Monthly Archives: January 2014

Massacre of the Innocents

Christmas. I hate it.

Well, not in its entirety. I like the warmth of the house and the presents of course. But I hate the massacre and sacrifice of the babies that goes on around the festival. Sometimes the scenes of shocking carnage make me wonder if the whole festival is not more in honour of Herod’s paranoid horror-filled act than the birth of a child destined to be at the heart of one of the worlds great religions.

I speak of course, of the slaughter of the Christmas trees.

As I walked in to work this morning, I passed the pitiful remnants of so much promise sprawled on the pavements; shredded; broken; torn and tangled. Cast out and dumped by the bins, waiting for their small bodies to be thrown into the mouth of a large, angry chewing machine and ground up.


But wait. They’re just trees., right? They aren’t ….what? Alive? Yes they are.

They’re also babies. Youngsters. Two feet high. Three feet high. Some have even been allowed to reach six feet high, beginning to feel the sun on their branches, feel birds land on them. Begin to reach for the sky, where their rightful place should be, among the largest living things on the planet.

But like baby sheep, or calves kept in crates for the revolting veal trade, they are simply teased into childhood then cut down, long before they have reached their prime. Ethical Christmas trees? Nonsense. There is nothing ethical about cutting down millions of baby trees every year, just to decorate their bodies and watch them die as you celebrate around them.

I’m sorry, but in this day and age where destruction of forests and our environment in general is taken almost as a human right, this growing of something just to kill it as a baby, is not acceptable. It’s just not.

You might hate man made or artificial trees. How that can possibly be worse than having a dead baby in the corner of your room is beyond me.

Real trees shed. That’s because they’re DEAD.

Let’s stop this foulness; this celebration of Herod and his singular contribution to the Christmas story. Say no to real Christmas trees. Say no, now.


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Sole Sisters

Thin Golden Strap Stiletto Sandals

Sole Sisters               

 by Jacky Cowper

“Nice shoes.”

She looked at me as if seeing me for the first time, in spite of the fact we’d been standing together waiting for a bus for nearly five minutes.

She took in my large DM’s and the stud in my nose. Her face told the story. I was an insect, a piece of dirt to be scraped off her delicate gold and bejeweled sandals.

Undaunted, I tried again.

“Are they fancy, one of these labels; a big name? Designer shoes?”

She checked her watch again. Took out her phone and shook it.

“There’s no signal down here.” I said. “It’s a blackspot.”

“Damn.” She said. Then she looked at me. “What’s your problem? Can’t you see I don’t want to speak to you?”

She rooted around in her equally delicate bag. No ciggies either. She was really having a bad night.

I stuck my hand into my pocket and pulled out a fresh pack of 20. Immediately I had her attention.

I drew one out of the packet, tapped it on my hand, flicked the lighter and lit up, drawing a lungful straight down. I held it inside for a few seconds and then let it drift out of my mouth and nostrils into the dark night. It hung there, caught in the flickering on/off of the streetlamp for a minute before dispersing into the air.

I made as if to notice her for the first time. “Want one?”

“Sure,” she said. “Thanks.”

She allowed me to offer her a light, cupping her hand around the flame as if holding a butterfly.

She sucked in the smoke, and blew it gently through her nostrils. They flared slightly as the heat raced through them.

Smoking together always brings about companionship, and her reluctance to speak to me was soon forgotten as we considered the chilly Edinburgh night. After another ten minutes, I didn’t need to look closely to see her shivering.

“Listen,” I said. “I only live a few minutes away. I was just being lazy taking the bus anyway. Come to my flat and call a taxi from there. I’ve got a landline.”

She looked doubtful, but after staring at the top of the road where the bus was due to appear, she nodded. “Ok.”

I led the way.

The pavement was uneven and she stumbled from time to time. Once she even reached out her hand and rested it on my shoulder. I felt it burn all the way through my jacket.

We reached the entrance to the close. She looked into the darkness through the arch and hesitated a little.

I stepped forward, showing her it was safe.

“Just watch your footing – there are bin bags all over the place at the back. “Folk round here aren’t too careful where they put their crap.”

She moved forward, her heels catching between the cobbles at the start of the old stair.

“It might be better if you take your sandals off.” I said. “You wouldn’t want to break a heel, would you?”

“Not likely,” she laughed. “These cost over £100!”  I felt cold slivers of sweat trace their way down my back and disappear into the waistband of my trousers. The little gemstones on the shoes caught a little of the feeble light coming from the street, and glinted like diamonds in the darkness.

She leaned on me as she bent over to remove them. The heels were thin, elegant, infinitely discreet, like her little feet. Clusters of green and red stones mixed with the solitaires winked at me. Then I felt her hand reach out, clutching the shoes.

“Here, would you take them for me?” she asked. “I’m having trouble with the cobbles.”

Somewhere off to the left, in one of the flats above us, a dog barked once, then there was a snarled human voice and all went quiet again.

She looked up, her hair caught for a moment in the light trickling down from the night sky.

She handed the shoes to me. I could feel the breath leave my body. They were divine. They were the sun, the moon and the stars all carefully whisked together and tied onto your feet with tiny golden straps that fastened round your ankle and over your toes.

She moved slightly ahead of me, her slender frame wobbling on the uneven ground.

“Over there, in the corner. That’s where the door is.” I called quietly.

She began to move carefully through the bin bags towards the door, almost hidden in the dark.

I laid the shoes down at the side of the dark close and jumped on her back.

She squawked as she went down, my left hand quickly clamped around her mouth and my right hand brought the knife out of my pocket and slid it across her slender throat. I felt her body buck under me, but she was fashionably thin and my weight on her back wore her down very quickly.

I held her head down, listening to the blood splash onto the plastic around us and breathing in the hot smell that seemed to fill the air completely.

It was quick.

She stopped moving even sooner than I’d hoped. I stayed still, hidden in the darkness, listening for any sounds that might indicate I’d been heard, breathing quietly in the stillness of the night.

Nothing. Not a car. Not a bus. Not even the clicking heels of a passer by or the muffled laughter of a couple as they bent into each other.

I eased myself back, onto my feet, dusted myself off.

I threw a couple of bags on top of the body and tucked her bare feet away under another bag. The bags were supposed to be deposited in a communal bin out on the street but no one in the stair ever bothered.

I stepped backwards and picked up the shoes. They’d been worth the wait, the plotting, the risk. They gleamed like diamonds in the dirt of my life.

I tucked them into my jacket and pushed the close door open, walking quietly up the stairs to my second story flat. I let myself in, turned on the lights and sat down.

I pulled the shoes out and laid them on the table in front of me. They glistened.

I smiled. Wiped them with my sleeve until every trace of dirt from the alley was gone. I held them close to my ample chest. I could smell the leather, feel the stones as I caressed them. They were mine now.

I stood up and picked them off the table. There would be plenty time for adoration later.

I walked over to my bedroom, opened the wardrobe door. I reached up to the shelf, pulled down the suitcase from the top.

I laid the case on my small single bed and opened it. Three pairs of encrusted sandals winked back at me. I eased them over, making room for the new member of their family. I looked at all my pretty things, laid out in a row. They were loved. They were all loved.

I hauled my boots off, looked at my toe sticking through the top of my sock.

I pulled the socks off too.

I picked up the blue sandals – my first acquisition, all the way from Aberdeen. I slipped the left one on, or at least as far as it would go. The sole said size 4 and I was an 8. God saw fit to grant me the love of delicate things, and the body of an all-in wrestler. I was a cosmic joke.

Blue sandals had been my first, a call girl. Too late she realized, when she got into the car, that the short fat guy was a short heavy woman. She might have lived if she’d just given me the shoes, but she fought for them. She was right to do so, of course. Who wouldn’t have fought for such beautiful objects?

They were well-worn, and they carried her scent for a week or so afterwards, but I didn’t mind. Now they had new companions. I ran my dumpy fingers across the blue shoes and the others in the case. The stones sharp and hard under my skin. I closed the suitcase, put away the memories of that Aberdeen night, the Dundee park, the Fife woodland.

The police arrived three days later. One of the neighbours had found the body – a bare foot sticking out had been a clue apparently.

It was just a regular questioning. Had I seen anything? No. Gosh officers, my rubbish bag is nearly ready to go out. I sat down as the shock hit me. I could have found it. The body. Was it a man or a woman?

A woman. So sad. Such an evil world. I shook my head in despair.

The police took in my big boots, my lumpy body. The short hair and the studs. They assumed the stupid expression that would naturally go with it. My feet were far, far too big to ever fit the small sandals that were missing.

I was an ugly sister for sure, not a Cinderella.

They thanked me and moved on to the drug-addled neighbour upstairs. I never heard from them again.

Why would I?

I had no connection with her. The tiny pieces of evidence they’d found on her body were from generic clothing. And it could have come from the bin bags anyway.

Every policeman knows that killers don’t dirty their own patch.

Except when they do.

That there’s no such thing as a completely random murder.

Except when there is.

That people are not killed for a pair of small golden sandals.

Except when they are.

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The Mystic Adventures of Tabitha Race

The Mystic Adventures of Tabitha Race




We were sitting in the number 17 bus. Apart, but then you caught my eye. You smiled at me, and invited me in. The door in the middle of your head opened and I walked through.

I do that. Sometimes. It’s not always voluntary. But I’m always invited. You smiled. And I entered.

Most people store their memories in order of importance. There isn’t always a great deal of relevance there. Just pictures. Mothers. Fathers. Beaches. Snowmen. Children feature a great deal.

But not you. Your head was like a cavernous library. And alphabetical. How weird was that?

M was for murder, and it was cross referenced with w, for women.

And you had them all there, in glorious technicolour. Still memories from grotesque events. I saw them all, the way you had seen them. I watched them die, the way you killed them. I saw the stranglings. I saw the butchering with the knife. I saw the hot blood spill and bubble as it came through the hole you bored in the chest wall. I was astonished, and horrified. I’d never walked through a mind like yours before.

I slammed the drawer shut, the one marked M. And I realised I’d made a mistake. You had heard that slam – and you were looking at me. Maybe into me. I pulled back, slamming the door behind me. I was back in the bus, minding my own business, an ordinary young woman, flat woolly boots, jacket cinched at the waist. Bobble hat. A nobody.  I looked down at my feet. I picked a hankie out of my pocket and blew my nose. I could feel your eyes on me. And I knew you weren’t smiling anymore.


Tabitha sat bolt upright in her bed, sweat glistening in the low light from the bedside lamp. She’d been leaving it on at night since the encounter on the bus the week before. She’d been shaken up, badly.

The dream was coming so often now that she was becoming frightened to sleep.

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by Jacky Cowper.

There were four of them left now. It was nearly a week since Kissenger had gone over the wall.

Bethsheda was in the garden, feeding what was left of the small flock of chickens; Shenandoah was crashed out in the bedroom, sleeping off another hard day of sleeping; Garsch was rocking gently on the couch, watching the rerun of Kissengers escape on the wall monitor, and Hogg was in the shower, thinking.

Hogg thought a lot. Damn, it was all there was to do in this place. The walls of the Taskmaster Den seemed to creep closer and closer every day. Shit, he thought, as he soaped his hair for the third time. Maybe the bastard walls WERE actually moving. His grinned in spite of himself. Soap trickled into his mouth and he spat hard to get rid of it. Moving walls, sliding almost imperceptibly closer day on day, week on week, minute by minute. That was exactly the kind of crap these shitholes would pull. He was surprised he hadn’t thought of it earlier. He continued soaping his head, his body, with long circular strokes, working up a really good lather. It was his turn to do the ‘shower scene’ and he was determined to make it a good one for the watching masses. Who knew how many extra votes he might pick up if he looked shit-hot in the shower. Whore. He was a whore. He soaped harder and harder, covering his body until he resembled a large dollop of ice cream. He turned his back on the camera angle. No extra votes then.

His hand reached through the soap and touched the small hard lump that protruded just above his collarbone. He rubbed it gently and felt it move against the tendons in his throat. He pulled back quickly, and resumed soaping.

“What do you think you look like?”

It was Bethsheda’s voice, close behind him. A small hand slipped between his legs and started to work him into a sweat, in spite of  the lather and the cool water.

He paused soaping, allowing himself to enjoy the public intimacy. Bethsheda was sticking to her game plan. The public slut. It was rare indeed when she was fully dressed and not acting out somebody’s sexual fantasy. Rumour had it that she was streets ahead in the votes. All the guys liked a girl who would put out for the camera, and even the women enjoyed watching her antics.

Would they stick with her long enough to award her £250,000 though? If they did, the petite blonde, enhanced many times over, both surgically and chemically, would probably be the highest paid hooker in the world. Hogg stopped soaping and reached over to the tap, turning the water on full – and cold. Bethsheda shrieked, suddenly doused by the freezing shower, and ran from the room, slipping twice on the tiles as her high heels skittered.

She missed a chance, Hogg thought. If she’d have hung around she could have shown the camera how erect her nipples were due to the cold. The water was having the opposite effect on him. More lost votes then, he thought, looking down, as he turned off the flow and grabbed a clean towel from the rail. Wrapping it round his waist he made his way out into the main living area. Garsch was still lying on the settee. His flat, dead eyes were fixed on the screen. He was a large black man, his neck as wide as his head. Hogg often wondered how they got the implant past all these muscles. He looked up at the screen, just in time to see the moment Kissenger’s head disappeared, the small bomb shearing it clean from his shoulders and depositing it fifty feet from the rest of the corpse.

The footage had been a huge hit with the public. The way Kissengers body had continued to run for a full two seconds after the removal of his head had gained him an enormous fan base on You-tube. Facebook groups had sprung up demanding that his corpse be declared the winner of the contest. Others wanted the head to win. People are way past sick, Hogg thought.

So rumour had it anyway.

Of course they were cut off from the rest of the world – had been for ten weeks. No one knew where the rumours came from but – rumour had it –  Bethsheda had a seriously unhealthy relationship with one of the camera techs, and he kept her ‘abreast’ of developments.

Hogg turned away from the massive screen. He’d liked Kissenger. The small man had had been a real comic. An ex-drug addict, he’d kept everyone in stitches with his wit and endless supply of terrible jokes. Shenandoah hadn’t liked him much, but everyone else thought he was a hoot. He’d hoped to use the money to buy a lung transplant for his teenage daughter, but in the end the solitude got him.

The rumours suggested that the public had responded to his demise with such enthusiasm that the Taskmaster had donated the cash, and his daughter was now breathing more easily for the first time in her life. Such was the fame her father had achieved in death, her future career as a TV presenter was assured. A hospital reality show was lined up for her already, just as soon as she left the ward. Get well soon, Trix, thought Hogg.

Were the rumours just part of the bull? He wondered. Was anyone even watching?

“The votes have been counted. Come to the living area immediately.”

The Taskmasters voice boomed through the Den, loud enough to interrupt even Shenandoah’s sleep. She pulled herself to her feet – foot, really. Shenandoah was playing the disabled card, and playing it well.

She refused all offers of assistance even though her slowness had cost them success in their tasks on repeated occasions, ensuring that they had too little to eat and ramping up the tension in the Den. Hogg suspected she was the ‘spoiler’ – the one they kept in deliberately just to annoy the others and provoke reactions. Gaber had reacted, once, in the first fortnight. He’d called her a selfish freak after the fourth failed task in as many days. The premium phone number reaction from the watching millions had been swift and severe. His head had popped like a ripe tomato, splattering everyone in the room with matter – red, grey and white. They were cleared out to the showers while the techs cleared up. Shenandoah’s expression in the showers was unreadable. Hogg had thought he detected a smirk (one more down – and so easily) but he couldn’t be sure. After that, everyone treated her like royalty. On the fifth week, when Shenandoah had taken to her bed for long periods of time, no one complained. No one missed her.

Now she came stumbling into the main living area, her artificial foot on sideways. Always hungry for the sympathy vote, playing the angle.

She indicated with her crutch that she needed the higher seat tonight, and Bethsheda politely moved away. While Shenandoah parked her ample arse on the comfiest chair in the room, Bethsheda, tonight dressed in a neon string bikini bottom and a pair of outrageously high stiletto heels, perched herself on Garsch’s knee. The big man wrapped his arms around the tiny woman’s waist.

“Oh sweetie,” she whispered. “You can do better than that.” She pulled the massive hands up to her breasts and manipulated the wide fingers so that they began to play with her nipples, making them hard and very erect. “A lady’s got to look her best for her fans.”

“Good evening contestants.” The Taskmasters tin voice thundered through the room. “Here is the result of tonight’s vote.”

Bethsheda looked at Hogg. He stared back at her. She was still smiling as the implant bomb deep inside her neck was activated with a sharp ‘pop’ and her outrageously pretty head was reduced to something resembling mince. Her body shouid probably have hit the floor at that point, except Garsch was still holding her up, playing with her dark nipples. He finally reacted, pushing the body from his lap and tearing off his t-shirt, using the dirty grey material to wipe the foul smelling brain matter from his face. He hadn’t blinked once.

“I’ll never get used to that burned smell,” he said.

He walked over to the well-stocked bar (alcohol was another thing that got a reaction, so was encouraged by Taskmaster) and poured a half pint glass of neat vodka. He downed it in one long draught.

“That concludes tonight’s vote.” Taskmaster said. “Congratulations. You are the final three. Tomorrow night, one of you will win £250,000. Please go to the showers and use some of that wonderful Silkysoap Company ‘Liquid Luxury’ to clean up. Cleanliness is next to Godliness.”

Garsch and Hogg were already well-lathered by the time Shenandoah hobbled in. Hogg was scrubbing as hard as he could bear. He could still feel the hot spatter and he was convinced clumps of Bethsheda were all over his body. The towel hadn’t provided any protection and he had been effectively covered in her.

“You scrub any harder and your skin’s gonna come off.” Garsch’s deep voice rumbled round the room like a distant underground train.

“Maybe that would be better.” Hogg replied. The two men turned their backs on Shenandoah as she removed her prosthetic leg and adjusted the catheter bag that was strapped to the remaining one.

“Can one of you do my back?” she whined.

Hogg shuddered, but it was his turn. He filled his hand with the so-called luxury liquid soap and began to lather the large fat-dimpled back.

“Oh, that’s so good baby.” She groaned. “Lower.”

Hogg had to fight down the gag reflex, but he worked the soap between the wide, flabby cheeks at the end of her spine, and worked the lather in. “Oh, you got a real talent there,” she said, slipping her hand between her legs and beginning to move it around.

“You’re done.” He said to her, retreating back beside the big man at the other side of the shower.

“Not yet,” Shenandoah said. “But soon I will be. I can manage the rest myself.”

Hogg rinsed and left the shower. He was followed closely by Garsch, the huge ex-boxer, afraid to be left alone with Shenandoah in amongst the soap, the steam and the skin.

They made their way back to the bedroom together, and settled down for another night of no sleep.

Garsch lay down and stared at the roof, at the tiny red lights from the cameras blinking in the darkness. Hogg curled on his side at the opposite end of the room. He was counting the beds again, looking at the tally of people who had died in the pursuit of cash. Vinnie the wannabe-actor; Max the disgraced MP, seeking public redemption; Lola the stripper; Rabbit the artist; Pehlt the writer, Gaber the poet. It had seemed like a good idea at the time. £250k for sitting on your butt for weeks on end, and a swift, painless death if you were voted out.

For a gambler like Hogg, with enemies on the outside who could make his death infinitely more drawn out, they seemed like good odds. It was win-win. If he won, his debts would be paid off. If he lost – then it wouldn’t matter. He had no one on the outside they could harm, so calculated he was safer in here.

His thoughts were interrupted by the lumbering figure of Shenandoah as she made her way into the room. Her plastic foot clicked on the tiles as she selected her spot and threw her towel to the floor. She lay two beds away from him, her bulk blocking his shadowed view of the rest of the room. He rolled on to his back and stared at the red lights. He smiled at the cameras and closed his eyes.

His sleep was erratic, short bursts of intense dreaming and periods of wakefulness that seemed to stretch out into the night forever. It was his normal sleep pattern, had been since he had been 12 when his mother had died. He used to look out of his bedroom window at the sky, wondering if she was watching him, the way his father had promised. Now he was finally content. He knew millions were watching him, out there in the darkness.

Hundreds of thousands of guardian angels, dialling that premium number just to keep him safe.

He rubbed the small implant again, felt it move. Maybe he could cut it out. They said it was close to the jugular and ran on the electricity produced by the body itself. They said any attempt to remove it would set it off.

They said a lot of stuff. No one knew what was real and what was shit. Shenandoah began to snore, her sagging neck magnifying the sound so that it almost shook the room. The noise drowned out Hogg’s thoughts and brought him back from the brink of sleep. He pulled the quilt over his head and rolled onto his side, away from the sleeping giant. He heard Garsch stirring in the darkness. Shenandoah’s bed creaked and then a wooden leg snapped with a loud bang as the bed hit the floor.

Her snoring was overwhelmed by Garsch’s harsh grunting. Hogg lay rigid in his bed. Shit, surely they weren’t screwing? A tiny giggle escaped his lips and he had to bite the top of the quilt to stifle the sound, as he imagined that meeting of monsters. No freaking wonder the bed had collapsed. A few minutes later he heard the big man yawn.

“That’s done then.” Garsch said in the dark.

The lights, voice activated, came on. Hogg blinked in the sudden glare and dared to look over at the combined mound of flesh to his side. Garsch was astride Shenandoah. His face was lit up by a cherubic smile. He was staring at Hogg. “I did this for you.” He said.

Hogg’s brow furrowed, then as his eyes focused, followed the big guy’s arms, to the massive hands wrapped around Shenandoah’s throat, her bloated face purple, her tongue protruding, her eyes bulging lifelessly, he began to scream.

His mouth was still open as Garsch’s massive head disappeared, spattering the entire room with gore. Hogg clawed at his tongue, trying to scrape the flesh and bone from the back of his throat.

He was still screaming five minutes later when the wall of the bedroom folded back and the techs frantically entered the room. They dragged him out, through the long tunnels built into the walls of the Taskmasters Den and through a silent door, gasping into the daylight. It was daytime? Hands brushed the filth from his face and someone threw a pail of water at him in an attempt to get rid of the blood. He tried to clear his eyes but the water half blinded him.

“Did I win?” He asked, the horror of the night beginning to be replaced by the slenderest trace of hope. “Do I get the £250k? He did it for me. He couldn’t stand the thought that the ugly fat bitch might have taken the prize.”

“You shouldn’t have said that.”

The Taskmasters voice came from somewhere behind him. “We don’t allow discrimination or offensive language of any form in the Den. Game over.”

Hogg heard the click as a button somewhere nearby, was pushed.

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Carver Sweet

Untitled 2

Carver Sweet

Chapter One

The first pale trickles of daylight forced their way past the shabby curtains and found the moth hole, using the small gap to reach further into the darkened room.

Carver lay on the rumpled bed, his long legs tangled in the grey sheets. The finger of light crept along his body, leaving the faintest red line as it passed. The tip of a dark blonde hair sizzled slightly as the daylight pushed through it and his nostrils flared slightly in his sleep.

One dark eye opened and checked out the room.

“Morning,” he said, to no one in particular.

He rolled over, out of the way of the tentative beam of light, and scratched at the now fading angry line.

He’d been using total sun block for so long now that there was a permanent layer over his skin, but now and again some light would find a way through.

He pulled himself up in bed and went through a series of stretches. He was supple as a cat, his body youthful and well-muscled. He walked, naked, to the bathroom and reached for the small dark container at the side of the sink. Flipping the lid he eased one finger in and slipped one of the pale blue lenses out and laid it over his right eye. He blackness of his iris was covered instantly and he looked into the mirror above the sink. His reflection, what was left of it, looked back at him evenly, the odd-coloured eyes unblinking in the dark of the room. He could discern the cabinet against the wall immediately behind him, and at times his outline seemed to flicker, but it was workable. He examined the lean face for signs of aging. The hair, dark and wavy had a couple of stray grey hairs, but nothing worrisome. Some tiny lines at the corners of his eyes and a slight puckering in the jawline at the base of his ears. He smiled, wryly. Not bad for a hundred and thirty three. He finished putting in the other lens and quickly shaved, then he showered, lathered factor 60 over his whole body from face to feet, not forgetting his hands and fingers, and walked back into the bedroom again to dress.

He was due to meet Roddy today at noon. He had the photographs and the address. The rest would be up to Roddy. There was a limit to how much attention he could call upon himself in a small town like Auchinloch.

He eased some black jeans on and fastened the lightweight stab vest tightly round his slim body.  The velco ripped as he pulled it neat and finally he patted it, satisfied. The invention of kevlar had been a godsend for vampires. Then he put a white shirt over it and tucked it into his jeans. A red sweat over the shirt, the collar twitched over the neck of the top, completed the look. Finally he pulled on black socks and leather Cuban heeled boots.

He plucked the long Driz-a-Bone coat off the hook on the back of the door and took the dark glasses from the pocket and slipped them on. Then he donned his trade-mark wide-brimmed cowboy hat from the side-board, his camera bag from the floor, and stepped out into the light.

Heat from the watery winter sun warmed him instantly, but it was not uncomfortable. One of the good things about living in the Western Highlands of Scotland was that the sun was a welcome (for most people) but infrequent visitor. And in the winter there were whole areas that didn’t even get direct sunlight for three months of the year. It was all good as far as Carver was concerned.

During the summer, thanks possibly to global warming, the days were getting wetter and the sun less intense on the days it chose to appear. When it DID come out to play, Carver could usually be found at home, in the shadows. He’d venture out in the evening, sometimes to the local pub and sometimes just to walk along the long, pebbled beach, his camera at his side. Freelance photographers could choose their own work, and the hours he kept, if sometimes odd, were not noticed by anyone. The rain didn’t bother Carver and the sun was not as much of an issue as he’d thought originally it was going to be. Here, in the highlands, it was scarcely something he even thought about from day to day.

His cottage was set back on a tree-lined track leading from the main road between Glen Coe and Fort William. Across the road was a long shingle beach that looked out across grey, lapping water towards the vastness of the Atlantic.

Carver had crossed that ocean many times during his lifetime, searching for a quiet life where his eccentricities would go unnoticed. He’d lived in this staggeringly beautiful but remote area for just under ten years now. He knew that he had maybe another ten to go at the most, before his relative lack of ageing began to be talked about, even in this closed and insular community. He’d be able to maybe pull another ten years out if he began dying his hair but he’d long ago accepted that he was now a nomad and any home was only a temporary haven.

His car was parked under the fir trees to the right of the cottage. He walked silently across the thick bed of fallen needles and opened the door before slipping into the drivers seat. Keys, he thought. Damn.

Like most people living in the Highlands, Carver didn’t lock house or car. Trust was highly prized in the area and anyone who violated this unspoken code of honour would be harshly dealt with – first by the community, then by the police and finally by the court. The keys were in his leather jacket in the kitchen. Groaning, he pulled himself out of the car again and fetched the keys. He walked back to the car again and threw himself into the drivers seat. Thrusting the keys viciously into the hole in the steering column, he stamped hard on the accelerator and listened as the engine gave a satisfactory roar.

The small stones churned under the wheel as he drove round the back of the house, pulled out the other side and eased into the driveway pointing down towards the bay. He paused for a moment just to take in the view. It was one of these rare mornings where the light caught the surface of the water turning the whole bay into a gently moving silver carpet. Clouds hung heavily, pregnant with rain but off in the distance. They’d be over the bay by evening and it would be another wet night.

In the meantime, the day was his, to be enjoyed.

The main road into town was quiet, what passed for a morning rush hour having gone by a couple of hours before. The road along the side of the sea loch kept a firm grip of the rocky shoreline, dipping in and out of the inlets and between the clumps of spindly trees clinging to the foreshore, yet Carver drove it almost without seeing the grey tarmac. He’d driven it so many times that he knew its every twist and turn like the skin on his own hands. Once or twice, he’d even arrived in town for an appointment or a job, and could not even recollect any detail of the journey he’d just driven at all. He suspected most of the residents in the area were exactly the same, and he marvelled at the relatively low number of road accidents there were locally.

As he neared the small Highland town, the signs of settlement changed from an occasional croft house surrounded by a few acres of stony ground to more small stone cottages dotted around the hillside that sloped towards the road, until finally becoming the brieze-block flats that marked the outer edge of Auchinloch. The centre of town had been pedestrianised sometime in the 70’s, so Carver swung the car into the large car park opposite the flats.

During the winter months, the council had the good sense to waive all parking charges, thus encouraging what off-season tourism might drive by, and the first row of spaces along the length of the walled park was full. He swung round behind them and slid into one of the bays in the second row. Dropping the car into neutral, he yanked the handbrake on, and climbed out, fetching his camera from the boot before stopping and looking up.

A sharp wind caught his hair and whipped it across his face, causing him to lift the collar of his long coat up to protect his neck. The long loch seemed to have its own permanent wind, which it tunnelled up through the hills that led towards the town until releasing it with enthusiasm directly into the High Street.

The sunlight tickled his skin, causing him to smile at the slight sensation. He adjusted the dark glasses and walked towards the edge of the car park, the partial wall with the railing on top, separating the vehicles from the seaweed covered shoreline twenty feet below.

He took a deep breath, and sucked in the green smell of the barnacle-encrusted shore. His senses swam. It was the wildness of the place that kept him here. The smell of the water; the tug of the wind; the height and fierceness of the mountains that surrounded the town. The people here made their lives in this small, forgotten part of the mainland, but they knew they were there only by nature’s good graces. He’d seen waves so high that they swamped the car park he was standing in, storms so wild they tore the roofs off barns and municipal buildings. Rain so heavy and prolonged that the town was cut off, on one occasion for two days. The people here equalled nature in their ruggedness and veneer of civilisation. You could live here for twenty years and still not be one of them. But they would protect you against outsiders if you were threatened. You might not be a member of their family – but you were an honoured guest, and you were treated with courtesy and grace.

Carver watched as a couple of seagulls allowed themselves to be thrown around in the wind over the water, their mournful cries half-heard in their rising and falling as they dipped to scoop some fragments of food from the surface.

Something red bobbing on the water caught his eye for an instant and then disappeared again as the wave was swallowed up in the next one. Probably something that fell off one of the passenger boats that plied their trade taking tourists up the loch.

There it was again. A cardigan – some clothing. Carver stared with a growing sense of horror. His eyes were sharp – sharper than most birds of prey – and he could make out a hand sticking out of the red sleeve. A woman’s hand, white and limp in the freezing cold water, wafted gently in the current, bobbing and dipping, first there, then gone again.

He pulled his phone from his inside pocket. Still looking at the small red stain on the water, he dialled 999 and reported the sighting of a body in the bay.

Then he quickly walked up the ramp into the town centre and watched as the first of the blue flashing lights appeared at the far end of the street.

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