The eyre affair, p.5
The Eyre Affair,
Part #1 of Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde
MILLON DE FLOSS
— Thursday Next—A Biography
I TRIED to focus on the striplight above me. I knew that something had happened but the night when Tamworth and I tackled Acheron Hades had, for the moment at least, been erased from my mind. I frowned, but only fractured images paraded themselves in my consciousness. I remembered shooting a little old lady three times and running down a fire escape. I had a dim recollection of blasting away at my own car and being shot in the arm. I looked at my arm and it was, indeed, tightly bound with a white bandage. Then I remembered being shot again—in the chest. I breathed in and out a couple of times and was relieved that no crackly rasp reached my ears. There was a nurse in the room who said a few words I couldn’t decipher and smiled. I thought it odd and then lapsed once again into grateful slumber.
The next time I awoke it was evening and the room seemed colder. I was alone in a single hospital ward with seven empty beds. Just outside the door I could see an armed police officer on guard duty, while inside a vast quantity of flowers and cards vied for space. As I lay in bed the memories of the evening returned and tumbled out of my subconscious. I resisted them as long as I could but it was like holding back a flood. Everything that had happened that night came back in an instant. And as I remembered, I wept.
Within a week I was strong enough to get out of bed. Paige and Boswell had both dropped by, and even my mother had made the trip up from Swindon to see me. She told me she had painted the bedroom mauve, much to Dad’s disappointment— and it was my fault for suggesting it. I didn’t think I’d bother trying to explain. I was glad of any sympathy, of course, but my mind was elsewhere: there had been a monumental fiasco and someone was going to be responsible; and as the sole survivor of that disastrous evening, I was the strongest and only candidate. A small office was procured in the hospital and into it came Tamworth’s old divisional commander, a man whom I had never met named Flanker, who seemed utterly devoid of humor and warmth. He brought with him a twin-cassette tape deck and several SO-1 senior operatives, who declined to give their names. I gave my testimony slowly and frankly, without emotion and as accurately as possible. Acheron’s strange powers had been hinted at before, but even so Flanker was having trouble believing it.
“I’ve read Tamworth’s file on Hades and it makes pretty weird reading, Miss Next,” he said. “Tamworth was a bit of a loose cannon. SO-5 was his and his alone; Hades was more of an obsession than a job. From our initial inquiries it seems that he has been flaunting basic SpecOps guidelines. Contrary to popular belief, we are accountable to Parliament, albeit on a very discreet basis.”
He paused for a moment and consulted his notes. He looked at me and switched on the tape recorder. He identified the tape with the date, his name and mine, but only referred to the other operatives by numbers. That done, he drew up a chair and sat down.
“So what happened?”
I paused for a moment and then began, giving the story of my meeting with Tamworth right up until Buckett’s hasty departure.
“I’m glad that someone seemed to have some sense,” murmured one of the SO-1 agents. I ignored him.
“Tamworth and I entered the lobby of Styx’s property,” I told them. “We took the stairs and on the sixth floor we heard the shot. We stopped and listened but there was complete silence. Tamworth thought we had been rumbled.”
“You had been rumbled,” announced Flanker. “From the transcript of the tape we know that Snood spoke Hades’ name out loud. Hades picked it up and reacted badly; he accused Styx of betraying him, retrieved the package and then killed his brother. Your surprise attack was no surprise. He knew you were both there.”
I took a sip of water. If we had known, would we have retreated? I doubted it.
“Who was in front?”
“Tamworth. We edged slowly around the stairwell and looked onto the seventh-floor landing. It was empty apart from a little old lady who was facing the lift doors and muttering angrily to herself. Tamworth and I edged closer to Styx’s open door and peered in. Styx was lying on the floor and we quickly searched the small apartment.”
“We saw you on the surveillance video, Next,” said one of the nameless operatives. “Your search was conducted well.”
“Did you see Hades on the video?”
The same man coughed. They had been having trouble coming to terms with Tamworth’s report, but the video was unequivocal. Hades’ likeness had not shown up on it at all—just his voice.
“No,” he said finally. “No, we did not.”
“Tamworth cursed and walked back to the door,” I continued. “It was then that I heard another shot.”
I stopped for a moment, remembering the event carefully, yet not fully understanding what I had seen and felt. I remembered that my heart rate had dropped; everything had suddenly become crystal clear. I had felt no panic, just an overwhelming desire to see the job completed. I had seen Tamworth die but had felt no emotion; that was to come later.
“Miss Next?” asked Flanker, interrupting my thoughts.
“What? Sorry. Tamworth was hit. I walked over but a quick glance confirmed that the wound was incompatible with survival. I had to assume Hades was on the landing, so I took a deep breath and glanced out.”
“What did you see?”
“I saw the little old lady, standing by the lift. I had heard no one run off downstairs, so assumed Hades was on the roof. I glanced out again. The old lady gave up waiting and walked past me on her way to the stairs, splashing through a puddle of water on the way. She tut-tutted as she passed Tamworth’s body. I switched my attention back to the landing and to the stairwell that led to the roof. As I walked slowly toward the roof access, a doubt crept into my mind. I turned back to look at the little old lady, who had started off down the stairs and was grumbling about the infrequency of trams. Her footprints from the water caught my eye. Despite her small feet, the wet footprints were made by a man’s-size shoe. I required no more proof. It was Rule Number Two: Acheron could lie in thought, deed, action and appearance. For the first time ever, I fired a gun in anger.”
There was silence, so I continued.
“I saw at least three of the four shots hit the lumbering figure on the stairs. The old lady—or, at the very least, her image—tumbled out of sight and I walked cautiously up to the head of the stairwell. Her belongings were strewn all the way down the concrete steps with her shopping trolley on the landing below. Her groceries had spilled out and several cans of cat food were rolling slowly down the steps.”
“So you hit her?”
Flanker dug a small evidence bag out of his pocket and showed it to me. It contained three of my slugs, flattened as though they had been fired into the side of a tank.
When Flanker spoke again his voice was edged with disbelief.
“You say that Acheron disguised himself as an old lady?”
“Yes, sir,” I replied, looking straight ahead.
“How did he do that?”
“I don’t know, sir.”
“How could a man over six foot six dress in a small woman’s clothes?”
“I don’t think he did it physically; I think he just projected what he wanted me to see.”
“That sounds crazy.”
“There’s a lot we don’t know about Hades.”
“That I can agree with. The old lady’s name was Mrs. Grimswold; we found her wedged up the chimney in Styx’s apartment. It took three men to pull her out.”
Flanker thought for a moment and let one of the other men ask a question.
“I’m interested to know why you were both armed with expanding ammunition,” said one of the other officers, not looking at me but at the wall. He was short and dark and had an annoying twitch in his left eye. “Fluted hollow points and high-power loads. What were you planning to shoot? Buffalo?”
I took a deep breath.
“Hades was shot six times without any ill effects in ’77, sir. Tam
“Well, he didn’t. If the papers get hold of this there will be hell to pay. SpecOps doesn’t have a good relationship with the press, Miss Next. The Mole keeps on wanting access for one of its journalists. In this climate of accountability the politicians are leaning on us more and more. Expanding ammunition!— Shit, not even the Special Cavalry use those on Russians.”
“That’s what I said,” I countered, “but having seen the state of these”—I shook the bag of flattened slugs—“I can see that Tamworth showed considerable restraint. We should have been carrying armor-piercing.”
“Don’t even think about it.”
We had a break then. Flanker and the others vanished into the next room to argue while a nurse changed the dressing on my arm. I had been lucky; there had been no infection. I was thinking about Snood when they returned to resume the interview.
“As I walked carefully down the stairwell it was apparent that Acheron was now unarmed,” I continued. “A nine-millimeter Beretta lay on the concrete steps next to a tin of custard powder. Of Acheron and the little old lady, there was no sign. On the landing I found a door to an apartment that had been pushed open with great force, shearing both hinge pins and the Chubb door bolt. I quickly questioned the occupants of the apartment but they were both insensible with laughter; it seemed Acheron had told them some sort of a joke about three anteaters in a pub, and I got no sense out of either of them.”
One of the operatives was slowly shaking her head.
“What is it now?” I asked indignantly.
“Neither of the two people you describe remember you or Hades coming through their apartment. All they recall is the door bursting open for no apparent reason. How do you account for this?”
I thought for a moment.
“Obviously, I can’t. Perhaps he has control over the weak-minded. We still only have a small idea of this man’s powers.”
“Hmm,” replied the operative thoughtfully. “To tell the truth, the couple did try to tell us the joke about the anteaters. We wondered about that.”
“It wasn’t funny, was it?”
“Not at all. But they seemed to think it was.”
I was beginning to feel angry and didn’t like the way the interview was going. I collected my thoughts and continued, arguing to myself that the sooner this was over, the better.
“I looked slowly around the apartment and found an open window in the bedroom. It led out onto the fire escape, and as I peered out I could see Acheron’s form running down the rusty steps four floors below. I knew I couldn’t catch him, and it was then that I saw Snood. He stumbled out from behind a parked car and pointed his revolver at Hades as he dropped to the ground. At the time, I didn’t understand what he was doing there.”
“But you know now?”
My heart sank.
“He was there for me.”
I felt tears well up and then fought them down. I was damned if I was going to start crying like a baby in front of this bunch, so I expertly turned the sniff into a cough.
“He was there because he knew what he had done,” said Flanker. “He knew that by speaking Hades’ name out loud he had compromised you and Tamworth. We believe he was trying to make amends. At eighty-nine years of age, he was attempting to take on a man of superior strength, resolve and intellect. He was brave. He was stupid. Did you hear anything they said?”
“Not at first. I proceeded down the fire escape and heard Snood yell out ‘Armed Police!’ and ‘On the ground!’ By the time I reached the second floor, Hades had convinced Snood to give up his weapon and had shot him. I fired twice from where I was; Hades stumbled slightly but he soon recovered and sprinted for the nearest car. My car.”
“What happened then?”
“I clambered down the ladder and dropped to the ground, landing badly on some trash and twisting my ankle. I looked up and saw Acheron punch in the window of my car and open the door. It didn’t take him much more than a couple of seconds to tear off the steering lock and start the engine. The street was, I knew, a cul-de-sac. If Acheron wanted to escape it would have to be through me. I hobbled out into the middle of the road and waited. I started firing as soon as he pulled away from the curb. All my shots hit their mark. Two in the windscreen and one in the radiator grille. The car kept accelerating and I kept firing. A wing mirror and the other headlamp shattered. The car would hit me if it carried on as it was, but I didn’t really care anymore. The operation was a mess. Acheron had killed Tamworth and Snood. He’d kill countless others if I didn’t give it my all. With my last shot I hit his offside front tire and Acheron finally lost control. The car hit a parked Studebaker and turned over, bounced along on its roof and finally teetered to a stop barely three feet from where I stood. It rocked unsteadily for a moment and then was still, the water from the radiator mixing with the petrol that leaked onto the road.”
I took another sip of water and looked at the assembled faces. They were following my every word, but the hardest part of it was yet to come.
“I reloaded, then pulled open the driver’s door of the upturned car. I had expected Acheron to tumble out in a heap, but Hades, not for the first time that night, had failed to live up to expectations. The car was empty.”
“Did you see him escape?”
“No. I was just pondering this when I heard a familiar voice behind me. It was Buckett. He had returned.
“ ‘Where is he?’ ” Buckett yelled.
“ ‘I don’t know,’ I stammered in reply, checking the back of the car. ‘He was here!—’
“ ‘Stay here!’ shouted Buckett. ‘I’m going to check around the front!’
“I was glad to be given orders and spared the burden of initiative. But as Buckett turned to leave he shimmered slightly and I knew something was wrong. Without hesitating, I shot Buckett in the back three times. He collapsed in a heap—”
“You shot another operative?” said one of the SO-1 crowd with an incredulous tone. “In the back?” I ignored her.
“—only it wasn’t Buckett, of course. The figure that picked itself up from the road to face me was Acheron. He rubbed his back where I had hit him and smiled benignly.
“ ‘That wasn’t very sporting!’ he said with a smile.
“ ‘I’m not here for the sport,’ I assured him.”
One of the SO-1 officers interrupted me.
“You seem to shoot a lot of people in the back, Next. Point-blank range with fluted slugs and he survived? I’m sorry, this is quite impossible!”
“She’s lying!—” he said indignantly. “I’ve had just about enough of this!—”
But Flanker laid a hand on his arm to quieten him.
“Carry on, Miss Next.”
“ ‘Hello, Thursday,’ Hades said.
“ ‘Acheron,’ I replied.
“ ‘Tamworth’s blood is getting cold on the concrete upstairs and it’s all your fault. Just give me your gun and we can finish this all up and go home.’
“Hades reached out his hand and I felt a strong impulse to give him my weapon. But I had turned him down before when he was using more persuasive methods—when I was a student and he was a lecturer. Perhaps Tamworth knew I was strong enough to resist him; perhaps this was another reason he wanted me on his team. I don’t know. Hades realized this and said instead in a genial manner:
“ ‘It’s been a long time. Fifteen years, isn’t it?’
“ ‘Summer of ’69,’ I replied grimly. I had little time for his games.
“ ‘Sixty-nine?’ he asked, having thought about it for a moment. ‘Sixteen years, then. I seem to remember we were quite chummy.’
“ ‘You were a brilliant teacher, Acheron. I’ve not met an intellect to compare with yours. Why all this?’
“ ‘I could say the same about you,’ returned Acheron with a smile. ‘You
“There was a pause. Acheron smiled.
“ ‘I always liked you, Thursday. You turned me down and, as we all know, there is nothing more seductive than resistance. I often wondered what I’d do if we met again. My star pupil, my protégée. We were nearly lovers.’
“ ‘I was never your protégée, Hades.’
“He smiled again.
“ ‘Have you ever wanted a new car?’ he asked me quite suddenly.
“I did, of course, and said so.
“ ‘How about a large house? How about two large houses? In the country. With grounds. And a Rembrandt.’
“I saw what he was up to.
“ ‘If you want to buy my compliance, Acheron, you have to choose the right currency.’
“Acheron’s face fell.
“ ‘You are strong, Thursday. Avarice works on most people.’
“I was angry now.
“‘What do you want with the Chuzzlewit manuscript, Acheron? To sell it?’
“ ‘Stealing and selling? How common,’ he sneered. ‘I’m sorry about your two friends. Hollow-points make quite a mess, don’t they?’
“We stood there facing one another. It wouldn’t be long before SO-14 were on the scene.
“ ‘On the ground,’ I ordered him, ‘or I swear I’ll fire.’
“Hades was suddenly a blur of movement. There was a sharp crack and I felt something pluck at my upper arm. There was a sensation of warmth and I realized with a certain detached interest that I had been shot.
“ ‘Good try, Thursday. How about with the other arm?’
“Without knowing it, I had loosed off a shot in his direction. It was this that he was congratulating me on. I knew that I had thirty seconds at best before the loss of blood started to make me woozy. I transferred the automatic to my left hand and started to raise it again.
The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde / Fantasy / Mystery & Detective / Humor / Science Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes