A Noise Downstairs by Linwood Barclay

In his latest thriller, Linwood Barclay, has fashioned a protagonist who, until he stops to help a friend from work, has been leading a blameless ordinary life. He’s a college professor, not at Yale or Harvard; but still a responsible and good position. Then one night  on his way home he stops his car to help a colleague and it all goes south. His fellow professor, a known lady killer, has actually killed two women by slitting their throats. Our protagonist Paul Davis catches him trying to dispose of their bodies.

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His friend has already murdered twice and comes for Paul with the shovel he has to bury the women. Eight months later, where the novel really begins, Paul Davis is alive but in recovery from the blow to the head. He has suffered a possible brain injury and is dealing with the aftermath of the vicious attack. Nightmares plague him and although his therapist Anna White, is helpful, he has not been able to return to work.

Then he starts to hear a typewriter at night when he and his wife and asleep. His colleague had made his female victims write apologies on a typewriter before he murder them. His wife has given him an old Underwood as a gift, something for his “think tank” aka den. Odd events keep turning up and Paul is driven to create bizarre theories to explain them. At last he doubts his own sanity.

More than this, would give away the plot which has plenty of twists, turns, and red herrings. After all, that’s what makes a thriller, well, thrilling. A Noise Downstairs provides the great entertainment, I’ve come to expect from Linwood Barclay, a New York Times bestselling Canadian author.

Fiction Friday – Not a Good Day

I wrote this flash fiction a while ago and it appeared in The Fieldstone Review which is the University of Saskatoon publication. 

Calvin Harrison turned down the dirt road and braked.  He listened to the throb of the big diesel and sighed.   He was going to miss his new truck. It made him feel like someone else—not the friendly neighbourhood pharmacist, not the hen-pecked husband and definitely not the doting father.  Someone you saw in commercials—a little taller and straighter.  Someone with flinty blue eyes, whose tight Wranglers bulged a little bigger.

He didn’t mind the doting father image.  He and Natalie had had one of those perfect relationships where they laughed at each other’s jokes and knew what the other was thinking.  He’d spoiled her and if he had it to do again, he’d spoil her worse.  No regrets.

Pale light fingered the horizon and touched the clouds that had gathered to greet the sun with pink gold.  Mim would have a name for the colour, something from the new palette of paints at Home Depot.  Pink Desire, Reef Rose, Peach Parfait, Pink Abalone.  Mim—so tied in to things that didn’t matter.  She’d be happy choosing the new colour for the walls and happy while she squabbled with the painters.  Almost before the paint dried, she’d start getting restless again.  It was the same with her hair.  Cal had loved her shiny blonde mane.  She could have modeled for l’Oreal or Clairol.  God knows she used enough of their products over the years.  He never knew what the tint of the week would be.  Wild Irish Red, Mahogany Fire, Ebony Ice.  Then there was the chunking and streaking.  Mim said no one had a natural hair colour any more.  When Cal tried to summon up the shade her hair had been when he met her, he couldn’t.  He was living with a stranger.  Sometimes he watched her when she wasn’t looking and by narrowing his eyes and squinting tried to conjure the image of the girl he had married.  Occasionally, he thought he caught a fleeting resemblance.

The horizon burned gold fire now where the sun began its shallow ascent into the fall sky.  The clouds radiated gilt light.  The air was still.

It was as good a day as any, Calvin thought.

He would have liked to take Mollie for a last walk but it wouldn’t have been fair to the little mongrel. He couldn’t leave her in the truck even though someone would find her…just like they were going to find him.

Light raced across the hilltops, casting the hollows into shadow and outlining the dark limbs of aspen trees with tinsel trim.  Time was getting short.  His father used to say, no time like the present.  Already the siren of lethargy threatened to mire him in inaction

He lifted the shotgun from the truck seat.  Its double barrel glinted in the early light and the handle felt cold.  The acrid scent of gun oil hung in the air and there was a sharp snap as Cal broke the gun to load it.  He slid two magnum shells into place and there was a quiet snick as he closed the breech.  Magnums…he would only need the first one but he didn’t want any mistakes.

He tried not to think about Jim Craddock who botched the job and actually needed the second shell.  He must have lost his nerve at the last minute and only his jaw had been blown away. He’d staggered around his game room splattering blood and howling in outrage.   Then he finished what he had started.

Cal killed the truck’s engine.  He wasn’t about to destroy the interior.  Maybe Mim would get a decent price for it after…even with its unfortunate history.  He climbed out and closed the door quietly.  No need to slam it; the truck wasn’t yet a year old.  A breeze sprang up and carried the spicy fall air up the hill to Cal.  When he looked out across the valley, he saw a doe standing next to a stand of willows.  She had seen him and was testing the air cautiously but it was another month until hunting season opened and she was more curious than scared. He watched her for a minute.  A yearling stepped into the clearing and Cal could see it was sleek and healthy.

When he started down the slope the white-tails turned to step delicately into the bushes.  Cal headed west.  There was a small lake…the locals called it Schubert’s after an early settler—and at this time of the morning, the bright yellow leaves of the poplars would reflect perfectly from its cobalt depths.  Those same poplars protected it from errant puffs of air and it made a picture perfect enough for a calendar.

Cal stood for a couple of minutes.  Maybe if things were different between him and his wife…… but they weren’t.  Maybe if Tallie…but he couldn’t think of her; he just couldn’t.

Minutes later the shot gun blast sent the doe and yearling deeper into the bush, their white flags flashing once as they disappeared.  On the hilltop, Cal’s Dodge waited in splendor, silhouetted against a cerulean sky that promised early snow.

The silence was absolute.  Then the breeze brushed dried grass blades against each other.  Aspen leaves like gold foil coins rattled in the bushes.  A crow flew up and landed at the top of a tree, cawing raucously.

Cal emerged from the western woods.  He was a dark shadow against their colour and it was him the crow was scolding.  He held the shotgun gingerly and broke it to remove the remaining shell.

“Damn it, shut up,” he muttered.  The crow cocked its head as though listening.  “It’s just not a good day to die.”

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Fiction Friday – Some Time Soon

This is a piece I wrote sometime ago. It was published by Transition Magazine. 

Sometime Soon

Coma: the patient is in a state of prolonged deep unconsciousness

Jennifer listens intently to the doctor.  One thing stands out in her mind.  David is awake.

She thinks, “He’s not in a coma.  That’s good news.”  She looks at him on the hospital bed and her husband is suddenly diminished; his strength lost.  His eyes are open and the doctors say he doesn’t see her.  She knows he does, maybe not really clearly or maybe not totally understanding what he sees but he does see her.

Vegetative State: the patient is awake but is not aware.

“It’s me, David.  I’ve brought you some flowers.”  She thinks she sees awareness in his smile.  More than she has seen before.  A feeling of great hope floods her being. Jennifer calls the nurse but by the time the nurse arrives, he is blinking and nodding at something in the farthest corner of the room.  The nurse is irritated.

“I have patients with real needs,” she says.  When she sees the look on Jennifer’s face her own expression softens.

Jennifer hates the discreet pity of the professional caregiver.  David was almost lucid.

     Persistent Vegetative State:  the patient has been awake but unaware for a month.

Jennifer comes every day at the same time. She always says, “It’s me, David.”  And then she tells him about her day and about the kids.  She is careful to explain how busy they are and why they can’t come to see him as often as she does.  David, Jr. is on the hockey all-star team and Kelly is going to a gymnastics tournament.  They both miss him, really, really miss him.

She never cries.  That is, she never cries when she is visiting him.  She refuses to give up and she is sure that David can feel her determination.  As long as she believes there is hope.  She has strong faith in positive energy.

     Permanent Vegetative State: the patient has been awake but unaware for a full year.

Jennifer is very upset with David’s doctors.  They want her to let them remove his feeding tube.  “But, he’ll starve,” she protests.

“He has no quality of life.”

David Jr. and Kelly stand looking on.  David, Jr. shifts uncomfortably and then he says, “The doctor is right, Mom.  Dad wouldn’t want to live like this.  You’re not being fair to him.”

Even Kelly agrees.  “This isn’t Dad.”  She cries silently, tears streaking her cheeks.

Jennifer looks at David, Jr. and she wipes her tears away angrily.  She does not cry when she is with David.  The doctor leaves.  David, Jr. and Kelly leave.

She wants to scream.  She wants to shout that it isn’t fair.  She wants to punish her disloyal children.  She wants David to wake up and come home.

David is smiling and he is drooling.  His eyes are blinking but he does not see.  His hands make spastic grasping motions at the edge of his blankets.

“Oh, David,” she says.  “What should I do?”

“Hmmmmph, huhhhh,” says David.  His right hand paws at the air.

“It’s beautiful outside today,” she says.  “The birds are singing and the sun is melting the snow.  Spring is here at last.”  She sits with David a long time, longer than usual.  She holds his hand and strokes it.  When she kisses him good-bye, she looks deep into his faded blue eyes.  She looks for David and can not find him.

‘It is a beautiful day,” she thinks. She knows she will have to give the doctors’ permission soon but not today.  Sometime soon.

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Fiction Friday – What Are Friends For?

This piece is a flash fiction that I first entered into an Edmonton Journal contest (a few years ago; there’s no budget for such things now.) I’d like to say it won but it didn’t. I edited almost half of the words so that it made the word count for the Writers Union flash fiction contest. There it won an honourable mention…and now to the story.

  Isabel arranged the combs and brushes on the terry cloth towel she had laid over the stainless steel tray.  “Well, Iris, what would you like today?  No, don’t say anything.  I know just what you want.”

Isabel moved one of the combs and set it nearer the edge of the table.  “What did I do with the scissors?  Don’t tell me, I’ll find them.”  She rummaged through her satchel and after a couple of minutes produced them with a triumphant flourish.

“I knew I brought them,” she said.

Isabel looked at Iris’s long, graying hair.  She took a brush and pulled it through the thick straight mane.  It wasn’t easy to get the knots out.  “I’m going to wash this, Iris.  It’ll make it easier to cut.”

Isabel had Iris’s hair washed in record time.  As she toweled it dry, she said, “I think it would look better short.  Short hair makes a person look younger.”

Isabel hummed as she cut great swaths from Iris’s thick hair.  The overhead light flashed silver from the sharp blades of the styling scissors.

Soon most of Iris’s heavy hair lay in a pile on the floor.  Isabel stepped around it and picked up the hair dryer.  “Do you like it, Iris?  No… don’t say anything. I’m not done yet.  Wait until I blow it dry and it has more body.”

The dryer whined as Isabel styled Iris’s new bob.  She drew the brush through the hair and curved it gently at the ends.  When it was dry, Isabel stepped back.  She took a hand mirror from the tray and held it so the back of Iris’s head was in view.

“I told you, you’d look younger.  I never did understand why you were so vain about that long hair.  I’ve wanted to do this for ages.”  Isobel flicked an errant lock into place and picking up the scissors trimmed some uneven hairs from Iris’s bangs.

“There, that’s your hair done.  Let me see your nails.”  Isobel took her hands and inspected her nails.  She shook her head and clucked at the bright polish.

“I can fix these, too,” she said.  “They’ll be easier to keep when they’re short.  You won’t need polish, either.  I’ll just buff them.”  Isobel hummed in a tuneless monotone as she took the nail scissors from the tray.  Snip, and then snip.  As each scarlet nail was severed, tiny silver sparks leapt from the scissors.  Snip, snip.  Iris’s nails joined her hair on the floor.  When Isobel was satisfied that they were short enough, she buffed them carefully.

She sighed with satisfaction.  “Just look at you, Iris.  You look great, so much younger and more stylish.  You should have let me do this, years ago.”

Again she held the mirror so her old rival could see what she had accomplished.  She added, “I know you want to look your best tomorrow.  You’ll never have another funeral.”

 

 

Nanowrimo- National Novel Writing Month

Fifty thousand words in 30 days. Since 1999, the first year of Nano, would-be novelists have accepted the challenge of writing a novel in November. Starting at midnight, 12:01 Nov. 1-midnight Nov. 30, authors set the goal of writing every day to create a minimum of 1, 667 words, and by doing so accumulate a 50,000 word novel.

So- it’s 2018 and I’m going to give it another try. My novel is one that I started and let dwindle to nothing last year (not a Nano novel.) I have thought about it and still like the story but not the way I had written it so Nano 2018 is a total re-boot, rewrite.

How am I doing? 1,831 words as of 8:30 AM yesterday. That made me behind 3,169 words already. Not an auspicious start. For me, working full time (and only for a month) interfered. I’m not used to regular work hours and I was tired. It’s an excuse, not a reason because people with full-time jobs, children, and way more responsibilities than I have, accomplish it. So I’m going with the idea, that I’ve made a beginning and I have “won” Nano once in 2016. Winning means I wrote 50,000 words. I had tried in 2013 and 2015. Those efforts stalled around the 25,000 word count.

Nano Novels have been traditionally published and some have become best sellers. I assume that it wasn’t without more hard work and a lot of editing. But as the saying goes, it’s impossible to edit something that doesn’t exist.

Participating in Nano can be a bit of fun and a lot of motivation. Updating your word count each day shows your progress and the numbers are translated to a graph. There a forums to join, write-ins (real and virtual), writing buddies and more.

If you’ve ever considered writing a book, this is one way to dive in.

Good Luck.

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Erin Morgenstern started The Night Circus in Nano and completed it over another two.

 

Fiction Friday- read Halloween Harvest

Halloween Harvest

            The sun had set but its slanting rays still cast an eerie light throwing the trees along the road into twisted shadows. Drew steered them deftly along the winding trail.

“I don’t know why you insist on hanging with Keven. He’s so weird.”

Kaitlyn’s frown crinkled her careful Elvira make-up.

“Keven’s okay. He owns a start-up IT company and it’s so successful, he’s thinking of going public.”

It was hard to take Drew seriously, dressed as he was in the cheesy devil costume. The cheap plastic mask was perched atop his head and she knew they wouldn’t make an entrance as the sexy couple they were.

“There now, see that,” he said, as they rounded a final curve.

It was hard to argue. The “cabin”, a large log structure, dominated by spruce trees and alight with Jack-o-lanterns did look like the perfect setting for a Hallowe’en Party…if only the storm stayed away. Ominous, dark clouds could be seen to the left of the cabin, across the lake. Kaitlyn thought she saw lightening but that made no sense…it was October 31st.

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Before she could mention it to Drew, he had stopped the car, jumped out and was looking for the booze in the trunk. On the deck, she could see Keven, in a Grim Reaper outfit. Kaitlyn had to admit it suited him with his tall, gangly build and spidery arms and legs. The black shroud swirled around him in the breeze and the loose hood hid his face. He supported an authentic-looking scythe against the deck floor and its blade curved away from his head. Around him, a werewolf couple, a vampire and a zombie milled. Various interpretations of monsters had inspired the costumes of the ten or so guests. Some unidentifiable music blared, rap or punk or emo or some wicked combination. Maybe it was banshees wailing.

Kaitlyn shivered and followed Drew onto the deck.

“Keven, my man,” said Drew.

Keven didn’t answer but gestured to an old fashioned Coca-cola cooler with his left hand.

“Perfect,” said Drew, grinning as he deposited the beer and hard lemonades into the ice in the cooler. “Want a raspberry to start, Kaitlyn?” he called over his shoulder. He had already popped the top from a can of Bud for himself.

Without waiting for her answer, he opened the drink and held it out to her. Its sweet pseudo- fruit smell mixed with the malty fug of beer. Across the deck, some guests smoked weed, and its pungent odor wafted in the breeze.

Through the windows, Kaitlyn could see two large candlelit tables, one that was covered with catered food- sushi, crab cakes, smoked salmon, vegan offerings and a variety of vegetables. The second featured chips, dip, Cheezies, nachos, any kind of junk food you could think of. The candlelight gave the food a bloody colour and the flickering shadows cast it into disturbing shapes.

A nasty looking witch came up to Kaitlyn and said, “Whoa, I thought Elvira went out in the 80s.”

Kaitlyn stood with her mouth moving but no sound emerged. She looked down at herself. Sure there was lots of cleavage and the outfit was super tight but she could carry it off. Those hours in the gym were worth it and besides, Drew liked her to look good. She knew she looked good.

Drew came over and she could tell he had chugged a couple of first beers.

“Hey, babe,” he said. “Let’s dance,” and he started to contort without rhythm.

Kaitlyn didn’t argue. She loved to dance and it was a chance to show-off her Elvira look. Soon she and Keven had the deck to themselves. Kaitlyn couldn’t contain a smug smile. Then she heard the thunder over the blasting music. The first rain drops were big and cold. The wind rose sending gusts of frigid air churning around the cabin.

“For Cripes sake.”

Keven grabbed her by the waist and they followed the other stragglers into the cabin.

Lightning split the sky, followed by deafening thunder. The icy temperature of the cabin prompted a chorus of complaint.

“Keven,” a vampire shouted. “Get that fireplace going.” There was no answer.

“Turn on some heat.” This from a witch.

There was more carping and moaning. Their host was didn’t hear it because he couldn’t be found.

Kaitlyn had goosebumps and was shivering.

“Do something, Drew,” she said.

“Excuse me, look out.” Drew wove through the guests and tables to the fireplace built into a fieldstone feature that extended beyond the wall. It was bright, new and looked unused. Drew bent closer.

“Do you know what you’re doing, Bud?” asked a werewolf. “Don’t want to blow us all to hell. Keven’s got plenty more refreshments.”

“For God’s sake, light it,” said Kaitlyn.

Drew fumbled a bit as he looked for the controls which were hidden in a panel on the floor of the fireplace. He hesitated but then, turned the main control. Nothing happened. He tried a couple more times with the same result. Shouted advice from the guests didn’t help.

“Oh, for f___’s sake.” The werewolf pushed Drew out of the way and after a flourish, he turned the control to ON.

A huge ball of burning methane exploded into the costumed crowd. The werewolf combusted in a spontaneous flash. Drew screamed as his plastic mask melted onto his face. Kaitlyn’s Elvira gown dissolved and burst into flame. The unholy screams, the roar of the fire, the crashing thunder turned the cabin into a nightmare inferno. The guests cavorted in a final macabre dance as tendons and ligaments contracted spastically. Upstairs hungry flames flickered and licked around Keven’s comatose body.

Outside, a long shadow stretched from the black clad figure watching the conflagration. The only features visible in its hooded face were red eyes, reflecting the fiery destruction before it. Shrouded in black and leaning on his scythe, the Reaper enjoyed his work for a few minutes before turning to melt into the stormy darkness.

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Cold Comfort

Flash fiction No. 2, Fiction Friday. With the nights getting colder, and furnaces working all over the country, this might be appropriate….

           The voice wakes me in the middle of the night.

           “Arnie.  I’m scared.  Arnie.”

           Scared?  Of what?  I always looked after us. I made money to have a nice house.  If you worked as hard as me, you would enforce some standards in that home.  I wanted a hot meal on time.  I wanted that nice house properly cleaned.  It’s not too much to ask, is it?

“Arnie, Arnie. I’m so cold.”

It was her own fault. I told her a hundred times.  “Don’t touch my remote control.” I didn’t like her watching those stupid soaps. She was watching when she should have been getting my supper and she lost the remote. It didn’t hurt her to watch what I wanted.

“Arnie.  I wanted to watch figure skating.  I used to skate.  I was even pretty good. Remember?”

“Shut up,” I said.  “Just shut your hole.”

“Arnie.  I don’t want to be here alone.”

I got my earplugs I wear at work.  Those jackhammers are hell on hearing.  I put the earplugs in.

“Arnie, come on down.  I’m so lonely.  I’m scared.”

Damned earplugs aren’t working. I don’t want to hear her whimpering but I can. Why can I still hear her?

“Arnie, come down for a minute.  I promise I’ll be quiet then.  Please.”

I am a reasonable man.  I just feel stressed sometimes.  I have to go down and see if she’ll shut up. Doesn’t she know I have to work tomorrow?  Doesn’t she know that I had ended it yesterday?

Darlene is right.  It is colder than Siberia in the basement.

“Arnie, please.  I’m so cold.”

I go past the furnace to the storage room. There she is, dead.  Just like I left her.  So why do I hear her voice?”

“Arnie, I’m turning blue.  I’m so cold. Let me come back upstairs.”

I look at Darlene.  She should be blue.  I pushed her yesterday but not that hard.  She fell and hit her stupid head. All she has to do is look after me and the house.  I work hard.  It’s not too much to ask to have a nice home.  To have a good meal.  So when she asked me I said, no.  Why does she have to go to her sister’s all the time?  You’d think she’d learn.

falling woman

“Arnie.  It was her birthday.  I just wanted to see her, that’s all.”

That voice. She has to be dead.  How come I’m with dead Darlene…AND I CAN STILL HEAR HER DAMNED WHINY VOICE???

“Arnie, you can’t hurt me now.  But Arnie, I’m so cold.”

What does she think I can do?

“Darlene,” I say.  “Of course, you’re cold.  You’re dead, you stupid woman.”

“Arnie.  I’m so cold.  Arnie.  I’m scared and I’m alone.”

I turn my back because I’m done.  I’m going back upstairs to my bed to sleep.

“Arnie, don’t go. You have to stay with me.”

I try to walk out.  It’s like moving through mud.  So slow.  Then I can’t move at all.

“Darlene, baby.  Let me go.”

“Arnie, I want you to stay.  I’m cold and scared and lonely.  You can’t go.”

“Let me go get you a blanket.”

I forget what Darlene’s laugh is like but it isn’t like this. I try to reason with her. Crazy, she’s dead.  I couldn’t get through to her when she was alive.

“I’ll get you a hot water bottle.”

More lunatic laughing.  I can’t get it out of my head.  I cover my ears.

“You can’t go Arnie.  I want you to turn up the furnace. Turn it up high.”

Stupid woman.  The thermostat is upstairs.  She lets me move to the furnace.  I bend over and pretend to adjust a dial.

That damned laughing gets louder… it’s- WHOOOOSH!

“I’M BURNING.  HELP, DARLENE, HELP.  I’M SORRY BABY.”

The last thing I hear is that crazy laughing and my own dying scream.

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