On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including horror, science fiction, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published several ebooks and compendium volumes of those stories so far.

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Jim Tain was very much in the zone, or maybe in the groove, even though the music he was mixing wasn’t his own.

Three minutes and forty-eight seconds. That was all, but it was also an eternity if you allowed it to be. At some point you had to leave the track alone, but Tain found it difficult to let go. On every listen, there was always a little something you could tweak and improve. A bit of compression here, some rebalancing in the percussion, some widening on the chords; you could keep going forever.

This is your problem, he thought to himself. This is why you’re producing and not releasing.

It was an accurate observation, if a painful one. He’d been writing his own stuff for years now — pretty much every producer did — but he’d never put anything out there. The lure of the mix was too strong, he used to tell himself, but really he was just afraid.

Perfecting other people’s work was easy, even though he had a credit in the final release. All of the raw material, and all of the exposure, and all of the emotional risk, lay with the artist. Tain could remain safely hidden, making decisions in the isolation of his studio, shaping the listening experience for millions of people without putting himself on the line.

Making up daft little songs isn’t a proper job, his mind whispered, and he grimaced.

The words had been his father’s, and they had damaged him for life. The then-young Tain had been watching a music channel, marvelling at the musicians, and his father had walked into the living room and scowled at the television. He said that those people should get a real job, and Tain had immediately replied in genuine confusion, saying that they had the best job. His father’s response was withering.

The man ran his own roofing company, and his world couldn’t be further from guitars and keyboards and amplifiers and stage lights. Tain’s father didn’t even particularly like music at all, instead preferring to have any of an endless parade of football matches droning away in the background constantly.

Tain had remained determined to work in music, but he’d never had the courage to let anyone but the occasional girlfriend actually listen to something he’d written himself. He felt an overriding sense of shame about all of his compositions, coupled with an infuriating and tantalising sense that his work actually had some value nonetheless. But he would probably never release it. His father’s voice remained too strong in his mind.

With a sigh, he pulled his monitoring headphones from his ears and sat them on the mixing desk. Throwing them down would have been more satisfying, but they were expensive and they were his bread and butter, so prudence and restraint won the day, as always.

“Your father had no way to know that you were talented,” the voice said from over his shoulder, startling him. Tain spun around, and somehow, there was a young woman sitting there in one of the guest chairs.

The studio’s outer and inner doors latched automatically when you went in or out. You either had to have a key, or someone to let you through. Since most of his time in the studio was spent with headphones on, there was a light hooked up to a box above the desk whenever the outside buzzer was pressed. It had been within his field of view the entire day, and it hadn’t illuminated.

Tain wasn’t sure which question to ask first: how she’d got in, who she was, and how she knew his father. He didn’t have the time to choose an enquiry before she stood up and walked over to stand next to him. He leaned back a little, both for distance and to take a look at her.

She was a hundred percent his type. Blonde but not definitively so, in great shape but probably not a pain in the backside about it, and dressed expensively but casually, like she knew that the clothes didn’t have to do any of the work. Even her perfume was familiar, but just out of the reach of his memory.

She reached towards the mixing desk, and Tain felt the usual tension that rose up within him whenever someone other than himself was fiddling with the controls. He restrained himself from saying anything — she was beautiful, after all — and to his surprise and fascination, she nudged the exact fader he’d been about to use, opening the gate a little on the bass track. It was the same tweak he’d been planning, down to the millimetre.

“You work in the industry?” he asked, temporarily unaware of the ridiculousness of the question; she couldn’t have known what he was listening to, or which track that fader corresponded to at the moment, or what edit she would be making by moving it. The woman ignored his question, and instead seemed to answer a different one.

“I can help you to get your own work out there,” she said quietly. “All of it. The writing, recording, producing. Finding a label. Distribution. And definitely promotion. You can have everything you wanted, just like it was in your mind before your father put a pin through your dreams.”

She turned to look down at him, and for a moment Tain’s gaze flicked down to appreciate her body before meeting her eyes again. She seemed cryptically amused.

“You’re a hitmaker,” he said, and her gesture somehow incorporated both yes and not in the way you think. He could see now that the colour of her eyes was shifting restlessly from blue to grey to green and then back again. A very old part of his mind understood, and he felt the fine hairs on the back of his neck stand on end.

A fountain pen appeared in her hand, and she definitely hadn’t been hiding it up her sleeve. She was close enough now that Tain could detect the sweet, fresh fragrance of her breath, and it was exactly like a particular summer day at the seaside he remembered from his youth.

“Let’s come to an agreement,” she said.

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