Bert felt jealous, cheated on, and blue. Then he discovered he could morph into a giant nightmarish slug...
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On Wednesdays and Sundays I’m blogging nibble-sized chunks of new ‘Life in the Clouds’ novellas. You can check in regularly and read them bit for bit, or leave a message in my 'contact' page, and I'll send the entire digital story to you for free when published.
Life in the Clouds #6: Take a Slug ® James Field.
Life in the Clouds #4: Evil Portent ® James Field.
Previously from posts 49 - 52
The horse trotted, reserving its energy, but they covered distance fast. As they neared the forest edge that hemmed the Guardian's citadel, Bert stopped, lowered the Alien Father to the ground, and dropped to his side.
“Back on my planet," said Bert, "we have animals called sheep. They’re a lot like you, docile, but not half as brainy. We call the male sheep rams and they can be aggressive. Some have caused serious injuries, even death, to people.” He placed his hand on the Alien Father’s shoulder and fixed him with a stare. “I’m asking you to be a ram. Can you do it?”
“I won’t run away this time,” said the Alien Father, tightening his impressive muscles.
"We have to take the Guardians by surprise."
"Yeah, that's what I reckon, too. Got any ideas?"
The Alien Father gave a curt nod and answered with a steady low-pitched voice. "I'll stay here and count to a hundred while you sneak closer. Then I'll kick one of their lawnmowers again and draw their attention. When they come out of the citadel to chase me, you go in. How about that?”
“Got it. Count to one hundred.” It wasn’t much of a plan, thought Bert, and he didn’t want the Alien Father hurt. But if the little fellow was brave enough to do his part, and then run off, good. He’d take care of the rest. “Here, take my knife. It’ll give you courage.”
The Bowie Knife looked like a sabre in the Alien Father’s grip. The tip rested on the ground. “Don’t you need it?”
“I’ve got another one,” said Bert. It was a lie, and he almost changed his mind. "Why didn't you take the ray gun back on my planet? It was on the lawn. You almost tripped over it."
"Why didn't you?"
Not wanting to start an argument, Bert spurred Bigfoot and rode off. He stopped when he faced the citadel’s doors, keeping out of sight in the trees. Right on cue, the Alien Father darted out and booted a lawnmower onto its back.
Instead of retreating into the trees, as Bert expected, the Alien Father sprinted across the neatly cut grass and kicked another lawnmower onto its side.
The citadel’s double doors cracked open, and a huge Guardian emerged, wielding a ray gun. The Alien Father whirled about, bent over to touch his toes, and let his guts unleash a riot of gas. Produced from his unusual meal and extreme nervousness, it sounded like a long sharp military blast from a bugle.
“You measly little turd,” screeched the Guardian as it charged, “You’ll pay for that with a boot up your arse.”
“Now,” said Bert, and sent Bigfoot bolting across the lawn. The Guardian skidded and stopped, undecided which way to run. Seeing Bert on horseback and two savage dogs rushing for the citadel door, it wheeled around and raced back.
Galloping at full speed, Bert reached the citadel first and bolted inside. The space was as large as a tennis court, and the Guardian's Doodad rested on a low plinth in the centre of the uninhabited space. A tunnel swirled and wheezed, open to the Guardian's planet of evil.
“Stamp on it,” shouted Bert into the horse’s ear, and one second later a front hoof found its mark, smashing the gadget into a trillion pieces. In a flash, the tunnel collapsed, closed for ever.
Behind him, the Guardian scowled in the doorway, ray gun raised, rage foaming from the corners of its fat lips.
Bert cursed. He’d been careless. He should have set his dogs on the ugly creature. It had them trapped, too far away to reach before it pulled the trigger. A fearful gnarl creased the Guardian’s brow as its finger squeezed.
In that same moment, a glint of steel flashed. The Alien Father inched up behind the Guardian, both hands clasping the razor-sharp Bowie knife above his head. His face was red and blotchy as if he’d been holding his breath, which then exploded from his mouth as he drove the knife into the back of the Guardian’s thigh.
The Guardian gasped, eyes suddenly as wide as jam tarts cooling on a windowsill, and it swatted its leg as if a hornet had stung it.
That was all the time Bert needed. His horse and dogs reached the stunned Guardian and bowled it over. The Alsatians tore at its throat, and a well-placed front hoof caved its skull in.
There was no joy for Bert over the victory. He was a 'has been' burglar, not a murderer. His arms fell limp by his sides, his chin trembled, and his voice dropped almost to a whisper. “It’s over, Rambi, you can come out.”
The Alien Father peeked around the door frame. Seeing the Guardian lying there, he tiptoed into view, sunk to his knees, and clasped his hands over his face. “You did it,” he muttered through his fingers. “You closed the Guardian’s tunnel. They can never come here again.”
“Without you, Rambi, it would have cost my life. You’re my hero.” Bert dragged his knife from the fallen Guardian and handed it hilt first to the Alien Father. “Keep it. It’s yours.”
A bloom of red spread across the Alien Father’s cheeks. Then an assured smile crossed his face, and he wagged his head up and down. “Rambi?”
“Yep. From now on I’ll call you Rambi. It's a proper name, like Rambo and Bambi.”
Above them, the terrifying projected image and trumpet sound continued. “I’ll soon stop that,” said Bert, scanning for the source.
“No, leave it!”
Bert didn’t understand but was happy to let Alien Father take charge. “Why?”
“Guardians are still on my planet, rounding up our children. If you interrupt the projection, they’ll realise something is wrong. Best to take them unawares.”
As if to prove his point, a flying scooter appeared over the top of the citadel and slowly descended. The Alien Father snatched up the dropped ray gun, waited until the Guardian landed, and pulled the trigger. A dazzling zap pummelled the Guardian, and it burst into fizzing flames.
They released the children, dragged the remains of the scooter and its carriage into the forest, told the petrified kids to dash down to the village, and hid while they waited for the next Guardian to arrive.
“You’ll be here a while, doing this,” said Bert, impressed at the Alien Father’s newfound confidence. “You don’t need my help for a while. I’ll be back shortly.”
Five hours later, Bert returned to the rock camp, his horse and dogs panting. On the way, he’d passed several groups of children, tear-stained, yelping, plunging down the hill as swift as their stubby little legs would carry them. He found the Alien Father behind their rock camp, squatting on hands and knees, where he’d been sick.
“Hey, Rambi.” Bert helped the dwarf to his feet and moved him farther behind the rock, where the trees provided shade and the air was cool. “Stomach puking up that strange food I gave you?”
The Alien Father shook his head. “No, not the food. It’s this slaying.”
“Yeah.” Words stuck in Bert’s throat and he wished he could relieve his friend’s misery. He sat beside him and tugged him into a hug. “Want me to take over?”
“No. You’ve done enough. I have to prevail alone.” The Alien Father sniffed, freed himself from Bert’s massive arms, and thrust out his chest. He pointed to a stack of ray guns. “See. I’ve been collecting them. I’ll not run out of firepower.”
“You won’t be alone for long.” Bert told him he’d spoken to the Elder and disclosed all that had happened. In a wave of jubilation, the Elder had promised to send a small group of young men to help the Alien Father, with plenty of supplies for a lengthy campaign.
Words stuck in Bert's throat. His next piece of information stirred mixed emotions. Eventually, because his decision was the right thing to do, he forced enthusiasm. “I’ve brought the Doodad with me. You’re useless at hiding it. I’m going home. For ever.”
A groan accompanied the roll of the Alien Father’s eyes, making Bert want to hurry, to avoid the sadness of departure.
“When I get home, I’ll smash the Doodad at my end, but don’t turn your end off until the tunnel closes. I’ve got a present for you.” With that, Bert, Bigfoot, and the Chums torpedoed themselves into the tunnel.
Olive remained prostrate on the lawn, whimpering, her limbs giving a brief twitch every so often. Bert closed the tunnel, slipped the Doodad into a saddlebag on his horse, and knelt beside his beloved.
At the same moment, Florence, Chief Inspector Dobbs, and Vicar Bitter came ambling into view. When they saw Olive and Bert, they rushed the rest of the way.
“What has happened here?” demanded Chief Inspector Dobbs.
“Has this anything to do with the devil-worshipping dwarfs at number three?” said Vicar Bitter.
“Men,” said Florence, shaking her head. “Call for the doctor and help me get Olive inside.”
Bert sneaked off to his own house. He fed his dogs, tied Bigfoot to the outside toilet handle with a bale of straw at his feet, and hurried indoors. In the middle of his lounge, he opened the tunnel and tossed all his supplies of energy powder, spinach, and vodka into it.
Then he closed the tunnel, dropped the Doodad back into the horse’s saddlebag, and joined the others at Olive’s house next door. Olive rested on the sofa, a wet cloth on her brow and Florence sitting beside her, stroking her hand.
The men sat at the kitchen table, laden with cold meats and pickles, cheese and crusty bread. Bert knew Olive had made the snack for him; she was the sweetest woman on Earth. The sight of it caused his mouth to water, but he couldn’t eat until Olive was better. Until then, he’d never eat again. “How is she?” he asked, wringing his hands.
“Nothing broken,” said Florence, “but she’s delirious. She keeps mumbling about alien monsters.”
Bert gave a short, disgusted snort. “When I found her on the lawn, she talked about little men with wonky eyes and bulging muscles from another planet. Can’t understand why people believe in aliens. They must be daft.”
Vicar Bitter’s mouth was full of food, so he said nothing and nodded his agreement. But Chief Inspector Dobbs paused with a sandwich in front of his mouth. “What did you find out about the midgets at number three?”
“Oh, yeah, them. Nothing. They were gone when I got there. Vanished.”
Half the sandwich disappeared into Chief Inspector Dobbs’ mouth. “So why,” he uttered, spitting crumbs, “is Olive in the state she’s in?”
“My guess is food poisoning,” said Bert. “That meat you’re eating smells off. You two will soon be babbling about ghosts and spooks, just like her. I think we should all become vegetarians, that’s what I think.”
Vicar Bitter dashed from the room, hand clamped over his mouth, headed for the outside toilet. Chief Inspector Dobbs swallowed noisily and shoved his plate away. “I think I’ll pop home, Florence. Will you stay with Olive?”
“Of course. And when the doctor has finished here, I’ll send him to check you and Vicar Bitter.”
In the days that followed, when life settled back into its everyday routine and Olive had fully recovered, Bert took the Doodad and translator badge to his bosses at The Cloud Mansion. The young masters often spoke of their adventures into outer space. They’d know what to do with his gadgets.
Now Bert had experienced a space adventure of his own, but he kept it to himself. To this day, in memory of his friend Rambi, he remains a vegetarian.
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The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
There’s a lot to like and a lot to dislike in this story. I like that it’s cosy, funny, and heart-warming. The plot, however, is a tragedy. There are two murders, and every character in the book, of which there are many, has a motif. With so many twists, turns, and red herrings throughout the narrative, it lost me in a virtual maze.
But the author commits the gravest crime: he introduces a new, guilty character right at the end of the story. Tut, tut, naughty.
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