All posts by thecoastalquill

There is definitely salt water flowing in my veins. The sound of waves rolling across a sandy, shell-covered shore has echoed in my memories since I was very young. The ocean spurs my imagination and created my yearn to write. I don't always write about the southern US or the ocean but neither are ever far from my heart.

Caroline Giammanco: Shelf Life

Welcome to Write the Story! Each month Writers Unite! will offer a writing prompt for writers to create a story from and share with everyone. WU! wants to help our members and followers to generate more traffic to their platforms.  Please check out the authors’ blogs, websites, Facebook pages and show them support. We would love to hear your thoughts about the stories and appreciate your support! 

Please note: the images used are free-use images and do not require attribution.

Shelf Life

Caroline Giammanco

Frankie stoked the coals and put another log on the fire. He was tired, and the grind of getting back to work caught up with him as heavy shadows began to paint the view from his cabin window. 

He’d returned from vacation a few weeks ago, and as he gazed into the distance he remembered the warmth of the Florida sun and the sound of waves crashing outside the beach house, his usual getaway spot. 

Still, as much as he’d enjoyed his yearly southern excursion, this was home. His hosts at the Florida bed and breakfast wouldn’t understand the draw, he doubted. Whistling wind, feet of snow, and sub-zero temperatures turned a lot of people off. 

Not Frankie, though. He came from pioneer stock. His family settled here generations ago, and they’d adapted well. The blue tones of the approaching evening on the snow-laden trees tonight were comforting and familiar. There’s nowhere else he’d want to live, and he’d had his share of world travels. No, vacations are nice, but there’s no place like home, as the saying goes. 

The teapot whistled, and Frankie turned from the view to get a cup and saucer out for his evening tea. The steam from the kettle swirled like a magical spirit ascending to heaven in a waltz of fluid motion. Frankie was mesmerized by little details like that. 

He smiled in spite of an aching lower back. 

Tonight I’m definitely using some ointment on it. I’m not so young anymore, and those boxes did a number on me this week. 

Like most of his friends and neighbors, he worked at the local factory. Work was steady, and the benefits were good. His bosses even gave him paid vacation time which accounted for his yearly trips to the beach. All he had to do was squeeze in an hour or so a day on work-related activities and he could write off his entire trip as a business expense. He couldn’t complain about his boss or the company. It was a respectable job, and nearly everyone in town worked there in one capacity or the other. 

Normally Frankie’s position wasn’t as physically taxing as it was this week and for the next few. The annual inventory and retooling took place at this time, and that meant all hands on deck. Everyone from the first-year rookie to the general manager rolled up sleeves and assisted in counting, packing, and cleaning. They all dreaded this difficult, but necessary, time. 

This downtime, of sorts, at work was nothing like the adventures Frankie had while traveling. Production would begin again in a month after new orders came in to prepare for next year’s rush. As boring as January was at work, Frankie and his friends accepted the fact it had to be done. The fun they’d had on their excursions made up for any tedium they faced on the job. 

Frankie returned to his comfortable chair as his gaze returned to the glistening scene before him. The scent of cinnamon lifted from his steaming cup of tea, and the frost on the windows mingled with the aroma to provide a poignant moment. Another twinge in his lower back made him wince, however, ruining the otherwise perfect instant. 

I can’t blame it all on work, unfortunately. My back hasn’t felt right since the trip home from vacation. That’s what I get for traveling coach. Next year, I’ll see about better travel arrangements. 

The fun he’d had was worth the current discomfort, though. He’d loved every minute of his time with this hosts and their children. 

Kids make you feel young again, and that’s good for the mind and soul. 

The fire crackled, and another hour dwindled by while the blue cast of the snow outside his window faded into a velvet black. The clock chimed, and he knew it was time to crawl under the quilts and go to sleep. 

His eyes grew heavy as he snuggled under the blanket. Yet, suddenly, he sat up in bed. 

I almost forgot my nightly journal entry! I’ll never write my memoir accurately if I don’t log the day’s events. 

Opening the drawer to his nightstand, Frankie retrieved his diary and favorite pen. The leather cover felt good in his hands, and his heart leapt at the working title he’d given it: Shelf Life. 

I’ve always loved a good turn of phrase, and I think this book has potential. After all, what other elf has revealed the inside story of life as an Elf on the Shelf? I’m sure I can get a publishing contract with one of the Big 5 with this one. 

He quickly scribbled down today’s entry, then yawned, turned out the light, and fell asleep with the satisfaction of knowing he was working on something big.

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Visit Caroline on her blog: https://carolinegiammancowrites.home.blog/

Amber C. Deck: Trust Me, Trust Me Not

Welcome to Write the Story! Each month Writers Unite! will offer a writing prompt for writers to create a story from and share with everyone. WU! wants to help our members and followers to generate more traffic to their platforms.  Please check out the authors’ blogs, websites, Facebook pages and show them support. We would love to hear your thoughts about the stories and appreciate your support! 

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Trust Me, Trust Me Not

Amber C. Deck

Trust is never easy. It can be fragile — much like a delicate snowflake. It can also be as dangerous as the brutal winter cold.

Interpol Agent Alerra “Allie” Montague had always had trust issues — ever since she’d been abandoned as a baby. After twelve foster homes and one failed engagement, the thirty-three year old was done with people disappointing her. She’d learned that not trusting others led to less heartache, and it made her one good agent.

At least, it had made her a good agent until this case.

Allie’s assignment had been to escort a visiting government official back to his hotel from the agency’s office in Paris. It had been a routine assignment that she’d done countless times — only this one went wrong. Horribly wrong.

Now, here she was in the snowy woods outside of Berlin with a poorly covered knife wound to her shoulder. She was heading to the one place of the one person she’d swore to never ask for help — Eli Kastnen. 

A loud knock on his cabin door caused Eli to reach for the rifle he kept in his coat closet. Peering out of the peephole he’d installed when he’d first moved in, he was surprised to see a woman standing there. Actually, he was more surprised at who the woman was rather than why she was pounding on his door at midnight.

Eli took a moment to glance over the trim, toned frame of the red-haired woman at his door. She was about five-foot-seven, which made her quite a bit shorter than him. Her fair complexion peeked through her bundled-up attire, but, even with the layers of clothing, Eli could tell something was a bit off about her by the way she stood.

Golden eyes looked up into the peephole as if she knew he was staring at her. Eli froze for a moment — unsure if he should open the door or act like he wasn’t home.

“Open the door, Eli. Please. I need your help.” Something in her voice made him reach for the door handle. He unlocked the heavy wooden door and pulled it open — waiting until she was inside to shut and lock it again. “Thank you.”

Allie gently shook the snow off of her as she glanced at Eli. He still looked as handsome as ever. His intense blue eyes, dark-blond hair, and muscular body were all too familiar to her — mostly since Eli was the one who’d called off their wedding. Had that really been four years ago?

“You look good, Eli. I must say that growing a beard works for you.” Allie eased her coat off before glancing at him. His beard was cut short and neat — just like his hair. Typical Eli. “It looks like leaving the agency suited you, too.”

“What are you doing here, Allie?” Eli crossed his arms over his chest. He wasn’t up to dealing with her nonchalant attitude after she’d just shown up out of the blue. “How did you even find me? It’s been four years since you went back home to Paris.”

“I only transferred because you dumped me a week before the wedding. I was heartbroken and scared about being abandoned again.” Allie tensed at the accusing tone in his voice — causing pain to radiate through her shoulder. She forced herself to relax as she looked up at him. She could tell her statement had bothered him by the way he shifted uncomfortably. “I knew you always planned to move out to your family’s cabin. That’s beside the point, Eli. I need your help.”

“I can tell.” A smirk formed on his face. “You kind of look terrible. Have you slept at all in the past four years?”

“For your information, I have slept fine,” Allie replied sharply. “I am only here because I have nowhere else to go. The assignment I was working on fell apart, and… and a member of the French government is in the hospital.” She eased the neckline of her shirt over — revealing the blood-soaked bandage. “The assassination attempt has the hospital on lockdown, which has somehow put me in the assassin’s crosshairs. I was attacked the minute I entered the parking deck at my apartment.”

Eli frowned. “Who knew about the route you were taking on your assignment?”

“Only a handful of people, Eli.” Allie saw the concern in his eyes as he looked at her shoulder. “Don’t worry about this. It’s just a scratch. I need you to help me, Eli, please. You’re still the best agent — even if you refuse to ever walk into an Interpol office again.”

“Yeah, and you already know what being an agent cost me.” Eli walked down the hallway and into his bedroom — emerging a few moments later with a first-aid kit. “We need to properly dress that wound before it gets infected.”

Allie sat down on his couch as he took a seat beside her. Eli placed the kit on the coffee table and began taking supplies from it. Both remained silent as he started tending to the injury on her shoulder.

“I know you left the agency because of me, Eli.” Allie hissed lightly at the burn of the antiseptic before continuing to speak. “I have trust issues — I know that. Despite all of my fears in my personal life, I’ve always trusted you. You’re the only one I could think of to help me. I don’t know who to rely on at the agency right now.” She glanced at him. “Someone wanted a high-ranking government official dead, Eli. I stood in their way, and I’m the one they want dead now.”

Eli remained silent as he finished bandaging her shoulder. Allie tried to get him to look at her — to see what he was thinking. She sighed as she shook her head.

“You don’t have to help me, Eli,” Allie told him as she stood up. “I should never have come here and brought up old memories. I’ll figure out what to do on my own. I always have, haven’t I?”

Eli gently grabbed her hand as she turned away from him — careful not to hurt her shoulder. Allie turned to see him staring up at her with a mixture of emotions that clouded his deep-blue eyes. No man had looked at her like that in a very long time… 

“You have always been too stubborn to see that you’re not alone anymore, Allie.” Eli stood up as she turned to face him. “It took years for me to figure out why you had such a hard time settling in one place. I just thought you didn’t want a rough-around-the-edges guy from Berlin, but I soon realized you weren’t used to staying in one place for long.” Eli released her hand. “I will always be here to help you, Allie. No matter if we ever make a relationship work again or not. I’ll always be here.”

Allie didn’t know whether to hug him or slap him for making her feel so terrible. She’d harbored quite a load of guilt since their broken engagement. She’d assumed Eli would have blamed her for everything and just forget about her. Leave it to the agency’s former best undercover operative to keep such a big secret from her.

Before Allie could respond to Eli, a low alarm sounded from somewhere in the room. She watched as Eli’s reaction tensed before he grabbed his TV remote off the coffee table. Pointing it at the TV that hung over his fireplace’s mantle, Eli flipped the screen on to show several security camera feeds. Allie stared at the screen as she watched figures cloaked in white fatigues, moving carefully through the snow.

“They tripped my perimeter alarm.” Eli’s voice was almost a growl. “They are about a mile out from the cabin. I need to get you out of here and call reinforcements.”

“No, Eli.” Allie shook her head vigorously. “I can’t run anymore. About five guys are coming — according to the cameras. I think we can handle this.” She gave him a worried glance as he pulled out his cell phone. “I don’t know who I can trust at the agency, Eli.”

“Luckily, I do.” Eli grinned as he dialed his best friend’s number. Xavier Graffe picked up on the first ring. “X, this is Eli. Got a situation at the cabin. Bring reinforcements, but only people you trust with your life. I don’t know when these guys will take out the cell…”

The line went dead before Eli could finish his sentence. That meant these guys were coming in faster than expected. Eli knew it would take at least half an hour for backup to get there. He just prayed that he and Allie could stay alive long enough for his former team to get there.

“They’re scrambling the cell signal now.” Eli walked over to the coat closet by the door and opened it. He pushed aside the thick coats to reveal a small assortment of weapons neatly hung on the back wall. “How much ammo do you have?”

“Just what is in this.” Allie pulled her 9MM Glock out from where she had tucked it into the back waistband of her pants. “I didn’t exactly get time to go by my apartment and pack a bag. I even rode here in the back of a moving van — not the best place to transport heavy artillery.”

Eli couldn’t hide a grin at her remark. Allie could always make him smile at the worst possible times. Like when they were surrounded by five armed guys who wanted her dead.

“Here, take this.” Eli handed her another 9MM Glock as he grabbed his Ruger 45-caliber handgun. He inserted the clip and grinned at her. “Ready to make some noise, baby?”

Allie smiled and nodded as she cocked her guns. Taking cover behind the sofa, she watched Eli flip over his solid-oak dining table. He grinned at her again as he knelt behind it. Now, it was time to wait…

The front door flew open after one of the intruders gave it a few swift kicks. Four men entered the room — slowly sweeping their weapons from side-to-side as they walked.

Rookie mistake, Eli thought as he nodded at Allie. Time to show these guys who they’re messing with.

Both Allie and Eli rose up slightly behind their hiding spots and fired two shots apiece. The four masked men went down instantly — with each howling in pain. Crimson stained their white fatigues as the men clutched where the bullet went in below the kneecap.

Eli stood and rushed over to the four men — kicking away their weapons. Thankful that he’d remembered to grab the zip-ties before the men arrived, he flipped each one over and secured their hands behind them. Each man groaned in protest as pain shot through them.

“Wait,” Allie said as she stood up from her spot behind the couch. “There’s only four of them. Where is the fifth guy?”

“Slipping through a window in the kitchen as all of this went down.” A female voice with a noticeable French accent came from behind Allie. She spun around to face the fifth masked intruder — gasping as the person removed their face covering. “Surprised to see me, partner? Or, should I say, former partner?”

“Claire LaRue.” Allie eyed the handgun that was aimed at her chest. Her former partner stood about the same height as her, which gave Allie clear visibility to the hatred in the blonde woman’s dark-brown eyes. “I’m not the reason you got fired, Claire. You chose to destroy that evidence — not me.”

“Allegedly. I allegedly destroyed evidence.” Claire spoke through clenched teeth. “You were my partner, Allie. You were supposed to have my back — no matter what. That’s what partners do.” Claire spotted Eli moving toward her. “That’s far enough, Kastnen. Any further and I put a bullet in your long-lost love.”

Allie eyed the gun in Claire’s hands. She clutched the two she held in her hands. If she could only get off a shot first…

“Don’t even think about it, Allie.” Claire glared at her. “Toss your guns over toward the kitchen — both of you.” She grinned as they both did as they were told. “Excellent. Now, we’re just going to have a little chat. One that ends with you confessing to destroying the evidence and me getting my job back.”

“No one would ever believe that.” Eli spoke to her in a calm tone. “Allie is as by-the-book as they come. Not one agent would believe your lies.”

“Shut up!” Claire yelled. The gun in her hand wavered slightly before she steadied it. “They will, too — by the time Allie’s body is found with her heartfelt confession and apology.”

Eli felt his blood run cold. “I won’t let you get away with this, LaRue. I’ll hunt you down and make you pay.”

Claire cackled. “You’ll be dead, too. Poor Eli Kastnen. The former fiancé of a corrupt agent. Allie came to you for help in covering up her crime, but you refused to help the woman you left years ago. In a crime of passion, she shot you before deciding to end her own life.” 

“You have thought of everything, haven’t you?” Allie’s mocking tone caused Claire to glare at her. “I do have one question. Why go after a government official first? Why not come directly after me?”

“I needed a diversion, Allie. You taught me that.” Claire gave her a sarcastic smile. “I just had to be a little more extreme in my plan. You can’t always apply your specific methods to everything. How would spilling a drink on my dress make everyone take their attention away from you?”

“How did you get information about the route we were taking? That plan was made weeks after you were terminated from the agency.” Allie was more curious than afraid or angry now. She had to identify any leaks in the agency.

“That was easy.” Claire waved her free hand in the air dismissively. “A group I helped out owed me a favor. They had a hacker, and I needed a way into Interpol’s servers without detection. I was in and out with the information I needed before anyone even knew it.”

“I take it that this group is the same one you allegedly destroyed the evidence for?” Eli’s voice had taken on a hardened tone — as if something had him on edge.

A slight movement in the kitchen caught Allie’s attention, but she kept her expression neutral. She had to be careful not to tip-off Claire. It looked like the cavalry had arrived just in time to save them.

“Enough talking.” Claire gave Eli a look full of hatred before turning her focus back on Allie. “It’s time for you two to play your part in my plan. To make things extra special for you, Allie, I’ll kill him first while you watch.” Claire gave Eli an evil grin. “She never stopped loving you, Kastnen. She’s horrible at telling people anything or sticking by them, but she always loved you.”

“I still love her, too.” Eli’s statement caused Allie to turn her head to face him. “That’s why I am calling the shots on this mission… and I always call for backup.” He started moving toward Allie. “Allie, get down!” 

Eli dove for Allie and knocked her to the floor — pinning her underneath him as a shot rang out. Silence followed, which sent a wave of fear through Allie.

Eli wasn’t moving. Had he been hit? Allie thought as her mind raced to catch up with what just happened. Please, Eli. Please be okay.

Footsteps came from the direction of the kitchen — stopping in front of the couple. From her position, Allie couldn’t see who the person was. She was hoping they were on her and Eli’s side.

“Uh. Are you two just going to lie there?” a gruff voice with a German accent asked them. “The threat has been neutralized.”

Allie could feel Eli chuckling as he moved away from her. She gave him a fake scowl as he stood up and extended a hand to her. She glanced briefly at Claire’s still body lying nearby — blood pooling around her as she lay face down on the floor. Allie quickly turned her attention back to Eli.

“I should hit you for that,” Allie told him as she accepted his help in getting up off the floor. “I thought you had been shot.”

“I’m going to let you two sort this out,” the man who’d helped them said — a bit of humor was in his tone. Allie remembered him as being Xavier — Eli’s best friend. “It’s good to see you, Allie. I wish I could stand around and catch up, but I have to call this in. Your team will want to know you’re safe, too.” Xavier handed her his spare satellite phone. “Use this to call. We haven’t found the scrambler yet. Bound to be on one of our lively friends over there.”

Allie thanked him as she accepted the phone. She stared at it for several minutes before Eli placed his arm around her waist.

“What’s wrong, baby?” Eli asked her. “Your team is probably worried sick about you.”

“I’m just trying to think of a way to tell them that I am not coming back to the agency.” Allie looked up at Eli and smiled at his shocked expression.”Do you know you haven’t called me ‘baby’ in over four years? I’ve missed it.”

Eli bent down and kissed her before replying. “You better get used to it then… baby.”

Allie grinned at the man she trusted and loved more than anyone in the world. She knew trust was dangerous, but she had been in more danger by not trusting someone to accompany her on the assignment.

It only took a familiar cabin in snow-covered woods to help her realize that trust made her stronger than ever before.

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Please visit Amber on her website and Facebook: 
GatorGirl Writer’s Nook (https://gatorgirlswritersnookblog.com)
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Riham El-Ashry: Lost in The Blue Mountain

Welcome to Write the Story! Each month Writers Unite! will offer a writing prompt for writers to create a story from and share with everyone. WU! wants to help our members and followers to generate more traffic to their platforms.  Please check out the authors’ blogs, websites, Facebook pages and show them support. We would love to hear your thoughts about the stories and appreciate your support! 

Please note: the images used are free-use images and do not require attribution.

Lost in The Blue Mountain 

Riham El-Ashry

The police reached the scene almost ten hours after the body was found. The previous night’s blizzard had caused electricity to go out and blocked all paths to the city. Though the mountains were covered in innocent white, a terrible death had muddled the peaceful village. 

A disturbed afternoon was unusual in the Blue Mountain Resort. A dead body was a terrifying incident that never occurred here before. Many people visited the place not only because of its picturesque village-like scenery, but also because it had been one of the safest and best guarded. 

“When have you discovered the body?” Detective Lawrence asked the manager of the resort.

“The guards,” he took a deep breath, fat on his body shook as he hurried towards the agent, “have received a call for help nearly at 4 pm yesterday.”

The cozy, luxurious office was a rich reflection of the glamor of the elegant resort buildings, except for a bed sheet that was wrapped around the body of Alice Cornell, curled on a sofa. 

The air was heavy, and the room got unexpectedly warm. For some moments, no sound was heard except for the faint tapping of the husband’s shaking legs. His head down and eyes staring at the expensive thick carpet. 

“We are fine,” Mr. Cornell’s voice quavered on. “We wanted to go skiing in the Blue Mountain, but…” 

“In our resort guidelines we don’t recommend any of the guests to ski in that area,” the manager stated hastily, looking directly at the mournful husband while taking glimpses at the detective. 

“Mr. Cornell,” Det. Lawrence, placing himself in the opposite chair, said, “had you any idea that a snowstorm was approaching?” 

Before Cornell could even recall an answer, a tall man in a sports outfit stepped forward to announce that the administration made sure to warn all residents about the coming storm through SMS. 

Det. Lawrence gazed at the man for a few seconds till the latter turned away. Silence soaked the place for a moment before the detective addressed Cornell again. “Will you please explain how you lost her?” 

“We skied together till we reached the top of that horrible steep. I didn’t know exactly where we were, there was no internet signal on my phone.” He looked up and continued. “My wife,” he took a quick glance at the pile of sheets heaped on the far sofa, “though was so excited about it, she was a poor skier, pushed herself down the steep slope. 

“She drafted downward very fast and didn’t hear my shouts to her to stop. Her precious body crashed into a great rock that stood out despite the thick snow. She flew in the air and landed with a tremendous thwack on the head. 

“The storm was getting fiercer that I couldn’t see clearly. The body rolled down for a long distance and into the clump of fir.” Cornell gasped with tears. 

Det. Lawrence, who was examining the body now carefully, raised an eyebrow. “Haven’t you tried to follow her or call for help, Mr. Cornell? Don’t you agree with me that it is weird that you turned your back to her and returned here?” 

“I didn’t. I came back to ask the resort rescue unit for help. But, unluckily, we reached the place after a whole hour.” 

“How did you get back?” 

“On a snowmobile, they gave it to us before we set off.” 

The tall man in the sports clothes checked one of the screens on a side desk and objected. “We decline any responsibility for this accident. Mrs. Cornell was a skillful skier and has won a prize in the skiing contest we had last year. 

“Mr. Lawrence, here are the photos that were taken for her and other participants and winners in that contest last year. Please, take a look at this event which was also shared simultaneously on social media at the time.” 

Mr. Cornell, standing beside his wife’s body, uncovered her face and burst into weeping. The man’s sobbing was heard across the room, and the manager patted his shoulder and volunteered to accompany him to another room. 

**********************************************

“I can’t see the point of this,” Alice exclaimed, “this whole winter trip is futile. You know our marriage is over. Years ago. It was a mistake to be patient and keep trying.”

“Is this what you think?” Bill ground his teeth. 

“Bill, it is over. Accept it. Look at this place you brought us to talk. It is like our life — cold and dead.”

Bill, staring down the frozen hill, giving his wife his back, scratched his forehead and said, “But we can sit together and release all the negative feelings, get everything healed and recover our relationship.” 

“You are always the same. Thinking only of yourself. You think because you are ‘a relationship consultant’ you can solve your own problems?” 

Alice’s tone must have been sarcastic enough because Bill turned abruptly, rushed towards her and grabbed her wrist. “That’s why you cheated on me, right?”

Alice’s eyes widened, and while he was pushing her, she took many steps back. 

“You thought I wouldn’t know. You wanted a divorce so you can be with him? Isn’t this the place you met him last year? The place where you faithfully betrayed me with another man?”

Bill’s last words were accompanied by a strong nudge on his wife’s shoulder. She looked around and tried to call for help, but he didn’t give her a chance. Another push and she fell off the cliff screaming and desperately trying to hold on to anything that her hands touched. 

**********************************************

Bill covered his face with his hands. A light knock on the door brought him back to his senses. 

“It was you, wasn’t it?” Det. Lawrence stepped in. 

“What do you say? There isn’t any evidence on this nonsense claim.” 

“You mean yet,” Det. Lawrence smirked and raised his hand with a cell phone. 

“You forgot only one thing. You didn’t take her phone. You see, she hadn’t died at once. She made one last call.” 

“What.. What do you say?” Bill dipped his hands into his pockets as if searching for something. 

“You didn’t call the rescue unit. She did, and guess what her last words were. Could they be, ‘Help! He pushed me down the Blue Mountain’?” 

“This is no evidence,” he nervously shouted. 

As two officers entered the room, Det. Lawrence said, “We will see.”

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Please visit Riham on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100010254645147

S.McC: Flurries

Welcome to Write the Story! Each month Writers Unite! will offer a writing prompt for writers to create a story from and share with everyone. WU! wants to help our members and followers to generate more traffic to their platforms.  Please check out the authors’ blogs, websites, Facebook pages and show them support. We would love to hear your thoughts about the stories and appreciate your support! 

Please note: the images used are free-use images and do not require attribution.

Flurries

S.McC

Small elongated footsteps imprinted into the deep snow led to a white furry creature. It tentatively twitched its nose as it looked up into the darkening sky. 

It hopped one more step before pausing, stunned as the sun returned with its blinding light. The snow hare rubbed its eyes with its tiny paws, its ears flattened against its back.

The ground beneath the hare trembled, and he covered his eyes with his ears, burying himself within the snow.

(It was beginning) The hare thought to himself, as he trembled upon the ground. His little heart racing, he shook with fright.

He peeked out between his ears and found the snow falling harshly all around him. Quickly he sat back upon his hind legs and peered all around him into the flurry. His sight was hindered by all the snow falling around him, but his ears swivelled trying to pick up the minute sounds. 

Sounds that would signal a time for him to hop away as fast as his powerful hind legs would carry him. His nose twitched and his right ear swivelled to the same spot over and over again. His heart thudded, and he closed his eyes against the snow trying to target where the great grey beast was coming from, its jaws salivating and its claws ready to pounce upon the small hare. 

The hare opened his eyes, his ears swivelled behind him, and he crouched. A low growl signalled his first hop, and away the small hare dashed into the flurry of snow. 

Around and around the great grey beast chased him. Snapping at his heels but never quite getting him. 

The trees around him blurred, white and green mingling together as he sped past, his heart thudding.

The snow eased the longer he ran. Until at last one final snowflake fell to the floor, and he came to a sudden stop, his mind going blank.

***

The large creature got up off of the snow-covered ground and shook himself. He yawned widely, his great white teeth glinting in the bright sunshine. 

His paws began walking him softly through the trees and the sky darkened all around him.

(Early start today.) The grey wolf thought to himself, the blizzard around him whitening his fur and making him squint through the trees.

He couldn’t see very well through the snow, but his nose smelt the small furry hare of his intentions. His stomach grumbled and saliva built up within his jaws at the thought of the creature that he was hunting. The creature that he would soon be chasing.

His paws never stopped moving forward, until finally, he reached the small clearing. He paused, taking in the hare’s scent, his body quivering in anticipation.

The hare was barely visible in the snow as it crouched down, its white fur trembling in front of him. He crouched and dug his paws into the soft snow, before leaping forwards.

Chasing the hare around and around the forest. Snow falling to the ground lightening with each step. Until finally it stopped altogether and the wolf’s vision dimmed going black, its jaws centimetres away from one of the hare’s back legs.

***

A hare quietly made his way into the clearing, his little nose twitching into the darkening sky.

(Haven’t I been here before?) The hare glanced all around him but saw nothing but peace.

The sky above was clear, no snow falling until suddenly darkness covered him but for a minute and flurries of snow fell all around him.

The hare sprinted around and around the forest, the wolf hot on his heels until the snow stopped its falling and blackness took him.

***

The wolf shook his head and growled low within his throat. He stretched and looked all around him, the sights of the forest familiar to his nose and paws.

Darkness shrouded his vision before the snow fell rapidly all around him. He crouched and ran until blackness took him.

***

Darkness shrouded them again, over and over they ran through the forest, flurries of snow pelting their soft coats.

Until one day the snow stopped falling and the wolf caught the hare. The hare squirmed within the wolf’s salivating jaws, trying desperately to free itself.

A scream could be heard all around them and the wolf dropped the hare, but blackness did not take them, instead they found that they were stuck in place. Unable to move even a single paw.

The hare had landed just out of the wolf’s reach and he could no longer chase it. He snapped at the hare in frustration.

(What’s happening?) The hare called out as he tried to squirm away.

(I do not know. This isn’t what is supposed to happen.)

(What are we to do, wolf?)

(Let us sleep then perhaps in the morning we will find ourselves right again.)

And so the two curled up where they were and slept under the snow, each confused by their predicament.

***

High above them, a child on the edge of adulthood had screamed. She had been peering into the snowglobe whilst the wolf and the hare had been running around on their track in the snow. She had nearly dropped the snowglobe when the wolf had caught the hare.

She ran up to her grandparents and showed them the snowglobe. Shaking it in front of them, causing the snow to fall wildly all around. She showed them the two creatures inside sleeping next to each other, being covered in snow.

“What is it, Ava?” the grandmother asked.

“Your snowglobe is not working anymore.”

“Oh, that old thing. I’m surprised it didn’t give up years ago.” The grandparent peered at the snowglobe. She took it gently from her granddaughter’s hands and shook it. 

Flurries of snow lifted and descended all around the wolf and the hare who were curled up next to each other. Covering their grey bodies in a fine dusting.

The grandmother looked all around at the globe before handing it back to her granddaughter. “This seems fine to me.”

“But grandma! The wolf and hare, they are not running!” 

“They have never run around, Ava. They have always just slept. It must have been your imagination.”

“Oh, I’m sure they did,” Ava solemnly said. Her shoulders slumped and her eyes welled as she peered at the globe.

“Come, Ava, let us grab some hot chocolate. All that snow falling has made me thirsty,” the grandmother said, taking her hand.

Ava instantly perked up and placed the snow globe onto the battered table in the sitting room and skipped into the kitchen. 

The grandmother clambered out of the chair groaning, before slowly following her into the kitchen.

The grandfather peered at the snowglobe, chuckling he whispered tapping the glass. “So you were at it again.”

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G. A. Short: Snow Hawk

Welcome to Write the Story! Each month Writers Unite! will offer a writing prompt for writers to create a story from and share with everyone. WU! wants to help our members and followers to generate more traffic to their platforms.  Please check out the authors’ blogs, websites, Facebook pages and show them support. We would love to hear your thoughts about the stories and appreciate your support! 

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Snow Hawk 

G. A. Short 

Aleks stood in the middle of the icy crossroads. The road felt claustrophobic, the trees walling him in on each side. They rose high enough that the tops were not visible in this weather. He had been walking for hours and treading the wintry ground was tiresome. His leg muscles burned. She was close now though, he could feel it. The hackles on his neck and arms were up. His heart beat faster and his breathing became shallow. Fight or flight, the basic animal instinct. He certainly had not come this far to do the latter. 

Snowflakes whirled around him in a roaring maelstrom. Soon he could not see the roads anymore. Aleks knew there was one road directly behind him; being the way he had come and where remained his snowy footprints. There was another directly ahead; the way he needed to go. Aleks took a step forward but immediately froze. In his peripheral vision, a faint form appeared in the snow. It faded away as quickly as it had appeared. Had he not known she could be here, he would have missed it. His sword was already drawn and he held it up in front of him, both hands wrapped around its golden hilt. The sword’s power surged and he felt its heat in his hands. Aleks took a deep breath to steady his nerve, and to focus. He moved only his eyes, listening intently, hunting for another glimpse. If he was going to get past, the strike would have to be quick and true. The muscles in his arms were tensed, ready to explode with the power of the sword permeating through him. 

He took another step forward. Her blood-curdling scream ripped through the thick cold air. Aleks took another step forward. Once again, a silhouette formed off to his left, as if made from the snow itself. This time, it did not wane. She had come for him. He watched unmoving as she edged closer. Do not meet her gaze, Aleks thought to himself. 

She was very close now. He could hear her laboured dead breath, if he could call it that, he wondered if she even still breathed. 

Aleks let go of his restraint, unleashing the power within. Using all his strength, he swung the sword toward her, averting his eyes all the while. It felt to him that time slowed, almost to a stop. He watched the arc of the sword rotate around him, leaving a trail of light in its wake. All he heard was the hum of the steel and the tiny tinkle of every snowflake the sword sliced. The impact he expected did not come. The impact that did come hit him hard from behind. 

Aleks was sent sprawling forward onto the hard icy ground. His back had been shred open by her talon-like fingers, which had ripped through his toughened hide armor like razor blades. Aleks pushed himself up, winded and in agony. The wounds felt like they were on fire. He could tell they were deep, and he was going to lose a lot of blood, quickly. He did not have much time. He took a knee and held his sword up once more. He closed his eyes and focused on the sounds around him. There was a rush of wind howling as it moved against the swirling maelstrom. It swiftly circled around him. It paused, then rushed straight for him. He swung his sword once more, but with considerably less vigour than before. The pain from his back causing him to cry out. This time, there was contact. 

Aleks opened his eyes to see the blade passing through the ghostly apparition as it dissipated. The swirling snow stopped and then began to rise up back into the sky until there was no snow falling. Aleks caught a glimpse of the signpost once more, and the road he had intended to take. All at once, the snow came crashing down around him again, faster and heavier. Aleks covered his face, the snow had hardened into ice and stung his cheeks. Her shriek filled the air again. It seemed to be coming from all around. He took hold of his sword with both hands and held it above his head, point forward. A shadow appeared at his feet, Aleks looked down, it was getting bigger. She was attacking from above. He looked up and saw her, terror consumed him. She had skeletal arms stretched out, the long sharp talons protruding ahead of them. There were no distinctive features to her face, other than the mouth and eyes. The mouth was opened wide, revealing a dark void, the source of the deafening shriek. Long red hair bellowed behind her like flames as she descended upon him, like a hawk upon its prey. Her eyes were as white as the snow. Aleks had looked at her eyes. He knew at that moment that this was where his story ended, like the many others he had heard of, lost wanderers and unsuspecting travellers. This vision of death was the vision of his death. He would not take the road he intended, he would not fulfill his promise. A tear trickled down his cheek. 

In one last-ditch effort, Aleks turned the hilt of the sword and raised the point up, but it was too late. The momentum as she swooped down pinned him to the ground. Aleks felt the pop of his bones and ribs breaking, just like a hunted field mouse. His sword landed among the raised knotted roots of the conifer wall. Snow fell from the branches off the nearby trees, burying the sword for the rest of winter. Her talons were once again upon his skin. They burned as they sliced into his chest and navigated to his heart. Her heartless face was close to his now, watching as his soul slowly slipped away. The last thing Aleks saw were her eyes.

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Kenneth Lawson: The Cabin

Welcome to Write the Story! Each month Writers Unite! will offer a writing prompt for writers to create a story from and share with everyone. WU! wants to help our members and followers to generate more traffic to their platforms.  Please check out the authors’ blogs, websites, Facebook pages and show them support. We would love to hear your thoughts about the stories and appreciate your support! 

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The Cabin

Kenneth Lawson

I didn’t know which cold was worse, the stone-cold stillness of no air moving, or the bone-chilling shiver cold of a breeze blowing.

It needed not be much of a breeze to cut through the heavy winter jacket I was wearing. A sharp breeze came up between the trees as I approached the edge of the clearing. It made up my mind the breeze was worse. Much worse.

The tracks of a dozen or more winter animals greeted me when I reached the tree line. To my right, I saw the remains of a trail leading into the woods, but what was to my left got my full attention. The signpost with three old pine boards nailed to the top of it caught my attention first. Plowing the knee-deep snow, I got close enough to read the names hand-painted on the boards. They were difficult to make out, but I thought the top one said “Armrest” and the middle one said “Devon” or something like it. I couldn’t read the bottom one at all. The names weren’t familiar to me, and judging by rot on the post, the faded paint, and wind-worn edges of the boards, I figured that they had been here for more years than I’d been alive. I made a note of the names and the directions they pointed. 

Looking around, I spied the old log cabin. More knee-plowing through the deep snow allowed me to reach the cabin, which appeared to be as old as the signpost. Leaning against the old logs, I took a little shelter from the breeze that had picked up. The door placed on the side was protected from the wind, and the snowdrift was manageable. 

Pushing through, I got to the door. Leaning on the solid planks, I pushed as hard as I could. The door gave way easily, to my surprise. Slipping inside, I wasted no time in closing the door behind me.

Leaning against the door, I let my breathing slow down and felt my pulse start to steady. I closed my eyes and tried to fight the cold gnawing at my bones. Even in the heaviest snow pants and the boots, and several layers of sweaters and an extra coat under my outer winter coat, I remained chilled to the bone. Shivering, I managed to remove my gloves. My hands were cold and stiff despite being covered by thick wool and leather. I rubbed my hands together while I looked around the sparsely furnished cabin—the table near the fireplace was rickety and the chair was worn and wobbly. I sat down anyway. The sound of the wood protesting as I gently lowered my weight into it echoed in the small room. I leaned back and closed my eyes. Sleep came. 

 I hadn’t planned on falling asleep, but this was the first time I’d been out of the cold and wind in several days. Waking up sometime later, I realized I wasn’t cold. I was warm, almost hot. Looking around, I gasped, startled to see the gentle orange glow of a fire in the fireplace. Nothing else had changed since I drifted off to sleep, but the cabin was now brighter and warmer. The fire had been going for some time to warm up the old logs and take the winter chill off the small room. 

“Good Morning.” 

The cheerful voice came from out of my range of vision. Turning my head, I straightened up in the chair, which miraculously had not collapsed under my weight. As I sat upright, I realized for the first time my fingers and toes didn’t hurt anymore—now warm pink flesh came out of my jacket sleeves. 

Taking my eyes off the fire, I looked around more closely, taking stock of the cabin in the light of the roaring fire, logs popping as sparks flew. The walls were solid logs hewed together, packed with mud that had dried solidly like concrete. A long wall held several windows boarded up from the inside, and a bed sat along the short wall near the fireplace. The source of the voice came from the bed.

His long silver beard made it impossible to guess his age. The flicker of flames and shadows made his beard seem almost alive. He shifted around and sat upright, then rose from the bed. I could tell he was short and maybe fat. It was hard to tell how big he was with the heavy clothes he wore.

“Coffee?” the bearded man asked, and he reached for the pot that hung near the fireplace on a makeshift rack. All I could do was slightly nod yes.

 “Don’t get much company out here these days. Especially this time of year.” 

He handed me an old mug with a chipped rim and a cracked handle. I took it with both hands. The warmth of the coffee seeped through the mug into my fingers. 

The smell of fresh coffee helped to thaw the cobwebs in my brain and awaken the rest of my senses. 

I lightly blew over the top of the mug, watching the surface of the coffee ripple with the slight movement of air. I watched it for a second as I still had no idea what to say.

“Thank you,” were the only words that came out of my mouth. I didn’t remember saying them, but they reminded me of how my voice sounded. 

It had been that long since I’d seen another person, much less talked to them.I continued to use the cooling coffee as an excuse not to speak while I considered what to say.

He spoke first. “You’re welcome. It’s my pleasure. I haven’t had company here in reindeer’s years.”

I looked up at him sharply. “Reindeer years?”

“Oh, I forgot you’re not from around here. We use the term reindeer instead of donkey’s years. It’s a local thing.” 

I knew there was more to it than that. But I didn’t question it anymore. I got the point. The coffee had cooled down enough, so I took a sip.

“How is it? I haven’t made much in a long time.” He had a mug and sat again on the edge of the bed where he’d been sleeping.

Taking a second sip, I confirmed with a nodded yes, as it was good. Indeed, it was, but at the moment, I wasn’t sure if it was the coffee or the fact it was warm that I liked so much. At this point, it didn’t matter. As it cooled down, I drank more. 

Feeling the warmth of the liquid working its way down my throat into my stomach made me instantly feel warmer—and relaxed. We drank in silence. 

“Hungry?” 

Startled, I looked up from my mug. I suppose the look on my face told him I was indeed hungry. He rose and wandered over to the small cupboard that sat in the far corner of the room, out of my immediate view. Turning in my chair, I watched as he opened the cupboard and retrieved several boxes from the top shelf. Laying them on the table, he took a large knife from a drawer, cut open a box, and handed me a thick slice of bread.

I took it and bit off a corner. It was delicious. Chewing the thick, coarse bread, I realized I was beginning to feel less hungry. By the time I had half-eaten the slice, I was starting to feel full.

The old man returned to sit on the edge of the bed, shifting a bit and passing his mug back and forth between his hands. He glanced at me several times.

“Robert…” he spoke quietly. Then slipped off the bed and tossed a large log he retrieved from a pile next to the hearth onto the fire. We watched for a minute as it snapped and cracked as the fire sought new fuel. The room lit up more as the flames eagerly found their way around the bottom edges of the new wood.

I looked at him carefully in the bright light of the renewed fire. He did seem to look familiar—not familiar like a person I knew but like a picture that I’d seen. The long beard and an almost bald head that shined in the light of the fire seemed so familiar. It began to dawn on me that the clothes he was wearing were mostly red. 

NO. It can’t be. 

I must have said that out loud as he turned to face me.

“Yes, Robert. I am Santa Claus or St. Nick as some call me in other countries, and I am old—very old and tired. It’s time for me to pass the mantle of Santa Claus to a new generation.”

“But you’re not real. It’s a myth made up to explain to little kids where presents under the tree come from on Christmas morning.”

“Yes, in some counties, I’m not real. But in some places and the hearts of the world, I’m very real.” He sat on the edge of the bed. Watching him more closely, I could tell he was tired. 

“Robert, the year you were born, your parents had no money to buy presents for you, but they were happy. They had you. Do you remember your tenth Christmas?”

No one remembers their tenth Christmas. No one remembers that. Closing my eyes, I tried to remember that far back, but only fragments of scenes came back. Not enough to clearly remember anything. I shook my head.

“I didn’t expect you would. What’s the first Christmas you remember clearly?”

“I don’t know, maybe sixteen or seventeen, probably not even sure about that.”

 He nodded. “Okay, try this. Do you remember the year you got your first car?” 

I nodded. “Yes, it was a Christmas present from my folks.” Now that he mentioned it, I did remember it had been a surprise. I’d been saving for an entire year to get a car but never had quite enough. They had surprised me with the car I’d been saving to buy. They never would say how they managed it, only handed me the keys. To this day, I didn’t know how they had gotten it for me. I knew they barely had two bits to rub together.

“I’ve always wondered how they managed to get that car for me. They never would tell me.” I sat up in my chair and looked at him more closely. “They’re both passed now.” 

“Yes, yes they are.” 

 “So…?”

“Robert, they both did extra jobs at their factories. They worked extra hours and even did private work to get the money for your car. They knew how much you needed that car and how important it was to you and them. Because you had the car, you were able to help them.”

The next few years came back to me. It was true. I had been able to help them, take them places, and get the things they needed because I had the car. As they got sicker, I had done more. I realized I couldn’t have done any of it if I hadn’t had that old wreck of a car. The fire cracked loudly again, bringing me back to the present.

“Robert. It’s your time.”

“My time?” I stood up and walked around the small cabin, stretching my legs, trying to think of what to say next.

“Why me?”

“I don’t know. You were chosen as I was.”

“Chosen?” I stood in the middle of the room, looking at an old, tired man. I pulled my chair closer to him and sat facing him. Again, the chair protested at my additional weight, but I ignored it.

“Okay, say I believe in all this. How does it work?” Looking into his eyes, I leaned closer to him. That close, I could see the toll the years had taken.

He handed me a bag he retrieved from behind the bed. 

“Tonight, you come with me. I will show you how I make the world a slightly better place. This is my last year. I can’t do it anymore.”

He handed me the big red bag and stood, the familiar red coat and hat appearing from nowhere. As he put them on, his beard began to lengthen and thicken up. Santa nodded at me and pointed to the bag.

I stood up and opened the bag, which contained a suit exactly like the one he was wearing. 

“Go on, put it on,” he prodded.

Shrugging, I pulled the pants on over the clothes I was wearing. They stretched and formed themselves around my body. Pulling on the big red overcoat over my winter coat, I felt it mold itself around my body. He pointed to the hat. Putting it on, I felt it snug itself up tight around my head as the bottom seemed to extend down over my ears. It was then I noticed a small, cracked mirror in the corner. Seeing myself dressed as Santa Claus, I felt younger and more alive. 

The next few hours flew by. I was never cold or hot, and I saw the world in ways I’d never seen before. The next thing I knew, we were back at the cabin. The fire was still popping along merrily. 

Santa lay back down on the bed. As I took off my suit, I felt a tug at my heart. 

I knew he had done as much as he could. Snoring gave in to the quiet as I fed the fire and learned my way around the cabin.

Slowly I realized he wasn’t moving at all. I touched his cold face. No slow breathing, no twitching of his beard as he turned or tossed in his sleep. Santa Claus was gone.

But he wasn’t.

Every year for the rest of my life, I found myself back in the small cabin wearing a bright red suit that seemed to fit me better every time, and I felt younger every year.

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Lynn Miclea: Cat and Mouse

Welcome to Write the Story! Each month Writers Unite! will offer a writing prompt for writers to create a story from and share with everyone. WU! wants to help our members and followers to generate more traffic to their platforms.  Please check out the authors’ blogs, websites, Facebook pages and show them support. We would love to hear your thoughts about the stories and appreciate your support! 

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Cat and Mouse

Lynn Miclea

Icy fingers of fear crept up my spine. I hated this. He was playing a death game with my daughter and I would do whatever I could to save her.

I hurried forward down the snowy path through the woods. A soft blanket of fresh snow covered everything, muting sounds, creating a sparkling, pristine, untouched setting. Except for the tiny footsteps that I anxiously followed in the snow.

Trudging forward down the path between the trees, I strained my eyes to see anything out of place in the woods around me. I had to find her. Her small footsteps were clearly visible in the snow and I kept moving, alert for any sound of threat or danger. My heart thudded in my chest as terror clutched at me. She had to be okay. I would never forgive myself if anything happened to her.

I heard a branch crack some distance away, and goosebumps rose on my arms. Time was running out. I had to find her before they did, and I quickened my steps, my eyes focused on my daughter’s footprints and the surrounding snow-covered woods.

Her small footsteps abruptly ended by some brush on the side. Was she okay? I bit my lip and held my breath. Nervously, I quickly bent down to sweep away some of the brush. I saw her leg pull back out of sight. Relief flooded through me. I found Emily and she was still alive.

“Sweetie? It’s me, it’s okay.” My voice was raw.

After a few seconds, I heard movement, and she crawled to the front, her face contorted with terror and exhaustion. “Thank God it’s you,” she whispered.

“Let me get you out of here before they find us,” I said in a hoarse whisper. “Come. We need to go.”

She nodded, reaching for me. I gently picked up my sweet daughter, glanced behind me, and ran forward as fast as I could.

My heart swelled with love for this sweet six-year-old girl. Feeling her warmth against me, I continued down the path. I would never let them hurt her again.

I knew I would reach the hut in another mile or so — that was our only chance. I had to get there before the men reached us, or they would kill us on the spot. I knew I was leaving footprints and would be easy to track, but that couldn’t be helped. They would easily follow me to the hut, and I hoped I was enough ahead of them to make it in time.

I bit the inside of my cheek and hoped at least one cop was in place at the hut. If no one was at the hut to help me, we would die there. It was that simple.

I knew the cops were not yet expecting me for at least another hour. Everything shifted and the intensity grew when the thugs changed the timing of their game of terror, and I could barely breathe. I was desperate to save my daughter.

After following my ex-husband earlier, I saw him release my daughter in the woods in a cat-and-mouse game. It broke my heart. My sweet Emily, tears running down her face, took off down the snowy path in the woods, hoping to escape, not knowing this was all part of their sick game. I couldn’t let her go alone. Even if I would be gunned down as well, I had to help her.

The cops were not due to be in position for a while yet, but I couldn’t think about that now. A sob escaped me and I quickly stifled it as I forced myself forward. My body shook from both cold and fear as I ran. My sweet Emily bounced in my arms with each step, and I could feel my body growing stiff with the frigid air. How much farther? I hoped it wasn’t too far.

Another branch cracked. They were getting closer. Panicking, I tried to pick up the pace, stumbled, and quickly caught myself before I fell. Terror threatened to overtake me, but I could not give in to it. I was risking my own life as well, but I had to save my daughter, even if I died trying. My ex-husband would not get away with kidnapping my daughter and terrorizing us, and neither would the thugs who were helping him and now chasing us in their terrifying game of death.

Breathing hard, exhausted and desperate, I hoped I could reach the hut in time and that at least one cop was already there. Where was it? Was it this far? Had I passed it? It felt like I had already run miles. It was hard to determine distance in the snow.

The path curved slightly to the left and then to the right. Just as I reached the first curve, the hut appeared, set back about twenty feet on the left side. Safety was just steps away.

Footsteps pounded behind me. They were almost here. A gruff voice shouted at me from a short distance back. “Hey! Amanda! Where do you think you’re going?” He barked a laugh. “You think you’ll get away? Not a chance. The game still stands. C’mon, the cat is about to catch the mouse! Give up now or we’ll kill you both where you stand.”

I hugged my daughter tighter to my body and stumbled toward the hut entrance. Were the cops here? They had better be, or we would be dead within minutes.

My hand shaking, I reached forward and tried the doorknob of the hut. Unlocked.

“Hey, miss bitch, I’m talking to you. Amanda, you hear me? Stop right there.” I heard the sound of a gun being cocked.

I couldn’t stop. Desperate, I pushed the door forward and rushed in.

A deafeningly loud shot rang out and I jumped. Expecting to feel pain, I fell forward into the room, gasping and sobbing. Strong arms grabbed me, and the door closed behind me. I could still move and there was no pain. I was not hit. Either the guy missed or it was a warning shot. I had no idea which.

Someone held me. I recognized the blue of the officer’s clothing and felt a rush of relief mix with the terror still flooding me.

The officer pulled me to the back of the hut and led me to a small wooden chair in the corner. I turned to the officer and he peered at me. “Are you okay? Were you shot? Are you injured?”

I shook my head. “I’m okay. But they are right outside.”

“We know. We didn’t expect you this soon. Stay here, stay down, and don’t move. You’ll be safe here.”

Gratefully sitting down, my sweet Emily on my lap and tightly clutching me, I looked around. Two officers stood in front of me, and six other officers filled the room, covering the two small windows and the two doors. The officers had their weapons drawn, and I held onto Emily, rocking her, singing to her gently.

The front door suddenly burst open, and three large, burly men entered, guns drawn. “Okay, Amanda, we’re—”

Intense gunfire cut off his words.

I closed my eyes, grimaced, and held Emily tightly to me, rocking back and forth, tears running down my face as my daughter whimpered in my arms.

Silence. I opened my eyes and looked around. Three beefy men lay sprawled on the floor, blood pooling under them. The officers inspected them, made sure they were dead, and searched for identification.

One of the officers turned to me. “Are there any more men out there?”

I cleared my throat and could barely talk. “Just my ex-husband.”

A shout came from outside. “Hey! Moose? Tony? Mason? You guys okay? Where are you?” My ex-husband’s deep voice. I’d know it anywhere, and it sent chills up my spine. “Did the cat get the mouse? Where’s my prize?”

The cops took positions. I tightened my grip on Emily and held my breath, my eyes glued to the open front door.

My husband’s voice again. “C’mon, guys. Did you find Amanda and the kid? It’s cat-and-mouse pay-up time.” His footsteps approached the hut and then stopped as he got close to the door and could see the bodies of his friends inside. “What the—”

Gunfire erupted. I squeezed my eyes shut and held Emily against me. Rocking. Back and forth.

Hearing movement, I opened my eyes. Three cops went outside. One called back to those still in the hut. “He’s dead.”

Sobs erupted from me. It was over. We were still alive. And we were safe.

One of the cops kneeled in front of me. “Are you okay?”

I nodded.

“Can you come to the station with us and answer a few questions?”

I swallowed hard. “Yes, of course.”

Emily stirred in my lap and looked up at me. “Mommy? What does cat-and-mouse mean?”

I gazed into her sweet, innocent eyes. “It was just a game, sweetie. But you’re safe now.”

She scrunched up her face. “I don’t think I like cats or mouses. That was not a fun game.”

“No, that was not fun. I agree.”

She thought about that, then turned her innocent eyes up to me. “But not all cats are bad, are they? Our cat is still a good cat, right?”

“Yes, sweetie. Buttons is still a good cat and loves you very much.”

She was quiet a few moments and then looked at me. “Daddy was a bad man, wasn’t he, Mommy?”

I looked at her, wondering what to tell her. “He loved you as best he could, sweetie.”

Her voice sounded small. “I know. Was it my fault? Am I a bad girl?”

My throat felt too thick to speak, but I stroked her soft hair and answered. “No, sweetie. You are the best girl ever.” I choked and could barely speak. “Some people just find it harder than others to love.”

“I know,” she whispered. “I’m glad you’re my Mommy.”

My heart both swelled with pride and broke for her at the same time. “I love you, sweetie. You are always safe with me.”

“Can we go home now, Mommy?”

“Soon, sweetie. These nice officers will help us first, and then we’ll go home.”

I glanced at the officer in front of me who was silently watching us, and I saw his eyes were wet. Another tear spilled down my cheek as I hugged Emily and kissed her cheek. “You are very special, Emily, and you are very loved. Please don’t ever forget that.”

—————————————–

Copyright © 2021 Lynn Miclea. All Rights Reserved.

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Marian Wood: My Loss In a Cold Lonely Winter

Welcome to Write the Story! Each month Writers Unite! will offer a writing prompt for writers to create a story from and share with everyone. WU! wants to help our members and followers to generate more traffic to their platforms.  Please check out the authors’ blogs, websites, Facebook pages and show them support. We would love to hear your thoughts about the stories and appreciate your support! 

Please note: the images used are free-use images and do not require attribution.

My Loss In a Cold Lonely Winter

Marian Wood

My Loss

As the garden became a cold white carpet and the trees battled with the ice wind, I stirred my hot chocolate, grateful that today I’m at home. After all my stress headaches of the last month, things need to get better. How can they though? Things will never be the same ever again. Losing Sophia was a tragedy. I can’t leave the house, my feeling of loss is too much. Too tied up in my lake of tears, I can’t continue anymore. Comfort eating, I’m getting chocolate delivered, my tyre is steadily growing around my waist, but it doesn’t give me a headache like alcohol.

So, what happened? Sophia was my best friend, my confidant. I’ve known her all thirty years of my life. It had always been Sophia and Emily, and now I’m alone. The night her mum phoned me sobbing, my world ended. We said we would be sisters forever, but now someone had killed her. Seeing her face on the news was devastating, but worse, her killer is still out there. How am I supposed to get through this? The cold wet snow fits my mood.

Hearing my mobile buzz, I knew who it was. Weezley Wayne was not someone I wanted to talk to. The day Sophia told me about him, she spoke as if he was the one. I’d never trusted him, I thought she deserved better. The police had interviewed him as a suspect, but had then let him go.

Terry

With everything that has happened, he was struggling to focus on his work. Fixing cars was all he wanted to do, but the events of the last few weeks had changed things, maybe forever. Sophia was dead, a special lady now gone. Their small group was broken. Wayne was not taking calls and he didn’t want to see the others. A murdered girlfriend changes a man. Terry didn’t know how to help him.

Watching the news reports, Terry had his suspicions. Tonight he would begin his own investigation and the Red Griffin would be the start.

The Red Griffin

Once a place for families, new ownership meant it was the roughest place in the city. All the gangs meet there and fights are frequent. There is talk of the council closing it, but it’s just talk.

As Terry arrived, snow was falling thick and fast. A stabbing pain went through his chest, was the murderer in the pub? Ordering a beer, he gasped as it seared his throat on the way down. Needing courage, he ordered another. Watching the ‘Blue Cobras’ arrive, he ordered a shot of whisky. Listening to them laughing, he realised he needed to slow down on the drink.

The reputation of the ‘Cobras’ was that they were the toughest brutes in the city. It was just a few weeks ago that Wayne angered their gang leader. He knew they were likely to be the murderer. Stories about them made others run away from them. Wayne had instigated a fight, he had suffered threats and a broken arm. Terry knew they had to be the perpetrators.

The bell ringing last orders signalled time to finish his drink and grab his jacket. Watching the gang leave, he wondered what he was doing. He had no fighting skills so if they caught him, things would not go well.

Following at a distance, he could hear their screams and shouts. Full of beer and confidence, nothing was getting in their way. On reaching the deserted scrapyard, Terry was surprised to see them climb over the high metal fence. This was surely not a meeting place but there they were. Deciding that following them would not be wise, he pulled out his phone and sent a message. Hesitating, he heard a loud scream as his head suddenly hurt and the world went black.

Evening

It had been a long day of eating chocolate and depression. As I was considering giving up and going to bed, I heard my phone. Checking my messages I saw it was Terry, it read,

“At Bridgeport scrapyard, followed the ‘Blue Cobra’ gang from the ‘Red Griffin’ pub, I think they know who killed Sophia.”

I messaged back,

“Terry be careful, don’t be stupid.” I felt sick, what if they had killed Sophia? Terry could be next and now he was not responding.

Not sure what to do, I dialled 999.

The ‘Blue Cobra’ gang

Under the police radar, Detective Inspector Mills was desperate to find something to bring the ‘Cobras’ to justice. They were wanted for crimes but there was never enough incriminating evidence. As his police mobile rang, he took a deep breath. Looking at his beautiful wife Miranda sleeping soundly, he knew she would be waking alone again.

News on the ‘Blue Cobras’ in the scrapyard filled him with excitement. Then the news of something maybe happening to Terry, nausea swept over him. Holding his head, he hoped tonight they would finally be able to lock them away.

A while later he arrived at the yard. Nothing could have prepared him for what happened next. As the snow was steadily falling on the scene, it should have been calm. Instead it was the shouting of police officers and gang members being handcuffed. A tall brown-haired man lay outside in a lake of blood, he presumed this was Terry. He wasn’t prepared for the two further bodies. This was it, they were going down for years.

As the officers investigated, they found Wayne, dead, linking the gang to Sophia. However, the evidence still didn’t add up. Why was Sophia not found in the scrapyard? And who whacked Terry? The gang were denying knowledge of killing Wayne. The other was a dead gang member found in the yard office. There was more to this case.

Emily

So here I am, a week later, the police have been here again. I’m angry with myself for ignoring Wayne and now he and Terry are dead. As the police and forensics further checked the yard, more information came to light as it always did.

Sophia and I didn’t know much about Wayne, and this now proved it. It was found that the gang had killed a fellow “Cobras” but they were innocent of the other murders. Wayne we have learnt was married, and his wife has a psychotic brother called Mark. The brother killed the lover Sophia, and then Wayne. Terry, it’s assumed, got in the way. Mark didn’t want him entering the scrapyard and finding Wayne. He didn’t count on Terry messaging me before he was killed.

The snow is now clearing and my garden no longer looks like a picture postcard. I’m never going to forget Sophia, and one day things may seem better. They say time heals. I’m not so sure, but I’m glad that her murderer is being brought to justice. I regret not talking to Wayne. Maybe he had already worked it out before he was killed, I will never know. For now, I need to get myself off my settee, put on my warm coat, scarf, and hat, and go for a walk. I need to get on with my life, despite my loss, a day at a time, which is all I can do.

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Please visit Marian’s blog for more great stories: https://justmuddlingthroughlife.co.uk/

Lisa Criss Griffin: The Sky Angel

Welcome to Write the Story! Each month Writers Unite! will offer a writing prompt for writers to create a story from and share with everyone. WU! wants to help our members and followers to generate more traffic to their platforms.  Please check out the authors’ blogs, websites, Facebook pages and show them support. We would love to hear your thoughts about the stories and appreciate your support! 

Please note: the images used are free-use images and do not require attribution.

The Sky Angel

Lisa Criss Griffin

Young Isadora blinked her eyes open sleepily, surprised she was the last chicken left on the roost. Daylight had arrived, but it seemed to have a strange quality to it. She jumped down into the pine shavings gingerly, eagerly awaiting her turn to exit the hen house through the small door. Maybelle, who was making her way through the doorway suddenly stopped. Isadora squawked at Maybelle softly, impatient to get out of the house and stretch out her young legs on the cold grass outside.

Not one to be ignored, Isadora firmly pecked her sister’s fluffy beige butt to get her going. Maybelle jumped out of the doorway in surprise, scolding Isadora as she staggered into the large group of her sister chickens clustered underneath the roof of the spacious run. There was much clucking, scolding, and fowl language as Isadora also waggled her way into the tightly huddled flock of confounded chickens.

“What in the world is going on out there?”

“Well, look at it. The sky is falling!”

“We’re DOOMED!!!”

“I don’t understand. Why are we doomed?”

“Because, you ninny, the sky is falling!!!”

“The sky is falling and the grass, the trees and everything is disappearing!”

“I’ve never seen such a thing! What can it possibly mean?”

“Does it mean we will also disappear if we go out there?”

“It means we are doomed! No more drinks of water or tender blades of sweet grass. No more delicious kibble from The Caretaker! No more delightful hours of chasing those darting, yummy snacks all over the yard and through the air….”

“Look…The Caretaker’s house is disappearing too. It is covered with fallen sky, and so much of the sky is still falling, we can barely see her house!”

“Listen to how quiet everything is. The falling sky has silenced the world!”

“Are you saying everyone out there, in that stuff…has been snuffed?”

“The falling sky is smothering everything out there. I’m not going out there!”

“No, me neither!”

“Then we’re all going to starve to death right here! I like to eat! I’m not picky. I will eat almost anything! I don’t want to starve!”

“I’m not a picky eater either! I’ll peck anything! I’m a spring chicken. I want to live, lay eggs and chase snacks! I don’t want to be smothered to death, but I don’t want to starve either!”

“We’re too young for the end of the world! This isn’t fair!”

“No more delicious mealworms. No more jumping or flying snacks….”

“Look at it! Just look at it! We’re all going to die!!!”

“Beauregard! Let’s ask Beauregard what we all should do! He knows everything!”

The girls sighed collectively in adoration and reverence as Beauregard, their brave Rooster, strutted past the hysterical hens to the open doorway of the protected run. The doorway led to their large chicken yard surrounded by electrified fencing. He had seen this happen several times, but certainly not to this extent. His gorgeous girls were all spring chickens and had never experienced the sky falling before. He surveyed his kingdom with trepidation. The freshly fallen sky was deep, deeper than he had ever seen in his four years of Roostering. 

He remembered the story his father used to tell, of the day the falling sky had almost killed them all. At the time, he had rolled his youthful eyes at the tale. His father used to tell the story after dark if they had all behaved themselves that week. It was a tall order for the youngsters, but it helped contribute to maintaining order in his Roosterdom. All the skinny-toed Grandmas would nod their feathery heads and cluck their agreement when he would share that outlandish tale. He had always thought it was a ruse to keep everyone in line, but now Beauregard was reassessing his opinion. He could still hear his father’s commanding voice, whispering to them all in the dead of night about that horrible day….

“We were all outside eating our grains and minding our own business when the sky started to fall. Nobody paid much attention to it at first. It was cold and wet, like rain, only light and fluffy. I had seen the sky fall before, but it always stopped so we could walk around in it if we wanted to. And as you know, as chickens, it is our duty to walk around and eat everything we can find in our chicken yard on a daily basis. It is what we do. Well, that, along with all the magnificent egg laying in here, and the prolific fertilizing you ladies do so well out in our glorious chicken yard!”

The skinny-toed Grandmas giggled in adoration, wiggling closer to their beloved Rooster on the roosting pole as he continued his story for the benefit of the younger generation. 

“The next day, we all went outside as usual. The sky was still falling, but we were able to make our way through the sky covering the ground to the Dining Area for breakfast. We ate our fill and huddled together as the wind picked up. It was mid-day when I decided we should make our way back to the warmth of the chicken house. Everyone made it…everyone that is, except for Madge and Gracie!”

The Grandmas gasped in unison, having heard what was coming next, several times before.

“As the Head Rooster and the Protector of my girls, I bravely struggled back out into the chicken yard to help them in. The sky was falling so hard, I could barely see Madge and Gracie. Something was horribly wrong! They were screaming at me and flapping their wings. It looked like they were disappearing into the sky covering the ground! I ran to them as quickly as I could. I was almost to my girls when the sky on the ground sucked my legs down…all the way to my gorgeous tail feathers! And then, I was stuck too! Just as helplessly stuck as they were!!!”

Disconcerted murmuring enveloped the darkened chicken house. The younger chickens shuffled nervously on their roosting pole. The atmosphere was somber as Beauregard’s father continued his story.

“The girls and I struggled valiantly to free ourselves from the drift of fallen sky, but to no avail. We were hopelessly trapped. I sang songs of encouragement to poor Madge and Gracie as the three of us began to disappear under the pieces of the sky landing on top of us. I sang until I was hoarse. I could see the hope fading from their eyes as the day went on. I reminded them even though we were in quite a jam, we were all together, and I wouldn’t leave them.”

The skinny-toed Grandmas jostled each other as they enthusiastically cooed and purred their unanimous approval of the bravery of their heroic Rooster.

“Then, out of nowhere, the legendary Sky Angel appeared! She reminded me a little bit of The Caretaker, but She had a strange, colorful comb that jingled when She walked, and giant iridescent eyes…sort of like those big eyes on the yummy flies we like to snack on. She sang a soothing song and gently lifted me straight out of the quicksand of fallen sky. I looked down when She tucked me under her warm arm. All I saw were two deep, narrow holes where my legs had just been. She freed poor Madge and Gracie too, and made sure we all made it safely back to the warmth of the hen house. I watched in awe as She magically made a pathway from the Dining Area to our house. It was almost dark when She glided away, disappearing into the silent pieces of lightly falling sky….”

An air of reverence permeated the chicken coop. Beauregard’s father rose to his full height as he made his final statement.

“Any Rooster worth his wattles will look after his beloved flock, and give them guidance in times of trouble. Remember, there is a Being greater than ourselves who cares for us. Some day, one of you youngsters may have the great privilege of seeing the Sky Angel too.”

Beauregard moved his magnificently feathered head from side to side, trying to see through the thick, fluffy pieces of falling sky. He stepped out onto the covered ground and quickly backed up. He felt the cold, fallen sky begin to sink in around the tops of his legs. The legend of the sky quicksand was true! He began to crow, singing a fervent song for the Sky Angel. Would she hear him? He continued singing to Her, hoping his plea for help would be as beautiful and eloquent as his father’s song had been. If his voice pleased Her, maybe She would come! He sang and sang, hoping the Sky Angel would hear his earnest appeal.

The spring chickens huddled behind their Rooster, unsure of what he was doing. But, he was a good cockerel, and they trusted him. A hush came over the group as the faint sound of bells jingled in the shrouded distance. A figure slightly resembling The Caretaker was barely visible through the falling sky, gliding slowly towards the chicken yard. 

“What is THAT???”

“Look at that crazy, colorful comb! Listen…it jingles!”

“Those are the biggest, most iridescent eyes I have ever seen in my whole life!”

“Look! She is magically moving the fallen sky from around the Dining Area.”

“Is that food? Are those…MEALWORMS???”

“Mmmmmm…mealworms. I love mealworms!”

“I would be happy with pellets at this point.”

“Or even some crumbles.”

“Maybe we aren’t going to starve!”

“Ooooooo, She is making a path for us to the Dining Area!”

“We’re going to get to eat!”

“We aren’t going to starve. We aren’t doomed today after all!”

“Hey girls, who or what is She?”

“Well girlfriend, I really don’t know. But I have to say, there is something strangely familiar about Her…just can’t quite put my chicken finger on it.”

Beauregard turned back towards his young charges authoritatively. His brilliant plumage was a striking contrast against the white background beyond the doorway leading to the chicken yard. The Rooster’s commanding presence silenced the discussion between the babbling hens immediately. He cleared his throat to be sure he had everyone’s attention for his impending announcement.

“You are currently in the presence of the legendary Sky Angel, my dears. She is a Being greater than ourselves, who has answered the song of our people for generations when we have needed Her. She answered my passionate song today, and a similar song my father sang for Her when I was but a young poult. Count yourselves blessed to have seen Her come to our aid today. Tonight, I will tell you the story of my father and his exciting adventure with the Sky Angel, IF you behave yourselves. Shall we go to the Dining Area now, my sweet hennie pennies?”

“I told you Beauregard would know what was going on.”

“Yeah, he knows everything!!!”

“Last one to the Dining Area is a rotten egg!”

The Rooster stepped aside as the huddle of hungry hens broke and made a mad dash down the pathway to the Dining Area. He chuckled to himself as he watched them obliviously pecking away at the treats the Sky Angel had scattered on the ground before She left. He watched as She left the chicken yard and made her way back towards The Caretaker’s house, the jingling of her colorful comb fading into the distance. The suspicion that The Caretaker and the Sky Angel were somehow related, niggled in the back of his bird brain. 

Beauregard pecked at the mealworms by his feet thoughtfully. His speculation concerning The Caretaker and the Sky Angel had the makings of an unexpected, mysterious slant to the story he would be telling his innocent spring chickens for the first time this evening. The exuberant Rooster hoped the heavenly spirits of his beloved father and all the old skinny-toed Grandmas who knew the legend of the Sky Angel, would be pleased by his storytelling ability in the dark of the hen house tonight!

Copyright 2021 ©️ Lisa Criss Griffin
All rights reserved

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K.A. Bachus: Cold Cunning

Welcome to Write the Story! Each month Writers Unite! will offer a writing prompt for writers to create a story from and share with everyone. WU! wants to help our members and followers to generate more traffic to their platforms.  Please check out the authors’ blogs, websites, Facebook pages and show them support. We would love to hear your thoughts about the stories and appreciate your support! 

Please note: the images used are free-use images and do not require attribution.

Cold Cunning

K.A. Bachus 

“Misha, we are surrounded.” 

Vasily’s low voice held no hint of panic or any other emotion. It was a bald statement of fact meant solely to inform. He was watching one of three sides of the perch where they had taken refuge. The roof and parapet of a square keep in a ruined castle had miraculously survived time, war, and weather. The cliff face forming its fourth side periodically dropped clouds of snow onto their heads. 

Louis appeared more agitated as he trod through fifteen centimeters of snow, tamping down new pathways from aperture to aperture in the crenelation. He did not move with nervous short steps, but rather in long strides, anticipating the violence to come. Besides sex, he could find no better way to feel alive than to risk death. Misha’s cold, still countenance did not change. He stood like a snowman, his hatless blond head well on its way to matching the landscape. One of the drawbacks to his habit of stillness, thought Louis. You risk turning into an ice sculpture. He smiled at the idea. The snow made it harder to see Misha against the white sky, like an effective camouflage. Louis shivered at the cold and became more careful about showing his dark head between the apertures. 

He marveled as Misha displayed an even more deliberate economy of movement than usual as he watched the scene below through binoculars. The AK-47 Louis carried would easily reach the men on his side. Louis peered carefully through an aperture on Misha’s side in an effort to see what could be so fascinating. The man below them, just inside a curtain of trees, seemed to be in silent communication with someone to his left, judging by the hand signals he was giving. Misha shifted the binoculars to his right and Louis’s eyes followed the movement, finding the other half of that conversation, also within range of their AKs, which meant they themselves were in range of their enemies’ weapons. 

It seemed Charlemagne was trapped. This was the name Misha, Louis, and Vasily had given themselves when it became clear they needed the cooperation of friendly governments to defeat their enemies. The name gave those governments a team they could hire without attribution. It gave the team a name they could use to avoid disclosing their personal names. Governments hired them for their skills with guns, knives, and explosives, and in Vasily’s case, also with fists. Charlemagne accepted these government commissions for increasingly large sums and for access to the information they needed to stay ahead of their enemies. They had many enemies, though they were yet only in their twenties. 

“How many?” Misha asked, not taking his eyes off the man he seemed to suspect might be in charge. The man in his binoculars signaled to either side, often emphatically. 

Louis moved to a different aperture. “I have two in this view and one more in the next aperture to the west.” 

“I have three,” said Vasily. “The entrance is below me.” 

Eight. A bit excessive for the elimination of three young men on a hiking holiday in the mountains. They had been careful to hide their weapons, and Misha had even forbidden Louis from enjoying the obviously willing young woman at the hostelry they stayed in last night. 

“You will not be able to hide your gun from her,” he had said. 

“It has never been a problem before.” 

“It will be a problem here. These are small, poor villages and it is winter. They have nothing else to do but talk.” 

And make love, thought Louis. Perhaps my refusal caused more comment than my gun would have. She was both delectable and willing. But he had kept his mouth shut and obeyed without an audible grumble. He and Vasily had come to realize their survival depended on Misha’s judgment. It was superior to their own. But as in this instance, it could be hard to be so constrained. 

Misha wore a snow blanket at least a centimeter thick by now. Louis noted that it did not melt. So his body temperature is as cold as his manner, he surmised. He moved back to the aperture on Misha’s side of the keep to discover what could be so enthralling. 

The man below signaled frantically, emphatically, in fact arguing with his hands. He was easy to see even without Misha’s binoculars. His black jacket and waving arms stood out against the pristine white of the snow around his position both on the ground and in the trees, weighing down the branches of the pine he stood next to. 

“There is some disagreement among them, Misha,” Louis murmured. Misha also kept his voice low. “It appears a few loyalties have become more fluid. We must find how best to exploit it.” 

“They all are in range,” said Louis, “and not well covered. I can take at least one, probably more, before they scramble to conceal themselves.” 

“It is the same on this side,” said Vasily. 

Misha dropped his binoculars and picked up his AK. “We will each take only one. Mine is the commander. One on each side, then silence. If they attack, we will respond, but I do not think they will.” He paused briefly. “On my word…” 

“Now.” 

Misha’s modulated voice never changed. 

The commander had drawn his arm back but died before he could sweep it forward to order the attack. Two other men, one on either flank, died in the same moment. Three more ran. The two who remained were in Vasily’s view at the front of the keep. They stepped into full view holding their weapons by the straps out to their sides at arm’s length. Then, dropping the guns to the ground, they stepped away, arms raised, and waited. 

Both Vasily and Louis reported no other movement. With a gesture, Misha sent them below while he covered the approaches to the door. 

Vasily covered him as Louis checked their prisoners for more weapons and gathered in the two AK47s on the ground. Once upstairs, they tied their hands behind them, made them kneel, and began the interrogation. 

“He is a brute,” said the taller man, Milos. He shook his blond curls in contempt for the target. “He beats his wife. He beats the servants. Ask Blago here. He will tell you.” The smaller, dark-haired man with a pinched face nodded. “He hit me repeatedly for a minor mistake. A very small mistake.” 

Misha regarded him silently. “Tell me about this small mistake.” 

Blago paled, perhaps at the memory of the beating. More likely, at the quiet purr in Misha’s voice. He swallowed and said, “I spilled some wine.” 

“What kind of wine?” said Misha, still quiet, still purring. 

Another swallow. “Lafitte.” 

Blago could not tell if his interrogator knew the wine. The man betrayed nothing. His stillness made Blago shiver involuntarily. 

“How much did you spill?” 

Somehow, Blago understood it would be unwise to lie. “I dropped the bottle.”

“A full bottle?” 

Misha did not need a verbal answer; the man was trembling. He reflected that he would have hit him also. His father would have disapproved of such an act when dismissal might be more appropriate, but he was not his father. He would have hit him. Perhaps not repeatedly. 

“How many times did he hit you?” 

Again he saw the answer before the man spoke. “Only once.” 

So far, the target was behaving as he would, including the attempt at ambush. His attempt at that would have succeeded, however. 

The shadow of the wall behind Misha had begun to creep over the other man. It would be dusk soon, a good time for another ambush. They had to move. He knew Louis would prefer to execute these two before moving on, but he was sure there was more information here. 

He remembered a shallow cave they had passed on their way down to this valley. The narrow entrance to the cave would be easy to defend against anything other than overwhelming force, though the climb would be arduous in the snow. He led the way, with Vasily and Louis prodding their charges, none too gently, to move quickly. 

Misha gave each man a sip from his canteen before separating them to opposite sides of the cavern and setting a guard schedule. He considered continuing the interrogation but decided he would rather have enough light to see their faces as they spoke. It is easy to be deceived by the mere voice of a man who believes his own lie. 

Vasily bound their ankles and gagged them. The team took turns on watch while the other two slept stretched across the cave entrance. Dawn streaked in through that entrance, leaving a bright narrow strip to the back wall of the cave and plenty of light outside to continue their questions. 

Vasily could smell it and so knew to look and find it in the wet trousers of the servant. He himself had been in this position and knew that pity would be neither useful nor appreciated by the recipient. Instead, he helped Misha continue the interrogation, each taking one of the men outside to relieve himself while Louis enjoyed another hour of sleep. They stood knee-deep in snow on a wide rock ledge overlooking the white sagging treetops of the forest. 

“How do you know he beats his wife?” Misha asked as he retied the fair-haired man’s hands behind him. He saw the stiffening in the man’s shoulders during an almost imperceptible pause. “Do you know her?” he prompted. Again, stiffness and a pause. 

“I have spoken with her on occasion,” came the careful reply. 

“If he is so reprehensible, why did you join the ambush party?” 

The man’s mouth opened and closed twice, before managing to produce sound on the third try. “I hoped to sabotage it.” 

“Did you succeed?” 

“No. The commander was about to order the attack when you shot him.” 

“But there was dissension. Did you lead the dissent?” 

The man looked at his shoes and shook his head. “Blago did.” 

“Do you mean the servant?” 

He nodded, head low. 

“Tell me how it is you are able to speak to the wife.” 

After much rambling, pinning, clarifying, evading, and admitting, Vasily and Misha understood the target’s wife was from the same village as this man, that she was very beautiful, and they had grown up together. 

“Does she have a child?” 

The man looked up with the suggestion of a smile. “Yes.” 

“A boy? A son?” 

“Yes. A son,” he answered with a pathetically easy to read expression. “Your son,” said Misha. 

The man’s eyes opened wide. “You are a devil!” 

Blago blinked in the sunlight. Vasily had made sure the sunlight fell on the man’s pants to dry them. 

“Tell me about the disagreement you engineered,” said Vasily, prepared to persuade the man’s tongue, but hoping he would not have to. Funny how the simple human disaster of peeing one’s pants could call up his sympathy. Perhaps it was because he had been there, not very long ago, until Misha and Louis pulled him out of that hellhole. 

Blago shrugged. “Somebody suggested the commander wanted many dead so he can take over the province.” 

“Who suggested it?” 

There was no answer. 

“To whom did you suggest it?” 

Another wide-eyed stare, but this man did not call Vasily a devil. 

“I told a tree. I pretended there was someone behind it.” 

“Why?” 

Another silence. Vasily moved in close, using proximity to make the man feel his menace like a creeping cold. 

Blago shivered in the sun. “She paid me.” 

“Why would she do that?” 

“To protect him.” 

“Him? The other man with you?” 

“Yes, Milos. When you began shooting, I tackled him and made him stay down. Then I made him surrender with me.” 

“Why not let him run away with the others?” 

“Because…” Blago looked at his boots. “Because he is sure to say the wrong thing to the wrong person. He always does.” 

“You judged it safer to be with us?”Vasily wondered about these people. “Why?” 

“Because we hired you.” 

“A man calling himself Alfrid hired us.” 

Blago nodded. “He is the intermediary. We sent someone to the city to find a person. They found Alfrid. My brother-in-law raised the fee. He is head of the next village over, across the river. Everyone contributed. Stefan (the target) took almost all the harvest this autumn and sold it. We are hungry. We had to do something.” 

Vasily wondered what additional tactics helped create such universal generosity in commissioning a murder, though he knew hunger could be a powerful motivator. “And the wife?” he asked. 

“She will marry Milos and he will take charge.” 

“You suggested he is stupid.” 

“Yes. If he were any smarter, it would not work, you see. He would know that she is actually in charge. This way, he will be happy, she will make him think he is the boss, and we will eat.” 

“And you? What position will you hold?” 

The servant looked away before answering. “I will be her advisor.” 

“And lover,” Misha murmured when Vasily relayed the conversation to Louis. 

Blago’s intelligence was key to the success of their task. They killed seven of the body guard before reaching the target, The guards died without much pain, having consumed the better part of a bottle of very fine whiskey, probably provided by the servant out of the target’s own cellar. Misha and Vasily each took out a sentry silently. With surgical precision, Louis dropped the first two men who turned towards the door as Charlemagne entered. An unlucky three more fell to a single automatic burst before the rest either fled or surrendered. 

The woman appeared finally as they prepared to leave after selecting several files from her late husband’s office as part of their payment. She wore an embroidered sash and her blonde hair curled like a crown around her head in a tight braid. Her young dark-haired son held tightly to her hand. 

“Do you not think, Misha, she would be better off marrying the servant?” asked Louis as they left. “He is more intelligent.” He stuffed their fee, paid in gold, into his rucksack and hefted it onto his back. 

Misha considered for a moment before answering. “But she and her village will be safer this way. She has the gift of cunning.” 

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