Excerpt for Crystal Clear by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

CRYSTAL CLEAR

Aidan J. Reid

CRYSTAL CLEAR

Aidan J. Reid


Smashwords Edition © 2018 Aidan J. Reid

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www.aidanjreid.com

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Cover design: www.goonwrite.com


Contents


Also by the Author


Barrymore
Finders Keepers

Front Page News

Trick of Light

Call to Attention

The First Vision

Quids In

Bubbly

Beagle

Leading the Chase

Stone Unturned

Celebrity

Return to Sender


Author’s Note | Bonus



Also by Aidan J. Reid

__________________



STANDALONE NOVELS
Pathfinders
Raising Lazarus



THE TOM REGAN THRILLERS

Sigil

Yage (TBR Summer 2018)



THE ROT COLLECTION

Barrymore


“Quick! He’s doing it again!”

Paul Byrd followed the shrill cry coming from the living room. Entering, he followed the direction of her pointed finger. A popular TV presenter of the nineties was on screen, smiling manically and winding up the audience with overzealous movements.

His mother looked up expectantly, concern etched on her face. For a moment, she looked like a child, sitting atop a high chair. She was dressed simply. Beige trousers, on the end of which two sturdy flat shoes planted the floor. A pink, light jumper framed her thin body which, when she leaned over to focus on the TV, made it look like a scoop had been taken out of a strawberry ice-cream. Her short hair was cotton ball white. Thick rimmed glasses framed half of her face. Her eyes bulged behind them, flicking from the screen back to her son.

“Look! There again,” she pointed. “Why does he keep waving at me?”

Paul reached for the remote and flicked the channel.

“Is that better?”

“Did you change it?”

“Aye. Your shows are coming on shortly.”

“What?”

“I said your shows- “

“Joe? I don’t know. I haven’t seen him in, God knows. One of Roy’s lads. When is he coming?”

“He’s not coming.”

“What?”

Paul set the control down on her arm rest, adjusting the volume to a level just loud enough for her to hear, but low enough to prevent the tenants above from thumping the floor. Her eyes narrowed tight, staring at the screen six feet away.

The Byrds lived in the nosebleed section of their council estate home – fifteen floors high in the air. When the elevator wasn’t working, like today for example, Paul would usually find little reason to leave the comfort of his home. They had hoarded enough tinned food and powdered custard over the years to see through emergencies. It was wedged tight on dusty shelves in the small spare room alongside junk that hadn’t seen the light of day for two decades. Their very own time portal fifty metres in the sky. Today, with his mother in one of her moods, he needed to get out.

“I’m going to the shops. You need anything?”

The shrivelled raisin looked up at him from her sunken seat, studied his face as if deciding whether he was friend or foe.

“We need milk. That’s going tay go off tomorrow. A loaf too. There’s not enough to make sandwiches tonight. Sure, you don’t like the heels.”

Paul smiled. He had almost forgotten about the bread. His mother had made toasted sandwiches for him and his father for as long as he could remember. Their little grill must have melted thousands of slabs of cheese over the years.

“You can be as sharp as you want to be sometimes Ma.”

“What?”

“Never mind.”

Paul walked the length of the room to look outside the window – which is to say, he took three strides. Pleased that it was a cloudless sky, he decided not to take his anorak, but threw on an extra layer in any case. He heard the TV stations flick behind him, before finally settling on the sound of a cheering audience. Turning around, he faced the room and let out a heavy sigh. Beyond the two chairs facing the telly, a grandfather clock stood sentinel in the corner, older than Paul’s first memory. It still worked perfectly. The hanging chime faithfully delivering its bell on the hour. A little foldaway table was parked in the corner. On it was an adult colouring book – one that came free in one of the weekly glossy magazines his mother insisted he buy for her. Sunday afternoons were his favourite part of the week.

The TV would be off. She would be staring down through her magnifying glass trying to read the latest celeb tattle; taking a deeper interest in the fictitious Aussie soap characters she watched than in her own son’s life. He would be busy drawing or colouring in the edges of the book. In those briefest of moments, where only the sound of the clock suggested that time was passing, he found a place of peace.

“He’s looking at me again!”

Paul shook his head, patted his jean leg to make sure he had the key and headed for the door.

“Of all the people you choose to come out of the TV and talk to you it’s Michael bloody Barrymore. God, if I was your age Ma, I’d be watching the Playboy channel.”

“What?”

“I said, I’ll see you later!”

Finders Keepers


Paul took the stairwell in instalments. Ten minutes after leaving his mother in the flat with the gameshow host, he had left the council estate, breathing in the sea air around him. He decided against going for groceries straight away, noticing how unusually bright and clear the sky was, and opted for a walk along the beachfront pier instead.

It was still early afternoon on the Thursday. A fine spring day which the local businesses no doubt hoped would herald a sunny summer, but seasons were hard to predict in the coastal town of Bellington. Families, a short commute from the beach, would wake up on a beautiful summer morning, organise their kids playthings and bundle everything in the car, only to be met with a sheet of clouds the moment they had found a parking spot.

It wasn’t the most beautiful of beaches but the residents were determined to make the most of it when it was on the doorstep. Blow-ins from other towns would come with beach towels and quickly find them not fit for purpose on the stony beach. Others, feeling a little better prepared, would bring inflatable blow up seats. However sharp stones would pop their chairs, much to the delight of the solitary ice cream vendor – a man whose face hadn’t changed since Paul’s youth.

The tide had gone out, and Paul decided to step down from the pier and walk along the patchy sand. Despite the relatively good weather, there wasn’t a soul around. It was a work day after all, he reasoned. High above came the sound of seagulls, their squawking calls as they careened across the sky. He looked up, and watched them glide across the canvas of blue, carried in the light breeze. For a moment, he wondered if they were higher than his flat. The thought didn’t last long, as he stumbled forward and fell on his knees. The gulls seemed to delight in his fall, and Paul was thankful that his knees had met only sand.

Standing, he brushed it off and looked to the place where his foot had tripped. A sharp angle protruded from the sand.

“No respect for our beaches,” Paul started, and reached down to what he thought was a bottle fragment. It didn’t budge under his careful pull.

Bending down on one knee, he slowly traced a finger over the edge and corner. It was smooth and didn’t seem to be cut like any bottle. Again, he pinched it between his forefinger and thumb and tried to nudge it out of the packed sand, but it refused to give.

“Flip sake.”

Pulling out the key to his apartment, he began scoring lines in the sand up to the object. Then he dug his fingers down into the cracks and eventually managed to give some wiggle room to the object. Another yank and Paul prised the beachfront Excalibur out and stood. Rubbing it on his jumper, he finally held it up to the sky and was struck by its beauty. It was a solid glass prism. The outer edges had been rounded and polished, smooth under his touch. It wasn’t light. It felt like a paperweight and was a good fit in his palm.

He tapped it with a fingernail and could tell it was dense. Not likely to break. He tossed it up in the air and caught it in his open palm, before sliding it into his back pocket. When it was suspended in mid-air, Paul thought he saw a rainbow twinkle from the object just as it caught the sun’s rays. There was something beautiful about it. He was certain his mother would agree.

Front Page News


The afternoon was passing slowly for newsagent Lily Nugent. It always did until the children finished school. She had spent the last hour sorting out the sweetie collection that took pride of place on a shelf behind her till. Ten clear glass tubs stood behind the stooped woman, as if their very weight over the decades had taken a toll on her shoulders. Nugent’s was her great grandfather’s enterprise, the man immortalised in a side profile portrait that hung beside the belled entrance. The shop had been passed down through the generations, changing hands, but the one everlasting presence during the decades had been the sweet rack.

Colourful, plump wine gums. Chewy midget gems that always seemed determined to clump together – safety in numbers. Fat gob stoppers with thick coatings that changed colour and taste the more you sucked. Flying saucers that melted on the tongue to reveal a sharp sherbet, fizzy centre. Chocolate Brazil nuts that fractured and smeared the inside of the glass walls. Brandy balls with their fiery heat, long since fallen out of favour with the current generation and tropical fruit salads and ‘Black Jacks’ that coloured the tongue and teeth.

She was preparing a combination of the sweets for a ‘Lucky Dip’ mix – using some of the older stock at the bottom of the tubs when the little bell above the door tinkled.

“Ms. Nugent.” She looked up, narrowing her gaze on the man who stopped short at the newspaper stand.

“Paul, how many times do I have to tell you? Don’t call me…”

“Ms. Nugent,” he jumped in to steal the words from her. “I know. One of these days.”

Paul did a quick scan of the magazines on the top rack, most of which were obscured or had strategically placed stickers and plastic wrap across the images. For a moment, he thought about reaching up and picking a loose one off the shelf, but he could see from the corner of his eye that the little woman was leaning over her counter, a hawk’s eye on him. Instead, he squatted down, knees giving an audible crack and almost fell backward, holding out a palm to steady himself.

“How’s Bridie?” came the shopkeepers voice from the other side of the room.

Paul felt the object in his back-pocket press, and knelt on one knee to ease the pressure as well as the pain in his joints. He looked at the date on a stack of newspapers before lifting a top copy of the Daily Echo and struggling onto his feet.

“You want to start looking after yourself a bit more,” she said. “Not normal for a man your age to be popping like bubble wrap.”

“What? I’m fine. And Ma is good too,” he said, grabbing a half pan of loaf from the rack. He moved to the counter and fished into his pocket searching the sea of coins for a couple of fat ones.

“Weren’t that long ago you was in here, bouncing full of energy. I hear it in your voice, and your bones you’re in pain. You wouldn’t make much of a burglar. Bridie not feeding you well?”

“Yeah, she is,” Paul replied. He suddenly felt like a little boy again. She had caught him stealing, some forty years earlier - an incident that he was certain she still remembered.

“Just back from a walk along the pier,” he said and pulled out a few coins. “Lovely day for it.”

“For now,” she said and took the money, dropping it into the till. “Maybe a storm coming.”

“What do you mean?”

The woman tapped a thin finger on the newspaper between them. Paul read the headline – ‘Bellington Excavation Extended’.

“A team of scientists and some arkologists from the city are sposed to be on their way. Liz Traynor found some old ruins when they was extending her gazebo. Told the council and they sent a man out. Said the area had to be preserved so they could do their own tests.”

“What did they find?”

“Well, Bill Jennings was in the other day.” Paul’s confused expression prompted her to add detail. “The new neighbour. Lovely fella. Getting married next month to Donna. You know she’s pregnant with her third as well. Only twenty-three and all!”

“Ms. Nugent…”

“Lily. How many times?”

“Go on. What did they find?”

“Well,” she said, lowering her voice and looking towards the door, over the shoulder of Paul, before continuing. “A bowl.”

“A what?”

“A bowl.”

“What, like a cereal bowl?”

She nodded. A moment of silence passed between them, staring at one another.

“What’s so important about a bowl that a bunch of scientists would be coming down?”

The thin smile on the woman’s face suggested that he had asked the right question, key to unlocking the conversation which dragged longer than Paul would have liked.

“They think the bowl was from the last century and that there might be a lot more things like it hidden round town.”

“Why here?”

The little woman shrugged her shoulders. “Maybe, cause we’re near the sea. All sorts of stuff could have washed up over the years.”

Paul could feel the object press into his butt cheek. He picked up the paper and looked at the article. A smaller subheading said, ‘Digs to commence on Broadmoor shore this weekend’.

“You OK?” He looked up and saw the scrutinising face of shopkeeper. Her sharp eye studied his face.

“Yeah, fine. I’ll take a bag as well actually Ms…Lily. Sorry.”

“Anything else?”

“Well, maybe chuck me a bag of sweets too.”

The woman smiled and turned around, pulling down one of the big tubs and planting it on the counter. She screwed off the lid and plunged a scoop into its mouth. A sea of sweets parted, until she managed to reach the sunken depths of the bottom. A great big clump broke off – something that looked like it should be in a science lab on display as a molecular atom. She dropped the weight onto a measuring scale before using her nimble hands to break the structural walls, freeing up individual sweets and shovelling them into a small paper bag. She handed it to Paul along with a plastic bag.

“There you go. A pound of brandy balls. Our bestseller and your ma’s favourite.”

Trick of Light


In his youth, Paul could run up and down the flight of stairs of their council flat before an ad break ended. Now, his journey needed ad breaks. The vertical ascent was never enjoyable, and always sweaty. The brandy balls were of little sustenance, as he reached the mid-point. Pausing, he reversed into the corner where he could prop himself on the thick banister, and concluded the sweets tasted like grimy pennies. He had half a thought about opening the milk. It would certainly help reduce the load, but the noise of teenagers shouting from far below made him get going again. When he finally reached the entrance hall that led to their flat, he allowed himself the opportunity to catch a breath.

His mother looked sideways from her TV set when hearing the bolt of the front door turn.

“I bet you forgot the milk,” she shouted out.

“No. Got it,” Paul replied, “Tea?”

He entered the kitchen, opened a cupboard and tucked the bread inside, before moving to the small fridge. The little interior light fizzled when he opened it before blinking out completely.

“Stupid thing.”

“What?”

“Light’s gone in the fridge.”

“Turn on the kitchen light.”

“I know Ma. I mean the light in the fridge. I can still see.”

“It’ll soon be time for bed anyway.”

“Ma. It’s only twenty to five.”

“Are you sure?”

“Ma,” Paul said, replacing the old carton of milk with the fresh one. “Sure, your soaps aren’t even on yet.” A pause. “They’re on earlier at the weekend. At one. Weekdays they’re on at six.”

Without looking Paul knew she’d be squinting at the clock face on her wrist.

“Today’s only Thursday.”

“Are you sure?” she asked.

He left the kettle to boil and went across to the living area, kicking off his boots. His breath and heart rate were beginning to normalise again and before he could get too comfortable he emptied the contents of his pockets on the counter. The foreign bulge in his back pocket was still there. He took out the object, sat in his comfortable chair and fingered its smooth edges. He was about to open his mouth and say something to his mother, but decided against it. She was staring absent minded at the television set, unaware that he was watching her. The kettle began to squeal for attention.

“Tea’s ready,” his mother said. “Hurry before it gets cold. I don’t like cold tea.”

Paul got off his seat and propped the triangular prism up on the window ledge, before going in to prepare two cups.


*


“Is it six yet?”

The old woman was quite content after a dinner feed. She had dozed through the gameshows but now, like clockwork had woken at the prescribed time.

Paul was half-heartedly colouring the edges of a sketch from his colouring pad. His feet were up, with the book on his lap. It was a mosaic of the face of Jesus which failed to inspire him. It was always better when he didn’t know what he was drawing until the colours were added. He leaned over on one side, and then the other, checking the floor.

“Paul. Is it six yet?”

“I heard you Ma,” he said. “Let me check.”

He reached down the crack between the arm and the cushion and found the remote, aiming it at the TV. He flicked through the channels – adverts that seemed to be about orgasmic shampoos and reruns of movie remakes. He rested on the local news channel for a second to catch the bulletin.

‘…and how Bellington could become the focus for the world’s top archaeologists.’

“Pau- “

“I know Ma. Getting it for you now.”

He located the station, adjusted the volume a few ticks higher, pre-empting her question to raise it, and lifted himself out of the seat. He threw the colouring jotter on the foot rest, lifted the two empty dinner plates and cups, and placed them in the sink. As he plugged the sink and turned the tap, he looked across the room. Despite the evening gloom, they still enjoyed at least a few minutes more of sun than the basement dwellers – one bright spot on the ass of living in the high rise.

With the sink filled, he squirted the last drops out of the washing up liquid into the pool of cluttered dishes. He could tell she wouldn’t last as far as the ad break. Her head was bobbing down onto one thin shoulder, as if pecking for the crumbs of dinner. Maybe I can catch the end of that news report, he thought, and began stacking the wet plates.

When he had finished washing up, and dried his hands, he glanced over at his mother who was fast asleep. He allowed himself a smile and was about to take his seat, when he saw the bright edge of the sun outside the window. Paul walked over to see its final descent, slotting like a shiny penny into the mountaintop. It inched its way, burning the last few embers of its sun rays for his eyes, those below cast in darkness minutes before.

As he turned away, to hit the light switch, his chest flamed in colour. Instinctively he took a step back, flapping away what was on his shirt. He searched the ground looking for it.

“What the hell was that?”

The blur of colour had disappeared. Had he been imagining it? He cast his eye around the room to find a winged object, a butterfly or something. He didn’t need to look far. On the cream white wall opposite the window, he saw it clearly and stepped up to the image that was projected there. Seconds later, it disappeared. He looked to his mother, who was still asleep, hoping for once that she had been awake to see it. Then he walked up to the window again and picked up the prism, examining it in his hands and holding it up to the light. It was cool to the touch. There was no beam, despite him holding it up again.

“Don’t you be eating my brandy balls,” came the voice from the seat.

Call to Attention


Two days passed with Paul trying in earnest to tease an image from the glass prism. Holding it up to various light sources, at different times of the day, failed to muster a similar reaction. His efforts extended to taking it outside and holding it up to the sky – using it like a magnifying glass where the sun would be. However, it had been dull and overcast when he tried, and his earlier enthusiasm soon left him. He began to doubt that he had seen anything at all, and on the Saturday afternoon, left the object back on the windowsill. Despite a growing scepticism, he continued to glance up at it from his colouring book.

Some occasions, convincing himself it was a lost cause, and conceding defeat, he hoped to be surprised by the appearance of the image lighting the wall behind him. Other occasions, he focused his own energy on it, willing it to reveal the patterned glow. Sometimes, he would walk into the room, purposely not looking at it – peripheral vision tuned in case the object only worked when one wasn’t looking at it. In all cases, he was left disappointed despite his tactical play.

“Hello?”

“Stephen, that you?”

There was the sound of chewing on the other end of the phone. “Mm-Hmm.”

Paul looked at his watch. It was 9pm. “Sorry, didn’t realise you were having your dinner. I can call back- “

“No. It’s quite alright. Chinese night in the Breagal household,” the man said. Paul heard him take a drink before continuing. “Good to hear from you my friend. How are you?”

“Good.”

“Your mother?”

“She’s good too. How’s Margaret and Saul?”

“Great and not-so-great.”

“Hope it’s nothing serious,” Paul said. He glanced back up at the prism on the windowsill against the black night sky. No movement.

“You know Saul. He has his good days and bad. We’re taking him to a new psychologist next week, so fingers crossed. Anyway, enough about me. Has Hollywood come calling yet?”

“What do you mean?” Beside him, his mother was silently snoring. Her head sagging onto her shoulder. He could see that the top row of her dentures had pulled down and appeared in the small gap between her lips.

“It’s in the papers. These archaeological excavations. Looks like the worlds press have flocked to Bellington.”

“Don’t believe all you read in the papers.”

“Or the news.”

“Exactly.”

“Any idea what’s happening?”

“I was hoping you could tell me,” Paul replied and heard the short laughter of the other man.

“What makes you think I might know anything?”

“C’mon Stephen. You’re the smartest guy I know. Plus, you live in that library of yours. Thought this would be right up your street.”

The man laughed. Paul could hear a seat being scraped against tile and footsteps. There was an orchestral tune coming from the receiver which faded into the background.

“You surmised correctly my dear boy,” he said. There was the sound of a door click, then the steps ended and the man let out a little breath. It was quieter wherever he had gone.

“Well, what do you think?”

“Seems like a lot of noise over a couple of bowls and a few coins.”

“Unless they’re worth a lot.”

“They’re not. From what I’ve read they’re denarius, silver coins. Roman origin. They would have degraded and lost much of their value over the centuries.”

“So, they must be really old.”

“Yes. But it was common currency in 1 or 2AD. Many coins of this type have been discovered over the years. Not worth stopping the press for.”

“Yeah, but this is Bellington remember,” Paul countered. “Nothing happens here. If a dog goes missing it makes the headlines.”

“But, that still doesn’t explain why there are suddenly a lot of academics, land surveyors and archaeologists showing up unannounced.”

“You reckon it’s not what they’ve found.”

“I think it’s what they’re hoping to find.”

Paul pressed his ear closer to the receiver. “Go on.”

“Many historical digs uncover artifacts that pre-date our existing knowledge of their origin. Riddles of the past like intricate obsidian earplugs dating back to the Aztec era when tools obviously weren’t as advanced as what we have now. Metal vases cased in sedimentary rock estimated to be 10,000 years old. The Baghdad battery which was discovered in the last century suggests that our relatively recent advent of electricity had been harnessed as far back as 250BC which debunks the idea that our ancestors were simply spear throwing, primitive beasts that we eventually evolved from. Then there are the crystal skulls that- “

“Wow, hold on! Slow down a minute.” There was a laugh on the other end.

“Sorry. I do let my mouth get away from me sometimes. You did bring it up though!”

“I know,” Paul replied. “So that’s all very interesting, but if any of it was true – if they were searching for something, why haven’t we heard about it? That should be front page news.”

The man took a deep breath. Paul leaned back further in his chair, expecting another discourse.

“It goes against the grain of what we’re taught. It could turn the entire education system upside down. Too many people have a vested interest. Companies, organisations and academia have built a system that won’t consider anything that runs against their belief system. If evidence pointed to early civilisations being more advanced than us today, then that would create chaos in academic circles. Our entire written history would be ripped up. If people start questioning that, they’ll begin to question everything – religion, politics and how the world really works.”

“So, you’re saying they’re trying to hide this knowledge to prevent people from knowing the truth?”

“In a matter of speaking, yes.”

“Come on,” Paul said and offered a nervous laugh. “Bit of a leap to think it’s happening here though.”

“Perhaps. But then again, the location would fit examples of the past. The Golden Necklace of Tbilisi was discovered in an underground cave. The solid gold eggs of Indonesia were found in a sandy cove by a beach walker. The ocean floor has a myriad of treasures waiting to be discovered, some of which can be uprooted by the current and quakes.” A pause. “Paul, are you still there?”

“Yeah. Sorry. Just thinking.”

“Anyway, I’m rambling. Was there anything else you wanted to talk to me about?”

He hadn’t taken his eyes off the prism object on the windowsill.

“Maybe. I don’t know. Let me get back to you.”

The First Vision


As soon as he entered the apartment, Paul slipped the tie out of its knot. Pulling it over his head, he hung it and the coat jacket on the back of the single tall seat against the kitchen counter. His sigh attracted the attention of his mother who looked up, saw his crestfallen face and shook her head.

“Nothing?”

“Just building work.”

“Sure, that’s enough isn’t it? A wage is a wage.”

“Ma, have you seen the size of me?” Paul said, turning to his mother. Despite the elevator working again, it appeared like he had worked up a sweat from exercise, damp patches growing under his pits. She didn’t look up from her seat. The paper bag of brandy balls from two days earlier were still beside her.

“Best way to lose weight is a bit of hard labour. Your da was stick thin all through his life. Didn’t do him one bit of harm.”

“Not today, Ma. I already got the lecture from the Jobseekers.”

“Well, I don’t know,” she mumbled to herself.

Paul shook his head and went to his room. He peeled off the shirt and slacks, kicked off his shoes and put on his carpet slippers and baggy pants. There was a hoodie hanging on the floor which he picked up and smelt the underarm of. It was passable so he chucked it on, re-entered the living room and sat down. There was a gameshow on. He knew them all by association of his mother. This one was on a channel that repeated the classics. A word and numbers game called ‘Countdown’. Judging by the outfits and hairstyles of the contestants, he estimated it was some time in the late eighties. He reckoned the TV host was long since dead.

‘…the winner will receive our Countdown Trophy, our goodie bag (an image flashed on the screen of an encyclopaedia, fountain pen and signed photograph of the crew – all specs, high collars and garish coloured shirts) and a one-year membership of the official Countdown magazine.’

Cue rapturous applause from the audience members – a sea of woollen cardigans and various shades of grey hair. Paul rolled his eyes and looked around for inspiration. The colouring book was on the foot rest opposite. He picked it up, about to flick through it but was stopped by the sight of several letters underneath. They were opened. He had already read them. Nevertheless, he picked up one of them again, seeing the ‘Urgent – Final Notice’ bold text on the front.

“Is that a Valentines card?”

Paul shook his head. “It’s May ma.”

“What?”

“Yes,” he groaned. “It’s a Valentine’s card.”

A little smile twisted on the old woman’s face as she burrowed deeper into the armchair. She adjusted her glasses. Her eyes were back on the TV show, watching ghosts of the past. Paul placed the envelope back down on the stool, leaned back in his own chair and put his feet up.

The sound of the TV show and it’s ticking clock faded away as he began to feel the tension leave his body. He heard his mother silently snore. Behind his closed lids the light changed in the room, the sun peeping out from behind a cloud - one last triumphant stand before bedding down for the night. When he opened his eyes, he felt refreshed. Standing, he stretched his arms high in the air and took a deep yawn. As he turned, he saw on the wall a blush of swirling colours. He looked back to see the source – the sun shining through the glass prism.

“Oh my God,” he whispered.

As he moved closer to the projection, there were moving pieces in the image. It reminded him of the old movie projector screen that his dad would use to run old movies and tapes. Paul studied the image but found the resolution too weak. Remembering how quickly it had appeared and disappeared the last time, he moved to the prism, picking up the colouring book on the way. He knelt between them, holding the flat back of the book up to capture the image. The detail was as sharp as a photograph, bright colours projected onto the card as he watched the series of images slowly play to their conclusion.

The movie started again, the missing sequence which, when completed, made Paul crumple to the ground. The book dropped from his hand and he watched the image play on the wall again, before suddenly the room dimmed, and the picture faded against the cream wall.

Quids In


The little bell above the shop door tinkled to announce a visitor. Paul walked in casually, letting the door close on its own. He moved to the magazine rack, cast an eye over some of the top shelf before dropping down to the local gazette by his feet. Leaning over at the waist, he picked up the top copy. A magazine inside, slipped out and fell to the ground. For a moment, he stood frozen, locked in thought.

“Mornin’ Paul.” The little woman had entered from a side door annexed to her living room. She was already behind the till by the time he picked up the supplement and got to his feet.

“Good morning. Lily.”

The woman smiled and nodded. She studied him with suspicion from head to foot as he approached the counter. He dropped the paper down, glancing at the front page.

“Fine day.”

“Lovely out,” the woman replied. “Any luck with jobs?”

“Nothing yet. Word gets around.”

“Josie’s young one,” the woman said. “She works in the job centre. Said you were finding it tough. You know Jim Taggart’s looking for workers? They’re building an extension onto the Davies house. Needs some help. Young ones dinny want tay get their hands dirty these days. Won’t get out of bed for nathan unless its better money than the dole. I don’t think it is, but a job’s a job ye know? Beggars can’t be choosers.”

“I’ll think about it. Thanks.”

“He was in here this mornin’. Dropped off a flyer. I hayny put it up yet.”

Ms. Nugent crouched down, disappearing behind the counter. When she resurfaced, there was a white sheet in her hand. He held out a hand and took it from her.

“You OK?” He looked up from the sheet at her concerned face. “You look a bit peaky.”

“I’m fine,” he replied, folding it in two and slipping it into his back pocket. Exactly as he had seen before. “Just a funny couple of days, that’s all.”

“You want anything else with your paper?”

Paul swallowed hard. The probing eye of the old woman seemed to pierce his thoughts, which made him squirm. When he spoke again it was in a cracked voice.

“Maybe I’ll take one of your scratch cards as well Ms. Nugent. Lily I mean.”

“Someone’s feeling lucky. Which one?”

“Do you have a purple one?”

Beside the cash register, an opaque box stood. Three strings of cards were bundled inside, spitting them through the open mouth like a colourful toilet roll. The woman pulled down on one of the rolls and tore off the end. She gave the card to Paul and then dabbed some numbers into her cash register.

“2.70.”

He pulled out a five in exchange for a few coins, before tucking the newspaper under his arm. He was already turned and on his way out when she called out to him.

“How did your ma like the brandy balls?”

“Not finished them yet,” he fired over his shoulder, eager to leave the shop. “I’ll see you soon.”

She watched him leave. When the door was shut, she turned around to the shelf of sweets. There was a perplexed look on her face as she pulled out the tub for brandy balls. She unscrewed the top, and poked her nose inside to smell the sweets.

She took one out, unwrapped the plastic, popped it in her mouth and started sucking, passing it from one cheek to another with her tongue. She nodded her satisfaction and screwed the lid back before lifting the tub back into place. It slipped from her nimble hands and almost hit the floor but she caught it in time. The sweet, which had been dancing in her mouth, suddenly dropped to the back of her mouth. Panicked, she tried to breathe but sucked it into her windpipe. With horror, the woman began clawing at her neck. She gasped for air, beating on her chest. Lily Nugent dropped to her knees, a single arm raised behind the counter, fighting for life. As the blackness began to creep into her vision, she desperately tried to signal to anyone that was passing, that she was slowly choking to death.

Outside, and across the street, oblivious to the drama was Paul Byrd. He was hunched over a gas meter, using it as a prop as he scratched the card with a coin. His hand was shaking. He closed his eyes as the coin lightly scraped away the last row of the remaining scratch card paint. He took a deep breath and opened them. There were three matches. He had just won £10,000.

Bubbly


“These’ll have to do.” Paul handed a tumbler glass filled with liquid gold to the seated man who eyed it with suspicion. Curiosity got the better of him and he raised it to his nose.

“That’s champagne!”

“You’ll wake her up!” Paul smiled, and moved a finger to his lips before taking the other empty chair.

“No expense spared I see.”

Paul took a small sip, leaned over the arm chair and set his glass down on the carpet floor.

“Sometimes it’s nice to appreciate the finer things in life. Don’t you think?”

“Too true my friend. Enjoy it as long as it lasts I say.”

Paul smiled and looked away, gaze settling on the window. A cream blind had been pulled down, the glass prism framing a shadow behind it.

“I might not be as cultured as yourself Stephen, but when you get given a break, you take it.”

“Absolutely,” he said. “You deserve it. You both do.”

The man was tall and thin, in his fifties with small round glasses; creased wrinkles around his eyes suggested a lifetime of reading. He leaned across and offered his glass. Paul bent over and picked his up again.

“A toast.” Paul said. “To health, friendships and good company.”

“That’s three toasts.”

“So it is,” he said and laughed. “In that case let’s toast to friendships. Park health and good company for the second and third glasses.”


*


Paul waited for the dull pop of the cork. A minute later, his friend re-joined him with the bottle.

“Another Louis Roederer.”

“Yeah, I know. I was the one that bought it,” Paul said and laughed. He raised his glass for a top up.

When it was filled, Stephen fell into his own seat. “I’ll have to make this the last. She’ll kill me if I have a late one.”

“Get a taxi. S’quicker.”

“It’ll cost me a fortune. Best give her a call. Said I’d only be out for a couple of hours. Suppose it’s only…” He turned a large watch face around on his wrist, narrowing his glasses for range. “Can’t be right. It’s-“

“12.15,” they both said at the same time. Stephen groaned, and tried to get back up.

“Don’t be silly,” Paul said and reached out an arm. “Call and say you missed the bus. I’ll pay for the taxi. From my door to yours in thirty.”

“I can’t let-“

“It’s done, OK?” he said and patted the forearm of the other man.

Stephen shook his head in resignation and smiled. “Thanks mate,” he said, a hiccup breaking it in two.

“Your turn.” Paul pointed to him with his glass and the other man seemed to deliberate carefully over the next words.

“To Miss Nugent. God rest her.” They clinked glasses, Stephen taking a long swallow while Paul barely touched the glass to his lips.

His friend fumbled in his pocket and removed a mobile phone. Paul watched him dial the numbers carefully and wait for it to be connected. He angled the phone away from his mouth and gave a little triumphant shake of the fist.

“Voicemail.”

Paul nodded, looking away to give the other man privacy to leave a message. His gaze settled on the blind, suddenly lost in contemplation. The sweet champagne coating on his tongue suddenly began to taste like bile. Rubbing it against the roof of his mouth only exacerbated the flavour, souring his expression. There was a tug on his elbow.

“Your address?” Stephen asked and received a confused look. “For the taxi.”

“1508 Costigan House, Roebuck Street.”

The address was repeated into the receiver before the dialler ended the call.

“Done. Tweny minutes,” Stephen said and stood up to pocket the phone. “You’ve been staring at that thing all night. What is it?” he said, walking over to the window.

“Just a paperweight. It’s my ma’s,” Paul replied and leaned forward.

“Interesting.” He picked it off the ledge, tossing it lightly in the air. “Heavy old thing.”

“Jesus, don’t!” Paul said and jumped from his seat.

“What?”

“Just put it back. Please.”

“OK,” he said, raising a hand. “I’ll be careful.”

With a sudden interest, Stephen held the block in his hands with more poise, tracing the smooth edges with his fingers until they reached a sharp point. As he held it up in the air, the light from the overhead bulb streaked along the flat clear surface. Turning the object around, he slid his glasses up the bridge of his nose for focus.

“What are you doing?”

“Trying to find an insignia. An emblem.”

“I’ve looked,” Paul said. “There’s no marks on it.”

“How do you know it’s a paperweight?”

“Well, what else could it be?”

“Could be anything, which is my point. There is a certain beauty about the craftsmanship, not to mention the depth of the crystal - which it appears to be – and, my, see how it catches the light.”

“You think it’s valuable then?” Paul said and held out an open palm. Stephen finished his inspection, passed it over and it was placed back on the windowsill.

“In monetary terms, I can’t tell. Certainly, not in my state,” he said and burped into a balled-up fist. “But there is something striking about it. How did your mother come across it?”

“Found it in a second-hand store. Come on, the bubbles are getting flat.”

The other man laughed, sat back down and picked his glass up off the floor. He took a small sip and for a few seconds was quiet, staring off into space. Paul, noticing the change, tried to pick up the thread of conversation again.

“I tell you, it’s good to have some company. Ma can drive you up the wall sometimes. Her and the game shows. How’s herself?”

“Yeah. Good. Busy.” A pause. “When you called me last week, you wanted to talk about something.”

“Well,” Paul said and shifted in his seat. “It was for more of a catch up.”

“Is everything OK?”

“Of course.”

“I might be a bit drunk but I can tell somethings up. Paul?”

They stared at one another without saying a word. It was Paul who broke cover first and smiled.

“C’mon,” he said, rising from his seat and placing the glass on the kitchen counter. “I want you to meet someone.”

Beagle


Paul crept into the darkness of the room directing Stephen to stay in the doorway. Light filtered through from the hallway, enough to shine a path to the bed. In the blackness of the furthest corner, two spikes of light suddenly appeared. Paul moved quickly around the bed and bent down.

“It’s OK,” he whispered. “She’s awake. You can turn on the light.”

He hit the switch and watched as Paul lifted a bundle off the floor.

“There, there. You’re alright.” He turned and Stephen could see that in his arms was cradled a puppy. It was trying to burrow its nose into the crook of his elbow. “Might be a bit bright for it. Poor thing still doesn’t know where it’s at. Close the door, will you?”

Paul sat down on the edge of the bed and began softly drawing his nails from the top of the pup’s head down the nape of its neck. Even from the doorway, Stephen could see it was terrified. Body tremors flapped at its ears. The two little hind legs, unsteady in their placement, as they fought to kick away from the embrace of their owner.

“She’s frightened to death,” he said, propping down on the bed. Reaching out a hand, he patted its side. “Goodness, you can feel the ribs come right through!”

Paul nodded and began making soothing sounds. Slowly, the dogs thrashing became less animated until finally it was at rest.

“I found it this morning,” he whispered. “Wandering the beach.”

“You sure it doesn’t belong to anyone?”

“Don’t think so. There was no tag or collar. Figured I’d be best looking after it a while.”

The puppy appeared to be asleep. The dark patterned fur of its belly was splotched with white. With each exhalation, individual ribs marked the tight skin, definition like sharp strings on a tan guitar.

“Rather you than me my friend,” Stephen said, getting back to his feet. “Landlord is going to love you. There’s barely enough room for you and your mother here, let alone a dog – and,” he moved a hand to stifle a belch, “they grow. It might only be a beagle, but as it gets older, it’ll need a lot of food and…and…”

“Exercise. I know. It’s only for one or two more days. Anyway,” he said, “looks like someone is out for the count. You like her?”

Paul rose and carefully carried the sleeping puppy back to the corner where a little crate had been laid out, with bedding inserted. When he turned around Stephen was staring at the back of the closed door.

“I like something alright.”

“I know what you’re going to say. You’re not a teenager. Go on.”

Stephen half-turned his head and smiled. “Nothing wrong with a bit of wishful thinking I suppose. Listen, my taxi should be outside.”

“Yeah,” Paul replied. “Let me take you to the door.”

He raised a finger to his pursed lips and led the way into the hallway. Three steps later they were at the door.

“Thanks for the champagne my friend.”

“Anytime. Let’s try and make it a regular thing.”

“Depends on how bad this hangover will be.” He rubbed the side of his head as if to confirm the authenticity of his stupor. “Or in how much trouble I’ll be in when I get home.”

“Ah, you’ll be fine,” Paul said with confidence. “Invite her over next time. I have another bottle tucked away.”

Under the flickering lightbulb of the hall corridor, Stephen seemed to wobble on his feet, although there was no displacing the smile.

“On one condition,” he said, leaning an arm against the doorway. “You get rid of that poster.”

“Ms. June 2007?” Stephen nodded. “No chance. She’s a keeper.”

Leading the Chase


Despite the weather, both man and dog – mostly dog, if truth be told – kept up a relentless pace. Straining on the lead, the timidity shown to the owner had evaporated overnight. The downpour of rain that caught them earlier made coffee stains out of the coat of the puppy which, despite its youth, pushed the fitness of Paul. The ascent leading into the town centre was made more difficult with a group of tourists choking up the pavement.

As they nudged closer, moving onto the cobblestone road to bypass, Paul hovered at the perimeter of people to take a closer look at the focus of the group. A man with a bulky camera propped on his shoulder was narrowing his lens on a pretty woman. Behind her, the town hall loomed – a large nondescript building. It was the eyesore of the town, in dire need of a makeover, part of a long series of campaign election promises made by local councillors seeking office.

The female reporter was speaking to a man in the wings. Looking to the heavens, she seemed pleased with what she saw there, nodding to the assistant who took her umbrella before she fastened a mic on the lapel of her jacket.

“Can you give us a little more space there please?” the assistant said.

The crowd moved back, pushing Paul onto the slippery road cobbles again. Along the row of terraced houses, heads popped out of windows, and bodies leaned out from doorways. Some, still dressed in their nightgowns and pyjamas, shuffled into the scene to see what the commotion was about. A man, similar in age to Paul, approached. He was being led by the hand of a young girl with dirty blonde pigtails and a pug face. The man gave a wide smile and allowed himself to be dragged by the girl into the group. When they had found a spot, he looked around the enclave of faces, caught Paul’s eye and jostled through a few bodies to slot in beside him. He had a thick grey moustache which stretched across his upper lip like a bat.

“You think they found something?” Paul was silent. “With the digs? Maybe they found something after all. I mean, more than those bloody coins. Might as well use them down int’ arcade. Not that I’m complaining. Bit more business bout town.”

“We good to go Jay? Trace?” the assistant said. The woman nodded, and the half-man-half-camera gave a thumbs up.

Paul had to get up on his tippy toes to see over the heads that had gathered. People were beginning to press from the back, struggling for a better view. Above the murmurs of those being edged out of the way, the reporters voice suddenly broke through.

“Thanks Liza. I’m outside the town hall here in Bellington where archaeologists continue their excavations nearby. Two weeks have passed now and despite initial excitement with the discovery of several rare coins and artifacts dating back to the seventeenth century, experts still believe that they’ve only scratched the surface. For the residents of this sleepy town, many have enjoyed…”

A nudge in the small of his back almost made Paul topple his neighbour over. He raised a hand to steady himself against the man’s shoulder, apologising and getting a smile in return. He was wedged in so tight, it was becoming difficult to breathe. Turning, the person behind gratefully traded his place. Paul watched his feet to avoid getting them tangled up on the lead. The lead! It had slipped from his grasp.

Quickly, he squatted down, pivoting on the spot to peer through the gaps of legs, hoping to catch a glimpse of the red rope. Suddenly, he found himself spat out of the crowd. They moved around him like water around a stone. Then it happened. A brown and white puppy streaked across the road, lead trailing behind. It was chased by a young girl, who would never reach it. Then there was the screeching of tyres on the wet stone. Everything moved so fast. The girl’s scream had barely left her mouth.

Stone Unturned


“Are you sure?” Paul shook his head and continued to flick through the channels.

“Yes, Ma. They get to the gold rush but run out of time.”

“What choice?”

“The Gold Rush,” he pronounced carefully, rubbing his face. The flicking images on the TV finally settled on a channel which had the thumping urgency of the news intro. Expensive speakers placed in the four corners of the room boomed the sound off the walls, trapping the two residents in the centre.

“Now I know you’re telling fibs. They didn’t even win get the gold star so they couldn’t have done the gold rush.”

“Ma, can you just…”

“You need at least three stars and they only had one.”

“Just watch.”

He pressed a button on the remote and the increasing volume slowly drowned out the mumbling argument of his mother. A talking head appeared on screen, a male newsreader with a wispy tan beard which was either new or only noticeable since they installed the state of the art, high-def TV.

“Where are you going?” The elderly woman had inched forward to the seat edge about to launch herself onto her feet.

“Get a paper. See what’s on tonight.”

“Ma,” Paul said, “just watch for a minute.” He pointed to the TV and she reluctantly sloped back into her chair and watched.

“…top story where a local resident of Bellington was hailed as a hero this morning after saving the life of a young girl…”

Paul glanced from the screen to his mother’s face, beady eyes narrowing to slits as she studied the newsreader.

“Mobile phone footage recorded at the scene show the daring rescue as the resident, Paul Byrd, dashed across the street and pushed the girl out of the way of an approaching car. In this exclusive video captured by a witness, the vehicle appears to miss by inches before crashing into Fogle’s column…”

There was a puzzled expression on the old woman’s face. Paul smiled, excitement pulsing through his body, watching the video loop as it played over and over on the newscast. In it, the girl was rooted to the spot, facing the oncoming car. A blur of colour from the side-lines appeared in the shaky footage, shoulder charging the girl out of the way as the car shot past and crashed head first into the structure.

“…where, in a stroke of luck, our reporter Tracey Lacey was already at the scene. She caught up with the unlikeliest of heroes just a few short hours ago.”

The comfortable newsroom was replaced with the image of Paul on the screen, looking sheepish with a big microphone held under his chin. A file of people stood behind him, closed near – some cheering, as the reporter struggled to maintain quiet.

Paul didn’t need to hear himself speak again. Like an out of body experience, he simply observed, looking at his mother’s reaction to how he was perceived on the screen. Her stern face had softened and her jaw sagged open. Pleased, he turned his attention back to the TV where the cameraman had zoomed down to the interviewee’s side. A grubby little girl in a red overcoat was hugging a puppy, scratching it between the ears. To the reporter’s questions, she simply nodded which generated more enthusiastic cheers from the gallery behind. Finally, the child’s father embraced Paul in a bear hug before the camera panned back and the reporter walked into shot. There were smiles and back slaps all around as she closed off her segment to huge cheers.

Back in the studio, the newsreader had a wide smile stretched across his face, and continued reading from the teleprompter.

“In an incredible turn of events, the uprooted column which was displaced by the impact of the car, revealed a collection of rare crystal fragments. Archaeologists are keen to explore the scene in what experts are hoping will lead them to the fabled pilgrim stone. We will of course be keeping an eye on this incredible story as it develops.” A pause, then in a lowered tone. “News just reaching us, is that the driver of the car has sadly-“

The TV switched off. Paul looked at his mother. He waited in silence, studying her reaction. She slowly turned her head. He could see her eyes were wet with tears.

“My boy.”

Celebrity


It broke like a wave - a ripple of noise that started from the doorway before moving through the small room, as people bunched tight to get a closer look. A wide arc of space opened ahead of the emerging trio.

Paul entered and stood in the centre of the sitting room, hands on his hips. He was a trimmer version of the one revealed to the viewing masses on television a year earlier. Linked on one arm was an elderly woman, blushing brightly and dressed in a floral print dress that trailed to the ground. On the other side, handcuffing both arms around his was a tall woman in her forties, with a golden tan and high cheekbones.

“I would say welcome, but of course, you did live here most of your life!” the woman joked. “I was thinking for the opening segment, maybe a tour of the apartment?”

“That won’t take long,” Paul replied.

The woman laughed, and backed further into the room, pointing the camera man to a corner. She looked around, seeing the new residents of the apartment. They nodded hey’s. A few others had gathered. Friends, well-wishers, admirers, ex-neighbours. The list was a long one.

“We’ll need to clear the room out before we get started,” she said to a man at the front of the small group, who then began to herd people outside until they were alone with the Byrd’s.

“Again, thanks for taking the time Paul. And of course, Ms Byrd and Suzanne.” They politely nodded, so she continued. “The interest, well…I don’t need to tell you how much this has caught fire in the last twelve months. Our viewers would love to get an update, find out more about the person…I mean…”

“That’s OK,” the pretty, manicured woman said. “Paul is the star of the show. You don’t need to butter us up.”

The reporter smiled, thankful for the woman’s diplomacy.

“Let’s get started then.”


*


The camera didn’t need to do a panoramic view of the bedroom. Standing in the corner by the doorway, the full scene was captured in one still. The cameraman on instruction took another shot, sitting on the bed to angle up at the other two people in the room, standing in the doorway.

“Humble beginnings,” the interviewer said. “And did you ever think all those months ago, when you were living in this box room, that you’d become this internet sensation?”

Paul shrugged his shoulders. A grin tugged on the side of his face as he spoke.

“Listen, everyone’s got to start somewhere. I just did something that anyone else would do. Just so happened someone recorded it. If they didn’t, I might not be here.”

“Yes,” she said, “but I think what most people are so impressed by – actually we’ve received hundreds of emails and letters in the past year confirming it – is that your selfless generosity and eagerness to help just seems so…” Paul was happy to wait for her to find the right superlative. “…rare.”


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