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Thread: The Hypogeum

  1. #1
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    Cool The Hypogeum

    The Hypogeum by Andrew Hobson

    Alma Baines is an ordinary woman whose life is irrevocably turned upside down when she loses everything she holds most dear. The forces of darkness want her life to end for reasons she does not truly understand, and only the intervention by a small group of heroes can save her. The forces of darkness are strong and powerful, led by the demon Baphomet,who is willing to go to any lengths to achieve his aim, which is nothing less than the total subjugation of the Earth and every living thing on it. The only ones who can stand against him are the Warrior, the Magician, the Shield, the Joker and the Mother, all of whom are joined by a special connection to the Forest that seems to know more than it is willing to admit. What links the formation of a volcano and an earthquake at opposite ends of the Earth, thousands of years ago with Stonehenge, Woodhenge and Old Sarum. And why is rural Wiltshire the setting for the ultimate battle between good and evil that will determine the fate of the entire planet.

    Sound good?

    Paperback available from Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com.

    Alternatively, you can buy the Kindle version.

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    Oh and you DO buy it, read it and enjoy it, please, please, please take a few seconds to write a nice review.

    Thanks.

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    I hope you don't mind the criticism, but I think you're trying to fit too much into your synopsis there. On top of that, there are no sample pages available on Amazon.com. I'm afraid $12 is a hard sell without a better idea of what I'd be paying for.

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    I never mind constructive criticism :-)

    The blurb is a standard size/no of words as laid out by my publishing company.

    Sadly I am unable to partake in the 'Search Inside' programme for reasons to boring to relay.

    Gimme a mo and I will put the prologue and 1st two chapters on here.

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    PROLOGUE

    “When evil men plot, good men must plan. When evil men burn and bomb, good men must build and bind. When evil men shout ugly words of hatred, good men must commit themselves to the glories of love.” – Martin Luther King

    The older of the two men adjusted his cufflinks as he sat and waited for the other to pour him a whisky and soda. He accepted the glass and raised it to his thin, cruel lips and took a small sip, a brief moment of enjoyment and then a nod. This was good whisky.

    He waited as the younger man settled himself into the other chair in the plush office and then silently indicated with a wave of his manicured hand that his underling should report. He liked that word, ‘underling’. It had a ring to it that appealed to him, employee seemed crass and minion was overstated. No, underling was the word of choice and also how he viewed everyone that he came into contact with. Well, almost everyone.

    Richard Hardacre took a sip of his own drink and looked around the managing director’s office of the latest acquisition of, and new headquarters of WinCom. He could not understand why, Sir Nigel Winthrop, one of the most powerful captains of industry had decided to move his centre of operations to Salisbury from the towers of Canary Wharf in London.

    There was an ornately carved and highly polished, oak desk behind which sat a high-backed, executive chair. On the desk were a leather blotter pad, two telephones and a gold Parker pen placed centrally in front of the blotter. A small assortment of lush, green potted plants sat in front of the wide window, that allowed the viewer a panoramic view of Salisbury with the Cathedral in the middle distance. To one side sat a modern meeting table surrounded by six plain chairs and one throne-like affair. At the other end of the table set into the wall, was a small aquarium, home to an assortment of rare and highly expensive tropical fish.

    The men were seated in two red leather chesterfield armchairs. Richard grimaced inwardly at the artful falseness of it all. This was an office designed to look like the seat of power, a power that Sir Nigel Winthrop was born to, but did not in Richard’s opinion carry off, not quite.

    Richard took another sip of his drink before speaking in his rich, deep voice, “He knows there is something unusual about DataVault, but he has no real understanding of it. I know that he’s mentioned it to a few of his team, but all of them have been checked out and… warned.”

    “Warned? I hope you were careful.” “Sir, please. I think I know how to handle this sort of situation, I’ve been in this business for a long time.”

    Sir Nigel Winthrop shifted slightly in his seat, “Nonetheless, we have worked too long and too hard on this project for it to be placed in jeopardy.”

    Hardacre leaned forward slightly to interrupt, “Sir Nigel-”

    A warning finger cut him short, “Mr Hardacre, I believe that you have had to be reminded of your place before.”

    Sir Nigel waited until his subordinate fell silent before continuing, “As I was saying, we have worked too long and too hard on this project for it to be placed in jeopardy, especially now at this most crucial of times,” he regarded Hardacre’s puzzled expression and continued, “There is more, much more than you can imagine, coming together in our plan. We are at a crucial stage and any threat, however minimal must be dealt with.”

    He fixed a stern gaze upon Richard Hardacre and murmured, “Am I quite clear?”

    The younger man did not return the stare, but dropped his eyes to his drink as he absently used his thumb to turn the platinum wedding band on the third finger of his left hand, “Crystal… Sir,” was his only response.

    Suddenly, Sir Nigel’s mood seemed to lighten, “Come on Richard, no need to be so surly. After all, it’s not the first iv time you have had to orchestrate something necessary, if somewhat distasteful.”

    Richard knocked back his drink in a single gulp and forced his outward appearance to hide the rage that he felt inside. The insufferable old fool! Full of mysterious nonsense about his supposed secret society. Placing himself over the likes of hard working, confident and diligent Richard Hardacre, just because of who his great, great grandfather killed to get a title! None of his money earned.

    Born into it, just as he was born into a select section of society forever denied to Richard, based purely on the throw of genetic dice.

    Hardacre stood up and adjusted his tie before bowing slightly to Sir Nigel, “Well, I have my orders Sir, so if you’ll excuse me, I need to start attending to things. Sometimes the brushwood needs to be swept away so that the great trees can survive.”

    His superior nodded, “That is not an analogy that I am altogether comfortable with, but yes, you are correct,” before waving Hardacre away in dismissal.

    Richard left the room silently. Sir Nigel watched him exit through the carved oak door and then murmured, “Careful Mr Hardacre, you are not the only tool at my disposal, and you are far from indispensable.”

    Sir Nigel stretched his legs out and crossed them at the ankle, savouring his whisky and soda. He gazed out of the window as he thought about the plan, the plan that he was helping to set in motion. The plan that would make him even richer and more powerful than he already was.

    Richard Hardacre waited at the door of the lift that was the only way in and out of Sir Nigel’s penthouse office suite. He grimaced as he waited for the lift to arrive, ignoring the Sir Nigel’s personal assistant who was busily filing. He was fuming inwardly as once again he was being used to ‘orchestrate something necessary and distasteful.’

    Sir Nigel’s lived in a world of euphemism and wouldn’t sully his palate with words like theft, blackmail or murder. But still required them to take place from time to time and as usual he, Richard Hardacre, was to be the instrument of choice.

    The lift arrived and the doors slid open with a gentle electronic ding. He stepped inside and pressed the button for the fourth floor.

    Once back in his own office, nowhere near as plush or comfortable as the one he had just left, Richard Hardacre thought briefly about the terse conversations he had held with several members of one of the teams of programmers employed at the company. The veiled threats involving sacking and blacklisting if they talked about DataVault, a brand new computer security product that WinCom was working on, aimed at the higher end of the corporate scale, and especially if they discussed with anyone the separate routine that Eric Jenkins and his small group on the third floor were developing in the highest security section of the building. A routine that even he, the Head of Security had no knowledge except for the name, Hypogeum.

    Richard reached into his desk drawer and pulled out a printed list of names, all of which were crossed out, except one. Jonathon Baines, the lead programmer for the team in question. He knew the name and a little about the man, but had no personal experience of him. However, that would change tomorrow when Baines came for his interview.

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    The number of words you use is just fine. I meant you're trying to tell too much of the story there. IMO you should just focus on hooking the reader, and shouldn't even try to explain in any detail what the novel is about.

    Sample chapters would be welcome. I should put some up in my own thread.

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    CHAPTER ONE

    “Happiness serves hardly any other purpose than to make unhappiness possible.” – Marcel Proust

    Alma Baines glanced out of the window of her kitchen briefly; she could have sworn she saw movement in the shadow of the apple tree that dominated the back garden of the three-bedroom, semi-detached house she shared with her husband. Probably next door’s cat again, she thought to herself as she brushed an errant lock of her shoulder length, strawberry blonde hair from her eyes, then continued buttering the bread that would accompany the bowl of onion soup she was preparing.

    The microwave beeped and she transferred the steaming bowl to a small wooden tray that already held two mugs of tea. No sugar in hers, but three in Jonathon’s.

    She shuddered once again at the thought and then piled the bread on to a small plate that also went onto the tray.

    She collected the tray and navigated her way out of the cluttered kitchen, around the tall kitchen stool that Jonathon kept meaning to fix. Alma let a small grin pass over her delicate features as she thought about how long he had been ‘meaning to fix’ that particular item. Not in this lifetime, she thought to herself. She butted the light switch with her chin to turn the kitchen light off and then passed across the narrow hallway and into the small dining room. Or at least, originally built to be a dining room, it had been turned into a home office that both used for official work and for other IT jobs that came their way in order to supplement their not altogether satisfactory salaries.

    Alma paused in the doorway and looked at where Jonathon sat at his desk, staring into a screen full of computer code. She regarded the light thinning of his hair at the crown, that was all the more noticeable due to his very dark colouring.

    He heard her behind him, glanced at the clock in the bottom right corner of the monitor, and turned to face his wife with a slightly embarrassed grin, “Sorry Alma, I didn’t realise it was so late.”

    Alma smiled back, “Don’t worry. I know you’re cutting the deadlines close on this one.”

    She placed the tray on the desk next to him and said, “Eat up. You’ll need your strength later,” and made a sound like a cat purring. Jonathon responded to the comment by digging into the food with gusto, although Alma thought the mood was lost slightly as he howled like a wolf after he had swallowed the first mouthful.

    That was one of the things about him that had originally attracted her to him. Not handsome and with a bit of a paunch, but there was a certain something about his olive complexion and dark, almost black eyes, in addition to his sometimes child-like, but not childish manner.

    Jonathon on the other hand, always maintained that he had no idea how he had managed to marry such a beautiful woman. The hair, the heart-shaped face with delicate, elfin features and those eyes. Those blue eyes that were seemed to range from a rich, cornflower blue when she was happy, but turned into sparkling sapphires when she was angry or aroused.

    He wolfed down the food and then took a sip of his tea, before burping gently into his hand as he mumbled, “That was lovely, thanks.”

    Alma sipped her tea and then leaned back to stretch her spine muscles.

    Jonathon reached over to gently stroke her large, baby filled tummy and asked, “Want me to give you a back rub tonight?”

    She enjoyed the feeling as his warm hand slid from side to side across her abdomen, “Mmmm, please. You certainly know how to get on my right side.”

    Jonathon moved back towards the desk and said, “Okay, I’ll just save this and then we’ll get to bed.” Both mugs of tea were forgotten and left on the tray as Jonathon saved his work, switched off the computer and followed his wife upstairs to their bedroom.

    Alma lay naked on her side and snuggled her head into the pillow as Jonathon applied some lotion to his hands and then began to work them up and down her spine in long, sweeping strokes. She loved it when Jonathon massaged her aching back, but could not contain a giggle when he touched the sensitive part between her shoulder blades. She revelled in the love she could feel through his fingers as they worked their magic on her aches and pains. Her eyes started to close, but opened suddenly with a start, “That’s not my back, Mister!” she cried.

    With artful innocence, Jonathon answered, “Oh, sorry missus, slip of the hand.”

    And moved his fingers back to her spine.

    She glanced over her shoulder and looked him in the eye, “I didn’t say it was unwelcome. Get those fingers back there right now!” Jonathon’s eyes flashed and the boyish grin returned, “If you insist.”
    She felt him touch her intimately once again and re-closed her eyes as the gentle sensations started to build. She felt his lips plant butterfly kisses on her neck and she moaned, before lifting her free arm around her back so that she could touch her husband as he was touching her.

    Slowly they fell into the tender motions that were the physical manifestation of the love they shared.

    The alarm clock sang its harsh melody in the morning. Jonathon reached out and hit it with the palm of his hand to stop the noise, before yawning deeply and rubbing his eyes. He sat up, stretched and looked over at Alma, still asleep on her side with one leg poking out from under the duvet.

    He quietly climbed out of bed and moved round to her side so he could carefully push the straying limb back onto the mattress and cover it back up. Then he went to the bathroom to complete his morning ablutions before dressing and made his way downstairs for breakfast.

    Jonathon was munching his way through his second slice of toast and orange marmalade when a bleary-eyed Alma appeared in the kitchen door, wrapped in a towelling bathrobe.

    “Morning Lazybones,” he said chirpily.

    Alma ignored him and ambled over to the mug of fresh tea that waited on the side for her, “How can you be so bloody cheerful at,” she glanced at the clock, “six bloody thirty in the morning?”

    In truth, Alma was not a morning person and could not for the life of her understand how anyone could be in a good mood before at least nine o’clock and the second cup of tea of the day!

    Her husband grinned, brushed the crumbs from the front of his shirt and gave her a peck on the cheek. Well used to the morning monster he had married, he brushed off her bad temper, “It’s the best part of the day. Besides when I wake up, the first thing I see is you, so how could I be anything other than happy?”

    “Sod off!”

    Jonathon chuckled and kissed her on the cheek again, “You’re just pissed off because you have to stay at home for now.” He patted her lightly on the tummy, “It won’t be for ever and you’ll soon be back at work, and probably wishing you were back at home again.”

    Suddenly contrite, Alma whispered, “I’m sorry, Love. I’m just not a morning person. And I am so bored stuck here at home all day, it’s driving me up the wall.”

    Jonathon gathered her in his arms and rested his chin on the top of her head, “Two or three more weeks until Junior makes the grand entrance, six weeks maternity leave after that and then we’ll both be back in the office earning his university fees.”

    Alma was forced to laugh, “I suppose,” she gently disengaged from his embrace and planted a kiss on his lips, “Anyway, talking of work. Get a move on or you’ll be late.”

    It was Jonathon’s turn to look at the clock, “Oh Christ!”

    He grabbed his jacket and briefcase and half ran to the front door, with a shouted, “Bye, see you later!” as the door slammed shut, he was off down the path to his car and away.

    Alma finished her tea in a couple of large mouthfuls and then contemplated returning to her warm bed. She resigned herself to staying up, even though not a morning person, once Alma was up, she was up.

    She walked out of the kitchen and accidentally brushed the faulty stool with her hip, the loose leg shifted in the joint and it fell over… again. So she picked it up… again!

    Silently, she cursed Jonathon for still not sorting it out and then once she was sure it wouldn’t collapse again, made her way upstairs to brush her teeth, shower and get dressed, ready to begin another day stuck at home.

    She chided her unborn baby, “You better be worth all this, kid!”

    As if in response to her comment, she felt a, now familiar, sensation of a kick. She grinned to herself, “Not born yet and already arguing with your mum.”

    Once cleaned and dressed, Alma made herself busy with the daily routine of house cleaning.

    Jonathon arrived at work and switched on his computer. He had an email waiting and was surprised to see that it was from Richard Hardacre, “What on Earth does he want?” he wondered as he read the terse message to report to Hardacre’s office at ten o’clock sharp.

    Somewhat nonplussed, Jonathon set his machine to remind him at ten minutes to ten, so he could be up on the fifth floor in good time. He had never met Hardacre, but knew from others that the man was a stickler for punctuality and expressed the view that lateness was an insult not only to him, but also to the company, Her Majesty the Queen and God Almighty!

    He poured himself a coffee from the pot that was kept on the go at all times in the corner of the communal office that his team dwelled in, heaped three generous sugars into it and then took a sip before sitting back at his desk.

    It was only eight thirty, so Jonathon had plenty of time to look back over the coding he had written last night. He inserted his portable USB memory stick into the slot in order to save the program onto the team’s directory on the server, but was surprised when the system would not allow him to access it.

    Jonathon telephoned the system support department. “Good morning, System Support.”

    “Ah, hello. It’s Jonathan Baines on the DataVault team. Employee ID number 67119B. My USB slot isn’t working. Would you mind having a quick look at it please?”

    There was a pause and then the voice answered, “Sorry Mr Baines. It looks like your external storage rights have been revoked.”

    “Eh? What? But I need them. I have a large amount of work on my USB stick and I need to get it into the shared directory.”

    “Sorry. Your access has been revoked by the Security section.”

    “Why? What on Earth for?”

    “I’m afraid I really can’t comment on that. Sorry. –click.”

    Jonathon was puzzled. Why would they remove his external access rights? He hadn’t done anything wrong. Jonathon was aware of the sensitivity of the project he was working on, but he hadn’t broken any rules that he was aware of.

    He leaned around his monitor and called out to one of his colleagues, “George, have they switched off your USB slot?”

    His colleague, a middle-aged man called George Finlay answered, “They did. But then I had an interview with Hardacre in security and I got it back again.”

    Jonathon frowned in perplexity, “I know this is pretty hush-hush, but they’re going a bit over the top aren’t they?”

    George answered, “I wouldn’t know what they think to be honest. All I know is, I do my work, keep my trap shut and the mortgage gets paid,” and turned back to his own workstation to continue working.

    Jonathon was stumped.

    This didn’t make sense.

    They were nearing the closing stages of software development; in fact several sections were already in testing. The only component of the whole thing that he didn’t know about was the Hypogeum routine that Jenkins was building upstairs.

    As he found himself unable to do anything, Jonathon was resigned to surfing the Internet until his appointment with Richard Hardacre. Unfortunately, his Internet Gateway access had also been suspended.

    He sighed and reached into his desk drawer for the paperback he usually read during his lunch break.

    Five minutes before ten o’clock, Jonathon found himself waiting outside Richard Hardacre’s office, he could see the head of security though the half-open door. The man glanced up, saw Jonathon and checked his watch, before continuing to type on his keyboard.

    After another quick glance at his watch, he pressed the save key and waved Jonathon into the office.

    Richard indicated that Jonathon should close the door and motioned to a wooden chair placed in front of his desk. Jonathon sat down and waited for Richard to speak.

    Hardacre seemed to ignore him as he opened a file on his desk and quickly read through it.

    Jonathon was beginning to feel a little uncomfortable, as the silence grew longer, until Richard cleared his throat and said, “I see you’re married to another one of our employees, Mr Baines. Alma Baines, employee ID 345091B. Currently on maternity leave awaiting the birth of your first child.”

    “Yes. Due in a couple of weeks.”

    Hardacre fixed Jonathon with a cold eye for a long moment before murmuring, “Congratulations.”

    Not sure what to make of this interview, Jonathon asked a question of his own, “Mr Hardacre, can you tell me why my USB access was disabled?”

    Richard Hardacre looked Jonathon full in the face for the first time and answered, “Yes. Standard practice when an employee working on sensitive material turns out to be something of a security risk.”

    Jonathon was shocked and blurted out, “Security risk? Me?”

    “Yes Mr Baines. You. Removing proprietary code from the premises, placing it on an un-cleared and unsecured system. Also, attempting to gain information from the Hypogeum team.”

    Jonathon was amazed. He had taken work home many times in the past and had never been accused like this before, “What are you talking about?” he spluttered finally, “I’ve taken work home on any amount of occasions. My PC at home was placed there by the company and it’s swept regularly for viruses and malicious code. I mean, the USB stick is one your department cleared before I was issued with it! And as for attempting to gain information on the Hypogeum, I really don’t know what you mean!”

    Richard raised a hand, half in placation but also to stop Jonathon from talking further, “Your home PC does belong to the company as does your USB stick and both are, as you say, cleared for working on company software. But not DataVault. I am sure that you understand the company’s need to take great care in handling DataVault, when you consider that it will be the number one security watchdog for almost all of the major corporations and banks.”

    Jonathon’s mouth fell open, “How can you know that? It’s still being built for God’s sake. Won’t be ready for final testing for at least two more months and even that depends on this Hypogeum thing being ready for installation… Which reminds me what do you mean by attempting to gain information from the Hypogeum team? I spoke to Eric Jenkins once and asked him about it, he told me it was most hush-hush and he couldn’t say anything. I’ve never asked again!”

    Richard Hardacre’s voice was cold when he responded; “ I know that DataVault will be the number one security software on the market because I have great faith in the company Mr Baines. Faith I feel that you do not share.”

    “Oh come on! Of course I have faith, but I’m also a realist. We won’t know if it’s a success until we see the orders coming in.” There was a long drawn out pause as both men stared at each other.

    Jonathon could feel his colour rising as he was both annoyed and embarrassed that this man could make him feel like something of a naughty schoolboy.

    Hardacre on the other hand was wearing his usual bland expression and Jonathon could not read anything in his demeanour about what he was thinking. Suddenly, Richard smiled, an expression that did not come naturally to him, “Of course Mr Baines.”

    He slipped a pre-printed form from the folder and slid it across the desk towards Jonathon, “Sign this please.”

    As he automatically reached for the pen in his jacket pocket, Jonathon asked, “What is it?”

    “Merely the standard security declaration and agreement to abide by company policy.”

    Never having heard of such a form, Jonathon scanned through it before signing. His eyes alighted on one of the sub-clauses, namely: “6g. The employee, if having been found in breech of company security regulations and policies shall be immediately dismissed from the company and escorted from the building. Signature of this declaration indicates the individual’s agreement to waive normal dismissal procedures and also agrees to waive all employee statutory rights in this case.”

    Jonathon was appalled, “This is outrageous! And it can’t be legally binding. I refuse to sign.”

    Hardacre lost his smile, “All employees working for this company will be required to sign once DataVault goes live Mr Baines. For now though, only those who are working on it must sign. At least they must if they wish to continue working here. Think of your position. A new addition to the family on the way, sadly in the light of the current economic climate, downsizing may be the only option open to WinCom. It would be a shame if you were to be made redundant and your wife, Thelma, isn’t it? If Thelma found that she had no job to come back to.”

    Jonathon could barely hold his temper in check, “That sounds like blackmail to me!”

    “Why no, Mr Baines. This is merely a discussion on the options open to WinCom based purely on economics. The politics of the marketplace can be fickle.”

    Jonathon didn’t trust himself to speak without really losing his temper; he knew that Hardacre was correct. He had rights as an employee, but he was also a realist and he knew that WinCom wouldn’t think twice about using one of their high-priced lawyers to fight an unfair dismissal case. He could stand on his rights, go to court and then spend the next five years tied up in red tape and bureaucracy… whilst his family starved.

    He sighed heavily and then signed the form. Jonathon slid it back across the desk and stood up, “If you have nothing else, I’d like to get back to work now.”

    Richard placed the form carefully back in the flimsy folder and then said, “Thank you for your time Mr Baines. Your permissions will be granted immediately and you should be able to use your USD stick by the time you are back at your desk. A word of caution however, from this point on, no coding that frames part of the DataVault project will leave this building. Other programs, yes. DataVault no. Under any circumstances. You may go.”

    He waited until Jonathon had left the room and then reached for his telephone and whilst he waited for the connection, looked at the photographs that were also in the folder, hidden under the flap while Jonathon had been in the room, one was a poor quality black and white image of a remarkably pretty young woman looking out of a kitchen window, “Sir Nigel? I’ve spoken to him and sadly I must agree with you. I will make the necessary arrangements… Yes Sir, I’m aware of that. It’s a shame though, she is rather pretty… You want what, Sir… I see. Do we really have to… Yes Sir… I understand, but that will make the job a lot more difficult to… Yes Sir. Goodbye.”

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    Hardacre pressed the button on the phone to clear the line and made another call, “Davy? I have a job for you… Yes, one of those jobs.”

    He couldn’t keep the distaste out of his voice when he continued, “And I think you probably like this one. Be in my office at seven o’clock tonight.”

    He replaced the handset back on the telephone and looked again at the photo of Alma. He really didn’t understand why she had to be dealt with as well, for as far as he was aware, she had nothing to do with the current situation. But orders were orders. If anything Sir Nigel seemed more interested in having Alma dealt with than her husband, who, if Richard were any judge, seemed to be classed as collateral damage and nothing more. He pondered, or maybe there was more to this after all. Maybe they wanted Alma Baines to suffer before she died, although he was puzzled as to why that should be. Still that was really not his business, a fact that Sir Nigel liked to rub his nose in quite regularly. The society or committee or whatever they were, wanted Jonathon Baines to die and they wanted Alma Baines to suffer horribly and then die, and he was the agent that would make sure it happened.

    When Jonathon arrived home that evening, he was still livid about his treatment at the hands of Richard Hardacre.

    Alma was equally angry once he had explained. She stormed into the kitchen and slammed the cups down as she made each of them a hot drink.

    Jonathon followed her into the kitchen and listened as she raged, “That awful pipsqueak! Who the Hell does he think he is? I’ll tell you what Johnny! I’ll tell you what! I’m not going back there again. I mean, I know we could do with the money right now, but I’ll be buggered if I work for a company that wants me to sign away all my rights! And I think you should start casting about for a new job too.”

    Jonathon was content to let her stamp about and shout until she ran down and then, once she had calmed down, they would be able to discuss their next move. Although he had to agree, that her current choice of finding new employment seemed rather attractive to him too.

    They sat in silence in the living room, both lost in their own thoughts as the television droned on in the background. Normally, Alma would be watching a soap opera at this time of the early evening, but at the moment, she wasn’t in the mood for light entertainment.

    She reached out and placed her hand on his, “So, what do we do?” she asked. Jonathon blew out heavily and then answered, “I’m still for finding a new job. WinCom don’t have to know about it until I get something, then I hand my notice in and move straight from one to the other. I think you should stay there for now, at least until you are ready to go back to work. I see no reason why those arrogant bastards can’t continue to pay you for staying at home.”

    She didn’t like the idea of continuing her professional relationship with WinCom, but Alma did see the good sense in what Jonathon was saying. “Okay, “ she agreed, “I’ll stay with WinCom, at least for now. But you start looking around elsewhere. Start tomorrow!”

    Jonathon grinned at her, “I will. I promise,” he glanced at his watch and stifled a yawn, “Early night? Dunno about you, but I’m knackered. Been quite a big day, today.”

    Alma yawned in sympathy and then agreed to an early night.

    As they snuggled together under the duvet, neither was aware of a dark figure stood in the shadows at the side of their house. He looked up at the bedroom window and waited for the light to be switched off. Dressed in dark clothing and wearing a black balaclava, the figure pulled a small package and a soot-blackened blade from his pocket and knelt down next to Jonathon’s car. He reached underneath and placed the package against the fuel tank, where it stuck with a gentle clang as the magnet took hold. Then, with the blade he made a quick slice into a pipe that was attached to the back wheel.

    He stood up and faded back into the shadows, “Nice one Davy,” he thought to himself as he made his way back through the back garden and over the fence to the alleyway beyond where a dark blue Mercedes Sedan was waiting. The engine revved slightly and then the vehicle made its quiet way out of the alleyway and away from The Baines residence.

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    CHAPTER TWO

    “The death of a dear friend, wife, brother, lover, which seemed nothing but privation, somewhat later assumes the aspect of a guide or genius; for it commonly operates revolutions in our way of life, terminates an epoch of infancy or of youth which was waiting to be closed, breaks up a wonted occupation, or a household, or style of living, and allows the formation of new ones more friendly to the growth of character.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

    As was usual, the front door of 42 Welby Drive in the sleepy Wiltshire village of Morton Abbas slammed shut and Jonathon climbed behind the wheel of his beloved Peugeot 307. He turned the key in the ignition, slipped the car into reverse and drove backwards off his drive and into the road. Selecting first, he pulled smoothly forwards and began his usual commute into Salisbury.

    Jonathon never noticed the small lake of dark fluid that had pooled on the surface of the drive that had a dim rainbow patina in the harsh morning light. He was rather preoccupied this morning due to his impending search for new employment and didn’t even notice the dark blue Mercedes pull in behind him as he left the country road that connected his village to the A345.

    As he approached the slip road onto the major road, he increased speed to match the already impressive mass of traffic. The small nick in the break line continued its ceaseless dripping as fluid left the system and spattered on the road in tiny droplets.

    The first Jonathon knew about the problem with his brakes was when he hit the build-up of traffic as he approached the West Harnham area of Salisbury. He applied pressure to the middle pedal and it took him a moment to realise that he was not slowing down. He started to panic as he could see the break lights on the large articulated lorry in front of him shine red.

    Jonathon had time to stamp ineffectively on the brake pedal one last time before the little car slammed directly into the back bumper of the lorry. The crumple zone did its job and Jonathon stared in slow motion horror as the scene in front of him played out. The bodywork of his car crunched harshly as it contertina’d backwards, the radiator and its mounting took the brunt of the impact and sheared backwards into the engine block. The front wheels moved sideways and skewed as the shockwave travelled backwards towards Jonathon. It seemed like years, but was only an instant as the airbag in the steering wheel deployed. The plastic casing flew off and up towards the windscreen that was cracking and splintering.
    Last edited by Andrew Hobson; October 14th, 2012 at 03:30 PM.

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    He jolted forwards and his face embedded itself into the rough canvas, then he snapped back sharply to sit in his seat.

    Jonathon blinked and watched as the airbag, its job done, deflated almost as rapidly as it had deployed. Dimly he could hear the shouts and cries of alarm of the other road users and looked from side to side. He vaguely registered a dark car slip silently past him, but could not see the passenger in the back seat press a button on the casing of a small, black plastic box.

    The tiny explosive package attached to the fuel tank exploded and ignited the petrol it contained, the fireball engulfed the car and Jonathon briefly registered heat, pain and then he died.

    The passenger in the Mercedes made a call on his mobile phone and said, “Part one accomplished,” before replacing the phone in his pocket and indicating to the driver that they should be elsewhere before the emergency services arrived.

    It was mid-morning when Alma heard the front door bell ring as she was washing up. She glanced at the clock and wondered who it could be while she quickly dried her hands on a tea towel and walked to the front door.

    She opened the door and was surprised to see two uniformed policemen on the step. The taller of the two, removed his hat and asked, “Mrs Baines? Mrs Alma Baines?”

    Alma ran cold, “Yes… What’s happened?”

    Her expression turned from mild worry to dread as the officer answered quietly, “May we come in?” The dark shadow of doubt and worry started to fill her mind as she led them inside and into the kitchen. She didn’t know why she led them in there, rather than in the living room. It was as though she knew they had bad news and she didn’t want to hear what they had to say, she wanted to get back to the washing up and continue normally as if they weren’t there.

    Sadly though, she couldn’t.

    Again, she asked, “What’s happened? Is it Johnny?”

    She waited as the policeman gathered his thoughts and then told her, “I’m sorry Mrs Baines, but I’m afraid your husband has been involved in a traffic collision this morning in Salisbury.”

    A cold shiver ran down her spine, “What! Is he okay? Where is he?”

    The policeman held his hat in both hands in front of him, turning it slowly in his hands as he responded in as gentle fashion as he could manage, “I’m afraid he’s dead. He died at the scene… I’m so sorry.”

    “Johnny? Dead? No! You’re a liar! I saw him this morning…”

    Alma looked from one policeman to the other and back again as she desperately tried to make sense of what she had been told.

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    She was desperate for them to start smiling as though it was really a joke and her Jonathon was coming back to her.

    Then the reality hit and she staggered, dropping the tea towel onto the floor, she took a step forward and tripped on the towel, as she stumbled, Alma reached out to steady herself on the nearest thing to hand, which was the kitchen stool.

    Horrified, the policeman nearest to Alma reached out to grab her as she fell heavily on top of the collapsing stool.

    Her head hit the corner of the kitchen worktop and she grunted as pain exploded through her skull. She saw bright lights against a black field and slipped into unconsciousness. There was a loud crack when the leg finally snapped off completely and he could only stare at the small figure lying face-down on top of the broken chair and saw a pool of thick red fluid seeping from underneath her.

    The sight of blood spurred him into action and the young policeman knelt down next to Alma. He could see a large mark on her forehead just above her left eye that was slightly scratched and little droplets of blood were beginning to form along its length.

    His partner was talking rapidly into his radio, requesting an ambulance as a matter of urgency. But he took no notice of that as he gently moved Alma onto her side. He could see that short length of wood that had been part of the leg of the stool had split into a sharp point, which had embedded itself into the side of her abdomen.

    He was tempted to pull it out, but then his training kicked in and he left it where it was, as he knew that even though it looked bad, it was probably helping to seal the wound and was stopping Alma from losing blood a lot more rapidly. He felt helpless because all he could do was watch and wait for the ambulance to arrive.

    Alma was walking through a forest. It was a bright sunny day and light was twinkling through the lush green leaves that formed a canopy high above her head. She could hear the gentle twittering of birds high in the trees, going about their daily business and when she came near to a babbling stream, she watched as a Roe deer stared at her nervously guarding a fawn that was gulping down small mouthfuls of the clear, cold water.

    She backed slowly away from the animals in order not to frighten them away and turned off along another path that wended its way between the trees. Even though she was in such a peaceful and calm setting, Alma was puzzled and a little bit frightened, she had lost something and she needed to find it. She stopped suddenly as a sharp pain stabbed her in the stomach. She almost cried out, but as quickly as the pain had, it had gone and left only a mild, dull ache in its place. She rubbed her stomach lightly and then continued on her way.

    Suddenly, Alma came to a clearing. She could see a small, brick-built cottage that seemed rather modern and somewhat out of place in such a picturesque setting. A small tilled area of land lay at the western wall of the house and Alma could see lines of small green plants stood in it.

    She walked up to the front door, but before she could knock, it opened and a very old woman stared at her.

    Alma asked, “Can you help me? I’ve lost something, but I don’t know what it is… I only know, I’ve lost it.”

    The old woman studied Alma’s face for a long moment before she answered, “I think you’d better come inside, child. I have the kettle on the go, so we can have a nice drink and you can tell me all about it.

    Alma followed the old woman into the house uncertainly.

    Once inside, her fears dimmed somewhat. The inside of the house was a single room that was mainly given over to a cross between a kitchen and what she would imagine a medieval alchemist’s laboratory would look like. To one side asset of rough-hewn steps led up to a platform that contained the sleeping quarters.

    The whole affair was more in keeping with the aesthetic of the forest than the exterior of the house, which seemed to be far too modern and austere.

    The old woman waved toward a finely carved wooden chair, “Sit down, child. Make yourself comfy and I’ll get you a drink. Do you drink Camellia?”

    “What’s Camellia?”

    The old woman laughed to herself and then answered, “I be forgetting myself. You call it tea I’m thinking.”

    “Oh, yes. Yes I’d love some tea please, Miss…?”

    The old woman turned and looked Alma full in the face, her blue eyes that had seemed dim and misty now shone with inner fire and her face took on a disapproving aspect, “Oh don’t be calling me Miss or Mrs or Madame. Taika, I be called with none of your fangled titles and such.”

    Alma shrank back in her chair with an involuntary shudder.

    There was a power in this strange old lady that she did not understand and it scared her.

    The fire died in Taika’s eyes and her expression returned to a welcoming, friendly smile, “Be of no mind young Alma. I’m old and some things irritate the old folk like perhaps they shouldn’t.” She grabbed a small handful of dried leaves from a glass jar on a small shelf next to her open fire that had an old fashioned cauldron full of bubbling water set above it and crushed them with her hand as she sprinkled them into a wooden mug.

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    Taking a ladle that hung next to the shelf, she carefully spooned some boiling water into the cup, a quick stir with the other end of the ladle and then she handed the mug to Alma. “Have a care now, child. It be hot,” she warned.

    Alma gratefully accepted the drink and took a cautious sip. Taika was right, it was very hot, but also very tasty, just this side of bitter, but with a sparkling after taste. Then a thought struck her, “How did you know my name? I never told you it.”

    Taika had filled a mug of her own with Camellia and sat down opposite Alma, she ignored the question but posed one of her own, “What you be searching for, here in The Forest?”

    The younger woman could almost hear the capital letters that Taika used when she referred to the forest and answered, “I… I don’t know. I just know I’ve lost something-“

    Again she felt a stab in her belly and this time the pain made her double over. She cried out and dropped her mug on the floor where it clattered and bounced and spilled its contents all over the reed covered stone flags, and once again, the pain disappeared just as rapidly as it had attacked.

    Alma could feel her eyes fill with stinging tears as she whispered, “I’m sorry, I’ve made a mess.”

    Taika hadn’t moved, but she responded kindly enough, “Pay the drink no mind, Alma. And think not for now about what be lost and what you be forgetting. It’ll come to you in time, I have no doubts.”

    She glanced out of the window and noted, “The sky be darkening and I’m sure I smelled a thunder storm coming in.”

    Taika reached into a pocket in her voluminous skirt and handed Alma a small handkerchief, “Dry your tears, Alma. Now be not the time for grief, no matter what you think… Or will be thinking soon. Now be the time for hope as well as happiness and love, or at least the beginnings of it. But only if you be strong and believe in yourself. Lose hope and lose all as they say. But as to who ‘they’ are I wouldn’t know, but ‘they’ do have their share of common sense.”

    Alma dabbed her eyes with the piece of soft cloth. She had a thousand questions for this strange old woman, but couldn’t ask any of them. It was as though she had been struck dumb.

    Taika stood up and took Alma’s hand, “Come child, time for sleeping I think.”

    The young woman allowed Taika to lead her gently up the steps to the sleeping area, which turned out to be a huge pile of soft furs. Alma let Taika cover her as she lay still with her eyes closed. The old woman lightly stroked her forehead and whispered a mantra in an unknown language. Alma drifted off into a deep, dreamless sleep.

    Wanna know how it continues? You know where to go :-)

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