Ghost Town – a flash fantasy story

I knew I didn’t have a problem. But my folks were fifty-seven different flavours of worried about me. They worried about what the bottle was doing to my body, to my relationships, to my soul. I had to do something to show I was taking their worries seriously. I wasn’t going to waste a month in rehab, not even if it was paid for out of mum’s bonus, and I sure as hell wasn’t opening up to a counsellor week after week. So I took the only option I had left – I went to Ghost Town.

As I stepped off the ferry and onto the pier, I straight away got a hit of how the town got its name. A wave of images washed over me, swirling out of the fog that lay across the place like a constant shroud. Images of so many things that mattered to me – lost loves, dead friends, childhood pets, and yes, I’ll admit it, a wild night or two. Even knowing that they weren’t real, that it was just the magic of the place, I staggered back, trembling, and almost fell into the oil-filmed river.

Then the images passed.

I hailed a cab and headed into town.

An hour later, I was settled into my hotel room. It had all the usual stuff – room service menu, code for the wifi, directions for if the fire alarm went off. And on top of the heap, one brochure that was special to this place – guidance on dealing with the ghosts.

I chucked it in the bin, opened the window, and let the fog roll in. Better to get this over and done with so I could go home.

I sat back in a frayed armchair, watching the fog by the faltering glow of a bedside lamp. There were fewer faces this time, more memories of a different sort. Chaotic images of lost nights and empty bottles.

At first, they made me laugh at the memory of happier days, when everyone accepted me for who I was, without all this bullshit about how I was wrecking myself, how I was tearing the family apart. But the laughter was like the last dregs of beer swirling around in an empty can.

“Screw that.” I leapt up and slammed the window shut. I didn’t need to put myself through this. Enough people had seen me get on the ferry. They knew I’d come here. I’d just tell them I’d seen Uncle Alfie and cousin Jen and Tiddles, the first in our long line of hamsters. I’d say that the spirits had taught me the error of my ways and that I was all better now. They’d be happy and they’d be off my back.

The hotel I’d booked into wasn’t a specialist place for people dealing with substance abuse. The menu included plenty of beers and a passable wine list. I selected a bottle whose price would just look like a meal on the bill, then reached for the phone.

Outside the window, shapes were still swirling. Jen really was there this time, a trickle of blood running down the side of her face, just like it had done at the bottom of the stairs.

My mouth went dry. I put the phone down, took a deep breath, and opened the window.

“Why am I seeing you?” I asked.

“Why do you think?” she asked in turn.

“This isn’t fair. It’s not my fault.”

“Nobody said that it was.”

“But they thought it. I could tell. If I’d caught you, or if I’d warned you about the cat on the stairs, or if I’d… if I’d…”

My words faded, no more solid than the fog.

“You can’t hide from me forever,” she said.

“I wasn’t!”

“Weren’t you?”

A hand appeared, holding out a bottle. I wanted it so badly, I was grasping at fog, my fingers passing through the one thing I wanted to hold.

“That’s not why I drink. It’s all just fun.”

“Really?”

Different images now, all of them me. Falling down in the street, falling out with friends, falling puke-stained and red-eyed into bed.

“Please,” I said. “Please don’t take this from me.”

“Nobody’s taking anything from you,” said a fog version of my face. “But what are you taking from yourself?”

The images vanished back into the swirling night.

My whole body was shaking. I closed the window against the cold and wrapped a blanket around myself, but didn’t feel any warmer.

The menu was still open. I ran a finger down it again, then picked up the phone.

“Concierge desk,” a voice said. “How can I help?”

“I’d like to order some room service,” I said, then hesitated, caught between desire and desperation. “A burger. And cheesecake.”

“Anything to drink with that?”

Again, I hesitated.

“A coke,” I forced myself to say.

“It’s on its way. And will there be anything else?”

I took a deep breath.

“Do you have a number for a counsellor?”

* * *

 

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Ghostwriting – How This Weirdness Works

A lot of people have the same reaction when I tell them that I ghostwrite fiction. It’s a mixture of curiosity and confusion. Ghostwriting sounds like an exciting thing to do, but what does it actually mean? And how does it even happen?

Well…

What I Do

Fiction work for hire, whether as a ghostwriter or a named contributor, is extremely variable.

Sometimes I get hired to plot a novel, then never touch it again.

Sometimes I get hired to write a novel based on a plot someone’s already written.

Sometimes I get hired to do the whole thing, based on a concept the client has or a genre they want to publish in.

Sometimes it’s consulting with a client, helping them to develop their ideas.

There’s also a lot of editing work, though I don’t often do that.

The genres vary. There’s a lot of work out there for romance writers, as that’s a huge part of publishing. But it’s not my genre, so I only write romance as part of something else. I’ve been hired to work on space operas, dystopian sci-fi, urban fantasy, thrillers, hard sci-fi, folktales, and historical fiction.

I also do non-fiction ghostwriting, but that’s a post for another time.

Finding Work

I find most of my working through freelance hiring websites. Clients post details of jobs they want done. I browse the jobs and find ones that I’m interested in, based on the budget, conditions, and how interesting the work looks. Then I make a bid, saying what I would provide, how much I would charge, and what relevant skills and experience I have. The clients pick between bidders.

These sites are incredibly helpful. Partly, that’s because they put a bunch of jobs in one place. But it’s also because of the feedback mechanisms. Clients and freelancers leave feedback for each other. After several years of work, I have a lot of positive reviews and ratings. This lets potential clients know that I’m reliable and have the skills that I’m laying claim to.

Sometimes clients even single me out and invite me to bid on their jobs. The process is pretty much the same, except that I know in advance that they think I might be a good fit.

I also have work away from these sites. Some of this comes through friends and some comes from previous clients approaching me directly.

But Why?

This is the question that seems to fascinate most people – who is hiring me and why?

It’s a natural question to ask. We tend to assume that, if someone has a story to tell, they want to tell it themselves. Despite many examples to the contrary, we think of authors as lone creatives driven by passion and inspiration. My work doesn’t fit that image.

Most of why I get hired stems from the current book market. Thanks in large part to Amazon, it’s possible for small presses and independent authors to make a living off publishing. To do that, they need to have a firm grasp of marketing. And for that marketing to work, they need a steady stream of books. So marketing-minded people, whether authors themselves or not, hire the likes of me to produce books for their publishing machine.

There are also the passion projects. Maybe a client has a story they really want to tell but they don’t know how. Maybe they want to write but aren’t sure how to structure their plot. Maybe they just want a professional’s perspective on their ideas and they’re willing to pay for a few hours of my time.

Questions?

It’s always tricky to talk about this stuff. Discretion is an important part of my work. There are often non-disclosure agreements. Even when I can technically talk specifics, I’m wary of doing so.

But if you have questions, if you want to know more, then feel free to ask in the comments. I’ll answer those I can. Because this is an odd job and a brilliant job, and I’m happy to talk about it.

Davey in the Machine – a flash science fiction story

Lies - High ResolutionOf all the people I thought I’d miss while on the penal farm, Davey was at the bottom of the list. But after the first few days, once I’d got used to the electric fences and the guard platforms hovering above our heads, I started to think about him a lot. I thought about everything, from our first kiss to the fight outside the casino that got us locked up. I was still mad at him, but I felt like I had a hole inside me, knowing that hundreds of miles of Martian sand lay between us, and that I might never see him again.

That was why I called the tractor Davey. As the only prisoner with the skills to program its AI, I was responsible for maintenance, making sure it could plough land that had lain untouched for millions of years. The green of its signal lights reminded me of my Davey’s eyes, and I saw something of his smile in the front bumper. Sure, it wasn’t really him, but it was better than nothing.

“Your tractor’s acting up again.” Browne, the deputy chief warden, hauled me out of my bunk and down to the fields. The atmospheric transformation was still incomplete, and the thin air left me feeling tired after only a short walk. But I smiled when I saw Davey, lights blinking angrily, stalled just inside the fence.

“Something ain’t right,” I told Browne after a few minutes nosing around Davey’s hard drive.

“No shit.” Browne slapped a stun baton against the palm of her hand. “Can you fix it?”

“I don’t know.” I’d never seen anything like it. Davey the machine had just decided not to work, like when my Davey got into a sulk. “I can try.”

Browne kept me up all night trying to get Davey moving. By dawn I was just about there.

“He’ll need resets every eight hours,” I said, a plan spinning in the back of my mind. This could be my chance to spend more time with Davey, to fill my days refining his programs instead of taking my turn cleaning the farm’s filthy bathrooms.

“Whatever.” Browne shook her head. “Just keep this damn thing moving.”

An hour later I was jolted out of bed, my body writhing at the electric prod of a stun baton.

“That machine’s stopped again,” Browne growled. “Fix it, or I’m putting you in solitary for the next month.”

Rubbing sleep from my eyes, I stumbled out to the field. Davey the tractor was rolling back and forth across the same six feet of dirt, like my Davey pacing as he stewed over some hurt or scheme. I laid a hand on the bodywork and the machine stopped, lights blinking in acknowledgement of my presence.

Cracking open the control panel, I switched on its monitor and started exploring Davey’s mind. It was getting caught in loops of logic, refusing to act until it could think its way clear. But it was a simple AI without any skill in self-reflection, so instead of finding a solution it just rolled back and forth, the frantically running engine making it hotter and hotter under the bonnet.

As I stared at the subconscious workings of the tractor, I realised that my own subconscious had been at play. I’d missed my Davey so much that I’d given the tractor his habits. Now its programs were so tangled up, there’d be no clearing it without a complete wipe. I didn’t want to do that to my Davey.

Dozens of other prisoners stood, picks and shovels idle in their hands, as they watched me grapple with the tractor while Browne paced impatiently beside me. It can’t have been all that exciting, but then neither was digging dirt.

Now I understood, the answer was obvious.

I drew the AI’s attention to a part of its own code, highlighting what I saw as crucial flaws. It was like telling someone they were being an idiot.

Suddenly the engine growled. Wheels spun and Davey the tractor raced away from me, just like my Davey had outside that casino. I ran after, head spinning as I fought for breath in the thin air, and flung myself on the back just as I would have fainted. Behind me, Browne stood shouting and waving her stun baton.

Davey hit the electric fence. There was a shower of sparks and a rending sound. For a terrible moment I thought the fence might be tougher, but Davey was strong. Wires snapped, the engine roared, and the other prisoners cheered as I rode through the gap out onto the wastes. They started running after me, guards shouting and chasing them.

Slumped across the back of the tractor, I looked across hundreds of miles of red desert.

“Come on, Davey.” I patted the tractor’s flank. “Lets go find the real you.”

* * *

 

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You might also enjoy my science fiction collection Lies We Will Tell Ourselves, which is free today as a Kindle ebook via Amazon.

The God of This Hillside – a fantasy flash story

Picture by Martin Pettitt via Flickr Creative Commons
Picture by Martin Pettitt via Flickr Creative Commons

“For the last time, put that thing away.” Carausius glared at the labourer in the grey tunic, the one who kept trying to place offerings next to the syphon pipes. “If the senate thought we needed gods to carry our water then they would have sent a priest, not an engineering team.”

“But the god of this hillside-” the man began.

“A pox on the god of this hillside,” Carausius said. “We have laid the pipes perfectly, there is no need for magic.”

He laid a hand on one of the lead tubes. The siphon ran down one hillside, across the valley, and back up the other side, from a rural collection tank to a water-tower on the edge of Rome. Even by his standards it was excellent work.

“Open the gates,” he called up the hill.

“I already did,” came the reply from near the collection tank.

Frowning, Carausius leaned down and pressed his ear against the pipe. There was no sound, nor the slightest vibration. No water flowed.

He stomped up the hillside, followed by the labourer. At the top stood his assistant Itimerius, his face crumpled with concern.

“Look.” Itimerius pointed to the gate leading from the tank into the pipe. It was open, but no water flowed through. A foot-wide bubble blocked the way, and in the middle of it stood the tiny figure of a water sprite, hair hanging green around her scaly shoulders.

The tank wasn’t full yet, but the water reached Carausius’s knees as he dropped down inside, a measuring stick in one hand.

“Get out.” He stabbed at the sprite with the stick, but she darted giggling out of the way. The air bubble remained. Taking a deep breath, Carausius forced himself to smile at the tiny creature. “What would you like in return for letting the water flow?”

“Not me.” The sprite giggled again, the sound grating at Carausius’s nerves. “Hill god wants offering. Hill god friend.”

“Fine.” Carausius gripped the edge of the tank and hauled himself out. As he stood dripping on the hillside, he turned to the labourer in grey. “Make an offering. Summon the god of this blasted hill.”

“Um…” The labourer pointed past Carausius.

A face had appeared in the freshly dug dirt beside the tank.

Letting out a deep sigh, Carausius turned to the god of the hillside.

“Oh spirit,” he began.

“You mean ‘oh mighty spirit’.” The hill god’s voice was deep, rich and arrogant. Apparently it thought it was one step down from Jupiter, not one step up from a pile of rocks.

“I mean oh noxious vapour,” Carausius replied. “Now tell me what you want, so we can get this over with.”

“What I want is some respect,” the god said.

“Respectfully, what do you want?” Carausius snarled.

“I knew you were too proud.” The god frowned. “You’re one of those humans who thinks you’re good enough without gods.”

“I built this siphon.” Carausius pointed at the pipeline. “I’m good enough without anyone.”

“You didn’t ask my permission to build on my slope.”

“I didn’t need to. The senate priests did that.”

“You didn’t ask for help.”

“I didn’t need your help!”

“You still could have asked.”

“For what? To protect your feelings?”

“To show some respect.”

“How’s this for respect – let the water flow and I won’t turn this hillside into plebeian housing.”

“See – too proud.” Dirt flew as the god snorted. “You’d delay Rome’s water supply rather than say please.”

On the verge of shouting, Carausius caught a glimpse of the city in the distance, and of his team looking at him in resignation.

Closing his eyes, he took a deep, calming breath.

“Oh mighty spirit,” he said between gritted teeth. “Please help the water to flow.”

“And what do you offer me for this assistance?” the god asked.

“Offer you?” Carausius yelled. “You wanted me to-”

He caught himself, took another deep breath, and held out the measuring stick. His hands trembled with anger.

“I offer you the instrument of my craft.” He snapped the stick in half, then plunged it into the dirt. “Which is nothing compared with your power.”

Everyone turned with bated breath to look at the god.

“Very well.” It smiled. “Thank you for your offering.”

The dirt face disappeared, and a moment later there came the sound of water running down the lead pipes.

“Itimerius, take a note,” Carausius called out as he strode away.

“Yes, master.” His assistant ran to catch up with him, a wax tablet in one hand and a stylus in the other.

“Note for our next project,” Carausius said. “Get a commission for something ugly, dirty or smelly.” He waited for Itimerius to scribble that down. “And then build it on this hillside.”

He looked back up the hill with a sneer.

“I’ll show him what pride’s about.”

* * *

 

If you enjoyed this story then you might also like Demons and the Deep, my new short story about piracy and magic in the ancient Roman Mediterranean, out now for free on Amazon, Smashwords, and other ebook stores.

Faces – a #FlashFriday story

8846856494_810aa2246d_zThe Alt-Face mask was tight against Casey’s skin. It still worked perfectly after years of use, months with these features, so long that she seldom noticed the pressure of the wires on her skin. The face she saw in the mirror almost felt like it could be her own.

As far as the Foreign Minister knew it was her face, just as her name was Janice Long and she’d spent her life working as a personal assistant. He’d started to trust Janice, to let things slip. A few more days and she would have the details of the treaty negotiations. A few more days and she could move on to whatever life the agency sent her to next.

She trailed along behind the minister and his cloud of bodyguards, carrying his computer and the suitcase with his notes for the President. He laughed and pointed as they passed a cheap Alt-Face store, the dummies in its windows shifting to show the latest trends. One showed a face like member of a girl band, just different enough to avoid copyright infringement. The next a licensed imitation of a b-list actress. Next to that was a dummy showing a range of custom-designed faces. Faces which morphed, to Casey’s horror, into her own.

The minister pointed and laughed again, turning back towards her. His bodyguards turned too, but they looked less amused. Hands reached for under-arm holsters as they glared suspiciously at Casey.

There was no time to think, but then there was no decision to make. If they checked then they would realise that this wasn’t her own face, and then the questions would come.

Still clutching the computer bag, Casey turned and ran.

Barging her way through crowds of shoppers, she heard some shouting indignantly at her, others yelling in alarm as armed men followed behind.

She ducked into a network of back alleys, silently cursing the rip-off merchants who’d imitated what was supposed to be a copyrighted face.

By now she was out of sight of the bodyguards, though she could still hear sounds of pursuit. Emerging into an open air market she grabbed a coat off a stall and flung her wallet at the man behind it.

“Keep the change,” she called out, still running as she pulled the coat on.

Letting down her hair, she ducked and weaved between the stalls, looking around for any that sold Alt-Faces, or even the tiny drives programmed with different features. But this neighbourhood was too cheap.

Up ahead, she saw cops approaching between the shoppers, comparing the screens of their phones with every face they passed. It didn’t take a secret agent to work out who they were looking for.

The cops were closing in, and she could hear yells of indignation as the bodyguards shoved through the crowds behind her. Stepping into the narrow space between two stalls, she pressed her hand to her face, felt the wires beneath the thin layer of flesh.

In desperation, she tore it off and kicked it under one of the stalls, then scrabbled at the skin around the sides of her face, trying to remove any traces of its presence.

“Excuse me, ma’am.” The policeman tapped her on the shoulder.

“Yes, officer?” Casey turned towards him.

The man looked down at his screen, then back up at her. She froze as he reached out a hand.

“Sorry about this.” He touched her face, then nodded, apparently satisfied. “Just checking for Alt-Faces. We’re after a criminal who was using one.”

He turned away and carried on between the stalls, leaving Casey standing alone, trembling at her close call, and at a sensation she hadn’t felt in years. As she set off once more through the streets, the ministerial computer and its secrets still in hand, the wind brushed her own bare face.

* * *

This story was inspired by a comment by Jon Taylor when I wrote about self-plagiarism. As always, if you liked the story then please share it with others. You can read more of my science fiction in my collection Lies We Will Tell Ourselves, and more flash fiction free here on my site.

I’ve been a little erratic about blogging lately due to the time consuming stresses of moving house. That’s likely to continue for another week or so, as we finish packing , move, and finally unpack. Thank you to my regular readers for your patience. Once I’ve moved I’ll get back to the half-completed task of moving and redesigning the site, as well as hopefully some more writing.

In the meantime, have a great weekend, and happy reading!

 

Photo by Daniel Zanini H. via Flickr creative commons.

Moving Plots Around: Writing Excuses Exercise 10.13

It’s that time of the week again, time to delve into the latest Writing Excuses writing exercise. If you’re not already familiar with these, Writing Excuses is an excellent podcast in which four pro genre authors discuss how to write, and I’ve learned more about writing from this show than from any other source.

This week’s exercise:

Take the reverse engineered outline from a month ago, and move a side plot to the main plot.

This is an interesting way to see how focusing on different plots affects the structure of a story. I have to confess, I made a slightly half-arsed job of that previous exercise, looking at the first five pages of a Transmetropolitan comic. Still, I can do this exercise, and maybe take it a little further than last time.

Back to the City

The plot I looked at was issue six of Warren Ellis and Darrick Robertson’s sci-fi comic Transmetropolitan, ‘God Riding Shotgun’. Transmetropolitan follows the angry and often hilarious adventures of journalist Spider Jerusalem, who at this point in the story shares an apartment with his assistant Channon. I identified two plotlines – the main being Spider getting in the face of organised religion, and the sub-plot being about his relationship with Channon.

Turning this around, we would start on page one with Spider and Channon having a conversation, instead of Spider writing an article on religion. We get to see Spider being a jerk and Channon accepting it – the status quo – but the focus is on their relationship, not Spider’s work. Spider can still look crazy, and it should probably still feature an anecdote illustrating how weird their future city is, because that’s about establishing character and setting.

Now instead of getting sidelined into showing their relationship on page two, the conversation instead evolves into something about religion, introducing that plotline. Pages three and four take them out of the apartment to go to the religious convention which, in the comic, they get to somewhat later. We’re moving that plot along early on while leaving the other to bubble along in the background.

Which means that on page five, with the characters wandering around the religious convention, we see Channon learning about something objectionable Spider’s done to her and getting angry about it. Probably not what time he’s woken her up – as this is now the main plotline it needs more force. In fact, the convention and its weird religions would now trigger the revelation, subplot helping main plot along. They get into a heated argument in the middle of the convention. The main confrontation is being set up.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Stepping away from page by page detail, it’s interesting to consider how this changes the tone of the plot. In the original, we get a melancholy conversation and reconciliation between the characters midway through, as the subplot between them is resolved, and the comic ends with Spider trashing the convention in spectacular, angry style. We travel through emotional depth to an entertaining showpiece finale.

With the plots reversed, the comic hits the height of excitement and spectacle midway, with Spider making his fuss and probably getting thrown out of the convention. It’s then in the aftermath that we get into the emotional beats of the two characters’ situation, and they reconcile over their shared views on life. That leaves the reader with a very different feeling at the end – a combination of fuzzy and melancholy rather than amused and indignant. It’s a very different experience.

What Did I Get Out of This?

Despite working from the wobbly foundations of my previous work, I found this exercise really useful. It’s made me think about how I want the overall emotional flow of stories to go, and how I can rearrange plotlines to support that. It’s also made me realise that I should spend more time properly studying and rethinking other people’s writing, to get better at my own.

Anyone else done this exercise? How did you get on? And if you haven’t, what stories have you re-written in your head, and what did you change? Come on, you can own up, we’ve all wished for the happier ending from time to time.

A Matter of Skin – a #FlashFriday story

5802082637_eb0177496a_zThe pain from the flayer’s knife is like a flower of razor blade petals unfurling in my mind. A searing agony whose beautiful results will make me weep with joy as well as pain. At last he sets the blade aside and hangs the skin ever so carefully across a willow rack.

“Another insightful chapter.” He wraps soothing bandages around my arm. “But you are running out of skin.”

I look at the rack, at the words I so carefully tattooed on the skin, accompanied by precise diagrams of the peonies I have made the subject of my studies. Blood seeps into the bandages and my body shivers with shock.

It will be worth it.

“How many are left?” I whisper, looking at the work of other scholars hanging on the flayer’s racks.

“Two.” With delicate fingers he ties the bandage. “You and Jong. Bey dropped out this morning. He had no gift for succinctness, and ran out of skin.”

I nod in understanding. Only the pristine skin of a scholar’s first work can go into the Imperial Library, to be preserved down eternity. Anything else would not last, even with the Library’s charms. Either my study of the heredity of peonies or Jong’s work on the feeding of roses will be this year’s entry to the botanical section.

I intend to ensure that it is mine.

*

My quill trembles over a scrap of paper. I look across my desk and see the beauty of the flower unfurling in the window, a reminder of why I must win – to preserve not just my name but all I have learned.

But I cannot get the words right. The wealth of details refuses to be condensed. The more I write, the more skin I must sacrifice. Though I tell myself over and over that I do not fear the pain of the flaying knife, still I shake at the thought of it.

The words will not come.

All my life I have worked for a place in the Imperial Library. What else could a scholar want if not to see their work endure? But perhaps I cannot do that. Jong has a gift for brevity. Having come this far, if he is finished before me the place will be his. I lack the time to shorten my words, or the skin to write them all down.

A tear runs down my face, and I wipe it away with my bandaged arm.

*

Both flayers are on duty today. With the end so close, they must make time for both Jong and I.

My eyes are closed, my whole face screwed up in pain. Still I can hear Jong’s grunts and whimpers. Knowing that he suffers too is not the reassurance I had hoped for. It only adds to my pain.

“We should stop,” one of the flayers says.

“No,” Jong whispers. “Keep going.”

“You have lost much blood.”

“Keep. Going.”

Jong’s screams are not enough to blot out my pain, but when he falls silent it brings me no peace. As the knife comes again, and the salt scent of blood fills my nostrils, I finally pass out.

*

Three days after the funeral I am well enough to attend Jong’s grave. I light incense and place a jar of peonies by the headstone. Already their pink petals are wilting.

“Your place in the Library is secure.” One of the flayers stands beside me, the woman who tended to Jong on that last day. The one under whose knife he died. “Your wisdom will endure forever.”

She sounds resigned. How many scholars’ graves has she stood by?

A petal falls from the peony onto Jong’s grave. I remember his face, and the incredible insights of his mind.

“Nothing endures forever.” I turn away.

*

After leaving the school, I find a place teaching botany in the provinces. One day the bandage slips from my arm, revealing the last chapter of my thesis still half-written on pale skin.

“Why do you have that?” one of my students asks.

“Because all things must pass,” I reply. “Now tell me, how will you ensure the hardiness of your peonies?”

* * *

This story was inspired by several things – a conversation with Marios Richards, Writing Excuses exercise, and some comments from Ben Moxon following that exercise. Thank you all for the inspiration.

If you enjoyed this story then please share it with friends and consider signing up to my mailing list, which will send these stories straight to your inbox each week as well as giving you a free copy of my anthology Riding the Mainspring. Another of my anthologies, Lies We Will Tell Ourselves, is free on Amazon from Monday to Friday next week, so keep an eye out for that.

You can read more of my flash stories here.

Picture by LadyDragonflyCC via Flickr Creative Commons

Does Your Name Make You Keep Reading?

My collection has plenty of people named Harry and Lucy, not so many Mantajs.
My collection has plenty of people named Harry and Lucy, not so many Mantajs.

A few weeks ago I named a character in a story after my friend Mantaj. To me it wasn’t a big deal – she’d given me some incredibly good feedback on a novella I’m working on, and it was an easy way to say thank you.

It turns out I under-estimated the power of a name.

Connecting Through A Name

Here’s how Mantaj responded to that story:

“I think the first thing that I realised when I started reading is that I am not use to seeing my name in any context that doesn’t relate directly to me. I think that it comes from having a very unusual name. My guess is that you’ve read a lot of stories about people called Andy, and met a lot of other people called Andy. But for me Mantaj always means me!

“This meant that when I was reading the story I felt even more connected to the character, when I visualised the story play out in my mind the protagonist had my face. Even though she wasn’t me, didn’t act like me, didn’t think like me she I felt like she was me. It was disconcerting in a very interesting way. It wasn’t something that I’d ever considered before, and how the associations we have with a name, especially our own are made.”

Representing

It wasn’t something I’d ever considered, but what Mantaj wrote makes perfect sense. I don’t feel a particular thrill when a character is named Andy or Andrew, because I’ve seen characters like that half my life. Heck, there was another Andrew in my first primary school class, so the novelty of namesakes wore off pretty quickly.

I was thrilled to see that using my friend’s name had created a new experience for her. It also made me think about the use of names in a wider sense.

If you come from a fairly conventional white British or American background, as I do, then you’re in the privileged position of seeing yourself represented all the time, and that extends to names. We see ourselves in many stories, including many of those regarded as both the literary and the SFF canon. But this is less true for other groups, as Chimamanda Adichie explains in this TED talk.

Without opening up the whole can of worms that is identity politics, I think there’s something here we should be aware of as readers and can use as writers. When you’re a reader, think about how names of characters affect you. Do they feel familiar and comfortable or strange and alien? Why? And when you’re writing, consider what group you’re trying to reach through character names. Perhaps an unusual name choice will earn you a dedicated following among people who feel left out, or maybe you’ll catch yourself giving all your characters safe middle class names, leaving out the Kierons, Chantelles and even Mantajs of this world.

Names are powerful in fiction, and not just when they’re used for magic.

Straight Poker – a #FlashFriday story

IMG_0780[1]Some folks thought the devil’s card hands were all about spades, full of death and darkness. Others that he chose hearts for men’s passions. But Rick had seen enough of the cabalist tables in New York to know better.

That was why Rick had come out west, to get away from the magic before his soul wore through. To play some straight poker – no weaving of power, no double layered games, just good hard bluffing and good cold cash.

It was getting on for midnight in a two shack town when he realised that something wasn’t right. It wasn’t the wind whistling in through the door of the rickety saloon, or the candlelight flickering in the cheap gilt-frame mirrors.

It was the old lady’s play, sticking on a weak pair. That pair was fours, a match for the players around the table, revealed with the diamond on top – man’s greed and payment to the Beast. She played it cool, her other hand patting at her tight grey bun.

Too cool. Poker face even as she lost the pot. They’d all stuck, bound themselves to the game while their guard was down. Rick fought to keep his breathing steady even as his heart hammered. This here was some nasty goings on.

He played it safe for the next few hands, waiting for her to make her move. He didn’t like to be the dove at the table, but the stakes had just rocketed.

Not that the others realised. It was the Apache who went all in, giving his best dead-eyed killer look as he pushed forward a big heap of pennies.

The Indian’s face fell as the old lady’s full house beat his flush. His eyes went blank and he flopped back in his seat.

The old lady ran a finger along her cards. Clubs high, warrior’s cards, tapping into the brave’s soul and snatching it away. A glimmer of power flickered at the corner of her eye.

Rick’s blood ran cold. Not just horror at seeing another man’s spirit stolen but terror at the thought that it could be him next.

The black fellow, a railroad worker out of DC, tried to leap up and away. But his chair was stuck to the ground, and he was trapped just as surely in it. Fear filled his face.

Rick threw his blind penny out onto the table, nodded to the railroad man to do the same.

‘Just play to win,’ he said.

But the real game would be down to him, whatever became of the pot. Rick’s soul might be tarnished but he sure wasn’t willing to give it up easy.

A few more hands went around, the old lady’s eyes flickering with hellfire while Rick’s pile of pennies slowly seeped away. He had to find a way out before his pot ran empty and the witch had him trapped, able neither to win nor to leave. He’d seen zombies made that way, down in the Big Easy, men without a will of their own. Men blank-eyed as the Indian, feeling what was done to them but unable to prevent it. Better death than that.

But there was no way out, not without a good hand or knowing how bad hers was. He tried to buy his way out magically by sticking on two pairs, diamonds in both, but she countered with the three incorruptible men – club, heart and spade of jacks. No good playing diamonds against that.

Soon he had cash for just a few rounds. He watched Titus, the railroad man, blow his last chance on a straight. It might have freed him if the top card had been a diamond, but that nine of spades went down to the old lady’s club flush, and she scooped up his cash along with his soul.

The power in her eyes flared even as Titus went cold. No hiding it now.

Rick dealt, watching the cards fall on the table. He had the queen and ace of clubs, and matching spades in the hole. If he went all in on those pairs it might just about break the spell. But she had two kings on the table, and the ace of hearts besides. With a diamond to match either, she’d take his very soul.

Her eyes stayed steady as she looked at her cards, showing only an ember of their earlier glow. She was giving nothing away.

Then it struck him. Maybe, just maybe, there was no power in her eyes ‘cause her hand held no power. Because right now her magic was weak.

Maybe this was his chance.

It was a slim thing to gamble his soul on. Was he judging her right, or had he lost his touch out here in the west?

He hesitated for a moment, but what choice did he have? He slid his whole pot across the table.

‘All in,’ he declared.

‘You sure?’ she asked.

‘I’m sure.’

She matched his bid and revealed her cards.

No king, no ace, no fire in her eyes.

Rick laid out his two pairs, pushed out what power he had, and the spell broke.

The Indian looked at the table in confusion. Titus bolted from his seat and straight out the door.

Rick gave a sigh of relief. He felt drained, like without the tension he had nothing left.

The old lady shook her head, pushed the pot across to Rick.

‘I’m heading west tomorrow,’ she said. ‘Care to join me? We could make quite a mark, my power and your smarts.’

Rick looked from his winnings to the dazed Indian, then back at her. It had felt good to play that way again. The game behind the game, gambling for life or death.

Other people’s lives. Other people’s deaths.

‘No ma’am,’ he said, scooping up his winnings. ‘Straight poker’s good enough for me.’

 

*

Doing the Writing Excuses exercise earlier this week, I developed an idea about magic using playing cards. It’s not the first time I’ve played with that theme, so it seemed like a good time to whip this story out.

Plus I’ve just started playing weird western card game Doomtown, so I’m all about the wild west this week.

If you enjoyed this then you might also like my other free to read Flash Friday stories, my fantasy collection By Sword, Stave or Stylus, or even my steampunk collection Riding the Mainspring, which contains a couple of western flavoured stories.

I’m currently working on a fantasy/scifi idea suggested by Glenatron, but if anybody else has an idea for something they’d like to see me include in a Flash Friday story then let me know – I’m always open to ideas.

Counting the Spoils – a #FlashFriday story

Napoleon Crossing the Alps by Jacques-Louis David
Napoleon Crossing the Alps by Jacques-Louis David

“I don’t get it.” Fred dipped his pen in the inkwell, made a note of the jewel-encrusted sword. It glowed even in the shadows, one more magical trinket in Europe’s strangest treasure trove. “Why didn’t Napoleon take all this with him? Or hide it and send someone back later? I know he’s a prisoner, but he’s got a whole island to keep it in.”

“Simple, mon ami.” Jean-Luc set the sword back on its shelf and picked up the next item, a simple jar covered in Arabic writing. He blew dust from the top and then frowned as it settled on his tailcoat. “The Emperor expected to win. Who could have foreseen Waterloo, eh?”

Fred set aside his pen, shook out the cramp from his wrist. Logging all the treasures in this isolated hunting lodge was tedious work. He’d rather be outside taking in the fine weather and the French countryside.

Jean-Luc twisted the lid from the pot. There was a crack of breaking wax seals, previously hidden by the dust. The two clerks glanced at one another nervously. Even the lowliest item here was worth a fortune. That was why there were soldiers outside, and why an inventory was needed – so that the heads of Europe could share out the emperor’s magical hoard. If he and Jean-Luc broke something they’d be in a world of trouble.

“It’s alright,” Fred said. “No-one need ever-“

The lid shot off the pot and a stream of fire burst out, coalescing into a glowing figure half the height of a man.

Jean-Luc yelped in pain as the pot glowed red hot. He dropped it and it shattered on the floor.

The creature giggled and dashed off down the room, leaving a trail of smoking footprints on the floorboards.

“A djinn!” Jean-Luc exclaimed in pain and wonder.

“Quick, catch it!” Fred rushed after the creature. He grabbed it as it made for the door, then jerked back in pain as flaming flesh seared his hands. As he stumbled back he knocked a head-shaped mirror and it crashed to the floor, ghostly figures of noblemen emerging from the shattered remains.

“We need something to trap it,” Jean-Luc said as he emerged from between the shelves, catching the djinn between them in a corner.

Fred glanced around. To his right was a crate, its side branded in French and Russian.

“Here.” He grabbed it, relieved to find it much lighter than expected. It must already be empty. “I’ll just open-“

“No!” Jean-Luc’s eyes went wide as he saw the writing.

It was too late. Fred had cracked open the lid, which now burst off. An icy wind blasted forth, frost forming on everything it touched. It rushed up the chimney and blew open the window shutters as it kept coming, an endless stream of cold.

Fred dropped the box as ice started to cover his hands.

“Russian winter!” Jean-Luc shouted over the howling wind. “Napoleon’s sorcerers must have captured it, a souvenir of his greatest failure.”

Outside the windows the sky was darkening, snow fluttering out of what had been a beautiful spring day.

“We are in so much trouble,” Fred said, staring dumbfounded as winter fell both indoors and out.

“I can help,” a tiny voice said.

They turned to see the djinn looking at them from its corner.

“Let me go and I’ll burn this place down,” it said.

“How’s that helping?” Fred snapped in frustration.

“You think you’ll be in trouble for breaking a few treasures?” the djinn said. “Think how much worse it will be if they find out you broke summer for everyone.”  It kicked at the fallen box. “I can burn all the evidence faster than anyone can put the flames out. You say some coals fell from the fire, the place burnt down, everything was lost – mirrors, boxes, the lot. Not your fault.”

Fred looked at Jean-Luc, could see his colleague making the same calculation. Could they get away with this? Could it get any worse?

Probably not.

Two minutes later they ran out of the building, smoke trailing behind them.

“Fire!” Fred screamed at the red-coated sentries huddling against the sudden cold.

“Fire!” Jean-Luc echoed, as the roof creaked and fell inward in a shower of sparks.

Just for a moment, a tiny figured danced in the flames, then disappeared on the freezing wind.

The djinn was gone, along with the evidence of their failure. Fred could only hope people believed it was an accident.

The soldiers grabbed buckets of water in a futile attempt to quench the magically-powered flames. Fred turned to Jean-Luc.

“Was this a good idea?” he asked.

Jean-Luc shrugged.

“Did you have a better one?”

Fred shook his head and pulled his collar up around his ears, as around him the snow fell.

 

*

This story was suggested by Russell Phillips after I told him about the Year Without a Summer. I hope I’ve done it justice.

If you liked this then you might also want to check out my collection of fantasy short stories, By Sword, Stave or Stylus, and you can also read my other flash Friday stories here. Fell free to come back next week for more of the same, and to leave ideas for stories in the comments below.

 

Photo by Sarah Stierch via Flickr creative commons.