Deep within the kingdom of cyberspace, forming one miniscule part of that modern marvel known as the wonderful worldwide web, there exists a UK based website known to all and sundry as “ABCtales.com”. Described, albeit by itself, as “probably the most exciting story and poetry site in the world….where you can publish your short stories and poems online…and meet fellow writers, all for free” it is home to a loose collection of said writers who are free to upload whichever of their works they deem fit to share with the world.
Some of its denizens are very, very good; others….less so. In sporting terms it resembles that other great English institution the F.A. Cup, with skill levels ranging from those non-leaguers destined to be knocked out in the “extra preliminary round” (six rounds short of the “first round proper” and fourteen short of the final), to those top flight stalwarts who could take to the Wembley pitch at the culmination of the season with minimal fear of embarrassment.
Had the late and unlamented Ms! Harriet Fitzgibbons ever allowed her spirit to walk beyond the narrow confines of her publishing house she may have encountered this very website. Once there she may even have come across a poem from one moderately talented contributor entitled the “Curse of the Unread Story”, a title which, for reasons that will soon become apparent, would have sent shivers down her spine. Upon reading it she would have been possibly relieved, possibly disappointed, to find it was merely the poetic musings of a writer confused by the vagaries of what is considered good writing and what is not and at a loss to understand why his latest story remained relatively “unread”.
In defiance of the poet’s feelings on the matter, confusion and disappointment hardly constitute a curse; unfortunately for Ms Fitzgibbons the true “Curse of the Unread Story” was all too real and all too immediate, its invocation being the precursor (no pun intended) to her death.
In some quarters talking ill of the dead is frowned upon, so why the scathing indictment of one woman’s failure to engage with a particular online community? The criticism stems from the fact that as owner, managing director and editor-in-chief of Fitzgibbons Publishers, an exclusive establishment dealing primarily in short stories and poetry, she vociferously proclaimed to any that would listen that she was the champion of the new and undiscovered author, seeking selflessly and tirelessly to bring raw talent to the fore.
In truth she never sought out anybody, preferring instead that any writer wishing to bask in the light of her reflected glory should come before her on bended knee like a supplicant before a medieval monarch. Taking philanthropy from the equation, why then did she run a publishing company? It certainly wasn’t for the money; despite hating her wealthy parents from the cradle to the grave (the cradle was hers, the grave was theirs) she nonetheless loved her considerable inheritance. Not that her more than healthy bank balance stopped her from creaming off a whopping forty percent commission from any profits made on the works she published.
So, if not for money and not for the chance to help others, what then is left? Power, pure and simple. Oh, and the mistaken belief that she was contributing to the cultural wealth of society.
Like the theatre critic who cannot act or the self-proclaimed art expert who cannot paint, Harriet Fitzgibbons had not one drop of creative blood in her body. Furthermore, unlike the theatre critic who at least writes for a living, she herself had minimal skill with either pen or keyboard. Worse still, whereas even art critics have some imagination (anyone who can espouse at length about the merits of a stack of bricks surely must have), Harriet was totally devoid of said attribute.
Lulled by her public persona many a would-be wordsmith had submitted the results of their cerebral labours for her consideration, hoping against hope that her not to be disputed publishing prowess would catapult them into the literary limelight. Most went unpublished; unbeknownst to those doing the submitting most also went unread.
It was given to Penny Chambers, Harriet’s overworked personal assistant, to read the submissions as they came in, rejecting immediately those which, through bitter experience of way too many verbal humiliations, she knew to be unworthy of her boss’s time. A cursory rejection letter, purportedly from the editor-in-chief herself but signed, sealed and delivered (to the post room that is) by her assistant, was duly sent out.
Every so often, much too often in the emphatic but powerless opinion of Penny, Harriet would impose a mandatory moratorium on all new submissions, there being more important things to do than read the “uninspiring drivel of unimportant people”, a lamentable stance from a publisher wouldn’t you agree?
All the failed submissions the company received, be they read but unworthy or unread and worthless, were meticulously filed away. In her naïve innocence Penny believed this was done so that they might be given the chance they deserved at some later date. In truth Harriet kept hold of them one to save on the cost of returning them (any stamped addressed envelopes received with submissions were “recycled” via the simple expedient of affixing a sticky label over the existing address), and two so that she could immediately jump on the bandwagon should one of the rejectees find an outlet for their craft amongst one of her myriad competitors.
In the world of Harriet Fitzgibbons it was she who made the rules, enforcing them with ruthless efficiency. She lived her life untroubled by conscience, untouched by the feelings of those people she rejected or ignored. There is a maxim in life along the lines of “be careful who you upset on your way up as you may well end up meeting them again on your way down”; when it came Harriet’s fall from her lofty perch would be abrupt, both in its timing and its angle of descent. The curse of the unread story was about to strike.
The first inkling Harriet had that there might indeed be greater powers than she at work in the world came on an otherwise run of the mill, slightly tedious, Monday morning
‘Bzzz!’ the intercom on her desk spat angrily.
‘What now?’ Harriet spat back with equal angst. ‘I said “no interruptions” Penny, I’m extremely busy.’
Despite having already established that Harriet had “not one drop of creative blood in her body” she could make up a lie at the drop of a hat.
‘I’m so s..sorry Ms Fitzgibbons,’ stammered Penny, ‘but there’s a policeman here to see you.’
‘Tell him I’m out,’ Harriet replied.
‘WPC Childs here ma’am,’ came a strangers voice. ‘And it would appear you are most definitely in.’
‘My dear officer,’ fawned Harriet. ‘Please forgive me my little joke. Do let my assistant…’ my soon to be redundant assistant she added to herself, ‘…show you in.’
Harriet’s desk was both expensive and expansive. What is more she was used to feeling all powerful as she sat enthroned behind it. In the presence of the impassive police officer now seated before her she merely felt small, like a naughty schoolgirl summoned to the headmistress’s office.
‘So how can I assist the denizens of the law?’ she asked with a bravado she did not feel.
‘Have you ever had any dealings with a young man by the name of Timothy Hatcher?’ asked WPC Childs.
‘Not too my knowledge,’ Harriet replied. ‘What has he got to do with me?’
‘That remains to be seen. Unfortunately Mr Hatcher passed away last week.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that,’ said Harriet insincerely. ‘I hope his demise wasn’t too awful.’
‘The death of a young person is always awful Ms Fitzgibbons. As too Mr Hatcher’s “demise” as you put it, that remains a mystery. He appears to have just lain down and died. He had no injuries, there were no signs of illness or disease, he appears to have just given up.’
‘All very interesting I’m sure,’ said Harriet. ‘But I fail to see what this matter has to do with me.’
‘I’m getting to that,’ replied the officer. ‘There is no evidence Timothy took his own life or that he was murdered, but the last entry in his diary has plenty to do with you. On the day of his passing he wrote:
“If I should die quite suddenly, should my death be unexpected, should the reasons for my demise be mysterious, ask Harriet Fitzgibbons for the answers.”
‘Any idea what he might have meant by that Ms Fitzgibbons?’
‘None whatsoever. For all you know there could be any one of a hundred people with that name. Why choose to single me out for persecution?’
‘Believe me no one is persecuting you; we found your name and address in his Filofax and a receipt for a recorded delivery to this building. It was signed for by someone in the post room.’
‘Let me assure you constable, I read all incoming mail personally and I have a very good memory. The post room in this building receives post for all the serviced offices, the letter or whatever it was may have been signed for but it never reached me.’
‘Well I guess for now we’re at a dead end. The building managers have said they will assist us in our enquiries; we’ll have to see if they can trace the item.’
‘Indeed,’ said Harriet curtly. ‘Will there be anything else?’
‘Are you certain you’ve had no other contact from Mr Hatcher? No phone calls, no e-mails, no other correspondence?’
‘I’m quite certain Constable Childs. I pride myself on knowing intimately what goes on in my business. I value every interaction I have with clients.’
‘If anything should come to mind Ms Fitzgibbons, please contact myself or one of my colleagues. I’ll leave a number with your assistant on my way out. Thank you for your time.’
‘It was my pleasure,’ Harriet replied, fooling no one. ‘Goodbye.’
The outer office door had barely closed when Harriet jumped on the hapless Penny.
‘Check the files for anything from a Timothy Hatcher and be damned quick about it.’
‘Certainly Ms Fitzgibbons,’ Penny replied meekly.
Scant moments later Penny presented Harriet with not one but two submissions.
‘Well what do they say?’ she barked.
‘You said to bring them straightaway, I haven’t read them.’
‘What about when they first came in?’
‘That was during one of your “I don’t want to see any more pathetic scribblings” periods, Ms Fitzgibbons.’
‘Watch your mouth Miss Chambers. After the foolish way you embarrassed me with that police officer your position is already tenuous. Go away and read them and then give me a synopsis. Today Miss Chambers.’
Forty minutes later Penny dutifully presented her findings to her boss.
‘The first piece,’ Penny began ‘is a short story about a writer who decides he can’t face life any more. He apparently sent three submissions to a publisher but when he didn't hear anything back he figured he was worthless and life wasn’t worth living.
‘Before he died,’ continued Penny, ‘he became convinced the publisher had never even read his work and in an act of revenge he invoked a curse against them whereby the things he wrote about would come back to haunt them should the stories remain unread.’
‘How did Mr Hatcher… the character in Mr Hatcher’s story… come to die?’ asked Harriet, an impossible suspicion already taking root in the pit of her stomach.
‘He appears to have just lain down and died,’ said Penny, repeating word for word WPC Child’s earlier description of the death of Timothy Hatcher. ‘He had no injuries, there were no signs of illness or disease, he appears to have just given up.’
‘Tell me Penny,’ Harriet asked. ‘Did you overhear my conversation with the police constable?’
‘Of course not,’ Penny replied indignantly. ‘I never listen to any of your meetings.’
‘What was the other piece?’
‘That was also a short story,’ Penny responded sulkily. ‘It was called “A Fishy Tale” and was about a man who kills his neighbours’ cat because he thought it was eating the fish in his garden pond. It turns out it was a heron and not the cat at all. It wasn’t very good.’
‘That sounds innocuous enough,’ thought Harriet. Aloud she merely said ‘Thank you Penny that will be all.’
As Penny opened the door the phone in the outer office started to ring.
‘I’ll get that Penny,’ said Harriet absentmindedly.
‘Fitzgibbons Publishing, Harriet Fitzgibbons speaking, how may I help you?’
‘Hello Ms Fitzgibbons, it’s Margaret.’ Margaret was Harriet’s housekeeper.
‘Yes Margaret, what is it now?’
‘Sorry to disturb you at work Ms Fitzgibbons, but the police were just here.’
‘They went to the house?’ exclaimed Harriet. ‘They’ve just been to my office. I told them I don’t know any Timothy Hatcher.’
‘Who?’ queried the housekeeper.
‘Timothy Hatcher, the chap who died. That’s what they wanted, right?’
‘They were here about Cuddles, Miss Fitzgibbons, you’re cat.’
‘What about the cat,’ asked Harriet, her earlier suspicion bursting through the wall of her stomach straight into her heart.
‘I’m afraid he’s dead Ms Fitzgibbons, poisoned. The police are talking to the neighbours now, they think it may have been one of them.’
Stunned into silence Harriet put down the phone.
For the next half an hour Harriet sat at her desk and gave serious consideration to the impossible: the curse in Timothy Hatcher’s story was real. He’d written of the mysterious death of a writer whose work had not been read by the publisher he’d sent it to: in his own death that premonition had come to pass. He’d written of a pet cat killed by the owner’s neighbours: in the death of Cuddles that too had come to pass. The original story mentioned three submissions to the publisher, Harriet had to find and read that third story. Walking out of her office she asked:
‘Penny, are you quite sure we received nothing else from Mr Hatcher?’
‘Quite sure, Ms Fitzgibbons. Would you like me to double check?’
‘No, there’s no need, if you’re sure then that’s fine by me.’
‘Ok Ms Fitzgibbons,’ Penny replied, at a loss to explain the unexpected compliment.
‘I’ll need Mr Hatcher’s address Penny. I think I’ll visit the house, offer my condolences to his family.’
‘Blimey,’ thought Harriet. ‘Have three spirits been into her office while I wasn’t looking?’
‘Right away Ms Fitzgibbons,’ was what she actually replied.
Two hours later Harriet was sat at the writing desk of Timothy Hatcher, shown there by the young writer’s grieving mother. In a tray marked “To be filed” she had found a copy of the missing story, identified by the handwritten scrawl “sent to Fitzgibbons Publishing, awaiting reply”. Stuffing the printed pages into her handbag she returned downstairs.
‘Thank you for letting me see where Timothy did his writing Mrs Hatcher. Even though I never received any of his submissions I feel sure they would have been wonderful.’
‘Thank you Miss, sorry Ms Fitzgibbons,’ sobbed Mrs Hatcher. ‘And thank you too for coming to see me.’
‘I felt it was my duty Mrs Hatcher. One does so much to encourage the work of aspiring writers and the loss of any young person is such a terrible waste. I’ll see myself out.’
Once out of sight of the ex-Mr Hatcher’s residence Harriet pulled over to read the story. To her horror it described the murder of a company executive, viciously beaten to death in her office while working late one night.
‘Well, well Timothy,’ she said aloud. ‘This is one prediction that will not be coming true.’
By the time the lift stopped on the tenth floor of the office building which was home to Fitzgibbons Publishing it was nearly seven o’clock. As she stepped into the corridor she screamed in terror as a figure lunged toward her from the shadows, a cylindrical object grasped in its outstretched hand.
‘Sorry Ms Fitzgibbons,’ said a familiar voice. ‘It’s me, Pat, from the post room. I’ve just been to your office to see you.’
‘Pat, you utter imbecile! I could have your job for this, attacking me in the corridor.’
‘I am truly sorry Ms Fitzgibbons, please forgive me. It’s just I was working late looking for that letter the law was interested in. I just found it, down the back of a filing cabinet. I wanted you to have it straightaway, knowing how important it was and all.’
Rolled up in his hand was an envelope, the very “cylindrical object” she had mistaken for a weapon, the kind of weapon that could be used to beat a person to death.
‘Thank you, Pat,’ she said, taking the envelope. ‘We’ll say no more about the way you lunged at me. Just be careful how you approach people in future.’
‘Thank you Ms Fitzgibbons,’ said Pat. Harriet was already walking away.
At her office door she stopped, deciding she’d had more than enough for one day. Retracing her steps to the lift she waited impatiently for it to return to the tenth floor once it had deposited Pat in the netherworld of his basement domain.
As she stood there she opened the envelope the mailman had given her; to her immense relief it was the same story she had so recently retrieved from Timothy Hatcher’s room. Seeing from the lights above the lift doors that her ride was almost there she quickly scanned the pages to make sure it was identical: it was.
The doors to the lift opened before her. As she entered she noticed with horror that the end of the story was not the end of the submission, a second story had been stapled behind the first.
Three submissions maybe, but FOUR stories!
As Harriet read the four word title the lift began to move. Frantically she stabbed at the button to open the doors. The car continued to move slowly downwards. With a terrified whimper Harriet fell to the floor, the papers spilling from her hands as she did so. The lift lurched violently then started to accelerate.
Harriet Fitzgibbons had read countless words in her lifetime but as the lights in the elevator flickered out she knew with terrifying certainty that she had just read the last of them, the title of Timothy Hatcher’s final story.
In the wreckage of the pulverised lift car WPC Childs stooped gingerly to pick up a sheaf of papers still tacky with splashes of blood. Turning to her colleague standing at the opening above her head she said:
‘She must have been reading this when it happened. I guess she died doing what she loved most.’
‘You reckon?’ the second officer replied. ‘What’s it called?’
WPC Childs paused before answering. ‘Going Down…Straight Down.’
copyright D M Pamment 8/12/11