How to End the Thing …

It’s a difficult time. We (two teams of two writer-peeps) are finalising stories, but one of them is being difficult – we don’t know how to give the final picture.

One option is to have the main character (MC) drive past the same place she drove into town, see the gate that closes the place off now, and a sign that says (among other things): Danger: Toxic Seep – Do Not Enter!

But it’s the arid zone. There are no places in the story where there are sludges and seeps, there are no bits where stuff oozes from the ground!

It’s a no go. But we can’t find a way to end it if we don’t do something like that.

Let me give you some background (not the whole story!).

MC has run away from her fate and her last remaining family (Grandmother). She’s bought a house, sight unseen, in a remote country town. This might be a chance for peace, but no – it’s where she meets the mortal enemy. Again.

You see, you can’t outrun yourself; fate always finds you because it’s in you. After much suffering and learning and fighting back, MC shows how she’s learned her lessons well enough to be able to take on the nemesis – but it might just cost her own life. Well, that’s just the way it goes when you have a story like this (the genre would probably be classified as urban fantasy, but if you consider it’s really rural or outback, maybe I should call it ‘outback fantasy’) – in the end is the choice to ‘do or die’.

And, of course, I can’t tell you the actual ending, but the denouement, the final wrapping up moment – what can we do with that?

I want to have the sign, but with different connotations; just something that says ‘Don’t Go There’. My colleague wants more, bigger, mucho impact.

The question for both of us is this: What is Best for the Story?

How will the denouement affect the reader? Which take on the final drive-by will leave the most lingering impression? What will the emotional impact be? Is that what we want the reader to experience?

The questions are simple, really, but the answers are being difficult.

What do we do?

Well, I suggested we do an interview of the characters to see how they would like to ‘see’ the end of their story.

My counterpart said we should do two endings, and get some beta readers to give us their take on what it meant to them at that point.

The problem is we can’t agree on which two endings, because now that we have those two, there are several more that just might be better than those two, and if we give only two choices to the beta readers, shouldn’t they be the best two choices?

The discussion rages on …


the house

An Excerpt: The Third Moment

Chapter 4

Screams. Blood. Death that came in oozes through cracks; black claws that dragged viscera in a trail over the floor. Something reached for her; electrified hairs lifted in a crackly, sparkly line from her wrists to her shoulders. The neck hairs followed, lifted and sizzled with the new energy.

Something was about to happen. Something was coming. For her? To rescue or to finish? Evinna didn’t know, but any change was better than this. She wriggled her wrists in the plastic cuffs, tested for even a small measure of space, lifted it to her mouth to chew. No movement. Nothing. Too tight. The plastic bit so deep her hands were swollen and hard and dark. Something would have to happen soon, or this would be her end. The end.

No.

Evinna threw her body up, eyes wide open, mind wide-awake, heart pounding; body sweaty and tense and jittery. A dream. It was a dream. Ragged breaths panted from her mouth to the cold damp air, wobbled and vibrated in smoky wisps of fog.

Wintery light oozed a green hue through the dirty glass window, outlined the shape of feet hanging off the bunk ends.

Early. Her hands shook. She rubbed her wrists – no ties, but the skin was red and swollen and hot. Her ears still heard the screams from the nightmare.

Should she get up? A breath blew out like a rainmaker, took some of the freeze from her limbs, loosened her mind.

No noise came from the other bunks. Well, except gentle snores, growls, soft farts. Sleep sounds. Hands dangled to the floor from under plumpy doonas. Five other bunks with doonas and lumps. The people who came for the Eartch course.

She wished the accommodation was decent, not this draughty and cold, run-down and mouldy, old and decrepit scout-hall tin-shed thing in the middle of a dank half-hearted attempt at a lake. Last night would have been so much . . . more.

The bunk opposite hers – that lumpy bit was Billy.

Her breath deepened and sped up to match the increased pulse rate. Her mind drifted to the things that happened last night. His hands, his lips, his eyes. Soft brown skin that sent senses a-scatter in every direction all at once, to return with a crash of cymbals right in the middle of her heart. She still felt it. A slight touch here, there, a whisper as skin slid on skin, as hearts beat in unison.

The magic of their night drifted over her like an aura, enfolded and warmed her, brought a flush to her cheeks. Evinna sighed; deep contentment flowed through her veins. She felt alive, so fully aware of life.

A half-heard memory tried to rattle her thoughts. The dream, the screech of a whistle that pierced through the fading darkness. She pushed the nightmare back into insignificance, away. Not now.

Her tongue licked her lips, rubbed at her teeth. Yeccht. First, coffee. She shoved the doona off and slid across the floor in her socks, pulled the wrapper around her shoulders as she slid into a glissade (in her mind, anyway), soared into the dawn, slithered to the door.

A discordant squeal as she opened the door with once-yellow paint that peeled and slivered in its own dance of shape and colour to land the floor with many of its friends.

The floorboards squeaked when she stepped into the middle of the hall. Crap. She’d forgotten that. Did anyone hear? She smiled, in her mind swirled a pirouette across the room to him, a triple-axel spin and leap over his body. Breathed in his scent, his laughter, his deep growl when . . . Breathed out. Checked for movement from the other bunks.

No change; no sounds, no grumbles.

Time for coffee. Evinna put her hand over her mouth so she wouldn’t laugh or squeal or giggle, tiptoed close to the far wall to avoid any more noises, made her way to the kitchen-diner common area.

The long table was clean, plates and cups and cutlery set out on the white cotton table-cloth ready for the next meal. The urn – quiet. She tapped the side. Thonk. Full. Flicked on the switch at the wall, waited for the crackle and hum of start-up, dragged the cupboard doors open; another tooth-tearing squeak – must have been a long time since this place was used; found the coffee, tea bags, chocolate powder – all new, unopened. Coffee mocha. The best drink for . . . after. She swung her body in adagio, a circle, arms soared and spun, body twirled as her legs dipped and dived, flipped and flung up and curled in to counter-balance the sensuous spin. Her eyes skidded, became motionless as she saw it on the large wall behind the wonky trestle table covered in glaring white cotton.

The dance stopped, mid leap. Eyes widened.

A tanned skin hung there. Was it there last night?

Maybe, maybe not. Evinna remembered Billy. The moment he touched her hand, the moment their eyes met. Nothing else existed. She could have missed an elephant.

She would have missed a wall hanging.

The urn crackled. She touched it – still cold; she turned and walked to the skin.

Not well tanned. Lumpy bits. What animal did this skin come from? Small head, long body and limbs. The shape . . .?

Frowned, scowled as something bit at her memory; her eyes skimmed down the hide, rapido. Stopped. Widened. A scar. The backward seven. Her fingers remembered it. She raised her hand – no, not . . . Remembered sliding over the ridges. Her lips remembered the shape of it, the taste of it, traced by her tongue.

Air tarnished to orange and black stripes, solid, couldn’t get past her lips. Her hands lunged . . . The wall slid sideways. The skin tilted – horizontal? Blackness shadowed in from the sides, left only a diminished tunnel of half-light. A focus for . . .

A sonic horn shrilled. Sirens cut the air and screamed and screamed and screamed, the pitch higher and higher, ear-splitting. Evinna heard the thump as her head bounced on the timber floorboards. The hands, her hands, played out a twitchy dance on the mouldy-coloured timber. Muggy air from the swamp lifted in stringy wafts through the cracks in the floor; danced in the vortex her hands created as they flapped and slapped in a manic patter. Two nails cracked and tore.

Flakes fell from the crinkly, dried-up skin, flowed in the damp air, rolled with it, became . . .

Her eyes wouldn’t close, things were both clearly outlined and blurred and distorted and rippled with tension within the point of focus. Oily rags under the bottom of the cupboards, covered in webs and dust. A mist slid out through the slits of splitting timber. Her head bounced again, rolled; flashes of bright colours fractured across her vision. Teeth clacked and cracked in a xylophonic off-key dinkle. Everything rolled in swells that rocked and rollicked her head, bashed her senses.

A warm hand settled on her shoulder; words slinked, rebellious, through the cacophony of sirens and screams and hammer of sound waves.

“Evinna,” a woman’s voice whispered in colours of honey and wax and summer warmth. “Evinna, come back from there.” The voice belonged to Gnangarai. “Leave that place, and come back.” It wasn’t words. It was music. Gnangarai sang; her hand tapped Evinna’s shoulder in the same rhythm as the voice. No.

The hand didn’t move. She did. Convulsions. A fit.

Not again. She closed her eyes. Let go, slid into the other-where place.


copyright Rose Brimson & Cage Dunn 2016

The First Moment …

This extra post was inspired by this post.


The front door banged, footsteps clumped down the hallway. He came through the common room doorway with no door, ducked under to avoid hitting his head on the lintel. A gush of wind whistled up through the gaps in the timber floor. He smiled.

Other people walked up, introduced themselves, spoke to him. Evinna couldn’t move.

The music of his voice was the first intrigue, the warm tone, such a depth of timbre as he laughed, as it vibrated through the floor, into the walls, rattled the glass in the windows. The way the light bent to highlight his cheekbones, his eyebrows. The laugh-lines in the brown skin that surrounded his molasses brown eyes.

Billy.

One of the students. One of five students, and Evinna made six. A small group. She heard the convenor say ‘all here now’ as if it came through a long and hollow tube.

Her hand reached for his outstretched handshake invitation; big hands, visibly soft skin with little callous marks at the tips and thumb – must play Aussie rules, or guitar, or both. Her eyes lifted to his.

Locked.

The hands continued on their trajectory.

Connected.

Lightning zapped along her arm, fired every hair and nerve end into flame. His fingers clenched on her hand; she tried to fight it; too late, the mirror response. His pupils dilated wide, dark; the deep brown irises pushed into the colour of raw cacao.

Hot raw cacao. Her mouth fell open, eyelids drooped, hips swung in to front his. Kept her grip on his hand.

Noise ceased. Time stopped. The world disappeared. A cavernous sensation as the walls fish-eyed out and away, blurred into distance.

She couldn’t breathe, couldn’t look away. Her mouth watered, she snapped her mouth closed with an audible clack of teeth.

A whirlpool of emotions: desire, hunger for something she was ravenous for, a sizzle and burn over her whole body. A loud, deep growl – her throat vibrated with it – her eyes prowled over every inch of him, disregarded every other occurrence in the environment.

Inconsequential.

Her animal self, some part she’d never known, took control.

Time moved. Stuff happened. Voices intruded like a radio station just off the mark, static nonsense. Movement, actions, flow. Rituals. She moved with it, but it was irrelevant, insignificant. She felt only his words on her eyes, his scent in her nose, on her skin. Tasted him on her tongue when she breathed.

Someone sat her down. Put food in front of her. Cutlery clanked as it dropped onto the white tablecloth that covered the rickety fold-up trestle table.

The food was nothing. She didn’t know who put it on the table or what it was. Evinna shoved it in her mouth, chewed, gulped it down until the plate was empty. Didn’t know how much time was swallowed between one moment and the next.

Her eyes never left Billy, who sat on the other side of the low table. He smiled at her, a lazy movement of his bottom lip as his head lowered, as his eyelids drooped, as his breath sped up. She could see his heartbeat in the pulse on his neck – hers pounded the same rhythm. The pound met in the air between them and bounced back; each thump felt in her neck, in her lungs, in her groin. In the tingle of her toes.

He was so tall his knees knocked against the underside with every movement. She suppressed the laugh that bubbled up with each wobble of glasses and crockery. Giggles escaped whenever his foot touched her be-socked toes – when did she slip her shoes off? Springs of tension wound and unwound in her legs and stomach.


Copyright Rose Brimson & Cage Dunn 2017 (an excerpt)

rodk

Short and Sharp

A quick note today. Why? The race (tdf) is still underway, sleep is short, and I’ve been helped out with my misbehaving address page (I should send that person a lollipop, yes?).

Anyway … as always, a slight digression, but here comes a small insight (first draft only, so susceptible to changes/amendments) into the Ghost Story (soon to be renamed … any suggestions?). Copyright Rose Brimson & Cage Dunn 2017


Scene 20

Not a single truck passed the shop while Anna stood and stared at Arni in the middle of the shop-floor. Otherwise, she could have blamed a heavy rig for the thundering of the floor, the sensation of an earthquake that rose from her feet and into her legs and stomach; that wrenched her heart into skipping more than one beat.

This was worse. Arni stood with her hands on her hips, and the long skirt wrapped around her hands. The bare legs glistened and twisted in the light of the blue-white LED overhead light.

The scars looked freshly healed. Redness and puffy edges Anna could almost feel the pain from. The twists of ropy tendrils of half-healed scar tissue from a burn. A hot burn. One that went deep. That was meant to kill.

“It was a dream!” Anna felt the words come out of her mouth, even as she pulled the sleeves of her arm up. The handprint scar on her arm burst with heat and became red and white slashes of angry pain, as if it was happening again.

Arni stepped forward in a creeping sidle. The edges of the scar on her left leg oozed a pink fluid. She put her hand on Anna’s scar. It was a perfect fit; her hand covered the whole scar.

Anna’s eyes widened as she looked into Arni’s face and recognised the features. She hadn’t been wrong. Arni had Nan’s features, her hair colour – and her eyes.

“You’re one of us?” Anna squeaked.

“No. I’m a … I don’t know what. But not blood. Not as you know it. Not clan. But …” she looked away and dropped her skirt as the loud bang of the back door intruded. “It was a dream, but it was more.”

Rod stepped through the door from the residence into the shop.

“She knows, does she, love?”

Arni nodded without taking her eyes off Anna.

“What is this?” Anna asked.

“We know,” Arni said She reached behind and found Rod’s hand. He stepped up beside her. “We know what you’re here for. We want to help. Tell us what you need. What we can do. Please, let us help.” Tears poured down her face as she spoke.

“Is this…?” Anna had to think, and fast. Had she been sent here? For this? Did Nan mess with her mind and make her think she was doing something of her own volition, but really sending her out for the Task?

“I don’t understand,” she finally said.

“Bullshit,” Rod snorted. “You’re going to be a Valki, and a Valki has to … do things … to get that name. We know.”

“We know a bit, not all of it,” Arni finished. “I’m an extra,” she added.

“What is an extra?” Anna raised her eyebrow. “And what does it have to do with me?” It better be a good story, or she was out of here – now!

“Illi.”

It was all Arni said. It was enough.

“We can discuss this later, when I’ve …” what? What excuse could she come up with to give her time to find out what the crap was going on?

“We know. But we had to let you know.” Arni turned away. “Rod, love – can you get the supplies she needs? You know, the salt and litter and stuff?” She didn’t wait for an answer, just walked out of the shop.

Anna’s face must have reflected her shock.

“It’s alright,” Rod said. “Things will come together when they should. That’s the way it goes, isn’t it?”

But Anna had no idea. If she’d been set up, it was amazing. If it wasn’t a set up, it was worse because it was too real.


 

That Time of Year, and What it Elicits

Well, it’s TDF! Which means I don’t sleep, forget to eat at the normal times, stay up all night to watch the lycra legs and mountains and pretty landscapes – the Tour de France!

So, in a nutshell, what you get is what there already is – a third scene from the WIP (the Ghost one without a title).


Scene 5

If there was ever going to be a woman stamped with the word ‘sexy’ it was this one. She was beautiful. Auburn hair that fell halfway down her back, a svelte figure that clothes clung to as if their life depended on her, and a sultry lilt to her voice that would have dragged the males in from all directions. In the city.

“I’m absolutely sure he didn’t introduce himself properly,” she purred. “I’m Sylvina Harrihan – call me Sylv – and this is my husband, Robert – but everyone calls him Bud. Don’t know why.” Her fingers danced in the air in front of Anna’s hand, but didn’t touch.

“I’ll go get it happening. You two get to know each other, and I’ll be right back.” Bud disappeared, followed by clanks and clatters and a loud and slightly out of tune whistle.

The front room was warm and bright, even lit only by the fire and candles. Dark hollows muffled and softened the corners and edges, but Sylv had a shine all of her own. Her conversations were intellectual, and concentrated on world issues. Except when it came to hairdressers, masseurs, the things women always wanted to help them look beautiful.

“Why don’t you move to a town?” Anna asked, after Sylv had complained for the third time about the lack of facilities.

“Oh, no, my dear. This is my home. This is where my Bud lives. This is where we met and where we’ll die. It’s home. I love my home.” Her hands flourished to show the room with damask curtains in shades of silver and dusky pink. The complementary colours in the big, soft chairs glowed with warmth from the open fire and the row of candles on the mantle. “This is my home.” The arm dropped.

A chill ran down Anna’s back. Hackles of hair rose to attention on her neck and scalp. Had she imagined a purple tinge to Sylv’s skin? Was that eczema? The scaly, upraised section showed when the sleeve of silk slid up. It was ugly, red and inflamed, and at the same time grey and old. A scar? No, not a scar. It looked like dead skin. Really dead. Like the bodies in the morgue dead. The same colour, the same flaccidity, the same sense.

Anna sniffed. She looked up into Sylve’s eyes. The bright blue had changed to a black glare. Sylv’s eyes glanced at the offending arm, and slid a hand over the pleats in the sleeve. A dark shadow seeped into the air as Sylv stepped up close to Anna.

“We don’t speak of our problems, my dear. We deal with them. In our own way. In our own time.”

The door swished open and Bud waltzed in with the tray. He chatted about the food, the butter beans he’d grown himself, the tiny pea-sized aubergines, the crispy potatoes.

“She doesn’t need a rundown of your farming skills, dear – do you, young lady?” Sylv leaned over the tray he’d placed on the table. “Is there any meat?”

When Bud shook his head, the lines on Sylv’s face deepened, darkened. She turned and stomped out through the swing door towards the kitchen. Bud seemed to ignore her.

“Come and sit, Anna. We’ll get started; we’ll get the best bits. She’ll be sorry when she comes back.” He looked up as Anna came to the table. “She always does that. Doesn’t mean anything. She just doesn’t like to eat in front of people. A thing about her teeth. Something. Doesn’t matter. Let’s just eat, shall we?”

The chat was impersonal. No questions about her past life or where she’d come from. A general outline of the history of the town. Why the trains didn’t run anymore – nothing left to mine, apparently. Nothing about Bud and Sylv. Nothing about people who lived in the region now.

“What were you saying about ghosts on this side of the tracks?” Anna asked.

“Oh, well, maybe this isn’t the time to be speaking of ghosts,” Bud said. “You still have to sleep in the haunted house tonight. Can’t go and give you nightmares, can we?”

“Did I offend Sylv?” Anna asked as she stared at Bud with direct eye contact. What is going on here?

“No. It’s like I said. She’s a bit touchy about what people see. Doesn’t like to looked at.” He shovelled food into his mouth. “Got funny teeth,” he said around the mess in his mouth.

Anna picked at the food. Wondered. What had she seen? Was it scarring? Was it a skin disease? In her gut she knew it wasn’t, but she didn’t want to consider the other options. Whatever it was, it was none of Anna’s business. And nor was Bud. Not this time.

Tomorrow, she’d find someone else to help her with the renovations.


Copyright Rose Brimson & Cage Dunn 2017

An Excerpt from WIP(2)

Scene 4

“Did you know about his gold?”

Anna rolled her eyes.

“If there was gold anywhere in this house, even a rumour of it, don’t you think it would be gone by now? That people wouldn’t have ripped the place apart to find it?”

“No. The ol’ bastard – did you know him? You look a bit like him in the eyes; Alecsander Brynerson? – he lived here his whole life, and now he haunts the place, so no one will get his stash.”

“A ghost?” Anna snickered, shook her head.

“Don’t laugh. At least not until you meet him and –”

“There are no ghosts,” Anna cut him off. “People die, and that’s it, they’re gone from this plane.” She wiped off the table and pulled out a chair and pointed him into it. The hand behind her back crossed two sets of fingers and tapped three times.

Bud sat down and pulled out a notepad.

“So, what is it you want done?”

“What can you do?” she said.

“Don’t ask for the builder licence numbers, ’cos I ain’t got ’em, but I can do anything. At least most things; sometimes it might take more than one person, but there’s nothing I can’t do once I put my mind to it.”

His pencil made a sketch of the floorplan of the house, marked the area of the kitchen and fireplace in the lounge.

“Do you want to get rid of the stove?”

“No.”

His face relaxed, a slight smile stretched the lips.

“A good thing – they weigh a ton or more, and I don’t know anyone who’d take it, or even help carry it out. Would’ve had to cover it up and leave it in place, anyway.”

“I like wood-stoves. I’d like to run pipes behind it to heat the water.”

“Good move. Right. What next?”

“I’ve never done electrical – always left it to the professionals,” Anna said. “But I could learn if you want to teach me.” She took a breath. “You can do electrical?”

“Yep.”

Anna got out her own notebooks, pencils and overlays and marker pens. She leaned her phone against a grimy tea canister and swiped until the photos of the house presented. Stopped.

“This is what I planned, and I’ve got a schedule – sort of, depends on a lot of things coming together at the right time – and these bits are my preferences, if possible.” She put the main items on the table in front of Bud.

It was so easy. So simple. The tasks came together. The plans built up until Anna could almost smell the new paint, the waxed floorboards, the wood-smoke.

The sun dipped far enough for the light in the window to become darker than inside. Anna looked up, realised how late it was. Bud went outside and came back in with a glass-topped lamp. A small flame created a golden glow. The smell was kero.

“Is that yours?”

“Nope. Was in the back of the laundry. He always had a few in different spots.” Bud looked her straight in the eyes. “He used to throw them at anyone who trespassed.” He leaned in so close she could see the sparkle in the black pupils. “Lit.”

“What? It would’ve burned the house down.”

“Nope. His aim was good. Always hit the target. Whether with the lamp or the bullet. Always.”

Anna began to slide the bits of paper into a neat pile. She put the main plans in one set, and notes and lists in another. Slid it all into the compartments of her folder.

“I suppose you have to go? It’s too dark to work now, but-”

“Yeah. My wife’s waiting. Don’t want to be too late when there’s a new woman in town – you know how they think, don’t you?”

“Yep,” Anna said. Married. Of course. She shrugged. “When things get worked out a bit more here, can I invite you both to dinner?”

“Why don’t you come to our place tonight? She’d love the company. No one ever comes to this side of the tracks anymore.”

A frown creased her head. What?

“Why not?”

“Since the trains stopped running. People say the ghosts on this side are bad. Of course, they’re talking about old Alecs, but you know what country people are like.”

Yep. Anna knew.

“I’d like to offer you a bed for the night, but …”

“That’s alright. I’ll be fine here.”

Bud raised his eyebrow as he stood up.

“Don’t sleep in the front bedroom,” he said. “Just trust me. Sleep in your car would be better, but if you sleep in the house, don’t go in the front room.”

Anna smiled and nodded. He meant well.


the house

A New Story [Perhaps]

An excerpt from a new story in the paranormal field. Copyright Rose Brimson & Cage Dunn 2017 (of course).


Scene 1

“It’s a beautiful old house. Probably best described as original, ’cos it needs a fair amount of work, but I’m sure there’ll be someone to do work in the area – it’s a farming region, so lots of trades in those places.”

The words seemed to ring in Anna’s head as she sat in her car and stared at the house. Yes, it was beautiful. Once. A long time ago. Not now. Original. Yes. Raw timber because the paint had flaked off decades ago. That real estate agent was going to cop it when she found him. And the contract of sale would be withdrawn. She had three days left of the cooling-off period.

How long would it take to get the deposit back?

Hot sun streamed onto her denim-covered legs and she opened the door to get out. At least she could look around, and tell the miserable, low-down, rotten-stinking-lying pretty-boy prick that she’d inspected the place and found it to be not as advertised. That would be enough to ensure she could back out.

One of the windows glinted. A movement? From inside? No. Just a breeze. Were there still curtains? Or was it the casement falling out? She shook her head. Stupid, really, but she felt a need to look. To check. To make sure.

All her savings, all her money, was tied up in this. Her future. Hmmmppphhhh! If she were a bloke, she’d spit on it.

There were no trees to park under, no bushes, no shrubs, no green lawns – no grass at all, just dust and gravel and rocks – and so hot the black asphalt stuck to her sandals as she ticky-tacked across the road to inspect the house that should have been her new home.

One hand grabbed the veranda post as her foot landed on the first step and sank. And sank. She stepped back with a gasp.

Rotten.

Her fingers clawed at the soft timber of the post. Rotten.

She glared at the boards on the wrap-around veranda. Holes, warped boards, the hum of wasps from somewhere below the gaps. Rotten.

Nails stuck up at odd angles, lay on the surface, or produced rusty circles on the timber. Anna raised her eyes to the entrance. The door hung partly open, twisted into a shape that meant that’s probably where it’d been for decades. Rotten. Everything was rotten, rotten, rotten.

Her chest expanded with a gust of breath as she stepped backwards and turned back to the front gate. The long grass to left and right was too tall to walk through with sandals on, but she had to get around the back. She had to see just how bad it was, document it all and compare it to the photos on the web, so she could back out of the deal.

So far, her life hadn’t changed at all.

Puffs of dust followed her footsteps down the rutted driveway. The equally-spaced paths were well-tamped. Nothing would ever grow there, and it gave her a safer place to walk. But she stomped anyway. Just in case of Joe Blakes. That would really be the final straw.

The back door was open, resting against the torn-off flyscreen framed in curlicues of pink-painted wood. That would be worth rescuing. Except not by her. She wouldn’t be here, would she?

No.

Anna stepped up onto the concrete slab that passed for a patio or veranda. The timber that held up the roof was solid, but paint peeled in long scrabbles down to lay at the base. One fingernail pushed as hard as possible and didn’t sink in. She turned toward the back entrance, squealed as a spider web drifted down across her forehead. She swiped and slapped until she was sure it was gone.

Crap!

A grimy bannister brush lay against an old timber fruit-crate. She leaned down and picked it up, held it up in the air as she stepped through the back door, literally, when it crumpled to frothy lumps at the first turn of the old handle.

Crap!

More and more like her life, but with more dust.

The light was dim. The layers of dust and grime didn’t help. Ash and greasy yellow marks slid along the walls of the kitchen. Anna knew it was the kitchen because of the table, the chairs, the trough-sink, and the wood-stove tucked into the wall.

A wood-stove. She’d always wanted a wood stove. A dream, because she remembered the tales of her gran and the time it took to get it started, the time it took each morning to prepare, the time it took to ensure enough wood for the season. But it was beautiful. Solid iron, all the doors and lids, the lid-lifter hook, the green enamel doors, the black sliding grate. Two fingers caressed the cold enamel, ran along the full length of the old lady. Bits of ash drifted to the floor.

Anna smiled and looked around. The small door on the left, between the stove and the trough, showed a pantry. Things were set up on shelves, too dust-covered to see what they were, or had been. She closed the door and turned back to the large kitchen. Sun glowed into the window on the far side. No curtains, just dust and webs. And one or two egg-sacs. It was a good home for spiders and such. But not her.

The double door had to be persuaded to move in the grooves. She’d have to change this to a top slider, and get rid of the bottom bit; that’d make it easier to maintain. The room behind the doors must have been the living room, lounge room. The fireplace was huge, but with a small central grate. Blocks of wood lay in neat piles to either side, and the hearth was swept clean. Except for the dust, the fire was ready to be lit. A small triangle of kindling sat in the grate waiting for the spark.

The two chairs, overstuffed and overworn, sat at an angle to the fire. One had an antimacassar over the back and one on each arm. The other was unadorned, dark and stained, but the rose pattern – red and white and green – was dimly visible. She ran a hand over the arm. This one hadn’t been used. It was just one of a pair. She touched the antimacassar chair. Body grease, a deep indentation on the seat, the shape of a body almost outlined. This chair had been well-used. Maybe there were two for symmetry.

She looked around. An ornate bookcase with glass doors hid objects with shapes that were indiscernible, but she wasn’t going to open it to see what it was. Not with that amount of web to fight through.

Two doors led off the main room. She shoved at the door nearest the front window, but didn’t budge it. The other one slid open to reveal an iron bed-stead, wardrobes that spoke of art-nouveau designs. The rug on the timber floor was a hunters design, an original, probably hand-woven if the tie-offs on the upturned corner were any indication.

Anna didn’t lean down to check. She felt a tickle at the base of her scalp and turned around, expecting to see someone.

Nothing.

She walked back to the lounge room. Empty. Still. She looked out the windows. No one out there, so sign of movement. As she walked up to the front door, she noticed the lack of window coverings. No curtains, no blinds, no mosquito or fly screens.

If she believed in ghosts, now would be the time for her to consider that what she’d seen from outside came from the other realm, but she didn’t.

“I don’t believe in ghosts,” the loudness of her voice was shocking in the echo of empty space as she retraced her steps through the kitchen and out the back door.

“I didn’t take any pictures,” she said. The stillness of the air and building remained. Nothing moved except her breath.

The open area to the south of the concrete block outside the back door had a double trough and a hand-pump. It was irresistible. She pushed on the pump. Rusty red water gushed into the concrete trough. Maybe this place had been empty longer than she thought.

She stepped off the veranda and walked the length of the ruts to the back fence to get an overall view of the house.

The double chimneys on the south side were stone and brick, grey and red, in a design she’d never seen before. The roof was square, even if the iron was rusted and lifting like wings in several places. The gutters were gone; the hooks remained and she could see the internals. No rot in the roof that she could see. It was fixable.

Her phone peeped. She pulled it out and checked the message. Deleted it. Skimmed to the website for the house and enlarged the pictures as she compared the real with the e-real. If she put a gauze in front of her face, it looked the same. A dusty, sort-of block-out effect that blocked nothing but the worst of the decay. The house looked just like it was advertised.

She wouldn’t get her money back. Wouldn’t be able to back out of the contact.

The only choice she had was to make the place liveable.


Unedited, so subject to change at no notice at all (until publication). Title: something about a Ghost …. and Gold …. and a Country Town ….

the house

 

A Privacy Issue

Logging on was easy now. Van’s mind seemed to work better. The pathways to the vaults were clear. The new connections worked as expected. The work on the server farm was complete. The rack wasn’t as large as some she had worked with, but large enough for her purposes. She could store ten Zettabytes, which meant how many bytes? Couldn’t remember: One thousand Mega was a Gig; one thousand Gig was a Tera; one thousand Tera was a Peta; one thousand Peta was an Exa; one thousand Exa was a Zettabyte. Still too hard to visualise. Big.

The new compression algorithm worked well as long as the data was unstructured. She just had to restore it using the same method that sent it to store – exactly. Otherwise, it was junk. The labels for each packet were individualised in a standalone db with a locking variable related to only that download. She could unload using the concurrency procedure, but each packet had to be specified by that variable.

It meant she could store most of what was already out there on the web – both dark and light, on her own cloud farm and no one would ever know, because it would only ever be turned on when she wanted to use it. If there was no power from the grid to the source, the source did not exist in the electronic world. She wasn’t on their grid unless she was hunting – where had that word come from? – working; unless she was working.

If someone wanted to trace her actions, they would need a minimum amount of time while she was active and on-line, and she had calculated to a nanosecond how much time would be required, and a shut-down process would initiate thirty seconds prior to redline. The layers upon layers of security protocols would have been appropriate for a large enterprise.

Why was she so concerned, so paranoid, about anyone finding her? Everyone was out there, on the web. It was all around, all the time, and it never lost a byte of data. Her shadow would be there, too. But it would be elastic, easily missed, and as a last resort, her shadow would become a mirror for the searcher.

What she was doing was illegal: unauthorised access to private data; unauthorised access to private networks; system penetration; theft – oh, yes, she was stealing; misfeasance; unauthorised modification; and possibly the worst – with the intent to commit or facilitate the commission of an offence.

Yes, she was paranoid. She’d broken the law, invalidated her security rating; her professional career in IT security was over.

It didn’t matter. She was working. Her mind buzzed as she went through each step in each procedure. She felt at home. Constructive. This was her world. A faint hum seemed to linger on her skin, energise her body.

She outlined the process for the packet compression task. Each stream compressed as it came to her server in plackets of packets. The compression algorithm meant she could store the whole internet, but she wanted only the dark side, and of that, she wanted only the sites with data that met her requirements. The spy code searched for key words, images, or patterns – the links they had with each other – that indicated any form of ‘hit’ on the chart she’d drawn up.

Van wondered where she had written it down, recorded it, and why she wanted it this way? Why had she done this task at all? Was she doing it for the detective? For herself, to keep busy? Was she going to hand over the information? Why was she doing it on her own?

Did it matter? She was doing something constructive. Something other than grieving. She had to do something, anything, and she could do this, at least. She had the skills and experience and knowledge required to get the job done, to get results.

The links where she could determine location that was not local, she forwarded to another site – when had she done that? It must be hers; it was her style, her pattern – easily searched, that notified authorities in the local phone region of a suspect site. Sometimes, her site was attacked. Not always by her targets. The code in the worm she sent back to the source of the attack always confirmed the physical IP and the country code. The Trojan horse delivered the worm that killed every attacker. It wiped out the start-up location, filtered down through all their hardware, firmware and software, all the linked infrastructure, and sent her their most personal details. Once the collection was complete, their motherboard went into a meltdown process that took milliseconds.

Their computer became a casualty of the war on the monsters from the dark side.

Van knew it would take time, a lot of time, but she could be patient. For each confirmed site, there were hundreds of links to examine. The dark net was more than ninety percent of the internet, but no one knew for certain. Van knew how to search now; she had taken the information from the first name on the list. She had his contacts, his lists, his patterns; she looked for the similarities, and she found them. A lot of them.

She knew how people would try to penetrate, the weaknesses they would look to exploit, and she knew how to combat those strategies and tactics. She had plans to block, she had plans to defend, and she had plans to attack. This was her system, and she was the only one writing the protocols and procedures. She could play as hard and heavy as the black-netters, the spark-wizards and cyber-guerrillas. She designed her system to kill trespassers. Well, metaphorically.

The shed wasn’t quite a black zone, but it didn’t get good coverage, and she didn’t want to set up an easily seen phone tower. It would be too traceable if she did have one, and she had her own way of doing things. The dongle. And using the double-helix wind generators as backup to the high-density PV cells and the new zinc bromide-gel deep cycle battery bank for storage meant she could be up and running the whole system for at least four hours each day.

When the system had been through a full round of maximum capacity and boundary tests, she would consider the addition of a lightning rod with a trickle feed-in to another set of batteries. As back up.

She set up the server farm to connect remotely – through dongle as aerial; no dongle, no connection – and the link on the trig point to the east of her farm. The trig was well above the tree line, and had perfect line of sight down into the flat plains of the city. The link would use an alternate laser-driven chaos pattern – one she devised – to connect to the world through the existing phone towers, but never the same more than once in ten to the power of three cycles, and never using the same pattern more than one in eleven to the power of four times. And every path had an access red-light process that required not just a password, but a password generated for each side of the cube in the right pattern and with the right time lapse between each entry. Four dimensions of protection.

 

The LED lantern shone blue-white against the sandstone blocks of the path. Her feet slapped against them as she strode toward the door. All her hardware was functioning within parameters; all the security activated on the server farm alarms. Time to go to work.

Van had to watch her step. The tractor was backed in closer to the stairs than she liked. The implements and attachments laid about or leaning up against the wheels were death traps. The shed was cluttered, over-crowded. Things piled up and in the way. She had rules about planning and preparation and consistency; about work patterns for productive outcomes. She hated having to look for things because someone didn’t put them in their appropriate place.

The boots lined up against the timber rack next to the door caught her attention. Redback boots. She didn’t have Redback boots. Where had they come from? Her boots were Rossi. A dirty Akubra hat – not hers; she had a stiff canvas hat, well-shaped. A black Drizabone. Hers was brown. Rubber Wellington boots, one pair red with a black trim, the other pair black with a red trim. Several shirts, red and blue checks. Not Van’s. She wore fine-woven cotton, or a cotton-silk. Van cleaned and brushed her work gloves after every use. Two pairs, not hers, curled in the shape of a hand and sprawled on the wheel arch of the tractor. Someone had been in her space.


An excerpt from a novel, copyright Cage Dunn 2016.

Chapter 4

Chapter 4

The house was dark and silent as Van looked back from the rear laneway. The only glimmer came from the small LED lamp she had left on the kitchen benchtop. The only sign of life in the house. The only sign of grief. The neighbours would give her space, and time. The opportunity to sneak out the back laneway.

She used the shadows of dusk and the street trees to disappear, making her way to the school where the first name on Olympia’s List worked – as a music teacher. How could he get clearance to work in a school at all if he was known to police, recorded on the sex offenders’ database, a PoI in an active case?

What did it mean to have a police clearance if the person was suspected of . . . criminal actions? Criminal thoughts? Did the person have to be charged and convicted of an offence? Or was it that they were free until caught, innocent until proven guilty?

Not in her book.

Now she had a way to get evidence, even though she knew her actions were also not quite within the law. Not lawful at all. Unlawful. Illegal. Criminal. She was working outside the law; in her information gathering exercise at work, and with the tools she had purchased for the physical information gathering exercise she was on now.

Whatever she got tonight would be given anonymously. Electronically. Direct to several sources at the same time: police, employers, newspapers, blog sites. From an anonymous morphing IP address – she had created an untraceable private server, a Virtual Private Network, that randomly changed access codes every half minute – and she’d linked it to the back-door of the server farm at work. The server farm that was her sole responsibility – to keep it secure; to keep access secure; to keep out the bad guys; to protect the data it contained. And now, to protect her.

What she had done should make it extremely difficult to trace anything back to her personally. She had also set up a trace-alert to send an alarm to her phone only. As an extra, she’d wrapped it all up inside another pyramidal VPN with a double-helix vortex pathway with passwords required at each level. Ha!

The heavy winter cloud added to the shadows, deepened the spaces. Only a fortnight away from the shortest day of the year – early evening and already dark. People were still at work, or getting ready to go home from work, or picking kids up from school, doing normal things. The streets were quiet, the light showers and cold wind hunched people up, held them silent and inside if possible, huddled up in warmth and safety after rushing home. She would look just like everyone else: warmly dressed, kitted up for the wet weather, hidden under layers of protective clothing.

Van’s dark clothing, black shoes, her dark hoodie, her dark backpack – they all helped keep her invisible. Not black, except for the shoes, but all the dark shades of shadows: dark blue, dark grey, dark brown, dark green. She would be a shadow within shadows, a shade of movement, not a black shape within shadows. Just another dapple.

She put her hands in the pockets, one hand on her phone, the other on the new gadget.

The audio-scope was a small object, and with the lens fully retracted, it fit comfortably inside her palm. The fold-down antenna made a ridgeline along one edge, just slightly sharp, with bumpy bits where that, too, retracted to be the same length as the miniature audio telescope. She could plug it into her phone to record both video and sound, but for the moment, all she wanted to do was see without being seen, hear without being heard.

Life had taught her how to be calm on the outside, to present a face that people didn’t notice. One of the invisible people. On the inside, her heart rate increased, sped up for the potential survival requirement. Van smiled. Her eyes widened to take in all the external data. This was her mission, her task. For Olympia.

If something happened, she could plug the audio-scope into her phone, record the evidence, give it to the detective, make it public. If nothing happened, if she got nothing, she would move on to the next name on the list.


An excerpt from Moordenaar Copyright 2017 Cage Dunn

 

Chapter 3

An excerpt from Moordenaar, Chapter 3 ….

The street she’d once lived in, that house with all the memories. Her house, now. Van parked in the street. Mum’s rule: “only use the driveway if my car isn’t there.” It was there. Her mother wasn’t, but the car was there. In the garage. Silent. But it was there, a dark blob through the visi-panels on the doors.

“. . . condolences, dear.” That was the common thread. They were people she had known for more than half her life. Still, they could not understand the pain. No one could understand this pain. Murder and suicide. Her father had at least held on until the very last. His illness had dragged on for years. Pancreatic cancer – it was supposed to be quick; stage four was always a quick road to the end. He held on, in weakness and pain and greyness, for three years after diagnosis. The pain killers, the drugs, the sleeping pills – he was always fuzzy in his interactions with Van. Towards the end, the pain was so clear in his eyes, the colour faded from a deep, dark blue to washed-out grey. He stayed for her; he said that. He hung on for his little girl, his life. Yes.

She had to believe that, had to stop thinking that everything in her life, everyone in her family, died horribly. She had to move forward, take action, believe in herself.

How? Her father’s slow, painful death had caused her to withdraw into a world of her own. Years of counselling, of therapy, did not take away that pain. She decided to forget. And she did. She forgot everything. She forgot how to remember.

Only years later, in adolescence, did she realise she’d lost all her capacity for memory. One counsellor gave her a task – learn how to use her mind as if it were a house. Create rooms, hallways, purpose. Put away the things that hurt too much until she needed them or could deal with them. Put the too painful things into little boxes, or behind glass so they couldn’t hurt her; put them into a safe, where she could access them only when ready.

Van created her own space in there; not like a house, like a library, like a bank. She learned it well. Used it for the rest of her life.

Her father she put in his own safe place. She hadn’t been back there yet. Not enough years gone to ease that pain.

Her mother – why? Why now? Suicide was against her mother’s principles and religion. It was a sin. And she had an obligation to her other daughter – to Van. Olympia’s death, her murder, was horrific. It tore at Van’s heart. It ate at her soul. But she had to go on. Her mother should be there too, shouldn’t she? How was that fair? Who would help Van deal with Olympia?

And now – now Olympia was a cold case. And no one cared.

Except Van.

What did she need to do to get the case opened again? Evidence. She would find evidence – hard evidence. She would walk this path alone, no one to support her, no family. Only the past to haunt her, and a future that held nothing if she did nothing.

Van stepped out of her car.

“You poor dear,” Mrs Petty cooed from behind her border of yellow buddleias.

“Thank you, Mrs Petty,” Van said without opening her lips too far. “I appreciate your concern.” Now would be the time to set up concrete alibies.

“I was wondering if you could help me with the house – not with cleaning up or anything like that – when I get it ready to sell, I mean. Could you show people through? Could you be the contact person for the real estate? I’m just not sure I could cope with that side of it – and you used to do that, didn’t you? Didn’t you sell the house to Mum?” Van’s voice cracked. She hadn’t meant to do that, but if the look on Mrs Petty’s face was anything to go by, it served her purpose. Mrs Petty’s eyes sparkled with unshed tears.

“Of course, my dear. I’ll do whatever I can. We all will.” Her arm swept the neighbours into her bosom with a gesture of encompassment. “We’ll be here for you. Anything you want, you just ask – anything at all, any of us. We all loved her, you know.” A strange look crossed her face. “We all loved your mother, of course, and everyone loved little Olympia.” Now a tear dribbled along the bottom of her eyelid. She turned away, flapping her gardening gloves behind her back. “Just let us know.” Mrs Petty disappeared behind the arch of orange vine, bowing her back as she toddled up the stairs and into the Federation style house that was typical for the suburb.

The whole street would know inside an hour that Van was going to sell the house. Now she just had to make it look like she was doing work, or getting work done, to keep them interested, but distant. It was the community thing, to give a person space to grieve, to give them time. And Van needed some time, and some distance, and some good alibis.

“Thank you, Evelyn,” Van said into the phone, responding to the fourth offer of help so far. The cracked voice had worked well on all of them. The demonstration of grief was easier to do on the phone – all she had to do was picture the soggy roses drooping on her mother’s rain-soaked coffin, the lack of people at the un-consecrated section of the cemetery where the coffin went into the ground. There had only been two of her mother’s work colleagues, the un-ordained minister, Van, and the detective watching from a distance. And Van’s stepfather, Bob, on the other side of the grave. Why had he allowed them to bury her there? Her mother had her own plot, in Houghton, in the hills, where the summers were cool and winters sometimes brought snow. Where apples grew, and cherries, and pears and grapes and almonds. Where life after life might have brought some calmness.

“I just need some time to sort through the things here; go through the paperwork,” another sob, suck in a deep breath, “before I get someone in to do maintenance.” She listened carefully to the noises coming through the phone – was Evelyn holding her hand over her mouth? Probably.

“When you’re ready, Van, we’ll be here. All of us. We’ll be here for you.” The voice was muffled. It seemed she was trying hard not to cry. Now all Van had to do was hiccough, and Evelyn would cut the conversation. It was bad form to pester a grieving person. Van did the hiccough. A subdued stifle of sound came through the earpiece. Van clapped her own hand to her mouth, but something escaped. She couldn’t giggle now. Not now.

“Van, we’ll be here. Call when you’re ready. Bye for now. Bye. We love you.” Her voice was pitched high, like a child’s, the last few words the highest. Evelyn had responded with the expected empathetic response.

Worked like a charm. Van smiled as she disconnected the call. The half-laugh must have sounded like something else to Evelyn. How many else would call? The top five street mothers were in the know – surely, the others would leave it at that, get their gossip from the main arteries? She turned down the volume on the phone and got to work.

From the car boot she dragged in the folded packing boxes, rested them up against the miniature statue of Michael in the front hallway. The front room, her mother’s room, was large, airy, with the best view of the front garden – weeping trees and tall tree ferns. Van opened all three windows. The greenness in the front garden made the room so cool in summer, so fresh with the smell of lavender, rosemary, and sunshine brought in with the breeze.

A sour smell hit her throat. What was that? The smell seemed familiar, but wasn’t nice. She sniffed. Maybe it was from the house being empty of people, or locked up. Maybe a leak, or something mouldy somewhere in the room. Van walked over to the wardrobe and opened the doors – yes, the smell was in there, too.

All the clothes from the double wardrobes she pulled out. Her mother’s clothes she threw over the bed. The wardrobes were jammed full, and only about one third belonged to her mother. Bob’s clothes she threw on the floor.

Van sat on the edge of the bed. All the colours of the rainbow littered the multi-hued silk patchwork bed cover. She and her mother had made this quilt together, in the year after her father died. It held all her grief for him. She’d keep the quilt.

The clothes were bright, shiny, deep, glossy, dark, luminescent, twinkling, wavy, woven, patterned, plain, but not one piece was dull. Her mother had never been shy with colour. When she wore them, they were alive. Now all dead. Lustreless. Nothing but material. Van threaded her hands through the cold pile of colour.

It had been a joy to her, as a child, to be able to play with her mother’s beautiful things. Not allowed, certainly, but when mother wasn’t looking, little Savannah had played in the wardrobe of grown-up clothes and colours. Even when they had scrimped and saved on everything, her mother made her clothes into something magical, mystical, memorable. A hot tear ran down Van’s cheek, splatted onto the fabric, left a dark mark in the water-silk material. She dropped the dress, stood, staggered out of the room, left the windows open, but dragged the door shut behind her.

The cardboard boxes stood there, waiting.

Olympia’s room was silent. Oppressive. The bushes outside the window were too tall; the light was gone. Darkness invaded and stayed. The corners hid in the dullness. Van walked to the wardrobe and slid the door open. The clothes all looked the same colour, the same shape, the same size. This wasn’t like Olympia. She loved colour as much as her mother. When was the last time Van saw Olympia? What was wearing?

Grey. Why would Olympia wear grey? The school uniform was blue-grey with red markings. Where were her other clothes? The real ones. With colour.

Van reached up to the overhead storage, pulled down all the cases, flung them onto the bed.

The strange smell wafted up, stung her nose. Sour. There must be a leak somewhere. The maintenance program her mother held to would not have allowed a bit of damp to linger for even a second. She would’ve jumped on it.

Before Olympia . . . before all that happened, she would have. Now? Now, the house felt unloved. Empty. Dirty, somehow.

The walls closed in, the shadows crept closer. Van tried to suck in a breath. Couldn’t. Stepped back. Crashed into the wall. Where was the door? She felt with her hands. Nothing. Blackness crept in from the edges, closed in on her, closed her out. She slid along the wall to the floor. Sobbed.

It was too hard. She shouldn’t have come here. She should call someone else in to do this. The lump in her chest eased. Yes, she would call someone else to do this. To clean up. To fix the house. Get rid of that smell. To sell it.

The cellar! The smell probably came from the cellar. The dark curtain across her eyes faded, allowed light in. Of course. There was a sump-pump down there. The power was off, so the auto kick-in was off. That was it! She could do something about that right now.

The handle to the cellar door didn’t turn. Locked. When was a lock fitted? Not in the time she lived here. A good lock, too. Top of the range. Why would that type of lock be on a cellar door? She looked carefully at the door. New. She tapped on it. Solid core; this was a fire door. Her experience in security said this type of door was used only when there was a third party risk – usually a business or warehouse or manufacturing site – or to protect items of high risk or high value.

She’d call a locksmith if she couldn’t find a key during the clean-up. Another thing to add to the long list of tasks.

The door to her mother’s room had swung partly open. Van stepped in, looked at the mess. She walked to the bed. Her mother’s clothes she would leave until later. All Bob’s stuff she shoved into garbage bags. Donations to Vinnies, or dump it? Dump.

Her mother’s clothes she wrapped carefully into long-term vacuum bags and laid them across the bed. Shoes – where were her mother’s shoes? One pair stood alone in the shoe rack designed for dozens of pairs. Her mother loved shoes. Beautiful shoes, all the colours of the rainbow to match her clothes and bags – bags? Where were the bags, the belts, the brooches? Jewellery?

Why was she just noticing these things? Had someone stolen them? No. The house was secure. She should check the floor safe on the far right of the wardrobe, hidden under the ratty carpet.

Van shimmied in close so she could see the dial, and opened the safe. She had always been trusted with the her mother’s collections.

One box was in the safe. One. There should be at least ten folders – all the important paperwork – and four carved wooden boxes for the jewellery pieces. Most were costume with little or no value, but there were some things – the emerald ring, the parti-coloured sapphire triple set of earrings, ring, and necklace. An unset pink diamond, Olympia’s favourite colour, set aside for her eighteenth birthday.

She inched her hand around the box and lifted it out. The outer rim of the box had glue overflow set hard. The box was sealed. Why?

This box she added to the pile of things to take back to her unit.

The pile was small. A few books, two paintings done by Olympia, one of the pair of Persian rugs she and her mother had bought together. Van had the other rug in her unit. Two vases that had originally belonged to her paternal grandmother, which she didn’t like, but couldn’t leave. And the quilt. Her mother’s red beauty case sat on the carpet beside the dresser. She picked that up and added it to the pile. And the box from the safe.

Van packed the pile into a cardboard box, rolled the rug, and had to make two trips to put the lot into the backseat of the car. The curtains fluttered at the main window across the road. Good. They saw her. She slammed the door and went back inside.

Now that the watch was in place, and the day was almost night, she was ready.