April 2021

Whilst shielding from the Covid-19 virus, one of our members decided to write a crime novel. She selected to do this in a most unusual way. She wrote it with a friend. As a group we have decided to see what that experience is like and to question the two writers about the difficulties they had to overcome to finish the novel.

To do this, we split into groups of four. Each group, with a starting line (written in bold), then completed the story section by section with the fourth in the group finishing it. The results are below. Can you spot the different writers?

  1. Group story Frances, Julia, Bob, Margaret R

‘On the video surveillance, you can see him pulling something heavy in the suitcase.’

Detective Inspector Penny Griffiths gave a low whistle. The body of a twelve-year-old girl must weigh 40 kilos.

‘He’s making for Platform 3. That’s the Manchester train. God, he’s got a nerve – shifting the body like that, bold as brass. He’s looking round, see? Must be jittery.  Jason, arrange to get CCTV footage from all the stations between here and Manchester Piccadilly, will you? See if we can spot him when he gets off.’

‘Yes, ma’am.’

‘In the meantime, we’ll go on questioning him. We’ve got to find something on him soon or we’ll have to release him. How are they getting on digging up his mother’s garden?’

One of the detective constables shook his head. ‘Nothing yet. And no results from the fingertip search of the playing field round the back of the house. It’s getting dark now, so they can’t do much more until morning.’

It was midnight and Jason Murphy was still examining the CCTV footage when Penny came in. The DI never went home before her staff if they were on a murder case.

‘Any luck?’

‘It’s weird. I don’t understand it. He got off at Manchester Piccadilly all right, but there’s no sign of the suitcase. So what the fuck has he done with it? You can’t just open the train door and chuck it out like in the old days. But he’s disposed of it somehow.’

The following morning the suspect was again questioned but he remained tight lipped.

‘All a case of mistaken identity innit?’

‘You were seen talking to the girl the morning she disappeared.’

‘So, talking’s a crime then?’

Sergeant Browning was getting to the point where he knew if he didn’t get out of the room fast he was in danger of committing a crime himself.’

As he neared the DI’s office he heard her talking loudly on the phone.

‘What? How come that wasn’t picked up? Get every man available down there at once. At the double. Leave no stone unturned and question all the station staff.’

‘Have we got a lead Ma’am?’

‘A lead? A huge oversight more like. The early and late trains from Euston to Manchester call at Crewe. He must have got off there and disposed of the suitcase then re boarded the train for Manchester. Bloody hell! How did we miss that?’

‘Right Sergeant Browning!’ said DI Griffiths, ‘Make sure all the obvious stuff is checked out at Crewe. You know the sort of things, left luggage lockers, water courses, waste ground, the railway’s goods’ yards, any industrial units close to the line and their waste disposal mechanisms, the Crewe Alexandra Football Stadium, which I believe is adjacent to the station, the railway’s CCTV and so on.

I want different types of maps of the area; Ordinance Survey, Local Authority, Railtrack etc. See if there is anywhere, obvious or not so obvious, where a child’s body could be hidden. I’m going to speak to the Cheshire Chief Constable. Then I’d better get down there myself. And pull the door to please.’

‘Certainly Ma’am!’ said Sergeant Browning thinking ‘As if I ‘aven’t got enough to bleedin’ do already?!’

Penny was driving through heavy rain on her way to Crewe and was turning all the facts over in her mind, when her hands free phone rang. It was Sergeant Browning.

‘Ma’am, the Manchester Constabulary have been in touch.’ he said. ‘The carriage cleaners working on the train the suspect took to Manchester have found an abandoned suitcase, and it contains the body of a young girl!’

‘Oh my God!’ said Penny.

‘There’s more,’ said Sergeant Browning, ‘the Manchester Police showed the pictures of the person who got off the train to station staff, and they immediately recognised him as a colleague, an administrative clerk who works at the station, and who happens to look like the man we’ve arrested, a doppelgänger in fact. That means that we have no evidence of our suspect getting off the train, no evidence of him on the concourses, and no evidence of him leaving via any of the station’s exits!’

2. Group story by Bob, Margaret, Sarah, Jenny

‘Okay, how am I supposed to eat this?’ I asked the waiter.

I had just watched him skilfully carry our magnificent looking desserts across the restaurant. They were precariously balanced on a medium sized tray, under which he’d placed one hand, and he carried them to our table without any difficulty.

He gently set one down in front of me, and the other in front of my fiancée, Carol.

Here were the two strawberry parfaits we had ordered, but they were two strawberry parfaits with a difference!

They were beautifully served in very tall elegant, sundae glasses, 12 inches high in fact, but the waiter had omitted to bring any long handled spoons with him.  There was no way we could get to the bottom of these sweet-course skyscrapers without such implements!

‘Ah, that is the restaurant’s challenge.’ the waiter replied, ‘If either of you can finish these desserts without tipping the dishes then you and a friend will be able to eat here gratis for12 months.’

Carol and I looked at each other.

‘And how many times has it been done?’ I asked.

‘Never!’ said the waiter smiling.  He bowed, turned, and headed back to the kitchen.

We were both stunned and sat there in silence for a few moments, glancing first at the sundae glasses and then across at one another before bursting out laughing.

“You’re good at solving problems,” Lee said, looking across at Carol.

“I maybe,” she replied, “but not this type of problem. Mathematical problems are my area of expertise. OK then, let’s both tackle this logically if we can.”

She carefully examined her strawberry parfait.

“It looks to me as though it consists of some strawberries which have been cut in half as well as some smaller hulled ones. There is a good quantity of vanilla ice cream or is it perhaps whipped cream or even plain yoghurt? I can also see some mini-meringues and little white marshmallows.”

Lee added, “There are of course two pink wafers jutting out near the top of each glass and about half way down it looks like a layer of granola.”

Carol butted in. “I’ve got an idea. We can at least make a start by using these plastic straws that are in our G&T’s. We can suck up and enjoy the melting ice cream and possibly use our straws to try to scoop out some of the slightly more solid parts to eat- at least those near the top of the glasses. I realise our straws aren’t long enough to reach very far down. I was really looking forward to this treat. Let’s give it a go.”

But, almost as soon as we started, I realised this had been a mistake. The ice cream on its own was not particularly special.  I like to make a little cocktail of the ingredients in this sort of situation, an impossibility without a long spoon.  In addition Carol was making a disgusting snorting noise as she attached her lips to the top of the straw. It wasn’t her best look  –  or sound.

I could hear tittering from the next table. Carol was oblivious now, blowing milky bubbles with a total lack of inhibition. I, meanwhile, felt my face flush as I pulled back from the sorry display, desperately thinking how to extract the fruit and marshmallows with a modicum of dignity. I’ve come across  some presentation ideas in my time, but this really sucked!  The evening had held such promise,  but Carol’s sophisticated image was now severely compromised. I wished I’d chosen any restaurant but this…….

Poor Lee. This was to have been a special evening; the first outing after Lockdown  .Lee was getting redder and crosser by the minute. I’m sure she was about to bang on the table and storm out. She was looking at my chin in disgust . Ice cream covered it.

“Tell you what” I said, getting my knitting out. ( I take my knitting every where – for journeys, waiting rooms, check outs.) “ A plan”

I speared a Marsh mallow with my needle . Success! Then the strawberries and meringues, 

Joining  2 straws  together I sucked up the remaining melted ice cream , juice and cream

The granola was challenging but turning the needle round helped. Using the knob I could scoop it up like a little spoon. Easy.

Lee’s face changed from an angry red to a beatific, smiling pink as she savoured the thought of 12 months of free meals.

Story 3.

Helen/Erica/Frances/Julia

The guy sitting across from me keeps staring at me thinking I can’t see his eyes behind his sunglasses.

I watched him board the tram and look around as if selecting his seat carefully. Despite the tram being half empty – commuters already at work, students well into the first lecture at college – he chose the seat diagonally opposite mine. His long legs would have been an embarrassment to both of us, apart from being unnecessary, had he moved to the window seat.

Normally, I pay little attention to my fellow passengers, but I can’t shake off the impression that I have seen him before. Was it at the bar last night? Had he walked behind me to catch the tram? Had he been waiting in that doorway with a cup of coffee in his hand? As I stare out of the window, I try going back through the last twenty-four hours attempting to memorise the people I had encountered. The trouble is he’s not really memorable. An ordinary man, of ordinary height, wearing ordinary clothes. The only weird aspect are his sunglasses; there is no sun.

‘Tickets, please,’ says a voice from behind me. I fumble in my bag to produce my tram ticket and hold it out to be checked.

‘Sir?’

He’s patting his pockets as if he’s lost something.

‘Sorry, I’ve dropped my wallet.’ He looks at me. ‘I couldn’t borrow the price of a ticket, could I?

I began to fumble in my purse. The last thing I wanted to do was pay for his ticket. I looked up at the ticket collector for guidance. Gosh, I wish that man would stop staring at me, I felt very uncomfortable. I wanted to unfasten my coat, but didn’t dare. Perhaps I should move to another seat, I could smell his breath, most unpleasant.

Suddenly he stood up, his gaze lingered, then he gave me a menacing grin. I saw him quickly move to the exit and get off the tram. A whirlwind of thoughts came into my mind. I knew who he was, I felt sick. I stared at my feet, one more stop then I could leave. It wasn’t long until I was hurrying down the busy street, desperate to reach home. I kept looking over my shoulder, surely he wouldn’t follow me. My pace quickened, I turned a corner to see the familiar sunglasses facing me.

‘Fancy seeing you again.’

He stood still, blocking my path. I felt threatened.

He’d shaved off his beard since I saw him last – what? Ten, eleven years ago? And he’d been smartly dressed then. When I looked more closely I saw that his clothes were worn now, the knees of his jeans frayed. No wonder I didn’t know him at first.

The whole dreadful nightmare played out again in my head. My sister Kat had just moved into a new flat that needed some refurbishment, so a kitchen company made an appointment for her to see a salesman. She’d asked me to go round to give her moral support and advice about the decor, but I was almost twenty minutes late and I could hear her screaming as I dashed up the stairs.

When I threw open the door he panicked, pushing past me and nearly knocking me over. Kat was on the floor, blood trickling down her face from where he bashed her head against the wall.

At the trial his defence team asserted that she’d led him on, but the jury weren’t convinced and he got five years for sexual assault and actual bodily harm. It was a relief, though it didn’t wipe away my guilt or my sister’s suffering.

Now here he was in front of me again, smirking, intimidating. Coincidence? Or had he deliberately sought me out? It made my flesh crawl to think he was stalking me – and probably Kat as well.

‘Couldn’t believe it was you,’ he said. ‘The reason I spent 5 years banged up. You and that slag of a sister.’

My fear turned to anger. My sister was the victim and he was the perpetrator.

‘How dare you? You’re just a criminal and deserved what you got.’

‘No way. I’ve been out of work ever since I got out. Been sleeping rough. Living on the streets. Now it’s payback time.’

I looked around and realised no one was in sight. It was me or him. As he lunged towards me the adrenalin flowed and the full force of my judo black belt training came to the fore.

Ever since my sister’s attack we had both sought to protect ourselves against any future incidents.

As he lay dazed on the concrete I dialled 999.

‘Payback time,’ I said.

Story 4. MISSING VICKY (Pete D, John, Mars, Peter)

It’s been four hours since I last heard from her, I’m getting worried.

Vicky had always been a charismatic, alluring girl and was passionately fond of her pet chocolate coloured labradoodle called Coco. They were inseparable; Coco sat at Vicky’s feet all day when she worked from home and even slept at the end of her bed.

Every day they would complete a circular walk around the local park but only for an hour or so. For them not to have returned four hours later was unknown and very disturbing. Vicky’s family had been out looking for them in all the usual places and also searched the off – beat paths where they went looking for squirrels and other creatures and smells that doggies enjoy. What could have happened; where could they be?

“So, where could they be?”

George, still pyjamaed and unshaven, had no idea where to take it next. This was his third attempt at starting a short story for “The Labradoodle Owner” monthly magazine and again the plot was going nowhere. He wasn’t ready to bin it yet. He sensed a great storyline was lurking somewhere in the shadows of the text. Maybe if he tweaked the opening couple of sentences, he might find what he and the readers of this bloody magazine were really looking for.

George heard the skidding feet of hurrying paws, moments before the tail whacked his shins. Right enough, it was ‘walkies’ time but he was… a-working! 

George felt a further whack, followed by a wet muzzle bringing a wet tongue to lick his right hand.

George pulled his hand away with a “Get off!”

Coco obliged by moving on to sniff and snuffle George’s groin area.

“Oh, bollocks!  Vick! Vicky, darling! Need you to relieve me of dog distraction. I’m on a roll here. Anyway, think it’s your turn to tread the pavements.”

“No, George, I’ve done the last few days. Look, I’ve ticked them on the calendar. You’re Mr. Poop today.”

“Get this disgusting, brown, furry monster out of my crotch. You should have trained him. I’m really busy here.”

Vicky hovered by the door. “Mm, I know you are, sweetie. Up at the crack of nine-thirty, with a great fry-up for breakfast – the dishes on the table and cooker attest to that all right. So, I reckon you’ve been at it for the best part of twenty minutes.”

With that she leant over his shoulder and nibbled his right ear lobe, all the time scanning the text.

“Vick, leave it out, I’m trying to work.”

“George, I do believe you’re trying to kill me off again.” The ghost of a smile briefly played across her pale face.

‘Would I do that to you?’

‘Probably, if I didn’t cook your meals, wash your clothes, tidy your house and do everything else that gives you the time to sit here and pretend to work.’

‘I am working.’

She kissed him on the top of his head.

‘Course you are. See you later. Don’t forget to walk the dog.’

He looked down at the border terrier chewing at his slippers.

Okay, okay, I suppose twenty minutes is enough work for today. I need to keep up my exercise regime.

He walked down the stairs and unhooked the lead. The little dog went crazy, jumping up and down and barking.

‘You could try and behave like a labradoodle,’ George told him.

When they reached the park gates, he was surprised to see the police cars and ambulance lining the narrow road, and the crime scene tape across the entrance.

‘What’s going on?’ he asked a constable.

‘Sorry, sir, I can’t comment on that.’

George felt a tap on his shoulder. It was his neighbour, Frank.

‘They found a body, mate.’

‘No way!’

‘Fraid so. Some woman. She walks her dog here twice a day, everyone in these houses knows her, so when she didn’t come out again, one of them called the police.’

‘Was she murdered?’

‘Don’t think so, seems she had a heart problem. Very sad. The dog wouldn’t leave her, even when her son tried to take him home. He’s still sitting there now, whimpering. Very loyal dogs, labradoodles.’

George only half heard what else Frank said because his writer’s imagination was whirring.

Labradoodle, faithful, owner, tragedy. This story would have all the elements sentimental dog lovers would drool over.

‘Come on, Brandy,’ he said. ‘Time to go home. I’ve got a story to write.’

As soon as he arrived home, George rushed to his desk to resume work on his story. Thinking over what had happened, he recalled how Frank had turned towards him as he spoke, revealing red marks on his cheeks. Scratches? From what? An image of Vicky’s long, manicured nails flashed through his mind. And why were Frank’s shoes, usually so immaculate, covered in mud? His imagination took off unto the stratosphere and his fingers flew over the keyboard. He had a victim; a fit and healthy woman, with no signs of heart trouble. He had a suspect; a local man who knew his way around the park and must, surely, have known the woman, although he tried to imply otherwise. The missing link was a motive.

‘George,’ his wife called from the sitting room, ‘why didn’t you wipe the dog’s paws? In too much of a hurry to get back to your so-called work, were you?’

‘Don’t nag me!’ shouted George. ‘How can I concentrate on doing something creative, without a bit of peace and quiet?’

‘Never mind creative, Dostoevsky.’ Come and clean this mud off the carpet, before it gets ground in.’

Why do women …? Thought George and paused. A lightbulb had lit up in his mind. He had his motive.

Story 5: Sarah/Jenny/Helen/Pete D

On the video surveillance, you can see him pulling something heavy in a suitcase. 

He’s clearly anxious, eyes darting from side to side as he makes his way out of the facility.

“What on earth were security doing, letting him get away?”

“Never mind scapegoating. We’ve got to get that vaccine sample back before the dry ice loses its effect or we can count ourselves out of the international race and all the associated revenue and reputation!  Chances are the coveted icebox will be with our competitors within hours, although none of them have let anything slip yet.”

“We’ve got roadblocks throughout the area and checks in place at all stations and airports. He’ll need to be ingenious to pull it off. 

Gould is the last person one would suspect, though. Always such a team player, willing to put in overtime and help out. You’d never take him for a secret agent.”

“Hmph!

Crucial minutes earlier, Simon Gould, as he was known in the laboratory, drove deftly out of the complex and onto the city ring road.  A slip road took him from there into the smart suburb of Winthorpe. His breath came more evenly now in the quiet tree lined roads. His Audi purred along as he followed the satnav towards Pegasus Villa, where a helipad, inconspicuous on the roof of the executive dwelling, set back from the road behind an ivy clad ,  would launch him to freedom.

Simon tapped the code into his mobile and immediately, silently ,a door opened into a large dark garage.  He parked, the door closed and Simon stepped into the elevator, clutching the case. Out of the elevator and on to the helipad where the helicopter was waiting impatiently to fly off.

Quickly but carefully, Petrov transferred the ice box into the fridge.

 Off into the night sky. His heart was beating rapidly with the dangerous situation he had found himself in and the exertion of moving much more rapidly than he cared to. The enormity of what he had done and the possible consequences were horrendous. He tried hard not to think of his years working at the laboratory where ,despite everything he had been contented. He had liked his job and his colleagues; they liked him he thought and trusted him; possibly not the miserable Steve.

He had enjoyed being Simon.

The helicopter flew to the coast. Above the North Sea the ocean-going motor yacht loomed darkly.

Petrov held on to the case with both arms as they landed. He ran from the helicopter blades.

Suddenly, a shot. Petrov slumped down as the ice box skidded across the deck.

Simon, or to call him by his birth name, Aleksander Petrov, watched horrified as the precious cargo slipped away.

Feeling a numbness in his shoulder he realised that he had been shot and that the pain was now consuming him. Closing his eyes, he did not see the moment when the ice box was rescued from its inevitable plunge into the sea by a man dressed in black. Nor was he aware of the helicopter pilot being dragged from the cockpit by two other heavily armed members of the boat’s crew.

Instructions were barked, ‘Take that box down below, now! Get the prisoner to the medical room. We need him alive.’

As he lost consciousness his final thought was that they were speaking in English: that wasn’t right.

At the laboratory the scientists were anxiously waiting for news from the security services.

’They’ve retrieved Simon’s personnel file. There’s nothing there to suggest that he’s anything other than what he claimed to be.’

‘I know he was something of a loner. Rarely joined us for a drink at the pub. Never met his wife, although there were photos of his family on his screen saver. Perhaps that was all false too. He’s really scuppered our work!’

‘Come on Steve. Don’t be so negative. There might be some positive news coming through soon.’

As Simon recovered consciousness the recent events were flooding through his mind as he tried to make some sense of this incredible situation. He realised the icebox contained important contents but naively never dreamt his innocent journey would end up like this. He was relieved to have heard them say “We need him alive”. Perhaps, if they achieved what they wanted, they would release him. He seemed to have few options so decided to ask them about their intentions; at least they spoke English and maybe he had other knowledge which would be useful to them; after all he had been involved in the research and development of the vaccine and could be of great use to them. Were negotiations possible? “Let’s talk” he said, we have lots to discuss!

Story 6: Mars/Peter/Sylvia/Erica

The girl stood on the platform in her pink hoodie, listening to her iPod.

She didn’t know how long she’d been there and she didn’t care. She hated her life. She hated her parents. She even hated her friends, because where had they all been when she needed them?

Nowhere, that’s where.

She sat with her hands around a hot cup of coffee. She’d already eaten the Danish but was keeping the bar of chocolate for later. Much later, probably, because she’d spent nearly all of her money so she’d have to find a way to earn more.

She was only half listening to the music in her ears so she heard someone shout her name. She didn’t waste time looking to see who it was, she turned and ran.

The bridge over the railway track was only metres away so she sprinted towards it, took the steps two at a time, pounded across the boards and down the other side. The right hand path led to the car park but she turned left and raced through the small wood that led to the river. She didn’t know what she’d do when she got there. All she cared about right now was not getting caught.

When she reached the road that ran along the riverbank, she sat on the verge and considered three options. She could return to the remand home and accept her fate, she could get as far away as possible and start a new life, or she could jump into the river and end it all.

A sports car with its hood down came speeding up the road and through the windscreen, she glimpsed the face of a young man, singing as he drove. He caught sight of her and the car screeched to a halt.

            ‘You all right, love? You look upset.’

            ‘I am,’ she said. Where are you going?’

            ‘To the coast. Want a lift?’

She stood up and walked towards the car. He pushed the door open and she stepped in. She had time to strap herself in before the car took off. Her hair streamed in the wind as they sped away down the road.

At last, she could breathe normally and her heartbeat had slowed.  Turning her head to this young man, she realized he was looking at her quite quizzically.  ‘I feel as if I know you,’ he said. ‘I don’t think so,’ she replied, trying to shrink further down into the car seat.

For a while they drove along in silence, but Angela began to feel uncomfortable’  ‘Are we nearly at the coast?’ she asked.  ‘No, but don’t worry.’  Even that statement sounded threatening to her. As he drove, he spoke to her quietly, understanding that she was in some sort of trouble.  He seemed to know what she was going through.  Gradually, as she relaxed more, the pent up anger she felt about her arrest tumbled from her mouth.  He nodded knowingly as she told him how she had managed to run away from the remand home.  How she was accused of shop-lifting and carrying illegal drugs. Angela went on to tell him how she had gone into a corner shop and put her shopping bag on the floor while taking some sandwiches out of the chiller  A girl came up to me and said she would see me outside.  I didn’t know what she meant as I didn’t know her. Shrugging her remark off, I picked up my bag and went to pay. Suddenly, the police were there and before I knew it they were asking for my bag.  I was so shocked when they took out this bag of drugs.  My legs just collapsed from under me.  They had already arrested the girl who spoke to me in the shop and I was arrested as an accessory.  I tried to argue but to no avail.  The girl and I were taken away. She was smirking as if it was fun.  She had obviously done this before! We were taken to a remand home but how do I prove my innocence?  

Angela eventually realised they were heading back into Sheffield. She recognised the outskirts of the city. She turned to see all the car doors were locked.

‘Where are you taking me? Why don’t you believe me?’

‘Stay calm, we’re nearly there.’

‘No one believes me,’ she shouted out in despair.

‘Less of the noise Angela. I’ve spent most of my day looking for you, and now caring for you. Show some respect.’

Angela lay back in the seat with her hands clasped tightly. She closed her eyes, a feeling of despair descended upon her. They were heading back towards locked doors, constant crying, swearing and fights. She had wasted her time and energy running away.

As the car entered the long driveway surrounded by woodland, she could see the cold grey stone building in the distance. She saw Andrew turn on the radio for the local news. Then she heard the words floating out of the speaker. The missing girl Angela Simms has been found, she has been returned to custody.

We also held a separate challenge based around the month of March for anyone who still had itchy fingers.

A TASK FOR MARCH

I will confess to blatantly stealing this idea from Margaret who was sent this from her sister in Australia. I thought it such a good idea that I thought I would send it out to you – each month if necessary.

Here is the picture for the month of March:

  1. Hot air balloon in foggy mountains
    Your story must include this setting at some point.
  2. Because it is March, your story must include the following ‘MAR’ words:

MARKET, MARBLE, MARVELLOUS, MARSHMALLOW (or plurals or variations of these words)

  • Your story’s final sentence must contain dialogue.
  • Your story should be no longer than 500 words.

FLYING HIGH

The hot air balloon drifted over the valley heading for Pyramid Mountain, which was made of pure blue marble.

What an unbelievable sight that was!

To celebrate this unique moment I decided to indulge in a treat that I had purchased earlier

that day at the market in the old town of Kashrat.

It was there that I came across the stall of the famous Abdul Hussain.

I was thrilled and excited.

Here before me stood the man renowned for making ‘the marvellous marshmallows of Kastan’, that tiny kingdom situated on the eastern border of Shanghai La.

I spoke with Abdul, and on his recommendation I purchased some pink marshmallows which were laid out on crumpled white tissue paper in a beautiful transparent box.

Well, they were pink when I bought them, but they kept changing colour.

They turned emerald green when we got into the balloon at the oasis, then white as we neared the cotton-wool clouds, and now, as we approached Pyramid Mountain, they became dark blue, like lapis lazuli, and I ate one.

It was sublime.

It had a most refined and gentle sweet flavour, which cleansed my palate and put me in such a serene mood of blissful happiness.

All of a sudden I was brought back to reality as I heard the balloon’s pilot shouting, ‘Look out, we’re going to hit the mountain!’, and the marshmallows in the box turned black.

Bob Reader March 2021  238 words

As the balloon gained height, the early morning sky was like marshmallow – squashy white clouds edged in pink – but the rising temperatures were causing a thick mist to form over the lower slopes of the glen where snow was still lying in the middle of March. That was going to impede the search.

It was a perfect day for ballooning with just enough wind to carry them along gently. No turbulence. If it had been an ordinary flight they would have felt marvellous, but Martin for one had his heart in his mouth. They’d never done anything like this before.

There were no roads in this part of Scotland and no habitation. Just tracts of pine, open moor and mountain. Jess was scanning the ground with her binoculars. Then she spotted him through the mist, waving something red.

Martin groaned. ‘How’re we going to land in a place like that?’

Jess pointed to a flat patch of snow, but they both knew it was always hit and miss bringing a balloon down and then taking off again without mishap. Fortunately the snow gave them a soft landing and a man came running towards them, shivering and with a face the colour of marble.

He clambered into the basket. ‘I thought you’d never come.’

‘Well we nearly didn’t. The wind didn’t back round to the right direction till midnight. You’re lucky we made it. And it’s not over yet. We’ve got to gain enough height to get over the top of that mountain.’

Jess offered him a flask of coffee and a blanket. From what they knew he’d been on the run for nearly a week. He gulped down the hot liquid.

‘Where can you drop me?’

‘We’ve arranged to come down in a park near the river in Inverness. There’s be a black Ford Focus waiting in Academy Street next to the Victorian Market. False plates. New phone in the glove box.’

‘Then what?’

‘You’re on your own, chum. Our part’s done.’

‘They said there’d be a boat waiting in the marina at Fortrose.’

‘Follow the A9 and turn left. You’ll find it.’

He was relaxing now, letting down his guard, drinking the coffee, looking down at a herd of red deer grazing on the mountain slope. Martin gave the signal.

A policeman emerged from his hiding place beneath some tarps and grabbed the man round the waist. There was a scuffle. Shouting. Hand-cuffs on. All over in a minute. The man, exhausted by his days out in the wilderness, had no fight left. The balloon sailed safely over the mountaintop.

‘We owe you,’ the policeman said. ‘If you hadn’t got suspicious about the men trying to hire your balloon, we couldn’t have done this.’

Swallowing a mouthful of whisky from the bottle Jess handed him, Martin felt drained. ‘All in a day’s work,’ he said, trying to sound nonchalant.

Frances

The March Balloon

‘Who’s stupid idea was this?’ Lindsay demanded as she shivered in the

pre-dawn chill.

‘Can’t think what you mean,’ said Vicky.

‘Then let me explain. It’s five in the morning and instead of sleeping in my bed, dreaming of the spa break I’d promised myself, I’m standing on the hotel’s car park freezing my arse off waiting for some piddling little burner to inflate millions of square metres of balloon!’

‘Stop moaning, you’ll love it. Holidays aren’t all about sun, sea and slurping cocktails, you know.’

‘Mine are.’

‘Ready ladies?’ interrupted a male voice.

Lindsay and Vicky hurried over to the gondola.

‘Don’t worry,’ Pablo told them as he helped them in. ‘You soon get warm up there in sunshine.’

‘What will we be flying over?’ asked Vicky before her friend could start moaning again.

‘First we go over salt flats and see flamingos, then across the biggest open-air market in area. After that, we head towards mountains so you get wonderful view of marble quarry. Then we land somewhere flat to drink hot chocolate and wait for van.’

‘Does the chocolate have those little marshmallows in it?’ asked Lindsay, trying for Vicky’s sake to be more cheerful.

‘Of course.’

She didn’t want to spoil the day for her friend –  she knew that a balloon flight was at the top of her bucket list – but it wasn’t her idea of a good time.

The take-off was gentler than expected and she had to admit the view was marvellous. The sun had risen above the distant snow-topped mountains and she even leaned out to get a better view of the countryside as Pablo explained what they were flying over.

Suddenly there was a jolt and a lurch, and he shouted, ‘Hang on.’

‘To what!’ Lindsay shouted back.

‘Me!’ yelled Vicky as the balloon swung wildly in the sudden gusts of wind.

‘Sorry,’ said Pablo as he pulled on ropes. ‘Most unusual this time of day.’

‘Are we going to land?’

‘Not yet. Too dangerous.’

Lindsay stared down at the huge chunks of stone rushing towards them.

‘We’re going to die,’ she screamed and the girls flung themselves onto the gondola floor.

After what felt like a lifetime, it landed with a thump, tipped over and they rolled out onto thankfully smooth hillside, not daring to move as Pablo let the air out of the balloon.

Eventually, Lindsay sat up and looked around.

‘What happens now?’ she croaked.

‘Hot chocolate,’ said Pablo and opened his pack.

While they held their drinks in shaking hands, Pablo talked on his phone in rapid Spanish. On the plus side, the sun was shining and they had a great view of the distant Mediterranean.

Eventually Vicky said, ‘Well, that’s number one ticked off my bucket list.’

‘Congratulations.  What’s number two?’

‘Swimming with great white sharks.’

At that moment the van arrived with its horn blaring, so Vicky was spared Lindsay’s ear-splitting reply to the question, ‘Why don’t you come with me?’

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