Paul Purnell

Short stories and other work

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Star Fire

She pushed her things into a bag and slammed out of the door. I ran after her down the path leading to the jetty and grabbed her arm.

‘You can’t go like this.’

‘Let go of my arm,’ she said and she looked out to sea where the boat was approaching.

Two months ago we arrived on Flanna, as excited as children. At last, our dream of life together began. I gave up my job in London and she came from New Zealand to be with me. The island seemed perfect: remote, beautiful and just the place for us to work. Jo was a writer and I was an observer for the Astrophysics Society, plotting the movement of the planets.

The boat called every two months and neither of us looked for company. We had each other – and the stars.

Yes, the stars. People tell of the brightness of starlight seen from the Atlas Mountains, but they cannot imagine the commanding sight of the Borealis as it swoops and dances over Flanna. Your skin tingles, your eyes are filled with light. Every nerve is on fire and your breath is stifled.

When we first arrived, I tried to show Jo how strong the attraction was.

She laughed and said, ‘You’re becoming hypnotised. It’s only the Northern Lights.’

It was an absurd remark. Surely, anyone can appreciate the power of the starlight?

Two weeks later, I stayed out all night to record the movements. She complained.

‘You can set up the cameras to record, you don’t have to be there.’

I didn’t reply. How was I to tell her that the starlight radiated its power on me, demanding I should be there? When I returned at dawn, my skin purple with the freezing night air, I noticed her expression of disdain. I went silently to bed, alone.

She spoke to me the next day.

‘James, let’s try to do something together. Can you look at my script and tell me what you think?’

I smiled to humour her and pretended to scan her writing. It was hopeless. The words meant nothing to me, just scribbles on the page. I made some anodyne comment to appease her but I saw the disappointment in her eyes.

I wanted to grip her and shout, ‘Jo, the stars are the energy of the universe, can’t you see? We must absorb their power to survive!’

But I felt her psyche resisting me. I said nothing.

The Society began to be troublesome; they demanded regular reports. I logged the movements of various nebulae but they wanted more. They had no understanding of real cosmic influence; they only recorded data not the power of the universe.

I stopped sending in reports. What was the point? The real work had to be harnessing the energy of the Borealis to increase one’s own significance.

I found a way to do this. Each night, leaving the croft, I stood on the highest point on the island. Above me the whole of the northern sky poured its radiance down on me. The core of my being absorbed the mighty power of the stars. I shouted and screamed with delight. At last I had true union with the universe.

I begged Jo to come out and feel the transfiguration on the mountaintop. She shook her head and kept to the house as if it was some shell or carapace to protect her. I left her to it.

Now, the weeks pass and I find my life becoming focussed. I need more time to intensify the energy. You need to concentrate and trivial matters like food and sleep, drop away. She never understood this; I tried to explain but she looked away and spent her time writing in her stupid journal.

Then the next boat was due. I watched on the mountain as usual during the night, while she lay wrapped in a blanket indoors. At one point, she came out into the night air and called to me. I heard her voice but the radiance of the stars possessed my spirit once again. I shouted for her to join me in the ecstasy of true light but she never came.

The next day, she left. I tried to talk to her but it was useless.

I miss her presence here on the island. It is lonely during the day. I am fading slowly into the atmosphere, like a jet of flame burning lower each day. Soon I will be a spirit at one with the stars. I am waiting, I am ready.


Living in Sin

Kemp switched off the engine and let the hire car drift to a stop under a tree.

The shade was welcome after the two hour drive from Malaga Airport. He pulled out some binoculars and focussed on the villa below the road. The sun shimmered off the tiles and everything baked in the fierce heat.

Christ! What am I doing here at this time of day? Should have waited till evening or come earlier.”

Then he reasoned he had no choice. The girl had been due to leave any day soon and he needed to be sure of her identity. This was a good gig with plenty expenses; something he could not turn down.

After a long half hour, something happened, down below. A lean-looking minder, equipped with the usual dark glasses and a cheap suit, walked up the drive towards the road. He looked up and down without paying much attention. Kemp blessed the shade which hid his position from the driveway. The man strolled back down the hill and out of sight.

The day before, Kemp got a call from the Security Agency in London. Someone cancelled at short notice. Was he available?

You bet!”  But he said: “I can fit it in if I can be back in London by Saturday.”

The Agency swallowed the story and he breathed a sigh of relief. At last he had a job after a dry period which had lasted too long. Rent was due; Car payments; alimony and assorted debts were piling up.

He grabbed the first plane out to Malaga and met up with an ex-marine, living on the coast, that same evening. This guy, Eric, was a useful contact because he dabbled in a lot of schemes and did favours for old friends. Kemp reckoned he rated as an old friend, if he paid enough.

“I need a little helper,” he said. Eric stepped down from the bar and beckoned him into a room at the back. Opening a drawer, he unwrapped an Italian copy of a Browning 9 mm. Kemp checked the action and nodded. The price was a crime but he paid it, knowing the client would meet all expenses if the job turned out well. He loaded it and stuffed into his belt at the middle of his back.

It took him most of the morning to identify the villa where the target lived and now he was in place, he had to make a decision on what to do.

“Don’t harm my daughter,” the client told him, “Just give ’em a scare and make sure he shits himself and drops her.”

Kemp thought; “Who’d have thought it! An oligarch who complains if his daughter living in sin!”

The instructions were crystal and Kemp saw no problem acting the hard man in front of some Spanish gigolo. However, he hadn’t reckoned on the hired help, who seemed serious, if a bit slack.

How many were there? He moved to a better position where the house itself could be seen. The villa seemed a grandiose affair with a pool and tennis courts laid alongside. He hoped to way-lay a car as it turned out of the drive but now the presence of the man in the cheap suit had to be taken into consideration.

As he approached, a big flat top truck pulled out at speed into the road. It set off towards Malaga, but screeched to a stop after a hundred yards and went into high reverse coming for him. There was no time to get back to the car, so Kemp aimed his automatic at the rear tyre on the near side. He pumped four shots in that direction until the tyre exploded with a satisfying bang and the truck began to veer across the black top.  Then it span out of control turning over and over with its momentum. It ended upside down. The body of a man had been flung out into the road. It was the minder in the cheap suit. He lay awkwardly like doll thrown down by a spiteful child.  He never moved and Kemp realized he was dead.

The noise of the crash and the gunfire was bound to bring action from the house so Kemp darted down the drive running low, to take anyone by surprise. The first person he met, an old Spanish gardener, looked at him in wonder. Kemp ran past him to reach the portico of the house itself.

Moving at full speed up the steps, he cannoned into a young woman carrying a suitcase. She fell sprawling across the floor and he slid on his back along the shiny marble for some way.

Before he was able to get up, a large man grabbed his arms and pinned him down.

“Let him go!” said the girl as she climbed to her feet and brushed herself down.

Kemp recognized her from a photo he had been given, It was the client’s daughter. He got to his feet as best he could with the big man holding his wrist.

The photo had not done her justice. It showed a pretty girl with long blonde hair and a good figure. The reality was a stunning, lively woman with deep blue eyes and lips like ripe cherries. Dressed in some elegant summer suit, it covered her curves but helped his imagination work overtime. Her hair, pulled back in a plain style, shone with the glow of natural blonde and glistened in the cool shade. For a moment, Kemp was speechless.

“What have you done to Carlo?”  She asked, “What has happened?”

Her eyes narrowed as she questioned him but he still thought they were the most stunning eyes he’d ever seen.

The answer became obvious as soon as the big man searched him; the 9mm fell out of his pocket where he had stuffed it on his run to the house. The large man growled and flung Kemp down again.

“Wait!” Kemp raised a hand in protest, “Listen, I’ve been sent to protect you. Your father sent me to warn you about the risks if you travel to Paris in the next few days.”

He made it up on the spur of the moment since he could hardly tell her the real reason.

She said “What trouble? If there’s trouble he would have rung me or e mailed?”

“No! He sent me ‘cos his communication centre is hacked or maybe hacked.”

He was getting deeper into the lies and began to worry where it would lead.

“Never heard of any fackin’ Communication Centre,” grunted the giant man and he gripped Kemp even harder.

“Why would he tell you?”  Kemp said, “You the brains of his Empire?”

“Let him up and bring him to Tony.”

She turned and walked onto the shaded terrace which overlooked the pool and tennis court. She sat and took off her jacket. Her tanned shoulders and plunging neckline drew his gaze like a magnet.

“I had to shoot,” Kemp said, “He tried to run me down.  So I shot his tyres out.”

The old gardener climbed up the sloping drive and spoke in Spanish to the woman. Plainly, he was explaining what had happened in the road and she questioned him closely. Kemp noted her mood relaxed a little.

Within a few minutes, a man appeared in a yellow silk shirt and cream linen trousers. He was tall and dark with a slim moustache and a mane of black hair tied into a ponytail. He looked at Kemp like a cobra examining a rabbit and it was all Kemp could do to hold his gaze.

“What’s all this about Paris?” he demanded, “Why shouldn’t she travel?”

“Why should I tell you?” said Kemp, “I’m here to protect her.”

He nodded in her direction.

“Tony,” the girl put her arm on the man’s sleeve,” I can’t take a chance. I’m staying here until this is sorted out.”

The man frowned, “Look, it’s all set up. I can’t back out now.”

She shrugged. “Well that’s up to you, but I’m staying.”

There was firmness in her voice which Kemp liked. She was no bimbo; she knew her own mind.

“Well what about the money?” Tony asked

“I’ll authorize the bank, so don’t fret. The money will be available.”

He was about to protest but then he looked at Kemp and the gorilla man and decided to keep his own counsel.

He turned to the big man and ordered him to sort out the truck and the body before the Guardia got involved. It was obvious he wanted to exert some authority even if she had decided what to do.

“Put him down in the cellars. We’ll sort this out later.”  The girl stepped in.

“No. I want to learn more about this and he’s come from Padre, so he can do his job, finally.”

She gave Kemp a shadow of a smile and he felt like a schoolboy at prize giving.

The big man shrugged and ambled off down the drive on his janitor duties.

The man Tony frowned but said nothing, and then aimed a kiss at her cheek and went down to the garage. Within a minute a Lamborghini roared down the drive and Tony was gone.

She turned to face Kemp and smiled.

“You don’t seem to know my name, yet you say that Father sent you?”

There was a serious edge to the query but still, there was warmth behind it.

“Look! I told a story to get by!”  He said, “Give me a break, I have a reason to be here but got tangled with your hired help, so told a few naughties.”

He smiled his best rueful grin but she stopped smiling.

“Go ahead then, what’s your game?”

He felt a twinge of sadness that this wonderful girl was such a realist. Even after two marriage disasters and a rowdy life, Kemp harboured just a smidgen of romance.

He told her the truth and waited for an explosion, but it never came.

She laughed and again the wonder of her smile enveloped him for an instant.

“My father is a teddy bear,” she said, “He’s only worried that his little girl can’t manage Tony and the boys by herself!  Poor little Melanie!”

Kemp was puzzled.

She went on. “The plan is to dump the partners in this scheme and Tony is one of them!”

A light began to glimmer in Kemp’s mind.

“You mean, you’re not going to finance this deal for him? What will happen to him?”

“You guess! French suppliers will be displeased, I shouldn’t wonder, and Tony is toast.”

“So I’m a patsy too!”  Kemp was beginning to work it out.

“No you’re not,” she laid a hand on his arm, “the only thing is, you have to protect me if anyone comes to collect. You told me lies, so now you can earn your fees!” She laughed again but it didn’t seem so amusing.

That night, the dark seemed alive. Dusk fell early and the moist air was filled with sounds, Cicadas clicked in every tree.   The lights on the porch were too bright, so he called to the big man Alfonso to switch them off. Now he could see the length of the drive and the road just outside the gate. Any car coming down the road would show up, unless they did what he had done and left a car further up the road. That thought kept tapping at the back of his mind.

Alfonso patrolled the grounds every half hour while Kemp set up an observation post up on the roof. He blessed the Spanish custom of roof top laundry space; it gave him a perfect location to check the front of the villa and the gate area.

Melanie had found a hunting rifle and ammunition in Tony’s dressing room and Kemp was glad to have something meaty to help out.

They waited.

Circumstantial Evidence

A hush fell on the Court as the Prosecution Q. C. rose to cross- examine. He pulled his silken gown around him and looked across the court.  James Comyn was a thin man with a large head. He stood with his shoulders hunched and reminded one of a predatory bird – perhaps a hawk or a kite.

Across the well of Court One, the Defendant stood tall in the witness box. His fair hair and blue eyes caught the light from the high windows of Old Bailey in London. Gavin Somerset had been accused of the murder of Lord Gower, his father in law.

Upon the body of the dead man was an important piece of evidence: a fragment of a typed letter with the words:

“..and misfortunately, we have lost everything…”

The first question seemed harmless. What was behind it? “Did you lose your parents when very young?”

“That’s correct.”

“And it caused you much distress?” “Yes”

The cross-examination continued on the same theme: “When you were twenty one, did you suffer an accident?” “True. I was ski-ing in Verbier and broke a leg.”

The defendant, Somerset grew in confidence as he related past events.

“What was the reason for the accident?”

The calm quiet manner of the query had the jury straining to catch the question.

An elderly man at the back leant forward and cupped his ear.

“Well, I suppose it must have been my own fault,” – then he interjected -” but that was years ago! I don’t see how it relates to this case.”

Comyn paused to see if there was any legal objection.

There was none. Henry Pitcher, for the Defence, saw no harm in the line of questioning, although far from the facts in the case. His instincts told him to save his ammunition for more serious objections.

The questioning went on; he persisted in querying other mishaps during the young man’s life, dwelling on his bad luck andmisfortune. Pitcher began to feel uneasy. It seemed as if the questions were  sympathising with the Defendant, almost sharing his misfortunes. His instincts told him there was danger ahead, but what could it be?

Then Comyn turned to his vast unpaid debts. Somerset’s bank account showed the money passing out into casino hands.

At last, he turned to his relationship with his father-in -law. “Did you realize Lord Gower might have cleared your huge debts with a stroke of his pen?”

“I suppose so, but I didn’t approach him.” “Why not?”

“Because the old man would never do it! He loathed me for gambling his daughter’s dowry away. -But that was our money not his. She didn’t care”

His eyes blazed defiance at the thin bewigged figure across the width of the court.

“How did you feel about his attitude?”

Again, the tone of reasonable enquiry seemed more like an interview with a friendly doctor rather than a deadly prosecutor.

The earlier questions had been kindly put, so the defendant was eager to build on the apparent sympathy between them.

“He was nothing to me.”

“Then why did you visit him on the day he died?”

Just for a moment, Somerset blinked. The jury leant forward, aroused from torpor. Even the Old Bailey ushers paused and listened.

“I went to collect some items from the house that belonged to me.” “What items?”

“Just some clothes and effects I had left from previous visits.”

“Why not send a servant for this task?”

Somerset smiled at the jury. “I can do simple tasks myself. Besides, I knew where the things were.”

He was gaining confidence with every question. “Did you find them?”

“Mis-fortunately, I could not find them all.”

A gasp swept across the courtroom. The jury turned to each other and Comyn smiled briefly. It took a few seconds for Somerset to grasp what he had blurted out.

“That is to say, I couldn’t find everything but it was no great loss…”

James Comyn took up the letter exhibited and read again the quote from the murderer.

“”Tell the jury why you truly went to Lord Gower’s house at such an hour?”

“Why do you keep asking about that visit? I’ve told you why I went and that is enough!”

Red in the face with rage, Somerset gripped the edge of the witness box and glared down at the barrister.

Comyn remained silent for a few seconds – the clock on the wall ticked ponderously in the small silence.

“This was your letter and murder was your mission that night!” The bravado of the man was snatched away in one instant.

He had no words to combat the truth. His body sagged with despair and he muttered some denial which nobody could catch.

Henry Pitcher was like a stone statue, he betrayed not the slightest sign of the effect this had upon him. One word had convicted his client. He asked several harmless questions in re -examination, but nothing could be done.

The jury retired at 3 .00 p.m. and returned at 3.30.

The foreman, a thin grey man stood to give the verdict. “How do you find the Defendant? Guilty or Not Guilty?” He paused and faced the man in the dock. “Guilty.”

Somerset sobbed; not from remorse but from the horrible truth that he had betrayed himself.

Comyn scribbled on his brief and looked away from the dock while the Defendant was taken down. Henry Pitcher leant across the barrister’s row and patted him lightly on the shoulder.

Then he turned to his junior “Time for a drink I suppose?

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