Shakespeare in Solihull

Shakespeare’s Lost Years

This summer celebrates the 400 year anniversary of the first publication of the plays of William Shakespeare in 1623. The First Folio, as it has come to be known, was published seven years after his death. During the anniversary celebrations, The First Folio will visit Solihull as part of a tour of Birmingham, courtesy of The Everything to Everybody Project at The Library of Birmingham.

In anticipation of the visit, Solihull Writers Group chose Shakespeare in Solihull as the theme of their 2023 Creative Fiction Writing Competition. My offering, was awarded third place. You can read it below:

Shakespeare in Solihull – The Lost Years

Scholars often refer to the years between 1585 and 1592 as Shakespeare’s “lost years”. All historical records pertaining to him cease after the birth of his twins in Stratford-on-Avon in 1585, and only resume in 1592 when he reappears in the London theatre community.

There has been much speculation as to where he was and what he was doing during these “lost” years, alongside just as much speculation about his sexuality and the mysterious “Fair Youth” that is the subject of his first 126 sonnets …

Shafts of morning sunlight streamed through the leaded window bathing the naked youth in warm shades of pink and gold. The light down of golden hair that covered his soft, smooth skin sparkled with a cherubic glow. He was stretched out across the bed in the deep, worry-free sleep of youth so envied by the old. He was indeed a beauty. Long athletic limbs, flat belly, rounded buttocks, muscled back and shoulders. But, if his body was a study in perfection, his face was a triumph of grace and beauty. Porcelain, unmarked skin, a strong jaw supporting otherwise fine and delicate features framed by a tangle of yellow curls, long dark lashes that in sleep concealed laughing eyes of the brightest blue.

William stood by the side of the bed. He reached down to touch him then sighed and withdrew his hand. He must learn to deny himself. Last night had been their final one together. By the days end he would be riding south to London, where he could lay low until interest in his transgressions had waned, where he could walk the streets unnoticed and merge into the sea of afflicted and troubled souls seeking to do the same.  

Outside, the solid clang of metal on metal signified the start of the working day for the famed blacksmiths of Solihull. Soon it would be joined by the hiss of steam and the air would be thick with the scent of molten iron and burning charcoal. Within the hour, le Smythstreet would be bustling with people bringing plough blades and weapons to be sharpened and horses to be shod. He moved to the window and looked down at the street below the tavern where he had taken rooms for the summer.

The events of the previous evening weighed heavy on his mind and heavier still on his heart. The youth knew nothing, and so it must remain. He had already retired for the night when William had stepped out to take some air and, as much ale had been consumed over the course of the afternoon, to relieve himself before bed.

If truth be told, he had feared that he was about to be robbed, or worse, when the hooded figure stepped from the shadows and silently approached him.

“Who is thither? What doeth thou want?” He had called with as much bravado as he could muster, all the while regretfully picturing his casually discarded dagger lying on the bedroom mantel.

The figure continued to move towards him, and as it drew closer, he realised it was slight. Almost certainly female. A whore. Why else would a member of the fairer sex be wandering the streets alone at this hour. He raised his hand to dismiss her. She was not to know that his passions lay elsewhere and that a fair youth awaited him in his bedchamber directly above the place where they stood.

But before he could speak, she dropped her hood and he gasped with shocked recognition as her long auburn curls cascaded over her shoulders and her wronged green eyes locked with his.

“Anne! Mine lady wife. What brings thou to the town at this hour. Is something amiss? Are the children well?

Her eyes shimmered with tears.

“The children are well, husband. It is I who am in distress.”

“What ails thee, wife? Are thou ill?”

“Mine heart is in pain, husband, and it is thee who hath delivered the blow.”

“How? What hast I done?”

“Doeth not taketh me for a fool, husband. We both know thou hast betrayed me.” She cast her eyes up to the window above.

“Anne. Anne. What can I say? I am undone. But, wife, doeth not make too much of it. She is but a whore.”

“William, I wilt say again. Doeth not taketh me for a fool. I know it is a youth that thou hast ensconced in thy rooms above the tavern. The rooms thou took for the summer to pursue thy writing ambitions unfettered by the responsibilities of a wife and children.”

“Anne! Dear wife …”

“Nay! William, dear husband! The timeth for sorry is long past. I can ne’r taketh thee back to mine bed. Now it is timeth for the price to art paid. Thou art a sodomite, husband, and by the Queens law must art put to death for thy crimes. By the morrow the Sherriff of Birmingham wilt hast heard tidings of thy foul acts and wilt art on his way to arrest thou.”

A sob escaped her lips as she pulled her hood up, turned and walked away. Before she disappeared into the night, William saw her head bow and her shoulders sag and shake.

Now, he looked again at the sleeping youth on the bed, and it was he who allowed a sob to escape his lips. He must go before he awoke. But before that he must write one last verse for the fair youth who had captured his heart.

William sat down at his desk and lifted his quill from the ink pot.

He began to write …

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate …

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NYC 250 Microfiction Challenge – The Loving Dead

Image by Bertrand Fines from Pixabay

So my attempt at a romantic comedy, involving ‘riding a merry-go-round’ and featuring the word ‘decent’, didn’t get me through to the final round of the 2023 NYC Microfiction Challenge but it did get me an honourable mention in the penultimate round. This is the best I have done to date and I’m very happy with that.

I’m especially happy as, for the first time in the three years I have been participating in this competition, I nearly gave up. I was on holiday with some friends at the time the piece had to be written and the temptation to lie in the sun and drink rum was almost too strong to resist. In fact, I didn’t write anything until the evening and only submitted with an hour left to go.

One of my friends jokingly suggested I write a zombie romance and while I initially dismissed the idea as a silly one that was beyond my writing abilities, I suddenly thought why not? I scurried inside and spent the next hour tapping away on my lap-top. When I emerged later that evening and read it to them and my husband and they all laughed out loud at the end, I did a final edit and went ahead and submitted. Honestly, I was just pleased to have actually produced something.

Image my surprise and delight then when I received an honourable mention for The Loving Dead. Here it is for you pleasure and (I hope) amusement.

The Loving Dead

Eliza was riding the merry-go-round the day Jacob caught her eye. As she had for the seven years since the world died. Doomed to wander forever between the prancing carousel horses, hands brushing over faded, peeling manes and rusting carriages.

Her looks had been decent once. But now, soft curves were long withered and leathered. Summer frock, tattered strips of yellow gingham. Once-blue eyes, dirty grey and clouded. Plump, pink cheeks, sunken and brown. But she still had hair! A few surviving auburn wisps clinging precariously to an otherwise bare skull. And teeth too! Albeit a couple of tombstones jutting crookedly from her lower jaw.

Jacob was a carnie. For the same seven years he had circled the carousel, clothes gone to rags, coins rattling in the leather money belt that dangled from his wizened frame. Shuffling around and around, hour after hour, day after day, week after week. If she had been able to recall, Eliza would have remembered his twinkling green eyes, his jaunty smile, the tanned smooth skin of his muscled forearms below the rolled up cuffs of his blue plaid shirt.

The chances of Jacob passing at the exact moment that Eliza stumbled over a broken foot plate causing her right eye to pop from its socket, were next to nothing. But it hit his chest and bounced into the hand he raised reflexively to catch it.  Jacob paused. Looked up. His eyes met her remaining one and the rest, as they say, was history.

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NYC 250 Microfiction Challenge – Corn

This year, the only NYC Midnight competition I entered was the 250-word Microfiction Challenge. It kicked off in November 2022, when 5,439 writers submitted their Round 1 assignments in 125 groups containing approximately 44 writers per group.

My challenge was to write a story in the Suspense genre that involved ‘getting lost’ and featured the word ‘sound’.

I wrote a story called Corn (which you can read below) and am delighted to say that it got me through to the next round by the skin of my teeth, coming in at 9th in the top 10 places.

So, my Round 2 challenge, which came through last week, was to write a Romantic Comedy, that involves ‘riding a merry go round’ and features the word ‘decent’. This round places the 1,250 remaining writers in 25 groups of around 50.

Romantic Comedy is possibly my least favourite genre ever. Funnily enough though, I recently had a go at a Romance short story for a JAMS homework prompt, but it’s very much out of my comfort zone.

I spent most of the day getting absolutely nowhere and had almost given up when the seed of an idea formed in my head, and I decided just to have a go. I banged it out in a couple of hours in the evening. I’m not feeling very confident, but we will see … Better to have tried and failed and all that.

Anyway, here is Corn. I Hope you enjoy it.


The impenetrable forest of corn, taller than a man, loomed all around her. Watching with a thousand unseen eyes. Taunting. Waiting with malevolent patience to draw her into its depths. Envelop her. Suffocate her. Erase her.

Fear and panic jostled for control. Her mouth was dry. Her heart thudded in her chest. Fast, shallow breaths dizzied her. Which way?

The afternoon was hot and still. The cloudless blue sky a relentless dome of heat that raised a film of sweat on her skin. Salt and dust combining to sting her eyes and the bloodied scratches that criss-crossed her bare limbs. She had to keep moving.

Ahead, the narrow uneven path forked in two. Left or right? Right or left? Her mind a confusion of indecision. A dried-out husk of corn and a couple of withered stalks lay on the ground at the entrance to the left fork. Was there something familiar about the irregular shape they formed? Had she passed that way before?

The corn whispered.

Emma went right …

The corn is angry. Tendrils reach for her. Graze her skin. Snag her hair.

And then a voice! The thrill of recognition.

“Emma! Over here.”

She rushes towards the sound. Sobbing and gasping with relief. Throws herself into his arms.

He laughs.

She cries.

As they walk to the car she turns back and reads the sign at the entrance to the cornfield.

A smiling head of corn. Yellow and green and grotesquely cheery.

“Can YOU beat the Maize Maze?”

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The Lost Virtue

NYC Midnight 100 Word Microfiction Challenge 2022.

You might recall that, in June, I got through to the second round of the NYC Midnight 100 Word Microfiction Challenge 2022. This time, I was in the mix with the remaining 1,770 writers of the original 6793. My challenge for the round was:

Genre: Fairy Tale/Fantasy

Action: Popping a Bubble

Word: Bitter

Completely and utterly out of my comfort zone, I managed to come up with a piece that I was relatively pleased with in The Lost Virtue.

Sadly, I didn’t get through to the next round but I did get some positive and encouraging feedback.

I’d love to know what you think of my effort.

The Lost Virtue

Seven years since Dozumoth had captured the virtues of the realm of Ebruven and Sarander had begun her quest to free them.

Seven bitter years of fear and chaos.

At last, Sarander stood in the high clearing and plucked a thorn from the bush where they dangled in fluid, shimmering bubbles.

Time was short. The sky darkened.

Sarander pierced the first. Prudence. A soft, blue mist blossomed and swirled.

The next. Justice. Green.

Fortitude. Red.

Temperance. Yellow.

Thunder cracked. Lightning flashed. Dozumoth rose.

Sarander reached for the last. Tolerance.

Dozumoth struck. The thorn fell.

Sarander wept dead tears for Ebruven.

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Wet Paint

NYC Midnight 100 Word Microfiction Challenge 2022

It’s that time of year again. The NYC Midnight challenges for 2022 have begun. This year I’ve only been able to enter one – the 100 word microfiction challenge – as I have too many other things going on when the others take place.

Telling a story in 100 words is harder than you might think and is even harder when you have to write to a set brief under a tight timescale of just 24 hours.

In April, 6,973 writers were divided into 118 groups of around 59 per group and set their first challenge. Mine was:

Genre: Comedy

Action: Waiting for a Train

Word: legal

I was on holiday in Nice at the time and didn’t want to spend too much time sitting indoors on my laptop so I felt a lot of additional pressure with this one, especially as my partner was waiting for me to finish before we could get out and enjoy the French sunshine.

After many more “empty head” minutes than I care to remember, I came up with a little ditty called Wet Paint. I wasn’t particularly happy with it but when I read it to my partner and he laughed out loud at the end I decided just to submit it and hope for the best.

I’m happy to say that Wet Paint squeezed through to Round 2 at number 14 of the top 15 qualifiers in my group! This morning I have been writing my entry for the next stage of the competition. This time 1,770 writers were assigned to 27 groups with approximately 66 writers per group. My challenge for this round was:

Genre: Fairy Tale/Fantasy

Action: Popping a Bubble

Word: Bitter

It’s a little little encouraging that I wrote my first ever fantasy piece last month and it got great feedback from my peers! I’ll let you know how I get on at the end of July.

In the meantime here is Wet Paint for (I hope) your amusement and entertainment.

Wet Paint

The station was a riot of football noise and colour. Edgar’s brand-new England shirt was a white beacon in a sea of blue and white stripes.

He regarded the Greek sign on the empty blue bench. He couldn’t read Greek. His train was in fifteen minutes. He needed to rest.

Edgar removed the sign and sat down. It couldn’t be legal, not to sit on a bench. What was the worst that could happen?

The station was a riot of football noise and colour. Edgar’s brand-new, Greek shirt melted into the sea of blue and white stripes.

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The Dragon Slayer

A High Fantasy Challenge

For each of our JAMS monthly creative writing meetings we all prepare a piece based on a a randomly selected prompt. We take turns to read each others work and, after the meeting, provide each other with a full written critique. It’s the main method that we use to develop and improve our writing skills.

Sometimes the prompt can really test our abilities. This was the case last month when the challenge was to write a High Fantasy story that featured a Dragon Slayer and contained the word “gracious” somewhere in the text.

I was so far out of my comfort zone that I thought, for the first time ever, I was not going to be able to complete the task. However, I persevered and produced a story that I was reasonably happy with. Honestly, I was just delighted that I had managed to come up with something at all.

I was both surprised and delighted when my fellow JAMS members were blown away by my story. If it weren’t for a few typos and sloppy mistakes, I would have been awarded full marks in both of their written critiques.

You can read the story below (with – I hope – all errors and typos corrected). I hope you enjoy my first foray into the realms of High Fantasy as much as my colleagues did!

The Dragon Slayer by J. M. McKenzie

The hamlet of Lemon Arbour has lived under the shadow of the dragon named Qomrirarth for many years. Too many years. The time has come to slay the beast. But what of the fabled dragon slayer? Who is he? Where is he? Why has he left them to fend for themselves for so long?

Engar was two years into his second decade when he first heard talk of seeking the Dragon Slayer. The dragon, who had been the scourge of the small hamlet of Lemon Arbour, in the Vale of Terrador, for as long as Engar could remember, was named Qomrirarth. The name meant, the bright one, on account of the vivid green markings that sparkled like emeralds on his wings, the shimmering of which could be seen from many miles away, forewarning of his next dreadful arrival.

On first sight of green sparkles at the hazy line where land meets sky, the village bells would peal their warning and a flurry of fearful activity would ensue. The frantic gathering of livestock, the anxious recall of children at play, the hurried boarding of cottage doors and windows and the collection of water with which to quench the flames that would inevitably burn in the aftermath of Qomrirarth’s fury.

Engar, had never known a life outwith the shadow of Qomrirarth. Indeed, Jaquard, eldest of elders, had once told him that the dragon had made its first appearance on the very day that Engar celebrated the completion of the first year of his first decade. Back then, the dragon too had been but a young fledgling, probably, Jaquard said, not more than one year since hatching himself. In those early days, he had taken only chickens and newborn lambs or kids, but as he had grown, so had his appetite and his strength and last month he had carried off a fully grown dairy cow from the herd of Daymar Garanthon.

On the day in question, Qomrirarth, had seized his first human prey and thus a line had been crossed for the people of Lemon Arbour. Nerensyth Larendarson, the eldest daughter of Grandal and Heta Larendarson, had been ignoring her mother’s cries to get inside and gathering up a kitten that had wriggled from her grasp as the family hurried for cover. Nerensyth had been trying to coax it from behind a tall, wooden water barrel when Qomrirarth had swooped from the sky in a blur of green and red and carried her away. The kitten survived.

Now the whole village was talking of the Dragon Slayer.

Engar sat at the top of the stairs long after he had been sent to bed and listened to his parents talk. It was a cold night and he had dragged the soft wool comforter from his bed to wrap around his shoulders in an attempt to stop his chattering teeth from revealing his hiding spot. The dying embers of the day’s fire created a slowly decreasing orb of warmth and orange light, which caused his parents to draw their chairs closer and closer to the hearth, making it difficult to hear all their words, but Engar heard enough. They were planning to seek a Dragon Slayer to kill Qomrirarth.

“It is time,” his father was saying. “We have waited too long. We have been foolish. And now it has come to this. None of our children are safe.”

“But we always thought the slayer would come. They always do,” said his mother. “It is their destiny. It is how it is. For every dragon there is a slayer and, when the time is right, they will come together. It is their fate. It has always been this way and it always will.”

“But where is our slayer?” his father cried. “Where is he when we need him? We cannot wait! The time is now. Fate or not. If the slayer will not come to us, we will have to seek him out. We must make haste. Who knows who will be taken next? It could be one of our own! Baby Sarander, little Mesophe or even Engar! No, we must act. We must act now. As is his custom, the beast will be quiet for two score days after his successful excursion. We have time. Tomorrow I will gather a group of good men and we will journey down the vale in search of the slayer.”

Engar couldn’t understand why this conversation disturbed him so. He shivered and pulled his comforter tighter around him as he snuck back up to his room and climbed into his cot. His sisters, Sarander and little Mesophe, slept on the other side of the room, head-to-tail in theirs. He lay awake for a long time after he heard his parents go to bed in the next room and the whole house grew quiet and colder still. Stars twinkled outside in the clear night sky and the waning moon washed the room in a silver light. Engar knew that when sleep eventually claimed him he would dream of Qomrirarth. He always did.

He had always felt a strange connection to the dragon. Of course, he had a healthy fear of the death and destruction the creature wreaked upon them on its monthly visits to the village. Of course, he cowered under the kitchen table with his sisters as its great wings thundered and its fiery breath roared outside. But Engar also saw the beauty in its lithe and powerful form and the brilliant colours and patterns of its scales. Saw the elegance and grace in the rhythmic, rippling of its wings in flight. Heard the melody in its cry and sensed the intelligence in its piercing green eyes.

Engar’s eyes were green too. So green that sometimes the other children in the village teased him about being related to Qomrirarth. That they were brothers. That Engar had not been birthed from his mother’s womb but had hatched from an egg. They called him Qom or Qomo and always made him play the monster in games of tag or hide and seek. They pretended to kill him in their playfights, poking and swiping at him with their stubby wooden swords until he sulked home with his head down and his shoulders slumped, tears welling in his eyes.

But they were right. He did feel a connection with the dragon, and at no time was this stronger than when he closed his eyes each night and entered the world of his dreams.

He first started dreaming of Qomrirarth in the first year of his second decade. He never told anyone about the dreams. Not even his parents. Fearful that by speaking of them that they might fuel the fire of his imagined bond to the beast. Fearful that he would be shunned by his family and rejected by his so-called friends if he revealed any signs that might threaten to transform a childish fantasy into a terrifying reality.

 The dreams had a clear and regular pattern. Each night he would find himself walking out towards Qomrirarth’s lair. In the waking world it was over a day’s walk from Lemon Arbour, at the end of the Vale, beyond the Red Forest, high in the Mountains of Elwyre. But in his dreams, he covered the distance like a wisp, feet skimming over hill and dale like a gazelle, weaving through the forest like a breath of wind, and scaling rocks and boulders as nimbly as a mountain goat.

The strange thing about the dreams was that he never reached the lair, always awakening back in his bed before reaching his goal. But, every year since the dreams had begun, he had got closer and closer before the dream had ended. In the past year he had reached the edge of a deep crater littered with bones and rotting carcasses. From inside a dark cave at the far end of the basin he could hear the deep rumble of Qomrirarth’s breathing, see the wisps of steam and smell the acrid scent of brimstone that drifted from deep within. This night, the night of the eavesdropped conversation about the Dragon Slayer, he got as far as to take his first step down into the hollow before he awakened.

As discussed, the next day, his father and a group of men set out on a journey to seek out a dragon slayer. They returned one score and eighteen days later, dejected, and disappointed. The day after their return Qomrirarth struck again, this time claiming the widow Armthwaite who had been out walking and had taken shelter under the old Sycamore tree at the centre of the high meadow, knowing that she did not have either the speed or succor to make it back to the village in time.

And so, life continued as before. All talk of the Dragon Slayer ceased. Weeks became months and months became years. Qomrirarth came and went as did the seasons. For a time, people and livestock perished in greater numbers than ever, crops and buildings burned, and the entire village lived in a cloud of fear and dread. It was only when they came up with idea of leaving out a sacrificial offering each month that some sort of stalemate was reached. They got into the habit of keeping a single goat, sheep or cow staked to a post at the edge of the village within clear sight of the dragon’s usual approach. After the first few occasions when the beast took both the offering and any additional opportunistic prey he could secure, Qomrirarth gradually began to accept the offering and leave without entering the village. After this, a period of several years passed in state of fragile but seemingly mutually acceptable peace.

In Engar’s dreams he reached the mouth of Qomrirarth’s cave. Secretly he was relieved that for the moment, the need to slay the dragon had been forgotten.

On the first day of Engar’s eighth year of his second decade, Qomrirarth launched an attack on Lemon Arbour the likes of which no one could recall. He appeared without warning, descending with such power and speed from the clouds above that no-one could escape his wrath. Two boys, Frimlar Smeed and Baobub Drax, had been crouched by the edge of the pond skimming stones into the water and didn’t even see him coming. The dragon made it very clear that the unhappy truce was over. Circling overhead with the screaming boys dangling from his talons, he bathed the village in fire, burning the haybarn and the mill keeper’s cottage to the ground and scorching the cornfield to a smoking cinder.

The village was in uproar. Accusations and recriminations flew back and forth. There was much weeping and wailing. Why had they not continued with the quest to find the Dragon Slayer? Why had they been content to accept the false truce? How stupid they had been to think that it would continue? They were not dealing with a reasonable being! They were dealing with a malevolent and evil monster! What were they going to do now? Where was their Dragon Slayer? Where was the one that was fated to slay Qomrirarth? Where was he when they needed him?

Engar, was deeply troubled and plagued with guilt that he had been content that the villagers had not chosen to pursue their goal of destroying the dragon. He sought out the wisdom of Jaquard.

The old man was frail. He eased himself uncomfortably down into the chair by the fire, signaling to Engar to take the other. Engar was nervous. He needed to talk to someone and Jaquard as the only person he could trust. Or so he hoped. He looked at him wondering whether to say what was on his mind. But, above his long white beard, Jaquard’s eyes twinkled with warmth and gracious compassion. Engar relaxed and started to speak.

“Jaquard,” he started. “I need your advice about some dreams and some thoughts I have been having … “

“Yes,” said Jacquard with a knowing smile. “I have been expecting you. I’m surprised it has taken you this long.”

“What do you mean? Do you know … ?”

“About you and Qomrirarth? Of course, I do. You two have been linked from the start.”

“I don’t understand. Linked? Of what do you speak?”

“You know that you and Qomrirarth are one. You know that you dream of him every night. That you admire and respect him. That your destinies are linked. That your fates are bound.”

“No! I don’t! I don’t understand! I don’t know! What does it mean?”

“You will find out in time. When the time is right all will be revealed. But you will not need to wait for much longer, I sense that time is approaching.”

Engar just stared at the ancient man. Afraid to speak and say something he would regret. He was clenching his jaw and his hands were curled into tight fists. He was shaking with anger and frustration. He was furious that Jaquard knew about him and Qomrirarth. Why had he not told him before now? Why had he not helped him? He could have saved him from so much misery and torment. Yet still he did not understand how and why the Dragon and he were bound, and the old man was not going to tell him. He got to his feet and stormed back to the cottage. His parents and sisters were seated at the kitchen table when he burst in through the front door. They looked up at him, startled.

“Engar, what troubles you?” His mother rose and held out a hand to touch him.

He brushed it away and hurried up the stairs.

“Let him be,” said his father. “Today he has become a man and what should have been a day of celebration for him has become a day of great sorrow. He is feeling it. This is all.”

That night, as every night, Engar dreamt of Qomrirarth. But this dream was different. Yes, he moved with the same speed and grace across the vale, through the forest and up the mountain. And yes, he reached the mouth of the cave wherein the dragon lay. But this time, instead of awe and wonder and curiosity, all Engar felt was rage. Rage at what Qomrirarth had done to his village and his people. Rage at the fear and dread he had brought to all their lives for so long. Rage at the pain and suffering the dragon had inflicted on his friends and family. No! However, magnificent, and beautiful Qomrirarth was, it was time for his reign of terror to end. It was time and it was Engar who had to do it.

Engar looked down at his right hand, suddenly aware that in it he held a sword. A heavy Damascan Steel sword. It was a thing of power and beauty with a bright, green, emerald shimmering in the centre of the intricately engraved pommel. It was a sword with which to slay a dragon. The sword with which to slay the bright one. In an instant Engar understood the connection between him and the dragon. They were connected. He did admire and respect the beast. He did appreciate its power and beauty but only because he was the one destined to slay it.

He raised the sword and stepped into the blackness.

The lair was dark and steamy. It smelt of decaying meat and sulfur. It was filled with the sound of the dragon’s breathing. Deep and shuddering and steady. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he gradually made out the shape of the creature against the back wall. Its great bulk was lying in a resting pose. Its glittering scales reflected in a shaft of moonlight that shone in from outside. Its sides rising and falling with every rumbling breath. Qomrirarth was asleep.

Engar approached the creature. He stepped slowly and carefully across the carpet of bones that littered the floor of the cave, lest a crunch of something underfoot should wake the beast. He was tense but he was not afraid. He knew that this was his destiny. He had to see through. He had no other option. Did not want any other option. He had to fulfill his destiny.

As Engar grew near, Qomrirarth opened his bright green eyes, but he did not stir, and his breathing did not alter. As Engar stared deep into these eyes, that were so much like his own, he felt rather than heard Qomrirarth speak to him.

It is time Engar. It is time for us to come together at last. From the day of our birth, we were bonded. Destined for each other. We have lived sperate lives but we are forever joined. We are meant for each other. I am tired of killing and burning. It is time for you to end my reign of fire. It is how it should be. How it must be. Time for us to bond in the way of ways.

When Engar raised his sword to strike, green tears spilled from his eyes.

When Engar awoke in his bed the next morning he felt different. Still in his hand was the Damascan Steel sword, streaked with Qomrirarth’s blood. His feet and hands were caked with mud, his shirt and breeches tattered and torn, and pine needles clung to his hair. Before his sisters stirred, he rose, wiped off the sword, concealed it under his mattress and went to the bathroom to bathe. When he was clean, he looked at himself in the looking glass. His eyes seemed greener than ever. He stretched and yawned and as he opened his mouth a tiny wisp of smoke curled from between his lips. But Engar was not startled. He closed his mouth, smiled, and went back to his cot.

Qomrirarth never visited Lemon Arbour again, as far as they knew.

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1000 Paper Cranes

Chisako is folding 1000 paper cranes. Tradition dictates that when she is finished, her one true wish will be granted.

Well sadly, 1000 Paper Cranes didn’t get me through to the final round of the 2021 NYC Flash Fiction Challenge, but I did come 6th in my group with an ‘Honourable Mention’ and got some lovely feedback from the judges. By my rough estimate I was in the top 150 of over 4000 writers so I’m feeling pretty proud of that. The upside of it all is that I now have a completely free weekend, as I had planned to do nothing other than write on Saturday and edit on Sunday.

No rest for the wicked though … the following weekend I will find out if I got through to the next round of the 2021 NYC Micro-fiction Challenge with my little ghost story, Until Next Year. More on than that next weekend!

In the meantime, here is 1000 Paper Cranes. I hope you enjoy it! If you do, why not drop me a line and sign up for my Mailing List while you’re at it?

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1000 Paper Cranes

Chisako sat cross-legged on the tearoom floor as she watched her onee san, Chikafumi, perform the ancient ceremony with the poise and elegance that defined everything she did. Ever since the san san kudo, when they had been bound as sisters through the sharing of sake, Chisako had been spellbound by her Geisha mentor.

The open windows on two sides gave the room a light and airy feel. The clean lines and neutral tones of the walls, paper screens and bamboo mats contrasted with the lush green disorder of the gardens outside. A fountain gurgled, a wind chime tinkled, and the chirp of cicadas heralded the start of summer. Inside, the grassy scent of green tea mingled with the heady aroma of sandalwood incense, and the only sound was the rustle of silk and the murmured thanks of her clients as Chikafumi prepared and served tea, smiling, and nodding as she moved around the space with effortless grace.

As a maiko in the third stage of her training, Chisako accompanied Chikafumi to the teahouse and around the hanamachi every day, to learn the ways of a Geisha through observation. Some of the other maiko complained about the length of this stage of their training, which could last for many years, but as far as Chisako was concerned, she wouldn’t care if it went on forever. She would happily watch Chikafumi until the end of time.

To Chisako, Chikafumi epitomised not only the perfect Geisha, but the perfect woman. She was tall and slender. Only the smooth folds of her obi interrupted the flowing contours of her frame. Her classic Cupid’s bow lips and almond-shaped eyes were accentuated by the traditional bright red lipstick, black and red eyeliner, and white face powder. Her immaculately sculpted dark hair was sleek and shiny. She might have looked like a porcelain doll but for the tantalising glimpse of soft, pale flesh revealed by the low, dipped neckline of her red and gold kimono. Every inch of her was intoxicating, from the top of her cherry blossom hairpin to the tips of her white-stockinged toes.

Chisako was aware that she was mesmerised by Chikafumi in a way that went far beyond the usual respect and admiration of a maiko for her onee san. She was completely captivated by her. She adored her. Every night she went to bed dreaming of her, and every morning her face was the first thing she saw. She had had crushes before but never anything like this. Indeed, it was the confusing and unwelcome feelings that she often felt for other women that had prompted her to enter the profession. She had hoped that by immersing herself in the most controlled and feminine of environments, such feelings would fade and disappear. In fact, the reverse was true. Being surrounded by a preponderance of exquisite and glamourous young women had made them more difficult to control than ever, and none were stronger than those she felt for Chikafumi.

But her feelings were not reciprocated. Chikafumi barely noticed her, not beyond their professional relationship that was. She was unfailingly polite and personable in all their interactions, and patient and gracious in her instruction, but she remained aloof and guarded. Chisako was amazed that Chikafumi didn’t seem to feel the tingle of electricity that passed between them every time their fingers touched. She couldn’t understand why Chikafumi never held eye contact with her for a second longer than necessary. It was as if she was deliberately preventing the development of a deeper connection between them. At the end of each day when Chikafumi left to return to her private house in the hanamachi, and Chisako to the okiya with the other maiko, Chisako would watch her until she was out of sight, but Chikafumi never looked back.

Alone in her room in the okiya, Chisako was folding origami paper cranes. She had eight to do to reach 1000 and complete the senbazuru. Tradition dictated that the folding of 1,000 paper cranes would grant the person the chance for one special wish to come true. When Chisako had begun, her wish had been that she could be like other girls and no longer be tortured by feelings and desires that she could never realise. Now, as she folded the last tiny figure, she knew that wasn’t what she wanted at all. All she wished for, and would forever wish for, was for Chikafumi to notice her and love her back.

The next morning, they were alone in the teahouse for a shamisen lesson. To help Chisako get her hand position right, Chikafumi sat down behind her and reached around her body. For Chisako, the closeness of their bodies was almost unbearable. Her heart quickened and she couldn’t catch her breath.

“Here. Place your fingers, like this,” said Chikafumi placing her hands over Chisako’s. Chisako could not stop the small moan that escaped from her lips. Chikafumi froze for a moment before sighing and moving her body away. She stood up. Chisako bent her head, deeply ashamed of her momentary loss of control, fearful of how Chikafumi would react.

“Stand up, little sister.” Chikafumi’s voice was gentle. “Look at me.”

Chisako stood and turned towards her. A single tear rolled down her cheek as she raised her head. Expecting admonishment, she gasped when she saw that Chikafumi was smiling.

“Don’t worry, little sister.” Chikafumi nodded. “Don’t be sad. I know how you feel, and it is time for you to know that I feel the same.”

Chisako stepped back in surprise. Her hands flew to her mouth. A thousand emotions flooded through her. Joy. Relief. Hope. Disbelief.

“But … I don’t understand … I thought …” she stammered.

Chikafumi took both her hands in hers and looked into her eyes.

“We must be careful, little sister. Patient. Can you do this? Do you understand?”

“I can,” Chisako whispered. “I do.”

“Then let us resume the lesson for now, little sister.”

From Venice With Love

Still in the game – NYC Midnight.

Last weekend I found out that I had done enough to qualify for the next round of the 2021 NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge. You might recall that in round 1 I came second in my group of around 50 writers with The Buttonologist and scored 14 points.

For the next round, I was given the challenge of writing a thriller, set in a canal, and featuring a headlight. It was M who came up with idea of setting the story in the canals of Venice and I used a recent fake news story, about Covid-19 originating in Italy, for inspiration. My story was called From Venice with Love and, while it didn’t score as highly as The Buttonologist, it came 10th in the group giving me another 6 points. This brought my total to 20 which was enough to place me in the top 5 of my group overall, and progress through to the next round.

You can read From Venice with Love at the end of this post.

My next challenge was to write a romance, set in a teahouse, and featuring a crane! I cogitated for a while then wrote a story about unrequited love in a Geisha community that featured the folding of 1000 origami paper cranes. We’ll have to wait until the 11th of December to find out if it takes me any further in the competion. It’s a big ask! Only 600 of the 4500 (approximately) participants made it through this far, so even if I don’t, I’m proud of what I have achieved so far!

From Venice with Love

“New research reveals that the novel coronavirus was detected in samples in Italy as far back as September 2019” (News International, 2021)

The boat’s powerful headlight illuminated a wide fan of water in front of them, momentarily bathing the ancient, stony-faced buildings, which disapprovingly witnessed their reckless passage, in harsh white light. The other boat was caught in the furthest edge of the beam. Ernestine could see the black headscarf and beige jacket of the woman with the briefcase standing in the stern. She was facing ahead, and she too was gripping the handrail as she was thrown from side to side by the violent twists and turns of the vessel.

Ernestine knew that the fate of the entire world depended on what happened in the next few minutes. She clung to the cold steel of the handrail as they bounced through the wake of the speeding boat ahead, each wave hitting the bottom of the hull with a terrifying thud. They hurtled through the network of canals that criss-crossed the old city in a way that would never have been possible during the day, when the waterways would be choked with drifting gondolas and other slow-moving pleasure crafts.

“Faster! Faster,” Ernestine pleaded with Marco, the lab night security guard, who was at the helm. “We can’t let them get away!”

“We’re at top speed, Signorina. We can’t go any faster.”

Then, a sharp crack echoed across the water, and she caught a whiff of cordite as something whistled past her ear.

“Get down! Get down!” Marco shouted. “Guns. They have guns!”

Ernestine dropped to the floor and curled into a ball, struggling to make sense of what was happening. What was she doing? She was a scientist for God’s sake! Not a spy, or a member of the militia! Just ten minutes earlier, she had been at her lab bench, working late as usual, when she had heard the tinkle of breaking glass from across the corridor. As she had gone out to investigate, she had seen a woman with a briefcase walking towards the front entrance but thought nothing of it. There were lots of people in the building at that time of night. It was part of the ethos of the place. High expectations that yielded equally high rewards were a strong motivator to burn the proverbial midnight oil.

The door to the sample bank was ajar. The hairs on Ernestine’s neck bristled and her skin prickled with alarm. The room was always kept locked. Only a few high-profile people had the access code. She cautiously pushed open the door and, when nothing stirred, she stepped inside and flicked on the lights. Her heart lurched when she saw the broken test tubes on the floor and the open fridge door. This too was always kept locked. Now her heart was racing, and her breathing was shallow as she looked inside at the empty space where the tray of experimental viral samples should be.

The image of the woman with the briefcase walking briskly down the corridor flashed into her head, and suddenly recalling things that had registered only in her subconscious, she knew immediately that it was her. The way she hadn’t turned her head but quickened her pace when Ernestine had entered the corridor.  The smart briefcase. The black headscarf. The tailored beige jacket. Most of her co-workers dressed casually in jeans and tee-shirts and carried well-worn backpacks suitable for a daily commute on foot or by bike.

  Ernestine ran down the corridor. She reached the front entrance just in time to see the woman stepping off the dock into a boat with its engine running. A man dressed in black was helping her aboard and another was at the helm. Ernestine shouted to Marco, who was sitting with his feet on his desk, scrolling through his phone.

“Marco! That woman! She has the viral samples! Quickly!”

Marco jumped up. Startled. Confused.

“But … chi? … come? She had a pass! Dio santo!” he muttered as he ran towards the lab’s boat moored at the other end of the dock.

Ernestine followed him. Once they were in the boat, she fumbled in her jeans pocket for her phone, considering calling the Carabinieri, but Marco looked at her and shook his head. He was right. Too many questions. The fallout would be disastrous. Not just for them as individuals but the for the organisation as whole. They were going to have to do this alone.

“They’ve entered the lagoon!” Marco shouted, snapping her back to the present. “Their boat is fast. They’re picking up speed!”

Ernestine got warily to her feet.

“It’s alright. We’re out of range,” Marco reassured her. “But they’re getting away.”

“Oh no! God help us.” Ernestine put her hand to her mouth. “God help us all.”

“It’s ok. They’re heading for the airport. It’s not too late.”


As Ernestine entered the terminal building, she was temporarily stunned by the bright lights and the crowds. She frantically scanned the space. A sea of heads. People moving in all directions. The soft rumble of luggage wheels. The collective murmur of a hundred voices. Cell phones ringing. Automated announcements in Italian and English ringing out over the tannoy.

Then, over by the departure gates, a flash of beige. The now familiar black headscarf. Ernestine pushed her way through the crowd, trying to keep her target in her sights. But the woman was moving further and further away. Ernestine felt as though she was wading through treacle. She finally reached the gate just as the woman passed through and out of reach. Her black head bobbed into the distance. Never looking back.

In desperation and dismay, Ernestine’s eyes ran down the list on the departure board. There were two flights about to depart. One to Paris, France, and another to Wuhan, China. Ernestine knew instantly which one the woman would be on. She dropped to her knees and wept.

NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Competition – The Buttonologist

A taste of success!

Trident Edge Update

Its’s been a while since I wrote about my writing! Since we got back from Barbados I have finished the first draft of Trident Edge (the sequel to Wait for Me) and it is currently with my editor (Get It Write UK).

Prior to that, I went on a road trip with my fellow writers in JAMS to check out some of the real-life places that feature in the book. We visited Fineshade Wood, RAF Coningsby, Kirkham Priory and RAF Menwith Hill, all highly significant locations in terms of the plot, but you’ll have to read the book to find out more!

After that I made a few tweaks and sent it off to my beta readers who, as ever, gave me some great feedback that I incorporated before finishing my final edit. It should be ready for my final edit in early October with a view to publication in time for Halloween.

Short Stories

In the meantime I have been working on building up a “bank” of short stories and entering a few competitions. I’ve been working through a book called The Very Short Story Starter by John Gillard. It contains some exercises and ideas and 101 Flash Fiction prompts. I also did a week long Short Story course with Arvon. So far, I have written seven short stories, some of which I like considerably better than others!

I am also starting to think about my next novel. I am pulling together all my Covid-19 blog posts into a non-fiction journal style book called Viruses and Volcanoes and that is an ongoing project. However, I’m starting to think about what my next fictional book will be. I think my Zombie Apocalypse series has reached a natural conclusion and I’m ready to start something new. My options are; to stick with the post-apocalyptic theme but do something different with the genre; or to pick up my original idea from years ago, The Ice Factory; or to have a go at something else entirely. I’ve bought a workbook called Ready, Set, Novel and so far it seems to be taking down the post-apocalyptic road but this time in a climate change scenario. So, we will see …

The Buttonologist

One of the competitions I have entered is the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge. For round 1 my genre was Comedy, the location had to be a Meet and Greet, and the story had to feature a Diploma in some way. I came up with a piece called The Buttonologist and was delighted (especially as I don’t think I’m very good at being funny – not intentionally anyway) when it came second in my group giving me 14 points to take in to round 2!

Here is my (almost) winning story. I hope you enjoy it!

The Buttonologist

Peter pushed his small, round, wire-framed glasses up his nose. He squinted again at the flyer that he’d picked up from the counter in his local grocery store. It was advertising an opportunity to meet Maximus G, one of the country’s leading buttonologists, and to receive a signed copy of his latest book. He checked the address on the flyer against the street name and number on the signage above the smoky, mirrored glass frontage of the large, modern building. A glittery, rose gold logo on the door read B Hub. It wasn’t quite what he’d been expecting, but he was definitely at the right location.

He looked up and down the street. In his experience, button collectors, or buttonologists as serious collectors now referred to themselves , tended to meet in locations that comfortably mirrored both their personalities and the nature of their pursuit. Small, aging, unobtrusive buildings, tucked away in quiet, lonely corners of narrow, cobbled side streets that, when you entered, were bursting at the seams with a cornucopia of ancient miscellanea.

B Hub, on the other hand, was big and tall and shiny and minimalist, and located bang in the centre of the busiest street downtown. While this was highly unusual, and mostly made him feel wary and decidedly uncomfortable, a small part of him was pleasantly surprised and tentatively hopeful that his field might finally be beginning to emerge from the shadows into the warm light of mainstream concerns.

He took his diploma out of his briefcase and smoothed out the plastic document folder. He smiled as he traced his finger over the elegantly hand-inscribed calligraphy on the delicate, creamy parchment:

The World Society of Buttons

has awarded to

Peter Anderson Wilmington

The Diploma in Advanced Buttonology

Maybe it hadn’t been the ‘big waste of time and money’ that his parents kept telling him it had been. Maybe it wasn’t always going to be something that everyone who heard about it laughed at. Maybe this was the day he would at last meet someone who felt the same as he did about buttons. Maybe this would be the first step towards finding a job that would allow him to do what he loved and actually get paid for it. Maybe this was the day when his obsession might finally start to become a blessing and not a curse.  Maybe this was the day when his dyslexia and hypernumeracy would start to work for him and not against him. Maybe this was the day when it was finally all going to come together.

A woman brushed past him, her elbow colliding with his and almost knocking the diploma from his hands.

“Hey, be care …” he started. But the words froze on his lips as his gaze came to rest on what had to be the biggest backside he had ever seen in his life. No, that wasn’t right, it wasn’t the biggest, it was just the most … pronounced, and it was grossly – no, magnificently – out of proportion with the rest of her lycra-clad, athletic frame. It appeared to have a life of its own, each buttock moving independently of the other and the rest of her body, as she sashayed towards the door.

Her movements were slow and exaggerated, as if she knew he was watching her and was luxuriating in his attention. When she reached the door, she placed her hand on the glass as if to push it open but instead, turned to face him. His mouth, already slack-jawed in astonishment, dropped open even further as she gave him a full-on, languorous wink.

“Come on, Baby. Don’t be shy,” she said, her voice as sweet and rich as honey. Then she opened the door and slipped inside, her backside entering the room several milliseconds after the rest of her.

Peter scurried after her. This was going to be even more interesting than he had hoped.

The interior consisted of one vast, high-ceilinged industrial space. The walls were lined with mirrors making the small crowd of people queuing to meet Mr. Maximus appear like a multitude. Harsh strip lighting illuminated every detail of their features and clothing. Like the woman outside, they were all wearing bright shades of skin-tight lycra that clung to every inch of their finely honed physiques. There was a preponderance of well-defined buttocks and above the buzz of general conversation he heard words like ‘glutes’, ‘implants,’ ‘squats’, ‘enhancements’ and ‘lifts’. As well as ‘maximus’, people were talking about ‘medius’ and ‘minimus’.

He looked down at his worn, baggy corduroy trousers. He was suddenly aware of his own concave gluteal muscles and his generally puny frame. Something wasn’t right. He pulled the flyer out of his pocket and looked at it closely. He read the words again:

Sunday October 6

10 till 4


B Hub

17- 23 Reede Street

Meet and Greet and Book Signing



The Country’s Leading Buttologist

Option 3.

Today I had some great news! My first ever smidgeon of success as a writer.

I entered the NYC Midnight Short Story Competition this year and my Round 1 entry was 2nd in my category! This is my story:

Option 3.

Leo was tired. Tired of hiding. Tired of being constantly on the move. Tired of always having to be alert, watchful, ready. Tired of not having a place to settle, to call home, to rest for a while. Truly rest. Not just lie down for a few hours, fully clothed with one hand on his gun. That wasn’t rest. He couldn’t remember the last time he got undressed, got into bed and slept soundly, all night.

But, most of all, he suspected he was growing tired of killing.

He sat in a low deck chair on the roof of the narrow boat nursing a mug of hot, strong coffee. It was just after 4am. He’d been awake since 3. The full moon cast a rippling ribbon of light along the dark, smooth surface of the canal. The trees and bushes along its banks, dark silhouettes against the luminous night sky. A light breeze coaxed the water to lap gently against the side of the boat. The only other sounds were the occasional calls of night birds and the rustling of small creatures rooting in the undergrowth.

A blanket draped loosely around his head and shoulders. The folds of the fabric trapped the steam rising from the mug and bathed his face and hands with warm moisture. He sighed, relishing the tranquillity of the moment. He was unusually relaxed, his gun resting lightly on his lap under the blanket. But Leo was never completely relaxed, his senses always alert to anything out of place, the faintest sound, shadow, or small waft of air.

His mind kept drifting back to his last job. How close it had come to going wrong. Very, very wrong. He was good at what he did. Clinical. Always had been. That was why he was so much … in demand. It wasn’t like him. It troubled him. He was confused.

A trained and highly skilled mixed martial artist, he relied on his hands to do most of his dirty work. They were lethal, fast, silent and clean. Garottes were slow. Guns were noisy. Knives messy. Attracted too much attention. Created too many possibilities for being traced, tracked, followed.

The job had been in Addis Ababa. His mission had been to gather intel from an OC HQ. It had gone to plan until he’d encountered a meaty SG blocking his escape route. He shouldn’t have been there. Leo had done his recon. The guy was having a sneaky smoke away from his post. Leo was behind him. It should have been easy. A couple of taps to key pressure points and the guy went down. One twist to the neck and it would be over. But, Leo had hesitated. Only for a nanosecond. But it was enough. Enough for the guy to cry out, before Leo finished him. Enough to trigger raised voices and footsteps running in his direction. He only just got out.

Now, thinking back, he realised these feelings had been developing for a while now. Imperceptibly creeping up on him from a place he hadn’t known existed. Surprising him at the most inopportune moments. Causing him to think twice. To make mistakes.

As a young man he had studied many martial arts. Krav Maga in Israel, Vale Tudo in Brazil, and Kung Fu in China. However, increasingly, in the past few months, he kept thinking about his days in Japan where he trained in Aikido at the Aikikai Foundation in Tokyo with Doshu Moriteru Ueshiba, the great grandson of its founder, Morihei Ueshiba. He studied the teachings of Morihei and his religious mentor Onisaburo Deguchi. Their philosophies centred around universal peace and harmony, the attainment of a personal utopia, and love and compassion for those who seek to harm others. For Leo, it had taught him more about evasion and defence than any other discipline he had mastered. He hadn’t bought in to the peace-loving ideology, but recognised that his time there had been one of the most fulfilling periods of his life.

The words of his teacher, Moriteru, kept echoing in his head. Love your enemy. Do no harm.


Leo eased himself silently in through the window. He carefully released the line he had used to lower himself from the roof terrace and watched as it recoiled with a soft hiss. The large, opulent bathroom was bathed in the green glow of his night vision goggles. He was at the south end of the building. His target was in the master suite at the north end.
The house was silent. The bathroom smelt of vanilla and lemon. The door was ajar, as he had expected. He pushed it open and looked down the long hallway. He knew from his recon that, apart from the nanny, this floor was exclusively occupied by the family.
Seven doors. Three on his left, the boy’s room, the nanny’s room and a linen store. Three on his right, the girl’s room, another bathroom and a study. At the end, facing him was the door to the master suite. All doors except one, the boy’s room, were closed.
He moved silently down the corridor. He paused to look into the boy’s room. A child lay in the bed, his tousled mop of dark hair, stark against the pillow even with the night vision. His small features, relaxed in sleep, a mask of innocence.

Leo felt a pang of remorse for what he was about to do.

Love your enemy. Do no harm.

Not now, for chrissake! He shook his head. Get a grip man! Now unnerved and angry with himself, he carried on down the corridor. Outside the master suite he took a small cannister out of a loop on his belt and sprayed both door hinges. He eased the handle down and opened the door.
Two figures lay on the bed, their limbs intertwined. The woman stirred in her sleep and rolled away from the man to face Leo. The sheet fell away to reveal one small round breast. Leo noted that the nipple was dark, erect and perfectly positioned in the center of the breast. He looked away.
He moved around to the other side of the bed to where the man was lying on his back. This was going to be straightforward. A sharp knock to the pressure point on his temple to stun him, followed by bilateral pressure to the carotids would kill him in less than a minute. Lethal, fast, silent and clean. His trademark kill. He rapped a spot on the man’s temple with his knuckle. His jaw slackened and his breathing deepened. He was out. Leo positioned both hands over his carotids.

Love your enemy. Do no harm.

Shit! He was losing it!

His hands hovered over the man’s throat. His mind was racing. He couldn’t do it. An image of the sleeping boy flashed through his mind. The woman’s breast. In what felt like minutes, but was probably less than one, his brain whirred through his options.

Option 1. Kill him. Job done. Get out.

Not an option anymore. He couldn’t do it.

Option 2. Don’t kill him. Abort mission. Walk away.

But they’d just send someone else out to do what he couldn’t.
Then they’d come after him.
He could go off grid and lie low.
But they’d never stop looking for him.
And he’d be out in the cold.
Eventually others would come too.
He’d be on the run, hiding, forever.

Option 3.

There was no Option 3.

He sensed another presence. Just a small rustle and change in air pressure. He looked up.
A tiny boy with a mop of dark, curly hair stood in the doorway.
The boy’s arms were outstretched. He was pointing a small gun at Leo. He gripped it with both hands to steady his aim. He seemed unafraid. His dark eyes were cold.

Leo instinctively went for his own weapon then stopped. He took a step away from the bed and raised a finger to his lips. The boy took a step forward and adjusted his aim. He knew what he was doing. He’d clearly been trained. Leo allowed himself a moment to reflect on the tragedy of this.

A small red light wavered over Leo’s left nipple. He looked down at it for a moment.

Then, in one rapid movement, he shifted back around the bed to stand face to face with the boy.

The boy faltered. Fear flickered across his face. His hands shook. The red light moved around crazily. It jerked and spun around the room. The boy tightened his grip on the gun. He didn’t make a sound. His dark eyes never left Leo’s face.

Leo let him settle. Waited until the light hovered over his left nipple again.

He stepped forward.

The boy fired.

Leo felt the bullet hit his chest. There was heat and light, and he dropped to his knees. A coldness spread through his body from his chest to his abdomen, flowing out to his arms and legs, his fingers and toes. His head drooped on his chest.

He was vaguely aware of what was going on in the room. The woman, naked and screaming in the doorway with her arms around the boy, who was now crying. The man, also naked, fumbling to turn on the light. Pulling his own gun from the bedside cabinet.

A rough kick knocked Leo onto his back. The man stared down at him. His face contorted with rage.

Leo was tired. Tired of hiding. Tired of being constantly on the move. Tired of always having to be alert, watchful, ready. Tired of not having a place to settle, to call home, to rest for a while. Truly rest. Not just lie down for a few hours, fully clothed with one hand on his gun. That wasn’t rest. He couldn’t remember the last time he got undressed, got into bed and slept soundly, all night.

Leo closed his eyes.