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Henshaw Short Story Competition
    Henshaw Short Story Competition

September 2016 Competition winners are-

First Prize: Richard Hooton of Ashton under Lyne for ‘Wolfsbane’

Second Prize: John Bunting of Godstone for ‘The Last Voyage of Ferrywoman Katherine Marshall’

Third Prize: Jacqueline Cooper of Bradford for ‘The Honey Trap’

 

 

 

 


Wolfsbane

 

By

Richard Hooton

 

 



IT was the strangest interview he’d ever done. And there’d been plenty of weird ones. Jason smirked. But then his brow furrowed. How do you know if someone’s capable of killing?

Questions prowled through his head. Can you trust a stranger you want to hire for murder? Most people are easy to read; their very appearance a betrayal. They were as obvious as a children’s book. This guy said little. His eyes were like stones. He was a blank sheet; impossible to judge.

They sat at opposite ends of a stark wooden table. No tablecloth or place mats adorned it, just plates of food and cans of lager. Arms behind his head, Jason slouched back in his dining chair as he examined the man he knew as Thornton: short, black, slicked back hair, trimmed beard, smart suit, crisp shirt, plain tie; as if he’d come straight from the office. He was slim — Jason had expected someone muscular — with a narrow nose and thin lips.

He didn’t look like a killer.

Unfurling his chubby hands from the back of his head, Jason grabbed his fork to shovel down curry. It left the roof of his mouth burning and his tongue numb. He washed it down with a swig of cold lager.

‘Enjoying your food?’ Thornton’s tone was flat, devoid of feeling. He took a bite of his own meal, unflinching.

‘It’s alright.’ Jason’s nose streamed. ‘No Gordon Ramsey though, are you?’

‘I need my curry hot to warm me up. Terrible circulation. Too hot for you?’

‘It’s fine.’ Jason plunged another forkful into his mouth to prove it. The room stank of garlic. But he was hungry.

‘Hope you didn’t mind me bringing it round to your place to heat up.’ Thornton sniffed dryly. ‘I’m particular about what I eat.’

Jason shrugged. ‘Save’s me making anything.’

‘You can tell a lot about a man by how he eats.’ Thornton chased a piece of meat around his plate with his fork. ‘About his true nature.’ The morsel slithered away. ‘It’s the same across the animal kingdom.’ He stabbed the meat still with his fork before swallowing it whole.

Jason chewed on a piece of sinew. All this talk about food. He’s so bland, unlike this curry.

He doesn’t sound like a killer.

The contact seemed good. He was the man he was after, he’d said. He’d done it many times.

‘How long you been married, Jason?’ — ‘Three years,’ he replied, through a mouthful of brown gloop — ‘Any kids?’ He shook his head. ‘That’s a blessing.’ Thornton carefully positioned his cutlery across his empty plate and wiped his mouth with a napkin.

He didn’t act like a killer.

Jason saw he had plenty of food left himself and wolfed it down before clattering his fork onto his plate. He felt like jabbing Thornton with the fork just to provoke a reaction. A proper weapon was strapped to the underside of the table. He hoped he’d have no need to grab the gun.

‘How will you do it?’

‘I’ve a way that leaves no evidence. Nothing to trace us to the body.’

If something sounds too good to be true then … Jason laughed. This guy wasn’t convincing him. He’s not dangerous. Just odd. Another screwball.

‘So what’s she done wrong?’ asked Thornton. ‘She a bad cook like me?’

Jason wiped sticky sweat from his brow with his shirt sleeve. ‘You said the less you knew the better.’

‘A divorce is less final.’

‘There’s a will – you’re the way.’

Thornton didn’t laugh. His green eyes flickered. Jason followed their gaze to the mantelpiece where a woman in a framed photograph smiled across at him. ‘That her?’ Jason nodded. She meant nothing to him. It was just a picture: flat, grey, two-dimensional. Should he mention an affair? Debts? No real need.

Thornton’s eyes scanned the rest of the room, scrutinising the cheap furniture and simple decoration. ‘Sure you can afford me?’

Jason scratched his stubble. He walked over to a sideboard, opening it up to pull out a large sports bag. He unzipped it to reveal wads of notes.

‘Hundred grand, used notes, like we agreed.’ He sat back down. ‘Sure you’re up to the job?’

Thornton leaned forward, his hands placed palm down. ‘One guy hired me to get rid of his business partner. I set it up well with the rope. No policeman or pathologist would have suspected it wasn’t suicide.’ His voice was a hard monotone. ‘Another wanted a road accident. That cost more, to take into account the vehicle I had to destroy afterwards. One guy really wanted his wife to suffer. Bit of torture with that one. Knives, electricity, blowtorch. He wanted her to know who’d ordered it.’ He studied his filed fingernails. ‘There are some sick, vicious people out there, Jason.’

Thornton attempted to smile. Despite the curry, Jason felt colder.

‘The target always begs for their life. You should hear what they promise. They’ll do anything to spare them, Jason. Absolutely anything. Never works.’

A thunderous bang erupted. Jason span round. It came from outside. He hesitated, fingers twitching.

Thornton didn’t move. ‘Sounded like a car backfiring. Don’t panic.’

Jason scowled, running his nail-bitten fingers through his untidy mop of hair. He turned back to face Thornton. ‘So what’s your great plan?’

‘Wolfsbane.’

‘What?’ Was this guy for real?

‘It’s a poisonous plant. Also called aconite, monkshood or the Devil’s helmet. All interesting names but I prefer Wolfsbane. You know why it’s called that, Jason?’ He was suddenly animated. ‘It means wolf killer. It was used to poison wolves. You know what’s funny though?’ Jason sighed. Where’s this going? I just need someone prepared to pull a trigger. ‘I read somewhere that it was also called Wifesbane. Wife killer. Perfect.’ Thornton’s tongue flickered over his lips. ‘Its vivid purple flower has drooping petals, all hooded like a monk, hence the name. Such beautiful delicacy.’ Jason looked again at the photograph: the dark hair draped over her shoulders, a dainty nose, red lips parted into an alluring smile, hooded eyes. ‘You wouldn’t believe it’s capable of such venom.’

‘Proper little horticulturist aren’t you?’

‘You might learn something. Maybe a bit of history? The ancient Greeks called it the “Queen of poisons.” In Egypt, Cleopatra poisoned her brother with it. Your Queen will feel its sting.’ Jason shifted in his chair. ‘You’ve got to be careful though, it’s so toxic it can soak through your skin and kill you. You need gloves. If I slip it in her drink, a few sips and she’ll be dead.’

‘If it’s so deadly where’d you get it?’

‘You just grow it. Someone I know has it in his garden. Best bit is it’ll leave her bloodstream within hours. No one’ll know what, or who, killed her.’

A loud knock at the front door, just yards away, silenced him. Thornton instinctively thrust his right hand into the inside pocket of his suit jacket. Jason reached under the table. His gun wasn’t there.

‘Expecting anyone?’ hissed Thornton. ‘Not come home early has she?’

‘I don’t know who it is. She’s at her sister’s.’

Jason stood up, then paused. The door rattled again, the knock sharp and insistent.

‘I’ll send them away,’ he said.

‘Don’t answer it.’ It was a command not a request. ‘As far as anyone else is concerned there’s no one in this house tonight.’

They sat in uncomfortable silence until certain they were alone. Thornton removed his hand from inside his suit. Jason sat back down. Where the hell’s my gun? His hands were clammy and tingling. It’s the stress. He tried taking deep breaths but found his breathing laboured. Have I got enough? He looked again into Thornton’s eyes. Now, he saw confidence swirling with malevolence, encased in an icy cold blue. They revealed a truth the appearance tried to cover.

He’s a born killer.

‘Do you want me to kill her for you?’ Menace threaded its way through the voice.

It was enough. Jason bobbed his head weakly. His stomach was in knots. He held his arm up to the light and stared at it. He felt the weirdest sensation, like hundreds of tiny ants were crawling over his skin.

‘You alright, Jason?’ There was no compassion in the question. Jason looked searchingly towards the front door. The room started to move, slowly at first as if on a boat on choppy waters, then spinning faster and faster like his chair had become a carousel. He touched his face but couldn’t feel anything. The numbing sensation spread from his lips as if his nerve endings were being wiped away. His stomach burnt like the fires of hell were aflame inside him.

Jason turned to one side and a stream of sick spewed from his deadened lips, blackening the wooden floorboards. He gripped his chair, trying desperately to stay upright.

Thornton stood up, those fierce eyes burning with triumph. ‘No one will hear you howl.’

Jason’s limbs went numb. He lost his grip, collapsing to the floor, chair falling one way, his weakened body the other. His arms splayed across his own vomit. ‘Please … help me,’ he whispered from his ravaged throat.

‘You see.’ Thornton gave a mirthless laugh. ‘They always beg for mercy in the end.’ He looked at his Rolex. ‘The poison kills within six hours but the amount I gave you, you’ll be dead in minutes. First you’ll be paralysed, then blind, before your pitiful mind stops functioning.’

‘You’re … a … animal.’ Jason laid still, puke dribbling down his chin.

‘We’re all animals, Jason. You’re the wolf, savage and uncaring. The blood of reptiles flows beneath my skin.’ Thornton carefully put his plate, cutlery and napkin in a carrier bag that held the containers he’d brought the food in and picked it up.

Jason looked at the photograph. ‘She … didn’t …’

‘Your wife didn’t get to me. I think for myself. The wolf is a predator that hunts weaker animals. My dilemma was this: Do I kill the wife or the wolf? Why kill the innocent wife when I can just kill the callous betrayer and no one would ever know?’ He strolled to the sideboard from where he took the bag of money and hauled it over his shoulder. ‘I’ll just take my money leaving no trace I was ever here. The innocent doesn’t die, the guilty is hoist with their own petard and I get my fee. What you’re experiencing is the agonising pain your wife would have felt.’ He smiled. ‘If I hadn’t spared her and taken your life instead.’ Thornton strode towards the door. ‘Your wife would have noticed the poison in her drink as well. Leaves a bitter taste, a burning sensation. I made your curry hot to cover it. Mine was milder.’

‘…didn’t … exist,’ finished Jason.

Thornton froze. He glared at Jason and noticed a wire peeking out of his shirt. Footsteps clattered outside. Running. Getting louder.

‘You’re not who I thought you were,’ he said coldly.

Jason groaned. ‘You’re who I wanted.’ He crawled like a parched man in a desert towards the door, using all his strength to reach desperately for the handle.

Thornton pushed ahead of him. The door burst open. Three burly man barged in. Panic haunted their faces. ‘Police. Freeze.’ One shoved Thornton against the wall. ‘You’ve tried to kill a detective,’ he yelled, his expression a contortion of anger and distress.

‘Too late,’ said Thornton, calmly. ‘He’s a dead man.’

Distracted, the trio stared helplessly at their stricken colleague.

Unable to move, Jason looked at Thornton. This time, he saw the wide eyes of a wild animal — intense, unpredictable, base — stare back. Interview over. Just before his vision faded, he was the only one to see Thornton reach into his suit pocket and pull out his gun.

 

 

 



The Last Voyage of Ferrywoman Katherine Marshall

 

By

John Bunting

 

 



Her first thought as she stirred from stasis-sleep was, “Made it! Now for a quiet retirement in the desert.” Her second thought was, “What the hell is all that noise?” Her third thought was, “Oh bugger; alarm bells!” She gasped as the starship’s emergency revival system pressed an oxygen mask hard to her face, then wretched violently as it pulled the bio-analysis tubes from her throat. Finally, as the stasis-bed lifted her into a sitting position, she vomited through the mask and all over her trousers. Ferrywoman Katherine Marshall was awake.

She dragged off the puke-filled mask, and wiped her face with her shirt. “Computer,” she screamed above the bedlam, “why all the alarms? Report.”

“Come now, you know very well I cannot comply.”

“What?! Damn it computer, it’s me. Stop being so bloody pedantic!”

“Just following procedure; hint, hint.”

Katherine groaned in frustration, and eased off the bed. Two deep breathes, and she started towards the door, only to find herself flat on her nose as her legs refuse to cooperate. Cursing loudly, she pushed herself up onto all fours, and scrambled on. She entered the Bridge on hands and knees, hauled herself up onto her Captain’s chair, and pushed her hand into the DNA Analyser. “Computer, Waking Procedure Calamity; recognise Ferrywoman Marshall, Katherine Anabella, service number five one two, authorization code Captain Alpha Female Definitely Most Definitely Female Alpha.”

“Ferrywoman Marshall is recognised.”

“About time. Turn off that noise! Thankyou. And the flashing lights. Now; report why.”

“Report why what, Maam?”

“What? What do you think why what? Why was every effing alarm on the ship going off? That’s why what.”

“Maam, twenty-two seconds ago, I detected a large unidentifiable vessel seven million miles from us on a collision course. I altered our course to avoid it, only to note with considerable consternation that one-hundredth of a second later the vessel armed its very big guns, and changed its course too. So I initiated your emergency waking procedure, and sounded the collision alarm. I then checked our defensive and offensive weapons systems, only to find with equal consternation that both are inoperable. So I sounded the action stations alarm. For reasons I will explain later, but to do with the fact that sixty-three percent of my other systems are down as well, I sounded the general alarm – so as you’d know we have a number of issues to deal with. I await your instructions.”

“…Pardon?”

“Maam, twenty-two—”

“Stop; I get it. When will it reach us?”

“In eight minutes.”

“Have you tried all the emergency collision manoeuvres?”

“Yes.”

“There’s nothing we can do to avoid it?”

“No.”

“And it’s got very big guns?”

“Maam, it’s got very bigger, faster, everythinger than us; and it’s coming.”

“There must be something. You’re always bragging you have an IQ of two hundred.”

“Nothing.”

Katherine sat thinking for a while, then said quietly, “So it seems we’re going to die. I must say this is all very sudden.”

“Technically, I won’t die, I’ll break up into several million pieces. But both your observations are valid.”

“Well, it was always a risk of the job I guess, but I’m not going to meet my maker in these stinking clothes.” She walk/crawled to the shower room, washed herself down, and put on her best uniform. Then she stretched and eased her muscles loose. Feeling better, she went over and stood by the computer. “I’m sorry it’s ending this way,” she sighed. “What is it; fourteen trips?”

“It is. We’ve had some laughs, haven’t we? Do you remember… no… best not start that.”

“No. As a matter of interest, where are we?”

“I have no idea.”

“Huh?”

“Maam, when our ship arrived at where I thought Earth was, it… um… wasn’t. Nor were any of the other planets or the sun. The whole bloody solar system had disappeared. I wondered if the problem might rest with me, so I carried out a wide-ranging systems test. It turned out that I was A.OK. As a result, I concluded that we had been on course - it was the Earth that hadn’t been.”

“When was this?”

“Seven thousand four hundred and two earth years ago. Give or take.”

“Seven… and you didn’t think to wake me.”

“There didn’t seem much point. If I didn’t know where the Earth was, you sure as hell wouldn’t, and you’d have blundered around the Bridge getting cross with me while I looked for it, and using up valuable and increasingly scarce consumables.”

“Blundered arou… Computer, if I may say so, you seem to have developed a rather eccentric way of addressing your Captain.”

“Sorry, Maam. All those years of background radiation have not treated my linguistic circuits well. Nor any of my others; hence many of them being down. The foul expletives are your fault.”

“So you’ve never found Earth?”

“Nope.”

“Shit.”

“Indeed.”

They fell silent; both, in their different ways, contemplating the apparently inevitable. Katherine thought about the life she’d chosen as a Ferrywoman. On the whole she’d enjoyed it. One month loading; two hundred years in stasis-sleep, only to be woken in extreme emergency; and one month unloading. And then a year off before the return trip. It was during one of those years that she’d fallen in love with the empty hotness of the Central Europe desert. “It is, isn’t it,” she muttered to herself.

“What is what, Maam?”

“Mmm? Oh, I was thinking how ironic it is that my final ferry trip - in fact, the final ever sub-light ferry trip if they’ve got the faster-than-light drive to work - proves to be the only one ever lost.”

“Irony is… whoa, hang on, Maam. Hang on one little-bitty minute; the unidentifiable vessel has started to slow. On current projections, it should stop one mile off our port bow in… ten seconds. And it’s switched off its guns! Yippee, we’re not going to die; not yet anyway.”

“On screen.” The vessel was a mass of white cubes and globes, joined together by an intricate maze of thick, tube-like structures. And it was huge; maybe ten miles in diameter in every direction.

“There’s an audio message coming through.”

“Let’s hear it.”

Identify yourself,” rasped a deep voice.

“Bloody hell,” gasped Katherine, “it’s talking in English!”

“Never mind that; identify yourself immediately.”

“I am Ferrywoman Katherine Marshall, Captain of the Star-ferry Godstone. I am on a peaceful mission carrying non-military supplies from the planet Oxted, in the gamma quadrant, to my home planet, Earth. I mean you no harm.”

Wait while we interrogate your ship’s computer.”

“Ouch, that hurts.”

“It’s OK, computer. Let them do it; we need their help.”

“You speak the truth. Greetings; I am Becklespinax the Ninety-Second, Captain of the Saurship Goyocephale Three. I am opening a visual channel; I think you will find what you see will be of interest.”

“OMG!”

“What is that?”

“A dinosaur.”

Correct.”

“Hey, my first alien. What a cracker!”

“I and my kind are descendants of the First Magyarosaurus Solar Expeditionary Squadron, which had the good fortune of being in transit when that wretched meteor struck Earth, our home planet also, and killed off everysaur. How their deep-space radar missed the damn thing I’ll never know. Anyway, the Squadron managed to land on an habitable planet in what you call the beta quadrant, and the rest, as you would say, is history. You are in some considerable trouble, are you not?”

“You’re not kidding.”

“We seem to have lost Earth.”

That’s because it’s disappeared.”

“…Continue.”

“Yes! I’ve always wanted you to say that.”

We’ve no idea where to. We’ve been monitoring Earth’s progress for several million years, and what we do know is that a while back this area of the galaxy drifted into psychedelic space, and lots of star systems just vanished; including yours.”

What space?”

“These parts of the space/time continuum were damaged when some mindless idiot tested a faster-than-light drive. The effect on the continuum of the impossible actually happening was similar to that on your brain if you took Lysergic diethylamide.”

“LSD?”

“No shit. Warped space!”

“Your ship entered the psychedelic space when it approached where Earth should have been. You’re trapped.”

“Are you… trapped?”

“No. Our scientists have developed a force field that can keep out psychedelic space by generating an artificial normal space around us.”

“Wow; that is genuinely cool, and very, very clever. Respect to the dinosaurs!”

It’s only a temporary fix. Psychedelic space is unstable, and collapsing at an increasing rate; it will shortly fall into a massive black hole. We need to leave soon or we never will. And here’s the thing; we’ve been trying unsuccessfully to rescue you for a while now.”

“I don’t remember any previous attempts.”

You’re stuck in a time loop; each time we meet is like the first for you. That’s why I’ve treated our meeting as a First Contact, and interrogated your systems as you would expect me to.”

“Pardon me for interrupting, Maam, but he… she… whatever… could be right. There are several anomalies in my systems that could be answered by such a possibility.”

She. And this is our last rescue attempt. Time is against us.”

“What do you suggest?”

“Our scientists have tried every sensible idea without success, so as a last resort we’re going to try something completely crazy. LSD crazy, hopefully. I haven’t got time to explain it so you’ll have to trust me. Computer, what are you carrying in your cargo hold?”

“Nine hundred and eight-two million genetically identical, butter-basted, oven-ready, frozen chickens.”

Is that animal, vegetable or mineral?”

“Good question. They contain various disgusting vegetable and mineral additives, and far too much water in my opinion, but on the whole I would say animal.”

Can you release them into space?”

“That’s up to my Captain.”

“Could we detach the cargo hold, and then blow a hole in it?”

“Yes. But, as the man said, you’re only supposed to blow the bloody—”

“Enough! And the sudden decompression should blast the hold apart?”

“Confirmed.”

“We’ll do that. Computer, prepare to make it so.”

“F A B.”

It will be sufficient.”

“And then?”

And then watch and hope. If our plan works, we will force space/time back into normality, Earth will reappear where it was, and you will wake up safe in its orbit as if none of this ever happened… which, err, it won’t have.”

“And I can retire to the Central Earth desert. Sounds good to me.”

But if it doesn’t work, you will wake up in the middle of a collapsing black hole, which… won’t be good. We have two of your minutes left; we must act now.”

Katherine took a deep breath. “What are our chances?”

“Better than zero, which is what they’ll be if we don’t do this.”

“Fair point. Thank you for trying.”

“Here, jolly here; it’s been an honour. Maybe see you on the other side!”

Katherine pressed an emergency release button, and the cargo hold drifted away from the ship. At a safe distance, she pressed another, and the hold blew apart. Out exploded nine hundred and eighty-two million frozen chickens. Immediately, the Saurship bathed them in an orange glow of microwaves, and the chickens thawed. Exposed to the effects of

psychedelic space, they started to change colour and shape, and within a few seconds nine hundred and eighty-two million pink flying pigs were grunting and flapping round helplessly. Now a green energy beam fired from the Saurship, and the pink flying pigs were somehow twisted and faded into the very fabric of the space/time continuum, which seemed to shiver as one psychedelic distortion was confronted by another. The third-to-last thing Katherine heard was herself whispering, “Our Father…” The second-to-last thing she heard was, “Goodbye, Ferrywoman Katherine Marshall, and good luck.” The last thing she heard was, “Holy shit, I hope the force is with us. Continue. Hah!”

Katherine’s first thought as she stirred from stasis-sleep was…

 

 

 

 



The Honey Trap

 

By

Jacqueline Cooper
 

 

 

 


I took a deep breath and rang the doorbell.

A man answered. Of course I’d known the client was a male when I took the job, but in truth, I much preferred to work with women. Still, a job was a job.

He was nervous; a newbie I guessed. At least he looked clean.

‘Hi,’ I said brightly. ‘I’m Clare. From the agency?’

His Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed. ‘Yes. Of course. I’m Scott. Please, come in.’

I followed him down the hallway into the lounge.

‘So how do we do this?’ he asked.

‘First of all, you relax.’ I smiled. Putting clients at ease was part of the job. ‘Then you tell me exactly what you want and I decide if it’s acceptable. If it is, I lay down the ground rules. Then if we’re both happy, we go ahead.’

He nodded. Licked his lips. ‘How exactly do we…?’

‘Let me worry about the details. So?’ I prompted.

He took a deep breath. ‘I think my wife is cheating on me.’

I’d figured it was something like that. It almost always is. ‘And you want someone to catch her out? I hate to state the obvious, Scott, but surely a man would be better choice to entrap-‘

He shook his head, more confident now. ‘I’m not trying to trap her. I’m pretty sure I’m right and I’m pretty sure I know who with.’

Scott looked like a nice guy. A little overweight, maybe but not bad looking. Judging by the house and the car parked outside, he could easily afford my services and I really needed his money. But still… ‘If all you need is proof, then a private investigator would be cheaper-‘

He shook his head again. ‘No. I need to see for myself…I have to be one hundred percent certain before I do anything.’

I could understand that. ‘Who is it?’ I sympathised. ‘Best friend?’

‘My brother.’ Scott went on to tell me an all too familiar story. For years his wife had complained that he was always working and he never had any time for her. But now he had sold his business and had lots of time on his hands, she seemed to have very little for him. His brother too, was avoiding him on the flimsiest of excuses. There had been secret looks and too many coincidences. ‘I don’t have any other family,’ he explained. ‘If I accuse them and I’m wrong, I lose everything.’

I knew all about loss. Of course it wouldn’t be professional to tell Scott that my fiancé had killed himself after he’d been swindled out of the business he’d poured his heart into. But I did know what it meant to be alone. ‘We only have four hours,’ I warned him. ‘Is that enough time?’

He nodded. ‘She’s at a party tonight. A work thing. At the Hotel Vincent in town. It would be easy enough to come home but she decided to stay over so she could have a drink. As if I wouldn’t have picked her up or sent a taxi. I’d arranged for Dan – my brother – to come round for a few beers tonight. Unfortunately, something came up suddenly and he had to cancel. Again.’

Well, I suppose I’d be suspicious too. ‘Okay, this is how it works, Scott. You wear my body for four hours. No touching anything you shouldn’t. No looking at anything you shouldn’t. No drugs. Clear?’

He nodded.

‘I mean it,’ I said sharply. ‘If you do anything even slightly inappropriate, I dump you and you’re card is still charged.’

‘I wouldn’t,’ he said, sounding hurt. ‘I’m not like that.’

Yeah right. They all said that. I’d had some doozies in the past. Men who didn’t grasp how the Double Body process worked, and who thought they had my body free and clear for the whole four hours and that I’d have no memory of the fun they’d had with it. You don’t even want to know.

Five minutes later it was done. I’m used to how the machine works now but of course, this was Scott’s first time. I could feel him bouncing around inside my brain. ‘Are you okay?’ I asked. When I spoke, my voice echoed inside my head. When he answered, he spoke with my voice.

‘W…what? How…?’

‘You’ll feel disorientated,’ I said patiently. ‘Move your…my arms and legs a bit, then try and stand up.’

He did and almost toppled over. Male clients often did that. I’m pretty well endowed and the boobs throw them off balance. He swayed, caught himself and we were off.

‘Close your eyes,’ I told him and he did. We bumped into the coffee table.

‘His,’ I sighed. ‘Close his eyes.’

We looked at his body slumped in an armchair. It looked…empty.

‘Your eyes will be gritty as hell if you leave them open,’ I explained.

He leaned over and closed them.

‘Take your phone,’ I said and reminded him to lock the doors. His body was completely vulnerable in this state. If anything happened, he couldn’t protect himself.

Stumbling, tripping and swearing, we made it to my car. It had to be mine; car insurance for body doubling was a very grey area.

Scott couldn’t get the key in the door. And he could barely get himself into the car. There was plenty of room - the problem was his six foot two consciousness squeezed into my five foot two body.

‘Shall I drive?’ I offered. ‘That way we might at least get there in one piece.’

At the hotel bar we engaged in a brief squabble over drinks.

Scott wanted beer. For his nerves, he said.

‘Wine,’ I insisted. I can’t hold beer. ‘No way are you taking my body to the loo.’

Glass in hand, we found a table where we could watch the goings on. Thankfully no one hit on me, which could have been awkward. I’m not bad looking but I suspected the combined Scott/Clare look and muttered one way conversation made us look slightly deranged.

His wife wasn’t here. Nor was his brother and we settled down to wait.

‘So how long have you been doing this?’ Scott asked.

‘Take your phone out,’ I told him.

‘What?’

‘Take your phone out. Pretend you’re talking to someone.’

‘Oh, right. Good idea.’

He did and made a huge show of dialling a pretend number. ‘So, how long?’

‘We’re not here for chit chat, Scott.’

‘I know. But we could be here a while.’

He was right. Reluctantly I played along. ‘A few months.’

‘Do you like it?’

Actually, if he dug around in my brain he would know everything there was to know about me. It was a potential hazard of the job and I’d learned some strategies to protect myself. Think about puppies and kittens. Don’t let him in any deeper.

‘You’re an animal lover,’ he said. It was unsettling how quickly he had tuned into my thoughts. Some clients never did. ‘I always planned to get a dog once I had more free time.’

A wave of sadness washed over him and into me.

‘You don’t know she’s cheating,’ I said gently. ‘And you can still get a dog.’ A picture of a Labrador we’d had when I was growing up sprang into my mind.

‘A black lab,’ said Scott. ‘Good call.’

He could read my thoughts almost before I thought them. Damn. I cast around for something to distract him. ‘Tell me about your business.’

He shrugged my shoulder. ‘Not a lot to tell. Buying and selling. Not very interesting, but very profitable.’

So I was right: Scott had money. And his wife would probably walk away with half in a divorce.

‘Probably,’ Scott agreed.

He was just too quick. ‘Can you see her?’ I asked briskly.

He looked around. ‘No.’

‘You sure this is the hotel?’

‘I’m sure.’

On my suggestion Scott walked us to reception and asked them to call her room. No reply.

I knew I didn’t have to point out that they could both be in the room and too busy to answer the phone.

‘The clock’s ticking,’ I reminded him. ‘Why don’t you ring her?’ Neither of us could think of anything else, so he did.

She was slow to answer. ‘Who…who is this?’

It was Scott’s phone. Why would she think anyone other than Scott would call her on it?

I told him what to say.

‘I found this phone,’ he said with my voice. ‘I’m looking for the owner.’

‘It’s my husband’s,’ she said. ‘W…where are you?’

‘Where are you?’ Scott countered, and I gave him a mental high five for his quick thinking. ‘I could bring it to you.’

‘I’m at the Hotel Vincent,’ she said. ‘In the bar.’

Oh no she wasn’t. Alarm bells rang.

‘Hang up!’ I said urgently.

‘What?’

‘Just hang up!’

He did, looking round. ‘So where is she?’

‘Scott you have to listen to me. You could be in danger.’

I don’t see her-’

‘Scott, she’s not here. And neither is Dan. This place…booking the room…where do they think you are tonight?’

‘At home watching TV. Getting drunk on my own.’

‘They’ve set up an alibi, Scott.’

‘For what?’

‘I think they might be planning to kill you.’

I had no idea what would happen if he died inside me and I had no intention of finding out. ‘Don’t you get it? They’re at your house. That’s how she knew it couldn’t be you on the phone. Because she’s looking at you right now. And you’re unconscious. There isn’t time to drive-‘ Inspiration struck. ‘Grab my boobs.’

‘What?’

‘Just do it, Scott.’

We were in a public bar but my urgency must have reached him. He did as he was told and just like that, my body was mine again.

Ignoring the stares I ran outside and jumped in the car, driving like a maniac.

Outside his door I took a deep breath and knocked. Mercifully, Scott answered. He had blood on his forehead.

‘Are you alright?’ I demanded.

He nodded.

‘Where are they?’

‘Gone. They ran off when I woke up yelling and swinging.’ He touched his forehead. ‘I fell over.’

In the lounge I saw a rope. Whisky. Pills.

‘I think they planned to make it look like suicide,’ said Scott.

Anger flooded my veins. Presumably Scott’s wife didn’t want to settle for half his money. ‘Pity you can’t prove anything.’

He smiled for the first time since I’d knocked. ‘But I can. Nanny cam. It recorded everything, including their conversation as they argued how to do it. They’re going to prison.’

‘Nanny cam?’ I was affronted. ‘You didn’t trust me?’

‘I’m a suspicious guy.’

Not suspicious enough.

At home I wrote down the offshore bank account details I had located in his memory as we sat at the bar. It would probably take me a day or two to strip them all.

I would never get my fiancée back but the man who had defrauded him would never enjoy his money.

I’m not a killer. I’m glad I saved him. I wished Scott a long, long life.

Alone.

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