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The Dark Side of the Road
By Simon R. Green
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2015 Simon R Green
All rights reserved.
Into the Teeth of the Storm
Call me Ishmael. Ishmael Jones.
I got the phone call in the early hours of the morning. I was in the main bar of some hotel in London. Don't ask me its name; they all blend into each other after a while. I have no home of my own. Never have. Too risky. I just move from hotel to hotel, using this name or that. Makes it that much harder for people to find me. But the Colonel always knows where I am. That was part of the deal we struck, all those years ago.
It wasn't much of a bar, but then, it wasn't much of a hotel. Not a salubrious, or even a cheerful place. The lighting was too bright, the fittings and furnishings more functional than comfortable. And the background music was such an offence to the ear that I ended up having to bribe the barman to shut it down. I sat on a stool at the bar, so I wouldn't have to keep getting up to order more drinks. It was that bleary-eyed time in the early hours when the night life just gives it all up as a bad idea and admits defeat. I was the only customer left in the bar. Everyone else had gone home, or gone to bed, or both. The bartender was standing around with his arms folded, looking worn out and resentful. Wishing I would leave, so he could shut the bar down and turn in. But I wasn't going anywhere. I didn't feel tired, or sleepy. I wouldn't for several days. I keep strange hours because I lead a strange life.
I looked at myself in the mirror behind the bar. My reflection met my gaze with a cold, mistrustful stare. A very familiar face because it hadn't changed in so very long. Not the one I would have chosen; but good enough. I was tall, slim, dark-haired and handsome enough if you weren't too choosy. A long rangy figure who appeared to be in his mid twenties. Dressed well, but anonymously. The kind of stuff you can buy anywhere, so you can fit in anywhere. An easy smile, a casual look, and dark eyes that gave away absolutely nothing. Someone who had learned to walk through the world without making ripples because he couldn't afford to be noticed. Who lived under the radar because he couldn't afford to be found out. A man who drove on the dark side of the road. I toasted my reflection with my almost empty glass. I thought I looked pretty good, for someone whose appearance hasn't changed a bit since 1963.
And that was when my mobile phone rang. Or, rather, shuddered in my pocket. I always keep it on vibrate. Because a sudden ringtone can make people look at you, and remember you. I took my time hauling the phone out. I knew who it was; who it had to be. The Colonel's the only man who has my number, these days. I work for the Colonel and the Organization he says he represents. Whatever that might be. Some day, I hope to find out exactly who and what I'm working for. It would be nice to know. But as long as the Colonel continues to protect me from all the people who want to find me; and as long as he keeps pointing me in the direction of really bad people who need taking down; and as long as he keeps paying me really good money to do it ... I'm happy to go along.
I put the phone to my ear. 'What do you want, Colonel?'
'And merry seasonal greetings to you, dear boy,' said the Colonel. 'How would you like to come and join me for Christmas, in the grand old country house of Belcourt Manor? Deep in the heart of rural Cornwall, far away from all the hustle and bustle of the big bad city. Good food and good booze, and who knows? Maybe even silly hats and party games till dawn. Only several hours' hard driving from where you are now, if you start straight away. I need you with me at the Manor, as fast as you can get here. The situation is ... somewhat urgent.'
'What's the mission?' I said.
'Oh, not a mission at all, as such, old bean,' said the Colonel. 'More like, a personal favour to me. Tell you all about it when you get here. Never know who's listening in, these days. It used to be just us, but then the Government insisted on getting involved. I don't like how it feels down here, at the Manor. Could be wrong, of course. I could just be jumping at shadows. In which case, we'll all have a jolly old time eating too much, drinking too much, and dozing off in front of the television. The usual deeply religious Christian celebration.'
'But you don't think you're wrong, do you?' I said.
'Of course not, dear boy. Or I wouldn't be calling you. Will you come?'
Of course I said yes. I couldn't turn him down; not after everything the Colonel had done for me. He gave me the address in Cornwall, and enough general directions so I could be sure of getting there even if my satnav threw a wobbly, and then he hung up. Before I could ask him any questions. Like; what it was at the Manor that had spooked him so badly. Or; what it was he wanted me to do for him. I put my phone away and nodded to the quietly seething bartender to fill my glass again. One more large drink, and then off into the night, and the dark, one more time. To do things in the shadows that the everyday people don't need to know about. Because someone's got to slay the dragons, even if the armour isn't as shining as it used to be. And because if you have to hide in the shadows, it helps if you thin out the predators that want to hide in there with you.
I drove my rented a car a lot faster than was safe, pressing on into the winter storm with cold determination. The wind howled like a demon on the loose, and everywhere I looked heavy falling snow was burying the open countryside under gleaming white shrouds. The road ahead was almost completely blocked, but I just aimed my car like a bullet and put the hammer down. Everything forward, and trust in the Lord. I hunched over the steering wheel, peering through the windshield at the deadly white world outside.
The wipers were doing everything they could, but the wind was blasting so hard now that it was practically snowing sideways. I'd been driving for hours without a break, and what had started out as a pleasant snowfall when I was leaving London had quickly degenerated into the kind of vicious blizzard that ends up in the history books. More and more, I was driving by guesswork and instinct.
My satnav kept telling me I wasn't far from my destination, but I wasn't sure I believed it. I was out in the middle of nowhere, hammering down a narrow country lane, surrounded by miles and miles of endless white. It felt like I was driving on the moon, surrounded by nothing but open space, and not a landmark anywhere. The car's tyres lurched and skidded over the undulating snow, sometimes digging in unexpectedly; and then the steering wheel would do its best to rear up and hit me in the face. Or deep snow ridges would throw the car back and forth so violently that it would end up bouncing off both sides of the road; and then I had to fight the wheel for control until I could force the car back in the right direction. So far, I was winning, through a combination of stubbornness and brute strength ... but it was starting to look like a race as to which would wear out first: my hands, or the steering column.
The calm-voiced announcer on the car radio (no doubt sitting safe and warm in some BBC regional studio) seemed to be taking great pleasure in informing me that I was caught right in the middle of the worst storm since modern records began. That most of the roads were snowed under, the trains weren't running, and the airports were all shut down ... And that no one should try and go anywhere unless their journey was absolutely necessary. Stay at home, stay inside, where it's safe. The announcer allowed himself a small chuckle. We all like a little snow at Christmas, but this is overdoing it, just a bit. So stay warm, and have a very happy Christmas. I turned the radio off. It was either that, or reach down the radio and rip his heart out.
With the radio off, the roar of the heater filled the car; it was doing its best to take the edge off the cold and mostly failing. The best you could say was that it was probably warmer inside the car than out. Any normal man would have known better than to be out in conditions like this; but I've never been a normal man.
I clung grimly on to the steering wheel and kept my foot down hard on the accelerator. Because I was determined to reach remote Belcourt Manor, even if I had to drive through hell itself to get there.
My first meeting with the man who called himself the Colonel was almost fifteen years ago now. In one of the better bars, in one of the better hotels in London. Full of well-dressed people, looking very prosperous. Lots of friendly chatter; none of it aimed at me. I didn't want to talk to anyone, and they could tell. I was just hiding out in the middle of a crowd, trying to figure out how best to disappear from the bar and the hotel without paying my bill. I couldn't risk using any of my credit cards, with any of my current names, for fear of attracting attention. And I was going to need what cash I had on me.
I hadn't made up my mind where I was going yet; preferably some small and understanding country, with pleasant weather and no interest in extradition treaties, and a flexible attitude towards people who just wanted to be left alone. There used to be a lot of places like that, when I was starting out; but the world is a shrinking place, these days.
The Colonel appeared out of nowhere. Just sat down beside me at the bar and fixed me with a cheerful smile. I looked steadily back at him. There aren't many people who can sneak up on me. I'm really very hard to surprise.
He nodded briefly to me. 'Hello, Ishmael,' he said. 'I'm the Colonel. I'm here to offer you a job; or perhaps, more properly, a position.'
'Not many people know me by that name,' I said. 'And most of them are dead.'
'I think that says more about you than anything else,' said the Colonel.
I looked him over, taking my time. He was a big man, just hitting thirty. Broad shoulders, powerfully built, holding himself with easy confidence and a practised casualness. Sharp features, piercing cold blue eyes, a quick and mostly meaningless smile. An expensively tailored suit, though he wore it like a uniform. And perhaps, for him, it was. The closely-cropped blond hair and severely-trimmed moustache suggested a military background. Or, at least, ex-military. He looked like a man who'd had blood on his hands, in his time.
He ordered a single malt whiskey, with water in a separate glass, and the bartender jumped to obey. The Colonel had that kind of voice. He raised an eyebrow at my empty glass, so I seized the opportunity for a double brandy. Alcohol has no effect on me, but I've learned to enjoy the taste. The Colonel and I just sat and looked at each other until our drinks arrived, like two fighters in a ring checking each other out before the bell rings.
The drinks arrived, and we toasted each other, and drank.
'So,' I said. 'You're not here to kill me?'
'No,' said the Colonel. 'Or you'd be dead by now.'
'Then you can buy me as many drinks as you like,' I said. 'And as long as you keep on buying, I'll sit here and listen.'
The Colonel dropped a generous bribe in front of the barman and gestured for him to disappear for a while. The bartender made the money vanish, and then made himself scarce. Several people trying to order a drink raised their voices in protest. The Colonel looked at them, and they went away too. And they hadn't even noticed the Colonel's concealed gun. I'd spotted it the moment he sat down. I wasn't worried. I have secrets of my own.
The Colonel looked me over, like a racehorse he was thinking of buying, or at the very least, placing a decent-sized bet on. 'I have heard, my dear Ishmael, that you are no longer working for Black Heir.'
'Not many people know me by that name,' I said. 'And even fewer have heard of that very secret organization. Heard, you say? From whom?'
'Word gets around,' the Colonel said easily. 'Especially in our line of work. Secret agents gossip like teenage girls, just because they know they shouldn't.'
'You do know what Black Heir does?' I said.
'The United Kingdom's very own department for alien affairs,' said the Colonel. He sipped carefully at his drink, as though it might surprise him. 'Real aliens, that is. Visitors from Beyond, and all that. They will keep coming here, even if no one on Earth knows why. Someone has to clean up the mess they leave behind and cover up the damage when things get out of hand. The general public is much better off not knowing who and what walks among them, unseen. I was given to understand that you had a really good track record at Black Heir. A real gift for tracking down those who had gone ... off reservation. And for keeping a lid on things, with a deft and only occasionally violent hand. So I have to ask, why did you walk out on them, Ishmael?'
'I don't approve of their new direction,' I said steadily. 'Someone higher up the political food chain decided that the old ways, of containment and observation and handing out the occasional spanking, just wasn't good enough. So from now on, official policy is: kill the aliens. Friend and foe and everything in between. Then dissect their bodies and steal all their belongings. I told them this was a bad idea, and they told me to shut up and do as I was told. They should have known better.'
'Too tender-hearted?' said the Colonel.
'I don't believe in making unnecessary enemies,' I said.
'What a very sensible attitude!' said the Colonel. 'Why can't we all just get along, eh?' He gave me a thoughtful look. 'I have to tell you that the current directors of Black Heir are very unhappy with you. They really don't like it when one of their own goes walkabout. Especially given all the things you know, and all the things you've done.'
'I know there are people looking for me, with bad intent,' I said. 'I'm safe enough here. Black Heir won't risk trying anything in plain sight. Because they know it would get messy. My leaving shouldn't have come as much of a surprise. I did make my feelings perfectly clear. I won't kill something just because it's different. Whatever name I use, and whoever I work for, there's always a line I won't cross.'
'So I understand,' said the Colonel. 'You've worked for a great many subterranean organizations, down the years.'
'You don't know that,' I said. 'You're just guessing.'
'Perhaps. But these are educated, informed guesses. Come and work for me, Ishmael. I could use a man like you.'
I smiled. 'There are no men like me.'
'Exactly!' said the Colonel. 'That's why I want you.'
'To do what?' I said bluntly.
'To search out secrets, investigate mysteries, and shine a light into dark places. And, now and again, punish the guilty that no one else can touch. Pour encourager les autres. I know, dear boy; sounds almost too good to be true, doesn't it?'
'Most things that sound too good to be true usually are too good to be true,' I said, meeting his guileless gaze with one of my own. 'What if you and I were to have a difference of opinion, at some point, over whether something really needed doing. Or whether someone really needed killing. What then, oh my Colonel?'
He shrugged easily. 'On every occasion, I will see to it that you are provided with all the information you need to do the job. I will never ask you to do anything you're not happy with. I represent a large Organization, with a great many agents. I always make it a point to fit the right man to the right mission.'
'But why me?' I said. 'Why do you want me?'
'You have qualities I admire,' said the Colonel. And that was that.
'I don't know you, Colonel,' I said. 'Which is odd because there aren't many in our line of work I haven't at least heard of. I have made it my business to know who's out there. So who are you really? Who pulls your strings? Who do you answer to?'
'I am the Colonel, and I represent the Organization. That is all you'll ever need to know. Safer that way, for all concerned.'
I looked into my glass and was surprised to find it empty. 'What makes you think you know anything about me, Colonel? The real me?'
'What does anyone really know about anyone else?' said the Colonel. 'I have followed your career with great interest, for some time. From a safe distance.'
'No one was ever supposed to know what I do,' I said. 'No matter who I was working for. That was always part of the deal.'
'You've done very well at being invisible,' the Colonel conceded. 'Always been very good at moving unseen, in the darker places of the world. I like that. I can use that.'
Excerpted from The Dark Side of the Road by Simon R. Green. Copyright © 2015 Simon R Green. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
For a locked room mystery, it was pretty good. I liked the noirish feel to the book. For several chapters, I thought Ishmael was a vampire, but he wasn't. Some other things didn't ring true. For someone hiding in the shadows, Ishmael is a very unusual name. The story seemed to change its feel starting as a Sam spade noir mystery and then rather abruptly changing to a gothic count Dracula horror story. Still, the story moved briskly along and the hero's motivations were clear and logical.
What a great story. I was hooked at the first line and the book never gave up. I'm truly hoping there will be more of Penny and Ishmael soon.
Simon R. Green - please never stop writing your stories. Thank you for another wonderful character.
Loved it , could not put it down
Good quick read, Simon Green style and humor.
More than enough excitement to keep you from putting it down. A good read.
Great twist, really enjoying this series!
Hard to put down
This was Clue meets sci-fi. The story was fast paced and I never got the feeling that it dragged. Looks lime this will be a good series to read.