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Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Writing – split personality or not

It could be argued that we writers have split personality issues anyway, what with all those characters rumbling about in our heads, not to mention hearing their voices. The question is, should we use pen-names when certain books are different in style or genre?

Fellow Crooked Cat author David W. Robinson has written an interesting blog about writing and typecasting. It’s worth a look.


There are no easy answers. Authors have to make up their own minds on the thorny subject, as styles and the subject matter differ. 

Quite a while ago (1986), Ruth Rendell wanted to get away from her police and suspense tales and tackle darker, deeper psychological themes; so she invented the penname Barbara Vine. My favourite early Vine books are A Dark-adapted Eye, A Fatal Inversion and King Solomon’s Carpet. Certainly, not all of her readers made the switch to the new books and some felt downright uncomfortable with them. Of course she continued writing under both names and eventually the secret was out. She still produces books under both names.

Readers of cozy crime are not necessarily at ease with gritty procedural thrillers; a little gore might be acceptable, but that too is a thin line to walk upon. Perhaps you should give consideration to the appeal of your work before making a leap. Some opinion favours writing to your audience (once you have one or know what it likes); this can become a strait-jacket, however. Contrary opinion says, write for yourself, whatever the genre, which works too – though in the current hard-nosed market-place, that might prove counter-productive. Truth is, the boundaries are gradually melting away, thanks to the wide appeal of the e-book. You might lose old readers when you switch to a different style or genre; equally, you might gain new readers who love the switch.

Bottom line: write what you’re comfortable writing, and don’t compromise yourself. Have faith in your product. Use a pen-name if that makes you comfortable or if it makes commercial sense. My author page on Amazon identifies me under my pen-names.

I’ve dabbled with a few pen-names over the years, for articles, short stories and even novels. I suspect I’ll continue to use a few, depending on the material.  My crime and thriller books published by Crooked Cat (Spanish Eye, Blood of the Dragon Trees, and Sudden Vengeance) are under my Nik Morton moniker; as will the upcoming thrillers Catalyst, The Prague Papers and The Tehran Text.  My westerns are written as Ross Morton (though I made an exception with Bullets for a Ballot, which is by Nik Morton! [Yes, it does get confusing, but as this latter book was likely to be marketed more at US readers, and I was better known in the US as Nik rather than Ross, I opted for that departure from the norm!]
 
So, there you have it. If you’re prolific or want to stretch your writing beyond any particular ghetto, there is no simple choice; you have to go with your gut instinct.


My e-books published by Crooked Cat – Amazon UK
http://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Ddigital-text&field-keywords=Nik+morton+crooked+cat&rh=n%3A341677031%2Ck%3ANik+morton+crooked+cat

My e-books published by Crooked Cat – Amazon COM
http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Ddigital-text&field-keywords=nik+morton+crooked+cat&rh=n%3A133140011%2Ck%3Anik+morton+crooked+cat

 

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Writing - What did it portend?

The fantasy Wings of the Overlord is currently available in hardback. It will eventually be available in paperback and e-book formats too.  The Prologue was featured in my blog here.
The beginning introduces the mysterious innman, Ulran, a fighting man, owner of the Red Tellar Inn, plus his son Ranell and aide Aeleg, so you won't get their descriptions below. The following attempts to create a mystery and provide the impetus for the epic quest.  
Here’s an excerpt from Chapter One, fittingly entitled ‘Quest’:
The midday sky was brimful with Red Tellars. The entire populace of Lornwater seemed to be out – on the street, rooftops, city walls or at windows – looking at these mystical creatures.

Even Ulran’s height was dwarfed by the bird’s wingspan. With bristling carmine red feathers, yellow irises and darting black slit-pupils, the Red Tellar appeared a formidable bird, predatory in mien, an aspect completed with lethal talons and huge curved beak. And yet not one living soul, Ulran included, had once reported seeing a Red Tellar eat. To compound the enigma surrounding them, they were rarely observed landing anywhere. And apart from the muted whisper of their wings, they created no sound at all – unlike the local avians that infested most eaves, lofts and trees in the city.

Ulran burst out onto the inn’s flat roof as a shadow darkened the area.

A solitary Red Tellar broke formation and dived down from the main body. Ulran instinctively glanced back at Aeleg and Ranell; but Scalrin’s sharp eyes had spotted them and he veered over to the opposite side of the roof.

A slight crack of mighty wings, then the bird was down, talons gripping the low wall by a shrine to Opasor, lesslord of birds.

Ulran motioned for the others to stay where they were.

Aeleg and Ranell stared, as if thunderstruck that a Red Tellar should land on their roof.

Recognition flickered in Scalrin’s eyes as Ulran knelt before the bird’s great feathered chest. Without hesitation the innman reached out, gently stroked the upper ridge of the bird’s beak and smoothed the silken soft crest.

In answer, Scalrin’s ear feathers ruffled and he settled, pulling his greater wing coverts well into his body.

The innman exhaled through his nose, then relaxed, steadying his breathing till it was shallow. Ulran closed his eyes and slowly outstretched his hand again, palm flat upon Scalrin’s breast. A rapid heartbeat pulsed under his palpating hand and transmitted sympathetic vibrations through his own frame.

Their rapport created a bridge and across this span came primitive communication, sense-impressions. Ulran gathered that something was seriously amiss in Arion.

Something terrible, something concerning Scalrin.

Ulran opened his eyes, surprised to discover moisture brimmed his lids for the first time since his wife Ellorn’s death.

Then Scalrin was gone, powerful primaries lifting him up to the vast multitude of his brethren. As far as the horizon they still flocked.

But what did it portend?
***
“Trouble in Arion?” the stranger enquired as Ulran stepped from the stairs into the passage.

Ulran did not show the surprise he felt at this disclosure.

The wiry stranger was evidently chagrined at the innman’s negative response but, poise quickly regained, explained, soft spoken, “I walk with Osasor.” An offered hand.

Ulran’s enfolded it completely: a gentle, yielding handshake. Not the usual type who would follow the white lord of fire, the innman thought.

“Cobrora Fhord,” the stranger made the introduction, dressed sombrely in a grey cloak, charcoal tunic and trousers, colourless face angular and thin. “I can enlighten you a little on the behaviour of the Red Tellars. And I would like to join you on your journey to Arion.”

Ranell appraised the stranger with quickened interest; Aeleg stared at Cobrora shrewdly.

Ulran, unblinking, said, “But I haven’t mentioned that I’d go – though I was considering it.”

Cobrora nervously stroked long lank black hair. Ulran noticed the glint of some kind of amulet beneath Cobrora’s grey cloak. Big brown eyes suddenly evasive, Cobrora Fhord murmured, “My – er, properties might prove useful – should you decide to go.”

In preference, Ulran always travelled alone, in this way being responsible for himself and nobody else. But, this Cobrora presented a conundrum. The roumers regularly and swiftly carried messages along their established routes complete with staging posts, unmolested by villains and Devastator hordes, but even they could not have carried news of Arion’s dire affairs in such a short time. And, as conclusive proof of this psychic’s ability, Cobrora knew of Ulran’s intentions to travel to Arion. It was just possible that the strange powers of Cobrora’s spirit-lord could be of some use on the long trek.

“All right,” said Ulran decisively. “But first we must arrange equipment.” And, looking at Cobrora’s thin city clothes, he added, “We must dress you properly for the long journey ahead. It may be summer – but the nights are harsh and the mountains will prove inhospitable.”

***

Partial blurb:

So begins their great quest that tests the trio to the limit. Exciting obstacles include raging torrents, snakes, feuding warrior hordes, lethal fireballs, terrifying electric storms, treacherous mountains, avalanche, betrayal and torture. The travellers start out barely able to tolerate each other but, gradually, as their problems are overcome, they grow closer. The strength of comradeship is evoked and also selfless sacrifice. Their story is rich in history and threatening events that beset them on their quest.

Available from Amazon UK here

Available from the publisher Knox Robinson here

Available from the book depository here


 

 

Monday, 29 September 2014

Writing - reviews and reading between the lines

This is a 4-star review of my book Blood of the Dragon Trees, posted on Amazon by Michael Parker, a crime/suspense/adventure novelist. It raises some interesting questions, in fact, which I'll comment on at the end.

Review

Visitors to Tenerife will recognise the beauty of the island in Nik Morton's evocative descriptions of what the island has to offer to the tourist, but few, if any, will recognise the darker side so vividly portrayed in this novel.

No doubt the fiction is inspired by Morton's ability as a thriller writer, and not something that he has uncovered by stealth.

It is a fact that immigrants head for the Canary Islands from Africa, but here Morton has added spice to the tragedies that often unfold through people-trafficking.

In Blood of the Dragon Trees, Morton puts his main character, Laura Reid, in mortal danger simply because she has unwittingly placed herself in a new teaching job with a family (possibly) involved in the dark arts of people-smuggling and trading in endangered species. She finds herself drawn to Felipe, the brother of her employer, but Felipe's girlfriend, Lola, turns out to be something other than a girlfriend scorned.

Piling into this conspiracy of thieves and murderers is Andrew Kirby who is attracted to Laura for reasons other than just wanting her to help him in his pursuit of the villains. Along with the local police and the Guardia Civil, Laura and Andrew find themselves hounded by the criminals where their lives are in danger.

Nik Morton takes the story along at a fine pace, and readers of his past novels will not be disappointed in his narrative, his characterisation and careful plotting.
 
End of review
 
I'm intrigued (and flattered) by the comment regarding the dark side depicted being from my imagination and not something I have personally experienced. That's what we writers always strive for, yet don't always attain - believability.
 
I remember in 2006 when I was a winner in the Harry Bowling competition with my first chapters of a crime thriller about a nun who had been a cop (published in 2007, out of print at present). The judges were surprised that it was written by a man (since it was a first person, female POV) and even wondered if I'd been in the police.
 
Like most writers, I'm sure I make factual mistakes. And not all of them get spotted by an editor - but I can always fall back on the 'excuse' that it's fiction. These days, however, readers tend to want realism to a high degree - that believability. That's down to research; and of course some resources will conflict and it's not always possible to validate them. Double check, if you can. There's a maxim I've used in my book Write a Western in 30 Days - 'if in doubt, leave it out'.  If a fact can't be checked, seriously think about leaving it out. Or make a point of earmarking it as fictional, so if you're queried about it later, you can say, 'I made it up!'
 
***
 
Michael Parker has spent the last 17 years in Spain but is shortly about to return to UK with his wife Pat. I can heartily recommend his books, among them Shadow of the Wolf, Hells' Gate, Roselli's Gold and The Boy From Berlin.
 
Blood of the Dragon Trees is published by Crooked Cat Publishing and currently has eight 5-star reviews on the UK site.
 
Purchase the e-book from Amazon UK here
 
Purchase the e-book from Amazon COM here
 
Purchase paperback post-free worldwide from here
 
 
 

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Justice - or lack of it...

My latest crime novel release is Sudden Vengeance. If you enjoy crime fiction or despair at the seeming intransigence of the justice system, then you might like this book.

Here are some snippets from the UK reviews on Amazon that tend to sum it up.

1) This mystery tackles contemporary issues such as unemployment, recession, crime and a broken justice system. These problems are not restricted to the UK, but are becoming world-wide. I’ve enjoyed many of Nik Morton’s books, both mystery and western, which often center around themes of justice... or lack of it.

2) You are caught up in the quickening drama and are left with a satisfying feeling that although all might not be well in our world, there are some who do make a difference.

3) Hmmm, I didn't want to like this book because a vigilante is the "hero" and it felt like crossing an abyss on a piece of string in a gale. But there was something deeply satisfying, in a sneaky chocolate-eating way, about all those bad guys being punished…

My thanks to these reviewers!

The blurb

When justice fails, a vigilante steps forward. In the broken Britain of today, faith in the police is faltering. Justice and fairness are flouted. Victims are not seen as hurt people but simply as statistics.

Paul’s family is but one example of those victims of unpunished criminals. In the English south coast town of Alverbank, many others are damaged and grieving. It cannot go on. There has to be a response, some way of fighting back.

A vigilante soon emerges and delivers rough justice, breaking the bones and cracking the heads of those guilty individuals who cause pain without remorse. Who is the vigilante? He – or she – is called the Black Knight. The police warn against taking ‘the law into your own hands’. But the press laud the vigilante’s efforts and respond: ‘What law?’

Will the Black Knight eventually cross the line and kill? Paul and his family seem involved and they are going to suffer…

***

A quick yet emotional read. Published by Crooked Cat Publishing.
 
Amazon UK e-book can be purchased here

Amazon COM e-book can be purchased here

Paperback can be purchased post-free worldwide from here

Friday, 26 September 2014

Saturday Story - 'Test Nerves'

Some years ago, in the 1970s, while I was still breaking into commercial short story writing, my friend Neil Robson came up with a handful of story plots for me to use. I agreed to write them if we went 50:50 on any sale.

At the time, I was writing as Platen Syder. As these stories were not entirely my own creation, we decided to adopt another penname. Our first sale was ‘The Courier’ and the byline was Jon Teiffort. Yes, it was a simple anagram of Joint Effort.  The following tale didn’t see publication until some years later, in fact, and I adjusted the byline just a little:

 
TEST NERVES
 
Ford Escort - Wikipedia commons


Jon F. Teifort

 
With great care, Emma Fayne slowly eased the sparkling clean Escort alongside the kerb and as she switched off the engine she felt the butterflies in her stomach do another somersault.  Even though she had parked quite neatly, she was anxious.  She sneaked a sidelong glance at her instructor.

He smiled and that restored her confidence. ‘No need to be nervous, Miss Fayne. I’ll just nip inside, if you’ll wait here.’

‘Thanks.’ She swallowed and wiped her moist palms. ‘I’ll do my best.’

‘Good. We’ll get you through!’ He slid out and strode purposefully into the dreary driving test centre. Frosted windows above the first floor proclaimed that other businesses shared the office building.

As she stood by the car bonnet, she noticed a policeman strolling along the pavement and suddenly tried not to worry about her new dress blowing in the slight breeze. A deep-throated voice from behind startled her: ‘Waiting for your test, Miss – ?’

‘Fayne,’ she supplied automatically.

‘Ah, yes,’ he said, peering through tortoise-shell spectacles. ‘I just thought you didn't look too well.’

Emma forced a smile. ‘A little nervous, that’s all.’

He eyed a yellow Volvo parked on a double yellow line. ‘What’s the number of that car the policeman’s standing beside?’ he asked rather curtly.

She gave the number hesitantly, now quite upset at his incivility.

‘Right, Miss Fayne, let’s get started,’ he said, as though he had no time for nervous candidates.

He peered over his shoulder. ‘Move off as soon as you’re ready. Turn first left after that pelican crossing.’

No such thing as a please, she noted irritably.

Moistening her lips, Emma mentally ran through the sequence with ease, born of repetition. Handbrake still on. Gear in neutral. Switch on – first time!  She sighed thankfully. All clear behind, into gear, brake off – another quick check behind, indicator on – and away we go.

As she passed the crossing and neared the junction she marvelled at herself. No mistakes! With the way she felt – and the examiner’s manner didn’t help, either! – she found this hard to believe.

At the junction’s STOP sign she braked to a halt. Her dress had ridden up her thighs but she fought off an urge to pull the material down: she had no wish to distract the examiner and didn’t want him thinking she was more concerned over her appearance than the test.

They seemed to be at the junction an age and he was betraying signs of impatience, tapping his fingers on his briefcase. Then, at last, a reasonable gap presented itself and she moved off, effortlessly meeting the speed of the traffic stream.

‘Turn right into the high street, at the next junction, please.’

Good heavens, a ‘please’, would you believe? I’m winning him over with my superior car-­handling, she thought.

Her right turn was quite good, if perhaps a little sluggish on the pull-off.

She was beginning to relax. They were heading for the de-populated part of town. Should be no trouble reversing there.

She approached the traffic-lights in the inside lane. Just ahead trundled an old VW Golf on the outside.

The shrill siren startled her!

Wide-eyed, she spotted the flashing blue light of the police car in her rear-view mirror.

In an instant the patrol car swept past.

But the elderly driver of the VW must have panicked. He pulled in.

Emma’s heart lurched as the ancient vehicle veered towards her lovely clean unblemished car! Her foot rammed down on the brake-pedal.

Tyres screeched.

She’d done it – emergency braked in time!

There was a resounding crash from the rear. The wind was thrust out of her by the jerk of the seat-belt and the juddering motion of the car.

The driver following had been too close and he hadn’t braked in time.

She was aware of her examiner swearing, then she blacked out.

***

Beside her bed stood a police constable, a young nurse, and a man with a moustache who leaned over solicitously. ‘I’m Detective Inspector Stokes.’

‘The gentleman with me,’ she said tremulously, ‘is he all right?’

‘Yes – and now safely locked up!’

‘But... it wasn’t his fault... The old gent in that Volks–’

‘I’m afraid your examiner was anything but, Miss Fayne. He’d just robbed Manny Goldberg – his office is over the test centre.’

‘Robbed? But he seemed so plausible.’

‘You were made use of by a very cunning man, Miss. On leaving the building he must’ve noticed PC Bennett here beside his parked Volvo. He didn’t relish being stopped for a parking offence with the stolen money on him, so he quick-wittedly posed as your examiner.’ DI Stokes looked grim. ‘It’s a fair bet your test route would’ve soon led into the country. And, once there, well...’

Emma paled. ‘Then, my accident... was lucky?’

‘Yes, Miss. And I think that but for your test nerves you might’ve noticed he wasn’t carrying an examiner’s clipboard – only a bulging briefcase!’

 

THE END

 
Previously published in Costa Life Magazine in 2008.

Copyright Nik Morton, 2014

 Note: If you’ve read my story ‘Two Birds with One Stone’ here then you might have noticed that DI Stokes appears in that, too. A very minor hint of continuity!

If you liked this story, you might like my collection of crime tales, Spanish Eye, published by Crooked Cat, which features 22 cases from Leon Cazador, private eye, ‘in his own words’.  He is also featured in the story ‘Processionary Penitents’ in the Crooked Cat Collection of twenty tales, Crooked Cats’ Tales.

 

Spanish Eye, released by Crooked Cat Publishing is available as a paperback and as an e-book.





 

Thursday, 25 September 2014

FFB - The War at Troy

This book was released (2005) to coincide with the major film release of TROY. Lindsay Clarke’s retelling serves to reveal in eloquent prose the characters behind these tales of two powerful generations of men and women on the cusp of history and myth.

Clarke has used the classics – The Greek Myths by Robert Graves and The Iliad by E V Rieu, among others, to retell these tales in modern prose and has succeeded brilliantly.

The characters – there’s a helpful glossary of deities and mortals at the back of the book – are all drawn well and believably. You feel for them in their happy and tragic moments. Especially the time when King Agamemnon has to sacrifice his daughter to the goddess Artemis.  These scenes are particularly moving as the thirteen-year-old meets her father for the first time in nine years. He must kill her to appease the gods, ‘for the good of all.’ How hollow those words ring through history!

As we know, the gods ceased to have form once nobody believed in them anymore. At the time of Troy, men not only believed in their gods, some actually met them.

Unlike the film, which had a limited time-span to tell its story, this book fills in the background to Paris, explaining how he was adopted by a woodcutter and only learned of his true birthright as King Priam’s son from the interfering goddess Aphrodite. From that point on, his life is blighted. More than once afterwards, he wished he’d stayed in the countryside! We can sympathise with him and the other characters, knowing what will happen.

In fact, Helen’s flight with Paris was merely the excuse that Agamemnon needed all along. What comes across here, however, is the honourable and generous nature of Helen’s husband Menelaus – truly, the film did him a disservice! His betrayal by Paris was great indeed.

But the story is more than about the love affair between Helen of Sparta and Paris of Troy. They are merely the cause. It’s about heroism, stubbornness and honour. When King Priam sneaks into the Myrmidons’ camp to claim his son’s body, you feel for the anguish of the old man and even for Achilles. (This was conveyed very well in the film, too).

The war with Troy actually raged for ten years, as prophesised. And it was in under thunderclouds and rain, not only under the blazing sun. Some of the battle scenes are gripping and gruesome and you can almost feel and smell the stink of warfare.

There’s humour, irony, cunning, laughter, betrayal, tragedy and of course cruelty aplenty in these pages. Striding this stage of epic stories about Troy is Odysseus, wise, honest and clever; he was of course the originator of the wooden horse, a fine piece of writing that blends dreams and facts. Yet there are other mortal men who were looked upon as almost gods – Achilles, Ajax and Hector. Their names – and others, such as Cassandra, Penelope, Electra, Orestes and Thetis – echo down the ages. Clarke has managed to bring them alive again for a new readership who might balk at the apparent dry classics.  
 
The sequel, Return from Troy (2006), is about Odysseus.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Writing - The Prague Papers - Foreword

Prague - Wikipedia commons

THE PRAGUE PAPERS

 
(Tana Standish, psychic spy, in Czechoslovakia – 1975)
The first in a series

 
Nik Morton

 
To be published by Crooked Cat – currently in the publisher’s edit phase,
so it will be subject to change

  

FOREWORD: Manuscript


 

Portsmouth, Hampshire, UK


The agent who called himself Mr. Swann entered the Queen’s Hotel bar at 2PM, just as he had promised. In my business, I’d met a few spies and all of them were nondescript. After all, to be a good agent, you need to blend in, be unmemorable. Swann just didn’t fit that category, so I wondered if I was wasting my time on this mysterious appointment.

            He was tall, dark and sanguine. In his early fifties, maybe a little older. His black hair sported a white streak on the left; a livid jagged thin scar continued from there at the hairline all the way down that side of his face to his chin. The bottle-green worsted suit was bespoke, the shoes patent leather. He wore gloves and carried a large brown leather briefcase. Removing a dark gray trilby, he nodded at me. Spots of summer rain had peppered dark blobs on his shoulders and hat.

As I stood to greet him, he gestured for me to remain seated and strode over. He limped ever so slightly, as if one leg was shorter than the other; I’m only a reporter, not a detective, and I certainly wasn’t going to measure his inside leg.

            He’d implied he was still in the field but I was beginning to suspect that he’d been put out to grass. A bit harsh, I thought. Because of his physical appearance maybe nowadays he was a desk man at ‘Legoland’, the agents’ popular name for the headquarters building at Vauxhall Cross on the Thames.

Let’s be honest, he wasn’t going to melt into any background. Besides, these days he was the wrong ethnic type for infiltration. The Twin Towers atrocity changed several priorities and a few careers come to that. Why do we in the media insist on the shorthand ‘9/11’? Sounds more like a deodorant brand to me. What’s wrong with giving that terrible act of violence against the victims of over thirty different nations its proper name? Anyway, the world was not the same since then and now the clandestine services were mainly gunning for fanatical terrorists, not greedy traitors or misguided ideologists, though those sort probably still existed in the woodwork, waiting their chance to emerge.

            Sitting opposite me, Swann smiled as the middle-aged blonde barmaid placed a whisky and dry ginger in front of him. Clearly, he was known in this place. Not promising, I thought, though obviously being prominent could also imply that you couldn’t possibly be a spy because spies are shadow creatures. Double blind, or whatever they call it.

Maybe that’s how the character James Bond got away with it for so many years, traipsing round the world using his own name more than the odd pseudonym. Now Quiller, he was much more realistic. Never did get to know his real name. And of course Quiller’s author, Adam Hall, was a cover-name for the late lamented Elleston Trevor. Still, those spies were fiction; Mr Swann was fact and studying me.

            Swann’s eyes were a cold blue; one of them, I suddenly realised, was glass. You’d have to be quick to detect the movement but, in an instant, his single orb seemed to scan the entire room and its occupants. As it happened, I’d chosen a booth where we couldn’t be overheard.

Despite the very visible scar, it was obvious that he had undergone some plastic surgery: the aging skin round eyes and cheek contrasted starkly with the pristine sheen of his square jaw.

            He lifted the briefcase onto his lap and clicked open the metal clasp. He fished out a bundle of paper. ‘Perhaps this manuscript would prove of interest, Mr. Morton?’

            I liked the man at once. No skirting around the reason for our meeting, no small talk about the lousy British weather. Straight to the point.

            He handed over about a ream of Courier font typewritten paper, secured by a thick elastic band. The corners were turned and the sheets had lost their whiteness. A bit like me, I suppose. It also reminded me of my rejected manuscripts – except there were no coffee-mug stains.

            ‘Have you heard of the Dobranice Incident?’

            ‘No,’ I said.

            ‘It was a while ago, I must admit.’ He’d never make a politician, I thought; they never admitted anything.

            ‘So when was this incident?’

            ‘1975.’

            ‘Good God, the Dark Ages!’ If my shaky memory was to be believed, I was an idealistic nineteen-year-old, reporting the Melody Maker pop-scene at the time. I shook my head. ‘I wasn’t into world events then.’ I’m fifty-eight now and world-weary. Early retirement would be nice, but it wasn’t going to happen since the politicians had wrecked my personal pension. At least I genuinely liked writing – and getting paid for it. Though, on reflection, no matter how much I wrote, it didn’t get any easier.

            ‘The incident was trivialised,’ Swann said. ‘Made barely page three in the broadsheets at the time. A postscript, really.’

            ‘And this postscript – these papers concern that ‘incident’?’

            ‘Dobranice. Yes.’ He handed over a single sheet, a typed list.

            I glanced at it. Some place-names I recognized as trouble spots from recent history, others I hadn’t heard of and the rest might well be places from a Pirates and Travellers game:

Dobranice

Tehran

Kabul

Caldera

Izmir

Hong Kong

Elba

Naples

Peking

Bulawayo

Mogadishu

Cairo.

       ‘When you said agent, you didn’t mean travel agent, by any chance?’ I asked.

His mouth made a grimace but his good eye shone, betraying amusement. ‘Keith warned me about your – for want of a better description – sense of humour. No, that’s a list of places – where certain assignments were carried out.’

‘So this manuscript is about Dobranice, the top of the list?’

‘Yes. Top place on the list. Top story.’ He grinned lopsidedly. ‘Top secret.’

I took a good gulp of my cool San Miguel, just to remind me of sunnier climes. This hotel was one of the few places to stock imported Spanish beer. Most of the stuff was bottled in Britain and didn’t taste the same. I glanced at a window. Needless to say, it was raining again. A sultry summer, so the weathermen promised. Weathermen and politicians – don’t believe a word they say.

I nodded at the bundle of typescript, itching to get my hands on it, but I held back. ‘Why give this to me?’

            ‘Times have changed.’ He sipped his whisky. ‘The Old Order has gone now. Even if the thirty-year-rule allows them to release anything about the incident, I doubt if you’d ever see the full story.’

            ‘Well, thirty years have gone, haven’t they? I don’t recall anything being released about this Dobranice place, though.’

            ‘And I doubt if you will, ever. Anyway, whether it’s Prague, Dobranice or other assignments in Iran, Afghanistan, Argentina… Not everything is covered by the thirty year rule; some take longer to be released. The point is that they’re all about Tana. And we feel her story should be told now.’ The look in his eye seemed wistful, as if there was a history between him and this Tana person.

            ‘Tana?’

            ‘Tana Standish.’ He nodded at the pile of paper. ‘Read the manuscript – she’s in there.’ He looked sad, almost bereaved, the way he spoke about the mysterious Tana.

            Blood throbbed in my temple. Every instinct I’d developed in the news-hunting game told me this might be worth a look. ‘You said "we". Who wrote this?’

            ‘Me. And a few others. Keith and Mike. Others. A group effort. Let’s just say that we downed a few drinks and got together a number of times after the Berlin Wall came crumbling down. I know, that’s a long time ago as well.’ His mouth curved. ‘Anyway, it made a pleasant change from dry assignment reports.’

            ‘But –?’ I offered. There always has to be a but.

            He smiled again, thinly. ‘Well, it might be best to rewrite it as fiction, Mr. Morton. Just to avoid the stupidity of another Spycatcher circus.’

            ‘Or Stella Rimington’s Open Secret?’

            ‘Not so open, was it? In fact, not much action in her prose, I’m afraid. Now, Dobranice – it has more than enough action.’ His features turned rueful. ‘More than enough.’

            ‘Anyway,’ I said, ‘those books were about the Security Service, MI5. This isn’t, is it?’

            ‘Indeed, you’re quite right. It’s a rather secret part of the Firm, actually.’

            ‘I’m not going to put any agents at risk by writing about this, am I?’

            ‘No, these adventures won’t figure in the revelations of Wikileaks, Assange or Snowden.”

            ‘I’m pleased to hear it.’

            ‘It might have fresh relevance, now that Mr Putin is keen to start a fresh Cold War.’

            ‘True. What do you want in return?’

            He studied the remains of his drink and because I wasn’t psychic I couldn’t fathom what he was thinking, but it was more than his words: ‘Just the story. The story is the thing.’

            Another question had been nagging throughout our clandestine meeting. ‘Why bring this to me? As much as I try spreading the word on Twitter and Facebook, I’m not exactly well-known, you know.’

            ‘Jack Higgins turned us down.’

            I glared and he grinned. ‘Just joking,’ he said. ‘You’ve been around the block, if you like, you’ve lived through these times, even if you didn’t know what was going on in secret circles. Not many do, if we’re honest. We’ve still got one of the most secret societies on earth, right here in good old Britain. Whatever happened to ‘Great’?’

            ‘Sold for a peerage, perhaps?’

            He shook his head and smiled. ‘I don’t do politics. Not a good idea in our profession. But as I was saying, actually, Keith liked your articles for the Portsmouth and District Post.’

            I didn’t for a minute believe a word of it. And yet... I fingered the manuscript in anticipation. It seemed too good to be true. I was being handed all this secret stuff on a plate.

‘All right, then,’ I said, ‘I’ll give it a go.’

‘Just do her justice,’ he said.

* * * *

Later, how I wished I’d met Tana Standish. People like me – and those accursed politicians – sit cozily at home with our petty complaints while men and women like her fight the good fight against evil. The Cold War may have gone away for a while, but we still need people like Tana Standish, Alan Swann and Keith Tyson. And they get no thanks. Mainly, their stories go unheard and unread. At the most, their achievements probably get a footnote in a newspaper.

            After several months shut away from the world of today I have finished this book, which I have called The Prague Papers – the first chronicle of Tana Standish’s missions which presages several calamitous adventures with significant revelations from recent history. It is dedicated to all the secret agents who fight behind the scenes and behind the news.
 
***
 
Note: This is just a teaser. All of the Tana Standish books begin in a similar manner, with the secret documents being handed over... The novel is in the third person, however.
 

 

Writing - Shadows over Lornwater - 05 (end)

SHADOWS OVER LORNWATER
 
Morton Faulkner
 
concluding episode of the prequel to the fantasy quest Wings of the Overlord.
 
IV
Theirs is a world where meaning has no sense,
Where evil is black and good is not grey but white,
Where darkness succumbs to implacable cleansing light,
Somewhere concealed, clouded in mystery and rue.
 
Here be spirits lost and full of offence,
A place of unknowing where imagery is all,
And the intangible takes form, where trust takes a fall,
Obscured, treacherous places, hidden from direct view.
- A Life of Their Own, from The Collected Works of Nasalmn Feider (1216-1257)
***
Second Sabinma of Juvous
The streets leaned in on them, corners lit by torch flames. With Berstarm and Trellen flanking him, Ulran was on his way to see Fet-usa Fin, a trader in weapons and poisons. It was highly likely that the female assassin Aba-pet Fara acquired the tools of her trade there.
            Out of the shadows leaped four men, all armed with swords and knives.
            Berstram was taken unawares and fell with a fatal sword cut cleaving his chest.
            Trellen dispatched his friend’s attacker immediately, and then was hard-pressed by another swordsman.
            Two men closed on Ulran. One of them laughed. “Hey, Hun, he doesn’t carry a weapon!”
            Hun replied, “Easy meat, Phal!”
            Ulran crouched, waiting, hands extended, the edges like knives.
            Hun swung his sword and gaped. Ulran had somersaulted out of the way, spun on the ground and used his rigid legs to topple Hun. As Hun dropped his knife in shock, Ulran regained his feet, ducked the swooping sword blade of Phal.
            Ulran jumped on top of the disoriented Hun, gaining purchase on the man’s chest and dived at Phal. The move was totally unexpected. Phal stared and stumbled backwards, his weapons discarded, clanging on stone flags.  The hilt of Hun’s knife protruded from Phal’s chest. As Phal’s back crashed to earth, Ulran jumped clear and pivoted, ready for another attack.
            It was all over, though. A death-cut having sliced his belly open, Trellen sat beside his fallen comrade and squinted up at Ulran. “I despatched the other two, innman.”
            Ulran knelt and gently rested a hand on Trellen’s shoulder. “You fought well.”
            “But none live to tell you who bought them?”
            Ulran shrugged. “It cannot be helped. Their attack was too sudden and vicious, without quarter. It was fight or die…” He let that thought linger, uncomfortably, as Trellen knew full well he was breathing his last. “I’m sorry, Trellen.” He made the sign of the Overlord and an instant later closed the man’s staring eyes.
            “I see I arrived too late,” Welde Dep said, turning a corner. “Six assassins who won’t be collecting their fee, eh?”
            Ulran cast a glance at the corpses. “Four assassins, Watchman. And two staunch men who worked and died for me.”eHe
Second Dekin of Juvous
Early in the morning, Den-orl Pin, the officer in charge of the royal stables, the man who organised the royal race meetings, was found dead by the stable lads.
            By the time that Welde Dep arrived on the scene, whispers were filling the streets of the cities. Ulran joined him and observed, “Den-orl Pin was an inveterate gambler.”
            “Really?” Dep nodded. “That might explain his death, I suppose.” He gestured at the corpse.
            Den-orl Pin had choked on a mouth filled with coin of the realm. And his left eye and right ear were placed in his hands. ‘S2’ had been burned into his forehead.
            “It’s our assassin all right,” Dep said, bagging the eye and ear. “Yet nobody saw anything, not so much as a glimmer of light.” The royal stables were shadowy places at night. The king refused to pay for torches. His argument was plain: “Nobody needs to go anywhere near my horses at night. Anyone caught doing so must be on nefarious business!”
            “Den-orl Pin was killed in this empty stall,” Ulran said. “None of the horses were harmed? None are missing?”
            “No. The purpose was to kill him, that’s all.”
            “Another connection to the king.”
            “Do you think the killer is telling us something?”
            Ulran nodded. “Be careful if you work for King Saurosen IV.”

  
V
Phantoms are real in these places, in dim recesses.
Apparitions appear and vanish as the moon waxes and wanes.
Comely colours are dappled, blemished by their stains.
They darken faces in metaphor, and their feelings in grue.
 
Wherever you go, they will be there, ubiquitous, voracious,
Screened from the seemingly real world by false logic
And reason and excuses so untrue that it is tragic.
Pretending they are harmless, one day you will surely rue.
 
It is of shadows that we speak, intangible and caliginous.
Yet do not be fooled by children’s silly rigmarole,
For indeed shadows are evil and eat your soul.
Impalpable they be, but heed them, before they kill you.
- A Life of Their Own, from The Collected Works of Nasalmn Feider (1216-1257)
***
King Saurosen IV stormed into the treasurer’s room. Three walls comprised ceiling to floor shelves, all crammed with scrolls of parchment. The wizened grey-haired treasurer sat bent over a desk, scribbling numbers on a sheet of columns.
            “Treasurer,” Saurosen snapped, “I have received cloaked demands from Lord Tanellor, Duke of Oxor. He requires funds for the mines.”
            Hesitantly, the treasurer stood. “Cloaked, sire?”
            “Only a fool would openly demand anything of a king, fool!”
            “Sorry, sire. Of course. Forgive my stupidity. What is the Duke’s reason for asking?”
            “He believes the mines are at risk. Require new supports, or something…”
            “Are they faulty, sire?”
            “I don’t know or care! I turned him away, and I told him to make sure his miners don’t slacken! Oh, sit down before you fall over!”
            Obediently, the treasurer sat and hastily scrawled some figures on his parchment sheet, then glanced up. “But, sire, if there should be an accident, the revenue from the lost output would also be forfeit. As it is, there is no money in the coffers. Yet, a mining accident would not be good. Not good at all…”
            “Yes, I can see that now.” Saurosen sucked air through his teeth. “So, you’re saying I should finance Tanellor’s mine maintenance?”
            “It would be prudent, sire. As for funds, you could perhaps try your financier friend; he has agreed loans in the past. You can repay him at the next tax round, anyway…”
            “Yes, Cor-aba Grie is usually most accommodating. Though he seems forever greedy for more land…”
            “Greedy, yes. Aren’t all of his kind like that? Personally, sire, I abhor financial people, but they seem an evil we cannot do without.”
 
Dep and his men questioned the staff at the royal stables. Ulran told Dep that he was going to visit the financier, Cor-aba Grie. “He supplies Saurosen with funds and in return is given more land and power. I know that Den-orl Pin gambled too much and owed Cor-aba Grie money. Maybe that’s a connection.”
            “That’s a good thought. I’ll join you.” Dep turned to Banstrike, told him, “I’m going to the Doltra Complex. If you find anything of value, send Cursh to me.”
            “Right, Chief.”
Cor-aba Grie studied his separate towers of coins on the desk; the metal glinted in the light of a guttering torch. It tallied. He hated it when his accounting and the money didn’t add up. The king had already promised an entire street for his next loan, ostensibly to cover the maintenance of the Oxor mines. He smiled at the prospect of all those rent payments and then wondered how much would be siphoned off for the king’s own ends. No matter. Wealth and power accrued for me, regardless. He ran a hand over his white gold-braided burnoose made from the finest cotton of Lellul. This attire hid his abnormally large size, he had to admit. Not that he had many callers. 
            The torch flickered but he had no need to replace it, since his counting was complete. He got up and put a fresh one in the sconce, then shook his head, annoyed with himself. The cost of shagunblend had continued to increase, yet he had failed to invest in their manufacture.
            Out of the corner of his eye he glimpsed his shadow. Odd. It was moving, but it couldn’t be caused by the flames from the torch as he hadn’t lit the new one. Rather, it seemed to slip out of sight, behind furniture. Very odd behaviour for a shadow. Fanciful. I need a drink, he thought, when abruptly he felt something tug at his left foot and ankle. He glanced down, expecting to see a neighbour’s cat – the damnable creature was constantly fouling his balcony.
            His heart missed a beat. His foot was black, so dark he couldn’t discern the pale leather sandal. It was a blurry shape. He sensed a vague tingling in his calf, then his knee, and then his thigh. Now the same troubling sensation was starting in his other leg. By the gods, what was happening?
            He stood up, and found he couldn’t control his legs. He stumbled back against the desk, his hip jarring, and the piles of coins toppled, spewing onto the tiled floor.
            He lifted the hem of his burnoose and he gasped in dismay. Already, his legs up to his groin were blurred, black – like a shadow. Involuntarily, he dropped the material and gritted his teeth as the oppressive sensation moved up his body, beneath his clothing, constricting his vast belly, clamping onto his chest. Was he having a seizure, a heart-attack, was this a hallucination before death?
            His eyes started. Some kind of dark latticework emerged from the hem of his clothing, from his sleeves, out of his chest opening, and engulfed him. He tried to move, to grip the desk for purchase, but whatever steps he took were ungainly, rigid, and terribly painful. He didn’t seem to be in control of his body!
            Gradually, he found that without his own volition, he was moving around the desk, towards the open doors that led onto the balcony.
 
Together, Ulran and Dep left the royal stables and made their way through the throng of people to the Doltra Complex. The financier owned a luxurious apartment near the top of a tall building. The stairs numbered in the hundreds. But Ulran knew it wouldn’t bother the financier, who hardly ever left the building; he could afford others to do his bidding. Access using ropes and pulleys would be preferable, he thought, perhaps based on the same principle used at the Ren-kan crossing of the Manderranmeron Fault.
            Ulran was in the peak of fitness, however, and ascended quickly, soon leaving Dep behind. “Go on, don’t mind me! I’ll catch up, probably tomorrow!”
            Even so, Ulran arrived at the financier’s floor a little breathless. He stopped, suddenly cautious. The door was open, ajar. Not good.
            Voices, far inside.
            He slid in and crossed the lounge floor that was carpeted with a variety of Lellul rugs. The voices came from the balcony, outside the smaltglass window.
            Soundlessly, he approached.
            He eased the curtain aside.
            There was only a single figure, standing on the parapet of the balcony wall. He’d seen Cor-aba Grie before, on those rare occasions when they attended rare royal functions. This was definitely him – but more gross. Some kind of dark lattice-work encased him, like an exo-skeleton. Cor-aba’s arms jerked spasmodically, as if he were fighting himself. His voice emerged as a strangulated croak: “No, you cannot force me. I have free will!”
            Then, alarmingly, Cor-aba’s mouth twisted and a different voice emerged, deeper, sinister: “I take your essence and become whole! Your death serves me – and my mistress!”
            Shadow flickered over Cor-aba’s entire body, as if sentient.
            Night, the shadow of light… He’d heard that before.  Night shadow consumed him. Was this the melog that Dep spoke about? He glanced behind, into the lounge, and saw unlit shagunblend torches in their sconces. He rushed inside, fished out his flint from his belt pouch and hastily lit the torch. Light dispels shadow.
            As the torch burst into bright effulgent flame, Dep staggered in the doorway. “Made it…” His eyes widened. “What?” Then he noticed Cor-aba struggling with the shadow entity that imprisoned his own body. “By the gods!”
            “Is that the melog?” Ulran demanded.
            “I – I don’t know – I think so…”
            “This torch light should banish it!” Ulran took a pace forward.
            “No, wait! Stop!” Dep fidgeted with the evidence pouches on his belt.
            “Throw the torch down here!” He pointed to the floor.
            “You’re sure?”
            “If you scare off the melog, it will be free to kill again – and we don’t know who else. Maybe even the king!”
            Ulran nodded and threw the torch onto a fawn and red furry rug.
            “Get ready to catch hold of Cor-aba!” Dep instructed.
            Moving towards the balcony, Ulran noticed that Cor-aba was unsteady, about to overbalance on the parapet. Abruptly, the financier raised a foot to step forward into space and tottered on one leg.
            Ulran glanced over his shoulder. Dep had thrown the evidence pouches into the flames.
            Cor-aba let out an eldritch yell.
            Ulran lunged forward, grabbed the financier’s calf; it was cold, like stone. The shout transformed, became high-pitched, female perhaps. The latticework of dark shadow shimmered all around Cor-aba. Ulran held on tight, leaning over the balcony wall.
            Suspended upside down, Cor-aba stared up with a single eye, since his other had been plucked out. ‘S3’ had been burned into his forehead. He was screaming in pain, while the black entity danced up and down his body; it seemed baulked by the presence of Ulran, couldn’t move up past him.
            Finally, the dark shadow imploded and the financier split into several pieces and Ulran was left holding a single leg.
            Scanning the building, Ulran was sure that no vestige of the shadow assassin had survived.
           
“Ulran, sudden death seems to haunt you wherever you go,” Welde Dep said, stepping onto the balcony.
            “Yes, like a shadow.”
            “Thank the gods the melog was somehow attached to those extracted body parts…”
            “The torch might have been enough, but we’ll never know.”
            “And,” Dep added, “I suppose we’ll never know who was behind the shadow assassin?”
            “There are a few witches in Lornwater. And in every city beyond. It could have been any one of them… Who knows where their allegiances really lie?”
            “I don’t know how I’m going to write up this report.”
            Ulran clapped Dep on the shoulder. “Blame Cor-aba, the financier, for the deaths, perhaps?”
            “Do you think this is the end of it, then?”
            “I don’t know. It depends on how easily a melog can be created. I would like to believe it is not so simple a task, even for a powerful witch.”
            “Well, I think that Saurosen’s position has been seriously weakened. Those assassinated men were his backers.”
            “Then the king better tread with care.”
            Dep nodded. “My chief will inform him that the immediate threat is over.”
            “And the cancelled carnival?”
            Dep ran a hand over his face. “I suspect the king will not revoke the edict. He’ll feel threatened now that a number of his influential friends are no longer around…”
            “The populace won’t take kindly to his edict, you know.”
            “I know that, Ulran. We have to police thirty-three sectors of the Three Cities with too few watchmen as it is. We don’t need this.”
 
On his return to the inn, Ulran was met by Ranell and they embraced briefly. “News travels fast, Begetter. Whispers have already spread that the purse offered for your assassination has been withdrawn.”
            “That’s good news. Until the next time, I suppose.”
            “Do you think Badol paid them to assassinate you, Begetter?”
            “Probably, but there’s no proof. I mentioned it to Watchman Welde and he says he’ll keep an eye on Badol Melomar for a few moons, just in case.”
            “So, the deaths of those four assassins are the end of it?”
            “For now. We can hope that the witch responsible will slip up in the future. We must see to the family of our two fallen men - Berstarm and Trellen.”
            “Yes, Begetter, of course.”
            “And then arrange for a recruitment drive – we need two good men to replace them.”
 
 
THE END
 
To be continued in WINGS OF THE OVERLORD
Please purchase from Amazon here
Knox Robinson publisher's site is here
 
Glossary - sample for this story
 
AC - Arisan Calendar. Recorded history began 0001AC. Originated and introduced during the fifth year of King Zal-aba Men’s reign. The Calendar was backdated to his first year on the throne. See below.
Bridansor – great-lord of Dark.
 
Brilansor – high-lord of Light.
 
Doltra Complex – Prestige building in Lornwater’s Second City, named after its architect.
Floreskand – Land contained between the manderon range of Tanalume Mountains, the Varteron Edge, the dunsaron range of Sonalume Mountains and the ranmeron Shomshurakand Barrier.
Gild – The vast majority of common people belong to some kind of gild, be it religious, merchant, or craft. Merchant gilds regulate trade monopoly. Gildsmen also take up vendettas on behalf of members’ families. The most infamous quasi-legal gild is the assassin’s gild.
Lamsor – black lesslord of winds.
 
Lornwater – also called the Three Cities, comprising The Old City, The Second City and The New City. Founded in 959AC.
 
Madurava – Compass. Florskandian compasses are enormous; there are no portable ones; they are kept in Madurava Houses, usually one per city. See diagram below.
Manderranmeron Fault – Geological fault running the length of Floreskand and containing the four fault volcanoes: Danumne, Astle, Altohey and Olarian.
Mussor – black lesslord of water.
 
Names – Surname is said first, then the chosen or personal name; thus Canishmel Bis refers to Bis (chosen) Canishmel (surname).
 
Orm – time measurement – 20 orms per day.
Paper – see reedpaper.
 
Parchment – common alternative to reedpaper.
Reedpaper – expensive paper, used exclusively by the affluent.
Shagunblend – combustible tar-like substance, a method of illumination.
Smalt – glass derived from the treatment of cobalt ore.
Storytellers – gild of tale tellers, graded in excellence by the pastel colours of their cloaks.
Tarakanda – the Ranmeron Empire.
 
Underpeople – people who are never seen or heard; feared, perhaps mythical, inhabitants of the waterlogged disused mines of Lornwater
 
Watchmen – city wall or palace wall sentries, wearing distinctive plaid cloaks; policemen.
 
 
The Arisan Calendar
 
There are 13 moons of 28-day periods in a year. Each moon is named after a constellation:
         1         Sekous                        2          Viratous
         3         Danduous                   4          Ramous
         5         Centirous                    6          Juvous
         7         Fornious                     8          Darous
         9         Lamous                       10        Sortious
        11        Anticous                      12        Petulous
        13        Airmous
Each moon is divided into quarters. There are 7 days and 7 nights in each quarter.
Days:                                       Nights:
Sabin                                       Sabinma
Dekin                                      Dekinma
Sidin                                        Sidinma
Dloin                                       Dloinma
Sufin                                       Sufinma
Durin                                       Durinma
Sapin                                       Sapinma
These days are numbered One to Four, depending on which Quarter they are in; thus the 16th day of the 4th month in 1470 would be written thus: Third Dekin of Ramous, 1470AC.