In a city dissolving into an infected sprawl of ideas, where words come to life and reality is contaminated by stories, John Nyquist wakes up in a room with a dead body… The dead man’s impossible whispers plunge him into a murder investigation like no other. Clues point him deeper into an unfolding story infesting its participants as reality blurs between place and genre.
Only one man can hope to put it all back together into some kind of order, enough that lives can be saved… That man is Nyquist, and he is lost.
File Under: Science Fiction
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About the Author
Author hometown: Brighton, UK
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They came from all directions, from all parts of the city. From the northern quarter, where people told stories only in the dark for fear of awakening the creatures they talked about; from the southern towns, where stories dealt only with the crudest, most base aspects of life; from the east of the city, where novels were written only to make money for the teller and those who profit from the storyteller’s art; and from the west, where the whisper poets lived with their softly spoken narrative ballads and their barely heard rhymes. From all directions the travelers arrived. From the city and beyond, from the nearby hills and farmlands, from faraway towns and villages and from other cities worldwide – the people gathered here in Storyville Central to partake of the Twenty-First International Festival of Words.
Every road, lane, avenue and cul-de-sac was crowded with listeners and storytellers alike, with fables, with myths and legends, with murder mysteries and tales of horror both human and supernatural, with two-line parables and epic sagas which took a day or more to relate, with yarns and anecdotes and accounts of genuine true fictions, with lies galore, glorified. On corners, in kiosks, outside bars, in vast concert halls and tiny wooden sheds that held two people only, one teller, one listener: here the people shared their stories. Joy filled the streets. The stories merged and mingled where narrators vied for the same audience, events and characters migrating from one tale to another, as they often will.
The night was liquid, flowing with words, with language itself, dissolved and shared like wine amongst the poor. Tongues danced, lips moved, arms and hands made expressive gestures. Eyes, ears and minds were alive to all suggestions, to thrilling adventures, to romantic trysts, to fights and clinches and kisses and gunshots and hidden clues and sudden twists in the tale that caused the audience to swoon with delight. They listened to stories of demons, ghosts, heroes, villains, winners and losers. The city was born and made from all these stories, both fictional and real. Stories. Nothing more. And the people were lost in them, lost in words. Talking and listening, they pushed against each other, desperate to hear yet one more tale, further adventures, endless narratives.
John Nyquist was one face among many that night, but with this difference: his story was entirely personal, told only for himself and the man he was following through the crowd. A silent story. He kept his distance, slipping from one group of auditors to another, from one tale to another along the boulevards and pathways, always keeping his subject in sight. The man he was shadowing walked on, never looking back, unaware of his part in the private eye’s tale. This subject’s name was Wellborn. Patrick Wellborn. That’s all Nyquist knew. It was enough.
He reached Rabelais Plaza. A sudden influx of listeners blocked the lane ahead as they tried to follow an itinerant storyteller in his wanderings. Nyquist lost sight of his target. He was held in place, pressed in on all sides. Words exploded into life around him as the listeners repeated the latest tale to each other, sentence by sentence. The crowds congregated here. Endless echoes and comments swirled around him, and he was caught momentarily in at least five different narratives. Nyquist panicked. He shrugged off the other tales and kept to his own. He hurried on, forcing a way through the crush of people, finding the entrance to a narrow alleyway. A few more steps released him at last from the crowd’s hold. Now he was alone. And the further he walked down the alley, into darkness, the further he moved into silence. It was a strange sensation after the evening’s constant barrage of intersecting voices, as though a tide of sound had flowed away, leaving only a deathly quiet in its wake. But there was no sign of Wellborn. Nyquist reached the end of the alleyway and emerged onto the feeder road for a high-rise estate. It was part of the city’s nature, that the old town with its fancy hotels and high-end stores, and the central plazas where visitors and residents mingled together so easily, were all located so close to the poorest areas. He saw that he was standing on the edge of Calvino Road. Before him rose the five towers of the Melville Estate. It was an area that marked the edges of the tourist maps issued by the city council. Not that Nyquist paid any attention to such fears: his job had taken him down shadier avenues and he knew that life was good and bad all over, high or low. Still, he remembered the warnings from when he had first arrived in town: Don’t stray off the marked story paths. You’ll never know what happens next. These warnings were always recited with a shiver of fearful excitement.
Nyquist crossed the road, heading towards the high-rises. He scanned the area and saw a lone figure moving away from him. He recognized the white scarf the man was wearing, and the green suitcase he always took with him on his travels. It was Wellborn. Nyquist set off at a quicker pace, making sure to keep his subject in sight – one shadow following another. Four of the towers were lit up, one in darkness. In the central courtyard a crowd of people were gathered, sharing stories between them. Nyquist heard at least four different languages, as faces of varied shapes and hues glimmered in the lamplight. He kept on, weaving between dark-eyed teenagers and their families until he saw his quarry entering a doorway to one of the apartment blocks, the one with no windows alight. Nyquist started to run. He’d been in the city for less than three months, and this was his first well-paid job. He’d been given the case four days ago, working freelance for an investigative agency. He wasn’t used to having a boss, but what else could he do? Work was work, and money was money, half upfront, the rest on completion.
Each day Wellborn had visited a different precinct, moving through the highest echelons of society and the poorest ghettos. Nyquist’s task was simple: observe, but never engage. Do not reveal your presence, do not speak or make any kind of contact with the subject. Just follow, observe, report. Beyond that Nyquist knew very little. Patrick Wellborn looked to be in his mid-forties, of medium height, with long hair, far longer than was currently fashionable. Nyquist sensed that he was looking for something or someone; there was an increasingly desperate air to the man’s wanderings, to the way in which he talked to people, almost interrogating them – once or twice Nyquist had thought Wellborn might actually start a fight, but on each occasion he pulled away from violence at the last moment, and on he went, searching, searching, often well into the night.
Nyquist reached the entrance to tower block number five and slipped inside. The lobby was empty. The elevator door stood closed, its indicator light ascending: it had already reached floor two. There were seventeen floors altogether. Nyquist needed to find out which apartment Wellborn was visiting; that was important. The more detail he included in his reports, the more he got paid. It was that simple. So he set off climbing the stairs, reaching the first floor and continuing on, keeping his pace steady and even. But he was already out of breath, and the stairwell was hot and sweltering. He looked down the length of the second floor corridor and saw it was empty. In fact, the entire building looked to be abandoned. He decided that the elevator was still rising. He put on some speed, taking the steps two at a time up to the third floor, and on. He was wheezing and holding his side by the time he reached the fourth landing, but he could see the elevator door halfway down the corridor: it was open. He approached warily, walking past apartments 41, 42, 43 and 44. There was someone stepping out of the elevator car. Nyquist stopped moving. He was expecting to come face to face with Patrick Wellborn. Instead he saw a young boy, standing alone. Nyquist was taken aback. He didn’t know what to say.
The boy had white hair in a pudding-bowl style, and the letters ABC on his shirt.
“Hello. Are you lost?”
Nyquist smiled, he couldn’t help it. “I think I am,” he answered.
“It’s easy to get lost in here.”
“Tell me, did a man come up with you? In the lift?”
Nyquist looked down the corridor: the far end seemed to disappear into a haze of hot air, like a desert mirage.
“What’s your name, son?”
“You live here?”
“Yes, I do. I’m supposed to be at home right now, doing my chores.” The boy spoke in a precise and careful manner, each word fully pronounced. “But playing out is much more fun.”
“Calvin, do you know where the man went, after he left you?”
The boy nodded.
Nyquist bent down to the youngster’s level. He was perhaps six or seven years old, with blue-grey eyes, and his fingertips were black and smeared as though he’d been playing with ink. The boy put on a brave but nervous smile as the private eye’s face neared his.
“Can you show me which door it was. You only have to point.”
The boy nodded. He said in a now confident voice, “I know the number.”
“That’s very good. Why don’t you tell it to me.”
Calvin moved nearer and he whispered, “Number 67.”
“Apartment 67? But that’s not on this floor, is it?’
“It’s the truth, sir. That’s where you’ll find him.”
Nyquist was puzzled. He had the sudden impression the boy might be lying. Maybe he was just making up stories, as any rascal might? Yet how innocent he looked and sounded, as he sang a children’s rhyme to himself:
There was a crooked man, he told a crooked tale…
The boy walked away down the corridor.
Nyquist stepped inside the elevator and pressed the button for floor six. Just as the door was about to close the boy reappeared. He laughed, a repeated leap of two notes, low then high. It was almost a melody. He handed over a small object, saying, “You’ll need this.” And off he ran before Nyquist could even formulate a question. The car started to ascend.
The boy had given him a key fob inscribed with the number 67.
When the elevator reached the higher floor, Nyquist stepped out and walked down the corridor until he reached apartment 67. The door was closed. He tried the bell push, receiving no response. He put the key in the slot and turned it. The door opened. He entered the hallway of the apartment and waited there, listening. He could hear a rustling sound in the darkness. Warily, he stood in the doorway of the living room. His hand groped along the wall, finding a light switch.
At first he couldn’t process what he was looking at: a large tree trunk was growing out of a hole in the floor, reaching up to disappear through a matching hole in the ceiling. Nyquist stepped closer. He saw that the edges of both holes, above and below, were jagged, the carpet and floorboards having been broken and smashed by the tree as it grew upwards. The tree was gnarled and ancient, the bark rotten in places and squiggling with worms, yet it looked healthy enough and a good number of branches reached out into the room, the leaves abundant despite being entirely black in color. He pulled one loose. It crackled in his hands and left behind a smear of inky sap. The tree’s twigs and leaves rustled in the breeze that came in through the room’s open window.
Nyquist reasoned it was some kind of weird art decoration. But it felt more like he had stepped into a dream world, a separate story from his normal reality.
He searched the rest of the apartment. There was no one there. In the main bedroom he found five sheets of manuscript paper arranged on a table, set out in a line as though in sequence. Each sheet contained a mixture of text and images. He picked up the nearest one and tried to read the writing it contained, but he couldn’t make any sense of it; the words seemed to be in the wrong order. Yet as he scanned the sheet he felt a pleasant sensation, his skin was tingling all over. He wanted to read more. And then he noticed that a smaller piece of paper had been glued to the first, forming a pocket in which some object was lodged. He felt at it with his fingers, and he started to tear the sheet in two, to reveal the object: it was a tooth, a human tooth. But he hardly had time to process this strange discovery, when a noise disturbed him.
Someone had cried out in sudden agony.
Nyquist stood where he was. He shivered, cold. His hands trembled, and when he looked at them a trail of blood ran down his fingers. He couldn’t understand it; where had it come from? It wasn’t his blood. He wasn’t wounded. The red droplets stained the paper.
And then the painful cry sounded again.
“Who’s there? Show yourself.”
The room was plunged into darkness. Nyquist spun, his entire body wired and ready for action, for defense, or attack. Eyes wide, seeking answers.
But the room was empty. The moonlight through the window painted one wall in a soft, silvery glow, edged with shadow.
And then a voice spoke. “Who are you?”
Nyquist turned at the sound to see that a man was standing in the doorway. He stepped forward revealing his face: it was Patrick Wellborn. The man’s eyes were filled with dark intent and he spoke in a fierce whisper: “Why are you hurting me?”
It was a question that Nyquist couldn’t answer.
Wellborn’s eyes moved to the sheet of paper that Nyquist held in his hand, and the muscles of his face twitched in irritation.
“Don’t hurt me.”
Nyquist still didn’t respond. This was the closest they’d ever been, observer and subject matter, face to face. He braced himself for a fight. Wellborn’s face creased with anger. Rage. Pure rage. Nyquist managed to speak calmly: “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” This was the truth, but it was a remark too far. Something snapped in the other man. Wellborn stepped closer, one hand coming out of his jacket, an object held loosely within it. Nyquist couldn’t make it out, not at first, not until the object was raised up, offered, a gift, a prop in a story.
Moonlight illuminated the knife.
It flashed forward.