I walked into the opulent penthouse office of Black Gate Global Headquarters. It was the first time I had been higher than the second floor mail room, where I mopped the floors every Thursday evening. I felt like Conan traversing the savannahs as I waded through the plush carpet.
I imagined myself as the mighty-thewed Cimmerian, searching for lions as I…
“BRYNE! Quit your daydreaming. I didn’t pull you out of the basement… errr…the journalist’s suite, to mash down the carpet in my office.”
“Yes sir, Mister O’Neill, sir!” I managed to reach his desk, where I silently waited for his shoe shine to finish.
“Have a seat, Bryne.”
I looked around, confused by the fact that there were no chairs. And the carpet was so thick that if I sat down I might be smothered. Short on options, I remained standing. He didn’t notice.
I nodded as the shoe shine ‘boy’ passed by me and started the long journey to the door, leaning heavily on his cane. I had succeeded him when he was ‘promoted’ after missing a deadline for the first time in twenty years.
“And tell Aunt Theresa to send some more of those cookies, Uncle Ralph,” O’Neill called out as the figure finally reached the door and departed.
He turned to face me. At least, I think he did. It was hard to tell through the fog of cigar smoke. Though I did notice that his shoes were spotless as he stretched out and put his feet on the desk.
“Bryne. What am I going to do with you?”
“It’s ‘Byrne,’ sir.”
“Byrne. Bob Byrne.”
The fog dissipated a bit and I could see that he was thinking that over. “I seem to recall a ‘Byrne’ we had on staff. Wrote about Sherlock Holmes all the time. Had to let him go. We’re a fantasy site. Sci Fi, horror, sure – but locked rooms and little old ladies who constantly find dead bodies? Identifying mud on people’s shoes? We’d never have won this WORLD FANTASY AWARD if we bothered with that nonsense.”
He pointed at the gold statue which was the only item on his desk. Well, except for the miniature spotlight that shone on it.
I decided that pointing out who I was and that I still worked there might well change my employment status. So, I nodded in a sort of meaningless way.
He moved his head and barked into a gold speaking tube, “Have somebody write a post on Pratchett’s City Watch. It’s got humor, satire, fantasy and some crime. I want it for the 6:00 slot.”
“Did I ask you what time it is? I’ve got a watch. Get it done.”
He sat back. “I don’t know why I keep him around.”
Then he added into the tube, “And tell your mother we’ll be here through dinner.”
Pointing out that I had written a post on that very topic didn’t seem wise.
He focused on me again, shaking his head. “Mysteries. Anyways. I need to see something from you, Bryne. You’re using a valuable Commodore Vic 20 down there in the basement… journalist’s suite.”
Uh oh. “But I just had three posts this month, sir. And one of them was a major scoop in the Robert E Howard field.”
He stared at a point about two feet to the left of me. “That Howard reprint thing was you? Really? Thought it was that M. Page fellow. Or is it Harold Page? Can never remember his first name. But he’s always turning in quality work. You sure you did that one?”
“Yes, that was me,” I squeaked.
“Well, it was a decent job, but we’re not a news organization anyhow.”
Before I could say anything, he continued, dreamily. “Putting ‘Conan’ in the title guarantees a lot of views. Maybe that should be mandatory. Hmm…”
I waited silently.
“Well, Bryne,” he snapped. “That all you’ve got to say for yourself?”
“People seemed to like the history piece I did on TSR’s take-over of Simulations Publications Inc. back in 1982.”
“1982!” he exclaimed, planting his feet on the floor and smacking his desk with both hands. “Black Gate didn’t even exist back then! And TSR – who’s ever heard of that company? Didn’t they make crappy computers that were sold by Radio Shack?”
I winced — partly due to how hard I had bit my tongue.
“I did write a column every Monday morning for three consecutive years. Didn’t miss a deadline once.”
“Good thing for you. The shoe shine position is already filled.”
I gulped. Literally. “Well, Howard Andrew Jones said that the piece I did on that Conan story being an early police procedural was pretty good.”
He eyed me suspiciously. “Police procedural? You some kind of closet mystery lover, Bryne?”
I quickly shook my head. “Nope, not me. All about the swords and sorcery. Dragons. Magic. Conan. Elric. Love me some Elric. Speaking of: did you know that Michael Moorcock wrote a Sherl…” I caught myself before completing that bit of trivia – that Moorcock had written a Holmes story titled “The Adventure of the Dorset Street Lodger.” I hoped that John didn’t remember my The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes post mentioning it.
He seemed satisfied. It was fortunate that he wasn’t totally listening to me.
“Jones. What use is he these days? Practically has a new novel out every six months. Should be recruiting more journalists for The Gate instead.”
“I think that one hits the presses in June.”
He pointed to a liquor cabinet about three times larger than my work space. The door was being held open by a huge manuscript.
“That’s why they call them doorstoppers, son!” He laughed.
The laugh turned into a wracking cough, no doubt caused by the cigars he smoked. I waited until his eyes stopped watering.
“And I did organize our ‘Discovering Robert E. Howard series,’ It was nominated for a couple of awards and we had some really great guest writers on it.”
The dreamy look was back. “We had, what, two dozen posts? All with ‘Robert E. Howard’ in the headline. Not nearly enough Conan, but still – best topic we’ve had since that Hugos stuff.”
His eyes came back into focus. “Oh, that reminds me.”
I couldn’t see into the drawer he opened as he reached down and pulled something out. It was an Alfie Award. He placed it near a corner of the desk. Then he rummaged through a couple more drawers, looking for something. It took a few minutes, which was no surprise, as the desk was bigger than the AMC Pacer which I drove. He pulled out another spotlight, clicked it on and aimed it at the Alfie.
“Mysteries don’t win Alfies, Bryne. Write that down.”
He seemed to realize that we were having a conversation. Well, mostly he was.
“Don’t try to take credit for Vandenburgen’s fine work on that REH series. I have no patience for a parasite.”
“I did have the second most popular post in all of 2016. About the reason I chose to run a Swords & Wizardry campaign over using Pathfinder.”
“Number two in 2016, eh?” He tapped the cigar, ashes disappearing into the carpet. “Must have been a down year.”
“And that was a poor business decision, Bryne,” he continued. “We can get a lot more ad revenue out of Pathfinder than Swords and Wizards. Think about that next time.”
I couldn’t think of anything helpful to say, even though I had written a follow-up extolling the virtues of Pathfinder.
“What have you done for The Gate lately, Bryne? And don’t bring up Vandenbarg’s work again.” The caterpillars that passed as his eyebrows rose and lowered menacingly.
I wished I was back in the dungeon… basement… journalist’s suite.
“I thought up the idea of the Modular column.”
He stared at me. And stared some more. Not a word.
“You know. Gaming posts from various writers. We’ve really increased our gaming coverage through Modular.”
I think he frowned, but with John, it’s hard to tell, that being his normal countenance.
“Modular. Ye-es.” He stretched out the word. “I seem to recall that a few of our top posts in October were in that column. Both from Page. Wish you wrote more like that fellow, Bryne.”
“Maybe then you’d know my name,” I muttered. Too loudly, as it proved.
“What was that?” The caterpillars were moving again.
“A fine writer, sir. We all aspire to his level.”
“As well you should. That’s why he’s got an Apple II. So, you’re going to write something for Modular?” It didn’t exactly sound like a question.
“Yes, yes.” I was praying the phone would ring and I could make my escape. Apparently, I wasn’t praying hard enough. The gold-plated phone taunted me with its silence.
“You know Gary Gygax, of course?” I asked.
“Gygax? Gygax? Something to do with Dungeons and Dragons?”
Sweat flew off of my head as I nodded. “Yes, He and Dave Arneson created the game together.”
“Sounds like more of that ancient history stuff.”
“No, no. A year after he was pushed out of TSR, Gygax wrote a book called Role Playing Mastery. It’s all about how to become a really, really good role-playing gamer. A Master, actually.”
I had him interested. “Go on.”
“There’s a lot of good stuff in the book. A neat part is that he lists out seventeen steps to Mastery. We could do a post on each step.”
He nodded his head. “That’s over four months of posts. We could fill a regular slot.” He kept nodding. “Add a few more related posts. Goth Chick could do a post tying in a horror angle. Her stuff is gold. Any Viking stuff?”
I had missed the station for that train of thought. “I don’t think so.”
“We’ll find something. Gary Dybing can write a post.”
“Gabe,” I said before I could catch myself.
“Nothing. Maybe we could get a couple guest posts from some RPG writers. I know a few.”
“I like it, Bryne. I think you’ve got something here. Let’s run the first one on Monday.”
I almost fell over. “Monday? Impossible.”
I sighed. “’Impossible’ is the number one favorite word among ex-Black Gate writers.”
I dug my heels in. Well, to the extent I could in carpet up to my knees. “Really, boss. I’ll put the whole thing together, edit it, pictures, everything. But it’s not going to be ready to go until the spring, at least.”
He looked out the window and down at the Chicago skyline, covered in snow. “Spring. Really?”
“Spring,” I replied, as close to having conviction as possible at this point in my about-to-end Black Gate career.
“Fine,” he surprised me with. “What else?”
I almost fainted. What else could I toss out?
“We didn’t get everybody I recruited… err… we wanted to write for the REH series. We could try a follow up with, say, 6 or 10 posts?”
“Not a bad idea. I’ll get Vandenbarger on it. Make sure there’s lots of Conan this time. But that’s not you. What else?”
I was about ready to admit defeat. This had been an exhausting conversation. Once more, unto the breach.
“How about another series – Exploring Tolkien? I know several writers who would love to do a post on some part of the Tolkien-verse. Say, a dozen posts on good old JRR?”
I was done. If he asked for anything more I was going to drop into the plush, disappear from sight and crawl to the door.
He stubbed his cigar out on the desk and tossed it into the trash can, which was shaped like a Hugo Award.
“Tolkien. That could work. That’s a big enough name. We could have Crowell or Bandanna do an interview with him.”
He glared at me. “Don’t think Fletcher is going to do all the work on this one. This is your project.”
I agreed. I started backing away from the desk. I had to get out before any further damage was done.
He smiled. I think that’s what it was. “Glad we got to have this little chat, Bryne. I like your ideas. Go ahead and get yourself a second floppy disk from Supply Central as a reward.”
I was going to point out that I only had a cassette tape drive, but I merely nodded and backpedaled to the door as quickly as I could.
“And you might want to do something about that last name, Bryne. Looks kind of funny when you spell it and it’s not that easy to pronounce.”
I almost severed my tongue this time but just did my best imitation of a bobble head and almost ripped the door off the hinges in my rush to get into the hallway.
The last thing I heard as the door closed behind me was John, presumably talking into the tube; “Tell Harvey Ryan I want some more of those Pastiches R Us posts. And make sure he mentions ‘Conan’ in the title. Twice.”
First off, there is no skyscraper headquarters for Black Gate, of course. And secondly, John O’Neill is a great editor and boss for the World Fantasy Award-winning Black Gate. I just wanted to have some fun with a post.
I do plan on a lengthy series, examining Gygax’ ‘Seventeen Steps of Role Playing Mastery.’ There is some really interesting material in the book and it’s well worth reading. Also, if I can carve out the time, I’d like to bring Exploring Tolkien to Black Gate. The REH series featured some fantastic stuff and I know of a few qualified people who have expressed interest. And of course, since it’s my series, I get to write one too!
I was just a no-name commentator when I emailed John in February of 2014, pitching the merits of a weekly Sherlock Holmes-centric column at a well-established fantasy web blog (looking back, that seems rather dumb!). But he gave me the go-ahead and I joined the Black Gate staff that March. Real life duties finally knocked me out of the weekly rotation three years later, but I’m still both proud and pleased to be a contributing member of the Black Gate family. It’s a great blog with a plethora of dedicated, talented writers and my favorite fantasy website.
And Aaron Starr was the first Black Gater to come up with the concept of a thirties-style HQ and the cigar-smoking despotic boss. Clearly, I loved the idea and ran with it. He came back with a second and I hope he decides to write more.
Bob Byrne’s ‘The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes’ column ran every Monday morning at Black Gate from March 10, 2014 through March 20, 2017 (making an occasional return appearance!). He also organized Black Gate’s award-nominated ‘Discovering Robert E. Howard’ series.
He is a member of the Praed Street Irregulars, founded www.SolarPons.com (the only website dedicated to the ‘Sherlock Holmes of Praed Street’) and blogs about Holmes and other mystery matters at Almost Holmes.