Years ago, a madman from the future assassinated the beloved Queen Victoria―which inadvertently sparked the explosion of scientific and industrial advancement that thrust England into a technological age beyond anything ever imagined. And the effects of that event are about to be felt more than ever.
When a renowned scientist attempts to experiment on the assassin’s time-travelling suit, he unleashes a wave of chaos and conflicting timelines, resulting in blood red snow falling from the sky, and the adventurer Sir Richard Burton being tormented by jarring visions of alternate realities that are somehow both unavoidable and yet changeable. Time and reality may have just reached their breaking point.
But most disturbing of all, the legendary Spring Heeled Jack has returned―in several different places at the same time! These numerous “Jacks” are all very confused, very irritable, and very dangerous…
And they are all looking for Sir Richard Burton.
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The Return of the Dicontinued Man
A Burton & Swinburne Adventure
By MARK HODDER
Prometheus BooksCopyright © 2014 Mark Hodder
All rights reserved.
AN APPARITION IN LEICESTER SQUARE
He fragmented. Decisions taken were unmade and became choices. Successes and failures reverted to opportunities and challenges. Characteristics disengaged and withdrew to become influences. He lost cohesion until nothing of him remained except potential. Yet, set apart from this strange process, something observed and wailed and grieved as it watched itself disintegrate into ever smaller components. Who was he? Where was he? Why was he here? What must he do?
There was a name: Edward Oxford.
And an enemy: Burton.
—The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack
"You re a drooling, bulge-eyed drug addict!
The accusation, which Algernon Charles Swinburne screeched in his characteristically high-pitched and excitable tones, caused the entire saloon bar to fall momentarily silent.
Sir Richard Francis Burton glowered at his diminutive friend. "A little less volume, if you please."
"You're hooked! An addle head! What next for you, hey? The gutters, perhaps? Bedlam lunatic asylum? A Limehouse opium den?"
"Limehouse doesn't exist. It burned to the ground last year, as you well know."
"Pah! And I'll say it again! Pah! In fact, once more for good measure! Pah to you, sir!"
Burton sighed, raised his glass, and took a gulp of ale.
Around them, the Black Toad's other customers—a slovenly crowd of thieves, dollymops, and chancers—returned their attention to their beers, gins, whiskies, and absinthes.
Burton and Swinburne had occupied a table in a dark corner of the disreputable drinking den, there to wet their whistles for a couple of hours prior to a gathering of the Cannibal Club, during which their whistles would no doubt become thoroughly sodden, as they usually did when the pair joined with their friends ostensibly to discuss issues of anthropological and atheistic interest but, more often than not, to instead carouse a night away.
Of these Cannibals, there was no more dedicated a roisterer than Swinburne. His tiny, slope-shouldered body—with its oversized head made all the bigger by the mop of long carroty-red hair curling almost horizontally from it—could hold astonishing quantities of alcohol. The excess of electric vitality that coursed through the young poet's system, making him constantly twitch and jerk, endowing him with such a skittish nature that many thought him either possessed or crazed, appeared to burn off the effects of his overindulgences at a prodigious rate, so that one moment he might be a slurring, staggering mess, and the next so perfectly clear-eyed and compos mentis that he could, on the spot, compose a sonnet of astonishing beauty and technical grace.
Swinburne was an eccentric, a drunkard, and an absolute genius.
He was also, at this particular moment, thoroughly peeved.
He slapped a hand down onto the table and squealed, "Three months! For three whole months you've been off with the fairies. Have you achieved anything in that time? No! Have you worked on your books? No! Have you planned any new expeditions? No! And look at you. Your eyes are hollow. Your cheeks are sunken. You've become a shadow of the man I met last year. It has to stop. No more Saltzmann's, Richard! No more!"
Burton drew his lips back tightly over his teeth, a snarling expression that exposed his long canines and made him appear so barbaric that most men would have fled from him at once. Not so Swinburne, who was by now accustomed to the famous explorer's savage countenance and fully cognisant that Burton often took advantage of it to intimidate when challenged.
"It's not the bloody Saltzmann's Tincture," Burton countered. "The stuff is perfectly harmless."
"Sadhvi Raghavendra doesn't share your opinion. She says it contains cocaine."
"She theorises that it does. She doesn't know it. I think otherwise."
"Based on what?"
"Based on the fact that I'm thoroughly familiar with the effects of cocaine and Saltzmann's doesn't share them."
"That doesn't mean it's not addictive."
"I repeat: it's not the Saltzmann's, Algy."
Swinburne curled the fingers of his right hand into a fist and considered it, as if deciding whether to swing it into his friend's nose. He clicked his tongue, picked up his glass, and swallowed the contents in a single gulp. "Then explain your bedraggled mien."
Burton looked down at the stained tabletop. His mouth moved, trying to frame words that wouldn't come. His eyes flicked evasively from side to side.
Swinburne watched him. Softly, he said, "Isabel?"
Dumbly, Burton nodded. He rubbed a hand across his forehead, wiping away perspiration that wasn't there. "I can't eat, Algy. I can't sleep. I feel like one of Babbage's clockwork men, going through the motions, hardly alive. I was never meant to exist without her."
"I sympathise, Richard. Really, I do. But you'll not escape your loss by obliterating your senses. Put the Saltzmann's aside. Get out and confront the world. Allow it to distract you."
"I'm here, aren't I?"
"Ha!" Swinburne said. "I'm thankful that you are, too, though getting thoroughly sozzled isn't quite what I meant." He grinned mischievously. "Though one must start somewhere, what!" He slapped the table again and yelled, "Pot boy! Another couple of ales over here, lad!"
The beer was duly served, and the poet made a solemn toast:
And grief shall endure not forever, I know.
As things that are not shall these things be;
We shall live through seasons of sun and of snow,
And none be grievous as this to me.
We shall hear, as one in a trance that hears,
The sound of time, the rhyme of the years;
Wrecked hope and passionate pain will grow
As tender things of a spring-tide sea.
The moment of crisis passed. Burton knew his friend wouldn't challenge him again. In some matters—just some—Swinburne knew where to draw the line. Instead, the poet would put his advice into practice by providing diversions, entertainments, and intellectual stimulation. No doubt, after they'd got sloshed with the Cannibals, he'd suggest a visit to Verbena Lodge, his favourite brothel. At that point, Burton would go home. He didn't share the poet's taste for the lash, as distracting as it might be.
They drank and, around them, men and women flirted coarsely and squabbled loudly and cackled obscenely and shouted incoherently. The air was thick with tobacco smoke and heavy with the vinegary odour of cheap wine, souring beer, and unwashed bodies. A startling contrast, then, that amid this unrefined pandemonium, Swinburne talked of his affinity with the Pre-Raphaelite artists and his hopes for the forthcoming publication of his poem, Rosamond; of his summer holidays at his grandfather's house, Capheaton Hall, in Northumberland; and of his love for that wild and romantic northern county.
Despite his odd sense of detachment, Burton couldn't help but be fascinated. Swinburne's ability to hold an audience was astonishing. When performing—and Burton had no doubt that his friend was purposely putting on a performance for him—the tempo and cadence of his voice was spellbinding, his choice of words ingenious, and his gestures extravagantly expressive.
Automatically, Burton found himself responding. He described his childhood, during which he'd been dragged around Europe by his restless father and long-suffering mother; spoke of his subsequent inability to fit in at Oxford University, where he was scorned as a thoroughly un-English ruffian; described his explorations of Arabia; and confessed his ambivalent feelings about his current commission as the king's agent.
While he spoke, a separate part of him observed Swinburne watching and judging.
He thinks my manner is all wrong. I'm making an unconvincing show of it.
After a while, the poet consulted his pocket watch and declared it to be a minute past nine. "Shall we be off? The Cannibals await, hurrah, hurrah!"
He's eager to consult with Monckton Milnes. He thinks my oldest friend will know how to bring me out of this confounded funk.
They stood, donned their coats and hats, and took up their walking canes, the contrast between them attracting the amused attention of the saloon's clientele, for where Swinburne barely scraped five feet, Burton was just an inch below six and looked considerably taller by virtue of his broad shoulders, deep chest, and imposing presence. Were it not for the famous explorer's infernal physiognomy and challenging gaze, the pair might have invited catcalls as they crossed the room. None were forthcoming. There occurred, instead, a slight hush accompanied by sly grins and exchanged winks. One muscle-bound lout spat into the floor's sawdust as if to show that were Burton to challenge him there'd be no contest, but he averted his eyes when the king's agent glanced at him and thus revealed it to be nothing but empty braggadocio.
Perhaps I should pick a fight with him. Perhaps the violence would snap me back into myself.
Swinburne pushed open the door, and they stepped out onto Baker Street.
Frigid air hit them.
They stopped dead.
"My hat!" Swinburne cried out. "The sky is bleeding."
The atmosphere was thick with falling snow, and it was bright red, a near opaque cloak of vermilion, falling vertically, the variations in its density making the illumination from the street's gas lamps pulsate, causing the length of the thoroughfare to resemble the interior of a throbbing artery.
Burton scraped his heel across the pavement. "Thin," he observed. "I'll wager it just started, but if it keeps going at this rate London will soon be half buried." Curiously, he held out his right hand then withdrew it and examined his powdered palm. "Remarkable. Can you see? It has seeds mixed in with it, like those from dandelions, but red."
Swinburne exclaimed, "It's winter! Quite apart from them falling out of the sky in such profusion and being a startling colour, how can there be seeds floating about at this time of year?"
"Blown across the globe at a high altitude, I suppose," Burton mused. "I don't know what species of plant, though. The effect is rather uncanny, don't you think?"
The poet shivered and turned up his collar. "And rather penetrating, too. I shall require a brandy to warm my cockles."
They trudged southward for a few yards, the scarlet snow crunching beneath their feet, until they heard the chugging engine of a steam cabriolet. Swinburne put fingers to his lips and emitted a piercing whistle. The vehicle emerged from the cascading curtain and drew to a halt beside them, its furnace hissing like a box of angry serpents.
"Bloomin' well bonkers, ain't it?" the driver said, his voice filled with wonder. "I've not seen nuffink like it in all me born days. Red snow! Cor blimey! Whatever next? Where to, gents?"
"Leicester Square, please," Burton directed as they climbed in. They brushed cigar butts from the seat, settled, and the cab jerked into motion.
The king's agent said, "As it happens, I've experienced stranger weather phenomena than this."
"Last year's aurora borealis, you mean?" Swinburne said.
"I'm referring to my time in Sindh, when it one day rained fish during the monsoon."
"Falling fish. They're lifted from the sea by tornadoes, thrown into the upper atmosphere, and carried over the land, onto which they descend."
Their carriage rocked and bumped southward, and by the time it reached Leicester Square, the red snow had given way to the normal white which, still falling thickly, was rapidly turning the ground from blood-red to a sickly bright pink.
"Hallo! What's all that kerfuffle about?" the driver commented as they disembarked and Burton paid him. They followed the man's gaze and saw, half obscured, a commotion on the western side of the square. A crowd was milling about outside Bartolini's Dining Rooms, where Burton and Swinburne were due to meet their friends.
"Is that Trounce?" Swinburne asked, pointing.
Burton spotted the burly detective inspector, gave a grunt of confirmation, and set off with his companion in tow. As they traipsed closer to the throng, he saw members of the Cannibal Club among it—Richard Monckton Milnes, Thomas Bendyshe, Henry Murray, Doctor James Hunt, Sir Edward Brabrooke, and Charles Bradlaugh.
The restaurateur, Signor Bartolini, was shouting at William Trounce and gesticulating wildly.
Trounce saw them approaching and bellowed, "By Jove! Thank the almighty you're here! I can't get any sense out of this fellow. He's utterly unhinged."
"He's utterly Italian," Swinburne corrected.
"The same bloody difference, if you ask me."
"Has something occurred?" Burton asked.
Trounce, thickset and blunt in features, with a wide snow-speckled brown moustache and bright-blue eyes, threw out his hands. "I've not been here ten minutes. My mind is still befuddled by this freakish red stuff. Now it appears I have to deal with a costumed intruder playing silly beggars, too."
Bartolini shook a fist at Burton and cried out, "Hanno esagerato, Signor Burton! I can have no more of this! Your trick, it scare my customers! Your Club Cannibal, it not welcome here no more. Non piu! Non pm!"
Burton glanced beyond Bartolini and waved for Monckton Milnes to come over. He then held up his palms at the dark and slightly built Italian and said, "Per favore, signore, fidati di me—trust me—whatever has happened, I had nothing to do with it. Tell me. An intruder?"
"Un fantasma! It crash into my ristorante. It call for you! Smash! Smash! Throwing the tables and the chairs, and it shouting all the time, Where is Burton? Where is Burton? Through the sala da pranzo it run, and up the stairs to your friends. Where is Burton? Where is Burton? Then back down again and—meno male!—out and away!"
Monckton Milnes arrived, took Burton by the arm, and said to the others, "Pardon me, gentlemen." He pulled the king's agent aside and murmured, "It was Spring Heeled Jack, Richard. No doubt about it. The hellish thing burst in on us and demanded to know where you were, then bounced away on its stilts. It frightened us all witless."
For a moment, Burton's mind froze. It wasn't possible! He coughed to clear his throat. "Just now?"
"About forty minutes ago. We called a constable, and he gathered some of his fellows. They're scouring the area in search of the monster."
Burton frowned, took off his top hat, banged snow from its brim, and put it back on. "Spring Heeled Jack? Are you certain? Describe it."
"It resembled a naked man, tall and rangy in build, but it was entirely white and featureless. No hair, eyes, nose, ears, or mouth. No fingernails. No genitals."
"Helmet and cloak?"
"Not at all."
"A disk on its chest?"
"No adornments or clothes to speak of."
"But it was raised on spring-loaded stilts? So it was wearing boots?"
"No. The stilts appeared to grow straight out its heels, an extension of them."
Burton raised his fingers to his chin, feeling the tuft of hair that grew in its cleft. "Yet, despite the lack of a mouth, it spoke?"
"Shouted like a madman. Bradlaugh practically fainted with the shock of it."
"Why did Bartolini think it was me?"
"Tom Bendyshe's fault. You know how he enjoys a good jape. His first assumption was that you'd decided to put the wind up us, and Bartolini cottoned onto it. He can't decide whether it was you dressed up or a ghost."
Burton gazed into the gradually thinning snow, his thoughts turning over, searching for a workable theory to explain the bizarre visitation. He couldn't find one.
He briefly gripped Monckton Milnes by the elbow before striding back to Bartolini. "Signor, please accept that this was none of my doing nor, I am sure, that of anyone with whom I'm acquainted."
The Italian gave a wide, exaggerated shrug. "If you say it, I believe it. But what was it? Why have the neve rossa bring it here?"
"The red snow?"
"Sì! It start to fall and, immediatamente, il fantasma come crash crash crash into my ristorante!"
"Wait. What? The snow and the intruder arrived simultaneously?"
Excerpted from The Return of the Dicontinued Man by MARK HODDER. Copyright © 2014 Mark Hodder. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I trust this will be the end of a discontinued series.