I promised to come back with more information when I'd progressed The Muffler's Ministry a little, while waiting for feedback on My Family and Other Ghosts. Well, here I am.
The image above won't be the final cover – for a start, having a plane in the sky wouldn't exactly be appropriate in my fantasy world – I've just been playing with a few ideas. As I've found before, the images I use when exploring potential covers usually end up inspiring aspects of the story. That was certainly a case here – you'll find the castle depicted bears a striking resemblance toe Portsea Castle in the first chapter.
Ah yes, the first chapter. As I did with My Family and Other Ghosts, I'm going to share early drafts of the opening three chapters, just so you can see a little about the emerging world. Now this section chapter below needs a lot of editing, and I expect I'll change a lot of details later, but it's a start. It's overly long too, coming in at 4,000 words, and it didn't even cover all the ground I was anticipating..
I'm really glad I've written it, as it helped clarify a few aspects of the story that I hadn't fully thought through – in particular the relationship between my protagonist, Rowan Webb and his low-level nemesis, Dave Elkington. Given this, I've planned the next two chapters, which I'll share when available. Once those are done, then I'll be able to confirm the structure of the rest of the book, and plan part one in a lot more details. It's definitely coming together nicely in my mind, although the first chapter is a bit rough-and-ready at this stage.
As Rowan Webb would say, I digress. Here's the first draft of chapter one. Enjoy!
Chapter 1: Promotion
My name is Rowan Webb. If you're reading this account, that probably means that I'm dead.
Shit, that's depressing.
Actually, thinking about it, it's more likely that Dave Elkington's stolen my journal and passed it around. If so, give it back and go and tell Dave what I think of him, the thieving bastard.
So Pythia's belatedly recommended that I keep a record of everything that's happening, just in case there's an investigation when this is all over. It would have been nice to have been told that a few months ago, but hey, better late than dead.
Speaking of which, if this is being used posthumously at a tribunal, I want to make one thing absolutely clear. You must be in no doubt that I was put in this impossible position due to one individual's actions. Yes, of course: this is all Dave Elkington's fault.
Right, time to play catch up. I'll have to go back a few months to where this all started and then go forward from there. In those dim and distant days, my designation was XD4.1.2, and I was sharing an office with my close colleague, XD4.1.1 – AKA Dave Elkington, naturally. The bastard.
I decided to head into the office early on that momentous day when everything changed, intending to use the time alone to get my thoughts in order for the trials ahead. Life wasn't going to be the same afterwards. I knew exactly what would happen.
In my defence, my total hubris was a product of a privileged upbringing. I knew it even then. It's just that, up until that point, everything had always gone to plan. It's not that I hadn't deserved my success – I'd worked genuinely hard to get where I was, honest – but I knew, if everything went wrong, that I had my family to fall back on. My Dad was ultimately my boss at work and at home.
The office of the Portsea Ministry of Information was in the middle of a sprawling complex of single-story brick civil service buildings straggling along the top of the cliff face that overlooked the flooded remains of the old city. The view walking up the slope of the hill from the centre of the town of Portsea never ceased to humble me.
I know I'm lucky to live in such peaceful, settled times. The visible ruin and destruction of the past down below, with the coastal waves lapping powerfully over its corpse, serves as a constant reminder to keep our world safe, to not allow us to backslide into the old ways. At least, that's what Dad never fails to tell me whenever he gets the chance. He's probably right.
Still, it's a pity we let our modern office buildings get quite so rundown. The brickwork was crumbling away in too many places. The uniformly uninspiring beige paintwork in the long corridors down the centre of each block was grubby and flaking, as were the fading cream doors leading to the offices off either side. To really cap it off, blocking the corridor right ahead of me was the dishevelled figure of Dave Elkington.
Have I mentioned him before?
There he was, decked out in his trademark threadbare brown cardigan, all greasy blond curls and sloped shoulders, standing in front of Norman Taylor's office. He looked embarrassed as he saw me heading in his direction, although my empathy received more of a sense of resignation.
'Good morning, 1.2,' he said. His forced levity was so obvious it was painful.
'Morning, 1.1,' I replied in the same tone. We had such endearing names for each other – then again, I wasn't going to call him XD4.1.1 every time.
I joined him in looking reverentially at poor Norman's door. It seemed appropriate, today of all days. The nameplate simply read Norman Taylor XD4.1, underneath which we'd stuck a paper sign: RIP.
It was less than two weeks since our boss, Norman Taylor, had died suddenly of a heart attack. I know it's not fashionable, but I'd really liked the guy. He was firm, forthright, yet quietly supportive. You knew where you stood with him, but you always felt he was on your side. And now he was gone.
That left an XD4.1-shaped hole in the section, one I was determined to fill. I was the best person for the job, obviously, and had sailed through the early application stages. Today was the day of the final interviews for the position of Head of Section, with the ultimate reward of dropping the last digit from my designation. XD4.1.2 would soon become XD4.1; I've come a long way since my seminal three-pointer days as XD188.8.131.52. There was only one other person left standing, one other contender who could block my way onto the next rung of the ladder.
You've guessed who it is, haven't you? If not, here's a clue: it's an anagram of Elk Davingtone.
'Shall we take a look, Elks?' I said.
'Good idea, Ro,' he said.
'Rowan,' I replied instinctively. He knew I hated shortening my name; I really shouldn't rise to it.
I waved my hand to open the door and stood back to let Dave in first. The office wasn't significantly larger than the one Dave and I currently shared, but whoever was the new section head would have the luxury of a room all to themselves. It had already been cleared of Norman's personal stuff, so there were only a couple of empty filing cabinets, a large wooden desk, a comfy padded chair behind it and two much-less-comfy chairs in front.
There were a couple of things that made the office particularly magnificent. Firstly, there was an awesome view out towards the sea, if you ignored the wire fence in the way – much better than the earthen bank we got on the other side of the building. Secondly, it had wall-to-wall carpet, a luxury most people didn't even have in their homes. Obviously, I did, but it felt a hedonistic delight to have it at work. All we had in our office were bare tiles, and half of those were cracked. Admittedly this dark green carpet was a little worse for wear, but still.
Dave stared gloomily at Norman's chair.
'I guess you'll be sitting there by the end of the day,' he said.
'I'm not counting my chickens,' I said. 'Could be either of us.'
'Yeah, right. They'll be too scared of your Dad to pick anyone else.'
That was a fair point, but I hoped it was wrong. I've told my father often enough I want to make my own way, and he always avers – in his usual pompously overbearing manner – that he'd never dream of interfering on my behalf, but that doesn't mean the influence isn't there.
'You know I've told Dad not to interfere,' I said.
I'm not sure I even convinced myself. My Dad was the big cheese, the Minister of Information, good old XD himself. I never had any choice but to join the Ministry once I was of age, but I was determined to climb the ladder thanks to my own merit.
It was a bit of a bugger that career advancement usually needed someone above you to die, and then we could all shuffle up to fill in the gaps, while supportively refraining from stabbing each other in the back – at least, while anyone looking.
As the senior two-pointers in the section, the role of Norman's replacement was always going to boil down to a choice between the two of us. Despite Dave being a year older, I'm convinced my record was better than his. I've certainly had a wider range of hands-on experience, a lot of it out investigating in the community, but who knows how these committees make their decisions.
'You think that matters?' said Dave. 'They know who he is. They know who you are. That'll be enough.'
I bent over and picked up an invisible object from the carpet, proffering it to him. He glared back at me blankly.
'It's your chip,' I said. 'It just fell off your shoulder.'
Without speaking, he wheeled and left the office.
OK, I admit it. I could be an insufferable jerk back then.
Don't get me wrong. I'd gotten on pretty well with Dave Elkington over the years we'd worked together, and we'd risen to the head of a pretty efficient section in the Ministry, identifying and correcting misinformation whenever it reared its ugly head out in the community. It was inevitable really that this would always stand between us, the expectation that I'd be ahead of him in the queue thanks to my father. He was probably right, although I'm sure I'd be there on merit anyway.
I followed Dave into our office, which was down the corridor a little. He'd sat behind his ramshackle desk and was aggressively opening the brown envelopes in his in tray. I could feel how annoyed he was. It had been one step too far at the wrong time.
'Sorry, Dave,' I said, using his real name for effect. 'Look, it's going to be a tense day for both of us. That was my fault, sorry. Truce?'
He looked up and smiled thinly.
He returned to sorting through his mail that had been left over from the previous day. I joined him with my own pile. It was the usual routine for most things: check your name was on the scrawled circulation list pinned to the envelope; open it; scan the content of the document to see if it was vaguely interesting, relevant or needed actioning; decide it wasn't; put it back in the envelope; scrub out your name from the circulation list; float it into the out tray by the door, where it would be rescued eventually by Thelma and her mail trolley.
Dave Elkington abruptly stood up.
'I'd better be off,' he said.
His interview was scheduled before mine. That was good, he'd be out of my hair, which would let me get my thoughts straight ahead of mine.
'Good luck,' I said.
'Thanks. You too.'
I genuinely did wish him good luck; despite everything, he was a decent guy. As long as my luck was better than his, of course.
I left in ample time when my turn approached. The interview was in the Ministry HQ which, with typically good planning, was the building right at the far end of the site. Wouldn't it have made more sense to locate it in the middle so the average journey would be reduced? Once I get promoted to XD, it's on my list of things to fix, along with a subsidised bar in each building.
I wended my way down the corridor and out the far end of our block, into the next block which housed XD3, out its far end, into the block housing XD2, out the… you get the idea. All the buildings were identically beige and battered, lined up like dutiful bridesmaids to the HQ at the head of the procession. The only thing that changed from one block to the next was the imposing presence of the Portsea Castle ruins on the other side of the perimeter fence beyond the HQ. Its increasing proximity dominated the vista.
The castle was shrouded in mystery. Another ruin of the old world, it perched at the very the peak of the hill above the flooded city. The lower area of the keep was skirted by a stone wall capped by crumbling crenellations, until it met the face of the promontory, atop which loomed the shell of the main castle building. Although closed off, it seemed uninhabitable. Yet occasionally, people could be seen making their way up the path which wended around the lower wall up to a small opening shortly before the cliff.
When the wind was right, voices drifted down the hill; sounds of shouting, merriment, argument, music could be plainly heard; figures could be seen climbing the ruined battlements; smoke rose from its depths as if from kitchen fires; muffled explosions sent transient plumes skywards. It was inhabited, but by whom?
OK, shrouded in mystery might be a bit of an overstatement. I've never really tried too hard to find out, it was more fun to speculate. I'd asked Dad, and he said it was on a need to know basis. He clearly knew but didn't think my 'but I need to know' was a good enough reason to answer. Pompous git.
The favourite rumour was that it was the home of our nameless, faceless president, X, who covertly runs everything by keeping all the ministers from XA to XG in check. That may be true, but X seems to be a bit of a party animal if that's the case. I reckon it's a bunch of druids squatting there, and everyone's too afraid to ask.
I'm digressing again.
Emerging out of XD1's block, I was finally at the slightly larger HQ building, or more properly, the home of XD0. As well as being where XD – AKA Dad – worked, the XD0 section was where the most vital activities of the Ministry were controlled. Yes, all the admin zombies were based there, but more importantly, so were the cleaners, cooks and the mail staff – without whom everything would rapidly grind to a halt. And most critically, that was where the canteen and the solitary bar was located.
There was no time for the bar. Reluctantly, I made my way to the conference room where the interviews were being held. There were two straight-backed wooden chairs placed either side of the entrance door, so I took the hint and sat on one. According to the loudly ticking clock on the opposite wall, it was ten minutes before mine was due to start, so I waited, studiously avoiding eye contact with the zombies passing up and down the corridor before me. No, not real zombies; I'm being metaphorical here. I had no idea that zombies existed at this point.
And I waited.
The chair soon became incredibly uncomfortable. Ten minutes after mine was supposed to have started, I stood up, and walked around for a few minutes, stretching my back. They must be giving Dave quite a grilling. Should I be worried? They evidently hadn't dismissed his application yet if it was still going on.
After pacing up and down for a while, I retook my seat. A few more minutes later, I opted for a change of scene and moved to the other chair. It was even more uncomfortable. I was just about to move back when the door opened. A shattered looking Dave Elkington walked out and collapsed into the other seat.
'How did it go?' I said.
'OK,' he said. 'I think. That was tough.'
'Anything I should know?'
He grinned wearily and shook his head.
'I'm not allowed to talk to you.'
'Nope,' said Dave. 'Well, other than I've been told to wait here. They'll call us in again afterwards to tell us the result.'
'That quick?' I said.
It was a genuine surprise. The square wheels of the Ministry didn't usually turn that fast.
'You know it's been decided already,' said Dave. 'This is just going through the motions to put on a show.'
I shook my head but didn't know what to say. Luckily, it was taken out my hands when the door reopened, and I was summoned into the room.
I immediately recognised two of the four people in the room. One was the XD4 division head, Courtney Godel, who'd be my immediate boss after promotion; the second was Martha Deveson, XD4.2, one of the other section heads under Courtney Godel who'd be a direct colleague. It made sense they'd be on the interview panel. They were sat on one side of the long wooden conference table next to a total stranger. The fourth person at the far end, sat away from the rest, looked vaguely familiar; I was sure he worked in the admin section and appeared to be there to write the minutes. I could safely ignore him.
'Come in,' said Courtney. 'Sit down. Thank you for coming. Would you like a glass of water?'
'Yes, please,' I said as I sat in the slightly more comfortable chair directly opposite the three of them. My mouth was already feeling dry. I'd need it if my interview was as long as Dave's.
The bald stranger looked towards the tray on which glasses and water jug stood to one side of the table and narrowed his eyes slightly. One of the tumblers rose up until it was near the top of the pitcher, which didn't move, but the water arced out of it as if being sucked along an invisible tube and splashed gently into the glass, stopping the moment it was full. The tumbler floated towards me and settled on the desk near my right hand.
'Thank you,' I said uncertainly, trying not to let my jaw drop open. I'd never seen a telekinetic ability so precisely deployed before. To be honest, I didn't know it was even possible; most of us struggle to turn a door handle at the best of times.
I sipped it while trying to regain my equilibrium and took a sneaky peek at their moods. From Courtney and Martha, I only received an ambiguous sense of calm, as if none of this really mattered. That might have annoyed me, other than the fact that I could read absolutely nothing from this unexpected stranger. It was as if he had no emotions whatsoever, or as if he wasn't actually there.
Courtney, who had been rifling through the pack of paperwork before him, looked up and smiled. It was a predator's smile.
'I'm sure neither Martha nor I needs an introduction, but please may I introduce you to Mr Bristow, the final member of this interview panel. He's here as an external observer.'
Mr Bristow nodded in acknowledgement, although given his lack of a discernible chin it was more of a slight angling of his brow.
'Pleased to meet you,' I said. I quickly weighed up whether I should be inquisitive to impress them with my sharpness, or should take it at face value. 'May I ask which division you represent?'
It certainly wasn't XD4, and I hadn't seen him around walking through the other division's blocks, but he might be new. From the way he narrowed his eyes again in response, I feared I'd made the wrong call.
'He's from another Ministry,' interjected Norman.
'It begins with X,' said Mr Bristow. His voice was unexpectedly deep as if it was emerging from his stomach, but again he was totally unreadable. I didn't know what to make of the dry laconic humour of his answer which totally belied his expression.
'Let's begin,' said Norman. 'Tell us why you think you're the man for this job?'
That was exactly as I'd expected, and just what I'd prepared for. I spouted off my rehearsed spiel, giving all the examples where I could convincingly make it sound as if I'd been fulfilling Norman's role already – without boasting too much, I hoped. There were only a couple of interruptions for clarifications from Courtney and Martha, but nothing from this mysterious Bristow-without-a-first-name.
After that, we settled into a comfortable back and forth, with questions from Courtney and Martha for which I had confident, and usually truthful, answers. Mr Bristow said nothing but sat making delicate notes on his tiny notepad, the only thing he had with him.
The questioning only started to get more thought-provoking towards the end. I kicked myself when Courtney asked his last question; it was one I should have seen coming.
'You worked under Norman Taylor for several years. You know how your section works, how he organised things. Tell me, what would you do differently?'
I wished Norman had been a bit more open about his relationship with Courtney as his boss, and whether he regularly got grief about anything, but he'd kept his managerial cards close to his chest. I would have tailored my answer around any of Courtney's past gripes. Given the lack of any evidence, the best approach was probably softly, softly.
'I think Norman ran a tight ship; we were a well-organised section under his leadership. We knew what we were supposed to do, and why. I'd like to use that as a starting point, maintain the status quo to ensure there are no missteps at first. I expect I'll gradually want to tweak things, but it would be a mistake to rush into them blindly, and I'd want to take your feedback on that, and that of the other section heads too.'
I nodded towards Martha as I finished. Was that too bland? Too obsequious?
'What would you do about Dave Elkington?' said Martha.
'What do you mean?'
'How do you think he will feel when you become his boss?'
Good question. I hadn't really thought about it. I did rather like her use of the word when rather than if though.
'I'm sure he'll be disappointed.'
'What will you do about it?'
'I'll have a chat with him. He's a professional, I'm sure he'll take it the right way. I'll find a way to give him more responsibility.'
I could feel how inadequate that was. I'd spent all the time thinking about myself in the role, I hadn't considered the impact on anyone else. Still, I'd make it work – it's not as if Dave wasn't expecting it anyway.
'Thank you,' said Martha. 'That's all from me.'
'Excellent, thank you, Martha,' said Courtney. 'Before we conclude, is there anything you'd like to ask, Mr Bristow?'
Mr Bristow placed his pen neatly beside his notepad. He ran his finger down the page, flipped it over, licked his finger, and flipped one more page. He nodded, looked up and spoke in his languidly resonant voice. What an odd man; short, stout, chinless and yet he had a strange air of authority emanating from every pore. Or was that just a side-effect of his enigmatic unreadability?
'You've spent a significant proportion of your time away from your desk, out in the community.'
'That's correct,' I said. I wasn't going to be too forthcoming until I knew what he was getting at. That was a statement, not a question.
'It's my job. Our role is to identify and correct any misinformation spreading in the community. We often only get the whiff of a problem at first, so we have to get out there and sniff it out. I can't do that from my desk.'
This was basic stuff. Why was he asking?
'Did you enjoy it?'
'I think I was very effective in that aspect of the role,' I said, still uncertain what he was getting at.
'I can see that from your prior appraisals. That wasn't my question. Did you enjoy it?'
I'm not sure that was a question I'd ever asked myself. It was my job. It had been expected of me from the moment I'd been born. I always knew I'd work in my father's Ministry, he'd made that clear from the start. It was how it was, not something to be questioned. Mine was never to be a life rotating around the essential community support roles to justify my guaranteed basic income. Enjoyment had never entered the equation. And yet…
'Yes, I did,' I admitted to myself for the first time. I liked getting out of the office.
He wasn't going to let up; it was clearly important to him. Best to be honest and speak from the heart, assuming I can find it.
'It was good to get out and meet people from less privileged backgrounds, see what ordinary' – I inwardly cringed when I said the word – 'people's lives are like. Until you understand what makes people tick, you can't find the best way to counter the misinformation. Most of all, I liked the detective work – talking to people, gaining their trust, finding out where rumours were coming from. It felt… rewarding.'
He nodded, picked up his pen, made some more notes, put his pen down again.
'Thank you. That's all.'
And that was it. I was sent outside to sit alongside Dave while they made their decision. All we could do now was wait together in the purgatory of expectation.