William Wilkinson was on his lunch break. He’d spent the morning looking through manuscript submissions, as usual appalled at the number of glaring typos and bad grammar, but gritting his teeth and reading where he felt the story itself had potential and where one of his editors might be able to fix it – at an exorbitant price, which he hoped the writer would be vain enough to pay.
Now he hesitated outside Hemingway’s, a new bookshop that had recently opened down a side street. Hadn’t he had enough of reading? It was a lovely sunny afternoon. Why not get a sandwich and sit in the park? He decided he’d just have a quick look at the travel books. Then his eye caught a symbol sprayed onto the shop’s smart green woodwork with ugly black paint. It was a square and within it, three dots above a short vertical line, and below that a short horizontal line. For all the world, a grim face with three eyes.
“Good afternoon, could you point me in the direction of the travel books please?” he asked.
The woman was slim, neat, and quite pretty, he admitted, despite her pointed lack of make-up. She gave a friendly smile, got up and took him down a short, well-lighted corridor to the required area.
Just then, the shop bell rang and a young woman entered with a small child in tow, a boy of about six. “Did you know you’ve got one of them square face things sprayed on your shop?”
The shop lady sounded anxious. “What? No, I didn’t. What does it mean?”
“I dunno, just I heard there’s been a few appearing round town. They say it’s to do with gangs.”
“What do you mean, gangs?”
“I dunno, something to do with an initiation rite, you know, to join the gang.”
The shop lady sounded nervous. “Oh, perhaps I should phone the police, what do you think?”
What nonsense, thought Wilkinson, turning his attention to Lonely Planet’s India. Well you couldn’t go wrong with Lonely Planet, Covid or no Covid. As he read, the worried voices receded into the distance, replaced by tantalising descriptions of the Golden Temple of Amritsar and the Holy City of Varanasi. Suddenly, he was brought back to the shop by the child’s shrill voice.
“Mummy, can I have a Billy Baboon book please?”
The mother sighed. “We’ll have to see how much they are.”
William headed to the till to hear the mother saying “What, ten quid for a measly little hardback!”
“But mummy, I want it,” said the young boy.
“Well I can’t afford it, so shut up. How about Fred the Butcher, now they’re nice books and only half the price too.”
“But I want Billy Baboon!” The boy began to cry.
“Look, Madam, let me get your little boy the book he desires,” said Wilkinson, holding up a hand to quiet her remonstrations. “It’s my business to encourage reading – and writing.” After all, if there weren’t readers, there’d be no one to buy his clients’ wretched books.
Just then a vehicle screeched to a halt outside and two men dressed in white boiler suits, black gloves and black balaclavas came into the shop. One carried a holdall. “Who’s the owner?” he shouted, bloodshot eyes glaring through the holes in the balaclava.
“That woman there is,” said the little boy, pointing out the lady who had welcomed us.
The man waved at the mother. “Clear off, you and the kid. Now!”
They left, the little boy gleefully clutching a free copy of Billy Baboon Goes to Paris.
“Look, what on earth’s going on?” said Wilkinson, “I’ll call the police.” He took his phone from his pocket just as the second man leapt forward and swiped it from his hand. It hit the floor with a cracking, splintering sound.
“Look, let’s do ‘em both,” the first man said, undoing his holdall and pulling out a portable power drill. He pointed at Wilkinson. “You stay right where you are. You move and you’re fucking dead!”
He pressed a switch on the drill and it began to screech as the bit spun round at a thousand revs a minute.
Horrified, Wilkinson watched helplessly as one of the men held the woman’s head from behind, whilst the second man held the whirring drill bit between her eyes. He could see the woman shaking with fright. Then, as blood and shreds of skin started to rain over children’s books on the nearby shelf, she began to scream at a pitch close to that of the whining, spinning drill, so that there was an odd, deafening discord.
As Wilkinson looked from one blood-spattered boiler suit to the other, he cursed his decision not to go to the park.
Featured in the book, Flash Friction: To Cut a Short Story Short, vol. III: 72 Little Stories
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