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As we were a bit pressed for time, we combined the May challenge with June, and in July we took a break from challenges.

The challenge presented to our entrants was:

On this occasion, the customer was most definitely not right…” 

OUR JUDGE – KATIE ADLER

katie pic

Katie Adler is a  voice over artist in Tokyo: http://www.katieadler-vo.com She is passionate about communication. Her website: http://englishwithkatie.com is for guiding Japanese English speakers to become great conversationalists. Becoming a great conversationalist is her heart’s intention for everyone!

Katie has been in front of a mic professionally for over 10years and can be heard daily on NHK. She has trained in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, New York City and London, England. She continues to train so that she can bring the perfect touch to her clients’ projects.

It is through her knowledge of English and teaching that Katy has learnt about story telling – one of the oldest forms of ‘voice’ communication. And she brings her experience of a wide variety of stories to judge our May-June challenge at the Bahrain Writers’ Workshop.

FIRST PLACE – PETE AND HER LADYSHIP

(An excerpt from the Memoirs of an Industrial Mercenary)

by Gordon Simmonds

This is a story from the time when I owned a small emporium near Sunbury in Middlesex, less than a mile from the upper reaches of the River Thames. It was what I called a mini Woolworths which sold everything from boot polish to paint, fishing tackle to birthday cards. I opened all hours but barely made enough money to earn a living.

Pete and his family lived just across the road in a council house. He was just an ordinary looking guy; mid twenties, dark hair, medium build and always cheerful. Whenever I needed cheering up, I could always rely on Pete to drag me down the pub.

I’ve pondered long and hard about how to describe him, because there are few words in the English language that quite describe him. He was part gentleman; kind, helpful and generous to a fault, but without charm or charisma. He was part hippy, a free spirit that enjoyed the open road, but who never smoked or did drugs. He was a scavenger and could take other peoples cast-offs and turn them into something useful. He was an artist who had an eye for exquisite detail and could create a work of art out of everyday objects. He was part gypsy, law abiding but with a marked disdain for authority and conventional thinking. In short, he was one of life’s ‘characters’.

He could paint or sculpt in any medium and could have made a good living at it but for the fact that he just couldn’t be bothered. For example; he came into my shop one day and asked for a tin of Plastic Padding (car body filler).

He was one of only a handful of people who I trusted with credit. “Pay you at the end of the week?” he said. Later that week he paid up as he always did and two or three weeks later brought in a sculpture. Three intertwined badgers; daddy badger, mummy badger and little baby badger, as life-like as the real thing.

When I left the area, he gave me a parting gift of a flat stone about four inches long by three inches high on which he had painted a beautiful miniature painting of a gypsy caravan. Even though that stone has long been lost, I imagine him driving a plodding pony hitched to that caravan through the highways and byways of England. Living off the land, a bit of poaching here and there, liberating a cabbage or potatoes for the pot, doing odd jobs to pay for little luxuries the land couldn’t supply, giving a hand to people in need. No money, no tax, no clocking in. Pete was the nicest guy anyone could ever hope to meet.

We became good friends and would often go fishing together. We spent many memorable evenings on the River Colne at Stanwell, fishing for trout. In what appeared to be idyllic countryside, we could hear the roar of traffic on the nearby motorway and the scream of jets taking off and landing at Heathrow. We never caught anything of course, because we knew very well that there were no trout in that river. But out of season, fly fishing was the only the only sport allowed. Besides, we always thought that there a chance that we would ‘accidentally’ hook one of the big chub we could see rising and rolling in the shallow stream.

On one occasion Pete came into the shop and asked if I had any catapult elastic.

“What do you want that for?” I asked.

“I’m going out to get something for dinner” he said.

At which point, he pulled out of his pocket a stubby Y shapes catapult handle, no more than four of five inches long. I didn’t even ask what he was going to do with it.

A couple of hours later he came back wearing some sort of trench coat. He said “Do you fancy some duck?” I must have given him a queer look because by way of explanation, he opened the coat like a flasher. Hanging from each side of the coat were two dead ducks.

He grinned and explained that he had gone to the river and fed the ducks – when they gathered to feed and got to within point blank range; he just zapped them with the catapult.

I turned down the offer, but I guess his family dined well for a few days.

Anyway: Walton on Thames is just a few miles from Sunbury and part of the stockbroker belt – lots of well-heeled people with nice cars and very expensive properties. Since he never moved in those sort of circles, so I don’t know how he managed it, but he got a job landscaping a garden in those plush suburbs. When he arrived, the house was a mansion in the modern style and the garden was the size of a football pitch. He was met by the lady of the house, whose first words to him were, “You do know who I am, don’t you?” I’m sure he must have looked at her with a blank expression because I doubt whether he knew many lords or ladies. “I’m Lady ……….”, in a tone of voice that said she was just a few blood cells short of the Queen, (and maybe she was), but Pete never divulged her identity.

She showed him round and told him what she wanted doing and they agreed that she would pay him £10.00 a day, which was a reasonable rate for the job, but cheap compared to a professional, tax paying gardener.

Sometimes I drove him there, but usually he made his way there at his own expense because he had no car. He worked diligently from early morning till late at night on that garden, and at the end of the first week he asked for some money. She told him she would only pay when the job was finished. So for the next two or three weeks he worked solidly on the project and put all his artistic flair into the job. I have no doubt that the end result would have been spectacular. However, when he went for his money, her Ladyship told him that she didn’t have any cash – come back next week. The next week she still didn’t have any cash, but would he take a cheque? But Pete didn’t do bank accounts.

I drove him back there one evening the following week; again the same story. Finally she asked him “You’re on benefits aren’t you?” Since one of his character flaws was that he couldn’t tell a lie, he admitted that he was.

Her rich, elegant and sophisticated bloody Ladyship was in reality, just a miserly penny-pinching bitch, and she just handed him a twenty pound note and told him to be on his way before she reported him to the authorities. What could he do? I suggested that we went back when she was out and trash the garden, but he declined this offer.

On a philosophical note; this incident made a profound effect on my outlook on life in general. It awoke me to the fact that much of the wealth in our world is achieved not by hard work, intelligence or entrepreneurship, but by lying, cheating, conniving and under-hand dealing which other sections of society find morally reprehensible and are probably illegal – we read about it every day.

There are a significant number of people who believe that they have a God given right to be dominant, either in the military, commerce or politics. The common man or woman is an inconvenience that has to be tolerated in order have their menial tasks carried out, leaving the elite free to be – well…… rich.

Which reminds me of another incident that happened around the same time: A man came into the shop, immaculately dressed in a pin stripe suit and upper class accent, and asked if I had any dishwasher powder. He might even have been Lord…….. for all I knew. Now dishwashers at that time were a luxury that only the rich could afford, so this guy wasn’t short of a bob or two. I explained to him that I didn’t have any in stock but would make a point of getting some for him.

A couple of weeks later he returned. “I’ve got your dishwasher powder – in fact I’ve got two, just in case you need some for next time.” I told him, and set a box on the counter. “Oh. I didn’t want one that big” he said, and left without buying anything. I never saw him again. But every day for the next two years I saw those boxes gathering dust on the shelf, which for me, working 16 hour days and struggling to make a living, they were just dead stock which I could ill afford.

The moral of this story is that when you are the purveyor of goods or labour, the customer is not always right.

SECOND PLACE – MONSIEUR FRANCOIS

By L.P.

A light breeze gently flew over the town of Monak, making its way past the long pine trees, in between the narrow alleyways, and over the red brick house that was home to our very own Monsieur Francois du Chazaud. Surrounded by beautiful, violet Bougainvillea flowers that officially marked the arrival of spring, the house stood out from afar as it displayed a wide array of colorful plants. Taking a closer look, one would notice how impeccable and picturesque the garden was. Uniquely placed cobblestones around the bushes connected the small white wooden gazebo to the French styled entrance of the house. The elegant demeanor of the garden was anything but accidental, for Monsieur Francois dedicated at least three hours a day to perfecting this masterpiece. He was a diligent 35-year-old who was a perfectionist at everything he did. After all, his carefully constructed garden was a manifestation of his meticulous personality.

Every morning at 6:30 am, Monsieur Francois would get on his bike and make his way to the diamond boutique store, Le Marchèlle, where he worked. Every morning, he would be the first to open the store, unlock the safety boxes, and display the most expensive jewelry sets in their designated places. Every morning, he would take a moment to admire the plaque on the wall that had his name on it along with Salesman of the Year and a brief sentence on his integrity and dedication. He took much pride in the quality of his work and was deeply grateful of the appreciation and notice he continuously received from his manager, William. Having worked there for 12 years and displayed the utmost level of honesty and professionalism, he was entrusted with the diamonds as if they were his own. Over the years, William dealt with many conniving workers and had since vowed to trust no one but Monsieur Francois.

This Tuesday morning appeared to be no different than any other, but Monsieur Francois felt otherwise as he stood behind the counter with his white gloves and gazed out into the distant park. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but something simply did not feel right. Being in charge of the store while William attended to his visiting grandchildren, Monsieur Francois prayed that he merely misunderstood the feeling and that everything would be all right. He shook his head as if to brush off his negative thoughts and welcomed his co-workers to the store. It was nearing 8:00 am and the store was ready to be opened.

Le Marchèlle welcomed many customers in its early hours. Middle-aged women, young newly-weds, stay-at-home moms. While he usually focused on his own customers, Monsieur Francois couldn’t help but stare at an old woman elegantly dressed in a fur coat, carrying a black Chanel bag in one hand and her poodle in the other. There was something so mesmerizing about her that compelled him to walk across the room and speak with her.

“Bonjour Madame.” he uttered as he approached her cautiously, trying to put a name to her face.

“Yes? Hello.” She responded as she slowly turned around to face him.

“May I help you?”

“Thank you but this young gentleman is doing a fine job himself.” She pointed at the young salesman standing behind the counter.

“Oui, of course Madame… Please excuse me, but you look so familiar!”

“Oh? Is that so?” She replied with an intrigued look on her face.

“Yes. I’ve been trying to remember where I’ve seen you…” He placed his hand on his chin as if to awaken his memory. “Why but of course! How did I miss it? Madame, you look like the famous Roberta Luiz!”

“Oh that’s very kind of you!” She giggled, her face beginning to blush. “I used to get that a lot in my youth. I hardly think I look like her now. You can call me Martha, by the way.” She reached her hand to fix her hair.

“But you do, Ms. Martha. You’re glowing!”

“Oh, stop it! You’re only saying that to convince me to buy something.”

Monsieur Francois quickly glanced at the exquisite piece of jewellery she was looking at.

“You seem to already have your heart set on our Izadora; a stunning piece that would look remarkable around your neck.” He reached for the necklace and held it close to her neck. “May I?”

“Oh well why not,” she answered excitedly.

“Mon Dieu. You look Magnifique!” He held up the mirror to showcase the beauty that stood before him.

“My goodness. That really is stunning. It is absolutely exquisite.” She moved her head slightly upwards and to the side to emphasize the sparkling beauty that was accentuating her long neck. “Oh, I must buy this. My late husband would have loved it… Mmm yes. Beautiful. Simply beautiful.”

She stood there admiring her own beauty for a couple of minutes before Monsieur Francois interrupted her gaze.

“Pardon, Madame.”

“Yes?”

“Will you please come this way so I may sort out your purchase?” He motioned to the corner table on the other side of the store.

This was the part of his job he loved most: concluding a sale with a happy and satisfied customer. He found pleasure in ensuring his customers got more than they asked for. After all, he religiously followed the advice given to him by his late grandfather on how the customer is always right. When he first joined Le Marchèlle, his grandfather gave him a book that emphasized just how important the customer is, which has since been kept at the store as a solid reminder.

The day proceeded with a number of other successful sales and delighted customers. The inventory log list needed to be consolidated and reorganized before William returned to work, so Monsieur Francois took it upon him to spend the last three hours of the day going through all the paperwork, leaving his co-workers to manage the store. Halfway through his work, he heard a lot of arguing coming from the entrance of the store. It was quite uncommon for a dispute to break out between his coworkers and customers. He listened carefully to try and deduce what was going on.

“But it’s impossible!”

“Excuse me Sir, please let us through. This is hardly a simple matter!”

“But I know him, and what you’re saying is impossible!”

Confused and perplexed, Monsieur Francois could not fathom what William was doing back at the store, or why he was so passionately arguing with the police! Unsure if his mind was playing games on him, he got up, walked out of the inventory room and headed to the display area only to find William, police officers and the old lady from earlier that morning.

“William? What are you doing here?”

“We have a situation, Francois.”

“That’s the man!” Mrs. Martha yelled frantically as she pointed at Monsieur Francois.

“Are you sure ma’am?” The police questioned.

“Yes, I’m sure! He spent an hour this morning telling me how much I look like Roberta Luiz when all he was really doing was planning how to rob me once I left!”

“Excuse me, Sir. You need to come with us to the station.” The policeman walked over to Monsieur Francois and reached for his arm.

“The station? Pour quoi? I don’t understand!” asked Monsieur Francois as he anxiously looked at William and the old lady desperate for more information that would explain the dramatic episode that had just ensued.

“You don’t understand? Well, that’s just typical! An evil man you are! How could you harm an old lady like that? And to think you were charming… You should be ashamed of yourself!”

“Mais, pour quoi Madame? What have I done?”

“Where is that Izaodra you snatched from me? Give it back to me you thief! Did you think I would not recognize you? You foolish young man. I may be old but my eyes are working fine!”

“Madame, I am sorry but I have no clue what you are saying. You bought the Izadora this morning and left with it!”

“Unbelievable! This is absolutely absurd!”

“William, what is going on?”

“Francois, this lady here is accusing you of stealing the Izadora from her outside of Blain Park at around 5:00pm.”

“What? Mais… why would I do that?”

“I don’t know Francois, but they have a video proving it.”

“A video? But I was here the whole time! I really don’t believe this!”

“Maybe this will make it easier to believe.” A young lady in her mid-twenties stepped forward with her phone in her hand. Obsessed with filming everything on her travels, she managed to capture the intruder’s face up close right before he attacked the old lady.

“Ce n’est pas possible! Je ne crois pas!”

“I couldn’t believe it myself, Francois. This must be a misunderstanding. Tell me there’s an explanation!” William looked as puzzled as Monsieur Francois.

“I cannot believe it! He looks just like me. But I was here the whole time!”

“He looks just like you? This is absurd! He IS you! Aren’t you going to arrest this man,” demanded Mrs. Martha.

“Sir, you’re under arrest. You have the right to remain silent.”

“Wait, now hold on a minute. If Francois said he was here the whole time, then he must have been. Let’s have a look at our own footage to see if we can prove he’s right.”

William led them all to the back room and played the footage from the time of the incident. Just as he had hoped, Monsieur Francois was there the whole time, sitting in the inventory room working through the paperwork.

“But that doesn’t make any sense!” remarked Mrs. Martha, baffled and utterly confused.

“Oh, but it does.” replied Monsieur Francois with a despondent look on his face.

“What do you mean?” inquired William.

Reaching out for the young lady’s phone, Monsieur Francois explained; “look closely at this man’s face.” He paused the video on the frame clearly showing the intruder’s face. “Do you notice that?”

“Yes.” They all nodded back taking note of a dark mole above his lip; a feature so apparent yet easily unnoticed in a heated situation.

“I don’t have it.” He looked back at them with his innocent face.

“Oh my.” Gasped Mrs. Martha. “But how could that be? He looks just like you!”

Monsieur Francois looked back at her and sighed a heavy sigh. “That’s because he’s my brother, Madame.”

Everyone stood quietly before him, trying to make sense of what he was saying.

“I have a twin brother, but we are, how you say? Not on speaking terms. We’ve always been very different and have never really gotten along. I am quite surprised he is in town; I have not seen him in 10 years. What a bizarre coincidence this is!” Monsieur Francois turned to the old lady and said, “I apologize, Madame. I completely understand why you thought it was me. I am truly sorry about what happened. Je suis desole.”

“Oh, no, no, no. I am truly sorry, young man! I have accused you of such a horrible thing when all you’ve given me is kindness.” She uttered those words as her hands gently patted her cheeks all the while shaking her head in disbelief and shame.

As everyone left the store, Monsieur Francois turned to William.

“I am very sorry, William. If I knew he was in town, I would have seen this coming. It’s always been like this with him.”

William sat on the chair unaware there was a book over it and looked at Francois.

“Nonsense, Francois. You are the best employee at Le Marchèlle and one of my dearest friends. I knew you would never do anything like that.”

Uncomfortable in his seat, he reached down to move the book from under him and smiled as he noticed that it was Monsieur Francois’ very own business bible, The Number One Rule to a Successful Business: The Customer is Always right. Handing it over to him, he concluded, “And on this occasion, Monsieur Francois, the customer was most definitely not right!”

THIRD PLACE- THE ONE THAT DOESN’T WANT TO ASK?

By Noor Nass

We are withholding the story as the author is working on it based on Katie’s feedback

THE BOOKING

by T. S. Srinivas

NOTE: One other entrant has given me permission to publish his story here. It is a first attempt at a challenge! Well done Srini for entering

After screaming through the phone, he banged it down – but did not move away! Vijay Kumar kept staring at the phone for , what seemed to him , an eternity. He was angry and at the same time afraid! A feeling of panic was gripping his very being after hearing the words of the hotel employee a minute ago. In fact the exact words kept ringing in his ears “ I am extremely sorry Mr. Kumar, you can repeat yourself as many times as you like , but the Majestic Conference hall is definitely not available tomorrow. The best we can do for your function is to provide you the Business Hall which is much smaller but equally good”.

Vijay Kumar was the honorary President of the Bahrain chapter of the Indian Engineers Society. Tomorrow was the 10th anniversary of the chapter and a grand program had been planned. The highlight of the program was a panel discussion – which included renowned technical experts from India also as key participants. A number of local dignitaries had also been invited. Vijay knew that for the event to be a success the venue had to be grand and what place better than the Majestic!

He had initiated the contact with the hotel 2 months ago right at the time when the Society’s board had mooted the idea of a celebration for their 10th anniversary. He had spoken to the hotel’s Sales head and they had agreed in principle. Subsequently, he had handed over the task of venue finalization to the Society’s Logistics Committee headed by Ms. Lakshmi Prasad. Even last week , at the Society’s meeting for review of the Anniversary Program, Lakshmi had confidently affirmed that her group was in touch with the hotel and Majestic Hall was settled. There in Vijay’s mind the hotel was being vey unprofessional by denying the promised venue at the last moment.

Seething with anger he decided to go in person and give a piece of his mind to the hotel management. Being a well known name in social circles, Mr. Vijay was promptly shown into the office the Sales Director Mr. James Callaghan. The conversation that followed went something like this:

Vijay : “James, are you even aware of what your staff have done? We have such an important function tomorrow and they are going to ruin the whole thing by forcing us into the cramped Business Hall. And this after I got the okay from you two months ago! And you know how much business our Society has been giving your hotel in the past few years.”

James :” Mr. Vijay, first of all very nice to meet you in person again. Of course I know how much the Indian Engineers Society means to this hotel. And I always give you the best possible deal. But this time , I am sorry, you people have not acted in a professional manner. We waited as long as we could , but at the end of the day , business is business and in the absence of proper confirmation from your side, we had to give the Majestic hall to another party. But even now, I am trying to help you. Though you have come at the last moment, I am willing to work flat out to make the other hall available to you tomorrow!”

Vijay: “ I think you are forgetting how good a customer we have been. And what do you mean , no confirmation?! After me speaking to you, our Logistics Committee has been regularly following up with your staff – in fact practically every week. And I hear from them, that your people were dilly-dallying suggesting that the Majestic Hall may not be available for us and very next week saying it will be. And so, today I finally decided to take the matters into my own hands and called up only to be told we were not getting the venue. So I am forced to come here and confront you. Sorry to say this, but this time your hotel did not treat a long-time customer in the right manner!”.

James : “ Well Mr. Vijay, I have spoken to all our concerned staff and have gotten the entire picture. Let me tell you what exactly happened. After your initial contact, your people kept calling on and off. Then we told them that they have to fill and submit a booking form, duly signed by an authorized representative of your Society. Then the record would be created in our booking system. And then 4 weeks before the actual program date, an advance has to be paid. Normally we charge 50% advance, but in your case we were willing to accept even 25%. All this was communicated time and again to your people. But the problem is that every time a different person from your group would call up, give verbal assurances and then we wouldn’t hear from that person again.

Mr. Vijay, end of the day we are running a business. There is quite a lot of demand for the Majestic Hall. So we do need to have things in writing and some sort of advance payment to justify us turning down other requests. Finally we had no choice but to give the venue to another customer who promptly complied with our very minimum requirements. There is no way we could justify any further delay to our management. So , in fact , I am sorry to say, in this instance your people have acted in a very unprofessional manner.

However, let us now discuss how best we can enhance the arrangements in the Business Hall so that you are at least able to conduct your program tomorrow and make it a success”.

Faced with the undeniable facts placed in front of him, Vijay realized that his Committee had been negligent in doing the paperwork required by the hotel and in following the required procedure. They had made assumptions and taken things for granted – leading to this fiasco. He realized that the old business adage “A customer is always right” is not always right!

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We had to combine the March challenge with April as we didn’t have enough entries for one month. In the end we received 7 entries all so different that, as our judge D. Krauss said, “Congratulations to all of you, and thanks for letting me play. You are a rather dynamic group of writers, and it was a real pleasure to read y’all’s work.”

The challenge was a simple phrase: ‘Final Morning’ to be completed in 2000 words and the entrants were allowed to interpret that in any way they wished.

Our Judge D. Krauss

Cropped sitting #3

D. Krauss currently resides in the Shenandoah Valley. He’s been a cottonpicker, a sod buster, a surgical orderly, the guy who paints the little white line down the middle of the road, a weatherman, a gun-totin’ door-kickin’ lawman, a layabout, and a bus driver, in that order. Website: http://www.dustyskull.com

These are his picks for the winning stories

First Place

I Object

by Chandan Sen Gupta

“Na’am?” asked the man at the counter. Accustomed to hearing Bahrainis converse with Indians in Hindi, I blurted out my name. “What?” he bellowed. I realized my folly immediately. His query to me was in Arabic. “Oh! I have an appointment for the renewal of my identity card,” I quickly corrected myself.

The sluggish token display system in the bustling waiting hall was no match for the briskly marching digital next to it. I dropped down into one of the few empty chairs, resigning myself to a long wait, and soon my mind drifted back to the March Creative Challenge. In spite of my best efforts I had not been able to frame a story yet.

Why did the prompt have to sound so apocalyptic, I wondered. The Mayans had been proved wrong; the world did not end in 2012. But the hint of a doomsday in the obligatory phrase – Final Morning – unnerved me. Even the cynical Sandeepan, undeniably the most learned among my friends in matters related to the Earth and its environment, had admitted that things were beginning to look up over the last decade or so. “If it is true that the Chloro-Flouro-Carbons blew a hole through the Ozone layer in the Stratosphere, then tell me why it appeared over desolate Antarctica instead of America or Western Europe? After all that is where most of the CFC was coming from,” the non-conformist Ambarish had posed the other evening, after a few pints of beer. “Extreme cold, freezing vortex wind, frozen atmospheric clouds and six months of darkness…” began Sandeepan. “But Professor isn’t the hole showing signs of closing up already?” I asked, cutting the pessimist short. “You must give humanity full marks for initiating the stitching process by choking out the CFCs.” Sandeepan had nodded reluctantly. Even the North Pole ice, which should have vanished by 2013 if the gory predictions on the effect of Green House Gases and Global Warming had proved right, was now showing signs of revival.

I had tried hard but could not get going with the prompt. The perpetual cycle of day and night, the change of seasons and the cycle of life so fascinated me that I refused to see any finality in them or anything else for that matter. After many failed attempts I had, finally, made it to Riffa Fort for a breakfast last Saturday. But there was nothing final about it. I wanted to go there again and gaze at the country side at the foot of the “Rimrock” – through the windows in its watch tower – just like the ruler Sheikh Salman Bin Ahmad Al Fatah once did.

Last week, while leafing though the newspaper at a coffee shop, a fellow writer let out a whoop and claimed triumphantly that he had, at last, found a thread to the story. “Americans see Blood Red Moon,” I saw the screaming headlines. “A presage to the Armageddon,” he declared, framing an imaginary title in the air. “But its occurrence can be explained though elementary Physics,” I protested. He frowned at me for being a spoilsport. “I know that, but Physics can’t make a good story.”

“Are you sure it is not “Final Mourning?” Sukanya tried to help me out with an alternative approach, yesterday. “Err….but is there a preliminary mourning as well? You die only once, is it not?” Now I was more confused and distressed than ever. “A coward dies a thousand times before his death, but the valiant….” “Please Sukanya, not Shakespeare again. Give me a cue to the March Creative Challenge,” I begged. “Get your laptop out and start pecking away at the keys. You’ll soon be there,” she counseled and breezed out of the room.

A call on my mobile distracted me. “Good morning Sir, this is Tolby.” The name failed to ring a bell with me. “Tolby who?” I asked. “Tolby, from the Holiday Club, Sir. You became our member last night, remember?” “Ah yes, I do. Go on Tolby.” There was no way I could forget the chap. “What are your hobbies?” he had asked, as we took our seats for the presentation the previous evening. “I used to have one when I was about your age. But not any longer.” Penetrating through my defenses wasn’t going to be easy for him, he realized. “You look tired. Are you just back from work?” he enquired, the smile never leaving his face. “Hmm,” I nodded. “How many children do you have, Sir?” he asked again, trying a different approach to pry me open. Before I could utter a word, Mita had given him not only the answer to his query but also a brief bio-data of Ankur and Rinky. From them on he directed all the, seemingly, lucrative club membership and vacation schemes at my wife, realizing that she was the key to open my impregnable guard. “Imagine staying at the best resorts in town absolutely free for the next fifteen weeks, once you have become a member of the Holiday Club,” he said after taking us on a virtual tour of the world – from South East Asia to Europe and America. “But your membership fees account for eleven of those fifteen years,” I pointed out, after a quick mental calculation. “We also have the club facilities that come as a bonus,” he came back promptly. I looked at Mita. Her wistful eyes suggested that she was already in far away Thailand or Malaysia.

“Congratulations Sir, for this wonderful gift to your family. I hope you are feeling better now,” Tolby had said, shaking my hand at the end of the signing of the contract. For the first time that evening the smile on his face looked genuine. God knew who was, actually, feeling better. “Yeah, thanks for showing the way,” I said and turned around. “I thought you mentioned that last year’s world tour was a let down,” I asked Mita as we drove back home. “Yes but we can’t go to Mars, can we?” she remarked. I joined her in the laughter. It was true – a man’s happiness lay in the contentment of his wife.

“Sir, I called to remind you of the photographs that we require for your membership cards,” Tolby said over the phone. “I’ll be there tonight with those,” I said. “Thanks, have a good day, Sir.”

“What is your token number?” asked the security guard, looking down at me as I switched off the mobile. “1090.” “Come tomorrow, 1095 is already at the service desk,” he pointed toward the display on the wall. “Uh! Oh!” I mumbled. The tortoise had finally caught up with the sleeping hare and gone past him. “But how..” I started to protest. “Don’t worry, I was joking,” laughed the guard. “Go next.”

While returning home after work that afternoon, I prayed for clear roads. It had been a backbreaking day at the office and getting bogged down in the weekend traffic could finish me off. On my first day at the Driving School in Isa Town, ten years ago, the Traffic Instructor had posed to the trainees, “What is the major cause of bottlenecks on Bahrain’s roads?” “Saudi Drivers?” a girl suggested innocently. Though the Instructor had roundabouts in his mind, everyone saw her point. As luck would have it, I ran into a snarl at the mouth of Exhibition Road. The lights turned green, then amber and finally red but the traffic remained as static as ever. When, after an agonizing wait of fifteen minutes, the vehicles started moving again, I saw my path blocked by a gleaming Volkswagon Beetle. I risked annoying the others and honked, but the car did not budge. In despair, I watched the lights go back to red. When I finally managed to maneuver past the stranded car, the reason behind its immobility became clear- the exhausted driver had fallen asleep at the wheel!

“Let’ walk down to Exhibition Road and get some Samosas for a snack,” suggested Mita, as I entered the house. “Not a bad idea,” I concurred with her. The sight of young men playing cricket next to our building always enthused me. On most Friday mornings, the sound of their strokes woke me up from sleep. It was wonderful to see Indians, Pakistanis and Baluchis forget their national rivalries and enjoy the game together. Further down the road, we passed the footballers in their brightly coloured jerseys, deeply engrossed in their game. I loved the vibrancy in the air. My program for Friday was already planned – an early morning visit to the heritage buildings along the Pearl Route in Muharraq and a tour of the Al Areen Wild Life Park later in the afternoon. My work load over the next two months, to achieve the project milestones, was substantial, but the thought of the week long trip to the exotic Caribbean islands after that thrilled me no end. How I wished this life would continue forever.

The bleep on my mobile notified me of an email. It was a reminder from Rohini for the March Challenge. My mind was made up. I would write back saying that this prompt was not for me, may there never be a final morning.

2nd Place

Another Long Journey Home

by Gordon Simmonds

Excerpts from the Memoirs of an Industrial Mercenary.

I was thirty something and working as a technician in Saudi Arabia. In accordance with the contract, I only got home to Ireland for two weeks every four months. My employers in Saudi gave us the cost of an air fare direct to the UK in cash, which allowed us the opportunity to book our own flights, and if we could find a cheaper route, we could pocket the difference. It’s hard to believe now, but I must have been more resilient in those days, because the cheapest route I could find was Dhahran to Bahrain, Bahrain to Kuwait, Kuwait to Heathrow, Heathrow to Belfast. I presume it must have been Kuwaiti Airlines because the key condition was that I must travel via Kuwait.

I’m not sure what year this took place but I guess 1977/78 and the weather was fine and sunny although it was not summer. The trip home was long but uneventful and I spent the vacation with my parents in Ireland. On the return, I chose to have a stop-over in London so that I could stay overnight with my brother and his family in Essex on my way back to Saudi.

My flight from Heathrow to Kuwait was at eleven o’clock in the morning, so it was very early and I am almost ready to leave for the three hour journey to Heathrow when there was a knock on the door. Hard to imagine these days, but without a word of a lie, there, on the doorstep were two uniformed policemen. They asked if they could talk to Gordon Simmonds. When I identified myself, they went on to say “We have just received a phone call from your mother to say that your brother hasn’t got a phone so she can’t contact you. She wants you to know that there is a rail strike today and there will be no trains running”. Just that. I thanked them and away they went.

Oh dear, this was going to be tricky. In my usual delinquent fashion, the time I had allowed was adequate but with little room for error. In my defence, I had just spent four months in the desert and two weeks in Ireland, and was totally out of touch with the situation in England. Anyway; my brother didn’t have a car, so straight away I contacted a car hire company……. and another, then another. There was not a car to be had in the whole of Southend. Obviously, everyone knew about the strike – except me.

I’m panicking now. What little spare time I had allowed was gone, so at the cost of an arm and a leg, I called a taxi. At least I was on my way – but not for long. We had barely got out of town when we hit the queue….. forty miles of it. Every commuter who normally went to London by train was on this road – we could have walked it quicker. However, after hours of travelling at a snail’s pace, we got to the airport. Breathless and exhausted I arrived at the check-out with ten minutes to spare whereupon, “Sorry sir. You are too late, the gate is closed.” I begged, I pleaded, I claimed extenuating circumstances. I even appealed to higher authority, but to no avail – the gate was closed, the plane had gone.

OK then. Plan B… Except there was no plan B. So I invented one.

I found out that the next flight to the Gulf was British Airways to Doha leaving around midnight. From there it was only a short hop to Kuwait. In those days there were only two types of passenger, first class and the rest, and a ticket was transferable. The fact that I don’t remember having to pay extra, suggests that I must have been able to use the existing ticket. Otherwise that would only have added insult to injury, and I wouldn’t have forgotten that.

Anyway I’m booked on the flight and I’ve got twelve hours to wait. Then, as now, airports are the most soul destroying places on earth. Nowhere comfortable to sit, nothing to do, and a mortgage required for food and drink. After reading the daily paper from cover to cover and doing all the puzzles, midnight arrived; at which point the message came up on the notice board, “flight delayed”. Two hours later, we started to board. The captain came on the intercom “Sorry about the delay ladies and gentlemen, but if you look out of the left hand window, you will see that this three engined plane now has four engines”. He went on to explain that a Trident was grounded in Doha with engine problems and needed a new one, so they had bolted a spare one on the outside of the wing. This was a novel excuse but sure enough, there were two engines on the left wing and only one on the right. Perhaps they could now call it a Quadrant and I’ve claimed the bragging rights ever since.

We took off and I adopted my usual travelling procedure and was fast asleep before the plane left the ground. Waking only for meals, we got to the gulf six hours later, at which point the pilot came on the intercom and said “Sorry ladies and gentlemen, but there is thick fog in Doha and we are having to divert to Abu Dhabi”. Plan B was looking decidedly flawed, since this now meant I would miss my connecting flight to Kuwait.

I’d been travelling for twenty four hours when we landed at Abu Dhabi and after a while in transit, the fog cleared in Doha and we continued the flight. As expected, my connecting flight to Kuwait was long gone, but with the consolation that there was another later that day. Another interminable wait and then off to Kuwait which by now was in darkness. Now you might be forgiven for thinking that the journey was nearly over – no such luck. My next connecting flight to Bahrain had also gone.

Kuwait airport was under renovation and the transit lounge had plastic sheeting for windows. As I’ve already stated, I’m not sure what time of year this was, but it was either early spring or late autumn because it was cold. I spent a very uncomfortable night shivering whilst trying to sleep spread out across three or four plastic seats. Next morning, I finally got the flight to Bahrain. By the time we arrived I had been travelling for forty eight hours. I must have had to wait all day for a flight into Dhahran, because it was dark again when we landed. Passport control and customs was always slow in Dhahran, so I made sure that I was among the first to get off, and reached passport control at the front of the queue. I presented my well-worn passport to the official and he flicked through the pages, and again, and again. He looked up at me and said “mafi visa” (no visa) and waved me away in that peremptory fashion typical of Arab officials. Stunned, I too flicked through the pages, and again, and sure enough the passport was full and there was no entry visa.

At this point I must tell you that Saudi visas took up a full page of a passport, and flicking through, it was easy to count the visas……. entry, exit, entry etc. until the last page which was exit. What had happened was that the visa office had stamped the exit visa, but couldn’t add the re-entry visa because there were no more pages – and then decided not tell anyone. Eventually one of the airline staff was brought over and I was duly escorted back to the plane I came in on. Next stop Bahrain.

After travelling non-stop for so long, the next few days were something of a blur to me and I remember little of the detail. I took a taxi to a hotel; I don’t know what or where and fell into a dreamless sleep. Now here I must digress to explain that British Embassies are there for the sole purpose of providing a palatial edifice for the residence of the ambassador. Any British citizen in need of help is merely an unwanted distraction to the main business of entertaining rich dignitaries.

My first obstacle to getting into the place was the man on the gate; an unshaven local employee who made it obvious that I was a nuisance and had the cheek to interrogate me as to my intentions. Eventually I got through to a room that looked like a bank, but not so posh. I queued for ages and when I got to the window, I had to go through all the interrogation rigmarole again; looking back now, I realise that I never saw or spoke to an English person throughout the whole sorry time. I was told to come back the next day. I suppose I ought to have been grateful for such a quick turn-around – but at the time, I wasn’t.

Next day was a similar story at the Saudi Embassy. Again, it was come back next day, and again, I should have been grateful, but again, I wasn’t. Eventually, armed with a shiny new passport and another full page visa, I was able to board a flight for the short fifteen minute hop to Dhahran. Six days after I started this journey, I got home and back to work.

3rd Place

Final Morning

by Michelle Schultz

We are withholding Michelle’s story as she is developing it further.

Congratulations everyone!

Other Entries!

Continuing on from last time – with the permission of the writers I am placing a few of the other entries. Please leave your comments so we know what your take is on the stories! The stories are listed in no particular order of preference.

Nancy the Servant

by Noor Nass

It was 1930, when Nancy was cleaning the balcony and placing some lavender flowers on the balcony of the house. Everyone called it Al Jara at that time.

She hears a man entering the door, with his pondering footsteps. The servant who was a part-time maid whispered to her: ” Is it that English man again, the one I spoke to you earlier about”

“What was his name- oh yes, D A I LY. Sargent D A I L Y. Looks like – they found something in those field digs that you heard earlier about, dear Nancy”

Nancy responded to her coworker ” sounds like a break through”

Colonel Daily responded to the servants with a hiss ” is that English I hear?”

“Yes sir!” As Nancy & her co-worker bowed down with respect, and continued cleaning up the Jara house, with what looked like a mopping stick made from palm leaves.

Colonel Daily – with merely a whisper ” we found it, we found it” mumbling with joy to his spirit. “Where is he?” Questioning what looked like a soft physique yogurt skin young lady at an age of 19 years young, that was so focused on cleaning.

” Who sire? ” – Nancy’s Co-worker responded, with thick Gramanic English accent, as she was old.

They might assume that you are an Anglo-Norman, some say.

Nancy responded to DAILY directly “ over their – Sargent!”

As her Majesty enters through the door, “Well, of course – you mean my dear husband,” the Queen enters to the living room bows her head down with respect to the Sargent DAILY as the guest of the day. While, signaling a sign language of dismissal to the servants, so they can receive their signal to leave the room & carry on their house duties or chores.

” Who, are you looking for Sargent Daily, and please be quick & specific” as his highness Prince of the Arabs has been given you enough of his time following the events you handled on some English nonsense.

My dear Queen ” it is time, to inform the Prince of the awaited result”

” We found it, the first Arab dig of Oil ” it is the first in the region it is unbelivable.

The Queen directly ordered the servants back again and firmly spoke to them by saying, “call your Majesty directly and interrupt his Ottoman phone call.”

The events that took place after that shifted rapidly, in the Sheikh and his people lifestyle and economical situation. The Delmonia that they once knew has transformed itself to a considerable important hub, of national and international affairs in the oil industry of the 1930’s of the 20the century.

Delmonia became an export and import of international affairs, which allowed them to invite new neighboring bloods, to take over hand on jobs. While, the people of Delmonia- transformed themselves to a desk job. In order for them, to delegate future aspirations, and environmental security and economical welfare of prosperity. Wealth found it’s way hidden among them again.

These were the days of how life changed, outside the Palace of Al Jara.

As the days ends at the palace, Nancy picks up herself and finds her way out to the awaited carriage, to be driven by the escorted mule to what sounds like a muddy road of pouring rain.

All of a sudden the mule begins to make a sound, and stops to what seemed like a nearby village.

It’s up north from the Palace, and it took Nancy and her carriage some 45 minutes, until arrival. Due, to the darkness with dim lightning’s.

The village was made of five houses placed next to each other, to resemble a neighborhood.

Each house was made from dried palm trees leave and felt very natural as in part of nature.

Nancy stepped down of the carriage and walked to her home alone house of palms, that within her she always dreamed of a different of prosperity.

It was made of 4 bed rooms and a palm rug. In the hallway!

Originally, Nancy’s mother – was brought down by an English navigator from the ports of Phoenicia.

Her mother was a common country girl, which lived in an upper scale society. She fell in love with a man outside her family circles. The neighbors say, he was an English or French man – that they were not quiet sure about. Due, to the newly introduced – world order back than.

No one knew the true identity of the carrier. As Nancy’s mother, kept it a secret and took the first exit trip on port to a country they called Delmonia for a fresh water start.

There, she gave birth to her daughter at the Path hospital and she named her daughter Nancy, in relevance to a nurse nun that delivered her first baby.

Nancy’s mother was a brilliant dancer and enjoyed life at the night clubs that thy called Malahi. Arwa never understood why some men never enjoyed whisky and gin and strip dancing for clients that paid substantially good amounts.

But, the changing world was coming and Arwa had to stop what she was and settle down with a Muslim man. As the custom of Delmonia was known to be a savior and not a lover.

Arwa loved him dearly, and never understood the world of the laws. And Adnan never knew that she was the best thing that happened in his life. Soon after she passed away, from the Collaria Mosquito – leaving Nancy at the age of 5 years old with Adnan as her step father.

And that is how Nancy was brought up in Delmoni in the 1920’s by a man named Adnan that taught her how to read, write and type on a type writer in English broken grammar as their mother language.

By the age of 15 Nancy found her first job as servant in al Jara and Adnan as her stepfather, moved out to settle with his new wife from a country called Yamen Eden.

When Sergeant DAILY left the house, after his meetings with the Sheikh, all he can think about was Nancy.

Her soft spoken dialect with sweet respect to her Majesty the Queen made him want to keep Nancy all for himself, as a luxury of a hard days work.

Back in the village Nancy began wondering how life would have been if she was ever married.

Pretending that God left her all alone in this world.

Well, off she goes again as her next door neighbor watches her clean the palm rug from the dust and fix the lanterns for reading time in the dark. While supper is boiling, of sweet potatoes, spinach and lentil beads.

All of a sudden she smells smoke – oh no the house is burning. She grabs her necklace and runs to the neighbors. Her neighbor tried to calm her down and made her go to bed directly.

And one final morning as Nancy wakes up and walks outside of her gorgeous savior neighbor’s house, only to find her palm house smashed with mud and charcoal smoke. That covered the whole area of the village with what looked like a black mist of smoky palm leaves. All the neighbors began sobbing and were just thankful that it was the other nigh of element of nature. Due, to the heavy rain that washed away her burned home by Hooligan Thugs out of revenge of someone.

She couldn’t capture what to think or feel at that moment, because she loved him and feared him. Luckily she did not understand authority and how series they are for those that commit to them.

She can see that authority walking right towards on a fine morning day. Sargent DAILY walks beside her and, gets down on his knees and proposes to Nancy. While, she has tears streaming down of her eyes of what was lost of hard days work. She responded back to him, I do not know what to say, as the answer will not please you ears or your mouth alone. I already asked your father, and he gave me my yes. Can you give me yours?

– End –

Prisoner # 42114

by Noor AlNoaimi

Metal sounds echoed in a random but rhythmic hymn of dread. Their steely dank prison was a cluster of square rooms, divided by bars, parted by a slim corridor that slithered past them towards the stairs beyond to the faint light there- Freedom. Teasing their eyesight, yet it was elusive, away, like the air they breathed yet could not touch.

Christopher was in his last days, no longer did he dream like the young men around him, of a home and a wife, of money and fame, of dark deeds done in the night, of continued debauchery, of crimes that were yet left uncommitted jailed as they were.

Murmurs, curses, rotten oaths that bounced off their lips like breath, so commonly said, weightless towards the passing guards that strolled past their bars. He sat there, his empty eyes upon the sight of the free man of the law beyond him, whistling his tune as if the sight of the fallen men around him was a delight.

“You’re up next, Columbus!” Cooed the officer beyond his bars, and for a moment he did not realize the words were to him, he had long ago forgotten his name, the famed surname he carried was exchanged for prisoner number 42114, plastered upon his mucked uniform right against his heart.

“For what?” Snapped his younger neighbor, another prisoner of the metal chambers.

” Just a quick poke in the head, he wouldn’t even have to stand.”

Some gasped, some laughed, others stared in plain horror for that same cruelty might turn to them next.

His neighbour did not go on in his show of defiance, he stepped back, starred at the warden then glanced towards him, Christopher, at a loss for words.

 I will be dead soon. His numb mind predicted, just as the lone officer passed him still humming cheerfully, his glazed hollow eyes stared at the man of the law, swaying up the stairs in good cheer, as if such an event was a jovial one, perhaps it was. He had not led a good life, not in the least. He had smuggled more than any of these common folk dreamed of, he had leached enough to have limitless fortunes overseas, and even more in his motherland.

But it was no use, for they were blocked away, banished from him just like the lifestyle he used to lead, he was now an exile of that life, a nothing, a figment of the man he had been, a loser; and losers always ended up in these situations.

The echoed voices of the men around him carried on, checked ‘Boom’ explosions into the dreadful present, their faces would glance his way, men leaned against their barred cells to talk to the occupants of the next one, “Who was he?”

“Used to be some big shot in New York.”

“Millions! They said he stole it all.”

“How did he do that?”

All eyes settled on him, killers eyed him, assessed him from the top of his white head, to the tips of his chipped shoes. Their disturbing smirks, daggers into his long dead pride, perhaps gleeful that one of those rich show offs was first in line, in what un-doubtfully be their fate too. Younger delinquents looked to him in awe, stricken that they did not know more of the quiet old man that was to die, Others who have witnessed such things did not bat an eye, relics of the place much like the bars behind him, a cool reminder of that the discomfort he felt now would only be temporary, it would all end soon.

Christopher Columbus was a man of very few words; he kept to himself, took a seat at the corner and did not make eye contact with the rest of them. He would look at times but his eyes would blink them out of focus in a moment, it was clear to all of them that he did not want any attachments, and for a cell of emotionally challenged cons that was easy enough, they left him to his solitude, ignored him. For who would care about numb old 42114? Nobody did until now, until death came with the timely proclamation that he was to be jolted and poked until he was gone from this world.

He stared ahead, his startling blue eyes now paler than they’d ever been, his head of fine blonde hair turned shades of white and grey, he was dying as it was, his very body shrinking towards the ground, it did not matter if it was tomorrow or the next, death would come, swift or slow, it will come.

The light around him snapped off, the whispers around him ceased and he closed his eyes for a moment, welcoming the dark.

Next he opened them, it was morning, the metal sounds returned, banging upon the rusty bars of the cells, it was like any other day really, except this time the clanking stopped with him, they opened the bars, and in walked the warden, the same man from yesterday, his hand clasped his belt, his eyes black pools in the dim lighting.

“Stand up, Columbus…Its gonna be over soon.” He said.

Christopher stood, though his knees were wobbly, his step unbalanced, the two officers behind the warden held him by his arms, pulling him out of his dank cell and adjusting his wrists to the hand cuffs they had.

“Like he’s a threat!” Chuckled one of the cons on the opposite side of him.

“ Smooth sailing, Mr. C”

“Bye bye, Mr. C”

“God bless.”

The array of their masculine voices echoed behind him, young and old, deep and boyish, mocking and kind.

But his mouth was mute to reply, he felt heavy as they made him walk the steps towards the elusive light, the effects on his eyes was devastating, for it wasn’t the sun or the stars but fluorescents, rectangular blocks of lightening that blinded him. He squinted, then closed his eyes for a moment as he was led away, letting them take him to the dreaded beyond.

The chill, dark, even dampness of the air, he could smell his own sweat, his hair matted like a pampered dog out in the sun for too long.

“Here we are.” Came the warden’s voice as he banged the white doors open, walking him over to the metal seat at the center of the room.

“You may stand aside, Fin.” Said an accented voice in a masterful tone.

Christopher dared to open his eyes now, the haunting lights made everything look green and sallow, or perhaps it was his own vision that did that.

Behind the long table beyond him, sat three individuals all wearing similar black suits, their frames broad and slim, their eyes held his in an assessing manner, the papers in front of them signified one thing.

He was a job, a workload they wanted to get done and over with. They did not care for his history; they did not care for his past, nothing more than to get him in a grave soon enough to indulge in their morning coffee.

Their voices recounted his wrong doings, his crimes, reasons that had put him into such an existence; reasons for the death he was about to experience.

He stared at their lips, the numbness slowly began to leave him, while the officers exchanged the metal cuffs for the leathered ones to bind his wrists onto the chair’s arms, his neck was also bound against the metal back of the chair, his head too, forced upon with that ominous bondage, wires hung around him in a deathly sway, murderous trappings for prisoner 42114.

“…Following the decree of the condemned, we hereby order to initiate the execution.”

“Any last words?” They asked in union.

Hot saliva snaked his mouth, his gaze blurred a thousand versions of them, and to his aged eyes, they did not look three at all, more like a hundred demons gliding up to meet his helpless gaze to ask that malicious question.

Last words? His brain repeated, an empty echo through his bare mind.

“ Any Last words, 42114?” They asked again, impatience in their tone.

“My name-“ He rasped, “My name is Christopher.” His voice sounded weak, and low so he said it again. “My name is Christopher…”

“We know that, Mr. Columbus. Will that be all?”

“ My name is Christopher.” He repeated. “My name is Christopher.

Again and again he said it, his discarded tongue speaking after much silence, the one truth he knew of his life, his name.

“Commence.” Said the man at the centre, his tone even, still masterful.

The lights around him turned red, purple, yellow…radiant colours that jolted his brain a thousand times over, the electric shots that went through him, burned and chilled him, smoke ensued and he could smell his own burnt flesh in the air, charred skin over fire.

Then it all stopped, his breath caught.

He longed for the sun, the empty sky that so resembled his eyes, but he did not see calm blue, no he saw black, jarring black, peering into his pupils.

“Still breathing!” Barked the warden to the distant corner, obviously to the one responsible for the deadly contraption that would lead to his undoing.

It did not take long for the colours to come back, the smell to return, the breathlessness to continue. The jolts intensified, shaking him a million times a minute, the stabs of the laced wires pulled his soul away, scorched his body until once more it turned dark.

Black, just like the eyes of the warden, emotionless black beads that stared into his.

“There has been a mistake.” The devil whispered.

Christopher’s gaze widened, he looked around him, it was the same room, the same dark fluorescent lighting, but there was no one else, he was alone.

“ Unfortunately, I cannot remedy your death.” The devil went on in that disturbing whisper.

Christopher stared, speechless, shivering at the news the creature spoke to him.

“You were an innocent…a little more than a common thief. I’ve had Pedophiles, Killers, rapists. A lot more deserving of this than you…yet here you are.”

Where am I? He wanted to ask but his teeth were bared down against each other, his mouth immobile to utter a sentence to the menacing face of Satan.

“Lets make a deal.” The devil continued a clawed finger emerged, black and menacing from his oversized fist. “I will let you walk away from the hell I represent if you do this…”

The faces he last saw before he left the world were around him, emotionless as they bore down their gazes at his body, none blinked as they touched his charred flesh, nor did they whisper a prayer for his sake, none cared to.

“Revenge?” The devil murmured against his ear, the vowels he spoke slurred in a song that touched his consciousness, he was under his spell, a deviant urge to rise and kill someone, specifically the men that put him to his doom so unjustly.

“Yes…”He rasped in the dark.

 -End-

 

inthegrowler

J. H. Bográn

Our judge for the fifth writing challenge of the year was born and raised in Honduras and is the son of a journalist. He ironically prefers to write fiction rather than fact. José’s genre of choice is thrillers, but he likes to throw in a twist of romance into the mix. His works include novels and short stories in both English and Spanish. He’s a member of the Short Fiction Writers Guild and the International Thriller Writers where he also serves as the Thriller Roundtable Coordinator and contributor editor their official e-zine The Big Thrill.

His debut novel TREASURE HUNT, which The Celebrity Café hails as an intriguing novel that provides interesting insight of architecture and the life of a fictional thief, has also been selected as the Top Ten in Preditors & Editor’s Reader Poll.

FIREFALL, his second novel, was recently released by Rebel ePublishers and it is slowly, but steadily, earning starred reviews.

Website at: http://www.jhbogran.com

Facebook profile: http://www.facebook.com/jhbogran

Facebook author page: http://on.fb.me/ZJwEq0

Goodreads: http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/4307673.J_H_Bogran

Twitter: @JHBogran

ShortFictionWriters guild link: http://shortfictionwritersguild.wordpress.com/

The Challenge:

You are at the neighborhood garage sale, looking for nothing in particular. Something inside an old, wooden box catches your eye. The old woman who is running the sale comes over to say something about the object. What is it? What did she say and why? The word limit was 2000 words.

José Bogran’s winners for the month are as follows!

“Given the parameters you gave me I made judgement based on the use of the prompt, but also how to the story arc progressed, character development, as well as complication of the plot. I love complicated plots! Here is my list of winners.”

In First Place we have Rebecca Young

The Garage Sale

Being a yard sale queen required dedication. Sara religiously bought the local paper every Thursday afternoon and went through the listings. She could tell based on the classified ads which sales would yield the most treasures. “Estate sale” usually meant a good sale, but was always a bit sad. “Moving sale: Everything must go!” was promising. “Exercise equipment” was a bad sign as was “Men’s and women’s clothing”. These usually meant a depressed “cleaning-out-the-closets” and “giving-up-on-resolutions” affairs. The items would be dated, but not in a vintage way, just an old, shabby way, and prices would probably be too high for used. Everyone thinks their garbage is precious. In a small community, like theirs, all the yard sale devotees got to know each other pretty quickly. The McLaren brothers were always on the lookout for stuff like antique farm implements, old tools, model cars and planes and the rare gems: pedal tractors. The Hernandez family collected good quality baby clothing for an unending slew of expectant relations. “Cat sweater Mary” went for antique canning jars and just about any kind of collectible figurine which she resold on eBay.

Sara didn’t yard sell out of necessity or for the money which could be made reselling items. She, like all yard salers, really, did it for the possibility. Because there was really no telling what you might find. It was like being a treasure hunter, an archeologist.

Sara never had anything in particular she was looking for, but could sift the wheat from the chaff pretty quickly. She knew she had scored some fantastic finds over the years. Like a brand new Kate Spade bag for $10, an antique pedestal gumball machine, tin lunchboxes and nice clothes to outfit her whole family.

But Sara’s kryptonite was worthless sentimental memorabilia. The other professional yard salers shook their heads as they saw her snatch up photo album after photo album. Why would anyone want another family’s snapshots from “Thanksgiving, 1974” when even the subjects of the photos didn’t want them? Sara’s husband, Mike, also thought it was bizarre, but thought it might stem from Sara having no family of her own to speak of. After pouring over each new treasure for a day or two, Sara put these items in her craft room, on a shelf, where they sat. Armed with her map in the passenger’s seat, Sara set off. She was on her way to her second sale of the day, the first being a total bust, when she spotted the Holy Grail: the unadvertised yard sale. She signaled, pulled over and parked. Sara took a minute to scope it out from the car. It looked promising. She vaguely knew the seller, Mrs. Graham, an active older woman with a beautifully kept yard.

Sara strolled over, waving to Mrs. Graham. She walked slowly by the sheets and card tables set out on the lawn, gazing over the items. Mostly junk. Bowling shoes, a set of snow tires, ancient Tupperware, out-of-date clothes, a rowing machine, quilting frames and batting, crystal candy dishes, cheap figurines, As-Seen-On-TV gadgets and a box of crime thrillers and Harliquin romance novels. Sara did pick up a pack of 10 embossed Thank You cards that were marked 25 cents. She moved towards the garage. Mrs. Graham sat behind another card table, set right inside the garage door. A few more tables and some built in counters in the garage were covered with items tagged for sale.

“Nice to see you. Please take a look,” invited the old woman.

“Thank you. Has business been good?”

“You’re my first customer of the day,” said Mrs. Graham.

Sara wandered into the garage. In her experience, sellers kept their most valuable items close by or tucked away, so chances were good there were some treasures here. Lots of tools. They looked to be good quality. If she ran into them later, Sara would tip off the McLarens. There was an ancient chest freezer, an army tent, some Christmas décor and a trove of old Avon perfume bottles.

Then Sara spotted an art deco style Lane cedar chest. It was grimy, but could look gorgeous cleaned up. “Do you have a key for the chest?” she asked Mrs. Graham, who was watching Sara idly.

“No, but I think if you just press the lock in and lift up, it will open. It was my cousin Rose’s. She left it to me when she passed away a few years ago, but I have one just like it. Our grandfather bought them for us before we got married.”

“Could I take a look inside?”

“Why sure, I suppose,” said Mrs. Graham. “I can’t remember what is in there.” The older woman turned her chair to better view the proceedings.

Sara pushed in the lock, which resisted at first, but then she felt it give way. Her heart was pounding as she pried the heavy lid up. The trunk had a green felt lined insert with some old letters. There were some brown dried roses that looked like they would turn to dust if touched. Below the insert was a quilt, handmade, but ordinary. Sara lifted the quilt up gingerly. From underneath, a doll winked up at her. “Lo-lo!” Sara breathed.

The doll was beautiful, about 18 inches, porcelain face, arms and feet in a cloth body. She had silky dark brown hair, sparkling brown eyes and dimples. She wore a beautiful pink dress, bloomers peaking out underneath, white stockings and soft kid-leather shoes.

The doll was remarkable, but the most remarkable part was that Sara knew her instantly. She looked back in the trunk, searching for the white and pink trimmed hat she knew she would find. And there it was. “Just an old quilt and the doll?” asked Mrs. Graham.

“Yes. Oh and some letters too,” Sara turned, holding the doll. “It’s funny, I remember playing with a doll just like this when I was younger. But I don’t think she was mine.”

Mrs. Graham smiled. “I remember when Rose got that doll. It was for her eighth birthday I think. I thought she was so spoiled. I suppose her daughter must have played with her; that is probably when she got damaged. Claire never was very careful.”

Chills ran up and down Sara’s spine. She looked down at the doll, knowing she would see the right thumb was missing. “Her daughter’s name was Claire you said? Do you have a picture of Claire or your cousin?” Sara asked.

“Why, I guess so. Can you hold down the fort for a minute?” Mrs. Graham asked.

“Yes,” said Sara, looking up to note that there was one other customer now. An older man, who was intently reading the back cover of one of the romance novels. Mrs. Graham returned shortly with a cream colored album. She sat back down and started flipping through the pages. “I think this is the right one. Hmm. Here is one with Rose, but it isn’t very good. Oh, here we are.”

Sara looked and there was a faded shot of a woman and a teenage girl. She thought the woman could be a slightly older or more care-worn version of herself. They had the same nose, the same eyes. The teenage girl was beautiful, with long, thick hair and high cheekbones, but she looked unhappy.

“Is that Claire?” asked Sara, pointing to the girl.

“Yes, she must have been about fifteen or sixteen then. Right before she ran away from home.”

“She ran away? Did she ever come back?” asked Sara.

“She would turn up every few years. I think she had a child, but I can’t remember if it was a girl or boy even. It broke Rose’s heart. She’d show up for a week, and then be gone for a few years. Then eventually she disappeared for good. Rose always hoped Claire would come back one last time but I don’t think she ever did.”

“I know this is going to sound crazy, but I think Claire might be my mother. I was left in a park when I was five years old, but I have memories of playing with a doll just like this. I called her Lo-lo. Same missing thumbs.”

Mrs. Graham turned pale. The album in her hands trembled slightly. “My cousin called her doll Lola.” She studied Sara. “You do look like her. Rose, not Claire.”

“Could it be possible?” asked Sara, cradling the doll. “Yes,” said Mrs. Graham. “It could be. Please, sit down and we’ll chat.”

In Second Place: Simi Kamboj

A Bohemian Tale

We are withholding Simi’s story as she is developing it further

In Third Place: Adnan Al-Baroudi

The Fate of Hikori

Middle aged, tall and stubble bearded Nathan traced the footpath along a set of detached houses. His forbearing eyes fell upon a small crowd mingling around plastic tables, shoddy stalls and strewn appliances; the garage sale his fellow anthropologists directed him to.

“Good morning.” Nathan softly spoke in a voice gruff and jittery. The stout, chubby cheeked old woman of East Asian descent in a flowery patterned white shirt and comfortable white knee-length shorts shifted her gaze up to the man towering over her. “I’m looking for any old valuable items you might have, family relics preferably.”

And then, it caught his eye. He knew he would have a very small window of time to go through all her packed boxes aligned in the back of the garage, but Nathan was a man accustomed to trusting his guts, and his guts told him there had to be some answers residing back there.

If Nathan ever had to make a career as a household thief, he wouldn’t get far as an organized one. The loud rips continued to echo inside the garage followed by violent clangs and noisy shuffles while he hastily sorted through regular household assortments. Eventually pupils widened excitedly. Rolled beneath old dusty blankets were a set of rugged scrolls.

Nathan, breathing heavily and wrestling with his nerves, kept the scrolls concealed as he crept into her traditionally decorated house. He found the small dimly lit toilet room and as slowly and gently as he could, he began to roll open the first scroll.

He nervously cleared his throat, stole a quick glance through the small crack in the door and proceeded to study the manuscript. The oil colors and dried ink was as fresh and preserved as though it was penned yesterday, drafted neatly with careful and affectionate attention. It was an outline of a middle aged Japanese man, bearing the confident eyes of a sophisticated gentleman in that period, with a solid brow and stern features. He bore a traditional Japanese goatee, greyed with age, as was his brushed back shoulder length hair. The portrait also contained a print on the corner that read: The ambassador of his lord, The Shogun, 1867.

Another scroll also penned by the same ink and familiar brush strokes contained a dazzlingly detailed portrait of a woman. Her young features wore a subtle smirk, and her brow was cynically uplifted accentuating the penetrating gaze of her eyes. She brushed her black hair back and tied it into a flowery bun, locked in place with a golden ornament of a bird of prey. The high collar of her garment was silk and colorful. The artist spent an obsessively long time on her character. This one had a rather significant print on it that read: The Queen, 1867.

He then unrolled the final and more ornate scroll and recognized the ink used that matched that of all the sketches he’d seen. The hand writing was cultured and stylish. It was undoubtedly that of a talented artist. Nathan began to read the words contained.

It is with a heavy heart my lord that I must convey to you this letter. I am afraid there is no soaring swallow that may sweeten this song. I will not be returning to Kyoto. The terrors I have witnessed bestowed upon the people of this land are beyond anything I have seen conceivable by a natural being of this world. The lush grass and hanging orchids here presents the onlooker with an evergreen spring, but behind the veil resides an outrageous demon. And I am now a prisoner of said demon.

My lord, I carried out my mission as instructed. The rumors were true. It is as we feared. The Hikori Clan has been wiped out. I took the opportunity upon my arrival to speak with the inn keepers and villagers, and although they indulged some of my questions I could not get all the answers. Harbored beneath their tired eyes and polite smiles I sensed a mystery untold. I also felt that I was being watched, assessed. My entire presence there felt rehearsed. I was directed to places subliminally from the moment I arrived. I cannot describe the feeling. It is as if I had walked on to a Nogaku stage and a spirit had been sitting over my shoulders manipulating the entire play.

I did however manage to piece together parts of this intricate puzzle surrounding this self-proclaimed queen and the disappearance of Hikori Nagatomo and his family. It began with an orphaned girl at an early age; adopted into the ruling clan. She was tended and loved by The Daemyo. The noble warlord ensured she got the best education, the most grueling of martial training and to witness firsthand his day to day handling of affairs. It is a curious thing. This ruler had already many a sons and daughters, and yet it was as though she had taken center stage in his life.

One morning many years later the people of this town woke up to discover that the ruling family had been murdered in their sleep, save one; the frail and sickly uncle of The Daemyo. Typically that would have meant he was the inherent ruler, however, that is not how it went. In a public statement only hours after the incident he transferred clan rule over to the adopted sixteen year old girl. She was to inherit the land, the palace and the loyalty of every Samurai in the land.

No one questioned the order; all quietly obeyed.

And so, as swift as a crisp cold wind beneath a shadow swept moon her reign of terror fell upon the people. She proclaimed herself queen and established a legion of Royal Guards, mighty masked warriors who adored her and have dedicated their lives to protect her until their very last breath. No one is allowed to see her except a select few women who form her personal aide and council, even the general of her army visits only on rare occasions.

The fate of the Daemyo’s uncle remains a mystery. Some say he too was murdered shortly after, others say he became her prisoner. Personally, I like to believe he was wise enough to leave.

I was finally granted an audience with her majesty and presented myself to her as an envoy along with Captain Pierre, a foreign veteran and part of the French Military Mission to Japan. However, I felt early on that she saw through our disguises. I have never met a more fascinating woman. The brief conversation we shared reflected a lot of intelligence. She wore a soft smile under a ridiculing gaze, and harbored an assertive voice behind a veil of politeness. And yet, beneath her calculating watch and beauty there was a brewing storm inside. In her eyes I could see the notions of madness. Their unmistakable attempt to tidy her appearance failed to conceal the loose locks of hair and the account of sleepless nights under her pupils. Despite all that however, I had no hold on the direction of our talks. I know my lord that I was sent to evaluate her… spy on her, but I couldn’t help but get the feeling that she was evaluating us. There was no deterring the notion that she is not a woman to be trifled with. She was quick to turn our ‘intelligent conversations’ into a terrible mind game. I began to discover that my thoughts were being manipulated. She was gradually transforming me into one of her subjects. My every attempt to get any information from her turned against me. A fish caught in a current my lord is doomed to embrace the waterfall. And hers is a mighty current indeed.

Heed this warning, my lord. Japan is facing a threat like none the world has ever seen. We should never cross the queen. If it is access through her territory we seek, we should pay any tributes she requires. If we can avoid it then we must do at all costs, lest we instill her wrath and lead to our ruin. This realm is lost. It is too late for me.

Two eyes in the long grass; the light buried in darkness; the fate of a land vanished.

“You’ve been hiding all this time.” Nathan confronted the stout old woman in her doorway. Her chubby wrinkled cheeks tilted timidly into a smile.

“Is’a long story, ye’a?” With her slanting eyes on him the smile gently faded, “Ve’y long ago, is’a bad hist’ery.”

“How much do you know?” Nathan persisted as she journeyed back into her tea room. “Where is she buried? Where is her palace?”

“Angry man take a tea.” She mumbled. “Still the mind, eas’a the soul.”

“Hikori.”

This time she paused, then slowly turned to face him.

“Your great ancestor was the uncle to The Daemyo, wasn’t he?”

“Hai.” She whispered with a solemn nod. Finally, he would get his answers.

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