P-Con – The Other Story

As I said yesterday, I had to get permission to post this. It involved going through a fair few bureaucratic hoops, but I think it is important that people be aware of the sort of thing that can happen at conventions. Thankfully incidents like this are by no means common, but it is good to be aware of the possibility so that you don’t get caught out and can respond appropriately. The long term objective has to be to provide a safe and enjoyable convention experience for all.

It all began on Friday night at the signing in Chapters bookstore. The crowds were not nearly as big as they were for Neil and Amanda, but there were quite a lot of young people in evidence. One in particular caught our eye as she looked as if she was more like one of Neil’s fans than a fan of any of the writers we had available. She was a goth girl, remarkably like Emily Strange in looks, and dressed entirely in black and red. She carried a small Hello Cthulhu rucksack, but the thing that caused her to stand out was the cat. It was completely black, save for a jeweled red collar and what appeared to be dark red tufts of fur on the top of its ears. The girl carried it around in an open-top basket and petted it frequently. Pádraig Ó Méalóid was in a bit of a tizz about someone bringing a pet into the store, but it was a very beautiful cat, and very well behaved, so no one made a fuss.

As for the girl, she was only interested in one of the authors: Charlie Stross. Furthermore all she had brought with her were copies of the Laundry books. They looked well thumbed through, and had numerous post-it tags poking out of the edges. I suspected that inside various passages would have been underlined or highlighted and that notes would have been written in the margins. Charlie dutifully signed the books for her.

“You are a very perceptive writer,” Mr. Stross, “she said. Few people would have the intelligence or bravery to uncover the sort of issues you tackle.”

“I’m glad you think so,” answered Charlie politely. “These books have done very well for me.”

“I will see you at the convention,” she said, ignoring his attempt to make small talk. “We have much to discuss.”

And with that she walked out.

“Well, that’s all we need,” said Feòrag, “a creepy stalker.”

“Why is it I always get people like that?” asked Charlie plaintively. “Couldn’t I have a few ordinary teenage fangirls instead? The sort that throw their knickers at you.”

Feòrag gave him a withering look.

“I’m really sorry about this,” muttered Pádraig, “I’ve never seen her before. I don’t think she’s part of Dublin fandom at all. I’ll have a word with the con committee and if she makes a nuisance of herself we can do something about it.”

Thankfully the rest of the signing went off without incident, and we headed off for the dinner and the hotel bar.

###

We were onto the second or third pint of Guinness when the goth girl turned up. She walked boldly into the bar, cat basket slung over one arm, and made a beeline for Charlie.

“Hello Mr. Stross,” she said, “I just thought I would make sure that you were here.”

“All weekend,” said Charlie, trying hard not to make it sound that it was an imposition.

“Good,” the girl replied. “My name is Avril. This is Poisson.” She indicated the cat.

“Your cat is called Fish?”

“He is, yes. I thought it was amusing. Don’t you?”

“Well it is certainly different. A good talking point.”

“It is indeed. As I said, we will talk again over the weekend.” And with a toss of her head she stalked out as abruptly as she had arrived.

###

We next saw her at a panel on Saturday afternoon. Charlie was one of the panelists, and she sat in the front row opposite him, stroking the cat and fixing him with her un-nerving stare. Feòrag was beginning to get rather irritated.

“Presumably she’s acting weird to try to get him to notice her. She’d do much better to turn up with a few bottles of a beer he’d never heard of, or some brand new geek toy.”

We politely suggested to Paul Cornell, who was moderating the panel, that it might not be a good idea to call on the girl when he took questions. Unfortunately you can’t always control an audience that well. Although the panel discussion was fascinating, none of the rest of the fans stuck their hands up with questions when the time came. Avril’s hand shot up as if she was a puppet. With an apologetic nod in Feòrag’s direction, Paul took the question.

“Mr. Stross,” she asked, “where do you get your ideas from?”

You could feel the collective groan from all of the writers in the room. Fortunately Charlie had faced this question many times before and had a witty response ready.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “many of my sources are classified and I’m not at liberty to disclose them.”

“I don’t suppose you are,” replied Avril, “but like most people you can doubtless be persuaded to talk.”

And with that she stood up and stalked out of the room. I’m sure that I heard the cat hiss as she walked past.

###

I was pretty busy for the rest of the day, but on Sunday morning I asked around to see if anyone else had encountered the strange girl. Chaz Brenchley proved a mine of information.

“You know me,” he said, “if there is a cat around I have to talk to it. And it is a particularly splendid cat. I found them sitting alone at the back of the bar and went to say hello.”

“What did you make of her?”

“Her? Nothing much. She didn’t really seem to notice me. It was the cat I talked to. My boys are pretty smart, but I swear that cat understood every word I said to it. If it had been able to talk it might have answered back. Except…”

Chaz waved his hands vaguely.

“Except what?”

“Except it gave me this look at if it thought I was a complete idiot and it wouldn’t waste its time by bothering to talk to me,” he said, looking rather crestfallen.

“Well, cats can be a bit like that.”

“And there’s another thing too. Have you read the service guide they have in the rooms? It says very clearly in there that no pets are allowed, except for guide dogs. That girl was here most of yesterday, and the hotel staff haven’t batted an eyelid. It is almost as if they don’t know she’s here.”

###

Much to everyone’s relief, Avril didn’t turn up for panels at all on Sunday. Someone else did. He was a priest, though from the look of him his primary role in the church was to play second row in their rugby team. He was at least 6’ 6”, and built like he spent much more time exercising than exorcising. He was also cuter than Brian O’Driscoll, and with naturally blond hair. And he wore a blazing white, floor-length leather coat over his cassock. Juliet McKenna, who takes her historical research very seriously, insisted that the guy walked like he was wearing a large sword on his left hip. No such weapon was visible.

I didn’t get to talk to him myself but Paul, who knows a few Church of England vicars, was a bit un-nerved.

“They take things very seriously, these Catholics, don’t they?” he confided to me. “Father Michael claimed he was looking for evil influences. I thought maybe that was just a euphemism for drugs, but he really seemed to think that one of us might have noticed a demon hanging around the convention. Very strange.”

###

That evening after the closing ceremony I was hanging out in the bar with Feòrag. Charlie was planning an expedition to a favorite Indian restaurant and we were waiting for the gang to gather. At this point a middle-aged, somewhat rumpled looking guy wandered in. I hadn’t seen him at the con, though he looked fairly geeky and might easily have been a fan. Feòrag, who had been a bit on tenterhooks all day, visibly brightened.

“Bob, great so see you! Bob this is Cheryl, Cheryl, Bob is an old friend of Charlie’s. He’s a computer geek.”

“Good to meet you Bob, what sort of stuff do you do?”

“Oh, government work mostly. Web sites and the like.”

“Design? Blog content? Databases?”

“Mainly security stuff. Stopping smart-arse teenagers and enthusiastic Russian entrepreneurs from hacking the 10 Downing Street blog. I know your friend Otto in Helsinki.”

If Bob was intending to subtly suggest that I should abandon this thread of conversation, he could not have done so more effectively. I know more or less what Otto does at work, and while “computer security” does cover it that’s rather like saying that Lewis Hamilton drives cars for a living.

“You got my email message, then?” asked Feòrag.

“Um, no. I got a phone call from the Vatican telling me that some Thing was running a game with one of our agents here and they wanted It stopped. I don’t even have any idea which agent they were talking about… Oh. Where’s Charlie?”

“In our room, last I saw him,” said Feòrag. “Just because we are at a con doesn’t mean he can escape from deadlines. You don’t think…”

“I’ll just check.”

Bob drew out an iPhone and launched some sort of application. I noticed the acronym RFID on the screen.

“Charlie is tagged?” I asked, letting my curiosity get the better of me.

“All government consultants are. His insight into technology trends is valuable to us. Uh oh…”

“Problem?”

“Charlie is on the 5th floor.”

“But this hotel only has four floors, unless you are counting American-style.”

“Nope, 5th floor. W.B. Yeats had it built when he was a big noise in the Golden Dawn. Executive suite. Mainly used for entertaining, um, foreign dignitaries. I’d better get up there fast.”

We followed him out of the bar and over to the lift.

“This, um, could be a bit dangerous…”

Feòrag didn’t look like she was in a mood to back down, and I wasn’t about to abandon her. We both followed Bob into the lift. He pushed both the 1 and 4 buttons together and muttered something into the control panel. The normally balky lift shot upwards.

We exited into a scene out of a horror movie. The room was large and decorated with strangely disturbing paintings on three walls. I recognized a John Coulthart and an Alan Clark, along with what looked very much like a Dalì though it was a work I was not familiar with. The fourth wall was largely window and was currently open to the outside. A strong wind caused the drawn curtains to thrash around, and rain pounded the rooftop outside, though the weather had been calm and dry in Dublin all day. The floor was wooden, and decorated with a large circle containing various arcane symbols. Charlie was pegged out in the middle of it. To one side of him stood Avril; to the other side was her cat, which I swear had grown substantially since yesterday.

“That’s her,” yelled Feòrag, “and she has that cat I told you about,” apparently forgetting that Bob had not seen her email.

“I think it would be more accurate to say that the cat has her,” replied Bob. “And Charlie.”

“If you wish to be strictly accurate, Mr. Howard, I think that the most appropriate summation of the situation is that I have you,” said the cat, its voice dripping with menace and far deeper than one might expect from a feline. “While Mr. Stross here has provided me with a small amount of entertainment, his value to me was never more than that of bait. You were the prime object of my operation, and now here you are. All that remains is to make sure that you continue to accept my hospitality. Avril, the flute if you please.”

Avril drew a long, silver flute out of her Hello Cthulhu rucksack and began to play. It was not what you would call a tune. Rather it was the sort of crazed wailing you might expect from someone driven mad from millennia of isolation in the empty vastness of space. It was filled with pain and longing, but also with helpless rage and an all-consuming desire to lash out at anything and everything. It hurt our ears.

Amorphous shadows began to appear around the room. They pulsed and shifted, at times monstrously globular, at others writhing with tentacles. They were without shape, and yet they had hungry eyes. As Avril continued to play, they became more solid.

Bob appeared unfazed. He was doing what appeared to be breathing exercises. All at once he let rip with an unearthly yell. It sounded a bit like the cry of a giant eagle. Or rather, like the noise a giant eagle might make if it suddenly realized that it was about to be eaten by something much larger, and much more ferocious, than itself. If translated into English from whatever language was used to utter it, it might sound rather like “Help!”

Whatever it was he said it seemed to require a fair amount of energy. Bob collapsed in on himself, gasping and shuddering.

Nothing happened for several long minutes, save that the eerie piping continued and the surrounding shadows solidified further. Feòrag and I were, to be honest, quaking in our boots. Charlie was trying to sit up to see what was going on, but he was securely staked to the floor. The cat wore a look of undisguised triumph and appeared to be working on a lengthy speech that it would deliver once we were all safely captured.

Suddenly it went dark and the wind stopped. A deep, velvet blackness filled the window. There was a faint suggestion of wings. Then the wind was back again, and the light, as the darkness folded itself around Avril.

“Oh, he, ah,” she giggled, the flute dropping from her lips as she responded to whatever was happening to her within the enfolding blackness. “No, stop, ah, he, it t-t-t-t-ckles ha ha ha ha he hah!”

There was a suggestion of wings once again. Giggling helplessly, Avril was borne away through the window in a cocoon of darkness, her high-pitched laughter draining away from our ears as if being swallowed by an event horizon. Suddenly the room was quiet.

“Not so confident without your human puppet, are you Bubastis,” said Bob.

The cat hissed viciously and bared its teeth. Bob drew a spray canister out of a pocket in his jacket and aimed it at the animal. A jet of vapor issued from the nozzle. It smelled vaguely appealing and gave me a slight buzz. The cat, who had taken most of it in the face, took on a spaced out expression and rolled onto its back.

“Wow,” said Feòrag, “what was that? Some sort of anti-demonic magic spray?”

“No,” said Bob, “it was catnip. Quick, while it is stunned.”

Fishing into his jacket again, he pulled out a small polythene bag from which he withdrew what looked suspiciously like a slab of fresh tuna. He stuffed it under the cat’s nose, and when it started to tear into the food greedily he pulled out a black leather net and drew it over the animal’s head. Fastening the net with a clasp bearing a strange star symbol, Bob picked up the cat and deposited it into the basket that Avril had used to carry the animal around. The cat appeared to have gone to sleep.

“Well, that’s sorted that,” said Bob, coming to help Feòrag and I release Charlie from his bonds.

“I didn’t tell them anything,” said Charlie proudly, rubbing his wrists where the ropes had dug into them.

“Well no,” said Bob, “you are still alive. But actually we take good care to make sure you never learn anything so secret that we’d have to kill you rather than let you divulge it. Good job though.”

“That’s good to know, I think.”

“So if you’ll excuse me,” said Bob, “I have a helicopter to catch. I’m supposed to be cooking dinner tonight and there will be hell to pay if I don’t get back to London in time. If Father Michael turns up again, tell him that everything is under control, and give my best wishes to him and Gabe.”

“Er, thanks,” stuttered Charlie. If there is anything I can do…”

“Oh, it’s all in the line of business. It is what you pay taxes for, you know. Servants of the Crown at your service and all that.”

“Excuse me,” I asked, “was that a Night Gaunt?” Just as Kevin prides himself on being able to recognize any railway locomotive, I like to think that I can identify any eldritch horror thanks to my encyclopedic knowledge of the classic spotter’s manual, the Call of Cthulhu Gamesmaster’s Guide.

“It was, yes,” said Bob. There’s a brewery near here where they roost. They have a natural affinity with anything velvety smooth and black. Talking of which, I think I should be getting you folks back to the bar and your friends. Have one or two for me while you are there.”

###

This convention report is entirely fictitious. Any resemblance of characters included herein to actual persons, demons or eldritch horrors, living, dead or undead, is entirely coincidental.

Thanks to Charlie for the loan of Bob Howard, and to Neil Gaiman and H.P. Lovecraft for some of the inspiration. Thanks also to a certain brewery in Dublin which has asked to remain nameless least curious tourists disturb its colony of rare nocturnal creatures.

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33 Responses to P-Con – The Other Story

  1. Colette says:

    Wonderful!

  2. G says:

    Thanks for the chuckle.

  3. Brian says:

    Excellent stuff. And you had me for a moment at the beginning as I was sitting there thinking, “I didn’t let anyone in with a cat, the con rules state no pets and I’ll be damned (possibly literally) if I let one past me!” Some day I shall tell you of Turtle Girl. 🙂

  4. Cheryl says:

    Brian:

    Have you heard of the snake scenario in the Zoo Game?

  5. DrJon says:

    Sounds like a difficult and dangerous situation. Glad you guys survived it.

    Last two paragraphs sound like April Fools Day additions, though. ;}P>

  6. Brian says:

    Cheryl: I haven’t, but I’m intrigued.

  7. Cheryl says:

    Brian:

    “If I Ran the Z/o/o/ Con” is a role-playing game designed for training convention committees (primarily for Worldcon). There are many different scenarios, some of which you can navigate through safely and others of which screw you no matter what (because hey, that’s con running). Each team gets to play several randomly selected scenarios in the bidding, planning and convention stages. One of the most famous scenarios is the one from the convention stage in which a woman brings her pet python to the con and it gets loose.

  8. Brian says:

    Cheryl:

    Ah, yes, I was familiar with the game, but not the scenario. We’ve had a turtle and an iguana at Octocon, both brought by the same young lady, the turtle allowed to roam free. Not as dangerous as a python but the main reason for the “No Pets” clause in the con rules. Before that we just didn’t think it was necessary!

  9. Kate says:

    Damn – that all happened while I was in the Ladies room, didn’t it…

  10. Cheryl says:

    Kate:

    At least now you know why I smelled of catnip and sulfur during dinner.

    Mary:

    *blush*

  11. Tom S. says:

    If that had happened at an anime con to a GOH, she would have been removed from the con and banned immediately. Anime cons have zero tolerance of that sort of stalking. We worry enough about creepy old men (who do bad things) around conventions.

  12. Val Grimm says:

    I assume you’ll send this to Charlie with your other samples? I darn well hope so.

    “If I Ran the C/o/n Zoo” sounds like it could easily turn into Kobayashi Maru….

    That said, I would like to be in on a session of it before the con…

  13. Tom S. says:

    I fell for an April Fools joke. I feel so rick rolled right now.

  14. Cheryl says:

    Val:

    Charlie knew it was coming. I asked his permission to use Bob. Fluff Cthulhu is apparently put out that I didn’t mention HIM.

    Tom S:

    Happens to us all sooner or later. I know I have been there.

  15. Ron Oakes says:

    Well done. You had me for quite a while 🙂

  16. Peter says:

    Cheryl, Thank you for bringing this matter to my attention. I have checked the membership and Avril’s badge number is M666. I have removed her from the mailing list and banned any further P-Con information being sent to her.

    I suppose I’ll have to find another venue now.

    (Well done!)

  17. I started reading this and was thinking, “Hang on, I don’t remember anyone with a cat in a basket!” and then remembered what date it was…

  18. Good stuff, I was taken for a good part of it! 🙂

  19. Susan Loyal says:

    Gah! Now I want Hello, Cthulhu merchandise and a nice stout, while I read a Link/Egan novel that I fear will never exist:

    http://www.locusmag.com/2009/April1_LinkEgan.html

    This was great fun!

  20. Val: There are essentially unwinnable scenarios in If I Ran the Zoo…Con. Or at least scenarios where the only way to escape dire consequences is essentially to get absurdly lucky. Whenever I run the game (which I’ve done many times), when we get to “The Lady and the Snake,” I ask anyone who has played the game before to clam up and let the newbies handle it, because it’s a learning experience.

  21. Alan says:

    ‘catnip and sulphur’? I thought that that faint smell was coming from your curry, but I had put it down as cardamon, or maybe fenugreek.

    I plead the chillies in my own dish causing my sinuses to water.

  22. Ron Oakes says:

    Last year at Denvention when they ran If I Ran…, the snake nearly killed the entire room the third or fourth time it showed up.

    Not the room inside the game, but the room of players. Somehow the combination of the late hour and other silliness had many of us giggling so hard we almost couldn’t breathe.

    My team got the sick baby instead.

  23. You almost had me there, but I caught on and it was still a great read. Thanks

  24. Tom S. says:

    I hope I can get to play If I ran the Zoo Con at Anticipation.

  25. Linda says:

    I love it. Also, I need to go to more cons. 😛

  26. Paul Cornell says:

    Phew! I was wondering why I didn’t remember that!

  27. Sciamanna says:

    Brava!

    …somehow I managed to miss all that. You’d think I’d have noticed a cat, but then there were lots of things going on…

  28. Jennifer Delaney says:

    *giggles*

    Magnificent!

  29. Glenn Glazer says:

    I’ve always enjoyed the Laundry books and this was a very nice pastiche. I think you captured Charlie’s writing style as well as subject very well. I particularly liked his knickers remark and the response.

    As I was reading it and before I realized the joke, I was also thinking about the Zoo game and how this would make a nice scenario for the updated version (which we really should do someday…). That many of us relate the story to the game is a credit to the verisimilitude of the hoax.

    Incidentally, I have won (in reality, not the game) the Lady with the Snake scenario. She was at CostumeCon last year and the snake was freaking out the women at the DoubleTree registration desk. As one of the hotel liaisons, I went looking for her. Found her, sat down with her and her scaly friend (a rather large boa and not the feather type) and calmly explained the problem. I even petted the snake a bit (they don’t bother me). She agreed to avoid the reg desk, problem solved. No more complaints that weekend.

  30. In SMOF game terms, you spent one people point and gained one goodwill point. Nice work!

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