“Tow Away Zone” – Sample

Scarlet? Probably.

Imperial? Likely.

Crimson? Possibly.

Spanish? Could be.

Cardinal? Doubtful.

Beckman sighed. He was bored of this game.

It was red, which was the important thing. Except it wasn’t important, not in the slightest. He’d never even seen red—it was merely a word, a concept.

It was a light; a flickering light. That was the important thing—because it was pissing him off. Keeping him awake. Riling him. Mocking him.

He rolled over. The portable alarm clock on the nightstand read 22:11.

The motel was full; no point in trudging down to the grunting oaf on the check-in desk to request a change of room. There’d only be an argument, he’d grow even more awake, and still wind up back in Room 12.

At least there lay a quantum of solace—he’d wangled Room 12.

Yet at the moment, it didn’t feel like such a good peg to hang anything on. Tight as he pulled the curtains to the window edges, the material was much too thin to fully block out the light. A static wash of red—of any shade—he could cope with. This damn irregular flickering though? Torture.

He debated the merit of asking Grunting Oaf for the neon frontage sign to be switched off, but knew he’d come across like a petty jerk.

Instead, he reluctantly threw back the covers, flicked on the ineffectual beside lamp, padded across the thin carpet, and rooted through his open suitcase. Tucked into a side pocket was an eye mask, a freebie relic he’d kept from a TWA flight back aways – a cross-country trip to see Mom, if he remembered right.

Rarely had he found it necessary to sink so low. 

The last time was, what, two years ago? 

He’d run out of gas in the middle of nowhere and spent a night in the back seat of the car. The moonlit hours and incessant cicadas turned out to be a minor inconvenience compared to the litany of aches he woke with. It had been even worse than the nights in the treehouse twenty years earlier.

At least tonight he had a bed.

He avoided thinking about what adventures it might have endured. The long years had inured him to such seeping imaginations and revulsions.

Instead, he slid back under the starchy covers, adjusted the eye mask until his view became blissful darkness, and buried his head as best as he could in the unhelpfully spongey pillow.

The air conditioning unit hummed and, now that the visual distraction had gone, his ears became more attuned to the surroundings. Was the flickering light now making an intermittent buzzing?

‘Oh, snap,’ he breathed in the darkness. Could this night suck even more?

He pulled the edges of the pillow up around his ears and hoped sleep would arrive before cramp set into his arms.

Oh, for the ability to count sheep, he mused. He’d have to count his blessings instead. He got as far as three and stopped.

He lolled his head over. How much time had passed? Would the unpredictable gods of night and slumber grant him morning?


He found a fourth blessing; nobody was playing music or TV at an unsocial volume in the adjoining rooms. No yelling. No grunting.

Nevertheless, on such nights, dormant thoughts resurfaced about trading his Buick for a station wagon or an RV. At least that way, he’d be able to make room for a sleeping bag and be certain the courtesy light didn’t have a mind of its own or harbour dreams of a career in a nightclub.

Maybe a different vehicle would give him a new lease of life? Something needed to change.

Or did it?

Blessing One: steady job.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Not every stop-over on the road turned out like this. Tonight was an annoyance, a mosquito. Matter of fact, it was as likely to keep him awake as hearing such a tiny buzzing in the room, even if he couldn’t see the insect. Difference being, he wouldn’t wake up tomorrow with a red welt on his arm.

So, another blessing, surely. By that logic, he could come up with a million more.

Maybe he could count them:

(1) Steady job.

(2) Travel. Lots of travel.

(3) Meet interesting people. Sometimes.

(4) Health.

(5) Loving family. Well, semblance of.

(6) No noisy neighbours.

(7) No mosquito.

(8) A place to call home.

(9) Only four more stamps to go on the loyalty card before the next free coffee.

See—things could be worse. Now, go to sleep Beckman.

Miraculously, the fog began to descend. The world outside slipped into redundancy.

His breathing shallowed.

Sunday crept towards its end.

His cell phone rang. It could have been an air raid siren.

He mentally hauled himself back up the ladder to reality as quickly as he could muster, pushed aside the eye mask, stumbled out of bed with an ‘Oh, snap’, and scooped up the chirruping device from the desk. The off-brand charging cable halted his movement, so he rudely yanked it out and hit the answer key. 

Amidst the bleary chaos, he’d managed to note that the caller was “Office”, and his mood began to nosedive.

Office? On a Sunday? Have I woken in a parallel universe?

‘Spiers,’ he mumbled.

‘Is that you, Beckman?’

He recognised the terse voice, otherwise, given the time of night and his general humour, he’d have taken pains to point out that (1) this was his personal cell phone, so who did the caller think would answer? and (2) the caller had addressed him by name, thereby proving he already understood point (1).

However, knowing the caller wasn’t someone who took kindly to such logic or admonishments, Beckman kept it zipped. ‘Yes, sir, this is me.’

‘Malvolio here.’ Beckman took a calming breath; the words were hardly a revelation.

A Sunday? What fresh hell is this? 

A flourish of downdraft from the meshed duct in the stained false ceiling wafted cool air down his back and raised goosebumps. The room flickered intermittently scarlet or imperial. Or possibly crimson.

‘Yes, Mr Malvolio?’ he enquired.

‘I’ve some good news for you.’

Good? Good! Suddenly, Sunday could go hang.

Beckman waited to hear. And waited. And realised Mr Malvolio was waiting for him to indicate that he was waiting, because what else could possibly be more exciting than to be woken (kind of) in the middle (barely) of the night by a random phone call from your godawful boss, bearing news, which doubtless could wait until the first coffee, or ideally second, of the following day had passed your lips?

‘I’m all ears, sir.’ He scratched his balls.

‘Belcher is dead.’

Beckman waited for more detail. And waited. And realised Mr Malvolio was waiting for him to say something to indicate a reaction to the apparently Good News of someone’s death. Because what could be more sensible than prolonging a phone call in the not middle of the night when you’re standing with itchy balls in a cold breeze in a godawful motel room in the middle of nowhere on a Sunday?

‘Really? How?’ he asked, when of course he wanted to say, “Get bent and call me in the morning, you atrocious slave-driving freak”.

‘He got struck by lightning this afternoon.’ Malvolio said it with the same level of intrigue or sadness as one might when ordering pizza toppings.

‘Wow,’ Beckman managed, even more stupefied than he had been, ‘That’s a bad break.’

‘Not for you, Spiers. That moves you up to number two, now.’ Malvolio had evidently had enough of this heartfelt wallowing in the untimely demise of one of his workforce and was, unexpectedly, getting down to brass tacks. Or, more likely in his case, gold tacks.

‘Sheesh. I guess it does. Poor Belcher.’

‘Sad to see anyone die while they’re still in the race.’

‘Or any time,’ Beckman suggested. His mind was barely half on the call now.

Belcher’s sales volumes were now deemed irrelevant to the race. One of the riders had dropped out.

‘I suppose so. So, get your hiney moving, Spiers. Number Two position—pretty good going for a man like you.’

Such praise. 

Beckman gave the illuminated screen a hard stare. Not that Malvolio had him wrong, but to verbally concede such a fact would have been weakness. So he said nothing.

Would Malvolio take the opportunity to further crack the whip? Beckman mentally wagered his worldly possessions on it.

‘Only five days left,’ the harsh old voice continued. ‘It’s not impossible. Shoulder to the wheel, Spiers, nose to the grindstone. You can make Number One.’

‘Absolutely, sir,’ he lied. ‘I’ll get started tomorrow morning, first light.’

‘That’s what I like to hear.’

Then the phone boop-booped to indicate that the line had been hung up.

Beckman stared at the screen in a casserole of a stupor made up of tiredness, disbelief, revulsion, hope and itchiness.

Esmond Belcher is dead.

I just got promoted to Number Two on the Salesman of the Year chart.

One week to go.

Could I? Could I really make Number One? Finally?

In a pig’s eye.

He gave his balls a good long scratch and went to bed.


“Go Away Zone” – Sample

‘I thought it would have been shinier.’

‘What?’ Lolita raised a single eyebrow in the way that, weeks ago, Beckman felt only she could, before remembering that all women had some form of “Really, dufus?” disguised as something less overtly condescending / challenging / disbelieving*. (* delete as applicable).

He pressed on regardless. ‘I thought it would have been, you know, shinier. More metallic.’

‘Is that really what you think?’ There was no actual eyebrow this time, but an eyebrow lay buried in the tone.

‘What do you want me to say?’ (He’d learned that this is a good standby phrase, given no man on Earth ever fully knew what any woman was thinking, even one he might be betrothed to.)

‘You could accuse me of joking. Teasing. Lying.’

‘I may not know all your foibles, but it doesn’t strike me as a joke, and it can’t be a lie.’

‘Why can’t it be a lie?’ she asked.

‘Because we met on account of you calling me dishonest.’

‘I said you were likely to be.’

‘Either way, you’d be a heel to lie to me. Plus, if we’re getting married, that kind of thing needs a bedrock of honesty.’

‘If you’d ever let me plan the date.’ She rolled her eyes.

‘Sure, hijack a discovery like this,’ he waved a hand towards the apparently empty space five yards in front of them, ‘To kick my ass about your hot topic.’

‘Trust me, honey, when a girl hears wedding bells, there is no other topic more important.’

‘You might have warned me about that.’

‘For a guy who’s seen half the country and met like a million people, you don’t know a hell of a lot.’

‘Enough with the flattery.’ He flashed a grin.

She poked her tongue out.

Such was the not unfamiliar coda to their exchanges—and he loved her more for it. It kept him young and vibrant—not that he’d felt anything like young and vibrant during the past decade. He’d been on a trundling treadmill until she’d veritably jabbed the Stop button and sent him careering backwards into her arms.

He returned his attention to the lack of a view they’d come here to witness.

Well, I was only being honest—I did expect it to be shinier. Grander. Strangely alien.

Blame a guy for having unrealistic expectations based on a misspent youth in front of the TV?

He paced warily, taking extreme care not to get too close to something he couldn’t see or touch. Or smell. Or hear. Or taste, even if he got close enough, which he was in no way tempted to do.

Are you tempted? Of course you are. A tiny part. Come on—curiosity—it’s how we’re built. It’s what drives innovation. An inquisitive mind is a great mind.

Except you are a lightbulb salesman in a small town in Arizona. Edison you are not. He used a brilliant scientific mind. You want to do the equivalent of poking a sleeping lion with a short stick.

Well, part of you does. A tiny, tiny, stupid part.

Plus you poked a few lions already this year—and look how that turned out.

Kinda well, actually.

We only remember the good stuff—the happy days. Not the dumbass things we did along the way.

You got lucky.

Miss Lolita Milan was eyeing him simultaneously with interest, love and an almost maternal disbelief. The man-boy had a new toy.

Very lucky.

Except the man-boy wasn’t sure how this new toy worked. Or what it was. Or where it was.

‘How in hell have you all kept this a secret?’

‘We don’t want to be the new Area 51. I like a man in uniform as much as the next girl—’

‘You never met my father,’ he warned.

‘—but a thousand of them turning the town into a circus is nobody’s idea of fun. Come on, Beckman, you know Sunrise—’

‘I thought I did.’

‘—and we’re a keep-ourselves-to-ourselves kinda place. Besides,’ she said with a shrug, ‘Maybe it’s gone now.’

‘Gone?! You brought me here to show me something you can’t even see when it is there, and now say it may not be there any more. And how would we know? Maybe it is a joke.’ His eyes narrowed and he moved closer to her. ‘Is that it, honey? Wanted to laugh at the new guy? Bring him to a dead end road, spin an apocryphal tale and watch him skulk around like a curious cat, afraid of a mouse which may or may not be dead?’ 

He tried the single raised eyebrow thing, but failed dismally. It wasn’t the first time he’d tried, and he always failed dismally, but it didn’t stop him trying—for one very important reason.

He was an idiot.

She didn’t rise to it. She’d learned not to, because (1) she knew he was joking and (2) she also knew he was an idiot. One she dearly loved.

Instead, she stepped in and put a hand on his upper arm. ‘Beckman, I am deadly, deadly serious. For one, I thought you’d be interested, and for two I don’t want you absentmindedly wandering in there one day and poof!

He gazed at where her eyes were habitually shielded by reaction sunglasses, well-used to the impression of being able to see beyond them, took her hand from his arm and held it tenderly in his own.

‘A guy really knows it must be love when his girl doesn’t want him to inexplicably vanish from the face of the Earth.’

‘Certainly not while he still has her car keys in his pocket.’

‘Ah. The truest of true love.’

‘And definitely not until he’s changed his Will.’ She fought a smirk. Even an idiot could see as much.

‘I have virtually nothing to my name, but it’s all yours,’ he countered.

‘I believe that is the dictionary definition of marriage.’

‘Ah. The hot topic. It’s been at least two minutes. I was worried.’

‘I’m pleased you’re worried about me. I mean, I’m worried about you.’

‘Going in there?’ He jerked his head towards the thing neither of them could see, and which may not be there in any case.

‘Of course. Come on, you don’t poke a sleeping lion with a short stick, do you?’

Absolutely not. Never crossed my mind.

‘What about a long stick?’ he wondered.

She tilted her head down to reveal raised eyebrows over the rim of her glasses. After the Tongue Poke, the Disapproving Schoolmarm was her second favourite weapon. Perhaps it was the man-boy’s fault for doing or saying so many things that warranted its use.

Or perhaps because he deliberately provoked it, finding it deeply adorable.

Or possibly because he was an idiot.

She was his own sleeping lioness, and he always had a proverbial short stick in his pocket. In the past weeks, he’d elicited many purrs, some growls, the occasional roar. Once—no, make that twice—he’d been clawed. Yet he still carried a stick.

Because you’re an idiot.

But at least you know you are, so that’s all good.

Love will do that.

So, any time in the last romantically-barren decade wouldn’t have been disastrous to have diced with poof!, but right now was Dumb with a capital DUMB.

He kissed her to remind himself of those capitals.

And yet…

He turned to look at the Whatever It Was. She put hands on hips, indulging him, and they gazed towards the point in space where Strange Things Happened. Allegedly.

He became aware of her watching him, as curious of him as he was of it, as he sought even a flicker of evidence to dispel any remaining notion that this represented one big hoax. Just a sign, a grain of truth. Sunrise’s version of The Turin Shroud; something to give bedrock to belief.

After five minutes, the September sun climbing towards its warm zenith, he was turning away when something happened. Nothing grand, nothing alarming, but enough.

Only a flicker, six feet above the ground. A pixelation. A glitch in The Matrix. As fast as it came, it went. The view of the scrub desert and distant mountains hazed, oh so slightly. As if Whatever It Was winked at him, at them.

He turned to Lolita. Her eyebrow rose again, this time in a “Didn’t I Say?”.

His mouth opened, a guppy fish at feeding time, and he pointed involuntarily.

Day One, when he’d met Saul Paul for the first time, the eye-patched tow-truck driver had pulled Shakespeare from his mind, as easily as putting on a hat, but as unexpected as if he’d been a frog uttering the words in Aramaic.

There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Saul had been obliquely explaining the mere facts of his own unannounced arrival, and the presence of Sunrise itself: on a normal day, pretty startling occurrences in themselves.

But this—the Whatever It Was? If poor Horatio had encountered this he would have shat pineapples.

Lolita sashayed over.

‘I know; “I told you so”,’ he offered.

‘So can we go? You look like you could use a root beer, and I sure do.’

‘We simply get on with our lives?’ There was disbelief, maybe childish disappointment in his voice.

‘What else did you expect? Play with it?’

‘It’s just…’ He didn’t know what it was just, except that it was. It felt like a colossal anticlimax to walk away.

‘Beckman. Darling. You’re new round here. This is part of the tour, the full disclosure. In Sunrise we do get on with our lives. What’s the alternative?’

He opened his mouth to offer some alternatives that would (1) definitely be made up on the spot, (2) probably not be well received, and (3) likely have been ventured and rejected many times before by more qualified—or at least more longstanding—people than he.

He closed his mouth. She kissed it, to mollify him.

It helped to pour water on the challenging questions he had, which were legion, but not on his inquisitiveness.

She slipped a hand into his and led him back to the car. He glanced over his shoulder. The view remained unassuming; the tarmac single track road petered out into wilderness, as if abandoned mid-construction. It certainly served no purpose, led nowhere. Or at least nowhere that could be identified, quantified or any number of other -fieds.

‘What do you call it?’ he asked, trying to sound disinterested.

‘The Portal.’


“Reprisals” – Sample

‘Supposing I said “Yes”?’

‘That’s the general idea.’

‘How long have we known each other?’

‘Five months, three weeks, six days.’

‘Could you at least try to not appear desperate?’

‘Not funny.’

‘How many women have there been in your life? To the nearest, say, ten?’


‘You are so kidding.’

‘I am deadly serious.’

‘But I’m suddenly The One?’ Enna rolled her eyes in mock disdain.

He shrugged. ‘When you know, you know.’

‘And you know.’


‘You’re certifiable, Tom Wagner.’


She could see he was a kid on Christmas night, waiting for the big moment. She hated to be such a party pooper, but this wasn’t merely a “What do you fancy for dinner?” This was life-changing.

‘Do I have us so wrong?’ he asked.

‘No,’ she replied comfortingly.

‘How many men have there been in your life?’

‘A lady doesn’t tell.’

‘I think I’m on safe ground when I say you’re no lady.’ He saw her about to interject. ‘And the fact you’re about to tell me to shove that remark where the sun don’t shine proves my point exactly.’

Enna closed her mouth but pushed her eyebrows up a far as they could muster.

He continued. ‘You’re a woman, but no lady. An amazing woman, the kind that—well, you heard the question.’

She thought for a second. ‘And this would mean—what?’

‘I don’t know. Togetherness, happiness, children—if you want, adventures, old age…’ He tailed off. ‘I don’t think this is a new concept.’

‘It’s not the concept. It’s the… reality.’

‘Thanks a bunch.’

‘Sorry. This has just… freaked me a bit, you know?’

‘Thanks a bunch, again.’

‘I should stop digging.’

Tom nodded and rose from the edge of the bed, giving her some physical as well as metaphorical space. The lightness of the gravity remained disconcerting, especially during movement. He wasn’t a natural at this, ever the Earth-bound desk jockey. For him, this had been Peak Romantic Gesture. 

Problem was, it didn’t look like it had been enough.

He looked out of the shallow window, across the undulating grey regolith towards the passenger Spaceport in the distance. He gave a faint chuckle. Here they were, at one sixth weight, and he felt disappointed she wasn’t walking on air. That he wasn’t. The apex of their little getaway was a damp squib, extinguished like a flame exposed to the airless vista outside.

Enna watched him standing there in his jockey shorts, her mind scrambling with reasons why either answer would be simultaneously right and wrong. She felt like a bitch. 

Here they were, the first real break away together for weeks, and she’d popped his balloon. Why was that? 

With every second it felt harder to concede to voicing an answer. If this needed such apparent consideration, how would the decision now pass without scrutiny, by either of them?

This was getting uncomfortable. She needed to say something. ‘I just imagined, somewhere, I don’t know, more romantic.’

He turned to her. Then she realised that the something she’d decided to say had probably been the wrong something.

Jeez, Enna, this has really got you flustered, hasn’t it?

‘So you have thought about it?’ he asked.


‘Just not with me,’ he extrapolated.

She sighed.

Come on Enna, stop digging you idiot.

‘I don’t know—Machu Picchu, on a gondola, under the Northern Lights. Damn it, even freaking Niagara Falls.’

‘One shot and I blew it, huh? Does that mean it’s not the question that’s the problem?’

She closed her eyes and shook her head. ‘I don’t know,’ she said with a sigh.

‘I’m sorry. I’ll take it back.’

Her eyes snapped open. ‘No, don’t do that.’

She stepped over to him, wrapped her arms around his waist, pushed her head against his chest. ‘Unless,’ she continued, ‘Well, you realise this is part of what you’d get. Me being…’

‘You,’ he inferred. ‘I said—I get the concept. For better, for worse, yada yada.’

‘I’m a horrible person.’

‘Don’t fish for compliments, Enna. You’re shit at taking them.’

‘Yeah.’ She listened to him breathe. ‘So tell me I’m a horrible person.’

‘Appalling. The worst.’ He squeezed her a little tighter. ‘Hell, I didn’t even get down on one knee.’

‘Maybe that makes you the worst.’

‘Like you’d ever let me beat you at anything.’

‘Part of the package, lover boy.’

She lifted her head and saw in his expression that the storm had passed, so she sought his lips, and that brief encounter passed for a coda to the whole sorry episode.

He broke off, catching sight of something outside.

She tutted. ‘Only you could bring me to the dullest place in the solar system to do some sightseeing.’

‘Worst Person,’ he said with a shrug.

She watched too as a shuttle slowly approached the short landing strip. ‘You’re here to watch me being put out of a job?’

‘Pilot-less ships, they’re going to happen.’

She batted it away. ‘They can test it, but it’s years off.’

‘Tell it to the guys in Big Tech.’

‘Whatever. I’ll find another job somewhere.’

‘Chief cook and bottle washer in the Wagner household.’

‘Up your ass.’

It was as she winked at him that the flash of light in the distance burned and died.

They looked.

There was no sound. The chaos was unreal, eerie.

Decompression had burst the impacting craft like a balloon, debris rising into the black sky, scattering outwards in an arc.

Involuntarily they winced, fearing impact that would shred the complex of buildings where they stood, but mercifully the trajectory was perpendicular to them. Nevertheless, they gazed, transfixed, horrified, as the parabola of destruction rained down on the edge of the Spaceport, puncturing one, then two structures.

Then came the faintest screams of anguish from other occupants of the habitation suite near to where Tom and Enna watched, helpless, in disbelief and sick despair.