only needed to be big enough for him, and the stray cat that sometimes wandered in for a feed. He wasn’t into pets - or people for that matter - but some days it was nice to have the company. As he rounded the corner to take the path leading to his trailer, he noticed someone lurking at the door.
“What the hell?” he murmured. He forced himself to speed up though it brought on a heaviness in his chest. Was it Shelley with another quick job to do? She squeezed him dry every shift.
He peered at the figure as he approached. A slender woman, maybe in her fifties, shoulder length dark hair, capri pants, a floral top and floaty scarf. She removed her sunglasses and gave him a hesitant smile. She looked too fresh and carefree to be one of the vermin. However, that was the only logical explanation as he never had visitors.
“You’ve got the wrong place,” he said, getting in first. His aching chest made him feel irritable. “The office is down the dirt track.”
She shook her head. “I’m not here to camp. I’m here to see you, Bert Stone.” She held out her hand.
He ignored it and opened the door. “Look, just wait there a minute, I’ve got to -” He dived in and sprayed his heart med under his tongue. After a minute, he could concentrate again. As best he could after a few beers. He gestured to the woman who was waiting by the door, unruffled by the heat or his manner.
“Close the fly screen,” he said, as she joined him.
They both sat around the tiny formica table. He felt uncomfortable having a woman here, even if she was too young for him. She seemed overly confident for someone not in her own territory. He tapped on the table as a judge calling a rabble to order. He raised an eyebrow at her. “Who are you? What do you want?”
She leant forward abruptly, supported her face on a manicured hand. She stared into his eyes, making him recoil. It was the same look he gave a flailing barramundi before crushing its head. “I’m Lisa. Don’t you recognise me?”
“No, I don’t.” He sat up. “We’re not playing twenty questions, are we? I’ve got things to do.”
She opened her handbag and placed something before him. A grainy and faded photograph. Posed and stiff, a couple and a young boy stand at the edge of a footy oval. Impassive, the boy grips a cricket bat. The image sends a bolt through him. “But that’s me... Where did you get this?”
“I’ll tell you in a minute,” she said, echoing his earlier words, a smirk playing on her lips. She points to the photo. “Who are the others?”
“My wife, we separated. And that was our boy. Lee.” He squinted a while longer, and winced. “Well, it was a long time ago.”
“What happened to the boy?” she asked, a voice both soft and insistent.
His head dropped a little. Why was he being dragged down memory lane? He hadn’t had to remember any of that crap for decades. He heard the siren again, seducing him into the muddy waters. The beer had made him vulnerable, that was all. Oh what the hell, it would all be forgotten tomorrow. He let the memories come out, not to the woman, but to the boy in the photograph.
“He was a quiet one, not like his cousins. Didn’t go for all their rough and tumble, bit of a sissy you could say. But he didn’t cause too much trouble. Till he got into his teens. We split up about that time. I moved away and never saw him again.” He glowered at her. “The. End. Got what you needed?”
Her eyes were shiny and she looked up, blinking rapidly. Visibly took a few deep breaths. “Do you want to know how he’s going?”
The muscles around his mouth twitched. “Well, what do you know about him? Is he in trouble or something?” Imagining having to help out his long-lost son, he felt his mind race. He didn’t have much money but if it was an emergency, he supposed he could give Lee a place to stay.
“Don’t worry, Dad. I’m okay.” Her eyeliner was streaking despite her cool delivery.
Unable to speak, his brain imploded with multiple images. Lee hanging out exclusively with girls from the time he was five. Lee preferring dolls to guns. Lee messing up his mum’s makeup. Lee wearing his mum’s clothes (Bert always gave him a good belting for that). Bert throwing him out of the house when he found him strutting in his bedroom wearing only his mum’s bra and petticoat.
“Lee?” Jesus, was it really his little boy? Come to think, the eyes were his. But the hair, the soft jawline, the curves, the gentle cadence of her voice, the feminine demeanor...
“It’s Lisa now, Dad,” the woman said.
He shook his head, frozen.
Beneath the table, she clenched her fists and blinked slowly at him. Relaxing her hold on the hundreds of hours of voice training, she gruffly repeated herself. The sound resonated through the room, through his skull, insinuated itself into his reality.
“Lee. Lisa,” he stammered.
Now, for the first time in their lives, they saw each other.
This story was inspired by Australian Speculative Fiction's weekly contest and has been published on their flash fiction page along with even more brain-altering reads. Five minutes to spare? Read on.
Photo by Sweet Ice Cream Photograph
Bruce leant back in his office chair and selected a Gurkha from the humidor. Cigar prepped, he drew in a mouthful of the sweet and creamy smoke. It had been one helluva day. Now though, life couldn’t get any better.
Mary was down in the kitchen. Literally, as ‘on the floor down’.
She’d been good for a while, but frankly, he was already bored after the initial excitement of showing off his new wife to his friends. It was just little things at first, like not feeling the electricity when he woke to see her pretty face next to him. Then things got real.
Mary, his wife and freaking possession goddamnit, was getting above her station. She wanted to hang out with the other wives. She demanded to be taken on luxury holidays all the time. Not that he couldn’t afford it, but he chose how he spent his money.
So today he had reminded her.
First he lured Mary into a sweet mood with a promise of first class tickets to a luxury resort in French Polynesia. Then his pièce de resistance. He grinned when he recalled telling her to put her hand into an open tin of coffee granules for another surprise. Excited, she asked him if was the diamond necklace she had been dropping hints about? Maybe, he had said, leaning against the doorway.
Her hand plunged in, fuelled by greed. Before she could react, a deafening crack dismembered her in a cloud of purple vapour and gas. He was impressed. Nitrogen triiodide had saved the day. He approached with care, avoiding the brown powder.
Crouching down, he plucked the mangled CPU out of her chest. Another one for the collection.
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