Category Archives: May 2014

The Adventures of Sir Chester, the Very Brave by James O’Loghlin

Chester

‘The Adventures of Sir Chester, the Very Brave’

That’s a much better title for The Adventures of Sir Roderick the Not-Very Brave because I am the bravest talking bear you are ever about to know.

I may talk like a person but I eat like a bear. And after I eat like a bear, I walk around like a bear and then I fall asleep like a bear. I really am almost exactly like a bear. But like a person I say ‘hello’. And that is exactly what I am now going to say to Roderick.

Roderick has skinny legs and scared eyes but he is a sensible non-bear because: How amazing! How incredible! Of all the Ganfree Banfors there are in the world (at least six or twenty-eight or maybe even one hundred and sixty-three) it so happens that the one Roderick is looking for, the one who is a great sorcerer, is the one, the only one, who happens to live here!

Mister Banfor is fishing in that passive let-them-come-to-me-via-my-rod sort of way that he seems to like and I am very sorry to disturb him but I must because I have found another non-bear.

I don’t think Roderick has come here to fish because he is not looking at the river and he is not looking at Mister Banfor’s fishing rod. He is looking at Mister Banfor. And he has a letter.

Mister Banfor taught me about curiosity and helped me grow some of it in my head. And now it has grown.

And I am curious.

Read about Sir Roderick here


Excerpted from The Adventures of Sir Chester, The Very Brave by James O’Loghlin. Copyright © 2014 by James O’Loghlin.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Advertisements

The Target by David Baldacci – Extract

The Target

CHAPTER 1

Four hundred men lived here, most for the rest of their time on earth.

And then hell would get them for the rest of eternity.

The walls were thick concrete and their interior sides were layered with repulsive graffiti that spared virtually nothing in its collective depravity. And each year more filth was grafted onto the walls like sludge building up in a sewer. The steel bars were nicked and scarred, but still impossible to break by human hands. There had been escapes from here, but none for more than thirty years—once outside the walls there was no place to go. The people living on the outside around here weren’t any friendlier than the ones on the inside.

And they actually had more guns.

The old man had another severe coughing fit and spit up blood, which was as much evidence of his terminal condition as any expert medical pronouncement. He knew he was dying; the only question was when. He had to hang on, though. He had something left to do, and he would not get a second chance to do it.

Earl Fontaine was large but had once been larger still. His body had imploded as the metastatic cancer ate him from the inside out. His face was heavily wrinkled, savaged by time, four packs of menthols a day, a poor diet, and most of all a bitter sense of injustice. His skin was thin and pasty from decades inside this place where the sun did not reach.

With a struggle he sat up in his bed and looked around at the other occupants of the ward. There were only seven of them, none as bad off as he was. They might leave this place upright. He was beyond that. Yet despite his dire condition, he smiled.

Another inmate from across the floor saw Earl’s happy expression and called out, “What in the hell do you have to smile about, Earl? Let us in on the joke, why don’t you.”

Earl let the grin ease all the way across his broad face. He managed to do so despite the pain in his bones that was akin to someone cutting through them with a brittle-bladed saw. “Gettin’ outta here, Junior,” Earl said.

“Bullshit,” said the other inmate, who was known as Junior inside these walls for no apparent reason. He had raped and killed five women across three counties simply because they had been unfortunate enough to cross his path. The authorities were working like mad to treat his current illness so he could keep his official execution date in two months.

Earl nodded. “Out of here.”

“How?”

“Coffin is how, Junior, just like your scrawny ass.” Earl cackled while Junior shook his head and turned back to stare glumly at his IV lines. They were similar to the ones that would carry the lethal chemicals that would end his life in Alabama’s death chamber. He finally looked away, closed his eyes, and went swiftly to sleep as though practicing for the deepest of all slumbers in exactly sixty days.

Earl lay back and rattled the chain attached to the cuff around his right wrist, which in turn was hooked to a stout though rusted iron ring set into the wall.

“I’m getting away,” he bellowed. “Better send the coon dogs come get me.” Then he went into another coughing spell that lasted until a nurse came over and gave him some water, a pill, and a hard slap on the back. Then he helped Earl sit up straighter.

The nurse probably didn’t know why Earl had been sent to prison and probably wouldn’t have cared if he did know. Every inmate in this max prison had done something so appallingly horrific that every guard and worker here was completely desensitized to it.

“Now, just settle down, Earl,” said the nurse. “You’ll only make things worse.”

Earl calmed, sat back against his pillow, and then eyed the nurse steadily. “Can they be? Worse is what I mean.”

The nurse shrugged. “Guess anything can be worse. And maybe you should’ve thought of that before you got to this place.”

With a burst of energy Earl said, “Hey, kid, can you get me a smoke? Just slip it twixt my fingers and light me up. Won’t tell nobody you done it. Cross and swear and all that crap though I ain’t no God-fearing man.”

The nurse blanched at the very idea of doing such a thing. “Uh, yeah, maybe if it were 1970. You’re hooked up to oxygen, for God’s sake. It’s explosive, Earl, as in boom.”

Earl grinned, revealing discolored teeth and many gaps in between. “Hell, I’ll take blowing up over being eaten alive from this crap inside me.”

“Yeah? But the rest of us wouldn’t. See, that’s most people’s problem, only thinking of themselves.”

“Just one cig, kid. I like the Winstons. You got Winstons? It’s my dying wish. Got to abide by it. Like my last supper. It’s the damn law.” He rattled his chain. “Last smoke. Gotta gimme it.” He rattled his chain louder. “Gimme it.”

The nurse said, “You’re dying of lung cancer, Earl. Now, how do you think you got that? Here’s a clue. They call ’em cancer sticks for a damn good reason. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph! With that kinda stupidity you can thank the good Lord you lived long as you have.”

“Gimme the smoke, you little prick.”

The nurse was obviously done dealing with Earl. “Look, I got a lot of patients to take care of. Let’s have a quiet day, what do you say, old man? I don’t want to have to call a guard. Albert’s on ward duty now and Albert is not known for his TLC. He’ll put a baton to your skull, sick and dying or not, and then lie in his report and not one person will dispute it. Dude’s scary and he don’t give a shit. You know that.”

Before the nurse turned away Earl said, “You know why I’m here?”

The nurse smirked. “Let’s see. ’Cause you’re dying and the state of Alabama won’t release someone like you to secure hospice even if you are costing them a ton of money in medical bills?”

“No, not this here hospital ward. I’m talking prison,” said Earl, his voice low and throaty. “Gimme some more water, will ya? I can get me water in this goddamn place, can’t I?”

The nurse poured a cup and Earl greedily drank it down, wiped his face dry, and said with pent-up energy, “Got behind bars over twenty years ago. First, just for life in a federal cage. But then they got me on the death penalty thing. Sons-a-bitches lawyers. And the state done took ahold of my ass. Feds let ’em. Just let ’em. I got rights? Hell, I got nuthin’ if they can do that. See what I’m saying? Just ’cause I killed her. Had a nice bed in the fed place. Now look at me. Bet I got me the cancer ’cause of this here place. Know I did. In the air. Lucky for me I ain’t never got that AIDS shit.” He raised his eyebrows and lowered his voice. “You know they got that kind in here.”

“Uh-huh,” said the nurse, who was checking the file of another patient on his laptop. It was set on a rolling cart that had locked compartments where meds were kept.

Earl said, “That’s two decades plus almost two years now. Long damn time.”

“Yep, you know your math all right, Earl,” the nurse said absently.

“The first Bush was still president but that boy from Arkansas done beat him in the election. Saw it on the TV when I got here. Year was 1992. What was his name again? They say he’s part colored.”

“Bill Clinton. And he’s not part black. He just played the saxophone and went to the African-American churches sometimes.”

“That’s right. Him. Been here since then.”

“I was seven.”

“What?” barked Earl, squinting his eyes to see better. He rubbed absently at the pain in his belly.

The nurse said, “I was seven when Clinton was elected. My momma and daddy were conflicted. They were Republicans, of course, but he was a southern boy all right. I think they voted for him, but wouldn’t admit to it. Didn’t matter none. This is Alabama, after all. A liberal wins here hell freezes over. Am I right?”

“Sweet home Alabama,” said Earl, nodding. “Lived here a long time. Had a family here. But I’m from Georgia, son. I’m a Georgia peach, see? Not no Alabama boy.”

“Okay.”

“But I got sent to this here prison ’cause of what I done in Alabama.”

“Sure you did. Not that much difference, though. Georgia, Alabama. Kissing cousins. Not like they were taking your ass up to New York or Massachusetts. Foreign countries up there for shit sure.”

“’Cause of what I done,” said Earl breathlessly, still rubbing at his belly. “Can’t stand Jews, coloreds, and Catholics. Don’t much care for Presbyterians neither.”

The nurse looked at him and said in an amused tone, “Presbyterians? What the hell they ever done to you, Earl? That’s like hating the Amish.”

“Squealed like hogs getting butchered, swear to God they did. Jews and coloreds mostly.” He shrugged and absently wiped sweat from his brow using his sheet. “Hell, truth is, I never killed me no Presbyterian. They just don’t stand out, see, but I woulda if I got the chance.” His smile deepened, reaching all the way to his eyes. And in that look it was easy to see that despite age and illness Earl Fontaine was a killer. Was still a killer. Would always be a killer until the day he died, which couldn’t come soon enough for lawful-minded citizens.

The nurse unlocked a drawer on his cart and took out some meds. “Now, why’d you want to go and do something like that? Them folks done nothing to you, I bet.”

Earl coughed up some phlegm and spit it into his cup. He said grimly, “They was breathing. That was good enough for me.”

“Guess that’s why you’re in here all right. But you got to set it right with God, Earl. They’re all God’s children. Got to set it right. You’ll be seeing him soon.”

Earl laughed till he choked. Then he calmed and his features seemed to clear.

“I got people coming to see me.”

“That’s nice, Earl,” said the nurse as he administered a painkiller to the inmate in the next bed. “Family?”

“No. I done killed my family.”

“Why’d you do that? Were they Jews or Presbyterians or coloreds?”

“Folks coming to see me,” said Earl. “I ain’t done yet, see?”

“Uh-huh.” The nurse checked the monitor of the other inmate.

“Good to make use of any time you got left, old man. Clock she is a-ticking, all right, for all of us.”

“Coming to see me today,” said Earl. “Marked it on the wall here, look.”

He pointed to the concrete wall where he had used his fingernail to chip off the paint. “They said six days and they’d be coming to see me. Got me six marks on there. Good with numbers. Mind still working and all.”

“Well, you sure tell ’em hello for me,” said the nurse as he moved away with his cart.

Later, Earl stared at the doorway to the ward, where two men had appeared. They were dressed in dark suits and white shirts and their black shoes were polished. One wore black-framed glasses. The other looked like he’d barely graduated from high school. They were both holding Bibles and sporting gentle, reverential expressions. They appeared respectable, peaceful, and law-abiding. They were actually none of those things.

Earl caught their eye. “Coming to see me,” he mumbled, his senses suddenly as clear as they had ever been. Once more he had a purpose in life. It would be right before he died, but it was still a purpose.

“Killed my family,” he said. But that wasn’t entirely accurate. He had murdered his wife and buried her body in the basement of their home. They hadn’t found it until years later. That was why he was here and had been sentenced to death. He could have found a better hiding place, he supposed, but it had not been a priority. He was busy killing others.

The federal government had let the state of Alabama try, convict, and sentence him to death for her murder. He had had a scheduled visit to Alabama’s death chamber at the Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore. Since 2002, the state of Alabama officially killed you by lethal injection. But some death penalty proponents were advocating the return of “Old Sparky” to administer final justice by electrocution to those on death row.

None of that troubled Earl. His appeal had carried on for so long that he’d never be executed now. It was because of his cancer. Ironically enough, the law said an inmate had to be in good health in order to be put to death. Yet they’d only saved him from a quick, painless demise so that nature could substitute a longer, far more painful one in the form of lung cancer that had spread all over him. Some would call that sweet justice. He just called it shitty luck.

He waved over the two men in suits.

He had killed his wife, to be sure. And he’d killed many others, though exactly how many he didn’t remember. Jews, coloreds, maybe some Catholics. Maybe he’d killed a Presbyterian too. Hell, he didn’t know. Wasn’t like they carried ID proclaiming their faith. Anybody who got in his way was someone who needed killing. And he had allowed as many people to get in his way as was humanly possible.

Now he was chained to a wall and was dying. But still, he had something left to do.

More precisely, he had one more person to kill.

CHAPTER 2

The men could not have looked any more tense. It was as though the weight of the world was resting on each of their shoulders.

Actually, it was.

The president of the United States sat in the seat at the end of the small table. They were in the Situation Room complex in the basement of the West Wing of the White House. Sometimes referred to as the “Woodshed,” the complex was first built during President Kennedy’s term after the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Kennedy no longer thought he could trust the military and wanted his own intelligence overseers who would parse the reports coming in from the Pentagon. The Truman bowling alley had been sacrificed to build the complex, which had later undergone major renovations in 2006.

During Kennedy’s era a single analyst from the CIA would man the Situation Room in an unbroken twenty-hour shift, sleeping there as well. Later, the place had been expanded to include the Department of Homeland Security and the White House Chief of Staff’s office. However, the National Security Council staff ran the complex. Five “Watch Teams” comprised of thirty or so carefully vetted personnel operated the Situation Room on a 24/7 basis. Its primary goal was to keep the president and his senior staff briefed each day on important issues and allow for instant and secure communications anywhere in the world. It even had a secure link to Air Force One in the event the president was traveling.

The Situation Room itself was large, with space for thirty or more participants and a large video screen on the wall. Mahogany had been the wood surface of choice before the renovation. Now the walls were composed mainly of “whisper” materials that protected against electronic surveillance.

But tonight the men were not in the main conference room. Nor were they in the president’s briefing room. They were in a small conference room that had two video screens on the wall and a row of world time clocks above. There were chairs for six people.

Only three of them were occupied.

The president’s seat allowed him to stare directly at the video screens. To his right was Josh Potter, the national security advisor. To his left was Evan Tucker, head of the CIA.

That was all. The circle of need to know was miniscule. But there would be a fourth person joining them in a moment by secure video link. The staff normally in the Situation Room had been walled off from this meeting and the coming communication. There was only one person handling the transmission. And even that person would not be privy to what was said.

The VP would normally have been part of such a meeting. However, if what they were planning went awry, he might be taking over the top spot because the president could very well be impeached. Thus they had to keep him out of the loop. It would be terrible for the country if the president had to leave office. It would be catastrophic if the VP were forced out too. The Constitution dictated that the top spot would then go to the Speaker of the House of Representatives. And no one wanted the head of what could very well be the most dysfunctional group in Washington to be suddenly running the country.

The president cleared his throat and said, “This could be momentous or it could be Armageddon.”

Potter nodded, as did Tucker. The president looked at the CIA chief.

“This is rock solid, Evan?”

“Rock solid, sir. In fact, not to toot our own horn, but this is the prize for nearly three years of intelligence work performed under the most difficult conditions imaginable. It has, frankly, never been done before.”

The president nodded and looked at the clocks above the screens. He checked his own watch against them and made a small adjustment to his timepiece. It looked as though he had aged five years in the last five minutes. All American presidents had to make decisions that could shake the world. In numerous ways, the demands of the position were simply beyond the ability of a mere mortal to carry out. But the Constitution required that the position be held by only one person.

He let out a long breath and said, “This had better work.” Potter said, “Agreed, sir.”

“It will work,” insisted Tucker. “And the world will be much better off for it.” He added, “I have a professional bucket list, sir, and this is number two on it, right behind Iran. And in some ways, it should be number one.”

Potter said, “Because of the nukes.”

“Of course,” said Tucker. “Iran wants nukes. These assholes already have them. With delivery capabilities that are inching closer and closer to our mainland. Now, if we pull this off, believe me, Tehran will sit up and take notice. Maybe we kill two birds with one stone.”

The president put up a hand. “I know the story, Evan. I’ve read all the briefings. I know what hangs in the balance.”

The screen flickered and a voice came over the speaker system embedded in the wall.

“Mr. President, the transmission is ready.”

The president unscrewed the top of a water bottle sitting in front of him and took a long drink. He put the bottle back down. “Do it,” he said curtly.

The screen flickered once more and then came fully to life. They were staring at a man short in stature, in his seventies, with a deeply lined and tanned face. There was a rim of white near his hairline where the cap he normally wore helped to block the sun. But he was not in uniform now. He was dressed in a gray tunic with a high, stiff collar.

He stared directly at them.

Evan Tucker said, “Thank you for agreeing to communicate with us tonight, General Pak.”

Pak nodded and said, in halting but clearly enunciated English, “It is good to meet, face-to-face, as it were.” He smiled, showing off highly polished veneers.

The president attempted to smile back, but his heart was not in it. He knew that Pak would lose his life if exposed. But the president had a lot to lose too.

“We appreciate the level of cooperation received,” he said.

Pak nodded. “Our goals are the same, Mr. President. For too long we have been isolated. It is time for us to take our seat at the world’s table. We owe it to our people.”

Tucker said encouragingly, “We completely agree with that assessment, General Pak.”

“Details are progressing nicely,” said Pak. “Then you can commence your part in this. You must send your best operatives. Even with my help, the target is a very difficult one.” Pak held up a single finger. “This will be the number of opportunities we will have. No more, no less.”

The president glanced at Tucker and then back at Pak. “We would send nothing less than our very best for something of this magnitude.”

Potter said, “And we are sure of both the intelligence and the support?”

Pak nodded. “Absolutely sure. We have shared that with your people and they have confirmed the same.”

Potter glanced at Tucker, who nodded.

“If it is discovered,” said Pak. They all became riveted to him. “If it becomes discovered, I will surely lose my life. And, America, your loss will be far greater.”

He looked the president directly in the eye and took a few moments seemingly to compose his words carefully.

“It is why I asked for this video conference, Mr. President. I will be sacrificing not only my life, but the lives of my family as well. That is the way here, you see. So, I need your complete and absolute assurance that if we move forward, we do so together and united, no matter what might happen. You must look me in the eye and tell me this is so.”

The blood seemed to drain from the face of the president. He had made many important decisions during his term, but none so stressful or potentially momentous as this one.

He didn’t look at either Potter or Tucker before answering. He kept his gaze right on Pak. “You have my word,” he said in a strong, clear voice.

Pak smiled, showing off his perfect teeth again. “That is what I needed to hear. Together, then.” He saluted the president, who gave his own crisp salute in return.

Tucker hit a button on the console in front of him and the screen went black once more.

The president let out an audible breath and sat back against the leather of his chair. He was sweating though the room was cool. He wiped a drop of moisture off his forehead. What they were proposing to do was quite clearly illegal. An impeachable offense. And unlike the presidents impeached before him, he had no doubt the Senate would convict him.

“Into the breach rode the five hundred,” the president said in barely a whisper, but both Potter and Tucker heard it and nodded in agreement.

The president leaned forward and looked squarely at Tucker. “There is no margin for error. None. And if there is the least hint of this coming out—”

“Sir, that will not happen. This is the first time we’ve ever had an asset placed that high over there. There was an attempt on the leadership last year, as you know. While he was traveling on the street in the capital. But it was botched. That was from low-level internal sources and had nothing to do with us. Our strike will be quick and clean. And it will succeed.”

“And you have your team in place?”

“Being assembled, and then they’ll be vetted.”

The president looked sharply at him. “Vetted? Who the hell are you planning to use?”

“Will Robie and Jessica Reel.”

Potter sputtered, “Robie and Reel?”

“They are the absolute best we have,” said Tucker. “Look what they did with Ahmadi in Syria.”

Potter eyed Tucker closely. He knew every detail of that mission. Thus he knew that neither Reel nor Robie had been intended to survive it.

The president said slowly, “But with Reel’s background. What you allege she did. The possibility of her going—”

Tucker broke in. Normally, this would be unheard of. You let the president speak. But tonight Evan Tucker seemed to see and hear only what he wanted to.

“They are the best, sir, and the best is what we need here. As I said, with your permission, they will be vetted to ensure that their performance will be at the highest level. However, if they fail the vetting, I have another team, nearly as good, and certainly up to the task of performing the mission. But the clear preference is not the B Team.” Potter said, “But why not simply deploy the backup team? Then this vetting process becomes unnecessary.”

Tucker looked at the president. “We really need to do it this way, sir, for a number of reasons. Reasons which I’m sure you can readily see.”

Tucker had prepared for this exact moment for weeks. He had studied the president’s history, his time as commander in chief, and even gotten his hands on an old psychological profile of the man done while he was running for Congress many years ago. The president was smart and accomplished, but not that smart, and not that accomplished. That meant he had a chip on his shoulder. Thus he was reluctant to acknowledge that he was not always the smartest, most informed person in the room. Some would see that attribute as a strength. Tucker knew it to be a serious vulnerability ripe for exploitation.

And he was exploiting it right now.

The president nodded. “Yes, yes, I can see that.”

Tucker’s face remained impassive, but inwardly he breathed a sigh of relief.

The president leaned forward. “I respect Robie and Reel. But again, there is no margin for error here, Evan. So you vet the hell out of them and make damn sure they are absolutely ready for this. Or you use the B Team. Are we clear?”

“Crystal,” said Tucker.


Excerpted from The Target by David Baldacci. Copyright © 2014 by Columbus Rose, Ltd.
First published 2014 by Grand Central Publishing, USA. This edition published 2014 by Macmillan, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world http://www.panmacmillan.com.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Brilliant by Roddy Doyle – Extract

Brilliant

The Black Dog came in the night. He came in a cloud – he was the cloud. A huge cloud that covered the city. And the city – the air above the city – became even darker. For just a while. Then the black cloud got smaller, and smaller. Until it was a small cloud that sank lower to the ground, and its shape became doglike and the doglike shape became a dog.

The Black Dog of Depression had invaded the city of Dublin. No humans noticed.

But the animals did.

The city’s pets tried to warn their owners but the humans weren’t listening. A bark was a bark, and a mew was just a mew.

The Black Dog crept through the city’s streets. He slid along the shadows and made no noise at all. He slid and crept, and sneaked into houses and flats – wherever he could find the humans.

The city’s dogs hated what was happening.

Dublin loves dogs. And the city’s dogs know they’re lucky.

‘All this food and water!’ said a dog called Sadie. ‘Oh my God! And all I have to do, like, is wag my tail and remember to pee and, like, poo in the garden.’

‘I forget sometimes,’ said a second dog, called Chester. ‘Me too, like,’ said Sadie.

‘The only thing I have to do,’ said Chester, ‘is pretend I’m happy when my owner comes home from work.’

‘Do you have to pretend?’ Sadie asked. ‘Sometimes,’ said Chester.

‘Oh my God,’ said Sadie. ‘I never do.’

‘Aren’t you great?’ said Chester, a bit sarcastically. (Dogs, especially Dublin dogs, can be very sarcastic. Just listen very carefully to the barks, especially early in the morning.)

The dogs knew: there was only one way to stop the Black Dog of Depression. But all they could do was watch as the Black Dog started to prowl in the night and move in closer to the humans. It was horrible to see how he could become part of the air and slide into houses. How he could change the mood, kill laughter and wipe smiles from faces that had been smiling for years. How he could change sleep from a pleasant dream into a nightmare.

The two dogs, Chester and Sadie, lived very near each other. They were almost next-door neighbours. There was only one house between theirs, and it belonged to a man called Ben Kelly. They both liked Ben. He didn’t have a dog of his own but he always treated them well, whenever he saw them going for a walk or barking at him through the windows of their houses. They both liked sitting on the backs of the couches in their front rooms.

‘Oh my God!’ said Sadie. ‘Do you do that as well?’ ‘I do, yeah,’ said Chester.

‘That’s, like, amazing!’ said Sadie. ‘Passes the time.’ Chester shrugged.

Ben lived alone, but there were always people coming and going. There was always music and laughter. And there were two children that the dogs liked. Two kids who used to come to Ben’s house. They called him Uncle Ben.

‘What’s an uncle?’ Sadie asked Chester.

‘Don’t know,’ Chester admitted. ‘But I think it might have something to do with chips.’

‘Chips?’

‘Yeah,’ said Chester. ‘He buys them chips whenever they come to the house.’

The children, a boy and a girl, loved their Uncle Ben. And it was clear Ben loved them. But then the Black Dog slid into Ben’s house – and hundreds, thousands, of other houses. He came at night, hiding in the darkness. Dogs, and most other animals, love the night-time.

It’s the time when they can be themselves, when they can do most of their barking and howling. They’re not expected to wag their tails forever or to fetch sticks and stupid plastic toys. People go to bed, and their pets can secretly relax. It’s a magic time, when the daylight rules wobble and the humans don’t pay as much attention.

Unusual events seem normal or don’t get noticed. Two talking dogs might actually be two human voices carried in the wind. A black dog-shaped shadow creeping up the stairs is probably the moon behind the tree outside in the front garden.

It made the city’s animals angry that the Black Dog used the night to spread his poison. But they knew there was nothing that Sadie or Chester or any of the city’s other dogs and pets could do to stop him.

Only the city’s kids could do that.

1

Gloria Kelly lay in bed. She was wide awake. She knew her brother, Raymond, was too. She could tell by the way he was breathing. It was awake breath. He was lying there, thinking and listening. Sleep breath was different. It was longer and lighter, less in and out.

‘Rayzer?’ she whispered.

Raymond didn’t answer. But she didn’t care.

She liked sharing the bedroom. Although she knew Raymond didn’t. She didn’t care about that either. She could like it in secret. She didn’t have to tell him.

She’d been moved into Raymond’s room when their Uncle Ben had come to live with them. For a while. That was what her mam and dad had said. Uncle Ben would be staying ‘for a while’. At first her mother had called it ‘a little while’. But the ‘little’ had disappeared when Uncle Ben kept staying, and Gloria began to think that her bedroom wasn’t hers any more. And Raymond, she supposed, began to think the same thing. His room had become their room.

She looked into her room sometimes, when her Uncle Ben wasn’t in there. He hadn’t done anything to it. He hadn’t touched her pictures or her other stuff. It was still pink, nearly everything in it. The only really new thing in the room was her Uncle Ben’s smell. It was kind of an adult smell. A mixture of soap and sweatiness. There were none of his clothes lying around, and just one book that wasn’t hers. She’d looked at the cover but it had looked boring, about a war or something. Except for the fact that she didn’t sleep or play in there any more, it was still Gloria’s room. So maybe her Uncle Ben really was only staying for a while – but the while was a bit longer than they’d expected.

Maybe. ‘Rayzer?’

He still wouldn’t answer.

She didn’t like her bed. It wasn’t a real bed. It was just a mattress on the floor. She’d liked it at first. It had been fun, nearly like camping. But not now. Her face was sometimes right against the wall, low down, at the skirting board, nearly where it joined the floor. It was cold there. Always – even when the rest of the room was warm. And she could hear things sometimes – she thought she could. Behind the skirting board.

Gloria wished she had her own bed back. That was all she missed really. She had her duvet and her pink cover. But it wasn’t the same.

‘Rayzer?’

She said it a bit louder. Nearly proper talking.

Maybe he was asleep. She kind of liked that, the fact that her big brother had fallen asleep before her.

She tried again. ‘Rayzer?’

‘What?’

‘Are you not asleep?’

‘That’s a stupid question.’

‘I bet you were asleep,’ said Gloria. ‘And I woke you.’

‘I wasn’t,’ said Raymond.

‘Bet you were,’ said Gloria. ‘Prove it.’

‘Easy,’ said Raymond. ‘You said “Rayzer” four times.’

She heard him moving, turning in his bed. ‘Didn’t you?’

‘Yeah,’ she said. ‘I think. Why didn’t you answer?’

‘Didn’t want to.’

‘I knew that,’ said Gloria. ‘I knew you were awake.’

‘What d’you want?’

‘Can you hear them?’ said Gloria. ‘Yeah.’

Gloria was talking about the grown-ups. Her mam, her dad, her granny and Uncle Ben. They were down in the kitchen. Raymond’s bedroom was right on top of them.

‘They’re mumbling again,’ Gloria whispered.

‘Yeah,’ said Raymond.

The house was full of mumbles these days. Mumbles that often stopped whenever Raymond or Gloria walked into the room. Mumbling was what grown-ups did when they thought they were whispering. Whispers only stayed in the air for a little while but mumbles rolled around for ages, in the high corners, along the window frames, all around the house. The mumbles had almost become creatures. Gloria imagined she could see them. They were made of dust and hair, pushed into a ball, with skinny legs that barely touched the walls and ceilings as they slid along the paint and glass and wood.

The mumbling had started when their Uncle Ben had come to live with them. Or just before he came. Gloria didn’t like the mumbles. They worried her. But she didn’t blame her Uncle Ben for them.

Neither did Raymond. He didn’t like having to share his bedroom with Gloria, but he didn’t blame his Uncle Ben for that either. Gloria was a pain in the neck – and in other places too. But Raymond knew all little sisters were like that. It was one of the rules of life. And sometimes sharing the bedroom wasn’t too bad. Like now. Raymond had always been a bit afraid of the dark. Just a small bit. He was nearly two years older than Gloria, so he went to bed half an hour after her. It was a quarter of an hour for each year. That was the rule, his dad had told him.

‘Who made the rule?’ Raymond had asked his dad.

‘The government,’ his dad had answered. His dad thought he was funny.

Anyway, when Raymond had gone up to bed he’d always left his bedroom door open a bit, so that light from the kitchen downstairs could get in and push away some of the darkness. He’d hated it when he saw Gloria’s door closed, with her stupid sign: ‘Keep Out – I Mean U! XX’. Because Gloria wasn’t scared of the dark. And that made Raymond feel terrible, and ashamed.

Now, with Gloria sharing the bedroom, Raymond wasn’t really scared of the dark any more. And he didn’t have to say anything about it, or be grateful or anything. It was just a fact.

‘Mumble, mumble, mumble,’ said Gloria now.

Raymond did a deep, man mumble. ‘Mummm-bull.’

Gloria did a lady one. ‘Mimm-bill, mimm-bill. Know what we should do, Rayzer?’

‘What?’

‘Sneak down, under the table.’

‘Cool.’

It was the night before Saint Patrick’s Day. There was no school the next day, and they’d already been allowed stay up later than usual.

Gloria heard Raymond getting out of his bed.

She stood up on the mattress.

Gloria and Raymond had this secret thing, a game. They’d sneak back downstairs – only at the weekends – after they’d been sent to bed, and only when the grown-ups were in the kitchen. It didn’t really work in the other rooms. They’d sneak down the stairs and along the hall. They’d creep into the kitchen on their hands and knees, or sliding along on their bellies. They’d crawl in under the table, and they’d stay there. For as long as they could.

They couldn’t touch the adult feet, or they’d be caught and the game would end and they’d be sent back up to bed. The first time they did it, they’d only lasted two minutes and fourteen seconds because their dad moved his foot and felt something.

‘There’s a dog under the table,’ he said. ‘But we don’t have a dog.’

Then they saw his big face, upside down, looking at them.

‘Messers,’ he said. ‘Get back up to bed.’

Their mam grabbed and tickled them when they were climbing out from under.

‘You scamps!’

It became something they did nearly every Friday and Saturday night. It was brilliant, because their parents always forgot. And their granny – she forgot too. But their granny forgot nearly everything, so she didn’t really count.

One night, when they had been under the table for thirty-seven minutes and fifty-one seconds,

Raymond and Gloria realized something at the exact same time: their parents knew they were there. They were in on the game. In fact, it had become their game, pretending they didn’t know their kids were under the table. Their parents owned the game, not Gloria and Raymond.

It was the way their mam and dad were talking to each other – that was the giveaway. And what they were saying.

‘Here, Pat,’ said their mam. Pat was their dad. Their mam’s name was Una. ‘You know the way Gloria and Raymond are asleep in their beds?’

‘I do,’ said their dad.

‘Well,’ said their mam. ‘Will we eat the chocolate we hid in the secret place where they’d never, ever find it?’

‘Good idea,’ said their dad. ‘They’ll never know.’

It wasn’t funny, and not because Gloria thought there was a hiding place for chocolate that she’d never found. (She didn’t.) What wasn’t funny was the fact that the game was over – Raymond and Gloria been caught. Actually, they might have been caught ages ago but they hadn’t noticed. Their parents, even their granny, had been playing with them, like three cats with two mice.

Raymond and Gloria got out from under the table.

‘Oh, look,’ said their mam.

‘Were you under the table?’ said their dad.

‘All the time?’ said their mam.

‘Ha ha,’ said Raymond. ‘I don’t think.’

Gloria had cried. She hadn’t meant to. Her parents never really teased her. But it felt like they’d been teasing her for ages – for ever – and she’d only just found out. She hated being teased. She hated it.

Her parents knew they’d gone too far, and they felt guilty. Gloria sat on her dad’s lap while her mam made them all hot chocolate.

‘Time for bed,’ said their mam, when the chocolate was finished.

Gloria’s dad kissed the top of Gloria’s head, then Raymond’s.

‘You can sneak under the table any time you want,’ he said.

‘Yes,’ said their mam. But they didn’t.

Not for ages.

Weeks. Months. Nearly a year.

Their parents missed it – Raymond and Gloria could tell.

‘Make sure you stay in bed now,’ said their dad, the next Friday night.

They stayed in bed.

‘No sneaking under the table tonight,’ he said the following night.

They stayed in bed.

‘Did you fall asleep last night?’ their dad asked Raymond on Sunday morning.

‘I fall asleep every night,’ said Raymond. ‘Can you pass the milk, please?’

Raymond and Gloria both agreed. They’d never sneak downstairs again – until they knew the game was theirs.

They even forgot about the game.

Then one day, a few days after Christmas, Gloria was in the kitchen and she dropped one of the charms from the new bracelet her granny had given her. It fell under the table and Gloria went in after it. And she remembered.

She said nothing until she was alone with Raymond.

‘Hey, Rayzer,’ she said. ‘What?’

He was playing tennis against himself on his new Wii.

‘Remember when we used to go under the table?’ said Gloria.

‘Oh yeah!’

And they started again.

That night, they crept down the stairs, down the hall, into the kitchen, under the table. They stayed there when their parents and their granny stood up. They stayed when they heard their parents going up the stairs. And they waited.

‘They’ll catch us if they look into our rooms before they go to bed,’ Gloria whispered.

They listened.

They heard the toilet. They heard taps going on, and off. They heard a cough, and gargling. They heard a laugh – their mother. They heard silence.

‘They didn’t check.’ They’d won.

And they won again, and again – and again. They crept and they slid, and they were sure their parents never knew. The best bit, the biggest triumph, was sitting under the table. For minutes. For more and more minutes. They stayed absolutely still. But it was hard. Their noses got runny, their ears got itchy. Burps climbed slowly up their throats and knocked at their teeth to get out. Their legs and bums went numb, then dead, then back to jumpy life. They bit their arms to stop laughing.

It went on for months and it got even better when their Uncle Ben arrived. Now they had to slide through four sets of feet and legs. Being under the table was like being in a cage, and the grown- up legs were like the iron bars. But these iron bars wore slippers or had holes in their socks, and some of them even had hair in the gaps between the socks and trousers. So it was funny – especially once, when Raymond leaned out and pretended he was going to pull one of the black hairs on their dad’s shin. There were the legs of the table too, and the chairs. They made the secret space under the table even more like a cage.

Sometimes Gloria didn’t like being small. But sometimes it was great, like when she was able to slide between the legs and sit with her hair just touching the underside of the table. Sometimes, when the grown-ups were drinking tea, she thought she could feel the heat from a cup coming through the table, on top of her head. It was nice, like a friendly hand. It made her feel relaxed, even when her legs were stiff and her mam’s knee was only a millimetre away from the tip of Gloria’s nose.

There was another thing about their Uncle Ben coming to stay. The grown-ups spent much more time sitting in the kitchen. Chatting, talking – and mumbling.

Chatting was when they were telling one another what they’d done that day, or what they were planning for the next day.

‘Add Krispies to the list there. Is there anything worth watching on telly?’

‘Your man is on.’

‘Who?’

‘That fella who used to be on the other thing. The fella with the hair. You know him.’

‘I don’t.’

‘Ah, you do.’

‘I don’t. What about his hair?’

‘It’s not his. It’s a rug.’

‘Oh, him?’

‘Who?’

‘I’m not watching him.’

‘Who?’

‘Who?’ was their granny’s favourite word.

Followed by ‘what?’

‘Add butter to the list too, love. We’re running out.’

‘What?’

‘I’ll tell you who has a rug, nearer to home. You know your man who’s going with my cousin Rita?’

‘That’s not a wig, is it?’

‘It is, yeah.’

‘It’s not.’

‘It is.’

‘Who?’

‘How do you know it’s a wig?’

‘Gerry in work told me.’

‘How does he know?’

‘Who?’

‘He grew up with him. The same road. He was bald for about five years before the wig arrived.’

‘No.’

‘What?’

‘Well, that’s what Paddy says.’

‘Who?’

That was chatting. It was boring, but sometimes funny, sometimes deliberately funny but most times accidentally. Chatting and laughing usually went together.

Talking was like chatting, but a bit more serious. It was often about work, or money, or things that were happening in Ireland and the world.

‘We don’t need them.’

‘What?’

‘But they’re nice. You can’t have a cup of tea without a biscuit.’

‘Yes, you can. It’s easy, look.’

‘Ah now, we’d want to be in a bad way if we can’t have a biscuit with the tea.’

‘It doesn’t have to be these ones. There are cheaper biscuits.’

‘I like these ones.’

Sometimes Gloria and Raymond couldn’t tell if they were listening to talking or chatting. It was often hard to tell. A chat about the price of biscuits became a conversation about how people were having difficulty paying for all sorts of things –houses, clothes, heating – and about how the government was doing nothing. They weren’t chatting any more. They were talking.

Then something would happen. ‘Well, at least we have our health.’ ‘That’s true.’

‘Talking about health. Did you see the state of your man next door? He has a belly on him that’d stop the tide from coming in.’

‘And she hasn’t a pick on her.’

They’d be chatting again, and whatever they’d been talking about was forgotten.

‘That’s often the way, isn’t it? Fat fella, skinny girl.’

‘Or the other way round. Big girls aren’t exactly an endangered species.’

‘What?’

When their granny said ‘who?’ or ‘what?’, one of her dog slippers always jumped a bit, like it was talking too. It was really funny.

Sometimes, without Raymond or Gloria noticing – they were busy trying not to laugh or groan – the chatting would swerve back to talking. Talking often came with sighs and ‘I don’t know’s.

‘We’ll stay at home this year, will we?’

‘Here? In the house, like?’

‘We can go somewhere different every day. It’ll be nice.’

‘It could end up being as expensive as going somewhere for the two weeks.’

‘Not really. If we’re careful.’

‘I don’t know . . .’

‘It’ll be grand.’

‘Ah sure, Dublin’s great.’

That was their granny. Her slippers were jumping up and down.

‘Sure, they come from all over the world to see Dublin.’

‘God love them. Did I say sugar?’

‘What?’

‘On the list. Sugar. Is it there?’

‘What?’

‘Sugar.’

‘Who?’

Then there was mumbling.

Now, the night before Saint Patrick’s Day, as Gloria very carefully opened the bedroom door, they could hear the mumbling coming from downstairs.

‘Mimm-bill, mimm-bill,’ she whispered.

‘Mummm-bull,’ Raymond whispered back.

Mumbling was different. Chatting often changed into talking, and back to chatting. But mumbling was always mumbling. It was like a foreign language, heard through walls and floors.

Gloria held the door handle down as far as it would go. She pressed her other hand flat against the door as she pulled it open. This stopped the hinges from groaning. She opened the door slowly but without stopping or hesitating.

Raymond and Gloria didn’t like the mumbling. They didn’t understand it. But one thing about it was clear: mumbling was very serious. There was never any laughter mixed in with it.

They were on the landing now, about to creep down the stairs. They knew the stairs off by heart.

They knew the bumps and squeaks of every step. They could have gone up and down with their eyes shut and not holding the banister. Actually they did that quite a lot – because they’d been told not to. It was brilliant. Especially going down. They did it for practice, so it would be perfect when they were sneaking down at night. There was only one really loud step, the second one at the bottom. The noise it made – a long spooky metally groan – was caused by a loose nail under the carpet. They knew this because every time he heard the groan their dad would say, ‘That nail’s on my list for the weekend.’ He’d been saying it all their lives. Or sometimes, ‘That nail’s on my list,’ or just, ‘That’s on the list.’

It was a family joke. If any of them heard a groan, they’d say, ‘That’s on the list.’ It didn’t have to be a stairs. Anything that groaned, they said it. A metal gate, a wooden bench. They even said it when they heard a human groan.

Their Uncle Ben had fractured two of his ribs a few years before he’d come to live with them. He wasn’t wrapped in bandages, but he had to take it easy, stay in his house and do nothing. So they’d gone to visit him with some DVDs and grapes.

‘I’m grand, I’m grand,’ he kept saying.

But he’d groaned when he was sitting down. ‘That’s on the list,’ said their mam. ‘Oh God, sorry, Ben.’

They’d all started laughing, including Uncle Ben, even though laughing was agony for him, and even funnier – and even more agony.

There was only one big groan, but every step had its own small noises. Sometimes it felt like the stairs were a bit human. It was like walking down a nice giant, from the top of his head to his feet. He’d sigh and moan as they went, and then the last big groan on the second step – it was like the giant was pretending he was going to stand up and chase them down the hall.

Now they stepped right over the second step, first Gloria, then Raymond, so they wouldn’t wake the giant. But it was tricky. They had to make sure they didn’t put too much weight on the last step, because it had its own little squeak. If they went too quickly or went right over the last step, their feet would make too much noise when they landed on the hall floor.

They were there now, in the hall. So far, so good. They listened. The mumbles were still coming from the kitchen. No one had heard them. Mission accomplished – so far. It was eight steps to the kitchen door. These were easy to do because there were no squeaky floorboards. Gloria and Raymond could walk quietly over the rug. There was just one big problem. The kitchen door was always open.

They got down on the floor and started to slide. They didn’t mind things being serious. They knew that not everything could be funny. Laughing was only good when it was a bit of a surprise. They hated people who laughed all the time. They had an auntie called Deirdre who laughed at everything.

‘Good morning.’

‘Good morning – HAHAHAHAHAHA!’ She laughed at absolutely everything. ‘We’ve no milk.’

‘No milk – HAHAHAHAHAHA!’

They hated her. They didn’t hate her. But they hated when she laughed and she never stopped, so it was hard not to hate her a bit too. She always called Gloria ‘Glory-Be-To-God’.

‘How’s Glory-Be-To-God – HAHAHAHAHA?’

‘It’s her nerves,’ their granny told them once, after Auntie Deirdre had laughed when Raymond told her that his goldfish had died. ‘She’s always been a bit nervous in herself,’ their granny explained. ‘She didn’t mean to be cruel. Here.’

‘Here’ was their favourite Granny word. It meant she was bending over to get her purse from her handbag, to give them money for sweets. Their mam called it bribery and she didn’t like it.

‘You’re spoiling them.’

Raymond and Gloria agreed, but they loved it.

Their granny agreed too, but she didn’t care.

‘Ah now, a bit of bribery never hurt anyone,’ she always said.

Anyway, Raymond and Gloria knew there was more to life than laughing. When chatting turned into talking, when the grown-ups started getting serious, they didn’t mind that. They knew that food and clothes cost money, and that holidays cost money, and the thing that their parents spoke about as if it was a snake getting ready to bite, the mortgage. They knew about the recession, even though they didn’t know exactly what it was. They watched the news sometimes with their parents, even though it was boring. But their parents liked them to watch it.

‘You’ll remember this,’ said Gloria’s mam as they watched people celebrating in Egypt.

‘Why will I?’ Gloria asked.

‘You just will,’ said her mam. Gloria was snuggled in beside her.

‘It’s a big event,’ said her mam. ‘A revolution.’

Her mam was probably right. Gloria saw things on the news, like the tsunami in Japan, and she knew she’d remember them for the rest of her life. Because they were often so scary and terrible. Or mad – like the woman throwing the cat into the wheelie bin in England. Gloria would never forget that.

But most of the news was about banks and politicians and people shouting, and the recession and the euro, and men who were older than their dad saying, ‘Let me explain. It’s quite simple.’

Gloria and Raymond knew it wasn’t simple and that sometimes chatting had to become talking. They didn’t mind – because they were allowed to listen. It wasn’t like mumbling. There was nothing secret about it. The times were hard and their mam and dad wanted them to know that.

They had to creep now, slither along the last bit of the hall, so no one in kitchen would see them. The kitchen door was always open. But never wide open. If they stayed on the floor, and if all the adults were sitting at the table, they could wriggle around the door and across the floor without being seen.

Raymond looked first. He waited, then stuck his head around the open door. They were all sitting down. He started to slide, and Gloria followed him.

Mumbling was different. Mumbling was private. The grown-ups only mumbled when they didn’t want the kids to hear what they were saying. Gloria and Raymond hated it. It wasn’t fair and it frightened them – a bit. But mostly it annoyed them.

They loved their Uncle Ben, but the mumbling had started just before he’d come to stay.

Gloria was following Raymond. Her face was nearly touching the soles of his feet. He was fast, but the really amazing thing was she couldn’t hear him. He could wriggle across the kitchen like an eel she’d once seen on the telly, moving through water.

There was a space at the end of the table, between Uncle Ben’s boots and their granny’s slippers. Raymond only needed a second. Gloria didn’t have to wait – she was right behind him. He slid in between the feet and sat up, under the table, and crossed his legs in tight. He did all this in what looked like one slick movement. And so did Gloria. Just like a seal – Gloria thought – sliding on to a rock in the zoo.

They sat there now, under the kitchen table, and waited.


Excerpted from Brilliant by Roddy Doyle. Copyright © 2013 by Roddy Doyle.
First published 2013 by Macmillan Children’s Books, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world http://www.panmacmillan.com.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

The Axeman’s Jazz by Ray Celestin – Extract

The Axeman's Jazz

New Orleans, May 1919

John Riley stumbled into the offices of the New Orleans Times–Picayune an hour and a half after he was supposed to have started work. He sat at his desk, took a long slow breath, and raised his eyes to peer about the room. Even in his befuddled state he could see his colleagues stealing glances at him and he wondered exactly how unkempt he must look. He had been out the night before, at his usual spot on Elysian Fields Avenue, and he raised a hand to his face to make sure he wasn’t still perspiring. When his fingers rubbed against a stubble at least two days old, he felt a pang of regret for not having sought out a mirror before his arrival.

He looked at his desk and his gaze landed on his typewriter. Its black metal frame, its crescent of type-bars, its levers and keys, all made the thing seem daunting somehow, cold and hard and otherworldly, and he realized he wasn’t in a fit enough state to start writing just yet. He ’d need a few coffees and a packet of cigarettes, and maybe a lunchtime brandy before he was ready to tackle anything requiring a fully functioning brain, so he decided to kill what was left of the morning with something that approximated work. He rose and stumbled over to the in-tray where the letters to the editor were kept. He grabbed as many as he could, cradling them against his chest, and returned to his seat.

There was the usual correspondence from irate residents, people with complaints, know-it-alls, and those who used the letters page as a forum for arguing with one another. He selected a few of the longer diatribes to print as they filled up the page more easily, then he sifted through the letters from people who claimed to have seen the Axeman. Since the killings had started a few months ago, the office had been inundated with letters from concerned residents who swore they had seen him on his way to some murder or other. Riley sighed and wondered why these people sent these things to the newspaper and not the Police Department. He lit a cigarette and picked up the last letter in the pile. It was an unusual-looking envelope, rice-paper thin, with no sender details, and the newspaper’s address written on it in a spidery scrawl of badly splattered, rust-colored liquid he hoped was ink. He took a drag on his cigarette and opened it up with a fingernail.

Hell, May 6th, 1919

Esteemed Mortal:

They have never caught me and they never will. They have never seen me, for I am invisible, even as the ether that surrounds your earth. I am not a human being, but a spirit and a demon from the hottest hell. I am what you Orleanians and your foolish police call the Axeman.

When I see fit, I shall come and claim other victims. I alone know whom they shall be. I shall leave no clue except my bloody axe, besmeared with blood and brains of he whom I have sent below to keep me company.

If you wish you may tell the police to be careful not to rile me. Of course, I am a reasonable spirit. I take no offense at the way they have conducted their investigations in the past. In fact, they have been so utterly stupid as to not only amuse me, but His Satanic Majesty, Francis Josef, etc. But tell them to beware. Let them not try to discover what I am, for it were better that they were never born than to incur the wrath of the Axeman.

I don’t think there is any need of such a warning, for I feel sure the police will always dodge me, as they have in the past.

They are wise and know how to keep away from all harm.

Undoubtedly, you Orleanians think of me as a most horrible murderer, which I am, but I could be much worse if I wanted to. If I wished, I could pay a visit to your city every night. At will I could slay thousands of your best citizens, for I am in close relationship with the Angel of Death.

Now, to be exact, at 12:15 (earthly time) on next Tuesday night, I am going to pass over New Orleans. In my infinite mercy, I am going to make a little proposition to you people. Here it is:

I am very fond of jazz music, and I swear by all the devils in the nether regions that every person shall be spared in whose home a jazz band is in full swing at the time I have just mentioned.

If everyone has a jazz band going, well, then, so much the better for you people. One thing is certain and that is that some of your people who do not jazz it on Tuesday night (if there be any) will get the axe.

Well, as I am cold and crave the warmth of my native Tartarus, and it is about time I leave your earthly home, I will cease my discourse. Hoping that thou wilt publish this, that it may go well with thee, I have been, am and will be the worst spirit that ever existed either in fact or realm of fancy.

The Axeman

Riley took a drag on his cigarette, put the letter down and wondered if its author really was the Axeman, and if not, who the hell else would send something like that to the paper. Authentic or not, it’d be a sin not to print it. Riley grinned and rose, and his colleagues turned to look at him as he marched towards the editor’s office. He didn’t care to wonder if he should tell the authorities before going to press – in instances like this, it was better to ask for forgiveness than for permission. They’d print it, and the city would read it, and a chaos would descend, and New Orleans might well spiral into the greatest night it had ever seen.

PART ONE

1

One Month Earlier

To the west of the French Quarter, in the uptown slum the Orleanais referred to as the Battlefield, a Negro funeral procession lumbered through the granite sheen of a dawn fog. The mourners, dressed in dark suits and veils, their heads bowed, were reduced to shadows as they moved in and out of the mist, an effect which gave the procession a spectral feel, as if the parade in its entirety had somehow managed to wander into Hades.

The funeral had commenced just after dawn, when the coffin had been carried out of the vigil house and placed on the hearse and the mourners had assembled on the street. Once all was set, the Marshall had blown a shrill, lingering whistle, and the five brass bands employed for the day struck up a slow, haunting version of ‘Nearer My God to Thee ’.

The marshal, a somber-faced, regal old man dressed in a top hat, frock coat and bright-yellow gloves, turned on his heel and led the cortege through the grass-cracked streets. He was immediately followed by the hearse, horse-drawn and draped in satin, black feather plumes fluttering in the breeze. Then came the bereaved family, wailing into handkerchiefs, and after them the five brass bands, each musician top-hatted and tailed, their coats bedecked with epaulets and tassels. At the very rear, the cortege ended in a press of well-wishers, mourners, and ragged streetchildren known as the second line, urchins who had nothing better to do than follow parades across town all day, even if it meant being led as though by a Siren to one of the city’s many graveyards.

The man being buried was a member of a number of Negro men’s associations – the Zulu Aid and Pleasure Club; the Odd Fellows; the Diamond Swells; the Young Men Twenties; the Merrygo-Rounds – and on its way to the graveyard the procession had stopped at each of the association’s assembly halls so the club’s members could bid farewell to their brethren. Only then did the cortege move on to the cemetery, the songs becoming ever more melancholic as it made its way. When the hearse entered the graveyard all the instruments died down except for the snare drum, which rattled out a desolate, lonely rhythm, the drumsticks muffled with a handkerchief to imitate the timbre of military kettledrums. And when the procession finally reached the tomb, the drum died out too, and for a brief moment, there was silence.

Then the preacher began the service, intoning against the sibilant wind, and when he had finished, the family threw soil onto the grave, one by one, a process that contained its own rhythm and beat. And after the last mourner had thrown his handful of earth, and the sods had thumped onto the coffin and trickled down its sides, the crowd turned expectantly to the marshal, who stood a few yards back from them, shivering on a stretch of uneven earth, the breeze flapping the cuffs of his trousers.

The old man greeted their stares with wide, milky eyes and after a few long seconds of wind-rustled silence, he nodded, lifted his hand to his chest, and turned over his sash to its parade-day side, a side of dazzlingly bright colors, an African scheme of checkered red, gold and green that shimmered through the fog. And almost in an instant, as if a spirit had taken control of the crowd, the funeral transformed. Club members flipped over their membership buttons, the band turned their jackets inside out, smiles broke, the marshal blew his whistle and before they knew it the band was playing dance music – a raunchy, loud and ironic selection: ‘Oh Didn’t He Ramble’. The horn players blared, the second line danced among the tombs, and the club members opened bottles of bourbon and beer to toast the deceased. A carnival atmosphere swept through the parade and carried it along as it snaked through the cemetery and back onto the streets, where more people joined the celebrations and the ever-increasing mass of revelers made its way back to the wake.

As the funeral procession had lumbered through the city, performing its well-rehearsed rite of music and movement, it was watched keenly by a 19-year-old slip of a girl in a red pimiento dress, who went by the name of Ida Davis. She hadn’t had much difficulty finding the funeral – sound travelled without much obstruction in New Orleans, a flat, wooden city of low-lying buildings, open ground, rivers and lakes. Her father, himself a musician, had often remarked on the phenomenon, saying it was almost as if the city had been constructed as an instrument for the dispersal of music. When a band played – and New Orleans bands were especially loud – it could be heard all the way across town.

And so she had followed her ears and found the cortege, and now she watched it with a disapproving frown. It wasn’t that she looked down on the drunken mourners, or the free-loaders, or even the ratty street-children in the second line. Rather, it was the irony of it all that she lamented. Louisiana was a place where Negroes were seldom allowed to express their culture openly, and a funeral provided a rare opportunity for public display, for the downtrodden to be treated with pomp, and it was this that made her frown, that the only time a Negro was allowed to be treated with grandeur was when he or she wasn’t even alive to appreciate it.

She stepped off the sidewalk and made her way up the line of mourners, scanning the faces of the musicians, looking for her closest friend, possibly her only friend – a chubby-faced young horn-player on second cornet, who had not yet changed the pronunciation of his name to the French form Louey, and was still known to Ida and everyone else in the Battlefield as Lil’ Lewis Armstrong.

She spotted him soon enough, at the head of the procession, playing along to an up-tempo rendition of ‘High Society’. Lewis noticed her and raised his eyebrows; then, without breaking rhythm or key, he blew out a complicated flourish on the horn by way of a greeting. Some of the crowd nearby cheered drunkenly and Lewis handed his cornet to one of the second-liners, a gangly barefoot child in a frayed white shirt.

Lewis stepped out of the line and approached, his walk stymied by the too-small tuxedo trousers he was wearing. Lewis was almost nineteen, chubby and dark-skinned, with a round face that was a perfect cradle for a distinctive grin. Ida was his opposite in almost every respect – slender and deliberate, with skin just a touch darker than milk, and an almond-shaped face that made people turn. She was also a little introverted – a shyness born of being light-skinned enough to pass for white, a trait which made her few friends in the Battlefield.

Lewis tipped his hat and smiled. ‘Hey, Ida,’ he said, ‘you good?’ His voice was fleecy and deep, rasped by tobacco and liquor, and she was surprised to hear that it betrayed no hint of awkwardness or curiosity. She hadn’t been down to see him in months, and now she had turned up in the Battlefield of all places, unannounced and feeling embarrassed.

‘I’m good,’ she said, smiling weakly. She had come to him for a favor, to ask for help with an investigation. But now she was with him, she didn’t quite know how to make her request. It had been so long since she had seen him, and it was difficult to talk over the noise of the bands, who were reaching a raucous crescendo to their increasingly off-kilter rendition of ‘High Society’.

Lewis peered at her with a puzzled look and she could tell he had guessed something was up.

‘If you wanna talk,’ he said, ‘I can meet you back at the wake.’ Ida had been hoping to avoid the wake.

‘Sure,’ she replied, enunciating over the music. ‘Where is it?’ Lewis grinned at her, a gleam in his eye. ‘Just follow the band,’ he said with a shrug, and before Ida knew it they were both chuckling. He tipped his hat at her and trotted back to the parade. The band struck up the opening to ‘The Beer Barrel Polka’ and Ida watched as the second-liner returned Lewis’s cornet. Then her friend stepped back into position, merging into the dark-suited parade rolling drunkenly up the street, its blaze of music and noise fading once more into the mist.

2

A black landaulet police car flew through the fog-bound streets of Little Italy, the driver blaring the horn wildly in an attempt to avoid accidents. He swerved past market stalls and farm wagons and startled pedestrians and occasionally clipped the curbs and banquettes of the narrower roads. At the intersection of Upperline and Magnolia Streets, he veered the car through a sharp corner and screeched to a halt a half-block from a grocery store. In the rear of the vehicle, Detective Lieutenant Michael Talbot dropped back into his seat and breathed a sigh of relief.

‘Nice driving, ’Rez,’ he said.

‘Thanks,’ the driver replied, failing to notice the sarcasm. Through the glass partition that separated the two men, Michael saw the driver flip open a pocket watch and check the time.

‘Seven minutes and twenty-five seconds,’ said the driver, a round, swarthy man called Perez. ‘That’s gotta be a record,’ he added, flashing a smile at Michael through the rearview mirror. Michael smiled back weakly, still feeling faintly nauseous.

Perez scrabbled around the dashboard for a notebook and with the stub of a pencil wrote down the time. The New Orleans Police Department had taken receipt of its first ever fleet of motorcars only a few months previously, and the drivers in the various precincts had, as far as Michael could tell, set up some kind of betting league on how fast they could drive their various routes. Three of the new cars had already been wrecked, one of them by Perez.

Michael let his stomach settle for a moment and arched his back to look out of the car’s rear window. His eyes settled on the cheap corner-store grocery a little further down the street. It was typical of the stores Italian migrants were setting up all over the city – single-storied, a shop in the front, living quarters in the back, a yard for deliveries at the rear, and a sheet-metal sign teetering above the whole jerry-built mess, proudly displaying the owner’s name. Michael sighed and rubbed his face, running his fingers along the scars that pitted his cheeks.

Outside the store, among the carriages from the Police Department and the Coroner’s Office, a mob had gathered – Italian locals that a cordon of patrolmen was half-heartedly holding back. Michael could tell it wasn’t the usual kind of crowd that always seemed to materialize at grisly crime scenes – the passers-by, the neighbors, the reporters, the street-corner habitués with nothing better to do. This crowd hadn’t gathered out of macabre curiosity. It was there because it was scared, and Michael’s heart tightened at the sight of it. From what he knew about human nature, it didn’t take much for fearful mobs to turn violent.

‘Into the madding crowd,’ he mumbled to himself.

‘Say what?’ Perez asked, glancing up from the notebook with a frown and a dart of his eyes in the rearview mirror. But Michael had already opened the passenger-side door, flipped his homburg onto his head and stepped out into the street.

He strode towards the far end of the cordon, hoping to avoid being noticed by taking the longer route, but Michael was a lurching type, singular and easy to spot. He was a head taller than most other men, with gangly, awkward limbs, and a face razed red and bumpy by smallpox. As he approached the cordon, he pulled the homburg low, but a beady-eyed reporter happened to turn his way at just the wrong time. Michael saw him nudge one of his colleagues and whisper, and in an instant the crowd erupted. Cameras swung towards him and a riot of flashbulbs strobed and popped, sending little clouds of soot into the air that mottled the fog. The paper men shouted his name and bellowed out questions. Angry Italian phrases flew his way. He carried on pushing past the throng, and after a few seconds of jostling he made it to the cordon and through to the other side. He nodded hello to a few of the patrolmen that he recognized, stony-faced, annoyed-looking men, none of whom bothered to respond. A young, earnest beat cop in a starched blue uniform trotted down the front steps to greet him. ‘Morning, sir. The victims are this way,’ said the beat cop, a greenhorn called Dawson, freshly returned from the war and eager to prove his worth. He held his hand up to the storefront with a smile, and Michael thought there was something of the maître d’ about the gesture. He nodded his thanks and Dawson led him up the front steps and into the dim interior of the grocery.

The store was lined on all sides with neat pinewood shelves crammed with tins of fish, meat and assorted Italian delicacies that Michael had never heard of. Drums of olive oil were piled high along one wall, and festooned from the rafters were upturned bunches of dried oregano that to Michael’s mind lent the store a grotto-like air.

At the far end was a glass counter filled with breads and foul-smelling cheeses, and a Dutch meat-slicer, its cranks and disc-blade gleaming, a leg of pork still lying in the tray. The cash register stood next to it, and as Michael expected, it was completely undamaged. Beyond it was the door into the domestic part of the building. They approached, and Dawson held up his hand again. Michael, unsure of what to make of the boy, nodded and smiled. He took off his homburg and stepped through the door.

The living room was cramped, illuminated by a greasy light, and made smaller by the officials drudging away in it. Two patrolmen were taking an inventory, a doctor from the Coroner’s Office was bent over one of the bodies, and a photographer, a Frenchman with a portrait studio in Milneburg, readied a new roll of nitrate for his camera.

Michael inspected the room – a dark wood table and a sideboard filled most of the space, a window looked out onto the side of the neighbors’ house, and at the back a door led into the kitchen. None of the furniture had been upset or overturned, and a gospel book still lay at one end of the table. The walls were covered in floral wallpaper, yellowing and ancient and spotted with mold. Photographs of somber old Sicilians competed for wall space with an accumulation of cheap religious images – crucifixes, Madonnas, postcards of cathedrals and pilgrimage sites. In the space that led into the kitchen were the bodies of the two victims, splayed out on the linoleum floor in a pool of dark, resinous blood. Michael crossed the room and knelt next to the bodies. The wife was short and plump, with aged skin and salt-colored hair. Dried blood had glued her nightdress to the rolls of fat around her midriff, marking out the curve of her figure. Michael could make nothing of her face, which had been so viciously attacked with a sharp object that it resembled less a human head than some kind of crater, around the lip of which a handful of flies buzzed frenetically.

The husband was slumped by the window. Most of Michael’s view was obscured by the doctor who was still examining the body, but he could see the man had wounds similar to his wife ’s. His right arm was outstretched and pointed towards the sideboard, whose lower drawers were streaked with finger-wide lines of blood.

Michael shook his head and took a last, sorry look at the two corpses. He had learned it was best not to dwell on the savagery his job confronted him with, so he crossed himself, a token gesture that somehow helped insulate him from it all, then he stood and stretched the tension out of his knees. Behind him the photographer took a snap and the flashbulb popped in the stillness.

Michael wiped the blood from the soles of his Florsheims onto an already ruined Persian rug, stepped over the wife’s body and entered the kitchen. An axe had been left by a cupboard, propped up on its rough-hewn handle. Michael noticed fragments of bone speckled along the blood-encrusted blade. In the sink there was more blood and a few crumbs of mud. The door from the kitchen into the yard behind the house had been forced open from the outside, the frame around the lock an explosion of jagged wood. Michael stepped into the yard and the morning cold pressed itself against his face. On all three sides, high wooden fences cut off the view and gave the yard an eerie stillness. Next to the door was a haphazard pile of firewood, and beyond that, a barren space occupied solely by weeds and rusting metal trash. Michael looked around for a moment, then returned to the clammy warmth of the living room.

‘Dawson? What have we gathered so far?’ He pulled a chair from under the table, sat, and motioned for Dawson to do the same. Dawson sat and read from a polished leather notebook. ‘Victims were Mr and Mrs Joseph Maggio. Fifty-eight and fifty-one years old respectively. Sicilian immigrants. Owned the store a couple of years. Neighbors said they moved in from somewhere in Gretna. I called headquarters – neither of them had any convictions.’

Michael nodded. Mr and Mrs Maggio fitted the profile – Sicilian shopkeepers with no criminal ties, seemingly picked at random. In the preceding attacks, the killer the press had dubbed the Axeman had entered the victims’ residences at night and, as the name would suggest, dispatched them with an axe, showing considerable relish in what he was doing, and no interest whatsoever in burglary or molestation. Aside from the Maggios, the Axeman had already attacked three households, killing among others an infant and its mother. And with each attack the violence had increased, becoming more gruesome and crazed.

‘The neighbors saw nothing unusual,’ continued Dawson, ‘no one arriving; no one leaving; no screams or shouts; no noise of a break-in.’

‘Means of entry?’

‘No clues whatsoever as to how he got in, or left. And here ’s the kicker, sir – the room was locked from the inside when the bodies were discovered.’

The killer had a habit of leaving rooms that way. Either he exited from windows which slid closed after him, or he picked locks shut from the outside after he ’d finished. These explanations hadn’t stopped the press from painting the Axeman as some kind of supernatural being with the ability to float through walls. New Orleans was a superstitious place at the best of times, and now a sizeable portion of the city believed they were under attack by some form of demon.

‘Who kicked in the kitchen door?’ Michael asked, remembering the scene at the back of the house.

‘That’d be . . .’ Dawson flicked through his notebook. ‘Patrolman D. Hancock, sir. The wife’s niece discovered the bodies. She helped out in the shop. No one was answering when she arrived this morning so she walked round the back. Spotted the wife’s body from the window. Hancock was first to the scene.’

‘Any tarot cards?’ asked Michael.

Dawson nodded, reached over to the sideboard and handed Michael two bloodstained cards. Michael inspected them – the Justice card and the Judgment card. Like the ones they’d found on the previous victims, they were expensively made, hand-painted, bigger than normal playing cards, and rendered in lurid reds and purples, with outlines in black and gold ink. The Justice card portrayed a robed man sitting on a throne, sword in one hand, scales in the other. The Judgment card showed an angel flying high above a hellish, barren landscape, while a crowd of naked sinners pleaded to it from the ground. On the reverse was the usual intricate, monochrome pattern found on all playing cards, but this one had depictions of tiny animals weaved into the design. The animals seemed to be calling to each other, crying out against their geometric prison.

‘Where were they found?’ he asked, handing the cards back to Dawson.

‘In the victims’ heads, sir,’ said Dawson bashfully. ‘Inserted into the wounds.’

Michael nodded. He knew the Mafia sometimes left tarot cards at execution scenes, calling-cards to let people know what happened to those who didn’t toe the line. But Michael also knew the Mafia didn’t butcher grandmothers and children. And if the attack was an execution, what had a God-fearing elderly couple done to deserve it?

Most homicides were committed by people known to the victim, and in New Orleans every community stuck to their own. If a Sicilian had been killed, the most likely person to have done the killing was another Sicilian. And since the victims had all been shopkeepers, and Sicilian shopkeepers were invariably mixed up with the Mafia, it all pointed in one direction – the Family. But the savagery of the attacks and the scattering of tarot cards, with their links to voodou, had convinced half the city that the Axeman was a Negro – despite the fact that not a single person had actually seen the killer. In neighborhoods all across town, colored men were being chased through the streets by mobs. It was only a matter of time before there was a lynching.

The Axeman was stoking up distrust in a city already full of suspicion. Each of New Orleans’s communities fenced itself off from its neighbors: the Creoles of color to the north; the Irish to the south; the Negroes to the west; the Italians in Little Italy in the center; with enclaves of other groups – Chinese, Greeks, Germans, Jews – scattered about like pawns on a chess board. Only in the very center of town, in the French Quarter, in Storyville, in the business district, was there any intermingling. The segregation caused suspicion, and the suspicion furthered the segregation. And now there was an Axeman lighting a flame under it all, causing all these closeted people to rub and spark against one another, and Michael was the man the city had entrusted to put a stop to it all.

From somewhere in the backyard, the noise of a woodpecker drilling its head into a tree floated into the room. The doctor stood at this point, groaning as he did. He was an old man with a rusty complexion and a portly physique. An elaborate white mustache adorned his upper lip, combed in the Victorian style into two great walrus arcs.

‘Knees ain’t what they used to be,’ he said in a rough, cigar-smoker’s voice. He tottered over to the table, slumped into a chair next to Michael and fumbled through his pockets for a three-pack of Fonsecas. He offered one to Michael, who refused with a wave of his hand.

‘I’ve got my own,’ he said, taking a silver cigarette case from his pocket. He opened it and took a Virginia Bright from inside. The doctor struck a match and the two men shared it.

‘It’s the same old story, son,’ said the doctor, shaking the flame from the match and dropping it onto the table. ‘Victims were dispatched by the usual means. I’d estimate the time of death as between eleven and one last night. No signs of rape. Can’t say much more for now.’ The doctor shrugged and took a long puff on his cigar. ‘What do you say?’ he asked Michael, raising his eyebrows. It was the same expectant look Michael had been seeing increasingly since the murders had started. He peered over to the two corpses lying on the floor, barely a yard from where he and the doctor were chatting.

‘I’d say at about eleven or twelve o’clock last night the Maggios were sitting here in their living room. Wife was sitting over there, reading scripture.’ Michael motioned to the gospel book on the far side of the table. ‘Not sure what the husband was doing. Maybe she was reading it to him. Anyways, he was sat over here, near the sideboard. Killer entered the property from the backyard, because the front’s on a main road, and from the back he just needs to climb the fence. He picked the lock of the kitchen door. What with the yard-fences being so high he could have taken his time. He grabbed the axe from the pile of firewood because I didn’t see any axe there, and the man would have been a fool to carry a weapon with him when he knew there’d be one waiting. The wife heard a noise when the killer stepped through into the living room. She stood up because she’s closest to the kitchen. See how she’s lying on the floor?’ He pointed to the wife’s body. ‘Killer attacked her first. The husband sees what’s happening, tries to grab for something in the sideboard, maybe a gun, in the second drawer down. But he’s too slow. He carries on trying to open the drawer while the killer attacks him, hence the blood on the sideboard. Killer took his time mutilating them. Then he goes to the kitchen and discards the evidence. Leaves the axe, and I guess he washes the blood off his hands and clothes and boots, because there’s specks of blood and mud in the sink. He steps out into the backyard and locks the door from the outside with a pick. ’Course, that’s just conjecture, on account of Patrolman D. Hancock obliterating a crucial piece of evidence in his rush to get in. The killer leaves the property with not a single piece of evidence on him. Not even a bloodstain on the underside of his boot. That’s about the sum of it.’ Michael took a drag on his cigarette and stared at the two bodies again. ‘What I can’t figure out,’ he said slowly, ‘is how the killer got from the wife to the husband without either letting off a scream.’

‘Maybe he struck the wife,’ Dawson suggested, ‘then threw the axe across the room at the husband, you know, Injun style.’ Dawson mimicked what he thought the over-arm action of an Apache might be, to illustrate the point.

Michael and the doctor shared a look. ‘Maybe,’ said Michael. ‘Whatever he did, he did it quick.’

He turned to the two officers who had been taking an inventory of the room but had stopped to listen to Michael’s theory.

‘You two checked the sideboard yet?’ he asked. ‘No, sir,’ said one of the men.

‘Well, let’s see what Mr Maggio was grabbing for.’

He stepped over to the sideboard and opened the bottommost drawer to reveal two stacks of neatly folded linen. He frowned, rummaged around underneath the stacks and came out with a shoebox. He opened it to find a mound of papers – invoices, receipts, the couple’s naturalization papers, and several wads of crisp five-dollar bills.

‘Guess he was trying to buy the killer off,’ said the doctor.

Michael flicked through one of the wads and frowned. The treasury seal was in red ink, a design used exclusively on Federal Reserve notes that hadn’t been issued for nearly five years.

‘These notes are unused,’ said Michael. ‘Crisp as the day they were printed.’

‘So?’ said the doctor with a shrug.

‘So either Maggio got these out of the bank five years ago and they’ve been sitting here ever since, or they’re counterfeits.’

Michael took the shoebox out of the drawer and handed it to Dawson.

‘Get hold of someone from the Bureau of Engraving and Printing and check the serial numbers. No one keeps that much money in a sideboard for five years. Specially not in New Orleans.’ Dawson took hold of the shoebox and nodded. Michael lost himself in thought for a moment, and in the silence the sound of the woodpecker rose again to fill the room. ‘What about the graffiti?’ said the doctor. ‘What graffiti?’

Dawson led Michael out to the back yard and round to the side of the building. Scrawled in foot-high spidery brown letters on the side wall of the store were the words:

MRS TENEBRE WILL SIT UP LIKE MRS MAGGIO WHEN I’M THROUGH.

Michael stared at the words and shook his head. Had the Axeman stopped to write them a message? Was he telling them who was next on his list? Was he goading the police for his own amusement, or trying to scare a future victim?

‘Get the Frenchman to take some photos,’ Michael said to Dawson, pointing at the graffiti, ‘then drape something over it before any of the jackasses out front see it. Then get back to the precinct and run a search on every Tenebre in the city, male and female. I want a list on my desk by this afternoon.’

Dawson tipped his hat and rushed off. Michael stood for a moment, hands on hips, then turned around and scanned the yard for a second time. Trash was scattered everywhere: tin cans; newspapers; broken wood from packing crates; an outdoor grill rusted in a corner, warped and unused. All across the space, a carpet of weeds and bushes had grown tall and choked the ground. There was something sad and forlorn about the whole of it. The Maggios had failed to insulate themselves from the dirt of the streets. He thought of his own home briefly, of the crowd outside the store, of the weight of the city’s expectations on his shoulders. Two more victims, and a foot-high message from the killer letting them know another was on the way. Michael shook his head, crossed himself once more, and stepped back inside.

3

Just to the north of New Orleans, in scrubland outside a farming town called Boutte, stood a handful of barnlike structures surrounded by rings of razor-wire fences and dust-bowl courtyards. The buildings were made of heavy wood and blacked-out windows and were used by the State of Louisiana as a halfway house – a stop-off point for convicts in transit. The prisoners’ barracks were located at the compound’s very center, and when the door of the building was swung open, a sharp clang reverberated across the labyrinth of huts, enclosures and fences.

Two men stepped out into the morning chill and shuffled single-file towards the edge of the courtyard, their shoes crunching a rhythm on the gravel underfoot. The first man was a convict on his way to freedom, having the night before completed a six-year sentence. His hands were cuffed in front of him and he was dressed in a crumpled, moth-eaten suit of sky-blue cotton. He had arrived at sunset the previous day, on the convict transport wagon that journeyed between Boutte and Angola, the Louisiana State Penitentiary a hundred and twenty miles northwest.

The convict had spent the night in the icy barracks, and had slept well despite the cold, tired as he was from the journey. The wagon took just over a day to travel from the isolated crook in the Mississippi where Angola was located, far up at the very edge of the state. Convicts were never transported after dark, so the Board of Control used the halfway houses as rest stations – this one being the very last link in the barbed-wire daisy-chain that led all the way to New Orleans.

A few minutes after dawn the convict was awoken by the jab of a nightstick in his guts, and now he was being shadowed as he walked by the nightstick’s owner, an ominous man in a royal-blue warden’s uniform, who stared at the prisoner with a slant in his eye. After traversing four courtyards and waiting four times for gateways in fences to be unlocked for them by the guards, they eventually arrived at the compound’s front gate.

‘Patterson!’ shouted the warden.

A toothless streak of a man, with a shotgun slung over his shoulder, appeared in the doorway of a sentry hut and grinned at them. He sauntered out of the hut, approached the bars that lay across the front gate, and undid the locks that kept them in place. Then he heaved the bars back and swung open the gate, its lower edge scraping against the uneven clay of the road.

The warden tapped his nightstick on the prisoner’s shoulder and the prisoner turned to face him. Luca D’Andrea was a slight, dark-haired man in his early fifties, with a face that was both handsome and hollow, brown eyes sparkling under a soft, sorrow-filled brow. The warden removed the cuffs with a jangle of keys, and Luca rubbed his wrists. Then he nodded, as if to say thanks to his captor, and stepped through the gate onto the road outside.

Boutte wasn’t much to look at. The road was rutted and dusty, and on either side scrubland stretched to the horizon, barren save for a few stubby, crippled trees. If there was any point that marked Luca’s transition from a prisoner to a free man, this was it, but he felt no joy, no sense of freedom, just a heavy, anxious uncertainty – the same feeling of dread that had racked him in the months leading up to his release.

During the years of his incarceration he had been given two square meals a day, a place to lay his head, and enough work to stop him pondering the sorry turns his life had taken. From dawn till dusk, six days a week, he had farmed the Manhattan-sized penitentiary estate for the profit of the prison board. Angola had been named after the plantation on which it had been built, and the plantation had been named after the mother country of the slaves that had first worked its land. A fact which led the inmates to muse that when it came to back-breaking regimes, shackles and chains, Angola’s name wasn’t the only fragment of its slaving past that echoed into the present.

Unlike most of the convicts, however, Luca hadn’t begrudged the work. He experienced a serenity in the fields that he had never known before, an acceptance of his place in the world that calmed and reassured him. But now he had no work to keep him from dwelling on memories he’d rather forget, and his days stretched into the future as empty as the scrublands in front of him.

He peered down the road, and thought he could see New Orleans, just about visible on the horizon, dancing in and out of the shimmering mist that clung to the ground. He thought there was something vaguely feminine in the way the image moved through the haze, like a showgirl in a bar.

‘It’s a long way to the Big Easy,’ said a sarcastic, adenoidal voice behind him.

Luca turned to see a thin, swarthy man leaning against the fence opposite, arms folded, smoking a cheap brand of cigarette. John Riley, a familiar but unwelcome face. During Luca’s trial, Riley’s newspaper had run a series of exposés on him, using editorials Riley had written to stoke up public outrage. The reporter smiled at him, reached into his pocket for a cigarette case of tarnished brass and proffered the contents to Luca. Luca peered at the cigarettes, picked one out, and Riley sparked a match for him.

Luca studied Riley’s face and noticed how he had aged. Riley had always sported dark patches around his eyes, but now they were more noticeable, more ingrained, and they were accompanied by hollowness around the cheekbones, a stretched, almost mummified pallor. Riley was a man, thought Luca, who oozed decay.

‘You don’t look too happy, D’Andrea,’ said Riley in his well-heeled staccato. ‘In lieu of a welcoming committee of family and friends, you should be pleased to see me.’

Riley grinned a yellow-toothed grin and Luca took a long drag on his cigarette. Riley was wearing a cream-colored blazer and a straw boater with a red silk band wrapped around the crown. The clothes would have hinted of the Ivy League and rowing clubs and strong-jawed, north-eastern families if they were on anyone but Riley. Instead they looked coarse, somehow, louche even, on the haggard, round-shouldered figure in front of him.

‘I got a car coming,’ continued Riley. ‘Can give you a lift if you like.’

Luca gave the reporter a sideways glance. People like Riley didn’t do favors without expecting something in return, and Luca was in no position to be striking bargains and making pacts.

‘I was thinking I’d walk,’ said Luca, who had been looking forward to strolling in a straight line for as long as he wanted, with no chains around his ankles or barbed-wire fences cutting him off, or gunmen trotting by his side.

‘It’s twenty miles plus to New Orleans,’ said Riley with a frown.

Luca shrugged. ‘What do you want?’ he asked, and the reporter paused.

‘You know how it is,’ he said, his tone plaintive. ‘I didn’t particularly wanna come down here and spoil your big moment, but my editor asked me to get some quotes,’ he explained, throwing his hands into the air, bemoaning the whims of fate.

‘Still haven’t been promoted, then?’ said Luca flatly, and Riley laughed a short, contrived grunt of a laugh.

‘Thanks for the smoke,’ said Luca. He fixed the cigarette between his lips, put his hands in his pockets and started off down the road to New Orleans.

‘Jesus, Luca. I came all this way,’ said Riley, scampering along after him. ‘C’mon, you were always good copy,’ he pleaded.

‘I was good copy when you were stitching me up,’ said Luca.

Riley grimaced and cast a look over Luca’s face.

‘I have to say, chum, you’re looking good,’ Riley said. ‘Most folks age at twice the pace in Angola. You look just the same as the day you was sentenced.’

‘Go to hell,’ said Luca, taking another drag on his cigarette.

Luca hadn’t been expecting his return to New Orleans to be an easy experience. He knew the city was no paradise; it was violent and unforgiving, awash with criminals and immigrant communities that treated one another with hostility and suspicion. But it was also a city with a beguiling energy to it, a bright and opulent charm. For all its segregation and spite, its shabby streets and faded glory, it was easy to become bewitched by the city of New Orleans. And so the whole time Luca was in Angola he couldn’t help feeling that when he returned, he would be entering a better world. That the slime of the prison life would wash off him like some kind of amniotic fluid. But now, as he looked at Riley, he wondered if he wasn’t just exchanging one kind of slime for another.

‘Well, how’s about that,’ said Riley. ‘I tell you what, on this day of new beginnings, let’s turn over a new leaf? Start afresh?’

Luca was about to send another curse Riley’s way when he stopped and sighed. Something about the prospect of new beginnings tugged at his conscience. Maybe if he gave Riley what he wanted the man would leave him in peace.

‘What do you wanna know?’ Luca said, and Riley’s smile returned.

‘Just the usual,’ said the reporter. ‘How was your time in Angola? How’s it feel to be outta that convict garb? What’s your view on the state’s correctional facilities now you’ve seen them from the other side?’

Luca gave Riley a look. ‘You didn’t come down here to ask me that,’ he said. ‘Not even the Louisiana State Prison Board gives a shit about the state of its correctional facilities. Your readership sure as hell ain’t gonna give a damn.’

Riley screwed up his face. ‘Still sharp as a tack, huh, Luca?’ he said. ‘You know, some men get out and their brains’ve gone to mush. Not you, though.’ Riley tipped his hat at Luca with a smirk. ‘What’s your view on the Axeman murders?’ he said.

Luca frowned and peered at him. ‘What Axeman murders?’ he asked, and Riley nodded knowingly.

‘Word didn’t reach you during your sojourn at the state’s expense? A crazy Zulu’s been running around town killing Italian grocers. Six weeks since the first attack and your old pal Talbot, who’s in charge of the case, is making no headway. Making a mess of it, in actual fact, and people are getting rightly upset.’

Luca noticed a light wind whipping dust along the road towards New Orleans. Times had changed, he thought: now it was Michael’s turn to have his name dragged through the mud. Luca had tried to keep abreast of changes in the city. As inmates arrived in Angola they brought with them news of the outside world, and Luca had listened in earnest to these prison-yard dispatches. He’d heard of the Great War, of the Great Hurricane, of the Influenza Pandemic, of Storyville being closed down; he’d even heard of the new type of music that was, according to the Negro inmates, engulfing the city. He knew the Eighteenth Amendment had been passed and prohibition was just around the corner, and he wondered what it would do to the tinderbox of clashing interests that was New Orleans. But amidst all this news of upheaval and strife, Luca had heard nothing of the goings-on in the police force, or of his old protégé.

‘What’s it got to do with me?’ he asked.

‘Well, seeing as you got history with Talbot, the boss and I were hoping, in his hour of need, you’d supply the Schadenfreude. I mean, it’s only because he squealed on you that he got promoted. If he’s not fit for the job it’s kinda funny you getting released just at the point people are beginning to notice.’

Riley breathed deeply, having trouble talking, smoking and keeping up with Luca’s brisk pace all at the same time.

‘Kinda like the chickens coming home to roost,’ he wheezed. ‘At least, that’s the angle the ed wants. Ironic.’

He peered at Luca, waiting for an answer, but Luca stayed silent, his eyes fixed on the horizon, on the distant image of New Orleans in the mist. He was trying to make out once again the dancer in the mirage, but all he could see now was a swirl of dust, sunrays and dew.

‘No one cares what I think,’ he said. ‘People’ll believe what they wanna believe. I learned that much during the trial.’

Riley nodded, and they strode on a little further without talking. Over the fields on either side of them a murder of crows angled and swooped, letting out piercing, nervy squawks.

‘Don’t you have anything you want to say?’ said Riley after a while, his tone softer, pleading. ‘It’s because of Talbot you spent the last six years in a cell. I mean, he was supposed to be your protégé.’

Luca made a valiant effort not to let his spirits sink, and tried not to think of betrayal. He stopped and turned to face Riley, and Riley instinctively took a step back.

‘Five years,’ said Luca calmly. ‘I got one off for good behavior.’ He took a last drag on the cigarette, flicked it onto the road and swiped it out with his boot. ‘Michael did the right thing,’ he continued, ‘I don’t hold him no grudges. I just wanna start my life off again. No vendettas, no living in the past. All I wanna do now is get to New Orleans, eat some food that ain’t half-rotten and covered in roaches, buy me a drink, and maybe buy me a woman. Put that in your paper.’

Luca turned and strode off down the road and Riley watched him go, a perplexed expression on his face.

‘Luca, haven’t you heard?’ he shouted. ‘You can’t buy a woman no more! The Navy outlawed the brothels!’

Luca ignored him and carried on down the long, dusty road to New Orleans.


Excerpted from The Axeman’s Jazz by Ray Celestin. Copyright © 2014 by Ray Celestin.
First published 2014 by Mantle, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world http://www.panmacmillan.com.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Lost for Words by Edward St Aubyn – Extract

Lost for Words

1

When that Cold War relic Sir David Hampshire had approached him about becoming Chair of the Elysian Prize committee, Malcolm Craig asked for twenty-four hours to consider the offer. He had a visceral dislike of Hampshire, the epitome of a public-school mandarin, who had still been Permanent Secretary at the Foreign Office when Malcolm was a new Member of Parliament. After he retired, Hampshire took on the usual bushel of non-executive directorships that were handed out to people of his kind, including a position on the board of the Elysian Group, where he had somehow fallen into the role of selecting the committees for their literary prize. His breadth of experience and range of contacts were always cited as the justification, but the truth was that David liked power of any sort; the power of influence, the power of money and the power of patronage.

Malcolm’s doubts were not confined to Hampshire. Elysian was a highly innovative but controversial agricultural company. It numbered among its products some of the world’s most radical herbicides and pesticides, and was a leader in the field of genetically modified crops, crossing wheat with Arctic cod to make it frost resistant, or lemons with bullet ants to give them extra zest. Their Giraffe carrots had been a great help to the busy housewife, freeing her to peel a single carrot for Sunday lunch instead of a whole bunch or bag.

Nevertheless, environmentalists had attacked one Elysian product after another, claiming that it caused cancer, disrupted the food chain, destroyed bee populations, or turned cattle into cannibals. As the noose of British, European and American legislation closed around it, the company had to face the challenge of finding new markets in the less hysterically regulated countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America. That was where the Foreign Office, liaising with Trade and Industry, had stepped in with their combined expertise in exports and diplomacy. The latter had come very much to the fore after some regrettable suicides among Indian farmers, whose crops had failed when they were sold Cod wheat, designed to withstand the icy rigours of Canada and Norway rather than the glowing anvil of the Indian Plain. Although the company disclaimed any responsibility, an unusually generous consignment of Salamander wheat proved such a success that Elysian was able to use a shot of the gratefully waving villagers, their colourful clothing pressed to their elegantly thin bodies by the billows of a departing helicopter, in one of its advertising campaigns.

Elysian’s weaponized agricultural agents had come to Malcolm’s attention when he was asked to sit on the Government committee responsible for the ‘Checkout List’. Aerially dispersed, Checkout caused any vegetation on the ground to burst immediately into flame, forcing enemy soldiers into open country where they could be destroyed by more conventional means. Debates about the Checkout List had of course remained secret, and from the general public’s point of view, Elysian’s name continued to be associated almost entirely with its literary prize.

In the end it was backbench boredom that persuaded Malcolm to accept the chairmanship of the prize committee. An obscure opposition MP needed plenty of extra-curricular activities to secure a decent amount of public attention. Who knew what opportunities his new role might bring? His moment in the pallid Caledonian sun as Under-Secretary of State for Scotland had been the climax of his career so far, as well, he hoped, as the climax of his self-sabotage. He had lost the job by making a reckless speech about Scottish independence that ran directly contrary to his party’s official policy and ensured that he would have to resign. He hoped he might one day return to his old job, but for the moment it was time to put away affairs of state and take up childish things, to look through a glass darkly – over a long lunch. When he rang Hampshire to tell him the happy news, he couldn’t resist asking why the prize was confined to the Imperial ash heap of the Commonwealth.

‘Those are the terms of the endowment,’ said Hampshire drily. ‘On the wider question of why an institution as vacuous and incoherent as the Commonwealth continues to exist, my answer is this: it gives the Queen some pleasure and that is reason enough to keep it.’

‘Well, that’s good enough for me,’ said Malcolm, waiting tactfully until he had hung up the phone to add, ‘you silly old twat.’

Broadly speaking, he did not regret his decision. His secretary was busier than she had been for a good while, collecting newspaper clippings and recordings of radio interviews. Malcolm noticed an increase in the ripple effect of his presence in the Commons bar, and an added liveliness to his conversations at dinner parties. The only aggravating aspect of the process was Hampshire’s refusal to consult him about the other members of the committee.

As a well-known columnist and media personality, Jo Cross, the first to be appointed, made sense by raising the public profile of the prize. She turned out to be a veritable geyser of opinions, but once Malcolm managed to make her focus, it turned out that her ruling passion was ‘relevance’.

‘The question I’ll be asking myself as I read a book,’ she explained, ‘is “just how relevant is this to my readers?”’

‘Your readers?’ said Malcolm.

‘Yes, they’re the people I understand, and feel fiercely loyal to. I suppose you would call them my constituents.’

‘Thanks for putting that in terms I can easily grasp,’ said Malcolm, without showing the patronizing bitch the slightest sign of irony.

The presence of an Oxbridge academic, in the form of Vanessa Shaw, the second recruit, was probably unavoidable. In the last analysis, Malcolm felt there was no harm in having one expert on the history of literature, if it reassured the public. When he invited her to the Commons for tea, she kept saying that she was interested in ‘good writing’.

‘I’m sure we’re all interested in good writing,’ said Malcolm, ‘but do you have any special interest?’

‘Especially good writing,’ said Vanessa stubbornly. The committee member Malcolm most resented was one of Hampshire’s old girlfriends from the Foreign Office, Penny Feathers. She had neither celebrity nor a distinguished public career to recommend her, and a little Googling soon established the emptiness of Hampshire’s claim that she was a ‘first-class’ author in her own right. Malcolm couldn’t look at her without thinking, ‘What in God’s name are you doing on my committee?’ He had to remind himself that she had one of five votes and his mission was to make sure that her vote went his way.

The final appointee was an actor Malcolm had never heard of. Tobias Benedict was a godson of Hampshire’s who had been ‘a fanatical reader ever since he was a little boy’. He missed the first two meetings, due to rehearsals, but sent an effusive apology on a handwritten card, saying that he was there ‘in spirit if not in the flesh’, that he was reading ‘like a madman’, and that he was ‘in love with’ All The World’s A Stage, a novel Malcolm had not got round to yet. The truth was that he had no intention of reading more than a small proportion of the two hundred novels originally submitted to the committee. His role was to inspire, to guide, to collate and above all, to delegate. In this case, he asked Penny Feathers to look into Tobias’s choice, feeling that one lame duck should investigate another.

He asked his secretary to skim through the early submissions looking for his own special interest, anything with a Scottish flavour. She had come up with three novels of which he had so far only had time to look at one. A harsh but ultimately uplifting account of life on a Glasgow housing estate, wot u starin at really hit the spot when it came to new voices, the real concerns of ordinary people, and the dark underbelly of the Welfare State. He intended to lend it his support and start a discreet campaign on its behalf. He was also pleased, for personal reasons, that she had unearthed The Greasy Pole, a novel by Alistair Mackintosh, but he must be careful not to support it too overtly.

When it came to running a committee, Malcolm favoured a collegiate approach: there was nothing like proving you were a team player to get your own way. The point was to build a consensus and come up with a vision of the sort of Britain they all wanted to project with the help of this prize: diverse, multi-cultural, devolutionary, and of course, encouraging to young writers. After all, young writers were the future, or at any rate, would be the future – if they were still around and being published. You couldn’t go wrong with the future. Even if it was infused with pessimism, until it was compromised by the inevitable cross-currents of unexpected good news and character-building opportunities, the pessimism remained perfect, unsullied by that much more insidious and dangerous quality, disappointment. The promise of young writers was perfect as well, until they burnt out, fucked up or died – but that would be under another government and under another committee.

2

Sam Black had written nothing that day. He was too preoccupied with the psychological contracts under which he had been allowed to write so far. What were they and could they be changed?

One contract was Faustian, in a secular and internalized version, but Faustian nevertheless. Haunted by the threat of madness and the consequent need to commit suicide, the modern Faustian was under an obligation to write in order to save his life. Damnation was the hell of his own depression, with a boutique Mephistopheles no longer offering infinite knowledge and worldly power, but the more modest sublimatory power of a practice that might one day release the artist from the destructive forces raging in his psyche. Sam also recognized that his writing was an ingenious decoy, drawing attention away from his own decaying body towards a potentially immaculate body of work. He named this deflection the ‘Hephaestus complex’, as if it had always been part of the annals of psychoanalysis. His angry father Zeus threw Hephaestus out of Olympus when he took his mother’s side in a parental argument. Hephaestus’s fall shattered his leg and made him lame, but the people of Lemnos, the island where he landed, took him in and taught him to be a master craftsman. Living under Mount Etna, using the volcano as his furnace, he became the disfigured fire god who made beautiful artefacts, and was given the most beautiful goddess, Aphrodite, as his wife. Even when she cuckolded him, he used art to avenge his pain and captured her with Aries in an unbreakable but invisibly fine net from which the adulterous couple could not escape.

Orpheus was an inevitable member of this gang of ancient enforcers. The man who sang his way out of hell only to let slip the woman he had gone there to retrieve was the world expert on haunting loss that every artiste maudit had to sign up with. His clinging melancholy was punished with decapitation, but even when his severed head was floating downriver, it continued to sing of Eurydice.

At first Sam had wanted to purge himself of these psychological contracts through a meticulous negativity. Like a man walking backwards along a path, erasing his footsteps with a broom, he had tried, through contradiction, negation, paradox, unreliable narration and every other method he could devise, to cancel the tracks left by his words and to release his writing from the wretched positivity of affirming anything at all. He hoped that by stripping all forms of belief from his sentences, he could evacuate his cluttered mind, leaving it empty and clear. Appearances were disappearances in the making – not that disappearances weren’t appearances as well, otherwise the disappearance would have the retroactive effect of solidifying what disappeared, an obvious mistake. Nothing could hold him or trap him – except his belief that freedom could be achieved by simply refusing to be held or trapped.

When his sceptical texts could find no publisher, he was frustrated. He wanted to achieve enough to know, and not just to assume, that achievement was an alluring and arduous dead end. And so Sam put the typescript of False Notes in a box on top of the cupboard in his bedroom, and submitted to the grim rule of Faustus, Orpheus and Hephaestus, writing his first published novel, a bildungsroman of impeccable anguish and undisguised autobiographical origin. He knew that his publishers had high hopes for The Frozen Torrent, and he joined them in hoping that it would make it to the Elysian Short List so that he could re-submit False Notes and finally win his freedom from the tyranny of pain-based art.

These grave considerations were not the only things distracting Sam from his work. He also found it impossible to let more than a few seconds elapse without thinking of Katherine Burns. She was famously easy to fall in love with. He had been waiting throughout February for her return from India. Today she had finally written to him from Delhi, saying that when she got back she would be working flat out to make the Elysian deadline, but inviting him for a drink the week after Easter.

If only she didn’t live with her publisher. Sam disliked having his passion tainted by jealousy. He had nothing against Alan Oaks personally – he hardly knew him, and in any case Alan was relentlessly friendly – it was more of a geographical objection: how dare he lie next to her in bed?

There was something rather French about the way Katherine surrounded herself with artists, thinkers, scientists and writers, like an old-fashioned salonnière, if not in an enfilade of double-doored white and gold rooms in the rue du Bac, at least in her Bayswater flat, with books in the window sill and books on the floor. She only seemed to have affairs with men who were twenty years older than her (although she liked women of her own age) and he worried that without a sex change, he might simply be too young. She commanded unwavering devotion from her lovers, in a way that reminded him of a certain species of wasp that paralysed its prey without killing it, so as to assure its offspring a supply of living flesh; but he knew that he was just defending himself from rejection with these dark fantasies. The truth was she was utterly wonderful and he adored her.

3

‘I enjoyed my time at the University in Delhi,’ said Sonny, over the rattle of the ineffective air conditioning. ‘We used to loll about in any sort of costume, ragging each other and making plans for pleasure trips.’

His eyelids, which had been drooping from the recollection of those languid days, suddenly shot open.

‘And then,’ he said, leaning towards Katherine with a troubled look, ‘the vimin arrived.’

‘The what?’ said Katherine.

‘The vimin,’ repeated Sonny. He sank back again, trying to dismiss the painful memory with a swipe of his wrist. ‘Everyone started rushing about – brushing their teeth.’

Sonny closed his eyes, shutting out that rush of fools, and the rush of years that now separated him from those days. He was immediately consoled by the knowledge that he had redeemed all that seemingly wasted time with his magnum opus, The Mulberry Elephant. He was also enjoying the delicious irony that Katherine Burns, who was considered to be a tip-top novelist, had no idea that she was in the presence of a literary genius who outweighed her in every respect.

Mum was the word for the moment. When Mulberry appeared on the Elysian Long List, he would fly over to England. The interviews would begin when he was Short Listed, and after his inevitable triumph was announced at the Elysian Dinner, he would deliver the witty and magnanimous acceptance speech he had already sketched out a dozen times. ‘I want to thank the judges for their enlightened decision. Enlightenment is something we Indians know a thing or two about, but tonight it’s England’s turn . . .’ He imagined the shudder of laughter breaking out in the Banqueting Room of the illustrious Fishmongers’ Hall. He would be encouraging to the lesser talents, and humble in the face of greatness.

Katherine watched Sonny murmuring to himself. He was reclining on silk cushions in the corner of a frantically carved daybed, his legs tucked towards him, a slender hand clasping one of his ankles. She could see his eyes swivelling under their lids in a way that reminded her of the rapid eye movement of a dreamer, as well as the ceaseless vigilance of the blind. A pair of yellow slippers idled on the carpet. Two turbaned servants were placing dozens of silver pots onto the engraved silver table in the middle of the room. Her throne of castellated mahogany, too deep to sit back in and too jagged to lean against, made her long to leave.

She wished she hadn’t asked Didier to call Sonny before she left England. Like all her ex-lovers, except for the occasional Spartacus who would lead a gallant but futile revolt, easily crushed by a friendly email or a chance encounter, Didier remained her slave. If only he had been a little more reluctant to get in touch with his grand Indian acquaintance. He hadn’t seen Sonny for ten years and he warned Katherine that she would find him ‘exotique, but totally crazy’. Before leaving England ‘totally crazy’ seemed a fair price for ‘exotique’, but after three weeks of travelling in India she felt the opposite. Tonight, thank God, she was flying back to the welcome dullness of London in early March.

Sonny’s head turned as if synchronized with the arrival of the elderly woman in a maroon and gold sari who now stood in the doorway.

‘Auntie!’ said Sonny, rising from the daybed. ‘May I present Katherine Burns, she’s a lady novelist from London.’

‘Oh, how delightful,’ said Auntie and then, noticing that Katherine hadn’t moved, she added, ‘Don’t get up, my dear, nobody curtsies any more these days; or only the old stick in the muds,’ her voice filled with mock-horror at the mention of this category. ‘We’re just having a cosy little lunch, nothing formal.’

She sat on the edge of the daybed and toyed with the folds of her sari.

‘You’re just the person I need,’ she began, conscious of the favour she was doing Katherine. ‘I’ve written the most marvellous cookery book – full of family portraits – and, of course, recipes that have been handed down from generation to generation by the cooks at the old palace.’ She hurried over this detail as if it were hardly worth mentioning. ‘You’re in the publishing world, could you take one of the manuscripts back with you and place it with a London publisher for me? We used to know the great English writers, Somerset Maugham and dear old Paddy Leigh Fermor, but they all seem to be dead now, or out of commission. So, you see, my dear, I’m relying on you.’

‘Of course,’ said Katherine, trying to assemble a smile.


Excerpted from Lost for Words by Edward St Aubyn. Copyright © 2014 by Edward St Aubyn.
First published 2014 by Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world http://www.panmacmillan.com.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

The Complete Guide to a Good Night’s Sleep by Dr Carmel Harrington – Extract

The Complete Guide to a Good Night's Sleep

Introduction

‘Sleep . . . Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course, Chief nourisher in life’s feast.’
Shakespeare (Macbeth, Act 2, Scene 2)

ALTHOUGH THESE WORDS WERE WRITTEN over four hundred years ago, they are as true today as they were then. In our current too-­busy world many of us have almost forgotten what a good night’s sleep feels like. We may feel like it has been forever since we were able to go to bed, sleep and simply wake up 8 hours later with little memory of the intervening hours. We may long for those days when we woke feeling energised and invigorated, looking forward to the challenges of the day. We may even have developed a sense of despair in our ability to ever sleep well again.

If some or all of this describes your attitude towards sleep then I am pleased that you have picked up this book. I am confident that as you read through the following chapters and learn about the processes of sleep and begin to understand how to manage them, your negative feelings will dissipate. You will gradually rediscover the joy of sleep and once again experience the delight of being nourished and refreshed by sleeping eight uninterrupted hours.

When we can’t sleep and are still awake at 3 am after tossing and turning for hours, we may think that we are the only ones suffering the exhaustion of sleeplessness. This is far from reality and it seems that more and more people are finding sleep increasingly elusive. Research from the US indicates that annually more than 35% of adults suffer sleeplessness symptoms.

Part of the problem is that these days we have so much to do and so much going on around us that we often don’t pay much attention to sleep – instead, we live our lives much like the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland. Always rushing from place to place, feeling constantly

like we are running late, might work for a while but, for many of us, there will come a time when maintaining this pace is not sustainable – we may begin to suffer ill­-health, we may find we have lost our motivation, and we may feel depressed or just exhausted. There are many reasons why we start to evaluate the way we live our life and at times like these, we may well start to think about the role sleep plays in how we think and feel.

If you are reading this book then chances are you have recognised the importance of sleep and want to do something about your sleeping pattern. This is a great first step. I find it very interesting that so often discussions about our physical and psychological well­being centre only on our nutrition and our exercise without mentioning our sleep. Yet sleep is fundamental to how well we are able to live our lives, and if nutrition and exercise are perceived as two pillars of health then sleep needs to be considered our third pillar.

Many of us already understand that sleep is integral to our health – but try as we might we are just not able to achieve the sleep that we know is so necessary for our vitality. For us, our bed has become a battlefield where, instead of experiencing deep slumber, we all too often toss and turn, feeling frustrated, exhausted and even perhaps a sense of helplessness at our inability to sleep, until eventually there is an acceptance that soon, with only a few hours of sleep, we will get up and face a new day. This would be bad enough if it were to happen once or twice a month but for many people it goes on night after night, week after week and year after year.

When we can’t sleep, life can become extremely difficult. Sleep is meant to be our time for refreshment and restoration. It is an opportunity, as Shakespeare said, for our minds and bodies to be ‘nourished’, so that when we wake we are enthusiastic and ready to enjoy the pleasures and to manage the stresses of our life. Without sleep, however, simple tasks and challenges can quickly become insurmountable and our relationships suffer.

So how did this happen? How did sleep become so difficult for so many of us? To understand the reasons behind this we need to realise that there is a major difference between the idea that sleep is natural and the idea that sleep should come naturally to us.

Deep, restful sleep relies upon a whole series of interlocking biological processes. If these processes do not work in harmony then we will not be able to get to sleep or to maintain sleep. While these biological processes have been highly effective in giving humans good sleep for millennia, in recent times we have unknowingly sabotaged our ability to sleep, so that right now we are seeing a serious problem with sleeplessness and its consequent health and relationship problems.

We seem to have put aside the fact that sleep nourishes us. We have filled our world with so much light, noise and activity that sleep has become unnaturally difficult. Somewhere along the way, many of us have become too much like the White Rabbit and lost the ability (or the time) to switch off sufficiently to allow sleep to happen. Without switching off, deep, restful sleep will be elusive.

This book is about learning how to access the off­-switch again. Many books about overcoming sleeplessness rely on general solutions that apply to everyone. But, just as there are particular foods that are just right for you and specific exercises that suit you best, so too are there sleep solutions that are right just for you.

Sleep solutions are not one-­size-­fits-­all. Sleep is highly individual and there are many reasons why we may not be sleeping well. I have been working in the world of sleep for almost 20 years now and I have met many people with a wide variety of sleeping difficulties. Throughout this book we are going to meet some of these people and learn about their sleep problems and how these problems manifested in real life. We will learn how they managed to overcome their particular sleep difficulties and discover the processes they implemented in order to do this. It is by understanding these different problems and their various solutions that we will gain an insight into our own particular sleep issues and learn how to manage our sleep so that we are able to achieve good sleep on a regular basis.

In order for us to have deep, restful sleep a number of things need to happen. Firstly, we need to understand the processes of sleep and its patterns. Once we understand this it will be possible to discover why you, as an individual, are not sleeping well. When this is established it is then possible to uncover what in particular enhances your sleep, and then to start to manipulate the various sleep processes so that you are able to have deep, restful sleep on a regular basis.

This book is a journey through sleep and it tackles problems progressively. Many of us are tempted to dip in and out of a book like this, seeking out and reading only those bits that we think are particularly relevant to our problem. For example, we may be experiencing long-­term trouble trying to get to sleep and so we may decide to go straight to the chapter dealing with this. To completely overcome your sleep difficulties though it’s best to follow this journey in the order that it is presented in this book. By doing this you will be able to fully understand sleep, see where your problem lies and, importantly, how it can be solved.

All of this will take time and effort, but it will be worth it. When the reason for your sleeplessness is discovered it can be treated, and when treated you will rediscover refreshing and invigorating sleep. You will once again experience the joy of sleep and the wondrous nourishing feeling of waking after a long and contented (and undisturbed) sleep.

Sleep is our third pillar of health. It is as important as good nutrition and exercise If we take away one of the pillars our physical and psychological well­being will bear the consequences.

So, let’s get started . . .

Chapter 1

Understanding the problem

THE IMPORTANCE OF SLEEP WAS recognised as far back as the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans. These civilisations had numerous powerful sleep gods, such as Hypnos, Somnus and Morpheus, and it is from these ancient times that such words as ‘hypnotic’ (to describe a sleep­inducing drug), ‘somnolent’ (to describe the state of drowsiness) and ‘morphine’ are derived.

We know that even in these early times, long before the electric light and the internet, people experienced problems with sleep because the use of sleeping aids such as valerian, chamomile and the poppy flower is well documented. The word to describe sleeplessness, ‘insomnia’, comes from the Latin in (meaning not) and somnus (meaning sleep) and was first used by modern medicine around the beginning of the 17th century to describe the inability to sleep.

Today, insomnia is used to describe the situation when someone has difficulty falling asleep and/or staying asleep, and consequently experiences some daytime impairment, such as excessive tiredness, mood changes or lack of energy. Basically someone will be described as having insomnia if they cannot get adequate sleep. While we use only one word to describe this situation – insomnia – we should not make the mistake of thinking that there is only one cause. There are numerous types of insomnia and many causes.

Insomnia is the most common of all sleep disorders and is estimated to affect at least one in three people at some stage of their lives. It can affect all of us, no matter how old or young we are.

Most insomnia only persists for a night or two, but sometimes it will last for weeks, months or even years.

Anyone who has experienced even brief bouts of sleeplessness lasting more than one or two nights knows just how debilitating a few nights of restricted sleep can be. After getting too little sleep for a few days we begin to feel excessively tired, cranky, depressed, unmotivated, indecisive and unable to learn or process information well. We also invariably feel disinclined to exercise or participate in activity. When we do not get enough sleep there is a deregulation of our appetite hormones so we are also very hungry and have a strong desire to eat all the wrong types of food – like chocolate, chips and hamburgers.

Imagine then, how much more these feelings are exacerbated when a person gets 5‒6 hours’ sleep per night three or more times each week over months and perhaps even years. These people truly suffer and they would gladly give almost anything for a good night’s sleep.

Frequently, one of the first steps in the process of overcoming sleeplessness is to classify the type of insomnia being experienced. There are a number of ways this can be done but often it is described either as ‘transient’, lasting anywhere from 1‒2 nights to a few weeks, or ‘chronic’ when the insomnia has persisted for more than 6 months.

While this may be a convenient medical division, for people suffering from sleeplessness the categorisation can be artificial as they may experience repeated episodes of transient insomnia over a period of many years. In situations like these, even though the insomnia would be correctly diagnosed as transient, it is more akin to chronic insomnia as these episodes can be just as distressing as the experience of someone who has struggled with sleep consistently over an extended period of time.

All of us would have had at least one bad night, or even a few bad nights, of sleep due to some stress or disruption to our routine. The reason for the wakefulness is usually apparent and self­limiting. For example, if the difficulty sleeping was caused by an anxiety over an exam, once the exam is completed then normal sleep usually returns. While this is distressing for the days or the week that the bad sleep persists it is generally manageable and short­-lived. If a few days or a week of insomnia turns into a month of sleeplessness, however, then this becomes a real problem.

A typical example of this is sometimes seen when a person experiences a traumatic event in their life, such as a relationship break­up. At such times it is common for people to experience difficulty sleeping, often only getting about 4‒5 hours per night. As a result they feel not only emotionally wrought, but also desperately tired. Due to this tiredness they may start to develop some unhealthy sleep habits, which makes sleep even harder to come by. If these bad sleep habits are not cut short then it is likely that what should have been a brief bout of sleeplessness ends up lasting much longer and causing havoc to their well­being.

When a person cannot sleep well for a few weeks they will often seek out a sleeping aid. Sleeping aids fall broadly into two categories – self­-prescribed or medically prescribed. Self­prescribed aids, referred to as self­-medication, include alcohol or illicit drugs, such as marijuana, or over-­the-­counter medications such as antihistamines, some pain killers or herbal preparations. Medically prescribed sleeping aids are commonly known as sleeping pills. In some cases, these may be an antidepressant with sleepiness as a side­-effect.

While a sleeping aid during times of transient insomnia may provide much needed relief and be very effective in achieving sleep, it is important to always use such medications with caution. If care is not taken people can become dependent on the use of the sleeping aid, either physically or emotionally. It is not recommended that sleeping aids be taken any longer than 3‒4 weeks.

While transient insomnia impacts significantly on a person’s health and well­-being, the most serious type of insomnia is the chronic form. A person is considered to be suffering from chronic insomnia if they have been experiencing sleeplessness and its negative effects for more than 6 months. The person suffering from chronic insomnia will usually have developed a myriad of coping strategies that they have come to rely on over the years, which continue the cycle of poor sleep.

Unlike transient insomnia, where it is often easy to detect the cause and effect, in chronic insomnia it is generally difficult to discern when and how the problem started. In many instances, in fact, this will never be known. However, in terms of chronic insomnia, how or when it started becomes irrelevant and what is most important is unravelling the current reason for the sleeplessness.

Research into the consequences of chronic insomnia paints a grim picture. Population studies of insomnia have shown that it has both short­-term and long­-term effects. If you are reading this book and are currently suffering from lack of sleep these consequences will come as no surprise.

When we do not sleep well our mood is affected – and not to our advantage. A bad night of sleep will invariably result in a poor mood state which will include such characteristics as grumpiness, a short temper, intolerance and a general lack of motivation. All of which cannot help but have an impact on our relationships, both personal and professional. Not only are we generally in a bad mood after poor sleep but we are also less inclined to want to exercise and to participate in general activities. This lack of energy directly affects our sex drive, which also decreases as a consequence of sleeplessness.

Jack’s story

Jack had not slept well in years. Occasionally he had times where he slept not too badly, but rarely would a week go by when he did not have at least one night where his sleep was truly awful. Over the years he had tried a variety of techniques to help him sleep but most had minimal effect. He had come to accept that he either had to live with his sleeplessness or take a sleeping pill – which he occasionally did when he really needed a good night’s sleep. Mostly he resisted the sleeping pills because they left him feeling ‘foggy’ the next day. By and large, Jack considered he managed his sleeplessness not too badly.

Jack’s wife, however, did not think he was managing his sleeplessness very well at all. It seemed to her that most of the time he was incredibly irritable and, while in the past this irritability seemed mostly concerned with his work, he now seemed irritable almost all the time. This was starting to have a real impact on his family life. He always seemed annoyed about something and when anything went awry, no matter how minor, he would invariably end up yelling at someone.

Jack saw absolutely no association between his sleepless nights and his anger and relationship problems. He was annoyed with his wife when she insisted that he talk to someone about it.

When I first met Jack he steadfastly maintained that while he knew he had problems sleeping he was able to manage them. Sure, he was sleepy, and if I could help with that, that would be good, but otherwise it wasn’t a problem. He did admit that these days he was often irritable or angry but, he was quick to add, this was a result of his work colleagues, friends and family being variously incompetent, non-supportive or downright lazy and he was constantly having to solve one problem or another. His irritable mood, according to him, was definitely not a result of his sleeplessness.

When pressed a little further he mentioned that he and his wife were also having a few relationship problems. Not only did they seem to argue a lot these days, over relatively minor issues, but he also had no interest in sex and this was becoming a big issue between the two of them.

It took Jack some time to be convinced that many of the problems he was facing, including his decreased sex drive, could well be the consequence of his insomnia. By working out what was causing this and treating it, many, if not all his problems would either disappear or improve considerably. Once Jack was ready to accept that not only did his lack of sleep cause his sleepiness, it also impacted significantly on his good health, good mood and energy levels, he was also able to see just why he was so often annoyed and irritated with those around him and why he had lost interest in sex.

This realisation was a really important step as it motivated Jack to look further into what was causing his sleeplessness. As it turned out, Jack had undiagnosed restless legs – a sleep disorder that severely affects a person’s ability to maintain sleep – and once this was treated Jack was able to get at least 7 hours of consolidated sleep most nights.

Not surprisingly, Jack’s life turned around, almost overnight. He no longer felt annoyed by minor problems and was far less likely to lose his temper. Most importantly his family life was more harmonious and he and his wife were getting on far better than they had in years – and both were very happy that they could enjoy sex again.

As if the negative mood consequences were not enough, lack of sleep also directly affects our ability to learn and to think. In a sleep-deprived state it has been shown time and again that we become poor decision-­makers, we are much more likely to make mistakes and our ability to learn is seriously impaired. An interesting and important study in this regard, involving over 1500 full-­time university students aged 17 to 25 years of age, found that sleep quality and duration were among the main predictors of academic performance – the better the sleep the better the performance.

While the negative impacts on mood and thinking are considerable, a far greater and more serious problem of sleeplessness is the increased likelihood of an occupational or motor vehicle accident. Studies show that people with sleeping problems are seven times more likely to be involved in such accidents. Indeed, some of the more famous occupational disasters such as the Air France crash in 2009, the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster, the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion have been found to be a direct result of operator fatigue.

While the short­-term consequences of sleeplessness are well recognised by anyone who suffers from them, the long­-term consequences of unresolved insomnia may come as a surprise. People suffering from chronic insomnia are far more likely to develop depression; certain types of cancer; cardiovascular diseases, such as high blood pressure and heart disease; and metabolic diseases, such as type 2 diabetes and obesity. These consequences of sleeplessness may be overwhelming but I mention them here because it is critically important that we know about them and are aware of the damage that ongoing sleeplessness can have on our health, well­being and relationships. If we realise these serious consequences we are far more likely to be that little bit more determined to work on our sleeping problems. For some it will take both time and effort to improve their sleep but, given the alternatives, it will be time and energy well spent.

This book offers a systematic approach to discover the basis of your nightly battle with sleep. It is important that you assume nothing because only by having an open mind will you be able to unmask the cause for your sleeplessness and then treat it.

A word of caution

Some of you may find the work you need to do to get your sleep in order difficult, especially when you are already feeling tired and unmotivated. You may be tempted to keep taking your sleeping pills. You are not alone. Research shows that an estimated 6–10% of adults take prescribed sleeping pills. But this is certainly not without its risks and you would be well advised to try to avoid this path.

A large US study published in 2012 evaluated more than 10,000 patients who received sleeping pill prescriptions and followed them for 2.5 years comparing their health outcomes to over 23,000 people who received no such prescriptions. The researchers found that people who took sleeping pills had four times the mortality rate of the group with no sleeping pill prescriptions. Even patients prescribed less than eighteen doses per year were more likely to die during the study period than those who did not take any sleeping pills. Equally as worrying is the finding that there was a 35% increase in the development of cancer in those who had been prescribed more than 132 doses per year.

Despite these potentially serious health outcomes some may still choose to pop a pill as it seems like an easy option. But I would encourage you to stop and ask yourself this question:

‘If the sleeping pills are solving my sleep problem why do I continue to take them?’

The answer is blatantly clear. The sleeping pill does not solve the underlying issue of your sleeplessness: it merely allows for a chemically induced sleep, often leaving you feeling not so great the next day.

A better approach would be to speak with your doctor about the need to continue taking sleeping pills and to start investigating the underlying cause (or causes) of your sleeplessness. Armed with that information you can start implementing permanent solutions and look forward to the day (or night) when all you need as a sleeping aid is a comfortable bed and pillow.


Excerpted from The Complete Guide to a Good Night’s Sleep by Dr Carmel Harrington. Copyright © 2014 by Dr Carmel Harrington.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Lick by Kylie Scott – Extract

Lick

CHAPTER ONE

I woke up on the bathroom floor. Everything hurt. My mouth felt like garbage and tasted worse. What the hell had happened last night? The last thing I remembered was the countdown to midnight and the thrill of turning twenty-one—legal, at last. I’d been dancing with Lauren and talking to some guy. Then BANG!

A whole line of shot glasses with lemon and salt on the side. Everything I’d heard about Vegas was true. Bad things happened here, terrible things. I just wanted to crawl into a ball and die. Sweet baby Jesus, what had I been thinking to drink so much? I groaned, and even that made my head pound. This pain had not been part of the plan.

“You okay?” a voice inquired, male, deep, and nice. Really nice. A shiver went through me despite my pain. My poor broken body stirred in the strangest of places.

“Are you going to be sick again?” he asked. Oh, no.

I opened my eyes and sat up, pushing my greasy blond hair aside. His blurry face loomed closer. I slapped a hand over my mouth because my breath had to be hideous.

“Hi,” I mumbled.

Slowly, he swam into focus. He was built and beautiful and strangely familiar. Impossible. I’d never met anyone like him.

He looked to be in his mid to late twenties—a man, not a boy. He had long, dark hair falling past his shoulders and sideburns. His eyes were the darkest blue. They couldn’t be real. Frankly, those eyes were overkill. I’d have swooned perfectly fine without them. Even with the tired red tinge, they were a thing of beauty. Tattoos covered the entirety of one arm and half his bare chest. A black bird had been inked into the side of his neck, the tip of its wing reaching up behind his ear. I still had on the pretty, dirty white dress Lauren had talked me into. It had been a daring choice for me on account of the way it barely contained my abundance of boobage. But this beautiful man easily had me beat for skin on show. He wore just a pair of jeans, scuffed black boots, a couple of small silver earrings, and a loose white bandage on his forearm.

Those jeans . . . he wore them well. They sat invitingly low on his hips and fit in all the right ways. Even my monster hangover couldn’t detract from the view.

“Aspirin?” he asked.

And I was ogling him. My gaze darted to his face and he gave me a sly, knowing smile. Wonderful. “Yes. Please.”

He grabbed a battered black leather jacket off the floor, the one I’d apparently been using as a pillow. Thank God I hadn’t puked on it. Clearly, this beautiful half-naked man had seen me in all my glory, hurling multiple times. I could have drowned in the shame.

One by one he emptied the contents of his pockets out onto the cold white tiles. A credit card, guitar picks, a phone, and a string of condoms. The condoms gave me pause, but I was soon distracted by what emerged next. A multitude of paper scraps tumbled out onto the floor. All had names and numbers scrawled across them. This guy was Mr. Popularity. Hey, I could definitely see why. But what on earth was he doing here with me?

Finally, he produced a small bottle of painkillers. Sweet relief.

I loved him, whoever he was and whatever he’d seen.

“You need water,” he said, and got busy filling a glass from the sink behind him.

The bathroom was tiny. We both barely fit. Given Lauren’s and my money situation, the hotel had been the best we could afford. She’d been determined to celebrate my birthday in style. My goal had been a bit different. Despite the presence of my hot new friend, I was pretty sure I’d failed. The pertinent parts of my anatomy felt fine. I’d heard things hurt after the first couple of times. They sure as hell had after the first. But my vagina might have been the only part of my body not giving me grief. Still, I took a quick peek down the front of my dress. The corner of a foil package could still be seen, tucked into the side of my bra. Because if it was sitting there, strapped to me, no way would I be caught unprepared. The condom remained whole and hearty. How disappointing. Or maybe not. Finally plucking up the courage to get back on the horse, so to speak, and then not remembering it would have been horrible.

The man handed me the glass of water and placed two pills into my hand. He then sat back on his haunches to watch me. He had an intensity to him that I was in no condition to deal with.

“Thanks,” I said, then swallowed the aspirin. Noisy rumbles rose from my belly. Nice, very ladylike.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” he asked. His glorious mouth twitched into a smile as if we shared a private joke between us.

The joke being me.

All I could do was stare. Given my current condition, he was just too much. The hair, face, body, ink, all of it. Someone needed to invent a word superlative enough to describe him.

After a long moment it dawned on me that he expected an answer to his question. I nodded, still unwilling to unleash my morning breath, and gave him a grim smile. The best I could do.

“Okay. That’s good,” he said.

He was certainly attentive. I didn’t know what I’d done to deserve such kindness. If I’d picked up the poor guy with promises of sex and then proceeded to spend the night with my head in the toilet, by rights he should be a bit disgruntled. Maybe he hoped I’d make good on the offer this morning. It seemed the only plausible explanation for why he’d linger.

Under normal conditions, he was light-years out of my league and (for the sake of my pride) worlds away from my type. I liked clean-cut. Clean-cut was nice. Bad boys were highly overrated. God knows, I’d watched enough girls throw themselves at my brother over the years. He’d taken what they’d offered if it suited him, and then moved on. Bad boys weren’t the stuff serious relationships were made of. Not that I’d been chasing forever last night, just a positive sexual experience. Something not involving Tommy Byrnes being mad at me for getting a smear of blood on the backseat of his parents’ car. God, what a horrible memory. The next day the douche had dumped me for a girl on the track team half my size. He then added insult to injury by spreading rumors about me. I hadn’t been made bitter or twisted by this event at all.

What had happened last night? My head remained a tangled, throbbing mess, the details hazy, incomplete.

“We should get something into you,” he said. “You want me to order some dry toast or something?”

“No.” The thought of food was not fun. Not even coffee appealed, and coffee always appealed. I was half tempted to check myself for a pulse, just in case. Instead, I pushed my hand through my crappy hair, getting it out of my eyes. “No . . .ow!”

Strands caught on something, tugging hard at my scalp. “Crap.”

“Hang on.” He reached out and carefully disentangled my messy do from whatever was causing the trouble. “There we go.”

“Thanks.” Something winked at me from my left hand, snagging my attention. A ring, but not just any ring. An amazing ring, a stupendous one.

“Holy shit,” I whispered.

It couldn’t be real. It was so big it bordered on obscene. A stone that size would cost a fortune. I stared, bemused, turning my hand to catch the light. The band beneath was thick, solid, and the rock sure shone and sparkled like the real deal.

As if.

“Ah, yeah. About that . . .” he said, dark brows drawn down. He looked vaguely embarrassed by the ice rink on my finger. “If you still wanna change it for something smaller, that’s okay with me. It is kinda big. I do get your point about that.”

I couldn’t shake the feeling I knew him from somewhere. Somewhere that wasn’t last night or this morning or anything to do with the ridiculous beautiful ring on my finger.

“You bought me this?” I asked.

He nodded. “Last night at Cartier.”

“Cartier?” My voice dropped to a whisper. “Huh.”

For a long moment he just stared at me. “You don’t remember?”

I really didn’t want to answer that. “What is that, even? Two, three carats?”

“Five.”

“Five? Wow.”

“What do you remember?” he asked, voice hardening just a little.

“Well . . . it’s hazy.”

“No.” His frown increased until it owned his handsome face. “You have got to be fucking kidding me. You seriously don’t know?”

What to say? My mouth hung open, useless. There was a lot I didn’t know. To my knowledge, however, Cartier didn’t do costume jewelry. My head swam. Bad feelings unfurled within my stomach and bile burnt the back of my throat. Worse even than before.

I was not puking in front of this guy. Not again.

He took a deep breath, nostrils flaring. “I didn’t realize you’d had that much to drink. I mean, I knew you’d had a bit, but . . . shit. Seriously? You don’t remember us going on the gondolas at the Venetian?”

“We went on gondolas?”

“Fuck. Ah, how about when you bought me a burger? Do you remember that?”

“Sorry.”

“Wait a minute,” he said, watching me through narrowed eyes. “You’re just messing with me, aren’t you?”

“I’m so sorry.”

He physically recoiled from me. “Let me get this straight, you don’t remember anything?”

“No,” I said, swallowing hard. “What did we do last night?”

“We got fucking married,” he growled.

This time, I didn’t make it to the toilet.

I decided on divorce while I brushed my teeth, practiced what I would say to him as I washed my hair. But you couldn’t rush these things. Unlike last night, when I’d apparently rushed into marriage. Rushing again would be wrong, foolish. That, or I was a coward taking the world’s longest shower. Odds were on the latter.

Holy, holy hell. What a mess. I couldn’t even begin to get my head wrapped around it. Married. Me. My lungs wouldn’t work. Panic waited right around the corner.

No way could my desire for this disaster to go away come as a surprise to him. Puking on the floor had to have been a huge hint. I groaned and covered my face with my hands at the memory. His look of disgust would haunt me all my days.

My parents would kill me if they ever found out. I had plans, priorities. I was studying to be an architect like my father. Marriage to anyone at this stage didn’t fit into those plans. In another ten, fifteen years, maybe. But marriage at twenty-one? Hell no. I hadn’t even been on a second date in years and now I had a ring on my finger. No way did that make sense. I was doomed. This crazy wedding caper wasn’t something I could hide from.

Or could I?

Unless my parents could not find out. Ever. Over the years I had made something of a habit of not involving them in things that might be seen as unsavory, unnecessary, or just plain stupid. This marriage quite possibly fell under all three categories. Actually, maybe no one need know. If I didn’t tell, how would they find out? They wouldn’t. The answer was awe-inspiring in its simplicity.

“Yes!” I hissed and punched the air, clipping the shower head with the side of my fist. Water sprayed everywhere, including straight in my eyes, blinding me. Never mind, I had the answer.

Denial. I’d take the secret to my grave. No one would ever know of my extreme drunken idiocy.

I smiled with relief, my panic attack receding enough so that I could breathe. Oh, thank goodness. Everything would be okay. I had a new plan to get me back on track with the old one. Brilliant. I’d brave up, go and face him, and set things straight. Twenty-one-year-olds with grand life plans didn’t marry complete strangers in Vegas, no matter how beautiful those strangers happened to be. It would be fine. He’d understand. In all likelihood, he sat out there right now, working out the most efficient method to dump and run.

The diamond still glittered on my hand. I couldn’t bring myself to take it off just yet. It was like Christmas on my finger, so big, bright, and shiny. Though, upon reflection, my temporary husband didn’t exactly appear to be rich. His jacket and jeans were both well-worn. The man was a mystery.

Wait. What if he was into something illegal? Maybe I’d married a criminal. Panic rushed back in with a vengeance. My stomach churned and my head throbbed. I knew nothing about the person waiting in the next room. Absolutely not a damn thing. I’d shoved him out the bathroom door without even getting his name.

A knock on the door sent my shoulders sky-high. “Evelyn?” he called out, proving he at least knew my name. “Just a second.”

I turned off the taps and stepped out, wrapping a towel around myself. The width of it was barely sufficient to cover my curves, but my dress had puke on it. Putting it back on was out of the question.

“Hi,” I said, opening the bathroom door a hand’s length. He stood almost half a head taller than me, and I wasn’t short by any means. Dressed in only a towel, I found him rather intimidating. However much he’d had to drink the previous night, he still looked gorgeous, as opposed to me—pale, pasty, and sopping wet. The aspirins hadn’t done nearly as much as they should have.

Of course, I’d thrown them up.

“Hey.” He didn’t meet my eyes. “Look, I’m going to get this taken care of, okay?”

“Taken care of?”

“Yeah,” he said, still avoiding all eye contact. Apparently the hideous green motel carpeting was beyond enticing. “My lawyers will deal with all this.”

“You have lawyers?” Criminals had lawyers. Shit. I had to get myself divorced from this guy now.

“Yeah, I have lawyers. You don’t need to worry about anything. They’ll send you the paperwork or whatever. However this works.” He gave me an irritated glance, lips a tight line, and pulled on his leather jacket over his bare chest. His T-shirt still hung drying over the edge of the tub. Sometime during the night I must have puked on it too. How gruesome. If I were him, I’d divorce me and never look back.

“This was a mistake,” he said, echoing my thoughts.

“Oh.”

“What?” His gaze jumped to my face. “You disagree?”

“No,” I said quickly.

“Didn’t think so. Pity it made sense last night, yeah?” He shoved a hand through his hair and made for the door. “Take care.”

“Wait!” The stupid, amazing ring wouldn’t come off my finger. I tugged and turned it, trying to wrestle it into submission. Finally it budged, grazing my knuckle raw in the process. Blood welled to the surface. One more stain in this whole sordid affair.

“Here.”

“For fuck’s sake.” He scowled at the rock sparkling in the palm of my hand as if it had personally offended him. “Keep it.”

“I can’t. It must have cost a fortune.”

He shrugged.

“Please.” I held it out, hand jiggling, impatient to be rid of the evidence of my drunken stupidity. “It belongs to you. You have to take it.”

“No. I don’t.”

“But—”

Without another word, the man stormed out, slamming the door shut behind him. The thin walls vibrated with the force of it.

Whoa. My hand fell back to my side. He sure had a temper. Not that I hadn’t given him provocation, but still. I wish I remembered what had gone on between us. Any inkling would be good.

Meanwhile my left butt cheek felt sore. I winced, carefully rubbing the area. My dignity wasn’t the only casualty, it seemed. I must have scratched my behind at some stage, bumped into some furniture or taken a dive in my fancy new heels. The pricey ones Lauren had insisted went with the dress, the ones whose current whereabouts were a mystery. I hoped I hadn’t lost them. Given my recent nuptials, nothing would surprise me.

I wandered back into the bathroom with a vague memory of a buzzing noise and laughter ringing in my ear, of him whispering to me. It made no sense.

I turned and raised the edge of my towel, going up on tippytoes to inspect my ample ass in the mirror. Black ink and hot pink skin.

All the air left my body in a rush.

There was a word on my left butt cheek, a name:

David

I spun and dry-heaved into the sink.


Excerpted from Lick by Kylie Scott. Copyright © 2014 by Kylie Scott.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.