Saturday, February 27, 2010

Erewhon by Samuel Butler

Continuing my six book series on Victorian genre fiction (following The Coming Race by Edward Bulwer-Lytton) is Erewhon, Samuel Butler’s most famous novel besides his posthumous classic, The Way of All Flesh. While more of a satire than a straight fantasy novel, the traits and tropes are here, and make it another building block of modern genre fiction.

Once again, we follow an unnamed narrator. He travels over a mountain pass in a land that he refuses to provide the location of, and enters into the land of Erewhon (Nowhere spelled backwards, with the w and h switched so it sounds better; the backwards names becomes a reoccurring trend). Here he finds a bizarre culture that seems to be the reverse of “good” Victorian society, and he comes to grips with his newfound surroundings.

While The Coming Race played straight with the usual trends, Butler uses it as a vehicle to make pointed (if rather silly at times, like just naming things backward words) commentary on Victorian England. Butler’s prose is far richer than Bulwer-Lytton’s was, but this can take over the book, leaving huge lacks of plot to lavish details on the society of the Erewhonians. Over-detailed setting kills plot again.

This wasn’t quite what I was looking for, and not what I was in the mood to read now, so it didn’t get finished. Not the books fault, just a victim of circumstance, but this one will take a little more work to get through. Not because it is difficult to understand, just that in fiction it can be hard to sit through a story with no plot. Erewhonian society was interesting, but not enough so to carry the entire novel.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Gran’s Secret by Trevis Powell

NOTE: Gran’s Secret was a free review copy provided to Luke Reviews by Black Wyrm Books.

Luke Reviews is always on the lookout for new publishers, especially those that are putting out great stuff but are small and don’t get a lot of notice. One such publisher that I found out about was Black Wyrm Books, part of Black Wyrm Games, that is putting out some solid fiction. Even better, it is short. That may sound odd, I suppose, but I’ll explain. The Science Fiction and (especially) Fantasy market today is being assaulted with HUGE tomes that meander and wander and don’t get anywhere too quickly, and become HUGE series of HUGE books, and when I am excited about a number of new books, there is no way that I’m going to go back and read thousands and thousands of pages of backstory. Along comes Black Wyrm, and they have the answer. In short novels/long novellas and short fiction collections, they are working on spreading the genre without the massive word count. I couldn’t wait to jump on board. The first book I received from Black Wyrm is Gran’s Secret, book two of the Were-War Series. While I missed the first volume of the series, it wasn’t vital to my enjoyment of Gran’s Secret.

Following a Were attack on the small town of Cobble (which occurred in the first volume of the series), Gran’s son has died, and her grandson is Cursed by a Were to become a Were himself. Gran sends him off to learn to control his Curse. However, people don’t want to leave well enough alone, and after having to commit a crime to save her grandson, Gran goes on the run to find out what the secret behind all of these attacks is, all while a neighboring kingdom is planning a surprise uprising and is about to be on the warpath.

Gran’s Secret proved to be surprisingly hard to put down. Gran was a wonderfully realized character, and really propelled the story along. As her mysteries are revealed one by one, the story deepens, and the book reaches a satisfying conclusion that leaves plenty for further volumes. Powell wastes no space in telling his story, giving us his tale without loads of unnecessary and dry extras, and keeps the pace quick.

My only displeasure with the book is that 80-90% of it follows the story of Gran, with interjections from the enemy, but at the very end Gran’s grandson become the focal character. While this may fit with the over-arching series, it was an odd change up right at the very end of the book, and I found myself missing Gran’s point-of-view.

Overall, however, Gran’s Secret was a lot of fun to read, and bodes well for both Black Wyrm and Trevis Powell. I very much look forward to more of each. Luckily, I have a couple more Black Wyrm books on my shelf to read soon.


Monday, February 22, 2010

Molly Fyde and the Land of Light by Hugh Howey

NOTE: Molly Fyde and the Land of Light was a free review copy provided to Luke Reviews by Hugh Howey.

The Top 15 Books of 2009 here at Luke Reviews included Hugh Howey’s entertaining first novel, Molly Fyde and the Parsona Rescue. It was a very fun tale, and I was much anticipating the sequel. This feeling increased when I saw that Luke Reviews was going to be getting its first ever cover blurb on Howey’s second book, Molly Fyde and the Land of Light. I was of course very excited, and couldn’t wait to get my hands on a copy.

After the cliff-hanger ending of Molly Fyde and the Parsona Rescue, we are thrown right back into the story, as Molly tries to piece together the surprise appearance of her mother and the search for her father, all while on the run from the Navy. However, things go awry almost instantly, as the Navy attacks and a crew member’s life is in danger. The path leads them to the heart of humanity’s greatest enemy, the planet Drenard, and begins the quest to discover what Molly’s parents are working on, and just who the Bern (from the title of the series, The Bern Saga) are.

After the sweeping adventure of Molly Fyde and the Parsona Rescue, Molly Fyde and the Land of Light is the action epic of the series, with space battles, desert quests, and an explosive escape attempt from a moon overflowing with androids. The close escapes and explosions are provided aplenty. There is very little to find wrong with this novel. It has a different feel than the first, more fast-paced and a bit darker in tone, which suited the story.

The characters continue to work, as well. They don’t stray from their characterization, and their interactions never feel forced or flawed. The aliens are suitably alien, yet still are very relatable. The conclusion is suitably open-ended to facilitate the rest of the series, and far more is left up in the air than last time. With everyone broken into three groups and fighting to reach their goals, the suspense will make it hard for you to wait until the release of Molly Fyde and the Blood of Billions. Give this series a go. It is small press gold.


Thursday, February 18, 2010

Explorer X – Alpha by L. M. Preston

NOTE: Explorer X - Alpha was a free review copy provided to Luke Reviews by L. M. Preston.

Luke Reviews occasionally looks at YA fiction that fits in the usual genres of choice, but not often. However, when I received the request to review L.M. Preston’s first novel, I really wanted to give it a go. Her goal is to inspire young adults, to show them that they can overcome seemingly insurmountable odds and achieve their dreams. That is a cause I can get behind. Thus, I dove into Explorer X – Alpha with high hopes.

Aadi’s parents sign him up for space camp. He has no interest in going, but at his parents insistence he does. Along with learning how to pilot a ship that will take him to other planets and having a strenuous physical exam, Aadi meets a number of other kids his age, creating friendships and making enemies. However, when the immunization shots prove to be more than they seem, and a freak accident occurs, Aadi and his partner, Eirena, must pull together to save themselves, and return to save their friends.

Explorer X – Alpha occasionally suffers from common problems you see among self-published books; mainly, the occasional awkward dialogue, or a missing character motivation. These rough patches aren’t constant, but they do pop up occasionally.

That said, however, the story itself more than makes up for the occasionally unpolished details. Preston has created a very fun story that the reader will get into rapidly and without problem. The major characters are very fun, and their relationships feel very human. The interactions feel right, and the story keeps up a nice pace. The best part, however, is that Preston has created a story that, while very accessible to the YA age group, is a book that the older crowd can have fun with as well. Parents will enjoy reading this to their kids, or sharing it with them after they got a crack at it. A YA story doesn’t have to overly simplify, and can certainly appeal to all ages, and Preston makes a very good stab at that here.

Explorer X – Alpha is occasionally flawed, but the story is more than worth it, and any perceived problems can be easily moved past. This one is very enjoyable, and a great set up to a series I can’t wait to read more of.


Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Rynn’s World by Steve Parker

NOTE: Rynn’s World was a free review copy provided to Luke Reviews by The Black Library.

Space Marine Battles is the new deluxe-styled series from Black Library, the kind people who bring you Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 fiction. The series focuses on pivotal battles in the Warhammer 40,000 universe through a series of stand-alone novels. They are a trade paperback size (the same as Black Library’s omnibus volumes) and include full color map inserts.

The first novel of the series follows the Crimson Fists, who are on their home world of Rynn’s World, celebrating the formation of their Chapter and all of their brothers who fell in the line of duty. However, on the nearby planet of Badlanding, Orks attack and take over the world. The Crimson Fists set out to stop the orks at Badlanding, but the mission fails and the Orks continue on to Rynn’s World. After a disaster that almost wipes out the Fists, they must protect their entire world from the oncoming horde of orks.

This book flopped for me. I was beyond excited for it, and it really let me down. Good reviews of it seem to be popping up frequently, and I don’t get it. One would think that a series titled Space Marine Battles would have just that: Space Marines in combat. While there were Space Marines aplenty, the battles in the first half of the novel were few and far between. After far too much unnecessary time spent doing nothing on Rynn’s World, we finally get a chapter on Badlanding as the Fists attack the orks there. Things picked up, then the orks won, and everything died right back down again. The orks attack Rynn’s World, I think things could get good, but right before things really hit the fan, disaster strikes and almost everyone dies. Battle over.

The characters also were flops. The Chapter Master is a sort of messianic character who can do absolutely no wrong and is always cool and calm, he is best friends with the unthinking hot head, we have the “I hate mere humans” Space Marine (who lets us know he hates mere humans over and over and over) and the “I pity humans” counterbalance character to fix things in his wake. They are all flat, and play on over-done stereotypes.

I got about halfway, so this one earned above a 1/10, and scores a 2/10 for still being unfinishable. That said, it wasn’t by much. For a series I had so much anticipation for, it sure started on a sour note. I’m now a bit hesitant on the next books in this series, but I’m hoping Aaron Dembski-Bowden can blow me out of the water again like he did with Cadian Blood.


Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Coming Race by Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Part of loving a genre is exploring its roots. While science fiction, fantasy, horror, and adventure all go back quite some time, exploring Victorian-era works that fit into my genres of choice seemed like a fun idea, and a nice change of pace for Luke Reviews. Therefore, Luke Reviews is going to explore some of these works here on the site, mixed in with the usual fare. A six book list for my foray into Victorian (and a couple post-Victorian works that still really fit into the Victorian genre fiction sensibilities) can be found below:

The Coming Race by Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Erewhon by Samuel Butler

Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

King solomon’s Mines by H. Rider Haggard

Green Mansions by W. H. Hudson

The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle

I hope you enjoy exploring the genre fiction of an earlier age, and that it provides a bit of a fresh experience along with all of the modern fiction. Take the time to read the classics you always hear about!

A man is exploring a mine when he stumbles upon a hidden underground society. This people, who call themselves the Vril-ya, are exceptionally advanced in the sciences through the use of a mysterious substance known as vril. However, as the narrator learns more and more about them, he also learns of their terrifying power and their belief that they are to one day rise up from the depths and take back the surface world from humans.

While this novel at first seems to be a “hollow Earth” adventure story, like Edgar Rice Burroughs’ classic novel At the Earth’s Core, it turns to be very little like that. After the initial bit of getting our un-named narrator to the Vril-ya, the largest section of the book is made up of his observations of their culture. This can be both fascinating and frustrating. Bulwer-Lytton’s in-depth creativity in assembling his culture is certainly impressive, but it derails any semblance of plot for a substantial portion of the book. After an extensive crash course in Vril-ya society, we get back to the plot with a bizarre love tangle-up, before our narrator is faced with a life-threatening situation.

For a book of its time, it was immensely popular, but certain sections of The Coming Race have aged poorly. If you are willing to work with the extensive sections that lack plot, but are almost textbook is style, you will find a lot of treasures, both in the essays on their society and the story itself. However, if you are an impatient reader and want a quick, exciting story, this likely won’t be the book for you. That should be considered before deciding on the book based on the rating alone. For fans of science fiction, who want to explore the history of the genre, this would seem to be a key text, and worth the visit.


Thursday, February 11, 2010

Review Copies and the FTC

As many of you know/have guessed, Luke Reviews has worked in the past and continues to work still with a number of publishers and authors in reviewing books. This basically means that they send me review copies and I read and review them. Just recently, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission has announced a new ruling: websites and blogs that review products (including books) must state if they received these products free of charge. This was done in an attempt to prevent the reviewer from taking a step over the ethical line and becoming an advertiser.

Luke Reviews strives for honest reviews of all books it reviews, be they ones that were sent to me or that I bought on my own. As that has always been my goal, I never took the step that many other sites already had to announce in each review if I had received the book for free. It was something I consider, but decided was unnecessary. However, with the FTC ruling, and my desire not to be fined, I will now provide with each review a brief statement saying from whom the book was sent, but only if it was a free review copy. Reviews appearing without this statement are books that were bought.

FORMAT: [Title of Book] was a free review copy provided to Luke Reviews by [Name of Publisher/Author].

EXAMPLE: Kell’s Legend was a free review copy provided to Luke Reviews by Angry Robot Books.

In an attempt to make a retro-effective stance on this, below is a list of books previously reviewed at Luke Reviews that were free review copies.


Angry Robot Books

Kell’s Legend by Andy Remic

Book of Secrets by Chris Roberson

Slights by Kaaron Warren

Apex Publications

Prime by Nate Kenyon

Black Gate Magazine

Black Gate Spring 2009

Black Library

Ravenor by Dan Abnett

The Chronicles of Malus Darkblade: Volume Two by Dan Abnett & Mike Lee

“Thunder from Fenris” by Nick Kyme

The Killing Ground by Graham McNeill

Courage and Honour by Graham McNeill

Sons of Dorn by Chris Roberson

Forged by Chaos by C. L. Werner

Emperor’s Mercy by Henry Zou

Fairwood Press

Across the Sky by Mark Rich

Long Walks, Last Flights & Other Strange Journeys by Ken Scholes

Harbinger by Jack Skillingstead

The Radio Magician & Other Stories by James Van Pelt

Galaxy Press

Hostage to Death by L. Ron Hubbard

When Shadows Fall by L. Ron Hubbard


Bad Things Happen by Harry Dolan

The Hidden Man by David Ellis

Killer Summer by Ridley Pearson


Molly Fyde and the Parsona Rescue by Hugh Howey

Storm Approaching by Brian Libby

Monday, February 8, 2010

FREE FICTION: Book of Secrets by Chris Roberson, Day Five

The fifth part of the preview of Chris Roberson’s Book of Secrets. Today you get the second half of the first pastiche, which I felt was one of the best parts of the novel. A very fun story for those of you who, like me, are fans of the pulp era. Helpful links: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Angry Robot Books, review of Book of Secrets, review of Sons of Dorn.


Through Martenson, the Black Hand learned that the meeting between Dupree and the Talon was to take place that night, at the edge of Golden Gate Park. When the hour came, the Black Hand was in place, this time with twin .45 automatics at the ready.

Dupree was to wait in a clearing, a suitcase full of cash at his side. The police were hidden amongst the surrounding trees, waiting for the signal to close. When the Talon arrived, the police would encircle him, and cut off escape.

The Black Hand watched the officers take their positions, himself hidden in amongst the branches of a tree, some eight feet off the ground. From that vantage point he had seen a gap in the police’s net, one the Talon could use to his advantage, and it was this spot he kept watch over.

At the stroke of midnight, as arranged, a hooded figure stepped into the clearing, dragging behind him a blindfolded and gagged woman. It was the Talon. In the moonlight a pistol glinted evilly in his hand.

Without a word, he motioned Dupree to throw him the case of money.

“Give me my wife first,” Dupree shouted, red-faced and trembling.

Again, the Talon gestured for the case, and then turned the pistol on Dupree’s whimpering wife.

“Okay, okay,” Dupree answered, and threw the case across the clearing to land at the hooded figure’s feet.

With one hand keeping the pistol trained on Dupree’s wife, he reached with the other to retrieve the case. Then, stepping slowly behind her, he shoved her into the clearing and hurried back to the trees. In an instant, the police emerged from hiding and rushed towards him, but to no avail. By cunning, or dumb luck, the Talon was running directly towards the hole in their net. But the Black Hand stood ready.

As the hooded figure passed underneath him, the Black Hand leapt from his perch, landing on the Talon with the force of a sledgehammer. He batted the pistol from the hooded man’s hand, and then brought his own guns to bear.

“This time, fiend,” he hissed behind his mask, “I have my own claws with me. And now, you will tell me what you know.”

Under the hood, the Talon quivered. The black hand of justice was upon him, and he felt its strength close around him!


The police found the man beneath the hood a short while later, whimpering and unmasked, tied to a lamppost. The Black Hand had learned what he needed from the man, and left him behind.

The man had turned out to be one Charlie Parsons, an out of work dockworker. He was a rough cut, simple man and, though not above breaking the law to suit his own needs, he was no criminal mastermind. The Black Hand had seen early that Parsons what nothing more than a pawn, a dupe. The true source of the evil at hand lay elsewhere.

Parsons, easily frightened into playing stool pigeon by the masked figure under the dark trees, had confessed that he knew nothing about the kidnappings. He had been hired by a hooded man simply to escort a bound woman into the clearing, retrieve a briefcase, and then return to the hooded man waiting in a sedan on a darkened street nearby. To Parsons this was simply a job, a strange one of course, but if a mysterious man wanted to pay him a month’s salary to stand around wearing a hood and waving a gun about it was fine with him.

Of his employer, Parsons could only say that he had picked him up off the streets near the dock, where he had been looking for work. He had been driving a late model, dark colored sedan, and had spoken only in whispers. He had never encountered the man until earlier that evening, and in his words had never broken the law in his life. This last the Black Hand doubted, but left that for the courts to determine. He was onto bigger prey.

Stepping into the shadows a short distance from the park, the mysterious avenger of the night emerged into the light in the guise of Richmond Taylor. Then he made his away across town to his home, and spent a sleepless night in his study, staring quietly into the darkness, contemplating. Morning came quickly, the sunlight streaming in through the shuttered windows, and Taylor reached for the phone.

He placed a call to police headquarters, and in the Black Hand’s raspy voice asked to speak with Joe Martenson.

“Martenson here,” came the reply after a short while.

“Joseph,” Taylor whispered into the receiver, “the Black Hand has use for you.”

“Go ahead,” Martenson answered, his voice grave.

“The man known as the Talon still holds an innocent in his clutches. I would see her released.”

“Well, you’re not alone,” Martenson replied. “She’s not either, anymore.”

“Explain yourself.”

“The Talon’s got another bird in the hand now. Another millionaire’s kid. Peter Matthews.”

“I see,” Taylor answered. “I see.” He paused. “Your service is valued, Joseph,” he went on. “I shall remember your loyalty.”

With that, Taylor hung up the phone. Now two lives hung in the balance. What was needed now was a visit to the docks. Then nightfall, and action!


Taylor spent the day up and down the wharf, talking to dock masters and ship captains from one end to the other. He played the bored investor, trying to find sound investments for his family’s fortune. Were there any empty warehouses to be had, he asked, any piers on which space might be rented? His family was moving into shipping, he explained, and wanted to gain a foothold in the market. He let slip that he was looking for qualified men to run the operation, too, which went far towards loosening recalcitrant tongues.

In the end, Taylor caught a cab and returned home. Once there, he unrolled a large map of the city onto his dining room table, and in a blunt-end pencil began to mark different locations one by one. With his considerable power of recall, he traced the route the hooded man had fled by two nights before, placed a large “x” upon the spot where Parsons was hired, and then began to triangulate positions and calculate distances to the half dozen warehouses he had circled. After half an hour’s work, he had his answer. He rolled up the map, and returned it to the shelf.

He dressed quickly. First the black wool suit, shoes, and leather gloves. Then he slipped various tools and devices into his pockets, and into the hollow heels of his shoes. Next he loaded his twin .45s, and slipped each into its shoulder harness. Last came the snap brim fedora, the full face mask ready to fall into place. Thus outfitted, he strode across the room to the phone.

The line rang four times, and then a groggy voice answered.

“Yeah, this is Nick,” came the muffled voice. “Whadya want?’

“Nicholas Oliverio, the Black Hand has use for you.”

“What? Oh, sure, yeah, I’m up.”

“You will meet me at the following address, Nicholas,” Taylor continued in whispers. “I will need your services for much of the night.”

“You got it, boss,” Oliverio replied eagerly. “Anything you say.”

Taylor gave him an address a few blocks away, and told him to be there in fifteen minutes.

“I’ll be there,” Oliverio answered, almost shouting. Taylor hung up the phone, turned out the light, and left the room.

Nick Oliverio arrived on time, even considering that he’d driven from the far side of town and had been in bed when Taylor had called. Nick felt he owed his life to the Black Hand, and would do anything for him. Some aided the Black Hand out of fear, or of hope for reward. Nick assisted him out of gratitude. Months before, the cab driver had narrowly escaped death when the Black Hand had prevented a gun-crazed fiend from firing point blank in Nick’s face. Ever since, whenever the Black Hand needed him, Nick was at the ready.

Nick pulled up to the curb, and from out of the shadows stepped the Black Hand. Without a word, he slipped into the backseat of the cab, closing the door silently behind him.

“Where to, boss?” Nick asked, not turning around.

“Pier 31,” came the whispered answer.

“You got it.”

In silence, the cabbie drove his dark passenger through the night, stopping at last a short distance away from the indicated spot. Nick knew the Black Hand used subtlety and surprise as weapons, and didn’t want to interfere.

“Wait here,” the low voice ordered. “I shall return with two other passengers, and possibly some cargo.”

Nick shivered despite himself. He had a good idea what kind of cargo the Black Hand meant, and it would be destined only for a morgue. Still, he was happy to help.

The Black Hand slipped away from the cab, sidling up to the dark warehouse, number 2740. Going around the side, he came to a door secured with a rusted padlock. Slipping a slender tool from a pocket, he inserted it into the keyhole, and with a twist jarred the lock open. Then he gently pulled the door open and stole inside.

The interior of the warehouse was cavernous and empty, the ceiling high overhead. Broken wooden pallets and empty boxes littered the concrete floor, and overhead swung a heavy iron hook on a rope and pulley. The only light came from a dim bulb set in the far corner wall, and beneath that light lay slumped a crumpled form. Twin .45s at the ready, the Black Hand made his way across the floor, and crept up towards the figure lying there in the dim pool of light. It was the bound form of Louise Aldridge.

“Miss Aldridge,” the Black Hand whispered, his voice betraying his concern for his trusted aide. “Louise.” He knelt beside her, placing a hand on her round shoulder. “Where is Matthews?”

Roused from a fitful sleep, Louise slowly opened her eyes. Her shock at seeing her rescuer was registered there in those crystal blue orbs.

“Richmond,” she breathed.

“Where is Matthews?” he repeated. “I must get you both out of here.”

“Who?” Louise asked.

“The other prisoner,” he answered as he went to work on her binds. He wanted her away from there as quickly as possible, but could not leave the other victim to whatever fate awaited him. So intent was he on freeing her, that he noticed too late the look of horror in her eyes, and saw the shadow falling across his own hands. A blow like a jackhammer pounded into his head, and he fell into darkness!


When he regained consciousness, Taylor found himself unmasked, bound hands to feet, and laying on the floor next to Louise. She stared at him, wide eyed, unable to help.

He struggled into a sitting position, and surveyed his surroundings. Whoever had struck him had been waiting in the darkness when he arrived, and come up behind him unnoticed.

“Richmond,” Louise whispered. “Are you alright?”

“I have been better, Miss Aldridge,” Taylor answered in a low voice. “I take it you are the only prisoner here.”

“I was until you arrived,” she answered. “Now there are the both of us.”

“How long was I out?”

“Just a few moments,” Louise replied. “Just long enough for that man to get you tied up.”

“Did you get a look at him?”

“No, he always keeps his face hidden under a mask, not unlike someone else I know.” She paused. “But I suppose he’s alone in that club now.” She gestured with her chin, pointing at the hat and mask that lay tossed a few feet away.

“No time to worry about that now,” Taylor answered, his voice grave. “Where has he gone?”

“I’m right here, Mr. Taylor,” came a voice from out of the shadows. Then followed a mocking laugh, and a hooded figure stepped into the light, a pistol trained on the pair.

“He calls himself the Talon,” Louise said, eyeing him icily.

“I would have thought he’d come up with a better name than that,” Taylor replied. He turned his gaze on the hooded man. “Wouldn’t you, Peter?”

The hooded man laughed again, and then drew himself up straight. Keeping his pistol pointed at the two of them, he reached up with the other and pulled the hood from his face. There, unmasked, stood Peter Matthews!

“I should have suspected,” Taylor said evenly. “It was all there in front of me.”

“I’m sure,” Matthews hissed. “But it’s rather too late now, Mr. Taylor. Or should I say, Black Hand.” He laughed, mirthlessly. “It’s a pity to have discovered your secret so soon before your death. It kind of takes the fun out of it.”

“What are you going to do?” Louise asked at a silent signal from Taylor.

“I’m going to kill you, of course.”

“But why?” she went on, stealing a glance at her silent companion.

“Why not ask your boyfriend?” Matthews taunted. “I think he’s got it all figured out.”

“You tell her,” Taylor snarled. “I wouldn’t want to spoil your fun.” Taylor needed just a few moments more, and he knew that once bragging, Matthews would give them to him.

“Very well,” Matthews sighed. “My father disowned me last year, Mrs. Black Hand, on account of my somewhat unsavory associates. A boy has to have a hobby, you know. In any case, I find myself in need of cash, and the old man simply won’t give it to me, no matter how often I ask. He hates me, you see. A huge disappointment. That’s the rub, really.

“But he doesn’t want me dead. So say I were kidnapped, and his only choice was to pay up or get my severed head in the mail. That would spoil his brunch, don’t you think?” Matthews walked to the wall about ten feet away, threw a switch, and from overhead came the sound of rusty gears groaning to life.

“So you staged your own kidnapping,” Louise said. “But why me, and all the others? What do they have to do with it?”

“Well, I wanted daddy dearest to see I, that is the Talon, was serious, so I tried a few dry runs first. Pick up an heiress’ daughter from school, milk a few bucks from the old cow, and puncture the little darling if mommy doesn’t pay. Then the police are sure to tell daddy that the kidnapping is for real.” He paused. “My father just doesn’t trust me you see. Anyway, by kidnapping little beauties like you, I get the money too. Like a bonus. And I just pay some drunk fifty bucks to stand around in this smelly mask for the pickups, and I never run the risk of getting caught.” He smiled grimly. “Pretty snappy, huh? But enough of my jawing.” He swung the pistol around, and pointed it at one and then the other of them.

“Which one of you wants to go first?” He took a step to the side, and gestured behind them. There, four feet from the concrete floor, hung the iron hook. The gears above had lowered it into place, and now it stood ready.

He stepped forward, the gun trained on Taylor, until he was only a few feet away.

“You, I think, Mr. Hand,” Matthews finally said.

“I think not,” Taylor replied and, splitting his bonds, drove his feet into Matthews’ knees. Matthews tottered, shooting blind, and staggered back moaning. The bullet rushed past Taylor’s ear, striking the wall behind him and sending splinters of wood flying into the back of his neck. Taylor pulled the now severed binds from his ankles and sprang to his feet. In his hand he held the slim blade he’d managed to pull from the hollow heel of his shoe, and with which he cut the rope wrapped round and round his arms and legs.

Matthews stood stock still, gaping, not sure what had happened, and as he brought the pistol once more level with Taylor’s chest the man of mystery rushed towards him. Disoriented, Matthews shot wildly, but if any hit Taylor he didn’t slow down. An unstoppable engine, he plowed into Matthews, driving him back.

Matthews, crazed, struck at his attacker with the pistol, and then flung it away. Taylor was inhuman, unstoppable, and bullets couldn’t hurt him. Taylor slowed his advance. Matthews staggered back, and then turn to flee. He took only two steps into the shadows and was brought up short, screaming.

Taylor, blood dripping from the bullet wound in his shoulder, stepped forward slowly, but it was too late. Matthews, in the darkness, had run directly into the iron hook, and with the force of his movement had impaled himself there. Now he hung, lifeless, listing slowly this way and that. The Talon had met his death on his own claw!


After recovering his hat and mask, and freeing Louise, Taylor had returned to Nick’s waiting cab. From there, he was driven to Louise’s building. Nick helped the masked Taylor up the stairs to Louise’s apartment, and then stayed to help her dress the Black Hand’s wounds. When they were done, still masked, Taylor thanked Nick for his loyal service and asked him to depart.

“Sure, boss,” the cabbie answered. “I’ll let myself out. And call any time.”

Once he had left, Taylor drew the mask from his face and called for Louise to bring him the phone. Dialing, he flexed his shoulder, testing the dressing.

“Good work, Miss Aldridge,” he complimented. “I am always grateful I was able to lure you away from the medical profession.”

“Anytime, Mr. Taylor,” she answered, smiling. “And if you think being a nurse is more exciting than this, you’ve got another thing coming.”

“Yes,” he replied, nodding. “I suppose you’re right.”

The line continued ringing, until at last came the sleeping voice at the other end of the line.


“Joseph,” Taylor said, “I apologize for disturbing your rest, but I have information regarding the Talon. Direct your colleagues to the empty warehouse at Pier 31, and there you will find the Talon. I believe you will discover that the warehouse is the possession of Matthews Industries, and that, with the knowledge that the man you will find was the face behind the Talon’s hood, should be all you will need to know.”

“Yes sir,” Martenson answered. “Right away, sir.”

Taylor dropped the handset back into its cradle, and then eased back onto the couch.

“Miss Aldridge,” he finally spoke, his eyes half lidded. “I am afraid I will have to ask another favor of you.”

“What?” Louise shot back, feigning indignation. “What could you possibly need now?”

“The use of your couch until morning,” Taylor replied. “I’m afraid I’m not going anywhere.”

Louise smiled, and drew a quilt over him.

“You got it, Mr. Taylor,” she answered, “but I need something from you, too.”

“And what is that?” Taylor asked, almost succumbing to sleep.

“You still owe me a dinner on the town,” she replied, “and I mean to collect.”

Taylor laughed, smiling, and then closed his eyes. Tonight, at least, justice would sleep.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

FREE FICTION: Book of Secrets by Chris Roberson, Day Four

The fourth part of the preview of Chris Roberson’s Book of Secrets. Today you get the first half of the first pastiche, which I felt was one of the best parts of the novel. A very fun story for those of you who, like me, are fans of the pulp era. Helpful links: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Angry Robot Books, review of Book of Secrets, review of Sons of Dorn.

“The Talon’s Curse”

by Walter Reece

(originally appeared in the September, 1939 issue of

The Black Hand Mysteries)


The blood curdling scream tearing across the night air told Richmond Taylor one of two things: someone had just been killed, or someone was about to be. He didn’t care for either option.

Coming up the stairs to the Carousel Club, the rooftop restaurant that had become the toast of the San Francisco social scene, Taylor tore through the crowds towards the source of the scream. Louise Aldridge, his Gal Friday and companion for the night, still hung on his arm, rushing alongside him with bated breath. Louise knew well Taylor’s course in the face of danger.

The last of the crowd parted seeing Taylor approach. The wealthy financier was well known in upper crust social circles, and generally thought something of a fop, but his steely gaze and his whipcord muscles flexing like steel bands beneath the dark fabric of his suit would brook no delay.

There, on the tiled floor, lay the battered body of a young girl. She lay face up, an expression of terror frozen on her cold face, black blood encrusted round her lips. Where her heart should have been, where the beat of her young life once sounded like a small bird’s wings, there was only a gaping chasm, a gory tunnel to the floor below. Taylor straightened himself, fixing his gaze on the inert body on the floor. Rush as he might, he would have arrived too late to save this girl. She had been dead for hours.

Next came the sound of shouts, and a gruff voice raising above the rest, calling for order. Taylor knew the voice well. It belonged to Detective Chalmers, pride of the San Francisco Police Department.

“Get outta my way, you blood-thirsty rubber-neckers,” he called again, shoving his way through the crowd. “Lemme do my job.”

At a sign from Taylor, Louise slid her arm from under his and blended back into the crowd. She understood her duty at such a time. To canvas the onlookers nonchalantly, discovering what she could. Her report would aid Taylor in ferreting out the truth, and she cherished her responsibility. Of all Taylor’s agents, only she knew the secret of his other life.

With Louise gone, Taylor made his way across the crowd to a man he’d noted on his entrance. They had been climbing the stairs together, and when the waitress who had discovered the body had screamed, this man had been the only one not to hurry to the scene to investigate. Taylor had recognized him as Peter Matthews, black sheep son of a wealthy shipping magnate.

Sidling up to Matthews, Taylor watched as Detective Chalmers surveyed the scene, and began questioning the witnesses. Taylor, feigning horror and a weak stomach, addressed Matthews.

“Terrible business,” he began, only a trace of the Texas twang he had inherited along with a fortune from his father sounding in his level voice. “What could possess someone to do such a thing?”

“I wouldn’t know,” Matthews answered evenly, his gaze darting to Taylor. “I’ve only just arrived.”

“Not the sort of thing you expect to see at such a place,” Taylor commented, eyeing the other man.

“Oh?” Matthews answered coolly. “And where would you expect to see such a thing?” Abruptly he turned on his heel, and stalked away. Taylor watched him as he went, deep in thought.

When the police had finished their interviews, and the body had been carried out under a sheet, Taylor and Louise met on the stairs. Taylor produced a pair of cigarettes, and lit one for each of them with a silver-plated lighter, engraved with the emblem of an outstretched hand.

“Well, Miss Aldridge,” he finally spoke, loud enough for passersby to hear, the smoke curling about his head, “I see little reason to remain. I’ll walk you home.”

They descended the stairs and went out into the dark street. Walking down the sidewalk, arm in arm, they looked the picture of the loving couple. But it was not endearments they whispered to one another. They spoke of crime.

“Miss Aldridge,” Taylor said, his voice low, “your report.”

Louise began simply, stating what she had learned from memory.

“The hallway had been empty when the waitress last passed through it. It leads from the main dining room to a storage area. The storage area is visited throughout the night, waitresses and busboys going back and forth to get glasses, linens, and such. But sometimes half an hour can pass without anyone going that way. The waitress had been the last one to walk it, twenty minutes before, but when she went back, she found…” Despite herself, Louise found her voice breaking. She paused, trembling.

“She found the body,” Taylor said, completing the thought.

“Yes,” Louise answered.

“And beside the main entrance, is there any other access to that hallway?”

“Near the storeroom there’s is a freight elevator,” she replied. “It stops on each floor, but is unmanned at this hour. It opens on the loading dock at the ground level.”

“Likewise unmanned,” Taylor commented.


Taylor quickened his pace, and Louise hurried to keep up.

“Then,” Taylor concluded, “anyone might quite easily have taken the body up the elevator, left by the same route, and escaped detection.”

“But why?” Louise asked. “Why leave the body there?”

“That, Miss Aldridge, we will not know until the body is identified. Only then can we begin to answer such questions.”

Arriving at Louise’s walkup in the North Beach, Taylor bid her a good night, saying he would see her next morning at the office. Out of habit, Taylor waited in the street below until he saw the light in Louise’s window go on. She was his most trusted aide, and he was always very protective.

As he was about to turn, and move on, he caught sight of a dark figure, prowling about the side of Louise’s building. He thought it a vagrant, seeking a warm place to sleep, until the figure stepped into the light, and he saw his features were disguised with a hood. Then the moonlight glinted off the steel of the pistol in the figure’s hand, and Taylor knew it was no vagrant.

Taylor, keeping his eyes fixed on the mysterious figure, stepped into the shadows of a doorway. Pulling on black leather gloves, and the rolling down a close-fitting mask of black fabric from inside the brim of his fedora, he stepped back into the light. No longer Richmond Taylor, wealthy financier and gadabout, he now stood tall as that dark mystery of the night, that scourge of terror and nemesis to all evildoers: The Black Hand!


Stealthily slipping across the cold concrete, The Black Hand crept up behind the dark figure. As the figure mounted a trellis on the side of the building, intending to climb, The Black Hand rushed him. His own swift hand swept through the night air, knocking the pistol from the figure’s grasp before he knew the attack was on him. The hooded man fell to the ground, cursing, and rolled away out of the Black Hand’s reach.

“Who are you,” the Black Hand hissed though the fabric of his mask. “What evil do you work here?”

The hooded man rose to his feet, unsteady, and before the Black Hand could move flung himself at him. The pair fell to the ground in a tangle of arms and legs, each striking out at the other. The hooded man got to his feet an instant before the Black Hand, and raced off into the night. The Black Hand flew after him, his feet sounding like gunshot against the pavement.

Across North Beach they raced, over Telegraph Hill and down to the docks, the hooded man always just out of the Black Hand’s reach. Behind his mask, Taylor cursed himself for going out into the night without his twin .45s. It was a mistake he vowed never to make again.

Their pursuit had gone unnoticed, through deserted and empty streets, but at the Embarcadero the hooded man raced in front of a truck bearing its cargo through the night. He made it past the truck only by inches, and the Black Hand found his path blocked until the mammoth vehicle had passed. By the time he himself had crossed the thoroughfare, the hooded man was nowhere in sight. He had vanished into the night air like mist, blending into the foggy sky.

On the other side, the Black Hand found only the empty piers, and the silent warehouses that lined them up and down. The hooded man must have gained entrance to one, and there hid in darkness. The Black Hand spent the better part of an hour, searching the perimeter first of one warehouse, then the next, but could find no sign of forced entry. Finally, he gave up the chase, and returning his mask to its place, hidden under the crown of his hat, he made his way back over the hill, now simple Richmond Taylor again.

He came at last to Louise’s door. Her light still burned overhead, and Taylor wanted to warn her against danger. Some unknown stalker had sought to do her harm, and might do again. Letting himself in the main door with his skeleton key, he climbed the stairs to her door. He knocked, and knocked again, and no answer. Finally, fearing the worse, he tried the door, only to find it unlocked. Pushing it open, he cautiously entered the apartment.

The furniture lay in disarray, strewn about the floor, and broken dishes and lamps were spread all over. Louise was nowhere to be found. Pinned to the inside of the door, with a steel hook, was a notice, hastily scrawled in red ink.

“Louise Aldridge is with me. If Mr. Taylor wants her return, it will cost him. I will contact with details.”

Taylor ripped the note from the door and read it over. It was signed, “THE TALON.” He crumpled the note in his gloved hand. Louise Aldridge was in grave danger, and there was work for the Black Hand to do!


Taylor hurried through the foyer of police headquarters, speeding to his appointment with Detective Chalmers. Though as the Black Hand he was wanted dead by criminals and imprisoned by the police, as Richmond Taylor he was a valuable member of the community, and the authorities were happy to rush to his aid.

On his way through the squad room, Taylor narrowly avoided colliding with Officer Joe Martenson. Martenson, a simple beat cop with an honest heart and a hatred of crime, was one of the Black Hand’s trusted subordinates. But unlike Louise Aldridge, he knew nothing of the identity of the man he aided, and had never met Richmond Taylor. Taylor almost forgot himself and addressed Martenson by name. Instead, he excused himself and hurried by.

The night before he’d called Martenson from Louise’s apartment, telling him only that the Black Hand had a use for him. He’d given Martenson Louise’s address, and told him to hurry. Then Taylor had returned to his home on Nob Hill, and awaited the police’s call. When the call came, he feigned shock. Someone kidnap his trusted assistant? The horror.

Now, the next morning, Taylor was to meet with the officer in charge of the investigation, and would learn the particulars of the case. He was eager to learn all he could. Little did the police realize that by talking to Taylor, they were aiding the mysterious Black Hand!

When all had gathered in Chalmers’ office, Taylor surveyed their faces. Besides himself and the Detective, there was Police Lieutenant Jones, the Chief of Police James Carroway, and millionaire industrialist Reginald Dupree. Taylor eyed this last longest.

Dupree was dressed in an expensively tailored gray suit, with a silver pin on his lapel, showing a four-armed spiral enclosed in a circular band. Though distressed, the man had an undeniable look of self-satisfaction about him, as though he considered the others in the room beneath him. Since the beginning of the Depression ten years before, few fortunes had escaped entirely unscathed, and those that had were usually comprised of some dirty money. There were rumors about Dupree’s practices, rumors of ill-advised associations.

“Gentleman,” Chief Carroway began, “let me first say how sorry we are that we have to meet under these circumstances.”

“I don’t have time for your glad-handing!” Dupree shouted. “What about my wife?”

“Well then,” the Chief answered, flustered. He turned to Chalmers. “Detective?”

“Sure, sure.” Chalmers muttered, lighting a cigar. He rose out of his seat, and crossed the floor to stand before Taylor and Dupree. “It’s like this, boys. You’ve had people kidnapped, and we’re gonna do everything we can to see that you get ‘em back in one piece.”

“And without any pieces missing,” Jones added under his breath.

“That’s enough outta you,” Chalmers shot back, glaring. “Show some tact, why don’t ya. Now then, this creep what’s got your people calls himself the Talon, like you already know. And he means business.”

“Detective,” Taylor began in a calm voice, “does this possibly have anything to do with the body found last night at the Carousel Club?”

“Yeah, right,” Chalmers answered slowly, eyeing him. “I saw you there, didn’t I? Well, yessir, it does. See, this Talon has a habit of taking two victims at once. For leverage, ya see. One pays, they get their people back. The other doesn’t… they don’t.”

Dupree rose up out of his seat.

“You mean this has happened before?” he shouted. “You could have stopped my wife being kidnapped yesterday? Of all the incompetent…”

“Now, Mr. Dupree, we’ve done everything we can so far,” the Chief answered. “And we’re close to making an arrest.” He turned to Chalmers, his voice grave. “Isn’t that right, Detective?”

“Sure, sure. Now, Mr. Dupree, your wife was the fourth person kidnapped. The first was ‘bout two weeks ago. We’ve managed to keep it outta the papers so far. That girl found last night, the kidnapper killed because her family wouldn’t pay. They were workin’ with us to get him, and we almost did, but it got fouled up. Then he was down to one bird, so he picked up your assistant, Mr. Taylor.” Chalmers paused, puffing on his cigar. “Looks like the guy’s just going down the social register, hitting one millionaire after another.

“Now, so far two families have paid the kidnapper’s money, and got their people back. They show up healthy enough, but they can’t say who the creep was. He wore a mask the whole time, they say, like a hood, so’s they can’t identify him.”

Taylor tensed, grasping the arm of his chair.

“I don’t see how any of this is going to get my wife back,” Dupree growled.

“Yes,” Taylor added. “You must have a plan.”

“That we do, gents,” Chalmers added. “Mr. Dupree, this creep’s gonna be calling you to make arrangements for his payoff. What you do is agree to pay him, let him pick a spot for the meeting, and then let us know. We show up, get him, and you get your wife and the money.”

“And what about my assistant?” Taylor asked.

“Well, once we got this Talon character we find out where he’s got her.”

“What are we waiting for,” Dupree answered, rising up. “I’m game. Anything to get back my Meribelle.”

Taylor stayed stiff in his chair. He didn’t trust the police to accomplish everything they’d planned. They might need help, and the Black Hand was the one to provide it!

Saturday, February 6, 2010

FREE FICTION: Book of Secrets by Chris Roberson, Day Three

The third part of the preview of Chris Roberson’s Book of Secrets. I hope you enjoy! Helpful links: Part One, Part Two, Angry Robot Books, review of Book of Secrets, review of Sons of Dorn.

The law offices of O’Connor, Riley, and Vasquez were located in a high rise in the heart of downtown, a glass and steel obelisk rising some thirty stories into the smog. I had visited the offices only once, during high school, when the venerable R.M. O’Connor represented me against charges of breaking and entering as a favor to my grandfather. I ended up with a suspended sentence from the court, a stony silence from my grandfather, and a two hour lecture on my failure to meet expectations from R.M. O’Connor. I had seen him only twice after that, when he had come to our house on business, and I learned quickly to be elsewhere when he was around.

O’Connor was the antithesis of my grandfather, and I was always amazed they had continued their association as long as they had. Crude where my grandfather was refined, loud where my grandfather was reserved, O’Connor was an old school Texan lawyer, who played the good old boy angle for all it was worth. I decided there must have been something in their past that bound the two old men together, some secret thing each saw in the other which earned their respect. For my part, I never saw it, and only and ever saw O’Connor as a swaggering old ass with a weakness for cheap scotch and western wear.

I arrived in the offices unannounced, and found everything just as I remembered it. The height of oil boom opulence, with over-stuffed chairs and cheap reproductions of Remington paintings hanging on the wall, the requisite bronze cowboy frozen forever in the saddle, and a pair of Longhorn steer horns mounted on the wall. The wizened old receptionist, for all I knew, had not moved since I had been marched into the office by my grandfather fifteen years before.

“Can I help you?” she drawled, looking at me over her oversized glasses.

“I’m here to see R.M. O’Connor,” I answered, stepping up to her desk.

“Is Mister O’Connor expecting you?” she asked. She gave me an appraising look and, apparently, I came up short.

“I wouldn’t hazard a guess, ma’am,” I said. “Could you just tell the old buzzard that Richmond Taylor’s grandson is here to see him?”

Her eyebrows shot up at the mention of my grandfather’s name, and her hand reached for the phone. I heard her repeat my message to someone on the other end, and then set the phone back down on its receiver.

“If you’d just have a seat, sir, he’ll be with you in a moment.”

I was still trying to get comfortable on the squeaking leather when O’Connor burst into the lobby a few minutes later.

“Patrick,” he boomed, advancing on me. “How the hell are you, son? Didn’t expect to see ya again so soon. You change your hair?”

He stuck out his hand, and I stood and took it. He held my hand in that over strong, overlong way that only lawyers and used car salesmen can.

“I’m not Patrick, O’Connor, I’m Spencer.”

He let my hand drop like he’d just seen roaches crawl out of my sleeve, and narrowed his eyes.

“Ah,” he said. “Ah. Spencer. Wasn’t expecting to see you.”

I leaned around him, and shouted to the old bat pretending to work on her computer.

“He wasn’t expecting me, Mabel. You were right.”

The old man turned and headed back towards his office.

“Come on, son,” he called over his shoulder. “Let’s get this over with.”

In O’Connor’s office, full of the expected law books and diplomas, I signed a stack of releases and waivers and statements of indemnity, all while listening to the old goat rattle on.

“I wasn’t expectin’ to see you at the funeral, mind, but you could have surprised me and showed up. You owed the man that much, at least, if you ask me. Just a little bit of respect, that wouldn’t a been too much to ask, now would it?”

“I didn’t,” I said, not looking up from the papers I was signing.

“What’s that?” O’Connor barked, losing his train of thought. “Didn’t what?”

“Ask you.”

“Well, that’s a hell of thing, I don’t mind tellin’ you. All that man did for you and your brother, and you ain’t even got the decency to see him be put in the ground. Not like your brother, now that he’s been mentioned. He was there for the whole show, dressed up all nice, a real gentleman, your brother.”

“Where is Patrick these days, anyway? I haven’t seen him in a while.”

“Oh, hell, I don’t know. Flew in from Africa or some such place, he said, and was flying off again after. But he was here, all the same.”

I finished with the signatures, and capping the pen tossed it across the desk at O’Connor. I stood, reaching into my pocket for a cigarette.

“Look, O’Connor,” I said, “I have an excuse, or a reason, or whatever you want to call it, but I’m not going to waste it on you. If I happen to run into the old man sometime, I’ll use it on him, but I’m not going to hold my breath.” I snapped open my zippo, and sucked the flame into the cigarette.

“The way I see it, the old man dying means that your business with him is done, and once you give me whatever the bastard wanted me to have, your business will be done with me, too. So if you could…” I waved my arm for him to proceed.

With a grunt and the creaking of his ancient bones, the lawyer lifted himself out of his chair and crossed the floor to a large wall safe. Shielding his right hand with his left, he spun the dial back and forth, and then with effort yanked open the door.

I had discovered, while looking over the papers, that the house at 217 Crescent Row, San Antonio had passed into the hands of Mrs. Maria Casares, our grandfather’s housekeeper in long standing, along with all the belongings contained within it, with the exception of the library, which went to my brother Patrick. Patrick also inherited a stamp collection, which I had never seen and which I learned had been the possession of my grandmother, a woman I had never met. All liquid assets, savings accounts, stocks and holdings, were divided equally and distributed amongst three charities of my grandfather’s choosing. All debts, public and private, past or pending, were to be handled by O’Connor’s firm, and paid as was appropriate out of a small fund held for that end. As for me?

I ended up with a cardboard box, full of magazines, books and type-written pages, and a locked wooden case about a foot square and six inches tall, weighing about ten pounds, for which no one could find the key.

“Here they are,” O’Connor explained, “just as Richmond left ‘em. Appears he knew his time was up, and had everything boxed up and ready to go. We just had to roll in and pick ‘em up.”

“That was thoughtful of him,” I answered, wondering idly how things would have been had the old man made that move twenty years before. “What is this shit?”

O’Connor shot me a glare, but kept his voice even.

“I’m not sure. He didn’t rightly say, only that this was the only product of his life’s work, and he wanted you to have it.”

I was taken aback.

“His life’s work? Why would he want me to have it?”

O’Connor leaned into me, and I could smell the cheap scotch on his breath.

“I have no idea in hell, you little bastard. If you ask me, which you didn’t, you are and always have been an ungrateful sack of shit, and I told your granddaddy as much whenever the subject came up. But for some reason this box was important to him, and he wanted you to have it. So if you don’t want me to throw out my back chucking you out of that there window, you’re going to pick this stuff up, walk out of here, and try your damnedest to show a little respect to the dead.”

I met O’Connor’s eye, and didn’t look away, but saved the quips and comebacks bubbling up for another time. For some reason, they didn’t seem appropriate. I hefted the cardboard box under one arm, and the wooden case under the other. Without another word, the old lawyer turned away and walked back to his desk.

I headed for the door, the sharp edge of the wooden case cutting into my side, the dust off the ancient cardboard box drifting up and into my nose and eyes. When O’Connor spoke, my eyes were watering.

“It was the damnedest thing, Spencer, and I never knew just why, but that old man loved you.”

I didn’t turn around, didn’t say anything, just kept walking out the door.

I decided to put in some time in a bar after all, but even after making friends with a half-dozen screwdrivers managed not only to remember my appointment, but to get there on time. Talitha was still up in the office when I arrived, with the case notes ready to go.

Great, I thought, another cardboard box.

I had expected to go over Stiles’ notes there in the office, but instead Talitha just handed it to me.

“Go on,” she said, “you take them. They’re not doing anyone any good here.”

“Are you worried that if somebody went after Stiles, they might come after you too?”

“Not with that shit out of here, they won’t,” she answered. “Besides, I’m not going to stick around long enough to find out. This is my last day on the job, and then I’m leaving town.”

“Another job?”

“Eventually, but right now I think it’s a good time to take a vacation.” She smiled at me, and leaned on the desk in a way that made me think of a mechanic’s wall calendar.

“Not a bad idea.” I peeled open the top of the box, and began rummaging inside. There was a large stack of black-and-white and color photos, handwritten pages by the dozen, and a large sheet of paper, yellowed with age and sealed in an enormous Ziploc bag. This last I held up, looking at it in the light. It was covered front and back with tiny little characters, in what might have been Hebrew, or maybe Arabic.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“Not sure,” Talitha answered, “and neither was David. He said he copped it from Pierce’s place when the old cracker wasn’t looking. It had fallen under a desk or table or something… it’s all there in his notes.”

“Why did he take it? Was it a clue?”

“A clue?” Talitha snorted. “What are you, Encyclopedia Brown? Evidence, honey, ev-i-dence. That’s what it is. From the way it was laying there, David figured it must have been part of whatever got swiped, so he figured he’d have a closer look.”

“He find out what it was?”

“Nah, didn’t have a chance.”

I dropped the plastic bag back into the cardboard box, and sealed it up again. I picked up the box again, and started slowly towards the door.

“Thanks for all this, Ms. Cummings,” I began. “If there’s anything I can ever do for you…”

“Not so fast, baby,” she interrupted, grabbing her purse. “I’m not helping you just because you’re so cute. You owe me a dinner.”

She breezed past me into the hallway.

“I am not,” she called back, “I repeat, not above taking a bribe.”

We ate at the most expensive Italian restaurant Talitha could think of, and once we’d both had enough wine the atmosphere of the evening was like a fair first date. Talitha told me more about herself, and I was loose enough to tell her a little about me. I told her about the times I ran away from home, and about my three years as a cat burglar, subjects I rarely get into with strangers. Still, she seemed sympathetic, and maybe a little impressed, so I went on longer and farther than I normally would have. I could tell she didn’t exactly believe me when I told her about breaking into the Federal Reserve Bank in San Francisco, so I let the conversation drift in other directions.

When we were done, and the check paid, I drove her back to her place. I let her invitation to come upstairs fly right past, knowing that she didn’t really mean it, even if she thought she did. It would only complicate what had been a pretty good night. I left her on the curb, and pulled away into the night.

It was too late to head back to Austin, much less go anywhere else, so I found a cheap motel on the interstate and checked in for the night. I pulled the box of Stiles’ notes out of the trunk, and in a moment of drunken curiosity pulled the top stack of papers and magazines out of my grandfather’s box as well. My bag over my shoulder, and a pack of cigarettes in each of my pockets, I staggered up to my room and inside.

In the room, decorated in early denim, I laid on the vibrating bed and gave the photographs Stiles had taken of the Pierce home a cursory inspection. Wide shots of the yard, endless views of the interior rooms, tight close-ups of the motion detectors and infrared webs that had been disabled during the break in. Then pages and pages of notes in a scrawl only slightly more legible than my own, detailing Stiles’ theories on how the burglar entered the grounds, crossed to the house, got inside, and on and on and on. The sheet in the Ziploc bag was last, and made no more sense to me than it had before. I left them all piled up on the other side of the bed, and spent a while staring up at the acoustic ceiling tiles. By the time the timer in the vibrating bed ran out, I was starting to sober up, and climbed off the bed to find something else to entertain me.

The television in the room only picked up four stations, and with only two infomercials, Sheriff Lobo and a Chevy Chase movie to pick from, didn’t take up too much of my time. I lit a cigarette, and sat down on the edge of the bed, the stack from my grandfather’s box in my hand. There were a few typewritten pages I couldn’t quite get the meaning of, genealogies or time-lines or some such, and a couple of magazines. The one on top was one of the pulp magazines I remembered seeing in my grandfather’s study all those years before. The Black Hand Mysteries. With nothing better to do, I dragged an ashtray onto the bed, and started to read.

Friday, February 5, 2010

FREE FICTION: Book of Secrets by Chris Roberson, Day Two

The second part of the preview of Chris Roberson’s Book of Secrets. I hope you enjoy! Helpful links: Part One, Angry Robot Books, review of Book of Secrets, review of Sons of Dorn.

I pulled into Houston just before noon, and with only a bit of trouble found the address of Stiles’ office. It was in a squat, three-story building just off of downtown, in what once must have been a fashionable neighborhood. The sprawl and urban flight had left it behind like an abandoned toy in a war-zone, though, and I thought twice about leaving my car parked on the street. Figuring Logion would pick up the tab for any incidental damage, I walked in the front door.

In the small main lobby, there was an elevator with an out-of-order sign on it older than I was, an open door to a stairway, and a directory with little plastic letters spelling out the names of bail bondsmen and repo services on black felt. I found Stiles’ name near the bottom, misspelled, and a room number on the third floor. Putting on my game face, I made for the stairs and headed up.

Stiles’ office was at the end of a long hallway, most of the light bulbs along the way burned out and the tiles on the floor warped and ill-fitting. There was a light on inside the office, visible through the pebbled glass of the doorway, and I pushed my way in without knocking.

I’m not sure what I expected to find inside, but an attractive black woman in her late twenties packing things up in a cardboard box was not high on the list of possibilities. Aside from her and the box, and a few sad pieces of furniture, the room was empty.

“Yeah,” she asked, obviously not pleased by the company, “can I help you?”

“Yes, I’m looking for David Stiles.”

She straightened, and put her hands on her hips.

“You’re a bit late, honey.” She said the word as a reflex, without any warmth, like a waitress who just got a lousy tip. “He’s dead.”

“But…” I stuttered, taken aback. “When…”

“Night before last,” she answered. “Stupid son of a bitch fell out of his bedroom window, down six stories.” She paused, shaking her head. “Wasn’t just a whole lot an ambulance coulda done for him, even if they hadn’t taken thirty minutes to get there.”

I glanced around the room, taking a quick inventory.

“And you would be?” I asked.

“Funny, I don’t remember hearing your name when you came in,” she said, her eyes narrowed.

“My name is Spencer Finch,” I answered, remembering to smile. I offered my hand. “I’m a reporter, and I’m working on a story I thought Mr. Stiles could help me with.”

Warily, she took my hand, her long nails grazing the back of my wrist.

“Talitha Cummings,” she said. “I worked for Stiles these past couple of years. He didn’t pay much, but then he wasn’t really around all that much either.”

“I see,” I answered, but didn’t really. “So you were his… secretary.”

Talitha yanked her hand back like it had been burned, and glared at me.

“I am not a goddamned secretary.” She straightened, her chin up. “I’m a research assistant. I did go to college, you know.”

I didn’t, but nodded all the same.

“Then maybe you could help me,” I went on. “Would you happen to know what cases Mr. Stiles was working on before he… well…”

“Went pavement diving?” she asked. “Yeah, I suppose I would know at that.” She crossed her arms, and looked hard at me. “Why should I tell you?”

I smiled broadly, and gestured towards the door.

“Ms. Cummings, could we discuss this over lunch?”

Without a word she grabbed her purse and was out in the hallway. As she headed towards the stairs, she called back over her shoulder.

“You can spend all the money on me you want,” she said, “but that doesn’t mean I’ve got to tell you anything.”

Talitha directed me to a Thai place on the north side of downtown, and once there worked her way through two helpings of some sort of chicken and noodle dish, while I picked my way through a plate of ground beef and rice. While eating we talked, or rather she talked and I listened. I had overheard enough conversations between women to know what they are like, and women tend to bring the same rules to bear when talking to men. By the time we had finished the main course, I knew where she had grown up, where she had gone to school, how many siblings she had, and just what her relationship with her parents was like. That, and the fact that she found me “very easy to talk to”, which I accepted as a compliment. I hear it from people a lot, women especially for some reason, but in my line of work I could hardly complain.

From me she had got my name, the name of my magazine, and the fact that I seldom, if ever, ate Thai food. If she was expecting any girl-talk out of me, I’m sorry to say she was disappointed. Men play by different rules. Women talk about themselves, men talk about stuff.

Once the check came, and we finished off our drinks, I diverted the conversation to the proper order of business.

“So,” I asked, clinking the last ice cubes around in my now empty glass, “do you think you can tell me about the cases Stiles was working on?”

Talitha daubed at the corners of her mouth with a broad cloth napkin, and regarded me with an amused look.

“Well,” she said, “since you asked so nicely…” She leaned forward, conspiratorially. “David had closed most of his cases in the last month. The usual, run of the mill stuff. Following some guy’s wife, tracking down a runaway kid, shit like that. The only case still open when he died was a new one that came into the office last week. Some kinda snoop job for a high roller.”

“What high roller?”

“I dunno, some big-money, land-and-oil, ten-gallon-hat cracker. Name of Price, something like that.”

“J. Nathan Pierce?” I asked.

She straightened, and looked at me with a grudging respect. I got the impression she had been playing dumb, and wasn’t expecting me to know even that much.

“Yeah, that’s the one. He called the office early last week… himself, mind you, not some flunky… and asked to speak to David. The next thing I know David’s bustin’ out of the office trying to slick his hair back and put on a tie all at once, and didn’t come back till late in the afternoon. From then on he was working on the case, day and night, weekends too, until…”

She paused, in what I took to be an uncharacteristic display of emotion.

“Until he fell,” I finished for her.


“What was the case, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“I’m not sure if I should,” she said. “Mind, that is. But I’ll tell you anyway. Don’t see as it can make any difference now.” She lowered her voice slightly and continued. “There was a break-in at Pierce’s place over in River Oaks a while back, and something pretty valuable got stolen. Some papers, or a book, something like that. David was supposed to find it and bring it back, and the fee was going to be enough to keep him in bad haircuts and cheap cologne for a year.”

“Why hire Stiles? No offense, I’m sure he was a fine detective…”

“No, he wasn’t,” she interrupted. “He was a shitty detective. But he was a kind man, and people liked him.”

“Well, there you go. Why would someone like Pierce, a) hire a detective, and b) hire a shitty one? It doesn’t make sense.”

“Honey,” she said, with more warmth now, “you are asking the wrong woman. I asked David that when he came back with the case, and he looked at me like I’d just shit in his yard. You see, David was always sure he was a great detective, and just ain’t never had the chance.”

“But you knew better.”

“Shit yeah. But I didn’t want to hurt his feelings, so I let it go.”

I sat quietly for a moment, rolling a bad thought around in my head for a while before letting it out. Finally, I had no choice.

“Talitha, do you think there’s any chance that Stiles didn’t just fall out of that window? Do you think maybe he was pushed?”

“Mr. Finch, since we’re being all open and honest here…” She paused slightly, and drew a breath. “Yes, that is exactly what I think.”

Talitha agreed to let me take a look at Stiles’ notes on the case, but explained that they were already boxed up, and it would take her a little while to find them. With a sly grin she suggested she could probably have them together by, say, dinner time. I swung back by the office, and dropped her off outside, arranging to pick her up there at about six. Without another word, she walked off and disappeared into the building.

The car idling, I glanced at my watch. It was only one o’clock, which left me with five hours to kill before I knew anything more. I figured I could do a drive by of Pierce’s place in town, to see what I could see, but would still have ample opportunity to get stunningly bored. I would have to think of something.

Stopping at a Texaco, I picked up a couple of packs of Camels, a liter of Pepsi, and an enormous bag of CornNuts. I decided that if the opportunity to stake out Pierce’s house presented itself, I wanted to be prepared. As it turned out, I needn’t have bothered.

The house wasn’t all that far from Stiles’ office, but it might as well have been on another planet. Contrasted with the cramped streets and urban blight of that area of downtown, River Oaks was like a national park, with mansions airlifted in. The streets were wide and winding, and the houses positioned artfully on plots of land the size of football fields. Pierce’s was on Lazy Lane, where the largest and most opulent of the houses could be found. They were so far above the rest that you couldn’t even see them, perfectly hidden by high walls, or by hedges taller than the entire line-up of the Houston Rockets combined.

There was a manned security guard-post at the entrance to Pierce’s place, making it looking even more like a fortress than it already did. Cruising by slowly, I got a glimpse of a manicured lawn and white pillars in the distance, but nothing else. The security guard caught my eye, and in the subtlest of body language let me know it would be a good idea to move along. I eyed the pistol at his hip, and dropped my foot on the accelerator.

Following the winding roads out of the neighborhood and back to civilization, I wondered just what I would do with the rest of the afternoon. I could find a bar and hold up somewhere, but then I would risk forgetting about my appointment all together. I could check into a hotel and catch up on some much needed rest, but then I might sleep straight through the night. As I drove, I fished around in my coat pocket for my lighter, and came up with a crumpled piece of paper. Glancing at the telegram, I figured what the hell? There were worse ways to spend the time than picking up my inheritance, though at that moment I was having trouble deciding just what they were.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

FREE FICTION: Book of Secrets by Chris Roberson, Day One

After just reading Sons of Dorn by Chris Roberson, I got the chance to reread my review of Book of Secrets, and I remembered how much I enjoyed the first half, in particular the pastiches Roberson did. I saw that I hadn’t run a special preview of that novel yet, and this seemed like the perfect time to do so. Every day for the next five days another part of the beginning of Book of Secrets will be posted, giving you a huge chunk of the novel to read and decide if you want to pick it up. I hope you enjoy! Helpful links: Angry Robot Books, review of Book of Secrets, review of Sons of Dorn.

My brother and I once met at a bar, and fell to talking about family. Parents, kids, relatives, the whole sick crew. He took issue with the idea about children being some link to the future, our bid at immortality. Parents, he says, are our true link to eternity. In each of us is a little bit of each of our parents, literally and figuratively, and in each of our parents a bit of theirs, and so on and so forth. All the way back to the Garden of Eden or the Primordial Ooze, depending upon your politics. Looking at our parents reminds us of eternity, he went on, because in them we can see everything that came before. Our parents remind us of the steaming piles of history it took to get to the present moment – in our case, the two of us into that bar on that night at that particular moment. Considering we hadn’t looked at our parents since my brother and I were both five years old, watching their caskets being lowered into the ground, shuffling our feet and wishing it would stop raining, it was somewhat surprising. But that’s my brother for you.

What that has to do with anything I’m not sure, except to say that it concerns family and eternity, two things which factor greatly into the events of the past week. It began in the bleary-eyed hours of the morning, with a phone in one hand and a telegram in the other, and ended with me watching the setting sun, the secret history of mankind clutched to my chest.

The First Day

The phone rang insistently, again and again, and as I struggled out of a restless sleep I stared in its direction, an unfrozen caveman trying unsuccessfully to fathom the purpose of this strange, clanging thing. Finally, inspiration struck and I seized up the receiver, maneuvering it with only a hint of difficulty to my ear. Listening to the faint buzz on the line, satisfied by the sudden cessation of the ringing, I stood dumbly for a long moment, trying to remember what to do next. Finally it came to me.

“Hullo?” I managed.

“Is this Spencer Finch?”

“Um… yeah?”

“Spencer Finch, the reporter?”

“Yeah.” I was slowly beginning to remember what this phone business was all about, and realized that under normal circumstances I usually had some idea who was on the other end of the line before launching into conversation.

Then I remembered that the landline seldom ever rang, and that hardly anyone had the number. I’d lost my cellphone the week before somewhere on a bender, and had been reduced to using payphones ever since.

“Am I to understand that you are still interested in pursuing your investigation of J. Nathan Pierce?” The voice, now that it occurred to me to notice, sounded cultured and refined, if somewhat breathy. An educated and somewhat fey man, or a slightly masculine woman.

“Who is this?”

“That is not important at the moment, Mr. Finch.” I caught a trace of an accent, and couldn’t place it. “I’ll repeat my question. Are you still pursuing your investigation of J. Nathan Pierce?”

“Possibly,” I answered, reserved. “What’s it to you, Mystery Caller?”

“I have some information that may be of use to you, should you be interested.”

“Uh huh.”

“I’d simply like to suggest that you question one David Stiles of Houston. He is a private detective, and his services were recently retained by your Mr. Pierce.”

I grabbed a yellow slip of paper I’d pulled off the door as I’d stumbled in the night before, and scribbled down the name.

“And why would Pierce need to hire a detective?”

“I’m afraid I don’t know. I’ve told you all I can. Do with it what you will.” The voice paused for a beat, and then added, “My condolences on your loss.”

“Yeah, well…” I began, and then the line went dead.

“What loss?” I muttered, and then absently turned over the yellow paper in my hand. It was a telegram, signed for by my next door neighbor and dated two weeks before.

My grandfather was dead.

Unable to sleep again after that, I shrugged into my suit coat and drove over to Trudy’s North Star. The restaurant was farther away than I really needed to go, but the drive gave me a chance to wake up, and it’s one of the few places left in Austin where you can still smoke indoors. I found a parking spot near the door, and settled into a booth before the waitress even noticed I was there. She brought over a cup of coffee without question, and went back to a table in the far corner to finish her own cigarette. She knew me on sight. I’d shown up often enough early in the morning and ordered nothing more than a bottomless cup of coffee for her to give me any special attention.

Lighting my first cigarette of the day, I dumped half the contents of the jar of sugar into my coffee, and then pulled the telegram from my pocket. After glancing briefly at the name scrawled across the back, I turned it over and read the contents more closely. It mentioned a funeral, and an address and date. In San Antonio, at a church not far from my grandfather’s house, where my brother and I had lived from the age of five on. I’d missed the ceremony, and was disappointed only in that it would have marked the first time that I would have seen the old man in a church. It went on to request my attendance at the reading of the will at an attorney’s office in Houston. I’d missed that as well. There was some mention made of material inheritance, but I didn’t spend too much time on that.

I turned the slip of paper back over. I hadn’t seen my grandfather in a decade, and was somewhat surprised he hadn’t died years before. The name I’d written on the reverse, though, was sufficiently curious.

I’d been working on the piece about Pierce on and off for a while now, in between paying gigs. Since Wide Open, the left-leaning magazine that had kept me on staff for three years, went under, I’d returned to Austin and started doing freelance work. Wired, Rolling Stone, Spin. Mindless fluff to fill up the spaces between pictures and ads. I’d been getting regular work from Logion, an online magazine based in Austin, and they had commissioned me to do a piece on Texas millionaire and philanthropist J. Nathan Pierce. The money wasn’t much, but I had a thing for the lady publisher, and if done right the story might give me a much needed sense of self-esteem. The was only one problem: There was no story.

J. Nathan Pierce, “Nez” to his friends, retired colonel USMC, successful businessman and millionaire benefactor of the University of Texas. This withered old nut was stuck in more pies than he had fingers, but the ones that interested Logion were some shady land deals he’d rigged in South Texas. The back-story of his generous donations to the University was rumored to involve the extortion, harassment, and perhaps outright murder of Mexican farmers, but I had yet to come up with a single bit of verifiable evidence. The Logion piece was intended to coincide with Pierce’s official recognition for his humanitarian efforts by the University and the state of Texas. There was to be a gala ceremony in his honor on his seventieth birthday, and ground broken at a new university library that was to bear his name. If I wanted to cast a long enough shadow to sour the birthday carnival, I’d need something more than rumors and allegations. I needed proof.

But after a few months spent digging, both in Austin and around Pierce’s home offices in Houston, I’d come up with exactly nothing. He had covered his tracks well, or at least his friends had, and I was left without a story. Pierce was well connected enough that his people in the Justice Department, the Texas Land Office, and the state and federal governments could simply make any evidence disappear. All of which made the name written on the back of the telegram so curious.

If Pierce had hired a private detective – and I stressed the “if”, not ready to trust an anonymous call in the middle of the night; that sort of spirit in the machine only came out of the woodwork in mystery novels and bad TV, and I wasn’t hanging any kind of hope on it – if Pierce had hired a detective, the question was why? Any business he needed taking care of, any bit of information he needed or person he wanted found, his friends with the badges and the government pensions could have handled easily. Unless – and this was the big flashing sign – he didn’t want them to know about it.

The only reason someone like Pierce would step outside the good old boy club was if he had done something, or found something, that he didn’t want being passed around the clubhouse. And something like that, just maybe, could mean a story.

Leaving Magnolia and my bottomless coffee behind, I was home by sunrise, and saw my place in daylight for the first time in a month. I’d been away in Chicago working on a story for Rolling Stone, and hadn’t returned until late the night before. After two too many drinks on the plane and in airport bars, I barely looked at the place as I stumbled up the drive. A little two bedroom house, with sagging wooden floors and wide gaps in the walls, it probably looked a hell of a lot better during World War II than it did now. But it was cheap, and large enough for all my crap, and I could come and go as I liked.

Once inside, I fired up my ancient computer and pulled down David Stiles’ home and office number. There was no answer at his home, and I caught a machine at his office, so I sat at my desk, working my way through a pack of cigarettes and thinking it over. By the time the ashtray was full I had it worked out. I put in a call to the publisher of Logion, leaving a message that I might have a story for her after all, and started shoving a few things in a suitcase. By the time my neighbors were up and on their way to work, I was back in the car, heading to Houston.

The drive to Houston was three hours, down a straight and wide road, and since the radio in the car was only picking up Christian Country, Christian Contemporary, and Christian Classical, I shut it off. I began thinking in that roaming, everywhere-at-once way that you do on long car trips, and eventually, without meaning to, began to remember my grandfather.

He had always been old, as long as I could remember, but I didn’t ever notice him aging. He was simply an ancient old man in the beginning, and stayed that way, untouched further by the passage of time. Towering over us, smelling of cigar smoke and bourbon, always immaculately dressed and expertly shaved. He spoke seldom, in a loud booming voice, but when angry would spit out his words in a barely audible hiss. We first saw him, my brother and I, at our parents’ funeral. He simply walked over to us, where we stood next to the twin open graves, a moving wall in a black wool suit, and announced that we were going to live with him from now on. Then he turned around and walked away to his car. We weren’t sure for a long time just who he was, and it wasn’t until we actually reached San Antonio that we were sure.

He was not a friendly man, and had little time for social niceties, either with company or with family, and I think that neither my brother nor myself received anything resembling affection from him in all our years there. We were raised, such as we were, by his housekeeper, Maria, who was the closest thing either of us had to a parent after the death of our own.

I thought then, and still do, that the old man resented having to take us in, but as he was the only living relative available… our father’s brother being the only other candidate, and at that time living in Europe… he had no choice. To turn us over to the state to be raised or adopted out would simply be bad form, and an insult to the few pleasant feelings he had left for his departed daughter. Besides, he trusted the authorities, “No farther than I could draw a bead on them,” he always said, and didn’t want his only descendants entrusted to their care.

I remember talking to my grandfather very seldom, if at all. I remember him talking to me, vividly, or rather issuing orders, but he had no time for the customary conversations which go on between children and adults in a family household. He left that to Maria, and spent his waking hours in his study. He had been involved in some sort of business, years before I was born, but for as long as I can remember had been retired. His energies were devoted solely to his researches, or writings, or whatever it was he did in that large room.

Once, when we were twelve, my brother dared me to sneak into the study, to see what was inside. Neither of us had ever been in there, and had only caught glimpses through the half-open door as our grandfather came in and out. He was upstairs in the bath, and we had scant moments until he would be back downstairs and at work. I don’t think my brother expected that I would take the dare, but I was simply too curious not to. Stealing a quick peek up the stairs to make sure he wasn’t coming, I slipped down the hallway to the study door, and then inside.

It was dark and cool, even in the middle of the summer, and as my eyes adjusted to the gloom I began to make out my surroundings. There was a wide Persian rug on the hardwood floor, and dark wood paneling on the walls, a stone fireplace built into one side. Other than a broad wooden desk and a high-backed chair upholstered in leather, the only furniture in the room consisted of bookshelves and glassed-in cases. There were framed paintings and prints on the wall, knights on crusades and pirates on windblown ships, and several posters that were advertisements for adventure serial films of the forties. There was a long glass case along one wall filled with what looked like thick, glossy comic books, but which I later decided were pulp magazines. Strewn over the desk, and laying in heaping piles on the tops of bookshelf and on the floor, were papers and books. A cartographer’s nightmare of mountains and valleys, all mapped out in type-written pages and hard-cover volumes. Moving further into the room, stepping gingerly around the piles, I saw a case set on the mantle of the fireplace. In it was a pair of jet black Colt .45s, mounted on a field of black velvet. I stood looking at them a long moment, entranced in that strange spell weapons hold over boys, and almost too late heard the heavy footsteps in the hallway.

I wheeled around, sure that at that very moment the old man was regarding me evilly from the doorway, but he hadn’t yet reached the door. I looked around in a panic, desperate for someplace to hide, but saw nothing, only books and paper. Standing there by the fireplace, I was sure it was all over. Then a fit of inspiration struck, and I turned and ducked into the fireplace. My back against one of the stone walls, my feet on the other, I pushed myself up off the ground like a rock climber in a tight crevasse, and by the time I heard the door swing wide was just out of sight, jammed into the narrow chimney a few feet above the ground.

I heard the footsteps enter the room, and walk across the floor to the desk. I groaned slightly under the strain, and counted the heartbeats until my muscles would buckle and I would fall out onto the floor. I hadn’t got to ten when the footsteps sounded again, heading back towards the door. I heard them pass to the hallway, and then the heavy door closed shut behind them. With a grunt I let my feet slip from the chimney wall, and collapsed onto the fireplace’s base, shoulders first. Staggering to my feet, I dusted myself off, and limped towards the door. I leaned into the wood and listened, but could hear no one on the other side. Pulling it open cautiously, I edged my way out and into the hall.

Not even bothering to glance around, I bolted for the stairs and bounded up the flight to my bedroom. I was through the door and inside before I’d even drawn a breath. I slid down the floor and landed with a thud on the thick carpet, surrounded by my toys and comics. I closed my eyes, feeling the pain in my every muscle, and smiled. At that moment, I knew just wanted to do with my life, just what I wanted to be.

A cat burglar.