Campfire Clichés

… with a hook for a hand!”

“Hold up there a moment, Phil! Are we supposed to believe that a secure psychiatric facility let a criminally insane inmate keep his prosthetic hook, and incidentally his murder weapon?”

“Nah, don’t be stupid – he made a new one after he escaped.”

“Dude, Karen’s mom wears a prosthetic foot, or had you forgotten? You’re saying he ‘made’ a new hand, like it was nothing!? Do you know how long it takes to fit those things?”

“Well it was the old days…”

“Right, when fabrication of synthetic appendages was much easier…”

“Look, question it as much as you like, it’s a true story! I don’t know how he did it, but it’s only a hook – maybe he strapped a gaff to his arm!”

“True story? Let’s see – who’s got reception?”

“I’ve got two bars, but no 3G down here. Let me check from the ridge.”

“Really, Sue, you’re walking up there by yourself? Didn’t you hear Phil? There’s a killer on the loose!”

“Fine… Dan, you come with me. Last one back gets taken!”

“Hey! Damn, she’s fast! See you guys soon.”

“That was too easy. Reckon they’ll get together up there?”

“Eurgh! That’s my sister, man. And your fat friend!”

“So he’s carrying an extra pound or two – he’s an awesome guy. Much better than some I could name. And he worships Sue.”

“Whatever. He’d better not try anything, or I’ll add another lump or two.”

“Lucky you’re not really such an arsehole, or you’d be out here alone, practising your guitar under the stars and singing to keep the maniacs at bay.”

“With my voice, I’d probably set them off! Speaking of, we gonna scare them when they get back?”

“Hell yeah! We need something good, though, something simple – none of your ‘hook’ bullshit. It was scary when we were 10, but it’s just sad now.”

“Hey, Sue? Any luck? God, that hill was steep!”

“Hardly a hill, but yeah, at least I’m not the only one panting. I’m loading Snopes now. Let’s take our time – I want that bastard to squirm, with his ancient urban legends!”

“Yeah, so much crap. But none of us could come up with anything better.”



“I’m just wondering. Of course the story is fiction… but they don’t know that.”

“I like the way you think! What do you have in mind?”

“I have a plan, but first we wait. Let’s stay up here for, say, another hour.

“I’ve, um, got an idea about that, too – come over here.”

“Mmm! Sue! I wasn’t expecting that. Er, sorry… I’m not a very good kisser.”

“I wouldn’t say that! But let’s practise some more, anyway…”

“Sshhh… They’re asleep!”

“Well that ‘hour’ did last a very long time. Not that I’m complaining.”

“Looks like they were planning to scare us, the bastards, hiding behind the tents!”

“How dare they? What’s the plan?”

“Hold the sark, it doesn’t work in whispers! First, we grab the ketchup… Quietly!”

“Phil? Phil, you awake?”

“Ah, let me sleep!”

“Wake up man! Something’s really fucking wrong!”

“Okay, okay. What the hell?”

“Open your bloody eyes! The tents!”

“Holy motherfuc… Where’s Sue?”

“They’re not here – I already looked. Fuck, man. The tents, the gear, gone. ”

“They probably just took it to screw with u… Oh shit! Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit!”

“What? Take it easy, man, that’s my scout knife? So they forgot something. Oh. Fuck. Is that blood?”

“I don’t know. Don’t touch it – are you fucking nuts? Still got your phone?”

“Yeah, it’s here – half-charged. Okay, let’s call for help.”

“Hang on. We both need to calm down first. Breathe!”

“Fuck waiting, we need the cops.”

“And what if it’s all a joke? Call Sue and Dan first.”

“Fine – I’m trying Sue now…”

“Hear that?”

“Ssshh, think it’s over this way.”

“Hurry! It’s getting louder.”

“There it i… Dude? I don’t feel so good…”

“Damnit! Dave? Dave! Sue? Oh my God! Sis!”

“… And he fainted. You should have seen the look on Phil’s face, when he saw you covered in blood! His eyes rolled up like this…”

“Did uncle Phil really faint?”

“Yep, even bumped his head on the way down!

“Of course, he never tells anyone that part, but he won’t bore you with the hook story, either, and you can thank me and your father for that.”


This piece was written for Nika Harper’s Wordplay #4. The challenge was dialogue, with the prompts “starlight and an acoustic guitar” and “why you just don’t get it.”

The Cold Case

Her name was Death. I looked at my receptionist’s note again, squinted, then reached for my glasses. Her name was D’Eath. Surname, that is. Her first was Maryanne, which was far easier to parse.

She looked over at me. I should say “down,” in the interests of accuracy. She looked down, then, and her face was a puzzle.

“As if the height isn’t enough?” I asked her. I like to get those things out of the way up-front: framing, I think it’s called.

“I’m sorry?” She had an accent, hard to place, and her eyebrows danced prettily as she spoke.

“You’re thinking that I must be cursed – not just a dwarf, but a short-sighted one. You’re wondering if my mother drank too much, or what I did in a former life to deserve this.”

“No, I…” The pause, and the guilty contraction of her lips joined a deliberate stilling of the eyebrow dance: a bad poker face.

“It’s okay, I get it. In the interests of full disclosure, I’m actually long-sighted. I also have a slight limp, several fillings, and my voice squeaks when I try to shout. On the other hand, you’re scraping the bottom of the barrel already, and I’m the best you’re going to get.”

“I really didn’t mean…” You didn’t see many real blushes, not on my side of town, and it was a welcome sight. Maybe I’d been too hard on her.

“I’m just playing with you, Maryanne. It’s my real failing – I can’t resist teasing a client. Probably why I don’t get much repeat business. Why don’t you tell me what you need, and I’ll see if I can help.”

The blush remained, but she exhaled loudly, which was quite a sight in that outfit, and told me her story.

Why is it always the pretty ones who wind up in trouble?

She’d been hurt. They’ve always been hurt, but she’d been hurt bad; the kind of hurt that ties you up and leaves you in a dark cellar for days on end. The beatings came later, probably rape too, reading between the lines.

That’s what I do, when you get down to it: I take a job and I read the story between the lines, pencilling in the filthy narrative that nobody wants to speak aloud. Rape, betrayal, torture, murder. Not necessarily in that order. Give me a dirty word and I’ll give you a case file, a sleepless night, a healthy dram of Scotch.

She told me she was okay. Another bad poker face.

She cried. I listened. I read what there was to see. It was enough.

I left her there in my office, elegant hands still gracefully adding tear-stained tissues to the bin, and went to visit the bastard who had hurt her.

My car isn’t much, but it’s modified for my size, and gets me places. The bodywork is still good, and the engine runs more often than not. She started first try, and I drove slowly to Maryanne’s address, turning the job over in my mind.

The house was unremarkable. A drab cottage on a drab street, it screamed of mundanity. I hate the mundane: it’s usually a front for despair, which drives too many of my cases. Even the flowers in the front garden looked depressed, and I couldn’t blame them.

Give me a shabby but honest apartment any day: at least dreams can be planted, down at rock-bottom, when you know that any direction is an improvement. Here they spent so much time polishing off false faces that only cynicism could survive.

He hadn’t. Survived, that is. I found his body in the bedroom, knife still protruding from under his ribs. Dainty red handprints were stamped over the scene, and no doubt on the handle of the weapon. I gripped the hilt carefully in a plastic wrap, tugging the knife free without adding my own prints. The body slumped further, but the knife came out. A lucky strike for an amateur; she’d killed him with her first thrust, and avoided bone.

My stature brings with it the odd inconvenience, but for this job it conferred an advantage: at four-feet-two, the slightest stoop let me stand below window level, hidden from suburbia. A search of the house revealed nothing of interest, but I’d expected nothing less. I grabbed a case from my car and returned inside.

I’m as strong as any full-scale man – a high protein diet and plenty of exercise see to that – but a body is a body, and they’re always fucking heavy. I don’t use the word lightly. Heavy, not fucking: I’ve got no qualms about cursing, at least, not in the face of death. Time and place and all that.

Lugging a body to a car trunk has a way of putting things into perspective. It’s a very odd perspective, admittedly, especially if the body is now in pieces, stuffed into cheap suitcases. That moment when the neighbour offers to help is worse, but thankfully it’s only happened once, and he didn’t smell a rat. Or a corpse, which was more of a concern at the time.

I cleaned the scene as best I could. Which is to say, I burnt it down. Technically, I suppose I started the fire, then got the hell out of Dodge before smoke appeared, but let’s not split hairs.

I burnt it down, and I took the body to an associate who could use it. We operate under a don’t ask, don’t tell policy.

Trunk bleached and the usual plates back on my car, I avoided her neighbourhood on my way back across town to my office.

She looked up from my desk as I walked in, those innocent eyes still red and swollen.

“I’ve got some bad news for you, Maryanne.”

“I don’t know how much more bad news I can take today, Mister Cassidy,” Her lips actually quivered at this, the poor innocent. “Is he, did he…”

“No, he’s gone. He won’t be coming back.”

“Oh, thank God!” She slumped over the desk, tension leaving her in a rush.

“It’s about your house. I’m afraid there’s been a rather nasty fire.”

The edge of her lip actually curled up in a brief smile. “Oh, that’s too bad. I hope nobody was hurt?”

“Not a soul. The house was empty at the time – or so I’ve heard, you’ll have to check with the fire department.”

“Oh, Mister Cassidy, you’ve been wonderful! How can I possibly thank you?”

My heart quickened: I’m only human.

I repressed my baser urges, and responded more calmly than I felt, “My usual fee is nine-hundred plus expenses, but I’ll bill you for seven.”

She opened her purse, and withdrew a cool thousand. “Take this as a bonus, I would have been lost without you.” She stood and turned to leave the office, childish innocence locked away behind a veneer of professionalism. I watched her legs as she walked to the door, and only distantly observed myself saying “Hmm.”

She turned, and raised one of those perfect eyebrows.

I heard myself continue, “I just realised, your house didn’t have a cellar.”

I don’t know where she had hidden the pistol, dressed up as she was. In retrospect, that should have been a warning sign – who kills their husband in self-defence, then gets dressed to the nines to visit the cleaner? Trust a man to be distracted by a pair of pretty pins.

I saw her finger tighten, felt the first bullet tug at the hand I automatically raised, its motion faster than my brain’s translation of the pain impulses.

I saw the flash of the muzzle, felt the second bullet thud home.

Saw the last few hours flash before my eyes.

There’s always time, I suppose, for regrets, but I once again found myself admiring that shapely face, those lovely legs, and thinking that this wasn’t such a bad way to go.


This piece was written for Nika Harper’s Wordplay #11. The challenge was a death scene, with the prompts “crossroads and dead-ends” and “the best-laid plans.”

Cover Letters

Her Royal Majesty, Princess Peach
Peach’s Castle
Mushroom Kingdom

Your Most Royal Highness,

As a loyal subject of the Mushroom Kingdom, I have long admired your guiding presence in our lives, and your advertisement for a bodyguard consequently caught my eye.

My background working beneath the streets of our fair city gives me a perspective that few can offer, with a practical, hands-on approach to problem-solving. Water sanitation and management is a risk-filled occupation, and I have experience subduing both fungal and reptilian threats, while preventing any harm to my clients. It is time to leave the sewers, and work for a cause I care about.

I thank you for taking the time to consider my application. Supporting a ruler I so admire would be more than a simple job to me, and I know I could keep your Highness safely in her castle.

Sincerely yours,


Princess Peach
Peach’s Castle
Mushroom Kingdom

Your Majesty,

I have followed your succession to the throne with great interest, and was saddened to learn of your need for a bodyguard – these are troubling times, indeed, and I would offer you my services.

My background in mechanical engineering and applied castle defence would lend itself perfectly to your needs, and my creations have sent thousands of would-be intruders tumbling to their fate. With a well-honed physique and extensive combat training, I offer reliable protection for your person, and my array of airborne vehicles provide a failsafe escape in the event of an emergency.

I beg Your Majesty to consider this application in all haste, as rumours of ill-bred stalkers spread through the kingdom.

At your service,


This piece was written for Nika Harper’s Wordplay #10. The challenge was a cover letter, with the prompts “the art of caring” and “a new day.”


Last Port of Call

The Governor’s gaze was frosty as a whitecap on a wild southerly, and just as inviting. He leaned across the table, the reek of soil and fire hanging off his finery.

“So, Miss Wheaton… ”

“Captain Wheaton.” The response was automatic. She wrinkled her nose against the claustrophobic smell, wishing for salt air.

“Er, yes, you have claimed that title, but it’s hardly legitimate. Much like your profession.”

“That would be my alleged profession.”

His eyes got colder still. “Please, Captain Wheaton, we caught you red-handed! A ship, laden with pilfered silks, and a chest of stolen doubloons.”

“Who is this ‘we’ you refer to, Governor? I didn’t see you on the docks! And your agents ‘caught’ a ship devoid of a crew!”

“It makes no matter if you deny it, Captain, we both know the Ranunculus is your vessel, but that’s not what we’re here to talk about. Let me be blunt with you a moment.”

“If you were speaking in subtleties before, I’m a little afraid.”

“Stow your sass, Captain, I’m offering you a chance. The reality is that you’re a girl playing dress up – a two-bit pirate at best – and I’m after bigger fish. I’m prepared to offer you a deal.”

“A deal.” The voice was flat, but managed to twist the two words into something obscene, writhing into the air.

The Governor ignored her tone and continued, “Yes, and I’m sure you’ll find it to your benefit.”

“I don’t trade in lives.”

“Don’t be naive, Captain: every bolt of fabric you steal claims lives, whether directly or not.”

“I said trade. Hypothetically speaking, there’s a difference between forcing a few underwriters to do their jobs and selling out a friend.”

“Just hear me out, Captain – nobody said anything about friends.”

“Who are you after, then?”

“The Dread Pirate Smith.”

Her mouth twisted into a genuine smile, followed by a long chuckle. “The Dread Pirate, huh? I didn’t think a Governor would place much stock in fairytales.”

“Oh, Smith is no phantom, Captain. We’ve captured two ships operating under his orders already. And your own vessel was charting the same course as both of them.”

“My alleged vessel. So you’re saying I’m here due to coincidence? Here I thought it was a free ocean.”

“Not quite. We managed to get the crews to talk, but they were too addled to give up anything beside the name. They’re all scared, Captain, and more scared of Smith than of our, er,  persuasion.”

“How unfortunate for you.”

“I hadn’t finished, Captain. If you give up any information you have on Smith, I’ll spare you and your crew. We’ll confiscate the fabrics and gold, of course, but will give you leave to take your ship and go.”

“And a letter of marque.”

“Excuse me?”

“I’ll also require a letter of marque if you want me to go against Smith. And we keep a hundred of the coins.”

“Just like that? Fifty coins and the letter, then.”

“Seventy, agreed. You’d best make yourself comfortable, and call in your secretary. I’ll tell you all I know, but it’s a sordid tale, full of murder and mutiny, and best kept far from the ears of babes…”

“Cap’n? Tits on a tortoise, we thought you were lost! It’s been hours.”

“Have some faith in your Captain, Threep; I’ve been spinning yarns with our Governor.”

Our Guv’nor? Then you did it, Ma’am?”

“I did indeep. A shiny new letter for our next shipment, and leave to depart.”

“So he bought the story?”

“Better, yet – he bought information on the Dread Pirate Smith.”

“Cap’n! You’re bolder ‘n boiled brass, you are!”

“Thank you, Threep. Assemble the crew and prepare to set sail. We’re ready to start the second phase.”

“What awaits us, ma’am?”

“Destiny, Threep, destiny and death, same as ever. But first we sail to rally the ships.”

“But what if the Dread Pirate is after us, Cap’n?” He shook in a parody of fear, eyes alight with laughter.

“I won’t be after you if you do your damn jobs!” She winked at the old sailor, “But stow the Dread Pirate talk for now, Threep, the Governor approaches to bid us farewell!”


This piece was written for Nika Harper’s Wordplay #9. The challenge was piracy, with the prompts “deception” and “chasing shadows.”

The Unknown Quantity

“Penny!” Knock. Knock. Knock.

“Penny!” Knock. Knock. Knock.

“Penny!” Knock. Knock. Knock.

“What is it, Sheldon?”

“There was a rather persistent young man outside, asking to see you.”

“Well, where is he?”

“Oh, he’s not a tenant. I couldn’t let just anyone into the building.”

“God, Sheldon, did he say who he was?”

“He claimed to be a courier, but he didn’t have any identification. He said he’d left his wallet in the office! A likely story.”

“Did he have a van, or anything?”

“He wasn’t stupid, Penny! Of course he had a van. So would I, if I wanted to impersonate a courier.”

“And why, exactly, would anyone want to impersonate a courier?”

“Of course, that is the conundrum – I’m still working it out myself.”

“Sheldon! Did he leave a package?”

“Well he certainly tried to, after I questioned his credentials.”

“I don’t like where this is going…”

“Don’t worry, Penny: I refused to be party to his fraudulent machinations, or to sign his so-called documentation. He took the ‘delivery’ away again in his ‘courier van’!”

“Sheldon, has anyone ever asked you, in the nicest possible way, to leave before I kill you?”

“How could they possibly ask that nicely? But I’ll admit that the phrase is familiar to me.”



“Leave. Before I kill you.”

“Oh, you weren’t speaking hypothetically?”



“What is it, Sheldon?”

“I need to ask you a question.”

“If this is about the birds and the bees again, it’s still a metaphor, and yes, your parents lied to you.”

“No, although we’ll return to that later. I need to ask you about Penny.”

“Okay Sheldon. Penny is a bird, according to your parents’ reimagining of biology…”

“No, no. Good Lord, Leonard! If I wanted to indulge in sordid discussions, I would read your chat logs.”

“So that was you!”

“Oh, don’t be so paranoid. It was Wolowitz.”

“What do you want, Sheldon?”

“I may not be reading our interaction correctly, but I believe that Penny might be annoyed at me.”

“That hardly seems likely.”

“That’s exactly what I thought. But she did threaten to kill me, which seemed a little hostile at the time.”

“What did you do, Sheldon?”

“And why would you assume that I did anything?”

“Because Penny doesn’t usually announce her desire to kill someone unless they’ve done something incredibly annoying.”

“Oh, and you’re suddenly our resident expert on all things Penny?”

“You did ask for my advice.”

“Please, Leonard. If you recall the beginning of our conversation, I said I needed to ask you a question. I did not specify that I would require or value a response. Hearing you fumbling around on the pseudoscientific periphery of female psychology is all the confirmation I need.”

“Always a pleasure, Sheldon. And what conclusions has your insightful experiment drawn?”

“I’m glad you asked. Penny is obviously not mad at me for some perceived slight. She is clearly angry at you, probably for some failure to perform adequately in the bedroom. I am your room-mate, so she has transferred her unconscious frustration at you to a more accessible target, namely me.”

“It must be dizzying, living in your head.”

“Well, it would be, for a lesser intellect.”

“Hey guys, did you catch the news?”

“Could you be a little more specific, Howard? Sheldon has alerts set up for any stories within a five mile radius of the apartment, so we’re fully conversant with cats versus trees for this week.

“There’s no need for sarcasm, Leonard! Mrs Whiskers was saved by a strapping young member of our fire department, and is recovering well.”

“No, this is a big story, and it happened just down the block! Some sleazoid was pretending to be a courier driver and seducing women with his package, if you know what I mean!”

“Well, I don’t know what you mean, Howard. I can’t see what’s so enticing about a package. Unless, I suppose, it’s the thrill of the unknown, the barely concealed bulges hinting at hitherto unknown delights…”

“Um, Sheldon?”

“Don’t tell him, Howard. Some things are better left unsaid.”


This piece was written for Nika Harper’s Wordplay #8. The challenge was fan fiction, with the prompts “failed delivery” and “inner demon.”