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Burn



Wolf's - Short Story Collection Number 4. Copyright © All Rights Reserved - Wolf Sherman. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means electronically, electrostatic magnetic tape or mechanically; including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the author. Although this is a fictional work, some locations, organisations and events are factual. The characters and times in the storyline are fictional - therefore, all resemblances to actual people present or past are purely coincidental.

Index of the series:



Regarding the series, "The World Is Broken, And The Blacksmith Is Dead", each of the collections consists of a number of short stories. My aim was to produce a story length of each; in varying sizes, where the reader could get comfortable and start and finish each one in a single sitting, and move on to the next one.



"The Fog", Collection number 1:

Let There Be Light - Prequel to "The Reaper's Design" (The link between cancer and The Pill)

Lilac Cadillac - Family Ties

Wake Up Jormungand - Viking mythology

Firing Gunter - What happens to our world when we're fired



"Smoke Screen", Collection number 2:

A Broken Ladder - Betrayal

As Above, So Below - How Well Do We Know Our Loved Ones?

Cat - Anaesthetics

Coastline - Politics

I Forgot To Mention, My Name Is Luigi - Metaphysical



"Blissful Uncertainty", Collection number 3:

Bottled Revenge - Revenge

I SPY WITH MY LITTLE EYE - Ghosts

Debbie - Our Skin (Adult - Medical)

Page 99 - Love

The Spellchecker - Secret Service



"Burn", Collection number 4:

Tommy - Pyromania

WHEN HELL FREEZES OVER - Virolog

Connecting Sam - Artificial intelligence

Death Wish - Political



"A Winter Sunrise", Collection number 5:

The Librarian - The gory underbelly of the world of filing. "You get all sorts of people in a library, and the librarian gets it all…" - Terry Pratchett. 68-Year old Anne was such a person. The ones who worked under her loved her dearly. The ones who worked alongside her had the utmost respect for the old Anne. But then there were the ones who Anne had worked for, who feared her. A peculiar thing for a library atmosphere had one not known Anne intimately...

EDGE - Fear, Horror, and Terror. The ordeal of a small girl who'd been abducted, and learns too soon in her young life, that Fear, Horror, and Terror, are by no means the same thing.

I read somewhere that fear SCREAMS. But terror doesn't do that... Terror, whispers.

Baklava - Anarchy. Allesandra, a Greek Intelligence member, has her hands full trying to track down the world's most wanted anarchist, who'd been wrecking utter havoc on a global scale, and who'd decided on a cat-and-mouse game with the top minds in the intelligence world.

Index of this book:



Tommy - Pyromania

WHEN HELL FREEZES OVER - Virology

Connecting Sam - Artificial intelligence

Death Wish - Political

Tommy



Foreword



Fire And Ice

Some say the world will end in fire

Some say in ice

From what I've tasted of desire

I hold with those who favour fire.

- Robert Frost

Synopsis



Pyromania - From pyro- "fire" + mania "madness, frenzy." The propensity leading an insane person to accomplish their purpose by burning, has been considered to merit particular notice, and to constitute a variety of monomania.

Prologue



A frazzled mother eagle had been circling the top of the Pledge mountains, and eventually detected a narrow ledge from where she could safely spy down at the peculiar bright yellow noisy thing. She knew that it was responsible for the crumbling of the awkward stone cradle she had in her wisdom chosen to nest - seven-hundred meters up and far away from the foot of the mountain. The frantic calling-out of her two ravenous children had ceased instantly the moment their long descent down to earth ended, and she turned her head, fighting off the bright eastern light, to zoom-in for any movement down below. Each of her babies; when their roughly stacked shelter had tumbled over the edge, instinctively gripped on to as many sticks; following their frantic somersaulting, as their small claws could gather, all during the merciless pluck from breakfast on the high crevice. She swapped and let the still-spooked rabbit tire itself out more in her left machine-like claw, while wondering if her children was still hungry. Suddenly, a second massive and deafening tremor shook the mountain and thundered up in her direction; warning that the rabbit; now having surrendered to a limp act on the stage of death in a desperate plea for mercy, was not number one on her list of priorities. Releasing her left claw, she darted a last look at the bloodied fur-ball, who wasn't quite sure how to make peace with its new habitat halfway up to heaven - bolting gratefully for the full ten meters of a lower ledge that it had miraculously hopped onto, then skidded to a slippery halt as it froze when it realised that there was no way down. The distraught mother swooped down and landed next to the jumble of various sized sticks and down-feathers, to investigate what had become of her children. First nudging at the lifeless pair with her beak, she froze, then burnt her large eyes up and down at the humming yellow monster, unsure how to strategise and exact her revenge on it. In the far distance, she barely made out her regular visitors' small silhouettes. They again came to appreciate from afar the usual breakfast ritual. She noticed that the smallest of the three; when tragedy struck, had turned on his heels and bolted, screaming - still arrowing across the tall dry grass away from the mountain. The other two short silhouettes turned away too and disappeared. After hopping over to where her three regular visitors had planted themselves earlier, the still perplexed mother bird studied the remains of a broken walking stick. It seemed to her that the walking stick - now snapped in half - was no match for the enormous yellow monster.

Ten minutes later while scanning the dusty road from high above, she was surprised to see the smallest of the three creatures still kicking up dust, heading towards the main road.

At ten o'clock that night the lonely mother bird peered down from the black blanket that draped the mountain, at what seemed to be an unusual bright orange sunrise. But she wasn't certain why it was limited only to the centre of town. The noisy yellow machines never came back; not that year.

The following winter the three small silhouettes arrived back around the same time as an even bigger yellow monster's growl this time scaled the side of the mountain. Death struck again, there was a broken walking-stick again, and as the mother eagle and her husband waited that night, they were not disappointed. That night, once more it seemed as if the sun rose over town - with bright red and orange tongues licking, consuming most of the town, and people scattering in every direction. This time accompanied by a blinding flash that burnt for two days. The yellow monsters that killed their baby eagles never dared to return.

Chapter 1



As usual, it swung anyway. Day in and day out, season after season, without any interest to count the decades.

It had been indifferent to whether it had been noticed. The town's dust-laden emblem had been swinging in the dry wind, tethered by two large rusty chains, for so many sunsets, that no one could recall who actually hung the burnt-in depiction of a small boy riding a pig, on the faded and weather-worn slice of a big tree. Legend had it, that it was Jimmy Short, who allocated the town its well-deserved and most peculiar emblem - as a tribute to his son. 'Time' had last bothered a visit to the drowsy old cattle-farming town of Woodford, shortly after its founding in 1890 - or thereabouts, and then - as it happens when you get on time's nerves, by boring it, time promptly left... Both the road names, the width of the roads, and the layout of the town, had remained as unchanged as the mountains, in more than a century. One of the few modernnesses added to the seldom-visited town however, were two rows of yellowish dim street lights - one on either side of the main road. While the one row lit up - or, attempted - the Court House, and school on the one side, the other row did what it could at night for the general dealer and bar, that were neighbours and were wedged-in between the post office and the chemist, on the opposite side. The first inhabitants of Woodford were of the opinion that the town was never destined to sit 'high on the hog', so to speak. Rather, it was like something had gone out of its way to limit the valley dwellers, to either keep themselves occupied with farming livestock, or to dig ever so shallow, to plant food. There was much digging going on during the early days - but not too deep. Well, two feet deep, was ever the deepest - a proud record set by one wildly-excited prospector - a Jimmy Short, who had sold up the meagre proof of his existence elsewhere, to head for the 'big time' and lay claim to 'his' share of gold. The unchanging place, managed to stretch Jimmy's patience just too far over a brief period of three weeks - from getting off his pale-brown horse that had seen better days - long before, and that he had tied up, to a worn wooden post near the general dealer - till heading out of town again - disillusioned, back to a life which he swore he'd ever see again. The owner of the old general dealer shop who normally opened at roughly 9 o'clock and shut his doors at exactly 2 o'clock in the afternoon, sold everything from cheese and boots, right down to coffee, and the few tools and spades that had saved the men precious hours finding their rightful gold. The aged old owner didn't see it his place to warn anyone off from digging for the precious metal... Having just celebrated his eighty-third birthday at the time, and being a widower with no children, he needed every cent to pay for his small room upstairs from the shop, overlooking 'Jeff's Cold Beer & More' across the sandy road. The 'More' part of the name was what the old man's main competition was. Much more than the cold beer that they had served their thirsty wary patrons - as it was mostly lonely men coming to hunt down this life-changing thing called gold. The harsh environment had bad-lucked all, hot-dry week after week, into desperate loneliness. Even the married ones, grew lonely soon, as there were indeed others who struck gold. Briefly. The remedy of course, lay waiting in comfort just over the road. Sometimes it even sat up and just wanted to talk. As people do - sometimes. Apparently. That the dusty stretch of earth between the two mountains, had been toying with the emotions of anxious gold prospectors, would be an understatement. To the early prospectors, it was as if exactly thirty-three massive clumps of solid glistening yellow gold, ranging in size between that of a chicken egg, up to just slightly larger than a baseball, had been strategically placed around the seven-thousand long stretched hectares of land, up to almost where the mountain ranges merged by the river. And that had been all. Not a single speck of gold had ever been retrieved again after that. The spades and picks that had in the distant past clanged as it purposefully echoed off the granite-like soil, were last seen working what felt like forever ago. Most of those old tools were rusted beyond use, in the back of a barn somewhere -by prospectors who were too out-of-pocket to leave town, and were forced to try their hand at raising wheat or corn, or if luck allowed, some cattle. The rest of the spades were either lost, or thrown - hard, into the Kwan river, with screaming vows never to look for gold again. Initially mother nature merely tested the patience of the wary hopeful visitors from afar; who had accurately and deliberately pegged out claims for riches - then, mother nature continued to drag their tired souls along, as she - with impunity - stretched her indifference over the miners' sanity between two of the longest biting winters - in the valley. In Woodford, every morning, since time immemorial; as not to disturb the balance in the peaceful sleepy town, time would tug lightly on the blueish-purple blanket that hugged the mountain surrendered valley, and as if in slow motion, allowing the eastern sky to light up its pink haze first, before pouring daylight over the mountain-tops in patient trickles. At night sometimes, however, with a rushed urgency, time would kick over its charcoal dyed paint tin, and splash long dark deliberate streaks across the skies and hide the sun. It suited the legend, who lay suspended in limbo for much toiling that had to be masterfully accomplished, one day again, at night - by the successive keepers of time...

"Guys, would someone please be a star and stack some logs and light a fire? Granddad will be down in a moment... It's Friday so it's your evening off, I'll help mom with the dishes."

"Of course Dad."

"It's been fifteen years since losing his sight, don't you think we should at least once more discuss with him, if he wouldn't be better off at the old age home? At least he'd be around people to socialise with, and I can think of a good few who would love to occupy his time. There's also Mr and Mrs Rogers... Actually, why don't we try a different approach this time? Why don't we let the neighbours, have their parents talk to Dad? They've been loving life at the retreat for the town's seniors, and who knows, it may surely be more dignified for him, Jim? I mean he's not getting any younger, and time spent with his old school friends and neighbours, just might be the best thing for him."

"Mary, Mary, we've talked about this and you know I couldn't agree more. But he grew up on this farm, this is all he knows, and at least he finds his way around fine between the cattle and goat enclosures. His solitary roaming of the farm when we're at the office and the children at school, is likely what keeps him sane, and we both know I'm using 'sane' loosely..."

"I know, I know. I just feel so sorry for him not to have company, day in and day out. It's only on weekends when we're around to entertain him."

"Great! Did I hear 'entertain'?" The old voice creaked from upstairs. All the way down from the upper floor landing, one by one, the flight of wide wooden stairs creaked loud under the weight of his large frame as he carefully felt the precarious drops on the way down. As slow as what life had wounded down for him, apparently he still had the hearing of a teenager, and matching enthusiasm when 'entertainment' and 'get-togethers' were mentioned.

"Hi dad, we're just cleaning up the kitchen. We're thinking of entering you for one of the cooking shows on television. Thank you for supper. Not too many that will give you a run for your money." Mary noticed; in a sudden brave display of the old man's independence, how he let go of the one-and-a-half meter high wooden balustrade, and by what must have been pure luck, managed the remaining six steps down on his own.

"My pleasure my dear, tomorrow night will be soup and home-baked bread. I'll catch the bus into town, there are a few ingredients I need, apart from the veggies in the garden out in the back. But back to the cooking show... To be fair, we'll have to ask the judges to blindfold the 'all' contestants then..." Roaring with laughter, he shuffled his way around the kitchen table and filled up the kettle, after which he slowly turned his head towards were the children had just switched on the television.

"Ah, I can hear flames snapping at the dry bark of those logs. Who was granddad's little fire-starter this evening?"

"Children, what did we say when someone is talking and the television was switched on? Which one gets preference?" Amazed that none answered his father, Jim thought it his duty to intervene.

"We only noticed it now dad. Thought you did before you headed upstairs?" One of the young voices who the old man recognised as Sheldon, replied.

"Well, I think you can see from over there that both mom and I are in the kitchen, and granddad was upstairs. So?"

"Not me...?" The children each answered in turn and looked at each other in surprise.

"And last night?" Jim thought to pull on their memory.

No answer.

"Come on guys, there're no ghosts in Woodford... Or maybe there is. Never mind. Sorry dad, our children 'only' recall things on television, or where the sweets are kept. I give up, I really do."

"It's quite all right," Their grandfather raised his voice to get the children's attention. "I think Tommy's in town. 'He' must have lit the logs tonight. I overhead Mrs. Dunn in the shop talk about a news article, that two well-to-do businessmen, who arrived in one of those fancy city cars... She alleges the car basically parked itself in those too narrow bays outside City Hall. Imagine what other nonsense she'll share if one would spend too much time in her shop. Anyway, very smartly dressed, they arrived in her shop to ask for directions. They were running late for a meeting with the mayor. She said it seems like they bought the old tannery and spend a fortune to modernise it. X-Cor was the name she read from a business card that they left. They're sending teams with machinery to look for gold. And you know what happened last time right? Over and over..."

"Yes dad, unicorns, witches with pointy hats, and of course Woodford had to be different, Woodford, had a Tommy." With his wife's frown that seemingly went by unnoticed, it was followed by a sharp poke of her elbow in Jim's ribs. Mary served Jim with a quick reminder not to make fun of his aged father. Jim habitually cracked jokes and knew well that his father couldn't detect his smile, but it was more than he was in enduring awe of how sharp the old man's mind still was. The legend was a favourite when Jim and his brother grew up, and the old man had no lack of imagination to pour cement into any gaps the children may have discovered as they got older and wiser. Masterfully steered by the old man, at the age of sixteen, they were still not sure if it was just a story or whether it was real. They just knew their father had the best version of it.

"Hey, I'm not saying... but fires lighting themselves mysteriously, two nights in a row, at the same time as gold prospectors arrive... it really can only mean one thing..." Jim and Mary noticed how the creaky old voice carried over the sound of the blaring television, and valued the constant distractions he had offered on occasion, away from the television, that now again was about to take stage. And within ten seconds, there it was...

"Granddad, before it gets too late, may we 'please' hear a story? A real one, from when you were a boy?"

Thomas December was more-or-less ninety-five, they guessed, and had for the past few days, unknowing to the family, hurriedly followed an old straight line up and down, parallel with the inside of the farm fence. With school lunches neatly wrapped and ready, and joining the school bags lined up in the boot ajar, his son and daughter-in-law usually left at 7 o'clock to take the children to school, then continued along the dusty main road to the adjacent town were both managed their well-known legal practice.

The old man had acquired a new routine, and had been feeling his way around - far afield from the farm. And later, after his thumb-less right hand had dropped the looped chain over the weather-beaten wooden stump passing the goat camp's narrow gate, all along the wire fence, uphill past the cattle camps, and up to the farmhouse, he'd arrive just in to wow the family with his mouthwatering cuisine. Diabetes wasn't kind to him, and after being diagnosed just too late, with severe blood circulation issues, he'd sacrificed his thumb to the disease. Grandfather Thomas December was born in an era when accurate records of births, taxes and deaths, were housed at the nearby bigger town's post office, as it had been the only brick-building that any of the new towns boasted. Sadly, a blazing fire that had consumed all records including the church and next door orphanage's files, reduced much of the important information to guess-work. The exact month the old man would have been born, and his correct name and surname - since a policeman found him in another town nearby - were anyone's guess. It was a day in ancient history, announced by the worst of rainy gusts, that a policeman discovered him on the police station's steep granite steps one icy morning. The policeman was called Tom and it was during mid-December... and that was that. The full unceremonious record of his arrival on earth... His somewhat different perception of time; for the past fifteen years, since his more-or-less eightieth birthday then, was limited to six o'clock in the morning, and six o'clock in the evening. Every morning without fail, in the company of only his own thoughts, as he stood outside on the farmhouse veranda, reminiscing the old days and in deep whispered conversations with himself, he knew whether his cataract-hostage'd eyes faced east - with the granite Pledge mountains to his left, and the Scythe mountains to his right. That's how he always remembered his surroundings - during moments that he needed to consult his earlier life for direction - when to the outside world, it may have seemed that he lacked appreciation and direction of the town of Woodford, caught in the middle of the two mountain ranges.

During summer days, when his wrinkled old cheeks swapped the cool night valley-air for a welcoming glow, it meant it was six o'clock and a new day again accepted the invitation which the mountains had extended. And much later, when he had to roll down his sleeves and lift his collar, to keep the returning cool air that descended on the valley, from his sunburnt neck, it was roundabout six o'clock in the early evening.

"Well let me see... There is one story, from so long ago... It's about how the mountains took revenge to save this town. Do you know it...? Should Mom and Dad approve... I wouldn't want you kids to stay up tonight worrying... No. No. Let me rather not."

"Yes! Yes, a story for big people, with a bit of scary! But not too much... And with a happy ending!" Megan being the youngest, and since she never got to choose a story, had decided that it was high time.

"You know we don't approve of that story dad. It's really not for children." Victoria's frown over to her husband and back at her father-in-law, perfectly blanketed the fact that she had been eager to play along to maximise the impact of the legend, that has been told all over town for generations. She decided quickly to hide her mischievous smile which had been poking hard at the corners of her mouth, into the cupboard rather, while continuing packing the dinner plates; that her husband had dried and passed on to her, into neat white towers - lit up by the warm and flickering fireplace.

"Dad, we're taking a box of biscuits over to the Rogers', as a thank you for their assistance with the tractor over the past weekend. Would you be OK with your audience for an hour or so. They've all bathed and are warmly dressed. Oh, and there is warm coffee on the front left plate on the stove - please don't let the children have any more sweets. Guys, you heard me, you've already brushed teeth, so no more for tonight. Look after granddad, well see you all later. Dad, and please don't tell them that story... Oh, I can't even say the story's name... it's really too terrible. Rather, tell them about warplanes or something else. I'm sure the children would enjoy those better. Not to bed too late guys." And, having set the stage for the blind old man's seemingly 'not-so-bedtime-type' story, she shared a loving kiss on his forehead and in her typical fashion, blew a smiling kiss to each of the children.

"Of course, I think your right, drive safe. Will see you later." And with his crossed-fingered hand, hidden behind his good knee - as he referred to his left knee on the opposite side, for only the eager smiling children to witness, their parents pulled the heavy farmhouse kitchen door closed and headed for the car in the shed at the back of the farmhouse.

"Have we got a deal?" The creaky old voice enquired in a whisper.

"Granddad, we have a deal..." The children aged between seven and eleven - whispered in unison.

"Good stuff, here we go then... Sheldon, grab me a mug and fill it to the brim with coffee, Megan, the open packet of marshmallows on the third shelve in the pantry, Lara, a blanket for you all on the carpet, and Kelly, I think we'll need some chocolates, it's going to be a long story. What time is it?"

"Ten minutes to seven, granddad, why?" Kelly didn't quite understand what the had to do with the story, and the younger three were too busy following instructions, that would as always lead to a memorable story and mouths full of sweets - to the very point of a borderline toothache.

'Ten minutes to seven... that is just perfect...' the old man had thought to himself.

"Well, I need more than an hour to tell you... hush... do I hear your parents leave? Yes! Great, let's get going..."

"For roughly one-hundred-and-ten winters, we grandparents have kept our promise to the mountains..."

"Promise? A promise to the mountains?" No more slumped over the wide coaches - waiting with a marshmallow in each fist, they were paused and perched upright on the carpet, with big handfuls of sweets still waiting, sufficient for a sugar-induced coma.

"That history would be kept alive, and the legend be relayed to remind the children of..."

"Not if you fall asleep...! Please don't do that granddad!" It wasn't the first the old man - as he navigated the rocking chair - wanted a build-up of anticipation for one of his famous stories. But in his still-sharp mind, things had sparked as he was improvising.

"To this day, at night you can still hear a small boy walking along with his pet-pig, whistle while he decorates the dusty main road with his small shoe prints. His name is only ever whispered around the many farmhouse fireplaces; which pegged Woodford's map in place all along the seams between the two mountain ranges. It is of all, 'the' most particular thing, ever to take shape over high-burning logs." As he pointed their attention to his left where he felt the increased heat as Kelly had just loaded two more huge logs, for good measure.

"After tonight, you'll hear some say it's an urban legend, others - that it's a true legend, and then, there will be people who have heard the tune being whistled at night, who'll agree... that it's all very true..." Sheldon had been the last of the children who had peeled himself off from the couch and joined the crowd on the thick carpet around the old storyteller's shiny boots.

"The mountains; it was said, revenged themselves on the miners. Within a week after a prospector's dead son was discovered, the mountains had a meeting. What resulted was never to be forgotten. Unexplainable rockfalls outside, coupled with continued exposure of high levels of methane and collapsing of shafts, in addition to the poor quality of gold, all saw to an exodus of disconcerted prospectors; right on the heels of time, heading away, back-over the watercolour-like magenta range of the Pledge mountains to the north. Rumour had it at the time, that a handful of unfortunate gold prospectors, who habitually took their frustration, that had been brought on by bad luck - on a bottle of Rum, had discovered a small cave, of which the entrance was just too low for a grown-up to push through and enter. Confident that their four-month-long relentless digging at the time, indicated that a golden artery leading to the cave, could mean retiring and living out their days in King-like fashion - all they needed was a man, small enough to enter, and brave enough to face the well-known methane gasses that had been reported during prior digging elsewhere in the mountain. One night, while sharing the last bit of roasted rabbit around a roaring log fire under the stars, and having drank too much, their attention was captured by strange whistling calling out from the dark. On closer inspection and having applied much trickery, they learnt that a six-year-old boy, had climbed out his bedroom window, at midnight, in search of his pig which he kept and treated as a pet..."

"What's wrong granddad?"

"Oh nothing, never mind, I thought I heard whistling..."

"Anyway, the drunken miners promised the little boy, if he was prepared to assist them, that they'd help look for his missing pig, in addition to one ounce of gold as a token of goodwill, that one of the men, retrieved from his waist-coat pocket and promptly slid into the young boy's palm.

"So, off they went into the dark after midnight, armed with their last bottle of Rum, their little saviour, and a bag with skewed home-made too short candles that were jammed in next to a bottle with insufficient paraffin for their cracked lantern. All-in-all, they had been 'the' unluckiest of miners, who were hoping for just one miracle that may have escaped heaven. But as the story goes, irony and bad luck had a tug-of-war over who'd stalk them that fateful night... So both did. With Woodford's back towards the two granite monoliths that the earth had been in labour with, and have laboriously been pushing out for over two million years, Woodford was snugly wedged in, just barely fitting into the narrow six kilometres wide plain where Scythe mountains have been towering the southern side of town. The many kilometres of picturesque patches of dense and tall dry winter-graze at the time, stretched itself out lazily between the deep current of the temperamental Kwan river in the east, and everyone's choice fishing haven, that was Darkwing lake, at the far and of town, and locking in the small community from the west end. The dusty main road through to town from the agricultural parts had always been a little too narrow to accommodate for the first of vehicles the world had seen in those early engineering days - to allow for U-turns between the Post Office, Church, and supermarket-clothing outlet on the opposite side. But I'll circle back to the dusty main road in a while... Sheldon my boy, what's that sound?"

"Oh, granddad, I'm colouring a picture. It's a drawing of a bird, well actually it's an eagle. It's from an engraving on a copper lighter I found."

"A copper one? Really? Where?" Sheldon's siblings didn't mind their grandfather's enquiry, but, this was 'story time' after all, and mom and dad were on more than one occasion overheard saying "who knows how long he has" ... so...

"Out where the driveway meets the main road past the goats' enclosure, but 'outside' granddad. Pity you can't see it, it's really beautiful."

"Hmmm, remind me tomorrow to tell you a story... well a secret about eagles and emblems. Is the eagle facing east or west Sheldon?"

It's not a compass granddad, it's... 'Zippo lighter, it says at the bottom."

"Interesting... well anyway, we made your sisters wait long enough. So the boy; after entering the caves' low entrance, disappeared, not to be seen again that night. The perplexed miners shouted to no end... Rescue workers and everyone in town had searched the mountain for days after that, to no avail. By some mysterious fate, the boy's body was not recovered, not initially anyway. The whole community got involved and searched all over. Even breaking through a tunnel of a side-shaft to the low cave where the miners reported the boy had entered, proved fruitless. And then it happened..." Sheldon looked up from his pencil drawing, clutching the copper lighter.

"What happened?" Again in unison the children wanted to know.

"In a single night, the office where the mining records, gold dust and scales were kept, strangely and in a blinding flash that could be seen for miles - was decimated by a fire, and all along the foot of the mountain with a few-second intermissions, the one entrance to a mineshaft after the next exploded in great orange balls of fire. Mining was summary halted after that, due to severe unpredictable rockfalls where many miners lost their lives. Frequently during the unexpected ordeal, some people reported a short happy tune being whistled aloud from the dark, which, as you can imagine added a disturbing atmosphere to the already unexplainable multiple explosions and fires. Those years, superstitious people had believed that it could have been the ghost of the small boy, who returned for revenge.

"What do you think granddad? Do you believe in ghosts?" Sheldon was clutching the copper lighter, hoping to be comforted with a typical "Now that's nonsense."

"Well I think it's possible, but there are things we cannot always explain. Also, these exact same strange fires which halted all mining so long ago, were repeated in similar eeriness every time someone had braved the caves at the foot of the mountains. And every time, happy tunes could be heard being whistled from somewhere in the dark, while total destruction of mining operations, including mine shafts and equipment, were caused by horrific destructive fires. It was as though the fire had a mind of its own. Every it was earmarked by severe damage to the mining office too, which the fire had morphed into heaped piles of grey ash. It happened first in 1892, again in 1922 and then in 1954. Every when the prospect of mining had been announced in Woodford, it seemed that something sinister and powerful protested heavily."

"And we're back. You all still awake? Dad, you won't believe what happened!" Jim and Mary rushed in with childlike excitement and neglected to close the door. The evening wind banged the kitchen door against the wooden frame twice, hard, as Jim and Mary in rushed voices were talking over each other.

"You finally closed the deal on the retainer for the insurance company?" The old man was grateful that the children helped clean up the sweet wrappers, so he didn't, again, have to explain...

"Well, no, we're waiting for an answer still - we should know in a few days. No dad, not that... It's about the old tannery!" Mary let rip before Jim could get another word in.

"Yes, great! You're taking on the mining company as a client too, Mrs Dunn said..."

"Not anymore, unless they find another office!" Mary wasn't going to allow anyone to finish their sentence apparently, as she rushed past between the children still puzzled together in front of the fire, and their granddad's outstretched crossed legs.

"How so then? Didn't they recently turn the old eyesore into a lavish office environment?"

"Nothing left of it. When we arrived at the Rogers', they were on the phone with the fire station, who called them to drive to town. Some minor damage was suffered to their art studio and shop, as it's right behind the old tannery. They left immediately. I know it's late, and probably wrong to be so curious, but do you fancy a ride to town? We promised them we'd follow and catch up. The way Mrs Rogers drive, I'm sure they're already nearing the bridge at Darkwing lake.



The previous day.



"Will that be all? I've filled them up. You say they are all gifts, would you like them individually wrapped?"

"Oh no, but thank you for your kind gesture, I'll take them just as they are. Have a good day."

"Will you need a guide to the train sir?"

"Thank you young man", the blind old man responded "but after all these years, direction still seems to be my constant companion after all. Greetings to your wife. I think the one she wore last week was 'Poison', by Christian Dior...?"

"It was sir, it's her all-favourite. And, if I may be so curious. The one you're wearing... it reminds me of my father. It's also a proud product of Christian Dior... the very finest infusion of citrus and sandalwood. Fahrenheit? Am I correct?"

"Who's your father young man? And yes, spot on."

"It's Ben sir, the fire station chief. I think the oldest one they have ever had."

"Ah yes, of course, we grew up together in the valley. Please send my regards if you see him before I somehow bump into him. Wait a minute, you may be able to save me some time. It's his birthday tomorrow. One of these is actually his, if you wouldn't mind passing it on?"

"Lovely gesture sir, but he doesn't smoke?"

"I know, young man, I know. But so does the priest - I mean, that he doesn't smoke."

"Actually, no. He does not, sir. But I'm not quite..." The man behind the counter was sure his aged and blind customer was losing it - or had already - as he interjected.

"He's your father's brother-in-law, correct? Your uncle?"

"Quite obviously, that's how it works, sir."

"Well good. It would seem I'm being saved a lot of walking. Here, one more. One of these are for him too then."



*** *** ***



It would seem that night, to the heirs who inherited the very top of look-out posts on Pledge Mountain, that the legend that was told on cold and windy winter nights - of a sunrise - over the dusty town at around ten at night, was no rumour at all.



The End

Back to the top

WHEN HELL FREEZES OVER

Synopsis



"Forests may be gorgeous, but there is nothing more alive than a tree that learns how to grow in a cemetery." - Andrea Gibson

Prologue



"This, is no doubt NOT one of the places I would've chosen to spend my birthday. It's not exactly like I grew up in this part of the world, but then after so many years, it sure feels like it. Yet, here I am. All grown up and aged and cripple. Somewhat...," No one knew how exactly to react to his unusual word choice; unclear whether it was his idea of a humorous kickoff to what was anticipated as his welcoming speech, the group stared over at the man - through the freeze. Having barely started, he paused as a soldier rushed up behind him, "Doctor McKenzie! They called! It's for you, sir!" The soldier pointed up at the miserable dark clouds. "Practice run. Is what they say it is, Doctor, sir..." The soldier's voice was suddenly subdued to almost that of a whisper as he kept his palm over the phone at the same time as the ominous grey sky was ripped by what appeared to be a thundering jet engine - then another. The soldier's rushed kicking of the snow along the narrow walkway between the helicopters and the structure that appeared like a giant warehouse, somewhat startled McKenzie, and in reflex, he'd shifted his weight over to his other leg to turn better and face the silhouette as it approached. By the time he had time to investigate what the noise was behind him, and swapped his brass cane into the other hand, he was almost already expected taking delivery of what his cold audience presumed was a satellite phone. The soldier held it out for him, and from the moment of taking the call, McKenzie remained silent for the duration of the conversation. And that was how his introduction and welcoming commenced. Suddenly they all wished themselves back to the warmer climate where the initial interviews were conducted. Sitting in sunny Italy and perched on a chair while appreciating the shade outside a restaurant, on the day, went hand-in-hand with paging the menu right past the elaborate selection of steamy coffees - over to an ice tea - for Tom. An inviting scene indeed compared to where the group had found themselves two weeks later. Like all who had arrived, Tom, Elana, and Jerome's wishes for the warmer and more hospitable part of the world, the old man knew, were shared by the other bus fulls who were poured into the military helicopters mere moments after emerging from the horrid winter weather. While trying to study their faces through the falling sleet, he absorbed the news on the phone, then with a sigh, lifted his eyes upwards as two steel birds overhead reminded that there wasn't much time left. Stating the obvious - "Two." The soldier motioned with his fingers. "Air-strike and virus outbreak", Wasn't two phrases he'd preferred in a single sentence. For a moment he considered pointing over to the line of military helicopters which were still slicing through the frigid air, and just apologise for the inconvenience - then tell them all to go back home. A mere few metres beyond the group of scientists who were staring at old man McKenzie, two soldiers emerged; arched over. Each battling, momentarily looking up - they dragged; with a thick rope over their shouders, on a highly stacked sleigh that was covered and tied with a grey and white arctic camouflage canvas - that had been stretched over the peculiar cargo. Knowing the helicopters needed to disappear into the sky first, the old man lifted his thickly gloved right hand and poked his thumb into the snowy air. As the helicopters took off; churning into the blizzard and out of sight, he waived the two waiting soldiers at the apron of the forest to drag the heavy sleigh closer. "Well, now nobody leaves..." He thought and addressed his onlookers who were turning to look behind them. "I would have wanted to introduce you all to my devout staff - who you'll be replacing... but it would seem that I was beaten by time. Or was that fate?" The remaining rows of freezing cold new arrivals too turned to face behind them to whatever it was that McKenzie was waving at.

Chapter 1



The colourfully dressed group who was waiting on him, had reacted to an invitation where it seemed the scientific corporate world could simply not compete on a salary level - at least. Had they been honest; to have shared the time of the legend of a scientist who they believed had assembled them, they would have surely accepted even at a fraction of the money that had been dangled in front of them. But the climate on the morning when they got of the plane in Russia, soon after changed their willingness to continue. "After we were ushered into a bus - right off the plane - that was driven to a hanger at the very back of the airport, the red flag should have risen for us." Tom thought while the man in the front who faced them, and was about to continue what was supposed to pass for a hearty welcome. He recalled a number of huge signs displayed as the bus left the apron of the runway. That they weren't directed to the main building to have their passports stamped, was one of the first peculiarities. "Not at all." The bus driver's Russian accent smiled over. "We will attend to the administrative formalities over there." He lifted his gloved hand which was poking out of the sleeve of a thickly padded military jacket, to where absolutely no buildings were. The visitors looked ahead of the bus, and seeing nothing of the sort, faced him again, but not after sharing a good number of perplexed frowns. Till it got stranger. It wasn't exactly custom anywhere they'd travelled to after a taxing flight, to have descended an A380's lengthy staircase that had been parked; pushed up near the plane, then hop on a bus where someone in a military camouflage uniform was the tour guide. All the while, there reigned from what the crowd could make out, no apparent urgency to have been reunited with their luggage. But serving higher on the ladder of importance, not rubber-stamping the legalities of entering Russia, was by far of greater concern. At first as the bus motioned away; all attached to the outside of hangers, a range of familiar logos of what they presumed were workshops in the aviation industry, greeted the visitors. Air France, KLM, Korean Air, Hainan Airlines, Alitalia, Air China and flydubai. But trailing further away from the main buildings, the advertising boards seem to dwarf and seemed less familiar, till finally, only numbers were marking whoever occupied the places. What were just dark specks in the distant fog, eventually grew into two armed soldiers who were planted near someone who seemed to have outranked them. Both soldiers had their hands up in air and waited for the bus to halt. And after much saluting going on at the front of the bus, between the bus driver and three who climbed on board, the doors closer behind them. "Morning... Good morning... an older man alternated his heavy accented greets, with his hand outstretched, as the other two soldiers followed him from the front. One after the other the passports were stamped by the two soldiers who had followed the older one. "Indefinitely." He remarked for a fifth time as he combed his way through the wave of passports which were eagerly held up in the air by the uneasy passengers. Apparently the senior military man's command of English was somewhat on the sparse side. "Indefinitely", was the third word he'd demonstrated that he could use with some form of proficiency. The first two were, "Morning, and Good Morning." The passengers needed to know whether the official-looking documents, of which they couldn't make a word out - that were folded double and shoved into the middle of the passports, before clamping them closed over the two new pages and handed back, whether these were working visas, or some extension of it. "Thank you. But, excuse me... How long is it valid for?" Another woman needed to know after she had briefly looked down and studied what she assumed was a paragraph in Russian, underneath the familiar Russian emblem. The only English on the document was "DATE OF ENTRY", which for reason had been left blank. To which the man's third English word he knew - again - was, "Indefinitely." The woman, from what Tom could estimate, needed to know much more before she was going to take her seat again. "I'm sorry, but I don't know if such a thing exist? "Indefinitely?" The man paused, then turned his head towards the passenger who doubted his word, and from what it seemed by implication, his rank. "You'll see." Totally void of any emotion he replied. And that, a clear demonstration of the fourth and last word that the military man had successfully mastered. It was irrelevant to the man what the question was, as the answer which would follow their pressing inquiries, were really only mirrored by the phrases he knew - it seemed. "You'll see." In some cases and, "Indefinitely." in others. Even, "Morning.", and "Good Morning." were used interchangeably as answers when the passengers were not satisfied with what they learned. It was like the man had four flashcards that he'd memorised, and that was that. And if the people didn't like that, too bad. "I'm sorry, but shouldn't there be date stamp here?" A neat and clean-shaven man in the middle of the bus seemed uneasy with the idea that the place that had been reserved for a date stamp was unattended to. "You'll see." Was supposed to make him happy, it would seem. After all the passports - at least - were now apparently legal and handed back to their surprised owners, the bus slowed down and stopped at the furthest point of the airport at an unmarked hangar. At the front the bus the driver; after the three soldiers had left, waived with his arm to the door that had jumped open, telling in his way that it was the end of the ride - and it's now time to go. After smiling - reluctantly - their thank-you's over to the bus driver, all left the bus towards the younger looking two soldiers who both pointed over to the open doors of the hangar the bus had stopped next to. The senior of the three soldiers - who, unlike the younger ones, could navigate his way around crucial topics like, immigration - in four words or fewer, was already inside the hangar pointing over to the lost-looking passengers. Near him were five men and two woman who had just got dressed in their pilot overhauls, after rushing in the direction of the group outside the bus. "Hi there!" The first one; with the other pilots short on her heels, reached the shivering crowd outside the bus. "Please come! We need to leave before the weather gets worse! Come this way please, in groups of ten, first ten follow me!" A call from a fit-looking redhead who had just tied her hair in a semi-neat bun. She was maybe in her early thirties, and surprisingly well-spoken, and had shouted over the sound of the churning rotors of the six more dark green helicopters in a row outside the hangar. Outside the hangar on a steel pole, the unmistakable logo of Spetsnaz; the Russian Special Forces - was busy being covered with a layer of snow. "You mean weather, worse than this?!" Tom shouted back, with Elana and Jerome following right behind Tom, as they pushed themselves against icy wind. The pilot who apparently said what she needed to say didn't stop or slow down but was now on her way on a trod towards the thundering machines. "This?!" She shouted over her shoulder. "You mean the snow and the wind? Hell no! This is nothing! But then this is nothing compared to where we'll be taking you..." Tom and the rest were growing increasingly wary about this news. The pilot's voice drowned in wind as she said something about an air-strike if things didn't work out before the end of the week. "What?!" Tom pressed. "Never mind! Get in!" Was not the reply he was hoping to get.



Since Sheremetyevo International Airport became operational on October 7, 1957 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the October Revolution, according to what Tom and his fellow passengers learned prior to landing from the commercial captain; who had steered them through rough weather, this was the worst weather reported in the airport's history. The captain; while relating this and the predicted weather forecast for the few days ahead, had included a brief historical overview of the airport, telling that it was originally built as a military airfield called Sheremetyevsky, or in Russian: Шереметьевский, named after a settlement with the same name. The fact that some military links had existed in by-gone eras didn't seem noteworthy at the time the commercial pilot thought it might be interesting for the passengers. But as Tom and his fellow passengers learned from online news sites; and the size and history of the well-known airport aside, apparently the place must have acted out some great religious injustice in the recent past. Mother nature it seemed, had been torturing the airport and its surroundings - with ancient Catholic persistence - already for a week, by unleashing the worst of vendetta-like snowstorms in decades. Compared to the zero visibility from the control tower that now had the appearance of a high pin that poked from the frigid snow-laden cushion, the previous years of thick stubborn fog which disrupted the air traffic flow, would actually have been welcomed with a hug and a cup of tea. During the past few hours alone, the low double-digit visibility of 19 percent plummeted to a hampering 6 percent, only to be followed by the runways all being temporarily shut down not two minutes after they'd landed on Russian soil. From what the passengers could see through the windows as they landed, the runways literally dissolved before their anxious gazes. Inside the military helicopter now less than ten minutes later, the pilot explained to Tom that on board instrumentation would have still allowed safe touchdowns even in zero visibility - as 'moving map' avionics uses both GPS and the aircraft’s inertial navigation to achieve tremendous accuracy. It was up to the thick falling snow that was being machine-gunned against the terminals and an ocean of anchored sleepy boeings, to decide what lay ahead. For a change, a multitude of supertugs; that otherwise would be tirelessly pushing and pulling at a jam-packed thousand-two-hundred normal daily air transport movements, were resembling sporadic lily-white dunes - the only shapes that could barely be made out, and only from the higher vantage point of the supervisor's desk, as if the tower he commanded was perched at the edge of an undiscovered hazy white world. Far below Tom and his team, thousands of destitute passengers inside the airport, and almost hypothermic pedestrians darting to the safety of the main buildings, found themselves trapped and late for flights. Most were hugging whatever beverage was warm and available, almost as if they were clinging onto a loved one - in desperate attempts to maintain their body temperatures - as the entire airport's air conditioning system somehow shut down. The communication between the air tower and the helicopter pilot terrified all on board. "Can I be honest?" The pilot waved to get Tom's attention on the headset. "Yes please!" He smiled, hoping that some humour would lighten the mood in their peculiar mode of transport. But as soon as a few giggles emerged from the back, it was wiped away. "I'd rather face that - than where we're going. What's the coldest you've been?" No one on board liked the sound of that. "Minus thirty. I did two research trips to the Arctic. That's in Celsius by the way." Tom was sure the pilot would be impressed. But apparently not. "Nice." She answered. "Have any of you heard of Oymyakon?" No one did. "Minus sixty-four." And in Tom's manner, she felt the need to add, "That's in Celsius by the way." The next fifteen minutes no said a word, until she contacted the helicopters that were almost invisible behind them. "Here listen to this, English news..." Somehow their pilot got a news frequency on the military radio. "Total shut down around Moscow - allowing for trickles of optimistic passengers braving the cold to shelter themselves in idling vehicles, with heater dials jammed hard towards the highest possible setting. For most there would be no escape by plane anyway - plus, their vehicles were of absolutely no other use, having been either snowed-under or parked-in by others who idled their tanks dry, out of desperation. The otherwise smooth-flowing logistics of an intricate world renowned key-points that are the airports which serve Moscow, had suddenly become 'the' most newsworthy examples of frigid irreparable chaos."



The memory of the helicopter flight and how they were being pushed around in the wind on the way to Oymyakon, was something Tom promised himself not to recall again without good reason. Having shaken it off, Tom moved the oddness of their transport to the back of his mind and focused his curiosity on the skew-leaning speaker in the front. "As I was saying," He handed the phone back to the soldier who'd been hovering while the old man didn't speak, but merely listened, for the better part of a minute. "... growing up here, or rather hiding from the world, as I have done, under this icy cloak of remoteness, you learn that mother nature must have skipped Sunday school when forgiveness and mercy were discussed." With the freezing wind howling outside, his voice was competing with it. It didn't take more than two seconds of staring at the man to make up their minds why he'd used the phrase - hiding - from the world. "Here, in Oymyakon the ground is in places permanently frozen for tens, and some places, for hundreds of feet to the point where the soil has to be heated with a large fire, at least three days prior to burial. So, do an old man a kindness... Don't die. Not here, not now." The old man carried on. "On a different note by the way, our vehicles run twenty-four-seven, of course, that is when they're not parked in heated garages. So, if you pass idling cars with no one behind the wheel, consider it normal. You'll soon understand why it would be helpful if you're not tempted to reach in and switch them off." He stared at them, curious to see what their response would be. But the otherworldly image of Gerald McKenzie; as he leaned his skew frame sideways on his brass cane, was more unsettling than the plaguing weather, and had all but wiped out all that he had explained about life outside the facility. And he knew that all too well. The trio knew better than to ask whether his horrid appearance had been the result of the Yukon virus - it was obvious, they decided.



*** *** ***



"Of course I'll fly through. How is the subject? Any improvement? It's been months..." The man received a call, and although he cared deeply, he wasn't certain that she'd still be alive. Intently he carried on listening.


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