Monthly Archives: September 2014

The Mind’s Eye

The Mind’s Eye

By Howard Gaukrodger 30.09.14  (Thriller, USA, hanging plot, pathos. 1,500 words)


“Come on, Samantha! If your dad were here, he’d be chasing you round the breakfast table by now!”

“OK, Mom. Coming!”

The sun glinted through half-open curtains. Sam loved to wake up to the sparkle of morning sunlight. She rose from the bed, naked but for her embroidered undergarment. Running her hands over her curves, she flushed at the memory of her encounter with her lover the night before.

“Sasha! Time for you to get up, too!” Sam wasn’t going to get up on her own.

“Leave me alone!” Sasha replied. But she did get up. They were inseparable.

Grant was from upstate New York; met his wife on a trip to Guangxing 23 years earlier. He’d tried to distance himself from the quicksand of love, told her his work involved long periods away. Yet, the more he’d fought his emotions, the more he’d wanted her. Their bond was tied two years later in a discreet civil service high in the hills of Penyang. Xinge’s exit visa was approved seven months later – thanks to Grant’s connections. Xinge was already pregnant with the twins when the Airbus touched down at JFK.

A ray of light glinted off the binoculars, then was gone, hidden in the trees. But the view through the gap in the curtains was captured. Oblivious, Sam stood before the full-length mirror, focusing on her appearance. Her breasts sat comfortably in the French silk bra, so different from the rough-edged synthetic items her mother put up with. On her sun-kissed skin, the marks of last night’s passion were darkening to ruby-grey. She held her stomach in, pouted, inspected her teeth. The bedroom door yawned open.

“Sasha! You could’ve knocked!” she teased, drawing her gown rather too fast over her shoulders.

“Ooh, what are you hiding, Passionfruit?”


“Sammy, you don’t know how to lie. Let me have a look…” Sasha peeled away the cloth, revealing the evidence of desire that her sister had wanted to show her all the time.

“Honeybabe! What have you been up to! Naughty girl! You told Mom?”

“Told her what, Sash? That I spent half the night with …”

“Ooh, juicy! Come on, out with it…”

The shadow in the trees put away the binoculars. The girls would be leaving the walled residence at 08:15. Sasha would take the subway to Penn Station, then walk to W 34th Street off 7th Avenue. Samantha would take a cab to Deutsche Bank, Wall Street, accessing the staff entrance from the pedestrian walkway in Pearl Street.

It always surprised him how stupid Western spies could be. Children, fancy having children. It just took a simple threat, and… He grinned and fondled the Smith & Wesson J-frame revolver. It was time to send the one-word text to the cabbie.


His diamond-studded Rolex ticked over to 08:15 just as the cab arrived. Samantha rushed down the villa steps, through the two-metre iron gate, and climbed into the back seat.

“How’s it going?” she called through the glass partition as they drove off. The driver didn’t hear. She tapped on the glass. “How are you today?” she asked again.

The driver glanced into the rear-view mirror, shrugged.

She insisted: “See the Giants on the weekend?”

This time, the driver put his index finger to his lips, raising an upturned hand.

“Can’t you speak English? A cab-driver, and you can’t talk to your passengers? How does that work?” She began to feel uncomfortable.

The traffic heading for Brooklyn Bridge was heavier than normal. He swivelled, looking for an alternative route. The seat-belt chafed an old bullet-wound. That had been a lucky escape, but he’d got the son-of-a-bitch Mountain Master, head of the Wo Shing Wo. He knew they’d come after him. Back in Langley, the black suits had valued his “work”, but had counted him out, retired him. He remembered hobbling to the Director’s office: ‘… and for performance of outstanding services, the results of which constitute a major contribution to the mission of the Agency, I hereby award you the Distinguished Intelligence Medal’. But protocol dictated that no one outside the CIA would ever know of his award.

Now, he was on the outside, unprotected, and the Vanguard was after him – and his family. As a former Operations Officer, he knew the Vanguard had unlimited resources, and he knew they didn’t forget. He was now one man against the largest triad in China. The life of his daughters was hanging by a thread.

The cab pulled up outside Deutsche Bank. As Samantha moved to take her purse, the driver leaned over his shoulder, opened the partition window and handed her a note:

“If you want to live: don’t scream. We have your sister.”

The blood drained from Samantha’s face; she felt faint. The driver handed her another note:

“Do exactly as I say and she will not be harmed. Nod, if you understand.”

Samantha nodded, head spinning, heart pounding.

A third note:

“Take this USB stick and insert it into your office computer. Boot up and wait 60 seconds, then remove it. Nod, if you understand.”

Samantha nodded again. “Then what?! How do I know you’re telling the truth – that you’ve got my sister?! Where is she?!”

The cab-driver pushed a wrinkled donut bag through the hatch. Her sweating hands delved inside: two pearl ear-rings, the gold clasps engraved with the initials SR on either side of a heart – a birthday gift from her father. Sasha was wearing them when Sam left the house. She screamed, silently.

The driver flicked a catch; her passenger door-lock clicked open. Numb, she found herself on the sidewalk, her hand clasping the USB stick. Seconds later, she was caught in the tube of pedestrians squeezing between tall office blocks. The cab disappeared. Everything was terrifyingly… normal.

“You’re good to go,” the IT guy said. “Nothing on it.” Samantha snatched at the USB stick, stumbled back to her desk. Following instructions, she went to plug it in, dropped it, tried again. Pulse racing, she counted to 60, then removed the stick. Nothing happened. Is this a sadistic trick? She waited. What do I do with the USB now? Can’t take it out the building. She removed an imaginary wad of chewing-gum from her mouth and wrapped a large bit of paper around it – with the USB stick – then threw it in the trash.

Outside, the cab-driver punched a number on his cell. “Hello?” Samantha answered.

“Is it done?” the voice growled through a cloth.

“Yes, but…”

“Stay. Work. Sister safe now.” The phone went dead.

The cab-driver punched in another number. An answer phone. He left the agreed message.

“Done,” he said.

Time stopped. The crowd became a fog, traffic inaudible. By the time the notification lit up his cell, his palms bled from gouging fingernails.

“Confirmed.” Vanguard didn’t waste words.

Sam had done well. He’d met their demands. But would they keep their side of the bargain? Would they release Sasha?

Picking up a shaving kit at the convenience store, he retreated to a shaded corner of the plaza. He shed his outer garments, cap and sunglasses. With shaking hands, he ran the blade through the stubble on his walnut-skin face. In the reflective office glass windows, he now saw not a stranger, but someone he knew, someone his family would know. Grant had been away so long, living his life in disguise, his surrogate had become more him than he was. But life was about to change, here, this minute.

It was essential he mastered his emotions. Breathe. Long and slow. His feet carried him forward. The atrium entrance towered over him.

“Good morning, sir. Can I be of service?” the polite voice at the service counter sounded genuine.

“Yes, good morning, I’d er… I’d… I’d like to see my daughter. She works here. I just…”

“Name, sir?”

“Oh, um, Samantha Jensen. Samantha Xinge Jensen”

“And your name, sir?”

“Grant Jensen. Here’s my ID.” He flashed his CIA-retired card.

“Thank you, sir. If you’d like to take a seat, I’ll notify her immediately.”

This was the moment. He’d risked his reputation and life to safeguard his family. But after so many years, would they want him back? Would they even recognize him?

Sam was shaking as she stepped out of the lift. Can you really be here, Dad? Do you know about Sasha? And the cabbie, the threats?

Sam threw her eyes around, hungry for the face of her father. He saw her first, and melted. “Samantha?” He willed himself to see into her mind. What would she see?

“Samantha!” he screamed, running towards her.

She stopped, transfixed. Wanted to run. Wanted to stay. Her feet were lead weights. She saw an old man, rugged, scabby, his hair long and tangled. Yet, her heart saw something else; it saw love.

He was upon her.

“Sammy! It’s me, Dad!!”

“Dad? Dad!” She collapsed into his arms.

Two days later, Deutsche Bank issued a public statement. They wished to report that a branch of their investment business had been compromised. Following a detailed investigation by the FBI, a former member of the CIA had been arrested. The man had close links with the Chinese triads and was accused of having infiltrated the system, redirecting approximately $750 million to an unspecified account overseas. Further details would be announced in due course.



By Howard Gaukrodger, 24.09.14

Practice: YA. Alternating POVs, chronology-mixing, character-building. 1,500 words.

Jimmy heard me scream: “The cops are coming!”

The word “cops” was a taser shot. How did the police know where to find us? What’ve we done? The four of us reached the grassy hillside of London’s Greenwich Park.  Wasn’t Jimmy meant to protect us? He was the gang leader, wasn’t he?

“Chuck it! Get rid of it all!” I heard Jimmy shout.

I tried to fling off the paper money that Colin was crushing into my hand. But I had chocolate brownie all over my fingers and the money stuck to my skin. Behind us, the uniformed hunters charged after us. Eyes watered. Heart pounded. My legs couldn’t keep up with the need to flee. I stumbled. The freshly-cut grass rushed towards my head. The world span, fingers stubbed the ground. I screamed in pain – and fear.

But that’s how the story ended. It began at school a year earlier. I was being bullied day after day, week after week. Then, I heard about gangs. At the age of nine, I didn’t know what a gang was, but I thought it meant friends sticking up for each other. I’d be protected. That’s what I liked.

During the school holidays, I got my wish. I was part of a gang, Jimmy’s gang. To be admitted, I had to prove myself. This meant completing two dares. One: go into my neighbour’s garden, pull down my pants, and pee on their roses. Two: find an earthworm, wrench it into two parts and eat the larger part.

At the time, these dares seemed cool, even though I emptied my guts right after I gulped down the worm. But this initiation was nothing. Jimmy had much bigger things in mind for us. And that’s when my life really went down the pan…


“Yeah, I guess you’ll ‘ave to bring ‘im along. ‘e’s all right. Jus’ keep ‘im busy, OK Col?”

Where the ‘ell do these toddlers come from, eh? I can’t run no gang wiv kids wearin’ nappies. What’s this new kid called? Roger? Posh crap. We’ll ‘ave to give ‘im a proper name when we done this nex’ job.

“You told me you didn’t want no young’uns,” Paul said.

“He ain’t bin wiv us long enough to know,” I replied. “Could be useful as watch. We’ll try ‘im out later, eh?”

“OK, Jimmy, but…”

“Shut it, Paul. I told yuh, e’s comin’ wiv us.”

Now, I just ‘ave to ‘elp that little squirt, Roger. ‘e needs some excuse to bunk off from his folks. Bloody parents. Never give us no freedom. ‘old on. I got it…

“Tell your old man we’re gonna go train-spotting, Rog,” I said.

“OK, Jimmy.”

Yeah, that’s right. “OK, Jimmy”. That’s ‘ow we do it. No ‘but’s.


Jimmy’s crazy. You can’t run a gang with a toddler. I tried to tell him, but he’s got a short fuse – I know all about that. We’ve been a good team, though. No one makes fun of me for being teacher’s pet, now. I can’t help liking books. They take me away. When I’m at home, I can hide under the stairs and read something like ‘The Book Thief’, so when my dad comes home drunk and beats up my mum, I can imagine the yelling and banging is part of the story.

“You got it sorted then, Jimmy?” I asked.

“‘Course. No sweat. Meet you at 2, at the back entrance, yeah? They’ll ‘ve closed ‘n gone ‘ome by then.”

“What about you, Colin? Are you coming?” I asked.

“Course ‘e’s comin, dumbfart,” Jimmy said. “‘Ow else are we gonna carry the stuff out?”

“Yeah, guess so,” Colin said.

It was a real pain talking to Colin. Took him ages to answer the simplest question. But, Jeez, the stuff he came out with. Wasn’t a day in his life he couldn’t describe in detail. He was a walking diary. Wasn’t till much later I found out he had a condition called hyperthymesia. Poor kid. His brain was on ‘Record’ 24/7.

So now, we were gonna do a job at the Crossroads Cafe. They only opened till lunch. Small place, few staff, you know the kind of place. Nice for families. I didn’t really want to do it, but Jimmy talked me into it. And I needed a bit of extra cash – my girlfriend likes clothes, make-up, and all that, so I was savin’ up to get her one of those fancy gift sets from John Lewis. Pricey, but she’s really gonna like it. Yeah, she won’t run off with that dickhead from 7A now.


I’m n… not a criminal. I… I… I’m not going in. It’s d… d… dangerous, and… and it could ruin my ch… my ch… my chance of getting to university. Three weeks ago, at ten past six, I was walking p… p… past the library when two dudes from school stopped me. They wanted to… to… to sell me something. I tried to… to… to walk away, but they kept getting in front of me. No, I’m n… not a criminal. With Jimmy I feel safe. I like to st… st… stick around him. But this job, Jeez, him and Paul can do it. They… they… they can break into the Cafe. I’ll just be round the front, keepin’ an eye out.


“Paul, pass me the bloody screwdriver! No, the other one, dick’ead!”


“They must’ve changed the lock, the bastards. Looked like a piece o’ cake last week.”

“Can we go now, Jimmy?”

“Shut it, will yuh?! We ain’t done nuffing yet.”


“Got it! I love that crack of splitting wood. And the smell o’ the dust – awesome, eh, Paul?

“Look, Jimmy! They got booze! And fags! They must ‘av real money to buy all this stuff.”

“What did I tell yuh? Come on. Let’s get the till.”

“Can I take this, Jimmy?

“What’s that?”

“This tablet. Looks pretty flash. Must have…”

“Fuck it, Paul, take whatever you want. Now, ‘elp me find the bloody till. Ah, there it is. ‘old on…”

“It’s the latest Mac. I think I’ll go outside and check it out.”


With my little legs, I found it difficult getting high enough to peer through the windows. I kept running from the back of the Cafe to the front. I was scared, excited. I wanted to know what was going on, but knew I shouldn’t be there. Through the smashed door, I could hear Jimmy swearing.

“What’s this?” he screamed. “It’s fuckin’ empty! Bastards! Must have hidden it. They don’t do the bankin’ ‘til Friday. Must be round ‘ere somewhere. Oy, Col, come back ‘ere. Come ‘n find the bloody till.”

I heard more swearing. China, glasses, crashed to the ground. Chairs got kicked around. Vases and menu-holders flew across the room. Then…

“Bingo! Got it!”

Jimmy found the cash box in a recess behind the mirror. He levered it open with a carving knife.

“What?! Just 25 quid?! Who are they kiddin’?”

“Jimmy!” I screamed. “The cops are coming!”

“What? No burglar alarm?”

There was a plate of chocolate brownies on the counter. I could see them from the doorway. I haven’t the foggiest idea what made me do it, but I ran inside the Cafe – just as Jimmy ran past in the other direction – and grabbed the biggest brownie on the plate.

Panic. No one here. What to do?

“Roger! Move your arse!”

“Coming, Jimmy!”

Together, we ran towards Greenwich Park. I’d never seen our gang leader so rattled, so terrified.

“Col, take this!” he shouted. “Hide it in your clothes. “Paul, stick this in your pockets! Get to the Park! I’ll see you at the bandstand!”

Colin grabbed my hand. I thought at first he wanted to help me, but he was forcing me to take the money they’d stolen from the Cafe. The police were right there. I had to run faster, faster, but then I stumbled. As my face hit the turf, my child-like eyes glimpsed the chocolate brownie in my hand. At least that was safe.

A lot of water had passed under the bridge since then, but I remember to this day how one of the police officers picked me up like a doll, her breath in my face, glossy hair tied behind her ears. They soon caught Jimmy – he wasn’t as tough as he made out. Started crying when they got him. He was sent to a youth detention centre in Norwich. Never saw him again. His friend, Roger, did well – ended up a policeman himself. There was a picture of him in the Morning Chronicle just last week. And my brother, Paul? Well, what do real brothers do? He made sure we always picked the right mates after that. The brush with the law brought us together like no amount of parental guidance could ever do.

I’m a Dog

I’m a Dog

Howard Gaukrodger, 21.09.14

Practice: timed exercise: ‘You’re an animal. 5 mins.’

I was just having a poop on a pristine bit of  footpath when my owner barked at me and pushed my hindquarters into the bushes. What’s all that about? I’ve spent days sniffing out a clean bit of path. I felt like turning round and pissing on her Levis. That would have shown her who wears the trousers.

You know, owners are all the same these days, leash on, leash off, shouting: sit, kennel, come… and those are just the polite ones. Don’t humans have brains? We know when there’s food around. We know how to act cute to get it. For Dog’s sake! And then there’s “Shake hands, Pooch!” Makes me whine. Next time anyone asks me to shake hands, I’m going to put my paw in a patch of poo and see if they want to shake hands then. Ugh! All that stinking nail varnish and hand cream. Why can’t people just smell like me. Dollop the doberman loves my smell. He’s always sniffing around my hindquarters.

Why can’t we see things from others’ perspective?