Monday, 25 October 2021

A Kriminel's Debt by Nick Stead

Ricardo doused his sacrifice in petrol and the night erupted with the black rooster’s screams. It was almost like the animal knew what was coming. Wings beat against the bars of its crate, the rooster shrieking its protest for all the world to hear. Ricardo winced, his heart quickening as he glanced nervously at the surrounding shadows. The old church was as empty as ever, its congregation long dead and its location all but forgotten. No one would be running to the rooster’s rescue. No one would be interrupting this sacred rite.

Taking a deep breath, Ricardo struck a match and held it over the crate. He fought to steady the shake in his hand, part of him convinced he would be caught at any moment. What was the punishment for animal cruelty? A fine? A few years in jail? Maybe this was a bad idea. Maybe he should try summoning one of the other, less malevolent loa first.

The match’s flame curled around his fingers and the decision was taken from him. With a string of curses, Ricardo dropped the match and the unfortunate rooster burst into flames. The heat was intense, the suddenness of it making him jump backwards. More shrieking filled the church but there was a new urgency to it, pain mixing with terror. The rooster thrashed so violently that the crate slid across the floor. Ricardo barely noticed. His eyes were on the symbol he’d drawn, the veve he’d outlined in ash. It glowed as brightly as the rooster.

A figure took shape within the veve. No more than a shadow at first, gradually it came into focus, until Ricardo could make out the features of Baron Kriminel, first man to commit murder in life and powerful loa in death. He was exactly as Ricardo’s grandpa had described him – a man in top hat and tails with a crimson shirt and skull-headed cane. Red eyes glinted with cruel amusement as they settled on the sacrifice.

Lightning flashed overhead and the Baron changed, from man to blood-spattered skeleton. Somehow Ricardo knew that wasn’t the Baron’s blood.

“Ba–” Ricardo was interrupted by a deep chuckle as the shadows rushed back in and the Baron resembled a man once more.

“I know you, Ricardo Germaine. I know your heart.” Kriminel’s eyes met Ricardo’s now, though they were no less malicious. “You desire power, yes?”

Ricardo’s heart pounded harder still. He swallowed, his head jerking into a nod.

“And do you understand the cost?”

The cost? Ricardo frowned and gestured at the dying rooster, its limbs still twitching as it succumbed to the flames.

Kriminel shook his head. “No. The rooster’s suffering bought you this meeting. My help is extra, and comes at a far greater debt than any rooster can settle.”

Doubt tugged at Ricardo’s mind. His grandpa had never mentioned sacrificing anything bigger than a rooster…

A lit cigar appeared in the loa’s right hand. He raised it to his lips and inhaled deeply, eyes closed as though savouring the moment. “For the good relationship I had with your grandpa, I will give you a free taste. Then you can decide if you’re willing to pay for more.”

Kriminel held out his left hand and an old, charred finger bone appeared in his palm. Ricardo reached out to take it. “What do I have to do?”

Another chuckle. “You will know.” Kriminel tipped his hat and with that, the rooster breathed its last, the flames went out and the glow in the ash faded. The Baron vanished, leaving Ricardo standing with the bone, gingerly turning it between his fingers.


Ricardo took the bone into work with him the next day. He was pleasantly surprised to find the business manager wasn’t in, but it didn’t last long. Ten minutes later she appeared, looking grumpier and more flustered than usual.

“Lots to do today, Ricardo. I need you to get straight on with finishing that printing, then we’ll see what else you can help with.”

That was it. No greetings, no pleasantries. She wasn’t even his line manager, yet she insisted on treating him like one of her underlings. Something in him snapped.

A taste…

Power pulsed through him, dark and burning like the anger boiling in his veins. He turned his gaze on Rachel and blood trickled from the corners of her eyes, her face paling as she fell forward, clutching the desk to keep from slipping all the way to the floor.

Ricardo rose to his feet, glaring down at her and feeling the power flowing, the energy in him building. It was such a rush, like nothing he’d ever known before. Her life drained, while his burned hotter and wilder, and he started to laugh the same dark laugh as the loa he’d called on.

The blood was streaming from Rachel’s eyes now. She lost her grip on the desk and collapsed at Ricardo’s feet. Only then did their colleagues notice something was wrong, and they hurried over.

“I’m okay,” Rachel said, letting another woman help her to her feet. “I just felt faint for a moment – must be the stress getting to me.”

The colour was returning to her face. Ricardo clenched his fists but the power in him was fading. And suddenly he knew, just as Kriminel had promised.

The bone was in his hand with barely a conscious thought. He crushed it and was instantly rewarded with a fresh wave of energy, even greater than his first taste. Blood gushed forth from more than just Rachel now, the others falling to their knees and screaming in agony while patches of Ricardo’s skin turned chalky white, forming patterns to give the likeness of the bones beneath.

More colleagues came rushing into the office, and then the company owner himself appeared, and succumbed to the dark magic emanating from Ricardo. The company was his for the taking, but why stop there? Kriminel had given him the keys to the world. He could rule over them all if he wanted to. Ricardo laughed at the thought, and the Baron chuckled with him.

But first, he wanted to share this great gift with his fiancĂ©. He left his former colleagues dying in pools of their own blood, utterly devoid of guilt or remorse. If the price for such power was a few meaningless lives, so be it. What had any of them ever done for him? Rachel had made him miserable and the others had merely watched. No one had jumped to his defence or sought to comfort him. They’d got what they deserved.

The power began to recede as he drove to Marie’s place. Ricardo wasn’t worried. In crushing the bone, he’d accepted Kriminel’s offer and now the debt was paid. The dark magic was his to call on as and when he pleased. It would return to him when he needed it.

He couldn’t help grinning to himself as he parked outside the house. There was a light in the window. It took him a moment to recognise the orange glow for what it was. His smile fell.

“Marie?” He threw open the car door and started towards the building. A ball of fire exploded outwards, the force knocking him back. The entrance gaped wide open now, and on the floor lay a figure, twitching like the rooster he’d sacrificed the night before. His beloved Marie.

Baron Kriminel chuckled louder. Now our debt is settled.

Monday, 18 October 2021

The Shadow Wood by Gareth Clegg

Let me tell you a tale of the Shadow Wood
A place of darkness, misunderstood
Legends, Myths and Stories told
Keep away all but the bold

A girl sat shaded by an ancient oak
Enveloped by it’s dappled cloak
But as she leaned into that trunk
From within came a deep… dark… thunk

She waited till the night drew near
With strangely not an ounce of fear
The wood stood silent as the grave
No signs of life at all it gave

No animal or bird or sound
Naught but silence all around
Nothing moved, the air was still
Just a sudden deathly chill

As darkness fell, another sound
And warm light spilled across the ground
Her shadows shifted as she stood
And turned to face the Shadow Wood

Oh foolish child can you not see
The danger of that ancient tree
From deep within a golden glow
Spread through its roots an eerie show

Dancing shadows light and dark
Shifting shapes on roots and bark
A silent carnival gold and black
The girl reached out but the roots… reached… back

Shrouded in their warm embrace
Tendrils gently cupped her face
Her blood runs cold, mind locked in fear
The roots so slowly draw… her… near 

Deeper, darker, down and down
They drag her underneath the ground
Forever falling through the night
No sense of sound, smell, taste or sight

Just the air that rushed on past
Her shivering limbs until at last
The noose constricts—end of the line
Suspended, hanging out of time

As light retreated from her eyes
All around her, mocking lies
Poking, prodding, truth or dare
You’ll never ever stay out there

Not when the sun has finally set
You wouldn’t dare, you’ll lose this bet
She would show them all, she said
And off to Shadow Wood she fled

She screamed and flung her arms about
But not a sound was coming out
And now what dreadful end was fated
Deep in the ancient tree she waited

The frantic antics of this child
Whose will was strong but mind ran wild
Did naught but entertain the wood
In which she now silently stood

Throughout the wood moans filled the air
from all the children standing there
They stretched, sap running red as blood
Welcome to the Shadow Wood 

So if you think the village low
In children, now you finally know
That though they warn them all when young
They never listen, there’s always one

The one and only who could lift
The Shadow Wood’s eternal gift
But if you’re smart, when daylight’s fled
You’ll stay at home safe in your bed

Stay at home throughout the night
Safe from branches grasping tight
Stay at home just like you should

Safe from ancient Shadow Wood

Monday, 11 October 2021

Monday, 4 October 2021

The Black Balloon Arch by Owen Townend

I’m not a detective but a party planner. Not professional, just the kind of girl who likes to do nice things for her friends. With a clipboard checklist.

            I’m not particularly a fan of balloons either though, Lord knows, some of my friends are. When duty calls, I can blow up four or five balloons before losing puff. Helium seems like cheating to me.

            It’s obvious when balloons have been freshly made. That’s precisely what I was looking at when I saw the gate. Two black balloons on either end, bobbing in the wind. And there was a gale that day: that’s how I knew they had only recently been tied up. If they had been there longer than ten minutes, those flimsy knots would have pulled loose and the balloons would be down the other end of the field.

            Still I didn’t like the look of those black balloons. They had an odd stickiness to them, definite stains when I took a closer look. I spied another on a post further along the path, like it was a trail marker. I know I shouldn’t really have followed but I did.

            The next balloon was much smaller than the ones on the fence. Rookie mistake, I thought, whoever had blown these up must have been running out of puff by this point. The distance between post and fence was short. Whoever did it was either out of shape or moving very fast. I assumed the latter.

            I carried on till I found the next black balloon. This one I saw it tangled in a nearby tree. It had just finished deflating though the balloon hadn’t been pierced by a branch. That told me the tie-off had been neglected. It also told me that the balloon inflator wasn’t far away.

            It took some nerve to enter the wooded area. While I enjoy country walks, Blair Witch scarred me for life. Still there was a mystery to solve, poor balloon craftmanship to address.

            I certainly didn’t expect to see a balloon arch in the middle of the clearing. All black and perfect. The inflator had obviously found a pump and had been working it hard.

            I heard a hiss from behind me. My trained ears could tell it was helium but still there was a doubt. My heartbeat was thudding louder than anything.

            I turned slowly round. For some reason I expected to see a demonic clown. There are those ‘clown in the woods’ sightings, aren’t there?

            Still it wasn’t anything like that. It was two teenage lads: more chav than goth. Even so they looked spooked.

            “What’s going on here?” I asked them. No answer.

            Then a balloon popped and they ran. It was one they had just that minute blown up. Near as I can figure it, the sun had come out from behind the clouds. There were definite rays shining through the thick canopy above. Black balloons have been known to burst in direct sunlight.

            I turned back to their black balloon arch. I’m no gardener but I could tell the earth beneath had been disturbed. Then was this arch some kind of commemoration? An inflatable grave marker?

            So I called the police. You came down quick as a flash with a million and one questions. I gave you descriptions of the boys but still you seem to be having a hard time believing I just stumbled across the crime scene.

            Like I said, black balloons. Try Brookmoor’s Party Emporium. That’s the only local shop where I’ve seen them sold. I should know, I’m a party planner. I know it’s hard for some people but please try to take me seriously.

            And how about a little counselling?

Monday, 27 September 2021

Flight School by Vivien Teasdale


I never thought I’d go back to school, certainly not at my age (thirty-one and three-quarters as Adrian Mole might have said). That was before I saw the advert, in the airport of all places. “Heathrow Flight School. New term, new start. Apply …”

Returning to my hotel, I thought hard. Flying is something I’ve done a lot of, but somehow, never really felt, well, comfortable with. Oh, I’m competent enough, don’t get me wrong, but there’s always room for improvement and I felt I needed that little extra something.

I’ve known a few people who always seem more confident, more skilful than me. Now it was my turn. Off went my application form and, to my surprise, back came the offer of an interview. Did that mean, I wondered, that I have all the right qualifications to be a top flyer or that I was so hopeless they thought any improvement would make them look good? There was only one way to find out.

But for a start, what should I wear? Should I go for ‘man-about-town, jet-setter look?’, the ‘casual competency image?’ or play safe with old-fashioned formality? There was no one I could ask. My mates would have taken the mickey or wanted to apply too. I didn’t want to be competing with them. And I certainly wasn’t going to discuss that sort of thing with my mother. She’d ask too many questions, give me some very hard-talking answers and send me off, no wiser. That’s the trouble. I always feel wrong – under-dressed or over-dressed.

I finally settled for smart casual: new jeans (no machine-made holes or ragged bottoms, though), white shirt (newly ironed), suit jacket and polished shoes. By the time I reached Heathrow Flight School’s newly painted front door, I felt a complete idiot. What had I been thinking of?

It was too late. Before I even knocked, the door opened and a quite nice-looking receptionist invited me in. ‘Ernest Hunter?’ she asked in a voice that sent tingles down my spine. ‘I’m Scarlett. Do come in.’ The way she tossed back her long, wavy hair – the colour of mahogany in firelight – and gazed at me with those Belgian chocolate eyes, I’d already decided to take the advanced course, not just the beginners.

The interview went better than expected so my only problem was which modules to take. No wonder I’ve been such a low-grade flyer. I had no idea there was much more that could be learned. I began to think that the Government should enforce a P-plate scheme, just like car drivers. From Learner to … Practitioner? Passable? Proficient? No, I thought. I should be aiming at complete Professional.

So it began. I moved from Basic Information; Pre-flight science and service; Take-off - under myriad conditions; Dealing with Turbulence; and Back to Earth. I’ve never worked so hard or had such strict, strait-laced but stimulating teachers. I passed, with flying colours, you could say.

That was ten years ago. The course certainly made me a professional. I can now fly from unpaid hotel bills, bullies twice my size, angry animals, irate fathers – with or without shotguns and weeping women (or men, actually, that was part of the same module). I can fly a room or house, town or country.

But there was a snag. Scarlett was not the receptionist. She was their top instructor and, in fact, proprietor of the school. I know far more than fifty ways to leave your lover … but then so does she. Personally, we don’t fly anymore. We just keep each other on our toes.

Monday, 20 September 2021

Net Zero by Dave Rigby

A riverside seat.

Flask emptied, sandwiches finished,

Eyes closed for an early afternoon snooze,

Lulled by a Sibelius stream,

Delivered by ear pods,

Transporting me to Finnish lakes and forests.

The sun warms my face,

A breeze ruffles my hair,

Total relaxation until … a sudden splash.

Eyes open, the symphony stops.

A dog paddles slowly down river,

Its head just above the water,

Tail rudder-like,

Someone calling from a bridge in the distance,

“That’s far enough Archie!”

A natural symphony takes over,

A blackbird in the blackthorn,

Wind in the beech tops,

Water rushing over smooth pebbles, swirling in eddies.

A dipper doing what it says on the tin,

The heron statuesque on the far bank.

Eyelids start to droop again until,

The sound of a tinkling bell.

The line is taut!

A catch?

I grab the rod from its stand.

Too late! Whatever was there … isn’t now.

A whistling walker appears, all boots, rucksack and bonhomie.

“How much have you got in there, mate?”

Meaning the net.

Nothing at all I tell him.

“But it’s not really the point, is it.”

Monday, 13 September 2021

NaCl by Anna Kingston

Harriet rummaged through the spice jars, frowning impatiently when her fingers didn’t land immediately on the one she wanted.

“Rosie, next time you cook, put these jars back properly!” She exclaimed crossly.  “You know I have to have them in order so I can find stuff!”

“Mum, they’re better stored alphabetically, much more logical,” sighed Rosie.  “Basil doesn’t go next to oregano or marjoram.”

“It makes sense to me, and it’s luckier to group them according to recipe,” Harriet mumbled absentmindedly, as she painstakingly re-organised the cupboard.  She sent a silent prayer to the Goddess she believed in, apologising for her daughter’s ignorance.

Rosie studied her mum, trying to conceal her concern and - let’s face it - growing impatience and unease at her mother’s erratic behaviour, becoming more so with each anniversary.

“Mum, let me make it this year, and I promise to put all the jars back as you like them - won’t spill anything either,” Rosie gently offered, taking her mum’s fidgety hands from the jars, as she tried to keep the annoyance from her voice.

“It’s an important anniversary this time, love,” Harriet replied, anxiety (and almost terror it seemed to Rosie) etching the lines more deeply into her face.  “13 years since I found this recipe that saved your life.  Please don’t muck it up, or everything will go wrong - I can’t lose you again!" 

Rosie really did sigh and didn’t hide her impatience this time.

“Mum, it’s just herb bread from that tatty old recipe book of grandma’s, it’s you and your superstitions that have made it into this big thing, all woo-woo and black magic!  Nothing will happen if it’s not 100% the same - this is just a nice tea for us to share as a memory - nothing else!”

“It’s not black mag-!” Harriet started, before suddenly - and literally - snapping her mouth shut.

“Ok, you make it then, but PLEASE don’t make a mess or spill the herbs, especially that” - and pointed to her ‘special’ salt that she’d trekked all the way to Lizard Point for - “and if you do, for the Goddess’ sake throw a pinch over your left shoulder!”

“Or the devil will get me?” laughed Rosie.

Harriet looked terrified, and Rosie was instantly mortified - she was usually more forgiving of her mum’s increasingly fragile mental state.  She shooed Harriet from the kitchen and began baking.

True to her word, Rosie put every jar back precisely in its own place, exactly as Harriet had organised it 13 years ago on the day that Rosie had inexplicably awoken after being pronounced brain dead following the throw from the horse.  Her mum had spent weeks researching science, medication, surgery, religion, and what Rosie termed mumbo-jumbo.  Harriet claimed that some ritual or other - plus this bloody bread! - had brought Rosie back to life, and she would countenance no other explanation.  Rosie’s dad became unable to cope with his wife’s fixations, her obsession with rituals, and her slow retreat from the real world, and quietly left Harriet and Rosie after a stroke in the middle of the night.

Harriet was convinced that making the bread each anniversary would ward off Death or the devil, or something equally unspeakable, but Rosie was sick of it now.

She washed up, cleaned the kitchen, and checked the bread.

“Five more minutes,” she thought, ”soup now”, and rummaged for a couple of tins of their favourite.

A moth flew out of the cupboard, startling Rosie into knocking the salt off the worktop.

“Bugger!” she muttered irritably, and swept it all back into the tub, totally forgetting her mother’s admonition about throwing salt over her left shoulder, absentmindedly flicking a pinch over her right

At ten past one, as per Harriet’s superstitions, the two women sat down to lunch, ready to begin eating at precisely 1.13pm.  Harriet saw the spilled salt and anxiously asked Rosie about it, who replied, “Yeah, chucked a bit over my shoulder,” indicating her right.  The clock ticked over to 13.13 just as Harriet fully understood Rosie’s words, and terror struck her face.

“Oh, Rosie, what have you done?” Harriet breathed, colour draining from her face and her spoon fell, unheeded, to the floor, tomato soup splattering like blood droplets.

THUD! THUD! The front door shook in its frame, and Harriet leapt to her feet, slipping on the spilled soup. She staggered, losing her balance, and fell, her head striking her prized Aga with another, more sickening, thud and then was suddenly motionless, horror still etched on her face.

Rosie calmly opened the door to the burly delivery man, smiling as he apologised for knocking hard but those were his instructions, and took the parcel back to the table.  The hard copy of the book she’d read electronically a year ago today - ‘The Dying Art of Auto Suggestion and Subliminal Advertising” - aimed at salesmen but very useful in so many other contexts peeped out of the packaging.  Rosie dipped the last piece of herb bread she’d ever eat into her soup as she began to read.

Anna M. Kingston

© 2021