Sunday, 31 January 2016

Unmasking the protagonist

This morning I’ve been working on the plotting of my (hopefully) sixth book, When the Children Come. Normally, plotting (for me) consists of determining what happens to who and what they do about it. I normally weave in the character as I go along. But not today.

Henry James said ‘Character is plot’. To a science fiction writer this seems like a paradox, as typically we are driven by the ideas, by the world-building, by the technology, by the unknown – the sheer fascination of what just might be out there. This is perhaps why Scifi is a genre that a lot of people don’t read, because there is a trade-off between action/wonder/mystery and good old-fashioned character.

A few scifi readers get the balance right – Jack McDevitt, for one (I’m reading my 5th JMD novel at the moment, called Echo). But many do not, even the greats. I got some good character development into my first series, but that was more by accident, or due to them running around by head for nearly a decade while I wrote all four books.

So, this time, I thought I’d try and plot the character. Say what? Okay, in a book a character has an arc. At its simplest level, unless you’re writing a succession of books where the character doesn’t change noticeably (e.g. Jack Reacher), the character MUST change in some way between the beginning and the end of the book.   

When you meet somebody for the first time, you don’t know them. You get an impression, you talk about superficial things, and it can be pleasant or not, but you do not know them. We all wear masks. What you see is not what you get. This is good news for writers because READERS LOVE CONFLICT. A writer can portray a character as one thing, and then slowly reveal that actually (s)he is something different altogether, perhaps the opposite of what they appear to be to the outside world.

This ‘trickster’ quality to characters can be unmasked quickly by a piece of internal monologue, e.g. the character thinking to him or herself, so the reader knows what they really think, who they really are. But that’s not a good idea. It’s better to peel away layers, like an onion, so we get to understand them slowly. Remember, peeling an onion can make you cry.

Hang on a minute, I hear someone say. But that means I can’t go inside the character’s head without lying to the reader, without becoming an unreliable narrator! Not so. We all lie to ourselves. Denial is a very strong self-protection mechanism. Everyone lies, especially to themselves. You don’t have to hide their thoughts, you just have to show them, and maybe then – because readers don’t like being played – give some hint that maybe what the protagonist tells him or herself isn’t necessarily true.

The excerpt below is an example. Nathan hates kids. Or does he? Paragraph 1 is pretty damn clear on it. But then how do you explain para 2? And then there’s para 3. Nathan clearly thinks he hates kids, but now, as far as the reader is concerned, it’s only a maybe, because he’s clearly worried about them. And hopefully by now, so is the reader. The conflict is right there, on the first page of the novel. You know there’s more to this guy than meets the eye…

            Nathan hated children, always had. Especially babies, the way they screamed as soon as they were born – wasn’t that enough warning of what was to come? Little pissing, shitting, eating, crying machines. Maybe it wasn’t just infants, it was the way every woman and quite a few men on the planet went gaga every time they saw one, lost all sense of reason. Hormones kicked in, turned them all into Stepford freaks. And when the babies grew into toddlers, and then young kids, they weren’t much better: tantrums, more screaming, and kids learned to whine. How many business trips, restaurant dinners, theatre visits, you name it, were ruined by one small, precocious and, above all, loud brat and its doting, utterly useless parents? No discipline anymore. Nathan had sure been disciplined when he’d been a kid.
            He sat up, thought he heard a noise, picked up the rifle and crept to the door, opened it slowly, then wide, so the pale light from his room flooded out. They were all there, in the gym hall, sound asleep, two hundred kids. One or two jerked occasionally, nightmaring. He didn’t blame them. Sally, closest to his door, had kicked off the covers. He went over and with his free hand gently pulled them back up over her shoulder, careful not to wake her. Then he went back inside, pulled the door to without closing it completely.
He lay the rifle next to his chair. Two magazines, not nearly enough if they were discovered. The bed invited, but no way. He checked his pills again. Four left. It would have to do. He tried to relax, but not too much. He couldn’t move the kids until dawn, too risky before then. The others…
What had he been thinking before? Oh, yeah, right. How he hated kids. All his life he’d despised them, considered them a necessary evil. After the terrible twos, they learned first how to manipulate then divide and conquer their parents. Their cute phase. In a pig’s eye. And sibling camaraderie – wasn’t the story of Cain and Abel clear enough on that matter? Then there was school. He’d been bullied, but had seen a lot worse. Kids could be utterly cruel, mini Pol Pots, elf-like Hitlers. Once they reached nine or ten, they weren’t so bad. His sister’s kids, Archie and Josh, had been nine and eleven. It would have been Archie’s tenth birthday a week Tuesday. Nathan had actually bought him a present, for the first time. Both dead now. He shuddered. Good. Negative emotions would keep him awake. 

Of course it doesn’t have to be done on the first page, it can be the first chapter, or even the first ‘act’ of the book (whether it’s a 3, 4, or 5 act structure). That’s actually a good turning point for the protagonist to stare hard in the mirror and see something new there, or something forgotten, something lost.

So, this is what I’m doing at the moment, figuring out the pinch points for my protagonist (Nathan) where his internal world will begin to crack, then unravel, then slide and finally shatter, revealing who he really is or must become. But none of this happens in a vacuum, because the character arc needs to mesh seamlessly with the overall plot arc.

I’ll leave you with a few questions I pose myself, that help me navigate the character arc of the book, and hence plot the character.

What do they think they want?
What is it they really want or need?
What are the influences or secrets in their past that cement their denial?
What will be the external trigger to force them out of their comfort zone? Hint – this can relate in some way to their secrets – what breaks them out of it is at least in part linked to what put them there in the first place.
Who will be the external catalyst? Usually this has to be someone new in the protagonist’s life.

What must they sacrifice in order to change?

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Space-ships with attitude

One of the best things about scifi is the ships, right? These can be sleek, impressive, and just occasionally, downright mean (my favorite was always Talyn, from Farscape). In my Eden Paradox series, particularly towards the end, a lot of ships fall into the 'mean' category. This is because there is an ongoing galactic war, so most of the story concerns war-ships and battle cruisers rather than cargo vessels, transports and pleasure yachts. Each ship tends to have its own unique weaponry. Here's the spaceship register used in the last book, Eden's Endgame:

Hushtarans – Level Eight race with squid-like ships that use anti-matter cables similar to Q’Roth Crucible ships.

Kalarash – Level Nineteen beings originally believed to have left our galaxy. Only seven remain in the universe. Little is known about them. They are called Progenitors by many Grid species, as the Kalarash fostered civilisation in the galaxy, based on a strictly hierarchical intelligence-ranking system. The Kalarash never leave their Crossbow ships.

Mannekhi – Level Six human-looking alien race except for their all-black eyes. They sided with Qorall in the ongoing galactic war, due to millennia of oppression by the Tazani under Grid rule. Mannekhi use Spiker ships for war, as well as Javelin Class Dropships for incursions.

Nchkani – Level Sixteen warrior race infamous for their brutality in war and insurrections, especially with their ships known as Shredders, and tank-like Crabs for ground assault. 

Nganks – full name Ngankfushtora – squid-like Level Twelve cosmetic surgeons whose services are usually reserved for higher-level species. Their hospital ships are known colloquially as Lozenges, and smaller triage vessels are known as Egg ships, both due to their shape.

Orb – deep space vessel with gravity-based and organic viral weaponry, mode of propulsion unknown; new weapon unleashed by Qorall.

Ossyrians – dog-like Level Eight medical race, charged as humanity’s custodians after the trial, their eighteen-year long stay on Esperia led by Chahat-Me. Their hospital ships are known as Pyramid ships. Such ships visited Egypt five thousand years ago. Rapier ships are used for short in-system transit.

Qorall [kwo-rahl] – ancient enemy of the Kalarash, and invader of our galaxy. His ship is embedded inside an artificial asteroid the sits just above the event horizon of a black hole. His weapons include ‘greenspace’, which changes the nature of local space, preventing Transpace conduits from opening, and using the black hole to trigger gravitic shock waves. 

Q’Roth [kyu-roth] – Level Six nomadic warrior race who culled Earth as part of the maturation process for its hatchlings, in a deal with the Alicians. Currently engaged as soldiers trying to stop the progress of Qorall’s forces across the galaxy. The Q’Roth are the formal Patrons of the Alicians. Q’Roth have a number of warships from the Mega Class Battlestar and Crucible warships, to Mesa Class Destroyers, inter-stellar Marauders and Hunters, down to the short-haul Raptor.

Scintarelli – legendary Level Twelve shipbuilders, whose shipyards dwell in gas giants. Their star-ship designs include the interstellar Starpiercer, the Scythe warship, and the one-man Dart.

Sclarese [skla-ray-zee] Nova Stormers – Level Nine semi-intelligent stealth missiles based on energy amplification technology, aimed at turning stars nova. Built by the Sclarese.

Shiva – a Level Twelve Scintarelli Scythe-ship (a Cutlass Class warship) upgraded by Hellera to Level Fifteen. Shiva is a mind-ship, completely autonomous with its own personality.

Tazani – Level Seven patrons of the Mannekhi. Their battle-cruisers fire energy packets capable of destroying Mannekhi Spikers.

Tla Beth – Level Seventeen energy creatures, rulers of the Grid in the absence of the Kalarash. Their homeworld is located inside a supernova. Their small but powerful ships are called Gyroscopes. Their famed Mega Class battleships were called Grazers, believed to be defunct.

Wagramanians – Level Seven forest-dwelling tripeds famed for art, but also employed by the Tla Beth as shock troops during times of inter-stellar war, in their famed Hammer ships.

Xera – Level Eighteen Machine race developed by the Tla Beth, who had to be put down due to their war two million years earlier against ‘organics’. Their City ships were feared by an entire galaxy until they were neutralised in the battle at the edge of the galaxy in a place later named Hell’s End.

Zlarasi – Level Six aqua-farmers living in the oceans on Alagara. They use two ships: Conch ships (mass drivers) and Diamond warships (anti-matter core and weaponry).

Creating such ship concepts is a lot of fun! But even better, when commissioning the cover for Endgame with celebrated SF artist John Harris, I got to design the ship Shiva with him (well, technically the Scintarelli designed it, we just visualized it, lol). I sent him the chapter where Shiva goes into action, and he produced the cover, first in pastels and then in oils. Needless to say, it's on my wall!

For the rest though it is up to the reader's imagination. But the way they are best brought to life is through action. The following excerpt is from a battle scene in the last book , when many of the ships above confront each other. Some have been seen earlier in this and previous books, but they have never been brought into the same battle-space. And there is one that has never been seen before...

Micah focused on the foreground, in particular the Ossyrian Diamond ships, and addressed Vashta.
“I didn’t know Ossyrians still had weapons tech. It’s been sixty millennia since you last waged war.”
Vashta took a few moments to reply. “After Level Seven there is never species memory loss. That is why when certain species rebel, they are completely eradicated.”
“You were lucky, then.”
Again, there was a pause. “It did not feel lucky, Micah.”
Micah was about to apologise, when Sandy interrupted.
“Xenic has just arrived with the remains of the Mannekhi fleet. He’d like a word.”
Micah nodded, relieved to see a fleet of black and purple Spikers enter the system.
“Xenic, glad you could join us, but there’s some pretty heavy firepower out there.”
“Do you see the black ships with two prongs at one end?”
Micah did, they reminded him of scorpions.
“Those are Tazani, our overlords for fifty thousand years. As Kilaney would have said, it’s payback time.”
Micah felt he should point out the obvious. “They are Level Seven, Xenic.”
“We brought along some new friends.”
Micah peered at the viewscreen and at first saw nothing, then massive Transpace conduits opened, revealing snake-like ships in the lead that rippled aquamarine. Shiva informed him they were Zlarasi Serpent-ships. He knew what Kilaney had done to them, destroying their home planet in order to salvage Blake, and was about to ask Sandy to contact their Commander when the Zlarasi commander opened a channel.
“Do not worry, human, we know who the enemy is. And Kilaney’s actions have proven effective.”
Micah was relieved, and wondered whether humanity would have been so forgiving had the roles been reversed.
Wagramanian Hammer-ships arrived, behind the Zlarasi Serpent-ships, and Micah recalled that the Wagramanians – the first to be recoded – had recently been restored. When he saw what they were towing, however, he stood and walked up to the viewscreen.
“Worms? You brought dark worms here?”
Xenic’s sharp laugh cut across the bridge. “The Zlarasi tamed the ones Hellera didn’t kill; that’s why there’s not been much activity.”
“What do you propose to do with them?”
“Use them as shields, Micah. And if we get close enough, as mass-drivers. You’ll see.”
He doubted they would perturb the Nchkani vessels, and Qorall could use his black hole to swallow any amount of matter spewed in his direction. Then he remembered something; the worms, whose natural habitat was the inter-galactic void, could excrete anti-matter. That might make a difference.
“Have you told Hellera?”
“She’s the one that made it happen, Micah, she’s been calling in favours across the galaxy. Kalarash aren’t above a little politics now and again.”
Of course. Micah kept forgetting that humanity was just a pawn, and there were more skilled players.
“Don’t get killed, Xenic. I’ve buried too many friends recently.”
Xenic replied in Mannekhi and broke the connection. Micah glanced back to Sandy for a translation. After a second she looked up from her console, a small smile on her face.
“He’s been reading up on Earth culture. ‘Only the good die young.’” Her voice caught on the last word, and she locked her face onto her displays again.
Micah focused on the arrays of ships again, imagining a gigantic chessboard: Hellera and Qorall at opposite ends, their armies lined up ready for the battle, waiting for one or other side to make the first move. He had a feeling it wouldn’t be particularly subtle.

A klaxon sounded aboard Shiva as Qorall dispatched three waves of Tazani battle-cruisers and attendant fighter ships towards Hellera’s position. The Wagramanians launched the worms – presumably anaesthetized – towards the first wave. Three Hammer-ships skulked behind each dark worm, hidden in the giant folds of the creatures. Micah zoomed in on one, and saw a pulsing green cable protruding from the worm’s neck; the Zlarasi were controlling them directly.
Mannekhi Spikers accelerated towards the attacking front, over-taking the worms, their purple spines spitting fire at the Tazani. In return, each of the Tazani ships’ two prongs forged a beam between them that launched lozenges of energy at the Spikers, ignoring the worms. Space lit up like a firework factory exploding, but without sound. Shiva filtered out the glare. Micah saw the Mannekhi suffering heavy losses, many of the Spikers blown apart by the energy impact, spilling Mannekhi into space. None of the Mannekhi ships retreated, and nausea gripped Micah’s stomach. But as the worms reached the centre of the battlefield, the Wagramanian Hammer-ships engaged, living up to their name as they spun like tomahawks towards the less manoeuvrable Tazani battle-cruisers, weathered the defensive energy lozenges, and smashed headlong into and through the cruisers. Once a Tazani cruiser was damaged, Spikers descended on it like vultures, to finish the job.
Bronze ships that looked like giant squid entered the fray, and Shiva tagged them as Level Eight, Hushtarans. They began capturing the Wagramanian Hammers with long tentacles of antimatter, burning their way through the Hammers’ fuselage. Hellera deployed the Ossyrian Diamond ships. Micah didn’t actually know what weapons the Ossyrians possessed, only that they had once been feared across the galaxy.
The crystal diamonds approached the squids and split into two pyramids, then began cutting the squid, slicing through its hull, twisting and turning, the two halves of the diamond working together, gouging and dismembering the ship. Soon the Hushtaran ships were listless in space. Micah zoomed in to one that was in pieces, but detected no bodies. Shiva informed him that Hushtaran pilots merged organically with their ships; they were one and the same.  
            Micah knew this battle, though terrible, was all a preamble to the real one, and at the moment a ploy by Hellera to get the Nchkani vessels to enjoin battle. But it wasn’t working. Instead, Qorall fired his famed spatial lightning bolts, criss-crossing the space with green plasma arcs of awesome power. Any Spikers, Diamonds and Hammers that didn’t make it quickly enough to the leeward side of the worms were vaporised, as were the remaining Tazani and Hushtaran ships, evidently collateral damage as far as Qorall was concerned. Micah prayed that Xenic was still alive.
Sandy must have been thinking along the same lines. “Xenic’s ship is still intact, Micah.”
He nodded a thank you, then turned to Vashta. “Sorry for the Ossyrian casualties, Vashta.”
“You have no idea, Micah, how proud we are to be here, fighting, after so many millennia of enforced pacifism. We are complete again.”
Micah stared at her awhile, and realised that whatever happened here today, whoever won, ten million years of ordered Grid Society was going to be torn down. He wondered if Hellera knew, and then decided that of course she knew, she was Level Nineteen.
The Rangers’ assortment of small scout ships swept in like fireflies, dodging the green lightning bolts with faster-than-eye movements, and for the first time Micah appreciated how physically robust the reptilian Rangers must be to survive such manoeuvres. Still the Nchkani hung back. Instead, hundreds of copper-coloured vessels shaped like corkscrews appeared out of nowhere, reminding Micah of old-style solenoids.
For the first time ever, he felt a jab from Shiva via his resident, and guessed it was her equivalent of a flinch. He interrogated, and Shiva replied: .
Micah paced the length of the screen, thinking. Unknown and some kind of stealth tech. It only made sense if Qorall had concealed them all this time, during nearly twenty years of war. The discipline behind his strategy was breath-taking.

Saturday, 9 January 2016

On creating interesting villains - Lazarus

Are you ever more interested by the villain in a story than the hero? Or do you like heroes who are a hair's breadth from being villains? Ever watched Peaky Blinders, or read Lee Child's Jack Reacher?

In a lot of fiction and fantasy, villains are just plain bad, through and through, whether they were born that way or took a bad turn and never looked back. The hero's job is then to put them down. Okay, there's a huge market for that.

But it's exciting to come across a villain who can be at least as interesting, and maybe more interesting, than the protagonist. In my SF series (The Eden Paradox), the character everyone remembers is Louise, at least as much as the main protagonists Micah and Blake. Initially because she seemed to be such an evil bitch, but as the series progressed I nuanced her and made her more interesting, giving her quite unique insights, and even some of my more sanguine readers seemed to hesitate before pulling the trigger on her.

In my latest novel (Sixty-Six Metres), I wanted to do something a little different, a little closer to Peaky Blinders. There are five villains, and although two of them are more in the background, for the other three the reader gets to walk around inside their heads. One of them Jack Reacher would blast away without hesitation, but near the end the reader starts to see a different side of him, and is actually quite shocked when he is killed, especially since in that chapter the reader is in his point of view, even as he dies.

The second main villain, most of us would not need Jack Reacher to do the dirty work for us, and I do have a secondary character who is basically a normal young woman kill him. But again, i tried to make his way of thinking and seeing the world compelling, and one of my readers said he has some pretty good points...

The third one is called Lazarus, because he died and was resuscitated, and is the most interesting to me. When I was having the draft of Sixty-Six Metres reviewed by two independent literary consultants, one said I had too many villains, and that maybe I should get rid of Lazarus. The other one said don't you dare! So, without any more ado, I'll introduce you to Lazarus, and his way of seeing the world, and people he might have to kill...

Lazarus crunched his way up the gravel pathway to Kadinsky’s dacha, aware there would be a marksman upstairs training cross-hairs on his face. Americans aimed for the heart, Russians for the head. The gravel was thick with pebbles, impossible to run on, and Lazarus’ significant weight left dimples in the circular path surrounding the empty clay-coloured fountain, a statue of Pan in its centre. The Greek god of mischief’s flute was bone dry.
Lazarus had to leave his car and the key with a guard down at the estate entrance, and trek the remaining two hundred metres alone. He didn’t mind the exercise, but he disliked the psychology. Everything about Kadinsky was a reminder of who was boss.
            A gruff man with designer stubble, wearing a suit stretched tight by muscles on top of muscles, opened the oak door. The goon inspected Lazarus, taking in his sheer size, probably wondering how much was lean, how much was fat, and where best to pop him with his ‘38 if necessary. The face, or the back of the head, as always. He patted Lazarus down while another watched from the upper landing, a Kalashnikov hanging from his shoulder. Lazarus wasn’t carrying a weapon. He didn’t need one, there were plenty around, and his hands could snap necks when required. Not that he enjoyed killing, but he preferred it to being killed.
            Whenever he was in hostile terrain he made rapid assessments of opponents, putting them into one of three categories: commas, semicolons, and full stops. Commas could be scared off, they’d turn and run, and didn’t need a bullet. Semis, when wounded, would go crying to their mommas, no longer a threat. Full stops needed to be put down quickly, a head or neck shot so their finger couldn’t pull the trigger in that last second of shocked clarity. These two were semis. One shot, one bone broken, they’d call it a day. They weren’t in it for love or loyalty, just dreaming of an early pension. Lazarus never dreamed. He was saving that for when he was dead.
            The search over, the goon jerked his thumb towards a set of double doors with frosted glass to the left on the ground floor. A golden Labrador intercepted him, and Lazarus squatted down, held his hand out, waiting while the dog hesitated then came over and sniffed his hand. Lazarus stroked him. The dog lapped it up. If only humanity were gone, just animals. The goon nudged Lazarus in the back with his knee. Lazarus rose and spun around on the spot, towering over him, making him step back in surprise. Lazarus heard the swish of the Kalashnikov being unshouldered and clicked into readiness, trained on his face, but he didn’t look up. He didn’t glare at the goon who had fumbled for his gun, didn’t need to, just loomed over him, the dog at his side sensing who was master.  
            “Lazarus,” a voice came from the room, “stop shitting around and get in here.”
            He turned to see Kadinsky – fat, bald, expensive suit, gold watch and bracelet – in the doorway, before he turned and went back inside. Lazarus followed, the dog too.
            A tall girl in a black lace cocktail dress, tousled hair, sandalwood eyes that danced when she walked, handed him a Scotch, no ice. Kadinsky already had one, plenty of ice. Lazarus took the drink, met her eyes once, then planted himself in a soft leather armchair. The Labrador lay down by her feet. Two other girls were in the room, an athletic short-skirted blonde, Latvian or Finnish, and a Chinese girl in a full length silk dress, as well as yet another suited goon who looked serious and sharp, a full stop guy for sure.
            Lazarus nursed the square, chunky whiskey glass, swirled the amber liquid once, then downed it. The brunette gestured with the Scotch decanter. Lazarus shook his head.
            “What do you want done?” he asked Kadinsky.
            Kadinsky smiled, revealing two gold molars. “That’s what I like about you, Laz. Always to the point.” He stifled a yawn, then snapped his fingers. The girls left, the dog trailing behind, as if he too wasn’t allowed to hear what came next. The full stop remained.
“I still don’t have the device, Laz. And I don’t have a warm feeling.”
Lazarus knew Kadinsky well enough: ambitious, powerful, good at maintaining his kingdom, but impatient, always wanting more. Greedy. Kadinsky would never make it to the top. But the Rose would make him a major player, get him attention from the Kremlin, win him favours. If he could pull it off. Lazarus reckoned it was better not to have such attention, better to know one’s place. And better to take your time. Life wasn’t a novel for most people, especially in his line of work. It was a few pages that ended abruptly, usually mid-sentence. Lazarus wanted to end on a good line.
He said what Kadinsky wanted to hear. “The girl Nadia will retrieve it. Danton will take care of her and Adamson.”
“Yeah, but the buzz around Frankfurt – for which we have to thank Adamson, apparently – is dying down. Attention’s focusing on Penzance. They identified the bodies, Janssen and the others.”
Lazarus heaved himself up out of the chair, the full stop’s eyes tracking him. He went to the decanter, poured himself another. Without offering Kadinsky any, he sat down again. It was good that Janssen was dead, the guy had been a real jerk. Kadinsky never should have entrusted him with such a job. Nor the girl: too inexperienced for such an operation. But he said nothing.
“I want you to go down there, get it done.” Kadinsky’s voice was a dangerous blend of anger, frustration, and fear.
Lazarus put down the glass. “You know the deal. I don’t do field work. I don’t exactly blend in.”
Kadinsky glowered. “Leave us,” he said. The full stop glanced at his boss, then left by the rear door. Kadinsky got up, went over to the decanter, filled his glass and plopped in two ice cubes, spilling Scotch onto the table. He wandered over to the window and surveyed his territory.
The idea occurred to Lazarus that he could kill Kadinsky, here, now. He wouldn’t make it out of there alive, but it might be worth it. Except someone else would just fill the boss’s shoes. For some strange reason the world needed people like Kadinsky. Which meant it wasn’t worth saving.
“I trust you, Lazarus. Which is why I’m going to tell you what I’ve told nobody else.”
No, you don’t trust anyone, you just want me to do something, and afterwards you’ll decide I know too much.
“I’m in pretty deep with the Chinese.”
Lazarus joined the dots. “You told them you have it.”
Kadinsky took a gluttonous swig, gulping noisily. “They’re expecting it the day after tomorrow. Fat price.” He turned around, the gold chain hanging from his wrist glinting in the last rays of afternoon sun. “Double what the Kremlin would pay.”
The Kremlin never paid, they just let you live longer and made you work harder for them. But the Chinese?
“As long as it’s not Cheng Yi,” Lazarus said. But Kadinsky didn’t reply, just stared out into the barren gardens as if he’d spied something interesting.
So, it was Cheng Yi.
Lazarus had worked on an op in Hong Kong once, for the Kolorokov brothers, trying to make inroads into the contraband markets there. That’s where he’d first encountered the ex-spymaster from Shanghai. An eight man team, only Lazarus got out alive. Reason was, he didn’t run when the sniper bullets kept flying. Standing there, surrounded by bodies, he’d just waited, until Cheng Yi himself arrived, unarmed, but somehow still controlling the snipers.
His English accent had been impeccable. Apparently he’d studied something at Cambridge.
“Tell your bosses they are not welcome here.”
Lazarus needed another whiskey just remembering it, but this news meant he should stay sober. Kadinsky was right to be scared. No point saying he shouldn’t have gotten involved with them. Everyone made bad decisions every now and again. Most didn’t cost you everything, though. Probably he’d tried the Kremlin but they didn’t take him seriously, as he didn’t have the right connections. A major screw-up. But it was still salvageable. Just.
Kadinsky took another swig, then downed it all. “Cheng Yi thinks I’m going to double-cross him, hand it over to someone else.”
“What did he threaten you with? This isn’t exactly their country.” Not that it would matter.
 “He has videos. He’ll send them to the Kremlin, show I was working for him.”
“Ah.” Greed had gotten Kadinsky this far, but it was going to bring him down. Lazarus hoped he’d have a ringside seat.
Kadinsky walked back to his chair, sat down again. “Any advice, Laz? I’ve heard that dead men can see the future.”
Lazarus could predict Kadinsky’s: his body full of holes, soaked in blood. He almost gave a shit for the guy, way in over his head. Almost.
“Give it to him, then move to Rio. Otherwise you’ll work for him the rest of your life, which won’t be that long. The Kremlin will work it out sooner rather than later.”
Kadinsky gave him a long hard stare, during which Lazarus didn’t look away. Then Kadinsky uttered a forced laugh.
“Which is why I need to get my hands on it, or else I’m finished.” He leaned forwards, a grotesque grin on his face.
Lazarus could move quickly, and he considered reaching out and grabbing Kadinsky’s chin and neck, and saving both the Kremlin and the Chinese a lot of hassle. It would make a good last line. But then again, maybe he had a few more pages left in him. He predicted what Kadinsky was about to say.
“Which is why I need you to go and get it, to make sure. Because if I go down, I won’t go quietly. Everyone goes down with me. You can be sure of that.”
Lazarus was sure. He spread his hands theatrically. “You want me to go incognito?”
Kadinsky sat back, smug, like an actor pleased with his own performance.
“Actually, yes. There’s a small-time wrestling championship. The perfect cover. You’re going as Rasputin, the Russian Bone-Cruncher.” He laughed, then laughed some more.
Lazarus hated jokes. They were always at someone’s expense, this time his. But he knew Kadinsky never really joked, and you didn’t say no to a guy like him, who knew where all your friends and relatives lived. Kadinsky had already buried two of Lazarus’s nephews.  
              “Good, that’s settled. You leave early tomorrow, private jet to Bristol, you’ll be picked up from there.”
            Lazarus began to get up.
            “Which girl do you want for tonight?”
            “Thanks, but I don’t –”
            “Which girl?” Kadinsky’s smug smile was gone.
            “The brunette,” he said. He watched for any trace of reaction, in case the brunette meant something to Kadinsky, but there was none. As expected.
            “Dinner’s at seven,” Kadinsky said. He pressed something, and the double doors opened.

Lazarus sat in an armchair by the bed, thinking of Sasha, the car crash, the ice cracking. He closed his eyes. Seventeen years ago. Her book had been so short, barely a few of chapters. But he read it every night.
            There was a knock on the door. He didn’t answer. The door handle turned and the brunette stole inside. She was beautiful, no point denying it. But then Sasha had been, too. And when you’ve loved and lost someone truly beautiful, other beauty seems hollow, it doesn’t touch you. She crossed the bedroom towards him.
            He held up a hand. “I don’t want you,” he said, as curt as he could manage.
            She stopped. “You want one of the other girls?”
            Her voice was deeper than he’d expected, like Sasha’s.
“No,” he said. “I don’t want anyone.”
            She stayed where she was. “If I leave now, I’ll be punished,” she said.
            Too bad. He’d held true to Sasha all these years. The brunette’s face grew sad, then resolute, like she knew what was coming. She turned to leave. He imagined Sasha, watching. She’d scold him.
            “Wait,” he said. “You can stay. But no sex.”
            She didn’t move. “He’ll have his men check.”
            “Check what?”
            “The sheets.” She lowered her voice. “Me.”
            He imagined Sasha storming out to find a gun to shoot Kadinsky, though not in the face.
            “It’s okay,” she said. “I respect you for it.” She glanced over her shoulder. “You’re lucky you have the choice.” She moved to the door.
            All these years he’d imagined Sasha by his side, watching over him. He’d never told anyone, even when drunk, that he still carried her around with him. He imagined Sasha at the door. She would say that one of them had to leave, and it was her. She’d be gone by now. Make it quick, she’d say, as she closed the door behind her, and don’t tell me about it, ever.
            “Wait,” he said. The room felt empty, just him and her. “Get undressed.”
            She smiled, mouthed “Spasiba,” and let her dress fall to the floor.
            She was perfect, the ends of her tawny hair just reaching her nipples.
            “How long has it been?” she asked.
“A lifetime.” 
© Barry Kirwan |
website by digitalplot