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No Such Creature

No Such Creature

edition:Paperback
also available: Hardcover
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Tooling across the American southwest in their giant Winnebago, Max and his nephew, Owen, seem harmless enough, the actorly old fellow spouting Shakespeare like a faucet while his young charge trots him through select tourist destinations along the road. But appearances, as you might imagine, can be deceiving.

Old Max is actually a master thief, and young Owen's summer vacation is his careful apprenticeship in a life of crime. Pulling heists is scary enough, but ominous signs point to the alarmin …

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Excerpt

ONE

On a cool night in late June the traffic on Highway 101 was not heavy – not for a Saturday night, anyway – and moved along at a steady clip, people cruising out to restaurants or movies or to spend the evening with friends.

There was one car travelling north from the city – a midnight blue Lexus. An old man was driving, his considerable belly pressed up against the steering wheel, and the passenger seat was only partially filled by a blade-thin boy who looked to be in his late teens.

As the Lexus rounded a curve, it broke away from the rest of the traffic and veered across an entire lane. A sharp left, and then it bounced into the parking lot of a gas station and made a swift circle so that it came around again, nose pointed toward the highway.

Inside the car, the boy took his hand from the dash, where it had been bracing him against becoming a highway statistic, and said, “Would you mind telling me what that was all about?”

“Final wardrobe check.”

“We already did that, Max. Why do we have to do it over again?”

“It’s your hide I’m looking out for, Owen, me lad. You know I never give a thought to myself – I’ve been accused of it many times. ‘Max,’ the doctor said to me – cardiologist, I hasten to point out, knows a thing or two about this sorrowful organ we call the human heart. ‘Max,’ he said, ‘the fact is you are suffering from magnacarditis. Your heart’s too big. An albatross borne down by giant wings. You care too much for other people, and it’s driving you to an early grave.’”

“The only thing getting bigger on you,” the boy said, “is your gut, and if you had a decent doctor – not that I believe you ever went to see a doctor – he’d tell you to cut back on the Guinness and the single malts, not to mention the hamburgers, the milkshakes and the shepherd’s pie.”

“It pains me to hear such cynicism from one so young.” Max placed a hand over his heart as if to protect that overworked organ. “The world is a barren, comfortless place when a seventeen-year-old –”

“Eighteen.”

“– when an eighteen-year-old addresses his mentor this way – insulting the sage and learned man who’s raised him up as his own and taught him everything he knows.”

“I know lots of stuff you didn’t teach me. The capitals of Africa, the rivers of South America, how to calculate the area of an irregular surface.”

“Trivia,” Max said. “Tell it to Roscoe. But you wound me, boy.” He tapped a plump finger on his heart and sighed. “I’m a gentle creature, beset by a heartless teenager, no doubt an incipient gangbanger. You, of course, are a warlike American, whereas I remain your humble Warwickshire yeoman, and ever shall.”

“I’d like to visit Warwick one day. I’d love to hear from somebody other than you what you were like as a kid. I have a feeling they’ll be telling a very different story about Max Maxwell over there.”

“Nonsense. They would recall a heroic figure, just as you see me today.”

The boy examined himself in the rear­view mirror. “Okay, so how do I look?”

Max squinted at him, ginger eyebrows furrowing. “Terrifying. Perfect young Republican.”

They had decided on a dark wig and vigorous curls for Owen, and neatly trimmed sideburns. A gorgeous black Armani jacket and pants were set off by an expensive white T-shirt that showed off his fat­free abdominals. Owen’s first draft of the look had been red hair, freckles and polka-dot bow tie, but Max overruled him: too on-the-nose, he called it, a parody. And besides, it was important to make optimal use of Owen’s heartthrob potential. The curls did give the boy’s profile a touch of the Greek god, not that Owen believed that heartthrob business for one minute.

“You don’t think the hair’s too curly?”

“It’s perfect. Gives you a bit of the Kennedy – to which even the most granite-hearted Republican is not immune. And me?” Max smoothed his ginger moustache. Even up close it looked completely natural.

“I’d say you were a real bastard. Kind of guy who owns several mines and seriously mistreats his workers.”

“Thank you.”

“Hey, Max, I bought you a little present.”

“No time, boy, no time.” Max started the car again. “We must get a wiggle on.”

“Hang on. You’re gonna love this.” Owen pulled it from an inside pocket and held it out.

“A cellphone?” Max furrowed his new ginger brows. “Why in the name of heaven would we need another cellphone?”

“We don’t. Try to make a call from your cell.”

Max gunned the motor, eyeing the traffic whizzing by. “Owen, time is of the essence.”

“We’ve got plenty of time. Try to make a call.”

Muttering, Max extracted his cellphone and dialed Owen’s number. “Nothing happening,” he said. “Completely dead.” He showed the tiny blank screen to Owen.

“Exactly,” Owen said. “Because what I have here is not a cellphone. It’s a cellphone jammer. Good for up to five hundred yards.”

“You actually found one?” Max said. “Sweet boy, you are my very Ariel.”

Owen put on a thin, reedy voice – he was good at voices, and this one made him sound like a tiny alien. “All hail, great master! I come to answer thy best pleasure, be it to fly, to swim, to dive into the fire!

Max laughed. “You’re a good lad, Owen. Truly, it’s not every boy who’s cut out for a life of crime.”

The old man slid the gear shift into drive and the Lexus eased back onto a highway peopled with innocent civilians.

TWO

The home of Margot Peabody was lit up like a Chinese lantern, all four storeys of it, a beacon to the rich, the Republican and the reprobate. It was an ornate wooden structure located in the most exclusive segment of Belvedere, purchased by pulp and paper magnate Cyrus Peabody (now defunct) some ten years previously for a comparative song. Expensive automobiles gleamed in a semicircle of driveway, their uniformed drivers absorbed in the sports pages.

Owen’s usual stage fright kicked up a notch.

“We’re gonna be coming right back out,” Max said to the teenager directing traffic. His accent was now American, a touch of the East Coast in it, but not much. “Put us somewhere we can make a fast getaway.”

“Sure thing, sir. Just park it over there under that tree. I won’t let anyone block you.”

“First class, kid.” Max handed him a rolled-up bill. “First class.”

At the door they were met by an Asian houseboy in white livery. His hair was so slick, his skin so flawless, he looked as if he had escaped from a waxworks.

“Good evening, sir. What name shall I say?”

“Carter and Christopher Gould, but it’s hardly worth the bother,” Max said, “we can’t stay.”

In the vast cathedral of space before them, men in dinner jackets mingled with well-tended women too thin for their hairdos. Owen looked up at the beautiful redwood beams supporting a ceiling that had to be at least forty feet high, but Max had taught him never to comment on such things, to act as if he took luxury and service for granted. Under massive skylights, a redwood mezzanine ran around the entire great hall.

The butterflies in Owen’s stomach took flight up into his chest. But he loved this moment, this sense of balancing on the edge of the high dive, poised to plunge into triumph or disaster. It would be a hard thing to leave behind.

“Turn around, kid,” Max said to the houseboy. “Just let me use your shoulder, I’ll write a cheque right now and we’ll be out of your hair.”

The houseboy obligingly turned, tilting his head slightly, and Max whipped out a chequebook.

“This state has had a Republican government for nearly eight years and I want to make sure it stays that way. Twenty thousand should help. If it was legal to give more, I’d do it in a shot. Carter, your turn.”

Owen pulled out a chequebook and wrote out a similar figure, signing it Carter P. Gould with a flourish.

“Now, where do we drop these?”

“In the large bottle by the stairs, sir, but I must tell Ms. Peabody you’re here.”

“Relax, kid, put your feet up. Margot!”

Max waved to a woman just emerging from the crowd in an ivory summer dress tied at the waist. The sandals laced elaborately round her ankles hinted at ancient Greece, besotted fauns and massive hedge funds.

“How lovely to see you,” she said with a smile that gave no hint they had never met. Max was always meticulous about his research, and had assured Owen that Margot Peabody was renowned for a spectacular collection of jewellery. It was not much in evidence tonight: a single strand of pearls, perfect milky spheres, circled her throat. “Come and have a drink on the lawn. I’m sure you’ll find scads of people you know.”

“Sorry, Margot. Can’t stay. Gotta be in the capital first thing in the morning.” He waggled the cheque at her and popped it into the bottle.

“Oh, stay for one drink, I insist. I’m trying to remember where it was we met.”

“Hah! You’ve got me there. The Leonardo drawings?”

“The Getty! Of course, of course! And is this your son?”

“Nephew. Carter Gould – doesn’t like to use the numerals. Grumpy teenager, way they all are.”

“A handsome teenager nevertheless.” She reached out a hand that was pure gristle. He gave it a brief squeeze. “Are you really such a grump?” she asked.

“Not at all, ma’am,” Owen said. “Pleasure to meet you.” He inserted his cheque into the mouth of the bottle and tapped it home.

“You’re both too, too kind. Now follow me.”

She led them through the crowd toward a pair of French doors. Owen noted earrings, necklaces, brooches, watches; your honest, God-fearing Republicans were not averse to a little ostentation. What’s the point of owning diamonds if you never wear them?

Under a snow-white canopy out back, a cover band was doing an earnest version of “Born in the U.S.A.,” the singer sounding in imminent danger of aneurysm. Sausalito glittered across the black water, and off to the south the arc of the Bay Bridge. In the dark of the waterfront, the house seemed to blaze and shimmer.

Ms. Peabody led them to the bar and made sure they got their drinks – gin and tonic for Max, Coke for Owen. She introduced Owen to a busty debutante who shook his hand and smiled shyly. He tried to engage her in conversation, but she blushed and looked at her feet.

“To be perfectly honest,” Margot Peabody said to Max, “I don’t think we’re in much danger of losing in November, but we do want to be on the safe side, don’t we.”

“Absolutely,” Max said. “Have to generate a healthy investment climate, get those returns growing again.”

“Well, yes. And property values.”

“Excuse me,” Owen said, “back in a minute.” He headed into the house at a clip that suggested serious discomfort.

“Poor kid,” Max said. “Ever since the accident he’s had the bladder of a little girl.”

“Accident?”

“High-strung filly. Took a nasty tumble.”

Ms. Peabody spread that gristly hand, fanlike, over her heart. “A riding accident! He’s lucky he didn’t end up paralyzed, or in a coma.”

“He was wearing the regulation helmet, thank God.”

“He was playing polo? There’s nowhere near here, is there?”

“Cirencester, U.K. Charity match. Three princes there that afternoon, and I guarantee you not one of their horses balked. I was ready to blow a gasket, but you know you can’t say anything to a royal – raise an international stink. They did send a nice card, I’ll give ’em that.”

“The least they could do, under the circumstances. You probably could have sued them.”

“Nah,” Max said. “Polo’s a tough game. Have to expect to get knocked around a little.”

“How delightfully macho,” his hostess said, and gave a musical laugh.

Inside, Owen bounded up the front stairs two at a ­time.

“Sir! Sir!” the houseboy called after him, “there are plenty of restrooms down here.”

Owen found a sumptuous bathroom halfway along the hall. He stepped in and checked himself out in multiple mirrors. The black Armani looked great, he had to admit, and the new curls seemed to be working wonders with the female element. He flushed the toilet and set the tap running in the sink so the bathroom would sound occupied, then shut the door from the outside. At the end of the hall a pair of double doors was closed. Under Max’s tutelage he had developed an instinct for such things.

If you want to rob a Republican, your best time is suppertime, Max had taught him. They always have company, the place is full of strangers, and every alarm is exactly where you want it: off.

Five minutes, he wouldn’t need more.

The master bedroom was all rustic wood and white fabric, but Owen made straight for the dressing room, a compact chamber redolent with aromas of cedar, Guerlain and shoe leather, and got it right on the first guess: the set of library steps gave her away. He reached up into the space between the ceiling and the top shelf and pulled out a high­quality wooden chest secured with a paltry lock that he snapped in less than two seconds.

Inside, there was a diamond brooch that had to be worth thirty or forty grand, an exquisite jade cameo, and a gold and ruby bracelet. But the real showstopper was the pair of emerald earrings, emeralds being more valuable even than diamonds. Both gems looked free of inclusions and were at least twelve carats, the light and clear green of a cat’s eye. Hundred and twenty grand on a bad day.

Owen lifted the tray out of the chest. Underneath, he found two fat packets of hundred-dollar bills. He had no idea why Margot Peabody would be stashing approximately thirty grand in her jewellery box, but he certainly wasn’t about to complain.

“God, I love this job,” he said softly. He stuffed his pockets, closed the doors, and returned to the bathroom to shut off the water.

When he emerged, a somewhat off­kilter babe in a shimmery blue dress was having trouble making it up the last few stairs, pressing a cellphone to her ear with one hand and clutching a martini in the other. She snapped the phone shut, eyeing Owen.

“What are you doing up here?” she said, an edge in her voice.

“Bathroom.”

“There are bathrooms downstairs,” she said, slurring a little.

“They were occupied.”

From the Hardcover edition.

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Breaking Lorca

Breaking Lorca

edition:Hardcover
also available: Paperback
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A master crime writer trains every weapon in his arsenal on a crime against humanity.

A literary novel that treads fearlessly into one of recent history’s most shocking moral crucibles.

In 1980s El Salvador, a young woman is detained in a government torture squad’s head-quarters, suspected of supporting guerilla forces. There, a bookish new recruit, Victor Peña, is assigned to assist in her interrogation. Before they learn so much as her name – Lorca – the squad relentlessly break her, bo …

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Chapter One

Sooner or later the other soldiers in the squad were going to kill him. It was only a matter of time. Victor had never done anything to antagonize the brutes he worked with, but he was sure they hated him, or soon would.

He had wanted such a different life. He had wanted to be a teacher, but war had come and schools were closed. Many teachers were killed, many disappeared. Both of Victor’s parents were dead; he had joined the army out of necessity. Now all he wanted was to stay alive.

He tried to concentrate on the paperback in his hand. Victor was reading Of Mice and Men – very slowly, and with an English—Spanish dictionary – but even reading at this turtle’s pace, he was touched by the loyalty between the two men: big, dumb Lenny and shrewd, crabby George. John Steinbeck knew that people should exist in pairs. Victor would have given anything for a friend, someone to be loyal to, but there was no one like that in this place.

A friend might have helped stem the tide of fear that rose around him; he could feel it lapping at his chin. Soon the waters would close over his mouth and nose and he would drown altogether. The Captain hated him to be reading, he knew that, but there was simply no other way, lacking a friend, that he could distract himself from the fear that – maybe not for a month, maybe not for two – the other soldiers were going to kill him.

In America, now, things would be different. They had jobs in America, not war. You didn’t have to carry a rifle to prove your manhood. He could go to a vast American city and lose himself among the crowds. No one would know what a coward he was. He would work at two jobs, three if necessary, and perhaps one day open a restaurant or a store. Maybe New York, maybe Washington, he hadn’t decided yet. That was the nice thing about a fantasy, there were no decisions to make. He devoted himself to the study of English, knowing that one day he would speak it in America. Oh, all of the soldiers spoke a little English, but none of them could read it – he wasn’t even sure if his uncle could read it.

Not that he could lose himself for long in fantasy, not at the little school. The air was sour with the smell of bodily fluids. The guardroom was a tiny space between the cells and the interrogation room. Pretty much the only thing the soldier on guard had to do was to bring the latrine bucket to the cells as needed, and to shoot anyone who tried to escape. There was no chance of that. Guard duty was easy, but the stench from the cells was not something you could forget for more than a few minutes at a time.

“Reading again.” The Captain filled the entire doorway, casting a shadow over the book.

“Yes. Same story,” Victor said, showing the cover. Anger emanated from his uncle like heat from a stove.

Captain Peña did not even glance at the book. “That’s why you took guard duty, I suppose. Even though it’s not your turn.”

“The others enjoy their card games. I thought, why not let them?”

“You don’t do it for them. You do it because you want to read.”

“Well, yes,” he said with what he hoped was a disarming smile. “Reading is definitely my vice.”

“Don’t imagine you’re making friends by taking extra duty. You read in here because you don’t want to be with them. You think they don’t know that?”

“They like cards, I like books. Why is that a problem?”

“Don’t be stupid. They know you are from a different class. By reading, you rub their noses in it.”

“I don’t think I’m better than them.”

“Then you’re even stupider than I thought. With your background and education? Of course you are better than them. But you’re a corporal, not a general, and from now on you take your breaks like everybody else. You spend your free time with your brothers-in-arms.”

“It’s just going to cause trouble, sir. They don’t want me around.”

“They never will, if you don’t make the effort.”

A prisoner called out, “Please. I need the bucket. I can’t wait any longer.”

Victor started to get up.

“Sit down. I’m talking to you.”

Victor sat down.

“I’m beginning to wonder why I saved your ass. I should have let Casarossa put you in front of that firing squad.”

“Please don’t think I’m ungrateful, sir. I’m very grateful.” That was true. He was still amazed that his uncle, whom he had never known all that well, had saved him.

“I didn’t do it for you. What would your father do if he knew he had a coward for a son?”

“He would have shot me himself,” Victor said. “He would have had no mercy.”

“Exactly. You didn’t deserve any. That fake wound on your head.”

“The wound was not fake, sir. I ran into a guy wire.”

“Very convenient to fall into a ditch just when the firefight is about to begin. Quite a coincidence.”

“I can’t say. I don’t know what happened.”

“Oh, of course not. You were unconscious through the whole thing.”

The prisoner called out again, “Please. The bucket. I can’t hold out any longer.”

Victor started to stand.

His uncle screamed so that the veins stood out on his neck. “You get up when I tell you to get up and not before! You think our dainty little prisoners need a bucket every time they whine for one? Forget the prisoners. The prisoners are dogs.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Dogs.” The Captain took out a handkerchief and mopped his brow. He spoke more softly, as if he had suddenly remembered they were blood relatives. “I blame myself for letting things slide. Two weeks go by and you don’t make the slightest effort to fit in. Well, things are going to change, understand?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Number one: no more reading. Is that clear?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Number two: you spend your free time with your squad. Is that clear?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Number three: I’m going to be on your tail night and day. No more mollycoddling. You’re my nephew, you’re a Peña – I expect more of you, not less.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Every day I’m going to move you a little bit closer to the heart of what we do in this place. If you stay on the edge, the others won’t trust you. I know the work is hard, I know it doesn’t come naturally. You think I like this work?”

“No, sir.”

“I hate this work. God knows how I hate this work. But it’s my duty, and you do your duty or you are nothing but a traitor, you understand?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Holy Mother, the things I’ve had to witness. They would make you sick just to hear about them. The war has forced this on us, the fucking Communists. I get no pleasure from what we do here. I just do my job, understand? And from now on, you will be one with the team. Otherwise, I’ll send you back to Casarossa with my apologies. Or maybe not. Maybe I’ll just shoot you myself.”

“Yes, sir.”

The Captain’s anger seemed to ebb again. He took out his handkerchief and mopped his brow, and when he put it away his tone was softer.

“Listen, Victor, I have seen even some of the worst soldiers eventually shape up. I’m not giving up on you. First opening that comes available, I’ll pull some strings and send you for training. Real training. They have a wonderful facility in Panama. Even better would be the United States. Fort Benning. That would be the best.”

“The United States,” Victor breathed with hope. “I could go to Fort Benning?”

“Possibly. But it’s for soldiers, not cowards. Next detainee we bring in, I don’t care who it is, you are going to get some hands-on experience, is that understood?”

“Yes, sir. Understood, sir.”

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Blackfly Season

Blackfly Season

edition:Paperback
also available: Paperback
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Red Bear stood close to the fire and stretched toward the sky, every muscle in his body straining. The veins in his neck stood out like electrical cords. His voice had gone thin and raspy and the words came streaming out of him with a terrible urgency. The words– if in fact they were words – collided with one another. [Blackfly Season, page 94]

According to Detective John Cardinal, the truly diabolical thing about blackflies is their stealthy silence; there is no warning and no chance of a pr …

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Chapter 1

Anybody who has spent any length of time in Algonquin Bay will tell you there are plenty of good reasons to live somewhere else. There is the distance from civilization, by which Canadians mean Toronto, 250 miles south. There is the gradual decay of the once-charming downtown, victim to the twin scourges of suburban malls and an unlucky series of fires. And, of course, there are the winters, which are ferocious, snowy and long. It’s not unusual for winter to extend its bone-numbing grip into April, and the last snowfall often occurs in May.

Then there are the blackflies. Every year, following an all-too-brief patch of spring weather, blackflies burst from the beds of northern Ontario’s numberless rivers and streams to feast on the blood of birds, livestock and the citizens of Algonquin Bay. They’re well equipped for it, too. The blackfly may be less than a quarter-inch long, but up close it resembles an attack helicopter, fitted with a sucker at one end and a nasty hook at the other. Even one of these creatures can be a misery. Caught in a swarm, a person can very rapidly go mad.

The World Tavern may not have looked too crazy on this particular Friday, but Blaine Styles, the bartender, knew there would be problems. Blackfly season just doesn’t bring out the best in people — those that drink, anyway. Blaine wasn’t a hundred percent sure which quarter the trouble would come from, but he had his candidates.

For one, there was the trio of dorks at the bar — a guy named Regis and his two friends in baseball caps, Bob and Tony. They were drinking quietly, but they had flirted a little too long with Darla, the waitress, and there was a restlessness about them that didn’t bode well for later. For another, there was the table at the back by the map of Africa. They’d been drinking Molson pretty steadily for a couple of hours now. Quiet, but steady. And then there was the girl, a redhead Blaine had never seen before who kept moving from table to table in a way that he found — professionally speaking — disturbing.

A Labatt Blue bottle flew across the room and hit the map of Canada just above Newfoundland. Blaine shot from behind the bar and waltzed the drunk who’d thrown it out the door before he could even protest. It bothered Blaine that he hadn’t even seen this one coming. The jerk had been sitting with a couple of guys in leather jackets under France, and hadn’t raised even a blip on the bartender’s radar. The World Tavern, oldest and least respectable gin joint in Algonquin Bay, could get pretty hairy on a Friday night, especially in blackfly season, and Blaine preferred to set the limits early.

He went back behind the bar and poured a couple of pitchers for the table over by the map of Africa — getting a little louder, he noticed. Then there was an order for six continentals and a couple of frozen margaritas that kept him hopping. After that there was a slack period, and he rested his foot on a beer case, easing his back while he washed a few glasses.

There weren’t too many regulars tonight; he was glad about that. Television shows would have you believe that the regulars in a bar are eccentrics with hearts of gold, but Blaine found they were mostly just hopeless dipwads with serious issues around self-esteem. The stained, shellacked maps on the walls of the World Tavern were the closest these people would ever get to leaving Algonquin Bay.

Jerry Commanda was sitting at the end of the bar nursing his usual Diet Coke with a squeeze of lemon and reading Maclean’s. A bit of a mystery, Jerry. On the whole, Blaine liked him, despite his being a regular — respected him, anyway — even if he was an awful tipper.

Jerry used to be a serious drinker — not a complete alky, but a serious drinker. This was back when he was in high school, maybe into his early twenties. But then something had sobered him up and he’d never touched alcohol again. Didn’t set foot in the World or any other bar for five, six years after that. Then, a few years ago, he’d started coming in on Friday nights, and he’d always park his skinny butt at the end of the bar. You could see everything that was going on from there.

Blaine had once asked Jerry how he’d kicked the bottle, if he’d gone the twelve-step route.

“Couldn’t stand twelve-step,” Jerry had said. “Couldn’t stand the meetings. Everyone saying they’re powerless, asking God to get them out of this pickle.” Jerry used words like that now and again, even though he was only about forty. Old-fashioned words like pickle or fellow or cantankerous. “But it turned out to be pretty easy to quit alcohol, once I figured out what I had to do was quit thinking, not drinking.”

“No one can quit thinking,” Blaine had said. “Thinking’s like breathing. Or sweating. It’s just something you do.”

Jerry then launched into some weird psychological bushwah. Said it might be true you couldn’t stop the thoughts from coming, but you could change what you did with them. The secret was being able to sidestep them. Blaine remembered the words exactly because Jerry was a four-time Ontario kick-boxing champion, and when he’d said sidestep he’d made a nifty little manoeuvre that looked kind of, well, disciplined.

So Jerry Commanda had learned to sidestep his thoughts, and the result was him parking himself at the end of the bar every Friday night for an hour or so, with his Diet Coke and his squeeze of lemon. Blaine figured it was partly to deter some of the young guys from the reserve from drinking too much. Pretty hard for them to cut loose with the reserve’s best-known cop sitting at the bar, reading a magazine and sipping his Coke. Some of them, minute they saw him, just did a 180 and walked out.

Blaine swept his wary bartender’s gaze over his domain. The Africa table was definitely getting boisterous. Boisterous was okay, but it was just one level down from obnoxious. Blaine cocked his head to one side, listening for warning notes — the gruff challenge, the outraged cry that was inevitably followed by the scraping of a chair. Except for the bottle tosser, it looked to be a peaceful night. The bottle tosser, and the girl.

From the Hardcover edition.

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By the Time You Read This

By the Time You Read This

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also available: Paperback
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The Planet Grief. An incalculable number of light years from the warmth of the sun. When the rain falls, it falls in droplets of grief, and when the light shines, it is in waves and particles of grief. From whatever direction the wind blows–south, east, north or west– it blows cinders of grief before it. Grief stings your eyes and sucks the breath from your lungs. No oxygen on this planet, no nitrogen; the atmosphere is composed entirely of grief. [By the Time You Read This, page 37]
Cather …

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Nothing bad could ever happen on Madonna Road. It curls around the western shore of a small lake just outside Algonquin Bay, Ontario, providing a pine-scented refuge for affluent families with young children, yuppies fond of canoes and kayaks, and an artful population of chipmunks chased by galumphing dogs. It’s the kind of spot–tranquil, shady and secluded – that promises an exemption from tragedy and sorrow.

Detective John Cardinal’s and his wife, Catherine, lived in the smallest house on Madonna Road, but even that tiny place would have been beyond their means were it not for the fact that, being situated across the road from the water, they owned neither an inch of beach nor so much as a millimetre of lake frontage. On weekends Cardinal spent most of his time down in the basement breathing sawdust, paint and Minwax, carpentry affording him a sense of creativity and control that did not tend to flourish in the squad room.

But even when he was not woodworking, he loved to be in his tiny house enveloped in the serenity of the lakeshore. It was autumn now, early October, the quietest time of the year. The motorboats and Sea-Doos had been hauled away, and the snowmobiles were not yet blasting their way across ice and snow.

Autumn in Algonquin Bay was the season that redeemed the other three. Colours of scarlet and rust, ochre and gold swarmed across the hills, the sky turned an alarming blue, and you could almost forget the sweat-drenched summer, the bug festival that was spring, the pitiless razor of winter. Trout Lake was preternaturally still, black onyx amid fire. Even having grown up here (when he took it completely for granted), and now having lived in Algonquin Bay again for the past dozen years, Cardinal was never quite prepared for how beautiful it was in the fall. This time of year, he liked to spend every spare minute at home. On this particular evening he had made the fifteen-minute drive from work, even though he had only an hour, affording him exactly thirty minutes at the dinner table before he had to head back.
Catherine tossed a pill into her mouth, washed it down with a few swallows of water and snapped the cap back on the bottle.

“There’s more shepherd’s pie, if you want,” she said.

“No, I’m fine. That was great,” Cardinal said. He was trying to corner the last peas on his plate.

“There’s no dessert, unless you want cookies.”

“I always want cookies. The question is whether I want to be hoisted out of here by a forklift.”

Catherine took her plate and glass into the kitchen.

“What time are you heading out?” he called after her.

“Right now. It’s dark, the moon is up. Why not?”

Cardinal glanced outside. The full moon, an orange disc riding low above the lake, was quartered by the mullions of their window.

“You’re taking pictures of the moon? Don’t tell me you’re going into the calendar business.”

But Catherine wasn’t listening. She had disappeared down to the basement, and he could hear her pulling things off the shelves in her darkroom. Cardinal put the leftovers in the fridge and slotted his dishes into the dishwasher.

Catherine came back upstairs, zipped up her camera bag and dumped it beside the door while she put on her coat. It was a golden tan colour with brown leather trim on the cuffs and collar. She pulled a scarf from a hook and wrapped it once, twice, about her neck, then undid it again.

“No,” she said to herself. “It’ll be in the way.”

“How long is this expedition of yours?” Cardinal said, but his wife didn’t hear him. They’d been married nearly thirty years, but she still kept him guessing. Sometimes when she was going out to photograph, she would be chatty and excited, telling him every detail of her project until he was cross-eyed with the fine points of focal lengths and f-stops. Other times he wouldn’t know what she was planning until she emerged from her darkroom days or weeks later, clutching her prints like trophies from a personal safari. Tonight she was subdued.

“What time do you think you’ll get back?” Cardinal said.

Catherine tied a short plaid scarf around her neck and tucked it inside her jacket. “Does it matter? I thought you had to go back to work.”

“I do. Just curious.”

“Well, I’ll be home long before you.” She pulled her hair out from under her scarf and shook her head. Cardinal caught a whiff of her shampoo, a faint almondy smell. She sat down on the bench by the front door and opened her camera bag again. “Split-field filter. I knew I forgot something.”

She disappeared downstairs for a few moments and came back with the filter, which she dropped into the camera bag. Cardinal had no idea what a split-field filter might be.

“You going to the government dock again?” In the spring Catherine had done a series of photos on the shore of Lake Nipissing when the ice was breaking up. Great white slabs of ice stacking themselves up like geological strata.

“I’ve done the dock,” Catherine said, frowning a little. She strapped a collapsible tripod to the bottom of the camera bag. “Why all these questions?”

“Some people take pictures, other people ask questions.”

“I wish you wouldn’t. You know I don’t like to talk about stuff ahead of time.”

“Sometimes you do.”

“Not this time.” She stood up and slung the camera bag, bulky and heavy, over her shoulder.

“What a gorgeous night,” Cardinal said when they were outside. He stood for a moment looking up at the stars, but the glow of the moon washed most of them out. He took a deep breath, inhaling smells of pine and fallen leaves. It was Catherine’s favourite time of year too, but she wasn’t paying attention at the moment. She got straight into her car, a maroon PT Cruiser she’d bought used a couple of years earlier, started the engine and pulled out of the drive.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Forty Words for Sorrow

Forty Words for Sorrow

edition:Paperback
also available: Paperback
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The first in a series of spine-chilling thrillers featuring Detective John Cardinal and enjoying international raves!

When four teenagers go missing in the small northern town of Algonquin Bay, the extensive police investigation comes up empty. Everyone is ready to give up except Detective John Cardinal, an all-too-human loner whose persistence only serves to get him removed from Homicide. Haunted by a criminal secret in his own past, and hounded by a special investigation into corruption on the …

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It gets dark early in Algonquin Bay. Take a drive up Airport Hill at four o'clock on a February afternoon and when you come back half an hour later, the streets of the city will glitter below you in the dark like so many runways. The forty-sixth parallel may not be all that far north; you can be much further north and still be in the United States, and even London, England, is a few degrees closer to the North Pole. But this is Ontario, Canada, we're talking about, and Algonquin Bay in February is the very definition of winter: Algonquin Bay is snowbound, Algonquin Bay is quiet, Algonquin Bay is very, very cold.

John Cardinal was driving home from the airport where he had just watched his daughter, Kelly, board a plane bound for the United States by way of Toronto. The car still smelled of her-or at least of the scent that had lately become her trademark: Rhapsody or Ecstasy or some such. To Cardinal, wife gone and now daughter gone, it smelled of loneliness.

It was many degrees below zero outside; winter squeezed the car in its grip. The windows of the Camry were frosted up on both sides, and Cardinal had to keep scraping them with an ineffective plastic blade. He went south down Airport Hill, made a left onto the bypass, another left onto Trout Lake Road, and then he was heading north again toward home.

Home, if you could call it that with both Catherine and Kelly gone, was a tiny wooden house on Madonna Road, smallest among a crescent of cottages set like a brooch along the north shore of Trout Lake. Cardinal's house was fully winterized, or so the real estate agent had told them, but "winterized" had turned out to be a relative term. Kelly claimed you could store ice cream in her bedroom.

His drive was hidden by four-foot-high snowbanks, so Cardinal didn't see the car blocking his way until he almost rear-ended it. It was one of the unmarkeds from work, great pale clouds of exhaust blasting out from behind. Cardinal reversed and parked across the road. Lise Delorme, the Algonquin Bay police department's entire Office of Special Investigations, got out of the unmarked and waded through the exhaust toward him.

The department, despite "great strides toward employment equity," as the bureaucrats liked to phrase it, was still a bastion of male chauvinism, and the general consensus around the place was that Lise Delorme was too-well, too something-for her job. You're at work, you're trying to think, you don't need the distraction. Not that Delorme looked like a movie star; she didn't. But there was something about the way she looked at you, McLeod liked to say-and for once McLeod was right. Delorme had a disturbing tendency to hold your gaze just a little too long, just a split second too long, with those earnest brown eyes. It was as if she'd slipped her hand inside your shirt.

In short, Delorme was a terrible thing to do to a married man. And Cardinal had other reasons to fear her.

"I was about to give up," she said. Her French Canadian accent was unpredictable: one hardly noticed it most of the time, but then final consonants would disappear and sentences would sprout double subjects. "I tried to phone you, but there was no answer, and your machine, it's not working."

"I switched it off," Cardinal said. "What the hell are you doing here, anyway?"

"Dyson told me to come get you. They've found a body."

"Got nothing to do with me. I don't work homicides, remember?" Cardinal was trying to be merely factual, but even he could hear the bitterness in his voice. "You mind letting me through, Sergeant?" The "Sergeant" was just to nettle her. Two detectives of equal rank would normally address each other by name, except in the presence of the public or around junior officers.

Delorme was standing between her car and the snowbank. She stepped aside so Cardinal could get to his garage door.

"Well Dyson, I think he wants you back."

"I don't care. You mind backing out now, so I can plug my car in? I mean, if that's okay with Dyson. Why's he sending you, anyway? Since when are you working homicides?"

"You must have heard I quit Special."

"No, I heard you wanted to quit Special."

"It's official now. Dyson says you'll show me the ropes."

"No, thanks. I'm not interested. Who's working Special?"

"He's not here yet. Some guy from Toronto."

"Fine," Cardinal said. "Doesn't make the slightest difference. You gonna get lost now? It's cold, I'm tired, and I'd kind of like to eat my supper."

"They think it could be Katie Pine." Delorme scanned his face while Cardinal took this in, those solemn brown eyes watching his reaction.

Cardinal looked away, staring out into the blackness that was Trout Lake. In the distance the headlights of two snowmobiles moved in tandem across the dark. Katie Pine. Thirteen years old. Missing since September 12; he would never forget that date. Katie Pine, a good student, a math whiz from the Chippewa Reserve, a girl whom he had never met, whom he had wanted more than anything to find.

The phone began to ring inside the house, and Delorme looked at her watch. "That's Dyson. He only gave me one hour."

Cardinal went inside. He didn't invite Delorme. He picked up the phone on the fourth ring and heard Detective Sergeant Don Dyson going on at him in his chilly quack of a voice as if they had been separated in the middle of an argument and were only now, three months later, resuming it. In a way, that was true.

"Let's not waste time going over old ground," Dyson said. "You want me to apologize, I apologize. There. Done. We got a body out on the Manitou Islands, and McLeod is tied up in court. Up to his ears in Corriveau. Case is yours."

Cardinal felt the old anger burning its way into his veins. I may be a bad cop, he told himself, but not for the reasons Dyson thinks. "You took me off homicide, remember? I was strictly robbery and burglary material, in your book."

"I changed your case assignments, it's what a detective sergeant does, remember? Ancient history, Cardinal. Water under the bridge. We'll talk about it after you see the body."

"'She's a runaway,' you said. 'Katie Pine is not a homicide, she's a runaway. Got a history of it.'"

"Cardinal, you're back on homicide, all right? It's your investigation. Your whole stinking show. Not that it has to be Katie Pine, of course. Even you, Detective Has-To-Be-Right, might want to keep an open mind about identifying bodies you haven't seen. But if you want to play I Told You So, Cardinal, you just come into my office tomorrow morning, eight o'clock. Best thing about my job is I don't have to go out at night, and these calls always come at night."

"It's my show as of this moment—if I go."

"That's not my decision, Cardinal, and you know it. Lake Nipissing falls under the jurisdiction of our esteemed brothers and sisters in the Ontario Provincial Police. But even if it's the OPP's catch, they're going to want us in on it. If it is Katie Pine or Billy LaBelle, they were both snatched from the city-our city-assuming they were both snatched. It's our case either way. 'If I go,' he says."

"I'd rather stick with burglaries, unless it's my show as of this moment."

"Have the coroner toss a coin," Dyson snapped, and hung up.

Cardinal yelled to Delorme, who had stepped in out of the cold and was standing diffidently just inside the kitchen door. "Which one of the Manitous are we on?"

"Windigo. The one with the mine shaft."

"So we drive, right? Will the ice take a truck?"

"You kidding? This time of year, that ice would take a freight train." Delorme jerked a mittened thumb in the direction of Lake Nipissing. "Make sure you dress warm," she said. "That lake wind, it's cold as hell."

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The Delicate Storm

The Delicate Storm

A John Cardinal Mystery
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…there is nothing more still than a dead body, and no mistaking it for anything else. This one was naked, covered with a glaze of ice. Even the long black hair that fell in tendrils across her face was encased in ice. It was as if she were under a spell–the victim of a jealous wizard, a wicked witch. [The Delicate Storm, page 164]
Algonquin Bay is wrapped in a thick blanket of fog; an eerie prophecy of weather on its way, or perhaps something more ominous. When a local man discovers a dis …

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Chapter 1

First came the warmth. Three weeks after New Year’s and the thermometer did what it never does in January in Algonquin Bay: it rose above the freezing mark. Within a matter of hours the streets were shiny and black with melted snow.

There wasn’t a trace of sun. A ceiling of cloud installed itself above the cathedral spire and gave every appearance of permanence. The warm days that followed passed in an oppressive twilight that lasted from breakfast to late afternoon. Everywhere there were dark mutterings about global warming.

Then came the fog.

At first it moved in fine tendrils among the trees and forests that surround Algonquin Bay. By Saturday afternoon it was rolling in thick clouds along the highways. The wide expanse of Lake Nipissing dwindled to a faint outline, then vanished utterly. Slowly the fog squeezed its way into town and pressed itself up against the stores and the churches. One by one the red brick houses retired behind the grubby grey curtain.

By Monday morning Ivan Bergeron couldn’t even see his own hand. He had slept late, having drunk an unwise amount of beer while watching the hockey game the night before. Now he was making his way from the house to his garage, which was less than twenty yards away but totally obscured by fog. The stuff clung in webs to Bergeron’s face and hands; he could feel it trailing through his fingers. And it played tricks with sound. The yellow bloom of headlights glided by, dead slow, followed -- after an otherworldly delay -- by the sound of tires on wet road.

Somewhere his dog was barking. Normally, Shep was a quiet, self-sufficient kind of mutt. But for some reason -- maybe the fog -- he was out in the woods and barking maniacally. The sound pierced Bergeron’s hungover skull like needles.

”Shep! Come here, Shep!“ He waited for a few moments in the murk, but the dog didn’t come.

Bergeron opened up the garage and went to work on the battered Ski-Doo he had promised to fix by last Thursday. The owner was coming for it at noon, and the thing was still in bits and pieces around the shop.

He switched on the radio, and the voices of the CBC filled the garage. Usually, when it was warm enough, he worked with the garage door open, but the fog lay in the driveway like some creature out of a nightmare and he found it depressing. He was just about to pull the door down when the dog’s barking got louder, sounding like it was coming from the backyard now.

”Shep!“ Bergeron waded through the fog, one hand out before him like a blind man. ”Shep! For God’s sake, can it, willya?“

The barking changed to growling, interrupted by peculiar canine whines. A tremor of unease passed through Bergeron’s outsize frame. Last time this had happened, the dog had been playing with a snake.

”Shep. Take it easy, boy. I’m coming.“

Bergeron moved with small steps now, edging his way forward like a man on a ledge. He squinted into the fog.

”Shep?“

He could just make the dog out, six feet away, down on his forepaws, clawing at something on the ground. Bergeron edged closer and took hold of the dog’s collar.

”Easy, boy.“

The dog whined a little and licked his hand. Bergeron bent lower to see what was on the ground.

”Oh my God.“

It lay there, fishbelly white, hair curling along one side. Toward the wrist end, the flesh still bore the zigzag impression of a watch with an expandable bracelet. Even though there was no hand attached, there was no doubt that the thing lying in Ivan Bergeron’s backyard was a human arm.

* * * * *

If it hadn’t been for Ray Choquette’s decision to retire, John Cardinal would not have been sitting in the waiting room with his father when he could have been down at headquarters catching up on phone calls, or -- better yet -- out on the street making life a misery for one of Algonquin Bay’s bad guys. But no. Here he was, stuck with his father, waiting to see a doctor neither of them had ever met. A female doctor at that -- as if Stan Cardinal was going to take advice from a woman. Ray Choquette, Cardinal thought, I could wring your lazy, inconsiderate neck.

The senior Cardinal was eighty-three -- physically. The hair on his forearms was white now, and he had the watery eyes of a very old man. In other ways, his son was thinking, the guy never got past the age of four.

”How much longer is she gonna make us wait?“ Stan asked for the third time. ”Forty-five minutes we’ve been sitting here. What kind of respect does that show for other people’s time? How can she possibly be a good doctor?“

”It’s like anything else, Dad. A good doctor’s a busy doctor.“

”Nonsense. It’s greed. A hundred percent pure capitalist greed. You know, I was happy making thirty-five thousand dollars a year on the railroad. We had to fight like hell to get that kind of money, and by God we fought for it. But nobody goes to medical school because they want to make thirty-five thousand dollars.“

Here we go, Cardinal thought. Rant number 27D. It was like his father’s brain consisted of a collection of cassettes.

”And then you’ve got the government playing Scrooge with these guys,“ Stan went on. ”So they become stockbrokers or lawyers, where they can make the kind of money they want. And then we end up with no damn doctors.“

”Talk to Geoff Mantis. He’s the one who took the chainsaw to medicare.“

”They’d make you wait, anyways, no matter how many of them there were,“ Stan said. ”It’s a class thing. Class not only must exist, it must be seen to exist. Making you wait is their way of saying, ‘I’m important and you’re not.’“

”Dad, there’s a shortage of doctors. That’s why we have to wait.“

”What I want to know is, what kind of young woman spends her day looking down people’s throats and up their anuses? I’d never do it.“

”Mr. Cardinal?“

Stan got to his feet with difficulty. The young receptionist came round from behind her desk, clutching a file folder.

”Do you need some help?“

”I’m fine, I’m fine.“ Stan turned to his son. ”You coming, or what?“

”I don’t need to go in with you,“ Cardinal said.

”No, you come too. I want you to hear this. You think I’m not fit to drive, I want you to hear the truth.“

From the Hardcover edition.

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Oryx and Crake

Oryx and Crake

edition:Paperback
tagged : literary

A stunning and provocative new novel by the internationally celebrated author of The Blind Assassin, winner of the Booker Prize

Margaret Atwood’s new novel is so utterly compelling, so prescient, so relevant, so terrifyingly-all-too-likely-to-be-true, that readers may find their view of the world forever changed after reading it.

This is Margaret Atwood at the absolute peak of her powers. For readers of Oryx and Crake, nothing will ever look the same again.

The narrator of Atwood's riveting novel …

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Excerpt

1

Mango
Snowman wakes before dawn. He lies unmoving, listening to the tide coming in, wave after wave sloshing over the various barricades, wish-wash, wish-wash, the rhythm of heartbeat. He would so like to believe he is still asleep.

On the eastern horizon there's a greyish haze, lit now with a rosy, deadly glow. Strange how that colour still seems tender. The offshore towers stand out in dark silhouette against it, rising improbably out of the pink and pale blue of the lagoon. The shrieks of the birds that nest out there and the distant ocean grinding against the ersatz reefs of rusted car parts and jumbled bricks and assorted rubble sound almost like holiday traffic.

Out of habit he looks at his watch - stainless-steel case, burnished aluminum band, still shiny although it no longer works. He wears it now as his only talisman. A blank face is what it shows him: zero hour. It causes a jolt of terror to run through him, this absence of official time. Nobody nowhere knows what time it is.

"Calm down," he tells himself. He takes a few deep breaths, then scratches his bug bites, around but not on the itchiest places, taking care not to knock off any scabs: blood poisoning is the last thing he needs. Then he scans the ground below for wildlife: all quiet, no scales and tails. Left hand, right foot, right hand, left foot, he makes his way down from the tree. After brushing off the twigs and bark, he winds his dirty bedsheet around himself like a toga. He's hung his authentic-replica Red Sox baseball cap on a branch overnight for safekeeping; he checks inside it, flicks out a spider, puts it on.

He walks a couple of yards to the left, pisses into the bushes. "Heads up," he says to the grasshoppers that whir away at the impact. Then he goes to the other side of the tree, well away from his customary urinal, and rummages around in the cache he's improvised from a few slabs of concrete, lining it with wire mesh to keep out the rats and mice. He's stashed some mangoes there, knotted in a plastic bag, and a can of Sveltana No-Meat Cocktail Sausages, and a precious half-bottle of Scotch - no, more like a third - and a chocolate-flavoured energy bar scrounged from a trailer park, limp and sticky inside its foil. He can't bring himself to eat it yet: it might be the last one he'll ever find. He keeps a can opener there too, and for no particular reason an ice pick; and six empty beer bottles, for sentimental reasons and for storing fresh water. Also his sunglasses; he puts them on. One lens is missing but they're better than nothing.

He undoes the plastic bag: there's only a single mango left. Funny, he remembered more. The ants have got in, even though he tied the bag as tightly as he could. Already they're running up his arms, the black kind and the vicious little yellow kind. Surprising what a sharp sting they can give, especially the yellow ones. He rubs them away.

"It is the strict adherence to daily routine that tends towards the maintenance of good morale and the preservation of sanity," he says out loud. He has the feeling he's quoting from a book, some obsolete, ponderous directive written in aid of European colonials running plantations of one kind or another. He can't recall ever having read such a thing, but that means nothing. There are a lot of blank spaces in his stub of a brain, where memory used to be. Rubber plantations, coffee plantations, jute plantations. (What was jute?) They would have been told to wear solar topis, dress for dinner, refrain from raping the natives. It wouldn't have said raping. Refrain from fraternizing with the female inhabitants. Or, put some other way . . .

He bets they didn't refrain, though. Nine times out of ten.

"In view of the mitigating," he says. He finds himself standing with his mouth open, trying to remember the rest of the sentence. He sits down on the ground and begins to eat the mango.

Flotsam
On the white beach, ground-up coral and broken bones, a group of the children are walking. They must have been swimming, they're still wet and glistening. They should be more careful: who knows what may infest the lagoon? But they're unwary; unlike Snowman, who won't dip a toe in there even at night, when the sun can't get at him. Revision: especially at night.

He watches them with envy, or is it nostalgia? It can't be that: he never swam in the sea as a child, never ran around on a beach without any clothes on. The children scan the terrain, stoop, pick up flotsam; then they deliberate among themselves, keeping some items, discarding others; their treasures go into a torn sack. Sooner or later - he can count on it - they'll seek him out where he sits wrapped in his decaying sheet, hugging his shins and sucking on his mango, in under the shade of the trees because of the punishing sun. For the children - thick-skinned, resistant to ultraviolet - he's a creature of dimness, of the dusk.

Here they come now. "Snowman, oh Snowman," they chant in their singsong way. They never stand too close to him. Is that from respect, as he'd like to think, or because he stinks?

(He does stink, he knows that well enough. He's rank, he's gamy, he reeks like a walrus - oily, salty, fishy - not that he's ever smelled such a beast. But he's seen pictures.)

Opening up their sack, the children chorus, "Oh Snowman, what have we found?" They lift out the objects, hold them up as if offering them for sale: a hubcap, a piano key, a chunk of pale-green pop bottle smoothed by the ocean. A plastic BlyssPluss container, empty; a ChickieNobs Bucket O'Nubbins, ditto. A computer mouse, or the busted remains of one, with a long wiry tail.

Snowman feels like weeping. What can he tell them? There's no way of explaining to them what these curious items are, or were. But surely they've guessed what he'll say, because it's always the same.

"These are things from before." He keeps his voice kindly but remote. A cross between pedagogue, soothsayer, and benevolent uncle - that should be his tone.

"Will they hurt us?" Sometimes they find tins of motor oil, caustic solvents, plastic bottles of bleach. Booby traps from the past. He's considered to be an expert on potential accidents: scalding liquids, sickening fumes, poison dust. Pain of odd kinds.

"These, no," he says. "These are safe." At this they lose interest, let the sack dangle. But they don't go away: they stand, they stare. Their beachcombing is an excuse. Mostly they want to look at him, because he's so unlike them. Every so often they ask him to take off his sunglasses and put them on again: they want to see whether he has two eyes really, or three.

"Snowman, oh Snowman," they're singing, less to him than to one another. To them his name is just two syllables. They don't know what a snowman is, they've never seen snow.

It was one of Crake's rules that no name could be chosen for which a physical equivalent - even stuffed, even skeletal - could not be demonstrated. No unicorns, no griffins, no manticores or basilisks. But those rules no longer apply, and it's given Snowman a bitter pleasure to adopt this dubious label. The Abominable Snowman - existing and not existing, flickering at the edges of blizzards, apelike man or manlike ape, stealthy, elusive, known only through rumours and through its backward-pointing footprints. Mountain tribes were said to have chased it down and killed it when they had the chance. They were said to have boiled it, roasted it, held special feasts; all the more exciting, he supposes, for bordering on cannibalism.

For present purposes he's shortened the name. He's only Snowman. He's kept the abominable to himself, his own secret hair shirt.

After a few moments of hesitation the children squat down in a half-circle, boys and girls together. A couple of the younger ones are still munching on their breakfasts, the green juice running down their chins. It's discouraging how grubby everyone gets without mirrors. Still, they're amazingly attractive, these children - each one naked, each one perfect, each one a different skin colour - chocolate, rose, tea, butter, cream, honey - but each with green eyes. Crake's aesthetic.

They're gazing at Snowman expectantly. They must be hoping he'll talk to them, but he isn't in the mood for it today. At the very most he might let them see his sunglasses, up close, or his shiny, dysfunctional watch, or his baseball cap. They like the cap, but don't understand his need for such a thing - removable hair that isn't hair - and he hasn't yet invented a fiction for it.

They're quiet for a bit, staring, ruminating, but then the oldest one starts up. "Oh Snowman, please tell us - what is that moss growing out of your face?" The others chime in. "Please tell us, please tell us!" No nudging, no giggling: the question is serious.

"Feathers," he says.

They ask this question at least once a week. He gives the same answer. Even over such a short time - two months, three? He's lost count - they've accumulated a stock of lore, of conjecture about him: Snowman was once a bird but he's forgotten how to fly and the rest of his feathers fell out, and so he is cold and he needs a second skin, and he has to wrap himself up. No: he's cold because he eats fish, and fish are cold. No: he wraps himself up because he's missing his man thing, and he doesn't want us to see. That's why he won't go swimming. Snowman has wrinkles because he once lived underwater and it wrinkled up his skin. Snowman is sad because the others like him flew away over the sea, and now he is all alone.

"I want feathers too," says the youngest. A vain hope: no beards on the men, among the Children of Crake. Crake himself had found beards irrational; also he'd been irritated by the task of shaving, so he'd abolished the need for it. Though not of course for Snowman: too late for him.

Now they all begin at once. "Oh Snowman, oh Snowman, can we have feathers too, please?"

"No," he says.

"Why not, why not?" sing the two smallest ones.

"Just a minute, I'll ask Crake." He holds his watch up to the sky, turns it around on his wrist, then puts it to his ear as if listening to it. They follow each motion, enthralled. "No," he says.

"Crake says you can't. No feathers for you. Now piss off."

"Piss off? Piss off?" They look at one another, then at him. He's made a mistake, he's said a new thing, one that's impossible to explain. Piss isn't something they'd find insulting. "What is piss off?"

"Go away!" He flaps his sheet at them and they scatter, running along the beach. They're still not sure whether to be afraid of him, or how afraid. He hasn't been known to harm a child, but his nature is not fully understood. There's no telling what he might do.

Voice
"Now I'm alone," he says out loud. "All, all alone. Alone on a wide, wide sea." One more scrap from the burning scrapbook in his head.

Revision: seashore.

He feels the need to hear a human voice - a fully human voice, like his own. Sometimes he laughs like a hyena or roars like a lion - his idea of a hyena, his idea of a lion. He used to watch old DVDs of such creatures when he was a child: those animal-behaviour programs featuring copulation and growling and innards, and mothers licking their young. Why had he found them so reassuring?

Or he grunts and squeals like a pigoon, or howls like a wolvog: Aroo! Aroo! Sometimes in the dusk he runs up and down on the sand, flinging stones at the ocean and screaming, Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit! He feels better afterwards.

He stands up and raises his arms to stretch, and his sheet falls off. He looks down at his body with dismay: the grimy, bug-bitten skin, the salt-and-pepper tufts of hair, the thickening yellow toenails. Naked as the day he was born, not that he can remember a thing about that. So many crucial events take place behind people's backs, when they aren't in a position to watch: birth and death, for instance. And the temporary oblivion of sex.

"Don't even think about it," he tells himself. Sex is like drink, it's bad to start brooding about it too early in the day.

He used to take good care of himself; he used to run, work out at the gym. Now he can see his own ribs: he's wasting away. Not enough animal protein. A woman's voice says caressingly in his ear, Nice buns! It isn't Oryx, it's some other woman. Oryx is no longer very talkative.

"Say anything," he implores her. She can hear him, he needs to believe that, but she's giving him the silent treatment. "What can I do?" he asks her. "You know I . . ."

Oh, nice abs! comes the whisper, interrupting him. Honey, just lie back. Who is it? Some tart he once bought. Revision, professional sex-skills expert. A trapeze artist, rubber spine, spangles glued onto her like the scales of a fish. He hates these echoes. Saints used to hear them, crazed lice-infested hermits in their caves and deserts. Pretty soon he'll be seeing beautiful demons, beckoning to him, licking their lips, with red-hot nipples and flickering pink tongues. Mermaids will rise from the waves, out there beyond the crumbling towers, and he'll hear their lovely singing and swim out to them and be eaten by sharks. Creatures with the heads and breasts of women and the talons of eagles will swoop down on him, and he'll open his arms to them, and that will be the end. Brainfrizz.

Or worse, some girl he knows, or knew, will come walking towards him through the trees, and she'll be happy to see him but she'll be made of air. He'd welcome even that, for the company.

He scans the horizon, using his one sunglassed eye: nothing. The sea is hot metal, the sky a bleached blue, except for the hole burnt in it by the sun. Everything is so empty. Water, sand, sky, trees, fragments of past time. Nobody to hear him.

"Crake!" he yells. "Asshole! Shit-for-brains!"

He listens. The salt water is running down his face again. He never knows when that will happen and he can never stop it. His breath is coming in gasps, as if a giant hand is clenching around his chest - clench, release, clench. Senseless panic.

"You did this!" he screams at the ocean.

No answer, which isn't surprising. Only the waves, wish-wash, wish-wash. He wipes his fist across his face, across the grime and tears and snot and the derelict's whiskers and sticky mango juice. "Snowman, Snowman," he says. "Get a life."

From the Hardcover edition.

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Payback

Payback

Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth
edition:eBook
also available: Hardcover Paperback Paperback

Legendary poet, novelist, and essayist Margaret Atwood gives us a surprising look at the topic of debt -- a timely subject during our current period of economic upheaval, caused by the collapse of a system of interlocking debts. Atwood proposes that debt is like air -- something we take for granted until things go wrong.

Payback is not a book about practical debt management or high finance, although it does touch upon these subjects. Rather, it is an investigation into the idea of debt as an anci …

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