Category Archives: Short Stories

Ten Minutes – Story Story

“Ten minutes is all you need. You have died and past your own expected life but ten minutes is all you will need to find out where your family will end or begin. With this gift of ten minutes you will see all and hear all. Oh, I do hope they meet a favourable end, John, because if they don’t, you will see that too.”

John Windom bent down and, with both hands, raised the plant pot from the floor to the table in his greenhouse.

“I’m getting far too old,” he said to himself as he looked around at all he had built.

A life of constant hard work had taken its toll, in mind and body. Now this green house was his last stand against the tide of regular retirement and a place where he could escape his family. John loved them just like every man in his position did. He had a beautiful wife, Linda, and two stunning children, Jodie and Maxwell. They had their faults, just like every other family, but they all had a special place in his heart.

“John?” Linda shouted from the house. “Are you going to stay in there all day or can I put the supper on?”

John heard her very well but still raised his hand to his ear and shrugged. This was something he did often and found incredibly amusing. It was one of only a few pleasures he had left in life and Linda fell for it every time, usually she would come out to the greenhouse to repeat what she said but would also bring a nice cup of tea for him.

“I said are you going to stay in here all day, rotting like these tomatoes?”

John loved her smile and her incessant use of sarcasm.

“You should use them, my dear, they might make dinner taste a little better.”

“Oh you,” she said and gave him a kiss. “Get yourself inside. I don’t want to have to…John?”

John went as white as a sheet. His head was swimming and his vision blurred. Suddenly a sharp, shooting pain spread across his chest and he slid to the floor.

“John?” Linda screamed “Oh John, what’s happening?” She dropped down also and cradled his neck. His vision had gone dark from the pain. It was so intense that he wished for an end, a way out. John’s request was granted and he was pulled into the dark and away from his sobbing widow.

Arrival

John opened his eyes and saw the greenhouse. The sunlight shone beautifully through the glass, submerging him in calm. He tried to stand but his legs did not respond to the command and the feeling of calm left him. He cried out and tried again to no avail. He remembered his heart, how it burned in his chest and made him pass out. Had it caused him to lose the use of his legs?

John looked down at the chair. There weren’t any wheels attached. He thought Linda might have put him here; after all it was his favourite place.

“Please God, don’t let me be a cripple,” he said.

“Oh, you’re not a cripple,” said a voice coming through the glass. “You’re dead.”

A man appeared through an unnatural gap in the side of the greenhouse, wearing a dishevelled suit with his hair combed back to his scalp. He waved his hands in the air and made a chair appear in front of John. He took a seat.

“Dead as a door nail I’m afraid and I’m a soul relocation officer,” the man chirped.

He waved his arms again and a laminated piece of paper appeared.

“I’m dead?” John asked.

The man smiled.

“Oh yes, very much so.” He made another piece of paper appear and began to read.

“John Windom, aged 72 years, died the 3rd of July 2013, due to a heart attack.”

He placed the piece of paper down and it disappeared as soon as it left his hand.

“Happens all the time, John. Can I call you John?” He asked but didn’t wait for a response.

“Well, I say all the time. Somebody falls over, clutching their chest every 0.6 across the time stream on earth.”

He tapped the laminated paper and held it up.

“Which means I have a lot of people to get through so let’s get on with it shall we?”

He stood up and cleared his throat and began to read.

“My name is Mr Andrews and I will be your soul relocation officer. The unfortunate, but evitable has happened to you. You have died in the way in which you were meant to – brutal agony from a heart attack.”

If John had time to process what was happening he would have completely lost his mind.

Mr Andrews continued without looking up from the sheet.

“Because this was how you were always meant to meet us at the HCNP, The Human Containment and Nurture Program, we can offer you a family resolution package. This isn’t mandatory but it allows the deceased to, for a short time period, see how their family copes with the loss of their loved one and how they survive for up to two generations. It’s an attempt to give the deceased piece of mind before relocation.”

“You will now have a few moments to ask any questions you may have formed during your time with the relocation officer.” He moved the sheet down from his face, locked eyes with John and raised an eyebrow.

He looked back stunned after a moment of silence, in which Mr Andrews brought back up his reading material, but before he could continue John spoke.

“Am I in heaven?” he asked softly, not really knowing why that question came to mind.

Mr Andrews brought back down the sheet and still had his eyebrow raised, then he exploded into a fit of laughter which felt, to John, like it went on for hours. This included the occasional knee slap, belly holding and a token wipe of a tear from the eye.

“Oh, you human, you wonderful, wonderful human,” he said. “If only it was that simple, John. Can I call you John?” Mr Andrews said again

John went to reply but he was again cut off before he could speak.

“Heaven is a human invention, it keeps the little ones of your species in line because the big ones know that if the little ones ever got together, ever put their heads together, they would realize they outnumber the big ones…” He curled his hand into a fist and hammered down on the opposite palm “And they would crush them. It’s a wonderful yet primitive way of mass manipulation.” He lent back in his chair and continued.

“It’s not the best thing to have to break to you guys when you come up here, and I really shouldn’t be saying it, but if it’s any consolation you won’t remember a thing.” He raised his right hand and gave a thumbs up while extending a cheesy grin around his face, then beckoned John for more questions.

“So if this isn’t heaven, where am I?”

“You are in my office, it doesn’t look like an office I know, it automatically takes the form of a location close to your heart, unfortunately for you it was a bit too close to your heart, eh?” said Mr Andrews and he chuckled before resuming.

“You are in the HCNP, The Human Containment and Nurture Program and my job is to make sure that when a human being expires they feel looked after and worthwhile. It’s my job to send you on your way in the best possible state of mind so your consciousness can be rebooted and started again in an unknown location.”

He crossed his legs and made the laminated paper disappear.

“Of course I don’t always do a good job. Most of the time its fine though and the odd time I do so well they become the people life-forms look up to or idolise.” His face suddenly lost its grin and it turned more into a grimace. “But the times I don’t, you become something much worse.”

He looked up at John with a pained expression but then snapped out of it back into a grin.

“But you’re a happy chappy aren’t you? I feel this is going well, ask me more.”

John sat up straight and realised it was the first time he had moved since opening his eyes again, if indeed he was opening them.

“I don’t really know what to say.”

“Good,” replied Mr Andrews and he made the sheet reappear and started to read.

“Mr John Windom, you have lead a good life, nothing remarkable, but good. Therefore we at the HCNP, The Human Containment and Nurture Program will grant you the chance to see out the final years of your immediate family.”

“Think of it as one of those picture films, key to human culture. In the allotted time their lives will flash before you from a location crucial to events, but you won’t be able to leave or interact with the living.” Mr Andrews waved his arms in the air hiding the sheet once more and pulled his chair close to John.

“Ten minutes is all you need and ten is all you will have,” he said in a sombre voice.

“It will seem like they are talking directly to you but they won’t see or hear you.”

John didn’t understand what was going on. He just stared at Mr Andrews and nodded when he had to, like he was in an unbreakable trance.

“You have died and past your own expected life and I will give you ten minutes to find out where your family will end or begin. With this gift of ten minutes you will see all and hear all.”

Mr Andrews stood up not breaking eye contact.

“Oh, I do hope they meet a favourable end, John. You seem like such a nice chap, because if they don’t, you will see that too.” He clapped his hands and plunged the green house into total darkness.

Arrival

John opened his eyes and looked around. He was still in his green house. It was raining outside which to John looked like tears. He knew he was dead, and he knew what he was here to see.

Linda walked out of the house and slowly opened the greenhouse door. She stepped inside and took a tissue from her jacket and dabbed at her eyes. John saw her crying and his heart broke. He had seen her cry before but she was such a stubborn woman that, in front of him, she would cover it up. Now John knew Linda’s real tears, and they cut him up inside.

“I miss you, John,” she said to the green house.

John found it hard to get the words out even though he knew she couldn’t hear him.

“I miss you too, darling,” he managed.

She walked over to where he was sat but stopped just in front.

“I hope you can hear me wherever you are. The kids miss you too, and Pete doesn’t really have anyone to talk plants with anymore.” She smiled through the tears.

“He’s been over a few times trying to get me involved but I’m not really interested as you know. I come in and water them as much as needed. Don’t worry, but I’m not sure how long I can go on doing it.” Linda started to cry harder.

“John, your insurance fell through. They said it was because it was a hot day and…”

She broke down for a while and he threw his arms out towards her. They didn’t reach and he was still stuck in the chair.

Eventually she spoke again.

“I don’t think I can save the house, John. I really don’t know what to do.”

With those words, the colour in his eyes burnt bright and began to mix together. His mind reset into a different time.

His son Maxwell was now in the greenhouse. He looked older, more like a man now but still with that shade of innocence. He was looking at the new flowers and cutting clippings off here and there. John was annoyed that his perfectly grown plants had been replaced by ones that were blatantly from the local garden centre.

“Dad?” Maxwell whispered “Dad, can you hear me?”

“I can hear you son,” John replied.

Maxwell’s face shone for a moment but then went grey. He turned to leave but something stopped him.

“Dad, I need to move away from here. Mum has kept the bank off her back for this long so I don’t see why I should stay just to get a shitty job and pay her way.”

He stepped over to the garden tool kit and put back the clippers.

“I know it’s selfish but it’s something I need to do. I want to go to uni, see the world and meet new people but I’m stuck here, pruning your fucking roses.”

John’s heart ached, even the dead have feelings.

“Sorry, it’s just if you were here…” Maxwell looked over to the exact point John was sitting but saw no one.

“If you were here,” he repeated as the colours merged once more.

It was a crisp autumn evening when his form had finished its jump, but John couldn’t feel the cold. He would have given the world to feel the cold again. His time jumps may not have the quality quantum leap had, but his own trip through time had a worse kind of ups and downs. They were personal.

He looked towards the kitchen door just as it was opened. A frail girl stepped down on to the stone steps and arched her back to stop from falling over. When she got to the bottom, she looked at John but he knew she could only see an empty chair. Jodie looked older than her years and she was moving very gingerly, favouring her left side. She slowly slid the door open and shuffled through, leaving it ajar, and slumped in the seat next to him.

John followed her gaze to the flower bed in the centre of the greenhouse and saw his own face staring back at him. They had placed a picture there in his honour and it was horrific to look at.

“You were right, Dad,” Jodie said towards the picture.

John knew she wasn’t addressing him but couldn’t help himself from responding.

“Right about what, sweetheart?”

“About Darren.” She took a cigarette from her top pocket and lit it. “What did you always used to tell me?”

John joined his hands.

“That he had quite the temper for a boring sack of shit,” he replied.

She started to well up and stared at the picture of her father.

“You said he had quite the temper…” She didn’t finish and broke down into her shirt sleeve.

John had had never wanted his legs to move more, but they remained still, and he had to endure his bruise covered daughter crying hard, until the colours started to merge again.

This is moving too fast, John thought.

He didn’t have the time to process what he was seeing. A part of him wanted to think that he was being shown wasn’t real but he knew better than that. What would be the point of showing lies?

He materialised once more and looked around. The greenhouse looked the same but the plants had died, the place was unloved now he was gone. He checked the watch, 1:57, not much time left.

Linda opened the door, left it open, walked down the stone steps and entered the green house. She shut the door and pushed a broom in between the handles. John could hear three loud bangs on the front door.

“Mrs Windom, this is your last chance to pay us…We don’t want to take the house but you have left us no choice.”

John desperately tried to get up again but, as always, he was rooted to the spot. Linda looked old now as she searched under the middle table of dead flowers. She was no longer his Linda, just a twisted shadow of the woman he loved. She was panting franticly and pulling at tools, throwing them behind her.

“Linda?” he said. “Linda please stop… tell me what’s wrong”

“It’s all your fault!” she screamed and picked up Johns picture.

“I told you it was too warm out here in summer and it would make you sick, but no, you never listened to me, did you? You came out here to get away from me and look where you are now.”

John began to cry but didn’t bring a hand up to stop the flow.

“You left me with nothing but this house and now they’re taking it. The kids have gone and won’t help. Ungrateful little shits,” she shouted whilst spinning and throwing the picture against the glass. The greenhouse pane didn’t smash but the picture did. Linda was back rummaging under the table before the smashed remains hit the floor.

“Oh my love, I’m so sorry,” John whispered and knew this final vision wouldn’t end well.

Linda found what she was looking for. A long piece of rope he had used to tie up his prized sunflowers in winter so they could all receive the same amount of heat and water.

“No, Linda.”

She rolled up onto the table and swung the rope over the main light fixture.

“Mrs Windom?” called a voice from the front door.

“FUCK YOU!” she bellowed as she tied a noose in the rope.

“Please, Linda, no,” John pleaded.

“I’ll meet you soon you deserting bastard,” she said, looking up at the sky.

John strained so much from the waist up but to no avail.

“I’m right here, Linda. Don’t do this,” he struggled out.

She hooked the noose around her neck and pulled tight. Her breathing had become even heavier, and John’s heart broke. He stopped struggling and watched, completely broken.

“Mrs Windom?”

“FUCK OFF” John replied for her.

Linda turned around and made a gap in the table for her to kick it away then stood up straight. She looked towards the smashed picture of John and began to cry heavily.

“Why did you have to die?” she only just managed to push out as the tears claimed her breath.

“I love you, John.”

“I love you, Linda.”

She kicked the table away and the rope pulled tight. John screamed and tried to look away but his head wouldn’t let him. As Linda’s face began to turn purple, John tried to move once more. He saw under her that the people banging on the door had broken it down and moved into the house.

Suddenly John’s left leg moved and he grabbed at it with both hands, pulling it as if to break away chains around it. He regained feeling and did the same to the right leg. He looked up at Linda and her face was becoming less purple and more the face he remembered when they were married.

“Linda!” he shouted and her eyes came down to him.

He stood up and rushed over to her, grabbing her legs and trying to relieve the pressure, but she was solid and wouldn’t move. He felt like the strength was coming back to his body, it seemed the more the life left Linda, the stronger he felt.

He looked up at her face and she was looking at him. She smiled.

John let go of her and stood back, staring at her face.

“John?” she whispered.

He looked at his hands to make sure it was him before he replied. The liver spots and callouses had gone. Even though these weren’t his hands, they didn’t seem alien to him.

“Yes, honey. It’s me.”

She smiled wider.

“Am I dead yet?”

The men who had broken through the door were auguring between themselves as they franticly pulled at Linda’s legs. He saw they had broken a window of the greenhouse to try and save her.

“Oh, Linda, what have you done?” John said looking back to her face. It was becoming the face he knew, the face he loved.

“John, I’m scared. Hold me.”

He rushed over again and held her legs close to him. She wasn’t rooted in place now.

She’s coming through, he thought.

John and the bailiffs were holding the same person but not in the same place and the arms weaved in and out of each other like ghosts, but John had forgotten all about them. Linda stroked the top of his head and made soothing noises. The men cut the rope and released their Linda from the noose. She dropped silently to the floor and the men huddled around her. John’s Linda was safely in his arms.

They embraced for what seemed to be an eternity, every feeling of happiness filling them both to the core. They were crying with joy and telling each other how much they loved each other, through snivelling un-audible breaths. They finally looked up from their embrace. They were young again. They were still in the greenhouse but outside it was the whitest of whites. Nothing was outside. John heard a clapping noise from behind them and there stood Mr Andrews.

“Bravo guys, bravo,” he said, still clapping. “That was fun wasn’t it?”

He came over and put his arms around them.

“You’re lucky to have got Linda though. Never happens, and unfortunately it was a major balls at our end which will give me a mountain of paperwork.” He made a file appear with a wave of his hands and brought out a pen.

“Would you like me to send your wife off on her own? I know that sometimes, from a human study, that the female can be quite difficult.”

“No,” John said emphatically and Linda squeezed him tighter.

“Well, if you’re sure…” Andrews replied and turned to Linda.

“Mrs Windom, would you like me to send Mr Windom off on his own? I know, from a human study, that the male can be quite difficult.”

Linda laughed and shook her head vigorously.

“Well, if you’re sure…”

John looked around at his wife. They were as young as they were on their wedding day and he thought Linda had never looked more beautiful.

The couple smiled at each other with a new youthful enthusiasm that they remembered all too well.

Mr Andrews made a laminated sheet of paper appear and cleared his throat.

“Mr Windom, and now Mrs Windom, We at the HCNP, The Human Containment and Nurture Program, hope that your allotted time has been happy. If it hasn’t, we, as previously stated, will not be held responsible for any wrongs that may have happened to your family and will frown upon any signs of negative emotions.”

The young Mr and Mrs Windom both laughed and Mr Andrews smiled with them and threw the paper away in a ball of smoke.

“Well, it is pretty silly I suppose. Nothing with these Ten Minutes has gone by the book so why start now?” Mr Andrews said letting out a short laugh.

“What’s next?” John said.

Mr Andrews jumped away from them and hopped onto the table in the centre.

“Oh, John. Can I call you John?”

Mr Andrews, once more, didn’t let him reply.

“That would be telling now wouldn’t it? All I have left to say is I hope whatever you do or wherever you go, try and make a difference, because unfortunately your time has finished. Your Ten Minutes are up in 5…4…3…2…1.”

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Filed under Short Stories

A View From The Way Down

Howell was on top

It was nothing to him because that’s where he had always been. Sharp suit, sharper wit and an arrogance that’s allowed him to forget which mug had bought the last round.

‘Howell, thought I’d find you here. What yer drinking?’

‘I’d tell you but you already know.’

The arse heavy cop took a stool and tapped the counter, sending stray peanut shells to the floor, and ordered two neat whiskey’s

‘I could use a favour from you, bud.’

Howell sighed and looked up from the bar. Craig Miles was slumped in the stool next to him, his balding skull covered in sweat which could have been the effort it took to sit down.

“People like you always do.”

“We got into a spot of bother on third, some real downers getting up in our faces…”

“You and who?” Howell interrupted

‘Huh?’ The pace had already got to Craig. This will be a long drink, Howell thought.

‘Who were you with?’

‘Oh Bennett, we were there just minding our own business when a beer can hit the roof, so I go over to these guys-’

“How many?” Howell interrupted again

‘Huh?’

‘How many Downers?’ he asked calmly

‘Oh, like three or four.’

‘Well, what was it three or four?’ Howell was just playing with him now. He was enjoying making the man feel uneasy.

‘Four, definitely four,’ Craig said taking the whiskey the bartender had just left and disposing a finger.

‘And he starts mouthing off at me, giving the old high and mighty about how it was accident and I should leave him be. Well, I said “You better fucking apologize to me cock sucker or I’ll rip your lungs out,” Craig spat finding it hard to keep his drink steady

“Jesus Christ Miles, keep a lid on.”

Howell took a slug and forced silence for a while, one of many of his social pleasures

“So what you’re saying is, he gave you the lip, and to impress the virgin patroller Bennett you got out and slapped him around a little, is that what I’m hearing, Miles?’

Miles thought about it for a moment. His face lit up as if he was going to argue but as quickly as the light bulb appeared it went out and he gave in and nodded which made his neck roll

‘How bad, Miles?’

‘He’s dead.’

Howell turned his back on the shivering lard and adjusted his hat.

‘What a state you have yourself in this time. It’s a tough one even for me, I already got you off for attempting to rape a broad even though you knocked her unconscious  before you could get your pecker out.’

Howell had to take another second before, once again, calm washed him down.

‘Same arrangement, Miles?’

Fatty nodded and quickly hopped off the stool.

‘Five-k, Howell old buddy, and you will put in a good word with the chief?’

Howell nodded.

‘Thank you. I’m really grateful, son.’

‘People like you always are, you fat shit. Now fuck off.’

Miles looked angry for a moment but then smiled. He put two fingers to his ear and muttered to himself as he left.

The bar was unusually empty for that time of night, the usual cogs on the wheel must have stayed home, seeing to the wife and kids or taking the dog for a stroll. Howell didn’t have those problems. He had a wife and all, probably waiting for his return by the lamp in the hall, just to try and catch a scent of perfume or coitus from him as he stumbled in, but Howell knew how to mask it. Howell always covered his tracks.

“Another Scotch,” he said

Howell had weaknesses which he knew very well. If a man knows his own weaknesses he can hide them without a second thought. Accentuate the positives and sweep the negatives under the rug but the problem with negatives was others would have to know of them too.

Good women and good odds, a bookie and a broad. These were his weaknesses. Howell could find both of these usually at the bottom of a bottle, which to him made the final pull even sweeter. He placed a bet or scored with a chick while feeling the burning afterglow of whisky in his throat.

A typical squeeze joined him at the bar. She was Mindy Jones. A rare breed of woman who would move quicker out of a joint then he could.

‘Howey baby,’ she purred before lighting a cigarette

Mindy was reasonably attractive to Howell but incredibly so for most. Her blond hair and blue eyes were enough to seduce any man in the room.

‘How come you don’t say hi to me first, huh? I have to wait my turn now do I, sweetie?’ She smiled at him, enjoying her game. Howell would normally bite but not tonight.

‘Put it out.’

‘What you say, darling?’

Howell wondered if he would have a conversation that evening where he didn’t have to repeat himself.

‘I said put that out.’

She looked stunned but complied.

“And when I want cunt, I’ll ask for it.’

Sometimes you just got to put a bitch in her place, he thought.

Mindy rose from the stool and slapped him hard across the face, knocking his hat to the floor and then stormed off to the other end of the room.

‘Got yourself a little trouble there, Howell? An upstanding gent as yourself should know how to talk to a lady but then you are in the habit of forgetting your debts now, aren’t you?’

Howell didn’t need to wait for his vision to clear to know who the man was. The Bookie, the Bastard Bookie.

The Bastard picked up his hat, placed it on Howell’s head and took a seat.

‘Six grand, Howell, and I hope you got a briefcase. I’ve always wanted one of those.’

Howell took his hands from his eyes and smiled.

The Bastard was also smiling.

“Now, you know I don’t have the cash and as much as I want to make you happy, I don’t have the briefcase ether. So what’s this really about? You know I’m good for it.”

“I know you were good for it, but times change. There was a time when you could take your pick of broad’s in a joint. Now the only thing you seem to be attracting is a palm across your face.”

The Bastard locked his hands together on the bar.

“Just as there was a time we could do business together and you could pay me for it when things didn’t go your way.”

Howell’s cool exterior was starting to slip.

“You fucking monkey. You really gonna come in here and start giving me shit over money? Let me tell you about a time I remember shall I, Bastard?”

The Bastard hated his name being used and Howell knew this.

If he wants to play, Howell thought, let’s fucking play.

“How old was she, old buddy? Twelve maybe thirteen? Crying rape at the top of her lungs so loud the county judge could hear. And who whispered in the right ear for you, Bastard? Me, you spineless sack of shit.”

The bastard was going red and Howell knew he had him on the ropes.

“If it wasn’t for me, it would be your turn to be raped every fucking time you went to wash your balls.”

The Bastard looked ready to kill but Howell knew he wouldn’t. He was smarter than that. Being in a bar with witnesses, not many but still enough, and hitting a cop? Howell was mentally pleading with him to throw a punch so he could bring him in. Something he had been trying to do since the debt started to get out of hand.

“Wow now, buddy boy, calm yourself down. I’m only trying to get what I’m owed,” The Bastard said as calmly as he could.

Howell straightened his hat and went back to his drink.

“Well, I don’t have it so fuck off.”

The Bastard started to howl, tears instantly streaming down his face. He laughed so hard that as he called over to the bartender he started a raspy cough that sounded dreadful.

Maybe this son of a bitch will die first, Howell thought.

“Two five fingers,” The Bastard choked out and eventually turned back to Howell.

“Ooh you are a funny little shit, I’ll give you that. You have such a chip on your shoulder and for good reason. You seem to be able to talk anything or anyone out or into the shit.”

Then bartender came with the drinks and The Bastard knocked back three of the fingers.

“But you haven’t done so well with me buddy, have you?

Howell remained silent.

“I wonder who it could have been who tipped off your lot about the bookies in the florist up on tenth? Or the one in the dry cleaning joint next door to this place huh? Was that you, Howey?”

Again Howell stayed quiet.

“Of course it fucking was,” The Bastard answered for him

“But it was lucky there was nothing there to tie me to ether of them which proves…” He stopped to knock back the rest of the glass. “That I mustn’t be as dumb as I look”

Howell looked up into his eyes and he was, for the first time in a long while, rattled but he tried not to show it in the same way a man will cover up whether or not he can win a fist fight in the feeling out process. There feeling out stage was over and Howell was starting to panic.

The Bastard went into his inside jacket pocket and pulled out a brown envelope.

“Let’s see you talk your way out of that.”

Howell took a mouthful then opened the envelope and let the contents spill onto the bar. What fell out, wrapped in an elastic band, was a small stack of photographs. The image on the top was Howell inside the dry cleaners and he certainly wasn’t doing his washing. Howell slid off the elastic band and skimmed the first few pictures all of which showed him partaking in some highly illegal activity. It was enough to get him into some serious shit.

“You’re trying blackmail? Is that it? I don’t blame you I know I would if I were you.” Howell drained the rest of his glass. “But where would that leave you? I’d be in county and you would be out of pocket so let’s cut the shit and why don’t you tell me how you want me to go about paying you?”

The smile on The Bastards face returned and it wasn’t going anytime soon.

“You know how much I make in a week, Howell, so you cut the shit and stop pretending I would miss a measly six grand. Besides, you haven’t finished looking through the shots.”

Howell slowly went back to the pictures and continued through.

There was a shot of him with cards and cash in front of him, another of him stood talking with a man named Jonny Hoke, a well-known mobster, next to a roulette wheel. Then Howell moved his thumb over the last picture. It was a shot of him outside a bar, probably this bar, with his pants around his ankles and Mindy up against the wall.

“Well,” Howell, said holding it up to towards one of not so many light bulbs over head, “I’m glad you got my best side and it looks like young Mindy is having a good time.” He looked around for her but she wasn’t there. She had already found another lowlife to go home with tonight.

“Is this for your personal collection? I never figured you had such a thing for me. I suppose you have to think of somebody to get you going.” Howell wrapped up the pictures and dropped them into The Bastards lap.

“That’s not for me, Howell. They’re for that darling wife of yours, in fact she must have got them by now. I sent a guy over with some about an hour ago and the ones she received defiantly didn’t show your best side.”

Howell felt sick. If his wife looked over those pictures his perfect suburban marriage would be over and in a time where a family man gets ahead in life, he being a single man, a disgraced single man, would be left behind.

“What the fuck do you want?” Howell spat.

The phone rang in the bar.

“I don’t believe for a second that you would send those pictures over there.”

The bartender came over.

“Call for you, Mr Howell. It’s your wife”

Howell went white as a sheet. “Put her on hold.”

The Bastard started to laugh again and reached over to slap Howell on the back. “What were you saying?”

For the first time that evening Howell noticed the jukebox. The track playing was Muddy Waters – Still a fool.

“As far as what I want goes, Howell, maybe I don’t want anything from you. Maybe all I want is to see your smug ass knocking down a peg or two, which will defiantly happen now.”

Howell saw red and reached for his gun but The Bastard had beaten him to the draw.

“Come on now, Howey. We’re all friends here,” he said with his gun pointed to Howell’s chest. “Just stand up, really fucking slowly and make your way towards the door.”

Howell did as he was told and got up from the stool and started walking. The jukebox in the corner had now, in Howell’s mind, been replaced by old muddy himself and although the guitar was playing, Muddy wasn’t strumming the chords. He had a cigarette in one hand and a frog in the other as he sang,

“I do hate to lose, I do hate to lose, Oh lord, sure ‘nough I do”

Howell reached the door and stopped as The Bastard pressed the gun into his back.

“Now get the fuck out, don’t come back and know that you don’t fuck with the Basta-”

Howell spun round and knocked the gun from his hand with his left then continued to turn while throwing a right hook. He was ready for it though and quick as a flash threw a counter left which sent Howell sprawling through the door onto the pavement. The stars cleared from his eyes just in time to see The Bastard dive on top and start raining down blows. Howell managed to sweep him, ended up on top and began to pummel. By the eighth punch the body went stiff underneath him and Howell drew his gun. He screamed as he fired two shots into The Bastards face and then threw the gun to the ground.

Apart from his quick inhales and exhales there was silence. Muddy had stopped. He stood up in a daze but stayed over the body, looking into the hole that used to be the face of the last guy to ever buy him a drink. Howell would have liked the chance to remember him.

He wiped The Bastards blood from his face and eyes and looked ahead. A group of people stood, mouths wide open staring at him. Howell staggered forward.

“What are you staring at?” he shouted as he retrieved his gun from the pool beside the body. “Don’t you know who the fuck I am?”

“I know who you are, Howell. You’re under arrest for accepting something of value to betray your legal responsibilities.” The officer looked down at the corpse. “And murder in the second degree.” The officer carried on talking but Howell wasn’t listening. Nor was he paying attention to the raised weapons trained on him by the other officers.

Fucking Craig Miles, he thought.

Craig had set him up. Howell thought about all the times he had got Craig out of the shit and that, in hindsight, maybe he probably shouldn’t have been so smug.

“Son of a bitch.” Howell raised his gun but was dead before he hit the ground.

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Staircase for the Soul – Short Story by Andy James

He was truly happy. A kind of happiness he didn’t need to share for validation. He had a newly romanced air about him that would drive a hopeless cynic to insanity and walked with a smile without a sense of purpose, apart from the bacon and milk he’d been sent for. Paul took in the world around him. He pulled the shapes and smells from the surrounding space into an impenetrable bubble of thought reserved just for one. Thinking of the woman waiting for him back home, he floated.

His friends only meant well when they told him not move so fast and,  when he thought about the situation logically, he agreed. Only, love isn’t logical. It was her face, the face of a new world in which he wished to belong. That’s the last thing that eased through his mind as he and the car collided. He was hopeless to avoid it as he floated into the oncoming Sunday traffic. Not seeing the Ford estate until it was too late. The combination of bonnet, window and eventually concrete pulled him into the darkness.

Arrival

No bright light, he thought as he lay, too afraid to open his eyes. He didn’t want to see what happened to his body. He was sure it wouldn’t be pretty, people running around the mangled mess on the floor and falling over themselves to ring an ambulance. He couldn’t understand why people swarmed to see an accident.

In reality, Paul was deserted by the driver as soon as his head hit the pavement and was only found twenty minutes later by an old man walking his dog. He opened his eyes into darkness and raised his hand to his face. He couldn’t see anything.  There was no pain but the feeling remained when he rubbed his hands together. That’s when a light appeared and flowed over his skin with a warmth he felt inside, not out. His eyes adjusted and the moving staircase revealed itself.

The escalator came into Paul’s view, stretching into the air from an unseen source with an unseen destination. All he could hear was a low hum he had come to associate with this sort of machine and all he could see were the stairs. He knew it was solid ground beneath his feet but it was an empty darkness that could have spread infinitely or been confined to a centimetre below him. There was air as he was breathing , and light from somewhere otherwise he wouldn’t be able to see the escalator at all. There had to be some grasp on reality but reason and logic were failing to hold on. He thought of the estate that had hit him and of the woman he was now certain he had left behind. He was grateful for the swift departure but he would have taken all the pain that anything could have thrown at him for one last glance.  Paul stood at the foot of the stirring steps and looked for the end.

“Hello?” he shouted towards the summit, surprised to hear his voice. “Is this it?”

Paul waited for an answer from the seemingly never-ending stairs and quickly received one.

“Maybe not.”

Before he had chance to spin around, Paul was pushed aside by a much larger man with a guitar slung over his back. He had a well-worn suit and face to match, stories etched all over his dark skin.

“Sorry about that buddy, but I’ve got a date with fate. I’m guessing you do too, so hop on”

Stunned to have seen another person, Paul jogged up to meet the scruffy man sitting on the edge of a step with a smirk.

“I take it this is your first time then?”

Trust in this place seemed a moot point but Paul still thought he should tread carefully and took his time to answer.

“You could say that,” he eventually croaked.

The man’s grin widened.

“Thought so, you look like you’ve shit a brick.” He stood up and held out his right hand.

“Jonny B, you get what you see. Nice to meet you.”

“Paul,” he replied, taking his hand. “Where are we?”

“I don’t know what it’s really called but to me it’s a staircase for the soul. A kinda beg-ulator. Where folks who died before their time can come and beg for it back.” Jonny B looked over the side and then glanced down the steps as a young woman wearing a white scarf around her head and a dirty looking maids uniform stepped tentatively on.

“A bit of skirt down there and I’m sat here with you.” He sighed and winked at Paul which made him follow his line of sight. “I get all the luck.”

To Paul she looked like something out of a Jane Austen novel and, even at their height, he could tell she was crying. He, as strange as the situation was, had Jonny B to keep his mind off the gravity of what was happening. He hadn’t been allowed to settle and take it all in. The woman slowly rising didn’t have that luxury. She was alone with no way of knowing what was happening but Paul knew he wouldn’t be the one to help her.

“Look funny to you?” Jonny said and pointed. “That girl?”

“She looks like she’s just walked right off a period drama.”

Jonny looked sickened and placed his hands behind his head.

“How could you tell that from here? Man, must be her time of the month.”

Paul shook his head and laughed at Jonny’s confused expression. “Never mind”

The musician ignored Paul’s giggles and looked back down at the woman.

“With a dress like that she’s not of my time. That’s the beauty of this thing, there is no time. She looks like that because that’s the way they dress where she’s from. Hell, last time I was here I met a guy who said he could jump back and forward through time because in the year 2467 they have found a way to do it. The fool was wearing next to nothing.” Jonny put his hand around the front of his dirty jeans and readjusted.

“The damn thing looked starved of air.” He sat back and looked up into the darkness above their heads.

“That’s not a future I wanna feel.”

“How did he end up here?”

“He said a Dino stepped on him and he needed to go back because he was the only one who knew how to get him and his group back to their time.” He smirked and lent back on the step. “All those brains and he didn’t think to share them.”

Jonny put his guitar on the step above his head and stretched out in the space he had.

“How did you get here then, Paulie?” He gave him a once over.  “Plane crash?”

“No, I was hit by a car.” Paul didn’t know why the conversation was flowing so freely. He thought it must have been the lack of time to process what was happening. He looked back over his shoulder, the woman was still crying. “How did you get here?”

“Drugs baby,” Jonny said, surprisingly optimistic. “Same as last time.”

Paul raised his right hand and began to clap one-handed. “Wow.”

Jonny looked hurt and threw his arms in the air as if performing to a crowd. Something Paul doubted he did very often.

“It’s not like you get a slap on the wrist and they let you go, buddy. This is some serious shit. You don’t pass your interview it’s game over, and they don’t give you the courtesy to remember it if you do. I only remember being here now I’m back.”

Jonny ran his hand over the neck of his guitar.

“You come through with the only thing that could save you, a token, a way of improving mankind by a future action. I got my guitar. I’m gonna bring people together with my music. But the scene has got me twice now.” He raised his arms again in that theatrical manner.

“All that booze, women and drugs man.” He made a kissing noise with his lips and then whistle. “I know that my seem a waste of time in some circles but what a way to waste it.”

He looked down at the step he was sitting on.

“Let’s hope third times a charm, eh?”

Paul sat on the step below and reached into his pocket. His fingers ran over something sharp but he felt no pain, even when his hand closed around it and he took it out. It looked like a piece of rock, just ordinary, one that held his life in its jagged edges.

“Is that your saviour?” Jonny began to laugh. “Wow man, you’re fucked. That might increase my chances buddy, you’re a dead cert for the drop,” he said, with an emphasis on ‘DEAD’ that made Paul feel sick.

He strummed a few chords and left Paul to ponder.

“What time are you from then?” he finally asked after taking it in.

“1970, buddy. How about you?”

“England, 2012.”

“A brit? Nice.” Hard as he tried to conceal it, Paul caught ever drop of sarcasm in his voice.

“I’m from all over the USA, constantly travelling. I can’t even remember where I was born.”

Paul thought there was more to Jonny then what came out of his mouth but also that he was looking at a dead man.

Maybe they send the dead in two by two because I can’t see this rock changing my situation, he thought.

“Plus, my folks died when I was pretty young so can’t ask them anymore, Not that you would care man, or should.” He strummed out a few more cords and continued. “Every man has his cross to bear, in life and in death.” He laughed and slapped Paul on the back.

“Or at least that’s what they tell you.”

A slight buzzing came from above and a large platform with a door came into view. That door held the answers to questions Paul didn’t think he wanted.

Keep moving or turn into the same quivering state as Jane Eyre, he thought.

As they walked over to the door, Jonny started to get a worried look and his body performed an involuntary dance.

“Just one question before we part, buddy.” He started to look frantic and his eyes grew wide. “You’re from 2002, right?”

Paul frowned and it was his turn to look at the floor. “2012, Jonny. How well do you think you’re going to do in there if you don’t listen out here?”

This made him do the nervous shuffle one more time. “Okay man, yeah 2012. I was just wondering, in your time, you ever heard of Jonny B?”

Paul turned from the musician, not able to look into his eyes. He should have said he didn’t really follow the music scene and that, if he got another chance, the world is what you make of it, but Jonny had already thrown away one second chance and he didn’t think he was going to get another.

“No”

Paul didn’t have anything else, no words of comfort. He turned back to see the realisation spread on the musicians face

“You go first, Paul,” Jonny said gravely, and he turned his back and sat down. “My stocks have just taken a dive.”

For Jonny if the dream dies, he dies, and it was written all over his face.

Paul turned and looked at the door. It was stuck out, surrounded by air, and nothing appeared to be behind it. Paul was now alone and the situation had finally caught him with his pants down. He reached out to the handle, the last moments of conversation with the musician still fresh in his mind as he turned and walked through.

Paul shut the door behind him and scanned the room. When he was sixteen, Paul had once been caught in the wood behind the school with a joint in his mouth to impress a girl, who didn’t show up. He was caught by the harlot of physical education and sent to the headmaster’s office. This was that office. Everything was exactly the same, from the pictures of past glories and star students, to the bland carpet and cream covered walls, everything apart from the figure behind the desk. The man was dressed in an extremely well-worn black suit with a white shirt and red tie. His face looked drawn with a sickly glow fighting to peer through a matted beard. Coupled with a bald head, he looked like a newly produced egg. There was no grin on his face, just a stern set of locked lips which screamed professionalism even if the rest of him looked like it was just coming off a night out that lasted longer than anyone wanted it to.

“Take a seat, Mr Hilt, and place your token of the table in front of you,” he said casually without looking up from his clipboard. “We must discuss your situation.”

Paul felt the temperature drop dramatically as he took the seat opposite. He fished out the piece of rubble and, as instructed, placed it on the table in front.

The man quickly scanned the table, one eye fixing on the small rock, and raised an eyebrow. Amusement flashed in his eyes, which Paul either missed or refused to believe, before they returned to normal as his gaze fell back upon the clipboard page.

“My name is Mr Andrews. I am the interviewer of wayward souls in all of earths past, present and future, and I will be your one chance to return.” He pushed the clipboard to one side and clicked his fingers. Out of thin air, a laminated sheet of paper materialized into Mr Andrews’s hands, making Paul start. “Just a parlour trick. Don’t worry.”

Mr Andrews cleared this throat and began to read.

“My name is Mr Andrews.” He paused just long enough to point at himself. “I am the interviewer of wayward souls in all of earths past, present and future.”

Paul frowned as was about to comment on Mr Andrews’s repetition but decided it was something he did a lot.

“And I will be your only chance of return.” For the first time thier eyes locked and a smile spread across his face. “Even then there is no guarantee.” The smile disappeared and he returned to the script.

“Mr Paul Hilt, your rights are as follows: you are allowed to state your case when, and only when, I have received your personal file. Your records will tell me how you died prematurely and the date for your ADD or Actual Date of Departure. Begging and pleading is not forbidden but is frowned upon as it’s a pointless act of emotion and will not help you in your case.” He paused to take a sip of water out of a glass that appeared, before placing it on the table.

Paul’s head was swimming but all he could do was listen to the man and try to keep a grasp of his mind. Mr Andrews’ arm pointed and performed a sweep of the room without looking up from the page.

“The room in which you are sitting represents a serious moment in your life, not too serious, but one you will be able to remember to try and express the seriousness of this situation. We at the HCNP, Human Containment and Nurture Program, take the matter of life very seriously and therefore all one world theologies and mentions of Gods or higher powers are not forbidden but are frowned upon as it is a pointless act of emotion and will not help you in your case. The candidate, insert name here, must understand their case is incredibly important and will be treated with the utmost care and attention.”

Utmost care? Paul thought. Not enough to deserve my name being inserted where it was meant to.

His thoughts were interrupted as Mr Andrews continued.

“The candidate also must realise, depending on which time period he or she has died in, Earth may have a situation of over-population, therefore the interview stage will be skipped and I will proceed to termination.”

Paul went white.

“If this is the case your interviewer will have already have proceeded with the termination and it will be over soon.”

Mr Andrews placed the laminated paper on the table and clicked in the air once more to produce another sheet. He cleared his throat and continued reading. “Congratulations. At your time of death, Earth’s over-population has another sixty-three years before becoming a problem to anyone, so the interviewer will hear your case.”

The interviewer took another sip of liquid, and again read from the sheet without a change in expression.

“Your token is a symbol of your worth to the human race and you are advised to explain to the best of your ability. However, in the interest of consideration for the interviewer, you must be brief.”

The laminated sheet merged into a big orange file which Mr Andrews slammed on the desk.

“Okay, now the legal technicalities are out of the way, we will proceed. First, we review your token and see if you can visualise any scenario where it would come in handy for the sake of humanity.”

The clipboard reappeared with a pen attached, and he waited for Paul to begin his defence. Paul felt cheated. A rock, in his mind, was not a token to inspire this jobs-worth to return life.

“I have no idea what this rock is for,” he said.

Mr Andrews started to skim through the file and made a gesture with his hands that said ‘keep going and tell me more’.

“All I know is I am more than this rock. I have more to offer the world than this can ever show. I have an amazing life and an amazing girlfriend who I’m planning on spending the rest of my life with and start a family, a family with an infinite number of possibilities and goals we could reach.”

Mr Andrews stopped on one of the pages near the back and he looked up at Paul with guilt, as if his professional exterior was penetrated by the desperate man’s words, but he didn’t interrupt.

“I admit I haven’t done a lot with my life on a grand scale. I’m not a rock star or sportsman, giving happiness or hope to millions, but I have given happiness to the few people I know.”

The interviewer looked increasingly agitated, shifting around in his seat and placing his hand on his face.

“And isn’t that what humanity is? Isn’t that what humanity should be, about the little guys?”

I’ve got him on the ropes, Paul thought.

“It’s the little guys that can change the world. The average Joes that can change the mood of anyone they meet with just a smile, a stranger’s smile that can be the catalyst or springboard into inspiration. I haven’t a clue what my future will bring but I know whatever the possibilities, whether they’re good or bad, I can face them head on, without fear, because I’m the guy the little guy can rely on.”

Paul slumped back into his seat. He hadn’t noticed the tears that were trying to dry on his cheeks until he took in a deep breath and felt the liquid cool. He wiped his eyes and looked up at Mr Andrews’s open mouth and face of embarrassment.

Not the reaction I was going for, Paul thought, but he would take that over his earlier stone face. The interviewer stood up and slapped his mouth lightly with one hand.

“I’m sorry, Mr Hilt. I have the wrong file, just a moment.” He spun on his heels and quickly left the room through a door Paul couldn’t see. He left him on his own, for the first time since arriving in this limbo world, and left him a broken man crying hysterically.

He began to wonder why he was even here at all. His death, it seemed, was close enough for him to taste and also close enough for him to want.

The door opened again and a flustered interviewer returned and sat down.

“Sorry about that. You were saying?”

Disbelief spread across Paul’s face and he began to scream at the man opposite him. If any realization of the situation was left, it was flowing in an instant.

“JUST FUCKING LET ME DIE!” he repeated over and over.

“I’m sorry you have not been treated with the respect you deserve. Mistakes happen and I apologise.” His voice took on a cool tone. “Can we looked at your file and continue?”

Paul shook off the latest tears and took a few long, satisfying breaths.

“Okay,” he whispered.

Slowly, the binding was removed from the correct file and Mr Andrews started thumbing the pages.

“The piece of rubble is important to your cause, Mr Hilt, so let’s have a look at your information and find out why.”

He started to take a few sheets of paper and pictures from the file and lay them out in front of him. Paul could only watch as his life was thumbed through, like a journalist pouring over images of a minor celebrity doing coke in the back of a whistle-blowing taxi.

“These look familiar to you Mr Hilt?” The interviewer said calmly, like a sergeant interviewing his suspect. He slid the photos across the table.

Paul’s past and present was placed before him. Snapshots in time of any major moment, Christmas with parents, school plays with him never the lead but still proud, and on the far right was her face, the face of a future that would never be his.

“Yes,” he said softly. “These are mine, my memories.”

Mr Andrews held more photos in his hand but put placed them back into the folder. All except one.

“How about this one?”

He slid the last one across to Paul. The photo was of the Hilton hotel. The building was alight with a huge ball of fire erupting from one side. Paul pushed the picture back and shook his head.

“Means nothing to me, defiantly not from my time. That building’s still there and intact.” Then it hit him, the pictures were past, present and future.

“No Mr Hilt, it’s not your time. Well, not yet anyway.” He took the final note from the file and scanned while talking. “The explanation for the rubble is right here. Usually a candidate knows the reason why they should be sent back into their own time, that’s what the escalators are for. They give the soul a chance to process the information. It speeds this process up a great deal,” he said, flicking a finger back and forth between them.

He stood from the desk and walked back and forth behind it with his hand on his chin in some homage to Sherlock Holmes’ style of deducing. If he wasn’t trying to work out the answer to a question he came up with, Paul may have thought the charade convincing. As it was, the interviewer looked more Frank Drebin then Holmes.

“As you were distracted by Jonny B, your soul didn’t have the chance to process that information. The Victorian lady for example, the one you saw crying, she had time to understand the reason so she has an immediate pass back to her time.”

He remembered the woman as she stepped onto the escalator, her hands wrapped around her body, cradling her chest from the wheezing sobs.

“Why was she crying?” Paul asked, his voice weak.

“Luckily, statute four hundred and fifty seven of the candidate confidentiality bill doesn’t come into effect until next week,” he said smiling. “And I do enjoy a bit of gossip.” All the professionalism had drained from his voice. “Her token is a knife, a really big knife and the reason why she gets a free pass is, with that knife, she will save her daughter from a brutal death.” Mr Andrews sat back down and closed Paul’s file.

“She will save her two-year-old daughter from being raped and stabbed to death by the man she loves, the child’s father, by slitting his throat.”

Paul couldn’t reply and Mr Andrews seemed content in letting him think about it for a moment. Of course, it meant nothing to him, he had to deal with this sort of situation on a daily basis but seeing as though Paul was about to get his own dose of morbidity, he let him sit on it for a while.

Eventually Paul spoke. “How can she live and return to her time with that? Either you don’t pass her and she is gone or you send her back knowing that she has to kill the one she loves.” It was Paul’s turn to lean forward on the desk. “That sir, is fucked up.”

The interviewer shook his head. “The candidate never remembers being in this place, unless you return. Didn’t the musician tell you that?”

Paul couldn’t remember and he wasn’t going to try, his mind and eyes already returned back to the picture of the Hilton in flames. He didn’t answer the interviewers question and instead asked one of his own.

“How do I fit into that?” he asked, pointing to the photo. It was a question he now didn’t want answered but the inevitability was painful and his insides begged for a swift and merciful end.

Mr Andrews pulled a final sheet from the file without looking and placed it in front of him in the same precise manner as the others.

“Mr Hilt, you also get a free pass out of this place.” He sat back down on the chair, but looked ready to spring back up again.

“In six months’ time, after recovering from your unfortunate accident, you will save a lot of people. You will limit the damage of a bomb that will be detonated during a Conservative party conference. The ‘Occupy’ crowd decide to take things a little further than anyone deemed necessary or possible.” He rose from the chair and walked around the table to face his candidate, again giving Paul time to digest but noticing his face had turned even whiter, he decided to wrap it up. “If it’s any conciliation, you won’t remember a thing and you save a lot of people.”

Paul couldn’t move. He could only watch as the interviewer took a seat on the edge of the table. There was no ability to take in what was going. To Paul, his grip on the situation was weak and the grip on his stomach was too much and he vomited down the side of his chair.

“Even the soul can be sick,” Mr Andrews said with a chuckle. He raised his hands in front of him and clicked revealing an Ipad size screen with doctors rushing around a broken body. The appearance of the screen drained the laughter out of the interviewers face.

“This is you Paul. It’s a sorry sight to see, but you will recover.” He reached back behind the desk and pressed a button which made the screen, in which Paul could see himself, spark.

“Time to return, Mr Hilt. Goodbye”

Just as the defibrillators hit Paul on the screen, a worm hole opened and dragged the soul back into the darkness.

Paul opened his eyes and was instantly hit with mild flames all over his body. He could remember it all: strutting out into the street, the Ford as it came closer, and then waking up here. Paul was very happy to be alive and he took comfort.

“Paul?”

It took him a few seconds to register who the voice belonged too. One look at her smile reminded him instantly.

“Amie with the face,” Paul managed to push from the back of a sore throat.

She rushed forward and hugged her fallen man with an intensity Paul’s wounds could have done without but his soul was crying out for.

“I’m never letting you out of my sight again,” she whispered, trying to hold back her tears.

Paul kissed her and smiled. “Don’t worry. I’ll never leave you again.”

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