The Reign of the Kingfisher

The Reign of the Kingfisher

by T.J. Martinson


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"Hits a grand slam for its intended audience. It might even convince skeptics that superhero stories can make good literature." —Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

"An extraordinary novel." —Emily St. John Mandel, bestselling author of Station Eleven

30 years ago a superhero tried to save Chicago. Now the city is again under siege, in this gritty, suspenseful, and beautifully written novel from award-winning debut author T.J. Martinson

Somewhere in Chicago, a roomful of people have been taken hostage. The hostages will be killed one by one, the masked gunman says on-screen, unless the police will admit that they faked the death of the legendary superhero called the Kingfisher and helped him to give up his defense of the city thirty years ago.

Retired reporter Marcus Waters made his name as a journalist covering the enigmatic superhero’s five years of cleaning up Chicago’s streets. Then the Kingfisher died, Chicago resumed its violent turmoil, and Marcus slid back into obscurity.

But did the Kingfisher really die? And who would take hostages connected to the Kingfisher's past attempts to clean up the streets? With the help of disgraced police officer Lucinda Tillman and a young hacktivist named Wren, Marcus will explore the city's violence, corruption, and chaos to figure out if the vigilante hero died tragically, or gave up hope and abandoned the city—and for the hostages, the clock is ticking.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250170217
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Publication date: 03/05/2019
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 189,707
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

T.J. Martinson grew up just outside Chicago. He received his MA in literary studies from Eastern Illinois University and is currently working toward a Ph.D. at Indiana University Bloomington. The Reign of the Kingfisher is his debut novel.

Read an Excerpt



MARCUS WATERS WOKE SLOWLY to the tinny ringing of his cell phone — a digitized marimba that erupted into the room. The emerald numbers on his nightstand clock read 5:04 A.M. and a crosswind entered the cracked bedroom window, carrying with it the smell of the neighbor's lilac bush and last night's whispering rain.

He answered and heard breathing on the line while he rolled over across the startlingly cool empty half of a king-sized bed.

"Is this Marcus Waters?"

"Who is this?"

"Lt. James Conrad calling from the Chicago Police Department."

"What is this about?" Marcus asked, hearing the panic in his own voice before he felt it melting across his skin.

"Sorry to disturb you, Mr. Waters. I was told to contact you and ask that you come down to the station." The voice ran through scripted lines, pausing between sentences. "We are simply hoping that you may be able to answer some questions for us."

"Is my family OK?"

"I was told to tell you that this does not, so far as we know, directly involve your family."

"What is it about, then?"

"I was told to tell you that we received something that we'd like you to take a look at."

"Can you please tell me something that you weren't told to tell me?"

"Honestly, Mr. Waters," the officer said as he broke into a thick downstate drawl, a stew of vowels, "I'm just the guy who was told to make the phone call. I got no fucking clue what's going on down here. It's nuts."

Marcus heard in the background phones ringing and voices shouting out orders.

"When do I need to come in?"

"We sent a squad car to pick you up. It should be arriving shortly."

"I just woke up. I still need to shower."

"I was told to tell you that it is a time-sensitive matter. Keep an eye out for your police escort."

He rose from bed and changed as quickly as he could into khaki chinos and a starch-white collared shirt. The motions of dressing before the day had yet begun felt vaguely calming, intimately familiar. A pantomime of his life before retirement several years ago, back when he would rise like a saint from the dead at four in the morning, silently so as not to wake his sleeping wife, who, if woken, bolted upright with the blankets clutched in her fists, her beautiful black- woven hair matted down her cheeks. Cherrywood eyes piercing the darkness in silent reproach.

Old habits being what they were, he tried to be quiet as he pulled his socks over his bare feet, even though there was no one left in the house he might disturb.

He found his old leather shoulder bag in the back of the closet, covered by a collection of wing tip shoes he'd not worn in years. He regarded the bag for a few moments before shrugging and throwing it over his shoulder. Through this simple motion, he sensed the years condensing into a single point like a star collapsing. He felt like a journalist again. Not just a retired journalist, but a red-blooded, red- eyed journalist, waking up before the sun to chase the day ahead.

He pulled the curtain from his living room window. No cop car. No nothing. The street was empty. He paced flat-footedly along the hallway where pictures of his family hung in intervals, arranged in chronological order. With each step he took, another picture, another year. The faces aged like some static tribute to time itself. As he reached the end of the hallway, the pictures contained a large, growing family — babies, children, adults, and at the center, two old wizened faces that Marcus only ever recognized when he leaned in close, his nose brushing against the glass — himself and his late wife, Denise. Their faces seemed to look back at him like strangers, half-aware of his probing stare.

He arrived at the last picture of the family as a whole. It had been taken two years ago, just a matter of weeks before his wife's death. In it, everyone wore pastel-colored T-shirts that his youngest daughter, Lisa, carefully coordinated. Lisa had tortured herself over color gradients and bodily arrangements — Marcus openly adored his daughter's obsession with details. In the picture, the family was arranged in front of a gazebo, smiling brightly. Denise stood behind Marcus, who was seated in front of them all in the position of the patriarch. She gripped her husband's shoulders.

He shuffled back down the hallway and peered out of the window. A cruiser idled in the street, looking vaguely otherworldly with the siren off but the lights flashing red and blue.

As soon as Marcus sat down in the passenger seat, the driver said, "I'll tell you right now, all I know is that about half an hour ago, the station was deathly quiet as it ever is this late into the night, and then everything went apeshit. Haywire, bedlam. All that."

He pulled out into the street and turned the flashing lights off.

The driver was a young black cop with a trim beard through which peered an ear-to-ear smile even as he spoke of total chaos. He wore suspenders over a too-tight white collared shirt. He introduced himself as Detective Jeremiah Combs and insisted that Marcus call him Jeremiah.

"You're a detective?" Marcus asked warily.

"Don't worry." Jeremiah smiled. "Only reason I'm the one taking you in is because it's all hands on deck right now. I'm happy to do it, though. Feels almost good to be back in a patrol car. Keeps me humble."

Over the cruiser's radio, a woman's voice fed numbers through the decaying frequency. Jeremiah put his lips to the radio and said, "Mr. Waters and I are en route." He set the radio back down.

The street, awash in headlights, was empty. Ghostly. No soul in sight save for the few cats that had escaped their homes for the night, wandering the suburban jungle in long strides, their luminescent eyes tracking the police car from indeterminable distances.

"No, I don't know what the situation is down at the station," Jeremiah said, responding to a question Marcus hadn't asked. He spoke with a South-Side affectation, each word blending into the next. "I saw some unfamiliar faces before I left, which makes me think they were feds or some other agency personnel. FBI, by the look of it. They all come in wearing suits, even though it was three or four in the morning. Their hair is perfect. They whisper into their cell phones. Supposed to be all inconspicuous, but you can spot them a mile away. Like, who are they trying to kid, you know?"

Marcus hummed, too tired and too confused to muster a coherent response.

They joined the highway. The city skyline emerged from the indigo pulp of clouds and smog. The beacons at the top of the skyscrapers pulsed white and red, warding off air traffic and hypnotizing the city's insomniacs at their windows.

"So are you from Chicago originally?" Jeremiah asked, though the time for small talk seemed to have passed already.

"South Side."

"Yeah? Me too. Which part?"


"Englewood?" Jeremiah repeated.

"The very same."

Jeremiah's eyes danced between Marcus's moon-pale skin, his cardigan with tweed elbow patches, the Italian leather shoulder bag, his pleated chino pants.

"Guess we're just two peas in a pod." Jeremiah smiled.

Marcus understood Jeremiah's suspicion, but it was true that he had spent his early childhood years with his single mother in a government-subsidized building directly in the brick-and-mortar heart of Chicago's South Side. It was also true that when Marcus was six years old, his mother had met and promptly fallen in love with a philosophy professor from Northwestern, Corn Wallace, who frequented the university hospital she worked at due to his type-one diabetes. After the marriage, Marcus and his mother moved into Corn's spacious home in the north suburbs, where Marcus grew up watching The Twilight Zone, reading his stepfather's collection of Proust, and playing padded street hockey in the cul-de-sac.

Jeremiah pulled off the exit and maneuvered the car at a high, throttling speed beneath the skeletal belly of the L, Lake Michigan visible through the spaces between buildings, the barges and skiffs gliding along its surface. Marcus looked for a single person in sight on the sidewalks or in a window, but there wasn't anyone. The engine roared and echoed and bounced from the buildings that stood still on either side of the street.

* * *

Jeremiah led Marcus through the crowded halls of the precinct, sidestepping throngs of uniformed officers walking shoulder to shoulder. Phones rang in chorus. A conglomeration of musk colognes hung stagnant in the air. Commands were shouted from everywhere, muddled and lost.

At the end of the hall, they arrived at a corner office, the hallway windows obscured by blinds. Marcus read the name on the door: Police Chief Gregory Stetson.

A low groan rose like bile from Marcus's throat.

Jeremiah knocked on the door and it swung open immediately. Stetson stood in the open space in a pressed suit, a fresh crew cut, his cartoonish-wide shoulders filling the doorframe. A hairbrush mustache covered his upper lip. He dismissed Jeremiah with a nod and turned back to Marcus.

"Thank you, Mr. Waters, for coming on such short notice," Stetson said, smiling in an aggregate of hostility and hospitality. "I'd introduce myself, but I think that would be largely unnecessary and" — he pretended to search for the word that was already loaded in the chamber — "a little outlandish, wouldn't you say?"

He held out a calloused, fleshy hand.

When Stetson had been appointed police chief fifteen years ago, Marcus had covered the story with a few strong word choices, outlandish among them. Stetson's career had always been something of an anomaly. He'd spent only a couple short years as an officer before being promoted to homicide detective — the youngest in CPD history. When he was appointed police chief just seven years later — again, the youngest in CPD history — none of Marcus's police contacts would offer a good reason for the promotion, though they also refused to condemn their new boss on the record. Off the record was another matter entirely. Unable to go to print with his suspicions, however, Marcus settled on calling the mayor's appointment of Gregory Stetson to police chief "outlandish." It had seemed like the only appropriate word at the time. Even so, Marcus regretted it now.

"Happy to be here," Marcus said, submitting to the unrelenting grip of Stetson's handshake. He felt the bones in his hand bend.

After what felt like too long, Stetson released Marcus's hand and motioned for him to take a seat in front of his desk. A football signed by the '85 Bears was buried beneath a ziggurat of file folders and, at its base, half-drunk cups of coffee, their Styrofoam rims lip-stained an antique sepia. In the corner of the room, a taxidermy bobcat was in midleap, claws raised.

"Before getting into this," Stetson said, leaning back into his leather chair, "I trust that you, Mr. Waters, understand that whatever is revealed to you in this office remains in this office?"

"Yes," Marcus said.

Stetson bit down on a pen cap and raised his eyebrows. "I hope you'll forgive me for being skeptical, because I know that you retired from the press corps a few years back, but I also happen to know about the book you published last year after retirement. So I'm going to say it one more time. Everything that I am about to tell you and show you is strictly off the record. You are here as a consultant. Do you understand that?"

Marcus nodded.

"And frankly," Stetson continued, "if you were to leave here with the sensitive information I am about to show and go tip off one of your old cronies at the Inquisitor or go and start writing a follow-up book to the previous one, well, I would take that very seriously. By seriously, I mean prosecution. This is a very sensitive matter. Are we understanding each other?" Stetson asked.

"Yes." He tried not to flinch.

"Very good." Stetson rapped his knuckles on his desk. "You ever heard of the Liber-teens?"

"The who?"

"The Liber-teens. They're a group of computer hackers — excuse me, hacktivists — based here in Chicago, or so we think. But I didn't bring you down here to talk about them. I was just curious."

Stetson turned his computer monitor around. A video program was already opened, the screen frozen, black.

"We received the following video as a zip file attached to an email at approximately three in the morning. I'd like you to take a look."

"Who sent it?"

"The email address is disposable from one of those email generator sites. Anonymous, or so I'm told. Tracing it would be near impossible. Even with a warrant, we're not sure if we could make heads or tails. Any other burning questions before we get started here?"

Marcus shook his head.

Stetson pressed play and sat back, turning his chair to look out over the crossword grid streets below. With his back turned, he said, "This is where I advise you to hold on to your breakfast."

Pixels flooded the screen, sharpening gradually as seconds clicked forward. Coughing came through the computer speakers. The pixels finally smoothed together in a sweep of black and blue to form coherent images. A light swinging gently from a ceiling like a hypnotist's pocket watch, casting oblong shadows across a room, the concrete walls of which were covered with metal racks. The time stamp at the corner of the screen gave the day's date, fifteen minutes after midnight.

A man stood in the frame, his head cocked to his shoulder, with a curious stare into the camera. A pistol shined at his hip. He wore a black jumpsuit that fit him like excess skin, wrinkling around his knees, hanging from his body in folds. His face appeared twisted and pale, but when he leaned farther into the light, Marcus saw that he was in fact wearing a mask — glassy and translucent. It was formed in the watery likeness of a man. Pointed nose, broad forehead, wide jaw. The only trace of color in the mask was the lips, which were painted a bright, vibrant pink. After an uncertain pause, the man reached out and adjusted the video camera before stepping out of frame.

There was a whimper and a cry, muted. And then the man reentered the frame pulling an office chair and in it a hostage bound by ropes. A burlap sack covered his head, but a low, muffled scream struggled from his throat as he fought against the ropes. The masked man's breath was heavy and labored. Either exhausted or exhilarated, or maybe even both. He stepped behind the camera and adjusted it so that it faced the hostage in the office chair, and he reemerged on- screen. He came closer and knelt down, his face filling the screen. It felt as though he were looking directly into Stetson's office and into Marcus's waiting eyes. He reached offscreen and held something up in front of the lens. It took a moment for the picture to adjust, but once it did, it was clear that the gunman was holding a book. Marcus recognized it immediately.

On its cover a black-and-white photograph of a massive crowd, taken from somewhere far above, bodies filling every single breadth of space. Atop the photograph the title: Halcyon Days: The Reign of the Kingfisher. Beneath the title and beneath the photograph, in much smaller type, was the name of the author: Marcus Waters.

"When the Kingfisher died thirty years ago, we gave him a funeral." The masked man's voice was digitally modulated in an affectless drone that flattened the vowels. A voice scrambler. He pointed at the cover photograph with a gloved finger and then turned to address the camera. "This photograph was taken on that day. Look at all those people. Thousands strong. They are mourning him. This whole city mourned him. Chicago wore black and the citizens gathered at Promontory Point. Do you remember this, those of you who were there?"

The masked man set the book down and stepped back from the camera until he stood next to the office chair and its prisoner. He rocked back and forth.

"It was January of 1984 and we stood in quiet formation as the mayor spread the ashes across a frozen Lake Michigan. We listened to those bagpipes and we watched them spread the ashes around the ice until they dispersed. The mayor stood in front of a microphone and he said some nice things about heroes, about hope. And when it was finally over, everyone shuffled back home through the cold."

He cleared his throat and the hostage in the chair twisted desperately beneath the ropes.

"The next year, the crime rate not only rose, but it rose exponentially. The Kingfisher left behind a vacuum that criminals were all too happy to fill. The police ignored it and the rest of us could do nothing to stop it. And to this day, here we are, living in one of the most dangerous cities in America. Even the world. A city where dozens of people die every weekend. The anonymous dozens. Stray bullets passing through windows, doors. Children shot on their way to school in the morning. Children with their backpacks on their shoulders, walking the streets they know. And still. And still."

He breathed in and out, in and out, as though waiting for the irregular rhythm of his breath to take on some meaning.


Excerpted from "The Reign Of The Kingfisher"
by .
Copyright © 2019 T. J. Martinson.
Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
1. The Video,
2. Shallow Footprints,
3. Judge of Man,
4. Pro Bono,
5. Tinfoil Birds,
6. Thin Lines,
7. May 1979,
8. Peter Richards,
9. Occurrence,
10. Queen Cleopatra and Annabelle Lee,
11. D-I-N,
12. June 1981,
13. A Castle Within a Castle,
14. Gun Drawn,
15. .exe,
16. "Unknown",
17. Like They Already Always Were,
18. April 1982,
19. Minesweeper,
20. Pwoblém pap fini,
21. Paul Wroblewski,
22. Lucky,
23. December 1983,
24. Whatever Days Might Follow,
25. Miss May,
26. The Armada,
27. A Room Much Like the One We're Sitting in Now,
28. The Wasteland,
29. No Knock,
30. Her Boy,
31. Melted Bodies,
32. A Face in the Window,
33. Transitory,
34. A Criminal at My Kitchen Table,
35. Betrayal,
36. Blustery,
37. January 1984,
38. 9-1-1,
39. Underground,
40. Park,
41. Hostage,
42. Hope,
About the Author,

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