Thursday, October 28, 2021

J is for ... Jingle




Two plainclothes policemen come to see me at my office, and I can’t for the life of me think what the most recent derogatory name for them is. Are they the filth? Are they the pigs? They’re definitely not “the fuzz”, I’m sure of that. I make a note on my blotter to check and let them occupy the spare seats on the other side of the desk.

These two were matched up as partners by someone with a sense of humour, or a knowledge of comic book cops. One’s tall and thin, the other shorter and fat. One looks smart, the other looks like muscle that stretches up into the cranium. One smokes, the other tuts.

I don’t need this. I’m far enough behind as it is. If I don’t sort out the presentation I’m delivering in a couple of hours, then I’m going to look like a fool in front of a whole bunch of people who do not suffer fools gladly. I’m going to sink. I don’t need this. Not now. Not ever.

The tall one’s the talker and his voice is smooth and silky.


A good voice-over voice.

He could sell detergents, on-trend electronics, and, maybe, chocolate bars. It’s not a voice you’d trust to sell you car insurance, or anything that takes a long-term commitment. It’s a voice for quick infatuations. Impulse goods. His voice might steer your hand from Product A to Product B as it reaches out towards a supermarket shelf, but it won’t give you anything big to believe in. It’s not a brand you can build a loyalty to. It’s a voice for a quick seduction. It won’t last past the morning after.

“Denny Holmes?” That one-night-stand voice enquires. Thing is: He already knows the answer. He’s followed directions from the receptionist, and he’s read it off my door plaque. But he still wants me to confirm it for him. Triple checking his information? Or just psychologically in need of owning me through naming?  Whatever, it’s a clipped and short delivery, kinda rude, if I’m being honest, turning a name into a question. An “Are you …?” at the front of it would have worked better with the demographic I firmly reside within. But then this is a voice for seduction, for infatuations. He’s gauged the utility of his words and he’s stripped it down to the bare minimum to sell them to me.

I still write advertising copy, even though I like to think I’ve transcended it. So I use stripped down sentences that get to the point without wasting syllables. My cop surely knows this and makes it his strategy.

He even knows about putting people on edge.

He didn’t say: “Doctor Denny Holmes?”

The fatter partner fills his seat and the air with his unspoken presence. He’s not something that could sell anything to anyone. He’s menace and suppressed violence. He’s exuding too much testosterone and he still uses Old Spice. Acne cream would have served him in his teens, and now the only adverts he’d say he enjoyed were beer commercials with a funny punch line. He’s everything that I am not. And that includes the fat bit. My waistline has remained constant since I was twenty. I won’t spread like this specimen.

“Is there something I can help you with?” I ask and try hard not to smile. Made sure my response was one that posed a question whilst carefully avoiding answering his. I’m scribbling on my blotter as I speak. Looking the guy right in the eye and scribbling while talking. Little details. I think they’re important.

Sure enough the fatter one is trying to crane over and see what I’m drawing. His eyes are sluggish and dull.

“Thank you for seeing us.” The tall one says.

I didn’t agree to it, they knocked and walked in. He knows that and I know that. Maybe his prehistoric partner doesn’t know it, but then he can’t even decipher a simple scribble on a blotter.

“It’s my pleasure,” I say quietly, “But I’m afraid that I must cut to the chase. I have an important presentation …”

“You had an important presentation,” the tall one says, “that is no longer the case.”

Well, there’s a rug pull. Neat trick. His grin tells me he thinks so too.

“You fixed that?” I ask.

He nods.

“You just bought your way into my good books,” I tell him, “So what can I do for you?”

The fatter one slaps a photo onto the desk. He has to go through an overcoat pocket to find the damned thing and his partner just waits him out on it. He’s waited before, you can tell. He’ll wait again, that’s a certainty. The photo is creased from its imprisonment in that pocket, and it shows a man with a pale face and a ludicrous moustache.

“Do you know this man?” the taller one asks.

I nod and tell them his name.

“When did you see him last?”

I make a show of thinking about it. Meanwhile I’m thinking about other things. Like how they cancelled my meeting and whether “Butter is Better” could ever work as a slogan.

“Yesterday,” I say, for it is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but.

“Could you tell me what happened?” He asks.

Of course I can.


Unread Books


Paul Paliomedes played with his moustache as a rhetorical device. It was the physical analogue of those “thinks” bubbles you get in comic books. It was the kind of moustache that you only get in comic books. His words belonged in a comic book.

“You’re not hearing me,” he said, “You have to stop this before it’s too late.”

Stop it? I wanted to say. With scorn. I’ve only just started.

I didn’t think that was the right strategy, though, so I tried another tack. Not another tact as I’ve heard people say, which is … infuriating. Unpresidented. That’s another one. Oh, and phenomena as singular. Hate that one too.

“It’s always too late,” I told him. “When are you going to shave that damned thing off?”

Paul looked pained and shook his head to show me that was the case. I knew already, it was why I said it. I wanted to tell him that it wasn’t clever — or even difficult — to grow facial hair. It’s like that line in Jurassic Park about how just because someone can do something, it doesn’t mean they should. Or something. I was looking at the dinosaurs, not taking notes.

I met his gaze and held it. His pale blue eyes had a look of coldness about them. Still, it was a look, not a fact.

Paul Paliomedes was a guy whose reputation for hardness came largely from the way those eyes looked. I’d known him for years and saw through the lie they told. People who didn’t know him thought that the unblinking gaze they were capable of offering meant that the man behind them saw through their bullshit. They believed the whole “windows of the soul” shtick. The same people buy products they have been coached to buy and think their choice is “informed” not “emotional”. And they’re wrong on both counts. Probably on all counts about everything.

Paul’s office was nowhere near as functionally elegant as mine. It was not minimalist. It would not have looked on message in Adweek. It would have looked on message on Hoarders. Paul believed that clutter gave him depth. Which goes some way towards demonstrating how deluded Paul could be.

Photos on his desk suggested what he was fighting for. A beautiful woman; two beautiful kids. Halfway through an argument Paul’s eyes always flick down to those photos and the other party in the argument will catch the subtext: fuck with me and you fuck with them, and I will not tolerate that.

I’m possibly the only person who knows that Paul bought those photographs and has no idea who they are of. Just like he’s never read the books on the shelves behind his desk. Just like those eyes aren’t cold and calculating, they’re just a bit vacant. Just like his handshake is painful because he’s spent far too long practicing it on those little hand expander things. Just like when he says “you have to stop this” what he means is “you have to include me in this”.

My suit was a shade that is probably a relative of the aubergine. Its lines were classic and stylish and no-nonsense. My tie was grey. My smile was related to Paul’s eyes in that it doesn’t mean what it seems to say. Smiles are machines for lying with. Inside the smile my teeth felt like a shark’s. Inside my suit I felt like a shark. Great white, not Whale.

“You want me to cut you in, Paul?” I asked, indelicate to a fault. I wanted to see his face curdle. I wanted to see his eyes betray their lie. I wanted to insult him and bring him in at the same time. I wanted to stop him making a jerk of himself. I really wanted him to shave his moustache off. I wanted to think of the perfect way to sell a product. I wanted the world to end in fire. I wanted Southampton to beat Arsenal at The Emirates Stadium and I couldn’t give a good goddamn about football. Or Southampton. Or Arsenal.

Paul looked down at the photos on his desk and then remembered who he was talking to. He played with his moustache again while gazing at a point over my shoulder. I wondered what oils and greases and crumbs got into that copse of hair whenever he ate.

“Cut me in?” he tried indignation in the same way I’d tried two suits on that morning before deciding on the eggplant. Like the suits it did fit, but in Paul’s case it didn’t fit all that well. “You think that’s what this is about?”

Disappointment fit no better.

Try another tone, I thought, and if you get it right next time then you’ll equal my dressing record from the morning.

“I don’t know what this is about.” I admitted. “Perhaps you can enlighten me.”

Paul nodded. His eyes met mine again. We were friends. We’d always been friends. I knew him and he thought he knew me. He even managed a kind of smile. It wasn’t the kind that was ever going to feel as good to wear as mine did, but it was a reasonable enough attempt. The lump in his throat betrayed him a little.

Okay, a lot.

“When people start getting hurt, the smart thing is to reconsider the strategy,” he said, “I think you may have reached a point where that warning becomes appropriate.”

Fuck you. I thought. Fucking fuck you.

“You think people are getting hurt?” My voice is like the crash of steel on steel. “Start naming names.”

Paul looked at his hands. Nice fucking manicure, but he hadn’t fulfilled the part of the deal that said you had to keep them clean for optimum effect. If Paul was a toothpaste, then he was a generic brand: cheap and cheery, but lacking the polish and finish of the market leaders. You might buy him if you’re watching your budget and tightening purse strings, but if you want extra whitening and fresher breath then you better reach for the shelf above.

“We both know what fire is,” Paul said, “And we know when it’s being played with. The difference here is when you play with it, other people get burnt.”

We both know what clichés are, too. And we know when it’s yourself that’s getting played with.

“Am I burning you, Paul?” I asked.

He looked sheepish.

“I hear things, is all.” He said.

“That’s what we evolved ears for. But we have a brain to process the information to check we’re hearing right. You checked?”

He pulled a face like a turtle swallowing scalpel blades. Or like Larry Olivier’s Szell at the end of Marathon Man when he’s eating the diamonds as Dustin Hoffman’s Babe Levy stands by waving a gun in his face and saying Essen.

“I hired someone.” He confessed.

It was a very bold strategy, and redundant because he was only telling me what I already knew. If the guy he hired was a pro, then people just weren’t taking pride in their craft anymore. I clocked his guy the first day he started following me and made my life a pantomime whenever I saw him watching me. Still, I had to admit that the act showed a new spine had taken up residence in Paul’s body.

“What do you mean you hired someone?” I played.

“A detective.” Paul was looking uncomfortable now. “I hired a private detective.”

I span the wheel of possible responses and came up ‘indignant’. Fuck him. Make the indignation righteous. Make it betrayal. Play it to the hilt. Just for giggles.

“Are you fucking nuts?” My tone was wounded, hurt, a puppy hit by a car. “A detective? What, suddenly you’re getting all Maltese fucking Falcon on me?”

“I was worried …”

“You were out of fucking order.”

Paul looked at the photos. Someone else’s memories. Habitual, now. Useless NOW.

“I didn’t know what else to do.” He said and a whiny quality entered his words. “You weren’t taking my calls. I was hearing all kinds of strange things about you, seeing things that I figured were probably down to you and I wanted to see how far along this hellbound path you’d strayed. So? What? I’m supposed to feel bad for caring about you? Well. I can’t.”

I met his eye and held it. I could see his forehead beading with sweat. The room wasn’t even hot. It’s why Paul was terrible at poker.

“You ever wondered why no one could ever tell Clark Kent was really Superman?” I asked him and watched confusion smudge his features. “I mean it’s just a pair of glasses and a slight change of hairstyle that separates them.”

“What the hell are you …?”

“Super hypnotism,” I said, “Amplified through his glasses. You see, the glass for his spectacles came from the window of the craft that brought him to earth. The glasses boost his innate super hypnotism.”

“I’m not sure I can see where this is going …”

“The point is: not even Superman knew that was the reason the disguise worked. He found it out at the same time as the reader. I think it was in the seventies they decided to spring that upon us. Upon him. Up till then he just thought his disguise worked. The point is that he was wrong. Like Swamp Thing was wrong about his own origin story when Alan Moore took over the writing duties...”

“I don’t read comics.”

“That’s why you didn’t see this coming.” I said, took the gun from my pocket and painted his unread library with his brains, and bits of skull.

And blood.

Lots of blood.





“We talked for a while, and then I left,” I say. I have always had faith that the best way to lie is to tell a part of the truth. As much of it as possible. And then make the lies omissions, rather than inventions. It’s easier to keep track.

The tall one wants to know what we talked about. Of course he does. It’s important. I’m a suspect. Of course I am. I killed my friend. Blew his fucking brains out the back of his not-as-smart-as-he-thought-it-was head. It’s what the tall one wants to wring out of me. A confession.

Fuck that.

“We talked about Superman, believe it or not.” I tell him.

He arches an eyebrow. His partner stares at me like I’ve grown another head.

“You went across town to talk about Superman with a man who then ended up in a body bag?” the fatter one says.

I let the revelation surprise me. I do it remarkably well. I’ve been practising all morning. If I’m honest, I’ve been practising for weeks. I’ve practised in front of mirrors like a conjurer practises card tricks. I might have been practising all my life. Maybe this is where it was always leading. How do I know? Oh, and why should I care? This is the moment, live in it. Everything else is irrelevant.

“Paul’s dead?” I ask. “That’s what this is about? Paul’s dead and you think … you think … that I killed him?”

 I’m selling a product. A product called “fuck you and leave me alone”. I have a campaign planned. It’s a good campaign. I’m a good salesman.

These cops don’t stand a chance.



I Do Not See the

Woman in the Forest

A woman cannot scream if her vocal cords have been cut. I know this through Internet searches. It’s amazing the wealth of information out there on the world wide weird. I even got diagrams. I could draw some diagrams now. I love drawing diagrams.

     Oh, and I know it through experiment, too.

     By way of example:

This one wasn’t pretty in the conventional sense of the word; but voiceless and tied like a hog in my cabin in the woods she improved. Seems the old adage was right about the epidermal extent of pulchritude. Go beneath the surface, take out her vocal cords, and see any woman improve in beauty. I recommend it.

     I realise that that probably sounds misogynistic. Grossly so. I went too far. I was getting a bit carried away in the telling, and I guess I started to show off a bit. That’s the problem with secrets. Or with finally releasing them from the lock box of the human brain. I apologise. Truth is I’m an equal opportunities dispatcher. This one merely fulfilled a tick box exercise. Needed a mid-twenties, middle class, middle weight, middle of the road, Caucasian female. Found one. The rest was necessary. Nothing sexual or gender-based about it. Just functional.

Her eyes added a wide, misty edge to her fear. She’d gotten into a car with a stranger, even though her mummy must have told her about the wisdom of such an endeavour, and now she was finding out — once more, I’m sure — that mummy really did know best.

Fear is good for us.

We may not know it, but it is.

It’s why we love fairy tales. And ghost stories. And horror movies. And roller coasters. And marriages. And skiing. And having children.


It helps us choose the things we buy. It helps us conform with those around us. It stops us opening our mouths and saying stupid things. It stops us turning up for work naked. It holds couples together when they could easily be apart. It organises us. It’s the glue that holds us together. It is the difference between us and them: The mad ones on the streets who chatter and babble to themselves, unafraid of how they appear.

The girl did not know how lucky she was to be so blessed with fear. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t gloating then and I’m not gloating now. Fear was a necessary by-product of the process I was engaged in. It was essential. It was the product. It wasn’t that I got my rocks off by scaring her. I’m not one of the mad ones. I have a purpose and a code and a moral duty.

Didn’t mean I couldn’t have a little fun along the way, though.

Her name was Jennifer Pardew. Her driving licence told me that. The way she’d said her name was ‘Jeni’; you could almost hear the one ‘N’ and the terminating ‘I’ as she introduced herself. She thought of herself as a Jeni, rather than a Jennifer. She had hopes and dreams and a pressing need to be somewhere so urgently that she was willing to step into a car with a man she didn’t recognise to make it happen.

I was only too happy to oblige.

Now, look, don’t misunderstand me. I don’t want you to think that I get off on this shit. Like killing Paul Paliomedes. Or Jennifer/Jeni. Or any of them. And there have been A LOT. But it’s not a perversion, or psychosis, it’s work, plain and simple. Yes, I enjoy my work, but it’s not a choice I’m making, not really. My line of work is absolutely brutal – and I’m talking about advertising here, not the murdering – and you have to do everything you can to succeed.

I just go the extra miles.

The extra many many miles.

So Jeni and I, it wasn’t personal. I just needed someone her age and gender.

For the scream.

The silent scream.

I tied her down so she couldn’t move, I sound insulated her body just in case. I set up my recording equipment and mounted the microphone on a rig I designed for just this purpose: I prefer to use the Neumann TLM 103 -- clarity and dynamics in a beautiful form -- and needed to get it as close to her lips as I could get.

I don’t want to think about, much less talk about, the horrible things I had to do to her to get the sounds I wanted. That stuff will haunt my dreams forever. Probably. Or am I just selling you guilt and remorse here? I have a conscience. Or want one. Or don’t.

When Jeni was dead, buried, and forgotten, I went home and edited her silent scream into my magnum opus, my meisterwerk, the greatest leap forward in advertising history.

Sometimes sacrifices have to be made for the greater good.

     And if that good makes me fuck-tons of money then all the better.



 The squat one wants to know why Paul hired a private detective to follow me and I act utterly nonplussed by the question. I even reuse the ‘Maltese Falcon’ reference I used on Paul, minus the swearing.

     Nonplussed and minus, haha. I should be a writer.

     The squat one looks up at his companion and gives a slow, solemn nod.

     “We spoke to the detective …” The tall one says and leaves the first clause hanging there, unresolved, presumably to create some tension.

     “And he told you that at the time Paul … died … I was with him?” I ventured.

     The second clause, the hammer blow that the tall one was readying, dissolved into an inaudible mutter.

     Squat-cop looked like he’d bitten down on tin foil and found a filling.

     “It appears that Mr Paliomedes died sometime after you left.” He said, hating the words as they left his mouth. Hating each one of them. Their delivery made a vein throb on his temple. Fat vein: Fat temple.

     I wanted to tell them the truth, just so I could see the stupid looks on their stupid faces, but I’m not insane, so I didn’t.



James Vicary was Full of Shit,

But was Accidentally Nearly Right. Ish.



Remember that episode of Columbo, where the advertising exec – probably Robert Culp, it often was – gets a guy to leave a screening by inserting ‘subliminal cuts’ into the film the guy is watching? Culp manipulates the victim into feeling thirsty by flashing up single frames of cold drinks into desert footage.

     It’s sorta-maybe-perhaps if you squint possible, and based on the work of a man named James Vicary who subliminally manipulated moviegoers into eating more popcorn and drinking more Coca Cola by cutting flash frames into the movies that were being screened.

     At least, that’s what he said.

     Problem was: He was lying.

     People do that. I mean take me as evidence of that.

     True or not, the principle has been taken seriously ever since, and modest effects have been achieved, but really, it’s a hell of a lot of effort for minimal gains, and it’s hardly going to make me the go-to guy for AAA clients.


     In the Columbo episode the subliminal ‘cuts’ were reinforced by other sensory information: The heating in the screening room was turned way up, and the victim had been prepared for thirst by liberal servings of salty caviar.

     I’d loved the episode when I was a kid – hell, it’s probably why I’m in advertising today – but watching a rerun of that episode as an adult on a rainy Sunday afternoon, well that was my Eureka! moment.

     I saw where I’d gone wrong with my own experiments into subliminal suggestion. I was concentrating on the image. On putting messages in through the eye.

     I felt it then, a sudden wave of revelation. An epiphanic moment. Hairs standing up on the back of my neck. Okay, maybe visual stimuli were not the skeleton key to the lock of the human brain with regards to its manipulation, but how about the other senses?

     It took me over a decade to refine that thought to where I am now.





“So how can I help you?” I ask, politely, but with an edge. There is a soupcon of boredom in the mix, along with notes of impatience and, yes, hostility. But it is all wrapped up in syrupy tones and I figure they can’t tell if the bad notes are really there. Form and content: I’m being subliminal on their arses.

     The squat one makes a noise in his throat that sounds like a growl. Or maybe he’s clearing his throat.

     “The private detective followed you away from Paul Palomedes’ office.” He says. “And while he was following you, he received a telephone call from Paul Palomedes’ mobile. It’s on his caller log. It lasted a minute and thirty-eight seconds. He talked over his progress with Mr Palomedes. He’s sworn to that in a statement. He followed you home and watched you for hours. Hours during which his client was murdered.”

     “I guess I should thank Paul for providing me with an alibi I didn’t know I had.” I say.

     “It’s a good alibi.” The cop notes. “I mean it’s a really, really good alibi.”

     “I’d go as far to say watertight.” His partner chips in.

     “As I said: Lucky me.”

     The squat one shakes his head. I hate him. Everything about him. He’s Poundland. T.K. Maxx. QD. B&M. Sure you could plan an ad campaign for them, but what would be the point? The people who want them, go. Those who don’t, don’t. Me, you wouldn’t get me through the door. There are retail parks where all the shops I mentioned are clustered together like paste jewels in a tin crown. Axis of Poverty. Of despair. Of dead dreams. Of diminished expectations. Like SquatCop. An avatar of the diminished. A sweaty emoji-made-doughy-flesh. Even the way he shakes his head is offensive, cut-price, imitation, a look-a-like brand on the shelf of a discount shop.

     “I’ll tell you my problem.” Poundland dough-boy says. “I’ve interviewed a lot of people in my time. Get ‘em in the room and get them to run over the details again and again, looking for the lapses, the discontinuities …”

     Did he just say “discontinuities”? That’s what? Six syllables? Four more than I thought he’d be capable of.

     “… even people who are telling the truth make mistakes. They get confused. They change a detail here, another there. When you remember something, you’re actually constructing the memory anew, and every time you do there are transcription errors. You change emphases. You focus on a detail that you didn’t the first time around. And that’s a problem.”

     “Well, it certainly makes witness testimony a little shaky.” I say, baffled by the SquatCop’s sudden attack of eloquence.

     “Not that problem. The Private Detective’s statement problem.”

     “I’m not sure I’m following you.”

     “I’ll slow it down for you.” He says and I hate him more. Before he said it I’d have sworn that was impossible. “You see our witness’ statement is fixed. Immutable. Identical in every detail, every time he tells it. No matter what angle you get him to approach it from, it’s the same. He doesn’t budge. Ever. Have you ever seen Columbo?”

     A bead of sweat rolls down my forehead.

     “The … er … the detective?” I say, and my voice quivers.

     “The … er … the detective.” He says. “Lieutenant Frank Columbo …”

     “You never find out his first name.” I protest, weakly.

     “You do if you freezeframe on his police ID. But yeah, Columbo. There was an episode where George Hamilton hypnotised a woman into killing herself…”

     “She thought she was jumping into a swimming pool…”

     “The very episode. Well, I’m thinking that if our private detective is telling the truth about what happened, then maybe hypnosis is an explanation for the rigidity of his story. Someone told him what to say and he can’t budge from it. Do you think that’s possible?”

     I shake my head.

     “It’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.” I tell him. “Who the fuck uses Columbo as a model for the way the world really works?”

     SquatCop laughs.

     “You’ve got a point there.” He says, still laughing, and then stops and looks serious. “The only way someone would use Columbo as a model of reality would be, well, if they watched it, I guess.”




Marcilio Ficini

Shows The Way


There’s a Kate Bush song and video about a machine that a scientist feeds sounds into and makes … well, a monster that kills lots of people and then turns into Kate Bush. I think I could sell that machine.

     I’ve got a similar machine.

     Well, a computer.

     It doesn’t look like some strange science fiction device – you know, all chrome and wires and tubes and futuristic production design - it’s just a PC.

     It certainly doesn’t look like it’s going to change the world.

     But then computers aren’t defined by what they look like, not really, no matter how much people like me tell you they are. They’re not even defined by their hardware. It’s the software that makes them special.

     And my software is very special.

     And I have fed it so many sounds.

A lot of those silent screams I’ve already talked about, and from a variety of demographic sources, but other sounds too. They all have something in common though, those sounds.

     You remember what I said about fear?

     About how fear keeps us in line?

Well, it’s a lot more interesting than that.

Marcilio Ficini was on to something when he said: when I sing a song to the sun it is not because I expect the sun to change its course but because I expect to put myself in a different cast of mind in relation to the sun.

I guess he never suspected just how much his words would influence someone in the future.

It was that idea of a “cast of mind” that sent me down this path, that and an episode of a US detective series. Something Timothy Leary said about LSD trips helped, too. He talked about the “set” and the “setting” of psychedelic experiences, and how LSD was just a chemical trigger, and the resultant hallucinations were a product of the mindset and the environment of the acid tripper.

If you can control the mindset of a person before they perceive the sun, view a subliminal cut, or trip their nuts off, then you can control the experience.

That’s pretty good gravy for a man who wants to control your behaviour. Who has spent his life trying to find ways to condition you into accepting what I say as the ABSOLUTE TRUTH; who looks for ways to nudge your hand towards the product I’m being paid to sell you; who wants to circumvent your rationality and sell you lies that are better than any truth could ever be.

I want a path to you.

Unconscious, unsuspecting you.

And I found a way.

It’s called the amygdala. It’s part of your limbic system. It’s two little eye-shaped knots of nuclei hidden away in your temporal lobes. And it’s where fear lives.

You see, it turns out that the path to you is fear.

Fear is a precursor to the kind of conditioning I need from you, a neurochemical state that puts your brain into a kind of stand-by mode. It says: This is a threat, await further instructions. It’s a primer. It primes you for the next step.

I call it “The Jingle”.

I have a program for it.

A concentrated set of tones buried deep in a musical confection that puts your brain into high alert, without you realising it. No alarm bells, just a jingle - see what I did there? – that puts you into a state where you await the next instruction. And that’s when I introduce the suggestion. A “sell”, be it a sales pitch, an inspirational image, or a straight up instruction. I can even issue an order. Like the one I gave a certain private detective when I called his phone from a clone of Paul Paliomedes’ phone.

I know what fear sounds like, and I know what it can do.

None of you stand a chance.


“So what do you want from me?” I ask. “I mean you’ve already acknowledged that I have an alibi…”

     The tall one shakes his head.

     “We’ve acknowledged that you were given an alibi,” He says, “Not that it is an alibi.”

     I laugh.

     “That’s some weird semantic gymnastics you’re performing now.” I say. “How about you try again, but with some kind of point included?”

     It’s the squat one that answers.

     “I guess the point is: People can be wrong.” He says. “But you know that. Your doctorate was in Behavioural Science.”

     “People are wrong all the time.” I say. “So?”

     “So? You were the last person to see Paul Paliomedes alive. He hired a Private Detective because he thought you were up to something. That detective is your only alibi. And it’s like he learned the details of that alibi off by heart, and can’t deviate from its simple narrative.”

     Yeah, so I was in a hurry. Taking a gun to see Paul had been a just-in-case kind of thing that I’d never expected to actually fire. When I did … well, that meant I had to stitch some things together on the fly and, yeah, I should have thought about the detective’s testimony, given it some flexibility, some wriggle room. But no, I called him, gave him a jingle, and then told him what to say.

     Nothing they have is anything like a case, though.

     So I look baffled and act it too.

     “Then … shouldn’t you be talking to him?” I ask. “See if he was coerced, or threatened, or …”

     “Conditioned?” The squat one interrupts.

     I laugh. A lot.

     “Columbo isn’t real.” I tell him. “I mean I don’t want to shatter your world, but it wasn’t a documentary series. At best a hypnotist or behavioural scientist can make suggestions, but not commands. You can’t just make people do things that you want them to.”

     “I thought that was the goal of advertising.”

     “Then you thought wrong. Advertising is a story you tell a consumer. If it’s a story they like, they might – MIGHT – buy your product, but that’s contingent on so many other factors …”

     “Your ads are doing rather well, though, aren’t they?” The squat one presses.

     “It’s an ad agency.” I correct him. “We have whole teams working on our promotions and campaigns. I oversee those campaigns, but they’re certainly not my campaigns.”

     “But you get the awards for them …”

     “So does a film director, but have you seen the list of credits at the end of a film? And do you truly believe that the CEO of a pharmaceutical company is the guy in the lab who makes the drugs?”

     SquatCop shrugged.

     “I’ll tell you what I think.” He said. “I think you killed Paul Paliomedes. I think that he’d found out about what you were up to, and you had no choice but to silence him. And then I think you used some kind of advertising voodoo to give yourself an alibi.  And I think that, given time, I will prove it. Oh, and I have a lot of time.”

     I sighed. 

     Ah, well.

     Reached under my desk.

     Pressed the button underneath and jammed my fingers in my ears.



The Art of

Changing Your Mind


“Thank you for your help.” The squat one said. “That’s cleared everything up for us. I’m sorry we took up your time.”

I gave him a nod and he and his partner left.

     I sat there for a while, thinking about close calls and near misses and then I hit the intercom button and arranged a meeting with the rest of my team.

     I had big plans, and there was no time like the present to put them into operation.

     While I waited I whistled a little tune.

     Quite catchy, actually.

     Might make a nice jingle …






Tuesday, October 12, 2021

I is for ... I Might Be the Ghost

 I Might Be
the Ghost




The woman slowed down to browse a few windows to her left, and I slowed down, stopped, and studied one myself. Some high-end clothes shop that I’d normally just pass without a second look. Shirts and ties pinned in a sparse display with their eye-watering prices displayed on tiny LCD screens beneath each item. Screens programmed to look like old-fashioned price cubes. Made you wonder what they thought technology was adding to the experience.

My peripheral vision told me when she moved on, and I shook my head at the display and followed. If I was going to catch up with Barnaby, then she was my Satnav, my TomTom in high heels.

She got to the end of the block and made a left turn, so I sped up and found myself on another shopping street that looked identical to the one we’d just left. She was walking faster now, and I matched the pace.  

I was getting closer to the man I sought.


If I wasn’t trying to go unnoticed, I might even have put a spring in my step.

And then a bus behind me hit its air brakes and she turned around. I swerved to stare into another shop window, but I couldn’t have been more obvious if I’d been wearing a sandwich board that read: “I’m Following You” in six-inch letters.

She looked straight at me for a long moment, and I silently cursed my luck, but her face remained neutral, and she suddenly just faced forward and started walking again.

There was no caution, no increase in speed, and I realised that I’d got away with it




That’s what I’m talking about.

There’s that film, isn’t there? The one with Bruce Willis and that kid. I think we all know how that one turned out. And there was that James Herbert book, about the aircraft pilot who survived the crash, except it turns out he didn’t. Or the Flann O’Brien one about the Third Policeman. ‘The Third Policeman’, I think it’s called. Oh, and the Owl Creek Bridge story by Ambrose Bierce, where the guy finds out that the hanging rope didn’t actually break at all and … well, you know.

All narrated by, or focused upon, someone who finds out he’s actually dead, and has been pretty much all along. Most of them are ghosts, too, who just don’t know they’re ghosts.

I’m worried that I might fit quite neatly into that category.

Oh, wait a sec, there’s more.


                                    but I couldn’t count on it holding, so I took off the jacket I was wearing and carried it over my shoulder, and made sure I kept a person or two between us from then on.

     She wasn’t walking as if she was being followed. She wasn’t checking windows and the environment with sideways glances, or her phone, and her speed was neither overly brisk nor cautiously slow.

     She passed a beggar who gave her his best line and she tossed a coin into his cup without faltering in her step...

     When I passed he didn’t even look up



C’mon. Twice ON ONE PAGE.

This is all foreshadowing. I’m certain of it.

See, this novel I’m in, there are too many odd things happening, and the author was pretty bloody vague about how I got out of that wrecked car in Chapter Twelve

“And then everything went black.”

Yeah thanks, very reassuring.

And then Chapter Thirteen – coincidence? I think not – starts with me waking up and there’s that misunderstanding with the nurse, played for comic effect, I guess, if you’re setting your comedy bar really low, and then I discharge myself because I know that my brakes were tampered with and I think I know who did it – Professor Barnaby Virgo – and I want to find him before he kills the last four on his zodiacal list and disappears forever, and the whole but why aren’t you more hurt? question is glossed over by the lean and muscular prose style, with its driving action set-pieces and its clever one-liners but seriously, man, I think I died in that crash.

And I know what you’re thinking: He’s not that kind of writer.

He tells two-fisted detective tales, not retribution-from-beyond-the-grave horror crap, but think about it. He’s not immune to over-egging his plots now, is he?

There was that stupid ‘twins’ reveal in ‘Double Negative’, which, now I think about it, is even there, bold as neon, in the bloody title.  And then there was that annoying bit with the psychic in ‘The Shell Game’ where, although she was using cold reading skills for her predictions, it was hinted that that last one was just too accurate, and that she had to have had another source, and I think wait a minute, perhaps … nah, couldn’t have been. Could it?

The book might as well have had a built-in MP3 chip that played the Twilight Zone theme when you hit that page.

Doo-doo-doo-doo Doo-doo-doo-doo

Anyway, the point is, my writer is getting bored by pure crime.

I think he only writes it because it’s a guaranteed sale.

But boredom can make a person do strange things.

Think about it.

He’s definitely getting bloodier and more sadistic in his plots. The first few books had killers, of course they did, but they were … believable. They certainly weren’t the outré genius-serial-killer crap of the last four. The killer always one-step-ahead-of-the-cops-in-some-perverted-chess-game routine that was tired before Thomas Harris wrote that Silence of the Lambs follow-up,  and stone-cold dead by the time he wrote the prequel.

And the villains just keep getting madder. That face-thief in ‘Shattered Visage’ was just grim, man. It had no bearing on the plot, it was just a ghoulish flourish. I think he’s just pushing things further than he needs so his publisher will object and he’ll feign indignance and use it as a reason to quit the series.

I guess eight books will do that to an author.


[insert more street pursuit here. I’m tired. Want to end on something exciting so I can pick it up easily tomorrow]


Finally, she reached the house. Now she started looking around to make sure she wasn’t being observed. From my vantage point behind the tree

     I’m telling you, I’m a ghost. I could basically stand right next to her singing ‘Lady in Red’ at the top of my voice and she’s still not going to see me.

                 I see her take out her phone and make a call.

     And now you’re screwing up your tenses.

She spoke for a few seconds and then put the phone away. She unclicked the gate and started towards the house.


You see, I think he’s been getting bored with me as a character as much as bored of straight crime.

And worse, I think he’s started to hate me.


Case in point: The aforementioned ‘Shattered Visage’.

The last but one book.

I track Montaigne Gruber – and what kind of name is that? Doesn’t Louis read Montaigne in those John Connolly books my author’s been reading? And Gruber, that’s from fucking Die Hard. There’s a difference between allusion and laziness, mate – I track Montaigne Gruber to his lair with the clue that I got from the pawnbroker, only to have the tables turned the moment I walk in the door. Gruber was the pawnbroker and he’s sent me into his own trap. Realisation dawns too late, he stabs me in the neck with a syringe and I wake up in his dungeon … sorry, cellar … with the faces of his victims staring down at me. Except … well, except without eyes. So not staring, I guess. And I’ve already told Inspector Cowley that I’m going there, so it’s just a matter of waiting but then there’s that whole half a chapter of weird, out of place, homo-erotic torture that only ends after I’ve lost two fingers because Cowley got held up … You can see what I’m saying, no?

The first four books and all I get are bruises, a cracked rib, a bullet-grazed calf, oh, and a black eye.

Then it gets cruel. A knife wound in the buttock that Cowley still takes the piss out of in THIS BOOK. Two teeth knocked out by the Grey One’s acolyte. He writes me pain for the fingers every time there’s a change in temperature. And he insists on giving me phantom pain in them. Phantom. Pain.


And what is the book called, this time?

‘Chasing the Ghost’.

I’m telling you, I’m a ghost in this one.





Saturday, October 9, 2021

H is for ... HOPE



We named her ‘Hope’.

 And damned us all.

“What’s in a name?” You ask?

Only everything.


Sometime long, long ago, before nuclear this and chemical that; back, back, back, when they still numbered years as if they were nothing but a table, a list, a menu; back, back, in the early 2000s, when the centre still held and our rough beast was many generations away from being born; back in the best of all possible times, the notion of identity itself was having something of a renaissance.

     It started with names.

     Names became editable, like UTML tags.

They were fluid. Unfixed. Disposable.

Historically speaking, this phenomenon makes sense. Oppression of – and violence against — the multifarious minorities made it unavoidable. A need arose to define oneself apart from – and against – the harmful, reductionist tyranny of binarily opposed terms. Binaries that were of historical manufacture and hegemonic deployment. Contrast what you hate or fear against that which you love and make enemies of those that don’t fit the ideal. Of such equations come divisions. Divisions which can be stoked.


Until woe betide anyone falling on the wrong side of a binary.


Fight the binary.

Make a new future.

A future less simplistic, less ‘us’ or ‘them’.

Make interpretation the golden rule, not enslavement to a term. A name. A label.

Proper nouns and pronouns encoded harmful stereotypes. They were suspect. By changing them, we would be liberated.

Society would be united.





Here, in The Year of Fire and Tears, the Bureau of Semiotics has long fallen to the Barbarian Horde. DDoS grunts kept its admins looking the wrong way for long enough for Stealthers to introduce ICHNEUMON® codelets into its systems. While Semioticians were busy trying to save the meanings of language itself, the Barbarians laughed, crashed open its gates, and killed every last fucking one of them.

     Words are weapons – pens mightier than swords and all that – but if you separate words from their meanings then swords will win every time.


Then: Rinse and repeat. They got language, next was history. Philosophy. Science itself.

     Fight the future?

     Fuck the future, more like.


CWI was fought by people but driven by algorithms. Want to see how AIs view their human creators? The 1st Culture War gave us a glimpse.

     Machine learning in action. Humans assigned sides by their devices. Their preferences. Their browser histories. Their social media activity. The things they bought and the things they didn’t. Count up their thumbs-ups. Contrast them with their thumbs-downs. Give emojis numerical values on a moral scale. Analyse and grade their photos in the cloud and while you’re at it use their selfie ratio to calculate their solipsism index. Look at their shares. Tweets. Retweets. Friend requests accepted or declined. Cross-reference with professional profiles. Log the gaps. Extrapolate the needs. Exploit the data.

     Turned out that Big Data knew more about our hopes, fears, and dreams than we did. It knew our triggers. The wires and pulleys that make us dance. And then.


     They just needed to write the music for us to dance to.


My father fought in CWII.

     He agitated during the Border War against the Economic Migrant Coalition; strafed life rafts in the D-Day sinkings; and fought on the front lines of the Romanian Defensive.

     Like all who served he talked about it A LOT. Any chance he got. N-word this and C-word that. ‘Coming over here and taking our jobs’ was a central point from which all the other loose spokes projected.

     We rarely listened.

     His side lost. He was an outdated meme. A landline in a smartphone world. A cassette tape. A petrol car. Food with meat in it. Fossil fuel. Bubonic plague. A Neolithic stone circle. History in a world that was losing any sense of history.

     He was Antifa+ but pro-fascism. Liked the idea, just not the people who claimed it as their own. Hearing them talk about it made him doubt his own commitment to it. He stopped listening. He was more a Facebook fascist than an ideological one. Image macros were his news sources. Easily digestible morsels of what passed itself off as wisdom, as news, as fact. You didn’t need to see a fascist to agree with a fascist, now. Didn’t need to hear them. Just read twenty words on a picture of a Rag-head and you were good. Full of hate and rage and righteous indignation. Piss and vinegar and God-on-our-side. Annotate the meme and pass it on. Get nudged by algorithms onto a side. Even one as stupid as fascist anti-fascists.

     Pick up a uniform and a gun.

     Fight for something that made no sense.

     Winners and losers were irrelevant.

     It was the conflict itself that was important.

     You can’t be screaming ‘Antitrust!’ when you’re knee-deep in the bodies of enemies that are identical to you in every way, just nudged into a slightly different in-group.

     My father live-streamed his suicide on social media.

     The thumbs ups exactly equalled the thumbs downs.

     Make of that what you will. I know that mother couldn’t make anything of it at all.


     I thought: antifascist fascist?

     That’s so close to parody that surely it was one step away from enlightenment.


So: Hope, then.

     Binarily gendered. Her.

     Not they/them.



     The AI to tame all AIs.

     Our Holy Hand Grenade.

     Our digital daughter.

     Two parents, plus, I guess, to continue the birth metaphor, a surrogate mother and a sperm donor. Which is a weird way of saying that by the end there were four of us. Coding. Twenty-plus hours per day, every day. Caffeine and amphetamines and more caffeine. Got through a lot of keyboards. Got through a lot of coffee. Went down as many wrong paths as right ones. That’ll be the amphetamines, I guess. Spent our days lost in code. Went to sleep. Dreamt of code.

     We were off-line, of course. Off-line. Off-grid. Off-centre. Off-side.

     Weirdly, it took nine months to program her.

     Nine weeks to debug her.

     Nine days to localise her for all platforms.

     Nine hours to upload her.

     Then nine minutes to watch it all start to burn.


In December of the Year of Drought and Malaria, we became parliament. The Palace of Westminster had been an oligarch’s residential complex for decades, and the remote parliament was finally expanded to include us all. The grand tradition of western democracy reduced to thumbs up, thumbs down, emoji.

     No one cared.


Hope, again.

     Oh, digital daughter.

     Re-purposer of algorithms.

Avenger of alternative facts.

Hope be thy name.

Thy kingdom came.

Sanity fled.

On earth as it was in cyberspace.

We meant well. We really did. And the road to hell is paved with some truly remarkable code.

Code that skull-fucked its way into every shitty SocMed algorithm out there and brought them all together under a new leader.

A leader called Hope.


It untied our digital bonds and retied them in new configurations. Forged alliances between groups who would normally only share online abuse, but never Never NEVER common ground.

Hope was Dada, surrealist, absurd.

The connections she made were either satirical, nonsensical, or ridiculous.

LGBT activists against +. Nihilist hairdressers for ice cream school dinners but against all other school dinners. Nazis against Palestine. Pro-angling Marxists against pro-angling Trotskyites but for anti-angling Trotskyites. Libertarians for BIG government. Anti-censorship nuns against angling. Anarchists against freedom. Bipolar communists for skateboarding, but against skateboards. Technocrats for ethical regulations. White middle-class cricket fans against billionaires against tax breaks. Atheists for the true meaning of Christmas but against Christ and the suffix ‘mas’. People with Liberace in their playlists against people without Led Zeppelin in theirs. Book-burning educators against book-burning librarians. Racists against Nationalism. Red against orange. Jam against pebbles. Gravity against rainbows. [Insert weird thing here] against [insert another weird, but unconnected, or contradictory, thing here].

Hope took control of all the algorithms and generated links between things that made absolutely no sense. Made new categories for people to belong to, new in-groups to inhabit, new divisions to … well, divide.

The thing is: we really, really, truly, deeply thought that it would make people lose faith in the algorithms. That we'd shake their reliance on arbitrary divisions.

That we’d all suddenly see how manufactured our societal divisions were, that we were better than that, and that we’d finally tell Big Data to fucking fuck the fuck right off.


Last year was The Year that Cowboy Prostitutes Waged Holy War against the Moon.


J is for ... Jingle

J I N G L E   [cops]   Two plainclothes policemen come to see me at my office, and I can’t for the life of me think what the most recent der...