The Dauntless Rook (§.14)

Continued from §.13.

Serlo Wealdmaer exited the cabaret to behold an angwissous man in a corvine coat, running full-tilt across the cobblestones of the main thorough. The sprinter shouted for aid as he sped, arms flailing like a beached and barmy cephalopod. Something about the manic figure seemed familiar to Serlo. He narrowed his gaze and gave a cry, realizing that the man wore the same coat Cerelia had bought for Oeric Adair.

As the eloper made to pass, Serlo lunged forward and caught the runner about the arm.

“What anoy, man?”

“Let me go!”

“A moment. Thy coat is familiar to my eyes. How did thee come by it?”

“He’ll kill us both!”

“Who, man? Speak.”

The disheveled tramp fearfully pointed down the street. Serlo followed the gesture but saw only empty tiled road and a few street-sweepers in the distance.

“He was right behind me! He was. I swear it!”

“Calm thyself, there is no one. Safe thou art. Now, tell me, how came thee by this feathery glaze?”

“Selt it wert, by a man, but a few minutes past.”

“That bastard,” Serlo exclaimed to himself, face flushing cherry-red.

“Bastard, sir?”

“Nothing, nothing. How much did thee give for it?”

“It?”

“The coat.”

“3 twyer, sir.”

“I shalt give thee six.”

“Aye, sir, aye!”

Eyes wide with amazement, the tramp swiftly slipped out of the curious garb and passed it to Serlo who handed off six, small, shimmering coins Shortly, the tramp departed as a chill wind blew in, carrying, in its wake, a palling fog which swallowed up the entire street, wholly obscuring the form of a thin man with a crooked smile who watched from the top of the nearest rooftop.

*

continued in chapter 15 (forthcoming)

 

Elevens (2001)

(Excerpt from the novel Fiona’s Guardians by Dan Klefstad)

 

“You count the money. I’ll count the blood.” Daniel pushes the open case of dollars toward Jesús who in turn opens a large cooler releasing a cloud of mist. The cooler is tied to a dolly. Daniel’s gloves lift blocks of dry ice, revealing pint bags labeled O negative, A negative, A positive, B positive, etc. All will be consumed during a single meeting of Fiona’s extended family. The O negative is for her.

“All good.” Daniel replaces the ice and shuts the lid. “Let’s do this again sometime.”

“You got it.” Jesús shakes hands and nods toward the twin-engine plane fronting a skyline of red rock formations. “Baron, huh? What’s it cruise, 200 knots?”

“I’m not a pilot.” Daniel grins. “I just hire them.” He tilts the dolly back while Jesús opens the door. “I need a steady source for O negative. What can you get me every other week?”

Jesús shrugs. “80 or 90 pints. Maybe 100.”

“Get me 100 and I’ll pay 200 bucks a bag.” Daniel pushes his cargo into the morning sun. “See you in two weeks?”

“You got it. I’ll have 100 for you.”

Outside, today’s pilot – Bud — opens the baggage door. When Daniel unstraps the cooler, each grabs a handle and lifts. Bud groans. “This feels heavier than what we agreed.”

“131.5 pounds, like I told you.” Daniel grunts through his teeth.

Bud puts his end into the cabin. “Same as my daughter who flew with me yesterday. Course, she’s at the age where she’d kill me for telling. You got kids?”

“None that I weighed recently.” Daniel looks at his watch. “It’s after six. Let’s go.”

Bud starts the engines. “Sedona traffic, this is Baron One-One Two-Two Alpha taking off runway Two-One, left turnout.”

That you, Elevens? It’s Boxcar on your six. Where you headed?

“Goin’ to Chicago with all that money I won last night.” He turns onto the taxiway.

Me too.”

“Uh, I recall you leavin’ more than you came with.”

“I meant Chicago. And I was doin’ all right until you dropped triple Jacks. I’m staying at the downtown Hilton. Sure would love a chance to get my five hundred dollars back.”

“Game on!” A smile creeps across Bud’s face. “Of course, we could bet that five hundred on a race to Chi-Town.”

“Hmm. Where you stopping for fuel?”

“Garden City, Kansas.” Bud enters the runway. “Wanna make it double or nothin’?”

“That’a Texas-sized 10-4.”

Bud opens the throttle and the engines roar in stereo. Seconds later they’re airborne, white wings disappearing into a cerulean panorama. He looks in the mirror at Boxcar’s Mooney lifting off. “So, Mr. Strange, what’re we haulin’ today?”

Daniel is so entranced by the Mars-red surface he almost forgets his “business” name, Robert Strange. “Uh, lab samples. Tissue. Can’t say much beyond that.”

“Long as it ain’t stem cells – or clonin’.” Bud shakes his head. “So sick of people playin’ God when they should be worshipping Him. You a church-goer?”

“It’s been a while. I might come back.”

“Don’t wait too long. Never know when Judgement Day will arrive.”

“So why do they call you Elevens?”

“My lucky number. Born November 11. On my eleventh birthday I went to church for the first time and got moved by the Holy Spirit. At twenty-two, I became a father for the first time. And at the age of thirty-three, after wandering in the desert so to speak, I came back to Jesus. Yessir, born again.” He pauses. “Of course, you heard about my last winning hand.”

“Three Jacks.”

“Which was the eleventh hand of the game.” His right hand goes up. “God as my witness, I kid you not.”

Daniel wrinkles his forehead. “I’m trying to remember the significance of eleven in the Bible. All I remember are twelves.”

“Right, the number of apostles, and the age Jesus was when he questioned scholars in the temple. Plus, twelve sons of Jacob who formed the twelve tribes of Israel. Yep, the good book likes an even dozen. But eleven is connected to the main event for people in my church – hold on.” Bud listens to frequency traffic for several seconds. “Chatter on the east coast. Reports of a plane crashing into a skyscraper.” He shakes his head. “Where were we?”

“Eleven in the Bible.”

“Right. Eleven appears less often in scripture but when it does, it usually signifies judgement. Take the Book of Genesis. In Chapter 11, mind you, mankind rebels against God and builds the tower of Babel. God responds by confusing their language – literally, they start babbling, and the result is chaos.” He pauses to listen again. “The apostle John had eleven visions in connection with the final judgement. And the Gospel of John tells of eleven promises God makes to mankind, beginning with everlasting life if you believe in Christ and ending with a call to obey Jesus. My takeaway: Eleven is a sign to get right with the Lord before Judgement Day.” Listening again. “For the sake of completeness, I’ll note that our savior was 33 when he was crucified.” He presses a headphone tight against his left ear. “Another plane hit the World Trade Center – South Tower this time – and now they’re saying both were airliners. Looks like an attack of some sort.”

“Let me hear.”

Bud switches to an AM channel and they listen silently for several minutes. The news gets worse as reports come in about another airliner crashing into the Pentagon. Even the distance of two time zones can’t deaden the reality that the nation is under attack. There’s confusion about a fourth plane which, at first, was headed for the White House but now lies burning on the ground in Pennsylvania. Aboard each plane, the hijackers shouted “Allāhu akbar” – 11 letters spelling “God is greatest” — as they used boxcutters to slit crewmembers’ throats. Now the media is sharing voice messages from those trapped in the burning towers. Daniel keeps swallowing to quell the emotions rising in his throat. Bud just lets his moans, groans, and tears flow unchecked. He improvises a prayer:

“Dear Lord, it’s Elevens here, your perennial sinner. I know we haven’t spoken directly about my little gamblin’ problem, but I’d like to make sure we’re square. If this is your Final Judgement, please have some mercy and take this flawed but well-meaning servant to sit by your side. If, however, this is a trial you’ve set for us, I’m ready to show my devotion by givin’ up cards. Just, please, give me a sign. Show me the way.” He turns to Daniel. “If you need help prayin’ – maybe you forgot some of the words – I can help.”

“I’m sure my fate has already been decided.”

Bud looks forward. “And Lord, let’s not forget our quiet friend here, Mr. Strange. He may be a mystery, but I’m guessin’ his intentions are just as noble as mine. That, I believe, makes him worthy of your protection. Amen.”

Albuquerque Center to all aircraft: All flights are to immediately land at the nearest facility. This is a nationwide order from the FAA. Repeat: Land immediately.

“Ask for a sign, receive one.” Bud clears his throat. “Albuquerque Center, this is Baron One-One Two-Two Alpha. Message received. Over.” He spreads a chart across the control wheel. “No long runways in front of us, so we’ll have to turn around.”

“No.” Daniel holds a pistol in his right hand. “Keep going.”

“You out of your mind? I’ll lose my license – and my livelihood.” Bud’s eyes land briefly on the gun. “Careful with that trigger. We’ll both die if you pull it.”

“I’m not pulling anything so long as you keep flying.”

Bud sighs. “Mr. Strange, you’re makin’ a big mistake. And it’s a hell of a thing to do, dragging me into whatever scheme you got going on.” He glances back. “I’m guessin’ that’s not lab samples, is it? What are you into, drugs?”

“The less you know, the safer we both are.”

“Sounds like you’re in deep.” Bud softens his voice. “Look, man, it’s not too late. I’ll testify in your favor if you just give me the gun and let me follow orders.”

“We’re all obeying someone, Bud. Just get us to Garden City.”

“And then what? You can’t take off. All flights are grounded!”

“Let me worry about that.”

Barron One-One Two-Two Alpha, Albuquerque Center. Turn around now and land at Sedona. That is an order.

Daniel pushes the gun closer. “Don’t acknowledge.”

Bud exhales and puts both hands on the wheel. After several seconds, he shakes his head. “The Lord is testing me today. With signs I do not like.”

“When we land,” Daniel adjusts his tone, “I’ll pay your second installment early, and we’ll part ways. The world has no time right now for this little problem between us.”

“Problem? You hijack my plane and call it a ‘little problem’? That is a breach of trust, my friend, and comes at a time when my very identity is shaken to its core.”

“Identity?”

“Eleven has always been my number — whether it’s cards, horses, or life events. Then this morning happened. I woke up and said, ‘It’s the 11th of September, gonna be a good day.’ But clearly, it’s not. It’s a shitty day for everyone – possibly the worst in our nation’s history. That’s one sign.” He points at the gun. “Next, I’m held up by a Colt M1911. And now,” he punches his door, “111 miles from Sedona, we get intercepted.”

“What?”

“LOOK OUT YOUR GODDAMN WINDOW.”

Daniel’s jaw drops when he sees an F-16 with its flaps open and gear down, slowing into formation. Its pilot raises a hand, finger pointed down.

Barron One-One Two-Two Alpha, this is Captain “Spike” Ripley of the United States Air Force. I’m in visual contact and will shoot you down if you fail to comply with the following order: Land immediately. Repeat: Land immediately.

“There’s nowhere.” Bud is sweating. “NOWHERE TO FUCKING LAND!”

Daniel snatches the chart. “There’s a private strip on a mesa up ahead.”

“What’s the heading?”

“25 miles straight ahead.”

“Length?”

“What the mesa?”

“RUNWAY.”

“2,900 feet.”

Bud snatches it back. “Shit, that mesa looks half the size of Sedona. It’ll be like landing on an aircraft carrier – which I’ve never done before.”

Baron One-One Two-Two Alpha, this is your final warning. Land immediately.

Bud’s voice cracks. “Don’t shoot, Captain! Gimme two seconds.” He switches on the landing lights, decelerates, and snaps his fingers at Daniel. “Airport elevation.”

“What?”

“FEET ABOVE SEA LEVEL.”

“4,700.”

Bud clears his throat. “This is Baron One-One Two-Two Alpha, descending. God bless you, sir, and God bless the United States of America.” He glances over. “I’m assuming there’s no tower at this little outpost we’re shootin’ for.”

“Correct.”

“Well, brace yourself, because crosswinds are gonna be a problem.” He scowls when he notices the gun again. “Put that away.”

“Are you calm now?”

“Fuck you.”

Daniel complies and settles into his seat as the runway comes into view, sitting atop a block of crimson stone. The approach is fairly calm until a quarter mile out, when a gust knocks them off target. Bud’s knuckles are white as he raises the nose and straightens out against the crosswind. Back on track, he finally lowers the wheels, adjusting for the extra resistance which now appears to come from everywhere. At 500 yards, the plane shakes violently while Bud struggles to stay on target. At 200 yards, he pulls back on the wheel, keeping the nose up, while gunning the engine to stay above the rim. At 50 yards, a giant gust pushes the plane below the runway. Bud yanks back again and accelerates sharply as the rocky face grows bigger. Nearly above the rim, Daniel sees another plane above them.

“Shit, that you Elevens? I’m on top of you.”

“THE FUCK, BOXCAR. ABORT LANDING.”

“Pulling up.”

Too late. The Baron’s wheels catch the rim and collapse, causing them to skid diagonally across the runway. They knock aside a parked helicopter, then hit another plane before smacking into a hangar. As he slowly regains consciousness, Daniel hears a gurgling sound. Turning his head, he sees Bud’s eyes staring down at a long piece of metal in his throat. The gurgling slows to intermittent choking before Bud finally goes silent. Next, Daniel turns to the right and sees his arm hanging out the window, bent the wrong way. A piece of bone sticks out through his bicep.

***

“Daniel.” A familiar voice, but not the one he hoped for. His eyes open to see Søren Fillenius leaning over him, eyes piercing the narcotic haze. He snaps his fingers and waves his hand in front of Daniel’s face.

“Stop it.”

“There he is.” The hand withdraws. “That must be powerful stuff they gave you.”

Daniel looks at the tubes hooked up to his left arm. “Where’s Fiona?”

“Really? I come to your rescue, and she’s all you think about?” He shakes his head. “She’s not coming.”

“Rescue? Bullshit. You’re here for the cargo.”

“I did salvage some A positive. The rest will go to waste because the elders canceled the meeting. I suppose you’ll blame the pilot for our having to reschedule.”

“Waste? Take the O negative to Fiona.”

Søren looks indignant. “I’m not your mule – or hers.”

“You piece of shit. I nearly killed myself to deliver that.”

“Well well, the truth comes out.” Søren’s face comes closer. “I’ve got some truth of my own to share.” Two icy hands grab Daniel’s face and turn it to the right. “Look at what’s left of you and tell me you’re still useful.”

Daniel’s breathing accelerates when he sees the stump wrapped in bandages. “That’s up to Fiona…”

“She and I have already spoken.” Canines appear as Søren’s voice changes to a snarl. “I’m to estimate your value and decide whether you stay employed or remain here. Permanently.”

“I have a new source.” Daniel struggles to speak. “100 bags of O negative every two weeks. That, plus Atlanta and Cleveland, and Fiona is set.”

“Where is this new source?”

“Sedona. All we have to do is hire a new pilot.”

“All the planes are grounded.”

“For just a few days. The economy would collapse.”

“100 bags of O neg, huh?” Søren regards him carefully. “Add 100 of A positive to each flight and I’ll let you live.”

Daniel’s vision fades as the drugs take hold again. A warm, fuzzy feeling spreads throughout his body, and the pain that was rallying begins to recede. At this point, he could care less if Søren brought him home or drained him dry. He wonders if heaven feels this good, and kind of wishes he could slip away forever. Would Elevens be there? His prayer for protection should carry weight, right? With St. Peter or whoever guards the gates? If, however, he must stay here it better be with a steady supply of this shit. The label on the drip bag was hazy but it might’ve said Dilaudid. Maybe Jesús could add a few bags of this, too. Get rid of the bad dreams. Allow him to forget everything.

The shadows gather again. Søren’s voice sounds like it’s coming from an old phonograph. Soon, all Daniel can hear is his own shallow breathing. Sure ain’t hell, that’s for certain…

###

The Dauntless Rook (§.13)

Continued from §.12.

Volfsige could not believe his eyes, for standing before him, in the litter-strewn alley that let out to the smokestacked north, was, against all reason, Oeric Adair, who only minutes prior, had stood in the market square, surrounded by gambesoned mercenaries. Adair had exchanged the stately clothes and short-brimmed cap for the broad-brimmed hat and peculiar crow-feathered coat that Volfsige well-remembered from the mishap at Rasten Yard.

“How on earth could he possibly have transposed himself with such haste? How is it possible for him to appear ahead of me when I had scarcely left him? Some secret passage or… no, there’s no point asking. When I have the man at his last, then to query all.”

Without further thought, Volfsige shifted down the ally, hand upon his dagger, instinctually padding towards his quarry as the man in the crow-feathered coat increased his pace, turning left towards a series of crumbling, labyrinthian tenements, vanishing therein.

The assassin steeled his nerves, slipped through a pack of itinerant bards and work-worn canvassers and entered the rain-pecked stair that let up to the chipped and crumbling housing complex. Moments after he’d started up the staircase he heard a curious creaking. The sound of old metal shearing. Then a light thump, as if a rucksack had fallen from the second story window.

Volfsige, brows raised and muscle’s taunt, dashed to the bottom of the stairs, rounded the corner to the left and discovered Adair running north along the sidewalk with tremendous speed. Volfsige cursed and bolted after the man. He was surprised by Adair’s stamina and agility, which bespoke a seasoned wayfarer or sportsman more than the pampered noble he knew the man to be.

“Forgetful I am. For the comitem evaded my knife when I was primed and he unaware; yet his singularity astonishes me still…”

The crow-coated man flashed his pursuer a wide, crooked smile and increased his pace, making for an alleyway some fifty feet before him, unaware in his turning of a old fruit merchant briskly pushing a cart of Torian melons directly towards him. The quarry gave a startled cry, half of fright, half of amusement, and oer’leapt the cart, abducting one of the berries as he passed. The fruit vendor stood a moment in wide-eyed perplexity, then turned, fast as his stiff and sun-battered body was able and shouted in protestation of the theft, shaking his wrinkled and calloused hands into the air, as if weaving a galdr to vex the gods.

Volfsige upturned the hefty cart and shoved the vendor aside, much to the horror of nearby crowd of market-goers heading towards the great bazaar. Volfsige wasn’t concerned by the throng. He was not known to the city and consequently had no public record of crime. Even if, by aventure, he was arrested, he could be charged for not but disorderly conduct, unbecoming of a guest of Ersentwyer. The worst that could befall him was the confiscation of his hospitality papers. The thought was as a feather upon his mind in comparison to the incursion of his employer’s displeasure.

Volfsige pressed into the alley in which his prey had vanished, only to find the corridor thick with vagabonds, who roused jangling foreign instruments and spun before a makeshift encampment of wagons and cloth as their less frenzied kindred haggled over scraps of cloth and metal. The mangy assortment hailed the assassin with smiles and strummed their instruments and stomped their feet as a medicant appraised a crow-feathered coat, proffered to him by a pale passerby. The medicant nodded approvingly and passed the pallid transient a trampish and high-collared cloak. The smiling seller removed his plumed cap, donned the garment, drew up the hood, slipped from the architectural artery and melted into the passing crowd.

*


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The Dauntless Rook (§.10)

Continued from §.09

Volfsige hung back, adjusting his newly acquired beige traveling coat and melting into the crowd as Oeric Adair moved deeper into the eastern bazaar, ringed by a small retinue of guards. He cursed. The minor legion would make any attempt upon the noble’s life impossible.

“Despite his skill, he brings such a guard? Aye, that is wise. I should do the same were I in his position. But what is he doing here? Likely looking for something for the misses. But why has he dispensed with his hat and coat? Perhaps he didn’t like the style…”

Volfsige adjusted his blonde wig and moved in closer, pretending to peruse the wares of a jewelry stall directly adjacent the one before which Adair and his men stood conversing.

“Looking for anything in particular, milord?” The lust-eyed merchant before Adair inquired meekly.

“Through no fault of my own, I’ve placed my wife in a most trying situation. Consequently, I thought I might brighten her mood with a gift and had in mind a bouquette, and yet, decided swiftly against it. Thoughtless really, she doesn’t even like flowers.”

“Why is that, milord?”

“She hates to see beautiful things die.”

Volfsige shifted out of earshot, desperately fighting a rising sense of guilt. It seemed to the stalker’s mind a shame to snuff out a life so filled with radiant promise and spritely virtue, yet, there was, for him, little he could do to extricate himself from the venture.

“A contract must be fulfilled,” he muttered with grim resolve.

*

The Dauntless Rook (§.07)

Continued from §.06.


Luned Fey leaned back in the old wicker chair she’d stolen four weeks ago, lowering the paper to behold a lithe, pale man, garbed in a corvine coat, who sat across the charred table. He settled down into the chair and poured some of the coffee Fey had freshly brewed looking impossibly pleased with himself and wholly oblivious to her increasingly dour expression.

“I see ya’ve finally returned with ya ridiculous spoils.”

“Ridiculous? Aesthetically refining, I should say.”

“Ya look like a giant bird.”

“Thouart my size, would that make of thee a giant shrew?”

“Its not funny, Dren. Ya’wert reckless.”

“My last name is only invoked when thourt in some wise vexed.”

“Vexed? Vexed! Have ya read the Evening Standard?”

“Indeed.”

“Ya made the front page.”

“No, no, no,” the man, sipped his coffee and wagged a finger before the woman, smiled and pushed up the brim of the azure-plumed hat to reveal gold-green eyes that glittered through the gloam, “Oeric Adair did.”

“The dockman saw thee. He’s been jawing to the press.”

Drake removed his hat, ruffled his matted, obsidian hair, listlessly waving his hand, as if brushing away a slothful fly.

“Let him jaw. Does it mention Emory’s condition?”

“Who?”

“The dock worker that took a dagger to the thigh.”

“No. Only mentions he were injured in the attempt on ya life. Drake, are ya even listening?”

Drake Dren tapped his chin, beetle-black brows furrowing momentarily.

“Hm, I shall just have to go and see for myself then…”

Luned folded the paper and tossed it upon the battered table, scowling.

“My dear woman, thourt either miming a prune or signalling thy disapproval.”

“Ave ya gone daft? Ya already saved the man’s life – theys naught left ta do in returning but show thy tail to the mousetrap.”

The man paused and dramatically scanned his backside as Luned rolled her eyes and shook her head.

“Its serious, damn ye. Yawert nearly kilt!”

He smiled slightly and leaned theatrically towards her, voice low and smooth and coaxing.

“Thou wert worried about me, wernt thee?”

“I wert worried about having my tenement overrun with accipiters! Which now, thanks ta thee, will be trawling the area for information, once it comes out that the man what dodged the cutthroat wasn’t Adair!”

“Ah, that is where thourt mistaken. To understand, thou must, of Adair, grow thy knowing. The ministry will hound after the assassin, but they shant come looking for me.”

“Why on earth not?”

“Because, my dear Luned, Adair won’t want them to.”

*


Continued in §.08.

The Dauntless Rook (§.06)

Continued from §.05.


Volfsige sat nervously within the shaded drawing room in lower eastside, wracked by his recent failure. Hands wringing the expensive cutlery as a rider might his brydel. The blond man opposite the cutthroat lit up a cigarette and exhaled a cloud of smoke above the table before breaking the silence.

“Theed given assurance that Oeric Adair would expire three days before the wedding. It is now two days before the wedding and Oeric Adair yet draws breath.”

“I underestimated him, Frayn.”

“Thou? Thou art finest among all the blade slingers of Rivenlore. How was it that a middling aristocrat with no martial training could evade thee?”

“He is more than he appears.”

“What prattle!”

“Thou knowst not the state of it. He dodged my blade as one might an unwelcome kiss. In all my years, I’ve never seen anything to match it. He is confident… and dangerous…”

“I believe thy words, strange though they be, but should I divulge such information to our employer, thy contract is forfeit.”

“A contract is a contract. Both parties are-”

Frayn rolled his eyes.

“What shalt thou do? Lodge a complaint with the Lord Paramount?”

“I find no amusement in thy frivolity.”

“I simply cannot empathize with the mirthless.”

“Tell thy employer that I need but one more chance. Should I be granted it, Oeric Adair shall not another sunrise see.”

*

The Dauntless Rook (§.05)

Continued from §.04.


After the concert had concluded, Blythe, Boyce, Kyne and Adair returned to the clerk whose visage bore the marks of considerable nervousness.

“Ilhayl, my lords. I regret to inform ye there has been a theft.”

“What was riven?” Inquired Adair evenly.

“Thy coat, my comitem.”

Boyce laughed, “Broadly, fortune smiles.”

The clerk furrowed his brows, confused by Boyce’s levity and then advanced to Adair and gestured toward the entrance.

“Fear not. I sent Geoffery to fetch the accipiters; rest assured, the knave will know justice and be equitably recompensed.”

“Nys so serious, dear fellow. Marta gives and Marta takes. Such is life.”

“B-but-”

Aldwyn abruptly pulled Adair aside, chere severe.

“If summons should the accipiters heed, it were best we shifted; malgre our blamelessness.”

“Thou art minded of the wedding?”

“It could provoke scandal.”

“We’ve not haste enough to evade the possibility; they’ve already arrived.”

In from doors abroche, two men entered, darkly garbed in the dress of the Ministry of Inquisitions, followed by a slender, languid woman, similarly, if less fastidiously, dressed, who, unlike her companions, sported a mishappen, snub-brimmed cap, low-drawn about her visage. Her hair was dark and straight, falling to frame wide, sleepless eyes, which took in the whole of the hall before settling fixedly upon Adair.

“I’m Accipiter Demelody,” she replied curtly, without bowing, “Thou art Oeric Adair?”

“Aye.”

“Curious. Thou wert spotted an hour’s half-past in Rasten Yard, evading an attempt upon thy life.”

“What? Unverray. Query alle and some; swiftly shalt thou know I’ve abided in the hall the whole of that time.”

“That much is obvious, and yet not half the geste.”

Aldwyn cut in daintily, “Perchance our interrogation of this cas could commence in coyer quarters?”

“Sikerly.”

As the accipiters and nobles turned to leave, a elderly woman came half-dashing down the stairs, sorrily discombobulated.

“My hat, my hat. Someone has stolen my hat!”


Continued in §.06.

The Dauntless Rook (§.03)

Continued from §.02.


When the concierge returned to his post with Geoffrey, he found three coats hanging beside his desk. Upon checking the tags, he discovered that within each, a name had been stitched by the tailor.

Blythe. Boyce. Kyne.

He sent Geoffrey to scour the auditorium, but no trace of Adair’s coat could be found.


Continued in §.04.

The Dauntless Rook (§.02)

Continued from §.01.


*

“Ah, we arrive at last!” Aldwyn Blythe declared with triumph as the four aristocrats reached the first floor lobby of Mazrak’s Grand Theatre, which hummed with conversations and the busy footsteps of its numerous and well-heeled patrons.

Oeric wasted no time in greeting the elderly clerk who stood behind a stout and well polished reception desk to the left of the corridor.

“We’ve reservations for Destrali’s concerto.”

“Names?” The concierge inquired apathetically.

“Blythe. Boyce. Kyne. Adair.”

The man’s brows moved progressively higher at each utterance. He checked a large, leatherbound ledger set before him, whereupon his ennui melted to fawning adoration.

“Comitem Adair!”

“Yes, sir.”

“I-I’d no idea… ah, yes… tickets.”

The pepper-haired clerk swiftly removed four tickets from underneath the desk and then snapped vainly several times in succession.

“Geoffrey. Geoffrey? Geoffrey!”

The concierge, irked and embarrassed, returned his attention to the four young gentlemen with a sigh of exasperation.

“I’m dreadfully sorry, I’ve no idea where the scamp scuttled.”

“No trouble at all,” Adair assured him, removing his coat, “We’re perfectly capable of hanging up our own-”

“No, no, that just won’t do! A moment, but a moment!”

The clerk sped off into the room directly behind the counter. Moments later, a young valet, dressed in red, descended the upper landing which let out to the concert hall and bowed cordially to the four theater-goers. He was lithe and wan, with hair the color of obsidian, immaculately combed back to reveal a sharp, angular face and keen, green-gold eyes.

“Salutations,” the valet said warmly.

“Ah, thou must be Geoffrey.”

“Aye. Shall I take thy coat, my comitem?”

“Certainly, lad,” Adair replied as he handed his coat off to the valet. Blythe, Boyce and Kyne swiftly followed suit, whereupon the pale valet bowed once more and stepped aside as the party headed up the stairs.

As the four men vanished over the landing, the valet flashed a crooked smile.

*


Continued in §.03.

The Lost Continent (1968)

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§.00


The Lost Continent (a 1968 Seven Arts-Hammer Film production, based loosely upon Dennis Wheatley’s Uncharted Seas) opens with a wheezy, breezy organ-laden lounge track by The Peddlers—vaguely reminiscent of the club music in Melville’s Le Samouraï—murmuring over the introductory credits. The song (which I found quite catchy) is, in its languid, slightly seedy tone, at odds with the ghostly, forlorn scenery, but, as one will discover, not with the lurid characters of the drama, for whom it is a fitting anthem.

Cut to a child’s burial at sea upon a tramp steamer moving under an auspicious sky. The steamer is surrounded by a graveyard of ships, seaweed-strewn and ominous. The murky color-saturation lends to a tangible otherworldliness which digital is as-yet unable to capture in its chromatic projection. The vessel’s captain (Eric Porter), who provides the departed’s last rites, ruminates on how he and the scant, peculiar crew—some dressed in 60s fashion, others in colonial-era armor—arrived at such a grotesque wending. From there the film jumps back in time, where, again, we see the stone-faced Captain Lansen being hailed by two customs officials, who he promptly ignores, much to the chagrin of his nervous first officer, Mr. Hemmings (Neil McCallum).

The film then introduces the colorful main-cast of passengers, the alternatively charming and boorish drunkard-pianist Harry Tyler (Tony Beckley), the eastern-european fugitive and aging-beauty Eva Peters (Hildegard Knef), the bumbling, self-important Dr. Webster (Nigel Stock, who is seen reading Uncharted Seas in his introductory scene in a respectful nod to the source material), his wayward daughter Unity (Suzanna Leigh playing the only main character who retains a name from the novel), the jovial bartender Pat (Jimmy Hanley) and the scheming mustachioed Ricaldi (Ben Carruthers).

When the captain instructs Hemmings to avoid “the usual shipping lane” on-route to Caracas, the latter’s curiosity and concern grows. It is then unveiled that the captain is transporting a large quantity of chemicals in the cargo-hold which react violently with water. A hurricane encroaches, yet the captain expresses little interest in turning around and tells the first mate that if he wishes, he can put the matter before the passengers. Hemmings does so and is astonished when none vote to turn the ship around. Lansen declares they will “keep going.” Thereafter, a drunken Tyler sardonically quips, “One man. One vote. Aren’t you glad you live in a democracy?” Hemmings, confounded, pronounces the passengers “bloody mad” and rushes back to the captain whereupon he is greeted by the crew who informs Hemmings that the cargo is filled with explosives. Shortly thereafter, Lansen confesses the truth of the matter to Hemmings: The cargo is indeed filled with combustible material as the crew feared, which was why the captain ignored the customs officials. Lansen then tells his first mate the reason he’s transporting the material is because its his last haul and one he plans to retire on (hence his challenging-forth into the storm).

As this is occurring, Eva returns to her quarters to find Ricaldi rifling through her belongings, in which lies 2 million dollars in stolen securities and bonds. He explains that his interest in her is “nothing personal” and that he’s working for the man from whom she stole, who, unsurprisingly, wants his properties returned. Eva attempts to bribe him, first (vainly) with money, then (successfully) with sex (unlike Unity, Eva’s sexual liaisons have a deeply moral impetus, as she needs the money to save her son from her ex-dictator-husband who holds the boy hostage).

As Eva barters with Ricaldi, Unity quarrels with her controlling (and possibly incestuous) father (Mr. Webster), who accuses her of being a whore (which she is), though he has little moral high-ground upon which to stand, as Unity swiftly recounts his numerous affairs with his nurses, secretaries and even his patients. Through this exchange it is revealed that, just like Peters, Ricaldi and the captain, the Websters, too, have a secret reason for being on the ship, for Mr. Webster was formerly practicing in Africa, where he carried out illegal operations on his patients when he wasn’t busy diddling them. The unprofessional doctor’s behavior caused such a stir that the police opened up a investigation, forcing the Websters to flee.

On deck, the crew attempt to take the slack out of the ship’s anchor-chain, which they botch, causing a rupture in the hull that floods the cargo-hold. This in turns threatens to ignite the chemicals. The emergency pumps prove useless and the crew, thoroughly distressed, convince Hemmings to lead a mutiny. The crew-leader, however cautions against mob-tactics, and states that Hemmings will be in charge and that everything will be done in a legal “above board” manner. The crew agrees. It is here that the film displays its knack for deft and three-dimensional characterization; even amidst such dire situations, the crew-leader is cool-headed enough to understand the latent dangers of hysteria and frenzy, never letting his own caution get the better of him. Unfortunately, the crew-leader’s reserve is all for naught as the captain, when confronted, refuses to abandon ship and states that he’ll kill anyone who tries. Unity’s lover, the radio-operator, tells the passengers that the crew is abandoning the vessel and asks them to join. Pat asks if the captain ordered the desertion. The radio operator tells them he did not and the bartender is aghast. “That’s mutiny!” the loyal soul cries. “Call it what you like.” Declares the radio-operator, before vainly attempting one last time to convince them to leave. All decline save Unity, who is swiftly ordered back into place by her father. Failing to move the passengers, the radio-operator curses them hysterically and dashes for the lifeboats as Tyler declares to his companions, “This is the moment when all the rats leave the sinking ship.” Emphasis on rats.

Back on deck the crew moves to escape but the captain arrives and opens fire, hitting the radio operator, whose head is then smashed by a winch much to Unity’s horror. The surviving crew members, lead by Hemmings paddle away to an uncertain fate as the captain mulls over his next plan of action.

One of the wounded crew members is brought into the piano parlour where Tyler, still swilling booze, incessantly strikes up a funeral march, which, unsurprisingly disturbs the other passengers. When Webster attempts to wrest Tyler’s bottle from him to use on the patient to sterilize his wounds, Tyler becomes incensed and flys at the bartender. Before Tyler can beat Pat senseless the captain intervenes, breaks up the fight and enlists the passengers aid in moving the explosive barrels from the hold before it completely fills with water. This they successfully accomplish but it is only a matter of time before the water leaks into the new room housing the barrels; in light of this, Lansen decides there is nothing further to be done but abandon the ship, as Hemmings previously suggested, which lends a sense of grave futility to the previous scene; for the captain killed his own men for doing precisely what he would later go on to do. Yet, it was mutiny. Betrayal. What currency is more precious than loyalty? Had they stuck with him, no one would have died and they’d have escaped the ship all the same.

After the passengers and the remnants of the crew escape the ship, tensions run high. Tyler, shorn of his booze, attempts to thieve rum from the captain, which greatly annoys Webster. Tyler later successfully steals the rum and cackles about it and is again confronted by Webster. Irked, Tyler trounces the man, accidentally knocking him into the ocean. Distressed by his drunken impulsivity, Tyler leaps after Webster as a shark approaches. The sea-beast kills Webster, leaving Tyler utterly devastated. Two of the remaining crew members find this a opportune time to stage yet another coup to ensure they have access to the supplies. This fails, as Eva shoots the chief mutineer in the gut with a flare, killing him. Tyler makes his way back to the boat as Eva breaks down in tears. From that moment on, Tyler decides to give up drink.

Sometime later, the lifeboat is seen drifting through fog. Nearly 47 minutes into the film, we are finally introduced to the ‘lost continent’ itself, which, though certainly lost to the world, isn’t really a continent by any classical definition, but rather, a great, floating, matted tangle of carnivorous seaweed, which wastes no time in wounding the captain and devouring the cook. This is quite a departure from Wheatley’s novel, wherein the seaweed is likewise thick and strange but yet, not malevolently sentient, nor carnivorous. Shortly after encountering the weeds the survivors find a ship floating in the fog and hail the crew, only to be greeted by Pat, the bartender, who had been left behind during the evacuation whereupon they realize its none other than Lansen’s ship.

After a change of clothes, Tyler and Unity engage in a discussion in the bar, where Tyler (conspicuously drinking coffee) begins to apologize for accidentally causing the death of her father. Rather surprisingly, she thanks him for “freeing” her. Naturally, Tyler is perplexed but when she proposes a toast to the future, he hesitantly raises his cup (of coffee).

The captain and the rest of the crew discover that the ship is now completely in the grip of the hungry aquatic vegetation, which has jammed the propeller. Lansen remarks upon the situation in one of the most unintentionally hilarious lines in the film, “Now we go where the weed takes us” (I’m surprised it hasn’t been meme’d).

The weeds drag the ship into the Sargasso sea, as they do so, Unity attempts to put the moves on a increasingly morose and withdrawn Tyler, who will have none of it. In an attempt to loosen the pianist up, she brings him a drink as Pat looks on with worry. Tyler, however, promptly declines. He does, however, begin to dance with her as she whispers sweet nothings to him. That is, until, she offers him a drink again and suggest they go back to her cabin. Infuriated, Tyler reprimands her and casts the glass across the room, shattering it against the wall. He declares he’s “given up the booze” whereupon Unity (who at this point in the film had become my least favorite character) informs him that “it won’t do you any harm.” To which he replies, “The first one never does.” Unity then becomes irate and demands he have drink, stating that it “might just make a man out of” him. He calmly replies “I’m beginning to feel like a man for the first time in years.” He turns her down once more and she storms off to find another man (as I previously mentioned, she’s a whore). She finds her “man” in Ricaldi, who is smoking on deck. Before they can consummate there extremely premature relationship, however, a giant octopus-like creature attacks, grabs Unity, covers her in slime, then kills (and presumably eats) Ricaldi.

Some time after this harrowing experience, the crew hears cries of help coming from the water and discover a young woman striding towards them across the seaweed through a pall of fog via the aid of a balloon backpack and paddle shoes. Tyler aids her whereupon she explains she’s being followed, and right on cue the camera cuts to a legion of shadowy figures, balloon-and-armour garbed and paddle shoed, striding over the carnivorous flotsam. Whilst such a description might sound comical, its not played for laughs. I certainly never cracked a smile as I was watching. Rather than coming off as goofy, its evocative of a grotesque dreamscape. The balloon-harnesses, are taken directly from the book (Uncharted Seas), whereas the paddle-shoes are a original invention. In the book, the inhabitants of the lost continent used balloons and stilts to evade the ravenous octopi that camouflaged themselves within the weeds, in the film, the inhabitants trudge over the vegetation like water-bugs. Wheatley’s inspiration (and hence, the film’s) for the balloons came from balloon-jumping, a popular fad of his time.

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The crew engages in a battle with the lost continentals, which the crew wins and captures one of the striders alive.

It is here that the film, for the first time, cuts away from the crew and passengers to another, much older ship, hidden in the roiling mists of the lost continent. It is revealed that the piratical water striders are the descendants of Spanish conquistadors and have been living on the lost continent for hundreds of years. They are ostensibly ruled by the boy-emperor, El Supremo (alternatively, El Diablo), however, the real power behind the throne is the insidious, masked man referred to only as The Inquisitor (Eddie Powell—the prolific stuntman behind the action in films such as Alien, Aliens, Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves).

The cut makes excellent narrative sense, as the crew and passengers learn all of this information at the same time as it is being shown to the audience by interrogating one of the Spaniards they’d capture. Here again, is another departure from the book, where the hostile inhabitants of the lost continent were not forgotten conquistadors, but negro savages (presumably, a bloody race war was a little too recherche for even the notoriously transgressive Hammer Films). The young woman they brought aboard, whose name is Sarah (Dana Gillespie), explains her people had moved to the lost continent to escape religious persecution, however, they found precisely the opposite under The Inquisitor’s bloodthirsty proxy reign.

That night Sarah abruptly departs without a word, water-striding into the fog. However, Tyler spies her leaving and heads out after her along with Pat and another member of the crew. They catch up with her and plan to spend the night in a cave when Pat is attacked by a giant crab, which kills the poor man. Before the hideous crustacean can turn its rapacious maw upon the rest of the wayfarers, however, its waylaid by a giant scorpion(thingy). The two beasts then engage in a duel to the death, which is interrupted by the crewman who shoots the oversized crustacean in the eye, killing it. It’s worth remembering the shark earlier in the film, as the patchwork monsters featured in the scene were the creation of the late Robert Mattey, who also designed the model sharks used in Jaws. The monster fight is the low point of the film. Ambitious and interesting as Mattey’s creations are, they’re simply not convincing. It’s all too obvious that they’re running on wheels! The interlude into monster mayhem, however, is quite brief, so it (much like the giant octopus scene) detracts little from the overall serious tonality.

The Inquisitor then shows up with a band of guardsmen who incapacitate Sarah, Tyler and the crewman and take them back to their decaying galleon-turned-death-cathedral. In a film with more winks and nudges, this might all be quite ridiculous, however, The Lost Continent never loses its sincerity and plays every scene for emotional believability (which is one of its greatest strengths, beyond its solid acting and fantastical setting and atmosphere). Before The Inquisitor can have El Supremo execute them, Lansen and the rest of the crew burst onto the scene and hold the Spaniards at gunpoint. The Inquisitor, unperturbed, then addresses Lansen in one of the best exchanges in the film. The Inquisitor tells Lansen that he and his people can’t escape. That escape is impossible because it is God’s will that they stay. Lansen, of course, disagrees.

The film concludes in a cataclysmic battle pitting Lansen and Tyler’s men against The Inquisitor’s forces. In the fight, El Supremo is slain and it is his body which rests in the coffin that is dumped into the water at the beginning of the film.

The beginning, it turns out, is the end. A peculiarly inconclusive one for an adventure film. For we know not whether they are able to defy The Inquisitor’s expectations, or whether he was right that escape was impossible. Though we don’t know if they escape, we know that they would try until the last. As Lansen said, “The day we stop trying, we stop living.”


§.01


Sources

  1. Dick. (2019) The Oak Drive-In: The Lost Continent (1968).
  2. Matthew Coniam. (2016) Wheatley On Film: The Lost Continent (1968). The Dennis Wheatley Project
  3. Michael Carreras. (1968) The Lost Continent. Seven Arts-Hammer Films.

In Tooth & Claw (Supernatural Horror Anthology Review)

Contains spoilers.

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Daniel Soule’s In Tooth & Claw (Rotten Row Publishing), an anthology of surreal and supernatural horror stories, begins with the novelette, Plight of the Valkyrie, the story of a soul-reaping guild that seeks out a empathic, medically skilled serial killer for recruitment. The premise is fascinating, however, the deployment of a extremely lengthy monologue midway into the story concerning the purpose of the spectral guild to which the protagonist (Mortimer) belongs both saps the story of its tension and, at the same time, creates a build-up without a pay-off. That the guild angle is central to the story and also the very thing which removes the unsettling atmosphere the story generates in its impressively moody introduction suggests that the story might have been more effective without recourse to supernaturalism, as Val’s murderous medical proclivities proved sufficiently intriguing so as to have been able to carry the tale in its entirety, should the author have so-desired.

The next story—The Breed—is one of the best in the collection. The tale centers on a number of paratroopers from Nevada who are sent to the Middle East to liquidate a number of Farsi-speaking and thus, presumably Persian, terrorists at the behest of the US military. Of course, given the title, one can assume the novel angle: The soldiers are werewolves, born out of a secret nazi experiment that was coopted by the US government. Despite deploying a premise reminiscent of David Brückner’s Iron Wolf, the narrative nevers falls to schlocky mediocrity, firstly, owing to the deftness and three-dimensionality with which the paratroopers are detailed, secondarily because of the competence of the prose and the structure of the story, and thirdly because the narrative threads are drawn together with a seriousness and authenticity typically absent from the kind of exploitation and shock-horror film it brings to mind. The 1987 film Predator is mentioned in the story’s opening and presents itself as a good point of comparison, as The Breed is as different from Iron Wolf as the beginning of Predator is from its own middle and end.

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Illustration depicting a scene from ‘The Breed’ by Stuart McMillan.

To Kill A Quisquilia (a title I first erroneously read as ‘To Kill A Quesadilla’) concerns a young woman’s death and a supernaturally gifted boy’s contention with a demon (the titular ‘quisquilia’) disguised as a garbage truck (which, as far as disguises go, is quite original). The tale provides a tonal break from the two proceeding tales, as it begins as a grim mystery and swiftly develops into a jaunty, macabre comedy. A welcome bit of levity to break the tension of the preceding tales.

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Illustration depicting a scene from ‘To Kill A Quisquilia’ by Stuart McMillan.

Next is The Switch, a psychologically introspective murder mystery. Its interesting in that the mystery lies not in who the killer is, but in why the killer did what she did (the reveal is quite gripping, so I shant spoil it).

After that is The Breed: The Last Watch, a continuation of The Breed’s mythos. It fails to match up to the original, chiefly because of its clumsy structure, as the reader is constantly jostled between numerous underdeveloped characters which are scattered throughout different time-periods. The problem with the story is not that there are time-jumps, but rather that one has no idea what is going on as a consequence thereof.

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Illustration from ‘The Breed: The Last Watch’ by Stuart McMillan.

Next up, Only Some Things, the story of a deformed man waiting at a bus stop. Though emotionally evocative, it feels unfinished, namely because it ends so abruptly. As a sketch for a longer work, however, its thoroughly intriguing.

Next is Witchopper, my personal favorite in the collection, which tells the tale of a father and son who set out to investigate the veracity of a local urban legend. Unlike, The Breed: The Last Watch, the time-jumps are very deftly deployed such that never once did I have to re-read a line or skim back up to the preceding page in a attempt to understand what was going on. It also features several scenes of impressively atmospheric tension.

Concluding the anthology is The Lostling, which, much like Only Some Things, is a story about which little can be said, as it also feels underdeveloped. There is no middle or end, but only the introduction of a introduction. That being said, it is also one of the most ambient and haunting of all the pieces.

In Tooth & Claw is a thoroughly mixed-bag, but never a boring one.


My thanks to Mr. Daniel Soule for providing me with a early copy of the anthology.