Too Many Cooks

"Ethan, baby, you're killing me here."

"Don't call me Baby, Mart. You aren't from New York. You were born in Basildon."

"True enough, but all us agents call our clients baby. It's a tradition, or an old charter, or something."

Ethan sat back in his chair, looking beyond the computer screen and out of the window across the sweeping lawns of his home.

"Can't you accept that you'll get the chapters when they're done?"

"Yeah, great; I'll just pass that on to the publisher, who might want to know where their advance has gone, and what they've got to show for it."

The phone was burning his ear, so he switched sides. Why Mart always called him on his mobile when he knew he was at home always eluded him. He could see his reflection in the computer screen. Guiltily he realised that this was because it was turned off.

"You know me, Mart, I always deliver."

Mart sighed. "You're right, you do always deliver, but the last few have been delivered later and later. These people need to see results. They need a product. Your last book is still in the top ten, but it's slipping every day. They want another Ethan Prince book on the shelf before your last one drops out of sight."

"And they will get one when it's ready. I can't just churn them out. I need to be inspired, I need to be creative. I need a bit of bloody peace and quiet, Mart." He dug around some loose sheets of papers and found an old tatty notebook of ideas. With his free hand he leafed through the pages, trying to ignore the bold lines crossing through each page.

"OK, OK. Point taken, I'll leave you alone to create. Has Sally gone with the twins?"

"At her mothers now." Ethan found a page mercifully free of scribbled lines, but on closer inspection, this turned out to be a shopping list.

"You got yourself one hell of an understanding wife there, pal. Not many women would clear out of the family home while you rattle around and try to work." The sound of a paper shredder could be heard in the background. Ethan wondered which poor aspiring author's work was being consigned to the recycle bin as they spoke. Mart was one of the best literary agents around, and as such, garnered more than his fair share of amateur work desperately trying to be the next Ethan Prince. It used to annoy him, but now he found himself jealous of the ideas these people seemed to be able to conjure up. "She OK with having to clear out every time you need to knuckle down?"

A moment's hesitation. "Yeah, she understands. She doesn't like the," another pause, "writing process."

"Well, whatever. Just give me something by this time tomorrow; a couple of chapters, a page or two. Jesus, even a bloody title." Mart's tone implied that he didn't totally believe Ethan's version of events, but wasn't inclined to involve himself in a discussion about it. "Roger and out, baby."

When the line clicked dead, Ethan turned his phone off and massaged his ears. He gazed through the leaded glass window across the lake and over the woods. He had to admit, it was an impressive sight. More so as he had come from very humble origins. The quintessential poor boy done good, he had carved out a niche in the horror genre of paperbacks. Some people scoffed at his output, likening him to a conveyor belt, churning out tome after tome of ghosts, demons, and the like at a rate of at least one a month. That he had been doing this for the best part of 10 years spoke volumes about his fan base, most of which would buy any book with the name of Ethan Prince on the cover.

Having said this, Ethan felt a genuine need not to disappoint his fans. Unfortunately, the well of his imagination was running dry. His last few books had been progressively hard to write, and after his last one, the current top ten slipper; The Werewolves of Watford, he had utterly failed to come up with another idea for the next project. He thumbed the power switch of the computer and waited for the screen to come to life.

While he waited, his mind turned over some possibilities. Zombies were apparently all the rage at the moment and although he had written a total of eight zombie books to date, he was confident he could squeeze another one out. Failing that, yet another haunted house story might suffice. His smiling face appeared on his screen saver. It was a picture from an award ceremony from 5 years ago. He had just picked up best author award at the Richard and Judy Book Club awards. He remembered he had put it up there to inspire him to greater things. Now it seemed to mock him. His face said 'right now, I am the best author around, and I still have some great ideas in me, whereas you are a washed up horror hack who's thinking of churning out yet another zombie book.'

His fingers danced over the keyboard as he summoned up a black page on the work processor. It was a dance his fingers had performed countless times and he didn't have to give it a second's thought. When his mocking smiley face had been replaced by the blank page, he shifted around in his office chair until he felt totally comfortable, and then poised his fingers over the keys.

Silence descended in the office room. He tried to ignore the view from the window, and focus on the keyboard. While he waited for inspiration to strike, he listened to the sounds of the house settling down for the evening. It was a very impressive house. Life as a celebrated author was a good life, and after his first novel had been adapted for a Hollywood movie, he had bought this Victorian gothic manor house nestling in 40 acres of fields and woods. It was a fitting house for a horror writer. By day it looked pleasant enough. Red tiles adorned the walls, where the red bricks ended. The many windows were bright and airy letting a good amount of daylight in and the garden was lush and green, boasting several bright flowerbeds lining the path up to the front door. But by night it took on a sinister edge. The windows seemed to be watching you. The body of the house towered over you and the tiles of the roof looked like vertebrae.

On the inside, the timbers settled every night with a cacophony of creaks and bangs. Once you were used to it, it ceased to bother you, but new visitors to the house were more often than not unsettled by the echoes and scrapes emanating from all corners.

And so, Ethan sat in the dimly lit room, his face glowing deathly pale from the light of the blank page on his computer screen, completely alone in the house he had bought for his family. He tried typing a paragraph or two, deleting both as he went. He tried another angle, which went the way of the others before too long. He came to it from several different slants, each one making him more and more annoyed with himself, and more unable to focus. After what felt like 15 minutes, he decided he needed a break from all that hard work. He was very surprised to find the sun had slid behind the oak trees that lined the lake, but his stomach was telling him he had missed lunch. The room was in semi darkness, and the only light from outside came from a thin band of paler sky where the sun was still making its presence felt. He rose as his eyes adjusted to the gloom in his attic study. Massaging his temples, he paced the familiar route to the door and down the creaking oak staircase, not needing the light switch, but rather trusting the image in his mind's eye.

Padding across the cold tile floor of the entrance hall, he found himself in the kitchen, following instructions from his stomach, and so he approached the large chrome American style fridge freezer in the far corner. He swung the door open and bent inside; hunting around the leftovers and scraps from last weeks feasts, immersing himself in the glow that was thrown from the door across the red tiled floor. So intent was he on discovering some tasty morsel, he wasn't aware of another glow emanating from the hallway. This glow was more of a sickly green, and it grew brighter as the source neared the doorway to the kitchen. As this was hidden from Ethan by the door of the fridge, he remained blissfully ignorant until he spied a couple of spring rolls from the families last meal together before his wife took the twins away, and he swung the door shut to reveal the spectre.

He stood in the doorway, facing Ethan. His clothes were the tatty remnants of a once magnificent suit of velvet, with lace collar and cuffs. The style was very much Tudor, and his hair and beard was to match. He stood roughly 4'2", but this was mainly because his head was tucked under his arm. Ethan took it all in.

"Hello Gary," he said.

"Call me Gareth, dear boy. I've told you enough times. How are you tonight?"

Ethan pulled a stool from under the breakfast bar and sat down. "Terrible mate; I've dried up. I have absolutely no idea what to write about."

Gareth walked into the kitchen, and swapped his head to the other side. "Well, I think there will always be an audience for a good headless horseman story." He raised his eyebrows in anticipation, but they got lost in his own armpit.

"What are you talking about? You were never a horseman."

"Yeah, I know, but…"

"And your story wouldn't make much of a book, to be fair."

"How dare you! Mine is a tale of treason and plots most foul."

Ethan shook his head. "Wasn't it a case of mistaken identity?"

Gareth tilted his head to the floor. In a quiet voice he replied. "Yes, well…"

"It wasn't you at all, was it? You just got mistaken for the guy who was plotting against the queen and was dragged here to be executed."

"Well, if you want to be precise about it." He thumped his head onto the work surface slightly harder than he anticipated, causing him to wince.

"You ok?" Ethan asked.

Gary replied, "Yes," and tried to nod, which only resulted in the stump of his neck waggling front and back. Ethan tried to ignore it. "So what are you going to write about this time?"

Ethan took a bite of spring roll as he pondered. "I really don't know this time mate. I've dried up before but never like this."

"Why don't we ask Colin?" Ethan asked.

"Oh, no. I really don't want to bother…"

"He won't mind," Gary grabbed his head from the surface by his hair. "You know he gets bored down in the cellar day in day out. A visit up here will improve his mood no end, you wait and see."

"Gary, wait. I really don't think…" But before Ethan could protest further, Gary had thrust his head down, down to the floor, then through the floorboards until only his elbow was visible above. Ethan could hear his muffled calls to Colin from the kitchen. Just when he thought there would be no reply, a lower voice answered. It was more a series of mumbled grunts but was enough to cause Ethan to groan inwardly and seek out the good scotch from the back of one of the kitchen units. As he settled back in the bar stool again, the sounds of heavy footsteps could be heard ascending the stairs, followed by the theatric creak of the cellar door opening. Presently, Colin strode into view. He hulked in the doorway, almost filling it. His long greasy hair cascaded over his shoulders and over his face, leaving just the end of his hooked nose to poke out. He was clothed in a robe of dark grey and black, stained with green patches of mould and mud. He had the impression of immense power, but the demeanour of a stroppy teenager.

"Evening Colin," Ethan managed.

"Mmmning" Colin replied.

Colin gave Ethan the creeps, mainly because he was a boogieman, and that was what boogiemen were supposed to do. He was the reason why his wife and kids refused to go down to the cellar alone. He knew Colin was a gentle giant, but he had a way of making you feel uneasy, just by being in the same room. He thumped over into a corner and leaned back against the wall, studying a handful of particularly repulsive fingernails.

"Ethan's having trouble for the next book," Gary explained, "Any ideas?"

Colin shrugged his huge shoulders. "D'no."

An uneasy silence filled the kitchen. Ethan glanced at Gary and Gary glanced at Ethan. No one spoke. Ethan took a bite of spring roll. Gary picked at something in his hair, easily done when your head is resting on the work surface.

Gary broke the spell. "Ooh, how about the twins?"

"How about them?"

"They might be able to help. They're usually in the garden at this time. Colin, go fetch them could you?"

"Hmph," Colin said, and stamped out through the door.

"You know, I've already tapped the well dry by now, don't you. I've even written a couple of books about Colin, and you know how hard that was?"

"Everybody loves a story about fighting for love, though don't they? And duelling for the girl you love is so romantic."

Ethan shifted his weight on the stool; one of his buttocks was going to sleep. "Maybe, but these two? They do my head in. Sorry; no offense."

With that, Colin slouched back into the kitchen, resuming his position in the corner with a heavy sigh. He was followed by the sound of bickering, and the now familiar green glow of two spectres. They both wore frilly white cotton shirts and their hair was a mass of thick black ringlets. Oliver and Sebastian were known as the twins although they weren't related. Their similar fashion and hair did mean they bore more than a passing resemblance to each other though. Their story wasn't quite as romantic as it first seemed though. Gary was right; they were duellists, fighting for the hand of the girl they both loved, although if it wasn't a girl it would have been anything else. Also the girl they fought over would have chosen neither of them, already being involved in a tryst with the local blacksmith. They had a long running history of competition, finally culminating in pistols at dawn, where Oliver killed Sebastian before succumbing to his own mortal wound. A century and a half had done little to dull their sense of competition.

They scurried into the room, Sebastian shouldering Oliver aside to be first.

"I told you Ethan would be here, Olly. How are you Mr Prince?"

"Fine thanks, Seb. How are you both?"

"I'm very well, Mr Prince," Oliver said, talking over Sebastian. "Although Seb isn't doing so well at the moment. He keeps losing at eye spy."

"I do not," Seb rounded on him. Ethan tried to ignore the bullet holes they both sported. "You cheated. Everyone knows you don't spell ceiling with an S."

"Well, spelling was never my strong point. Not like shooting. At least I didn't lose our shooting match."

"What are you talking about? You didn't win."

"Of course I did. I killed you didn't I?" Oliver preened his hair as he spoke.

"And I killed you. It should be a draw, surely."

"OK chaps, that's quite enough," Gary stepped in. "Ethan needs some inspiration for his next book. Any ideas?"

"How about a dashing young man and his ugly counterpart who both love the same girl and duel at dawn for her hand?" Sebastian suggested. Oliver stopped his preening.

"Ugly counterpart? Do you mean me? How dare you."

They started slapping at each other as Ethan sank lower in the stool, running a hand over his face and Gary pulled them apart.

"I'd love to write about you guys, really I would, but I've done it all already. Remember 'Dandies at Dawn?' I can't do the same story twice."

"Yes, well, I did think it was nice of you to make me the hero in that one," Oliver said.

"You? The hero? Don't make me laugh. It was clearly all about me, that one."

The slapping resumed as Ethan took another pull on his scotch and Gary stepped in once again.

"I've told you both a hundred times, I used both of you as the hero. It wasn't about one or the other, but a combination of both of your experiences."

Once they had calmed down and separated, Seb slapped his forehead. "Of course, why don't you ask the bloody nun?"

"Oh bloody hell, not the bloody nun," Ethan groaned.

"Don't you dare profane in this house of God," The thundering voice sounded like metal welded to a pit bull, but the figure that produced it was anything but. She had materialised directly behind Ethan without him knowing. The Bloody Nun stood 4' tall and almost as wide. She was a relic from another time, when a monastery had occupied the same plot as the house that now stood. She had ruled the other novices with a rod of iron studded with spikes, and while food had been scarce, she had bloomed to gargantuan proportions while the number of novices who displeased her mysteriously kept dwindling. Finally the remaining nuns had taken matters into their own hands and bricked the old battleaxe up behind the chimney. Despite her past, she had never shaken off her true calling which made Ethan, as an ex catholic schoolboy, very nervous indeed.

"I'm sorry sister," he stammered.

"Sorry? You would be if I could use my spiky rod on you. I want you to give me ten Hail Mary's before bedtime, do you understand?"

"Yes sister. Of course sister."

Olly and Seb were sniggering behind their hands and even Gary had a smirk on. Colin could have been smiling too, only his fringe hid all but his nose from view.

"What did you want me for anyway, wicked child?" the nun demanded.

"I didn't want you. That is to say that I didn't not want you, or to put it another way..."

Seb stepped forward. "Ethan is having trouble thinking of a plot for his next book and I thought you might have some suggestions."

"Another of Satan's pot boilers is it? How dare you trouble me with your blasphemous nonsense. You ought to be ashamed of yourself. Why not write a story of the greatness of God?"

"Hang on," Olly said. "Didn't you already do one about her?"

"No, not that I recall." Ethan could feel himself break out in a sweat.

"I'm sure you already did. What was it called?"

"I think you must be mistaken, Olly." Ethan glanced nervously at the Bloody Nun. She was glaring back at him.

"Of course; 'Nun more deadly,' that was it, wasn't it?" Olly was clearly impressed with his recall; unaware of the looks Gary and Seb were giving him. Ethan chanced a glance back at the nun.

"In that case," she thundered, "make it 100 hail Marys. And take yourself to confession first thing in the morning."

"Yes sister," Ethan mumbled, feeling like Colin momentarily.

Sebastian clicked his fingers together. "I know, sex sells these days, doesn't it?"

"Sex sells?" The Nun was incredulous. "How dare you."

"How about the Lady?" Seb ignored her. "I bet she could tell you a tale or two that would get your books flying off the shelves. She must have some sexy stories." The Nun almost choked.

"The Lady? Seb, no…"

But before anyone could stop him, he had put his fingers in his mouth and produced a shrill whistle. Silence descended in the kitchen. No one breathed. In fact, only Ethan was capable of breathing, but he was holding his breath. Oliver slapped Sebastian's arm.

"Now you've done it."

The Lady was one of the houses oldest ghosts. She appeared when she wanted, gliding through the rooms dressed in a billowing gown of pure white. She had been a young woman, willowy thin; her pale skin and the lightest blonde hair were offset by the darkest eyes you could ever have the misfortune to see. No one knew her story, not because they were afraid to ask though, but because whatever misfortune and calamity had befallen her in life had followed her into the afterlife. All she tended to do was scream.

As they waited in anticipation, they strained to hear. After what seemed like an eternity, there was still silence in the kitchen, and Ethan let his breath out in a loud sigh. Oliver slapped Sebastian's arm again. Ethan had drained the last of the scotch in his glass, and turned to the cupboard for a refill, only to find himself eye to terrible dark eye with the Lady. Despite himself, he let out a small cry.

"Aaaaaaaauuuugh," said the Lady, and "Aaaaaauuuugh," again.

"Oh god, I'm sorry, but you startled me."

"Aaaauuuugh."

"Please stop. I didn't mean to scare you." Even as he said it, Ethan wondered at the stupidity of that statement.

"Aaaaaaaauuuuuggghhhhh. Auuuuuggggghhhhghh. AAAAAAAAAAaaaaaauuuuugggghhh."

Ethan looked to Gary and shrugged. Gary shrugged back and dropped his head. Colin fidgeted and tutted while Olly and Seb fought as to whose fault it was. The nun tried shouting at the Lady, all to no avail. In time the screaming died down to a low sobbing moaning.

"Well, that went well." Ethan was running out of patience. It was starting to get crowded in the kitchen, and the green glow emanating from the phantoms was making his eyes ache. He helped himself to more scotch, ignoring the disdainful look from the Nun.

What followed was more of the same. Further ghosts were brought in to try to spark some inspiration from Ethan, including the cheeky young boy who was lost up the chimney while sweeping it, an ancient Saxon warrior who didn't speak the queen's English, a highwayman, three stonemasons who had been crushed under the archway they were trying to build, numerous cats and dogs and even Mr Micklethorpe, the elderly former resident. As the late Mr Micklethorpe had only died a decade ago he could not bring much to the table, but merely spent the time petting the ghost of his Labrador, Rex. The babble of suggestions was incessant, and all hopeless. Something inside Ethan snapped. He had to shout to make himself heard.

"Listen you lot. Don't think I don't appreciate your help, and as you all know I have used you for inspiration in the past, but that's it. I am officially out of ideas. I can't do any more books on you lot, and I have nothing else to offer. I quit."

Gary had a thoughtful look on his face. "Hold on, Ethan. I think I have an idea. It is a bit radical though."

"I don't care. I'm beyond caring. I need an idea, I need inspiration."

"It'll work, but I don't think you'll like it."

"Who cares if I like it? If it'll sell books, count me in. Whatever it takes."

"Well, if you're sure." Gary smiled, and suddenly Ethan knew.

XXX

"…and Simon Cowell claims he has no idea how they came to be in his apartment. Back to our headline story, best selling author Ethan Prince was found dead at his Berkshire home this morning. Mr Prince, who wrote nearly 120 best selling novels throughout his career, appears to have died from natural causes, although police are treating the death as suspicious, due to the discovery of his last book on a hard drive.

"The book apparently is the story of a struggling author who attempts to live in a haunted house, only to fall foul of the ghosts at the end." The newsreader briefly touched his earpiece. "Apologies to anyone wishing to read the story for themselves. In a further twist, forensic scientists placed his time of death at sometime in the early hours of Thursday morning, but according to the time log on the computer, the draft of the book was typed over several days, finishing on Sunday evening, hours before the discovery of his body in the kitchen. Police insist that there were no other fingerprints on the computer keyboard other than Mr Prince's. Investigations are continuing.

"Here's Tom with the weather…"

The screen flickered off and a silence descended on the living room. Quite ironic name of the room, Ethan thought. It had been a chaotic day. Hoards of police and forensic scientists had swarmed over every inch of the house and gardens, leaving the grounds in a sorry state and the house full of fingerprint dust and tape instructing the reader to Do Not Cross.

"There you go, Ethan. That last book is going to top the charts for years to come. Your name will be legend among authors." Gary sat on the old leather sofa next to Ethan. His head was balanced on the arm.

"That may well be true, Gary, but, and forgive me for being blunt, but it wasn't exactly what I had in mind."

His own green glow was still freaking him out. He couldn't even close his eyes without that glow persisting.

"You seemed quite keen at the time. Whatever it takes, I remember you saying."

"Yeah, but…." Ethan was at a loss. He had raged at first, but it was already too late, his meat and bones already cooling on the floor of the kitchen. He had also been distraught when the WPC had brought his wife in to identify his body, until he saw she had Julio the gardener on standby to offer comfort, which he did with one hand on her bottom. His shouts and fists had resulted in no more than to cause her to shiver and to squeeze tighter into Julio's muscular chest.

"It's not so bad here. You get to meet some interesting people," Gary continued.

"Yeah, right. I've got the Bloody Nun meeting me for Mass at 6. Think I might hide in the cellar with Colin."

"And you never know who will move in next."

"Better the devil you know, I suppose. Actually, that gives me a great idea for a story…"

6