Below you will find a selection of free-to-read extracts and sample chapters from James’s published works – click through and get a taste!
The Waterloo Massacre
I had just stepped off the 3.47 from Ramsgate when all hell broke loose.
One moment I was presenting my ticket for inspection and preparing to step onto the concourse at Waterloo Station. The next, there was an almighty detonation that reminded me of nothing so much as a salvo of artillery fire, a great percussive roar that seemed to tear the very fabric of the air asunder.
I was knocked clean off my feet, and briefly lost consciousness. When I came to, I was aware of a profound ringing in my ears and a sharp smell of burning in my nostrils.
Before me lay a ghastly sight. The orderly, everyday scene of a few minutes before had been utterly transformed. Where there had been people milling about, railway travellers exhibiting the usual mix of urgency and nonchalance, there was now carnage. The injured tottered to and fro, pressing a hand to some wound or other in order to stem the flow of blood. Cries of distress pierced the air, although in my half-deafened state I could only just hear them. I glimpsed a sailor-suited child gripping a toy bear, peering about himself forlornly for an accompanying adult who was either lost or worse. A bookstall owner sat, stunned, his wares cast all around him in shreds like so much confetti.
Everything was wreathed in smoke. Débris lay scattered on the board flooring of the concourse – chunks of masonry, shards of glass. Bodies lay scattered, too. Some bore no greater sign of harm than a few tattered edges on their clothing, yet their stillness spoke of nothing but death. Others were so mutilated that they scarcely resembled human beings any longer, looking more like something one might find in a butcher’s shop.
I could scarcely comprehend what had happened. In a small, distant part of my mind, a voice was telling me: bomb. Uppermost in my thoughts, however, was the imperative that I must help people. Was I not a doctor, once a surgeon with the Army Medical Department? Had I not come to the aid of countless wounded soldiers at Ahmed Kel, Arzu, Charasiab, and at Maiwand too, until that jezail bullet put me on the casualty list myself?
My army medical training asserted itself. Even as my head cleared and the ringing in my ears began to abate, I sprang into action.
Of the hour or so that followed, I have little clear recollection. It passed in a haze of frantic activity. I attended to whomever was in distress, making an assessment of the extent of their injuries and spending as much or as little time with them as I felt was required – the process of triage so familiar to me from the battlefield hospital. I tore up strips of clothing to press into service as makeshift bandages. I ascertained which fragments of ejecta from the explosion could be safely extricated from the flesh they penetrated and which were so large or lodged so deep that they were better left in place until such time as a trained surgeon could deal with them under operating theatre conditions. I offered reassurance to those not too badly hurt and gave what scant consolation I could to those who, alas, were slipping into that state which lies beyond the power of any mortal to assist them. I also, I am pleased to say, managed to reunite the sobbing child with his nanny, to the great joy of them both.
I remember one doughty old widow who pestered me time and again to examine her, despite my protestations that she had suffered no worse than a few superficial scratches. I also remember – and it will haunt me to my dying day – a mother cradling an infant in her arms, insistent that the babe was alive and well when all the evidence was to the contrary.
It was a terrible experience, one which even a veteran of the Second Afghan War such as myself found harrowing and nightmarish. All these people had been quietly, innocently going about their business, heading home from work, waiting to greet a newly arrived friend or relative, preparing to embark on a journey, none of them having the least inkling that, in a split second, their lives would be reduced to chaos and horror. Whatever feelings of hope, trepidation or expectation they might have had, had been obliterated in an instant by an act of wanton, unconscionable destruction.
I did not pause to wonder, at the time, who had committed the atrocity. I had no doubt that it was a deliberate act of terrorism, for there had been two similar incidents in London during the previous fortnight, neither bomb blast as devastating as this one but both intended to cause considerable damage and sow fear and discord among the populace. I did not let that concern me. I simply focused on the matter at hand: easing pain and saving as many lives as I could.
When the police arrived on the scene, I directed them towards the victims in direst need of proper medical attention, and soon enough, hackney cabs, private carriages, and even a grocer’s wagon, had been commandeered to ferry the injured to hospital.
Once the situation seemed to be under control and the concourse was free of all but corpses, I was able to halt and take stock. The surge of adrenaline that had borne me through the past couple of hours receded, and I found myself starting to tremble. Nausea nearly overwhelmed me. My hands, coated in the blood of others, shook uncontrollably. I had not been in such close proximity to so much slaughter in years and, unsurprisingly, I had not become inured to it in the interim. It was as horrific to me now as it had been a decade ago on the subcontinent.
Two thoughts brought me some slight comfort. One was that my Mary had not been there to witness this appalling massacre or, worse, be a casualty of it. She was some seventy miles east, in the town I had just travelled up from.
My wife was, as it happened, recovering from a miscarriage, her third since we were wed two years earlier. I have not referred to our childbearing misfortunes anywhere in my published writings, as I deem it too private a subject for public consumption and anyway of no real interest to my readers. Here, though, in this account which is likely to be seen by no eyes but mine, I can at least mention how Mary and I, in spite of our best efforts, failed to produce offspring. It is a source of great regret to me, even now, that I have no heirs, no children and grandchildren to lighten the burden of old age. My only hope for posterity, such as it is, lies in the written works that I leave behind.
Mary had taken this third setback particularly hard, so I had prescribed a stay with a cousin of hers who owned a cottage on theKentcoast. There she might find calm and relaxation and recover her mental equilibrium. Her condition had undoubtedly improved, and it had been mooted that she would accompany me on my return to London that very day, but I had seen how wan her features still were and how her eyes continued to lack their usual lustre, and had pronounced her not yet ready to resume city life with all its demands and vicissitudes. I thanked providence that I had made the decision I had.
The other comforting thought was that the perpetrators of this outrage would face the full might of the law.
I knew this for a fact, because I happened to have a dear friend who had dedicated his life and his vast intellect to the pursuit of justice and who would, if charged with the task, stop at naught to see the malefactors apprehended and arraigned.
Thinking of Sherlock Holmes, I resolved to pay a call on him there and then. Outside the station I hailed a cab and presently was on my way to 221B Baker Street.
KIDNAP IN CROUCH END
I stepped out of my flat to get my lunchtime sandwich and cappuccino, and never went back.
There was a coffee place round the corner from my house. It styled itself like one of the big chains, calling itself Caffè Buono and boasting baristas and leather armchairs and a Gaggia machine, but it was the only one of its kind in existence and it never to my knowledge opened any other branches. The sandwiches were all right, though. The coffee too.
I didn’t notice the jet black Range Rover with tinted windows prowling after me as I sauntered along the street. It was spring. The sun was out, for a change. I’d been slaving away at my drawing board since breakfast. Daylight on my face felt sweet. To be among people – the usual milling midday Crouch End crowds – was pleasant. My work was a kind of solitary confinement. It was always good to get out.
I was thinking of a plump, tasty BLT and also of the plump, tasty new barista at Caffè Buono. Krystyna, her name badge said. From Poland, to judge by the spelling and her accent. Farm-girl pretty and very friendly. Flirtatious, even. It was never likely that I would ask her out, she being at least fifteen years younger than me, but seeing her brightened my day and I chose to think that seeing me brightened hers. If it didn’t, she did a very creditable job of pretending it did.
I moseyed along, a million miles from where I was, and all the while the jet black Range Rover was stealing ever closer to me, homing in from behind, a shark shadowing its prey.
I was coming to the end of my latest commission – another reason I was so preoccupied. I was on the final straight of eight months’ solid work. Five pages left to go on a four-issue miniseries. Full pencils and inks, from a script by Mark Millar. I liked collaborating with Millar; he gave the bare minimum of art direction. Usually he offered a thumbnail description of the content of each panel, with a caption or two to fit in somewhere, along with an invitation to “knock yourself out” or “make this the best fucking picture you’ve ever drawn.” So few restrictions. Happy to let the artist be the artist and do what an artist was paid to do. I was fine with that.
But it had been a long haul. I was slow. Had a reputation for it. A stickler; meticulous. Notoriously so. Every page, every panel, every single line had to be exactly right. That was Zak Zap’s unique selling point. You only got top-quality, ultra-refined product, and if you had to wait for it, tough titties. I’d been known to tear up a completed page rather than submit it, simply because a couple of brushstrokes weren’t precisely as I’d envisaged they’d be, or the overall composition was a fraction off. Just rip that sheet of Bristol board in half and bin it. Three days’ effort, wasted. And I’d rage and fume and yell at the cat, and then maybe neck down a few beers, and then next morning I’d plonk my backside down in front of my drawing desk and start all over again.
Stupid, but that’s how I was.
It was why Francesca left me.
Not the tantrums or the fits of creative pique. She could handle those. Laugh them off.
It was the pressure I put on myself. The sense of never being good enough which constantly dogged me. The striving for unrealisable goals. The quest to be better than my best.
“It’s not noble to be a perfectionist, Zak,” Francesca told me as she packed her bag. “It’s a kind of self-loathing.”
I was within spitting distance of the coffee place, just passing the Louisiana Chicken Shack, when the Range Rover drew alongside and braked.
The doors were already open before the car came to a complete stop.
Men in suits bundled out.
I glimpsed them out of the corner of my eye. They were Hugo-Boss-clad barrels in motion. My first thought was that they must be bodyguards for some movie star. Someone famous, over in the UK from Hollywood to promote the release of his latest action-fest, had had a sudden hankering for southern fried chicken, and his security detail were forming a cordon so that he could go in and buy a bucketful. Will Smith, maybe. Bruce Willis. The Rock. One of those guys.
And then I thought, In Crouch End? This wasn’t even the fashionable end of Crouch End. This was the crouchy end of Crouch End. And no movie star in his right mind, however hungry, would want to sample the battered scrag ends of battery hen they served at the Louisiana Chicken Shack.
And then the nearest of the men in suits grabbed hold of me. And then another of them did too, clamping a hand around my elbow and whispering in my ear, “Don’t shout. Don’t struggle. Act natural, like this is nothing out of the ordinary. Otherwise you’ll regret it.”
Then, loudly so that passersby would hear, he said, “All right, sweetheart. That’s enough now. You’ve had your fun, but it’s time to go back to the Priory. Your management is paying all that money for your rehab. They don’t want it wasted.”
With that, they dragged me towards the Range Rover – literally dragged, my heels scraping the kerbstones. I was helpless, inert, a flummoxed idiot, no idea what was going on. Even if I hadn’t been warned to act natural, I’d have been too dumbfounded to resist or protest.
It happened so fast. Just a handful of seconds, and suddenly I was in the back seat of the Range Rover, squashed between two of the suited goons, and the car was pulling out into the traffic, and I wasn’t going to have that BLT or that cappuccino today and I wasn’t going to cheer up Krystyna with a smile and she wasn’t going to cheer me up either.
If there was one thing Redlaw knew how to do, it was locate vampires. He was in a strange, alien city, and the weather was diabolical. But wherever you were and whatever the conditions, certain aspects of vampires behaviour were constants. They took refuge in shabby, tucked-away places, mostly through necessity but also by preference. They tried to draw as little attention to themselves as possible. And they always left traces, signs that the eye could be trained to detect.
It might be a litter of dead vermin, rats especially, heaped in a basement lightwell. It might be a pile of faeces, unusually red, spattery and pungent. It might be the urine with which, doglike, they left their scent and alerted other vampires to their presence. Vampires were not the cleanest or most foresighted of creatures. They were as much animal as human, and didn’t think to tidy up their own mess or consider that others could track them by their detritus.
Redlaw, with Cindermaker lodged in trouser waistband, steered clear of the well-lit avenues with their shops and restaurants. He ranged southward, down to where the city’s grid pattern broke up and intersections were no longer invariably right-angled crossways. The rigid geometry of upper Manhattan and midtown gave way to something he found more recognisable: unplanned urbanisation, a street layout that seemed to have occurred naturally rather than been imposed by ruler and set square.
Here, between the ruins of the World Trade Center and the vaulting arrogance of the financial district, was the sort of warren of cramped old buildings he could see vampire immigrants favouring. He assumed that, like the City of London, this part of New York tended to be busy by day but unfrequented at night, which also suited the Sunless.
Patiently, doggedly, Redlaw trudged through the snow. He bent to check doorsteps for the telltale, acrid-smelling stains that betokened territorial marking. He scanned the upper-storey windows of the more dilapidated tenement blocks, looking for crude methods of blotting out daylight such as newspaper pages and scraps of cardboard box taped inside the panes. He was a big game hunter searching for spoor, but to passers-by – of which there were few – he looked like nothing so much as a madman, one of those quietly tormented schizophrenics of which New York seemed to have more than its fair share, performing arcane public rituals to stave off some private apocalypse.
Midnight deepened into the small hours, and Redlaw had nothing to show for his efforts except sodden shoes, damp feet, and an uncontrollable shiver that came and went but was more violent each time it returned. He had never, ever been so cold. Tomorrow – note to self – buy warmer clothing.
To add to his woes, around 2AM fresh show started falling. The flakes were huge and silent, floating down like autumn leaves. They clumped on his eyebrows and built up in white epaulettes on his shoulders. His unprotected head was soon snowcapped, which made his scalp ache, especially at the crown where the covering of hair was thinner.
He forged on because that was the sort of man he was. A bit of snow – no, a lot of snow – wasn’t going to deter John Redlaw. He could almost hear Róisín Leary telling him he was an idiot and he should get his arse indoors now or he’d catch his death. His former SHADE partner had not been one to mince her words.
Similarly, he could almost hear the voice of Illyria Strakosha, the shtriga he had allied himself with not so long ago, saying much the same as Leary. Putting it less bluntly, perhaps, but with an equal amount of eye-rolling exasperation. Really, Redlaw, stop this bally nonsense. You’re only human, old bean.
Ghosts of the dead. The sounds of his conscience. Redlaw knew they were just memories, disembodied echoes haunting the hollows of his mind, but sometimes he thought of them as angels.
And then, at last, success. A result. Persistence rewarded.
He had passed the deconsecrated church twice already, and only on the third time did something about it strike him as anomalous. A small round window high in its façade appeared to have been neatly removed. Not vandalised, as some of the others were, with starred holes in their stained-glass panes where stones had been hurled at them. This one window was simply not there any more, leaving a circular aperture that was just large enough to permit a human-sized body to squeeze through.
Looking closer, Redlaw discovered scratches in the stonework below the empty window. A column of little runic scuff marks led up the wall, the kind that might be left by unnaturally sharp and powerful talons. For a vampire, climbing up the sheer face of a building was a far from impossible feat.
The church was tall and sandwiched between two former warehouses that had been converted into blocks of fashionable boho loft apartments. In its day, it would have been quite something. No doubt a property developer was eyeing it up with a view to making it quite something again in the near future. For now, though, it was very much nothing. A useless hollow excrescence. A place of worship that was no longer needed, especially in a part of the city where money was God and the general opinion of religion was that it was a madness that made people fly jumbo jets into skyscrapers. The world had moved on and left this church behind like a large, steepled gravestone.
The handles on the double doors were secured by a padlocked chain. A laminated notice warned that, by civic ordinance, trespassing on this property was an offence punishable by a steep fine and a possible jail sentence.
Redlaw glanced both ways along the street. Nobody around as far as the eye could see. Nobody but him. The snow tumbled in thick flurries, encrusting streetlamps and burying parked cars. His gaze fell on the railings that fronted the church. Vandals had been busy there too. Several of the railings had been worked loose from their settings. A couple lay discarded, poking up out of the snow. Redlaw fetched one. The sturdy iron rod promised to make a decent crowbar. He inserted it inside the loop of chain. Several minutes of wrenching and twisting him did him no good. The chain held fast. He tried another tack. He stuck the railing inside the shackle of the padlock. Bracing the tip of it against one of the doors, he leaned back like a signalman pulling a lever to change points. The padlock resisted. Redlaw strained, putting his back into it, all his strength. He grimaced. Breath steamed through clenched teeth.
There was a loud metallic snap and the shackle sprang open. The sudden release caught Redlaw by surprise and he collapsed backwards.
The chain rattled loosely to the ground. Redlaw picked himself up and grasped one of the handles. He dragged the door open, heaving it against the knee-deep snowdrift that had accumulated in front. He made a gap just wide enough to slip through. Drawing his Cindermaker and chambering a round, he went inside.
* * *
The moments it took his eyes to adjust to the gloom were the most dangerous. Anything could happen while he was temporarily blind.
At SHADE, image-intensification goggles were standard issue equipment. Now that he was “freelance”, Redlaw was having to learn to do without the things he had once taken for granted.
Dimly, the church interior took shape. Pews stood in haphazard rows, some overturned. The font had been removed – presumably a nice piece of marble masonry, worth reselling – leaving just a bare plinth. The pulpit was intact, and so was the life-size crucifix that stood in the apse behind the altar. On it hung a Christ depicted in that pose that so many ecclesiastical sculptors seemed to think appropriate. The Son of God wasn’t exhibiting any apparent pain. There was only profound sorrow written across His face, His anguish spiritual rather than physical.
The presence of the crucifix gave Redlaw pause. Perhaps he’d made a mistake. He had assumed the church would be bare inside, stripped of its holy regalia. How could there be vampires here with this large sacred symbol still dominating the place? To them it was as toxic as radioactive waste.
Then he caught the distinctive, meaty whiff of vampire scat. It smelled fresh.
And, above his head, he detected faint, furtive movement.
Vampires were up there. Watching him. He could sense pairs of crimson eyes staring down.
He walked further into the church, along an aisle over whose flagstones countless congregations must have passed, and many a bride, many a funeral procession too. He tried to exude an air of calm and peaceability. He didn’t want to alarm anyone. The Cindermaker hung by his side, concealed discreetly in the folds of his overcoat.
As he reached the end of the nave, he sensed vampires descending behind him. It was instinctual as much as anything, a prickling of his nape hairs. They were putting themselves between him and the doorway, guarding his exit route. Some were coming down the church’s pillars as well, with almost imperceptible stealth, shadows shifting amid shadows. They weren’t going to challenge him openly. Not yet, and maybe not at all. They were waiting to see what he did. If he turned round and left, they would most likely let him, sinking back into the darkness as if they had never been there.
The vampires had nothing to gain by being aggressive, and nothing to lose by adopting a cautious stance.
Redlaw halted at the altar, a bare block of stone not unlike a raised tomb. Experience was telling him he was in the company of at least two dozen Sunless, perhaps as many as thirty. He could read the acoustics in the church much as a bat could map its environment by sonar. The tiny scraping clicks of talon on stone, which to most ears would have seemed just random background sibilance, to him spoke volumes.
His right shoulder gave a sudden involuntary spasm, reminding him of the last time he had been in a large building full of vampires. An industrial unit on the Isle of Dogs. A trap laid for him by one of the few people in the world in whom he had had complete, implicit trust.
The episode had left him with extensive scarring and an arm that was stiff every morning and needed to be loosened up by exercise.
His faith in his fellow man had suffered greatly, too.
“I am here,” he said in a loud, clear voice, “only to talk. I mean you no harm whatsoever.”
His words were met with absolute hush. He pictured the vampires hanging from the walls and pillars, stock still, ears cocked, listening.
“You’re probably aware that I’m carrying a gun,” he went on. “You can smell the cordite and the ash-wood bullets. I promise it is only for self-defence. I have no intention of using it unless necessary, by which I mean unless I am provoked and in fear of my life. As a show of earnest, I’m putting it down here on the altar and stepping away.”
He did so, taking three paces backward.
“Now it’s out of easy reach. You have the advantage over me. Like I told you, I’m not out to harm. I really only want to talk.”
Whispers crisscrossed the gulfs of the church. Nervous chatter. He caught the gist of it. Who was this? Could he be believed?
“I can give you my name, though it may not count for much here. John Redlaw. Formerly my job was to police your kind. I’ve since assumed a more pastoral role.”
It occurred to him that many if not most of these Sunless were not native English speakers. He should simplify his language.
“You might call me a human shtriga.”
That set tongues wagging. The word shtriga carried weight. Non-vampires weren’t even supposed to know it.
“How interesting,” said someone to Redlaw’s left.
A man appeared from the transept on that side, sauntering round the base of the pulpit. He was dressed like a priest, from dog collar to ankle-length black cassock, yet he didn’t move like one. His gait was delicate, feline, full of grace and sinew. He had a pronounced widow’s peak and a lean face that tapered to a very pointed chin.
He was no ’Less. His eyes were normal-looking, not bright vampiric crimson.
But he wasn’t just a man, either.
“You do yourself a disservice,” he continued. The accent was American but bore a trace of east European. Russian, perhaps. The way the “r”s rolled and the intonation rose and fell. “You’re too modest by far. The reputation of John Redlaw has spread beyond the borders of the United Kingdom. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s global but it’s undoubtedly international. Within a certain stratum of society, that is.”
“And you are…?”
The priest, if he was a priest, smiled. And all at once he was no longer standing in front of Redlaw, he was behind him, crouched on the altar with the Cindermaker in his hand.
“Faster than you,” he said, levelling the gun at Redlaw. “And ready to blow your head off if you make the slightest false move.”
It was another sultry, sweltering winter’s day, and the plaza around the City of London ziggurat was packed. Thousands clustered in the palm-fringed square itself, many of them having camped out overnight to be assured of a good view. Thousands more thronged the adjacent streets – Cheapside, Ludgate Hill, Paternoster Row – to watch the action on giant screens, close enough that they would just be able to hear the screams of the dying.
The atmosphere was, as ever, festive. Vendors did a roaring trade in heart-shaped hamburgers, gooey crimson-coloured iced drinks, and skull candy. Soon, when the sun reached its zenith, blood would flow.
The onlookers in the plaza were held back from its central avenue by a cordon of Jaguar Warrior constables. Resplendent in their golden armour and cat-head helmets, the constables stood with their arms folded, vigilant. Other Jaguar Warriors prowled in pairs, cradling their lightning guns. There were more of them present than was usual for such an occasion.
The avenue, which led to the base of the ziggurat, was reserved for the queue of blood rite participants. Most of these hundred or so souls looked patient, eager, serene as they waited. A few wore the glassy, dreamy expressions of people who’d taken the precaution of anaesthetising themselves beforehand, perhaps by chewing a paste of morning glory seeds or downing several stiff shots of pulque or tequila. Here and there a child shivered and wept and had to be comforted by its parents: It’s an honour to die at the priest’s hand. The gods love all sacrifices but they love the sacrifice of the young more than anything. A little pain, and then it will be bliss in Tamoanchan for ever after. Hush, dear, hush. Soon be over.
Animal din competed with the human hubbub. Parrots chattered amid the palm fronds. Monkeys hooted as they swung among the vines and creepers that coated the surrounding buildings like verdant fur. A quetzal bird screeched as it shot overhead in a sudden, brilliant flash of rainbow plumage. Those who saw it gasped in delight. A good omen. Quetzalcoatl himself watched through the bird’s eyes. He was putting his personal stamp of approval on the proceedings.
Once a Christian place of worship had stood on this spot, one of the largest of its kind, and one of the last. A century ago almost to the day, after Britain finally allowed itself to be subsumed into the Aztec Empire, St Paul’s Cathedral had been razed to the ground. The demolished stonemasonry, statuary and iconography had been dynamited and used to form the foundations and ballast of the ziggurat. The Empire was nothing if not thrifty. Nor was it averse to cannibalising.
In the steely-hot blue sky, three short-range aerodiscs hovered. Two bore the logo of Sun Broadcasting, the state TV network, and carried film crews who were shooting live footage of the event. The third, a Jaguar Warrior patrol craft, was keeping a no less beady eye on the public below.
At noon precisely, the officiating priest emerged from the low temple building that capped the ziggurat. He was accompanied by a flock of acolytes and flanked, too, by a pair of Jaguar Warriors serving as bodyguards. The two men, both sergeants, had been selected for this special sacred duty by virtue of their intimidating bulk, skill at arms, and unwavering willingness to die protecting their charge. With eyes like flint they scanned in all directions as the priest raised his arms and spoke.
“People of Britain,” he said, his voice relayed to the plaza’s PA system by a radio mike embedded in the ornate feathery folds of his headdress. “On this auspicious day we gather here to show obeisance to the gods, who have blessed us this solar year with fine weather, a bountiful harvest, and continued national wellbeing.”
Cheers erupted from the plaza and beyond. What the priest said was true. It had, almost indisputably, been a good year. The chinampas fields had yielded plenty of maize. A territorial dispute with Iceland had been resolved in Britain’s favour. The summer had blazed long and blissfully hot, the run of sunny days broken by just enough downpours to keep the reservoirs topped up and the crops irrigated.
“We have much to be grateful for,” the priest continued. “And as I see before me a long line of volunteers, civilians willing to shed their blood in the name of the gods, I know that the gratitude is felt universally. You, you brave ones, you blessed ones” – he was addressing the blood rite participants – “wish to convey how glad we are for all we have been given, by giving your all. You perish today not just for the gods’ benefit but for the benefit of your fellow countrymen. Your blood will nourish the soil and ensure our future happiness and prosperity.”
At these words the onlookers in the plaza started hurrahing like mad. They showered the blood rite participants with flower petals and praise. The participants lapped it up, beaming around them, some of them punching the air. Truly, there was no greater glory than this. Even the fretful children were placated. All these strangers insisting how fantastic they were – they must be indeed doing something worthwhile.
One of the Sun Broadcasting aerodiscs descended a couple of hundred feet, presumably to get a better view, a tighter camera angle.
“Come, then,” the priest said, beckoning. “Ascend the steps, as your souls will shortly be ascending to Tamoanchan.”
The first of the sacrificial victims stepped forward. He was a tlachtli player, captain of one of the most successful London premier-league teams, a national hero. His celebrity put him at the head of the queue. He, with all his fame and money, not to mention being in the prime of youth and health and recently wed to a glamour model, stood to lose more than most. It was only right and proper that the enormity of his unselfishness be recognised. Not all martyrs were equal.
The tlachtli player sprinted up the 300 steps to the apex of the ziggurat, displaying the fitness and fearlessness that had made him such a star of the ball court. To tumultuous applause from the onlookers, he threw himself flat on his back on the altar, all smiles. Naked save for a loincloth, he had ceremonially anointed himself beforehand with sweet-smelling oils. He offered his bare, glistening chest to the priest, who muttered ritual phrases over him, then took an obsidian-bladed dagger and raised it aloft.
With a practised, powerful stroke the priest pierced the tlachtli player’s torso. Blood exploded from the wound, and the young man died with a scream and a shudder that were as much ecstasy as agony. The acolytes then hauled the body off the altar and set about hacking the ribcage open and sawing out the heart.
They placed the still-twitching organ in a large iron basin which sat on a tripod over a bellows-stoked fire. The heart sizzled and sent a wisp of smoke up to heaven. Meanwhile the acolytes pitched the eviscerated corpse off the rear of the ziggurat. It tumbled into a fenced-off enclosure below, for later disposal.
The cooked heart was handed to the priest on a skewer. He took a bite, then tossed the remainder aside. He would do the same with every victim’s heart this afternoon, although the bites would become increasingly small until, by the end, they would be the tiniest nibbles. There was only so much meat one man’s stomach could handle in one go, and this particular cut of human flesh was a tough, tasteless morsel.
The next victims climbed the stairs, somewhat more slowly and reluctantly than the tlachtli player had, in a group. They were a quartet of high-ranking Icelandic diplomats who had been chosen by their country’s High Priest as the official scapegoats in the matter of the recent dispute with Britain over fishing rights around the Faroe Islands. The Great Speaker had decreed that the Faroes should be considered a sovereign British dependency. Iceland had no claim over their territorial waters and the cod stocks therein. Both countries’ navies had been on the brink of hostilities at that point, but the Great Speaker’s verdict was final and Iceland had wisely conceded.
The diplomats’ lives were by way of compensation for trouble caused. All four of them had drunk themselves into a stupor in order to appear calm in the face of death and not let the side down. Intoning slurred prayers to Tlazolteotl, goddess of purification, eater of sins, they presented themselves at the altar. There were moments of almost comic confusion as each, professionally tactful to the end, insisted that the others should go first. Finally they settled the matter by lining up in order of seniority. The priest despatched them with the rapidity and dispassionate efficiency that their status merited.
After that came an aristocratic family, three generations all wishing to die together. The dynasty was not completely extinguishing itself, however. An adult male heir had been singled out to be exempt from martyrdom. He would inherit the family wealth – minus the odd death duty – and carry on the lineage.
The Sun Broadcasting aerodisc dipped even lower until its bulbous underside was mere metres above the temple roof. The bassy throb of its negative-mass drive vibrated through the ziggurat’s stonework.
One of the Jaguar Warrior sergeants waved the disc away, but the pilot either didn’t notice or chose to ignore his irritable gesturing. The sergeant scowled. TV news people. They thought they were hot shit, especially when covering state occasions like this which garnered huge ratings and similarly huge advertising revenues. They thought themselves as important as, if not more important than, the law of the land.
By now the topmost of the ziggurat’s steps were slick with spilled blood, making them treacherous for the participants who followed in the wake of the initial wave of the great and good. Several of these people, middle-class professionals mostly, slipped and lost their footing as they neared the summit. They were bloodstained even before they reached the wet red altar and prostrated themselves on it.
The sergeant waved yet again at the TV news disc. The aircraft was literally casting a shadow over the blood rite, and its engine thrum was making the priest’s words hard to distinguish. The sergeant flipped down his helmet mike and instructed the patrol disc to intervene. There was an edge in his voice. The Sun Broadcasting disc’s antics were making him very nervous. Was this what Chief Superintendent Kellaway had warned them to be on the lookout for? The suspicious activity that might herald a terrorist attack?
Wary, the sergeant unshipped and primed his lightning gun. Meanwhile the Jaguar Warrior disc drew alongside the Sun Broadcasting aircraft and hailed it over the aviation frequency. “By order of the High Priest of Great Britain, and in the name of the law, please ascend to a safe distance. This is your only warning. Fail to comply and we will open fire.”
At that moment, a shrill cry came from within the TV news disc. The sergeant spied movement in one of the hatches from which a camera protruded. He glimpsed a shape, a silvery silhouette, darting.
Next instant, a cameraman came flying out, fell flailing, and hit the temple roof with a bone-crushing thud. He was followed by an armour-clad figure who leapt nimbly down from the disc, landing on the roof and dropping straight into a crouching, catlike stance.
The sergeant swore softly.
Bold as brass. Clear as day.
Top of the Jaguar Warriors’ Most Wanted list. Public enemy number one.
The lightning gun was warm and humming in the sergeant’s hands, plasma generator charged. He raised it to fire, but the Conquistador reacted quickly – too quickly. He snatched up the injured cameraman and threw him forwards, a kind of moving human shield. A bolt of blue-white brilliance leapt from the l-gun and struck the hapless cameraman full on. He howled and writhed and burned, laced with crackling light.
The cameraman’s smouldering corpse tumbled towards the sergeant. The Jaguar Warrior twisted aside to avoid being hit. When he regained his balance, he found himself directly face to face with the Conquistador. Two implacable blue eyes stared out from slits in the terrorist’s face mask. A rapier flashed. The sergeant looked down to see snakes emerging from a gash in his abdomen. He tried to catch them but they slithered out of his hands, falling at his feet in coils. That was when he realised the snakes were his own intestines. He looked up again at the Conquistador, who opened the sergeant’s throat with a swift transverse stroke of his sword.
The sacrificial victim currently on the altar started screaming – not in pain but in alarm and horror as the sergeant slumped to the floor. The priest gaped, dagger hanging uselessly from his fingers. The other Jaguar Warrior sergeant sprang into action. It would cost precious seconds to prime his lightning gun, so he drew his macuahitl from its scabbard and lunged at the Conquistador.
The Conquistador countered the first blow with ease. The macuahitl’s obsidian blade glanced off the rapier’s steel. The sergeant went for the Conquistador’s neck on the back swing, but again the blow was deflected, this time rebounding off the rapier’s hilt guard. The two men thrust and parried. Metal and volcanic glass chimed as they met and met again. The sergeant managed to get a jab past his opponent’s defences, but it glanced off the Conquistador’s cuirass, leaving nothing but a scratch.
The Conquistador retaliated with a downward slash that cleaved the sergeant’s left arm almost all the way through at the shoulder. The limb dangled, flopping, at the Jaguar Warrior’s side. Shock greyed his face and turned his legs to jelly. He tried to lift his macuahitl for one last swing, but the sword’s weight seemed too much for him and he toppled sideways.
The Conquistador polished the sergeant off matter-of-factly, plunging the rapier deep into his armpit. Then he turned to the priest.
The priest’s face was a mask of pure panic. In a quavering voice he shouted at the acolytes, “It’s me he’s after. Don’t let him get me. Stop him! By the Four Who Rule Supreme, that’s an order!”
The acolytes obeyed, if a little hesitantly. They ran at the Conquistador, throwing themselves at him singly and in pairs. These were not fighting men, however. They belonged to a caste accustomed to luxury and soft living. Not one of them knew what it was like to land a blow in anger. The Conquistador scythed them like poppies.
The priest came to the realisation that if no one else could save him he would simply have to save himself. He bounded down the steps, barging aside the blood rite participants who were coming up. Down below, the onlookers milled about uncertainly. Disquiet was growing in the plaza. It wasn’t entirely apparent what was going on up there on top of the ziggurat, but the blood rite had been interrupted, that much was plain; people were getting killed who weren’t meant to be getting killed.
The Conquistador eyed the fleeing priest and, with something like a shrug, pulled out a pistol. This was no sleek, contoured weapon like a lightning gun but closer in appearance to a flintlock or an blunderbuss, with a flared tip to the barrel. It was old-fashioned in another way, in that it fired projectiles rather than a zap of ionised, superheated gas.
The Conquistador took careful aim. The pistol barked in his hand, spitting out a cluster of flechettes. The tiny brass arrows entered the priest’s back and exited through his chest in an expanding burst. His ribs erupted outwards so that, as he crashed to the steps, his body resembled any of the countless hundreds whose deaths he had presided over in the course of his career – hollowed, heartless.
Terror now gripped the people in the plaza. There would have been a stampede, only there was scant room to move and nowhere to go. The streets that fed into the plaza were crammed. All exits were blocked. The onlookers surged and swirled but stayed in one place. The Jaguar Warriors in their midst tried to reach the ziggurat but couldn’t forge a path through.
The Conquistador didn’t have long to survey his handiwork. As the priest’s corpse came to rest halfway down the steps – although his headdress bounced on all the way to the bottom – the Jaguar Warrior patrol disc loomed overhead. Its forward guns fired, left and right alternately, strafing the top of the ziggurat with coruscating, percussive blasts.
The Conquistador sprang this way and that, dodging the l-gun salvos. Stonework shattered. Sprawled bodies were incinerated. The altar was destroyed. Yet somehow the Conquistador managed to stay alive. He was fast on his feet, and a relatively small target. The patrol disc’s guns were designed for bludgeoning, not sniping. Ground vehicles and other aircraft were its principal quarry, not a lone man who kept scurrying about like a cornered mouse.
Then, perhaps inevitably, the patrol disc’s gunner scored a hit. The Conquistador had taken refuge in the temple doorway. The gunner let loose with both forward guns at once, and the temple more or less evaporated. Roof collapsed, walls crumbled, and when the smoke and dust cleared there was nothing but a heap of broken granite slabs. No sign of the Conquistador.
Whoops of joy echoed through the disc’s interior. Pilot and gunner yelled at each other, grinning from ear to ear.
“We did it!”
“The fucking Conquistador!”
“We’ll get medals for this!”
“A commendation from the Great Speaker!”
In the event, they were to be disappointed. None of the above would happen. But their moment of triumph, while it lasted, was sweet.
Jaguar Warriors took charge in the plaza, restoring calm and arranging an orderly evacuation. The streets emptied. People filed homeward, dazed and disturbed. The plaza was designated an official crime scene. The death toll was totted up. The remains of the ruined temple were combed through.
What the Jaguar Warriors unearthed among the debris was not, as they’d hoped, a mangled corpse in a suit of armour. They found armour all right. Portions of it were strewn across the apex of the ziggurat, here a gauntlet, there the morion helmet with comb crest and cheek guards. But no body. Nor was any of the armour pieces spattered with blood, as might have been expected.
The armour, it was obvious, had been discarded. The Conquistador, under cover of the obscuring haze of smoke and dust, had undressed himself and…
But where to? Where had he gone?
Into the crowd? But he wouldn’t have had time to unbuckle his armour and get down to the plaza.
A couple of hours after the blood rite came to its premature end, a flatbed truck arrived at the plaza to cart away the bodies of the sacrificial victims.
The Jaguar Warriors refused it access, and the workmen in the truck said that that was no problem with them, but… A pyre was already alight over at the burning grounds in Leamouth, building up heat. The clock was ticking. In this weather, the corpses would soon start to putrefy. Swift removal and immolation was standard procedure, as mandated by tradition. If the Jaguar Warriors wished that not to happen, then fine. But they would have to explain to the High Priest himself why they had interfered with proper religious observance. Good luck with that.
The Jaguar Warriors saw sense and allowed the truck through. Parking behind the ziggurat, the workmen donned filter masks and rubber gloves and aprons. Then they got busy scooping up the corpses in the enclosure and stacking them onto the back of the truck. They’d been expecting a hundred bodies but, in the event, it was a couple of dozen. Still, never mind. They were on a flat rate. Less work, same pay, and it meant a single trip from Leamouth and back rather than three or four.
The truck trundled out of the plaza with its gory load. The corpses in the back jogged and jiggled with every sharp turn and pothole.
The drivers were blithely oblivious when, while the truck stood stationary at traffic lights, one of the corpses got up, shinned over the tailgate, and sprinted off down a nearby alleyway.
Nikola, as he ran, wished many things.
He wished he was faster. He wished he had wings. Above all he wished he had never strayed beyond the fence. They had warned him against it. Everyone had. Countless times. The fence, they had told him, is there for a reason. Not to keep us in. To keep them out. So do not go over it. Stay this side. It is dangerous out there for our kind.
Nikola had listened. But he hadn’t listened. He’d seen little of London since arriving on the ferry from mainland Europe. In fact, once he’d been discovered stowed away in the back of the articulated goods lorry, all he’d seen was a detention centre, the inside of a van, then the housing estate. He was sixteen, and he did not care for being confined.
So tonight he had scaled the fence. All but vaulted over it, in fact. It was not that high, four metres or thereabouts. The barbed wire had scraped his hands but drawn no blood. An easy escape. Everyone was right: the fence was a deterrent to the rest of the world, not to those inside it.
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So there I was, driving through the worst snow storm I’d ever seen, in a crappy rental Vauxhall Astra, with Abortion in the passenger seat offering useless advice and trying to get the stereo to work and, when he wasn’t doing that, rolling up joint after joint and smogging the car up with skunk fumes. Our rate of progress was roughly ten miles an hour. It was getting dark. We didn’t know exactly where we were going.
At what point, I asked myself, was I going to accept the fact that this was the worst plan in the entire history of mankind?
Knowing me, never. Stubborn, I was. Pigheaded, Gen used to say. “Except,” she would add, “that’s an insult to pigs. Compared to you, they’re quite reasonable animals.”
The snow filled the windscreen like static on an untuned TV. The Astra kept slewing and lurching, its wheels somehow finding every slippery patch on the road, despite my best efforts. Every half mile or so we’d pass another abandoned vehicle whose driver had had the common sense to admit defeat and dump their ride by the roadside and head off for shelter on foot rather than blunder on. This storm wasn’t letting up any time soon. The forecasters predicted it’d last at least another twenty-four hours and maybe longer. Blizzard conditions. Batten down the hatches, Britain. The future’s white. No one with any brains is going anywhere.
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It had been flushed out of the forest. It had been hounded downhill, bullets smacking at its heels and whanging into the trunks of oaks and other mountain broadleafs on either side of it. It had been shepherded by gunfire into the village and driven along the streets. At last it had been corralled in a cul-de-sac with high, ancient walls on either side.
Cornered, panting, torso lathered in sweat, the monster turned.
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1 – Petra
The sun went down like a tin duck at a shooting gallery. Night stretched itself over the eastern Arabian desert, the light from a clear full moon creating a finely filigreed landscape of silver and black.
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[In this excerpt, thirteen-year-old Gregory Brazier makes an unhappy discovery. Belonging to a bloodline of proud pyrokinetics, he finds his own superhuman powers are very different to those of the rest of his family.]
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When Nora stepped out into my headlights there was no way I could avoid her. The front bumper embraced her legs and she jack-knifed flat over the bonnet, arms outstretched, face to the windscreen, staring at me through the glass, looking me straight in the eye.
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(This extra chapter is a stand-alone short story that is also tied directly into the continuity of the novel.)
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