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The luxury saloon cruised along the dirt road at forty-four miles per hour.

''Bloody genius,'' Norman said from the passenger seat. ''I don't know why we didn't think of this before.''

Don watched the gothic mansion disappear from the rearview mirror. ''Before, we weren't desperate,'' he said, refocusing on the twisted road ahead.

''I've worked my arsehole to the bone for that family. Six sodding years,'' Norman said before resting his muddy boots on the leather dashboard. ''Should you be driving so slow?''

''The last thing we need is the police stopping us.''

''How far is the cabin, then?''

''About an hour away,'' Don said.

Norman pulled a notebook from his green overalls. ''Mind if I go over my set?'' he said.

Don rolled his eyes. ''If you must.''

''What about this one?'' Norman said. ''The other day, my mother asked if I thought there's sex after death. I told her it depends on the coroner.''

''For Christ's sake,'' Don laughed. ''That's foul. And did you need to mention mother?''

It was a tiny log cabin nestled in a boreal forest's belly. Lush grape vines covered the aged walls, and its thatched roof had discoloured with time.

Norman squinted through the windshield. ''This is it?'' he said.

''What do you think?'' Don said and snatched the keys from the ignition.

''You're still mad? I had no idea the cherryade would explode like that.''

Don pressed the key fob, and the boot crept open. ''Oh, you had no idea. Meanwhile, I'm driving forty minutes with a sticky crotch.''

''Jesus. I said sorry. What more do you want?''

''Let's get inside,'' Don said while exiting the vehicle.

He slid the key into the cabin's rusty lock and turned to Norman. ''Aren't we forgetting something?'' he said.

Norman's eyes widened. He rushed to the open boot. A bound schoolgirl lay in the fetal position, motionless, with a cloth sack over her head.

''Come on, Lilibeth,'' he said. ''Let's get you somewhere comfortable.'' And in dusk's misty red aura filled with frog songs, Norman carried her inside.

Rural furnishings, walnut bookshelves, and a dead grandfather clock adorned the cabin's interior. An underlying odour of decay infused the deserted dwelling.

Norman looked around. ''Where are we putting her?''

''Here,'' Don said, pointing to a small chair in the room's centre.

''Well, give her a cushion to sit on at least,'' Norman said.

Don obliged before roping Lilibeth's lean wrists to the chair.

''Jesus. There are wolves out here?'' Norman said, noticing the taxidermy mount of a wolf's snarling head above the fireplace.

''Don't worry,'' Don said while loading his double-barreled shotgun. ''We're covered.''

''Christ. I hope we never have to use that thing.''

Don placed his hand on Norman's bony shoulder. ''Everything will be fine. Now. Fetch the grub. I'll make the call.''

Norman retrieved the small bag of fruit from the car and placed it on the counter near the shotgun. ''Are you hungry, Lilibeth?'' he said.

The girl remained still and silent.

''Don't be afraid. We're not going to hurt you. I promise. You'll be back home before you know it.'' He pulled out his notebook. ''I'll tell you a joke,'' he said, flicking through the pages. ''Two nuns in a bath... No, I can't tell you that one. Ah, here we are. Why don't cannibals eat clowns? Because they taste funny.''

The girl remained still and silent.

''I'll read you something instead.'' He perused a dusty bookshelf. ''Ah, The Hunchback of Notre Dame,'' he said. ''I love a hero with a twisted back story.''

Lilibeth's chest shook with laughter, but no sound came from her.

Don ended his call and hurried back inside the cabin. ''We're in luck,'' he said. ''The organlegger stumbled across a spare heart.''

''How on earth did she stumble across a spare heart?''

''That's neither here nor there.'' He rubbed his hands together. ''She's willing to let us have it at a discount.''

''So, how much are we demanding from Vandenberg?''

''Don't worry about numbers,'' Don said. ''I'm starving. Where's the grub?''

''Near your shotgun.''

Don held up the bag of fruit. ''What the hell's this?''

''The grub,'' Norman said.

''No, this is a bag of plums. Where's the basket?''


''Yes. The basket. Back at the mansion. On the counter. Sitting next to these plums. The basket. Grass-fed steaks. Moose cheese. Olive bread. Bakewell fucking tarts.'' His voice cracked. ''The basket.''

''Keep your voice down. You'll frighten the girl,'' Norman said.

Don balled his fists and marched out of the cabin. He sat on the porch steps and called the Vandenberg mansion. ''Come on, you posh pompous prat,'' he said. ''Answer the phone.''

The golden telephone rang twice before his Lordship answered. ''Lars Vandenberg speaking… I assume advising that it is in one's utmost interest to release my daughter would only be words wasted?… Very well. What are one's demands?... A pauper's ransom comparable to one's intellect. Time and location?... Very well, my dear mendicant. Bide one's time. I promise to pay one in full before dawn. Tally-ho,'' he said and ended the call.

''My lord, I've tracked the saloon's GPS to a cabin sixty minutes away,'' Vandenberg's butler said. ''Am I to alert the constable?''

''No, dear Miles. A more personal stratagem will suffice. That imbecilic duo have committed their last transgression. I deem them unworthy of mercy. And it is the season,'' Vandenberg said. ''Is it not?''

''Indeed, my lord.'' The butler grinned. ''It is the season.''

Don marched back inside the cabin. ''Sod him,'' he said. ''Vandenberg speaks to me like he's buying an armoire.''

''Armoire?'' Norman said.

''It's some kind of French couch.''

''But he's going to pay, right?''

Don took a deep breath and nodded. ''Yes. He's going to pay.''

''Well, then. Why the long face? We should celebrate,'' Norman said, revealing a bottle of red wine. ''All the way from Vandenberg's special cabinet.''

Don's face lit up. ''From the special cabinet?''

Norman squinted at the label. ''I got you the shatew lafeet rothschild nineteen eighty-two.''

''Ah, the perfect pairing for plums and kidnap,'' Don said and received the bottle.

Night enclosed the cabin as wisps of smoke fled the cobbled chimney.

Don and Norman sat side-by-side in moonlight on the porch steps.

''Do you hear that?'' Don said.

''I don't hear anything.''

''Beautiful, isn't it?''

''Don,'' Norman said. ''We're doing the right thing, aren't we?''

''Our lives are a series of pain and joy, brother,'' Don said. ''Let's enjoy the wine and the stars and the silence together. Leave morality to the philosophers.''

''You're right. A toast, then,'' Norman said before raising his mug of wine. ''To Vandenberg's dosh.''

Don raised the bottle. ''And to my father's new heart. May he live a long and healthy life.''

Norman shuffled inside his sleeping bag. ''Don,'' he whispered. ''Someone's watching us through the window.''

Don glimpsed a pair of fiery white eyes before they vanished into the dark.

''Is it wolves?'' Norman said. ''I bet it's a grizzly bear looking for something to eat. Offer him those plums.''

''Be quiet,'' Don said, picking up his shotgun. In the orange glow emanating from the fire, he crept across the room. ''Can't see a damn thing.'' He opened the window and aimed his barrel into the cold night air.

''Don, your gun's not loaded.''

''It is. I loaded it earlier.''

''No. I removed the cartridges.''

''Why would you do something so stupid?''

''Because. It's dangerous to keep a loaded gun near a child.''

''Quick, then. Hand me the cartridges. Something's getting close.''

Don cocked the shotgun as a bear-like arm reached in and snared his neck. It dragged him halfway out the window with ease. His feral screams filled the cabin. Norman gripped Don's belt and heaved with his entire body until both men tumbled onto the dusty floor. He gasped at the gushing hole in his brother's stomach, at the glistening guts scattered across the cabin.

''Don, it'll be okay.'' Norman held Don's bloody hand. ''You can't die,'' he said.

Don stared into his eyes as a death rattle passed his twitching lips.

''Please, God. Not like this.'' Norman sobbed and held his brother close.

A guttural snarl swept through the open window, sending a chill down Norman's spine.

He saw the fiery white eyes stalking him. ''You, you motherfucker,'' he said before attempting to load the shotgun. The cartridge slipped between his blood-slick fingers and fell to the floor. ''My God,'' he said, unable to avert his teary gaze from the vast beast clambering into the cabin.

Behind him, Lilibeth's fingers lengthened, and dense hair sprouted from her hands. ''Father,'' she cried as a log popped inside the fireplace.


Steven Bruce is an award-winning independent author. His poetry and short stories have appeared in magazines and anthologies worldwide. In 2018, he graduated from Teesside University with a Master's Degree in Creative Writing. He is the recipient of the Literary Titan Golden Book Award, the Firebird Book Award, and the Indies Today Five-star Recommendation Badge. Born in the North of England, he now lives and writes full-time in Barcelona.


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