The pay phone on the wall by the door into the dungeon…cellar…basement…journalist’s suite below Chicago’s permafrost layer rang at the Black Gate World Headquarters. I vaulted over the wood plank that rested on two sawhorses, which served as my desk. The last person who hadn’t answered before the third ring had been sent downstairs. ‘Downstairs’ was rumored to be the lair of a beast that Conan wouldn’t be able to defeat.
“Black Gate World Headquarters. Home of the world’s preeminent fantasy magazine.”
“Who is this?” barked the voice of John O’Neill, Founder, editor, publisher, CEO, CFO, and overall Grand Poobah of Black Gate. I could think of a three-letter acronym beginning with ‘S.’ “Is that you, Bryne?”
I took a breath. I had been writing for Black Gate for going on seven years now, and he still got my name wrong. I had given up trying to correct him after the second year. I figured, as long as I remained on the payroll, it didn’t really matter. Not that I actually got paid.
“What are you doing down there?”
“Just working on a column, sir.”
“What do you mean, man? You’re in the office on a Sunday, working on a column?”
I caught myself. “Working on three columns, sir. I finished two yesterday.”
“That’s better. Thought I was going to have to reassign some stories from that Ted guy. Can’t have you coasting on past accomplishments.” He paused. “Of course, we’re a team here – no individual egos.”
Yours is certainly big enough for the rest of us, I thought.
“What was that, Bryne?”
“I didn’t say anything, sir.”
”Sounded like you were breathing some thinking there.”
“That’s probably just the rasping in my lungs from the black mold on the floor. Though it could be the yellow mold on the ceiling.”
I thought about telling him that ‘Ted’ was actually Greg Mele, a newer writer who got even more assignments than I did, but he had lost interest. “Come up here pronto.”
Of course. “Is there any possibility I could use the elevator, sir?”
“I meant the service elevator, of course, oh exalted one.”
“You think I’m going to waste money on electricity to turn on the elevators for lazy staff? On a weekend?”
I didn’t know if he’d used his high speed private elevator today, which was bigger than my apartment, or had just landed on the helipad on the roof. The top floor of the 120-story Black Gate World Headquarters housed his on-site living quarters, with his executive office suite below that.
“Get up here. And no lollygagging. Exercise is good for you. So is frugality.”
Between my pay and over 100 flights of stairs, work certainly had it covered for me.
“You don’t look so good, Bryne You should see the company doctor. I hear some new leeches are coming in next week.” He shook his head. “These premium health plans are really getting too over-the-top. You peasants get treated like royalty.”
I had been convinced, as I crawled on the landing between floors 97 and 98, that my kidney had ruptured, but now I was sure that it was just a cramp of epic proportions. I had stood outside the massive bronze doors long enough to be able to speak before entering. I needed another five minutes to recover after opening them enough to slither through, and then closing them. Now, after the twenty minute hike across the room, next to the not-moving moving walkway, I stood before his desk.
“Have a seat Bryne, we don’t stand on formality here at Black Gate. One big happy family.”
The only chair was the throne he sat in, behind his desk. I had yet to figure out what I was supposed to do when he told me to sit. In the end, I simply remained standing.
He peered at me, as if not sure I who I was. “Back from your vacation, I see.”
I hadn’t missed a single post during the worst global Pandemic in over a century, but saw no gain in pointing that out. “Working hard, eight days a week.”
“That’s one of those sixties hippie songs. Those British boys with the ridiculous hair. You aren’t a hippie, are you Bryne?
“Not me, no sir. Love me some Mel Torme and Andy Williams. None of that rock or roll.”
He blew cigar smoke towards the ceiling – which I couldn’t see above the clouds – and nodded. “Mel. Great guy. Had him sing at one of the company Christmas parties.”
He looked happy, remembering. Then he focused on me and the smile vanished.
“Did we do more of that hard boiled egg stuff again this year?”
“A (Black) Gat in the Hand, sir. Yes. Third year in a row. We’ll hit the 75 essay mark next year.”
“Uh-huh.” His tone was flatter than my annual raise. “I didn’t win that World Fantasy Award for mystery stuff.”
I covered my ears. Whenever he said “World Fantasy Award,” the Star Wars theme began blaring from the most expensive interior audio system in the Chicago area. Caught unaware, it had knocked me to my knees the first time. Drones circled up high, shining moving spotlights on the WFA trophy, prominently displayed on the front corner of his desk. There was a sixty-foot replica in the main lobby.
“And I think I saw something by that Rex Wolfe guy. What was that all about?”
“Riiiiiight. More mystery stuff.”
He stared at me. I looked down at the plush carpeting, which was so thick that African wildlife could get lost in it.
“Well, enough morale building. Let’s talk the future.”
At least I hadn’t been given a new assignment yet.
“I’ve got a new column for you to write.”
I was already writing on a half-dozen different topics. What now?
“Have you heard of this new thing called The Steam?”
I knew Terry Pratchett’s Raising Steam. I doubted that was it.
“It’s for video games. I use Good Old Games, of course.”
Oh. Steam. “I know of The Steam, sir. Unfortunately, they don’t have games for the Atari 800, which is all I can afford. And besides, the acoustic coupler modem wouldn’t work very well for anything faster moving than Eastern Front.”
“I didn’t ask about your personal life, Bryne.” He paused, with a look that I assumed he intended to be thoughtful. I suspected indigestion. “I doubt your Commodore Vic 20 will be useful here. Tell Silver that while he’s off on his book tour, you can use his Commodore 64 for some Steam articles.”
Steven H Silver had been my office-mate, sharing the previously mentioned wood plank. But his novel, After Hastings, had been published, and he was moved to an office above ground. Well, it was actually a small closet, next to the bathroom, but it was still on the first floor, not under it.
“So, you want some articles on Steam games? Since I don’t have an account, can I purchase some and charge them to Black Gate?”
Boy, did it get quiet. “I suppose so. They’ll be property of Black Gate, of course.” He rummaged around in his desk drawer. “Here’s the copper Sinclair Oil Credit Card. Use that.”
I accepted it gratefully. I usually paid for these things against my future earnings.
“When will you be wanting the first one, sir?”
The look he gave me answered that one without words.
“Right. Tomorrow it is. I’ll just jog a couple of miles downstairs to my office and finish my regular 9 AM Monday column. Then I’ll get started on this one. Don’t really need dinner – or any food at all – today.”
He ground out his cigar in an ash tray, half-smoked. “These Havanas really go south at the equator.” He guffawed. “Go south. The Equator.”
I laughed weakly. “Very clever, sir.”
“You still here, Bryne? Looking for another assignment?”
“No, I’m not.” I left a cloud of dust like the Road Runner and hit the door running. Literally, ran into it, as the lights had been turned off in the last quarter-acre.
HA HA HA HA (I crack me up)
So, John, my erstwhile boss, mentioned that he’d like to see some posts on Steam games. That’s sort of up my alley. I mostly buy games on sale; and often something I’d played back when it came out a decade or more before. I’d generally rather buy a book than a game.
But, I’ve got quite a few in my Steam library, so I’m going to talk about a few – mostly ones worth at least checking out. I’ve played more Conan Exiles than any other game in 2020, so that’s on tap. And Age of Conan is the only MMO I’ve truly enjoyed. And since this is Black Gate, REH and Conan are always good topics.
Others I think I’ll hit include:
One Deck Dungeon – a Rogue-like dice placement dungeon crawler;
Neverwinter Nights Enhanced – which holds up after nearly twenty years;
Hard West – a weird-Western similar in play to the X-Com series;
Total War Warhammer II – my favorite RTS game;
Total War: Elysium – a beta card game battler from the same company;
Pathfinder Adventures – a good port of another favorite, The Pathfinder Adventure Card Game;
Pathfinder Kingmaker – a successor to Baldur’s Gate;
Wartile– a tabletop miniatures, cool down-based Viking adventure.
And probably some more. We’ll see what we check out. I play Fortnite with my son, and the current season, which wraps up at the end of the month, has been Marvel-themed. Some very cool skins.
So, look for Steamed in the title. And my byline, of course. Wait – people usually continue scrolling when they see my name. Scratch that last part!
His ‘The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes’ column ran every Monday morning at Black Gate from March, 2014 through March, 2017 (still making an occasional return appearance!).
He organized ‘Hither Came Conan,’ as well as 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. That’s also the name of his podcast.
He has contributed stories to The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories – Parts III, IV, V, VI and XXI.