Authors: Eric Brown
Table of Contents
THE DEVIL'S NEBULA
THE KINGS OF ETERNITY
This ebook is copyright material and must not be copied, reproduced, transferred, distributed, leased, licensed or publicly performed or used in any way except as specifically permitted in writing by the publishers, as allowed under the terms and conditions under which it was purchased or as strictly permitted by applicable copyright law. Any unauthorised distribution or use of this text may be a direct infringement of the author's and publisher's rights and those responsible may be liable in law accordingly.
Â Â Â Â
First published in Great Britain and the USA 2013 by
SEVERN HOUSE PUBLISHERS LTD of
9â15 High Street, Sutton, Surrey, England, SM1 1DF.
eBook edition first published in 2013 by Severn House Digital
an imprint of Severn House Publishers Limited.
Copyright Â© 2013 by Eric Brown.
The right of Eric Brown to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs & Patents Act 1988.
British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data
Brown, Eric, 1960-
Murder by the book.
2. Detective and mystery stories.
ISBN-13: 978-1-78029-051-5 (cased)
ISBN-13: 978-1-78010-413-3 (epub)
Except where actual historical events and characters are being described for the storyline of this novel, all situations in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to living persons is purely coincidental.
This ebook produced by
Palimpsest Book Production Limited,
Falkirk, Stirlingshire, Scotland.
To Beth Dunnett
and to Phillip and Liz Vine,
angham sat at his desk and pecked with two fingers at the keys of his battered Underwood. He was halfway through the last chapter of his latest novel and the end was in sight. Sam Brooke, his private investigator, was trailing a villain down Regent Street, little realizing that he was being lured into a trap from which it would take all his ingenuity and resourcefulness to escape.
The shrill summons of the phone sounded beside him on the desk. He cursed it initially, then decided to take a break. There were times, especially towards the end of a book, when his enthusiasm to get it finished needed curbing. He'd answer the call, then have a spot of lunch and think about the dÃ©nouement.
He laid aside his pipe, long extinguished but still gripped between his teeth, and picked up the receiver â the âbakelite bone' he'd called it in one of his early, more flowery novels. âDonald Langham here.'
âDonald, Donald, my dear boy. Forgive my importunate call. You must curse me, curse me! Be honest now, have I interrupted the muse?'
Langham smiled to himself. âNot at all, Charles. I was just about to knock off for lunch.'
âYou assuage my guilt, my dear boy. Did you say lunch? Similar thoughts crossed my mind not two minutes ago. If you hie yourself towards Pimlico in thirty minutes I'll stand you a repast at the Beeches â though their standards have fallen somewhat of late. I recall the feasts we enjoyed in those far off, pre-war days â¦'
Lunches with Charles Elder were always protracted, boozy affairs, with one postprandial drink turning into three or four, and often finishing not a minute before four o'clock. That would rule out an afternoon shift at the Underwood â¦ but the novel was almost finished anyway. He'd complete it in the morning.
He interrupted his agent's purple musings. âLunch would be excellent. I'm on my way.'
âI have,' Charles said, âa delicate matter to put before you. Very delicate indeed.'
âNot over the phone, dear boy. Drop by the office and we'll pop around the corner. No doubt you'll want to pay your silvery-tongued respects to Maria.'
âShe's working today?'
âOn the phone to some spotty sub-editor at Gollancz as we speak. I've had to increase her hours of late â the agency has never been so busy. I'm working like a demon for my seven-and-a-half per cent, and the thanks I get?'
âYou know I never begrudge you your pound of flesh, Charles.'
âI'm not talking about you, Donald. I refer to the baying hounds of Grub Street, the semi-literate hacks who think they're Hemingway and demand advances commensurate with their delusions. As if the importuning of talentless scribblers were not enough, now
' Langham echoed.
âOver lunch, Donald. All will be revealed. Now, my ample stomach rumbles its discontent. Come hither, Donald,
Langham replaced the receiver, fetched his overcoat and descended the staircase to the quiet side street. His battered Austin Healey sat in the bright April sunlight, as reliable as an old dog that had seen better days. He eased himself in behind the wheel and winced at a sudden twinge in his lower back. He was forty and, despite his usual sanguine take on life, had begun to feel old of late. Aches and pains, along with the fact that his father had died of a heart attack in 'thirty-five at the age of fifty, ushered in unwelcome thoughts of mortality.
He checked in the wing mirror and pulled out into the street.
Over the course of the past two decades â with a break during the war â he'd published over twenty mystery novels, several of which he was reasonably proud. He had a small group of friends, mainly men of his own age and in the same line of work, and a two-bedroom flat at the respectable end of Notting Hill.
He told himself that if his life lacked excitement these days, then that was fine by him. His wartime experiences had provided more than enough excitement to last a couple of lifetimes, and anyway he'd always daydreamed, during intolerably hot nights in Madagascar and India, of living the quiet life in London, writing mystery novels and seeing friends over pints of bitter in snug hostelries.
Now he was living that life and sublimating any subconscious desire for action by putting his hapless private detective through all manner of life-threatening perils. It was true what a friend had said in the pub last week: he lived vicariously via the exploits of Sam Brooke.
The tree-lined streets of Pimlico hove into view and Langham turned the corner into Cambridge Street. The Charles Elder Literary Agency was situated down the leafy side street, surrounded by expensive mansions and the occasional high-end solicitor's office. Elegant women in their fifties, draped with fox stoles, walked bouffant poodles and yappy Pekinese. This was a million miles from Sam Brooke's usual stamping ground, and Langham's, if truth be told, and he never visited his agent without being aware that he and Charles inhabited two entirely different worlds.
He parked outside the agency office, bought a bouquet of mixed blooms from a roadside vendor, then hurried up the steps and pressed the bell. He slipped inside, assailed by the scent of beeswax, and took the short flight of stairs to the first floor. Everything about the premises exuded a luxury at odds with the general post-war penury that prevailed in the capital: the brilliant white gloss paint that covered, in multiple coats, the banister and handrail; a carpet so new and thick that he was in danger of turning an ankle as he climbed.
He tapped on the door to the outer office and entered when Maria carolled, âCome in!' with a slight Parisian accent.
She was seated behind her desk, leaning forward with her hands clasped and her chin resting on the ridge of her knuckles, and a smile irradiated her features when she saw the bouquet.
âDonald! You are always smiling and bearing flowers.'
He handed them over. âTo brighten the place, not that the place needs brightening, what withâ'
She stopped him. âAlways the same old line, Donald! And you call yourself a writer?'
He pointed to the communicating door. âCharles â¦?'
âHe is waiting for you, but he is not well. I will tell you that now.'
âSomething is troubling him, I know.' She held her head to one side and regarded Langham.
âNo doubt he'll pour out his woes over lunch,' he said.
âLunch,' she said almost wistfully, âand while you are enjoying steak tartare and
, I will be eating my Bovril sandwiches.'
He almost suggested, then, that she might like to share a more substantial meal with him that evening â¦ but his damned innate reserve stopped the words on his lips. Maria DuprÃ© was ten years his junior, breathtakingly gorgeous, and the daughter of the French cultural attachÃ© to London. She worked in the agency three days a week, but of her life outside the office Langham knew nothing.
What he did know was that, despite the superficial banter and the ease with which they swapped jokes when their paths crossed fleetingly, he was constitutionally unable to do anything to escalate the terms of their relationship. Charles Elder found his reserve amusing, and mercilessly baited Langham about it whenever he had the chance.
âRight-ho, I'll go and see what's troubling his nibs.'
Maria arranged the flowers in a vase and Langham tapped on the communicating door.
A stentorian baritone boomed, âEnter!'
He stepped into Charles's hallowed, book-lined sanctum where the ever-present scent of Havana cigars vied with overtones of whisky. A monstrous aspidistra, which Charles playfully referred to as his child, loomed in one corner.
Charles himself was standing at the far end of the room, his corpulent figure silhouetted against the sunlit window. He resembled, Langham thought, a tweed-clad brandy glass.
âDonald, my dear boy! Delighted, absolutely delighted. Had you turned down my suggestion of lunch, I would have been bereft. Bereft.'
He approached Langham with his hand outstretched like some beseeching dowager, as if desiring it to be kissed. He took Langham's hand in limp fingers and squeezed. â
glad you could make it. Let's eat!'
Charles's face was almost as vast as his stomach, pink and porcine and topped with a snowy peak of white hair. He was such a caricature of himself that passers-by were apt to turn and stare as he sallied forth, swinging his gold-topped walking stick and harrumphing snatches of Bach.
As they left the office â followed by an ironic â
' from Maria â Charles was muttering about the quality of the menu at the Beeches, which Langham knew from experience would be excellent.
He had known Charles Elder for almost twenty years, ever since his first novel was taken on by the agency, and Charles had changed little in that time. He seemed always to have been in his mid-fifties, gargantuan and patrician, a refugee from an earlier, grander era that had vanished with the war.