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!
Johnny was waiting at the corner. The usual corner, at the intersection of Avenue 59 and the Dogleg Boulevard. On the steps of the old church, a deconsecrated husk, its windows stripped of their lead and stained glass, its roof bare of slates. Like an abandoned car after the street scavengers had been at it, everything of resale value taken.
Johnny was waiting at the corner, where anyone who wanted to find him would be able to find him. The church faced the Ace of Spades café on the opposite corner, a local landmark. Full English breakfast for under N€5. Continental breakfast, including unlimited coffee, cheaper still. Everybody in the Thirteenth District knew the Ace, so if you were an outsider needing directions to Johnny’s pitch, all you had to know was that it was “diagonally across from the Ace” and that would be enough. There wasn’t a person in the district who couldn’t steer you straight to the café.
Johnny was waiting at the corner, muttering to passers-by. He didn’t tout for casual trade as a rule. Too risky. Any of the pedestrians bustling past could be a plainclothes cop––a plainclothes cop looking for an easy bust. Then again, a quick extra sale never hurt.
“Brown,” he said, loud enough to be heard, not so loud that it couldn’t be mistaken for talking to himself. “White. Powder. Icing.”
Never look people in the eye. If someone heard, came over, wanted to buy, fine. But Johnny was at pains to appear that he was just sitting there on the church steps, minding his own business, idling, spinning his wheels, passing the time of day. An ordinary citizen exercising his right to be in a public place doing nothing.
He wasn’t alone on the steps. A pair of tramps were ensconced at the very top, huddled against the church’s barred and graffitied door. A buttressed overhang kept the sun off their faces. They were arguing. About fleas.
“I know I got more bites than you do,” said one.
“Bullshit you have,” said the other. “Fuckers’ve been eating me alive this past week. I’m crawling with ’em. You should see my arms and legs. Got at least a hundred bites that I know of.”
“I got a couple of hundred.”
“Don’t believe me? What d’you say we put it to the test, eh?”
“You mean a wager?”
“You bet your arse I mean a wager. Whoever has the most flea bites gets…”
“Gets bought a litre bottle of hydromel by the other.”
“Whoa! A litre? Let’s not go crazy here.”
“Why not? Might as well make it worth our while. Or are you chicken?”
“No-o-o. Just need a moment to think about it, that’s all.”
“If you’re as badly bitten as you say, then it’s a no-brainer.”
“All right. You’re on.”
They spat into their palms and shook hands, sealing the deal with a mix of saliva and grime. Then they rolled up sleeves and trouser legs and got to work counting.
Johnny tuned them out. Tramps. Lowest on the totem pole. Bottom of the barrel. Yet still they gambled with what little they had. Still they courted Fortuna and all the other deities of luck. Hoping, maybe, for a little rise in their own stock. An improvement of circumstances, however slight. Looking upwards. Always upwards.
Johnny studied his feet.
“Brown,” he intoned softly. “White. Powder. Icing.”
Traffic rolled past. Humming electric and hydrogen cars. Buzzing battery-powered scooters. Swarms of bell-dinging bicycles. Now and then a bus puffing out bio-diesel fumes, bringing a whiff of the country to the city.
Sunday morning, edging towards noon. Johnny had been at his pitch since nine and so far hadn’t sold a single sachet. Not one gramme of produce. How the fuck were you supposed to make a living if no one was buying your stuff?
It was BetterLife, he reckoned. BetterLife was to blame. That time of year had rolled round again. People had heads full of nothing else. No one was interested in a hit of what Johnny had to offer, not today. Not when there was a bigger rush available, for free. The thrill of hunching in front of your TV set and watching, and waiting, to see if your number came up today––see if it was your turn to be in with a chance of leapfrogging over everyone else, shooting straight from nothing to everything in one (relatively easy) step. Business would be shitty all day, Johnny predicted. Just about the entire city, the entire country, the entire continent would be glued to their sofas, fingers crossed, rabbit’s foot to hand, St Christopher medallions clutched tightly, stroking the trunks of their Ganesha figurines, holding their little models of the seven Japanese gods of luck aboard their treasure ship the Takarabune, all the rest. Because this could be it, the moment when life changed. Radically. Irrevocably.
Johnny himself would not be among the many millions swelling the viewing figures for the show. After all, Johnny Fallon’s name would be coming up in the draw. Not because he wasn’t a legal citizen. He was. Just because he would never get that kind of break. Things like that didn’t happen to Johnny.
A pair of cowboy boots appeared at the periphery of Johnny’s vision. Nice ones. Expensive. Snakeskin. Steel studs around the toecaps. Cuban heels.
Johnny groaned inwardly. He knew whose boots they were.
He raised his head. Looked up.
“Chills,” he said.
A rickety grin beamed down at him. Teeth so brown and rotted and snaggled they looked like chips of splintered kindling.
“Johnny,” said Chills.
Johnny sprang to his feet. He had to make a run for it. If he was fast, if he sprinted, if he went flat out, there was a chance he might––
––not get anywhere. Chills was faster. His hand shot out. He caught Johnny by the collar of his jacket. Johnny’s work jacket, his only decent jacket, the one with all the little extra inner pockets sewn in.
A seam crackled, popped.
“Going somewhere, Johnny?” said Chills.
“Me?” said Johnny, stopped dead. “No. Uh-uh. Not going anywhere.”
“Good. ’Cause the boss wants a word.”
“Does he now?”
“You know he does.”
“No, I don’t. Why would Spike want a word with me? I haven’t done anything.”
“Only somebody who’s done something says they haven’t done anything.”
“Oh, that’s twisted logic.”
“No, that’s just the way it is,” said Chills. “Like the guilty protesting they’re innocent. The innocent know they’re innocent, so don’t feel the need to say so.”
“You’ve spent far too much time in police stations, Chills.”
“Too true, Johnny. But at least I’ve learned a thing or two there, and in jail. I’m a smart man now. You could say I’ve been educated by the state. Plus, you tried to run. Now, that’s as good as a signed confession right there. So, you going to come quietly, or…?”
Chills didn’t show Johnny his knife. He didn’t have to. Johnny knew it was there, in Chills’s back pocket, the shape of it hidden by the tail flaps of Chills’s long, tan-coloured leather coat. Most of Spike’s goons carried guns, but Chills preferred a butterfly knife. Small. Discreet. Stealthy. Didn’t attract attention when you used it. And didn’t earn you nearly as stiff a sentence if the cops found it in your possession.
Johnny nodded. “Quietly.”
“Then let’s go.” Chills took him by the elbow and escorted him across the road, for all the world as if Johnny was a doddery pensioner and Chills a boy scout.
A parked car was waiting a hundred metres up the street, a pre-electric American-import sedan, unconverted, combustion engine in full working order, running on nothing but good old-fashioned fossil fuel. A car owned by Spike Mordant. The kind of car affordable only to someone who had money to burn and didn’t care who knew it.
The driver was Slim Eddie. He glanced in the rearview as Johnny slid into the back seat, Chills following. Slim Eddie’s piggy eyes were full of pity––gloating pity, the kind that was worthless to the recipient, the kind that said You’ve fucked up and it’s your own fault and you deserve whatever’s coming to you. Johnny nodded to Slim Eddie. Slim Eddie just turned the ignition key with his pudgy fingers.
As the sedan drove off, startlingly noisy, Johnny thought of Luke.
At least his brother would be getting something out of this, he mused.
Luke’s life was the silver lining to Johnny’s perpetual cloud.
It was some comfort.
Spike Mordant. Who could be nicer than Spike Mordant?
He had a smile that could melt ice and charm snakes. He was handsome like a movie star––not a matinée idol, not one of those mayfly flavour-of-the-month prettyboy actors, but one of the ones with characterful faces and long careers, something behind the eyes that added grit to the looks, something hard and bright and knowing. He cropped his silver hair short. He stayed in trim, through a rigorous jogging regime and arduous twice-weekly sessions with a muay thai instructor. He also, if he took time off, climbed mountains. A holiday for Spike was a few days spent tackling the least easily scalable face of some godforsaken, storm-swept peak, just him, his pickaxe and pitons fighting gravity, icy gales and the blank hostility of sheer, bare rock.
He was an optimal man. He looked after himself and the people who worked for him. He owned a townhouse on one of the district’s once-fashionable streets. Where every other building in the neighbourhood was crumbling and rat-infested and atomised into dozens of tiny tenement apartments, Spike had the whole place to himself, every storey of it, and it was well furnished and maintained in good decorative condition inside and out. It was immaculately clean. Spike kept his house in order.
He had been a clergyman, once. Amazing but true. For all of three years he had served as a junior deacon in one of the city’s last remaining active cathedrals. He would have continued in the faith, too, and doubtless risen to priest or even bishop, but for one small hitch. Religion didn’t pay. And Spike hated God for that. The Lord did not provide, at least not well enough for Spike’s tastes. Working for the Maker was no moneymaker. And so Spike had resigned his post, quietly defrocked himself, and resolved to pursue a more lucrative calling.
But still, a former clergyman. Nothing nicer than a clergyman.
Spike greeted Johnny in the living room, then ushered him through to a lean-to conservatory at the back that looked out onto a small walled garden. Tropical ferns steamed and perspired in the heat of the conservatory.
Chills and Slim Eddie accompanied Johnny, which confirmed that this wasn’t going to be just a polite, friendly chat. Johnny noted, too, that the conservatory had a glazed-tile floor, unlike the living room, which had bare pine boards––the kind of wood that stained easily.
Johnny’s gut was a knot. The whole of him felt like one huge, pulsing heartbeat.
He’d been an idiot. A complete fucking idiot. He should have known, with his luck, not to cut the product. He should have known not to try and rip off Spike Mordant. Spike was bound to find out. Spike always found out.
“Spike…” Johnny began.
“I’ll stop you there, Johnny,” Spike said, as calmly and benignly as a bank manager discussing a defaulted loan. “Because, whatever you’re about to say, it makes zero difference. You can babble and plead all you like, but it won’t affect the outcome. You know you’ve done wrong. You know I know. So let’s just move on, shall we?”
“Move on,” said Johnny, “as in put all this behind us?”
Spike chuckled. “Johnny, Johnny, Johnny. My young pilgrim. Come on. You know me better than that. I can’t forgive a sin. I can’t shrive. Not any more. I meant move on to the next part of the process, which is where I tell you why I have to punish you.”
“Or you could just cut to the punishment itself.”
“And miss a chance to sermonise? No way.”
Spike put an arm around Johnny’s shoulders. A chummy gesture. Who, honestly, could be nicer than Spike Mordant?
“I work hard, Johnny,” he said. “I’m up by five every morning. Most nights I don’t get to bed before eleven, sometimes midnight. Between those hours it’s pretty much solid grind. I’m talking to suppliers and exporters. I’m checking over shipments of produce at my warehouses. I’m having meetings with people, influential people, the big cogs that turn better if they get greased and that spread the grease to the little cogs and make them turn better. I’m up late on the phone to Latin America and the Caribbean. All day long I’m on the go. I expect nothing less than full commitment from myself. I expect the same from anyone who works for me.”
He tightened his hold on Johnny, his forearm slipping to Johnny’s neck, putting a small amount of pressure on the carotid, not much, but the artery began to throb hard, harder than it already was, and Johnny’s head went light.
“After all, we’re talking about a controlled substance here,” Spike went on. “Something so rare and precious it’s literally worth its weight in gold. It’s been, what, fifteen years since the Pomovirus?”
“Sixteen, I think,” said Johnny.
“Glad to see you’re keeping track. The world’s stocks, wiped out in a single season by a freak strain of rhizomania. Millions of hectares of plantation devastated, reduced to compost, their roots rotted away by a virus-carrying fungus. The disease couldn’t be stopped, couldn’t be contained, despite the best efforts of international agricultural bodies and the World Health Organisation and even the military. All at once, a staple of most countries’ diets was almost entirely gone. You know all this already, of course.”
“Yeah,” said Johnny.
“But it bears repeating, if only to get it into that thick skull of yours why people need what we’re selling them and why it’s important that we sell them only the very best. Because sugar is a basic ingredient in so many foodstuffs and recipes, and without it, something vital, something essential, has gone out of life. Sugar is irreplaceable. Artificial sweeteners, fruit extracts, honey, corn syrup––none of it tastes the same or has the same effect on human body chemistry as the real thing. There’ve been case studies proving that sugar has euphoric and addictive qualities putting it on a par with marijuana and heroin. It makes lab rats’ brains light up in exactly the same way morphine does, and they suffer withdrawal symptoms when it’s taken away from them just like junkies do. And now there are perhaps a couple of dozen sugarcane farms of any significant size left, yielding a crop large enough to meet a tiny fraction of global demand, and big food corporations get first crack at the harvest, snap it all up and leave nothing for anyone else. The public seldom gets to see bags of the stuff on supermarket shelves, and when they do it’s available at prices most of them can’t even dream of paying. But I sell it. I go straight to the source. I have people who persuade the farmers to hive off a little of their crop for me. Then I put it out there on the street in small, affordable amounts, cheaper than anywhere else because I do it minus tax surcharges and the big retailers’ mark-up. I can offer people a brief, glorious reminder of the world as it used to be, a dip into a genuinely sweeter past, and I can offer it in any variety you can think of––caster, demerara, muscovado, cubes, whatever. The GESS Syndicate doesn’t like this, of course. There’s no revenue in it for them, which is why off-the-book sugar trading is illegal. But as America discovered a century ago with Prohibition, if you forbid people access to what they crave, they’ll go to any length to get hold of it, and there’ll always be someone willing to flout the law to give it to them.”
The grip tightened still further, almost becoming a chokehold now.
“But what all this hard work and this investment of time and money has gained me, Johnny, most of all, isn’t just profit,” Spike said. “It’s a reputation. In fifteen, sixteen years, I’ve made a name for myself as a purveyor of top-quality merchandise. If you go to one of Spike Mordant’s street dealers, you can be confident you’re getting nothing but one hundred per cent pure sugar. Some people in my line of work, some crooks, cut theirs with baby powder, laxative, aspartame, xylitol, acesulfame potassium, God knows what else. I don’t. I would never. I respect my customers too much for that. I don’t short-change. I’m a straight kind of guy. Everyone who knows me knows that. I may be Spike but my sugar is never spiked.”
With his free hand he reached into one of Johnny’s inner jacket pockets and fished out a small polythene sachet. He held it up in front of Johnny’s face and shook it. Granules of refined white sugar danced inside the sachet.
“This,” he said, “is not pure. Do you know how I know that? I’ve been getting complaints. Word’s been filtering back to me. Clients, very disgruntled ones, saying there’s a bitter aftertaste to the stuff they’ve been buying off the young man on the church steps across from the Ace of Spades. Kind of as if the sugar’s been stepped down a grade. Interfered with. By someone trying to skim a bit off the top for himself.”
Spike let go of Johnny. He unsealed the sachet, wetted a forefinger, dipped it in, then touched it to his tongue.
“Hmm. Yes. Supermarket saccharin,” he said, smacking his lips like a wine connoisseur. “About one part in four, am I right? Am I right?”
“And you thought––you hoped––nobody would notice?”
Again, a nod. There didn’t seem much point in bluffing or lying. It would only make a bad situation worse. Johnny’s best plan was simply to be compliant and let Spike do whatever he was going to. That way he might, just might, survive this.
“I don’t pay well enough, is that it?” Spike said. “You don’t feel you’re getting a decent commission?”
“No, the pay’s good, Spike. I’m doing all right.”
“Then what?” Spike sounded angry, but not at Johnny. Angry because he was bitterly disappointed. “Why would you want more?”
There was no easy answer. Or else, the answer was too obvious, too easy. Everyone wanted more, didn’t they? Everyone hankered after that little bit of added comfort, that extra scrap of income, that marginally thicker layer of financial security to cocoon them, that slightly larger sliver of the pie––that better life. Everyone wanted a house like Spike’s. Everyone wanted the pampered, playboy existence of the billionaires and their families up in Luna-B, circling the earth with not a care in the world. Everyone was striving towards that goal, like plants in the forest fighting towards the sun, millimetre by millimetre, clambering up their neighbours and strangling their rivals in order to get to the light. It was nature. Human nature. Simple as that.
“Because I did,” Johnny finished. “That’s all.”
“Yes,” said Spike. “Because you did. There we have it, in a nutshell. You just gave in to your baser instincts. You got greedy. You decided to steal from me. There’s no other word for it––stealing. You didn’t think about me, about my reputation, my good name. You just thought about Johnny Fallon and what was best for him, in the short term. You’re not even apologetic about it.”
“I am sorry.”
“Spoken like a schoolboy in the head teacher’s office. Not sorry you did it. Sorry you got caught.”
Spike sighed. He tutted. He looked wistful.
He punched Johnny in the gut.
No warning. No winding up to it. The punch came from the shoulder, straight down the arm like a flicker of lightning, Spike’s fist driving deep into Johnny’s unprepared solar plexus.
To Johnny it felt like a spear being rammed through him. There was pain, and lights filled his vision, and his lungs lost all their air, and he was dimly aware of sinking to his knees and of squeaking, actually squeaking, like a mouse. And then he was able to breathe again. And then he felt sick and had to bite the vomit back down, to keep himself from spewing all over his shirtfront and jeans.
And when his head cleared and the buzzing that filled his ears faded a little, he heard Spike say to Chills and Slim Eddie, “Take it from here. Hurt him, but don’t cripple him. Nothing permanent. No weapons. And no broken bones. Enough so his body forgets but his mind will always remember. Got that?”
(Who could be nicer than Spike Mordant?)
The two thugs grunted their okays. Spike left the conservatory, closing the door behind him, and Chills and Slim Eddie set to work. With proficiency. With great diligence. With the practised skill of two men who’d worked in tandem for years and knew how to alternate so that each could have a rest and not wear himself out.
They did this for the best part of half an hour.
The Body on the Shore
Walking-boots on, we set off down to Birling Gap. Here the undulating run of cliffs known as the Seven Sisters made their deepest dip and access to the beach could be gained by means of a set of rickety steps.
The tide was out, exposing a rugged sweep of rock pools shaggy with kelp and bladderwrack and riven with tidal runnels. Ever since his encounter with a lion’s mane jellyfish some years earlier, Holmes had become something of a keen amateur naturalist, especially where littoral fauna were concerned, and he took delight in showing me the dark red, cherry-like globes of sea anemones and in rousting a large greenish crab out of hiding.
As we toiled on along the beach, sometimes losing our footing on the treacherous pebbles, we reminisced, as old men will. We discussed Inspector Lestrade, now settled in comfortable pensioned retirement in Weston-super-Mare.
“You know he still writes to me,” I said. “Almost every time a new story of mine is published I’ll get a letter from him, either drawing me up on a point of police procedure or objecting to my characterisation of him, or both.”
“Ha!” Holmes exclaimed. “If you ask me, you are unusually generous towards Lestrade. He was always infinitely more dull-witted than you portray.”
“He keeps threatening to pen his own memoirs – ‘to set the record straight’.”
“That would be a work of fiction I would be most fascinated to read.”
Wiggins, the former leader of the Baker Street Irregulars, had turned his prospects around entirely and was now a police officer himself.
“It is the most wonderful volte face I have known,” Holmes said. “From street urchin to uniformed upholder of the law. Perhaps consorting with us had a beneficial influence on him. He is prospering within the force, too. I have it on good authority that he has applied to become detective constable, and I am in no doubt he will make an excellent one.”
“You wrote him a letter of recommendation, did you not?”
“Only to help him get a foot in the door at Scotland Yard. Wiggins’s subsequent advancement is entirely his own doing. He was born with a lively, incisive mind, and it is no small pleasure to me that he has overcome the disadvantages of his background and upbringing and put that mind to good use. An Inspector Wiggins, as he will certainly one day become, will be worth a dozen plodding Lestrades.”
Another old acquaintance of ours had recently been in communication with Holmes.
“Fred Tilling?” I said. “The engineer fellow?”
“None other. I contacted him to pick his brains about a few small practical matters, tapping his wealth of expertise. He was only too happy to help.”
“Does he still sally forth in his other guise? I can’t say I’ve read any reports of his alter ego’s activities in the newspapers lately.”
“I believe anno domini is creeping up on him as well as us.”
“He can’t be more than forty-five.”
“Too old for a double life, especially one as demanding as his. Time gets to us all, Watson, some sooner than others.”
“Well, what was it you consulted him about?”
“Perhaps you’ve noticed…”
Holmes’s voice trailed off, and I would not have the answer to my enquiry for another five days.
We had just passed the lighthouse, which stood atop a concrete plinth a hundred yards offshore, resplendent in striped red-and-white livery. It was a relatively new structure, built to replace the older clifftop lighthouse called Belle Tout, whose beacon could not always be seen from out to sea. Rounding a promontory, we spied a small knot of people ahead. They were gathered beside an object on the beach which I could not make out but which looked for all the world like a heap of damp laundry. Seagulls strutted and squawked nearby in indignation, as though thwarted of some prize.
“What’s this?” Holmes mused, and quickened his pace.
As we drew closer it became apparent that a gruesome discovery had been made. Just above the tide-line lay a sodden, mud-stained body, sprawled on its front. From its stillness and the skin pallor there was no disputing that the individual was quite dead.
The crowd around it were a meanly dressed lot with gnarled, weatherbeaten complexions and the lean, rangy frames of those who earned a crust through hard physical labour. Holmes quietly informed me that they were fisher folk.
“There’s a community of them that lives along there.” He pointed out a cluster of dark, spindly shacks which sat hard against the base of the cliffs some quarter of a mile further on. Skiffs and ketches were drawn up next to them just above the foreshore. Between, nets were strung out on poles to dry, resembling giant ragged spider webs. “Winnicks, they’re known as, and they are proud people and wary of outsiders. However, I have had some dealings with them. I shall make the overtures. You follow my lead. Hello!”
At his cry of salutation, the fisher folk turned. Gimlet eyes studied us. Mouths were tightly set.
“My name is Sherlock Holmes. Perhaps you remember me. There was that business two years ago when a holidaying family’s baby went missing and one of your number was falsely accused of the abduction. I had some hand in bringing the true culprit to justice.”
“Aye, uz remembers you well, Mr Holmes,” said the eldest among them, a grizzled old salt with a clay pipe and a moth-eaten peaked cap. “You be no cupboard lover but a true bread-and-cheese friend. Uz be pleased to see you, sure-lye.”
They shook hands, and the old man, in his broad Sussex accent, continued: “Young Jenny Fitch, what never stole that babby, still speaks gurt highly of the upstanding gentleman what got her out of moil, for if you hadn’t catched the brabagious wretch what truly scaddled the child, Jenny’d be turning crummy in jail even now. Not as uz sees the maid much these days, on account of she’s gone and wed some Chop-back over in Hastings.”
Chop-backs, I gathered, were a rival fishing community just along the coast. From the way the old man spat the name, there was no love lost between them and Winnicks.
“May I introduce my long-time colleague and comrade Dr John Watson,” said Holmes. “Watson, this is Tom Enwright.”
The calloused hand that gripped mine was as dry and tough as boot leather.
“Any friend of Mr Holmes be a friend of mine,” Enwright said.
“So what have we here?” said Holmes, glancing at the body.
“Some poor sock-lamb what has drownded, and it be an ernful dissight and all. Dunnamany get washed up on the shore roundabouts every year in total, but it ain’t a few. That there’s Beachy Head.” He pointed to the steep, towering cliff that rose at our backs. “There be mort what does for themselves off there.”
I frowned. “Mort?”
“It means a large quantity,” said Holmes. “Come on, Watson, it’s not that difficult a dialect to fathom.”
“Yes,” Enwright went on, “lovers what has got into pettigues with the object of their affections, them what feels pick upon or pithered by life, some runagates as want to escape justice and chooses a long leap over the hangman’s noose. Thissun, she be the ninth this year uz has happened upon along our stretch of beach. Common a sight as midges, they be to uz.”
“She?” I said. “But this is plainly the body of a man.”
“The third-person singular pronoun is always feminine,” Holmes explained.
“That be right,” said Enwright. “Like the saying goes, she be always a she, except a tomcat, and she be a he.”
“How long is it since you found the body?” Holmes asked.
“Not gone a half-an-hour. Uz sails in with the tide, all beasted but chipper after a hard morning’s dezzick at sea, boco white-herring and dab in our baskets, and no sooner has uz hung up the seines to dry than one of these here ken of mine sets up the hue-and-cry. Was it you, cousin Davey? Sharpest eyes of any of uz, Davey has. So along uz hurries, end-on, for to see if there’s still soul in the body, but she be like this, just as you see, sirs, dead as a hollard.”
I refrained from asking what a hollard was, but presumed that it was something from which the life had wholly departed. Holmes filled me in later: it was the Sussex word for a fallen, rotten tree branch.
Holmes knelt to give the body his full attention, scanning it from head to toe. The Winnicks stood back at a discreet distance. Every now and then one of them shooed away a gull that strayed too close. The birds wished to be free to scavenge from the cadaver and retreated only with much wing-flapping and haughty head-tossing.
Holmes beckoned to me. “Watson, perhaps you could lend me the benefit of your medical opinion.”
I squatted beside him. “I shall try.”
“Does this person look as though he drowned?”
“From appearances alone, it’s hard to tell. His skin is roughened and pimpled, suggestive of immersion in water for some significant period. I think we can take it as read that he has been in the sea at least since the last high tide.”
“It would be for a coroner to determine whether the lungs contain water. That is the surest indicator of death by drowning. However, another less common indicator is a fine white froth in the airways which sometimes emerges around the mouth and nostrils.” I bent lower, trying to get a clear view of the dead man’s face, which was half buried in the shingles. “It is often present, but its absence does not automatically rule out drowning. The same goes for haemorrhaging from the ears, of which I can also see no sign.”
“On balance, you would declare that he died through inhalation of water?”
“It is the likeliest cause, surely. Asphyxiation due to suffocation by a liquid. The alternatives are hypothermia or vagal inhibition – the sudden stopping of the heart due to shock from being plunged into exceedingly cold water – but the temperature of the Channel is mild at this time of year. I doubt very much our victim here froze to death.”
“He is not dressed for bathing, which rules out a swimming accident. Those are day clothes.”
“Perhaps he fell overboard – from a ferry, for instance.”
“Possible, possible.” Holmes peered up at the beetling white brow of Beachy Head. To my mind the crag had taken on a forbidding aspect, as a locus of despair and death. “Or perhaps he threw himself off the cliffs as Mr Enwright surmises. Had he done so during high tide, the sea could have claimed his body immediately, washing him out away from shore and depositing him back when the tide turned. What else about him do you observe, Watson? Apply my methods of forensic analysis, if you will.”
“He is young, in his late teens or early twenties, and well dressed. His suit appears tailored, bespoke, rather than off the peg. The one cufflink I can see appears to be solid gold. His shoes are of good quality. He is moneyed.”
“Very good. I concur.”
“If we could get a better look at his face…”
“I am loath to disturb the body just yet,” Holmes said. “One should attempt to preserve the integrity of a crime scene for as long as possible.”
“This is a crime scene?” I said. “But so far everything points to either suicide or mishap. If his death was an accident, that is a tragedy but nothing more. Do you suspect foul play, Holmes?”
My friend did not answer but instead resumed his scrutiny of the body. I could not help but wonder if he was actively trying to find some evidence that this was anything other than death by misadventure. The bucolic life had its attractions for him, but was he missing the excitement of being on a case? Had yesterday’s incident at Barraclough’s whetted his appetite for detection? If that jewellery theft had been the hors d’oeuvres, could this drowned man be the entrée?
He leaned forward over the back of the body’s neck, so close his nose almost touched it. The salt water had preserved the corpse to some extent, so that it had not begun to rot as swiftly as it would have if exposed to the open air, but still, I myself would have been unwilling to place that particular sensory organ in quite such proximity to it.
“Interesting,” my friend said softly to himself.
“What is it, Holmes?”
Then a loud, gruff shout resounded along the beach.
“Hey! You there! Get away from that corpse!”
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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