In the House of the Crazy Dead, Group Captain Ian was fighting for his life. Johnny Shoxx and his army of zombies had smashed down the doors to the ballroom, and were battering their way in – and for zombies as big, bulky and ugly as they were, they sure moved quickly. Keeping his finger pressed down on the automatic fire button, Ian thumbed the command for rapid sweep, and –
“Ian!” As well as calling him, Dad gave the boy a quick, vigorous shake on the shoulder. “For the last time, stop playing that bloody game, will you? Look around you. You might learn something.”
“Yes, Dad.” No mistaking that tone of voice, Dad wasn’t happy. Ian put the Gamepocket back in his rucksack and folded his arms, glaring around him with a sniff. He could have got up to Level 5 that time, if Dad hadn’t have stopped him.
Bum. Ass-Hole. With an American accent.
“I don’t know, we paid to get in here, and all the time the boy’s got his head stuck in that computer game. He’s in a world of his own.”
“Well they’re not interested in this kind of stuff any more, are they? Everything’s got to be new, new, new.”
Ian had thought the Toy Museum had sounded like a great idea. All those weird and fantastic games and things from hundreds of years ago. But it was just boring. A few bits and pieces made out of wood and tin. Just lying there in a case. As if that was going to make them exciting – Doh! The seven-year-old scratched his big pink ears and swiveled around on his heels.
And then he saw the house.
“There you go, Ian! Now that’s what a real Doll’s House looks like.”
It was huge. The first thing Ian saw was the house-front; a huge slab of fake masonry painted in sugar-icing pink, that had been swung away from the main body of the building to expose the tableaux within.
That was a doll’s house? A doll’s house that big? It must have cost a fortune! Ian walked closer to look inside.
And there, to his delight, was a tableaux of five rooms and a hallway, decorated in warm, glowing Christmas-colours. There were so many details in the rooms it looked as if somebody had fired a miniaturizing ray-gun at a real house and shrunk it down to this size. And there were people in it. Well, not people but dolls. But not crybaby dolls. These dolls were wicked.
“Oh Phil? Look over there!”
Ian stared intently at the doll’s house as his parents wandered away. He could live in a house like that. Yeah. He felt really comfortable the more he thought about it. That house would be dead good to run about in.
Dad’s voice; “‘ A Child’s Garden of Verse,’ By Robert Louis Stevenson. Have you ever seen this before?”
Mum’s voice; “Robert Louis Stevenson. Didn’t he write ‘Treasure Island’?”
The notice on the side of the case read; ‘Victorian Doll’s House. Height 47 inches, width 41 inches, depth 14 inches. The front opens to reveal five rooms furnished with great care and attention to contemporary detail, and with great taste. The furniture is mostly early Duncan Phyfe, with the exception of the drawing room.
‘This house is generally known as the Faerie House. It is said that the donating family, who wished to remain anonymous, maintain that the house was built for the little spirit folk to live in.’ Ian read that bit twice. ‘A quaint tradition, which recalls the affair of the Cottingley Fairies…’
Ian’s eyes scanned the house, imagining where his toy soldiers would be hidden. They could jump out from anywhere, just like the baddies in “Time Massacre 4.” There was so much analog detail in the rooms, dark corners, bulky furniture, loads of places for monsters to hide…
“Look at the cover! That’s even the same cover as the one Nan gave to me when I was a boy. Here, let me show you this, it’s my favourite one in the book…”
The voices of his parents tuned in and out like a grown-up radio program. Ian set his soldiers moving. The house was his! He must protect it! He might blow it up a little bit while he was doing that, but he was the boss, so it didn’t matter!
He imagined two of his soldiers in the house, one upstairs, one downstairs. And a zombie, crashing in through the window in slow-motion shattering glass. Boom! The first soldier gets it in the arm.
What’s up? calls the second soldier, in the big bedroom.
I’m hit, shouts the first one, you gotta help me, you gotta help me. So the second soldier gets his Big Gun out.
“Ian? Did you say something?”
“Oh, he likes that house, doesn’t he? There you are, love, what did I tell you. Good old-fashioned stuff always appeals.”
“Oh, look, this is the poem I told you about. ‘The Unseen Playmate’. This scared the living daylights out of me when I was little.”
“Scared you? Oh, come on.”
“No, straight up, it did!”
Flicking his gaze from room to room, Ian noticed that not only were there dolls in each house, but they were all doing something. The cook was making dinner, in the primitive-looking kitchen. In the bathroom an old-fashioned maid was giving a baby a bath. A posh woman was playing the grand piano in the drawing room. But where’s the old man, thought Ian? Where’s the boss of the house?
Oh – there he was.
“Yeah, it really did. And I’ll tell you another thing that used to scare me. That poem about ‘The man who wasn’t there’. Do you know the one I mean? ‘When I was going up the stair, I met a man who wasn’t there.’ That gave me bad dreams, that did.”
“Oh, it didn’t!”
“Yes it did. Whoever is in that poem, he’s both there and not there, you know, both at the same time. I think that’s dead scary.”
“Well, I think it’s just daft.”
In the study, sitting at his desk, was the head of the household. Thickly drawn rings for eyes, in a lumpy wax face, attached themselves to Ian’s gaze. The doll was wearing an old-looking black coat and was stooped over his desk, as if he was really tired. Flakes of white paint, maybe from his hair, speckled his coat like dust or dandruff.
“There’s something else I’ll always remember, it’s a poem that my Dad used to recite to me, I don’t know where on Earth he got it from. It goes – no, don’t laugh – it goes like this:
One fine day in the middle of the night,
Two dead men got up to fight.
Back to back, they faced each other,
Drew their swords and shot each other.”
“Well, it’s a nonsense poem, isn’t it?”
“I know, but there’s something really strange about it. It’s like everything has been turned around and upside down. But to the people in the poem, it’s perfectly normal. It gives me the creeps.”
The old doll in his stiff black suit continued to stare back at Ian as if he recognized him. Suddenly, the boy had one of those funny feelings, a feeling he was not quite there. Something was at the back of his mind, another time, another place, he closed his eyes so that he could see it, but too slow. It was gone. Just that funny, happy-sad, sickly-sweet feeling that there was something really important, a place that he had to be, and something he had to do, but he just couldn’t remember what it was.
Hot flushes were colouring his cheeks. He really wanted to do a Mister Shaky, but he remembered the scolding his Mum gave him the last time he’d done that in public.
“Ian? Ian, are you ready?”
“Typical. Now the place is closing, he doesn’t want to go …”
THE LAVISHLY ILLUSTRATED COLLECTION OF STORIES CAN BE FOUND HERE.
Chapter One of “Voice of the Jewel”, the explosive finale to the “Sword, Mirror, Jewel” trilogy!
I’ve saved the world once and Tokyo twice. Well, when I say twice, one of them was an alternative world Tokyo and doesn’t really count. I’ve had my ex-boyfriend possessed by a living shadow, I’ve been split into two people by a time machine, I’ve even had a marriage proposal from a Tengu. But the toughest challenge in my short teenage life has got to be this; the prospect of spending one more minute listening to Chiaki Yamamoto drivelling on about K-pop.
“And then there was an interlude for lunch and everyone got their lunchboxes, and my sister and me had made rice balls and decorated them to look like the faces of O-My Boyz members, and the girls around us were soooooo jealous! Then after lunch the O-My Boyz carried futons onto the stage, and they said “We all need a nap after lunch, right?” Then the lights went out and the big screen went on and we could see all their cute faces pretending to sleep while they played Dream Baby Candy over the speakers.”
“Chiaki, I am so going to the O-My Boyz Waku Waku Winter camp next year!”
“Chiaki, I am so totally jealous!”
I tried to tune out the boy band crap and glared at the Yokai in front of me. Schoolgirls aren’t supposed to have arch-enemies. Schoolgirls are supposed to obsess about pop music and crepes and school uniforms and homework. But surrounding me and my idiot companions were rows of creatures that I had encountered in the recent past. Some had helped me. Some had threatened me. Some of them had almost killed me. Today they glowered, silent and gleaming white in the cold sunshine, a rogue’s gallery made out of ice.
We were standing in the Sapporo Snow Festival Shigeru Mizuki Memorial Plaza. He was the creator of the manga series GeGeGe no Kitaro, the long-running adventures of a ghost boy and his friends and foes among the Yokai – the spirit-monsters inhabiting the world of Japanese mythology and folklore (or that’s what the public called them, the reality was kind of … complicated).
I gazed in admiration at the exaggerated and deformed figures before me. Kitaro, Medama-oyaji, Nezumi Otoko, Ittan Momen, Nurikabe, Nurarlhyon, Back Beard … Some dreamed up by the artist’s fertile imagination, but others had been inspired by ancient myths and folktales – like the Tengu, the Kappa, and the Kitsune statues, who stood one row behind the GeGeGe no Kitaro main characters. I smiled secretly as I ticked off the answers to the questions on the school worksheet we’d been given. Little did the teachers know I had crossed swords with all three of these Yokai in the past few months. In a manner of speaking.
I should have been happy. We were on a school trip! We were in the center of Sapporo, for heaven’s sake! We were at the world-famous Snow Festival in Odori Park, surrounded by giant replicas of pyramids, palaces, towers, Statues of Liberty, Star Wars characters, all sculpted from snow and ice – but I was stuck with Chiaki, the class alpha bitch!
I rubbed my gloved hands together and watched my breath silver the air in front of my face. The temperature difference with Tokyo was approximately 10 degrees C, but it felt much colder. Me, Chiaki, and her two hangers-on Nodaka and Mirei were all bundled up in layers of Uniqlo heat-tech underwear, hooded down jackets with a fleece-lined inner layer, thick knit caps, scarf, backpack, thick gloves, and corduroy jeans. We wore studded slip-stoppers on our boots, which we’d bought at Chitose airport, to keep our footing on our icy ground. We looked anonymous in the winter gear. The only difference was that Chiaki’s glossy black hair, much longer than mine, spilt out of her hood and down her shoulders. She was pretty as well, I’ll give her that, but you wouldn’t think so if you listened to her bitching. She was always ragging me about being a hafu – half Japanese, half American. She went around school telling everyone I looked cute because I had mixed parents, and I was just born like it, but for girls like her she had to work with skin cleanser and cosmetics and diets to look cute.
Which was the most important thing for girls like her. What you looked like.
We’d been here for one night – Sapporo, capital of Hokkaido, the large northern island that lay just above the Japanese mainland. Last night we’d got into Chitose airport quite late, taken a coach to the hotel in the city center just a few streets from here, and had some of the local seafood specialities for dinner.
This was our first view of the city proper, and it was the peak of the Festival, all very bustling and frenetic and very very Japanese. Japan’s fifth largest city, home to one point eight million people, Sapporo was a refreshing place to visit after years of living in Tokyo. The roads were wider and less congested, the pedestrians and cyclists were actually polite, and the streets followed a grid system that people could actually understand.
Our breath hung in the still cold air and our boots clacked on the ice-covered concrete path. Peering at the statues, my attention was distracted by Chiaki’s blabber, but also by the constant recorded announcements from a perky-voiced woman about the Festival attractions, and the occasional rasp of an electric saw used by an artist still putting the finishing touches to their crystal-colored work.
Piercing shrieks of laughter from behind me broke the frosty air.
“No, really, the album title is Popcorn, right? So their blog said tonight’s Winter Dream Live is going to have a popcorn and snack theme.”
“I saw their Live last month on Youtube, and the stage looked like like a popcorn factory and all the fans had popcorn box-shaped penlights.”
“Oh, shut up! Unless you can tell me where I can get a popcorn-box shaped penlight right now.”
“They come onto stage dressed as Popcorn Men, with popcorn-shaped helmets and red and white striped vests and pants, and they were all flying above the stage on wires, riding balloons shaped like popcorn and jellybeans and lollipops.”
“That is so cute!”
I snorted with laughter. I couldn’t help it – and she heard.
“What are you laughing at, Bergman?”
“Yeah, nothing. That suits you, Bergman.”
I swung round, trying to keep my voice calm. “Chiaki, can you manage to actually finish the assignments we’re supposed to do this morning? Or shall I write all the answers for you?”
“Yeah, answer the questions, Queen Geek,” she snapped back. “We’re busy.”
I knew exactly why I’d been paired with Chiaki for this morning’s assignment. The homeroom teacher wanted for the usual school kids and the Global Studies kids to GET ON with each other. To study together in an atmosphere of mutual respect. The only problem with that is, you don’t come to an understanding with someone if you’ve already decided to permanently ignore them.
And that’s what had happened. When all the kids had been paired up and sent off with a clipboard and a list of photos to be taken and questions to be answered, Chiaki had sent a message on LINE for her friends to come and get her, and they did.
So maybe I should do the same thing …
If she was going to play dirty, then so was I. Without Chiaki noticing, which was pretty easy because she was ignoring me, I slipped out my own phone and sent a LINE message to Tomoe, Hideaki and Shunsuke. I need help, I said, I’m going to kill Chiaki. Come and find me at Izumo-taisha.
I slipped my phone back in my parka pocket, feeling a little better. They would find me, all right. They were all my BFF. My nakama. Or to use even trendier slang, my itsumen, as Chiaki would have said, if she ever bothered to speak to me in a full sentence that didn’t contain an insult.
I trudged off in the direction of the next school assignment, and the three girls followed a few yards behind, sniggering and snarking all the way.
I watched my breath puff out into ice crystals as I walked. Over the winter vacation, I’d been practicing a lot with Chiyoko. Training with the naginata staff she had given me, and learning more about the Ki, the spirit energy that flowed within and without every living being. We had meditated, as well, under a spell of concealment in the private gardens of Tokyo’s Imperial Palace itself, the grounds that the public are never permitted to enter. Count your breaths, Chiyoko had said, count your breaths, and feel at home in the empty space between them.
Here in the park, I tried to calm down and enter the same space, watching my misty breath. It was a place as pure as the stinging cold air, pure and clean and completely my own, where nothing could touch me.
Snow had been on the ground here in Sapporo for weeks, the teachers had said. It was thick and settled, but paths had been cleared to each of the statue attractions, with the excess snow piled up into drifts as high as my shoulder, lining the edges of the park.
In the city center, the white carpet had been mashed to slush and frozen, then snowed on, slushed and frozen again, and store keepers must have been out with shovels every morning to clear the dangerous layers of ice. At the other end of the park the Sapporo TV Tower dominated the skyline, with its warm digital display showing the time 09:43 just above the main observation lounge.
“Okay, Chiaki,” I called back over my shoulder. “That’s Izumo-Taisha, up ahead.”
“Yeah, we know all about that Shinto stuff, whatever. You have to study that because you’re hafu. Me, it’s in my blood, it’s in my DNA, geddit?”
Jeez. Anyone who spent five minutes in the room with Chiaki would need the patience of the ancient Zen master Eihei Dogen to keep from slapping her in the face.
But I had bigger things to think about. We had walked past the gallery of Edo period samurai, and were almost at the replica of Izumo-Taisha … possibly the oldest Shinto shrine in all Japan.
Izumo was a region in Shimane prefecture on the southern tip of the Japanese mainland, an incredibly old area known as the legendary home of the Kami – Japan’s pantheon of Shinto Gods. Trudging against a keen wind, I blinked snow out of my eyes and took in the majesty of the Shrine exterior. Beyond the pure white Torii gate lay the massive pillars and arched roof of the Main Worship Hall, with a snow reproduction of the giant one-ton sacred straw rope hung across half its length, and the nineteen doors allowing the entry and exit of the Kami stretching away on both east and west. The sunlight filtered through the thick translucent walls, and intricate carvings adorned white pedestals. Lamps placed at gound level cleverly used the ice to reflect a multitude of colors burning at the shrine’s heart.
I caught my breath. I’d seen the original on a school trip many years ago, but this copy made out of ice, this fake pressed out of the simplest natural material, looked somehow just as haunting and mysterious as the real thing.
“Yeah, Takahiro’s gonna be there at the O-My Boyz live in the park tonight … ’cause I said if he doesn’t see it with me I’m gonna kill him …”
As a rekijo – as a history geek – I was in my element, but there was something missing …
“Hi, losers! Are we cold enough yet?”
I looked up. And grinned.
“Hi, Hideaki. Hi, Tomoe. Fancy stripping off for a swim in the fountains?”
My nakama had arrived to save the day. Or most of them at least. Hideaki and Tomoe had responded to my LINE message, and turned up, with their respective school-project partners trailing behind them.
But where was Shunsuke?
Hideaki (my ex-boyfriend, but still BFF) was tall, lean, full of energy and far too handsome for his own good. Tomoe was cute in a Goth way, short and thin, burning constantly with more nervous energy than was good for her. She had black hair cut in a bob, and a smile that would have been cute if you didn’t look at her dark, intense eyes when she gazed at you.
They looked fresh and pure with the snow gently falling around them.
I noticed Chiaki turn to her friends and roll her eyes, as if to say, more weirdoes.
“How much longer are we gonna be standing around here freezing our butts off?” said Hideaki.
“That’s a charming way to say hello! I’d hit you if I could take my hands out of my pockets long enough,” I said with a smile.
He scowled fiercely. “I’m not an early morning person, and I’m not a winter person. I have to get up early every morning for baseball practice anyway. I wish once, just for once, I could stay in bed past seven o’clock.”
“So do we,” said Tomoe, “If only to get some peace and quiet. I’ve known Tengu that were less of a nuisance than you.”
Tomoe scrunched over to me and we hugged through the layers of clothing. “Whoa,” she said. “What’s up with you? You’re like we haven’t seen each other for weeks.”
“It feels like weeks since breakfast at the hotel. Don’t ask. Did you find anything for your Mom’s birthday?”
“Oh yeah! I bought one of the lucky owl charms from the Ainu stall back there.”
Chiaki had heard. “You bought your mom some of that cheap, tatty crap? She deserves better. They’re not even Ainu, anyway. They look like scrounging Filipinos and I think all that Ainu trinket crap was made in China.”
“Whoa,” scoffed Tomoe. “Thanks a lot, Miss Congeniality.”
I knew a lot about the Ainu. Sapporo was the capital city of the huge Japanese island of Hokkaido, and the Ainu were the island’s original, indigenous inhabitants. They had a rich culture and mythology of their own – but mainly, I know a lot about the Ainu because I kind of understood how they feel.
They know what it’s like to be outsiders.
“I’m going to buy her some Sapporo cakes and white chocolate as well,” Tomoe continued, until Chiaki cut in again.
“Hey, I’m so hungry! No food talk! Quit talking about food!”
Tomoe looked at me and winked. “I’ve got some white chocolate in my pocket right now. Wanna share it?”
“I can do better than that,” Hideaki said with a sly grin at Chiaki. “You wanna hit that Ramen Alley with all the prize-winning shops over in the city center? Mid-morning break? Teachers won’t find out.”
“I’m gonna kill you, loser!”
“Come on, Chiaki,” I said, relishing the moral support. “Maybe if you start noticing things around you, you’ll find plenty of attractions to take your mind off food.”
“Oh, you mean like I noticed that?”
She pointed at a column of greasy black smoke rising from a few blocks away.
“Is that meant to be part of the Snow Festival?” one of the other kids asked.
“It’s a BBQ or something?”
My mood plummeted again as I watched the smoke billow into the sky. The pit of my stomach felt hollow and my pulse rate began to rise.
“Something feels weird,” muttered Tomoe.
Then we heard the sirens. They were converging on the direction of the smoke. Around us, the other festival-goers started to notice and they held up their phones, capturing the smoky column with their cameras.
“I wonder what happened to Shunsuke?” I heard Hideaki say.
Before I spoke, I checked my phone again and sure enough, there was a LINE message.
Guys, come and meet me at the big metal signpost thing. There’s something weird that you need to see.
We walked back through the Edo Gallery, to the edge of the park. The crowds thinned out, because mid-morning most people would be gawking at the biggest sculptures around. Hideaki and Tomoe’s partners had fallen in with Chiaki’s clique, and they were giggling over something else on their smartphones. Whatever.
Shunsuke came to meet us. He was a few centimeters taller than Hideaki, but had a more open face that smiled easily, with pale, sensitive features, even paler because of the cold.
“What did you mean by weird?” I asked. So what’s so weird that we had to drag ourselves away from Izumo-taishi?”
“I think you’d better see for yourself,” he said, pointing behind him at a row of life-size ice statues on the side of the path.
As I got closer, I began to make out more detail in the figures. They were posed, unnaturally upright like the other ice statues we had seen today. But there was something familiar about them. Two female, two male.
Then it hit me like a jolt of electricity.
The rightmost figure was Tomoe. She had seen this herself and was standing beside me, her mouth open in surprise, On my other side Shunsuke nodded grimly.
At last I recognized the other three figures. One was myself, one was Hideaki, and the other was Shunsuke.
Our own faces; white, perfect, emotionless. They were ice statues of ourselves.
To read Book One, “Voice of the Sword”, go HERE.
To read Book Two, “Voice of the Mirror”, go HERE.
Sample chapter from “The Mists of Osorezan”, a supernatural thriller by Zoe Drake.
The last lesson of the day had finished, and the girls were now getting ready for their daily ‘after-school’ activities. Taking out brooms and brushes to clean their own classrooms, getting changed for the sports club activities, or arranging their textbooks for the pre-exam cramming sessions. In David’s schooldays, the end of lessons meant exactly that; the end of lessons. The school emptied. Here in Japan, with lessons on Saturday, sports club tournaments on Sunday, special tests and seminars in summer and winter, school never seemed ended.
Making his way through the clumps of chattering friends blocking the corridor, he walked past the stairs and entered the junior high school wing. The doors to one of the classrooms were open, and the students were busy pinning sketches onto tall display boards, manga pictures in the different stages of being inked and colored. David walked slowly through the classroom, peering at each misshapen creature – stylized, detailed drawings of figures that seemed partly human, partly animal, but all with something fundamentally wrong about them.
A fox standing upright, wearing a kimono. A Japanese woman with her head on the end of a ridiculously long, serpentine neck, a forked tongue poking out from her lips. A man in a priest’s robe and straw hat, one huge eye in the middle of his forehead. A girl in school uniform with long hair falling over a blank, featureless face. A scowling red-faced goblin with a huge phallic nose. Paper lanterns, paper doors, and waxed cloth umbrellas that had grown eyes and had ripped holes for mouths.
It was a tradition carried on year after year. The junior high school students were making a display devoted to the undead for the School Festival. The Japanese were very proud of their ghosts, especially in the summer. David imagined a village back in the Edo period, all of them sweating and trying to relax in the sultry night, and the traveling storytellers summoning bizarre, grotesque creatures for the audience. Tales to chill the listeners at the hottest time of the year.
The word for ghost was Obakemono, which literally meant ‘changing thing’. The kanji for the verb bakeru, to change, was based on the ideogram meaning ‘person’ next to the same ideogram twisted into a different posture. In Japanese ghost stories things and people changed; umbrellas, lanterns, any household object could become poltergeists, foxes could become beautiful girls, that soft-spoken old man you met on the road to the next village could be a corpse-eating ghost…
“Ne, ne, ne – David-sensei!”
He turned. One of the high-school students had entered the room behind him; Maki, from his after-school conversation class. From the other teachers, David knew she had a reputation as one of the bad girls of the school – her shoulder-length hair was tinted brown, her skirt was habitually hitched up above her knees. She always came to his after-school conversation class, though; her English wasn’t bad, but she seemed more interested in gossiping than in the lesson’s subject.
“Japanese ghost,” she said in broken English. “It is very scared, desu sho?”
“You mean, they’re very scary.”
Maki pointed to one of the sketches, her finger crowned with a painted nail. “Do you know Yuki-Onna? Her love is deadly weapon, and her touching will turn you into ice and you will die of cold.”
David moved his face closer to the portrait. It was a woman, her face the same deathly white as her kimono, her mouth and eyes delicate brush stokes in the long, triangular face.
His gaze moved to the paper next to it on the wall. The sketch of another woman, who looked apparently normal – she wore contemporary clothes, but her nose and mouth were covered with a gauze mask, just like the ones the Japanese wore when they were suffering from colds or hay fever.
Maki went through a savage parody of shivering. “She is Kuchisake-Onna, David-sensei, and she is really, really scary.”
“What’s her story?”
“When you are going home, you maybe meet a woman wearing a mask like this one. She will come to you and ask you, Do you think I’m beautiful? Do you think I’m beautiful? Then she takes off her mask, and she has a really wide, ripped mouth.” Maki traced lines on her cheeks, from the corners of her mouth to her ears. “A wide, cut mouth. And teeth like wolf.”
David took a deep breath. The Japanese, he thought, were great at finding ways to scare themselves.
“Maki, why are these ghosts always female?”
The girl shrugged. “What’s most scary thing for an old Japanese man? A woman. A dead woman with magic powers, who wants to do revenge, for how the man treated her.”
He went back to the English department on the second floor and made himself a cup of tea. The staff room was empty; the other teachers were in meetings, or drawing up test papers, or overseeing club activities. He checked the messages on his phone and finished preparing for the next day’s lessons.
Still no messages from Saori, he thought ruefully.
The cup of tea in his hands, he walked to the window and looked out at the sports grounds. About thirty students were below on the parched and faded grass, practicing tennis. “Issatsu!” they each called in singsong voices as they served – “Here’s one!” Small clouds of dust drifted close to the ground, kicked up as their uniform white trainers scuffed the soil.
David lifted his gaze, from the students darting back and forth in their blue track suits, to the line of oak, beech and cherry trees that stood along the fence and blocked out the view of the road outside, and beyond the trees, the deeper green of the wood-covered mountains in the distance. Standing with the cup in his hands, he found it difficult to tear his eyes away. The sound of the crickets outside made the view even more exotic and foreign. Mesmeric, in fact.
When he had learned the kanji character for north, the textbook explained the origin of the ideogram. The shape illustrated a pair of near-identical figures sitting back to back. In the minds of the ancient Japanese, turning your back on someone meant the same as heading in the coldest direction – the direction of north.
Here they were in the north, Tohoku – and the rest of Japan had turned its back upon them. They were stuck here, with their history and their peculiar festivals, their past of triumph and tragedy, and their stories of girls with no faces, girls with ripped mouths, girls whose touch could freeze you to death.
As it was a Tuesday it was his session at the hospital, so he had plenty of time to kill. He decided to go up to the computer room on the third floor and do some more research. As David left the English department and walked to the main staircase, the corridors were still bustling with students coming to and fro.
In the computer room, Takenouchi-sensei was packing away folders in his bag, his plump face looking even more florid that usual. “Ah, David-sensei,” he said, producing a set of keys. “Owatta-ra, kagi o-kakkete-kudasai.”
Looked like Takenouchi-sensei was going home early, because he’d just asked David to look up after himself. “Wakarimashita,” David replied. I understand and agree.
David switched on the aging PC and logged in.
There was the usual mail from Mum; the rainy spell in Brentwood still hadn’t let up. Dad was in the attic, bro was off camping with his mates, little Sis was in Ibiza.
Nothing from his Lisa.
Nothing from Saori, either.
Sighing, he wondered what to do. There’d been nothing to tell him not to go to the Yoshida family’s place tomorrow night; so maybe Saori hadn’t told her parents about what he was doing. Or maybe they were all waiting to confront him tomorrow night, to grill him when he turned up in their lobby? Would a Japanese family do that?
Why did I enroll at the hospital, David asked himself. Was it something so ridiculous? Maybe I should just leave. Tell that guy Nozaki tonight that I’ve had second thoughts and resign from the program. The funny thing was that he actually felt better because of the program; he felt healthier, fitter, and when he woke every morning he felt genuinely refreshed. Also, over the last few nights, he’d been following Nozaki’s guidance, and he was actually remembering his dreams more.
He looked at his watch. It was almost six; time to get moving. He logged out, switched off, and turned out the lights and air-conditioner before locking up with Takenouchi-sensei’s keys.
Picking up his bag from the English department, he started walking along the long, echoing corridor that led to the stairs. As Japan had no Daylight Saving Time, it always got dark at about six o’clock, regardless of the season – something that had thrilled David when he’d first arrived. It seemed so tropical and secretive, the darkness laced with the hot smells of yakitori and katorisenko mosquito repellant, the tinkling of wind chimes outside balconies to make the occupants imagine themselves cooler.
As he reached the last classroom before the staircase, he stopped. The school was usually quiet at this time: only the murmurs of teachers’ voice from the ground floor, or the traffic outside. But this time there was something else. There was a clicking noise, a peculiar clockwork rattle, like someone rattling a stick against metal railings as they walked by.
He turned and looked at window of the nearest classroom. Unlike the others, this room had lights coming from inside – but not electric lights. He peered through the glass. Those flickering orange lights were surely not supposed to be in there. In fact, as he kept looking, there was only one thing they could be…
He put down his bag and slid open the door. A thin, acrid smell of smoke caught at his throat. Beside the teacher’s desk, flames licked upwards from a small metal trashcan. He stepped forward, wondering what to do; it wasn’t a dangerous fire, but the paper inside was burning vigorously. No chance of putting out the fire by stamping it out with his foot.
With a whispered curse, he reached down and picked up the trashcan. It wasn’t as hot as he’d feared. Holding it away from him, he half-ran to the washing area beside the staircase, the long metal sink where the students washed their hands. Dumping the can in the sink, he positioned it beneath one of the taps and turned the flow of water onto maximum. The fire went out fitfully, with a lot of spitting.
“Bloody hell.” He looked at the water-spattered trashcan and the black, sodden mass inside it. Picking it up once more, he walked to the staircase entrance,
“Do shita-n desu ka?” What’s the matter? A uniformed figure stood in the corridor, a bright circle of light in his right hand. Keibin-san. One of the several security guards who patrolled the school day and night. Retired salarymen who’d traded cheap polyester suits for a uniform of a different kind.
David explained what had happened as best he could. The guard stared at the trashcan, mouth open in almost comic surprise. He took the can out of David’s hands, reached inside and gingerly pulled out one of the pieces of card. He held it between finger and thumb, as if trying to avoid staining his fingers, and placed it on the rim of the sink. There was something written on the card. Bold, cursive letters written in hiragana script. Looking closer, David noticed something odd. The letters didn’t seem to form words. Instead, it looked as if someone had just written out the hiragana alphabet in order, using a magic marker.
“Kokkuri-san,” the guard whispered, his eyes wide and staring.
David frowned. He didn’t recognize the word.
“Jya. Kyoutou-sensei tanominai-to,” the guard said, recovering himself. We have to tell the Vice-Principal.
The guard left, taking the stairs down to the first floor, carrying the trashcan with him. David stood looking back at the classroom where the fire had been, feeling faintly troubled. He’d heard of inner city schools in London where the students would start fires, but it was pretty depressing to find it in Japan.
He could still smell the sharp odor of the smoke. But there was something else; something stronger, more pungent. He suddenly realized what it was; the volcanic, rotten-egg reek of sulfur. The sort of odour he’d smelled at hot springs.
The sort of odor he’d smelled everywhere when he’d stayed at Osorezan.
Ebook and paperback available here
Happy New Year, readers of quality fiction! Today Excalibur celebrates its tenth release – “The Mists of Osorezan”, by Zoe Drake – and outlines its plans for the year ahead, as Phase One of the Excalibur Literary Universe comes to an end!
“Sword, Mirror, Jewel” Book 3: “Voice of the Jewel” (Release date: June 2016)
The epic trilogy based on Japanese mythology reaches its world-shattering conclusion as Reiko Bergman and her friends fight to protect the third artifact of Japan’s Imperial Treasures! On their school trip to the Sapporo Snow Festival, mysterious threatening figures are lurking among the giant icy sculptures … and a new and shocking villain is about to be revealed!
“Tales From Beyond Tomorrow” Volume Two (Release date: December 2016)
A new collection of novelettes, short stories and comic strips featuring twelve alternative histories! This time, the settings include a Steampunk version of America’s Old West … Venice on the eve of World War Two … and the first manned scientific mission to Mars!
BOOKS CURRENTLY AVAILABLE:
The “Sword, Mirror, Jewel” series (by John Paul Catton)
Book 1: Voice of the Sword
Creatures from Japanese mythology have returned to modern Japan. Tengu, Kappa and Kitsune are at war on the streets of Tokyo … and Reiko Bergman, Japanese-American teenager, is caught in the crossfire!
ebook on sale here
paperback on sale here
Book 2: Voice of the Mirror
Continuing the Yokai War begun in the first book, Reiko and her friends are thrown back in time to Japan’s Edo Period, to fight ghosts and monsters alongside the genius artist Katsushika Hokusai!
ebook on sale here
paperback on sale here
The Unofficial Guide to Japanese Mythology
A companion to the “Sword, Mirror, Jewel” trilogy and a guide to the gods, demons, and Yokai (supernatural creatures) that inhabit the rich and fascinating realm of Japanese mythology, legends and folklore!
ebook on sale here
The Jason Zodiac series (by Jamie Carter)
“The Jason Zodiac Files” – Volume One
Music journalist Jamie Carter’s biography of one of Rock music’s most mysterious and controversial figures!
ebook on sale here
paperback on sale here
The Futurist Manifesto series (by John Paul Catton)
“Tales from Beyond Tomorrow” – Volume One
A lavishly illustrated collection of Retropunk novelettes, short stories and comic strips offering ten bizarre alternative histories!
ebook on sale here
paperback on sale here
“Moonlight, Murder and Machinery”
A stand-alone Gothic SF Romance: Warrior-poets Byron, Shelly and Keats pursue Frankenstein’s monster through a bizarre Steampunk Regency England!
ebook on sale here
paperback on sale here
The “Drakeverse” series – by Zoe Drake
“The Mists of Osorezan”
A terrifying blend of J-Horror and H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos!
ebook on sale here
paperback coming soon
“Dead Hand Clapping”
A bizarre serial killer is terrorizing the neon wilderness of Tokyo’s sleazy nightlife!
ebook on sale here
A collection of Japan-based Yokai-themed short stories!
ebook on sale here
“3/11: The Fallout” by Patrick Fox
A non-fiction omnibus work, designed to raise funds for charities helping the reconstruction of Tohoku communities shattered by the 3/11 disaster!
paperback on sale here
This is the ebook cover for “The Mists of Osorezan” by Zoe Drake, a supernatural thriller with elements of both J-Horror and H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos!
It begins with a series of unconnected mysteries …
AOMORI, JAPAN: A young girl dies during the testing of a revolutionary brain-scanning technology.
VENICE, ITALY: Strange omens are seen in the skies above a haunted island in the lagoon.
LONDON, ENGLAND: A secret society of occultists gather to discuss the oncoming crisis.
Gradually the threads are drawn together …
David Keall, a young British resident of Japan, finds himself attracted to his private student, Saori Yoshida, and becomes fascinated by the mysterious death of her sister during trials of the Tsuguru University Sleep Research Project. He enrolls in the same project to help Saori uncover the truth, but his life turns into a nightmare when his darkest dreams erupt into reality around him. Two mysterious strangers with paranormal powers arrive, offering help … but can he trust them?
Can David find his way back to normality – or will he be lost forever in the mists of Osorezan?
PAPERBACK – COMING SOON!
Frankie was ten years old when his father told him about the Curse of the Pharaohs.
Francis Wilfred Cooper was born in Norwich in 1914, and his earliest childhood memory was watching the men come back from France after the War. His childhood was golden; that was the color that came to mind when he remembered his youth – the sunlight, the buttercups and the daffodils in the back garden, the fields of wheat that he used to cycle past on his way to school, the grassy banks that he used to roll down, getting his knees grazed and his short trousers muddy. Even the air itself seemed golden.
When he was ten years old his parents took him on a day trip to the British Museum in London. He stared up in awe at the colossal stone faces of Pharaohs with exotic names such as Amenhotep and Ramesses, unreadable weathered expressions in granite, limestone, and quartzite. He goggled at the bas-reliefs of unearthly gods with their heads of birds, jackals and crocodiles, and frowned at the tantalizing hieroglyphics of the Rosetta Stone.
“Howard Carter and Lord Carnavon opened the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922,” his father had told him the day before they went to London, “and four months later, Carnavaon had died from a mysterious infection. By the end of 1924 six other members involved in the expedition had died. Some folks say …” Dad lowered his voice, rolling his eyes for effect.
Some do say it was the curse that did it, reaching out from the tombs of the dead …”
“Oh, give over,” his mother had chided. “You’ll scare the child.”
On the contrary, his father’s words, and the arcane masks of the ancient gods, sparked an obsession with Egyptian mythology that was to stay with Frankie for the rest of his life.
Not that Frankie said anything about that to the Medical Board when he applied to St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in London.
It was December 1940. Christmas in wartime. Holly and barbed wire. Tinsel around the rim of a tin hat. Sandbags around the church walls, and papier-mâché coffins down in the crypt. Everyone used euphemisms and jokes to describe the Blitz because the reality was too horrific to contemplate. Every day, as Frankie cycled from his digs to St. Bart’s, he passed a fish and chip shop with wooden boards nailed up to replace the blown-out windows. Last week, there’d been a hand-painted sign on the planks saying –
THANKS TO HITLER, CHIPS ARE LITTLER This week the sign said –
BECAUSE OF HESS, THE FISH IS LESS
It made him Frankie chuckle, and that’s what it was all about, wasn’t it? You had to laugh. Because if you didn’t laugh, you’d sit down and cry and never stop crying.
Run, rabbit, run, rabbit, run, run, run, Don’t give the farmer his fun, fun, fun, He’ll get by
Without his rabbit pie,
So run, rabbit, run, rabbit, run, run, run …
Frankie had a room in a Victorian brick house at one end of a terrace of six. These were the lodgings of the lab assistants, on Bury Street, near Leadenhall Market, a short bicycle ride away from the nurse’s homes and hospital wards that nestled in the city’s bosom, and a few streets away from the mighty edifice of St. Paul’s Cathedral itself. Frankie’s residence was a musty narrow room with a cracked window at the top of three flights of creaking wooden stairs, and it had damp in the winter and it never got enough sunlight, but to him it was paradise. Every time he swung himself onto the bed to put his feet up and stare out at the grey rooftops before he closed the blackout curtain, or listened to Tommy Handley (It’s That Man Again!) on the crackling crystal wireless, he had the same, inescapable feeling; this was where he was supposed to be.
Before the war, when Frankie met people they often asked him why had taken up a job as a pathologist’s assistant in the coroner’s office. “How can you stand it?” they asked, furrowing their brows. “Dealing with blood and death every day? Ooh, you poor dear.” Frankie would just shrug the question off – “Well, someone’s got to do it!” – and then change the subject. Nobody wanted to hear the grisly details of what he actually did in the labs on a regular basis, and that suited Frankie fine. There was beer to be drunk and nice girls to run after.
Then after the War started, questions were superfluous. Frankie applied for the army, but he was in a reserved occupation. He was “doing his bit”, and “helping the War Effort”. Say no more.
At the end of 1939, many of St. Bart’s wards had been closed down for the Duration, and most of the nursing staff and patients had been evacuated to the Home Counties. A hundred and thirty three medical staff remained at the three main hospital buildings in Smithfield. One of them was Frankie.
Although the number of staff had been reduced, the number of hospital beds kept on climbing. At the beginning of December there were over sixteen hundred, with each ward having at least sixty beds. The main task of the wards that remained open was to receive air-raid casualties. Only the lower floors were in use, and the windows had been fortified with sandbags and sticky tape. Bomb blasts had already seriously damaged the Nurses’ Home on the east side, the student’s quarters and one of the operating theaters. The windows of the Pathology Block in Giltspur Street had been completely blown out.
The basements had been converted into extra mortuaries, where Frankie spent most of his time. It was impossible to get a hospital gurney down the stone steps, so Frankie and the others had to carry the dead down on stretchers. Not an easy job. Especially not on the evening shifts, when the blackout was on and the bombs were falling, and the orderlies had to step carefully over the big bags of coal stacked out in the yard because there was nowhere else to put them. One night Frankie was down in the dark, amongst the dead, on his own, when he heard a dry rustling and pattering, like something slithering its way down the steps towards him. Finally summoning the courage to go and look, he found a hole had been torn in one of the bags and the lumps of coal were rolling down the steps.
Frankie’s colleagues carried on their duties with a quiet, firm determination, in spite of all the blasts and blowings-up Hitler could muster. The senior doctors went on their rounds with those stiff, chill, impassive faces that the English always wore when they seethed with emotion. The orderlies cracked jokes of the darkest gallows humor; once, someone dropped his Spam sandwich on the floor of the mortuary. Everyone looked at each other in silence for a few seconds until a man next to Frankie said, “Well go on Ted, Wheeler’s always saying this floor should be clean enough to eat off.”
When there was no room left on the porcelain post-mortem tables, the rankless dead were laid out on the floor. Old, young, male, female; crushed by debris, covered in plaster dust, their guts blown out, burned, charred, some with faces literally blue from violent asphyxia, and some miraculously unblemished, lying as if simply asleep. Frankie and his mates attended to them all, tying identity tags to the bodies, and putting any belongings found with them into little bags.
After a big explosion, there would be very little of the body left. A direct hit from a five-hundred pound bomb would leave just fragments of flesh, gumboots, cloth, and mangled tin hats. Once, after a factory had been bombed, the ambulance crew came back with part of a man’s leg. That was all they could find. Frankie tagged it straight away as the night watchman because the leg still had the braid from the trousers stuck to it.
The corpses that remained intact had horrific, disfiguring injuries. Identifying the remains
seemed impossible. Sometimes, when Frankie was in the mortuary and the other assistants moved quietly back and forth between the rows of the dusty, tattered corpses, it seemed to him that every wound had become a mouth. The ripped-open faces and bodies of the men, women and children were mouths stretched open, and all the pain and grief of their prematurely shortened lives was coming out in their endless, silent screams.
“I don’t know how you cope with it, old boy,” his family and friends said to him on the occasions when he had leave and went back to Norwich. “I don’t know how you stay sane.” Frankie shrugged his shoulders and kept his own counsel. He had never, ever, told anyone the real reason of how he was able to cope.
Auntie threw her rinds away, To the lock-up she was taken. There she is and there she’ll stay, Till she learns to save her bacon …
In London, in the grim winter of 1940, there were two ways to survive. One was to do your bit as a plucky Londoner, to keep calm and carry on. The other way was to fall in love.
That was the reason why Frankie was waiting in the Lyon’s Corner House on the Strand just before twelve, on a chilly Friday afternoon. He usually got there early, to make sure he got a table for two in a nice cozy place, and also to do a bit of reading. He wore his best suit, the one with the pockets just big enough to slip a Penguin Classic into. Today he got there in time to be shown to his favorite table in the corner, sat down, and proceeded to read while waiting. He didn’t have to wait long.
He saw her enter the café and stood up to beckon her over. She picked her way through the tables, smiling all the time.
“Hello, Frank.” She never called him Frankie.
“How are you, Liz?”
He held up his copy of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway.
“I’ve been getting on with the book you lent me.”
“It’s good, isn’t it?”
“Well, it’s much better than I expected, to be honest. I thought it was going to be all maudlin and depressing but it’s jolly interesting. Especially the parts written from Septimus Smith’s point of view.”
She put her handbag and gas-mask case on the chair beside her and dabbed at her brow with a lace handkerchief. Elizabeth Hague, district nurse with the Smithfield Health Office, was
really quite striking. She had an oval face with a clear complexion, eyes of an unusual amber color and rich, dark hair cut in the current bob and wave style. She looked adorable when she smiled, which was almost all the time; her wide mouth, her white, even teeth, her eyes crinkling merrily.
Liz had trained as a nurse in an infectious diseases hospital in Gateshead, Newcastle-on-Tyne. After her move down south, she had totally lost her Geordie accent, and now spoke in almost BBC English; northern accents, in those days, were too common for London society. She had applied to work as a District Nurse in London and had been stationed in Smithfield. Frank first spoke to her at a tea dance for the medical services at the Savoy Hotel because he’d seen her before, talking to some of the doctors and nurses at St. Bart’s, and riding her bicycle around Smithfield. He’d asked her for a dance, they’d struck up a conversation, he’d invited her out to lunch, and that’s how it had all started. Romance was blossoming during wartime; Londoners knew they had nothing to lose but time.
Frankie took a menu from a waiter and said, “Let’s have some wine.” Liz nodded enthusiastically. “Are you pushing the boat out?”
“Just a glass of the house white. Well, maybe two.”
He looked at the menu. “Good Lord. Beef and kidney pie.”
Her smile broadened. “I’m sure it’s still just potatoes and vegetables. Matron says that finding the kidney in a kidney pie is a bit like finding the threepenny bit in a Christmas pudding.” “That’s a good one. Yes, and you’d probably have more luck with the pudding.”
After they had ordered, Frankie said, “Actually, I wanted to talk to you about Virginia Woolf. I went to the Smithfield Public Library and looked her up.”
“I’m glad to hear the library’s still standing.”
“Yes, Jerry hasn’t got to that one yet. Anyway, I found out something rather interesting. Have you ever heard of the Dreadnought Hoax?”
She raised her eyebrows. “No, I haven’t.”
Frankie pulled the library book out of his briefcase and passed it over the table. “The Dreadnought Hoax, by Adrian Stephen,” Liz read from the cover. “That’s Virginia Woolf’s brother.”
“Yes. It turned out those Bloomsbury Set people pulled a bit of a wheeze on the Royal Navy. They disguised themselves as members of the Abyssinian royal family and persuaded the captain of the HMS Dreadnought to show them around the ship.”
“Oh, they didn’t! Whatever for?”
“Apparently, it was the idea of this … let me see. … someone called Horace de Vere Cole, who was famous for his public hoaxes. Look at the frontispiece; that’s the Bloomsbury lot,
with boot polish and turbans and false beards. That’s Virginia Woolf on the far left.”
Liz took one look at the black-faced and robed figure, white eyes wide and staring under the turban, and burst out laughing.
“The Captain took them all round the ship,” said Frank, laughing himself now, “and they spoke in a mixture of Latin and French and made-up words. And to cap it all, whenever they saw something exciting, they jumped up and down and shouted ‘Bunga Bunga! Bunga Bunga!’”
Liz was now laughing so hard Frank though she might have to make a trip to the Ladies’. “Well I never,” she said. “Trust you to find something as queer as that.”
They tried to calm down when the first course arrived, and Frank lifted up the glass of wine as a toast. “Bunga Bunga!” he said, in a voice so loud the customers nearby turned to frown at him.
“Stop it, Frank! You’ll set me off again.” Liz tried to control her laughter as she started on the potted salmon.
After spending time on their food and discussing its quality, Frankie said, “Well, anyway, how about the Christmas Party?”
Liz nodded. “Matron says that it’s all right for me to attend.” She flicked a quick glance at his smiling face. “If you dare say Bunga Bunga I shall hit you.”
“Perish the thought!”
“In fact, quite a few of the girls want to come. The Smithfield Health Authority includes St. Bart’s, so it seemed reasonable to Matron to have one big party instead of several smaller ones. Get everyone together for a jolly time.”
“Safety in numbers.”
“In a sturdy main building basement behind the sandbags, yes.”
The main courses arrived and Frankie got to work on his pie. The crust caved in under his knife and fork and beneath it lay mostly air, but there was indeed meat swimming in the gravy at the bottom, and it did look recognizably like beef.
“I’m so looking forward to Christmas Dinner,” Liz said. “Real turkey! I can’t believe the Medical Board came up with one.”
“A rich former patient who owns a farm, I suppose. There’s a big meeting this week where they’re going to tell us what the menu will be.”
Liz went on, “As long as it’s not Snoek fishcakes, I don’t care. I can’t stand that horrible fishy stuff.”
“And what about whale, eh? Mr. Farrow tried to sell me some whale meat sausages the other day. He said I was lucky because they weren’t rationed. I told him I could see why they
“You ought to be on the stage, Frank Cooper.”
“Well, it’s funny you should say that, because I’m thinking of doing a bit of a turn for the Christmas Party.”
“What do you mean?”
“Telling a few jokes. I’ve asked Wheeler if I can do a Max Miller act.”
“The Cheeky Chappie?” Liz looked at him slyly. “Don’t you think that’s a bit rude?”
“Well.” He shrugged. “It’s either that or Tommy Trinder.”
“Those lucky people!”
The time flew, and Frankie called the waitress over with the sweet trolley. “Fairy cake, pear tart or stewed prunes? There’s no ice cream today, and no Queen’s Pudding, I’m afraid.” “Fairy cake, please.”
They both chatted away, with Frankie wanting to forget the clock on the wall and the shifts they both had to take later this afternoon, but he couldn’t. He sat back and laid his pastry fork on the crumb-laden plate. “Would you like more wine?” he said. “Live dangerously.”
Liz breathed out as a gesture to say she was full. “I think we’re living quite dangerously enough, thank you.”
“Liz … I really do appreciate you coming to the party. I just wanted to tell you that.”
“Well, I’m really looking forward to it. Cheer up the patients. It’s the old Christmas magic, you know!”
“Have you ever thought about that?” Frankie said shyly, peering at Liz to watch her reaction. “Have you ever felt that maybe there was … magic? Not conjuring tricks, but real magic, in the world?”
“Angels dining at the Ritz, and nightingales sang in Berkely Square?”
She laughed, and he laughed with her.
“You know,” she said, “you remind me of one of my patients, old Mr. Kelly. He’s eccentric.” Frankie’s eyebrows went up. “Me? Eccentric?”
“Well, you know. He talks about his dreams and he’s mentioned magic to me a couple of times. He keeps a pack of Tarot cards on the mantelpiece and he’s got some queer paintings in his front room, that sort of thing.”
“Sounds like a nice fellow. What’s wrong with him?”
“Arthritis. He can’t walk very fast.”
“Neither can I now, after that meal.”
They said goodbye with a quick peck on the cheek. After waving Liz off on her bicycle and
turning to walk back down the Strand, Frankie felt both happy and depressed when thinking about Christmas. Eccentric, he thought. Eccentric! That wasn’t a word he wanted anyone to describe him by, but he knew Liz meant well. Oh well – he asked for that, he supposed. Never mind; he had other things to worry about.
His spare time to find a good present for Liz was running out. His main present wasn’t really a Christmas gift at all, but something special he’d planned. Then he’d saved up his chocolate rations to buy her a nice bit of nutty, but he needed something else. Something interesting. Something that would surprise her. A book, that was it. He would find a book that she’d never read before.
There was a huge crater in the middle of the Strand and the cars were driving gingerly around it. On the skyline, smoke was still rising from the direction of the South bank. Stepping over a pothole in the street, moving around the other shoppers and pedestrians walking along the Strand, feeling the heaviness of the pastry and stodgy potatoes digesting in his gut, Frankie was suddenly aware of how normal his thoughts were in this totally abnormal world. London was being torn apart on a nightly basis by a giant, faceless war machine from across the sea, and here he was daydreaming about bookshops and Christmas presents.
But then, what else could he do?
The whole of London was doing the same thing. Just as the bodies of the dead on the slabs at work had been blown into grotesque, eviscerated shapes, the lives of the living had been forced into new roles and routines. Everyone was now a ‘plucky Brit’. Everyone was now ‘helping the War Effort’. Even delivering the milk or driving a bus was a statement of personal courage. The lives of everyone in London were taking place mechanically, like the back and forth swing of a pendulum. Like a chess game in which every move had already been decided with mathematical precision.
On a whim, Frankie took a left turn, and entered the warren of little alleyways between the Strand and the river. Walking was something he loved; it helped him think and turn over things in his mind. Since he’d started going out with Liz, they’d taken long weekly walks in Hyde Park or Hampstead Heath, ending with tea and scones in one of the cafes. Before he’d met Liz, he’d regularly taken long walks around the city center to get the tantalizing feel of it, to soak in the atmosphere, the mystery. London fascinated him with its hints of staginess, of secret knowledge hidden in the architecture of the churches and the geometry of the streets. London haunted his dreams, and he haunted its avenues and alleys, drifting through them like a Dickensian spirit.
Just a few streets away from Frankie’s place of work stood Christopher Wren’s testament to the mysterious; St. Paul’s Cathedral. The massiveness of the stone interior, the Whispering
Gallery, the inscription RESURGAM – I will rise again – inscribed on the south door … they drew Frankie’s attention and resurfaced in his dreams. What did they all mean? The statues of pelicans and peacocks, the cubes, pyramids and obelisks that colluded with the more familiar crosses and angels in the churches of Smithfield and Whitechapel – what were they all for? The Blackout had made things even more primal, plunging London into darkness every night. Churchill’s boys in the press were trying to keep a lid on things, but Frankie knew there were burglaries and muggings all over the city. It was like the city had been thrown back in time several thousand years, to a barricaded cluster of huts with the tribesfolk huddling inside, guarding themselves against the darkness and hoping they would live to see the morning.
His perambulation today took him inevitably to one of his best-loved haunts, Cleopatra’s Needle, as if the obelisk were magnetized and he was a mote of iron that could not resist its pull. He sat down on a bench opposite the stone monolith, feeling a little flushed with the wine, the food, and his lady friend’s dazzling eyes, and stared at the obelisk, its stately dimension, its unreadable hieroglyphics, and the gouges and scratches deliberately left unrepaired after the Zeppelin raids of World War I. He breathed in the charred air, looked up at the sky, looked around him at the coat-and-hat wearing Londoners walking slowly along the Embankment, and let his tensed-up body relax.
Even Liz. He hadn’t even told Liz why he’d taken up the career of pathologist’s assistant. But perhaps the time had come to tell someone.
“Give me the cross.”
Howard Hopgood winced with pain as he whispered the request; one of the male nurses leaned eagerly toward him, holding out the tiny piece of silverwork. Hopgood closed his mouth around the cross as if it were a communion wafer and worked it under his tongue. He rolled his eyes and lay back on the hospital bed.
Totally typical, thought Prell, standing at the back of the private nursing room, watching the activity with growing impatience. The nurses pushed a small gurney toward Hopgood’s bed, the instruments on it gleaming in their sterile purity, intricate as the workings of a watch, as free of blemish as the cross Hopgood pressed down upon with his tongue.
Never misses a chance for mad martyrdom, Prell was thinking. I didn’t have to be here for this to see. Business had just about been drawn to a conclusion, satisfactory-ish. But oh no, the old Bible-basher wants for to show the depths of suffering, wants for me to think that he’s been given some unique curse – or a unique blessing. Boss showman. Perfect criteria for any TV evangelist, no kid; and Hopgood was the best in Europe, totally facing all the others.
The sheets were pulled back. The nurses peeled away the dressings on Hopgood’s abdomen, while the man himself made guttural noises deep in his throat. Prell mentally prepared himself for the stench; within seconds it had reached his corner of the room, even through the gauze mask he wore over his nose and mouth.
While on a promotional tour on the south of France, Hopgood had got himself badly sunburned, particularly on the stomach. He had received heavy exposure to UVB and UVC rays; his skin had blistered and then ulcers had developed. To make matters worse, he had also been diagnosed as suffering from diabetes.
The new dressings were in place, the medical staff had retired, leaving Hopgood and Jonathon Prell alone once more. The fifty-year-old man lay back on the bed, looking tired, but relaxed. He had a big, square face, with swept-back iron grey hair in long, smooth streaks. His XPT-Meditech bedclothes had a little red and yellow design on them, a marked change from the funereal black and gray Hopgood usually wore on screen.
Hopgood placed his vitamin drink on the bedside table, took the cross from his mouth and laid it in the tiny velvet-lined box. “Son, I want to thank you and all of Meditech for all the attention you’ve given me. My life is in your hands.”
“Thank you, Mr. Hopgood. Treatment on your abdomen should be straightforward. However, time will be long-ish before you can re-duty.”
Hopgood sucked in air through his teeth. “That hurts more than anything else, son. We have a mandate, from the Savior no less, to spread the word of the Gospel throughout this land, by big screen and small, local networks, cable and satellite. There’s not much I can do lying in a hospital bed, even if it is a Meditech bed.”
“Well, we counsel rest, to the all. You are the final judge on re-working, of course.”
“Correction; the Lord will be the final judge. He always is.” Hopgood’s eyes turned to the gleaming cross on its bed of velvet.
“I guess we have one more business to take care of today.” He shot an arched look at Prell. “You’ve read the file on Bradley?”
“And what are your opinions?”
“Well, you realize that this is, strict-wise, cosmetic surgery. Beyond that, operation simply routine. In the file you were quite specific about skin type, and areas of body under consideration. The operation itself is XPT-Meditech’s bread and butter, smooth as.”
“And locating Bradley?”
“Locating and approaching him expected to be most sensitive part, no pain. I’ll keep you personally informed of our progressing. Rely on me to the utmost.”
“I sincerely hope so. I don’t need to remind you of the strict confidentiality of my request. If anyone was to know and, shall we say, misinterpret my actions …”
“Rely on me to the utmost and max. If you relate, I’ll get working on it now-ish, and leave you to get your strength back. Once again, Mr. Hopgood, your fortitude is admired.”
“It’s nothing. I don’t dwell upon such things. The Lord has given me strength to bear them, and also the sufferings of my congregation, which – after all – are more than my own needs. My flock is what matters. So who else to give my burden to, if not Christ our Savior?”
“Most of our patients, to get them throughways, have only their own human nature,” Prell remarked dryly.
Hopgood laughed, then winced. “That’s something I wouldn’t recommend, quite frankly.”
If the meaning of the small insignia that was the logo of XPT-Meditech’s skincare department had been explained to Howard Hopgood, he would definitely not have approved. The stylized Aztec design, in raw red and gold, was a rendering of Xipe Totec, the Flayed God. In ancient times his priests had emulated their deity by wearing their dried and excised skins of their sacrificial human victims over their own faces and bodies, to symbolize the renewed greenery of spring vegetation. A gruesome concept in itself, but the sanitized pagan totem now adorned most elements of the Skincare department – the business cards, the stationery, the starched white uniforms of the surgical staff.
Prell found his eyes returning to the emblem again and again as he sat quietly within the Area Manager’s office. It stood discreetly upon his desk, adorning a pocket-size calendar. Prell waited as Emmanuel Kohain studied the dossier on Bradley.
Kohain took off his reading glasses and reclined in his steel and leather chair. “Most fascinating,” he said, giving the phrase the weight of a long-considered pronouncement.
Kohain stood and walked to the well-stocked office drinks cabinet. “Refreshment?”
“Pimms and lemonade, sir.”
Kohain poured a Macallan for himself, then mixed the Pimms and handed it to Prell. “That will be three pounds ninety-five.”
Prell handed over a five-pound note and the Area Manager, as befitting his seniority, kept the change.
Prell sipped his refreshment, relishing the coolness on his tongue. “It’s a highly warped request.”
“Warped isn’t the word.” Kohain sighed. “Hopgood’s really faced it this time. Initial reaction, Jonathan?”
“Aheadways, we go.”
Kohain smiled faintly. “Unquestionably. Hopgood’s initial donation of two million ECUs is already in our bank. I take it the surgery itself is not problemed?”
“No pain. Specified zones of the body are not exactly commonplace, but no problem is represented. All waited for is the donor.”
“Yes, the donor. I know the information in this folder is not much-ish. Bradley’s location unknown?”
“At present, sir. Information on him is prone to exaggeration, and most likely unlegit. No whereabouts at the moment, but all available are being sourced.”
Prell watched Kohain carefully as he tapped the folder with his thumbs. The Area Manager had a Hopgood-touch about him himself, he thought; the graying hair, the big hands and large facial features, the suggestion that success had somehow larged this person life-wise. To increase this effect, Kohain’s speech was a plummy drawl in an impeccable Oxbridge tongue.
“Jonathan,” he declared after his moment of contemplation, “use of the Grafters on this one recommended.”
Prell tried to conceal his double take but didn’t quite manage it. “No fake? I mean, considering all implications security-wise?”
“Oh, your coming round to the idea is expected, Jonathan.” Kohain gave him a patronizing smile. “Our world is the world of corporate finance and healthcare. Their world is the world of rumors, urban myth, hoodie gangs and shanty-towns. They access places and people that we don’t.”
Prell nodded. “Appreciated, but if I’m handling the Hopgood account, danger expected if my contacting known –“
“Yes, anticipated.” Another smile, wider than before. “That’s why I’m giving the job to Karyn.”
Facing bastard, Prell thought, this time determined not to show his feelings. He’s watching to see me roll over, belly up.
“Because she’s a woman? Totally not. Karyn can handle herself like butter in the cake.” Kohain obviously thought that sending Prell’s friend-with-benefits out to deal with the Grafters was an amping little bonus. Keeps the staff toes-conscious, tests for weak links in the chain of command.
“No fear sending Karyn out into the field,” he lied.
After all, thought Prell as he took the elevator down to the foyer, maybe no fear meant no fake. He’d seen Karyn cut some gnarly executives down to size. She was known company-wise as the tart with a big mouth who got the job done. Perhaps not even the Grafters would face her.
Prell stopped at the plush reception desk to collect his car keys and oxy-filter. Janine, the dusky, wide-lipped receptionist, exchanged ritual flirtations with him. Janine’s deportment and appearance was a testimonial for XPT-Meditech, as much a part of their corporate image as the expensive furniture and paintings in the lobby. Only the tiny puckers of pale skin at the corners of Janine’s eyes gave away the fact that her face was no longer her own: but nobody, of course, would look that close.
Prell took the glass-sided elevator down to the underground car park. As it slid down the outside of the Globen Building, he gazed down at the plaza below, on the floor level of the Hammersmith Center. Enclosed in a huge translucent dome of lightweight glass-fiber, the air-conditioned and temperature-regulated bubble kept the effects of the smog and sunlight outside from interfering with the health-conscious executives doing business within.
Prell stared out at the glistening sludge of the Thames through the gaps in the skyscrapers as he descended. He shivered in the frigid air that compensated for the greenhouse heat outside the dome. Karyn’s probably out there now … watch yourself, Jon, he told himself. If she comes out smooth on this one, she and the old man could have you game, set and match-wise.
WANT TO READ THE WHOLE SHORT STORY? GO HERE.
WANT TO READ THE WHOLE LAVISHLY ILLUSTRATED COLLECTION “TALES FROM BEYOND TOMORROW” AS AN EBOOK? GO HERE
WANT TO READ “TALES FROM BEHIND TOMORROW” AS A SUMPTUOUS PAPERBACK? GO HERE
This is the sixth excerpt from Jamie Carter’s biography of the mysterious counter-culture guru Jason Zodiac. The following is taken from an interview with fellow rock journalist, Simon Briggs.
So we fussed with chopsticks over spicy tom kah kai, and savored lemongrass and coconut milk-flavored curry in the 18th century listed pub that Simon told me was his current love.
“Thanks for coming up to Macclesfield,” he said.
I waved it away. “No, not at all. Thanks for taking the time to see me. How’re things?”
He shrugged. “Oh well, getting by. Can’t rest on my laurels, can I?”
“I didn’t know you had any.”
“And you, Jamie?”
“Not too bad. Except for the whole city of London falling apart, of course.”
“The whole country’s falling apart.”
“The whole country’s been falling apart for as long as I can remember.”
“Remember the poll tax riots? Or the murder of PC Blakelock?”
“What about Toxteth?”
“What about St Pauls?”
We both laughed at the same time.
The waiter came with our food and we got to work on the stuff. Simon ate sparingly; it seemed like talking was more important. “I’ve been thinking about a lot of things, after reading your articles. Thinking about the past. I’d be very interested to hear what R.J. has to say about all this.”
“R.J. Black has disappeared,” I told him. “Nobody’s seen or heard from him for a few weeks.”
He stiffened, and looked uncomfortable. “Yes … well, I wouldn’t read too much into that. R. J. was always a moody bastard. Always going walkabout when he didn’t feel like talking to anyone.”
He reached down to his briefcase and pulled something out. A hardback diary, warped with age and wear and tear. “You’re not going to believe this,” he said, “but I’m quite obsessive.”
“I can easily believe that.”
“I don’t think I told you I kept all my notebooks, ever since I started working as a journalist.”
“All of them?” I started laughing, and then stopped. It might have looked like I was making fun of him, but in fact, I was deeply impressed. Someone who kept diaries from over thirty years ago?
“Well, there’s a couple I’ve misplaced, but I’ve got them going back to the late seventies.”
I stopped chewing and looked at him in admiration. “I wish I had,” I said.
“That’s why I called, I guess. Your articles made me go through the notebooks again and I noticed something I’d better tell you.”
“And Joy Division?”
He looked up, pad thai noodles dangling from his chopsticks. “I’ve been connecting the dots, you might say.”
“That’s what intrigued me, because as far as I know, Jason knew Tony Wilson …”
“… but he never met Ian Curtis, yeah. Jason’s main link with Manchester was through Acid House in the late eighties. That’s what I thought too. Then I rediscovered the notes I’d written just after Ian’s obituary came out.”
Briggs had put a bookmark in the 1980 diary, and he opened it at the entry he wanted, slipped on a pair of thin reading glasses, and peered at the wrinkled page. Then he laid it open on the table next to the vinegar bottle.
“Jamie, have you ever heard of a drug called Telemazepine?”
I shook my head.
“In the late seventies, drugs for treating epilepsy were pretty strong and had quite a few side-effects. The drug called Telemazepine was commercially available for a couple of years, and then taken off the market. And here’s the peculiar thing; I can’t find anything about it on the Internet. It was released by a German pharmaceutical company called Bartos Klein, and I can’t find anything on them, either.”
“Was Ian taking this for his epilepsy?”
“I don’t think so – well, I can’t find it mentioned anywhere. His wife Debbie never mentioned it in her biography of Ian, Touching from a Distance, and I’ve never seen in any other source. But two days after Ian’s funeral, my editor Andy Anderson in the Sounds London office got a telephone call from Jason Zodiac. He wanted to know if Ian had been taking Telemazepine.”
I put down the chopsticks in the bowl smeared with the remains of the red curry and sat back.
“One week after Ian’s death,” Simon told me, “we had a visitor at our office. It was Jason himself. He said he’d come up to Manchester to see Tony and pay his respects to Ian’s family.”
“He’d never met Ian’s family.”
“He knew enough to realize that something extraordinary was happening.”
That figured. The extraordinary was Jason’s business.
Simon got up and went outside for a smoke, conforming to the smoking ban that had swept through all of England like a plague. While he was away I drained my lager and thought about Joy Division.
The first time I saw them on TV was on the Old Grey Whistle Test, towards the end of 1979, and it was something fascinating but deeply disturbing to watch. Ian’s dark, existentialist lyrics, and his crazed dancing, hinted at emotions that the human body and mind were not capable of expressing.
With hindsight, and having briefly met the other members of Joy Division after they became New Order, I understood the appalling drama taking place. Ian’s spasmodic, frenzied dancing on stage was a parallel for the epileptic seizures he suffered in private. Like Voodoo priests who whirl and gyrate to the drums until they reach that ecstatic state where the Loa ride their bodies, Ian brought something back from those moments when the electrical storms swept through his brain, and put it into words and music for an unsuspecting public.
In the old days, we would have called him ‘a man possessed’.
It couldn’t last. The drugs that Ian took to control his epilepsy affected his personality. One moment he was laughing, then crying, then yelling at everyone to leave him alone. In May 1980 Joy Division were probably the most important band in the UK and about to embark on a US tour – but Ian’s seizures were getting worse and more frequent, and he’d broken up with Debbie. He told the other members he wanted to quit the band, but they talked him out of it; they said he could take time off, sort out his life, after the tour.
He never got the chance. Before they went on tour Ian Curtis hung himself in his kitchen at home, in the early hours of May 18th.
When Simon came back, rain on his collar and Silk Cut on his breath, I had another question for him – something I couldn’t believe, but couldn’t keep to myself.
“Do you think Jason was asking questions because he suffered from the same thing Ian did?”
Simon nodded and grimaced. “That’s what I’ve been wondering. Of course, there’s nothing in the records to suggest Jason Zodiac was epileptic.”
“There’s not much in the records to suggest anything at all. Jason was like the Invisible Man. No national insurance number, no birth certificate … we’re not even sure what his real name was. One door opens, another one shuts, and then they’re all slammed in my face.”
He looked away. “The thing is, when people say ‘epilepsy’, they don’t really know what they’re talking about. A seizure is an abnormal electrical message, sent out by a group of neurons in the brain. This discharge results in some kind of abnormal behavior.”
“You’ve been doing your research.”
“Your fault, Jamie. And the other thing that got me thinking was something called a ‘complex partial seizure’.”
A burst of raucous laughter from the opposite corner made Simon wince. Then he continued.
“Complex partial seizures don’t cause simple sensations but complicated ones, involving thinking, feeling, emotions, and sequential movements. Most seizures are short and last only seconds or minutes – but prolonged episodes can be the result of continuous seizure discharges, which induce compulsive, aimless wandering, accompanied by amnesia. The condition’s called poriomania.”
My eyes widened. “What are you saying?”
“There are plenty of cases of people who’ve been capable of performing quite complex tasks while suffering a seizure.”
“Like getting in their car and driving to the next city. When they come out of the seizure, they have no memory of how they got there. And there are extreme cases that haven’t been classed as epilepsy because nobody can explain them yet. Stories of people walking out of their houses to buy a newspaper and disappearing – then turning up years later living and working in a different town, under a different name, with no memory of their previous identity. There’s a case of a reporter from Tacoma going missing – and then turning up in Alaska, twelve years later, with a completely new identity.” He sighed. “This kind of thing reminds me of The Idiot.”
“Iggy Pop was epileptic as well?”
He blinked. “Not the Iggy Pop album, Jamie, the Dostoevsky novel.”
I stared back at him. “This sounds too weird for me.”
“Weird?” He sniggered. “Jamie, I’m talking about epilepsy with a guy from a lifestyle magazine called Fugue. How weird is that?”
VOLUME ONE OF THE BIOGRAPHY CAN BE FOUND HERE. FOR THE EBOOK,
AND HERE FOR THE PAPERBACK.
Jimmy Diamond leaped onto his Vespa GX2000 scooter, kicked the antigrav engine into life, and rose into the skies above Hammersmith. He straightened his skinny tie, wiped the last remnants of egg and bacon from his chin, and pushed in the punch-card that gave him access to the DAIR (Driver and Aid Information and Routing) master computer. A light flashed above the slot, and the Vespa ascended, easing into the traffic of the main airlane.
He picked up speed and turned onto the Central airline that took him cruising over the Bayswater Road. Soon, through the clear morning air, he saw the aerocabs and buses zipping about high above the rooftops, around the Churchill Monument, the Monico Tower with its rooftop crane that reminded everyone of a huge propeller, and the municipal airship moored to the Post Office Tower. Jimmy’s parka fluttered in the breeze, and the muted sun glimmered though his Wayfarer sunglasses.
It was a great day to be a Mod.
He’d bought the Vespa earlier that year, and it was his most prized possession. Italian-made, a light but sturdy frame of pressed steel painted in red and white, the front shield curving up to the headlamp and handlebars. It could drive conventionally on the ground with the two wheels and newly purchased Dunlop tires at a top speed of 45mph, but airborne it could fly at 75 mph – the speed limit decided not by wind resistance, but the DAIR regulations hardwired into every metropolitan vehicle. The anti-grav generator was directly underneath the leather seat, and controlled by the tiny dashboard just under the handlebars. The Vespa was Jimmy’s pride and joy, customized by the dozen or so mirrors fastened to the handlebars and the Union Jack he hung from the back aerial when he flew down to Brighton on weekends.
The scooter dropped out of the fast lane into the transition zone as Jimmy neared Tottenham Court Road and his awaiting office. He flicked the butt of his Woodbine away, and took a big lungful of fresh air before he kicked the Vespa into parking mode. Below him, on the rooftop aeropad, the cars of the building’s occupants were neatly parked inside the painted white lines, and Jimmy lowered his Vespa skillfully into the space reserved for scooters.
As he was switching off the engine, the door to the main stairwell opened and a short figure rushed onto the roof, clad in a silver jumpsuit and goldfish-bowl helmet, pointing his toy ray-pistol right at Jimmy. “You’re a nasty Commie!” the figure shouted. “Zap! Zap! Zap!”
Jimmy reeled back and clutched his heart. “Nyet! Nyet! Dosvedanya Vodka Sputnik!” he yelled in fake agony.
Right behind the boy was Mr. Gill, the building’s landlord, looking natty in his two-tone Nehru jacket and matching turban. He ushered his son back down the stairs and smiled an apology.
“Now then Mr. Jimmy, if I could have a word about the office rent …”
Sure enough, every Monday, regular as clockwork. Jimmy had the bees-and-honey ready this time. He peeled a roll of notes out of his wallet and handed over a Lady Godiva. “I’ll have the rest by the end of the week, Mr. Gill, I promise.”
“Well, it would be nice if you didn’t have to leave everything until the last minute, isn’t it? I have overheads, Mr. Jimmy. I have a business and a family. Overheads.”
Finally getting away, Jimmy ran down the two flights of stairs and paused outside his office door to unlock it. He looked again at the sign stenciled on the vitrolite window;
Then he was inside.
This was Jimmy’s office, crammed in on the fifth floor between an insurance investigator and an employment agency. Two green filing cabinets on the back wall on either side of a wall-mounted TV screen (for the Satnews channels), two white metal cupboards on the left side, a second-hand desk of genuine wood facing the door, and his Elektra espresso maker next to the window and the Venetian blinds.
Plus the bottle of Jameson’s and the jazz mags in the bottom drawer.
He crossed the short space to the back wall, moved around his small second-hand desk, and opened the windows, letting the fusty weekend air out and the city summer smells in. He switched on the espresso maker and it started bubbling away to itself. He put two packets of Embassy Filters and a copy of the Daily Express on the desk, and stared out through the open window. It was that sort of July morning that made the aluminum parts of his coffee machine glow like they were alive.
He was just sipping the second espresso of the day when a shadow fell upon the window. A distinctly feminine shadow, followed by a knock.
Usually, Jimmy’s clients were old geezers in tweed jackets and balding hair pasted across their bony skulls with smelly Brylcreem, or frustrated housewives in frumpy John Lewis coats. Evidence of infidelity and serving divorce papers, that was Jimmy’s bread and butter. He kept telling himself that one day, he’d have some gorgeous bit of stuff come in with a handbag full of cash and a mysterious mission. Especially now, because he’d run out of active cases at the end of last week.
Today was his lucky day.
She wore an Op Art print linen dress from Tuffin and Foale, the sort of thing every dolly bird on the King’s Road was sporting this summer. A really sweet face with the latest Mary Quant sheen, fake lashes making her eyes look huge. Dark hair cut in a shiny Sasson bob. In a word: fraggin’ gorgeous.
Jimmy hurriedly took his Chelsea boots off the desk and stood up. “Do take a seat, Miss …?”
“Radcliffe. Georgina Radcliffe.” She stood in the middle of the office, gazing around nervously. “Are you Jimmy Diamond?” she said, in a tone of vague disappointment.
“That’s what it says on the door,” he said with a cocky grin. Easy on the jokes, he told himself. The married birds like to have a laugh to relax them but the younger ones – you have to fight to get them to take you seriously.
“I heard about you from my uncle, Victor. He said you helped him out in Blackpool last year.”
“Oh yeah, I remember him! Come in and make yourself comfortable.”
“You look a bit young to run a detective agency,” she said, fluttering her eyelashes like an Italian starlet. She might have looked Kensington, but her accent was pure Wembley. “How old are you? Twenty-one?”
“Yeah,” said Jimmy defensively, trying to keep his posh voice from slipping. “Well, no. I’m twenty, actually. A little bit older than you, by the looks of it. And it doesn’t matter how old I am because I’ve got the experience and I’ve got the brains, haven’t I? I’ve got it up ‘ere.”
And you’ve got it down there, he thought, gazing at the nice pair of Eartha Kitts filling out the top of her minidress.
“Have you got references, or something?”
Jimmy pointed to the framed licensing certificates on the walls.
“Well, that’s all right, I suppose, but I don’t know anything about private eyes. What are your charges like?”
“Well, as they say – I’m not free, but I’m cheap! It sort of depends what I’m employed to do, innit? Listen, er, why don’t you sit down, Miss Radcliffe?”
“You can call me Georgie if you like.” She lowered herself into the second-hand Magistretti chair and fidgeted with her handbag. “Your name isn’t really Diamond, is it?”
“No.” Jimmy loosened his collar, and quickly changed the subject. “If I could have some specifics, erm … Georgie?”
Jimmy nodded in sympathy. “Have you contacted the police?”
“Yes, and they said it’s too soon to do anything. They said I should …”
“Wait for twenty-four hours before filing a crime report, yeah, I know. That’s what they always say, but I can appreciate you don’t want to wait. Okay, it’s two pounds a day, plus expenses, and I’ll get to work on your case right away.”
“Well, that’s a bit steep, innit! You must be raking it in.”
“Oh no I ain’t, doll – er, Georgie,” Jimmy said, trying to get back on the right foot. “I got overheads, see? This is how I make a living.”
“Are you the only person who works here?”
“Yeah. That’s me, all on me Jack Jones. I employ other people – experts, like – on what you might call a freelance basis.”
“Oh, freelance basis! You do sound la-de-da, don’t you? How much do you want up front?”
“Well …” Jimmy gave her the nicest smile he could manage. “Look, just tell me what it’s all about, yeah? We can work out the small print later.”
She tightened her grip on her handbag, hesitating, a catch in her throat. “My father didn’t come home last night,” she said.
Jimmy sat back and breathed out. He was most likely looking at marital infidelity. The poor girl’s dad had run off to Torquay with his secretary or some other bit on the side, so he was in for a week of taking dirty pictures on the pier. Well, at least the weather was nice.
“Tell me more,” Jimmy said, reaching over to switch on the reel-to-reel autorecorder.
Georgie turned the handbag over in her lap with her long-fingernailed hands and looked at him with a gleam in her eyes. “Mum passed away a few years ago, so it’s just the three of us, me, Dad and my younger sister Rita. Dad’s been a real brick, he takes care of us, and he’s so dedicated to his work. He wouldn’t just go off somewhere without telling us first.”
“What does he do?”
“He’s a scientist. He’s doing research over at the Docklands Science Park.”
That made Jimmy sit up and take notice. The DSP was an exclusive place, full of Oxbridge boffins and public school throbbing skulls. Dr. Radcliffe was either a genius or loaded – probably both.
“You leave it to me,” Jimmy said, looking as businesslike as he could. “I’ll bring your father back to you, no problem.”
Georgie sniffed and fished a crumpled roll of one-pound notes from her handbag. “You’d better,” she said, “I took this out of our life savings.”
The Docklands Science Park was the latest product of Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s “white-hot technological revolution”. It sat in what used to be the West India Docks over at Tower Hamlets, and was the place where university science departments and private corporations did research on stuff that gave Jimmy a headache when he tried to read about it in the papers. Flying in from the west on the Jubilee airlane, the DSP took shape as a huge transparent dome. Within lay a sprawling collection of smaller geodesic domes, concrete sculptures in wave-like organic forms, and plastic and steel Populuxe towers, all connected by covered walkways through ornamental gardens.
A forged aerocab punch-card could get Jimmy into most places; the real work was in avoiding getting thrown out. Once through the dome’s main gates, he followed the flashing neon maps along the almost-deserted avenues that showed him where Dr. Radcliffe’s office could be found. It was a self-contained high-tech lab, Georgie had said, that he shared with his research partner, Dr. Henry Primble.
Arriving at the fibersteel bubble reception area, outside the detached golf-ball shaped main lab, Jimmy got the uneasy pricking sensation that told him something was wrong.
Facing him was a standard servo-bot receptionist. It was about six feet tall and roughly humanoid, a steel column tapering down to metal blocks with tiny wheels underneath. The chest held a TV monitor with tuning knobs on either side – but the screen showed only static. Two flexi-tube arms with pincers on the ends hung loosely down by its sides. The cube-shaped head held a metalwork grille where a human mouth would have been, and two round, protruding camera lenses for eyes.
Jimmy coughed and stepped forward shyly. “Erm … Speedee Taxis? Someone made a booking.”
The robot didn’t speak, didn’t move, and he noticed there was no light showing in the twin camera eyes. It was completely switched off. Jimmy cautiously moved in for a closer look. He walked around the robot’s cylindrical body, and noticed something that made his skin crawl; the control unit attached to the robot’s back was almost melted into scrap. It looked like someone had given it a right going-over with a ray blaster.
All kinds of alarm bells started going off in Jimmy’s head.
He looked around and wondered what to do. The sky outside was grey, even though the weather computer had slated no rain showers for today. Par for the course. If the Soviets really did want to invade the UK, all they had to do was permanently switch the master computer to ‘rainy” and the British would grumble themselves to death.
Jimmy walked past the reception area and along the short corridor that led to the lab. On the walls were framed photographs of the usual science superstars – Turing, Rutherford, Grindell-Matthews, Brett, Travers, Watkins, Crick, Watson, and a bunch of other egg-heads Jimmy didn’t recognize.
He thought of Georgie, and decided to explore further. Girls needed to be impressed; good news or bad, the job had to be done properly. The corridor ended in a walk-up ramp, and as soon as Jimmy put his size nines on the first step, he realized something was badly wrong. The sliding security doors were half-open, and wisps of black smoke were curling through the air.
Bracing himself, he slid the doors fully outwards. He coughed as puffs of greasy vapor wafted past his face. Along with the smoke was a smell far worse than any burnt toast Jimmy ever had the misfortune to make. Holding his breath, he stepped into the lab. Somewhere inside, a radio was playing; The Coasters were doing their best with “Poison Ivy”, but there were more than the usual pops and crackles mixed in with it, like it was a really bad reception.
Jimmy waved the smoke away, peering into every corner of the lab. It was full of benches holding glass tubes and chrome pipes and squat metallic boxes, for uses that Jimmy could only guess at. The floor was decorated with a mosaic showing an atom with electrons whizzing around it. It was all dead scientific.
The back wall had something on it that looked slightly like mold and slightly like modern art – but it was clearly the source of the smoke hanging around the lab. As Jimmy got closer, the alarm bells rang in his head even louder as he realized the ‘thing’ was a huge burn mark scorched into the wall, and it was in the shape of a human. Specifically, a man with his arms raised.
Jimmy had a nasty feeling that he’d found Dr. Henry Primble. Or what was left of him.
He was just reaching for the office phone when the three blokes in suits burst through the door, holding Vickers-Armstrong ray pistols.
“Halt! Who goes there?”
Captain Martin Blake pointed his revolver at the figures moving at the end of the trench.
“Don’t shoot!” came a voice. “Don’t shoot! We’re from the War Office!”
Blake kept his gun trained on the shadowy figures, their boots thudding on the duck boards of the trench, advancing into the half-light cast by the shielded electric lanterns. Blake could feel the tense silence of the soldiers behind him as they watched and waited.
The first person to advance was a tall, sandy-haired man, in a greatcoat with a Sergeant’s pips on the shoulder, and the second …
Blake stared in shock. “Good God, what’s a woman doing in No-Man’s-Land?”
She stood blinking in the night’s last shadows, her face pale, long dark hair tied back, her slender frame wrapped in an ill-fitting greatcoat.
“We’re from the Royal Engineers,” the man said, his voice urgent.
The woman stepped forward. “We’ve brought a message for you. We have papers.”
“It’s five o’clock in the morning!” Blake yelled.
The woman sounded British, and well-educated. Blake put down the accent as West Country. The man was definitely American. The man was staring at Blake and grinning. The Captain had seen quite a few men smiling in the trenches, and some laughing. It usually meant that the war had got to them, unhinged them, cut their minds loose to flap in the wind.
Blake realized that if these two were spies, and he had accidentally captured them, he’d be a hero. If they were genuine Ministry Officials, and he bungled their treatment, he’d be court-martialed.
But either of those outcomes depended on them getting back to allied lines alive …
Blake cocked his revolver as the man slowly put his left hand into his inside coat pocket and withdrew a tiny booklet and several tightly folded sheets of paper. He handed them over to Blake, who holstered his gun and quickly scanned them, turning them over while the soldiers behind him kept their rifles trained on the newcomers. It identified the newcomers as Doctor Alan Kelsey and Miss Virginia Browning; he was attached to the Royal Engineers, and his companion was a driver to the Royal Ambulance Corps.
“These are fake,” announced the Captain. “The texture and color of the paper, they’re all wrong.”
“Would you be Captain Blake?”
He blinked. “Yes. Yes, I am.”
“Please, Captain Blake, we are here to help.”
“We weren’t able to request any help. We’re cut off from the Communications Trench and our radio isn’t working.”
“We have an urgent message and we have a machine that can help you.”
For the first time the man indicated the large black box he’d been carrying. He set it down gingerly on a pile of sandbags. He was about to click the two brass handles open, when Blake’s fear and tension returned. He drew his revolver again and waved him away from the case.
“Captain,” Kelsey said patiently, “this is a Mark V Ultra computing machine. We’ve brought it here because we believe you’re all in great danger.”
“Danger?” Blake coughed out the word in disbelief. “We’re in the middle of a bloody war!”
Someone at the back laughed mockingly, and Blake felt the situation slipping out of his hands.
“They’re spies, sir! Lock ‘em up!” This was Private Gerrard’s Welsh voice.
“He’s got a bomb!”
“They don’t sound like Germans.”
“Maybe the Angels sent them!”
Kelsey was on to the remark like a flash. “Did you say Angels?”
“Be quiet.” Blake leveled his revolver. “Both of you will be confined under close watch until we find out who you really are.”
Blake waved to Corporal Ford, and the soldier advanced. “Wait,” said Kelsey. “You must listen to us! You need to see this machine, and see what it can do …”
“And I must insist.”
Blake had turned away to give his men orders but at the tone of the woman’s voice, he looked back. The woman had a gun. A Webley self-loading pistol, by the look of it.
It was unfair. Most of the time, Blake was fighting the weaknesses of his own body. Fighting the turmoil in his bowels, the urges of his bladder; constant activity, within and without, constant stimulation. There was never a moment when he could not think, could not feel; the nervous engines within him never allowed him rest. Suffragette, he thought, his mind furiously working out possible outcomes to the situation. I see. The woman was one of those Emily Pankhurst types.
“You are not confining me anywhere,” she said.
“Madam. Put the gun down.”
Blake could tell the men behind him tensing and getting ready to fire – but none of them, he was sure, would shoot a woman. Blake himself was revolted at the very idea. He caught himself doing what he always did when stressed – holding his breath. It was like shifting gears; quieting his emotions, keeping him within range of his own sanity.
“Please listen to us,” the woman said. “We are not spies, and we do not want to hurt anyone. We are here to help.”
Blake finally drew in some of the foul, smoky air. “My men will shoot you if I order them to.”
“Your men? You don’t seem to have many of them, Captain. Where’s the rest of your squad?”
The situation was insane. Of course, the whole bloody war was insane, so Blake shouldn’t have been surprised at anything.
It was October 1917, just outside Ypres.
For the last two months, home to Blake had been an elaborate trench network, a web of trench lines, concrete pillboxes, dugouts, firing bays, and underground tunnels. Over the parapets of the trenches, and between the Allied encampment and the Germans, lay a desolate muddy wasteland strewn with rain-filled craters and barbed wire. The Germans had their firing lines higher up on the Passchendaele Ridges, closer to Ypres and overlooking the Allied encampments.
For the last few weeks, it had been like toiling in a slaughterhouse.
Three days ago, on the twelfth of October, Blake and his squad had been part of the advance on Passchendaele. Amidst the chaos of the shelling, they were cut off from the main battalion of the British Fifth Army, and forced down here, into the salient – a zig-zag maze of assembly trenches and dead-end saps perilously close to the German lines.
“Sir!” called Tate, on sentry duty. “Movement near the German lines.”
Blake shot a furious glance at the woman and decided that discretion was the better part of valor. In a way, he was grateful for the interruption. He holstered his revolver, grabbed a pair of binoculars from the shelf next to the useless field telephone and climbed up the filthy rungs of the trench ladder.
He cautiously eased his head over the parapet and into the lookout hole, protected by sandbags and steel plating.
Around him in the cold darkness before the October dawn stretched a landscape of dislocation and dismemberment, a ravaged vista of splintered trees, flattened farmhouses, and craters full of stinking water. To the right, a few yards away, squatted the massive dark lozenge of the Landship in silhouette, the ironclad vessel that was now an injured giant of clogged caterpillar tracks and useless, seized-up gears. The bombardment from heavy artillery had stopped – no, paused, for nothing ever stopped in this godforsaken war, nothing ever ended, nothing was ever silent. Blake and his men were always surrounded by noise; the crack of the carbines, the moaning of the wounded.
He saw the first flickers of morning light through shadowed coils of barbed wire. Ripped fragments of flesh and uniform hung on the wire like quavers and semiquavers on a page of sheet music. He could see, as well as hear, the music of the trenches; the shrieks and groaning, the bangs and cracks, the whistling and hissing – and with the crimson dawn would come the shells, like drums played by a berserk god of war.
A starshell burst overhead, white trails showering down in jerky, swooping rhythms. They were to light targets for night-snipers, and Blake put down the binoculars hastily, wary of reflections. The starburst trails fizzled to the ground.
He was still alive.
In the light of the flare, with his bare eyes he could make out running figures, carrying backpacks and holding rifles. Most likely a wire-cutting party, getting ready for the next bombardment and raid, running across the parapet with frenetic, marionette-like movements.
Then he saw it. The gas. Curling in from the east, a rolling cloud of thick, yellow-green smoke.
A movement to his right made him start, and he saw Kelsey, climbing up on the neighboring ladder. From somewhere he’d gotten his own pair of binoculars – the woman with the gun, maybe, and he looked nervously at Blake.
“The Hun’s got a new secret weapon,” Blake hissed. “First it was those godawful flame-throwers, then mustard gas, and now this. It’s a poison gas that … eats people. Like acid. The gas attacks have kept us here, unable to get back to the reserves.”
“And the Angels he mentioned?”
“Be quiet. I think you’ll see for yourself.”
The hideous miasma rolled along the shattered landscape. The Germans tried to outrun it, but they were too slow. The mist enveloped them. They floundered, limbs waving, their twisted, mannered figures reeling through it, the sound of their screaming voices growing more and more distant, until they disappeared.
“You told me that’s a German secret weapon,” Kelsey said.
“So why are they killing their own troops?”
Blake stared ahead, thinking. He’d been wondering the same thing himself. “The wind must have changed.”
Kelsey gave a quizzical look.
“Now look over there,” Blake said.
In No-Man’s Land, materializing at the heart of the swirling yellow cloud, was the figure that haunted Blake and his men. Shining metal, barely recognizable as human. It seemed to be composed of metal surfaces, moving in small jerks, grouping together, then splitting apart and reforming, diminishing and enlarging, forming columns and lines. The armored shape was surrounded by a brilliant glow that illuminated the churned-up mud.
“Good God,” Kelsey whispered. “Is that what you saw before?”
The figure melted back into the cloud, and Blake felt his skin crawl as he saw the opaque mist churn faster, and shift direction.
“Captain, do you see that? It’s coming this way.”
“Yes. By God, it is. We found a concrete bunker back there, and for the last couple of days we’ve been holing up during these gas attacks. It’s a room we can make air-tight.”
“Excellent. Let’s get moving!”
Blake turned his head and glared. “I am giving the orders, Dr. Kelsey,” he snapped.