The challenge for September, was to create a thriller based in Bahrain with a word count of 800 to 1200 words. We encouraged lots of atmosphere, shadows and whispers, screams and deadly silences and that good old staple – the chase!

Our judge was the well known writer Paul D Brazill. He is the author of the black comedies Guns Of Brixton and Gumshoe, as well as Roman Dalton- Werewolf PI and The Noir World Of Luke Case, a noir romp which takes place in various cities throughout Europe – Warsaw, Madrid, Granada, Toulouse & Cambridge. His stories have been published in various magazines and anthologies, including The Mammoth Book Of Best British Crime 8 and 10 – alongside the likes of Lee Child, Ian Rankin and Neil Gaiman.

Paul’s overall comments were very encouraging. He said, the entries were, “A particularly good selection of stories. All the writers followed the guidelines and used the word count really well. I felt that all the stories would only benefit from being longer.” This is such an endorsement for our writers and as I’ve been saying a unique opportunity to get feedback at this level.

All the entrants received a general overall comment which was both encouraging and helpful.

In First Place we have Rebecca Young

THE STALKER

Congratulations! Rebecca you are a second time winner!

We’re holding the story back as Rebecca is working on it, to hopefully send it in to one of the magazines that Paul has suggested.

In Second Place we have Adnan Al-Baroudi

Congratulations Adnan! This is a first-time entry and you’ve done very well, we look forward to other stories.

THE CHILDREN ARE CRYING

“You must hurry, Markus.” The distant voice called from behind the walls. “The children are crying, and the flood waters continue to rise.”

This voice – this mysterious entity has been speaking to me ever since I entered this god-forsaken tomb. I should’ve stayed at the campsite. I should’ve never come here. I’ve had a terrible feeling about this place ever since I arrived here, and truth be told, I was given warnings aplenty, but the strange invitation letter from my old friend Commodore Theodore Barnabus, who was extremely adamant on inviting me here without giving away any details about the purpose of the invitation intrigued me.

There was something else beyond natural that was residing beneath the earth that they were beginning to discover, and they seemed quite convinced that it was behind a series of unfortunate episodes that had put a kink into some of their operations. Theodore explained that the colonists did not want to openly admit it, but he could read the concerned looks they quietly exchanged with each other and understood as well as they did that they must have stirred a dormant evil. I was only an archeologist and doctor of human psychology, so why else invite me?

This was supposed to be a brief visit. My study was supposed to proceed back in my mansion in Luxembourg. The only instruments I brought with me was equipment to measure small samples of rock and soil, a recorder, a dated map of the island and some assorted reads about the history and relevant commentary on this region. However, the exit is sealed. I am now isolated from my camp inside the earthly caverns beneath the soil and all I’m left with is my journal and this useless lantern that doesn’t illuminate anything but my trembling hand. The air here is dank, and I’m reminded of the scent of death everywhere I turn. There are carvings down here in an ancient hieroglyphic language I do not recognize, and chillingly detailed symbols too graphic for me to describe. Whatever made these was a sinister being, and I am left to wonder if the voice speaking to me somehow bares some answers to a lot of these … inscribed memories.

There is a history here lying dormant. I’ve seen my fair share of paranormal activities in the past. The caves of North Africa come to mind; the forests of Manchuria, and that one incident in the Southern Islands of Indonesia – but this place feels completely different.

I did some of my investigation as soon as I arrived on the shores of Manama. The fort construction was proceeding on schedule, and other than the occasional dissent everything was progressing with absolute normalcy. That was until one night when the tide moved in a little closer than people had anticipated, and with it an ancient stone seal beneath the sand collapsed only  a few miles from the fort’s location, what nobody realized was that the doorway behind this seal belonged to a large burial mound that had been buried beneath the sand for over four thousand years. No one had noticed it before. No one cared to ask. No one dared to approach it, and so it was ignored.

Until some weeks went by and night fell over the labor camps near the construction site people reported a loud and terrifying scream. The scream sounded like a child. And this was strange, because there are no children in the camp. The next morning a labor worker went missing.

This cycle repeated itself every single day afterwards, while other accidents began to arise. One incident saw three laborers dead of dreadful incinerations following a fire the night before. In another incident two soldiers were found drowned off shore with their feet chained to a heavy weight, once again there was no explanation for it. Work was getting disrupted due to what people described were strange ghost sightings, and it wasn’t long before things began to turn very sour. These sightings escalated to the point when laborers reported a gunshot, and the soldier in question was found the next morning huddling in a corner and quivering in terror over the limp corpse of his comrade. When asked what had happened he offered no sensible explanation.

The soldier was executed, as per protocol, but I was finally allowed to view the reports and was chilled at what he described. He simply said: “I did it for the children. He needed me to save the children.” And when asked who was ‘he’ the soldier only said: “A voice.”

Command eventually had to issue strict orders to restore some measure of order, among them were that there would be no mention of ghosts, and any such mention would result in harsh punishment. This of course did little to perturb chaos, because the very same day those orders were barked out almost twenty laborers that night had suffocated in their beds.

I’m left to wonder if perhaps it was this same voice the soldier mentioned that was accompanying me through these dark tunnels. He had a sound that I could only describe as alarmingly mechanical, and lacking any morsel of remorse, and yet there was an urgent weight to his tone. Each time he called me by name I felt as though I was listening to an old friend, as though he was expecting me.

I had barely slept the first night in the small camp I established beside the burial mounds before I heard the scream of a small child. I woke to feel the familiar crawls prickling up my spine and recognized that there would be no sleep tonight. Gathering what courage I could muster, I stepped out from my camp armed only with a lantern. In the silent approach to the burial mound my boots crunched over the sand and the distant sea crashed against the shore.

“You should hurry, Markus,” the voice invited me. “The children are crying.”

In Third Place we have Maeve Skinner

Congratulations Maeve! This is a first-time entry and you’ve done very well, we look forward to other stories.

MISSING

Ben was playing hide and seek in the food aisles of Al Osra.

I was in a hurry. ‘Bennnn, Mummy has to go – now,’ I called again.

Still no sign of his little body racing to hurl himself against my legs. The assistants hadn’t seen him for a few moments. My frustration replaced by a flutter of realization. He wasn’t in the shop. Glanced towards the car park and saw him. He held the hand of a woman I’d never seen before, walking away from the store.

‘What are you doing with my son!’ I shouted at the stranger and swept Ben into my arms. ‘Buwds’, he pointed towards the aviary.

‘Where were you taking him?’ I shouted at the stranger.

‘What’s the problem,’ she looked surprised.  ‘I was leaving the store when this beautiful boy appeared at my side. He pointed outside, I assumed he was following his mother. He pulled me towards the aviary. Why did you leave your son to wander off alone?’

I glared. Embarrassed. ‘I apologize. Thank you for looking after my son.’ I turned to leave.

She peered closely. ‘Are you Ruth Martin?’

‘Yes. But we haven’t met…’

‘We have. Almost three years ago when our babies were born in Awali Hospital. I’m Anna McCann. Don’t you remember me? We were in the same antenatal class but we moved to Dubai shortly after.’

‘No, I’m sorry.’ I studied her. Nondescript features, doughy complexion, tired eyes and lank, loose hair.

‘So many of that group left Bahrain after you’d had your babies. What did you have?

‘A boy, his name was Anthony.’

Was! The word hung between us. The look in her eye was disturbing.

‘He died a year ago, on his second birthday. He would have been three on 22nd.  Like Ben.’

‘I’m so sorry…’

‘It’s alright.  I go through this more times than you can imagine. I usually deny having a child. But when Ben appeared ….’

Fortunately Ben chose that moment to break the tension.  ‘Go car, Mummy,’ he tugged my arm. His face flushed with heat.

‘Sorry Anna, I have to go.’ Damn. My third Sorry to this disturbing woman.

‘We must meet up. We’ve recently moved to Amwaj and I don’t know many people. Give me your number and I’ll give you a missed call. Perhaps we could meet for coffee.’

Reluctantly I reeled off my number, tempted to give a wrong digit but Amwaj was too small. I’d bump into her anyway.

I put Ben into his baby seat and reversed out.  Anna stood unmoving, watching us. I waved. She didn’t wave back.

The first call came three days later. ‘Please come to tea and biscuits with Ben.’  Against my will I agreed. I felt sorry for her. Guilt I suppose.

Anna lived in Zawia 1, overlooking the Lagoon.

‘This is Anthony’s room. I’ve kept it as it would be, if he was alive.’

My blood ran cold as she showed me the car shaped bed. Bookshelves filled with neatly stacked books and games. A child’s desk and chair. A cupboard filled with clothes to fit Ben’s size. She must have brought all this stuff recently.

‘I cant accept that he’s gone,’ she explained. ‘An accident in a building site. He wandered off and entered an empty building and fell down a lift shaft.’

Too terrible to contemplate.  Anna had a breakdown and was still under medication.

Anna continued to find excuses to meet . I agreed, even inviting her to our house on Tala.  Her sadness hung like a shroud fuelling my unwarranted guilt.  She clung to Ben, tempting him with gifts from Anthony’s hoard. He wriggled away, guided by a sixth sense.

Anna became my Stalker: At the supermarket. Out walking. On the beach. ‘Just passing by.’

Things reached a climax. One day I returned to the house and found her in Ben’s bedroom. Sitting on his bed reading from one of ‘Anthony’s’ books.

‘What are you doing here?’ I yelled hysterically.

‘I rang the doorbell but no answer.  Saw Ben crying at the window. I pushed the door and Darling Ben let me in. He handed me one of Anthony’s books – how could I refuse?’

‘That’s a lie!’ I shouted. I called for Carmel, my housegirl. ‘Did you hear the doorbell. Did you let this woman in?’

‘No Ma’am. I was outside hanging washing, door not locked. I didn’t see lady.’

I was furious. ‘Ben doesn’t like anyone to read to him except for John and me.’

‘Perhaps he likes my voice,’ she said unsmiling. ‘Anthony loved me reading to him. I’ve brought more of his books for Ben. He was really enjoying this story, weren’t you my darling.’ A shiver ran up my spine as she cuddled my son and kissed his head.

‘Get out. Don’t ever come into my house again.’ Quick as a flash, Anna gave Ben another kiss. I’ll see you again,’ she whispered and left.

What happened to Anthony? I checked the web for Emirati newspapers of a year ago. There it was.  Mystery of English toddler found dead on building site.  Workmen had seen a woman and child on a balcony. The child standing on the edge. The woman seemed to reach for him but he fell to his death.  She was arrested but released into psychiatric care. An icy hand clutched my heart.

The day before Ben’s 3rd birthday I had a splitting headache. I dozed in bed, Ben playing in his room nearby. Carmel ironing in the kitchen. I heard Ben giggle. Smiled to myself; such a happy child.  Then silence. Too quiet. I jumped up;  Ben’s room was empty.

‘Where is he Carmel?’

‘Didn’t see him Ma’am.’

Heard shouting from crowd gathered at building site across wasteground. Yelling and pointing upwards. Small figure standing in open lift, six floors up. It was Ben. ‘How did he get there?’  Then I saw Anna behind him.

My winged feet raced across the sand. I screamed helplessly.  The foreman assessed the situation. Sent a group up the stairs, stationing one at each floor where the lift stopped.  The crane driver dispatched a worker to perch on the end of the wire and slowly manoeuvred it to swing towards the lift.

‘Mummeee, Mummeee,’ Ben crying for me. Heartbroken, I stood frozen and helpless.  Watched in horror as Anna, arm outstretched, stepped nearer to Ben. As she closed in, Ben stepped forward, towards the edge.

‘Come to me!’ Anna’s shriek floated down.  She pressed a button and the lift shook and moved higher. A collective roar rose from the crowd.

‘He’s mine,’ her screams echoed around the empty building. The cab driver re-positioned his crane. The wire now hung close to Ben. His fearful cries tore me to shreds.  A young man stood up on his precarious perch. His arm swept out and grabbed my son to safety.

An inhuman howl of anguish rent the air:  ‘Anthony why didn’t you come to me when I called,’ Anna screeched as her body spiralled down to her death.

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