Thursday 22 February 2024

Final Cut by Martin Perlman, Martinelli's Sparkling Cider

His back to her, Lena approached Gabe at the refrigerated display case of the Oatsland Market. Docking alongside, she asked, ‘Looking for a pineapple kefir?’

‘You think you top-to-bottom know me, don’t you?’ answered Gabe, still boyish, trying to look serious. His eyes remained on the beverage options.

‘Don’t I?’ Lena selected an organic carrot juice and walking lightly with a hint of sashay set course for the checkout counter. Gabe followed.

‘Answer my question: Do you think it’s possible to know someone too well?’ he pressed as she made her purchase.

‘Do you?’ she tossed back after just a precipice of hesitation. He still admired Lena’s warm yet always shy smile modified for the better by a slightly off-center alignment.

Choosing silence, Gabe stepped outside while Lena paused to observe and then join him. Uncurling the thick drink’s foil top, he took in the late afternoon flow of locals’ and tourists’ cars on State Street flowing toward the beach. How does she see me now? The Gabe she’d fallen for had enjoyed a leaner body, but just the other day Jean, the magazine’s features editor, had told him he looked good in profile. 

And his eyebrows, he thought, conveyed a subtle sensuality. Drop five pounds and he’d be back to fighting weight, although he’d never physically boxed.

Side by side and close but not too close, they strolled uptown to a Lena destination, Modus del Sur. A nondyed cotton sweater from Ecuador was finally on sale, an item she said she’d coveted for weeks.

‘Tell me I don’t need it.’ The brightly colored shop carried the earthy sweet scent of straw from the floor squares, hats, and woven baskets.

‘Okay, you don’t need it,’ said Gabe on cue, and Lena, on cue, ignored his line.

A pullover, the sweater was high-collared and loose fitting. As Lena adjusted the fit along her shoulder, 

Gabe admired her frisky movements. She was almost doing the Samba, her long thick red hair dancing about her shoulder blades.

‘Well, it does look good on you,’ Gabe admitted in an even tone. ‘You could have been a model.’

‘Thanks. That would have been a career.’

‘I didn’t say you should have been, only that you could have been.’

‘Wouldn’t have happened. I’m too high-waisted,’ said Lena, hands on hips.

‘No,’ countered Gabe. ‘You’re long-legged. Like Jane Fonda. Does she still have her ranch in the mountains?’

Gabe was trying on a Panama hat, which refused to fit properly over his mass of curly light brown hair. 

‘I really shouldn’t put on hats until after my trim. I have an appointment at. . .’ He looked at his watch. ‘In fifteen minutes. Go with the sweater.’

Lena attempted to take it off. ‘I’m stuck.’ Gabe stood back; he didn’t know where the appropriate place would be to take hold of the fabric. She looked headless. ‘That is a good look,’ he said. ‘Are you sure you’re not that famous model who lives in Montecito?’

‘Pull!’ said a muffled voice.

He caught the soft cloth near her hips and the sweater rose revealing her slim contour.

‘Free!’ she said.

Gabe held the sweater, tightly woven and comfortably weighty, as Lena straightened her polo shirt, a longtime favorite.  

‘Hey, Lena, I thought you already had a boyfriend.’ Minus a puff of smoke, Phil had appeared like a wizard from the nearby pottery section. Lena glanced away, her face reddening. ‘Gabe, aren’t you supposed to be at that offshore oil symposium?’

‘That’s tomorrow.’

‘Right.’ Phil had a way of gazing upward when talking as if in silent communion with a Higher Being. 

‘How’s the feature on competing for tourists coming?’

‘Good. It’s good, Phil.’

‘So how often do you two meet like this?’ Perpetually smiling, Phil lowered his head and captured the two of them between his blue-gray, Canis lupis eyes. He always styled his blond hair just shy of long.

‘Meet like what?’ asked Lena in a tone bordering on unfriendly.

‘Practically waltzing together in the back corner of an exotic store?’ Had he raised an eyebrow?

‘Not often enough,’ said Gabe. ‘Actually, I approve of her taste in boyfriends, I’m sorry to say.’ Lena acted as though she were thoroughly focused on another sweater. Same style. She’d noticed that the first one had become unstitched in the front.

‘I’d love to stay and chat, but I’ve got a magazine to put out,’ said Phil. ‘See you tomorrow, Gabe.’ 

Light footed, he exited illustrating a confident physical grace that Lena noted and disparaged with a bored look she could manage if something displeased her.
She tried on the second sweater.

‘At least you can get them on by yourself,’ said Gabe.

‘How can you stand working for him? He lives on gossip and innuendo.’

‘I can stand it. I’ve never had a sane boss. I don’t think they exist. He does his job. I do mine.’
Lena turned down the collar. ‘Well?’

‘Shorter in length. Snugger in the shoulders. Shorter in the sleeve. Basically smaller. Or else you’ve grown in the past ninety seconds.’

‘It feels the same as the first one,’ she said turning to face a full-length mirror.

‘Definitely smaller,’ said Gabe. ‘Though not a bad smaller.’

When Lena had worked her way out of the sweater, again with some delicate help from Gabe, they compared the two, one pressed atop the other.

‘Looks pretty close,’ she said.   

The second one is in better shape,’ said Gabe.

‘Do I really want this?’ Lena often thought out loud.

After going back and forth for another minute, she bought the second sweater and put it on. Playing the gentleman, Gabe carried her light woolen jacket she’d been wearing. ‘A perfect addition to your collection and quite appropriate for this foggy spring day,’ he teased but didn’t tease. They walked, not in a rush but more than an amble, toward her car parked on a palm tree-lined side street.

‘I saw you earlier today, you and your beau,’ said Gabe. ‘Have to admit, you look like a happy pair, although I thought I saw you make a quick frown.’

They paused at a red light, a group of chirpy high schoolers hugging the corner.

‘Where did you see us from? Were you spying?’ She scanned the street as if searching for something.

‘I was strolling. You were in the Mexican restaurant next to the bike shop.’

‘I thought I felt someone looking at me.’

The sun was trying to peek through the bank of seasonal low clouds extending from the ocean to a half mile inland. Two more blocks past adobe-style houses and they reached the car, a red Toyota with a slightly dented bumper. Looking mounted on the hood, wings folded, stood a large black bird.

‘A crow likes your car,’ said Gabe as the creature cocked its head to observe the humans.

‘Don’t think it’s a crow.’ Lena as tilted her head birdlike. ‘It’s bigger. Could be a raven. I love those jet-black feathers.’

The visitor offered a distinct croak as if it were claiming territory.

‘Shouldn’t it be up there?’ asked Gabe as he indicated the mountains behind the city. Lena waved her hands (taking flight?) and the confident bird—she was sure it was a raven—took the hint and launched skyward.

‘Up and away,’ said Gabe.

In less than ten minutes, they arrived at her studio apartment that opened unexpectedly onto a large back yard holding a rose garden and mature flowering trees, a favorite haunt of blackbirds. The studio was attached to a large stucco mansion. For reduced rent, Lena had agreed to do some basic gardening. And they let her have access to the darkroom.

Gabe greeted Lena’s two cats, both still groggy from a late afternoon nap atop the bed. Lena put on a new Steve Reich CD, guided Gabe to the bathroom, and sat him on the covered toilet seat.
With hair pins, Lena set back the upper portions of his hair. ‘Just like trimming a hedge,’ she said, always said, as she cut away at the jungle of curls aided by her professional grade shears owned since college days. Lena had said that hedge line before, or had he? For Gabe, their conversations had long ago meshed into one tonal voice, nowadays more unspoken than spoken.

‘I don’t really need that sweater,’ she said as she clipped and combed and clipped.

‘You bought it, you keep it.’ Strands fell from Gabe like a waterfall and pooled at his feet.

‘You do have a lot of hair. Turn to the right.’

‘I lose five pounds per every trim.’ That line was also part of the standard script. Would the shearing return him to fighting weight?

The comb tugged at his back curls. How many haircuts had Lena given Gabe over the years? It bordered on ritual.

‘Does that hurt?’

‘Not appreciably. I can take it.’ 


She deftly snipped close to his ears. ‘Don’t move,’ she said.

'Am I in danger?’

 Lena didn’t answer as she tilted back to see how the project was coming. She was studying him not as Gabe but as her target. ‘A little more off the top. Hold still.’

They shared a moment of silence. ‘You know good friends don’t have to always talk,’ said Gabe. ‘Non-talking can be comfortable. Course I’m negating that by talking about it.’
Lena changed the subject. ‘So, Michael just got a new job with a—what did he call it? A startup. In the computer industry and something called The Internet. And a real salary.’

‘I didn’t know he knew much about computers,’ said Gabe.

‘He doesn’t. The job description and terms are all new to me—like designer, website or something designer. He’s excited. Michael thinks there could be a future in it. And, of course, he still intends to play his music.’

‘It is the ’90s after all,’ said Gabe, who felt an itch near his ear but refrained from scratching. ‘I still remember when Phil brought in a half dozen personal computers, Tandys, into our office back around ’87. Suddenly all the ratatat of everyone typing—the action sound of newspaper rooms just disappeared.’ He paused and exhaled slowly. ‘Now all you hear is a soft series of clicks. People also tend to shout less. There’s nothing to shout over. I miss the creative tumult.’   

They opted for quiet again. Gabe could hear an electrical hum from somewhere deeper in the house.

‘So how do you really feel when you see me with Michael?’

‘Great. Fine. Actually, I’m insanely jealous, though mostly only in my sleep.’

‘You dream about me?’ Lena pulled back a moment.

‘I take the Fifth. Look, we each have our own lives,’ said Gabe. ‘Right?’

She paused in her cutting. ‘Right.’

Lena evened out the sides, working steadily and precisely. She was hoping for a decent shaping. Mere inches from each other, they could taste one another’s breath.

‘Hold still,’ she cautioned. ‘You always have some part of you in motion.’

‘Not true. I’m a statue.’

‘Hmm, there’s a gray hair.’

‘Where?’ asked Gabe, his hand automatically reaching toward his head.

‘Lower that hand. Just kidding, although one of these days. . .’ Even in her frivolity, Lena emitted a low vibration of wistfulness. Gabe found it part of her charm.

Alone with Lena in the tight quarters of her bathroom, Gabe yanked himself back from some intimate memories. ‘Whoa, stallion’ she said. ‘Let me know if you’re going to bolt.’

‘Sorry. I had an itch.’ Gabe heard the unexpected thrust of wind at the door. ‘Is there a storm coming in?’ he asked.

‘I don’t think so. Morning and early afternoon fog, yes, storm no.’ 

He listened for more wind yet now heard none. ‘Are you still jogging?’ asked Gabe.

‘Yes. Are you still hiking?’

‘Went up to the falls last weekend. It was more a trickle than a cascade. We haven’t had enough rain this spring,’ he said. ‘You know what you notice after you’ve been out of town for a while, especially if you go up in the foothills?’

‘How high the cost of living is here?’ she asked.

‘Yes, that, but like when I came back from the Bay Area last month...’

‘To visit what’s-her-name.’

‘Elaine. Hey, that’s not the point. Anyway, I came back, took the hike, and was overwhelmed by the scent, that mix of ocean air, jacaranda, and mountain chaparral. Intoxicating.’

She nodded. ‘Speaking of mountains, do you remember when we got lost in Kings Canyon?’ Lena paused, the scissors almost dangling from her hand.

‘Sure,’ said Gabe. ‘We broke every rule backpackers are supposed to follow.’  

‘Luckily that had a happy ending,’ said Lena. ‘Those crazy mountain bikers happened to be in the right place at the right time. For us.’

‘For days afterward I blamed you. You blamed me,’ Gabe said.  

‘Eventually we stopped blaming one another.’ She let out one of her signature sighs. ‘And now here we are today, me as your personal stylist and you as a loyal customer.’

Gabe cocked his head; Lena had to make an instantaneous adjustment in response to his movement. ‘Is someone tapping at your door?’

She stopped to listen. ‘I didn’t hear anything. No one ever knocks at that door.’ 

“Nevermore.” Gabe’s words snuck out with a release of breath.

Either ignoring his comment or having not heard, Lena returned to her work on the back line of Gabe’s hair. He could feel her tense up as if suddenly spooked by a stranger.


‘Actually, I do have some news.’ She took in a breath. Gabe was staring out past the bathroom’s open door where the angle afforded him a partial view through the bedroom’s window of backyard greenery. 

‘We’re going to get married. I mean Michael and me.’

A pause as her scissors touched his scalp, rested on the crown of his head.

‘Well congratulations!’ Gabe felt immobile, the air thick around him. Is this what shock feels like? 

Avoiding the scissors, he willed himself to rise and give Lena an awkward hug. She smelled of Dr. Bonner’s soap. ‘I mean, that’s good. It’s about time. We’re not, as they say, getting any younger. He’s good for you.’

‘He’s got his good points and things that drive me batty, though far more good than bad.’

Gabe nodded. ‘As it should be.’

‘Sit,’ she commanded.

‘Set a date yet for the big day?’

Her scissors nestled in her palm. ‘No. It will be a small family wedding. Nothing fancy for us.’

‘That’s good. Less expensive. Course there’s a trade off because you won’t get as many presents.’

They both retreated into silence as she finished up.

‘Hey, if this were a Hollywood romantic comedy a la the ’30s, I’d concoct some zany way to win you back.’

She pierced him with her deep blue eyes, eyes that would admit no fancy. ‘It’s not a movie, Gabe. This is real. I know we’ve discussed our history before, and I’ll say it one last time: You and I are more like brother and sister.’

‘Yes, and as you’ve said, we helped raise each other through young adulthood,’ finished Gabe. The air around him felt denser, a fog moving in.

The hypnotic Reich CD had ended.

Lena made a few last snips at a wayward hair or two. ‘Well, that’s a nice trim, if I say so myself,’ she boasted. ‘Use this mirror to check out the back and sides.’

Gabe surveyed his neckline. ‘Nice and even.’ A slight twist of the mirror and he saw her reflection gazing at his. Forward and back.

Gabe returned the mirror to Lena. For a moment they both held it. ‘So, you know just the other day as my appointment neared, I was thinking that maybe it’s time to bring this noble tradition to a quiet end.’ 

He spoke quickly so that Lena could not interrupt. ‘I mean your photography career is really taking off. 

And I think your time would be better spent in your professional capacity.’

She nodded. ‘Sure, if that’s what you want.’

‘I do.’ He bowed, more a slight nod.

With the back of her hand, Lena wiped at his arms and shoulder. ‘Here, let me brush off those loose hairs.’

Gabe stood up. ‘I should clean up my fallen fur. It’s like a carpet down there.’

‘No, I can take care of it later.’

He turned to face her. ‘Okay, thanks,’ said Gabe. He couldn’t get his legs to move.

‘Are you okay?’ She tilted her head slightly, studying him.

‘Of course I’m okay,’ said Gabe. ‘I’m happy for you. Someday I may even follow suit.’ He forced his muscles to obey the command to walk.

Lena followed Gabe to the studio’s entrance, a door more of glass than wood. ‘Can I give you a ride home?’ Was that a tear on her cheek?

‘It’s not that far. I feel like walking. Need the exercise.’ He managed to lock into her eyes and cast away at the same time.

They hugged, chests barely touching. She flicked at his hair as if to give it one last shaping.

He eased back. ‘Good job, Lena,’ Gabe said softly as he opened the door and back-stepped into the yard. ‘Good cut.’ 

‘Yes,’ she said, ‘It is a good cut.’

About the author 

Martin Perlman is a writer living in Seattle, USA. Previous published work has been included in Rosebud Magazine, Catamaran Literary Reader, 34th Parallel, The Ravens Perch, Red Noise Collective, and other magazines. He wrote a whimsical novel, Thinks Out Loud, A Blog at First (Marrow Press). 

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Wednesday 21 February 2024

The Letter by Peter Lingard, a very dry and dirty Martini

Angie continued her duet with the radio but her voice faded to those in the house as she walked up the driveway to the mail-box.  Her singing stopped mid-syllable as the flap on the box slapped shut and her youngest son lifted his head to see what had happened.  His mother stood motionless with envelopes and fliers in one hand and a solitary airmail envelope in the other.  As he sensed the change in atmosphere, the boy returned to the safety of homework.


After propping the envelope against the mirror of her vanity table, Angie sat on the bed and stared at it.  There had been a moment in the driveway when she thought she was going to faint, but she had now regained most of her composure, even if the flimsy airmail envelope still chased many thoughts around her head.  She looked at the date on the postmark again.  Was it the letter the friend, what was his name?  Billy?  The letter Billy had told her John promised to send all those years ago?  She had wondered at the time if the alleged friend had actually seen John, and, if so, why hadn’t he delivered it.  Was this really it?  It was certainly from John.  Her hands had gone cold, her stomach queasy, at her recognition of the scrawl.  Why had the post office delivered the thing after such a long time?  Couldn’t they have destroyed it and averted such turmoil?


She had never dated anyone but Brad, once she had accepted John had moved on without the guts to tell her goodbye.  She remembered wondering on her wedding eve if perhaps Billy had told the truth, that John really had been incarcerated in Singapore.  She recalled their last time together and felt a heat rise.  Her eyes welled with tears.  It had been a long time since such thoughts had surfaced.   


Two years after Billy had told her of John being in Changi (the name made her think of wartime Singapore and she wondered if Billy had made up the story – but why would he bother?) she had contacted the Australian government for help. They reported that John had been in Changi but had been released fourteen months earlier and his current whereabouts were unknown.


She and John had purchased the house in which she and Brad now lived.  It had been her dream house and she had begged Brad to agree to make it their marital home.  Brad had acquiesced and put money equivalent to John’s investment into an escrow account, waiting for the day he made contact.  Had John kissed his money goodbye rather than face her?  He obviously hadn’t known her well – she would have forgiven anything up to the moment she said ’I do’ to Brad.


The envelope seemed to have grown larger.


There had been a barbeque some time ago when she had seen a friend flirt with Brad.  He had seemed not to respond, but Angie recalled the torrid night when she had done her best to convince her husband not to stray.  What a trivial matter that had been compared to the thoughts in her head now.


The creased and dirty envelope almost glowed and she would swear on a bible she had seen it lengthen.


Could anyone at the post office have opened it?  She and Brad knew two people who worked for Australia Post and she felt mortified by the thought that either of them might have read the letter.  She leaned to her left and tried to see in the mirror if the flap was securely stuck in place.  Her angle of sight was poor, so she leaned to the right to get a better view.  It made no difference.  She got off the bed and stretched out her hand to pick up the correspondence.  When her extended fingers were just centimetres from the object, she quickly withdrew them and smothered them in an armpit.

Angie again sat on the bed and put her head in her hands.  As long as she looked at the floor, she could not see her crookedly written name.  John had never possessed an artistic hand.  The advent of computers would have gladdened him.  Funny thing was, he used to write to her to tell her how much he loved her and recall their bedroom adventures with what was sometimes, days after the event and when read over muesli and blueberries, uncomfortable clarity.  He never mailed the letters, he just handed them to her occasionally as he was going out the door.

Her eyes followed the fall of a tear to the carpet and then she looked away from the point where it landed.  Her gaze returned to see if she could find the wet spot, but it had been lost in the pattern.  She sat up and dabbed at her eyes to wipe away the salty liquid, and then dried the heels of her hands on the bedcover.  I would have told the kids off, if they’d done that, she thought.  How stupid!  If anyone knew what’s going through my head, they would tell me off. 


John had been the love of her life. 


Two years after the date John had gone missing ‘whereabouts unknown’, she accepted the offer of a date from Brad.


The front door slammed shut and broke her reverie. Her son apologised. ‘Sorry it was the wind.’


 Oh, sweet Jesus, what am I going to do? Get up and do something. Angie shook her body to chase her mood and stood up.  She smoothed down her dress, wiped her eyes once more and picked up the envelope.  Then her resolve disappeared as quickly as it had surfaced.  Oh, this is ridiculous; she chided herself, and threw the unopened letter into the wastebasket beneath her dressing table.  She started to repair her make-up but couldn’t concentrate, knowing John’s letter was so close.  Tears blurred her image in the mirror.  She grabbed the edges of the wastebasket liner, jerked them tight and then knotted two extremes. 

When her make-up was satisfactory, Angie took the liner to the kitchen and stuffed it in the rubbish bin.

About the author

Peter Lingard,, born a Brit, served in the Royal Marines, was an accountant, a barman and a farm worker. He once lived in the US where he owned a freight forwarding business. An Aussie now because the sun frequently shines and the natives communicate in English. 

Did you enjoy the story? Would you like to shout us a coffee? Half of what you pay goes to the writers and half towards supporting the project (web site maintenance, preparing the next Best of book etc.)

Tuesday 20 February 2024

Burn, Baby Burn by Maxine Flam, double espresso

‘Miller, Kelby, don’t get comfortable. In my office, now,’ bellowed John Jackson, their temporary boss. He was brought in from the Arson Squad to brief the unit on a string of suspicious fires that have grown in number and intensity across the city.

They began as garbage can fires which were attributed to juvenile males who got their kicks setting bins on fire. Then it graduated to fires in carports and garages. The fire department did their due diligence to try and identify how they were started but they came up inconclusive. After a string of those blazes, now empty warehouses have been set on fire. No rhyme or reason and in different parts of town. Miller and Kelby weren’t brought in until the last fire because a night watchman died. Now it’s a murder investigation. The first thing is to figure out is if all the fires were set by a gang of juveniles, a string of copycats, or is it much more sinister. Does the city have a pyromaniac on their hands? Or is it possible that each fire is separate and unrelated. It was time to consult the department psychiatrist, Dr. Delmonico.

‘Hello Bill, Joe, what can I do for you tonight?’ he said yawning due to lateness of the hour.

‘You did hear there have been several fires of unknown origin that were set throughout the city for the past several weeks. It’s been in the papers and on radio and TV. Well, it finally made it to the desk of the Major Case Squad because a night watchman was burned to death. No one has a clue how to proceed because we don’t know if it’s kids starting the fires to get the their kicks or someone who lit the small fires first to throw us off from what the real purpose was which were the warehouse fires,’ said Joe Miller.

‘Or maybe we have a psychopath on our hands. You think it could be someone out to collect the insurance on the buildings? Whoever did those was sloppy. The garbage and garage fires could have been covered up from Arson but not the warehouses. Someone dropped lit papers soaked in gasoline around the warehouses: What are we dealing with, Dr. Delmonico? A pyromaniac? Someone who gets their kicks off of watching things burn or could it be a bunch of juveniles getting their gang initiation?’ added Bill Kelby.

‘I hate to say it but I have a bad feeling about this one. My theory is the perpetrator is just one person who lights fires for thrills and attention, or possibly for money. May I ask who has called them in?’ replied Dr. Delmonico

‘A man,’ said Miller.

‘The same man or a different one every time?’

‘We haven’t checked,’ responded Kelby.

‘You need to get with someone that can do a voice print. That is a lead worth pursuing. If it is the same person, he could be doing it for kicks, and then this person has graduated in size and intensity. The arsonist needs more and more excitement so that why it means a bigger fire with each event. If he is a true pyromaniac, which I suspect is the case, he gets sexually excited watching things burn.’

Dr. Delmonico paused because what he was about to say was upsetting. ‘This type of perpetrator is often voyeuristic and may wait for the fire trucks to show up at the scene; sometimes he even calls them in himself and I say he because a high percentage of arsonists are male. Whoever is doing it might have a camera on him so he can photograph his handiwork. He takes pictures of the fires and the spectators at the scene so he can relive the experience again and again. Sometimes, the last person suspected is a first responder, and he could even be an off duty firefighter or one on duty who slips out for a bit to set the fire and then is back for the call. Then he can be a hero in attendance.’

            ‘But what about the night watchman that died?’ said Miller.

            ‘I’m sure that was accidental.’

            ‘What do we look for?’ said Kelby.

            ‘Before the building fire, I would have said a young male. But now…. I’m inclined to think it might be a firefighter, who gets off on setting and watching fires. That’s why he fights them. For the thrill! He probably suffers a variety of other mental problems including a hero’s complex. But you aren’t going to like what I really think.’

            ‘There’s more?’ inquired Miller.

            ‘He holds down a steady job. And if he’s a firefighter, he’s had a issue about fire since he was a kid.’

            ‘How could he be a firefighter? Wouldn’t he have an arrest record?’ inquired Kelby.

            ‘Not necessarily if he was very careful. He probably was never been picked up for starting fires. He probably set little fires when he was a kid. That’s where it started. He could have lived in a rural area and ran with a pack. As he grew up, he decided to get a job in the fire department. I mean how can you have your cake and eat it too. Be a fire fighter and enjoy watching things burn.’

            ‘What do you think triggered this string of recent fires?’ said Miller.

‘Hard to say…Maybe it was a death in the family, or a divorce or nothing. He just wanted to go back to a time where things were simpler. He reverted back to something that gave him pleasure and comfort and that was starting fires. Or maybe there is no trigger. And if he is a firefighter, God help us.’

            ‘You don’t have any recommendations, do you?’ said Kelby, hoping against hope that Dr. Delmonico had the answer.

            ‘I would start with the roster of firefighters off duty during the time when most of the recent fires occurred.’

            ‘The problem is it not one area. They are all over the city,’ said an exasperated Miller.

            ‘Sorry, but that is the best I can do for you. But pray you don’t have a pyromaniac for hire. Then you have the worst of all possible scenarios. He enjoys his work and he’s being paid for it.’


            ‘Joe, what are we going to do? Tell the Captain that Dr. Delmonico thinks one of our city’s finest is setting the fires.’

            ‘We better have something more than a hunch.’


‘Here’s a map of the city and it has been marked up with all the suspicious fires in the past six months,’ said Miller as he tacked up the map on the bulletin board.’

            ‘You got to be kidding. There’re that many fires.’

            ‘Yeah, TC is trash can and the date next to it. Then CG for carport/garage, and finally WH in a rectangular box for warehouse fire.’

            ‘Maybe we can draw a circle around it and see which firehouses are in the area.’

            Miller takes a red pencil with a ruler and finds there are four firehouses in the entire area.’

            ‘Now we have to narrow down who works there and look at their records. Come on, let’s go pull the records,’ said Kelby.

            ‘If the Fire Commissioner finds out we’re doing this, we’re dog meat,’ replied Miller.

            ‘Then why did they bring us in if they didn’t want to find out the truth,’ asked Kelby.

            ‘Sometimes they say they want to know but they really don’t,’ stated Miller.

            ‘Lovely,’ sighed Kelby.


‘I’m right under everyone’s nose. Such a laugh to watch everyone freak out. I light the fires, the fire department, our brave men in blue, yeah right, puts them out but they don’t have a freaking clue who’s behind it. They’re running around like a dog chasing its tail. I can’t believe how funny that is.’


Between the four firehouses, there were eighty possible full-timers, plus part-timers and fill-ins. There were also a handful of temporaries and support personnel: over one hundred suspects.

            ‘Well, go on,’ said Miller. ‘Let’s start looking at the personnel files. You might as well brew some fresh coffee. We’re going to be here awhile,’ replied Kelby.


They had been going through records for four hours when their boss flew through the door screaming, ‘What in the Sam Hill are you two doing?’

            ‘We’re pursuing leads. This is the only place we’ve looked so far, according to Dr. Delmonico,’ said Miller.

            ‘But one of our own? Are you nuts?’

            ‘We have to rule it out. Hey, you brought us into this after the death of the night watchman. You didn’t have any leads. Let’s rule this out and we’ll go in another direction,’ replied Kelby.

            ‘The Fire Commissioner is going to split a gut when he hears this.’

            ‘Don’t tell him. He doesn’t have to know. Only if we find something,’ said Miller. ‘Because…what if it is someone high-up like the Fire Commissioner or a Fire Captain.’

            ‘The two of you are nuts. I came to tell you, you have another fire for your board: a warehouse in the garment district. It went up twenty minutes ago. If you hurry, maybe you can put your theory to the test.’

            Their boss shook his head as Miller and Kelby grabbed their coats and flew out the door on their way to the current fire. A four alarm fire was increased by two more alarms after they got there. They were more interested in the crowd watching than the fire so Miller and Kelby split up and made their way through the people looking at everyone. There were the looky loos staring at the fire but nobody that fit the arsonist’s profile. There were some photojournalists taking pictures for the morning paper. Maybe one of them could be the arsonist? Is it possible they were barking up the wrong tree with firefighters?

            Miller told Kelby they needed to get all the papers from all the fires and see what the write ups said and if there was a common thread. They went back to the squad room and started pulling the newspapers. Were they covered by one journalist or a bunch of them? If it’s one, then they have a suspect and need to pursue him.

            They spent the night combing through the stacks of newspapers and came up empty.

            ‘I think we should go home, get some rest, and start again tomorrow,’ said Miller.


‘Another delicious fire. Ahhh…Burn baby burn,’ the arsonist said under his breath. ‘Now I’ll go back to my office and wait for the report of the fire to cross my desk. They’ll never figure out it’s the State Fire Commissioner that’s behind all these fires. They can go chase their tails and kiss my ass.’


The next morning, Kelby and Miller continued going through the fire station’s personal but they both got the feeling it was someone higher up the food chain.

            ‘I’d bet two weeks pay it’s a Captain or someone in the Commissioner’s office,’ said Miller.

            ‘I wouldn’t take the bet because I feel the same way. Maybe someone knows something but is keeping it quiet for fear of losing their job.’

            ‘No, I think it’s more involved than that. I think the guy works alone. Comes and goes as he pleases and looks like he’s inspecting the scenes of the fires or at least reviewing detailed reports and knows exactly what we know. He’s not stopping but he’s being cautious. No one could tell this guy anything but he knows everything. Now who’s in such a position?’

            ‘Well, the County Fire Commissioner, the City Fire Commissioner, and the State Fire Commissioner are the three top people who would know everything about every fire,’ resplied Kelby.

            ‘Then I think we need to concentrate our efforts on those three people. If we come up empty, then we’ll go back to looking at the four stations.  By the way, where do these Commissioners work and live? Are they in the fire zone?’

            ‘Let me check….Well, the State Commissioner and the City Commissioner live within the fire area.’

            ‘Then I think they are our two primary suspects,’ stated Miller.

            ‘And if we’re wrong, we’re the one whose ass will get chewed off if both of them are innocent,’ responded Kelby in a concerned tone of voice.

            ‘Nothing ventured, nothing gained. We have to sniff around. It wouldn’t be the first time we lost our ass.’


‘Hey, you two, another fire at 4th and Pacific. Get a move on,’ yelled John Jackson.

            Kelby and Miller ran out of the squad room with pictures of their suspects. One or both would probably be at the fire but how could they tie either one to being the arsonist would be something else.


Miller and Kelby arrived at the scene. It was fully engulfed and instead of watching the fire like everyone else, they were looking at faces in the crowd. In the back was the State Fire Commissioner. Their hunch was right but that alone was no basis to arrest him. They needed evidence. Miller and Kelby followed him back to his black SUV. Miller pulled out his camera as he stood in the shadows and discretely took pictures as the State Commissioner sat there watching the fire with a big smile on his face. There had to be a way to get a search warrant. Their Captain wasn’t going to be pleased.


'That was a fantastic fire I set….And I made 50K in cash for it. I can’t believe how much I enjoy this job. The joy I receive from setting fires and being paid for it. I have almost a million in a tax free account in Geneva. It’s time to split this town and enjoy my life. At 50 years old, I have a lot of living to do. Only one more job and I resign my Commission and I’m off to Switzerland for the rest of my life. I’m set with money and with money come women. This one will be my coup de grace. Burn, baby, burn.’


'On this alone, I can’t issue a search warrant. It’s circumstantial. Stake him out and hope that he makes a mistake,’ said Captain Jackson.

            Miller and Kelby went back to their desks preparing to stake out the State Fire Commissioner’s house, 24/7, until he makes a mistake. What did Dr. Delmonico say? The worst of all possible scenarios: a pyromaniac who gets paid?


Three days into the stake out, the State Fire Commissioner went out at 9 p.m. Kelby and Miller followed at a discreet distance back to the warehouse district. Kelby had the camera out taking pictures. They followed him all the way to the end of the pier. Miller shut the lights off as he rolled the SUV closer. The State Fire Commissioner got out of his SUV carrying a can of gasoline and a bunch of newspapers. Miller rolled the car under a light near the end of the pier while Kelby snapped the camera conituoulsy only stopping long enough to change the film. He got some beautiful telephoto close-ups of him going into the warehouse and coming out, minutes later with him driving off and the warehouse going up in flames. Miller picked up the microphone and called in the fire. The State Fire Commissioner drove around the corner, keeping his lights off, and the news crews and firefighters pulled up.

            Miller turned the SUV around and headed back to the station. He got the photos developed and sure enough there was enough evidence to issue a warrant.

            ‘This is one warrant I’m going to enjoy serving,’ said Kelby to Miller.

            ‘Me too. He took one too many bites of the apple.’


The State Fire Commissioner went home, showered, changed, and went to a party at the Lt. Governor’s house.

            Miller caught him leaving and the two of them followed him to the house of the Lt. Governor.

            ‘You can have the honor of knocking,’ said Miller to Kelby.

            Knock Knock.

            The butler came to the door. ‘Yes, may I help you?’

            ‘We’re here to see the State Fire Commissioner,’ replied Miller.

They waited at the door until he came to see who wanted him.

            ‘Yes, what do you want?’

            ‘We have a warrant for your arrest for Arson. You have the right to remain silent,…’ stated Miller.

            ‘This is an outrage….you have the wrong person.’

            ‘I don’t think so,’ said Kelby.

            ‘You took too many bites of the apple, sir. We have you on film setting tonight’s warehouse fire,’ said Miller.

            He dropped to his knees while the police were handcuffing him. ‘NO… NO… NO…this can’t be happening. I had it all planned.’

            Miller looked at Kelby and said, ‘You know what they say about plans.’

            ‘No what?’ said Kelby.

            ‘The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry adapted from a line in ‘To a Mouse,’ by Robert Burns. His exact words are ‘No matter how carefully a project is planned, something may still go wrong with it,’’ stated Miller.

            ‘I guess he didn’t read Burns….’ replied Kelby.

            ‘His loss.’         


About the auhtor 

Since becoming disabled in 2015, Maxine took up her passion for writing. She has been published several times in the Los Angeles Daily News, The Epoch Times, Nail Polish Stories, DarkWinterLit, BrightFlashLiteraryReview, OtherwiseEngagedLit, CafeLit, and Maudlin House.



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Monday 19 February 2024

The Black Knight by Fleur Lind, strawberry daiquiri


It was the most unlikely relationship, ever.

Ruby’s mother Rona said it would never work. She had heard and knew the age-old saying ‘‘opposites attract’ but this was pushing it a bit far.  All Rona wanted was for their beautiful daughter Ruby, to be happy, healthy, and content like any parent, but Rona could not, regardless of how hard she tried to remain positive, see how this courtship could play out to become a blossomingly beautiful union.

How could it work when Ruby was flamboyant, noisy and lively and Bronson was the quiet suave type?

Bronson didn’t have to say much for Ruby to hang on to his every word. He was absurdly good-looking and his demeanour said it all. Ruby was smitten, so any kind, or for that matter, firm words of advice or caution, wisdom from her parents would not have been received well.


Ruby’s father Rex was as sceptical as his wife, regarding their daughter’s new beau, but one look at the size of Bronson’s father caused him to feel extremely reluctant to interfere. To calm the maternal waters, Rex did his utmost to reassure Rona that Ruby was a sensible girl, albeit lovestruck, but she wasn’t the type to make bad decisions.  Rona expressed her concern when matters of the heart are all consuming and overwhelm all logical thought. Ruby’s older sister Rhana had been down that road. Rex sighed and agreed, and had told her not to worry; it was best they left the young ones to sort it out.


Time ticked on, and the gossipy chatter in the neighbourhood had settled down, as it was obvious to them all that Ruby and Bronson were blissfully happy together, thus making the gossip group industrious in listening out for a new story or starting one themselves. 


Ruby and Bronson were approaching their first year together, which filled Ruby and her parents, and Bronson, with joy to see things going so smoothly.

Ruby had a small gift for Bronson, wrapped in a black ribbon. Bronson also had the perfect gift for Ruby. In his typically suave style, he had given his gift a great deal of thought as he wanted it to be remembered and treasured long after being received.  His gift wouldn't need ribbons and bows; it would be complete in its natural form, without the sparkly paper. This worked nicely for Bronson as he didn't ‘do’ sparkly at all.


As their anniversary loomed closer, Ruby’s anticipation was palpable. She marked the days off her calendar, with the date highlighted with a bright pink heart. Ruby loved hues of every colour, but having Bronson in her life had added a subtle tone of charm, passion and mystique to her otherwise colourful life.


On the big night when the moon was full and bright against the smudges of cloud, with a gentle warm puff of breeze, he gave Ruby her present.

He told her she would not know any sensation quite like it. He backed this bold statement with how she would feel as free as a bird. This was quite profound considering she was well-tuned to that feeling. Being a Rainbow Lorikeet offered flight and the freedom of the skies. The world was her oyster, or nectar, as it were.


Ruby climbed on Bronson’s strong muscly black back and hung on tight with her nails. Bracing herself and feeling fit to burst with excitement, he stretched his wide black strong wings. Quietly and effortlessly they lifted into the air.

With her nails securely holding onto Bronson’s wings, Ruby bravely opened her wings, stretching them out freely to the moon. They flew straight across the luminous celestial ball, and the stars seemed to dance around them.  With the slightest flick of his wings, they soared in the expansive darkness, the Moon as bright as a beacon. Then joining his clan as the black cloud of bats silently graced the night sky.


The night air was deliciously fresh on Ruby’s face, and although warm, her senses were exhilarated, giving her a shudder of pure delight. Her eyes opened so as not to miss the beauty of her beau beneath her, and her beak opened slightly as she gave a sigh filled with pleasure.


Bronson was right. Although they shared many pleasures, including feasting on fruit-filled platters, and quiet nights in the family tree, snuggled with his strong but gentle warmth. But there was no feeling quite like a bat flight at night.

Her ‘night rider’ had delivered the perfect gift and the ride of her life.

About the author

Fleur is a Kiwi, living in SE Queensland. She enjoys the fun, challenge, and possibilities of short stories. She is a member of the local writer's group - Rose City Writers in Warwick. For more of Fleur's work: 

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Sunday 18 February 2024

Sunday Serial: 240x70 by Gill James, 4. A New Tie 1 May 2017, a pint of mild


This collection is a collection of seventy stories, each 240 words. They were inspired by the first picture seen on my Twitter feed on a given day.


It had been a while since he’d worn a tie. He tended not to, ever, now that he worked from home. But you never 

forget how to tie a tie. And it would look really smart. His son and daughter still couldn’t get theirs right. Or was it some sort of rebellion? He didn’t blame them.

He placed it round his neck, made sure that the right side hung down a considerable amount more than left, wound the right side twice over the other one and poked the leftover through the loop. How could that ever be difficult?    

It had taken him a long time to find one that exactly matched the Labour rosette. Nothing in his vast collection came anywhere near. He’d found one, though, in the medium-sized branch of a chain store in this medium-sized northern town. They should all cheer these little northern towns. Salt of the earth people lived there. Real people.

Not these Eton-messers.            

He was having none of this woman who was causing mayhem. Nor of that silly buffoon who always muzzed his hair up before interviews. Nor of that stuck up ponce who sounded like Lord Haw-Haw and had a name like that cat in the picture books written by a Holocaust survivor.

After years and years of blue he’d gone red. A good Lancastrian colour after all. And wasn't his tie a grand example? A true Labour red. He tightened the knot and admired his reflection in the mirror. 

Was it time to get the kids out of the grammar school and into the local comprehensive? Quite probably. That woman was enough to put you off grammar school education for life. Certainly.        

About the author

Gill James is published by The Red Telephone, Butterfly and Chapeltown.  

She edits CafeLit and writes for the online community news magazine: Talking About My Generation.

She is a Lecturer in Creative Writing and has an MA in Writing for Children and PhD in Creative and Critical Writing.