Category Archives: Thrill Reads

Loadsa Bunce!

I have told the tale of many families in Coldford. I’ve discussed the dark, the dangerous and the ruthless. The Stoker Circus family encompass all three of things. I’ve never known such a group of people willing to stoop to the lowest levels to keep themselves riding high. Desperate times of recession had given them stiff competition but they never ceased to amaze.
They would stop at nothing for the almighty coin. They were a big family so when it came to them against the world the world stood little chance. When it came to being pit against each other there would be a clown parade.
Underneath the cotton candy, the organ music and the balloons there was a real heart beating. If only they could stop to hear it. I’m reporter Sam Crusow and this is what happens when a Stoker is offered loadsa bunce but they are asked to split it.


“Ladies and gentlemen. Boys and girls! Step right up for an outrageous and sometimes dangerous show. I’m Adrien Stoker and welcome to Stoker circus!”
The fan fare erupted around the Big Top as the audience in Luen were drawn into the circus as it passed through town. Adrien Stoker beamed a huge smile. His excitement for his act was palpable. The audience grinned right back at him as the clowns in blue and red face paint danced whimsically around him, tying him into a strait jacket. His brother, Hanz, in red tails, joined him in centre ring, playing the role of the villain who had captured him. Hanz made a show of yelling at the clowns to restrain him tighter. They turned him to show the audience four tightly fastened restraints. They even carried Adrien across to the audience for a member to pull on the buckles and confirm it was in fact fastened tightly. A heavily made up woman tugged on them and yes they were secure.
When back in centre ring blue and red boards were pulled aside to reveal a tank of water, standing up right, not much larger than a coffin.
“The water cell has been banned in the orient. They say once you are submerged there is no escaping. Don’t be alarmed, ladies and gentlemen. I’m willing to give it a try and if I drown … that’s just show business.”
Hanz gave a show of his character being desperate to hurry it along. Adrien was lifted, and he was dropped into the water head first. Hanz secured the lid and he stepped on top of his brother’s watery coffin.
“Not so amazing now!” He cried theatrically. He accepted jeers from the audience with a wave of his arms.
A timer started. The view of Adrien in the water cell was concealed with the boards.
“The longest any one has ever held their breath was for eleven minutes. Let’s see how long the Amazing Adrien can last.”
The fan fare erupted again. The clowns made another showy dance around the ring as the sands on the timer dropped. The boards were pulled aside briefly to show Adrien still in the cell and seemingly struggling with his binds.
“Oh no!” Lady Margerite gasped, watching the show through a set of golden opera glasses.
She hoped Adrien would be okay despite what Hanz was suggesting, doing a little jig on top of Adrien’s coffin before leaping back down into the ring.
The sands in the timer continued to fall. It had now been minutes since Adrien was submerged.
Son’s, Valdrick and Irvine, watched on from the sidelines. The two boys were naturally born showman. Sometimes as the timer ran out Uncle Hanz called upon them to help keep the audience going. It meant audience appreciation. It meant becoming the face of the circus. It meant some coins being thrown their way.
“It’s my show, mucker,” Irvine had said.
He strongly believed he was the one to follow papa. Val disagreed.
“Get down with you,” Val replied with impatience. He had lifted his juggling pins and was waiting for the call.
Meanwhile, outside Hanz was saying to the audience of Adrien, “I hope he took care of his affairs …”
The timer ran out.
“This is it! This is it!” Irvine was muttering to himself.
BARAH BA BOOM!
The music cut. The lights focused centre ring. Hanz took a peek behind the boards. He started calling to the other performers. Something appeared to have gone dreadfully wrong. Lady Margerite sat forward in her chair.
“Oh no,” she gasped as she looked through the opera glasses.
The performers appeared to be in a panic. They pulled the boards back to reveal the tank was now empty. Spotlights danced around the audience and landed on the seat beside Margerite. Imagine her surprise when there stood Adrien Stoker, dripping wet, free of his binds and smiling warmly despite his struggles. He raised a glass of what was presumably water from the tank.
“To you and yours Madame,” he said.
The audience erupted in cheers as Adrien gave a bow and the spotlight followed him back down to the centre ring. Lady Margerite was thrilled.
Irvine and Val took a peek out the curtains but quickly retracted when Uncle Hanz came rushing in. He pulled off his tailed jacket and he threw it backstage.
“One of you,” he barked at the boys. “Move.”
That was when the baby started to cry. Both boys looked back.
‘Not now,’ seemed to be the collective thoughts of the brothers.
“The baby is crying,” Irvine stated.
“Yeah,” said Val. “I can hear that.”
“Move!” Hanz barked again as he headed on back out.
For Valdrick, concern over the infant won out. He had to check on his baby brother. Irvine was not so worried.
“Sucka,” he cheered as he headed out to centre ring.
The boards were pulled back again and to the audience’s amazement there was Hanz in the cell now wearing the strait jacket.
As they removed Hanz from the tank Irvine charmed the audience. Lady Margerite gushed over the boy’s charisma.
Valdrick was rocking the baby in his arms thinking of the bunce he had lost.
“Damn it, Felix,” he groaned. “You choose now to cry?”
The baby grinned a gumsy grin at his brother.
“You know you lost me an earner, right?”
Felix giggled.
“Never mind,” said Val. “When we’re older we’ll run the show together. We’ll make loadsa bunce.”
“It was a smashing show,” Lady Margarite told her driver on the way home.
Adrien Stoker was so attractive with his dark curls and expressive eyes. He was slim and tall and when she found him stood next to her she could hear the breath in his words from the struggle of his escape.
“To you and yours Madame!” He had said.
Stoker Circus, passing through Luen, had left a lasting impression.


“Ladies and gentlemen. Boys and girls! Step right up for a swinging, stinging and full in your face ringing show. I’m Irvine Stoker and these are the trapeezy easys.”
The spotlight focused on centre ring as Ethel Easy – the female half the trapeze duo climbed a rope to the high wire. She was agile so she reached the top with ease. The music offered an encouraging beat. What audience there was watched her in awe. She gripped the high wire and spun herself round once, twice and three times before holding herself up in a handstand on the wire. She reached her legs out. She let herself drop and her brother Errol had come whizzing across from the high dale of the Big Top. The audience gasped as he caught her in his arms. The two swung across to the other side of the great tent.
Ringmaster Irvine stepped off the ring to leave the Easys to do their thing.
“We got some bad news, boss.”
Irvine had scraped some powder from an old metal box he kept in his coat onto his finger nail. He sniffed and leaned his head back a little.
“What bad news?” He naturally asked.
Strongman Otto, who was delivering said news, looked concerned.
“I’m afraid Aunt Margerite passed away,” said the muscle man.
Irvine gasped. He removed his hat and bowed his head.
“It’s always the good ones,” he said solemnly. “How did she go?”
Otto shrugged his broad shoulders. “Dunno,” he said. “Age I suppose.”
Irvine gasped again. “Time,” he said. “It’s cruel Otto. It’s fucking cruel …’
“Will you be alright, boss?” Otto asked sensitively.
“I will be,” Irvine said. “I just need to collect myself. I just need to figure out who the fuck Aunt Margerite is. Which one is she?”
“Dunno,” Otto answered. “But this letter said she left you a little something.”
Irvine stood up straight. He snatched the letter from the strongman.
“There’s a will? Why didn’t you tell me that?”
“I figured you would want to grieve first.”
Irvine’s eyes were already reading the statement to see just how long a mourning period he was going to need.
They heard the audience react as the Easys swung across the tent and swapped trapezes. Ethel swung above the audience blowing a kiss to an older gentlemen there with his grandkids. Errol threw a rose to an adoring young woman who snatched it up excitedly. The two met in the middle again. Ethel leapt from her trapeze to clasp her brothers feet. As they soared across she flipped onto the dale and climbed onto the tight rope.
“Yes!” Irvine cried out as he read the handsome amount dear Aunt Margerite had bequeathed to him. “Wait a minute,” he said as he read on. “This says I’m to split this with my damn brothers. I was Aunt Margerite’s favourite. She said so all the time … I think … this has to be wrong.”
Otto looked at the paper. He read it slowly.
“Looks pretty legit.”
Irvine snatched the paper away.
“Aunt Margerite was a sweet old dear and she sought to leave this money to her adoring and affectionate nephew. I will not have her wishes besmirched by those scoundrel brothers of mine trying to take what she wanted me to have.”
“Says here you’ve to split it,” Otto reminded him, running a finger across the words that said as such. “Equal … share…” he said slowly and carefully.
Irvine held the letter to his chest. “Who’s side are you even on?” He asked.
“Yours boss,” Otto stated.
“Then don’t breathe a word of this. Does anyone else know?”
“Don’t think so,” said Otto.
“Ooooh!” The audience cheered.
The Trapeezy Easys were wowing them as Ethel danced foot to foot across the tight rope as Eroll climbed hand to hand underneath her. Ethel tucked her foot under the rope and let herself drop. She caught Errol’s feet, flipped herself onto the wire again and spread her arms for balance.
“Whatever you do do not let Val hear about this.” To the heavens he said, “don’t you worry Aunt Margerite. I won’t let your memory be robbed.”
Otto nodded solemnly.
“RIP Aunt Margerite,” he said.
“Was she the one with the mole?” Irvine asked.
Otto could only shrug.
Eroll swung on his trapeze by his feet. He had his sister’s hands and he launched her towards the dale. Ethel landed on the dale and immediately threw herself back off catching her brothers hands again.
Irvine came skipping back to centre ring as the Easys came sliding down the rope as their act came to an finish.
“Wasn’t that something?” He said as he slipped his inheritance letter inside his pocket. “We don’t give half measures here at Stoker Circus.
The Trapeezy Easys took a bow. The audience applauded. It was a meagre audience but that didn’t matter. The whole time Irvine kept thinking of Aunt Margerite. Now If only he could remember who Aunt Margerite was. More importantly, he had to stop his deplorable brother finding out about it. Split it. Equal share. Yeah right!


“Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls! Step right up for a dashing, crashing, full in your face smashing show. I’m Val Stoker and welcome to Stoker Circus.”
The audience for the matinee show in the blue tent wasn’t as filled as it used to be but Val let his voice boom to the rafters as if it were a full house.
There were a few scattered guests coughing away and giving a half hearted applause.
Val’s wife Gigi had felt it too. She tried to keep up enthusiasm as best she could but they were losing them. What little there were of them. The only one who was paying the real attention they would expect of a visitor to the Stoker Circus was a small baby who’s push chair had been pressed up to the front. A smile crossed its face as Val juggled three blue pins. His act was delightful. In bygone days it would have been well received but we live in an age of computer games and technology. The old school circus had stiff competition to work with. It was sad to see such old fashioned fun drip away. What was most despairing was the fact it meant the tents were making less bunce.
“We better pull out the big guns, missus,” said Val to his wife. The tall, leggy blonde was already on it. She passed him a set of metal pins. Val flicked them and the ends sparked on fire.
“Huh?” He put to his audience. “Impressed yet?”
The little baby cried with delight as Val danced in front of him. The flaming torches spiralled in a truly exciting fashion. He spun them higher. He spun them faster. He even got a chuckle out of his audience when he made a show as though his hands were burning and he blew on his palms between the throws.
“It’s just not the same these days,” Val commented to Gigi as they stepped out of their ring.
“It’s the end of an era, sugar,” said Gigi solemnly, dusting bits of sand off of his jacket.
“We’ll get by,” Val assured enough for the both of them. “We always do.”
The Stokers were in fact a resilient bunch. They had travelled through the generations and they survived. They survived because they were willing to sink to depths that even the most hardened of people would consider questionable. They robbed houses, they picked pockets, they washed away crime scenes and the tragedy of it all was their show, the thing that was important to all of them, wouldn’t be failing if they were to put their own greed aside and focus on it. Val tried to focus on it. He had loved the tents when his father was around. It was the golden age of the circus and Adrien had made their show one people for miles around would come to see. Now they were lucky if they had half of an audience at matinees. It wasn’t that the quality had dwindled over the years, they were always inventing creative ways to entertain. It was just that they had been so preoccupied keeping themselves on top they forgot the Stokers were a huge family and if they came together they could relive those glory days.
‘Nah! It’s all about the bunce,’ Val thought to himself. ‘What good is anything if you don’t have the cash? The tents would fill again if there was money in the place.’
Val felt a another hand on his shoulder. It was a heavier hand than Gigi’s. It was the hand of Cyril, the Stoker sad clown.
“Aunt Margerite died,” he said sensitively. The painted clown face complete with tears showing just how solemn and grief stricken he was.
“No,” Val gasped. “What took her. Was it her heart?”
“I don’t know,” said Cyril. “I heard Otto telling Irvine.”
“Which one was Aunt Margerite?” Gigi sought to ask.
Cyril shrugged. “I don’t know any Margerite but she left something. Irvine didn’t want you to know.”
Val gave him an affirming pat on the shoulder.
HEEHO! HEEHO!
“You’re a good cousin for letting me know,” he told him. To Gigi he said conspiratorially. “That bastard thinks he can hide my inheritance. He thinks he can go against dear Aunt Margerite’s wishes? The scoundrel. The absolute …” He stopped to ask Cyril, “was she the one with the mole?”
Cyril shrugged. “All I know is she left you some inheritance and Irvine doesn’t want to share.”
“Damn that cheating bastard of a brother of mine,” Val exclaimed. To Cyril he asked, “how much was it?”
“Don’t know,” Cyril stated. “But we’ll soon find out.”
“I hope so,” Val said. “Because I need to know just how sad I am about Aunt Margerite’s passing… Did she have all the dogs?”
“That was Angelique,” said Gigi. “And he’s still in Luen.”


When there was a scent of financial gain in the air a Stoker is like a blood hound. As sad clown Cyril informed Val of the deception another deception was taking place. Main clown Olga was sneaking into the back room of the Big Top whilst Irvine was giving his all to his meagre customers.
“You’ll have to forgive me,” he was telling them. “But I’m afraid I’m mourning the loss of a beloved aunt who was as close to me as a mother. Dear Aunt Margerite, you will be sorely missed. But ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls she would have wanted the show to go on. She would also want you to put some extra tuppence in that bucket there to go to her favourite charity. It is what she wanted and what better way to remember such a generous woman.”
The coast was clear which was just as well because Olga’s shoes squeaked, squeaked and squeaked across the boards. There it was. Sat on the desk was the letter detailing the inheritance left behind by Aunt Margerite. Olga smiled as she reached out to collect it, her face paint making that smile ever so big. But just as she collected the letter a claw like hand snatched hers. It was tattooed, bony and the sharp yellowish nails dug in. Gretel, the legless woman from their freak show, heaved herself onto the table.
“Oh shit!” Olga cried.
Gretel Stoker may have been born without legs but she could sure pull her way around a room faster than most people with both legs could run. Gretel leapt onto her and tried to snatch the letter. Olga, was a burly clown. She could throw her rounded body for an audience’s amusement so she had quite the heave on her. She grabbed Gretel by her arms and hammer threw the legless woman across the back room. Gretel bounced off the canopy and came rushing across the boards.
“Give it back!” She warned.
Olga tore out of there with Gretel hot on her heel.
“Oh shit!” Olga cried out again as Gretel lashed out and tore a hole in her clown pants with her long, pointed nails.
Olga didn’t feel good about it, at least that was what she said afterwards, but the only way she was going to get out of there with the letter was if she took Gretel out. She could give her a kick worthy of an rugby player of course but she saw the fire hose and the clown in her couldn’t resist.
WOOOOOSH!
She turned the hose on Gretel and sent the legless woman sailing down a small but powerful river back into the back room. She turned on her heel and she bounced out of there. Her shoes were now sounding extra squidgy.
“Val?” She cried out when she returned to the blue tent. “I’ve got the letter.”
“Well done Olga, girl,” said Val.
Olga caught her breath. She leaned over, wheezing a little.
“I had to skoosh Gretel back into her box.”
Val had already started to read the letter.
“Getting Gretel to guard are you, I’m onto you Irvine. Don’t forget I’m the older brother. I’ve been on this planet longer. You can’t outsmart a smartass. Ain’t that right, missus?”
“It is, sugar,” agreed Gigi. “People say it all the time.”
“We’re rich!” Val exclaimed as he read the letter. “Thank you, Aunt Margerite!” He kissed the letter with a firm mwah! They were celebrating. They still had to get the money though.


“Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls. Step right up for a slicing, dicing, full in your face enticing show. I’m Felix Stoker and welcome to Stoker Circus!”
Felix, the baby of the three brothers, didn’t mind the dwindling audiences so much. Whether it was five or five thousand watching he was thrilled to be entertaining. He didn’t want to think about the tents as a business. He believed in the magic that was bringing a smile to the masses just as his father had.
The music rumbled and the two fire breathers, Gisel and Silke, danced around the ring of the blue tent. They blew on their torches and flames around the fence lit drawing an audible gasp from the evening crowd.
Silke danced back to centre first. Her partner joined her. Gisel raised her torch. She turned the flames to her lips and she ate the fire. She turned to Silke, kissed her. They parted and it was Silke who blew out the flames like an angry dragon.
The thrills were a plenty even if the money wasn’t rolling in. Felix was a knife thrower. He threw them around Silke as she spun on a red and blue wheel. He threw them whilst blindfolded. He threw them whilst balancing on a beam and blindfolded. He always hit the target with those knives. He had so many planted up his sleeves that it just looked like there was no end to them. He would flip and spin and always the knives would stick exactly where they were meant to. Even with the fire breathers throwing flames around him his aim was as accurate as could be.
The audience applauded and he took a congenial bow. Behind the noise of the appreciation he could hear his brothers start to bicker.
“Thank you everyone for coming,” Felix was telling his audience.
“I’m going to ring your fat little neck,’ Irvine could be heard growling at Val.
“You have been a wonderful audience and I do hope you come back and join us again soon,” said Felix.
“You thieving bastard. You were going to cut me out,” was Val’s retort.
“Have a safe journey home and remember …”
“Ouch!” Irvine yelped as Val kicked his long shin.
He lurched towards Val but Val had decided to run at him with his shoulder. What resulted was a grapple that was worthy of a couple of clowns.
“Will you stop this?” Olga requested. “It looks ridiculous.”
Gretel had leapt onto Val’s back leaving Cyril no choice but to pull her off. She turned on him and then there were two ridiculous grapples going on.
They had been so busy with their petty feud it wasn’t until they both felt a knife at both of their throats they stopped. Both brothers took a step back and raised their hands.
“Someone want to tell me what is going on?” Asked Felix.
Cyril and Gretel both raised their hands too. Having no legs, Gretel just tumbled to the ground.
“We’re just upset,” said Irvine. “I don’t know how to tell you this …”
“You might want to sit down,” added Val.
“It’s going to be hard one to take mucker,” said Irvine.
“It’s really sad news,” said Val.
Felix frowned at them both.
“Aunt Margerite died,” said Irvine and Val together, both trying to be the first to break the news.
Felix sighed. Then he thought about it.
“We don’t have an Aunt Margerite,” he said.
“Turns out we do. She left us a little something as inheritance,” Val told him.
“Not much. Just a little token really,” Irvine explained further.
“We don’t even know why we’re fighting over it it is so minuscule,” Val saw fit to add.
“Feels silly now,” Irvine stated.
In that moment it there was an unspoken agreement made between the two elder brothers as the baby scrutinised them.
‘We cannot let him know he’s named on there too,’ Irvine would no doubt be the first to remind.
‘He’ll probably want to give the whole lot to some charitable cause like pox riddled cats or something,’ Val would consider.
This unspoken rule had formed and as untrustworthy as they could be they knew they both had to agree to this or they both would end up with nothing and most likely they both would end up with a sharp end of a knife making them really uncomfortable for causing upset to Felix’s act.
“She left something for you too,” Val decided to be honest. “She left you these.”
From his bag he removed a statue of two lions. He wasn’t being all that honest. The lions had been handed into his pawn shop. They didn’t look worth much and the word around the shop was they were cursed. The seller certainly seemed quite keen to get rid of them and Val’s little shop of costly curiosities seemed the perfect fit. Felix didn’t know any of this though. He took the lions and inspected them.
“She left me these?” He asked.
“She must have thought you the most special all,” said Irvine.
‘No need to ham it up. I got this. Then you and I get back to sorting our shit out,’ Val thought.
“Huh,” Felix smiled with a nod. “They are unusual aren’t they?” He said of his lions. “It was very kind of Aunt Margerite to leave these to me. I’d better take good care of them.”
“You do that,” Val urged. “In fact, you better put them somewhere safe before something happens to them.”
Or before the curse gets out.
“Will you stop fighting?” Felix asked.
Val made the decision for them. “Since it’s just pittance we’ve been given it might be better just to leave it to a charitable cause,” he said.
‘What are you doing?’ Irvine wondered. ‘It needs to be fucking believable.’
Felix was busy inspecting his lions again.
“Maybe pox riddled cats,” said Irvine.
“I don’t think Aunt Margerite would want you to be fighting. She would be really upset that the good thing she did for us, remembering us on her death bed, would cause an argument,” Felix told them sincerely.
“You are right,” Val nodded. He placed an arm around Felix’s shoulder and started to lead him away. “You know, Felix, you never cease to amaze me. Just when I think there are no good men left in this world you remind me of what a gem you are.”
“Thank you,” Felix replied.
Val stretched. “Well you have set us straight and I think it’s time to turn in.”
“Mmmhmmm,” Felix muttered as he departed, still captivated by his lions.
Made in Subala it said on the bottom. ‘I wonder when Aunt Margerite was in Subala.’
Gretel climbed up Irvine’s long legs and into his arms. He had Val looked at each other.
“So we’re agreed on an equal share?” Val put to the ringmaster.
“That sounds fair, mucker,” Irvine told the juggler.
Irvine carried Gretel away. Val led Cyril away. They both looked back over their shoulders because when you are such a devious individual you can’t help but expect everyone you meet to be just as sneaky.


The Rumilaw of City Main was where Val’s pawn shop lay. It was also home to dentists who weren’t necessarily fully licensed and to lawyers who weren’t necessarily sober all the time. However, that was where such people like the Stokers conduct their legal business.
Val and Gigi were making their way to the offices of Friggan and Moore. Moore was no longer part of that team for reasons that involved a suicide attempt with an axe but they kept the sign because Friggan and Moore sounded more of a legal powerhouse than just plain old Friggan. Stanley Friggan wouldn’t be tearing up the High Court of Coldford any time soon but for a moderate fee he could make sure Val got his inheritance.
“What are we going to do with that money?” Gigi was enjoying thinking out loud.
Maybe a trip to Luen? Maybe a nice meal at the Delphine restaurant?
Val had been thinking of the lousy matinees they had been experiencing. Fixing that would be a good place to start.
“I promised Felix when we were kids we would have the best show ever,” Val said to his wife.
“We do have that,” Gigi retorted. “We just need people to come along and see it.”
“I’ll fix that. I’d like to use some of the money to bring our show up to scratch. Make it something people around here really want to come and see.”
“That’s nice,” Gigi agreed.
“I thought so,” said Val. “Felix would like that. He’s a good kid.”
“You could give him his share,” Gigi suggested.
Val frowned. “I said he was a good kid not a fucking bank. Felix wouldn’t know what to do with that money. I’m the eldest brother so it’s best I make the decisions.”
“You are a smart man, sugar,” said Gigi.
There are wise men and there are smart ones. Often the two are not the same. Val was smart. He was very wiley but he was in competition with a creature just as smart and even more shameless.
“Irvine, you bastard!”
Just as they arrived at the office of Friggan and Moore they saw Irvine approaching too. A wise man would stop and have a civilised discussion with his brother as to the benefits all could have with such an inheritance. A smart one would dash in to be the first inside the office.
Irvine’s long legs gave him an advantage but Valdrick’s stocky frame could be carried like a leaping gazelle when there was money involved. The result was the two caught in the doorway.
“We agreed equal share,” Irvine growled.
“I was just checking on it for us,” Val assured. “What are you doing here?”
“The same. Just checking. I wanted to make sure we weren’t shaken by some huckster law man who can’t stay sober an afternoon,” said Irvine.
The finally managed to squeeze inside. Friggan came from his office to meet them.
“Come in. Come in!” He beckoned them in a drunken way that oozed relief that he had clients. “You’re brother is already here.”
Irvine and Val looked at each other. Before they could question it too much the were ushered into Friggan’s office. Seated already was Felix.
“Dear Margarite,” said Felix. “She was a splendid woman.”
“She was,” Val said solemnly but with a little hesitation.
“She was a one of a kind. You don’t meet women like that often,” said Irvine.
“I’ll get the final paperwork,” offered Friggan. As he bounced into his desk and over to his files the three Stokers had a score to settle.
“You rotten little cheat,” Val said to Felix.
“To cheat you would to take something that isn’t yours. I’m just here for what’s mine,” Felix maintained.
“You’re going to give it all away to poxy cats, aren’t you?” Irvine asked.
“Don’t you realise what we could do, how much better off we would be if we worked together?” Suggested the knife thrower.
“You’re too good a liar. I don’t like that,” said Val.
“We just need a signature and we can get the funds released,” the lawyer returned with some documents. “Friggan did good didn’t he? I mean this is a good pay out. You’re gonna want to buy a drink for your old pal Friggan.”
“You just need my signature don’t you, since I’m the eldest,” Val made a last ditch attempt.
“I’ll need all three,” said Friggan leaning over the paper and looking like he was going to hurl. He looked up and pointed at them trying to count to make sure there were actually three. Gigi’s presence confused matters momentarily.
When they finally departed with all the final details taken care of Val wrapped an arm around Felix.
“You know some days I wonder where you came from but you are definitely a Stoker.”
Felix chuckled. “I learned from the best and the worst.”
“We’re going to be alright, baby brother,” Val assured them.
“I do feel a little bad. Margarite left me the lion statue and nothing extra for you both,” Felix told them.
“Because you’ve always been special,” Irvine said, rolling his eyes.
He was still brooding about his payday being cut by two thirds.


The numbers flashed on the screen as the video played.
5 …
4 …
3 …
2 …
1 …

“You’re going to have the best day.
We’re here to take all your troubles away.
You’re going to dance and sing.
You’ll smile at everything.
Because Stoker Circus are on their way.”

The three brothers watched the old advert play out. The images burned away and were replaced by Adrien, who appeared to just be finishing adjusting his camera.
“Valdrick, Irvine, Felix, if you are seeing this then the chances are something has gone wrong for me. Don’t worry though. It was bound to happen. You can’t outrun the Devil forever. You will be grown men now but if you will still take advice from your father I want you to take a look around yourselves. Our tents and our name has stood the test of time because we are able to brace for toughest times like a slug to the gut. It’s admirable and Irvine you are better at that than anyone I’ve ever known. Just remember not everyone wants to throw a punch. I hope you know the difference. Felix, you have such a kindly nature and I am always proud of you. Sometimes even the kindest need to be armed with knives but don’t let it make you forget who you are though. Valdrick, I know you have always been nervous of the future. You were always worrying about what was to come next. Don’t let that stop you enjoying what you already have. The beauty of what is now is when it’s then it’s no longer now and what seems so important now isn’t such a big deal then.
You all have the chance to make people smile. No matter what goes on in the world what is the point of anything if you can’t make people smile? A Queen or a maid, a king or a pauper, it’s all same. They all need to smile. It’s worth taking those slugs in the gut for. I should probably tell you who Margerite was. She was a lady of the Luen Court. She was of noble birth and I captured her heart. She was your mother. That makes you royalty.”
Val and Irvine’s eyes both widened. Val’s lips pursed in an expression that suggested he had that figured all along. Irvine began flicking his collar wishing he had starched it more. Fuck it. He would have a man servant to do that if he was going to be Royalty.
“We’re the sons of a noble woman!?”
Adrien seemed to savour their expression for a bit. Then he pouted.
“Just kidding. Your mother was a trampolinist who drowned in a barrel of wine,” he told the camera. He smiled. “See? Tragic but you got to smile.”
“Grinning ear to ear,” Groaned Irvine sarcastically.
“My point is,” Adrien went on, “people like Lady Margarite need to smile and they are always appreciative of our own being able to make them. I hope you use her generosity wisely. Most importantly don’t forget to smile yourselves. There is only one rule in the Stoker tents and that is you cannot leave sad.”


There are many terrible deeds attributed to the Stoker family but I for one like to think of the true heart beneath it all. Adrien was an amazing man. Hanz was a war criminal. Felix was an honest hero always willing to help those in need. For Irvine everything had a price, even human lives. Where did that leave Valdrick? He seemed an explosive mix of all these things. His decisions would determine where the circus rolled to next and what kind of impression they would give.
With his father’s voice ringing in his ears Valdrick used some of the money bequeathed by Lady Margerite to improve his show. Not all of it, he wasn’t a complete nonce, but it did breathe life into their dying show. Time would tell just how far this would go but for now I have some hope that Stoker Circus could fulfil Adrien’s wishes and be on hand to make people smile through tough times. Then again, the Circus had rode into Coldford where clowns were right at home.


When the daughter of an enemy comes to Val Stoker looking for a loan, the circus performer thinks his luck as rolled in! He has a conscience though. Not much but it is there and there is a bigger problem brewing.

Enjoy this? Check out these other thriller titles available now:

Drowning Boy

David Finn is a renowned artist in Coldford. From the first sketches he made to the images of Julia Harvester he created that will be forever etched in history, his work is synonymous with talent tearing through circumstances. He is a rare individual to meet in that he is genuine. Despite his struggles he is unspoiled by the ruthlessness that could have consumed him. He doesn’t see the might of the great towers of City Main. He doesn’t see law or religion. He sees the blend of colours that make up such a landscape and through the city’s eyes he paints them. I am reporter, Sam Crusow, and this is the ‘drowning boy’.  

David Finn’s Muse Collection

*** 

“Why don’t you swim?” 

“Why can’t you swim?”  

“Where you never taught to swim?” 

“If you moved your body you could, you know.”  

David lost himself in swirls of dark blue. He could feel the pressure pressing down on him.  

“Just keep trying. There’s a surface to reach somewhere.”  

The blue became darker as more black was added. The black was diluting the soft blue more and more as the swirls grew larger and larger.  

“Why don’t you swim!?” 

There was breathlessness as all colour fell to nothing. The black was so deep in the centre it reflected a little of the light above. You could reach up but what would you find? You had fallen into blackness now. It was too late. Even in a consuming mouth of water all roads lead to the same place in the end.  

David finally took a breath. He looked up to observe his piece. The central figure was genderless and without feature. It could be anyone caught in the whirls of darkness. Even without features it was clear the figure was in distress.  

“Can’t you swim?”  

“Why can’t you swim?”  

David could still hear the voices of his vision ask him. The sculpted heads on the shelves beside him had varying reactions to his latest work. There was one he called the screamer. They were always shocked at what was produced. What was art though if not shocking? There was the comedian who laughed through the worst of it. A great chuckle was their response no matter how black the paint got. Then there was the crier. They wept as the images revealed themselves on canvas. So beautiful, so tragic, so pleasant, it didn’t matter, it all brought a tear to their eye. Then there was the sculpture named Arthur who at full size stood watching over his shoulder with a contemplating hand on his chin and searching expression that seemed to change to suit the mood of the room.  

“Well done, David,” the statue seemed to say.  

It didn’t matter if he could swim or not, art was about throwing yourself in the deep end.  

Da\vid contemplates his latest piece.

*** 

David had a strong vision but sometimes it become cloudy. His talent became apparent to a high school art teacher named Mr Cassell. Cassell could see the raw flare in David and he sought to encourage it as much as he could. He was worried that David would become a product of his environment and would be swallowed up in a poverty trap and the images he could produce would be forever unseen. He was already falling to drugs and it was only a matter of time before his loosening grip as a teacher would break completely and David Finn would fall into the pits of society, another lost soul.  

“It would be a tragedy,” Mr Cassel had insisted at the time. “It would break my heart when I know what David Finn is capable of.”  

For David though, travelling through a world if images the colour blends became blurry. Sometimes it was such a striking use of form it drew from its darkest depths. Needless to say, try as his art teacher might, David fell into those murky waters and started to drown.  

“Tragedy,” Mr Cassel insisted. “An absolute tragedy.”  

*** 

Those murky waters of his life were cold and the current was strong but David had those around him who were willing to help pull him free. Having been raised in an almost feral environment by an uncaring mother David had spent his life seeking the positivity of life outside of his home. Luckily he found it when he stumbled upon the Ferrald family. Alex Ferrald was his closest friend. Alex was opposite to David in that he was raised in a caring home. Dr Graham Ferrald and his wife Stephanie welcomed David with open arms. He found the positivity he needed there and safety where his artistic vision could be nurtured.  

“I cannot wait to see it,” Stephanie announced of his latest painting that was to be unveiled at the Dalway Lane gallery in Main that very evening.  

David looked up from the stain he was trying to wipe off his shirt.  

“You’ll need a good jacket,” Stephanie decided.  

“This is my good jacket,” he stated.  

“Hmmmm,” Stephanie was disapproving. “I’ll fetch you something of Graham’s. I know you artists like that no care aesthetic but it’s a big night. She took the shirt from him and looked over the stain. “What is that anyway?” She asked.  

“Pizza sauce,” David assumed.  

Stephanie shook her head with a smile of exasperation. “I’ll see what I can do with it.”  

What she could do with it was throw it out. It was an old shirt but since it was what David had held his favourite it had some sense of sentimentality.  

When Alex arrived on scene he was dressed in his best jacket. His hair was neatly combed.  

“I forget just how handsome my boy can be when I get so used to seeing him look such a scruff,” Stephanie teased.  

Alex rolled his eyes. A Coby games T-shirt and jeans was usually more his style. Stephanie went off in search for good jacket for David.  

“I’m really looking forward to seeing this one,” said Alex.  

Most times when there was a particular image David was wishing to create, Alex would be told to wait for a grand reveal when it was done. He didn’t like showing a working progress. More often than not though David would be so excited by his piece he would describe it and the young veterinarian would play a game with himself as to how close the image in his head matched the final product. David’s descriptions were apt but the only way to capture the true beauty was to see it with your own eyes.  

“Thanks, man,” David said. “I’m nervous.”  

Alex patted his arm. He would be nervous. He always was with any kind of unveiling but he had been clean now for a while. His body was rejecting those murky waters from itself and that caused a lot of psychical pain. 

That was where the Ferrald family would find a suitable jacket for him. It would be thrown to him like a life jacket in a storm.  

Now dressed in one of Dr Ferrald’s blazers but still carrying the grungy artist underneath, David had Stephanie’s arm around him as she pulled both he and Alex closer.  

“Don’t the boys look so good?” Stephanie asked Dr Ferrald.  

Dr Ferrald, eminent cardiologist, gave a smile of approval as he finished affixing his bow tie.  

From the warm family home in the upper Mid West the murky waters flowed to City Main and the Dalway Lane gallery, passing underneath the tunnel of David’s career.  

*** 

David Finn was a raw talent. There were many who had hoped to hone his skill but the artist felt it was best he be free from the restrictions of learned technique. He was a true artist in the sense that the only value he saw in his work was from people who appreciated the vision. There was no coin required. His friend, Harper Lane, did though. She was an artist of note herself but unlike David she had swam the waters of society a little more carefully, relying less on her vision and more on astuteness. Art fed the soul and that was okay by Harper but only coin fed the mouth so she was willing to accept the need for business in the art world. Showing David’s pieces was a boon to both of them. It was a fine balance of colours with each cup filled equally.  

With warm embraces Harper met David and the Ferralds in the rotunda of her gallery. Her long, dreadlocked hair had been wrapped in a yellow and black Subalan head scarf.  

“Everyone’s so excited,” she said to David in an aside. “It’s all that everyone’s talking about. I’ve heard there’s some Penn reps in tonight so … please no outbursts.”  

David had been clean and sober for a while now but Harper was such the big sister type she would always show him which way the river was flowing so he wouldn’t waste time swimming against it.  

David took a deep breath. 

“I’ve got it. I’ve got it,” he said, more to himself than to Harper.  

Harper smiled with a natural radiance. “I know you do,” she said and she kissed his cheek.  

“I have some fan mail for you,” she said passing him two hand written notes.  

The first read as follows: 

I am sorry I can’t be with you tonight. I wish you every success. I’m so proud of you. Vincent. 

The second was more scribbled.  

I wish I was there, honey, but I’ll get up real soon. Take lots of photos. I love you. Tee 

David smiled. He folded the notes and pushed them into his pocket. There were some other people like his rehab mates, Tawny McInney and Vincent Baines, who had their own murky waters submerging them but they were there for each other. Even just having their encouraging words made David feel a little better.  

Harper led him inside.  

“We’ll get you some orange juice,” she offered, noting he was looking a little sickly.  

David Finn’s ‘Taking the Bait’

*** 

“Ladies and gentlemen. We’ve come to know David Finn’s work to be hard hitting, provocative and bold. His latest piece promises to be no different. Speaking to David earlier he said to me this particular piece could have been one of his longest to complete. It reflects life as a journey down a river from the calm pools to the rock filled rapids so it would never be truly finished for we’re always turning and changing and life flows on. That being said David felt it was time to climb out of those waters and find clearer, fresher ones, but the journey so far will be forever imprinted. I am most pleased to present, David Finn’s – Drowning Boy.”  

The curtain fell. The observers gasped. Upon a large canvas a wash of blues and blacks fell upon them. The central figure reached out in such a way it was for the observer to decide whether it was pulling you in or pleading for you to pull it out. The image plummeted towards ever darker depths.  

“Astounding!” Was one exclamation.  

David, bashfully received his applause.  

*** 

Alex and David had taken a return trip to gallery the day after the unveiling. They were looking at the drowning boy again. David was busy thinking of the true journey that the image represented. It fitted his own experiences well but there were so many people out there who he knew would understand. He maybe couldn’t pull all of them free. He couldn’t stop them drowning but he could express himself in such a way that showed without a single word uttered that he understood.  

“Don’t get too keen on that hanging there. It’s off in the morning, like,” these were the words of Reggie Penn. He was bounding towards them quite excitedly.  

Reggie had always been a fan of David’s work from when Harper Lane first displayed. The painting had been one called ‘This Child Bugs Me’. Reggie’s morbid curiosity of the great fat woman with a fly head throwing a baby had captivated him.  

“I need to have that,” Reggie had told his influential family.  

The image was one of horror but to look deeper there was a tale of inhumane selfishness that surrounds us at all times. It’s a greed that will never be filled. The child represented discarded potential so easily cast aside as the flies of society pick at the shit of what’s left behind.  

“I know all that,” Reggie insisted, when Harper’s partner, Gabrielle, explained this to him. “I get the depth. It’s a real cool story but it draws your eye too.”  

Drowning boy had caught his attention again but this time it was to be put to auction. He had come personally to see it in the gallery.  

The Penn family had something of a notorious reputation. The patriarch Reginald Penn was hailed as the King of Main. Reggie and his two brothers were met with a reverence and respect and the Penn family responded in kind. They had a certain nobility about them that earned them their would be titles. In order to keep them their reputation was also a violent one. With this in mind, as Reggie greeted David with familiarity, Alex was rendered tense.  

“How’s it going, Alex?” Reggie greeted the vet who had been responsible for treating some of the rats the quirky triplet kept.   

Mild mannered, upper Mid West, Alex found Reggie intimidating enough but he was considered the most personable of the Penn Triplets. Alex was something of a deer in the headlights when he turned and noticed Reggie had been accompanied on this day by the middle triplet brother, the boxer better known as Punchline Penn.  

“You’ve not been logged in in ages,” Reggie was saying of an online game he had been playing which he had invited Alex to.  

Reggie considered he and Alex bonded over their mutual love of video games. Alex did love video games but he considered them bonded over his fear of the triplet and now his more muscular and aggressive counterpart, Simon, was in tow.  

“I’ve been busy,” Alex said, “but thanks for the invite. I really look forward to it.”  

The situation would probably have been much easier on Alex if it hadn’t been for David fanning the flames for his own amusement by saying things like, “I heard one guy beat Reggie in a game once and he ended up disappearing.”  

“He did not,” Alex shook it off but there was always a ‘what if’. With the Penn triplets that was a big ‘what if’. 

Simon was observing the painting. He leaned his head back to get a good look at it.  

“It reminds me of the ‘Ripples’ by Gourdy that hangs in Luen,” he said. His upper lip tightened. His gaze narrowed. Then he nodded. “This is much better, like. It’s more real. ‘Ripples’ could be any old art you find but this one stands out.”  

David beamed. “Thanks man, I appreciate it.”  

“I knew you’d like it,” Reggie told his brother. 

“I do,” Simon said. “It’s a good one. I’ll talk over the details with Gabby.”  

The Penns went about his business, Reggie lingering a little behind his brother observing the paintings again as though it was the first time in seeing them.  

Alex breathed a sigh of relief.  

David chuckled. 

“You’re such a wimp,” teased the artist.  

“I can’t help it. I think it would be easier if they were mad at me. Then I would know what to expect. For some reason it’s much worse when he’s trying to be my friend.”  

“Reggie’s a good guy,” David assured. “Marcus is really to the point but he’s sound too. Besides, if they were mad at you do you really think you would know what to expect?”  

Alex shuddered. “Better a friend …”  

“I heard they once gave some guy the death by a thousand cuts treatment.”  

Alex frowned. “Shut up. They did not.”  

“I’m telling you man, it was brutal. The guy only asked for directions.” 

Alex’s frown deepened. “They did not. Shut up!” 

“I’m kidding,” David said. “It was because he tried to hit on their mother.”  

Alex shook his head. “I don’t believe you.” 

“You can take the chance if you like,” David offered.  

Alex gave it some thought. There were worse things than having a Penn pal he supposed. Then he thought about it some more.  

“Hang on,” he said. “If you’re so knowledgeable about that then you won’t mind discussing it with Simon.”  

David shook his head. “Would I fuck, man. I’m liable to get my face smashed in. It’s different for me. I’m not one of the inner circle like you.”  

Alex’s eyes widened. “That’s not how they see me.”  

“Put it this way,” David explained. “They love my work. They’ve bought loads from Harper and Gabby but I still ain’t been invited to Reggie’s Lonesome Nights server.” 

Alex gave another shudder.  

THIS CHILD BUGS ME: David turns his childhood misery into a striking piece of art.

*** 

When they returned to Alex’s home in Caroline Apartments, the vet made a point of accepting Reggie’s request. He had stayed offline since then but he was comforted in the knowledge that at least Reggie would know he was making effort in their seemingly blossoming friendship.  

Alex and David lost themselves in other video games. Alex was forced to hit pause when his phone rang.  

“Might be the clinic,” he said.  

“Hello?” 

“Hello, Alex? It’s Reggie Penn.”  

‘Oh, no, why?!’ He thought. 

“I’ve been trying to get ahold of David but the number we have isn’t working. Harper said he’s probably with you.”  

“He’s here,” Alex explained passing the phone.  

The two engaged in a battle of whispers and expressions before David finally answered.  

“Hey, man,” he said cheerily. “What’s been happening?”  

“We had your auction,” Reggie informed him. “We got your buyer.” 

“That’s cool, man. Who?”  

“A City Main collector. He’d love to meet you. Could you maybe come in so he can say a few words before he takes the painting away?”  

David agreed. “Sure. I’ll get up as soon as I can.”  

“One of us will be here all day anyway so just let us know when you’re here. Oh, and tell Alex I got his acceptance. I’ll see him on the server soon.”  

Ringing off from Reggie, Alex scowled at him.  

“I’ve got no phone,” David admitted. “They couldn’t get me.”  

When the details of the call had been divulged Alex said, “that’s good news about the auction. Maybe now you can get a new phone.”  

“It’s never the first thing I think of,” David admitted.  

The murky waters of life can carry us many different places. Beginning in the slums of the Shanties, David had struggled through the undergrowth to find himself in the great wide mouth of City Main. It was an unexpected journey and no knowing how the tides would turn but swim on he would. He had come too far to still be the drowning boy. The drowning boy was now to stand as a symbol of perseverance in the hands of a collector who’s eye it had caught.  

*** 

The light and setting of the auction house made the ‘drowning boy’ painting seem more ominous. They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder and such a beauty as the grim desperation of the drowning figure was viewed differently depending on the mood. The darkness of the auction house store where it had been moved offered an abyss for the figure to fall into. On the other hand it could look as though the figure had managed to climb to the greatest heights. City Main was after all considered the greatest of heights in Coldford. There were many peaks but City Main was where it all came together. There ‘drowning boy’ could fall into concrete pools of aggressive business and ruthless politics. It was a different kind of murky water from the poverty of the Shanties but it was no less able to drown.  

Looking at the painting again gave David some doubts. Should he maybe have waited for this piece? He had admitted that his journey was still ongoing. There were still struggles to be had and dangerous waters to swim.  

 “Good morning, David,” a familiar voice drew him from his thoughts. 

“Mr Cassel! I haven’t seen you since …”  

“Since high school, yes,” Mr Cassel said. “That’s longer than I care to admit.” 

David had been so taken aback by seeing his old art teacher. He was flustered in a way that was akin to a child seeing their teacher outside the classroom. He looked different. He looked older, a little more casual in dress but he was smiling warmly.  

“Did you come to see the painting?” He asked.  

“I came to take it home. It now belongs to me,” the teacher told him with pride. “When you were my pupil I hoped upon hope that you would make a success of yourself. The success would of course fair you well but I hoped too because I just new people had to see your vision. It’s fearless, it’s encouraging, it’s humbling, it’s all those things and more. I promised myself that when you did I would have one of your paintings and here we are. Alex had mentioned this to Reggie Penn and he kindly gifted to me. I couldn’t not be more proud of what you became. I know it wasn’t easy but you got there didn’t you. This painting is even more significant to me because as your teacher I could only instruct you on how to swim. I always worried those waters would get far too choppy but you had it in you. You swam and you emerged. I can hang this painting with pride and know that you did it.”    

David laughed with joy. He wrapped his arms around his old teacher and embraced him tightly. The emotion spilled from his eyes.  

“I’m glad I did you proud, man,” he said. “I’m glad.”  

*** 

We all have that drowning figure within us. The rivers that swamp us are different but struggle is a universal experience. We all struggle from time to time and the ‘drowning boy’ painting stands a vivid representation of that. The purpose of art is to provoke. It provokes emotion and it provokes discussion. Seeing the image had me thinking how our world would be if we acknowledged that we all struggle in the water of our lives from time to time. Drowning comes from our own being no longer being able to struggle. The water enters the lungs despite all resistance and we are consumed. But what if we stopped trying to struggle and we helped each other out of the water instead. What kind of picture would that paint then?                                    

                                                                                                             

Art is subjective and will always live on.

“No Davey, No!” where the last words he heard him cry. It took some time for him to remember his childhood but now the artist’s ‘tortured boy’ piece is ready, thanks to his latest muse. 

Available now.


Trauma, obsession and addiction are just some of the reasons to seek refuge at Harbour House rehab clinic. The world outside can be a scary place after all.  

Table Manners

Beckingridge Manor: home to the Beckingridge family for generations.

Beckingridge Manor was a place that many would dream of living in. It was a beautiful old mansion house that had been in the family for generations. They were old money but Jeffrey Beckingridge aka Gramps was who made it really what it was. But behind those mansion walls lay skeletons. Like for instance, Alice Beckingridge. She had been accused of murdering her son. The boy had been born deformed. He had been hidden inside the manor, few even knew of his existence until his life was cut short and his body discovered buried in the Manor House lawns. She’s dead now too so plays little part in the following events. 

Then there was Alice’s sister in law, Elizabeth. Growing up in the world of privilege she had never really learned what it meant to consider others. Spoiled and selfish as you would expect Elizabeth set herself apart from the rest of her family by having a conscience. She did try. What made her the same was she had her skeletons too. The became less over the years with Gramps no longer around to lock them away. 

Then there was Alice’s daughter Catherine. School shootings, extorting teachers and running her aunt Elizabeth over with the car so that she now walked with a prosthetic leg. Young Catherine was quite the up and comer. The society pages of the Filton Crier were keeping a very close eye on her indeed. Now she had her own baby, little Vicky. Time would tell where Victoria Beckingridge would fit into her family. 

Probably the most notable in terms reputation would be George. Elizabeth’s nephew and Catherine’s younger brother. He had hit first hit the headlines at age eight when it was he who had discovered his mother’s body. The already famous Beckingridge heir became even more so when he was kidnapped by his music teacher, Vincent Baines. Dead dogs, dead relatives, dead teachers were left behind. If there were a competition for the ûmost skeletons among the Beckingridge’s the safest bet would be George. Psychopathic tendencies is what they say about him but given his status in the city no one seemed prepared to do anything about it. The music teacher instantly regretted his decision to take the boy away from what he felt was a toxic environment. The Manor House was indeed toxic but stealing him away just gave George a whole new playground for ten long years. The musician’s life was made a misery but the family sighed relief being rid of little George for a while. When he was found they would have denied him if they could. 

Vincent Baines’ latest pupil is a handful.

So quite a mess as I’m sure you will agree and it rested on the shoulders of patriarch, Ernest Beckingridge. Sweet natured Ernest didn’t have the bite of his sister, Elizabeth. He didn’t have the iron will of his wife, Alice either. Quite frankly he didn’t have what it took to lead the Beckingridge Empire or keep his son and daughter in line. 

“Stop killing things!” Ernest cried in despair. “Why can’t you just act like a real boy?” 

George grinned. It was only feeding his temperament. 

“It’s okay, baby girl,” Ernest said to Catherine. “We’ll be fine.” 

Catherine snuggled into her father’s arms. At her age she really should have been learning responsibility but it was easier to hug her and keep her quiet. Ernest wouldn’t be around forever and Catherine was in for a rude awakening when she didn’t have her billionaire father to protect her. Elizabeth tried to warn her brother of this. She had experienced the same thing when Gramps died. 

Disfunction. A term used when a family unit is broken but carries on anyway. Blood is thicker than water. Money and entitlement make you even thicker than that to the ways of the world. But despite all their troubles life at Beckingridge Manor went on. Dinner was always served promptly at eight. 

***

The salad course had only just been served. George hadn’t ate much of it. Instead he made a fuss of it with his fork then left the shredded pieces. He had spilled some of them onto the table. Catherine wasn’t paying much attention as usual. With one hand she was trying to feed her baby. Vicky was leaning forward in her high chair trying to catch the spoon in her mouth but her mother’s eyes were too busy reading her phone. 

“George, will you take that disgusting thing off of the table!” Aunt Elizabeth barked. 

It was a stuffed mouse she referred to. It’s fur was matted, the stuffing was crushed and for some reason it smelled like garlic. He named it Cecil and he took it wherever he went. 

George glared at Elizabeth. “Cecil stays here,” he stated. 

“You’re eighteen,” Elizabeth chided. “It’s ridiculous that you would carry that filthy thing around with you.” 

Ernest looked up from his plate. He finally decided to speak up. 

“Come on now George,” he said. “Take it off the table.” 

Elizabeth wasn’t satisfied. “We’re trying to eat here and I need to look at those … stains? What even is that?” she wrinkled her nose. “Never mind. I don’t want to know, just get the damn thing away.” 

George grinned. Seeing his aunt get upset made him giggle. Cecil tended to have that affect on people.

“May I be excused?” Catherine asked in what should have been a polite request but was instead laced with frustration. 

“No you may not,” Elizabeth said. “If you didn’t have your face stuck in that blasted phone the entire time you would be done by now. Eat your salad.” 

Catherine looked to her father. Ernest raised his eyebrows but said nothing. It wasn’t his problem. He had ate his salad. 

“How is the tuition going, George?” He decided to attempt polite conversation with his son. “Are you coping with it?” 

George wouldn’t be an easy pupil to teach. The general public scoffed at the idea of a grown man removing his pupil from his home only to become the kidnap victim himself but Ernest knew his son. It was indeed very plausible. The most unsettling thing about the whole scenario was how George had returned to the manor after all that time and it seemed like nothing had happened. The Beckingridges could adapt to any scenario. It was what helped them keep the flow of cold hard cash to the city. 

George nodded. “It’s okay.” He looked at Cecil. In his mind Cecil must have said something he didn’t approve of so he knocked him over. He could see Elizabeth stifle a stomach lurch at the toy. 

“And Kappa So?” Asked the father. “It’ll be pledge week soon.” 

Ernest had been a member of the exclusive Filton Fraternity back when he was George’s age. He wasn’t exactly one of the in crowd but Charles ‘Chick’ Owen who was the Chapter Leader at the time accepted him as one of their own. The fraternity was now under the guidance of Chick’s son Buddy. George had taken a shine to him. He even started to imitate him quite a bit, using turns of phrases he wouldn’t normally. 

“Kappa So!” He would scream, already wearing his blazer even though he hadn’t officially been accepted. 

“Buddy said you’re a peg legged whore and the only time you shut up is when you have a dick in your mouth,” George gleefully announced to his aunt. 

“George!” Ernest finally decided to intervene. 

It was too late though. Elizabeth was already on her feet. He had her fork in her her hand, pointing it at her nephew like Satan with his trident. She decided against it. With a clang she dropped the fork onto her plate and lifted her glass of wine instead. 

“Liz!” Ernest tried to stop her but it was too late. She emptied the glass into George’s face. 

“That’s disgusting!” He complained. “It tastes like feet.” 

Elizabeth sat back down. Her scowl had dissolved into a wry smile as she watched George try to dry himself with the table cloth, almost knocking his plate to the floor. 

“Gah!” Vicky started to reach out for her great aunt. 

“May I be excused?” Catherine asked again. 

“No,” Elizabeth barked. “We’re a family and we have dinner together. Even if we must share the table with lunatic Larry over there.” 

Ernest was shaking his head. “Can’t we just have one meal where someone doesn’t empty a glass of wine of another’s head. Don’t we deserve some quiet after everything the family has been through?” 

“Oh Ernest do shut up,” Elizabeth barked. 

Ernest sighed. He attempted to change the subject. It was always especially volatile between George and Elizabeth so he decided to engage his daughter. 

“So Catherine,” he began. “Did Vicky sleep through the night? I don’t believe I heard her.” 

Catherine shrugged. How would she know? If baby Victoria had been screaming merry hell from her nursery it still wouldn’t have been her mother to go and fetch her. 

“I think she was trying to say da da,” Catherine offered. 

Elizabeth was turning her empty wine glass in her hand. “It’s a pity she doesn’t know who Da Da is,” she commented. 

“I hope you choke pills and die you cantankerous old shrew,” Catherine snarled. 

Elizabeth gave a hearty laugh. “Oh Catherine, I wouldn’t have to be cantankerous if you didn’t leave your child for everyone else to look after.” 

Vicky had woken up through the night as it happened. Catherine wouldn’t have known this because she had ignored the baby’s cries until Elizabeth had come to fetch her. 

“Come to me my little darling,” she had heard Elizabeth whisper to her daughter over the monitor in a sweetened tone she used with no one else. It was so alien to her aunt that at first she didn’t realise who it was. 

Catherine raised her finger at her aunt. George was giggling to himself, his fair hair still stained with red wine. Ernest was almost burying his face in what was left of the salad in despair. 

“Can we leave the vulgarity please!” Ernest requested with a little more passion than they were used to. “It’s not for the dinner table.” 

“May I be excused?” Catherine asked again. 

“No.” This time it was her father who requested that she stay. 

“I’m not hungry,” she tried. 

“Maybe not,” said Elizabeth, interrupting Ernest. “But your baby still is.”

“I have a vulgar story,” George put in.

“No George,” said Elizabeth. “You don’t.” 

***

Later that evening the Beckingridge manor quietened. Elizabeth had decided to take a walk around to try and tire herself out. She sensed that evening would be one where sleep would not come easily. As she passed by Vicky’s nursery she could hear singing. At first she thought it was a figment of her imagination it had been so soft and tender. She recognised the song but couldn’t quite place where from. It was a male voice. Ernest wasn’t an easy sleeper then either so perhaps he had gotten up to spend some time with his granddaughter. Was the song the lullaby their nanny used to sing to them as children? Elizabeth still couldn’t decide. She didn’t want to disturb the sweetness. She actually found herself enjoying the tone. She pushed the door open gently. The nursery was bathed in soft nightlights. Stars danced across the roof. Vicky had pulled herself up onto her feet in her cot. It wasn’t Ernest who was singing to her though. It was George. The lighting had subdued his normally sneering expression. At the least the light had provided some of the softening. Some of the serene look had been given from the way he was watching his niece. 

He hadn’t heard his aunt behind him. His focus remained on his niece. Victoria tried to reach through the bars of her cot to Cecil.

“No,” said George, again surprisingly calmly. Normally he threw a tantrum when anyone tried to take Cecil. It was ridiculous to see a young man of nineteen who was supposed to lead the Beckingridge Tower one day throw a tantrum like a toddler over a stuffed animal. He smiled at Vicky though. It seemed the after dinner entertainment was called off. 

“You don’t want Cecil,” George explained to the child. “He’s not a nice toy.” 

It had been the first time Elizabeth heard George admit he was a toy. Every other time he was insistent that it was his friend. Elizabeth knew he had just being doing it to create a scene. What frightened her the most about that realisation was that she would have created a scene too if someone irritated her the way she seemed to irritate George. 

George lifted a stuffed monkey and passed it to the infant. 

“Here. You have ‘cheeky monkey,” he said. 

Vicky grinned and clasped the monkey to her chest. Cheeky Monkey looked exactly like the little monkey on the pink onesie she wore. 

“Cheeky Monkey is a much better toy for you,” the uncle explained. Vicky seemed to agree but she kept her eyes on Cecil. 

“Cecil!” Vicky garbled in toddler language pointing to him. 

“That’s right,” George agreed. 

He seemed to take closer note of Vicky behind the bars of her cot. 

“They won’t keep you in here all the time,” George went on. “I won’t let them. It was so easy for them just to lock that door and forget me when I was a little boy. I won’t let them do the same to you. I know it can get scary in here sometimes. The door is heavy and the windows are high up but you won’t be locked in here. You can’t let them see you get angry. That’s when they lock you in here.” 

“Gah?” Vicky said almost agreeing. Her tantrum earlier had seen her banished to the nursery just like Uncle George said. 

“Yeah, that’s right,” said George. “They just lock you in here, sometimes for days. They would always have you smile. They would always have you laugh. You can’t say anything no matter how much you want to scream and rip into someone’s belly. But don’t you worry Vicky. You won’t be like me. You won’t need crusty old Cecil. I won’t let them lock you in here. 

He leaned over and kissed her head. “You are cute!” He gushed. 

Vicky giggled. “Yes you are.” 

“That’s enough George,” Elizabeth finally interrupted. 

George turned round finally paying heed to his aunt’s presence.

“She was crying,” he said. 

Elizabeth insisted. “Then I’ll see to her.” 

“She wanted me,” George was adamant. 

Vicky lay herself down in her cot, clutching Cheeky Monkey closely. She yawned. George and Elizabeth left her room to let her drift back to sleep. 

“Good night, Aunt Elizabeth,” George said neither sweetly nor sneering. For a few moments he could be mistaken for a real boy. 

“Good night George,” Elizabeth replied. 

“Sleep well,” added the nephew. 

Was that a threat? Was that a genuine request? Was he deliberately being a nice to essentially be an irritating prick? Elizabeth found Ernest in the lounge and when she had relayed to him the conversation she had overhead with Vicky it seemed to make him uneasy. They had locked him away often when he was a child but what choice did they have? He was out of control. Who’s fault was that? 

George pulled the sheets up to his chin. Cecil sat balanced on his belly watching him with his beady black eyes. That was when he heard his door click, locked from the outside. Behind those mansion walls lay a whole host of skeletons. The Beckingridge family experts at locking them away.

As a grown up George still keeps the stuffed animal he named Cecil close.

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Lost Souls

A cult is quite often a religion with unorthodox practices. In a world where the court of public opinion is one which holds the most esteem, being swept up in cult like waves becomes easier and easier. When asked why someone would join a cult the most likely answer is that they can find something there that they can’t find anywhere else. Affection, acceptance, understanding, or a mixture of all those things. It isn’t always some sinister group hidden out of the way of civilised society. You can see it in the chanting of songs at football matches. It can be seen in a crowd of teenagers wearing the latest trends. It can be the way we are hooked to social media. 

For the moment allow me to examine the idea of cults in their most natural form. With the help of cult deprogrammer, John Reynolds, I was offered an insight into the depths of these cult groups. Before this interview I would have dismissed the cult idea as foolish people being brain washed. Reynolds helped me understand it better and it was more than that. It was more about a power struggle rather than brain wash. I am reporter, Sam Crusow, and I invite you to join me as we step inside the cults of Coldford. 

***

As I sat in my usual booth at Bobby’s lunchbox looking across to John Reynolds the first thing that became apparent to me was the brightness in his persona. When I had been told I would be meeting with a cult deprogrammer I must admit my mind went to a stereotypical assumption. I expected a brooding character. I expected a troubled soul. When he bounded into Bobby’s Lunchbox with a cheery, “I’m super stoked for the interview, Sam,” my presumptions were completely off. 

We took a seat and I began to record. 

“For legal reasons I understand that most of your cases are classified,” I began. “I’m not looking to press you. I don’t want to put anyone in a difficult position but I would love to hear your insight.” 

Reynolds smiled. “I’ve been doing this for a long time. I guess it’s about time I talked about it. Get a load off, you know?” 

I nodded. “I am agreed that nothing will go to print without your say so so feel free to talk openly. Consider this entire thing off the record.” 

“What do you want to know?” Reynolds asked. 

“Why don’t you start with some of the cases that shaped who you are.” 

“Funny you should ask,” he said. “The first one that comes to mind, you reported on.” 

John took a sip of his water. Although he seemed calm I could see a little tension shake him just below his skin. Giving account of some of his experiences seemed to be taking a toll on him. I pushed stop on the recorder. 

“We can take five, if you like,” I asked. “This is your story to tell. It’s up to you how you wish to tell it or how far you want to go.”

I was going to remind him that his story deserved to be told as a way of urging him to open up but it seemed I didn’t need to. He had already decided that for himself. 

“No,” he said. “It’s fine. I’ll go on.”

I pushed recorded again. 

“You may remember a gnarly story In the Express some time back. It was about a girl named Eileen in her late teens. She had found herself in trouble. She was pregnant by her step father. Her mother was a drug user who accused her of seducing him. She was only a young girl and the step father was a real shitty dude,” John explained.

It was a typical tale of abuse, if you find yourself desensitised to such things. 

Eileen was forced to leave. She didn’t have enough money to buy a plane ticket. She didn’t have enough money to pay for a hotel room for the foreseeable future. She found herself on the docks of Swantin. A lot of unfortunate souls found themselves there. Their bodies were the last marketable product they had at their disposal so it stood as the best chance of survival. She had been real close to a small vessel called the ‘Lily Ann’. It was no ordinary boat. It was a floating brothel. She had been almost been at the point of climbing on board when she heard the ferry man calling,

“The 6:15 Hathfield Bay! All about the 6:15 to Hathfield Bay.”

Eileen approached the man.

“Excuse me, sir,” she interrupted. “How much for a ticket to the island?” 

The Harbour Master eyed her suspiciously. She had no bag with her, the leather of her shoes was bursting and she had a look in her eyes that suggested she would be drugged and whored before the night was out.

“I have been kicked out of my home and I have nowhere to go,” she went on to explain.

He passed her a ticket. 

“I’ll let you on,” he said. “You look like you need a break and I’d be honoured to be the one to give you that chance.” 

Eileen looked at her ticket. 

FERRY WAY LINE.

CHAMBERLAIN DOCKS, COLDFORD – HATHFIELD BAY ISLAND: ROYCE PORT.

She could see the Royal Chamberlain crest on the side. 

“Why are you doing this for me?” She asked. She wasn’t much used to generosity or kindness from strangers. 

“I said you look like you need a break. The Wigan commune is over there. If you go to them they will give you shelter. They’ll look after you. They don’t have much but they are welcoming.” 

Eileen had taken note of the Wigan pin the man displayed proudly, now it held a lot more interest. 

“Thank you,” she said. 

“Wigan bless you,” was his response. 

She had heard of the Church of St Wigan. She didn’t personally know any members but if they could offer her some shelter and sanctuary it was her best bet.  Better off in the hands of a religious commune than a brothel, right? Perhaps. 

***

The travel across the sea was freeing. The waves that lashed against the side of the ferry liner were like her problems being washed away. By the time she arrived on the island she was smiling again. Although the thin rain had soaked the clothes she arrived in. When she reached the entrance of the commune she was feeling a little feverish. Pulled the purple tasseled bell. She could hear the deep knelling ring. Before long she was a greeted by a woman not much older than herself. 

“I have nowhere to go,” Eileen said. “Please can you help me? I’m pregnant. I’m with child.” 

The girl looked at her blankly at first. Then she smiled. It brightened her freckled face. Her smile was natural and soft. Her hair was long and tangled. She had purple ribbons tied into her braid. 

“Wigan embraces all,” she said in response. Her island accent bouncy and warm. “What’s yer name?” 

“Eileen,” the young woman said. 

The Wigan girl introduced herself. “My name is River. Come in and rest. You are safe now.” 

Eileen entered the commune and the door closed behind her. 

***

The first days in the commune were quite pleasant actually. Eileen had no regrets in accepting the Harbour Master’s passage. She had been given clothes. They were real basic but they were warm and comfortable. They even had some elderly women check on her baby. They gave her a lot of old wives tales about the tell tale signs of it being a girl that she carried but they seemed to know what they was doing and according to them the baby was healthy and its heart was beating strong. The real world seemed so far away. Wandering onto the bay at the rear of the commune where she could hear nothing but the waves was her most favourite activity. On this particular day I now detail she had looked up at the sky first. The clouds were thick and grey. The rain wasn’t far off. There was a man sat on the sand, looking out onto the sea. He had drawn his knees up to his chest and was embracing his surroundings like he was seeing them all for the first time. He turned when he heard her. 

“I didn’t mean to disturb you,” she apologised. 

The man smiled. He had an engaging stare. She could feel herself smiling too. There was some white in his dark hair, despite his youth, just a streak. He reached his arm out beside him. 

“Ye might as well sit with me,” he said. “It would be nice to have the company.” 

Eileen took a seat, delicately at his side. He kept his attention focused out onto the sea. 

“So you must be the city dweller they call Eileen.” 

Eileen agreed. “Yes, that’s me. I came for sanctuary and I have been given that. I will always be grateful.” 

The man nodded. “That’s good to know. I’m glad.” 

“Have you been here long?” She asked him. 

The man chuckled. “My whole life,” he said. 

Eileen was fascinated. “It must have been quite different from the city.”

“They say not much could go on on a little island but you’d be surprised. You really would,” he explained. 

“My life was shit over in the city. My mum was a drunk. My step dad forced himself on me. The baby I carry is his. My mum blamed me and the Harbour Master took pity on me. Now I’m here.”

The man turned to her. “Fear not,” he said. “You’re safe here. We are like a big family. We’d love for you to be part of our family.” 

“I’m not really a religious person,” Eileen was ashamed to admit. She felt ungrateful given how accepting they had been of her, no questions asked. 

“Maybe now’s the time to start,” the man suggested. “Ye can find out quite a bit about yerself.” 

Eileen made a vow to try. She really did want to show how appreciative she was.

“What’s your name?” She asked. 

“Dominick,” the man returned. 

“Your Eminence!?” Came a cry from the commune. There was a monk standing by the entrance in robes. 

Dominick looked back. He nodded to the monk who went back inside. 

“Your Eminence?” Eileen questioned. 

Dominick stood. He reached his hand out and helped her onto her feet. 

“I’ve been blessed with the leadership of our church,” he explained. “We always welcome new members.” 

Eileen took a vow that very day. She vowed to learn what she could about her new family. Before the baby was born she took a bonafide vow. 

***

Reynolds had been based in City Main at the time. He was working out of the offices of CPD. He had been brought onboard when the Office of Law Makers brought their attention to the rise in missing person’s cases in the Coldford. Reynold’s specialty was people who weren’t necessarily missing. They just didn’t want to come home. 

It had taken a few months before Eileen’s mother began to show concern. The deadbeat step father had done the same thing with a neighbour so she threw his ass to the kerb and decided she wanted to reconnect with her daughter. A hand written letter had come to the mother with the stamp of the bay. In this letter it told of Eileen’s indoctrination so far. She was pleased to be where she was. She was turning her hand to all kinds of positive things. She was embracing a religion and it was bringing out the best in her.  What she made abundantly clear was the fact that she had absolutely no intentions of coming home sans step father or not. That ship had sailed and it had sailed off to Hathfield Bay carrying Eileen’s mother’s only daughter with it. 

Eileen’s mother, whom records had named as Lorna P, made an appointment with our investigator. 

“I want my daughter back,” she had plead. 

She was preaching to the converted in this scenario because Reynolds wanted the girl back too. The issue was as he looked at her she looked real spaced out. She said she had given up the drinking but she had been rad with it very recently. All the signs were there. Her bulbous nose was red with burst vessels. Her breath was putrid. She had made an effort to dress herself but the clothes had a smell of dampness about them. If this girl was to come back, what exactly would she be coming back to? For better? For worse? It wasn’t Reynolds’ decision to make but he had to make sure she understood. 

“I will do what I can to bring her back but you gotta level with me. Are you going to be there for her.” 

Lorna scowled. She looked as though she was about to give the usual, ‘are you telling me what to do with my own kid?’ speech but she retracted her statement before it was aired. She knew she had treated her daughter like shit. She should have stood by her daughter. She would be heavily pregnant by now if she hadn’t lost the child. The letter never mentioned either way. 

“I want to do better. I want to put the past behind us,” was her claim. “I got a job. I’m cleaning at the Lunch Box.”

Reynolds leaned back in his chair. 

“It could get real rad,” he warned. “You need to be ready for that. If she does come back you need to be there for her. The process could take a long time.”

Lorna P nodded. “I’m ready for that,” she assured. 

Rule number 88 of a Cult Deprogrammer: First contact with the lost soul could make or break a case. That first contact had to be made.

***

The meeting had been set for four pm. The location was Bobby’s Lunch Box. With Reynolds’ consultation Lorna P had composed a letter of apology to Eileen. She wished her well. She was not to ask her to come home. She was not to make any demands of her. All the letter was to do was to let her know that the mother was open to meeting should the daughter accept invitation. No mention was to be made of the baby. 

In response to this letter Eileen accepted the invitation. She too said nothing of the baby.

Lorna P was keeping an eye out for her daughter. The young woman who had come in her place was not her daughter, at least in everything but the physical sense.  She looked nothing like the way she had when she left. She had let her hair grow long. She wore a long, grey dress made from thick fabric. It spilled over her ankles. She had a purple ribbon tied around her neck and a Wigan pin on her breast. 

“Who are you?” She asked Reynolds at first. 

“I’m pleased to meet you, Eileen,” he said. “I’m John Reynolds. I was asked along by your mum. I was hoping we could have a chat.”

Eileen eyed him suspiciously but she took a seat at the diner booth. 

“I don’t go by Eileen anymore,” she said. “I shed my city dweller name. They call me Heather now.” 

“Heather?” Asked the mother. “Why Heather?” 

Reynolds had encouraged her to ask questions as long as they weren’t asked in a challenging tone. 

“It’s my favourite plant. You would know that if you knew anything about me,” the girl responded. 

“We’re just here because we’re wanting to reconnect,” said Reynolds. 

Heather, formally known as Eileen, scowled at him. She turned back to her mother. 

“Been off the booze?” She asked her. “For how long this time?”

“For good,” she said. “I promise.” 

Reynolds directed the conversation. “We’re stoked that you came,” he said. “There’s no pressure on you. Your mum told me about your letter. You seemed really thrilled over on the island.” 

“I am,” said Heather ney Eileen. She was beginning to wonder who this John Reynolds was. Why would he be associated with her mum? Surely he wasn’t a boyfriend. Although he looked like he was a bit of a boozer too so maybe that was how they were connected. Was he her sponsor?

“When you left you were pregnant,” said Reynolds. “Would you like to share what happened? Are you well?” 

Eileen started to soften a little. No, not Eileen, her name was Heather now. 

“I had a little girl. I named her Ivy.” 

“Pretty name,” said Reynolds. “Your mum is glad to be a grandmother.” 

“She couldn’t be a mother. What chance does she have of being a grandmother? Did she tell you who fucking knocked me up?”

“Wigan opens his arms to the sinners. You cannot be saved. Your baby cannot be saved. Your ma most definitely cannot be saved,” Dominick had said to her. 

“I want to try, Eileen,” said Lorna P. 

“My name is not Eileen! It’s Heather.” The girl shrieked. “I am a child of Wigan and he accepts me for all of my sins. You cast me out and he found me.” 

Lorna P made to say something but Reynolds stopped her. 

“So you took the oath,” he said with a casual calmness that eased the tension. “Who was your sponsor?”

Eileen was quite taken aback by Reynolds’ knowledge of it. Wait. No. Her name was Heather. She was Heather and she was a daughter of Wigan, not some drunk who let her step dad impregnate her. 

“You’re a Wigan?” She asked. He had no tell tale signs. He had no pin. His mannerisms were far too mellow for someone who had taken the oath. 

“I’m not,” Reynolds replied. “I am familiar with them though. Have you been to McIvor’s Ice Cream parlour over on the bay yet?” 

“I have,” she admitted. “I go there quite often.” 

“Do you have a favourite flavour?” He asked. 

“Strawberry,” she replied. 

“She always loved strawberry,” said Lorna P with some measure of pride. 

“Some days it was all you gave me to eat,” responded the daughter. 

“Family is more than blood. We are bound here stronger than any mother and child, any father and son, any brother and sister. We are the family of Wigan and we’re all here for each other,” said His Eminence. 

It was the family that Heather needed. When she took the oath she felt complete. It was fate that the Harbour Master gave her that ticket. It was fate that she fell in love with His Eminence. 

“The weather over there can be a little temperamental,” Reynolds said matter of factly. 

Heather smiled. “These clothes keep me dry. These clothes keep me warm.” 

The commune keeps you safe. The commune keeps you fed.

“I’m going to call you Eileen,” said Reynolds. “It’s not to upset you. If you have shed that name then that is your decision but your mum wants some closure before you return to the commune and it’s the name she recognises. It could be her chance to shed it too if it is what you really want.”

Lorna looked to Reynolds with some surprise. They hadn’t discussed the possibility of her never returning. That wasn’t part of the deal. She kept her mouth shut though. Reynolds seemed to have a handle on the situation. 

“I have nothing left to say,” she said. “You can call me what you like. I know what my name is.” 

LET THEM BE CONSUMED BY FIRE! 

Coming back the city was not going to be easy. She had seen way too much. Her life had changed. 

“If could just sit and maybe hear what your mum wants to say?” Reynolds urged. 

Heather, no Eileen, was held in her place. 

The smell of the burning flesh was stomach churning. At least it was at first. 

Dominick had been screaming, “you cannot be saved!” 

He was crazed but in that moment but as she watched him she could only think of how passionate he was and how much he loved his Wigan family. He was leading them into a future with furious fire. She had been so swept up she helped with the torches. The city dwellers screamed in pain but their cries for mercy were drowned out as the congregates began to sing. 

‘Eileen. I’m going to call you Eileen. That is your name. You are not Heather. Heather was a bayside lunatic who watched four city dwellers burn. Heather gave birth to a little girl named Ivy. Heather danced with the strangely named River, Autumn and April whilst Ivy was blessed into the Wigan faith. Eileen was still on the docks contemplating becoming a prostitute. 

You cannot be saved Eileen. 

“Yes you can,” John Reynolds reminded her. 

***

I pondered the question first before I voiced it.

“Did she come home?” 

“It was one of those deals where you gotta count your blessings,” Reynolds said. “She was coming home. She had gotten as far as a little fishing boat she planned on rowing herself all the way over from the bay. She had Ivy with her.” 

“Then what happened?” I asked.

“She disappeared.” 

“Did she return to the commune?” I questioned. 

“I don’t think so. She had made the resolve to leave. Rule number 36 of a cult deprogrammer: when the victim attempts to leave, the cult will use any force necessary to keep them.” 

The truth of the matter was the little fishing boat had been found, beached just a little while along the coast. The blanket she had wrapped Ivy in was discarded, wet and sandy. Ivy was carried by River back to the commune. The seasons changed and the little girl grew beyond infancy. She didn’t know her mother. She didn’t know Heather. She most definitely would never have recognised Eileen. The Wigan life was what she came to know. Praise Wigan! 

***

Discussing this case gave me a lot of food for thought. We can all find ourselves swept up in an ideology. It’s like an unstoppable force which in the hands of those who wield it well can be destructive. It takes people like John Reynolds to combat that kind of thinking. As he would say, ‘you can be saved. You can succeed. You can come back.’ 

How far must someone fall though before they are merely a sandy, soggy blanket on a discarded boat? Or a victim of a complete stranger’s anger? 

John Reynolds will keep fighting on though until everything is groovy again. 

Diamonds and Stripes

Within the Shady City there are the shades. Everyone has their motives – greed, desperation, a selfless pursuit or the unwavering protection of others. There are the shades and then there are two colours that are so polar opposite you could never imagine them emerging into a pleasant picture. In Kingsgate, the ancient part of town, where the cobbled stones are engrained in centuries of law and order reside the Bergman family. They are owners of the Diamond Parade in City Main. They are wealthy and influential in Law Maker circles. Patriarch, Howard Bergman, is a kind man. He is a law abiding man and raises his son and daughter to always do the right thing when they are faced with challenges. He is a fine role model for his nephews. If you were to ask any in City Main they would tell you that Howard is an upstanding man. That is, of course, those who don’t have an agenda against him and by agenda I mean a complete lack of understanding that someone with such integrity could possibly exist. 

Then, at the opposite end of such a spectrum, exists the Stoker family. Proprietors of the Stoker Circus they live an existence that sees them travelling here and there. They are not people of integrity. They are such that they will carry out any task, no matter the filth, if the pay is right. Their family is of a huge number not only of blood relatives but of circus stow aways they have picked up on their travels. They have three tents. First is the red, featuring the stunt shows and in ode to travelling performances of old, macabre freak displays. This lies under the control of Freddy Stoker. Freddy is ideal for leading the exhibit of oddities because he is something of an oddity himself. He is boyish and engaging in a car wreck sort of way. The blue tent is next and this lies in the hands of Freddy’s Uncle Valdrick or Val as he is more commonly known. The blue tent is ironically the holder of shows to cure your blues. The clowns, comedians and animals are generally what you will find on offer. Val himself is a juggler so he is adept at handling many things at once. He prefers to reside himself in the Rumilaw of City Main. If you aren’t familiar with this particular area, it is home to unlicensed dentists, cheap lawyers and to no surprise a villainous little juggler who operates a pawn shop. Val and his treasured wife, Gigi, are looking to make a home for themselves in Coldford but before your mind rings with, ‘that’s a terrible idea’ let me complete the tents with the great striped Big Top. Clasped tightly in the long fingers of Val’s younger brother and Freddy’s father, Irvine, The Stoker Big Top really is a site to behold. Even when she is raised among their struggling theme park in the Alford area she brings a glory of past days that will probably never be rekindled. 

I’m reporter, Sam Crusow an

***

If you were to ask Howard Bergman how he managed to make such a name for himself, whilst not finding himself a target, he would tell you modestly that ‘doing the right thing,’ is his policy. He prides himself on his consideration for others and showing respect. What he wouldn’t tell you was that believing in that simple truth was what helped him cope with a traumatic experience he had many years before. He arrived in Coldford as a young child, seeking refugee from the Country of Levinkrantz. A political upheaval there had led to an event termed the bomb blitz that literally and figuratively tore young Howard’s life apart. He believes that had more people with integrity come together, such a disaster could have been avoided. When the Good Gang took shape it gave him great relief to see all that he had held onto through his darkest times step into the light.

Howard Bergman raises a glass to the future of Coldford.

“Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, step right up for a sensational, inspirational, full in your face expectational show. I’m Adrien Stoker and welcome to Stoker Circus!” 

The image was a little grainy but the advert was allowed to run in its entirety. Sat on the floor with the empty bowl in his lap Freddy Stoker smiled at the advertisement for an old Stoker show. 

I’ve introduced the current Stoker players but allow me to take a moment to discuss Freddy’s grandfather. Adrien Stoker was known as the Amazing Adrien. His magic and escape acts as the Stoker ringmaster earned him this title. What also cemented the amaze that preceded his name was his commitment to bringing joy to the people of Levinkrantz even during their darkest time. 

“We’ll be here for three weeks so be sure to come on down and check out our exciting new acts. It’s fun for all the ages and remember, there is only one rule for the Stoker tents and that is you are not allowed to leave sad.”

Adrien beamed a wide smile. The advert jingle played. The message was fun and clear but being spoken in the language of Levinkrantz added a coldness. The advert disappeared into the screen. Despite warnings against inviting undesirables into this tent, Adrien continued to play his shows. The brewing civil unrest caused everyone to live in a climate of fear. Adrien, with his circus spirit, broke it as best he could. The Amazing Adrien was a man to be admired. 

Freddy smiled at the blank screen. Freddy was not the same as his grandfather. 

A hand landed on his shoulder. He moved little as though he’d been expecting it. Behind him was Gretel Stoker better known as ‘the legless woman’. She was one of Freddy’s oddities. Gretel joined the family when her own well to do parents discarded her in a river as a child. I suppose in that respect it could be said that they are still doing their part in bringing people together. Freddy exploits his exhibits for the feel of a coin in his hand. That same coin keeps them loyal to him. 

“We better go,” Gretel said. 

Climbing to his feet he took off the glasses he had been wearing. Turning to the sofa he observed the body lying with his head resting towards his right shoulder. Freddy slipped the glasses back onto the corpse with gloved hands. He stepped back and observed a little closer this time. Leaning forward again he adjusted a few locks of the departed’s hair. He took the spoon from the cereal bowl, opened the corpses mouth and gathered DNA on it. The spoon and the bowl, with only a small dribble of milk left lying at the bottom was set aside but at an askew angle so that it appeared casually discarded. 

He lifted a bag that was now filled with valuable possessions that had been found about the home. Nothing too large or ambitious. Small items such as jewellery or cash were easier to carry and when the circus was moving town you had to learn to be mobile. It had to look less conspicuous too when the police arrived and uncovered the body. 

Freddy had not committed murder. The corpse was Mr Brewer. He had a middle class home in Swantin. He sat himself on the sofa with the intentions of enjoying the latest instalment of soap opera, MARCH OF OUR TIMES when he felt his heart flutter and he took his final rest. He had been lying there for so long a smell began to resonate with the neighbours. When attention was called to this, the telephone of the City Pest Control rang and who should answer but Ellard Stoker. Ellard listened to the neighbour suggestion that an animal of some kind had gotten trapped in vents and died. 

It was only a matter of time before Ellard, pest controller by day and animal trainer by night, had alerted his nefarious relatives. 

There was a pest in the building, that much was true and that pest had cleared the home of any viable loot. He was now taking one last look at the room to confirm it was exactly what the police would expect to find. 

“Time to go,” said the legless Gretel again. 

Freddy opened his arms. Climbing up his leg, Gretel rested into his clutch and he carried her from the house. 

Falling from the Amazing Adrien, to scavenging the homes of the recently deceased is quite reflective on who the Stokers are. They have that hero in their family the likes of which Howard Bergman would be admiring of. However, they take their inspiration from that bag of loot. If only they watched those old adverts a little longer. 

The effect Amazing Adrien had on those who came to see his show wasn’t completely lost on his eldest son, Valdrick. Val did admire his father. His Big Top was a symbol of joy in a war torn land. It would rise above the chaos that was being left behind with its vivid blue and red stripes. The problem was one man’s symbol of joy was another’s symbol of disobedience. Such are the way things go.

‘You were a real trooper there,’ Val thought of his father. But joy ain’t going to do jack shit when the real world starts to bite. Joy isn’t going to feed such a big family. No worries there kiddies, you might not have had a solid meal in days but we got plenty of joy. Grab a plate and we’ll spoon that shit out. Tastes great joy does but when that moments over you’re still hungry and still freezing your ass off in a tent because you can’t afford any warm clothe. Wow! Pass me another plate of that joy. That first one was so good I just to have me another before I blow my Goddamned brains out I’m so fucking ecstatic. 

Money makes the world go round and it’s easy for wealthy people like the Bergmans to feast on a complete diet of joy. Who wouldn’t be joyful when their whole existence is diamond encrusted? 

Money is the route of most problems and the biggest problem you can have is having no money. Where his nephew was scavenging from homes no longer required Val was accepting any item of value for pawn, an arguably more legitimate but no less despicable route. The gross mark downs offered and the money lending on the side made Val no less than a juggling little swindler. He knew this. He was okay with this. He knew his father would have expected better than him. He knew with the blood of the Amazing Adrien in him he could do great things. Think of all the joy you could get with that! Val knew these things and he thought about them more than he would ever care to admit. He should have had the Big Top. He was the head of the family but he just couldn’t do it. He couldn’t bring himself to be amazing. He had to think of himself and his beloved wife Gigi too of course. Val and Gigi had the blue tent but they had all but left the life behind. They wanted a quiet existence now. They actually wanted to do better things if what I’m told is true and that meant leaving the circus behind. There was only one thing holding them back and it certainly wasn’t a lack of joy. 

“This is just getting worse, missus,” Val complained. He was staring into a mirror, adjusting a tie. 

Gigi, who’s height towered a considerable amount above his own, was adjusting the collar of his shirt. 

“I know, sugar,” she replied, looking over her husband’s shoulder, tidying her platinum blonde hair. “But we’ve got a whole lot of trouble coming our way and we can’t exactly pay our way out of it.” 

The trouble was stirring from the motherland. It was a bit of baggage that should have long been left behind and never brought to Coldford. The money lending business had been proving quite fruitful but when the bills came in faster than you could fleece the suckers it left you with a very firm final reminder situation. They didn’t need reminding. They just needed to get themselves as far away from Coldford as they could. If only you could fly on joy. 

“Good morning, Mr Whitley,” Val said into the mirror as though rehearsing. “I’m Mishokov Froraderick and this is my wife, Sue,” 

“Hello!” Gigi yelled in a heavy Levinkrantz accent, leaning on Val’s shoulder and reaching her hand out as they she were shaking the hand of the unfortunate sap they clearly had their mark on. 

“She doesn’t speak much English but we’re in the market for a new home and the more fancy pantsy the place is the better. Give me a whole lot of a joy with five bedrooms.” 

“Do you have one with pool?” Gigi asked the mirror man in this rehearsal of misfortune. 

Val broke character. He turned to his wife. 

“Do you have pool?” He imitated her character’s accent. 

“The leaflets that were made up said pool,” Gigi was certain. 

Val shook his head. “Yes, I know, my dove, but you don’t speak much English remember? Why would you ask for a pool?”

“I could speak enough English to know to ask for a house with a pool,” Gigi surmised. 

None of this mattered though. The byplay they were in the middle of was interrupted by a little jingle. That little jingle may as well have have been the sound of joy because through the doors of the pawn shop in shady city’s shadiest corner of Main stepped Diamond Daughter, Elsa Bergman. 

Val and Gigi both turned to her like dancers on a music box. That joyish little tinkle lit a smile on their faces. 

“I need to borrow some money,” said Elsa. She didn’t want to pretend she was in their domain for any other reason. 

“Your daddy’s loaded,” Val frowned. “What would you need to borrow money for?” 

“I’m in a spot of trouble,” Elsa admitted. “I’d rather keep my dad out of it.” 

The word around the city was that Elsa was losing bad at gambling. That is certainly something the clean cut Howard Bergman wouldn’t want to become public.

“How much?” 

Whatever amount Elsa asked caused Val and Gigi to turn back round again. 

“This is the big break we’ve been waiting for!” Val said in an aside. 

Gigi wasn’t so certain. “She’s Howard’s daughter.” 

“I know!” Val stated, thinking that was just about the cherry on top of the proverbial cake. 

He had known Howard a long time. They were friends once. He decided the level he was bothered by this did not match his need to set he and Gigi up. 

“Alright, Missy,” he said to Elsa. “I hope you know what you are getting yourself into.” 

The deal was done, debts were reshuffled and Elsa left the Rumilaw with some easing of her shoulders. She was a little cash cow that was going to bring a whole lotta joy! 

Val and Gigi Stoker outside the Big Top.

***

“Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, step right up for a knuckle whiting, nail biting, full in your face exciting show. I’m Irvine Stoker. Welcome to Stoker Circus!” 

The ring master of the three tents was Val’s younger brother and Freddy’s father, Irvine. Irvine Stoker is a striking man and that is before he adorns his Stoker jacket and ring master garb. He has a looming, insect like frame that can bend into interesting shapes. He is full of charisma as you would expect. To meet him on the street you would find him odd but intriguing. His welcoming voice would catch your attention. The bright colours surrounding him would draw you closer and then before you knew it you were swept up in his arms and taken along for a journey you didn’t realise you had already paid for. 

Irvine kicked the dust of the centre ring aside. One of the animals had shat there again. The whole place was falling to the pits. He reached his arms up and in a swift movement another set of hands clasped his from above. He was raised up and he went soaring towards where the audience would be seated later that afternoon. He clutched the arms of trapeze artist Eroll Easy, who with his sister, Ethel formed a duo called the Trapeezy Easys. Irvine was dropped in among the audience area and he skipped back towards centre ring. Before he reached there Ethel had swung down and collected him under his arms and they soared towards the middle. She dropped him back on his starting point. He landed in the animal excrement he had kicked dirt over. 

“Eugh!” Irvine groaned. As if things weren’t shit enough. “You wanna watch were you’re dropping?” He called up to the easys.

“Sure thing, boss,” Eroll swung past. 

Irvine shook his head, wiping his shoe in the sand and readied himself to start all over again. Rehearsals were cut short though because he received a call from his strong man, Otto.

“It’s time, boss,” he said. 

There was a show to get going but Irvine took the time out of rehearsals to bid farewell to one of their own. They would expect him to say something. 

Coming together in times of loss was something the Bergman family and the Stoker counterparts would share. The two Easys dropped down and they made their way to the back of the Big Top where a group of mourning Stokers were gathered. They parted when they saw their ring master. Irvine made his way to the front laying a consoling hand on Otto’s broad shoulder. He removed his hat and he turned to his family. 

“She was a fine mare,” he said. “It’s always a tough one to take when one of us dies. Trot on Sparkles.” 

“To sparkles,” the others sounded off. Sparkles was the leading Dressage horse of the Stoker Circus. They weren’t kidding when they said she was a sore loss. She was a beautiful animal. She was also the highest earner of the herd. This is where the Bergmans and the Stokers differ in their thoughts on loss. 

After offering a respectful send off to the stables in the skies the carcass was dragged off to be disposed off. Luckily Olga the clown arrived on scene with her replacement. Olga had on her blue and red clown face paint on but was yet to complete with her wig. 

“What the fuck is that?” Irvine asked.

“It’s what the Perry’s sent,” Olga informed him. It had been she who had brought the animal from Perry Zoo. 

“We asked for a horse,” Irvine claimed. 

“It is a horse,” Olga shrugged. 

“That is not a horse,” Irvine growled impatiently. 

“It looks like a horse,” Olga reasoned. 

“That is a fucking donkey,” said Irvine, clasping the animal’s snout and shaking him. The donkey did not appreciate this in a slightest. He hee hawed his objection.

Olga handed him the rein. “I’m just passing it on. You’re the ring master, boss, you deal with it.”Deal with it? Teaching dressage to a donkey just about summed up the state of affairs for the Stoker family. 

***

And those, dear readers, are the Stoker and Bergman families. One, a symbol of kindness and integrity. The other a symbol of greed and selfishness. However, like most things in Coldford there are the shades. The Bergman struggle could very well test their integrity and as the Stokers continue to keep themselves breathing above water it could offer them the chance the realise that whilst it is easier to con, fleece and sneak their way through life, in the long term doing the right thing will see them much better off. Joy, they would find, is a currency worth spending. 

The Stoker Circus family and the Bergman diamond merchants have a long history. They finally find common ground when a cult group gathers popularity. They are very different though so deciding how to deal with it will prove problematic.

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Dinner At The Manor

Beckingridge Manor was a place that many would dream of living in. It was a beautiful old mansion house that had been in the family for generations. They were old money but Jeffrey Beckingridge aka Gramps was who made it really what it was. But behind those mansion walls lay skeletons. Like for instance, Alice Beckingridge. She had been accused of murdering her son. The boy had been born deformed. He had been hidden inside the manor, few even knew of his existence until his life was cut short and his body discovered buried in the Manor House lawns. She’s dead now too so plays little part in the following events.  

Then there was Alice’s sister in law, Elizabeth. Growing up in the world of privilege she had never really learned what it meant to consider others. Spoiled and selfish as you would expect Elizabeth set herself apart from the rest of her family by having a conscience. She did try. What made her the same was she had her skeletons too. The became less over the years with Gramps no longer around to lock them away.  

Elizabeth makes attempts to distract her nephew by hiring a music teacher.

Then there was Alice’s daughter Catherine. School shootings, extorting teachers and running her aunt Elizabeth over with the car so that she now walked with a prosthetic leg. Young Catherine was quite the up and comer. The society pages of the Filton Crier were keeping a very close eye on her indeed. Now she had her own baby, little Vicky. Time would tell where Victoria Beckingridge would fit into her family.  

Probably the most notable in terms reputation would be George. Elizabeth’s nephew and Catherine’s younger brother. He had hit first hit the headlines at age eight when it was he who had discovered his mother’s body. The already famous Beckingridge heir became even more so when he was kidnapped by his music teacher, Vincent Baines. Dead dogs, dead relatives, dead teachers were left behind. If there were a competition for the ûmost skeletons among the Beckingridge’s the safest bet would be George. Psychopathic tendencies is what they say about him but given his status in the city no one seemed prepared to do anything about it. The music teacher instantly regretted his decision to take the boy away from what he felt was a toxic environment. The Manor House was indeed toxic but stealing him away just gave George a whole new playground for ten long years. The musician’s life was made a misery but the family sighed relief being rid of little George for a while. When he was found they would have denied him if they could.  

George and his beloved companion Cecil.

So quite a mess as I’m sure you will agree and it rested on the shoulders of patriarch, Ernest Beckingridge. Sweet natured Ernest didn’t have the bite of his sister, Elizabeth. He didn’t have the iron will of his wife, Alice either. Quite frankly he didn’t have what it took to lead the Beckingridge Empire or keep his son and daughter in line.  

“Stop killing things!” Ernest cried in despair. “Why can’t you just act like a real boy?”  

George grinned. It was only feeding his temperament.  

“It’s okay, baby girl,” Ernest said to Catherine. “We’ll be fine.”  

Ernest Beckingridge has a lot on his shoulders.

Catherine snuggled into her father’s arms. At her age she really should have been learning responsibility but it was easier to hug her and keep her quiet. Ernest wouldn’t be around forever and Catherine was in for a rude awakening when she didn’t have her billionaire father to protect her. Elizabeth tried to warn her brother of this. She had experienced the same thing when Gramps died.  

Disfunction. A term used when a family unit is broken but carries on anyway. Blood is thicker than water. Money and entitlement make you even thicker than that to the ways of the world. But despite all their troubles life at Beckingridge Manor went on. Dinner was always served promptly at eight.  

*** 

The salad course had only just been served. George hadn’t ate much of it. Instead he made a fuss of it with his fork then left the shredded pieces. He had spilled some of them onto the table. Catherine wasn’t paying much attention as usual. With one hand she was trying to feed her baby. Vicky was leaning forward in her high chair trying to catch the spoon in her mouth but her mother’s eyes were too busy reading her phone.  

“George, will you take that disgusting thing off of the table!” Aunt Elizabeth barked.  

It was a stuffed mouse she referred to. It’s fur was matted, the stuffing was crushed and for some reason it smelled like garlic. He named it Cecil and he took it wherever he went.  

George glared at Elizabeth. “Cecil stays here,” he stated.  

“You’re eighteen,” Elizabeth chided. “It’s ridiculous that you would carry that filthy thing around with you.”  

Ernest looked up from his plate. He finally decided to speak up.  

“Come on now George,” he said. “Take it off the table.”  

Elizabeth wasn’t satisfied. “We’re trying to eat here and I need to look at those … stains? What even is that?” she wrinkled her nose. “Never mind. I don’t want to know, just get the damn thing away.”  

George grinned. Seeing his aunt get upset made him giggle. Cecil tended to have that affect on people. 

“May I be excused?” Catherine asked in what should have been a polite request but was instead laced with frustration.  

“No you may not,” Elizabeth said. “If you didn’t have your face stuck in that blasted phone the entire time you would be done by now. Eat your salad.”  

Catherine looked to her father. Ernest raised his eyebrows but said nothing. It wasn’t his problem. He had ate his salad.  

“How is the tuition going, George?” He decided to attempt polite conversation with his son. “Are you coping with it?”  

George wouldn’t be an easy pupil to teach. The general public scoffed at the idea of a grown man removing his pupil from his home only to become the kidnap victim himself but Ernest knew his son. It was indeed very plausible. The most unsettling thing about the whole scenario was how George had returned to the manor after all that time and it seemed like nothing had happened. The Beckingridges could adapt to any scenario. It was what helped them keep the flow of cold hard cash to the city.  

George nodded. “It’s okay.” He looked at Cecil. In his mind Cecil must have said something he didn’t approve of so he knocked him over. He could see Elizabeth stifle a stomach lurch at the toy.  

“And Kappa So?” Asked the father. “It’ll be pledge week soon.”  

Ernest had been a member of the exclusive Filton Fraternity back when he was George’s age. He wasn’t exactly one of the in crowd but Charles ‘Chick’ Owen who was the Chapter Leader at the time accepted him as one of their own. The fraternity was now under the guidance of Chick’s son Buddy. George had taken a shine to him. He even started to imitate him quite a bit, using turns of phrases he wouldn’t normally.  

“Kappa So!” He would scream, already wearing his blazer even though he hadn’t officially been accepted.  

“Buddy said you’re a peg legged whore and the only time you shut up is when you have a dick in your mouth,” George gleefully announced to his aunt.  

“George!” Ernest finally decided to intervene.  

It was too late though. Elizabeth was already on her feet. He had her fork in her her hand, pointing it at her nephew like Satan with his trident. She decided against it. With a clang she dropped the fork onto her plate and lifted her glass of wine instead.  

“Liz!” Ernest tried to stop her but it was too late. She emptied the glass into George’s face.  

“That’s disgusting!” He complained. “It tastes like feet.”  

Elizabeth sat back down. Her scowl had dissolved into a wry smile as she watched George try to dry himself with the table cloth, almost knocking his plate to the floor.  

“Gah!” Vicky started to reach out for her great aunt.  

“May I be excused?” Catherine asked again.  

“No,” Elizabeth barked. “We’re a family and we have dinner together. Even if we must share the table with lunatic Larry over there.”  

Ernest was shaking his head. “Can’t we just have one meal where someone doesn’t empty a glass of wine of another’s head. Don’t we deserve some quiet after everything the family has been through?”  

“Oh Ernest do shut up,” Elizabeth barked.  

Ernest sighed. He attempted to change the subject. It was always especially volatile between George and Elizabeth so he decided to engage his daughter.  

“So Catherine,” he began. “Did Vicky sleep through the night? I don’t believe I heard her.”  

Catherine shrugged. How would she know? If baby Victoria had been screaming merry hell from her nursery it still wouldn’t have been her mother to go and fetch her.  

“I think she was trying to say da da,” Catherine offered.  

Elizabeth was turning her empty wine glass in her hand. “It’s a pity she doesn’t know who Da Da is,” she commented.  

“I hope you choke pills and die you cantankerous old shrew,” Catherine snarled.  

Elizabeth gave a hearty laugh. “Oh Catherine, I wouldn’t have to be cantankerous if you didn’t leave your child for everyone else to look after.”  

Vicky had woken up through the night as it happened. Catherine wouldn’t have known this because she had ignored the baby’s cries until Elizabeth had come to fetch her.  

“Come to me my little darling,” she had heard Elizabeth whisper to her daughter over the monitor in a sweetened tone she used with no one else. It was so alien to her aunt that at first she didn’t realise who it was.  

Catherine raised her finger at her aunt. George was giggling to himself, his fair hair still stained with red wine. Ernest was almost burying his face in what was left of the salad in despair.  

“Can we leave the vulgarity please!” Ernest requested with a little more passion than they were used to. “It’s not for the dinner table.”  

“May I be excused?” Catherine asked again.  

“No.” This time it was her father who requested that she stay.  

“I’m not hungry,” she tried.  

“Maybe not,” said Elizabeth, interrupting Ernest. “But your baby still is.” 

“I have a vulgar story,” George put in. 

“No George,” said Elizabeth. “You don’t.”  

*** 

Later that evening the Beckingridge manor quietened. Elizabeth had decided to take a walk around to try and tire herself out. She sensed that evening would be one where sleep would not come easily. As she passed by Vicky’s nursery she could hear singing. At first she thought it was a figment of her imagination it had been so soft and tender. She recognised the song but couldn’t quite place where from. It was a male voice. Ernest wasn’t an easy sleeper then either so perhaps he had gotten up to spend some time with his granddaughter. Was the song the lullaby their nanny used to sing to them as children? Elizabeth still couldn’t decide. She didn’t want to disturb the sweetness. She actually found herself enjoying the tone. She pushed the door open gently. The nursery was bathed in soft nightlights. Stars danced across the roof. Vicky had pulled herself up onto her feet in her cot. It wasn’t Ernest who was singing to her though. It was George. The lighting had subdued his normally sneering expression. At the least the light had provided some of the softening. Some of the serene look had been given from the way he was watching his niece.  

George loved music lessons as a child.

He hadn’t heard his aunt behind him. His focus remained on his niece. Victoria tried to reach through the bars of her cot to Cecil. 

“No,” said George, again surprisingly calmly. Normally he threw a tantrum when anyone tried to take Cecil. It was ridiculous to see a young man of nineteen who was supposed to lead the Beckingridge Tower one day throw a tantrum like a toddler over a stuffed animal. He smiled at Vicky though. It seemed the after dinner entertainment was called off.  

“You don’t want Cecil,” George explained to the child. “He’s not a nice toy.”  

It had been the first time Elizabeth heard George admit he was a toy. Every other time he was insistent that it was his friend. Elizabeth knew he had just being doing it to create a scene. What frightened her the most about that realisation was that she would have created a scene too if someone irritated her the way she seemed to irritate George.  

George lifted a stuffed monkey and passed it to the infant.  

“Here. You have ‘cheeky monkey,” he said.  

Vicky grinned and clasped the monkey to her chest. Cheeky Monkey looked exactly like the little monkey on the pink onesie she wore.  

“Cheeky Monkey is a much better toy for you,” the uncle explained. Vicky seemed to agree but she kept her eyes on Cecil.  

“Cecil!” Vicky garbled in toddler language pointing to him.  

“That’s right,” George agreed.  

He seemed to take closer note of Vicky behind the bars of her cot.  

“They won’t keep you in here all the time,” George went on. “I won’t let them. It was so easy for them just to lock that door and forget me when I was a little boy. I won’t let them do the same to you. I know it can get scary in here sometimes. The door is heavy and the windows are high up but you won’t be locked in here. You can’t let them see you get angry. That’s when they lock you in here.”  

“Gah?” Vicky said almost agreeing. Her tantrum earlier had seen her banished to the nursery just like Uncle George said.  

“Yeah, that’s right,” said George. “They just lock you in here, sometimes for days. They would always have you smile. They would always have you laugh. You can’t say anything no matter how much you want to scream and rip into someone’s belly. But don’t you worry Vicky. You won’t be like me. You won’t need crusty old Cecil. I won’t let them lock you in here.  

He leaned over and kissed her head. “You are cute!” He gushed.  

Vicky giggled. “Yes you are.”  

“That’s enough George,” Elizabeth finally interrupted.  

George turned round finally paying heed to his aunt’s presence. 

“She was crying,” he said.  

Elizabeth insisted. “Then I’ll see to her.”  

“She wanted me,” George was adamant.  

Vicky lay herself down in her cot, clutching Cheeky Monkey closely. She yawned. George and Elizabeth left her room to let her drift back to sleep.  

“Good night, Aunt Elizabeth,” George said neither sweetly nor sneering. For a few moments he could be mistaken for a real boy.  

“Good night George,” Elizabeth replied.  

“Sleep well,” added the nephew.  

Was that a threat? Was that a genuine request? Was he deliberately being a nice to essentially be an irritating prick? Elizabeth found Ernest in the lounge and when she had relayed to him the conversation she had overhead with Vicky it seemed to make him uneasy. They had locked him away often when he was a child but what choice did they have? He was out of control. Who’s fault was that?  

George pulled the sheets up to his chin. Cecil sat balanced on his belly watching him with his beady black eyes. That was when he heard his door click, locked from the outside.  

Behind those mansion walls lay a whole host of skeletons. The Beckingridge family experts at locking them away.  


The Beckingridge family can buy just about anything. What they can’t buy is peace of mind from the psychopath that lives in the manor with them.  

The Beckingridge family thought they had it made. An obsessed music teacher took their problems away but ten years later it was back in the manor and the teacher in Harbour House rehab.  

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1105: Interview with Vincent Baines

Vincent had a good life with his partner Daniel Weir.

I am now speaking to a well presented gentleman. He is groomed, well dressed and watching me keenly. Former music teacher, Vincent Baines, initially appears to be a person whom most would respect and even admire. He is after all a talented musician. However, he struggles with serious personality issues and his residence at Harbour House came at a huge cost.

Interviewer: Son of the great composer, Fredrick Baines. A concert pianist by age 12 and a professional violinist by age 15. By all accounts you are an accomplished man so I must ask, where did it all go wrong?

Vincent: I thought that much would be quite clear. It was all over the newspapers at the time.

Interviewer: It was indeed. Murder, kidnapping and making an enemy of the richest family in Coldford City. But I’d like to hear it from your own perspective. Can you tell me a little bit about where it began?

Vincent: (Taking a deep breath) Must we?

Interviewer: I’m afraid we must.

Vincent: I was contacted by Elizabeth Beckingridge. She was looking for a music tutor for her nephew, George. George had been exhibiting severe behaviour problems and she thought it might help. He was a natural with the piano.

Interviewer: But the tutelage didn’t go so well did it?

Vincent: I did what I thought was best. When I first arrived at the Beckingridge Manor there was still police tape. How was I supposed to know?

Interviewer: You suffer from Obsessive Personality Disorder, correct?

Vincent: All my life, yes. It did me no good with the Beckingridge family though. When I met George all I could think about was getting him away from such a toxic environment. I didn’t realise he was the cause.

Interview terminated by my own choice. Vincent continues to struggle with what he did and it may be best he be allowed to settle into the Harbour House rehabilitation facility before reconvening.

#amreading #harbourhouse2020 #thriller by @VivikaWidow


Bring me your sick. Bring me your troubled. Bring me those that society can no longer cope with for they will always have a home here at Harbour House. 

Did your aunt tell you she murdered someone? No, she would leave that part out.” 

Killing is a game for the rich. 

When Vincent Baines is given the job of teaching music to little George Beckingridge he expects a typical commission from a privileged, wealthy family. George’s outbursts become more and more violent. His father is always absent, his aunt is afraid of him and his sister has been sent away to boarding school. Vincent is the only one who can get to the bottom of what is causing the child’s manifesting distress and unearth the terrible things the boy has seen.

***** A thrilling read ***** Hits all the right notes

1310: Interview with David Finn

David Finn arrives at Harbour House rehab clinic.

A scruffy young man is sat before me. His hair is bleached, his body thin and a little malnourished. He’s been through a lot it seems but brought to Harbour House to combat a drug addiction he’s on the list of those we aim to make better.

Interviewer: You were once described at Coldford City’s most promising young talent. You were a truly terrific artist. But you threw it all away on drugs, didn’t you, you rogue.

David shuffles a little. It seems the close scrutiny is making him nervous or perhaps withdrawal from needles is already getting to him. Still, no fix until he begins to cooperate.

David: You know what happened. You’re the reason I’m here, man.

Interviewer: How do you feel?

David: Like I got a life that ain’t worth saving.

Interviewer: A little bleak but I can see why it seems hopeless for you right now.

David: It’s the baby that got me the most. Elliot? What’d he do? What did his mums do?

Interviewer: You feel responsible for what happened?

David: Of course I do! He’s not the first kid I’ve said goodbye to either.

Interview terminated. Resident 1310 became too distraught to continue. Awaiting notice from Dr Winslow.

#amreading #thriller #harbourhouse2020 by @VivikaWidow


“No Davey, No!” where the last words he heard him cry. It took some time for him to remember his childhood but now the artist’s ‘tortured boy’ piece is ready, thanks to his latest muse.

Bring me your sick. Bring me your troubled. Bring me those society can no longer cope with for they will always have a home here at Harbour House.

Character Profile: Daniel Weir

Age: (At time of Maestro events) 26

Occupation: Photographer

Features in: MAESTRO ; HARBOUR HOUSE

Daniel is son of hotelier Rodney Weir. He is heir to the WEIR HOTEL chain with sights set upon running the City Main Weir after his father retires. Running a hotel in the Shady City isn’t without its challenges. It requires complete discretion, the ability to overlook shady doings and a firm hand when guests get out of control. This lack of moral thinking never really sat well with Daniel and through it he and his father clashed. Rodney had at least hoped the support of KAPPA SO brothers would help Daniel survive in the Shady City but pledging required a spirit that Daniel just didn’t possess. A night at the CHAPTER HOUSE left Daniel in hospital. After this event Daniel swore he no longer wanted anything to do with his name sake hotel or the father who was pushing him to be someone he just wasn’t.

Coldford City’s premier hotel. Shady Suites for Shady people.

Kind spirited, trusting and loving, Daniel sought the quiet life of a photographer instead. When he met a music student, VINCENT BAINES, he finally started to drift into the life he had always wanted. A loving partner, a nice home and a promising career it seemed Daniel had it all. But that danger his father had always tried to prepare him for ran deep under the grounds of Coldford. Even the beautiful suburbs of FILTON was not far enough away to escape it. His partner had issues, his home could not lock out psychopaths and his career would be cut short. If he had listened to his father, taken his place at the Weir and allowed himself to embrace the bad blood that ran through his veins, that same blood that allowed the Weir to survive, things might have been different.

Trusting Daniel was helping Vincent tackle his issues.

Daniel learned the hard way that trust and kindness only get you so far when the policy of your family hotel is that once the reservations are made you pay no mind to what goes on behind the closed doors. His partner, Vincent, didn’t want that life for him either. He knew what good a person Daniel was and he shuddered to think of what the hotel life would do to him but no matter how far you run you can’t escape your true calling. Isn’t that right, Vincent?

When he stepped through the gates of Beckingridge Manor, that’s when it all went wrong.

I am reading @VivikaWidow. #maestro #harbourhouse2020 #thrillerfan #blogreads

Out Now.

Daniel can’t help but notice his partner, Vincent, is acting strangely. The muddy footprints, the unexplained absences. He’s letting his obessions get the better of him again and someone is going to get hurt.

Coming Soon.

Vincent Baines has made many mistakes in his life. What happened to Daniel was the biggest. He just can’t help his obsessions hurting the ones he loves.