Top 50
FL folks, it looks like I'm about to get booted off the island for a 3rd time.  If you have a moment and feel generous enough to keep me fighitng for another week, I'd appreciate a vote or two.
I'm not even thinking about winning this - but I'd like to survive to the top 50.  And if I don't, the world won't end.  It would just be something cool.
Thanks for all your support up to now, whether I make the cut tonight or not
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Crab salad
Janet strode through the front door of Sotheby’s café and caught the maitre d’s attention.
“Table for Wright?” she asked.
“Yes, miss. Right this way.”
She was led to a table in a secluded corner, where a man was seated.  She took in the other customers, her mind assigning them to various jobs and roles.
The lone man was facing the door so he could see everyone who entered the café. He stood up as Janet approached, and waited in the old fashioned way while the maitre d’ pulled Janet’s chair out for her and got her seated, before smiling and resuming his seat.  He was well dressed without being ostentatious, and at just under six feet he wasn’t as imposing a figure as Janet had expected.
This also wasn’t quite the reception she’d been expecting from a problem solver, but as a sharp-minded intelligence analyst she recognised it as technique to put her off-guard.

“Miss Salisbury, I’m Matthew Wright.” He offered his hand, and she shook it briefly. “How may I assist you today?”

A waiter came by the table and offered them menus, putting a temporary halt to the business of the day. They both studied the menu for a few minutes, at the same time studying each other. When the waiter came back, Janet ordered a garden salad,  Matthew a crab salad, and a bottle of Chardonnay, two glasses.

“Now then, back to business” Matthew picked up where he had left off.  “How can I assist you today?”
“The organisation I work for” Matthew held up a hand to stop her and she gave him an enquiring look.
Matthew smiled and explained.
“Sub Lieutenant Janet Salisbury, born 15 June 1990, intelligence officer in the Royal Navy specialising in linguistics, speaks six languages, most of them Middle Eastern, currently on detachment to the Ministry of Defence counter terrorism taskforce. I know what organisation you work for, Janet, so please stop playing spy and tell me what you need.”

Janet went beetroot red but otherwise kept her composure.
“If you knew who I worked for, why did you have your goons come along?” she nodded to a nearby table where two men dressed in Saville Row suits were taking a very long time to drink their coffee.
“Touche, Janet. You were not considered a threat, but if someone else knew we were meeting today they might take the opportunity of some kind of action against me. In my business, I have many enemies.”
“So, that explains the backup to the backup too?” she nodded to a table at the door where a man and two women were having an animate conversation about something she couldn’t overhear.

“Oh, you’re better than I expected.  Most people spot the lads, but it’s rare for anyone to spot my other guards.  But, enough of the verbal sparring.  What do you want?”
“My bosses are at a loss as to how to stop the terrorist attacks on our bases. We, well me actually, were hoping you might have some ideas and be willing to help.”

Matthew looked thoughtful for a few seconds.
“Hmm. Protecting your bases would need an army, and you have one of those already. I can’t do that.
Protecting specific sites, or gatherings, that I can do. But, you need to understand something first. These people you call terrorists. They call you and the other Western powers terrorists. It’s all a matter of perspective. In their eyes, you have everything and they have nothing but oil in the ground that you pay whatever they ask to get your hands on. When it’s gone, they will have nothing, they will be nothing. They want what you have, and if they can’t have it, neither can you. They are like crabs in a barrel, they’d rather everyone die than some live and some don’t.”
“I thought it was ‘crabs in a bucket’”
“Depends where you come from.  Same thing though. Or, if you prefer a more British expression, they’re like a dog in a manger.”

Janet smiled.
“OK, I don’t need a lesson in politics. I need to know if you can help us.”
“I can. You will need to set up a conference of high profile targets. Make it attractive to these people. I’ll do the rest.”

The conversation was interrupted by the arrival of their lunch and by unspoken agreement they made smalltalk while they ate.
The dishes were cleared away, and coffee ordered, before they got back to business.

“How much is this going to cost us?”
“One and a half million pounds. Half into a numbered account before the job, the other half on completion. And, I cannot guarantee success. But you will pay whether this works or not.”

Janet just managed to not choke at the amount.
“If we don’t pay the other half, what then?”
“You know the Israeli story?”
“I know of it, but not specifics.”
“Ask your co-workers. One of them will know it. And then you’ll know why I’m not worried about you not paying the other half.”
“Well, I don’t have the authority to accept your terms. I need to go back to my boss. How do we proceed?”

Coffee arrived, another short break.
Matthew explained while they drank their coffee.
“If your boss, or his boss, accepts the terms, you put half the money into the account. I’ll contact you for another meeting and we’ll sort out the details. If the money isn’t deposited within a fortnight, I’ll assume you’re not interested.”
Janet nodded agreement.
“Thank you for lunch, and some interesting conversation. I hope to see you again soon.”
She put more than a slight tone of personal interest in that last sentence.
Matthew smiled again, stood and shook hands once more, and escorted her to the door.

This instalment follows on from

Hair shirts flow downhill
“Bloody towel-heads!” cursed the Navy Commander. “It doesn’t matter how we set up a perimeter, they just keep crashing through and taking out our stores – and our people. It has to stop.”
“Maybe we need to get in some outside help” came a meek voice from the back of the briefing room.
“As in?” Commander Jackson asked.
“Sir, maybe we need the fixer.” The young sub-lieutenant leaned forward, her elfin face showing more than a little trepidation at mentioning someone she knew wasn’t popular with the government.
The commander glowered at her, but the look on his face was one of resignation as much as annoyance.
“Thank you, subby Salisbury, for stating the obvious. Sadly, I don’t think we can convince our lords and masters in Westminster that hiring a mercenary to protect our people is a good idea.”
“No, sir. Sorry, sir.” Janet Salisbury looked like she’d just been punched in the stomach – hard.

Two days later, a Royal Navy stores depot, which had concrete barriers, razor wire, and armed guards at the gate, was hit by a terrorist attack. Fifteen naval personnel were killed, along with four civilian contractors. The Prime Minister called an urgent cabinet meeting and told the Secretary of State for Defence to do whatever it took to stop the attacks.
That afternoon, Commander Jackson had his best and brightest in the briefing room – again.
“Right, the PM is in a flap and he told the minister to do whatever it takes, so what’s it going to take?”
Subby Salibury sat quietly as some of the more senior officers in the Ministry of Defence Intelligence section offered their opinions. Nobody had anything new to offer, and the commander turned to his most junior officer.
“Well, Subby, do you still think we need the fixer?” he asked, much more gently than his rebuke of two days earlier.
“Yes, sir, I do. We have nothing” she cringed a little as some senior officers around the room looked daggers at her “ and the terrorists seem to operate when and where they please. We can’t even predict their next target, let alone protect it.”
The commander rubbed his beard as he mulled that over, while Subby Salisbury tried to ignore the daggers still coming her way.
“Very well, Janet. The fixer it will be. Since you suggested it, I’m putting you in charge of finding him, and setting up the deal. Pull this off and your career will take off. Mess it up and you’ll be wearing the hair shirt for all of us. Understood?”
“Sir, yes, sir.”  And with that, the meeting was done.

Janet knew how to contact the fixer. In theory, everyone who needed a dirty job done knew how to contact him. Just place an ad in the classifieds of a major metropolitan newspaper – anywhere in the world, or email his hotmail address.  But knowing how to contact him wasn’t the same as getting him to respond. The fixer was a very special person, in high demand to fix problems for governments of all persuasions, major corporations, and even some high profile individuals. His services did not come cheaply, and he chose which jobs to take and which to reject. He had no political agenda, and no moral compass about which side of any conflict was “right.” That was for others – for him the thing was the challenge. The challenge, and the money. This attitude made him useful to all comers, but also meant most governments – especially western ones – didn’t want to use him except as a last resort. They weren’t comfortable paying a man who would stop the “towel-heads” today and work for them tomorrow. If he wasn’t so useful in a crunch situation, he’d be on every Most Wanted list in the world. As it was, only the Israelis had him on their “hit list” and that was an old story.

Janet placed an ad in The Times, and waited for a response. She was more than a little surprised to get a phone call in less than 48 hours. The message was simple.  “Café at Sotheby's, 1300 Thursday. Table for Wright.”
On Thursday, she ignored her navy uniform, and pulled her best business suit out of her wardrobe.   It was a grey pinstriped skirtsuit that highlighted her hourglass figure but still had the “power dressing” shoulder pads in the jacket. The blouse buttoned almost to the top, there was no button on the collar.  She was sure it was just right to put her in charge of the meeting. Several of her co-workers raised their eyebrows or gave her lustful looks as she entered the office, but Janet wasn’t interested. Wearing “civvies” might be unusual for her workplace, but she was hardly the first officer to do it when circumstances suggested a uniform might get the wrong sort of attention. The morning seemed to drag on forever, and Janet had to admit to herself that she was looking forward to lunch with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. She couldn’t focus on any of the jobs on her desk so she ran through her plans for lunch in her head several times. The hard part was filling in Mr Wright’s responses since she didn’t even know what he looked like, let alone anything about how his mind worked. She just knew she had to get it right or her career was over.  With that thought it occurred to her that Mr Wright was almost surely a pun.

This is the first part of an longer tale that’s been daring me to write it for quite some time.

Head shot
Faruq – that was the name on his passport this week – had the best job in the world.
He only worked six or seven weeks a year, on a six figure income.
He got to travel the world, meet lots of interesting people, and kill one of them.   Of course, he never actually met the ones he was going to kill.   There were always many walks of people in whatever city he was visiting, and people were fascinating.

As a hobby, Faruq like to imagine what they did with their lives. He would sit at a sidewalk café and just people watch as they scurried about in their meaningless, shallow lives. They didn’t realise they were all in a gutter – the gutter of life – and trying to swim like rats against the flow.

Today, though, was a workday. Faruq was in a TPLAC* and he had a mission. A visiting head of state from a neighbouring TPLAC was causing his bosses more than a little concern and had to be removed.   ‘Removing’ was the term they used when they wanted someone assassinated.

From the top of a ten storey building, outside the cordon of protective police snipers on roofs – Faruq couldn’t suppress a smile at how pathetic their efforts were – he lined up his shot.   He’d checked the wind, checked his exit route, and he knew he would have at most thirty seconds to take the shot, so he had to be ready.

As the doomed head of state climbed the steps of the Capitol building, security staff keeping a watchful eye on the small crowd, Faruq took a slow breath and calmed his mind.
And the target’s head exploded in a shower of blood and brains.

This wasn’t in the script.   Faruq had never had a kill stolen from him before, but he recovered quickly.   Packing up his unfired rifle, he executed his escape plan.

After lying low for a week, while the authorities searched for the assassin, he drove his rental car to the International Airport – another laugh, since they had four gates and one runway.
He realised how lucky the steal had been.   There were still checkpoints, and every vehicle, every bag, every person, was being stopped and searched.  This was not how these countries normally operated, and the alarm bells rang softly in the back of Faruq’s mind.   He considered turning around and using his alternate exit plan, but turning around now would draw attention he didn’t need. 

He pulled up to the checkpoint, wound down his window – the car didn’t have power windows – and smiled at the heavily armed policeman.
“Good morning. What can I do for you?”
“Papers please, sir. And if you would please open the boot.”
Faruq complied with the requests.
The policeman checked his passport and plane ticket, and waved to another officer to check the bags in the boot.

The second officer saw the rifle case – Faruq had left the gun assembled and made no attempt to hide it.   He pulled his sidearm, and the first officer reacted by pulling his sidearm and aiming it at Faruq, who just smiled.
“Is there a problem, officers?”
“What is in the bag?”
“A hunting rifle. I have a permit for it, and a declaration for the airline.”
Faruq slowly reached into his pocket, aware of the pistols trained on him, and withdrew the permit and declaration. Both were legitimate, other than his name on them.

But the police didn’t seem interested.   One of them drove the rental car to the airport police building – a portable two room hothouse. The other put Faruq, in handcuffs, in the back of the patrol car and drove to the same building.   Faruq kept his cool, making just enough protest noises to appear as an offended tourist but not enough to make it look like he was faking.   While he held these men in contempt – they were towards the bottom of the sewer below the gutter – it had become clear to him that they were more competent than he’d been given to understand.

His gun was taken away for testing, while he was held in what passed for a cell at the airport.
A few hours later, after his plane had left, a third officer came to his cell, rifle bag in hand. He unlocked the door and indicated Faruq should exit.
The officer returned Faruq’s gun to him.
“Thank you for your co-operation, sir.   It appears this gun has not been fired for several weeks, perhaps months.   Your hunting trip was not successful?”
“No, it wasn’t.   The only game I was licenced for had already been shot.”
“Ah, well, there is less and less game these days.   The hunters have almost driven some species to extinction. Soon, we will only allow hunting with cameras, so you should make the most of whatever time you have left.”

Faruq was slightly taken aback as he realised this policeman held him in the same contempt as Faurq held most of the human race.
He left quickly, before he said or did something that might give him away.

Getting another flight wasn’t a huge problem.  It was two stops to De Gaulle, instead of non-stop, but he didn’t care.   He needed to get to his Paris home and think.
He checked the tell-tales at his apartment to make sure nobody had been there in his absence.   Satisfied, he unlocked the door and slid quickly through the opening.   Tell-tales or not, one stayed alive by being alert and cautious all the time.
He pulled up short.   There was a plain envelope on the glass topped table in his kitchen/dining room.   It hadn’t been there when he left.

Very, very, carefully, and using gloves lest there be some contact poison on the paper, he picked up the envelope and checked it for wires, too much weight, or any of the dozen other signs it might be a trap.   Finding none, he slowly opened the envelope and extracted the single sheet of paper.
The note send cold shivers up and down his spine.

“You owe me. If I hadn’t taken that shot, you’d be rotting in a prison cell now, or dead.
One day I will collect, and you will know it’s me calling.
We are all in the gutter, Daniel (yes, I know your birth name).   Some of us swim a little closer to the top than others.”

* TPLAC.   Tin Pot Little African Country.  A derogatory term used primarily in Britain, but also other Western powers that have, or had, colonies in Africa.

Crossing the T
March 1918
Lieutenant (Lef-tenant, being British) Jonothon Smythe-Bentley, Earl of Manchester *, was sure he’d come into the world at exactly the right time.
The Great War had meant technology leapt ahead at a cracking pace, and his Lordship enjoyed the freedom and power of being a fighter pilot in the Royal Flying Corps. His Sopwith Camel had given him four confirmed kills.  One more and he’d officially be an ace, something he desperately wanted.  Becoming an ace meant getting a medal, from the king himself with any decent kind of luck.

As he was having his usual breakfast of smoked kippers, toast with marmalade, and a piping hot tea, an orderly came over to his table in the mess to deliver a summons from the squadron CO.
Jonothon nodded curtly to acknowledge the orderly’s message and unhurriedly went back to his breakfast. A few minutes later, his tin mug refilled with hot tea, he sauntered to the CO’s tent to find out what the annoying commoner wanted.  Jonothon could not understand why this man was in charge when a peer of the realm was available for the job.  Of course, if he were the CO he wouldn’t be flying and he’d never get that 5th kill, or the medal.

Knocking politely on the tent flap, he became mildly irritated when he was not immediately invited to enter.  The boss must have been getting some kind of petty payback for being kept waiting. Clearly, the man did not understand his inferior station – superior rank notwithstanding.

After what the CO considered an appropriate time he called out “Enter” and Jonothon wasted no time stepping into the tent and snapping off a regulation salute, since the boss was standing at his desk, not sitting. He was pompous and arrogant, but not stupid. A charge of insubordination would not look good on his record, not to mention being grounded would keep him from shooting down Gernams.
Lieutenant Colonel Bannister returned the salute and sat down but did not invite Jonothon to do the same. Another petty payback in Jonothon’s mind.

“Was the orderly unclear about you coming to see me, Lieutenant?”
“No, sir. He said you wanted to see me. Did I misunderstand in some manner?”
The CO sighed – they’d had this conversation before.
“Your Lordship, on this airfield your title means nothing. When I send an orderly to get one of my pilots I expect that pilot to be no more than five steps behind the orderly when he returns. I do not expect to be kept waiting. Are we clear on that – again?”

Jonothon got the notion his boss was more annoyed than usual at being treated the way a commoner should be treated, but the CO did have a point. He was the CO and it would pay Jonothon to at least appear contrite.
“Yes, sir. Sorry sir, the kippers were just too good this morning. I shall do better next time.”
Bannister shook his head by way of indicating he’d believe it when he saw it, but he waved Jonothon off and got on with the business of the day.

“This afternoon, we are getting some new aircraft and some new personnel. For all your faults with military discipline you are my best pilot and I want you to take the first plane up and then teach the other pilots anything new and tricky.”

Jonothon beamed at this news.  A new plane meant a better chance of getting that 5th kill.
“Yes sir. May I ask what we’re getting, sir?”
“Bristols. F2B’s I believe.”
“Two seaters, sir, that’s a lot different to the Camel.”
“I know, that’s why I need you to take one up and see how it behaves differently to the Camel. You’ll be getting an observer to fly with you. He, and the other observers, should be coming in with the planes.”

Jonothon smiled again..
“Yes, sir. Will there be anything else, sir?”
“No, Lieutentant, that is all. Dismissed.”
Jonothon strode the three steps to the tent flap, turned and saluted, before realising Bannister was reading dispatches and not paying him any further attention.

Just after lunch there was the familiar sound of engines in the sky and a flight of six brand new Bristol F2B “Brisfit” aircraft touched down and taxied to the apron. The auxiliary pilots sauntered to the mess tent for a nosh while they waited for a truck to pick them up for the return journey.

A pair of orderlies met the observers, and showed them to their quarters. Their gear was on the truck that was coming to pick up the returning pilots, so with nothing much else to do, they also headed for the mess tent.

The ground crews took their time getting to the planes, since they wouldn’t be needed for patrols until the next morning at the earliest. But, Jonothon was having none of that.  He bawled out one crew to get a plane ready for his test flight and then made his way briskly to the mess tent to find an observer. He didn’t see the need for one on this flight, but the CO said take one, so take one he would.

Jonothon took off his cap before he entered the mess, then looked around the tent at the men eating their lunches. The pilots looked up briefly as he entered, and went back to their meals. The observers also looked up, then stood up at attention. All but one. They didn’t salute, and he didn’t expect them to. What he did expect was all the non-comms to at least acknowledge an officer entering the mess. At a proper barracks or base there would be multiple mess tents and this wouldn't be an issue. But this was close to the front lines and everyone shared the same mess.

Jonothon waved the men to carry on.  He strolled, ever so casually, to where the one observer who hadn’t stood up was still eating and stood just behind him before giving a polite cough.
“You should go see the medical officer about that cough mate” a very un-British voice said, without looking up and barely pausing in the shovelling of food into his mouth.

Somewhat taken aback by this response, Jonothon took a more direct approach.
“On your feet, soldier!”
That got everyone’s attention and they all stopped to see what would happen next.
The uncaring Australian got to his feet in his own time, unknowingly showing the same lack of respect for authority that Jonothon had shown earlier in the day.  At six and a half feet tall, he was an imposing figure.
He stood at some semblance of attention, looking down at the man who had interrupted his lunch.
“Something I can do for you, sir?” he asked. The ‘sir’ sounded more like it was being spelled ‘cur’ but Jonothon didn’t notice.
“Yes, Sergeant, there is. I need an observer for a flight in half an hour and I believe you’re just the man I’m looking for. What’s your name?”
The sergeant was new, so didn’t notice the cunning look in Jonothon’s eyes that promised a very unpleasant flight.
“Sergeant Johnson, sir. I don’t really feel like going flying again today, if it’s all the same to you.”

Jonothon went a deep shade of purple.
“It is most definitely NOT all the same to me, soldier. Now, get out of here and get ready to go flying. We will discuss your insubordinate attitude when we get back.”
Sergeant Johnson realised he had pushed too far. He stood a little straighter, grabbed two handfuls of sandwiches, and left.

A little over an hour later, Jonothon and his reluctant sergeant were airborne with a full load of fuel and ammunition. Even though they didn’t expect trouble, it paid to be prepared. Which was also why they had a Sopwith Camel along for company, piloted by Captain Harris.

The flight hadn’t been going long before Jonothon started tossing the plane around the sky in an attempt to make his observer throw up the lunch he had been so fond of. Sergeant Johnson was made of sterner stuff though and he took it all in his stride.

Half an hour later, trouble found them. A trio of German Fokker Dr1 “Doctor” planes pounced out of the afternoon sun and surprised the British aircraft. As was often the case in these times, there was a lot of firing of guns but not a lot of actual damage to enemy planes.

Jonothon got a couple of hits on one of the Doctors and it limped away with its engine smoking. He took a moment to hope someone in the trenches would see it crash so he could claim the kill but then he was busy trying to evade another of the Fokkers that had got below and behind him.

This was still the infancy of aerial combat and dogfighting was an art known only to pilots, not a science known to multiple systems computers. There was also an unwritten code of chivalry among pilots. More correctly, most pilots. There was respect for your enemy’s flying ability and after a few minutes at most of a ballet in the sky, pilots would often give each other a wave or salute and return home to perhaps meet again some other day.

Today though, that code was forgotten by his Lordship, the Earl of Manchester.
Jonothon saw his Camel companion on the tail of a Doctor, and the one he had finally managed to elude was turning to come behind the Camel – making a train.  With a rush of blood that he would later try to explain as wanting to see how well Sergeant Johnson could shoot, Jonothon flew his F2B behind the Camel and in front of the approaching Fokker, He frantically waved to Johnson to swing his machine gun on the Scarff ring and shoot the German.

Johnson had little choice. Although he would only be in the Doctor’s gun sights for a few seconds, it’s twin machine guns would make short work of the Brisfit if they got to fire. So in a case of kill-or-be-killed, Johnson swung his single machine gun and let fly. The Fokker’s propeller disintegrated and the engine burst into flames, but the sergeant felt no elation, only anger.

The remaining German decided to call it a day and climbed away. The British planes had no chance of out-climbing the Doctor so they turned for home to lodge their reports.

When Jonothon claimed the possible kill on the first Fokker, Bannister nodded and noted it down for confirmation or not. But when the Earl claimed the second kill Bannister shook his head.
“Oh no, your Lordship” he made that sound sickly sweet “that kill is credited to the good sergeant, who has already claimed it, had it verified by Harris, and he has lodged a formal complaint against you.”
“What! That was my kill! How dare he steal it? And who does he think he is to complain about me? He’s a rude, brash, colonial.  I won’t stand for it, I tell you, sir.  Not at all!”
“Calm down, Lieutenant! The situation with two seaters is the credit goes to whichever crew member did the shooting. So, Johnson did not steal ‘your’ kill. As for his complaint, he says you flew across the path of that Fokker.  Is he lying?”

The Earl of Manchester looked more than slightly surprised by this turn of events. He shook his head before replying.
“No, sir, he’s not lying. I flew across the Fokker’s path so I could see how well Johnson can shoot. It seemed the right thing to do, and the best way of saving Harris at the same time.”

Lieutenant Colonel Bannister gave Jonothon a look of pity.
“You really have no idea what you did, do you?”
“Saved my fellow pilot, and got a kill for my observer, sir.  Did I miss something?”
“You crossed the T**, Lieutenant. And the Fokker pilot who got away will report your tail number to every German squadron on the front.  You’re a marked man, and so is Johnson.  You gave him no choice in the matter and you owe him an apology.  I wonder if you’re a big enough man to give it to him?”
Jonothon went white as a ghost and shook his head in disbelief for the second time in under a minute.
Bannister ended the debrief with a curt dismissal.

A despondent Jonothon wandered to the mess tent to get a cup of tea.  As he entered, everyone in the tent stood up and left, shunning him. As Harris walked past him, he leaned in close and whispered.
“You crossed the T, Johnny me lad. You shouldn’t have done that.”

There was no flying the next day because the weather closed in and the rain made visibility almost zero. Jonothon was left alone, nobody would speak to him and everyone walked away if he approached. He thought about apologising to Sergeant Johnson but it wasn’t in his nature to apologise to anyone, let alone an enlisted man, and a colonial at that.

Two days later, Lord Manchester’s Brisfit crashed into a stand of trees, killing him and Sergeant Johnson. There were no reports of enemy aircraft in the area at the time and no German squadron claimed the kill.

* The Earl of Manchester was last used in 1719, when the 4th Earl was made a Duke.  This work is totally fictional, including titles

**. Crossing the T is a term for a plane that flies perpendicular to another plane in order to allow a rear gunner a head-on shot against the oncoming plane. It was considered an unchivalrous act by the pilots of WW1, although not as reprehensible as shooting at a defenceless aircraft, or a pilot floating to the ground under his parachute.

Round and round the gardens
So, this is a first for me since I don’t blog.  Exception proves the rule, right?

It’s spring here, and the flowers are blooming everywhere you look. I dug up my vegetable garden this morning – with a power cultivator because the garden has been sadly neglected for too many years.
Now, it’s a patch of dirt.  Tomorrow, my kids and I will dig some horse dung in, and next day we’ll plant a selection of vegetables and see how they go.

There are way better gardens to see than mine. Spring here means four weeks of Floriade. Over a million flowers in carefully laid out beds with a riot of colour and patterns you often can’t see from ground level. So, the folks who made the patterns put signs up by each bed showing how it looks from above. There are hearts – one of them broken, cloth patterns, three teddy bears with their faces and tummies mounded up in the beds.

But the piece de resistance has to be this map.


You can’t see it’s a map from the ground, but you might notice the shadow of where I took this photo. Everything on the map is a flower - it's amazing.

Assuming I don’t get voted off for posting way outside my normal boundaries, normal transmission should resume next week. I have a story to write, but the protagonist isn’t a gardener. For that matter, I’m not much of one either. If I was, my veggie patch wouldn’t have needed power tools to make it useable.

43 years
Well, that was a tense 80 minutes.
First time in 43 years we've won a preliminary final.  Grand final next week.  I so want one more premiership before I die, and this is the best chance we've had in a long while.
If you're reading this and not understanding, it's NRL finals time here in Oz. 

(no subject)
Cos I'm too stupid to quit after I've been kicked.  Twice
Yes, I played this season Gary.

Sparks and fires
This part of my ongoing tale follows immediately after

Champions sports bar in the Marriott wasn’t exactly the most romantic place to contemplate the events of the past 24 hours. But, it was close, it was quick, and Grant and Lea both had work that needed doing for Kublacon. So, Champions it was.

They persuaded the hostess to put them in a booth, a little bit away from where the other patrons were seated. Not that they expected to have much privacy but every moment mattered right now.

“This is strange” Grant began. “We’ve been friends for so long, and I’m wondering if last night was real, or if the Guinness took over.”

Lea gave him a look that women give men the world over. That ‘how can you be so stupid when it comes to relationships’ look.
“It’s possible the beer had something to do with me opening up like I did. But it was going to happen sometime this weekend. Once you told me on Facebook that Jo had left you, I had every intention of testing the waters. Maybe not quite as quickly as it happened, but before the weekend was out.”

Grant’s eyebrows shot up.
“Really? You came here planning to hit on me?”
“Yup. Is that a problem?”

Grant chuckled.
“No problem. I was just thinking, if you planned this ahead of time, you could have arranged it so we didn’t both have other room mates.”

He winked, and Lea rolled her eyes.
“I’m a mere mortal, not a goddess. I didn’t do the room assignments. Besides, what if you’d rejected my advances?”

Now it was Grant’s turn to roll his eyes.
“If you thought that was a possibility, you’d have never made a move, drunk or sober.”
Lea nodded in agreement.

The burgers arrived and the conversation stopped for a few minutes. For a chain sports bar, Champions burgers aren’t half-bad.

Grant finished first, either because his appetite or his mouth were bigger than Lea’s.
“Here’s my thinking then. Since we don’t live on the same continent, let alone the same area – yet – we’ll have to see how well we cope with a long distance relationship until Jack’s done with school.”

Lea nodded, her mouth full of lettuce from the burger she’d almost demolished. She knew Grant well enough to figure a song quote was about to happen. He didn’t disappoint her.
“Everybody wants a flame,
They don’t want to get burnt
And today is our turn
Days like these lead to...
Nights like this lead to
Love like ours.
You light the spark in my bonfire heart.
People like us—we don’t
Need that much, just someone that starts,
Starts the spark in our bonfire hearts.” *

Lea shook her head, but with a smile that went all the way to her eyes. If she was going to have a relationship with this man that went past platonic, she was going to have to get used to his musical mind.


This part of the tale follows immediately after

Hel and Baldr stood with Frigga, Thor, and Sif, on the dais beside Odin’s bier.  Frigga had insisted Hel accompany Baldr to Asgard this once, so things could be set right.
The great hall was filled with the Aesir and other Asgardians, come to pay their respects to the fallen king.
An empty helmet topped the body, where his head should have been. There were faggots stacked all around the bier, and they were very dry.

All five of the gods were acutely aware of the stares being directed at Hel. Some looked at her wondering why she was there. Others could scarce conceal their loathing of the monster they had been taught she was.

Frigga struck the marble floor with her staff and the great hall fell silent.
“Fellow citizens of Asgard, we are here today to send one king on his final journey, and to enthrone a new king.”
Thor winced at that, but said nothing.

Frigga continued.
“We must also take note of recent events. The legends say that Hodr must kill Baldr and that will start Ragnarok, the twilight of the gods.”

She pointed dramatically to Hel, and to Baldr.
“These two gods have shown us we have a choice. They chose to defy the legends, to pursue a different course. My husband, Baldr’s father, your late king, could not accept this choice. He stubbornly refused to believe anything other than what the legends decreed was possible. He paid for that stubbornness with his life.”

Frigga paused to wipe away an unqueenly tear or two. Queens might have to be regal at all times, wives are permitted to cry at their husband’s funeral.

Having regained her composure, Frigga continued her tale.
“As we have been shown to have a choice, so I now ask our new king to rule with an open mind and on open heart.”
With that, she struck her staff on the floor once more, and the five gods moved away from the bier as Ullr lit an arrow and shot it into the faggots.

Bragi, as he had been asked by Baldr to do, struck up a mortal song.
“We didn't start the fire
It was always burning
Since Asgard's been turning
We didn't start the fire
No we didn't light it
But he tried to fight it” **

As Bragi finished the words, Thor spoke to the assembly, his voice rising over the crackling of the flames.

“No more shall we follow like sheep. If you choose to fight the fire, you are free to do so. Let the Fates fall where they may, we will no longer be chained to them like prisoners waiting for the axe to fall. Now, go to the Feasting Hall, where we will all celebrate a blót to honour my father.”
He pointed at Hel.
“Yes, I meant ALL. You will join us, and you will henceforth be invited to feasts in Asgard should you wish to attend.”
Hel nodded her assent, and Baldr’s grin spread from ear to ear as the mourners filed out as their new king had decreed.

For those who came in late, you can read the whole story, in order, by following the links here

*  from Bonfire Heart, James Blunt

** from We Didn’t start the fire, Billy Joel.  Slightly modified to fit the locale
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The strongest power
This part of the story follows on immediately after last week’s episode which can be found here

Odin stood up from the negotiating table, Gungnir in his hands.  He stared at Hel, but she did not flinch.
“There will be a a battle.” Odin told her in a flat voice “and you will lose.”

Hel just looked at the All Father, too stunned to reply.

“Come” Odin said to his entourage “We will leave now and prepare for battle.”
Thor and Sif fingered their weapons, anticipating the fight to come.

All eyes turned to Frigga, but it was her husband who spoke first.
“No?” he queried.
“Explain yourself, my queen.”

Frigga took a deep breath and commenced berating the All Father in front of two of his sons, and two goddesses.
“You are so set in your ways and ideas of how things must be. Why must they be like that? ‘Because legend’ isn’t a good reason, my king.”
She made air quotes, having learned in the past few minutes what they were for.

Thor, Sif, Hel, and Baldr looked on in amazement. None of them was used to seeing the All Father questioned by anyone, and the brother gods had never seen their parents disagree in front of them before. All were too stunned to say anything just yet. Mánagarmr still did not understand the words, hut he could sense the tension building and his hackles started to rise.

Odin was dumbfounded.
“You? You’re the one who’s been pulling the strings, helping these two in a futile attempt to change fate?”
“Yes. Why are you so surprised? You’re a stubborn king, and a strict father. It was easy enough to use a little obfuscation, some misdirection, a touch of deception, to keep everyone guessing. Even Loki didn't know it was me, so my campaign of disinformation worked better than I had dared hope it would.” Frigga’s voice rose several levels as she scolded her husband.

“There’s no call to bite my head off. Just tell me why.”
Before Frigga could reply, Mánagarmr leapt. As he soared towards the All Father, his jaws opened impossibly wide and they closed over Odin’s neck, decapitating him.

Thor and Sif had their weapons out in a heartbeat, preparing to strike the wolf, as Odin’s headless body slumped to the floor. Baldr drew his sword, not sure what he was going to do with it just yet. Hel began conjuring a whirlwind but didn’t get far.
Frigga’s voice cut through the chaos.
All the gods froze in their tracks, while Mánagarmr crunched bone.

“This was not how I expected things to go, but the outcome will have to suffice.”
“Mother, why? Father asked you that right before he died, and I think we’d all like to hear the answer.”
Frigga turned to her younger son.
“Your father was so engrossed in how the order of things had to be that he never considered there might be another way. A way that did not involve a mother sending her sons to their deaths.”

Hel and Sif nodded at this, understanding appearing on their faces.
Frigga continued her explanation, her sons both still showing no sign of understanding.
“I could not stand by and do nothing about my sons ‘inevitable’ doom. I had to try something to save you both. So, I persuaded your father to let the gods have some time on Midgard in mortal form and I set things up so you two would meet. I hoped, but could not be sure, you would fall for each other.”
She seemed pleased with herself for using air quotes.

Baldr still looked confused, but Hel had a smile as wide as Bifrost.
“You pushed Lofn towards us, hoping she would give us the nudge to get together?”

Frigga chuckled.
“I am Lofn, young goddess. But, yes, I pushed you a little. I did not see Mánagarmr taking things into his own jaws. I had hoped Odin could be persuaded out of his stubborn streak once he saw how committed you two were. I see now that was the flaw in my plan all along. He would never have relented.”

Thor spoke up.
“What happens now? Ragnarok will not be as it was written. What else might change?”

There was a sickening crunch from under the table, where Mánagarmr finally finished his meal.
Frigga considered her reply and spoke carefully, knowing her firstborn wasn’t the most mentally agile of the Aesir.
“You were the heir to the throne. Now, we must return to Asgard and you must take your place on the throne. It’s a little sooner than it should have been, but you have Sif and I to offer counsel, and your father’s example to follow. Not the stubborn parts, but the strong leadership parts of how your father ruled.

She turned to Hel and Baldr.
“ I see no reason for Baldr to leave here any time soon. He may stay here as long as you both wish it.”
Her next words were for Hel alone.
“You will, however, release the mortal skald. He doesn’t belong here and has his own afterlife to seek out.”
Hel nodded her agreement.

Thor looked at his wife, still perplexed.
“I don’t understand any of this.”
“Of course you don’t my lord. You’re a male. You could never understand that the strongest force in the nine realms is love, and the strongest love of all is that of a mother for her children.”

Frigga clapped her hands peremptorily.
“Time for us to leave. Thor, pick up your father’s body please. He deserves a proper funeral back on Asgard.”
Thor did as he was bid, and the Aesir left as quietly as they had arrived.

Hel turned to Baldr.
“Well, I guess that means these games are done. But I fear we won’t live ‘happily ever after.’” We have something beautiful now, but at the terrible price of your father’s life.
Baldr just nodded, still coming to terms with what had just happened.

This is not (quite) the end of the tale. There will be at least one more instalment.
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