CHAPTER 1

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.

 

8 Responses to “Age Of Shiva”

  1. Tomek says:

    Hey James, are you planning any more of the Pantheon books?

  2. James says:

    Age of Heroes is out this September. The Ancient Greek demigods in the modern age, facing a threat to their immortal existences.

  3. Tomek says:

    Great! Thanks for replying James. Are you planning any other after that? Can’t wait to devour it, I’m currently re-reading the older ones.

  4. Nick says:

    I wanted to ask that too. I am dying for the Age of Heroes. I would love to see one with a base in Japanese mythology and lore.

  5. James says:

    A Japan-based Pantheon book is still a possibility, Nick, but we (by which I mean Solaris Books and I) are waiting to see how Age of Heroes does before embarking on any more. If we do go ahead, one of the next books will be about figures from British folklore and the other about characters who have crossed over from being historical to being legendary. After that, Izanami, Izanagi, Amaterasu, Susano’o, plus of course dragons — what more can one ask for?

  6. Nick says:

    Cool thank you for taking the time to respond. I am eagerly awaiting for Age of Heroes! I love the Pantheon series very much.

  7. Scott says:

    “It’s not noble to be a perfectionist, Zak,” Francesca told me as she packed her bag. “It’s a kind of self-loathing.”

    … … …Well that certainly punched me in the gut. I’m currently two-thirds of the way through an overnight caffeine- and energy drink-fueled bender in which I’m attempting to decompress from various forms of stress (work, relationship, bleak financial future, etc.), yet all I’ve managed to ascertain about my situation at this juncture is that if I could have my hands untied (by my boss, by my girlfriend, if I’d have finished college years ago, etc.), and if I could just CONTROLL things more deliberately, I might be able to achieve my standards for how I feel I need things to go.

    Coincidence brought me to this excerpt, and then I read the above quote, which closely mirrors a conversation I had recently with a loved one. (Insert gut-punch here.) Not many writers worm their way under my skin like that, and even though it may have been mere serendipity, I’m just going to go ahead and begin reading my copy of The Age of Ra that I picked up years ago and never started.

    Thanks!

  8. James says:

    Speaking as a perfectionist myself, or rather a lapsed perfectionist these days, that was one of those lines that came straight from personal feeling, so I’m pleased it resonated so much with someone else. I spent years, and wasted a lot of time, trying to get everything absolutely right, mainly in my work although elsewhere as well, before it began to dawn on me that good enough is good enough. You can overwork things, too, just as you can overthink things, and spoil them by doing so. There’s room in life for accidents and anomalies and incongruities. They have their place. Something that’s too smooth, too polished, doesn’t have vitality. It doesn’t seem real. It’s been sapped of all spontaneity and naturalness.

    It’s the rough edges, not the honed ones, that make us human and interesting.

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• Filed under Extracts • 04/04/2014 •