Monday, November 30, 2009

FREE FICTION: Triumff: Her Majesty’s Hero by Dan Abnett, Day Three

Really quickly: I am sorry to leave you guys hanging on the next part of Triumff: Her Majesty’s Hero. I was on a long ride via Greyhound Bus, and between the trip and the lack of sleep, it messed up my schedule a bit. Things should be getting back on schedule now!

Before we jump into things, I wanted to tell you guys a bit more about this project I’m working on. Renée Harrell has published a first novel (under a publisher-owned creative license), and are hard at work on getting some original fiction out there. Among a number of stories they have out there in the gauntlet is the novel Aly’s Luck, a science fiction action-adventure/comedy. They were looking for a reviewer to give Aly’s Luck a look and see what they thought, and I was quite pleased when they asked me if I was willing. I’m more than happy to do a favor of this sort for big fans of Luke Reviews. Renée Harrell is working on some really neat stuff, and I encourage you to check out their website, which is definitely worth a stop. Keep your eye out, because there will be some great stuff in the future from them, I guarantee it.

Luke Reviews continues its preview of Triumff: Her Majesty’s Hero by Dan Abnett, and out from Angry Robot Books. Helpful Links: Reviews of other Dan Abnett works here at Luke Reviews, Angry Robot Books, Parts One and Two of Triumff: Her Majesty’s Hero.


The Second Chapter

And so to Soho. Ah, Soho. What are we ever to do about it?

Number seventeen, Amen Street, Soho was a three-storey residence built in the Neo-Rococo fashion that was typical of its neighbourhood (to wit, generously proportioned and not quite buttoned up). It stood in a quiet, well-guttered lane just off the more commercial streets, which was surprisingly decent and presentable considering that it lay only a short stagger from some of the most disreputable taverns and stews in the City, as well as the Windmill Theatre, where the famous burlesque show “All The World’s A Fan-tail Stage” was now in its record-breaking seventeenth year (“Come and come again!” declared Jack Tinker in the Daily Mail), not to mention the Stratford Revue Bar, with its nightly presentation of such entertainments as “As You Lick It” and the ever-popular “Two Gentlemen of Vagina”.

Number seventeen had been built in the time of the ninth Gloriana, and had withstood five unseasonal gales, a Great Fire, two plagues, six riots and, in its more recent history, a number of apocalyptic parties. Rupert Triumff had purchased it with some of the five thousand marks the Navy had awarded him for his part in the Battle of Finisterre*.

His neighbour on one side was a nondescript member of the diplomatic service by the name of Bruno de Scholet. De Scholet was abroad for much of the year, and Triumff had only met him twice. He had come round to complain about the noise one evening in 2003, and then again about an hour later. To the other side lived the distinguished composer Sir Edoard Fuchs. Fuchs had made his name and fortune in the early nineteen-eighties with some top-ten galliards and rondeaus, but he hadn’t had a notable success since the release of his “Greatest Hits” sheet-music quarto. He lived off his royalties and the occasional guest appearance, and was almost permanently soused on musket. Fuchs never complained about the loud parties at number seventeen. He was usually at them.

The effects of three bottles of Old Skinner’s Notable Musket was by that stage of the day beginning to wear off the owner of number seventeen. It was three o’clock.

Rupert Triumff lay supine and rather Chatterton-esque upon a chaise-longue in the Solar, washed in the hazy light that filtered down through the high, leaded windows. He had bathed, shaved, put on a splash of his favourite aftershave (“A Scent of Man”), and changed into grey netherstock hose, patterned canions, and a dark damask shirt, all topped off by an embroidered peascod doublet of beige murray. Only the small grille of black sutures across his swollen cheek hinted that the previous parts of the day had been anything less than respectable. Triumff was idly rotating the large, brass armillary sphere that stood on the floor beside the chaise with his draped hand. It thrummed like a roulette wheel. On a side table nearby sat a half-eaten nantwich. The Couteau Suisse lay in a waste-paper bin beside the door.

A few yards away from Triumff, at an oak desk lined with copies of Wisden, sat a large man with braided black locks. The man was entirely naked, his gleaming skin as dark as turned ebony, and he had the sort of gargantuan musculature that would have made Rubens whistle like a navvie, and Michelangelo place want-ads for a big ceiling. Naked though he was, the man had a pair of small wire-framed spectacles perched on the end of his broad nose. He was perusing a huge book of charts.

The door to the Solar creaked open, and Agnew entered, bearing a tray of beakers. He offered them to Triumff.

“Your elixir vitae, sir,” he said in precisely the same disapproving tone of voice with which he would have announced “The Prince of Wales”, or “Who, precisely, has popped off?”

Triumff took one of the gently steaming beakers, and sipped at it gratefully. At the very beginning of their professional relationship, Triumff had discovered that Agnew could concoct a mulled herbal drink that almost Magickally abolished the effects of alcohol. Agnew, with affected ambivalence, called it “elixir vitae”, and sometimes hinted that it was prepared from an old Suffolk remedy of his mother’s. It was almost miraculously effective. Triumff had often been heard to joke that the Church Guild really ought to check up on Agnew for practising the Arte without a licence. He was not far wrong. The potion was Magick. Just because the Arte had been generally rediscovered during the Renaissance, it didn’t necessarily follow that Magick was unknown before that time. All the Renaissance did was to popularly rekindle the practices that had become esoteric since antique times. In many places, particularly among tribal groups, or in old rural communities, many forms of Magick had survived and thrived, thank you very much, in the form of folk customs, traditions and hedgerow remedies, which is why so many country witches looked on the Renaissance as simply the rest of the world catching up with progressive current thinking. The elixir vitae recipe had been in the Agnew family for so long, indeed, they had forgotten that it was Magickal. All they remembered, every New Year’s Day, was that it worked.

Triumff sipped at his beaker thoughtfully, and held out an object for Agnew’s inspection.

“D’you think Gull will want this back?” he asked.

“I doubt it, sir,” answered his manservant, placing the tray on the edge of the dresser. “But he will, I’m certain, be interested in acquiring some other portions of anatomy… your anatomy, sir.”

Triumff waved the notion aside, and sat up with a yawn.

“What’re you doing, Uptil?” he asked.

The naked man at the desk turned, and removed his spectacles with a refined gesture.

“Just looking, Rupert,” he said.


“Well, it never ceases to amaze me,” Uptil replied. “I mean, your Unity is meant to be the superior power on this Earth, and you know so flipping little.”

He pointed to the charts laid open on the desk. “Africa,” he said, with a sigh. “One of the greatest, strangest, most complex continents on the planet, and you represent it as a fuzzy triangle full of drawings of pigs and loaves.”

Triumff stood up and looked over Uptil’s shoulder. “They’re hippopotamuses. And huts. Look, there’s definitely a door in that one.”

“Well, pardon me,” Uptil said, grinning. “You know, when I agreed to come back from Beach** with you, I thought I’d be learning great wonders and notions from your oh-so-famous Empire, which I could take back and share with my people. I’ve been here now, what? Quite a while. It’s like living with flipping savages. You’re superstitious, uncouth, blinkered, arrogant, and you generally don’t smell all that great. You think Africa is full of loaves and pigs. You haven’t even mastered the simple combustion engine.”

“Hey,” said Triumff, “we’ve got Magick…”

The massive autochthon looked at Triumff sadly.

“How many times have I got to explain this?” he asked. “It’s your downfall, my friend. Magick is the cross you’ve crucified your cultural progress on, to borrow an analogy from your myths. Take my word for it. Yours would be a better world without the Arte.”

Triumff shrugged dismissively.

“You saw Beach, Rupert. You saw the way we live. We kicked out the ways of sorcery three hundred years ago, and we haven’t looked back.”

Triumff took a deep breath, and thought for a moment of the shining glass edifices of Beach, the smooth streets, the gleaming metal horse-less chariots, the smiling, healthy, clean people. He remembered their mpIII players, their Visagebook, and their ThyPlace, their reliable sanitation, their dry martinis, their surf boards. He remembered that all of it had only been possible because there were, in essence, no Wizards of Aus.

“Oh bollocks,” he sighed.

“Just remember,” he added, after a moment, “just remember the real reason you’re here.”

“The Ploy?”

“Right, the Ploy. I’m sticking my neck right out for your folks back home, so just take it easy with the old criticism.”

The sound of knocking drifted up through the house.

“Is that de Scholet again?” snapped Triumff. “We’re not even having a party. If it’s about the other night, tell him to sod off. If it’s Fuchs after a bottle of laughing juice, tell him we’ve joined the Temperance Society. I can’t afford to subsidise his problem.”

Agnew paused on his way out. “And if it is guests, sir? Are you entertaining today?”

“I’m a bloody scream,” said Triumff, flopping into his seat. Agnew disappeared.

“Better be on the safe side,” Triumff said to Uptil. The big man nodded, and then slumped into the corner, an expression of sullen vacancy suddenly investing his face. He began to pick at his ear.

Agnew reappeared.

“Sire Clarence, sir,” he reported.

Sire Roger Clarence, powdered, perfumed, teased, waxed, plucked, lipo-ed, laced, veneered, buffed, polished and heeled in the very latest fashion, flounced into the Solar. Clarence swam in the intermediate depth of the Court pool, and was one of Woolly’s more effective facilitators. Behind him came two pike-men of the Royal Household, sweltering in full beefeater uniform. They were meant to be in attendance, but one of them had caught the head of his polearm in the staircase ceiling, and they were both engaged in freeing it. Clarence paused in the doorway for dramatic effect, realised his dramatic effect was still outside on the landing fighting with three yards of halberd, and decided to make the best of things as they were. He waved Agnew aside with a lace nosegay so stuffed with scent it made the grim man gag, and turned to Triumff.

“Felicitations, stud,” he said, “I hope I’m not intruding, but it’s Court business.”

Triumff looked up from the book on fly fishing he had been pretending to read.

“Well, I never,” he said, smiling dangerously, “Roger Clarence, the man of whom they say in hushed whispers ‘his name is not an instruction’. Come in. Can I get you a diet malmsey, or would you like something stiffer with a cherry in it?”

Clarence turned up his nose and closed his eyes in protest. “You are an awful man, Triumff. So common. So unreconstructed.”

Triumff got to his feet and closed the book.

“Things must be slow at Hampton today to get you down to the sleazy end of town. Or are you slumming?” he asked.

Clarence looked at him contemptuously, and then shook open the newspaper he had been carrying under his arm. “Have you seen the rag this morning?”

Triumff took the paper and studied it. “Times Bingo… Coffers to be won?”

“The headline, you monstrous man! ‘New Continent Expedition Still In Doubt’. The Council’s sent me down here to gee you up. De la Vega’s expedition is champing at the bit. When the hell are you going to make your report?”

“When I’m ready,” said Triumff. “When I’ve assembled all the facts. I’m still studying the trinkets I brought back.”

Clarence eyed the hulking figure of Uptil, who was staring into space with empty eyes.

“Hnh,” Clarence murmured. Then he remembered himself and turned to glare at Triumff. “Well, Rupert, let me tell you, they’re reaching the end of their tether at Court. They’re saying your lack of enthusiasm proves there’s something down there worth exploring, something you’re keeping to yourself. De la Vega won’t be gainsayed for long. The time will come when the Queen will grant him his Letters of Passage anyway.”

“The Queen?”

“Yes, the Queen. She’s getting impatient.”

“The Queen?”

Clarence looked around the Solar with artificially wide eyes.

“Is there an echo?” he asked. “Yes, old Three Ex herself. Don’t fool yourself, Rupert, it’s been a decade since you were her blue-eyed boy. You’ve been away for three years, and you’ve hardly been a constant presence at Windsor since you’ve been back. De la Vega’s her favourite now, and Slee has her ear. The day’s long gone when you could string her along by force of your charm alone.”

Triumff glowered and sat down heavily.

“Cheer up, stud. All it takes is you attending on Her Majesty for an afternoon with your report. The Council will look it over too. Then you’ll be in her good books, and the whole Australia business can get under way.”

“Another month–”

“One week. That’s her final word. If I were you, I’d get it done and dusted before the Masque this Saturday. And please understand she’s being generous. You’ve had a year already. God knows, if you hadn’t once been her favourite, she’d have carted you off to the Tower months ago, and gone ahead regardless.”

Triumff’s shoulders sagged, and he looked at the floorboards, a dismal expression on his face.

“I’ll see you at Court then,” said Clarence, heading for the door. “Don’t disappoint her. It’s your head. And remember, this was a friendly warning. She could have sent a detachment of huscarls.”

Clarence paused in the doorway. He took a small fold of paper out of his tunic pocket. It was sealed with a ribbon. He tossed it to Triumff.

“By the way,” he said, “that was on your doorstep.”

Triumff caught the slip neatly.

“What is it?” he asked.

“Far be it from me to read another man’s personal correspondence,” smiled Clarence, “but it appeared to be an invitation from a man asking you to meet him at the Dolphin Baths at four-thirty. There’s a whole side to you I don’t know about, isn’t there? Vivat Regina!”

Triumff leapt to his feet, but Clarence had gone, taking his pike-men with him, and leaving nothing but a stench of cologne and a ragged hole in the plaster of the staircase ceiling.

“Clarence! What man? What man? Come back here!”

Triumff looked back from the stairhead. Agnew and Uptil were staring at him.

“Things,” Triumff said to them dolefully, “are turning so pear-shaped, they wouldn’t look out of place up a tree with a partridge.”

* With a rag-tag, badly victualled squadron (seven pinnace, three sprightly Hawkins, two luggers, half-a-dozen ketch and a galleasse) led by his own flagship, a hundred-gun galleon called the Blameless, Triumff had engaged and annihilated a flota of Portuguese Privateers off Finisterre in the summer of 2002. The pirate fleet, forty-strong, had been harrying Spanish treasure ships from the New World. The Admiralty later referred to Triumff’s tactics as “The instinctive genius of a man in whose veins runs salt-water, not blood.” The Times described it as “Typical and extremely jammy.” Triumff’s famous line at the hour of victory (“Oh, Spain! Sleep easy in thy bed, for England hath set thy foe to flight!”) is now reckoned to be a product of dramatic licence on the part of the battle correspondent. It is likely that what Triumff really said was “Suck on it, you gob-shites!”

** “Australia”, the terra incognito, is only the working name the Unity has given to the vast southern continent Rupert discovered. Many other names vie for popularity: “Lucach”, “Maletur”, “New Virginia” and “The Vast Southern Continent” are all contenders. “Beach” is a literal translation of the name Uptil’s people have for their land and, as such, is the best choice. As with all these things however, it doesn’t stand a cat in hell’s chance of being accepted formally.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

FREE FICTION: Triumff: Her Majesty’s Hero by Dan Abnett, Day Two

Luke Reviews continues its preview of Triumff: Her Majesty’s Hero by Dan Abnett, and out from Angry Robot Books. Helpful Links: Reviews of other Dan Abnett works here at Luke Reviews, Angry Robot Books, Part One of Triumff: Her Majesty’s Hero.


At the very same moment that the Laird of Ben Phie was divorced from his left ear in Chitty Yard by means of a novelty potato peeler, the six days of solid rain came to an end. Spent clouds, wrung dry, slouched off grumpily towards Shoeburyness and the sea. A tearful sun, pale as a smoky candle, appeared over the Square Mile. The City’s mood swung.

At Leadenhalle, the cheap was reconvened amid over-enthusiastic announcements of apres-deluge bargains. By the Gibbon Watergate, on the Embankment, the men of the Cisterns and Ducts Guild slouched back the hoods of their oilskins and exchanged knowing, professional nods that hid their relief. In the stable adjoining the Rouncey Mare, Boy Simon woke up and remembered his own name after only a few minutes’ concentration.

The City shook itself dry. Casements creaked open in swollen wood frames. Damp boots were upturned on hearths. The residents of the ditch-quarters began to bail out their homes with a blithe London cheeriness that had been called “blitz-spirit” ever since the airship raids of the Prussian Succession. The marshy reek of drowned vegetation that had permeated the City for a week began to be replaced by the reassuringly familiar odour of refuse. In Cambridge Circus, pedestrians skirted a beached sea-bass gasping out its last moments on the cobbles.

Within an hour of the sea-change in the climate, one of the Billingsgate mongers sold a pint of shrimp, and there was considerable rejoicing. Within ninety minutes, a troop of the City Militia in Babcock Gardens began the onerous, though unusual, task of returning the barge Mariette Hartley to the river three hundred yards away. Several of the City’s bolder cats were seen for the first time in six days.

Two minutes before St Dunstan’s clock tower struck eleven, one of the faithful finally sold a lace memento to a passer-by. The parson of St Dunstan’s began a short service of thanks, and his congregation struck up with the Old Seventy-Sixth (“Though the fence is sharp, my Lord hath riches waiting”). Across the street, the Sisters of the Justified Madonna, who had ceremonially disrobed, pressed most of themselves against the windows, and shouted out messages of congratulation and other heart-warming communiques.

St Dunstan’s flock hurried indoors on the advice of the parson, all except a lingering choirboy, who was later assured by most of the congregation that he was irrevocably destined to have his eyes put out in the Fierce Smithy of Hades.

By noon, the sun had coaxed a mist of evaporation out of the Capital. Every inch of wood: every bridge-post, every newel, every beam, every door in the City groaned and sighed. From the villages and hamlets around the outskirts, it was possible to hear the complaints of the drying metropolis, faintly and distantly, like an elderly relative stumbling out of bed next door. A goat-herd in the Brent Woods, sheltering from the downpour under a broad oak, heard the faraway groaning, and cheered up, anticipating imminent relief from his misery.

At Richmond, the terraces, beds, rows, lawns, mazes, arbours and quincunxes of the Royal Palace blinked away the dew and woke up. Ornamental ponds finally stopped being choppy, and their lily pads drifted to rest, becalmed. The gardeners oiled and unleashed the mower from its lair near the boathouses. The Beefeaters started to whistle as they took off their weatherproofs and cycled off on their patrols. Maids on the south terrace began to beat carpets with wicker paddles, and maids by the wash-house began to hang out a week’s worth of damp laundry. Boar and turkey, penned in an enclosure north of the Chase, noted the approach of the Assistant Under-Chef with heavy hearts, and jostled the weakest present to the front.

On a gravel walk along the paddock, Cardinal Woolly of the United Church crunched maze-wards, with two pike-men and a small, obedient civilian in attendance. The cardinal’s robes were rich to the point of Papery. The civilian’s hose was all but out at the knees. Tugging at his ill-fitting ruff as he followed the cardinal, the civilian moistened the end of his lead-stick on his tongue and pulled open his notebook. He was a nondescript, bearded man with tawny hair, long at the back and absent at the front. His ear was punctuated with a gold ring. His name was Beaver, and being me, your servant the writer, he will have no further words wasted upon him.

“Know then, Master Beaver,” said his worship, “that the following declaration may be printed with my approval in your periodical.”

“Right ho, cardinal,” quoth I (Wllm Beaver).

The cardinal continued.

“Hereby, it is made known that her most Royal Majesty Queen Elizabeth XXX, Mistress of All Britain, Empress of the Anglo-Español Unity, Defender of the Cantrips, Protector of the Jinx… and so on. You know the form and style, Beaver.”

“Ex Ex Ex, uh huh, right ho,” I said, nodding.

“Hereby, it is made known that Her Majesty has no comment yet to make on the seriousness of the threat made to the Channel Bridge by the Liberte Gauloise subversives, nor on the unsound rumours reaching our ears from Wiltshire. However, on the matter of the Great Masque this weekend, it is announced that it will now go ahead, thanks to the change in weather. Further, on the subject of the Spanish insistence of an expedition, forthwith, to the new-found Continent, Her Majesty is still awaiting consultation with said Continent’s discoverer, Captain Sir Rupert Triumff.”

Tee-Arr-Eye-umff… uh uh. Right ho. Go on, your holiness.”

“Sir Rupert maintains that the Terra Australis is a diverting realm, but largely lacking in precious metals or other exploitable resources. Further, its people are said to be ignorant of the ways of ensorcelment. Given the grave hardship of a journey to the New South Lands, he considers further missions there unworthy of the cost and effort. In this, the Privy Council and the Church are yet to agree. There is much still to be reckoned out. And all, of course, depends upon Sir Rupert presenting his Letters of Pa– Excuse me.”

We paused, at the turn of the paddock walk, as a Great Dane the size of a pony shambled across our path, trailing its lead and carrying a rose trellis in its mouth, complete with climbing rose. The cardinal sent one of the pike-men after it. We could hear his calls of “Easy boy, easy boy!” disappearing down towards the lake.

“Any official comment, your worship, on the rumour that Captain Gull of the Royal huscarls is currently minus an ear?”

“None whatsoever,” snapped the cardinal. “Ask him yourself.”

“I did,” said Beaver.

“What did he say?”

“He didn’t appear to hear the question, sir,” I admitted.

There was a splash from the direction of the lake. The hound retraced its steps across our path, dragging a chewed halberd instead of the trellis. The cardinal turned to the other pike-man. I closed my book with a shrug. The press conference was over.

The emerald privet of the Inigo Maze stood before us. A blue kite sporting the Royal Crest scudded along above it, its line secured to some moving point amid the leafy walls. We heard the unmistakable sound of female sniggering. Woolly straightened his robes, cleared his throat, and headed for the entrance arch of the maze.

“Your Majesty?” he called gently.

I felt suddenly chilly, despite the sun. I rubbed my beard in a nervous gesture particular to myself, and beat a retreat towards the gatehouse on the City Road.

Some fourteen miles west of the Palace, the timbered Royal Lodge in Windsor Great Park shook with the sound of tramping boots and yapping bow-hounds, those robust, lugubrious, liver-spotted retrievers from Abyssinia, noted for their reliability as hunting dogs, their extensive dewlaps, and their copious spittle. “Drooling like a fine bow” is a common expression across the Unity. Almost every physical aspect of a bow-hound seems to loll.

A watercolour sky of the most dilute blue washed around the swollen sun. Fine mist, like cold smoke, rose from the soggy nettles and elderbushes, around about, and wafted through the forest of beech, mature oak and hawthorn. Distantly, fallow and roe, preternaturally sensing that something was up, scattered from deer-licks into the early afternoon.

The Windsor Lodge had been built for the twenty-fourth Elizabeth as a gift from the Duke of Cartagena, one Gonzalo de Ruiz, a keen huntsman and keener suitor to the Royal Personage. Many at Court said it was the Lodge that had put the final nail in Gonzalo’s coffin. This was untrue. The final nail had been put in by one Ralph Logge, a joiner from Church End, but it was a safe bet that Logge had only got the job as a direct result of Gonzalo’s gift. Elizabeth XXIV was less than enthusiastic about the pastime of inserting iron-barbed darts into fleeing deer at very high velocity through holes not previously there. Poor Gonzalo, blinded by the double visors of love and ambition, failed to realise this, and would attend the Gloriana at Windsor regularly, wearing the latest chequered hunting-breeches, the most fashionable stalking-doublets, tweedy sporting hats with ear flaps, and bandoliers packed full of lures, calls, whistles, castanets and a comprehensive trousse de chasse that contained so many specialised blades it could have armed an entire company of Landsknechts and still have some bits spare to hang over the fireplace.

Gonzalo would attempt to distract Her Majesty with discourses on the correct stringing of the composite bow, the training of the dog pack, the pros and cons of the frog-crotch barb, crossbows for pleasure and profit, detecting grot-worm in the stools of bow-hounds, and sundry other secrets of the huntsman’s art. Frequently, he would invite the Queen to join him for an afternoon in the Park. She always declined, having pressing business of national import to attend to in the Star Chamber. Elizabeth XXIV’s private diaries reveal that the “pressing business of national import” was almost always a game of tiddlywinks with members of the Privy Council. They also relate that she referred to Gonzalo as “that smelly maniac with the arrows”.

Eventually, Gonzalo became desperate for some sign of progress in his suit, and forced things by making a gift of the hunting lodge to the Queen. He had it designed by the celebrated architect Morillo of Barcelona, who devised it to be “churrigueresque”. Technically speaking, this was a style characterised by twisted columns, broken and arched pediments, and pilasters with more than one capital. In practice, it was an overly enthusiastic wealth of decoration beneath which the actual structure of the building was largely hidden. Morillo assured Gonzalo that this was “the latest thing”.

Elizabeth was certainly impressed by the gift. Within a week, she’d had Gonzalo beheaded on a charge of Conspiring To Mock The Royal Person. Elizabeth XXIV is reckoned to have been a mild and gentle queen, so the affair vividly demonstrates that there’s only so far you should push a monarch.

On that misty St Dunstan’s Day afternoon, the men who emerged from the Lodge had thoughts of the hapless Gonzalo and his ill-advised churrigueresque very far from their minds. (Apart, obviously, from passing thoughts such as “If this is a broken and arched pedimental ornamentation, where’s the bloody door?” And “How the bastard do you get out of this benighted shed?”)

Leading out the beaters, the pack and the hound-master was Sir John Hockrake, Duke of Salisbury, resplendent in his green stalking gaiters and leaf-pattern tabard. Salisbury, a rotund, gouty ox, was one of the richest men on the mainland, and one of the country’s largest landowners to boot. His Court influence, however, was scant, as he and the Queen had precious little time for one another. It had something to do with the Queen’s manners, and Salisbury’s complete lack of them.

The Duke of Salisbury hawked in a rasping noseful of air, coughed, and spat what appeared to be an entire bed of shucked oysters into the nearby scrub.

“Let’s be off!” he bellowed to all present, and flourished his cry with a fanfare of expelled wind that trained men with bugles would have been sore pressed to mimic. The bow-hounds set to yapping excitedly.

Roustam Allasandro de la Vega, Regent of Castile, Governor of Toledo and victor of Lille, scowled at the obese Duke as he followed him out of the Lodge. An athletic, handsome six-footer, reputed world-master with the rapier, de la Vega busied himself with checking the brace of pearl-inlaid matchlocks that his bearer carried for him. The noblest of Spanish blood ran in de la Vega’s veins, but the pressure of that blood was not as low and tranquil as one might expect in a high-born aristocrat. Steadily, through the preceding century, the power of the Unity had swung further and further towards Britain and the demi-goddess Glorianas. Resentful frustration underlay most of the Spanish politicking, and behind the pleasant smiles and the charming manners of their regal scions lay rancour and unrest. In Madrid, Zaragoza, Sevilla and Salamanca, the pamphleteers cranked out bitter diatribes about “the Virgin thief” and the “scales of partnership overbalanced”. A constitutional crisis loomed across the Unity, and even the most Anglophile of commentators foresaw a time, not far away, when the Queen would have to begin to make reparations that restored the potency of the Spanish political machine.

But Roustam de la Vega wasn’t going to wait for some unspecific time. He had always been a man of action, and his action always got him what he wanted.

He took one of the primed matchlocks, and trial-aimed it at a distant tree-bole. Salisbury looked at the firearm in disgust.

“Good hunting today, you think, señors?” de la Vega asked, by way of making things more convivial.

“Poor as I reckon for you, if you persist with that black powder nonsense,” growled Salisbury. “A stout bow of English yew is good enough for me.”

“My dear Regent,” said Lord Slee diplomatically as he joined them from the Lodge, pulling on his leather bow-string protectors, “I for one am keen to see your new devices in operation. I trust they will not alarm the pack?”

Salisbury stooped with a wheeze to knuckle-rub the scalp of a panting bow-hound that worried at his heels.

“These dogs don’t scare for nothing,” he observed, rising again and shaking the ropes of dog-drool from his hand. “Don’t you fret, Slee. My men trained ’em well.”

“Good, good!” smiled Slee, thinly. He and de la Vega exchanged knowing grins that Salisbury was too busy to see. They were grins of tolerance. Slee clicked his fingers and called for his bow and quiver. He tested the tension, and exchanged a little technical wisdom with the bow-master.

Robert Slee was a short, mobile man of forty-three, his patrician’s profile set off by a receding head of silver hair. He owned ancestral lands in Hertfordshire and Essex, but his power stemmed entirely from a hard-won career in law, through the Inns of Court and Whitehall. He had won himself a seat in the Privy Council, and was tipped to take the post of Lord Privy Seal from Thomas Arbuthnot before the year was out. Slee’s scholarship and learning was admired across the Unity. His many books and treatises were required reading for all young men with political aspirations. It was said he spoke and wrote nine languages. He had travelled extensively, and participated in some of the most formidably important legislation of the last six Parliaments. His only fault, it seemed, was his lack of charm, which was often remarked upon. Dignitaries from across Europe queued up eagerly to meet the author of such articulate writings, and they were all disappointed. In the flesh, Slee was a cold, dry, plaster-of-Paris man. No one actively disliked him, but he’d have had trouble forming a cricket side if he only called on his friends.

The Divine Aleister Jaspers, fourth and final member of the illustrious party, joined his three waiting companions from the Lodge, and took a pair of polished Swiss crossbows from a waiting bearer. An austere young man with fleshy lips and cropped hair, Jaspers wore the knee-length robes of the Magickians’ Union. When the Arte of Magick had been rediscovered, the Church had been forced to accept and accommodate it, or be ousted from the structures of power. The Protestants had simply enlarged their doctrines. The Catholic Church had “fortuitously” discovered six more books of the New Testament in a cave in Sinai, all of which thoroughly expanded the motif of “moving in mysterious ways” to include Magick. This additional doctrine was included in the very first edition of the Steve Gutenberg Bible, and its textual authority was embraced rapidly by the Church of England, which was, at that time, an uneasy blend of Catholic pomp and Protestant simplicity, and formed one of the fundamental tenets of belief. The Church of England became, in time, the United Church, and absorbed almost all the other Christian religions of the Unity (except for various underground movements and secret societies, and, of course, the Bollards of Ghent, the Stevenage Prurients, and the Vatican, who were allowed to continue as usual if they didn’t bother anyone). The Church closely regulated all official usage of Magick through the Magickians’ Union, which was part Trade Guild and part Holy Order. All members of the Union were skilled and potent users of the Arte, answering only to the Queen, the Privy Council and the Church cardinals. Through them, the Cantrips and the Jinx were operated for domestic use.

Jaspers also displayed the collar pin of Infernal Affairs, the Union’s disciplinary department, charged with investigating and punishing any individuals conducting unauthorised dabbling in the Arte. Jaspers was reckoned to be Infernal Affairs’ finest. His twinned powers of Magick and Prosecution gave him a status at Court far, far above his actual social rank.

“Are we ready?” he asked, smoothly, examining with hooded eyes the oiled, machined perfection of his weapons. To the other three, his soft voice sounded like Turkish Delight: sweet, rich, intense, and the sort of thing you can quickly have enough of.

“I ’ope you won’t be using any Goety to improve yorn aim,” commented Salisbury to the Divine. There was a pause. Even the agitation of the hunting dogs skirled to a halt. A shadow passed over the sun. Salisbury, unaccountably cold for a moment, looked into Jaspers’s piercing eyes. What he saw there, he patently didn’t like.

Slee stepped forward quickly, and executed what was, on balance, probably the most graceful diplomatic manoeuvre of his career. He said, “Ha ha! As if!”

“As if!” joined Roustam de la Vega, catching on quickly, and adding his deep laugh to Slee’s thin, piping chuckle. Only Salisbury, who seemed incapable of getting anything out of his voicebox, didn’t laugh. In ten seconds, his tomato-red face had become cabbage-white. He managed a pale, valiant smile.

Jaspers smiled too, though it was not a reassuring smile.

“As if,” he echoed. Then he turned, and sauntered away towards the dog-pack and the hunt-team.

Salisbury sagged, and then, as his colour flushed back, he busied himself volubly with unnecessary checks of the hounds and their handlers.

“Close,” whispered Slee to de la Vega, as they stood, side by side, buttoning up their coat collars. “Your assistance was appreciated. Salisbury is profoundly clumsy in almost every respect, politics included. No wonder the Queen can’t abide him.”

De la Vega smiled dryly, and said, “I’m not about to marry him myself, my good Lord Slee. If it weren’t for his considerable financial reserves I’d be more than happy to be part of a tragic hunting accident this very afternoon.”

Slee allowed himself a thin smile at the delicious thought. To their left, the runners were blowing shrill whistles and calling guttural encouragements to the pack, which surged away through the sunlit mist of the forest space. As the volume of the hounds dipped away, they could hear birdsong, dripping water and the crackle of undergrowth all around them. Slee and de la Vega set off after the others.

“Shall we,” asked Slee, “discuss your disengano, my dear cousin? The woods are close and deaf.”

“Good,” replied the Spaniard crisply, “for my words would seem calumny to most English ears, but not yours, or those of our other two… friends. We all share a certain hunger. My family, my faction… they ache for the taste of power, but we are famished of the influence that is our due. Magick, my lord, that is what we need. Without access to the Cantrips, we have no leverage. With them…”

Slee caught at his sleeve and pointed at their companions ahead through the trees.

“Do you see, Lord Regent, the way that no hound will go voluntarily within a lance-length of the Divine?” he asked.

“They are wiser than us, perhaps,” said de la Vega. “I often doubt it is entirely safe to have Jaspers around, even if he is of our cause.”

Slee nodded, and breathed deeply. The two men hefted up their weapons and moved on through the ferny chiaroscuro of the forest.

“So,” said Slee, “you were saying?”

Friday, November 27, 2009

FREE FICTION: Triumff: Her Majesty’s Hero by Dan Abnett, Day One

To my readers: The holidays are, as always, a very busy time. I have a neat project that I am working on for an author, which is taking up a chunk of time that I normally would use for reading books to be reviewed on here, so to both take the immediate pressures of getting a review up here off, as well as to offer you all a nice holiday treat, I offer five days of Triumff: Her Majesty’s Hero by Dan Abnett. I hope you enjoy each day’s preview, and look forward to the return of reviews in about a week!



Her Majesty’s Hero


Being the true and authentick account of the expl’ts and

incid’nts following the re-turn to London


Sir Rupert Triumff, adventurer,

from his celebrated Voyage of Discovery to the Meridional Climes.

Never before made publick.


Given in this, my hand, this XXIIIrd day of Aprile,

XX hundred and X Anno Domini,

in the splendid reign of the thirtieth Gloriana.

Vivat Regina!

Wllm Beaver, esq.

Editor’s Notice to the Great Variety of Readers

For those readers unfamiliar with the affairs and nature of the Anglo-Hispanic Unity, care has been taken to furnish Master Beaver’s manuscript with footnotes and commentary to make all such matters comprehensible.

However, this editor has been charged with making the following basic facts known from the outset. The Anglo-Hispanic Unity, the longest-lasting and most powerful Empire ever to arise upon this terrestrial stage, was founded in the year Fifteen Hundred and Seventy-Five, following the marriage of Queen Elizabeth the First of England to King Philip the Second of Spain. Said union of power and lands, including as it did the virginal tracts of the New World, soon eclipsed all other nations of the globe, and has persisted since, through a worthy line of potent female monarchs, all styled “Elizabeth Gloriana”.

The other matter that helped to preserve the pre-eminence of the Unity was, of course, the Renaissance, which thoroughly reawakened the Sublime Lore of Magick, dormant since Antiquity. The schools and employment of the Esoteric Arte of Magick were monopolised by the Church and Church-Guilds of England, and ensured the Unity’s absolute command and superiority over all the World, especially the British bits of the Unity.

This didn’t please the Spanish bits very much at all. But that’s another story.

Part of this one, in fact.

The Persons of the Story

SIR RUPERT TRIUMFF, gentleman adventurer and lately come discoverer of The Vast Southerly Continent

AGNEW, his man

LORD CALLUM GULL, Laird of Ben Phie, Captain of the Royal Guard

CARDINAL THOMAS WOOLLY, first minister of Her Majesty’s United Church

SIR JOHN HOCKRAKE, Duke of Salisbury, a scoundrel

ROUSTAM ALLASANDRO DE LA VEGA, Regent of Castile, Governor of Toledo, and victor of Lille

ROBERT SLEE, of the Queen’s Privy Council

THE DIVINE ALEISTER JASPERS, a junior officer of the United Church

UPTIL, a noble autochthon from foreign climes

DOLL TARESHEET, a notable actress of the Wooden Oh and these parts

NEVILLE DE QUINCEY, a police surgeon and examiner

MOTHER GRUNDY, of the countryside

GIUSEPPE GIUSEPPO, an Italian gentleman of ingenuity



& in addition, divers servants, ladies and lords, as well as some personages I might have forgotten in this compilation, along with copious hautboys and tapers, and fanfares on all entrances and exits

the setting is the present day

staged in the modern style

Vivat Regina!

The First Chapter

Which is set upon St Dunstan’s Day

It had rained, furiously, for all of the six days leading up to St Dunstan’s Day.

Water rattled off slopes of broken slates, streamed like horse-piss from split gutters, cascaded from the points of eaves, boiled like oxtail soup in leaf-choked drains, coursed in foamy breakers across flagged walks, and thumped down drainpipes in biblical quantities. For the same measure of time that it had taken the Good Lord God to manufacture Everything In Creation, the entire city was comprehensively rinsed. There was water, as the Poet had it (the Poet, admittedly, was wont to have it mixed with brandy), everywhere, and every drop of it was obeying Newton’s First Law of Apples.

In the rents of Beehive Lane, near Boddy’s Bridge, un-potted chimneys guzzled in the rain and doused more than a score of ailing grates. The steep cobbled rise of Garlick Hill became a new tributary to the Thames, and the run-off that washed down it from the foundations of the spice importers’ hilltop barns had loose cloves floating in it and tasted like consomme. At Leadenhalle, the rapping of the rain upon the metal roof drove several market traders temporarily psychotic, and deprived many more of their usual cheery dispositions, and so the cheap was suspended until the inclement weather subsided (“if sodden London don’t subside first” remarked more than one tired and emotional stall-holder). Many worried that, if the fantastically grim weather persisted, the Great Masque that coming Saturday might itself have to be abandoned. And that didn’t bear thinking about.

The Fleet, the Tyburn and the Westbourne all spilled beyond their courses, and enjoyed wild excursions through the streets of the ditch-quarters and the wharfs. More refuse was then moved by force of flood than is in a month by the municipal collectors, though, to be fair, the Noble Guild of Refuse and Shite Handlers had been on a go-slow since 1734, following a dispute over the scale of Yuletide gratuities.

The city’s watergates were all choked to drowning point, each gagging like an over-eager sot on an upturned bottle of musket. Conduits thundered with the passing pressure, their stonework trembling, and voided themselves with huge tumult into the Thames, casting up mists of rainbow spray from their cataracts. Men from the Guild of Cisterns and Ducts visited each city conduit daily in turn and stood, dour and drenched by the spray, shaking their heads and tutting.

The Cockpit on Birdcage Walk became so full that the stewards had to open all the public doors to vent the water before gladiation could begin that night. Small boys had been found sailing rival armadas of paper man-o-wars from the pit rails. Even after the stewards’ action, some said the only birds worth betting on that night were ducks. When it did eventually occur, the cockfight proved to be a notable and famous bout, featuring a title fight for the Bantam Weight Champion of All London. The contenders were Cocky Joe, a six-pound, experienced fighter trained by John Lyon of Poplar, and Bigge Ben, a twelve-pound newcomer presented by one Thomas Arnes of Peckham. The eventual victor, Bigge Ben, was later disqualified when it was discovered he was a cunningly disguised buzzard, and Cocky Joe reinstated, though by this time he was full of onion and three-quarters roasted.

The rain fell on all. It made no distinctions for rank, and offered no exceptions for situation. It hammered on the unprotected heads of the impoverished and loose of bowel in the jakes of Shite-berne. It drizzled off the leaded glass of the Palace Mews. It fell with a continuance and persistence that was nothing short of impertinent.

From Cornhill to Ludgate, not one thing in the whole Vale of the Thames prospered, except perhaps the osiers and watercress in the marshes.

When one of the wags in the Rouncey Mare off Allhallows Walk remarked upon the fact that there was no superstition associated with so many days of rain before St Dunstan’s Eve, it was volubly decided that there bloody well ought to be, and bloody well would be before the tavern closed, so long as liquor sufficiently inspired the collective imagination. Indeed, sometime after ten that night, a handsome and appropriate saying was devised by a drover of advanced years named Boy Simon, but sadly it had been forgotten by the time daylight crept in and announced the dawn of St Dunstan’s Day.

The towers and steeples of a hundred and nine churches shivered at the dismal morning and driving rain, and bells slapped out the hour of daybreak as if the water had softened their clappers. Most of the City’s population grimaced in their states of sleep and rolled over. Those up and active through the necessity of their various offices shuddered grimly and went about their business in hats and hoods and long, soggy capes. A carter, late delivering for a fish-monger in Billingsgate, overturned on the corner of Windmill Street, and his entire cargo swam off through the neighbouring byways. Shortly afterwards, a magistrate in Rudlin Circus was painfully thrown when his horse was bitten by a passing turbot. The fishmonger was sanguine, however, as sales of fish had fallen dramatically in the course of the week.

One of the hundred and nine churches tolling out that lubricated morning was St Dunstan’s Undershaft, near the New Gate, where the aforementioned saint’s day was about to be celebrated. Dunstan, a ninth century Norfolk lacemaker, died piously during the notorious Woolcarder’s Revolt of 814, and was canonised in 1853 during the Diet of Cannes. He is the Patron Saint of boundaries and hedges, lacemakers, undergarments and impalement, though not necessarily in that order.

In the damp shade of St Dunstan’s porch, valiant observers of the martyr’s festival (the eleventh day of May) made garlands of flowers and ribbons, and glumly offered small lace keepsakes showing the saint “being martyred on the sharpened fence” for sale to empty streets. The deluge had kept almost everyone away. Large sections of the regular congregation had found drier things to do, and a promised coach party of pilgrims from the provinces, composed in the main of folk from the popular Christian sects the Orford Doxies and the Exeter Terrestrials, had not materialised.

Even the priestesses in the Temple of the Justified Madonna across the road from St Dunstan’s had decided for once to wear clothes. They stood, red-nosed and corset-clad, in the windows of the seminary, and occasionally waved encouragement to the St Dunstan’s band across the street. Needless to say, the folk of St Dunstan’s didn’t wave back.

Two streets behind St Dunstan’s, an alley too insignificant to have a name of its own led through the rents to Chitty Yard. It was raining there, too.

The yard was a paved square, forty feet across, flanked on one side by the dingy rears of the rents. To the other three it was enclosed by the back of the once-imposing Chitty House. A small fountain, in the shape of a dismayed griffon, stood at the centre and had been dry for seventy-three years. It was full now, of leaves and rainwater.

The Chittys had come into money late in the previous century, thanks to a small miniver business that had flourished at a time when cuffs and collars were worn hirsute. They had built Chitty House as a headquarters and town residence, and occupied it continuously until the last Chitty had died of fur on the lung twenty years previously. Since then, the building had been a tannery, a hostel for drovers, a bordello (twice), a store for timber, an eating house, and a singularly unsuccessful farrier’s (one Joseph Pattersedge, who suffered from chronic hippophobia). Now it was empty, with its rafters open to the weather, and its environs were of interest only to vermin, weary beggars or those in need of privacy.

At dawn on St Dunstan’s day, four of the latter were assembled in the hidden yard. One was a diminutive, portly Spaniard from Valladolid, who huddled from the rain under the stoop of the storehouse wing, his ruff and waxed moustache as limp as his expression. He clutched a velvet cape and a plumed hat that did not belong to him. Opposite him, across the yard, stood a rake-thin man of Suffolk descent, an imposing figure over six feet tall, dressed in a simple suit as grim as his countenance. He too held clothes that were not his. Every few seconds, he winced slightly.

The other two individuals in the yard were trying to kill each other.

Lord Callum Gull, Laird of Ben Phie, Captain of the Royal Guard, Scottish to the marrow (“and loyal to the courgette” as the old saying goes), edged around the yard with four feet of basket-hilted steel swinging from his hand. His red hair was plastered to his skull, his linen shirt was sticking to his rangy form, and his breath was rasping through defiantly clenched teeth. He knew well his Livy, his Caesar, his De Studio Militari and his Vegetius. He knew extremely well the finer points of The Art of War, particularly the one on the end of his rapier.

Sir Rupert Triumff, seafarer, Constable of the Gravesend Basin and celebrated discoverer of Australia, was commanding over a yard of sharpened metal of his own. His black locks hung in ringlets around his brow, his shirt had acquired two extra slits since he had put it on that morning, and he was humming a song about the Guinea Coast for no real reason at all. Triumff had once read the title page of Vegetius, owned a risible translation of Livy, and often quoted Caesar, even though he had never been within ten feet of a copy. He was not, at that stage, entirely sure what day it was.

Triumff danced and stumbled around Gull in a way that looked almost, but not quite, deliberate. He tossed his rapier from hand to hand. The gesture suggested he was a nimble, gifted swordsman, but in truth had more to do with the fact that he couldn’t remember which hand he was supposed to be using. Each exchange of grip caused the slender witness in black to wince again.

With a snarl, Gull lunged for the umpteenth time, and added another vent to Triumff’s left sleeve. Backing up rapidly, Triumff looked down at the gash, tucked his blade under his arm like a cane, and fingered the damaged cloth.

“Fuck,” he remarked.

“En garde!” barked Gull, and crossed.

Triumff spun hastily, ducked, and came up again holding his sword by the blade, with the basket grip bobbling threateningly at his adversary. There was a pause. Slowly, Triumff adjusted his depth of field from his opponent to the nearer hilt, noticed the blood dribbling from his fingers, and dropped the rapier smartly.

“Poxy thing!” he said, sucking at his sliced fingertips. Blood collected in his beard, and spattered his doublet, making it look as if he had been punched in the mouth. He continued to complain through his stinging fingers.

Gull tapped Triumff on the breast-bone with the point of his sword. The Scot’s black eyes always looked angry, even when he was not. It was said in the Royal Guard House that if Gull’s lids were ever peeled back during slumber, he’d still glare with the liquid black eyes of an enraged bullock. Now, his demeanour perfectly matched his natural expression.

“Pick up,” he said softly, his words gnawing into the air like acid, “your bloody sword, you cussed knave. Though I’ll delight in filleting you, I’d rather do it while there’s a blade in your hand.”

Triumff looked down at the urging sword tip, and then up at Gull, and nodded.

“Right… right… of course…” he replied, turning to look for his fallen blade. To the side of the yard, the man in black covered his eyes, and started in on the Lord’s Prayer, sotto voce. The man in black’s expression increasingly resembled that on the face of the fountain’s stone griffon, which in turn suggested that the mythical creature had been intimately violated against its will, and without much in the way of warning.

The rapier had rolled to rest in the lea of the fountain bowl. Triumff steadied himself on the griffon’s beak as he stooped to recover it. He grasped the weapon in his uninjured hand and straightened up.

Even during his more sober periods, the weapon had been a bother to him. It had been a gift, a reward for his exploits, bestowed upon him by the president of the Royal Cartographical Society. It was a Cantripwork Couteau Suisse, or Schweizer Offiziersmesser, an elegant instrument manufactured to the exacting specifications of the Victorinox Cutlers of Ibach. According to the owner’s handbill, which had been packed into the presentation box underneath the velvet padding, the device was capable of auto-selecting any number of tools or blades, which it deployed from its ornate brass basket hilt at the flick of a trigger built into the knurled alox handle. One deft touch made it a sword, or a bottle opener, or a device for removing stones from horses’ hooves.

Triumff looked down at his weapon. He noted the Helvetic cross-and-shield emblazoned on the tool’s grip, denoting the weapon’s fine engineering provenance. He also noted, belatedly, that at some point during the whole dropping-it-and-picking-it-back-up-again process, the trigger had been depressed. The Couteau Suisse was currently less well suited for duelling with an incensed Hibernian swordsman, and more for removing cross-head screws. Triumff swore again. He pressed the trigger. The intricate, jinx-powered mechanism inside the decorative basket hilt whirred, withdrew the screwdriver, and meticulously replaced it with a nail buffer.

Triumff began pressing the trigger repeatedly, and, in quick succession, readied himself to open a can, pluck an eyebrow, and do a little fretwork.

He shook his head and held up his other hand.

“Hang on, hang on,” he said. “Arsing thing.”

Gull stood his ground, glaring.

“Ever had a go with one of these doo-dabs, Gull?” Triumff asked, depressing the trigger with an increased degree of impatience, and consequently selecting long-nose pliers, a fishing rod, a metric rule, and then an auger. “All very clever and fancy, I’m sure, but it’s more trouble than it’s worth.”

“I’m not one for gadgets,” growled Gull.

“Me neither! Me bloody neither!” Triumff agreed vehemently. He clicked the trigger one last time and let out a bright, “Aha!” as the rapier blade snapped back into place.

“Right! There you go!” he declared, flourishing the blade. “That’s what I was looking for! As you were!”

The energetic flourish had made his vision spin a little. He shook his head in an effort to clear it, blinked dizzily, and took a step forward. A loose flagstone dipped under his foot, and several pints of brown rainwater gouted up his leg, soaking his breeches. He stumbled, and steadied himself, looked down at the stone, and dabbed dispiritedly at his ruined trousers.

“Watch that, Gull,” he said, indicating the flagstone. “Loose flag. You could take a nasty tumble on that.”

Tried beyond a threshold of patience he had been sporting to observe even that far, Gull screeched something Caledonian and pejorative, and flew at Triumff. Only fickle fortune positioned Triumff’s sword correctly to block the thrust. Gull riposted, and the blades clattered again. He hammered three times more until his sword rebounded from the knurled quillon of Triumff’s fluttering weapon.

“Steady on,” said Triumff, as if surprised.

Gull threw himself bodily at Triumff, their swords locking like the antlers of rutting stags. He drove Triumff back four or five yards, until the discoverer of Australia slammed hard into the kitchen wall of Chitty House. There, Triumff lurched forward, sweeping his sword around at Gull. It would have been a quite magnificent touché, had it not been for the fact that the Couteau Suisse had become, by then, a letter opener. With a strangled and vituperative curse, Triumff selected the rapier blade, again, and swung it wildly, but the distraction had been enough. The Captain of the Royal Guard parried easily, and then cut low, slicing a new pocket hole in Triumff’s breeches and a flap of skin out of the thigh beneath. Triumff sucked in his breath as blood, diluted by rain, soaked his leggings. Looking down, he found that one breeches leg was stained red and the other brown with mud.

“Motley!” he exclaimed breezily, and then looked in danger of fainting. He slumped back against the kitchen wall and dropped his guard wearily. Gull’s sword was immediately at his throat.

“You’re beaten, you bastard,” hissed Gull, “and what’s more you’re pissed. You might at least have done me the honour of duelling me sober.”

“Is this all because of those things I said about your sister?” asked Triumff, absently. “And if it is, can you remind me what I actually said?”

“You challenged me, you drunken fool!” Gull growled.

“Oh… really? Then let’s just forget it.”

Gull stared into Triumff’s eyes.

“Not this time,” he said. “This time you bleed. This time, I’ll give you something to remember me by.” Slowly, surgically, Gull drew his rapier-point across Triumff’s left cheek. Dark red blood welled up and ran.

“Learn from this, you wastrel. Don’t cross me, and if you do, keep up your guard,” said Gull. “Though I hear it’s not the only thing you can’t keep up,” he added.

Triumff frowned as the jibe percolated slowly through his drink-crippled comprehension. Then his eyes snapped open, frighteningly sober for the first time.

“You can stuff that opprobrious tattle up your scabby hawsehole!” he exploded. His blade lashed out in a vicious blur that wrong-footed Gull entirely. The blow was instinctive, angry, and undirected by any conscious thought, and if it had been struck with the rapier blade rather than a vegetable peeler, Gull would have been on his way to his family mausoleum on the shores of Loch Larn. As it was, severed air fell away on either side of the small but razor-sharp implement. There was a brief impact, a sound like cabbage splitting, a yowl, and a spray of blood.

Gull left the yard in a bounding, frantic stride, his portly Spanish second fluttering in his wake and squeaking, “Señor! Señor capitan!”

Triumff slid to the flagstones, his back against the wall. He looked down at something that was cupped in his outstretched hand.

“Gull? Gull, don’t go,” he called out, weakly. “You’ve left an ear behind.”

The man in black stalked across to the sprawled drunk.

“Agnew,” said Triumff, looking up blearily, “Gull forgot an ear.”

“Really, sir.”

Triumff nodded, and then put a hand to his bloody cheek.

“You’d better call me a surgeon, Agnew,” he said.

“I’d rather,” muttered the older man on reflection, “call you a silly arse, sir.”

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Annihilation: Book Three by Keith Giffen, Christos N. Gage, and Stuart Moore

Following up the first two volumes of the Annihilation saga, we get to the explosive wrap up in Annihilation: Book Three. All of the four major story lines come crashing together, and the tale reaches an end, in the parts listed below:

Annihilation by Keith Giffen: The major event that everything was leading up to, Annihilation depicts the United Front, lead by Richard Rider (aka Nova), as they struggle against the seemingly endless onslaught of the Annihilation Wave. Gathering together a large cast of characters, including a number of the heralds of Galactus, Ronin the Accuser, Drax the Destroyer, and Peter Quill (Star-Lord), among many, many Kree and other characters, Nova’s forces are struggling to fight a losing battle. Even the surprise reappearance of a character thought dead doesn’t seem to have an effect. How can completely over-matched heroes turn the tides on an evil so powerful it could overthrow even Galactus? Everything is thrown into this story of epic space warfare, as huge armies on both sides and lots of big name characters go at it with the fate of the universe on the line. With plenty of twists, Annihilation is sure to satisfy any fan of Military Science Fiction.

Annihilation: Heralds of Galactus works as a sort of epilogue to the whole event, containing four short stories following four of Galactus’ heralds. Reviews of each story:

“Parasites” by Christos N. Gage: Terrax was under the control of Annihilus, but after the end of the war, his forced subservience is done, and he sets out, with Paibot and the Delinquent, to reclaim his honor and reputation as Terrax the Tamer. An entertaining but light tale that gives some closure to Terrax’s plot thread.

“Stardust: A Death of Hope” by Stuart Moore: Thought dead in the pages of Annihilation, Stardust turns out to be far harder to kill, and this tale gives much more detail on his origin than had been previously seen, as well as depicting Stardust’s return to his master. The weakest of the four stories, but still not bad, with a very interesting depiction of some very “alien” aliens.

“Afterburn” by Keith Giffen: The only herald whose fate was assured at the end of Annihilation, Firelord sets out to capture and execute members of the Centurions, Annihilus’ special army of super-powered beings, to serve justice against their war crimes. A well-conceived tale.

“Brother’s Keeper” by Keith Giffen: The final story is the most action-packed, with the Silver Surfer and Galactus facing Aegis and Tenebrous, wrapping up one of the last few remaining loose ends. The most exciting and fun piece of the four.

Annihilation: Nova Corps Files by Michael Hoskin, Anthony Flamini, Jeff Christiansen, Sean McQuaid, Ronald Byrd, Chris Biggs, Eric Engelhard, Chad Anderson, Stuart Vandal, Mike Raicht, and Mark O’English: A “data file” of all of the main players in Annihilation, this section gives their biographies as well as other pertinent information. By the end of the main storyline, some of the things in this section seem a little outdated (Annihilation: Nova Corps Files having been released before the conclusion of Annihilation originally before this collection), but it was still neat to get further information on where everyone came from before this story. A very in-depth and interesting source.

Annihilation: Book Three really closed things up on a huge, exciting, powerful conclusion, and built some major excitement for the continuations of the Marvel Cosmic milieu. After the conclusion of Annihilation, the ongoing series Nova begins, and leads directly into the Annihilation sequel, Annihilation: Conquest. That event in turn lead to the ongoing series Guardians of the Galaxy, and then things reach a head again in the major event War of Kings and its imminent sequel, Reign of Kings. All of these are things that Luke Reviews will definitely be checking out.


Sunday, November 22, 2009

Annihilation: Book Two by Keith Giffen, Javier Grillo-Marxuach, and Simon Furman

After the events depicted in “Annihilation Prologue” (which is found in Annihilation: Book One), the story of Annihilation broke into four major plot threads, each dealt with in a separate story. The first, Annihilation: Nova, was contained in Annihilation: Book One, while Annihilation: Book Two contains the other three, all leading up to the major storyline in Annihilation: Book Three.

Annihilation: Silver Surfer by Keith Giffen: As seen in “Annihilation Prologue,” the Silver Surfer felt an “infestation” in the universe, and went out searching to find its cause. However, he finds far more than that, bumping into Gabriel Air Walker, an Android friend of his, being murdered by men going by the name of Seekers. The Surfer uncovers a plot to hunt down all of the former heralds of the being known as Galactus, a hold-over from the universe that existed prior to the Big Bang that started ours. Giffen, the mastermind behind much of the Annihilation event, brings a compelling tale that ends on a number of mysterious, and brings a large cast of characters into the fold of the war that is to come. An interesting addition, if at times a little slow.

Annihilation: Super-Skrull by Javier Grillo-Marxuach: While undercover in “Annihilation Prologue,” Kl’rt, the Super-Skrull, heard of a device known as the Harvester of Sorrows, that was moving through the Skrull Empire, destroying planets and killing billions of Skrulls. However, Kl’rt is only moved to action due to the devices upcoming appearance at the world on which his son lives. After an escape from an evil warlord, Kl’rt sets out the save his son’s life. A well-told tale that had plenty of excitement and was full of twists.

Annihilation: Ronan by Simon Furman: Last seen being arrested by Kree forces in “Annihilation Prologue,” Ronan the Accuser was put on trial for treason, accused of using his duties as an Accuser (who acts as the complete judicial system, determining guilt, sentence, and execution of said sentence) to undermine the ruling house of the Kree, and is exiled. Ronan sets out to capture all who acted as witnesses against him, to find out the truth behind his false conviction. Yet, when arriving at a backwater planet, he finds that there is far more going on than just his revenge trip, and that the entire Kree Empire is in peril. Another well-done story, with an obviously lead-in to Annihilation.

Annihilation: Book Two does a solid job of taking the disparate tales first introduced in “Annihilation Prologue” and building upon them all until they are ready for the main event, building links that are just starting to show how they will draw all of these stories together. Both of the first two books build high levels of suspense and expectation for the final volume of this epic tale of war in space.


Friday, November 20, 2009

Annihilation: Book One by Keith Giffen and Dan Abnett & Andy Lanning

After a huge investment into Marvel Comics’ “cosmic universe,” picking up copies of Annihilation Classic, Silver Surfer: Rebirth of Thanos, Infinity Gauntlet, Infinity War, Infinity Crusade, Volume 1, and Infinity Crusade, Volume 2, I was finally up to date and ready to dive into the three volume Annihilation series. Yet it was a far longer space of time before I finally, now, return as promised. Annihilation: Book One contains three stories:

Drax the Destroyer: Earth Fall by Keith Giffen: Working as a prologue to the Annihilation series as a whole, this story follows a downed space craft prisoner transport that had been in the process of taking a number of convicts to an interstellar jail set up for those never to be released. However, after the ship malfunctions, the craft crashes on Earth, near a small town in Alaska. On board are a number of notable characters, including Paibok (Power Skrull), the Blood Brothers, Lunatik, and Drax the Destroyer. Paibok leads a takeover of the nearby town of Coot’s Bluff, while Drax seems to begin to recover some of his lacking intelligence. Yet, as he returns to the town, he is murdered by Paibok. From there, it is a fight to see who can save Coot’s Bluff. I very well done and entertaining story.

“Annihilation Prologue” by Keith Giffen: While Drax the Destroyer: Earth Fall sets up the Annihilation event, it is “Annihilation Prologue” that jumps things from Earth into space, and brings a large number of cosmic characters together to face the epic threat of the Annihilation Wave, an alien force so strong that it is destroying everything in its path, and the Xandarian Nova Crops is next in its path. A solid set-up to the story that will now branch out into four separate tales before pulling together again for the main body of the story.

Annihilation: Nova by Dan Abnett & Andy Lanning: The first tale to spin out of “Annihilation Prologue,” Annihilation: Nova follows Richard Rider, known as Nova, as he begins a quest in the aftermath of the Annihilation Wave hitting the Nova Corps. After meeting up with some characters that appeared in both of the previous two stories, he sets out across the universe, meeting up with Quasar and helping millions of refugees get out of the path of onslaught coming their way. Another solid story, with a conclusion that both wraps up the immediate story, but shows that there is still much to come.

In totality, Annihilation: Book One is an exciting beginning to the major cosmic event. You don’t get a larger portion of the meat of the story, as a big chunk of prefatory material, but it all sets up what has the potential to be one of the biggest and best stories in Marvel cosmic history, one that could rival even the Infinity Trilogy of Jim Starlin.


Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Lost Fleet: Dauntless by Jack Campbell

Anyone who is even a remotely regular reader of Luke Reviews knows that I am a very big fan of the Military Science Fiction subgenre. However, lately I haven’t gotten to read much of that, and I just knew it was time for a return. I was looking for a short, quick read, and I saw The Lost Fleet: Dauntless by Jack Campbell lying on my shelves, picked up on a whim many months ago, and thought, why not?

The Lost Fleet: Dauntless follows Captain John “Black Jack” Geary, member of the Alliance navy. Thought dead over a hundred years ago, Geary was picked up in an escape pod, preserved in suspended animation of a sort, and returned to a war he thought he had left behind, fighting the Syndics, the rival group of humanity fighting for control of the stars. As things begin to fall apart, the Alliance fleet that picked up Geary turn to him to save them, and help them to return home with a very valuable piece of equipment.

Dauntless is a little different from the usual fare of Military Science Fiction that I read, in that it focus on naval space battles, space ships fighting space ships, and not a close combat, more immediate type of conflict and action. However, that is certainly not a detriment, as Campbell takes the ideas to a whole new level.

The scientific aspect of the story is stellar in itself. Rarely seen taken into account, the relativistic affects of extreme speeds and the inability to see something in real time when it is in distances measured in terms of the speed of light, and the compensation needed to work around these limits, was sheer brilliance. They are integrated so smoothly into the plot, without any hitches at all, that it seems commonplace rather than genius.

The action is very tight and fast-paced as well. While there are only a couple of actual major battles in the book, both are huge, epic ordeals that are stretched out due to the vast distances of space, yet never lag in intensity. Every minute of potential dead-time is filled with perfect story-building elements. The plot is never lacking in the drive to keep you moving through the novel, be it the suspense of build-ups prolonged by distance, or the inter-personal relationships of people sharing a ship in the midst of space, or even the societal concepts that Campbell works in so subtly that you never once feel that they are out of place, every ounce of this book is worth the price and then some.

This reviewer was blown away by The Lost Fleet: Dauntless. You would be hard pressed to find another military science fiction book out in the last ten years that was as good a read as this one. Campbell balances religion, hero-worship, the ethics of war, the pain of losing a comrade, and leadership qualities in a non-stop page-turner. This was one of the best books ever reviewed here at Luke Reviews. Pick it up. And then find the sequel, The Lost Fleet: Fearless. I know I will.


Monday, November 16, 2009

“2 B R 0 2 B” by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Kurt Vonnegut is a huge name in the worlds of modern literature, as master satirist, black comedian, and thoughtful novelist. From his first novel, Player Piano, to classics such as Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five, to his later works, such as Hocus Pocus, Timequake, and Armageddon in Retrospect (which will be reviewed here sooner rather than later), he has put out one classic after another. However, his start was much humbler, selling short stories to magazines such as Worlds of If, including his sadly overlooked classic, “2 B R 0 2 B,” out in a very small paperback (pamphlet, almost) from Wildside Press.

“2 B R 0 2 B” is a brief glimpse into a utopian-esque future, where a peaceful planet is happily beyond the necessity of death, and population control helps everyone have the space they need. Yet, one father-to-be is about to have triplets, and his stay in the waiting room is fraught with anguish, because his children will die if he can’t find three volunteers to die in their place.

Vonnegut shows his powerful writing skills in this brief story of a utopia that may not be. The length is diminutive, but for the very small cover charge, this is a very good pick-up for a short burst of thought-provoking science fiction from a literary master.

[NOTE: Luke Reviews doesn’t give short stories individual ratings. “2 B R 0 2 B” is a short story, and thus receives no numerical rating.]

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, Volume 20 edited by Stephen Jones

As far as “best of the year” collections go, the horror field doesn’t have a huge number. Night Shade Books has just started up Best Horror of the Year, which seems to be replacing The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, which is currently on hiatus, if not canceled. Beyond that, it is slim pickings, with the sole exception being Stephen Jones’ The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror series, which has hit a twentieth year. As far as anthology series go, that is quite exceptional (The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror made only twenty-one). Jones begins things with a very long introduction, where he goes over the entire horror field, from books to short stories to graphic novels to television and movies, which is in itself a treasure trove of things to look into for the horror fan. After that, the tales begin:

“Front-Page McGuffin and the Greatest Story Never Told” by Peter Crowther: Crowther tells a story of a man who suffers the deepest of horrors: the death of his wife. This spectacular tale is equally beautiful and poignant, and the touches of humor are expertly done.

“It Runs Beneath the Surface” by Simon Strantzas: This tale of a man running from shadows is intriguing, but a touch predictable. Good, but not great.

“These Things We Have Always Known” by Lynda E. Rucker: A great “weird town” story, “These Things We Have Always Known” keeps the weird vibes rolling the whole way through.

“Feminine Endings” by Neil Gaiman: With one of the creepiest endings in the entire volume, Gaiman’s love letter is written in wonderful prose, and leads up to an excellent conclusion.

“Through the Cracks” by Gary McMahon: A Lovecraftian horror story of creatures trying to come through the cracks in our dimension, McMahon adds into the mix a very well-rounded character that can sometimes be missing in Lovecraft. An excellent story.

“Falling Off the World” by Tim Lebbon: Lebbon tries to add weird to the thought of getting lifted away by a balloon, but this story falls rather flat, containing no horror, just bizarre fantasy that didn’t do much at all as a story.

“The Old Traditions Are Best” by Paul Finch: An entertaining story of an old tradition meeting the modern world.

“The Long Way” by Ramsey Campbell: Likely the best story in the volume, Campbell’s tale of a boy haunted by an unknown figure is incredible. Campbell ties in the wonder of youth and the hardships of old-age, all while creating an incredible level of tension and suspense. A near perfect story.

“The Pile” by Michael Bishop: A shorter jaunt about a brother and sister who can’t escape the pile of goods that are left next to the dumpster. Entertaining, if not excellent. The story behind it, of Bishop writing it based on the notes of his son who was killed at the Virginia Tech shooting, is more powerful.

“Under Fog” by Tanith Lee: A sometimes dense tale of a town with a dark secret. It wasn’t as effective as the other weird town story in this volume, “These Things We Have Always Known.”

“Arkangel” by Christopher Fowler: A slow start lead to a wonderfully moody story of two friends trapped on a train with a very dark termination point.

“The Camping Wainwrights” by Ian R. MacLeod: A fun, atmospheric story that devolved into violence before reasserting itself, this almost non-horror story was a lot of fun to read, and another gem of this collection.

“A Donkey at the Mysteries” by Reggie Oliver: While Oliver packs in a lot of historical information (occasionally a little too heavily handed), it is a very fun story with great writing, and a conlusion more than worth the time spent reading.

“The Oram County Whoosit” by Steve Duffy: Another Lovecraftian tale, this of an unknown creature discovered in a small town, it also contains the inner part of the frame story, of a trip to the Yukon that resulted in terror. Duffy has made a wonderful homage to a master of the genre.

“The New York Times at Special Bargain Rates” by Stephen King: A touching and sad story of a woman getting one last conversation with her dead husband. A powerful piece by King. Another must read.

“Our Man in the Sudan” by Sarah Pinborough: Rather dry and without much of a conclusion, this story about a missing MI6 agent in the Sudan didn’t do much for me.

“’Destination Nihil’ by Edmund Bertrand” by Mark Samuels: A weird story that I am sure contained some deep, symbolic meaning that was totally over my head. Because of that, I found it odd and confusing, if a little reminiscent of (although far more hard to get than) Franz Kafka.

“The Overseer” by Albert E. Cowdrey: The longest story in the book, and one of the best, Cowdrey’s tale of Old South horror and haunting was incredible. He builds his historical setting richly, and then infuses the horror elements subtly and to full effect, with a denouement that was perfect. This plays a very close second to Ramsey Campbell’s story for best in the volume.

“The Beginnings of Sorrow” by Pinckney Benedict: A slow story of a dog becoming more man like, that I just couldn’t finish.

“The Place of Waiting” by Brian Lumley: This story I skipped. Nothing against Lumley, because he is a master of the genre without doubt, but I had a very busy few days and just wasn’t feeling like it. I will come back to read this one someday, and will share my thoughts then.

“2:00 pm: The Real Estate Agent Arrives” by Steve Rasnic Tem: A very short, very creepy story of a house not quite as free of horror as it would seem.

This is all wrapped up with a long and extensive “Necrology” by Stephen Jones & Kim Newman that gives a listing of the people important to the horror field who died within the last year, and their accomplishments, as well as a list of “useful addresses” for horror-related topics, including magazines and small press publishers.

All-in-all, The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, Volume 20 is a wonderful addition to any horror fans library. While some of the stories weren’t my thing, that is bound to occur with any volume of “best of” stories, as no editor will have the exact same tastes I do. From the “state of the genre” intro to the huge selection of stories, this is a volume that has huge amounts of fiction (it is indeed mammoth, both in page count and words per page) for a decent price. Check it out.


Thursday, November 12, 2009

Angry Robot US Release Dates

Angry Robot Books has finally announced the release of their books in the US. Below is the schedule for the first few months (and, as always, more information can be found over at the Angry Robot website).


Moxyland by Lauren Beukes

Slights by Kaaron Warren

Triumff: Her Majesty’s Hero by Dan Abnett

White Tiger by Kylie Chan (Book One of the Dark Heavens Trilogy)

Winter Song by Colin Harvey

Kell’s Legend by Andy Remic (Book One of the Clockwork Vampire Chronicles)


Amortals by Matt Forbeck

Damage Time by Colin Harvey

Sixty-One Nails by Mike Shevdon

Red Phoenix by Kylie Chan (Book Two of the Dark Heavens Trilogy)

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

Soul Stealers by Andy Remic (Book Two of the Clockwork Vampire Chronicles)


Blue Dragon by Kylie Chan (Book Three of the Dark Heavens Trilogy)

Nekropolis by Tim Waggoner (Book One of the Matt Richter series)

Vegas Knights by Matt Forbeck

The Crown of the Blood by Gav Thorpe

Walking the Tree by Kaaron Warren


City of Dreams and Nightmare by Ian Whates

Death’s Disciples by J. Robert King

Edge by Thomas Blackthorne

Embedded by Dan Abnett

The Road to Bedlam by Mike Shevdon


Dead Streets by Tim Waggoner (Book Two of the Matt Richter series)

Book of Secrets by Chris Roberson

King Maker by Maurice Broaddus (Book One of The Knights of Breton Court series)

Point by Thomas Blackthorne

Servant of the Underworld by Aliette de Bodard

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Warhammer 40,000 Movie Announcement

Among the many tie-in franchises throwing out movies, noticeably missing has always been Games Workshops' two major franchise, Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000. But no longer! The announcement has been made for Ultramarines: A Warhammer 40,000 Movie.

Monday, November 9, 2009

FREE FICTION: U Is For Undertow by Sue Grafton

Another bit of free fiction here at Luke Reviews, we this time are featuring Sue Grafton, famed creator of the Kinsey Millhone mystery series. Her newest book, U Is For Undertow, will be released on December 1st, but here at Luke Reviews we have a special look ahead at the first chapter of the new novel.


Wednesday afternoon, April 6, 1988

What fascinates me about life is that now and then the past rises up and declares itself. Afterward, the sequence of events seems inevitable, but only because cause and effect have been aligned in advance. It’s like a pattern of dominoes arranged upright on a tabletop. With the flick of your finger, the first tile topples into the second, which in turn tips into the third, setting in motion a tumbling that goes on and on, each tile knocking over its neighbor until all of them fall down. Sometimes the impetus is pure chance, though I discount the notion of accidents. Fate stitches together elements that seem unrelated on the surface. It’s only when the truth emerges you see how the bones are joined and everything connects.

Here’s the odd part. In my ten years as a private eye, this was the first case I ever managed to resolve without crossing paths with the bad guys. Except at the end, of course.


My name is Kinsey Millhone. I’m a private detective, female, age thirty-seven, with my thirty-eighth birthday coming up in a month. Having been married and divorced twice, I’m now happily single and expect to remain so for life. I have no children thus far and I don’t anticipate bearing any. Not only are my eggs getting old, but my biological clock wound down a long time ago. I suppose there’s always room for one of life’s little surprises, but that’s not the way to bet.

I work solo out of a rented bungalow in Santa Teresa, California, a town of roughly 85,000 souls who generate sufficient crime to occupy the Santa Teresa Police Department, the County Sheriff’s Department, the California Highway Patrol, and the twenty-five or so local private investigators like me. Movies and television shows would have you believe a PI’s job is dangerous, but nothing could be farther from the truth . . . except, of course, on the rare occasions when someone tries to kill me. Then I’m ever so happy my health insurance premiums are paid up. Threat of death aside, the job is largely research, requiring intuition, tenacity, and ingenuity. Most of my clients reach me by referral and their business ranges from background checks to process serving, with countless other matters in between. My office is off the beaten path and I seldom have a client appear unannounced, so when I heard a tapping at the door to my outer office, I got up and peered around the corner to see who it was.

Through the glass I saw a young man pointing at the knob. I’d apparently turned the dead bolt to the locked position when I’d come back from lunch. I let him in, saying, “Sorry about that. I must have locked up after myself without being aware of it.”

“You’re Ms. Millhone?”


“Michael Sutton,” he said, extending his hand. “Do you have time to talk?”

We shook hands. “Sure. Can I offer you a cup of coffee?”

“No, thanks. I’m fine.”

I ushered him into my office while I registered his appearance in a series of quick takes. Slim. Lank brown hair with a sheen to it, worn long on top and cut short over his ears. Solemn brown eyes, complexion as clear as a baby’s. There was a prep school air about him: deck shoes without socks, sharply creased chinos, and a short-sleeve white dress shirt he wore with a tie. He had the body of a boy: narrow shoulders, narrow hips, and long, smooth arms. He looked young enough to be carded if he tried to buy booze. I couldn’t imagine what sort of problem he’d have that would require my services.

I returned to my swivel chair and he settled in the chair on the other side of the desk. I glanced at my calendar, wondering if I’d set up an appointment and promptly forgotten it.

He noticed the visual reference and said, “Detective Phillips at the police department gave me your name and address. I should have called first, but your office was close by. I hope this isn’t an inconvenience.”

“Not at all,” I said. “My first name’s Kinsey, which you’re welcome to use. You prefer Michael or Mike?”

“Most people call me Sutton. In my kindergarten class, there were two other Michaels so the teacher used our last names to distin¬guish us. Boorman, Sutton, and Trautwein—like a law firm. We’re still friends.”

“Where was this?”


I said, “Ah.” I should have guessed as much. Climping Academy is the private school in Horton Ravine, K through 12. Tuition starts at twelve grand for the little tykes and rises incrementally through the upper grades. I don’t know where it tops out, but you could probably pick up a respectable college education for the same price. All the students enrolled there referred to it as “Climp,” as though the proper appellation was just, like, sooo beside the point. Watching him, I wondered if my blue-collar roots were as obvious to him as his upper-class status was to me.

We exchanged pleasantries while I waited for him to unload. The advantage of a prearranged appointment is that I begin the first meeting with at least some idea what a prospective client has in mind. People skittish about revealing their personal problems to a stranger often find it easier to do by phone. With this kid, I figured we’d have to dance around some before he got down to his business, whatever it was.

He asked how long I’d been a private investigator. This is a question I’m sometimes asked at cocktail parties (on the rare occasion when I’m invited to one). It’s the sort of blah-blah-blah conversational gambit I don’t much care for. I gave him a rundown of my employment history. I skipped over the two lackluster semesters at the local junior college and started with my graduation from the police academy. I then covered the two years I’d worked for the Santa Teresa PD before I realized how ill suited I was to a life in uniform. I proceeded with a brief account of my subsequent apprenticeship with a local agency, run by Ben Byrd and Morley Shine, two private investigators, who’d trained me in preparation for licensing. I’d had my ups and downs over the years, but I spared him the details since he’d only inquired as a stalling technique. “What about you? Are you a California native?”

“Yes, ma’am. I grew up in Horton Ravine. My family lived on Via Ynez until I went off to college. I lived a couple of other places, but now I’m back.”

“You still have family here?”

His hesitation was one of those nearly imperceptible blips that indicates internal editing. “My parents are gone. I have two older brothers, both married with two kids each, and an older sister who’s divorced. We’re not on good terms. We haven’t been for years.”

I let that pass without comment, being better acquainted with family estrangement than I cared to admit. “How do you know Cheney Phillips?”

“I don’t. I went into the police department, asking to speak to a detective, and he happened to be free. When I told him my situation, he said you might be able to help.”

“Well, let’s hope so,” I said. “Cheney’s a good guy. I’ve known him for years.” I shut my mouth then and let a silence descend, a stratagem with remarkable powers to make the other guy talk.

Sutton touched the knot in his tie. “I know you’re busy, so I’ll get to the point. I hope you’ll bear with me. The story might sound weird.”

“Weird stories are the best kind, so fire away,” I said.

He looked at the floor as he spoke, making eye contact now and then to see if I was following. “I don’t know if you saw this, but a couple of weeks ago, there was an article in the newspaper about famous kidnappings: Marion Parker, the twelve-year-old girl who was abducted in 1927; the Lindbergh baby in ’thirty-two; another kid, named Etan Patz. Ordinarily, I don’t read things like that, but what caught my attention was the case here in town . . .”

“You’re talking about Mary Claire Fitzhugh—1967.”

“You remember her?”

“Sure. I’d just graduated from high school. Little four-year-old girl taken from her parents’ home in Horton Ravine. The Fitzhughs agreed to pay the ransom, but the money was never picked up and the child was never seen again.”

“Exactly. The thing is, when I saw the name Mary Claire Fitzhugh, I had this flash—something I hadn’t thought about for years.” He clasped his hands together and squeezed them between his knees. “When I was a little kid, I was playing in the woods and I came across these two guys digging a hole. I remember seeing a bundle on the ground a few feet away. At the time, I didn’t understand what I was looking at, but now I believe it was Mary Claire’s body and they were burying her.”

I said, “You actually saw the child?”

He shook his head. “She was wrapped in a blanket, so I couldn’t see her face or anything else.”

I studied him with interest. “What makes you think it was Mary Claire? That’s a big leap.”

“Because I went back and checked the old newspaper accounts and the dates line up.”

“What dates?”

“Oh, sorry. I should have mentioned this before. She was kidnapped on July 19, which was a Wednesday. I saw the guys on Friday, July 21, 1967 . . . my birthday, the year I turned six. That’s how I made the association. I think she was already dead by then and they were getting rid of the body.”

“And this was where?”

“Horton Ravine. I don’t know the exact location. My mother had errands to run that day so she dropped me off at some kid’s house. I don’t remember his name. I guess his mom had agreed to look after me while she was gone. Turns out the other kid woke up with a fever and sore throat. Chicken pox was going around and his mom didn’t want me exposed in case that’s what it was, so she made him stay in his room while I hung around downstairs. I got bored and asked if I could go outside. She said I could as long as I didn’t leave the property. I remember finding this tree with branches that hung down to make a little room, so I played there for a while, pretending I was a bandit in a cool hideout. I heard voices and when I peeped through the leaves, I saw the two guys walk by with shovels and stuff and I followed them.”

“What time of day?”

“Must have been late morning because after I came in again, the kid’s mother fed me lunch—a plain lettuce and tomato sandwich, no bacon, and it was made with Miracle Whip. Our family didn’t eat Miracle Whip. My mother wouldn’t have it in the house. She said it was disgusting compared to real homemade mayonnaise.”

“Your mother made mayonnaise?

“The cook did.”


“Anyway, Mom always said it was rude to complain, so I ate what I could and left the rest on my plate. The kid’s mom hadn’t even cut the crusts off the bread.”

“There’s a shock,” I said. “I’m impressed your memory’s so clear.”

“Not clear enough or I wouldn’t be here. I’m pretty sure the two guys I saw were the ones who abducted Mary Claire, but I have no idea where I was. I know I’d never been to the house before and I never went there again.”

“Any chance one of your siblings would remember who the kid was?”

“I guess it’s possible. Unfortunately, we don’t get along. We haven’t spoken in years.”

“So you said.”

“Sorry. I don’t mean to repeat myself. The point is, I can’t call them up out of a clear blue sky. Even if I did, I doubt they’d talk to me.”

“But I could ask, couldn’t I? That would be the obvious first move if you’re serious about this.” He shook his head.

“I don’t want them involved, especially my sister, Dee. She’s difficult. You don’t want to mess with her.”

“All right. We’ll scratch that for now. Maybe the kid’s mother was being paid to babysit.”

“That wasn’t my impression. More like she was doing Mom a favor.”

“What about your classmates? Maybe she left you with one of the other moms, like a playdate.”

Sutton blinked twice. “That’s a possibility I hadn’t thought of. I’ve kept in touch with the other two Michaels, Boorman and Trautwein, but that’s the extent of it. I didn’t like anybody else in my kindergarten class and they didn’t like me.”

“It doesn’t matter if you liked them or not. We’re trying to identify the boy.”

“I don’t remember anyone else.”

“It should be easy enough to come up with a list. You must have had class photos. You could go back to the school library and check the ’67 yearbook.”

“I don’t want to go back to Climp. I hate the idea.”

“It’s just a suggestion. So far, we’re brainstorming,” I said. “Tell me about the two guys. How old would you say?”

“I’m not sure. Older than my brothers, who were ten and twelve at the time, but not as old as my dad.”

“Did they see you?”

“Not then. I decided to spy on them, but where they ended up was too far away and I couldn’t see what they were doing. I sneaked up on them, crawling through the bushes and crouching behind a big oak. It was hot and they were sweating so they’d taken off their shirts. I guess I wasn’t as quiet as I thought because one of them spotted me and they both jumped. They stopped what they were doing and asked what I wanted.”

“You actually talked to them?”

“Oh, sure. Absolutely. We had this whole conversation. I thought they were pirates and I was all excited about meeting them.”


“My mother was reading me Peter Pan at bedtime, and I loved the illustrations. The pirates wore bandanas tied around their heads, which is what the two guys had done.”

“Beards? Earrings? Eye patches?”

That netted me a smile, but not much of one. He shook his head. “It was the bandanas that reminded me of pirates. I told them I knew that because of Peter Pan.”

“What’d you talk about?”

“First, I asked ’em if they were pirates for real and they told me they were. The one guy talked more than the other and when I asked what they were doing, he said they were digging for buried treasure . . .”

As Sutton spoke, I could see him regressing to the little boy he’d been, earnest and easily impressed. He leaned forward in his chair. “I asked if the treasure was gold doubloons, but they said they didn’t know because they hadn’t found it yet. I asked to see the treasure map and they said they couldn’t show me because they were sworn to secrecy. I’d seen the bundle on the ground, over by this tree, and when I asked about it, the first guy said it was a bedroll in case they got tired. I offered to help dig, but he told me the job was only for grown-ups and little kids weren’t allowed. And then the other one spoke up and asked where I lived. I told them I lived in a white house, but not on this street, that I was visiting. The first guy asked what my name was. I told him and the other one spoke up again and said he thought he heard someone calling me so I better go, which is what I did. The whole exchange couldn’t have taken more than three minutes.”

“I don’t suppose either of them mentioned their names?”

“No. I probably should have asked, but it didn’t occur to me.”

“Your recall impresses me. Much of my life at that age is a total blank.”

“I hadn’t thought about the incident for years, but once the memory was triggered, I was right there again. Just like, boom.”

I reran the story in my mind, trying to digest the whole of it. “Tell me again why you think there’s a connection to Mary Claire. That still seems like a stretch.”

“I don’t know what else to say. Intuition, I guess.” “What about the kidnapping. How did that go down? I remember the broad strokes, but not the particulars.”

“The whole thing was horrible. Those poor people. The ransom note said not to contact the police or the FBI, but Mr. Fitzhugh did it anyway. He thought it was the only way to save her, but he was wrong.”

“The first contact was the note?”

Sutton nodded. “Later they phoned and said he had one day to get the money together or else. Mr. Fitzhugh had already called the police and they were the ones who contacted the FBI. The special agent in charge convinced him they’d have a better chance of nabbing the guys if he and his wife appear to cooperate, so they advised him to do as he was told…”

“Twenty-five thousand dollars, wasn’t it? Somehow the number sticks in my head.”

“Exactly. The kidnappers wanted it in small bills, packed in a gym bag. They called again and told him where he was supposed to leave the money. He stalled. They must have thought there was a trap on the line because they cut the call short.”

“So he dropped off the ransom money and the kidnappers didn’t show.”

“Right. After a day passed, it was clear the FBI had bungled it. They still thought they had a chance, but Mr. Fitzhugh said to hell with them and took matters into his own hands. He notified the news-papers and the radio and TV stations. After the story broke, Mary Claire was all anybody talked about—my parents and everyone else.”

“What day was it by then?”

“Sunday. Like I said before, she was kidnapped on Wednesday and I saw them on Friday. The paper didn’t carry the story until Sunday.”

“Why didn’t you speak up?”

“I did. I’d already done that. When my mother came to get me, I told her about the pirates. I felt guilty. Like I’d done something wrong.”

“How so?”

“I don’t know how to pin it down. I believed what they said about digging for treasure. When you’re six, things like that make perfect sense, but on some level I was anxious and I wanted reassurance. In-stead, Mom got mad. She said I wasn’t supposed to talk to strangers and she made me promise I’d never do it again. When we got home, she sent me straight to my room. On Sunday we heard the news about Mary Claire.”

“And your mother didn’t see the relevance?”

“I guess not. She never mentioned it and I was too scared to bring it up again. She’d already punished me once. I kept my mouth shut so she wouldn’t punish me again.”

“But it worried you.”

“For a while, sure. After that, I put the incident out of my mind. Then I saw Mary Claire’s name and it all came back.”

“Did you ever see either guy again?”

“I don’t think so. Maybe one of them. I’m not sure.”

“And where would that have been?”

“I don’t remember. I might have made a mistake.”

I picked up a pencil and made a mark on the yellow pad lying on my desk. “When you explained this to Cheney, what was his response?”

His shoulder went up in a half-shrug. “He said he’d check the old case notes, but he couldn’t do much more because the information I’d given him was too vague. That’s when he mentioned you.”

“Sounds like he was passing the buck.”

“Actually, what he said was you were like a little terrier when it came to flushing out rats.”

“Sucking up,” I said. Mentally, I was rolling my eyes because Cheney wasn’t far off the mark. I liked picking at problems and this was a doozy. “What about the house itself? Think you’d recognize it if you saw it again?”

“I doubt it. Right after I read the article, I drove around the old neighborhood, and even the areas I knew well had changed. Trees were gone, shrubs were overgrown, new houses had gone up. Of course, I didn’t cover the whole of Horton Ravine, but I’m not sure it would have made any difference since I don’t have a clear image. I think I’d recognize the place in the woods. The house is a blur.”

“So twenty-one years later, you’re clueless and hoping I can figure out where you were.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“You want me to find an unmarked grave, basically a hole.”

“Can you do it?”

“I don’t know. I’ve never tried before.”

I studied him, chasing the idea around to see where it might go. “It’s an interesting proposition. I’ll give you that.”

I rocked in my swivel chair, listening to the squeak, while I sifted through the story, wondering what I’d missed. There was something more going on, but I couldn’t imagine what. Finally, I said, “What’s your stake in the situation? I know it bothers you, but why to this extent?”

“I don’t know. I mean, the article talked about how the kidnapping ruined Mrs. Fitzhugh’s life. She and her husband divorced and he ended up leaving town. She still has no idea what happened to her little girl. She doesn’t even know for sure she’s dead. If I can help, it seems like the right thing to do.”

“It’s going to cost you,” I said.

“I figured as much.”

“What sort of work do you do?”

“Nothing right now. I lost my job so I’m on unemployment.”

“What was the job?”

“I sold advertising for KSPL.”

KSPL was the local AM station I sometimes tuned in on my car radio when I was tooling around town. “How long were you there?”

“About a year, maybe a little less.”

“What’s it mean when you say you ‘lost’ your job? Were you laid off, downsized, fired, what?”

He hesitated. “The last one.”


He nodded.

I waited and when it was clear he had no intention of continuing, I gave him a nudge. “Uh, Sutton, I’d consider it a courtesy if you’d be a bit more forthcoming. Would you care to fill me in?”

He rubbed his palms on his pants. “I said I had a BA from Stanford, but it wasn’t really true. I was enrolled and attended classes for a couple of years, but I didn’t graduate.”

“So you lied on the application?”

“Look, I know I made a mistake . . .”

“That would cover it,” I said.

“But I can’t do anything about it now. What’s done is done and I just have to move on.”

I’d heard a host of criminals make the same remark, like boosting cars, robbing banks, and killing folks could be brushed aside, a minor stumble on the path of life. “Have you given any thought to how you’re going to pay me out of your unemployment benefits? We’re talking about five hundred bucks a day, plus expenses. Assuming I agree to help, which I haven’t.”

“I have some money set aside. I thought I’d write a check for one day’s work and we’d see how it goes from there.”

“A check?

A flush tinted his cheeks. “I guess that’s not such a hot idea.”

“You got that right. What’s plan B?”

“If you’re going to be here for a while, I could make a quick run to the bank and bring you cash.”

I considered the notion. The prime item on my Thursday To Do list was to make a bank deposit and pay bills. I had two reports to write and a few calls to make, but I could shift those to Friday. The job it-self might end in folly, but at least when he mentioned “the right thing to do,” he didn’t turn around and ask me to work for free. I wasn’t convinced he was right about what he’d seen, but Cheney must have considered the story credible or he wouldn’t have sent him over to me.

“Okay. One day, but that’s it. And only if you pay me cash in advance. I’ll be here until five o’clock. That should give you plenty of time.”

“Great. That’s great.”

“I don’t know how great it is, but it’s the best I can do. When you get back, if I happen to be out, you can stick the money through the mail slot. In the meantime, give me a contact number so I’ll know how to reach you.”

I handed him my yellow pad and watched while he scribbled down his address and telephone number. In return I handed him my business card with my office number and address.

He said, “I really appreciate this. I don’t know what I’d have done if you hadn’t agreed.”

“I’ll probably regret it, but what the hell? It’s only one day,” I said. If I’d been listening closely, I’d have caught the sound of the gods having a great big old tee-hee at my expense.

I said, “You’re sure you don’t want to make the trip up to Climp? It would save you a few bucks.”

“I don’t want to. They probably wouldn’t talk to me in any event.”

“I see.” I studied him. “You want to tell me what’s going on here? You can’t talk to your siblings and now you can’t talk to your prep school pals?”

“I already told you I didn’t have pals. It has more to do with the administration.”

“How come?”

“There were some difficulties. I had a problem.”

“Like what, you were expelled?” I love stories about flunking and expulsions. With my history of screwups, those are like fairy tales.

“It’s not something I want to get into. It has nothing to do with this.” A stubborn note had crept into his voice. “You go up there. They’ll let you see yearbooks as easily as me.”

“I doubt it. Educational institutions hate handing over information about their students. Especially with the words ‘private investigator’ thrown into the mix.”

“Don’t tell ’em you’re a PI. Think of something else.”

“I didn’t even attend Climping Academy so why would I want to see a yearbook? It makes no sense.”

He shook his head. “I won’t do it. I have my reasons.”

“Which you’re not about to share.”


“Okay, fine. It’s no skin off my nose. If that’s how you want to spend your five hundred bucks, I can live with it. I love driving through Horton Ravine.”

I got up, and as we shook hands again, I realized what was bothering me. “One more question.”

“What’s that?”

“The article came out two weeks ago. Why’d you wait so long before you went to the police?”

He hesitated. “I was nervous. All I have is a hunch. I didn’t want the police to write me off as a crank.”

“Nuh-uh. That’s not all of it. What else?”

He was silent for a moment, color rising in his cheeks again. “What if the guys find out I remembered them? I might have been the only witness and I told them my name. If they’re the ones who killed Mary Claire, why wouldn’t they kill me?”