Short Story: “Blank” By C.A.Brown

Note: This will be the last short story in the series. Stay tuned for a series retrospective tomorrow evening 🙂

The snow outside the window looked as pristine as the computer screen sitting in front of Phoebe. She let out a deep sigh and reached for the crumpled tube of biscuits on the edge of the desk. There were only three left. No, forget that, there were only two left.

Phoebe sighed again. She had to write something. Her publisher had said as much in their e-mail. But, putting words on the screen seemed almost as sacrilegious as leaving a trail of dark footsteps across the perfectly iced ground outside the window.

A smile crossed her face. Hadn’t there been an art gallery somewhere that had shown off canvases that were just covered with white paint? Hadn’t people paid millions for them?

Phoebe remembered a comedy book that one of her uncles had bought during the 1990s. It had been titled “Everything Politicians Know About Real People” and it consisted of two hundred empty pages.

For a second, she wondered whether she could get away with changing the title and adding a few extra pages. But, she remembered that her uncle’s old book had already been re-badged as a four hundred page tome called “Good Pop Music 2010-18: A Definitive Guide” that she’d seen on the internet a few nights ago.

Phoebe opened up her document folder and looked at the titles of her previous books. “Beneath Dark Spires”,”Post-Mortem” and “Spectral Signs“‘. She ate another biscuit. Why was this kind of horror fiction so popular these days? She ate the final biscuit. When did horror become so… sophisticated?

Of course, she knew that horror fiction had always been like this. Whether it was that copy of “Dracula” she’d never got round to finishing, or those hilariously formal Dennis Wheatley books that she’d found in a charity shop when she was a teenager, the natural state of horror fiction was one of sophistication. The horror fiction that she really loved had been an anomaly, a mutation, an aberration.

There wasn’t much history to go on, of course. But, when she was growing up, she would always see these books on market stalls, in charity shops and in the kind of second-hand bookshops where you can still smell the dust. They would have midnight black covers with wonderfully realistic paintings of skeletons, zombies and creatures. They read like music. Great crashing crescendos of blood and guts, counterpointed with gentle bucolic descriptions and functional dialogue between functional characters.

It took Phoebe a surprisingly long time to work out that if lots of these crumpled, dog-eared paperbacks were being sold second-hand, they must have been new once. Sure enough, on the internet, she had seen mention of a “horror boom” during the 1980s and 1990s. Apparently, lots of shiny new copies of these books used to festoon newsagents, motorway service station book racks and other quality literary venues.

It just wasn’t fair, dammit! By the time Phoebe had read enough of these books to want to write a horror novel of her own, the only new horror novels were sophisticated ghost stories, clinical police procedurals, gothic vampire stories and Stephen King. Lots of Stephen King. Well, at least some things remained the same.

So, with a heavy heart, she had written a tragic vampiric tale of lost love and eternal mourning. Then she’d written a clinical police procedural. Then a sophisticated ghost story. Everyone loved them. She’d even got good reviews from the critics in the broadsheet papers. She still felt guilty about that. Good horror, she thought, should disgust and appall pompous critics.

And now, with the three popular commercial genres used up, she found herself staring at a blank computer screen. Her eyes drifted to the perfect snow outside once again.

Then, without even thinking about it, her fingers flew across the keyboard “Crimson splashed the unholy altar. Gary’s agonised screams tore the sepulchral air. Above the splashing and screaming, the robed men kept chanting. Like an amateur production of Julius Caesar, they raised their dripping daggers in unison..

She stopped. She blinked. It was the best thing she’d written in three years. She kept writing. A smile crossed her face. She finished the prologue in less than an hour. Her computer pinged at her. Another e-mail from her publisher. With a heavy sigh, she started the first chapter: “In the pristine laboratory at New Scotland Yard, D.I. Stevenson carefully examined the body for forensic evidence..

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Short Story: “Snow Beast” By C. A. Brown

Beneath the thick snow, the creature moved silently. If anyone looked closely at the heavy mounds and snow drifts, they wouldn’t have noticed so much as a flake moving. After all, this ancient beast had millennia upon millennia of practice at creeping beneath the snow.

Above it, the snow beast could feel crunching footsteps from the surface creatures. The movements were fast, the pressure heavy. It wasn’t as bad as the giant beasts that the creature remembered encountering as a hatchling.

It had only seen these once, when it had strayed from the burrows. A pair of vicious teeth had cut through the snow like silver things cut through snow melt. Taking a deep gulp of air, the snow beast had risen from the deep snow and taken a look.

A giant, two-legged feathered creature had towered high above the snow beast. For some reason, the thing that the snow beast remembered the most were the arms. Compared to the giant tail and the huge snapping jaws, the arms were tiny.

Then, there had been a sound like death and something dived from the thin snow high above. It was another creature. The head looked like an elongated bone and the arms were like nothing the snow beast had seen before. Wide things dangled from them.

The snow beast dived. The snow beast stayed below the surface. The snow beast felt scared. It didn’t like this feeling. It got good at staying below the surface.

When the snow beast returned to it’s burrow, it did not tell the other snow beasts of the things that it saw. After all, the elder snow beasts had probably seen such things before. It was, the snow beast now understood, why they kept pulling him away from the top of the deep snow.

Then, after some time, the other snow beasts left. At first, the snow beast noticed that one of them had been gone hunting for longer than usual. Then another one left, then another, then another. Not wishing to be the last one left, the snow beast had gone out hunting. The snow beast had decided that it would be a long hunt. Maybe the other snow beasts had the same idea. After all, hunger roiled in the snow beast’s belly.

The snow beast found food, then more food, then even more food. When the snow beast decided to return to the burrow, it could not remember which direction it was in. So, the snow beast had followed the collapsing trails that it had left. As it traversed the maze, it found more food. It slept sometimes.

Then, after lots of food and sleep, the snow beast found the burrow again. It was completely empty. There were no other tunnels leading away from it. The snow beast pounded the rocks below, but no echoes replied. The snow beast slept. The snow beast felt hungry. The snow beast left again.

Sleep. Food. Sleep. Food. Sleep. Food. Sleep. Food. The snow beast noticed that these things happened more quickly, like the food was easier to spot and the sleep didn’t last as long. It also realised that it knew exactly how far away from the surface to stay. The snow beast wondered if it had become like one of the elders.

After more sleeping and eating, the snow beast felt another two-legged beast above it. This one was lighter and smaller. As time went on, the snow beast realised that there were lots of these beasts. Perhaps they were the young of the giant feathered beast with the tiny arms. The snow beast stayed deep below the surface.

But, then, the snow beast couldn’t find food. The snow beast felt tired. It had even begun to forget what other snow beasts looked like. So, against all of it’s instincts, it had decided to rise to the surface once again when it heard one of the small two-legged creatures. It was so hungry that it had started to wonder what it must be like to be food.

When the deep snow parted, the snow beast stared out into the thin snow. The two-legged creature had long arms and small teeth. It looked at the snow beast and it didn’t swoop or bite, it ran. The snow beast burrowed and followed the noises. A smile crossed it’s slavering jaws. For the first time in many sleeps, something was scared of it.

Short Story: “Deadline” By C. A. Brown

Against the night sky, the falling snow almost looked like the screensaver on Diane’s computer. Even in the gloom, the snow was as white as the breeze block walls of her halls of residence room. She grinned. It almost looked like something from a dystopian sci-fi movie.

It was harshly beautiful. There were no other words for it. The only thing missing was music. As she jabbed the computer mouse, the screensaver disappeared and her half-finished English Lit essay about Edgar Allen Poe stared back at her. She sighed. The department’s deadline was tomorrow. But, how often does it snow like this?

For all she knew, it could happen every winter. Maybe this small town was famous for snow? The university prospectus had included a few beautiful snowy photos. Maybe she should just finish the damn essay and enjoy the snow next year or tomorrow or whenever? But, she found herself minimising the essay and opening Media Player instead.

A second later, the grimly melodic tones of Cradle Of Filth’s “Nymphetamine” echoed through the room. Diane watched the furious flurries of snow for a few minutes, wishing that she’d brought her DVD of “Gremlins” with her to uni. No, she thought, I’ve got to stay focused. She sighed and rifled through the stack of photocopied pages on her desk.

Even though it was two thousand and six for heaven’s sake, the university still insisted on references to physical books in essays. Given how much photocopies cost at the library, she was sure that it was probably a way of extorting money from poor students. Either that or the beardy old lecturers hadn’t heard of the internet.

Finding the right sheaf of stapled photocopies, Diane flicked through it until she found the passage she had highlighted earlier. No doubt that it was slightly longer than the scary copyright warning posters in the library allowed. Still, if they were charging 10p a page, then the posters were probably just for show. But, given that her halls room looked like something from a dystopian space prison, she wouldn’t have been surprised if there was some kafkaesque network of contradictory rules and goals at play.

Taking a deep breath, she focused and fired out another few paragraphs. Then she checked the word count. 1230 words. She shrugged. After she added a concluding paragraph, it would only be a hundred words shy of the limit. It would lose her a few marks, but she’d probably still pass. Anyway, it was snowing.

Diane got up and walked over to the square window. She gasped and staggered back. The view was different. Instead of snow-capped halls blocks, twenty dilapidated refinery towers stared back at her. The snowy ground below was an uneven moonscape of pits and mounds. She blinked and rubbed her eyes. The view didn’t change.

Common sense told her to stay put. To knock on everyone else’s doors and see if they had noticed it too. But, it was 3am. Everyone else on the floor would be out drinking. If only she’d been sensible enough to join them. Still, the deadline probably didn’t matter any more. And, she thought, how often do you get to explore somewhere like this? If she took a few photos, then no-one would question her sanity either.

Finding her jacket and an old Cradle Of Filth hoodie, she grabbed her bag and digital camera before walking out into the hallway. It was as silent as a tomb. She walked over to the kitchen and checked the windows. The refinery towers stared back at her once again. One of them moved. She took a couple of photos.

When she reached the stairwell, she noticed that the carpet was missing. She took a photo of the cracked grey tiles. Common sense urged her to turn back, but she kept walking down the stairs. Finally, she reached the thick wooden door. Diane took a deep breath and flung it open.

The halls blocks stared back at her. The snow was light on the ground. The towers were nowhere to be seen. She checked her camera. The photos were still there. She blinked. A smile crossed her face. Clutching her bag, she strode out into the snow. The university library would be still be open. Something about H.P. Lovecraft seemed like the perfect thing to fill up the remaining hundred words of her essay.

Short Story: “Letters” By C. A. Brown

It all started in the local newspaper, of all things. Although this wasn’t something that Joanne usually read, the paper got delivered to her by accident every now and then.

Every time it arrived, she’d glance over it just to remind herself why she didn’t get it every day. And she always looked at the letters page. After all, it was like a website comment section, but with more articulate writers and less venom.

But, then, she noticed that the same few people kept getting their letters in the paper. It had started when some crackpot’s letter about building a giant portcullis in the channel “to show the EU we mean business” had somehow got past the editor. She’d rolled her eyes, thought “who wrote this?” and remembered the name.

When the next paper arrived four days later, she noticed that he not only had the top spot on the letters page but that he was fervently arguing in favour of bringing capital punishment back “in order to sort out those inconsiderate types who check their mobile phones in the cinema.”

She also noticed a frothing, ranting letter from another person who was arguing that there should be hefty fines “for non-attendance of weekly church services, to restore this land’s moral fibre“. She made a note of the name.

Sure enough, when a crumpled copy of the local paper arrived on Joanne’s doormat two days later, not only were letters by these two people featured – but one of the other ranting letters was shockingly badly-written. Normally, she despised it when people got pedantic about things like grammar and spelling. But, this letter made the comments below online videos look like eloquent treatises by comparison. She made a note of the name.

She had almost forgotten about the paper when the next one landed on her doormat eight days later. Half of the front page had been torn off and the third page was stained with what looked like dried ketchup. No doubt that the delivery boy had stopped off at the chip shop and needed somewhere to ditch the paper he’d accidentally ruined. Still, Joanne didn’t complain. It was a free paper.

Taking a deep breath, Joanne flicked to the letters page. Sure enough, the three people were still there. But literally every letter was just like them too. There wasn’t a single cheerful letter about something mildly funny happening, a mention of a kind local person or a random piece of retro nostalgia. It was just two pages of solid ranting, foaming and frothing.

For the first time in quite a while, Joanne decided to go out. The emotion caught her completely by surprise. But, even the soul-crushing stage fright of appearing in front of random strangers seemed reassuringly normal compared to the stuff that she had just read. So, after changing into some of the few vaguely semi-formal clothes she kept lying around, she stepped outside.

When she briefly glimpsed a distant person slowly strolling down the street towards her, she realised that this had been a bad idea. They’d have to pass each other and this could involve eye contact or, even worse, some kind of cheery greeting. Would they pass each other too closely or too distantly? Whatever happened, it would probably be wrong. It would make her feel like some kind of freak for the next couple of hours.

With a vaguely practiced motion, she fumbled through her bag for something whilst turning around. If this person was looking, it would just seem like she’d forgotten something and had to return home to get it. A perfectly normal thing to do. Even though she was sure that she was horribly out of practice at the old handbag-turn, it seemed to work.

Then, as she took the first quick steps back along the street, Joanne let out a long sigh of relief. On the corner of Grantfield Road, she saw two gaunt skeletons merrily feasting on something. She glanced over her shoulder and, sure enough, the random person strolling along the road was none other than… what was the right word for it?… A former human? A reanimated body? No doubt that “zombie” was considered front-page scandal rude. But, she thought, would they even care?

Whistling a cheery tune, she strolled back home, occasionally waving at the shambling, soulless beings that she passed. None of them cared whether she was “normal” or not. Best of all, there was another copy of the paper lying on the doormat when she got back. As she opened it, she realised that all the horror movies she had ever watched had got everything totally wrong.

When the zombie apocalypse hits, Joanne thought, looking for survivors is the last thing you want to do. After all, most of the people who can go for weeks without noticing that the dead have risen from their graves are the kind of people who write angry letters to the local paper. Thankfully, she thought, not all of them are. A warm smile crossed Joanne’s face. Without even having to pretend, she had become the most normal person on the planet and it was awesome.

Short Story: “Grim” By C. A. Brown

The trick is not to flinch. He’s used to people flinching. After all, his job is to catch people by surprise. If the bony bastard could smile, then I’d bet that he has a permanent grin on his face. Or he would if he hadn’t tangled with the wrong person.

But, I’d twigged that he was following me. It isn’t that he cares too much about stealth. After all, he can only be seen by the person he’s going to meet. But, I would bet anything that he enjoys the thrill of surprising people. Unfortunately, there isn’t really that much research data to go on. People don’t exactly submit reports. Still, when I saw a reflection of a scythe in the window and heard rustling robes in the crowd behind me, I knew that the Grim Reaper was near.

Instinctively, I ducked into a tiled alleyway. It was more out of embarrassment than anything else. Sure, the kind of people who still go to run-down semi-abandoned shopping centres are probably used to seeing random people having conversations with people they cannot see, but I didn’t want to test that theory. Not only that, I wanted him to think that I was running.

After walking past a few abandoned cardboard boxes, I ducked behind a spindly plant and waited. For a minute or so, I wondered if I was imagining the whole thing. Strange as it sounds, that scared me more than the idea that I was being hounded by the oldest being in the universe. Sure, no-one would have known. I was careful about that. But, it would just be embarrassing.

So, when I heard a quiet rattling sound behind me and a solemn voice saying: ‘Over here.‘ I actually let out a sigh of relief. Nothing but silence greeted me in reply.

Remembering not to flinch, I slowly got up and turned around. He was taller than I’d expected. Don’t ask me why, but I’d expected a hunched sack of bones. He stood at least six foot tall and, if there had been any meat on those bones, I’d have said that he’d been working out. Then again, people probably run all of the time. It’s probably a good workout.

Nonchalantly, I said: ‘Hey there.

Silently, he stretched a bony hand towards me. Putting a businesslike smile on my face, I shook it firmly. Surprisingly, it was warm. The emotionless hollows in his skull just stared at me. Keeping the smile on my face, I said: ‘So, are you up for a game of chess?

A rattling rasp of derision filled the alleyway. ‘Chess. It is always chess. Years ago, people asked me to play so many different games. But everyone I meet these days wants to play this… chess. If I ever meet the soul that invented that infernal game….

Ah, I’ve got just the thing for you. Follow me.‘ Keeping a stiff upper lip, I walked out of the alleyway and into the crowd. As I heard the tapping footsteps behind me, I looked at the people around me. All of them seemed to be going about their everyday lives, oblivious to the monster in their midst. I felt nothing but jealousy. In that moment, I’d gladly swap places with even the roughest hooligans or the most miserable suits that passed me by.

Finally, the sound of bleeping, trilling and tingling filled the air. A riot of neon and screens flashed at me. We’d reached the amusement arcade. Taking a deep breath, I strode over to the “HOUSE OF THE UNDEAD” machine. Normally, I’d be annoyed by the skiving schoolboys who were hogging the machine, but I was glad for the delay.

With cheers and shouts, they pointed the red plastic guns at the screen and blasted away at the 3D monsters and zombies with practiced ease. I’d expected Grim to be patient. After all, he has all of the time in the world.

But, a second later, his dark robes swept past me and he stood in front of the screen. He must have made himself visible, because the two players suddenly froze with fright. In a low voice, he hissed: ‘Shouldn’t you be sss…studying?

They fled in terror. I almost collapsed with laughter. I hadn’t planned to, but it was just a reflex. Once I caught my breath, I rifled through my pockets and muttered: ‘Damn it. You haven’t got any 20p coins, have you?

I saw a… coin machine… over there.‘ He levelled a bony finger at a squat little machine opposite us. Grumbling to myself, I wandered over to it and fed a few quid into it. When I returned with a paper cup full of coins, Grim rubbed his hands with glee. Sighing, I fed a couple into the machine and picked up the plastic gun.

He was better at it than I’d expected. Ok, he hadn’t realised that if one player wins a co-operative game then both players win – but, he was a natural. As the polygonal zombies lurched towards the screen, he got perfect headshot after perfect headshot. Meanwhile, I was reduced to firing at them wildly.

Then, as we turned the corner of some grotty sewer, a scaly green sea monster leapt out of the water and lurched towards us. Cartoon blood spattered the screen. Grim flinched. I missed. A second later, the screen read “GAME OVER. CONTINUE 10…9…8…

Hissing at the screen, Grim said ‘That wasn’t…. fair. We didn’t even have a chance. No matter what I did, I couldn’t have won. This game is rigged.

I shrugged: ‘Now you know how everyone you meet feels.

His jaw dropped open. He still held the plastic gun. His teeth chattered nervously. He stared at me with haunted, empty eyes. I smiled. It turns out that it was possible for one person to win a co-operative game.

Short Story: “Village” By C. A. Brown

It had probably appeared in a film. That is, if films were even known about here. I’d like to think that if anyone showed up with a camcorder, they’d probably have to explain the whole concept of “moving pictures” to the people who gathered in awe around the new-fangled “horseless carriage” that had just ground to a halt on the side of the street.

But, of course, this was just wishful thinking. As Tom brought the car to a halt next to a thatched cottage, he turned to me and said: ‘That hovel probably costs more than we make in a decade, Sally. Rustic chic or whatever. You’ve probably read about it in one of your magazines.

I laughed: ‘Nah. It reminds me of more of a bootleg Sisters Of Mercy record I got from this guy at a concert last year. The cover is this really bad photocopy of a group of uptight Victorians lining up outside a church that looks just like….‘ I pointed through the windscreen at the stone church at the end of the deserted road: ‘Anyway, if this was a posh village, there would be Land Rovers on the street and people with shotguns and tweed jackets.

Tom shrugged: ‘The Land Rovers are probably all in garages and they’re probably rich enough to hire farmhands to shoot their pheasants or whatever. Have you got the map?’

I fumbled through the mess of empty cigarette packets and mint boxes in the glove compartment before pulling out a well-worn OS map. We stretched it out and pored over it for a minute. After finding the nearest large town, we’d tried to trace our route but, no matter how many variations we tried, we still ended up at the same unmarked crossroads. Finally, Tom said: ‘We’re in the rustic village of Lost, population two.

They’ve gotta have a shop around here somewhere. We can ask for directions. That is, if it doesn’t offend your deep sense of tradition.

You’ve been watching too many sitcoms, dear.‘ Tom smirked, before opening the door. I opened mine and stepped out of the car. As I spotted a familiar red phone box standing tall beside what looked like a Victorian school, the faint smell of a bonfire reached my nose. It was one of those old smells that didn’t exactly reassure me. Above us, the sky was pencil grey.

I sighed: ‘On the downside, it’s probably going to rain soon. On the plus side, it won’t take us long to find a shop or something.

Tom smiled: ‘Don’t worry, I think that the pac-a-macs are still in the boot. I mean, I left them in there after that…‘ He wisely let the sentence trail off. A few weeks ago, we’d spent a “romantic” camping weekend in some rainy field in the New Forest that, by the end, had resembled something from a World War One battlefield. How the tent didn’t sink, I’ll never know.

Shrugging, we set off down the street. I was right. It didn’t take us long to find the village shop. It was locked.

Flashing me a lopsided smile, Tom said: ‘It’s probably one of those places that opens at three in the afternoon every other St. Swithin’s Day. We’re better off driving around at random until we find somewhere populated‘.

I couldn’t argue with that. As we walked back to the car, Tom spotted the graveyard next to the church. Spiky iron cages stood in front of the lopsided stones. A spindly, mutant tree towered in the back corner of the field. Tom raised his arms like a zombie and put on an American accent ‘They’re coming to get you…

His eye-rollingly predictable horror movie reference was cut off by the rain. There wasn’t even a rumble of thunder or anything. One second, everything looked normal and then it was like we were standing in the middle of one of those trendy power showers.

Without even thinking, we rushed into the little alcove in front of the church doors. Our way out was blocked off by a solid wall of water. I couldn’t even see the car through it.

Behind me, I heard Tom knock on the door. It was followed by a slow creeeak. For someone who watches almost as many horror movies as I do, Tom really hadn’t learnt anything. He stood next to the dark doorway and smiled: ‘Hey, maybe the vicar can give us directions? Don’t worry. If they didn’t want us going inside, they’d have locked it. Anyway, churches are meant to be open to anyone.

With a nervous sigh, I nodded. We stepped into the gloom. What faint light filtered through the windows showed rows of dark wooden pews, worn memorial plaques and stone pillars. Tom thought about calling out, but the words stopped in his throat. This place made a library seem as loud as a motorway. It was the kind of deep, heavy silence that doesn’t even need sternly-worded signs to tell you to keep it.

Then, I saw him. Against the shadows, something moved. Tom spotted it too. A robed man glided past the bare altar, his face hidden by a hood. We ducked behind a pillar and watched. Another hooded man followed. On some rational level, I knew that they had to be harmless monks. But, in a village like this? This was the kind of place where King Henry VIII’s decree to dissolve the monasteries probably still hung on the local notice-board.

When the third robed man appeared, Tom and I decided to make a break for it. We didn’t say anything to each other. We just nodded and tiptoed. Once Tom creaked the door shut behind us, we ran into the rain. Luckily, the car was directly ahead – but we almost ran straight into it.

Once we’d locked the doors and Tom had revved the engine, I caught my breath. We coasted off into the rain. Finally, I told Tom my thoughts about the monks. He just shook his head: ‘I visited a monastery museum in France when I was a lad. Real monks wear brown or grey robes. Their robes were red.

Short Story: “Last Refuge Of The Splatterpunks” By C. A. Brown

Rick almost let out a blood-curdling scream when he saw that an online bookshop had placed a content warning on his 1986 novel “SCYTHE MANIAC!“.

In bold letters, it had read “This novel contains frequent graphic scenes of a grisly nature and is suitable for mature audiences only“.

For a second, he thought about getting on the phone to his publisher or firing off an e-mail to the press. It would be a way to stay relevant. But he remembered that, these days, teenagers don’t read horror novels any more. Even if they did, they’d probably obey the content warning.

These days, he thought, the press wouldn’t bluster and foam at him for criticising the warning. They would just tut at him in a “concerned” fashion. There would be a vicious stream of carefully curated outrage in the comments below every editorial. Some of these wholesome pacifists would probably send him death threats too. Rick let out another sigh. Since when, he thought, did controversy become such a bad thing?

His eyes drifted over to the bookshelf beside his writing desk. Twenty dark spines stared back at him, festooned with bold words like “DEATH RATTLE!“, “SKELETON FIENDS!” and “SPIKES!“. These days, he thought, it looked less like a trophy cabinet and more like the horror section of some indoor market book stall, frequented only by nostalgic old people.

There was only one thing for it. Rick made a phone call and picked up his leather jacket.

Thirty minutes later, he sat in the beer garden of The Fox And Hounds with a rollie in his left hand and a half-finished pint in his right. Opposite him, a man with long white hair reached into his own leather jacket and pulled out his mobile phone. It was a good, solid model from 2002 that could withstand horrors worse than either man could write about. It bleeped quietly.

Rick stubbed out his rollie and sighed: ‘I suppose you’ve heard about the content warnings, Dave. They’ll be putting them on your books next.

Dave let out a bitter laugh: ‘Fat bloody chance! They’d actually have to sell. Seriously, I make more money flogging my old publisher copies on eBay than selling new copies. Luckily, my remaining ten fans are wealthy, successful people.

Really? I thought you’d turned to bank robbery, or sold a kidney or both.‘ Rick chuckled.

Dave raised his bushy eyebrows: ‘You know, that would be a brilliant idea for a novel.

Taking a hearty swig from his pint, Rick said: ‘Too bloody right! Even better, there could be some kind of demonic ghoul who decides to stage a robbery…

…Of the organ bank. I love it!‘ Dave’s eyes shone brightly. For a second, Rick could see a hint of the stunningly handsome twenty-three year old man he’d first met at an author panel back in the ’80s. The crowds had gone wild when they’d appeared on stage. There had been nothing but a sea of leather jackets and heavy metal T-shirts. They were rockstars.

As Rick slumped forward, Dave muttered: ‘… and it wouldn’t get published. And you know why?

Rick was about to reply with an explanation that almost sounded like the conservative editorials that had hounded him throughout his twenties. But, before he could say anything, Dave just pointed towards the pub window.

Behind the faded glass, a widescreen TV played silent news footage of bombed-out cities, bodies on stretchers and screaming faces. A minute later, it was replaced by footage of police officers in some rural field somewhere gathering solemnly around a small white tent.

Maybe we’re just in the wrong market?‘ Dave said ‘With all of that stuff in the news, we should be selling our books on the bloody “Mind, Body & Spirit” shelf. They’re practically… relaxing…. by comparison!