EXCLUSIVE EXCERPT 4/5: 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.
Orphan had first met Lucy one day at the bookshop. She came through the door like – sunshine? Wind? Like spice? Orphan wasn’t that much of a poet – looking for a book about whales. He fell in love the way trees do, which is to say, forever. It was a love with roots that burrowed deep, entangled, grew together. Like two trees they leaned into each other, sheltering each other with their leaves, finding solace and strength in the wide encompassing forest that was the city, holding together in the multitude of alien trees. Orphan loved her the way people do in romantic novels, from the first page, beyond even The End.
When the door opened he hoped it was her, but it wasn’t. The door opened and closed, the bell rang, and footsteps – their sound a dry shuffle – approached the counter behind which Orphan sat, bleary-eyed and untidy, a mug of coffee (the largest that was available) and the morning paper resting by his side.
“Good morning, good morning!” a voice said chirpily. Orphan, wincing, looked up from his reading. “Good morning to you too, Mr Marx. All’s well?”
“All’s well that ends well,” Marx said, and sniggered. He ran his fingers through his large, overgrown beard, as if searching for a lost item within. “Jack about?”
Orphan mutely pointed towards the small door that led to the basement. Marx nodded thoughtfully but didn’t move. “Have you, um, come across any of the volumes I ordered?”
“Let’s see,” Orphan said. He reached down to the shelves built into the counter. “We have-”
“Quietly, please,” Marx said. He looked left and right and back again and said, apologetically, “The walls have ears.”
“Quite,” Orphan said. Though he usually liked Karl, the man’s constant movement, like an ancient grandfather clock, between high paranoia and boisterous cheer, grated on his fragile nerves that morning. “Well,” he whispered, “we managed to acquire M. Verne’s narrative of his expedition to Caliban’s Island, L’Île mystérieuse, that you asked for, and also the revolutionary poems of Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du mal. I think Jack is still looking for de Sade’s Histoire de Juliette for you.”
“Not for me!” Marx said quickly. “For a friend of mine.” He straightened up. “Good work, my young friend. Can I trust you to…”
“I’ll deliver them to the Red Lion myself,” Orphan said.
Marx smiled. “How is your poetry coming along?” He didn’t wait for a reply. “I think Jack is waiting for me. I’ll, um, show myself in. And remember – mum’s the word.”
Orphan put his finger to his lips. Marx nodded, ran his fingers through his beard again, and disappeared through the small door that led down to the basement.
“For a friend of mine,” Orphan said aloud, and laughed. Then he took a healthy swig of his coffee and bent back down to the newspaper which was, of course, full of last night’s events at the Rose.
“Irving Finally Loses Head!” screamed the headline. “Show Ends with a Bang!” The name of the writer, an R. Kipling, was familiar to him: they were of about the same age, and had come across one another several times in town, though they had not formed a friendship. Kipling was a staunch Caliban supporter, as was evident from his reporting of the explosion:
“Late last night (wrote Kipling), a bomb went off at the controversial production of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, killing the show’s star and artistic director, Mr Henry Irving, and wounding several others. Police have closed off the area and investigation has been undertaken by Scotland Yard’s new and formidable inspector, Irene Adler. Eyewitness testimony suggests Irving was killed by a booby-trapped copy of the book of the play that was delivered to him on stage by the young actor Beerbohm Tree, playing the Ancient Mariner to Irving’s Shakespeare. The play raised much antipathy in official circles and was justly avoided by all law-abiding citizens and faithful servants of Les Lézards. It was, however, popular with a certain type of revolutionary rabble, and sadly tolerated under our Queen’s benign rule and her commitment to our nation’s principles of the freedom of speech.”
Orphan sighed and rubbed his eyes; he needed a shave. He took another sip of (by now cooling) coffee and continued reading, though his mind wasn’t in it: his head was awhirl with images of Lucy, and he kept returning to the night before, to the words they spoke to each other, to their kiss like a seal of the future… He sighed and scratched the beginning of a beard and decided he’d take the afternoon off to go see her. Let Jack do some work, for a change: he, Orphan, had better things to do on this day.
“Though there is official silence regarding the investigation (Kipling continued) this reporter has managed to make a startling discovery. It has come to my attention that, though Irving’s co-star, the young Beerbohm, was apparently killed in the explosion alongside his master, a man corresponding exactly to Beerbohm’s description was taken in for questioning earlier today! If Beerbohm is still alive, who was the man delivering the book on stage? If, indeed, it was a man at all…”
The doorbell rang again, and Orphan lifted his head at the new set of approaching footsteps. He knew who it would be before looking. At that time of day, in this shop, no casual browser was likely to come in. Only members of what Orphan, only half-jokingly, had come to call the Parliament of Payne.
“Greetings, young Orphan!” said a booming voice, and a hand reached out and plucked a well-worn penny from behind Orphan’s ear. Orphan grinned up at John Maskelyne. “Hello, Nevil.”
Maskelyne frowned and scratched his bushy moustache. “No one,” he said, “dares use my second name, you lout.” He threw the coin in the air, where it disappeared. “Jack in?”
Orphan mutely nodded towards the basement door.
“Good, good,” Maskelyne said, but he seemed in no hurry to depart. He began wandering around the shop, pulling books at random from the shelves, humming to himself. “Have you heard about Beerbohm?” his disembodied voice called from the black hole of the Cookery – Beeton to Goodfellow section. “Rumour has it the police found him trussed up like a turkey with its feathers plucked out, but alive and safely tucked away at home, if a little dazed around the edges.”
“I’m sure that it must be a mistake,” Orphan called back. “I was at the Rose last night and I can assure you Beerbohm was as effectively made extinct as the dodo.”
He tried to follow Maskelyne’s route through the shop; now he could see the top of his head, peeking behind the Berber Cookery shelf; a moment later, his voice rose from the other end of the room, muttering the words of an exotic recipe as if trying to memorise it. Then Orphan blinked, and when his eyes reopened, only a fraction of a second later, the magician stood before him once again, his eyes twinkling. “I hope I didn’t give you a start.”
Orphan, who luckily had laid the coffee back on the counter a moment earlier, waved his hand as if to say, think nothing of it. “He is still alive, young Orphan,” Maskelyne said, and his countenance was no longer cheery, but deep in an abyss of dark thoughts. “And what’s more, no doctor was called to treat the man at the Rose. Let me riddle you this, my friend. When is a man not a man?”
He opened his hand, showing it empty. He laid it, for a moment, on the surface of the counter, and when it was raised a small toy rested on the wood, a little man-like doll with a key at its back. “Come to the Egyptian Hall when you next have need of counsel,” the magician said, almost, it seemed to Orphan, sadly, and then he turned away and was gone through the door to the basement.
But Orphan had no time to think further of the magician’s words. No sooner had Maskelyne departed that the door chimed again, and in walked an elegant lady. Enter the third murderer, Orphan thought, and hurriedly came around the counter to hold the door. It was the woman for whom an entire section of a bookcase was dedicated, and he had always felt awed in her presence. “Mrs Beeton!”
“Hello, Orphan,” said Isabella Beeton cordially. “You look positively radiant today. Could it be that the rays of marital bliss have finally chanced upon illuminating your countenance?”
Orphan grinned and shut the door carefully after her. “Can’t get anything past you,” he said, and Isabella Beeton smiled and patted his shoulder.
“I know the look,” she said. “Also, Jack did happen to mention something of the sort in this morning’s missive. Congratulations.” She walked past, her long dress held up demurely lest it come in touch with the dusty floor. “I won’t keep you, Orphan. You are no doubt eager to go in pursuit of your newly bound love.” She tossed her hair over her shoulder and smiled at him; her hair was gold, still, though woven with fine white strands that resembled silk. “Our number is complete. Go, seek out Tom, and get that idle fellow to replace you. Your watch is done.”
And, so saying, she too disappeared through the small door that led to Jack’s basement, and was gone.
Orphan managed to locate Tom Thumb in his quarters near Charing Cross Station, and after rousing the small man from his slumber extracted from him a promise to take his place at the shop for the day.
“Bleedin’ poets,” Tom Thumb muttered as he exchanged his pyjamas for a crumpled suit. “Always bleating of love and flowers and sheep grazing in fields. The only sheep I like are ones resting on a spit.”
“I owe you one,” Orphan said, grinning, and Tom shook his head and buttoned his shirt and said, “I’ve heard that one before, laddie. Just show me the shekels.”
“Soon as Jack pays me,” Orphan promised, and before Tom could change his mind he was out of the door and walking down the Strand, whistling the latest tune from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Ruddigore.
He crossed the river at Westminster, still whistling. Already, on the other side of the river, he could see the whales, and their song rose to meet him, weaving into his whistle like a chorus. He felt light and clear-headed, and he stepped jauntily on, descending the steps towards the figure that was standing on the water’s edge.
He was suddenly shy. Lucy, turning, regarded him with a dazzling smile. Behind her, a whale rose to the surface and snorted, and a cloud of fine mist rose and fell in the air.
“I missed you,” Orphan said, simply.
They stood and grinned at each other. The whale exhaled again, breathed, and disappeared inside the blue-green waters of the Thames.
“I hoped you’d come,” Lucy said. Her eyes, he noticed, were large and bright, the colour of the water. Sun speckled her irises.
He said, “I’d follow you anywhere,” and Lucy laughed, a surprised, delighted sound, and kissed him.
Later, he would remember that moment. Everything seemed to slow, the wheel of the sun burning through the whale’s cloud of breath and breaking into a thousand little rainbows; a cool breeze blew but he was warm, his fingers intertwined with Lucy’s, and her lips tasted hot, like cinnamon-spiced tea. He whispered, “I love you,” and knew it was true.
He saw his face reflected in her eyes. She blinked. She was crying. “I love you too,” she said, and for a long moment, the world was entirely still.
Then they came apart, the cloud of mist dispersed, blown apart by the breeze, and the sun resumed its slow course across the sky. Lucy, pointing at a bucket that stood nearby, said, “Help me feed the whales?” and Orphan, in response, purposefully grabbed the still-writhing tentacles of a squid and threw it in an arc into the river.
A baby whale rose, exhaled loudly (the sound like a snort of laughter), and descended with its prey.
On the opposite bank of the river Big Ben began to chime, and the strikes sounded, momentarily, like the final syllables of a sonnet.
Filed under: Free Fiction
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