The Man Upstairs by Mark L Fowler
Frank Miller, hero of the best-selling mystery novels written by The Man Upstairs, works the weird streets of Chapeltown as a private detective. During the legendary case of the Black Widow everything changed when Frank became aware of his fictional existence. Proclaimed at the time as a work of genius, Frank wonders if it was the first sign that The Man Upstairs was sick. This latest case, involving the death of a care worker, and coinciding with the appointment of Chapeltown’s first elected mayor, has Frank baffled. The Man Upstairs appears to be losing the plot, giving the womanising Frank a steady girlfriend, Marge, who warns him that to survive he must change from the tired cliché that he has become. As the case darkens Frank recognises the depth of his creator’s sickness. His days are numbered as clearly as the pages in the books in which he features. The looming battle with the Mayor of Chapeltown is nothing less than the battle to save himself, Marge, the series – and the mind of The Man Upstairs. The Man Upstairs is plotting to kill Frank Miller and take Chapeltown to hell.
ONE: THE MAYOR, THE MAN UPSTAIRS AND THE GIRL IN THE BLUE PYJAMAS
The phone rang for the second time that night. I hadn’t liked the first call and I had the feeling that I wasn’t going to like this one any better. There was trouble coming to Chapeltown. Big trouble. Trouble with a capital T.
Don’t get me wrong – trouble was coming to the right place. Trouble was my business. Yet there was something in the air that I hadn’t felt before, the vibrations thundering down the track like a ghost train from hell. The cut-out sun had gone down on a universe out of kilter and TMU, The Man Upstairs, the god pulling all the strings had inexplicably let the stars slip out of alignment. It should never have been left to his creations to shuffle the firmament back into some kind of order.
I took the call.
The voice on the other end of the line belonged to a woman who had no place in my world. A woman named Marge. She wore blue pyjamas and she was further proof that TMU was losing the plot.
I told the woman it was late and that it would have to wait. She was saying that it couldn’t wait. She was always saying that it couldn’t wait.
While her voice rolled on I looked out of my window to see a fat old man, his face at least, smiling crookedly down at me through so many thousand miles of empty black space. Mad old moon, cut and pasted onto the Chapeltown sky.
The woman was becoming hysterical. I told her that I was on my way when I should have told her to jump out of the window.
Driving across town I thought about the other call. The earlier one. It was from a woman who spoke in whispers. She didn’t wish to disclose her name, though she knew mine the same as she knew my number. She had a tale to tell. A tale about a care worker by the name of Nancy Tate.
Nancy had been working for the Chapeltown Angels. One evening after she’d finished her shift she paid a visit to the Town Hall. Later that same evening, shortly after leaving the Town Hall a hit and run driver ended her short life.
Our infamous police department never caught the driver and concluded that her death was best filed under ‘Tragic Accidents’. The anonymous woman on the phone had come to a very different conclusion. She thought that Nancy Tate’s death was murder.
I asked the whispering woman if she had anyone in mind for the killing.
She did, as it happened. Thomas Jackson.
Not a man to get his hands dirty, apparently, this Thomas Jackson; but still, according to the whispering woman, he was the one who arranged it.
The name didn’t ring any bells and so I asked who this Thomas Jackson was.
“Are you kidding?”
I wasn’t and I said so.
“Well, I don’t know where you’ve been hiding lately, but Thomas Jackson is the elected Mayor of Chapeltown,” she told me.
“Chapeltown has an elected mayor?”
The laugh that followed suggested that her previous whispering was caused neither by illness nor disability, but rather the wish to remain anonymous. And discretion’s fine. I’ve been known to use it myself on occasions.
I said, “It sounds like your throat’s getting better. They say laughter is the best medicine. So how long has Chapeltown had an elected mayor?”
This time she didn’t laugh.
“Okay,” I said, “so why would this Mayor of Chapeltown – this Thomas Jackson – arrange to have a care worker killed?”
It was back to whispers.
She told me, this whispering enigma, how Jackson had hit the ground running, wasting no time extending his civic duties to the town’s young ladies.
One too many of them.
Nancy Tate, an enterprising girl, thought he ought to pay for his fun and promptly wound up dead. The police did what the police generally do in Chapeltown, which involves a lot of paperwork but very little police work, concluding that accidents happen and leaving Jackson to carry on playing at being mayor. Leaving those who knew Nancy Tate to say their goodbyes and resign themselves to the vagaries of an uncertain world.
“So Nancy was blackmailing him?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Not in so many words. Listen, I need to speak to you in person –“
The whisper had slipped again. The voice came out raw.
“What are you afraid of?” I asked. “You think you might be next?”
“I can’t tell you anything more than I’ve told you already.”
“Are you sure about that?”
She hesitated. “You should visit Alice Coor.”
“Who’s Alice Coor?”
“She works for the Chapeltown Angels.”
The phone clicked and the whisperer was gone, back into the savage night.
I crossed the haunted landscape and headed into the centre, the Town Hall grinning out of the night like a clown at a dark carnival. I wondered if the mayor was working late. If I hadn’t been engaged on more ‘pressing matters’ I might have paid him a visit. Might have dropped in to ask why he hadn’t seen fit to let Chapeltown’s most famous dweller, Frank Miller, the Yours Truly of this sorry tale, know about his recent appointment.
I thought over what the whispering woman had said and none of it rang true. Chapeltown taking it upon itself to appoint a mayor, then this same guy immediately setting about the young women with a vengeance and silencing the first one to squeal.
No, I didn’t like it. Didn’t buy it for a second. It was like something straight out of a cheap crime mystery thriller. Bargain basement junk that The Man Upstairs always professed to have no time for.
As for the whisperer getting nothing from the police, well, that did ring true. As a general rule nobody ever got anything out of them. That’s when the good people of Chapeltown find themselves turning to Frank Miller himself, and knowing that they’ve done the right thing as soon as they catch sight of him riding into town in his Datsun Cherry…
I’d been driving that tired old jalopy since The Man Upstairs first set pen to paper and came up with the name Frank Miller. He’d tried me out in Vegas, Venice, Rome, London, even Sydney, Australia. But none of those towns worked. So he made up a place for me and called it Chapeltown. And before you could say “Old-School PI living on broads and booze”, the first Frank Miller mystery was out on sale.
Twenty books down the line and I’m still on sale, though I’m the only character in this town of the damned that seems to know the set up.
My old Datsun wheezed up Hill Street and spluttered out at the Honeywall Flats. I looked up to see the light in the third floor window.
Over the course of twenty books The Man Upstairs had given me nothing but one-night stands and I was not complaining. That was the Frank Miller style and not I, my readers, not even the ladies concerned had an issue with it. Yet here I was, three months into late night calls at the Honeywall Flats, answering the whistle like a faithful mutt.
I went through the broken door and up the stone steps.
Reaching the green door with the number 33 written on in black marker, I used the knuckles of my legendary right hand to tap out my trademark rhythm. It was the theme from an old western that had once formed the basis of my education.
Marge answered the door as though I was from the TV detection agency, her alabaster face peeping out at me with an expression poised between pleading and innocence. I said, “It’s Frank. I was under the impression that you were expecting me.”
I could see she’d been crying. She let me in and I went through to the living room and sat down on the big yellow sofa. She came in behind me and wouldn’t you know it, she was wearing those blue pyjamas again. The television was on but the sound was muted. Some film was showing but I didn’t recognise it. A lot of people seemed to be getting in and out of cars and there were a lot of serious faces and quite a few guns pointing here and there. I imagined that with the sound on it would have been a noisy affair.
“Practicing your lip reading?” I said, pointing at the silent screen.
“It’s on for the company, Frank.”
Marge didn’t use words idly.
“Three months,” she said, sitting two cushions away from me.
“Who would have thought it,” I said. “Were you expecting flowers?”
“Why do you have to be like that all the time?”
“I wasn’t being funny, Marge. Look, what’s this about?”
She looked ready to slap my face. It wouldn’t have been the first time. Then her expression softened, her voice bubbling with tears. “We’re getting along okay, aren’t we, Frank?”
Before I could say anything she was crying – big sobs, too. I covered the distance of two cushions and my arm did the right thing, wrapping itself around her shoulders. She looked up at me with those full eyes dripping and I thought about the girl in the fist of King Kong.
I’d watched that film with Marge a dozen times, though I could never see the point of it. Maybe she was trying to tell me something about Beauty and the Beast, but if that was the case then I’m afraid that I was too dumb to catch it.
Out it came. How she thought we had something special. How she wanted more than me just calling around when I had the “inclination”.
‘Summoned’ would have been a better description.
I kept the thought to myself. I was waiting for the C word. She used every synonym for that treacherous word but left ‘commitment’ hanging like a noose.
The way she went about assassinating my character made we wonder if this wasn’t the end. If she wasn’t about to send me back out into the night and let me get on with living the only life I knew how to live.
The wrong kind.
The Frank Miller kind.
“…You’re nothing but a walking cliché, Frank.”
“I’m who I am, Marge. Nothing more and nothing less. It’s how I was made.”
“But you can change, Frank.”
Now I got it and it was the oldest story in the book. A woman falls in love with a man and straight away sets about trying to change him. But sometimes it just can’t be done.
“To change me would be to kill me.”
“Not that old line, Frank.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about The Man Upstairs.”
“Upstairs? Where upstairs? Believing in God now, are we? So you can blame Him for how you turned out!”
She was on the button. God/ The Man Upstairs – they amounted to the same thing in Chapeltown. TMU had made her as surely as he’d made everybody else in this town, but I didn’t plan on being the one to break the news. It wasn’t down to me to tell her just what her life amounted to – and certainly not while she was wearing those blue pyjamas. Those things should have come with a licence. Their effect on me was nothing short of lethal. And now the water in her big brown eyes had puffed those peepers up so full that I wanted to dive down into them.
So that’s what I did: went brown-eyes diving. And in no time her heart was hammering so loud I couldn’t hear my own above the din. The bedroom was ten feet away and it didn’t take us long to get there.
And then time and space yielded to the Chapeltown night.
She was back in her blue pyjamas and I was wrapped up in the matching cotton robe she had bought to celebrate our first month together. The muted television screen was still throwing shadows around the flat, and dim echoes of the unspoken C word and its spoken synonyms still reverberated around the room as we made small talk about the joys and terrors of the world as we knew it. I didn’t know whether to envy or pity her. All she knew was…this. For her there was no TMU.
I caught myself looking at her, wondering what I was doing spending a cozy evening in with a girl who wore an old lady’s bedclothes. Frank Miller had never been one for the homely ‘girl-next-door’ type. Frank went for the vixens in fishnets; the devils in blue dresses and red garters, thorns without even the promise of a rose.
So what was TMU trying to pull? His readers wanted the old Frank, the despicable me out sniffing for the painted creatures of the night, not some steady boyfriend conspiring with romantic evenings spent in the company of a plain Jane wearing grandma’s linens.
All the same she looked good in them.
What was The Man Upstairs playing at?
At some stage those wretched blue Frank-teasers were off again and all time went back to the moon.
We woke up early. Marge had to go to work. She told me I could stay in bed and let myself out later. I had an afternoon appointment with Alice Coor, as recommended by the whispering woman. My morning was free though. I pulled Marge to me and told her to ring in.
“I have to work for a living, Frank. Unless you’re planning on taking me away from all this. Make an honest woman of me, Frank. Take me out of Chapeltown and show me the world.”
But Chapeltown was the world. For the likes of Marge and me there was nothing else.
I watched her tail disappear through the bedroom door and when I heard the shower kick in, pouring water on all of my dreams, I was about ready to put a fist through the window to restore a sense of equilibrium.
All done up for the hospital she came back into the bedroom and gave me the sweetest, most innocent peck on the cheek. Then she looked down and saw what was lurking beneath the sheets.
“Never gives you any rest, does it?” she said.
Wasn’t that the truth!
“I’ve got to go, Frank. I’ll call you later.”
“Wait a minute,” I said. “Since when did Chapeltown elect itself a mayor?”
“Since everybody voted for him.”
“I didn’t vote.”
“That’s up to you.”
“But you voted?”
The door closed behind her, leaving the flat as emptied of life as the story book pages The Man Upstairs calls the universe. A dark, cold feeling swept through me. One I hadn’t encountered before. I almost went after her. The urge to share the burden of this secret life lived in public was suddenly overwhelming.
I knew little about Marge. TMU had chosen to provide me with mere scraps. I’d never seen her outside of the flat. She told me that she went off every day to be a nurse at the Chapeltown General. But what else did I know?
I knew nothing.
I thought about her as I lay on that bed – though I wasn’t thinking the way I usually did. I was thinking that it was a poor excuse for a life TMU had given her. She was hardly more than a sketch; a part-creation. For the reader she existed here, in this one place, and she always would and that was the extent of it.
And yet she had been given the role of trying to change the unchangeable Frank Miller. That was some undertaking for a minor player. What was he playing at? Had he forgotten the rules or was he just choosing to disregard them?
With one stroke of his pen TMU could wipe Marge out of existence. He could do the same for me, for that matter, though why would he? Where would that leave him? I was his bread and butter – the creation that had made him famous. I was the one he had tasked with telling his weird stories. If he killed me off there was nothing left.
I thought again about Marge, leaving the page; trading in her blue pyjamas for a hospital day-job uniform. To live or not live out an off-page life that was neither here nor there.
Maybe it was time that Marge knew the truth about Frank Miller and about the world that TMU had created. Maybe it was time for me to share the pitiful reality of existence with one other person in Chapeltown.
Yet I couldn’t do it. Didn’t think she could stand the knowledge.
For the first time I thought about what it would be like to live as somebody else. Empathy, I think they call it, though there’s precious little of it in this shrunken world of mine. Still, I tried it and for a few moments I was Marge, sitting there in that big empty bed, believing in a bigger reality; of a place beyond these tormented streets and broken lives – and it made me want to cry.
I lay back and thought about what she wanted. What she was asking of me.
No, it couldn’t be done.
It was impossible.
To change Frank Miller?
The public would never allow it.
It would kill the series.
And if the series was dead then so was Frank.
Mark L Fowler
MARK L. FOWLER – AUTHOR INFO
Mark L. Fowler is the author of the novels Coffin Maker, The Man Upstairs, Silver, and Red Is The Colour, and more than a hundred short stories. His particular interests are in crime and mystery, psychological thrillers and gothic/horror fiction. His first published novel, Coffin Maker, is a gothic tale set between our world and the Kingdom of Death. In the Kingdom the Coffin Maker lives a solitary existence, and every coffin he completes signals the end of a life in our world. One day he discovers that he is to be sent two apprentices, amid rumours that the devil is arriving on Earth. Mark’s second novel, The Man Upstairs, features the hard-boiled detective, Frank Miller, who works the weird streets of Chapeltown. Having discovered that he is in fact the hero of twenty successful mystery novels, authored by The Man Upstairs, Frank has reasons to fear that this latest case might be his last. In 2016, Silver, a dark and disturbing psychological thriller was published by Bloodhound Books. When a famous romance novelist dies in mysterious circumstances, she leaves behind an unfinished manuscript, Silver. This dark and uncharacteristic work has become the Holy Grail of the publishing world, but the dead writer’s family have their reasons for refusing to allow publication. Red Is The Colour is Mark’s latest book, a crime mystery featuring two police detectives based in Staffordshire. The case involves the grim discovery of the corpse of a schoolboy who went missing thirty years earlier. Red Is The Colour is the first in a series featuring DCI Tyler and DS Mills, and will be published in July 2017 by Bloodhound Books. The author contributed a short story, Out of Retirement, to the best-selling crime and horror collection, Dark Minds. Featuring many well-known writers, all proceeds from the sales of Dark Minds go to charity. A graduate in philosophy from Leicester University, Mark lives in Staffordshire, and is currently writing a follow up to Red Is The Colour. When he isn’t writing he enjoys time with family and friends, watching TV and films, playing guitar/piano and going for long walks.