The Cabal by Graham Wynd

‘I’d kill for more reviews,’ Chris muttered, downing the dregs of his pint. In his head he calculated how much was left of the twenty he was meant to hold onto until Friday.

‘I’d sell my soul for more reviews,’  moaned Sandy. The bartender chuckled but no demon appeared in a puff of smoke at the summons.

‘But your books are so good. Don’t you have a bunch of five star reviews?’ Chris didn’t want to admit that he had long ago decided a four star wasn’t all that bad.

Sandy exhaled noisily. ‘I never get more than three of them though. The one novella I set to free? That one’s got seven. But no sales. People only want free stuff unless you’re famous.’

Chris sighed. ‘It’s like, what do you call it? A conundrum.’

‘A conundrum?’

‘You know, when a thing can only be a thing if it’s not this other thing…’ Chris fidgeted with the empty glass, trying to not notice the bartender waiting.

‘Are you sure you’re a writer?’ Sandy laughed. ‘I think Alison Morrissette would call that ironic. But discouraging, right?’

‘Yeah.’

‘You should start a cabal,’ the bartender said, clattering the empties together.

‘A cabal? Like a secret society?’ Chris frowned. ‘You mean like DaVinci Code kind of stuff? What good would that do?’

‘You mean a writer’s cabal.’ Sandy was always a sharp one.

‘Write reviews for each other, like.’ The bartender nodded, smiling. He had a gold tooth and a goatee.

Damn hipsters, Chris thought. This used to be a neighbourly place. ‘I dunno. That’s close to sock puppetry.’

‘What’s that?’ The bartender looked at him as if he were mad or joking.

‘When you make fake identities to write reviews for yourself. Only the saddest of saddoes do it.’ Chris snorted.

‘That one guy did it and made a career of it. What’s his name? Naughahyde?’

‘Dolarhyde?’

‘No,’ Sandy shook her head. ‘That’s the guy from Hannibal.’

‘Whatever.’

‘But a cabal would be different,’ the bartender insisted. ‘You all just write reviews for each other. If you’re strangers it won’t be like sick puppets at all.’

‘Sock puppets,’ Chris corrected absently, trying to see the downside of the proposition. ‘But how would we find them if they’re strangers?’

The bartender shrugged and picked up the ever-present towel to wipe the already gleaming oak. ‘Go to one of those big reader groups, always full of writers trying to promote their books to people who only read bestsellers. Corral a bunch and make a cabal. Easy peasy jalfreezi.’

‘It could work,’ Sandy said. The look in her eyes had that dangerous light of hope.

They said hope was a feathered thing, but Chris found it was generally more likely to have shat on your head. ‘I dunno. What if we don’t like their books?’

‘We’ll be fair. People are reasonable. More reviews is more reviews.’ She smiled at the bartender and it was a done deal, Chris could tell.

It really only took a few days. People were eager to join. They only trawled a couple places and had a cabal of a hundred and twenty people champing at the bit to get going. Sandy laid down ground rules, breaking them down into random groups of twenty, mixing up the numbers so there wasn’t a clear pattern of tit-for-tat reviews so the big monolith corp wouldn’t catch on. She also came up with a database of review catch phrases broken down by genre. Chris had the feeling she had missed her calling somehow. It was scary but brilliant.

It was great seeing his numbers rise. With each new review, more people were willing to spring for his books. He tried not to track his sales that closely but the ragged lines of the graph drew him like a bee to honey. Or was that nectar? Whatever. It was sweet.

The only hitch was the books he had to review. Chris knew Sandy had randomised the writers so no one could be sure what they got, but he seemed to have an inordinate number of those raunchy romance books. Women were shocking when you got right down to it. The things they’d read! All that ménage-a-trois stuff? And man, weird kinky shape-shifter stuff? Who’d want to have sex with a wolf? You know, live and let live, whatever floats your boat, but damn—the more reviews he left, the more his ‘You Might Also Like’ adverts became those freakfests. And it was spilling over to Farcebook too. He quailed at the thought of someone looking over his shoulder and seeing those adverts pop up.

When he got to the gay Duran Duran-inspired post-apocalypse novella, Chris decided that was it. ‘One star, well deserved,’ he muttered as he hit the post button. Within the hour the author had messaged him. Her profile picture was some vintage bondage pulp cover which was actually kind of cool. Her words weren’t so cool.

‘What the hell, bro?’

Bro. What the hell calling me bro? Chris typed, ‘We’re supposed to be honest in our reviews.’

‘I see.’ That was all she typed. Chris thought he’d dodged a bullet there. Couldn’t say fairer than that, right? Write the books, take the knocks. Sure, he hadn’t read it, but how good could it actually be?

He didn’t panic at first when his reviews started disappearing. It was probably a glitch of some kind, surely. Happened all the time. Then the one star reviews began popping up. ‘DIRE’ ‘DON’T WASTE YOUR TIME!’ ‘THIRD RATE’ ‘DERIVATIVE’ ‘SAD SAD MAN’ ‘WHY NOT JUST KILL YOURSELF?’

Chris stopped looking. He phoned Sandy but she didn’t answer. Texting her to meet him in the pub, he did his best not to look at his Amazon page at least until he got there. The page no longer loaded. ‘That page does not exist. Click here to search through our millions of—’ Gone: all his books were gone. It was like he didn’t exist anymore.

His hands were shaking as he ordered a pint from the young bartender. She looked like one of those sporty types. ‘What happened to the other bartender?’

She shrugged. ‘He quit suddenly. I think he must have been fed up with something. Smells like rotten eggs back there. Can’t figure out why.’

Rotten eggs, Chris thought dully. ‘You mean like sulphur?’

‘Yeah, that’s it. Why?’

He sighed. ‘No reason.’

*

A writer of bleakly noirish tales with a bit of grim humour,Graham Wynd can be found in Dundee but would prefer you didn’t come looking. EXTRICATE is out now from Fox Spirit Books; the print edition also includes the novella THROW THE BONES and a dozen short stories. 

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