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Henshaw Short Story Competition
    Henshaw Short Story Competition

 

 

 

 

June 2018 Competition Winners are: - 

 

 

 

              First Prize:

 

   Peter Collins of Guiseley for

                              ‘The Surveillance Guy’

 

 

The Judges could not separate ‘Eye Spy’ and ‘On Camera’ and so awarded Joint Second prizes to: -  

 

 

              Joint Second Prizes:

 

                          Jennifer Perkins of London for

 

                                         ‘Eye Spy’

 

and    

 

 Mary Bevan of Wimborne for

 

                                        ‘On Camera’

 

        

 

                                                                      ***********

                        

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

                            ‘The Surveillance Guy’

 

                                                                      by

 

                                                         Peter Collins

                        

 

 

Take it from me, close order surveillance is nothing like the movies. You’ve probably seen it in the films, where two cops will sit in their car right outside the bad guy’s house for hour after hour and nobody seems to notice, even when they keep coming and going for donuts and coffee. And then finally they burst into action in a squeal of brakes. Or a team of CID guys will take turns sitting at an open window in an office block and then leap out the window like Spiderman when the target arrives. Well in real life it’s nothing like that. It’s dull, tedious and very uncomfortable. I could vouch for the uncomfortable bit, because the pain in my left leg was telling me so, loud and clear. 

           My leg was hurting because I’d been sitting in the same position for nearly twelve hours. I didn’t want to stand up for fear of being spotted, so the most I could do was just to stretch it out. God, it was stiff. But at least I was sitting down. That was better than some jobs I’d had in the past. I was sat on an old office chair in the back of what had once been a storeroom in a run-down warehouse complex that was now being renovated to keep it in tune with the rest of the newly upmarket area around it. I was in the dark at the back of the unlit room because that way there was the least possible chance of somebody seeing me. Only in the movies did the hero sit right up against the window.

           I didn’t have a regular stream of people bringing me coffee and donuts either. I had a bottle of water and a couple of power bars in my pocket, and, most importantly, I had an empty sports drink bottle between my legs. Well, it had been empty when I started. It was now half full. I also had a couple of small plastic bags and a couple of squares of toilet roll in my pocket and I really was hoping against hope I wouldn’t need to use those at all. Welcome to the glamorous world of covert surveillance.

           I wasn’t using binoculars either. I found them heavy and cumbersome. I was actually using a scope – the sort of thing a sniper would attach to a rifle. I preferred this because it was lighter and much easier to move around. The one I was using was the March X-Series 8-80x56mm scope. This has a 34mm main tube and 56mm objective lens. That means you can get a true 10-times zoom ratio and up to 80X magnification. Given that the subject of my surveillance was only a couple of hundred yards away; that was plenty for me to do my job.

           There were three other surveillance teams doing their job at the same time. They were all teams of two though, whereas I was on my own. That was my handler’s decision. I hated that word, ‘handler’; it made me seem like a dog. But that’s part of the jargon they use in the security forces. My handler said I had to be on my own, because this room wasn’t big enough for two. But to be honest, I think he’d had a few complaints from other people who he’d put with me before. I didn’t always like working with other people. I was good at my job, and it annoyed me if I was with people who weren’t as good as me. Long surveillance can get boring and when people get bored they get sloppy. And sloppy people make mistakes.

           Like the three other teams working there alongside me. Two of them were awful; I’d made them almost the minute I got set up. One team was in a car. They were sat in a side street across from the subject. Out in the open, in the most obvious place they could be. Two guys with binoculars, looking almost everywhere apart from at the subject they were there to protect. Even the car was wrong. It was all shiny Mercedes, Audis and VWs in this area. They were in some beat up old Ford which stuck out like a sore thumb. Real amateur hour stuff.

            The second team was just as bad. They were in a building off to my left, but instead of sitting way back in the room like I was doing, they were virtually sat out on the balcony. They had the window wide open and every now and then, you could see the sun glint off the binoculars they were using. I know the sun’s always a problem, but that’s why I’d chosen the place I was in. Apart from really early in the morning, it was pretty much in shadow most of the time. When I set up, I’d broken a small part of the window to see out of and smeared muck and dust over the rest. Because the building was in the process of being renovated, mine wasn’t the only window like that. I blended right in, which was more than you could say about the guys with the binoculars.

            The third team, though, was way better than the other two. It had taken me nearly two hours to make them. The first thing they’d done was to choose a room in the same building as the subject. I thought that was smart. I mean, I know it put them at a disadvantage because they couldn’t actually see the subject from there, but surveillance work is all about protection. They knew the other teams could keep an eye on the subject. What they would be able to do was keep an eye out for any threats. The only mistake they’d made was dealing with the sun. They were across the street, virtually opposite me, and the sun was across their room for a large part of the day. It was only the regular movement of the blind that gave them away. A shame really, because the room was a smart choice. I thought maybe I could work with those guys sometime.

           So there we were. Seven of us. Doing our jobs. All tracking the same subject. Sometimes I’d done jobs like this when I didn’t know who the subject was. But not this time. I’d been briefed. This time it was a big cheese. Jennifer Creswell; apart from Heads of State, probably the most heavily guarded woman in the western world. But until I was given this assignment, I’d never even heard of.

            I tried to imagine the security briefing that the Protection Teams had been given about this assignment. Not that I was there, of course. No chance of that. The briefings were for the top brass only, not us boots on the ground. We were just given the information we needed to know at the last minute. But I bet the brass hats wet themselves when they got this brief and found out just who the subject was.

           Jennifer Creswell, 34 years old. Full Colonel, US Army. Top of her class at West Point. Expert Arabic linguist. Military Intelligence Analyst seconded to the CIA Middle Eastern Desk. Twice decorated for covert missions undercover in Syria. Now leading a Presidential Task Force to develop a strategic military and political solution to remove Islamic State as a threat to world peace. Viewed by the President of the United States as the most important person currently involved in the fight against terrorism worldwide. And now here in Berlin for top level discussions with NATO. You’ve got just one job, gentlemen; keep her safe.

            Of course, the brass hats overreacted as they always do. They had armour-plated cars for her, teams of bodyguards running around, even fighter jets on standby. But if they’d asked me (which they didn’t, you won’t be surprised to learn) keeping the subject safe was nearly all about having the best surveillance teams in place. And they simply hadn’t done that. Apart from me only one of the other teams was anywhere near up to scratch. It used to get me angry when I found myself in situations like this I don't know why. I mean it's not my fault. If I do my job properly, I can't be held responsible for the failings of others, can I? But I still find it annoying. It's sloppy and I don’t like sloppy.

              Like just then. Getting angry about this sort of stuff can lead to loss of concentration. Not good. I tried to calm myself down. I looked through the scope at the room the subject was in. It was difficult to see her because they had venetian blinds up. But they weren’t pulled fully shut so I could just about make her out – the only woman in a room full of men. See that was sloppy in itself. They should have put a couple of lookalikes in there just to confuse any bad guys. And they had that bomb-proof film over the windows, which was good in a way, but it wouldn’t stand up to a sniper’s bullet. Just sloppy again.

                I was getting grumpy. My leg hurt. I was tired. I’d been here too long. My shift was definitely coming to an end. It was time to let somebody else have a problem. I put my eye to the scope and checked the subject one last time. The back of her head appeared large and intact in the scope. She half turned and I could make out a slight smile. Thank goodness for that. She was still there. Then I gently squeezed the trigger of the high powered rifle attached to my scope and watched with professional interest as the 7.62 bullet I had fired went clean through the back of her head and very probably through the wall beyond.

                  It was the work of barely a minute to pick up the spent cartridge, dismantle the scope and rifle and make sure I had left no other tell-tale clues in the room. The guy acting as my cut-out was waiting by the back door. I left the rifle with him and by the time I heard the first sirens I was in my car and driving steadily to the safe house in Rostock where my handler would transfer the balance of the fee to my Swiss account. I was pleased with myself. I’d done a good job. Neat, tidy and professional. See, that’s the other thing with close order surveillance that they tend not show in the movies. It’s not just the good guys who need to do it properly.

 

 

                                               ****

 

 

 

 

 

                          ‘Eye Spy’

 

                                                                           by

 

                                      Jennifer Perkins

 

 

 

 

I had always thought I was my own worst enemy. That is what I thought, what I'd come to believe. Through school, university, Corps Training, and my time in the field. That is what they taught us, what they prepared us for. If we could face our very worst fears, we could face anything. So goes the theory. I had worked hard to become my worst enemy, practised, taunted and challenged myself, pushed to extremes. Until now. Until this.

I was now facing what I knew to be my worst enemy, not just mine alone, he had come to represent all that was wrong with the world, what we were fighting against. And somehow, by being in the right time, but the wrong tent, by doing my duty, I had come to represent all that stood in his way.

It is just a job, one tells oneself, and the very few friends who may have more than an inkling of what you really do for a living. Information management, I usually tell enquirers. For the government. That usually closes the conversation down, sounds as interesting as accountancy. But is just as subtly dangerous. And close enough to the truth, whatever that may be. I acquire information, extract it, by whatever means necessary. Others actually manage it. Dissect it, disembowel it, or distort and disseminate it. Repackaged for a different audience or played back to its original authors. Confusion, disinformation, doublespeak, smokescreen.

I should have registered the smoke. I should have thought ahead. Prepared. Getting lazy, getting careless, getting old. I can see the report now: recommended to be stood down from active service. To be given something nice, comfortable, back office. To be shipped to Cheltenham or Hanslope Park. But there would be no report. I knew that, I was just trying to inject some humour, some hope. I would be lucky if my remains were even found and flown back in some diplomatic bag.

The bag over my head is stifling. Hot, dusty, sweaty, I can barely breath. And I try and save my breath, I know I'm going to need it. But I can smell the smoke. It's pungent, acrid, the stench of burning flesh. Mine. Open sores run down my legs, from bruised kneecap to broken ankle. The welts have faded from the foreground, the battering has stopped. I have forgotten how to hurt, the pain has been blocked by my inability to feel anything anymore. But I can take more, I know that, and will have to, I'm sure. But I am numb now. I am an empty vessel, strapped to a chair, thinking, listening, smelling the air. Straining for a sign, some movement, an indication of what's next, so I can prepare myself, brace for impact.

I know I will die here. In this tent. In this foreign land. Surrounded by men who are just as scared and scarred as I. I know it makes no difference now what I say, what they ask. Both sides are now beyond the realm of sense. It is violence without purpose, torture without intent. They have gone so far, it is too late to turn back. To retreat would be shameful, as would my pleas. We both have to save face. He needs me to die quietly, quickly, so he can walk away.

But I am not ready to die. My training was good. Too good. We were built to survive, to reach deep-rooted resources, develop new synapses to bypass pain, forget self, block memory, negate truth, manage, misrepresent, repackage reality.

That is what he wants, that is all that he needs, that is why I'm here, with blackened knees, cracked fingers, peeling skin, burning flesh. Just a scrap, just a morsel, just a small piece of information. If I give it to him, he's done, I'm done, we're gone. But if I give it to him who dies instead, how many perish in my place, in return for my offering? In return for my treachery? Just a bad day at the office. It is never just a job. It is always life or death. For someone, somewhere, some day.

My turn today it seems. I've had worse than this, I think. I try to persuade myself. But I know I haven't, not quite like this, only in my nightmares, and those exhausting training programmes. But they are never real, however hard they try to instil fear, to push us to extremes, to try and break us, they can never go quite far enough. We are not super heroes. We are made weak by our humanity.

I wonder what his weakness is, his humanity, his Achilles heel. I have been trying to find it for some weeks now, but nothing seems to work. The mind games we learnt seem like frivolous party tricks, play-acting, let’s pretend at being spies.

The hood lifts, I gulp involuntarily for breath. I am given one more chance, one last ask, and he may spare my death. But I know he is lying, I am spent, no value to them now, more of a liability than collateral. Not worth carting around as a potential bargaining chip. The only gain in giving in, and giving up my information, is a selfish one, to reduce pain. To no longer be his plaything, a voodoo doll, sliced and diced and stuck with pins. That is why people always give in, not because they want to live. For the awful knowledge at discovering what carnage your weakness has wrought, the death toll, the disaster, is a lifelong torture. They never let you forget how much you let them down, how far you fell, how endless your failure. People do not give in, in order to save their skin and sacrifice others, but because they want to die. They just want it to stop. There is a certain point where you would rather kill yourself, as quickly as possible, than choose to survive such an ordeal. Would I have killed myself by now? If I could, if I had the means. If the vial had not already been extracted from my teeth. Yes. Possibly. Probably. But my weakness was holding on to hope, clinging on to life, when most would know when to quit, when they had passed the point of no return, and to let go of the rope.

The rope around my wrists is biting in. Rubbing raw the skin. Someone behind me twists it round, an attempt to snap my wrists. It is excruciating, a pain so far beyond the sense barrier it no longer registers. I am immune. I am immortal. I can no longer tell if I am alive or dead, and the difference barely matters. This is all there is, all that's left. Me and my torturer, and this strange intimacy between us. He comes to me now. Stands over me, then sits astride, across my lap, crunching my splintering kneecap. He motions to the others, those I cannot see. He wants to be alone. Just him, my pain, and me. He leans in close, he breathes on me and offers a cigarette. I do not want it, but he lights it and places in my mouth, pushing it under the rag that gags me and is tied tight behind.

So this is it, I think. A final parting, a peace offering of sorts. A last wish, my last breaths wasted on nicotine. Then what? Blow to the head, bullet to the chest, knife to the throat. I wait. Nothing more I can do now. I choke on the cigarette. I don't smoke anymore, and even if I did, it would provide little relief now. Here, in this tent, tied up, body broken, bent out of shape, mind half-crazed, nearly gone, but not quite. Not yet. Still desperately, pointlessly clinging on to the rope. As I choke he takes the cigarette from my mouth, puts it to his own lips briefly, looks at me in a way I take to be curiosity, bemused by my perseverance and resistance, or perhaps just amused by my appearance. The ability for one to be stripped of all humanity, dignity, capacity, yet still somehow, remain human.

He takes the cigarette in his right hand, places his left upon my shoulder, and slowly, carefully lowers it towards me. I see its trajectory, a slow-moving missile. It's red glow lighting the gloom around us. All is slow motion, a film of exposed ripped negatives cast upon the cutting-room floor. It continues towards me, in my direct line of sight. I should have thought of this, I should have been prepared. I barely have time to close my eye. The cigarette burns into my eyelid, but gently, he doesn't push, there's clearly no rush. The skin of the eyelid is thin, a delicate membrane, it is punctured easily. Its hot spear pierces into my eye. I feel my eyeball contract, my body convulse. My eye is an egg cut and fried, thick viscous yolk oozing out, blood red. My fibres pull away, skin tries to contract, shrink into the chair, but there is no escape, no letting go. I long to faint, I am unavoidably repulsed, I try to vomit. It is a technique taught for occasions such as these, although this is a scenario beyond the most extreme programmes, my most sickening of dreams. But there is insufficient bile, I have already brought it up, when they first applied the fire and the knife.       

I try to focus on something else, anything but this. Still he twists, and gouges the cigarette butt deeper in. My other eyelid is squeezed tight shut, awaiting the next assault. I can hear him, feel him, smell him, breathing foully in my face. Close enough for lips to touch, if we should wish. I have no more weapons left, my mouth bound, my head held firm in place. I can resist no more, I am beaten. My muscles slacken, I relax. I want to weep, I long to be untied, I know I would welcome even his embrace. And that's when I know I am finished, I am letting go of the rope. I am getting ready to die, I have at last given up hope.

I know he must sense this. He's been well trained too. Probably the same programmes, the mind games, the pain response reframing. He loosens his grip, leans back and, I imagine, surveys his handiwork. I keep my eyes closed. But my bowels open. Suddenly, uncontrollably, and spill out whatever is left in there. The body emptying itself, in preparation for death. He scrambles off me, stands up, and kicks at my red raw shin. The smell of piss and shit fill the air, mixing with the sickly stench of burnt flesh, singed sclera, fried albumen. I am blinded. I don't need to try to open my eye to test this, I can tell. It feels rotten, festering, shrivelled in its socket. I am done. He is done too. That was his parting shot. I know that now. I don't speak, or ask for explanations, I stay silent, for there are no words, and for fear that he may rip out my tongue. That is more common we're told. He walks off, leaves the tent, rejoins his fold. I'm left waiting, listening, breathing. It's all I have left.

They remove the tent, they take the chair. I'm left gagged and bound. Burning in the midday sun.

 

I spy with my little eye something beginning with

 

 

 

 

 

 

                                        ******

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

                         ‘On Camera’

 

                                                                               by

 

                                                                  Mary Bevan

 

He walks slowly, painfully, across the floor of the television studio towards the table. Nick sees him struggling and takes his arm gently, guiding him as carefully as he would his own grandfather, ‘Lean on me, Mr Rosenblum.’

           Joseph Rosenblum thinks that Nick seems very young for an interviewer. Nevertheless he has warmed to him, for he is courteous and softly spoken, not loud and brash as he generally expected media people to be. Just the same, Joseph is nervous – he stumbles and his palms are sweaty. As one of the dwindling number of survivors, he had thought it his duty to bear witness while he was still able, but perhaps after all he is too old, too frail for this.

           On the table are a selection of grainey, black and white photographs. Beside them the chairs where he and Nick will sit. Nick helps him into one of them, takes his stick from him and lays it on the floor. ‘Just make yourself comfortable, Mr Rosenblum, there’s no hurry, no hurry at all.’

           ‘Not too many questions all at once, please.’ He knows this sounds awkward but he needs to say it. Questions sometimes confuse him nowadays – there can be too many of them and not enough answers.

           ‘Of course. I understand.’ How can Nick possibly understand? But he sounds as if he just might. ‘We’ll be switching on the cameras directly. I’ll introduce you and give a little background, then I’ll ask you to take a good look at these three photographs and give us your reactions. In particular, tell us if you see anyone you think you recognise – anyone at all.’

           Joseph can feel his heart thumping dangerously. As Nick begins to set the scene with facts and figures he tries to steady himself, taking off his glasses and wiping them carefully with the clean, white handkerchief from his breast pocket. The studio seems too warm, too personal. The photographs, newly come to light as he understands it, lie in front of him. He does, and does not, want to look at them. Concealed somewhere on the platform when these people – his people - were being herded off those stinking cattle trucks, an unseen eye had been waiting and watching, just as the camera’s eye was watching him now. What if he should lose control? ‘Smile for the camera,’ he used to tell Abi when he took their family photographs. He must not let them down now.

           Nick has finished his introductory remarks and is pulling the first photograph. towards them. He leans forward to get a better look at it. Here, in the left hand corner, the first thing he sees is a small girl wrapped in a coat too large for her, looking out at him with wide, frightened eyes. Her hands are clasped in front of her. Above her a station signboard reads ‘Auschwitz-Birkenau’. Without warning his stomach drops away. Swallowing, he re-focuses quickly on a mound of suitcases, piled haphazardly, most with initials painted or stamped on them. Beside them, his back to the camera, a German officer in a greatcoat stands arrogantly, legs wide apart.

           ‘Can you share with us some of your memories of the transport, Mr Rosenblum?’ Nick prompts.

            ‘When we arrived the platform was already piled with suitcases – so many, so many. The officer with his back to us – an officer like that instructed us to leave all our belongings in a pile, said they would be taken care of.’ The old wound on his left arm begin to itch as it always does when he is under stress. He rubs at it surreptitiously. The rest of the photograph is a blur of faces – so many, men, women and children. They stare out at him from another life, anxious, puzzled, ‘Why us?’ He stares back at them: he is surprised and relieved to feel strangely detached from what he sees.

           ‘There were so many on the platform you see, such a crush; friends and families were separated. And so much noise, so much shouting.’ He spends time trying to concentrate on one indistinct face after another till his head begins to spin. ‘I don’t see anyone…’

            ‘Shall we move on to the next photograph?’ Nick interposes smoothly.

            The angle here is different. He sees the head of an Alsatian peering from behind a pillar.

            ‘Oh the dogs, yes. Wolfhounds. They were on leads but so vicious, growling. They frightened the children.’ The officers are gesticulating - clearly the women, many with babes in arms, have been lined up and are being moved somewhere. ‘We were separated into two lines. We men did not want to leave our wives and children. We had no choice; they beat us. We didn’t realise, you see. We didn’t know…’ Words fail him. 

            He forces himself to concentrate once more on the mass of faces, looking for someone or something familiar, but finds nothing. They must be expecting him to say something but he is tongue-tied.  He transfers his gaze anxiously to the final photograph, which seems at first sight to be more or less the same as the last one, showing mainly women and children.

            His gaze moves across the page, then stops suddenly. The dark eyes, the floral headscarf, the head cocked slightly to one side. Becca? Can it be? She stares out at him doubtfully, a young girl clinging to the sleeve of her coat, hanging on for dear life. Abi? After all this time? Oh, my darlings! Their faces rush up to meet him, break through his detachment, drag him back with them into the world of the death camp. He hears again the long ‘shusssh’ of steam escaping from the engine as it draws into the filthy siding, sees it black against the pewter-grey sky as he waits in the group of men detailed to unload the belongings of the latest batch of arrivals, feels the hunger gnaw at his insides, the cold gnaw at his chilblained fingers. Becca and Abi as he had last seen them. Oh, why you? Why not me?

            His left hand is shaking uncontrollably now. What arrogance to have agreed to do this, thinking that he could get through it, not believing for a moment that the unthinkable might happen. But it has happened, and now he is drowning in it.

            Not knowing what else to do, he plays for time, takes his glasses off again, wipes his eyes carefully with his handkerchief and rubs it over the lenses. He is aware that Nick is leaning forward, watching closely.

            ‘It’s difficult,’ he manages. His voice sounds strange, as though it is passing through an echo chamber, ‘It all comes back, you see. The fear, the cold.’

            Nick says quietly, ‘Of course. I understand how painful this must be for you. But you don’t recognise anyone? Please take another look. There are many families who still need to know what happened to their loved ones. If you could identify anyone at all…Please, sir, look carefully, look again.’

            He hears the excitement beneath the calm surface of the words. The boy knows, senses that something has changed, that a moment of drama may be in the offing. What must he do now? He stares at Abi and Becca, silently begs their help. They give him none; they are locked in their own horror. But, through them, an answer forms in his mind. They were taken from him once; now, gifted beyond belief with seeing them again, this one, last time, he must keep them to himself. He stares in silence at the beloved faces – photographs them with his eyes, burns them on to the plates of his memory. Let them rest there in peace now, it is their right, and his.

            Then, taking his time, he tears his gaze away from them, leans back in his chair, clears his throat, shakes his head and looks Nick straight in the eye. He tries to pack into that one, long look all that he cannot say in front of the camera. Then he speaks, very slowly and deliberately, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t help you. There’s no one here I recognise. I’m so sorry.’

 

 

 

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