Friday, 27 November 2009

#FridayFlash: Hub 12

by Maria Protopapadaki-Smith

I have only been dead for a week and already I've been summoned to see the Beast. Woodhouse shakes his head in that despairing way of his.
"I've been here for two years and he's not asked to see me once", he says, in his best underdog voice. Woodhouse is such a likeable fellow that no one can figure out why he hasn't been moved up a long time ago, let alone why he was sent to a hub as low as Hub 12 in the first instance. We can't ask him what he did to be brought here, of course - it is not the done thing. In prison, everyone may be innocent, but here we all know better. Nevertheless, in Woodhouse's case one cannot help but think that he might be an anomaly. Even the Beast himself is perplexed by the chap's presence, as I am about to find out.

"Would you like to earn some karma credits?" he thunders at me. "I need someone to visit the human world for me and do some detective work. You were an MI5 agent I believe?" - I nod - "That would make you the most suitable of my souls for this task. I need you to find out what Woodhouse's story is."
"Why not ask Woodhouse himself?"
"Ask a human to tell its own story? Don't make me laugh", he grunts, in no danger of cracking even the faintest of smiles.

"In all the time Woodhouse has been here," he continues, "I have received no instruction regarding his situation. I do not even have an admittance record for him, which is most peculiar. I can't remember signing him in, and neither can any of my Underbeasts. I even asked around the other Hubs, in case he had been mis-delivered, but they have no record of him there, either. When I was moving Manston up to Hub 13 for good behaviour, he happened to mention Woodhouse; if he hadn't I would still be unaware of his existence."


I waddle around the human world in the ungainly body that has been provided for me as I try to put together the pieces of the Woodhouse puzzle. It would appear no one knows for sure that he is dead - he is in fact on the Missing Persons list. One morning, he went to work as usual, had an unremarkable day at the office, and then simply failed to return home. This worries me, I must admit. As much as I like the fellow, I do not believe him to be an overly industrious chap; had he decided to walk out on his entire life, I am sure he wouldn't have failed to notice that it presented him with a fine opportunity to miss a day's work. I suspect Woodhouse may have met with foul play.

My next step is to find the people that would have known as much as there is to know about Woodhouse: the regulars at his local pub. As I head for the Pig and Whistle, it occurs to me that I haven't had a pint since before I died; I wonder whether I will be able to taste beer using this body. Upon entering the pub and seeing the selection of mass-produced beers on offer, I decide that it doesn't make any difference.

It doesn't take me long to establish that Woodhouse went missing two years ago, leaving behind a wife and a greyhound he doted on. The landlord and the three men propping up the bar proceed to tell me various endearing stories that feature a tipsy Woodhouse and I know for sure that he must have been sent to Hub 12 by mistake - I would have placed him in a much higher Hub, and would even go so far as to suggest that he might be suitable for the Other Place.

"'Twas the Shimmy on Eyres Street that got young Woodhouse".
The pronouncement comes from an old man sitting in the far corner of the pub. The landlord waves at him and informs me in a whisper that the old codger isn't currently in possession of all his marbles. Now, one does not work in Her Majesty's Secret Service for 20 years without developing some instincts about old codgers and their marbles, so I set off to investigate. I don't think the Underbeast that wired me into this body did a very good job: I can feel the beer I drank pooling inside my left ankle. This is probably for the best, otherwise I might find that I have to relieve the bladder of a body that isn't mine and, well, that simply doesn't bear thinking about.

I wander up and down Eyres Street for half an hour failing to spot anything out of the ordinary when suddenly I see what looks like a small, transparent cloud floating at chest height. I approach it and stick my hand in to try and figure out what it is - and find myself back in Hub 12, still wearing the now beer-sodden body I had borrowed. It is now clear what happened to Woodhouse, and I tell the Beast of my findings.

The Beast agrees with my deductions, and orders an Underbeast to locate Woodhouse's body and fit him back into it. Thankfully for Woodhouse it is a different Underbeast from the one that fitted me into my borrowed body. The Beast then summons Woodhouse and informs him that he is going to be sent back to the human world as he is not actually dead.

"Oh thank God", Woodhouse says, and bursts into tears.
"We do all the hard work, and who gets the thanks?" mutters the Beast under his breath, handing me a karma credit slip as he walks away.
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Wednesday, 25 November 2009


I will never forget how she looked when I saw her, on that morning as I was jogging in the woods: the dappled light dancing on her face, dark hair caressing her shoulders in the gentle breeze, full lips slightly parted, eyes bulging and feet still twitching a little as she hung from the tree. Read more!

Friday, 20 November 2009

#FridayFlash: A Brush With Death

by Maria Protopapadaki-Smith

The combination of 4 inch stiletto heels, cobblestone pavement and an attempt to fish out a cigarette packet from an overflowing handbag proved too much for her inner ear; she toppled over and felt the sharp pain of a twisted ankle. When she looked up and saw Death standing over her with his hand outstretched, she nearly had a heart attack.

"But - it's only a sprain!" she exclaimed.
"Oh, I'm not here for you. Just because I take lives doesn't mean I can't be a gentleman" said Death, with a smile. She blushed and accepted his help in getting up.

She heard a loud crash and turned to see that a bus had collided with a lorry. The bus was in flames and the lorry's cab was crunched up. People were screaming.

"Ah, that'll be my twelve o'clock, I must dash. See you soo - er, eventually", said Death, with a twinkle in his eye socket. She watched him saunter over to the vehicles and suddenly didn't feel like lighting that cigarette.


I wasn't feeling very inspired this week. I was, however, craving cigarettes quite badly
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Friday, 13 November 2009

#FridayFlash: The Hatching

by Maria Protopapadaki-Smith

Rothbert Spires, current Scholar of the Court, put on his ceremonial robes and strode to the workroom. After ten years of believing those cursed birds had become extinct, he now found himself having to perfom a Tallid reading; if the reading turned out to be a bad one, it was very likely he would be beheaded before the day was out. He wanted to make sure everything was set up properly. He would be presenting his findings in front of the most exalted of audiences for the first time. He had prepared for it as much as was possible, but some things were after all out of his control, and science alone could not be relied upon; he prayed for a little luck.

He walked straight to the heated tank and looked apprehensively at the large blue egg sitting in its centre. The birds had been extremely rare for years before they had been believed to be extinct; no one had seen a single bird for ten years so he was amazed when his assistant had walked into the workroom carrying the egg. He smiled ruefully as he remembered the scene: Amantia had entered at a snail's pace, carrying the large blue egg out in front of her as if it might explode at any moment, her eyes wide and her face pale with the fear of dropping it. He wished she had - then she would have been beheaded and he would have been spending this very hour enjoying a hearty breakfast.

He cast his mind back ten years - he had been the assistant, then. He smiled at the thought of Scholar Westly: a good man, a good teacher, and a fine Scholar. He must also have been a very lucky man, for Tallids had not been too rare in those days - Westly had had to report on  hatchings a prodigious six times and had lived to tell the tale after all but the last one. Spires had taken over as Scholar after the old man's beheading, and had enjoyed a Tallid-less ten years of tenure. He had thought the land had finally been free of the ridiculous superstition - and now this! He didn't consider himself a lucky man: the chick that would hatch from this egg would most likely be his death knell.

His assistant snapped him out of his morbid reverie by bursting into the workroom, in that blustering way of hers, and announcing that the King's party was on its way. He took a last look at the examining table to make sure all the measuring equipment he needed was on there, glared at the egg and inwardly cursed Amantia for not tripping when she was carrying it. The clumsiest of women, she had managed to walk at least four miles with such a fragile cargo and had met with no mishap. He rued the day when he had selected her as his assistant. He had chosen her for her fine mind and natural skill at alchemy. He now wished he had gone with the oafish but malleable young fellow who would never have recognised a Tallid egg, let alone thought to go out looking for one.

Once the King and his generals had made themselves comfortable, the Scholar proceeded to stoke the fire that heated the tank. The egg started pulsating lightly, its beat increasing as the heat went up. A small crack appeared in the shell, was crossed by another, and finally a third served to expose the Scholar's nemesis to its eager audience. The creature made a few feeble cheeps as he lifted it out and gently placed it on the ceremonial tray. Now for the moment of truth: he used the Auspice Dagger to slit open the chick's stomach.

Then everything happened very fast. He handed the Dagger to Amantia and lifted the bird's entrails out of its stomach cavity. He found the blue intestine, separated it from the rest and laid it out on the tray as an underline to the eviscerated chick. Globules of sweat forming on his forehead, he reached for the measuring tool and worked out the length of the blue gut.

"It is under!" he declared, elated. "It is under four inches! Your Highness shall enjoy another year of good fortune in your reign over the land". He bowed, trying to disguise his nervousness and the sweat patches under his arms, but the King was too busy rejoicing to notice. There was much back-slapping exchanged between the generals and their king, and some of it even made its way to the Scholar and his assistant. The royal party walked out as quickly as they had come in and would now proceed to ignore the Scholar until harvest time, when they would want him to interpret the stars. This was how he preferred it.

Amantia congratulated him stiffly and left the room. Once he was sure she was not going to return, he sat down, trembling, and removed the scalpel he had attached to his wrist, which had been hidden by the voluminous sleeve of the ceremonial robe. Then he reached into the robe's pocket, picked out the small length of blue matter and threw it into the fire. One didn't spend ten years as a Scholar without developing some sleight-of-hand skills, and he was thankful for them. He would have to decide what to do about Amantia though - she was clearly after a promotion and he didn't want to have to go through this again the following year.
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Thursday, 5 November 2009

#FridayFlash: First Place

by Maria Protopapadaki-Smith

I have been preparing for this day for a year, but it feels like a lifetime. Ever since the prize for first place was announced, I knew I would have to not only enter the race, but also win it; all year I have been training for it, to the exclusion of almost all other activity. I whisper a prayer to the Great Lady of the Eastern Plains and look into my beast's eyes.
"We can do it, Squibs." She flaps her ears and smiles at me as only an elephant can, and I feel bolstered. We make a strong team - the bookmakers have declared our odds to be astronomical, but I believe we can prove them wrong. Squibs knows what is at stake: the prize is a dance with the Princess Alita, the brightest jewel in the kingdom's crown. I am only a cobbler's son, but tonight I have the chance of holding in my arms the most beautiful girl in the land.

I put on my tunic; it is an understated white tunic with grey threading, depicting elephants and the sign of the Great Lady. My mother spent five months on the embroidery, in stolen moments between tending to the younger ones. My father pretends to disapprove of all this, but I see the twinkle in his eye. It is the last time I will have the freedom to do something like this; we both know he will not see another winter through, and I will have to take on his mantle as provider for our family. It is my last chance to be young and foolish and he does not begrudge me it.

Squibs gives me a leg-up with her trunk and my family wave me off. We head in opposite directions - Squibs and I to the racecourse, they up the steep hill overlooking it: they have no money for spectator tickets within the ground. As we amble towards the starting line, Squibs blowing air in my face as if it were any other day, I take a look at the opposition and grow pale. I have known who they are, of course, but seeing them in their finery brings it all home. These are not cobblers' sons, riding their family's only elephant, having robbed their frail father of his beast of burden for a year. These are men who had entire herds of elephants to select their ride from; whose tunics are threaded with gold; whose mothers would have picked the tunics from the best items on offer in the West. These are men, whereas boyhood still lingers in my look. What was I thinking? We will be the laughing stock of the race. My heart sinks. I will never dance with the Princess.

A tremendous trumpeting noise distracts me: the favourite walks past me, his elephant louder even than his tunic. He is Khalith, the merchant's son and last year's winner. He looks us up and down and doesn't even have the courtesy to hide his smirk. As he flounces off on the fabled Principal Boy I feel my blood boil and Squibs blares out what can only be an expletive.
"We'll show him, Squibs", I exclaim. "By all the gods of the mountain and the riverbed, and by the Great Lady of the Eastern Plains, we will give him a run for his money." Squibs hoots her agreement and we saunter into our allocated starting position. 


"And they're off! Around the first corner it's Principal Boy by a length and a half, Mousey Girl second, followed by Midshipman, A Tart Taste, Spring Chicken and The Gazelle, and bringing up the rear is Squibs on the outside...

"Principal Boy leads into the second turn by two lengths, followed by Midshipman who moves up to second, and there is a battle going on for third place. At the rear of the field, Squibs - an outsider at 500/1 - has gained a length on Spring Chicken who is falling farther behind...

"And we're into the backstretch! Principal Boy still in the lead by two lengths, but oh no! Disaster: Mousey Girl has fallen, taking A Tart Taste and The Gazelle with her. They are trying to get up, but Squibs has taken the advantage and is fast closing on Midshipman...

"Into the far turn - Principal Boy still holding the lead by two lengths, but Squibs has found a burst of speed. Closes in on Midshipman. Passes Midshipman - and it's now a two elephant race...

"Coming down the stretch - Principal Boy ahead by a length, but Squibs is gaining!  She's pulled another burst of speed out of nowhere, by the Great Lady - Principal Boy and Squibs are now neck and neck - a relentless drive to the wire...

"Principal Boy, Squibs. Squibs, Principal Boy. Principal Boy, Squibs... and it's Principal Boy by a tusk!"

She was so close I could almost smell her hair. Everyone is congratulating me on a fine performance but I feel like crying. I am never going to dance with the Princess. I dismount Squibs and give her a hug, which she returns tenfold with her trunk, as ever. We walk dejectedly, a few paces behind Khalith and Principal Boy, over to the King's platform to receive our loser's medal. I will have to watch the odious man receive his prize - the one thing I wanted more than anything in the world. The King puts his hands on Khalith's shoulders.

"Well done, young man! A fine race. But now I have a bigger honour to bestow on you than you were expecting. My eldest daughter Elmina has returned a week early from her coming-of-age travels, so as the rules of courtesy dictate, you must dance with her instead of Alita.

"I am loath to disappoint my youngest daughter, however. I promised her a dance partner and what sort of father breaks such a promise? Perhaps our valiant young contender would oblige?"

"I would be most honoured", I say, bowing low, and Squibs makes a sound sweeter than I ever thought possible.
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