About the Author
Stephen R. Lawhead is an internationally acclaimed author of mythic history and imaginative fiction.He is the author of such epics asThe King Raven, Song of Albion, and Dragon King Trilogies.Lawhead makes his home in Oxford, England, with his wife. Twitter: @StephenLawhead Facebook: StephenRLawhead
Read an Excerpt
THE SKIN MAPA Bright Empires Novel
By STEPHEN R. LAWHEAD
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2010 Stephen Lawhead
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIn Which Old Ghosts Meet
Had he but known that before the day was over he would discover the hidden dimensions of the universe, Kit might have been better prepared. At least, he would have brought an umbrella.
Like most Londoners, Kit was a martyr to the daily travails of navigating a city whose complexities were legendary. He knew well the dangers even the most inconsequential foray could involve. Venturing out into the world beyond his doorstep was the urban equivalent of trial by combat and he armed himself as best he could. He had long ago learned his small patch of the great metropolitan sprawl; he knew where the things most needful for survival were to be found and how to get to them. He kept in his head a ready-reference library of street maps, bus routes, and time schedules. He had memorised the pertinent sections of the London Underground tube schematic; he knew the quickest ways to work, and from work to his favourite pubs, the grocers, the cinema, the park where he jogged.
Sadly, knowing all of this was rarely enough.
This morning was a perfect case in point. Only minutes before, he had stepped out the door of his flat in Holloway on a jaunt to accompany his girlfriend on a long-promised shopping trip. Oblivious to the fact that he had already embarked on a journey of no return, he proceeded to the nearest tube station, flapped his Oyster card at the gate, stormed down the stairs as the train came rattling to the platform, and leapt aboard as the beeping doors began to close. He counted off the first two of the four stops to his destination and was just allowing himself to imagine that all was running according to plan when he was informed at the third stop that the line was closed ahead for routine maintenance.
"All passengers must change," crackled a voice through tinny loudspeakers. "This train is terminated."
Joining the grumbling pack, Kit found his way once again to street level, where a special bus had been provided for tube users to continue their journey-but which was artfully hidden at the far side of King's Cross station. The fact that it was Sunday, and that Tottenham Hotspur was playing Arsenal, had completely slipped his mind until he glimpsed the waiting bus and the queue of Tottenham fans stretching halfway down Euston Road. Unwilling to wait, he quickly devised an alternative plan for meeting Wilhelmina: just nip across the road and take the Northern Line from King's Cross to Moorgate, then take the train to Liverpool Street, change to the Central Line, and get off at Bethnal Green; from there it would be a quick bus ride up to Grove Road. A brisk walk through Victoria Park would bring him to Wilhelmina's place on Rutland Road. Easy peasy, he thought as he dived back into the Underground.
Once again, Kit fished his Oyster card from his pocket and waved it at the turnstile. This time, instead of the green arrow, the light on the pad flashed red. Aware of the foot traffic already piling into him from behind, he tapped the card against the sensor again and was awarded with the dreaded "Seek Assistance" display. Terrific. He sighed inwardly and began backing through the queue to the scorn and muttered abuse of his fellow travellers, most of whom were dressed in football jerseys of one kind or another. "Sorry," he grumbled, fighting his way through the press. "Excuse me. Terribly sorry."
He dashed for the nearest ticket booth and, after negotiating an obstacle course of barriers and railings, arrived to discover there was no one around. He rapped on the window and when that failed ran on to the next window where, after a vigorous pounding, he managed to rouse the attendant. "My Oyster card doesn't work," Kit explained.
"It's probably out of money," replied the agent.
"But I just topped it up a couple days ago. Can't you check it?"
The agent took the card and looked at it. He swiped it through a terminal beside the window. "Sorry, mate." He pushed the card back through the slot. "The computer is down."
"Okay, never mind," Kit relented. He started digging in his pockets. "I'll put five pounds on it."
"You can do it online," the agent informed him.
"But I'm here now," Kit pointed out, "in person."
"It's cheaper online."
"That is as may be," Kit agreed. "But I have to travel now-today."
"You can pay at a machine."
"Right," said Kit. Down on the platform below, he could hear the train clattering in and he hurried to the nearest ticket machine-which, after repeated attempts, refused to accept his five-pound note, spitting out the limp bill each time. The next machine along was for credit cards only, and the last of three was out of service. Kit ran back to the booth. "The ticket machine won't take my money," he said, sliding the fiver through the gap in the window. "Can you give me coin? Or another bill?"
The attendant regarded the crumpled bill. "Sorry."
"But I can see the money there," Kit said, frustration mounting. He pointed through the window to a change machine cartridge stacked with rows of coins waiting to be dispensed. "Can't you just reach over and get some money?"
"We're not allowed to take money out of the machine."
"It's automatic, and the comp-"
"I know, I know," grumped Kit, "the computer's down."
"Try one of the other windows."
"But there's nobody at the other windows."
The attendant gazed at him pityingly. "It's Sunday."
"Reduced service on Sunday."
"No kidding!" cried Kit. "Why do you even bother coming to work?"
The attendant shrugged. Directing his gaze past Kit, he called, "Next!"-although there was no one in line.
Accepting temporary defeat, Kit made his way back up to the street. There were numerous shops where he might have changed a five-pound note-if not for the fact that it was Sunday and all were either observing weekend hours or closed for the day. "Typical," sniffed Kit, and decided that it would be easier, and no doubt faster, just to walk the three or so miles to Wilhelmina's. With this thought in mind, he sailed off, dodging traffic and Sunday-morning pedestrians in the sincere belief that he could still reach Mina's on time. He proceeded along Pentonville Road, mapping out a route in his head as he went. He had gone but a few hundred paces when he began to experience the sinking feeling that he had become completely disoriented and was going the wrong way-something that had happened to him before around the no-man's-land of King's Cross. Realizing that he had to head north and west, he turned left onto Grafton Street, tooled along avoiding a barrage of roadwork, and quickly reached the next street north-an odd little lane called Stane Way.
So far, so good, he thought as he charged down the narrow walkway-really, nothing more than an alley providing service access for the shops on the parallel streets. After walking for two minutes, he started looking for the crossing street at the end. Two more minutes passed ... He should have reached the end by now, shouldn't he?
Then it started to rain.
Kit picked up his speed as the rain poured into the alley from low, swirling clouds overhead. He hunched his shoulders, put his head down, and ran. A wind rose out of nowhere and whipped down the length of the blank brick canyon, driving the rain into his eyes.
Pulling his phone from his pocket, he flipped open the screen. No signal.
"Bloody useless," he muttered.
Drenched to the skin, water dripping from the ends of his hair and tip of his nose, he shoved the phone back into his pocket. Enough of this, he decided. Abort mission. He made a swift about-face and, shoes squelching with every step, headed back the way he had come. Good news: the wind ceased almost at once and the rain dwindled away; the storm diminished as quickly as it had arisen.
Dodging one oily puddle after another, he jogged along and had almost regained the alley entrance at Grafton Street when he heard someone calling him-at least, he thought that is what he had heard. But with the spatter of rain from the eaves of the buildings round about, he could not be sure.
He slowed momentarily, and a few steps later he heard the call again-unmistakable this time: "Hello!" came the cry. "Wait!"
Keep moving, said the voice inside his head. As a general rule it kept him from getting tangled in the craziness of London's vagrant community. He glanced over his shoulder to see a white-haired man stumbling toward him out of the damp urban canyon. Where had he come from? Most likely a drunk who had been sleeping it off in a doorway. Roused by the storm, he had seen Kit and recognized an easy mark. Such was life; he prepared to be accosted.
"Sorry, mate," Kit called back over his shoulder as he turned away. "I'm skint."
"No change. Sorry. Got to run."
That was all the vagrant said, but it welded Kit to the spot.
He turned and looked again at the beggar. Tall, and with a full head of thick silvery hair and a neatly trimmed goatee, he was dressed in charity-shop chic: simple white shirt, dark twill trousers, both sturdy, but well-worn. The fact that he stuffed the cuffs of his trousers into his high-top shoes and wore one of those old-timey greatcoats that had a little cape attached to the shoulders made him look like a character out of Sherlock Holmes.
"Look, do I know you?" asked Kit as the fellow hastened nearer.
"I should hope so, my boy," replied the stranger. "One would think a fellow would know his own great-grandfather."
Kit backed away a step.
"Sorry I'm late," continued the old man. "I had to make certain I wasn't followed. It took rather longer than I anticipated. I was beginning to fear I'd missed you altogether."
"So, here we are. All's well that ends well, what?"
"Listen, mate," protested Kit. "I think you've got the wrong guy."
"What a joy it is to meet you at long last, my son," replied the old gentleman, offering his hand. "Pure joy. But of course, we haven't properly met. May I introduce myself? I am Cosimo Livingstone." He made a very slight bow.
"Okay, so what's the joke?" demanded Kit.
"Oh, it is no joke," the old man assured him. "It's quite true."
"No-you're mistaken. I am Cosimo Livingstone," he insisted. "And anyway, how do you know my name?"
"Would you mind very much if we discussed this walking? We really should be moving along."
"This is nuts. I'm not going anywhere with you."
"Ah, well, I think you'll find that you don't have much choice."
"Listen, mate, I don't know how you got hold of my name, but you must have me mixed up with someone else," Kit said, hoping to sound far more composed than he actually felt at the moment. "I don't mean to be rude, but I don't know you and I'm not going anywhere with you."
"Fair enough," replied the stranger. "What would it take to change your mind?"
"Forget it," said Kit, turning away. "I'm out of here."
"What sort of proof would you like? Names, birth dates, family connections-that sort of thing?"
He started off. "I'm not listening."
"Your father is John. Your mother is Harriet. You were born in Weston-super-Mare, but your family soon moved to Manchester, where your father worked as a managerial something or other in the insurance trade and your mother was a school administrator. When you were twelve, your family upped sticks again and resettled in London...."
Kit halted. He stood in the middle of the alley, wrestling with the twin sensations of alarm and disbelief. He turned around slowly.
The old man stood smiling at him. "How am I doing so far?"
Even in the uncertain light of the alley, the family resemblance was unmistakable-the strong nose, the heavy jaw and broad brow, the hair that rippled like waves from the forehead, the broad lips and dark eyes, just like his father's and obnoxious Uncle Leonard's. It was all of a basic design that Kit had seen repeated with greater or lesser variation in family members his entire life.
"Since university-Manchester, Media Studies, whatever that is-you have been working here and there, doing nothing of any real value-"
"Who are you?" demanded Kit. "How do you know these things?"
"But I've already told you," chuckled the old gentleman. "I am your great-grandfather."
"Oh, yeah? Would this be the great-grandfather who went down to the shops for a loaf of bread one morning and never came back? The same who abandoned a wife and three kids in Marylebone in 1893?"
"Dear me, you know about that, do you? Well, lamentably, yes. But it wasn't a loaf of bread; it was milk and sausages." The old man's gaze grew keen. "Tell me, what did you go out for this morning?"
Kit's mouth went dry.
"Hmm?" replied the stranger. "What was it? Tin of beans? Daily paper? This is how it always happens, don't you see?"
"No ...," said Kit, feeling more unhinged by the second.
"It's a family proclivity, you might say. A talent." The older man took a step nearer. "Come with me."
"Why, in the name of everything that's holy, would I go anywhere with you?"
"Because, my dear boy, you are a lonely twenty-seven-year-old bachelor with a worthless education, a boring no-hope job, a stalled love life, and very few prospects for the improvement of your sad lot."
"How dare you! You don't know anything about me."
"But I know everything about you, old chap." The old man took another step closer. "I thought we had already established that."
"Yeah? What else?"
The elder gentleman sighed. "I know that you are an overworked drone in a soul-destroying cube farm where you have been passed over for promotion two times in the last nine months. The last time you don't know about because they didn't even bother telling you."
"I don't believe this."
"You spend too much time alone, too much time watching television, and too little time cultivating the inner man. You live in a squalid little flat in what is referred to as a no-go zone from which your friends, of whom you see less and less, have all fled for the suburbs long ago with wives and sprogs in tow. You are exceedingly unlucky in love, having invested years in a romantic relationship which, as you know only too well, is neither romantic nor much of a relationship. In short, you have all the social prospects of a garden gnome."
Kit had to admit that except for the low crack about his love life, the old geezer was remarkably close to the mark.
"Is that enough?"
"Who are you?"
"I'm the man who has come to rescue you from a life of quiet desperation and regret." He smiled again. "Come, my boy. Let's sit down over a cup of coffee and discuss the matter like gentlemen. I've gone to a very great deal of trouble to find you. At the very least, you could spare me a few minutes out of your busy life."
"Cup of coffee-thirty minutes. What could it hurt?"
Trepidation and curiosity wrestled one another for a moment. Curiosity won. "Okay," he relented. "Twenty minutes."
The two started walking toward the street. "I've got to call my girlfriend and tell her I'll be a little late," Kit said, pulling out his phone. He flipped it open and pressed the speed-dial key for Mina's number. When nothing happened, he glanced at the screen to see the "Network Not Connected" message blinking at him. He waved the phone in the air, then looked again. Still no tiny bars indicating a signal.
"Not working?" asked the older man, watching him with a bemused expression.
"Must be the buildings," mumbled Kit, indicating the close brick walls on either hand. "Blocking the signal."
They continued on, and upon approaching the end of the alley, Kit thought he heard a sound at once so familiar, and yet so strange, it took him a full two seconds to place it. Children laughing? No, not children. Seagulls.
He had little time to wonder about this, for at that moment they stepped from the dim alleyway and into the most dazzling and unusual landscape Kit had ever seen.
Excerpted from THE SKIN MAP by STEPHEN R. LAWHEAD Copyright © 2010 by Stephen Lawhead. Excerpted by permission.
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