The words are all finished. There will be no more editing on the next two C&N Publications releases: The Lion On Androcles by Neil Davies from a story by Colin P Davies and The Noose Is Waiting (And Other Stories) by W A E Davies & Neil Davies. All that remains is to put the formatting together and get covers organised – so, when I say ‘all’…
As a teaser, here are the opening sections of the two books.
THE LION ON ANDROCLES
A TRAVELLERS’ REST ON ANDROCLES
Lieutenant Walker shifted uncomfortably in his saddle and urged his horse further up the steep rocky trail. The back hooves of his partner’s horse momentarily lost traction, scrabbled, and kicked up sand and pebbles, stinging Walker’s face. He spat dirt from his mouth and wished the patrol were over.
They had been travelling for almost three weeks through the searing Benita desert. The last oasis marked on the map was almost two days back, and their canteens were still half full, but the growths of beard itched with sand and crawling insects that not even the water of the oasis could dislodge. Not far ahead lay the small town of Pyre, and from there it was another four-day trek to the Garrison.
Private Burton, riding point, was only on his second patrol and still retained some enthusiasm for the long trek, even in the face of his superior officer’s obvious cynicism. Nevertheless, he would be glad when this one was over and he could sleep in a proper bed for a few nights. Then he would be ready for the next one. Being part of the mercenary force on Androcles was not a glamorous life, but it paid well.
Up ahead, Pyre appeared ghost-like through the waves of shimmering heat, buildings seeming to float above the sand. The ironworks that had birthed the town lay deserted to the west, almost lost beneath the drifts of a hundred sandstorms, but some people remained, scraping a living off travellers and the regular mercenary patrols who detoured to refresh themselves before the final push to the Garrison.
Walker and Burton slowed their horses as they entered the town’s main street. When the ironworks had died so had the residents’ civic pride. What was left of Pyre was ramshackle and ugly, and much of it centred on the tavern, where travellers were solicited by the townspeople, tempted to spend their money on whatever the town could offer: Guides; labourers; whores. And it was where weary mercenaries nearing the end of their patrols could find refreshment and respite from the heat of the desert.
With their horses tied near a half-empty horse-trough, Walker and Burton pushed their way through the tavern’s old wooden door and into the dark interior.
The room was busy, a bustling crowd surrounding the bar, others sitting at the small round tables placed haphazardly about the floor. Walker elbowed his way through, followed by Burton, who revelled in the sidelong glances, the fearful whisperings. It was a high greater than any he had found through artificial means, this feeling of power. The power of fear. The power of hatred.
“Two beers. And make sure they’re cold.”
Walker watched as the Landlord hurried to fulfil his order, leaving others who had stood at the bar much longer waiting for their drinks. No one complained. There were definite advantages in wearing the mercenary uniform.
He looked around the room, taking in the faces, the expressions, with an eye used to identifying those who felt guilt and those who posed a threat. Scratching at his beard, he dragged a dead insect from its tangles and dropped it to the floor. As the beer arrived he threw a few coins onto the bar, not knowing if it was enough and not caring. The landlord wouldn’t argue.
He swallowed two gulps of the tepid beer, grimacing slightly at the bitter taste. Served in one of the larger towns, or even at the Garrison, this would have been thrown back in disgust. But here, towards the end of a long patrol, it was as welcome as the best drink money could buy. He made no complaint.
A heavily shadowed alcove in the far wall drew his attention. A solitary drinker sat there nursing a half full glass of beer, head down, a mess of black hair straggling across his face. He looked tired, unwashed, a traveller too poor to own a horse or travel by coach. He looked like many others in the tavern that day, but something tugged at Walker’s memory. Something important.
“What is it?” said Burton, noting his partner’s intent interest even as he pulled thirstily at his own beer.
“Not sure yet. Possibly nothing.”
Walker pulled the communicator from his belt, tapped in his access code, rolled his finger over the scanner and waited. It took less than a second for the machine to verify his identity and flash the menu onto the small display. All the time he kept glancing back at the figure in the alcove. He began flicking through the Kerexz’s most wanted, smiled as he found the image he was looking for and turned the screen to Burton.
Burton read the entry beneath the picture.
Yso Nakema. Earth operative. Top priority. Apprehend.
The last bore the seal of the Kerexz High Command.
“We take him alive then,” said Burton, a confident smile on his face. “Shouldn’t be hard. He doesn’t look like much trouble.”
Walker said nothing, a slight frown on his face, almost invisible behind the beard. While it was true this Yso Nakema was smaller than both he and Burton, the loose jacket he wore could hide any kind of physique, scrawny, muscular… it was impossible to tell. He was certain his experience and Burton’s natural roughness and street fighting ability weighed things heavily in their favour, but he refused to allow himself the dubious comfort of overconfidence.
“Let’s just get this over with. Maybe the Garrison will send out some transport once we have him, if he’s so important.”
Burton nodded agreement. “I wouldn’t say no to a nice comfortable flight back just now. Too many days in the saddle.”
Walker almost smiled, wondering how Burton would feel when he’d been on as many patrols as he had. He supposed he had been like Burton once, but it was too far back to remember.
He put down his beer and began to make his way through the tables towards the alcove. Burton, after a moment’s hesitation and one last drink, followed him.
The man in the alcove did not move and showed no awareness of the two mercenaries as they approached him. Not until they stood above him, almost filling the remaining space in the alcove, did he raise his head and look at them through tired, emotionless grey eyes.
Burton was the first to speak.
“Yso Nakema. We are placing you under arrest on order of the Kerexz High Command.”
His voice was loud, rising above the babble of the tavern.
Walker said nothing, waiting for the denial or the sudden burst for freedom. Neither came. The man sitting before them continued to stare coldly, unblinking.
The rest of the tavern had fallen silent, the other travellers and staff watching apprehensively, many wondering whether they were next on the mercenaries’ list.
Burton drew his gun, an old fashioned revolver, standard issue among mercenaries.
He felt his wrist twist and snap, saw the gun slip from fingers that seared with sudden pain. He hit the floor, landing heavily on his back, with no idea how he had got there. Agony burst through his body.
As soon as he saw the stranger move towards Burton, Walker reached for his weapon. It was only halfway out of the holster when something thudded into his groin. He instinctively doubled over, aware his gun was removed from its holster and tossed aside. As he fell to one knee he saw Burton trying to push himself back up and wanted to shout at him to stay down.
The stranger’s hands moved, the fingers almost casually snapping into Burton’s throat. The young mercenary was dead before his head hit the floor.
Driven by rage, Walker forced himself to his feet, trying to ignore the ache in his groin, pulling out his 12 inch serrated hunting knife. Fuck the orders! He was going to kill this Yso Nakema.
He lunged, knew his blade was going to plunge deep into the man’s chest and was surprised when the point hit nothing but the wooden seatback. How could he have missed? Where had the man gone?
There was sudden sharp pain from a blow to his face, the crack of bone breaking as a foot stamped into the side of his knee, the bolt of agony that shot upwards through his body. He fell, saw the stranger back away, the other occupants of the tavern crowd around. Voices faded in and out around him. He could barely make out the words as he struggled to stay conscious.
“Can’t leave him alive…. The soldiers will come…. Best to remove the evidence… kill him.”
Those last two words focussed his concentration, his effort, and he tried, desperately, to remember where his gun had been thrown.
Looking up, he found it in the hands of the barman who had served him just a few minutes earlier. The barrel was pointed at Walker’s head.
He felt no more pain as the gun was fired, the bullet slamming into his forehead and exploding from the back of his skull to lodge deep in the floor of the tavern.
THE NOOSE IS WAITING
Fred Bulsgrove’s body sprawled across his office desk, a double-edged dagger standing proud in his back. The wheels of the charlady’s trolley had skidded in the slowly congealing blood on the floor. Her screams had raised the alarm.
Detective Inspector Jim Ashcroft of Scotland Yard looked at the wheel tracks and the shoeprint at the edge of the blood and knew that it had already stopped spreading by the time the charlady made her grisly discovery. Fred Bulsgrove had been dead for some time.
He shrugged his shoulders, shifting the weight of the tweed overcoat, and fingered the brim of his Homburg hat, uncomfortably stiff and new. They had been a Christmas present from his wife. She had assured him they were what every fashionable detective would be wearing in 1949. It was only the 13th of January and already he doubted her.
The scene of Fred Bulsgrove’s murder was exceedingly normal, as were most such scenes in his experience. There was nothing particularly unusual about the office, other than the dead body on the desk. It was, in fact, a very utilitarian place. A place of work and little else. Even the body, when it fell, had not dislodged anything from the desk, other than a few sheets of foolscap and a pen. No family photographs. Nothing personal at all.
A sudden commotion in the corridor outside disturbed his examination and, seconds later, Detective Clark from the Fingerprint Branch hurried past the uniformed constable by the door. The young man barely had time to move out of the way.
Jock Clark was a man in a hurry. There was always another murder to go to, and too few people in his office to cover them. He nodded briefly to Jim before he began his examination of the murder scene
Jim stepped over to the constable, who had now recovered his position at the doorway.
“I presume nothing’s been touched constable?”
“Everything’s just as it was found sir,” answered the uniformed policeman, first on the scene after the charlady’s screams had raised the alarm. He stood at attention, his helmet tucked under his arm, young and eager. He looked a little pale. Jim wondered how many dead bodies he had seen before.
“What do you think happened here constable?”
The constable hesitated a moment and his cheeks flushed pink. He wasn’t used to a superior asking his opinion. His voice shook slightly as he spoke.
“From what I saw when I arrived it would seem that the perpetrator of the crime entered via the washroom door by way of the fire escape and stabbed the victim in the back while he was seated at his desk, sir.”
Jim nodded, his eyes roaming the spacious office, the large desk, the private washroom, door ajar. The rising sun cast macabre shadows around the scene but could not disguise the fact that, if their offices were any indication, located in the very heart of London, F. S. Bulsgrove & co Ltd, Quantity Surveyors, seemed to be doing good business. Not everyone had done so well in the years following the end of the war but, according to the typed report handed to him by Detective Chief Inspector O’Toole before he left the Yard, Fred Bulsgrove had been successful and, as a businessman at least, ruthless.
“Thank you constable. Would you mind standing guard outside to make sure no one else enters please?”
As the constable left, reseating his helmet on his head, Jim approached Detective Clark. The man from the Fingerprint Branch wore a well-worn suit, looking suspiciously like demob material to Jim, who owned a similar garment hanging in the wardrobe back home. He watched as the younger man took a packet of powder and a small brush from the black bag he carried and began to carefully dust over all the exposed surfaces.
Detective Clark worked in near silence, occasionally humming quietly to himself. He said nothing as he examined the dagger and the desk, finally speaking as he dusted the washroom doorknob.
Jim leaned in for a closer look. He could make out the slight whorls of a finger in the light dust.
“Enough for identification?”
Clark nodded. “Could be. Have to wait until I’m back at the office to be sure, but definitely worth a try.”
Jim smiled as the marks were impressed onto special paper. Had the murderer made such a simple mistake?
Encouraged, he gave his full attention to the body of the victim while Detective Clark continued dusting inside the washroom. A strong hand had thrust the dagger, the hilt was pressed against the immaculate pinstripe of the suit, and there were, at first count, seven other stab wounds in the back.
“Nothing in the washroom,” said Clark, re-entering the main office. “Clean as anything. You get any ideas from the body?”
“Well,” said Jim slowly, pushing the Homburg further back on his head. “I don’t think any burglar did this. Too many stab wounds. This was personal.”
He leaned forward, examining the hands of the victim closely.
“No sign that Bulsgrove tried to defend himself either. Most likely the killer sneaked up behind and stabbed him before he had a chance.”
“If he came from the washroom he must have been a ghost,” said Detective Clark, packing his brush back into his black bag. “Other than on the doorknob I didn’t get anything.”
Jim was taking a closer look at where the trail of blood had dripped from the edge of the desk, when the sun, rising higher in the morning sky, sparked a reflection off something by one of the desk legs. Curious, he bent and picked it up by the edges.
“What is it?” asked Clark, stepping closer.
“A brown coat button.” Jim turned the object back and forth in his fingers. “A plain brown coat button.”
Both he and Clark looked quickly around the office, reaching the same conclusion simultaneously.
“No coats here,” said Clark.
“I wonder where it came from?”
Clark quickly dusted the flat face of the button but there were no fingerprints. Disappointed, Jim dropped it into his pocket.
“Maybe it got pulled off the murderer’s coat in the struggle?” said Clark as he busied himself arranging the contents of his black bag to his own rigorous standards.
“What struggle?” said Jim. “There’s no other evidence of a struggle, so how did the button come off the coat and end up on the floor?”
He turned and looked towards the washroom door. With one finger he pushed his Homburg back and scratched his forehead.
“Why would a murderer, careful enough to leave no prints on the weapon or around the body, be so careless as to leave their fingerprint on the washroom doorknob, and lose a button off their coat?”
Clark shook his head before snapping his bag shut and smoothing down his demob suit with the palms of his hands.
“There’s a lot of questions on this one Jim. Glad it’s yours and not mine.” He grabbed up his black bag and, with his always rapid, always in-a-hurry step, made for the door of the office. “I’ll let you know what I find on this fingerprint as soon as I can.”
Jim nodded and would have said “thank you”, but Clark had already gone. The always rushed man from the Fingerprint Branch was right though. There were certainly plenty of questions to be answered in this case, and so far, Jim was puzzled.