Entertainment time – Troubled Water

Well, Halloween has passed so just for fun, here’s one of my stories from Underdog Anthology 9 – ‘Well Haunted‘.

I’m busy with a novel for publication at the moment, it’ll be done this week, but the rage is building at our political lunacy and I’ll be back.

In the meantime, a bit of fun…

Troubled Water

Murmurs in my dreams. Voices, insistent, persistent, nagging. It’s been so long. Why won’t they just let me sleep? Why won’t they let me fade into death in peace? I was so close. Nearly there. Nearly gone. They ignored me for so very long. Why now? I must answer. I am compelled.

He (or she or it, nobody was ever sure, not even itself any more) stretched and groaned from its slumber, then headed upwards. Slowly, reluctantly, it approached the tiny patch of daylight above it, reviving memories of so many years ago, of things it once enjoyed. No more.

***

“Take it easy. This isn’t a goddamn off-road wheelchair.” Brandon gripped the armrests as his chair lurched in another rut in the uneven ground. “And this field is full of cows. I hate cows.”

“You are wearing a leather jacket and we just had burgers for lunch. How can you say you hate cows?” Sally sighed and pushed the wheelchair forward a little more. “You’re heavy and it’s not my fault there’s no path from the road to the well.”

“I bought my jacket in a shop. We get burgers from a drive-through. What has that to do with cows?” Brandon coughed and spat. “There’s shit everywhere, don’t you dare let me fall in it.”

You might contaminate it. Sally closed her eyes for a moment. He’s my brother. He might be an insufferable arsehole but it’s not his fault, not really. He was born this way. I have to be more tolerant.

“I think I see it.” Brandon pointed ahead and a little to the left. “That pile of rocks. It’s like that photo on the Internet, not much of it left after nearly twelve hundred years but if it still has water, it should still be active.” He shifted in his seat to turn to look at Sally, a move that nearly tipped him over. “Well, come on, we’re almost there.”

Sally tightened her grip on the wheelchair handles, only just managing to keep Brandon upright. “Okay. Let’s take it slow and easy.” She moved the chair forward, watching for ruts in the cow-stomped wet ground. If this didn’t work, and she really didn’t think it would, she’d have to push him all the way back again.

“This is it.” Brandon leaned forward in his chair. “There’s a trickle of water. Not much, but the spring is still active.” He pulled a small metal cup from the recesses of his chair and handed it to Sally.

“You’re not seriously planning to drink that?” Sally turned the cup in her hands. The trickle of spring water flowed over grubby stones, into mud, and had cut a channel through several piles of cow manure. “Brandon, it’s disgusting. Give it up. Let’s go home.”

Brandon snorted. “This is my last hope. All you need do is get some of that water. Come on, Sally. I know you don’t believe it’ll work but we’ve come this far. I’m not giving up now.” He pointed to where the water emerged from the rocks. “If you get it from there, before it hits any of the crap, it’ll be clean.”

Sally blew a long breath. All those homeopathy sessions, all the faith healers, all the acupuncture, all the stuff Brandon had tried when he found modern medicine couldn’t help him. None of them worked, This won’t work either. Why can’t he just accept it? His spine is ruined. Nothing can fix that. There’s no magic cure. He has to learn to adapt.

“Come on.” Brandon rocked in his chair. “Just a sip of water. That’s all.”

Oh what the hell. Sally moved towards the trickle of water emerging from the algae-covered rocks, avoiding the worst of the mud and faeces, and resigned herself to the chore of pushing her brother all the way back to the car while trying to console him once again. He’ll never walk. The doctors said so, and no matter how deep he goes into this silly magic, none of it is real. She put the cup into the trickle of water.

You need no healing.

The voice reverberated in her head. Sally jumped back. The cup spilled its contents over the rocks and ground. Her fingers clenched so hard they threatened to crush it.

“What are you doing?” Brandon’s voice seemed to come from far away. “You just have to fill a cup, for God’s sake.”

Somewhere behind her, the moo of a cow sounded full of mirth and mockery.

Sally shook her head. “Did you hear that?”

Brandon came back into her reality. “Hear what? I just hear cows. Come on, sis. Just get some water in that cup.”

Sally stared at the cup in her hands. “It was a voice, but in my head. Everything went… far away… for a moment.”

“This is no time for you to have some kind of mental episode. Pull yourself together.” Brandon’s face filled with rage and expectation. “Come on. Get me some of that water.”

I actually hope this works. It’s the only way I’ll be free of him. Sally took several deep breaths. Since the death of their parents she was Brandon’s sole caretaker and he had been a remarkably unappreciative patient. She moved the cup towards the water again but this time she formed a thought in her head and pushed it forward. It’s not for me, it’s for my brother.

I see your thoughts. I understand. Take the water.

This time, the voice in her head was softer, almost gentle. Sally half-filled the cup and returned to Brandon’s side.

“Are you sure about this?” Sally held the cup in both hands. “We don’t know if this is safe. Anything could happen.” The experience of the voice still jangled her nerves. Something was going to happen, she felt sure, but what?

“Look at me.” Brandon spread his arms wide. “This is it. This is my life. How can it get worse?’

Sally stared into the cup. Mine too. It’s not going to get better as long as he’s stuck in that chair. Please, against all the odds, against all the logic and common sense in the world, let this work. She handed him the cup.

Brandon took a tentative sip, stared into the water for a moment then took the whole lot in one swallow. He closed his eyes, took a few deep breaths, then opened them. His hands explored his legs, he slapped them, he moved them side to side, he roared at them. Nothing happened. Finally, he threw the cup at the pile of rocks and screamed his anguish at the sky while the cup clattered until it came to rest in a pile of cow manure.

“It didn’t work.” Brandon leaned forward in his chair, his hands over his face. “I’m stuck in this bloody chair forever. There’s nothing left to try.”

“Maybe it takes time.” Sally reached out to him, but hesitated. Of course it didn’t work. It’s nonsense. But that voice…

“You don’t get it. You never have.” Brandon’s voice came muffled through his fingers. “You can walk. I never have. I’ll never know what it’s like. I keep hearing that song, ‘Oh I would walk five hundred miles’ and you cannot understand what that does to me. I wish I could walk five hundred miles. It’s never going to happen.”

“Brandon—” A shifting in the rocks stopped Sally. Not so much a shifting of the rocks themselves, they didn’t actually move, it was more a distortion in the air that blurred their positions.

I have waited for you to articulate your wish.

The voice came from the air this time, not from inside her head. Sally glanced at Brandon and his lowered hands, the look on his face, told her he had heard it too.

Brandon blinked at the pile of stones. Sally understood, the rocks seemed indistinct, as though seen through a haze. A haze that thickened as she watched.

You drank my water but you did not say what you wanted from me. Now you have claimed your deliverance and I must comply.

“What the Hell?” Brandon gripped the arms of his chair. Sally moved to stand behind him. The haze formed into a skeletal creature, its fingers elongated and ending in talons, its smile coming from a strange place between benevolent and demonic. It stared at Brandon.

I am required to ask you. Are you sure?

“Sure of what?” Brandon trembled so hard, the handles of the chair vibrated under Sally’s hand. “Are you a demon from Hell?”

The creature’s laugh was deep and hollow, an entire cemetery of mirth, a sound from the places where happiness goes to die.

I was born there, long ago. Oh it wasn’t the most gentle of places but it was a lot warmer than my current prison.

“Prison?” Sally gripped both handles of the wheelchair. “You’re in prison?”

What, you think I lie around in shit-strewn fields, in a wreck of what was once a finely constructed well, and put up with being ignored for centuries as some sort of fun pastime? The creature’s eyes blazed. I have been here over a thousand years. Trapped by a man you people call a saint. I have other names for him. It was okay at first. People came, made offerings, I healed them. Then they stopped.

The rage in the creature’s eyes dimmed a little. They stopped coming. I could not leave. I am bound here but I had no purpose. Nothing. For many centuries I lay in the well. I watched it fall apart. I saw the farmers come and take stones to build their walls. I was here the day the last of it fell into rubble. I saw my holy field become a stomping ground and a latrine for cattle.

Sally took a step back as the creature’s eyes bored into hers. You think Hell is bad? This is far, far worse. Here I am entirely alone. Fading, dying, and I welcomed it, then you came along. One last wish, one last healing. Then I will fall back into the well and fade to oblivion.

Brandon found his voice. “But you can still heal me, right? You can fix me so I can walk?”

Of course. I can grant your wish. It is the only power your so-called saint left me with.

“Brilliant.” Brandon grinned, then frowned. “It’s not going to cost my soul, is it?”

The creature laughed its cemetery laugh again. I have no use for souls. The people brought me offerings. They gave me things that were important to them. It turned its gaze to Sally, who blanched and took a step back.

Brandon looked down at himself. “Well, this chair has been important to me all my life. Although if you heal me, I guess it won’t be important any more. Does it still count?”

It will do. I am beyond caring about the offerings anyway.

“Sounds like a deal to me. I get to walk and you can keep the chair.” Brandon clenched his fists in excitement.

I still have to ask the question. Are you sure?

Brandon’s earlier words came back into Sally’s mind. She leaned over him. “Brandon, don’t rush into this. Think for a moment. You’ve had nearly thirty years in that chair. Just think.”

“What’s to think about?” Brandon twisted to face her. “I want to walk. Yes, I am sure.”

The creature nodded and uttered a few incomprehensible words.

Sally held her breath.

Brandon pulled his arms around his chest. He coughed. Then groaned.

Then screamed, his arms flung wide.

Sally’s hand flew to her mouth. “What are you doing to him?”

The creature sighed. His spine is badly deformed. I have to re-route most of his nervous system. Of course it’s going to hurt.

“Can’t you use some kind of anaesthetic?” Sally grabbed one of Brandon’s hands and held tight.

What’s that?

Oh, crap. Sally tried to still Brandon’s flailing arm. This thing comes from a time when you got a shot of rum before getting your infected leg sawed off with five people holding you down. It doesn’t even know about aspirin.

I could have stopped the pain but he didn’t wish for that. I am constrained by the spells that bind me. I have to take the wish literally.

Sally was sure there was a hint of malicious glee in those words. This thing had a trick in store, she was sure of it. Was it evil? Or just bored and looking for one last strike back at the humans who left it to rot? What would it do to her brother?

Finally, Brandon passed out. He slumped in his wheelchair, breathing heavily.

“Is it over?” Sally faced the creature, who nodded.

Well, the pain is over for now. The wish begins when he wakes. He will walk.

Sally closed her eyes and pursed her lips. “Part of me wants to thank you, but another part thinks this is a trick.” She looked into the creature’s eyes. “Did you really take his wish literally?”

The creature raised some fleshy parts above its eyes that might have passed for eyebrows. I have no choice in this matter. It glanced away for a moment. I am not evil. I have a little leeway, but I must grant the wish as spoken.

Brandon groaned. Sally turned to face him. Brandon groaned again and his left leg twitched. Then his right leg. Sally’s eyes widened. There had been no movement in Brandon’s legs throughout his entire life.

“Can he walk?” Sally faced the creature. “I mean, his legs have never moved. He has almost no muscle in them. And it takes babies about a year to learn to walk. Won’t he have to go through all that?”

Oh I fixed that. I thought, since the process was causing so much pain anyway, I might as well boost his muscle strength and instil walking patterns in his brain. Those things hurt too, best get it all over with in one, eh? The creature tilted its head. Besides, I couldn’t fulfil his wish immediately if I hadn’t done those things.

Sally closed her eyes. His wish. Literally. What exactly did he say?

“Ah!” Brandon’s gasp made her turn to face him. He stood in front of his chair, legs twitching. He seemed unsure what to do next.

“Brandon. You’re standing! It worked.” Sally clenched her fists over her chest. Her brother was free of his chair at last And I am free of him.

Your wish is granted. You may begin at any time. Just move one leg in front of the other and it will all come naturally.

Brandon swayed a little, then put his right foot forward. He swayed a little more, arms out for balance, then shifted his weight to swing his left leg in front of the right one.

“Sally, look! I’m doing it! I’m walking!” He took another step, then another, and was soon striding confidently across the field. He turned, the first time with some difficulty, but soon mastered that too and marched back towards Sally.

“This is great.” Brandon flashed a smile as he passed, walked a little way more, turned and came back again. “I’m new to this. How do I stop?” He kept walking out into the field.

And I would walk five hundred miles and I would walk five hundred more, just to be the man who walked a thousand miles… The song came unbidden to Sally’s mind. She remembered Brandon’s exact words when he made the wish. I wish I could walk five hundred miles.

The creature caught her gaze and sniffed. I did tell you I had to take the wish literally, and I asked him – twice – if he was sure.

“So he won’t stop until he’s done five hundred miles?” Sally put her hands over her face and breathed into her hands to stop herself hyperventilating. She lowered her hands. “What about when he’s done the miles? What then? He wished to walk five hundred miles but when he’s done that, is he crippled once more?”

The creature smiled. I also told you I have a little leeway, even though I must take the wish literally. No, when he’s done what he wished to do he’ll still be able to walk. Although he might not feel much like it for a while.

Brandon passed them again. “Sis. I don’t know how to stop.”

Sally faced the creature. “Can’t you do something? What if he drank another cup of water and wished again?” Her gaze flicked to the cup, now dented and slowly sinking into a pile of cow manure. She decided she might need a different cup.

The creature shrugged. He’s not in need of healing now. That’s all I can do— healing. All my other powers were stripped from me when your ‘saint’ conjured me and then trapped me here. He’s not sick so there is nothing I can do.

“How do I get him home? How can I get him in the car if he can’t stop walking?”

What’s a car? The creature furrowed its brow.

“Oh—” Sally threw up her hands and turned away, just in time to see Brandon heading back towards them. “Never mind.” Her shoulders slumped. “It’s only five hundred miles. I’ll cope. I always have.”

Brandon passed with a pained look on his face. “Sis, I need the toilet.”

Sally could have sworn she heard a giggle, but when she turned, the creature had vanished.

November

What are we supposed to give up this month? Smoking? Drinking? Driving? Meat? Dwarf Hustling? Otter Prodding? Breathing? I can never remember. It doesn’t matter anyway, I’ll just ignore it. I have to, there are unprodded otters in the river. Well someone has to do it. Those otters won’t prod themselves. Prodding poles at the ready…

Apparently we have once again failed to leave the EU. I don’t actually think that matters either. It’s already starting to fall apart, it’s just the BBC pretending it isn’t happening. Soon there’ll be nothing to leave.

November used to be, and probably still is, NaNoWriMo. National novel writing month. You are supposed to get the first draft of a novel completed in a month. No editing, no going back and changing anything, just blast it out.

I did it once. I wrote ‘Norman’s House‘ that way. Oh I completed the story within the month but it took years to get back to it and edit it. In the meantime I wrote the prequel, ‘Jessica’s Trap‘ and that was published first. Then ‘Samuel’s Girl‘. So the whole story came out in the right order in the end.

It’s not over. Demdike comes back in the next book, and there’s another one part-planned-out after that. There is mileage in the grumpy bastard Romulus Crowe yet.

The first of November marks the official opening of submissions for the Christmas Underdog Anthology. Number ten. And to think, when I started this, there were those who told me it was going nowhere. Every anthology has introduced at least one new author and the Christmas one already has its new voice. I won’t give a name yet in case he wants to use a pen name.

Still, Christmas 2019 has three stories locked in, two more likely, and it’s only just opened for submissions.

I have two other books to publish. One by Marsha Webb which only needs a cover. I decided to get arty and do it myself, but as always I have overreached. The cover is composed in acrylic paint, ink with a brush, ink with a glass pen, coloured pencil… and more. It’s taking ages. So there will be a first edition with a simpler cover in under a week and we’ll put out a second edition when the real cover is ready.

The other is by the new author in Well Haunted. Gastradamus is the name he goes by and he has a collection of pretty mad short stories to share. I need to get that done fast too. I’d like to engage a real artist for the cover but there might not be time if it’s coming out for Christmas. So it could be a first edition with a photoshopped picture cover and a second edition later too.

I also want to do this with some of the early books. Mark Ellott’s first novel, ‘Ransom‘, would benefit from a better cover and so would Lee Bidgood’s ‘You’ll be fine‘. Covers are important, it’s the first thing anyone sees. My cover image preparation has improved with practice, the early ones could do with a revamp.

Margo Jackson’s ‘The Mark‘ has a decent cover for an early attempt. It has a weirdo lurking in the woods (it’s actually me) which is integral to the story.

Some authors provided their own cover images – Dirk Vleugels and Justin Sanebridge, and later Mark Ellott – but since those first two tend to write in Dutch and French there wasn’t really much editing involved at all.

I’m probably digressing but I’m not sure I had a point to start with. Perhaps it was about building up and collapsing.

I never intended to build up Leg Iron Books. I genuinely did not expect it to get as far as it has. It was meant as a hobby business for retirement. It’s taken off far faster and bigger than I expected but I’m not forcing it. I set it up to get authors into print so they can go to an agent and say ‘Look, I’ve already published these’. It matters. Literary agents do not want one trick ponies. They get about 15% of the royalties and if you’re selling ten copies of your only book per year, that’s no good to them. They get pennies. They want to see you put out more books.

The big publishers do not accept direct submissions from authors. They will only work with agents. If you don’t have an agent you are never getting into the big publishers and if you are not published you will have a hard time getting an agent.

This is what Leg Iron Books is for. I want to lose authors to agents and big publishers. I’d like to think those authors will remember where they came from and maybe send some new ones this way but this is never going to make me rich. Leg Iron Books is small fry and staying that way.

Will Leg Iron Books collapse? Probably not unless I pack it in or die. It’s not being ramped up, it’s not leveraged, it has no debt and is not looking to be anything other than a backwater way in to the world of publication.

The EU is ramped and leveraged to the eyes. Riddled with corruption, bad debt and vanishing cash. It’s doomed. The Church of Climatology depends on its believers and on free grants from taxpayers. The believers don’t seem keen to chip in and the taxpayers are starting to wonder why their heating bills are going up rather than down. The scam is collapsing, hence the sudden panic-driven push to get as much as they can before the glaciers roll over Birmingham.

The new anti-vaping crap is falling apart too. What a pity so many vapers have joined the antismokers. They’d have had a lot more allies otherwise. But then…

First they came for the smokers. I was a smoker, and nobody spoke out for me.

The rest of you can suck it up.

The UK parliament is wringing its hands over what the public thinks of them. The truth is, the real aims of those bloody parasites are now clear and we’re thinking what we should have been thinking all along. That’s falling apart too.

The next election is going to be worth staying up to watch. Results finalised on Friday the Thirteenth and I hope it’s unlucky for all of them.

There has been no writing tonight. I took the day off. It’s Halloween so we watched a film called ‘The Nun’. Lovely. I laughed often. Tomorrow is back to work for me, I have those two books to get ready, then I have visitors to deal with for a week, then the Christmas anthology.

December to February, we are closed to visitors. We need some sleep!

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.

Waking Santa – a Christmas Tale

A tale of Christmas yet to come. If you’re new here you’ll need to catch up on where this story came from. First this one, then this one.

Those two now appear in Underdog Anthologies 4 and 5, and the one you’re about to read is in Anthology 7.

Yes, these stories are following a pattern and leading somewhere. Somewhere that isn’t all that nice. It’s a reflection of reality, when you sit back and consider it, but hey – this is just entertainment. It’s Christmas! (he says, smoothing his green fur and waiting for it to be over).

Without further ado, here’s this year’s instalment.

Waking Santa

“The snow is stopping. We should go.” Betty turned her gaze back to her tablet. “They might not have traced us yet but if they have, they’ll be able to send the drones now.”

“Just a couple of minutes. The download is almost done.” Alan visually checked his connections into the breached cable they had dug up, under cover of an open-sided white tent. “Anyway, it’s still Earth Hour. They’ll mostly be standing out in the woods and hugging trees that don’t even know they’re there.” He let out a guffaw.

“It’s not funny.” Betty slapped his arm. “This is seriously dangerous. As long as we don’t bother them, they ignore us. We are taking a big risk here.”

Alan took a breath and blew out condensation into the cold air. “They don’t ignore us. They can’t find us. If they do, we’re dead. The only way to find out what’s happening in the cities is to take a risk. Besides, it’s Earth Day, and after Earth Hour most systems will be shut down.”

“The civilian ones.” Betty stared at her tablet. “You know full well the government never shuts down.”

“I know. We nearly got caught last time. Still, we need to know how they are progressing in there and whether they are a threat to us.” Alan checked his screen. “Twenty seconds and we’re done.”

“You were out with Pete last time. What do you mean, you nearly got caught?”

Alan waved his hand. “Oh, it wasn’t a big deal. The drones were sent, we had six minutes to finish the download before they arrived and we were out of there in two.”

“You know a capture of any of us means a total pull-out, right?” Betty’s eyes widened. “Shut everything, take what we can carry and run. Find a whole new place to live. That’s a big deal. A very big deal.”

“Don’t worry about it. We didn’t get caught and we won’t this time. Download is complete.” Alan shut down his laptop and disconnected it from the exposed cable. “We leave the canopy. It’ll take them that little bit longer to find our breach and every second counts now.”

“Drones are activated. They’ve noticed us.” Betty tapped at her tablet screen. “Seven minutes. Let’s move.”

Alan folded his laptop and placed it in his shoulder bag along with the cables. “Seven minutes is plenty of time. Come on.” He grinned at Betty. “This is fun, isn’t it?

“You’re insane.” Betty took the lead. “Hey, won’t they just follow our tracks in the snow?”

“You go ahead. I’ll follow.” Alan picked up what Betty had assumed was his walking stick. He pulled a lever and extended one end into a rake, laced with strips of cloth. “Drone cameras are low resolution. They won’t be able to see our raked-over tracks and they’ll be busy hunting for the breached cable. Which they also can’t easily see because we’ve left a white canopy over it.” He lowered the rake to the ground, behind them. “They’ll have a precise location and waste time scanning and re-scanning it. We have time to get well out of the way.”

“You’re so fucking complacent.” Betty trudged through the snow, her tablet now stowed inside her thick jacket. “You don’t seem to realise how dangerous this is.”

“I know exactly how dangerous it is.” Alan’s voice lost its humour. “I’ve done this dozens of times, at all times of year, and we’ve cut it very close more than once. This is one of the easy ones.”

“Easy!” Betty snorted. “We have seven minutes to get clear before the sky is full of drones and you think that’s easy?”

Alan’s sigh didn’t make her turn. She was focused on getting away from what had just become a target site.

“The information we get is important.” Alan said. “And yes, it’s a risk. A big one. But they only ever send one drone to hunt for us and that drone always concentrates on the breach point. This time it’ll take them seven minutes to get here and we’re four minutes from cover. This really is one of the easy ones.”

Betty let out a gasp of disbelief. “I never want to be your watchman on one of these missions ever again.”

Alan laughed. “Nobody ever does.” His tone became serious. “It matters though. I’m the only one hacking into their systems. I take out someone different every time because if I can’t do it any more, or I get caught, the rest of you need to know where the access points are.” He paused. “If I take out the same person every time and we both get caught, it’s over.”

“Oh great.” Betty scowled at the new snow before her. “So I’m expendable.”

“No.” Alan spoke quietly. “I am. You, Pete, Stan, Eddie, Helen, all the others, are the ones who will replace me when I’m not around any more.”

“Huh?” Betty stopped and turned to face him. “What do you mean?”

Alan motioned her to keep moving. “We can talk about this when we’re safe. Let’s get inside.”

Betty scanned the fresh snow in front of them. “Where’s the entrance? I told you when we arrived, we should have marked it.”

“Never mark anything. It gives a drone something to find.” Alan pointed at her hands. “Where’s your tablet? It has a map that makes use of their GPS system to tell us exactly where we are, and where the access hatch is.”

“Can’t they track it?” Betty pulled out her tablet and turned it on.

“Yes.” Alan waved her concerns aside. “But we must be very close. It should only be on for a few seconds. It’s a risk, but pissing about here while there’s a drone on the way is a far bigger risk.”

“Okay. The access hatch should be about five metres that way.” She pointed to her left. “And it’s starting to snow again so we’d better hurry.”

Alan was already probing the snow. “Found it. Time to turn off anything electronic.”

Betty shut down her tablet then helped him shove the snow aside with her hands. They cleared just enough to get the hatch open and dropped into the darkness inside.

Alan lit an LED flashlight, pulled the hatch closed, spun the wheel that held it closed then jammed his rake’s handle through the wheel. “If they managed to trace the GPS signal, this should slow them down. The new snow will hide our tracks, hopefully before the drone arrives.”

“How can you be so calm? I’m terrified.” Betty hugged herself.

“You develop a certain fatalism after you’ve done this a few times.” Alan picked up the sticks wrapped, at one end, in pitch-soaked cloth, part of the return-journey items they had left here, and struck his lighter. “You just know that any mission can be your last. So every time I get home, it’s a great feeling.” He grinned, lit one of the torches and handed it to Betty, then lit another for himself. Then turned off the flashlight and pocketed it.

He hefted the bag containing the rest of their supplies and started along the rusting pipe. “Come on, we have to get the hell out. We have new information to take home and this whole trip is wasted if we get caught.”

Betty followed. “Why don’t we use the LED torches? We used them on the way here and they have plenty of charge left.”

“No electromagnetic radiation. Nothing. Not so much as a battery powered watch. We know their cameras are crap, we’ve downloaded footage that shows them getting worse over time, but we also know they are very advanced in RFID and in detecting electrical fields.” Alan turned to smile at her. “So we go all caveman on the way back.”

“You really think they can spot the EMF of an LED?”

“No idea.” Alan turned into a junction in the pipework. “In this game we take no chances. No markings anywhere, we can use the computer map to get here but to get back…” He took a piece of paper from his jacket. “We go old style.”

Betty took the paper and unfolded it one-handed. “What the hell is this? It looks like a computer map drawn in pencil.”

“That’s exactly what it is. I hear that, in the days before GPS and satellites, they had to make these by measuring distances on the ground.”

“Oh come on.” Betty followed Alan as he turned into another pipe. “How are you even making these turns? There’s nothing on this paper to tell us where we are.”

“I’ve done this trip so many times I don’t need the map any more. This is for you to follow. Call it on-the-job training.” Alan stopped and faced her. “Can you tell where we are on that map?”

Betty stared at the paper. “I don’t even know where we started from. How the hell do you work this?”

“It’s best used with a compass, but those don’t work in these steel pipes.” Alan took a pencil from his pocket and marked an X on the map. “This is where we just came in. Remember the turns we made?”

Betty shook her head. “Compass?”

“More olde worlde stuff. Don’t worry about it.” Alan smiled. “So, where do you think we are?”

 “Um…” Betty put her finger on the X and started moving along the lines.

“Wrong way. Not your fault, there’s nothing to orient yourself with here. Try again.”

Betty treated him to her best withering glare, then looked at the map. She moved her finger along the lines, traced two turns and said “here.”

“Yes.” Alan punched the air. “You’re a natural born map reader. Okay, we’re heading here ” he placed another X “– to a bit that looks like a blank wall. There’s a panel on the left side, press it and it pops open. Type in 5794 and the wall opens.  Always remember to close the panel before you go through.”

“Okay. I think.” Betty marked an X where they were on the map now.

“Right, Let’s go, and try to keep track of where we are on the map.” Alan started walking.

Betty followed. “Why are you showing me this now? Shouldn’t we be running?”

“We are in old steel pipes. If we run, the noise we make will echo through the whole system. Slow and quiet is the best way now.” His shoulders slumped a little but he kept walking. “You need to know this stuff. Everyone who has been out with me has one of those maps and knows how to use it. So when the day comes that I can’t do this anymore, there are plenty who can replace me.”

“You mean when you get too old?”

Alan half-turned his head, enough that Betty saw his tight smile. “I hope that’ll be the reason,” he said.

Betty followed him around a left turn. She marked the turn on the map, thinking about how her opinion of Alan had changed. He might seem irresponsible, even reckless, but he risked capture every time he went on one of these missions. She pursed her lips. She had been wrong about him. Everything he did was calculated and precise. It just looked random.

An echo along the pipes broke through her thoughts. A long slow groan, a bang, a rattling. They both froze.

“That can’t happen.” Alan’s voice quaked. “Drones can’t do that.”

“What is it?”

“Something broke open the entry hatch.” Alan grabbed Betty’s hand. “Where are we on this map? Right now.”

“What the hell does that matter?” Betty looked into his eyes and saw the raw fear in them. “I…” she touched the map. “Here, I think.”

“Good.” Alan reached into his bag. “Here, take my laptop. You’re younger and faster than me. You take the first left, the second left, then the second right turns, Open the panel, press 5794, close the panel and go through. I’ll catch up.”

“You want me to leave it open for you?”

“No. Always close it. I know how to open it when I get there.” He pressed the laptop into her free hand. “The information in here is what matters now.”

“But… what is it? Who broke the door open?” Betty clutched the laptop and felt her knees tremble.

“They sent more than a drone this time. Not a human, a machine. The one they only use on Earth Day.”

Echoing along the pipes came a heavy thump, then a deep, resounding ‘Ho ho ho’. The jingling of distant bells sounded but it was hard to say where they came from.

Alan closed his eyes. “Send not to ask for whom the bells jingle.”

Betty’s eyes widened so far it hurt. “He’s real? Green Santa is real?”

“Yes. Get going. I’ll be behind you but don’t look back and don’t wait for me. Get that information home. If I fall, do not – do not – come back for me. This is more important than either of us.”

She saw, in his eyes, a primal terror. A caveman faced with a tiger when all he had was a stick. She knew, in that moment she knew, that he was going to fight razor tooth and slashing claw with a stick because it was all he had to defend the thing that mattered to him. Betty turned and ran, her map now crumpled alongside the laptop in her hand, her blazing torch flaring behind her. First left, second left, second right. The map was in her mind and her imagination charted her progress.

Behind her, Alan’s footsteps and heavy breathing followed. She knew he had no need of the map but still she worried. His footsteps slowed, he was falling behind. After the second turn he was no longer in sight, only his wheezing and staggering footsteps told her he was still moving.

The bells jingled louder. Betty remembered the tales of her childhood, tales she thought had been made up. Send not to ask for whom the bells jingle. They jingle for thee. Nobody who heard them ever lived to tell, but stories said there had been one, long ago. Betty prayed to a God she half-believed in that she would be another.

Second right. The last turn. Ahead was the blank wall, the end of the pipe maze. Behind her, Alan’s footsteps stopped. His coughing echoed along the pipes. He was already too old for this game.

There were other footsteps. A steady, measured tread that gave the impression of a large man, or man-like thing, casually following. Something that never tired, never rested. No matter how fast you run, you have to rest sometime. Green Santa just keeps going.

Betty took two steps back along the pipe. Alan had told her not to go back but could she really leave him? She looked down at the laptop. Alan was right. If she lost this, it had all been for nothing.

The heavy footsteps stopped. Betty held her breath. They had no electronics switched on. All the Green Santa had to track them with was the flicker of their torches and if he couldn’t see that from his current position then his only option was to listen. To wait until they made a sound.

Betty turned, very slowly, and watched every step she took towards the end wall. She avoided every bit of debris, touched nothing that could make a noise. She had nearly reached the wall when the echo of Alan’s stumble came through the pipes. He must have tried the same trick, and failed.

“Ho ho ho.” The humourless laugh bounced along every pipe in this maze. The heavy footsteps resumed, faster this time.

Betty dropped her torch to the ground near the wall and used its light to find the faint outline of the panel Alan had told her was there. She pressed it, the door popped open and she hastily pressed 5-4-9-7. A red light came on but nothing else happened. Betty’s fingers shook. What did I do wrong?

Five. It started with five. Betty pressed five. She closed her eyes and thought about what Alan had said. It was linked to the map in her mind. First left, second left, second right. There were no ones or twos in the number. Her mind recalled Alan’s face giving her the directions. Open the panel, press 5794. That was it. Betty pressed 7-9-4.

The light turned green. Betty closed the panel. There was a soft click and a section of the wall swung open. There was light beyond. Betty glanced back, hoping to see Alan following. Instead, Green Santa’s voice boomed along the pipes.

“Well, it seems you are on the naughty list. Now you have to come with me.”

Alan’s voice followed. “Just kill me, you green metal bastard.”

“Oh no,” Santa boomed. “Naughty people have questions to answer.”

“I have nothing to…” Alan’s voice choked off, followed by the dull thud of a falling body.

Betty stifled a scream, but it came out as a squeal.

Santa fell silent for a moment then called out. “There is another naughty one here.” The stomp of his footfalls resumed. Betty stepped through the door and closed it as quietly as she could. Its lock clicked softly into place.

Betty placed her ear to the steel door. The muffled stomping drew closer, accompanied by the jingling bells. She clenched her teeth. Could he just smash through this door? The footsteps stopped.

Her body shook like leaves in the wind. Somehow she forced herself to silence, despite the tears rolling down her cheeks. Eventually the footsteps resumed but going away, getting fainter.

Betty let out a long, quiet sigh and sank to her knees, still clutching the laptop and the crumpled map. She knelt there for what felt like eternity before she finally looked around at where she was.

It was a corridor. White and clean with striplights along the ceiling. This is not where we started from. What do I do now? The map held no clues, it ended at the door she had just come through. She stared along the corridor, one way and then the other, but both directions seemed identical. Which way should she go?

A buzz, a hum, a rattle… familiar sounds. Betty stared along the corridor until a battered electric car came into view. More like an oversized child’s go-kart than anything else, it trundled along at a sedate pace towards her.

Phil sat in the driver’s seat. His face showed deep concern as he stopped alongside her.

“Alan?” The question needed only that one word.

Betty shook her head.

“Get in, quick.” Phil let her settle into one of the rear seats before turning the ramshackle machine around and setting off. “This is evac time. We have to get the hell out of here now. Don’t blame yourself because nobody else will. It was bound to happen one day.” He shook his head. “What happened? How did Alan manage to get blindsided by a drone?”

“It wasn’t—” Betty’s voice cracked. She cleared her throat. “It was Green Santa. He followed us into the pipes and caught Alan.”

“Shit. I can’t radio ahead. They’ll be scanning the area for signals now. I wish this heap of junk could go faster.”

“I think he killed Alan. I heard him fall.” Betty’s voice trembled.

“No way. Santa always takes them alive and Alan will talk. Oh, he will resist but they’ll make him talk.” Phil’s body shuddered. “They have very persuasive ways.” Phil turned his head. “You heard him fall, you say? Green Santa didn’t see you?”

“No.” Betty felt a tear slide down her cheek. “But he heard me, and I heard the bells.”

Phil whistled. “Wow. You’re only the second one in history to hear those bells and survive. You just became very, very important.”

“Me?”

“Since Dawn died all those years ago, just after we ran from the cities, it’s been harder to convince the young about Green Santa and the jingling bells.” Phil shot her a sly glance. “You didn’t believe it, did you?”

“No, not really. It all seemed a bit too weird. A robot they only use on Earth day? Why wouldn’t they use it all the time?”

“It’s fear. It’s how they control people.” Phil turned a corner. “For this one day they want everyone to turn off the power in their homes. They could do it centrally, but getting people scared enough to do it themselves – that’s real control. Green Santa is the enforcer for that specific control. And there are more than one of him.”

“How many?” Betty had found it hard to believe in one Green Santa. Was there an army of them?

“Nobody knows, but he’s struck in multiple places at once so there are certainly more than one.” Phil brought the vehicle to a halt beside a plain white door. “Here we are. Let’s go home and then leave it as fast as we can.” His mouth grinned, but his eyes were full of sadness.

Betty climbed out of the makeshift car and picked up her bag, Alan’s laptop and the map he had given her. “I don’t get it,” she said. I’ve lived here all my life and I’ve never seen this corridor.”

Phil moved to the door. “Oh it’s quite a labyrinth down here. Very few people know all of it. We only know the parts we need to know. So if any of us get caught, they can’t get the whole floor plan out of us.” He tapped on the door.

“Do you know it all?” Betty wondered just how much more her mind could take. Green Santa turns out to be real, then there are lots of Green Santas, and now her home was getting bigger around her.

“Well that’s the thing,” Phil said. “If there’s more I don’t know about, I don’t know it’s there. So maybe I do know it all or maybe I just think I do because I know more than some other people.”

Betty shook her head. “Forget I asked.”

Phil tapped the door again. “Come on. This is no time to be asleep on the job.”

The door swung open. A wide-eyed Terry stood there, with a much older man behind him. Grey, wrinkled and holding on to a cane, they both recognised him at once.

David. One of the few remaining of those who had originally fled the cities to found this colony. He was originally known as 23-David, his city designation, and the stories he had told about life in the city were hard to believe.

David spoke. “Come inside. We are already packing to move. Abandon that vehicle, we have no time to dismantle it.”

“You already know?” Betty blushed at the awe in her voice. “How?”

David pointed his cane upwards. “Hidden cameras in the ceiling. No point keeping them secret any more, now we have to move. They don’t have sound but Alan’s empty seat was all we needed to know.”

Terry ushered them inside. “Sorry about the delay. When I saw Alan wasn’t with you I went to alert David and the others. We just got back to the door.” Behind him, at his desk, his monitor was blank. “It’s all turned off now. We’re running silent on electronics.”

David laughed. “Yes, they are getting their Earth Day power-down in here too this year. They’d love the irony, if they had any sense of humour.” He shuffled to another door. “Come on. Bring the laptop. While we pack up, I want to see what Alan found.”

“You’re going to turn it on?” Betty clutched the laptop to her chest. “They might trace it.”

“We’re going to the Faraday cage. I gave instructions that it should be dismantled last.” David made surprisingly fast progress for a man whose legs seemed to no more than shuffle.

Betty leaned towards Phil as they walked. “What’s a Faraday cage?”

“It’s a big metal mesh box connected to earth. EM radiation from a laptop won’t go through it.” He motioned her forward.

The cage was only large enough for two but the mesh sides meant they could see and hear David while he started up the laptop and opened the files Alan had downloaded. His breath came out in a hiss almost as soon as he read the first few lines.

“This does not look good,” he said over his shoulder. He read further, fast, flipping screens and scanning the contents. “Oh this is very bad.” David shut down the laptop and closed it. “We’ll study it in detail later but just scanning it was bad enough.”

“What is it? Are they coming for us?” Phil’s fingers twitched.

“They are now.” David stood, opened the door and handed the laptop to Betty. “Take good care of this. Don’t let it get damaged. We’ll have to make copies of those files but there’s no time to do it now.”

Betty accepted the laptop and put it carefully in her bag. “What do you mean, ‘they are now’? Weren’t they before?”

“Oh, in a half hearted way, yes. They had hunts, they considered them sport, and they’d send armed drones out to kill us if they found us, but mostly they ignored us. That old drunk, Kim Jung Kerr, left most of the running of the cities to his sidekicks and they were pretty useless. They couldn’t co-ordinate a drunken night in one of Pissed Harry’s brew rooms.” He started towards the main hall where the evacuation gathered.

“So what changed?” Phil walked alongside.

“They finally left the old drunk in his mansion with an endless supply of wine and the lazy bastards let computers control more and more of the way their society works. We all know how computers think.” David tapped his head. “They don’t. They follow programs and they use algorithms to perfect the efficiency of those programs. Efficiency. Not humanity. Computers care nothing for that.”

“I’m not following this. Computers run the cities?” Betty’s head swam with too much information, too fast.

“They do now.” David pursed his lips. “People always placed too much faith in their computers. They thought artificial intelligence was real. It isn’t. You start a program and you give it algorithms so it can adapt – but it’s not a living thing. It can only adapt within the constraints of the original program. It cannot think up something new.”

“You’re losing me too,” Phil shook his head.

David stopped. “Okay. You were born here, you didn’t see the cities. You’ve heard about the genderfluid rules they had when I left, yes?”

They both nodded.

“And you didn’t believe a word of it, did you?”

Betty and Phil glanced at each other. Both blushed.

“I don’t blame you.” David resumed walking. “It sounds fucking crazy and it was. It was intended to be crazy. It was set up so people would demand an end to it. Computers, programmed by likely psychopathic morons, found a solution and applied it. Computers do not debate, they don’t ask opinions, they just implement what they were programmed to do.” He took a deep breath. “Everyone in the city is now neutered at birth, Except the breeding class, the elite. They produce all the children now and they select the best for themselves. The rest are surgically adjusted into worker drones. Like ants or bees. And they don’t even know it’s happened.”

Betty stopped walking. “That can’t be true. People would revolt.”

David stopped and faced her. “You’d think so, yes. Our people would for sure, but revolts, even talking about it, were so deeply crushed that all of us who would have revolted simply left. The rest, well, they got what they wanted. Someone else to run their lives for them.”

Phil wrinkled his nose. “So really, we can fight off an army of neutered weaklings, surely?”

“That’s not what they’ll send.” David’s eyes hardened. “They use people as workers, there is nobody in the military. That’s entirely computer controlled and it’s big. Very big.” He waved his hand at their protests. “Not to fight an enemy. To keep their people in line.”

“So why should we worry?” Betty said. “If they use their military on themselves, we don’t matter to them.”

“We are not talking sense and reason. We are talking computers. Give it a problem and it will try to fix it by any means at its disposal. It does not care about consequences or collateral damage. It is focused on one problem and what happens to the rest of the world does not matter.”

“This is getting scary.” Phil glanced at Betty. “Will they use nukes?”

“Unlikely,” David said. “Somewhere in their databanks will be information on what happens to electronics in a nuclear blast. Deleting themselves will not be an attractive solution.”

“So what then? What can we expect?” Betty felt for the laptop in her bag. It seemed less benign than it had before.

“When we tapped in before, humans would have seen it, humans would have sent a drone, found nobody and given up.” David paused. “Computers do not give up. You know those old scary stories about zombies? We still have some scratchy DVDs of zombie apocalypse films.”

“Yeah, I’ve seen them. Spooky, but you’re losing me again.” Betty blinked a few times and looked at Phil.

“Me too,” Phil said. “Zombies are walking corpses. Not computers.”

David continued. “What’s scary about zombies, even though they are slow, is that they never give up. Never stop. Never rest. You can easily outrun a zombie but you have to stop sometime. You have to sleep. While you sleep, the zombie is still going. Catching up.”

“So what you’re saying is that the computers are going to trail us like zombies?” Phil’s nose wrinkled.

“With a slight difference.” David looked them in the eyes, one after another. “Computers are a bloody sight faster than zombies. Welcome to the real zombie apocalypse.”

“Why? What did we do?” Betty’s lip trembled.

“We hacked in. Alan’s downloading of those files triggered a defence response – not from people this time, from the computers. This time they won’t give up.” David sighed. “We’re going to be running forever, and we brought it on ourselves.”

A Christmas Tale

Busy with the new site, there’s a lot still to do. So here’s a tale from Underdog Anthology 7, ‘Christmas Lights and Darks’. This is a new one. I’m considering reposting some of the older ones as Christmas approaches.

One more week and it’ll be over.

Collection Day

   The elves appeared in Helen’s kitchen on Boxing Day without so much as a by-your-leave. Surprised, she dropped her cigarette into her coffee, fished it out, swore at it, swore at the elves then threw the wet cigarette at them.
   “Hoi, there’s no call for that.” The smaller elf ducked but the big one wasn’t so quick. Wet tobacco splattered across his tunic.
   The smaller elf moved fast enough to take the coffee from Helen’s hand before she could throw that too. He emptied it into the sink.
   The bigger elf looked down at his tunic. “Well, that’s gratitude for you. All those presents, delivered on time, and this is the thanks we get.”
   Helen put her fists on her hips and jutted her law at them. “Who are you? You can’t just walk into people’s houses without an invitation. Haven’t you heard of knocking and asking to come in?”
   The elves looked at each other. “Well, no, we haven’t. Santa sneaks into almost every house in the world every Christmas Eve and nobody seems to mind. He’s a lot bigger than us, too. And what do you mean, who are we? Isn’t it obvious?”
   “Not to me. You could be anyone. You could be midget burglars dressed as elves for all I know.”
   “We are elves.” The smaller elf took a cloth from beside the sink and handed it to the larger one. “I am Tiddles, and it’s a perfectly normal and very common elf name so take that smirk off your face.”
   The bigger elf wiped at the remains of the cigarette with the cloth then threw it into the sink. “I am George. You are Helen Arnott, and we are here to talk about presents.”
   Helen stared at them both until she had convinced herself that they were real elves. To maintain her increasingly tenuous connection to reality, she gazed through the window at her children, playing in the garden with their new flying gadgets. The children were real, the garden was real, the window was real, the kitchen was real and so the elves must be real. She sank into a chair and lit another cigarette.
   “You’re not supposed to smoke when you have visitors.” Tiddles folded his arms. “We have to consider our elfin safety, you know.”
   Helen took a long drag and blew smoke right at him. “Up yours. My house, my rules, and you were not invited so you have no say.”
   “It’s as bad as Santa’s room in here.” George waved his hand in front of his face. “At least she’s not plastered.”
   “What do you want?” Helen tapped ash into the ashtray. “Christmas was yesterday. What is it, elf day off? I have children to look after and a husband who will expect his dinner when he gets home from the pub. Don’t you have reindeer to muck out or something?”
   George rolled his eyes. “Don’t remind us. Feeding and mucking out takes up most of the day and then we have to deal with Santa too, and on the way to next Christmas it’s present-making on top.”
   “Yeah.” Tiddles took a step closer. “Then there’s the heating. We’re woodland creatures so we have the heating on all year because that fat idiot based his operation at the North Pole. Something about ‘tradition’. It’s no place for the pastoral creature up there, I can tell you. I haven’t seen a tree since I don’t know when.”
   George nudged him and whispered, “We saw one on the way in. Beech, it was.”
   “Shut up, George, and get the paperwork out.” Tiddles’ face developed a sneer. “We have considerable overheads since we signed those Santa contracts and made your human fantasy a reality. Reindeer have to be fed and Santa eats as much as all of them combined. Then there’s his drinks and tobacco bill and that’s before we even start on the raw materials for the presents.”
   Helen finished her cigarette and stubbed it out. “So? I remember when Santa became real. Twenty-four years ago, when I was just a child. Real, mysterious presents came after we kids sent letters and most of us were in deep shit on Christmas morning because of it. Our parents all thought we’d stolen them. It took years before everyone accepted the truth. You little buggers made my life hell until then.”
   “Yes, well, every new business has its teething problems.” Tiddles sniffed and looked away. “We could hardly advertise what was supposed to be a secret, could we? Anyway, you got what you wanted. You sent the orders in and we delivered. Now it’s invoice time.”
   “Invoice?” Helen wrinkled her nose. “What the hell are you talking about? I didn’t fill in any order forms. I have no contract with you so you can’t invoice me for anything.”
   “Oh?” Tiddles motioned George to display the laminated, yellowed pages he held. “What do you call these then?”
   Helen inspected the pages. “Santa letters. Looks like mine from all those years ago. You kept them?”
   “Of course. They are unpaid.” Tiddles took one from George and held it up. “There’s quite a list here. All delivered as ordered and delivered on time. You will note,” he tapped the bottom of the letter, “the order is signed and is therefore a legal request for goods.”
   “It’s a Santa letter. I wrote it when I was about six years old. You can’t make it into a contract now. That’s not fair.” She reached for the letter but Tiddles pulled it away.
   “We didn’t go into this business for fun, you know.” He waved the laminated pages. “When Santa approached us with his idea to make the old legend real, he had the whole thing costed and planned. Naturally he had arranged it so he only had to work one day a year while we work all the time, the swine, but we never intended to do all this for free.”
   “We don’t ask the children for money. They don’t have any.” George took the letters from Tiddles and put them into his jacket. “We can’t ask the parents to pay either. They didn’t sign the requests. So we have to wait until you grow up. Until you reach thirty.”
   “You’re telling me the whole Christmas thing is a big con? You let children order toys thinking they’re free and then you come back and collect the money later?” Helen considered her cigarette box but it was too soon for another. “This looks like some kind of racket to me. How do I know you won’t come back every year for more money?”
   “We could do that if you prefer. There is a credit plan.” George reached inside his jacket again. “The interest rates are a bit steep though and you already have twenty-four years of interest on the account so I’d suggest you think carefully before deciding.”
   “One-off payments are better for both of us.” Tiddles motioned to George to forget the credit forms. “We do have an awful lot of clients to visit and we don’t want to have to see them all every year. Besides, every year there are more. No, it’s better all round if we close the account now.”
   “I ought to close your account with a breadknife.” Helen glowered at the elves. “All this time I thought Christmas was about giving and it turns out you and Santa are just as commercial as the rest of it. You’re worse because you don’t even mention a price at the time.” She took another cigarette and tried to light it but her anger made her fingers shake. Instead she threw it onto the table.
   “I understand your disappointment. I really do.” Tiddles held up his hands and took two quick steps backwards. “But if we had told you at the time, imagine how it would have ruined your childhood. I mean, you wouldn’t want to see the looks on your own children’s’ faces if we told them we’d be back to collect later, would you?”
   Helen slammed her hand on the table. “You leave my children out of this.” She sank back in her chair when she realised the elves couldn’t do that. The children were outside now, playing with Santa’s presents, oblivious to the cash demands they could expect when they were older. Should she warn them? Could she ruin every Christmas for them while they were still so young?
   She glared harder at the elves. “Damn you. You’ve set up a nasty little racket here, haven’t you? If I don’t warn my kids, they get a cruel shock later. If I do, I look like the bad guy. Well maybe I’ll just tell them anyway. That would spoil your fun, wouldn’t it?”
   “Not really.” George formed a tight smile. “We hate living in the cold. Some of us would be relieved if this was all over.”
   “Don’t listen to him.” Tiddles made a fist at George then turned, all smiles, to Helen. “Look. I realise this has come as a shock to you. That’s because your parents didn’t know about the arrangement. How could we tell them? It was all supposed to be a secret magical thing. If you tell your children now, they’ll hate you for it. We stop granting presents when they get to fifteen. Tell them when they reach that age and they’ll have another fifteen years to be ready when the bill comes. Sound fair?”
   “Not really.” Helen slumped in her seat. It wasn’t fair, but it was a way out of the choice she faced. She couldn’t bear to look at Peter and Felicity’s faces if she told them now. They were eleven and eight so as long as she kept their Christmas wishes reasonably cheap they wouldn’t be saddled with too much cost later. The word ‘cost’ flashed in her mind.
   Helen sat up straight. “How much?”
   “Huh?” Momentarily nonplussed, Tiddles and George glanced at each other.
   “How much do you expect me to pay you?” In Helen’s childhood, toys were simpler and far less expensive than the electronics and designer things of today. She dreaded to consider the sort of demands her children might expect later.
   “Oh. The invoice.” Tiddles held his hand out flat and waggled his fingers at George, who pulled a roll of paper from his jacket and handed it over.
   Tiddles passed the roll to Helen. “There. I think you’ll find it in order. It’s itemised in detail and listed by year. Every toy, every cash gift, right down to the chocolate pennies.”
   “It’s quite a modest invoice,” George said. “You were already six years old when we set up the business and toys were less complicated back then.”
   “Shut up. I’m checking.” Helen stared unrolling the paper. Memories of toys past filled her head as she moved down the list. There was Barbie’s car and the fluffy sea-lion. She had called him Sealy and he was probably still around, moth-eaten and faded, in the attic. Tears blurred her vision and she blinked them away but the memories flooded back as she read on. The hours of fun she and her sister had with her ‘Operation’ game. Her father’s Christmas fatigue after he had spent most of the morning assembling the Barbie Boutique and getting it wrong. That three-dimensional wooden puzzle she had never managed to solve, and the box of metal puzzles which she had completely solved before Christmas dinner. The magic set. The sparkly shoes. The fairy dress. That recording of some band she had adored as a child but cringed at now. So many memories, so many reminders of a life now gone forever, a carefree life she could never hope to recapture. A stark reminder of the truth of ageing and of her own mortality. Of all the things the elves could have done, this was by far the most cruel.
   Finally Helen reached the end. On the way she had not noted the individual prices. The toy names of her childhood had brushed aside the petty concerns of finance. When she saw the total she stopped and stared at it in silence for a long time.
   “How much?” She dropped the paper onto the table.
   “I think the print is clear enough.” Tiddles took the list and rolled it back up. “All the prices are lower than the shop equivalents at the time. You do, however, accumulate quite a bit of interest in twenty-four years.”
   “Interest is added daily,” George wore a sympathetic look. “Really, it’s best to get this dealt with today.” He took out a card reader. “We accept all major credit cards.”
   “Phil. What about Phil?” Helen stared at the cigarette she had tossed onto the table as if its existence was all that anchored her to the real world.
   Tiddles sniffed. “Phil who?”
   George nudged him. “Her husband. The guy in the pub. He was on our list just before her.”
   Tiddles shrugged. “Oh yeah, him. What about him?”
   A chill gripped Helen. “What did you do?”
   “Our job.” George puffed his generous stomach out to the point where if his buttons had had eyes they would have been wide with terror. “We presented our invoice and he was happy to pay it.”
   “What? Really?” Helen’s jaw hung loose.
   “Truth be told,” Tiddles waved his hand, “he’s a bit tipsy right now. He thought it was all a joke. Even so, it was an entirely lawful transaction.”
   “No, no, no.” Helen held her face in her hands. “You’ve bankrupted us. We’ll be in debt forever.”
   “That’s what they all say.” Tiddles folded his arms. “Still, give it a couple of generations and parents will teach their kids not to be such greedy little buggers. Then it will all even out.”
   “That’s inhuman.” Helen wished guns were still legal so she could shoot these two. “You are putting us through Hell to make some kind of Utopia.”
   George sniffed. “We are elves. We are not human. And you humans clearly need some help with personal responsibility. If we can make a modest profit and help you lot at the same time, where’s the problem?”
   “But… but…” Helen reached for her discarded cigarette.
   “Look.” Tiddles moved closer. “We are not interested in any kind of human Utopia, we do not care at all how you choose to live. It would suit us if you ran up bills you were able to pay, that’s all. It’s a business, nothing more.”
   “Phil paid you. We’re already broke.” A tear ran down Helen’s cheek. With shaking hands, she managed to light her cigarette and wondered if she would be ever able to afford another.
   “There is enough left in your accounts to cover your bill too.” Tiddles smiled, the sort of smile that expresses a feeling of not actually caring at all. “Then you’ll be broke. But you don’t have to worry about next year’s Christmas presents at least.”
   “And if you pay by credit card, like Phil did, you won’t have to pay it all back at once.” George held up the card reader.
   Helen curled her lip. “What if I don’t want to pay at all? Are you expecting the courts to take legal action by elves at all seriously? They’ll laugh at you.”
   Tiddles stared at the floor. “We are well aware that your legal system doesn’t cover elves. That’s why we don’t use it.”
   “So you can’t do a thing to me.” Helen folded her arms.
   “Ah, no, we can’t.” George looked uncomfortable. “Still it’s better you pay up, really.”
   “Why?” Helen wondered at the way the elves avoided eye contact now.
   George took a deep breath. “If you don’t pay, your kids will get no more presents. They will still get a bill when they turn thirty and that bill will include your unpaid bill as well as all the presents they’ve had up to now.”
   “You little bastards.” Helen blinked at them. “Stupid bastards too. If I don’t have to pay, they won’t have to either.”
   Tiddles pursed his lips. “Then their kids will get no presents either. That will be two strikes, then we take your descendants off our lists forever. Until the outstanding bill is paid, with accrued interest, your great grandchildren, and their children and grandchildren and so on, will be the only ones among their friends getting their Santa letters ignored.” Finally, he looked Helen in the eyes. “Imagine that. Forever on the naughty list. Because of you.”
   “This is blackmail.” Helen put her face in her hands.
   “I suppose it is, in a way.” Tiddles said. “In another way though, it’s just us asking you to pay for the service we provided.”
   Helen dropped her hands to the table and sighed. “But I didn’t ask for any service.”
   Tiddles raised his eyebrows and looked at George, who nodded and took out a laminated Santa letter.
   “Yes, yes, okay.” Helen rolled her eyes. “But I didn’t know. You cheated me.”
   “Well,” Tiddles said, “you’ve already worked out we can’t use your legal system against you because we’re not even the same species. That, however, means you can’t use it against us. So agree to our terms or let your descendants take the consequences.”
   Helen tapped her fingers on the table. There had to be a way out. Something they missed. She rubbed her chin, picked up her cigarette pack, put it down again. Fiddled with her lighter, pursed her lips, ran her hand through her hair. Something. Anything.
   “Let me see the paperwork,” she said. “All of it.”
   Tiddles narrowed his eyes, but motioned to George to hand the papers over. Helen spread them across the table, cross-checking the laminated Santa letters with the itemised bill. Finally she stacked the paperwork into one pile and sat back.
   “Well?” Tiddles raised one eyebrow. “I’m sure you found it all in order.”
   “Almost.” Helen permitted herself a small smirk. “I accept that I asked for all those things and that you delivered them. I accept that I, albeit unknowingly, agreed a contract to have those things delivered.”
   “Good.” Tiddles folded his arms. “How would you like to pay?”
   “However.” Helen held up her hand. “There is no mention of any agreement concerning interest payments. I asked for the presents, you delivered them, but at no point was any form of interest mentioned.”
   Tiddles and George exchanged an uneasy glance.
   “Bugger,” said George.
   Tiddles sighed. “So what do you propose?”
   “I will pay you for the presents but I will not pay any interest. The interest is worse than a payday loan company, it’s about ninety percent of the total.” Helen looked Tiddles straight in the eye. “You really don’t want a reputation for being fraudsters, now do you? If everyone stopped their kids sending Santa letters and went back to just buying the presents themselves, where would your sneaky little business be then?”
   “Okay, okay.” Tiddles scowled. “We realised some people would find that little flaw and factored it in. We can waive the interest on condition you sign a confidentiality agreement.”
   George took out a sheet of paper, unfolded it and passed it to Helen. He gathered the papers on the table and tucked them back into his jacket.
   Helen squinted at the paper. “What is this? Some new con trick?”
   “It’s perfectly straightforward,” said George. “We waive all the interest – at a considerable loss to ourselves – as long as you promise not to tell anyone. If you do, the interest becomes payable and all the penalties we mentioned come back into play.”
   “I can tell my kids? My husband?” Helen read the document over and over, searching for a trap, a trick, another cunning clause.
   “No, because they aren’t bound by this agreement. Only you are.” George at least had the decency to look sympathetic. “You can never tell anyone at all.”
   “Sign, and we take eighty-nine percent off the total bill.” Tiddles spoke softly. “All you have to do then, is forget this ever happened. Oh, you can still warn your kids when they turn fifteen but you can’t tell them about the interest part.” He grinned. “But hey, they are your kids, they’re bound to work it out, right?”
   “And you don’t end up broke.” George’s voice was almost a whisper. He handed her a pen.
   “They’ll work it out.” Helen accepted the pen and after one last read through, she signed. Then reached for her handbag and took out her credit card. It all still seemed so unreal, so dreamlike. The elves looked blurred, almost transparent. Even the kitchen drifted in and out of reality.
   Her children burst into the kitchen, yelling about some amazing trick they had pulled with their drone toy. Helen jumped and looked around but the elves had vanished. She shook herself. Elves in the kitchen? Must have been a dream, she must have fallen asleep for a moment. She hugged her kids and listened to their childish wonder at the toys Santa had brought them.
   Something nagged at the back of her mind, but it was probably just fatigue. It felt as if she had to tell the children something but the detail had gone. Helen shrugged it off. It was unease caused by a strange dream, nothing more. She followed the children into the garden to watch their drone trick.

***

   On the roof, Tiddles and George watched from their cloaked sleigh.
   “It’s a bit mean, really,” George said. “We never tell the smart ones about the magic part that happens when they sign the confidentiality agreement.”
   “It’s not mean.” Tiddles started the sleigh with the push of a button and it rose in silence into the sky. “We can’t let word spread about our interest scam. If it ever got back to Santa he’d be furious. We’d all be sacked and have to go back to scraping out a living in the woods. So far we’ve only lost out to about three percent of our targets. That’s not bad.”
   “I miss the woods,” said George.
   “I bloody don’t,” said Tiddles. “I’d miss my Bugatti Atlantique and my holiday flat in Monaco a lot more. Anyway, you own woods. Damn, you must own every forest in Scotland by now. I’ll never understand why you spend your share on the very thing we tried so hard to escape.”
   “I know you won’t.” George smiled at the landscape passing below. “Humans clear forests for their houses, you know. That’s why I’m part of your scam. I want to buy the forests so they can’t have them.”
   Tiddles rolled his eyes. “You’re a damn weirdo, George, but you’re the best paperwork handler in the world.” He put the sleigh into a steep dive. “Here we go again. Get the papers ready for our next patsy.”

Marketing Department – Two Drink Minimum

That title was from a Dilbert cartoon (You must have come across Dilbert by now, surely? Our managers used those books as instruction manuals in the 90s) some years ago. Dilbert, an engineer, was sent to the marketing department as part of some scheme to get the engineers to understand that their developments must be marketable. Naturally they didn’t like it.

Well, books are marketable. I’ve been trying to learn how. Admittedly I don’t like it either. I have a book on marketing that is, shall we say, not exactly an engaging read. Okay, it’s duller than a Scottish December evening. I will force myself to read it, probably with the help of an entire case of caffeinated fizz, while I am in this down time after putting together two anthologies in three months. The latest, see previous post, went through all hurdles with no problem. It is complete. Now we wait… but that is the wrong thing to do. Waiting achieves nothing. A single book on Amazon is as lost as the 0.5 mm Allen key you put down safely three minutes ago. They need flashing lights and sirens to get noticed.

I have seriously considered deliberately provoking someone litiginous to get Daily Mail shock-horror look-at-this-filthy-bastard coverage. Best advertising you can get. Look what it did for 50 Shades of Grey. It could turn out expensive if I lose though.

Maybe put out something so inflammatory that the usual suspects try to get it banned. Worked a treat for Spycatcher and The Satanic Verses but hiding from death threats can be tiring.

I think I’ll try the three stories that are a prelude to Panoptica. I’ll put them together and maybe add one more that actually takes place in Panoptica. The latest prequel (Waking Santa) is in the Christmas book and well, we’re just about there. In real life we’re only a story or two behind but the story is still just ahead of reality. Just.

This will be eBook-only and will be a freebie. It will list all the Leg Iron Books in the back and for this one, you won’t find a ‘back to contents’ link at the end of the last story. You will find it on the next page, at the end of that list. So it won’t be on Amazon – I can’t make it free there unless I make it public domain (give up copyright) or give them an exclusive. I will not do either. As long as I get through Smashwords’ hurdles, it will be out on everything other than Amazon.

Smashwords has sold nothing for me in the past three months but the free stories I put on there are getting picked up. Well, ‘free’ involves no risk. Those free ones have to carry advertising and the content can be updated. That’s the next plan.

I also can’t make it print because then it won’t be free. But then the three stories are in The Good, the Bad and Santa, Six in Five in Four and the latest, Christmas Lights… and Darks so they are already in print. The new one might appear in a future anthology, maybe number 8, or I might add these to the start of the final book. Or both. That’s in the future.

Leg Iron Books is developing a decent catalogue of really good stories by some excellent, but unknown authors. It is the aim of this business that those authors will be snatched away by big publishers. That is the whole point. I’ll negotiate with the big publisher who wants to buy out their contract so I’ll make a few beans and the author will get the publicity machine of a big publishing house to get them going into the big time.

As for me, I’m staying at the bottom of the heap. I have no plans to ever rival Random House or any of the others. I’m really enjoying finding these great authors who haven’t made it to the big time yet. Making the anthologies is sometimes hard work – especially with the close proximity of the Halloween and Christmas ones – but it is always worth it.

See, I don’t need a yacht or a Lear jet or a Maserati. Although I have thought about getting a Ferrari one day, leaving cigarette burns and skidmarks on the seats, fitting boy racer bonnet clips, and brush painting it with three colours of Hammerite just so I can leave it in my will to someone I don’t like. But that’s not likely to happen. Really, the world is better off if I never get rich. Imagine what I could do with Bill Gates’ riches…

I have tried the Twitter book boosters. They only charge about $10 so I thought well, okay, I’ll try it.

It was crap. If you’re thinking of pushing your own book this way, don’t bother. I tried it with one book and it sold not one copy. Why? Because, as I realised, everyone else scrolls past that batch of 4 or 5 identical book ads on the timeline just like I do.

Yeah. They put it up 5 times a day, but in one minute. It is not spread through the day. It’s just an irritant. Nobody will click it. Better to develop a real persona on Twitter and mention the books in betwen real conversations.

Same goes for Farcebok, if anyone still uses it. Although, apart from linking these blog posts, I don’t go there much. It’s too… silly these days.

I think, if this is going to really take off, I need to get the Daily Mail style ‘shock-horror’ mob excited and vociferous.

I wonder if I can do that? Let’s play a game…

 

 

 

Nearly time to rest…

Well, the Christmas anthology is all loaded up and all I have to do now is wait until the print, Kindle and Smashwords versions report some problem or other. They will all be different problems and they won’t be the same as the ones they’ve reported before. This one has something new – all the authors have photos on their bio pages. That’s a first and if there is going to be a problem, that’s where they will most likely find it.

There are a couple of previous anthologies on Smashwords I need to ‘fix’ to get full distribution. I have not prioritised that because of late, Smashwords has sold bugger all. All the books are selling far better on Amazon. Still, I persist with Smashwords because it costs me nothing and, as long as you get past all the problems, they do have very wide distribution and they convert the book to pretty much every eBook format including the one for PalmPilots!.

Smashwords do insist on having all the author names on the cover which I personally feel looks a bit cluttered, but well, if you want to play in their yard, you have to play by their rules. One big plus is that anything loaded on there goes live at once, but it can take a few days (sometimes a few tries) to get it onto their distribution list.

As I was writing this I received an email telling me the print version is now live on Amazon. With no problems at all! All I’ll need now is an update to this post when the Kindle version goes live and when (if) it gets onto Smashwords’ distribution lists. I should have print copies – to send  to those authors who elected to be paid in books –  early next week. For now I leave you with the whole cover image for the print book.

And I’m really looking forward to taking the rest of the month off.