Happy New Year, and welcome to my Patreon page!
There'll be public posts like this one from time to time, to give you an idea of what you can expect if you become a Patron.
If you sign up as a Patron, you can expect exclusive bloggage about works in progress, the creative process, writing tips and also some quality short fiction. And if you want to sign up to the Book Club, I'm going to be serialising a novel here.
It's called The Mancunian Candidate, and is a bit unusual for me, in that the emphasis is on comedy - although it has some decidedly dark elements. It's been fun to write, anyway. Below, you can find a free sample, and Book Club Patrons will be able to read the rest in instalments over the upcoming year. I'm quite excited about it: I had a lot of fun with my previous attempt at a serial novel, Black Mountain. There'll be other pieces of free fiction to come as well. I think it's going to be a fun and exciting ride, and I hope you'll want to join me on it.
Here's to a good 2019 for us all, and maybe I'll see you elsewhere on this page!
All the best,
THE MANCUNIAN CANDIDATE
(c) copyright Simon Bestwick 2019
I: The Cormorant Dive
The worst thing about her current position, Imelda McColgan thinks as she becomes aware of her surroundings again, is that she’s upside down.
Blood rushes to her head; feels like it’s being pumped full of air till fit to pop. It can make you black out, too, can’t it? That wouldn’t be good just now. Blood also trickles up into her hair from a small cut on her forehead, but her eyes are back in focus so she can see what’s below her.
Far, far below her.
About thirty-three floors, in fact.
So – to revise her initial assessment – the worst thing about her current position is that she’s hanging upside down five hundred feet above a very hard pavement.
The important thing, she decides, is not to panic.
Cars pass to and fro. She sees people, tiny dots, staring up at her. Things start falling from her trouser pockets. Coins flash in the streetlight and tumble through the dark, quickly followed by a battered brass Zippo lighter, a cheap pay-as-you-go mobile and a key-ring.
There is definitely room for improvement in this situation.
A faint creak, like a sign on a chain. Simultaneously, Imelda realises she’s swinging, gently, to and fro. She tilts her head forward, gazing up towards her feet. Above her is a row of shattered windows. From the one directly above her, a long black cable hangs down. It’s cinched around her left ankle, and is the only thing preventing gravity from claiming her.
Oh… Holy… Jesus... she hears a very tiny, high-pitched voice say, and realises that it’s her.
The cable creaks in the wind.
Then something gives way, and Imelda falls.
At this point she abandons the not-panicking approach, and her scream of HELP is audible from the Prince’s Dock to the Pier Head and startles the shite out of sandpipers and oystercatchers across the estuary on the beach at Seacombe.
How did a nice girl like her end up in a situation like this?
II: The Clockwork Milf
Thursday, 9.00 am.
A mere sixty hours earlier, and we find Imelda McColgan in her office on the top floor of Slade House, glowering at the papers on her desk and the spreadsheet on her laptop.
Slade House is one of the few buildings along Chapel Street that hasn’t been redeveloped or otherwise pimped up – an old-fashioned, unpretentious two-storey office building, which is why Imelda’s been able to afford the rent on a place so close to Manchester’s city centre. At least for now.
Rowdy, multicultural, cosmopolitan Manchester: three hundred miles and twenty years away from Derry, Northern Ireland, but to Imelda, now, it’s home. She loves it, too; but at the moment, it doesn’t seem to be returning her affection. She’s subtracted her business’ outgoings from its income for the seventh time now, and with the same miserable result as each time before.
Her gran always said a cup of tea was good for whatever ailed you. What’s currently ailing Imelda is a cash shortfall ending in five zeroes, but on the off-chance that the caffeine hit might unlock long-repressed memories of a Swiss bank account, she puts the kettle on.
She glumly studies her reflection in the office window. She’s a tiny woman – five feet, two inches tall, with a thin bird-like build. Her narrow, dark-eyed face is a little too sharp and clever for everyday prettiness, or so Steve had used to say. Which Imelda supposes he meant as some sort of compliment, but she really isn’t in any mood to think about Steve just now.
That’s where she is this morning, anyway, waiting for the kettle to boil. But in a minute or two the buzzer on her desk’s about to go, and everything’s going to change.
Imelda leans back in her swivel chair, feet propped up on her desk, mug of tea in her hands. This sort of thing’s among the perks of self-employment, she reckons, so she might as well enjoy it while she can.
It’s not that impressive an office really – the carpet, in its nondescript shade of beige, is threadbare in places; there’s a faint smell of damp; some fairly substantial spiders are staking aggressive territorial claims on the ceiling corners; between the desk and the three filing cabinets Imelda has room for a spare chair, a kettle, a box of tea, a desktop fridge for the milk and pretty much nothing else besides. But it’s been hers for nearly a year. She’d been starting to get attached. And soon it’ll be gone.
She leans back to take a sip of tea and that, of course, is when the buzzer on her desk sounds; Imelda damn near falls off the chair and the tea goes all over the carpet. “Arse,” she says. Perfect start to the day.
The buzzer goes again as she runs back from the bathroom with a fistful of loo roll. “Aye,” she calls, pushing the speaker button, then clears her throat. “Cormorant Investigations.” The name had been Steve’s idea. Typical of him, really – come up with some hare-brained scheme, then leave her holding the baby. Or the Bedlington terrier, as the case might be.
“Imelda?” says a voice. “That you?”
“Aye,” she says again. “Who’s this then?”
“Imelda, it’s me.” When a second or two passes without visible sign of any epiphany on Imelda’s part, the voice adds: “Jane.”
“Jane…?” And then the connection’s made. “Jane Collier?”
“That’s the one.” The voice sounds bright and cheery, but falsely so: Imelda’s not got where she is today (running a failing small business from an office she can’t afford much longer?) without being able to spot a lie. Something’s wrong. Well of course something’s wrong: why else would Jane be knocking on Imelda’s door at nine in the morning? This won’t be a social call.
“Come on up,” says Imelda, and buzzes her in. Then puts the kettle back on, rinses out a spare mug and drops a teabag in it as she hears Jane clomping up the stairs. She tips the rest of the mug she was drinking from when the buzzer went down the sink and starts a new one. Two for one, may as well.
A moment later, in walks Jane. A statuesque blue-eyed blonde, a bit past forty like Imelda herself; unlike Imelda, though, she’s two grown-up kids, though to look you’d never know. Fit and trim and tanned from summer hiking trips; if Imelda didn’t love her, she’d hate her. But she’s wearing dark glasses, and her normal smile looks like something she painted on. “Hey, Stumpy.”
“Fuck off, Mighty Milf.” They hug, as they always do, but there’s something off about it. A tremor in Jane’s arms. “Jesus,” says Imelda. “What’s wrong, darlin’?”
“It shows, then?” The smile’s shaky. And she’s out in trainers, ratty jeans and an old t-shirt. Jane likes to dress well, professionally, and look good. This is her slobbing-round-the-house-of-a-weekend outfit, not her out-in-public-on-a-weekday one.
“In the bastard dark, it shows. Sit down, I’m brewing up.”
They go back, Jane and her; right the way back to Salford University, just up the road from here. Best buddies, and never long out of touch even when they went their separate ways – Jane into local politics, Imelda into financial services. Jane smiles again, a weak twitch of a thing, when Imelda puts the tea down in front of her. “Thanks,” she says again, but makes no move to touch it.
“Right so,” says Imelda, plonking herself down behind her desk. “So what’s the craic? I’m guessing you’re not just here for the pleasure of my company.”
“No.” Again the shaky smile. “Although it is nice to see you. Been way too long.”
Shaky, staccato sentences, not like Jane at all. Normally she’s the big chatterbox. Those big dark glasses. Jane was still single last time Imelda spoke to her, but that was how long ago now? Could’ve been as long as a month – they’ve both been busy – and a lot can happen in that time. What are those glasses hiding? New boyfriend? Girlfriend? Some new relationship, anyway, that’s gone sour?
Come straight out and get on with it. “So,” says Imelda. “Out with it. What’s the problem?”
Jane takes her glasses off. No black eyes, thank Christ – they’re just so bloodshot they’re practically scarlet. “I can trust you, Imelda,” she says. “Can’t I?”
“Well, of course you fucking can.”
“I mean, no matter what? You’d help me, right? No matter how bad?”
“Course I would, you silly cow,” Imelda says before realising she might be promising the kind of help that could get her ten years. “The hell have you done, Jane, killed some poor bastard?”
“No. No. Nothing like that. It’s not something I’ve done, it’s what I am...”
“And what you are’s my friend,” Imelda says. “Now for the love of Christ will you spit it out?”
Jane takes a deep shuddering breath. She’s shaken and freaked out and ascared, but what of? Something that’s happened, aye – but the way she’s looking at Imelda, it’s like she’s scared of her too. Scared of what Imelda’s gonna think or do when she knows what’s going on. It feels like someone’s prodding around inside Imelda’s belly with an icicle of a sudden; what’s going on that Jane’s afraid of her?
Jane clasps her knees. “I don’t know where to start,” she says. “I’m so scared.”
“Jane. Jane, look at me. Okay? This is Imelda. This is Stumpy calling Mighty Milf, okay? This is me. Whatever it is, I can handle it, okay? Whatever it is, I’m gonna help you. But I’ve got to know what it is first of all. Okay? So come on. You don’t know where to start, just a pick a place and dive in, and we’ll go from there. Okay?”
“Okay.” Jane nods. “Okay.”
She takes a few deep breaths, tries to calm herself down. Probably trying to remember her meditation tapes. Imelda’s wound her up something chronic about those in the past, but right now if it helps, fair play to them. At last Jane looks calm. Calmer. “So?” Imelda says.
Another deep breath, and Jane says: “It’s easiest if I show you.” And with that – quick, not missing a beat, so as not to give herself time to think about it – she peels the t-shirt off over her head.
“What?” says Imelda. What’s this, some declaration of lesbionic love? Not what she was expecting. Although there was that one time, back at University –
“Here,” says Jane, pointing at her belly, which is tanned and flat with minimal stretch marks under her plain white bra. “D’you see? Please tell me you do.”
“See what?” Imelda cranes in closer, then gets up and comes round the desk.
“What?” But then she does see it. There’s a sort of cut in the skin of Jane’s stomach, about seven, eight inches long. It isn’t bleeding, scabbed nor scarred: not even swollen round the edges, which is why it’s so hard to see. Just a bloodless slit. And then Imelda sees there’s another one at the bottom of the first, at right angles to it. And another one at the top. And then another, joining the far ends of those together. There’s a square-shaped cut in Jane’s stomach, one that looks more like a slit in rubber than in skin.
“What the hell is it?” Imelda says. “Who –” Who did this to you, she means to ask, but doesn’t finish the sentence because the next thought, unpleasant as it is, is has Jane done this to herself?
Jane just smiles shakily back. “Like I said, I need to show you.” And she digs her fingers into the cut in her belly, worming and squirming them under the edge.
“Holy Jesus,” says Imelda, and tries to grab her wrists. That answers the question, then: Jane’s ill, a psychotic break, she’s done this to herself somehow and the best thing Imelda can do for her friend is stop her making it worse, then call for some help.
“No!” shouts Jane; she shoves herself backwards in her chair – big mistake on Imelda’s part, making the client chair a swivel job too – and jumping to her feet. “I’ve got to show you. I’ve got to show you, Imelda, or you won’t believe me.”
She squinches up her eyes, bites her lip and grunts, and Imelda sees her hand’s gone halfway into the cut. Oh Christ she’s going to kill herself; she’s going to tear her own guts out right here and now in front of Imelda,. And Imelda starts forward, determined to do whatever she’s got to to stop it, but she’s too late as with a final grunt of effort Jane rips her belly open wide.
And there’s not a drop of blood.
The wee incision on her belly – the bloodless, seven-inch square cut – all the skin inside it swings out and away. It’s on hinges, Imelda realises. Mounted on a steel plate, like a hatch.
And inside Jane’s belly – no blood, no guts, no pipes or tubes or organs. Just moving metal parts: cogs and gears and pistons. They turn and rotate, slide backandforth and upanddown but even so there seems hardly anything there, nowhere near enough to make something as complicated as a person move and talk and everything else and nowhere near enough to fill the hollow ceramic space beneath that skin that appears so real to the eye and touch.
Jane stares down at it, as if it’s her first time too. Imelda stares as well, because what else can she do? Her eyes keep telling her brain what they’re seeing, and her brain keeps telling them to stop arsing around, check again and tell it what’s really going on.
“You can see it too, right?” says Jane miserably. “I’m not tripping, am I? ”
“I can see it,” says Imelda.
“Imelda,” says Jane, starting to cry. “I’m a robot.”
The only thing that comes to mind as a response to a claim like that, no matter how self-evidently true, is something Imelda’s granny used to come out with, much to her and her brothers’ amusement. “Away and play with yourself,” she says.
And frankly, so would you.