“You’re telling me I’m dead?”
The man sprawled in the cracked leather chair took a swig from a brandy balloon and eyed the bewildered newcomer with rancour.
“As mutton. As a door-nail. As a dodo. As...”
“Ignore Ian,” boomed a mass of well-filled tweed topped by an impressive moustache, beneath which protruded an even more impressive pipe. “He’s not in the best of spirits at the moment.”
“Bad taste, old boy,” the drinker retorted. “Bad taste.” Cigar ash spilled on to his dinner jacket.
“Please, gentlemen,” chided a white-haired woman with a patrician accent and sensible shoes. “Our guest has not yet come to terms with his new situation.”
“Quite right,” said Moustache, his attempt at volume control almost succeeding. Dinner Jacket merely grunted.
“I’m dead?” The newcomer, a young man dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt, gazed through the tobacco fug at the trio, then around him at wood-panelling and yards of calfskin-bound books. It seemed that only moments ago he’d been searching for the key to his front door.
The woman ushered him to an armchair, urged him to sit and handed him brandy.
“Welcome to the Crime and Thriller Writers’ Group,” she said. “We expect confusion from new members so take your time. We all have plenty.”
The newcomer drained his glass, speechless.
“This is Agatha,” boomed Moustache, his volume restored. “This is Ian and I’m Arthur. You’ll meet everyone else later.”
The newcomer’s bewilderment cleared. He grinned.
“Agatha Christie! Ian Fleming and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle! Thank God for that – just a dream.”
Arthur shook his head. The newcomer’s smile faded.
“No surnames, no titles. We’re all the same here.”
“Except Charlie Boy,” muttered Ian.
“Come come,” admonished Agatha. “He is the greatest author in the English-speaking world.”
“In any world, according to him.” Ian took another slurp of brandy and banged down his glass.
“Dickens? Charles Dickens?” whispered the newcomer. “But, but… what… how… how did I get here?”
Agatha offered him more brandy. “Your wife.” She patted his hand. “She found out.”
“Gunned down on your own doorstep,” Ian guffawed. “Sound familiar?”
“But that’s how my novel opens!”
“Some coincidence, eh? Good career move, though. The tabloids will lap it up. This time next week you’ll be top of the bestseller lists.”
“Ian, please!” Agatha patted the newcomer’s hand again. “My colleague’s not at his best today.”
“And no wonder with that blasted chap Boyd ruining my reputation.” He glared at the newcomer. “Did you read it? Solo? Approved by the estate of the late Ian Fleming? Well I didn’t approve. Damned thing’s a travesty.”
“It’s all right for you,” Ian spluttered. “You got Gattis and Moffat and a whole new life for Sherlock. I got Boyd.”
Agatha shook her head. “This is neither the time nor the place. And we have important work to do.”
“The continuity,” intoned Arthur.
“The continuity,” echoed Agatha.
“Just get on with it,” grumbled Ian.
Arthur crossed the room, touched a hidden switch and a panel of fake books slid to one side.
“Television? You’ve got television in… in… Where are we?”
“You’re home,” said Arthur. “That’s all you need to know for now. And we don’t have television. If you wish to see one you’ll have to be invited to visit the Screenwriters’ Group down the corridor.”
“Don’t go,” Ian muttered. “Did you see what that bounder Lazenby did to Bond? And Moore? If I ever get inside the Screen Actors’ Group I’ll…”
“Ian!” cried Agatha. “Enough!” She turned back to the newcomer. “This isn’t a television set. It’s a view into the world you left behind. Now there’s a duty you must perform.”
The newcomer peered at a group of people listening with varying degrees of interest as a speaker instructed them in the art of literary humour.
“These are the Black Isle Writers,” Arthur told him. “Never heard of the place myself, but there you have it. We don’t know them. Neither do you. Every real writer receives the gift of words from an author who’s gone before. We all did. You did. Now you must pass on your gift and transform one of these scribblers into a Writer.”
The newcomer’s brow furrowed. “That’s a bit random, isn’t it?” He examined the group’s members. “How do I know who deserves it?”
“Ha!” Ian glared at him. “You don’t. It’s all chance. How else do you think that dreadful cove Archer got away with it for so long?”
The newcomer examined each candidate in turn, looking over their shoulders at the notes and manuscripts in front of them. After a while he drew a decisive breath and pointed.
“Him. He looks like he could use all the help he can get.”
“Very well,” said Arthur. “We’ll inform Charles. Now, you’ll be ready to see your room. There’s pen and paper, typewriter or computer. Use whatever suits you.”
The newcomer brightened. “I can still write?”
“Of course,” Agatha chuckled. “That’s what we do. Some of my best work’s been written up here.”
“Just don’t let Charles catch you trying to smuggle it back down,” Arthur warned, with a wink.
“I knew it!” Ian shouted. “I knew those hacks Moffat and Gattis would never have come up with those ideas by themselves.” He stormed out of the room, almost knocking over the elderly butler who entered at the same time. Arthur nodded to him.
“Thank-you, Dunnit. Please show our new friend to his room.”
The newcomer smiled to himself as he looked at the butler, at the library, and at the oriental carpet in front of the ornate fireplace. This could be fun.