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Copyright Ben Westerham 2018. All rights reserved.
Killer of Gnomes
The longer of the two routes that Anthony Sendall could take from his home to the newsagents took him away from the residential area in which he lived and along a narrow, dirt footpath that skirted the edge of a small copse of largely beech and hazel trees. The path meandered a little along its gently undulating course, lined on either side, in the early summer months, with thick clumps of white-headed cow parsley. Anthony didn’t much care for the smell of these plants, which was anything but sweet and pleasant, but he did appreciate the beauty of its appearance.
Although close to the dense concentration of housing he’d moments before left behind, Anthony always felt as though he could be deep in the countryside by the time he’d gone little more than a hundred yards along the path; the trees screening all but the occasional glimpse of a roof top to his left, while the main part of the wood to his right gave way to open farmland. As he walked, a sense of calm began to wash over him, as it invariably did, so he stopped under the shade of a huge, spreading copper beech, closed his eyes and gave himself over to the sounds of the woodland and the caress of the breeze on his skin. Heaven could hardly offer more.
After a quarter of a mile or so, the track made a sharp turn to the left. Anthony stopped a second time and took in the sight ahead of him. The track dropped away down a shallow incline where the tree canopy opened up so that large pools of sunlight were splashed across the woodland floor. A grey squirrel, rummaging at the base of a broken tree stump, saw him and scuttled up an oak. Bees and other flying insects he didn’t recognise drifted in and out of the pools of light, sometimes settling on a flower head before moving on in search of another.
He should have felt a deep sense of pleasure and contentment, but he didn’t. It had been several months since he’d been able to feel anything of the sort at that point on the path. He tried not to look to his left, where lay the cause of the annoyance and resentment that began to bubble up inside him. But with a perverse pleasure in the sense of unhappiness it gave him, Anthony’s head swivelled to the left and there they stood in all their vile, gaudy horror.
It had been perhaps five months previously when the first had appeared. A six inch-high, scarred and battered, red-hatted garden gnome holding a watering can had been placed on a raised patch of open ground a few feet in from the track. Ugly enough on its own, it had seemed to trigger some odd urge in members of the local population to add to it, repeatedly, until there were now around two dozen of the bloody things clustered around what some comedian had signposted as ‘Gnome Grotto’.
There were plastic ones, terracotta ones, ones holding fishing rods, ones brandishing gardening implements. There was even one flashing its bum, for God’s sake. Most had seen better times, but a handful looked new. That was even worse, to think some people had gone out and bought the sodding things especially.
He hated the damn things with a passion. Ugly, garish, a blot on the landscape. It was bad enough he had to put up with the ones his wife insisted on having in their back garden. They had been a source of resentment and disagreement. He’d hidden them once, in the back of his car, only to be forced into backtracking when his wife moved into the spare room rather than grace their own bed.
A surreptitious glance left, then right, confirmed he was alone, leaving him free to reach down to the ground and root out a large stone which, with a practised swing of the arm, he launched towards the grotto. A large, red-faced figure waving a hand in his direction exploded into half a dozen pieces. Anthony smiled, a deep sense of satisfaction warming him inside. Three down now. It was only a matter of time until the rest went the same way. A little patience and care, then all of the God awful things would be destroyed. He resumed his walk with a fresh skip in his step.
“Another one of those gnomes has been vandalised,” Anthony observed to his wife as he dropped the newspaper on to the kitchen table. “Broken to smithereens.”
“Really? That’s terrible. You’d think people would have some sort of respect for property. It’s such a happy little scene.”
Sharon Sendall cast a disapproving look in her husband’s direction as she filled the kettle.
“If you say so, dear.”
“I do. Lisa Bahia thinks we should put up a security camera. Hide it high up in one of the big trees. Apparently you can get battery-powered ones. Seems ridiculous you have to even think about going to such extremes to stop someone from vandalising something.”
“They’d probably spot the camera and smash that up too. Throw a brick at it, or something.”
“I suppose you’d rather they were all cleared away.”
It was an accusation not a suggestion, he knew. Denial wouldn’t do, diversion was called for.
“I may not like the things, but I’m not going to kick up a stink over them. Anyway, what time do you want to leave for the garden centre? The usual one, I assume.”
“You can drink your tea, then we’ll leave. There’s one or two things I want to pick up today and I’d like to pop into Tony and Andrea’s on the way back.”
He liked Tony and Andrea Rudge, so that would be fine. Best of all, Andrea disliked garden gnomes just as much he did. It was tempting to risk telling her his big secret; perhaps see if she would like to join in on the act. But, there again, that might take away some of his fun.
The walk through the woodland was a weekend only affair, there never being enough time on a working day, when getting out of the house before the traffic began to get really bad was hard enough. Which meant it was another six days before Anthony got another chance to assault the gnome grotto.
He left a full half hour early, not wanting to risk becoming predictable, in case others should work out who the vandal was. Some might have noticed there was almost a spring in his step, he realised, as he crossed the road and climbed the stile to gain access to the track. Enthusiastic was perhaps a little bit of an exaggeration; more like, keen. There was a growing sense of anticipation and satisfaction welling up as he strode away from civilisation.
With the sun hidden behind an unbroken wash of cloud, the air felt chilly in the shadow of the trees. Not far from the path, the undergrowth disappeared into shadows and darkness, in which anyone and anything could have been lurking. He took care to make sure, as best he could, that no one else was within sight.
The gnome he’d destroyed with such skill the week before had been removed, tidied away by willing hands. He would be sure to leave them with something to do after his latest visit. Annoyingly, two new monstrosities had been added to the scene; one a small, yellow-hatted gnome, the other a stone fairy, some ten to twelve inches high. It was little better than the rest.
A large stone came up freely from the ground. He ran a finger over its sharp edge, pleased at the prospect of what could be expected if it made contact with one of the terracotta gnomes. A magpie hopped out of the shadows on to the path twenty yards ahead of him. It stopped, looked up at him, then spread its wings and took flight, up into the tree tops opposite.
He swung his arm once, then twice as he made his mind up which of the hideous monsters to target, but something caught his eye and he stopped. There was a movement, fleeting but there, at the back of the grotto. He looked closely, leaning in to see better, but nothing else moved. A bird or a mouse, probably, lying low now, scared he might eat it. Stupid things.
As he pulled his arm back again, ready to unleash the stone at his chosen target, it slipped from between his fingers and fell to the ground. As he bent down to pick it up, a sound came from the grotto. If he didn’t know better, Anthony would have said it was a voice, only just audible, but definitely there. He looked again. There, at the very back, another movement, but again he couldn’t make out what it was. Maybe it wasn’t the wildlife after all, perhaps it was someone’s bloody cat. Stupid sodding things got everywhere, including the bird table in his back garden.
Curiosity got the better of him and he stepped into the grotto, peering with care towards the low-lying shadows at the back, half-expecting a screeching, wide-eyed cat to come flying out at any moment. If it got close enough, he’d kick the bloody thing.
Just there, at the base of a multi-stemmed, copsed hazel, amongst the leaf litter and broken twigs, there was something. Just out of sight. A little closer, leaning in. A sharp pain on his right cheek brought him upright with a start. Something moved to his right. He looked round.
His eyes saw, but his brain couldn’t process the image. Something flew through the air and hit him on the forehead. Pain. He brought a finger up to his head. When he held the finger out in front of his face there was a red stain on the tip of it. He looked again. A figure was standing on a branch at eye-level. It was hard to miss, but he wished he could have. It was unreal, unbelievable. But it was there. Either that or he had gone totally and utterly mad.
A small, rotund figure wearing a red, pointed hat stood with its hands on its hips, eyes ablaze with anger. Anthony flinched, alarmed by such a sight, if that was truly what it was. More movement in front of him. There stood another gnome on a branch higher still. Then another to his left. More and more movement, all around him now.
He went to step back, away from the threat, but his feet wouldn’t move. They couldn’t move. They were stuck hard in viscous, clinging mud that seemed to be rising up over his feet. Only it wasn’t the mud that was climbing, it was him who was sinking. Anthony struggled, but, try as he might, he couldn’t move. The confusion he already felt was soon joined by a growing sense of panic, his breath shortening and his heartbeat increasing.
A murmur rose up around him, drawing his attention back to the now dozens of small, podgy figures lined up along tree branches and bunched in menacing groups on the ground. Another stone hit him, this time on his chin, then a second and third, then a whole barrage rained in on him. He screamed for help, wild with fear, now knee-deep in the mud, but no one came. The pain, the terror, the confusion was a potent cocktail and it didn’t take long for his world to go black.
Sharon Sendall walked into the kitchen and placed her empty cup in the sink. As she ran the tape, she glanced out at the garden. The sun had found a gap in the cloud cover for the first time that morning and her little collection of three gnomes, standing in the front of a border down the far side of the patio, were bathed in light. They looked delightful and, if she hadn’t known better, she would have said they were smiling.
At about the same time, an elderly man walking his equally ancient dog stopped at the gnome grotto as was his custom on his daily walk. There, right in the middle, was a new addition. And what a splendid one it was. Around a foot tall, more slender than usual and with eyes so well painted they looked almost real. He chuckled to himself, then man and dog turned and continued on their way.
Shorts in the Dark
Every month you will find a new short story here, always with a darker criminal theme. Below is February's story. Enjoy!