A wisp of smoke emanated from the barrel of the gun as I placed it gently on the desk. There had been enough violence in the last few moments, so laying it softly down seemed like a dampening gesture.
I’m not a lover of guns, but like all things made by man, they have their uses.
He stood staring at me for as long as it would take to light a cigarette, then he crumpled into a man-shaped heap.
I’m sure he wasn’t expecting to be shot. Most gunshot victims are surprised. The way he lived his life, he shouldn’t have been surprised. If it hadn’t been me, it would have been someone tired of his lies and deceit.
That’s what I am, tired.
Not tired in the traditional sense, more fed up than anything.
People disappoint me — continually.
From the young man behind the counter in the only coffee shop on my block (yes, I could walk a little further and get better service, but what’s the point of that?) to the half-wit who got promoted over me just because he’s a man (no that’s not fair, it had more to do with who was sleeping with whom and who owed who because of large scale indiscretions — see what I mean, tiresome?)
I’m guessing you are wondering why I shot him? Well, you can wait a little longer, it’s my story after all.
I wasn’t the only person in the room, and I got there in a roundabout way.
It was a pleasant enough party. Well dressed women and tidy men ignoring their wives.
This was my first visit to this mansion. A man who sold used cars built it many years ago, and when he died, it went through a few hands (all owners trying vainly to impress) until it landed in Michael’s grubby hands. Michael’s wife’s hands were pristine and well manicured — she’d stabbed a few people in the back, but her hands were unbloodied. Her crimes were metaphorical.
There was nothing metaphorical about Michael.
We, my husband and I, had been summoned to hear Michael’s terms. He believed that he owned us. My husband was close to the end of his wits, but I don’t buckle so easily.
I only know the part that concerned my husband and me — our disgrace, our downfall. Never let the devil know your secrets for he will drag you down to Hell.
I heard the shouting, and when I opened the sturdy oak door to Michael’s study, I saw that two men I vaguely recognised, were arguing with Michael as my husband stood meekly by.
Michael stepped behind his dark-stained desk and drew an automatic pistol from the top drawer. The man in the blue suit reached inside his jacket and pulled a huge pistol. The man in the brown suit reached behind him and drew a revolver.
My husband was unarmed.
I held my breath as the shouting died down. Michael realised he was outgunned and attempted to defuse the situation.
“Okay fellas. Let’s all of us calm the fuck down. I’m putting my gun down, and we can talk,” said Michael. He put his gun on the edge of the desk and put his hands out in a mock gesture of surrender. He took a few steps away from the desk as the two men lowered their weapons.
I didn’t plan what happened next, but I have to say that it could not have worked out better.
I’m a smart girl, and I can recognise an opportunity when I see one.
Michael saw me enter the room, but he held his ground. The other two men momentarily raised their guns again, probably thinking that I was Michael’s secret weapon.
My dress was red and was not concealing anything. The two men realised I did not have a weapon and lowered their guns once more.
Michael went back to placating his adversaries who were none too pleased about being summoned and threatened.
My head was spinning with possibilities.
I took three quick sets across the room and picked up Michael’s gun. The safety was off. Without hesitation, I shot the man in the blue suit. He fell to the floor, and everyone in the room looked at him as though he might get up and laugh that it had all been a game.
My ears were ringing from the blast, and my wrist hurt.
My husband looked at me with confused eyes.
The brown suit came out of his stupor and looked at me just as I shot him in the chest. Now my wrist was beginning to ache.
“Julia. What have you done?” said, my horrified husband.
“Haven’t finished yet darling,” I said as I waited for Michael to turn and face me. No good shooting him in the back — too much to explain.
Michael started to say something, but he didn’t get to finish.
The blue suit’s gun had fallen at my feet. I picked it up and shot Michael who looked very surprised.
“Everybody shot everybody else John, and our problems are over. DO YOU UNDERSTAND?” I said, and John nodded. I guess words were too much effort at that point.
Just before the guests burst through the study door with looks of horror on their well-dressed faces, a wisp of smoke emanated from the barrel of the gun as I placed it gently on the desk. There had been enough violence in the last few moments, so laying it down softly seemed like a dampening gesture.
I’m not a lover of guns, but like all things made by man, they have their uses.
Her name is Rose, and she lives above us in 4B.
She shares the flat with her husband, a canary named George and a small plant that doesn’t have a name – but if it did have a name I think it might be Wilfred — not sure why.
When I was younger, Rose’s general disregard for clothing was a bit disconcerting.
Large, warm breasts (I was surmising their warmth) tend to make a young man forget things, like where I was going and, “Yes Mrs Abernathy, I can get you some bread on my way home. I’ll leave it outside your door. You can pay mum when you see her.”
The prospect of encountering Mrs Abernathy’s breasts at close quarters was more than my youthful resolve could cope with.
Rose has a big heart, at least that is what everyone says. I believe them. Mr Abernathy, on the other hand, is less than kind. I guess a lifetime of knowing that every male in the district is staring at your wife’s tits is enough to turn you sour.
I stay out of his way, but some of my slower friends have not been so lucky. Billy still walks with a limp.
Rose’s favourite activity (as you can see from the photo my friend Michael took) is hanging, partially clad out of her fourth-floor window and watching the world go by. Michael, by the way, is recovering slowly. He didn’t mind the beating because he managed to distribute a considerable number of photographs before Mr Abernathy caught up with him. Michael says he has enough for a deposit on a car — or an electric wheelchair if his recovery falters.
Michael always looks on the bright side.
I’ll be glad when I’ve saved up enough for my own place. I don’t much mind where I live as long as it isn’t too far from my family. The only requirement I have is that the building does not have a friendly older woman with huge breasts and a grumpy, violent husband.
Hot water and heating would be nice, but I’m not fussy.
Artist: Geliy Korzhev
“Do you need to check your bags sir?” said the man behind the glass.
I didn’t answer immediately. He looked up and into my eyes. Words hadn’t worked so maybe he hoped I was hearing him telepathically.
“No bags,” I said. Some people have accused me of being a wordsmith, but no one who was within hearing distance on this day was likely to agree.
I handed over the exact amount, he counted it carefully as though he expected me to short change him. Once he was satisfied, he placed the money in its designated slot in the money draw. Even the coins came in for ‘one by one’ attention. He closed the old wooden drawer gently and looked at me before reluctantly sliding my ticket across the brass plate which extended to each side of the thick glass. It occurred to me that no one polished the brass plate — constant use did that.
“Have a pleasant trip sir. Your train leaves in seventeen minutes and fifteen seconds, track twelve.” He noticed my look. “Just head to your right, you’ll see the sign,” he said.
I picked up the paper ticket and read it. My destination was printed on it as was the final destination of the train. The words, ‘non-sleeping’ seemed to sum up my present predicament — not a lot of sleep and I guess it was showing.
“Thanks,” I said and as an afterthought, “Do you ever get lonely in there?”
The man behind the glass looked me in the eye again and said, “All the time. I watch people like you buying tickets and heading off to parts known, and I wonder.”
“What do you wonder?” I said.
“I wonder what you all are doing. Why are you leaving? What do you do when you get there?”
“Why not ask?” I said.
“Folks are usually in too much of a hurry. I don’t want to bother them, so I wonder.”
“I’m leaving because there is no reason for me to stay. I’m determined to enjoy the train ride, and I have no idea what I’ll do when I get there, but I’ve got money and a comb and an address of a bloke my father served with in the war, so there is a chance of somewhere to stay when I get there. I’ll find a job, I’m good at lots of stuff, and maybe there’ll be a girl who likes me. Maybe I’ll settle there, but most probably not. My mum said I’ve got itchy feet and I’m beginning to think she might be right,” I said.
The man behind the glass was in the process of smiling when a large lady with a small child suggested that I was going to make her late for her train, so I stepped away from the window and headed for platform twelve. The man in the ticket booth stayed where he was, but at least he knew where I had come from and where I was going, and he had a small glimpse of my hopes for the future.
Unencumbered by baggage or regrets, I sauntered towards my impending journey, and track twelve.
Being a parent was not anywhere near the top of my list.
Hell, I’m not sure I had a list.
Becky said, “It’s time,” and after a full term gestation there was Jo (not her real name, because I never liked Minerva).
I’m not a huge fan of babies — I know they exist and I’m pretty sure I know what causes them, but not a huge fan.
Then there was Jo, and I was hooked.
Everyone said, “What a cute baby,” but she wasn’t — just average, but boy, did she grow into her looks.
I took this photo just before I had to leave. It’s how I remember her.
Her bedroom is very girly, thanks to her interior decorating wizard mum, and I always felt slightly nervous being in there.
She was usually asleep by the time I got home from work — and then there wasn’t any work.
I can’t tell you what I do, but I can tell you that my work has to do with keeping an eye on people.
A sudden change in policy and my station was closed. No ceremony and little fanfare. These days, I think they use the building for a bank of servers that feeds everyone’s desire for cloud storage.
So, my skill set just sat there like a cat that no one needed anymore.
I was getting paid, but if I wanted that fiscal situation to continue I would have to move to nowherefuckingnearanywhere, and no, we won’t pay for your family to relocate. Besides, Jo has started school, and it is essential that she be adequately indoctrinated into the ways of the average person — couldn’t disrupt that process.
We talk on the phone — at least three times a week and every time she asks when I’m coming back, but lately, not so much.
Her mum asks how I’m getting on, and I say I’m not allowed to talk about it and then there is a long silence followed by, “I’ll put Minerva on and you two can talk.”
Occasionally, my wife complains that my salary needs to increase so she can buy a gold plated can opener, or whatever it is that she wants — she never asks when I’m coming home.
I’ve missed two of Jo’s birthdays, and I haven’t the slightest idea how I’m going to avoid missing more of them.
I’m stuck here and she is there — not exactly stuck, but she might as well be.
The doll in the photo came from a toy shop in the seaside town I was in at the time. It was a boring assignment, and there were three of us watching what I considered to be a low-value target, so there was plenty of time off.
The lady who ran the toy shop was a few years past her prime, but still pretty in a dishevelled sort of way. She constantly chased a loose strand of hair which refused to stay behind her ear. I think her name was Mrs Wilson but I got the feeling that Mr Wilson had legged it a long time ago — with the girl who worked in the local fish and chip shop. Not sure if I heard that somewhere or I made it up, but it seemed to fit.
I remember that Mrs Wilson was reluctant to sell me the doll — something about having put it aside for a special customer.
To clinch the deal, I offered way above the value of the doll.
“Alright then. What do I care? It’s been sitting there for months, and she never came for it. Serves her right,” said Mrs Wilson who never looked directly at me once during our conversation.
I handed her the money and looked around the shop while she wrapped the doll.
It was well maintained, and the toys all seemed very new. The shop faced the shoreline, and the light streamed in late in the afternoon.
I wondered how Mrs Wilson survived during the offseason. She didn’t seem prosperous. Didn’t seem like someone who had inherited from her great Aunt Ethel. Didn’t seem like she had ever known much money.
Jo loved the doll when I gave it to her. Her mother said I was spoiling her, which I was. I’m a father with a daughter — what was I supposed to do?
There was a small item in the national daily newspaper about a raid on a shop on the coast — MYSTERIOUS WOMAN ARRESTED UNDER VEIL OF SECRECY.
I asked around.
“Dead drop,” said the kid in the mailroom (I wonder where he ended up when they pulled up stumps on our operation?)
“For whom?” I said.
“Well-financed right wing nut bags,” was his reply.
I considered asking him how he found out about all this and then I could see myself in front of a Senate inquiry — “And how did you use this information, Mr X?”
I’m a crap equivocator, so I let it go.
You’ve already worked out that there is something of value inside my Jo’s doll, I know you have. The penny dropped for me a few moments after the loose-lipped mailroom boy finished talking.
Whatever it is it can stay where it is.
“Hi daddy, I haven’t seen you for two years. Why are you dismembering my doll?”
I don’t think so.
Not having that conversation, and no, my very young daughter doesn’t usually use words like dismembering — but you knew that too, didn’t you?
A chance encounter on a country road and Rufus’ skills are put to the test. Rufus is wiser than his diminutive stature might suggest. Wisdom and size do not always correlate.
Anyone who has ever worked anywhere will tell you that their job would be easier if they didn’t have to wade through an ocean of excrement cleverly disguised as bureaucracy. The senior officer in a small country police station solves a mysterious crime only to have his decisions scrutinised by those above him. The writing is on the wall for him and his staff, but he still has a job to do. Fate will take care of the rest.
From the audiobook SLIGHTLY SPOOKY STORIES
Helen prepared lunch — dumplings, one of her specialities. It was a quiet Sunday afternoon. No work and the usual sounds of neighbours mowing lawns or talking to invited friends was thankfully absent. Only the sound of a gentle breeze moving through the trees penetrated Helen’s kitchen.
The sound of footsteps, large and heavy, made her turn towards the glass door that led to the back yard.
His silhouette was motionless.
Helen should have been startled. The person behind the silhouette was familiar and warm, or so it seemed to her.
“Can I have some of those?” said the man.
“I’ll get you a bowl,” said Helen.
The aromas of the outdoors rushed past the man and into the kitchen, momentarily brushing away the smell of her dumplings.
Helen returned with a Japanese bowl, part of a set — perfect for dumplings. The bowl had three dumplings, steam rising from them. Helen brought chopsticks instead of a fork because she knew he prefered them when eating Asian food.
“Thank you,” he said, “I’m really hungry. I’ve walked a long way.”
The man was dressed in long pants and a shirt — both clean but unironed, giving him a mildly unkept look. His sneakers were dusty, and his hair was tousled from the breeze — he didn’t bother to brush it.
“These are very good. I remember these. You are a very good cook,” said the man.
“Where have you been?” asked Helen, as she sat at the small kitchen table with her dumplings getting cold.
“Traveling. Coming home.”
“What happened to you?”
The man did not answer, he was finishing the last of his food. “Is there any more?”
Helen took his bowl and put three more dumplings in it. She was saving them to take to work the next day.
“Where were you travelling from?” asked Helen.
“A long way away,” said the man with a mouth full of food. “I started in Queensland, and I travelled along the coast until I reached Melbourne.”
“Have you been travelling all this time? All these years?”
“Why didn’t you call?”
The man didn’t answer. He was strangely calm, and hungry.
“Can I have water?”
Helen filled a glass and put it in front of him. His smell filled her nostrils.
“I’m very tired. Can I lie down on the couch? You do still have the couch?”
“Yes,” said Helen.
The man lay down and fell asleep. He was still asleep several hours later when Helen went to bed.
When Helen’s alarm went off, she went out to the kitchen and put the coffee on. For a moment she thought she may have dreamt the previous day’s appearance. She pocked her head around the corner of the door and peeked into the darkened loungeroom. The couch was empty. Maybe she had dreamt it.
Helen prepared for her working day and as she walked through the kitchen on her way out she saw the two dumpling bowls lying in the sink.
“He looks so much like your late husband — my heart skipped a beat when I saw him,” said Helen’s neighbour.
Glenis and her husband, Bill had lived next door to Helen and Charles for several years. They moved into their houses only two weekends apart. Not exactly fast friends, but friends all the same. Someone to have coffee with on a day off from work.
Helen had a full-time job and still does. Back then it was a way of ‘getting ahead’ — saving for ‘things’, holidays, cars, furniture, maybe a baby — maybe. Now her job was part of her survival, financial and emotional.
Glenis didn’t work, not in the traditional sense. Her life revolved around her husband and his career, the house and the children. It wasn’t enough, but she never said it out loud — out loud would make it real.
Glenis was often at a loose end, and this was one of those days.
The sudden appearance of Charles’ doppelganger was too much for Glenis; she needed answers.
“He’s Charles brother,” said Helen.
“Why haven’t we seen him before? We’ve lived next to each other for years, and I’ve never seen him before.”
Helen could feel the insistence in Glenis’s words, and it would only be a matter of time before she said something that Glenis would latch on to. Better to be rude and end this — at least for now. Helen knew that putting her neighbour off would only give her a moment’s rest; she’d be back.
“He’s been working on the oil rigs. I really do have a terrible headache Glenis. Could you excuse me, I need to lie down.”
For a moment, Glenis considered the possibility of hanging around while Helen slept. A chance to look around and see what she could see, but she quickly abandoned the idea.
“Of course dear. You rest. You must be tired.” I wonder what you and the brother get up to when no one can see.
Glenis took her unspoken innuendo and went home.
Helen was dreamy and distracted at work, but no one noticed. Her workplace was dull and predictable with people on autopilot — not rude, just not fully there. Helen bought her lunch from the cafe on the corner and thought about the dumplings she planned to eat. She told none of her workmates about her encounter.
At the end of her working day, her ride home was uneventful. The train carriage was full of the usual assortment of daily commuters. A high school boy offered her his seat, which she gladly accepted. The boy quickly went back to talking to his friends, and her encounter with him was virtually wordless — all hand gestures and eye contact.
When Helen arrived home, she cautiously entered her home, happy to have avoided her neighbour who seemed to be perpetually at her front gate.
There was no one in her house. What was she expecting?
The neighbour’s cat walked in when she opened the back door and curled around her legs.
“Am I your first port of call Puss, or have you been working the neighbourhood all day?”
The cat purred, which could have meant anything.
Helen gave the cat some scraps, and it curled around her legs again before eating and gracefully walking out into the backyard on her way to visit her next benefactor.
Tuesday went a lot like Monday and Wednesday was threatening to do the same, but when she got home, Helen made a cup of tea and watched the sun go down from the comfort of her kitchen table.
When the man appeared she didn’t jump, didn’t show any signs of surprise or alarm — she was back in that dream again. She wondered if she had fallen asleep at the table — she was tired enough, but she seemed to be awake, either that or this was a very vivid dream.
“Do you have any more of those dumplings. I love your dumplings,” he said while standing in the doorway wearing the same clothes he had a few days before. His hair still needed brushing, but the beard she remembered from all those years ago was gone. That’s what it was, the beard.
“When did you shave off the beard?” she heard herself say.
“Not long after I came back — a few days after, I guess. I saw myself reflected in a shop window and I thought, ‘that’s not me anymore’, so I shaved it off.”
“How?” asked Helen.
“A friend loaned me his razor.”
“Did he help you get back home?”
“Not directly, but I stayed with him for a while. He taught me how to fish. It turns out that I’m pretty good at it. He gave me somewhere to stay for a while, but then he disappeared, so I hit the road.”
Helen got a packet mix from her pantry and began to make the shells for dumplings. The whole process took a little while, and the two people inhabiting the tidy kitchen remained silent until the steaming dumplings were ready to eat.
The man hunched over his bowl with the steam curling around his face.
Helen made more than she usually did in anticipation of her lunch and the request that she knew would come.
“May I have some more please?”
The man slept on Helen’s couch, and he was still there in the morning.
Helen anticipated his presence and wrapped herself in a floral dressing gown hiding her naked, freshly rested body.
She pulled the gown tighter as she walked into the lounge room. Despite his recent disappearance, she was sure he would still be there this time.
He sat up when she entered, stretched and rubbed his eyes.
“Do you want a shower before breakfast?” Helen asked.
“No, you can have it. I’ll shower when you go to work,” he said.
“Eggs or cereal?”
“Do you still have that cereal that pops when you put milk on it?”
“Yes, but I don’t know why. Force of habit I guess. I never eat it.”
“Can I have some?”
“It might be past its ‘use by’ date. I’ll check.”
Helen made toast and put a tiny amount of Vegemite on hers. She nibbled at the edges of her toast as the man gobbled down his cereal. “Can I have some more?”
Helen showered and dressed. She paused at the front door and said, “Will you be here when I get home? I have a student coming around at 7pm. I should be home before then.” The man smiled at her but did not answer.
Helen’s working day seemed to take forever, even more so than usual. The numbers swirled on the page — no one noticed her distress.
Widows learn how to hide their pain.
The man was still there when she arrived home, and she barely had time to grab a snack before her student came with her mother in tow.
The mother of the maths student eyed the man before expressing her concern about her daughter’s grades.
“I pay you a lot of money to tutor Annabel, and her grades don’t seem to be improving,” said the slightly overdressed lady. Her daughter rolled her eyes. “Why do I have to do maths? I’m going to marry some rich bloke who owns his own panel beating business, and I’ll never need to work. Numbers suck.”
When someone starts to embezzle money from your husband’s panel beating business, it would be handy if you had enough knowledge to see it happening before you both went broke, and you have to go out to work, thought Helen, but all the mother saw was a smile.
“Annabel needs to apply herself and do the assignments I set for her, then her grades will improve,” said Helen as pleasantly as possible.
The tutoring work was necessary because her job was not enough to keep body and soul together since her husband disappeared while working as a marine biologist on assignment in Queensland.
It had been a struggle, but she had managed to hang on to the house. The insurance company would not pay out on Charles’ life policy in the absence of a body. Seven years was a long time to wait for some financial relief. His employer had tried to be helpful and had paid her all his accrued holiday pay and long service leave, but it only helped delay her penury.
When the reluctant student was gone, Helen made two cups of tea and joined the man who bore a remarkable resemblance to her dead husband, and they sat in silence until the man said, “Are all your students like her?”
“No. Some genuinely want to learn, but I can’t afford to turn anyone away.”
“Can you take some time off work? I’d like to show you where I’ve been.”
“I have some holidays due to me, but I don’t have a car anymore. I can’t just up and leave.”
“Because I have a house to pay for and responsibilities.”
“I understand,” said the man and they sat in silence until it was time to sleep.
“My bed is very big and much more comfortable than the couch. You are welcome to share it,” said Helen who was avoiding eye contact.
“I’d like that,” said the man.
He waited long enough for her to prepare for bed and when he came into the bedroom, he noted that it was as tiny as the rest of the house. He walked around the bed and turned away before disrobing. Helen peeked over her shoulder and admired his tall, firm body — straight back and round buttocks. She looked away as he turned.
The man who looked like her dead husband slipped silently into bed curled up and faced away from her.
Helen could feel his warmth, and she longed to reach out and touch him but felt that such a move would be too bold.
Where had he been? Why was he here? Why did he seem so unconcerned?
For that matter, why was she not afraid. Her heart told her that he had not just run away. He had died. They never found his body, but he had died. There were witnesses to him falling off the research vessel. The witnesses were drunk, but they knew what they had seen. In the confusion, it took too long to turn the boat around.
This was the official version that came from the inquest. They called it an open finding, which meant that there was not enough evidence to show what had happened. The indistinct nature of the finding gave the insurance company a reason not to pay out on his personal life insurance. They wouldn’t pay out on the company policy either. Taking the company to court would most likely bring a result and force them to pay up, but Helen had neither the money or the energy to fight them. Something they were probably counting on. His employer only had to wait until the seven years was up and they would collect — with interest — cheaper and easier.
When Helen awoke, she was alone in her bed.
The man who smelled a lot like her husband was in the kitchen eating cereal that popped when you put milk on it.
“Can you buy some of this today? It’s nearly all gone,” he said without looking up.
“Probably,” said Helen.
“You talk in your sleep,” said the man.
“Have I always done that,” asked Helen.
“I don’t remember,” said the man who likes the same cereal as her dead husband.
Helen drifted through her workday with the only highlight being a magpie in the park during lunch. It came up very close the way that birds do when they have chicks to feed — reckless parenthood. It warbled every time she gave it part of her sandwich.
Helen put her shopping bag down before unlocking the front door. The cereal box was bulky and threatening to burst through the thin plastic carry bag.
Revenge is best served with dessert and a red wheelbarrow.
An original story read by the author, 10:14
From the audiobook SLIGHTLY SPOOKY STORIES