I'm delighted that Darke has now been published and is making its way out in the world dressed in a cracking Steven Miscandlon cover.The book started its life back in 2004 when I began writing a story about a stage magician called Zak Black who’d swapped his soul in exchange for the ability to do real magic. The first draft was about 120,000 words long.The story sat around for years, was occasionally tinkered with or had scenes rewritten, but it went nowhere. Then the year before last I picked it up again and decided to have another go at it. I must have rewritten the opening chapters three or four times and I still wasn’t happy with them.Last year was a tough year. Without dwelling on it, I was poorly for a while and couldn’t focus on writing. I got some stuff done, but not this book. Cheerfully come the autumn things started looking up and I got stuck into the story again. Zak Black became Thaddeus Darke and something like ten characters, both major and minor, bit the dust. I must have cut about 100,000 words of the original draft: only a few scenes remain from that version of the story, and they have been comprehensively rewritten. And I finally got the opening scenes in a shape I was happy with.Darke is much shorter and, I feel, more focused than the original story was. In this case, less is definitely more. See what you think. Chapter 1
‘For pity’s sake, Harry!’
‘Pity is not something for which I am renowned, Thaddeus.’
Thaddeus Darke put his head in his hands, frustration getting the better of him.
‘Give me what I am due, or I will take something from you.’ Harry’s words were measured, his tone implacable.
‘I can’t give you what I don’t have.’
‘You were the worst of investments, Thaddeus. You’ve been an enormous disappointment to me.’
‘So cut me loose. I’m obviously not worth the trouble I put you to.’
‘You owe me,’ Harry repeated. ‘I want a soul, and not just any soul. I want the soul of someone who cares something for you, someone who thinks of you with gratitude and affection. I want you to sacrifice someone to me, to make up for your otherwise shockingly poor performance.’
‘It hasn’t been that poor. You’ve been paid, over the years.’
‘I have not been paid enough.’
‘Harry, there’s no one left. You drove them all away.’
‘You drove them all away.’
‘Either way, they’re gone.’
‘Does no one owe you?’ prompted Harry. ‘Is there really not one single person who is in your debt?’
Thaddeus was about to repeat himself, to say that no, there really wasn’t, but then he remembered. He looked up at Harry. ‘Maybe,’ he said. ‘Maybe there is. But it’ll take time. I need to draw him to me.’
‘Today is the vernal equinox. You have until the summer solstice to make sacrifice. That’s three months. One season.’ Harry stared at Thaddeus for a long moment. ‘And you had better deliver, or you will live to regret it.’
‘I’ve lived to regret many things, Harry. One more may be neither here nor there.’
‘Oh, this regret will be noteworthy, believe me. Deliver or else.’
‘Or else what?’
Harry smiled. ‘Or else I will take Abigail in lieu of payment.’
Thaddeus went cold. ‘Three months,’ he said to Harry. ‘I’ll have something for you. For God’s sake leave my niece alone.’
‘For God’s sake? Since when did He have anything to do with our arrangements?’
‘Just leave her alone.’
‘I will, for now. What happens later is in your hands.’
Later, after Harry had left, Thaddeus Darke sat in a wing-backed leather chair in front of a huge picture window. No lamps burned in the house and the moonlight cast his features in stark relief, made pits of his eyes and the hollows of his cheeks. He had an unobstructed view of the North Sea in front of him, a lit cigarette in his hand, and a glass of whisky on the table at his side. He watched the moonlight as it played on the water, a bright, silver path cutting through the blackness, and he thought about Joe Fox. Wondered how long it would take him to get in touch. Thaddeus didn’t want to push too hard, but he had only a limited time to play with; he couldn’t afford to wait forever.
He closed his eyes and murmured some words, made a sign in the air in front of his face and gave things just a little … push. Then he sat back and smoked his cigarette, drank his whisky, watched the silver ribbon ripple atop the restless sea. By the time he had stubbed out the cigarette and set down the empty glass, Joe Fox was dreaming about his old friend Thaddeus Darke. And for now, those dreams were good ones.
‘So you know this Thaddeus Darke then, do you?’ asked the taxi driver as he drove along the coast road.
‘Yes, we were at school together.’ Joe Fox was still dizzy at how swiftly circumstances had brought him back to the UK, and yet the chance to catch up with his old friend was a welcome one. ‘Mind you,’ he added, ‘I haven’t seen him in ages.’
‘Neither has anyone else.’
The driver indicated when he saw the turning he wanted. The road dipped and the car slowed as it approached ten-foot high, elaborate wrought iron gates. Woven into the design was the word ‘Temperance’. A wall extended in either direction then curved towards the cliff edge, marking the extensive boundary of the property. The gates opened to let the car pass and Joe turned in his seat and watched them close behind him, swinging silently and majestically shut as if by an act of will.
‘I wonder how they work,’ the driver said, as he pulled up outside the large gothic mansion.
‘Must be a sensor of some sort.’
‘Aye, I suppose. It’s a bit creepy, though, don’t you think? It’s like somebody’s watching.’
Joe paid the cabbie then got out of the car. The driver did a U-turn and gave a wave as he headed back down the drive. Joe watched as the gates swung open once more to let him through, then closed to shut out the world.
The doorbell tolled like a harbinger of sorrow, stirring the still air of the house and shattering the early evening silence. Thaddeus Darke looked at his wristwatch: his guest was on time. Not seeing that as a reason why he himself should hurry, he took a final draw on his cigarette before stubbing it out in the large crystal ashtray on the table at his side then, having let the smoke out of his lungs in a steady stream, picked up his glass and drained the last of the whisky it held before striding to the front door and throwing it open.
‘Joe, it’s good to see you again. Welcome to Temperance.’ He held his hand out and Joe Fox clasped it immediately. Thaddeus’s handshake was cool and firm, his long, slender fingers familiar from the close-up work Joe had seen years before in the school playground and more recently on his television screen.
‘It’s good to see you too, Thaddeus. It’s been a long time.’
Thaddeus stood back and ushered Joe in, closing the door behind him. ‘Come on through,’ he said. He led Joe into a room on the opposite side of the house where a huge window looked out over the North Sea.
Joe stopped and stared. ‘My God, Thaddeus, that’s a hell of a view.’
‘Isn’t it? I never tire of it. I love the sea.’
‘How long have you lived here now?’
‘Oh, about seven years, I think.’
‘Brings it home just how long I’ve been away. Seven years, and this is my first visit here,’ said Joe. ‘Mind you, the family always preferred to come and visit me in Spain, make a bit of a holiday of it. I don’t think I’ve been back since I came to see you at the Albert Hall.’
‘What can I get you to drink?’
‘Beer if you’ve got it.’
‘Coming up. Take your coat?’ Joe took his cigarettes out of his pocket and shrugged off his jacket. He handed it to Thaddeus, then turned his gaze back to the window. It was a clear day, fresh and bright, and he could see along the coast as far as Tynemouth to the north and Seaham in the south. When Thaddeus came back with a couple of bottles of beer and some glasses, Joe was still gazing out to sea. Thaddeus set everything down on a table and poured first one glass of beer, which he handed to Joe, then a second for himself. That done, he tipped his glass in salute. ‘Cheers,’ he said.
They sat down in chairs that faced the incredible view, the low table between them. Thaddeus produced a packet of cigarettes and offered them to Joe, and they lit up.
‘You found the place all right then.’
‘I got a taxi, the driver knew where to come.’ Joe drew on his cigarette. ‘Let’s face it, though,’ he said, exhaling smoke, ‘I’d have found it easily enough anyway. Temperance is something of a landmark.’
‘Yes, I suppose it is.’
‘It’s an amazing house. How on earth did you get permission to build here?’
Thaddeus shrugged. ‘I applied and there was no objection. It’s not like I was building an eyesore, after all.’
‘True.’ The house was almost a part of the landscape, barely visible from the road due to the topography of the land and the cliffs. It was three storeys high on the landward side and four where it looked out to sea, the basement level having been fitted into a natural rock ledge. The seaward side was edged by turrets, round and ethereal, topped with pointed copper roofs turned verdigris by the elements. ‘How did the builders manage to cut into the cliff and get the foundations in, so close to the edge?’ Joe asked. ‘It must have been a hell of a challenge.’
‘I believe so, but I hired the best.’
‘Even so, to build a house in this location—’
‘Would you like the guided tour?’ asked Thaddeus.
Joe nodded. ‘Definitely.’ He took a last drag on his cigarette, stubbed it out and got to his feet. ‘Lead the way.’
If that has whetted your appetite, then you can download a longer sample free of charge from Amazon. And if you like that, the book is currently just £1.27/$1.99. Sincere thanks to everyone who checks it out. I hope you enjoy it.Amazon UKAmazon US
'Doing it for the bairns' is a new, previously unpublished story inspired by a photograph I took a few years back. The sharp-eyed among you will notice that although the story is set in Newcastle, the pic was taken in Glasgow.
Doing it for the bairns
‘Look at the state of him,’ muttered Bill. ‘That Santa suit’s all wrong and his boots look like wellies. And what’s with the flag? It looks bloody stupid.’
‘Take no notice,’ said John. He tucked the elastic of his long white beard under his wig, pulled it back into place and put his red and white hat on. ‘He’s a daft shite.’ He took a slurp of coffee.
‘Merry Christmas, Santas,’ said Callum as he sauntered over to the coffee hut. ‘How are we all today?’
Bill glowered. John ignored him. ‘All right, mate,’ said Mick. ‘How’s you?’
‘I’m good, big man, I’m good.’
‘What’s the flag on your back for, like? I haven’t seen a flag like that before.’
Callum grinned. ‘It’s the flag of Shetland. I’m from there originally. Left when I was just a wean, but I still love the place.’ He drained his coffee cup and dropped the empty in a bin. ‘I’m away to the monument in a minute, I’m collecting up there today.’
‘Aye? I was there yesterday, I did canny, like,’ said Mick.
‘Good to hear. See yous later, down the Duke?’
‘Aye, we’ll be there,’ said Mick. He turned to Bill and John as Callum walked away. ‘What’s the matter with you two?’
‘That spawny get, that’s what,’ said Bill, staring sullenly at Callum’s retreating back.
‘Fucking Gollum, more like.’
‘He’s all right, man. Just ’cos he’s a Jock doesn’t make him a bad lad. Not like he’s a fucking southerner, is it?’
‘Well then, chill, marra. Cool ya jets.’ Mick looked at his watch. ‘Although on second thoughts, move it. Time we weren’t here, there’s shoppers to guilt trip.’ He shook the collection bucket he held, a picture of a crying child on the front. ‘Howay. There’s the bairns to think of.’
Early evening, several Santas were crowded around a table in the Duke of Wellington.
‘Doesn’t seem right, not standing at the bar,’ said John.
‘I couldn’t stand another minute. Me dogs are barking. Hard work, this collecting lark.’
‘Aye, man, but worth it, eh? Think of the good it’ll do,’ said Callum, coming into the pub last as usual. ‘Good day, big man?’
‘Aye, canny,’ said Mick. ‘Yersel’?’
Callum nodded. ‘Can’t complain.’
‘Where’ve you been till this time?’ asked John.
‘Dropping the cash off back at the ranch. Got to do what the boss says.’
John looked at the picture on Callum’s collecting bucket, different to the one on the buckets carried by him, Bill, and Mick. ‘I hope you kept enough to get a round in,’ he said.
‘Oh aye, nae bother, big man. What’s everybody having? Billy boy?’
‘Nowt off you, you Jock bastard. And don’t you Billy boy me!’
‘Come on, man, it’s Christmas! We’re all on the same side here, all daein’ the right thing for charity, for the weans.’ Callum held his hand out. ‘Come on, shake on it, big man. Nae hard feelins.’
Bill looked at the outstretched hand then back at Callum’s face, then he pulled his right fist back and threw a punch. John grabbed him to stop him throwing another and he’d telegraphed the first one so far ahead that Callum had dodged it easily, although he dropped his collecting bucket and staggered back against the bar, scattering drinkers as he did.
‘Hey, pack it in or you’re out, the lot of yous,’ shouted the barman. ‘I’ll not have any trouble.’
‘Sorry, man,’ said Mick, ‘it’s all right now. Just a bit of a misunderstanding.’ He turned to Callum. ‘You’d best go, like. We’ll calm him down.’
Without a word, Callum picked up his collecting bucket and walked out.
‘Fuck’s sake, Bill, the lad was trying to buy us a pint! What is it with you and him?’ John let go of Bill and stepped away from him.
‘It’s not him so much as where he’s from.’ He scrubbed his face with his palm. ‘The first wife fucked off with a sweaty sock eighteen months back. Thought he was me mate, then the two of them bugger off to Jockland leaving me wi’ two bairns and a load of debt. Last Christmas was bloody miserable, man. Hardly any presents and I couldn’t afford to put the heating on half the time.’
‘That’s harsh, but it’s hardly that fella’s fault.’
‘Keep a cool head. Just two days to go. Think of the bairns.’
Bill sucked in a deep breath and blew it out slowly. ‘Aye, you’re right. I’m sorry, man. Got to focus on the little ’uns.’
‘You want another beer?’
Bill nodded, and he sat down again as John headed off to the bar. He saw something lying on the floor and picked it up; it was Callum’s charity ID card. Bill threw it under the seat he was on, flipped it so it went right back to the wall. See how the fucker liked that.
Next day, Bill was collecting up at the monument when a policeman pulled him to one side.
‘Summat the matter, mate?’ Bill asked.
‘Can I see your ID, sir?’
Bill fished in his pocket and pulled out a laminated card, then held it up for the copper to see. As the policeman took it and scrutinised it, Bill looked past him, his expression impassive.
‘Just routine,’ plod said, handing back Bill’s ID. ‘Nothing to worry about, sir.’
‘There’s some clown with a flag on his back you might want to check out.’
‘Is he a Santa Claus an’ all?’
‘Aye. In a suit with a blue and white flag on the back, collecting bucket with a picture of a bairn in a wheelchair on it.’
‘And you think he might be dodgy?’
Bill shrugged. ‘Couldn’t say about that, like, but he’s not from round here.’
The copper walked away, talking into his radio as he went, and Bill turned back to the main thoroughfare, started shaking his bucket as he mingled amongst the Christmas shoppers. Coins rattled down the chute, through the slot and into the space below. The odd person tucked a note in and the bucket started to feel heavy.
‘Hey, did you hear about Callum?’ John asked as they crowded around the table in the Duke that evening.
‘No, what’s that?’ Bill asked.
‘He got taken away by a copper this afternoon. Mick saw him go.’
‘What was the problem?’
‘Couldn’t produce his ID. Zero tolerance for con merchants round here, man.’
‘Just as well ours are the business, eh!’
‘Aye,’ John nodded. ‘Just one more day to go, an’ all. Been a good run, I’ve done really well out of it.’
‘Me an’ all, spot on, man. Best idea ever.’ Bill’s foot knocked against the bucket, tucked under the table, and it made a satisfying clunk. Kate would be over the moon.
Bill got home late on Christmas Eve, staggered in half cut and laden down with shopping. Callum hadn’t been spotted all day and so he’d had a couple of extra beers to celebrate sticking it to a sweaty sock.
‘Where the hell do you think you’ve been?’ Kate hissed at him as he walked into the sitting room. ‘I’ve been worried sick in case something had happened!’
‘Why didn’t you answer your phone?’
‘The battery died.’
‘And you couldn’t use a payphone to tell us you’d be late? I thought you were locked up, like that Scottish bloke—’
‘I’m home now and everything’s topper. Now howay, pet, you cannat get vexed with Santa Claus on Christmas Eve.’ He grinned at her. ‘Come here and gis a kiss.’ He dropped the parcels and pulled her to her feet then grabbed her in a bear hug. She shrieked as he covered her in kisses.
‘Hush,’ he said, putting a finger to his lips, ‘you’ll wake the bairns.’
‘It’s that beard, it’s horrible. It’s got things stuck in it, man, it stinks.’
Bill laughed and started singing, ‘I saw mammy kissing Santa Claus.’
Kate shook her head. ‘Shut up, you daft beggar. Come on, let’s get them presents wrapped.’
‘Did you get the shopping in?’
She nodded. ‘The fridge is bursting at the seams. We’ll get this done then have a couple of cans to celebrate.’
‘Champion.’ They set to and wrapped the gifts, piling them under the tree. When they were all done, there was a heap of presents for each child, with gifts for Bill and Kate, too.
She snuggled in to him and they stood and looked at it all; the new tree with its baubles and twinkly lights, the gifts in their colourful wrappings, the warm glow from the candles and the fake logs on the gas fire. ‘You’ve done us proud, pet. It all looks lovely. It’ll be a Christmas to remember, this one, like.’
Bill was about to agree when there was a knock at the door. ‘Get them cans,’ he said, ‘I’ll just see who this is.’
He opened the door to be faced by the same copper he’d spoken to at the monument a couple of days earlier. There was another one standing next to him and neither looked very Christmassy.
‘What’s up lads? Want to come in for a can?’ Bill said, trying to front it out.
‘Don’t play silly buggers, man.’
‘I’m not. It’s Christmas Eve. Howay in and have a bevvy.’
‘William Smith, I am arresting you on suspicion of impersonating a charity collector. You do not—’
‘How did you find out?’ Bill asked the copper as he was being driven to the cop shop.
‘I never would have if you hadn’t sent us after that fella with the flag on his back. He’d lost his ID, but he checked out. Then I got interested in you. Didn’t take long to find out that there was no such charity as the one you were collecting for.’
Bill thought of the three kids asleep upstairs back at the house, his two boys and Kate’s little girl, warm and safe and looking forward to Christmas. ‘Charity begins at home, mate.’
‘Zero tolerance for con merchants round here.’
‘Oh, howay, man! I was only doing it for the bairns!’
‘Aye? Tell it to the magistrate in the morning.’ The clock on the dash showed ’00:00’. The copper looked at him in the rear view mirror. ‘Merry Christmas, Santa,’ he said.
Bill rolled his eyes. ‘Ho, ho, fucking ho.’
Next up in the festive tales series is the also previously published White Christmas. And with one new story in the bag and another planned, we've more to go yet. I hope you enjoy them.
‘Oooooarrrrghhh!!!! Jesus, Mary and fucking Joseph!’
It wasn’t how I would have chosen to spend Christmas Eve.
‘It fucking hurts! Get that fucking thing out of me! Oooooaaaaarrrrghhh!!!!’
On the plus side, Jenna wasn’t having any more fun than I was. I reckoned the whole thing was over-rated.
‘Peeeeeeeeterrrrr!!! Fucking do some fucking thing!!! Pleeeeeeease!!!!’
That was new: I’d never heard her beg before.
‘Come on, Daddy. Mummy needs you!’ The midwife had an expectant look on her face. She nodded at Jenna, looked back at me. So I did something: I went out for a smoke. As I headed down the corridor I could hear Jenna cursing and screaming. I hoped the midwife wasn’t easily offended.
Outside, among the other addicts, my breath smoked as much as my cigarette. It was bitterly cold, frosty, a few stray, fat flakes of snow drifting down from above. The pavements and driveways around the hospital sparkled in the lamplight. It was beautiful, provided you ignored the piles of dog ends and the motley assortment of people in pyjamas, coats and boots, closed your ears to the wheezing and the hacking coughs.
Events had conspired to bring me to this place at this time. Bad stuff, mostly. I mean, I’d always reckoned me and Jenna would have kids one day, but not now, not like this. I lit a second smoke from the first, dropped the butt and ground it out with my heel.
I’d been working away. She was lonely. She went out with the girls one night, got pissed and Benny Maxwell played the good mate, walked her home for safety, then went in for a drink. She can’t even remember it, so she says. Not that she said anything at all until she had to, until she knew she was up the duff and the timing gave her away. There’d never been any question of getting rid of it. Jenna suffered from selective Catholicism, so whilst it was okay to live in sin, drink the town dry and swear like that wrinkly fucking cook off the telly, abortion wasn’t an option.
As the fat snowflakes tumbled faster out of the sky, I dropped the second smoke, went back in to see what the score was. ‘You have a daughter,’ the midwife beamed as I pushed through the door. I looked at Jenna, exhausted, sweaty, hair plastered to her forehead. She was clutching a wailing bundle, smiling through the tears.
‘Come and see,’ she said. I went over for a look. It was an ugly little spud.
‘She’s our first Christmas arrival,’ the midwife said. ‘Just one minute past midnight, out she popped.’ She looked at Jenna. ‘Any thoughts on names, dear?’
Jenna looked at me. ‘I dunno… Holly?’
I looked at the bairn again. ‘How about “Wingnut”?’ I suggested. The kid was Benny Maxwell’s right enough. No wonder Jenna had squealed. Must have hurt like a bastard getting those ears out.
The midwife tutted, then bustled on out of the room. ‘I’ll get you a cup of tea, dear,’ she called over her shoulder to Jenna. ‘Won’t be long.’
‘Do you want to hold her?’ Jenna asked me.
I shook my head. ‘Maybe later.’ I was still getting used to the idea of bringing up another man’s child. I saw her face drop and I felt mean, but I couldn’t help it. I kissed the top of her head. ‘I’ve got something to do. Get some rest. I’ll be back in an hour or so.’
She looked worried. I heard her start to say something as I went out of the door. ‘Don’t…’
I took it to mean ‘Don’t get caught,’ and since I didn’t intend to, I kept on walking.
I hadn’t believed Jenna when she spun me the line about not remembering. Then I heard that Benny had been picked up and questioned by the police. Some little bird had gone to them with a story about him putting something in her drink. There hadn’t been enough to charge him with, but it was enough for me. Things fell into place, Jenna and I stopped fighting and started working things out, slowly, painfully, but getting there, and I bided my time.
Sure enough, an hour or so later I was back. Jenna was asleep. I tiptoed over to the crib and peeked in at the baby. She was looking better than earlier, I thought. Less red and wrinkly. When she was old enough, we’d get her ears sorted out. I wasn’t having my bairn going through life looking like a taxi with the doors open. She’d get ripped to shreds at school for ears like that. Besides, they reminded me of Benny.
Next afternoon, I was perched on the bed, one arm round Jenna’s shoulders, the other cradling little Holly, when Jenna’s sister came in to visit. There was the usual amount of cooing and crying that I was starting to get used to, then she sat down and started eating the grapes she’d brought for Jenna. ‘You’ll never guess,’ she said, then continued without giving us the chance to. ‘Benny Maxwell’s dead!’
I felt Jenna tense up beside me. ‘How?’ she asked.
‘You know how cold it was last night? They found him lying in his back garden, covered in snow. He was only wearing a T-shirt and shorts. He died of hypothermia. I reckon he must have been drunk or something, and fell down or passed out. Sad, really.’
She was right: he had been drunk. He’d also been full of GHB. It’s frighteningly easy to get hold of. She was wrong on the second count, though, I thought, as I hugged the missus and the bairn: it wasn’t sad at all. In fact, it was probably the best Christmas present I’d ever give them.
I have a couple of Christmas stories that I thought I'd share with you over the next week or so, along with a third, new, one, provided I get it written in time. That's the plan, anyway, so here's the first one: 'Cold, Cold Christmas'. I hope you enjoy it!
Cold, Cold Christmas
Jesus Christ, I fucking hate this time of year. Fake cheer and insincere good wishes, celebrations with people you work with and can just about tolerate provided you’re being paid to be in their company, relatives you see once a year and have to pretend you give a damn about.
It’s all for the children, they say, it’s not the same once they’ve grown up. Or it reminds us of the miracle of the baby Jesus. It’s about family, friends, goodwill to all men, peace, thanksgiving and the poxy Queen’s poncey fucking speech.
It isn’t, though. Do you know what Christmas is all about? Money. That’s all. Money. And God help you if you haven’t got any.
You just need to look at the adverts: big houses, warm and bright, twinkly lights wrapped around huge trees with presents piled high beneath them, well-dressed rosy-cheeked children hardly able to wait until Christmas morning to open them, tables groaning under the weight of the food, granddad napping in the armchair, a full belly making him sleepy, and, glimpsed through the window, snow gently falling to make the day perfect.
Christmas isn’t for the kids. Christmas is for the rich. And I won’t ever be one of those.
Last year I had a wife and a baby son. Mary was the old fashioned type: it was my job to bring home the bacon and hers to cook it. She went part-time when we got married. She packed in work when she had Daniel. We lived in a little house. It might not have been paradise, exactly, but on a good day it could have shared a border with it.
I was cycling to work one morning last June when a fuckwit who was speeding and texting ran me off the road. I was lucky in that my injuries were neither fatal nor even life-threatening, and unlucky in that I didn’t get his car registration and the guy didn’t stop. Probably didn’t even know he’d done it, never tore his eyes away from the screen on his phone. Then my contract came up for renewal and my employer let me go. I couldn’t blame them: who could afford to pay someone not to work in this recession?
In July, I got a dozen horizontal pins put in my right leg. In September, they took them out and replaced them with a couple of vertical ones. Money was tight. Mary did her best, but while she wasn’t what you’d call extravagant, she didn’t really know how to cut back. By the time October came around, she would turn the heating on and I’d follow along behind and turn it off again. She complained she was cold, I told her to put on a jumper. She said the baby needed to be kept warm, I told her to wrap him up. At the end of November she left me for a man called Michael who had his own business and wasn’t afraid of his heating bills. Took the baby. Took the last of the savings. Took my pride, my hope, my future.
Christmas was a bloody miserable affair. I didn’t see a soul.
By February, I was back on my feet and I landed a job at a call centre. God-awful work, but I needed the money. I got the bus there and back and spent most of the day sitting down, and my dodgy leg continued to heal.
I got to see Daniel every other weekend, which wasn’t enough; but I wasn’t in charge when it came to my son, so I had to settle for what I could get.
I picked him up at Michael’s house, mock-Tudor, detached, double garage. I had to admit, Mary looked a million dollars. Designer clothes, regular trips to the gym and the beauty parlour. And the boy had everything he could have asked for. More than I could have given him if I hadn’t had my accident and we’d kept on going as we were. I felt inadequate. I felt relieved. On a bad day, I even felt grateful.
Then one afternoon I was limping back up the road after dropping Daniel off and I saw him, the bastard who’d knocked me off my bike. I watched him drive down the road, speeding and texting, adrenaline coursing through my system as he pulled into the driveway of the house I had just left.
I went back there as fast I could manage and banged on the door. When he answered, phone in hand, red mist distorted my vision.
‘You fucking bastard,’ I yelled. I pointed to my leg. ‘Look what you did to me, you—’
My voice was silenced when he grabbed me by the throat. Apparently Mary wasn’t the only one spending time at the gym.
‘I don’t know who you are, but if you don’t leave right now, I’ll rip your fucking head off,’ he said.
Around the same time, Mary appeared behind him. ‘Let go of him,’ she said to Michael, clutching at his arm. ‘Put him down, that’s Daniel’s dad.’
‘What?’ he said. He looked at her then he looked at me, then he loosened his grip. I sucked in lungfuls of air.
‘How could you?’ I asked Mary. ‘How could you?’
‘What do you mean?’ she asked.
‘That’s the fucker that ran me off the road,’ I told her. I looked at him. ‘I’m telling the police. You’ll go to prison for what you did.’
‘You’re pathetic,’ he said. Inside the house, Daniel started to cry. ‘Go on in, love, see to the boy,’ he said to Mary. ‘There’ll be no more trouble.’ When she’d gone, he pointed to me with his phone. ‘You can prove fuck all,’ he said, ‘so fuck off back to your hovel and leave decent people in peace.’ Then he slammed the door in my face.
And he was right. It was my word against his, I had no proof.
I brooded for weeks, no idea what to do. He’d ruined my life and he was going to get away with it. I had absolutely no comeback. Unless …
I ordered a bike out of a catalogue, paid for it weekly, started cycling again. It was hard at first, getting my strength and stamina back, getting my leg to work like it should, but slowly, little by little, it got easier.
Everywhere I went I watched for him, but didn’t see him.
In the end, he found me. I was cycling home from work and he pulled up alongside me at a traffic light. I looked over in disbelief, but he didn’t look back; he was too busy texting.
Just before the lights changed, I pulled away and turned the handlebars ever so slightly. Sure enough, as soon as they hit green he floored the accelerator and raced forward, one eye still on his phone, and clipped my bike. I flew through the air, terrified, the voice inside my head screaming what the fuck were you thinking?
Six weeks later I got out of hospital and went home. It was getting chilly, but I could afford to put the heating on. I got back to work, travelling on the bus, another bike ruined. Then it was Christmas.
Home alone on Christmas Eve, I was disturbed by a knock at the door. I opened it to see Mary, clutching Daniel. ‘Can we come in?’ she asked. I nodded and stood back, gave her room. As I shut the door I noticed a neat little hatchback parked at the kerb.
‘What’s up?’ I asked her, as she perched on the edge of the settee. She put Daniel down and he toddled over to me and held his arms out. I picked him up and hugged him, turned away from Mary so she couldn’t see the tears in my eyes.
‘It’s Michael,’ she said.
‘What about him?’ I asked, lifting Daniel high above me while he showered me in chuckles and smiles.
‘He’s still locked up.’
I nodded. I knew. I’d been in court when he got done for dangerous driving, had given evidence against him. He had a long time to go yet before he made any decisions as a free man.
I flew Daniel through the air like a plane while he waggled his arms and giggled.
‘And his business has gone bust. The recession—’
‘What do you want from me, Mary?’
‘I’ve no money. Can I … can we come back?’
‘Is your stuff in the car?’
She nodded. ‘Some of it.’
Ten minutes later, it was all in the hall and she was starting to look pleased with herself. ‘You can pick your things up when you drop the rest of Daniel’s off,’ I told her, and the smile slid off her face.
I repeated myself.
‘But I thought …? It’s Christmas, you can’t send us back to that cold house.’
‘There’s no room at the inn,’ I told her. ‘Not for you.’
‘Stays here with me. If your house is that cold, he’s not safe there.’ I opened the door, nodded to her to get out. Still looking like she didn’t believe me, she stepped outside. I think she thought I was just trying to teach her a lesson, right up until the door slammed in her face and the hall light was turned off. I heard her wailing on for a while, but eventually the car pulled away. I hoped she made the most of it: when my claim against her boyfriend got through the courts, she’d have to sell it and the house to pay me.
A little later I was sipping whisky and watching TV, the sound down low as Daniel was asleep on the settee. I looked at him and whispered, ‘Welcome home, son.’ Then I raised my glass in a toast to the world at large: ‘Merry Christmas,’ I said. ‘God bless us, every fucking one.’
Thanks to Steven Miscandlon for the image. Much appreciated!
Leon Steelgrave is one of my favourite writers so it’s always a pleasure when he stops by. And since he has news of both recent new publications and a free book offer, this seemed like the ideal time to catch up.
JM: You’ve had a very busy year by anyone’s standards, having published three novels and two short story collections via Amazon KDP. Working in chronological order, they are White Vampyre, the first in the Europa City trilogy; A Pauper’s Shroud, a crime novel set in Inverness; short story collections More Stories About Sex, Drugs and Violence, and Phantasmagoria; and most recently Though Your Sins Be Scarlet, the second Europa City novel. (The links above are to my reviews of the books, although I still have a couple to catch up on.) Can you provide some background to the individual stories in More Stories About Sex, Drugs and Violence?
LS: More Stories About Sex, Drugs and Violence comprises thirteen stories written over a sixteen year period that covers almost every aspect of my writing. I’ve tried to provide some insight into them below without giving too much away.
The use of the second person in the narrative is a direct homage to those old adventure game books that originated in the eighties, where you navigated through the book by turning to various numbered sections. Depending on your choices, you either won or died!
In line with the choice of the second person was the decision to write in as gender neutral a voice as possible. Despite being the oldest story in the collection, having been written in 1996, it holds up remarkably well.
The Dog Trainer
The setting and much of the early dialogue relating to dog psychology are lifted directly from a session I had with a dog trainer after re-homing a dog that turned out to be aggressive. Somewhere during the process I started to wonder what would happen if you applied the same process to a human.
The concept behind this story started as something of a joke, someone setting out to commit every specific type of murder, and swiftly turned far more serious. Is it too fantastical?
Death & Taxes
A reproduction of the composition piece I wrote for my English O Grade. Proof, were it needed, that my humour has always been black. For those that may be interested, I received a B.
For want of better term, a more literary examination of the concept behind White Vampyre. I later attempted to turn it into a novel with no success. Some of the material from that failed attempt was then used in a second failed attempt to turn Tracks, another story in this collection, into a novel. One of these days I will complete a novel about Aberdeen lowlifes based on my time in the city. Honest.
One of several pieces in this collection originally written for a competition. In this instance the brief was a modern updating of a myth. I chose Leda and the swan from Greek mythology. Didn’t win.
Inspired by an advert for a company offering to turn human cremation ashes into diamond via an industrial process. The character of Wayne swiftly took on a life of his own, becoming far more unpleasant than anything I’d first imagined. Had a different twist when I first conceived it. This one works better.
Another competition piece and the only flash fiction in this collection — 500 words on the subject of time. I suspect the racist language at the beginning may have queered this with the judges. I considered removing it for the submission but it is entirely justified for the character and self-censorship is a slippery slope for any writer.
This one arrived out of nowhere, starting with the title which sounds like something J G Ballard might have used. Any resemblance to an ex member of The Libertines is entirely coincidental.
Down The Rabbit Hole
The most light-hearted story in the collection. Besides the obvious references to Alice In Wonderland, The Wizard Of Oz and 70’s British Children’s television, there are a number of references to Tori Amos lyrics in the text. I do this sort of thing far too often for my own good.
Another story that seemed to arrive almost fully formed. This one manages to feature all three of the collection’s title themes along with a generous helping of black humour. I like to think it attempts to make some serious points along the way.
Another Nail In My Coffin
In large part inspired by the excellent charity anthology Off The Record, where each story was inspired by a classic song. The title comes from Nail In My Coffin from The Kills' Blood Pressures album. The two, however, have little else in common.
The Killing Of Joe Fly
Competition — the body in the library. Hard-boiled detective fiction with a twist. Also didn’t win.
JM: You have just published a sequel to your first novel White Vampyre, titled Though Your Sins Be Scarlet. Can you tell us how this continues the story of Kurt Brecht, Lady Methedrine and the rest of the citizens of Europa City?
LS: There’s a theory that trilogies normally conform to one of two patterns; either Up/Down/Up or Down/Up/Down. I think I may be attempting to break the mould with Down/Down/Down! Though Your Sins Be Scarlet is a more introspective book than White Vampyre If the first was a headlong rush of hedonistic delight, then the second is the day’s dawning afterward, when your skin is crawling and you finally have a chance to take stock of what you’ve done. It’s definitely the come down after the high.
A number of minor characters from the first book come to the fore in the sequel as the consequences of Kurt’s actions are felt by friends and foes alike. There are also glimpses of the past that help to explain how the various characters arrived at their present place in life. If I have one concern about the novel it is whether readers will be disappointed by the fact Kurt and Lady Methedrine play a smaller role than in the previous novel. I like to think I’ve compensated for this by strengthening the supporting cast, particularly Duval, Slinky and the Damocles Assassin.
JM: What else have you been working on?
LS: I completed the revised draft of my WWI novel and that’s currently undergoing the submission process. It’s a book I’m very proud of, although it is not necessarily a Leon Steelgrave book.
Next was the second short story collection, Phantasmagoria, which is more fantasy based.
I’m currently working on a story for the Neil Gunn writing competition (if you haven’t read any of his work go out and buy one of his books now), after which I intend writing a novella, Marlow, which explores the nature of reality and personality; how people’s perceptions of a person can vary quite drastically according to their interactions and perceptions. Much like the WWI novel, this probably won’t come out as a Leon Steelgrave book and I hope readers won’t be too disappointed by the delay. I have spent most of this year revising older manuscripts and now have the itch to produce something brand spanking new. With any luck the initial draft will come together quite quickly.
Once that’s out of the way, I’ll be resuming work on the final part of the Lady Methedrine/Kurt Brecht trilogy — The Violet Hour. I hope to put it out towards the end of next year. That will be all from Europa City for the time being, although it’s a setting I will certainly return to, both before and after the events of White Vampyre.
Looking beyond even that, there’s the possibility of a Norse based fantasy novel that I rather got tired of writing and brought to something of a premature ending. I really need to see it through to its rightful conclusion. I also need to revise The Disciples — a vampire trilogy set in the Goth scene of the 1980s. If I slavishly applied myself, I could probably put about a book every three to four months right now with the material cluttering up my hard drive, although much of the above is in need of serious revision.
JM: Good news for readers is that for today only, More Stories About Drugs, Sex & Violence, Phantasmagoria and Though Your Sins Be Scarlet are free from Amazon. From the point of view of this reader, if you don’t have them, you should treat yourself to at least one. And since White Vampyre and A Pauper's Shroud are just 77p/99c at the moment, there's no reason not to pick up the full set.
Leon Steelgrave's books are available from Amazon in the UK and the US.
I had a rush of blood to the head the other day and decided it would be a good idea to gather all my crime fiction short stories together and publish them in one collection. The result is Bad Times, comprising Gone Bad, Show No Mercy, and Wired.If you fancy a taster from the collection, I've reprinted Behind Blue Eyes below. (It's also in the charity anthology Off The Record, along with many other excellent stories.)
Massive thanks to Steven Miscandlon for another fantastic cover. Check out his book cover design portfolio.Bad Times is available now from Amazon in the UK and the US.
Behind Blue Eyes
‘It was a mistake, Mac. I’m sorry …’
Bob was on his knees, hands tied behind his back, head bowed. His voice was muffled by the hood. The rope was cutting into his wrists, the skin abraded, but for all it was painful, it was the least of his worries.
Mac sighed audibly, almost theatrically. ‘What am I to do, Bob? What choice have you left me with?’
‘Mac, please. It’s my Ruby Wedding next month. Me and Jeanie. And we’re going to be grandparents soon—’
‘You should have thought of that before you stole from me.’
‘It was only a few hundred quid.’
‘It was thousands. You’d been at it for months.’
‘I needed the money.’
Gambling debts. Mac knew. ‘You should have come to me if you were in trouble. Haven’t I always seen you right?’
‘I know, Mac, I know. And I wish I had. If I could turn the clock back … I was going to pay it back, though. Every penny.’
‘You know as well as I do that once you start down that road, you don’t stop. You never pay it back. It only ends when you get caught.’
‘I was desperate.’
Mac could imagine how Bob must have felt. Trapped. Scared. Caught between a rock and a hard place, his bookie at his back chasing him for money, this confrontation with Mac always just a step ahead. Inevitable.
‘You should have come to me,’ Mac repeated.
Bob was sweating, and it had nothing to do with the hood or the fact that it was summer. It was freezing in the warehouse, kneeling on concrete, the wind blowing in off the river robbing the night of any heat it might have held.
He knew he’d been stupid, but he and Mac went back, right back to school days. Fifty years they’d been friends. He and Jeanie were godparents to all three of Mac and Marjorie’s kids. He’d kept Mac’s secrets, covered for him with Marjorie when he was playing away from home, given him an alibi whenever the coppers were breathing down his neck so close that he’d needed one. Fifty years watching each other’s backs. You didn’t throw that away over a bit of money. And it wasn’t like Mac couldn’t afford it.
Bob figured he was just trying to teach him a lesson, to scare him into never doing anything like it again. And he wouldn’t. He’d get help. There was an organisation, Gamblers Anonymous, like AA but for folk addicted to betting. For Bob, it was the dogs. He’d had one good win and it had been his downfall. After that he was always chasing the next one, always believing it would turn around, telling himself that after one more good win he’d stop. The trouble was, to get a good win, he had to put on a good bet, and his money had run out.
Mac would probably let Big Liam finish what he’d started when he punched Bob to the floor in the club, dragged him outside and threw him in the back of the van, then tied his hands and put that stinking bag over his head. It had only been lifted once since: to let him see that Mac was waiting for him when they got to the warehouse.
Mac might let Liam break something, make sure the message got across loud and clear to anyone else with designs on his millions: not even family get away with it. Bob shuffled on the concrete floor, the cold seeping into his old knee joints. He’d suffer for this. The arthritis was biting at him anyway and this would just make things worse. He heard Mac moving around behind him, stamping his feet and rubbing his gloved hands together. He couldn’t hear Big Liam, but he knew he was there, standing still and solid as a rock.
Liam didn’t say much. Liam listened. And obeyed.
‘You bloody fool,’ said Mac.
‘I’m sorry,’ said Bob.
‘Sorry doesn’t do it, not for this. Sorry doesn’t even begin to cover it.’
Bob heard the sorrow in Mac’s voice, and the determination, and adrenaline surged through his veins. Realisation hit him hard as fear wrapped itself around his heart and squeezed, robbed him of breath and stopped his tongue.
‘I can’t let it go, Bob, you must see that. You betrayed me.’ Mac walked over to where Liam was standing, the footsteps heading away from Bob. Then he came back and stood behind him. ‘It’ll be quick and clean,’ said Mac, ‘and I’ll do it myself. That’s the best I can do.’
‘Mac, no!’ Bob struggled to accept it. His childhood friend. He had never truly believed, not deep down, that it would ever come to this. ‘I’ll pay back every penny, with interest. I’ll sell the house. You can have it all, everything I own.’ He was tripping over the words in his haste to get them all out, to find the ones that would change Mac’s mind before it was too late.
‘Not good enough.’
Bob felt the barrel of the gun touch the back of his head and he whimpered. A small part of him still hoped Mac was just trying to scare him. He felt his bladder give and the fear was tinged with shame.
‘It’s not personal, Bob, you know that. I’ll miss you myself. But I can’t have people thinking I’m an easy touch or that I’ve gone soft.’
‘I’ll take care of Jeanie,’ said Mac, as the shot from the gun echoed through the warehouse. Bob crumpled to the floor and Mac put a second round in his head. The silence that followed was deafening.
Without speaking, Mac handed the gun to Big Liam and they walked out of the old warehouse. He nodded and Liam jumped in the van to drive back to the club. Mac’s driver stood by the rear door of the car and he opened it when he saw his boss approaching. Mac slumped in the back seat and the driver shut the door and climbed into the front.
‘Back to the club?’ he asked, watching Mac in the rear view mirror. Mac nodded and he fired the engine.
In the back of the car, Mac pushed the button to raise the screen between him and the driver. Opening a small cabinet, he took out a cut crystal glass and a flask and poured himself a scotch, then sat back in the seat, the leather soft as butter, cradling his form. As the car was guided expertly through the darkened streets, Mac brooded. No one knew what it was like to be him. No one understood the responsibility, the loneliness. The darkness inside.
Back at the club, the car door was opened for him and Mac stepped out into the night air. Liam at his back, he walked into the club, up the stairs and into the bar. His men waited. He looked at them through blue eyes as cold as ice, taking in each face, seeing the respect, the fear.
‘Bob has retired from the firm,’ he said. ‘Someone organise flowers for Jeanie.’
Liam Sweeny has just re-released his first novel, Anno Luce, into the world. I've read it and thoroughly enjoyed it, so I wanted to ask Liam some questions about it. Here's what he had to say.
Tell me about your book.
Anno Luce is about the return of Jesus (in the book, Yashua King). I wanted to focus on realism with it. Yashua is a character, aside from who he is. He doesn’t exist in a vacuum of religious dogma, and those who come to believe that he’s the returned Jesus go through much doubt and scepticism. There’s something for everyone in the book; humour, contemporary culture, current events and controversy. Though it’s considered Christian fiction, it doesn’t read like that.
What was your motivation for writing it?
When Hurricane Katrina hit, in the days following, I felt tremendous emotion for the people trapped and displaced. And when I heard certain televangelists (who shall remain nameless) say that God used Katrina to punish a sinful city, I had to write a book in which Jesus could confront people who would say such things in his name. But about ten pages in, the story took a life of its own.
How long did it take you to complete?
It took four weeks of writing time, seven weeks total (I spent three weeks in Louisiana in between).
What's your favourite part of the creative process?
I like getting in that zone where I have my coffee by my hand, the cigs aplenty and a scene and a voice that are just coming out of me. That opening line; that opening paragraph. The first interchange of dialog that sets the tone between characters.
How much difference does an editor make?
An editor makes all the difference. I never realized that until I had an editor. Authors write from what is in their head, and what is their style. But, while both are important, you can’t always make people see what’s in your head, and your style, however good it may be, can confuse people. Above all, you want a book that people will want to read. An editor makes that possible. Editors are readers with an expertise on what readers expect, and can accept.
What are your views on e-book pricing?
E-book pricing is a touchy subject. The reason, in my mind, that it’s so tricky is that, while there will probably never be an objective pricing standard among independent authors, there is an objective ‘number of sales’ — it is a number of e-books sold. I’ll give an example; author A and author B write a similarly-sized book in the same genre, both books equally good, and both authors put in an equal amount of effort in marketing. Author A sets the e-book price at $5.99, and author B sets their price at $0.99. Author B will sell more copies, due only to price. Now if there was an equal author C who gave their book away for free, they would ‘sell’ the most copies. It becomes a race to the bottom.
Setting various levels of e-book pricing can be considered a marketing tool, but if ‘e-book only’ authors want to make a living as authors, some consensus around e-book pricing needs to be reached; otherwise, it’s the wild, wild, west.
How do you feel about interviews?
I like interviews. I’m a loudmouth. But even if someone isn’t, they’re important. People want to know about the person who writes a book they enjoyed, or might be interested in buying. Anything to promote interaction.
How do you feel about reviews?
They’re more important to authors than readers think. Many readers pick up a book on Amazon, read it, like it and don’t take that last step to go back to Amazon and say a quick word about it. Reviews tell sellers like Amazon that a book should be moved up in the ranks.
In terms of detailed reviews, good or bad, they’re still bringing attention to the book. So they’re always good. But it’s more difficult, I think, getting people to review longer books.
Thanks, Liam. Anno Luce is available from Amazon in the UK and in the US.
I'm delighted to welcome Pete Sortwell to the blog today. Having appeared in a number of anthologies with his darkly funny short crime fiction, Pete's just published his first book, a comedy novella.
Tell me about your book.
The Village Idiot Reviews is something of a new concept (if I do say so myself). It’s certainly something I haven’t seen before. It essentially a comedy novella, however it is written entirely in the format of a person leaving a review. If you didn’t guess, it’s written by a load of idiots who live in a village.
A few of the reviews will start to appear on Amazon. Although I’ve written them in such a way that should anyone suspect them not to be just a laugh then they may well find themselves in the title of the next idiot review book.
What was your motivation for writing it?
Simply put, I wanted to make people laugh and take another step toward being a ‘writer’. I also saw a lot being written this summer about the review process and what better way for a writer to use the subject other than to take inspiration from it and write, and if I could do it well, even better. Basically I put all the effort I could have put into moaning about the behaviour of others into writing this and as a result, I’ve come up with possibly the best thing I’ve written so far.
How long did it take you to complete?
Two weeks. Putting in between three to six hours a day most days. Then another two days to do the second draft, which I put in about twelve hours on both days.
How much difference does an editor make?
It makes a huge difference, certainly to my work. All my work goes through an editor these days. It’s a relationship that I need to trust someone and that’s something I’ve found in my editor. I couldn’t ask for a better professional. Once I’ve been through my own work a couple of times it’s always positive for someone else to and who better than someone who does that for a living? I certainly believe my work is something worth investing in.
How important is a good title?
I think they’re pretty important, it’s the thing that will get spoken about the most, other than your name (and I’ve got a pretty good name too) so if it’s catchy then people will be more likely to remember it. I’ve not really thought myself good at choosing titles before now, I normally steal one of my musician friend’s song titles. So Low, So High and Die Happy, Die Smiling being two of those. I do think I’ve managed to get something decent with this one, something that gives me scope to take the series onto other things.
How important is a good cover?
Again, I think it is very important and is something else I’ve invested in for this book. I think what me and the designer came up with is really good. I’ve seen some covers on Amazon from self-pub’d writers and they’ve been embarrassingly shit. Funnily enough most of the covers in the charts on Kindle, particularly all seem to have decent covers.
What makes you keep reading a book?
If someone makes me laugh, that would. I like new and interesting stories and topics. The ultimate page tuner for me is one with good dialogue, lots of it.
What are you currently working on?
I’ve just started the second Idiot Reviews book, The Idiot Politicians Reviews. Hopefully out at the end of October, if not before.
How can we keep up to date with your news?
You can ‘like’ the Pete Sortwell — Author page on Facebook. That’s where I’ll be doing most of the talking until I stop spending all my money on book covers and editing and pay for a website. Or, of course, if I make some money from this writing lark.
What would your epitaph read?
‘I wouldn’t look behind you, that bloke is touching himself.’Cheers, Pete — best of luck with the book and with the rest of the series. The Village Idiot Reviews is available from Amazon in the UK and in the US.
I'm delighted to report that Wired was indeed published as planned. It's around 10,500 words of badness for just 77p/99c. Here's a bit about it:
Wired, the new collection from Julie Morrigan, contains two short stories, ‘Barbed Wire’ and ‘Razor Wire’.
How far would you go to protect your family? Pushed to the brink, Jimmy Mitchell does what he feels is necessary; then, when he finally dares to believe it’s all over, the police knock on his door. Have Jimmy’s past misdeeds caught up with him?
As Jemma struggles to change her image from thieving tomboy to elegant sophisticate, she is driven to do desperate things to feed her new obsession. What we covet can make us reckless; but is it really worth dying for?
Wired includes scenes of violence, brutality and human frailty. It’s likely to appeal to fans of previous collections Gone Bad and Show No Mercy. It is available from Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com (and the European sites, too).
It's been a while since I published anything new, so while the bigger projects get the attention they need, I thought I'd put some new short stories out. Wired is a twin pack of shorts with a common theme. The stories are 'Barbed Wire' and 'Razor Wire', and they're not for the faint hearted. Here's a wee snippet from each.Barbed WireWhen I got in, Steph was waiting for me. The kids were in bed, of course, and I was glad about that. I wasn’t yet ready to look them in the eye after I’d murdered their dad.
‘Well?’ she said, as I kicked my muddy boots off at the back door.
‘It’s done,’ I said. I walked through the kitchen.
Steph tried to catch my arm, but I kept on walking, down the hall and up the stairs.
‘How did you …?’ Steph was on my heels.
I stopped at the bathroom door, turned and looked at her. ‘I really don’t want to talk about it, pet. It’s done and now I want a shower.’ I shut the door on her and sat down on the edge of the bath. I felt sick to my stomach, even though he deserved it, even though I hated the cunt. I was weary, too, and not just because of the physical effort needed to do what we’d done. I stood up and stripped my clothes off, folded them and put them in a pile, then I had a shower and tried to wash away the dirt, and the night, and the memory of the spade in his neck, the soil in his eyes, and that bloody awful growling noise he’d made as he died.Razor Wire
I pissed myself while Max was wrapping me in the razor wire. He didn’t say anything, but I saw his face and I knew I disgusted him.
I could hear a voice chanting quietly, over and over again: ‘Please don’t do this, please don’t do this, please don’t …’ I knew the voice was mine. I knew he wasn’t listening. I just couldn’t stop.
My face was covered in tears and I could taste snot. I couldn’t wipe it away; he was up to my shoulders now, having started at my ankles, and my hands were cocooned in the evil wire. I could feel the blades, hundreds of them, cutting through my clothes and into my skin. The slightest movement was agony. He was wearing big, thick gloves, gauntlets that went almost to his elbows, and still he was careful.
‘You done yet?’ Jacko shouted from the van. He was parked up on the bridge, looking down on us. So close to a main road and yet it could have been another planet. Where he was, in another hour, traffic would be streaming past taking people to offices, shops and factories. Where I was, I’d be lucky if anyone fought their way through the undergrowth in a month. I would be able to hear the traffic: no one would be able to hear me, no matter how loud I might shout. As for the dog walkers, the path they followed was far enough away. I’d probably be discovered by one of them long after I was dead, when some hound or other got its nostrils full of the sickly-sweet scent of decay.
Wired will be available on 7th September.