Word Limit: 350
Winner: Emma Richardson
Brian, reigning North-East Scrabble Champion, looked disdainfully across the table at the young man. “No match for me” he thought as he pulled out the last three letters.
It was the semi-final round. Brian checked his scrabble rack. ‘L I E R S’. It didn't leave him much to play with but he always managed to pull something out of the bag (metaphorically speaking). Searching for usable letters and free spaces, he scanned the board below. He saw the ‘P’ first.
P L I E R S would give him 7, not a bad total to end on. Then his eyes alighted on the V, three places to the right from the double word square. He slapped his tiles down, spelling out S I L V E R. Eighteen - Brian thought it a winning score.
His opponent smirked at him. Brian could see the oik mouth “Is that all you've got, old man?” The upstart laid down his last tile - a Q next to the I - covering the red triple letter square.
Punching the air, the lad was joined by his ‘lady’ friend (Brian used the term loosely), shouting “Go Gary” wriggling her hips in an obscene victory grind.
Brian, gracious to the last, shook his rival’s hand. Gary chuckled “Silver. Good try, mate, a second place. Ha. Ha.”
Ha, indeed. Brian laughed along, embracing the usurper in a congratulatory bear hug. As he did so, he scratched the man on the back of his neck, with the small, thin silver blade. (He had prepared it earlier, wearing gloves, diligently lacing it with curare.) It was such a slight scratch, barely felt, that the boy hardly noticed it at all.
Calmly, Brian took his place at the runners-up table for the next heat. He was confident he would soon have his rightful position in the final. “Not for nothing have I been champion eight years running” he thought to himself “I always do my research”.
He picked out his letters. “R E D R U M A. I wonder what I can spell with that?”
Highly Commended: Timothy Crucero
“Edith, I give in. Since you are clearly too dazzled by the monetary value of our parents’ estate to spare a thought for its true worth, we will auction off the manor and everything in it. Probate should take six months. I presume you can bear to wait that long for your half of the proceeds?”
Rupert allowed his eyes to linger distastefully on the wilting lace cuffs of Edith’s faded dress, and barely managed to conceal a spasm of glee when she hid them behind her back.
When she spoke, it was with the careful diction of a hostage whose captor has just holstered his gun.
“Th-thank you for seeing sense. I didn’t mean to force your hand, but neither one of us could ever afford to buy the other out. And with no other family—”
“Then it’s settled,” Rupert interjected, his voice as smooth as ice. “Oh – one more thing. I took the liberty of leaving a couple of small keepsakes off the inventory, so we’ll each have something to look back on when this little indignity has passed. I’m keeping father’s pocket-watch – the brass one, not the gold – and you shall have this…”
Rupert reached for Edith’s throat. She saw a glint of silver, felt the chill of metal against her neck, and looked down, her eyes widening.
“Yes – great-grandmother’s locket. The pendant wouldn’t fetch much due to the monogram, and my jeweller friend assures me that the chain is a worthless fake, although it looks quite like sterling. Some sort of queer, modern alloy. Goodness knows what happened to the real one.”
“Oh, Rupert! I shall wear it until my dying day.”
This time, he did not try to hide his smile. Six months would be more than enough time for the necklace to do its work and, when it did, even the most suspicious coroner would conclude that Rupert’s hands were clean. As soon as Edith left, he wiped them with his handkerchief. It would not do to be incautious: arsenic was an efficient killer, even when lurking in plain sight…
Word Limit: 350
Winner: Isaac Williams
“It’s simple,” The Man is telling me, “You see scarlet, you’ve won. When you see that red, you are the victor.”
I’m shaking as he tells me this, and my head is spinning. This entire situation feels unreal. It can’t be true. Any second now, I'm going to wake up and briefly question my sanity at the horror of this dream.
“I’ll show you,” The Man says, but I shut my eyes as he goes to demonstrate. When he opens them, his fingers are red and he raises them to his mouth. As they enter, as he begins licking at them, I want to be sick. But it’s compelling. I can’t tear my eyes away as he laps at the liquid on his fingers. Part of me wants to run away, but another part wants to try, to experience what he’s describing.
“What’s it like?” I ask, my voice uncertain. It’s like I don’t want to know, but I’m asking anyway.
“There’s no way to describe it,” The Man tells me, a sick smile on his face, “It’s like every pleasure you’ve ever experienced, but at once. You have to try it if you want to know.”
I don’t….I don’t want to,” I say, but it doesn’t sound convincing to me, so there’s no way it sounds convincing to him.
“I’m sure you don’t, kid,” The Man says, and laughs a hoarse laugh, “But you will. You won’t be able to resist.”
And the terrifying thing is, he sounds like he knows what he’s talking about. Almost as if he’s done this before. Maybe he has, for all I know.
“So why don’t we cut out all this unnecessary?” the Man suggests, “And just get on with it?” He holds the knife out to me, handle-first, and I stare at it with horror, before taking it with a trembling hand. I turn slowly to the bound and gagged man in the chair, and, before I know it, the knife has pierced his skin, and the scarlet blood flows. And The Man was right. It’s euphoric. I’ve won.
Highly Commended: Alex Yepifanov
"Why do you go back to her, John?! Why?!"
Time and time again it was always the same thing.
"You know it's not that simple, come on!"
Crash. The roses he'd bought her would start to suffocate on the carpet, the door slamming shortly after. They'd of course meet back at the lab later, and it would be almost like nothing had happened. Blissful forgiveness, reparations with chocolates, small romantic kisses upon her sanguine locks - a couple trapped in some sick, cyclical imitation of love.
But, you know, that small set of chemical imbalances was a funny thing. Funny enough that just a week later, a small giggle would infect the woman as John would finish the warm glass of milk she had prepared for him. He was thirty-four today and the full English that she'd prepared for him had really hit the spot. It had been different last night, the argument muted and tame. Maybe they'd finally moved past it all.
"We'll present our research today."
He'd offer her a warm smile and she'd mirror his excitement back.
"Strawberry tongue, rash, blood infections. It's pretty obvious to me. I was told he'd been travelling the last few weeks, away from any sort of modern medicine. A tragedy really. He shouldn't have left it so late. Who are you again?"
The coroner, dour, ever-serious, with a shocking lack of tact, would start to usher away the woman who would offer a solemn nod, offering a simple reply.
"Truly it is. Colette, Toxicology - I'm writing my dissertation on this particular strain. Fascinating really."
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Colette."
They didn't suspect a thing. Perfect.
His funeral was a swift and muted process. A woman would weep softly at the foot of his coffin. Another would stand further back, among the mass of raven-like mourners, tears streaming down her face. Crocodile tears: it was only when the mourners had started to leave that she'd betray a simple smile from beneath her morbid veil.
That was the last time he'd cheat on her with his wife.
Word Limit: 350
Winner: Susan Corfield
Gasping for breath, I darted behind the stout trunk of Peter’s favourite tree, its caramel leaves carpeting the squelchy grass below. From my hiding place I peered back towards the hotel to see if he was on his way. Arching above the Georgian sandstone mansion appeared a glorious rainbow, its promised crock of gold hidden somewhere amongst the slate tiles and chimneys. I remembered what my Grandma Iris had taught me, and bent to draw a cross on the ground, making a wish on the rainbow.
Peter would surely appear soon. He always came up here after unpacking his case, to breathe in the pure country air following a week suffering the grime of grey city life. I knew he was here. His scarlet Ferrari was parked on the gravel drive. Conversely, my bike was propped up out of view, against the espaliered wall of the kitchen garden. Its heavy frame bruising the ripening plums.
I couldn’t wait to see Peter again. Butterflies swooped around inside me, hunting for somewhere to settle. I had big plans for him tonight. A shaft of sunlight broke through the clouds and shone onto the stone statue of Zeus just down the hill. Framed like a masterpiece by the technicoloured arch, the Greek God held aloft his bolt of lightning against a background of indigo clouds.
Finally Peter came marching up the hill in his Barbour and wellingtons. I had to clamp my mouth shut to stop myself from calling out. He sank exhausted onto the oak bench beside Zeus. With no time to lose, I dashed up behind him, my approach masked by the bellowing wind.
“Peter!” I cried.
Swivelling to face me, it took longer than it should have done for him to realise it was me. “What on earth are you doing here?” he roared.
Peter’s eyes popped out of his head when he saw the answering Zeus toppling towards him. Iris, Goddess of the Rainbow, lending me a helping hand. The wish I’d made earlier perfectly executed as the granite bolt of lightning struck Peter straight through the heart.
Theme: The Cage
Word Limit: 350
Winner: Declan Hill
Adrian was overjoyed. This was his first marriage. It was going to be perfect.
Fiona’s arrival at the dog pound had given him a dilemma. He rewarded her reassuring smile with Millie, an Alsatian pup with a squinty eye. Fiona danced with Millie to start with, but after a couple of visits she turned her attention to a playful black lab named Samson and eventually settled on a golden retriever cross. Adrian congratulated her on her choice.
As she returned to spend time with each mutt, they chatted and warmed to each other.
“Cally will love him,” Fiona said as she snuggled with Max, the cross-breed.
“Your… daughter?” Adrian wondered.
“Oh no, my cockatiel. She gets lonely when I’m at work. Max will be great company.”
When Adrian eventually plucked up the courage to ask Fiona out she surprised him with her suggestion.
“White water rafting? Er… ok,” he agreed.
They kitted up and climbed into the dinghy. Adrian, so confident in his day job, didn’t want to show his fear. He tested the fastenings on the life jacket once more.
The early waters were deep but slow. As the pace picked up, Fiona urged Adrian to come to the front of the boat.
“You’ll never taste freedom unless you loosen the straps,” she said as she held his hand. He squeezed hers tight and gripped the boat.
Their courtship was swift, Adrian enjoying the new-found energy that her wildness brought. A wedding? Another crazy idea. He loved it.
He couldn’t wait. How he’d changed in six short weeks.
Adrian smiled as he left his mother’s house for the last time. He’d lived there alone since she went into a care home five years earlier. A new life with his gorgeous bride awaited.
Fiona closed the curtains and opened the front door to welcome her husband. Max bounded up to meet him. As they headed upstairs, Fiona loosened the fastening to Cally’s cage.
The coroner raised an eyebrow when he filled in the records, a man pecked to death by a seemingly jealous cockatiel.
Theme: The Monkey
Word limit: 350
Winner: Siobhan McNamara
People called him the Monkey, a big guy who acted important but was only there because the boss liked him.
He talked like he wanted people to think he was smart, cracked jokes at people’s expense that didn’t quite fit.
‘Hey, wise guy,’ the boss would say indulgently. ‘Good one.’
The rest of the gang wondered where the Monkey had come from. They didn’t know he had been working in a downtown club the boss liked to frequent without the rest of the gang, nor did they know how the Monkey had stood between the boss and a loaded gun and told the guy brandishing it to put it away if he wanted to get home with his arms still attached to his body. The boss left the club with the Monkey and was seldom seen without him thereafter.
Soon the Monkey began to jeer at those who did not get the same attention from the boss. Inevitably, it got too much for the others. Moneybags Jim was first to crack.
‘You really think you’re special, don’t you? But you’re just the muscle. This is where the real work gets done,” Moneybags said, prising the back off the television and pulling out a ledger. “What do you think all this is?” he asked.
“I w-wouldn’t know,” the Monkey said, his cocky attitude gone in an instant. “I’m n-not good with numbers.”
“This is what the boss really values,” said Moneybags. “Monkeys are disposable.”
There was a police raid on the villa a few days later. It was such a regular occurrence that the gang smiled and held out their wrists to be handcuffed, confident they would be home in time for dinner. But the boss’s jaw tightened when two officers walked over to the television, prised the back off and removed the ledgers along with bundles of banknotes. Moneybags gaped as he recognized the big detective, who looked much more dangerous now that he was no longer masquerading as a not-very-bright wise guy.
Highly Commended: Ella Croyden
‘Hitting is not acceptable. Go to the corner, Billy. You’re in time out!’
Billy hated the corner; there was nothing to do and nothing to look at other than the garishly colored walls. He also hated the tacky cartoons they had recently painted on them and, on Billy’s particular part of the wall they had painted an especially ugly monkey. It was nothing like a real one; its tail was too curly, its smile was too goofy and its eyes were way too big.
At first glance the monkey appeared cheerful but the more Billy looked at it the more it started to change. The eyes looked cold and detached and the smile didn't look like a smile anymore. It almost looked like the monkey was baring its teeth at him as if it wanted to scare him away. But Billy was brave and no cartoon could scare him. Billy glared straight back at the monkey and bared his own teeth like a wild animal. The monkey didn't flinch; its expression didn't even waver. In fact the monkey was looking even more menacing by the second and Billy wasn't feeling so brave anymore.
He wanted to turn around and run, but Miss Peterson would just send him back to the corner, straight back into the monkey’s arms. Billy closed his eyes - he didn't want to look at that monkey anymore- but he could feel its gaze boring into him and he couldn't bear it any longer.
‘Don’t hurt me,’ Billy begged.
The monkey’s expression remained merciless.
‘Please,’ he pleaded, ‘I’ll do anything; just don’t hurt me.’
Mr Walker hurried down the stairs towards the nursery. Apparently, the parents were unable to get in to pick up their children. He unlocked the doors to reveal a line of unnaturally still figures lying on the nursery’s floor with heads tilted at impossible angles. Mr Walker stumbled back in shock, joining the crowd of, now panicking and shouting, parents.
‘It wasn't my fault,’ whispered a small voice from the back of the room, ‘the monkey made me do it.’
Theme: At Sea
Word Limit: 350
Winner: Declan Hill
Jessica loved biologists.
They knew about living things – how plants grew and suns set and plankton and stuff. So she got onto a research boat as the IT specialist. Jessica was cracking at IT.
They were heading off to the Greenland coast to study whales. They were brilliant. Mammals that snorkled underwater, sort of, and were fiercely intelligent.
Their vessel smashed through the Arctic wastes, the boat packed with more tech than they knew what to do with. Jessica had chosen some of it herself, most of it was existing stock and the rest was negotiated with the expedition leader, Barney Tau. He was everything a lusty woman could hope to get her hands on – a couple of metres tall if he was lucky, features to make a Hollywood casting agent pack in her job, and a member of one of the richest families in New England. Jessica had used everything that was available to her to get on board – knowledge of the latest protocol and her experience on board the recent expeditions to the feeding grounds beyond Japan and the mineral search in the South Atlantic.
The air outside bit deep but Barney didn’t notice as he had his head buried in his analysis. The prow scythed through the ice floes and they silenced the engine when Jessica’s sensors picked up the first murmurs of movement. The audio had recorded the lonely, distant call of whale song. It played out on a silent backdrop.
Professor Tau hadn’t noticed the other crew members weren’t moving.
Jessica beamed as the whale tossed a terrified seal into the air. She had found her people. The whales were the only ones who knew how she felt. She opened her arms and called to them as she pushed the last body off the side of the boat and rejoiced as it was thrown thirty feet up in front of her, followed by the beautifully balletic flight of the two tonne orca.
She sailed the ship back to the mainland, deleted any record that she’d been on the mission, and changed her name.
Highly Commended: Adam Blampied
My mother sits by the window, her head bowed, her breathing low and steady, her face relaxed and soft with peaceful sleep. The cool salt wind blows in from the sea, playing with her hair and worrying the candle on the sill. But it burns on.
I try to lift her from her chair. Her eyes blink open slowly, meet mine and, once again, she cannot conceal her disappointment. I am a poor substitute.
“Oh Liz,” she says, speech still muddy, “I thought -”
“I know, mama. Let's get you to bed.”
I lay her down, cover her. She quietly moans; horrible wet little sobs. I hold her hand. Her skin is thin and light as paper.
“Let it burn,” she whispers to me. Then she is asleep again.
My mother wasn't always soft. She was taught. He taught her.
I sit by the window now, the candle still blazing in the window. My mother believes the light will see him home.
“Let it burn,” she says to me. “Please, Liz. Let it burn.”
My father is out there, somewhere in the dark. My mother believes he is on the waves, that he is being kept from us by elements he cannot control. She believes that he struggles to return, that the ocean will reward his struggles one day, and show him the candlelight.
I know different. His bones, his teeth, his broken hands were washed away. He fell from the cliff and dashed himself apart on the rocks. The water came to meet him, turned briefly pink and then he was gone, into the churn of the sea. He is spread out amongst the vastness of the black water, blood, body and soul. I am glad.
I do not hate my mother for loving him, or for waiting. Life is a very hard thing, and we give ourselves away, the vital pieces, to make it bearable.
I sit by the window, lick the tips of my thumb and forefinger, then snuff out the candle.
Theme: The Cloisters
Word Limit: 350
Winner: Liam Lawer
Michael Johnson had lived a cloistered life for 16 long years. His mother and father, being God-fearing people, had ruled with an iron fist, enforcing restrictions which the other local kids could not even imagine existed. To go out and have fun with them in the evenings, to watch the television or even access the internet, was strictly forbidden, and if Michael was audacious enough to ask to take part in any of these activities, a harsh punishment faced him.
“We’re protecting you from sin,’ was one thing they always said. “We don’t want you tainted by the influence of heathens,” was another. However, Michael had always resented this, and it was something he vowed to sort out.
Whilst under his parents’ roof, Michael had one refuge in the form of an old vinyl of some ancient punk band, which he had found on his way back from school in a skip outside someone’s house one day. This he played on a gramophone his parents owned and listened to religious music on; it was his prize possession. On the rare occasions he was left alone in the house, he would take it carefully out of its sleeve and gently place it on the turntable, basking in its rough glory, turning it over again and again with a delicate touch to avoid any possibility of damage. He would sing along until his throat was sore and then every night dream about being in a punk band himself. Keeping vigilant in case he was caught was another thing he resented; so he hatched a cunning plan to leave the suffocating abode…
[4 years later …]
“How do you like it, Mikey? I love the name, mate.”
Michael looked at the poster he’d been handed. At the top it read in large, jagged letters “The Cloisters” and under it “live in concert!” Underneath was a close-up cartoon version of the band, with him holding the microphone.
“Yeah Ronnie, I like it.”
He pushed the image of his parents’ bloody, lifeless bodies out of his mind.
“I like it a lot.”
Word Limit: 350
Winner: Elloise Cooper
Dante took another sip of his drink, smiling in the knowledge that by that afternoon Dr Faber would be dead. He had to stop himself smacking his lips and grinning like a child. It had all been so easy!
Ahead of him, the board of scientists and financial backers shuffled their notes pompously, waiting for him to begin his appeal. From his position at the blackboard, Dante glanced swiftly over the balding heads of the professors and self-interested businessmen who were here to go through with the charade of considering his proposal for a new level of chemical warfare that could kill thousands in minutes. It would make him rich. Him and all the other smug board members in the room, who were now just waiting to enable the project’s completion. The only one who stood in the way was that old fossil Dr Faber. Dante’s mouth twisted involuntarily into a grimace. That dinosaur of a doctor, with his prehistoric ideas about morals and humanity when, in reality, there was money to be made. Well, he’d show him.
It had been so easy to poison Dr Faber. A surreptitious dash of delayed, tasteless chemicals in his drink before the meeting started was all it had taken. The old man wouldn’t feel any effect now, but within 24 hours he would be gone. Dante smiled, and drained his glass. There was no room for prehistoric relics in his world.
Dr Faber sat calmly, feeling the water he’d just drunk slip down his throat. Then he looked up at Dante, and smiled a slow, enigmatic smile. He considered the situation in front of him. He thought of Dante’s ruthless, cruel determination, and of his own hatred towards his inhuman schemes. He thought of how he’d crept in and waited that morning, watching Dante tamper with his drink. He thought of how he’d then swapped his and Dante’s glasses over, and contemplated Dante’s empty glass that now sat in front of him. Dr Faber stretched, sinking back into his chair. There was a reason prehistoric relics like him had survived so long.
Highly Commended: Elizabeth Cronin
"Very beautiful." My mother dismissed them.
Beautiful? They were incredibly so, burning and crackling and streaming through the sky. Restless fire with no destination, no reason or course. We had seen their like before, only not as big.
The usual thud of Eric's head smacking against this or that tree branch was just enough to peel my gaze from the sky. "Can't you watch where you're going?" I regarded his neck; he's a good foot taller than me. An abrupt darting of his black eyes alerted me to a creature no match for me - and naturally not for Eric - grazing a few metres away from us. Life left it just one neat slice and scream for help later.
"You're welcome," he began, when we were interrupted by massive vibrations under our feet. Emerging from the forest, our home, we saw what seemed to be the sun setting. "How lovely." I said. It turned out I said it to no one as Eric had fled at the sight of, as it turned out, our end.
It was impossible not to be transfixed by the other sunsets now raining down on us. Everything was ablaze, black air choked the tallest among us first and then the smallest, the newly hatched abandoned to the sky's will by mothers and fathers alike. The blanket of fire enveloped me. The very ground cracked open under enormous weight as great beasts fell roaring about me. Awe was aroused in me as my hide began to sear.
"Beauty." I mused. "How very beautiful."
Theme: The Shark
Word Limit: 350
Winner: Bernie McKay
The whole street was on lock-down. The police had called it "a precaution. Just in case."
"Well," my aunt May said shakily, as she drew the curtains, turning to face us, "apparently the woman hasn't been seen yet. Not tonight, anyhow." My older cousin, Elizabeth, looked down at me, snottily.
"We all know you find this hilarious," she said with a grimace. I sighed, and fiddled with my bracelet. I wasn't going to deny it. I found it amusing that the police were telling everybody to lock up, when the woman hadn't even hurt anybody yet. All she did was lurk about midnight, prowling up and down the road. By the time the police arrived, she was always gone. It had earned her the title of "The Shark". In my opinion, it was stupid to get everybody het up about something that was yet to happen.
I stared around the room at the prim, snooty people I lived with - I think the word "coven" would fit better than "family". Unfortunately, I was made to live with them after my parents died in a car crash. I peeked out the curtains, and saw nothing, only the moonlight shining onto the road, the street-lights blinking. I turned back around and faced my aunt May, who was looking at me with an expression of disgust.
"You enjoy this, of course." She accused, pointing the finger at me. I nodded, and she stared at me, appalled. I smiled politely, and skipped out into the hall. I made my way to the kitchen, and opened the cutlery drawer, the silverware sparkling and glinting in the dull light. I pulled out a six-inch long knife, and held it tight in my fingers. I smiled to myself, and raced to my room. After rummaging around in my wardrobe for a minute, I found what I was looking for.
I turned it around in my hands, before the mask was a face staring up at me. I pulled it on, and looked in the mirror.
The Shark was staring back at me, grinning with sharp, white teeth.
Theme: The Butterfly
Word Limit: 350
Winner: Lydia McNeillie
She was beautiful even in death. Her body lay pristine except for the blood that pooled around her left temple, where she was shot. Her dark curls caressed her once rose-coloured cheeks. In my line of work, you become used to death very quickly. This death, however, was different. I’d seen her face so many times alive that it was like I was staring at a friend, except I had never met this woman in my life.
I only know her through snap shots sprayed across the newspapers. Her name is Lisa Eldrow. She is 25, a libra and a famous actress who is adored across the world, including by me. Her death also disturbs me because of how it was carried out. This was not a rash crime of passion. This was planned.
She was placed in the butterfly house, only two streets from where she lived. She visited the house regularly, perhaps once or twice a week. Always with a different companion. These companions were male, of course. She was far too stunning to have female friends.
The butterfly’s cages were smashed with some kind of hammer. All of them fluttered freely and danced around the once famous corpse.
I pulled my hand into fists. I could not destroy the uneasy feeling inside my stomach.
Yes, there was definitely something wrong with her murder.
I searched around the green house one last time. I stepped over the shards of glass. I did not want one piece moved from their place. Anything that would help me find the person responsible. That’s when I saw the back door. On first inspection, I had thought it was closed, but then I saw the smallest shaft of light and realised I was mistaken.
I did the calculations. The alarm had been raised instantly. We had only taken seconds to arrive.
The murderer was still here. I turned. I saw a woman all dressed in black. I didn’t even have time to shout for help. She raised the gun and shot at me.
It all went black.
Highly Commended: Carol Bennion-Pedley
He was a lepidopterist. That’s a collector of butterflies and/or moths to you and me. Most people preferred the butterflies for their beauty but he favoured the moths – they were nocturnal, like him, he supposed.
For he was also a serial killer, which made the blackness of the night his friend as he looked for his victims unnoticed.
The girl he currently kept locked in a cage in his barn did not care what he was labelled. She only wanted to go home, and now she had stopped drinking the bottles of water he was providing, that she soon realised were laced with drugs. She was thirsty but alert. She had been pouring them away and pretending to be sleepy, but now she was ready. The cage wasn’t large enough for her to stand in, but she knelt and pushed hard on the front until it tipped over. It hurt, and she was stunned for a minute. She took a deep breath and prayed to a god she had stopped believing in a while ago, and pushed at the metal tray that had been at the bottom of the cage underneath a blanket. There was movement, and she wiped the tears of relief away on her arm. It was a large dog cage. The bottom could slide out to be cleaned.
He unlocked the padlock on the barn door and entered. He switched on the light and stopped, shocked to see his cage empty. He slowly moved forward towards it, and stopped when he heard a noise. He smiled. She was still here, he knew. This could actually be fun. Until he looked up and saw what the noise was. Too late to move, a tonne of metal chains fell towards him, the weight of them pulling the rest down. They engulfed him completely. Like his own personal cocoon.
Highly Commended: Holly McGrane
The thick air in the wings of the Apollo hung like a fog. The blistering summer heat that made the crowded London streets shimmer outside had finally permeated the walls of the theatre. The ancient rat-runs, that traversed the building like mould through stilton, were packed with jostling, sweating bodies.
It was thirty minutes until curtain-up of a new production of Madame Butterfly. The world’s press and cultural deities had packed themselves into the velvet-lined rows and now issued a hazy hum of impatience as they sat sweltering into their suit jackets.
The conductor careered out of the diva’s dressing room as though fired from a cannon. He staggered forward, trying to regain balance, and began lurching down the corridor. His gaunt, muscular face was a pale green and his eyes were wild, swivelling frantically in sockets that seemed barely able to contain them. In his hand he gripped a bouquet of claret roses like a club.
He ricocheted from wall to wall, crashing into rails of costumes and knocking into the scurrying backstage staff. They eyed the usually stern man with mild surprise before hurrying on, assuming he had finally joined the ranks of the diva’s many spurned lovers.
He gripped a chest full of wigs and closed his eyes to stop his brain spinning. In the dark of his skull, he was bombarded with visions: the flayed abdomen, a spreading lake of blood; her face, white as bone, lacerated by countless frenzied slashes.
Hurtling forward he found himself on the darkened stage, the scene set for Act One. He wasn’t aware of the producer calling to him from the curtain, nor the growing murmur of the audience beyond. He stood dazzled by the house lights that bled through the white cataract of the safety curtain.
“She’s dead!” he screamed and emitted a guttural howl that came straight from the bottom of despair. The theatre fell into a deafening silence as the conductor staggered forwards and fainted – his silhouetted hand left a bloodied smear across the safety curtain as he fell to the ground.FEBRUARY 2014
Theme: The Cover
Word Limit: 350
Winner: Annabel Hynes
She was so perfect, thought Charles, as he strode surreptitiously down the street after her. Her blonde head bobbed about fifty yards ahead of him, the only discernible thing in the darkness apart from her luminescent orange armband. Earphones trailed from either side of her head down to the iPod strapped to her hip, and her breath came out in short pants as she ran. Charles couldn’t see her face, but he knew it would be pink and concentrated on her task, like it always was when she meant business.
The lane they both followed was lonely; they had only passed a few houses since Charles had begun his trail. The moon shone half-heartedly and the night was still, finally quiet and secretive enough for Charles to proposition the woman he loved. She was oblivious to his efforts of course; his late nights spent guarding her house, his shadowing of her to learn about her life… even the time he beat unconscious a man who crudely passed a remark on her appearance. She didn’t know about him, but she was about to.
After catching sight of her at the bar, he had researched her for a while before deciding to make a confrontation out in the open. She was spotless in every sense of the word; no criminal record, a humanitarian, dedicated to her career as a tax accountant, and a regular attender of work parties, neighbours’ baby showers and more besides. Even better, she was physically flawless.
And Charles wanted her. Badly.
She stopped suddenly in the middle of the lane, bending over and gasping for air after the sprint. Charles felt his stomach do somersaults as he crept up to her. Now was the moment of truth.
Lunging clumsily, he reached out a hand to grasp her shoulder and reveal himself as her soulmate, but she turned swiftly before he could touch her. Her beautiful face was contorted, utterly different to what he had fallen for, with teeth like needles bared at him. She clenched her fingers round his throat.“Finally,” she said, grinning terribly.
Highly Commended: Nina McKendry
I drew the thick, dusty old sheet over my head and crawled under it, keeping close to the big cold thing that had been under it so that the shape of my body would be harder to spot. Surely, they’d never find me here. The only two that knew of this place were me and Frank, and Frank was too old to play hide and seek. What if they gave up, though? What if they could never find me here? No, they’d ask Frank. Frank would know. Frank knows everything. The best places to get ice cream in the middle of winter, the best games to play and the best hiding places too. I grinned to myself in the darkness under the heavy sheet. They’d say I was the coolest little brother ever, that’s what they’d say once they found me. If they found me…I peeked out from under the old sheet and started to panic, realizing that it was getting dark really fast now. I didn't want to be here all night, especially not alone. How long would it take? Maybe Frank wouldn't know. It was a long time ago, he might have forgotten.
In a sudden grip of panic, I realized that I didn't want to be here any longer and launched myself from the old sheet, sending it to the corner of the old attic that nobody knew about except for me and Frank. It was our secret, he told me. As I turned to climb back down the creaky wooden steps, I noticed something in the corner of my eye. Where the sheet had been, a rusty red toolbox now stood. Frank didn't need tools – he lived with us, and our parents got other people to fix things when necessary. His job was to look after us while they were gone. Curious, I opened it. It was really hard, and the box was heavy. Eventually, it sprung open. What I saw inside made me freeze in place. I didn't care about hide and seek anymore.
All I could see were her cold, dead eyes.
Word Limit: 350
Winner: Jess Wood
Do you remember as a child walking backwards through the snow? The idea is that somebody will assume you are walking in the opposite direction, and follow a false trail.
It was a game that Genevieve had never played as a child, but now, aged 31, she played because her life depended on it. Underneath her woolen hat sweat ran down her face. Every icicle’s drip made her jump and whip her head around.
There’s a trick to the game. It only works if the person who’s following you is far enough behind to allow you to run forward and then retrace your steps. They must see your trail leading on while you are in fact concealed nearby. If you’re spotted, you’re toast. That was why she was pretty damn jumpy.
She knew who was chasing her. His pseudonym had been slapped across the headlines for the past week. He’d made the headlines last year as well. They called him Frosty the Snowman on account of his predilection for only killing when there was snow on the ground. Well there was buckets of the stuff around now. She attempted to recall the details. Death by stabbing, unusual blade, weapon never found. That was it.
Good thing he hadn't been expecting the pepper spray. That stuff had melted his icy exterior alright. Now she had time.
Her nerves were so frayed she imagined she was unraveling. This was as far as she could go. A huge oak tree offered an ample hiding place and she breathed as silently as possible, conscious of the clouds of water vapor from her exhalations which seemed like a flashing neon arrow. A twig snapped and she stopped breathing.
The tip of something orange appeared round the tree trunk and then the horrible grinning face of the killer followed. He’d got her. She glanced down at the weapon which had baffled the police. It was a well known vegetable. When she focused her attention she noticed the sparkle of ice shavings.
“A frozen carrot?”
“Yep, I just cook it and eat it after.”