The anthology progresses… Meanwhile, have a story

Well, I’m still working. This is going to be a big book with some long short stories. If it gets too big I might split it into Underdog Anthology 4a and 4b. I’d rather not – as long as it doesn’t get too expensive.

None of the anthologies have reached break-even. Maybe they will one day. It’s not what they are really for though. I set the price as low as possible because if they ever make some money it’s a bonus. Their real purpose is advertising for Leg Iron Books and its authors.

And because they are fun to do. The current one is going to cost me about £200 in total to set up and I’ll need to sell at least  2000 copies to break even. Yes, I cut profit on these to the bone. The single author books are about profit, these anthologies are showcases for the authors who write those books and for new authors who might write one in the future. Also for those who have no intention of writing any more than anthology tales. Some of us don’t care about money. Some of us… maybe I should skip that part.

Wondering whether Mark Ellot’s books are worth reading? You can get a sample of his work in the anthologies. There’s a sample of Hugo Stone’s work in Anthology 1 and there’ll be a few samples of Justin Sanebridge’s in this book. Also Lee Bidgood, who has a novel in the works.

I’m not putting illustrations in this one because there won’t be time. There are 16 stories with possibly two others in the works and I can’t get them all illustrated if I’m getting this one out for Christmas.

I have wondered though about section breaks within stories. This time, some of the stories are long enough to warrant chapters but usually in a short you’d indicate a section break with one or two blank lines or ‘***’. I don’t really like any of them but I need a section separator and it has to be consistent.

I have something different in mind. I’m thinking of sticking this in as a section break indicator –


Smaller , of course. Barely visible unless you look really close. No taller than pitch 12 or 13 text. It would be different, and proprietary. President Malphas would approve.

Anyway, the next anthology will be timed at around Easter but won’t be confined to the Easter theme. It’ll be the intermediate anthology between Christmas and Halloween and anything goes. Any story, any genre.

Speaking of stories, here’s one I prepared earlier. Much earlier. It’s not in this anthology, it was a stand-alone little one on Smashwords and I’m not sure if I put it up here before. Anyway, if you haven’t seen it before… enjoy 🙂

_________

Cold Turkey for Christmas

Three hundred and sixty-three days of bad habits. One day of virtue. Not a bad life, up until now.

Santa glared through his window at the white expanse beyond. What did it matter if he smoked and drank all year? It wasn’t as if there was anything else to do here. Nobody visited, nobody would know. Those elves had meddled in his life too much, and the smoking ban was the last straw. He hadn’t asked for the job. If they were going to keep him here, there should be some perks.

His beard itched. That was the worst part of the whole deal. The elves had received complaints, they said, about the stink of tobacco in the beard. He had offered to shave it off, but they would have none of that. The beard was essential, they said. Part of the uniform. Santa took a sip of his whisky, and wondered whether that would be the next thing on their list. Once the tobacco vanished from his beard, the whisky on his breath would draw moans and gripes from the precious little darlings he was forced to serve. His beard bristled with the curl in his lip.

He had a name of his own, once. It was lost now, gone into the dark place along with most of his memories. He had been slim and fit. He had jogged in the park late at night.

That was when the elves caught him. The dust in his face had knocked him unconscious, and when he woke, he was in a place white with snow. A baggy red uniform covered his body, and stubble covered his chin. It had been February, he remembered, but beyond that there was only a vague recollection, a life faded into the wastes of time.

Perhaps he had a wife and children somewhere. Perhaps one or more of the fatherless children he delivered to were his own. There was no way to tell. It was too hard even to remember how many years ago he had been captured, how many Christmas Eves he had flown the world, how many chimneys he had descended—and where there were no chimneys, how many letterboxes he had flitted through.

Oh, they had given him a little magic, but they had stolen his life. It had been tolerable, up until now. The cigarettes and booze had flowed unchecked, and he was only required to abstain for one day and night. Twenty-four hours without his vices. Cold turkey for Christmas.

Tonight was December 23rd and he had not smoked since December First. Just passed the three-week mark. Whisky and gin dulled the boredom, but a smoke would have been good too. Cold turkey was bearable for a day but three weeks of it was hell.

Santa rubbed his wide waist. They had fed him something when he arrived here, and they kept feeding it until he had filled the suit. It was pleasant to eat, for sure, and the little elves still gave him some occasionally, but not often enough. Not any more. Certainly not enough to compensate for the loss of his tobacco.

The sun touched the horizon and covered the snow with crimson. Santa sighed and downed his whisky. Tomorrow was Christmas Eve, his one day of virtue. He had to be sober to ride the sled. At four times the speed of light, it was best to keep your wits about you.

His fingers interlocked, separated and interlocked again. They drummed the arms of his chair. They picked at his face, they rubbed his chin. Dammit, didn’t all those old pictures show Santa smoking a pipe? Wasn’t the tobacco part of the uniform, like the beard? He poured another whisky. A large one.

“Time to get ready, Santa.”

The elf entered without knocking, as always, and the silence of his movements meant he had spoken directly into Santa’s ear, with no warning of his approach.

“Hell’s bells.” Santa held the whisky glass away from himself. In his surprise, he had spilled some of it over his jacket. “Can’t you cough or something when you come in here? You scared seven shades of crap out of me.”

“Mind your language.” The elf’s leathery face crinkled in a smirk. “Have to get that booze out of your system. Sundown, so no more drink until the job’s done. Hand it over.”

Santa swirled the whisky in his glass and glared at the little elf. It was no more than eighteen inches high. Small enough to step on, if he chose, and his weight would crush it to a pulp. Santa stared into his glass. There were hundreds, perhaps thousands of the little beasts. Even if he killed them all, he was somewhere in the North, among the ice. He had no idea where.

“The booze, Santa.” The elf held out his hand.

Santa raised his glass. “Cheers,” he said, and downed the contents of the glass. He smacked his lips as the whisky burned its way down his throat.

“You are the most difficult Santa we’ve ever had here.” The elf snatched the glass from Santa’s hand. “One day of work, that’s all you have to do, and you object to it.” He grabbed the whisky bottle. “Lazy. Plain lazy.”

“How about a cigarette? One won’t hurt.” Santa raised one eyebrow. “Or a pipe. All the old Santa pictures showed him smoking. Why can’t I?”

“Times change. Smoking is a bad thing now. Santa can’t be seen doing bad things. The children smell it. There were complaints in the letters this year.”

“I know, I know, but I only get out once a year. What about Christmas day? Surely I can have a smoke then?”

“No more smoking. Never.” The elf made for the door. “Next time we’ll be sure to choose a non-smoker for the job.” The elf left, closing the door with a bang.

Santa gripped the arms of his chair. His eyes narrowed, his breathing became shallow.

So, a merry Christmas to one and all. Not quite all, and certainly not to one in particular. Christmas dinner with no smoke to follow. I didn’t even apply for the job. They chose me, they never said how or why.

His brow creased. They never said what happened to the previous Santas either. Am I here until I die?

Santa struggled from the chair and stretched his arms. They tingled with the approach of his magic, the power he held for a few days only, over Christmas. Simple magics that let him into locked houses and fixed broken toys. Not enough to escape the pull of the sleigh; if he strayed too far, his head burned. Oh, he had tried to run away, in the early days, but the pain always forced him back. No, he could not escape, he could do nothing to avoid tomorrow night’s race around the globe. The sleigh would leave on time. If he wasn’t on it, he would endure agony until it returned.

There must be something. Some way to get back at these vicious little toymakers.

Santa strode from the room and into the attached barn. There, his sleigh stood loaded with sacks of presents. It had been ready for a week. There were no last-minute panics here. These elves were efficient.

Santa’s fingers tingled. There was a broken toy in one of the parcels. He felt it as though it was an injury to his own body. With a sigh, he heaved himself into the sleigh. Efficient they may be, but careful they were not. Santa ran his hands over the sacks until he found the one with the broken present. He pulled open the sack and reached inside.

His fingers closed on a long box, covered in green and blue paper. A wave of his hand separated the paper into two neat halves. Santa opened the box.

A toy laser gun, for a budding space ranger. Santa grinned. If only it was real. That would make for a Christmas to remember.

He found the fault in an instant. The trigger mechanism had snapped. Santa pressed his huge hand over the toy and closed his eyes. In his mind, he saw the parts reassemble, the broken pieces meld together. He opened his eyes and took a breath.

“Good as new.” Santa placed the toy gun back in the box. His fingers held the lid, ready to replace it, but he hesitated.

What if—

He had never really tested his magic. It was his for such a short time, and a busy time. All his thoughts were on the sleigh when he travelled. The pain he would suffer if it ever left without him. Now, Santa smiled at the plastic and metal toy. He took it from the box once more and held it between his hands.

This time, he closed his eyes and thought of spacemen, of battles between the stars, of Flash Gordon, of Cybermen and Daleks. Heat flowed between his fingers. The gun became heavy.

Santa opened his eyes. The gun, no longer plastic, gleamed with a new-metal sheen. He aimed it at the barn door and pulled the trigger.

The gun made no sound but a hole appeared in the door. He held the trigger down and moved the gun to make a slot.

“Excellent.” Santa placed the gun back in the box. His fingers pressed the wrapping back into place. He examined the name tag. “I’m sure little Peter is going to be very pleased with this.”

Santa lifted parcels, one by one, and checked their contents. Toy dinosaurs. Hideous, deformed dolls. He shuddered at some of the more grotesque models.

“Kids, these days,” he muttered. “This stuff would be better suited to Halloween.” He shrugged. “Still, I suppose it’s what they asked for.” And this year, they’ll get more than they asked for.

With care, he replaced the toys in the sacks. It was too soon to make these creatures real. He could do it on the way, tomorrow night. Along with the guns, the bows and arrows, the plastic swords. The toy power tools, the ovens, the irons. These children had made the elves take away his smokes but he would not deny them their presents. That would be too easy. Santa swaggered to the barn doors and pushed them open.

Stars twinkled in a deep black sky over a landscape of pure white. A chuckle rose in Santa’s throat, to escape as a deep and resonant “Ho, ho, ho.” His laughter echoed out into the night.

For the first time in his career, this Santa’s mirth was genuine.

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