Box of frogs, p.1
Box of Frogs, p.1Part #1 of The Fractured Faery series by Helen Harper
BOX OF FROGS
BOOK ONE OF THE FRACTURED FAERY
Copyright © 2018 Helen Harper
All rights reserved.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
FOR JAN AND MICKEY
The man lying next to me was definitely dead. It wasn’t the glassy white caul on his eyes or even his unnatural stillness that gave it away. It was the fact that his head was entirely detached from his body, as if someone had unscrewed it like a burnt-out light bulb and dropped it casually on the ground.
I had the feeling I should probably be screaming. Instead I blinked and rolled away, dew from the perfectly manicured grass beneath me soaking through my thin blouse. Then I got to my feet, the sudden nausea tearing through me suggesting that standing up was a mistake. I grimaced. Even my mouth tasted foul – like wet dog.
Rubbing my hand over my forehead, and avoiding glancing at the body again, I looked around. Where the hell was I? The chill night air offered no clues but, over to my left, there was something tall and thin standing upright. A sign, perhaps.
I staggered over. My chest hurt as if I’d cracked a rib or two. I made it all the same, my legs shaking with astonishing violence. I was forced to clutch onto the metal pole as soon as I reached it in order to remain upright. The small triangle of material attached to the top of the pole hung limply. I squinted at it before my gaze drifted downwards and I dimly registered the hole. A golf course, then. How had I ended up here?
I tried to think. The last thing I remembered was... My stomach dropped. Nothing. Nada. Zilcheroony. I strained every brain cell I had but there was just a deep, dark chasm of nothingness. Then another horrifying thought occurred to me and, with desperate fingers, I searched my pockets. No purse. No identification.
I slapped myself around the cheeks in a futile bid to wake myself up. My fingers came away wet, sticky and dark with blood. I felt the sting of pain.
Suddenly my location and how I’d arrived here, not to mention what had happened to the corpse lying less than thirty feet away, drifted into insignificance. My cracked lips formed the words, a croaked whisper breaking the silence. ‘Who am I?’
As if in response, the wind strengthened and lifted my hair. I grabbed a curl and examined it: mousy brown. If I had a mirror maybe my reflection would jolt some memory but I was unlikely to find one out here. Wherever here was. Whoever I was.
With my heart in my mouth, I stumbled back to the corpse. If I didn’t possess any ID, maybe he did. I fell to my knees by his chest and started fumbling with his clothes, trying to ignore the faint green tinge to his now-clammy skin. Surely he hadn’t been dead for so long that he was already beginning to rot? Perhaps it was simply the dark night that was imbuing his body with the strange hue. I clamped down my nausea.
Whoever he was, he was dressed for darkness, all in black like some kind of Hollywood villain. Black anorak, black shirt, black trousers. Even the buckle on his belt was matte black. I might not have known my own name but I knew that my John Doe had cash. Every item of his clothing was heavy and expensive.
I reached into his anorak pocket and drew out a single object – a solid metal sphere with a clip attached. Some sort of key fob, I guessed, although there were no keys attached to it. Disappointed, I kept searching. In his trouser pockets I found a half-empty pack of mint chewing gum. There was nothing else.
I pulled away, the scent of his aftershave combined with the reek of his blood doing nothing for the state of my stomach. Then I hesitated and leaned forward again, pushing him onto his side. My fingers delved into his back pocket. Empty. This time, however, as I drew away once more I spotted the sword lying on the ground. The man’s body had been concealing it.
Even with the congealed blood staining its surface, the blade was obviously well looked after. I touched it gingerly with the tip of my finger, hissing when it sliced through my skin. A moment later, the cut began to burn. Grey smoke rose from my flesh, wisping upwards into the air. I yelped, desperately rubbing the wound against the wet grass. The smoke dissipated but my finger still throbbed with pain. Gasbudlikin bastards. The blade was poisoned. A chemical perhaps, or some designer compound. No: acid. It had to be acid.
I looked in horror from the man to the sword and back again. A distant part of my brain told me to run, as if the man or the sword or both of them were about to rise up and attack me, but my feet felt like lead. A voice in my head screamed at me to move but my body simply wouldn’t obey.
I licked my lips. My thoughts were almost as sluggish as my limbs. Amnesia, concussion and a dead body – it was a hell of a way to spend a night. I gritted my teeth, willing myself to turn away but, before I could achieve such a heady goal, I paused. Something about the way the anorak lay against the man’s spine didn’t look right.
Avoiding going anywhere near the damn blade again, I lunged towards him with outstretched hands and flipped up the material. A leather sheath – black again, naturally – lay snug against his back. It had to be designed for the very sword that now rested on the ground between us.
‘You brought me out here,’ I whispered, raising my uninjured hand to the gash on my cheek . ‘You lured me here and you tried to kill me.’ A nervous laugh rose to my lips. ‘It didn’t work, you evil arsebadger. I got you first.’ Obviously.
I should call the police. The boys in blue would keep me safe and investigate this crime. I might have killed the man in black but any fool would recognise it was in self-defence; he was twice my size and he’d brought his own damned poisoned sword.
I nodded. Get off this golf course. Find a phone. Call the coppers. If I’d been reported missing by those who loved me, the police would know about it. I could be returned to the bosom of my loving family within hours. I ran my hands over the slight curve of my stomach. Did I have children? Were they crying for me even now?
I spun round and my body finally obeyed my commands. I whooped weakly. No doubt this amnesia business would wear off quickly too. With any luck, my nightmare was already coming to an end.
An old red phone box stood in front of the single-storey clubhouse. It might have been there purely for nostalgic reasons but I was pathetically grateful all the same. When I lifted the cracked plastic receiver and heard a dial tone, I almost sobbed. I punched in 999, barely pausing to wonder how I could remember that number but not my own name. I was connected almost immediately.
‘Hello. Emergency service operator. Which service do you require?’
Her voice was calm and reassuring but my mind went completely blank. ‘Uh…’
‘Ambulance, fire or police?’
My attacker was dead. There was no paramedic, doctor or surgeon in the world that could bring him back to life. ‘Police,’ I whispered. ‘I need the police.’
‘I’m connecting you to the police now.’ There was a click. My fingers tightened round the receiver and I tried to remember to breathe.
‘Police. What’s your location?’
‘I’m at…’ Gasbudlik
I gaped at the destruction, my dull brain taking a moment to catch up. There was no doubt, however: some bastard was shooting at me.
Without pausing to think further, I slammed out of the phone box and ran for cover, heading for the side of the clubhouse. The glass on the left side of the phone box had broken so my assailant – or assailants – was shooting from that direction. Another shot was fired, just catching my shoulder. Pain flared through me but I didn’t stop until I reached the relative safety of the building’s far side. It had to be pure adrenaline driving me forward. Nothing else made any sense.
Panting hard, I flattened myself against the pebble-dashed wall. What to do next? I certainly couldn’t stay here and hope that the shooter would go away with an ambivalent shrug at my continued existence. I had to find a way to escape while still breathing, otherwise I might as well give up now. I decided I wasn’t the giving-up type.
The most sensible course of action was to circle behind my attacker and vamoose in the opposite direction. Unfortunately there was gravel underneath my booted feet; any swivel of my heel or inappropriate step would immediately reveal my location.
Slow and steady, I told myself. And very, very silent.
Rising onto the balls of my feet, I started to tiptoe down the side of the clubhouse so I could skirt round the back and emerge on the other side. I impressed myself with my quiet movements. It was remarkably easy to stay light on my feet; an almost preternatural calm had overtaken me. I had one goal in mind: to survive.
By clinging to the shadows and keeping my movements slow and deliberate, I made it all the way to the opposite side of the clubhouse without having any more pot shots aimed at my head. As I crept closer, I saw two figures silhouetted in the car park, edging along, searching for me. Both were male – and both were massive. They signalled to each other as they sidled along. They were using a single torch to scan the darker corners.
‘She’s in the wind,’ the nearest one said in an oddly accented voice. ‘I told you we should have coated the bullets.’
‘There wasn’t time.’
‘You don’t bring down the Madhatter unless you prepare. We’re not prepared. I got her, I know I got her. If we’d coated the bullets—’
‘Shut up. A direct bullet to the heart or head will end her life whether it’s coated or not.’
His partner took no notice. ‘We’re dead men. If we don’t kill her and shut her up, then Rubus will kill us himself.’
There was a skittering sound somewhere up ahead and both men turned immediately. I strained my eyes through the darkness to catch a glimpse of their features but their faces were angled away from me as they investigated the sound. This was my chance.
I stepped out from the safety of the shadows and pelted for the gloomy copse of trees to my right, taking care to maintain my silent footfall. The tiny wood grew closer and closer and exultation coursed through my veins. Then a third man stepped out right in front of me, barricading my path.
While I stared up at his cauliflower ears and wrinkled visage, his mouth twisted in a semblance of an evil grin. ‘Gotcha.’
My left arm whipped up, slamming into the underside of his chin and knocking his head backwards. As he went reeling, I threw myself to the ground and kicked his legs out from underneath him.
The curses from the two other bastards told me they’d registered what was going on. When another bullet zipped over my head and slammed into the ground next to me, I knew instinctively that I wasn’t going to get lucky a fourth time. Taking control of the situation, I heaved myself up and bounded over to the groaning third man, ducking for cover behind him.
‘We’re gonna get you now, bitch,’ the talkative one yelled.
I paused. There was an odd tremor to his voice; on the surface, he was all confidence but I could swear he was masking some deeper emotion. I mentally shrugged then grabbed the man in front of me and hauled him upright with surprising ease so that his massive body was in front of mine. He had to be at least seven feet tall and his girth was as impressive as his height. It was just as well; his wide frame provided excellent cover. The other two wouldn’t shoot me if there was a chance they’d hit their buddy – especially given that they’d already proven they weren’t crack shots.
I was wrong on both counts. Before I could open my mouth to yell at the pair to put down their guns, there was a loud bang and a bullet slammed into the chest of the man I was holding, throwing him – and me – backwards. He collapsed on top of me and I had to writhe and wriggle to get out from under him.
I rolled, reaching the relative safety of the trees. They wouldn’t fell an oak as easily as they’d felled their partner. I scrambled up, using the nearest tree as cover before I peeked back round.
The two men were advancing, their guns raised. As they got closer, I saw that their features were not dissimilar to those of their dead colleague. Maybe they were related. Shooting your own kin just because he was in the way brought a whole new meaning to the concept of sibling rivalry.
I flicked my glance from one to the other, noting the heavyset eyebrows, deep wrinkles and bald heads. ‘Hey,’ I called. ‘Why don’t we talk? I’m sure we could come to some amicable arrangement that ends in all of us walking away from this.’
There was a muted, nasal snort. ‘Lady’s been injecting her own dust.’
Huh? ‘What was that?’
My answer this time was another shot smashing into the tree. Splinters of bark flew off in all directions. I risked another look. The pair had split up, electing to come at me from both sides. Smart move. I was going to die without even knowing my name. That sounded like the title to a bad country-and-western song.
Hands up in the air, I stepped out and both men stopped moving towards me. Starting to measure my life in seconds, I cleared my throat. ‘Look,’ I said. ‘There has to be a way out of this. There has to be something you want. Money? I can get you money.’ Maybe. How the hell did I know what was in my bank account? ‘Or would you like something else? Everyone wants something.’ I pointed at myself. ‘I’m no one. Why would you possibly want to see me dead?’
The two men exchanged long looks. Even though neither of them breathed a word, I knew the instant they’d made up their minds and my heart sank. They glanced back at me while I instinctively moved my hands in front of my chest. They raised their guns a fraction more. Then they fired.
Time seemed to slow. I thrust my hands out even further as if to ward off the bullets. I could see their approach, two gleaming nubs of steel coming right towards me – it was like I was watching a film at quarter speed. Their trajectory was obvious.
Blood roaring in my ears, I stepped to the left and avoided them completely. While the bullets continued, whining through the night air before hitting the same tree I’d been hiding behind, I zipped towards the first man. I kicked upwards, knocking the gun out of his hands and scooping it up. I briefly considered shooting him but instead I simply smashed the butt of the gun onto the top of his head. He crumpled. The poor bastard didn’t even have time to look astonished.
The other man, the chatty one, was faster. I ran towards him and wrestled the gun from his grip just as the two bullets finally hit the tree and time returned to normal. It didn’t matter; I already had the upper hand and both of us knew it. I thrust my elbow into his stomach with all the force I could muster. He collapsed to his knees.
‘Don’t,’ he whispered. There was a faint trickling sound and the unmistakable stench of urine filled the air. I glanced down at the growing wet patch at his groin. Then I brought my hands down on top of his head.
I flicked my e
One obvious conclusion stared me smack-bang in the face. Any dum-dum could work it out. I grinned and stretched out my arms, feeling the first drops of rain fall onto my upturned face. Well, well, well. I wasn’t just a petite woman with bad dress sense and incredibly dodgy luck. No. I was also a superhero with super powers. I even had a superhero name, derivative as it might be. I was the Madhatter – and the forces of evil were after me.
It was all very well being a superhero but I couldn’t do anything about the rain. I did try, gesturing at the sky and waving my hands around in the same manner as when I’d slowed down time earlier so I could literally dodge bullets. I also used the most imperious tone I could manage to order the sky to cease its drippy torment, but that was about as useful as King Canute attempting to hold back the tide.
That thought made me scowl. I could remember a long-dead English king from some history lesson but I still couldn’t remember who I was? Ridiculous. All the same, given what little I had learned about myself, calling the police no longer seemed prudent.
‘Thank you,’ I said primly to the nearest man. ‘Without your timely intervention, we’d currently be surrounded by the country’s finest. Not involving them is much more sensible. I won’t be so rash in the future.’
He lifted his head and blinked at me with the confusion of the concussed. Still, when I raised an eyebrow in his direction, he was a good little boy and let his head clunk back down again. That was better.
What I really needed, besides an umbrella, was cash. With no specific destination in mind and nothing on me beyond one corpse’s key fob and some chewing gum, I wouldn’t get very far. I needed some silver so I could cross a few palms.
Box of Frogs by Helen Harper / Fantasy / Mystery & Detective have rating 3.6 out of 5 / Based on25 votes