If you like a good chuckle, dim-witted heroes, and larger-than-life villains, then you'll love this fascinating series. On Wednesdays and Sundays, I’m blogging nibble-sized chunks of new ‘Life in the Clouds’ stories. You can check in regularly and read them for free, or wait to buy the entire story when published.
#4: Evil Portent ® James Field.
Previously from posts 04 - 07…
Chief Inspector Dobbs coughed behind a clenched fist and plucked the eclair Bert had his eye on. “You and Olive,” he said to Bert, “are the closest neighbour to the newcomers. You can do us all a favour, Bert, by keeping a watch on them. Go and visit, check them out, and report to me.”
“You want me to spy on her?” said Bert. He didn’t like the sound of that. If people wanted their privacy, that’s how it should be. What business was it of any other?
“Yes, as much for her own safety as anything else. Everybody in the hamlet has taken a disliking to her and her kids. Some of the older youths have thrown stones at her house, and adults are talking about setting fire to it.”
That changed matters for Bert. One goings-on he couldn’t stand was mobbing and bullying. If he caught anyone throwing stones at her house, he’d break their wrist. If anyone so much as lit a cigarette in front of her house, he’d ram the whole packet down their throat. “Why can’t you go?”
“The vicar and I went to her house before coming here, but she didn’t answer the door. I know she’s in there because she peeked at us from behind the curtain.”
“What about Florence? Seeing as she’s already spoken to them, why can’t she go?”
“Because,” said Florence, passing the cups of tea around and helping herself to the next biggest eclair, “the silly man thinks it’s too dangerous.” She blew her husband a kiss.
A flush crept across Chief Inspector Dobbs cheeks, and he made a rush job of blowing the kiss back. “I’ll not have her exposed to unnecessary risks.”
“Okay,” said Bert. He couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. How could a midget woman and a bunch of kids put such a fright into people? “I’ll go first thing in the morning. You lot must have scared the poor woman half to death. But what makes you think she’ll open her door to me? I scare the crap out of people.”
“I know,” said Florence. She tore the glittering badge from her cardigan and passed it to Bert. “Take this and say I vouch for you. Once people get to know you, they find you're the sweetest creature on Earth.”
Next morning, on a grey and drizzly day that kept most people snuggled between their sheets, Bert trundled to the stable with his two Alsatians to tend his horse, Big Foot. The stable owner sold it to Bert at a favourable price because it was so cantankerous it wouldn’t let anybody near it, let alone ride it.
Big Foot was one of the stable owner’s experiments. He crossed a cold-blooded carthorse with a hot-blooded Arabian. He hoped the result would be a warm-blooded workhorse, but ended with a hot-blooded stallion that weighed just over a ton and towered two metres tall.
Despite Bert’s fierce appearance, children and animals adored him, and Bert was so big and heavy that Big Foot was the only horse strong enough to carry him. To everyone’s astonishment, the two unredeemable souls bonded at first meeting.
After tethering Big Foot outside number three Flintstone Terrace, and commanding his Chums to stay put and wait for him, Bert tapped on his new neighbour’s front door. He reckoned they must be in, because he could see the curious light everyone talked about, throbbing behind the curtains. The stark light, like the full moon on a frosty night, faded and grew in the same rhythm as a person in deep sleep.
Florence hadn’t mentioned they had luggage or bags with them. Did they have food? If not, Bert had plenty he could share. After one more unresponsive knock, he trundled around to the rear of Flintstone Terrace and entered the back lane. The lane ran parallel to the houses, their gardens on the lane's other side. Lawn covered all of number three’s garden, making it easy for the tenant to keep tidy.
The three houses' backyards were also similar: a row of bunkers for coal and coke along one side, an outside toilet and an entrance to the kitchen on the other. Like his own house at number one, this kitchen door only had a latch and a bolt on the inside to hold it locked. Tentatively, Bert tried the latch. It lifted, and the bolt was clear, so he pushed the door open and called. “Cooey, it’s only me, Bert, your friendly neighbour. Can I come in?”
The sound of whimpering greeted Bert, and when they still didn’t answer, he stepped inside. From the kitchen, he crept across the living room and into the front room. In a corner, huddled beneath the window, he found the group.
The minuscule woman stared at him as if the devil confronted her. Her eyes were placed far apart on each side of her head and had a broad nose-bridge between them. The eyes moved in different directions, and the pupils weren’t round, but oval, like a goat’s. A curly mop of grey hair partially covered two bony nubs on her prominent forehead. Her mouth and jaws were more or less normal.
Bert counted twelve children. The woman clutched her arms around two of them, their faces buried in her chest. The others hid behind her back, crying, not daring to look at him.
The only furniture in the room was a three-piece suite and a sideboard. The object that emitted the curious light lay in the middle of the carpeted floor. About the size of a shoebox, it reminded Bert of the inside workings of an old-fashioned wind-up clock. Instead of springs, cogs and spindles trapped between two metal plates, microchips floated, as if suspended in a purple gooey liquid that throbbed with a million points of light.
Bert raised his palms to show he meant no harm, but the woman screeched at him in a language he’d never heard before, Arabic maybe, spoken backwards.
Worried the poor woman might blow a fuse, Bert found the badge Florence had given him and slapped it on his breast. The badge had no pin, but its backside was rough like Velcro, and it stuck tight to his T-shirt.
A jumble of noises rattled through his brain, like listening to a party political debate played too fast and cymbals crashing every so often. Then, behind the noise, he realised the woman spoke English to him. He shook his head to clear it and listened.
“Don’t kill us. We mean no harm. I broke my doodad, or we’d leave.”
“I’m here to help,” said Bert. “I ain’t going to hurt you.” He pointed to the flashing contraption on the carpet. “Is that the doodad you mean?”
“Yes. We’re marooned in this hellhole world forever.”
Bert stopped breathing. “This world?”
“Haven’t you savages heard of other worlds?”
“You mean like a home for dwarfs with Down’s syndrome?”
“No, I mean like other inhabited planets out in the universe.”
“Some people believe, but most don’t.” Bert shuffled his feet and scratched his backside. “I’m one of those who believe.”
The woman cried again. “Worse and worse. Oh, if only we hadn’t come.”
“Well, why did you?”
“To escape the Guardian. But this world is no safer. You are a race of fierce, egoistic beasts who kill animals for their meat.”
It occurred to Bert the woman might be a loony, escaped from an asylum somewhere. Time to phone Florence for help; she possessed almost as much gumption as his best friend, Alf. "When did you last eat?" he asked as he plucked his smartphone from his back pocket.
The woman flinched and drew her children to her breast. "Don't shoot," she whimpered. "We're so small, there’s hardly any meat on us."
Bert scratched his head. No doubt. Loony. "This is a phone," he explained, drawing the words out and holding it to his ear to demonstrate. "I'm going to call for help."
A wave of relief washed over the woman’s face, but only enough to give her the courage to speak calmer. "A phone. Can I see it?"
"Yeah. Take a look. It's harmless." He held it at arm's length and the woman snatched it from his hand. "Hey," he said, "Don't do that." But it was too late. She tore the back cover from the phone, ripped out the battery, prodded at its workings with what resembled a crochet hook until her palm contained a jumble of fragments.
"It weren't a gun," said Bert, dejectedly. "You didn't have to ruin it, and if you didn't want me to call for help, all you had to do was to say."
The woman didn't answer. Instead, she sifted through the bits as if hunting for lice. Then she pinched up one black piece, dumped the rest of his ruined phone on the carpet, and picked up the doodad. With the doodad in one hand and the part from his phone in the other, she slipped the part into the doodad. Immediately, the gadget's lights stopped throbbing. With a jubilant cheer, the woman bounced to her feet and clapped her hands. "It works," she said.
"Can't you see? The doodad. We can go home to our own world."
The children danced and pranced with as much boisterousness as a pack of excited Billy Goats.
"Wait and watch," said the woman. Bouncing from foot to foot, eyes gleaming, she placed the gadget back on the floor.
Without warning, the air above it warped, like a heat haze, even though the room was freezing. Looking into the haze was like peering into a fire while daydreaming. Only there were no flames, just the vague impression of a black hole.
Bert stared at the patch of distorted air. It grew larger and more distinct, and he spotted odd translucent shapes eddying within it. A dull pressure made his ears ache, and a drop of sweat slid down the hollow of his throat, leaving a cold track.
The hazy hole had no outer boundary; it simply hung in midair, the entrance to a tunnel leading to an unearthly distance. Every muscle in Bert's body seized, pressure built in his ears, and the hiss of piercing static made his teeth cringe. The tunnel's depth pulsed like a black gulping throat, and the static hiss grew louder, wavering in pitch.
"Come," said the woman, suddenly by his side and tugging on his hand. "Come with us."
"To our world."
Bert, still hypnotised by the tunnel and fascinated by the notion of other worlds, staggered along beside her. They stepped inside, its depths shrinking and widening like the gullet of a black snake.
In this post: From dust to dust and a wormhole…
Ahead of him, he saw the woman and her twelve children melt into clouds of powder and the tunnel inhale them. It was the weirdest sensation Bert had ever experienced. The front edge of his bulk crumbled into dust and vanished into the tunnel as if dragged along by a tornado. Instinctively, he held his head back, watching, but in the same instant his vision blurred and a wall of soft foam in his back drove him forward. There was a sharp sting of pain as if blunt needles stabbed every nerve in his body. Even before he cried out, his flesh and bones gained substance again, as if he'd just woken from a nightmare and realised all was right with the world.
Except he wasn't lying in bed, but wobbling on his feet on the top of a green hill.
Below the hilltop, a village of flimsy huts and cabins nestled beside a rushing river. In every direction, Bert noted forests and fields of bamboo. A warm breeze, laden with the scent of tobacco, chafed their feathery leaves, wavering between rest and motion.
"What's that?" asked Bert, pointing to a distant hill higher than the others. A black tower dominated its summit. It looked alien and out of place.
"Can you see the Citadel from here?"
Both the woman's eyes focused in that direction. "No, it is too far away."
"And what's that?" Bert pointed to another construction of grey stone on a ridge on the village's other side."
"That is the abbey where the terror-stricken monks live."
To be continued…
The real world:
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Like to know more about Alf, Bert and the rest of the gang? You can read their chaotic history in What on Earth.
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The Dry by Jane Harper
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is the best crime book I've read. Everything is just right: the prose, the suspense, the plots, and the baffling puzzle of who did it.
I say plots because this book is a mixture of two separate stories, both mysterious murders that kept me guessing right to the end. In a subtle way the stories connect, and yet they don't. You'll have to read it to see what I mean.
The only irritation with this book is that I had to keep putting it down because real life interfered.
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