Saturday, August 2, 2014

"A Hole in the Ice" book excerpt

Coming September 2014 from Little Bird Publishing House

     A cat yowled somewhere in the distance. Further away, someone fired a gun. A man, dressed in black, slipped out of a dark alley; the mist swirled around him. He breathed in the acrid, smoky air, and glanced at the hazy moon.
Turning a corner, he looked nervously behind him. Was that a lantern? Or the gleam of the moon on one of the burnt out lamp-posts? Ahead of him someone ducked out of sight. He hunched his shoulders in an attempt to appear smaller and dashed down an alley. Without looking behind him, he turned onto the next street and crossed over a bridge, passing sooty stone walls and flickering lamps. Down a dark lane, up another alley, he ran as swift and soft as he could. He stopped, panting. Looking behind him, he saw a shadow move. As he had feared, he was being followed.
He slipped into a side street, one hand protecting the secret pocket in his waistcoat. Something moved in the fog and caused him to alter his course. He went left, then right, then left. A top hat loomed menacingly out of the darkness, blocking his path. Ducking around a corner, he watched as the figure ambled by, its cape stirring eddies in the fog. The figure stopped and looked about, then moved on.
Once it was gone, he sighed in relief and set off again. Then he heard something ahead of him, a scratching like a thousand pens on parchment, a scrabbling like fingernails inside a coffin.
He turned and fled down a narrow pathway, passing several dark openings. Slipping into one of the openings, he emerging on a wider street that followed the river. The noises grew louder behind him, the scuttling more frantic. Silent lightning forked in the sky, lighting up the smoke wreathing the rooftops. The man in black ran across an ancient bridge spanning the murky river. He looked to the right, down the river. The top hat mirrored his crossing on the next bridge.
Shrill squeaks drove themselves into the black clad man’s ears. Glancing back he saw a moon-gilt mass teeming over the cobbles of the bridge. He suppressed a cry and ran faster. If he could only reach the embassy and his comrades—but he had to go downriver—he would have to outrun the top hat.
He careened around a sooty corner, bumping into a ragged figure. He cried out, but the figure was hatless, merely a beggar or murderer. The man in black pushed him aside and continued to run. He was now on a lane lined with dark shop windows.
The squeals followed him, building as they grew closer. The beggar screamed behind him. The man plunged into a y-shaped intersection. He hesitated for a moment, then ran left.
He stopped dead by a cold lamppost as noiseless lightning again sliced the sky. He hugged the lamppost with stiff, frightened fingers. The top hat stood in the middle of the road.
Behind him, the cobbles roiled under the moonlight, scratching, scraping, and scrabbling. The moon winked out as the clouds and smoke choked off its light. In the murky darkness the man could see hundreds of glittering beady eyes. The man whirled around and made to rush the top hat, maybe slip past in the dark.
A lantern flared red in the night. The man in black skidded to a halt. The lantern turned to reveal the head of its bearer. The head grinned, all aglow, like a scarlet carnival mask. The man was trapped.
The swarming eyes surged towards him and rats crawled up his legs. Their claws tore his trousers and scratched his skin, a froth of biting, clawing, squeaking terror. The man in black fell screaming to the cobbles as the hungry rats poured over him. The head turned its lantern so the light spilled onto the rats. They shied away from the bright red glow.
“Back!” the head commanded, sweeping off its top hat. The rats obeyed, squealing in protestation of the light. The owner of the head and hat stooped over the wailing man in black and searched his pockets. He soon found the secret pocket and its occupant. He slipped the round shape into his own pocket and stood, replacing his hat. He turned his lantern on the rats and strode off into the fog, driving the vermin before him.
The man in black moaned and a last silent flicker shot through the tattered clouds. The Thames continued to flow sluggishly and darkly along. The moon reappeared from behind a tattered cloud.  Somewhere nearby a cat yowled.

Chapter One: When People Have Dinner

As darkness fell, Parsifal paced in the upstairs hall, stopping every few minutes to peer out of the window. He wanted to be the first to see his uncle’s carriage, but the fog caused the gate at the end of the gravel drive to melt into obscurity. Finally, when it was impossible to see anything further, he gave up his watch and went to his room.
He collapsed in a chair and picked up a book. But Parsifal couldn’t focus on reading; his imagination wouldn’t stop playing with the possible identities of the guests his uncle was bringing. What if the Prime Minister came for dinner? Or the Duke of Wales? It was possible, given his uncle’s prominent status. Parsifal hoped his uncle would stay a few days. Perhaps, if he was lucky, his uncle would go riding with him before he left again. It had been so long since the last time…
Excitement downstairs interrupted his reverie. Maids were rushing about and Mrs. Hue, the housekeeper, could be heard barking orders. He hurried to the window in the hall. Carriage lights glowed on the drive; wheels creaked and a harness jangled. When the carriage pulled up to the house, Parsifal  tried to smooth out the tail of his dress jacket as he dashed down the stairs, wanting to make a good impression. He joined Mrs. Hue by the door and heard the voice of his uncle, Lord Keazund, ring out with authority, like a great pipe organ. Another voice answered, this one a musical air on the viol. Mrs. Hue watched through the peep-hole and waited. Footsteps sounded on the front stairs. At the last moment, before anyone on the other side could turn the knob, Mrs. Hue flung the door wide open. Lord Keazund did not seem at all perturbed. He merely stepped over the threshold, filling the hall with his commanding presence. His chiseled features were handsome and fashionably pale. Few people were taller than him, and those who were, did not seem so.
 “Good evening, master,” Mrs. Hue said jovially, taking Lord Keazund's coat.
 “Good evening, Mrs. Hue,” he said . Then he turned to Parsifal and greeted him with a single nod of the head and the mere acknowledgement of his name.
Parsifal nodded, mirroring his Uncle. He didn't let the cool greeting give him the pang it usually did as he was too preoccupied looking at the people behind him.
Standing directly behind his Uncle was a woman. As she stepped into the lamplight, her hair shimmered. Her features were soft, like the lines of a light sketch. She was not a glamorous Parisian; there was nothing overtly sensual about her, and yet her simple pastoral beauty was completely riveting.
“This is my nephew, Parsifal,” Lord Keazund said. “Parsifal, this is Lady Vasille.” Parsifal bowed deeply and she curtsied back.
 “It is a pleasure to meet you,” Lady Vasille said, and she sounded as if she actually meant it.
“The pleasure is mine,” Parsifal said. Lady Vasille slipped out of her cloak and passed it to Mrs. Hue with a friendly smile. Parsifal tried his best to stop staring and turn his attention to the other guests.
Four more people entered the hall. The next to be introduced was Sir Oaktree, an average man with whiskers. The only remarkable thing about him were his cruel green eyes that gazed over everything with a scorching ferocity. He was followed by Mr. Carrion, a sallow looking man; Mr. Dorril, a fat man; and Sir Morris, a cheerful red-cheeked fellow.
Lord Keazund led the way into the dining room. He sat at the head with Mr. Carrion, Sir Oaktree, and Sir Morris on his right. Lady Vasille sat on his left.
 “Come sit here,” Lady Vasille said to Parsifal, gesturing to the seat next to her; forcing a disappointed Mr. Dorril to sit in the next seat down.
Parsifal couldn’t believe his luck. He yanked on his cuffs and wished he’d paid more attention to his appearance earlier that evening. He sat down between Lady Vasille and Mr. Dorril and studied his uncle, wondering if he was really going to be allowed to dine with them.
Mr. Dorril took up slightly more space than the conventional table setting, pushing Parsifal closer to Lady Vasille. Their proximity meant his elbow brushed hers. Even through his evening dress, his elbow tingled at the contact.
He turned to apologize, but somehow the words wouldn’t come out. She smiled at him and he felt oddly warm. He smiled back. The maids were rushing the food and wine to the table. Mrs. Hue had retreated to her place by the sideboard, making sure everything ran smoothly.
“As I was saying in the carriage,” Mr. Carrion said, “the Eastern Republics are a serious threat to the control of power in Greater Europe.”
“On the contrary,” Lady Vasille said, “They are completely unimportant.”
“Unfortunately, Lady Vasille, they do have enough power to affect us,” Mr. Carrion said.
“How, exactly?” Lady Vasille asked. “Besides trade being disrupted by their little wars?”
“No, but ideas and political movements are contagious.” Mr. Carrion looked annoyed,
“That is entirely so,” Lady Vasille agreed.
“And they might oppose our ideas and stir other countries against our movement,” Mr. Carrion continued, unwilling to let his point go.
“Yes, exactly! The Belarian Alliance is already doing that,” Lady Vasille said.
“But,” said Mr. Carrion, “the Eastern…” 
 “The Belarian Alliance is the real threat, Mr. Carrion,” Lady Vasille said reprovingly. “The Eastern Republics revere the Belarian Alliance, if the Alliance dies, the Republics will lose faith; kill the leader and then the Republics will die, too.”
Mr. Carrion looked confused, “Well, I suppose...”
Lady Vasille turned away from the discussion as the rest of the company joined in with venom. “Politicians,” she said to Parsifal, “Talk, talk, talk.” She yawned, and Parsifal gave a start. He had just been enjoying using all his well-polished manners in front of such prestigious people and then one of them yawned for the whole table to see and no one noticed.
“I expect you know quite a bit about them being as you live with one.”
He cleared his throat nervously. “Um, not exactly.”
“Oh, that's right, you probably don't see much of your uncle, do you?” Lady Vasille said, biting her spoon thoughtfully.
 “No, I don't. He's usually away, doing . . .” Parsifal shrugged, “whatever he's doing.”
 “How long have you lived with Lord Keazund?”
 “I was seven when my uncle adopted me.” He glanced over at his uncle who was in full political swing. “So about nine years,” he sighed.
 “You're just sixteen, then?” Lady Vasille asked. Parsifal nodded. Lady Vasille continued, “Orphaned? That's terrible.”
 “They never found my mother,” Parsifal said defensively. “She disappeared on an expedition to Siberia. All they found was a strip of blue ribbon from her hair.” It was what he always said on the subject, trying hard to smother the ungracious feelings of resentment. He still wondered why she had run off on an expedition to Siberia, of all places, when he was so young. It didn't make any sense.
“Oh,” Lady Vasille said, nodding her head and pressing her lips together to indicate that there was little more she could offer. She changed the topic. “If you're sixteen, you'll be introduced into society soon, won't you?”
 “I hope so,” Persifal said, letting out a light laugh, relieved that the tricky subject of his orphan status had come to an end.
“Do you live in London?” Parsifal asked.
“Sometimes, but I also have a house in Berlin.”
“Germany,” Parsifal said. “What's it like there?”
“It's a wonderful place; it has a really old feel, like layers of memories hang like a thick dust in the air.” She looked straight into his eyes. Hers were warm and deep. Time slowed; his lonely heartbeats drawn out in the silence.
Lady Vasille turned back to her plate and the clink of silverware resumed. Parsifal looked away awkwardly, and caught sight of his uncle gazing at him and Lady Vasille. His face was mostly unreadable, but there was a mixture of something there that made Parsifal feel suddenly guilty.
“How exactly do you know my uncle?” Parsifal asked as soon as his uncle looked away.
“I have a little influence in areas that he would like to have influence in, so he has taken me into his plans.”
“You're not a politician, are you?” Parsifal asked with concern. He'd never heard of a woman politician.
“Of course not. I despise the creatures,” she replied, smiling at Lord Keazund who had glanced over at them again. “But you don't have to be political, or even in the government, to have power.”
“What is my uncle up to?” Parsifal asked, suddenly interested in politics.
“He has the most diabolical plan,” she said before turning to the maid. “Some pudding, if you will.” She turned back to Parsifal. “It involves a trip, and that's  as much as I should probably tell you.” Deftly, she changed the topic, “Thanks for sitting between me and Dorril. I sat next to him in the carriage. Not pleasant.”
Dorril was close enough to hear, and Parsifal assumed he had by the way the large man shifted uncomfortably.
“Um, you're welcome,” Parsifal said. “Who are they?” He looked pointedly at the assembled company. “What does my uncle want from them?”
“Some of them may be useful in more than one way,” Lady Vasille replied. “Others...” she pouted alluringly, “may not. Time will tell. That's why we’re all here having dinner; talk reveals things.”
 “Perhaps too many things,” Lord Keazund said, looking directly at Parsifal. The rest of the company, except Sir Oaktree, were in a loud debate about the way business was conducted in Belgium.
 “Or too few,” Lady Vasille said.
 Lord Keazund looked at Vasille and she looked back defiantly. Finally Lord Keazund turned to Parsifal. “By the way, your tutor is being replaced. Dr. Liam is no longer welcome under this roof.”
Parsifal wanted to ask why, and would have, but his uncle had already turned away. The rest of dinner passed in a flood of arguments and debates. Afterwards, Lord Keazund and his guests departed to the sitting room, probably for more of the same. Sir Oaktree was last through the door. He stole a look at Lady Vasille. Parsifal watched Sir Oaktree's hand drift down to his pocket and Parsifal caught a glimpse of something metallic. Sir Oaktree’s pocket watch? Sir Oaktree glanced around again and this time caught Parsifal looking. His cruel eyes hardened and his hand jerked out of his pocket, guiltily.
“Sir Oaktree!” Lady Vasille called from within the sitting room. “Where is that paper you wrote for The Critical, I wanted to see it.”
Sir Oaktree glared at Parsifal before striding into the sitting room, “You have heard of my modest writings?” he said. Parsifal watched the room disappear as Lord Keazund closed the door from within.
Parsifal waited a moment, then crept up to the door. He put his ear to the crack, straining to hear. Sir Morris was saying something about Sir Oaktree and The Critical. Lady Vasille asked something. Sir Oaktree replied and Sir Morris interjected.
“If only someone had a copy of the article,” Lady Vasille said.
 “I believe I left my case in the carriage; I may have one in there,” Sir Oaktree said.
A chair creaked. Lord Keazund spoke, “I’ll have someone retrieve it for you.”
“No need, your Lordship,” Sir Oaktree said, “I need some fresh air and this is just the excuse to stretch my legs. If I may?”
 “The carriage house is around the back,” Lord Keazund said. Footsteps came towards the door. Parsifal jumped back and retreated hastily down the hall. The handle turned. Parsifal hid in the dining room.
“Bloody Morris, can't keep his mouth shut. They already suspected me. It'll be even trickier now,” Sir Oaktree muttered as he hurried past.
Parsifal waited until Sir Oaktree’s footsteps receded, noting how the footsteps didn’t sound as if they went in the direction of either the back or front door. Parsifal gave up the espionage; he didn’t want to be caught when Sir Oaktree came back. He retrieved his book from upstairs, returned it to its shelf in the library and headed in the direction of the bathroom. As he walked down the hall he savored the moments of the whole affair. He tried to decide what to think about Lady Vasille, and how radical she had been with her disregard for proper etiquette.
The bathroom door stuck for a moment, as if bolted, then gave way. Someone else was already inside.
Parsifal didn’t have time to stop. He bowled into Sir Oaktree, who went stumbling into a shelf. Scented soaps rained to the floor. Sir Oaktree dropped something, which clattered down amongst them.  
 “Sorry! I didn’t realize… I…” Parsifal offered in flustered apology.
Sir Oaktree grabbed something off the floor and stuffed it into his pocket, looking around wildly, as if he expected someone to attack him.
 “I’m terribly sorry,” Parsifal continued, “I didn’t know you were in here.”
Sir Oaktree glared at Parsifal as he stepped around him to the door, then exited hastily, slamming the door on Parsifal. He stared at the door for a moment. “Curious,” he said to himself, bolting the door. The bolt was stiff; one could easily pull it only part way, if they weren’t paying attention. Parsifal turned to the water closet. He was reaching for the towel when he noticed something on the floor, laying amongst the similarly shaped soaps on the floor. He picked it up. It was the size of his palm and was slightly warm. The lid was clasped shut with asimple clip, and a rectangle-shaped hole in the lid showed a wire suspended vertically across the middle of it, making it clear that it wasn’t, as Parsifal had initially assumed, a pocket watch. He drew it closer to his eye and looked into the slit. Inside there was something moving, swirling; a throbbing, pulsing power.
Parsifal was mesmerised with curiosity, he couldn’t resist flipping open the lid. A small spinning wheel was suspended in  liquid; it  quivered slightly under the tremble of Parsifal’s hand. A small magnifying glass was hinged to the side of the apparatus. Strangely distorted figures decorated the face, but on closer inspection he could make out,  N, W, E, and an S. The wheel spun erratically. It was a broken compass. Sir Oaktree must have dropped it. Parsifal slid it into his pocket. He’d try to catch Sir Oaktree before everyone went to bed; he didn’t think Lord Keazund would be pleased if he barged in on their little meeting.
The next morning, sunlight shone through the window, illuminating the pale green wallpaper and making it brighter than usual.  Parsifal began the morning ritual, rising, washing and dressing. Whilst attempting to align his  contrary cravat, he caught sight of the broken compass laying on the dressing table. ‘Strange’ he thought, ‘I was sure I left it in my pocket.’ He reasoned that the maid, who came in every morning before he awoke to fill the wash pitcher with hot water and remove his clothes from the day before, must have found it in his pocket and set it there.
Parsifal had meant to ask Sir Oaktree if it was his and see it safely into his hands, but the party of dinner guests had stayed in the sitting room until long after Parsifal had gone to bed. He resolved to try and give it to Sir Oaktree at breakfast. He finished his cravat with a resigned sigh and picked up the compass, stuffing it into his pocket as he headed downstairs.
“This house is much too green,” he said to himself, walking down the green painted hall with its equally green carpet. “Makes one feel quite nauseous.”
He arrived to discover that the breakfast table had only one occupant: Mrs. Hue.
 “Are they all still in bed?” Parsifal asked, sitting down at the table.
“No,” said Mrs. Hue, “they left last night. All of them. Lord Keazund included. That man just can't stay home!”
 “You mean they left in the middle of the night?” Parsifal asked. That was disappointing. Not only had he failed to return the broken compass, but he hadn’t said goodbye to his uncle… or Lady Vasille.
“Yes. And with a woman, too,” Mrs. Hue said. Parsifal did not answer, he was too busy eating sausage and thinking on the lovely Lady Vasille. Mrs. Hue continued, “Maybe he's found himself a wife, at last.”
Parsifal swallowed his sausage, almost choking, before exclaiming, “Mrs. Hue, please, remember your place. Lord Keazund was with a party of politicians; they were all about business.”
Mrs. Hue brushed the admonishment aside, still seeing Parsifal as the small round faced boy she’d bounced on her knee. “Ah, but that’s the perfect cover; he can't go riding about with a lady by himself. Wouldn’t be proper,” Mrs. Hue said knowledgeably. “By the way,  before he left Lord Keazund told me to tell you that he would be finding your new tutor as soon as possible.”
“Why is he replacing Dr. Liam?” Parsifal asked, sure that the all-knowing Mrs. Hue whould have some insight.
“Your uncle didn't say, he just muttered some vague thing about how he should have realized earlier or some such rot.”
The doorbell rang and the maid, Suzette, scurried past to answer it. She returned with a man in tow.
 “Dr. Liam,” Suzette announced before hurrying out. 
 “Why are you here?” Mrs. Hue asked indignantly.
 “To fulfill my tutoring duties, of course,” Dr. Liam said.
 “Well,” Mrs. Hue said stuffily, “Lord Keazund is replacing you, so we have no need of you.”
“Ah, but until the replacement arrives, I should continue teaching, yes?” Dr. Liam said. Mrs. Hue harrumphed and said, “Well, seeing as I don't know when such a replacement will arrive, I suppose you may continue for now.”
Dr Liam smiled.
Lessons began after breakfast, starting with Advanced Application of Calculus, then the Practice of the Fine Social Arts, followed by Dancing, Drawing, Music, Enhanced English, and Geographical History. Every other day, Dr. Liam would insist on French. It was pleasant to listen to his Scottish accent. Dr. Liam was easy to understand. The way he presented new concepts made them clear, and his lessons were cleverly planned. Parsifal was doing marvelously well. So, why was Dr. Liam being replaced?
“Dr. Liam,” Parsifal asked, during Dancing, “why is Uncle sending you away?”
Dr. Liam paused before replying, “I can only guess...” he paused again, “I thought this would probably happen, aye, knew it would. I haven't gotten anything official from him yet. I expected a warning.”
Parsifal looked past the spectacles, into the stern gray eyes. “What about?” he asked.
Dr. Liam shook his head, “I only know that one must be very careful about what is done and what is said. This is not a conversation we should have.” Parsifal went to protest but Dr. Liam raised a sad smile and shook his head again, “I think we should take another go at this Bavarian Waltz, don’t you?” Dr. Liam held out his arms and Parsifal took his hand in his. They went through the waltz again and no more was said.
Throughout the rest of lessons, Dr. Liam often glanced out of the window, or started at sudden noises, such as when a pen dropped to the floor. It got worse as the day wore on. The tutor glanced around more frequently, running his hands through his hair and fiddling with his cuffs. Parsifal watched in concern, it was clear that the Dr. was on edge, but couldn’t bring himself to ask what was wrong.
Dr. Liam left earlier than usual, not staying for afternoon tea. Before he went, he pressed a manila envelope into Parsifal's hand, saying,
“Sorry I couldn't stay longer, lad. I hope you have learned enough. I tried. But perhaps not hard enough.”
Parsifal stared dumbly at the envelope. He didn't understand his tutor’s words, nor the sadness in his eyes. Dr. Liam had been a wonderful teacher. What did he mean?
 “Thank you,” Parsifal stammered, “thank you for teaching…” There was more he wanted to say, but Dr. Liam was smiling sadly and already turning towards the door.
With a pang, Parsifal watched as Dr. Liam left. His good, amiable, brilliant teacher, gone. When he returned to the tea table, he was more than a little irritated by Mrs. Hue's attitude about it.
 “The sooner the replacement shows up,” Mrs. Hue said, “the better.”
 “He was a good tutor,” Parsifal protested, picking up his teacup.
“Not if Lord Keazund is getting rid of him,” Mrs. Hue said, picking up a scone and sniffing it suspiciously.
 “I have no idea why he should do so,” Parsifal said.
 “Precisely. We have no idea what sort of man Dr. Liam could be,” Mrs. Hue said.
“How does that connect?” Parsifal asked testily, sipping his tea. It needed more milk.
Mrs. Hue turned and yelled down the hall, “Suzette, are these scones perfectly fresh?”
 “Yes ma'am, baked 'em just now.” Suzette's voice drifted back.
 “What I should like to know,” Mrs. Hue said, putting the scone back down, “is who will be replacing Dr. Liam?”
Parsifal let Mrs. Hue ramble on; he was too busy thinking about other problems, like how he was going to return the compass. The longer he left it, the more he felt like a thief.  Now that the guests had gone, he'd have to wait until Lord Keazund came back. His uncle should know the address.
 “How well do you think uncle knows Sir Oaktree?” Parsifal asked Mrs. Hue.
 “Who? That creepy little man? Haven't the slightest,” Mrs. Hue said. Parsifal sighed but she wasn’t quite finished. “He seemed to know the Lady Vasille well enough. I wonder when they'll get married – your  uncle and that lady – she looked like a good match. Pretty enough. Lord Keazund needs to settle down and raise a family properly.”
Parsifal had no wish to repeat the breakfast time conversation and so stood, putting an early end to afternoon tea. He headed to his room with the intention of dressing for a refreshing afternoon ride. Undressing, he found the broken compass and manila envelope. He was about to open the envelope, but stopped. The old compass tingled in his other hand, forcing him to set the envelope aside for later. He opened the compass lid.
There was something strange about the piece. Again, he felt the throb within it – like a heartbeat. He lifted the magnifier and looked through it, expecting to see enlarged cardinal marks. Instead, there appeared a substantial smudge on the glass. He tried to wipe it off with his finger, but it didn’t do any good. He scrubbed at it with his sleeve. Had the smear just changed color?
He brought the compass closer and a chill settled on him as the smudge cleared to show moving shapes. Impossibly, it was as if small figures moved on the other side of the glass. Parsifal brought the magnifier right up close to his eye. All at once there was a loud rushing sound and he could no longer hear the birds chirping  through the open window.

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