"It all began; when I was a much younger man; when life was simpler and 'loyalty' meant something..."He read the first sentence of the competition entry again. He couldn't believe it and yet here it was in his hand, in black and white and gloriously painful punctuation grating on him with every semi colon."Really?" he said to its author as if he was sat on the other side of his desk. "For one thousand pounds prize money is it really going to begin for you 'when you were a younger man and life was simpler...'?" He read a few more sentences with a disdain partly from the poor introduction, partly from the terrible punctuation, and partly pre-booked by his subconscious believing that he also had had a simpler life when he was a young and free man.
He sipped his coffee."Christ". This was no way to start a Monday.
Gavin sighed and looked at the wall in front of him. There was nothing on the wall other than a simple tapestry, but it contrasted with the bare brickwork around it and together they proclaimed his connection to a minimal yet sophisticated lifestyle. All chosen by Sandra of course, one of her many ideas. Like this bloody competition; being sat here now reading this crap. He had been happy to retire and plant some vegetables or build a replica Cutty Sark out of toothpicks maybe... so why did everybody else want him to 'keep busy'? Well, not everybody. His old colleagues at Uni told him to keep playing golf and getting fatter. Only Sandra wanted him to keep working.The competition had only been open two weeks and he had already read thirty odd short stories; some emailed and some posted. The usual love tragedies, travel memoirs, ghost stories, and now crime fiction too: 'A man shoots his wife's lover six times after catching them having an affair etc, etc'."Oh Please..." He complained to another blissfully absent would-be author.
He looked out of the window at what he perceived as another wall; that of the sky keeping him in his place in this world. The clouds sat sagging beyond the glass, so unaware and yet so confident that they, and he, were all following some predetermined destiny. He breathed deeply. He needed a fix. Maybe there would be some of his young lady friends on the internet to 'chat' with...
Two hours later he felt sated, and he decided to get some air. But what he needed was an excuse...something more important than reading stories. Something that he really must do now. Like... getting the car's MOT. Yes, that would do it - if it expired he would be in trouble, and Sandra hated to break the law. Not for anything; it drove him mad when she insisted on parking two miles out of town so they could avoid stopping on a yellow line just to run into the chemist. He loved her in his own way, but she was so dull. He remembered once she had described to him a night out when she had awoken the next morning with a Mars bar in her pocket. For the life of her she couldn't think how it had got there. That was her wildest story. And being kinky was admitting to him that she had once had a thing about men in uniform. He smiled to himself. Kinky? If only she could see his internet browser history...Yes, he would have to get the car sorted today. As he left the drive he was already calculating how much time he could spend in the pub before she started to notice.
He came back later to more competition entries and Sandra cooking dinner.
"Where were you, you were ages?"
"Yes - sorry - there wasn't much needed so they did it there and then; but it dragged on a bit."
"You mean you left the car with them and went to the Goose's Head."
"Really, you are so predictable sometimes!"
She told him off but there was no seriousness in it. He knew that she knew when she could bite and when she could just grumble. She was so naive, yet she seemed to know his moods so well. Clever little Sandra.
He laughed, and she chuckled too.
The weekend meant golf and more to the point his freedom. He was just grabbing his coat, when the pile of mail on the hall table caught his eye. He wasn't going to pick it up; he really wanted to ignore it, but apparently he couldn't. Letters - oh yes, he knew what they were... bills... and here was the culprit; a parcel. For him. It was heavy too.He mentally clocked the time penalty of spending another two minutes in the house as opposed to being in the clubhouse, but he loved parcels; they always made you feel like you had a present, even if it was just printer cartridges. Besides, he received a free chocolate bar with some printer cartridges once. It was tightly secured and it had quite a lot of packaging. It was also privately sent; no Amazon stamp or 'documents enclosed' pouch, and as he started to unwrap it he noticed a vague smell of oil...
It was a gun; a revolver.He looked at it. Receiving a gun in the post seemed as abstract as a Philip K Dick novel. And as worrying too. He felt its weight and smooth steely black hardness. After his initial surprise he held it by the grip, with his finger stroking the trigger guard. He felt the soft sheen of oil over it.His mind went slowly blank while it took in the purpose of such a tool.
"What on earth...?"
He nearly dropped it he jumped so suddenly at Sandra's surprised voice.
"What is that?" She asked, rather stupidly in his opinion.
"What the hell does it look like?" He answered, a little more severely than he wanted to, due to his accelerated heart beat.
Sandra paused, as if she was thinking about it. "Is it real?"
"Yes... I think so. It is a bloody good copy if it isn't." He carefully looked at the gun pretending that he was well versed with handling them. He had actually never held a gun in his life. He looked at the marks on it, and very slowly pushed the only button - a knurled slide above the grip - forward. There was a quiet click and the magazine fell open, revealing its six black cylinders. In each one was a small silver cartridge advising him coldly that the gun was loaded.He carefully tilted the gun until several of the bullets started to slide out, then caught one and pushed the others back in. The shiny case had a small dull nib to it, and he just knew it was real. He couldn't remember where he had seen it, but blanks had no nib on the end; the shell was crimped instead. He started to empty them from the chamber.
He jumped again - angry now at his own edginess.
"What the hell - why not? It's dangerous while its bloody well loaded!" He retorted.
"I just don't think you should do anything with it at all... until somebody looks at it. Who sent it?"
"I think it was that nice elderly couple we met last year on holiday." He could never help his sarcasm. It was expected of a teacher.
She looked at him confused. "Why...?"
"Christ I don't know who sent it, there is nothing on the paper. Did you sign for it?
"Then it wasn't registered either."
"Well, do you know anybody...?"
"Yes of course, I have many friends who might have thought 'oh, along with that magazine subscription I bought Gavin, I'll send him a bloody gun!!!'"
They stood and looked at it while Gavin calmed down.
"Why don't you take it to the police station?" she said.
He composed himself a little. "I could do. But joking aside, saying it was from somebody we knew?"
"Now who's being ridiculous? You just said yourself..."
"Yes I know" he cut in, "but it is just so...weird."
"What about Charles?" She thought out loud.
Charles had retired a colour sergeant after 22 years service in the Coldstream Guards and still had several guns. Nobody had ever known him to go shooting or even use them for anything other than sitting in his kitchen and cleaning them. It was just generally assumed to be just part of being Charles.
"But why would he send us a gun?"
She sighed. "No, I meant he may be able to tell us something about it, like if it was a rare piece or something special." She looked him in the eye: "But maybe you should just go straight to the police."
He was bored with her now. The 'oh so correct' Sandra had quickly returned.
That night he tried to do some work for the competition, but he kept thinking about the parcel earlier. It was a great mystery. They say that truth is stranger than fiction, and he wished some of his short story authors could discover this. He stopped suddenly with the thought.Could it be?Maybe it was one of them! What if some writer had done the whole thing as a way of getting his attention... what if he was about to get a story about a guy who has a gun delivered to his house out of the blue! He smiled to himself. Now that would be good. He laughed. Really good. It was a long shot he knew but it was inspiring. Wait a minute... what if he had already received a story that had pointed towards this? He gathered all of the stories together with a renewed energy. He had sorted a few into different folders marked 'Good', 'Ok', 'Poor', and 'Burn'. He remembered there was one about a man shooting his wife's lover somewhere... that was the only one involving a gun he could think of out of all of them.
"You see - you are getting into it." Sandra stuck her head around the office door.
"I had a thought..." he trailed off, busy with his searching.
"Did you want a cup of tea, I'm making one?"
"No. Thanks, I'm ok..." he continued searching through his folders.
Sandra smiled simply and pulled the door closed after her.
He read the piece twice. The murderer had managed to get the gun after paying some shady contact in a pub (believable these days) when he had become suspicious about his wife. And yes! There it was: the man had received the gun in the post to cover any connection with the seller. Was that possible? (Obviously it was). But here it said that there was a method to camouflage a parcel enough that it would never be deemed suspicious. He had found it! He read on, smiling. The husband had then confronted her and she had admitted everything to him. He simply drove to the other man's house, surprised him, and shot him. Six times (not much of a coincidence there - he had an idea that all revolvers carried six bullets). But there was more now. This time whilst reading it he felt something between the lines. Something underlying that added a bit of an edge to it. There was a subtle yet strong build up of how the husband had deteriorated from a respectable professional to a man obsessed with revenge. Gavin now felt he had maybe been too harsh with his initial appraisal of the story; it was actually quite good. He also realised that if it was indeed this author who had sent him the gun, then his elaborate stunt had certainly worked; but he was far too happy with his own detective ability to dwell on it. He left the entry open; he may just have a winner.
Gavin left the house the next morning feeling good about things. He had found an interesting angle to the competition (though there was no actual proof of any link yet, but just the possibility of something out of the ordinary was worth hanging onto), Sandra was in a very good mood and was quite intent on pampering him at breakfast, and she had even decided to stay at home while he went to see Charles today; something which made him feel more comfortable too. They had all met years ago at a local charity event and Charles had practically drooled over Sandra for the entire evening. They had become good friends and nobody took Charles very seriously, but it had always stuck in his head. And he could be hard work to be around sometimes. Still, being ex-army he did like a good practical joke, and they had had some good laughs over the years. Even if they were normally at Gavin's expense, as Sandra was always ready to point out. He pulled up at Charles's house and saw him through the kitchen window reading the newspaper. It looked safe. In fact it looked safe enough for a little fun. Since Sandra had first mentioned taking the gun to Charles for his opinion he had hatched an idea to get his revenge on Charles for those bloody funny little games of his...
He looked around to make sure nobody was about (God knows he didn't want a neighbour calling the armed police down on him!) and took the gun out of the leather bag he had been carrying it in. He had a quick glimpse through the window again to make sure Charles was still sat there, and then slipped round to the side door. As usual it was unlocked and he pushed it open carefully. He looked for the catch again to open the gun and empty it of its ammunition, when a sound made him stop. The postman was coming... maybe two houses down... there was no time. He entered the house (like a cat he rather imagined) and within a few paces he was at the kitchen door. He checked himself and thought of how he would bring this one up in front of everybody (and Sandra especially) many times to remind Charles of how he had jumped so high the day that Gavin had had the hardest laugh.Charles was just putting his mobile down as Gavin quietly walked in holding the gun outstretched, but pointing it towards the floor (just in case of accidents).Gavin jumped forward. "BANG BANG" he shouted.
Charles didn't bat an eyelid. He didn't move at all for a whole three seconds. He just sighed and turned his head to him. Gavin momentarily thought he had a vaguely resigned look on his face.The noise was briefly deafening. BANG. BANG.
Charles took the smoking shotgun from his lap under the table and placed it on top of it. He started to lay out his gun cleaning kit on top of the newspaper he had put on the table earlier, and then picked up his mobile to dial the police. He saw the postman through his kitchen window where he had stopped suddenly half way up his front path.
Five and a half months later they stood on the balcony of their hotel in Torquay. It was a warm night with a rather spectacular sunset beyond the Devon coast; just the sort of peace and quiet Sandra appreciated.
"How did you know he would not just take the gun to the police?" said Charles.
"He always liked to bend the rules; never followed the law properly. Like his dodgy internet 'girlfriends' - he thought it made him a bit of a rogue - a better life story or something..." Sandra trailed off.
"I thought he would empty the gun though, just in case. He could have bloody killed me!"
They laughed even though it was an old joke now.
She mocked the police officer's suspicious tones: "Luckily you just happened to be cleaning your guns at the time sir."
Charles smiled. "I still worry though - what if your friend who wrote the story that the police decided 'put the idea in his head' - what if he talks?"
"Of course he won't. He is an old friend. Besides, the whole idea of how to get rid of Gavin for me was his idea, remember?"
"Yes, I know. Come here..." said Charles, and kissed her on the lips.
Ray sat at his IKEA desk with his laptop in front of him, a cup of tea on an old beer mat, and a smile on his lips. He would soon be out of bedsit-land. After years of trying to win a writing competition, this one had got him first prize. 'Exceptional', the judges had said (although they reprimanded his punctuation). 'Written with a gritty realism which surpassed all of the competition.'And now he had found the next competition. He allowed himself a shiver of anticipation at the thought of what they would write this time. In his mind he could see his name in the Times review and a publisher calling him... no; begging him, for a deal.He had just posted the letter to the chief inspector of Richmond police, and had booked his train to Torquay for that afternoon. He didn't have the ending yet; but how original to do another story on the murderers after the act... what happens as the suspects are actually apprehended? How the criminals move from smug satisfaction to nervous paranoia when the police arrive; how the accusations begin and the self assuredness diminishes. So much to absorb (he must check the video camera was fully charged).
Ray had 3 hours before he had to set off. As he was packing he idly wondered if the punctuation complaint was to do with the amount of semi colons he used; they did seem to feature an awful lot in his writing.