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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The knock at the door was firm, businesslike, and solitary.
Barlow frowned, glancing up from his computer. He wasn’t expecting anyone, and nor did he have any deliveries arriving that he was aware of. All the same, it was a beautiful afternoon and he was in a reasonable sort of mood, so with a resigned sigh he got out of his chair and made his way from his study in the upper rear of the house down to the front door.
There were two men, dressed in identical nondescript dark grey suits. Visible behind them out on the street was a police car parked behind a black saloon. Two officers of the law stood side by side, leaning against their vehicle, and watching with barely disguised interest. The meaning was clear: the two men at the door had the endorsement of the local authorities.
“Can I help you?” Barlow asked, curious now but not yet alarmed. After all, he was only a novelist. And a pretty good one, his mind whispered, and he was unaware that he involuntarily smirked at the arrogance of the thought.
“Something amusing, sir?” asked one of the men, and now Barlow frowned again. The question was a bit impertinent, and these visitors hadn’t even identified themselves yet. Barlow found that he was annoyed, his earlier good humour evaporating.
“Missionaries need a police escort these days, do they?” he replied, his voice tightening slightly. To his credit, the taller of the two men did smile in amusement, but there was something in it that Barlow didn’t like very much. A coldness.
“We’re with Special Branch, Mr. Barlow,” the taller man said. “I’m Detective Inspector Harris, and this is Detective Sergeant White.”
More like grey than white, Barlow thought, now feeling the first stirrings of unease. Harris was showing him an identification card which certainly looked official, but it was really the police vehicle at the kerb which vouched for its authenticity. To Barlow’s eye, the card also looked very new.
“What’s this about?” he asked, and Harris nodded as if the interaction had now fallen back into its normal and expected format.
“There’s no cause for alarm, sir,” Harris said. “We just have a few questions, on a national security matter. We could speak inside, if you’d prefer, or alternatively we can escort you to the local police station for a short while.”
“Is ‘neither’ an option?” Barlow asked, and Harris smiled again.
“I’m afraid not, sir.”
“Then I suppose you’d better come in.”
All three men were already seated in Barlow’s living room by the time it occurred to him that perhaps he ought to insist on his lawyer being present. Not actually having a lawyer, however, he hesitated to give voice to the thought, and by that time Harris was already speaking.
“We’re here about By The Light of His Own Regret,” Harris said, and Barlow’s mouth fell open.
It was the title of a story he’d written, licensed for serialisation in a literary magazine, with the first instalment due for publication in the middle of the following month. It would run for four consecutive weeks. No-one but himself, his agent, and the magazine’s own staff even knew it existed.
Barlow was immediately furious.
“Jesus Christ,” he said. “When did we start living in East Germany? I think you can just get the hell out of my home, and don’t think for a moment that I won’t go to the newspapers about this.”
By The Light of His Own Regret was a sort of speculative fiction piece, skirting several genres in an effort to be tailor-made for the magazine’s readership, but it was also undeniably a political allegory. Its protagonist, a woman called Harmony who discovered she had the ability to intuitively understand the structure and nature of other people’s ethics — or lack thereof — happens to attend a service given by her country’s religious leader, and perceives an absolute psychopathy within him, and has terrible visions of brutal totalitarianism. She then embarks on a journey to dismantle his power and the ostensibly benign theocracy which props him up.
The villain in question, admittedly, was modelled very closely indeed on the incumbent Prime Minister. There were even some familiar vocal and physical mannerisms. Barlow had thought of it as merely cheeky, but apparently (and somehow before publication) it had drawn the sinister eyes of authority and censorship. He was outraged, and was about to verbally lash out again when the heretofore-silent Detective Sergeant White finally spoke.
“Please don’t misunderstand, Mr. Barlow,” the other man said. “We greatly enjoyed your story, and we’re certain that the readers will too. We’re looking forward to seeing it published, as-is and on schedule, without any interference. We’re certainly not the Stasi, whatever you might think.”
Barlow found himself at a loss, his righteous anger now stalling and sputtering just as his good mood had earlier.
“Then what’s the meaning of this visit?” he asked, but White just looked over towards Barlow’s bookshelves, as if no longer interested. Harris spoke instead, and Barlow had a flash of insight: no matter what their stated ranks were, White was the senior player.
“We’re here because of the scene you wrote within the, ah, the Cathedral of Justice,” Harris said, producing a small notebook from his jacket pocket and referring to it. “In the scene, the Archminister — shortly before being killed by your heroine, I might add — reveals that he actually manipulates the beliefs of others using a sort of telepathic ability, derived from possession of a stone of extraterrestrial origin.”
Barlow shifted in his own armchair, feeling defensive. No writer enjoyed having his own more outlandish plot elements recited back to him; there was a certain shame about it. “And what’s your damned point?”
Harris glanced at White, and the latter leaned forward without looking at his colleague. There was no amusement on either of their faces now.
“What we’d very much like to understand, sir,” White said, “is how exactly you know about the stone.”
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