Exclusive Excerpt: NO HERO by Jonathan Wood

Out this week from Titan Books is No Hero by Jonathan Wood and SF Signal brings you an exclusive excerpt!

Here’s what the book is about:

Oxford police detective Arthur Wallace is no hero. He’s a good cop, but prefers for action and heroics remain on the screen, safely performed by professionals. But then, secretive government agency MI37 comes calling, hoping to recruit Arthur in their struggle against horrors from another dimension known as the Progeny. Can an everyman stand against sanity-ripping cosmic horrors?

Following is an excerpt from No Hero

By Jonathan Wood

Chapter 2

Then and when and in-between

An alleyway. Dirt-strewn. Trash-spattered. And I think I must have fallen down, must have landed badly, because everything hurts. My chest hurts. Jesus, it feels like I’m splitting in two, starting right there, right between my ribs. And how did I get here?

Behind me I hear a rustle of movement, like a thousand petticoats all moving out of sync, yet together. And then…

…black

Now

The first thing I’m really aware of, that is really solid and true to me as I come out of the morphine dream, is the beeping. Even before the red vagueness of my closed eyelids. It’s something like an alarm clock. I want it to stop, before it reels me fully out of sleep. I reach for the clock, to flip the damn thing off-

-and then the pain.

My eyes snap open with a gasp, my chest fills with air and the pain comes again, sharper. I go to gasp again but catch myself, the air coming in a thin sucking whistle instead.

“Ow,” I say. “Oh balls, ow.” Not quite up there with Shelley or Yeats, I’ll admit, but honesty is a virtue as my mom always taught me.

“Ah,” says a woman’s voice I don’t recognize. “Finally.”

The room comes into focus slowly. I want to blink it in faster but I’m afraid that’ll bring the pain back somehow, so I let it come at its own pace.

At first all I see is the shadow of the voice’s owner, then the outline of her, then the dark swathe of her hair contrasting with the whiteness of her skin, and then finally her features.

She is very close to having a pretty face. But there’s a hardness to her that seems reluctant to lapse and let her cross the boundary into simple prettiness. She has a structured look, everything ordered. Her hair is carefully clipped into place. Her suit is straight edges and diagonal lines. Fashionable without being flashy, but without looking comfortable either. She seems a rather severe woman. The sort who’d play a nun in a movie and hit your knuckles with a ruler.

Reflexively I clench my fists to hide the fingers. Then I rather wish I hadn’t because that hurts too.

“Detective Arthur Wallace?” she asks.

I go to answer but it turns out that my mouth is rather dryer than I thought and so my tongue does some ungainly flopping until the woman fetches me a glass of water.

“Yes,” I finally manage, though I suspect she might have forgotten the original question by this point.

“You suffered a punctured lung,” she states without preamble.

“Oh,” I manage, and then sit back as the memories pick themselves up off the floor of my mind and assemble themselves like some kind of automated jigsaw. Vignettes assemble out of order, slowly taking their place in the whole. I remember the pain. I remember the blade. I remember being stabbed. The whole thing takes me a while, but I’m beginning to suspect I might be a little higher on the morphine than I originally thought.

Finally, I conclude with, “Bollocks.”

The woman clears her throat. “Yes.”

And then, another jigsaw piece floating up out of the miasma. “Swann,” I say. “Sergeant Alison Swann. What happened to her?”

“No need to worry, Detective,” says the woman. “Sergeant Swann went quite unharmed. Your attacker is reported to have jumped off the side of the building.”

“Jumped off… We were… How many stories?”

“Five,” says the woman, “according to Sergeant Swann.” She shrugs. “She lost track of your attacker after that, more concerned with your well-being than making the arrest it seems.”

The arrest… the victim… The victim. I see it again. I see what was in his head. The maggot, worm, thing… I see the impossibility of it all. The reality. I close my eyes.

“Oh shit…” I moan, passing up another opportunity for eloquence.

“Detective Wallace?” The woman sounds concerned, which is decent of her.

A decent woman. A nice businesslike woman, in a nice businesslike suit, in a nice businesslike hospital. And how exactly am I meant to tell her than I saw a monster in a man’s head? An alien?

Stress. It was just stress.

“Nothing,” I shake my head and wish I hadn’t. The world feels loose, wobbly.

“Do you feel up to talking, Detective Wallace?”

I look at her. I imagine a worm, a maggot, an alien in her skull. Another bad idea while on morphine. I close my eyes.

“Not really,” I say.

“Later then,” she says.

I close my eyes, hear her footsteps. The door opens.

“Wait,” I say. Because I’m reviewing the conversation and I realize she told me that the killer escaped. So I still have to get my man. My woman.

“How long until I’m up and about, Doctor?”

She cocks her head on one side. “I have no idea. I’m not your doctor, Detective.” There’s a very thin smile on her face. And then she’s gone, and I think that’s pretty weird right there. But then I sink into sleep and morphine demonstrates that when it comes to weird, it has my visitor rather outclassed.

The next day

The quality of visitor I receive definitely picks up the next day. Swann comes in just as my doctor is about to leave. She stops him in the doorway.

“How is he?” she asks, favoring the doctor, a tall Kenyan, with a dazzling smile. He returns it, possibly at even greater wattage.

“You’re disregarding eyewitness testimony,” I point out. Only slightly jealous of the smiling match playing out before me.

“Men’s stab wounds are like the fish they claim to catch,” she tells me. “They keep on getting bigger and bigger.”

“He’s much better,” the doctor says. “Even took a short walk to the bathroom.”

Which is true, but not really a heroic feat of endurance. But in the absence of genocidal terrorists threatening the hospital, chances to prove my fortitude have been a bit thin on the ground.

Once she’s seated by the bed, Swann checks that the doctor is definitely gone. “When I was a kid all my doctors were giant gangly blokes with sunken cheeks and narrow teeth. You get all the luck.” She pauses, tugs at a bang. “Well, aside from the being stabbed thing.”

“Silver lining to every cloud,” I say.

“Plus,” she says, “this cloud rains chocolates,” and she holds out a small wrapped present. Which is incredibly nice of her, and genuinely sweet, and really is a silver lining, and I’m about to tell her she shouldn’t have when she tells me she didn’t.

“Boys and girls at the station had a whip round,” she says.

“Very decent of you all,” I say, though my enthusiasm is about as punctured as my lung. But that’s an ungrateful thought, so I attempt a more genuine smile, and ask, “How’s the case going?”

“Well,” a small smile plays around the corners of her mouth, “we do have an eyewitness.”

“Wait… we… you… you mean… we…” I spray words around the room, taking out innocent bystanders with my abrupt enthusiasm. “This is huge! This is enormous! This is like the Godzilla of breaks. It’s the sort of break that destroys large chunks of Tokyo!” I stop, take stock, try and gain perspective. Punctured lung and all that. “Who is it?” I ask, unable to stop one toe from tapping.

“You, Boss.”

My toe ceases its tapping. I take a mental step backwards. “I’m going to blame the painkillers for me being slow on this one,” I say, “but can you run that by me one more time?”

“He stabbed you, Boss. Stuck a sword in you. He must have been close. You must have seen something.”

A sword. I saw a sword. I saw it going into my body. Blood and black. Black vision. White blade.

I blink, rub my eyes. Memories-a nice place to visit but not necessarily somewhere you’d like to live.

“She,” I say, attempting the whole stiff upper lip thing. “Not a he, a she.”

“See!” Swann shifts from her hospital standard-issue chair to the corner of my bed. “We’re making headway already.”

“Yeah.” I smile but I… No. I don’t want to go back there, I find. The girl, the sword. The thing… My moment of madness. I’m not a reliable witness.

“I’m afraid I don’t remember much else,” I say.

“Come on,” she says, “what do we always tell the witnesses?”

“A pack of lies,” I say. Which is true.

“You remember more than you think,” she says.

“Yeah,” I say. But it’s hard to express that that’s what really scares me. I don’t want to remember any more.

“You’re going to bust this thing wide open,” she says and she pats my hand.

It’s an odd moment. Something between affection and condescension. I think I might be blushing. Then she’s blushing. We stare at each other. I think maybe this is what it would be like if one of us suddenly grew an extra head and it started spouting profanities.

“Sorry,” she says.

“Quite all right,” I manage, and then we disengage the offending body parts and then suddenly her phone goes off and equally suddenly there’s an emergency involving blood work and contamination, and missing paperwork, and all sorts, so she doesn’t even get to hang up before she’s waving goodbye, so I’m left alone with some chocolates and the desire to eat them until I feel nauseous.

Five minutes later I’m still thinking about the hand pat far more than is either healthy or reasonable. It’s almost a relief when Ms. “You-suffered-a-punctured-lung” walks in again.

Turns out that’s not her real name.

“Felicity Shaw,” she says and sticks out a hand. Her suit is paler today but no less severe. “You look like you’re feeling a little bit better, Detective.”

“Thank you,” I say. “Fresh air and exercise. Drugs and doctors. All that.”

She doesn’t smile. I think Swann would have smiled at that. Which I hope makes me funny and not Swann a woman with a terrible sense of humor. Could go either way on that one, though.

“I’d like to ask you some questions about what exactly happened the night you were injured,” Shaw says, because Shaw is serious and businesslike.

Which is fine, of course, except I don’t even want to talk about what happened to someone who thinks I’m funny, let alone to someone who thinks I’m juvenile.

“I don’t suppose you have some ID?” I say, which is a dodge that’s been thrown in my face enough times that I feel it’s only fair I should get to use it.

That does elicit a smile from Shaw. Except I wasn’t trying to be funny. Something is off here, and I don’t know which one of us it is.

Shaw reaches into her pocket, pulls out a card. “Felicity Shaw, director of Military Intelligence, Section Thirty-seven.”

“MI37?” I sound incredulous because I am. MI5, yes. MI6, I’m with you. And if logic persists in military intelligence, though I’m not sure it does, you could probably convince me over time about MI1, 2, 3, and 4. But MI37? Really?

“Yes, Detective,” Shaw says. “MI37. We are a reality. We certainly don’t advertise our existence the way MI5 and 6 do, but that just means the politics of intimidation are not useful in our arena. It doesn’t mean we’re not real. We are real, Detective Wallace, as real as the consequences you’ll face if you discuss this conversation with anyone else.”

I take the ID card from her. It has her face, though maybe five years younger, from before she tipped over into forty, and she has shorter hair and longer bangs. But it’s her picture, and it’s her name, and her title, and it does look terribly official, but I have to say I wouldn’t know a military intelligence ID badge if one approached me at a party and offered to show me a good time.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “I just don’t know…”

Felicity Shaw nods, which is a better reception than I’d anticipated. “Your cynicism stands you well,” she says. She looks away from me, out of the window. “Still, I’m surprised to find you with such a mindset after all you’ve seen.”

It’s the conversational equivalent of slapping me about the face. I sit up straight as a bolt, stare at her, while she continues to study the window. “What are you talking about?” I ask her. But I know exactly what she’s talking about.

And she knows I do. “They’re called the Progeny,” she says. “The creature you saw in the victim’s head. It’s called a Progeny.”

“Shit,” I say, which is about as honest as I can get at that moment. “What do you want to know?”

“Actually, Detective, it’s the other way around. I want to tell you about what I know.”

She’s crazy, of course. That’s the obvious explanation, I realize. She’s escaped from another wing of the hospital. Except her madness is the same color and shade as mine. It has the same details. It’s as if she pulled the madness out of my head and into the world. But that’s not what happened, I know. So that means she’s not crazy, and I’m not, but that the world is.

“What is there to tell?” I ask.

Shaw’s eyes leave the window, look around the rest of the room. “Not here,” she says. “I’ll fetch you a wheelchair.”

[End of excerpt]