As an indie author, I’ve always thought that the writing was the easy bit. Certainly it’s the most enjoyable part; creating your characters and conjuring up lives for them. It’s when the work is finished; when it’s been edited, formatted and uploaded that the hard work begins. Because, although you might think yours is the novel the world has been waiting for, apart from your friends and family, nobody is going to know about it unless you publicise it. But there is the rub, for how do you do that without an agent or a publisher to fund it. Advertising is expensive and beyond most indie authors means. That leaves you with social media. Which is my excuse for using my blog and facebook to inflict this message about my second novel, or more accurately, novella, Soul Trader on you.
Divorced and unemployed, Owen Leadbeater is embittered and envious of others’ success. One desperate night, drunk and full of self-pity, Owen appeals to a higher power to help him. Unfortunately for Owen, his call is answered by the darker side – envy, though one of the seven deadly sins isn’t a problem for them – just sign on the dotted line and you can have anything you desire. Problem is, the devil’s contract is as dodgy an instrument as anything a bent banker could dream up and Owen, trusting soul that he is, doesn’t think to read the small print.
But a contract is a contract and the devil, in the form of Sebastian Tantalus, is not to be messed with, as Owen soon discovers to his cost. The price for a lifetime of glittering success mounts as Owen is forced to commit one deadly sin after another, but just how far is he prepared to go, before the cost becomes too high for him to bear?
You can read the first chapter here, or click on the link above or, those listed below the book’s cover to the right of this post, and download it to your kindle or other e-reader device.
SOUL TRADER Chapter 1: Sign your name and cross your heart
Owen Leadbeater pulls the ring on a can of lager and takes a large swig of the cold, gassy liquid. He has been drinking steadily since lunchtime and so far has consumed the equivalent of nine pints. The reason for this booze-fest is standing on the mantelpiece; a solitary birthday card with the number 40 emblazoned on the front in large, embossed silver numerals. He raises his beer can as if about to propose a toast, then, swinging his arm back, angrily hurls it at the card, knocking it off the shelf and spraying beer all over the chimney breast. The can clatters onto the tiled hearth where it continues to glug out what’s left of its contents.
‘You can beam me up now,’ he yells, throwing his head back and his arms up as if expecting someone to lower a rope and haul him skyward. ‘I’ve had enough, more than enough. My fortieth birthday, the big four oh, and all I get is one lousy card from a brother I haven’t seen in years!’
Owen doesn’t blame his brother for this lack of contact so much as that stuck up wife of his – Patricia. Patricia, mind you, not Pat or Tricia; she is very particular about that. In fact, she is very particular about everything and like Mrs Danvers in Rebecca she keeps their large detached house as if it were a shrine to the god of Homes and Gardens. You didn’t visit with his brother and his wife so much as view a show home. One was permitted to look, but on no account to touch the beautiful, and by definition, expensive items on display there. On the rare occasions he has been allowed to enter this palace of middle-class virtue, Owen has at times found himself holding his breath, fearful that in breathing out he might dull the shine on the highly polished mahogany dining table – Waring and Gillow – a snip at two thousand pounds.
‘More money than sense, if you ask me,’ he bellows drunkenly. Not that anybody is asking, he reflects with some bitterness. ‘Some party, eh?’ He waves an invisible tankard at the empty room. ‘Happy birthday, Owen. Here’s to forty years of being pissed-on from a great height.’
Swaying like a sailor on the deck of a storm-tossed ship, Owen navigates an erratic path to the kitchen where, after several fumbled attempts, he manages to yank open the fridge door and grab another can of lager. Returning to the living room in the same ziz-zag fashion, he pulls the ring and with beery foam fizzing over his fingers, raises the can high in the air.
‘Come on then God, if you do exist, come and get me. I’m offering you my soul on a plate. It’s on special offer this week.’ He quaffs some more beer before continuing. ‘Well, what are you waiting for? I’ve been a good boy. That was the deal, wasn’t it? Be a good boy all your life and you’ll go to heaven. Well? I stuck to my side of the bargain. I’ve been legal, decent and honest; always kept my nose clean.’ His eyes begin to fill with tears and he wipes them away with the back of his hand. ‘And look where it’s got me – one lousy birthday card.’ He checks himself. ‘No, I tell a lie; just a small stain on an otherwise unblemished life, believe me. I did have one other card, but it doesn’t count. It doesn’t say ‘happy birthday’, it just has a picture of a bowl of fruit on the front – you know, a still-life, and on the back it says, ‘this card is left blank for your own message.’ From my ex, that one; didn’t even put best wishes, just to Owen from Maureen. We were married for the best part of fifteen years and she can’t even bring herself to write happy fucking birthday. Blank for your own message, but you’re not supposed to leave it blank are you!’ he shouts, snot mingling with the tears he can no longer control.
In something approaching an out of body experience, Owen looks down on the pathetic wretch that he has become; sees a grown man who has fallen to his knees and is howling like a baby. He pities, and at the same time, despises this tragic figure but is powerless to help him. A floodgate has opened up, and years of suppressed emotions, bitterness and disappointment are suddenly released; a tsunami that is totally overwhelming and unstoppable.
Fifteen years . . . that ought to count for something, he reflects, once the emotional tidal wave that has engulfed him recedes a little and he can breathe normally once more. After all, forty is a milestone in any man’s life. The least she could have done was to wish him a happy birthday. A blank card, an empty space – it was a perfect metaphor for their married life, one which they hadn’t even managed to fill with children.
The wretch on his knees raises his face heavenwards. ‘Love . . . that’s your big thing isn’t it? Your great gift to the world? I missed out on that one actually. I don’t know if you noticed. Did you hear me? I said, I missed . . . hello, is there anybody there? No? Well, perhaps there’s a hotline I can ring. Get them to put a call out, ‘Come in number 52, your time is up. Sorry it wasn’t much of a life, but there you go. Luck of the draw I’m afraid. Better luck next time, old chap. Oh, sorry, I forgot. There is no next time!’
On hands and knees Owen crawls over to a shabby armchair and hauls himself up onto the seat. No easy task for a drunken man, further handicapped by the can of lager he insists on taking with him on this arduous journey. When he raises the can to his lips he is surprised to find that it’s half empty and his shirt front is sodden.
Oh what the hell, he muses. God probably doesn’t exist anyway. It was all down to the big bang; nothing one minute – a vacuum – then, KABOOM, you have an expanding universe. Life was nothing more than a series of random events and accidents. You could sum it up in one word – chaos. There was no guiding hand, no omnipotent creator. You might just as well throw a dice as try and plan your life. Still, it was worth one more try.
‘OK, I’m going to give you one last chance,’ he says out loud. ‘It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity I’m offering you here. Are you going to take it or not? You haven’t got the monopoly on the afterlife you know. I can take my soul elsewhere. There’s always the other lot. I just felt I ought to give you first refusal, as it were. So, if you could just give me a sign; one knock for yes, two for no or something . . . anything?’
In the silence that follows, Owen becomes acutely aware of the everyday ambient sounds of the house that would barely register with him at any other time; the soft ticking of the carriage clock on the mantelpiece; the occasional burp from the hot water tank in the airing cupboard on the landing upstairs, but of divine intervention there is no sign or sound.
‘That’s a no, then? Okay, Hell it is. I’ll get a warm welcome there, if nothing else.’ Arching his back, Owen thrusts his free hand down the back pocket of his jeans. It’s a difficult balancing act for an inebriated man, and he struggles to extract the object he is seeking. So much so, that by the time he lowers himself back into his chair, Owen is red-faced and breathing hard. The hand resting in his lap cradles an amber-tinted, Perspex tube of tablets. Small and white, they nestle together like the incubating larvae of a malevolent insect. Through narrowed eyes, he studies the label intently for a time then, as if coming to a sudden decision, he removes the plastic stopper with a flick of his thumb. Raising the tube to his lips, he tips some of the pills into his mouth. They taste bitter on his tongue, but he continues to hold them there a moment longer before taking a hurried swig of beer, and swallowing them down. Tears striping his face, he repeats the process until the tube is empty and, feeling very sleepy now, curls up in the armchair like a contented cat. Within minutes he is snoring noisily, an empty beer can still cradled in his lap.
It’s eight o’clock in the morning and brilliant sunshine is blazing through the un-curtained windows when Owen rouses from his sleep. As he uncurls his cramped limbs from the confines of his narrow armchair, he is surprised to discover that he is not alone in the room. Standing between him and the window and haloed by the blaze of light behind him is a tall, smartly dressed young man with a face that belongs in a Renaissance painting; a man so strikingly handsome that beautiful is not too strong a word to use to describe him. For some moments, Owen believes that God has taken him up on his offer of the night before and he is in the presence of an angel; perhaps the Archangel Gabriel himself.
This supernatural being is carrying a leather briefcase and Owen wonders if this contains a ledger in which the transgressions of his misspent life are recorded and on which he is about to be judged. He also wonders why, if he is in heaven, he is apparently still sitting in his own lounge with its faded carpet and tired looking furnishings. Or is this just an illusion; a stage set; a way of lessening the sudden shock of discovering you have died by providing you with familiar surroundings until you get used to the idea of no longer being alive.
A driver honking his horn in the street outside and a neighbour shouting abuse back at him breaks the spell, and Owen realises with a start that he is not in fact dead, just suffering from an almighty hangover. Leaping from his chair, he scurries round behind it.
‘What the fuck! Who the hell are you and what are you doing in my house?’
‘You sent for me, I believe,’ replies the young man in a soft, slightly effeminate voice that matches his androgynous looks.
‘I did? When?’ Owen enquires, wonders if this unexpected visitation is the result of a drunken call to a random number he came up with himself or one he plucked from the telephone directory.
‘Yesterday evening.’ His visitor flips open the briefcase and, withdrawing a manila file, consults it. ‘Let me see . . . ah yes, here we are. Call received at eleven thirty-two and ten seconds precisely. Ring any bells?’
‘That’s impressively precise, but the only bell ringing round here last night was my front door bell. Just about everyone I know was here helping me celebrate my fortieth birthday,’ he lies. ‘Place was heaving.’ It suddenly occurs to Owen that his visitor hadn’t rung the bell. ‘How did you get in, by the way? You shouldn’t creep up on people like that, scared the life out of me, waking up to find you standing there.’
‘Sorry about that but there’s no need for concern on that score, you’re not due to pass over until three months after your seventy-fifth birthday; June the twenty-first, two thousand and fifty-seven, to be precise.’
Owen can’t help laughing at this prediction but his laughter is tempered with a degree of nervousness. His visitor has a certain stage presence; an undeniable gravitas that is both unsettling and totally convincing. A consummate actor or an outright fraud he may be, but Owen is inclined to believe him.
‘Who are you?’ He asks in an awe filled voice.
The young man approaches Owen’s chair and, like a conjuror performing a card trick, produces a business card with a flick of the wrist, ‘My card, sir.’
Owen reaches over the back of the armchair and takes it from him. ‘Sebastian Tantalus, unusual name but I’ve never heard of you. You sure you’ve got the right Leadbeater, only there are several in the book.’
‘The phone book.’ There is no address or phone number on the front of the card; just Sebastian’s name and below it the words ‘Carpe Deum’ which Owen assumes must be the name of the company the man works for. He turns the card over and, finding the reverse is blank, turns it back again. ‘Your number in there is it, or are you ex-directory?’
Sebastian flashes a mouthful of white teeth as brilliant as diamonds. ‘Oh, I think you could say we’re strictly . . . ex-directory.’
‘So, how did I get your number?’
‘How do you mean?’
‘I phoned you, you said. If you’re not in the book – how did I get your number?’
Another dazzling flash of those perfect teeth. ‘Ah, with you now, I didn’t say you phoned. I said you called.’
Owen is growing tired of this verbal ping-pong. He has a blinding head-ache and his blood sugar level is dangerously low. If he doesn’t get some caffeine and a couple of paracetamols inside him and soon, his head is going to explode ‘Called… phoned. What’s the bloody difference?’
His visitor by contrast remains maddeningly calm. ‘Cried out in your extremis? You know, appealed to a higher court?’
Owen steps out from behind the armchair and thrusts the card back into his visitor’s hand. ‘Look, I’m sorry; I’m having trouble following this. It’s probably the hangover or maybe I’m still asleep and this is some weird, alcohol induced dream, but just what the fuck are you on about?’
Sebastian places a slim hand on Owen’s shoulder. ‘I’ve come for your soul, old love.’
Owen’s jaw drops. ‘My soul . . . so, I was right, you are an Angel.’
‘It’s sweet of you to say so, but sadly no, I’m batting for the other team, as it were.’
‘That doesn’t surprise me,’ murmurs Owen under his breath.
Seemingly oblivious of this aside, Sebastian continues in a whisper, ‘you know… the fire and brimstone brigade. I’m what you might call a fallen angel.’
Suddenly Owen doesn’t feel too well; there’s a buzzing in his ears and he feels decidedly nauseous. When he wipes a hand across his forehead, the skin feels cold and clammy. He staggers and has to grip the back of the chair with both hands to prevent himself from falling. Taking hold of his arm in a surprisingly strong grip for such a slim man, Sebastian guides Owen around the chair and lowers him into it, where he sits slumped forward with his head cradled in his hands.
‘Oh God, the doctor warned me if I didn’t stop drinking something like this would happen; blackouts, memory lapses – hallucinations,’ he moans.
His visitor gives a theatrical cough. ‘Excuse me, but I am still here you know. I’m not a figment of your imagination. I am, therefore I exist, to quote one of our more eminent residents.’
Owen’s head jerks up. ‘Really, Neil Diamond is in hell?’
Sebastian arches an eyebrow ‘Neil who?’ he queries.
‘It’s OK, forget it. I’m talking rubbish. Neil’s not dead. And anyway he said, “I am, I said” – not the other thing.’
Sebastian considers this for a moment. ‘I am, I said – what’s it supposed to mean?’
‘It sounds better when you sing it,’ Owen assures him.
Sebastian is about to launch into song but Owen forestalls him. ‘Please don’t. My head feels as though it’s about to explode, and I can’ believe I’m explaining Neil Diamond’s lyrics to one of Beelzebub’s little helpers.’ He collapses back into the chair.’ Oh God, what have I done?’
‘Cheer up. It’s not that bad. We won’t collect until you’re seventy-five, as long as you don’t breach your contract.’
Owen shoots back up again. ‘Contract . . . what contract?’
His visitor delves into his briefcase and with a flourish, produces a document. ‘Ta da! Here’s one I prepared earlier,’ he declares. ‘It’s all quite straightforward really. I’ll just whizz through the main points. I, Owen Leadbeater, that’s you of course, hereinafter known as the party of the first part, do hereby solemnly agree to surrender my immortal soul to His Satanic Majesty, hereinafter known as the party of the second part, on expiry of this contract, or before on demand, should I be in breach of any of the clauses set out in the attached schedules.’ Sebastian dismisses these with a wave of his hand. ‘There’s rather a lot of those so I think we’ll just cut to the chase, as they say. It’s a standard contract. No special clauses. In return, the party of the second part agrees to use his considerable powers to enable and assist the party of the first part to achieve all his earthly desires. Not bad, eh?’
Sebastian stands there beaming like the Cheshire cat, as though he has just performed an amazing conjuring trick, but there is no applause from his audience of one.
‘This is what you wanted?’ says Sebastian, his irritation at Owen’s lack of enthusiasm evident in the sharper tone in his voice.
‘Yes and no. I mean, it’s a big commitment. This isn’t some piddling life insurance policy you’re asking me to sign.’
‘But don’t you see, that’s exactly what this is.’ He flourishes the document, bringing it down with a smack on the palm of his free hand to emphasise each point. ‘A seventy-five year life span – smack – guaranteed. A successful, a spectacularly successful if you wish, career of your choice – smack – guaranteed. Whatever you want, whatever you need – smack – it’s guaranteed. G-U-A-R-A-N-T-E-E-D!’ Sebastian gives a contemptuous laugh, ‘And still he hesitates. Time you woke up and smelt the coffee, my friend.’
At the mention of coffee Owen’s eyes light up. ‘Coffee . . . now you’re talking. I would kill for a cup of coffee right now. My head’s hurting so much, I can’t think straight.’
‘Owen, when I said, wake up and smell the coffee, I was of course speaking metaphorically.’ Owen mimes lifting a cup to his lips. ‘You’re expecting me to make you a coffee?’ his visitor asks incredulously.
‘Yes. I wouldn’t have thought that would be too difficult a task for a man who’s offering to hand me the world on a plate.’
Sebastian’s eyes narrow and his eyebrows come together to form a dark ‘V’. The finely sculpted features take on an altogether uglier twist, and Owen fears he may have pushed this dark angel too far. Owen flinches as Sebastian tosses the contract into the air, and then brings his hands together with a sharp slap. When he opens them again, he holds the contract in one hand, and a Costa take-away carton of coffee in the other. With due ceremony, he hands the hot beverage to a visibly stunned Owen, then proceeds to give him a smart tap on the head with the rolled up contract.
‘A small demonstration of the powers at my disposal my friend, I assure you,’ he says with just a hint of venom in his tone.
Anxious to avoid making matters worse by saying the wrong thing, Owen elects to remain silent; concentrates instead on carefully removing the lid from his carton of coffee and, aware of the irony involved, breathes in the strong, dark aroma of arabica beans. The coffee, when he takes a tentative sip, is surprisingly hot and Owen wonders how Sebastian pulled off this seemingly impossible trick – if indeed it was one – without scalding himself in the process. His natural timidity, and a terror of the horrors his visitor could inflict upon him if he is what he claims to be, however, deters him from seeking an explanation.
As he quietly sips his coffee, Owen uses the time to study his charismatic visitor more closely. Sebastian’s good looks aren’t restricted to his finely chiselled face, he is also extremely well-dressed in an exquisitely cut charcoal grey suit that could only have been tailored in Savile Row. The pale pink shirt too looks bespoke, as do the black leather Oxford shoes. It is clear, even to an unsophisticated shopper like Owen, who buys most of his clothes from his local supermarket, that no expense has been spared in putting this impressive ensemble together. All six foot of him, from the top of his swept back, black hair down to the toes of his highly polished, black shoes, bears the stamp of quality and good taste. The shoes alone would have cost Owen the best part of a month’s wages in the days before he was made redundant 18 months ago. A bit of a dandy is our Mister Sebastian, Owen decides, but is still not sure if he is the fallen angel he claims to be, or just a clever conjuror. The pride the man takes in his appearance, his vanity seem all too human and yet there is something about him – Owen couldn’t yet say what – that points to the unearthly.
Owen drains the last of his coffee but playing for time, continues to take the occasional sip from the empty carton. Sebastian’s dark eyes narrow to slits and with a shudder, Owen realises that he has been rumbled. It’s uncanny, as though the man can read his mind, or has x-ray vision.
‘Now that you’ve had your caffeine fix perhaps we can get back to the business in hand,’ he says sharply. Producing a pen, seemingly from thin air, Sebastian hands it and the contract to Owen. ‘Just complete the declaration and sign here,’ he adds, pointing to the relevant section at the foot of the document.
‘A ball point?’ queries Owen, pen poised in his hand. ‘Shouldn’t it be in blood?
‘Much too melodramatic darling, plain old-fashioned ink is perfectly acceptable and just as legally binding, you’ll find.’
Just as well, thinks Owen, as he turns his attention to the list, he can’t stand the sight of blood.
I the undersigned do hereby swear that I have committed each of the following deadly sins. (Please tick appropriate box)
Chewing nervously on the end of the pen, he proceeds to re-read it several times more.
Sebastian, meanwhile, is displaying increasing signs of irritation; retrieving his briefcase, he paces the floor, dramatically shooting his cuff and consulting his watch at frequent intervals as though he has a train to catch. ‘Need some help with that?’ he snaps.
With a trembling hand, Owen quickly places a tick in two of the boxes, scribbles his signature on the dotted line below and thrusts the document at his impatient companion.
Sebastian scans the document with rapid, darting movements of his eyes which glitter despite their dark colouring. ‘Are you for real, Owen?’ he growls. ‘Or should that be Saint Owen? You’ve only ticked two of the boxes. Nobody’s that perfect.’
‘It says tick the appropriate boxes and I have – that’s all there is,’ says Owen defensively, and wonders why he is being so apologetic for having led a decent life; one untarnished by most of the sins that flesh is heir to.
‘Oh, I think there is. Aren’t you forgetting something?’
‘Am I, what’s that then?’
Sebastian grins wolfishly. ‘Don’t be coy, Owen. You know what I’m talking about.’
Owen stares blankly back at him. ‘Your sibling . . . your very successful sibling?’
‘My brother? What’s he got to do with this?’
‘Oh, I think you know where this is leading . . .’
‘And where’s that then?’
‘E-N-V-Y, my dear. They’ve got it. You want it. ENVY! Flaunt it, don’t they?’
‘Those that have it.’ Sebastian grins broadly. ‘That brother of yours and his wife for instance. You’ve had your nose pressed up against their window pane for years, haven’t you, Owen? All those shiny new things in that big, expensive house of theirs. You’d love some of that, wouldn’t you, eh?’
‘No, not really. I’ve never gone in for ostentatious consumerism myself,’ Owen, declares loftily.
Sebastian can see that he has touched on a raw nerve and presses home his advantage. ‘Ostentatious consumerism indeed. Just listen to yourself, Owen. You’re a man in denial. Come on, admit it, you sometimes long for the life they lead. And hey, why not? Why should he have so much, when you have so little?’ He takes in Owen’s shabby living room with a sweep of his hand.
Owen shifts uncomfortably in his chair. ‘Well, I suppose I do sometimes think it’s a bit unfair. I mean, I worked really hard at school. Stayed on for the sixth form. Got my A levels. I was the clever one. The grafter. Ashley was the dunce . . .’
‘Ash . . . ley, really?’ Sebastian rolls the name around his tongue as if savouring it.
‘Yeah, at least I got the better of him there.’
‘No, I think it’s a lovely name. Good for a boy or a girl.’
‘See what I mean.’
Sebastian places his briefcase on a pine coffee table and seats himself in the armchair on the opposite side of the fireplace to Owen, crosses one lanky leg over the other. ‘Go on. Tell me more about Ash . . . ley,’ he purrs.
Owen can’t help himself. Years of barely supressed sibling rivalry come bubbling to the surface and pour out of him like lava from an exploding volcano. ‘Well, he just bunked off lessons. Never did his homework. He was always getting the cane for some prank or other. Sent him to the head myself once, when I was a prefect. He got six of the best that time.’
‘You reported your own brother?’ says Sebastian gleefully.
‘Had to, he was late for school three days in a row,’ Owen declares righteously.
‘But still, your little brother . . .’
‘Yeah well, he was a pain in the arse. Mummy’s little favourite. If I had a pound for every time I had to give him one of my toys just to shut him up, I’d be a millionaire. “I want. I want,” that’s all you ever heard from our Ashley. Funny thing is, he never wanted to play with the damned thing until I picked it up.’
‘Oh Owen, so bitter and so twisted . . . I love it!’ Sebastian brings a hand down on his thigh with a resounding slap and chuckles throatily. ‘It’s still not bad enough though, I’m afraid. You have to have committed all seven to qualify for entry. It’s tedious I know, but the Boss made a deal with He who must not be mentioned and a deal’s a deal.’ He strokes his chin thoughtfully. ‘We’ve only got three so far. Oh dear, this is going to be more difficult than I thought. Perhaps you should consider the other place. With your record you should have no trouble getting in upstairs.’
‘I’ve already tried them. They didn’t want to know.’ Owen admits glumly.
Sebastian jumps to his feet and vigorously rubs his hands together. ‘Well then, we’re just going to have to put a few more stains on that unblemished character of yours. Oh, I can’t believe I’m saying this Owen, but you are one of the saddest cases I’ve had in the last three hundred years. Prepare yourself for a bumpy ride – Uncle Sebbie is going to take you in hand!’
‘Oh no,’ whines Owen. ‘I’d rather you didn’t.’
‘Trust me Owen, Sebbie knows best.’ Sebastian assures him. ‘But before we go, a bite to eat, I think,’ he says and claps his hands.