By Luke Arnold
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Welcome to Sunder City. The magic is gone but the monsters remain.
I'm Fetch Phillips, just like it says on the window. There are a few things you should know before you hire me:
1. Sobriety costs extra.
2. My services are confidential.
3. I don't work for humans.
It's nothing personal–I'm human myself. But after what happened to the magic, it's not the humans who need my help.
Walk the streets of Sunder City and meet Fetch, his magical clients, and a darkly imagined world perfect for readers of Ben Aaronovitch and Jim Butcher.
Praise for The Last Smile in Sunder City:
"A richly imagined world…Winningly combining the grit of Chinatown with the quirky charm of Harry Potter, this series opener is sure to have readers coming back for more." ―Publishers Weekly
"A marvelous noir voice; Arnold has captured the spirit of the genre perfectly and wrapped it around a fantasy setting with consummate skill." ―Peter McLean, author of Priest of Bones
Fetch Phillips Novels
The Last Smile in Sunder City
Dead Man in a Ditch
One Foot in the Fade
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“Do some good,” she’d said.
Well, I’d tried, hadn’t I? Every case of my career had been tiresome and ultimately pointless. Like when Mrs Habbot hired me to find her missing dog. Two weeks of work, three broken bones, then the old bat died before I could collect my pay, leaving a blind and incontinent poodle in my care for two months. Just long enough for me to fall in love with the damned mutt before he also kicked the big one.
Rest in peace, Pompo.
Then there was my short-lived stint as Aaron King’s bodyguard. Paid in full, not a bruise on my body, but listening to that rich fop whine about his inheritance was four and a half days of agony. I’m still picking his complaints out of my ears with tweezers.
After a string of similarly useless jobs, I was in my office, half-asleep, three-quarters drunk and all out of coffee. That was almost enough. The coffee. Just enough reason to stop the whole stupid game for good. I stood up from my desk and opened the door.
Not the first door. The first door out of my office is the one with the little glass window that reads Fetch Phillips: Man for Hire and leads through the waiting room into the hall.
No. I opened the second door. The one that leads to nothing but a patch of empty air five floors over Main Street. This door had been used by the previous owner but I’d never stepped out of it myself. Not yet, anyway.
The autumn wind slapped my cheeks as I dangled my toes off the edge and looked down at Sunder City. Six years since it all fell apart. Six years of stumbling around, hoping I would trip over some way to make up for all those stupid mistakes.
Why did she ever think I could make a damned bit of difference?
The candlestick phone rattled its bells like a beggar asking for change. I watched, wondering whether it would be more trouble to answer it or eat it.
“Am I speaking to Mr Phillips?”
“This is Principal Simon Burbage of Ridgerock Academy. Would you be free to drop by this afternoon? I believe I am in need of your assistance.”
I knew the address but he spelled it out anyway. Our meeting would be after school, once the kids had gone home, but he wanted me to arrive a little earlier.
“If possible, come over at half past two. There is a presentation you might be interested in.”
I agreed to the earlier time and the line went dead.
The wind slapped my face again. This time, I allowed the cold air into my lungs and it pushed out the night. My eyelids scraped open. My blood began to thaw. I rubbed a hand across my face and it was rough and dry like a slab of salted meat.
A client. A case. One that might actually mean something.
I grabbed my wallet, lighter, brass knuckles and knife and I kicked the second door closed.
There was a gap in the clouds after a week of rain and the streets, for a change, looked clean. I was hoping I did too. It was my first job offer in over a fortnight and I needed to make it stick. I wore a patched gray suit, white shirt, black tie, my best pair of boots and the navy, fur-lined coat that was practically a part of me.
Ridgerock Academy was made up of three single-story blocks of concrete behind a wire fence. The largest building was decorated with a painfully colorful mural of smiling faces, sunbeams and stars.
A security guard waited with a pot of coffee and a paper-thin smile. She had eyes that were ready to roll and the unashamed love of a little bit of power. When she asked for my name, I gave it.
“Fetch Phillips. Here to see the Principal.”
I traded my ID for an unimpressed grunt.
“Assembly hall. Straight up the path, red doors to the left.”
It wasn’t my school and I’d never been there before, but the grounds were smeared with a thick coat of nostalgia; the unforgettable aroma of grass-stains, snotty sleeves, fear, confusion and week-old peanut-butter sandwiches.
The red doors were streaked with the accidental graffiti of wayward finger-paint. I pulled them open, took a moment to adjust to the darkness and slipped inside as quietly as I could.
The huge gymnasium doubled as an auditorium. Chairs were stacked neatly on one side, sports equipment spread out around the other. In the middle, warm light from
a projector cut through the darkness and highlighted a smooth, white screen. Particles of dust swirled above a hundred hushed kids who whispered to each other from their seats on the floor. I slid up to the back, leaned against the wall and waited for whatever was to come.
A girl squealed. Some boys laughed. Then a mousy man with white hair and large spectacles moved into the light.
“Settle down, please. The presentation is about to begin.”
I recognized his voice from the phone call.
“Yes, Mr Burbage,” the children sang out in unison. The Principal approached the projector and the spotlight cut hard lines into his face. Students stirred with excitement as he unboxed a reel of film and loaded it on to the sprocket. The speakers crackled and an over-articulated voice rang out.
“The Opus is proud to present…”
I choked on my breath mid-inhalation. The Opus were my old employers and we didn’t part company on the friendliest of terms. If this is what Burbage wanted me to see, then he must have known some of my story. I didn’t like that at all.
“… My Body and Me: Growing Up After the Coda.”
I started to fidget, pulling at a loose thread on my sleeve. The voice-over switched to a male announcer who spoke with that fake, friendly tone I associate with salesmen, con-artists and crooked cops.
“Hello, everyone! We’re here to talk about your body. Now, don’t get uncomfortable, your body is something truly special and it’s important that you know why.”
One of the kids groaned, hoping for a laugh but not finding it. I wasn’t the only one feeling nervous.
“Everyone’s body is different, and that’s fine. Being different means being special, and we are all special in our own unique way.”
Two cartoon children came up on the screen: a boy and a girl. They waved to the kids in the audience like they were old friends.
“You might have something on your body that your friends don’t have. Or maybe they have something you don’t. These differences can be confusing if you don’t understand where they came from.”
The little cartoon characters played along with the voice-over, shrugging in confusion as question marks appeared above their heads. Then they started to transform.
“Maybe your friend has pointy teeth.”
The girl character opened her mouth to reveal sharp fangs.
“Maybe you have stumps on the top of your back.”
The animated boy turned around to present two lumps, emerging from his shoulder blades.
“You could be covered in beautiful brown fur or have more eyes than your classmates. Do you have shiny skin? Great long legs? Maybe even a tail? Whatever you are, whoever you are, you are special. And you are like this for a reason.”
The image changed to a landscape: mountains, rivers and plains, all painted in the style of an innocent picture book. Even though the movie made a great effort to hide it, I knew damn well that this story wasn’t a happy one.
“Since the beginning of time, our world has gained its power from a natural energy that we call magic. Magic was part of almost every creature that walked the lands. Wizards could use it to perform spells. Dragons and Gryphons flew through the air. Elves stayed young and beautiful for centuries. Every creature was in tune with the spirit of the world and it made them different. Special. Magical.
“But six years ago, maybe before some of you were even born, there was an incident.”
The thread came loose on my sleeve as I pulled too hard. I wrapped it tight around my finger.
“One species was not connected to the magic of the planet: the Humans. They were envious of the power they saw around them, so they tried to change things.”
A familiar pain stabbed the left side of my chest, so I reached into my jacket for my medicine: a packet of Clayfield Heavies. Clayfields are a mass-produced version of a painkiller that people in these parts have used for centuries. Essentially, they’re pieces of bark from a recus tree, trimmed to the size of a toothpick. I slid one thin twig between my teeth and bit down as the film rolled on.
“To remedy their natural inferiority, the Humans made machines. They invented a wide variety of weapons, tools and strange devices, but it wasn’t enough. They knew their machines would never be as powerful as the magical creatures around them.
“Then, the Humans heard a legend that told of a sacred mountain where the magical river inside the planet rose up to meet the surface; a doorway that led right into the heart of the world. This ancient myth gave the Humans an idea.”
The image flipped to an army of angry soldiers brandishing swords and torches and pushing a giant drill.
“Seeking to capture the natural magic of the planet for themselves, the Human Army invaded the mountain and defeated its protectors. Then, hoping that they could use the power of the river for their own desires, they plugged their machines straight into the soul of our world.”
I watched the simple animation play out the events that have come to be known as the Coda.
The children watched in silence as the cartoon army moved their forces on to the mountain. On screen, it looked as simple as sliding a chess piece across a board. They didn’t hear the screams. They didn’t smell the fires. They didn’t see the bloodshed. The bodies.
They didn’t see me.
“The Human Army sent their machines into the mountain but when they tried to harness the power of the river, something far more terrible happened. The shimmering river of magic turned from mist to solid crystal. It froze. The heart of the world stopped beating and every magical creature felt the change.”
I could taste bile in my mouth.
“Dragons plummeted from the sky. Elves aged centuries in seconds. Werewolves’ bodies became unstable and left them deformed. The magic drained from the creatures of the world. From all of us. And it has stayed that way ever since.”
In the darkness, I saw heads turn. Tiny little bodies examined themselves, then turned to inspect their neighbors. Their entire world was now covered in a sadness that the rest of us had been seeing for the last six years.
“You may still bear the greatness of what you once were. Wings, fangs, claws and tails are your gifts from the great river. They herald back to your ancestors and are nothing to be ashamed of.”
I bit down on the Clayfield too hard and it snapped in half. Somewhere in the crowd, a kid was crying.
“Remember, you may not be magic, but you are still… special.”
The film ripped off the projector and spun around the wheel, wildly clicking a dozen times before finally coming to a stop. Burbage flicked on the lights but the children stayed silent as stone.
“Thank you for your attention. If you have any questions about your body, your species or life before the Coda, your parents and teachers will be happy to talk them through with you.”
As Burbage wrapped up the presentation, I tried my best to sink into the wall behind me. A stream of sweat had settled on my brow and I dabbed at it with an old handkerchief. When I looked up, an inquisitive pair of eyes were examining me.
They were foggy green with tiny pinprick pupils: Elvish. Young. The face was old, though. Elvish skin has no elasticity. Not anymore. The bags under the boy’s eyes were worthy of a decade without sleep, but he couldn’t have been more than five. His hair was white and lifeless and his tiny frame was all crooked. He wore no real expression, just looked right into my soul.
And I swear,
I waited in the little room outside the Principal’s office on a small bench that pushed my knees up to my nipples. Burbage was inside, behind a glass door, talking into the phone. I couldn’t make out the words, but he sounded defensive. My guess was that someone, probably another member of staff, wasn’t so happy with his presentation. At least I wasn’t the only one.
“Yes, yes, Mrs Stanton, that must have been quite shocking for him. I agree that he is a rather sensitive boy. Perhaps sharing this realization with his fellow students is just what he needs to bring them closer together… Yes, a sense of connection, exactly.”
I rolled up my left sleeve and rubbed the skin around my wrist. Tattooed on my forearm were four black rings, like flat bracelets, that stretched from the base of my hand to my elbow: a solid line, a detailed pattern, a military stamp and a barcode.
Sometimes, they felt like they were burning. Which was impossible. They’d been marked on to me years ago, so the pain of their application was long gone. It was the shame of what they represented that kept creeping back.
The door to the office swung open. I dropped my arm to let the sleeve roll back down but I wasn’t fast enough. Burbage got a good look at my ink and stood in the doorway with a knowing smile.
“Mr Phillips, do come in.”
The Principal’s office was tucked into the back corner of the building, untouched by the afternoon sunshine. A well-stocked bookcase and a dusty globe flanked his desk, which was cluttered with papers, used napkins and piles of dog-eared textbooks. There was a green lamp in the corner that lit up the room like it was doing us a favor.
Burbage was unkempt to the point where even I noticed. Brown slacks and a ruffled powder-blue shirt with no tie. His uncombed, shoulder-length hair began halfway down the back of his round head. He sat himself in a leather armchair on one side of the desk. I took the chair opposite and tried my best to sit up straight.
He began by cleaning his glasses. He took them off and placed them on the desk in front of him. Then, he removed a pristine white cloth from his shirt pocket. He plucked up the glasses once more, held them out to the light, and massaged the lenses softly in his fingertips. It was while he was rubbing away that I noticed his hands. I was supposed to notice them. That’s what the whole show-and-tell was about.
When he was satisfied that I’d taken in his little performance, he put his spectacles back on his nose, laid both palms down on the desk and rapped his fingers against the wood. Four on each hand. No thumbs.
“Are you familiar with ditarum?” he asked.
“Am I here to take a class?”
“I’m just making sure you don’t need one. I’ve been told that you have lived many lives, Mr Phillips. Experience beyond your years, apparently. I’d like to be sure your reputation is justly merited.”
I don’t like jumping through hoops but I was too desperate for the money that might be on the other side.
“Ditarum: the technique used by Wizards to control magic.”
“That’s correct.” He held up his right hand. “Using the four fingers to create specific, intricate patterns, we could open tiny portals from which pure magic would emerge. The masters of ditarum – and there was only a handful, mind you – were crowned as Lumrama. Did you know that?”
I shook my head.
“No.” A disconcerting smile hung between his ears. “I would expect not. The Lumrama were Wizards who had achieved such a level of skill that they could use sorcery for any exercise. From attacks on the battlefield to the most menial tasks in everyday life. With just four fingers they could do anything they required. And to prove this—”
BANG. He slammed his hand down on the desk. He wanted me to flinch. I disappointed him.
“To prove this,” he repeated, “the Lumrama lopped off their thumbs. Thumbs are crude, primitive tools. By removing them, it was proof that we had ascended past the base level of existence and separated ourselves from our mortal cousins.”
The old man pointed his mutilated hands in my direction and wiggled his fingers, chuckling like it was some big joke.
“Well, weren’t we in for a surprise?”
Burbage leaned back in his chair and looked me over. I hoped we were finally getting down to business.
“So, you’re a Man for Hire?”
“Why don’t you just call yourself a detective?”
“I was worried that might make me sound intelligent.”
The Principal wrinkled his nose. He didn’t know if I was trying to be funny; even less if I’d succeeded.
“What’s your relationship with the police department?”
“We have connections but they’re as thin as I can make them. When they come knocking I have to answer but my clients’ protection and privacy come first. There are lines I can’t cross but I push them back as far as I can.”
“Good, good,” he muttered. “Not that there is anything illegal to worry about, but this is a delicate matter and the police department is a leaky bucket.”
“No arguments here.”
He smiled. He liked to smile.
“We have a missing staff member. Professor Rye. He teaches history and literature.”
Burbage slid a folder across the table. Inside was a three-page profile on Edmund Albert Rye: full-time employee, six-foot-five, three hundred years old…
“You let a Vampire teach children?”
“Mr Phillips, I’m not sure how much you know about the Blood Race, but they have come a long way from the horror stories of ancient history. Over two hundred years ago, they formed The League of Vampires, a union of the undead that vowed to protect, not prey off, the weaker beings of this world. Feeding was only permitted through willing blood donors or those condemned to death by the law. Other than the occasional renegade, I believe the Blood Race to be the noblest species to ever rise up from the great river.”
“I apologize for my ignorance. I’ve never encountered one myself. How are they doing post-Coda?”
My naïvety pleased him. He was a man who enjoyed imparting knowledge to the ignorant.
“The Vampiric population has suffered as much, if not more, than any other creature on this planet. The magical connection they once accessed through draining the blood of others has been severed. They gain none of the magical life-force that once ensured their survival. In short, they are dying. Slowly and painfully. Withering into dust like corpses in the sun.”
I slid a photo out of the folder. The only signs of life in the face of Edmund Rye were the intensely focused eyes that battled their way out of deep sockets. He wasn’t much more than a ghost: cavernous nostrils, hair like old cotton and skin that was flaking away.
“When was this taken?”
“Two years ago. He’s gotten worse.”
“He was in the League?”
“Of course. Edmund was a crucial founding member.”
“Are they still active?”
“Technically, yes. In their weakened state, the League can no longer carry out their sworn oath of protection. They still exist, though in name only.”
“When did he decide to become a teacher?”
“Three years ago, I made the announcement that I was founding Ridgerock. It caused quite a stir in the press. Before the Coda, a cross-species school would have been quite impractical. Imagine trying to force Dwarves to sit through a potions class or putting Gnomes and Ogres on the same sports field. It would have been impossible for any child to receive a proper education. Now, thanks to your kind, we have all been brought down to base level.”
He was baiting me. I decided not to bite.
“Edmund came to me the following week. He knew that he wouldn’t have many years ahead of him and this school was a place where he could pass down the wisdom he’d acquired over his long and impressive life. He has served loyally since the day we opened and is a much-loved member of staff.”
“So, where is he?”
Burbage shrugged. “It’s been a week since he showed up for classes. We’ve told the students he’s on leave for personal matters. He lives above the city library. I’ve put the address in his report and the librarian knows you’re coming.”
“I haven’t accepted the job yet.”
“You will. That’s why I asked you to come early. I was curious as to what kind of man would take up a career like yours. Now I know.”
“And what kind of man is that?”
“A guilty one.”
He watched my reaction with his narrow, know-it-all eyes. I tucked the photo back into the folder.
“It’s been a week already. Why not go to the police?”
Burbage slid an envelope across the table. I could see the bronze-leaf bills inside.
“Please. Find my friend.”
I got to my feet, picked up the envelope and counted out what I thought was fair. It was a third of what he was offering.
“This will cover me till the end of the week. If I haven’t found something by then, we’ll talk about extending the contract.”
I pocketed the money, rolled up the folder, tucked it inside my jacket and made for the exit. Then I paused in the doorway.
“That film didn’t differentiate between the Human Army and the rest of mankind. Isn’t that a little irresponsible? It could be dangerous for the Human students.”
Under the dim light, I watched him apply that condescending smile he wore so well.
“My dear fellow,” he said chirpily, “we would never dream of having a Human child here.”
Outside, the air cooled the sweat around my collar. The security guard let me go without a word and I didn’t ask for one. I made my way east along Fourteenth Street without much hope for what I might be able to find. Professor Edmund Albert Rye; a man whose life expectancy was already several centuries overdue. I doubted I could bring back anything more than a sad story.
I wasn’t wrong. But things were sticking to the story that knew how to bite.
Sunderia was an inhospitable land with no native peoples. In 4390, a band of Dragon slayers followed flames on the horizon, thinking they were closing in on a kill. Instead, they discovered the entrance to a volatile, underground fire pit. Rather than wallow in their mistake, they decided to put the flames to use.
Sunder City began its life as one giant factory, owned by those who had founded it. For the first couple of decades, the only inhabitants were the workers who spent their days smelting iron, firing bricks and laying foundations. As the city found stability, those who finished their employment were less inclined to leave, so they set up homes and businesses. Eventually, Sunder needed leadership separate from the factory so they elected their first Governor: a Dwarven builder named Ranamak.
Ranamak had come to Sunder to advise on construction, and never got around to leaving. He had all the skills that Sunderites valued: strength, experience and affability. He was a simple fellow with a fine knowledge of mining so most locals agreed that he was the perfect leader.
After twenty years, most of Sunder City was still satisfied with Ranamak’s service. Business was booming. The trade roads were busy and everyone’s pockets were filling up. It was only the Governor himself who believed his leadership was lacking.
Ranamak had traveled the world and he knew that Sunder was in danger of becoming obsessed with production and profit while overlooking the other areas of life. He feared that the culture of the city was being neglected and wanted to find a way to give Sunder City a soul. In the midst of his struggles, he met someone who existed completely outside the realms of productivity.
Sir William Kingsley was a controversial character at the time; the disgraced son of a proud Human family, William turned away from his duties in favor of a nomadic life. He read, he ate, he wrote and he practiced the oft-reviled art of philosophy.
Kingsley came to Sunder spreading poems and ideas, and somehow he found his way to Ranamak’s table. Legend says that sometime between their fourth and fifth bottle of wine, Sir William Kingsley was appointed Sunder City’s first Minister of Theater and Arts.
Over the next three years, taxes were raised to cover the cost of Kingsley’s creations: an amphitheater, a dance hall and an art gallery. He funded the Ministry of Education and History, which went about building the museum. Ranamak and Kingsley transformed Sunder from a workplace to a vibrant metropolitan city over a handful of years. Then, a mob of angry taxpayers brutally murdered them because of it.
These days, Sunderites all seem to hold the same opinion of the event: it had to happen, they’d gone too far, but the Kingsley years made the city what it is today and everyone is proud of what they accomplished.
On the anniversary of his assassination, to honor his service, the people of Sunder built the Sir William Kingsley Library, a grand redwood building perched on a small rise at the eastern end of town. A short uphill walk revealed a bronze statue of mighty Sir William himself. He was a round-faced, jolly-looking fellow with no hair. In one hand was a book, in the other a bottle of wine. Beneath the statue was a plaque with the iconic verse from his most famous poem, The Wayfarers:
The spark will breed the fire,
And the fire take the track.
We move forward through the mire,
But we can’t go back.
The library was one of a few wooden buildings that had survived Sunder’s habit of unexpected combustion. Before the Coda, while the fires were still flowing, the pits ensured free heating and energy for every member of the population as long as you didn’t mind a portion of the city going up in smoke once in a while.
The isolated position of the library had kept it safe. Mostly. Nearby flames had warped the timber frontage with enough heat to streak the golden brown with charcoal black. There was a dated charm to the stained-glass windows, arched frames and pointed spire; it was strangely spiritual for a place designed to house old books.
I like books. They’re quiet, dignified and absolute. A man might falter but his words, once written, will hold.
The large doors slid open with the sound of a yawning bear and the chalky aroma of old paper filled my nostrils.
- "A marvelous noir voice; Arnold has captured the spirit of the genre perfectly and wrapped it around a fantasy setting with consummate skill."—Peter McLean, author of Priest of Bones
- "[T]he focus on meticulous worldbuilding and highly detailed backstory as well as the cast of fully developed and memorable characters are unarguable strengths....The first installment of an effortlessly readable series that could be the illegitimate love child of Terry Pratchett and Dashiell Hammett."—Kirkus
- "A richly imagined world...Winningly combining the grit of Chinatown with the quirky charm of Harry Potter, this series opener is sure to have readers coming back for more."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
- "This off-piste detective story set in a magical world, now in meltdown, has verve and charm in abundance and a rough diamond hero with quite a story to tell."—Andrew Caldecott, author of Rotherweird
- On Sale
- Feb 25, 2020
- Page Count
- 368 pages