This Thursday, we’re thrilled to be publishing Lucky Ghost by Matthew Blakstad in paperback for the very first time. To celebrate this fact, and to wet your whistle, we’ve decided to treat you all to a first look at the new paperback cover (what a beauty) AND an extract. Aren’t we kind? (don’t worry we’ll be back to taunting you within the day).
The new paperback cover was designed by the same artist as the hardback: our incredibly talented Ben Summers. It follows the same style as the paperback cover of Sockpuppet (so they’ll look even more stylish and cool next to each other on your shelf) and looks even better in person than it does online.
Tempted? I don’t blame you. If you’re still on the fence read the extract below, in which Alex has an Encounter in the Strange, earns some Emoticoin and slaps a perfect stranger. We promise you won’t regret it.
The following extract is only for use by Hodder, and may not be reproduced without prior permission. Copyright © Matthew Blakstad
Lucky Ghost Chapter 1
A LONG, LONG WAY AWAY
One moment Alex is dry heaving into the West End gutter; the next it’s 1952. Grey light ripples round her face with a fizz of static. She wipes bile from her mouth, makes to stand straight, like a 1950s lady should. Too fast: the panic-monster starts hammering again inside her forehead. Sickness wells up in a dizzy fuzz and she leans forward, pressing hands against knees. She makes a couple more empty heaves but nothing comes.
She dares a look around.
She’s on a vintage railway platform. A stopping-point on some country branch line. From the steamed windows of the cafeteria, amber light seeps out into the evening gloom – though back in the real world it’s barely five a.m. The brick walls are freshly whitewashed and pastel posters promote the temptations of Buxton, the Cornish Riviera and, anachronistically, Grazia magazine. Over the surging orchestral bed a whistle shrills.
Across the platform tweedy ghosts check watches, pick up leather cases and turn to face the steam train as it clanks to a halt.
Alex’s glowheart hovers by her elbow. FEAR and ANTICIPATION brim inside it in apple red and watermelon pink.
She breathes with its beats until the FEAR subsides; then she stands up slowly. She doesn’t vomit or pass out, which is progress.
Cheery magenta letters swoop in and jostle together.
they say. OK, but slap who? Alex searches face after well-rendered male face. None pay her any mind. They stub cigarettes, remove hats and open slam-doors for their pinch-waisted wives, speaking in that clipped pronunciation that only exists in black and white.
So distant, so familiar.
Alex always knew she’d be at home in the 1950s. Never mind she’d have ended up a housewife, or a maiden aunt who was not the marrying kind. This is her era. Which is why, when she was on the brink of exploding with panic, the Strange has landed her here. It knows her so well now, after weeks of gnawing through her data.
The words edge closer. Alex scrubs at them with an unsteady hand but they’re reluctant to budge. She strokes the dragon tattooed along her scapula, silencing the fizzing embeds, but she can’t stop her heart from pounding like it’s trying to tunnel out of her ribcage. The prompt edges closer, cajoling.
A stocky man in a dark green overcoat and sweet homburg steps forward from the crowd. An amber pulse traces his outline and for a second he seems to expand and contract. This is the other player.
<in the face>
He’s thirty-ish, austerity-starved but muscular, and handsome.
A low-rent Cary Grant, smoking a tobacco cigarette. There’s something close and familiar about him. Something Alex wishes she could place. His glowheart bulges with PRIDE and SATISFACTION. He must have been Strange for quite some time to have a heart so fat and present. Alex still wears her own heart out of view.
The whistle shrills again and the train puffs up, preparing to depart. Steam envelops Alex and the man.
<slap him hard>
It’s a weird-ass opening cue – but the motto here is, try everything new. Before she can change her mind, she walks up and slaps the man’s cheek, hard. He shies back, cockeyed smile replaced by fury – then he gets it. Alex shakes her stinging palm.
‘Whatever you believe you saw this afternoon—’ he says.
The Strange feeds Alex her cue.
<we shall not speak of it Charles>
‘No,’ she says, surprised at the wealth of feeling ejected through that word. ‘We shall not speak of it, Charles.’
Her voice emerges in that same cut-glass vintage accent.
‘If you cared one fraction of how I care, Elyse, perhaps this might not have happened.’
Elyse? Her character’s name is Elyse? That’s interesting.
‘Of course!’ she tumbles onto the next line. ‘When a man transgresses there is always a woman to blame!’
‘I have the Morris outside. Let me take you home. Do not take an irrevocable step in anger.’
He’s actually pretty good. His ease with the scene is confidence-building.
‘And that is it? You believe you can have this both ways? Keep me with you and keep with – whoever else? Whatever else?’
‘I have truly cared for you – after my fashion. Can you not see that?’
People on the platform are starting to take notice.
‘If you expect me to speak of this here—’ she hisses.
As she turns to grasp the handle of the compartment door, real tears prickle at the corners of her eyes. A sticker on the window says SMOKING in Gill Sans capitals. Charles grabs her arm.
‘But where will you go, my darling?’ he says. ‘You cannot simply step into the unknown.’
OK, game. Very subtle. Step into the unknown? That’s exactly what Alex is supposed to do this morning, out in the real world.
They want her to speak to five million people; but she can’t. That’s why she ran away. That’s why, with this challenge, the Encounter’s asking her, do you dare or don’t you? She doesn’t know the answer.
Inside the Encounter, Alex is a character – and the nature of characters is, they face conflict. They get to make choices. The lady or the tiger? Fight or flight? Just like real people, characters travel down narrow forking corridors of possibility. Free will boiled down to multi-choice. Still, choices are empowering. Time to decide.
Elyse pulls her arm from Charles’s grip and steps up into the carriage. She nods politely at a brace of elderly ladies nestled on the tartan bench seat, in identical floral flocks. Each has a basket clutched to her stomach. Elyse turns back to Charles.
‘Yet how can I stay?’ she says. ‘When it’s you, my darling, who have made that impossible?’
The whistle sounds again, more insistent. Charles turns his head away, visibly fighting tears.
‘And what of our son?’ he says.
Her view shimmers. For a moment she sees the real man, in the present day. The clothes he’s wearing – green overcoat, homburg hat – are pretty much the same as his character’s, but his profile is less honed, more vicious. His fingers tickle a spider’s web tattooed on his throat. Odd detail on such a dapper dresser. Familiar detail.
The scene reasserts. Alex wishes her cheap-arse mesh didn’t keep fritzing out like that.
‘You are strong, Elyse,’ says Charles, not looking her way.
‘Remember, it is you who are strong and I who am weak. One day you will forgive me.’
He steps back and closes the train door. Their eyes lock through smoky glass. Elyse screws up her eyes, seeking out the unaugmented man. Why does she know him?
‘Alex Kubelick!’ booms a voice.
Alex starts. That isn’t her name in here. She turns. A bulldoggy, dishevelled man has appeared on the bench seat between the two ladies, to their evident disgust. He’s dressed in a synthetic windcheater and woollen beanie, from which a low-cost Chubba mesh dangles before his eyes like chain mail. He’s eating something sticky with a great amount of finger-licking. Even so, he might fit into the scene, if he wasn’t so blue. His face, clothes, hair – all cyan. A colour that screams against the mossy fifties’ palette.
Mickey Gallant has gate-crashed Alex’s story as a ghost. He gazes around with vague interest, munching.
‘Nifty Encounter,’ he says. ‘Do you always play Martingale era?’
With two short jolts the train begins to pull away. Alex steadies herself, though the motion isn’t real. She hurries to the window and peers out through soot and condensation. Her co-star has vanished. The platform heads sideways with increasing speed. A magenta prompt rolls past.
<what is Charles’s secret?>
Whoever Charles was, he’s gone. The Encounter won’t reassert itself until Alex and he next meet in the real world. Which is probably never. Shame, but most casual Encounters end that way, unresolved. She plonks herself on the bench seat opposite Mickey.
Her backside strikes something hard. Whatever she’s sitting on in the real isn’t cushioned. She glares at Mickey.
‘You can’t load anything on me,’ she says. ‘Not today.’
Mickey is transparently crestfallen.
‘You don’t know what I’ve got,’ he says in his foghorn voice.
She screws her eyes at his hazy outline.
‘Where actually are you?’
‘You’re anchoring the show this morning. Don’t you want to make a splash?’
With that simple reminder, PANIC beats against the walls of Alex’s glowheart. She stares it down until it softens to a pulse.
‘I don’t care what you have. I’m not— hold up, wait. How did you know I’m supposed to be presenting?’
‘Sources!’ says Mickey, loving whatever joke he thinks he’s made.
His booming voice draws prim glances from the ladies.
‘God, indoor voice,’ hisses Alex, though the ladies are sprites and Mickey isn’t really there. ‘Please?’
Mickey screws up his face, delighting at the attention. His cheeks are patchy with four-day stubble. He’s in as much of a mess as Alex has ever seen him; but that’s part of his schtick. This belligerent scruff gets under the skin of his targets, Columbostyle, makes them let their guards down. He has a knack for finding dirt beneath the nails of the squeakiest-clean politician, the most polished CEO. He used to toss Alex regular scoops, back when she worked outside the network. Before she broke down and vanished. She owes him, but the guy’s a walking IED.
‘Lovely as it obviously is to see you,’ she says, standing, ‘I have to get back.’
It seems she’s made a decision. She is going back. Going on air.
The rattling of the train beneath her feet is astonishingly real.
That’s the haptic tattoos on the soles of her feet.
‘Smint?’ says Mickey, offering a dispenser.
Alex sighs and sits back down. Be kind to an abandoned dog, it’ll only start following you around. Yet Mickey’s never let her down.
‘I’m good, Mickey. Thank you. Look, I know I’ll regret this, but tell me what you have and then, I don’t know, dematerialise. OK?’
Mickey fumbles in his satchel. Alex checks the count on her glowheart. A clump of pink-and-magenta nuggets have landed in it. Her reward from the Encounter. Forty Coin, denominated in CONTEMPT – her character’s primary emotion. Not bad.
CONTEMPT is up in value this week. Is it the Coin that’s lending her this sudden bump of pride, or slapping that man? It was a fleeting cutscene but it’s wiped her away her fright. She wishes she could place the man, though.
A wheel of retro handbags carousels into Alex’s field of vision.
Each bag was being carried by one of the walk-on characters in the station. Each is rated in SERENITY and ADMIRATION. She flicks the ad away and finds the train compartment gone. In its place is a deserted London street. It’s dark in the real world, where it’s five a.m. on a February morning. Alex is sitting on the bonnet of a self-driving Toyota that’s hibernating at a charging point –
the real-life version of the train’s bench seat. No wonder it felt so hard. Her mesh still covers her eyes and ears – she’s still in the Strange – but the scene’s returned to the present day. Even here, though, there’s augmentation. The sodium glare of the street is dampened by a soft mist. Lamp posts twist into spiny birch trees.
The shush of Oxford Street traffic comes through as a woodland rustle, cut by the chirrups of unseen birds. This wallpaper’s called Autumn Woodland. It cost Alex twenty Emoticoin and she overlays it on everything. It makes her life mellower. These days, her whole world is curated. Her colours, her soundtrack.
She slides off the bonnet of the car. The Strange’s main navigation glides in:
She makes a crumpling motion with her hand, collapsing the menu, then throws it away. Mickey’s ghost is still with her, sitting in mid-air, clutching a wodge of dog-eared papers.
‘I just happen to have come across a certain item,’ he says.
Alex shakes her head. Barely ten minutes have passed since she fled from her workplace out here onto the street, and most of that time she’s spent in the 1950s. This was meant to be a training day.
Like every other morning for the past three weeks, she arrived at the production office at four a.m., did her best to blend into the pre-dawn hubbub. She’s been loving her month as a trainee radio host. She wasn’t due to go on air for at least a fortnight. This morning was her chance to shadow the amazing Sally Robsart – to find out how Sally, with those doe eyes and that hot-chocolate voice, still manages to knock ten shades of shit out of every politician she interviews. Yet Sally was nowhere to be seen.
Alex found herself some busy-work to do, hacking out notes for a discussion link, until her boss, Siobhán, came over to tell her Sally was down with the vomiting alpaca flu that’s doing the rounds. Alex would need to go on air instead. Anchor this morning’s show. Speak to millions, in less than an hour and a half.
‘Amazing,’ she said, when what she meant was, No! I’m not ready.
No sooner did Siobhán swoop off than a full-blown panic roared over Alex. She barely managed to mutter ‘Cigarette’ before stumbling down to the building’s forecourt. Her only thought was escape. She’d hop into the first driverless that trundled by, make it drive until its batteries died. Before she even made it to the kerb her knees buckled and blotches of black light blinded her. She grabbed at a lamp post as her guts ejected three espressos and a slice of toasted white. She gazed into the sorry gutter-puddle.
Here she was, fucking up in full view of the building. Everyone who’d ever dissed her would know they’d been dead right. She was still the gibbering fuck-up who six months before had stumbled away from journalism, vanished into a sink-pit of misery. She should never have returned.
Six months ago this would have triggered a spiralling descent, a glut of pills and an obstinate refusal to consider a talking cure.
Not today. Today she has a safe place that she carries around with her. It’s called the Strange. Standing over the tidy patch of puke she put on her thrift shop tea-hat and let its mesh veil descend around her face. It shimmered into life – and dropped her onto the gamestage of the railway platform. The game has moderated her panic – until Mickey came along to remind her she’s about to go on air.
Here he is now, shaking his papers at her like a box of Kit-e-Kat.
‘I guarantee you do not want to pass on this hot little number,’ he says. ‘Guaranteed.’
‘Hot as in stolen or hot as in dangerous?’
‘That’s Siobhán talking. Did she pick you because you have a voice like a sex-chat girl or because you’re a dynamite reporter?’
‘Sex chat?’ says Alex.
‘They need you more that you need them. They’re all about fake objectivity. You’re first person.’
‘If you say so.’
Alex’s gaze dwells on the white stone frontage of the Corporation. They’ll be wondering where she is.
‘Their Rajars are through the floor,’ says Mickey. ‘Your interviews on Doorstep were super-hot.’
‘Look, Mickey, I love you to bits but they need me up there. I have a show to prepare.’
For a second or two her glowheart fizzes with fern-green FEAR; then it subsides. She starts walking.
In the movies – the flat black-and-white ones where they dress in the styles that everyone’s started wearing again today – in those movies, when a woman got ‘hysterical’, some hardboiled beefcake would slap her. Maybe shake her by the shoulders for good measure. In the Encounter, it was Alex who got to slap the beefcake.
Weird, but she does feel better for it. All round the surface of her glowheart, green and orange peak in time with her beatbox heart, but since the slap they’re steadier. Another prompt appears.
<these eleven tips will make you>
<stronger and sexier at work>
She claps the blinkbait away. Ghost Mickey has followed her to the revolving doors.
‘You have Susan Harridan up,’ he says. ‘At seven fifty.’
Alex frowns at his delighted face.
‘She’s called Hardiman, you sexist twat. And how is it you know my running order better than I do?’
‘I guess someone forgot to change the passwords on the scheduler.
You’re doing Hardiman.’
Alex gives him a level look.
‘All right. And?’
‘And fucking this.’
His blue hand holds up a piece of blue paper. Alex can’t stop her eyes skipping down the printed-out email. After a moment she snatches it off him. It travels with her fingers as though it were an actual piece of paper. She reads it properly. Mickey’s grin says he knows he has her.
‘How did you get ahold of this?’ she says.
He taps the soft flesh of his blue and often-broken nose.