And so it was that a few years back I decided to create my own derring-doer in the form of Dr Liz Sanford and her not-always-trusty sidekick Alison Parker. By doing so it meant I could - should I choose - write a whole series of books based on their adventures and have fun, while I was at it, with the horror genre.
Well, The Weakest Link isn't really horror. It's one of the duo's lighter outings but it does give Liz a chance to take on yet another threat to society, and to be reminded - as though she needed it - that danger may emerge from the most unlikely of sources.
The Weakest Link can also be found in my short story collection Adventures By Moonlight.
THE WEAKEST LINK
By Stephen Walker
When Liz Sanford turned up for work, Monday morning, the first thing that struck her was a tape measure.
It had been thrown across the room by her boss Lou and had hit her slap bang in the middle of the forehead.
This was not good news.
The last time he’d thrown a tape measure at her it had been because he’d wanted her to measure herself up for a coffin. According to him, he’d have done it himself but didn’t want to go to jail for sexual harassment.
There weren’t many jobs where your boss would expect you to measure yourself up for your own coffin - but then most jobs weren’t being the nation’s official occult investigator. According to Lou, everyone who had the job either ended up going mad or dying, so it was best to get the caskets in before the price of wood went up.
And what if she was one of the ones who went mad?
Well, then she’d have to be shot, which meant she’d still need the coffin.
The Department of Occult Investigation operated from an upstairs back-office in the middle of Sheffield. It would have been a comfort to believe that was because the venture needed a central location to give its primary agent quick access to the whole of the country but she suspected it had more to do with the government wanting to keep costs down. Liz Sanford had been working there for eighteen months, and not one day had gone by when she didn’t wonder why. Picking up the tape measure, the twenty-six year old told Lou, “In case you’ve forgotten, you plonker, I’ve already got a coffin. You bought it for me six months ago and it’s currently stood in my bedroom, propped against the wall, lid open, just waiting for me.”
“Forget coffins,” he said, “I’ve got something much better for you to buy.”
“Which is what?”
“And what do I need a dress for?”
“Because you, Betty, are going to an awards ceremony.”
Liz and Lou were in a well-known department store in the middle of town. Lou had dragged her there to get the dress he reckoned she needed.
“Let me get this straight,” she said. “I’ve won an award?”
He plucked a dress from a rack and studied it. He held it against her to see how it might look on her. “Betty, Betty Betty.”
“Don’t call me Betty.”
“Even your own mother wouldn’t give you an award,” he said, “So, what’re the chances anyone else would?”
“So if I’m not getting an award, why am I going to an awards ceremony?”
“Because, I’m going to win an award.”
“You?” she said.
“It’s exciting times for me, Betty. Awards ceremony tonight, having a meeting with The Minister tomorrow…”
“How the hell could you win an award? All you do is sit around all day, reading comics and going on about Jason and the Argonauts.”
He plucked another dress from the rack. “Professor Horton,” he said. “You heard of him?”
“Me neither. It seems he was some nuclear scientist or something. It also seems he was due to win the lifetime achievement award for being Sheffield’s most iconic living man. Only trouble is, now he can't.”
“Because he’s not living. He popped his clogs yesterday afternoon. So that‘s the organisers in trouble. Fortunately they had a brainwave; ‘If we can‘t give it to him, we’ll give it to the man who keeps the streets of this country safe from the forces of darkness.’”
“And who’s that?”
“Excuse me but how’s that you? You’re just a pen-pusher. You spend all your time in an office. It’s me and Alison who go out there and put our lives in danger.”
“That’s what I told ’em. I said, ‘Don’t give it to me. Give it to my plucky underling Betty. If she dies delivering her acceptance speech jokes, it doesn’t matter because she has her own coffin.’ They said, ‘Lou, we’d love to but we can’t. No one likes her.’”
“She likes me.” Liz pointed across at Alison.
The twenty-one year old Alison Parker was Liz’s flatmate and sidekick. She was on the far side of the shop, looking at a dress she’d just pulled from a rack. She was looking at it like it was diseased. Alison’s Gothic tastes meant they were going to have to go to a “special” shop if they were ever going to get anything she liked.
“She doesn’t like you,” said Lou.
“Says who?” asked Liz.
“Behind your back.”
“You don’t have the slightest clue how to be uplift staff morale, do you?”
“The iconic rarely do, Betty. The iconic rarely do.”
So that was it. Liz and Alison got their new outfits for the do - paid for by the Department, and, later that night, headed over to the ceremony, which was being held in the Rolsten Hall on Caudle Row.
Liz would have said all the city’s great and good were there but, as far as she was concerned, it was just the predictable collection of dodgy businessmen, self-regarding politicians and publicity seekers. Lou reckoned she was only saying that because she had a problem with establishment figures and with anything that resembled grown-ups business.
They were sat at a circular table near the rear of the hall. Alison was dressed like Winona Ryder in the wedding scene in Beetlejuice. According to her, “You have to make an effort.” Alison had spent all the time they’d been there so far, trying to see if she could spot any, “stars.” So far she hadn’t spotted one.
Liz was sat there trying to pretend her shoes didn’t hurt.
Up on the stage, someone she’d never heard of was delivering the dullest speech in history. Already the three of them had been there for two hours, and all they’d seen were a string of dull people delivering dull speeches while giving dull awards to people who then delivered even more dull speeches. Were they ever going to get round to giving Lou his stupid prize so they could all go home?
Clearly she wasn’t alone in this thought because a voice to her right declared, “Pitiful isn’t it?”
She looked up.
A middle-aged man in a white dinner jacket was stood over their table. She didn’t like to sit in judgement but he looked like his biggest ambition in life was to be the next Bond villain.
Bond-Villain-Guy said, “The assemblage of mediocrities such ceremonies attract.” Then he remembered his manners. “Oh I’m sorry, I’ve not introduced myself. May I take the liberty of joining you?”
She gave a shrug and he pulled out a chair and sat facing her across the table. “Quite a tedious ceremony, don’t you think? Full of the self-serving and the corrupt. How I loathe such mutual back-slapping. But, still, the secret of success in my line of work is networking, and so I make it my business to attend all such soirees wherever in this land they may be taking place.”
“And who are you?” She said.
“Forgive me, my dear.” He pulled out a card and handed it to her. Among a zillion and one other things it claimed him to be, it said he was the nation’s leading restaurant critic, which was news to her as she’d never heard of him. Then again, she’d never heard of any restaurant critics, so that probably didn’t prove anything. He took her hand and kissed the back of it. “I am Astbury Charlemagne. You may have heard of me.”
“Good. For that is as it should be. You see, my dear, as well as being this nation’s leading food expert and occultist, I am nothing less than your deadliest arch-enemy.”
You can download the rest of The Weakest Link from:
Amazon.Com, Amazon UK, Smashwords.
Stilettos-Heels by Xingbo (Public Domain), from Wikimedia Commons
Rosarino2 by MCarranza (Public Domain) via Wikimedia Commons
Overall cover design, copyright Stephen Walker, 2012 and available under Creative Commons License [CC-BY-SA-3.0].