“Passengers” DVD Extras #1 – Deleted Scenes.

The following is the alternate ending I wrote because the original was too abrupt.  It was cut back because of word count, and because I eventually decided that a stark ending with no looking back was better.  I wanted the suggestion that Shaun no longer had a conscience, and that we’d been a shut out of his head as he’d been.  As it turns out, a third re-write should have been made to fix the ending I used.  Hindsight.

Shaun shook his head.

“No. There has to be something else we can do.”

“Shaun, eventually you’re going to hurt someone. Do you want that on your conscience?”

Shaun was back in the chair, staring resolutely at the floor.

“I don’t want to believe you,” he said “but I can’t ignore what you’re saying. Get the sedative. Get the consent form. Do it now.”

Dr. Curtis stepped back into the room to find Shaun gone.  The plastic chair, legs in the air, was against the wall.  Dr. Curtis experienced a moment of panic and forced himself to breathe slowly and think.  Shaun couldn’t have more than a minute or two’s head start.  He could still be caught.

The reception desk at the main door confirmed that Shaun had passed that way and Dr.Curtis took a moment to pat his jacket pocket.  The syringe was safe.  He stepped out into the evening and went where the lights and people were, reasoning that Shaun would try to lose himself in a crowd.

He caught up with Shaun at an intersection.  Dr.  Curtis had caught sight of him minutes earlier, watching with a kind of detached horror as the man shuffled and twitched along.  If you knew nothing of his condition, you would have seen in Shaun a man clearly struggling with himself.  His mouth was locked in a rictus, lips pulled back, and his eyes were wide and wild.  Dr. Curtis watched for a moment as Shaun teetered on the edge of the kerb and then put his hand on Shaun’s shoulder.  The contact seemed to defuse something.

“Help?” said Shaun, shying away from the doctor’s hand “it’s hard to talk.  Did you bring the shot?  Please?”

“It’s going to be OK, Shaun,” said Dr. Curtis, pulling as much warmth and reassurance into his voice as he could muster.  He rolled Shaun’s sleeve, aware that the man was weeping.

“sorrysorrysorrysorry” said Shaun.

Dr. Curtis patted Shaun’s arm and then found himself moving.  He lost all sense of place for a moment and then found himself standing several feet from Shaun, facing him.

“Oh god” thought Dr. Curtis “I’m in traffic”.  Something loud happened beside him.  He turned to look.  There was a sudden feeling of pressure, a sound like an explosion.

From the safety of the kerb, Shaun watched the drivers brake and swerve.  He watched the rag doll body roll and roll and come to a stop.  He listened to the shocked cries and shouting.  He smiled, he turned and he walked away.

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[WP] Two constraints: 1. It’s raining 2. There are only two characters.

Beyond the lip of the shelter roof the rain was unrelenting. Beyond the rain, and a railing, was the sea; grey and topped with angry white, wind whipped, rain spattered. Inside the shelter Jane sat at one end of the elderly wooden bench and Paul at the other. He sighed, turned to her.

“Don’t you bloody dare” she said. She drew her coat closer, tighter around her. She’d tried to leave, had been driven back by the sudden furious downpour, sat in her corner with the empty diet coke bottle and the “Sens 4 Jaffa” graffiti with her hair plastered to her skull.

“But…”

She turned, baleful eyes beneath that slicked fringe, and bared her teeth.

“Shut it. Do you hear that?” The pause was filled with the pounding of the rain. “That is the only sound I want to hear.”

Paul was pale, wide eyed, stricken. He shifted and writhed as if constricted, stared at the ground. There was nowhere to go except into the rain.

“I’m sorry” he said “I know it was wrong. I let myself get carried away. I wish I could pretend it didn’t happen or that I wasn’t in control. I was really, really stupid.”

The rain intensified. Jane shivered and tried to curl up on the bench, but couldn’t.

“I’m seeing Darren” she said “He’ll bloody kill you if he finds out.”

Paul nodded. Darren had been against it from the outset, but he was in court that day – again, Paul didn’t say and didn’t wish that someone would finally give the man a custodial sentence – so Jane had needed distracting. It seemed like a good idea at the time; a run down to some sleepy seaside town, one of God’s Waiting Rooms, to spend the day looking at the sea and eating icecream. It had just been Paul and Jane, like back when they were kids and the happy glow of that memory should have made him smile. Instead it twisted his stomach and something made him say

“He’ll kill you too when he finds out you kissed me.”

“I did not bloody kiss you. You kissed me.”

Paul stood. He was trembling. Nerves? Anger? Both.
“Oh yeah, that was me,” he said “standing there saying about how I’d had such a lovely day and you were just the best friend who always understood you, looked out for you, cared about you. Oh no, wait. That was you.”

“You stuck your hand up my top” she said. No heat, no anger, just flat. There was no getting away from it, no avoiding it. Paul deflated.

“Yeah, I did. And I shouldn’t have.”

“No you should not have.”

“Look, I was an idiot.”

“You stuck your hand up my top on the sea front at Eastbourne. In broad daylight. After an otherwise very pleasant kiss.” Jane stood and faced him, even though he was trying very hard to be somewhere else.

“I said I’m an idiot.”

“The worst of it is, it was a nice kiss” said Jane in a very small voice. Paul felt like he’d been struck by lightning. “I mean,” she continued “we’ve been friends for years and I’d never thought about it until today, but it turns out you’ve got a very nice kiss. I’m partial to that, I am.”

Paul stared, words deserting him even as he tried to say them. She’d never thought about it. He always had. He closed his eyes, took a breath.

“Can you forgive me?”

The rain slowed, stopped. Jane looked out at the sky and sniffed.

“Not yet” she said. She stepped out of the shelter and looked back at him. “Maybe next week. Maybe.”

Paul sat in the shelter, picking at the flaking green paint and staring at the ground, listening as she walked away, wondering what forgiveness might be like.

[WP] Bugs had multiplied hideously in the heat

Are you OK? Doctor Hobart, are you OK?” They were the first words I’d been able to understand in a little while so I nodded and mimed needing a drink. The suit’s external temperature indicator is still reading dangerously hot, so I stand up and move to the other side of the chamber,  triggering one of the showerheads. Steam rises and the world is obscured by the fog.

“We have to know if it’s safe” says the same voice as I strip off the heavy gloves. I’ll never get the helmet unsealed if I don’t get rid of the gloves first. They hit the wet floor with a sound like liver on ceramic.

“Define ‘safe'” I say, hoping the microphone is working.

“Are we likely to lose containment?”

Ah. Well. Containment. Now there’s a phrase.

“Right now, they’re quiescent. Resting. And if we don’t disturb them, that might not change,” I say “but I’m making no promises, Gerald. I can’t believe you’ve been this lax.”

Gerald has had a hard day and I shouldn’t needle him, so I accept what comes next with good grace.

“Oh it’s easy for you to say things like that,” snaps Gerald “with your academic position and your portfolio of published papers and your tenure…well it’s not so easy out here in commerce. It’s all about results out here, buddy!”

I’m standing in a makeshift airlock, hastily rigged up because every facility that works with Level 4 materials needs this stuff, but we’re nowhere near the Level 4 facilities. There is water collecting on the floor from the decontamination showers that should really be part of a tented structure. Integrity is being maintained with willpower and duct tape. And through the door at the other end of the room…

…I don’t want to think about what’s in there. I sit on a bench and wait for him to calm down.

“Gerald, is Erica there?”

I’ve worked with Erica before, during the Orlando outbreak. She’s good.

“She’s on her way to you” says Gerald.

“OK, but I needed to ask about the protocols that were in use. Gerald, what was the last thing you did?”

He explains. They’d known the experiment was a failure straight away when the sample registered as corrupted. They’d carried on because even failures can tell you something.

“But when we decided to sacrifice the sample, the protocol called for heat” says Gerald.

Sacrifice. The term we scientists sometimes use when we want to talk about what happens to lab mice when their career in science is over. Some methods are nicer than others.

“Heat should have induced lethargy and then…melting…of the sample.”

“Lethargy is right, and there’s a certain plasticity to them, but other than that I’m seeing a lot of life.”

“This is awful” says Gerald.

“Oh it gets worse,” I say “I introduced myself as a test. The ones nearest the door responded.”

“oh god” says Gerald in a tiny, sick voice.

Erica steps into the airlock, sealing her suit and shooting me a tight smile. I’m pleased to see her too, but busy with my own headgear.

Later. We step up to the door.

“Ready?” I ask.

“No” says Erica, and opens the door.

The room is full of them. Languid grey shapes sprawl over every item of furniture and flat surface.  Some of them are nearly dilequescent.  Erica coughs, gags, swallows really hard.  They aren’t pretty.  The nearest one opens an eye so slowly. It registers my presence, spots Erica. We both exhale. I do a quick count. There don’t appear to be any more of them.

“Did you know this was possible?”

Erica shakes her head.

“There were no indications that we could trust. There was something in the Cosgrove Hall documents, if you looked hard enough. And hints in Aardman.”

The nearest of them sits up, plucks a carrot from behind one drooping ear and chews on it for a moment before gesturing to me.

“What’s up, Doc?” it says “And who’s the dame?”

You Want to Build a Snowman

A recent Writer’s Arena prompt was about Snowmen.  This is what that prompt suggested to me.

In his back yard, Thomas rolled the snowball.

The night before, a Friday night, his dreams had been fever vivid, leaving him sweat slicked and breathless. Sitting up in his bed he had noted unusual brightness outside his window and, heedless of soaked pillows and clamy sheets, he had padded across the toy strewn floor to peer out at a white blanketed world.

The moment he registered the crisp crystal sparkle of new snow, he’d known what he wanted to do more than anything else in the world.

He hadn’t slept a wink for the rest of the night.

Breakfast had been…dutiful. Thomas wanted very much to be out in the snow but didn’t want to deal with his mother’s implacable slow, steady ways. For her part, Mother was pleased to see her normally energetic child settle into something like patience. He ate his cereal, drag some juice and asked, politely, if he could play in the snow.

“Wrap up warm, and stay near the house” she said. Thomas knew that her injunction to wrap up needed to be taken seriously so he found wellingtons and a hat, gloves, a scarf and his coat. Mother watched him put them on and smiled at his diligence.

“Good boy” she said, but Thomas was already through the back door and into the yard. She watched the small, determined figure as he began the process of creating a snowman and smiled, because what else should a small boy be doing the morning after a fall of snow?

Around the back yard, Thomas rolled the snowball. It was half his height now and he stopped frequently to pat the surface smooth and round. The gloves were not helpful in this work so he’d pocketed them and the heat of his hands raised just a hint of steam in the icy air but was perfect for working and shaping the ball. The heat wasn’t just in his hands. As he worked, Thomas could feel his thoughts become hotter, full of lights and words. But not words. Sounds that had shapes, that suggested and insinuated themselves from the breath fog in front of him and behind it all the insistent whisper that had been there since his dream the night before. He rolled the ball around the yard once more and then, the ground largely denuded of snow, he made his way to the side gate only to be defeated by the latch which was too high up for him to reach. He slipped his gloves back on and ran to the back door.

“Mom! I ran out of snow for my snowman!”

She came to the back door drying her hands on a hand towel and smiled down at him.

“Well goodness, Tommy, look at the great job you did clearing up so much of the snow!”

Patronise me some more, thought Thomas. Or something that thought in his voice.

“I need to finish the snowman, mom, can I take it out front? I promise to stay in the front yard!”

Thomas could feel her ticking boxes in her mental checklist. He was still wearing all his warm things. He had come to ask. He would be visible from the study. He wouldn’t leave the yard. She smiled.

“Sure! Do you need any help?”

“Yeah please. Can you unlatch the side gate?”

And she did, with a smile and a quick kiss on his forehead. If she noticed how warm he was, she didn’t react to it. Thomas rolled the ball through the gate and into the front yard.

Soon, the ball was big. Big enough that Thomas needed to start a second one. This one would be smaller, for the middle. He diligently rolled the snowball around the bushes in the front yard, careful to stick to the lawn, his progress marked by a widening swath of green that stood out against the white of the world. As he rolled, Thomas spotted a mail carrier at the end of the street. He’d seen the mail carrier before, an older man who sometimes came to the house and spoke briefly with mother. As the pressure and heat inside his head grew, the soundshapes sussurating sibilant suggestions about size and smoothness, it occurred to Thomas that the mail carrier might be useful. He rolled the ball faster, started a second one, rolled them both together.

The cold made his knee hurt. Not enough to stay him from his rounds, the Postal Service had been very clear about that, but enough that he wished he was home and preferably in front of a fire with a coffee and a book. Dan carried the mail because he’d exchanged one uniform for another, out of a desire to remain useful and also because he wanted people to be pleased to see him. There was less of that, these days. There were less letters. The world moved on and Dan, contemplating what he might do instead, caught sight of the kid making balls of snow. He smiled. There weren’t many kids outside today. The lure of computer games, or TV. It was nice to see someone playing in the snow. He picked up his pace a little.

Thomas stood looking at the three rough spheres of snow and frowned. He wanted his expression right for when the mail carrier came. He wanted to look like a defeated six year old. It should have been easy but he found himself unable to remember what to do with his lips. The mail carrier clumped to a halt beside him.

“Hey, son, are you trying to build a snowman?”

Thomas looked up at the adult’s face and nodded. As luck would have it, the adult had his back to the sun so Thomas could squint with complete authenticity and not worry too much about the dull glow he was sure was emenating from behind his eyes.

“uh-huh,” he said “and I made the body and the head but I’m too little to put them together.”

The mail carrier looked around.
“Is your Dad home?”
Thomas shook his head.
“Well then how about your Mom?”
“Mommy said she needs to tuh-take care of my suh-sister” said Thomas, deliberately tripping over his words and staring resolutely at the mail carrier’s feet.
“Well I guess I can help out a little,” the man said and he set aside his mail bag and hefted the snowballs into place.

Dan smiled to see the glee on the small boy’s face and he picked up his mailbag lighter of heart because of it. He gave the house a quick wave, because Mom was surely watching, and gave the now serious faced little boy an equally serious salute. The boy blinked and then returned it with a crispness that Dan had not expected. Thinking “don’t that beat all” to himself, he returned to his rounds.

“Excellent” said Thomas, when the mail carrier was out of earshot, and he went rooting around for pebbles.

It was easy to assemble the face, a curve of pebbles formed the mouth and two more stood for eyes. It was less easy to find arms but he succeeded. The next part was hard. He pressed his finger to the torso, where it hissed a little and sank into the compacted snow. He moved the finger in a lazy curve and from his mouth, in a voice that seemed to come from very far away and far too close at the same time, he made the sound that the shape delineated. There were others, and as he sank them into the snowball the heat in his head began to receed little by little. With each barbarous utterance, he cooled.

The snowman shook, turned its head, the uneven pebble eyes now luminescing like trapped fireflies.

“What is this?”
The voice was, perhaps unsurprisingly, like stones being dragged over stones. Thomas looked at the snowman.

“It is what you desired. I have created you a body from the most plentiful material I could find.” The heat in his head was not quite gone, it leant him eloquence and not a little irritation. This had been work. This had been effort.

“Fool. There are so many human bodies within moments of where you stand. Why did you not harvest them for your raw materials? Why have you…THIS THING HAS NO LEGS!” the snowman thundered. It flailed twig arms, elbowless, ineffectual. It fixed Thomas with a pair of furious pebbles.
“Explain!”

Thomas wrinkled his nose and pushed his wooley hat back on his head.
“Well…I’m six” he said “you chose me, and I’m six. What were you expecting? Lego?”

The snowman shuddered with rage.
“This world is mine!” it snarled “a canvas for my bloody art, an instrument for making screams. I will this day…”

There was a thud. The Snowman fell silent. Thomas looked at the head, which had fallen off and landed face first on the lawn. He reflected that maybe Mailman Dan hadn’t done a very good job of putting it in place. Or hadn’t expected it to take a dose of apoplexy. He wondered what to do about that. Then the front door opened and his mom called him in for a hot drink and some lunch. He ran to the door and hugged her.

“Oh hey,” said Mom, noticing the striken condition of the snowman in the yard “his head fell off! Do you want me to help with that?”

“Nuh-uh, Mom. It wasn’t a very good one anyway” said Thomas, already thinking about cartoons.

[WP] You’re a regular at Starbucks. This time you go, the lady writes “RUN” on your takeaway cup.

I hit Starbucks on my way to work every day.  Same order, roughly the same time, stand in line at the counter for my Venti drip with room.  If I’m awake enough I smile and thank the barista when I hand over my cash.  Today, something is different.

I blink at the cup. I blink at the Barista. She smiles.
“Why does it say ‘run’ on my coffee?” I ask. She smiles again.
“Cardio” she says “it’s always good to invest time in cardio fitness. You know where’s a great place to get started? There’s a park about five minutes walk from here, do the whole outside track and you’ve done a mile. There’s shade, it’s pretty flat…I recommend it!”
“…thanks…” I say and walk away sipping my coffee. I’m basically too out of shape to run a mile, but I can always walk more. I make a mental note to check out the park.

My coffee cup says “Read”. I look at the Barrista. Same one as last time. She’s a brunette, with long hair in a pony tail.
“Any authors in particular?” I ask. She smiles.
“Are you a reader?”
I shake my head. There’s never time. She shrugs.
“Then start with a good newspaper. Cover to cover. You never know what you might turn up!”
Her enthusiasm is infectious and I smile back.
“Thanks,” I say, sipping the coffee, “I’ll do that.”

I stop in for coffee after my run, feeling pretty good, with the intention of sitting outside and leafing through a copy of The Washington Post. My iPod is still reading me The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie, which is a lot funnier than I was expecting, and I’m not really paying attention to my coffee order. The take out cup says “Watch” on it. I look up, pull the earbuds out of my ears and smile at the Barista. Her eyes are vivid and green, one eyebrow arches gracefully at me.
“What should I watch?” I ask.
“How do you feel about German Expressionism?” she asks.
“I don’t,” I say “but the way it influenced later directors, from Hitchcock to Burton, that’s pretty cool.”
That earns me a dazzling smile and those eyes iridesce. Then she frowns.
“Oh, darn it. I’m sorry, I’ve got your order wrong. Here, let me fix that for you.”
She reaches for the cup, takes it from my hand and for an electric moment our fingers touch. She fusses behind the counter, hands me a new cup, smiles again.

I look at the cup. It says “Date?”

You hire a witch doctor to curse someone. However, the only curses you can afford are extremely petty.

I completely misread this prompt and, when I’d finished writing the story, decided I liked it better than if I were the one buying the curse.


You always wipe down the chair once your appointment has left. Basic hygiene. People sweat, or very occasionally lose bladder control (although that hasn’t happened nearly as much since we got the new chickens in). Once I’d finished my quick wipe around, I sat behind my desk and tapped the intercom.

“Hello Susan, would you send my two o’clock in?”
It’s already two fifteen, but I’m lucky to be only fifteen minutes behind. The last one, Mrs Shapiro, was a talker. I busy myself with the computer for a moment. Next on the list is Mr. Blakeney of Hatch End. The door opens, and in he steps clutching a trilby in his hand and looking pale and nervous in his sensible tan raincoat.

“Hello, Mr. Blakeney. Do take a seat.”
Mr. Blakeney twitches at this apparent evidence of my powers, even though he filled in the new patient card at reception. But that’ll be Susan for you; a woman so glacial that people forget their own names as they speak to her. Mr. Blakeney sits, and I notice that he’s wearing sensible brown corduroy trousers and some battered Hush Puppy shoes. He hasn’t bought clothes since the 1980s. Oh dear.
“And what can I help you with today, Mr. Blakeney?”

Mr. Blakeney peers at me through his black framed glasses that look to be in need of a good clean. He grips the mean little brim of his hat and rotates it nervously. The hat makes it through 360 degrees before he says
“I thought you’d be, you know…”
“African?”
“Well…errr…” He falters. He stands up and sits down again. “Yes?”
I smile. Time to do the reassuring professional bit.
“Not to worry, Mr. Blakeney. Ever since the National Health Service started offering Complimentary Medicine and Sympathetic Magic, the two disciplines have attracted less…traditional…practitioners over time. I got my degree from Bristol. You can’t get much more British than that.”
He seems relieved and disappointed at the same time. The idea of blacking up is, of course, massively racist but sometimes I think people expect it. And for me to wear a bone through my nose. No one understands that there are European traditions that go back almost as far and…
Mr Blakeney is talking again, which is good, but I’ve been ignoring him which is bad. In my defense, he’s terribly easy to ignore.

“…fence” says Mr. Blakeney with some finality. I raise an eyebrow.

“I am, of course, here to help you feel better Mr. Blakeney, but I find it helps if you just cut to the chase, as it were, and tell me what it is you actually want.”

He blinks. He doesn’t know.

“Well,” he says “I thought you might…curse him? A bit?”
“A bit.”
“Yes, you know, nothing fatal. Nothing horrid.”
“Just mildly, then?”
“Yes. So he’s inconvenienced, and he knows it!”
Ah. I don’t say things like ‘not enough for him to countercurse you, or litigate or anything’. I flip through my copy of Crowley’s Almanack while I think.

“Well, Mr. Blakeney, it all rather depends on whether you can provide me with any further information about the target. I can work with a name, or a physical description, or…”
“What could you do with a name?” he asks.
“Well…I could make sure his shoe laces never tie, or once they’re tied never untie. Or I could ensure he always loses his bus ticket?”

Mr Blakeney considers this.
“No good,” he says “he wears slip ons. Orthopedic ones at that! And he never takes the bus.”
“Well, for something stronger we’re going to need more. Fingernail clippings, or a strand of hair, for example.”

Mr Blakeney reaches into his coat pocket and pulls out a plastic bag, like one of those little evidence bags the police use, and there’s something pale and semi-translucent inside. After a moment, it’s like when you’re staring at an optical illusion and can suddenly see a rabbit or a woman’s head instead of a duck, or something, because suddenly it’s a little sandwich bag containing a used condom. Oh dear. This isn’t a neighbourly tiff over a garden boundary at all.

“Well, I think I could probably do rather a lot. The question is, how far are you willing to take this?”

The sad, doughy little man is changing before my eyes. The evidence of his wife’s infidelity before him, his lips pulled away from his teeth in a nearly savage smile that has nothing whatever to do with humour, Mr. Blakeney looks like a very angry guinea pig that has somehow got hold of a gun.

“Maybe” he says “we can do more than just inconvenience him?”
“Don’t forget, Mr Blakeney, the NHS can’t cause actual harm. It’s not like I can drop a piano on him or anything.”
“What about limiting him in some personal way?”
I think about this. I nod.
“Perhaps his…performance?”
“Oh yes” he says. “That would be satisfying. Perhaps when he’s been drinking? I know he likes a drink before they have their…trysts
I’ve never heard the word spoken with that much venom before.
“So you’d like his bedroom performance to be hampered and limited whenever he consumes alcohol..?”
“More than one glass of alcohol” says Mr Blakeney “Yes.”
“Any particular reason for being so specific?” I have to ask.

“Well,” says Mr. Blakeney “I don’t want to inhibit his performance with me“.

Which is why you should always, always pay close attention to the initial consultation.

‘Hood.

A word from Da Management: OK, so, this is an experiment.  I’m putting a First Draft up here to a) hopefully get some feedback, b) see what changes between Drafts and c) do something fun.  This is therefore not a finished work and I will post Draft 2, and subsequent drafts until I think it’s good.


There was once a girl who liked to work with the Elderly. Not many girls her age did, so her parents were very pleased with her. They liked the idea of their little girl volunteering in the community, providing a local solution to a global problem and forming a listening partnership with a previous generation which was a storehouse of wisdom that today’s world sadly lacks.

They were that sort of parent.

The girl, known to her parents as Sophie but known to her friends variously as Miss K, Lady K and Kiki (depending on some very subtle factors), wasn’t little. She was pretty much fourteen, and therefore a Young Adult, old enough to make her own decisions about clothes, music, boys and what to do with her free time. She liked working with the elderly because it meant that she could spend time with them in their homes. Old people’s homes were strange and interesting. They seemed darker and more cluttered than her own home. Sometimes there were photos to look at, sometimes there were odd ornaments to puzzle at or play with. She felt good about being needed by people who were grown up, even if they talked about things that she couldn’t, or didn’t want to, understand. A lot of what the old people babbled about didn’t make any sense. It was old-days stuff, from back when TV wasn’t even in colour and before there was any good music and when people probably only ever did waltzes.

The other good thing about Old People was that they were forgetful sometimes. Some of the old people she helped had trouble remembering small but important things, like exactly how much money they had in their purse or where they had left the wretched thing in the first place. So sometimes, when she really needed money, she’d dip a cautious hand into that purse and take some. Not much. Never much. But a little money from lots of people soon came to a respectable total and she soon learned to keep her crimes small and infrequent. Her parents would have been proud of her foresight and mature approach. She was the Light Purse Fairy, wandering at will in the dark and forgotten spaces that sat, heavy with memories, scattered around the town like the last greying leaves of autumn.

And that should have been it. A story of a child who grew up to become a woman troubled by the crimes of her youth who salved her guilt with voluntary work and who, in her turn and in her dotage, was also fleeced by a callous child.

That would have been it, except for Mr. Wolf.

Mr. Wolf was the sort of man that neighbours think of as harmlessly eccentric. He was thin, bookish, slightly stooped. He wore glasses that had inch thick lenses which magnified his eyes in a startling manner. Some time in decades past, children who’d read fairy tales had called him Mr. Wolf, partly in reference to the game and partly in reference to Red Riding Hood (what big eyes he has!). A couple of generations of children had mocked Mr. Wolf, who went home every night with a book or two from the library, some more openly than others. He met the more overt mocking with a sneer, or with complete indifference. In years past, people had thought he might be rich because he never seemed to be at work, but as the years rolled by and his suit got shabbier without ever being replaced people concluded that he was a miser instead.

Mr. Wolf was old and should have been on the list of homes that Sophie would visit. Sophie liked to believe that her visits gave the old folks something to look forward to. The old folks did, although some of them were bitter at their abandonment by their own children and looked on Sophie’s visits as a callous way to save some pennies. That way, the local council or the government wouldn’t have to pay someone to see if they were dead yet. Mr. Wolf didn’t think like that, because he had told both the volunteer group and the local council he didn’t. He had also told everyone who would listen that he wanted nothing more from his twilight years than to be left alone, in peace.

Mr. Wolf should probably have known better. Where you can’t see a dull truth, local gossip will always imagine a fascinating lie. In this case, the notion that Mr. Wolf was keeping a treasure trove, an Aladdin’s Cave, of glorious but hazily defined stuff in his dark little house with the perpetually drawn curtains. There were persistent rumours that he didn’t trust banks and that he kept all his money in biscuit tins scattered around his home. If, at any point, he had thrown open his doors and shown the credulous that he indeed owned nothing (or that he did indeed have pots of money stashed willy nilly) then the rumours would have gone away. But there you are: if you met Truth and Mystery in a club then Truth would be dressed like someone who’s Mum buys his clothes and Mystery would be a swaggering lothario surrounded by glamorous boys and girls and you’d never believe that Mystery would be interested in you.

Which brings us nicely to the front door of Mr. Wolf’s house. The tiny walled front garden, swamped in shadows cast by the oversized and untamed vegetation. The paint on the outside of the bay window was the colour of milk left in strong sunlight for a week, peeling and chipped. The window itself seemed to be slumped, as if holding the outside world at bay had broken it’s spirit, and Sophie couldn’t see inside thanks to the grey glass and some heavy looking curtains.

The front door was the same colour as the paint on the window and she wondered, briefly, if it would be safe to touch any part of it. Eventually, she prodded the doorbell with a finger that she then rubbed on the sleeve of her coat, just in case. The bell made an unhappy plastic crackling noise, but didn’t actually chime, so she knocked instead. She was relieved when the impact of her knuckles on the door didn’t make a squish noise, but instead rewarded her with a satisfying knock.

“Don’t forget the rules” said a voice. Sophie looked around, but couldn’t see anyone. She shrugged. She’d imagined it.

“Be polite,” said the same voice “don’t accept any gifts, don’t eat or drink and don’t wander off the path.”

“Cuz we can see as how you ain’t got any education” said a second voice, and Sophie realised that the voices must be coming from people on the other side of Mr. Wolf’s wild hedge. She smirked, partly at herself for being the slightest bit startled and partly at the instructions that she’d heard. Then the door opened.

“Yes, yes, come in,” said Mr. Wolf.

Completely startled by his unexpected welcome, she stepped inside.

Beneath an overhanging bush – the sort that has leaves which are shiny, dark green and at a distance might be mistaken for scales, a garden gnome sat on a weathered mushroom and didn’t hold a fishing rod. The rod, along with the gnome’s place of pride at a pond, were now only distant memories.

“Odds on her coming out again?” asked the bush.

“You know I don’t like to gamble” said the gnome.

Mr. Wolf’s hallway smelled like newspaper, which wasn’t surprising since there were bundles of newspaper by the front door, surrounding the telephone table. Sophie didn’t recognise the phone at first because it was one of the old fashioned kind where the handset has to stay connected to the blocky black base unit. There were more bundles of newspaper and stacks of books on the stairs, all the way to the top, meaning that if you wanted to go upstairs you had a rather narrow path to walk, pressed hard up against the bannister rail. Mr. Wolf had a cupboard under his stairs, which Sophie approved of, although to open it you’d have to move more books and newspaper. Stepping carefully along the hall carpet, a musty and greying path between two strips of shiny wood, Sophie noticed that the bundles of newspaper were all different editions of the same newspaper. It was one of the semi-serious newspapers, the kind that liked to tell you what was wrong with the world on one page whilst hinting that you could ignore all of that if you were rich, thin and pretty on another. It wasn’t one her parents approved of, since the paper they read liked to tell you what was wrong with the world on one page and that it was all the fault of people who read different newspapers on another. Sophie didn’t read either kind because they moved too slowly.

They moved past a door on her left, which Sophie assumed was the sitting room, and on to the back of the house where Mr. Wolf lead her into his kitchen – a pretty big room dominated by a large and grumpy looking cooker with a battered and greying armchair next to it. In the middle of the room was a small kitchen table – the kind with fold-out wings that you have to set up if you want it to seat more than two people, the kind inexpertly covered in jaundice yellow paint except for the pale blue scarred and scratched formica veneer on the top. Sophie sat at the table, perching on the edge of a wooden chair that creaked even at her slight form. Mr. Wolf loomed; for a moment his grey hair, his dusty grey clothes and his long narrow face made Sophie want to run from the room and find a tree to climb before he sat back on his haunches and howled to the rest of his pack. Then he folded himself into his armchair and sighed.

“I’ve no money you know” he said. Sophie blinked. His voice was hesitant, as if he either wasn’t used to talking or as if he were nervous. What could he be nervous of?

“And the neighbours are either deaf or plugged into those little boxes…whatdoyoucallems…”

“iPods?” ventured Sophie.

“…walkmans…” continued Mr. Wolf, looking at the walls “…so I don’t expect they’d hear anything.” He peered at her through his brick thick lenses and gripped the arms of his chair.

“Sometimes I think they wouldn’t hear a bomb going off in here.” he said with a little smile.

That was when it occurred to Sophie that sauntering in here like she did with so many other houses might not have been the brightest idea she’d ever had. Something in the dry, papery air made her feel very small and quite alone. You read about things like this, saw things about them on the news – sometimes, children just disappeared.

They disappeared in a particular way. They’d leave home and never be seen again, and their parents would appear on the news surrounded by policemen and either bravely holding back tears or sobbing and heartbroken, begging for their little ones back. And although you never heard it said out loud, you knew they were so unhappy because somewhere out there a grown-up was doing, had done, would do, something to a child. Something so bad the adults wouldn’t talk about it, which made it something unspeakable. Importantly, Sophie had never heard of a case where a parent’s tearful pleas to not have something unspeakable happen to a child had ever worked. The child never, ever got left at a police station with a note saying “sorry” pinned to their coat. So while Sophie generally understood that old people were slow, frail and easily outrun – and nothing to be scared of – she realised that there was a treacherous hallway between her and safety and that Mr. Wolf might be able to lunge across the kitchen and grab her before she could move. She also realised that she had no idea what might happen after that. Two words popped into her head, unbidden, and neither one was good. Seeing him next to a cooker, a battered cooker stained with who knew what that had splashed in dark, greasy gobbets over the gas rings and then slumped and dripped in burned spatters down the front and over the oven door, she began to wonder not if but how she would be consumed.

Sophie looked at Mr. Wolf. He was looking at her, but not her face. His attention was fixed on her hip, his eyes wandering over her thigh and up to her waist. She shifted position so that the kitchen table obscured her from the waist down and leaned forward, propping her chin on both clenched fists. Part of her wanted to glare defiance at Mr. Wolf and dare him to make a move, but the rest of her decided that this was a stupid, stupid idea. He shifted in his armchair. Would this be it? Would he strike, uncoiling like a cobra?

He coughed. It was a dry sound.

“Do you drink tea?” he asked. Sophie sat back, startled.

“Sometimes” she admitted.

“Do you know how to make tea?” he asked. Sophie shook her head. She wasn’t going to get up and turn her back. Mr. Wolf sighed.

“No,” said Mr. Wolf sadly “I supposed it’s all frothy coffee and…whatchamacallet…alsopops”

“Alcopops” Sophie corrected. “It isn’t. Why do you want me to make tea?”

Mr Wolf grinned. It was a genuine, amused grin with just a tinge of malice at the corners.

“I thought we should be civilised. After all, you’re going to rob me. At knifepoint, I shouldn’t wonder. I don’t know whether to be upset that a young person like you should be carrying a knife or glad that you are. Given what you hear about on the radio it’s probably a good idea.”

“I wasn’t going to rob you!” said Sophie, irked at the very idea of him coming to that conclusion so quickly and accurately. And it wasn’t robbing, really. Robbing was when you took the TV and the games console and the tablet and stuff. She’d been intending to pick something small up, just to show that she’d been inside.

Someone knocked at the door.

“I’ll get that,” said Mr. Wolf, struggling to his feet. He made his way to the kitchen door, paused, said “there’s a small china cream jug in the shape of a cow over on the sideboard. I’ve never much liked it, so if you could steal that I’d be obliged. While I’m busy, put the kettle on. I’m gasping.”

And then he was off down the hall.

Sophie found the kettle. Against her expectations, it was an electric kettle and was even plugged into a socket in the wall. She’d been half expecting a task involving drawing water from a well and maybe building a fire in order to make tea, and part of her was just a tiny bit disappointed that she wouldn’t have to. It was a very freaky piece of her, she reminded it sternly, and not at all cool or interesting, which was what the rest of her was. Kettle full of water and plugged in, she peered around the kitchen door. Mr. Wolf was talking to another man.

The other man was tall, broad, muscular. He had a big belt of tools, and one of those tools was an axe.

“I dunno about all that, mate, I tole you what my guv’nor tole me. Ee says I gotta clear branches off a tree in your back garden on account it’s council land.”

“But it’s not council, lad, I’ve got the freehold. It’s next door that’s council. Rent to own in the eighties, I did.”

“Look, pop, can’t you just let me in the back? Alls I’m doin’ is gardenin and if it ain’t your tree then I’ll sort your hedge out a bit and ‘ave a look about, alright?”

“I do the back myself, regular, so it doesn’t need doing. You go back and tell your guv’nor that you’ve got the wrong house.”

The man looked past Mr. Wolf and caught sight of Sophie.

“Tha’chor grandkiddie then, pop? ‘Allo darlin. Can you jus’ let me inna back yard for ten minutes?”

Sophie looked at the man again. Her larcenous instincts might have been in a developmental state but there was something about the way the man was insisting that made Sophie doubt him. She’d seen council workers before. Generally they had safety gear like gloves and pads and hard hats, which was all about health and safety, and they all had the same sorts of work clothes. The men that looked after the parks and mowed the green spaces all wore green with high visibility waistcoat type things and they all had badges with their photograph on. They all had ID. This man, though, was wearing jeans and heavy boots with a red and black checked flannel shirt over a faded grey t-shirt. She couldn’t see his ID. And there was something else. He wasn’t looking at her to see if she was going to say yes, his eyes were everywhere else. He’d looked at the piles of paper and the books. He’d noticed the cupboard under the stairs and the staircase itself. He was looking at how to move through the house, just like she had, so he’d know how to get in and out. Sophie stepped forward into the hall.

“Hiya,” she said “sorry, Granddad’s a bit easily confused. I do the back garden for him. Do you want to come in and have some tea while I call the Council to sort all this out?”

The man shook his head.

“Sorrite darlin’” he said “I ‘ad a cuppa not ten minutes ago. Look, luv, if you could jus’…”

“It’s no trouble” insisted Sophie, walking up to the front door with her phone already in her hand “just let me see your ID so I know who to ask about…” and she held out a hand while she pretended to dial a number on the phone. The man made a show of checking his pockets and then shrugged.

“Musta lef’ it inna van” he said with a forced smile. Sophie nodded.

“Pop back and get it, there’s a love” she said and had to suppress a smile because it was the sort of thing her mother would say. “So I can sort this and we can get back to recycling. That’s right, isn’t it grandad? Doing the recycling?”

“Yes,” said Mr. Wolf as if the matter had slipped his mind “get rid of all the paper. I said to have a bonfire but no, not how it’s done these days…”

The man stepped back and almost disguised the annoyance on his face.

“I’ll come back annuver time” he said, watching Sophie’s phone with suspicion. “I’ll sort this wiv me guv’nor, don’t you go to any trouble”

“No trouble” said Sophie, raising the phone to her ear “We talk to the council all the time about Granddad, me and Mum do. Someone’s always here for something or other.”

But the man had gone. Past the hedge there was the slam of a car door and then a glimpse of a white van moving away. Sophie allowed herself a fierce smile. That had been fun. Then she jumped, because Mr. Wolf had put a hand on her shoulder.

“Kettle’s boiled” he said “Fancy a cup?”

Sophie decided that she did.

“You know he was looking around for valuables?” asked Sophie between sips from the too hot and too sweet tea. Mr. Wolf insisted on using a teapot and making a bit of a fuss about the tea, so he’d ended up making it himself.

“Oh?” said Mr. Wolf, with a look that reminded Sophie he wasn’t born yesterday.

“That’s why he wanted to see the garden. You might have tools in your shed or an easy way in.”

“You know a lot about crime for a young lady” observed Mr. Wolf.

“I watch a lot of TV” said Sophie and Mr. Wolf nodded. “Do you think he’ll come back?”

“I don’t expect so” said Mr. Wolf “he thinks I’ve got a house full of rubbish and fussy relatives. I expect he heard about the biscuit tins and thought he’d have a look around.”

Sophie masked her expression very carefully.

“Lot of nonsense, I expect” she said taking another sip of tea.

“Ooh yes” said Mr. Wolf “you’d be daft to keep your mysterious fortune lying about the place in biscuit tins. People would be bound to look in biscuit tins, even if all they were after was a biscuit.”

This seemed sensible to Sophie.

“What will you do if he comes back?”

Mr. Wolf considered this carefully as he blew on his tea and took a long, satisfying swallow. Then he grinned at Sophie.

“Well,” he said “I expect I should have to eat him.” He saw the expression on Sophie’s face and chuckled, so she frowned.

“Not funny” she said.

Outside in the front garden the gnome and the bush watched as the setting sun washed the sky in oranges and pinks.

“I didn’t expect that” said the gnome.

“Me either” said the bush.

“Has it ever happened before?”

“What, the girl and the wolf team up to fight crime? I shouldn’t think so. What do you think will happen next?”

“I imagine,” said the gnome “they’ll finish their tea.”

“That’s a very prosaic end to a story” said the bush.

“Who says it’s ended?” asked the gnome and they went back to watching the sun set.