Note from the Author:
I wrote this as a fun extra that originally appeared in the back of In the Doodoo with Voodoo. If the story seems familiar, it’s because it is told from the perspective of Tempest in another book. Honestly, I thought I was being clever telling it from more than one viewpoint, and was surprised when people started complaining.
I removed it and thought I had eliminated all traces, however I clearly failed because it has now become something that gets whispered about – a secret story that no one can find. So here it is, a short story told through Big Ben’s eyes. I hope you enjoy it.
The Grounds of Leeds Castle. Saturday, November 5th 1917hrs
Tempest had wanted to get there early, he was worried parking would be difficult later in the evening and since he was offering to drive, I offered no resistance to his plan. I only just fit into his car though. He drives this stupid Porsche Boxster thing, which he loves, but it is not designed for proper men like me. I’ll admit it is sleek and sporty and it sure shifts when he stomps on the pedal. I could never own one though because I like to be able to drive without having to crank my head to the side because the roof is too low.
Tempest claims that I am freakishly tall. I just think I am a more advanced version of man; better looking, taller, stronger, better in bed – you get the picture. I think that is why girls like me. They see me as a wise choice in the process of selecting a mate. Since I am clearly more visible than other men, purely by dint of being twenty-five percent larger, but also far more handsome than those around me, I am the obvious choice for them to make.
What’s that? Haven’t I introduced myself? Seriously? How is it that you could possibly not know who I am? I’m famous, baby. I am the studlicious man-muffin you have been craving. Unless you are a guy, of course, in which case, sorry about shagging your girlfriend, which if it hasn’t happened yet, trust me, it is only a matter of time.
My name is Ben Winters, but everyone calls me Big Ben. Yes, like the clock. Although, of course, not like the clock at all because it is a bell inside the clock tower that is called Big Ben. The clock tower is just called the Elizabeth Tower, which is ironic in itself because there I am, inside a woman again. Anyway, I grew to be six-feet-seven and one-quarter inches tall and I weigh in at a very lean two hundred and forty-six pounds.
So, why am I telling you all this? Just setting the scene, sweets. As I tell you this tale I am sure you will want to imagine me correctly. The rest of the characters are entirely secondary, so they can just be blobs in your imagination. Focus on me, that’s the thing to remember.
Punctual as always, Tempest rolled up outside my building, where I occupy the penthouse suite, at 1900hrs exactly. Like me, he learned timekeeping in the Army. Unlike me, he is still rigid about it whereas I have a more relaxed approach to it and just about everything else.
‘How’s the body?’ he asked as I slid into his car’s plush interior. He was referring to some rather rough treatment I had endured at the hands of a family engaged in voodoo practices just a little more than twenty-four hours ago. I was probably lucky that I had no broken bones.
Rather than talk about the extent of my injuries I replied flippantly with, ‘Lean, tanned, muscular and handsome. Damned handsome.’
‘Of course,’ he replied dryly. Tempest and I had met in Iraq in 2003. There was war-fighting to do, so although the conflict itself was quite brief, we got into a few scrapes and had gotten into a few since. We had known each other long enough that he didn’t really expect me to open up and tell him how I was feeling.
‘Is anyone else going tonight?’ I asked, meaning other people from his circle that I might know.
‘No. I don’t think so. I didn’t discuss it with anyone.’
‘Why are we going again?’
‘Because you said it was a great place to pick up girls and, as you all too frequently point out, I am hopelessly single.’
‘Well, it is. If you are me. Anywhere that I am is instantly a great place to pick up girls.’
Tempest swivelled his head to look at me in the darkened space of his car’s interior. ‘You are such a dick.’
I laughed. ‘Don’t worry, mate. There are bound to be some cast-offs for you to pick from.’
‘Utter, utter dick,’ he concluded.
He was right about the parking. The car park was full when we got there, but they had made provision for the extra influx of visitors this evening so there was a dozen or more staff directing the line of traffic into a field where the cars were being lined up.
Leaving the car behind, we followed the line of pedestrians through grass in need of a cut, in a direction we both knew the castle to be. Leeds Castle is one of those magical places that looks like it belongs in a fairy-tale. Tempest could probably tell you when it was built and by who. However, I never try to commit such trivia to memory. It was surrounded by a moat with beautiful gardens stretching from it in every direction. At night, it was lit from within, both the rooms of the castle itself and the courtyard outside, and also from outside by ground-mounted floodlights pointing up at the walls.
I think this is why girls are so easy to pick up here. The castle, especially at night, makes them reminisce about childhood dreams of fairy tale weddings and men on white horses. Whatever the case, I was expecting to score.
The fireworks were due to start at 2000hrs, the mountainous bonfire was to be lit as part of a ceremony at 1945hrs. We had a good twenty plus minutes to scout around, get a drink, and spot some girls.
‘Gin tent,’ Tempest announced next to me. He was pointing to our left, where a flag with the Fevertree logo could be seen waving in the sky.
I smacked my lips together envisaging the divine taste. ‘Yes, please. Make mine a double,’ I requested as I produced a crisp twenty pound note from my pocket.
‘Top man,’ Tempest replied as he took it. ‘Where will you be?’
Ahead of me was a young lady in some rather saucy cosplay steampunk wear. Tight leather britches, a bodice, and stockings that met ankle boots. Her figure was enough to get my attention but then I noticed she was not alone.
She had a similarly dressed friend with her. Bonus!
Both girls were standing next to Guys – the tradition Guy Fawkes life-size cloth doll. I remembered seeing them about when I was a child. Teenagers, mostly, would make the effigies to display in town where they would encourage people passing by to give a penny for the Guy. The rate had probably increased in the prevailing years and the two Playboy Bunny-looking ladies in front of me could charge what they liked. Their Guys were arranged upright on large sack barrows, their heads and arms hanging loose with nothing inside to hold them up. Each Guy was wearing a t-shirt displaying the name of a charity and the girls both carried collection buckets to collect loose change.
‘I’ll be over there,’ I said pointing at the two honeys, ‘scoring.’
‘I bet burgers at The Oak that you’ll strike out.’ Tempest wagered. Hmmm, interesting. I loved the burgers at The Oak on the Green. They were filling and fabulous.
‘Challenge accepted,’ Tempest hurried toward the gin tent as I eyed up my prey.
I almost felt sorry for the two ladies, but then I remembered all the fun I had in store for them and started feeling happy for them instead. They had really got lucky tonight. I ambled towards them but did not take a direct route as I wanted to give them time to spot me, nudge each other and begin talking about me. It was an old technique. It cut down the work I would need to do to make them feel comfortable with abandoning whatever plans they had to come home with me instead.
Walking by a stall selling t-shirts, I stopped. The perfect opportunity. I selected one at random, made sure it was XL so that it would be crazy tight on me, then took a step back into the open field and stripped to the waist so I could try it on. I was very careful not to glance their way but made sure I got a lot of attention from girls that were close to me.
I asked a trio of ladies in their thirties if they thought I needed a bigger size and relished their admiring looks. I get that I am really shallow and narcissistic. But, trust me, if you saw this when you looked in the mirror, you would be just like me.
I thanked the stall-holder, a man in his forties whose late teenage daughter was smiling at me as I got dressed again. I had to wait for the customer in front to pay, which was taking some time because the man could not find his wallet. He was becoming increasingly agitated as he searched his pockets for the third time and because his wife was failing to accept that something might have happened to it. She kept telling him to check again because it must be there. In the end, they stepped to one side so someone else could be served. The garment cost me a tenner, which I handed over gladly for an XXL version of the same shirt.
I turned back toward the girls, but they were no longer there. I looked around for them, not about to be denied my quarry just because it was a moving target and spotted them through the crowd maybe fifty yards to my left.
They had moved fast.
Hold on though. As I walked in their direction, I saw that it was two different cosplay-wearing, steampunk hot chicks. They were dressed similarly to the first two but also different. I spotted it because the first two girls were gorgeous but quite small breasted. One of the two girls I was now walking towards was standing side on to me and had enough chest that she would have trouble seeing where she was walking.
Well, two girls were two girls. I had no plan to learn their names or to remember them beyond tomorrow morning so these two would be as much fun as the other two. Unless they were somehow all connected and I could get all four!
Now that was something I hadn’t done for a while.
‘Hey, ladies.’ I gave them my best smile as I approached. One whispered something to the other then turned her attention to me.
‘Collecting for Gillingham hospital. Give generously please,’ she suggested with a smile. The smile was not what I usually get though, it seemed more professionally forced, rather than filled with awe, wonder, and hope.
I reached for my wallet anyway. ‘Sure.’ I deposited a new twenty pound note through the hole in the top of her bucket. Doing so, I maintained eye contact with her – the lion staring down at the zebra while subconsciously licking my lips. ‘Is this a regular thing for you?’ I asked. It was time to make conversation.
The question caught her by surprise though and she struggled to answer it. Her friend spoke up instead.
‘First time. Isn’t that right, Cheryl?’
Cheryl shot her a harsh look and growled something at her quietly enough that I could not hear.
Cheryl’s friend looked taken aback but recovered and shrugged.
‘Yes, our first time,’ agreed Cheryl reluctantly.
I pressed on, even though they were acting a little strange. Maybe they had suffered a falling out earlier but had already committed to the charitable work so were trying to see it through. I could make them forget about what was troubling them if they gave me the chance. ‘Are the outfits yours? They are very good.’
‘We hired them from a fancy-dress shop,’ Cheryl replied. She was talking to me, yet with no enthusiasm. It was most unusual. Normally, by now girls were gushing.
‘Are you here with other friends? I thought I saw two more ladies dressed like you earlier.’
The two girls looked at each other, worry etched on their faces. ‘Are you the Police?’ the one that wasn’t Cheryl asked.
‘Why? Are you a bad girl?’ I asked, a cheeky expression on my face. Normally, this would generate a flirty smile in response although occasionally it failed, and I knew to abandon my quest at that point. Now though, the two girls looked like rabbits caught in headlights as if they just didn’t get what I had said. ‘No, I am not with the Police,’ I answered flatly, just to be clear.
They both breathed a genuine sigh of relief. I was getting confused. I never had to work this hard to pick up a pretty girl.
‘Ladies, I have to ask: Are you lesbians?’ I had no issue with women that were wired up to like other women and were thus immune to my obvious charms. I only wanted to know so that I could move on knowing that I had not actually failed but had been playing with the wrong cards.
‘No, we most certainly…’ Cheryl’s friend started, but shut up when Cheryl thumped her hard on her arm.
‘Yes, we are,’ said Cheryl. She was lying though, and I didn’t know why.
I turned my attention away from the two honeys, still unsure what had just happened. It felt like the ol’ love gun was firing blanks. I fixed my face quickly though when I spotted that Tempest had two rather attractive looking ladies with him. One Chinese, I suspected, the other possible Caribbean but both dressed in quality clothing appropriate for a cool night outdoors in a field – low-heeled boots and jeans with a coat on top. Despite the layers they both looked fit like they were gym regulars and were probably in their early thirties.
Thank you, Tempest. These two will do nicely. Now, where’s yours?
Approaching me, Tempest drew their attention my way. ‘Ladies, this is my good friend Big Ben. Please be warned that he may try to chat you up. Ben this is Louise and Angela.’
Tempest handed me a large plastic cup thing with a lid on it. It was full of gin, tonic, ice, and cucumber. Tempest and the two ladies each had one from which they were drinking.
‘Good evening, ladies. A pleasure to meet you,’ I replied, giving them a killer smile that I had perfected through many hours of practice so that it showed masculinity combined with a hint of feral wildness but a sense that the man behind it could be trusted. ‘How did Tempest entice you to join him?’ I was genuinely curious as Tempest hardly ever managed to pick up women.
‘He bought our drinks,’ Louise the saucy oriental lady explained.
Tempest clarified, ‘They were in front of me in the queue but their purses both seem to have been lifted. They had already been served their drinks, so I picked up the bill while they did the online bank, cancel your card thing.’
‘You were very generous,’ Angela acknowledged. ‘I’m just glad I wasn’t carrying much cash.’
‘Me too,’ said Louise. ‘It will be a pain without any cards for a couple of days. Why do pickpockets have to target family events?’
‘Because they know people bring cash and are often tipsy from the beer or gin tent and habitually do not pay attention,’ I replied.
I patted my own pocket to reassure myself that my wallet was still there. It was. I remembered the chap at the t-shirt stall though. His wallet had gone and now these two ladies had suffered the same. It felt like there must be quite a team of thieves in operation here tonight.
‘Everything alright, Ben?’ Tempest asked.
Before I could answer, there was a loud whumpf noise as the fire was lit and it hungrily sucked in air from all around. Whatever accelerant they had applied to the dry timber was consumed in a half second as the flames lit the sky, light bouncing back down off the low clouds.
‘Ooh!’ exclaimed Louise.
I checked my watch. They were right on time, which meant the fireworks would start soon. I felt Tempest’s hand on my sleeve and looked down. He had moved away from the two ladies, who were now stood talking a few feet away and watching the flames above the heads of the crowd.
‘You okay?’ he asked.
I realised I had not answered his earlier question. ‘Fine, mate.’
‘So, what happened with the two steampunk girls? I took so long getting gin and helping the two ladies that I figured you would have shagged at least one of them by the time I returned, but there you were still talking to them. And they looked bored.’
‘Yeah. It was weird. I felt like they were too focused on something else to notice me. I can’t really explain it to you because that’s what you get all the time.’
‘You are such a nosher,’ he replied. ‘And it’s two-nil currently.’
‘Talking to girls doesn’t count, silly. How many times do I have to explain that? You want to brag, then bring me their knickers. Before we leave here tonight that is.’
‘Christ,’ Tempest mumbled. ‘You could speak a little more quietly, you know. There will be no collecting of undergarments, thank you. I will have a pleasant evening and leave them my business card. They can choose to call me if they are interested.’
‘That’s your tactic?’ I scoffed. ‘No wonder you never get any.’
‘I got some last week in Cornwall, thank you very much. Twice, in fact.’
I considered that news for a moment. ‘No, you didn’t.’
‘Yes. I did, dickhead.’
‘Okay, I’ll bite. What is her name? When are you seeing her again?’ Let’s see how quickly his story falls apart now.
In a bored, distracted way, Tempest said, ‘Roberta Masonberg and she is in jail now, so I will not be seeing her again.’
He was telling the truth! Maybe he had been listening to some of my lessons. Then I thought of something. ‘Hold on. Did you get lucky because you were there by yourself? Was that your tactic? Increase your chances by leaving me behind?’
‘I realise that I may begin sounding like a broken record through constantly repeating myself. However, I feel I must once again point out that you are an absolute nosher.’
His reply made me laugh hard. I love winding Tempest up. ‘Seriously though, mate. Louise and Angela are attractive young ladies. You should pick one now so that I don’t end up shagging the one you want.’
Tempest shook his head and wandered back to them. I had done all I could. If they both threw themselves at me, it would not be my fault. I was still scratching my head about the two steampunk ladies. I looked around for them, but it was the original two that I spotted. They had moved over by the crowd that lined the barrier erected to keep the people a safe distance from the fire. As I watched them, they moved along the line of people’s backs, undoubtedly trying to target as many of the crowd as possible while they collected for their charity.
Which Gillingham hospital though? Now that I thought about it, their chosen charity didn’t sound right. There were several hospitals in Gillingham, including the big A&E. So, which one were they collecting for?
I walked in their direction, thinking I would start a new conversation with these two. I could clear up my question about the charity, which would undoubtedly have a rational explanation and maybe save Tempest some heartache by taking one or both of these ladies home instead. I had to stop though, so a pair of uniformed police officers could run in front of me.
One was yelling into his lapel microphone. I caught the word dipper, which I knew to be their slang for a pickpocket. There was clearly one or more operating here tonight then, and they were doing well for themselves. Maybe it was an organised gang.
A whizzing noise split the air as the first fireworks took off. I glanced automatically at the sky as they began exploding in reds, blues and green to an accompaniment of oohs and aahs from the crowd, and squeals of delight from small children.
I could not remember if I had ever been excited about fireworks as a child, but it failed to excite me now. When you have seen a regiment of artillery firing thousands of illumination shells over a city at night so advancing forces can spot the enemy, well… let’s just say everything else just pales by comparison.
I took my eyes off the sky but realised that what I had really done was take them off the prize. My steampunk girls with their Guys were nowhere to be seen. I turned around and went back to where I’d left Tempest with Louise and Angela, but they were not there, and, in the crowd, I could not see them despite my elevated viewing point. Unlike me, Tempest does not stand out.
As I scanned around, I saw two more uniformed police officers running across the field. I started running myself to intercept them. I got in front of them and held out my hands for them to stop. They both looked young to be in the police; perhaps they were fresh from the academy or something.
‘Chaps, are you after some pickpockets?’ I asked them. They didn’t answer, but it was clear from their expressions that they were. ‘I have a theory about that actually.’
‘Leave it to the professionals, sir,’ the older one of the two said as he started moving again. He and his partner passed either side of me and vanished into the crowd, dismissing me as they went.
‘Right then,’ I said to myself. Twenty yards away was a tent serving hot dogs and burgers, next to it was a roll-top wheelie bin for customers and probably the stall holders to put their rubbish in. I jogged across to it, closed the lid, much to the surprise of a middle-aged woman with four children that was about to dump an armful of trash into it, and climbed on top.
The extra five feet had the desired effect. I had a great field of vision now. To my right, where the fireworks were going up, were maybe half a dozen police in uniform all gathered in one place. I looked for Tempest but could still not spot him. Picking one person out of a crowd in the dark was like playing a live version of Where’s Waldo where the figures keep moving. I changed my focus. It took a few seconds, but I found the steampunk girls. The two pairs were not far apart. Each of the dolly birds dragging or pushing the guy on its sack barrow.
Huh. Guys and Dolls.
I jumped down and tried to keep them in my sight as I made my way as fast as I could through the crowd. I bumped a couple, nearly ran into a dawdling toddler that surely should have been either holding a hand or attached umbilically to a parent somehow and had to jump over it for fear I was just going to kick it if I didn’t.
I emerged from a group of bodies and there was Cheryl and her friend with the impressive chest. I stopped running. There was something dodgy going on with them. They had been concerned that I might be police and I had wondered if their charity was real. These things I could dismiss, but that fact that neither had given me their phone number or address… or knickers for that matter, was the clue ringing all my alarm bells.
I stopped short and just watched. They were targeting people, men, women, families, groups of teenagers. Their appearances, stuffed as they were into saucy outfits with their boobs hiked high, was getting the attention of more men than women, but I did not see them commit a crime as I watched. I could see their hands from my vantage point, for the most part, they stayed on the handle of the buckets each held.
Just as I was telling myself I had jumped to a wrong conclusion, I saw something that my brain dismissed as impossible.
The guy moved.
Not much, but I was sure I hadn’t imagined it. I moved closer but now I was watching the stuffed, floppy bundle of clothing each girl was pushing along with them. I could see straw sticking out of the neck and sleeves. The arms ended with old, mismatched woollen gloves. The legs were shod in tatty, charity-shop trousers which terminated in wellington boots and the heads looked bulbous as if it was a balloon inside. Each had a mask covering the face and a wig on top.
I was no longer fooled though. Each Guy had a man inside. No one was paying them any close attention and the eyes of the people the girls spoke to were on their faces, or in the case of most of the men, their boobs. The man inside the Guy, undoubtedly peeking out through the mask’s eyeholes, was able to watch where the victim put their wallet or purse and then snag it as they turned away. They hadn’t got mine because it was in my inner jacket pocket and too high to be easily snatched.
It was a slick operation.
I checked around, but there were no police to be seen. I would have to spoil their game myself.
I strode up to Cheryl. ‘Hello again.’ I smiled. She gawped at me, once again looking worried. ‘The game’s up, I’m afraid.’
Before she could reply, two small girls, twins given their matching outfits, height, and looks, had dragged daddy over to see the Guys and the fancily dressed ladies. Daddy didn’t mind one little bit.
‘Look, daddy,’ one said. ‘It’s Guy Fawkes. Only, aren’t they supposed to go on top of the bonfire before it is lit?’
‘Yes, they are,’ I interrupted to reply before one of the ladies could. ‘It’s not too late though is it?’ I asked, locking eyes with Cheryl.
‘Err…’ Cheryl’s eyes were wide with panic.
‘Mind if I borrow this?’ I plucked a metal badge from the nearest little girl’s jacket, folded out the pin in the back and jabbed it into the Guy’s head. I expected a sharp shout of pain or a swearword perhaps. I had not expected the head to pop though.
It was a balloon.
‘Oi, what’s your game?’ the little girl’s father asked.
Without looking his way, I handed him the badge then poked the Guy’s chest. It felt like straw inside. I grabbed the right arm around the bicep and squeezed. There was nothing inside it but straw.
The little girl began crying. Then, as always happens when a tall man is stood next to a bawling child, the focus of the crowd began to shift to me.
People moved nearer. I glanced at Cheryl. She was looking triumphant.
Around me, people were asking what had happened and trying to make sense of what the little girl was saying. The father accused me of attacking his precious daughter, saying it loud enough that it drew even more people in.
‘What seems to be the problem here?’ I turned to find the new voice was coming from the young police officer that had dismissed me a few minutes ago.
He looked me up and down, then made a space in the crowd. ‘Perhaps you had better come with me, sir.’
The crowd of onlookers started applauding.
I hesitated, my right leg twitched as it started to turn in the direction he was indicating, but this was not how I felt the evening should go. There was something amiss with these two ladies.
‘Sir?’ the young officer said with a little more insistence.
‘No,’ I replied. Then in one fluid motion, I bent down, grasped the bottom of the sack barrow the Guy was on and lifted the whole thing above my head.
It said, ‘Arrrghh!’ from about nine feet in the air. The moment I engaged my muscles to lift it, I knew I was right because it was far too heavy to be filled with straw.
The voice was that of a child though, so my plan to launch the Guy across the heads of the crowd was dismissed and I set it back on the ground. With a sea of stunned faces around me, I crouched and found the split in the middle of the Guy.
Cheryl piped up, ‘Here, can you two do your job and get rid of this idiot. He’s going to ruin my Guy.’ She must have been hoping that the child’s voice hadn’t carried from inside the fake Guy. She made to grab my arm, trying to stop me, and the young police officer stepped forward to do likewise.
As he went for my arm, I ripped off the top half off of the Guy and there inside was a boy of about nine or ten. All around him were purses and wallets stuffed into the hollow compartment that formed the legs.
It was genius.
Cheryl took off at a sprint, her friend with the boobs hot on her heels, and pushing the sack barrow with her Guy in front of her.
I looked at the two stationary police officers incredulously. ‘You might want to stop them?’ I suggested.
Like a switch being activated, one slapped the other on the arm and they both took off.
‘Don’t forget the other two,’ I called after them.
Still trapped in the bottom half of the Guy suit, the boy was now trying to clamber out but was held in place by all the pilfered purses and wallets. I placed a gentle hand on his shoulder and shook my head when he looked up at me.
Now, where is Tempest? I hadn’t seen him in a while. The fireworks were drawing to a grand finale and soon the event would be over. No doubt he would claim that he won the bet and I was buying supper, but fair was fair I suppose.
‘That was impressive.’ I looked up to find a woman standing right in front of me. She had long blond hair, woven into a ponytail and hooked over her left shoulder where it sat in the hood of her coat. She looked Scandinavian and must have been six feet two inches tall or maybe slightly more than that.
‘It was, wasn’t it?’ I echoed, laughing as I spoke so she would know I was joking.
‘Care to buy me a drink?’ she asked.
Fixing her with a grin, I asked, ‘Do you have a plan for the night? Because I think I can do better than a drink.’
She smiled coyly, and that, folks, is how Big Ben operates.