Shortlisted for the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction 2011
“Witty and inventive, like something out of Hitchcock by way of Carl Hiassen, this tale of mayhem, murder and mistaken identity is a hugely entertaining, freewheeling riff on the paranoid, conspiracy driven American psyche.” —The Mail on Sunday
“Blending elements of a road novel, a spy thriller and a philosophical inquiry into the nature of chance, it is gripping, funny and unsettling.” —Financial Times
“The silliness multiplies across Sam Leith’s pages like fractal rainbows. . . . Anarchic, psychedelic, with a serious delight in paradox. . . . For [Leith], silliness is not camouflage but its opposite: a tantalizing surface that attracts attention and draws it very much deeper.” —The Guardian
“A novel of ideas. . . . Sam Leith [writes] with admirable imaginative stamina, helped along by sharply observed and entertaining writing.” —Independent
“A comic thriller that, in its deliberate daftness, shows how disturbing daftness can be when taken to extremes.” —Times Literary Supplement
- Bloomsbury USA
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Read an Excerpt
"They've found the pilot."
Twelve hundred miles away in New York, Red Queen breathed out.
"What do we know?"
"More or less nothing. Hospital sweep sent up flags. Field agents in Atlanta called it in. He's in Mobile. Name of Arno Fisk. I'm headed over there now to talk to him."
"Cuts and bruises. Some-well. They're saying some cognitive issues."
In the background, Red Queen could hear wind across the mouthpiece of the phone. Behind that, the sound of heavy traffic moving fast: trucks pounding south on the interstate.
"It's not clear. He was dressed as a pilot, but he's not a pilot. There's nothing on him in the FAA database. He was unconscious for some time. What I hear-"
The wind picked up and the next few words were inaudible.
"-consciousness. I need to go."
"OK, go," said Red Queen.
The phone went down in its cradle.
Red Queen's desk was broad and made of dark wood. The top was covered in red leather. It was out of place. It belonged among other antiques-not in this oblong box with its ozonic air conditioning and its twenty-four-hour fake sunlight. There were no books in the room. An uncomfortable two-seat sofa, against the wall, faced the desk. On the other wall there was a locked cabinet. There were no windows.
A corner of the leather surface of the desk looked like it had been chewed by mice. Red Queen picked at the leather with a fingernail for a moment, staring at nothing.
Then Red Queen turned to the computer, waggled the mouse to bring the screen alive, and brought up the Intercept to read it again.
Bree, on the highway, hung up the phone on the timber wall of the Snacky Shack and walked round to the door. It was late morning and the sun, already hot, bounced off the dusty glass and winked at her. She'd been driving for three hours already. Red Queen could wait half an hour while Bree got waffles.
Bree was the only person in the place-an awkward L-shape that had once been a barn, or an auto-shop or something. Formica tables, pairs and fours. Booths lined the window onto the highway and Bree sat in the furthest one of those, with her back to the corner wall. She sat a while, watched the traffic tick past, waited while the waitress finished scratching in her hair with her pencil.
The waitress leaned down by the chef-a good-looking Latino wearing a greasy checkered dishcloth as a bandana-and produced a laminated menu the size of an occasional table. She dropped it wordlessly in front of Bree, left, returned with a clear plastic beaker of iced water, set that wordlessly down, fished a pad from her pouch and pointed at it, expectantly, with her head-scratcher.
"Morning," said Bree.
"Mornin'," said the waitress.
"Belgian waffles," she said. "Three eggs over medium, Canadian bacon, chicken sausage and sourdough toast; two rounds."
The waitress wrote it down.
"You want a side of fries with that?"
Bree's eyes flicked up from the menu.
"No fries," she said. "And no grits."
The waitress looked at her. Bree looked back.
"Thank you," said Bree, and smiled sweetly.
Thirty minutes later Bree was back heading south in the brown Chrysler with the windows up and the air conditioning on, and by mid-afternoon, she was rolling into Mobile. She left the interstate and took Airport Boulevard.
Providence Hospital was a white building west of the center of town. Bree drove in under a quaint old archway, swung the front of the car round and parked up under a shade tree, just out of the sight line from the main entrance.
She got out and the weather hit her. It was as if the humidity had tugged the leash on her breath. She'd worked up just enough of a sweat for it to chill on her, unpleasantly, when she stepped into the air-conditioned lobby. She ignored the potted palms and crossed to the desk.
"Visiting Fisk, room 325," she said. "Helen Fisk. I called earlier."
She showed the woman her ID. The woman didn't seem interested. Bree wrote "Helen Fisk" in the register, went to the elevator and went up.
It was a nice hospital. Someone cleaned it. Her flats didn't stick. She'd been in hospitals where only people in heels-and Bree hadn't worn heels since she could remember-were really qualified to make it down the corridors.
The room that the man who seemed to be called Fisk was supposed to be occupying was down a long corridor and through some doors. Bree had a pretty good sense of direction. West, it should be facing, over scrubland and away from the parking lot and the main part of the hospital. She listened at the door a little, then when she was satisfied nobody was in Fisk's room, knocked softly.
She didn't wait for an answer, but opened the door, slipped in, closed it behind her.
The room did face west. The blind was half lowered, and afternoon light came through the bottom half of the window and slanted across the foot of Arno Fisk's bed.
Fisk was awake but he looked a little glassy. He had dark hair, spilling from a bandage wrapped round the top of his head, and a purple, very shiny bruise bulbing out the right side of his forehead and casing the orbit of his eye. Underneath his right eye the skin was wasp-striped black and yellow.
There was something dark-looked like dried blood-in his nostrils, and a single butterfly stitch on his lip. He was a mess. Bree couldn't see what was going on under the blanket, but both the arms above it-resting side by side on the tray table over his waist and looking uncomfortable-were in casts to the elbow.
She'd been in the room for a couple of seconds before his eyes rolled toward her, as if in surprise, and focused a foot or two behind her left shoulder. They were shiny, and such a dark brown that the pupils and the irises, at this distance, were hard to tell one from the other. Even smashed up, he was a handsome man, though more tanned than Bree thought was ideal.
"Come in," he said. It came out: "Cerrm urh?" Then he looked surprised again.
Bree walked up to the bed. She didn't bother affecting hesitation. According to the medical notes the agents in Atlanta had skimmed, there had been no permanent brain damage or intracranial bleeding. Just a prize-winning compendium of fractures, breaks, and abrasions-consistent, one of Bree's colleagues had said, with the rough prognosis for an eight-year-old child with rickets spending a half-hour in an industrial tumble dryer.
This spaciness was probably just drugs. If they had him self-administering he'd be no use to Bree, or anyone.
"Mr. Fisk," Bree said.
His eyes said, "Who wants to know?" and his mouth said, "Urr?"
"Mr. Fisk, my name is Dana Hamilton. I'm from the Federal Aviation Authority."
She reached into her top pocket and showed him Dana Hamilton's business card. He frowned at her wrist. Closer up, she could see where his pupils ended and where his irises began. His irises were fingernail-thin, chocolate-colored halos. He looked like a badly mangled bushbaby.
"Federr avuh urrdurr?"
"Yes, Mr. Fisk. And may I say what a pleasure it is to meet you today?" Dana extended her hand. There were four fingers extending from the cast on his right arm. Dana shook two of them.
There was a chair by the bed. She pulled it round and sat on it.
"I've come to talk to you about your accident. I work as an insurance assessor for our pilot outreach branch, unexpected eventuality division."
"Whur durr?" said Arno Fisk.
"There are certain anomalies in our records regarding the events of August 11th. We need to straighten out our files. Mr. Fisk, I'm going to level with you. We have no record, precisely-and this is very probably our fault; the full-spectrum security audit ongoing since 2001 has, to be honest, caused as much confusion as it has cleared up-of your pilot's license. You were admitted to the emergency room without ID, and the FAA-under the WelfAir insurance scheme-covered your bills during the time you were unconscious. We're now reaching a stage where we need to action an alternative funding stream for your medical care."
Something stirred in Fisk's face. Somewhere at the murky bottom of his consciousness, what Bree was saying had snagged. That was the idea. If he wasn't too stoned to know he was in the hospital, maybe he wasn't too stoned to realize that whoever was paying for him to be there could stop paying for him to be there.
"Mr. Fisk, we need to establish your eligibility for continued treatment. We need to find some way of reconnecting you to the FAA's database."
This was not strictly true. Bree didn't give too much of a damn about the FAA's database, though she was curious as to who the hell this guy was. No ID, no known next of kin. They'd found his name through teeth while he was still out-busted crown done eight years previously back home in Illinois.
Arno Fisk, thirty-five years old. Born in St. Charles. Moved away when he graduated high school. Moved back, apparently, for long enough to go to the dentist. Moved away again. He'd ended up in Mobile somehow, though he didn't seem to have driven there. There were three Arno Fisks holding driving licenses in Illinois and two in Alabama, and none of the five of them was this guy.
"I'm nurr a pilurr. I tole the pleezmann." He looked tired. "Anno whurr huppen."
"But you were found near the wreckage of a 737," Bree said. "You were found in the wreckage of a 737. Strapped into what was left of the pilot's seat."
"You know what happened?"
"You don't know what happened?"
Fisk subsided slightly, and his eyes refocused dead ahead.
"Mr. Fisk, you were dressed as an airline pilot." She reached a little. What the hell. "As I'm sure you know, there are federal penalties attached to the improper impersonation of an officer of the Federal Aviation Authority, or an accredited pilot of that same body." She softened her voice. "We're sure you meant no harm, but it's very important that you tell us everything you remember about the events leading up to your being found."
She looked at him, her eyes moving over his unbruised cheek. The skin was olive-colored. It looked like it would smell nice. He kept staring ahead.
"Look, I'm honest? We just want to know where the plane came from. There were no identifying markings on the fuselage-at least none recognizably attributable to any known airline. No passengers were found. No planes were missing. We checked all the schedules in the continental United States for the two weeks surrounding the time you were found. We checked private flights-and there aren't a large number of 737s in private hands; we checked scheduled flights; we checked extraordinary rendition flights. There weren't any scheduled flights across the South in any case, because of the hurricanes."
This was mostly but not entirely true. They had recovered some identifying markings. One section that seemed to belong to the tailplane, according to the file, was made of tin-plated steel and stamped with a date of no readily decipherable significance in the summer of 2009. It seemed overwhelmingly likely it belonged to a can of beans.
"As far as anyone knows, this 737 airplane appeared out of nowhere. It didn't crash, it didn't fall out of the sky-there was no sort of impact evidence. OK? Planes don't come out of nowhere. They are big things. Then it broke up-without burning or exploding-at or near ground level. And it scattered itty-bitty little bits of metal debris over three square miles of Alabama backcountry, and left a guy with half his bones broken, strapped to a chair, hanging in a tree."
Arno Fisk, to whom some of this was getting through, attempted to look as baffled as Bree. It was a very creditable attempt.
"That was you," she added.
Bree tensed as she heard the handle of the door twist. A nurse came in, sideways, turned and looked startled to see a visitor. She was carrying a clear plastic jug of water. She frowned, then smiled politely, and was opening her mouth to speak when Bree interrupted her.
"Oh, thank you. Arno's mouth was getting so dry, wasn't it, hon? Just there, sweetie, thanks. No, a bit to the right. Perfect. I'll take care of his glass." She put a little urgency into her tone, stopped just short of steering the nurse back out of the room by her hip. She could see the nurse making a snap decision; to go with the flow rather than submit to the awkwardness of challenging Bree's ownership of the space. One more firm "thank you" was enough to see her off.
Bree had all sorts of outs, but unnoticed was best-unnoticed was always best. She knew the name on the register was different from the name she'd used to Fisk, and figured there'd be no trouble with it in a routine hospital visit to a badly if bizarrely injured man. She'd leave confusion, rather than suspicion, behind her if she left anything at all. But she'd rather leave it behind her than have it turn up while she was still there. As far as the nurse was concerned, if she checked, this was the cute Fisk guy's fat older sister. And if Fisk wondered why this lady was calling him "hon," well ...
He made a noise. She turned back to him. Fisk was looking a little more focused, as if he'd made a decision to pull himself, as far as he could, together.
"Uh durr rumberr much. I' was Sadderday. Uh wuzz a li'l drunk."
The words came out slowly, and clearly with effort. "Uh hadd a beer. Bit. Nommuch. Cuz uh wuz goin'a work. Uh member geddin dress. Geddin in car. Id was winndy."
"You were going to work. What time was this?"
"Uh dunnuh. Evennuntime. Late. Iz dark. Winndy."
He pushed his lips together and out, like a chimp puckering up for a kiss, and exhaled through them almost soundlessly: hwhhhhhhhhhooooo. His eyelids drooped and his cheeks tightened in a secret smile. Some sort of morphine surge. Hwhhhhhhh ...
"Winnndy ..." Hwhhh ...
"Yes, it would have been windy. There were hurricane warnings. A lot of people had left town. And you were going to work?"
"Why? Nothing was leaving the ground that night."
"Gudda work. Goo money."
"Where do you work? You work as a pilot?"
"Nuh! Nudd a piludd." He was trying to pull himself together again.
"You were dressed as a pilot. Could someone have done that to you while you were unconscious?"
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