Villain Competition - Runner Up

Dominic Bell

Runner Up
Redux Reaction
Villain Competition


Dominic Bell is a former oil rig worker from Hull, East Yorkshire, and writes as a break from either computer programming and attending to the needs of his teenage children.. His main writing project is endlessly editing a series of First World War novels, the number of which increase by one annually due to NaNoWriMo. He tries to enter almost all the WM short story competitions to diversify his writing and have the satisfaction of actually finishing something. Winning or being shortlisted is always a major morale boost

Redux Reaction By Dominic Bell

Alan mixed the two powders with care, one a reddish orange, the other a dull silver-grey. He poured
the speckled blend into the cylinder, added the tiniest sprinkle of a third powder. He checked that
the switch was off for the nth time, then pushed the battery well down into the powder, the switch
nestling on top of it. He clicked on the cap and sat back and looked at the squat little cylinder, ugly
with its crude magnetic clamp. Part of him wanted to perfect it, to make it smaller and more
efficient, to focus its action more. Perhaps to paint it in a disruption of dark and light grey to hide its
outline. No. The very simplicity would make it harder to trace. He dropped the cylinder in his
pocket. It was safe for now.
Now for the trial. He had already selected the target, well distant from his house, but on the way
home from a pub he regularly visited, the pub where weekly he would meet his friends. The pub
where he had first met her.
He set out, passing the trial target on the way, in the same place as it had been the previous week
and the one before that. He had chosen it because it was the same make and colour as the primary
target. A fitting test.
Gary and Steve were already in the pub. They were quieter than they had used to be, like he was,
he supposed. Perhaps they only still met him out of sympathy. As always they talked of sport and
politics, trivia that seemed so unimportant to him now. After each had bought a round, he pleaded
tiredness and left, with a feeling almost of escape. He went out into the now drizzling night towards
where the target stood. He reached into his pocket, took the cylinder out, popped in the cap,
dropped it and kicked it beneath the back of the car. There was a soft clang as the powerful magnets
pulled it upwards, louder than he had expected. He wanted to look at exactly how it had lodged, but
forced himself to walk on naturally to the shop, to look at the selection of beer. then pretended to
answer a message to check the countdown in his head. Then he picked up two bottles, added some
crisps, paid and left.
Nothing. Maybe the chill might have delayed it -
A sharp hissing that gave him every excuse to stop and look round. He watched the white flare
blossom beneath the car, heard the crump of the petrol tank as it detonated, the car a mass of orange flames in an instant, its alarm shrieking vainly for a few seconds before it died for ever.
He called 999 on his phone, his voice shaky and excited, to be told as expected that they were
aware, apologising as the impatient operator ended the call. Here there would be a clear record of
him, an innocent bystander with every reason to be where he was. If anyone ever bothered to check.

Timer Version
Here, he thought, this was where they lived. Well-off late middle aged couples, arrogant and
privileged with their big expensive cars and totally oblivious of their age slowed reactions. Alan felt
the anger come again as he remembered the man getting out of his car as he knelt by Susie's
smashed body. The man had overtaken the old lady in the little car in front to save a couple of
minutes. On a blind corner. The old lady had not even seen what had happened, had driven on
oblivious. Certainly she had not stopped, had never even been traced.
The big car had thrown Susie aside like a rag, her bike a warped and twisted wreck. Then it had
stopped, then slowly reversed back to where Alan knelt, had taken time to parked neatly with the
hazards going.
‘Your fault,’ the man had said as Alan knelt beside his wife's smashed body. ‘Bloody cyclists.’
Alan had looked up incredulously.
‘You were on the wrong side of the road.’
‘Says you. My wife will confirm she swerved in front of me.’
His wife had looked out of the car window at Alan, and he saw the fear in her eyes. Alan had
turned back to Susie in time to watch her rasping breaths stop.
There had been no cameras and the man had taken his time to brake, so there were no tyre tracks in
the road. Only Alan's word of what had happened. It had not been enough. And the man had known
how to talk to the police, had said how distressed he was. How he had done his best to avoid her,
thought she must have lost control. His wife had got herself together by then, had displayed just the
right amount of upset at such a terrible thing.
The inquest had said it was important both motorists and cyclists stayed on the correct side of the
road, but had apportioned no blame, simply calling it a tragedy. The man had not even been given a
caution from the police.
Alan was in the second hand clothes he had bought, a roadman's outfit of dark hoodie and trackie
bottoms and trainers. Over his shoulder an orange leafleting bag gave the excuse for him to walk up
to the doors. He pulled the hood over his face against the drizzle in the pre-dawn winter dark.
He chose the big petrol cars, the power symbols, left the little cars alone, rolled the cylinders
below and walked on round the big crescent of big houses. There was the car of Susie's killer, but he
left that alone. Today he wanted only to frighten the man. Like the other houses he put the printed
leaflet through the door, warning that this was just the beginning of the attacks on oversize cars, that
the world could no longer afford the damage they did to the environment. It would confuse the
police, he hoped.
He worked quickly, checking each batch of cylinders in his bag. The earlier batches with higher
resistance should give him longer to work round the crescent. He heard the first crump when he was
almost on the last house, the shriek of car alarms as if the cars themselves were frightened, but
calmly placed the last cylinder and walked away down the road. A second, a third, two together, the
sound of sirens growing in the distance as he walked along the main road, then turned off, cut
through alleys and over parks, pushed the bag into one overflowing skip, then peeled off the hoody
and trackies in a dark corner and walked into a shop in jeans and jacket to buy some milk and a
Danish for breakfast. When he came out he glanced back in the direction of the crescent. He was far
away now and the sirens were barely audible, but he could see the orange glow on the low clouds.

Remote Version
He had found out where the man worked of course, knew the car. He knew too the man was
seeing another woman, a colleague, and had been for some time. Now he watched her get into the
car, watched him kiss her. Yes, this way the wife would learn she had been cheated on. She would
live on with that knowledge and the guilt of her lies. That would be punishment enough for her, for
he remembered her fear. She was unimportant. This younger woman was the man's love, his dream.
As Susie had died, so would she.
Alan felt a great calmness as they started their engine and drove out. He knew where they would
go. Her place. A nice house in a village just out of town along the dual carriageway. The man would
speed, he knew, to excite her, to show her his mastery of his car. Already he was accelerating,
swerving in and out of the other cars. Alan followed. Now. He pressed a single button on the
remote, and let his car drop back. He imagined the battery short-circuiting in its nest of metal
powders, the powder heating to the critical temperature, the redox reaction commencing, and yes,
there, a white flare beneath the car, another driver trying to warn them with their horn, a tyre
blowing in the heat and the car starting to swerve and slow. She would be screaming now, he
thought, like Susie had screamed in that terrible half second when she had known she was about to
die. Maybe the man would be as well, but if he was he was also still fighting to keep the car under
control, other cars braking, swerving round him, hooting.
A jet of flame like an afterburner and everyone braking and slewing now, the back of the car
wrapped in flames as the petrol tank fissured, and then the car exploded, smashed into the barrier,
ricochetted off it and spun across the carriageway to roll over and over, at last to burn crumpled and
ruined on the verge.
Alan pulled over and ran with others towards the burning wreck, retreated with them from the
heat, then stood, holding his phone, but letting other drivers around him call. A siren, the first police
car arriving, policemen running from it, then stopping. One moved to the carriageway, started to
wave cars past the wreckage, and Alan started his engine, joined the slow flow and drove on, calmly
and carefully.
The police would put it down to a faulty device when they finally realised what had been used to
destroy the cars in the crescent, would think that the man's car too had been attacked but the device had somehow gone off late. But he, Alan, would carry on, hunting down where the big cars slept at night, making of each one a new pyre for Susie, until the last of her dust was gone.



Judges Comments

In science, a redox reaction is the transfer of electrons from one molecule to another – a process whereby one molecule gains, and another loses, electrons. In 'Redux Reaction', the runner up in WM's Villain Short Story competition, multiple winner Dominc Bell confidently takes this scientific motif and  uses it to ask questions about who is the real villain in the sequence of events that he sets out in the three 'acts' of this troubling, well-told story.

On the surface, the ostensible 'villian' might be viewpoint character Alan, who we follow on his quest to avenge the death of his wife, Susie, in a road accident where the driver refused to admit responsibility. But Dominic plunges the reader of this story into a world of shifting moral boundaries: yes, what Alan is doing is dreadful, but his loss is terrible, the arrogance of the driver of the car that killed Susie breathtaking, and there's an element of deserved retribution at play that makes it impossible to see the situation purely in terms of 'good' and 'bad' in a story where Alan isn't the only villain.

Rather than stereotype his villain, Dominic has humanised him, and thus placed his readers in a position where, instead of seeing Alan merely as the perpetrator of dreadful acts, they 'see' him and can empathise with his grief and loss even as they're horrified by his actions. The advice from leading crime writers is that villains should always be layered and never two-dimensional; Dominic's piece here is an object lesson in creating a character whose darkness is explained in such a way that we sympathise with him rather than simply recoil. Confronting the horror of Alan's actions but making readers understand the story behind the shocking crimes that Alan commits, 'Redux Reaction' is story of  cause and effect, and the terrible aftershock of a violent personal tragedy.