Excerpt: VIGIL by Angela Slatter (Jo Fletcher Books)

SlatterA-VigilAngela Slatter‘s Vigil is the first novel in the author’s Verity Fassbinder series, published by Jo Fletcher Books. To celebrate its recent release in the UK, the publisher has provided CR with the following excerpt, as part of an extensive blog tour (details of other stops at end). First, though, here’s the synopsis:

Verity Fassbinder has her feet in two worlds.

The daughter of one human and one Weyrd parent, she has very little power herself, but does claim unusual strength — and the ability to walk between us and the other — as a couple of her talents. As such a rarity, she is charged with keeping the peace between both races, and ensuring the Weyrd remain hidden from us.

But now Sirens are dying, illegal wine made from the tears of human children is for sale — and in the hands of those Weyrd who hold with the old ways — and someone has released an unknown and terrifyingly destructive force on the streets of Brisbane.

And Verity must investigate — or risk ancient forces carving our world apart.

Read on for the excerpt…

*

VIGIL

I looked out of the window. My reflection stared back, and beyond that, I watched the night speed past. I should be singing ‘Happy Birthday’, not here with my ex in the back seat of the world’s most disreputable-looking gypsy cab. Parts of it had been cannibalised from other cars. Any original white surfaces had been reduced to grey, and the vinyl of the seats was a little sticky with age. The rubber mats on the floor, though so thin as to be almost transparent, were, I was pretty sure, all that stopped me from seeing the bitumen of Wynnum Road beneath us. Instead of the traditional pine tree-shaped air freshener there was a gris-gris hanging from the rear-view mirror. It wasn’t minty-fresh, but then again it didn’t smell bad – it was rather cinnamony, if anything. It just looked bad: a shrunken head with dried lavender sticking out of its ears. Scratched along the inside of the doors were symbols and sigils I couldn’t read in a language so old I suspected no one knew how to pronounce it any more. I never looked too close, not since I’d realised that some of the etchings were really fingernail marks. I didn’t want to linger on that thought.

‘It’s only been street kids so far,’ said Bela. He didn’t even stumble on that bit – he didn’t even know he’d said the wrong thing, though no column inches were going to be devoted to those lost children. In the front seat, Ziggi loaded a CD and the exquisite a cappella opening of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ poured forth. Eleanor Aviva made an annoyed clicking sound with her tongue. Philistine.

‘Turn that racket down,’ Aviva ordered in clipped tones, and to my mild surprise, the driver obeyed without argument. The councillor retreated back into silence. Despite Bela’s earlier comment we’d not been introduced and I wondered why she was here.

The eye in the back of Ziggi Hassman’s head examined me through fine ginger hair. He’d landed in Brisbane about ten years ago and got a job with Bela immediately, thanks to a sheaf of references, so we’d known each other for a long time and I could generally interpret his expressions, facial – and otherwise. But I’d not seen that single orb as inscrutable since I’d ended up haemorrhaging on his back seat after following him and Bela into an abandoned house a few months ago . . . coincidentally, that was the same night I’d lost my enthusiasm for the phrase ‘let’s split up and cover more ground’. We’d been looking for something that shouldn’t have been there – shouldn’t have been in this plane of existence. It was a something with claws and teeth and a bad attitude; a something that had been making red messes of pets around the city. Luckily, not people. Not then, at least.

I found it first, and won the fight that ensued, but ultimately wound up in Accident and Emergency. Ziggi had saved my life, wrapping every bandage from the taxi’s first-aid kit around my leg to stem the bleeding while Bela had busied himself making phone calls to highly unlisted numbers and reeling in favours while reporting to superiors, which added another couple of layers of resentment to how I felt about him.

‘I should be eating ice-cream cake,’ I announced to no one in particular. ‘I should be watching Lizzie open her presents. I really should.’

‘Verity, if it’s—’ Bela started.

‘It’s not, Bela’ I said shortly, pressing down on the rage his voice habitually produced in me nowadays. Before I could give rein to my full displeasure, I was distracted by the vibration of the mobile in my jacket pocket and reached for it.

‘Ms Fassbinder, kindly give us the courtesy of your undivided attention,’ Eleanor Aviva said sharply and my hand fell away as I instinctively sat up straighter, the response to that schoolmarm tone deeply ingrained.

Bela tried again, and his pitch was softer. ‘V, if it is, then maybe it’s like your dad.’ He waited for me to speak, to deny the past, to defend myself. I rewarded him with silence, so he went on. ‘If it’s a Kinderfresser—’

‘Well, at least we know it’s not my daddy this time,’ I sniped.

‘—then we need to get to him quickly because he – or she – won’t stop by themselves. I can’t keep this out of the papers for too long. Any undue attention on our community will put everyone in danger.’

There was a time, not so long ago, when I’d been bleeding and screaming in the back seat of this very taxi and swearing I wouldn’t ever work for Bela Tepes again, yet here I was, listening meekly to what was expected of me. The weekly retainer was deposited into my account on the assumption that I’d do what was asked. I might not have followed through on my plans to quit – quite frankly, what else was I going to do with an Arts degree in Ancient History and slightly dead languages? – but that didn’t make me feel any more biddable.

 ‘Do you really think I don’t know that?’ My glare was enough to make him look away. Then I felt bad; my temper had become short and my nature less than pleasant in recent months and it was Bela who was bearing the brunt of it. Then again, once upon a time I didn’t ache inside with every step; I didn’t wake up sweating, thinking something was at my window, and I didn’t dream of claws reaching through the gaps in the stairs and tearing so much flesh from my leg that I looked like I’d been ring-barked.

 ‘Perhaps Ms Fassbinder isn’t really the person for this task, Zvezdomir?’ said Aviva evenly. She pronounced his given name with an assurance and an accent I’d never manage in a hundred years, which was one of the reasons I so seldom used it. That and the Bela Lugosi eyebrows.

‘Ms Fassbinder is the only person for this job, Eleanor.’ Bela matched her timbre, but there was an underlying edge.

Part of me wanted to tell them both where to go, but the sad fact was that I needed money. Though I owned the house, things like food and phone bills didn’t get paid with a sunny smile. Things had been quiet in Weyrd-town recently, and the Normal world hadn’t been much busier, so the independent consulting assignments I did occasionally had been few and far between too. Bela was a generous paymaster – possibly because his missions were generally the reason I ended up in harm’s way – but we’d broken up two years ago and the job meant closure was an issue. Spending all this time together − and not happy fun times − meant I kept wondering when the ‘ex’ part of ex-boyfriend would kick in.

‘Ms Fassbinder, I cannot stress strongly enough how important it is that this matter be dealt with swiftly and shrewdly,’ Aviva said. ‘And quietly. Any member of our community who risks exposing the rest of us to danger has no rights in the eyes of the Council. There is to be no prevarication, and no mercy for this individual.’ She tapped long fingernails on the dashboard in front of her. ‘Of course, you know that better than most.’

Behind my head, Freddie Mercury’s voice soared, but quietly, as if afraid of Eleanor Aviva’s disapproval. I controlled my breathing, counted to ten and remained calm. ‘Has anyone thought about asking the Boatman if he knows anything? I mean, all the dead end up with him eventually.’

‘I don’t think that’s necessary, do you?’ said Aviva. ‘He hardly chats with his passengers. He obeys his own rules, answers to none, keeps his own counsel. He does not come when called.’

She was probably right, but it felt like she was baiting me and I had no idea why. Her attitude wasn’t improving my mood. ‘I don’t mean to be rude, Councillor, but why are you here? The Five have always kept their distance from me.’

‘Consider this a performance appraisal,’ she answered, not even bothering to look over her shoulder at me. Was she trying to get a reaction? Did she not realise I’d spent my life ignoring stuff like that? I smiled at Ziggi’s stare in the rear-view mirror. It had gone from inscrutable to concerned.

Bela, apparently not confident of my self-control, raised his voice to drown out any reply I might have made. ‘Eleanor and I are on our way to a Council session and she wanted to take the opportunity to meet you. I assured her you’d treat this matter seriously.’ He cleared his throat. ‘Where are you going to start?’

 ‘I’ve got some ideas.’ I could feel his gaze, even though I was peering out of the window again. I thought he might be staring at my neck, at the pale curve where the vein pulsed blue close to the surface. I wondered if he was remembering what the sweat on my skin tasted like. I didn’t turn around but said softly, ‘It’s okay, Bela, leave it to me.’

‘Ziggi, keep an eye on her,’ he said abruptly. ‘And V, when you’re done with this, there’s something else I want you to look into.’

And he was gone, just like that, leaving the seat beside me empty, smelling vaguely of his expensive aftershave, a chill coming off the faux-leather. Eleanor Aviva had evaporated too. That disappearing act was draining in the extreme and only a very few Weyrd could do it. Things were quiet, except for the final coda of Freddie’s delicate piano work.

West End was filled with Weyrd.

Most folk thought the Saturday market’s demographic there was a mix of students, drunks, artists, writers, the few upwardly mobile waiting for rehabilitated property values, religious nutters, common-or-garden do-gooders and dyed-in-the-wool junkies, all mingling for cheap fruit and veggies – or to score weed in the public toilet block in the nearby park. Often these groups overlapped.

But there was also a metric butt-load of Weyrd, who also sometimes featured in one or more of the aforementioned groups as well. They were mostly successful in their attempts to blend in, especially in suburbs that already had a pretty bizarre human population – places where it was difficult to distinguish the wondrous-strange from the head-cases. The old guy who yelled at the trees on the corner of Boundary Street and Montague Road? Weyrd. The kid who kept peeing on the front steps of the Gunshop Café? Weyrd. The woman who asked people in the street if they could spare some dirty laundry? Well, actually, she was Normal. The smart ones used glamours to hide what they were, to tame disobedient shapes and disguise peculiar abilities, but some just let it all hang out, not caring if they were mistaken for psychos or horror movie extras.

They weren’t a disorganised rabble; any minority group keen on survival soon develops its own leadership. The Weyrd had the Council of Five, chosen from the old families who’d been in Brisbane since its founding. Convicts, overseers and frock-coated men on the make weren’t the only ones doing the invading; lots of folk wanted a new start. In the Old Country – wherever that happened to be – the ancient beliefs and traditions still held sway. Normals were twitchy creatures, but they’d only live in fear of the dark for a limited time. Eventually they got tired of huddling around fires and being scared. As with anything that went on for too long, numbness and fatigue set in, followed by anger, which burned out a lot of the good sense that’d brought on the terror in the first place. They got all brave and started charging around brandishing torches and pitchforks, striking out not just at whatever had frightened them but at anything that was different. Problem was, it wasn’t really bravery, it was still fear – but it was an enraged fear, and that kind wasn’t discriminating. As a consequence, the Weyrd − the different − from Hungary to Scotland, Romania to Mali, Italy to Japan, the Land Beyond the Forest to several dozen tiny nations that had changed their names multiple times, often had to find new homes, like Bela, Aviva, Ziggi, my father, or cease to exist . . .

So the first Weyrd came over on their creaking, stinking, packed ships, as stowaways, or convicts, caught by accident or intent, sometimes even as soldiers or governors or wives. Those who survived to put down roots in the new land, who set up shop as the major cities developed, they generally became the Councillors, keeping watchful eyes on the rest of the Weyrd population. They ensured the peace and dealt with the Normals, using people like Bela − essentially a cross between prime minister and spymaster − to keep the worst ‘disturbances’ under control. And someone like Bela employed someone like me, because those of us of mixed parentage could walk between the two worlds. As long as I behaved myself and didn’t cause a fuss.

***

Angela Slatter‘s Vigil is published by Jo Fletcher Books. For more on the author’s writing and novels, be sure to check out her website, and follow her on Twitter and Goodreads.

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