Being a beta reader means I get to read a lot of great books before anybody else and then when it comes to promotion I can pick my favourite part of the book to showcase. This is a great scene from The Unlucky Man by H T G Hedges and you can download this book for free on Saturday.
A figure was seated at a huge, dark wood desk that curved majestically into the centre of the room, a glass decanter atop it filled with amber spirit.
“Mr. Happen,” Baldman said with deference and a strange almost half bow to the figure behind the desk before retreating to stand in the shadows behind him. I was pleased to see him remove his ridiculous sunglasses as he did so.
So this was the Make It Happen Man. He was not at all what I had expected.
He was a tall, gaunt figure, old but in no way diminished by age. Thick white curls rolled back from his brow, flowing above a face of weathered and thickly lined leather skin. His was not a kindly old face, however, but rather the unyielding countenance of a feared and respected teacher. Old ink showed on his skeletal fingers and across the backs of his hands, faded sigils and angled characters in a spreading blue green that may once have been black.
But it was his eyes that surprised me the most: one dark as oil, the other rheumy and white and surely blind, peeking like a marble from beneath a scarred and puckered lid. He smiled very slightly at Corg, a glint of sharp gold teeth catching the light cast by the oil lamp on the mammoth desk.
His voice, when he spoke, was deep and resonant, at odds with his advancing years. “Alexander,” he said, “It has been some time.” He raised a hand in a vague gesture taking in the room around us.
“Please excuse the mess, but we find ourselves living in interesting times.” He grinned a big, predatory golden grin, picking up a heavy based tumbler and swirling the liquid within. “And to what do we owe this unexpected pleasure?” He inflected the final word with enough venom to make it plain that we were far from welcome in his rotten castle. Behind him I caught Baldman’s smirk.
Corg spread his hands in an imploring gesture.
“We’re in trouble Mr. Happen,” he said earnestly, “We could use a place to lay our hats for a while, whilst the storm dies down.” His words sounded small, muffled and swallowed by the thickly scented hostile air.
From out of the shadows Baldman re-emerged, hand on the gun concealed under his dark jacket, but the stricken old man at the desk waved him back. His eyes still bore into mine, both of them, thought I had the disquieting notion that the cold marble orb was the one he was really seeing me with. Cherry red droplets dripped unnoticed from his fingertips.
“It’s you,” he rasped and the look in his eye said he recognized my face though I knew we’d never met before. “You,” he croaked, “The Unlucky Man.” His words tumbled out atonally, like those spoken in a dream and I heard them both from his pale lips and echoed in my head, drumming at my temples with every syllable.
“I knew you would come. I’ve seen it.” His skin looked suddenly thin and pale as paper. “Chaos follows you; death is in your footfalls, Unlucky Man.” He spat the words at me and, as I heard them, something shifted once more in my head and I felt the dark particle coil and flex itself, almost like an animal that recognizes its name being spoken. Happen, too, it occurred to me was touched by the same darkness.
“You should not have come here.” Mr. Happen still spoke like someone asleep but his gaze didn’t flicker from my face. “You bring chaos everywhere your crow shadow touches. It will be drawn to you.” There was pain etched in his features, a thin line of blood ran from his felt nostril. If this was a parlor trick, I thought, then it was a damn good one.
“We’ve done terrible things,” Mr Happen whispered, “And you are our reckoning. I knew you would come, I wanted to be ready.” He shut his eyes, his face creasing with an emotion I couldn’t even begin to read.
“It will be drawn to you,” he repeated in a whisper.
An enormous booming crash rocked the building. It felt like some massive object had collided with the outer walls. Everything shook, plaster drifted in torrents from the ceiling, the light flickered as the floor bucked and swayed.
“What the hell was that?” Baldman grunted as the door opened and Loess stepped into the room, white and anxious.
“Time to go,” she said urgently, a worried look on her face. The sudden cacophony seemed to have roused the Make it Happen Man from his trance as, with an effort, he pulled himself up onto his feet.
“We cannot help you,” he repeated in a whisper. “We will show you the way out and then you will go. Take your troubles with you.” Without another word or a backwards glance he limped from the room, wiping the blood from his face with the back of his hand. We followed, subsumed by his entourage, into a long austere green corridor much like the ones we had entered through, at the end of which was another door leading, I guessed, to a staircase back to ground level.
We were about halfway along the floor when the far door opened, a cluster of figures emerging from the gloom beyond. They looked at first glance for the most part like our escorts – grim, dishevelled, grimy – but there was a uniformity to their unkempt appearance that was lacking in Mr. Happen’s ragtag ensemble.
For a long, tense moment they looked at us and we looked straight back, suspended in a moment of perfect stillness. But it couldn’t last.
The first bullet took Baldman through the lens of his wraparounds. I heard the glass pop as his head cannoned backwards then his legs splayed and he went over like an unruly mannequin. Somehow, as he fell, I got a hand under his jacket, popped the clip on the holster, and brought out his pistol, firing off round after round into the shadowy gaggle of figures at the end of the hallway as more shots followed.
To my left, Loess had her weapon out and was firing too, whilst everyone else seemed frozen in icy shock. The noise was incredible in the confined space, every shot a boom of thunder, every burst as bright as lightning. Penned in the narrow confines of the doorway they never stood a chance.
The echoing silence after the last shot had fired was deafening as the door at the end of the hall quietly slid closed, cutting off the bilious tableaux beyond. Two of our group were fast cooling on the wormy carpet: Baldman and another whose name I’d never learned and never would.
Loess was the first to speak. “Come on,” she said. “We need to find another way down.” We reversed our footsteps, heading back the way we had come and taking a right into a room that must have cornered the building. A great, dirty window looked out over the desolate wasteland below.
“Who the fuck were those guys?” Corg demanded.
“No coincidences,” Happen growled. “Chaos draws chaos like a black-hole swallowing light.”
“Which way now?” Voices were raised in a clamor of differing opinions but I was no longer listening. Through the glass I could see that it had finally stopped raining, but the sky was so dark and thick with churning cloud that it could have been night once more. It was not so dark, however, that I could not see the figures moving about below. These weren’t Mr. Happen’s men, of that I was certain.
A glint of light caught from something shining for a brief moment out of the murk, a long, cylindrical object being hefted to a shoulder, its bearer kneeling awkwardly in the sticking sludge. I rubbed at the grime on the window, spreading it like green algae under my palm, squinting down, trying to make out what was going on. Suddenly it swam into focus and was only too clear.
“Shit!” I shouted, pushing away from the window. “Get out of here! Down!” But it was too late. I caught the plume of smoke through the glass, heard, or imagined I heard, the keening whistling whine of the rocket, and then everything exploded in a crunching ripple of shattered glass and crumbling masonry. Someone was screaming, maybe several someone’s, as the world went red.
And then I was falling as the ground rushed up to meet me – gray and massive – with crushing speed as, in a moment of pain and exclamation, everything melted mercifully to black.
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