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The Killer Thighs: A Story About Something, Probably

Lately I’ve been doing so much researching heavy topics (re: Chernobyl, death by acute radiation syndrome) that tonight I just wanted to unwind and do something conventional, like write a half-assed story. So here it is. I guess if you can say anything about it, it’s that it is exactly 1081 words long.

***

Okay, so, there’s this elf. Dark elf. She’s an assassin. Not just any assassin: she’s a political assassin from an ancient clan of assassins, also some accountants. These assassins are like an official department of government. Like M-15, they’re licensed to kill. Anyone can hire them, and they’re traditionally used to settle feuds between oligarchies.

I know what you’re thinking: you stole that right from James Bond. Well, you’re wrong. I stole it from the Elder Scrolls. Just deal.

Our assassin’s name is Iachilla, which means little spider, and boy does it suit her. She’s got moves you ain’t never seen, because you seen these moves, you’d be dead, and you’re not dead, you just wish you were so you could get out of reading this. Iachilla: deadly government assassin. That short blade she has? It won’t just cut your flesh. It will drink your soul. She’s a dark elf, she’s into some messed up stuff. She’s also single. Isn’t that hard to believe? When she’s so wonderful, you should see her thighs, like bridge pylons from all that running through the shadows, she could probably crab-walk up a wall with thighs like that. The rest – just imagine it. Small face, bright yellow cat eyes, teeth – she’s a woman with everything.

Everything … except a boyfriend.

One day Iachilla is assigned a mission from the Torag Mong (I stole that) requesting her deployment to another city. Iachilla slides her trusty blade into her boot, grabs her bag of poisons, cashes a ticket to the clan treasury for travel funds, and hires a carriage to the next city over. In all honestly she’ll be glad to get out of this rat-infested slumheap for a couple of days. Iachilla might be a spider but she’s not crazy about fleas and she’s even less crazy about getting shanked by a street urchin in an alleyway. That sort of thing happens here. It’s all hush-hush but the street urchins are out of their goddamn minds. There’s some sort of brain-rotting disease in the water and the urchins of course have to drink from the canals with no option of boiling beforehand. It’s a sad circumstance but not what the story is about.

Iachilla helps herself to the empty back of the wagon, feeds the driver a couple of silver bits, and listens to him talking to himself about how much he hates street urchins as the wagon winds through the dirty city streets into the clean relief of the hills. The ground under the wagon wheels is mud infused with gravel shovelled into the worst potholes. The wagon still bumps up and down enough that conversation is a constant game not to bite off your tongue. Iachilla doesn’t know how to talk to people so she’s content to listen to the driver.

“-ouch!” he says some twenty minutes from the city, and Iachilla knows she’s in for a period of relaxing silence.

A while later, just as the swelling in the driver’s tongue is coming down, the wagon happens over a steady rise capped by a crumbling watch tower. It’s double storey and wood, and it stinks of mildew and earth. There’s a long skinny figure standing half in and half out of the tower’s late morning shadow, and having apparently long listened to the wagon crunching and bumping through gravel and mud, now raises his long arm in greeting.

The wagon squelches to a halt.

“You got money?” says the driver, or rather, “Oo dot moogey?”

“I’m but a priest,” says the fellow. Indeed, he’s in a dark purple robe trimmed in white fur at the collar and silver lace brocade on the cuffs, though his brown gumboots are rather more perfunctory. His face, Iachilla finds, matches the hands slipping the knapsack from his shoulder, that is, marginally too long and thin to be handsome, but with a gentleness and precision that makes Iachilla think more of a doctor than a priest. She lets her hand fall away from her blade.

The driver gives a shrug. “I’m but a driver. I still need to make a living, mate.”

“Of course,” says the fellow, with a quick, uneven smile that amplifies his long mouth and bent nose. He is too tall for an elf, but his skin is  a purplish blue, a few hues lighter than Iachilla’s. He takes a purse from his knapsack and presses some coins into the driver’s waiting palm. He’s tall enough that he leans over the horse, look, don’t get ridiculous about that image, I mean over its back, as in he was about a height with the horse, if you think the horse is only up to his knees and he leant over it then you’re being absurd, absurd enough you should be writing your own story, but you’re not, you’re reading this one, so just stop hassling me and listen.

“To the city? That’ll be enough, won’t it?”

The driver peers at the bits of ore in his palm, and then sniffs them, and then jerks his head. “Get in the back.”

The fellow does so. His face lightens upon witnessing Iachilla, though it was not the thought of her thighs, but rather the thought of what he might sell her, that lights it. He takes his seat and leans forward gently as the wagon sloshes off on its journey.

“Brodil’s the name,” says the fellow. He doesn’t look like a Brodil, but that’s the best I could come up with in five seconds. “I’m a holy man of Namy. You are…?”

“Uninterested,” Iachilla replies. She draws her legs up to her chest, so that she might better reach her dagger. “I don’t want any of your Namy tokens, preacher.”

This was not as vulgar thing to say as it appears, as Brodil has unbuckled both straps from his knapsack and is rolling it out on the wagon floor. Wooden engravings of Namy on leather thongs and little elephant avatars carved from troll teeth litter the roll. Iachilla fondles her own amulet, which is in ode of the god of death, Traboox.

“That so?” says Brodil, cocking his head, and blinking at her with those long-lashed orange eyes. As he moves the scent of smoked cherrywood drifts from his robes. It’s an inviting scent. Iachilla shifts in her place. She watches the thin, quick hands peel back a layer of the knapsack, pushing away the holy trinkets to reveal an impressive array of small, dull-coloured powders and knives

***

There you have it. A story exactly 1083 words in length. I wonder what would happen if it were 1500 words long?

Spoiler alert: they bang and it is CRAZY.

Ever write stories like this? Share em!

Review: As The Last Petal Lingers, or, Always Read The First Page

So a little while ago I was stocking up on Kindle titles, because you know, having 300 hard copy books I haven’t read just wasn’t enough for me. I bought a lot of speculative fiction novellas by independent authors, thinking if I found something good then I’d share it with you guys and the rest of the world.

Oh my. The things I found. The things I’ve seen in that electronic pile of books.

Some weren’t very good at all.

In fact, some were so bad, they were…

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As The Last Petal Lingers by I. C. Basye

 

Every year the people of Findle sends four young men, the Dulas, to the mountain above the city. It is the sacred duty of these bold youths to replant the Lavendula Lily, a flower whose potent stench protects the city from the ghoul-like Nukpana who linger in the darkness beyond Findle’s mountainous borders.

Our hero is Damien, leader of the current Dulas. Like all Dulas, Damien and his three brothers were raised in isolation, knowing only their martial arts sensei and an old teacher. Their lives revolve around their mission to replace the Lavendula Lily, drilled into them from the moment they were snatched from their homes as infants, and driving them as their one holy duty. The four boys are prepared to risk life and limb for Findle, going beyond the city’s protection, facing the darkness of the forest and the terrors of the night-stalking Nukpana to bring hope to the people and glory for themselves in the knowledge of a duty done.

 

Doesn’t that sound like a cool story? I’d read it. And I did read it, so I can tell you with 100% certainty that As The Last Petal Lingers is utter bullshit.

 

This is not a story about Damien of the Dulas. This is a story about an author who does not care. At all. I. C. Basye does not care about being a writer, doesn’t care about his readers, doesn’t care about consistency, or good story telling, or what can conscionably be sold as readable material. He just doesn’t care.

 

There is nothing good about this story. It reads like a checklist of clichés for every half-assed fantasy adventure ever written. Bland ghoul-like bad guys? Check. Obviously evil authority figure? Check. Young girl in cowled robe with vital plot information? Check. No attempt made at world detail? Check.

But worse than the clichés, which are truly awful, is the internal world consistency. It has none. The author cares so little about his own story that the hugest inconsistencies are allowed to fly. Take the Dulas. The Dulas are taken from their homes as infants. Four boys every year. They are then raised in isolation. At age eighteen, the boys are sent to the mountain to replant the Lavendula Lily. However, the author himself gives the birth years of the four boys in Damien’s group. They are Damien 5432; Sedrick 5433; Millet 5434, and Harris 5435.

So then, the boys are all a year apart, with Damien the oldest by three years. Doesn’t matter to Basye; he sends them all out when Damien turns 18.

It also apparently doesn’t matter that there are other groups of Dulas. One group every year. One group which is supposed to be made up of 18 year old boys. So why aren’t there four 18 year olds in Damien’s group? It also means there are 72 boys being raised at any given time, 18 groups of four being raised in isolation from all others. This becomes ridiculous when you realise every group of boys is raised by the same sensei and teacher as Damien’s group. The sensei lives with Damien – who the hell raises the other 68 kids? Not to mention there is no reason whatsoever they were raised in isolation.

It doesn’t help that Damien’s group is made up of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, minus the personality. Damien has a bow staff, one guy has a sword, another a bow – wait! That’s not a Ninja Turtle weapon! The “tough” decision Damien has to make, i.e. whether or not to plant the Lily, is made meaningless because the answer is given to him. He has no character development, because he has no character.

 

You might think I’m nitpicking. So the dates are wrong. Easy mistake, right? Sure. It’s central to the plot, but there are bigger fish to fry.

 

So this Lavendula Lily. Sometimes spelled Lilly. The first chapter describes Findle as being in a circular valley, surrounded by mountains. The Nukpana are on the far “dark” side of the mountains. Farmers live on the outskirts, because farmers are the scum of this totally isolated last bastion of humanity, not like you’re relying on those farmers to survive, nope, farmers are scum. Hence the farmers are closest to the tops of the mountains and so closer to the Nukpana.

One night Governor Rathborne floats (he doesn’t walk, it’s never explained) out to a farm that hasn’t paid its petal tax. The petal tax is basically a racket to keep your farm inside the protection of the Lavendula Lily. Don’t pay the tax and Rathborne can have his evil goons remove the protection of the Lavendula and leave your farm exposed to Nukpana attack.

At this point, early on, I was thinking of a medieval city bordered by farms, the surrounding mountain ridges planted with lilies. I figured that if a farmer didn’t pay the racket, Rathborne’s goons would go dig up the lilies nearest the farm, exposing it to danger but leaving the rest of the valley safe.

Nope.

There’s only ONE Lavendula Lily, on the mountain above Findle. The mountain is covered in trees so dense as to be impenetrable by light, and so common sense would suggest no one farms there. Meaning that since the city is walled, and there are apparently only two exits, that the farms are opposite to the mountain, putting them the further distance from the lily.

But even that is beside the point. The lily’s only power is its scent. How do you keep a scent from reaching one farm in dozens? Wouldn’t it just be everywhere? And even trace amounts of this scent is enough to kill the Nukpana – apparently the scent of it on someone’s breath will kill them – so…? Dumbest protection racket ever? Only it works perfectly in the book, and a farm that fails to pay its tax is destroyed by the Nukpana.

And, hell. How can I take this seriously? One might think the forest is between the city gate and the mountaintop, since the forest is on the mountain slope and the Dulas enter it as soon as they leave the city. Yet the forest is full of Nukpana. That places the Nukpana between the city and the Lavendula Lily. See the problem?

 

Speaking of the forest, the woods up to the mountain have a path … a path made of wood. I honestly do not think I. C. Basye has ever set foot on a mountain or a forest in his life. He does say that Damien doesn’t see a single rock on the mountain before he reaches the top. What. It’s a mountain. It’s made of rock.

In fact, it is perhaps made of dirt. The path to the top is described both as “a gentle climb to the top” and so treacherous that only highly trained young men in the peak of physical fitness are capable of climbing it.

 

I’ve griped a lot about this book. I could gripe a lot more. Despite being short, it’s so painful to read I barely got through it. Everything is so clichéd, and I. C. Basye writes like he’s only heard about Earth in radio transmissions. He’s a writer of the vainest degree, detailing his protagonist’s appearance at length but ignoring any need for personality. The story is dumb, it has no reason to exist, it should have never been written, and I. C. Basye should have his thumbs broken in the instance he ever tries to write another one.

 

And in case you’re thinking as I did, that Basye is just some poor schmuck of a kid who wrote this crapsack and sold it on Amazon for a couple of bucks and a hoot, no. I. C. Basye is a grade one teacher. A teacher! He’s an educated man! If you care to look him up, he has a blog on WordPress, and truly he does seem like a decent guy. But he is a bad, bad writer.

 

That’s all I have to say about As The Last Petal Lingers. Don’t do your wallet the injustice of paying money for it. I’m giving it 1 star and seven years’ math homework.

 

THAT'S A NO FROM ME

EARNED IT.

 

One part of this book I absolutely loved: the descriptions of Damien’s clothing. Picture this:

Damien wore a bowler hat and put his long brown hair in a ponytail. His tan trousers went up to his belly button and down to his knees, followed by long white socks. He tightened a brown necktie and strapped on suspenders to match. As far as Damien could tell, he looked as common as most young men his age.

 

Yeah, Damien looks like this:

damien

This is completely normal.

 

Review: Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief

The Good, the Bad and the Continuablity Review

I thought I’d try something different for this review. Rather than a block of text, the review is broken into three sections: the Good, the Bad, and the Continuability. I think I made up that last word. By continuability, I mean how likely I am to read the next book in the series based on this book.

Let’s get to it!

 

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Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan

Young adult, urban fantasy

Twelve year old Percy Jackson has problems. ADHD and dyslexia make school tough. Percy’s magnetism for disaster makes it all but impossible. Things just seem to go wrong when Percy is around: such as the day his algebra teacher becomes a Fury hell-bent on disembowelling him. And (even stranger) with a little help, Percy is able to turn a pen into a sword and lop his transformed teacher in two.

This bizarre disaster means Percy is forced to change schools yet again. However, this time the change will be more drastic than anything he can imagine. And sure Greek is his best subject – but when Percy is enrolled in Camp Half Blood, a summer school for the children of Greek gods, his life unravels at his feet. He’s thrown into a new world of monsters, mortal heroes, fighting for his life, and the ever-changing whims of the gods.

The Good

*Action scenes. Though short, these were frequent, and with quite a few boss battles thrown in as well. The action was fluid, believable and clever. Perfectly suited to a modern Greek epic.

*The Greek. Riordan’s fusion of Greek myth and contemporary Western civilisation was seamlessly done. Many of the gods and creatures take on two aspects – Charon both a wheelchair-bound teacher and a centaur, the algebra teacher / Fury, and many more. A lot of fun was in guessing which character was what, and the Greek references added a real sense of the epic to Percy’s adventures.

The Bad

*The token bad guys. Hades and Ares act as some of the primary antagonists; nothing new there. But a World War II reference puts the Allies as the children of Poseidon and Zeus, and Axis as the sons of Hades. Hades, really? Come on!

*The line “Somehow, I knew…” This line is used to explain every Greek reference or oddity that Percy somehow understands without prior explanation. But we get it! Percy is the son of a Greek god, he doesn’t need a reason to understand. Repeating “Somehow, I knew” a dozen or so times throughout the story doesn’t explain anything anyway, and it comes across as trite and unprofessional – so why use it?

The Continuability

Percy Jackson wasn’t a story I dreaded finishing. It was an end I’d been anticipating, and I was curious to see if my wild suppositions were right (they were.) It was an engaging, energetic, good-humoured and emotive ride, a real modern fantasy epic. The action scenes were tight, the main cast had interesting backstories and were passable leads; and more than that, I’m just plain intrigued to see where Riordan will take the story.

I will definitely continue reading this series. If you’re fond of classic culture or heroic epics, and especially if you have a young one who isn’t fond of reading, Percy Jackson is worth your time.

I’m giving it 3 ½ stars.

35stars

The Hostile Takeover of Tiber Septim’s Teahouse

I’ve been on a bit of a fantasy bend lately. And when you’re in the mood for an epic quest, nothing sates that thirst quite like an Elder Scrolls game.

For reasons unknown, instead of old favourite Skyrim, I hit up Oblivion, starting a new game with a new character: Eren Moop, the 14 year old Imperial blondie, terrified of everything and yet surprisingly competent on the battlefield.

All this got me to thinking that Oblivion’s main storyline would be perfect as a thriller set in a high-flying business world, a la Disclosure or Company Man. Just perfect. And so Moop got his own story, set not in Cyrodiil but in London, in the final, alarming days of Tiber Septim’s Teahouse (PTY LTD.)

If you’re keen, here it is.

 

I made this and I don't even know.

I made this and I don’t even know.

 

Uriel Septimus gazed from his teacup to the view of London through his sixty-first floor office window.

“So it’s come to this.”

Thirty years as company president, no heirs, and as the letter on the desk said, his last attorney was dead. The agents of O’Blivion were on his doorstep.

The age of Tiber Septim’s Teahouse was at an end.

 

 

Moop sat behind the desk of his tiny cubicle, staring into the eyes of the man across the hallway.

The florescent lights striping the ceiling were green with age, dim and flickering like sunlight filtered through algae. They turned the skin of the man opposite into something gross and nightmarish, a grubby little man blotted with budding plant life.

Moop shook his head and the impression dissipated, but not before he had the chance to ask himself: just how long had the man been down here?

“Hey, Englishman.” The grubby man was Australian. His accent was nasal and grating. Moop imagined he was there on a transfer, but had no way to know for sure. “You better hope they fire you. Else you’re gonna rot down here. Rot.”

Like vegetable matter.

Moop shivered. He looked away from the grubby man. On his desk was a small computer cased in grey-white plastic and a monitor box with an eight inch display. There was a floppy disc in the single desk drawer, but Moop had been born some years after floppy discs went out of fashion and had no idea how to use one. There were several blank sheets of paper with the company header beside the computer. Beneath them was a manila folder and a couple of bull clips. There was also a stuttering pen, a large, greasy keyboard, and a mouse on a very tight cable.

It was the end of Moop’s second week of work for Tiber Septim’s Teahouse Propriety Limited (TST PTY LTD.) He still had no idea what he was doing.

And, he feared, now that there were only forty five minutes left of his trial time with the company’s head London office, he would very soon be fired.

Of course, he also wasn’t sure why he had been hired, or if he wanted to work in a green basement for the rest of his life, or to forever stare into the beetly eyes of the grubby Australian transfer. So maybe being fired wouldn’t be all that bad. A slap on the shoulder, and they’d let him go.

The grubby man lifted his head, one ear tilted to the ceiling. “D’you hear that, Englishman?”

Moop’s eyes slid involuntarily sideways. Footsteps. One tread belonged to the floor supervisor, Mr Barry, heavy but sharp. There was at least one other set of feet, and Moop didn’t recognise them. He glanced at the grubby man.

“They’re coming for you,” the grubby man said, with a smirk that showed off his cancelled dental plan, “this is it for you. Fired. Guess at least I can’t complain they show favouritism to their countrymen.”

Then again. Moop was also dirt poor, and whatever bag of coins the office job paid, it was more than the paper round had done. He looked around the cubicle for somewhere to hide. There was nowhere. Nor was there any way to hide his lack of work. Urgently, he pushed his chair back against the unpainted concrete wall and sprung up and peered over the plastic cubicle divide.

He and the grubby Australian had the honour of the last two cubicles in a very long row of tiny cramped basement cells. A thin corridor snaked down the middle of what might have been a hundred cells – cubicles, accessed by a single, rickety elevator at the opposite end. Any footsteps on the central aisle were huge, claps of thunder banging around the concrete press of the office sublevels. Three people marching in smart business shoes, and it was the war gongs bearing down on those banished to the basement.

Moop had a glimpse of a hundred other heads peering over their cubicle walls, and then the huge angry face of the supervisor appeared in front of him and he fell backwards with a yelp.

“Back up against yer desk!” Mr Barry barked, blocking Moop’s skittering escape from his cubicle. He was surrounded by two concrete walls, the plastic divide and the desk, on which rested Mr Barry’s beefy hip. “You! Intern, yes, you! Get back up against your desk!”

Moop cowered against the desk, then cowered under it. He peered fearfully over the desktop as Mr Barry strode into his cubicle, fierce face burning, staring this way and that. The huge man stepped closer to Moop, turning his back to the wall. Mr Barry was dressed all in black, black suit, black tie, black shirt, shiny black shoes, slicked back black hair and close-to black skin. The one colourful thing about him was his bloodshot eyes. He bowed stiffly to a frail old man in a burgundy suit and suede loafers ambling into the cubicle.

Some of Moop’s apprehension gave way to curiosity. He recognised the old man. He was in that video they made you watch before they sent you down to the basement. He was the – the – the company President! Mr Uriel Septimus himself!

“Sir,” said Moop gravely, from under the desk, a hand to his breast, “it is my honour and privilege.”

Septimus looked around sharply. “What was that?”

“One of your desk monkeys, sir,” said Mr Barry dryly. “He’s under here.”

“Oh, well,” Septimus peered under the desk. He said to Moop’s terrified smile, “Hello lad. What are you doing under there?”

“I was asked to move aside, sir, and this was the only place left to go.”

There was another pair of legs beside the desk now. These were also suited. Female. Moop heard the waxy clicking of his keyboard and assumed it was being hacked. He also assumed that if the fifty thousand MS Paint dicks he’d drawn were found that he’d be fired immediately.

But it seemed Moop’s dicks were safe for another day. The second suit,  the woman, said, “Protocol initiated, sir. Stand by for escape hatch opening.”

From somewhere very close by came a heavy clunk and a harsh grating, and a rush of musty air into the cubicle. Moop watched through a grove of legs as the concrete side wall indented and then was dragged roughly aside.

“The assassins have come for me,” Septimus said to Moop, stooped over the desk.  “O’Blivion Beverage International has been after my company for years. Now I’m old they think one push down the stairs will do me in. And today’s the day, lad! I saw it in my tealeaves. With me out of the way, the company will be put to auction and no one will stand against O’Blivion’s takeover. It’ll be the end of us.”

“Yes, sir,” said Moop. “What do you mean, sir?”

“Assassins, lad! They’re onto me! Make it look like an accident, they will. They’re all through the building, imposters posed as ordinary office girls. But I won’t let them take me. I’ll fight them to the bitter end.” The old man bared his teeth.

“Sir,” the female bodyguard laid her hand on Septimus’s thin shoulder. Behind her, Barry was slipping on a pair of shades. In that swift motion he went from supervisor to bodyguard. “We have to go. The hitmen will be down here any moment. We can’t keep them from committing manslaughter forever.”

“What are you waiting for?” called a voice from across the aisle. “He hasn’t done any work in two weeks! Fire him!”

Moop could not see the grubby Australian transfer’s face from his position under the desk, but he imagined it wore an expression of both horror and wrath.

The bodyguards, alarmed at this threat, caught the President by both arms and whisked him away into the escape passage. Moop rose cautiously from under his desk. He took one look at the madman across the aisle, shouting threats and jabbing a finger a Moop, then to basement employees crowded around his cubicle, muttering in a low drone about what was going on.

“Fire him! Fire him – kill the Englishman!” the transfer roared.

Moop took one last frightened look at the crowd and darted into the escape passage. He tried in vain to close it behind him. The concrete wall was porous and poorly made but still too heavy for him to budge. He ran into the darkness after the President.

The passage was narrow, lined with pipes and lit a sicker shade of green than the basement. It was four sides concrete. Their footsteps slapped up a storm in the small confines.

The female bodyguard reached an iron door and ushered Mr Barry and Septimus in ahead of her. With a backwards glance she noticed Moop. “Oh, hold up! The kid followed us.”

Mr Barry squeezed past Septimus and joined the other bodyguard.  He pulled a handgun from the breast of his jacket. “Mr Septimus, Lisa; you two go ahead. I’ll shoot him.”

Moop turned back towards the basement.

“No!” cried Septimus. He laid a hand on Mr Barry’s arm. “The lad’s face is familiar. I have no doubt he will play some role in this.”

“He works here,” said Lisa. “Of course he’s familiar.”

His heart fluttering like a caged thing in his chest, Moop risked a few sideways steps towards the President. “Yes, ma’am,” he tried to avoid seeing the gun. “But I’ve only been here for two weeks. And I’ve never met the President before.”

“Sir,”

Septimus silenced Mr Barry. “I see. And what do you do here, young man?”

Moop dared take another step. “I’m an intern, sir. My name’s Eren Moop. I’m here on a two week trial basis. Today’s my last day. I hope I do all right.”

“But what do you do here?”

Oh, that. Moop couldn’t think of any lies, and so, unfortunately, he said, “I was hoping you could tell me, sir. Because I have no idea.”

The President treated each of his bodyguards to a particular stare. Neither of them dared speak a word. “Is that so. Why are you working for me, Mr Moop?”

Moop scratched his head. This was a little easier. “I was doing my paper round in town the day they were running the recruitment drive. They recruitment people said I belonged in a cubicle. And so they gave me a desk in the basement and a meal ticket, sir.”

Septimus nodded slowly. “Yes, I see. And any signs of promotion or performance reviewal in your future?”

“Yes sir,” Moop answered more confidently. “That was going to be at the end of today sir. In about thirty five minutes. Mr Barry was going to do it.”

“I was going to shoot him,” said Mr Barry.

Septimus raised a white eyebrow. “I’m sure you mean ‘fire.’ Never mind, Mr Moop. Consider yourself promoted. I’d like for you to be my personal assistant.”

Moop shook his head. “Oh no, sir, I couldn’t. I haven’t any experience-”

“It’s not a request, Mr Moop. It’s rather a demand.” Septimus gazed down his nose at the intern. “You will be my PA. There are certain things I cannot do, especially since I am so soon for the grave. You will do these things for me. It’s destiny. I know where I saw your face now. It was in my tealeaves.”

“Sir?” said Moop, while they bodyguards coughed. “Your tealeaves, sir?”

“Of course. I do all my business by tealeaves. Here. I even brought the cup along. See for yourself: your own face, drawn by the hand of fate.”

Septimus prompted Mr Barry for a briefcase, and from it removed a fine porcelain teacup. He extended the cup to Moop. Moop peered in, and indeed there were tealeaves in the bottom of the cup. But unlike Septimus, Moop did not see his face. All he saw were tealeaves.

“That’s very nice, sir,” he said, valiantly rallying against all odds, “but perhaps we ought to be evading your assassins?”

Septimus put the teacup away. “Indeed, young man. You are already proving yourself invaluable.”

Tight-lipped, Mr Barry guided him through the iron door, and Lisa allowed Moop to follow before shutting the door heavily behind them. They had not gone twelve paces when shadows darted across the passageway ahead. Mr Barry drew his gun.

“For the President!” he bellowed, and charged in firing wildly at the shadows.

One of the dark figures went down. Moop pushed desperately ahead, trying to cover the President. A bullet ricocheted off the wall and buried itself in Lisa’s heart.

“Ah,” she said, and dropped lifeless to the floor.

“You bastards!” Mr Barry roared, discharging his pistol into the one remaining figure. Moop grabbed the President in both arms and dragged him to the ground.

“Cover your head, sir!”

“Covering, lad!”

A few bursts later, it was over.

Mr Barry limped panting to the President and Moop. He reached down a hand. His other hand, resting against his thigh, held the smoking pistol.

“Sorry about that, sir. The bastards got Lisa.”

Septimus took the proffered hand. He gently dusted off his burgundy coat. “That’s not your fault, Barry,” he said, despite the evidence, “we must press on without her.”

Mr Barry nodded. He caught Moop’s eye as the boy lifted himself carefully from the floor. “You, intern. Take Lisa’s gun. Protect the President with your life.”

“Yes, Mr Barry.”

Moop lingered over Lisa’s body. He could still feel the heat radiating from her. He could also see the spreading pool of blood underneath her, and the small, fatal hole in her chest. Where did she keep her gun? Under her jacket? Moop had never stolen from a corpse before.

“Jacket,” said Mr Barry, as Moop debated the morality of looting for the greater good, “just feel her up and you’ll find it.”

Moop blanched. He squeezed his eyes shut and felt around Lisa’s belly until he grasped the edge of her jacket, then he flipped it open and grabbed the gun without looking. Mr Barry slapped him so hard on the back he almost fell onto the corpse.

“That’s the stuff, kid. Now, you ready to kill with that?”

Moop just tried not to be sick. He stepped gingerly over the fallen hitmen. Strangely enough, they weren’t bald or wearing black, as he had always imagined. They both had the red hats and T-shirts of O’Blivion Beverage International. They weren’t hitmen, he realised: they were PR men.

He followed Mr Barry and the President through a maze of passageways, which sounds trite but is actually very daunting when it’s happening to you. Mr Barry kept talking about attorneys; surely the President had one tucked away he’d forgotten about. But Septimus denied it. The one that had died that morning had been the last. And it was no one’s guess who had killed him.

Moop was feeling altogether in over his head when Mr Barry opened another iron door and the trio spilled out into a parking lot.

It was underground, of course, and there were no lights aside from the few artificial ones dotted around. There weren’t many cars, either. It must have been a private parking lot, as the floors were rather clean and the lot was quite small. They had almost a clear run to the pair of elevators sitting in the middle of the lot.

“This is it,” said Mr Barry. “In those elevators and we’re home free. Sir, I called ahead to make sure there was a limousine waiting for you.”

“Cancel it,” Septimus said. He started for the elevators. “I’ll be dead by then. No use endangering my valet.”

Mr Barry nodded, the lines on his face growing deeper. “Yes, sir.”

They reached the elevators with a growing tension between them. It was quiet in the lot, not a mouse nor a roach nor a driver stirred. And empty; Moop had anticipated by now they’d have encountered more assassins. Perhaps the President was wrong. Perhaps they really would be all right.

It struck him that there was no music. Usually, in these kinds of posh lots, and always near elevators, there was some nothing kind of music playing. Here there was only silence and their feet squeaking against the polished concrete.

As their footsteps fell silent, Mr Barry removed a key from his pocket and inserted it into the panel by the elevator. A few seconds passed. The lights above the elevator did not come on.

“Damn it,” Mr Barry hissed. He glanced at Septimus. “They may have overridden the lot’s security. We can take the fire stairs. I’ll make sure they’re safe.”

He jogged off to the yellow-lit door on the other side of the lot.

Septimus turned grimly to Moop. “I fear my time has come. This is it, lad. The end of Tiber Septim’s Teahouse. What a glorious two centuries it’s been. This business has been in our family even since old Tiber kicked it off with a mule, a cart and a hundred pounds of stolen tea.”

Moop wasn’t sure he should agree to that. “I don’t think you’re going to die, sir,” he said instead. “We’ll take the stairs. You’ll be in that cab in no time.”

The President managed a smile. “You’re a sweet PA. If I weren’t on my last breath I’d probably actually promote you. But here. I know I can trust you. You’re strong of spirit, you’re a man of the old ways. You spent two weeks in a bloody basement on an internship you didn’t ask for. That’s what overseas pressure has done to our company. We used to be a family. Now we’re a corporation.” Septimus held one gnarled finger in Moop’s face, and Moop noticed that the finger was bound in a gold and purple ring. “I don’t know if it’s possible to bring back the old ways, Mr Moop, but I want you to promise me one thing.”

Cross-eyed on the ring, Moop stammered, “Y-yes sir?”

“Don’t let the company fall into the hands of those O’Blivion bastards. Promise me you’ll fight them to the bitter end.”

“I- I can’t shoot everyone in Beverage International, sir,” Moop protested. He jumped at a shout from across the lot. A gun went off. Moop’s hand fluttered to the pistol in his pocket, and Septimus’s hand clamped around his wrist.

“Listen! This is it!” the old man cried. “I’m going to tell you something I never told anyone. Largely because it would have been hell for my reputation. Well, that doesn’t matter any more. Let them not speak ill of the dead. When I was a young man,” he began pulling frantically at the ring on his index finger, “I played college football. I lived in a frat house, all of us lads there were on the team. We all got one of these to celebrate the spirit of men coming together over a couple of posts and a ball, and a lot of beer and some women. The spirit of brotherhood is in this ring. The thing is,”

“Sir!”

Figures in red shirts and caps were spilling from the fire stairs into the shadowy lot. Moop pulled the gun from his pocket and fired into their ranks. A bullet glanced off the ceiling and struck one in the knee. The PR man dropped jerking and screaming to the ground.

“Listen!” Septimus slapped Moop open palmed across the face. “Take this ring, and seek out an accountant named Jeffrey in Lancashire. Show him the ring. He’ll know immediately that I sent you. He used to be my frat buddy back in the day – and about forty years ago we used the same solicitor to get out of some trouble with a waitress. She had connections with the mob; it stood to get quite prickly. You don’t need to know about that. But if you can find that solicitor-! His name is Martin. In light of the case at the time, I gave him legal permission to act on my behalf in event of my death by murder. Find Martin, and stop the takeover!”

Moop stuffed the ring into his pocket and screamed, the gun firing continually into the PR men now firing on them, “What the hell is a solicitor you knew forty years ago going to do about this?

The last of the PR men fell. The elevator behind Septimus dinged, and B2 lit up in yellow.

“Martin can act as President until a replacement is found,” said Septimus, as the doors opened behind him, “he can stop the company from going to auction. He can stop the takeov-agh!”

The PR man stepped from the elevator, clapping a hand to either side of Septimus’s withered head. With one sharp twist, it was over for the President.

“Oops,” said the PR man, “guess he tripped getting onto the elevator.”

“No! You bastard!” Moop smashed the gun into the PR man’s face. He stumbled back, spat blood and a tooth onto the concrete.

“Why you!” he snarled, lunging at Moop.

A shot exploded through the parking lot. The PR man jerked aside, brains bursting through his ear, red cap spiralling into the air. Moop lurched backwards and the PR man dropped bodily into a puddle of his own grey matter. His cap pattered to the concrete.

Mr Barry rushed across the lot. “Finally, I got rid of those suckers. Is the President – oh my God!”

He dropped to his knees by Septimus. The old man would have looked almost peaceful spread out on the polished cement, if it wasn’t for the encroaching pool of blood and the ungainly angle of his neck.

“I’m sorry, Mr Barry,” Moop choked. “I thought I got the last of them.”

Mr Barry shook his head, the dim light catching on the tears sliding down his cheeks. “No, I’m sorry. This never should have happened. But he knew this was the end. By whatever fate, he knew.”

After a moment’s hesitation, Moop repeated what the President had told him. He showed Mr Barry the ring.

“He saw something in you,” said Mr Barry, passing back the ring. “He knew you were someone to be trusted. I’ve never heard of this illegitimate solicitor, and maybe the old man just had bats in the belfry.  But if this Martin can really stop the takeover, then we need to find him. O’Blivion won’t stop at this.”

No, thought Moop. O’Blivion wouldn’t stop until everyone on Earth was drinking their beverages.

“I’m going to wait here with the body,” said Mr Barry. “I want you to go upstairs and ring the police. If we both leave the scene of the crime it’s only going to look like one of us murdered the President.”

“And then, Mr Barry?”

But Mr Barry shook his head. “No more Mr Barry. Just Barry is fine. Mr Septimus trusted you and that’s enough for me. Once you’ve called the police, I want you to go straight to Lancashire and find this Jeffrey. Make him help you track down Martin. Don’t rest until you find him.”

Moop nodded slowly. “Yes, Mr Barry. Yes, Barry. I’ll find Martin. You can trust me.”

He left the elevators, Barry, Septimus and the fallen PR man behind, crossing to the fire stairs, to freedom, and to destiny.

-*-*-*-

Take it, leave it? Sugar, milk?

 

 

Review: D. James Fortescue’s Sayeh and Zia

Last week I made a video review for D. James Fortescue’s Sayeh and Zia. If you haven’t seen the review, you can watch it here. Or, if you like, you can read my thoughts about the story in this article.

A little about D. James. Like many independent writers, D. James runs his own blog, where he serialises his novellas and posts bits and pieces about writing. He’s a fantastic community player and always has at least one project on the go. His eye for detail and ear for trivia make his blog especially interesting to browse. If you haven’t met D. James already, let this link be your formal introduction.

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Your

Letter of Introduction

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I first came across D. James whilst reading his first novella, Mune and Mura. A historical piece, Mune and Mura stuck out as being particularly well constructed and researched. D. James’s next novella was the science fiction thriller, On Venusian Cloud Colony Number Nine. I say thriller, but on top of suspense and twinges of alien horror, OVCC#9 had these wonderful elements of adventure and epicness, and a kind of cultural depth reminiscent of Wilber Smith or Bryce Courteney. Even if the dialogue was at times a bit stiff, OVCC#9 was a pure delight to read.

Well, OVCC#9 ended and D. James started running his third novella, the Arabian Nights-inspired Sayeh and Zia. D. James says that Sayeh and Zia is fantasy, and while it definitely has a few strokes of that, I found it to lean far more towards historical fiction.

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The story kicks off in the year 500 C.E. in the rich Persian city of Susa. Zia, the only child of the city’s richest merchant, is to be married to Yafeu Babafemi, the heir of a powerful Alexandrian trading house. Zia has her doubts about the marriage: Yafeu has a reputation for revenge and a violent temper. But Zia, who shunned her father’s business lessons, knows she has little choice left but to marry the two houses. Her father, wanting the best for both Zia and his wealth, agrees to let Zia travel with Yafeu around the Arabian trading cities, and so get to know him a little better before the marriage goes ahead.

News of Yafeu’s tour spreads like wildfire. It reaches as far as the lost city of Petra, home to Lady Sayeh and her notorious sand pirates. Sayeh has been preying on Yafeu’s caravans for years; now she hears he’s romping around the countryside with caravans full of tradeables and his fiancée, she plans what will be the sand pirates’ biggest ever heist. Sayeh figures if she can kidnap Zia, she can hold her to a pharaoh’s ransom.

That sets the scene for Sayeh and Zia. On one hand we have the demure, dreamy Zia; on the other the fiery, conniving Sayeh. Neither has the ability to confront Yafeu directly (although I really wished one or the other would), but they must each fight a dozen small battles against him to get what they want. There was also a dynamic between Zia and Sayeh that I loved. Zia dreams of adventure and Sayeh is ready to quit the sand pirates for good. Each added layers to the other, and just the way that dynamic played out added endless intrigue to the story’s mysteries. For example, it’s obvious that fate is going to bring the two together. But it also becomes increasingly apparent that the two stand to benefit a great deal from one another; if they can figure this out in time, or at all, gives the story a whole other layer of suspense.

Undoubtedly my favourite part of the story was the sense of adventure. D. James gives us these grand vistas, harsh deserts, little pockets of oases in the form of caravanserai, and everywhere these etchings of culture which made the scenes so vivid. What the characters were eating, wearing, where they were, how they lived. Everything, right down to how Zia’s veil felt on her head, was there. The exposition is deftly done, just a few lines and we’re right in there with them.

Detail.

Detail. Voila.

Early on, I did feel bogged down by this detail. Not so much that it was excessive, but that the scene was so different from my experience that it required a lot of mental processing power to keep tabs on everything. I am by no means an expert on ancient Arabia, and my mental maps of Petra are admittedly lacklustre. It gave me a kind of imagination lag. I was trying to keep track of new characters and new environments, plus the action and dialogue and its implications for the story, and it actually caused me to blank out on the details. Later, when I went back and read the beginning again, the image I had was much clearer. I think this is a problem in many speculative fiction stories, particularly fantasy. To the author, who is familiar with his subject matter, the pacing is perfect. For an uninitiated reader, it can become quickly overwhelming.

Usually also I would complain about D. James’s overly formal dialogue. Stiff dialogue acted as a fourth wall early in On Venusian Cloud Colony Number Nine, with contemporary characters tending to converse as if they were quoting out of a textbook. In Sayeh and Zia the stiff dialogue returns; however, here it truly finds its home. A meeting between powerful merchants or a very serious conversation between parents and child – formal dialogue is beautiful for that. It adds this great sense of consequence for every action the characters take, a lot of time it’s life and death or pain and servitude, and the dialogue gave a real sense of weight to those decisions. Again it built on that dynamic between Zia and Sayeh: I was very aware that the pair were quickly running out of time and options to help each other, all the while the consequences were becoming ever more dire. It made for some fantastic suspense.

Deep, detailed, enigmatic and adventurous: that is Sayeh and Zia. If you aren’t convinced yet it’s worth your while, you can listen to my reading for the first part here. Otherwise, hit up the full version for free on D. James’s blog. I highly recommend it to any fans of adventure or historical fiction, and I think it’s D. James’s best work yet. I’m giving it four Brendan Frasers out of a mummy.

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Videeeeeeeoooo Review!

You heard right. It’s done! It’s even on the right day! The video review for D. James Fortescue’s Sayeh and Zia is finished and it’s live and you can see it right here:

Sayeh and Zia video review.

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You can find D. James Fortescue here … and me, well I’m here. With you. Mwah. 😉

Have a great weekend and get those pens to paper!

Audio Reading!

This is it. I’ve threatened you all with this for half a year, and it’s finally here: an audio reading sample of D. James Fortescue’s fantasy adventure, Sayeh and Zia. And more than that! It’s also a video. Click here to check it out.

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You can also find the wonderful D. James here.

Making it was a stack of fun, and I plan to have new readings uploaded every week. If you have suggestions for stories you’d like read, particularly if you’re an indie or small press author wanting your own story read, drop me a comment or an email and let me know.

Please like and subscribe to my YouTube channel, and help spread the love!

Now Accepting Magic School Enrollments

Harry Potter, Monster Academy, the School for Good and Evil, Storybound … what is it about magic schools that we find so appealing? When I was in school I was convinced that one of my teachers was a vampire and that another one was a T-rex. I didn’t need no magic wand or golden snitch or monster hunting stick.

It wasn’t that Harry Potter wasn’t around. I was still in primary school when Potter first flew onto the scene. My friends would talk for hours about Hogwarts and magic and castles. Potter did nothing for me, but oh how I used to dream that I could dream of being in a magic school.

How about you? Were you (are you) are Harry Potter fan? There is, these days, more books about magic schools than there is about the standard reality non-magic ones. If you’ve navigated the labyrinth of these many works, I want to know about it. I’m putting together a Magic School Month for the site (with videoooooos!) and your information could really help. If you know of any magic school books, or have written one yourself, let me know.

Think of it as showing around the new kid.

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Hey! His owl evolved!

The Sunday Witch Hunters: Where Four Roads Meet

Good evening and welcome to episode ten of the Sunday Witch Hunters! Whoo! Whoo!

The Sunday Witch Hunters follows new exorcist Joe Malone and his adventures with a gang of backwater exorcists. In episode nine, it seemed to Joe that the more he learns about his fellow exorcists, the more questions he has. But even as Joe makes fast friends with the eclectic Balthazar Knox and the very lovely Lily Buchanan, and faces the scourge of the night, his inexperience blinds him to a far greater plight going on beneath his feet: Hell’s infernal war machines are on the move, and the Muraluna Witch Hunters may be all that stands between Hell … and hell on earth.

If you haven’t already, you can read the first episode here. For everyone else, please keep hands inside the carriage at all times, and enjoy tonight’s episode of…

The Sunday Witch Hunters

 Episode 10: Where Four Roads Meet

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Monday was school as usual.

Joe had one friend in Lochan Key High, and that Campbell “Kammy” Kelleher. Kammy had one interest in school, and that was as somewhere quiet to play his PSP. Or, less often, his little sister’s crumb-filled DS. The first time Kammy laid eyes on Joe he’d said, “Our eyes have met. We must do battle.”

The ensuing arm wrestle had proved them so evenly matched that they had strained and sweated for an hour before the vice principal strode into the science lab and told them to get into his office, now. They spent the next three weeks in detention together, surviving all manner of wannabe tattooists, aspirin dealers, Kamasutra illustrators, spray-taggers, actual artists, pyromaniacs and men too old to be in school.

It had been rough. But that three weeks made them thick as thieves. Or in Kammy’s case, maybe just thick. Joe didn’t like to think that about his one friend, but nor could he deny the undeniable air of thickness surrounding Campbell Kelleher.

Not that Kammy wasn’t smart. He was obviously really clever at bleep-blooping on his portable games systems and he was ingenious when it came to skipping last period. It was more that he never asked questions. Whenever he came up against a boss fight where the solution wasn’t immediately obvious, he would undoubtedly consult the internet. And when Joe mentioned Drake, back in the days before Joe had known Drake was a shinigami, Kammy had accepted Joe’s weird observations about a guy he couldn’t see, immediately and  without question.

In that sense, Kammy was a good friend. A very good friend. It is easy to speak your mind around someone open to suggestion. So easy, that when Kammy dropped into his usual seat beside Joe seconds before rollcall and casually demanded where the hell Joe had been all weekend, Joe very nearly told him.

He stopped himself just in time. “I was at a – at a shop with my grandparents.”

Kammy pulled his PSP out of his bag and propped his boots on the desk. “Yeah? Musta been some shop if you missed out on Sunday ice cream parlour night.”

“It was great.” Joe could have slapped himself. Idiot! What kind of moron went to the shops with their grandparents? Well, probably a lot of people did. But they didn’t have to boast about it! Hastily, he added, “What did you do, then? Aside from Sunday ice cream parlour night.”

Kammy shrugged. “Dunno.” He shook his PSP. “Bleep bloop, you know, it’s the life.”

Mr Jervis risked lifting his head above his desk to call roll, and Kammy forgot Joe in favour of his PSP. Joe regarded Kammy from the corner of his eye. He couldn’t help but feel he was betraying Kammy by lying to him. The problem was, thought Joe, it was weird enough that he was seeing ghosts and demons and having meetings with exorcists; telling people about it would land him a one way ticket to Crankville.

And maybe it would be worse than that. Kammy was such an unquestioning friend that he would probably believe Joe, but then he might believe Joe so much that he went and told everyone else about what Joe had said. Then what would happen? At the very least, Joe supposed he would be kicked out of the Witch Hunters. Worse? Hauled off to the mad house, maybe?

Probably since there were no proper mad houses these days, Joe would just be forced to live with the Chief. That would be quite mad enough.

The idea bothered him so much that instead of catching the bus home after school as he’d planned, he got off at the second stop and walked down the street to the library.

Even in the mid-afternoon the May sun was pallid and mocking from behind a scrap of dishwater-coloured cirrus clouds, colours robbed from the buildings until they were as bleak and grey as the concrete footpath. The library hunched like a wet black cat on the corner of the block, its yellow windows glaring out at the drab street. Joe pushed aside his reservations and jogged through the thin rain, beads of freezing water curling under the collar of his jacket and sliding down his neck.

He slowed to a halt in the warm air soaking the library’s foyer. Ahh. It was like standing in a river of magma. He stood between the theft detectors in the warm breeze as the heat was sucked out onto the cold street behind him, the automated doors wide open, and scanned the rows of shelves around the front desk for any sign of Knox. A polite, stern cough summoned his attention to the fore.

Neila Speer, a femme fatale in her grey skirt suit and silky beige stockings, looked Joe up and down behind her wireframe glasses. “Malone,” she greeted without warmth. “Do you have business here aside from letting out the heat?”

“Uh.” Joe shuffled into the library. “I’m looking for the Chief. Is he here today? Um. So you work here too?”

“I do. I’m sure I mentioned it to you before. And yes, Knox is here. His office is on the third floor, behind the archives.”

Joe figured he might as well go ahead on up. Neila waited for him to crabwalk away before she swept outside to join the rest of the icy breezes. She didn’t say goodbye. She didn’t look back. She never did.

At this time of day, the library was quiet. The throngs of seniors and mothers with young children had left, and the teenagers with their contraband Mars Bars and smart phones had yet to wander in. Barely a soul flickered between the shelves. Joe’s footsteps echoed on the stairway.

But if the ground floor was quiet, the first floor was a cemetery, and the second floor was a ghost town. By time he reached the third floor, where the archives and microfilms were kept, Joe’s ears were straining against the silence. Dust motes hung in the few weak lances of sunlight filtering through the high, grimy windows. The shelves seemed to hum with the sensation of too many books gone too long unread.

“Hello? Chief?” Joe called. The silence dwarfed his voice. He went to call out again, and the shelf beside him spat a row of microfilm to the carpet. Joe yelped and scuttled sideways.

The Chief’s unruly black mop stuck through the space on the shelf. He checked the aisle away from Joe, then towards him, and smiled in recognition.

“Hallo, Joe,” he said, oblivious to Joe sucking in breath through his gritted teeth, “could you fetch those microfilms for me? I thought you were a gremlin. Only way to catch a gremlin is to sneak up on it, you know.”

“Oh yes? Er. Gremlin?”

Bloody hell, thought Joe, I’ve only been up here fifteen seconds and he’s already talking about things that don’t exist.

“Yes. They’ve been stealing the archives on the topic of raising cattle.” Knox scowled. “Silly bloody creatures. We’re in a library; where are they going to put livestock?”

Joe wondered where he should go with this and decided he shouldn’t. “Er, anyway. If you’re busy, I’ll go, but er, if you’ve got a minute, I wanted to ah, ask you about the club.”

“Shoot,” said Knox, and settled in place on the shelf.

Disturbed at the prospect of conversing with a disembodied head, Joe ducked around the shelf into Knox’s aisle.

“You’re no fun,” Knox grumbled good-naturedly, retreating from the bookcase. “I was going to scout for gremlins from there.”

“I’ll help you look,” Joe said, without having the slightest idea of what he would be looking for, or at if he saw it. Tiny cattle ranchers, maybe? Knox seemed satisfied with the offer however, so Joe steadied himself with a breath and asked his question. “Can I – what if I – what’ll happen if I tell someone I’m a Witch Hunter?”

There. Out. Now the pause like the silence after the bomb is dropped.

“Boom,” Knox grinned. “I suspect they’ll know.”

“Who?” said Joe.

“Whoever you tell about being a Witch Hunter. Unless they’re deaf and not in a position to lip read, or an animal incapable of grasping the concept of exorcism. If you manage to avoid that, then I’m quite certain that’s what will happen; they’ll know.”

Growing desperate, Joe demanded, “Is that a problem?”

“If it is, maybe you should have considered that before you ran your mouth.”

“I haven’t told anybody yet!”

Silence prevailed between Joe and Knox. Joe was ready to run at any second. Knox appeared equally tense. There was a shrill giggle from further down the aisle.

“Ah! I knew it!” Knox whirled on the sound. “Here, Joe! We’ve a gremlin to catch!”

Fifteen minutes later, panting and exhausted, the men regarded the fruits of their labour. A scrawny brown gremlin crouched sulking in its jam jar prison. Its eyes were slitted and entirely red, a bit like Bliss Van Hook’s when she was mad, which was always. The gremlin looked a bit like a human and a lot like a lizard, was covered in wrinkled skin with a handkerchief wrapped around its waist, and standing straight was about as tall as Joe’s hand.

“It really is exceptionally similar to Van Hook,” Knox remarked, tapping the jar. “I think I’ll call it Kilturney.”

He and Joe sat slumped in the armchairs in the third storey office, a small space walled off from the archives. Books of no common variety were stacked in haphazard towers around the room, and there was a radio buried somewhere, droning so softly that Joe couldn’t make out the words. The ceiling bulb was bare and the light it cast was amber. Directly opposite Knox’s crowded desk was a poster for fire safety. It was the only poster in the room. There were no photographs. Joe could almost see Neila stomping up the stairs and tacking the fire safety poster to the wall in ire at the state of the office. He smiled at the image. Knox caught his eye, raised his eyebrows in question.

Joe nodded to the gremlin jar on the desk instead. “Will it go to Canberra?”

Knox peered over a stack of papers at Kilturney. “Oh no, Canberra is overrun with gremlins as it is. I’ll find him a new home where he can’t thieve my agricultural archives. Hm, Kilturney?”

Kilturney fixed its red glare on Knox, then wrenched one hook-clawed finger in a hard line across its throat. Knox laughed.

“Oh, he thinks he can kill me. You’ll rue the day you try, creature. Now, Joe. You asked a question. Did I answer it?”

Joe searched for any hint of humour in the other man’s face, found none. “Not particularly. I mean, I wouldn’t mind a different answer.”

“Can I hear the question again? I’ve got gremlins on the brain this afternoon.”

Resigned, Joe ventured, “I have a friend at school, and I want to tell him about the Witch Hunters. Does that make problems for you?”

He was stunned. He’d asked a question without stammering or delving into absurdities even once. Maybe Kilturney had a calming presence. Joe glanced at the gremlin. It caught his eye and flicked a booger at him, then returned to rooting around in its loincloth.

Above acknowledging such ignoble behaviour, Knox said, “That really depends on your friend. There’s no shame in telling people, but you have to be prepared to not be believed, or even worse, have them believe you. If that happens, and your friend is possessed of a big mouth, then it creates no end of headaches for us. I for one have no desire to be called upon at all hours by media, sceptics, protest groups, religious groups, wannabes and weirdos. We must also have respect for the privacy of our fellow Witch Hunters. Forget that, and you will soon raise the hackles of all involved. Believe you me, that’s the last thing you want.”

Joe nodded. “That’s what I thought. Maybe it’s better if I don’t say anything.”

“Use your discretion, whatever you chose to do.” Knox thought for a moment. On a whim, he said, “Say, Joe. You’ve told us already that Ms Buchanan tricked you into the dread pits of the Sunday Witch Hunters. What about before that? Were you always able to communicate with the undead?”

“I dunno. Maybe. I never paid them much attention before.” Joe frowned. Inspiration struck. “I thought maybe it was just, you know, made up. Like maybe I was just dreaming things. You see that stuff on TV, and magazines and stuff run your horoscope, and I guess most people have their superstitions. Sometimes it’s spooky stuff. But unless you’re home alone, you never really think of it being anything other than made up.”

“What changed your mind?”

“It’s sort of a story,” said Joe, squirming.

“Well I’m not going out there until that mob clears off,” Knox gestured rather savagely to the teenagers filtering upstairs in packs of three and four. “So if you’re inclined to tell it, it’s a story I’d like to hear.”

Joe knew he was had. He settled into the armchair, his eyes on Kilturney as the gremlin chewed on its skinny arm. After a few moments of meditation, Joe thought he knew where to begin.

 *

I was on my way home from school (he said), and I’d been walking for about a fifteen minutes and had another five to go before I reached the hospital.

My mum is a nurse there, you see, and she finished her shift at five, so if I hung around the hospital for an hour or so then we would go home together. Otherwise it was two hours on the bus. I was still on my learner’s licence then so I never drove to school.

The cicadas were having a fine time of things. It was December, and hot, and there was barely anybody out. Even the cars were all up at the school end of town. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Hume’s Cross but it’s a gateway to nowhere. I’d walked blocks without seeing anybody when I reached the crossroads of the old highway and the main street, though no one uses the highway now the bypass is in place, and that end of the main street is a torn-up track with a few buildings per block. After the hospital, the street empties out into the dust, and that’s it for Hume’s Cross.

So in light of all this I wasn’t surprised to see a lady lost at the intersection of the old highway and Main Street. It was weirder to see someone new in town than it was to see them lost. I could tell she was lost the way she was looking at the corner sign and then up and down the street like she didn’t know what to make of it. She had a sort of floaty look about her. I thought she was pretty without needing to see her face. White dress, hat in her hands. She looked like she should be sweating in the heat, and as I crossed the street towards her I could see strands of hair sticking to her cheek, but she didn’t seem all that bothered by it.

The street sign she was looking at was bent so the arm to the hospital pointed to the sky, and the arm to the highway was guiding her into the house across the road. I tapped her shoulder and said,

“If you need ’em, I can give you directions.”

I startled her, though I figured she would have heard me by then. She turned around with a hand on her heart.

“Can you really?” she said. “I’m terribly lost. I’d so appreciate a your help.”

Man, she was gorgeous. Full figure, this long, dark, straight hair, shiny as silk. Cleavage a man could drown in. Too nice for me. Anyway, I told her, “The hospital is that way, another five minutes’. Town, shops, post office are all fifteen minutes that way.”

Then she gave this laugh, bitter like, maybe a little frightened. She said to me, “I’ve walked through this crossroads three times now, and I’m afraid if I walk through again I’ll be stuck here forever.”

On any other day I might have laughed. But I could tell by her tone she wasn’t kidding, and that outright killed my humour. She went on to say that she was trying to get from the hospital to town, but every time she walked straight along the main street she wound up back at the old highway. Her voice shook as she spoke, her pupils dilated under the bright sun. Sweat was beading on her forehead now, and I was worried she was going to faint.

“How about I walk with you to the hospital?” I said. “I know it’s not the way you want to go, but at least if you wind up here again, you’ll have me with you.”

Not much of an offer. I didn’t know what else I could do. The mercury must’ve been pushing 38, and coming off the pavement it felt double that. She couldn’t just stand in the crossroads all afternoon in that heat. She agreed she would go with me. She smiled as she said it. She even put her hand on my arm as we crossed the old highway and went north towards the hospital.

We walked for a block, not saying a word. I can’t tell you how tense I was. Her fingers were digging into my arm harder than was comfortable. I kept track of the houses we passed. Each one I recognised, I checked it off my mental list. As absurd as it seemed, I was dreading seeing that old highway up ahead of us, like the lady said she had. She didn’t let go of my arm.

Next thing I knew, there we were. Main and Hospital Street. A car went by on Last, like none had done since a block before I met the lady. I saw people walking further north on the main, where there’s a park right before the hospital, and I realised it had been a long while since I’d seen anyone other than the lady.

I couldn’t feel her fingers on my arm, but when I looked down, I could see her hand squeezing tight on my elbow. She met my eyes. She was my height, tall for a woman. Her eyes were shining softly, beautiful. She smiled at me and I wasn’t game to smile in return.

“We made it,” she said, and she sounded as relieved as I felt. “How can I thank you?”

A braver man might have asked for her phone number, or at least her name. I just said, “Don’t worry about it. I’m glad to help.”

She laughed at me. “Don’t be silly. I would have been trapped there if it weren’t for you. And I’ve messed with this plane so thoroughly already that no one will notice one tiny favour.”

My heart skipped a beat. Maybe she would give me her number without me even asking her. I was thinking too hard about that to notice her words didn’t make much sense. I mean, we don’t even have an air strip in town. She took my left hand and pushed it against my chest. She kept smiling. I thought maybe she was going to kiss me.

“There,” she said, without the kiss. “To make up for the one that was lost.”

I felt a coldness spread through me, starting at my head and chest, and then the rest of me, and it wasn’t a coldness of a cloud shadow or a chill breeze, but of something inanimate, of cold things deep beneath the ground. And there was this noise, the clanging of a bell. A big bell, not pretty sound but a brutal one, and it made my heartbeat quicker to hear it.

Then it was gone. The cold, the noise, the lady; all gone. I was alone on the corner, sweating under the sun, hearing people and cars up the road, and of the lady there was not a single hair. My hand was up against my chest, so I pulled it up to my face to see if I’d been dreaming.

I heard a whisper then, from behind me and maybe above, and maybe not at all. “I’ve changed things. Feel free to choose the rest.”

When I turned, I was still alone. I began to think I had been all along. Anyway I was looking a fool standing on the street searching for nothing, so I crossed the last road and went on to the hospital.

I thought a lot about that lady, mainly because she was a babe, but also because she had disappeared in such a strange way. But a week passed and then another, and nothing was solved, and so I didn’t think about it anymore.

Plus, then I had something else to think about, that I couldn’t help but feel was related, and was in my opinion the most out of place part of the whole weird episode. A few days after I met the lady, Mum and Dad called me into the kitchen, and Dad said,

“We’ve made up our minds. Joe, we’re sending you to the city. To Muraluna. It’s about time you got a proper education.”

 *

In the library, Joe fell silent.

Knox mimicked him for several seconds, before stirring from his trance.

“Well,” he said, and stretched cat-like in his comfortable chair, “crossroads are notorious for being haunted, by demons and spirits both. I agree it’s fascinating is that so soon after meeting your lovely lady, you were sent here. Where you met us. Or at least, where you met Drake.”

“I think that’s what she meant by change,” said Joe. “She sent me here so I could join the Witch Hunters.”

“That would be an exceptional favour,” Knox mused. After a few moments’ though he jumped up from his seat and stalked to the door. “Thank you for that. It’s an intriguing case indeed. I’ll take it you’re still keen for Thursday’s mission.”

Joe rose, taking the hint that his stay was over, “Yes, sir.”

Knox offered him a brief, fluttering smile. It was clear by the dreamy quality of his tone that his mind was anywhere but Thursday. “Good, good. It ought to be interesting; we’ve been enlisted by National Parks to see to a disturbance. There are rumours there are monsters involved.”

Monsters? Joe gulped. “Sounds great. What time should I meet you?”

“Any time, boy. Any time is a good time for hunting demons,” Knox smirked. God only knew what he was thinking. “As for a practical time, six o’ clock will do nicely. I’ll pick you up from your place. Also, schedule in an hour of training for tomorrow afternoon, if it isn’t too much bother; you can meet me in front of the Welfare Centre. As for telling people about the Witch Hunters … as she said, Joe, it’s up to you.”

Laughing, cackling, Knox slammed the office door in Joe’s face.

 *-*-*-*

How’d you like it? I hope you did!

There is certainly a lot of editing to be done with this series. Even though the book is written, and the flow of events is basically good, I feel the writing is very poor. I go through each episode three or four times, changing virtually every sentence and trying to make it tighter. There is, then, plenty of room for typos in the new material. But it’s a story I really enjoy, and so I hope my fastidious editing has brought the writing up to a standard that you, too, can take pleasure from.

That said, please join  me again next week for episode eleven. Knox and Joe duking it out in the Welfare Centre – don’t miss it!

April Reading List

Reading List: it’s bombastic!

This is what I’m reading and not reading this week. I have actually been very sneaky and added some room to read review copies because it seems like when I made a reading list at the start of the year, which was very comprehensive and well organised and used an algorithm to determine maximum readability, well … it had no room for review copies. But now it does. So bring them on.

Currently reading:

  • Achromatic by D. James Fortescue
  • Werekynd by Robbie MacNiven
  • The Kinshield Legacy by K. C. May
  • The Call of Cthulhu by H. P. Lovecraft

the_call_of_cthulhu_cover_by_drfaustusau-d4ba34e

Upcoming:

  • The War of the World by H. G. Wells
  • 1984 by George Orwell
  • Crashlander by Larry Niven
  • Of Man and Automata by Steven F. Bell

George-Orwell-1984

 

Just read:

  • Heavenfall by Robbie MacNiven
  • Balanced in an Angel’s Eye by Shaune Lafferty Webb
  • The Great Bazaar & Brayan’s Gold by Peter V. Brett
  • Storm Front by Jim Butcher
  • Blue Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson

 

Come on come on come on come on!

Whatchoo readin’?