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Dark Connections (Part Two)

Episode 2 –  

A Mutilated Body & A Poor Alibi

” You’re alive!! “
This was Miss Roberts – his Secretary & PA, the type that movies were always casting 20 years younger than the real McCoy. John Smith affected his usual nonchalance,”You sound disappointed Toots, how come ?”

Miss Roberts always gave great ripostes:”Thing is Skip,when we heard you were dead first thing I did was look up florists in the yellowpages..”

“Aw,that was sweet of you Toots, on the ball as always”.

“Yeah I’ve got as far as ordering the wreath”

“No flowers yet?”

“You got any preferences?”

“I’ll pass on the flowers, I get hay fever you know”.

“Yeah, but Skip the flowers are meant to go on top of your grave”.

“Got it all figured out ain’t you, the boss croaks and you’re into the flowers for sentimental occasions catalogue”.

“So how come you’re not stiff and laid out on some coroner’s slab?”

“I just wouldn’t be comfortable,anyhow toots you going to let me in on this pantomime show or do I have to buy a souvenir program?”.

Miss Roberts, a widow to an authentic hero in the war.The kind of older sister figure that men like John Smith wished they’d had back in their childhoods instead of two dumb too dumb brothers;anyhow he extinguished that line of thought- the one that only leads into the past and on into melancholy.

Now was not the time for morbid self-reflection;he had things to do and problems to solve now that he was supposed to be dead.

Miss Roberts let him know that an Inspector Ruyter and Sergeant Brannigan were up on the 7th.floor making official enquiries with you know who.Smith nodded appreciatively and prompted her to phone upstairs and request the cops pop down.” ‘Pop down’ ,excuse me Skip?”

“Yes my good woman? ask if they wouldn’t mind awfully popping down”.

Miss Roberts phoned muttering in her stage whisper that someone’s been watching too many Ronald Colman movies lately and ended her call with ” it’s far far better thing” aimed at Smith who had diplomatically already turned his back on her so as not to crack up.

Once they’d all been introduced – police and civilians alike – they settled down with Miss Roberts acting as stenographer.Smith reassured Inspector Ruyter that occasions of this sort here at Continental Development were routinely recorded.Thanking Smith for this unusual courtesy Ruyter proceded with the interview.

Later that evening, everyone else gone home and the city switching to night mode,on the 5th floor of the Hitchcock Building,John Smith and his trusted P.A.were going over what she’d recorded earlier.Each in turn picking out salient highlights.

“30 to 40 large wounds..”
“Remote platform used for freight traffic of which there’d been little of recently due to the wildcat strikes at ports on the east coast,so fairly deserted.”
“On the basis of a heavily blood stained and almost illegible drivers licence and one of your business cards..”
“They triangulared it was John Smith, in particular this one”.
“You say here that you were at the Station to get the 9.11 for your meeting with the mysterious clients but someone you assumed was calling on their behalf advised you not to get the train as the meeting had been called off and they also told you to await for instructions from them”.
“That’s right”.
“At this stage Ruyter asks you for more details about the call and made a pointed reference to Sergeant Brannigan for him to check the call logs for the Station Manager’s Office first thing in the morning”.
“And my answer to what did I do after I got the unexpected call cancelling the meeting..?”
“You said you went and bought the Daily News morning edition and made your over to Steffano’s Bar for a very late breakfast ..”

“After which?”

“You wound up back here on the 5th floor of the Hitchcock Building at your office-Overseas Acquisitions of Continental Development Inc to be greeted by me..”

“You’re alive etcetra and so forth pax vobiscum”.

“You haven’t told them everything have you John?”- Miss Roberts looked at him more in sorrow than admonition.

“Of course not Toots”.

Heaving an all too visible sigh of relief, Miss Roberts continued,”Thank goodness for that, for a moment I thought you were breaking the professional habits of a lifetime”.

Smith grinned,”Yeah and by the time Brannigan who got too many knocks to the head playing gaelic football at College ,will have ascertained, even for his limited intellectual faculties, confirmation of the cadaver’s erstwhile identity from the department of motor vehicles”…
( To be continued )

Dark Connections

( A Classic 1940s Hollywood Noir pastiche)

             Episode 1
The tannoy boomed out;
” Attention please! Will passenger Mr.John Smith please report to the Station Manager’s office,that’s the Station Manager’s office on the main concourse,thank you”.
Anyone in the vicinity on hearing that would perhaps have noticed a dapper business guy,in his late forties, carrying a regular attache case suddenly spin on his heels and stride purposefully back the way he just came.
The station had great signage,on entering the cathedral-like domed rail terminus,John Smith saw that to his left were platforms 1 to 9 for all northbound destinations and on his right platforms 10-18 for all the southbound.He’d arrived with plenty of time to spare before his scheduled departure from platform 13.
Though even as he smartly about-faced he couldn’t for the life of him imagine who’d be requiring his presence so urgently.
The Station Manager’s office was a typically State-run affair; far too hot for the time of the year,yellowy-brown wallpaper and furnishings and a large oak desk behind which sat an indetereminate figure subsumed in a fug of pipe smoke.
“Can I help you at all?””Yeah,sure,you just put out a call for me over the p.a”Now he was stroking his chin whilst keeping a firm grip of the pipe stem as it continued to stream its pervasive odour like a badly maintained car exhaust.
“You Mr.John Smith?””What is it you want to see me about,I’ve got a train in ten minutes”.”That right?well you got some i.d.that tells me you’re John Smith”.
He deftly flashed a business card from his wallet with exemplary ledgerdemain and saw it land on the desk blotter.”Great,thanks Mr.Smith. a lady called just a couple of minutes ago,asked for us to put out a message,which you heard and asked to pass on a number you could phone her back on”.
The Manager eased the telephone handset across the desk toward Smith and handed him the slip he’d taken the number down on.Glancing at his watch,he continued “May I?” pointing at the phone.”All part of the service to passengers”grinned the smoke enshrouded manager.
“Hello?”A breathless kind of eerie female voice responded,making John Smith raise his eyebrows.”Listen and just shut up,I haven’t got much time.I was hoping to catch you before you got the train here”.”Sorry but I’m having a problem..” She interrupted him, “This is John Smith I’m speaking to right?”What?of course I’m John Smith,you left a message for me remember, and the Station Manager whose office phone I’m using asked me for proof of its your move next lady”.”Forgive me John,won’t you,like always? Only you must not get on that train.Do not go to the rendezvous as arranged”.
The increasingly cryptic tone of the conversation had taken him somewhat by surprise ,”So what are telling me ,my meeting’s off,is that what this is about?”
The female voice at the other end gasped,perhaps part in resignation and partly with exasperation.”Always so punctillious John,so ,so correct.But we’ve run out of time or at least I have; but you can still get out of it that’s why I phoned the Station,I knew you’d be there on time.”.
Smith turned to the Manager and mimed his own vexation at this call.”Who has called the meeting off and why didn’t they bother to let me know via my office? ” he glanced at his watch,again.
“All I know is the meeting as you describe it is off and you’re not to go there.They told me they’ll contact you directly in a couple of days to let you know how things stand”. He detected the beginnings of a sob as she hung up on him.
Smith handed the telephone back over across the Manager’s desk and muttering some indistinct thanks exited the office.His train was due to leave in five minutes.
Back outside the cathedral-domed edifice an unexpected traffic snarl up was causing a long backup of vehicles.All eager, all impatient, none more so than dozens of passengers in dozens of taxis all with their meters still running and the likes of John Smith beginning to wander whether they’d be better off getting out here and walking the remaining 200 yards or so to the station.
He looked at his watch.Damn! 
He pressed a twenty note into the cabbie’s eager fingers as he hastened onto the heaving pavenent.
Tall,gaunt wth distinctively ascetic facial characteristics and no mean athlete even at 35,Johann Schmidt -or John Smith as it had been anglicised after the War, jogged easily into the station main concourse.To his right the signage indicated all northbound platforms and on the left,southbound.Being the perfectionist on organsational detail he pondered for a brief moment double checking the mission security protocol.He looked at his watch,nip and tuck,but could do it which meant he should,which in turn meant..
 “Excuse me are you the Station Manager? The room gave Schmidt the indelible impression that it had been smoked in quite heavily.A thin pallid man in collar and tie squinted nervously at the question.”Erm,no,I’m just the Chief Operations Clerk minding the store as it were till he gets back,he’s just popped out for a moment”.
“Oh I see would you be able to tell me if someone had phoned here in the last few minutes asking to put out a call for me?”
The pallid clerk stared blankly thro his thick lenses at this impertinence by a member of the general travelling public.
He told him that a call log is kept.And Schmidt told him his (legally) anglicised moniker.
“John Smith you say?” parried the Clerk.”Yes,that’s right, here’s my business card”Schmidt tossed the item onto the desk with all the nonchalant ease of a casino gambler winning at vingt et un. At that instance,the office door swung open and the pipe smoking Manager was back.
“Can I help you at all?””It’s okay Sir,I’m already dealing with this gentleman’s enquiry””Really? and what might that be?” – the broken exhaust pipe fumes gathered about him.
“Just checking if we put out a call for him before he got here”.
Schmidt smiled non commitally and hoped reassuringly at the Manager.
“What’s your name?””Mr.John Smith, I’ve left my business card on the desk”.””Look it’s here Sir in the log,why not ten minutes ago ,John Smith”The Manager got behind his desk “This your business card here?”Schmidt nodded.”Here,take it and leave and don’t come back until you come up with some plausible story”.The bemused Schmidt asked”What’s wrong,who called?”
“You see buddy,we don’t give out confidential information but in any event and just to satisfy your curiousity;sure some person called for a Mr.John Smith as it happens and Mr.John Smith already got his why dont you..”
The Manager pointed at the door and told Smith/Schmidt to go catch a train.

( To be continued..)


She gave the child a poster to hold while she answered the video journalist’s questions

I thought her answers were dodgy till I realised the questions were dodgy . She was used to these struggles .

The child was bored . He wanted to make a paper plane out of the poster . He even folded it a little awkwardly , enclosed as he was in the grandmother’s embrace which he made no effort to escape .

My attention wandered though the testimony was riveting . The lamb that had not even been born last year was being accused of muddying the water upstream , last year . Grounds were being prepared for swallowing the lamb whole . The Tiger was hungry but politically correct

If it wasn’t you it must have been your father
If it wasn’t you it must have been your sister or your sister in law or your mother .
It was another girl from the community . The mother was a part of the group that agitated for justice .

The interviewer was oily . The insinuators were clever . The mother was resilient . She struck to a bare narrative . She had no emotional appeal . She was not pretty . She too had spent time in jail.

She knew she would not be believed. She knew she had to tell her story . It was not her story alone . It was the story of her daughter now . It had been the story of another woman’s daughter then . The stories were interlinked . The stories never ended .

The incidents were not pretty
The police were not pretty
The cases were not pretty .
The girl was pretty

The family was gritty

The little boy was about to launch his imperfect paper aeroplane when the grandmother swooped down on it , unfolded it , and again made him hold it up like a placard. The poster was a computer print-out.

The child was stoic. He kept trying to fold the poster once more but to no avail . He sulked but not too much .

The woman held the child to her chest like a shield . The child was warm in the comfort of her lap . He did not want to run away . The woman did not refuse to answer a single question .

Finally , the interviewer got up . The woman and child watched him speak his closing piece into the microphone . His curled moustaches oozed privilege . He asked his viewers to judge for themselves .

The camera was switched off .The interviewer walked out of the gate without a backward look . He was about to step into his SUV .

A paper plane landed at his feet . One wing said FREE . The other wing said AABAAD . The rest was lost in the folds .

The little boy laughed

( AABAAD means ALIVE , INHABITED, FLOURISHING in Persian , Urdu , Hindi , and Punjabi )

( ASA )

( This is not a poem but a short story for the New Writing section )

Game Time

                  GAME TIME
He recalled the click of safety catches.

Auric Keller was at a niche Kensington bistro and then he wasn’t.He’d gone to the bathroom just before the dessert course and then he wasn’t in the bathroom.

Shards of short term memories ripped across his mind.The unmistakable visceral odour of a cloth pressed against his mouth, the clumsy way he hit his forehead against the pristine marble washbasin as he tumbled into unconsciousness and the vice like grip of his abductors’ hands propping him up.And that clicking of safety catches.

And then.. “Deus Irae” from Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” hoisted him abruptly back into the world.There was his Iphone on the ground next to his throbbing head.On the ground?The cold from the rough,uneven earth seemed to seep into his very bones as he shook and shivered awake and squinted at the phone’s screen.”Caller Unknown”.

Auric Keller gave out a primeval groan,part anger,frustration and fear.Mostly fear.Still wearing, albeit terminally splattered and dishevelled,his casual suit from the dinner date he got unsteadily to his feet and scooped up the phone and swiped accept.
“Talk to me,whoever you are,tell me I’m dreaming”.

“Mr.Keller? good morning to you,and you know you’re not dreaming when you wake up in the middle of field and have no idea how you get there;am I right Mr Keller?”

Auric Keller Head of Global Investment Acquisitions at JamesonCorp had very little time for fools or the cliched dialogue so fond of Hollywood screenplay hacks.
“Listen whoever you are,just give me the bottom line and spare me the existential drama.How much,where and when.”
Did Keller detect a barely suppressed chuckle at the other end?

“Oh Mr.Keller you’re obviously labouring under a misapprehension,allow me to enlighten you,put you straight as it were”
Auric Keller by this time was taking in his immediate physical environment,making mental notes,assessing his own condition and surroundings.A field about a hundred yards long,unremarkable countryside,weather fine,possible distant traffic noises?
“What was that?” he said absentmindedly.

“Please do pay attention Mr.Keller ,the exercise begins in a just a few minutes,you must concentrate;honestly you corporate bosses are all the same”.
He couldn’t see anyone else in the vicinity.It was just him all on his lonesome in the middle of a field.His phone told him that it was 8:57 am.That meant he’d been out cold for the best part of 10 hours.So why no hypothermia? Because they-whoever they were- had kept him indoors and dumped him here maybe an hour ago or less.

“I see you’re orienting yourself Mr.Keller just like the good ex- Special Forces officer they obviously trained you to be.Figuring out why you hadn’t succumbed to the privations of hypothermia no doubt..”
“See? you just said I see,figure of speech or close by”.That chuckle again,”Good heavens no; there’s a drone if you look up and to your three o’clock”.And there was. 
“You still haven’t addressed my request”.”The how much,where and when?”

“You got it pal,well?”

“Well as I was attempting to tell you there ain’t no how much or where or even when, you’re not being held for ransom”.
Despite his Officer training and undeniable reasoning and analytical skillset, Auric Keller found non-sequiturs unsettling.
“In that case what am I doing here and just exactly what is your game?”

“Now that’s the first sensible utterance to come from your lips thus far Mr.Keller,I stress thus far,you’ve still got some way go and we haven’t even started the game yet”.As the voice was blathering in his ear,Keller had visually reconnoitred more of his surroundings.An outhouse of sorts,part of its roof missing,an industrial type refuse skip,bags of cement,wheelbarrows,ladders,shovels..
“I can tell you’re casting your gaze toward the farm outbuilding,why don’t you go over there.You’ll not get the chance later on once we’ve started”.
Keller ambled over toward the outbuilding.Game and starting,he carefully evaluated those words as he spun round and looking in the direction of the drone.

” ‘We’ are not starting any ‘game’,what’s about to happen is I’m putting a stop to it right now” and with that he exaggerartedly pressed 9-1-1.
Nothing.Of course he was in England,had been for the past 72 hours,for the board meeting and that intimate dinner date.9-9-9.

Even as he spoke with what he imagined as being in a cool,calm and collected manner it wouldn’t sound like that to the person answering;he knew all too well the outcome.Can you me give your location-no-but you guys can you do GPS tracking,depends on what you’re calling us about,kidnapped?when?have you managed to escape your abductors?no? where are you phoning from-the field in which you woke up and is anyone standing next to you or threatening your life right now?And so Keller hung up.

“Caller Unknown” rang:”Well Mr.Keller that was rather pointless don’t you think;our emegency services do so hate crank calls;now with time running out please make use of what’s left of it;it’s for your benefit”.the call ended again with the muffled chuckle.

 Thirty seconds elapsed,”There you are Mr.Keller back to your best,our apologies it might be that we overdid the chloroform and that’s slowed you down ;so paying attention?”.Keller grunted and nodded.”The game space – ie.the farmer’s field has been mined with IEDs which at the commencement of the proceedings will be remotely activated.Your game mission is to get yourself across the field alive in the allotted time.In 60 minutes an unmarked white Bedford van will appear at the far gate where the driver will wait to pick you up and bring you in and the game will be officially ended”.

Keller wasn’t sure what to think,”Are you out of your mind? A game that involves me crossing a frickin minefield?”
“That is indeed the nature of the competitve challenge”.

“Well, I’ve news for you pal no-one is crossing this field,mined or otherwise”.

“But Mr.Keller we are contractually obligated to facilitate this psychometric evaluation exercise”
The proverbial penny seemingly began to drop for Auric Keller as he gathered his wits and began scrutinising the horizon for an alternate point of exit from the field – the game space?The voice at the other end took on an air of exasperation- real or feigned,Keller wasn’t sure.
“We’re really sorry Mr.Keller but on 3,2,1, now! we have remotely armed the IEDs.You know as well as anyone Old man Jameson’s aphorisms,you’ve been in his employ long enough to understand just how he gets people to do his bidding in order to get the things he wants,done”.
Now That surprised Keller.”Corporate are paying for all this shennanigans?To have me abducted from a restaurant,held hostage and dumped into a field?That’s insane”.
“Sorry to hear that coming from you Mr.Keller but the clock is running and I’m afraid I’m at the limits of what I’m able to legally share on sensitive corporate contract details with you,despite your position and of course your ambitions to be the next Veep”.
“Whoa their pilgrim just take a step back..”

“How can I Mr.Keller I’m sat in front of a control panel”

“Is that your idea of a lame joke?”He heard that muted chuckle.
“We’re merely facilitators and I may say amongst the market’s leading brands in providing such experiences.” Keller had made the 90 or so feet over to the hodge -podge of idling equipment and materials by the outbuilding.
“You’ll be familiar with the ZenithCorp scandal Mr.Keller,last Fall?c’mon you must be”.
Keller was uncomfortable at the mention of a corporate escape-room task evaluation exercise by one of JamesonCorp’s biggest market rivals.Five of their up and coming executives had been designated an escape-room weekend which they thought involved a mock up flight simulation in a customised hangar.The idea being to see how they would react to being in an aircraft falling out of the sky.Except there was no hangar.And when they showed up at their exercise venue there was a real private jet waiting for them.
“They survived all of them more else,one of them is permanently in a wheelchair”

“Oh that wasn’t us that was a competitor outfit.The point is,the lady in the wheelchair got the top job after a corporate merger and the exercise was deemed a success,she was the one who landed the aircraft.But it was real Mr.Keller,a flight simulator and an entire weekend to work out the clues all with no actual jeopardy that doesn’t tell you anything about character”.
Keller demurred,”Oh it sure does”.

“I’m glad you agree”.

“Yeah it shows that whoever set it up is a complete raving psychopath,so count the minutes down,I’m staying put and you’ll have to explain to Corporate why the exercise didn’t happen”.
“As you wish Mr.Keller,but did I forget to mention a really important clause in the contract?”
“Which is..?””Oh,here it is..that once the 60 minutes of scheduled evaluation exercise time has elapsed all IEDs are to be remotely order to avoid any unforseen liabilities once we’ve disengaged from the venue”.

And that point,Keller’s attention was caught by a scurrying motion just in front of his feet,a field mouse burst out from under an partially upturned bucket and headed away from him.A screeching sound made him jump as a goshawk elegantly divebombed onto the mouse some thirty feet away now.And then..

He groaned a little,checked his limbs for injuries,felt the back of his neck.All good.”Mr.Keller,Mr.Keller,you there? You Okay?hello,Keller”.Amazingly he had kept a firm grip on his IPhone.

” Yah,I’m okay, thanks for your concern and I get it.It’s a live fire exercise;well let me tell you you worthless piece of crap,I’ve done live fire exercises and run them too so I’ll deal with you afterwards.Now,how much time I got left?”
“48 minutes..” Keller pressed the mute button and went to over to the stockpile of materials.
“Improvise,improvise” he spoke aloud to himself,repeating his own Special Forces training mantra…
When he looked at his phone screen again,his countdown clock was showing 37 minutes of gametime remaining.

He had retrieved an elongated barrow,mounted an odd assortment of long handled,long reach implements hanging down from the front and bound them as securely as he could with ropes and spare wire he had dilligently scrounged from the pile.
He took a long,deliberate look toward the wide farm gate – he figured about 80 yards or so distant – and off he set trundling the precarious wheelbarrow with its accoutrements over the field with as much confidence and optimism as a Heath-Robinson minesweeper might inspire.

He’d gotten about 20 yards when a voice interrupted his operating theatre concentration.
“Oi,I said oi you there where’d you think you’re going with all that gear?” Keller kept going.”Not now”,he muttered to himself,”not now”.But he did have to pause,turn his head round and look.A farm labourer, rough and mean and meaner looking with every stride he took.”You can’t go thieving just because we leave stuff unattended,take it back right now!”Keller shouted for the man to stop,the potential horror was too much; “And I’m telling you so you’d better listen,stop where you are,don’t take one more step this way”.

“What you talking about mate?”

“Just believe me when I tell you ,you’re endangering your own life by coming after me”.

“You threatening me?” he queried continuing his advance to where Keller stood immobile.”I’m not threatening you,in fact once I reach the gate down there I’m going to leave all this stuff for you to take back”.The labourer kept coming albeit with diminished fervour.”There’s too much to explain,look some people have planted landmines in this field and..”

“Mines,landmines,you think I’m stupid?”
Keller was conscious of the clock running down and he wasn’t making any progress.”Just please go back the way you came!”pleaded Keller.

“Why you bloody cheeky..” the man strode purposefully forward,except that he never got to complete his stride.

Keller didn’t look back to check,he never did on the field of battle and the blast and ensuing clouds of raspberry coloured particles pushed Keller and his trundling wheelbarrow out of their lethargy.

24 minutes left.The Heath-Robinson contraption aka minesweeper trundled on with Keller immersed in a virtually hermetic bubble of fevered concentration.The yards got harder,the terrain rougher and more uneven.Somebody’s going to get their lights punched out when I get back to Corporate after this.

11 minutes left.The physical strain was telling on Keller.The years of soft Corporate life were a Wind he had sown and now it felt like he was reaping the whirlwind.

His phone rang.
“Before you say anything else,let me say this,you’d better explain yourself to me really well when you see me next;now what do you want?”

“Everything shall be explained entirely to your satisfaction Mr.Keller of that I can assure you;now your gametime is showing 5 minutes..”A wave of nausea passed through Keller.”What? No way there’s 10 minutes at least,I set my phone”.
“We are sole adjudicators in matters of contractual dispute Mr.Keller the unmarked Bedford van will be pulling up in 5 ,hope the driver won’t be coming back passengerless”.And there was that irritating barely suppressed chuckle again.

Taking a deep breath,Keller parked the barrow and let it flop onto its side and took a long look toward the gate.He was actually closer,a lot closer than he at first imagined.He noticed a semi-circle of gravel this side of the gate marking the boundary where the field itself ended and began.
The unexpected when you least expected it.Another one of his military aphorisms that he loved to impart to the rookies out on their first mission.
Only two mines had been detonated and for an entire field to have been mined that seemed more than just a little fortuitous.He’d covered some eighty odd yards with the Heath-Robinson minesweeper contraption.Which had hit nothing.

That told him they were saving their best to last.The entire broadsweep fieldside of the gravel semicircle in front of the gate.That’s where I would sow a lot of mines.Obvious.
He half-heard a van coming down the farm track.2 minutes he guessed.Picking up and righting the minesweeper he moved 5 yards then stopped again.The van had come to a halt and the driver’s door slid slowly open.

Keller was maybe 15 feet short of the gravel arc.Time to see just how fit he still was.He carefully disrobed himself of his suit leaving only his boxers on.He bundled up his clothes with spare rope and heaved the bundle airwards and they landed smack next to the gate.And now,he made a mental note of his mark and paced back ten yards for a run up.The van driver looked at his watch.Keller set off.His long jump sent him crashing into the gate itself.

On their way to the control room,which as it turned out was at the actual main farm house not quarter of a mile away; the driver kept half his attention on Keller,”Man that was crazy! just plain out of this world crazy.I bet they didn’t see that one coming”.
Keller let the man talk.A flunkey, a hired hand who probably wasn’t shown the full set up anyway.He had a severe talking to give but not to this guy.They pulled up outside the 18th century renovated,modernised farm house.He was of course expected and to go straight in and see the boss.

The control room was all blue screens and had an air of “This is Houston” about it.They showed him the screens,all the screens and the recordings.And they explained things and answered his questions.Keller was dumbfounded.”If you look closely at the man on screen 1 he’s in what we call our studio barn.His image is projected as a CGI hologram on screen 2 that’s him talking to you.”

“And the mouse?”

“Nope that was a real mouse and a real goshawk but with a micro explosive attached giving you the required impression of a mine going off”.

“So nobody got killed and there were no actual mines”

“And we made a donation to the Royal Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals as well!”.
Someone behind Keller let out a chuckle.

“Well it seems all you guys need do is send the exercise evaluation report to old Jameson,huh?”

“Poor old Jameson a corporate Titan and 89 years old and unable for the last 15 to even remember his own name”.

Keller laughed,” Back there on the field I thought I was at the mercy of a bunch of evil,sadistic psychopaths who kidnap,torture and would kill for fun”.

There was that chuckle again.Keller spun round to see who it was.

“Hi Keller,I’m sorry that we didn’t get to finish our dinner date but what were saying just now?”
“Oh nothing,I thought you might’ve been a bunch of evil,sadistic psychopaths..”

“Really?” she smiled back at Keller,”and who said that we weren’t?”
And just as Keller understood things at last, he heard the clicking of safety catches.

A Quiet Night

                  A QUIET NIGHT

They certainly had a sense of humour.Christening their product with an acronym which also meant ” Die ” in German.

And here he was,stood next to the STERB ( Self-Termination Booth )the only one still in working order in his neighbourhood,at 4 in the morning.

Good thing was he’d remembered to renew his annual registration only the other day.You don’t access a STERB without all  the bureaucratic necessities taken care of.

And despite all the official media denials,there was an uptick recently in the informal practice,which of course was not only frowned upon by society but also crucially denied revenue to VIVAT,the makers and operators of STERB.

For avowed libertarians they sure didn’t mind regulation by the quasi-state when it suited their pockets.

Anyhow, 4 in the morning on the Sunshine Estate and the STERB resplendent in all its diffident,opaque utilitarian glory inviting him to partake of the ultimate eucharist.

Earth,pardon me we’re supposed to spell it Erth to promote the sacred tenet of Inclusion, anyhow this cosmic dirtball we’re all stood on is way past its Happy Hour.

Not that a solid century- and- a half of Degenderisation hadn’t put the brakes on in a way that Malthus wouldn’t have approved of.But 19 Billion? Really?and the off – world colonies were taking fewer every day.

But even just the idea of genomic reconfiguration & physio-reconstruction was simply too big a leap for too many even for those with low socio-economic ratings such as him.

Seriously who’ d want an extended “life”- presence on an alien world as a diamond miner- 5 feet tall weighing 350 pounds in order to adapt and cope to an alien gravity?But hell,apart from that, the job prospects were always good.

The DNA interface clicked and the booth opened its maw.

Soft lighting,ambient music- JS Bach he guessed- welcomed him as he sat on the facsimile classic barbers chair. In that regard,VIVAT the makers and operators of STERB didn’t spare any of the proverbial expense.
The handy data lonzenge swiped over the screen array; a flow of easy-to-comprehend numeric indices glared back at him.
A synth-voice cooing in all 9 official languages, asked whether he wanted to proceed.

He was momentarily distracted from his induced reverie by a violent banging coming from the outside of the booth.
A muffled, distant voice exclaiming ,”Hey you in there,you gonna be much longer,some of us ain’t got all day you know!”

That wasn’t supposed to be part of the advertised “Termination Experience” , but what can you expect with this being the only STERB in working order on the whole damn estate?
He could of course change his mind even now and go back to his apartment on subterranean level Minus372 and prep for Communal productive activity later this morning.But it wouldn’t count diddly squat toward his ratings and that really was the thing.The thing that mattered.

The dormant booth AI voiced a prompt ,could he please choose an option and initiate the connecting nano-probes?
And then there it was.The giant red numerals commencing at Six – Zero.

It was that attention to detail and responsiveness to user demand and preference that led VIVAT marketing to go with the now iconic 60 seconds visual countdown thereby enhancing the Termination Experience.

He didn’t mind one way or the other.

Was that nongender specific citzen outside the booth still exclaiming about having to wait so long to use the booth still there?

He didn’t mind.

Beats being reshaped as a five foot human gorilla to go exist on an alien world even with a guaranteed additional longevity and enhanced ratings.

He..he didn’t..mind..

And as he exuded his last gasp of air he heard the AI synth-voice pronounce the sacramental blessing: 

VIVAT thanks you for choosing STERB for your Termination Experience.

The Protest Singer



It was a cold morning but Mitthoo was in high spirits . His friend Harinder was reading the newspaper while Satinder was tying his turban . “ The temperature will fall to 4 degrees Celsius tonight .They say this is the coldest winter in 70 years in Delhi, “ said Satinder . “ I know the cure for that . Let us have some tea and begin our singing. I wrote 10 songs for this very event in the past two months since the troubles began , “ said Mitthoo , and he was as good as his word .

He had been singing at the top of his voice to the rhythmic accompaniment of his old tambourine , with thousands around him listening :

“ We are here to win
We will return only when
Victory crowns our heads
Tell that to those
Who plan to resist us “

His listeners nodded , clapped and sang the chorus with him . Everyone was in high spirits .Mitthoo was one of the best motivational singers in the entire historic protest camp of nearly 200000 people . This tent was for people of his region and he sang in the regional language forming an instant bond with his listeners and lifting their mood as they sat on the freezing roads hundreds of miles from home . He reinforced their faith in the justness of their cause . As it noon struck , the call for the community lunch came , and the sitting broke up .

“ Come along , Mitthoo , let’s have some of this lovely hot cauliflower and potato curry , before it gets cold “ said his friend Harinder . Satinder came over as well and the three friends joined the queue at one of the food tents where free food for the protestors in their thousands was being served . As they ate their chapatis and vegetables with relish , they chatted about the children and womenfolk back at home and how they were managing the wheat crop without the men who were miles away at the protest site .

All afternoon and evening Mitthoo sang with his fellow singers or by himself raising the morale of the protestors . The leaders came back from high level meetings with hopeful news . Mitthoo and Harinder sang songs of victory , had dinner and found a warm spot with blankets to sleep in inside the Khalsa Aid Tent , though the ground cover of a simple durree could not shut out the cold from the Tarmac road below . Tired , the friends fell asleep immediately.

At 7 am the tea server Tanjeet came carrying a big aluminium pot of hot sweet tea and some glass tumblers asking the sleepers to wake up . Harinder got up , took a glass and held it up while Tanjeet poured tea into it . Satinder sat up as well . “ God is Great, Brother ! “ they said to one another .

But why was Mitthoo not getting up ? Satinder poked him with his elbow but there was no response . Tanjeet and Mitthoo called to him and shook him but he was stiff and cold , eyes shut and not breathing . Alarmed , they raised an alarm and the tent chief rushed for the camp doctor .

By 7.30 am it was confirmed : Mitthoo had died of a stroke in the cold . The Protest had claimed its first Martyr . The newspaper said the temperature had fallen to 2 degrees Celsius the previous night .

( ASA )


Somebody sends you a card and you feel happy . Somebody bakes you a cake and you feel happy . Somebody offers you a bouquet of flowers and you feel happy . Somebody throws a party for you – in actual fact or on Zoom -and you feel happy . Some people sing a song and you feel happy . You go to offer special prayers - what devotion ! – and you feel happy . People greet you on the phone by making calls or sending you messages on WhatsApp or otherwise , or on Facebook , or Messenger , or Skype , and you feel happy . Somebody takes you out for dinner and you feel happy . Somebody gives you a chocolate or a gift and you feel happy .

But do you really feel happy ? And for how many was this an unavoidable chore .

O yes , you are supposed to be happy . You may even think or persuade yourself that you are happy .

But are you ? What is there to be happy about ?

There goes one more year out of limited number of years in your life . You have one less year left to live .

But does that really matter ?

Can you stop time passing ? Can you help the fact that you were born ? What is the great fuss all about ?

On reflection , she decided to cancel her birthday .

But then she realised even that was not in her hands .

She thought : you may even delude yourself into believing that all the people who remember your birthday – nudged by Facebook or LinkedIn or some other algorithm or the Civil List or a calendar or maybe a personal reference point like their own or a child’s birthday or wedding anniversary – do not think it is a chore to have to do something about it , that they really care about you and want to show their appreciation and make you happy , but you would have to be pretty good at self -hypnotism to do so .

She wanted to hold herself close , the instinct was to hide . She cringed when she thought about all the people who were being pushed by the algorithms on social media to greet her when they were busy trying to do other things or otherwise going about their own business – how intrusive , she thought , and wished she could end this banal brashness in as much as it was practised on her behalf . She wondered if it was possible to remove her date of birth from everything . Probably not, and she did not want to wrestle with technical issues anyway .

So she just switched off her phones , and computers , and the WiFi , shut her doors , went to bed and refused to budge for the next twenty four hours . She slept much of the time and spent the rest of it thinking random thoughts . The poor Birthday came , hung around for its allotted time , and then left , as it was destined to do .

Slowly , cautiously , she emerged from under the covers . The world looked the same as before . What a relief !

She got up , lit the gas stove , made herself a cup of tea , exactly as she liked it , and sipped it at her leisure , with real enjoyment .

( Amita Sarjit Ahluwalia )

Ricebag Favour

( Flash Fiction – Mini Story )

It was an unexpected but not unpredictable offer – a twenty- five kilo bag of parboiled rice . It was hard to say no without being impolite : the offer was so spontaneously made . Last year , too , after the rice harvest , the bag had arrived . It was good rice , and useful , but far too much for a wheat – eating or basmati – savouring household of one . In the end more than half had to be thrown away , since it got worm infested. When the new bag arrived , however , and was about to be torn open , qualms of conscience at last year’s wastage struck hard . A polite phone call , a one kilo steel box sent for being filled out of a bag already being used , and a promise to collect more when needed, did the trick , though not without some pushback , which was even more politely countered .

“ Would you be able to spare fifty – thousand rupees for ten days ? Just ten days , I’ll return it on the 30th .” The second call was unexpected . Banks were closed for three days and cash in hand was limited . The ability to refuse was a relief . Nevertheless , a thought refused to go away : “ What have we done to our farmers, even the comparatively better-off ones ? “

( Amita Sarjit Singh Ahluwalia)

20 November 2020

The Guide To Being A Better Assassin

The Guide To Being A Better Assassin

The stream of red figures scrolled along the bottom of the screen, their instantaneous updates reassuring his last minute nerves.He’d certainly come a long way, a very long way in such a short span of time.And here he was barely a minute away from his greatest success, a career defining achievement even by the impossibly high standards set by the mysterious body known collquially as ” The Quorum”.This was going to be spectacular.

Anchored some 500 yards-the telemetry said 504.33- from the beach front of the secluded luxury holiday villa, this hired yacht was just one of five visible dots to the villa resident were he to casually cast his gaze out toward the Adriatic.
” Porax-3000 :Helping You Solve Tomorrow’s Problems Today”.had caught his febrile imagination the moment he’d seen it on the darkweb.Where do professional hitmen,international assassins go when they require tools to ply their trade?Well,like everyone else they go shopping online,they go Click & Collect.

Since Libertarian governments in most parts of the globe had finally enacted their legislative piece-de-resistance and de-criminalised murder,the activity,in its higher end form was regulated and made as routine a market oriented business transaction as sending christmas baubles from atheist China to Catholic Europe.
The stream of red figures had begun slowing down from their earlier frantic scrolling, final preparation time was nearly up.
The Porax-3000, a singularly handtooled instrument of vengeance and retribution; or as any user would have it, The Mother of all rifles.He finessed a couple of minor adjustments to the tripod legs on which it rested.Blew away some imaginary Adriatic sand.The main screen was now showing two red bands,top and bottom.Final Target Acquisition.
He’d tendered this job at 30 millions,submitted all the requisite bona fides,breakdown of costs etc.He figured he stood to clear north of 20.The Porax-3000 Killing machine coming in at 1.75 mill;the week long hire of the luxury yacht etc to establish a non-threatening background presence that was another 2.Anyway who’s counting?
The Quorum put out this job to tender;the prelim prospectus id’ed this media mogul philanthropist about to switch his financing to a Movement on the cusp of a predicted electoral earthquake that would shift the balance of power across the continent.Except since the tendering process ended,bids evaluated and contract awarded none of it would now eventuate.
What had sold him on this Kiling machine was the added filip of “Complimentary Micro-Drone” included in the price.Wow!And now 504.33 yards away onshore on the veranda to be precise and some 100 feet somewhere up in the atmosphere the micro-drone in geo-stationary orbit was feeding back micron exact telemetry to the gun mounted on the tripod.The bullet incorporated nano-GPS and was linked to the micro-drone system.A sudden gust of wind,squall of rain whatever would be circumvented by the nano GPS.The darkweb sales pitch boasted that a blind man could score a perfect hit with this.But he appreciated that the apparatus had a manual operation override feature which he felt was not merely aesthetic,but also recognised and validated the user- the hitman ,The Jackal as he thought of himself,as a consummate,dispassionate artist of annihilation,turning the page of history.
  Out pottered the squat obese figure of the philanthropist for his regular 45 minute post lunch deckchair nap on the veranda.The Assassin hunkered down and put his eye to the scope,like the advert said,a blind man could do this ,it was all in the feel and touch of his finger on the trigger that would initiate the release of the projectile which could never miss..And there it was,504.33 yards away,a head exploded silently in a plume of blood and brains and all captured on the screen at his side by the micro-drone.As he sat back in his deckchair,uncorked the bottle of antique champagne,supposedly from Napoleon’s own cellar and began toasting his own success, it never occurred him that if his recently deceased target had no inkling of a micro-drone relaying targetting telemetry from over his head,then how could he?

And as the 2 distant figures got back into their anonymous looking hire car,having dismantled a tripod and its rifle and re-boxed a returned micro-done.One of the figures thought he’d heard his partner say, “Welcome to The Big Leagues,Sonny”. But he could’ve been mistaken,after all they were both professionals…

Gowli Shasthram (Lizard Science)

The Lizard Science of Prediction – a short story based on TSL’s Pandorathon prompt given by Santosh Bakaya May 30th.

A light romp of a story in Indian English.

Part 1

In the Puranas we were considered to be something big. There had once been a time when we ruled the earth as dinosaurs, as you all know, but we had dwindled away to being amongst the smallest creatures on earth more or less, lucky that even a few of us had survived. We were decimated by a meteor. We were given obnoxious names like Freddy in places like the UK but in my house, the humans just called me Gowli. I always had a view from the top as I lived on the ceiling and they lived down there, as the inferior beings they were. They said it belonged to them and I would go “tmirk tmrik tmirk” and the foolish things would think I was seconding them, and go “sathyam, sathyam, sathyam” (truth, truth, truth), when I was actually laughing at them.

There were only two occupants there – a Lizzie (yes, laugh) and her husband whose name was Peter or John or some such equally funny name. Lizzie was horribly attractive, I was probably her lover in her past life or mine; but the problem was in this one she was terribly afraid of lizards. Here was I madly in love with her and peeking down her blouse every chance I got, from above, and there was she going Eek and Screech, and making other ungainly sounds, and doing strange calisthenics with her body every time she saw me, especially in the bathroom, which only made her more attractive to me.

They had a whole lot of beliefs about us which was helpful to me. They believed if I fell on her right cheek she would be widowed. So I did that one day. Apart from almost getting me killed, by A Hefty Swipe from her to free herself of me, that threw me twelve feet across the room to the floor with a thud leaving me immobilized for an hour, nothing happened to her Peter, or John. The karmic-bond husband was the one who would get killed, probably. And that was, probably: Poor Me!

Now, fortunately, due to some ill-luck in his office, Peter, wanting an upswing in FORTUNES, turned to gowli shasthram (the lizard science of prediction). Since they considered me a necessary nuisance in their dwelling, they now turned to me for ways to make it good.

“സ്ത്രീയുടെ ശിരസ്സില്‍ ഗൗളി പതിക്കുന്നത് ഐശ്വര്യമാണ്…. “
(If a lizard touches a woman’s body it is auspicious.)

“സ്ത്രീയുടെ വലത് ചെവിയിൽ സ്പർശിച്ചാൽ ദീർഘായുസ്സും ഫലം. ഇടതുചെവിയിൽ സ്വർണ്ണലാഭം, ധനലാഭം,…”
(If it touches her right ear long life for her follows and if the left ear gold profit, wealth profit…)

“രണ്ടു തോളിലും വീണാൽ ഭർത്തൃസുഖം, സുഖാനുഭവങ്ങൾ, …”
(If it falls on both shoulders pleasure from/for husband and other pleasures follow.)

“കൈയുടെ പുറത്ത് വിരലിൽ വീഴുന്നത് ആഭരണലാഭത്തെ സൂചിപ്പിക്കുന്നു.”
(If it falls on the finger it will bring ornaments.)

“കാൽവിരലിൽ ഗൗളി സ്പര്‍ശമുണ്ടായാൽ സന്താനലാഭവും ധനലാഭവും…”
(If it touches the toe of any foot you will get security for your wealth and/or your children’s.)

Excited by reading all this Peter, or John, decided the only way to become well off in life, and lucky, was to make Lizzie and I become fast friends. The only problem was that while I was eager to touch her on all parts of her body, being a white lizard with spots, the kind they considered a Brahmin lizard (!!!!!!!), such fools these mortals be, Lizzie was mortally afraid of me. There was also a matter of the right day, and time, in gowli shastram. It is all fucking complicated and crazy, let me tell you!

Peter got more and more lost in studying these matters and praying to all the gods that I would fall all over Lizzie in all the right places. He was slowly going mad, seeing me run overhead, seeing her move around underneath, and seeing no congress happening immediately, or over several days, to change his luck. Never saw a husband before so eager for infidelity.

Finally, in desperation, he got some sleeping powder and mixed it in her drink. Nowhere was it said that the lizard was meant to fall on her head voluntarily, though it was understood. His plan was to catch me while she slept and make me touch her wherever he wanted.

He called her to the dining table one night and said, “Lizzie, drink this orange juice I made just for you.”
“You? Made Orange Juice? For Me?!!!!!” Lizzie was flabbergasted.
“Tmirk Tmrik Tmirk”, I went, overhead.
“He’s just jealous”, she told Peter, offhand, with no rhyme and reason. Peter looked bemused
“You shut up, you Gowli”, said Lizzie, looking up.
She simpered at Peter and said, “Thanks, darling”. How obnoxious!
Five minutes later she was out cold. He put her on their bed and came looking for me.
Then Peter climbed up on chairs and tables trying to catch me. I gave him a merry chase. A run for his money. Just for the heck of it.

All night long.

Part II

Lizzie woke up with a sudden start. Why was Peter shouting in the morning? She had a headache and could not fathom why but she went to look in the dining room.

“How dare you !!!!” His words rolled out spasmodically, eyes riveted on a tailless lizard hanging from the ceiling. Gowli’s tail was in his hand, and Peter was at his wit’s end. Gowli looked at her, and Lizzie could have sworn it tmirked timrked at her, and winked.

References to Gowli Shasthram taken from here: