Friday, 15 August 2014

My first chapter

I'm reproducing the first chapter of my novel here. Bear in mind this is mine, and all mine, and if you choose to steal a rough first draft of some dipshit's unpublished work I will know. I will.

Yeah. But anyway. All comments welcome.

The clock behind me thudded off seconds, mocking my wasted time.

The man in front of me was well-dressed, handsome in a vacant kind of way, and had no useful information for me whatsoever. His girlfriend was missing and he couldn’t think of one single relevant fact. I took my time with him but his monosyllabic answers were getting on my nerves. Judging by the pacing I could hear in the adjoining room, he was annoying my business partner too. I thought of Nico using his favourite method for extracting information – punching – and cheered up.

I tried to be encouraging and sympathetic to the nervous man, but being nice isn’t one of my natural talents. He’d asked me to call him Mr Smith. I get a lot of Smiths. By the time they arrive at Kennedy & King they’ve realised the benefits of disguise and anonymity, something they sadly lacked when they got into the mess they want me to sort out.

The people who come to me either regard me with dumb awe or complete contempt. This guy was the dumb awe type. He found his voice and said his girlfriend went to meet some shady guy she met on the internet. That wasn’t much to go on. I’ve never dealt with anyone who isn’t shady, myself included. My stomach dropped at the thought of explaining why I couldn’t find his girlfriend. I didn’t care. Go find someone who does. But who else in Glasgow tracks down the mystically dodgy? My unique selling point is also my curse, and bad witches like me know all about curses.
          I asked him what protection she’d carried and his eyes widened to the point where I could hardly stand the stupid.

“You mean like a gun?”

I make it my policy not to mock the afflicted so I didn’t laugh in his face, and adopted the tone I use when I’m trying to be patient with bratty children. I’d meant an amulet, charm, demon, spirit guide, witch, sorcerer, maybe even a vampire. A gun would get you nowhere, except possibly shot yourself. Where would she get a gun in Glasgow anyway? Stabbing is preferred – it’s so much more interactive. I fielded more questions but he could tell me little of use.

“So can you find her?” The man’s voice was high and pleading.

“I don’t know. It depends who he is and what he’s done with her. Did you bring her laptop and mobile like I asked?”

He nodded, set the laptop on my desk and fumbled in his pocket for the phone. 

“He told her not to bring any communication devices. It was stupid of her not to take her phone, though, wasn’t it?”

“Not if he’d told her not to.” He could have responded with decapitation, electrocution, combustion. All the fun stuff I used to enjoy. I jolted myself from happy memories and smiled at Mr Smith.

“It never left her side,” he said, with something approaching pride, and slid the mobile across the desk. Another person who ran their life with a little beeping box. He read my name slowly from the business card I gave him.

“Ariana Kennedy. Like that Greek myth chick.” His eyes wandered to the charms suspended over the desk and he stared at them, mouth agape. My patience left the building.

“That was Ariadne,” I corrected, as politely as I could through my gritted teeth. “Thank you, Mr Smith. I’ll be in touch.” He’d signed the forms with a name that looked nothing like Smith, but as long as his credit card worked he could call himself Bozo the Clown for all I cared.

Nico, my demon partner in the agency, wouldn’t come out until the client had gone. Nearly seven feet of rippling muscle, with neon flame-red dreadlocks and a smile that could make your day or ruin your life, he’s even less of a people person than I am. We decided I’m a better actor, so I went up front. He appeared from the small side room as soon as he heard the door slam, eating chocolate as usual.

“He’s still a bit shell-shocked,” I explained, with no empathy whatsoever, after removing the pen from my mouth. No one can ever quite believe they need the services of a disgraced witch and a powerless fire demon. Well, powerless is not quite true. He can still make water boil instantly, which has a few practical uses, but it’s not the jaw-dropping, show-stopping pizzazz he’s used to. After our disgrace, Nico was power-stripped of anything useful. My situation is a little more complicated. 

Nico shoved the last of his chocolate in his mouth and asked what we should do. It was late, and I was reluctant to wander round the Ancient Quarter at that hour, because it might mean talking to the landlady. The Ancient Quarter is protected with a perception filter, and ordinary people shouldn’t be able to find it. I voiced this to Nico and he shrugged.

“Everyone can find something if they’re desperate enough. Pass me the laptop and I’ll hack her email.”

Demons are far more practical than witches.

“Whaddya you get from the phone?” 

I turned it on, and found a few messages from relatives and friends, but no texts more than two days old. The call log had been wiped. She was trying to hide something. Nico tapped away on the laptop and I tried to think.

“I wonder if the boyfriend is in the habit of checking her phone. Either that or whatever she was going to see is very touchy about secrecy. Who can we ask in the AQ?”

“Carlos,” said Nico, in his rumbling Californian drawl. “But he’s pretty sparked out on liquor these days. I don’t think he’d sense a kick to the face. Greta might be able to help.”

Greta is a sorceress who specialises more in glossy firework tricks than any solid magic. She’s incredibly sharp but acts dumb, which means a hell of a lot of information comes her way. I didn’t know where she was but at that time of day it was one of three places, all involving alcohol. I can do as much magic as I have to on behalf of our clients, but nothing that benefits me without potential consequences, so a locator spell was out.

Nico turned the laptop screen so I could see it.

“She deleted all her emails but I should be able to recover ‘em.” The blue light from the screen in our dim basement office made Nico look spooky. “Here we go. She responded to some spam email about karma.”

“People really respond to spam emails?”

“They must do or the spammers wouldn’t bother. Gimme her phone. No point making ourselves traceable.” 

Nico hit some buttons. I heard a tinny but sibilant voice say little. Nico stared at the phone, confused. 

“He don’t talk to demons.” 

I tried, but got a recorded message saying the number was unobtainable. 

“Well, looks like I can do the locator spell for Greta. If that thing can tell you’re a demon just from talking to you it must be pretty powerful.”

Friday, 8 August 2014

Why I'm voting Yes

The referendum on Scottish independence is on the 18th of September. I'm passionately hoping for a Yes, and here are some of the reasons why, and what some of the reasons aren't.

First of all, the majority of Scots do not hate the English. There are some that do, but we pay no more attention to them than any other prejudiced lunatic.

My main reason is social justice. I don't want to live in a country where sick and disabled people are hounded to get jobs that don't exist. It's an employers' market right now - how many are going to employ someone who needs a lot of time off? Or shows any kind of frailty at all really. When I worked in call centres it was common a few years ago to ask for permission to access your medical records. Of course you could refuse, but then they'd find a reason not to give you the job. Employers are no longer allowed to ask health questions, for which I'm thankful, but they've just rephrased it as "Explain in detail any gaps in your employment". With my hearing problems and history of depression I'm worried, and I'm not even especially badly-off at the moment in terms of illness.

The stupider amongst us are always willing to believe tabloid rubbish about how the most vulnerable people at the bottom are causing all the UK's problems. "Look!" says the government, "Look at those poor people! While we snout in our troughs and rip you off for millions in expenses! Haha!" The government judges everyone else by their own standards, and since so many of them are venal crooks they assume everyone else is too.

And I have no faith in Labour fixing anything. No faith at all. Scottish Labour are tanking because they treat Holyrood like a Westminster waiting room, and don't even bother pretending to care what's going on around them. While I have no animosity towards Ed Miliband, there are some very unpleasant Blairites still lurking in Westminster, and I can't see how he would get anything done.

Rachel Reeves in particular scares me half to death - removing benefits for 18-24-year-olds. Yeah, because everyone has a loving family prepared to keep their children at home forever when they can't contribute financially. There are no parents out there knocking their pans in to keep a roof over their heads and simply cannot afford to support working-age children. Nobody ever kicks their kids out because the kids are gay, or difficult, or have mental health problems or addictions. It's not always as clear cut as that either - plenty of people can't live at home for one reason or another. It's another attempt to trap young people in misery. No matter how hard they work they can never afford to buy a house in London, the great black hole that sucks young people towards it, because everything is for, about and in London.

Iain Duncan Smith. I don't think any more needs to be said about that.

Sweet as the Let's Stay Together letter was, it does nothing to address why Scots might want to leave. I think the well-off people who signed that letter, some of whom no doubt vote Tory, would do better to campaign against the ConDem policies ripping the throat out of services the poor, sick, disabled and unemployed rely on. The demonisation of the poor while the UK's wealth is shovelled ever upwards. The backdoor demolition of England's NHS. There's a strong sense of social justice in Scotland, although I have noticed some becoming more vindictive and compassionless.

Compassion is a strength, not a weakness. Clinging to things that YOU have, while not wanting anyone else to have them because they "don't deserve it" is the weakness. As for those who can tell people "aren't really sick!" just by looking at them, sickness doesn't have to be visible to exist. Unless you're a doctor with someone's complete medical history, or some kind of nasty psychic, keep your opinions to yourself.

And can the No vote shut the hell up about Sean bloody Connery? As if celebrities who are either English or not residents of Scotland signing a letter has any more impact on us than a Scotsman so devoted to us he has neither lived nor paid tax here for 50 years. Nobody cares what he thinks at all, and anyone voting either way because a famous person told them to should probably be stripped from the electoral roll with indecent haste.

I'm under no illusions that in the event of a Yes vote Scotland will become some kind of social justice utopia overnight. It'll take time, and effort, and energy, but I believe enough of us have that to make this work. If it's a No I'm passionate about democracy and I'll have to accept that, of course, but I'll be bitterly disappointed. If you think things might get worse after a Yes vote, then they may well might, but they will never get better with Westminster. We can't be the lion that squeaked.

One question for the No voters. It doesn't even require an answer, just a bit of thought. When the Tories have one MP in Scotland, the Lib Dem vote has collapsed UK-wide, and Scottish Government voters are even rejecting Labour for heaven's sake, why do they want to keep us? Think of David Cameron, and all the misery his government has inflicted on people all across the UK, and how he's quite happy to let the English press portray us as whining subsidy junkies, and ask yourself why. A government that only values money and believes someone's entire worth as a person is based on how much they earn. Why?

Let's be the little country that could. Yes.

Friday, 1 August 2014

Insha'Allah, shalom.

Israel v Palestine.

How do I even start?

I do not agree with Israel's actions. Defending yourself does not include shelling a school full of families. I wonder what Israel's government expects the consequences of that to be. Are the children who lost their parents in what they thought was a safe place going to think "Wow, thanks for ridding me of those awful terrorists!" Are the parents who lost their children going to say "Oh, I'm so glad you did that, my three-year-old and newborn baby might have grown up to join Hamas. But they're dead so we're all off the hook now!"

Neither do I agree with Hamas. I don't agree with terrorism whatever stripe it displays. It's not an either/or situation. Not for me anyway.

I grew up Catholic in the west of Scotland. The IRA never ventured to Scotland and I never felt much affiliation with the Catholic church anyway, but I have a sliver of understanding about what being lumped in with unacceptable nutterdom feels like. Guilt by association isn't pleasant, wherever it's coming from.

Three-year-olds are not terrorists. But maybe their parents and siblings are now. There is no peace for Israel while they are killing children. There is no peace for Hamas while they are killing children. Just as not all Palestinians voted for Hamas, not all Israelis voted for Netenyahu. But did Israelis really sit in deckchairs and cheer on the rockets heading for Palestine? Did they really sing "No school tomorrow, Gaza's children are all dead!"? I cannot tell you how much I hope they didn't. Maybe I'm naive but such inhumanity from those whose ancestors suffered so much scares the living shit out of me. I live in hope that it's horrible propaganda.

The real disgrace in all of this - the absolutely fundamental disgrace - is the UN doing nothing. We can all see the western governments' realpolitik in action here. The vast majority of the Middle East's problems have sod all to do with Israel directly, and the few that do are hardly insoluble, apart from Palestine. But what are the surrounding Muslim countries supposed to think when the US unconditionally supports and arms Israel? Is anyone really surprised that Iran wanted nukes? Nukes get you left alone. Ask Kim Jong Un. It's also a good idea to not hit oil.

Yet Saudi Arabia gets to be our friend, despite their rulers not being Muslims - they're barbarians with a Koran. I'm so tired of being nice to unacceptable regimes just because they've got something we need.

I get why Israel feels vulnerable but if it wants to solve that and be considered a civilised nation on a par with the US and the EU, it has to stand back and be the bigger person. It has to stop breeding hatred by killing wee kids. Hamas, vile as they are, are a product of Israeli aggression. Bloody Sunday - the UK government's inadvertent IRA recruitment drive. Opening fire on the unarmed. Nothing is worse. Not even in war. And I don't doubt for a moment that Israelis feel loss of their children as hard as the Palestinians do.

Who ever thought the world would miss Yasser Arafat? Fatah were a basket of fluffy kittens compared to Hamas.

There are too many straw men in the Israel-Palestine conflict. I am in no way anti-semitic, but I accept that some supporters of Palestine are, and will use any excuse to bash Israel over the head. I am also not Islamophobic, but I accept that some supporters of Israel are, and will bash Hamas on that basis. But it is possible to criticise Israel without hating Jews. I know to the casual observer it's hard to prove that I'm not anti-semitic or Islamophobic, but I know in my heart I'm not and that's all I can really do.

Everyone has to stop killing children. If the world can get behind that one basic sentence we might get somewhere.

Everyone has to stop killing children.