Fantasy novel coming soon!

My 24th novel is due to be published soon.  It’s an epic fantasy, a bit of swords-and-sorcery with, I hope, an original slant.  It’s called NAVARIN, THUNDER AND SHADE and it opens as follows:

The wizard was dead by the time they got there. He had put up a good fight; it was the green and purple blasts from his hands that had drawn them to the scene, the deadly flashes lighting up the woods and the evening sky like one of the Duke’s beloved fireworks displays.

Broad inspected the wizard’s assailants – what was left of them – ragtag outlaws sprawled in a ring around the deceased magician. “He killed the lot,” he said, grimacing at the twisted remains. The attackers were contorted and scorched as though they had been hit by forceful fire.

“There’s not a mark on him,” said Shade. “They didn’t get near him. Didn’t get the chance.”

Broad raised a quizzical eyebrow; there was no need to give voice to the question.

“What killed him?” Shade said it for him. “Exhaustion, I’d say. Must have used all his energy fighting off these rascals. He just ran out of life.”

“Poor chap,” said Broad. “I wonder why he just didn’t turn them into frogs or something. Why did he obliterate them?”

“They don’t do that frog thing really,” said Shade. “Perhaps he was protecting something. Something these fellows were after.”

“So it wasn’t a random attack in the forest?”

“You know I don’t believe in random,” said Shade. He gestured to the nearest outlaw corpse. Beneath the grime and tatters glinted the armour and insignia of the Duke’s men. Broad gaped; Shade was always the first to pick up on these things. “Have a look in his poke.”

Broad approached the body and stooped over it, one hand on the hilt of his sword, just in case. The wizard was half-lying on the shapeless sack, his fingers clutching it, bunching the neck. Broad had quite a wrestling match on his hands before he could free the bag and peer inside.

“Nothing.” He sounded disappointed.

“Well, this is a waste of time,” said Shade. “I’d stamp my foot if I could.”

Broad glanced at his strange companion. It was true: Shade was fading fast, was hardly corporeal at all. He was like smoke in the shape of a man, and the smoke was thinning, becoming transparent. Broad could make out the stripes of the tree trunks behind him. “And there’s nothing for you…”

Shade managed to shake his head. “We were too late. He was long gone.”

Too late to save the wizard. Too late for Shade to feed.

Broad sprang up and did a quick tour of the outlaws. He found one slumped against the trunk of an oak, with breath still rasping through a hole where his throat used to be. “Here’s one!” he cried. “He might be enough for a snack.”

Shade floated over as though wafted by a breeze. Broad turned his back and walked off; it made him uncomfortable whenever his companion fed. But we all have to eat.

“Just don’t make that sucking noise,” he pleaded without turning around.

“I don’t suck,” Shade was indignant. He swooped over the dying man.

“Matter of opinion,” Broad muttered. He tried to think of something else while Shade replenished himself. He was being ungenerous; he knew that. If it was not for Shade, Broad would have died many years ago, but would death have been worse than being joined to the weird creature for the rest of his days? Sometimes, Broad thought it might not.

“Hurrah!” cried Shade, turning cartwheels across the clearing. He bounced around, full of vim and vigour until a baleful look from his human companion prompted him to contain himself. He was always the same after a feed, so full of life. “His name was Jolf,” he reported. “He was in the Duke’s guard and was going to ask somebody called Rosahild to marry him. Well, I guess that’s never going to happen.”

“What else? Was he in the know, this Jolf? Why was a pack of guards disguised as outlaws and attacking a wizard?”

Shade shrugged. “Jolf was along to make up the numbers, to add a bit of muscle. He wasn’t party to the finer details.”

Broad surveyed the scene again. Finer details. Absolute bloody shambles, more like, with emphasis on the bloody. The Duke was renowned for, among other things, his hatred of wizardry. Was that behind this attack gone wrong?   Or was that the intended result, the death of the magician? Or was there something else?

“You’re thinking again,” Shade teased. “I can tell. You get that crease in your brow.”

Broad swatted at him and the backs of his fingers came into contact with something like lumpy fog. Shade was always more solid after a feed. He struck a pose.

“Yes, yes, muscles, you said,” said Broad. “Very nice.”

Shade stuck out his tongue. “They won’t last, I know. Not like yours, Mister Carcass of Beef.”

But Broad did not want to be drawn into one of Shade’s bickering matches. He walked away so he could look back at the scene from a distance and try to take it all in as a whole, to picture the way it might have played out. The wizard had been surprised. Surrounded. These two blocked the path in front, those two must have crept up behind. These four must have dropped out of the trees…

“We should get moving,” Shade advised. “While it’s still dark and I’ve got my strength – well, technically speaking, good buddy Jolf’s strength.”

“Shouldn’t we bury them first?” asked Broad. “The wizard at least.”

Shade pulled a face. His features were temporarily those of the late guard Jolf. “Waste of time. Let the wolves have them for supper.”

“Doesn’t seem right,” said Broad. “Doesn’t seem respectful.”

Shade let out a long-suffering sigh. Humans and their ways. “You’re too squeamish about your dead,” he scolded. “They are gone, all gone. What’s left is just meat. Honestly. Let the wolves benefit not the worms.”

“But someone should say something, at least.”

“What? Like don’t come back and haunt us? Don’t get up again? It’s hollow superstition; I keep telling you. Dead is dead is dead.”

A howl, not as far off as Broad would have liked, settled the matter. They would get moving to avoid being an entrée for the banquet that lay waiting for the wolves. Instead, thought Broad, we shall be more of a running buffet.

He paused to retrieve the wizard’s poke and, murmuring apologies, hurried after Shade who, with Jolf’s long strides, was already some distance ahead.

hat

 

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Mr Fish

“Who’s turned the thermostat up again?” Mr Fish tugged at his shirt collar. He twisted the dial to the left. One of these days, he’d have the thing moved higher up the wall to where no one could reach it.

He walked through the house, opening windows. The bowls on the sills needed topping up, so he filled a watering can and made a second tour. In the living room, Darla complained about a draught.

“Put your coat on,” he called as he passed by into the kitchen. He searched the cupboards. “Darla, honey? Did you forget the salt?”

But his wife was too engrossed in the television. A couple of timewasters were being shown around properties in the Algarve. Twats, thought Mr Fish, without needing to see the screen. Moving house isn’t the answer. Why can’t they see their dissatisfaction is rooted in their waning relationship?

He strode into the living room and stood in front of the screen. “Honey, the salt?”

Darla squirmed on the sofa, trying to see past her husband. He had a swimmer’s build but his narrow waist was still enough to block out half of her view.

“I forgot,” she shrugged. She had closed the window again, he noticed. Did she want him to die?

“Don’t trouble yourself,” he grumbled. “I’ll go out and get some.” He peered at the late afternoon sky. “Looks like rain,” he enthused.

“Your lucky day…” Darla mumbled with a scowl.

Mr Fish strolled to the shops, unbuttoning his shirt, savouring each fat raindrop as it splashed on his pale skin. Red flukes swelled at herhis throat.

I’ll tell her tonight,” he resolved.  I’ll tell her it’s not working – we’re not working – and I’m going home. They had been happy. Once. A fairy-tale romance, you might say, but it hadn’t taken long for the shine to fade. We’re just not compatible.

The decision made, he perked right up. He bought two plastic sacks of sea salt and grinned at the shop assistant who raised her eyebrows at him; his shirt was soaked through, clinging to him, almost transparent. The rain glistened in his hair, like silver, like sapphires.

He splashed in puddles all the way back to the house. I’ll tell her tonight, he almost sang to himself. After I’ve had my bath. I’ll be stronger then and able to resist her sulks.

The house was like a furnace when he got back. The heating was on full blast. Right, he thought; I’m right to leave.

He emptied the salt into the bath tub and turned on the cold water. Just as soon as I’ve had my brine, I’m off. I’ll get my trident out of storage and head for the coast.

From downstairs, the theme tune to some godawful reality show blared.

To think I gave up my underwater kingdom for this!

bath tub

 

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Sneak peek: Trapping Fog

My current work-in-progress (my 25th novel, no less) is a murder mystery set in Victorian London.  A Jack-the-Ripper type is at large, carving up prostitutes, but is there more to the killer than meets the eye?  And what of the enigmatic Doctor Hoo and his arcane experiments?

The book has elements of horror and the macabre, and more than a hint of steampunk but, as with all my other books, it’s the humour that rules the roost.

Here’s a snippet from the opening chapter in which our narrator, Damien Deacus, finds himself in a tight spot…

***

I pounded my fists on the underside of the coffin lid. It did not budge. Neither did it make a hollow sound.

Crap, I thought. I’m buried alive.

Again!

I lay still and wondered how long I would have to wait this time, casting my mind back to the last thing I could remember before my death – before my ‘supposed’ death.

A hospital. Well, more of a dumping ground, really, for the sick and infirm of old London Town. The place had been packed, crammed to the rafters, with people in need – and the din! It was like Bedlam – which was across the road. The doctors couldn’t cope. It was all they could do to provide enough space for the poor bastards to get horizontal. And they was all poor – of course they was. No one with any money would be seen dead in a place like that.

I reckoned it had been about mid-afternoon when I was pronounced (presumed!) dead. That meant another few hours until dusk and then a few more until midnight. Doctor Hoo would probably wait until then before he came to retrieve his employee.

Mind you, I don’t know how long I’ve been out, I reflected. I’d taken the powder like he told me – I could still take its vile bitterness – and let it work its magic. I can only assume Doctor Hoo had strode in, cloak swirling, and imperiously demanded the urgent removal of the corpse. Contamination, he would have said, along with a few other big words. The fellow must be interred with the utmost urgency.

And they, the overworked doctors and nurses, would have been impressed by his haughty manner, his implacable features, his hundred-yard stare. More than anything they would be glad of one less poor bugger to think of, one less drop to worry about in this ocean of human misery.

The rozzers might even have heard about my demise by now… I couldn’t help smiling, even in my coffin – There’s not many people what can say that, is there? They can cross me off their list of wanted men. I am free!

Well, apart from the whole being-shut-up-in-a-coffin thing, but that was only a temporary inconvenience.

No, Damien, I warned myself. You take it easy. Doctor Hoo has come through for you yet again and all you have to do now is lie back, get some kip maybe, and try not to think of how full your bloody bladder is right now…

It was easy to doze off. The powder was still in my system. I could only hope I wouldn’t piss myself while I slept.

Hurry up, Doctor Hoo! Get me out of here!

coffin-md

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Percy

“Good morning,” said Vicky, looking her next client up and down. The woman didn’t seem to be carrying an animal or trailing one on a leash.

“Morning,” grunted Mrs Davies, pushing her way past the veterinarian and into the surgery. She lifted a shopping bag onto the examination table.

“Oh, I see!” Vicky closed the door. “One of those, is it?”

“One of which?” Mrs Davies blinked.

“A Chihuahua! They’re adorable. I know it’s the fad to carry them around in bags – all right, I suppose, as long as they get enough exercise and you don’t mind pooh on your purse.”

“What?” Mrs Davies frowned. “I think you’ve got your wires crossed, love.”

She reached into the shopping bag and pulled out a parcel, wrapped in greaseproof paper.

“Packed lunch?” ventured Vicky. She was beginning to wonder whether she should alert the receptionist. Sometimes people could get a bit funny. Especially if their pet had kicked the bucket. Sometimes they blamed the vet for not doing enough, or for doing the wrong thing.

“Don’t be disgusting!” Mrs Davies snapped. She unwrapped the parcel. “Please!” Her eyes implored. “Do whatever you can to help him!”

Vicky peered at the contents – a pink, oozing chunk of flesh direct, it looked like, from a butcher’s slab.

“Is this some kind of joke?”

“You think this is funny? My poor baby! This is all that’s left.”

Vicky shook her head. “I’m sorry; I don’t understand.”

“Percy,” Mrs Davies wailed. “My pet pig. My husband – my ex-husband, I should say – he threatened he’d go through with it and now he’s gone and done it. Sold it to the butcher. Of course, people snapped it up, on account of my Percy being so well-cared for. No additives or chemicals, you see. I brought him up proper. And now this is all that’s left.”

“I’m awfully sorry, I really am, but I don’t see what I can do about it.” Vicky edged toward the door; the woman was obviously deranged from grief.

“Clone him!” Mrs Davies cried. “There’s more than enough cells left there, and whatsit, DNA. You can make me a new Percy. Please! He’s all I’ve got.”

“I’m sorry. That’s just not possible. I don’t have the – Well, the technology just doesn’t exist.”

“Liar! I’ve seen it on the telly. There was that sheep.”

Vicky opened the door. “I am truly sorry for your loss but there really is nothing I can do. I’m afraid I must ask you to leave. I have other patients.”

Mrs Davies bundled up the greaseproof paper and thrust the remains of Percy into her bag. “I know you think I’m crazy,” her eyes blazed. “Keeping a pig as a pet. Well, they’re just as intelligent as dogs, you know. More so, probably. Why should it be one rule for one kind of animal and another for the rest? It’s discrimination, that’s what it is. I shall be writing to my MP.”

She trotted out of the surgery and slammed the door to Reception behind her.

Vicky let out a sigh of relief and leaned against the wall.

“Trouble?” said Claire, the receptionist. “I wouldn’t have let her through if –”

“It’s OK,” Vicky waved dismissively. “Nothing I couldn’t handle. Poor cow. Think I’ll take an early lunch.”

“Don’t blame you,” said Claire. “Got you your favourite. It’s in the fridge.”

“Yum!” said Vicky, rubbing her hands in anticipation.

A nice cup of tea and an Alsatian sandwich would set her up for the afternoon.

bread-pic-md

 

 

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Princess Copperhead

I escaped from the village. The Snake people, convinced of my magic powers, had dropped to the ground, affording me time enough to flee. Foreknowledge of an eclipse can get you out of many a sticky situation. I waited until I was miles away before seeking out a stone with a sharp enough edge against which I could saw through the vines that bound my wrists behind my back. It took longer than I would have liked, for the bloodcurdling cries of the scouts betrayed my whereabouts back to Chief Mamba. Ahead, a sheer drop into the ocean. My only option was to take a leap of faith off the edge and trust that I would not be dashed against the rocks.

Something ran over my foot and coiled around my ankle. It was a tendril from a Hongoolian vine, a sentient plant and a carnivorous one. It must have been attracted by the blood from the lashes that streaked my back. Within seconds I was stuck – rooted to the spot, you might say.

“You leave us?” Mamba’s daughter, the Princess Copperhead, slunk out of the underbrush but kept her distance. Betrayal was painted across her features as plainly as the colourful stripes of her status.

“Sorry, doll,” I shrugged. “I’d love to stay and all but –” I winced as the tendril tightened, working its way around my calf and up to my knee.

Princess Copperhead approached, pulling a jagged, obsidian dagger from her sash. I froze. There was nowhere for me to run even if I could.

“Let’s not be hasty,” I pleaded. She dropped into a crouch and attacked the vine. It shrivelled and shrank away with a squeal of protest.

“Thanks!” I gasped in surprise. “For a second there, I thought I was going to be on the receiving end.”

Her large green eyes sought mine. “Take me with you,” she said. “Please!” The tip of her tongue teased her teeth, and her voice was a whisper, like the hiss of the waves far below.

“It’s impossible, babe,” I said. “You know me; I like to travel light.”

Commotion in the bushes indicated my recapture could not be far off.

“Then jump,” she said. “I shall say you are dead.”

I took her hands in mine and squeezed them in gratitude. “Thanks, doll,” I said. “You know, in different circumstances…”

“I know,” she said, her face regal and stoic. Membrane flickered across her eyes. “Go.”

I went. The air tore the breath from my lungs and the sea rushed up to meet me. I plunged into the roiling waves like a dart from a blowpipe. Down and down, I swam. If the professor’s notebooks were to be believed, there was an underwater cavern nearby and, potentially, a way back home.

copperhead-snake-md

 

 

 

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Meanwhile, in a galaxy far, far away

“It’s no good, Dirk! We’ve lost power to the starboard plasma jets.”

“Keep trying, Blue!” Dirk urged. “Memo to self: gotta steal a better class of warp-rider next time.”

He left Blue to repair the damage and plotted a course to the nearest wormhole for the Omega Sector. It was too many parsecs away; they wouldn’t get there in time to interrupt the Tribunal and rescue Duchess Omipalone from execution. Without the Duchess, he wouldn’t get the backing of the Infidel Forces, and without them on side, there would be no stopping the Great Boss from taking over Everything.

He punched in the coordinates again, hoping to spot a flaw in his calculations. They were down to their last beryllium crystal… but then, without the starboard plasmas, they wouldn’t need two. It would be pushing this rust bucket of a ship to it limits but…

Oh, fuck it. He sat back. What am I doing with my life? Why does it fall to me to save the bloody universe? I’m a nobody, a jumped-up car thief with a bad attitude and halitosis. Why should I care?

“Starboard plasmas back online,” Blue stood at his elbow. He even saluted, with three of his arms.

“I’m not bothered,” said Dirk. “Sit down. Have a beer.”

“But – the Duchess!”

“Let her get her own beer; she can afford it.”

“She’ll be dessicated!”

“Oh well. Can’t be helped. I’ve never liked her anyway.”

“But, Dirk! Captain!”

“Don’t Captain me. Now, sit down and have a beer. That’s an order.”

“Sir, yes, sir!”

Blue crouched over a stool and accepted a cylinder of Hongoolian bitter.

“Now,” Dirk rubbed the stubble on his chin. “How about a game of dominoes?”

“If you promise not to cheat this time.”

“How dare you! I do not cheat. I’ve never heard such insubordination –”

An incoming message flickered onto the view-screen. Amid the snow and interference Dirk and Blue could just about make out the triangular hairdo of the Duchess.

“…are you receiving me? Dirk! I have escaped from Oblongata Prime. Rendezvous with the fleet at – Dirk? Are you there?” The shadowy figure leant closer to the camera. “Are you drinking? You’d better not be drinking, young man.”

Dirk flicked a switch and the screen went blank. “Oops.”

Blue was aghast. His chins wobbled. Dirk tossed him another cylinder.

“You know,” he said, with a dismissive gesture at the view-screen and the universe beyond, “it’s best not to get involved. Other people will try to suck you in to their problems. Who needs it? Am I right? I am.”

Blue tugged at the fastening on the cylinder and peered at the golden liquid within.

“I mean, we’re all going to die anyway,” Dirk continued, “so what’s the point?”

Blue looked at the Captain, the human he had sworn to follow across the galaxies until the end of time. The man had a point. Blue raised the beer high.

“Cheers,” he said.

blue

 

 

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The Magic Lamp

Maloney groaned and dragged his hands down his cheeks.  “I’ve told you,” he moaned.  “I’m sick of telling you.  That’s how it happened.”

Detective Inspector Barrett’s lip curled with disdain.  “How stupid do you think I am?”  He held up the sheet of paper containing Maloney’s statement as though it was contaminated.  “You expect me to swallow this?”

“You don’t have to take it orally, no,” scoffed Maloney.  “In fact, why don’t you roll it up and shove it where the –”

A cough from Maloney’s brief cut him off.  It would not do to antagonise the police any further.

Barrett shook his head.  “You really think you can get away with this cock and bull story about a magic lamp, don’t you?  Too much pantomime, that’s your trouble.”

“Oh, no, it isn’t,” said Maloney.  “Honestly, if you’d said the same to me just yesterday, I would have thought you were off your conk too.”

“So, once more: you were walking down the road and it caught your eye, this ‘magic lamp’?”

“Yes; the sun just caught it.  It was in the window of a charity shop.  I’d never seen one in the flesh before.  Well, you don’t.  You only see them in stories and on the stage.  So I went into the shop to have a look, picked it up.  Gave it a wipe with my cuff – there was a bit of fluff on the price tag.  It was pricey, I can tell you.  And the shop assistant was hovering, probably thought I was trying to nick it.  ‘Can I help you, love?’ she said. ‘That’s a lovely lamp’.  It is, I agreed, I wish I could afford it.  Next thing, I know she’s wrapping it up for me and says she’ll take whatever I’ve got in my pocket.  Well, I wasn’t going to argue.  Who would?  And I get out of that shop before she can change her mind.  I stuff the lamp in my jacket and I wonder how I’m going to get home with no money left, and it’s starting to rain, so I wish somebody would come along and give me a lift and the next thing I know, I turn the corner and there’s a car at the kerb. ‘Get in!’ says the driver and he pulls away before my bum touches the seat.  Nice motor, I says, I wish I had the money for one like this.  And the next thing I know, he’s putting his foot down and there’s sirens blazing and we’re being chased through the streets.  He takes us down a dead end and gets out.  He’s off and over a wall before I know what’s happening.  And that’s when you lot caught me.  How was I to know there was a ton of money on the back seat?  How was I to know it was a getaway car from a bank robbery?  God’s honest truth, that’s what happened.”

“This lamp then,” said Barrett, “Where is it?”

“I don’t know,” Maloney hung his head.  “One minute it was there, the next: gone.”

“Hmm,” said Barrett.  “You sit tight.”  He left the room with his detective constable.  “I’m going to check at the front desk,” he said.  “I don’t know about you but I could do with a bloody magic lamp like that.”

Maloney turned to his lawyer.  “I wish you could get me out of here,” he said.

“Sorry,” shrugged the lawyer.  “You’ve had your three wishes, mate.”

lamp

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Meanwhile, at the supermarket…

“Where the bloody hell have you been?” Mrs Crass scolded. “No, don’t tell me. I can smell it on you. What have I told you about nipping off to the pub in your costume? Well, the costs of the dry cleaning will come out of your pay-packet. That’s supermarket property, that is. Someone’s got to wear that next year – and the way you’re going, that someone won’t be you. You reek of whisky. Here, chobble on a few candy canes to take the edge off. Try not to breathe directly in the kids’ faces.”

The Father Christmas did his best to look suitably abashed. Let the manager have her rant and she’d bugger off all the quicker and leave him in peace. Peace and goodwill to all men. Well, one out of two wasn’t bad.

Kirsty, a Saturday girl earning a few extra quid through the holidays dressed as an elf, appeared. “Hello,” she beamed. “You’re back. I told the queue you were making final preparations for tonight. You know, loading up your sleigh, making your list, checking it twice.” She laughed. Lovely girl, thought the Father Christmas. They’re not paying her enough. Mrs Crass was far from charmed.

“Just get on with it. And try to shift more of the space-blasters, if you can. We’ve overstocked.”

She turned on her stiletto heels and stalked away to check off something else on her clipboard.

Kirsty rolled her eyes. “Come on then, Father Christmas,” she took him by the elbow, “Let’s get you installed in your grotto.”

“You’re a good girl,” said the Father Christmas with a booze-fuelled hiccup.

“You remind me of my granddad,” she said. “He was always pissed on Christmas Eve. And any other day, come to think of it!” She laughed again. It was like bells jingling, the Father Christmas realised.

She sat him on his throne and adjusted his hat so the pompom hung just so. Standing back to admire her handiwork, she rubbed her chin. “That’ll have to do, I suppose. You ready for the first one?”

The Father Christmas grunted. He tried to stifle a belch.

Kirsty giggled. “You are awful, you are! Not to worry. Only three hours until closing and then it’s all over. We can all go home and get our feet up. Won’t that be lovely, eh? I know most people my age will be out on the town but not me. I like to stay in with the family on Christmas Eve – it’s when we put the tree up. I can’t be doing with all this decorations-up-in- November nonsense, can you? Spoils it, I think. Christmas should be special not dragged out for half the year. Hark at me! You must think I’m a right old fart! Anyway, I’ll send the first one through.”

She skipped away, a blur of red and green.

The Father Christmas slumped in his throne. Feet up, my arse, he reflected. He had overnight deliveries to make; the original global courier!

As the pickled onion crisps he’d bolted in the Red Lion threatened to make a resurgence, he remembered being bright-eyed and innocent like that lovely girl.

When did I become so bloated and cynical, he wondered?

Merry bloody Christmas!

santa hat

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Penguin Wrangler

“Hello,” said the photographer.  “You must be the penguin wrangler.”

“That I am, that I am,” said Dusty, touching his forehead in salute.  “And that makes you the photographer.”

“Yes, I’m Wally,” said the photographer.  “We’re all ready for you.”  He tried to peer behind the wrangler’s back.  “You have brought it with you, haven’t you?”

“Oh, yes.  Pete’s in the van.”

“Pete?”

“The penguin.  The talent.”

“Oh, yes.  Can’t wait to meet him.”

“Well, I have to inspect the place first.  Make sure it’s suitable.  You did get my email?  With the lists of dos and don’ts?”

“Yes, yes, of course.  Come in.”

Wally ushered the penguin wrangler into his studio.  There was more than a faint whiff of fish to the man although Wally thought he looked more like someone you’d find repairing a dry stone wall than looking after penguins.

Dusty looked at the huge screen of green fabric stretched taut in front of one wall.  An arctic landscape of polystyrene ice floes decorated an area in front of the screen.  Mist from dry ice hung at knee level.

“It won’t be a bit warm for him, do you think?” Wally wrung his hands.  “We have an ice bath on standby.”

“Oh, Pete won’t melt,” Dusty chuckled.  “He likes it hot.  Picked him up in Tierra del Fuego, as a matter of fact.”

“Oh.  I thought…”

“You thought what everybody thinks.  Your penguin likes a range of temperatures.  Think about it: if it was too cold he wouldn’t be able to go for a swim, would he?”

“Ah.  Well, what do you think?  Does it meet Pete’s exacting standards?”

Dusty scratched his chin.  “What’s it for?”

“I’m sorry?”

“Why are you taking Pete’s picture?  Chocolate bar, is it?”

“No, no; Christmas cards.”

“I don’t follow.”

“You know the sort of thing.  Bit of snow – we’ll drop a snowstorm in later with CGI.  Penguin in a Santa hat.”

“Oh, Pete won’t wear no hat.  He’ll have your hand off.”

“Oh.”  Wally made a note.  “Well, we can CGI the hat in as well.”

“Listen, mate.  I don’t want to tell you how to do your job.  But penguins and Christmas, it’s not something that immediately springs to mind.  Not with me, in any case.”

“Oh, really.”

“I think you should go more traditional, you know.  A stable.  Perhaps a sand dune in the distance.  A lovely big star hanging over the scene.”

Wally looked like he might throw up.  It was too late to make major changes now; he’d blown most of the budget on hiring the bloody penguin.  He excused himself and went to his office to phone his assistant.

“Hello, Marsha?  It’s ixnay on the Antarctic.  How quickly can you rustle up a shedload of sand?  We’re going to CGI a bloody big star over a stable… No, no, we won’t need a baby…  We can drop the halo in later.  The last thing I want is that penguin to have my hand off.”

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The Lamp

The presenter turned away from the camera to greet the next contributor. Her smile was broad and her eyes twinkled – she could fake sincerity along with the best of them.

“Hello, and welcome to the Antiques Show and Tell. What’s your name and what have you brought to show us?”

The punter – an elderly man in a fez that was incongruous with his tweed jacket – grinned back. “Hello, Catriona; I’m Al and I’ve brung this here lamp.”

“Let’s take a look.” Catriona picked up the object. It was dark, the metal tarnished from age. “A lamp, you say?”

“That’s right. You filled it with oil and lit a taper that came out the spout, you see?”

“Oh, right. It’s like something out of a pantomime.”

“Oh, no, it isn’t. This is your genuine article. From Persia.”

Catriona tipped the lamp over. “I can’t see any hallmarks.”

“You won’t,” said Al. “It’s eighth century.”

“And how do you know that?”

“Because,” Al leant closer over the table, “I was there.” He grinned again, more broadly this time.

Catriona backed away. Her eyes darted nervously to camera. Got a right one here, she thought.

“That’s interesting, Al. Thank you.” She put the lamp on the table and turned away, making a quick chopping gesture to her throat. This old nutter could be dropped in the edit. Time-wasters! They turned up every week without fail.

“Oho!” came a hearty cry behind her. It was Nigel, one of the experts. His pudgy hands seized on the lamp. He inspected it with an admiring glint in his eye. “Ooh. Persian, I’d say. Ninth century?”

“Eighth,” said Al.

“Proper Arabian Nights stuff!” Nigel enthused. “And if memory serves…” He pulled the cuff of his bright blazer over the heel of his hand to give the tarnished metal a rub.

“No!” cried Catriona, reaching for the lamp.

But it was too late. The lamp jerked and shuddered in Nigel’s grasp. The lid flew off like a champagne cork and green and purple smoke billowed from the interior. The smoke coalesced in the sky to form the shape of a man from the torso up to the topknot of hair on the crown of his skull. The smoky figure folded his arms and bellowed.

“I am the slave of the lamp; what is your bidding?”

Nigel pouted. “I don’t know. Get us renewed for another series? With me as the lead presenter?”

“Your wish is my command,” the genie bowed.

Catriona disappeared.

“Good one,” said Al. He doffed his fez and snatched the lamp back. “I never liked her. Now, how much do you think it’s worth?”

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