EXCLUSIVE EXCERPT 3/5: The Bookman by Lavie Tidhar
What’s it about?
A masked terrorist has brought London to its knees – there are bombs inside books, and nobody knows which ones. On the day of the launch of the first expedition to Mars, by giant cannon, he outdoes himself with an audacious attack. For young poet Orphan, trapped in the screaming audience, it seems his destiny is entwined with that of the shadowy terrorist, but how? Like a steam-powered take on V for Vendetta, rich with satire and slashed through with automatons, giant lizards, pirates, airships and wild adventure, The Bookman is the first of a series.
And now we reach’d the orchard-plot;
And, as we climb’d the hill,
The sinking moon to Lucy’s cot
Came near and nearer still.
– William Wordsworth, Lucy
They walked together along the embankment. At their back the Rose was wreathed in flames. Orphan had a cut on his shoulder, bandaged with a strip of cloth. Lucy’s heavy coat was covered in plaster and dust that wouldn’t come off. Both were shaken.
A police automaton passed them by on its way to the scene of the explosion, a blue light flashing over its head. “Clear the area!” it shrieked at them. “Clear the area! Unsafe! Unsafe!”
“Yes,” Lucy murmured, “I noticed. The big explosion was a definite clue.”
They both laughed, and Orphan felt some of his tension ease. The automaton, borne fast on its hidden wheels, disappeared behind them.
“Who do you think was behind it?” Lucy said.
“You mean, who hired the Bookman?”
“Yes,” Lucy said. “I guess that is what I mean.”
The fog swirled about them, muting the glow of the fire from behind. Without consciously realising it, they drew closer; Orphan felt Lucy’s warmth even through the heavy coat and it made him feel better. It made him feel alive.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I expect we’ll read about it in the papers tomorrow. Could have been anyone with a grudge against Irving. He didn’t exactly make himself popular with the Ancient Mariner production.”
“Like the Persons from Porlock?” She threaded her arm in his and smiled. “Tell me, did you dress as a clown last night and quote limericks at Mr Wilde?”
“I…” Orphan began to say, but Lucy reached to him and put her finger against his lips, sealing them. Orphan closed his eyes and let his senses flood him: Lucy’s taste was a mixture of flavour and scent, of spice and river water.
“We all have our secrets,” she said in a soft voice. She removed her finger, and Orphan opened his eyes, found himself standing face to face with her. She was his height, and her dark eyes looked directly into his, her mouth smiled, a crescent moon. She had white, uneven teeth, with slightly extended canines.
They kissed. Whether she kissed him first, or he kissed her, it was immaterial. It was a mutual coming together, the two opposing poles of a magnet meeting. Her lips were cold, then hot; her eyes consumed him. He thought without words, without poetry.
When they came away both were somewhat breathless, and Lucy was grinning.
“Come on!” she said. She took Orphan’s hand and he followed her: she ran down the embankment and he ran with her, the cold air whipping their faces, and the fog parted in their passing. Orphan, flushed, still breathless from the kiss, felt a rare kind of happiness take hold of him; he threw his head back and laughed, and the clouds parted. For a moment he could see the moon, shining yellow, its face misshapen. Then the clouds closed again overhead and he ran on, following Lucy, running towards the growing whale song emanating from underneath Westminster Bridge.
Nearby, on the other side of the river, Big Ben began, majestically, to count the midnight strokes.
What does Orphan remember of that night? It is a cacophony of the senses, a bazaar through which he can amble, picking and discarding sensation like curios or used books. Here a stand of sounds, and he pauses and lifts again the noise of the explosion, compares it with the rising whale-song into which Lucy led him, as they approached the south side of Westminster Bridge and the pod welcomed them with a symphony that somehow wove inside itself the distant light of stars and the warning flashes of the mail-ships in the air, the dying fire down-river and the salty taste of a kiss. He pauses beside a canopy and sorts through touch, experiencing again the heat of an embrace, the wet, slippery feel against his hand of a whale rising silently from the Thames, a plume of water interacting with the moon to form a rainbow, making laughter rise inside him like bubbles.
They visited the pod that night, and the whales, who rose one by one to the surface, were dark, beautiful shapes like sleek submarines, acknowledging them. “Come on!” Lucy had said, and he had followed, and knew that he would follow her anywhere, even beyond life itself.
In the light of the moon, under Westminster Bridge, he kissed her again. “Will you marry me?” he asked.
“I’ll be with you everywhere,” she said. Her eyes were veiled with shimmering stars. “We will never be apart.”
“Where have you been?” Jack demanded as soon as Orphan walked in. “Were you at the Rose? Do you have any idea what’s going on?” He surveyed Orphan through his dark glasses with a frown. “Have you been out enjoying yourself? I’ve been worried sick waiting for you!”
“I’m fine,” Orphan said. “Couldn’t be better,” he added. His mouth kept trying to shape itself into a grin, which he was trying to suppress for Jack’s benefit. “I was at the Rose, but I wasn’t hurt. I was with Lucy.”
“He was with Lucy!” Jack said. Orphan’s grin fought one last time and was released; Jack, on seeing it, shook his head and muttered, “Well, that’s all right then.”
“We’re getting married.”
“Don’t look so horrified.”
“Delighted for you, my boy! Married!”
“Are you sure you’re feeling all right, Jack?”
They sat down together in the back room of Payne’s Booksellers. Orphan sprawled on his bed (which sat between Aegyptian Archaeology and Elecktronicka – General) while Jack took the single chair (beside the small, but choice, selection of technical tomes on the shelf marked Steam Engines – Theory and Practical Applications). Jack himself slept in the basement, which was large and filled with old books and which was always damp, embellished by the constant smell of mould and a strange, tangy breeze which had no obvious source.
“Married,” Jack said. He seemed to mull the idea over in his head. “Nothing against marriage, me, but… Oh hell. Congratulations, boy! Let’s drink.”
“I thought you’d never offer.”
Jack rose nimbly and reached for a thick bible on one of the shelves. He removed it, carrying it carefully, and laid it on the small side-table. Opened, it revealed a bottle of Old Bushmills. “Would this do? There are a couple of glasses in that Illustrated Mother Goose on the lower shelf next to your bed, if you could trouble yourself to fetching them.”
Orphan sighed. Jack constantly worried him; he was afraid to ask what else was hidden in some of the books. More than words, he was sure.
Eventually, they clinked glasses. “To Lucy and yourself! To matrimony – may it make you forever happy and never come near to me!”
“I’ll drink to that,” Orphan said, and grinned, and he drank the toast. The whiskey, from the first distillery licensed by the Lizard Kings, slid down his throat with almost no resistance.
Heat rose from his feet to his face. “Put scales on your chest,” Jack said, and laughed. “To Les Lézards!” Jack said. “We must drink to them too. May they end up on a spit above a fire as the food for drunken sailors.”
“One day,” Orphan said, “you’ll go too far.”
“Not far enough,” Jack said.
“So the Bookman’s back in town,” Jack said, a little later, putting his hand on his chin (index finger resting against his cheek) in a faux-thoughtful gesture. “And poor old Irving’s career is finally over.” He sighed, theatrically. “Everyone’s a critic.”
“What have you heard?” Orphan said. Jack spread his hands in a shrug. Had he been French, it might have been called a Gallic shrug; as he weren’t, it was a decidedly English one. “I heard the police closed off Southwark and are diligently hunting for clues, headed by the admirably efficient Inspector Adler. It must have been chaos there if they let you all go – there’s a public appeal going out in the papers first thing in the morning for any witnesses to come forward.”
“Irene Adler?” Orphan said, and Jack smiled unpleasantly and said, “The very same who is in charge of the Persons from Porlock investigation.”
“Then they could do without my testimony,” Orphan said. “What else does your abominable Tesla set say? And by the way,” he added, “do we have some wine?”
Orphan coughed, said, “So what else did you hear?” Jack had an illegal Tesla set in the basement, modified to listen to police and government communications; he spent most of his time down there, scanning the airwaves. He was – he thought of himself as – a Radical. He was also the editor of the Tempest, an anti-Calibanic broadsheet published irregularly and distributed poorly. Lastly, he was proprietor of Payne’s, having acquired the ramshackle bookshop (so the story went) one night four years ago at a game of cards.
“Well,” Jack said, slowly swirling the drink in his hand, “rumour has it the Bookman’s not left town. They’re panicking, Orphan. They are panicking. There’s increased security at the Palace, but for all they know his next victim could be the Byron automaton, or Prime Minister Moriarty, or just some dumb fool who buys the wrong book at the wrong time.” He looked up from his drink and his mouth twisted into a smile. “The Establishment is teetering, Orphan. And they are all going to end up against the wall, when the revolution comes.”
Orphan looked at his friend, concerned. Usually, Jack was good company, but when he was like this – when his revolutionary sentiments got the better of him – he could be savage, almost frightening. Orphan didn’t know what grievance his friend had against the Calibanic dynasty. He didn’t need to. There were many other people like Jack, angry people, people who hated lizards, or poetry, or both. People, he thought, like the Bookman.
He finished his drink and, mirroring him, Jack did the same. “I’m going to sleep,” Jack said. He stood up and laid the glass on the table with a little more force than was necessary. “Make sure you open the shop in the morning. And try to get some sleep. See you tomorrow, china. And congratulations.”
When he was gone Orphan blew out the two half-melted candles that perched precariously on two opposing shelves and stretched himself on the bed. Sleep claimed him at once, and his dreams were full of Lucy.
Filed under: Free Fiction
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