Sixty-One Nails, page 1
"Sixty-One Nails is a Neverwhere for the next generation. The pacing is spot-on, the characters engaging, and the world fits together beautifully to create a London that ought to be. I stayed up too late finishing it."
C E Murphy
"Mike Shevdon strikes sparks from the flinty core of English folklore, as a hero every reader can relate to finds he's part of an incredible and scarily believable parallel realm. If you've been thinking urban fantasy has nothing fresh to offer, think again."
Juliet E McKenna
"This book is magnificent in every way. Sixty-One Nails is a novel I will remember for a very long time. 5*****"
Science Fiction & Fantasy
"Here's the very best of urban fantasy… a highly believable page-turner of a quest."
"Mike Shevdon gave me just what I need: main characters that I feel for, care about and could get invested in. Oh, and he adds in some real London history here and there, and that is a great thing too. I can't wait for the next book."
THE COURTS OF THE FEYRE VOL. I
A member of the Osprey Group
Lace Market House,
54-56 High Pavement,
NG1 1HW, UK
Originally published in the UK by Angry Robot 2009
Copyright © 2009 by Shevdon Ltd
Cover design by Argh! Nottingham
All rights reserved.
Angry Robot is a registered trademark and the Angry Robot icon a
trademark of Angry Robot Ltd.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are
the products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any
resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations or persons, living
or dead, is entirely coincidental.
I was staring into space when it happened, so I didn't really see. I could feel the wind as the tube train buffeted towards the platform and hear the grinding and squealing as the driver applied the brakes. I was part of the crowd waiting for the train. There was no sign that the guy beside me was in any distress. He just stood there with everyone else, until the train was yards away. Then he stepped forwards, leaned over the edge and toppled onto the tracks.
I reached out my hand, pure reaction I suppose, in a futile attempt to pull him back. He fell away from my empty hand.
The electrical flash filled my eyes with vivid green spots and the screech from the train intensified until I was deaf as well as blind. The train juddered past me, finally stuttering to a halt fifteen or twenty yards down the track. There was no chance he'd survived.
I stood on the platform, numb, while people pushed past me. Some were trying to get a look at what had happened, some trying to push past to the exit. No one asked me what I had seen. No one asked why I hadn't stopped him. I didn't even know what he looked like. "We are sorry to announce that there will be no further trains on the District or Circle lines until further notice. This is due to…"
There was a significant pause while the announcement system sorted through its list of possible reasons and selected one.
"…a person on the line. London Underground apologises for any inconvenience this may cause to your journey." I looked at the small group of ghouls crowded around the front of the train. Were they trying to see or were they just making sure it wasn't anyone they knew? Personally, I could sympathise with someone who had reached a point in their life where they just wanted to flash out of existence with no chance of reprieve. It had a brutal simplicity to it, though you had to feel sorry for the crews that cleaned up afterwards. The Underground staff had arrived and were pushing people away. Nothing to be done. Nothing to see here. They helped the driver from the cab. His face was white and he couldn't stop his hands shaking.
I shook myself to clear my head, then turned away, walking back up the stairs from the platform and used my card to exit the barrier. The ticket hall looked out over Embankment and I could see a sharp shower had blown in, soaking cars and commuters alike. With the rain, the cabs would all be taken and the buses full. If I didn't want to get drenched then the best bet would be to use the covered walkway to Charing Cross Station, get the Northern Line up to Tottenham Court Road then take the Central Line into the City. I would have to be incredibly lucky to make it to the office in time for my morning meeting.
Running up the steps across from the station entrance, I wheezed towards Charing Cross. I wasn't fit enough for this. I'd only just caught my breath by the time I reached the entrance to the main concourse. I pushed through the swirls and eddies of the commuter crowds, heading for the entrance to the Underground. As I reached it, I saw the sign hastily chalked onto the board next to the stairs leading down. It said Tottenham Court Road Station was closed due to a suspect package left on the platform. I swore and kissed goodbye to my morning meeting.
Flicking open my phone, I hit the first speed-dial. My day was going to be spent playing catch-up and there was no way I was going to be able to leave early to collect my daughter from my ex-wife that evening. It was unusual for me to have Alex from Thursday, but she had Friday off school for a teacher training day. Katherine had arranged for me to have our daughter so she could go away with some friends for a long weekend. At least, that had been the plan.
The phone rang and rang. I was about to disconnect when she finally picked up.
"Katherine? It's Niall."
"Sorry, I was in the garden getting the washing in. It was such a nice day and then the rain came down. Now it's all wet again." She sounded breathless and annoyed. "I'm ringing about tonight."
"Alex has her bag packed and ready and is looking forward to the long weekend with you. What's all that noise?" The station announcements boomed around me so I had to wait for a lull to speak.
"I'm sorry, Kath, but I haven't even made it to the office yet. Some guy committed suicide on the tube line and I'm going to be really late. I'll have to work tonight. Can I fetch her in the morning?"
"Don't do this to me, Niall. You promised."
"A guy died, Katherine. I was right there." "So take some time off."
"I have taken time off. I have all day Friday. I just can't be there this evening to collect–"
"You're doing this deliberately, aren't you?" "What?"
"You're just doing this to spoil my weekend. You can't
bear me having any time to myself."
"Now you're overreacting."
"I am not overreacting!" her voice rose in pitch, "You promised weeks, no, months ago, to keep this weekend free and to collect Alex after she got home from school so I could have a weekend away."
"I know, but it's not my fault. The trains are really–" "It never is your fault, Niall, that's your problem."
"That's not fair. Look, I've got to go, otherwise I'm never going to get there."
"That's right, run away. Leave me holding the baby. Again."
"Katherine, I haven't got time for this discussion now, OK?"
"Just ring me when you're leaving the office. It doesn't matter what time. Alex can stay up late. It's not like she's got school tomorrow, is it?" "OK, I'll ring you. I promise."
Today was going to be a very long day. I closed my phone and took the steps downward two at a time and trotted along the passages into the underground station and looked at the tube map. If I took the Northern Line to Leicester Square then I could probably get a train from there that
My breath wheezed in my chest. Indigestion grumbled in my stomach, the result of coffee, no food and being wedged into an airless carriage. We rumbled down the tunnel for the two minute journey to Leicester Square. As soon as the doors opened, I joined the mass of people trudging down the platform into the echoing passage to the Piccadilly Line.
The commuters around me kept the same steady pace, unconscious of my need to hurry. Their footfalls resounded against the tiled walls like the march of a ragged army, their steps coming into time then falling out again. My attempts to squeeze past were met with glares of disapproval and a wall of cold shoulders until I resigned myself to yet further delay. I could hear the train arriving on the platform ahead and feel the warm rush of displaced air as it clattered onto the platform. I heard the announcement as the carriages halted, the words booming along the corridor. The press of people ahead bunched and slowed as they approached the platform entry, bringing us all to a shuffling halt. The indigestion came back. It twisted into a stomach cramp and I bent forward involuntarily, earning a push backwards from the dark-suited man in front of me. Tingling started in my fingers and I lifted my hands to look at my palms, mottled and slick with sudden sweat. The crowd shuffled forward, penning me in. My head felt light and a sudden nausea had me swallowing hard. The tingling numbness crept up my arms and tightness banded round my chest, leaving me panting for air. My jaw ached and my mouth went dry. The numbness spread to my tongue so it felt fat and useless in my mouth.
A gap opened up ahead and the crowd surged forward, spilling down the steps onto the platform. The stairs wrong-footed me and I grabbed out sideways to steady myself, only to feel the shoulders to either side shrug me away. Unbalanced by the sudden space ahead of me I tumbled down the steps, rolling into the ankles of the people in front. Cursed for my clumsiness, I sprawled at the bottom of the steps as people stepped over me.
I finally realised what was happening: I was having a heart attack.
I tried to reach up and catch hold of one of the coats floating past my fumbling fingers. I could hear acerbic comments made over me about drugs and drunkenness. I wanted to tell them I was sick, that I needed an ambulance, but my tongue wouldn't form the words. It flopped uselessly in my mouth, producing only incoherent groans. Why didn't one of them stop? Couldn't they see? Fear clamped around my frantic heart as I realised I was going to die before anyone called for help. A wave of pain crushed the breath from me. Panic seized me, churning my stomach. My vision blurred with unshed tears. I couldn't get enough air.
If you're ever going to have a heart attack, don't do it on the Underground. Pick a back street; you'll get more help from passers-by. As they walked on past, the darkness swallowed me and the world fell away. My final thought was for my fellow commuters. Bastards.
I heaved air into my lungs and threw my head back, arching my spine. My throat burned and my eyes shot open. Watery colours in London Underground livery swam before me as I tried to focus and failed. I held that breath then let it out in a wretched coughing gasp, collapsing back in a series of choking sobs.
Shivers racked me. Cold and fear coursed through me. My heart hammered in my ears, its beat loud and irregular. Cramps knotted in my stomach, leaving me breathless with pain. Somewhere in the back of my head part of me was evaluating this calmly, telling me Just breathe, idiot, while that same quiet voice informed me that I should be dead by now, actually, so no matter how painful, this had to be an improvement. I would have been thrashing on the floor, but for the person knelt sideways behind me, leaning over and pressing their warm hand against the cold bare skin of my chest, holding me tight against the side of their thighs. I ceased struggling and worked on breathing. The face above me came into limpid focus. An old lady with pale skin sprinkled with faded freckles was addressing a blue-jacketed attendant from the Underground. "I know," she said, "but I can hardly move him in this condition, can I? Just give him a moment."
The public address system drowned out his reply with an announcement: "Due to intermittent power problems on the platforms, this station is closing. Please make your way calmly to the nearest exit. There is no cause for alarm." Another cramp twisted in my stomach and I curled around it, gasping as the light dimmed around me. I screwed my eyes shut and ground my teeth while she spoke calmly over me.
"I am a doctor, and I know perfectly well what I am doing. I'm quite capable of dealing with a minor emergency like this one."
I tried to tell her I was having a heart attack and needed the ambulance but this was interpreted only as
"It's on its way, madam," he replied.
"Tell them to cancel it. He has no need of an ambulance. By the time they get here it'll be too late." He held her stare for a moment then turned away to issue instructions into his handheld radio. I finally managed to get enough oxygen inside me to be able to say something.
"I think I do need an ambulance," I croaked.
I lay on my side in the recovery position, her open hand resting on bare skin beneath my shirt. She leaned across, bowing her head over me, giving us a moment of relative privacy.
"Tell me truly. Are you from the other lands, yes or no?" Her words were quiet but insistent.
"Other lands?" I coughed. "Yes or no?"
Her question pressed on me in a way I didn't understand. I felt the answer worming its way up out of my gut until I blurted it out. "I live in London. I was born in Kent." It seemed to be a relief to tell her. "Very well."
She sat upright and the light faded. For one terrible moment I thought I was having another heart attack. Then I realised that the fluorescent tubes along the platform had dimmed and were pulsing with greenish light as they flickered uncertainly. A murmur rose among the people waiting to exit the platform and the attendant looked around. He began talking rapidly into his radio, only to find that it too had failed. He tapped it against his palm, pressing the talk button.
There was a distilled moment, crisp in every detail. The floor underneath me was suddenly chill in contrast to the spreading warmth in my chest and I noticed tiny droplets of condensation forming on the hard tiles. A breeze whipped down the tunnel, plucking an abandoned newspaper from a seat, strewing broadsheets down the platform. The gust pulled at coats and hair as people turned their backs. I assumed a train would follow it and hurtle onto the platform, but the breeze died again just as suddenly, leaving sheets of newspaper floating gently down onto the tracks as the lights flickered back to brightness.
The heavy pressure subsided and she took her hand away and moved so I could roll gently onto my back. "An ambulance?" I suggested, looking up at her.
"Nonsense, young man, you feel better as every moment passes."
I was about to protest about the chest pains, the cramps and the tingling, when I realised that I did feel OK. The numbness had gone, there was no frantic heartbeat, no tightness in my chest and no indigestion. Could I have imagined it all? Could it be a hallucination
brought on by stress and low blood sugar?
While my mind fought to rationalise the situation, the lady fastened my shirt buttons. I lay there stupidly while she carried out this act of decorous sensibility until she stood in one easy movement and offered me her hand. I sat up gingerly, expecting any moment for the clamping chest pains to reassert themselves, finding instead only how cold I had become on the fl
Two men ran down the platform towards us. From their uniforms I would guess the attempts to cancel the ambulance had been unsuccessful.
"That's all right, madam, we'll take over now."
For an odd moment I thought I heard the old lady swear under her breath, but then she turned to face them, all smiles and praise for the speed at which they had arrived. One of the men knelt down beside me. "How are you feeling, sir? Any dizziness, nausea?" "No, no. Nothing now."
"Any chest pains, sir? Any tightness of breath or pain in the arms?" He held a stethoscope against my chest and listened to my heart. "Are you on any medication? Any pills?" "No, no. I'm not taking anything."