Jack Strange set out on an interesting authorial escapade, providing this explanation along with his excerpt:
The conventional wisdom is that in order for a reader to enjoy a novel, it has to have a likeable central character.
I wanted to challenge that view, so I set myself the goal of writing a novel in the first person about a central character who is anything but likeable.
I wanted to see if I could persuade the reader to like the character and enjoy the book in spite of the character’s bad behaviour and deeply flawed character.
Chapter 1: The Men Who Stare at Goats
I committed my first multiple murder at the age of six. I’d read somewhere that insects don’t feel pain, and I decided to put that theory to the test. My experimental equipment consisted of a pair of tweezers, a lighted candle, and twenty longhorn beetles.
Contrary to what the theory predicted, the beetles writhed in agony, or at the very least severe discomfort, as I gripped them tightly between the tweezers and held them over the candle flame until all twenty of them were well and truly roasted.
The experiment was so enjoyable that I repeated it several times, but after a while it lost its appeal. It was clear that I was ready for bigger things.
I killed my first mammal by accident.
My parents took me on holiday to Garreg Goch Farm, a dismal caravan site in North Wales. The caravan owner on the pitch next to ours had a large dog which was tethered to the wheel of his van by a long chain. One day I approached our family caravan from the wrong direction and found myself face to face with the snarling brute. It showed every intention of biting lumps out of me. Luckily I was carrying a cricket bat and I stopped it in its tracks with a forward defensive stroke to the snout. I could possibly have fled to safety at that point, but instead I executed an imperious cover drive to the side of its head which knocked its brains to Kingdom Come.
The dog’s owner, who was somewhat anti-social, emerged from his van at speed to remonstrate with me. I burst into tears (something I had learnt could work to my advantage) but this didn’t pacify him. He walloped me hard with his calloused workman’s hands.
Later that day his caravan burnt to the ground in a freak accident while he was taking his afternoon nap. He was lucky to escape with his life. He spent the rest of his holiday recovering in the burns unit of the Garreg Goch hospital.
After leaving school, I went to King’s College in London to study medicine.
I would have preferred to study art, but lacked the talent to do so. The only time I’d ever wielded a paintbrush to good effect was the time I’d sharpened the wooden handle into a stiletto point.
I confess I had little interest in medicine, other than for the opportunities it gave me to play with cadavers. During my three years at medical school I probably socialized as much with the dead as with the living. Sometimes it was hard to tell them apart. At any rate it left little time for academic study.
In my final year, it became clear that my tutors all thought that I deserved to fail my course, so I invited myself to their homes late at night to take a viva with each of them in the hope of improving my grades. I introduced my tutors to some novel study materials which included a roll of gaffer tape, an oil lamp and an electric cattle prod. My representations were so eloquent that I graduated well ahead of my peers with a first-class honours degree.
When I left university I took a stopgap job working in a slaughterhouse. My talents with a bolt-gun were soon noted, and before long I became the go-to slaughter-man whenever there was a fresh consignment of cattle. The more the merrier, as far as I was concerned.
Bolt guns are meant to completely stun cattle, but judging by the way that some of them twitched, that isn’t always the case.
One day during the long train journey home from the slaughterhouse, I was reading the Times newspaper when I came across a small advertisement in the classifieds.
“Death was the birth of him. Interesting opportunity for self-reliant individual. Send your C.V. to Box no 452.”
That evening I put together a C.V. and posted it to the box number.
A few days later I was watching television when the telephone rang.
“Speaking,” I said.
“You responded to an advertisement we placed in the classified advertisement section of The Times newspaper.”
“Yes, that’s correct.”
“We would like to see you to discuss the matter further. When are you available for a meeting?”
“I’m prepared to be flexible.”
“Splendid. Could we say tomorrow at 9.30 a.m.?”
“That would be ideal.”
“We’re operating from a house in the suburbs. Forty-four Regency Drive in Greenwich.”
“I’ll be there tomorrow at 9.30.”
“Good show. We’re very much looking forward to seeing you.”
The next morning I called the slaughterhouse and explained that I was sick with a mystery virus. Then I polished my shoes, put on my only suit, and made my way by tube from my home in Notting Hill to North Greenwich, where I boarded a bus.
When I got to Regency Drive, I discovered that number forty-four did not exist. The even numbers only went up to forty-two, and the odd to forty-one.
As I stood at the end of the street contemplating my next move, a car pulled up next to me. It was an old-fashioned Rolls-Royce with a man in a chauffeur’s outfit in the driving seat. He wound down the window and leaned out of it and spoke to me.
“Get in the back.”
I entered the rear of the car and closed the door. There was a pair of dark glasses on the seat.
“There’s a pair of spectacles next to you,” said the chauffeur. “I’m going to have to ask you to put them on.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Procedure, that’s all. If you want to be considered for the job, you’ll do it.”
I picked up the dark glasses and did as he said. They were opaque and designed to wrap around the head so as to cut off my peripheral vision as well as my view straight ahead. They were highly effective. I was in almost total darkness. I could see nothing worth seeing.
“Keep them on until you’re told you can take them off.”
The chauffeur started the car and I felt it pulling away from the pavement. I played the game of trying to work out how many corners we took during our journey, and whether they were left or right, but I soon lost track. When the car eventually stopped, I had no idea of where we might be. I guessed we might have been driving for half an hour.
I heard the chauffeur opening the door at my side, so I unfastened my seat belt and climbed out. He took me by the arm and led me like a blind man over some paving stones then up a gravel path. I heard a doorbell ring with a Westminster Chime, and I was aware of being led through a doorway. I heard the door close behind me.
“You can remove the eyewear now.”
I took off the dark glasses and found myself in the entrance hall of a large house. Standing in front of me there was a middle aged man wearing a navy pinstriped suit.
“Please give me the glasses,” he said, so I handed them over.
“I’m here for a meeting,” I told him. “My name is Lawrence Odd.”
“Indeed. Follow me.”
He showed me into a room that looked just like the front room of any normal suburban house.
“Please take a seat. Someone will be with you in a moment.”
I sat down on one of the two sofas available, and stared through the net curtains that covered the windows looking for clues as to where I was. There was nothing to give away my whereabouts. All I could see was a tree-lined garden with rolling lawns and in the distance a high stone wall.
After a while, another middle aged man appeared, equipped with a clipboard and pen.
“Mr Odd, my name is Brian Jepson. Please call me Brian. I’m here to take you through the first stage of the selection process. I’ll ask you a few questions, if I may.”
“Please do, and please call me Lawrence.”
“Thank you. I understand that you are an orphan, Lawrence.”
“How do you know that? It’s not mentioned in my C.V.”
“We’ve made some enquiries about you.”
“I see. Well your information is quite correct. My parents died while I was in my late teens. They were a great loss to me. I loved them both dearly. I’ve had to rely on my own resources since they passed away.”
He smiled approvingly.
“Quite. You seem to have done very well for yourself, considering. You graduated with a first class honours degree in medicine. That must have taken some hard work.”
“There were occasions when I had to burn the midnight oil, so to speak.”
He nodded, as if he understood what burning the midnight oil involved. I doubted very much that he did.
“Did you enjoy your time at university Lawrence?”
“Very much so; I took to the academic lifestyle like a duck to water, and fortunately my parents, who were poor as church mice, had had the foresight to invest in some Life Insurance policies which paid out enough money to get me through my course without having to worry about finances. I like to think that they would have been pleased with the way that I used my modest inheritance.”
“I’m sure they would have been. Very few people graduate in any subject with results like yours, let alone in medicine. Indeed, we were surprised that you replied to our advertisement. People with your abilities almost always enter the medical profession and become highly paid consultants. Have you decided against becoming a Doctor?”
“I have. I’m not sure yet what I’m going to do, but I need broader horizons than a city-centre hospital or a GP’s practice in a leafy suburb.”
“Well you’ve come to the right place. We can promise you broad horizons, all right. Now before we go any further, I have a document that needs your attention. I’d like you to read it very carefully then sign it at the foot in the space provided, if you wish to continue being involved in the selection process.”
During our interview Brian had made copious notes. He removed these from his clipboard and replaced them with his document, then handed the clipboard to me. I perused the document with an air that was studiedly casual. It read:
“Waiver of Liability and Indemnity
I, the undersigned,
(1) Hereby accept any and all responsibility for any physical and/or mental harm that I might sustain as a result of putting myself forward for the selection process (the ‘Process’); and I
(2) Hereby accept responsibility for my own death (as well as personal injury) if my death is a consequence of the Process; and I
(3) Hereby waive all my legal rights in relation to the selection process whether or not the organisation (the ‘Organisation’) for which I am being selected is negligent and any of its employees are negligent; and I
(4) Hereby (for the avoidance of doubt) waive any right to take legal action for any reason whatsoever against the Organisation or any member of the Organisation; and I
(5) Hereby indemnify the Organisation and all its employees and its and their successors in title against any claims and demands arising from my participation in the Process.
Name in capitals: …………………………
“It’s a bit rum, isn’t it?” I asked.
He raised his head, a quizzical expression on his face.
“You people asking me to give up all my rights to sue you, when you haven’t even told me what the job is, and what the risks might be in attempting to get selected for it.”
He gave me a penetrating look in the eye.
“Well, you see Lawrence, that’s part of the selection process in itself. We need risk-takers for the position on offer. If you’re not prepared to assume this level of risk you’re of no use to us and you might as well leave now.”
I took my Parker Sonnet fountain pen from the inside pocket of my jacket and signed with a flourish then printed my name in block capitals, and added the date: 16 September 1981. I passed the clipboard back to him.
“Very good,” said Brian. “I didn’t entertain any doubts that you were going to do that. My colleagues are just preparing for you in another room. Would you like me to get you a cup of tea while we’re waiting for them to finish getting ready?”
“How do you like it?”
“White no sugar.”
Brian left the room, and a minute or two later an effete looking young man appeared and handed me a mug of steaming tea. I took my time drinking it, and steeled myself for the challenges that lay ahead.
At the exact moment that I finished my tea Brian stuck his head around the door.
“Lawrence, would you like to follow me?”
I put the empty mug on a low occasional table and did as I was asked. Brian led me into a back room in which there was a large desk with a strange machine on it. Behind the desk there were three people relaxing in comfortable leather office chairs which had luxurious padded arms and headrests. In front of the desk there was a single upright wooden chair with no arms or padding and which looked decidedly uncomfortable. I presumed that the wooden chair was meant for my use.
Brian placed his notes on the desk and left the room. I noticed my C.V. next to the odd machine.
I walked up to the desk and stretched out my right arm towards the individual to the left. He responded by extending his hand. I gripped it firmly in a no-nonsense male way and shook it with vigour.
“The name’s Lawrence,” I said. “Lawrence Odd, and I’m pleased to meet you.”
“Call me Durkin.”
I repeated the ritual with the other two. The middle one gave his name as Karpp. The one on the right was called Braithwaite.
When I’d shaken hands with all three of them, I sat down in the wooden chair without waiting to be invited and discovered that it was as uncomfortable as it looked. It was so constructed that the back of it was at an angle of ninety degrees to the seat and I was obliged to sit bolt upright. My preference is for a casual slouch.
Once I had made myself as comfortable as possible, I surveyed the trio behind the desk.
Durkin was about fifty years old and he had the sort of forehead that reaches to the back of the neck. He’d combed a few lonely black strands over the middle of it which were heroically trying to create the illusion of a full head of hair.
Karpp was older – perhaps sixty – and he had heavy jowls and flowing white locks. His fringe was nicotine-stained and his large nose was covered with the thread veins of the habitual spirits drinker.
Braithwaite was older than Karpp, with a gaunt face and saggy neck and a generally weasel-like untrustworthy appearance.
Karpp took a packet of Benson and Hedges cigarettes from his pocket and offered them around.
“No thanks,” I said. “I don’t smoke.”
Durkin accepted one. Karpp then produced a Zippo lighter from his pocket and lit his and Durkin’s cigarettes, and they both looked contemplative as they each took a long pull on them. Karpp blew a smoke ring then he picked up my C.V. and the notes that Brian had made. After a few seconds he raised his head and looked at me full in the eye with an intensity that took me by surprise.
“You seem to have potential, Lawrence,” he said. “Time will tell, but there is one thing about you that concerns us; your lack of background.”
“You mean the Old School Tie?”
“Precisely. But we’re prepared to give you the benefit of the doubt for now. We have ways of finding out whether you’re suitable for our purposes, irrespective of the school you went to, and whether you got your degree from Oxford or Cambridge or a redbrick. Be assured that we are going to test your mettle, Lawrence, and find out exactly what sort of a person you are. It may prove to be just as enlightening for you as it will be for us.”
He pressed a button on the desk. A man in a white coat appeared and began fiddling with the machine I’d noticed earlier. It had a roll of paper spouting out of one side and numerous cables spouting out of the other side. The white-coated man asked me to take off my jacket and roll up my sleeves, which I did, and he fastened a cable to my left wrist, and then put a springy contraption around my chest which he attached to another of the cables. I realised then that I was being wired up to a polygraph machine.
“We are going to begin with a lie detector test,” Karpp said .
“That won’t achieve anything,” I replied. “I never ever tell lies.”
When I was fully wired up, the man in the white coat switched on the machine which began to spew out a length of paper. An array of fine pens moved up and down as the paper advanced, creating a set of uneven black lines which were evidently meant to testify as to my veracity.
“We’ll start with some warm-up questions to set a baseline,” said Karpp. “I’m going to ask you a few routine things, and then I’m going to ask you to name the capital cities of a number of countries. I’d like you to lie when I ask you to name the capital cities.”
“Very well,” I said.
“What is your name?”
“What do you do?”
“Currently I am a slaughter-man at the Acme Meat Packing Plant in Walthamstow.”
“What grade did you pass your degree with?”
“Was it difficult?”
“Did you have anything to do with the deaths of your parents?”
“What is the capital of America?”
I noticed that the lines on the polygraph did not waiver noticeably differently on any of my answers.
“Interesting. Try a couple more lies, Lawrence.”
“Research has proven that cigarettes, particularly the Rothman’s brand, are healthier than the finest asparagus. The Chancellor of the Exchequer is known for his fondness for young boys. Scientists have concluded that the fundamental building-block of matter is a fresh steaming dog-turd.”
“First-rate. It seems that you may be one of the few people who is able to beat a polygraph test. Let’s just confirm it.”
Karpp asked me many more questions and told me to slip in lies randomly amongst my answers. At no point did the machine provide any information that would have helped anyone to establish when I was lying and when I was telling the truth. My physical state apparently remained the same throughout.
When the test was over, Karpp muttered to Durkin and Braithwaite then called in the man in the white coat and asked him to disconnect me.
“We have confirmed that you can beat the lie detector, Lawrence,” said Karpp. “In some ways that means that we can find out nothing helpful about you, as we have to take everything you say about yourself at face value. In other ways, it tells us a great deal about you, and your potential usefulness to us. We now have another test for you. This one really sorts out the sheep from the goats. Many of our would-be candidates fall at this hurdle. I am obliged to warn you in advance that an element of danger is involved and that you have signed a waiver of your rights to sue us if you are injured or, heaven forbid, killed.”
“Don’t worry Mr. Karpp. I won’t consider suing you even if the outcome is that I am killed.”
“Are you saying you wish to proceed?”
“In for a penny, in for a pound.”
“That’s the spirit.”
He pressed the button on his desk again and a burly man entered. The burly man was wearing a pin-striped suit like Karpp and the others but it was apparent from his build that he was no ordinary office worker. He had a face that looked as though it might have been carved out of rock and shoulders that were unfeasibly wide.
I awaited developments.
The burly man strode up to me purposefully and placed a beefy hand flat in the middle of my chest. Then, without warning, he pushed explosively against my ribcage. I was catapulted backward at high speed to the floor, still seated in the chair. I landed with a clatter with my back to the floor, my hands still resting on my knees and the chair legs pointing towards the desk behind which were sitting my trio of interrogators. The burly man helped me to my feet.
“Bravo, Lawrence,” said Karpp. “You seem to have emerged unscathed. You don’t know how many candidates we’ve had who’ve ended up concussed on that test. And there have even been one or two, who, well, never mind all that for now. We need to repeat the test to make sure your result wasn’t a fluke. Just bear in mind that the most severe outcomes occur when the candidates feel fear and try to leave the chair while it’s in motion.”
I didn’t mention it to Karpp, but I’d experienced a moment of doubt myself as the burly man’s beefy hand had made contact with my chest, and a second, more severe moment of doubt, as I’d gone over backwards. Some instinct for self-preservation had informed me that the best thing to do was to go with it and relax. Not that I could have described myself as at my most relaxed during those moments of rapid acceleration and deceleration.
I sat in the chair again, and the burly man pushed me to the floor again, and again, and Again. Karpp evidently wanted to see what effect it would have on me, and whether I would become nervous about repeating the experience. I didn’t.
“You’ve passed with flying colours, Lawrence. We’ll have a short break for lunch then it’s on to the next stage for you.”
I was shown back to the front room with the sofas and net curtains, and offered a choice of lamentably cheap lunch options by the effete young man. I opted for fish and chips, and he went out to get them. I ate them with lashings of salt and vinegar, and, feeling suitably refreshed, looked forward to an afternoon of further tests.
I did not have long to wait. I had barely finished my last chip when I was called through to an upstairs room which was occupied by a bespectacled forty-something individual with wavy black hair. He had a piercing gaze and a scholarly manner redolent of the tutors on my medical course. It did not surprise me to discover that he was a psycho-analyst of some sort. He introduced himself as Doctor Ferris.
He had me take the Rorschach inkblot test then asked me to lie on a couch. I did as I was told and looked around while I was lying there. I noticed that there was a very narrow door to one side of the room. I wondered what it was for. My musings were interrupted by the Doctor.
“Would you describe yourself as independent, Lawrence?” He said.
He made notes.
“Do you find it easy to criticise others?”
“Do you bear grudges?”
“Only until the day I get even.”
“What is it that you most detest in life?”
“The misuse of the apostrophe; it really is reaching epidemic proportions.”
“How would you describe your personality?”
“I wouldn’t. I note, however, at risk of blowing my own trumpet, that people find me quite charming”
“Imagine you are an architect. What kind of building would you like to design?”
“A prison or a slaughterhouse, or an immense factory dedicated to production-line methods of manufacturing.”
“What would most interest you, a gun or a poem?”
“Poems have their uses but guns are so much more practical, don’t you think?”
“What circumstances would justify killing someone?”
“Self-defence, the defence of another, and the defence of The Realm. And, of course, providing myself with an interesting diversion on an otherwise boring Sunday afternoon.”
“Are you being droll with me, Lawrence?”
“I fear that you have cleverly unearthed my most serious character defect, Doctor Ferris.”
“Have you ever killed anyone?”
“Have you ever deliberately harmed anyone?”
“What would you say are your core values?”
“Honesty, integrity, respect for others, charitable giving, neighbourliness and a desire to help people to achieve their full potential.”
“Would you ever compromise your core principles?”
“Not unless the money was right.”
“Do you enjoy playing games?”
“Very much so. They are far preferable to real life.”
And so it went on.
Eventually Ferris either tired of interrogating me, or ran out of questions.
“Right,” he said. “I think we’ve done all we can with this assessment. It’s time to move on to the next one. Do you have any health problems Lawrence?”
“No claustrophobia, heart condition, ulcers, asthma, dizziness, or nervous complaints?”
“Good. You should be well equipped for the next part of the selection procedure then. Come over here.”
Dr Ferris walked to the side of the room and opened the narrow door I had noticed earlier. It opened outwards. Behind it there was a space about the size of the average coffin with a number of cables dangling from the ceiling.
“Please take off your jacket, Lawrence.”
When I’d removed my jacket, Doctor Ferris connected the cables to my wrists, chest and head.
“I am going to shut you in this tiny cupboard. While you’re there, these cables will transmit information about your vital signs to my monitoring equipment on the desk. I’ll be able to keep track of your breathing and heart rate, and even your brainwaves. I will know whether you are relaxed or feeling panic, or if you’re going to faint.
I’m not going to tell you how long you will remain in the cupboard. What I will tell you is that you will be there for at least an hour, and that the door will be locked from the outside.
You won’t be able to get out until I let you out. You will be in total darkness and there will be barely sufficient air in the cupboard for you to breathe. It will be hot and decidedly uncomfortable. It is certainly not for the faint hearted. Are you sure you want to go through with it?”
I stepped backwards into the cupboard so that I was facing outwards and Dr Ferris closed the door on me. I heard a key turn in the lock. There was so little space available that when I titled my head my forehead came into contact with the door. The cupboard was, as Ferris had promised, hot, pitch black, and airless.
I breathed deeply and began to think about happy times in the abattoir. Twitching cows and blood-spattered walls filled my thoughts. Concerned colleagues glanced my way as I nobly used my bolt-gun to put entire herds of panic-stricken cattle out of their misery. But all too soon my pleasing reveries came to an end as Doctor Ferris opened the door.
“You’ve been in there an hour and a half Lawrence, it’s time to come out.”
“Have I passed, Doctor Ferris?”
“With flying colours; it didn’t seem to upset your equilibrium at all, which is most unusual. Please put on your jacket and follow me.”
Doctor Ferris took me downstairs and into the back garden. There was a large wooden hut at the rear of the garden. I followed him into the hut. Much to my surprise, there were three goats in there, and two office chairs.
“Take a seat,” said the Doctor. “When you are comfortable I’d like you to select one of the goats and look at it. Just stare at it and concentrate.”
“What is all this goat-staring meant to achieve, Doctor Ferris?”
“In an ideal world, you would kill one of the goats using only the power of your thought. Failing that, you would at least get a reaction out of one of the goats.”
“You mean it would bleat in pain and fear?”
“Something like that, yes.”
“Who dreamed up this hare-brained scheme, Doctor Ferris?”
“It’s an American idea.” His lip curled on the word “American”. “Which goat have you chosen?”
“I’ve selected the one with the white flash of fur across its forehead.”
I sat and concentrated. I imagined myself blasting its brains out with a bolt gun. I imagined myself clubbing it to death with a cricket bat. I imagined several other means of despatch. It was all to no avail. The goat did not seem to even register that I existed. After half an hour of fruitless effort had gone by, I said:
“Doctor Ferris, this goat-staring malarkey is a complete waste of time. If only you were to put a sharp knife in my hands, your goat would be as dead as anyone could want it to be in a matter of seconds.”
“It’s not really meant to work like that, Lawrence. That’s not what this test is all about. But now you come to mention it, that might be an interesting test in itself. I think I could probably justify that. Yes, just wait here a minute.”
Doctor Ferris left the hut and returned minutes later with a kitchen knife. I felt the edge of the blade with my finger. It was unfeasibly sharp.
“Go ahead, Lawrence. Kill the goat.”
I needed no second bidding. In truth, even the first had been unnecessary. I held the hapless animal by one of its horns and in a flash I had slit its throat. It succumbed without so much as a single bleat. A brief but fierce fountain of blood stained the good Doctor’s trouser legs.
“What shall I do with it now, Doctor Ferris?”
“Just put it down in the corner.”
I jettisoned the luckless animal like a piece of unwanted litter, and looked around eagerly for my next victim.
“I should slit a few more throats to prove that it wasn’t a fluke,” I said.
“That really won’t be necessary.”
Doctor Ferris returned me to the front room for a tea break where I enjoyed another mug of tea and a cheap biscuit, and waited for news of my next task. I felt it was all going rather well.
Karpp appeared when I had finished my tea.
“Do you have a good head for heights Lawrence?”
“I believe so.”
“We are going to find out. Come with me.”
In the middle of the house there were several flights of stairs, which led, by way of a number of dog-leg turns and landings, all the way up to the attic. Karpp took me up them right to the top. There was a large central void in the middle of the many flights of stairs in which there was a fireman’s pole. I’d noticed it earlier when I’d visited Doctor Ferris, and I had wondered what it was for. It could only be reached by someone who was brave enough, or reckless enough, to climb over the balustrade at the top of the stairs and leap across the void to grab hold of it.
I stood on the attic landing with Karpp and noted that the floor of the hall was a good fifty feet below us. Enough to guarantee serious injury, and offer the possibility of a painful death to anyone who attempted the fireman’s pole stunt and failed.
“I think by now you will have worked out what your next task is,” said Karpp.
“Indeed,” I replied.
I took off my jacket and handed it to him.
“Would you be so kind?” I asked.
Then I climbed over the balustrade and hurled myself across the dizzying drop towards the pole. I was airborne for what seemed an eternity. I slammed into the pole and wrapped my arms and legs around it in a manner reminiscent of a young woman who had been rather fond of me, at least for a while. I slid down the pole and landed triumphantly at the bottom. Then I looked up and grinned, not without a certain pride.
“Brah-vo Lawrence,” said Karpp.
He came downstairs by the conventional route and joined me in the hall.
“Come with me.”
I followed him into another downstairs room.
Braithwaite and Durkin were in the room sitting at a table, facing me. There was a chessboard on the table, set up with pieces as if they were about to commence a game with an unseen opponent. There was a record player in a corner of the room and a drum kit in another corner.
“Please take a seat,” said Durkin.
“Can you play chess?” Braithwaite asked.
“Not especially well.”
“No matter. This isn’t about chess-playing ability. It’s about composure under pressure. We’re going to have a game with you. We’ll see how you fare. Then we’ll have a second game. The conditions under which we play the second game will be rather different to the first. What we will be looking for is the extent to which your ability to play declines under adverse conditions. Shall we begin? You can be white to start with.”
Although I lay no claim to being a chess player, I have studied the game from time to time and I have a working knowledge of a number of openings and endgames. For my first move I advanced my king’s pawn two squares (e2-e4 in modern chess notation) and the Durkin/Braithwaite team responded similarly. I played a variation of the Scotch Gambit and soon checkmated them. They looked at each other and we set up the pieces again. This time I was to have the minor disadvantage of playing with the black pieces, and a clock was introduced to put me under time pressure. Durkin and Braithwaite both inserted earplugs in their ears, and Karpp switched on the record player. He played several hits from the fifties at high volume, one after the other, by Little Richard, Eddie Cochran, Elvis Presley and many others. He added to the racket by sitting at the drum kit and beating it to within an inch of its life. His makeshift rhythms seldom matched those of the records playing on the turntable.
Durkin calmly lit a cigarette and blew smoke in my face as I pondered my moves. In spite of the distractions, I was able to play a variation of the Latvian Counter-Gambit that soon had the Durkin/Braithwaite alliance completely banjaxed.
“Checkmate!” I shouted at length.
I had to shout to make myself heard above the racket. Karpp stopped drumming and switched off the record player, and Durkin and Braithwaite removed their earplugs.
“We’re coming down to the wire now, Lawrence,” said Karpp. “It’s fairly routine from here on in.”
He sent me upstairs where I received an eye test from an optician and a general check-up from a doctor. Apparently I was given the all-clear on both counts, because afterwards I was sent to see Karpp, Durkin and Braithwaite and they all seemed pleased to see me. They faced me sitting behind their desk in their comfortable padded chairs, while I sat like the poor relation in the uncomfortable wooden one, awaiting their verdict.
“Do you know who we are?” Karpp asked.
He had the braying voice of an ex-public schoolboy. All three of them did. I wondered what they made of my own flat Northern drone.
“I believe I do,” I said. “You must be a branch of the security services – MI5, or MI6.”
“Very good, Lawrence. That is almost exactly correct. We are affiliated to both MI5 and MI6, but in fact we are neither. We specialise in hygiene. We are officially known as the Cleaning Department. The job of MI5 and MI6 is intelligence and counter-intelligence. Our job is to help them by cleaning anything that they consider might be a trifle messy for Majesty’s Government. We expunge mess from the reputation of the country and the face of the planet. Do I make myself clear?”
“Would you like to join us Lawrence?”
“I must warn you that it will involve serving an apprenticeship of sorts, and undergoing a long period of hazardous training. The work itself is most interesting, but, like your assessment today, it requires an element of personal risk on the part of the operative.
Furthermore, like all our operatives, you will always be on probation. Oh, and by the way, because this is a Civil Service post, the pay will not be excessive. But there will be many compensations for a bright young chap like you. There will be opportunities to meet interesting people, travel to exotic places and foreign climes, and an unlimited supply of clearance jobs for you to do, every one of them sanctioned by Her Majesty’s Government.
Imagine that, Lawrence. You will be doing something you seem to enjoy, and getting paid for it, and it will all be legal. Do you still have a desire to join us?”
“A very deep desire indeed.”
“When can you begin?”
“I’m on a week’s notice at the Abattoir. If I hand in my notice tomorrow, I can start next week.”
“I’ll have my secretary draw up a contract. Someone will telephone you to let you know where you will be working from, and to give you a start date. Congratulations, and welcome aboard, Lawrence.”
He stood up and so did I, and we shook hands, and I repeated the ritual with Durkin and Braithwaite. Then the effete young man appeared and gave me a pair of dark glasses.
“Procedure,” he said.
I put them on, and for the third time that day was plunged into darkness. I was led outside and driven, by the chauffeur, to a street that was a short walk from my house. I removed the dark glasses and left them on the back seat and made my exit from the car.
“Thank you,” I said.
“Just doing my job, sir.”
The elderly Rolls-Royce sped off into the night.
And that was how I, Lawrence Odd, a young man from an undistinguished working-class background, who hailed from the obscure Northern town of Huddersfield, came to occupy a job that was close to the very beating heart of the British establishment.
Copyright Andrew Komarnyckyj, writing as Jack Strange, 2016
Jack Strange’s Celebrity Chef Zombie Apocalypse is currently being reviewed and will appear here shortly, along with an excerpt from that work.
In the meantime, we offer this excerpt from Confession, released this past December. Confessions of an English Psychopath can be found here.
Jack Strange: The reclusive author Jack Strange is an unusual fellow. His exact age is unknown. Those who’ve dared to ask him have never survived long enough to divulge the answer.
His writing is dark and comedic. He has a biting wit, an acid tongue, and some say hoofed feet. With his leaning towards the undead, he’s a natural for the world of horror and gore.
Jack signed for Kensington Gore publishing in early 2016 in blood, no-one is sure whose.
His first dark, comedic horror novel, “Celebrity Chef Zombie apocalypse” is to be published May 28th 2016. It’s a tale of true love, zombies, sex, cooking, cannibalism, depraved sex, and chasseur sauce.
Jack’s done too many jobs to mention. He could tell you, but then he’d have to kill you. Not because he worked for the secret services as a hit man or an executioner. It’s just that he gets bored very easily.
He has a wife, poor woman, and two lovely daughters who can’t be named for legal reasons.
Oh, and besides all that, Jack Strange lives in Huddersfield West Yorkshire. Need we say more?
You can learn more about Jack Strange on his publisher’s website