My fifth novel is about a cursed wine yard, where university students looking for some quick cash in hand work find themselves trapped. Enjoy a rough copy of the first chapter for free. A little Christmas present from me to you!
How far are we willing to go for success? We have all asked ourselves that at one point, if you were against the wall, your dream slipping through your fingers, what depths would you sink to in order to save it. You might have a line you won’t cross. Other people don’t.
Malc felt his stomach in knots as he studied the glass of wine on the table.
This should be relaxing, sitting down to a glass of red. Maybe if it wasn’t the wine that was associated with his name, it would be a more enjoyable experience. Malc knew all too well that his life depended on this very glass. Worst of all, not just his own life, the life of his wife and two sons.
So much was riding on this simple red fluid.
Sweat was already beading on his forehead. He went to hold the glass, a slight tremor in his hand.
“Here we go,” he said with forced enthusiasm to himself, as if it was no big deal, even though he had been looking at the glass intently since he poured it this afternoon, almost two hours ago.
I have a good feeling about this batch, I know it.
He kept repeating it in his head, day after day, as the debts mounted, and his business died on the vine like one of his grapes.
No more messing around.
He knocked it back.
And just as quickly spat it back out.
Sour, with a foul lingering aftertaste akin to seaweed. That was how his seasoned tongue would rate the drink, he could see it in some glossy wine aficionado magazine.
“A sharp, almost painful sour note followed by a stomach churning, salty aftertaste like garbage left out on a hot day.”
He smashed the glass of the table and let out a bellow of rage, shards flying over the floor of his kitchen, his palm left with a gash. In the dimly lit kitchen he was aware the only sound was his heaving breath.
His wife stepped from the shadows where she had been watching. Her nasal voice cut him as much as the glass did.
“Not now,” Malc groaned, not even feeling the pain in his hand. The pain in his heart was a hundred times worse.
“Now,” she said, seeming to sweep away the glass, move a seat out and sit down in one unbroken motion, “we agreed if your newest batch failed, that this ends.”
Malc shifted uncomfortably. He had said that, but he was so sure it was going to work this time. He hadn’t really thought that he was going to act on his promise.
He looked around his home, the dark vineyards outside, his little piece of this wide world.
Kate sighed. She didn’t like chewing her husband out, but the dream was over. That much was unavoidable. A vineyard in Perth had always been a pipedream, as if proper Scottish wine could ever be grown. Not quirky token wine people marvelled at and never drank again but real, proper wine. Wine that could go toe to toe with France or Italy. Malc had believed in it, believed in it so much, and she had got caught up in that. Her natural pragmatism was washed away by his unending optimism.
The dream was dead now though. The putrid liquid Malc had tried to drink was the result of all their hard work.
Don’t mince words, this is a total failure.
“Tomorrow we can go to the bank,” she said, stroking his arm, “the vineyard is worthless but the land is valuable. Maybe enough to get rid of all those business loans or at least most of them. You can go back to deliveries, I will get a job again in the office, they said they had a temp space that needed filled.”
“A few months, maybe a year, we can get back up on our feet,” she smiled at him.
Malc fought back the tears in his eyes.
She didn’t wait for a response and left him to his thoughts, making her way to the bedroom. Kate was the family disciplinarian, her two sons would attest to that. She was tough, you had to be, but she still felt for her husband. She cared for him and it hurt her to see his dream in pieces. That was no excuse for wallowing though, you had to dust yourself off and move on. He wasn’t going to be a millionaire entrepreneur, he had tried and now it was time for damage limitation.
Lying in her bed, she decided that tomorrow morning she would make Malc his favourite breakfast, the full fry up. That always put him in a good mood, maybe at night as well she would indulge in her wifely duties (not that she minded at all, she still found Malc attractive even if he was losing his hair and was a bit more rotund these days).
She could help Malc, she knew that she could. All that really mattered was they were together.
Malc looked at the puddle of red wine on the floor like it has personally betrayed him.
“This is how it ends,” he growled. He grew up on the tales of mavericks, men and women who were called fools by the ignorant masses but then rose up and stood victorious. He had always quietly counted himself among them. From a family of failures but destined for greatness.
Now though it seemed like he was one of the people everyone called a fool…and just was. There was no good ending to his story. They told him you couldn’t grow this kind of wine in Scotland, that even the south of England was a push. He ignored them, as through sheer force of will he would make it work.
Malc cruelly dissected his own life, a forty-year-old failure, a string of failed ideas, married to a loyal wife who had seen her life savings squandered on flawed business ideas, two sons who wasted years of their lives trying to prop up his latest venture.
The guilt he felt was mostly for his own failed dreams but he acknowledged that his suffering sons and wife had lost some good years of their lives as well.
He wouldn’t go to bed, he sat glowering in the darkness, rage coursing through his veins.
“I’d do anything for this to work.”
Self-pity turned to hatred, hatred for this miserable world and everything it had done to fuck him over.
Dark forces watch over the world, as they always have, and always will. Thousands of them swam in the sky, swarming over each other, or slithered through the streets, invisible to mortal eyes, able to pass through solid structures with ease.
The pain, suffering, misery, that living creatures emanated sustained them like the mortal races and water. They drank it and what a sweet elixir it was. Smaller dark spirits delighted in the daily strife mortals faced, depression at work, alcoholism, lovers betrayed, street muggings. This was enough for them and it was in an endless supply in a world of six billion people.
Those smaller worms and serpents parted in the streets and cringed deferentially when the larger monstrosities passed. The Dark Lords, the apex predators, they revelled in terrorist attacks, wars, genocide. Lone creatures, they glided through the cityscapes, gigantic entities, as tall as a skyscraper on its side, looking for true horror to feast on.
Since they had first stood upright, mortals had reached out to the dark spirits in profane rituals, horrific sacrifices and more. These ceremonies only served to stroke the egos of the dark spirits, they didn’t need anything so mundane to intervene in mortal affairs, although they did enjoy them.
One Dark Lord, vicious and cruel even by the standards of his ruthless brethren, could sense a pinprick of white hot rage. It shone brightly, rippling through the air, intense and pulsating. Such hatred, anger, it was beautiful in its purity. Although the being was not calling out to the dark spirits, they could feel him, and revelled in it.
The Dark Lord flew towards it, knowing there was the possibility of such havoc.
He found it all mouth-watering.
Malc turned off the kitchen light, getting ready to head to bed. There was nothing else he could do. He had hoped that, through sheer focus, he would force a solution to occur to him. Like in the movies, there would be that Eureka moment and a plan to save the business and his family would occur to him. That was how it was meant to happen. An entrepreneur, against the wall, comes up with the idea to make it all okay.
His head was as empty as his future. He swore softly to himself again.
“Loser,” he said, his reflection all too clear in the metal table top.
His limbs ached having sat on the kitchen stool for the last few hours, especially his back. He wasn’t a young man anymore, he needed a hot bath and sleep. As if, he would be tossing and turning all night, desperately looking for a solution to his ruined life.
He noticed the dull blue light emanating from his living room. Kate must have left the television on.
And she’s always moaning to me about electricity bills.
Normally he would have ignored that without a second thought but in his current state of mind, Malc considered this an affront, he was half tempted to stomp upstairs and demand she come down herself and turn it off.
“I’ll do it myself,” he grumbled.
He walked into the living and stopped dead.
A man was sitting in the living room chair, at ease, as if he belonged there.
“Hello Malc,” the voice purred, oddly stilted with a strange accent he couldn’t place. It was as if the man was using his lips and mouth for the first time.
“W-w-who are you?” Malc stammered.
A home invasion, that was what part of Malc thought it was. Some junkie that had broken in for a quick shake down. The idea was almost laughable, as if he had any money.
That was the simple, the sane explanation of why a man was sitting in his living room. It wasn’t the answer though, Malc knew that, there was more danger here than that. Something he couldn’t put his finger on, a wrongness to it all.
The figure was mostly concealed in shadow, a tall, lanky man in flowing robes of darkness. His eyes were a sickly, putrid green, all that was visible apart from shining white teeth. Even though the living room was lit, the bright screen glowing, it was as if the light couldn’t touch whoever this man was, getting lost in his darkness.
“Who are you?” Malc asked again.
“That is not important Malc,” the figure retorted to the terrified man.
His strange inflections made him say it like ttttthat is not impooortant Mmmmalc.
“I can help youuuuu Mmmmalc. I want to help you.”
Malc, feeling like this was all a nightmare and that last batch had poisoned him as bad as any bathtub moonshine, simply nodded.
“I cccccan make this farmmmm groooow Malc. I can make your dreams come true.”
Despite the fear, despite the insanity of the situation, the part of Malc’s brain that housed ambition suddenly woke up. He had prayed for an answer, wished for a solution from on high and now here it was, sitting in his living room, offering to help. Here sat the answer to his prayers, on his cheap Ikea chair, as if he was a pal popping by.
“You would do that for me?”
Those sickly eyes narrowed, “yessss.”
“What if I say no,” he dared to venture.
“I willll leave you in peeeace.”
The Dark Lord meant it as well. Humans were so wonderful in the pain they inflicted and crafting their own demise, that was where the true satisfaction came from. He had to power to rend this pathetic mortal limb from limb, to annihilate his farm in unholy fire, to destroy this whole hemisphere if he so desired. But that was all quick, no agony, only surprise then death. He would starve in those conditions. Destroying the mortal races was within the power of any Dark Lord but that was akin to slitting their own throat. They needed the cattle.
He wanted pain, misery, sadness, betrayal, the sweetest nectar of all. Death was often a part of the process but there was more to it than that.
Malc visibly gulped, “you want something in return though?”
Maybe Malc had a string of bad luck and perhaps some of his business ideas had been failures but he wasn’t totally naïve. He had the feeling this creature was not of this earth but if the universe had one rule, it had to be you don’t get anything for free.
“A prrrrice has to be paid Mmmmalc.”
The Dark Lord grinned with undisguised malice.
“Are you the devil?” he whispered.
“Something muuuuch worse Malc…”
Other books by Lee Johnston, available on Amazon
North Sea Nightmare
The Shape in the Sky