EXCLUSIVE EXCERPT 5/5: 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 all the while his blind brown fingers
Traced a webbed message in the dirt
Gilgamesh was here.
- L.T., The Epic of Gilgamesh
When they parted it was dusk, and the first stars were rising, winking into existence like baleful eyes. Orphan felt buoyant: and he was going to see Lucy again that night, at Richmond-upon-Thames, for the Martian probe ceremony. He’d promised he’d be there as soon as he saw Gilgamesh again. The truth was, he was worried about his old friend. He was the closest thing to a family Orphan ever had. Gilgamesh lived rough, and the years had not been kind to him. “Seven-thirty!” Lucy said as she kissed him a last time. “And don’t be late!”
He walked the short distance along the embankment to Waterloo Bridge. He thought he’d talk with Gilgamesh, but when he reached the arches there was no sign of his old friend there.
Orphan called for him; his voice came back in a dreary echo. He went closer to the edge of the water. There was the small ring of stones where Gilgamesh’s fire had burned. Cold ash lay between the stones, dark and fine. “Gilgamesh?” he called again, but all was quiet; even the sounds of the whales had died down, so that Orphan felt himself in a vast silence that stretched all around him, across the waters and into the city itself. “Gilgamesh?”
Then he saw it. An arc of dark spots, leading from the fire towards the river. He bent down and touched them with his fingers, and they came back moist.
He looked around him wildly. What had happened? Resting against the wall he found Gilgamesh’s blanket. It was stained, in great dark spots, with a smell that left a metallic taste in the back of his throat.
But not blood.
Oil? Or, he thought for a moment, ridiculously – ink.
The blanket was torn. No, he saw. Not torn. Cut, with a sharp implement, like a knife… or a scythe.
He rolled the old blanket open, panic mounting. What had happened to Gilgamesh? The blanket was empty, but soaked in some dark liquid. Wide gashes opened in the dirty cloth like gaping mouths.
Orphan knew he should call the police. But what would they do? They had better things to do than worry about an old beggar, with the explosion at the Rose and the Ripper loose in Whitechapel. He stood up, pulling away from the blanket. His hands were smudged.
Orphan felt ill, and panic settled in the pit of his stomach like a snake, coiling slowly awake and rising with a hiss. What had happened? What could he do?
The silence lay all around him. He could hear no birds and no traffic. The light had almost disappeared entirely, and the world was one hair’s breadth away from true and total darkness.
Frightened, he nevertheless followed the arc of spilled ink from the dead fire to the water’s edge. He bent down to the river and washed his hands in the cold, murky water.
It occurred to him that Gilgamesh’s fishing-rod, too, was missing. He looked sideways and down, but could see nothing.
Then a curious sound made him turn. It came from the water, to his left, a clinking sound, like champagne glasses touching. Still crouching, he made his way carefully to the left, his fingers running against the side of the embankment. The stones were slimy and cold, unpleasant to the touch – then he found it. His fingers encountered something solid and round, and the sound stopped.
It was a tall round shape made of smooth glass, and it was tied with a fishing line, Orphan discovered, to a rusting hook that protruded underwater from the side of the embankment. His fingers growing numb with cold, he managed to untie it and finally lifted his find from the water. It was a bottle.
Raised voices came suddenly from the river path and Orphan, jolted, withdrew into the darkness of the arches. The final rays of the sun faded and now the streetlamps began to come alive all along the river, winking into existence one by one, casting a comforting yellow haze across the darkened world. His heart beating fast, Orphan waited in the safety of the shadows until the voices, sounding drunk, passed. Then, clutching the bottle in his hands, he hurried away from the bridge, away from the blood-like substance and the dark absence of his friend. For when he withdrew it from the water Orphan recognised two things about the bottle: that it was the one he had brought Gilgamesh only the night before, the stolen bottle of Chateau des Rêves, and that though it had been emptied of wine it was not yet empty: for the bottle was sealed tight, and a dry sheaf of paper rustled inside it, like a caged butterfly the colour of sorrow, waiting to be freed.
He took shelter on the other side of the river, in the welcoming, warm and well-lit halls of Charing Cross Station. He stood alone amidst the constant, hurried movement of people to and from the great waiting trains that stood like giant metal beasts of burden along the platforms, bellowing smoke and steam into the cool night air. His back against the wall, the smell of freshly baked pastries from a nearby stall wafting past him, Orphan broke the crude seal on the bottle and withdrew, with great care, the sheaf of paper that nestled inside.
Gilgamesh’s jagged handwriting ran along the page in cramped and hurried lines that left no blank space. It was addressed – and here Orphan stopped, for he felt cold again despite the warmth of the station, and his fingers tingled as if still dipped in the cold water of the Thames – to him.
Alone amidst the masses of humanity at the great station of Charing Cross, his ears full of the short, sharp whistle-blows from the platforms and their accompanying clacking of wheels as trains accelerated away into the dark, and his stomach (despite all that he had found) rumbling quietly at the pervading smells of pastries baking and coffee brewing, he began reading Gilgamesh’s letter to him:
My Dear Orphan -
As I write this a hot explosion lights up (I imagine) the skies above the Thames, and rather than worry I am exhilarated – for that ball of fire and heat is a signal, and it tells me of my impending doom. I shall try to post this to you, but already I grow anaesthetised and dull, for I do not believe I will have the time. He is coming back for me, me who had been forgotten for all those centuries. But the Bookman never forgets, and his creations are forever his -
You scoffed when I spoke of the Bookman. You called him nothing but a legend. But the Bookman is real, as real – more so – than I am. Who am I, Orphan? You and I played together in believing me Gilgamesh, the lone remnant of an ancient civilisation, a poet-warrior of a bygone age. We were humouring each other, I think – though the truth is not that far from the fiction, perhaps. In either case you, of all people, deserve to know-
Every creed has its myth of immortals. The sailors have their Flying Dutchman, the explorers their Vespucci, the Jews their Lamed-Vav. Poets, perhaps, have Gilgamesh-
I, too, have been immortal. Until the knife descends I shall be immortal still, but that, I fear, is soon to end. Who was I? I, too, was a poet, and of the worst kind – one with delusions of grandeur. When Vespucci went on his voyage of exploration I went with him, for there must always be someone to record great discoveries. I was with him on Caliban’s Island, when he roused Les Lézards from their deep slumber in the deep metal chambers inside the great crater at the heart of that terrible island. Almost alone, I managed to escape, blinded by the terrible sights I had seen. I took to sea and for days I floated, half-crazed and dying. When at last he found me I had all but departed this earth-
He – fixed me? Healed me? But he did more than that – and he took the knowledge of the island from me, and then let me go. But he had not repaired my sight. Perhaps, already, he thought I had seen too much-
I had thought he had forgotten me, but the Bookman never forgets.
Now, I fear, he is coming back for me, and perhaps it would finally be an end. Perhaps I could rest, now, after all the cold long years. But I fear him, and know that he would not rest, not until what was started on that cursed island can be brought to an end. He is bound with the lizards, I believe, and vengeful. Perhaps he was theirs, once. Their stories are interlinked-
But why, you ask, I am telling you this? Perhaps because I suspect you, too, will have a role to play in this unfolding tragedy. Perhaps because I knew your father, who was a good man, and your mother, who you didn’t know-
No. I have not the heart to tell their story. Not now. For me, as I sit here, alone, on the water’s edge, waiting for him to come, no words remain, and language withers. Only a final warning will I deliver to you, my friend: beware the books, for they are his servants. Above all, beware the Bookman.
Yours, in affection-
Orphan, stunned, leaning against the wall as if seeking support in the solid stone, scanned the letter again, the words leaping up at him like dark waves against a shore. He felt pounded by them, and fearful. His vision blurred and he blinked, finding that tears, unbidden, unwanted, were the cause. He wiped them away, and a drop fell onto the page, near Gilgamesh’s signature, and he noticed something he had missed.
In the small margin of the letter, Gilgamesh had scribbled a couple of lines in small, barely legible writing, almost as if hiding them there. He cleared his eyes again and tried to decipher the words. When meaning came, dread wrapped itself around his neck like an executioner’s rope, for it said: “I know now that he is near, and moving. His next target may be the Martian space probe you told me about. For your sake, and Lucy’s – stay away from it. If I can I will tell you myself-”
There was no more.
And time, for Orphan, stopped.
He was a point of profound silence in the midst of chaos and noise. That silence, holy and absolute, was his as he stood against the wall of the train station, the letter falling slowly from his hand to the floor, too heavy to be carried any more. Lucy. The thought threatened to consume him. Lucy, and her gift to the planet Mars: a small, innocent volume of verse. Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese.
Somewhere in the distance a whistle blew, rose in the air, and combined with the clear, heavy notes that echoed from Big Ben. They tolled seven times, and their sound jarred against Orphan’s own bell of silence, until at last, on the final stroke, it cracked.
Lucy, he thought. And, my love.
He had half an hour to save her.
Filed under: Free Fiction
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