April/May writing challenge results
An excellent crop of entries for this competition. Remember what the challenge was? A reminder:
“Your perspective character finds a body – he or she could be a detective, but doesn’t have to be. The body appears to be the victim of an unlawful killing.
Describe this scene, using specific details, dialogue, internal reflection and/or action, in such a way as to move your story forward, incite suspense in your reader and possibly give us some insight into your perspective character (and perhaps the dead character – though this is not essential).”
A great many of you tried your luck – and we’d like to congrautlate you on the enthusiasm of your response. We were impressed by the overall standard of writing, and by the wealth of inventiveness. In the end, sadly, there can only be one winner – but we’d like to award ribbons of excellence to a number of entries any one of whom might, on another day, have been judged the winner.
The laurels go to Penny van Zyl for a scene that rigorously avoids explanation, and that intrigues on a number of levels.
And unstinting praise goes to Deidre Johnson for her story that points to a whole world of unexplained mystery; to Shirlane Douglas for her wonderful evocation of both a Roman battlefield, and the hint of a murder mystery to come (write it Shirlaine!); to Sue Guthrie for the start of another fine and suspenseful murder mystery; to Mary Mercer for her body in the boot story, full of intrigue and a great final line; to Alison Bradshaw for her “Murder Most Fowl”; to Katoji le Roux, who’s featured before in our lists of winners, for her funny-macabre take on murder; and to Bianca Ackroyd for her interesting second-person take on the subject.
Notice a theme here, people? No wonder murder mysteries have become the stomping ground of women writers.
Well done to all of you. And, Penny, we’ll be sending you details of your prize which is a place on our intensive fourteen day coaching programme, Focus on Scenes, which you can begin whenever it suits you.
Penny van Zyl
I saw him as soon as I came around the corner, slumped uncomfortably on the bench next to the footpath. I stopped, not wanting trouble, but there was no other way through the thorny undergrowth. I held my keys tightly in my hand, the biggest one pointing forward through my fingers.
“It acts like a metal claw,” that detective told me last week when he came to talk about David.
“Use it to protect yourself.”
Fear prickled my every nerve ending but I forced myself to take a step forward. Then another. And another. I didn’t realise I was holding my breath until it whooshed from my lungs in a sour gasp. The smell hit my nostrils on the in-breath. Something about it made me think of when we used to suck copper pennies as kids, but mostly it forced the air out of my lungs again and turned my stomach to water.
I couldn’t make sense of things at first – his head was flopped backwards, his mouth wide open. No, not a mouth, but his throat, slit from ear to ear, blood run in silent rivulets down his once-white t-shirt. A scream bubbled up through my throat fading to a hoarse, ineffectual wheeze. Before I knew it I was far past him, tripping and scrabbling on the dusty path, my shoes run out of and abandoned in my horror. Hands shaking, I dialled the number on the card in my pocket.
“Come quickly. Something bad has happened to David.”
She almost walked right past the shoe. It was a green lace-up, with a flat sole. She had read somewhere that these were once called brogues, back when there were enough shoes in the world for everyone to have several pairs in different styles. This one was attached to a visible foot, but the rest of the leg was hidden in the tall grass.
She walked towards the shoe, and carefully pulled aside the grass covering the rest of the body. The demon was lying perfectly still. Her only signs of injury were a few bruises, and her clothing was slightly dishevelled. Danika had never seen her before and had no idea who her human could be. She looked over at Nik, who for once displayed the same curiosity she felt. Veracity was a small community, and travellers were rare. Her human must have collapsed nearby.
“See if you can help her?” she asked Nik, “while I try and find her human.” She had never seen Nik ill, so she had no idea what ailments demons could have or how to treat them.
Danika started walking in a circle around the body, trying to find traces of the human the unknown demon belonged to. She saw some footprints leading away from her and tried to follow but lost them when the grass became too thick. She walked slowly back to where Nik was standing next to the body. He looked up at her and shook his head slightly.
Battleground by Shirlaine Douglas
“Medici, Medici.” Varus’s urgent whisper pierced through the cries of strewn men. Quintus looked up from bandaging and saw Varus kneeling over a body.
Varus raised an imperious hand and Quintus swallowed his reprimand as the boy’s eyes implored silence. A horse blocked Varus’s face from view. Quintus lowered his head as the rider passed; a Centurion exhorting survivors to strip the dead. He finished bandaging, then picked his way through pleading hands over to Varus. The musky grass and iron blood tang mingled with sickly-sweet odours from the pyres. A field of faces awaited those flames – some asleep, others contorted, as comrades divested them of rank and dignity.
Varus poked the body’s arm. “Medici, this man’s past rigour. He’s soft and with blisters.” His voice sank. “Medici, this man didn’t die today. “
Varus pushed the limp body over to reveal spongy features sliding from a thin face. A small ornamental spear protruded from its neck.
“By the gods.” Quintus pulled Varus into him, shielding the body from sight. “It’s the frumetarii, boy. The spy.”
He twisted and then tugged the spear out. “See, he’s been stuck with his insignia. This comes from Caesar himself. They’re gods with it.”
Quintus heard the Centurion fall silent. He slipped the spear under his apron and barked, “This one’s dead stupid boy. Move on.”
Quintus strode past the approaching commander and felt a cold gaze brush his neck. The sweet smoke thickened. Soon it would cover them all.
There is nothing like the scream of a grieving mother. If you’ve never heard it you’re lucky.
“Get her out of here.” Thabo Tlou growled. Normally we’d argue about this, I don’t take what I consider to be misogynistic instruction, well. But the primal horror of the noise emanating from the woman propelled me forward. It reminded me of the screaming anguish of hares snared in the jaws of jackals in the pitch black of midnight on the farm where I grew up. How those screams had terrified me as a child, conjuring visions of the witches my dear Ma’Pumi whispered about with our superstitious cook Ma’Thando.
The paramedic zipped the bag up, shutting off the soft morning sunlight from the small, sweet face, framed by tiny braids pulled into a bun, secured by a pink scrunchie.
“Raped.” He whispered as I brushed by, causing me to misstep and place my foot in a patch of fly crawling blood. Anger snared my vision, black rage closing in from each side, narrowing my sight until all I could see was the open mouth of her mother, who was still trying to hold on to the medical stretcher knowing, once it was loaded in the body van, she would never see her baby again.
I snatched at her hands, folding them up into my chest before pulling her sharply into my body. Releasing her hands, I wrapped her in my arms.
“I‘ll find him. I am his worst nightmare. I promise”
Simon pressed down firmly on the boot of his car. Definitely closed.
Okay, he thought, let’s run through this. I’m awake. I’m sober – well fairly, i only had three beers.
He looked at his watch. 10:30.
I left work just after 8:30. I stopped off at the supermarket for food, cigarettes. Should have come straight home. Shit! So maybe I stayed a bit long at Sporty’s. I could have watched the rest of the game at home. Okay, okay. Start over.
He opened the boot and looked in again.
The body was still there.
Well what the fuck were you expecting?
The car had been parked right outside on a busy road. Had he seen anyone? Anything? Wasn’t looking was he? Just a tired old bastard on his way home, stopped off for a bit of company and now look – a fucking body in the boot!
He felt in his pocket for a cigarette. The flame of his lighter briefly lit the kid’s face and he saw the telltale tattoo. A ‘cowboy’.
So what was this – a message? And why him? Gangs weren’t his thing. Hardly ever had much to do with that lot. His line of work had nothing to do with gangsters and violent crime, just crooked businessmen and lots of them.
Wearily he closed the hatch and took out his phone. It was going to be a long night and the milk for his morning coffee was in the shopping bag under the body.
Murder most fowl by Alison Bradshaw
Henry bent down beside the body. He took his handkerchief out of his pocket, wiped his eyes which kept running, then covered Percy’s face with the hankie. The sun was high already and it seemed the right thing to do, to shelter Percy from the glare. A small black ant investigated the body; no doubt it would already be sending out ant twitters to the rest of the colony. Henry sighed, stood up and walked off. He hated leaving Percy there, in the sun, with the ants.
In the kitchen Nora watched Henry approach from the bottom of the garden. What on earth was going on?
“What is it Love? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“It’s Percy. He’s dead – shot I think.”
“But I saw he was out early with the others training for tomorrow’s race. Who would have done this?”
“I think I know who the bastard is and he’s going to pay for this.” Henry’s grief was, at that moment, overtaken by anger.
“We need to move Percy. We can’t leave him there. Come Dear.”
The couple set off through the back garden and down the grassy slope to where the body lay.
Henry knelt down and pushed some grass aside in order to get a better look. A bit of blood was visible but it was a small spot so must have been a direct hit, bullet or arrow, through the heart. Ants were stumbling around here and there on the body. Henry looked up into the blue sky. He heard a thrush singing. Life was continuing as usual; nature carrying on without concern for the loss of this one life.
What an ignominious end for No 76645, Percy to those who knew him. The district’s number one racing pigeon had been murdered.
Katoji le Roux
Her dead body lay in an already congealing pool of blood. I stared with great trepidation. How did it come to this? “Look what you made me do”, I said as I knelt to drag and lift her hefty frame onto the thick plastic. “You just had to keep on yacking, didn’t you?” Her milky blue eyes stared back, taunting, even in death. “At least it’s the last time I clean up after you.”
Sweat trickled down my face and into my eyes. Salty beads trailed into my mouth. I dared not swipe. My gloves were stained with her blood, her remains… So much cleaning to do. If only she had seen reason.
Snoopy old hag.
She deserved it.
By the time Marcus got home I was dog-tired. All that scrubbing and polishing had left my limbs languid and too heavy to move. More draining was where to dispose of the body – the well or the pig pen?
I wanted her to disappear, so the pen it was. Besides, with all the cleaning activity, the poor hogs hadn’t eaten for two full days.
I sat across from him sipping my tea while he guzzled his bacon and eggs with gusto, smacking and licking his fingers… just like his –
“Hey, where’s Ma?”
Of course, he had to ask.
“Oh, didn’t she call you?” I slowly stirred my cup and looked at him with concern. “She packed a bag and just rushed off. Didn’t say anything. Just rushed off…”
Spruit Surprise by Bianca Ackroyd
Shiny beads of water glisten on the grass, wetting your feet through your broken shoes.
“I don’t know what I’m going to say, projections are down,” one man shouts to another as they whizz past on their bicycles.
Moving out the way just in time you drop the bag. Plastic bottles tumble out and down the bank into the water.
Three days of work. Gone in a flash.
Holding onto roots you step down the bank carefully. Removing the holey gloves you stick your hands into the water to rescue what you can. It burns.
You reach forward for a plastic bottle but it slips away. Your hand plunges deeper into the water and gets caught in what feels like long grass. Shaking hard you wrestle your hand free of the grass by pulling it up to the surface.
But it’s not grass, it’s long brown hair – attached to a head.
You stand up and jump onto the bank on the side. She looks fast asleep but you recognise her face. It’s the woman with the bright pink shoes and the matching pink watch, which is still on her limp wrist, floating under the green layer of water.
She doesn’t just ride by, acting like you don’t exist. She greets you with a smile and says “Sawubona baba.”
If only she knew that’s not my language.
“Why didn’t I ever stop her to tell her?” you think, wondering what went wrong in her life to make it end this way.