'These darkly comic tales place the author snugly between Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett. Be sure: Chris Fielden is one funny feller.' Allen Ashley, British Fantasy Award winner.
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Gail's Gladiators

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Gail's Gladiators


Gail's Gladiators was the brain child of Gail Wareham Everett. This flash fiction writing challenge features stories written in 10 sections by a team of 9 different writers.

Gail's Gladiators runs once every 6 to 12 months in the AOFFWC Facebook group. Feel free to join - it's open to everyone.

Sadly, Gail passed away in January 2021. She was a valued member of the admin team and is greatly missed. Gladiators continues in her memory.

Gail Everett

You can learn more about Gail on our member profiles page.

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Gladiator Stories

The stories are presented below in the order they were completed, newest at the top, oldest at the bottom.

To date, we have run Gail's Gladiators three times.

Stories one to ten are from the first series, stories eleven to sixteen are from the second. In these two gladiatorial word battles, each story has nine contributing writers.

Stories seventeen to twenty-three are from the third series, which was run in Gail's memory. Each story is written by just one author. The theme was 'gladiators'.

Stories twenty-four to twenty-nine are from the fourth series. Each story is written by a team of five authors.

Gail's Gladiators Series Five


Story Thirty-Seven: 'To Kill A Slug'

Contributors in alphabetical order:

Amanda Jane Davies, Andrew Ball, Christine Nedahl, Kelly Jeanne, Lesley Anne Truchet, Lynn Zeleski, Maggie Elliot and Paul Mastaglio.

Julie read the label. Not for human consumption. Seek medical attention immediately. Shaking out a few pellets into her hand, she sniffed them. They smelt quite nice really. No wonder slugs were attracted to them.

How many, she thought, would it take to kill a human? Six, sixty, six-hundred? Julie hadn't bought the pellets for the slugs, she had bought them for her husband. He promised to change her life. He had. But not in the way she expected.

Thirty years, she'd put up with his shit. Him pretending to be the doting husband. The only thing he doted on was himself. He spent more time in the bathroom than she did. All he did was stand in front of the mirror, admiring his reflection. At one point, she even caught him trying to remove the mirror from the wall.

When she asked him what he was doing, he replied, "I need the mirror to be portable."

"There are plenty of smaller, handheld mirrors around the house."

"True," he replied, "but I need my reflection to be larger than life."

The last straw came when she woke up in the middle of the night and caught him cooing at himself, like a dove, in the mirror that he had placed between them. She immediately let out a scream of horror, jumped out of bed and started to berate her sad, hapless lump of a husband.

"What the hell do you think you're doing, Simon?"

"Just admiring the view, Julie."

She shook her head and stormed into the bathroom, her breathing suddenly becoming erratic. "Calm down," she told herself. "Relax." She opened the cabinet and stared at the blue bottle in the corner and thought of all the times he had let her down.

I think I've reached the end of my tether. Her thoughts were getting more erratic by the second. My God, he's driving me insane. He's so wrapped up in his own sense of importance he has no flaming idea. I could so easily finish him off. NO! If I do that I'll be behind bars for a long time even with diminished responsibility, even worse if I plead insanity.

Then, a seed of an idea began to form. What if she could disappear and then resurface somewhere far away as a completely different person? She could start a whole new life: new friends, new clothes, maybe even new romances. After all, she still had her looks. She could take up skydiving and learn to play the banjo. At the same time! Her heart began to pound with excitement.

Colin, next door, who was a keen gardener, told her he uses alcohol to kill the slugs who dare to enter his garden. She smiled at the thought of killing her slug of a husband the same way.

Simon would notice if she adulterated his expensive Scotch, so that was out of the question. When he informed her they were invited to a do on his boss's yacht, he said, "I know you won't want to come as you don't like being on water. Shame, there'll be lots of food and booze. I shall eat, drink and be merry."

Then a lightbulb moment occurred.

"Actually, I've been told the way to conquer my fear is to face it, so I will accompany you, if you don't mind," said Julie.

Several days later, Julie gazed at the seals frolicking in the water. Her Simon Slug - she now thought of him as such - looked amazing. She gazed at him, noting his appearance. Rugged handsome face, pony-tailed dark hair, white collared T-shirt contrasting with his dark chest curls, pale blue, bum-hugging trousers and designer sunglasses. In his pristine yachting clothing, Simon looked the exact opposite of a slug. His beautiful image was marred as she imagined him with a slug's head. She giggled.

"What?" asked Simon, looking puzzled.

"Oh, nothing," replied Julie, fingering the blue glass bottle in her pocket.

The ship lurched to one side. A horrible grinding sound came from below. Julie screamed, all thoughts of slug killing forgotten.

She found herself flying through the air as she fell over the railing and into the water. Gasping for air, she broke through the waves, but was being pushed towards the rocks that the boat hit. She could hear yelling and crying, but the waves were crashing hard over her, making it difficult to stay above water.

Looking for something to help her stay afloat, she saw something white floating. Struggling toward it, she hoped it was a lifesaver ring. A wave crashed over her again, rolling her downwards toward the dark. Lungs burning, she saw light and swam toward it. As she broke through the water, she found herself closer to that flotation device. Only that device wasn't a lifesaver, it was Simon calmly floating on his back.

"Really, Julie, must you be so dramatic? Just float." He smiled smugly.

Julie growled, looking at that slug of a person. Glancing around, she saw nearby rocks and no witnesses. Julie began to see other possibilities.

Allowing Simon to help her to the shallows, Julie let him think he was the big hero. As they staggered up the beach to a crowd of onlookers applauding, and his boss being arrested for being drunk in charge of a yacht, she accepted the quarter bottle of scotch that had come in on the tide. She quickly took a big sip then discreetly dropped several small blue pellets in it before handing it to Simon.

Simon gulped it greedily. Then, turning red faced, he grabbed at his throat. Retching, he fell into the sand, choking and gasping for breath. The rescue services did what they could.

His obituary read: Simon, beloved husband to Julie, died tragically when an unknown person spiked a bottle of booze during a raucous yacht party. No arrests have been made as the bottle of scotch was the cheap kind, and not one that would be seen in a yacht of this calibre.


Story Thirty-Six: 'They Can Hear You Scream In Space'

Contributors in alphabetical order:

Alexandra Eve, Chris Nedahl, Christopher Fielden, Julie Dron, Lynn Zeleski, Maggie Elliot, Mandy Garzia and Paul Mastaglio.

"We're approaching the planet Custodes, captain."

Captain Manners nodded diplomatically at First Officer Winsome, although inside he was seething. Two years with this motley crew, boldly going where no man (or woman) had been before. Two years of whining, moaning, bitching and general incompetence. But, he had a job to do, so he kept his feelings to himself - for now.

"Winsome, take the helm. I'm on my way to the transporter. Message Doctor Dante and Gemma George to meet me there."

"Aye, aye, captain. Best of luck." But Manners had already left the bridge.

In the lift, Manners closed his eyes briefly and then focused on the task ahead. When he stepped out, Gemma and the doctor were waiting for him. Nodding towards them, he said, "Let's do this."

None of them said a word as they entered the transporter room, nor did they dare make eye contact. It was only once they had arrived on the planet's surface did the trio regard one another again. Captain Manners held a finger to his lips and disconnected his comms, waiting for his companions to do the same.

"We can blame the lack of comms on atmospheric interference. We have forty-five minutes before they send a search party looking for us. We need to have this wrapped up in thirty. The crew must never know about this."

Using an osteogenic simulator, the doctor made a few adjustments to better disguise their facial features for their task.

"Lasers on stun. Avoid contact. If our Intel's correct, we should be able to get in and out without detection. We've practiced this. Stick to the plan and we'll meet back here in twenty. Now fan out and good luck," barked the captain.

Gemma cautioned the captain and doctor. "Make sure you're in position and wait for my signal. I'm not sure how much time I'll have to keep the surveillance system down." A brief moment of worry crossed her brow as she looked down at her red uniform. She hoped she'd be spared the red shirt curse this day. Briefly, she mourned the pain her family would experience if things went wrong. They'd never know the truth. Her fate would be recorded as either the victim of an accident (for this mission would never be admitted) or, worse, she'd be considered a traitor. Shaking her head and taking a deep breath, she steeled herself as she set out alone and headed for the city.

Their mission was to contaminate the water towers that supplied the hydroponic indoor food station. The inhabitants of Custodes were to be eliminated by infecting their water supply. On two previous assignments, colleagues wearing red uniforms were killed before completing their mission. She uttered a silent prayer she would not succumb to the same fate.

On Earth, a global pandemic forced the rushed approval of vaccines which produced terrible results in people with compromised immune systems. Citizens began to present with dreadful mutations. They were hastily secreted away, and then transported to Custodes.

If the media discovered the truth, they would be outraged. The crew must never uncover the truth either. They were told aliens inhabiting Custodes were a major security threat to life on Earth and must be eliminated. Any search party might uncover some of their relatives that disappeared during the pandemic. Completing this mission was vital.

She reached a central point of the derelict city. She saw no one. It unnerved her but she reminded herself these 'people' hid from the light. Dusk was imminent and that was more concerning.

She raced across a ruined square, her eyes firmly fixed on what looked like a massive obelisk ahead. This planet had been designed brilliantly with the future in mind. Sadly, it had been chosen as a human dumping ground. And they are still human, she thought, despite their tortured minds and often grotesque appearance.

She took a deep breath. No point in being philosophical. This job needed to be done and it was in her hands. She wore her uniform for reasons she believed in. This was her assignment. End their misery, end the threat they posed.

Gemma saw the comms tower and approached, using shadows for cover. She heard shuffling footsteps and hid in a doorway. A mutated woman hobbled past, staring blindly. Gemma moved on. Into the tower. Down concrete stairs. Through a metal door. Into the basement. No signs of life. She followed tubes and cables along a damp corridor until she found the main power supply for the tower. She cut the cable. All the lights went out. "Surveillance is down. Two minutes until the backup generator kicks in."

"Roger that." The captain's reply was breaking up, reception down here was poor. A shrill alarm started blaring. Gemma flicked her torch up and saw shapes staggering towards her down the corridor. She raised her laser and started shooting.

Figures slumped to the ground and yet she did not stop. Until, that is, she froze, stunned to feel something grip and tear into her. A child, no more than six or seven, top to toe in red. How could this be, in this most dank and dangerous of places? Had he just sunk his teeth into her thigh? Was he now pummelling away at her and spitting in her face as he screamed blue murder above the terrifying shrill? What had she done?

Gemma paused as the boy lunged towards her, and then fired at him in self-defence. What was this hellhole? She ran, stumbling, back to the meeting place, her leg bleeding. Captain Manners and the doctor were waiting, but when the captain saw her injury he stood back and drew his gun. "You may be infected, you can't return to the ship. Company rules I'm afraid." Gemma stared, in shock and disbelief into his cold, dead eyes.

"Company rules? I never read that!"

The captain stared back. "This mission is financed by Bennixon, the major pharmaceutical company. They carried out an experiment on the world population, now they need to cover their tracks."

"But... but why are you involved?" Gemma was beginning to feel faint.

"Money of course," said the captain, "Everyone has a price. Goodbye, Gemma." The captain lifted his gun and pointed it at her head.

Gemma closed her eyes and heard a loud bang but, surprisingly, no pain. Then she realised she was still alive and opened her eyes to see Captain Manners lying on the floor, dead, with the doctor standing over him.

The doctor smiled sadly at Gemma and explained. "I belong to PADC, People Against Drug Companies. I've videoed the whole thing. Now we have proof. We need to find a way to help the people on Custodes, not destroy them."

Gemma fainted, and was carried into the ship for the voyage home. The battle was only just beginning.


Story Thirty-Five: 'The Visitor at the Window'

Contributors in alphabetical order:

Anita Bowden, Cathy Cade, Chris Green, Corrine Murphy, Josephine Anderson, Majella Pinto, Michael Rumsey and Sangeetha Kamath Prabhu.

The lady was sitting by the open window making a list of names for the child she was expecting when a soothsayer knocked on the window and asked her for a cup of tea with goat's milk. She added that she preferred jaggery instead of sugar.

"Jaggery, madame? Why, it's not easily available in this town and I've none in stock. Shall I add another sweetener? Honey, perhaps."

"NO! Jaggery it is and I shall have no tea without it. Go right now or else..."

"Madame. Mercy, please..."

"I don't think you quite comprehend the consequences of refusal, my dear." The soothsayers' eyes flashed red as she leaned closer to the open window. "Jaggery it will be. You have one hour."

"Of course, madame." The lady café owner laid a protective hand on her bump and headed for the exit. "Jaggery, in this town? She must be taking the mick. Well, you can't always get what you want," she muttered to herself. "I have no sympathy for the devil. She'll get no satisfaction from me." But, she had only one hour to come up with a plan.

Rushing outside, she collided with Mr Boffneck, the hairdresser's clerk, and fairly knocked the wind out of his podgy body.

"Where's the fire?" he gasped, when he had recovered his breath.

"Sorry, Mr B," she said, "but I need some jaggery and I don't have much time."

Boffneck licked one of his lips. He had an idea.

"We often use substitutes in hair colouring," he said. "Jaggery in block form is brown, like my wife's demerara sugar. I'll get you some. Jaggery tastes a bit sweet and wine-like, so all you have to do is drop a couple of vine leaves in a cup, add hot water and let it simmer for a second or two. Remove the leaves and put a little sugar in once you've made the tea. She'll never know."

Yes, she thought, worth a try, isn't it?

The wizened crone spat the mouthful of hot tea across the room. "Bah! What made you foolish mortals think you could fool me with this concoction? Have you ever tried jaggery?"

The young mother-in-waiting burst into tears. "I, um," she sobbed.

"That answers my question. You have no taste, but worse, you take me for a fool." The soothsayer took another dainty sip. "Although this disgusting mess of yours is not a so terrible a substitute, but…"

"Oh, blessed madame, please give me a reason to hope," the younger woman wailed in supplication.

"You'll get no mercy from me," said the crone, "but I'll put up with this juice in my tea if you get me some laddoo. That's made with jaggery too."

"Lasso?" The expectant mother replied.

"No, you silly. Lassos are for catching cows, not for eating. Laddoos are little boondis that you eat and are made with jaggery and other stuff. Go and get me some now. I'll not wait much longer."

The expectant mother dashed out to the corner shop where Mrs Devi's daughter was behind the counter, busy texting on her mobile phone. "Is your mum around? I need her advice." But apparently the girl's parents were at the wholesalers. "I need something called laddoo. Do you sell it?"

"There isn't much call for it here. My mum makes her own from a recipe she found online… Are you alright there?"

The expectant mother was clutching her stomach with pain in her eyes. The spasm passed and she asked, "Does Mrs Devi use jaggery for her laddoo?"

"Oh no," said the girl. "You can't buy it around here. You can get it on Amazon, though."

"I don't have time for Amazon," gasped the woman as her stomach contracted again.

"Sometimes, they do next-day delivery," said the girl, returning to her mobile phone.

"The tea you served was weak," the soothsayer exclaimed. "You sold your goats, you say. How can you not even have jaggery in your kitchen? I am at the end of my life and have no place to go."

I lowered my eyes in shame as the soothsayer stood up, readying to take her leave. I wondered how I could make amends and then I remembered the money I was saving up for the baby. I took her hand, opened her palm and placed my savings into it.

"This will see you until you reach the next village. Once you reach the village, stop by my mother's house there, she will provide you with tea laced with goat milk and jaggery," I told her.

Upon hearing this, the soothsayer's eyes misted, and she granted me a boon.

"Your daughter in your womb will make sweet memories for your old age. She will be beautiful, educated and own a goat farm."


Story Thirty-Four: 'The Noble Renegade'

Contributors in alphabetical order:

Bob Tateson, Cathy Cade, Kate Dunbar, Lesley Anne Truchet, Maggie Elliot, Mandy Garzia, Mary Fox and Michael Rumsey.

Following the battle of Glen Canisp, the defeated Earl of Tain fled over the mountains disguised as a shepherd. After three days, he knocked on the oaken doors of Ardmore Castle, stronghold of The MacLeod of Moidart.

"I beg shelter for the night."

Lady MacLeod looked down from her battlements.

"My husband has ridden to Inverness today."

The 'shepherd' stood aghast. Had he walked into the lion's den? The fact the laird felt it safe to leave his castle unguarded suggested only one thing. He was part of the uprising. Led by Charles Stuart, an army reputed to be ten-thousand strong had already stormed and overwhelmed castles including Glen Canisp. On behalf of the House of Hanover this had to stop and he, Earl of Tain, should do something about it. But what?

Looking searchingly into Lady MacLeod's deep violet eyes with their gleaming little stars and spellbinding pools of light, he couldn't help but ask himself if she could possibly be loyal to her ill-tempered, slovenly husband with his strange hair-cut and his poor grooming habits. Was there some possibility he could use his own dashing good looks and his reputation for tranquillity to lure her into hiding him for just the night? Or would she, like every other treacherous, vain, shallow, misguided, poorly raised rich kid he'd ever known, stay faithful to the man who had captured the earl's castle unfairly? How many times had some woman told him, "Life's not fair," and betrayed him. Dare he take a chance?

Her eyes invited him to try (or so he thought). Even from such a distance, they drew him to drown in those pools of light. Holding her gaze, he bowed deeply as a courtier (although the twist to his neck was painful) and declaimed in the proud tones of a warrior, "Then, madam, allow me to defend your household in the absence of the laird," forgetting completely that he was disguised as a shepherd.

"Do my eyes deceive me? Or do my ears? For in my presence a shepherd I behold. And yet, how like a noble soldier you do speak. You are, though wan and weary, most gracious. Like a chivalrous knight of old, offering your protection. While my husband thought nothing of forsaking me lest, perchance, his support or loyalty be in doubt with victory in their grasp. But truly, forsooth, war is fickle, is it not?"

"Indeed, my lady," he said with a nod of his head.

"Pray, allow me to offer you nourishment lest you perish from hunger," she said, inviting him in with a sweep of her arm. She was acutely aware his manner belied his clothing, but he did not appear to be a threat. She clapped her hands and ordered nourishment for her guest. Whilst he partook of vast quantities of food, she eyed him carefully. There was something familiar about him, but she could not determine what.

Later, Lady MacLeod called for the table to be cleared, and then excused herself.

The servant who cleared the table whispered, "She knows who you are, sir," into his ear.

When Lady MacLeod returned, the servant asked if she should replenish the libation jugs, even though the earl knew they were not empty. She filled Lady MacLeod's chalice, then the earl's tankard and whispered to him, "Don't drink it. Word has been sent of your presence."

It appeared he had an ally. He wondered if she would help him escape the castle and Lady MacLeod.

"Meet me later please," he whispered.

After the briefest of nods the servant left the room. He wanted to make sure that Lady MacLeod thought he had imbibed the noxious brew she had served him. To that end, he pretended to sip it. After about three minutes he stood up, then swayed, clutching his head.

"Are you unwell?" Lady MacLeod asked him in a pseudo-sympathetic tone.

"I feel a little nauseous. I think I should rest for a while," he replied

Staggering, he left the room. Ascertaining the great hall was empty, he made his way down the back stairs to the kitchen. The serving girl was hovering in the hallway. Seeing him she grabbed his arm and guided him to another stairway, going down even further.

They arrived at the bottom where there was an ancient looking door. "It's a smugglers tunnel leading to Ardmore Harbour. Ask for Hamish, my brother, he'll aid you. The Laird and Lady are not well thought of around here."

"I don't even know your name."

"It is Peggy, sir." She blushed as he kissed her cheek.

"Thank you, sweet Peggy, for everything. Lock the door when I'm in the tunnel. I will return when it's safe, I want to see you again."

Arriving at the quayside, night had fallen and the harbour was deserted. The Earl of Tain decided to leave Peggy's brother to his slumbers and stepped into a small rowing boat. Rowing across the water would be a quicker route to the city and safer than travelling by road. Charles Stewart's soldiers would show no mercy if they caught him. He would be safe in Glasgow, though which of his friends could he trust to shelter him?

Aware that he was in danger, his vigilance was diminished by visions of the buxom Peggy. She was a lovely lass and the vision of her plump breasts swelling out of her bodice was driving him crazy with desire. He put thoughts of her aside as the city loomed near.

He changed course, looking to land in a quiet cove he knew, not far from the city limits.

A short while later, he landed on the beach, tied up the boat and set off walking through some woods towards the city. The winter moonlight penetrated the bare branches, illuminating his route. He had only gone a mile or so when he heard voices. He crept forwards and stopped, his eyes widening with surprise. The haircut was unmistakable. Lord MacLeod of Moidart and some wench. Drawing a dagger from his clothing, he edged towards his quarry. He grinned at the idea of interrupting the naked rutting lord. He wanted answers.

The Earl of Tain stepped into the clearing, dagger raised. "So y're a wumminising bawbag forby a Jacobite traitor!"

Macleod might have been undressed but he wasn't unarmed. He snatched up a loaded pistol lying in the heather, close to his abominable haircut.

"For all yer shepherds' dugs, I ken ye for who ye are. Say your last prayers, Earl of Tain." He cocked the pistol but before he could fire, a figure in a dark cloak rushed from the shrubs and plunged a vicious kitchen knife into his back.

The saviour was Peggy, the scullery maid from Ardmore Castle. She had been bullied and harassed since childhood by the lecherous laird.

"Thank you, Peggy. But we are both renegades now. We must flee Scotland. Will ye gang wi' me?"

"Ay, that I will and gladly. They say that in the Americas there's nae lairds nor servants but all men and women are ranked equal."

"Then. Let's awa to Glasgow and catch a boat to America."


Story Thirty-Three: 'Searching High and Low'

Contributors in alphabetical order:

Andrew Ball, Chris Green, Christine Nedahl, Klaus Gehling, Lynn Gale, Maggie Elliot, Paul Mastaglio and Shanne Wolberg.

The new neighbour in our apartment building resembled a fortune teller. The residents of the house rarely saw the young woman. I met her now and then at the mailboxes. Her watchful eyes held me steadfastly. She was of a gentle nature, but also seemed very resolute.

The cryptic flatmate always held the newspaper in her hand and studied only the obituaries. Her face showed no curiosity or participation. Rather, I observed her concentration while she was reading. What was she looking for?

Eventually, my curiosity got the better of me and I asked her outright. She stared as if seeing me for the very first time. Finally, she replied, "Have you ever wanted something? Wanted it so badly you could taste it? So badly that every passing day without it felt like purgatory?"

I tried a bright smile. "Not quite that much, but I guess I've wanted some things pretty badly."

She gave an enigmatic smile in return.

She's beautiful, was all I could think. One day...

She shrugged and disappeared into the lift without a backward glance.

I decided there and then that I was going to learn more about her and hopefully get to know her.

Each time I saw her, my desire to get to know her increased, but she didn't reciprocate. And yes, it was purgatory. I'd been told that if you sent a request to the universe it would grant your desire. I wanted to get to know her so badly, I did. I began to see signs my request would be granted. I started to see her in my dreams. I began to think of her and she would appear, but still she never noticed me.

When I told the universe what I wanted I knew I must be patient and let it process my order.

But I'm human, and humans are impatient. How much longer must I wait before nudging things along?

The more I thought about this exquisite creature, the more I imagined her arms around me, nuzzling my neck. I could almost smell her sweet, intoxicating perfume engulfing me. What was wrong with me? Why was I so besotted? I had to tell her that I adored her.

My chance came when I cornered her at the mailboxes. Her newspaper was, once again, opened on recent deaths.

"I love you." I blurted out, surprised at how easily it burst from my mouth. "I will do anything for you."

She looked me up and down, her face emotionless. "I believe you would." She smiled. "Come with me."

We entered her flat. She turned and smiled with emerald green eyes and, with one black fingernail on my chest, I was enslaved.

She spoke softly. "Sit down."

I backed into a soft leather chair and fell clumsily onto the seat. She slowly walked round me, stroking my brown hair as she did so. "What's your name?"

"S-Stephen," I stammered.

"Well, Stephen, I've been searching high and low for someone like you. You would do anything for me?"


She glanced at her newspaper again. She lowered herself to my ear and whispered, "He's not there. It didn't work. Would you kill for me, Stephen? Would you?"

I could hardly believe she had spoken to me. Had I imagined it?

She turned to walk away and then stopped and glanced over her shoulder. She held out a finger and beckoned for me to follow her. We took the lift to the top floor and once there I trailed behind as she led me through a maze of corridors and finally to a staircase I didn't know existed. Walking up three flights of stairs, I searched my mind for what to say to her next. As I was about to speak she approached a door, unlocked it and walked through it.

I entered the room and caught my breath. The walls were papered with hundreds of cuttings of obituaries.

"Oh, I love the wallpaper. Very bereavement chic. I could go for something like this myself. Who's your decorator?"

"Larry Snuffbox. He's quite cheap. I'll give you his details later. Fancy a drink?"

"Go on then. Have you got a liquorice milkshake?"

"Coming right up."

She disappeared into a foggy alcove and I grabbed the opportunity to take my shoes and socks off.

When she came back, she wrinkled her nose and handed me my drink.

"No straw?" I asked, feeling rather let down.

"How old are you? Five? Just tip it into your gob," she snarled.

After a few decisive slurps, I decided it was time to get down to business. "So, who do you want killed?"

She knelt down in front of me and dropped a walnut into my lap. "We need to go somewhere. Can I trust you, little Stephen?"

"You can certainly trust me with a walnut," I said firmly.

"When I tell you the name, please don't scream."

I loosened my Bugs Bunny tie. "I'm all ears. Where do you want to go?" I asked in a puzzled voice.

"Into the forest," she replied curtly.

We drove off in silence. A gloomy mood arose that I did not know how to handle. Something got out of hand. Nuzzling my neck? Her arms around me? Tender pictures vanished into thin air.

After an hour, my exquisite creature turned her vehicle into a beech forest. Beeches are very typical for this area. The familiarity of the trees reassured me. We walked towards trees decorated with colourful ribbons. She stopped in front of a giant tree and pointed to the ground in front of the trunk. It was decorated with rose bushes. I saw a name plate nailed to the trunk.

"You have surely noticed that this is a memorial forest. Here lies my failure, my daily purgatory," she stated in a low but clear voice. "I'm a paramedic. I mixed up a vial while treating a traffic accident victim," she continued. "The casualty died. I wish it had never happened."

I heard the chirping of the birds. A light wind moved the leaves. I couldn't get a word out. From king to beggar in one hour, I pondered. What a fool I am. I thought.

"I assumed," she said, "because you have been so friendly and have shown interest, that I could tell you. You're the first person I've told. Since then, every morning, I study the obituaries to make sure no more of my patients have died. It's a compulsion."

We walked back slowly and in silence. The spicy air and the comfortable pacing calmed me. I had an idea.

"I would also like to invite you on an excursion," I said. "Shall we say in a fortnight?"

She nodded and gave me an enigmatic smile again.

I fetched her at the given time.

"We've been invited to the coffee shop," I rejoiced.

"By whom," she asked expectantly.

"Well, I don't want to spill the beans."

When we arrived, a door opened. A man stood in the doorway.

"Do you know him?" I asked my neighbour.

She stared at the man.

"I should have invited you much earlier," he said, "to thank you for saving me. It is thanks to you that I am still alive."

I'd been searching high and low to find a former accident patient of hers. Weeks after the invitation to the cafe, my mesmerised and somehow ripped neighbour moved away. I think she had been planning this move for a long time but did not yet have the strength to carry it out. I guess it was the right decision to start in a new district with new streets and different colleagues.

My dismay dissolved over time. It had turned out to be easier than I'd thought to find this man. Facebook is full of heart-breaking stories about accidents.

Apart from this, one question still remained unanswered. Is failure inevitable, in this particular job?

The way I see it, the scales of life always tilt towards the good, towards the positive, towards life.


Story Thirty-Two: 'Cry of the Missing'

Contributors in alphabetical order:

Alexandra Eve, Anita Bowden, Christopher Fielden, Isabel Flynn, John Notley, Kate Dunbar, Tony Thatcher and Vladimir Andreev.

A long silver chain hung around the caretaker, Zigor's neck. Two keys were attached. A sizeable black one that opened the front door and a small silver one for the tea chest, wherein lay the big bunch of keys. Twenty-four doors in the castle were padlocked. Outside, the clouds scuttled across the darkening sky, when a scream echoed through the passages…

Twenty-four doors, twenty-four hours. By this time tomorrow, all the Missing would have been purified and the ritual complete for another year. Zigor selected key number two and lumbered through the labyrinth towards the east chamber. He loved his work. Before his own purification, he was of little consequence. Since being selected, he was proving to be a major force in achieving 'The Disposal.' He twisted his face into a contorted smile and awaited the chime of the second hour. He waited outside the door, his hands resting on the wood as his body quivered with excitement. He could almost feel the passage of time as the hour crept closer. The second chime had barely begun by the time he had the key ready in the lock. He took a steadying breath before twisting the key.

It didn't turn. Panic gripped him before his brain re-engaged. Had he simply taken the wrong key? He checked. This was definitely key number two. He tried it again. Still it wouldn't move. He howled in frustration. He had to get in that room.

As he struggled to comprehend what was happening, it occurred to him to check another lock and key. Onwards to door three. As before, the key did not unlock the door. Frantic by now, Zigor shuffled along the dark and dank corridor to door four. He was incredulous to discover the door of room four remained locked against him.

Some very powerful magic was evidently being used. That was not in his remit. Locking and unlocking doors was his raison d'être. Anything else should be handled by the hierarchy. Time was fast ticking away. Something had to be done. When all else failed, only in dire emergencies, one could call on Numero Uno, the witch who put the W in wicked. Feeling he had no choice and no other ideas, he dialled the number of a person who was considered to be a huge legend. This may well be the most dangerous thing he had ever done, but he was between a rock and a locked door.

"I know why you are trying to contact me." The legend's words bypassed mortal cables and formed in his mind. "But I cannot help you. This break in the purification programme is part of a struggle far beyond our comprehension. But know this," the thoughts continued. "Balance will be restored by one whose gift is to listen."

"But how?" he screamed, throwing the keys to the floor. Sinking to his knees, he heard them ringing discordantly like a pile of mismatched tuning forks.

Then he heard a distinct scratching behind door two. It sounded like a code or a tune. Next moment, the scratching started behind more doors until it united in one melodic tune. That's the moment it clicked in his purified mind. He remembered that each occupant of the twenty-four rooms had been incarcerated against their will for many, many months while they awaited their turn for purification. Removed from their families, not permitted to have visitors, they were now at the end of their tether. They had collectively (through thought transference) decided to tell their leaders that they were all itching to get out. The combined scratching, amplified by the cold, dank walls, was music to Zigor's ears. At last, the time had come for him to be something more than a door opener. He would be remembered as the caretaker that listened. The scratching stopped. Zigor moved back to the first door and inserted the key. It turned in the lock.

The door opened. Inside, he saw a young girl of around ten or eleven. Her face was dirty, her hair matted, her clothes tattered. She was standing before him, staring at him with hopeful eyes. Zigor shut the door and sat down. "Speak, child," he said. "I will do something I should have done long ago. I will listen."

"Thank you, dear sir," the little one answered. "We are weary of our isolation. We need each other to be re-joined as a tribe. You are the only one who can save us."

She placed her tiny hand in his, and Zigor felt his body shudder. He closed his eyes as the shaking continued. Slowly, calmness radiated through him, bringing illumination and re-balance. A beatific golden light filled the dark room, bathing them in peace. This mystical process continued as Zigor moved along the passage with his keys, opening all the doors. He dropped to his knees and prayed to the legend for opening his eyes, ears, and heart.

A voice filled his mind. "You may return all the keys and the silver chain to the tea chest. They are superfluous now. Well done, Zigor, you have solved the puzzle beyond purification."


Story Thirty-One: 'Alice and Her Seven Vertically Challenged Friends'

Contributors in alphabetical order:

Claudia Nicholson, Elizabeth Coby, Glo Curl, Kate Dunbar, Lesley Anne Truchet, Mary Fox, Michael Rumsey and Tony Thatcher.

Once upon a time, I lived a happy life, the apple of my father's eye. Then, one day, everything changed. My name is Alice, and this is my story.

I sat alone in my loft apartment, at the kitchen counter, staring in relief at the tuna splodge I had just almost choked to death on, when something caught my eye in the copy of The Daily Telegraph.

New pop band causes a sensation at the O2. Last night's opening concert given by the recently formed band called Pan's Little People was a great success. Its seven members, all equally gifted with their particular instrument, brought the house down, literally. Halfway through the concert, as their drummer, Dopey, was finishing with a resounding crescendo, a part of the ceiling collapsed causing lumps of plaster and other debris to fall on those underneath. Fortunately, nobody was seriously injured. Their leader, Doc, apologised to the audience, saying, "I told the boys beforehand that our show would go off with a bang. And I was right. It's a pity that Alice couldn't be here."

You might be thinking, gentle reader, that a mishap so far removed from me and happening just after my own moment of mortal peril, would hardly cause a significant change in the course of my lonely, tin-food filled life. Here you would be wrong. Just ask yourself for a moment, what do tuna fish and lumps of plaster have in common? (Other than the too-obvious links between being both glutinous and both being the direct cause of the decline of civilization.)

The answer, of course, is nothing. But seeing my name linked, by Doc, to the band, made me long for an adventure. A leap into the unknown, one last tilt at the windmill, and any other cliché you can think of. Within minutes, after a little web surfing, an email was on its way to Pan's Little People. Trying to appear mysterious, wind-swept, and interesting, my four-word missive was: 'I am an Alice.' On reflection, maybe a little too cryptic? All I could do was hope my email would vanish forever into a spam folder.

I was super relieved when Doc pinged back in seconds. 'Hi,' he wrote, 'we've had a few incidents at our shows lately. We think someone is out for revenge after we helped out a lady we found asleep a few years ago. I'll explain more when we meet, but a mirror has advised us that only Alice can help with our security. Could it be you?'

I responded toute suite. 'I think I may be. I have a recurring dream about being woken up. In my dream I have aged several years and I wake up to find myself being kissed by a very handsome dwarf prince, his breath smelling of tuna fish. As you are a band of not-so-tall guys and I love tuna, I think we should definitely meet. I feel that we are destined to be together for some reason. Love Alice.'

Hmm, would Doc think it sounded a bit fishy, or would he give me a chance to break out of my canned life and enjoy some adventure? I began looking at self-defence, judo, and karate lessons on YouTube, so that I could impress him with some 'moves' when and if he set a meeting.

Ping! Doc asked me to meet them at their hotel the next day. I spent the night practicing my non-existent skills and googling information about security measures specifically geared to little people who wear large floppy hats. I quickly realised I would have my work cut out if Doc decided to take me on. Undaunted, the next morning I slipped into my leather catsuit, which had been hanging in the wardrobe since my failed Avengers audition, demolished a mug of decaf in one gulp and shimmied down the stairs to hail a taxi. I arrived at the hotel ready to meet my future.

All my positive energy evaporated as soon as I entered the room where I'd arranged to meet Doc. It was empty except for an enormous freestanding gilded mirror. I saw my reflection and was completely regretting the catsuit when a flash of red caught my eye. Doc's floppy hat lay on the floor next to the mirror. Before I had time to think, the mirror started vibrating, igniting my instincts and YouTube karate training. I stepped slowly backwards, took a breath, ran towards the mirror and once in reach, kicked it with full force. All went black.

When I opened my eyes again, I registered seven sweet smiling faces hovering above me.

"Tuna, what happened?" I croaked, confused.

"That's a long story," Doc said. Then, looking at the others, continued, "For now, let us say, Alice, you're hired!"

Pan's Little People sang in unison.

Let the adventure begin, I thought as I passed out again.


Story Thirty: 'A Long Way Down'

Contributors in alphabetical order:

Cathy Cade, Glo Curl, John Notley, Kay Reeves, Kelly Jeanne, Mandy Garzia and Val Fish.

Life in a tower block can be strangely lonely. Weeks can pass without seeing or speaking to even your closest neighbours. In this situation, the lift (or elevator, if that is your preferred term) becomes a social meeting point. Greetings are exchanged in varying languages and enquiries about health, if the shared ride is long enough. Under certain circumstances the ride can be very long indeed.

In my case, too long. I had just entered when a man, a stranger to me, pushed in behind me. Within seconds, he started to make lewd suggestions and moved closer to me. I glanced up at the name above the door. "OTIS" lifts. I plucked up courage and said to him, "My name is Jane Otis. If you have any sense you will know that I carry a gun under my dress and will have no regrets if I have to kill you."

He drew back. "I'm sorry, miss, I know exactly what you mean."

"I don't think you do. I suggest you get your act together or I'm gonna have to plug ya!"

At that point, he backed up with his hands in the air. "Hey! Listen, lady, I ain't done nothin', ya hear."

"Who you callin' lady?" I took my hat off.

Now the man had a better look at my face. He could probably see I had a 5:00pm shadow and it wasn't even 2:00pm in the afternoon.

At this point I imagined my gun was the least of his worries. Being an American, he was having a hard time wrapping his mind around what he was seeing. For all he knew, this was a normal occurrence in the UK. All he could do was stand there and stare at me, completely betwattled.

"Don't get your knickers in a twist," I said, with a deep laugh, sounding like I'd been smoking cigars since I was five years old.

As soon as the doors to the lift opened, the man with the twisted knickers made a mad dash for the stairs.

I pushed the button to close the lift doors and resume my descent, replacing my hat with the help of the reflecting, metal lift wall. Only one floor remained, and I knew that I would reach the ground floor before him.

As expected, I emerged from the lift just as the offending waste of space appeared on the bottom stair. My mind was racing. Who did he think he was? How many female residents in the block had fallen victim to his perverse behaviour? I'd overslept and was hellishly late for my interview at the transvestite club, but realised this needed sorting, and sorting fast.

"Hold it right there," I said, as he made a beeline for the main door.

He stopped, red in the face, panting so profusely I wouldn't have batted an eye had he collapsed on the hallway floor. But he was my best bet. He had a car key.

"Where are you parked?"

He looked at me, open-mouthed. But he dared not protest. "Just across the road."

Perfect. I'd kill two birds with one stone. "Would you mind giving me a lift?"

He hesitated, obviously wondering if this was a good idea. "Sure, where do you need to be?"

I was reluctant to divulge my destination; I just gave him the name of the street.

We got in the car, and I heard the click of the door locks as he put the address in the sat-nav.

Suddenly, it was me wondering if this was a good idea, sharing a ride with a complete stranger, who had just propositioned me in a lift. What was I thinking? But it was too late.

"Hey, this isn't the way to the… the..."

"Never mind where you wanted to go, lady." He smirked, emphasising 'lady' sarcastically. "I've got somewhere much more fun in mind…"

I fumbled for the gun I kept tucked into my garter, trying to look as if I was adjusting my underwear. Feeling the cold steel gave me a sense of power.

"So what's your idea of a fun evening, handsome?"

"How would you like to come back to my workshop and take a look at my tools?" he growled throatily.

I fluttered my false eye lashes and smiled winningly.

"I have a few tools of my own," I said, edging up the hem of my skirt and crossing my legs revealing more than he had bargained for.

His eyes were drawn to the unexpected treats as my hand was drawn to the gun.

Whipping it out, I pressed it into his ribs and fired. Now that was my idea of a fun ending to a ride in a lift.


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Gail's Gladiators Series Four


Story Twenty-Nine: 'Beyond Hazard'

Team details: Tony's Toppers, captained by Tony Thatcher.

Contributors in alphabetical order:

Chris Fielden, Johanna McDonald, Lynn Gale, Malcolm Richardson and Tony Thatcher.

Hiss, clunk.

Rechecking his five point harness, the captain scanned the bank of monitors and confirmed the hatches were locked.

"Clear to go," the synthesised voice asserted in his headphones.

"Right," the captain said, "let's go rescue the rescuers."

Mike, the co-pilot, nodded but did not speak as Captain Graham pushed forward. A fizz of anticipation hung in the air. Despite his many years of experience and his vast level of training, the captain had a feeling of dread about this mission.

The throttle and the craft burst into a roar of engine noise. Mike and Graham were pushed back into their seats with the sudden force of acceleration, faces solemn. The trip wasn't going to be straight forward. The captain skilfully navigated his craft over the mountainous landscape, avoiding the sudden eruptions of gas-fuelled flames from below.

"What a desolate place," Mike said. "Do you think we'll find anyone alive?"

"Avarica wants us to find out what happened." The captain spoke into his headset. "Control, visual on basecamp, beginning descent now."

"Concerned about their equipment." Mike scoffed, "Not the missing scientists or the rescue team… My God! What is that?"

Basecamp was frozen, everything covered in ice. In the middle of the camp, crystals swirled in a dazzling pillar of light.

"Impossible," said Mike. "The temperature on the surface is far too hot for ice to form. It doesn’t make any sense."

Captain Graham landed the ship on a rocky outcrop. Looking down at the camp, he saw something crawling towards them. "Suit up," he said, "and ready your weapons."

"Nobody reported that," said Mike as his eyes swivelled in their sockets. Lumbering up the steep slope, a gigantic thirteen-legged spider breathed fire from its nostrils melting ice in its path. It had three elliptical eyes, one in the centre of its head and two on antennae either side of its bulbous body. Captain Graham struggled into his thermal space suit and grabbed his high-speed laser weapon.

"Come on, Mike. Focus," ordered Captain Graham, exiting the airlock, phaser readied.

Mike stared at the creature. Something was not right. He flicked a switch, sending out a powerful blast of burning fuel. The spider reared backwards, sliding down the slope in a screeching, scraping tangle of legs and black smoke.

The Captain watched amazed as an opening appeared in the belly of the beast. A silver-clad hand reached out.

They watched in horror as an ice-encrusted warrior emerged from the spider’s abdomen. She removed her helmet, revealing unnaturally white skin. Ice-blue eyes. A familiar face.

"That’s Dr Ryan," said Mike. "The leader of the original expedition."

"Hold your fire," shouted the captain. "Wait for my command."

He stepped forward. "Jessica? What happened to you?"

"That is no longer my name." Her voice came from everywhere, like the sound of a storm. "I am Isabella, invincible ice-warrior of Iscavia. I bring death and destruction to all in my path. Don't come any closer."

Mike glanced at the captain. "Shall I blow her away, sir?"

Isabella let out a shrill and chilling laugh. "You can fire your pathetic weapon at me, but you will not 'blow me away'. I am invincible." She held her arms out. "Go on, give it a try."

Captain Graham shook his head and repeated his command to hold fire. He looked deep into the eyes of the ice maiden. He could see the brilliant scientist Jessica Ryan was no longer a part of this being. Pure evil had penetrated her soul and he wondered what had become of her.

"I will tell you and then I will kill you." Could she read his mind?

"Wait a minute Jess... er, Isabella. Where’s the rest of the team?"

"As you say, Captain, they were blown away. Imbeciles all of them, every man, woman and android."

"Steady, Mike, she means it."

Isabella advanced towards them. "Do as I say or you’ll join them. First, take off those stupid space suits. You won’t need them where we’re going. And drop those weapons, otherwise I’ll atomise you into ice sculptures."

Stripping to their Avarica uniforms, they followed Dr Ryan's icy incarnation into a shelter woven from crystalline threads.

"Why did you not obey my command to stay away until I summoned you?" she raged.

Captain Graham and Mike stared at the frosty scorched earth.

Lowering her voice, she continued, "In return for the Iscavia coming here to harvest the heat from our planet I have agreed to join them. Once the extraction is complete we will leave. Only then can you return to Earth."


Story Twenty-Eight: 'Cliffhanger'

Team details: Andrew's Aces, captained by Andrew Ball.

Contributors in alphabetical order:

Amanda Jane Davies, Andrew Ball, Lynn Zeleski, Pat Mudge and Paul Mastaglio.

It all happened many years ago and memories grow dim, but before they fade altogether, I must set down a true account of the events of that fateful day.

We had set out at first light, our boots crunching on the deep snow. There were five of us in the group and I was supposed to be the leader, but without the others, things would have turned out very differently.

A winter hike was always going to be challenging, but we believed the rewards would be worth it. Never mind the awe inspiring scenery that we would encounter, there was also the satisfaction of the individual group members overcoming personal obstacles that had blighted their lives. For me, Ross Chambers, it was the crippling fear of heights that had ruined previous walking expeditions. I was determined to finally overcome it.

Including myself, our group consisted of two men and three women. Jan McEwen was a no-nonsense Scot who didn't suffer procrastination. Helen Myers was quieter and was our map reader. The third woman was probably the fittest of our group, Esther Brown, whose stamina had to be seen to be believed. Lastly, my male companion was Simon Jones. I never did trust him. You're probably wondering where we were going.

Jan, a friend, and an experienced hiker herself, knew my past failures were playing on my mind. She suggested overcoming such a deep-rooted phobia required a challenge needing both physical and mental strength to succeed. She invited me to lead an expedition to the summit of Ben Nevis because it’s the highest mountain in the British Isles. But in hindsight, none of us should’ve ventured onto the mountain that day.

As the leader, I could’ve cancelled at the first sign of snow, but we were young, and Simon insisted that if we stuck to the Pony Track, the risk of venturing anywhere near the North Face was negligible. So, we set off, nervous but excited about the day ahead. Two hours later, snow had completely buried the path, making it almost impossible to distinguish between the ground and the sky.

Simon insisted he would be the leader, not me.

He and Jan set off walking far too quickly. I urged them to set a slower pace. Helen, Esther and I soon fell behind. At a rocky outcrop stopping for refreshments, we lost the other two. Helen had the map and, looking at some footprints, we realised they had gone the wrong way. Nowadays, I’d call Mountain Rescue, but not back then.

We headed the opposite way, seeking the map’s Pony Path. Stacking our last water bottle on a cairn marking our presence, we realised that our Scottish mineral water had been malt whiskey. At least it kept us warm and optimistic. Voices drifted above us. Shivering, we stumbled forward as we prayed to the goddess Brigit for a bit of earthly heat. Little did we know how she’d answer our prayers.

After an hour climbing, on a ridge just ahead, Simon and Jan were arguing heatedly. "I told you Helen had the map," shouted Jan.

"She can’t read mountains. Said so herself," slurred Simon.

I was beginning to have a bad feeling that wasn’t just vertigo. Esther’d met experienced climbers and gone off with them, now this.

My world spun. Simon was near the edge as I crashed into him. We…

…heard Jan scream as we tumbled over the icy path onto sharp shale which painfully slowed our descent. Simon, panicky, fought and clung to me. I felt the rock’s warmth under my scraped hands. Abruptly, my body jammed into a crevice, large enough to gain us stability.

"Ross, did you know I earned a rock climbing badge in Scouting?" asked Simon. "Here’s what we need to do."

I looked him straight in the eye for the last time. "No, Simon," I said as I planted my hiking boots on his chest. His calmness turned to panic.

"Save me!" he begged.

I closed my eyes, kicked, and vomited.

Monday found me in my boss's Whitehall office.

"Good work, Chambers. Now forget it for fifty years."

Only those of us in the Service realised there was a sixth man.


Story Twenty-Seven: 'Like Clockwork'

Team details: Cathy's Celebrities, captained by Cathy Cade.

Contributors in alphabetical order:

Cathy Cade, Isabel Flynn, Kay Reeves, Majella Pinto and Val Fish.

Mother died at my birth. Great Grandmother saw to my survival and seemed set to live forever herself, until a drunk driver intervened.

In her attic I’ve found a box. A cable stops it opening properly. I can see a second hand circling a clock but can’t read the engraving. I cut the cable.

The second hand stills. The engraved words are my name and birth date. What have I done?

My heart chills. The clock slips out onto the old carpet. I grasp it and blow the dust off the face. A ticking recommences, and the second hand moves. Whew. I breathe out a long sigh.

But the questions dance loudly in my head. When? Who? Why my name? How come I was never told about it?

Who could I ask? Everyone is gone now. I was told my father walked away when I was a few days old, fraught with grief and unable to cope.

I suddenly feel a cold chill on the back of my neck, as if something is breathing over me. And then I hear a whisper. Frightened to look behind me, I know I have to. To see who or what is there…

Slowly, I turn. My eyes adjust, gaping into the darkness. I recognise Great Grandmother’s discarded black greatcoat hanging from a nail on the rafter. It unhooks itself and swirls about, finding shape as if enveloping a body. A bony finger creeps out of one sleeve, curling, and beckoning for me to come closer.

"Who…oo…o a…are you?" I manage to stutter. "What is happening? Do I know you?"

In the darkness, I see my reflection on the unpolished face of the clock. The cold shadow glides behind my neck. I hear my voice and I realise it’s the sound of my great grandmother. My reflection is hers.

"I meant to give this box to you," she says, discarding her cloak. She is dressed in the same outfit she was buried in. Her nail polish matches her lipstick and her lipstick matches the embroidered flowers on her gown. Her slippers are satin and her feet do not touch the ground.

A memory drifts into my head. My mother, the box. Another ghostly swirl, hovering behind Great Grandmother.


"No questions, follow me. You have a decision to make but you have only one hour from the time you cut the cable. You can choose to refuse to take the box and your life-timer will resume. Your life and the life of your unborn child will continue to follow the path fate chooses for you."

Great Grandmother spoke. "Your mother was destined to change the course of history. She should not have died. If you choose to open the box, time will be rewound and your mother will live. You will cease to exist. The choice is yours."

Change the course of history… but how? Do I trust this bitter old witch? I peer through the gloom at the ghostly apparition of the mother I never met. She looks as malevolent as Gran. And, if my forbearers had such power, why not me? Why not my child? With the thought, I feel power rising within me and sense Gran’s panic.

"No, no. You must first learn to channel such power and control it."

I lift the box. As its pulse merges with mine, my latent power surges and the two spectres fade. Normally the meekest of wimps, I feel invulnerable. "Well, I’ll be damned,"

Smoke billows. Flames leap from nowhere, and a red figure with horns and a trident rises through the floor.


Story Twenty-Six: 'New Year Resolution'

Team details: Elizabeth's Elite, captained by Elizabeth Coby.

Contributors in alphabetical order:

Anita Bowden, Elizabeth Coby, Kate McDonald, Klaus Gehling and Mandy Garcia.

Felicity wanted to be nicer to Dorothy, to forget about the unpleasant incident.

Felicity had accidentally opened the cage when Dorothy had called in at the office, en route to the vet. The Siamese cat inside had sprung out and drawn blood, as it savagely scratched and bit her arms. As Office Manager, she must try to befriend the small, silent woman who nobody liked. She would discover her secrets. It was about time.

Felicity was surprised that Dorothy had interrupted the trip to the vet, because there was nothing more important than her cat. Sure, she was acting strangely. For example, she hesitated almost imperceptibly when she had to go through a door, forgot her office keys even though her memory was excellent. She followed rules to the letter. Dorothy’s look was a mixture of anger and fear.

"Damn, I thought he was dead," she repeated robotically.

Once, many years ago, when she had returned home, Dorothy had found her husband sitting on the floor of the children's room. It was not his fault; the child had slipped out of his hand. She had held her son, who was dead, in her lap and kissed him.

"You’ll have to take the blame. With my criminal record, I won't get out of jail," he’d explained to her. "By the way," he’d mumbled, "the cat took off."

Now, eight years later, her last letter to him was on the kitchen table. The paper was dirty and has rings from the beer bottles.

"Dorothy," Felicity said, concerned, "are you OK?"

Dorothy snapped out of her trance-like state. "What? Sorry, I was miles away then."

"You were mumbling something about him being dead. He’s absolutely fine, just a bit spooked. Here, let me clean up those scratches and I’ll help you catch him. Are you sure you’re OK?"

"I’m fine. Just the cat taking off reminded me of something. Gotta go."

"But wait. What about the cat?"

"The cat? Oh, of course. Alive and kicking," Dorothy said with a pinched grin, dull eyes looking around.

"Nowhere to run here. I’m sure he’s hiding in one of those boxes," Felicity said, fetching some antiseptic.

"No. Don’t," Dorothy said, palms raised forward. "I-I’ll do it. I wouldn’t want you catching anything. Except Leo, perhaps. I’ll fix this mess while you, maybe, have a look and make a sign if you spot him?"

Dorothy looked shaken. Felicity suspected something must have upset Dorothy on the way from her car to the vet's office. Was this a chance to get a little closer to this pale, downtrodden person? Although, what had started off as an act of charity had now become a real desire to help, if she could.

"Come, sit down Dorothy, let me get you a cup of tea."

"Thanks, that would be nice, but first, could you look outside and tell me if there’s someone standing across the street? A dark-haired man, wearing a black trench coat."

This was starting to get interesting. As Felicity moved towards the front door, Dorothy hissed, "Don't let him see you."

Things had turned from interesting to worrying.

"There's no one there," Felicity was relieved to report.

"Thank God," Dorothy said. She hung on to Leo for dear life. He was now in her arms. "He ruined my life once. Why can’t I have any peace? I’d finally thought he was gone, forever. I’d wanted to believe so badly in karma - that he’d drunk himself to an early grave or been done in by those friends of his. Why has he come back? To destroy me again?"

"Who? The dark-haired man?" Felicity was beginning to regret wanting to know Dorothy’s secrets.

"My ex-husband. He’s… well… been away… for years now. I thought he was dead. But then Leo started being aggressive. And he was only ever like that with my ex, so I did wonder. But then I thought I was being stupid and maybe Leo was ill. So, I was on my way to the vet when I’m sure I saw…" Dorothy screamed.

It had been a heart-stopping half-hour. They were now drinking tea brewed by Betty. Dorothy's ex-husband had entered the office. Leo flew at his face with a growl. Peter called the police. Anne bound his arms and legs with thick tape, easier with Leo's assistance. The police arrived and took him away.

"No more secrets this year," said Felicity.

They all nodded. Leo purred and Dorothy smiled her thanks.


Story Twenty-Five: 'Saints and Sinners'

Team details: Maggie's Marvels, captained by Maggie Elliott.

Contributors in alphabetical order:

Bob Tateson, Claudia Nicholson, Kirsti Sinclair, Maggie Elliott and Neil Davie, plus a special guest appearance from Michael Rumsey.

"Welcoming attendees to the Ecclesiastical Conference.”

Reverend Goodie’s jaw dropped when a face from the past entered and practically wrapped herself around him, to the shock of his wife and other delegates.

Reverend Julie Donovan had waited a long time to catch up with the man who broke her heart by failing to commit during their three-year relationship at university. During this conference she would make him pay.

Mrs Goodie’s mouth was still slightly ajar when the tall redhead sashayed her way towards her at the refreshment table. Julie, wearing her best fake smile, nodded and picked up a cup of tea. Cup in hand, she wandered towards a group of attendees and joined their conversation. She felt all eyes on her. Smiling, she patted her jacket pocket, where a piece of neatly folded paper lay nestled… waiting.

Reverend Goodie’s blandly handsome face flushed a deep, dark red as he followed her progression through the room. Suddenly, his dog collar was too tight, the noise in the room too loud. Inside his stomach, a worm of foreboding began to wriggle. He ignored the proffered hand of a young delegate from overseas. He had to get to Julie before it was too late.

Whoever this stranger was, even from a distance, Mrs Goodie could clearly see the effect her appearance had on her husband. He looked like he was about to explode, his face reddening and a look of sheer panic, previously unknown to her, spreading across his face. The woman strode towards the microphone set up in a corner of the room and, as she reached it, pulled a piece of paper out of her pocket and unfolded it, purposely.

Rather than just tap the microphone to test it, the red-haired reverend took a deep breath and sang a loud note. Deva Donovan then belted out an F sharp major scale with swelling vibrato, like an opera singer revving up.

"Did you all hear that? Good. Seems to be working. Anyway, to business." She waved the piece of paper. "This, ladies and gentlemen, is a copy of a dissertation I wrote when I was a divinity student. More accurately, it is a dissertation Jim Goodie and I collaborated on. Our tutor, bless him, believed it was best accomplished in pairs. The topic he had set us was ‘How can we express the ineffable truth of the scriptures through our own lives?’ The text he gave us was Job 9: 6 'Which shaketh the earth out of her place, and the pillars thereof.' We put a lot of effort into that project, didn’t we Jim? Sweat and tears. But it all got a bit out of hand. Remember that Jim?"

Whatever dramatic effect she'd created was shattered by a sudden, blood curdling scream from Mrs Goodie.

"You bitch!"

She lunged across the room, pushing through the assembled throng, impervious to shocked faces, deaf to concerned murmurings. She only had eyes for the figure on the stage.

Behind her, Reverend Goodie struggled for breath. He worked a plump neck into his collar, searching desperately for the air that eluded him. His world reduced to the two women glaring dangerously at one another. The game was up.

The two women now stood face to face. One puffed like a grampus, the other grinned like the cat that got the cream.

Without warning, Mrs Goodie, having clearly boiled over, lifted her clenched fist and punched Julie in the face.

A collective gasp from the delegates filled the room, and all hell broke loose.

Mrs Goodie, cackling and shouting incoherently, stood over Julie who had crashed to the floor, nose spurting blood.

Jim Goodie, who had stood, unable to move or intervene, decided to do the only thing he could think of and promptly fainted, slamming face-first onto the refreshment table.

A delegate ran to the refreshment table and gently lifted Jim Goodie. "Oh," he said, reaching for a table napkin, "you’ve got egg on your face."

From across the room, still bleeding, Julie Donovan yelled, "You can say that again, he certainly has."

Struggling to her feet, she walked with determination towards the now seated Reverend. "So, Jim, shall I tell them or will you?"

The room fell silent.

"We put a lot of effort into celebrating our success too, didn’t we Jim? The sweat and tears came later when I shook your world by informing you we were about to become parents. At the graduation ceremony you handed me money and told me to deal with it. Well, Reverend Jim Goodie, pillar of society, the young delegate, who’s proffered hand you ignored earlier, is your son. Deal with it!"


Story Twenty-Four: 'The Final Straw'

Team details: Alan's Aristocrats, captained by Alan Barker.

Contributors in alphabetical order:

Adele Evershed, Alan Barker, Eileen Baldwin, Mary Fox and Ros Smith-Nazalli.

I awake with a swollen lip, my mind made up. I'll slip out on Friday, when he'll be late back from golf, and phone the nursery to say Nathan isn't well.

Bags packed and ready to go. Nathan, in his little dinosaur outfit, gazes wide-eyed at the front door, and I swing round. A silhouette falls across the glass panel. My heart skips a beat.

For a minute, I hope it’s a delivery man or the mail, but Nathan’s wide smile tells me otherwise. He recognised our caller. I decide to leave the bags and grab Nathan before heading toward the back door. I want to grab a defensive weapon too. Not a knife, since Nathan is with me… I have to protect him, I'm thinking, when suddenly it seems his little suit is growing.

"Let's go, Mummy," he says. "I got you."

That’s when I realise his dinosaur suit has somehow inflated to six feet tall.

"Watch out," he cries, swinging the tail that now sports sharp, dangerous looking scales.

He scoops me up with ease. His arms are still small for a body I no longer recognise, but his eyes are the same gentle brown they've always been.

We both hear the shout at the same time. John stands in the doorway, eyes on stalks. Nathan turns sharply, and his tail slaps John across the face. I feel a surge of hope that this time we might escape.

John has sunk to his knees, and I see uncertainty in Nathan's gaze. "Let's just go, Nathan," I plead, but John is bleeding from a cut on his forehead, and Nathan hesitates.

"I won't let him hurt you again, Mummy," Nathan tells me, sounding so much older than his four years, "but Daddy needs a plaster."

As he plops me down, Nathan starts to shrink, although he still has a row of very sharp-looking teeth. John looks up and smiles. It sends a familiar shiver down my spine.

For a moment, I remember  that I married a kind, caring man. An Adonis. Now all we have is a monster. A King Kong, or the Hulk.

Was it in his genes? Has Nathan inherited this monster's ways?

I have to get to safety. But first, I bathe John's wound. I offer him a drink. He accepts and his dark eyes soften for a brief moment.

As he becomes sleepy, I grab Nathan's hand and we rush out of the door. I pray  that the sleeping tablets work on John long enough for us to escape.

Escape isn’t going to be easy. Both the train and the bus will be full of people unused to dinosaurs.

"Nathan," I whisper, "can you keep in your claws and stay shrunk so we can ride the bus to Grandma’s?"

"No, sorry Mummy. I can't."

What to do?

The only place Nathan would not look out of place is the Jurassic centre, so I make a change of plan. I put it to Nathan and he's excited. Even if John follows us, hopefully he'll meet another monster, and leave us alone.

My heart is beating out of my chest. We finally get there.

There are roars galore and Nathan’s is the loudest. Suddenly he says, "Mummy, your teeth are growing."

I look at my hands that are now gnarled. I scream. What's happening to me?

I have to stay calm, control my terror and protect my child. My eyes dart around, seeking a place of refuge. Somewhere to hide until this immediate danger passes. If it does.

Nathan tugs at my arm. "Quick, Mummy, trust me. Come this way."

My legs are heavy and suddenly too large to move at speed. But I have to believe in my boy, even though, deep in my gut, I have a horrible sense that he won't be my protector, but his father's accomplice. With no other option left to me, I take a deep breath and follow my child.

Walking through a narrow, rocky passage, I have so many questions, but know they will have to wait until we are safe.

"We’re here, Mummy." Nathan giggles and stands to one side to let me go in front.

As I walk past him, I feel a shove in my back. I stumble and fall. Behind me, I hear a rattling and a thud. Looking around, I see I'm in a cage and Nathan has pulled a lever to bring the door down, trapping me.

"Nathan, what are you doing? Let me out this minute."

"Good night, Mummy," is all he says.

"Yes, good night, honey." That was John’s voice, but I can’t see him. That’s because someone has switched the lights off, plunging me into darkness... darkness... darkness...

I awake with a start. John’s lying beside me, that handsome grin spread across his face.

"That sleeping tablet hit the spot then," he says.

I sigh with relief and turn as Nathan enters the room, looking flushed in his dinosaur outfit.

"And how’s my little brown-eyed monster this morning?" I tease.

But his tongue flicks out, making me shudder, and I lick my lips and discover... Oh no, they’re swollen... how on earth? In desperation, I turn to John. His fist is raised and then…


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Gail's Gladiators Series Three


Story Twenty-Three: 'Gladiator'

by Glo Curl

Once upon a time there was a bear called Gladiator,

His claws as sharp as razors, teeth like an alligator,

The bear baiter, his ugly wife, their cruel and wicked daughter,

Would tie him to a post all day, a crust of bread, some water.


Thrice weekly he'd be marched to town to fight the local hounds,

And when he'd ripped them all to shreds his master did the rounds,

Collecting up his money, while Gladiator roared,

And guzzled his opponents, the dogs that he had gored.


One day his jailer fell down dead (it started off as gout),

His widow, grieving, followed him before the week was out,

The cruel and wicked daughter, who didn't give a toss,

Decided she would beat the bear to show him who was boss.


She prodded him and poked him, taunted him and more,

This bear was getting hungry and his head was mighty sore,

He ripped away his muzzle and sank his teeth in deep,

The flesh was sweet upon his tongue, a little bit like sheep.


And though his meal was frugal (there was none left for later),

The wicked daughter was no more, and he... well, he was Gladiator.


Story Twenty-Two: 'Gladiator: Name That Tune'

by John Notley

We were getting thoroughly browned off with all these days of inactivity. We, being first division gladiators (known to their fans as the Glad Lads). Top Glads were viewed as sex symbols and enjoyed public adulation.

Life had changed some months ago when a new disease swept through the Roman Empire. It was thought to have been brought to Rome by Legionaries returning from Britannia and Gaul on leave. Apart from the thousands of deaths, it had affected our normal way of life.

The first thing to go was the regular performances in the Colosseum. Gladiators relied upon these for income since a slave's pay was zilch. There was no point in fighting in an empty arena since social distancing had been imposed. The motto "salus populi suprema rex" was taken seriously here. Even the lions were as fed up as we were, having no Christians to eat.

Emperor Trajan had pushed off to Ostia, supposedly to supervise a building project although more likely to spend time with his latest girlfriend. Myself and my mate Marcellus were bored stiff. He, a lot cleverer than me, had started writing music.

He said, "Julius what do you think of this piece I have just written. Something to be played as we go into the arena?" He hummed a few bars.

"I quite like that," I said. "It's really cool, has a good beat to it. What you going to call it?"

"'Here comes the Tribe, Semper Fidelis, Royal March of the Lion, Gladiators' Farewell'."

"No, they don't sound right. Why not call it 'Entry of the Gladiators'. That should nail it."

"Thanks mate," he said. "I'll go along with that."

Historical footnote: The Czech composer with the unfortunate name of Julius Fucik, used the same title in 1899.


Story Twenty-One: 'Gladiator'

by David Silver

It was Moon-day morning assembly at the gladiatorial school and instructor Marcellus was not best pleased.

"I take a fight class at Rome Prison once a week on a Saturnus-day and I know that at the end of the lesson I shall have all my loaned weaponry returned. But with you lot, the new intake from Thrace, I find some of my stuff goes missing. For example, there are currently three lots of trident kits that are incomplete."

Crixus, the class clown, muttered, "That's a sort of net loss for the academy then."

Little Dickus, standing next to Crixus, tried to stifle a guffaw but failed miserably and he set off fits of sniggering among the rest of the trainee fighters.

Instructor Marcellus drew his short sword. "The next one of you I hear laughing I shall put to death – and no meals for the rest of you for a month. It's your choice – to die fast or to die from fasting."

Little Dickus pointed at the joker Crixus. "It was him, sir! He started it."

Marcellus growled, "Step forward, Crixus, and prepare to meet the gods. I shall have no-one in my school who foments rebellion, although all of you are already quite revolting."

But it was Spartacus, the Thracian gladiators' leader, who took one stride forward and in a bold attempt to challenge his Roman superiors demanded, "Spare Crixus. Just try putting me to the sword in his place. For I'm Spartacus!"

The others roared, "Yes, he's Spartacus! Now please get on with it so we can have our breakfast."


Story Twenty: 'Gladiator'

by Paul Mastaglio

Ben glared across at his adversary. He drew his knife over his chest and moved forward with purpose. His tunic rustled in agitation, impatient to get into the action.

The smell of burned meat lingered to one side and he shook his head as if to rid himself of the sensation. His mouth opened wide as he took in the devastation before him. Smoke billowed all around causing him to rub his eyes in a vain effort to focus properly. He coughed and staggered a bit more before succumbing to the need to go onto his knees.

He turned to look at his rival, despair etched all over his face. He had lost. Her look of triumph was too much to bear. He looked away.

Helen roared, "Yes," and waved her hand towards the bench. There lay an inviting tray of lasagne, its intoxicating aroma beginning to encircle the room.

Ben returned his gaze to the slab of meat that had masqueraded as a piece of steak that had shrivelled in size. Smoke still wafted from the opened oven door. The contest to cook the best meal was over. The final verdict was left to their son, Harry, who stood quietly at the back of the kitchen.

Helen grinned at her boy. "Well, Harry, should we save your Dad's dinner or kill it?"

A smiling Harry pointed his thumb towards the ceiling and then changed direction, bringing it swiftly downwards.


Story Nineteen: 'Enya und Deirdre'

by Klaus Gehling

“It's a disgrace for Rome," the man shouted, beside himself with rage, while he was spraying a cloud of saliva. “Are they not ashamed of themselves?”

Some spectators in the arena supported him with, “They are fleeing their gender!” but the large crowd applauded Enya who now entered the battleground.

After weeks of darkness in the dungeon, she was blinded by the glistening light that penetrated through the punched holes of her helmet. For a moment, a face she couldn't identify shimmered through the rays that she had last seen in Londinium. She had gotten through the rebellion, humiliations, beatings and rape by the skin of her teeth. The governor was obsessed by gladiatrixes, in all aspects. And it furthered his reputation as a curator of the games.

Now, she saw the surging crowd more clearly. Weeks of isolation had driven her into a frenzy. She wanted to fight and kill.

The ceremony was over, the fight began. The one hammering her sword against her breastplate was her friend Deirdre. During the brutal training, she had been Deirdre's slave. They were inescapably linked by pain and competition. They followed the usual procedure to circle each other. Both of them knew that the objective is to maim or trap his opponent rather than to pierce. But eventually, they stabbed and beat at each other to the point of exhaustion until, yes, until Deirdre put her helmet between her feet, showing that she was giving up.

For a moment, the whole arena held its breath and then roared. Everyone waved at the curator. He made a throat slitting movement. Then Enya took off her helmet and put it at Deirdre's feet. The curator repeated his gesture twice. But, with a soft but decisive movement, his wife, who had remained motionless beside him, pushed his hand to the down.

The crowd went wild.


Story Eighteen: 'My Concern'

by Michael Rumsey

The following is translated from the original parchment, Gladiatorial Greek/Latin circa 1AD.

We gladiators are encouraged to submit every month to Anecdotes of the Fierce Fighting Warrior Combatants (AotFFWC). Next Sunday, we are due to perform in front of the Emperor Goer. Is he aware of that incident with his daughter? Look, I am not the only one, our entire compound has enjoyed the favours handed out by his daughter, Shiza Goer, but what if he only knows about me?

Competition in the arena will be at a premium next week. The likes of Andrecus Ballomulos and Davarius Silerities, to name but two, are scheduled to participate. Suppose I don’t meet the high demands of the challenge? I could get the thumbs down from His Imperial Majesty so my concern is this piece may be published posthumously.


Story Seventeen: 'The Reluctant Gladiator'

by Andrew Ball

There I stood, all clad in plaid, about to battle big bad Vlad, like some tale from the Iliad.

“On guard, m’lad!” roared vicious Vlad. (I tell you he was raving mad.)

I replied, “Now look here, Vlad. I am no Sir Galahad. I won’t be part of your jihad.”

“That's too bad, lad,” said vulgar Vlad. “My problem is I can’t stand plaid.” With that, he sliced my shoulder pad.

So I left for Trinidad, to visit with my old Grandad, feeling not the least bit sad, to leave the life of savage gladiator.


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Gail's Gladiators Series Two


Story Sixteen: 'Who Wuz It?'

Contributors in order of posting:

Val Fish, Susan Colgan, Jill Lang, John Di Carlo, Klaus Gehling, Joanne Caddy, Andrew Ball, Paul Mastaglio, Tony Thatcher and Val Fish.

If it hadn’t been for the bloody knife in her hand, the duty officer would not have thought anything was amiss. The woman had strolled into the station and calmly announced she had a crime to report.

"I'm here to confess. I've murdered my..." She promptly fainted before revealing the victim.

 "Is she dead?" asked Garda Byrne.

Detective O'Brien placed two fat fingers on her neck. "Negative."

Just then the woman woke. "...husband. I warned him not to stick the butter-knife into the jam jar again."

The two men examined the buttery, jammy, bloodied knife. "Strawberry... and Kerrygold, for sure. Cases like this are our bread and butter," said O’Brien.

"Enough already," said Byrne in his sotto voce. "Mind you, I'll have to watch out in the bathroom. My wife goes ballistic when I squeeze the Sensodyne in the middle. If it's a bad case of obsessive compulsive disorder, let's hope this lady's not done a thorough clean up."

"Murderer," a voice hollered from the doorway.

A man dressed in pyjamas, small and bald and puffed up like a striped balloon, wobbled drunkenly, then collapsed to the floor. The policemen ignored him and stared at the woman in silent interrogation.

"What are you's lookin' at? He took the last of the Kerrygold," the woman exclaimed, and then lapsed back into unconsciousness.

The man awoke, with a moan, turned on his stomach, crawled to Byrne and clasped his leg. "She killed her sister. My beautiful Kerry, my Irish Flower. They were always on good terms. I just don't get it." He curled into a ball and started sobbing.

"Damn it," cursed Byrne. "Family stuff is like a labyrinth, and we're in the middle of it. I hate it." He took a deep breath and said, more to himself than to his colleague, "Let's try to wake her up and see what comes to light." Turning to the unconscious women, a tattoo on her right upper arm that looked like half a sun caught his eye. He squinted as though sunlight was piercing his eyeballs. "Interesting," he whispered.

"What's that?" questioned O'Brien, leaning toward Byrne. He was so close that he could smell the tuna fish sandwich Byrne had devoured for lunch. He stifled a gag as he quickly covered the woman's arm with his boxing mitt of a hand. "Well, Byrne, what do you make of it all?" he asked.

"I'm flummoxed," replied Byrne. "Bewildered, befuddled and bamboozled."

"You're slow, Byrne. Where's your spark?" O’Brien chuckled quietly at his own joke. "Look at the facts. One: we've got a woman who says she killed her husband, and who is now mysteriously lapsing in and out of consciousness. Two: her tubby hubby, alive and well in those dashing pyjamas, says she killed her sister, despite getting on with her. And three: they would have us believe it was all over some butter and jam."

"It makes absolutely no sense," expostulated Byrne.

"Precisely," agreed O'Brien, "but remember, this is Ireland, where perfect nonsense makes perfect sense. I know you caught sight of this. Take a closer look," he said, uncovering the half-sun tattoo.

"Oh, my goodness," groaned Byrne. "She's a member of that subversive organisation, The House of the Rising Sun."

"And it's been the ruin of many a poor boy," said O'Brien. "Dear God, I know. I was a member, which is why I tried to keep it from you. Now do you understand?"

"Yes, it's all been a massive act of misdirection," said Byrne. "I, of all people, should recognise a smokescreen when I see one. But what do you suppose they're trying to distract us from?"

"Do you think they're working together?" O’Brien pondered.

"Possibly, but I can't believe it's just about butter," said Byrne. "The House of the Rising Sun has fingers in many pies. How did you get your fingers burned?"

"It was a long time ago, Byrne. Basically, I'd spread myself too thin and had bitten off more than I could chew. Luckily, friends bailed me out before I was toast."

Byrne shook his head in frustration and decided not to enquire any further. Instead, he crouched beside the woman with the tattoo and gently shook her.

"How long have you been a member of the The House of the Rising Sun? This sister your hubby mentioned. Who wuz it?"

Hearing a robotic rendition of a traditional tune, Byrne rummaged in the pockets of the woman's cardigan to answer her phone.

"Hello," a man's voice said, "I'm ringing from The House of the Rising Bun."

"Rising Bun?" Byrne said, seeing the woman's tattoo in a new light.

"Yes, we're bakers."

"Well that's one mystery solved," Byrne said. "How can I help you?"

"Your number's written down against an order for a Floury Folk Fun Family and jam."

"Floury Folk?"

"Yes," the man said, and went on to describe a cluster of four cottage rolls arranged in order of descending size. "It's called a family because there's father, mother, sister and brother."

Rolling over, the woman groaned and said, "It's true, I tell you. I cut the head off my sister."

"And I sliced my brother clean in two, I did," her husband said, clinging to Byrne's leg like an amorous terrier.

"Anyway," the baker's voice echoed from the telephone, "there's been a mix up and we gave you a jar of my uncle's summer fruit potcheen by mistake."

Looking down at the paralytic pair, Byrne twirled the ends of his Poirot moustache and declared, "That would appear to be the case closed, unless..."


"Well, I can't help thinking we're missing something," Byrne continued. "If we get this wrong, heads will roll."

"I thought they already had."

"This is no laughing matter, O'Brien. Wait, I've got it, it's the knife, the bloody knife. That blood has come from somewhere. There could be another victim out there, a human one that is."

"Maybe she accidentally cut herself when she was decapitating?"

"No, that wouldn’t explain the amount of blood. Besides, I didn't notice any wounds. Let's just check again to make sure."


"What is it Byrne?"

"It's tomato sauce. Seems there was something else on the menu besides cottage rolls."

"So is the case closed or not, sir?"

"Well, it doesn't look like any crime has been committed.  As far as I know, decapitation of a cottage roll is not a criminal offence. So yes, the case is closed. We'll let them sober up a bit, then they're free to go."


Later, when the effects of the potcheen worn off, the pair left arm in arm.

"I do love you, my honey bun."

"You too, cuddle cakes."

O'Brien rolled his eyes. Just another day down at the station. Who wuz it who said a policeman's lot...?


Story Fifteen: 'Facing The Truth'

Contributors in order of posting:

John Notley, Malcolm Richardson, Mary Fox, Lesley Anne Truchet, Helen Stephens, Andrew Ball, Jennifer Susan, Klaua Gehling, Christopher Fielden and John Notley.

Sally settled back as Eurostar pulled away from St. Pancras. A late passenger pushed through from the adjoining carriage and sat opposite her. The thickset man with a mop of ginger hair unfolded a newspaper and began reading. Sally studied his face, sure she had seen him before. Ten years in MI6 had taken her to many places, meeting countless people, and she knew he was one of them. To be certain she leaned forward.

"Excuse me, sir, but were you a member of the symphony orchestra? I recognise your violin case. I'm sure we met several years ago."

His deep blue eyes fixed on hers. Something passed between them. She saw recognition written across his face; she remembered that night in the Parisian hotel room and the deadly contents of his luggage.

She wondered how many others knew of his infamous killer violin. Of its uncanny ability to shriek out a single blistering note that scorched brain cells to the consistency of scrambled eggs. Slowly, he drew his bow across the strings and she heard the first strains of the Egmont Overture.

She suddenly realised she'd acted rashly, re-introducing herself. He would now be aware that she knew his deadly secret. She faced his sapphire gaze, trying not to show her fear. His lips curled into a sinister smile. The tone of his violin began to change.

The carriages opened at either end and in walked a stream of passengers, hypnotised by the strange notes emanating from the violin. Sally shivered. A satisfied smile crept across his face as he watched them gather around. Her view blocked and the music muffled, she crawled across the seats and crept along the aisle to the door.

She breathed a sigh of relief as she slipped into the next carriage. But as she crept forward, a hand covered her mouth and she was pulled backwards. Heart pounding and arms pinned, she tried to wriggle free but her mind had gone blank. She was dragged into the toilet. The automatic door closed. As the door clicked shut, she was released and turned around.

"Oh, it's you," she gasped.

A tsunami of relief swept through her as she recognised Scowley, her old mentor from MI6.

"It's him," she said. "The Fiddler, and he's packing his weapon."

"The Fiddler? How can you be sure?" asked Scowley.

"Only 1 in every 588 people has red hair and blue eyes," she replied. "It's the rarest combination there is. They're both recessive traits, you see, and—"

"You'll have to tell me all the fascinating details later," interrupted Scowley. "Now's the time for action. What we need is a cunning plan. Any ideas?"

Sally reached into her pocket and pulled out the MI6-issue earplugs and violin mute that she always carried for moments like this.

"We'll surround him. Then you distract him while I grab the violin." Her eyes narrowed, "Once he's unarmed, use the chloroform."

Her idea was met with a scowl, which she answered quickly. "Really? Is that all you have to say?"

The eyebrows raised, but only briefly. As they settled back into their customary position, he asked, "How will I resist the weapon? You only have one set of earplugs there."

For a second, Sally's eyebrows mirrored Scowley's. "Come on, Scowley. Aren't you prepared?"

"I came after you, not knowing what we would face."

"Fine," she snapped. "Don't you have your sandwich? I know you never used to board a train without it."

"Of course I do. What does that have to do with anything?" he answered.

Relief flooded through her, and she softly released the breath she had been holding. "Use the bread and peanut butter in the corners of the plastic. That will block the sound just as well as these earplugs."

They finished their preparations and crept toward the next car. The moment the door opened, she dimly saw her husband's face. What is John doing here? He was carrying an object and said in a soft voice, "Now you can breathe properly. I've been worried. You got no air. You spoke to a man named Scowley and kept fiddling with your ears. You had a nightmare, didn't you? One of your old cases?"

Slowly but surely, she recognized the sickroom.

"The number of relapses will decrease," the doctor said.

"You've had a shock," her husband added.

He nodded encouragingly at her and stroked her hair.

"I heard violin music, John," she croaked anxiously.

"Well," he said, "the music was played at the hospital chapel. You said something about a freaky guy with red hair. You said you heard him mumble, "Reality is what you make it."

Those words were so familiar. Sally's vision swam. A kaleidoscope of colours swirled, forming into huge cartoon mouths with gleaming teeth. They laughed at her. Feeling anger, she wished them away and a chasm opened beneath the mouths. Laughter became screams as they fell, swallowed. The chasm changed shape, into f-holes, like those you would find on the body of a violin.

Now was the time to face the truth. It was all coming back to her. Yes, the man on the train, a master of disguise. Now she remembered where she had first seen him.

He was a busker playing his violin outside the Odeon on Leicester Square six months ago. She had stopped to listen to him and asked if he would play Bach's Partita No. 2 in D Minor. He had nodded and with a wink began to play 'If I Were A Rich Man' from Fiddler on the Roof. She had turned away in disgust without putting money in his hat and could still remember his shouted curse as she walked away.

M16 had been seeking him for years. The words, "You have solved yet another case," would be music to her ears when she told them where to find him.


Story Fourteen: 'Sinister Seeds'

Contributors in order of posting:

Maggie Elliott, Cathy Cade, Elizabeth Coby, Lynn Gale, Pat Mudge, Glo Curl, Marlene Pitcher, Paul Offer Kemp, Anita Bowden and Maggie Elliott.

The unexpected foreign package declared 'Ear Studs', but contained pea-sized seeds. Marjorie couldn’t remember ordering either, but her memory was fallible. After she had planted them, her local newspaper revealed that the seeds were posted maliciously and they were dangerous. Unable to locate the sender, she had no option but to leave them in situ, wait and watch.

She didn't have to wait long. A week after planting, she found eruptions, like tiny molehills, in the flowerbed where she thought she'd planted the seeds. She rooted around in one, but found no trace of a seed. She wasn't even sure exactly where she had planted them.

She wished she'd never read The Day of the Triffids. A long, thin tendril was merging from one of the molehills. It seemed to be growing before her eyes. Just go inside and stop looking, have a cup of tea for goodness sake, she thought.

Later, in the garden, a sound like a sheet flapping about in the wind reached her through the open window. "Did I hang washing out today? I really am forgetful." Marjorie stood up. As she took her teacup over to the sink, a shadow blocked the light as she passed the window. Looking up, she gasped.

Elegant feet, clad in high heels, dangled and kicked from the leaves of an enormous Venus flytrap. Marjorie jerked back, dropping her cup as the shoes tumbled to the ground. "I know those manicured toes," she said, wiping sweat from her brow with a tea stained sleeve. "They belong to Phyllis."

Only last week they'd been comparing notes on the new hot shades in nail polish. Marjorie had been torn between Crimson Cosmos and Maroon Moon. She could see now that Phyllis had gone for Ruby Rocket. Marjorie thought it was an apt choice as she watched Phyllis's feet soar skywards.

"I must be dreaming." Marjorie said to herself. "I read far too many horror stories. I do remember sprinkling some miracle grow on the garden." She looked out of the window once more. The ground in the garden was undisturbed. She did remember burying Phyllis out there last week along with the planted seeds. Good fertilizer, she thought. Red nail polish is for tarts.

Marjorie hadn't got it wrong; Phyllis was a tart, albeit now a resurrected one. Apparently, the giant on the platform at the top of the very, very tall plants had a thing about girls wearing red nail varnish and Phyllis, along with the plant, had grown quite considerably thanks to the miracle gro. She was now just the right size for him. Could love be – literally – in the air?

Marjorie’s mind teemed with possibilities: YouTube, Facebook, not to mention a tidy £500 for a feature story in Tattle. She grabbed her mobile and rushed outside. Not only could this video be her ticket to dubious fame and unreliable fortune, but also evidence (albeit planted) that she was not involved in Phyllis's disappearance. She was, however, so woefully unprepared for the sight of a behemoth, seated on his platform, happily sucking on Phyllis's ruby-painted, much bigger-than-normal big toe, that she failed to notice new tendrils creeping towards her.

With an unexpected whoosh, Marjorie found herself hoisted onto the platform beside the giant. "Who the 'ell are you?" she demanded.

"I'm the human flytrap you planted," laughed the ogre.

Marjorie's legs were bound tighter than a duck's bottom, but her hands were free. This enabled her to sprinkle some of the contents of the little plastic bag she always carried in her pockets onto the ogre's tendrils. He melted like a plant soaked with acid. As she landed on firm soil, she laughed. "That'll teach you to mess with a crone."

Indoors, she gave thanks to the powers that be. "‘Blessed be."


Story Thirteen: 'Dark Deeds On The Ascot Express'

Contributors in order of posting:

Alan Barker, Ibukun Keyamo, Isabel Flynn, Adele Evershed, Yasmin Al Jarrah, Majella Pinto, Boakesey Boakes, Neil Davie, Claudette Nicholson and Alan Barker.

The passenger seated by the window seemed to be asleep, a top hat perched on his head. From his inside pocket protruded a bulging wallet; betting money for Royal Ascot, Lee reckoned. Lee stepped into the compartment and closed the door softly. Bending down, he reached for the man's wallet just as the train jolted over a level crossing. The stranger slid sideways. His hat tumbled off, revealing ugly indents and drying blood on his bald crown.

Lee was torn. The man was injured. Do you steal money from an injured man? He stood there for a few seconds, debating it, and then got angry with himself. It wasn't his fault that the man was injured, he just needed some money in order to eat and maybe to get to Busty Betsy's pub before last call. Not giving it another moment's thought, he slipped the wallet out and hurried back to his compartment.


At the next station, Philomena Freebody jumped aboard and wandered along the carriage, looking for a quiet seat. She noticed one compartment that only had an elderly man asleep. She loaded her luggage up on the rack, got a book out and settled down to read her thriller. The 'all aboard' whistle sounded and the train lurched. Philomena glanced up to see her fellow passenger roll to the floor.

Philomena prided herself on being made of stern stuff; she was not given to fainting fits, unlike many ladies of her acquaintance. However, when she looked at the prone figure, she did let out an involuntary shriek. Philomena recognised the injured man. It was the famous author, Arthur Conan Doyle, and the thriller she was clutching was his book, A Study in Scarlet. As she knelt to assess his injuries, he batted his eyelids open and groaned, "Jezebel."

By now, a crowd of people had entered the compartment, blocking the doorway. Philomena looked around to see if Jezebel was standing near her and her patient, but no-one had responded. Realising it was possibly her he was referring to, she replied that she could never help herself and her misdemeanours. Then, she checked Conan Doyle's pulse and found it was racing. Another person had stepped forward to help lift the man back onto his seat. Doyle looked as scarlet as the lettering on the front of her book.

"Water, he needs water," Philomena cried, before reaching for her bag containing a small 'pick me up rescue remedy' aromatherapy bottle. She proceeded to try and drop droplets onto her patient's tongue. Doyle suddenly grabbed her arm and said, "Come here, my lovely," at which point Philomena looked up and noticed a gentleman had pushed his way into the compartment.

Seeing her chance, whilst everyone's attention was distracted by the flamboyant attire and bearing of the new arrival, she made her escape. She was sure at least a couple of drops of cyanide had reached the old man's lips. It didn't take long to work, so she had to get the hell outta there. Thrusting the carriage door open, she heard the kerfuffle behind her. A man's voice rang out. "Let me through, I'm a doctor."

Glancing briefly behind her, she saw the flamboyantly dressed man kneeling over Doyle – a small glass vial was already being held up to the author's nose. Gathering her senses, she stepped into the next carriage. Her progress was blocked by a tall, thin man wearing some kind of cape over a tweed suit. He had a deerstalker hat on his head.

Philomena tried to brush the man aside until her gaze fell upon a woman standing directly behind him, and behind her several police officers. "Jezebel," she hissed in a most unladylike manner.

"Ms Freebody, my name is Sherlock Holmes. Do not bother to deny the attempted murder of Mr Doyle. Your accomplice has confessed to everything," said the man in the deerstalker hat, in a haughty nasal voice, nodding in the direction of Jezebel. Police officers escorted their shrieking, boisterous prisoners away.


A little later, they were recovering at Busty Betsy's when Conan Doyle's arm suddenly shot out. "That's the bounder who robbed me."

Watson jumped to his feet but Holmes restrained him. With a flourish, he produced from his tweed jacket a bulging leather wallet. "I took the liberty of removing this from our friend's pocket at the bar while he was distracted by the good landlady's cleavage."

"Holmes, you’re a genius. But how did you deduce it was mine?"

"Elementary, my dear Conan Doyle. Only the creator of the great Sherlock Holmes could own such a fat wallet."


Story Twelve: 'Messages From Nowhere'

Contributors in order of posting:

Sarah Mosedale, Johanna McDonald, Michael Thurgood, Paul Mastaglio, Amanda Jane Davies, Christopher Fielden, Allen Ashley, Gavin Biddlecoombe, DT Langdale and Sarah Mosedale.

Being the first to step onto a planet is always risky, but never more than this one. Ostensibly deserted, hostile to human life and almost immeasurably distant from Earth, nevertheless for six months it had been the source of strange transmissions. Lucy checked her kit and took that irreversible first step.

The gravity was strong on this supermassive planet, sucking her feet down into the gravelly surface. It took all of her strength to drag herself forward, each footstep leaving a deep indent in the purple dust. The only sound was the oxygen, huffing and sighing through her breathing apparatus. She was drawn towards a dark, cone shaped mountain that towered high from the otherwise flat landscape.

As she struggled forward, two lights emerged from the mountain. Lucy paused to catch her breath. The lights came towards her on parallel paths about fifty metres apart. They circled behind her, passing each other before returning towards the mountain.

Lucy shivered involuntary. Had she just been screened?

She looked towards the mountain again, adjusted her breathing apparatus and continued to move forward. The gravel underneath her feet seemed to drag her down and, as she got closer to the cone, a strange tingling sensation entered her body. Then the lights returned, this time accompanied by a whistling noise that penetrated her spacesuit's helmet.

"Wait," Lucy cried. "I know that music from somewhere."

She began walking again, racking her brains, trying to identify the tune. Where had she heard it? Her mind wouldn't focus; it kept repeating, the whistling mountain has purple dust.

"Lucy." Lieutenant Macready's voice cut through her earpiece. "We're detecting hypnotic resonances in the music. Return to the ship immediately."

"But sir—"

"Corporal, abort. That's an order."

Lucy had never disobeyed a superior, but felt compelled to continue. As she approached the lights, dust began to swirl, taking shape.

No, shapes. They looked a lot like musical notation, though not in the regular Earth format.

Lucy knew the sound now. It was the bass note underlying everything. One felt it more than heard it. No wonder the gravel was sinking like quicksand. If this continued much longer, she would have no way out.

In her trance, she sank further into the purple gravel. The dust took a form of its own, no longer the dust she had encountered but more a flowing organism that reached around her spacesuit. As it wrapped itself around her, the bass note flowed through her. At once, she understood.

Information flowed through her mind, answers to questions she hadn't asked. The bass note had its own language, the subtle shifts in tone like keys to the secrets of the universe. The dust held her close as she sank with it through the gravel. A chorus of voices resonated around her and she joined them.

Lucy was part of them now, and she sang to the stars, calling to the next visitor.


Everyone pretended obliviousness. Lieutenant Macready was not given to swearing. Lucy had had everything from neural implants to aromatherapy. Yet still she had failed to resist.

Fortunately, there were plenty more where Lucy came from.

DustMuzak(TM) would be the perfect weapon once the shielding problem had been solved.


Story Eleven: 'If Only She Knew Why'

Contributors in order of posting:

Eileen Baldwin, Lynn Zeleski, Gail Wareham Everett, Sangeetha Kamath Prabbu, Sue Maynes, Tony Thatcher, Michael Rumsey, Barbara Noble, Kate McDonald and Eileen Baldwin.

What on earth was that? Jane sat bolt upright. Ben was away for a few days for his work. Heart in her mouth, absolutely panic stricken, jumping the stairs two at a time, Jane noticed a hole where the frosted glass door should be. Trembling, she found her mobile phone.

Damn! Phone's not charged. Electricity's out. Jane scouted the room, looking for something to protect her. She remembered her father's old army pistol was in the closet. Quietly, she sorted through the boxes.

"Looking for this?" said a deep voice.

Jane held her breath as she turned toward her intruder. She was shocked. Where had she seen him before? He stood mockingly, twirling her father's pistol in his right hand.

"You can have this back," he said. "It's not loaded, so it won't do you any good."

"What are YOU doing here?" she asked. "And why now? What do you want?"

Jane's mind was racing. What was that he said? The pistol's not loaded. Should she take a chance and make a run for it? No, bad idea. Surely he could outrun her.

A sliver of moonlight glinted off a sharp, steel object. A hunting dagger! As unassumingly as she possibly could, she retrieved it, holding it close behind her.

Jane began to sidle around the room, keeping her distance but trying to reach the door. He watched her with a wry amusement, as if knowing exactly what she was trying to do.

"What do you want?" Jane's voice was shaky.

"A library book, and I want it now, or else..."

Jane's knees shook. The threat was clear.

"But, I have no idea where..." Tears threatened, her bladder tightened in fear. "Why all this? It's only a library book."

"It might only be a library book to you," the man sneered. "You'd better find it before things get... how can I put this? Rather less pleasant."

Scattering magazines, letters and chocolate wrappers, Jane scrabbled in the jumble on her coffee table.

"Here it is," she said, recoiling as he snatched the paperback from her.

Rifling through the pages, the man scowled.

"Where are the marks?" he said.

"You mean the pencil marks?" Jane said. "I rubbed them out, I thought—"

"You thought wrong," the man said. "Those little lines were for me. My firm has been looking for this book for six months. I hope your memory is good, because you're going to put every last one back where it belongs."

She suddenly remembered where she had seen the man before: in newspapers. Gangland Boss, they called him.

"It's a code," he said, "revealing an address where a valuable stolen painting is stashed, somewhere in Sheffield."

Her heart beat faster. Ben had read the book. Ben, who loved to solve puzzles. No wonder he'd told her to delete the marks. Now away on business – in Sheffield

The phone rang. She snatched it. The dagger clattered to the floor.

"Hi Jane, it's me. You won't believe this, but I'm at a deserted warehouse in Grimesthorpe, and I seem to have discovered what looks like a painting of poppy flowers by Van Gogh wrapped up in wax paper. I've done a quick bit of research on my phone, and apparently it's worth around $50 million and was stolen for the second time in 2010. The authorities still have no idea of its whereabouts. What do you think I should do?"

Jane looked in panic at the Gangland Boss, realising too late she was on speakerphone. He snatched up the dagger and pressed it against her throat, while wrenching the receiver from her hands. "You'd better get back here pronto. Bring the picture with you, Benny Boy, and don't call the police if you want to find your wife alive when you get here."

"On reflection, I don't think you'll be seeing me, mate." Ben replied sternly, and then said, "Sorry, old girl, but I didn't just stumble across this warehouse. As you've probably guessed by now, Jane, it took mere minutes to decipher that poor excuse for a code. I have to go. I can't take the chance of this call being traced. Not that I think Mr G.B. would have the brains to organise anything in the time I've given him. Ta-ta mugs."

Jane showed incandescent rage. To think the nasty, slimy little stain was taking off without caring one jot about what might happen to her. She looked at Gangland Boss. His face was livid, his teeth and fists were clenched. Here was a very angry man. She now needed to make sure none of that ire was directed at her.

"Look, I'm pretty sure I can remember where and what the marks were in the book. The code will be easy to break, he's not that good. At least then you'll know what area he started out from. He could still be there."

Gangland Boss was almost salivating with anticipation. Jane guessed he had so many plans for the sale of the stolen painting. Suddenly, the lights went on, lots of shouting, police everywhere. Jane watched in amusement as Gangland Boss's face registered amazement. He realised this was a set up.

"You're nicked." Detective Ben, turned to Jane. "Well done, he didn't suspect a thing."


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Gail's Gladiators Series One


Story Ten: 'Desperate Players'

Contributors in order of posting:

Marlene Pitcher, Paul Mastagio, Cathy Cade, Sue Maynes, Tony Thatcher, Yasmin Al-Jarrah, Mary Fox, Barbara Noble, Malcolm Richardson and Marlene Pitcher.

Dried leaves blew down the deserted street. The pavement was beginning to turn white with flakes of the first snow. Charles pulled the collar of his overcoat up as a barrier from the cold to come. How long had he been waiting? The life of a detective is lonely, filled with bad food and, worse, cheap liquor.

He looked at the redbrick apartment house and shivered. Even the rattrap hotel that he called home was better than standing here in the slush. He noticed some movement in the apartment on the second-floor, shadows on the pulled down shade. He needed to act quickly.

Charles grabbed his phone from an inside pocket and risked peeling off a glove to punch the required number. The cold licked at his fingers as he spoke into the device.

"Wayne, is that you? Look, they're meeting now. My hunch was right. Could you get here as soon as? Things are about to get interesting."

He put the phone away and moved to cross the street.

Before he stepped off the pavement, a car swept around the corner and drew to a halt outside the redbrick building. A stocky figure in a fur coat stepped out, and the car drove off. Pulling up the fur collar and adjusting their fur-trimmed hat, the figure disappeared through the door.

This was an unexpected development. Charles allowed time for the new arrival to reach the apartment before crossing the street and entering the building. He pushed the button to call the lift down from the second floor, before taking the stairs. On the second floor, he made his way to the apartment he'd been watching and rang the doorbell. Footsteps approached. The door opened.

"There you are, old boy. We were beginning to think you'd changed your mind."

Charles was rattled but endeavoured not to show it. He'd planned for the advantage of surprise, but as he entered, the five men inside welcomed him with clear expectations of his assumed involvement in their meeting. His hand felt his chest, hoping the 'wire' he'd switched on outside the door was picking up the conversation. He recognised all but one man, who was sitting quietly at the back of the room, keeping his head low. These were the biggest names in the game. It was Charles's task to find out just what the state of play was.

Charles sat in one of the chairs at the table in the middle of the room. The familiar wooden blocks were piled in groups of three, arranged at right angles.

"You know the rules," said the anonymous watcher. "If you win, we can do business on your terms."

"And if I lose?"

"I think you know what losing means."

"Let's not think about losing," said the main henchman. "Let's see what you're made of."

Piercing eyes focussed on Charles's hand as he slowly took a block of wood from the middle of the tower. The jagged block wobbled a bit,but the building didn't collapse. Tension was building as the next competitor took his turn.

Suddenly, the door swung open and Jo Jo made her entrance with a saucy walk and a shrug of her shoulders. She tossed her spangled bag across the room, clipping the side of the anonymous watcher's jaw. He screamed in pain and stood up straight so that, for the first time, his face was fully visible.

Charles recognised him instantly and knew without question that the game was stacked against him. He thought about grabbing Jo Jo by the hand and taking her for a drink rather than waiting it out.

Instead, he faced squarely up to the 'anonymous watcher' who, with his face now fully visible and recognisable to Charles, was glowering at him. Charles tried to keep his nerve and was about to push his chair back and stand when Wayne came bursting into the room, sending the remaining henchmen reaching for their handguns.

"Take it easy, gents," Wayne's harsh voice rasped. "One false move and I'll take out the lot of you." He motioned to Jo Jo to stand to one side, out of his firing line. "OK, everyone sit down and we'll resume our little game."

"It's looks like the odds are stacked rather differently now." Charles motioned towards the fearsome five. They looked less aggressive after Wayne's intervention.

Jo Jo moved round the table to stand opposite Charles; he hadn't quite assessed who she was working for, definitely the joker in the pack. With her tight fitting skirt and sly smile, she was difficult to read. "Alright, boys, let's start playing again."

The old man in the corner stepped out of the shadows. It was Charles's nemesis. The man called the gamer. He set up these foolish competitions to find the loose cannons in the organisation. The detective didn't want to play. He came here to put a stop to the syndicate. Is this the end? he thought. The final scene?

Wayne pointed his gun at the old man in the white hat who, in a moment of indecision, turned to spit at Charles. Tension reached a crescendo. Wayne pulled a trigger. JoJo followed with a shot from the handgun that she had strapped to her thigh.

Charles found the old man in the ensuing mayhem. Bullets zipped by as bloodied bodies fell to the dirty floor. Charles shot the old man between the eyes. When the smoke cleared, JoJo and Charles stood alone in the carnage. The blocks of the game were strewn across the table.

"We'll never know who won," JoJo said with regret. Then, grasping his hand and with a sway of her hips, she said, "Let's get out of here now. We can get a drink and find a game of our own to play."


Story Nine: 'The Way'

Contributors in order of posting:

Klaus Gehling, Paul Mastaglio, Cathy Cade, Sue Maynes, Marlene Pitcher, Eileen Baldwin, Tony Thatcher, Mary Fox, Malcolm Richardson and Klaus Gehling.

It was the first time since my teeny days that I got to sleep in a dorm.

"You don't go on a pilgrimage to feel comfortable. It's not a race, it's an exercise in humanity, a spiritual interruption of everyday life," said Harald. He is a friend and my pilgrim buddy.

We met the others in a dining room. Joan and Andrew from England were on the walk to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary. There was also Anne from Austria and Lykke from Sweden.

"In the past," Harald said, during our evening meal, "pilgrims walked the route to do penance. Many carried blocks of limestone, destined to be used in the building of the cathedral."

I laughed. "A fine joke."  But it wasn't.

Andrew and Joan didn't mention the reason for their pilgrimage. Anne and Lykke were equally silent. Over the next few weeks, we hiked together. I wasn't certain of my own reasons for being on this pilgrimage. I wondered what type of limestones each of us were carrying.

The unrelenting sun on the Camino De Compostela beat down on our little group. Two weeks had passed and I was still none the wiser as to why my companions were undertaking this pilgrimage. I was equally reticent in explaining my own participation. Was I fooling myself into thinking I didn't know? Perhaps it was time to share my story. I quickened my pace and drew level with Harald.

"Can I tell you something?" I asked.

"That depends on the 'something'. If it's how much you're enjoying the pilgrimage, or why you're not enjoying it – that's fine." He paused for breath as the path headed uphill. "If it's how you've defrauded your boss or murdered your partner, I'm not your Father Confessor." He turned and smiled, to show he didn't expect such a confidence. "If it's about your foundering marriage or your daughter going off the rails, I can listen. Sometimes it helps to talk."

I laughed, softly. "It's none of those. I wish it was that simple."

Harald looked at me quizzically.

"I don't know who I am," I started slowly. "My memories start from my early childhood in an orphanage. Something drew me to 'The Way' when I first read about it. I'm not religious, I sure don't know if I am spiritual, but I have an awful lot of doubt, anger and sadness. Will I find some way to calm those feelings? I don't know. I just know I had to come."

Harald kept walking, his head down. He was silent for a dozen paces, and then he looked sideways at me.

"People often find answers to questions they didn't know they were asking. Can I suggest you let the journey's pace act like a metronome in your thoughts? It will allow the questions to surface. It's a long trek; we have around two more weeks. Let time be your friend."

We walked along the path for the rest of the day. The dirt coated my boots and covered my face. By the time we reached the small farm house – our rest place for the night – I was exhausted. Not from the walk, but from the doubt in my mind, playing like an endless string of words.

Harald seemed to think the answers would magically appear. He didn't realise that I didn't even know what my questions were. Was I going crazy? My son was the spiritual one. Not me, I'm too pragmatic. I entered the barn where we would sleep. Taking off my boots to air the blisters on my toes, I sat down in the hay. My boot went flying at the door just as Harald entered the barn.

My hand covered my mouth. For no apparent reason, I was trembling with fear. "Sorry, Harald, I don't know my own strength sometimes." I laughed nervously.

"I will deal with you later," he said, as he put two fingers to his eyes and pointed them back to me, silently stating, "I have my eyes on you, watch out."

Something about him at that moment made my flesh crawl. Maybe it was just me. I would have to watch what I said or did. Why were we all there? What had drawn us together? How was I involved? Would we regret making this pilgrimage? So many questions were buzzing around in my head.

Then, something in the corner caught my eye. Suddenly, I screamed. Harald's backpack had fallen over, spilling his wash bag and revealing a bundle of large, dried bones. I looked at Harald. His cold face echoed the threat to deal with me later.

"So. Would you like to know why I'm really here?" he sneered.

Harald was my pilgrim buddy, my pal, the last person here to be harbouring dark secrets. Or was he? I pasted a phony smile on my face, buying time to think.

What did I really know about Harald? I remembered how, on occasion, he had worn that hair shirt in the steam room at the club. And there was that costume ball when the devil's tail he wore appeared to be attached to his body. Small things, silly things really; the anomalies of any friendship.

The threat and the sneer had come as a shock. Who was this man? How well did I know him? How should I answer him? And why was everyone else still sleeping through this? More idiotic questions that will never be answered.

"Every man has his secrets," I spluttered. Did I want to know Harald's? A tear seemed to trickle down his cheek. It was difficult to tell in the subdued light of the barn. He wiped something away with the back of his hand.

"It's a long story," he muttered.

With another 150km to go, time was on his side. I looked at the bones as he put them back into his backpack, one by one. Animal or human? I couldn't decide. Certainly something larger than a cat or a dog. Could they be a child's? He shuffled closer to me and I shuddered.

"When I was a young man, I had a girlfriend, Monika. She lived in East Berlin. It was before the fall of the Berlin Wall. We met her at a chess tournament. Normally, it was nearly impossible to obtain a visa, but as members of a chess club, we received invitations to participate in tournaments, which allowed us to travel."

I listened to his love story against the background of a historical moment. I'm not an eager listener to the past of others. I prefer dwelling in the present moment.

"So. What about the bones?"

"Stolen," Harald responded, staring at me.


"No, Monika."

"Bones of what kind? Animal?"

Harald started turning like a leopard in a cage. He stopped suddenly. "Human bones. Ansgar of Querfurt, what little is left of him."

"Dammit. Who?" I forced out my words.

"He was a missionary during the middle ages and was eventually Canonized. His bones were safeguarded in a monastery. Monika stole them while she was there researching ancient relics. When we broke up, she gave them to me. There is no way I can return them without landing myself in a hell of a lot of trouble. For the bones and for my break up with Monika, I feel guilt. I need to make amends." He paused. "I've got to get rid of all of them. The guilt, the bones, and the 'metronome'. I came on this pilgrimage in order to bury these bones somewhere along this route, it seems fitting. Ansgar of Querfurt was a highly religious man.

Whether he ever did that, I don't know. We never brought up the topic again. As for myself and the others in the group, was that why we were there, to bury the past?


Story Eight: 'The Similarity Syndicate'

Contributors in order of posting:

Tony Thatcher, Johanna Mc Donald, Elizabeth Coby, Cathy Cade, Paul Mastaglio, Marlene Pitcher, Sarah Mosedale, Sue Maynes, Michael Rumsey and Tony Thatcher.

I strained to get a better view as the revolving restaurant carried me back over the city street.  The view had been unexceptional when I first saw it; just a large man with a distracting hairstyle, being ushered from a limousine. The second time, an hour later, was curious. And now, on my third pass, I knew it was more than a coincidence; enough clones to fill a circus were gathering in the building opposite. My reserved-table time up, I paid the bill and went down to watch from the street.

There was quite a crowd forming on the street. Others had noticed the steady stream of stout fellows that were arriving by various means and entering the building. They had in common a hairstyle more in keeping with Jedward than the suited and booted men that we were witnessing. I leant towards a young lad and asked, "What's going on?"

"Some sort of science conference, I heard someone say," he replied. "Geneticists. This is a publicity stunt. Send in the clones instead of send in the clowns. An ear on a mouse and Dolly the sheep was enough for me. It's all a bit creepy."

The crowd was growing bigger; the young man moved away. A woman began to yell things about interfering with God and tried to enter the door with the latest clone. While the security guards were distracted, I decided to slip into the building. Surprisingly, I managed to get in unnoticed.

Out of the wind, the clones' weird hairstyles had flattened and flopped over to one side or the other. Some seemed to have shifted sideways a little. Here and there, clones had started to argue amongst themselves, each certain he was right, even though they all seemed to have the same opinions when it came down to it. I realised I had seen this face (these faces?) before. On the news? A clone (or was it?) stepped out on the stage and called them all to order. "Brothers, let's not forget what we're really here for."

The clones responded by humming together as if they were one body. Then their leader continued, "Brothers, our time is short. Tomorrow you will be sent to all the main population centres in the country. There are enough of you now to complete this task. The message is important and when they see who is delivering it, they will believe. No one must realise that you are not the true person. Speed and secrecy are..."

On spotting me, he clammed up, his face paling as he pointed a visibly shaking finger. "Who are you? What are you doing here?"

They grabbed my arms and lead me into an office behind the stage. An old man was sitting behind a wooden desk. He smelled of death. I wanted to find a route of escape, but I was surrounded by the clones.

"We have had many intruders. Sadly, most did not survive. You want to know what is happening? The Similarity Syndicate started out as an organization to provide eternal life for the chosen. However, the mind transfer caused a glitch into the plan. I guess free-will comes with the package."

I was dragged into a back room where two identical goons waited for me.

Immediately, the door closed and the two goons advanced on me smiling grimly. It took about 30 seconds to dispose of them. I spent considerably more time listening at the door to make sure everything had quietened down outside. Once satisfied, I made my way back to the front of the building and exited without difficulty. This outfit was amateur in the extreme.

HQ would be very interested, nevertheless. Clearly, this heinous plan, however ramshackle, required foiling. And I was just the woman to do it. Before being apprehended, I had taken the liberty of capturing the proceedings on video. All that was required now was to get this to the people who could make best use of it. Little did I realise just how difficult that would prove to be.

There were protestors and police everywhere, so a taxi was out of the question. I would be stuck in the melee. I spotted the young man I had been talking to originally. He was focused on me and clearly part of the syndicate, despite his disparaging words. I spotted a postal agency and by dodging and weaving through the crowd, I was able to slide in while he was trying to find me again. It would be only moments before he would put two and two together and work out what I was doing. Inside, I boxed up the video recording and sent it to my HQ contact. Now to slip away without him noticing. I felt a hand grab my shoulder and jumped in fright.

"Sorry to startle you, Miss." The man was middle-aged and well dressed. The young lad stood beside him. The man looked me straight in the eye and spoke slowly. "Miss, you are the only person who can help now. I implore you to retrieve your video and give it to me. I will ensure it will be shown on every news bulletin; on the hour, every hour. At the very least it will be a warning to our people something is afoot, even if we don't know what it is."

He sounded plausible and genuine, but if they were members of the syndicate, this could be a trick. My video could be lost forever. What was I to do?

I returned to the counter, retrieved the packet and was followed outside by the man and young lad. "Right," I said, "tell me what's really going on, before I give you this."

"OK," the lad replied, "but strictly off the record. An anonymous organisation has been cloning people for a long time."


"They have been refined, to be acquiescent."

"Perfect citizens then?"

"Yes, quite," he replied. "Unfortunately, some of them have created their own group."

"You mean the guys with the hair?"

"Yes, that's them. I've no idea why they wasted their free choice on comedy bouffant blonde, but they do well out of lookalike work. Give me the parcel please."

"Why are they all here?"

"We let them believe they have an important mission."

"And then?"

"We're going to switch them off." He took a metal box from his pocket.

I glanced over my shoulder. He fell for it and looked round, allowing me to grab the transmitter, sprint away and read the labels identifying the buttons.

I ignored 'Rebels' and stabbed at 'Shut Down All'. The city population deflated and collapsed. I felt the lonely horror of Nancy in the final scene of The Body Snatchers.


Story Seven: 'A Change of Plan'

Contributors in order of posting:

Paul Mastaglio, Johanna McDonald, Pat Mudge, Elizabeth Coby, Cathy Cade, Gail Wareham Everett, Michael Rumsey, Sarah Mosedale, Marlene Pitcher and Paul Mastaglio.

Peter Anderson fretted as he looked at his watch and waited for the bus. Where the devil was it? The meeting was in half an hour. He wasn't going to make it. He melted further into the shelter, out of the way of the incessant rain. His head bowed, he only heard footsteps as someone else joined him inside. He looked up at the figure. Squinting, he said, "Don't I know you?"

"Don't fink so, mate," said the man without even looking up from his phone.

"Yeah, I recognise you," said Peter. "Where do I know you from?"

The man did look at Peter then and he didn't look very happy. He threw a withering scowl and stated firmly and decisively that they had never met before and he didn't want to discuss it any further. The pair stood in awkward silence for several minutes, but Peter couldn't stop himself from asking, "Are you that bloke off the telly?"

"No, mate," he said, turning his back.

Shrugging, Peter looked at his watch again. Cars sped past but there was no sign of the bus. Faces flickered through his head as he tried to figure out who was standing next to him under the shelter. The man finished with his phone and slipped it into his pocket before turning his scowling face towards Peter again. Stepping back, Peter's voice trembled.

"You're that bloke everyone's been talking about."

"Why didn't you just leave it alone, mate," said the man, his dark eyes narrowing.

Peter was relieved to hear the bus approaching, his mind and heart were both racing. Why did he know the dark, angry face? Would he make the meeting? Why did he feel so confused? He couldn't keep up with his thoughts and stumbled as he boarded the bus. Finding a seat, he slumped into it, shaking. The man followed and sat opposite, staring. Peter felt his brain jolt. Why was an overwhelming sense of familiarity tickling his senses? He had never felt like this before and knew that he had met the man, who was now using his phone again.

The man visibly jumped when his phone rang. He looked at it accusingly before swiping the screen and raising it to his ear. "Hmm. Hmm. Not now, mate." He ended the call and scanned the bus. The phone rang again. He jabbed a button and it stopped. He thrust it in his pocket and met Peter's eye belligerently. Peter looked away.

Peter shivered as he suddenly knew why he recognised the man – the incident in the shopping mall, when there had been an attempt to snatch a three year old girl from her mother. The photograph from the CCTV footage had been published in the local paper, and Peter's stomach turned over as he realised that he'd also seen the man walking up Townley Road the previous Monday – approaching the gates of the Townley Tots Playschool.

With a nervous glance sideways, Peter slid his hand into his jacket pocket and gently began to remove his phone.

"Don’t even fink about it, mate."

The vice like grip on his wrist allowed no movement as the man, now sitting next to him, continued with a growl.

"A change of plan for you, mate. We're gitting orf this bus next stop. You and me's got fings to talk about."

I don’t think so, sunshine, thought Peter. He'd seen enough nine o'clock TV dramas to know that wouldn't end well. And he'd always fancied himself as a scriptwriter. He'd often thought these scenarios where people allowed themselves to be bossed about by villains were ridiculous. It was time to rewrite the script. For God's sake, he was on a well-lit bus, there were several witnesses. Everyone had a phone nowadays and the driver would have easy communications with the depot. Clearing his throat, he shouted loudly.

"The man sitting next to me is trying to force me to get off the bus. His photo was in the paper last week. He was trying to snatch a kiddie."

Two brawny men came from the back of the bus. Peter's assailant punched at the air. One grabbed the man from the knees, and the other went for the head. They wrestled the man to the floor of the bus. Peter jumped on top of the captive's back. He drove the captive's face into the metal floor as the bus hit a bump. Why did the driver keep going?

The man screamed as Peter pulled his head back by the hair.

Rage ran through Peter's veins. "If I had a knife, you'd be dead now."

The bus suddenly screeched to a stop. Police poured into the vehicle, taking over from Peter and his two assistants. A detective followed the uniforms in, addressing the three men.

"Congratulations. You've just helped us catch the notorious paedophile, Ron Norton. If you could please accompany us to the police station, we'll take statements from you. Thank you."

Peter stood back, still shaking. His ears buzzed and then he could hear the sound of clapping, getting louder as he reacquainted himself with his surroundings. Fellow passengers greeted him with smiles and comments of, "Well done," and, "You were so brave." The three men followed police and the captured fugitive off the bus.

An hour later, Peter glanced at his watch and thought, Sod it, I've missed my meeting. It was only about a bank overdraft anyway.

He turned to his two new friends. "A change of plan, I think. Fancy a pint? It's on me."


Story Six: 'Suspects'

Contributors in order of posting:

Michael Rumsey, Cathy Cade, Johanna McDonald, John Notley, Eileen Baldwin, Pat Mudge, Val Fish, Alan Barker, Barbara Noble and Michael Rumsey.

At 5pm, Brenda, close to tears, burst into my office.

"Mr Roberts, the money has gone."

At midday, I, as security officer, witnessed Brenda place £15,000 into a brown envelope. She opened the company safe, placed it on the top shelf and closed the door.

"Calm down Brenda," I said gently, "there’s probably a simple explanation. In addition to you and Mr Wallace, who else knows the combination number?"

"Four departmental managers and they all must have opened the safe. I know that because their month-end reports are in there." She paused, and then went on, "They are ready for Mr Wallace to pick up when he gets back from Berlin. Even Miss Andrew's report is on time." Brenda sniffed. "Jenny Andrews is still getting to grips with her admin since promotion, but the others are old lags; Peters is coming up to retirement."

Why was she telling me all this?

"Lewis," she continued, "has been with us since his apprenticeship at the age of 15 and old Mr Gordon is way beyond retirement and regarded now as part of the fabric of the building. Surely not one of them is capable of theft."

I eyed Brenda with suspicion. I'd known her for almost 10 years, since she first joined the firm after leaving college. In my opinion, she's a conscientious member of staff and would be the last person to do anything dishonest. However, rumours had started circulating around the office that she'd been experiencing some problems in her personal life.

She'd found herself in a relationship, after years of loneliness. All of a sudden, she'd started enthusing about a man called William. Her eyes would open wide as she engaged whoever would listen about the way they played bingo online, or the lottery. One day, she told us they'd been planning a big wedding in Las Vegas. She said it would be at the Ice Palace, with swans and doves carved out of ice. About a month later, when Brenda was asked how it was going, she burst into tears, ran into the loo and was heard wailing into her phone.

"William there is no more. It's all gone. I cannot get anymore. You know they suspect something."

I had a dilemma: it would be easy to let Brenda take the blame. She'd already confided in me that William was an alcoholic. She'd been hiding his excessive drinking from her family and was trying to reduce his intake by watering down the gin. Plus, I fancied the pants off her, had done for years. She had no idea. I was a married man, so kept my feelings to myself, but since the missus had walked out on me a few weeks back, I was a free agent again. I was convinced Brenda had done it, but maybe if I could stitch one of the others up for the job (cruel of me, I know, but if it got me what I wanted...), Brenda would be off the hook and she should be eternally grateful. Then all I'd need to do was persuade her to leave that scumbag for me… and there's always the chance he hadn't got his greedy hands on all of the loot yet. Well, that would be even better. Things were beginning to look up for yours truly.

"Morning, Brenda. Please take a seat."

I engaged the 'Do Not Disturb' sign and sat on the desk beside her. I'd spent half the night devising a cunning plan.

"About the stolen money," I began. "The departmental managers categorically deny any involvement. And I can't believe you would have taken it unless… William put you up to it."

Brenda bowed her head. "I'm sorry, Mr Roberts…"

"Roger, please."

"… Roger. William can be so persuasive." With that, she burst into tears.

I put my arm around her. So far so good. "Now, you and I must find a way to get the money back from William. Do you trust me?"

"Completely, Roger. Your wife is so lucky to have someone like you."

"Actually, Shirley left me for another man recently. I think she's seeing William."

Brenda stared at me in disbelief. "You're making that up – I don't believe you. William would never do that to me."

I put my arm around her shoulders in a conciliatory gesture.

"I'm really sorry, Brenda, but I know for a fact that Shirley has been supplying William with bottles of gin and brandy for some time now – she likes a tipple herself, only last week she told me that she was planning to move abroad with her new man."

Brenda shook herself free from my clumsy attempt at an embrace, and ran crying from my office. The next time I saw her, Brenda had been taken into police custody and charged with the murder of William Harvey. This complicated the issue, and I wondered whether I would ever be able to reclaim the missing money. Undeterred, I decided to go and visit Brenda in prison to try and resolve the issue.

They let me see her for a few minutes. The case against her was strong. Brenda admitted taking the money and giving it to Harvey. When she found out he'd been seeing someone else, it must have driven her crazy. Harvey was found with his skull crushed by a big brass bed-knob. It was lying next to the body. No fingerprints, so at least she'd thought to wipe it clean. She claimed to be at home alone at the time of the incident, so had no alibi. A woman matching her description was seen running from the building by a reliable witness.

I went straight home, only to find I had a visitor.

"Roger, something awful has happened." Shirley grabbed my suit lapels. "It's William. The other day the drunken fool fell against the bedpost cracking his head and knocking off the brass ball. I ran when I realised he was dead. What shall I do?"

I ushered her quickly inside my apartment and told her to sit down. She stuttered and babbled, then opened her handbag. "He dropped this."

The large fat brown envelope gazed up at me.

I could clear Brenda of that awful charge. With the money recovered, Mr Wallace would go easy on her. On the other hand, inside that envelope was a potentially great holiday for two. Las Vegas, perhaps, and a chance to get my wife back. So, Police Station or Travel Agent?

I picked up the phone and dialled.


Story Five: 'No More Mr Nice Guy'

Contributors in order of posting:

Johanna McDonald, Cathy Cade, Michael Rumsey, Elizabeth  Coby, Pat  Mudge, Eileen Baldwin, Lucy Morrice, Sarah Mosedale, Angela Googh and Johanna Mc Donald.

I'm running late today. I've had a bad morning; one of those days where everything goes wrong. First of all, I spent half an hour chasing the rabbit round the garden; he'd nibbled through his cage and escaped in the night. Then I found my face paint had leaked and had made a dreadful mess all over the dressing table. Then, as I was getting dressed, I realised that the heel had come off one of my massive shoes. I have already had one of the angry mums ring me to say that the kids are fed up with waiting and if I don't get to the party soon then she'll make sure that I never work in this town again. Well, I'm not in the best of moods.

Finding that the car has a flat tyre doesn’t help matters. I don't have time to change it. (Did I get around to having the spare fixed after that last flat? Come to that, is someone sabotaging my tyres?)   So, I'm waiting for the cab to arrive and getting into costume while I'm waiting, so I can hit the ground running when I get there, metaphorically speaking – perhaps make an entrance. The doorbell rings sooner than I expected, so I grab the long shoes (they'll have to go on last-minute, heeled or not, and I'll try not to trip over them unrehearsed) and I open the door. Only it isn't the cab.

She takes a step back. "Oh, you are Jolly Joey, aren’t you? I didn't realise. You did my son’s birthday..."

"Look, officer," I say, trying to stay calm, "I 'm late for an engagement. If you’ve come to make another booking..."

Her face changes. "No, Mr Stanton, I’m sorry, it’s far more serious than that. I would like you to come with me to the police station please."

The taxi arrives, but it might as well be invisible. All thoughts evaporate but one. Oh no, it’s Alec again isn’t it. What has he done now?

How many times have I traipsed along to Police Stations, often looking like a clown, literally, expected to pull a rabbit out of a hat, metaphorically? Once I did have some rabbits with me... Anyway, I digress.

Alec likes to blow things up. All sorts of things. He doesn't care what he destroys. What matters is where the object is, who will be most upset and how spectacular their reaction will be. He makes things explode in order to see people explode. I'm growing weary of it.

"It's about your Alec," the police officer says. "There's been an incident."

Taking a deep breath, I say, "What's he done now?"

"Well, I’m sorry to tell you he's spent the afternoon terrorising residents on your estate. He knocked on their doors and threw firecrackers at their feet when they opened them. Scared residents want to press charges against him. Mind you, he’s got his comeuppance, and he’s the scared one now. The stupid boy kept his stash of bangers in his pocket. One firecracker exploded before he got far enough away and sparks set his pocket alight. He's in hospital being treated for severe burns."

Sweat poured from under my wig and streaked down my face, ruining my makeup. "Never mind the police station," I say. "I need to get to the hospital."

"Not yet," the police officer says. "You have some questions to answer first.

"Your son says you keep the explosives in your garden shed for your tricks. Is this true?" She turns and beckons a colleague from the police car  – a fresh-faced young bloke  – and I lead them to the shed. They look at me in amazement.

The female officer says, "Blimey, what's all this then?"

I say nothing. I wear the clown outfit because I'm undercover. My son is going to cause trouble for me if I'm not careful.

The explosives are here because my contacts thought I'd be the safest bet for keeping them away from prying eyes. Nobody suspects a children's entertainer of being a subversive. Looks like my cover’s been blown now, so to speak. I could play the innocent, or just set off this remote detonator and send the lot sky high...

That’s what the gang thought, anyway. Of course, I’m actually a double agent. And that stuff about blowing the place sky high simply reflects my frustration at the moment I desperately need to get to hospital to see my injured, pyromaniac son. I've got PCs Thick and Thicker standing at my front door. They are as blissfully ignorant of my undercover work as the would-be bank robber gang who thinks I'm harbouring their explosives (instead of passing them straight over to the authorities). For Chrissake, what a combination of events. Given that the contents of this shed consist of large black balls with 'BOMB' written on them and giant fuses, you would think even the aforementioned PCs Gormless and Gormlesser might recognise them as harmless tools of my trade. Though to be fair, I hear Our Thin Blue Line has been having serious recruitment difficulties for a while now. Anyway, what to do next? I've got to get to that hospital quickly now.

I will have to signal my handlers. I warned them that something like this was going to happen, what with Alec playing with fire. They told me that his reputation would add to my street-cred. Soon, these two duffers would get their marching orders. I reached down for my right shoe; the signalling device was in the heel of my big floppy. Oh no. My heel broke and my shoes are inside. I don't even know if the gadget hidden there got damaged when the break happened. Can nothing go right today?

Well, there's only one thing for it: no more Mr Nice Guy. I reach into the pocket of my baggy pantaloons, pull my revolver out and point it at the young rookie cop.

"Get into the shed or I'll blow your brains out."

I lock the pair inside. They weren't to know that, if I'd pulled the trigger, a little flag with 'BANG' on it would pop out.

Next, I ring Gripper, my criminal gang contact, and tell him that I have a little surprise for him in my shed. Shame I won't be there to see him come face to face with the police.

I drive off in the squad car that had the keys dangling in the ignition (school boy error by our boys in blue). I'm not off to the hospital, though. Alec has pushed me too far. He's on his own. I'm heading to see Baz 'The Butcher' Barlow, my mate from a rival gang. He has a large cash lump sum for me, for my work as a triple agent. He'll laugh when I tell him about my day so far.

Then, I'm on my way to Acapulco to spend the rest of my days soaking up the sun and drinking tequila. A very Jolly Joey indeed.


Story Four: 'Talk of the Town'

Contributors in order of posting:

David Silver, Neil Davie, Alan Barker, Maggie Elliott, Elizabeth Coby, Eileen Baldwin, Lynn Gale, Lesley Anne Truchet, Pat Mudge and David Silver.

The topic under discussion in the pub was the weather. But, after the regulars acknowledged that it mattered little whether the long dry spell was continuing outside because they spent most of their time indoors at the inn anyway, the subject petered out and the pubsters switched to silent mode.

The stillness was broken when latecomer Frank arrived on the premises, scattering raindrops everywhere. "Guess what's happened to our Jenny," he said.

The small puddle forming around Frank's feet told everyone in the pub that the dry spell had now ended. The fact that something notable had happened to Jenny was less surprising. Nobody had to ask which Jenny. The whole village knew who Frank meant and that something was always happening to her.

"Expecting, is she?" asked Kenny, never one to mince his words.

Frank threw his mac over the coat stand and stepped up to the bar. They all gathered round. "Something much worse than that," he whispered. "She tried a new shade of hair dye and left it on too long. Not only does she look like Shrek’s sister, but it’s falling out in clumps. Surprised you didn’t hear her screams from here."

Kenny was strangely disappointed by this reply and comforted himself by imagining Jenny giving birth to lots of small green babies. He smiled. Nobody else said anything; they were now all quite sozzled, though some did imagine their own version of green Jenny. The loud sound of a car crash, if that’s what it was, stirred them all to movement and they rushed to look outside.

Of course, it was Jenny. Tears streamed down her face as she staggered out of the car. No wonder – she'd pranged Kenny's car in the carpark. He'd left it sticking out rather far.

He yelled, "Silly cow, can't you look where you're going?"

She turned on him, waving a hank of green hair. "This hair dye came from your pound shop. I'm suing for... I'm taking you to court."

"What on earth are you talking about?" Kenny bristled with rage, his face reddening by the second. "I've never sold hair dye in my shop." Realisation dawned. "Was it by chance in a red tube?"

"Yes, that's the one." She sobbed as more clumps of green hair dropped to the floor.

"You silly woman," he cried. "You must have used the Hare’s dry paint stripper."

Jenny stopped crying instantly. "Paint stripper." Another clump of green hair fell from her head as she turned and fled from the pub, the strident laughter of the sozzled revellers ringing in her ears.

Frank joined in the revelry and downed a few pints himself. At closing time, he followed the trail of green hair and found his wife at home. She was naked in the shower, scrubbing her tinged bald head. As she turned her green face towards him, he stepped closer and opened the shower door.

Jenny glared at him through soap-rimmed eyes. "You laughed at me with your drunken pals. Fine husband you are."

Frank sighed. "You don't understand, dear. I had to appear to be one of the lads because I'm planning to take over the pub in a secret business venture. I have to keep in with the regulars in order to retain their custom, once the inn is ours."

"My hero," exclaimed Jenny. "I look forward to seeing their faces when I become mein hostess. They'll be green with envy."


Story Three: 'Comeback'

Contributors in order of posting:

Cathy Cade, Angela Googh, Derek McMillan, Lynn Zeleski, Elizabeth Coby, Eileen Baldwin, Marlene Pilcher, Lesley Anne Truchet, Gail Everett and Cathy Cade.

I'm hovering above the operating theatre, watching my body below. It jerks with each power surge. So much is still unfinished with a lot hanging on the outcome. They can't get away with this. If all else fails, I'll come back and haunt them.

Three engineers emerge from a huddle, around panels and monitors. "We're live again," one of them says. "It's now or never."

The doctor looks up and nods.

The nurse unlocks my wheelchair and says, "It's time."

The only way I can survive is to go back in time and fix the electrical fault that caused this problem. But that's impossible. Then I reflect that I'm in the middle of an out-of-body experience.

Living in limbo is not what I had in mind. I can't wait for the next step in the process. The donor was a college medical student and, if all goes well, my memories, my thoughts and my soul will soon have a fully functioning body. The only catch is the power brownouts. It's time all right. I need to return to a body or start searching for a way to survive on this side of the veil.

A loud humming fills the room and the lights become dazzlingly bright. Obviously, the power is back. I can hear exclamations of surprise and sense someone beside me. "Come on," says a voice, as we fall together into the body below.

"Wow, look at that. We got him. Good work guys." The engineers leave, looking pleased with themselves.

Yeah, you got me, and an ethereal hitchhiker, I think.

"Be quiet. Say nothing," the voice whispers. "I will explain everything once this body is stable. We have things to do."

Oh, why had I agreed to their experiment? I'm a trained astronaut. When they put it to me, it sounded as if I would be saving the world. Now, it looks like I'm not only destroying the world, but myself too. At least I'm back in my body, but with another being. What does this hitchhiker want? How has this happened? So many questions needed answering. Am I even me anymore?

"Amazing, all the ways that we use to try to reach immortality," the hitchhiker whispers to me. "This is my 12th body transfer. I won't bother you, I promise, but the collective needs to be destroyed. You need my skills."

I fall downward into life. Once more the darkness of doubt surrounds me.

"I agree," I say to the hitchhiker after the doctors leave. "I've been thinking and I have a plan that will put a stop to these awful experiments forever." Sitting up on my operating table, I outline my idea to him.

"That's more or less what I had in mind." The hitchhiker grins. "Let's do it."

He merges into my consciousness. As we stand up, I stumble as he beats me to it by seconds. "Come on, we need to make a start. It's Friday the 13th today and my next body transfer will be my 13th – lucky for the rest of the patients here, but less so for the surgeon in charge."

Next body transfer? What if we sabotage our own return? What am I not being told? I feel the grin leave our face; my body squatter is stronger than I.

The collective need to re-think their methods, but they're only seeking solutions to infertility caused by environmental breakdown.

I sense a third presence.


The lofty cloaked figure raises an egg-timer and shakes it; both its bulbs are empty. Inside the hood, a white grin gleams.

I feel a tug as a shadow is dragged from me, kicking and bellowing. Its kicks are the whirring of the air conditioner. It screams at the hum of fluorescent lights.

The cloaked figure produces another sand-filled timer from its folds and turns to me grinning. I realise this is its only expression.

This timer's top bulb is almost empty. The spectre turns it over.


Both figures fade as a nurse enters.

"Up already, Captain Lazarus? How are you feeling?"


Story Two: 'Drop-In Port in a Storm'

Contributors in order of posting:

Lesley Truchet, Gail Wareham Everett, Cathy Cade, Elizabeth Coby, Malcolm Richardson, Maggie Elliott, Sarah Mosedale, Eileen Baldwin, Pat Mudge and Lesley Truchet.

My skimpy, Prada, red mini-dress and I shuddered in unison as we absorbed the first heavy drops of rain. Attempting to sprint in my Louis Vuitton high heels, I wobbled towards the local drop-in centre, a place I'd always avoided.

Three other fashion victims were waiting for the counselling session to begin: Jade, in her Princess Beatrice toilet-seat hat, Charlene, in a pair of creased grey harem pants that looked like an elephant's arse, and poor Ethel, in a bright pink Crimplene leisure suit.

I perched myself on one of the mis-matched circle of chairs. One woman, clearly a charity shop habituee, nibbled her fingernails while nervously sizing up the rest of us. After a few moments, she cleared her throat and announced, "Shall we get started then?"

Jade, Charlene and Ethel looked suspiciously at me, obviously wondering why I was there. Sandra, the nail-nibbling counsellor, said, "As you see, we have a new friend here today who has a very special reason for joining us. Would you like to tell us about it Imelda?"

"Well... well..." I stuttered, trying to think on my feet whilst sitting down on a cold, damp, plastic seat. "I'm so pleased to have found this support group. I can't tell you how long I've been searching, I really can't."

Charlene fixed her eyes on me. Clearly, she hadn't joined the group to bare her soul. I guessed that girlie meetups like this were her hunting ground. Looking like a quality tart in my tight red dress, I knew why I was the object of her attention.

As I spoke, I glanced round the group, carefully maintaining my nervous appearance. My cover story was rock solid but needed to be drip fed to give me time to observe everyone's reactions. Which one was she?

I hope the one I am looking for is Jade. I feel drawn to her. She has same silly fashion sense as the young woman, in the only photo I have in my possession. But I must tread carefully. I need to get them to trust me.

My dress felt too short, too tight, and Charlene was giving me an odd look. Nervous, I stood and offered my ciggies round.

"Err, this is a no-smoking building," said the counsellor, crossing her arms.

"I'll take one," said Charlene. "We can smoke outside."

"I'll join you in a minute," I lied, giving her the packet. I left the building via the toilet window and signalled to my waiting colleagues.

I know everything about the lives of my three targets. Having finally met them, Charlene is obviously a lesbian; therefore, she doesn't fit the profile. Although Jade resembles the photo in some ways, I like her and that tells me she cannot be the one. Ethel is the person in the photo, albeit years older. She has the same eyes and face shape, disguised by thick-lensed glasses. Hiding behind her terrible taste in clothes, ugly glasses and a put-on dotty personality, I recognised the person I'd met years before, despite the facade.

The Louis Vuitton shoes were killing me, the red dress uncomfortable. I couldn't wait to ditch them, along with Imelda, a bloody awful cover name.

Manoeuvring my car into the traffic, I headed back to MI5 headquarters. Ethel, known to us as Sharon the Sadist, was one of the most wanted people on our files. My promotion was assured.


Story One: 'Great Aunt Mabel'

Contributors in order of posting:

Gail Wareham Everett, Eileen Baldwin, Elizabeth Coby, Cathy Cade, Maggie Elliott, Sarah Mosedale, Michael Rumsey, Chris Fielden,  Pat Mudge and Gail Wareham Everett.

Great Aunt Mabel, a typical seaside landlady, cooks a fry-up for her guests every morning, then sits down in the kitchen to a Blackpool Breakfast – five ciggies and a pot of tea. However, yesterday was different – she had ten ciggies and a large gin

Her hands were still trembling. She re-read the letter again, nearly setting fire to it, as the cigarette ash landed on the scrawny writing, informing her of an impending visitor whom she thought she left behind in her troubled past.

Well, after all these years, who does he think he is ? What will he say about their secret? Does he finally know what they should do? She poured another drink, lit another cigarette, sighing deeply as the anxiety and questions filled her mind.

The pile of leaves had long since dispersed or rotted behind the garden of their former home backing onto the forest. But over the years, the mound of earth the leaves had covered, had flattened anyway.

Having rebuilt his life with the 12 step programme and finding faith, he intended to clear his conscience by redressing mistakes of the past. This would have profound repercussions for them both.

Mabel considered her options. Fight or flight? The thought of uprooting herself at this point was simply unbearable. So, she inhaled deeply and focused her considerable intellect on the problem. Typical seaside landlady my arse, she mused.

27 years since Albert left. Buggered off to Australia they said, well down under was right. She giggled at her own joke, now Fred wanted to dig it all up again, another giggle. Arriving tomorrow his letter said. Huh, she'd show him born again the silly sod.

Mabel thought back to her life on the street. How Fred had helped her. The pimp was gone and she'd been freed. But knowing what was out there, lying in the mud, still had a hold on her... Was Fred right? He'd recovered. Maybe she could too? Another cigarette. Another gin. The trembles subsided. She could think clearly again. She knew what she'd say to him when he arrived.

Mabel watched the clock and checked her phone every few minutes. Watching through the window she gasped when she saw him heading towards the house. His salt and pepper hair flopped across his brow, his wizened face, still handsome. She opened the door and smiled a nervous smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes.

"Fred," she said, her voice jittery, "I've been thinking about your letter…"

"There’s something I need to do," said Fred and, pushing past her, he immediately went through the house into the garden. Standing by the spot where he had buried Albert, he prayed.

"Forgive us our sins – I’m going to tell the police today."

Shattering his skull with a blow from the stone that marked the grave containing Fluffy, her beloved cat, Mabel sank to her knees. "Born again, Fred? Well, now's your chance. You should never have gone to Australia and left me."


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Gladiator Gallery

Gladiator Gallery

Below you will find details of the winning Gladiator Fable contributors. This challenge only runs once or twice a year, so the table will be updated less frequently than the other tables in this section of the site.

Gladiator Gallery
Contributor Name Winning Stories Date
Andrew Ball Buttercup's Revenge April 2024
Bob Tateson " "
Chris Fielden " "
Gail Kryscio " "
Klaus Gehling " "
Sara Ali " "
Val Fish " "
Bob Tateson The Noble Renegade March 2023
Cathy Cade " "
Kate Dunbar " "
Lesley Anne Truchet " "
Maggie Elliott " "
Mandy Garzia " "
Mary Fox " "
Michael Rumsey " "
Amanda Jane Davies Story Twenty-Eight: 'Cliffhanger' March 2022
Andrew Ball " "
Lynn Zeleski " "
Pat Mudge " "
Paul Mastaglio " "
Andrew Ball Story Seventeen: 'The Reluctant Gladiator' April 2021
John Notley Story Twenty-Two: ' Gladiator: Name That Tune' "
Paul Mastaglio Story Twenty: 'Gladiator' "
Andrew Ball Story Sixteen: 'Who Wuz It?' January 2021
Jill Lang " "
Joanne Caddy " "
John Di Carlo " "
Klaus Gehling " "
Paul Mastaglio " "
Susan Colgan " "
Tony Thatcher " "
Val Fish " "
Cathy Cade Story One: 'Great Aunt Mabel' February 2020
Chris Fielden " "
Eileen Baldwin " "
Elizabeth Coby " "
Gail Wareham Everett " "
Maggie Elliott " "
Michael Rumsey " "
Pat Mudge " "
Sarah Mosedale " "

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Amizero IPM
Hi. I do not understand how to enter a story? Thank you.

Chris Fielden
Hi Amizero. Gail's Gladiators is a challenge that runs once or twice a year via our Facebook group. If you join the group, you will be able to participate when it runs. I hope that is of interest to you :)