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"When Lexy Met Dandy (and Fiona)"

                               When Lexy Met Dandy (and Fiona)

Cuento was a town of dappled shade in a county of lemony sunshine. The scrub jays were as bright as bluebirds overhead and as rich as parrots in among the leaves. The breeze at the edge of town smelled of almond blossom and of new tomato leaves and the still air of Main Street smelled of good coffee and of bagels even a New Yorker could choke down.

All of which meant that, ordinarily, Lexy Campbell felt happy there. Safe and happy. She felt neither right now. It had been an eye-opener of an evening at the public library, listening to a self-defence expert coaching girls through a series of tips to spot trouble, evade capture, fell assailants and, if need be, escape from ropes, chains, plastic ties and even duct tape, which was well-nigh impossible unless you knew how

Lexy was only there as an on-call counsellor in case of melt-downs but she’d finished the night drained and harrowed. All the teens had been fine.

“Are you a survivor?” a chaperone mom had asked her kindly, pressing a red cup of apple juice and a cookie into Lexy’s shaking hands.

“I try. Wait, you mean- No. I’m here to help.”

At the sound of her Scottish accent, the woman put her head on one side, squinched up her eyes like an instant face-lift for a photo, and said. “Are you the one who . . .?”

“That’s me,” said Lexy. “Immigrant, therapist, corpse-stumbler.” It was her best shorthand for “got mixed up in two murders and don’t want to talk about it or make it a hat-trick”.

“I was going to say,” the mom continued, “the one who got permits to live in a houseboat.”

“Also me,” Lexy said. Creek House floated serenely on a mooring in the Last Ditch Slough, just behind the Last Ditch Motel where all of Lexy’s dearest friends in the world lived, bickered, flounced off, crawled back and mixed margaritas. “Why?”

Why? Have you seen Sausalito?” the mom said. “I wouldn’t like Cuento to go that way.”

Pondering what aspect of such a gentrified, sustainably sourced, organic-Arts-Festival kind of a Bay Area enclave someone might worry would hit her in the house prices at least got Lexy’s mind off assailants and how to foil them for a while. It wasn’t until she was walking home that she started a serious case of the creeps. Every shade tree in the quiet streets was surely hiding an attacker. Every car doing a steady twenty-five between stop signs was surely driven by a prowling kidnapper with a taser in the glove box and a coil of rope on the back seat. And every car in the horseshoe parking lot of the Last Ditch looked like the getaway for a cell of desperadoes holed up in a room together, drugs stashed in the cistern and shotgun nosing through the curtains waiting for the feds to come.

Stepping on board Creek House usually made Lexy feel even safer. For one thing, she always knew whether she was alone. She could tell, from the light tip of the deck, when there was no extra ballast anywhere on board and could tell, from the solid feeling and the lack of movement, when one of her motel pals had come to see her.

Tonight there was no tip. Lexy put her foot on the bottom step leading to the front deck and felt the resistance. “Hiya!” she sang out. “Who is it?”

Only silence, a distant train, and the scuffle of a rat in the undergrowth answered her.

“Todd?” she shouted. “Take off your headphones. You’re freaking me out.”

But when Lexy opened the door to the living room, which stretched across the front of the boat, it was empty.

“Todd?” she called. “Roger? Della? Kathi? Noleen? Devin? Who’s there?” Stillness and silence met her words. “Diego, are you hiding?” she shouted, even though Diego, at four, wouldn’t have made that difference in the dip of the boat. She listened and the lack of explosive giggles told her he was nowhere near.

Lexy passed through to the corridor that ran along to the back deck. She glanced in at her own tiny bedroom, the spare tiny bedroom, checked the lock on the door she used as an office, where her clients’ records were stored, poked her head in at the kitchen, and ended up outside the shower-room.

“Is anyone in there?” she said rapping on the door. There was no lock. She had deliberately not installed one, partly to avoid drama with any of her more fragile clients, and partly to discourage long visits. Creek House was too small for long bathroom visits to be a good idea and all her real friends lived forty paces away. She felt, and told them, that they could go and stink up their own bogs, since their own bogs were on mains drainage and she was stuck with a delicate eco-toilet (much inclined to take the vapours under rough treatment).

Hauling in a deep breath and holding it, Lexy opened the door. The entire three foot square shower room was empty. So was the back deck and the walkway that led round the side to the front deck.  There was no one on board.

“Huh,” Lexy said to herself. “Weird.” Then she clicked the kettle on, prised the lid off the biscuit tin, confirming that there were three bits of shortbread left in there, and went to put her jammies on and watch a bit of telly.

Her bedroom was extremely compact. Besides the boxed-in bed, there was a corner wardrobe with room for a date-night-dress (if she ever met a guy), a funeral suit (already worn twice on account of the corpse-stumbling) a court appearance suit (ditto) and one gown in case she ever got plus-oned for the Oscars (unlikely, but when a girl from Dundee moves to California she can’t help it). Additional storage consisted of three shallow drawers in her dressing table and a hook on the back of the door.

The only way to cope was to keep things moving. Lexy maintained a full dirty washing basket, a full machine, a full rope of clothes drying on the side deck, and a full ironing basket, at all times. Thus divided, her clothes were conquered. (The only downside was the jays plopping all over her washing when she put crusts out on the deck for them.) So, when she wriggled out of her jeans, t-shirt and underwear, she didn’t stuff them in the hamper. That would mean unloading the hamper into the washer, by unloading the washer onto the line, by packing the line into the ironing basket, by emptying the ironing basket. In short, it meant ironing. Instead, she hung every stitch she’d been wearing on the hook at the back of the door, plucked a nightie out from under her pillow and padded through to the telly for a click through the channels

“Ahhhhhh, The X-Files!” she said, stretching out on the couch and wriggling her toes in under a cushion to keep them cosy. She sipped and crunched as wholesome scenes of baseball practice in a small town even cuter than Cuento began to set up the mystery, but fell asleep long before the plot got moving.

When she came awake again it was to squeals of distress and desperate scuffles and for a moment she looked wildly around the room until Scully’s voice said “Let’s move the bed” and Mulder’s voice said “They’ve got her strapped to a kind of board or something”. Lexy, heart still hammering, clicked the telly off and lay back on the couch letting her breath come out in a long slow hoot of fading tension.

“Okay,” she told herself in a shaky voice. “Okay, Lexy. It was just pretend. Brrrr.” She shook off the last of the heebie-jeebies from the scene of the wild-eyed woman trapped under the bed in that dark, creepy house.

And froze.

Someone was hidden under that bed on the telly.

Her throat contracted as if a drawstring had been pulled around it.

She had no bloody storage space on this boat.

A line of sweat prickled her brow.

Her bed was boxed into its alcove with painted planks.

Her mouth spiked with a sudden sour hit of adrenaline.

There was a hiding space under her bed.

And there was someone hidden there.

Feeling as she was floating, Lexy rose up and glided through to stand in her bedroom doorway and gaze at the painted panels under the edge of her duvet. Why had she never thought of this before? She tiptoed over and crouched down. The panels were painted and repainted with coat after coat of thick gloss paint. But there was a line, a crack, around a section of them and when Lexy closed one eye and peered very hard she thought she could see the faint outline of a hinge under the decades of repainting. She sat back on her heels and breathed carefully.

Then she formed a fist and pounded hard on the wood right in front of her.

Nothing.

Not a scuffle. Not a gasp. Not even the dullness there would be if the gap under her bed was stuffed up with a person’s body.

She knocked again, with the front of her knuckles this time, and knew that the space was empty, as hollow as a coconut.

“Well good then,” she said, slapping the paint with the flat of her hand as she stood. The crack in the paint widened as the door popped open on its concealed hinge. Lexy dropped back to her knees and put her face near the floor to peer in. She let out a long, low whistle.

“That has just doubled the storage space in this abode,” she said, pulling the door wider open. “Quick flick round with a duster and I’ll be able to start my life as a hoarder.”

The space under the bed was completely empty, the bare boards of the floor meeting the bare boards of the back wall, with not so much as a mousetrap to clutter it. All there was under there was a piece of coloured paper that must have slipped down the inside edge of the mattress above. Lexy dropped onto her stomach and wriggled forward. It wasn’t paper. Well, it was a book jacket; around a book. Someone must have dropped it when reading in bed and then not realised where it had got to.

“I would have pulled this place apart with my bare hands,” Lexy muttered, “if I lost a book when I was on page-” she checked where the bookmark was tucked in “a hundred and eighty-five!”

She wriggled out backwards and stood, looking at the front cover. DANDY GILVER AND A QUITE REMARKABLE FIND. The picture, done in the style of an early railway poster, showed a wry looking woman with a big spotty dog at her side,.

“Ha!” said Lexy. “Remarkable find indeed.” She flipped the book open and read the flyleaf.

 

It’s 1931 and Dandy Gilver, accompanied by her trusty sidekick Alec Osborne, is at home on her Perthshire estate …”

 

            “Perthshire?” Lexy said.  “As in Scotland?” She had never heard of the author, but a book set in Scotland, in the very next county to home, was a treat. She batted the front of her nightie to get rid of the worst of the under-bed dust bunnies and climbed between the covers, turning to chapter one.

 

“Balance, Dandy,” Hugh said, standing with one eye shut and his shooting brake held out in front of him as a sort of ad-hoc theodolite. “Balance in all things.”

I said nothing. Gilverton, our home, is a block of rather dull stone (symmetrical it is true, and Hugh was right to note that symmetry is pleasing to the eye) but it is so completely without ornament, rising up unadorned from its green parkland, that I rather hankered for something pretty if we were really to be spending money on a landscaper, as we seemed to be.

Hugh, though, had his heart set on an avenue of oaks, poker straight, bisecting the park on the shortest route to the front door, and unlikely to develop so much as a gnarl or a burr before the two of us were long in our graves. I would have gone for a grove of willows hanging over a lake, with a red bridge after the Oriental style, but we had been married long enough for me to know it was not worth mentioning.

 

            “I like her,” Lexy said. “Posh and gobby’s always a laugh.” She put the bookmark back in, clicked off her bedside lamp and snuggled down, breathing deeply and thinking of parkland and oak avenues, trying to remember what Capability Brown was called, getting distracted by Calamity Jane as she began to drift, and snore, and dream and-

            “Balance!”

Lexy shot straight up and sprang out of her box bed. “Ohmigod, ohmigod. Balance and symmetry.” She tried to slow her breath and swallow at the same time, so instead choked and sneezed which caused a pee-dance. “Idiot,” she whispered to herself, edging out of her bedroom door and scampering as fast as she could with her knees together up the corridor to the bathroom. This boat was balanced. Her bedroom was on one side, and its exact mirror image, box bed and all, was on the other. And, since there was definitely – definitely – someone else aboard, that was the one and only place they could be hiding.

Lexy stood, flushed, and sidled back along the passageway to the livingroom. She picked up the brass poker that sat beside her little wood stove waiting for the three days a year it was cold enough for a fire. She gave it a few experimental swishes, wishing she had paid more attention to pirate movies, then crept along to the spare-room door, depressed the handle and let it swing open.

The box bed in the spare room wasn’t made up, no covers hanging down to obscure the edge of the planking. Lexy crouched and squinted and, right enough, there was a line at the edge of the hidden door, a thicker line at the hinge side. She rapped on it. Was it less hollow than the space under her bed had been. She could have sworn it was.

And so, she took a deep breath and spoke. “Just so you know, I’ve got a gun.” God bless America, she thought. If she’d said that in Dundee whoever it was hiding under her bed would never have believed her. “It’s loaded and cocked. Do you call it cocked? I’m not being rude. I mean, the safety’s off. Look, never mind. I’m pointing it right at you, so no funny business, okay?”

Silence met her words. Of course, the flip side of the blessing of America was that whoever was under there might have a gun too. Might have a gun, rather. Loaded and cocked and pointing straight at her. And since she was speaking, it was much clearer where exactly she was.

Lexy shook all of these unhelpful thoughts out of her head, leaned forward again and bammed on the panels to spring the lock. She just had time to reflect that she reckoned it sounded pretty hollow after all, before the door sprang ajar and she could see the dusty emptiness behind it.

“Good thing for you don’t exist,” she told the person who wasn’t there. “Because I’m a dab hand with this poker and not only is it sharp, it is also sooty. It would have put a major crimp in your night if I’d applied it as planned.”

Then she leaned forward to check the back corners of the space for any further litter. And she found some. It was another book, another lost volume of bedside reading. This one – at a guess – was a modern tale of family dysfunction and poor choices leading to drama, peril and ultimate redemption. On the jacket was that woman Lexy, like all book lovers, had come to know so well. She was walking away on a lonely headland towards her fate, or a sharp drop if she didn’t look lively.

“You again,” Lexy said. “Not wearing your red coat, though.” But still she flipped the paperback over to read the copy.

 

“When Fiona McTaggart flees her abusive marriage to set up a respite home for carers in the forests of the Scottish Highlands, she thinks the midges will be her biggest problem. But the first cohort of guests at her yurt village have not been honest about what they’re seeking respite from. The trouble they are fleeing finds them anyway and Fiona discovers that the secrets of these strangers are her own.”

 

“Oh yes please!” Lexy said, polishing the dusty cover on the backside of her nightie. After two wriggles under two different beds it was trashed anyway. She’d need to find space for it in her hamper and start a new one. “Domestic noir with a tartan trim? I don’t mind if I do.”

This one got going a bit quicker than the historical and Lexy was four chapters deep, already gripping the book and advising Fiona out loud to pack her yoga mat and go, before she realised it was close to one o’clock and she should call it a night.

*

After such an action packed evening – what with the self-defence, the passive-aggressive chaperone mom, the intruder scare, the X-Files episode (Brrrrrr), two count them two secret compartments, and some unexpected reading matter – there was small wonder Lexy’s sleep was studded with jabby little dreams, like an orange with cloves in a big pan of punch.

She dreamed of strangers, of boxes, of midges (even in her dream she wondered why no one in Scotland has bug nets and even in her dream she didn’t know), of books, of Hemsworths (she’d been single a year), and finally of shipwreck. In her dream, the houseboat was rocking from side to side as she clung on and shouted for help.

She woke when the rocking got strong enough to slide her hard against the inside wall of her bed, and lay frozen, feeling a movement and hearing a sound she couldn’t understand. The movement was all around. The sound came from above.

“Oh. My. God.” Lexy let the words trickle out on a breath. “He’s on the roof.”

On legs that felt like over-boiled spaghetti – okay, like over-boiled cannelloni (she really needed to join a gym) – Lexy tottered into the living room for her phone, but before she could dial 911 she felt the boat tip and heard footsteps marching up the stairs to the front steps.

She knew those feet. Those were the strides of Detective Molly “Mike” Rankinson of the Cuento PD, Lexy’s . . . but even inside her own head she couldn’t say arch nemesis. And of course, it was Molly. Of course that’s who Lexy was going to have to tell that she’d known someone was on her boat but she’d just gone to be bed like a pillock and left her phone in the other room.

Molly knocked on the door. Lexy answered. Molly raised a brow. Lexy remembered that she was wearing a pink nightie with a 3D teddy bear on it and the slogan “cuddle me; I’m drunk”.

“Laundry day,” she said.

“You do you,” said Molly.

“But what can I do for you?” Lexy said. The whole conversation was taking on a lewd quality that made her want to squirm. Also, now she was going to have to pretend she didn’t know there someone on her roof, or look like a basket case.

“Wondered if you’d had any disturbance here last night,” Molly said.

Lexy opened her mouth and made the shape for the “Y” of yes, then without even meaning to faked a sneeze to account for the mouth shape and followed it up with the “W” of why.

“Because a missing person was seen heading this way and she didn’t check in at the motel and she didn’t get picked up on the security camera at the self-storage. Which leaves you.”

“She?” said Lexy.

“She,” said Molly. “You recognise her?” She plucked her phone out of her back pocket, clicked, scrolled and showed Lexy the screen. The photo was of a skinny, pretty white girl with long straight hair, hardware in her mouth fixing her already perfect teeth, and two armfuls of friendship bracelets and heartfelt, but temporary tattoos. Cuento was full of them and so Lexy wouldn’t have sworn if there were doughnuts riding on it. But for bagels, she would have said that kid was at the self-defence class last night.

“She’s not a client,” she said, not exactly answering but at least not lying. “Do you think she’s run away or is it something bad?”

Molly gave the girl on the screen a long look and said: “Both. Her mom called us to make the report about a half hour ago, soon as she managed to get free.”

Free? Lexy thought. She didn’t say it. She didn’t have to.

“She and her husband were tied to their recliners with about three rolls of duct tape. She said they were “asleep”, but her breath would take down a charging sow this morning, so I’m guessing they were passed out, and little Stephanie here just wrapped them round the chest before they could wake up and stop her. Then she wrapped their wrists and ankles, took her dad’s laptop with her, and ran.”

“Took her dad’s laptop? Doesn’t she own one?”

“Took that too.”

“Took her dad’s laptop. And the mum just told you all that? She must think you’re an idiot.”

“Yep. She’s putting on a hell of a show, wringing her hands, even squeezing out a few tears about what danger her baby is in, out on her own, away from her home and her parents who love her so.”

“But will you crack them?”

“Oh we’ll crack them. Once we get his laptop in evidence, we’ll split them into kindling sticks.”

“Well, good luck,” said Lexy. “And let me know if I can help.”

Molly did her sharp nod that was nearly a bow, turned on her heel, leaving a good streak of rubber sole on the polished deck as usual, and left, using her night stick to hack through the undergrowth in an unnecessary way, purely designed to show Lexy what she thought of her living conditions. When she was well gone, Lexy walked out and looked up.

“Stephanie?” she called. “You can come down now.”

There was a scrabbling sound, and after a moment, a timid face appeared above the trim of the porch. Her hair hung in rats tails and there was a streak of dust on one cheek.

“You help, don’t you?” she said. Her voice had a bit of tremor in it, but plenty else underneath that. “That’s what you do, right? Like last night? You help. So will you help me?”

“I do and I will,” Lexy said. “Any way I can. I’ll help you feel better and, if I can, I’ll help you get him. Them. Him.”

“Him,” said Stephanie. “Them. He- He takes- took- pictures. He never touched me, but he likes pictures.”

“I’ve only got one question,” Lexy said gently. “Why didn’t you-” Stephanie put her hands up to the sides of her head and pressed hard, as if trying to block her ears. “-come down off the roof when I got home?”

“Oh,” Stephanie said, taking her hands away. “I thought you were going to ask me why I didn’t leave before last night. I didn’t come down because I felt dumb for being up here. How stupid is that?”

“Perfectly understandable. I’ve done worse.”

“And I didn’t leave-”

“I didn’t ask.”

“-because they’ve got fantastic Wi-Fi. I’m a gamer. I reckoned a foster home would have way shitty Wi-Fi.”

Lexy’s mouth opened and shut a few times, because she was only human, but then she caught hold of herself. “I get that,” she said. “Books are my downfall. You wouldn’t believe what a good book can distract me from.”

“Yeah, like that volume of the X-Files you read last night?” Stephanie said.

“Ha!” said Lexy. “Right. Good books and bad telly. I like you, Stephanie. Now come down here – careful mind! – and let’s get cracking. It’s going to be quite a day.”

 

The End

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