Manhattan in Reverse, p.1Peter F. Hamilton
To all the Friday-night-down-the-pub boys,
past, present, and future, whose whimsical
flights of fantasy go a great deal further
than anything in this book.
I’m not the most prolific of short story writers. I do enjoy the form, but novel writing takes up most of my time these days. Consequently I get to write about one story a year, if I’m lucky.
This then is a collection of all my short stories written since 1998, when the last collection, A Second Chance at Eden, was published. Looking through them I’d be the first to admit they’re not particularly short, with the exception of ‘The Forever Kitten’, which was written for the excellent Nature magazine, and had to be kept to less than 1,000 words. I can do it, but that’s a rare event. Very rare.
The rest have all been published in various anthologies or magazines, apart from ‘Manhattan in Reverse’, a story featuring the detective from my Commonwealth universe, Paula Myo, which was written exclusively for this collection. I also took the opportunity to revise ‘Footvote’, bringing it slightly more up to date. A strange thing to do with an SF story set in the alternative near-past, but I couldn’t resist.
Peter F. Hamilton
Watching Trees Grow
If at First . . .
The Forever Kitten
Blessed by an Angel
The Demon Trap
Manhattan in Reverse
Watching Trees Grow
OXFORD, ENGLAND AD 1832
If I was dreaming that night I forgot it the instant when that blasted telephone woke me with its shrill two-tone whistle. I fumbled round for the bedside light, very aware of Myriam shifting and groaning on the mattress beside me. She was seven months pregnant with our child, and no longer appreciated the calls which I received at strange hours. I found the little chain dangling from the light, tugged it, and picked up the black bakelite handset.
I wasn’t surprised to have the rich vowels of Francis Haughton Raleigh rolling down the crackly line at me. The family’s old missus dominicus is my immediate superior. Few others would risk my displeasure with a call at night.
‘Edward, my boy,’ he growled. ‘So sorry to wake you at this ungodly hour.’
I glanced at the brass clock on the chest of drawers; its luminous hands were showing quarter past midnight. ‘That’s all right, sir. I wasn’t sleeping.’
Myriam turned over and gave me a derisory look.
‘Please, no need to call me, sir. The thing is, Edward, we have a bit of a problem.’
‘Here in the city, would you believe. It’s really the most damnable news. One of the students has been killed. Murdered, the police seem to think.’
I stopped my fidgeting, suddenly very awake. Murder, a concept as difficult to grasp as it was frightening to behold. What kind of pre-Empire savage could do that to another person? ‘One of ours?’
‘Apparently so. He’s a Raleigh, anyway. Not that we’ve had positive confirmation.’
‘I see.’ I sat up, causing the flannel sheet to fall from my shoulders. Myriam was frowning now, more concerned than puzzled.
‘Can we obtain that confirmation?’ I asked.
‘Absolutely. And a lot more besides. I’m afraid you and I have been handed the family jurisdiction on this one. I’ll pick you up in ten minutes.’ The handset buzzed as the connection ended.
I leaned over and kissed Myriam gently. ‘Got to go.’
‘What is it? What’s happened?’
Her face had filled with worry. So much so that I was unable to answer in truth. It wasn’t that she lacked strength. Myriam was a senior technical nurse, seeing pain and suffering every day at the city clinic – she’d certainly seen more dead bodies than I ever had. But blurting out this kind of news went against my every instinct. Obscurely, it felt to me as though I was protecting our unborn. I simply didn’t want my child to come into a world where such horror could exist. Murder. I couldn’t help but shiver as I pulled on my shirt, cold fingers making a hash of the small pearl buttons. ‘Some kind of accident, we think. Francis and I have to investigate. I’ll tell you in the morning.’ When, the Blessed Mary willing, it might be proved some ghastly mistake.
My leather attaché case was in the study, a present from my mother when I passed my legal exams. I had been negligent in employing it until now, some of its fine brass implements and other paraphernalia had never even been taken from their compartments. I snatched it up as if it were some form of security tool, its scientific contents a shield against the illogicality abroad in the city that night.
I didn’t have a long wait in the lobby before Francis’s big black car rolled up outside, crunching the slushy remnants of last week’s snowfall. The old man waited patiently whilst I buckled the safety restraint straps around my chest and shoulders before switching on the batteries and engaging the gearing toggle. We slipped quietly out onto the cobbled street, powerful yellow headlamps casting a wide fan of illumination.
The apartment which Myriam and I rent is in the city’s Botley district, a pleasant area of residential blocks and well-tended parks, where small businesses and shops occupy the ground floors of most buildings. The younger, professional members of the better families had taken to the district, their nannies filling the daytime streets with prams and clusters of small excitable children. At night it seemed bleaker somehow, lacking vitality.
Francis twisted the motor potentiometer, propelling the car up to a full twenty-five miles an hour. ‘You know, it’s at times like this I wish the Roman Congress hadn’t banned combustion engines last year,’ he grumbled. ‘We could be there in half a minute.’
‘Batteries will improve,’ I told him patiently. ‘And petroleum was dangerous stuff. It could explode if there were an accident.’
‘I know, I know. Lusting after speed is a Shorts way of thinking. But I sometimes wonder if we’re not being too timid these days. The average citizen is a responsible fellow. It’s not as if he’ll take a car out looking to do damage with it. Nobody ever complains about horse-riding.’
‘There’s the pollution factor as well. And we can’t afford to squander our resources. There’s only a finite amount of crude oil on the planet, and you know the population projections. We must safeguard the future, we’re going to spend the rest of our lives there.’
Francis sighed theatrically. ‘Well recited. So full of earnest promise, you youngsters.’
‘I’m thirty-eight,’ I reminded him. ‘I have three accredited children already.’ One of which I had to fight to gain family registration for. The outcome of a youthful indiscretion with a girl at college. We all have them.
‘A child,’ Francis said dismissively. ‘You know, when I was young, in my teens in fact, I met an old man who claimed he could remember the last of the Roman Legionaries withdrawing from Britain when he was a boy.’
I performed the maths quickly in my head. It could be possible, given how old Francis was. ‘That’s interesting.’
‘Don’t patronize, my boy. The point is, progress brings its own problems. The world that old man lived in changed very little in his lifetime – it was almost the same as the Second Imperial Era. While today, our whole mindset, the way we look at our existence, is transformed every time a new scientific discovery drops into our lap. He had stability. We don’t. We have to work harder because of that, be on our guard more. It’s painful for someone of my age.’
‘Are you saying today’s world makes murder more likely?’
‘No. Not yet. But the possibility is there. Change is always a domino effect.
‘And you’ll need to keep remembering it as well, not just for now, but for centuries.’
I managed to prevent my head from shaking in amusement. The old man was always going on about the uncertainties and dangers of the future. Given the degree of social and technological evolution he’d witnessed in the last four hundred years, it’s a quirk which I readily excuse. When he was my age the world had yet to see electricity and mains water; medicine then consisted of herbs boiled up by old women in accordance with lore already ancient in the First Imperial Era. ‘So what do we know about this possible murder?’
‘Very little. The police phoned the local family office, who got straight on to me. The gentleman we’re talking about is Justin Ascham Raleigh; he’s from the Nottingham Raleighs. Apparently, his neighbour heard sounds coming from his room, and thought there was some kind of fight or struggle going on. He alerted the lodgekeepers. They opened the room up and found him, or at least a body.’
‘Very definitely, yes.’
We drove into the centre of Oxford. Half past midnight was hardly late by the city’s standards. There were students thronging the tree-lined streets, just starting to leave the cafés and taverns. Boisterous, yes; I could remember my own time here as a student, first studying science, then latterly law. They shouted as they made their way back to their residences and colleges; quoting obscure verse, drinking from the neck of bottles, throwing books and bags about . . . one group was even having a scrum down, slithering about on the icy pavement. Police and lodgekeepers looked on benignly at such activity, for it never gets any worse than this.
Francis slowed the car to a mere crawl as a bunch of revellers ran across the road ahead. One young man mooned us before rushing off to merge with his laughing friends. Many of them were girls, about half of whom were visibly pregnant.
‘Thinks we’re the civic authorities, no doubt,’ Francis muttered around a small smile. ‘I could show him a thing or two about misbehaving.’
We drew up outside the main entrance to Dunbar College. I hadn’t been inside for well over a decade, and had few memories of the place. It was a six-storey building of pale yellow stone, with great mullioned windows overlooking the broad boulevard. Snow had been cleared from the road and piled up in big mounds on either side of the archway which led into the quad. A police constable and a junior lodgekeeper were waiting for us in the lodgekeeper’s office just inside the entranceway, keeping warm by the iron barrel stove. They greeted us briskly, and led us inside.
Students were milling uneasily in the long corridors, dressed in pyjamas, or wrapped in blankets to protect themselves from the cool air. They knew something was wrong, but not what. Lodgekeepers dressed in black suits patrolled the passages and cloisters, urging patience and restraint. Everyone fell silent as we strode past.
We went up two flights of spiralling stone stairs, and along another corridor. The chief lodgekeeper was standing outside a sturdy wooden door, no different to the twenty other lodgings on that floor. His ancient creased face registered the most profound sadness. He nodded as the constable announced who we were, and ushered us inside.
Justin Ascham Raleigh’s accommodation was typical of a final-year student – three private rooms: bedroom, parlour and study. They had high ceilings, wood-panelled walls dark with age, long once-grand curtains hanging across the windows. All the interconnecting doors had been opened, allowing us to see the corner of a bed at the far end of the little suite. A fire had been lit in the small iron grate of the study, its embers still glowing, holding off the night’s chill air.
Quite a little group of people were waiting for us. I glanced at them quickly: three student-types, two young men and a girl, obviously very distressed; and an older man in a jade-green police uniform, with the five gold stars of a senior detective. He introduced himself as Gareth Alan Pitchford, his tone sombre and quiet. ‘And I’ve heard of you, sir. Your reputation is well established in this city.’
‘Why thank you,’ Francis said graciously. ‘This is my deputy, Edward Buchanan Raleigh.’
Gareth Alan Pitchford bestowed a polite smile, as courteous as the situation required, but not really interested. I bore it stoically.
‘So what have we got here?’ Francis asked.
Detective Pitchford led us into the study. Shelving filled with a mixture of academic reference books and classic fiction covered two walls. I was drawn to the wonderfully detailed star charts which hung upon the other walls, alternating with large photographs of extravagant astronomical objects. A bulky electrically powered typewriter took pride of place on a broad oak desk, surrounded by a litter of paper and open scientific journals. An ordinary metal and leather office chair with castors stood behind the desk, a grey sports jacket hanging on its back.
The body was crumpled in a corner, covered with a navy-blue nylon sheet. A considerable quantity of blood had soaked into the threadbare Turkish carpet. It started with a big splash in the middle of the room, laying a trail of splotches to the stain around the corpse.
‘This isn’t pretty,’ the detective warned as he turned down the sheet.
I freely admit no exercise in self-control could prevent me from wincing at what I saw that moment. Revulsion gripped me, making my head turn away. A knife was sticking out of Justin Ascham Raleigh’s right eye; it was buried almost up to the hilt.
The detective continued to pull the sheet away. I forced myself to resume my examination. There was a deep cut across Justin Ascham Raleigh’s abdomen, and his ripped shirt was stained scarlet. ‘You can see that the attacker went for the belly first,’ the detective said. ‘That was a disabling blow, which must have taken place about here.’ He pointed to the glistening splash of blood in the middle of the study. ‘I’m assuming Mr Raleigh would have staggered back into this corner and fallen.’
‘At which point he was finished off,’ Francis said matter-of-factly. ‘I would have thought he was dying anyway from the amount of blood lost from the first wound, but his assailant was obviously very determined he should die.’
‘That’s my belief,’ the detective said.
Francis gave me an enquiring look.
‘I agree,’ I stuttered.
Francis gestured weakly, his face flushed with distaste. The sheet was pulled back up. Without any spoken agreement, the three of us moved away from the corpse to cluster in the doorway leading to the parlour.
‘Can we have the full sequence of events, please?’ Francis asked.
‘We don’t have much yet,’ the detective said. ‘Mr Raleigh and five of his friends had supper together at the Orange Grove restaurant earlier this evening. It lasted from half past seven to about ten o’clock, at which point they left and separated. Mr Raleigh came back here to Dunbar by himself around twenty past ten – the lodgekeepers confirm that. Then at approximately half past eleven, his neighbour heard an altercation, then a scream. He telephoned down to the lodgekeeper’s office.’
I looked from the body to the door which led back out into the corridor. ‘Was no one seen or heard to leave?’
‘Apparently not, sir,’ the detective said. ‘The neighbour came straight out into the corridor and waited for the lodgekeepers. He didn’t come in here himself, but he swears no one came out while he was watching.’
‘There would be a short interval,’ I said. ‘After the scream he’d spend some time calling the lodgekeepers – a minute or so.’
‘People must have been using the corridor at that time,’ the detective said. ‘And our murderer would have some blood on their clothes. He’d be running too.’
‘And looking panicked, I’ll warrant,’ Francis said. ‘Someone would have seen them and remembered.’
‘Unless it was the neighbour himself who is the killer,’ I observed.
‘Peter Samuel Griffith,’ the detective said. ‘Mr Raleigh’s neighbour.’
‘I do apologize,’ Francis said smoothly. ‘My colleague and I were simply eliminating possibilities. This has left all of us rather flustered, I’m afraid.’
Peter Samuel Griffith grunted in acknowledgement.
I looked straight at the detective. ‘So if the murderer didn’t leave by the front door . . .’
Francis and I pulled the curtains back. Justin Ascham Raleigh’s rooms looked inward over the quad. They were in a corner, where little light ventured from the illuminated pathway crossing the snow-cloaked lawn. Mindful of possible evidence, I opened my case and took out a pair of tight-fitting rubber gloves. The latch on the window was open. When I gave the iron frame a tentative push it swung out easily. We poked our heads out like a pair of curious children at a fairground attraction. The wall directly outside was covered with wisteria creeper, its ancient gnarled branches twisted together underneath a thick layer of white ice crystals; it extended upwards for at least another two floors.
‘As good as any ladder,’ Francis said quietly. ‘And I’ll warrant there’s at least a dozen routes in and out of Dunbar that avoid the lodgekeepers.’
The detective took a look at the ancient creeper encircling the window. ‘I’ve heard that the gentlemen of Dunbar College do have several methods of allowing their lady friends to visit their rooms after the gates are locked.’
‘And as the gates weren’t locked at the time of the murder, no one would have been using those alternative routes. The murderer would have got out cleanly,’ Francis said.
‘If we’re right, then this was a well planned crime,’ I said. If anything, that made it worse.
Manhattan in Reverse by Peter F. Hamilton / Science Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes