Here is my own offering to the writing challenge I set. A special thanks to Rose Inink for some useful tips and Tim McLean for his editorial skills
The Killer Orchard
Over the last few years, the yield from my orchard had been noticeably dropping. I couldn’t understand it. The trees blossomed and budded just fine, the apples grew and ripened with great promise, but when it came to harvesting the fruit, the size of the crop had diminished dramatically.
My first instinct was to blame it on pests; birds, maybe, or a roaming herd of wild deer. I searched, but I could find no excess bird droppings, nor any deer spores.
After three years of low quotas, the bank was starting to make noises about my overdraft. I met the bank manager, agreed to re-mortgage the farmhouse, and contacted a local security firm for assistance.
I explained my predicament and they gave me a quote for the latest state of the art security system. I nearly died when I saw the price.
“I can’t afford that,” I protested.
“It’s a big area of land to cover,” their salesman pointed out. “It’ll take a lot of manpower. Reliable security doesn’t come cheap these days.”
“What about an automated system?” I asked.
He totted up the figures and presented me with a new bill. It was worse than the first one.
“You can’t be serious!” I whined.
“This gear is expensive,” the salesman insisted.
“But I only need it for a couple of weeks, just until the harvest comes in,” I pleaded.
After a lot of humming and hawing, he took me aside and in hushed conspiratory tones, he confided, “Listen mate, I know a guy who knows a guy who can let you have a few things second hand, like; enough to sort out your little problem. They’ll be on hire, mind you, so don’t break anything or you’ll be paying the full whack for any replacements. How’s that sound?”
I readily agreed. It was still expensive, but it was a lot less than the original quotes had been.
I would have to solve this problem, once and for all. I couldn’t afford to lose another harvest.
I set up a camp bed in one of the farm’s outhouses, close to the orchards, and had them feed the CCTV cameras into it. As harvest time drew near, I hid out there each night, cradling my shotgun in the crook of my arm. I drank copious amounts of strong coffee, watching the monitors for any signs of the pests.
One night, I must have drifted off in the small hours before dawn. I was jolted awake by the blaring of the klaxons I’d had installed. Something must have triggered the infrared sensors that had been placed around the perimeter of the orchard.
The trees were suddenly lit up by fluorescent lamps, and in their glare I could make out a large group of shadowy figures running away.
I couldn’t believe my eyes.
No flock of early morning crows had been stealing my crops. Nor for that matter were they a herd of fleet-footed deer.
My apple stealers were a bunch of rough looking vagabonds; quite a large group of them from the look of it. What could they possibly want with all my apples? Were they apple raiding each night and hauling their ill-gotten gains off to sell to supermarkets and greengrocers, or was this something even more sinister? Could they have been hired by one of my competitors, hoping to buy the farm out from under me at less than the market value?
Running outside, I shouted curses at the thieves and fired both barrels of my shotgun into the air, hoping to further scare them.
To my relief, it worked.
They scarpered like rats fleeing the Titanic, escaping through my neighbour’s wheat fields and into the nearby woods.
I called the police, but dawn came and went before the Rapid Response Unit arrived. In fact, it was closer to midday before a solitary squad car ambled into my yard.
Two officers climbed slowly out of the patrol car and took my statement. They spent an hour strolling through the orchard, taking further notes and sampling some of my ripe apples. They seemed more concerned with the fact that I’d discharged my firearm than with the attempted robbery.
“So nothing was actually stolen?” the senior officer pressed.
“I don’t know. I haven’t counted the apples, have I?”
“But they never actually entered your property, did they?”
“Well … no … but they were about to! They even dropped some hessian sacks when they ran away. Look, over there!” I pointed to the sacks, which still lay strewn in my neighbour’s field.
They looked at each other in a noncommittal manner.
“Aren’t you going to take them away as forensic evidence?” I asked. “There could be fingerprints on them … DNA!”
“Have you any idea how much DNA testing costs, Mr Proctor?” asked the senior officer.
“No, I haven’t. Nor do I care. Listen here, I’ve paid my taxes just like everybody else, and I’m entitled to the full rigors of the law.”
“Mr Proctor, we’re hardly going to waste valuable time and money on a simple littering incident, are we?”
“Littering!” I spat. “Littering! Have you not been paying attention? They stole my apples; hundreds of pounds worth of apples.”
“But you’ve just said that you didn’t think they stole anything, sir?”
“Not this time they didn’t. I’m talking about last year, and the year before…”
“But this is the first time you’ve actually reported a theft. Isn’t that correct, sir?”
“Well, yes. I thought it might be deer!”
They both sighed dramatically. “This is how we see it, Mr Proctor. Currently, the only real crime that has been committed here is the unlawful discharging of a firearm. On this occasion we’re prepared to let the matter slide, given that no one was actually hurt, and no one is pressing charges, but I must administer an official warning to you to be more careful in the future.”
“But what about the thieves?” I objected. “I have them on video, for crying out loud!”
“We have watched the CCTV footage, sir, and as far as we’re concerned, we can see no illegal activity being perpetrated. These people could have been out for a harmless stroll …”
“At four thirty in the morning?”
“Mr Proctor, in case you weren’t aware, we live in a democracy. Therefore, it’s not illegal to go for an early morning ramble.”
“Oh, this is ridiculous! I’m going to be speaking with your superiors. I’ll have you know that my cousin is a Chief Inspector!”
That didn’t go down well with them. They left soon after and that was the last I heard on the matter.
I decided to get my harvest picked a little earlier than planned, and arranged for my pickers to arrive the following morning to start collecting the apples. In the meantime, I was forced to spend another sleepless night patrolling the orchard for midnight trespassers.
Thankfully, there were none.
The crop proved to be a bumper one, thanks to an excellent summer. I was relieved, and even the bank manager was pacified once the cheques started to come in for my goods.
Nevertheless, I had many sleepless nights during that winter, worrying about what would happen the following autumn. I needed to find a better way to keep the midnight pickers away, one that didn’t cost me an arm and a leg.
As it happened, one of my tractors broke down in the following January, and I went in search of a second hand part. I needed to cut costs wherever possible, after all.
It was while I was visiting a local scrap yard that the idea came to me. They had a nasty looking mongrel, a big ugly brute of a beast, chained up inside the yard. That’s what I needed, I thought. I needed a guard dog, preferably a whole pack of them.
A quick search led me to a nearby puppy farm, and there I procured three rather expensive Doberman pups; two bitches and a particularly nasty-tempered male. I spend the next few months erecting fencing around the orchards, ignoring the angry letters from the bank manager, and in my spare time training the dogs.
They shot up over the summer, and by the autumn they were ready to let loose in my orchard. As the apples started to ripen, I brought the dogs out to the orchard and released them within the fenced enclosure. It was time for the dogs to earn their keep.
I slept soundly that night, secure in the knowledge that my apples were in safe hands – or should that be safe paws?
My slumber was interrupted when I was rudely awoken in the early hours by the doorbell ringing. Whoever was pressing the button was clearly impatient. They kept their finger firmly attached to the doorbell until I dragged myself out of the bed, found my dressing gown, and staggered down the stairs to answer the door.
“Hang on! I’m coming,” I shouted irritably.
As I yanked the door open, I could see two tall shadowy figures standing in my front porch.
“Ah, Mr Proctor,” one of them greeted, finally taking his finger off the doorbell. “Good morning. I hope we didn’t wake you.” His tone suggested that this was the least of his concerns.
I recognised the voice immediately, though the blue swirling lights that backlit the two men probably prompted my sleepy brain. “Officer …? Do you know what time this is?”
“Yes, sir, we’re quite aware of the time …”
“Is it the apple thieves?” I asked hopefully, perked up by the prospect. “Have you finally caught them?”
“No, sir, we’ve had a number of complaints…”
“Complaints?” I asked. “I’m not surprised, if you keep waking people up in the middle of the night.”
“They’re about your dogs, sir. They have been causing quite a disturbance … sheep have been worried.”
“I’d be worried too,” I joked.
“This is not a laughing matter, sir. A file is being prepared for prosecution as we speak.”
“Look, you’ve got this all wrong. It can’t be my dogs. Mine are guarding my orchard from the apple stealers I told you about, the ones you should have caught by now.”
“Ah yes, the infamous Apple Picker Gang again!” the officer’s tone hinted at mockery. “I recall the case. So is this why you had your dogs roaming around unmonitored at night?”
“They’re hardly roaming around. They’re inside a four foot chain link fence!” I protested.
“When we finally apprehended the dogs in question, sir, we had the local vet check them for microchips. They advised us that all three of them were registered to this address. I presume you have licences for them, and suitable public liability insurance?”
“What! Of course I do.”
“I’m glad to hear that, sir. That will make our jobs a little easier. We’ll let the civil courts deal with the minor matters, and we can focus on the more important one.”
“Sorry,” I said, “but I think you’ve lost me there. I thought this was to do with some barking and sheep worrying.”
“It was, sir, but in the performance of our duty as keepers of the peace, we made efforts to apprehend the culprits. In the end, we were successful, but not without some assistance from the local dog wardens. However, three of our officers were seriously bitten during the altercation, and therefore, charges are being filed for assault.”
“Were my dogs harmed? I hope not. They cost me a small fortune, you know. They are purebreds.”
“The dogs were put to sleep at the scene of the crime, sir. They were too much of a threat to public safety to risk bringing them to the dog pound. Naturally, we will provide you with a receipt so that you can claim their bodies, once the post mortems have been done, and whatever evidence has been gathered. The Special Crimes Unit is busy as we speak with DNA tests and teeth analysis.”
“I thought you said that sort of thing was expensive!”
“It is, sir, but we take the matter of assault on police officers very seriously. Naturally, the full rigours of the law are being applied.”
“You’ll need to accompany us to the station, Mr Proctor.”
“What! I’m not even dressed!”
“We need to deal with these charges for assault right away, sir.”
“Hang on. I can’t see the point of all this. You’ve already killed my dogs. How are you going to charge them with assault, if they’re already dead?”
“We’re not charging your dogs, sir. We’re charging you.”
“But I wasn’t even there! I was upstairs the whole night, asleep in bed. You can ask my wife.”
“That’s neither here nor there, sir. Those dogs are your responsibility, and trained guard dogs are as dangerous as a loaded gun. Now, if you’d like to take a minute to dress, we can nip on down to the station and do the required paperwork. You’ll have an opportunity to argue your case during the hearing.”
“This is ridiculous! I’m not going anywhere.”
The two officers straightened slightly, tensing their shoulders, but the senior officer’s voice remained calm as he cautioned me. “I wouldn’t make a scene, if I were you, sir. Why don’t you come along quietly? It’s been a long and traumatic night for us, and we don’t need any more unpleasantness.”
“Why don’t you take a running jump?” I snapped. “I’m calling the Chief Superintendent. I’ve had enough of this nonsense.”
As I swung the door shut, a large black boot shot out and blocked it, and a firm hand landed on my shoulder. “Right! I’ve had enough of your gyp. I’m arresting you on multiple charges of assault to members of Her Majesty’s police force…”
Angrily, I tried to shrug away the hand and close the door.
Somehow, I quickly found myself face down in the garden with my arm twisted painfully behind my back. “… I’m also charging you with resisting arrest,” panted the younger officer, pressing his knee into my spine. “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say will be taken down, and it may be used against you …”
I was tempted to ask him to take down his trousers, but my mouth was full of dirt. With excessive force, I was handcuffed, hauled to my feet, and crammed into the back seat of their patrol car.
The next hour was a blur of activity. I was strip-searched for hidden weapons despite my protests. I was fingerprinted, and photographs were taken of me holding up a small numbered placard. I was then questioned again and again until my head hurt. Finally, some time after dawn, they bundled me in a large holding cell while they went off and processed my arrest. Or at least that’s what they told me. In reality, they probably just fancied a quiet cuppa, and some feet up time.
I was not alone in the cell. There were a number of other men waiting in there, an odd looking raggle-taggle bunch of youths with various body piercings, tattoos, and knots in their long greasy hair. Looking at them I was reminded of the apple-picking thieves that had got me into all this trouble in the first place. Were the police playing a practical joke at my expense?
The men looked intimidating, and I shuffled into a corner as far away from them as I could get. Haunting images of multiple gang rapes filled my brain as I watched them nervously.
One of them, bigger and meaner-looking then the rest, stood up and strolled towards me. He looked me up and down, assessing my dirt-smeared pyjamas, before reaching into his pocket of his leather jacket.
My life flashed before my eyes as I waited for the prison shank to appear and stab me in the guts.
When the hand came out again, it was holding a leather pouch. “D’ya fancy a smoke, mate?”
I shook my head. “I- I don’t do drugs, thanks,” I replied, backing further into the corner.
“Nah, man, it’s just tobacco; the pigs stole all our weed when we got busted, the bastards!”
He offered me the pouch again.
I’d given up smoking a few years back, but with all the stress I was under, the offer sounded tempting. My hand reached out tentatively and took the pouch. I opened it. Inside I found a mutilated packet of cigarette papers and a plastic bag of tobacco.
With a sigh, I handed it back.
“Do you want me to roll it for you?” he asked.
“Please … that’d be great.”
“No problem, man.” Taking the pouch of tobacco, he squatted down beside me and deftly rolled two thin cigarettes. Offering one of them to me, he dug into his pocket again and produced a lighter.
I inhaled and coughed up a lung full of smoke, before smiling my thanks. My nerves tingled as the old cravings came back to me. A little light-headed, I inhaled deeply and welcomed back an old friend.
“They call me Spike,” he said, by way of introduction.
“Mike … Mike Proctor.” I responded, nodding in greeting.
“What’ya in for, man?” he asked, as I slid down the wall to sit beside him.
“They’re charging me with assaulting police officers. Oh, and resisting arrest too,” I mumbled.
“Totally retro, man!” Spike cooed, grinning approval. “You did all that in ya jimjams?”
“Dude, you’re one kick-ass mother. Respect to ya, Mike Mike.”
“What about you?” I asked.
“We got hauled in on breach of the peace charges. We got nabbed during the protest, last night. The pigs are all paid mercenaries. They’re in the pocket of multinationals like Mansinto.”
“What protest?” I asked.
“Man! Don’t you listen to da news? There were hundreds of us at it. It was huge!”
“Sorry, I’ve been kind of busy lately. I don’t get to watch the telly much.”
“We were up at Loughbrook Farm, over near Ponton. A big pharmaceutical company owns some farm land over there. They’re playing at being God, man! They’re messing around with some heavy shit … G.M.O’s, ya dig?”
“Sorry, I’m lost. What on earth is a G.M.O?”
“Genetically modified organisms, dude. They’ve been doing weird shit like putting the genes of a beetle into tomatoes and adding some weird fungi shit too, and then they’re saying that it’s safe to eat … totally fucked up weird shit. Them dudes are bat shit crazy, man.”
“They’re really doing that? It all sounds a bit far-fetched to me”
“Oh, yeah man. They’ve been doing it for years in the U.S. of A. No wonder that country’s fucked up. That sort of shit gets into people’s brains. All the big multinational food companies are using that stuff nowadays: MacDouchbags, Killogg’s, you name them. They don’t care. They’re only in it for the wonga. They don’t care about the rest of us, you dig?”
“And they’re doing this over here now?”
“Yeah man, they own a farm just outside of Ponton, where they’re doing some crazy fucked up shit, I kid you not! This shit was all supposed to be top secret, but we found out about it. Some of our crew were up there stealing apples for a little side venture we have, making bootleg scrumpy cider, when one of the dudes got his finger bit clean off. They’ve been cloning apple trees up there, with wolf genes or something equally as freaky, dude. Some of those apples have teeth as long as my pinkie, and those damned trees howl when it’s a full moon. Man, it’s trippy as hell to hear, but scary too, you know? So we organised a protest march and even got ourselves some news crews down there and everything. There was a big hoo-hah as this shit wasn’t supposed to be allowed here anymore. They supposedly banned G.M.O’s a few years back, but someone’s been greasing the palms of bureaucracy. Suddenly, the shit has hit the fan. The powers that be are denying any knowledge of it, of course, but the shit is all over their faces.”
I didn’t understand half of what he was saying, but the cogs were turning in my head. I might have found a new plan to save my farm.
“So, what do you do, Mike Mike?” he asked.
“I’m a farmer,” I replied. “I own an orchard.”
A few minutes later my solicitor arrived, and I was quickly released on bail, pending a court hearing in three weeks.
I was advised to plead guilty, which I did. It was, after all, an open and shut case. The dogs were clearly mine, and they’d been caught red handed in my neighbour’s sheep flock. As this was my first offence, I was bound over to keep the peace, and given a hefty fine. Thankfully, another bumper harvest came and went, and the bank manager only threw a small hissing fit when it came time to pay the fine.
I kept in touch with Spike, and once the protests had died down, I called him up and asked him if he fancied meeting up with me for a drink. He readily agreed, and I spent the evening picking his brain about the exact location of the farm in Ponton.
I waited for a suitable miserable night, and then headed over there to see for myself. I planned well, with balaclava, dark clothes, bolt cutters and everything I could think of for a high security breach. Once I got there, however, I realised that I’d been watching too many spy movies. There weren’t any men patrolling with AK-47s, no guard dogs, not even a decent chain link fence to cut through. There was three foot of sheep wire with a strand of barbed wire on the top of it, but that was it. Whatever security usually protected the crops was huddled up in some shed someplace, out of the cold, biting wind and torrential rain.
Finding the orchard proved to be just as easy, and armed with pruning shears, I quickly gathered a good handful of cuttings.
Ten minutes later, I was back in the jeep, heading home, with a boot load of branches. I would have a busy winter of grafting ahead of me, but it would be worth it. My problems would soon be over.
As the first blossoms appeared, I knew that the grafting had been a success. The mutant blossoms had a deeper red colouration to them, like droplets of blood. These branches proved resistance to early frost, as well as the usual pests that attack apple trees, and they quickly pollinated and grew into apples. My own apples were a russet colour, so it was easy to distinguish them from the modified ones. The mutant ones were a deep red, even during the early stages of development.
At first, they seemed like normal apples, but as I strolled through the orchard, I started to see an unusual number of feathers beneath the trees. I thought nothing of it at first, until one day when something unusual happened. I was listening to a songbird singing, when suddenly, the song stopped with a loud squawk of protest and then a strange crunching sound. It sounded like little bones being chewed vigorously. I looked around for the bird and spotted some feathers floating down from a nearby tree. The crunching was coming from one of my mutant apples.
They were carnivorous.
I shrugged and thought nothing more of it. Why would I be concerned? They were perfect for my plan. Any would-be apple thief would soon regret stealing from my orchard.
I hadn’t, however, planned for the difficulties from my own hired hands.
When picking time came around, I gathered up my workforce to explain the situation to them. Most of them were eastern European, and their English wasn’t too great. Usually, this wasn’t an issue. They knew what needed to be done, and worked hard. They were also cheap. On a few occasions I’d had difficulties before but, thankfully, my foreman could translate and we got the whole thing sorted out.
I expected no less this time. My workers were not the sort of people who would go to the authorities and blab about the fact that I had stolen mutant attack apples, so I felt confident that with a small bonus, my secret was safe.
Taking them into the orchard, I showed them which apples they should pick, and which ones to stay well clear of. I even went so far as to feed one of the blood red apples a mouse I had caught, just to make certain that my workers understood how nasty the mutant apples could be.
I was halfway through explaining this all to them when my foreman stopped translating. He was looking nervously down at my shoes. Following his gaze, I was surprised to see an apple at my feet. Windfalls are common at this time of year, so that in itself shouldn’t have been a surprise, but this was a first for me.
I had noticed that some of the mutant apples had ripened earlier than my normal apples, falling as windfalls earlier than usual. I hadn’t worried about this, figuring that it would make it easier to collect the good apples. What I hadn’t noticed, however, was that the fallen apples had sprouted legs. With the serious decline in birds within the orchard, my mutant apples had sprouted little legs and were stalking through the trees, hunting for mice, rats, or anything else that they could eat.
I looked down at my shoes and noticed one of the mutant apples standing there. It had one leg cocked, and was in the process of urinating on me.
“Why, you dirty bugger,” I cursed, kicking it away.
It yelped in surprise, and then came racing back at me, mouth open and teeth showing. Growling deep in its throat, it latched onto my pant leg and began to wriggle back and forth, tearing cloth with every pull.
My workforce backed away nervously.
I tried kicking it again, but its jaws were locked in place. It wasn’t letting go. In frustration, I raised my other foot and stamped down hard on the mutant apple. It squealed with its dying breath and blood erupted from within the apple. It was like squishing a ripe tick.
I’d barely recovered from the ordeal when the first howl went up from farther inside the compound. The howl was echoed by others, and soon the orchard was filled with the angry yelps of dogs.
From amongst the trees they came, hundreds of the little buggers, all baying for blood. I was so shocked that at first I couldn’t move.
My workers were quicker to react. As one, they turned and fled as fast as they could.
My foreman hesitated for a moment, before fear overcame his loyalty to me. “Run!” he yelled, as he raced past me, heading for the gate.
The mutant apples were almost on me by the time I’d overcome my shock. I ran, following the others, but they were well ahead of me by then.
I could hear the snapping of jaws close to my heels as I ran. If I stumbled for even an instance, they would be on me. Ahead I could see my foreman standing by the gate. I could tell by the expression on his face that he was torn between closing it in my face and keeping the mutant apples within the orchard, or holding it open for me. I made the decision for him. I knew that I’d never get through the gate on time. They’d be on me if I slowed to close the gate.
I took evasive action.
“Close the bloody gate!” I yelled. “Don’t let them out, whatever you do!”
Changing direction, I ran instead for the chain link fence. With a desperate last minute sprint I made it to the boundary and leapt into the air, half clearing the fence. Panting, I pulled myself over and fell on the far side.
Tiny bodies crashed into the stout wire, snarling in frustration when they realised that I’d gotten away. I’d also bought the foreman enough time to secure the gate.
Grabbing my shotguns, the foreman and I began slaughtering any of the red demons that we could find, but they quickly realised their predicament and slipped away from the edge of the orchard, where they could not be shot.
A stalemate ensued.
In the end, I was forced to stand outside of the fence and watch helplessly as my crop rotted away in the orchard. Thankfully, the fence I had erected kept the wolf-apples from escaping and terrorising the neighbourhood.
Eventually, as winter set in, the last of the mutant apples died of starvation and it was once again safe to enter the orchard.
My wife left me soon after that, and a few days later, divorce proceedings were underway. I didn’t care. We’d grown apart over the last few years.
One morning in mid-winter, when the frost was heavy on the ground, I returned to the orchard. Chainsaw in hand, I started systematically cutting down my beloved apple trees. I had already resigned myself to bankruptcy, and was expecting a letter from the bank any day now, notifying me of their repossession. I would soon be homeless. The least I could do was make sure that the mutant apples would not sprout again next year. With a hired mini digger, I dug out every root, and piled it all into a huge heap. Petrol was poured onto the bonfire and then I lit the blaze. It burned for days, sending a thick cloud of smoke into the air. Again, I found myself on the wrong side of the law, as they demanded that I extinguish the blaze, but I refused. Another fine was expected in the post, but I cared not. I had nothing left that they could take.
Thankfully, all was not lost.
One of Spike’s mates had done me a deal on a cheap campervan. They’d also offered me a share in their illegal scrumpy-making venture, given that I had so much experience with apples.
By the time spring arrived again, I’d already got my first piercing, and my hair was getting longer. I’d soon have a natty set of dreadlocks and I was fitting in nicely with my new companions.
The only thing I was missing was a tattoo, but that would come in time. I already knew what the tattoo would be. It would be a bright red sabre-tooth apple. Something to remind me of the life I’d left behind.
Spring came to the burned-out remains of the old orchard, and with it came heavy rains. The pile of wood ash washed away, soaking into the scorched ground and nourishing the soil with its rich potash.
The sun broke through the clouds, warming the heavy black soil. It didn’t take long for the first weeds to sprout in the rich soil, their seeds long hidden beneath the leaf mould, waiting for this chance at life.
Insects flourished in the newfound wilderness, and other small creatures quickly followed.
Nevertheless, larger creatures, such as the brave badger and the cunning fox, chose to avoid the place. They sensed something dark lurking in the undergrowth, something with a strange scent, and yet, something to tread carefully around.
Strangely, the scent of evil was so powerful that even the humans sensed it. No matter how cheap the offer price, the bank failed to find a buyer for the orchard. On visiting the site, they simply refused to negotiate further.
… And so, the wild orchard grew amongst the weeds, and such an orchard it was.
Its blood red apples shone brightly in the summer sunshine, tempting the foolhardy to brave the musty reek of decay and sample to bounties they saw.
The apples had learned to hide their teeth … at least until it was too late.