A NOTE FROM OUR EDITOR
In the short story “A Deadly Diet,” we meet Scotsman Frank Biggins munching through his workday. He’s a hungry man who ventures from his desk to grab a carby snack and gets more than he pays for when he discovers a piece of his past in his newspaper-wrapped order of chips – or fries, as we call them on this side of the pond.
Author Wendy Robertson, who lives in Scotland, keeps the reader guessing about what might happen next. And isn’t that the muscle behind most crime stories? Who is on the deadly diet? What’s got Frank Biggins so agitated? What happens next? Robertson draws the reader with fine details, spunky dialogue and a killer plot.
That’s what we were looking for in our CRIME PAYS short story contest, and “A Deadly Diet” took the gold. Our guest judge, author David C. Taylor, whose crime novel Night Life is a noir page-turner, found Robertson’s story compelling and engaging, and we agree.
Congratulations to Robertson, and to second-place winner Orrin Hanratty with “All Things Are Connected” and third-place winner Judi Hill with “And Then – This Happened.” You can also find out more about Taylor’s work in a related interview in the November issue.
We hope you enjoy reading these stories and learning about the craft behind each. Let them inspire you to submit your story to our next contest, which you can also learn about here.
Frank Biggins swivelled his substantial frame ninety degrees and took a plastic box from his desk drawer. He drew back the lid and contemplated with a sigh the salad of wilting leaves, sliced tomato and quarters of grey-tinged, hard-boiled egg.
Taking up a plastic fork, he wolfed the food down in three mouthfuls then morosely snapped the lid back onto the empty box. Still hungry.
Turning to face his computer screen he pushed the mouse around clicking at electronic solitaire. It was no use. The inner voice craving saturated fat, salt and starch was too loud to ignore. “CHIPS!!”
He couldn’t help himself. In one move he stood, logged off his machine and grabbed the shiny jacket from the chair-back. In another he crossed the blue, industrial weave carpet of the mail room and was through the swing doors.
Five minutes later, Frank was drooling as a spotty girl with a pierced lip held the salt-shaker aloft.
“Sotnsoss?” He nodded with all the impatience of a junky waiting for a fix, immediately understanding the request for salt and sauce. The girl shook a plastic bottle and squirted the condiments onto the fries. She then expertly pleated the paper, forming a pocket in origami folds.
“Just leave it open, ta.”
This was one of the few chippies to still wrap its food in actual newspaper, not just blank, white paper. And one of the last frying in dripping. Makes much better chips.
Hot poke of chips in his hand, Frank’s mouth rejoiced with the texture of potato putty spiked with brown, vinegary sauce. After gulping down the first few hot pieces, he exhaled steam to cool his mouth, and slowly relished the remainder of the chips, making the pleasure last. He was looking forward to the little, crunchy crumbs hiding in the folds.
He dragged his plump finger along the base of the pack to gather the last of the salt and the crispy bits. He peered in to make sure he’d got them all. His eye caught something familiar. He squinted closer at a blurry image. It couldn’t be. In a trice he had unfolded the paper to scrutinise the photograph. It was her. It said so clearly in the caption underneath. Maureen Biggins.
“After all these bloody years!”
Frank sat down heavily on a bench. His heart pounded almost out of his chest, breath coming in short bursts as he loosened his BHS tie and tried to focus.
“MISSING HOUSEWIFE RETURNS FROM THE DEAD,” yelled the headline above a picture of two grinning women in typical tabloid pose. Maureen’s hand gripped a bottle of Lambrusco and next to hers another face Frank recognized: Sandra, Maureen’s sister, the bane of his half-remembered life.
“Maureen Biggins disappeared fifteen years ago has now returned to her Leith home,” Frank read. “She was reunited yesterday with sister, Sandra, who said: ‘It’s like Christmas come early. We’re going to have the best party ever.’ Maureen was last seen in her local corner shop in September 1995. Husband Frank was interviewed by police but was never charged.”
Frank sat in the snug of the Stockbridge Arms, a dram of Scotch in front of him. His third. The hum of quiet conversation, the faint smell of frying food – all familiar, but nothing could calm him.
As he thought back fifteen years, a range of emotions flowed through him as he shredded the card beermat. All those years of smouldering fear and rage at the injustice seeped back into his consciousness, like water running over the cracks of a dry river bed.
The dingy interview room; the cold, mistrusting expression in the eyes of the ‘bizzies’ questioning him; the kids in the neighbourhood targeting the windows of his flat so often he eventually left MDF boards there; the silences that fell whenever he walked into his local shop. No one ever saying anything to his face.
Lonely Christmases and Bank Holidays spent with only the moorland bird and sometimes his one loyal pal, Wee Malky, for company. Although Malky drove him nearly demented with his constant fidgeting, Frank had no choice unless he wanted a social life based on conversations with Doris at his work.
From time to time Malky made his way up Leith Walk and they’d go to one of the pubs where the regulars knew the story alright but weren’t likely to recognize Frank. Not the Frank of today, at any rate. His weight had doubled over the years. At least the comforts of fried food never let him down. They’d stopped talking about ‘it’ long ago. But Malky was a good pal, so Frank wasn’t surprised when his mobile phone screen lit up with the name ‘Malky.’
Malky approached Frank’s spot in the pub’s padded booth, pushing the baseball cap back off his ferrety face. Frank reluctantly complied with a fist bump.
“You’re looking well, pal,” said Malky. “You were always big-boned though.”
They sat in the booth – Laurel and Hardy with a pint each of eighty shilling. Sitting still was difficult for Malky. His nickname was ‘Gottago’ for a reason.
“You heard the news then?” Frank finally ended the small talk of Hibs’ latest disaster. Malky was relieved his friend raised the subject.
“Aye, I did ’n’aw.”
“You seen her, like?” asked Frank.
“Saw her in the park yesterday when I was clearing up. Those kids are mucky buggers.” Pause. “You gonnae meet up with her?”
“Dunno. She ask about me?”
“Aye, she did. Asked where you stay noo.”
“You tell ‘er?”
“Nae details, like. Other side of town’s all I said,” Malky swallowed, nervous.
“Where’d she been, then?”
“Australia. Says she had amnesia. And then she ended up over there, met some bloke and started a new life.”
“Aye right. What a load of bollocks. How’d she know to come back tae Edinburgh?”
“Someone saw her photo on a website. They told her sister. You ken Sandra?”
“How could I forget that cow? She was the one that caused all the trouble. Spreading stories all over.”
“Just like that canoe man, eh? Sandra went to the paper and they paid fer her to get over there and bring her back. So they could get the exclusive, like.”
“Oh aye? Good of them to let ME ken.”
“They’d nae idea where you were, like. I’ve never telt. Thought you wanted me to keep schtum.”
“She’s staying at Sandra’s. If you are going over there here’s the key to the lift. The council’s fed up spending money cleaning it. So they say it’s not workin’.”
Later Frank lay in bed, thinking. “I’d be out by now. Life only means fifteen years.”
He lifted the lift key from his bedside table.
Next morning as Frank got off the bus he could see the tower block rising up behind Victorian tenements. The grey, 1970s pebbledash still clung to the walls. Tags in red spray paint added to the welcoming decor. Frank could see Malky on the other side of a smokey bonfire, raking up leaves, but he was too busy to notice Frank.
Frank stared in disbelief at the nappy full of baby waste that had landed on the ground in front of him, breaking its tapes on impact, just missing his shoes.
“Not just the kids who’re mucky buggers,” Frank muttered, looking up at the concrete tower above him.
The open stairway was damp with footprints and with something else Frank didn’t want to investigate. Sure enough the lift had an out of order sign. But Frank decided to take the stairs. He wanted time to prepare.
As he climbed, wind blew through the open stairway just as in the old days. Long blocked-out memories of a courtship, the excitement of new married life all swam into his thoughts. Happiness before her drinking and carrying on with other men, while he just worked and worked, taking as much overtime as he could so one day he could buy her a house.
Puffing and panting, Frank walked along the balcony. He stopped for a minute to catch his breath, to wipe dripping sweat off his top lip before he knocked on the pale blue door. It still had the dent in it from when she’d locked him out and he’d had to shoulder it in. He never did find out if Gary from The Ship was there.
The door was thrown open and there, in a cloud of fag fumes, stood Sandra. The years and the smokes had drawn deep lines round her mouth. She still had the same glinting eyes of a chancer, thought Frank.
As realisation dawned on her, Sandra folded her arms defensively over her chest. “Was that guilt?” Frank wondered.
“It’s yerself,” she said, unwelcoming, a cigarette gripped between the Argos gold of her right hand.
“Aye,” he nodded. A difficult pause. “She in?”
“I’ll see. Stay there.”
Frank looked down the small hallway of the flat. The same cheap prints decorated the walls, the one of the bare-chested man holding a baby.
He remembered the criticisms. Always on his case. You know what they say about a wedding ceremony? The bridegroom stands gazing at his bride thinking: “I hope she’ll never change.” And the wife looks over at the husband thinking: “How soon will he change?”
Muffled chat from the lounge brought him back to the present. He raised his coat collar up and looked out at the smudged clouds closing in. When he turned back Maureen was there. She looked the same, but different. He realised he’d never seen her with a tan.
“Hiya,” said Frank. “How’re you doing?”
“Fine.” She managed a feeble smile.
“Fancy a chat?”
“Just stuff. You know – catch up.”
She looked back into the flat, unsure.
“What harm could it do? You owe me that.”
“Och, all right. I’ll get my coat.” She went back inside.
Low voices. He supposed Sandra was trying to talk her out of it.
“What else I’m going to do in this weather?” he heard.
“We’ll just be down at The Ship.”
She walked towards him, pulling on her coat. She pulled the door shut and they set off along the balcony. Rain was slanting in. Frank stopped at the lift doors.
“Broken,” she said.
“Wee Malky gave me his key,” says Frank, bringing out the round piece of metal.
“It’ll be drier in there.”
Inside the lift, Maureen pressed herself into the corner of the metal box while Frank hit the button for the ground floor. The lift started to descend. They didn’t speak. After two floors, Frank pressed the stop button.
“What you doing?” asked Maureen, her little black eyes darting around.
Frank said nothing. He reached into his pocket and brought out a small foil bag. Maureen spied the silver wrapper and her eyes widened in disbelief. Frank planted his feet solidly in the centre of the lift, pulling open the sides of the bag.
“No, don’t. You cannae do that. I’ve got my pen.” She started scrabbling in her pocket for the life-saving shot of adrenaline. But the aroma of peanuts filled the confined space, her breath was short and gaspy and the yellow cartridge fell to the floor. She slid down after it. Her throat started to swell, blocking off air, blocking off life. It took only a couple of minutes for her to fall unconscious, slowly die and all without a mark on her.
Frank picked up the Epipen and calmly pressed the ground floor button once again.
A minute later, he walked past the playground pouring the packet of peanuts down his throat. He could see Malky still sweeping. As Frank passed Malky’s bonfire, he dropped the pen cartridge into the empty foil bag and threw the whole thing onto the blazing leaves.
Waving to his friend, Frank said to himself: “Ah well. The diet starts tomorrow.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Scottish-born Wendy Robertson spends most of the year in Edinburgh down the street from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s birthplace. This is her first published short story.
“I cannot lie: This is my first attempt at writing crime,” she says. “I agree with more established writers who say crime stories are actually a peg to hang stories about our world and the human experience.”
Read the full interview with Robertson here.
NOTES FROM THE JUDGE, DAVID C. TAYLOR
“A DEADLY DIET” is a well-written and well-constructed story. The prose is straight-forward and clear, the kind of writing that appears effortless but is the result of hard work. The dialogue is very good. I am no expert on the Scottish dialect, but it rings true. The descriptive details are precise. The reader is in the chips shop with Frank while the “spotty girl with the pierced lip” serves him. The characters come through clearly and are distinct from each other, a hallmark of good writing.
It is a story that could be set in any city, but I appreciate the added edge that setting it in Edinburgh gives it. The foreignness of the setting coupled with the dialect adds to its verisimilitude.
“Later Frank lay in bed, thinking. ‘I’d be out by now. Life only means fifteen years.’” This is a bit of foreshadowing of what is to come. This is a tricky thing to deal with correctly. If you tell the reader too much, you spoil the pleasurable surprise at the end. If you tell too little, you do not provoke anticipation of any kind. It is a fine line to walk.
The ending is very good. Would it be better if we knew that Maureen had always been peculiar about food, that she had harped on diet constantly? Would it add to the irony? How will Frank explain to the cops that he was the last person seen with Maureen alive? Does it matter?
Read “All Things Are Connected” by Orrin Hanratty, the second prize winner.
Read “And Then – This Happened” by Judi Hill, the third prize winner.
For the chance to have your short story published in The Writer, check our contest listings for details.