Identity Theft – a short story I wrote ages ago and the tweet that reminded me of it

At some point over World Fantasy Con weekend, someone, I think it was @gavreads, tweeted something along the lines of ‘do authors realise they own a little bit of our souls?’ I knew that reminded me of something I once wrote but I couldn’t think what… Aha, rummaging around in the back cupboards of the hard drive yesterday, I came across this! Which flips the idea completely, and isn’t really my usual style of thing. Still, you may find it amusing/creepy, according to taste. And no, I’m really not at all sure what I had in mind when I wrote it.

        Identity Theft

     Dear Miss Enstone,
    You are my favourite writer. I am sick in hospital and read your books a lot. My favourite character is Delly. I hope she finds her grandfather. Mummy says she will by me a signed copy of your next book when my chematherapy is over.

    Rubbing his knuckles, he set the sparkly gel pen down beside his card-index box. This immature rounded script made his hand ache. The spelling mistakes were a good touch but was he really thinking himself into the mind of a terminal ten year old girl?
    He slid the pink notepaper with frolicking puppies, their fluffy ears askew, into the matching envelope. A sponge dampened the flap to avoid leaving saliva. Stamps were handily self-adhesive. A second class stamp. Amy’s mother would save every penny. Copying the address from his file card for Annie Enstone, he tossed the envelope onto the pink pile.
    He glanced at the scarred oak door, securely bolted top and bottom. He’d slept late and hadn’t heard the other students bickering over the bathroom or accusing each other of using up the milk. But everyone should have left by now, for their lectures or their labs. They probably thought he was already in the library, dissecting English Literature.
     He shoved the insecure office chair with its fraying seat backwards over blotched carpet originally the colour of cold tea. Reaching down, he fetched out his portable typewriter, and set it on the mug rings marring the varnish of the once elegant table. He threaded a sheet of paper deftly through the rollers and stripped latex gloves off with relief. Typing didn’t leave fingerprints.
     Tossing the flaccid gloves over to the printer, for the next time the paper tray needed refilling, he sighed. Writing the letters was so much quicker with the computer’s mail merge slotting in names and addresses. He smiled. The appeal from the school librarian keen to inspire reluctant readers and gifted and talented students alike was a good piece of work. Her plan to display signed photographs of famous writers was certain to flatter Mandy Oldsworth’s vanity, and those other media darlings.
    But the typewriter was better for these next letters. He picked up another selection of index cards. Let’s see how Edmund Crawley and other reclusive, eccentric writers would respond.

    Dear Mr Crawley,
    I have long wished to tell you how much pleasure your books have given me over the years. Latterly I have been re-reading your earlier works and find them as much a delight as ever.
    Recent publications are unfortunately beyond my means as I currently reside in a home for retired priests in North Yorkshire. I am writing therefore to ask if you might donate signed copies of ‘Angel’s Breath’ and ‘The Baldock Brewer’ to our small library—

    An angry fist hammered on the door. ‘It was your turn to put the bins out, wanker!’
    ‘Dick.’ A second voice sniggered. ‘Sorry, Richard.’
    He sat silently, shoulders hunched, heart pounding.
    ‘What the fuck’s he doing in there?’
    The voices retreated, boots heavy on the stairs.
    ‘Maybe those fucking books have finally fallen on his head.’
    As the front door slammed, he looked around. The faded, dated wallpaper was invisible behind the countless volumes salvaged from boot sales and charity shops to be ordered by genre, author and date of publication on the shelves he had made from scavenged bricks and plundered planks.
    He returned to his work. By the time he’d typed the final envelope the ribbon was fading to illegibility. He scowled. They weren’t that easy to get. Then he smiled. It gave an authenticity to the penurious priest’s plea. Yawning, he swept all the stamped letters into a stack. Should he go and post them now?
    No. He’d worked hard enough, this morning and last night, making his rounds of the derelict houses and tenantless offices that served as his return addresses. It was time for some reward, and the hardest work of all.
    He dragged a battered rucksack out from under the table. As he upended it, board-backed envelopes and jiffy bags tumbled onto the floor. He sat cross-legged, tearing them open. Photographs made one pile, books another. Virgin compliments slips and polite PA’s responses were tossed into the bin with the envelopes. Notes from authors more generous with their time went with the photographs. He ripped signed front pages from the books, desecrated remnants discarded.     By the time he had dealt with everything, his heart was racing.
Kneeling, he reached for a wooden box in the darkness under the bed. Opening it revealed a small book bound in creased cream calf-skin, two knives, one white-handled, one black, and an empty crystal inkwell. In their midst an octagonal blue candle squatted, part-burnt, in a shallow silver platter. Runes and sigils were carved deep into its facets.
    He gathered up the photographs, autographs and notes before lighting the candle with steel and flint. It burned with a greenish flame, oily smoke curling upwards. No problem. He’d long since taken the battery out of the smoke alarm.
    The book fell readily open at the right page. He barely had to look at the cramped mediaeval script any more. Slow and precise, he recited the arcane Latin as he sliced the inside of his wrist with the black knife’s razor edge. His blood dripped onto the first author’s signature. The candle flared, vapours rising, gouged runes glowing eerily bright as if illuminated from deep within.
    The whole room darkened, though the sun beyond the threadbare curtains shone as bright as ever. Shadows under the table and in the corners thickened and spread. The blackness edged closer, overwhelming the stains on the carpet. Harsh breath rasped, not merely his own. Something was crawling out of the darkness behind him. Its cold presence raised gooseflesh on the back of his neck. Look and all would be lost. He focused on the signed photograph, still reciting. Slowly the writing dissolved, sliding viscous down the blandly smiling portrait. He held a corner carefully over the open mouth of the inkwell. The darkness dripped sullenly down. A satisfied sigh behind him sent a curl of cold breath like smoke over his shoulder. He reached for a friendly note. Blood obliterated the kindly thoughts wishing little Amy well. Magic washed black malice into the inkwell.
    By the time he had finished, the unseen presence behind him was breathing slowly, sated. Drenched with pungent sweat, he felt light-headed. The scars on his arm burned where he’d re-opened successive cuts to keep the sorcery flowing. Hands shaking, he laid down the knife and snapped the silver top of the inkwell shut. Reciting the final verses in a hoarse whisper, he snuffed out the candle. The darkness retreated with a faint hiss of disappointment. Alone again, he drew a trembling breath of heartfelt relief.
    But he’d made the mistake of leaving the ink once before, only to find it dried to a useless sludge. He forced himself to his feet, crystal vial in one hand, scrabbling in the box for an old fashioned steel-nibbed pen in the other. Sitting at the table, he reached for a spiral-bound notebook. The place where he’d stopped before marked with a plaited lock of his own long hair. He opened the inkwell and a hint of shadow swirled inside the neck. Dipping his pen, he sat and waited for the words to come.
    They would come. This time there’d be no rejection slips.

Author: Juliet

Juliet E McKenna is a British fantasy author living in the Cotswolds, UK. Loving history, myth and other worlds since she first learned to read, she has written fifteen epic fantasy novels so far. Her debut, The Thief’s Gamble, began The Tales of Einarinn in 1999, followed by The Aldabreshin Compass sequence, The Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution, and The Hadrumal Crisis trilogy. The Green Man’s Heir was her first modern fantasy inspired by British folklore in 2018, and The Green Man’s Quarry in 2023 is the sixth title in this ongoing series. Her 2023 novel The Cleaving is a female-centred retelling of the story of King Arthur, while her shorter stories include forays into dark fantasy, steampunk and science fiction. She promotes SF&Fantasy by reviewing, by blogging on book trade issues, attending conventions and teaching creative writing. She has served as a judge for major genre awards. As J M Alvey, she has written historical murder mysteries set in ancient Greece.

4 thoughts on “Identity Theft – a short story I wrote ages ago and the tweet that reminded me of it

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.