Friday, February 17, 2012

Here and There (after Harry Owen)

you leave me
old pen marks, the scratch
of sandpaper across varnish;
ink smudge
abandoned erasings
and the pink edges of pencil shavings
blown through the room.

yet you've trudged
the tedious track -
taxi rank or bicycle shed
you ironed the grubby shirt and plasticised
books battered beyond usefulness
I wish your careless childhood
long lived.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Anna's History

The little boy had been the first of Anna's companions. She'd met him in the park near her house many years before. It was in the days after her mother had left, and Anna had been more or less alone, inattentively supervised by a series of long forgotten nannies, and too shy to approach the other children. But the little boy had seemed as shy and lonely as herself.

By the time her father came out of his locked study, stopped hiring private investigators to track her mother down and found Aunty Zee, Anna had met the walker too. The walker had introduced her to the birdwoman, and the birdwoman had introduced her to the reader. Gradually the empty months had filled with companions who'd shown her the secret paths, and taught her their ways. The only one she'd heard of but never met had been the lady.

After Aunty Zee came, and Anna had gone back to school, she'd lost touch with most of them. She still saw the little boy, of course, and the walker; but the others became a little vague. She exchanged a friendly word with the birdwoman once in a while, and discussed an occasional novel with the reader, but the messages soon became the only day-to-day contact she had with them.

She'd discussed it with Aunty Zee, who hadn't thought it strange at all.

"You're busier than you used to be, and I'm sure they understand that. You have new friends now. New interests. Maybe someday you'll have need of them again. Or they'll have need of you."

Now, as Anna slowly made her way homewards, wondering where she would find the lady, she remembered Aunty Zee's words.

"Which way round is it?" she asked aloud. "Do you need me, or do I need you?"

There was no answer, but as Anna came round the corner into the yellowwood grove she saw the lady seated on a fallen tree trunk, waiting for her.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Lady

Anna took the same route to school every day. And almost every day they would leave her a message. It wasn't anything that stood out: sometimes just a few twigs scattered across the path between the yellowwood trees, or an unusually shaped patch of mown lawn in Mrs Dlamini's garden. But Anna always recognised the message for what it was. She'd wave at Mrs Dlamini's gardener, or gaze up at the nesting starlings and hug the secret knowledge to herself.

So when she saw the empty egg box under the bridge, dumped by the receding canal waters after the recent storm, she knew exactly what it meant. It was time.

She hadn't seen the walker for some weeks, and had assumed that he'd had business elsewhere. She'd kept an eye out for him, but his absence hadn't really worried her. Today she looked especially hard, hesitating on street corners and waiting for a few extra seconds; just in case he was round the corner, hurrying to meet her. But when she emerged from the subway, a little breathless (for she always ran under the subway), he was there, patiently waiting under the hydrangea tree that leant over the Wilsons' back fence.

"Did you get the message?" he asked.

Anna nodded, a hundred questions impatient on her tongue. It was no good rushing the walker. He kept his own pace.

"The lady will find you this afternoon. Listen to her carefully. She doesn't say things twice."

Neither do you, thought Anna. But she still smiled at the walker, to show that she hadn't been changed by the news.

He smiled back at her, and touched the brim of his sun visor in a sketched salute. Then he was gone, no longer more than a steadily shrinking back moving away from her.

She'd never met the lady before, though the others sometimes mentioned her. The walker seemed a bit frightened of her, and that frightened Anna too. But the little boy loved her.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Miss Matilda

Miss Matilda Wilde always locked the door to her flat carefully. She always placed the key in her handbag, and made certain that the zip and clasp of the bag were securely fastened. She always wiggled her toes in her flat soled, black patent leather shoes, ensuring that they were firmly tied and comfortably fitted before walking down the stairs to the parking lot. It was such precautions as these that meant she had lived all of her 43 years without experiencing any major accidents or upsets. It was also such precautions as these that made Miss Matilda extremely trying to live with. She had very little patience for carelessness and foolish behaviour. If she never tripped over a shoelace, or dropped her keys, or lost her handbag, she saw no reason why any other member of the human species should do so.

Her niece Ella was well aware of Miss Matilda’s cautious habits, and of her disapproval of thoughtless actions. And she knew (or guessed) how very trying Miss Matilda would be to live with. But she was also well aware that her aunt had inherited all the money that Ella’s maternal grandfather had accumulated, including the apartment with four bedrooms and a sea view.

Ella had sometimes wondered why her grandfather had passed her own mother over in such an apparently malicious fashion. But being a sensible young woman, she had reached the conclusion that her staid forbear had probably made a wise decision. Meredith had had a marked inclination to do silly things on a regular basis. She’d started at the age of 16 with the teen pregnancy which had produced Ella, and ended at the age of 45 with an illegal and unsupervised bungee jump which proved, unsurprisingly, to be fatal.

Nonetheless, her grandfather’s foresight had left Ella in an uncommonly tricky position. Having just reached her third decade, she found herself both motherless and moneyless. Her father was lost in the mists of high school romance; her grandparents were long deceased, and her mother had engaged in a relationship terminating quarrel with Miss Matilda several years prior to her unexpected death. Ella herself was intelligent and well educated, having acquired a Masters degree in Philosophy at a well regarded university, but she found that few institutions were willing to hire either a vastly over qualified secretary or a vastly under qualified business manager. Neither was her landlord particularly sympathetic to her well thought out arguments regarding unpaid rent. And her bank was beginning to become distinctly unsympathetic about extending her student loan for yet another year.

As a result, Ella found herself outside the Miss Matilda’s apartment complex, dressed with singular care and hoping (with a streak of her mother’s optimism) for a very particular and favourable outcome.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

From last Friday

That evening, Danny skyped Prawn. It was the only way to have a conversation with him – Prawn had stopped coming to school half way through the previous year, and visitors were not encouraged.

“Someone found locker 1542,” Danny said quietly.

A few kilometres away, Prawn's pinkish eyes bulged, the effect magnified by the angle of his web-cam. “It's not even supposed to belong to you.”

“Can we check out the cameras?”

“I can access the footage easily enough, if that's what you mean.” A scornful look crossed his translucent face. “They store it on the external server; two weeks worth. Barely any security worth mentioning. But it won't help. That place is a madhouse.”

“She must have left some kind of a trace.” Despite himself, Danny could feel his frustration rising like bile. He wasn't used to being beaten at his own game. And the knowledge that he was speaking to Prawn only to confirm what he already knew just made matters worse.

“Are you working physical evidence?”

“Teach your grandmother, Prawn.”

“How about tracing the back story?”

“Asanda's on it.”

“Okay, so back to my first thought then. How the hell did she find you?”

Danny paused. “Accessing the locker allocations wouldn't have helped her. Those have all been
tweaked. No trace of our business left there.”

“Plus I added a few anti-hacker titbits of my own,” Prawn reminded him smugly. “Any unauthorised entry would have set off alarm bells all over my system. And I'm assuming this isn't an official investigation.”

“Which means...”

“The easiest way to find it without risking detection would have been physical observation.”

His face cleared. Here was something concrete. “Following one or more of us. Getting the general location.  Narrowing down the field. Hanging around during busy times. Keeping an eye on things. Maybe making friends with a few bona fide locker holders so she's got an excuse to chill there.”

“Not impossible. How long do you reckon this chick's been planning the set up?”

“We'll have to wait for Asanda on that one.”  

I promise I'm back on the challenge now...

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Locker 1542

“I think my brother was murdered.”

Danny Whitman stared at the note. Characteristically, no twitch in his pale face betrayed the fact that he was extraordinarily disturbed by the presence of a foreign communique in locker 1542. Danny had not reached his lofty position by reacting mindlessly to circumstance. Only the slightest sideways movement of his bleached eyes indicated his sudden awareness of his surroundings.

Locker 1542 had been chosen specially for its location. It was a top level locker in the Beitman Building, East Wing – an area which was seldom without a buzz of activity. None of the busy passers-by ever bothered to take note of a slender figure extracting this notebook or that backpack from the bank of battered lockers. But now all the factors which made locker 1542 ideal for Danny's usual purposes were working against him. In the press of humanity all around him, and the hubbub of slamming doors and clicking locks, there was no way that he could identify a single interested observer or apprehensive lurker.

Instead, he slipped the note into the breast pocket of his beautifully laundered blazer and gently closed the locker door.

An hour later, Danny spread the same scrap of lined paper in front of Lilah Davids, the youngest of his lieutenants.

“Well, it looks like ordinary foolscap,” she said doubtfully. “Torn off the bottom of one of the exam pads you buy cheap on campus.”

Danny waited. She wasn't one of his top resources for nothing, and he was confident she'd pull something out.

“Written in ballpoint, pressing fairly hard – so I might be able to read some indentations.”

“Would they be likely to help?”

Lilah scowled at the scribbled writing. “It looks like whoever wrote this did it on impulse. Tore it off the bottom of her notes. Chances are she – ”


“Come on, Dan. Look at it. With those e's its ten to one female, probably a junior. Anyhow, chances are she already pressed on this page while writing other notes. In which case, I should be able to get a partial read of whatever she's been writing about before this.”

He smiled. “Thanks Lil. And listen, give it top priority?”

“Sure. Always happy to pry into other people's stationery. Might be able to find you a match on the ink as well, for what its worth, especially if Galway buys my excuse for using the Chem lab.”

“He'll buy it.” No-one refused a polite request from Danny's crew, not even staff members. Their reasoning, hand tailored by Danny himself, was always impeccable; their credentials and reputation unblemished.

“I'll bb you when I get something. God, I better run. Mrs A will have my guts if I'm late again.”

Lilah hurtled off; satchel, kitbag and portfolio case crashing in her wake. Danny watched her go with some indulgence. Gone were the days when he ran for class. And in truth he wasn't much more concerned with finding the identity of his mysterious correspondent than he was with the prospect of Mrs Adams really having Lilah's guts. She'd contacted him, and when she was ready she'd contact him again. In the meantime though, more information was always good information. You never knew when it would come in handy.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Murder These Days

“Murder just isn't the same these days,” sighed Mrs Bradbury-Newton. “There's no class to it any more. It's just shootings and bashings and stabbings, and burnings and drownings and gang violence. What's happened to the good old middle class murder?

“I suppose really its the fault of suppliers. I mean, in the old days it was perfectly simple to get a decent supply of arsenic, or cyanide or whatever it was that you needed. You just popped down to the chemist a few villages away from your own, disguised with a headscarf and sunglasses, and told the assistant you needed it to kill rats. Or maybe wasps. Or something to do with hat-paint and cosmetics. Then you signed the poison register under a false name, preferably one that belonged to someone you wanted to incriminate, and walked away with enough poison to kill a small army.

“Even if you were cursed with a group of intelligent and observant chemist's assistants in your neighbourhood there was a very reliable alternative. You were bound to have a chum from boarding school who now worked in the nearby hospital dispensary. You simply nipped over to have tea with her at work, distracted her with a facsinating newspaper clipping and nicked a bottle or two from the poisons cupboard. Your kid leather gloves, absently mindedly left on, ensured that no fingerprints would be left behind. And again, you walked away with all the lethal material you could ever require.

“And here I am, an excellent candidate for becoming a respectable middle class murderer, and I cannot think of a single means of acquiring any of the traditional poisons. I'd have to be a chemistry major to come up with a way of quietly offing my husband, or mother-in-law, or illegitimate second cousin twice removed turned blackmailer. Or at least of doing so without leaving an official trail or a terrible mess. They just don't sell arsenic at the corner chemist any more. Neither do they keep cyanide in a dusty and disregarded poisons cabinet, under the inattentive eye of a college buddy. And wearing kid gloves would be bound to raise suspicions before I even got started.

“This must be why all those mystery writers turn murder stories into thrillers these days.  No such thing as a nice clean murder, worthy of puzzling out over your knitting.”

Mrs Bradbury-Newton sighed again. “Murder these days.”