Are women hardwired to love thrillers?

A report in the Telegraph newspaper last week,written by thriller author Rebecca Whitney,highlights how it is women who predominantly read this genre of crime novels.

whitneysmall

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/womens-life/11440540/Thrillers-and-crime-novels-Are-women-hardwired-to-love-them.html

As Mark Twain observed – ‘There are three kinds of lies : lies,damned lies and statistics’ Some of the research findings quoted in this report,such as 68% of readers of thrillers are women,need to be taken with a pinch of salt. Any survey is dependent for its accuracy on many different factors. What’s produced from a poll taken at a conference of fans of crime fiction would produce different results to a street survey of passing shoppers.

This newspaper report makes a number of sweeping generalisations about how the sexes are hardwired differently,that had they been aimed at proving differences between the races,would have caused outrage. Nevertheless,the writer’s thoughts on how women relate to working out how to resolve an unhappy situation to restore order,is a precise way of summing up what happens in the story arc of a thriller.

Crime stories are one of the best selling genres of fiction,with the figure of 25% commonly bandied about for online sales. This partly influenced me,when I was thinking what to write about for my first novel as 2014 began. I’d already written fourteen short stories and novellas,as well as several hundred poems in the previous eighteen months. These tackled love and romance,science-fiction,the paranormal,self-identity and thrillers with a twist to them.

I had a number of concerns that I wanted to address about the state of modern society. These included CCTV,the dehumanising effects of video-gaming,exposure to violent images and how demobbed soldiers remain traumatised by what they’ve seen and done in combat zones. Such themes suggested a psychological thriller to me,and as part of the overall atmosphere of paranoia that I intended to create,I would emphasize how the system,the establishment,protects itself with cover-ups when it makes mistakes.

I worked long and hard on ‘The Perfect Murderer’,which took some 4,000 hours to produce. I was pleased with the result,while being unsure if it worked as a story that would grab a reader. Fortunately,a good and trusted friend volunteered to be my first reader. She has a fine mind and keen eyes,so is good at pointing out semantic mistakes and dodgy grammar. I was interested to know what she would make of the plot,as she doesn’t normally read thrillers.

The Perfect Murderer - a novel about a serial killer who makes no mistakes.

The Perfect Murderer – a novel about a serial killer who makes no mistakes.

I was pleased at recent feedback that I got from her,as she said something about smiling at the thought processes of a psychopathic murderer. This man is completely repellent in the way that he considers people,and in what he’s done by murdering a victim a year for forty years,but he’s superficially charming – to get what he wants from people,as psychopaths do. He also has his own physical frailties and eccentric preoccupations,so I tried to make him human through these – wrong-footing the reader,who suddenly realises that they’re feeling sympathy for a serial killer ! It looks like I pulled that trick off,from my friend’s reaction.
Writing is a bit like being a magician,in that you know how the trick is done,but you’re not sure if your sleight of hand and misdirection has worked on the audience.
Whether ‘The Perfect Murderer’ will sell is another matter. Its success may be assisted by my bumbling attempts at self-promotion through the social media,and also by my free book giveaway on Smashwords.
I hope that what Rebecca Whitney says about women being the main readers of thrillers is true,if the downloads of my erotic verse collection is any indicator of my potential reading public. 500 have taken ‘What Do You Like ?’,and I suspect that they are mainly female. I pray that they also like psychological thrillers,and that they remember my name when I publish the novel.
As a marketing strategy,giving away sexually suggestive poetry as a way of selling a novel featuring two sociopathic killers,sounds unlikely to me. But then who knows ? As the old saying goes – ‘You have to go fishing where the fish are’,which is what I’m trying to do.
I wonder if my bait will work.
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Different versions of your book – racy and literary.

After contemplating becoming a transvestite in another posting today ‘Self-Publishing And The Sexes’,I’m also pondering the advice given by Fay Weldon.

Fay Weldon

http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/news/fay-weldon-interview-abandon-your-dignity-and-write-a-racy-pageturner-10086140.html

She reckons that we should write two different versions of our book – one for traditional publishing,which is literary in tone,and another dumbed-down racy version for readers who use Kindles and other e-reading devices. This means ” abandoning one’s dignity.”

After eighteen months of trying to sell my books,I’m not sure that I’ve got any dignity left – and if I have,it’s probably slipped down the back of the sofa and is beyond retrieval. Fay Weldon has a history of making tongue-in-cheek provocative statements,but I think that she may have a point.

I’ve mentioned in other blog postings that I’ve been giving my ebooks on Smashwords away for free. I started this three months ago,as a promotional tactic to help launch my novel. It’s also a basic form of market research,to see what draws readers. I’ve tried changing tags and book covers,to see if this increased the downloads of a title that was being ignored.

The only conclusions that I’ve made,is that people like sad titles,rather than happy ( who’d have guessed that ? ),as well as titles with a name in or that’s in the form of a question. Unsurprisingly,any mention of sex or erotica helps to shift copies – so bear that in mind when choosing your descriptive tags and book title.

This is proved by the success of my first volume of erotic verse,which is called ‘What Do You Like ?’,with the subtitle ‘9 Erotic Poems’. This has been downloaded 500 times,as of today,which makes it the most popular of my forty-four free titles.

Fay Weldon’s advice may impel me towards a career writing torrid romances featuring villainous lovers with smouldering eyes,heroines with heaving bosoms + of course,the obligatory randy vampire and horny werewolf !

Self-Publishing And The Sexes

A report in today’s Guardian newspaper makes some interesting claims about self-published books.

In particular,I was struck by the figure that 67% of books on the top ebook publishing platforms are written by women. This percentage comes from an organisation that’s new to me,called Ficshelf.

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/mar/06/self-publishing-lets-women-break-book-industrys-glass-ceiling-survey-finds

They claim that 61 of the top 100 traditionally published books on Amazon are written by men. This is seen as further proof that men rule the long-established world of book publishing. Male writers dominate in lists compiled by newspapers for best novels.

Somehow,none of this surprises me,for I’ve always believed that more women regularly read books than men,and there’s a tiresome old boy network among book firms. It’s unusual to find a literary agency or publisher that has a woman as CEO.

It’s food for thought. Perhaps I should become Pauline Whybrow to publish my ebooks that have a romantic and spiritual theme,to encourage more female readers …

It might confuse the taxman,which would help.

My Book Covers

Due-Date

I’m a lover of the short story form,which is harder to pull off successfully than is generally acknowledged. So many writers of short-stories,and that includes acclaimed novelists,simply leave things up in the air at the end. It’s as if by saying nothing they think they’ve got away without having to conclude their characters’ story,letting the reader fill-in the gaps. That’s lazy – you don’t want to over-describe the action,but nor should you leave the reader thinking “what the hell was that all about – what was the point ? “ And worse,”why did I read that ?”

The inspiration for ‘DueDate‘ was the notion that what would you do if you knew the exact date you were going to die ? It would make a major difference to how we lived. It could be as much of a reassurance as it would be terrifying. And that would be for those personally affected,so I began to wonder how knowing people’s dates of death would affect an observer,when they had no clue at all. That would be really unsettling.

Some of the incidents in ‘Due-Date’ come from personal experience. Samuel’s near death experience was mine,at the age of eleven when I bled-out in hospital following botched dental surgery. The figure of the great-grandfather is based on my own. I worked as a librarian for about six years,stamping the due-date on many a date label back in those pre-computer days of the early seventies.

due-datesubtitle

 

Due-Date

Dedicated to those who really decide our fate.

“The great Western Disease lies in the phrase ‘ I will be happy when’…”

Marshall Goldsmith

Due-Date

Chapter 1 : Dates

Samuel watched the electric train glide smoothly to a halt,the doors hissing open,allowing frowning commuters to leave and more to join the carriage. It was a pleasant day,the platform bright with low Spring sunshine. Red tulips swayed in the breeze. A few dusty pigeons pecked listlessly at the fine silty grit under a bench. Should he join the train ? It descended underground after a few more stations. It looked quite safe,though Samuel wasn’t so hot at predicting the due-dates of large vehicles.

He hadn’t noticed any imminent departures among the passengers waiting for the train to arrive,but he’d been trying to concentrate on other things. Reducing the amount of information that was projected onto his conscious was becoming a skill he’d never imagined he would have to acquire. Most people wrestled with trying to recall things,and were poor at remembering what they’d just seen,even though if asked they would have claimed that they were blessed with good memories and keen observation skills. Samuel could just cope if he tuned the non-stop feed of due-dates into background static,so he could observe one optimistic sight at a time.

Traversing his eyes to detect pleasing objects,and focussing on one specific portion of civilisation needed intense concentration,though he’d learned how to cloak this. When he first returned and realised his new power,it was all that he could do not to stare at beautiful things without pause,which made him look insane,like he was about to attack whatever had captured his attention. Bystanders gave him lots of space,and officials felt compelled to interrogate him,seeing him as a potential vandal.

Being awake was marginally easier than watching the doom-filled cinema-show which illuminated his sleep. It was much trickier to project attractive and amusing images onto his mind’s eye when there was a ceaseless film of the famous,the celebrated and simply ordinary citizens all with their due-dates as sub-titles passing frame-by-frame. Samuel tried sensory distractions,such as music played through head-phones and strongly-scented joss-sticks,but the awful nocturnal transmission was too mesmerising to ignore. He woke feeling more exhausted than when he’d gone inside his eyelids. Who were all of these night-wraiths ? Some were recognisable,well-known historical faces,and even a few people Samuel met in his own life,but he suspected that many of them were beaming in from a future he wasn’t looking forward to.

It was gruelling enough to know the exact due-dates and closing thoughts of those who’d died years ago,and a constant torture to know the fates of his contemporaries,but to be further wracked by predictive seeing would be intolerable. There was no way of turning it all off though – he’d tried,with frustrating and inexplicable consequences. Meditation cleared his viewer for thicker droves of visions to fly in formation. Sedatives or alcohol muddled what he was seeing as he slept,but reduced the limited amount of control he used to switch channels. Did he have a due-date any more? There was no way of knowing what his current status was. He had a damned good idea what his final thought would be though : -“ At last ! “

He might as well jump into the carriage. The station-master was edging closer,given him suspicious glares. Samuel tried not to look too closely at the corpulent,florid-faced railway manager,but a side-glance at knee-level showed a faint silver due-date that was twenty years hence,which rather surprised him as the man looked unhealthy enough to drop dead soon.

Samuel wasn’t that keen on being confined in rattling trains. There was little that was edifying to concentrate on,though the advertising posters could be colourful. Passengers carried accoutrements – messenger-bags,handbags,electrical devices that were interesting,though he’d found that it was unwise to linger too long on any one thing as it made people nervous,thinking that he was about to mug them.

One of the biggest problems created by his withdrawn demeanour,by the faint ambience that he radiated,was that it attracted rather than repelled strangers. They weren’t that keen on him if his bright eyes burnt too tightly on something that they were holding,but as soon as he averted his gaze he could feel their eyes examining him. Often they moved closer to him,like tourists daring themselves to approach a dangerous beast they’d encountered.

They never got too near,and once when he was trapped by a surge of passengers into a lift he’d been amused to see that there was an empty arc of space around his position in the corner,a force-field two feet wide that none could cross. If he’d been of a more sensitive disposition he might have thought that he was emitting a repellent body odour,but he knew that other more ethereal factors were at play.

He found the whole thing funny which made him chuckle furtively,causing his fellow passengers to back further away crowding closely together in the opposite corner of the elevator-car. He understood their nervousness – who would want to stand near a weird man staring intently at the floor and laughing ? This made him snort loudly at the craziness of his life : all of the passengers got off at the next floor.

Samuel was torn between avoiding close contact and yearning for the touch of another human-being. Even sharing a glance told him more than he wanted to know about a person,so hugging someone to him while studiously looking away didn’t seem possible somehow – most would be offended,fond gazes being essential ice-breakers.

He pondered on the feasibility of approaching a blind woman,but doubted that he could stand the intimacy of the face searches they made. He’d watched blind lovers in the park running their fingers over facial contours to understand the appearance of their partner. Would such scrutiny,where they were ‘seeing’ him mean that he’d become aware of their due-date,even if he wasn’t looking directly at them ?

He knew that he could physically feel others fairly well,though there was a dullness to his touch,as if he were wearing boxing-gloves. As for others touching him,he felt like a block of hard rubber not human density at all. Several times people clumsily trod on his toes or jostled against him,and neither party had been aware of the exchange for a few seconds. He felt like part of the scenery to them,and his awareness was so muffled that he was practically petrified. He was there,but not there.

His extra sense of being able to predict when someone was going to die and what they would be thinking as they did,appeared to have stunted his awareness of how he was feeling in the here and now.

Samuel wasn’t a religious or superstitious man,and he’d never given much credence to scary stories about ghosts,vampires,werewolves and aliens. He knew that he wasn’t dead,but he didn’t feel undead either. He still sensed mental anguish and emotional turmoil,even if his skin was as sensitive as wood. Perhaps he was in a state of limbo,though what was supposed to happen next he couldn’t work out. But then who could ? Life was a mystery to most,it seemed. Purposeless and with no clear destination in mind. Nothing much had changed.

Chapter 2 : How To Die

He could remember little of his previous existence,and guessed that he was about 50 years old. He’d been like this for two months and wasn’t ageing,so far as he could see – but could you see any alterations when you reached a certain state of decrepitude ? Two months was a drop in the ocean when you were 50. Strangely though,his stubble didn’t grow and nor did his nails.

He experienced vague flashbacks to what must have been his job as a librarian,classifying and shelving books,and stamping return dates on date-labels. Was that why was now lumbered with the power of being able to see when folk were going to be checking out ? And what about their last words,few of which were meaningful,let alone likely to become quotable. If you were well-known it was expected that you’d say something profound with your last breath,even amusing would do,but many people uttered such daft things that it was as if they didn’t comprehend they were dying.  

Some asked for a cup of tea,while others optimistically announced they were feeling better,even as the life-force was leaving them. Those who died in an act-of-passion,rather than flat on their death-bed could also be delusional. Many people claimed that they’d be happy to die making-love,but the indignity of an orgasmic groan or worse,ecstatic oath,was not something to be remembered for – or to have carved on a grave-stone.

Young men often died soon after boasting “ look at this ! “,as they sped their car into a corner and straight into a tree. Declarations of love were frequently the last proclamation that people made,even if the loved one was absent.

Samuel wasn’t sure what he’d say,or what he said,though he hadn’t really died. He could recall a circle of medical faces looking down at him,doctors and nurses all with concerned expressions as they pounded on his chest. There was a coppery smell and taste,which must be that of blood. There were clear plastic-bags of plasma and blood hanging from a chrome stand next to his bed,from which snaked feed-pipes to needles in his arm.

Seconds later,his being,essence,spirit,whatever it was had risen above the hospital bed into the roof-space beneath the eaves. There was no golden tunnel of light,though he was emitting a shimmering glow which offered some illumination but no warmth. He was floating in the centre of what looked like a dandelion-clock,all spiky shards of light-filaments with him gazing through the glare.

He could navigate around the dark air beneath the roof-planks,which was quite fun,though he brought his aery transport to a halt when he saw two figures watching him from the gloom. They weren’t radiating any light or much energy either,and looked sad and tired though they cast patient expressions at him as they beckoned. One,he realised was his great-grandfather,a man he’d only met a few times as a little boy. He was a family-legend as he’d lived a devil-may-care life,travelling the seven-seas,marrying often,producing many children,fighting in wars and generally over-indulging in vices that were meant to be harmful – he lived until he was 104 ! Standing next to him,was the little girl who’d died in the bed next to his a couple of nights before. She’d been operated on,but unsuccessfully,and Samuel could see a fearsome wound across her throat. Her tiny hand was protectively hidden in the huge scarred fist of his notorious ancestor.

Go back,Samuel. It’s not your time yet. You’ve things to do.”,his great-grandfather boomed.

Yes,please go back. It’s so cold and lonely here. Go back to your nice warm bed and body “,

the girl cried,shooing Samuel away.

He looked below at himself. A nurse brought a crash-cart over to his bed,and a doctor was applying electric paddles to his chest. He gave a convulsive jerk as current was zapped into him. Peering back at his great grandfather and the girl he saw that they were fading away. He felt his buoyancy sucked into a vortex coring his torso.

Chapter 3 : On The Way Out

So,he lived. Sort-of. But he left the hospital to a solitary existence, He didn’t have any family,none he could remember at least. His footsteps took him to a perfectly acceptable home,which he couldn’t recall buying,though he knew the layout of the rooms and there was plenty of food in the cupboards and refrigerator. He’d briefly worried about employment,as he was unaware of having any qualifications with which to earn a living. Checking his bank account showed that he was well-off,so he decided to simply get on with whatever fate not dying had given him. His needs were few. He owned a good wardrobe of clothing,but wore the same drab and forgettable garments all of the time. He felt little appetite,but made a habit of eating regularly. He couldn’t taste much,but his digestion and excretion systems functioned.

He’d first become aware of his new ability while watching television one evening. He kept the set on largely for company,and usually with the volume muted,just sitting in the flickering light from the screen and trying to remember anything before the accident. Whatever the accident had been. A veteran film-star who Samuel admired,was being interviewed,and he became puzzled by the numbers that floated over the actor and interviewer.

They could be dates,but why have them as captions ? He turned the sound up,to hear the actor laugh “ It’s been a wonderful life,but I wish I’d slept with a few more of my co-stars “,which brought a roar of laughter from the audience and a chuckle from the interviewer.

The star was renowned as a seducer of women,so his disingenuous regret was amusing. The date that hovered mysteriously over his body was two days away – perhaps his new film was out then ? The interviewer’s numbers were for twenty years time,so maybe they meant nothing. It could simply be some glitch on the broadcast,running times,film-speed or something. They’d subtitled the actor’s funny regret though,and the words ‘natural causes’ were written underneath,for some inexplicable reason.

Samuel became virtually catatonic by day,sitting slumped on the sofa recovering from restless nights in which his dreams were causing him insomnia for the first time ever. The inhabitants of these nightmares also appeared with numbers or dates ghosting over them,and the odd remark or saying scrolled across the screen of his mind. Perhaps he was hallucinating all of the time. Should he go to the doctors for medication to control these visions ? He’d sound like he was going bonkers if he tried to explain what he was seeing. What made them commit you in this day and age ?

A news-flash caught Samuel’s attention.. His favourite actor’s face was on the TV screen with the year he was born and died as a caption. The dates were definitely there this time. Samuel realised that today was the date that he’d seen as a faint image two days before. Raising the volume,he watched an extract of the final interview with the old cove,and his chagrin about not being even more promiscuous were given as his final words. His body was found by his cleaner that morning. He’d died in the early hours,in bed and of natural causes.

Samuel was flabbergasted. Perhaps he’d got second-sight,could predict things – he should have a go at doing the lottery !

He found that if he concentrated on objects,the television,the kettle and cars parked in the street he could sometimes discern dates in the corner of them. It only worked if he unfocused his vision and thought about how they functioned. They had to move in a mechanical or electrical way,not just sit there doing nothing,like the sofa and table. He couldn’t see much point to this ability. It was a bit like a sell-by or use-by date,the sort that were printed on food packaging. Most things these days came with built-in obsolescence,so one expected them to give up their ghost sooner-or-later.

It could be useful were he to buy a used car,he supposed,but he wasn’t intending to do that. Just walking the pavement required concentration not to see things. He’d be in a collision straight away should he take to the wheel.

Chapter 4 : Confirmation

It felt a ghoulish thing to do,but he felt compelled to check that his vision of dates and last words really was some prescience he couldn’t understand. He made his way to the nearest hospital accident and emergency ward to be closer to people who were likely to be at death’s door. On his walk there  Samuel paused at a cemetery to watch a funeral. Nothing could be gleaned from looking at the coffin as it passed into the earth,so it looked like his ability only worked on the living.

Gazing at the elderly  mourners he noted that many of them would soon be joining the recently deceased,two of them the very next day. They must be a married couple,for her last words to him were: “ Look out for that bus ! “ And the cause of their removal from life was ‘blunt-force trauma’.

At the hospital he spoke to the receptionist,saying he was there to collect someone to drive them home. He didn’t want to arouse suspicion,for he wasn’t obviously injured. Many of the patients who sat around him were plainly in great pain and the air reeked of bodily fluids and fear. Broken bones and bloody bandages identified the wounds that some had sustained. None of these victims were in immediate danger of dying,at least if the dates that Samuel could see on their chests were reliable. It felt like a grotesque search but he scanned the ashen faces for anybody with a date closer to the here-and-now.

He was shocked when he found a middle-aged woman with today’s date floating over her jumper. She looked like she was nursing a broken arm and her face was bruised,a black-eye developing. A man Samuel guessed was her husband sat next to her,offering little comfort and looking annoyed to have to be there. They were ignoring one another,so Samuel had a good idea how the injuries were caused.

As he watched her,partly shielded by a newspaper he’d retrieved from a chair,she began to rub the upper part of her broken arm,which seemed like a strange thing to do. Her mouth sagged open as she slumped in the seat. The receptionist noticed her plight before her husband did,and immediately called for a gurney. Samuel knew that it was too late. She must have suffered a stroke,brought on by the stress and the head injury.

Her final words,revealed as a shadowy epitaph on the sheet draped over her body were : “ I did it falling down the stairs.”

Surprisingly,the husband looked distressed,though Samuel didn’t know if it was from his wife’s unexpected demise or fear of being identified as the cause of her passing. His own death was five years away,of cirrhosis of the liver,with his parting words being : “ Nurse,could you turn the pain-medication up ? “ Perhaps there was a God after all.

Samuel didn’t know whether to feel pleased or not at this apparent confirmation of his ability. It was a horrible thing to be able to foretell. Why couldn’t he have gained powers of divination about more pleasant things ? Such as how many children someone would have,or who they would marry ?

Still,he had almost died himself,so it almost made sense. But why could he do this ? What was the point – should he be writing these observations down somewhere,but for whom and why ? It all indicated that there was some divine power,which he really didn’t want to think about. It would mean that he was one of ‘the chosen’,in some way – wouldn’t it ? Did that mean that the little dead girl and his great grandfather were chosen too ? Were they angels ? They hadn’t looked angelic,just exhausted,worn-out and not alive. No wings or halos,just shabby clothes.

The woman’s death brought a pall of doom over the injured in A&E,as they were reminded of how mortal they were and what a lucky escape they’d just experienced. A few called out for attention enquiring how much longer they’d have to wait to be treated,so Samuel made his escape.

Chapter 5 : No Fear

Walking home,he found it best not to look at other pedestrians if he could help it,and screwing his eyes up and blurring his vision gave the effect of making dates and words fuzzy too,which helped. He found it particularly upsetting to notice imminent due-dates on children. He knew that there was nothing he could do about such observations. If he approached a mother to say that her toddler was going  to choke on a plastic soldier,she’d call for a policeman and have him arrested as a pervert.

He didn’t know that even should his warning be heeded if it could affect their destiny. Was he meant to warn people – surely not ? There were far too many due-dates to process as it was,and sorting through which ones were coming up would be impossible. And,anyway,if something was writ didn’t that make it inviolable ? We were all going to die. That was the only certainty of life.

He needed to think things through,so ducked into a quiet leafy park and sat down on an empty bench. He wasn’t used to having this much responsibility. So far as he could recall,his previous life had been as free of obligations as he could make it. He couldn’t find any evidence of family members,and his computer showed that he wasn’t dating and didn’t seem to have any close friends.

The only contacts in his online address book were for dealers in books and stamps. He liked order,that was evident,as the book-shelves at home were as neatly arranged as those at a library. His stamp-albums were models of precision,though Samuel couldn’t think why he’d ever wanted to make such a large collection. Perhaps that was how he’d accrued so much money in his bank accounts – perhaps he’d sold some valuable stamps at auction ?

He’d visited several of the nearest library branches to see if any staff recognised him,but he’d been as ignored as the tramps snoozing in the newspaper section. Still,he did have memories of stamping return dates on library book labels,so he must have worked somewhere.

Excuse me,mate. Have you got a light ? “ Looking up,he saw a couple of teenagers standing nearby. Just beyond them was a third lad,also wearing a jacket with the hood up and smoking a roll-up cigarette. He was looking around furtively for anyone approaching and was standing between Samuel and the park-gate. Returning his attention to the pair next to him, Samuel tried not to look at the numbers and words over their chests but to concentrate on their eyes.

I’m sorry,I don’t smoke,so don’t carry matches or a lighter. But your friend there is smoking – why don’t you ask him ? You are together,aren’t you ? “ The taller of the boys frowned,glaring over his shoulder at his friend smoking.“ Yeah well,it don’t matter. Can you give us a Pound for a cup of tea ? “

Again,you’re out of luck,I’m afraid. I came out without any money on me. I’ve just been to the hospital. “

What’s the matter with you ? You don’t look ill. You don’t have anything infectious,do you ?” The boy moved back a step when he said this,nudging his mate.“

No,but I have been feeling a little strange recently,so thought I’d go and check things out “ Samuel smiled as pleasantly as he could at the two,but they weren’t in a friendly mood and glared intensely back at him.

Christ,are you thick or something ? Just give us your wallet and watch. And your phone too. Come on,empty your pocket, granddad ! “ Samuel wasn’t surprised by this – it was obvious that the teenagers were muggers as soon as he saw them. But it was hard to be frightened of people who were going to be dead soon. And he didn’t think that they could hurt him,not really. And if they did,it might make these tiresome visions disappear.

Look,I know you don’t believe me,but I really don’t have any of the things you want. Something weird happened to me recently and I don’t care about or need any of that stuff. Look ….”

With that,he took his jacket off with a theatrical flourish,turning the pocket linings inside-out to demonstrate their emptiness. He did the same with his trouser pockets,and rolled his shirt-sleeves up to prove he wasn’t wearing a watch. He wasn’t even carrying a house-key,as he hadn’t locked the door.

You’re kidding,no one walks the streets with nothing on them.” The shorter of the pair sounded cheated in some way. “ Even the homeless have got belongings.” The boys looked at each other in confusion,trying to decide what to do. “ We’ll beat you up,if you don’t give us something.” The taller lad was waggling a fist.“ I don’t think that you can,but feel free to go ahead. “ Samuel leant forward,offering his arm and shoulder to them.

You fucking twat” the lanky mugger swore,and hit Samuel as hard as he could on the bicep. His mate was soon grinning as the blow made the would-be thief swear even more as he shook his damaged hand.” Bastard’s made of rock – look at him. Didn’t feel a thing,did he ? Just standing there still. I think I’ve broken some knuckles. “

The hospital is just down the road.” Samuel offered.“ You could have a cast put on. Though there’s not a lot of point. It won’t be long now. “ He’d notice the shorter mugger taking a knife out of his pocket,and the look-out was shuffling closer anticipating an attack he didn’t want to miss.“ What do you mean it won’t be long ? Won’t be long before what ?“

Before your deaths,of course. You both die tomorrow,and your friend standing there the day after that. You steal a car and get chased by the police. Your mate here tries to beat a train across a level-crossing,but you don’t make it. You’re all horribly crushed. Your mate lingers for twenty-four hours,but he wouldn’t want to live,not like that,with all of his lower extremities gone. You two have to be cut out of the mangled wreckage in bits. “ Samuel tried a comforting smile at the three muggers,who turned grey with repulsion and disbelief. At least the knife was being slid back into its pocket.

Is there anything else you’d like to know ? Your last words,for instance ? Not nice,by the way – swearing. Not the sort of thing you’d want your mums to hear. “ “ You’re a fucking mad bastard ! That’s what you are. What are yer ? Escaped from the nut-house,did’ja? That’s why you don’t have nothing. Come on lads,lets get out of here. “ Shrugging their shoulders in a show of bravado,the muggers adjusted their hoods and swaggered out of the park. One of them gesticulated at Samuel as he passed through the gate.

Well,that was a lot easier than he’d thought it would be. Not that he’d needed to lose his temper. Just talking calmly about exactly when someone was going to die terrified them,it appeared. Samuel chucked dryly,as he put his jacket back on. He hadn’t laughed for ages. Perhaps he should stay in the park and scare a few more criminals. He probably shouldn’t have told them their due-dates,but he was getting exasperated with their unreasoning persistence and nastiness. He didn’t think for one moment that he’d scared them into going straight. They’d write him off as a madman and ignore  his predictions. They’d see a car with the ignition key left in it,and off they’d go – then off they’d go ! 

Samuel wasn’t sure that he liked being right. At least not this right, He hadn’t made them die,had he ? Was he living life backwards ? Could that be possible ? It would make as much sense as anything else that was happening to him recently. He could write a note to himself to find the next day,or the previous day,if this theory was correct.

Was anybody watching what he did – was there some cosmic monitor of his actions ? There was no one else in the small park,and looking through the railings Samuel couldn’t see anybody observing him from the street. He was turning paranoid,but as the expression went ‘ that didn’t mean that they weren’t out to get you’. Feeling foolish,he gazed skyward. Nothing but dirty clouds and a few ragged crows passing overhead. What had he expected ? A giant eye in the sky ?

Chapter 6 : A Job For Eternity

Best get back home. He should eat something he supposed – his scheduled meal-time was coming up. He never felt hungry,didn’t relish what he ate and felt the same after he’d eaten as he had before. But he felt like it was his duty to stick to a regime. He hadn’t divined his purpose,but he believed in maintenance and keeping order,and anyway he needed some structure to hang the remnants of his life on.

Pushing the front door of his house open,Samuel noticed that the daily post had been delivered,and it was stacked neatly on the hall table – he didn’t remember doing that before he’d gone out – were there visitors waiting for him ? A burglar wouldn’t have been that tidy and courteous,surely ? Perhaps there were friends or relatives he couldn’t remember. Easing the door to the sitting-room open,Samuel squinted through the gap between the edge of the door and the door-post. Sitting on the sofa was his great-grandfather.

He appeared to be dozing,with his chin resting on his barrel chest. Samuel examined his ancestor carefully. He could hardly remember him from childhood – just a gruff voice and a huge scarred fist which he used to shake hands with Samuel testing the strength of his grip in a jokey way. Samuel was fascinated by the blue tattooed swallows on the old man’s hands,which he could make fly by flexing his thumb. The scars came from countless fights,and his nose was as bent and furrowed as a piece of old rope.

Samuel was impressed and scared of his great grandfather in equal measure. An ancient man who outlived his own son,Samuel’s father,and who still possessed a commanding  presence. Samuel wasn’t able to make out much of the old man’s appearance in the dark of the hospital roof,but he now saw that the shabbiness he’d been aware of then was real. It looked like his great-grandfather had been wearing the same old suit for twenty years – it was grubby with dirt and stains,shiny with wear,stitching loose on the seams and buttons were missing or dangling loose. His black leather shoes were scuffed so badly that there was only a little of the black still showing and the soles were peeling at the welt..The blue swallows were faded dark blurs.

Quietly entering the room,Samuel was surprised when his great-grandfather immediately opened his eyes,watching him as he sat down in a chair.

Sorry,I didn’t mean to wake you. “

That’s all right,boy,I wasn’t asleep. Oh,I see you’re grinning,thinking that’s what silly old people say even when they’re dead. No,I was just watching the due-dates inside my head. Looking for anybody interesting coming along.”

What are you doing here ? I didn’t expect to ever see you again,but then I hadn’t been planning on meeting you in the eaves of the hospital ward either. Tell me,am I dead,half-dead or what ? I keep seeing all of these dates and words on people. I’m fairly sure what they mean,but you said something about due-dates – is that really the day that people die ?

His great-grandfather chuckled,and pulled himself forward on the sofa,so that he was looking more directly at Samuel. He spread his huge hands,filth-encrusted palms upwards and wheezed :

Let me explain a few things. “

Suddenly nervous,Samuel shrank back in his chair. Did he really want to know what this grimy spectre was going to tell him ? He may be flesh-and-blood,but his seeming humour barely concealed an icy seriousness. He probably wasn’t that much flesh and blood any more either.

I’m dead. Fully dead,that is – and in need of a bloody good rest. I’ve been the Death Accessions Official for twenty-odd years. You’re on your way to being dead,but it’s going to take a while,I reckon – usually does. Have you lost feeling when you touch things and are you increasingly immune to pain ? That’s one of the first things that happens,along with generalised apathy about how you look,poor grooming and a disinterest in food. I expect that most of your memory’s shot too. You don’t need anything but the basic skills to do this job,and you don’t want thoughts of happier more interesting times intruding and making you feel even more wretched than you already do. You are unhappy,aren’t you ?

God,yes. I wish I was dead. How long does it take ? Why did you stop me dying – I was on my way out,wasn’t I ? “

His great-grandfather grimaced : “ Yes,that was down to me. I saw you shuffling off your mortal coil,as they say,and thought he’ll do – keep it in the family,as it were. You see you’ve got an aptitude for the job,having been a librarian for so long. You’re used to handling dates,keeping systems neat and their final words could be amusing to a literary man like yourself. I got the post of accessions official because I was good with numbers,sorting out the ship’s stores for long voyages and commanding men in tight situations. Admittedly you’re quietly-spoken,but that can work too.”

Yes,but what am I supposed to do ?”

Why,ease the dead souls into their new state,store ’em away,saving the best bits for recycling. It’s mainly the essence of what made a person who they were,their character I’m talking about. We try to keep good honest souls going,let the nasty ones go to waste but there’s always a few make it back into the system – can’t be helped,they’ve got more determination than a lot of the nice ‘uns. Persistent little bleeders…“

What system,what are you talking about – do you mean Heaven and Hell,or Eternity,the Great Hereafter – what ? ! “ Robert was becoming irate and was leaning forward so that he was face-to-face with the old man.

Well,there’s no angels or demons,no God or Satan,not as I’ve seen anyway. Could do with some hell-fire really,as it’s all a bit cold and damp – gets into my bones,it does. It’s more of a big warehouse – you know,a storage depot where material for new souls is kept. It’s your job to keep your eyes out for likely donors – you’ll see when they’re going to die,so find out what you can about them,and if they seem decent hang about when they pass and escort their souls to the warehouse. You’ll soon get the hang of it,and sorting them out for storage is a breeze. “

But there’s millions of people die,thousands every day – how can one man do all that ?”

You won’t be rushed off your feet. Not everybody gets through,of course – that would be impossible. It’s down to you to choose who to accept – souls who might come back in some form or other. And you’ve only got to take care of this neck of the woods – there must be other officials who handle elsewhere. I don’t know about that. It’s not that bad really. You can pace yourself – have busy days and easy days. Have fun with it – I have. “ His great-grandfather gave a mirthless fixed smile,exposing a few teeth as brown as weathered gravestones.

Are you telling me that I get to pick who’s reincarnated ? What happens to all of the others ? Do they just disappear ? Turn into ashes,worm-food,piles of bones ? What ?”

That’s about it. The Circle of Life,I think they call it,though a lot of folk would say it was just a Dead End ! Hah-hah,made meself laugh…..You shouldn’t look so serious,Samuel. It’s not like you’re being made into a god. You’re just a glorified clerk,who gets to sort out the usable spirits for safe-keeping. It’s not even up to you when they’re used again – they just sort of disappear,drift off,then reappear in someone else. Reincarnation I think is the proper name for it.”

But I still don’t get why they chose me to do this.”

There’s no they. I haven’t seen any other officials at all. Or higher-beings wafting about in cloaks,with beards and halos,or with horns and scaly tails,come to that. It’s just been me,and it’s blooming lonely,I can tell you. Not so much night-watchman as soul-watchman,that sums it up No,it was me and just me who chose you. I knew you’d be good at it. If you think about it Samuel,it isn’t royalty,politicians and the wealthy who run the world – it’s paper-shufflers,those who sort out the official records,who make people’s lives simply mundane but tolerable or wholly miserable and wretched. And why should things change when we die ?”

What’s going to happen to you now ? Seeing as how I’m going to be doing your job,do I get a say in what happens to you ? And what happened to that little girl ? She looked scared.”

His great-grandfather smiled sweetly. “ Yes,poor little mite,she was afraid. But then she went to sleep on the operating-table and woke up with some old wreck of a sea-dog holding her hand. I made sure her soul was safely stowed away in one of the more comfortable storage-bins. The world needs all of the innocent souls it can get. As for me,you don’t decide what happens. My soul is as dried-up as my body. I’ve turned to a block of India-rubber – feel that. “ He grabbed Samuel’s hand and tapped it on his leg,which was indeed the consistency of a volley-ball.

I am going to lie down somewhere,once I’ve settled you into the work involved. It might take a while for my body to break-down and disappear,but I reckon whatever’s left of my soul will blow away on the first breeze. You’ll do the job until you feel yourself getting worn-out,then it’ll be up to you to find a replacement. Have we got any descendants I’ve forgotten about,who might do – I haven’t kept up.”

I can’t remember myself any more,but I don’t think it’s very likely.“ “ Well,keep your eyes open in about twenty years for a well-organised office-type who’s one-foot-in-the-grave but doesn’t know it. You’ll know what’s needed by then,so I’m sure you’ll make a good choice”

Faced with something that he could never do anything to change,Samuel sighed and looked around the sitting-room. There was nothing he was going to miss about this house,but it sounded more comfortable than where he was going – which was where,exactly ?

I’ll show you.”His great-grandfather twinkled his eyes.

Yes,I can read minds a bit too – comes with practice,watching people live and die. All part of predicting what people will think. We’re all pretty much the same – the same hopes and fears,and we die in similar ways too. We’re born alone and we die alone. Are you happy with what you’ve got on,because you’re going to be wearing it for a long time.” I was at a friend’s funeral when I snuffed it,if you can believe that  – scared half the mourners to death too ! Anyway,that’s why I’m rigged-up like a showroom dummy. Wish I’d had my captain’s uniform or even my sou’wester on,rather than this get-up – I look like a country estate agent or auctioneer. Still,that’s safe and boring – you don’t want to be alarming souls that are looking for a new home.”

Will I do,then ?”,Samuel looked down at his fawn corduroy suit and desert-boots.“ Yes,you’ll do,lad. You look just like a librarian -and who would be scared of that ? You might want to slip that raincoat on that I saw hanging-up in the hall. It can get a bit nippy where you’re going.”

With that,the two family members left the house. Samuel pulled the door to,slamming it shut. Who knew how long it would be before anyone checked why he wasn’t coming and going any more. He hadn’t spoken to any of his neighbours in the last two months,and couldn’t remember them anyway.

What did it matter ? It was over for him. He’d always liked helping people,as long as it was in a defined way,for a short period of time. And what could be more limited and controllable than interactions that involved observing people at a distance,appraising their qualities,processing them as they entered his collection,then storing them safely away ?

It was much like being a librarian or stamp-collector, Reinvigorated by this realisation, Samuel looked around to see if there were any pedestrians nearby that he could give the once-over. He suddenly realised that he hadn’t brought anything to read with him. He’d have to guard against choosing people who had interesting final words on them.

Seeing that his great-grandfather was walking away,Samuel hurried to catch up with him. He was going to enjoy his new job.

The End

Soul-Swapping

‘Soul-Swapping’ is the shortest short-story I’ve written. It was inspired by my being perplexed by how some fortunes fade while others rise in the entertainment industry. It’s as if some game-player is controlling their fate. I was particularly thinking of the thoroughly irritating Russell Brand in creating my obnoxious film-star celebrity,though there are so many manufactured ‘stars’ around these days that he could be virtually anybody.

Brand is such a talentless non-entity that his success bewilders me – he’s as funny as a wart,can’t act and every one of his films has flopped at the box office ( but made him millions ),he’s lacking in education and jumps onto band waggons representing good causes,such as addiction and homelessness.

It’s good that people in such deprived circumstances have a motormouth to represent them,but it looks like a career move for him to me,so that he’s taken seriously. The celebrity in ‘Soul-Swapping’ is written with him in mind.

It’s a quick read,which will only take a few minutes. I bet that it makes you smile several times.

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Soul-Swapping

“Fame is a bright flower,but weeds abound mostly about it.”

Edward Counsel,Maxims.

Soul-Swapping

Everything has a weight that I can’t know about until I hold it,and that includes souls,“thought Matt,as he watched the young man sleep.

Slipping through walls in the Victorian terrace,Matt was on a  search for a redundant soul to exchange for his latest client,a gambling demon named Beulah,who’d made a shady wager with a fellow dark angel. Matt didn’t want to know the ins-and-outs of their shenanigans. Not knowing things kept him less tormented.

Being one of the damned had few perks that Matt could see,so he certainly wasn’t going to add to the perils. Moving closer to the drunkard,Matt noticed that he’d dropped a can of cider into his lap soaking his crotch after he’d passed out in the chair. He was clutching a harmonica in his other hand. Was he even alive ? Matt gazed intently at the man’s chest,detecting no movement,though leaning closer to his fetid mouth a slight rush of fumes wafted forth. A dozen crushed cans littered the floor around the chair,reason enough for the student’s comatose state.

Matt found no food in the kitchen area,just more cheap cider and beer. This fellow looked like he’d given up on his studies,in favour of life as a drunkard – at least until his grant-money ran out. An old guitar lay abandoned in one corner,strings broken. Posters of troubadours peeled from faded wall-paper. His text books and work-file lay dusty and food-stained on a shabby dining-table. A would-be lawyer,Matt saw – did the world really need another one of those ? An incompetent lawyer contributed to Matt’s demise,so curse them all. And many of them went on to become politicians,so double-damn them….

A soul this dull and unused would wreak havoc with the irritating comedy actor that Beulah wanted to put the kibosh on. Matt paid little attention to modern celebrities,preferring to bask in memories of his Victorian contemporaries,but even he’d noticed this plebeian upstart’s extravagantly coiffeured fizzog plastered on numerous bill-boards.

His film career failed to equal the success of his meteoric television incarnation,with a series of flops that made the studios nervous. But rumours were that his latest movie,currently in production,would be his salvation : somehow the actor had wormed his way onto a cast of Hollywood luminaries under an Oscar-winning director,and was rumoured to have toned his know-it-all persona down to actually try some real acting.

Matt pondered on how long this screen heart-throb would stay under from his latest drugs-binge. The fool spent more time in drying-out clinics recently than on film sets,but that didn’t halt his prodigious intake. Sandwiched between two would-be starlets under gold silk sheets at a discreet boutique hotel the coked-out actor should stay quiet for a few more hours. Why were so many people chasing oblivion these days ? They should try being dead and damned for eternity,then they’d appreciate life.

Mr Celebrity wouldn’t miss his shiny soul for a while. It took Matt a few anxious moments to pin the suspiciously bright soul down as it slithered across the slippery sheets. It was almost as if it knew its intended destination,and was seeking a way out. It quieted when popped into a purple velvet pouch,but Matt pulled the drawstring tight,just in case. The soul now lay squirming occasionally,in a pocket of Matt’s cloak.

Sliding the sleeve of his leather shirt back to his elbow,he daggered his fingers and forced his hand smoothly and slowly into the student’s chest. There was no point in disturbing a body about to be robbed of its soul,in Matt’s view,though he’d heard that some demons liked to shock their victims awake,thrilled by their struggling. It took all sorts,but he preferred an easy-does-it style. Rummaging around the chest cavity,Matt sidled his palm diagonally,fingers fluttering gently as he reached behind the heart.

Souls could be elusive,and their size and hiding-place told you a lot about the character of the donor. Clues were given by appearance and occupation. An obese cookery writer’s virtually adipose soul was wedged in folds of lard in his gut,while a chess-master’s microprocessor soul Matt found slotted into the concentration wedges between the prodigy’s eyebrows. Matt picked it out on the end of his blackened talon,gaining entry via a nostril – you needed to improvise in this line of work.

Having been a surgeon’s assistant in his previous life was of some use,though Matt was still occasionally startled by what he encountered on his forays into human anatomy.

All of those different textures,coursing fluids and malevolent growths were awkward to differentiate sometimes. An eye on the end of one of his claws would aid navigation,but that would look a bit weird,and anyway might be painful if he stubbed it ; better to do things by feel.

Gliding smoothly around the wings of the liver,Matt tickled the soul gently towards his talons,pinching it firmly in a pincer grip. There,not so difficult,though the soul when it emerged was as shrivelled and damaged as its refuge felt. The student really was killing himself body and soul.

The actor’s brassy soul glinted dully in Matt’s leathery palm. It looked a lot less frisky removed from the tiresomely optimistic housing of that gobshite and he wondered for a moment if it would thrive in the student’s pickling fluid. Still,his not to reason why – he’d been paid for soul-swapping not preservation work. Matt’s own soul,a shellacked dome of ebony,was stored with millions of others somewhere in catalogue-drawers in an ante-room of Hell.

Had things gone better,back then when he was alive and performing illegal abortions,his soul would be flying around his angelic rib cage like a happy canary. But no. How was he supposed to know that the pregnant patient was the prime-minister’s niece ?

Sighing morosely,Matt flicked the actor’s soul with a black nail,perking it up – bad form transplanting a wilting soul. Better to rehome it away from the rather dubious dankness of the student’s pee-processing plant,but where ? This wretch had been quiet for too long,best give him his voice back – a sense of purpose might follow. Gripping the recumbent sleeper gently by the tip of his nose Matt tilted his head upwards and slid the actor’s soul into the larynx.

Perhaps Beulah was misdirecting Matt by glowering over the actor,and her interest was really in this washed-up law student. It didn’t seem likely,as she could do what she liked without recourse to legalities. Matt wasn’t even going to think about it any more. Beulah was five hundred years more ancient than him,with all of the wickedness that implied. She was also twice his height and weight, and her eyes were glowing coals.

Would the actor’s soul transform this pathetic young man’s life ? Matt knew how hard it had been for him to make his way in London,and only the lucky break of having a tolerance for goriness saw him move from butcher’s delivery boy to his role as surgeon’s assistant. How unbearable would a newly invigorated lawyer with the soul of a shameless egotist be ?

He was thinking way too much – just do,Matt,don’t think about what you’re doing. Time to flit back to the swanky hotel. On the leathery wings that comprised his cloak Matt made the journey in a few flaps and one long glide. Big in Hollywood he might want to be,but the actor’s anorexic body and tiny anteater penis weren’t going to help matters. And,when his new shrunken soul came to join in the act,what would become of the actor’s career ?

Leaning against the foot-board Matt contemplated the supine trio. There were aspects of his baleful existence that hinted at some power in determining donors’ fates,such as where he placed the soul,but most of the time Matt felt like what he really was – just a demonised courier of pirated souls.

Reaching over one of the tarts,Matt briefly considered probing the actor’s nethers – giving him erectile dysfunction as well as a wilted soul would be cruel though….We all need our compensations in life,even if they’re small ones. Matt could place the soul in the actor’s brain,though he wasn’t keen on that procedure,as the skull’s edges felt uncomfortable scraping the side of his talons. Also,the mind was a tricky thing to fathom. A soul placed in one part of the brain could encourage a madman to flourish,while injudicious relocation of a soul once saw Matt produce epilepsy in a trapeze-artist – with disastrous results.

Best stick with more elemental organs in the torso…he could predict with reasonable accuracy what the effect would be.

This damaged soul needed a healthier environment than the proximity of the liver,which the actor treated without respect,sousing it in vintage brandy. Although this irksome celebrity was not noted for his intellect,his big heart was often praised – a few carefully chosen charity fund-raising ventures giving him popularity with the public,as well as raising his profile of course,so maybe sabotaging his good nature would be meddlesome enough.

Moving one of the tart’s arms off the actor’s hairless chest,Matt corkscrewed the student’s soul beneath the gently beating heart,lifting the chambers to drape over the edges. How would his heart cope with so little support from his soul ? Job well done,Matt looked enviously around the luxurious room. It had been an age since he felt warmth and comfort,his quarters being one of the few unimproved warehouses in dockland.

No use feeling sorry for his fate – nobody else did,and he’d brought it on himself.

Under Satan’s eternal curse,his damnation consisted of interfering with the fates of others : it mattered not if they were good or bad people,souls were swapped without thought,it appeared to Matt,though he could detect malice in Beulah’s instructions more readily than he could other demons. Unfurling his wings,Matt took off to find her.

Standing,thigh-high leather boots astride a grate above an underground bakery Beulah looked as unlike Marilyn Monroe as was possible. If anything,she resembled a gigantic transvestite dominatrix,one who was once a wrestler in a previous life,and the few would-be clients brave or desperate enough to approach her were instantly repelled by the stench of sulphur that emanated from her black lips.

BDSM might have become more mainstream,but no one fancied being consumed by a seven foot tall hell-hag. Even the police crossed the road when they saw Beulah,averting their gaze to examine shop-windows while avoiding the hungry stare of her reflection.

The increased popularity of steam-punk fashion meant that Matt’s once unusual garb of cloak,top-hat,spats and cane was now more cause for compliments than ridicule. He still avoided tourists’ cameras whenever possible though,as seeing their anxious reaction when his image failed to appear on their screens was more trouble than the amusement it offered. One group of Japanese holiday-makers had pursued him through Soho,repeatedly snapping away,bemused by his digital disappearance.

Beulah stood tall,erect and defiant of a world she was only visiting. Matt wondered how many of the fumes rising from around her legs came from baking bread and how many rose in brimstone eddies from her mighty thighs. She always seemed to know when he was there,even though her head never moved. As cautiously as he could,without looking creepy,Matt gingerly approached Beulah. Perhaps she had radar,for when he was still several yards from her she hissed

Done it ? “ – her mouth agape,but lips not moving.

Matt was a demon,but Beulah scared the hell out of him. What was with this guttural back-of-the-throat growling ? Was she a ventriloquist ? Which would make him her dummy,a realisation that made him quiver as he contemplated her huge metal-studded leathered fists – some thoughts were better off unthought.

Yeah,all done,just as you instructed. One supercharged law student and one emasculated film star coming up soon. Though what you think will …”

One of Beulah’s red-veined eyes swivelled his way with a glare,so he shut his stupid mouth,as she flipped payment at him in a filthy brown envelope sealed with a red wax seal. Beulah loved the old ways,and who was he to comment ? A very foolish demon,that’s who – but one who’d just earned a few more credits to gain readmission to Hell. This might not sound like a desirable destination,but a quiet corner of Hades with minimal punishment inflicted was vastly preferable to scuttling around cold draughty London like a rat on a mission.

Weeks passed. Matt worked now and again,doing soul-swaps for demons with too many credits on talon to warrant wondering about their motivation. Most of these wastrels were just bored,stuck in their ways of making mischief and dispensing torment to even bother viewing the results of his endeavours. When he wasn’t hunting out suitable souls he lurked around parliament,a relaxing atmosphere to be as all of the politicians’ souls had been sold long ago.

Although Matt was in this world,he was obviously not of it,not since he departed 150 years ago,his neck snapping with a gristly ‘thwack’ as the incompetent hangman jerked on his calves with his weight. This was annoying enough,especially in light of the fact that his trial had been a rush-job,hushed-up too,so as not to cause embarrassment to the government,but the executioner’s tugging bent his neck at an angle when his spine finally broke. Going through a damned eternity with a wry neck hadn’t made his lot any easier,though a stiff collar helped.

Attaching a top-hat to his remaining locks with a hat-pin one morning Matt noticed a tattered newspaper flapping in the gutter – there was a familiar name in the headline,that of the tiresome actor. Matt didn’t really keep up,so the news was several weeks old. All the same,the demon was rather shocked at what had transpired.

Far from being a disaster for the irksome celebrity,the soul-swap he’d made enabled him to turn in an egoless performance in the film that made the critics hail his versatility and generosity. His vastly more experienced cast members were clamouring to work with him again,and he was being nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar. It was seen as a way of increasing any future fees that the actor announced his decision to leave show-business and devote his life to working for medical and peace charities,but Matt felt other suspicions.

Mr Super-Ego may have turned into Mr Ego-free,but his powerful humility was more likely to do great good in the world than his pathetically over-ambitious former self would ever have achieved. This couldn’t be what the boss downstairs was after – he loved disease and war,after all. Could Matt be in trouble – what had Beulah dropped him into ?

How was the hapless law student faring ? Would his booze raddled body have been able to merge with a soul as powerful as a volcano ? He’d been on the point of dropping-out – perhaps the new soul simply put him back on track and he was now steaming happily away towards qualification,followed by prestige in the courts. How to find out though – there was nothing in this old newspaper.

Perhaps Matt could discover something at the library – they had up-to-date newspapers,as well as the journal of The Law Society,and he’d mastered the art of looking over shoulders as people surfed the Internet.

Scurrying along the high street in the direction of the nearest branch library,Matt’s eyes were drawn to flickering images displayed on televisions in an electrical showroom. It couldn’t be ! But it was – the gormless student,bright and scrubbed,seriously stylish haircut bouncing away as he strummed his guitar and puffed at the harmonica which Matt last saw disappearing down the side of the would-be lawyer’s cider-stained jeans.

This loser had dropped out,and entered a TV talent-show,which he’d won easily – he was hailed as the new Dylan,won a lucrative recording deal and his album was racing up the charts.

Surely the student was fated to blow up in some trial,overwhelmed by hubris and wrecking the case against some criminal who Beulah had made an investment in – at least that was as far as Matt allowed himself to go with his theories. Why else would Beulah have placed such an explosive time-bomb in so placid a character ? Not to take over the pop-charts and go onto fame and glory. This soul-swap was working way too weirdly…..

Beulah was in her usual location,her black leather trench-coat sucking up the innocent aroma from cinnamon buns and cottage loaves.

 “ All right,butcher-boy ? “she intoned charmlessly as Matt shuffled as close as he dared.

She looked pleased with life,if a huge rhino-demon was able to show pleasure. Her cracked charcoal lips smirked as she explained how she’d won her wager. Failed law student turned pop superstar was the latest performer of the devil’s music,who would drift from anodyne pop,through protest songs and onto raunchier more corrupting material that would have churches anxious at the influence of Satan on the souls of the young and impressionable.

He’d burn out,turn to drugs and join the infamous 27 Club,alongside past members Brian Jones,Jimi Hendrix,Janis Joplin,Kurt Cobain and Jim Morrison,all dead from infernal excess. His music sales would rocket as a result of his death,further spreading the Devil’s philosophy.

Why do you think I chose that self-absorbed prick’s soul for you to transplant into a dull student ? He could have stayed blotto on booze for years,all of his life in fact,but a few speed-balls will see off anyone. He’ll just stay true to his soul’s former owner’s hedonism. “

OK,OK,I get that bit.” Matt tried not to whine, “ But what about our new white knight,the up-himself actor who’s going to save the world from AIDS,cancer and war ? “

Who do you think owns the pharmaceutical companies that make medicine to control epidemics ?” Beulah sneered. “ Satan might lose some entertainment value from having fewer conflicts to watch,but peace-keeping forces need armaments too,as do the new stable governments,all of which we’ll sell to them. We’ll make ground under the flag of peace,just as we’ve always done. The actor-turned-saint will do us proud – though he’s still a pretentious wanker ! “

Matt hated his job sometimes,and this was one of them. The prospect of returning to Hell one day seemed cheerier than ever. The politics of demons were too much for him to comprehend. He was a simple demon,damned but hard-working and looking for a break.

 He couldn’t be dealing with show-business types at all,wherever their souls once resided. Give Matt really nasty psychos like war-lords,torturers,serial killers,bankers and tax inspectors and he could cope – at least they were consistent – honest in their evil .

He was going for a quiet lie-down.

Beulah had another soul-swap for him to do that night – a poodle-breeder and a chartered accountant – what could possibly go wrong?

The End