Issue Four

Everything you ever wanted to know...

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:Vital Stats:


Issue Four - Published Autumn 2004
A4, 76 pages, b/w

Fiction from:
Frank Roger, Tony Smith, Michael Arruda,
Donald Pulker, Loren Macleod, Steven Lee Climer,
Steve Redwood, Brian Stableford, John L Probert,
Rhys Hughes, Allen Ashley, Ken Rand,
Marie O'Regan

Faction from:
Paul McAvoy, Tony Mileman, Alasdair Stuart

Artwork from:
Lara Bandilla

Cartoons from:
Gregory Cartwright

:The Picture:
:Brian Stableford:

The last chapter of Oscar Wilde's narrative is, of course, a mere catalogue of lies. Dorian Gray did not stab me in a fit of rage and remorse. How could he? I was the custodian of his will as well as his soul--and, for that matter, of his voice.
By the time I had achieved that state described in that final chapter Dorian was no more than a carved dummy. He was a consummate work of art, to be sure, but he was a mere doll. He had elected to become unchanging, and that which is unchanging cannot entertain real intelligence or authentic emotion. A man's identity is not an entity which may or may not change; a man's identity is a product of all the processes of change ongoing within him.
 

When Dorian wished change upon me and changelessness upon himself he gave me his mind and his heart. It was a bold move, and it was a wise move, but it was the end of his story and the beginning of mine. Oscar Wilde had not quite understood that in 1891; after two years in Reading Gaol he knew better, but he had surrendered his own mind and heart by then and he never committed his discovery to paper.
Some might think that Dorian Gray was the miracle that Basil Hallward wrought, while I was a mere by-product. Dorian was, after all, a handsome man blessed with eternal youth, immune to aging and the scars of disease. Alone among young men of his era, Dorian could sleep with syphilitic whores and remain untainted, because all his infections were inherited by me. Oscar Wilde, carrying the curse of syphilis within his own body, presumably thought that Dorian had the best of our bargain--but he was wrong. It was - and is - I who am the miracle, and Dorian Gray the by-product . . .

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:Monkey Business:
:Frank Roger:

The bus creakingly ground to a halt and the driver said in a raspy voice, ‘Urumbatti.’ About a dozen passengers grabbed their bags and backpacks, and got off the bus, mostly tourists, young people clad in shorts and T-shirts and sporting trendy hairdos. Rutger Tarquini followed their example. He didn’t wear the typical tourist ‘uniform’, but he realised his white skin would mark him as a tourist anyway.

Urumbatti attracted its share of tourists, but it was too small to harbour any hotels or even guest houses, so most visitors stayed in one of the bigger towns in the area and took the bus when they wished to explore the village’s unique sights and features. Urumbatti was still a traditional village, deservedly renowned for its artistic craftsmanship, especially its woodcutting. Moreover, the village’s location at the rim of the tropical rainforest turned it into an ideal operating base for eco-freaks eager to get a taste of unspoiled nature. The romantic Makhaaba Falls were another hot tourist attraction.
But however breathtaking these falls and the village’s other treats might be, they were not why Tarquini had come to Urumbatti, unlike the other tourists who had got off the bus along with him. His fellow passengers walked off in different directions, and behind him the bus disappeared in a cloud of black exhaust. Tarquini put on his cap, a welcome protection against the merciless sun, and started his exploration of the village, a collection of wooden houses and huts, with only a few brick buildings added, set against a stunning backdrop of lush foliage and a bright blue sky. The scene could have been taken from a postcard.

His sight-seeing tour was quickly completed, and he quickened his pace, despite the scorching heat, as he noticed a handful of shops at the outskirts of the village, his reason for venturing out here. They fit the description he remembered reading in the reports he had seen. He entered the biggest of the stores, greeted the man behind the counter, and bought a bottle of water, some fruit and a dog-eared copy of a map of the area.
As there were no other customers and the shopkeeper did not appear unwilling to engage in conversation, he said: ‘Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?’
The man shot him a quizzical look, but the smile did not leave his face and he nodded.
‘Allow me to present myself. I’m Dr. Rutger Tarquini. I’d like to find out more about something unusual that happened here…’
‘Oh,’ the shopkeeper interrupted him. ‘No doubt you’re talking about my special customers. I’m afraid you’ve come too late. They no longer drop by here. I’m sorry.’
‘I know, but I’m investigating this matter for professional reasons. It won’t take too much of your precious time…’
‘Okay,’ the man said, clearly resigned. ‘You must have heard the stories. Well, they’re not just stories. They’re facts. It’s all true. I sold stuff to apes. They had money to pay me, so I sold to them, as I do to any customer who has money. But I admit I had some doubts at the beginning.’
‘Wait. The beginning, maybe that’s where we ought to start. Could you tell me how these apes discovered money and its use in shops in a village inhabited by human beings? I’m willing to believe all that truly happened, but I’d like to hear a detailed account from someone who was directly involved in it all. So please, tell me the story from its very beginning.’ . . .

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:The Manidoo:
:Tony C. Smith:

We wake and emerge from sleeping bags like butterflies escaping cocoons. Grabbing a mixture of earth, pine needles and moss, I inhale Mother Nature’s freshness. Canadian redwoods soar to giddy heights in this forest of skyscrapers.

There are two of us from the University, both studying aspects of the northern deer population. As a Maths Lecturer, I’ll take a census of the herd, determine what the percentage of natural death among them is, and provide cull figures. Bill Hughes, Head of Biology Studies, will do an autopsy on one of the culled animals, checking age, growth and disease.
Keeya, our guide, is an old Indian ranger who’s lived, worked and breathed this life for sixty years. He sits and explains the benefits derived from effective deer culling. ‘We’ve been allocated three kills, which will stop any rivalry within the herd.’ He is a man of few words and only speaks when there is a need. His gaze falls on his beloved land.
I step back and let Bill Hughes do most of the talking. I am also a quiet man, something akin to a Keeya of the academic world, happy with my thoughts and figures.
‘A fine morning?’ Bill says. ‘Good enough to have a sip. What do you say?’ Deep within his rucksack, Hughes pulls out a bottle of Scottish whiskey. ‘Will the two of you join me?’
I refuse with an excuse of time.
‘Care for a shot, Indian?’ Hughes says, and gulps a large swig for himself, then thrusts the bottle in Keeya’s direction.
‘I never touch it, nor do I want to.’
‘One sip, just for the luck of the kill.’
‘Luck,’ says the old Indian. ‘You have no place in these woods, if you walk with luck as your companion.’
I understand Keeya’s reasoning, but Hughes is oblivious to the old man’s words. Keeya looks at me with a hidden smile.
Our fire is smothered with damp earth. Wisps of smoke rise from the suffocated flames. We live at opposite ends of the scale, city-bred and natural-bred, but underneath I think there is a common thread between Keeya and myself.
‘We believe everything has a soul,’ he says, pointing to the rising tendrils of smoke. ‘This fire once had a heart, now all that is left is its soul, free to rise to the heavens.’ He squats down and the seconds tick by. He rubs the earth between his thumb and fingers. ‘The herd is to the east.’ His words hang in the air as he moves off, age more an ally than a hindrance.
‘Woo, old man. Slow down,’ says Hughes, but already the Indian is twenty yards in front. ‘Is this a damn race?’ Hughes grapples with his rucksack, trying to shove the whiskey bottle into the overstuffed backpack.
I help Hughes load up and we set off after Keeya. It soon becomes apparent we’ve spent too long in the classroom, keeping our mental fitness in shape, while allowing our physical side to fall to the bottom of the class – Hughes especially.

Keeya, thirty years our senior, stops only to have water. I join him at every opportunity. So does Hughes, only it’s alcohol refreshment he chooses.
I check my watch. We have been walking for an hour at most, and already I feel the sting of a blister. Half-hidden roots and rocks hamper our every step. I am constantly wiping my brow as we head deeper into the forest. The further we delve into this wild vegetation, the more isolated I feel from the life of the sidewalk, deli and the twenty-four hour soul of the city. Deeper in and our world feels a distant dream, a child’s memory wrapped in the darkness this forest naturally provides. Every so often, we walk through shafts of sunlight as it penetrates the leafy canopy above.
‘I’ll have to have a couple of minutes,’ Hughes says, letting his overweight frame fall on a tree stump. ‘I haven’t done this kind of thing since before I was married.’ The words are torn from his mouth in painful gasps.
I agree as pearls of sweat dangle, drip and run from my face. ‘Too long chalking boards and marking books,’ I say, trying to keep the flood of perspiration from my vision.
‘We’ll rest then,’ Keeya says, not surprised.
‘Thought you’d never say,’ Hughes says, pulling off his coat and throwing it to the ground, as if it’s something disgusting. He fumbles at the straps of his backpack. The whiskey bottle is already half empty. ‘Thirsty work...’ It’s all he has to say.

I sit, glad for the rest myself. I feel light-headed with blood pounding through my veins. I feel the effort of the trek is at least cleansing my system of the city’s impurities.
We sit in a clearing, hacked out by man and machines. Tree stumps are scattered like a join-the-dot puzzle. This hacked out clearing looks like a giant scar on the floor of the forest.
‘I thought we were going to drive here,’ Hughes says, through swigs of whiskey and air.
‘Listen,’ Keeya says.
We both strain to the silence, but our ears are tuned to a different frequency, the squeal of car brakes, the whine of police sirens and the tuning fork of a city life.
‘What,’ I say. ‘I hear nothing but silence.’
‘Do you not hear the wind?’ Keeya says, as if it’s as loud as a thunderclap. ‘Out here everything hears the wind and what the wind carries. At the moment, Hughes, it carries your whiskey smell, your wheezes and gasps, which are only slightly quieter than a vehicle.’
There is truth in what the Indian says; the stench of alcohol pollutes the air.
‘Within the day, we will come across the herd,’ Keeya says. ‘I want three down before nightfall. I now have to track the herd alone. You can camp here until I return.’
‘How long will you be gone?’ I ask.
Keeya takes his time from the sky, not a watch. ‘I will be back an hour before dusk. I’ll leave the supplies and the rifle.’ He looks towards Bill Hughes with sadness. Hughes and his bottle are once again in an oral marriage. ‘Are you the only one who cannot see your own destiny? You live too much for what that bottle brings you – or what it fails to bring you.’
‘Listen, old man,’ Hughes says, in a snap of rage. ‘You leave me alone and I’ll do the same to you. I’ve been around this stuff,’ he lifts the bottle towards Keeya, ‘most of my adult life, shit… most of my adolescent life. I know my limits, better than anyone, especially you... So don’t preach about my destiny, yours, or anybody else’s.’
‘Your anger tells me I am not the first to point out your downfall,’ Keeya says, already leaving. ‘Your problems do not concern me. I will be back an hour before nightfall.’ Then he was gone.

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:Wolf Rage:
:An Interview with Kelley Armstrong:
:Tony Mileman:

Described by SFX magazine as a ‘a tasty confection of werewolves, sex and vendettas’, and making ‘Buffy look fluffy’ by the Daily Express, Canadian writer Kelley Armstrong’s debut novel, Bitten, is a gripping supernatural thriller, and one of the most original werewolf novels in years.

Bitten, the first book in Women of the Otherworld series started life as a short story. ‘I often write the stories I want to hear and that’s exactly how Bitten began,’ Kelley tells me via e-mail from Canada. ‘I was watching an X-Files episode about werewolves, and I was disappointed that they used the stereotypical ‘murderous beast-man’ depiction. So I wrote a short story about the type of werewolves I wanted to read about.’ She liked the idea and started turning it into a book. ‘For years, as I puttered away on Bitten, I was certain it would never sell, so I didn’t worry about marketability - I just wrote it for my own amusement. At the same time, I worked on other projects that I considered much more marketable, which are still on my hard-drive. Shows what I know.’

Kelley has been an avid reader from an early age and her first impetus to write came from a desire to tell her own stories, rather than always relying on someone else’s. ‘That’s a motivation that’s carried through for me even to today. As much as I love to be entertained by other authors, writing lets me create a story that’s exactly the way I want it.’ The sole writer in her family, Kelley ‘grew up considering it a fun but relatively useless hobby.’ Even as an adult she never viewed it as a viable career option. ‘At most I dreamed that someday I’d be able to earn a bit of money at it, if only so I could justify writing more stories.’

So which authors does Kelley most admire in supernatural fiction, and more importantly how have they inspired her own work, particularly those writers that have informed the Otherworld series? ‘My earliest, and greatest, influences are probably the two most obvious horror choices, Stephen King and Anne Rice.’ These are the writers she read most voraciously during her teenage years, and have had the most impact. As a writer, one of her later inspirations was the Canadian author Susie Moloney. ‘In Canada, we’re extremely influenced by the US and, growing up, I tended to associate pop culture with Americans. With my writing, I felt a strong outside push to be less ‘genre’ and more ‘literary’ - less Anne Rice and more Margaret Atwood. Then, in the mid-nineties, I started seeing articles about Susie Moloney, who’d done very well internationally with her second novel, A Dry Spell, which was supernatural fiction.’ While Kelley was writing Bitten ‘and not feeling very confident about its chance in the marketplace,’ she became more aware of Susie Moloney’s success in a similar genre, and this motivated her to persevere with Bitten.

Her most important lesson from writing her first novel is ‘not to get caught up in the vicious editing circle. I spent years working on Bitten, writing a few chapters, editing those chapters, writing more, editing more and so on. With each subsequent novel, I’ve forced myself to do less and less ‘first draft’ editing (that is, editing before I’ve finished the first draft).’ With book four in the Otherworld series, which Kelley is over halfway through, she is proud that she hasn’t gone back and edited a single page. ‘It’s like kicking a nasty addiction,’ she tells me. With each novel, she’s plotting more of it ahead, rather than ‘letting it flow’ approach favoured by some writers. ‘The problem is that approach can be stressful, not knowing what ‘comes next’. Now, I plan out the basic plot points, but I see them more as guideposts rather than a set course - if the story seems to want to move in a different direction, I’m willing to change direction with it.’

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:Another Time:
:Donald Pulker:

Weeds had poked up out of the network of cracks which ran through the empty lot. The sun momentarily broke through the clouds, and the wind, which had been howling all day, dropped to a whisper. Beyond the lot stood the hulk of a disused hotel, its lower windows boarded over, those on its upper storeys revealing a blackness the sun failed to penetrate. Roberts felt it would be worth it for his company to purchase the property if only a reasonable arrangement could be made with the current owners. After all, Home Away Inns’ dwindling profits had him seeking out increasingly lowly sites to develop, and this was not the worst he had seen. He allowed his hands to sink into his pockets, shook his keys, and kicked a pebble across the lot.

That night, the deal still in deadlock, Roberts sat on the bed in his hotel room and called his wife. Outside, the wind howled against the glass. The phone rang several times before Julie picked up. ‘Hello?’ As quiet and distant as it was, the sound of her voice through the static made his heart ache. He hadn’t realized how much he missed her. ‘When are you coming back?’ She asked him.
‘Soon.’
‘We need you here.’
‘I know.’
‘Vince, you’re away working so much, Natalie feels abandoned. I feel abandoned.’
‘Put Nat on the line.’
‘No, Vince, she won’t come.’
‘Please, Julie, just let me hear her voice.’
‘I can’t. She was crying earlier. She’s watching a movie. I don’t want to remind her.’
‘Is there something wrong with the phone? You sound so quiet.’
Silence.
‘Julie?’
‘It’s like you’re in outer space ...’
‘I’m sorry. If we haven’t been able to settle anything by the end of the week, I’ll come back anyway.’
‘Just come back, Vince.’
‘I will.’
‘Now.’
‘I can’t. It’s the crucial moment. I can’t just abandon things all of a sudden.’
His responses sounded weak and feeble. He wished there was some way he could communicate his conviction that in the end it would be worth it.
‘I love you, Julie.’
‘It’s hopeless.’
‘Please don’t say that.’
‘It doesn’t matter what I say.’
Silence.
‘Julie?’
‘I have to put Natalie to bed. Goodbye, Vince.’
‘Okay. But don’t lose faith. It can be how we both want it to be. You’ll see.’

The line was dead. He put the receiver back in its cradle and looked around the room : the dull tan carpet; the shabby off-white curtains; the generic oil paintings of waterfalls and sunlit forests. Oppressive loneliness settled over him like a shroud. He went to the window and looked out. Down below, trees whipped in the wind under columns of yellow light dispensed by street lamps. Distant headlights moved through the dark. He could see his own tiny reflection in the blackness of a window across the way. He laid a hand on his chest, as though it might dispel the dry cold which had enveloped his heart. He closed the curtains, went back and sat on the bed, and tried to read.

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:The Best of British:
:A Review of Britishhorrorfilms.co.uk:
:Paul McAvoy:

Here I am trying to think of a great first line to keep you readers engrossed, when the great first line is staring me straight in the face.
The line that is:
British Horror Films.
We all love our classic British horror movies, no matter how good or bad they be. They will always hold a special place in our hearts, ready to be excavated for ribbing or enrapturing.
And being readers and viewers of horror (why else would you be reading this piece, unless you found a copy of this magazine in your doctors waiting room?), we therefore like to read about said celluloid tales of terror.
The Internet is the new thing now, so whilst scanning and surfing the net a friend of mine found this site. He passed me the URL. Bristishhorrorfilms. And it is pretty much the bee's knees of British horror.
Upon entering the site you are greeted with wonderful caricatures of your favourite British horror film actors such as the great late Peter Cushing. The pages are as the skies in any of a number of Hammer films and the reviews are crisp and witty. Here we see what is what in the world of British horror films. Its creator has scanned the four corners of the world wide web and beyond to give us great pictures from obscure films and dig up the rarest to review.
The site was created and is maintained solely by Chris Wood. He started it in April 2000. ‘I'd just got a new job as Web Content Editor for a local newspaper group,’ he told me recently. ‘So I took it upon myself to learn html. I got hold of some free webspace and thought, ‘What can I write about?’ I had a passing interest in old British Horror films so I decided to write a few tongue-in-cheek reviews of half-remembered films.’

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:In the Garden of Eternal Soil:
:Michael Arruda:

The Goddess’ diamond shaped eyes narrowed. ‘When you joined our Craft not so long ago, you accepted certain basic principles of our being, among them that nature is a sacred manifestation of the Great Spirit, where all things are interconnected. The garden is a place of life, of breeding. You present yourself in the most natural state in the most natural environment, and you will have the attention of the Great Spirit. That is why you are naked. Now, what happened?’
‘I was in love with him,’ Judy began timidly, burying her left foot under the soil as well.
‘Was he in love with you?’
‘Of course he was, but he was married, with three children. Anything short of his wife’s death he wasn’t about to commit to me.’
‘And so you cast a love spell?’ the Goddess asked.
‘Yes. I know I shouldn’t have, but I played the situation over and over in my head, always with the same answer: I had to have Rick. I couldn’t live without him.’
‘Selfish,’ the Goddess whispered. ‘What happened next?’
‘I only wanted him to find me more attractive,’ Judy explained. ‘The spell was just that- a way for him to see me in a more desirable light, so that it wouldn’t take his wife’s dying for him to leave her and start up a life with me.’
‘Was your spell successful?’
‘Too successful. He found me so attractive he became obsessed with me. He wouldn’t leave me alone. He lost the desire to remain secretive. He told his wife about me.’
‘What was her reaction?’ the Goddess asked, a bumble bee buzzing around her head.

Judy looked to her buried feet. The Goddess’ tongue shot forth from her mouth like a horseman’s whip and with a crack smacked and smothered the bee, before retreating back inside with its prey. Judy gazed up at her Goddess, and the woman smiled satisfactorily.
‘She lost it completely. She went ballistic, throwing things at him, cursing him, scratching his face. The next night one of them brought a gun into the mix. It went off. Twice. Both of them were killed, and now three sweet little children are without their parents because of me.
‘I’m so sorry, Goddess. I didn’t mean for any of this to happen. I only wanted to be happy. I’m so sorry! Please, Goddess, help me!’
‘You should have thought of that before,’ her Goddess muttered. ‘It was most unwise of you to have cast such a spell, to have ignored the Law of Threefold Return. We were very clear about the Law at your initiation. Do something good, and you are rewarded three times over. Do something bad, and retribution comes from the gods themselves, with three times the force of your original transgression.’
‘That’s why I’ve come to you! So you can intercede on my behalf to the Great Spirit! Please, Goddess, I’m begging you! On my knees, I’m begging you!’
Judy dropped to her knees, splashing some loose soil upon her upper thighs. Her Goddess smiled . . .

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:Three Day Fever:
:Loren Macleod:

‘Professor Cartwright? ... Professor? ... You in there? ... This is George ... Yeah, the super. Listen, we got a problem, can you open the door and let me in? ... The Bernsteins got a nasty drip in their ceiling ... Who the Bernsteins? They your downstairs neighbors, man ... They live right under you, in 1C off the lobby ... No, they just say he’s dripping. I bet it coming from your bathroom ... Come back next week? No way, man. I don’t got the time, and this a very old building. Water damage ain’t no joke around here. I don’t fix that drip, the ceiling gonna rot and fall on the Bernsteins. You want their faces staring up at you through a big hole in your floor? ... Don’t try nothing yourself without the right tools ... Open the door, man, I only need a minute ... Thank you ... Yo, what that smell, Professor? You been smokin’ something you shouldn’t be?’

David sat down on the sofa. Its cushions were overstuffed, and he sank deep into their soft, white embrace. At the same time, he tried to smile sincerely at the woman seated across from him. He wanted to appear trustworthy and kind - the kind of person, for example, who wouldn’t goggle at somebody else just because they weighed at least three hundred pounds.
‘By the way,’ she said, ‘you never told me what you do for a living.’ Her voice was low, almost hoarse. Was she a smoker? Unlikely. The apartment ad in the New York Times had specified only non-smokers. But she sounded sexy - if he closed his eyes and imagined that another woman were speaking.

‘I just got out of school.’ He glanced down at the coffee-table between them. They were sitting in front of a very large window, one of several piercing the western wall of the living room. A golden rectangle of sunlight shimmered on the table’s highly polished surface. Within this rectangle, however, was another, smaller rectangle. He stared at it, utterly transfixed - some refractive anomaly in the layers of polish were allowing the smaller rectangle to mirror the apartment’s high-rise view of General Grant’s Memorial Park. Before they had sat down he had glimpsed the white, marble-domed mausoleum that was Grant’s Tomb, surrounded by a park of equally white birch trees tossing their barren branches against a cloudless sky. Curiously, the smaller rectangle was offering him a strangely distorted reflection of the same vista - in it the branches looked like hundreds of slim white fingers waving at him cheerfully from the bottom of an airy blue ocean. But this ocean, the turquoise sky trapped within the surface of the table, was of an azure infinitely deeper and more luminous than the original; it fairly glowed with paradisiacal promise. He wished he could fall toward the table and into that ocean, that other world, and be lost forever.
‘Can you handle the rent?’
He jerked his head up, startled. ‘What? Oh, yeah, that’s OK. I mean, I’m unemployed, but ... ‘ He trailed off, knowing how bad that sounded, and held out the letter from the bank. A twin of his arm appeared briefly in the coffee-table. ‘That’s a statement of my new savings account. I’m planning to live on it until I find a job.’

She read the letter very slowly. He noticed that her hands were trembling, and wondered if she had the DTs or was on some kind of medication. Then she gave the letter back and looked at him sternly, with her ham-hock arms folded over her tremendous bosom. His hopes wilted - was she going to show him the door? ‘I’m sick,’ she announced. ‘I can’t work anymore, so I stay at home. And I’m also, uh, really shy. So it would bug me if you had lots of visitors. It’s why I had to ask my last roommate to leave. She had people over all the time.’
He nodded, unable to believe his luck. He had just arrived from Rhode Island, and only knew one person in Manhattan - his girlfriend, Anne, who lived downtown. ‘That’s fine with me,’ he said, glancing around the cavernous living room, which would have been gloomy without the brilliant illumination provided by the row of windows. ‘I really like this place,’ he added. He meant it. The apartment was on the tenth floor of a rent-stabilized, prewar building with fifteen-foot ceilings and an ornate façade. It had a live-in superintendent, and was within walking distance of the subway and Columbia University, where he hoped to land a position related to what he had studied in school. So what if ‘Lila’ here was a bit strange? . . .

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:Wal-Mart, Cracker Barrel,
Ill-tidings and Other Dark Omens:
:Steven Lee Climer:

Dear Mrs Grasso:

We regret to inform you that effective immediately your account with First Bank of Tahoma City will be closed upon the notification of your recent death. We understand this may be inconvenient to any survivors or beneficiaries, but we take great pride in our Customer Service. Customers are number one with First Bank of Tahoma City.

Please do not hesitate to contact us if you have any questions.

Sincerely,

Customer Service
First Bank of Tahoma City
(800-WE-CARE1)
caringforyou@tahomabank.com

First Bank of Tahoma City (TM), A wholly owned subsidiary of ProNational Financial(TM), a United Bank International Company Limited, Inc.; Part of the Mass Financial Group Family of Companies (NYSE: MSSV).


‘Hmm,’ Elaine Grasso exhaled, spewing cigarette smoke over the letter from the bank. ‘I'm dead now.’
She'd heard of things like this happening before and always found them humorous. Elaine found a lot of things humorous, even America's Funniest Home Videos. Nothing was funnier than some schmuck taking a hit in the ‘nads. She pursed her lips and lines like stitches creased beneath her coral pink lipstick. Yeah, it was funny.
It was a beautiful summer day in Tahoma City. A warm breeze lifted the Pricilla curtains of her small bungalow home that sat in a neat row of similar houses. All like dominoes. All very American. She knew she wouldn't even have to lock her windows when she ran to do errands in town.
That’s the kind of place Tahoma City was.
Elaine pushed the letter from the bank into her purse. Since the bank was right next to Wal-Mart, she'd simply pop in and take care of this misunderstanding.

Elaine checked herself in the mirror by the door before heading out. She had been a widow for three years. After Ed died, everyone thought she would simply do the same. After all, Ed was such a strong personality and she was just Elaine. But people didn't know that Elaine, quiet Elaine who smoked a little too much and ate a few too many desserts, was the rock of the family. Ed was strong because she was. And now that she was by herself, that strength showed. Even the kids were surprised at how well mom was doing with dad gone. In fact she was doing so well they hardly called or came by for a visit.
It's all for the best, she thought as she stepped from the front door. They're busy, her kids. Each of them married with kids of their own. They didn't need to waste time on their mother who was doing just fine.
Yep, just fine on her own with no one.
Elaine opened the door of her Buick Riviera, and began to get in. She paused, however. The flowers in front of the house were so alive with colour that she wanted to look at them a moment. Then she turned as she heard the heckling caw of a crow.
Elaine shielded her eyes against the bright sky and looked for the bird. She found him, plus several others, perched on the phone line running across the driveway. They were taking turns swooping down to the hot pavement to pick at the roadkill of a black cat. The neighbours’ black cat. The one that always got in her garbage cans. The one who stalked her bird feeder in the back yard and killed one of the robins in the spring. Elaine watched the crow currently on the ground, pecking like a sewing machine at the cat carcass. Film that for America’s Funniest, she thought bitterly
The scene of carnage was right behind her car.
‘Nasty,’ Elaine hissed at the scene and got in the car.

It took nearly ten minutes for the air-conditioner to quell the heat of the car. Ed insisted on a black interior. Elaine told him how hot it would get in the sun, but he wouldn't budge. At least he finally compromised on cloth instead of leather. Elaine didn't drive like a widow, either; she refused to. Not like she thought a widow should drive, at least. She wasn't old and shrivelled with white hair. Elaine could actually see over the steering wheel, and she wasn't shy about speeding or fighting for her place in traffic.
Keep telling yourself that.
Wal-Mart was on the far edge of town, close to the intersection of the Interstate. It seemed to grow like a fungus, the whole area. First there was a McDonald's. That stood for years before the next encroachment occurred. A Motel 8 was next, then Cracker Barrel. When Cracker Barrel comes to town, it's a lost cause, might as well consider the whole place as gone to hell . . .

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:The Chosen:
:Steve Redwood:

I wake – or am woken – and know at once that the Emissary has found me. We are hiding in a tiny pensión in Madrid, because Rosana insisted on being close to her mother and her child. It would have made no difference if I’d run to New York or Tokyo, to Easter Island or the Arabian Empty Quarter. I think I knew that, but I had to try.
She is still sleeping. Her midnight-black hair, sparse and tufted just a few days ago, now spreads lustrous over the pillow, and even in the pale light of dawn her cheeks still have that impossible healthy glow.
I force myself on to the balcony overlooking the small plaza, and stare down at the Emissary waiting there five storeys below. He looks up, and even from that distance I believe I can see the early daylight being sucked into his eyes. I plead silently, give me more time with her, just a little more time.
And the answer comes that I have a bargain to fulfil, and payment has already been made. Or do I wish to return the gift? It can be done.
I step back inside, and fear crawls in with me, coating my tongue, sliding down my throat, and coiling round my lungs with every jagged breath.
But there is relief, too. Relief that I can stop running because there is nowhere to run to. Relief that there are no more choices to be made. Relief, above all, that the gift has not been taken away.
Ave María!
But the devil giveth and the devil taketh away. I have seen Rosana’s illness lifted from her, peeling off as quickly and cleanly as a lizard’s skin. I have seen love in her eyes once again, in her voice, in her touch. The loss will now be all the greater.
Is this why I was allowed to escape? To improve the flavour?
I gaze down at her, and marvel that she can sleep on with the weight of so much love crushing her, but I don’t dare to kiss her goodbye in case she should awake and destroy my resolve with a single tear, with a clutching hand. She wouldn’t believe me, anyway: the icons and rosary lying on the bedside table are proof of that.
A few minutes later I step out into the street. First stop on the way back to Hell.

The year 2015 was one of miracles: the year when the second mission to Europa showed that the Jovian satellite did support microscopic life beneath its frozen ocean; the year when SETI picked up its first signals; the year when a UFO crashed off the coast of Florida, and the military didn’t get there first.
And the year when, as if in protest at all these newfangled miracles, the Virgin Mary returned to Earth in truly lactifluous mood.
For a time, in the early Middle Ages, if religion was the opium of the masses, the Virgin’s Milk was their Coca Cola. Phials containing her milk were venerated in shrines from Walsingham to Chartres, from Padua to Naples. Almost every village in Europe managed to churn out a bit. So much so that Calvin, ever a merry fellow, commented: ‘there is no town so small, so mean, that it does not display some of the Virgin’s milk. There is so much that if the holy Virgin had been a cow, or a wet nurse all her life, she would have been hard put to it to yield such a great quantity.’ But the milk began to dry up when it became not quite respectable for the Blue Lady to reveal her breasts. Once Pope Paul IV ordered Daniele da Volterra to clothe the nudes in the Sistine Chapel – which earned the painter his nickname of il Braghettone, the Trouserer – bare Virgin breasts, and their milky offerings, were on the way out. For centuries the faithful had had to make do with weeping or bleeding virgins, not lactating ones.
The centuries might have passed, but the Lady kept to her tried and tested formula. She appeared – still radiantly beautiful, of course, despite her great age – to the two daughters of a sheep farmer in the middle of the Patagonian desert in Argentina, and told them – what else? – to build a shrine to her. Their father complied and, not long after, a small stone statue of the Virgin produced milk, which cured him of cancer. Word got around, and within a very short time there were enough cures to interest the Church officially.
So it was decided to milk pilgrims as well as the Virgin. Despite the logistics of the operation – the nearest settlements of any size were hundreds of kilometres away – a church was built around the Shrine, and a makeshift dormitory city grew up on the arid plain to house pilgrims. While Our Ladies of Guadalupe and Lourdes and Fatima and all the rest looked on enviously, Nuestra Señora de la Leche attracted a million visitors in the first few months alone.
More sheep, I thought, to be fleeced along with the four-legged kind who had long ruled the vast estancias. Yet another example of superstition and its faithful old camp-follower, the exploitation of despair. Although there seemed to be a lot of reliable evidence to show that many people really had undergone remarkable cures immediately after visiting the Shrine, I was convinced the whole thing was simply a mass hallucination.
I laughed at the absurd stories about the magic Milk, and Rosana, despite her own early Catholic upbringing in Spain, tried to laugh with me. We needed to laugh. Things weren’t good between us. Not just because of the baby, which I’d thought I could love simply because it was hers. I tried, I really tried. Thank God she believed those bruises really had come from an accidental fall. But she still wanted me to ‘lighten up’, I was too ‘intense’, why didn’t I have friends, interests, a life apart from her? Why wouldn’t I see a doctor about those nightmares? How long was I going to use the accidental killing of the Moroccan boy as an excuse for self-pity?
I knew that the pressure of my need was driving her away, that my obsessive love was a burden too great for her. Once she yelled, ‘Give me some air, I can’t take it any more,go find yourself someone else to worship!’
Ah Rosana, my love, I did that all right!
So we grew apart, and she looked at the baby to keep from looking into my eyes, and she accepted my furious diatribes against this new superstition with a patient smile.
Until she was diagnosed with leukaemia. Nothing like a rampaging mob of leucocytes to lead you to religion. I watched Rosana, my lovely laughing light Rosana, lose her glow, like a fish yanked out of water. I scraped her hairs out of the sink with fingers rigid with fury and helplessness, saw how the toothbrush remained dry because her gums were too inflamed to use it, watched her wither and decay before me.
The Catholic lies of her Spanish infancy roiled to the surface. She began to speak of making the pilgrimage to Argentina. I resisted, of course I resisted. But the drugs weren’t working, not even the new genetic therapies, and we both knew they weren’t going to work; and it was proving impossible to find a suitable donor for a bone marrow transplant.
So we went. Better a false hope than no hope at all . . .

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:Keeping it in the Family:
:John L. Probert:

Paul Rogers was fourteen years old before he found out why they kept his grandmother locked in the attic. The white door with the big padlock on it led into a small room located right at the top of the house where Paul lived - a nondescript red brick detached dwelling in a respectable suburban street in one of the smaller English seaside towns. He lived there with his parents, eighteen year old sister Sophie and Edith, who was Paul’s grandmother on his father’s side.
For as long as Paul could remember, Edith had lived under lock and key. Not that he had ever wondered much about it. As far as he was concerned, keeping his granny shut up in the top of the house was perfectly normal. Typical discussions with his peers never tended to stray into domestic issues and therefore he can perhaps be forgiven for thinking that there was nothing wrong with this state of affairs. Most of his friends didn’t have grandparents and the few that did used to talk of having to occasionally visit them at ‘The Home’, which sounded to him like some sort of ubiquitous never-never land for the old and infirm. Paul quite liked his granny when he got to see her, and if the alternative was her being sent away to ‘The Home’, then he preferred that she stayed part of the family, even if his parents did have to lock her up most of the time.
In fact the conversations he had at school never tended to broach subjects further afield than the latest hand-held video games, the size of the breasts of the latest Saturday morning children’s television presenter, and what narcotics ‘Bendy Bill’ - class drug peddler and self-confessed bisexual - would be able to provide at the town’s only night-club, ‘The Dark Garage’ that week. Bendy Bill’s bisexuality was constantly being called into question, principally because no-one had ever seen him in a situation even approaching intimacy with a member of either sex and it was therefore assumed that his sexual orientation had arisen either out of desperation, drug use, or a combination of both.

Whatever assumptions he may have made concerning his classmates, Paul’s thoughts concerning his family life were, however, rudely shattered one Thursday afternoon during his final school lesson of the day. Diane Gover taught social studies to Paul’s form. She was 35 years old, looked thirty and was the object of about 530 schoolboy fantasies (and about 137 schoolgirl fantasies as well, although not in quite the same way, you understand). It was on this particular afternoon that she had decided it was high time the class had a discussion on the responsibilities of the modern family to its more elderly members. She had introduced a hypothetical situation where a child’s grandparent who normally lived on their own had become unable to cope. What steps did the class think could be taken by that person’s family to provide aid in such a situation? The question had been intended to provoke stimulating educated debate amongst her pupils, but as usual some of the responses she received had been rather inappropriate. She had picked on Jason Rawlings first. Jason was in the process of hastily chewing the remainder of his afternoon break chocolate bar while trying to get a good view of Tiffany Marsden’s bra-straps through her white blouse. When Miss Gover singled him out he was so shocked that Tiffany’s back was splattered by a semi-liquid projectile of chocolate, caramel and toffee. Jason’s answer, if indeed there had been one forthcoming, was curtailed by his being sent to the headmistress after obtaining some damp paper towels for the tearful young girl. Rather than risk another unfortunate outburst, Miss Gover had thrown the question open to the class. The responses she received were not quite what she had been expecting.
‘Put them in a home!’
‘Send them to hospital??’
‘Change the locks to your house!’
‘Get a new grand-dad?’
Mayhem ensued. But Diane Gover was an experienced teacher and knew that the situation needed to be defused quickly. Her gaze fell to Paul, sitting quietly at the end of the front row. What she needed now was a sensible answer from a sensible student, and she knew she could always rely on him. She raised her voice above the din.
‘Quiet! Paul - you tell us what we should be doing if your granny or granddad becomes unable to look after themselves. I know that your granny lives with you - how do your family look after her?’
‘Please Miss. If you have your grandma living with you then you need to keep her locked in the attic.’
There was a pause amidst the chaos. A brief moment of silence. Then Paul’s reply was met by whoops of delight from his classmates in their mistaken belief that he had finally decided to join the ranks of the unruly.
‘Paul! I’m very disappointed in you!’ cried a shocked Miss Gover.
‘But Miss - that’s what we do. My parents keep her locked up in a small room in the attic, with a little sliding bit in the bottom of the door which you can push food through when she’s hungry!’
Paul spent the rest of the morning sitting next to Jason Rawlings outside the headmistress’s office, trying not to look at the brown globs stuck to the front of Jason’s shirt.

Dinner in the Rogers household that evening was a far from quiet affair.
‘But Mum!’ he protested, ‘I told the teacher the truth! We do keep granny locked in the attic. And the other kids just laughed! In the playground they told me I was cool for mucking about in class with them. I told them it was the truth and they didn’t believe me!’
His mother looked first at his father, and then at his sister.
‘Paul,’ she said. ‘Your grandma stays upstairs because she wants to. We don’t keep the door locked.’
‘Yes you do!’ He cried ‘ I’ve seen Dad turning a key in the door. And I remember the time he forgot to do it and Grandma went for a walk. And you wouldn’t let me see her when she came back.’
His mother glowered at his father and then replied quickly and calmly,
‘Well Paul, it’s true that we don’t like your grandmother to go out of the house on her own, but that’s just because she can’t take care of herself very well. The last time she went for a walk she hurt herself very badly.’
She started to clear away the dinner things, but Paul was persistent.
‘It couldn’t have been that badly - she was all right again three days later because she was able to come downstairs and have tea with us.’
His mother seemed to be at a loss for words. Luckily his father was there to intervene.
‘Because if she stays here with us she gets better very quickly. That’s another reason we don’t like her going out alone, and why we mustn’t take her to the hospital if she’s ill. Now if you’re very good you can see granny this evening - would you like that?’
While Paul helped his mother with the washing up, Mr Rogers went upstairs to see if Edith felt like coming down to sit in the lounge. Paul’s parents were off to the local supermarket for a bit of late night shopping and Sophie was going out on another date, leaving Paul on Edith duty. Initially he was a bit annoyed at being lumbered with the job of looking after the old lady, but he rarely got a chance to talk to her and quickly relented. When his father brought her downstairs Paul helped her into her favourite armchair.

Paul’s granny was odd. At least Paul thought so. It wasn’t her behaviour that was peculiar, at least not most of the time. As far as Paul was concerned she did very typical granny things like giving him sweets, reminiscing about events that probably happened over a hundred years ago, and telling him funny stories about her late husband. No, the way that granny was odd was that she, well, changed sometimes. Physically. Now these changes were never anything major. She didn’t grow two feet in height one day or suddenly become a lot fatter or thinner. But Paul noticed things. He noticed, for example, that she had short stubby fingers with bitten nails. Last year her fingers had been long and thin and her left thumbnail had been missing. And then there was the matter of her legs. Paul never remembered them as being so hairy. She usually wore thick stockings but he had once seen her calves when he wasn’t supposed to be looking and was convinced that they looked more like a man’s . . .

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:The Lollipop God is Dead:
:Rhys Hughes:

I am an elderly man and the time has come for me to pass on the sacred staff of my profession. My thirty-second birthday was a solemn affair, held in the upstairs room of the Princess Louise, a tavern in that part of London known as Old Holborn. We age not as normal people do, but that is the price of the secret. I ordered a selection of drinks at the bar and lined them up. When I felt the risk was minimal, I waved them across one at a time into my other hand, and from there into my mouth. We take our work very seriously.
My colleagues circulated around me, chattering and laughing, croaking and shuddering, drooling and gasping as was their wont — for want of a better desire. They came in limited shapes and shades, lank and stooped and creased, though an occasional rotund one proved we are not exact copies of each other. Most leaned on their staffs, some roamed free but none sat at tables, for the art of balancing on stools is still a mystery to our fraternity. The altar was all but forgotten for the moment, lonely in an unlighted corner.

I believe my name was once Bernie. My introduction to the secret came when I was still a child. That is generally the way. In turn I had won many new disciples for my masters until my level of experience earned me promotion to the highest ranks. Now I was the supreme ruler and the trappings of my previous life, including what I was called by ordinary men, were insignificant or disgusting. But power did not corrupt me. I was always aware I was merely a vassal of forces which lurked beyond the mortal spheres of perception.
My life had been worn out in the service of our particular gods, strange deities who mockingly adopted a few postures and habits of human culture while retaining a dark sense of cosmic inscrutability which pulsed most horribly behind the façade. Whenever I beheld one of them in the flesh I was reminded awfully of a bland mask being pushed into a wall of rotten cheese with the greenish stuff oozing through the holes for eyes and nostrils and mouth in unbroken cords like untrimmed worms. I worshipped them but I was shocked by their presence.
I was close to death and the idea I might soon be free of my responsibilities filled me both with relief and regret. But we do not flinch from complex emotions. I finished my final drink and turned to regard my friends and underlings. No member of our order has ever lived beyond the age I was presently at, for each year withers us with the cruelty of an entire century. I blinked at my surroundings and smiled. This tavern was a traditional establishment with brass rails, smoked glass and real ale in the cellars. A good place for the ultimate retirement.

My gaze fixed itself on the altar. It was a bare plinth in truth, for no idol was necessary to adorn it. The real thing would appear soon enough as a witness. And then in its divine or grotesque presence I would select my replacement and give him my blessing and the god would approve my choice and recognise my chosen heir as the new supreme ruler. He did not yet know it, but I had settled on a man called Roger. I had followed his career with interest for many months and was convinced he had the right qualities to assume my role.

The gods in our pantheon are innumerable and possibly infinite. But there is one who is a sort of messenger to all the others. He appears to us more regularly than his brothers. He seems to enjoy our civilisation and customs and sometimes even spends time here without being summoned. I saw him once in Regent's Park in the distance. On another occasion he rented a house near Gipsy Hill. A few reports even claim he owns a bookshop in Clapham. I do not censure him for any of this. I only hope he takes care on the roads.
They are always so busy! The traffic in London was once merely bad but now it is simply appalling. Our order is needed more than ever. Yet the sacred staff is no longer universally respected. There are arrogant drivers out there and some are even women! But there is no use fretting about the state of the world, for my true concerns lie outside it — in that place inhabited by my gods and their dreams and yawns, where the only road is made from stars or darkness, I am not yet sure which. Perhaps both. A layer of stars tarmacked with darkness.

My white coat had started to feel heavy on my shoulders, a sure sign my end was rapidly approaching. The tinkle of glasses resembled the collision of the headlights of two impacting vehicles. No, that is an exaggeration, but I am old and should be forgiven. I shuffled closer to the altar and the room fell silent and faces gaped at me. The time for chattering and drooling was over. The official ceremony was about to commence. I indicated the traffic cones at the four corners of the altar. The symbolism was simple but powerful and the atmosphere suddenly became tense.
The masters and novices moved into position and I stood to one side and took a deep breath. My lungs rattled with unearthly music and the acidic spittle at the back of my throat audibly hissed and sizzled as it eroded the superfluous passages in the speech I was about to make. I had committed it wholly to memory. No written evidence of the secret must ever be permitted to exist. Or rather, no outsiders must be allowed to suspect our members of anything other than the humblest and most generous of motives. That is why this report has been written in poison ink.
Before you rush off to seek medical attention, listen to my speech, for the secret is contained within it, and I might as well share it with you as your final request. Here is a faithful transcript of what I said:

‘Brothers! We are the lollipop men! We are the stuffy men, shoulders flecked with dandruff. Alas! No more poetry from me, dear comrades, because I am too worn out and shrivelled. We all know the reason for this gathering. It is time for me to announce my successor before I leave this tavern and find a nice doorway in which to curl up and die. To expire on the street is my fondest wish, as it must be for you too. The bustle and danger of the road is part of what makes us real. The wrinkles on our faces closely match the byways of a city map.
‘Yes, my work is almost done, but for you the task continues. The manipulation of human evolution to empower our gods is the noblest of professions and yet we must live and act with few of those glories regularly heaped upon mundane heroes. The lollipop man should perform his true mission with absolute stealth. When the children are lined up ready on one side of a busy road, it is he alone who must detect those of a superior type and ensure they cross safely. Thus he aids their preservation and the development of our species.
‘If the public ever became aware of our real intentions, they would condemn us as elitists or fascists, but our grading of the worth of mortals has nothing to do with race, class or culture and everything to do with a greater or lesser refinement of the imagination. We seek to protect those children who are usually denounced as dreamy or abstracted, for they are more sensitive to the dimensions beyond this one. Through them our gods may meddle with the affairs of this world more effectively. They are the future of our ideals and must be safeguarded at all costs . . ."

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:The Art of Plastination:
:Gail-Nina Anderson:

It’s 9:30 a.m. and I didn’t have time for a coffee before hurling myself from my Tracey Emin-style bed in the general direction of the Tyneside cinema. I’ve got my mascara on and my regulation reporter’s notebook in my bag, but still I’m damn sure that I’m not prepared for what I’m about to face. Don’t get me wrong – the Tyneside is one of my favourite places in the world, but today it’s hosting an event that would seem incongruous in most venues outside an anatomy museum. Yes, it’s a press-call to publicise the latest project to emanate from the admirably focused brain of Professor Gunther von Hagens, whose ground-breaking travelling exhibition Body Worlds can best be described by its own sub-title: The Anatomical Exhibition of Real Human Bodies.

If you’ve heard of this man at all, then you won’t have forgotten his claim to (considerable, international) fame. Like innumerable medics before him, he has dissected the human body and prepared cadavers (or bits thereof) for preservation. The difference is that he’s developed a new method which leaves the specimens hygienically firm and odour-free without having to float them in creepy containers of formaldehyde. His “plastination” is based on substituting the water and fat in the body tissue with a reaction plastic, e.g. silicon rubber, epoxy resin or polyester. Always remembering that I failed Chemistry at school, I think the process goes like this: the specimen (i.e. corpse or body part) is put into a tank of cold solvent, such as acetone. Gradually the solvent at room temperature will replace the water content of the tissue, then its fat content. Now place solvent-saturated specimen in appropriate plastic solution and cause solvent to boil in vacuum, continuously sucking it away so as to create a volume deficit which permits the plastic to permeate every cell. This forced impregnation of the once-living material takes days and weeks, but effectively produces a specimen in which the original organic matter (minus water and fat) is retained but rendered inert, real body and plastic model at the same time. Finally, the plastic is hardened using gas, light or heat, depending on which sort was initially chosen, different types being appropriate to different end products. It all takes time, money and specialist expertise in considerable quantities, but you’re left with some of the most socially acceptable corpses in the history of humanity, something an Ancient Egyptian would have died to become. They keep their colour, they can be freestanding and attractively mounted to suit the décor of every home…no, wait a minute, that’s just my nightmare. What the Prof. actually does with them is to take the show on the road, setting up crowd-pulling exhibitions of his anatomised corpses in cities across the world. Since the first exhibition in Mannheim in 1997, it is estimated that 11 million people have viewed the interior of the human body via Korperwelten. And that’s the controversial bit, of course. There seems to be far less comment on how Gunther von Hagens does what he does than there is on who sees the results . . .

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:Murphy's Luck:
:Ken Rand:

Okay, I guess you could call me a fairy godfather if you want to, or maybe a guardian angel. Whatever. Me, I call myself Terrence O'Brian, and I'm a professional murphy. A pretty good one too, if you ask me.
Sometimes, us murphys act in strange ways our wonders to perform. Let me tell you about the murphy I done for my joe that got us here in the clink; makes me glad to be dead.

A murphy. I don't know where the name came from but it stuck. Maybe from back when whoever thought up murphys first thought them up. Maybe some guy named Murphy thought it up. Maybe they did it to have something for us to do after we croaked if we wasn't into harps or choirs. I don't know. I flunked reform school and I got a C-minus in murphy school.
Anyways, I sure as hell wasn't cutting it as a dead person so I'm glad they put me back on the street murphying. I hate harp music. Bor-ring. I guess somebody noticed and took me under their wing and steered me toward the murphy school.

Don't get the idea it's been easy. Murphying takes some skills your average spirit don't got. And I got them skills, I learned on the street.
So when I latched onto him, my ‘joe’ as we call them, I thought I'd picked the perfect candidate who needed some luck.
He's a pretty average joe, most ways. In fact, that's his name. Joe. Joe Murphy, in fact. Hell of a coincidence. Maybe that's why I decided to be his murphy. Makes me laugh every time I think about it.
Let me tell you how I found him.

I'd been cruising the Downs where I used to drop a few on the ponies, figuring maybe I'd find somebody down on their luck, pockets turned inside out, shoulders slumped, shoes holey. I'd know the look, being as I'd had it myself a few times back when.
I heard somebody call his name – ‘Hey, Joe Murphy!’ - and there he was. Needed a haircut, needed a shave, needed to get his suit pressed. Needed a good meal and a bath. He was getting ready to pick some guy's pocket.

Now, us murphys, when we get out of school, what we do is this: we got to find ourselves somebody to get attached to, which is where the guardian angel bit that folks believe in comes from, I guess. A joe, like I said.
Anyways, murphying is as like guardian angeling that it don't make much difference what you call it. And when we hitch ourselves to a joe, we're stuck with them through thick and thin, come hell or high water. Like marriage but without all the smarmy crap and they don't know we're here, see.
We're invisible. And once we hook ourselves to a joe, we don't get to talk with other murphys no more, or any other spirits neither. Nobody. It's the rules. This ain't a job for anybody. But I work good alone.
It sure as hell beats playing harp . . .

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:An Interview with
Antony Johnson:
:Alasdair Stuart:

Antony Johnston is the renaissance man of modern comics. After debuting with FRIGHTENING CURVES, an illustrated novel centring on the mysteries beneath London, he’s spent the last couple of years writing everything from romantic comedy and modern-day Shakespeare to a children’s book. We talked to him about his debut, his interest in the darker side of fiction, Shakespeare, HP Lovecraft and what’s ahead for him.

Your first big break of sorts came via an almost entirely different medium, illustrated prose. What made you choose that for FRIGHTENING CURVES?

It started out as necessity - FC was originally serialised weekly on the web, and [FC artist] Aman wouldn't have been able to draw more than one or two comic pages per week. That would have been agonisingly slow for the large, sprawling story I wanted to tell.
But once we got into the rhythm of it, and I started thinking about what we could do with illustrated prose, I realised that it was actually a very good medium to use for the story.

The shifts in prose style, the changing viewpoints, the ambiguity of an objective narrative... None of that would have been possible in comic form, and those elements became crucial to the story as work progressed. Once we'd decided to use that method, we never considered doing it any other way, because I started actually writing the book to fit the medium. Maybe that's an odd way to do it, I don't know. I just think you have to play up to the strengths of whatever medium you choose to tell your story.

FRIGHTENING CURVES draws heavily on several areas of Forteana, from government conspiracy theories to the impact that events have on the geography around them. Is this an area that interests you?

Yes, very much. I'm nowhere near as knowledgeable as some people on those subjects - I don't read FT regularly, or devour conspiracy theory books, for example - but I did a fair amount of research for the book, and it's hard not to be exposed to that sort of thing these days anyway. I have a layman's interest in quantum mechanics, the Qabbalah, fringe areas like that, and that interest was invaluable when writing the book . . .

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:The Accidentalists:
:Allen Ashley:

Coming into the more developed parts of the city, Jim saw up ahead a crowd on fire. His first inclination was to rush forwards although his medical and pyrotechnic knowledge was scant at best. His next urge was to consider flight. Who knew, the victims could stumble into a chemical factory, or, more likely, a petrol station.
The bus had dropped him and his last day’s cash in the snobby outskirts and the two mile walk plus three weeks toil picking spoolberries by the kilo had taken their toll. He decided to walk slowly towards the conflagration. Towards the gesticulating and panicking figures half-engulfed by yellow flames and grey smoke, acrid even at this distance. Souls in torment in an urban hell.

Such a contrast to his back-breaking days in the sun picking up a tan for his aching white man’s muscles which might get him a little closer to being the bronzed Adonis his ex-girlfriend seemed to prefer. Working in fields and hillsides to uneven for machinery then relaxing in the Rec. Room every evening to play cards or watch the one channel state television, he’d experienced something akin to the kibbutz lifestyle. And a tantalising, tentative sense of community. How many people did you need to hold that feeling together? And how many before excess destroyed it?
He wanted to help although he wasn’t entirely sure what he could do. Wrap a blanket around someone, maybe? The best he could offer was a thick jumper and that was stuffed at the bottom of his grip bag. Find a water supply, start a bucket chain? Where and how exactly? There was no a small crowd watching the human flambeau. Hadn’t anybody called the emergency services? Oh yes, to the left, hard by a couple of blackened corpses – a solitary ambulance and, at last, a troop of firemen, hoses extended.
Absences and second-hand news of the late Summer scams sweeping the city – The Car Stereo Stand-Offs, The Accidentalists, The Overnight Parking Meter Planters – had made his home seem a fantastical, untamed land. Thus through urban myths of old provenance one might revisit the childhood world of grim fairy tale.
‘Step back, please!’ a strong make voice ordered. A firm arm blocked Jim’s progress and he responded automatically to the authoritative tone and the spanking new uniform. On further inspection, however, the fire chief was unconvincingly long-haired and youthful. Perhaps this was a video shoot – some pouting boy band or dollar crazy blockbuster full of explosions and hyperactive actors.
Bored and stymied, he set off again for The Star And Garter pub where some of his old cronies might be taking an early lager or two on this Friday evening. Dry weather and late sunset would surely bring most people of out of their hovels and apartments to lap up a little pavement culture and bar repartee.

His regular haunt was in the old part of town near the railway terminus. Already the pulsing bulbs and strip lights were busy imploring consumers to drink this, watch this, drive home in that. The prevalence of artificial illumination made it suddenly feel like night time and the new craze for diagonally tilted billboards – designed for a greater degree of impact – gave Jim the uncomfortable feeling of being trapped inside a gigantic pinball game.
He re-adjusted his shoulder strap and pushed the door open onto a fug of smoke, hot bodies and conversation competing with the blare of a sports round-up programme on the giant screen in the far corner. It took him five minutes to locate his erstwhile friends; another fifteen minutes of nervous sipping at a bottle of Becks elapsed before they even acknowledged his presence.
‘Ah, Jim.’ Began Steve, ‘How’s life? Not as we know it, eh?’
Over the guffaw, Jim answered, ‘If I had a pound for every time someone’s said that I’d be a Euro millionaire.’
Danny interrupted, ‘If you had ten bob’s worth of old sovereigns you’d be a Euro millionaire.’
Jim sipped his beer, deciding not tot correct the fiscal misconception.
‘So,’ Steve continued, ‘why ain’t we seen you for a while?’
‘I’ve been out west picking spoolberries for cash and credit.’
‘Yeah, you always were the manual labour sort,’ Danny commented.
‘Spoolberries?’ asked Eric. ‘Have you seen how much they cost?’
‘Don’t!’ Danny agreed. ‘Nearly a day’s wages for a puny punnet. I wouldn’t bother except the wife likes ‘em and what with her expecting and everything…’
‘I had some the other day,’ said Eric, ‘that were as sour as shit. Not ripe at all. Shop caused such a fuss about a refund I told ‘em to shove ‘em up their arses.’
‘I blame the pickers,’ Steve suggested with a smile. ‘So, Jim, now you’ve built up a bit of muscle you could manage to get a round in, I reckon.’

By the time he came back with a tray full of gleaming cold lagers, the conversation had moved onto a recent refereeing controversy in a supposedly friendly international match. The game had been screened by one of the satellite channels so Jim felt too ill-informed to comment.
He’d been looking forward to being back with the lads but was still rather on the edge of things. Maybe he should drink up and try to get in touch with Alison. Tell her he’d still got her picture, crumpled and kiss-stained, in his trouser pocket. She might yet forgive him and consider taking him back. During a warm spell back in the Spring, she had taken to constantly wearing a dark blue dress patterned with overlarge daisy petals and leaves. It really hadn’t suited her and in his opinion was the sort of attire a middle-aged woman would wear thinking she was being fashionable. He knew silence and a bitten lip was the best policy but one night she’d reeled out the regular items on her nagging list – his cluttered living room, his clapped –out car, his primitive sexual technique – he’d unwittingly let his honest opinion slip out and thus precipitated their seemingly final parting.

After a further fifteen minutes of miserable marginality, Jim became aware of a lull in the general pub hubbub. Even the beeping till and the nudge machines had temporarily subsided so that everyone heard the sudden screeching cacophony of crunched metal outside. The saloon door burst open and a red-faced, breathless man with a striking ginger beard rushed in to tell the crowd about the accident outside.
‘You must come and help!’ he implored. ‘If you know any First Aid or can just help move some of the wreckage… come on, people are dying!’
Jim shook his head, stated, ‘Don’t go, it’s a trick. I heard all about this at Gasker’s Farm.’
But already the pub was emptying. Even the Australians behind the bar had clicked the cash registers closed and joined the rush. Fearing the worst, Jim kept his legs firmly clamped over his grip bag containing half a ton of dirty washing and a battered Discman with drained batteries.

A side door opened and half a dozen sportswear sporting teenage tearaways burst into the almost desert room and with the facility of locusts scooped up the abandoned valuables from handbags and jackets – wallets, purses, mobile phones and other paraphernalia. One lanky black kid pulled out a craft knife, cut the electrical cords and tucked the two tills under his arms. The sneak thieves looked menacingly in Jim’s direction from beneath baseball caps and hooded tops but said nothing. He was reminded briefly of an old comedy sketch in which a dubious character in a sheepskin jacket warned the viewer not to mention having seen him. There was one gassy mouthful left in the beer bottle. Jim drained it down the back of his nervously dry throat, shouldered his belongings and followed the last of the robbers as they legged it away out of a side door . . .

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:Suicide Bridge:
:Marie O'Regan:

He had set out to die tonight, only when it came right down to it, he wasn’t sure he could. It was much harder, out here on the ledge.
He shivered violently as the wind rocked him, threatening to knock him off his narrow perch. He drew his jacket tighter around him and bared his teeth in a fierce grin - the cold was the least of his worries. He leaned over for another look.
Traffic streamed by below him, oblivious to his presence. The wind sucked at him, and he leaned as far back as he could, shaking.
Throwing himself off Suicide Bridge had seemed so poetic. After all, that was how it got its name, wasn’t it? He took a deep breath, trying to steady himself. Maybe it wouldn’t be that bad. He probably wouldn’t even know much about it.

He dragged himself to his feet and stood shuddering against the parapet of the bridge. He peered over the edge and swallowed hard against the sudden taste of vomit at the back of his throat. Tears tracked icily down his cheeks as he realised he couldn't do it. Not yet, anyway.
‘It’s cold tonight.’
‘What?’ He whipped round, and that simple reflex nearly accomplished what all his resolve so far had failed to do. He flailed his arms wildly, instinctively trying to save himself. Then he managed to recover a little, and hurled himself back once more.

‘The wind’s strong tonight.’
Her voice was oddly muffled, as if the wind had whipped it away. She stood a few feet away, leaning back against the bridge. The wind forced her golden hair straight back, exposing every inch of her bloodless face. Even though it was nearly Christmas, a thin summer dress was plastered against her, forcing every curve into sharp relief, yet she didn't appear to feel the cold.
‘What’s your name?’
‘John. John Smith.’
She giggled, delighted. ‘Is it really? I didn’t think that there actually were people called that.’
‘‘Fraid so.’ He had always told everyone that his parents had called him that as some sort of protest against bureaucracy. He didn’t like to admit, even to himself, that they were just so dull that they couldn’t see the invisibility they were saddling him with. ‘What’s your name?’
‘Sarah. Sarah Ryan.’
Niceties over, silence blanketed them again. He stood; content just to watch the night for now.
‘What are you doing up here, John?’
‘What does it look like, Sarah?’ She took no notice of his sarcasm, just sat on the edge and let her legs dangle over, as if she was sitting on the end of a pier. The wind ripped into him again, and he shuddered.
Gingerly, he inched towards her perch, and manoeuvred himself into a sitting position beside her. He set his gaze firmly on the horizon, the night lights of London. He’d had enough of looking down for now . . .

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