The Many Unfortunate Returns

So, it’s my birthday tomorrow, and i wanted to post something special. Unfortunately, a week or so ago I was struck down once again with the very worst thing a writer writing three different novels at once with several more on the back burner could possibly be afflicted with.

An idea for another novel.

I’ve now written over six thousand words of this new horror, and have many more at the ready, so I’m going to post the prologue below, subject to further revisions and alterations, along with a drawing I did of the main character, because this is one of the few drawings I’ve done that I actually like. To sum up:

Happy birthday to me,
I’m a hundred and three,
I still go to nursery…
And this version of the song doesn’t work when I use ‘me’!


 Fly's Portrait




Detective Sergeant Victor Phillips had collared far worse in his time than Simon Lux, men more dangerous, more sadistic, and more notorious, but in his opinion there had been few quite so irritating, so for this one a cheerful grin was fixed firmly on his face. His partner Janet, though younger than he was by a good ten years, still had her own fifteen years of worse men than Simon Lux to draw on, and yet she had such a look of worry as they waited outside Lux’s house to arrest him that he was compelled to ask her,

“What is it?” He made sure there was light humour in his voice, probably more for his own sake than for hers. “Surely you’re not bothered by bloody Lux?”

Janet wasn’t looking up the road in the direction Lux was likely to approach from though. She was looking across the street into someone’s front yard. Her eyes were narrowing as though she were in pain.

“There has to be another one somewhere,” she muttered.

Victor wouldn’t have had to be a detective to know his partner wasn’t paying attention to him. All the same, he asked her—

“Another what, Janno?”

And Janet glanced at him, looked back, and then suddenly seemed to realise he was talking to her.


“Another what?”

She blinked. “Oh, uh… magpie.”

Magpie? There was one cocking its head back and forth on the front gate post of the house directly opposite from them. It was the only movement on that side of the street, as far as Victor could tell.

“There has to be another magpie somewhere?” he asked.

The twitch in his partner’s mouth told him she was embarrassed, and when she answered, he could barely hear her. “It’s bad luck to see just one,” she mumbled.

For a moment Victor was silent, not quite believing what he’d just heard. Then he laughed.

“Oh deary dear, Janno,” he said. “Looks like there is just the one. One for sorrow. We are in trouble.”

With a roll of her eyes, Janet swatted at him with the back of her hand. “Yeah, yeah, I know it’s stupid. It still makes me nervous though. I mean, when you think about superstitions like those, they usually mean something. Walking under a ladder is unlucky because someone on the ladder is likely to drop something on you. Opening an umbrella inside is unlucky because you’ll knock shit over. Spilling salt is unlucky because salt was a precious resource back in the day. But the thing with the magpies… that I never got. And that’s why it makes me nervous.”

Victor kept chuckling to himself and watched the magpie across the street flutter onto a dustbin.

“But if we do see another one, it’s lucky, right?” he wracked his brain trying to remember the next lines of the rhyme. “Three for a girl, four for a boy. What does that mean, do you think?”

“I suppose it’s supposed to tell you whether your next child will be a boy or a girl.”

“What if you’re old though, or you’re not married?”

His needling made Janet roll her eyes again; this kind of pedantic pestering was just like him, and they both knew he was only applying it to magpies now to tease her.

“Then it tells you what the next child born into your inner circle will be.”

“What if,” Victor began, then crossed one leg in front of the other to take his weight off it, “what if you are the last human alive after a terrible disaster has wiped out the entire species? And you see three or four magpies at once?”

Janet’s demeanour quickly went from someone being teased to someone weighed down with bad memories.

“Don’t say things like that, Vicky. Not with what’s happening in the Pacific. And in the Philippines.”

Victor sighed. “What is happening in the Philippines?” he asked, and absently, because he didn’t expect an answer. He knew as well as anyone what the news said, and no better than they what was actually taking place.

“Look, guv, here comes trouble.”

Glancing back up the street, Victor locked eyes with Simon Lux. His dark blond hair was slicked back behind thick-framed glasses, and his brown-green eyes widened in fright when he caught sight of the officers. Victor gave him a friendly little wave, watching the wheel behind those eyes turn as Lux decided whether to make a run for it or face the music; in this case the cawing of a magpie on a bin.

As far as Victor was concerned, it was a coin-toss kind of outcome, so he was pleased when Lux began moving towards them again. He was slower than before, warier, his shoulders hunched and his pale white face pointing towards the pavement, but he wasn’t about to run.

“Hello, Mr. Lux!” Victor called to him.

Lux nodded back; a move that could have been mistaken for a nervous twitch. He’d begun chewing his lip, jaw moving from side to side as he glanced up at the officers every second he walked.

“You doing anything tonight, Simon?”

Their collar greeted Janet’s question with the suspicion of someone who knew the day wasn’t going to go in their favour. His eyes narrowed and his nose wrinkled slightly.

“No need for that expression,” Janet said airily. “I wasn’t asking you out. But if you have made plans, I hope you weren’t looking forward to them too badly.”

“Simon Lux,” Victor called through his smile. “You are under arrest for the rape of Abby Hampstead.”

Freezing where he was, Lux twisted his hands in his pockets and looked to his front door. He didn’t say anything.

“Come on, mate.” Victor flicked his handcuffs into his fingers and held them out. “DNA was a match. Time to come quietly.”

“I said it might be a match,” Lux complained. He spoke like a stroppy teenager, despite being six years too old to be called one. He’d spoken the same way as long as Victor had known him. “I said she might have been the girl I slept with.”

“You claimed you hadn’t when we showed you her picture,” Janet pointed out.

Lux clicked his tongue and groaned soundlessly. “I said I didn’t recognise her from the picture.” Victor went to cuff his hands behind his back as he went on. “She was wearing a shit tonne of make-up. And anyway, if it was her, it was consensual.”

“That’s for a court to decide,” Victor told him.

“It’s a waste of time. Don’t these trials cost money that could have gone to starving orphans or whatnot?”

“Third time’s the charm, Sigh.”

Across the street the magpie cawed a bit more and Lux turned around and spoke over it. “Come on, Phillips, you know for a fact I wasn’t responsible for that park thing, and I’m pretty sure it’s more than a coincidence that Abby Hampstead is a flatmate of Charity Manning.”

That pulled Victor abruptly out of the cheerful self-assurance he’d found himself in. He stared into Lux’s eyes hard, his grip on the young man’s arm tightening.

“Charity Manning?”

“Veronica Manning’s sister,” Lux confirmed.

Victor’s grip loosened again, but Janet persisted. “You know this how, Mr. Lux?”

“It’s on her Facebook page?” Lux replied, as though they were idiots—and Victor had to admit, it was stupid of him not to have investigated a possible connection between Hampstead and the first victim. Veronica’s anger over Lux’s ‘not-guilty’ verdict had always bordered on vengeful.

Now he could feel the first tendrils from another drain pulling the case against Simon Lux down to its watery end. One look at his partner told him she felt it too. CPS was going to be pissed.

But it was never over ’til it was over, and Hampstead deserved her chance to bring the case to court. Who knew? Maybe this time the jury would believe her.

Then the radio in the car clicked on and Victor leaned over through the window to pick it up, while Janet accused Lux of cyber-stalking.

All units, calling all units, there is an emergency in progress, evacuate immediately. Repeat, all units, there is an emergency in progress, evacuate immediately.”


Frowning, Victor brought the receiver up to his mouth and pushed the button on the side. “Say again, Control, what’s happening?”

All units evacuate—”

The voice disappeared into static. Victor almost hit his head against the top of the car flinching back from it. He was sure he’d heard a command to ‘evacuate’, but he had absolutely no clue what the hell that was supposed to mean. Evacuate what? Cambridge?

No, that was stupid. There was something wrong with the radio, he’d get a look at it on his way back. They had to get Lux in the car and take him back to the station now, they’d spent enough time standing outside his house and chatting.

“Can I at least feed my cat before you throw me in the slammer again?”

Christ, every word out of the miserable bastard’s mouth sounded like it had been tortured out of him. Victor hadn’t made such a fuss when he’d had half his torso inked back in the day.

“I’ll see that Ragnellion gets her supper, Simon,” Victor assured him, mood dampening further when he considered the fact that he actually knew the name of Lux’s cat, and that he’d now have to feed the little shit. Much like Lux she never offered any physical resistance, but hissed at everybody even if they were stroking her.

Lux’s response was not what he’d been expecting.

“Your nose is bleeding, detective.”

Spoken like Lux was ashamed of himself for saying something helpful, the words made Victor touch his middle finger to his upper lip at once. They came away bloody, and that was weird, because Victor never got nosebleeds.

“So it is,” he said, and tried to catch Lux’s evasive eyes again. Instead, something else caught his first. “So is yours,” he pointed out.

With Lux’s hands cuffed he couldn’t check for himself, and he looked to Janet, at which point his mouth opened and his brow furrowed in bewilderment. Victor followed this line of sight to his partner, whose lips were looking very pale against the drops of blood that touched them. Janet saw them both looking at her and slowly smeared the blood against her fingers to look at it.

“What the fuck?” she whispered.

Victor could hear the air pressure changing. A low, strange sound in the distance was getting louder, and across the street the lone sorrowful magpie suddenly took to the air and flew over their heads. Janet’s phone rang once, then stopped, and she pulled it out of her coat pocket, frowning.

“I’ve got some… tissues, in the… in the house,” said Lux, awkwardness reaching the point where it was difficult for him to speak. “I could… I mean… you could take my keys and go in…”

He stopped when that noise got so loud none of them could ignore it anymore. They were hearing the calls of birds, Victor realised, but from the sound of them there were thousands; and without warning they flew over head.

There were thousands. In a matter of seconds the sky was filled with them; pigeons, crows, water fowl, song birds—Victor picked out the heron he sometimes saw flying over town centre, and of course, many more magpies. The flapping of so many wings was almost like an engine of some sort, and there was such a crowd that had the day not already been so cloudy they could as well have blocked the sun from view.

The birds flew over the houses in droves, in every direction Victor could see. It was like a blizzard, or something from a horror movie, and yet for the moment he was just slightly unnerved and mostly confused by what was happening. Birds. Everywhere.

What the fuck?

He and Janet had naturally shied their way up against Lux’s front door, and herded him along with them. The calls of the birds were deafening, but Janet tried to shout over them.

“Guv, what the fuck is going on!?”

“They said something over the radio!” he yelled back. “Something about an evacuation! See if you can call in!”

Janet raised her phone to make the call but her face twisted with anger before her other hand could touch the screen. Without any word from her, Lux supplied—

“Reception is shit out here! Try further up the street!”

The birds weren’t flying low enough for there to be a risk of hitting one, but Janet pulled her coat over the top of her head all the same when she made a dash out onto the street. On their other side, one bird fell out of the sky and hit the ground with a noise Victor wouldn’t have wanted to give a name to. He turned his eyes quickly back to Janet.

She took only a few seconds to reach the end of the street, and from there she’d have had a good view out onto the grass and playground at the end of the main road. Whatever she saw there; she dropped her phone.

“Janet!” Victor called.

For a moment, Janet was still, staring out eastwards towards the river. She made an aborted attempt to pick up her phone, then took a step back. Then another. Then she ran.

“Janet!?” Victor yelled again. Where the fuck did she think she was going at a time like this!?

Now he was really confused. And that unnerved feeling he’d had after the simultaneous nose-bleeding and the army of screeching birds flying above them magnified into terror so quickly he felt a physical pain in his chest.

Lux was fumbling for the house-key in the front pocket of his jeans, his usual nervous contempt given way to as much fear as Victor himself was feeling. He pushed the man against the door.

“Stay there!” he ordered. Lux didn’t reply.

Victor ran down the street to the same spot Janet had, looking back to the shaking suspect once or twice along the way. He at least seemed to be doing as he was told. Ahead of him Victor saw some kind of liquid had been freshly spilled onto the ground, and a trail of it was leading away in the direction Janet had gone. He was still calling her name when he rounded the corner.

She was within sight; running, but she either didn’t hear his increasingly desperate cries, or she was deliberately ignoring them.

Then Victor turned the other way, to see if he could see what had made her run.

He could.

Miles away a great black shadow was growing over the city. Coming from as far across as Victor could see in either direction it moved with a horrible speed, and he saw people carrying their children in their arms as they ran towards him from the playground.

His breath caught. He could tell at once that neither he, nor they, nor Janet would be able to run away before it reached them. This was a Black Spot. He should never have made that stupid joke.

With all the strength he could muster, he turned back towards Lux.

“Get in the car!” he yelled as loud as he could. The birds were thinning out, but Victor’s voice still seemed quieter than it should have to his own ears. “Get in the fucking car!”

Lux couldn’t see the Black Spot approaching with the houses in the way, but he stumbled against the vehicle all the same and just managed to pull the rear door open when Victor reached him, shoved him inside and slammed the door shut. He himself managed to fumble his way in with shaking hands, just as that darkness engulfed them, turning the sky black and sanguine red.

And then…




Children of the Universe

I was going to call this post ‘Universe-Building’, but I then thought I’d make an untimely Eurovision reference for no reason. Enjoy.

We sci-fi and fantasy writers all know about the struggles of world-building; the fight between having no development in your crappy Star Trek ripoff populated entirely by Planets of Hats or your crappy Lord of the Rings ripoff filled with tree-hugging elves and gold-digging dwarves… and creating a detailed new world which demands you insert infodump after infodump between dialogue to explain those details, making the plot of your story more difficult to find than a bra that actually fits me comfortably.

TMI? Probably TMI. Moving on.

Personally, I know I err on the side of infodumps, however much I rail against them, but I try to pretend that my readers already live in the universe I’m writing the book in, so I don’t end up with too many of those infodumps. For example, if I was writing a book set in this universe, and I wrote that a character walked into a church, I wouldn’t then explain what a church was and give a few paragraphs on the history of Christianity–the reader presumably already knows what a church is.

Thus if my character walks into the temple of Shol-Flaerfrith, I trust my reader understands from context that this is a place of religious worship, and that they have the patience to wait until information about Shol-Flaerfrith comes out naturally in the story, without needing a paragraph of exposition explaining who Shol-Flaerfrith is right away. I also have to accept some readers don’t have that patience, and that I’m likely not the writer for them.

Today, however, I’m writing about my experience in Universe-Building, where every part of the world you build has a whole other world behind it. This is ‘518’ again, a world in which Humans have been absorbed into an alien empire. But that empire has 32 other intelligent species under its control, there are ten other empires/alliances with hundreds more species under their control, plus 23 independant intelligent species, and hundreds more planets without indigenous intelligent species that have been colonised.

Every single one of these planets has a whole other world behind them. Vastly different biologies. Many different cultures. Millennia of history. Complicated relationships with each other as well as amongst themselves. How do I get that across in a fast-paced action novel, when giving some idea as to how Earth has changed after being taken over by aliens is difficult enough for most writers?

The obvious answer is not to try. Most of the stuff going on in the universe has no impact on the plot. I might know that one of my Wyken characters is a dancer, but as Wyken dancing isn’t important in the story, there’s no need to go into it. I was thinking of making this one a series, after all, so there’ll be other books to explore the depths of this universe. For now I’m adding in information only as it becomes relevant–but that also means I do have to actually have this information at the ready. So here’s a glimpse of my universe in the form of a diagram:

518 Diagram

This is a rather simplistic representation that doesn’t include any of the independant planets. As you can see, there are three separate groups controlled by a species called the Bani, two empires and one alliance, and one group called the ‘Conglomerate’ is made up of eight species which together control 112 others, making them the largest group in terms of species. The others are a little more standard.

My diagram here represents the different relationships among the eleven groups. Black lines represent open war. Blue lines are firm alliances. Dotted black lines indicate hostile feelings and dotted blue lines are for treaties that can be said to represent some friendly feeling.

Now, I drew in most of these lines at random (though not all), but it still helps me formulate an understanding of these inter-species relationship that I can then build on and explore. For instance; no one likes the Abonn (when the book is finished, you’ll see why). The Forthern and the Bizar by contrast have a lot of alliances, but are both at war with the second Bani empire. I decided this was because they were the two weakest empires, and didn’t want to risk the Bani calling on their allies for help during the war; they also have a ‘special relationship’ with each other.

The Bani alliance, the Icantri and the Kricto represent the three non-imperial alliances and together form something known as the Triumvirate, but they don’t disdain the imperialists too much as they have several alliances with them. Similarly, several empires have made alliances with two groups, despite those groups being at war with each other. Of course, the nature of all these relationships is much more complex than a simple line could indicate, and as you’ll also see in the book, elements within these groups often don’t feel the same way as their governors.

But this is just a tiny bit of information about the Universe of 518. Hopefully it’s a Universe that will feel grand and complex, but not too confusing to be a part of, and read more like a novel than a textbook.

And maybe, just maybe, one of these days… somewhere out there in this vast, eternal universe…

I’ll find the bra for me.


Also remember to buy my YA dystopian novel, ‘Rooks of the Knot’ from Amazon and Kindle.