I’m going to be blunt here because as you will find from the content of this particular post that’s just how I am. Ever since I was a little girl I have always been made out to be some kind of freak because I tend not to go about things the ’normal’ way. The other kids were, I guess, expected. When you are growing up you don’t know much about the world and you are learning so I can see why I was seen as being somewhat unusual by my peers. That wasn’t just it though. Adults were much of the same opinion.
What made me so freakish? What did I dare to do that was so unconventional? Nothing really. It was a curiosity I had about the world around me that others wanted to curb. They said they were concerned about me. After all, curiosity brought about the demise of the proverbial cat. I wanted to visit museums rather than playing with the other children. I wanted to read books rather than take part in party games. For that I seemed off and weird.
As I grew up I continued on that trajectory, caring not one bit about what others thought. As an adult I was considered strange because I had no interest in having children or getting married. To me marriage is an outdated concept that has no real place in modern society. Sure, there are plenty of people who love being married, are excited to be married or can find happiness in that kind of partnership but it’s just not for me. As a thirty something woman with my own independent life I don’t see any way a marriage could improve my current existence. I’m especially close to my little 11yo niece and my 3yo nephew so they are all the children I need.
I guess the point of this rant is to urge you all to live your life the way you want to. Do the things that make you happy despite what society might think is appropriate. I’ve grown up people thinking I’m a freak. Embrace that freakishness because odd things, atypical hobbies or out of the ordinary life decisions don’t make you any less valid than the most conventional of people. What would the world be without that varied tapestry?
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It’s an age old question that seems to be important to a lot of people. You most likely would have been asked it in your life in some shape or form and that question is, ’if you were to invite anyone in the world (living or deceased) to a dinner party who would those guests be?’
I like this question because to me it highlights the human want to connect with others, no matter the barriers. It shows we like to connect in an intellectual way. The purpose of this exercise is to show who you would like have around your table for the purposes of hearing what they have to say. A dinner party, by nature, is a way of sharing discussion and opening up. Those you would chose to sit around your table says a lot about your personality. So for the purposes of this discussion, my pick of dinner party guests would be as follows:
Not only is he one of my most favourite authors and a huge inspiration of mine, he was also a critic of the moral evil that was present in Victorian London. He used satirical writing to bring attention to these injustices and he was effective in doing so. This undoubtedly influenced writers who came after him to approach their work with the same boldness. I know that certainly was the case for me. From what is told he was a kind hearted, intelligent man who paid close attention to what was going on around him and for that reason having a chat with him would be an opportunity I would hate to miss.
Escape artist, circus performer and spiritualist debunker. Houdini is already an admired figure of mine so he would naturally make for an exciting presence at my table. I would love to ask him all about his escape acts and his performances. His thrill seeking presence would keep things lively and I’m naturally engrossed by people who have a performance flare. He spent a lot of his later career debunking spiritualists. Discussing this could make for a lively debate. Also, after some wine has flowed and bellies were filled he could grace us with a demonstration of one of his tricks.
If there is ever a girl with a story to share at a dinner table it would be this one. She lived through great adversity and it was of no fault of her own. She was just a young girl who had no control over the devastation that was arising around her. She already had a fascinating story to tell as is evident in her famous diaries. Learning about this young girl’s remarkable experiences from her own mouth would have the discussions going on well into the small hours.
Those are just some examples of the fascinating figures I would invite to my dinner party. Given the opportunity to reach out to anyone, who would you choose? Funny? Inspirational? Intruiging? What would you look for in your dinner party guests.
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I have told the tale of many families in Coldford. I’ve discussed the dark, the dangerous and the ruthless. The Stoker Circus family encompass all three of things. I’ve never known such a group of people willing to stoop to the lowest levels to keep themselves riding high. Desperate times of recession had given them stiff competition but they never ceased to amaze. They would stop at nothing for the almighty coin. They were a big family so when it came to them against the world the world stood little chance. When it came to being pit against each other there would be a clown parade. Underneath the cotton candy, the organ music and the balloons there was a real heart beating. If only they could stop to hear it. I’m reporter Sam Crusow and this is what happens when a Stoker is offered loadsa bunce but they are asked to split it.
“Ladies and gentlemen. Boys and girls! Step right up for an outrageous and sometimes dangerous show. I’m Adrien Stoker and welcome to Stoker circus!” The fan fare erupted around the Big Top as the audience in Luen were drawn into the circus as it passed through town. Adrien Stoker beamed a huge smile. His excitement for his act was palpable. The audience grinned right back at him as the clowns in blue and red face paint danced whimsically around him, tying him into a strait jacket. His brother, Hanz, in red tails, joined him in centre ring, playing the role of the villain who had captured him. Hanz made a show of yelling at the clowns to restrain him tighter. They turned him to show the audience four tightly fastened restraints. They even carried Adrien across to the audience for a member to pull on the buckles and confirm it was in fact fastened tightly. A heavily made up woman tugged on them and yes they were secure. When back in centre ring blue and red boards were pulled aside to reveal a tank of water, standing up right, not much larger than a coffin. “The water cell has been banned in the orient. They say once you are submerged there is no escaping. Don’t be alarmed, ladies and gentlemen. I’m willing to give it a try and if I drown … that’s just show business.” Hanz gave a show of his character being desperate to hurry it along. Adrien was lifted, and he was dropped into the water head first. Hanz secured the lid and he stepped on top of his brother’s watery coffin. “Not so amazing now!” He cried theatrically. He accepted jeers from the audience with a wave of his arms. A timer started. The view of Adrien in the water cell was concealed with the boards. “The longest any one has ever held their breath was for eleven minutes. Let’s see how long the Amazing Adrien can last.” The fan fare erupted again. The clowns made another showy dance around the ring as the sands on the timer dropped. The boards were pulled aside briefly to show Adrien still in the cell and seemingly struggling with his binds. “Oh no!” Lady Margerite gasped, watching the show through a set of golden opera glasses. She hoped Adrien would be okay despite what Hanz was suggesting, doing a little jig on top of Adrien’s coffin before leaping back down into the ring. The sands in the timer continued to fall. It had now been minutes since Adrien was submerged. Son’s, Valdrick and Irvine, watched on from the sidelines. The two boys were naturally born showman. Sometimes as the timer ran out Uncle Hanz called upon them to help keep the audience going. It meant audience appreciation. It meant becoming the face of the circus. It meant some coins being thrown their way. “It’s my show, mucker,” Irvine had said. He strongly believed he was the one to follow papa. Val disagreed. “Get down with you,” Val replied with impatience. He had lifted his juggling pins and was waiting for the call. Meanwhile, outside Hanz was saying to the audience of Adrien, “I hope he took care of his affairs …” The timer ran out. “This is it! This is it!” Irvine was muttering to himself. BARAH BA BOOM! The music cut. The lights focused centre ring. Hanz took a peek behind the boards. He started calling to the other performers. Something appeared to have gone dreadfully wrong. Lady Margerite sat forward in her chair. “Oh no,” she gasped as she looked through the opera glasses. The performers appeared to be in a panic. They pulled the boards back to reveal the tank was now empty. Spotlights danced around the audience and landed on the seat beside Margerite. Imagine her surprise when there stood Adrien Stoker, dripping wet, free of his binds and smiling warmly despite his struggles. He raised a glass of what was presumably water from the tank. “To you and yours Madame,” he said. The audience erupted in cheers as Adrien gave a bow and the spotlight followed him back down to the centre ring. Lady Margerite was thrilled. Irvine and Val took a peek out the curtains but quickly retracted when Uncle Hanz came rushing in. He pulled off his tailed jacket and he threw it backstage. “One of you,” he barked at the boys. “Move.” That was when the baby started to cry. Both boys looked back. ‘Not now,’ seemed to be the collective thoughts of the brothers. “The baby is crying,” Irvine stated. “Yeah,” said Val. “I can hear that.” “Move!” Hanz barked again as he headed on back out. For Valdrick, concern over the infant won out. He had to check on his baby brother. Irvine was not so worried. “Sucka,” he cheered as he headed out to centre ring. The boards were pulled back again and to the audience’s amazement there was Hanz in the cell now wearing the strait jacket. As they removed Hanz from the tank Irvine charmed the audience. Lady Margerite gushed over the boy’s charisma. Valdrick was rocking the baby in his arms thinking of the bunce he had lost. “Damn it, Felix,” he groaned. “You choose now to cry?” The baby grinned a gumsy grin at his brother. “You know you lost me an earner, right?” Felix giggled. “Never mind,” said Val. “When we’re older we’ll run the show together. We’ll make loadsa bunce.” “It was a smashing show,” Lady Margarite told her driver on the way home. Adrien Stoker was so attractive with his dark curls and expressive eyes. He was slim and tall and when she found him stood next to her she could hear the breath in his words from the struggle of his escape. “To you and yours Madame!” He had said. Stoker Circus, passing through Luen, had left a lasting impression.
“Ladies and gentlemen. Boys and girls! Step right up for a swinging, stinging and full in your face ringing show. I’m Irvine Stoker and these are the trapeezy easys.” The spotlight focused on centre ring as Ethel Easy – the female half the trapeze duo climbed a rope to the high wire. She was agile so she reached the top with ease. The music offered an encouraging beat. What audience there was watched her in awe. She gripped the high wire and spun herself round once, twice and three times before holding herself up in a handstand on the wire. She reached her legs out. She let herself drop and her brother Errol had come whizzing across from the high dale of the Big Top. The audience gasped as he caught her in his arms. The two swung across to the other side of the great tent. Ringmaster Irvine stepped off the ring to leave the Easys to do their thing. “We got some bad news, boss.” Irvine had scraped some powder from an old metal box he kept in his coat onto his finger nail. He sniffed and leaned his head back a little. “What bad news?” He naturally asked. Strongman Otto, who was delivering said news, looked concerned. “I’m afraid Aunt Margerite passed away,” said the muscle man. Irvine gasped. He removed his hat and bowed his head. “It’s always the good ones,” he said solemnly. “How did she go?” Otto shrugged his broad shoulders. “Dunno,” he said. “Age I suppose.” Irvine gasped again. “Time,” he said. “It’s cruel Otto. It’s fucking cruel …’ “Will you be alright, boss?” Otto asked sensitively. “I will be,” Irvine said. “I just need to collect myself. I just need to figure out who the fuck Aunt Margerite is. Which one is she?” “Dunno,” Otto answered. “But this letter said she left you a little something.” Irvine stood up straight. He snatched the letter from the strongman. “There’s a will? Why didn’t you tell me that?” “I figured you would want to grieve first.” Irvine’s eyes were already reading the statement to see just how long a mourning period he was going to need. They heard the audience react as the Easys swung across the tent and swapped trapezes. Ethel swung above the audience blowing a kiss to an older gentlemen there with his grandkids. Errol threw a rose to an adoring young woman who snatched it up excitedly. The two met in the middle again. Ethel leapt from her trapeze to clasp her brothers feet. As they soared across she flipped onto the dale and climbed onto the tight rope. “Yes!” Irvine cried out as he read the handsome amount dear Aunt Margerite had bequeathed to him. “Wait a minute,” he said as he read on. “This says I’m to split this with my damn brothers. I was Aunt Margerite’s favourite. She said so all the time … I think … this has to be wrong.” Otto looked at the paper. He read it slowly. “Looks pretty legit.” Irvine snatched the paper away. “Aunt Margerite was a sweet old dear and she sought to leave this money to her adoring and affectionate nephew. I will not have her wishes besmirched by those scoundrel brothers of mine trying to take what she wanted me to have.” “Says here you’ve to split it,” Otto reminded him, running a finger across the words that said as such. “Equal … share…” he said slowly and carefully. Irvine held the letter to his chest. “Who’s side are you even on?” He asked. “Yours boss,” Otto stated. “Then don’t breathe a word of this. Does anyone else know?” “Don’t think so,” said Otto. “Ooooh!” The audience cheered. The Trapeezy Easys were wowing them as Ethel danced foot to foot across the tight rope as Eroll climbed hand to hand underneath her. Ethel tucked her foot under the rope and let herself drop. She caught Errol’s feet, flipped herself onto the wire again and spread her arms for balance. “Whatever you do do not let Val hear about this.” To the heavens he said, “don’t you worry Aunt Margerite. I won’t let your memory be robbed.” Otto nodded solemnly. “RIP Aunt Margerite,” he said. “Was she the one with the mole?” Irvine asked. Otto could only shrug. Eroll swung on his trapeze by his feet. He had his sister’s hands and he launched her towards the dale. Ethel landed on the dale and immediately threw herself back off catching her brothers hands again. Irvine came skipping back to centre ring as the Easys came sliding down the rope as their act came to an finish. “Wasn’t that something?” He said as he slipped his inheritance letter inside his pocket. “We don’t give half measures here at Stoker Circus. The Trapeezy Easys took a bow. The audience applauded. It was a meagre audience but that didn’t matter. The whole time Irvine kept thinking of Aunt Margerite. Now If only he could remember who Aunt Margerite was. More importantly, he had to stop his deplorable brother finding out about it. Split it. Equal share. Yeah right!
“Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls! Step right up for a dashing, crashing, full in your face smashing show. I’m Val Stoker and welcome to Stoker Circus.” The audience for the matinee show in the blue tent wasn’t as filled as it used to be but Val let his voice boom to the rafters as if it were a full house. There were a few scattered guests coughing away and giving a half hearted applause. Val’s wife Gigi had felt it too. She tried to keep up enthusiasm as best she could but they were losing them. What little there were of them. The only one who was paying the real attention they would expect of a visitor to the Stoker Circus was a small baby who’s push chair had been pressed up to the front. A smile crossed its face as Val juggled three blue pins. His act was delightful. In bygone days it would have been well received but we live in an age of computer games and technology. The old school circus had stiff competition to work with. It was sad to see such old fashioned fun drip away. What was most despairing was the fact it meant the tents were making less bunce. “We better pull out the big guns, missus,” said Val to his wife. The tall, leggy blonde was already on it. She passed him a set of metal pins. Val flicked them and the ends sparked on fire. “Huh?” He put to his audience. “Impressed yet?” The little baby cried with delight as Val danced in front of him. The flaming torches spiralled in a truly exciting fashion. He spun them higher. He spun them faster. He even got a chuckle out of his audience when he made a show as though his hands were burning and he blew on his palms between the throws. “It’s just not the same these days,” Val commented to Gigi as they stepped out of their ring. “It’s the end of an era, sugar,” said Gigi solemnly, dusting bits of sand off of his jacket. “We’ll get by,” Val assured enough for the both of them. “We always do.” The Stokers were in fact a resilient bunch. They had travelled through the generations and they survived. They survived because they were willing to sink to depths that even the most hardened of people would consider questionable. They robbed houses, they picked pockets, they washed away crime scenes and the tragedy of it all was their show, the thing that was important to all of them, wouldn’t be failing if they were to put their own greed aside and focus on it. Val tried to focus on it. He had loved the tents when his father was around. It was the golden age of the circus and Adrien had made their show one people for miles around would come to see. Now they were lucky if they had half of an audience at matinees. It wasn’t that the quality had dwindled over the years, they were always inventing creative ways to entertain. It was just that they had been so preoccupied keeping themselves on top they forgot the Stokers were a huge family and if they came together they could relive those glory days. ‘Nah! It’s all about the bunce,’ Val thought to himself. ‘What good is anything if you don’t have the cash? The tents would fill again if there was money in the place.’ Val felt a another hand on his shoulder. It was a heavier hand than Gigi’s. It was the hand of Cyril, the Stoker sad clown. “Aunt Margerite died,” he said sensitively. The painted clown face complete with tears showing just how solemn and grief stricken he was. “No,” Val gasped. “What took her. Was it her heart?” “I don’t know,” said Cyril. “I heard Otto telling Irvine.” “Which one was Aunt Margerite?” Gigi sought to ask. Cyril shrugged. “I don’t know any Margerite but she left something. Irvine didn’t want you to know.” Val gave him an affirming pat on the shoulder. HEEHO! HEEHO! “You’re a good cousin for letting me know,” he told him. To Gigi he said conspiratorially. “That bastard thinks he can hide my inheritance. He thinks he can go against dear Aunt Margerite’s wishes? The scoundrel. The absolute …” He stopped to ask Cyril, “was she the one with the mole?” Cyril shrugged. “All I know is she left you some inheritance and Irvine doesn’t want to share.” “Damn that cheating bastard of a brother of mine,” Val exclaimed. To Cyril he asked, “how much was it?” “Don’t know,” Cyril stated. “But we’ll soon find out.” “I hope so,” Val said. “Because I need to know just how sad I am about Aunt Margerite’s passing… Did she have all the dogs?” “That was Angelique,” said Gigi. “And he’s still in Luen.”
When there was a scent of financial gain in the air a Stoker is like a blood hound. As sad clown Cyril informed Val of the deception another deception was taking place. Main clown Olga was sneaking into the back room of the Big Top whilst Irvine was giving his all to his meagre customers. “You’ll have to forgive me,” he was telling them. “But I’m afraid I’m mourning the loss of a beloved aunt who was as close to me as a mother. Dear Aunt Margerite, you will be sorely missed. But ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls she would have wanted the show to go on. She would also want you to put some extra tuppence in that bucket there to go to her favourite charity. It is what she wanted and what better way to remember such a generous woman.” The coast was clear which was just as well because Olga’s shoes squeaked, squeaked and squeaked across the boards. There it was. Sat on the desk was the letter detailing the inheritance left behind by Aunt Margerite. Olga smiled as she reached out to collect it, her face paint making that smile ever so big. But just as she collected the letter a claw like hand snatched hers. It was tattooed, bony and the sharp yellowish nails dug in. Gretel, the legless woman from their freak show, heaved herself onto the table. “Oh shit!” Olga cried. Gretel Stoker may have been born without legs but she could sure pull her way around a room faster than most people with both legs could run. Gretel leapt onto her and tried to snatch the letter. Olga, was a burly clown. She could throw her rounded body for an audience’s amusement so she had quite the heave on her. She grabbed Gretel by her arms and hammer threw the legless woman across the back room. Gretel bounced off the canopy and came rushing across the boards. “Give it back!” She warned. Olga tore out of there with Gretel hot on her heel. “Oh shit!” Olga cried out again as Gretel lashed out and tore a hole in her clown pants with her long, pointed nails. Olga didn’t feel good about it, at least that was what she said afterwards, but the only way she was going to get out of there with the letter was if she took Gretel out. She could give her a kick worthy of an rugby player of course but she saw the fire hose and the clown in her couldn’t resist. WOOOOOSH! She turned the hose on Gretel and sent the legless woman sailing down a small but powerful river back into the back room. She turned on her heel and she bounced out of there. Her shoes were now sounding extra squidgy. “Val?” She cried out when she returned to the blue tent. “I’ve got the letter.” “Well done Olga, girl,” said Val. Olga caught her breath. She leaned over, wheezing a little. “I had to skoosh Gretel back into her box.” Val had already started to read the letter. “Getting Gretel to guard are you, I’m onto you Irvine. Don’t forget I’m the older brother. I’ve been on this planet longer. You can’t outsmart a smartass. Ain’t that right, missus?” “It is, sugar,” agreed Gigi. “People say it all the time.” “We’re rich!” Val exclaimed as he read the letter. “Thank you, Aunt Margerite!” He kissed the letter with a firm mwah! They were celebrating. They still had to get the money though.
“Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls. Step right up for a slicing, dicing, full in your face enticing show. I’m Felix Stoker and welcome to Stoker Circus!” Felix, the baby of the three brothers, didn’t mind the dwindling audiences so much. Whether it was five or five thousand watching he was thrilled to be entertaining. He didn’t want to think about the tents as a business. He believed in the magic that was bringing a smile to the masses just as his father had. The music rumbled and the two fire breathers, Gisel and Silke, danced around the ring of the blue tent. They blew on their torches and flames around the fence lit drawing an audible gasp from the evening crowd. Silke danced back to centre first. Her partner joined her. Gisel raised her torch. She turned the flames to her lips and she ate the fire. She turned to Silke, kissed her. They parted and it was Silke who blew out the flames like an angry dragon. The thrills were a plenty even if the money wasn’t rolling in. Felix was a knife thrower. He threw them around Silke as she spun on a red and blue wheel. He threw them whilst blindfolded. He threw them whilst balancing on a beam and blindfolded. He always hit the target with those knives. He had so many planted up his sleeves that it just looked like there was no end to them. He would flip and spin and always the knives would stick exactly where they were meant to. Even with the fire breathers throwing flames around him his aim was as accurate as could be. The audience applauded and he took a congenial bow. Behind the noise of the appreciation he could hear his brothers start to bicker. “Thank you everyone for coming,” Felix was telling his audience. “I’m going to ring your fat little neck,’ Irvine could be heard growling at Val. “You have been a wonderful audience and I do hope you come back and join us again soon,” said Felix. “You thieving bastard. You were going to cut me out,” was Val’s retort. “Have a safe journey home and remember …” “Ouch!” Irvine yelped as Val kicked his long shin. He lurched towards Val but Val had decided to run at him with his shoulder. What resulted was a grapple that was worthy of a couple of clowns. “Will you stop this?” Olga requested. “It looks ridiculous.” Gretel had leapt onto Val’s back leaving Cyril no choice but to pull her off. She turned on him and then there were two ridiculous grapples going on. They had been so busy with their petty feud it wasn’t until they both felt a knife at both of their throats they stopped. Both brothers took a step back and raised their hands. “Someone want to tell me what is going on?” Asked Felix. Cyril and Gretel both raised their hands too. Having no legs, Gretel just tumbled to the ground. “We’re just upset,” said Irvine. “I don’t know how to tell you this …” “You might want to sit down,” added Val. “It’s going to be hard one to take mucker,” said Irvine. “It’s really sad news,” said Val. Felix frowned at them both. “Aunt Margerite died,” said Irvine and Val together, both trying to be the first to break the news. Felix sighed. Then he thought about it. “We don’t have an Aunt Margerite,” he said. “Turns out we do. She left us a little something as inheritance,” Val told him. “Not much. Just a little token really,” Irvine explained further. “We don’t even know why we’re fighting over it it is so minuscule,” Val saw fit to add. “Feels silly now,” Irvine stated. In that moment it there was an unspoken agreement made between the two elder brothers as the baby scrutinised them. ‘We cannot let him know he’s named on there too,’ Irvine would no doubt be the first to remind. ‘He’ll probably want to give the whole lot to some charitable cause like pox riddled cats or something,’ Val would consider. This unspoken rule had formed and as untrustworthy as they could be they knew they both had to agree to this or they both would end up with nothing and most likely they both would end up with a sharp end of a knife making them really uncomfortable for causing upset to Felix’s act. “She left something for you too,” Val decided to be honest. “She left you these.” From his bag he removed a statue of two lions. He wasn’t being all that honest. The lions had been handed into his pawn shop. They didn’t look worth much and the word around the shop was they were cursed. The seller certainly seemed quite keen to get rid of them and Val’s little shop of costly curiosities seemed the perfect fit. Felix didn’t know any of this though. He took the lions and inspected them. “She left me these?” He asked. “She must have thought you the most special all,” said Irvine. ‘No need to ham it up. I got this. Then you and I get back to sorting our shit out,’ Val thought. “Huh,” Felix smiled with a nod. “They are unusual aren’t they?” He said of his lions. “It was very kind of Aunt Margerite to leave these to me. I’d better take good care of them.” “You do that,” Val urged. “In fact, you better put them somewhere safe before something happens to them.” Or before the curse gets out. “Will you stop fighting?” Felix asked. Val made the decision for them. “Since it’s just pittance we’ve been given it might be better just to leave it to a charitable cause,” he said. ‘What are you doing?’ Irvine wondered. ‘It needs to be fucking believable.’ Felix was busy inspecting his lions again. “Maybe pox riddled cats,” said Irvine. “I don’t think Aunt Margerite would want you to be fighting. She would be really upset that the good thing she did for us, remembering us on her death bed, would cause an argument,” Felix told them sincerely. “You are right,” Val nodded. He placed an arm around Felix’s shoulder and started to lead him away. “You know, Felix, you never cease to amaze me. Just when I think there are no good men left in this world you remind me of what a gem you are.” “Thank you,” Felix replied. Val stretched. “Well you have set us straight and I think it’s time to turn in.” “Mmmhmmm,” Felix muttered as he departed, still captivated by his lions. Made in Subala it said on the bottom. ‘I wonder when Aunt Margerite was in Subala.’ Gretel climbed up Irvine’s long legs and into his arms. He had Val looked at each other. “So we’re agreed on an equal share?” Val put to the ringmaster. “That sounds fair, mucker,” Irvine told the juggler. Irvine carried Gretel away. Val led Cyril away. They both looked back over their shoulders because when you are such a devious individual you can’t help but expect everyone you meet to be just as sneaky.
The Rumilaw of City Main was where Val’s pawn shop lay. It was also home to dentists who weren’t necessarily fully licensed and to lawyers who weren’t necessarily sober all the time. However, that was where such people like the Stokers conduct their legal business. Val and Gigi were making their way to the offices of Friggan and Moore. Moore was no longer part of that team for reasons that involved a suicide attempt with an axe but they kept the sign because Friggan and Moore sounded more of a legal powerhouse than just plain old Friggan. Stanley Friggan wouldn’t be tearing up the High Court of Coldford any time soon but for a moderate fee he could make sure Val got his inheritance. “What are we going to do with that money?” Gigi was enjoying thinking out loud. Maybe a trip to Luen? Maybe a nice meal at the Delphine restaurant? Val had been thinking of the lousy matinees they had been experiencing. Fixing that would be a good place to start. “I promised Felix when we were kids we would have the best show ever,” Val said to his wife. “We do have that,” Gigi retorted. “We just need people to come along and see it.” “I’ll fix that. I’d like to use some of the money to bring our show up to scratch. Make it something people around here really want to come and see.” “That’s nice,” Gigi agreed. “I thought so,” said Val. “Felix would like that. He’s a good kid.” “You could give him his share,” Gigi suggested. Val frowned. “I said he was a good kid not a fucking bank. Felix wouldn’t know what to do with that money. I’m the eldest brother so it’s best I make the decisions.” “You are a smart man, sugar,” said Gigi. There are wise men and there are smart ones. Often the two are not the same. Val was smart. He was very wiley but he was in competition with a creature just as smart and even more shameless. “Irvine, you bastard!” Just as they arrived at the office of Friggan and Moore they saw Irvine approaching too. A wise man would stop and have a civilised discussion with his brother as to the benefits all could have with such an inheritance. A smart one would dash in to be the first inside the office. Irvine’s long legs gave him an advantage but Valdrick’s stocky frame could be carried like a leaping gazelle when there was money involved. The result was the two caught in the doorway. “We agreed equal share,” Irvine growled. “I was just checking on it for us,” Val assured. “What are you doing here?” “The same. Just checking. I wanted to make sure we weren’t shaken by some huckster law man who can’t stay sober an afternoon,” said Irvine. The finally managed to squeeze inside. Friggan came from his office to meet them. “Come in. Come in!” He beckoned them in a drunken way that oozed relief that he had clients. “You’re brother is already here.” Irvine and Val looked at each other. Before they could question it too much the were ushered into Friggan’s office. Seated already was Felix. “Dear Margarite,” said Felix. “She was a splendid woman.” “She was,” Val said solemnly but with a little hesitation. “She was a one of a kind. You don’t meet women like that often,” said Irvine. “I’ll get the final paperwork,” offered Friggan. As he bounced into his desk and over to his files the three Stokers had a score to settle. “You rotten little cheat,” Val said to Felix. “To cheat you would to take something that isn’t yours. I’m just here for what’s mine,” Felix maintained. “You’re going to give it all away to poxy cats, aren’t you?” Irvine asked. “Don’t you realise what we could do, how much better off we would be if we worked together?” Suggested the knife thrower. “You’re too good a liar. I don’t like that,” said Val. “We just need a signature and we can get the funds released,” the lawyer returned with some documents. “Friggan did good didn’t he? I mean this is a good pay out. You’re gonna want to buy a drink for your old pal Friggan.” “You just need my signature don’t you, since I’m the eldest,” Val made a last ditch attempt. “I’ll need all three,” said Friggan leaning over the paper and looking like he was going to hurl. He looked up and pointed at them trying to count to make sure there were actually three. Gigi’s presence confused matters momentarily. When they finally departed with all the final details taken care of Val wrapped an arm around Felix. “You know some days I wonder where you came from but you are definitely a Stoker.” Felix chuckled. “I learned from the best and the worst.” “We’re going to be alright, baby brother,” Val assured them. “I do feel a little bad. Margarite left me the lion statue and nothing extra for you both,” Felix told them. “Because you’ve always been special,” Irvine said, rolling his eyes. He was still brooding about his payday being cut by two thirds.
The numbers flashed on the screen as the video played. 5 … 4 … 3 … 2 … 1 …
“You’re going to have the best day. We’re here to take all your troubles away. You’re going to dance and sing. You’ll smile at everything. Because Stoker Circus are on their way.”
The three brothers watched the old advert play out. The images burned away and were replaced by Adrien, who appeared to just be finishing adjusting his camera. “Valdrick, Irvine, Felix, if you are seeing this then the chances are something has gone wrong for me. Don’t worry though. It was bound to happen. You can’t outrun the Devil forever. You will be grown men now but if you will still take advice from your father I want you to take a look around yourselves. Our tents and our name has stood the test of time because we are able to brace for toughest times like a slug to the gut. It’s admirable and Irvine you are better at that than anyone I’ve ever known. Just remember not everyone wants to throw a punch. I hope you know the difference. Felix, you have such a kindly nature and I am always proud of you. Sometimes even the kindest need to be armed with knives but don’t let it make you forget who you are though. Valdrick, I know you have always been nervous of the future. You were always worrying about what was to come next. Don’t let that stop you enjoying what you already have. The beauty of what is now is when it’s then it’s no longer now and what seems so important now isn’t such a big deal then. You all have the chance to make people smile. No matter what goes on in the world what is the point of anything if you can’t make people smile? A Queen or a maid, a king or a pauper, it’s all same. They all need to smile. It’s worth taking those slugs in the gut for. I should probably tell you who Margerite was. She was a lady of the Luen Court. She was of noble birth and I captured her heart. She was your mother. That makes you royalty.” Val and Irvine’s eyes both widened. Val’s lips pursed in an expression that suggested he had that figured all along. Irvine began flicking his collar wishing he had starched it more. Fuck it. He would have a man servant to do that if he was going to be Royalty. “We’re the sons of a noble woman!?” Adrien seemed to savour their expression for a bit. Then he pouted. “Just kidding. Your mother was a trampolinist who drowned in a barrel of wine,” he told the camera. He smiled. “See? Tragic but you got to smile.” “Grinning ear to ear,” Groaned Irvine sarcastically. “My point is,” Adrien went on, “people like Lady Margarite need to smile and they are always appreciative of our own being able to make them. I hope you use her generosity wisely. Most importantly don’t forget to smile yourselves. There is only one rule in the Stoker tents and that is you cannot leave sad.”
There are many terrible deeds attributed to the Stoker family but I for one like to think of the true heart beneath it all. Adrien was an amazing man. Hanz was a war criminal. Felix was an honest hero always willing to help those in need. For Irvine everything had a price, even human lives. Where did that leave Valdrick? He seemed an explosive mix of all these things. His decisions would determine where the circus rolled to next and what kind of impression they would give. With his father’s voice ringing in his ears Valdrick used some of the money bequeathed by Lady Margerite to improve his show. Not all of it, he wasn’t a complete nonce, but it did breathe life into their dying show. Time would tell just how far this would go but for now I have some hope that Stoker Circus could fulfil Adrien’s wishes and be on hand to make people smile through tough times. Then again, the Circus had rode into Coldford where clowns were right at home.
When the daughter of an enemy comes to Val Stoker looking for a loan, the circus performer thinks his luck as rolled in! He has a conscience though. Not much but it is there and there is a bigger problem brewing.
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From the family of circus performers who hailed from the country of Levinkrantz, Freddy is the grandson of the legendary escape artist Adrien Stoker. Of the three Stoker tents (the red, blue and striped BigTop) Freddy leads the freak show from the red. He is a natural performer, learning from his ringmaster father, Irvine. Drawn to the macabre, Freddy enjoys making his audience squirm as he presents the most freakish sights.
Like the rest of his large family he will always be willing to perform on demand if the right person throws some coin into his ring. On the off season he acts as a crime scene cleaner. He is incredibly thorough in his observations which means cleaning up your messes is no sweat. His gymnastic skills and performance flair also see him well equipped to carry out home invasion robberies. He is a despicable little monster among but hey that’s show business!
The Stoker family contain the good, the bad and the downright fiendish. Freddy is of the latter. So if you have the stomach and the morbid curiosity then come on down whilst the circus is in town.
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When I was younger the big screen was held as the epitome of the entertainment industry. There were popular television shows but if you really wanted your name in lights the cinema and the great red carpet premieres were the ultimate goal. Movie actors had a lot more credence than their small screen counter parts and the cinema was a treat for all the senses.
One of the first movies I remember going to see was Jurassic Park. (Yes the first one. Yes I am dino cups being sold in McDonalds years old). I’ll never forget the rumbling of those almighty notes as the park itself is first revealed. I still get goosebumps when I see it. I’ll also not forget being accidentally smacked in the jaw when the T-Rex burst out of its damn cage! (Too soon for spoilers?). It was a completely immersive experience you wouldn’t find in your living room with the television. Going to the cinema was an event. The smell of popcorn, the advertisements for the latest movies and the ridiculously expensive snacks all made for a great night out. The love of cinema continued for me with the release of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I was obsessed with the movies and Return of the King was one of the few I had went more than once to see. The only other exception to that was the Truman show which I saw five times. The quirky premise was unusual for the time. It was before reality TV became common place. Coupled with the beautiful Philip Glass soundtrack and the island setting, it was a cinematic experience I opted for again and again. But I digress. My point is cinema was an exciting place.
Television isn’t without its merit. What the cinema offered in experience the television made up for by giving families, companions and friends a place to gather round. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of my family gathered together to watch our favourite shows. When I first went to uni I was thrown into a hall with strangers but as soon as we put on the television and watched together we became friends. Where the cinema was an exciting out of town visitor the television was your constant companion. I often hear people talk of putting on their favourite shows for comfort as they fall asleep and I find that remarkable.
Which brings me to the modern day. Before the days of the disease which shall not be named, the cinema was already losing its grip on the collective imagination. Streaming services became common place and more and more people were opting to stay at home and watch their favourite shows. When cinemas closed for an extended time it seemed to be the final nail in the old girl’s coffin. The glorious cinematography of a Marvel movie is great but when there are shows and stories you can lose yourself in just as easily at home (the Loki series for instance) then it doesn’t seem the cinema is holding its worth any more. To me it seems that cinema is something of a bygone era now. The big movie releases are becoming a thing of the past and instead more focus and attention is being placed on the latest shows the streaming services have to offer. Maybe that’s just my experience. Maybe I’m just cynical. Maybe I should give our times of recovery more of a chance.
What are your thoughts? Do you think the cinema still has the same sway it used to? What are your favourite movies and shows? Let me know.
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A chill was in the air as the funeral service for Mrs Margaret Williams filed out of Chamberlain Crematorium, located in the north section of Coldridge Park.
Margaret’s granddaughter, Marlene, pushed her mother’s wheelchair out.
“She had a good life,” said Marlene. Her mother, Moira, agreed. She had been ninety-three when she passed, comfortable in her bed, still cheering her beloved City football team, and surrounded by family. A goal from Andre Luis had won the game against Cardyne. She rested back with a smile and passed. She had seen so much in her life, too. She had been so many exciting places. What more could someone ask for?
Seth Bergman of the Bergman diamond dynasty, and cousin to the missing Kappa So brother Isaac, extinguished his cigarette underneath the sole of the black boots he wore. His father, Howard, had always warned him, “Try not to smoke when you’re greeting people. The smell of tobacco isn’t particularly pleasant for some and you’re representing yourself.”
Seth approached Marlene and Moira.
“Oh Seth,” Marlene gasped with joy. “Thank you for coming.”
Seth kissed Marlene’s cheek. He then leaned down and kissed that of Moira who clutched his hand and kept a hold of it.
“I’m so sorry for your loss,” Seth assured them.
He was glad he had blown warm air onto his hands before greeting. No one liked to hold a cold hand, especially whilst grieving. A gloved hand was too impersonal.
“A lovely boy is Seth,” said Moira from her chair. “A lovely boy.”
“If we can do anything for you, please just let me know,” he put to them. “I’ll let you get on and I’ll be in touch,” he said as the crowd from the crematorium began to spill towards them.
He waited aside respectfully for the mourners to clear before following the path round to the back of the building. The door was opened and Eugene Morris aka The Tailor emerged, accompanied by the Holy Brother of the Albans order.
“Seth, my dear boy,” said Eugene. “I pass this now into your care.”
To Seth he gave a ceramic urn containing the ashes of Mrs Williams.
“Thank you, sir,” Seth nodded. “I‘ll see her well.”
“How is your sister?” asked Eugene.
“Elsa? She’s keeping herself out of trouble.”
“Good, good,” nodded Eugene. “And your father? How is he?”
“He’s doing well, thank you,” was Seth’s reply. “This Article 22 situation is a little unnerving.”
Eugene nodded. “He’ll be especially upset at the loss of Reginald Penn.”
Seth agreed. “It was a sad loss but we have to carry on, don’t we?”
The Holy Brother dipped his hands into the opposing sleeves of his robes.
“My concern is with the young one – Reginald Junior. Through terrible circumstances he’s been left on his own. He really needs friends to keep him right,” he said.
Seth replied, “I did contact him online but there was no response, which is unusual for him. Elsa tried calling him too but he was just not to be reached. We both figured after Rita’s burial he wanted to be left alone for a while.”
Eugene lowered his voice. “It’s not for me to comment but I’m sure a visit from a friend would do him the world of good.”
“Yes sir,” agreed Seth.
And so the group parted with Seth Bergman carefully escorting Mrs Williams’ remains.
City Main was always a busy place. The noise of it was enough to cover the tick-booming of the City Face clock unless you caught it at a certain time of the morning. That being said, Seth Bergman was astounded to find such a commotion around the base of Faulds Park.
Admirers were gathered to seemingly show their support of the lone prince. Some had laid candles and wreaths for the king and queen. Rita in particular was a very active member of the community. She had the heart of the Baroness and the mind of the Broker. I learned that Rita – as sweet as she could be – was fearless when it came to protecting her people. Of course, Reginald carried out any violence required so his queen wouldn’t have to, but upon research I found that Rita was adept at getting among them.
At the doorway to Faulds Park was stood a man in Wigan robes. He was ringing his bell.
Ding ding. Ding ding.
“Repent before it’s too late!” he was yelling.
The Loyalists seemed to be leaving him be. They were more focused on an imminent clash that would occur when Billy Owen decided to send CPD.
It was a long ride up to the Penthouse but when Seth reached it the noise was worse than the floors below. Music boomed and people flooded everywhere. Seth stopped one of them. “I’m here to see Reggie,” he explained. “Where is he?”
“Reggie isn’t seeing anyone,” the greeter remarked.
Seth frowned. “It doesn’t seem that way now does it?” he passed comment on the gathering with a raised eyebrow. “Where is Reg Junior?”
That was when Seth noticed the purple ribbons of Wigan tied around wrists and necks. The Wigan cross was displayed on chests. The man he had stopped slipped away. Seth watched as he approached what appeared to be a superior. They both looked at him. He stood his ground.
“Seth?” Finally he had an audience with Reggie.
Seth had seen images of the triplet prince in the press. He looked worse for wear but he hadn’t expected to find him so dishevelled. He clutched his face and looked at him closely. His skin was warm, sweaty, feverish.
“You’re taking too many drugs,” Seth stated. “I know you went through a lot but you need to pull yourself together.”
Reggie shook him off dismissively. When he noticed Seth glare at him he laughed.
“I’m fine,” he said. “Top shape. I’m just relaxing, like. Got plenty of people around. It’s all good.”
That was when Seth took note of the young woman who accompanied him. She was holding his hand. She offered a polite smile to the Bergman boy. She was dressed as a true Wigan from the bay.
“This is Leona,” Reggie introduced.
“Nice to meet ye,” her accent confirmed her pedigree.
Reggie groaned. He was starting to feel pain in his leg and the stab wounds in his abdomen were stinging again. The dressings would be needing changed soon. He needed pills.
“Reggie, you need to be careful,” Seth warned. “You don’t know these people.”
Becoming a little frustrated with the pain, Reggie grunted. “I know Leona,” he explained. “She’s been looking out for me. Where the fuck have you been?”
“Now, Reggie,” said Leona softly. “That’s no way to speak to a friend.”
“I have been trying to get in touch,” said Seth.
Leona spoke for him. “Too much contact with the outside world with computers and telephones wasn’t doing him much good.”
“And who were you to decide that?” Seth asked angrily.
Leona was unmoved but her softness continued. “I care a lot about Reggie. I’ve been helping him get better.”
“By plying him with drugs?” Seth exclaimed.
This angered the triplet.
“I’m standing right here. Don’t talk to her like that,” he growled. “I’m not some fucking simpleton. I’m … Look, I’ll be fine.”
“I think you should leave,” said Leona.
“If Reggie wishes me to leave I will,” returned the diamond merchant.
Leona clenched Reggie’s hand tighter.
“Just fuck off Seth,” said the triplet. “I mean thanks for coming down and all that but I’m good.”
Seth nodded. “Glad to hear it. Just call me if you need anything.”
To Leona, Seth said, “If you truly care about him, you will make sure he talks to his brothers.”
Leona smiled. “Whatever is best for him,” she said. “A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Mr Bergman. Now Reggie has asked you to leave.”
“That’s shit,” Reggie was saying to Leona as the elevator doors closed and took Seth away. “I should have asked him to stay for a joint or something.”
Leona hushed him. She patted his hand gently. “I’m sorry Reggie,” she said. “It’s hard to know who’s good for you and who isn’t. I’m sure he’ll understand when you’re better. I just want what’s best for ye. You need to relax. You’re getting uptight again.”
Reggie agreed. “I can’t thank you enough for being here,” he said. “I don’t know what I would do without you.”
“I’m happy to be here, although it is really unnerving,” she said.
“I’ll not let anything happen to you,” Reggie assured.
“Wigan bless ye,” Leona replied.
Time for another trip. Transport provided by heether mushrooms.
“Bergman Memorial, because life is precious. Your loved one deserves to be remembered in the most shining way possible. No one knows your loved one better than you, so you will be given full support from one of our master cultivators throughout the heartfelt process.”
Seth could hear his father’s voice in the old advert as he took two scoops of Mrs Williams’ ashes to begin the blend.
“With a history of perfection that spans generations, our cutting and polishing is carried out to the highest quality; and because we know how important it is to your family, we take pain staking care that your diamond is worthy of remembrance.”
As Seth prepared to purify the ashes, that was when I arrived and knocked on the door of the lab where one of the merchants in the parade upstairs had told me I would find him.
“Take a seat, Sam,” he offered as he spun around in his stool.
“Thanks for agreeing to see me,” I said genuinely.
During my time in Coldford the Bergmans had managed to be everywhere but nowhere. They had ties to the Loyalists of Main as well as Kappa So and the Law Makers. Not an easy task to manage such varied groups. Seth’s father – Howard – was a well known and loved figure but what was astonishing to me was how cleanly he conducted business. Perhaps I had been in the Shady City a little too long and it was making me sceptical, but even as I passed the beautiful pieces of jewellery I kept searching for the shadows behind the shine. The family intrigued me and given Seth’s attempts to see Reggie I thought it would be good to get his views.
Amicable like his father, Seth was more welcoming than most to a reporter. His dark hair and wild blue eyes much like his Aunt Sophie’s.
He laughed heartily when I told of my discovery of Reggie and Tabitha in David Finn’s apartment.
“When The Tailor shows concern there must be something very wrong,” Seth spoke of Reggie. “When I went to Faulds Park it was strange. Reggie himself seems content for now.”
“The Auction House is being put up for sale again,” I said. “I heard your father made a bid.”
Seth replied, “As much as he loathes business with Chick Owen, he felt it was only right to try and help Reggie get it back whilst the boys are in prison.”
Finally, a break in the armour of the ever-friendly Howard Bergman.
“Bad history with the Owens then?” I asked.
“My father isn’t one to harbour grudges or bad blood but he finds the Owens arrogant, conceited, and too quick to throw their weight around. An Owen killed Reginald Penn. You can quote me on saying that if you like,” said Seth.
“So your family wouldn’t have been happy that your cousin pledged Kappa So?” I pressed.
“My aunt was furious at Isaac. My dad was too, but he’s his own man and has been making some positive changes from within the frat,” Seth explained. “They asked me to join too but I wouldn’t be caught dead inside that Chapter House.”
There was a knock on the door.
“Come in,” Seth beckoned.
The door opened and a short man with wild grey hair bounded in. He was quite upset about something.
“I’m not having this. Is this some kind of joke? Where the fuck is Isaac? Fucking frat boys.”
“Woah!” warned Seth. “Language please, Abe. Can’t you see I have company?”
Abe looked to me. He still seemed worked up but he adapted his tone.
“Sorry,” he said. “I’m leaving this with you. I’m not doing anything until I hear from Isaac.”
He dropped a bag into Seth’s lap and made his exit. Seth opened the bag. I watched his expression change to that of one of surprised amusement. He began to laugh.
“I hope you’re not prudish, Sam,” he said.
From the bag he removed a large penis carved in gold. Abe Rothenstein was one of the Bergman’s leading gold mongers. His family had carved some of the most beautiful golden pieces, some of which were worn by royalty.
Seth turned it over and looked at the stamp at the bottom.
“No!” he gasped. Then he began to laugh even harder. “1015. That’s the mark of Hen Owen. This is the captain’s telescope.”
That was when I first set eyes on the golden asset. With a warning from Ronnie, Buddy had turned to the best goldsmiths in the city for help correcting it. Seeing it as a frat boy prank – which, in fairness to Abe, it was – it had now fallen into Bergman hands. Howard Bergman loathed to do business with the Owens. Those were his son’s words. I could only imagine how Chick Owen would feel about Howard Bergman should he find his golden asset.
“I’m going to need you to sit on this, Sam, ” Seth said. He chuckled when he realised what he was waving at me. “I mean the story, not this.”
With an invitation in hand to Howard Bergman’s coming together gathering, I arrived at Bergman estate. The patriarch had been hoping to give the city a chance to heal. I was escorted through the estate in Kingsgate. It was a beautiful place with expansive lawns and a little patch of woodland surrounding it. When I arrived, the party had already begun. Seth himself wouldn’t be there until nine but he promised me some time with his father.
“Just as long as you know you’re probably going to learn a lot about the history of Levinkrantz,” Seth warned in jest.
I was prepared for that providing Howard was willing to share some insight into the bad blood between he and Chick Owen.
Some called it Castle Bergman because of how fortified it was. Inside was like any other family home. On the walls were photos of the Bergmans. There was one of a young Seth. There were others too, of his cousins Isaac and Eli who I still had to meet. Special placement had been given to Seth’s sister, Elsa. She was a rebellious looking girl who clutched her father affectionately in the photo kissing his cheek. A genuine moment of joy had been captured on Howard’s face.
“Sam!” the man himself called to me from across the hall. He politely dismissed himself from the group he was entertaining.
“Thank you for the invitation, Mr Bergman,” I replied.
With an arm around my shoulder he led me to the main hall. I could see Sophie with the large man named Golem who acted as her interpreter. She was smiling, greeting some guests with a kiss on both cheeks. Golem stood obediently by her side.
“If you don’t mind, Sam, I need to get everyone settled. You have a drink and enjoy the party.”
I was seated at a delightful table with Abe Rothenstein and his brother Ike. They had hilarious stories to share, comments to pass on those at the other tables and a penchant for drinking booze by the gallon. Howard stopped by every now and again in between entertaining his other guests.
“You should write a story about my grandfather,” Ike was saying. “The Levinkrantz blitz destroyed his whole building but he still refused to move. He just hung sheets up where the walls had been blasted away.”
Abe put in, “Just swept all that dust and rubble right out.”
“They offered him a new house but he told them to stick that where the sun can’t get to,” added Ike.
“He was ninety-eight when he died,” said Abe.
Ike shook his head. “Still wouldn’t move. We had to bury him there.”
They both started laughing. Their merry chuckles were quite infectious. Abe filled my glass with more Waldens vintage.
By the time it reached 8 o’clock the band was very much in full swing. A pleasant night was being had by all. At around eight ten, that was when things began to turn sour.
“Uncle Howie?” Isaac arrived in a hurry, pulling Howard away from his party.
“Isaac? Where have you been? We’ve all been worried about you.”
“I need to talk to you,” said the nephew. “Right away.”
“Oh dear, Mr Bergman!” cried one of the ladies. “I’ve spilled some wine.”
“Not to worry,” said Howard. “We’ll get that cleaned up.” To his nephew he said, “Whatever is going on, now is neither the time nor the place. Breakfast tomorrow. You and I will sit and we’ll discuss what’s on your mind. We’ve missed you around the estate.”
Before he could explain further, Howard had waved to a new arrival.
“Karyn!” he called. “You look tremendous.”
“Shit!” Isaac grumbled.
The Judge herself was accompanied by his mother, Sophie, and the interpreter, Golem. As Howard fell into conversation with Karyn Doyle, Isaac made an attempt to sign ‘I need your help’ to his mother, but didn’t catch her eye.
A server bumped into him carrying a tray.
“Sorry, sugar,” said the soft voice.
The server passed the tray. Isaac had been too busy looking for an opportunity to get Golem or his mother on their own, he hadn’t noticed the server close in behind him. She pinched his backside.
“Woah!” Isaac jerked around but as he came face to face with her, she pushed him against the wall and locked her lips to his. Isaac could hear whistles from party-goers in the main area where the booze was flowing.
Isaac was led into a small room just off the main corridor. The server woman, not a woman at all. Freddy Stoker pulled off the platinum blonde wig. Irvine Stoker kicked the door closed.
“You want to talk to someone, Isaac? I’m listening. Freddy? Let the Easys in.”
There was already tapping at the window. Freddy crossed the room, opened the window and the two trapeze artists slipped in.
“I always said never trust a Bergman,” Irvine went on. “Now look where we are.”
The Easys pulled rope in with them.
Irvine reached into his pocket and produced a tobacco tin. He opened it and tapped a sample of powder onto a long finger nail and sniffed. Freddy’s hand reached up slowly to sample some but Irvine slapped it away. “Get your own,” he warned his son.
He slipped a metal pole down the sleeve of his patched coat.
“Isaac,” he said. “I’m going to have fun with this.”
“The blood splatter,” warned Freddy.
Irvine danced around Isaac as the Easys laid tarpaulin they had brought in backpacks. Irvine angled himself towards the window.
Karyn Doyle always attended the parties of Howard Bergman. She was almost as comfortable in the Bergman Estate as she was in her own home. One particular evening, when she was a freshly-appointed judge, she had wandered onto the balcony for some air. It was a pleasant night. The summer warmth and the closing of sunset cast an orange glow across Kingsgate. She embraced a little of the ambience when the door opened and she was joined by Van Holder. She turned. She smiled but her focus went back to the view. He approached her and wrapped his arms around her waist and pressed gently against her.
“You’ve been making me hungry all night,” he jested as he nibbled playfully on her neck.
Karyn giggled girlishly and stroked his thigh. The music and the party sounded behind them. They could hear laughter as one of the Rothensteins tried to get a sing-song started.
Van Holder ran his hands gently down her stomach and hitched her dress up slightly, and began to massage her through the black lace panties she wore until she gave a little gasp. That was the signal to tug the panties down. She turned her head and he leaned forward kissing her passionately. She turned to the view again as she felt his hardness discretely push inside her. Soft, rhythmic, but with a lustful grip around her waist, Van Holder grunted and there they came together as husband and wife.
“A bottle of Macks for the first person who can name all the streets of Main!” they could hear Howard drunkenly call.
“We had better go back inside,” said Karyn.
Van Holder, having righted himself, stepped aside. “After you, Your Honour.”
Van Holder – given the nature of his occupancy in Subala – was kept away from them. Karyn – an army brat herself – knew exactly what that was like. Van Holder made as much time for their son as he could when he was there.
“Bye dad,” said Cameron for what felt like the millionth time in his life. Van Holder clutched his head and kissed it.
“You be good,” he said. “Just need to nip out.”
Just nipping out. It was a phrase Van Holder used to calm the boy whenever he had to leave. Just nipping out could take several months or more but if he was just ‘nipping out’ Cameron knew he would be back eventually.
If Ruud Van Holder of the Subala Black Bands had known that that would be the last time he would see his son alive, he would have stayed that little bit longer.
“I can’t stay all evening, I’m afraid,” Judge Karyn Doyle informed her host.
“And how is Cameron? Haven’t seen the young man around. I was hoping to pick his brain about Kingsgate’s chances of winning the cup,” Howard was asking.
The Judge’s attention was snatched by her sister, Ashley, who had readied her table.
“You go ahead,” said Howard pleasantly. “We’ll catch up later.”
To his own sister he signed, “Where did Isaac go? He was upset about something.”
Sophie patted Golem’s shoulder.
“I’ll find him,” agreed the monstrously large man.
I looked over from my table to see Karyn take her seat with Ashley. She looked worried about something. At the time I thought it might have been upholding Article 22 taking its toll on her but I know now it was something much worse.
Without her interpreter Sophie took her brother’s arm, scanning the room keenly. As Golem went in search of the only Bergman to pledge Kappa So, Howard addressed his guests.
“Good evening, everyone,” he said. “It’s good to have you all here and despite the troubles in the city I am very pleased to say the new section of Harbour House, helping those displaced by the violence, will be open very soon. Thank you all for your generosity. There is still time to aid this wonderful cause and I’d like to make a special mention to Elizabeth Beckingridge for beginning this. Ironically, she can’t be here tonight because she’s…well we all know Liz. She’s a little overzealous. Anyway, if you still care to give to Harbour House I’ll happily match any donations made this evening. In the meantime, relax. There’s plenty of food and booze.”
“Wooo!” Abe Rothenstein cheered, filling his glass. “Have another one Sam.”
Indulging in the atmosphere I drank more. I would have refused it if I had known what was to happen next.
Isaac coughed up blood.
“Aren’t you going to fall out cold?“ asked Irvine, wiping sweat from his forehead.
“Fuck you!” Isaac spat as he clambered onto his feet. He charged at Irvine managing to punch him, rattling free some false teeth.
Freddy picked them up. Errol easy wrapped a rope around Isaac’s neck and heaved him back, falling into a painting, sending it crashing to the floor.
Irvine addressed his trapeze artists.
“Get him out of here,” he instructed. “We’ve made too much noise now. That clay boy, Golem, is going to be looking for him. Freddy?” He turned. “Where’s Freddy? Ah there you are.”
Freddy was fixing the painting back to exactly how it was when they arrived.
“Make sure this place is spotless.”
“Hope you’re not afraid of heights.”
Errol wrapped his arms around Isaac and pulled him to the window. Isaac was losing consciousness. He tried to fight it. He thought he could when the crisp evening air hit him but the ground left his feet and he was pulled through the window. Errol’s grip remained tight until they hit the ground again. A white van was waiting to carry him to the centre ring of the Big Top.
Irvine wrapped his arm around Ethel’s waist as they stepped onto the ledge.
“After you, my dear,” the ring master grinned.
She leaned out and with one hand unclipped a rope, laid there by her Easy brother. Entwined, the two leapt into the night and down to the ground.
The door was opened.
A blonde server bumped into Golem.
“Sorry, sugar,” they giggled.
Golem scanned the room. There was no trace of Isaac. Nothing would be found amiss.
“So, Sam,” said Howard as he joined our table. “My son tells me that you’d like to talk. A story you’re writing?”
“I’d like to ask a few questions if you don’t mind,” I put to him. I was still enjoying the party atmosphere. My voice was a little loud as my head began to swim.
Howard had left an empty glass on the table beside his hand. Abe lifted the bottle to refill it but the Bergman patriarch rested his hand on the top.
“I’m fine for now, thank you Abe.”
Abe shrugged. He and Ike finished the bottle between them.
“I read Marble Mantel,” Howard admitted. “I’m afraid it had me a little lost. I’m more of a history buff. I prefer true stories.”
“I’m actually a journalist by trade,” I explained. “I used to write for the Daily.”
“I said true stories,” Howard jested. “I’ll tell you what though, my daughter loved Marble Mantel. I must get you to sign something for her. She cosplayed as one of the characters last Halloween, isn’t that so Ike?”
Ike Rothenstein looked up. “Was that that green thing she was wearing, with the tentacles?”
I assumed they meant the character Judith and it was extra arms not tentacles, but I was flattered all the same and still a little drunk so I tried to steer the course.
“This bad blood between you and The Cappy, where did that begin?”
“I don’t like to hold grudges,” Howard said. “Life is too short.”
“Don’t listen to him,” said Ike. “He’s a spiteful old fart when he wants to be.”
“Yes, thank you Ike,” Howard laughed off the comment. “It isn’t so much Charles himself but what his family represent. You see the Stokers committed some terrible atrocities but rather than being held to account, the Owens protected them. They’ll do whatever it takes to keep themselves on top and that kind of ruthlessness is like a poison in society.”
If I didn’t know any better I would swear our conversation had been bugged because just as Howard was explaining this, CPD entered the room led by Billy Owen.
Howard craned his neck to check the commotion. Billy went straight to Doyle.
“Ma’am,” he said. “I’m afraid I have some terrible news.”
Doyle stood to be confronted with the information.
“A body has been discovered and we have reason to believe it might be Cameron. Can you tell me when you last heard from your son?”
Given the sensitive nature of Cameron’s parentage and the potential for terror groups to target him, the boy had never been officially declared missing.
Ashley Doyle covered her mouth in shock. Billy spoke sensitively.
“I’m going to need you to come down and make a positive I.D. as soon as you’re ready, Your Honour.”
“Oh, Karyn!” sobbed Ashley.
Howard had been distracted by the entry of the police to his party.
“Excuse me,” he still had the time to say as he left our table and crossed the room.
“What’s going on?” he put to Judge Doyle.
Billy grabbed Howard’s arm and pulled it behind his back.
“Howard Bergman, I’m arresting you on suspicion of the murder of Cameron Doyle. You have the right to say whatever you like but I advise you to shut the fuck up. You’ll be appointed a lawyer and all that shit.”
“Karyn!” Howard tried to appeal to his long time friend but The Judge was preparing to leave. Her sister was hurriedly helping her.
Billy spun Howard round to face his guests.
The image was caught by a press photographer. Sophie was frantically signing to her brother.
“Don’t fight it,” she was saying.
I began my visit to Bergman Estate in awe of how Howard and his family had lived cleanly and quietly with little alliances on all sides. Watching the diamond merchant being escorted from his home in cuffs under the shocked faces of his party guests, I realised being nice rarely bodes well. However, diamonds are not easy to cut and the Bergmans had some sharp tools.
Rumours spread across the news floor of the Coldford Daily that the maven herself was in house to take things over and get the newspaper back on track. Eric Waddle wasn’t cutting it anymore. He had been circling the drain for a long time as far as reporter Sandra Wake was concerned.
He circled the drain so much he made himself dizzy and stumbled from the window of the Coldford Daily editor’s office. Maybe it had been the news of Tabitha’s miraculous return that had him feeling a little woozy but I can only speculate on that point.
“Maybe we should arrange some pictures,” Sandra had put to Kathleen in anticipation of her arrival.
“I know what I look like,” was Kathleen’s response. “Why would I want pictures?”
Kathleen’s arrival at the Daily was preceded by three Kappa Si sisters, dressed neatly in their sorority colours. They said nothing to the reporters as they crossed the news floor. Sandra stood from the desk I had once occupied to get a better look but the chickadees offered no comment. They went straight to the editor’s office, closing the door behind them. Sandra had been at the point of knocking on the door to see if they needed anything when the sorority queen did make her arrival, accompanied by more sisters, higher ranking than the first from what could be determined.
“Kathleen!” Sandra cheered. “It’s so good to see you.”
They had met once, at an Owen Inc. Party.
“Everyone in the conference office,” Kathleen called across the news floor. “Drop whatever you’re doing. You can pick it up later.”
When the reporters had gathered around the table, hungry for their feed, Kathleen stood and addressed them. The chickadees she had brought with her stayed in the office to make the editor’s station more to Kathleen’s taste.
“We have the say in the city,” she began. “We still remain the most-viewed newsfeed in Coldford.”
Sandra smiled. She looked among her colleagues for their reaction to the praise.
“We still have a lot of work to do,” Kathleen stated. “We will be looked to first for the news on Knock Knock, Penn Auction House, Mack Distillery, the whole lot of them, so let’s give them that news before someone else does. It’s time the city learned just how much we are mending fences around here. In other words, we are the good guys. I don’t care how it is written just make it so. I want focus on charity work and community service. I want wherever anyone walks – from the Shanties to Bourton – they see another good news story courtesy of the Daily.”
Sandra had been hired by the Daily specifically for her controversial, combative approach to news casting. Some saw it as hard hitting journalism. What it really was, was trouble stirring for the sake of ratings. Her popularity only climbed because morbidly curious viewers tuned in to see what nonsense she was going to spout next. Having to write the news in a positive way was going to prove a challenge for her.
“Sandra,” Kathleen addressed her directly. “I want you to focus on the rift between CPD and the Wigan church.”
“I was following the story on Joshua Coby and the Freefall massacre,” Sandra replied.
Kathleen frowned. “Did I sound like I was asking? Get a statement from Coby, even if it’s ‘no comment’, close it and move on. I want you to calm the heat with the Wigan church.” The sorority queen went on, “Roger?”
The other reporter’s eyes widened at the call of his name.
“The Penn story. I want you to focus on the championships Simon Penn won, the medals he donated. Reginald is gone now so there’s no harm in a story on his tenure. Get some quotes from his supporters. Invite them in, let them lick his ass and print it. We’re changing the narrative people. We need as much positive spin as we can get. I want a piece too on Buddy Owen, Chad Perry and Dale Cooper. I want everyone to know what good rehab is doing them. I want the Daily to be putting smiles on everyone’s faces. I want our feed to be so sickly sweet people will become addicted to it. It’s the only way we’re going to strengthen our position and completely blindside the competition. Any questions?”
Sandra spoke up. “Just one,” she said. “Will you have tea or coffee?”
The history of Coldford was a bloody one as I’m sure you can imagine. It stretches back centuries but it really became what it is during the time of Henry ‘Hen’ Owen, who had been commissioned by Queen Eleanor of the Chamberlain family for his sailing and navigation prowess. Hen Owen fought against a knight known as the Greatest Northsider, he helped quash a rebellion from Eleanor’s granddaughter, Francesca Chamberlain, who sought to take the throne for herself. The Castle in Bournton now known as The Boss, was Francesca’s stronghold. From there she pushed her savage agendas. The queen’s grandson, Royce Chamberlain, Duke of Hathfield Bay, involved himself only where it was beneficial to him. Devious Royce held back on the island as long as he could before deciding which side of the family table he was going to take a seat at.
Throughout the ages, the Chamberlain family cemented their story into the very fabric of the Shady City. Chamberlain Docks – you’ll already be familiar with – fell from the hands of Julia Harvester as her stores in Bellfield and City Main caused her to cut her losses. Chamberlain Heights, the retirement community in Kingsgate had been part of the Chamberlain Trust for generations. There’s also Chamberlain library and Chamberlain pond in the heart of Coldridge park. All of these spots served as a reminder of the blue blood that once ran through Coldford’s veins. The Chamberlain Trust mediated the family’s interests as they remained at bay for many years. An invitation to Kingsgate Museum showed they hadn’t quite forgotten their roots.
The museum housed artefacts from the earliest parts of their dynasty. There you would find Eleanor’s crown jewels, Francesca’s gowns, paintings and torture devices. You would also find Royce’s weapons, goblets and opium pipes – giving clues as to the priorities of the man.
What particularly caught my attention was the armour of the Greatest Northsider. I imagined how heavy it must have felt to wear. I thought of the cold air that would have fallen onto it as he rushed into battle. I considered the blood splatter that would have been washed off afterwards.
“It really is something,” someone said behind me.
I recognised the distinctive droll of Chick Owen.
“I can only imagine what it must have seen,” I remarked in reply.
Chick was drinking in the armour worn into battle against his beloved ancestor. As a history enthusiast and especially engrossed by his own lineage, I had fully expected to find The Cappy at the museum exhibit. I wanted to ask him about his thoughts on Howard Bergman but I felt at that point it wouldn’t do much good.
“That battle lasted three days and nights,” Chick went on. “Hen gave them Hell.”
“He was defeated down in Northside,” I commented.
Chick laughed a little. “A tactical retreat.” He gasped with enthusiasm as he recounted the event.
Seeing Chick Owen, better known as The Cappy, in such a light was quite refreshing. In my whole time in knowing him, all the ups and downs we had had thus far, I believe it was the first time I had caught a glimpse of the true man he was.
“Got there eventually though, didn’t he?” I said.
The Cappy grinned. “An Owen never misses.”
“Indeed they do not,” I replied.
“Enjoy the exhibit,” Chick said before departing towards Kathleen who had set up a photo op of Chick with Hen Owen’s portrait.
The Harbour Master of Chamberlain Docks was an esteemed position, coveted since the Chamberlain days previously discussed. The title at this time belonged to Master Barnaby Brooke. Brooke was unassuming in appearance. He lived in a little town house on the dock edge, the top of which acted as a light beacon during the night, alerting passing ships to avoid the edge of Coldford.
Gateshead was the name of the little building and Master Brooke lived there with his two lovely daughters, Erica and Becky, their dalmatian dog Ruffus, and his wife Helen. The whole family, including Ruffus, took the early ferry every Sunday across to the bay for the Wigan service. Yes, Brooke was a devout man. He was devoted to his faith, devoted to his family and devoted to his station at Gateshead, Chamberlain Docks, Swantin.
Most of his time was spent overseeing the loading and departure of the Ferry Way liner. There was the occasional fishing vessel and Bergman freighters launched there but for the most part it was all routine. His chief operator, Anthony Runnetti, had been arrested along with Nan Harvester when the trafficking boats were raided. Good riddance to bad rubbish there. They were giving His Eminence, Dom Cole, a hard time when they really should be shutting down thieving vagabonds like the Macks, murderous middens like the Knock Knock girl, and animals like Billy Owen. Police commissioner? He should be behind bars himself. The church was cut off from its parishes in the mainland when that bully with a badge gets to throw his weight around. It’s just not right! They should be dealing with the whores on the docks instead of harassing, beating and murdering God-fearing folks.
Times were changing though. Wigan was going to cleanse the city. It was written and it was promised. In the meantime it was the job of Barnaby Brooke to watch the Ferry Way pass back and forth to the island.
But alas! There was an exciting change afoot and it occurred on the day of the Chamberlain Exhibit.
“Move the ferry liner,” was the Harbour Master’s instructions. “Make way!”
Back at the exhibition, museum curator Malcolm Wurst had taken to the stage of the Queen Eleanor auditorium. The screen behind him showed an open book with wave symbols on the pages – the Chamberlain crest.
CHAMBERLAIN – THE TORN DYNASTY the caption read.
“Thank you all for coming,” said Malcolm. “What I present to you is a unique history filled with success and loss, power and struggle, and dare I say it, the real Coldford City as it was formed many years ago. None of that is my story to tell though, so I’d like to introduce you to the living blood of all these fabulous relics we have around us. I believe we have Captain Charles Owen here this evening.”
The spotlight landed on The Cappy. Chick smiled graciously and gave a polite nod as the audience applauded.
“A pleasure, captain,” said Malcolm. “Henry ‘Hen’ Owen’s 10th– great-grandson ladies and gentlemen.”
The audience gave another appreciative applause. I looked along the aisle and that was when I spotted the Wigan priest, Peter Millicent. He was nodding and clapping his hands in a warm, receptive sort of way.
“Now without further ado, I would like to introduce Lord Francis and Lady Charlotte Chamberlain.”
Onto the stage wandered a girl of nine years old, holding the hand of her seven-year-old brother.
Lacking the shyness of a child, Lady Charlotte stepped up to the microphone. She curtseyed. Francis gave a congenial bow with one hand behind his back and the other across his stomach.
“Thank you,” Charlotte said sweetly. “Thank you for being so welcoming.”
Chamberlain Docks was experiencing some upheaval at this point. The Ferry Way had already been preparing to collect its traffic when Barnaby Brooke had to call it back.
“We need to halt the crossing,” he announced.
As you can imagine dear readers, Barnaby was met by a lot of disgruntled passengers finding the crossing to Hathfield Bay quite essential. The Harbour Master instructed the ferry liner to remain along the coast. The 6:15 was experiencing some delays. There was a collective groan as the traffic set aside.
“Clear some space,” Brooke requested. “We’ve got incoming.”
“What we got?” Captain Farraway of the ferry liner asked. “A blue whale?”
“Remain off shore,” said Master Brooke in return. “I’ll bring you in as soon as I can.”
The beeping of horns, the creek of the ferry as it remained stationed and the cries of disapproval from the ferry passengers were all quashed when an ear-splitting horn sounded.
“We were told so much about Coldford,” Charlotte was telling the auditorium. “My brother and I always hoped to return here and see it for ourselves. It’s been everything we could hope for. We’d like to share with you some never before seen images from the family archives. Thanks to Coby Games we get to share the stage this evening with our ancestors.”
Behind Charlotte flashed a holographic image of Queen Eleanor sat upon her throne. She was dressed in full regalia, a chalk white face and a golden mitre in hand. She bore the Chamberlain coat of arms on her breast. Joshua and his team had done an excellent job with the display. The collective audience gaze widened in awe at the realism.
The next figure was Francesca Chamberlain. In the background loomed the shadow of The Boss. She was in the forefront, seated upon a horse. Her black hair blew wildly around her in a wind the artist had captured.
Taking a walk on stage then was Royce Chamberlain. Prince Royce was smiling a self-assured smile as though to the auditorium. He removed his sword and held it at his side. There was an absence in his eyes though, which I assumed the artist had made deliberate.
Another figure of Francesca emerged. This time she was stood in the Great Hall of her castle which was now where the electric chair, Buzzkill, sat. She raised her arms up and turned her focus towards the sky. Around her neck hung the weight of several Wigan beads. What was most astounding about this image though was the figure by her side, dressed in humble robes. He had a youthful, soft face. He was encouraging in his body language.
“You cannot be saved,” it would seem he was saying to her.
The Saint Noah Wigan’s presence spread to the walls as other pieces of symbology emerged behind them.
Royce returned next and I would be damned to Hell if I didn’t notice the purple ribbons he had tied around the sword he carried.
The two children turned to view the image of Royce. He was a drunken philanderer, a self-preserving narcissist if the history books are correct, but the children seemed to be enamoured by him.
I looked to Peter who was watching the presentation with great interest.
As large a craft as the Ferry Way liner was, Captain Farraway could feel it shake upon the waves caused by the approaching vessel. The staff gathered at the windows to catch sight of the monstrous craft as it made its way to the dock.
The horn blasted again as though its presence were easy to miss.
Chamberlain docks bid welcome to a sister of hers. Restored with some of the very boards that Royce Chamberlain himself had walked, was a regal ship flying the Chamberlain flag. The raven’s head – Royce’s personal sigil – ornamented the bow, leading the way as it ferociously tore through the water. On the side of the ship was the name HMS RAVENSEDGE. It was a historic enemy of Hen Owen’s Elgany, rearing its head and returning to port after all those years.
“Would you look at that!” gasped the ferry staff.
Back on stage at the auditorium Charlotte spoke of her ancestral connection to the Owen family.
“My brother and I would like to return Hen Owen’s rapier if Mr Owen will accept it. We feel it’s been in Royce’s hands long enough.”
There was an affectionate acknowledgement from The Cappy of the Chamberlain children’s generous offer. It would make a fine addition to his collection.
For a child so young, I had to admire Charlotte’s natural confidence. Her brother was a little more subdued. Francis gave a nervous, ‘thank you’ into the microphone, leaning over to speak. Together they knew the influence they held in their hands. They had been orphaned you see, the details of which aren’t important. What is important though is the city that now was in their control, the wealth and the name. As the exhibit came to a close, Charlotte looked to Peter Millicent who nodded assurance to her.
Aboard Ravensedge, their guardian awaited them. In a flurry of robes he rushed to the walkway where he could see the children alight from a town car down on the docks.
“Uncle Dom!” Charlotte cheered, rushing across to His Eminence to be collected into his arms.
“How did it go?” he asked.
“We did great. Didn’t we Peter?” Francis asked of the priest that accompanied them.
“They did splendid,” Peter assured.
“I wouldn’t have expected anything less,” Dominick encouraged.
“The ship looks beautiful. Do you like it Uncle Dom?”
Dominick admired the gift from the Chamberlain Trust to the church.
“She is a beauty,” Dominick responded with awe. “You should see how she tears through the water.”
Francis laughed. “We had better go back or you’re going to get into trouble.”
Dominick raised an eyebrow. He reached a foot out towards Coldford limits. “Illegal,” he called. “Legal,” he added drawing his foot back. “Illegal. Legal. Illegal. Legal.”
His whimsical tease caused the children to laugh.
“Let’s not hold the ferry up too much longer,” Peter suggested ushering the children onto the ship.
For the time being, the Wigan church left Coldford behind and returned to the bay.
ERROR 65. My screen read.
“This is really frustrating,” I exclaimed.
It had been some time by then since the Coby servers went down and I had been locked out of the blog I had been using to keep the city up to date with the real truth.
“Sorry,” Joshua replied sincerely. “We’re starting to get our processing back but we’re still blacked out in Bellfield, Northside and Hathfield Bay. I have to dedicate every bit of RAM we have to our gaming. The Scribble Post software isn’t a priority. I’ll do what I can though. I’ll keep you up to date.”
“Thanks Joshua,” I said. “I appreciate that.”
I was in a race against time with my old newspaper because the truth in the Shady City was quite often the story told first. The Filton Crier press, thanks to Elizabeth, had ensured my words were reaching as many people as possible in print but it was a slower process.
Something must have opened up at Coby games because a message came through.
HAVE YOU SEEN THIS?
It was an anonymous statement. Attached to it was a video file. I pushed play. The moment I did, I wished I hadn’t. My heart skipped to a race suddenly. What consumed me first was the noise of the screaming. Flames licked most of the image.
“It was written,” said a Wigan priest, “that the flames of St Michael’s retribution consumed the harlot’s body.”
“Harlot! Harlot!” screamed a gathering.
This was not taking place on Hathfield Bay where such activity was rumoured to occur. This was taking place on the streets of Northside. I was suspended in disbelief by what I was looking at. What aggrieved me the most was the woman being consumed by flames was none other than Agnes Wilde, the Knock Knock Broker.
Father Renfield was the name of the Wigan priest who was the overseer of the church’s Northside parish.
At The Knock Knock Club Tawny was viewing that very same footage. She hadn’t gotten as far into it as I had before she couldn’t bear to watch any more.
“Tabitha!” she shrieked. “I want Tabitha. Tabby! Tabitha!”
David tried to calm her but she would not stop screaming until she could hold her niece in her arms. David fell into a chair trying to wash the cries of Agnes’ pain from his mind.
“Harlot! Harlot!” he could still hear them chanting.
Over on Hathfield Bay, Peter came to Dominick in the church. He knelt before the altar. It was only he and Bart present so the church leader ushered his priest to stand.
“Alright, Peter,” Dominick said softly. He was a little taken aback by the formality. When they were alone they tended to behave with more of a familial bond.
“Your Eminence,” he said, maintaining a formal tone. “There’s something you should see.”
He passed a tablet to Dominick and pushed play. Bartholemew drew down his hood and looked over Dominick’s shoulder.
Peter watched the church leader’s expression as the video played. The flames reflected in his dark eyes.
“Who is this? Who is the harlot?” he asked.
“Agnes Wilde of The Knock Knock Club. It seemed Father Renfield discovered she was passing information to the Bellfield fleet. He punished her.”
Dominick stopped the footage. He knew well what burning looked like. He didn’t need to see any more.
“I don’t remember giving him permission to do that. Did I give him permission?”
Peter shook his head to the negatory. If permission had been granted for such an action on the streets of Northside he would be aware of it.
“I believe he sees himself as St Michael the Punisher.”
Dominick’s eyes blazed. “Does he? I would love to take a gander in whatever fucking mirror he’s using because he’s no St Michael. Does he look like the man in that painting?” Dominick asked pointing to the brooding, broad-shouldered knight who was the actual St Michael. “I don’t fucking think so.”
“My concern is that we’ve worked so hard to build our position in the city and this action could see all of it undone,” Peter’s own temper began to flare. “All of our progress wiped out in an instant.”
“Is he winning this fight against the fleet scum at least?” Dominick asked.
“Not exactly,” Peter explained. “Liam Tulloch is modelling himself on the Greatest Northsider.”
“What is it with the people of that God forsaken city? Kings of Main, Boss Ladies, dragon ladies and every other kind of ladies. Ye’ve got Captains and circus freaks. It’s not just me, is it? They’re all fucking mad.”
“The Law Makers will look to you to answer for what Renfield has done. That’s not the worst of it though. Agnes Wilde was a well-connected woman. This news could very well have us up against a huge part of the Shady City. The Shanties most definitely. Closely followed by Main,” explained Peter.
“Dom?” Bart interrupted with urgency. “Leona’s still over there. She’s right in the thick of it.”
Dominick raged. “Send word to her right away. I want a watch on the weans too. Charlotte and Francis go nowhere unless they have plenty of eyes on them. Tell Renfield to get his arse over here because he’s treading so close to blasphemy and he’ll learn how St Michael truly punishes.”
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Given the new renovations at Perry Zoo were The Cappy’s way of reintroducing himself in a positive light, it was no surprise that the city was buzzing with excitement over its newest attractions.
‘Come meet Snowflake,’ Perry Zoo suggested with tantalising posters all the way from Bournton to Bellfield.
I had been at one of the checkpoints the Law Makers had set up leading from the Fullerton Bridge into Filton. I was following up on a story on Elizabeth Beckingridge. Apparently she had gotten so fed up with her imprisonment inside her mansion home that she made a bid for escape dressed in Gramps Beckingridge’s clothes and driving his old estate car, badly. She got as far as the Fullerton Bridge exit to Cardyne when she was stopped. She pulled the old skip cap off, took a draw of her cigarette, and demanded to know why she couldn’t just nip to Cardyne for a half café frap with cinnamon dusting.
The Law Makers demanded to know why she couldn’t just stay in her home as she was instructed.
“I was coming right back,” Elizabeth maintained. If she was, she wouldn’t have dressed in her grandfather’s jacket. So, the lockdown at Beck Manor was extended and tightened. She would learn, one way or another.
“It’s about time the rich elite got a bit of a lesson,” the Law Maker I had been interviewing gave his opinion on Judge Doyle’s hold on the city. “If that had been any of the rest of us, we’d be getting punished.”
Now that the initial excitement of Article 22 was over and the executions were somewhat slowing to a simmer, that seemed to be the general thinking of the people of Coldford.
“About time the elite of Coldford are held to account,” they said.
It pleased them to see the King of Main put to death for a career of violence when, for too long, his reputation and place in the city had kept him safe. Chick Owen, the man they called The Cappy, was confined to his home and examined closely. All of the money that the Beckingridge family had meant nothing when the picture hit the headlines of Elizabeth throwing her grandfather’s hat at the Law Maker that had dared to stop her.
“None of the rest of us would be getting away with that,” the Law Maker stationed at the bridge was only too happy to announce. It would be easy to assume that the Law Makers did hero-worship Doyle but that same point of view was spreading. The Shanties was still a tougher nut to crack and still believed Tabitha was a saviour. Bellfield wouldn’t see past the Mack family but they were still coughing through the ashes of the Black Bands visit to their distillery, not to mention the continued fight between Bellfield and their Northside neighbours. All in all, Article 22 was truly making a change. The powerhouses of Coldford were having to adapt to new rules and so were leading me on to a phase of Cold War in the Shady City.
As I was interviewing the Law Maker his attention was called to a convoy of trucks heading across the bridge towards Filton. There were five of them in total. The two leading and the two bringing up the rear had the print of Perry Zoo on the side. The one in the middle they were protecting had PROPERTY OF PERRY ZOO. CAUTION LIVE ANIMAL written on the side of it.
I reached my phone up. Click.
Just what Coldford needed when the streets were a circus already – wild animals.
Stoker circus originated in the country Levinkrantz. The Stokers have been a circus family for centuries. From the early days of street performing, to the travelling freak shows, to the modern day spectacles.
Irma Stoker was the first to meet Captain Henry Owen. She had stowed away on his ship when it stopped in Levinkrantz on the way to Coldford. He found her playing poker with his crew. She slept in the Captain’s bed that night and by the time they arrived in Coldford, Irma had already arranged for the rest of her family to join them. It was at a time when Hen needed numbers and the Stokers loved drawing crowds.
The Stoker Circus consisted of three tents. There was the red, the blue and the big top, which was set up in the centre of Perry Zoo. Boards had been put up through the night as they settled Snowflake into his new home.
“He’s a little tired from the journey but he’s doing good,” Austin was telling his zookeepers. “Don’t give him any hassle and keep him well fed or he’ll lash out.”
Milo was mesmerised. “When can we see Snowflake?” he asked Austin.
“Soon, lil’ mate,” he said. Austin was quite personable in his way. “We’re keeping him hush just now but he’ll be making his debut soon.”
“Wow!” Milo gasped. The moment he had heard Snowflake was being brought to Coldford he researched online videos of the creature, mostly feeding time demonstrations. I smiled as I noticed the young boy shake with excitement.
“You must be Sam Crusow,” Austin greeted me with a firm hand shake. “Seen your picture.”
“Chick have it on a dart board, did he?” I jested.
Austin gave a hearty laugh. “You’ve been causing a ruckus all round, mate,” he said. “No hard feelings though.”
Ozzy had a disarming charm. He was the kind of man that drew people to him in an organic sort of way. He put people at ease quickly and after only a few minutes of conversation they would feel they had been his friend for years.
“You guys enjoy the day. There’s lot’s to see and do.”
It was then he noticed Olivia’s pregnancy bump starting to show.
“Oh, and a little critter on the way! Exciting times. There’s a lot of ground to cover so if it gets too much you just let one of my guys know and they’ll set you right.”
He indicated a group of young men removing Kappa So jackets to change into zoo coveralls.
“I’d like to ask you some questions about what you are doing here and get your thoughts on current affairs,” I put to him.
Ozzy nodded. “Sure. You caught me at a busy time right now but we’ll grab a brew and we’ll talk it through. Just give me a day or two to get settled in.”
As we left Austin behind and ventured further into the zoo my mind became awash with memories of when I was about Milo’s age and my own father brought me to the zoo. Behind the gates the noise of the city suddenly seemed so far away.
The Stoker Big Top was mountainous in size. The striped pattern was intended to be whimsical and fun but the material – having lived through freak show attacks, the spreading of a measles outbreak and the Levinkrantz bomb blitz – carried a particular essence along with it. It was battered, beaten and dragged through a horrible history, still to be erected and entertain the masses. It would be admirable, if it weren’t for the fact that the more I learned about the Stokers, the more I was wary of them.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, boys and girls. Step right up for a knuckle whiting, nail biting, full in your face exciting show. Take your seats. Set your eyes in front and prepare to clap your hands off. I’m Irvine Stoker and welcome to Stoker Circus.”
The audience were pushed closely together inside the Big Top tent. The large man next to me pressed closely. Milo was on my other side.
Irvine, standing in a dusty centre ring, clicked a remote push button and one of two screens behind him flashed on showing a group of clowns with varying make-up styles but in the signature Stoker blue and red.
“Blue tent, Chamberlain Docks, we’ve got some of the funniest clowns you ever did see. Don’t just take my word for it. Go on down and see them. You might just bust a gut!”
Irvine turned to the screen. “Show them what you got,” he said to his clowns.
The main clown, Olga Stoker, stepped up to the screen. She kissed it then spat water at it. As she did so water sprayed down on us in the Big Top crowd. The audience reacted excitedly.
Irvine clicked his button again. The second screen sparked into action.
“Red tent, City Main, we’ve got my boy, my little pride and joy. What you got there for us Freddy?”
Freddy Stoker could be seen on screen in a top hat and tails. He spun, collected a sign and as he turned back to the screen he held it up. It read STOKER CIRCUS PRESENTS: THE BECKINGRIDGE FAMILY.
Irvine laughed. “They might not look like you and I but if you can stomach it, go on up and take a gander.”
The screens disappeared up into the rafters.
“In this tent,” Irvine called with all the circus ring master swaggering showmanship. “Well, in this tent you’ve got me. Bring it on!”
A chorus of trumpets sounded as the lights lowered. Overhead two trapeze artists leapt, catching their swings, and tore across the huge tent from one side to the other.
Milo sat forward in his seat as a troupe of fire breathers danced around the ring. I was keen to keep an eye on Irvine’s whereabouts but I was distracted by the trapeze artists. They called them the Trapeezy Easys. They were a brother/sister duo in matching leotards, Eroll and Ethel. Ethel relaxed her grip as she swung overhead. There was no hesitation as Eroll, holding his own swing by his feet caught her and threw her onto the opposing platform.
I looked up to a balcony that had been created at the higher reaches of the Big Top. I could see Marshall Cooper leaning over with a beer in hand. He was cheering something. Austin Perry and The Cappy himself were sat with him.
Turning my focus back to centre ring, Irvine had disappeared amongst the commotion. The trumpets eased off. A spotlight flashed to the seat directly behind me. Irvine himself was sitting there.
“Don’t stay seated on my account,” he urged. “You need to be on your feet to really enjoy.”
As he leaped with long, insectile legs down the steps back to his ring, a wave of shock ran through the seats. It was just a gentle vibration but it caused the entire audience to stand up and ovate.
The Easys leapt again. This time it was Ethel holding her brother’s feet. As he swung he handed a rose to a young woman in the audience. She was beside herself with the flattery. Swept blonde hair, attractive, muscular tones, the Easys were quite alluring. I couldn’t help but notice Ethel blow a kiss as she passed overhead.
Milo was completely captivated by the performance. His smile was broad as he watched on in awe. Irvine reached his arms up and he was collected by the Easys and dropped onto the platform. He waved his arms comically as though he was going to lose his balance. He tumbled forward and Eroll caught his hands and dropped him safely back in his centre ring.
“Enjoy the show,” he cried.
The lights cut completely.
“What on earth is going on?” was Elizabeth’s question as she tried to reach the phone of board member Presley Cage. He had been having a meeting with the board to discuss Elizabeth’s permanent taking of the chair over her nephew.
“I don’t care,” had been George’s response over breakfast that morning as he peeled apart cold toast.
Elizabeth didn’t doubt that. He didn’t really have the ambition to sit at the top of Beckingridge Tower. It was probably one of the few qualities of his that his aunt actually liked. All he seemed interested in in those days were his Kappa So frat bros. What was giving her cause for concern was his work at Filton University was coming back with full marks. Either he had had a sudden spark of intelligence overnight or the more plausible explanation was someone was doing it for him.
The meeting had ended an hour ago. There should have been confirmation by now.
She could hear George giggling in the lounge.
“What has he gotten into now?” she grumbled to herself.
The noise of the laughter chilled her though. It reminded her of when he was a boy. That rotten little giggle never meant anything good.
When Elizabeth found him in the lounge his giggle had escalated, and he was now rolling around the floor in hysterics in front of the television reporting live news from City Main.
“What’s gotten into you?” she asked. “Shut up!” she barked impatiently.
“I’m a little man,” he laughed.
The aunt rolled her eyes. “Yes, you are. A tiny little man. Now shut up. Your laughing is like a hammer drill and I already have a headache.”
“Oh look, it’s dad!”
It was then Elizabeth turned her attention to the screen. Freddy Stoker was introducing the acts from the red tent to the public.
“I’m Ernest Beckingridge,” said a man in clown make up, “and I’m the saddest clown you ever did see.”
A blue tear drop was painted on his cheek.
Set up directly across from Beckingridge Tower, at the entrance of Weir Hotel. The Stoker red tent was gathering a crowd.
“This is my son, George,” the sad clown Ernest went on.
George was played by Fritz Stoker – a sufferer of dwarfism. George pointed at the little person and laughed even harder. Sad clown Ernest sighed and rested his chin on his hand as little George danced around him and chased passers-by. Astounded by the boldness of the performance people were beginning to stop, raising phones and recording.
Sad clown Ernest sobbed. “That’s my boy. I have a daughter too. She’s a princess.”
Here Freddy ushered a young woman wearing a flowing cloak forward.
Hilda Stoker was a beauty. Her make-up was glamorous.
“Princess?” she said. “More like prisoner. I just don’t know whether I’m coming or going and all I want is a bit of attention.”
Here she lifted her cloak as though she were flashing her underwear with her tongue in cheek. Raising her cloak, she presented Tootsie. Hilda and Tootsie were conjoined twins. The upper body and left leg of Tootsie stuck out from Hilda’s abdomen. A mute Tootsie just stared at the crowd.
Ernest – the sad clown – dropped his head into his hands and shook it in despair.
“I’d be able to cope with the children if it weren’t for my dragon of a sister.”
“That bastard!” Elizabeth almost screamed as a woman dressed similar to her slapped sad clown Ernest causing him to fall into a tumble. The gathered crowd roared with shocked laughter at the Elizabeth portrayal as she screamed at them, waving her arm like some pantomime villain. They called her the dragon lady and playing her to maximum effect was Heidi Stoker – better known as the lizard woman in the circus circles. Her entire body was tattooed with scales, her eyes permanently yellowed, her teeth ground sharp and her tongue forked.
“What you staring at?” she challenged the audience as the Elizabeth character.
There were more gasps, more phones and more recording. Rodney Weir had come to the entrance of his hotel and could be seen watching in the background.
It hadn’t been her own portrayal, though, that had Elizabeth seething. In Heidi’s arms was a small infant. Little Edle Stoker was being held out as a portrayal of Vicky. Like her mother, her skin was completely scaled. If she cried out it would be seen her little tongue was forked.
Elizabeth had been so angered by the freak show comparison, she hadn’t noticed Freddy was wearing Gramps’ clothes the Law Makers had confiscated from her until he slipped on Gramps’ old skip cap.
“I’m Jeffrey Beckingridge,” he said. “They make statues of me, name everything after me and this is my legacy.”
Finally Presley returned the call.
“Have you seen this?” Elizabeth asked without greeting.
“I’ve just had to walk through it,” said Presley. “The whole of City Main has turned out. They’re selling bloody merch!”
“It’s outrageous,” Elizabeth responded. “Shut it down right now before I turn that lizard woman into a fucking purse!”
“We have bigger problems,” Presley tried to say.
“Look at that baby. For God’s sake they’re exploiting the poor child,” Elizabeth went on. “Where at the Law Makers when you need them?”
“Elizabeth, listen to me,” Presley had to interrupt. “I’ve been voted off the board. The board is no longer ours.”
Elizabeth rang off from Presley. She looked to George who was still enjoying the Stoker show. The tower was as good as gone.
It had been a long morning but Chick Owen was pleased to hear of progress being made. Marshall had a list of potential buyers for the Auction House and as he scrolled down the page the offers became higher. He had hoped – for the sake of peace in City Main – The Auction House would be returned to Penn hands but as Marshall pointed out there was likely more money in having their other competitors bid. At least for now. It would make the Penns nervous and make negotiations easier on their side. Besides he had tried reaching out to Reggie. Faulds Park allowed the call through but he was unable to reach the Penn boy. Instead, a young girl was screaming down the phone at him trying to hear what he was saying over the loud music. It sounded like complete chaos and no one seemed to know or be able to locate the master of the house.
Ozzy had confirmed a huge donation on behalf of Stoker Circus and the zoo to various charitable causes. Helping worthy causes of course, but also helping the public see Owen Inc. and its associates weren’t complete monsters.
Finally, Kathleen stopped by to run the Coldford Daily headlines by him and she had captured exactly the stories the city needed. They were the kind of stories that had attracted me to the newspaper in the first place.
COLDFORD CITY STANDS STRONG.
SILENT MARCH ACROSS FULLERTON BRIDGE SPEAKS VOLUMES.
She even had her little chickadees come over to the Chapter House to boot the boys into very visible community service.
Charles ‘Chick’ Owen was pleased. He was resting back easy in his chair considering his next move. He had just been about to consider all was well when the announcement of his brother’s arrival was made.
Ronnie seemed like he was in a bit of a rush.
“Ronnie?” Chick said. “You look like you’ve been ridden hard and hung up wet.”
Ronnie spotted Kathleen. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to interrupt.”
“How you doing Ron?” Kathleen asked. “Drink?”
“No, thank you,” Ronnie refused.
Kathleen poured her own, a vintage Waldens merlot that she and The Cappy favoured.
“You look like you could use one,” she teased.
“I’d like a word with Chick, if you don’t mind,” Ronnie politely requested.
It was Chick who refused. “It’s fine, Ron,” he said. “We can talk.”
Ronnie knew full well that Kathleen had been helping air Owen dirty laundry since she and The Cappy were teenagers but he was hesitant.
“You’ll be getting word from the Law Makers soon but I wanted to run it past you first.”
Concern ripped across Chick’s face. “What’s Buddy done now?”
Ronnie shook his head. “It’s not Buddy. It’s…”
The two Kappa Elders were eyeing him closely.
“A decision will be made on Tabitha soon. I wanted to see where the line would be drawn with the Law Makers first before I informed you because I will be providing her defence.”
Chick scowled at first. “That girl is to go back to jail where she belongs and she will consider herself in the Lord’s good mercy that she still has her head.”
“I think she should stay at The Knock Knock Club.”
Chick scoffed, shaking his head. “And I think being in this city too long has driven you out of your mind.”
Ronnie tried to explain his reasoning. “If she stays at her club she will be under serious guard and she’s more likely to keep quiet. If she returns to prison she’s just going to keep gnawing her way out and her supporters will continue making trouble on her behalf.”
“Then I return to my previous sentiment. Cut the damn snake’s head off,” Chick growled.
“Then you make a martyr of her,” Kathleen spoke up.
Ronnie was pleased he had some support.
“Legally, the Law Makers are going to want the death penalty carried out but she will be much less of a problem if she stays home. They kill her, her people won’t stand for it and we’re torn away having to cover our asses. A little show of leniency now, or even support, could go a long way to putting things right,” said Kathleen.
The Cappy asked, “How much leniency?”
Kathleen went on. “I’m no lawyer like Ronnie here, but until Mayor Feltz turns up there are plenty of better candidates to take the heat.”
“I’m not hearing that,” warned Ronnie.
“Of course you’re not. I simply mean that Feltz had enemies, lots of enemies. It seems unfair to single the young girl out.”
Ronnie eased off. That had exactly been the defence he had used for Tabitha.
“She’s a troubled little girl who has her crimes – no mistake – but they should have just let her go to the damn club in the first place. I watched interviews with her as a kid. She was a real wild one but what do you do when an animal can’t be controlled? You can put her to death which we’ve already agreed will make a martyr of her or you can lock her away. She’s not going to gnaw through the cage she’s always wanted to be in and it keeps her cheering spectators happy.”
Ronnie grinned. He was pleased to have Kathleen’s support.
“It’s a tough ask, Chick,” the lawyer put to his brother. “But it means dropping Jerry’s charges.” The Cappy’s eyes widened. Before he could say anything Ronnie added, “Jerry was a piece of shit. I have no doubt in my mind what she says about him was true.”
The Cappy knew this. After all he had been cleaning Jerry’s messes when Ronnie was still running around in his little tightie whiteys. As young man, Chick learned that Jerry had taken a couple of girls into his vestry. Both of them were only fourteen years old. Chick warned the girls’ parents to keep them clear and in exchange for their silence – the girls claimed nothing had happened – Pops had Jerry sent to St Michael’s in Coldford. Jerry had made his bed. Now its piss-stained sheets had to be changed every day, he was spoon fed his meals, and there was no way of knowing if he truly regretted almost dragging his entire family to the bowels of Hell with him.
“Before you make any legal move, this is quite an ask as you say and I would like to speak her. If it’s going to put the minds of those that follow her at rest then it might be a good place to start.”
“I don’t think that’s wise,” said Ronnie.
The Cappy was still confident in his decision. “I think it’s something that should have been done a long time ago.”
“We’re moving on, boys,” said Kathleen. “Time to let sleeping dogs lie.”
Ronnie nodded. He stood. There was no time to lose. Chick was good at looking people in the eye that had done him wrong and still maintaining his composure. Tabitha – on the other hand – was not. However, it was the only sure way of removing that pendulum above her head. She would see the sense in listening to options. He hoped.
“Bye, Ron,” Kathleen called as she closed the door of The Cappy’s den over.
“Also,” she said to Chick when they were alone. “When things are put right again she’ll make an excellent scape goat.”
The Cappy raised his eyebrows.
“Just saying,” she added.
Chick smiled and sighed. “Why did I never marry you?”
Kathleen chuckled. “Because I’ve got the bigger balls.”
Laughing, The Cappy declared, “I love you, Kathleen.”
Kathleen collected her designer hand bag to leave. “I love you too, you old prick.”
The car phone was breaking up.
“I can’t hear you,” Jeremy was groaning. “I’ll have to call you when I land.”
The Auction House was being put up for sale again and as the Chief Auctioneer for the Penns and their acquisitions agent, it was important he got the support he needed to get it back where it belonged.
Jean Luc – his counterpart in Luen – hadn’t been happy new king Marcus was unable to see him, and it wasn’t worth having Reggie speak. The youngest triplet was still messed up and kept forgetting things. It didn’t help that he had barely been sober since he got back. His poor mother would be so worried. His father would be too. That was why Jeremy was now having to kiss Jean Luc’s arrogant ass. He wouldn’t be causing such a fuss if Reginald was still alive but the Penns needed the help from Luen. Jeremy was hoping that if he went to Luen he would be able to arrange a call between Marcus and Jean Luc. Marcus would be able to request the help in Coldford that Reggie so desperately needed.
“I’ll arrive around midnight,” Jeremy called to the car phone.
“You are wasting your time,” said Jean Luc. “I’ll speak to Marcus only. It’s disappointing he isn’t able to speak for himself. Too busy being a hired thug for some stupid little girl with a grudge.”
“Enule!” Jeremy barked.
“Pardone?” Jean Luc challenged.
“I said enule. Fuck you! I’m on my way and when we I get there, you’ll talk to Marcus. I’ll arrive around midnight,” Jeremy called to the car phone before cutting it off, hoping that Jean Luc got the message.
The road towards Cardyne across the bridge was thankfully quiet. The Law Makers’ blockade had been removed.
Another call came through. This time it was Reggie.
“I, uh,” he hesitated.
“A lot of City Main ones in,” he said. “They said they know me but I don’t recognise them.”
“Where are the agents?” asked Jeremy.
“They’re outside. They’re not letting anyone in.”
“Then what’s the trouble?”
Reggie coughed. He had been smoking too much weed.
“It just felt rude if they did know me. Turning people away from the door seemed pretty shitty.”
Jeremy inhaled sharply. “Reggie, we spoke about this. It’s dangerous. Just sit tight until I get back. Stay close to Tabitha and do not let anyone in.”
“I know,” Reggie agreed. He was feeling a little tired. It wouldn’t hurt to lay low. “But Tabitha’s not here.”
“Where is she?”
“She’s still being held at the club.”
“Can no one run anything past me these fucking days?!” Jeremy despaired. “Reggie, sit tight. I’m turning back.” Reggie couldn’t be left alone, not with the state he was in. Not with strangers knocking on the doors. The agents were stretched thin as it was, and they could only do so much.
So Jeremy turned at the junction at the Fullerton Bridge Cardyne exit. As he made his way back across, heaving headlights filled his windscreen from an oncoming car.
Jeremy brought his car to a halt. The car in front stopped too. The Auctioneer raised his arm to shield his eyes from the glare.
Through the light, Cherry jerked forward to take the first gnashing bite.
Jeremy pulled his car away as quickly as he could. He slammed his foot onto the pedals and sped off but he had only just managed to get his car up to 70mph when Sunny zoomed past. She had reached the edge of the bridge just as Emerald charged through the darkness into a spin, completely cutting him off.
Click. Click. Click.
Then came the spotter in blue.
Jeremy struggled to catch his breath as he lay in the mud. The Cherry pit crew had beaten him badly whilst Sunny’s watched and Sky click, click, clicked. He thought he was going to drown. He could barely move and with each breath he was taking in a mouthful of mud. He tried to explain such sentiments to his captors but they fell on deaf ears. They were too busy exchanging Kappa So handshakes.
‘Fucking brothers for life. Bullshit,’ thought Jeremy bitterly.
There was quite a group gathering. Buddy and his bros, Jeremy recognised. They had gotten into scuffles with the triplets before and they had been the ones Reginald let go after the execution of Pops.
A door of a white Cooper SUV slammed. Three more arrived. Police commissioner Billy Owen, the circus ring master Irvine Stoker, and his son Freddy.
There was one watching him intently though, as the rest gathered around. The Cappy himself. His attention was stolen by the hand of his cousin on his shoulder.
“Where’s Isaac?” The Cappy asked.
Billy lowered his head. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “No one’s heard from him.”
The Cappy sighed. “Get your team together Billy,” he warned.
Billy admitted, “I’m afraid it gets worse. There’s something you need to know.”
The Cappy urged him to continue. Meanwhile Austin Perry hovered close to Jeremy.
“What’s going on, Bill?” Chick questioned.
Billy fell into a repenting cry, “I was hoping to be able to clear this so no dirt fell on you but we had an issue with Cameron Doyle. He came looking for rat boy and he pulled a gun.”
The Cappy gasped, “Jesus, Billy, he’s dead?”
“Yeah, I’m afraid so.”
Before Chick could respond further Billy cried, “I’m so sorry Captain. You trusted me with a task and I let you down. You’re gonna be real mad and I don’t blame you. Just tell me what to do to make it right and I will.”
Buddy – so used to disappointing The Cappy – thought to himself, ‘Jeez Bill, reel it in, brah.’
Dale Cooper was busy watching Jeremy, wondering when someone was going to start paying attention to the man writhing in the mud under Ozzy’s boot.
“If you want to put a bullet in my head right now I won’t blame ya,” Billy went on. “I failed,” he said. “I messed up.”
Satisfied with Billy’s repentance, The Cappy clutched his cousin.
“Calm down,” he said, but inside he was thinking, ‘Cameron fucking Doyle!’
Billy opened his eyes to see Marshall Cooper clutching his chest as though to say, ‘Tit.’
“What did you do with the body?” Chick enquired.
“I don’t want to implicate you any more than necessary,” said Billy.
The Cappy patted his shoulder. “It’s fine. I need to know the details.”
“We moved him to an abandoned Bergman mine. It was the only reason I brought that Jew fuck in,” Billy ranted.
“Does Isaac know? Is that why he isn’t here?”
“We’re tracking him down.”
Chick put the question to his team. “So what are we going to do now?”
Irvine Stoker seemed completely undisturbed by the predicament.
“We can stop those sneaky, money grubbing, dirty…Bergmans,” said the ring master with a wry smile.
“Fine we’ll deal with that later,” suggested Chick. “Right now we got more pressing concerns.”
It was then he finally addressed Jeremy.
“You sir,” he began. “I have not forgotten what you did with my compass. You deliberately set out to make a fool of me and I do not take that kindly.”
‘Holeeee fuck!’ Buddy thought to himself. ‘He’s really going to do this.’
The setting – dear readers – which I should make clear now was Perry Zoo. It was a cold night where breath began to escape the lips in a fine mist. Winter was setting in. Jeremy heard something move in the great pool of water behind him. The sign above his head read ‘Snowflake – Coming Soon.’
Austin drew a knife from his pocket.
“Sorry mate,” he said. “War is Hell.”
Jeremy screamed as his Achilles’ tendons were cut. First the right foot, then the left. Jeremy’s shrill cry caused Austin to look back over his shoulders. Ripples were gathering.
“You might wanna step back,” Austin announced to his brothers as he skipped over Jeremy’s writhing body and up the embankment.
“You bastards!” Jeremy managed to scream. “You’ll not get away with this.”
“Dad?” Chad appealed to Austin.
“Just step back there, son,” Ozzy warned.
The Cappy was watching the water.
“C’mon Snowflake, my gorgeous boy. Come and get it,” he muttered.
Buddy shivered. It wasn’t doing him much good watching this sober. Had he been full of powder, it might have been hilarious but with a sober mind his father looked like a real fucking psycho.
Still in pain, Jeremy tried to pull himself up the ledge but kept slipping in the mud. He was losing strength fast. His cries of pain and fear were only drawing interest and the ripples were becoming angrier.
Irvine was grinning, as was Freddy. Billy had lit a cigarette, probably glad he had gotten his own troubles off his chest and could now relax and enjoy the show.
Like some monstrous creature Hen Owen was reputed to have fought upon the high seas, an oversized albino alligator leapt from the water. Jeremy tried to scramble away but he wasn’t fast enough. He only kept slipping back down the verge. Snowflake charged towards him. His reptilian limbs stomped through the mud.
Jeremy just missed the first bite. It only made Snowflake angry.
This time his leg was caught. Snowflake chomped down. His powerful jaws crunched through bone.
“Jesus!” Dale Cooper reacted. Like his bro, he too was having a hard time with the sobriety of the situation. He turned away but he could feel his father’s hand clutch the back of his neck.
“Don’t act like a little pussy,” warned Marshall.
Dale took a deep breath and watched on.
“Wooooh!” Irvine cheered as Snowflake wrapped his jaws around Jeremy’s midriff.
With a great heaving shake of his hefty body and a lash of his tail, he started to drag Jeremy towards the water.
Jeremy’s scream was a gargle of blood and some of the mud he was choking on as he was dragged. The brothers watching him had fallen silent. He could hear the lashing behind him as Snowflake entered the water, pulling him with him. The sudden icy cold chill shocked his heart. Trying to shake free of the alligator’s maw was only causing the razor-sharp teeth to clench down harder. The tear into his abdomen was irreparable so when he slipped under the water, watching the faces staring down at him as he was dragged into the abyss, it no longer mattered.
Snowflake – better known as the puppy snatcher in the parts where he had been picked up – had been causing havoc in Swamp State, snatching up the dogs of little old ladies walking past. Unchecked he had grown so big he began to attack the little old ladies themselves. An alert was raised in the local community. Sightings of the albino monster in the local area were registered.
When the residents of the community stopped walking his prey past the General John Swamp he had made home, he grew bored and ventured further into Johnsville.
Nine-year-old local Ahmed Chauncey called the authorities when he awoke one morning to find the fencing around his family’s property had been torn open. Four of the chickens had been eaten and a still-hungry Snowflake lay at the bottom of the muddied-up family pool.
The Perry Zoo in Swamp State sent their best specialists to capture the beast, led by Ozzy himself. The Cappy had been visiting at the time and instantly fell in love with the alligator.
“What a magnificent snappa’” he gushed.
And so. he organised a sponsorship for it to be kept at Perry Zoo in Star State.
A magnificent snappa’ indeed. Now, a razor-toothed resident of Coldford City.
Chick had come to Harbour House alone. He was greeted initially by Agent Kim.
“I trust my son has been behaving,” he asked.
“He’s quiet for now,” the agent informed him.
“He’s shown remarkable improvement. I hope you will take that into account during your investigations,” said The Cappy.
Kim replied, “I’m taking everything into account.”
The Cappy nodded, “I know.”
“Before you go see him, Olivia Hickes would like a word with you,” said Kim.
At that Chick was led to the office Olivia held at Harbour House for those the agents brought in for support – violent homes, missing persons, addicts, etc.
They shook hands and sat across her desk from each other.
“Mrs Hickes, it’s a pleasure,” The Cappy began.
She smiled. He liked the way she smiled. It was warm, soft and comforting.
“It’s good to meet you, Charles,” she said. “I’ve heard so much about you.”
The Cappy laughed. “Don’t believe all the rumours. So, what can I do for you?”
“There’s something I want you to hear,” she said. “It’s from Bernard’s last therapy session. We’re obliged to hold confidentiality unless we feel the resident is a danger or in danger. I don’t want to abuse his trust but I really think it’s important you hear what he has to say.”
Chick found himself feeling nervous. There was a little flutter of butterflies within his stomach he had never experienced before. He was always so sure of his ability to handle anything. With Olivia, it seemed so much more personal. For some reason it wasn’t quite the same when she seemed to be sympathetic towards Buddy rather than complaining about him.
“What’s he done?” was the automatic question.
“He’s not in trouble,” Olivia stated. “But I warn you, what you are about to hear will be a little difficult to take so if you wish for me to stop I will.”
“If there is a cause for concern,” said the Cappy, “I really should hear.”
Olivia brought the recorder over and pushed play. The Cappy recognised Buddy’s cough.
“So, Bernard,” said Justin, the counsellor. “We made some good progress last time getting to the route of your addiction. You were thirteen when you first sampled cocaine, correct?”
“Eleven,” Buddy replied. He coughed again. His voice sounded a little odd, like something really heavy was hanging on the tones. “My Uncle Jerry gave me some. He pulled me into the store closet of the Star State house and I snorted that shit.”
“Did you enjoy it?”
“What? No, brah. Not at first. Who wants to be trapped in a closet snorting coke off another bro’s dick? That’s faggy shit.”
Justin stopped him. “Excuse me?”
“Yeah, it was a game Jerry liked to play when I was a little kid. He said if I liked it enough, I’d snort it off anything. I hated that. I just wanted to play cowboys and shit. I was like, leave me alone brah. But when that buzz hit, woohwee, my eyes were opened. I was in heaven and Jerry was God.”
“It’s funny you should use that term with him being a priest,” Justin commented.
“Yeah. He told me he had God Balls. I’m a kid, balls barely dropped and I’m bouncing off the walls thinking it was the funniest shit I ever heard. He told me he’d show me how to have God Balls too.”
“More games?” Justin asked.
“It wasn’t easy. I mean it takes a helluva lot. He believed in me though. He was damn near the only person who did.”
“You trusted his advice?”
Buddy coughed again. “Man never steered me wrong. He was always there for me. Made me what I am today…”
Buddy paused. He must have been giving thought to exactly what he was.
“He’s the reason I am what I am,” he said, softer. As though he were speaking to himself rather than his counsellor.
“E’body laughs at the idea I could have a chick like Lydia. I get that brah, but I got a lot to offer.”
Calmly, Justin commented, “You seem to have trouble forming connections with women.”
“Jerry told me that having God Balls meant you didn’t have to, chicks just lined up to lick those bad boys.”
“Your first sexual encounter with a female was not a pleasant one?” asked Justin.
“I was scared,” Buddy admitted. “I mean I had wood so hard. The girl Jaycee Miles – you always remember your first, right? – she was screaming merry Hell and not in a good way. Not like in the movies. She was screaming because she was hurt. There was blood everywhere. I thought I had burst her or something. Jerry was there yelling at me to keep fucking her. He said she liked it. Brah, she was not liking it. I wanted to stop. Jaycee was crying for her mama. Jerry was tugging on his own dick, watching us. He said that since it was my first time, he wanted to make sure I did it right. I wasn’t a kid anymore. Not after hearing Jaycee scream like that. She was a kid too. Jerry fucked her first to break her in. So, I’m to take my turn and he’s yelling at me. He knew better about it than I did. I wanted those God Balls so I didn’t complain.”
“Did you tell anyone about this?” Justin asked.
“And make it seem like I’m some kind of whiney pussy?” Buddy went on. “Jerry told me that If I did talk about it, he would tell everyone I was a fag. I didn’t want that. Not after seeing what happened with my Uncle Teddy. Besides, who was I going to tell? The Cappy was never there – travelling everywhere and anywhere that wasn’t home, and my mama? When she wasn’t boning Uncle Walt she was passed out. Who would believe me anyway? Besides, he kept giving me powda’. Jaycee tried to call him out. Her family shipped her off to some Christian camp. I was scared bro. I was drugged, buzzing my balls off on powda’ and trying to drown Jaycee’s screaming out. I figured if I could handle that, I could handle anything. I was invincible.”
“Do you realise now that what happened to you was wrong?” Justin put to him delicately.
Buddy gave another cough.
“I didn’t want him making me scream like Jaycee. I did at first. I learned to stay quiet after that. I started to hate that closet, when that door was closed over. I didn’t want any of that shit. I reckon Bill found out. I overhead him one night telling Jerry that if he found another pair of bloody pants, he would cut his dick off. He might not have been talking about me, I had been so careful to hide my bloody pants, but he did stay away from me after that. Then I came to Coldford.”
The recording ended. Olivia pushed a box of tissues towards Chick but he refused them.
“I’m fine,” he said, although the emotions were flooding his mind.
“It’s a lot to take,” Olivia said. “But abuse survivors often fall into self-destructive patterns and addictions.”
‘He was not abused. He was not abused,’ was all the Cappy could think.
“Because of the nature of this recording it is still kept confidential unless Bernard himself wishes to take it further.”
“Thank you, ma’am. My boy is a handful but despite it all you chose to listen to him. You heard his cries for help, something by his own admission I failed to do.”
“He has a long way to go, I won’t lie to you, but now that you know, you can truly help him,” said Olivia.
“If I may request that I keep that recording?” Chick asked.
Olivia was unsure. “You can rest assured it won’t fall into the wrong hands here.”
Chick realised her misunderstanding.
“At this time that is the least of my concerns. I would like to process this and some day when we’re ready, Buddy and I can discuss it.”
“Okay,” Olivia agreed.
Chick found Buddy having just alighted from the pool. Lydia was escorting him. They both seemed relaxed.
“You brought your time down then?” asked the father.
Chick was pleased to see Lydia giggle at Buddy’s enthusiasm. Despite the nature of their meeting and despite the fact he was still technically in her custody he hoped Buddy would stay clean and create a good impression on her. Or stay clean long enough to cleanse himself of the horrific nonsense Jerry had filled his head with.
“Going to lift some weights,” Buddy announced. “You wanna see how much I’m pressing these days?”
Chick smiled. “Sure.”
“You want some coffee, Mr Owen?” Lydia asked.
“Thank you, agent, but I’m fine. Please, call me Chick.”
The recording in question was given to me by Chick himself. I was surprised at this.
“Why not to the Daily or Kathleen?” I enquired.
“Because they will seek to protect me and whilst Jerry shares my name, I won’t risk them trying to protect him. You are independent and I trust you will tell the right people about this at the right time,” was The Cappy’s sentiment.
With an agreement in place for me to hold the recording until requested, The Cappy took Kathleen’s advice and reached out to another of Jerry’s victims.
“Well, hello, cunt,” grinned Tabitha, as she sat down in the room set aside in Harbour House for she and Charles ‘Chick’ Owen to discuss their terms.
Chick was not impressed by her bravado. “My, my. That is mighty foul language for a little girl,” he met the challenge.
“You must have heard worse,” Tabitha retorted. “Or someone hasn’t been passing along my fucking messages.” She looked around her, gauging the exit. “So, what do you want?”
“It occurred to me that whilst we both wish to move forward it makes no sense that we would continue to hold each other back. So, I would like to open negotiations whereby we can discuss terms that are mutually beneficial to us.”
Tabitha pouted. “I know what negotiations means. Why should I?”
“I would help you remain in your beloved bar,” he put to her.
The Boss Lady was sceptical. “Why would you do that?”
The Cappy replied, “Because I believe you will keep your part of the city in order.”
“What’s in it for you?” she asked.
“Peace of mind,” was his response. There was a pause. “There will be a condition attached.”
Tabitha rolled her eyes. “There it is.”
“Should you violate our agreement and trouble stirs, you will be returned to prison or worse. In the spirit of reciprocity, I will make sure your area has no hassle from any of my Kappa So brothers.”
Tabitha was considering her options.
“Here’s the part where you make your terms known,” The Cappy pushed.
Tabitha scowled. She leaned forward on the table. “If you talk down to me one more time, you riddle-spinning cunt, I’m going to open your throat.”
Feeling confident, The Cappy asked, “With what?”
Tabitha’s gap-toothed smile widened.
“I can be very creative,” she assured.
The Cappy looked behind him to check Tawny and Ronnie were still waiting by the door. Satisfied she had made her point; Tabitha leaned back again and folded her arms across her chest.
“I want your son for the murder of a little girl named Sarah,” she requested.
The Cappy shook his head. “Buddy is out of reach. His involvement in any murder was never proven.”
As he looked at The Boss Lady, he couldn’t help but notice the little markings across her nose. It was an unusual thing to notice and such a small thing but it played a huge part in humanising her. He had heard so much about her and now she was sat across the table from him, so close he could see those little markings on her nose. She was so much younger than he.
“I will not give you Buddy. That is non-negotiable. But I will give you Jerry.”
“You would?” Tabitha was liking the direction the negotiations were taking.
The Cappy nodded. “If it will satisfy your vengeance and offer you some closure.”
“Then your son is the one that does it but I want it all documented. I’m not wanting you throwing me to the dogs for it. I’m not that stupid. If any of your freak show family try anything, I put your son down like the sick pup he is.”
“Agreed,” said The Cappy.
“And you will help the Penns – Simon and Marcus – out, too. City Main needs them.”
“And this worries me how?” asked Chick.
Tabitha shrugged. “You said you wanted the city in order. I can speak for the Shanties but City Main will only listen to the Penns.”
The Cappy was given pause for thought.
Tabitha laughed, “How’s that for fucking negotiations?”
“I will consider the Penns,” Chick said.
“It’s the least you could do for killing their dad and don’t get me started on what your lot did to Reggie,” the Boss Lady saw fit to comment.
“Reginald Penn…” The Cappy began, but Tabitha stopped him.
“You killed him, or at least as good as, but if you help Marcus and Simon, I’m sure they might just be willing to keep the peace.”
And so it was, an unprecedented peace agreement was reached, which if anyone had told me Tabitha would be partially responsible for, I would have laughed until my ribs hurt.
“Prison changes a girl, Sam,” she said at the time.
The changes in her and The Cappy were only to show Judge Doyle them playing nice together. They still had their axes to bury. The war between them was far from over. It had just turned cold under Judge Doyle’s hammer.
As he stood to leave The Cappy said to her, “What Jerry did to you was despicable. He tried to steal something from you that should never be stolen from another person. I am sorry.”
Tabitha blinked. It had been the last thing she had expected to hear.
Chick had been thinking of his son when he said, “I just wish you had come directly to me.”
“Would it have made a difference?” Tabitha asked.
“I like to think it would have. Regardless of what you may think, I never condoned his behaviour.”
“I know,” Tabitha agreed. “I wasn’t the one who cut his dick off.”
Chick raised his chin. “Another charge you’ll find removed if you and I can stay out of each other’s way.
“Generous fucker, aren’t you?” Tabitha teased.
“I’m optimistic for the future,” The Cappy told Ronnie as they parted. “We have some kinks still to iron out but we’ll get there.”
Helping the Boss Lady remain at The Knock Knock Club was a bold move for the Owen Inc. CEO. Personally, I would rather swim with Snowflake.
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Matthew (you can call him Matty) is a mild mannered man with the spirit of a poet. He hails from an artistic family. His cousin, Harper, owns the Dalway Lane gallery in City Main and his younger cousin Moony is a junior cartoonist for Roby Studios. Having lost his mother at a young age he was raised by his Aunt Gladys. Originally from the country of Subala the Lane family settled into Coldford and thrived for generations. When Matty meet his wife, Wanda, and she gave birth to their son Walter, it seemed like the perfect life.
After the birth of Walter, Wanda became absorbed in post natal depression. With a stubborn pride she feared being seen as a terrible mother so she shied from what little help there was available to her. When she fell to severe depressive episodes Matty was at a loss to be able to help her. He supported her as best he could but it appeared to be a battle he could not win.
Tragedy struck (and was somewhat prevented) when Wanda tried to kill their infant child in a murder suicide. She saw no way forward. Matty in turn shot his wife dead in order to save little Walter. It didn’t matter his intentions, a grisly murder was still committed and he was given ten years at the behest of The Boss.
Quiet, polite and agreeable Matty never poses any trouble for the guards of Coldford Correctional. He is pleasant to the other inmates and he is always where he needs to be and when. Not that he has much choice in that matter.
A decade behind bars is a long time but he knows his son is safe in the hands of his Aunt Gladys. In the meantime it is up to his legal representative, the well known and respected Ronald ‘Ronnie’ Owen, to appeal to the Office of Law Makers on his behalf in the hopes his sentence can be reduced due to the circumstances.
In a desperate attempt to save the life of his child, Matty Lane wielded a gun. Now his wife is dead and he has been imprisoned in Coldford Correctional for ten years … At least.
Coming April 2022
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