In this charming, witty, and weird fantasy novel, Alexis Hall pays homage to Sherlock Holmes with a new twist on those renowned characters.
Upon returning to the city of Khelathra-Ven after five years fighting a war in another universe, Captain John Wyndham finds himself looking for somewhere to live, and expediency forces him to take lodgings at 221b Martyrs Walk. His new housemate is Ms. Shaharazad Haas, a consulting sorceress of mercurial temperament and dark reputation.
When Ms. Haas is enlisted to solve a case of blackmail against one of her former lovers, Miss Eirene Viola, Captain Wyndham is drawn into a mystery that leads him from the salons of the literary set to the drowned back-alleys of Ven and even to a prison cell in lost Carcosa. Along the way he is beset by criminals, menaced by pirates, molested by vampires, almost devoured by mad gods, and called upon to punch a shark.
But the further the companions go in pursuit of the elusive blackmailer, the more impossible the case appears. Then again, in Khelathra-Ven reality is flexible, and the impossible is Ms. Haas' stock-in-trade.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.30(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
Alexis Hall is a pile of threadbare hats and used teacups given a semblance of life by forbidden sorcery. He has a degree in very hard sums from a university that should, by all rights, be fictional.
Read an Excerpt
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2018 Alexis Hall
Captain John Wyndham
That I must begin these reminiscences with a description of myself and my origins is a necessity that runs contrary to both my character and my upbringing. My editor, however, tells me that my readers will wish to know how a man of my unremarkable public reputation came to be associated with so extraordinary a person as the sorceress Shaharazad Haas. I shall endeavour, therefore, to assuage your curiosity by outlining a little of my early life, particularly the circumstances that led to my arrival in Khelathra-Ven, and to my falling into company with the woman who would become my most trusted confidant and truest friend.
I was born in the Kingdom of Ey during the four hundred and sixty-seventh year of the reign of the Witch King Iustinian. My earliest memory of childhood is being summoned to sing “Alas! Must I in Torments Dwell” for one of my parents’ friends. Such gatherings were frequent at that time and I never thought to question their purpose, though they occurred always after nightfall and were conducted with an air of peculiar secrecy. In any case, I performed poorly, and my father was disappointed, as he so often was.
As for my father himself, I will simply say that he was a man of strong principles and unswerving faith. He fought valiantly for his beliefs and, unlike so many of his contemporaries, practised in private what he espoused in public. Although his role in the revolution and subsequent part in the formation of the Commonwealth afforded him great power and influence, we continued to live simply and spend our days in contemplation of the Creator’s mercy and thankfulness for His blessings.
While I cannot say his stewardship brought much joy to his children, I am nonetheless grateful for many of the lessons he taught me. While some would argue that this world has little use for humility, loyalty, and diligence, I have found them to be constant sources of strength. But, to my shame, I have not the serenity to be thankful to him for his efforts to instil in me the virtues he felt becoming of his daughter. To this day, I am not sure how I would have endured my childhood were it not for my mother.
She shared many traits with my father, including his revolutionary fervour and his unyielding resolve, but she leavened them with kindness. It was of her devising that I was sent to the Honoured University of Khel at the age of sixteen. And it was there that I received my bachelor’s degree in transubstantial sciences and was able to be, for the first time, myself: John Wyndham.
Following my graduation, I made one attempt to return home. Although I had been away only four years, the Commonwealth and I had both changed significantly; I had left a kingdom unsettled from revolution and still bearing the wounds of five centuries of tyranny. I returned to a nation in the midst of renewal. Thomas Latimer, the man for whom I had sung so badly so long ago, had been appointed Lord Protector, and established an advisory council known as the Chamber of Regicides. My father’s disappointment in me, however, was unchanged.
It quickly became apparent to me that my future did not lie in Ey. Centuries of fear followed by a decade of transformation had left the people of the Commonwealth unwelcoming of anything that seemed to them foreign or mysterious. And I, with my varsity ways and my Khelish habits, was both. Ironically, in Khelathra-Ven I had always been too provincial, my friends mocking me for my prudishness and my adherence to my father’s faith, despite my having long since learned the Creator was likely little more than a mindless ball of protoplasmic fire that dwelt in a dead star at the heart of the cosmos.
Thus it was I came again to Khelathra-Ven and, like so many outcasts before me, sought refuge with the Company of Strangers, that queer but valiant battalion of soldiers founded some two centuries past under the joint auspices of the Kaiserin of the Hundred Kingdoms and the Uthmani Sultan. It was rare indeed for those two great powers to agree overmuch on anything, but the existential peril presented by the forces of the Empress of Nothing demanded a united response and the company was structured in such a way that it could owe no loyalty and, thus, would never be distracted from the conflict that rages from the Unending Gate. I believe most people, or at least most people who are familiar with such matters, know at least a little about that ceaseless war. They know, for example, that it takes place primarily across a kaleidoscope of ever-shifting, otherworldly battlefields, and that our enemy is by her very nature unknowable and unconquerable. They may even be aware that the conflict has its origins in the events surrounding the fall of ancient Ven. None of those facts, to my mind, are pertinent. My experiences during my time with the Company of Strangers are difficult for me to describe and I do not think they would make for edifying reading. I will not, therefore, attempt to describe them. Suffice to say that I am, even now, uncertain what it was that I hoped to find in pledging myself to such a cause. Perhaps little more than purpose and what passed for an honourable death. But there, in those strange and sunless lands, I soon learned that no death is honourable. Unlike many of my fellows I survived and rose, more thanks to circumstance than merit, to the rank of captain.
Just as I was beginning to contemplate the opportunities my unexpected successes had placed before me I was struck down by an extratemporal jezail, a fiendish weapon whose bullets displace themselves in time and space, meaning the injuries they cause recur unpredictably. Although I am quite well most of the time I shall, on occasion, be afflicted with a stabbing pain in my shoulder or my leg or, most peculiarly, by the recollection of such a pain in the distant past, long before I had even thought of going to war. Such a condition made me unfit for military service. And so it was that I found myself returning to Khelathra-Ven with little more than my clothes and the meagre savings I had accrued during my tour of duty.
The City of Khelathra-Ven
My arrival in the city, following my demobilisation, was an unfortunately shambolic affair. Not having anticipated my injury, I had been unable to make any arrangements for accommodation ahead of my arrival. The only lodgings I had been able to secure at such short notice, a tiny unfurnished room above a dyer’s shop, proved both exorbitantly expensive and to reek of various unsavoury substances that I shall not name for fear of causing distress. From there I was able to move temporarily into the sitting room of an old university friend who, since graduation, had made a successful career for herself as an interdimensional metallurgist. Although she was most welcoming and her home infinitely more comfortable than the room above the dyer’s, I was ill at ease imposing too long on her charity.
My first order of business was to secure for myself some semblance of an income and, with the assistance of one my former tutors, I was able to take up a position as dispensing alchemist at the Little Sisters of Thotek the Devourer Hospital in Athra. My remuneration for this role was not entirely generous and I soon realised that I would be forced to choose between living in one of the least reputable parts of the city, and potentially taking my life in my hands on my daily walk to work, or else making an earnest effort to find a housemate. Even this strategy proved less fruitful than I had hoped. Many desirable properties remained unaffordable and many affordable properties remained undesirable. Furthermore, my Eyan origins rendered my company unpalatable to a number of the city’s residents. Having been raised with a rigid sense of propriety, I fear I may have given some of my prospective co-tenants the impression that I begrudged them the freedoms that I, in truth, envied.
One morning, when I was coming quite to despair at my situation, I was perusing a local broadsheet when I came across the following advertisement: Co-tenant required. Rent reasonable to the point of arousing suspicion. Tolerance for blasphemies against nature an advantage. No laundry service. Enquire S. Haas, 221b Martyrs Walk. I confess that I was not without my reservations, but Martyrs Walk was enticingly close to the hospital and, with my injury sometimes rendering perambulation discomforting, that was not an insignificant consideration. Therefore I resolved to present myself the very next morning.
Before I narrate the details of that fateful meeting, however, my editor suggests I should present for the benefit of my less cosmopolitan readers a brief introduction to the nexus city of Khelathra-Ven. I pointed out to him that there were many texts available on the subject and that interested parties would be better served seeking out one of Ms. Zheng’s excellent travel guides. He was not moved by this argument, maintaining that the public in general mislikes being referred to secondary materials in the middle of a serialised narrative and that part of my duty as a chronicler is to describe not only events as they transpired but also the background against which those events occurred. Those already familiar with the great city may wish to turn immediately to the next chapter.
Khelathra-Ven is a tripartite municipality composed of the city of Khel to the south, separated from the city of Athra in the north by some six miles of open sea, which can be traversed by the great Rose Gold Bridge. The ruins of Ven lie beneath the waves and are inhabited by strange but not unfriendly creatures native to that environment, and by those unfortunates forced by circumstance to seek lodging in the few air pockets that persist, through the intervention of engineering or of sorcery, in the remains of that once proud metropolis. During my student days, I lived for two months in a coral-strewn garret in one of Ven’s more accessible districts. And although the lifestyle was not without its sense of romance, the inconvenience of coming and going by submersible soon came to outstrip the savings that I made on the rent.
It may seem strange to an outsider that a city that is little more than a scattering of ancient and waterlogged ruins could be so integral a part of a thriving, modern nation. The outsider, however, reckons without the influence of the Eternal Lords of Ven, who are the last immortal survivors of an empire that once spanned galaxies. With their blessing, the dimensional gateways through which they had once walked the length and breadth of the cosmos became again stable thoroughfares allowing the passage of trade from not only distant lands but distant worlds and, indeed, distant times.
Today Khelathra-Ven is famed throughout several realities as a haven for innovators, liber. Many caravans come by land from the Uthmani Sultanate to the south, and a wide expanse to the northeast of the city is given over to the winged beasts and flying machines that make up an increasingly significant part of trade in the modern age. But the bulk of the city’s wealth comes from the sea, and from the strange portals that lie within it. Hundreds of ships pass through the strait every day, and thousands of travellers from across the infinite potentialities of all that is pass daily through the docks to visit or to trade or to seek their fortunes. Standing on the quayside of an evening one may converse with people from origins as diverse as the Hagiocracy of Pesh, the People’s Republic of Carcosa, the red deserts of Marvos, or the dawn of time itself. Whether one would survive these conversations, however, is another matter entirely.
Ms. Shaharazad Haas
Number 221b Martyrs Walk turned out to be part of a handsome terrace in a clean, geometrical style that had been fashionable a little less than a century earlier. It sported large, square windows and a neat iron balcony that matched the gate and the rail that ran up the steps to the front door. This last was open, but I knocked regardless, and received no answer. I thus found myself in something of a quandary. I would never under normal circumstances have entered another person’s home uninvited. However, the curious attitude of the door and the silence within caused me genuine concern.
I glanced up and down the street in the hopes of seeing a neighbour or attracting the attention of a Myrmidon—for those readers unfamiliar with the city, the Myrmidons are the peacekeepers of Khelathra-Ven, once tasked with enforcing the will of the ruling council and now primarily concerned with the prevention and punishment of crime—but saw that I was quite alone and unsupported. Tightening my grip on the walking stick (for which on that day I had blessedly little need), I pushed the door wide and entered.
A narrow hallway led me to a well-appointed but chaotically maintained sitting room where a woman with light brown skin and a cascade of black hair sprawled on a chaise longue. No sooner had I entered than she levelled a pistol directly at my heart.
“If you have come to rob me,” she said, without so much as glancing in my direction, “you will find that I have nothing worth taking. If you have come to murder me, you will find that I am dead already.”
I thought it best to move little and speak calmly. “I have come to do neither. I have come in response to an advertisement.”
She swung herself into a sitting position, which better enabled me to observe her, although the bulk of my attention was still occupied by the firearm, which remained trained unerringly upon my person. Ms. S. Haas, assuming it was she (and hindsight vindicates this assumption), was a tall, striking woman of indeterminate age and background. She was dressed in a heavily flounced skirt of emerald-green satin, a gentleman’s shirt, somewhat stained with tobacco, and a charcoal-grey tailcoat. There was something of the chimera about her, being leonine of jaw, aquiline of nose and lupine about the eyes—though, presently, they were dulled by an undiagnosable cocktail of narcotics and intoxicants.
“Perhaps,” I suggested, “I have come at a bad time?”
“Young man, I have danced with the gods at the dawn of creation and watched seas swallow worlds at the end of all things. My perspective on time, good or bad, is I suspect very different from your own.”
“Am I to understand, then, that you are not looking for a cohabitant?”
“I already have a housemate, as infuriating as I—” She stopped and was silent for the better part of a minute. “Or did he leave? Or die? Or both. And, if both, in which order?”
“Shall I fetch you a glass of water?”
“Water, in its pure form, is far too valuable a reagent to waste on thirst. You may pour me a brandy and you may be quick about it.”
I did not think it advisable for her to add alcohol to whatever she had already taken. On the other hand, she did have me at gunpoint. “Would you mind lowering your weapon? It disquiets me rather.”
Ms. Haas stared at the pistol with a look of genuine surprise. “Sorry. Forgot I had that.”
She cast it casually to the ground, where it discharged into the wall, sending up a spray of plaster dust and shaking loose an incongruously cheerful watercolour of a country cottage. Stepping carefully around piles of books, papers, and discarded syringes, I crossed the room to an ornate sideboard, where rested a selection of fine decanters and glasses. I poured the lady the beverage she had requested and passed it to her with as much composure as I could muster.
She regarded it warily for a moment and then tossed it back with the proficiency of a sailor on shore leave. Then she stood, shaking out her skirts, and while I consider myself neither especially courageous nor especially cowardly, I thought it best to take a step back. She turned the glass in her hand, watching the light catch upon the crystal, and, when she had satisfied whatever curiosity drove her, returned it calmly to its fellows.
“The rent is due monthly,” she said, as if continuing a conversation I was fairly certain we had not been having. “It comes to seventeen Athran florins, twelve Khelish rials, an equivalent value in seed pearls, sourced from wherever you wish, seventy-eight Eyan shillings, a Marvosi trade dagger, or three and a half lines from a Seravic chant of commerce. You may pay it to me or to the landlady directly. Her name is Mrs. Hive, and she infests the attic. Do not enter it without permission on pain of agonising death. There is no laundry service.”
“Yes. The advertisement mentioned that fact.” That is, it had mentioned the lack of laundry service. The possibility of agonising death, although present for one reason or another in a number of rented properties in Khelathra-Ven, was habitually elided from public notices.
She moved to where the picture had fallen, picked it up, appeared to consider rehanging it, and finally put it down again. “It is a matter of tremendous inconvenience to me.”
“I am quite capable of washing my own shirts.”
Ms. Haas’s eyes glittered in a manner I did not find entirely comforting. As it transpired, my misgivings were justified, for, within the week, I would become responsible for all of the household laundry and would remain so for the entire duration of our relationship. I should clarify for those readers who may be shocked by this situation that there were certain items of clothing I refused to handle, and for which Ms. Haas made her own arrangements into which I did not enquire.
“When can you move in?” she asked.
At this, I hesitated. While it is true that my circumstances were dire I was not certain that I had sunk so low as to share rooms with quite so singular an individual. Despite the reputation of my countrymen, I endeavour to refrain from judging others. However, this lady seemed to spend her days lying in a drug-addled haze with the front door open, casually discharging pistols into the wainscoting, and I did not believe that these were desirable traits in a housemate.
I cast about for a diplomatic way to extricate myself and settled on, “Do you not wish to ask me for references or question me as to my character or background?”
“Why would I need to do that?” She swung round, her skirts knocking over a precariously balanced collection of alchemical apparatus and a human-looking skull. “You were born in the Kingdom of Ey sometime before the revolution, raised in the Church of the Creator, educated abroad, probably in Khel, perhaps in Dvesh, but not Marvos or Carcosa. You have returned recently from military service in the Company of Strangers, where you acquitted yourself well but were forced into early retirement by injury. Your instincts run towards kindness and you are not easily startled. You are fastidious in your personal habits but tolerant of those who are less so. All of which suggest to me that you may, perhaps uniquely amongst the inhabitants of this city, be able to put up with me.”
“My goodness,” I exclaimed. “How could you possibly know such things?”
She stared at me speculatively for longer than most people would have considered polite. And, just when I was on the verge of protesting, flung herself back on the chaise with greater animation than she had hitherto demonstrated. “I must thank you, Mr. . . . I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name.”
“It is Wyndham, madam. John Wyndham.”
“In which case, I must thank you, Mr. Wyndham. I had expected to spend today imprisoned in the chancery of my own mind, havering between ennui and self-destruction. But you have quite perked me up.”
I was slightly at a loss. “Oh, good.”
“Since you expressed an interest, I shall explain to you how I know the things that I know. Or at least, some of them. The rest would drive you insane.”
She dug between the cushions of the chaise longue and retrieved an ornate, pearl-handled pipe. A nearby table held a stack of the daily papers and the assorted accoutrements of my new associate’s various habits, amongst them a packet of tobacco that bore the name of the popular brand Valentino’s Good Rough Shag. She pulled some out, packed some into the bowl, and spoke a word in a tongue so ancient and alien that it made my stomach twist and my eyes water. A flame flared briefly into being at the end of her pipe. Khelathra-Ven has few cultural taboos, especially when compared to my homeland, but the outright and flagrant practice of sorcery is one of them. I thought it polite not to mention this.
“Now then. To your question.” Ms. Haas brought the holder to her lips and inhaled deeply, smoke billowing forth with indecorous excess. “Your origins are simple to discern. You dress plainly, avoiding any form of ornamentation. Your clothes are fastened with hooks rather than buttons and your accent is decidedly northern. This marks you as a member of the Reformed Church of the Creator and a native of Ey. That you have left the kingdom and are presently seeking to take lodgings with a sorceress suggests you are not a zealot. That you nevertheless abide by the strict sumptuary laws of your homeland suggests that your manner of presentation is a habit formed in early childhood. Since the church would have been illegal in Ey until you were at least eleven or twelve it follows that your parents were revolutionaries. From here, the matter becomes what you are doing in Khelathra-Ven. People from your part of the world are a rarity in this city but you have the look of one who is accustomed to us and our ways. This suggests that although you have retained the habits in which you were raised you have been exposed to other ways of life and modes of thinking. A foreign education, then, almost certainly here, or else you would have returned to the city in which you had attended university.”
“Why, this is extraordinary. But how did you know I had served with the Company of Strangers?”
“My dear man, it’s written all over you. Most obviously, you have the kind of pallor that a person only acquires living for a considerable period of time in the lands around the Unending Gate, where the sun never rises. Further, you hold yourself with military bearing, and you did not flinch when I pointed a pistol at you, nor when the weapon discharged. This suggests not only experience in battle but also several personal qualities that would all but guarantee your advancement. You were clearly injured, since you walk with a stick. The fact that you do not at present seem to need it suggests that your wound was courtesy of one of the peculiar weapons favoured by the legions of the Empress of Nothing.”
Somewhat disconcerted, I looked for somewhere to sit. I removed what I hoped wasn’t—but feared was—a dead dog from the seat of a wingback chair and lowered myself gratefully into it. Of course, I would normally not have sat in the presence of a lady without direct invitation, but I had reached the conclusion that waiting for Ms. Haas to observe such niceties was a doomed endeavour. Again, this instinct was proven correct by better acquaintance. In all the time I knew her, Ms. Shaharazad Haas never showed the slightest regard for the rules of society, the laws of the land, or the inviolable principles of the cosmos.
The ash from her pipe drifted to the carpet, where it was lost amongst the carnage. “This brings us,” she continued, “to the rather trivial matter of your personality. Much of this can be inferred from the conclusions I had already reached about your history, upbringing, and education. The rest from the way you reacted to encountering a strange woman clearly out of her mind on a staggeringly dangerous and transparently illegal collection of alkaloids, opioids and mystical tinctures threatening you with a firearm and inviting you to come and live with her.”
Thus it was that I moved into 221b Martyrs Walk and began my long acquaintance with the sorceress Shaharazad Haas.
221b Martyrs Walk
Number 221b Martyrs Walk was, and to the best of my knowledge still is, a comfortable townhouse boasting two well-appointed bedrooms, a spacious sitting room, facilities that I shall not detail but which proved adequate for one’s daily ablutions, and a kitchen wherein I prepared my meals and Ms. Haas made occasional sacrifices to dark gods.
My editor has suggested to me that, since some readers may hail from worlds whose local physical laws and native occult practices differ from ours, it might be prudent to outline for them the precise manner in which Ms. Haas’s sorceries manifested themselves. It became quickly apparent to me during our acquaintance that she was an adherent of no specific arcane discipline but rather had acquired an eclectic and terrifying collection of rites, rituals, secret names, and forbidden bargains that permitted her, in the proper circumstances, to achieve such diverse effects as conjuring spirits from the beyond and returning them thereto, speaking with the dead, commanding wind and weather, surviving near fatal injury through the never-to-be-courted intercession of blasphemous deities, effortlessly locating missing socks (a power she would often refuse to use for my benefit despite my full knowledge of her possession of it), altering her appearance at will, springing locks with a touch, striking her enemies with debilitating afflictions, talking to cats, the invocation of flame ex nihilo via the True Words of Shaping (this being one of the most spiritually taxing and closely guarded mysteries of the cosmos and the one she had flagrantly used to light her pipe when we first met), and sundry magics of guiding, seeking, warding, and guarding, the broad utility of which she would use to supplement her other activities.
Ms. Haas’s supernatural experimentation, like many of her habits, had a tendency to make a mess of the fixtures and, like many of her habits, earned her the displeasure of Mrs. Hive. It was some days before I made the acquaintance of our landlady, and the meeting was sadly not auspicious. She was, at the time, occupying the corpse of a stevedore, which I learned she had purchased from a resurrection man the month before. During my time in the sunless lands I had faced numerous horrors, and flatter myself that I maintained my composure appropriately, but the wasps crawling from the body’s empty eye sockets left me rather uncertain where I should, in civility, rest my gaze, which presented a hopefully understandable impediment to social intercourse. Mrs. Hive had wished to confront Ms. Haas about the poltergeist which my housemate had unleashed in the most recent of her rituals, but finding the lady in a drug-addled stupor, she had come to me for an explanation instead. Hoping to smooth matters over, I reassured her that Ms. Haas had been able to bind the spirit within a hatstand before it could cause too much damage to the property, and opined that the occasional trembling from the newly haunted item of furniture could perhaps be seen as giving the hallway a pleasing air of mystery. This line of reasoning did not satisfy her, and she was very cold with me for several days afterwards.
As for my cohabitant, the initial weeks of our acquaintance were, on my part, a process of rapid acclimatisation and, on her part, a process of occasionally remembering my existence. Having lived with both students and soldiers I had long since ceased to expect others to abide by the conventions of the society in which I was raised. Over the past decade I had become well used to people speaking the private names of deities, inviting unchaperoned guests into their rooms, and openly discussing matters that, in Ey, would be considered unassailably private. I was less accustomed to a companion who staggered home at three in the morning, her skirts stained with blood, and who would then proceed to engage me in a two-hour conversation about the distinguishing characteristics of certain fungi, before finally falling asleep on my bed. This last habit of hers meant that I had, in a sense, gone from living in my friend’s sitting room to living in my own.
At times she would disappear for a day or more and return either full of stories or full of silence as the mood took her. One afternoon, she burned that awful watercolour in a fit of rage, the cause of which I never discovered, then promptly retired to her chamber, whence she did not emerge for long enough that I sincerely feared she may have died. At any other stage of my life I would have never transgressed the boundaries of a lady’s boudoir but, on more than one occasion over my long friendship with Ms. Haas, I was required to set propriety aside and check that she had not smothered herself in the night or transported her spirit to some other plane of reality. I generally found her quite well. At times she was grateful for my concern. Upon others she would assail me with missiles or curses. In summary, my tenure at 221b Martyrs Walk was often frustrating and frequently terrifying, but never, ever dull.
A peculiarity of Ms. Haas’s lifestyle was that, although I knew for certain she had a variety of colourful friends and associates, she seldom invited guests to the house. It was, therefore, a matter of some curiosity to me when one evening, a little over a month after I moved in, a lady called for her.
Miss Eirene Viola
I was first alerted to the presence of our visitor by the ringing of the doorbell and the buzzing from the attic as Mrs. Hive forced her way into one of her cadaverous puppets.
“It’s quite all right,” I called, rising from my armchair. “I’ll go.”
Perhaps it was presumptuous of me but, even in Khelathra-Ven, a dead body full of wasps did not cut a welcoming figure.
Opening the front door, which I had finally persuaded my companion that we should keep locked, I found upon the step a lady of notable beauty, dressed in a manner that spoke of taste but not extravagance. While I lacked Ms. Haas’s unusual perspicacity, I did not require it in order to recognise that our visitor was in a state of considerable agitation.
“Where’s Shaharazad?” she demanded.
“I fear she is indisposed.”
“Then redispose her. I must speak to her at once.”
I stood aside to allow her ingress, and she swept past me into the sitting room. My efforts over the last weeks had rendered it somewhat more habitable, although I had been able to do little about the bullet holes and scorch marks, or the pervading scent of tobacco and wormwood.
“Please do sit,” I said, “well, anywhere that you can.”
My concerns for the lady’s comfort proved to be unfounded. She draped herself over the chaise longue as though she belonged upon it. By the light of the standard lamp, I could see that she was approximately the same age as myself. Her hair was dark, as was common in the city, and twisted into some feminine knot that I could neither describe nor reproduce. Most arresting of all were her eyes, which were a brown so pale as to be almost yellow, and caught the lamplight strangely.
While I would normally have offered refreshment, I thought it best to fetch Ms. Haas with the utmost expediency. I first attempted to achieve this by knocking politely but firmly on her bedroom door. She ignored me. I called her name twice and, when she continued to pay me no mind, resigned myself to entering.
I found her lying crosswise over her bed, in a somewhat immodest position, propped on her elbows over a large, leather-bound tome, her ankles plainly visible behind her and adorned by bracelets.
She didn’t look up. “It is impolite, Captain, to enter a lady’s bedchamber uninvited.”
“I attempted to announce myself, but you did not respond.”
“I hoped you would go away.”
I fortified my equanimity. “You have a visitor, Ms. Haas.”
“Tell whoever it is that they may wait if they wish. But they are likely to starve.”
“The lady seems most insistent.”
“Mr. Wyndham. I am currently attempting to encompass the secret names of the star-demons of Vz’att. This I find interesting. You and your mysterious guest I currently find boring. Persuade me otherwise.”
Later in our relationship I would be well versed in those things that would capture Ms. Haas’s attention and those that would not. At this time, however, I was forced to take a proverbial shot in the dark. “She asked for you by name.”
“I am the sorceress Shaharazad Haas. The whole city knows my name. And those citizens who do not wish me dead and, come to think of it, some of those who do have frequent need for my services.”
“She is in a state of some distress.”
Ms. Haas turned the page. “How sad for her. Tedious.”
I was starting to feel a little desperate. “She’s very pretty?” I tried.
“I am not sure I’m accustomed to quantifying these things.” Indeed, there were few things I was less qualified to judge. “Her eyes, I think, are quite fine. They are an unusual shade.”
Her head came up. “Blood red? Viridian? Wholly crafted from copper and emblazoned with sigils of warding? Like unto a window over an endless void wherein stars gutter and die eternally?”
“Um.” This was not going to end well. “More sort of light brown?”
“Yellow-brown or grey-brown?”
She leapt up in a billow of purple silk. “Honestly, Wyndham. Why did you not mention this before? Sometimes I think you are intent upon wasting my time.”
She made for the door.
“Surely,” I cried, “you are not intending to greet this lady clad only in a dressing gown?”
“How right you are, Captain.” Pausing by her dresser, which was strewn with a wild tangle of items, several of them mine, she selected a single earring—a modest pearl on a golden chain—and affixed it to her ear. “There.”
And, with that, she pushed past me into the corridor.
Having done my duty, I repaired to my room, only to be violently roused moments later by the sound of shouting from the sitting room. It was against my instincts to pry, but the debate sounded so acrimonious that I honestly feared for the safety of one or both parties.
I made my way cautiously downstairs, where I found our guest standing in the middle of the room, while Ms. Haas paced its confines with the energy and menace of a caged panther.
“. . . frankly insulting,” she was saying, “that you consider it possible I would do such a thing.”
The other lady retained her composure where many would surely have faltered. “What else am I to think? I know of three people you have personally murdered, one you drove to madness for slighting you, six you left to die in the ash wastes of Telash-Ur, and at least four you fed to the Princes of the Mocking Realm.”
“Indeed, I have done all of these things, and more. And yet you still believe that I would resort to blackmail in order to prevent you from marrying a fishmonger?”
At this, the stranger lost all self-possession. Pulling a long pin from her hair, she flicked it at Ms. Haas with uncanny speed and unerring accuracy.
My cohabitant raised a hand, allowing the missile to embed itself into her palm. “That,” she said, “was uncalled for.”
“Cora is not a fishmonger. She is a member in good standing with the Ubiquitous Company of Fishers.”
“She’s a tedious little bourgeois.” Blood began to pool in the centre of Ms. Haas’s hand and she watched it with an air of studied detachment. “And you deserve better.”
“I love her, Shaharazad. It’s not something I’d expect you to understand.”
With an exasperated sigh, Ms. Haas drew the pin slowly from her flesh and licked the tip. “Not even poisoned, dear. I’m not sure if that means you really do care or you really don’t.”
“Neither am I.” Our unexpectedly intemperate guest returned to the chaise longue and arranged herself decorously upon it once more. “But it seems I do need your help.”
“Then you shall have it.” Ms. Haas settled into the wingback chair and stuck the pin into the arm, where I was quite certain it would shortly do someone an injury. “And as for you, Mr. Wyndham, since you have nothing better to do than hover in doorways, you might as well make yourself useful.”
She picked up a notebook from a pile at her feet and flung it towards me. I caught it with only a mild twinge from my shoulder and claimed the other chair. In truth, I wasn’t sure what use I could be, besides note taking and moral support, but it was oddly pleasing to be included. Having resolved the immediate crisis of my accommodation, and my journey to the hospital being so much shorter than it once was, I had found my evenings curiously empty. There are, of course, a great multitude of diversions available in the city of Khelathra-Ven, but my temperament and upbringing left the vast majority of them either unappealing or inaccessible. Growing up in Ey, I never developed the habit of drinking, dancing, visiting the theatre, or, indeed, engaging in any pastime that did not involve venerating the name of the Creator. And, while I have no strong objection to such activities today, it is difficult for me to engage in them without the excuse of a companion.
Crossing one leg over the other, Ms. Haas produced a packet of tobacco and retrieved her pipe from where it had rolled under the chair. “Perhaps introductions are in order. Eirene, this is Captain John Wyndham. He’s from the Commonwealth, which explains most of it, and has lived with me for a month, which explains the rest. Mr. Wyndham, this is Eirene Viola. I first met her after she was forced to flee Carcosa some dozen years ago. We . . . ”
Here Ms. Haas described in far greater detail than was necessary the nature of her prior relationship with Miss Viola. Modesty forbids me from repeating any of it in these pages.
When my companion showed no sign of concluding her discourse, I awaited an appropriate pause and enquired, “What manner of assistance did you require, madam?”
“She’s being blackmailed.”
At this, Miss Viola turned a sharp gaze upon my companion. “She’s also capable of speaking for herself.”
“Then by all means tell the good captain what you have already intimated to me.” Ms. Haas lit her pipe, this time without the use of forbidden sorcery, and put it to her lips. “I shall endeavour to amuse myself.”
I readied my pen and bade Miss Viola tell me her story. The substance of it was thus. She had come to Khelathra-Ven following the popular uprising in Carcosa, that strange city so ancient and so famed that I am given to understand its notoriety has reached even the most backward of realities. Immediately following her arrival, she had fallen in with a bad crowd, of which I understood Ms. Haas had been a part. The lady was vague on the details of her life since, but I had a strong sense she had been a thief and an adventuress, and had dabbled in sorcery. Any one of these would have disqualified her from marriage to any respectable person, even in Khelathra-Ven.
In the last year she had met and fallen in love with a warden of the Ubiquitous Company of Fishers (which, for those unfamiliar with the social and commercial institutions of Khelathra-Ven, is one of the city’s many influential trade guilds) by the name of Cora Beck. Miss Beck’s family had already expressed misgivings about their daughter’s engagement to a Carcosan immigrant and Miss Viola was concerned that any hint of scandal would destroy all hope of their formal union. The blackmail material had so far consisted of a single anonymous letter demanding that Miss Viola break off the engagement on pain of certain secrets being made public. This letter she produced and handed to me for my perusal.
The Mysterious Letter
To the Lady Eirene Viola Delhali, daughter of the late Count of Hyades,
You are to break your engagement with Miss Cora Beck or else she, her family, and all society will learn precisely what happened to Benoit Roux.
Do not try me. Do not test me.
I hold your future in my hands.
“If I might ask,” I said, having examined the epistle, “what did happen to Benoit Roux?”
Ms. Haas opened her eyes. “He was one of the four.”
“Do pay attention, Wyndham. The four persons Eirene accused me of feeding to the Princes of the Mocking Realm. She neglected to mention she was as much a part of that affair as I was.”
“I was seventeen,” protested Miss Viola. “I had just fled my homeland and was hiding in fear for my life from armed and fanatical militants. You were two decades my senior and I truly believed I was in love with you.”
“You can hardly hold me responsible for your youthful follies.”
“But I can hold you responsible for persuading me that my surest chance of evading my pursuers was to strike a pact with the lords of a psychedelic otherworld.”
Ms. Haas blew a perfectly formed smoke ring. “Well, it worked.”
I glanced once more at the letter and then at my notes. “Might we perhaps further address the question of the gentleman you murdered?”
“He wasn’t a gentleman,” drawled Ms. Haas. “He was new money at best. And a thoroughly unpleasant fellow.”
“I’m not sure that makes it right to kill him.”
“How dare you, Captain. I certainly did not kill him. Eirene and I simply contrived a situation in which Master Roux, of his own free will, exposed himself to extradimensional forces that tragically consumed him. Had he been less venal, he would be with us today. Not in this room, of course. Ghastly man.”
As I’ve said before, and will say again over the course of this manuscript, I strive never to judge others. I was nonetheless given serious pause by the content of this conversation. And, in truth, I am not entirely certain why I remained part of it or continued to keep company with Ms. Haas afterwards. I can only say that I have never made excuses for my friend’s behaviour and do, on some level, know that she has done heinous things. But I have also never known her to act without purpose nor with wanton malice, and I believe I must have understood this fact even then. Besides which, to be in the presence of the sorceress Shaharazad Haas was to glimpse a world more beautiful, more terrible, and more limitless than anything I could hitherto have imagined.
Miss Viola drew another pin from her hair, letting the whole mass of it come tumbling down, and then began the complex work of rebinding it. “So you see why I came here. Apart from you and I, very few people know what happened to Benoit.”
Tapping out her pipe on the cover of a blameless volume of Ilari love poetry, Ms. Haas rose and snatched the letter from my hand. “Twelve years ago, precisely three people knew: you, me, and du Maurier. All it takes is for one of us to have told one person at some point over the past decade and, suddenly, we have no idea who knows what.”
“If I might ask,” I asked, “who is du Maurier?”
“Another ghastly man,” returned Ms. Haas. “Although he is the chief servant of the Princes of the Mocking Realm, they have thus far failed to devour him. He runs an extradimensional fleapit of a theatre called Mise en Abyme.”
Miss Viola gave a little sigh. “He’s also an inconceivable braggart, which means he could have told anybody. Which means the letter could have come from anybody.”
“Not anybody.” Ms. Haas turned the letter over and peered closely at its obverse. “Just not necessarily someone directly connected to that incident. You know, you’ve been a wonderfully naughty girl over the years. I’m sure you’ve left a veritable legion of jilted lovers, double-crossed associates, and good old-fashioned victims who’d relish the opportunity to even the score.”
“Which means,” said Miss Viola, rather sharply, “that you’ve narrowed the list of suspects down from ‘everyone’ to ‘everyone I’ve ever annoyed.’ I’m so glad I came to you, Shaharazad. Your reputation is nothing if not deserved.”
“Are you like this with the fishmonger? If so, a little blackmail is likely to be the least of your matrimonial impediments.”
“You bring out the worst in me. As you do in most people.”
“You flatter me, dear.” Ms. Haas took a turn about the room. “But to return to your current problem, it is a simple matter of triangulation. We know that whoever sent this letter has reason to wish you harm and has access to at least a small amount of personal information, some of which must have originated at Mise en Abyme. Further, the specific harm they seem to wish you speaks volumes as to their motives. No attempt has been made to extort you financially, suggesting that they have no especial need for money. Nor have they threatened you with violence, suggesting someone comfortable with casual cruelty but held back from more direct interventions by conscience or cowardice. Finally, we know that this individual is right-handed and expected you to recognise their script. It is really very straightforward.”
My own pen had been near flying off the page as I attempted to keep pace with Ms. Haas’s rapid exposition. “I wouldn’t use that word exactly, but I believe I can follow your reasoning,” I said. “At least until you reached the subject of handedness.”
“Whatever is the matter with you, Mr. Wyndham?” She spun round to confront me. “Was it not obvious the moment you looked at the letter that the writer had used the hand they did not favour? Why do such a thing if not to disguise your handwriting from the intended recipient? And since the sloping of the ascenders and descenders is quite characteristic of the use of the left hand, it follows that our blackmailer is ordinarily right-handed.”
I took the note back and considered it with fresh eyes. Now it had been pointed out to me, I could indeed discern that the writing was shaky and ill formed, as if written with the off hand, and that the letters sloped backwards. It would simply never have occurred to me to see such details as significant. Over the coming years, I would learn to observe things a little more as Ms. Haas did, an exercise from which I have derived both satisfaction and utility, although I never attained her facility.
Setting the paper aside, I asked, “Is there anything else we can conclude from the letter?”
“Not by casual examination. The paper is of ordinary quality and could likely have been purchased from any stationer’s in the city. The ink likewise. There was no postmark so I assume it was hand delivered, but messengers are only a little more expensive than . . . ” And here, I am sorry to say, Ms. Haas made a most inappropriate comparison that I would prefer not to repeat. “If you think yourself able, Captain, perhaps you could employ your professional training to test this letter and the envelope for any alchemical traces that may indicate who has handled it or where it has come from.”
“I should be glad to.”
She retrieved her tobacco and refilled her pipe. “Meanwhile, Eirene, I recommend you return home and begin compiling a list of possible suspects. Start with everyone who might want to harm you, and then eliminate those who are in no position to do so or who would choose to do so by other methods. Of those who remain, discard the ones who are left-handed or who have never written you a letter.”
Having given us our instructions, Ms. Haas retired abruptly.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Title: The Affair of the Mysterious Letter Author: Alexis Hall Pages: 352 Genre: Sci-Fi/ Fantasy/ Retelling Series or Stand-Alone: Stand-Alone Stars: 4/5 LGBTQ?: Yes! Trans representation as well! Pass the Bechdel Test? (Depiction of Women): Yes Trigger Warning: Some violence and drug use I received a free eARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. Story: This was such an interesting book! It takes its inspiration from the Sherlock Holmes world, but places it in a completely different dimension/world. We follow John Wyndam, a wounded officer against the war on the Queen of Nothingness (with cool aliens and crazy weapons) who takes a flat with the sorceress Shaharazad Haas. She is as eccentric as one would hope! She and John work to solve a mystery of a threat from a former love of Shaharazad. The twist was unexpected and the worlds we travel through as well-done! I would love to see additional books in this series. Recommendations: For Fantasy/Sci-Fi lovers and YA sci-fi. For YA and up!
This book was received as an ARC from Berkley Publishing Group in exchange for an honest review. Opinions and thoughts expressed in this review are completely my own. I was super excited to read this book because Historical mysteries are very popular in our library and I knew our patrons will be ecstatic to know that one is about to be released. The Affair of the Mysterious Letter tells the story of Captain John Wyndham post-war looking for a place to live. While searching for a home he comes across this letter that was addressing an affair of one of the former lovers of his housemate. This letter leads to witchcraft, pirates, and even encounters with sharks that now Capt. Wyndham is involved with. Each page was a new twist that was a huge shocker to the plot. Each chapter kept you invested and wanting to know who this mystery blackmailer is and will Captain Wyndham catch him once and for all. We will consider adding this title to our mystery collection at the library. That is why we give this book 5 stars.
For fans of Doyle and Lovecraft, finally here is a story that brings them together in the perfect mix (with a small dash of Hercule Poirot thrown in for taste). Sherlock Holmes becomes sorceress Shaharazad Haas, and London is replaced by Khelathra-Ven, a city where dimensions, time and consciousness may not be one and the same. The mystery is a classic, two lovers beset by a blackmailer, but the possible culprits include a playwright, a gang leader and possibly a vampire. I also loved the fact that the characters did not exist in the binary world H.P. Lovecraft would have preferred, but rather in a world where there is a lot of diversity and the book is inclusive of different sexualities and gender identities. I think the added religious background of Wyndham (the Watson in this story) brought an interesting conversation to the work which added to the character and his relationship with Shaharazad. Overall, this was an exciting and original twist on the classics of detective and other-worldly horror fiction, one which fans of either would really enjoy. The first in what is certain to be a series, and a one not to be missed. The writing style, humor and world-making is sure to entertain and intrigue readers.