What a balls-up

I have been busy with the next anthology, which is turning into a biggie and it’s not closed yet. Details here. It has no fixed genre and I still don’t have a title. Genre-fluid, maybe, or Transgenre Dreams. This time it has a poetry section too.

Anyway, even busy with work it’s impossible to avoid the Brexit news. Frankly I’m bored of it now. Just do something for Pete’s sake.

Tessie Maybe has piddled around for almost three years and achieved nothing at all. She has bowed and scraped among the empty bottles at Juncker’s feet and humiliated herself and us and gained nothing but notoriety as the most useless Prime Monster this country has ever seen.

If there is a Tory party after the next election, it’ll be sharing a seat with the Greens.

This so-called ‘plan’ is a nonsense. She had to threaten her cabinet with instant dismissal and walking home if they shot it down at the beginning. As I say about socialism, if you have to force people to comply with your way of thinking, that’s a really good indication that you’re the one who’s wrong.

She put it before Parliament. The answer was a resounding ‘fuck off’. So she changed it, apparently. Maybe she put it in Comic Sans font and added a few smileys. Then she put it up to a vote again. This time the answer was… ‘fuck off’. Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result defines something, doesn’t it?

So now what? She dare not call a General Election. She, and the rest of her party, must know they will be utterly wiped out. Those who left Labour and the Tories to form the People’s Front of Peckham (or was it the Peckham’s People’s Front?) will also be deleted from Parliament at the next election and they bloody well know it.

Labour are desperate for a general election since this is their absolute best chance of winning it, even with Jerry Cordite, the Bomber’s Champion, at the helm. If they replace him with someone sensible they’d walk it – but do they have anyone sensible left?

Their deputy leader, Tom Watson, has just been expressing his delight at the ban on advertising of Freddos to children. If you haven’t heard of Freddos, they are tiny chocolate frogs designed and marketed as a small chocolate treat for children. They are so well known they don’t really need to advertise, at least in the UK. In response, I have bought a Fistful of Freddos and will be devising a competition in the coming days where I set up pictures and you have to work out which film they depict. I’ll have a few to get you started, like The Freddo Centipede and A Freddo on Elm Street so you get the idea, then you have to guess the rest. The prize will be a book – and what could be more appropriate for a comedy of absurdity than Lee Bidgood’s ‘you’ll be fine’?

It’ll take a few days to set up but get your film knowledge in shape and ready, and remember, key words will be replaced with ‘Freddo’.You want to ban advertising? Ha!

There is nobody left in Parliament who is worth voting for. Change the lot. Put in the Monster Raving Loonies and the Church of the Militant Elvis with the equally loony Greens in opposition and at least we’d have a laugh while the country slides into the abyss.

All this talk of taking ‘no deal’ off the table… is nonsense. It’s not on the table. If we get to March 29th without a deal, we leave without a deal. It’s not optional, it’s the default. You cannot just say it won’t happen.

Unless you are saying we aren’t leaving at all. Which is what all those wanting ‘no deal’ off the table are really saying.

In the end it doesn’t even matter. Look at France, Sweden, Germany, Italy… all of them. It’s falling apart. People are realising they are being screwed over by a minority of politicians all over Europe and indeed, over much of the world. It’s all going to implode.

Leave, stay in, doesn’t matter now. There’ll soon be nothing to stay in. And the end will probably be nasty.

If Tessie Maybe had an ounce of sense she would have jumped ship two years ago, and let Audi, BMW and the rest pressure the EU into coming up with a sensible deal. She has no sense at all and putting ‘my way or the highway’ into the Prime Monster’s job was the most stupid thing the Tory party could ever have done. But they did it and now they’ll have to live on the dole or in Corbyn’s Gulags regretting it.

Next they will vote on whether ‘no deal’ is a thing. If they vote that it isn’t, they have to beg the EU for an extension that will cost us a billion pounds a month.

They really, really don’t want to be a party any more, do they?

At the next election, let’s help them achieve their goal of political oblivion. But not by voting for Labour or any other established party. Vote for the loony fringe parties or independents.

Take it into total chaos. It’s the only way to break this cycle.

Farcebok

Some time back, Farcebok decided to drop the auto-link from WordPress that automatically linked blog posts to your Farcebok account. So I put them up manually. A minor inconvenience.

It seems they really, really don’t want to link to WordPress because today, every single one of those blog posts has been marked ‘against community standards’ and nobody can see them. No warning, no explanation and no recourse to appeal as far as I can see. I could contact them but I just don’t care enough about their site to bother.

Well, it’s only Farcebok. I won’t bother putting these posts on there any more. It doesn’t matter if they change their minds, I won’t change mine. I have also put a contingency plan in place in case the entire account vanishes, so I don’t lose access to the Leg Iron Books page.

Just to make it a bit more interesting, an email then arrived from Farcebok asking for money to ‘boost’ a post on the Leg Iron Books page. Very poor business skills there. Their censorship department really should let the marketing department know who they’re currently hitting. There’s no point in boosting a post when that post could be made invisible at the drop of a hat, with no warning nor explanation.

I will persist with the Leg Iron Books page on Farcebok but my own page won’t link to here any more. I will also have to be very careful about what I link to from legironbooks.co.uk since that’s a WordPress-based site too. Farcebok clearly don’t like that.

Or maybe they just don’t like me. Either way, asking me for money at this point is not their smartest move.

UPDATE: I have removed the ‘share on Farcebok’ button from the bottom of posts. This is not some petty revenge. If someone tried to share one of my posts on their Farcebok account now they might get the same swivel-eyed censors swivelling their deranged eyes their way.

I’m not dragging anyone down with me.

Distractions

Author notes first. There is a new page on Leg Iron Books about marketing. I have had a few magnets and mugs made, the mugs are not cheap so they won’t be a regular thing, I just wanted to see how they looked. They look good, so I’ll see about getting into cafepress or the like. The magnets are magnetic business cards, cheap, and I can get those spread far and wide.

The eighth Underdog Anthology has five authors so far and I’m expecting at least one more. I have to have this out of the way in the first week of April because of the spectre of jury service again, so write fast, folks. It’s definitely a ‘go’ though.

Right, that’s that out of the way.

I have been watching the antics of the modern politicians, in the UK and elsewhere, and they struck a chord. Back when I was ‘in character’ as Romulus Crowe, many years ago (yes, I had a blog and everything, he even wrote a ghosthunting book) I had looked into the tricks used by stage psychics and, to a lesser extent, stage magicians.

I say ‘to a lesser extent’ because stage magicians know you don’t believe it’s really magic. You watch them for entertainment and to try to work out how they do those tricks. We know, up front, it’s trickery and a big part of the entertainment is to see if you can work out how it’s done.

Stage psychics are different. They are pretending to be real. Their audience often, to a large extent, think they are really going to hear from dead relatives. This, to me, is not entertainment, this is downright cruel. Making money from the grief of the bereaved is not a pleasant thing.

It became clear early on that no stage psychic could be real. No genuine psychic could guarantee to get exactly the right number of ghostly contacts to fill a defined length of show, never draw a total blank and never get one who doesn’t fit anyone in the audience. Oh they pretend to, sometimes, but really that wasn’t a ghost. It was a cold-reading ‘miss’.

I actually became pretty good at cold reading while studying this. It’s really not difficult. All you have to do is pay attention and the subject will give you the answers they want to hear. This is made even easier when they really want to believe. The stage magician’s audience is trying to see behind the smoke and mirrors. The stage psychic’s audience wants to be lost in the smoke and mirrors.

There are more sophisticated tricks than simple cold reading. I gave away one of them in a story. Basically though, it’s down to the audience. The magician’s audience wants to see how the tricks are done. The psychic’s audience wants to believe it’s not just a trick. It is.

There is one thing that is central to stage magic and stage psychic readings. Distraction. Concentrate on the left hand waving around and you don’t see what the right hand is doing. Watch the cards in my left hand while I slip the ace from my pocket with my right. It’s a basic part of the act.

So we have a conversation, it’ll be fast because I’ll bombard you with ideas and hidden questions made up of [statement]- ‘is that right?’ and we’ll hurry past the wrong statements. The conversation will twist and turn until you can’t remember that you’ve already told me the ‘message’ you are now getting from the person whose name you gave me twenty questions ago. It’s a gentle interrogation, really, in which you supply the answers and I tell you what they are long after you’ve told me what they are.

You won’t remember telling me because of the speed of conversation, because I distracted you with many irrelevant sidetracks and because you really want to believe.

Although… I once did this with someone who was an absolute sceptic and who wanted to tell me that nothing ‘paranormal’ could be real. Not believing does not make you immune to this trick.

Distraction is the tool of the stage magician, the stage psychic and of course the conman. They are related.

The latter is also closely related to the modern politician. The difference is, the politicians don’t act alone. They don’t distract you with one hand’s movements, they act as a group in which one person is all distraction. Often, more than one.

We have in the UK a continuous stream of circus clowns in politics. There are always a few who hog the headlines for their lunatic behaviour and constant pronouncements of idiocy. Every country has them. America has the Amazing Occasional Cortex hogging the headlines with a never ending variety show of laugh-a-minute outbursts.

We all have a few. We console ourselves with ‘well, there are only a few’.

How did they even get selected for the post? They are always in a guaranteed-win seat for that party so why not put up someone with almost half a brain? Why grab the first loony and stick them in there, knowing full well your voters will vote for a badly formed turd with the right party sticker on it. Why not use that guaranteed seat to get someone sensible into government, rather than someone who is clearly going to be an embarrassment?

They are not put there to do anything useful. They are there to fill the news. They are the waving left hand that distracts attention from what the right hand is doing. Yes, they are few, but you only need a few. The news, and the opposition, will concentrate on the circus and entirely miss the ones behind the curtain.

Don’t become part of the show. Don’t listen to the fast talk, don’t watch the hand that’s waving around in the news, grabbing your attention.

What’s the other hand doing?.

Competition winners

There can be only one… but there are two. Both confessed to looking it up so maybe my pristine vinyl copy of Bowie’s ‘Diamond Dogs’ is worth something. I can’t guarantee the books ever will be but you never know.

The answer was, of course, ‘We are the Dead’ from the ‘1984’ section of that album. Here you go.

I had five copies printed of the final draft of ‘Norman’s House’. There are some differences between this draft and the final copy, some of them significant These last draft copies represent the final stage of editing, where the writer reaches the point where you’re reading what you thought you wrote, not what you actually wrote, and can no longer see the typos and plot holes. At that point you need an outside editor and it’s much easier if it’s in print.

One copy went to Roo B Doo and one to CStM for editing. I have set one aside as a memento. That leaves two copies.

One will go to Mick Walker and the other to Sagalout (do I really have to post it to China?)

So, get in touch, folks. A bit of writer’s angst will be coming through the post :

And don’t forget, the eighth Underdog Anthology is open for submissions.

Entertainment time – Old Timers

I haven’t put up a pure entertainment post for a while and it’s been a busy night. My printer died recently and I’ve been installing a new one. It’s incredible the features you get for £40 these days! It did, however, end with me pleading with the thing “I just want print and scan. I don’t want fax or wifi on this thing, I don’t want to print from my phone when I’m a hundred miles away, I don’t want reports down the internet and I don’t want a standing order for ink. Just print and scan”.

Eventually I got there but I’m too worn out to think of a post now. So here’s a jolly tale from the darker side of jolliness. It was in ‘The Gallows Stone‘, Underdog Anthology 6.

Here it is for free.

Old Timers

“That will be all, Chadwick.” Theodore Orson dismissed his butler, leaned forward to place his elbows on the red leather of his desk, and regarded the scruffy young man standing opposite. There was silence until the door closed and Orson was satisfied he had heard Chadwick close another door, further along the hallway.

Orson inclined his head. “Did you get it?”

“Yes. Two kilos of it. Might have been too much, but I don’t think anyone will notice.” The young man held up an insulated bag and placed it gently on the desk. “We should get this into a freezer right away.”

“Of course.” Orson zipped open the bag and took a quick look at the cylindrical block of ice before quickly closing it. “And the photograph?” The young man took an envelope from his jacket and passed it to Orson, who opened it and inspected the contents. “Perfect. Now we can close the transaction and you can be on your way.” He narrowed his eyes. “I hope I can rely on your silence?”

The young man grinned. “You’re paying enough to keep me quieter than a Trappist monk. Besides, if I were to talk, I would be in one hell of a lot of trouble.”

“Quite so.” Orson picked up a briefcase from the floor, placed it on the desk and opened it so the man could see inside.

Wide eyes blinked a few times at the neatly ordered stacks of cash. “Are those hundred bills?”

“You will find a little bonus in there. I might want to engage your services again in the future.” Orson closed the case and pushed it towards the young man, who lifted it reverently.

“Well, I won’t detain you further.” Orson rose from his seat and lifted the insulated bag. “I will, as you say, need to get this into the freezer at once. And I’m sure you have things you want to buy.”

The young man smiled. “Yes, but slowly and carefully. If they notice the missing piece and then I drive to work in a Lamborghini, someone might connect those things.”

“Very sensible.” Orson opened the door and led the young man into the hall. “Of course, I would expect no less from a Ph.D. student. I’m sure you have a long and successful career ahead of you.”

“I hope so, Mr. Orson.”

Orson opened another door. Chadwick was inside, polishing silver. Orson nodded to him. “Show our visitor out, would you, Chadwick?”

***

Orson sipped at his whisky and surveyed his guests. The Old Timer party had become a Halloween tradition and it had, over the years, become increasingly competitive. Guests competed to bring along the oldest thing they could buy, borrow or steal. This year, Orson was going to set a standard nobody would ever beat. At midnight, the big reveal would come. Orson chuckled and swished the crushed ice in his drink.

“Nearly time, eh?” Jeremiah Weston raised his glass to Orson, once again showing off cufflinks Orson had already recognised as Etruscan silver coins. Fifth century BC. Orson nodded, smiled and sipped at his whisky. Amateur.

“Just two minutes to midnight, Orson, old chap.” Weston took a sip of his ice-laden gin and tonic. “I hope you have your artefact on full view. That’s the rule. I admit I haven’t spotted it yet.”

Of course not. You’re drinking it. Orson winked. “It’s been in plain sight all evening. There’s no cheating here.”

“Looks like I have to wait for your reveal then.” Weston smiled and moved back into the crowd.

One minute. Orson watched the second hand move around the clock. His own hand reached for the small bell on the table. He halted when he noticed a tremor in his fingers. That was new. He would need to get that checked out.

The clock chimed midnight. Orson waited until the twelfth beat and then rang his bell.

“Ladies and gentlemen, it is time for the reveal. Some of you may have already guessed what your competitors have to offer since everything has been on open display all evening.”

“I haven’t seen yours, Orson.” Derek van Heusse called from the crowd.

Orson laughed. “Yes, you have. You all have. It’s been right in front of you all evening.” He held up his hand to silence the curious murmurs. “However, as your host for this year’s Old Timer party, I have the privilege of being the last to reveal.” He cleared his throat. “The prize, as always, is this.”

Orson held up a small plastic knight-in-armour toy. It was a token, valued at pennies, but money was of no relevance to these people. They all had far more than they could ever spend. No, it was the winning that mattered. To take home the trophy, the token of success, was what they spent thousands, sometimes millions, to win.

Sarah Morgan stepped up first. “You’ve all noticed my brooch. A beautiful gold scorpion. It’s from the tomb of the Scorpion King, the first Pharaoh of Egypt. Looted millennia ago and let me tell you, tracing its provenance cost me a tidy sum.” She smiled while a chuckle spread through the crowd. “Anyway, it dates to 3000 BC and I have the papers to prove it if – when – I win tonight.”

A short burst of applause was followed by the next order of business. Those who could not beat Sarah’s offering were to declare next.

Jeremiah Weston showed his cufflinks. Stephen Gradley-Smythe showed the shards of a Bronze Age Sword, from the Bonnanaro peoples, sewn into the lapels of his jacket. 1800 BC. Elizabeth Romero showed the spindle that had been stuck through the bun of her hair – Iron age, from the Latial people. A mere 900 BC. Orson struggled to keep his face straight although his fingers tingled uncomfortably.

They passed through the relative-newcomer errors of Napoleonic and Celtic and Mayan artefacts quickly.

A contender for the title then spoke up. Jayne Partridge lifted the heavy pendant on her necklace. “A dagger from the Copper Age. Remedello peoples, 3000 BC.” She winked at Elizabeth. “We might have to share our little knight.”

A murmur ran through the assembly. There had never been a draw. There was always one winner. It would come down to centuries, decades, years… damn, they would take it to seconds if they had to, and even if it cost them millions each to do it. One knight, one prize, one winner.

In the event, it didn’t matter. That well-known wild eccentric, Tarquin Rawlinson, held his (as usual) insanely decorated top hat up for inspection.

“Look at how my hat glimmers,” he said, turning it as he moved in a lazy circle. “See how it catches the light with its inlays.” He grinned, first at the assembled partygoers and then at Orson. “Neolithic pottery shards from Malta. 5900 BC. I think that trumps the dear ladies and their trinkets.” He took a low bow to the applause of his peers and replaced his hat.

Orson motioned them to silence. “We have one more, who has been silent so far.” He raised his eyebrow at a quiet, thin man who smiled around a glass of iced vodka. “Sebastian, I take it you hold an ace tonight?”

Sebastian Blackthorn moved to the front of the group and turned to face them. “You may or may not have noticed the wooden buttons on my waistcoat. Somewhat old and shoddy to hold together fine silk, I think you’ll agree.”

He displayed the buttons to Orson, who merely shrugged. They were plain wooden buttons. He saw no value in them.

“Well.” Sebastian closed his jacket. “These buttons are made of larch wood.” He waited for a response. Blank faces filled the room. “Very old Russian larch wood.” He raised one eyebrow. Most faces remained blank. Jayne furrowed her brow. Tarquin shifted from one foot to the other.

Orson felt a cold sweat form on his brow. He couldn’t have. After what happened?

Sebastian broke into a wide grin. “These are made from wood surreptitiously and,” he coughed, “not entirely legally, extracted from a Russian museum. They are shards of the Shigir Idol, currently dated to 9000 BC.” He took a bow. “I thank you all for your participation, but I believe the knight is mine.”

A scattering of half-hearted applause mixed with shaking heads and faces turning away greeted his revelation. Orson merely stared. Winning was the name of the game, yes, but at this cost?

“Seb,” Orson spoke softly. “We’re all aware of your family’s obsession with the creature the idol depicts, and we’re all familiar with what happened to your sister, Sofia, two years ago, this very night.” He paused for breath. “Are you sure you want to win this way?”

Sebastian waved a dismissive hand. “I win in honour of my sister,” he said. “And yes, we would very much like to own the entire idol and the power it represents but for now, a few buttons are all we have.”

Orson glanced at the floor then back to Sebastian. “It’s cursed, that thing.”

“Oh, spare me.” Sebastian laughed. “An evil demon from a Hell we cannot even imagine and I had part of its only known effigy made into waistcoat buttons. You think I fear it?” He took a breath. “Anyway, whatever you all feel about it, I think I have won the knight, don’t you agree?”

Orson let the room’s expectant silence fill him for a moment. He could refuse his reveal and let Sebastian win – but Sebastian showed no feeling for his sister’s death and had even used the instrument of her destruction in this game. To win a plastic knight for a year.

No. Orson drew himself up. “No.”

“No?” Sebastian looked confused. “You can beat my offering? With what? I have seen nothing of antiquity here other than what we guests brought with us.”

“Oh, you have. You have looked at it, tasted it, drunk it. All evening, you have experienced what I am about to reveal.”

“We’ve been drinking it? Is it safe?” Jeremiah Weston placed his glass on a nearby table. His hand shook as he withdrew it.

“Nothing to worry about, Jerry, old chap.” Orson’s grin grew wide. “No, it’s not some ancient concoction dredged from a shipwreck. It’s this.” He held up one of the buckets of shattered ice.

“Ice?” Sarah grimaced. “Somewhat ephemeral, don’t you think?”

“Well it won’t last much longer, but that doesn’t detract from its age.” Orson set down the bucket and took the photograph from his pocket. “This is ice from the bottom of an Antarctic ice core. Specifically, the last two kilograms at the very base of a core from a place called Dome C.” He paused for effect. “Ice that was laid down in 796,500 BC. Over three quarters of a million years old.”

He handed the photograph, his evidence that he had indeed had access to ice from that core, to Sarah, with instructions to pass it around. Then he allowed himself a moment to bask in the awed gasps of his guests.

Tarquin’s face bore an uncharacteristically sombre expression. “That’s very old ice. Are you quite sure it’s safe to drink?”

“I am assured that it is very nearly impossible for anything to still be alive after that much time.” Orson patted Tarquin’s shoulder. “You have no need to be concerned.”

“Oh, I’m not.” Tarquin broke into a wide grin and raised his glass. “I drink my whisky neat. No ice.” He laughed and moved off to mingle with the party.

Orson shook his head. Tarquin had inherited his wealth but even so, Orson marvelled at the idiot’s money management skills. Fool he may seem, but he had not squandered his inheritance.

“I think Sebastian took it a bit hard.” Jerry spoke quietly beside Orson. “He really thought he had this one sewn up.”

“It’s only a game.” All the same, Orson realised how much Sebastian had invested in this night’s game. Maybe he wasn’t just using his sister’s death to gain points. Maybe he really was doing it for her. “Where is he?”

“He’s already left. Looked quite miffed.” Jerry raised his eyebrows.

Orson lowered his own eyebrows. The Blackthorns were part of this social group but everyone was perfectly aware of the dark things they dabbled in. It was the reason everyone treated them with respect – the Blackthorns had been implicated in some very strange happenings and in quite a few bizarre deaths. Nothing was ever proven, since the family were very good indeed at covering their tracks. Still, annoying a Blackthorn was generally seen as unwise.

“I’ll call him tomorrow and make peace.” Orson pursed his lips. “I don’t want to cause any unpleasantness.”

Jerry snorted. “I think that family delight in unpleasantness,” he said, then looked around quickly as if to be sure nobody heard him. “I’m probably at my limit for drinking tonight. Starting to get a bit loose in the tongue area, yes?” He finished his drink and put his glass on the table.

Orson noticed the tremor in Jerry’s fingers and realised his own hands were shaking too. Cold sweat beaded on his forehead.

“I’ll say goodnight, old chap. And congratulations. The knight is yours by a very wide margin.” Jerry’s smile was tight as he held out his hand.

“It’s been a pleasure. And your Etruscan coins are impressive, I must say.” Orson forced his hand into a tight handshake and withdrew before the tremors would be obvious. “I’ll say goodnight then.”

“Goodnight,” Jerry said. Then added, with perhaps with more sincerity than was usual, “And good luck.”

News of Sebastian Blackthorn’s precipitous departure had spread. The party ended on a sombre note as the guests said their goodbyes, one by one, and drifted away. Finally Orson stood alone, a small plastic knight in his shaking hand, his triumph now feeling very hollow indeed.

All that money, all that risk and effort, all the potential trouble ahead, for a toy. I could buy the whole damn company making these things yet I—we, all of us—choose to compete for a bad plastic imitation of a mediaeval soldier. Hell, most of us have real antique suits of armour in our homes and we battle over this? Orson closed his eyes. How badly will Sebastian take it? He has part of the artefact he always wanted for its power. Can he use those little bits?

Only time would tell. Orson sighed, placed the toy knight on the mantelpiece and went to bed.

***

An insistent tapping on his bedroom door woke him from a troubled sleep. Orson wiped his brow against his sweat-soaked blankets and croaked “Yes?”

“Are you quite all right, sir?” Chadwick sounded worried. “You did not come down for breakfast and the staff are concerned.”

“I’m not sure. Come in, Chadwick.” Orson tried to rise, but fell back onto the bed.

The door swung open. Chadwick entered, took one look at Orson and put his hand over his mouth.

“Sir, you appear most unwell. Should I call Doctor Gill?”

Orson raised his hand to protest but stopped and stared at it. His hand shook – not so much shook as vibrated, he thought, considering the speed of movement. Worse, his fingertips had turned black and veins stood in sharp, pulsating relief on the back of his hand.

“Uh…” He tried to rise again but his pulse pounded in his skull as though it was trying to escape. “Yes,” he managed to gasp.

Chadwick disappeared. Orson lay on his back, breathing heavily, and closed his eyes in an attempt to still the hammers in his head. Sebastian. What did you do?

The phone on his bedside table seemed so very far away. The more he stared at it, the more it receded into the distance. This phone never rang, the ringer was turned off, but damn, he needed to reach it now.

Orson lifted one arm. His pyjama sleeve slid back to show black pulsing veins on his forearm. He wanted to cry under the weight of that arm, it was surely transmuted into lead. He aimed it at the phone.

As he shifted his weight to edge closer to the phone, the stench came to him. His bed stank as though he had lain in it for a month, the appalling reek made him retch but he focused on that phone. It had all his friends on speed dial and the fuzz in his brain cleared enough to let him remember Sebastian was number 13.

Dry rattles in his throat passed for laughter at the horrible coincidence.

His fingers touched the phone, or at least his eyes told him they did. There was no feeling in those blackened, swollen lumps of flesh. He kept his eyes open, blinking away tears, so he could guide his fingers around the handset.

Lifting the handset felt like lifting a car. So very, very heavy. Orson dragged the handset across the pillow until he could turn it and see the keypad. With numb fingers he pressed one, then three, then enter.

The phone autodialled and the shriek of the number tones almost caused Orson to pass out. Tears streamed down his face as the tones seared through his skull. Finally it settled to a merely irritating ringing tone. Then a click like a gunshot.

“Hello, this is the Blackthorn residence. May I ask who is calling?”

“Sebastian. I have to speak to him.” Orson felt as though his lips would shatter with every movement. His throat felt as dry as ashes.

“I’m sorry, sir, I have to ask again, who is calling?”

“Theo… Theodore Orson. Please, I have to speak with him.”

“I’m afraid Mr. Blackthorn is indisposed, sir. Perhaps you would like to call later?”

“No later. Might not be.” Orson tried to swallow but his mouth held nothing that could be swallowed. “Important. Tell him who calling.”

“Sir?” The voice at the other end of the line, Orson assumed it was Sebastian’s butler, sounded curious. “Sir? Are you the Mr. Orson that Mr. Blackthorn visited last night?”

“Yes.” Orson gasped it out.

“I will see if he can speak to you, sir.”

It was just a game. Just a damn plastic toy. Seb, why did you take it this far? Orson took a few long slow breaths. The beating inside his head felt like an enraged demon trying to escape and he wondered if that might actually be the case. Why do we do it at all? Are we all so rich that nothing matters now? Is the plastic knight a symbol of our disregard for value?

Orson shook his head and immediately regretted the action. The room spun like a turbocharged carousel and the stench of old sweat filled his nostrils. There were faces at his bedroom door. White faces. Very white. Clowns? Have the clowns come for me?

“Theo?” The voice on the phone was distant and cracked. “Why have you called?”

“I am sorry, Seb.” Orson stopped to take heavy breaths before continuing. “Call it off. Please.”

The line filled with coughing. “Call what off? What do you mean?”

“You can have the knight. I’ll say I cheated. You can win this for Sofia.” Orson felt as though his eyes should water but they had nothing left.

“I,” Seb paused. Orson heard retching sounds. “I don’t know what you mean. I had to leave last night because I felt sick. I’m very sick now.” A sound as if a blocked drain suddenly cleared. “Theo, I don’t know what happened but I caught something nasty.” The sound of a phone hitting the floor and the crackle as someone retrieved it.

“Seb?”

“I am sorry, sir, but Mr. Blackthorn cannot continue this conversation at this time.” The voice sounded stern. “Please allow him time to recover.” The click of a handset being replaced hit Orson like a nail into his forehead. He dropped the phone onto the bed and fell into something between sleep and coma.

***

“Mr. Orson, sir.”

Hands made of ice shook Orson’s shoulder.

“Mr. Orson, please wake up”

Orson opened one eye. It felt as if he was dragging sandpaper over his eyeball. He opened his mouth and tried to acknowledge Chadwick but all that came out was a dry creak.

“Sir, Doctor Gill can’t come right away. He has a lot of cases to deal with this morning. He suggested I keep you hydrated like this.” Chadwick held a wet sponge to Orson’s mouth, Orson sucked at it.

“Can you speak, sir?”

“I…” It was more a breath than a word, but the water in his mouth made it at least bearable. “I think so. Why?”

“There is a phone call, sir. Something about ice. The caller was most insistent.”

Oh, what does he want now? Orson groaned and closed his eyes.

“Should I tell him you are indisposed, sir? He could call back another time.”

“No, Chadwick.” Orson sighed. “Let’s get it over with. Hand me the phone, would you?”

Orson’s fingers were black to the knuckles now and his hands were completely numb. The handset slid from his grasp. Much as he would have preferred Chadwick leave the room while he spoke with the young scientist, he had no choice but to allow Chadwick to hold the phone for him, and to connect this line to the main house line.

“Orson speaking.” It might have been his feverishness but he was sure Chadwick’s hand was shaking.

“Mr. Orson. Thank God. It’s about the ice core. The whole facility is in lockdown, quarantine. Nobody gets in there and we’re all being screened.”

“They missed that section?” Orson should be worried but he was far too sick to care. “You know the terms. If you get caught, my name is never mentioned.”

Orson motioned to Chadwick to apply the wet sponge to his lips again. His tongue had begun sticking to the roof of his mouth.

“No, it’s not that.” The young scientist sounded panicked. “There was a study I didn’t know about. Some weeks back, they took samples to see if they could find any microbial life in the deep parts of the ice.”

“Did they?” Orson’s voice cracked. He coughed, which became a wheeze that brought tears to his eyes. “Did they?” he tried to say again, but only a whisper came out.

“They found a virus. Similar to a modern, harmless one. They tested it in rats.”

Orson cleared his throat and closed his eyes in an attempt to stop the throbbing in his temples “Harmless. So no problem then.”

“No, no, it’s harmless now. I mean the modern one is harmless. They’ve tested it in rats, at ten-thousand-year intervals along the ice core. It gets more dangerous the further back it goes. It lost its virulence over the millennia and became a harmless parasite, but at the start it was very nasty indeed.”

Orson’s breath came in shallow gasps. “How nasty?”

There was a silence.

Orson tried to shout. “How nasty, dammit?” His body twisted with the agony of a coughing fit. Chadwick held the sponge to his lips again.

“Mr. Orson, I know you paid a lot for that core but please, get rid of it. Let it melt and then sterilise it. Don’t let anyone touch it. If the virus gets inside it’ll… well, you’ve heard of Ebola? This is worse. And it’s highly contagious.”

Oh shit. It wasn’t Sebastian who did this. It was me. “What’s the cure for it? What treatment?” Orson’s eyes brimmed with tears.

“There is no cure. Maybe one day, but it’s a new disease. It has to be contained.” Voices murmured in the background. “I have to go. Mr. Orson, I’ll get the money back to you, I promise, but you have to get rid of that ice.” The line went silent.

Chadwick replaced the handset. His fingers trembled and veins protruded on the back of his hands.

“I couldn’t help overhearing some of that, sir.” He avoided eye contact. “Is it as bad as it sounded?”

Orson forced his breathing to slow. “Yes, Chadwick, it is. When Doctor Gill arrives, have him check out yourself and the rest of the staff first. Make sure he wears a face mask, I know he always carries some. Seal the house, don’t let anyone enter or leave.” This long speech was too much. Orson’s lungs burned, his nose and throat felt as though they were filled with acid. He wheezed and motioned for the sponge again.

Chadwick held the sponge with his now clearly trembling hand. “Sir, If I lock down the house the staff might panic.”

Orson waited until he felt safe to speak. “Think of some pretext. Say a valuable artefact went missing and nobody is to leave because there has to be an investigation. Something along those lines.”

“Very good, sir.” Chadwick left the sponge within reach and moved to the door. He paused. “Sir, I have not yet prepared a last will and testament. Should I do so now?”

Orson could have laughed, if he still had the ability to do so. “I would recommend it, Chadwick, old friend. I would heartily recommend it.”

Chadwick lowered his eyes for a moment, then put his shoulders back and stood erect. “I understand, sir. Thank you for the advice.” He left and closed the door quietly.

Orson closed his eyes. He tried to touch his legs – his hands had no feeling but he also felt nothing when he pressed them against his legs. How far had this spread? The young scientist said it was fast and fatal. Very contagious. Chadwick, dear, faithful Chadwick, already showed the shake in his hands.

Tears, and not just of pain, streamed from his eyes. All those guests. The drivers who took them home. Their staff, their families, their children. Even Doctor Gill, who would already have visited some of them without knowing he needed to wear a face mask. Would that even help against a virus? Orson had no idea.

In his mind, he chuckled. What came out sounded like the last gasps of an asphyxiated ferret. Tarquin. That bumbling eccentric, that peacock-feathered popinjay. The clown of the upper classes. He took no ice in his whisky. He would likely be the only one of us to survive.

All the others, though, all their immediate family, all their staff… and all the family of the staff, delivery and postal workers, maybe bank tellers. Every shop they visited, every pub they drank in, every school their children went to…

Oh my God, what have I unleashed? His dry lips cracked in a smile. The Blackthorns would be so proud of me, and so envious. The mayhem they have dreamed of for generations is here and I did it without knowing.

The effort even of moving his face became too much. Orson let all muscle movement subside. His breathing became shallower and shallower.

It was for a toy. Not for fame and glory, not for some noble ideal, not for the end of war and peace for all mankind. I have let loose a demon on the world and I did it for a petty competition over a little plastic toy.

His breathing became erratic. There was no more pain, no more feeling of any kind. His vision clouded and the room darkened.

It was just a game. A game of old times. Finally, the old times came back to bite us.

The game is over. The knight is mine.

Here comes the night.

I hope there are no screams in it.

______________________________________________________

Don’t worry. I’m sure nothing like this could ever really happen. Probably.

Hawaii at 100

Okay, I have finally finished with ‘Norman’s House’ and loaded it up. It has passed all the checks and the eBook version will spread soon. I’ll push it once the Amazon listings combine. Details are here.

The eighth Underdog Anthology is now open for submissions. Since we are not getting visited (parents again) until April 4th, I can set the closing date for submissions to March 25th, and I can be a few-days flexible on that. It’s the Spring (Beltane) anthology, details here.

Right, that’s the work stuff done. Now it’s time to get the popcorn, pour a good sized drink, sit back and marvel at the madness of the world.

I read recently of a man in India who plans to sue his parents for giving birth to him without his consent. I have also noted that several American states now allow abortion up to the point of birth. Soon they will give new parents a one-year cooling off period, during which they can bring the child back for extermination if it keeps them awake or if they just change their minds. Oh I know, it sounds flippant, but I’m really not joking. There will be many counsellors on hand to help change their minds during that first year too.

It sounds horrifying but people will accept it because it’s all part of the plan. As is your child sueing you for bringing them into this world without their consent. Read Orwell’s 1984, if you haven’t already, and see what your children will be able to do to you in future. Heck, they can do it now.

This post isn’t about those things.

If I live to be 100 I am going to Hawaii. I won’t go before then but if I get that old I am definitely going. It’s quite a few years away yet and given that I have lived, and continue to live, a life that should, by all modern medical propaganda, have ended in 1985, it’s a long shot.

Still, as I said, I will not go there before I reach 100 because I won’t be able to buy any cigarettes there until I reach that age. I will definitely go there when I reach 100 because I’ll make a fortune. I’ll buy cigarettes and sell them individually to the 90-year-old senile delinquents on street corners. (tip of the heavy hat to Zaphod on Twitter for this one)

The idiots in charge of Hawaii are concerned about – a potentially strong backlash from tobacco companies.

They are not at all concerned about any kind of effect on existing smokers. Fuck ’em. Nor on any small retailers who rely heavily on the profits from cigarette sales. Fuck ’em too. The tobacco industry could write off the whole of Hawaii and their balance sheets won’t notice the difference. Hawaii’s corner shops will notice the difference very quickly and Hawaii’s smokers will, if they have any sense, be packing their bags right now.

Oh I know, smokers, eh? Who needs ’em? Wouldn’t the world have been so much better without the likes of Churchill or Einstein or Brunel? We could have been so much better off under the virulent-antismoker vegetarian Hitler. So all the smokers leave. You won’t miss them. You’ll have your new Righteous overlords looking after you and if you think it stops with smoking…. you really haven’t been paying attention.

If it goes through, and considering the current lunacy gripping the world I won’t be surprised if it does, I wil visit Hawaii in a little over 40 years. But not before.

I’d better start saving though. The way cigarette prices are going, that pack will cost me more than the flight to Hawaii by the time I get there.

The Marketing Begins…

Well, I set up a page on Farcebook since that seems to be the most likely successful marketing strategy. It costs nothing to try that so it seems like a good place to start. I have also spammed my friends list with the link. Hopefully one or two won’t just respond with ‘get stuffed’.

Thanks to everyone who responded to the last post. I’ll try to respond individually but there are a lot of you. You’re right. Spending a lot on throwaway stuff isn’t going to help. As several have said, I, too, have an attic loaded with free bags and all sorts of things from companies I’ve worked with, given talks and consultancy to (not for free, of course) and spoken with at conferences. None of it has influenced any later buying decisions.

I’ve gone ahead with the business cards, those seem likely to be useful, and had a small number of mugs made for family to show off to visitors. Random strangers would simply add them to the mug cupboard, family are more likely to show off what their lunatic relative is up to now.

Some months back I tried out the Twitter book promoters. It was only $10, not a big risk, but it did nothing. Not a thing. Took me a few days to realise that everyone does what I do when faced with five or six consecutive tweets pushing one book. I just fast-scroll past them all. Twitter, I think, will only work if I can insert a mention of a book into a relevant conversation. Someone talking about Jacobites? I could mention Mark Ellott’s ‘Rebellion’. Someone talking about grooming? Margo Jackson’s ‘The Mark’ is relevant there, even though the ‘grooming’ part is not as clear cut as you might think.

Cafepress, Zazzle and the new one on me, Spreadshirt, could be good places to set up merchandise. Not just the Leg Iron Books logo, maybe some book covers too. I’ll look into that. Vistaprint, who do the business cards, will do T shirts but I’d have to buy them first. They don’t sell direct. What sizes do I buy? How do I sell T shirts? I have no idea… that’s best left to the merchandise sites. If I can make money from merchandise I can further cut my percentage of profit from book sales and send more of it to authors. I’m currently on 30%, a few T shirt and mug sales and I could drop to 20%.

I still plan to work up a printed catalogue, well, a leaflet at this stage. That would be vital if I can get to a book show. I might not sell any books but ‘take one, it’s free’ should do well. Other than that, really, bookmarks are still on the cards. Not much use for eBooks of course but people do still like real print books.

There will also be ‘box sets’. I can’t yet make real boxes for box sets but I can do it with eBooks and I can, if I have several books that aren’t very thick, make a one volume omnibus edition. Why? Because the set, say three books, will be cheaper than buying all three individually. It appeals to latecomers who want a set but don’t want to pay for them all.

I should soon be able to make a Mark Ellott collection and I’m working on piling all my own short stories into one volume of misery and despair. I cannot go back and do annual omnibuses of the anthologies unless I get a new contract from every author. The contract is explicit: I get to use the story once. I can’t use it again. However, I will include that omnibus use in contracts from now so it’ll be in the Easter (Anthology 8) contracts. This changes nothing from the author’s point of view, they still get all rights back on first publication, it just means I can make a combined omnibus edition at the end of each year.

So, if I can manage to drink enough and think crazy enough, I’ll have marketing nailed eventually. For now, the marketing budget is limited but will rise if book sales rise. The two are inextricably linked.

It won’t be easy, but then I have something of a reputation for not taking the easy route 😉