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By Tom Holt
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Format:ebook (Digital original) $4.99
This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around September 4, 2012. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
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Guy is a Mosquito pilot in World War II. He is surprised when his dead co-pilot apparently starts speaking to him as they are flying over Northern France. And before you can say “Bomber Harris”, Guy finds himself caught up in time and travel, a search for Richard the Lionheart and a damsel.
If it’s half past four, that must be Caen. From up here, it could be Lisieux for all he knew, or Pont L’Evêque, or perhaps just an unusually large railway shunting yard, because geography wasn’t exactly his strong point; but for once the map and the radio beacons and the big sprawling thing directly underneath him seemed to tally exactly. Prepared to stake good money that that’s Caen. Nearly home. Good thing, too, what with the lack of petrol and everything.
It hadn’t been the most restful of nights, even by his standards. Flak he could cope with; he didn’t take it personally, it was like rain or turbulence, something that came at you out of the sky, a natural occurrence that had no innate malevolence. Fighters, on the other hand, were different. They frightened him. They were doing it on purpose. Furthermore, since Guy had no great confidence in his own abilities and attributed his survival in these circumstances to random or religious factors, he felt quite strongly that one of these days they were going to get him. Tonight was a good example. Tonight they nearly had. Well, they’d got Peter.
‘Didn’t they, Peter?’ Guy said. Peter didn’t reply; his navigator in the seat next to him was dead, and in no position to comment. Mind you, he’d never exactly been the most riveting company, even at the best of times.
Guy wasn’t sure when Peter had died, or even what had killed him. A fair number of bullets had hit the Mosquito at various times - it hadn’t helped that Peter, not the world’s greatest authority on navigation, had taken them directly over the night-fighter base at Aachen - or it could have been flak, or perhaps Peter just had a weak heart. He was definitely dead, though, and that was another good reason for getting home sharpish. One doesn’t like to seem intolerant or anything, but Guy preferred not to spend too much of his time in the company of dead people. For all he knew, it might be catching.
Behind him, Guy was aware that there was a pretty sensational sunrise going on, which ought to be having some beneficial effect on his morale. Apparently not. A warm bath might do the trick, or fermented liquor or even a smoke, but not a sunrise. Guy tried to whistle the tune he’d thought up last evening, but his lips were too cold. Better be getting home. Rosy-fingered Dawn. Nuts.
‘You can drop me off here if you like.’
Guy blinked. If this was going to turn out to be a ghost story, he really wasn’t in the mood. He waited for a moment, then looked round. Not that there was a great deal to see, even with the early light of a new day, but Peter still looked remarkably dead; head lolling forward, that sort of thing. Perhaps he was confusing the intercom with the radio.
‘Sorry?’ he said tentatively.
‘Here will do fine.’
‘Ah,’ Guy frowned. If this was really happening, then he felt he would be entirely within his rights if he baled out now, took his chances with the Germans, and the hell with the cost of the plane. The Government had lots of others, and this one had several holes in it. ‘Did you say something?’ he asked.
‘Yes. Here will do fine. Thanks for the lift.’
‘Are you all right, Peter?’ Guy asked.
‘I’m fine. Actually, my name’s not Peter.’
There was a long silence. Not long now till they were out of France and over the Channel. Not much fun baling out over the Channel if you can’t swim.
‘I think it’s terribly clever the way you people work these things.’
‘Sorry?’ Guy asked.
‘Of course,’ Peter’s body said, ‘you’ll get much better at it soon. In twenty years or so, for instance, they’ll work out how to fit heaters in these things and then it’ll be much more comfortable. Do you intend to carry on flying after the War?’
‘No,’ Guy replied. ‘Look, Peter, are you all—’
‘My name’s John,’ Peter’s body said. ‘John de Nesle. To be honest with you, there’s not a lot about this century of yours that appeals to me, but these aircraft things are really pretty impressive. If my old father could see this, he’d have a fit.’
‘You’re lucky, though,’ said Peter’s body, ‘that times have changed. I mean, when I was a lad they’d have called this sort of thing witchcraft, and you’d have been tied to a stake and burnt so fast your feet wouldn’t have touched. Very suspicious of technology they were, where I come from. Look, I hate to be a bore, but do you think you could just let me off here? I think we’re getting pretty near the coast, and I don’t want to be late.’
Guy could feel something uncomfortable happening to his insides. His mother had always declared that he had a nervous stomach. ‘Peter,’ he said sharply, ‘will you please shut up? You’re beginning to get on my nerves.’
‘Sorry, sorry,’ said Peter’s body. ‘I do chatter on, people tell me, but it’s just my nature. Anywhere here will do.’
‘You do know how to land one of these things, don’t you?’
Guy turned his head and scowled. ‘Of course I know how to ... Look, who are you?’
The dead body didn’t move. Thanks to the light of the spectacular sunrise, Guy could see that there was a large hole in Peter’s head. Cannon-shell or something. The head was lolling forward. Extremely dead.
‘John de Nesle,’ said Peter’s body. ‘And will you please land this thing and let me out?’
‘How can I let you out?’ Guy said. ‘You’re dead.’
‘Who’s, dead?’ replied Peter’s body huffily. ‘If you can’t do landings, just say and I’ll do it. Which one of these things works the steering?’
I’ll say this, Guy thought, going mad isn’t nearly as bad as I thought it would be. I always imagined it hurt, but apparently not. I shall ignore the whole thing. I shall switch the intercom off, and ...
‘Here,’ Guy shouted as the Mosquito suddenly lurched in the air, ‘what do you think you’re -?’
‘Sorry,’ said the voice in his ear, ‘I think I pulled the tiller the wrong way. Which way is down?’
‘You leave the controls alone!’ Guy said. ‘You could get us both killed. Me killed,’ he corrected.
After a moment he felt control of the plane pass back to him. ‘Fair enough,’ said Peter’s body. ‘Just so long as you take us down.’
So Guy took them down. He found what looked like a reasonably flat field with no trees and headed for it. This was silly.
‘Sorry if I startled you,’ Peter’s body said. ‘I’m not really used to these old-fashioned planes, to be honest with you. The sort I’m used to, you can do it all just by pressing a few buttons. Shouldn’t you lower your undercarriage, by the way?’
‘I’m trying to,’ Guy said.
‘Ah. You think it’s got stuck?’
‘Damaged, probably. Hit by flak or bullets or something. Want me to try?’
‘Be like that.’
The undercarriage definitely wasn’t having anything to do with it, and Guy could understand its point of view, in the circumstances. Ah well, he said to himself, never mind, I wouldn’t have enjoyed Life being off my rocker anyway.
‘Are you praying?’ said Peter’s body after a while.
‘Yes,’ Guy said. ‘Seems sensible, don’t you think?’
‘Oh, I don’t mind,’ said Peter’s body. ‘A man’s beliefs are his own affair and all that sort of thing. No, I was just wondering whether you shouldn’t be trying to do something about those dratted wheels. I mean, we could crash, you know.’
Guy frowned. ‘Is Death usually like this?’ he asked.
‘Gracious me, what a question!’ replied Peter’s body. ‘How should I know?’
‘Well ...’ Guy looked at the ground. It didn’t seem to be getting all that much closer. An illusion of time slowing up, he reckoned, probably quite normal. ‘You should know,’ he added.
‘Because you’re the Angel of Death, or whatever it is you call yourself,’ Guy said. ‘I’m going to die, and so I’m imagining you’ve come to life, or something like that. Hallucinating.’
‘Are you feeling all right?’
‘No, of course I’m not, I’m just about to die!’
Peter’s body tutted disapprovingly. ‘Here,’ it said, ‘you just relax; I’ll see to things. I had an idea all along you weren’t very good at landings. You should have said earlier, instead of going all to pieces.’
About thirty seconds later, there was a terrible jolt, and for a moment Guy imagined that the safety harness would break and he would be catapulted out through the perspex. But he wasn’t. The plane stopped moving and sat there. On the ground.
‘Right,’ said the voice in his ear, ‘I think we ought to get out now. Sorry.’
‘I’m afraid I’ve damaged your aeroplane,’ said the voice. ‘As I think I said, I’m not terribly well up on these old-fashioned models. I have an idea I’ve ruptured the fuel-tanks. Shall we get out now?’
‘Anything you say,’ Guy replied. ‘But I didn’t think it mattered when you’re dead.’
‘It may well not,’ said the voice. ‘But I don’t want to find out. Cheerio.’
The canopy was thrown back, and Guy saw someone jump out over the side. Interestingly enough, Peter’s body was still there.
‘Come on!’ said a voice from outside the plane. Guy shrugged, took off his safety harness and clambered out. He was very stiff and his legs hurt. He nearly killed himself falling off the plane on to the ground, which was as hard as stone.
‘Come on!’ the voice said again. Guy picked himself up and ran clumsily in the direction of the voice. Not long afterwards, there was an explosion which landed him on his face.
He came round to find a tall young man standing over him. Odd chap. Dressed strangely.
‘Are you all right?’ said the odd chap. He sounded just like Peter’s body.
‘I think so.’
‘Good. Here.’ The odd chap reached out a hand and Guy pulled himself up to his feet. The odd chap smiled sheepishly.
‘Very sorry about your aeroplane.’
Not far away, the Mosquito, or what was left of it, was burning merrily. Being made of wood it burnt well, and so there was plenty of light.
‘That’s all right,’ Guy said. ‘It wasn’t actually mine. Belonged to His Majesty’s Government.’
‘Fair enough,’ said the odd chap, ‘but it’s going to make it rather tricky for you to get home, isn’t it?’
‘How do you mean, home?’ Guy replied, rubbing his eyes - odd; he could feel them itching. ‘I’m dead, aren’t I?’
‘I wish you’d stop saying that,’ said the odd chap. ‘Makes me feel creepy, don’t you know?’ He looked around him, saw a church spire, and nodded. The sight of the spire had seemed to reassure him, Guy felt.
‘We’re about five miles from Banville,’ the odd chap said. ‘Can I offer you a drink?’
‘A drink,’ Guy repeated.
‘Yes indeed,’ said the odd chap. ‘Don’t know about you, but I feel a bit shaken. My place is only just round the comer.’
Guy thought about it. He thought very hard in a remarkably short space of time. It was probably the smell of burning flesh coming from the plane that decided him in the end. ‘Thank you,’ he said. ‘I’m sorry,’ he added, ‘I don’t think I caught your name.’
‘John de Nesle,’ said the odd chap. ‘And you’re ...?’
‘Goodlet,’ said Guy. ‘Guy Goodlet.’
‘Oh,’ said John de Nesle. ‘Where’s Goodlet?’
John de Nesle shook his head. ‘Tell me later,’ he said. ‘Come on. We need to find a town hall or something.’
‘Here you are,’ said the girl. ‘I’ve brought you your tea.’
In the darkness of the cell the prisoner stirred and grunted. ‘Don’t want any tea,’ he said in his characteristic muffled fashion. ‘Go away.’
The girl frowned. ‘Don’t be silly,’ she said. ‘It’s chicken broth. Your favourite,’ she added.
The prisoner made an impatient gesture with one manacled hand, startling a rat. ‘Two points,’ he said. ‘First, it is not my favourite. Second, you put too much salt in it.’
‘You should have said earlier.’
‘When you put too much salt in it,’ the prisoner continued, ignoring her, ‘the drops that inevitably escape from the straw get in the fiddly bits of the mask and make it go all rusty. If there’s one thing I can’t be doing with, it’s rust.’
‘Sorry, I’m sure,’ said the girl, nettled. The prisoner shook his head.
‘It’s me who should apologise,’ he said. ‘A bit grumpy, I’m afraid. What’s the weather like outside?’
‘Really?’ Although it was obviously impossible for the girl to see his face, she was sure the prisoner was smiling. ‘I used to love rain,’ he said.
‘Did you?’ The girl seemed surprised.
‘Oh yes,’ replied the prisoner. ‘Everyone else in my family had this thing about sun, but I always preferred rain. What day is it today?’
‘You don’t say!’ The prisoner sighed until the girl felt sure that his heart must break for pure nostalgia. ‘Ah well. Chicken broth, you said? Yummy.’
She put the tray down. ‘I’ll put less salt in it next time,’ she said.
‘No, no,’ said the prisoner, ‘it’s just fine the way it is. And what’s for afters? Water? Oh good, I do like water.’ Instinctively he reached for his belt; but there was nothing there. ‘Sorry,’ he said sheepishly and for about the ten thousandth time, ‘I don’t seem to have any money on me.’
The girl smiled. ‘That’s all right,’ she said. ‘Be seeing you.’
The prisoner nodded affably, and the door closed after her. With a soft moan, the prisoner sat down on the floor and stared at the wooden bowl, the earthenware cup and the straw. After a long time, he nerved himself to drink some of the broth, which was disgusting, as usual. Still, one had to keep one’s strength up, apparently. Why, he was not quite sure; but it was a thing that one did, just as one always tried to be affable to the staff.
The rat scuttled up and sat on his knee, its sharp nose sniffing in the direction of the broth. The prisoner looked down.
‘Hello, ratty,’ he said, ‘you want some? Well, help yourself, I disclaim all responsibility, mind.’ He put the bowl on the floor and the rat scampered down his leg and hoisted its snout into the remaining broth. After a couple of sips, it looked up, shook its head and slunk away. From a far comer of the cell came the small, clear sound of a rat vomiting.
‘Don’t say I didn’t warn you,’ the prisoner said. Then he drank the water.
‘It’s all right,’ said the odd chap. ‘I’ve got a pass.’
Guy looked at him. By the full light of a summer’s morning he had discovered that the odd chap was wearing: a pair of trousers with one red leg and one yellow leg; pointed red leather shoes with wiggly gold buckles; what looked suspiciously like a white silk longsleeved vest; and a sort of cricket sweater made of tiny interlocking steel rings.
‘Now hang on,’ Guy whispered, but the odd chap just smiled. He had an odd face too, very long, with a long, pointed nose, and his hair was cut strangely - all short at the sides and back, and thick and curly on top. It reminded Guy of something.
‘You just leave this to me,’ said the odd chap.
So saying, he walked round the corner, and Guy, to his amazement, found himself following. This was all extremely strange, but maybe being dead was like that.
The solid German soldier standing guard outside the Mairie of Benville looked up and started to unsling his rifle. from his shoulder. Halfway through the operation, he stopped and appeared to relax.
‘Morning,’ said the odd chap. ‘Let me show you my pass.’ He reached inside the steel sweater and produced a scrap of folded parchment, which he opened up and showed to the guard. The guard read it, twice, thought about it, shrugged and saluted.
‘Thanks awfully,’ said the odd chap. ‘The British airman is with me.’
The guard nodded. Guy followed the odd chap into the Mairie.
‘Please don’t get the wrong idea,’ said the odd chap. ‘I’m not German myself, if that’s what you’re thinking. It’s a sort of all-purpose pass. Here, have a look.’
He handed Guy the scrap of parchment, on which was written:
THIS MAN IS A GERMAN GENERAL.
Guy thought about it. Then he started to reach for his revolver.
‘No, no,’ said the odd chap, stopping him. ‘Sorry, I forgot you’d be convinced. Here, look again.’
Guy glanced down at the parchment in his hand, which now read:
THIS MAN IS NOT A GERMAN GENERAL. HE IS JOHN DE NESLE.
‘Sorry,’ Guy said. ‘It’s just, you get suspicious, you know ...’
‘That’s all right.’ De Nesle put the parchment away, and looked round. ‘This way, I think,’ he said.
He led the way up a flight of stairs to a small landing, off which opened a number of offices. It looked very much like a town hall anywhere. There was nobody about, but then, it was still early. De Nesle was reading what was written on the doors.
‘You spoke to that guard in English,’ Guy said, ‘but he understood you.’
De Nesle shrugged. ‘It’s a gift I have,’ he said. ‘Ah, this looks like it might do the trick.’
He stopped in front of a door, on which was written Privée: défense d’entrer. He tried the handle, but it was locked.
‘Yes, this’ll do,’ he said. He rapped sharply on the door three times, muttered something under his breath, and turned the door knob again. The door opened. He walked through the doorway and vanished.
For reasons best known to himself, Guy followed.
It is well known that if you are fortunate enough to have a large amount of money and don’t feel like paying more tax than you can help, there are skilled professional men and women who will gladly assist you. What is less well known is that fiscal advice comes on four levels: the ordinary, or High Street level; the superior or specialist level; the de luxe or international consultancy level; and the ne plus ultra or 32A Beaumont Street level.
32A Beaumont Street, London does not demean itself by trading under a name or logo. It does not advertise; in fact, it does its best to conceal its existence from the public, since, despite the murderously high fee scale it operates, if its existence were to become common knowledge it would soon become inundated with enquiries to such an extent that it would no longer be able to function.
The criteria for selection as a potential client of 32A Beaumont Street are almost prohibitively stringent. Wealth beyond the dreams of avarice is certainly not enough. Neither is discretion. Birth, rank, political standing and other such ephemeral factors are of no account. What 32A Beaumont Street looks for in a potential client is compatibility of outlook. Prospective clients of the practice must love acquiring money and hate parting with it more than anything else in time or space.
Once you have been selected, you are secretly vetted and then directly approached by a member of the practice. If, after a rigorous catechism, you are found to be of the right calibre, you are invited to number 32A to hear what the practice has to offer.
A prospective client, who need not be named, was sitting in the inner office. To be precise, he was sitting on an upturned orange box drinking instant coffee out of a chipped mug. The practice has never vulgarised itself by putting on a gaudy front merely to impress the punters.
The three members of the practice were grouped round him on the floor. They were all peculiarly dressed and strange-looking, but the anonymous client hadn’t become as rich as he had through judging by appearances.
‘You are familiar,’ said the senior partner — he spoke English as fluently as he spoke all the other languages in the world, but with a curious accent that was probably nearer Italian than anything else - ‘with the concept of the tax haven?’
The client nodded.
‘Liberia,’ said the senior partner, ‘the Isle of Man, that sort of thing?’
‘Well,’ said the senior partner, ‘our basic investment and fiscal management strategy is largely based on the tax haven concept, but with a unique additional factor that we alone can offer. That’s why,’ he added with a smile, ‘our fees are so utterly outrageous.’
The client smiled bleakly. ‘Go on,’ he said.
‘Traditional tax haven strategies,’ said the senior partner, ‘rely on transferring sums of money from one fiscally privileged state to another. We call this the lateral approach, and we find that it has a great many imperfections. We prefer what we term the vertical approach. In our experience, which is considerable, it has no drawbacks whatsoever.’ The senior partner smiled. ‘Except our fees, of course. They’re diabolical.’
‘When you say vertical ...’
‘It’s very simple, really,’ said the senior partner. ‘Whereas the traditional approach is to move money about from nation to nation, in other words to transfer money through space, we transfer money through time. Oh dear, you seem to have spilt your coffee.’
‘Yes indeed,’ said the senior partner, ‘through time. Reflect. In Khazakstan in the third century BC, for example, there were no taxes whatsoever. On the other hand, there were no banks either, and nothing to invest in except yaks. We find that yaks offer a very low short-term yield. The Free World in the twentieth century, on the other hand, has a wealth of investment opportunities but insanely high levels of taxation. The obvious thing to do, therefore, is to find a time and a place which offers the golden mean between return on capital and fiscal intervention. We have found such a golden mean, and we can transfer your money there tomorrow, if you ask us to. For a fee, of course.’ The senior partner chuckled. ‘Oh yes.’
‘Hang on a moment,’ said the client warily. ‘You mean you can actually send money back through time? Invest retrospectively or something?’
‘Oh no,’ said the senior partner, ‘nothing as complicated as that. Let me put it this way.’ He leaned forward and smiled pleasantly. ‘You know what’s meant by the Futures market, I expect. We trade in Pasts.’
‘Pasts,’ said the client. ‘I see,’ he lied.
‘Because of - shall we say - a unique arrangement which we have with the central authorities,’ the senior partner continued, ‘we have access to time travel. We can take your money, travel back in time with it, deposit it in your name and arrange for the income to be mandated to you directly in whatever form - and at whatever time - you wish. We offer a return on capital of thirty-seven per cent.’
The client whistled. ‘That’s good,’ he said.
‘We can find better,’ replied the senior partner airily. ‘Much better. But,’ he said, and leaned further forward still, ‘we have chosen this particular location because of its unique fiscal advantages. The investment is entirely, one hundred per cent, tax-free.’
There was a silence — a complete, utter silence, born of reverence and awe. It was a bit like Sir Galahad’s finding of the Holy Grail, except that, compared to the senior partner, Galahad exhibited a lack of due seriousness.
‘Tax-free?’ said the client at last.
‘Absolutely,’ said the senior partner. ‘You see, the investment has charitable status.’
The client stared. ‘You mean you’ve got hold of a charity that gives you money?’
‘It isn’t a charity,’ the senior partner replied calmly. ‘But it does have the status, as I just said. We invest all our clients’ funds in the twelfth century AD, through the Knights Templar, for the purpose of financing the Second Crusade.’
A very long silence. ‘I thought the Second Crusade was a war,’ said the client.
- On Sale
- Sep 4, 2012
- Page Count
- 352 pages