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The evening air was cold and bitter as he climbed up out of the Underground station and started to head down The Strand. December in London, away from the madness of Regent Street, Bond Street and Oxford Street, was oddly subdued. The few signs of life were of groups of colleagues having their Christmas jolly or not-so-jolly depending on whether it was a joy or a chore, and the odd fast moving business man or freelancer zipping between Covent Garden and the offices on The Strand.

Not one of them could see what Jonas could see. He hated this time of year; there were far more shades on the streets. If you can see the dead without casting magic or using talismans - if you can just see them - then there are many kinds of entities that might trouble your sight. Shades were a particular dislike for Jonas. A ghost that does not know who it was in life, and that cannot communicate in any way apart from by instilling fear is no fun to spend time with. As he passed the Aldwych one of them tried to get his attention.
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She felt good tucked in under his arm; he felt comfortable holding her close to his body, and it felt clear to him that neither of them was under any illusions about where this walk was going to end up. She squeezed him a little tighter and it occurred to him that she was probably having the same thoughts; walking along as they were without speaking. That was the other thing that felt good - he was not desperately trying to think of something to say to her.

She rubbed the top of her head against his neck and a little jolt of unbidden joy flew down his spine. It was the mystery of human chemistry, to his mind, but clearly his body liked her just fine.

Back at her house she let them in and pointed to the sitting room while she headed for the kitchen. He shed hat and jacket and stood at the hearth. Moments later she returned with two shots, and a joint. She placed the joint on the coffee table and passed him a shot glass.

They both downed their shots, she pointed down at the joint;

“After.”

Then she was kissing him.
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The soft morning sunlight slowly trickled over the village like soft golden syrup as the sun came up that morning. From above the village, it looked to Peter as though someone had opened an unseen blind, slowly, and light had spilled across the landscape, like paint from a tin carelessly kicked over.

He was glad of the light; soon he would be in his bed and his younger brother would be about the task of watching the sheep. To many it might seem to be a dull existence, the life of a shepherd, but that night alone he ahd chased off two different wild dogs and less than a week before he had been required to face down a family group of wolves who seemed to want to eat his sheep. When not protecting the flock from the local fauna there was plenty of time to think and contemplate the world, and even to read. His father had been adamant that he learn to read and now he was almost never away from home without a book in his knapsack.

He could hear Tom coming up the hill, and so he got to his feet to greet his brother.
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“Honestly, Sal, I don’t know what else to do.”

Her friend shook her head and smiled.

“Let me get this straight, you have made eyes at him, squeezed and hung on longer than the friendly hug, and even landed a kiss on the lips, rather than the safe cheek or forehead , and he hasn’t realised that you quite fancy him? Outrageous! What with men being such perceptive and frankly psychic creatures. He’s just toying with you Jen. He knows you’re panting for him and he just wants to see how hard you’re prepared to work!”

Sal tried to hold her serious face as she finished her analysis, but it only held for a moment before she collapsed onto the bed in peals of laughter.

Jen looked at her, confused, and started flapping her mouth like a fish, failing to come back with a witty rejoinder.

As Sal recovered her composure she saw this display of speechless frustration and nearly lost it again.

“Jen you need to talk to him. Do you know how many times most men get slapped for getting all those signs wrong before they get to thirty?”
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What does this mean? She clearly enjoys being close to me, being held by me, even to kiss my cheek. Normally I can tell if the affection that a woman shows to me is sisterly or not; chaste or not. This woman I cannot decode. It’s as if she can only broadcast in NTSC and I am PAL, as if her messages are enigma encoded, but using tomorrow’s keyword and I only have today’s.

It’s fair to say that I am not confident at the moment; part of my uncertainty is a rather pathetic ‘are you sure? really?’ reaction to signals that in my youth I bolted at, without any concern for the potential awkwardness if I had misunderstood them.

Is she attractive, you ask? I find her very attractive. I mean to do her no disservice in saying that she is not the kind of attractive that ends up on the front of magazines or in music videos; in fact I mean to honour her by saying such. She is beautiful indeed, but more than that there is a spark in her eyes and a candour in her character that is intoxicating. I should just ask her? Kiss her?
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The moments ticked by at a snail’s pace, time slowed down by the weight of realisation as we all saw the truth in what Philip had just said. It was still hanging there;

“You don’t have any rights, you fools. You’re all here trying to find a way to improve education and you haven’t realised that the people who really own our country do not want the vast majority to be educated, or liberated in any way. Who would run the machines, do the boring clerical work? Don’t you children realise that there is no power-block currently in the world that could survive an entire generation thinking for itself?”

We were all looking at each other, and then at the floor or desks or our hands, desperate to not make eye contact and find acceptance in the eyes that we met. It was too hard to imagine; surely none of us were prepared to be that cynical?

I looked up and allowed my gaze to find Amy’s. She was crying, silently. I let her see my own pain, hoping that this small act of solidarity, in hope, might in some way touch her soul.
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“Do you hear my voice, Olivia? Is it familiar to thine ear?”

She stirred, her heavy eyes eventually yielding to her will to see. As she looked around she realised that she was not in her bed chamber. Not only was she not where she expected to be, but she was tied to this bed and that was definitely out of the ordinary for her. In the dim light she could see several indistinct shapes; were they people watching her?

“Have you remembered me yet, Olivia? Does my voice move your memory?”

She looked around, trying to find the source of the disembodied voice and her eyes fell upon Sebastian. She wondered why he was not moving, and the longer she looked the more she started to realise that something was wrong. He was not blinking,and his head was at an odd angle. She struggled against her bonds to get a better look;

“Ah you have spied your husband, I see. He screamed for you as I lifted his heart out of his chest, you know. Here, have some more light so that you can see.”

More light fell upon him and she screamed in pain.
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“You have to help me get into his office. He’s hiding something, and I think it’s got to do with the disappearances that have been happening.”

I could not believe what I was hearing. My normally perfectly sane friend Sandra had clearly been abducted and replaced by a character from an Enid Blyton novel or a Nancy Drew tale. I raised an eyebrow;

“San, are you seriously telling me that you not only want me to help you break into the Head of English Literature’s office, but that the reason you want me to do that is because you think that he’s the one abducting cats, even though no one is willing to confirm that there is any evidence of cat abductions? Honestly, San, have you been drinking Red Bull again?”

She looked at me with that angry, stubborn stare and practically fizzed with frustration.

“Stop talking at me like that, okay? I know you think I’m crazy, but I saw him from the staffroom window yesterday. He thought that no one was watching, he was out by his car, and there were three dead cats in his car boot.”
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So it’s not all glamour. When I tell people that I am a freelance photographer the first thing they ask is how on Earth I make money; to be honest I am very cagey about that, after all there are far too many of us already. Once we’ve talked briefly about the ins and outs of why it’s a lot of hard work and you’re only as good as your last shoot, then comes the question that they’ve been dying to ask. I should clarify that this question is not asked by everyone, but it is not exclusively asked by men, either.

“Do you fuck / sleep with / shag [delete as appropriate or add your own cliché here] loads of hot models then?”

Let’s clear this up once and for all; owning a camera is not a license to be an asshat. Sure I’ve had the odd tumble, but it’s been with people I’ve got to know, on long trips, not as a coda to a quick two hour shoot for Marie Claire. Let’s clear this up too; models are not whores. Some of them are promiscuous, some of them are not, just like people of any other profession; the women and the men.
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“It’s only a book, you know. Don’t look so shocked. If it were the word of an all powerful god don’t you think it would be less inconsistent? More to the point, don’t you think that the book itself would be inviolable? As it is I can show you how it’s been edited and altered by man to fulfil man’s agenda…”

Peter grunted as he interrupted;

“Oh good heavens, not this again! The bible has been altered so it can’t be the word of God? Did you ever consider that it might have been the Grace of God within chosen people that led to the refinement of the bible? The point is that you don’t believe in God, so you assume that there are no good reasons for what you see as inconsistencies in the Bible. I on the other hand believe in God and that the Bible is the Word, I am just not smart or holy enough to fully understand it. So anyway how do you want your steak? Everything is ready and the pan is hot.”

“Medium rare, please Pete. Thanks.”

Peter turned away and placed the first steak in the pan;

“Why don’t you pour some wine?”
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Sometimes a pipe is just a pipe, but sometimes it is an egg whisk. I had been wondering whether or not the apparent flirting coming from the guy who lives over the road was real flirting for well over a week before I finally decided to do something about it.

As usual I was setting off on my morning run, at about half six, when I saw him coming out of the house, already dressed for work. I did nothing different; simply waved and smiled, but he stuck his hand up and before I knew it he was coming over.

“Hi there. Going for a run, huh?”

This was a fairly safe gambit; it was not like he wandered over and said “I’ve worked out you’re gay and I’d like to invite you over for dinner and maybe a good hard fuck”. Still the body language was all there. His whole body was slightly inclined towards me and as I stopped to answer him he reached out with his hand, his eyes were dilated… He was a really good looking guy; I was more than a little flattered by the attention. I was about to take his hand;

“Can you sign this for me?”
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This had been a good idea through all of the planning phase. Now, sat behind a wall in the freezing November night, waiting for the others to arrive, hoping to not be found by a security guard, Alan was starting to feel some uncertainty creeping in.

It had been two months earlier when they had all taken a few too many drinks and decided to fake a Banksy on the walls of the new Magistrates’ Court. All of them had lived in Bristol for years, some of them remembered Banksy’s first works appearances. They had been joking about how much they missed his work since he had become more famous, and then Frank had simply said;

“Why don’t we do one for him, huh?”

It was elegant in both its power and simplicity. A graffiti installation apparently by a reclusive and secretive artist would appear on a new building in his old stomping ground. The local reaction was likely to be pleasure and satisfaction that the ‘old boy’ has come back to the home range, and even though it would be publicised it would be hard to out as a fake.
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“What do you mean, you ate reindeer sausages? How could you do that?”

Frank shook his head and swallowed the derisory comment he had been about to spew forth. Instead he took a moment to remind himself that the high moral ground was easily lost, but easier to win if never surrendered. Besides he quite liked this girl and making her look stupid, or trying to anyway, was bound to work out badly for him in the long run.

“Well, they were on the menu, and I’d eaten venison sausages before, so I thought that I’d probably like them… I suppose I fancied some game and there it was.”

Judging by the look on her face cheap humour may have been the better option; at least there would have been the outside chance of making her laugh.

“That’s sick that is. I mean it’s bad enough that you think eating Bambi is okay, but Rudolph! I can’t believe I ever liked you!”

This had to be a joke! Was she seriously going to lose it with him over sausages? He was starting to sweat and shift in his seat;

“You pillock! Had ya!”

She was smiling.
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The stream of tail-lights stretching away into the distance was really quite soul destroying. If Della had been awake they could have talked, maybe even kissed; it was not as if the traffic was moving.

She snuffled and brushed her wrist across her nose in her sleep and he felt himself melt in the face of her cuteness. Why was it that this woman, this person was cute to him when she flailed about in her sleep and made odd noises and even talked in her sleep sometimes? When he had to share a twin with a work colleague on a sales trip, or go somewhere with the softball team on an away game, the similar foibles of other sleepers would annoy him rather than make him feel happy and affectionate. Of course it was because he loved her, and he knew that, but it amused him to play with the uneven treatment he gave to people who were not Della.

“Richard? Come back to bed Richard.”

Suddenly he did not feel happy and secure and loving towards her. Now all he could do was wonder who Richard was, what with his name being Tony.
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The moonlight, reflected on the underside of the bridge by the ripples in the water made it seem as though they were walking into a tunnel of water. She gripped his hand a little more tightly, suddenly worrying that they were in a dark and lonely place.

“Hey there. You scared baby, or have you just noticed that no one is around?”

His smirk would normally have annoyed her, but something about the light, the way his voice sounded bouncing off the bridge and most importantly the fantastic bottle of wine that they had just shared at the restaurant. She shot him her best playful and cute look and yanked him towards the wall. For a moment he hesitated, double checking that he was right about their being alone and then he followed her lead.

She pulled his hands inside her coat as their mouths met and once he had got the basic idea she slid one hand around his waist and the other snaked its way into his trousers. As she found what she was looking for he let out the little gasp that she loved so much. She squeezed more.
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“Turn left up there.”

I shot her a quizzical look;

“And why, pray tell, do you think that left is the right course of action? I mean you do have the map upside down.”

The look I received in return was less quizzical, more homicidal if the truth be told. We had been orbiting Sudbury for some time now, trying to find the right arcane combinations of turnings to end up on the market square in order to pick up the third member of our party from a pub called The Monkey Wrench, where he had been staying the night before.

“Well, don’t turn left then. See if I care. Of course we’re going to be late if you don’t start listening to me instead of just randomly turning ‘the way that feels right’ as we come to junctions.”

She did have a point, and I was starting to dread the endless ribbing I was going to receive from Ferdie, when we finally picked him up. He was not going to care about being kept waiting, or even arriving late to the wedding. That would not stop him needling me about it all day though.

“Okay then, left it is.”
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He rolled the cigar between his thumb and forefinger, his hand hovering over his chips. The bet was to him and there was only the small blind left. Everyone had checked, waiting to see the Turn, but the Flop gave him a flush, albeit a low one. Gianni was definitely sitting on something good. Time to roll the dice, this hand could send a player out and it wasn’t going to be him with his chip lead, plus there were two more cards to get out.

“Ten Ton”

‘Clink’ as the chips settle in front of him. He brought the cigar to his mouth and took a long drag, paying his smoking as much attention as he could to hide his level of confidence in a cloud.

Paulo and Gwen both flinched and there were a couple of folds; just Gianni, Thorsten and him still in. They call and then the Turn; Ace of Spades and now he has an ace-high flush.

They both check; what do they have?

He does some quick maths and raises the bet another thousand.

Gianni folds, swearing under his breath about newbies buying the pot.

Here comes the River.

‘Check’

‘Check’
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“You’re not anything special, you fool!”

The boy cowered at his father’s feet, flinching from the raised fist.

“Just because you can play the damn guitar does not mean that you should play it. DO you understand me?”

The boy nodded.

“Did you say something?”

For a moment the boy cowered lower, expecting a blow from the fist that was suspended above him, like a weight ready to fall. Then realising he was being givern a chance stammered;

“Y-y-y Yes Sir, I understand.”

The fist came a little lower, but more slowly than a blow and the boy stared intently, watching to see the fingers relax and the fist once more becoming a hand.

“Good. All right then. Now get yourself off to bed. Brush your teeth, young man, and I don’t want to hear any music coming from your room, that radio is for the news and nothing else.”

The boy scrambled to his feet and was gone before he could change his mind.

The man turned to look at the guitar that had caught his son attempting to play, and muttered under his breath;

“Where did you come from, eh?”
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Tossing brass; that’s what they had called it on the range, with a smile and a chuckle. To be honest you don’t think about how utterly frivolous that is when you are learning to empty an MP5 on a nice, sunny, outdoor range, with your anti-flash glasses on and the smell of sunscreen mixing with the fresh waves of cordite as you and eleven other raw recruits pull the trigger on another cardboard gang-banger.

Not so funny now, crouched behind a stack of wooden packing crates, filled with steel refrigerators. Lucky because I was hoping for something that could stop bullets. It was supposed to be a simple buy-bust! I’m in here with nothing more than a Sig; I’m playing the part of a drug dealer. It’s the bad guys who are ‘tossing brass’ like it’s this year’s summer craze. I’m pretty sure that the guys with automatics were toting Steyrs, so that’s sixty rounds apiece; I lost count at around thirty. Weirdly my ears have already shut out the bangs, all I can hear are casings hitting the concrete, like metal raindrops.
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The snow was falling faster by the time I got back to bed with the tea. Lucy was sitting up, wrapped in the covers with just her head poking out, her eyes wide with excitement as she watched the huge flakes floating down past the window.

“Oh thanks. Did you remember the sugar?”

She said as she extended just one arm out of the cocoon of duvet and blanket, in order to take the mug of tea. I looked at her quizzically, trying to work out how on earth I would get back into bed, but also trying to communicate to her that I might be a bit chilly if she stayed like that.

The snow was too exciting for her to notice my concerns about the present dearth of covers.

“Look at the size of those flakes, Paul! If it carries on like this we are going to have the best powder coming off Saulire tomorrow.”

It was easy to work out that this was her first season, but I had no desire to spoil that. The wonder was gone for me; powder was all well and good, but actually I craved something rarer. For me, the dream was empty, groomed pistes.

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