Cheeseburger Gothic

The Bloodline Feud

Posted May 13, 2013 into Book Extract by John Birmingham

Now with fewer unicorns.

Miriam drove away slowly, distractedly, nodding in time to the beat of the windshield wipers. Traffic was as bad as usual, but nothing untoward penetrated her thoughts.

She parked, then hunched her shoulders against the weather and scurried to her front door. As usual, her keys got muddled up. Why does this always happen when I’m in a hurry? she wondered. Inside, she shook her way out of her raincoat and jacket like a newborn moth emerging from its sodden cocoon, hung them on the coat rail, then dumped her shoulder bag and the now-damp cardboard box on the old telephone table and bent to unzip her boots. Free of the constraints of leather, her feet flexed luxuriously as she slid them into a pair of battered pink slippers. Then she spotted the answering machine’s blinking light. ‘You have new messages,’ she sang to herself, slightly manic with relief at being home. ‘Fuck ’em.’ She headed for the kitchen to switch on the coffeepot, then poured a mug and carried it into her den.

The den had once been the dining room of this suburban home, a rectangular space linked to the living room by an archway and to the kitchen by a serving hatch. Now it was a cramped office, two walls jammed with bookcases and a third occupied by a huge battered desk. The remaining wall was occupied by a set of French windows opening onto the rear deck. Rain left twisting slug trails down the windows, kicking up splashes from the half-submerged ceramic pots outside. Miriam planted the coffee mug in the middle of the pile of stuff that accumulated on her desk and frowned at the effect.

‘It’s a mess,’ she said aloud, bemused. ‘How the hell did it get this untidy?’

‘This is bad,’ she said, standing in front of her desk. ‘You hear me?’ The stubborn paperwork and scattering of gadgets stubbornly refused to obey, so she attacked them, sorting the letters into piles, opening unopened mail and discarding the junk, hunting receipts and filing bills. The desk turned out to be almost nine months deep in trivia, and cleaning it up was a welcome distraction from having to think about her experience at work. When the desk actually showed a clear surface – and she’d applied the kitchen cleaner to the coffee rings – she started on the e-mail. That took longer, and by the time she’d checked off everything in her inbox, the rain battering on the windows was falling out of a darkening sky as night fell.

When everything was looking shipshape, another thought struck her. ‘Paperwork. Hmm.’ She went through into the hall and fetched the pink and green shoebox. Making a face, she upended it onto the desk. Papers mushroomed out, and something clattered and skittered onto the floor. ‘Huh?’ It was a paper bag. Something in it, a hard, cold nucleus, had spilled over the edge of the desk. She hunted around for a few seconds, then stooped and triumphantly deposited bag and contents next to the pile of yellowing clippings, rancid photocopies, and creamy documents. One of which, now that she examined it, looked like a birth certificate – no, one of those forms that gets filled in in place of a birth certificate when the full details are unknown. Baby Jane Doe, age approximately six weeks, weight blah, eye color green, sex female, parents unknown . . . for a moment Miriam felt as if she was staring at it down a dark tunnel from a long way away.

Ignoring the thing-that-rattled, Miriam went through the papers and sorted these, too, into two stacks. Press clippings and bureaucracy. The clippings were mostly photocopies: They told a simple – if mysterious – tale that had been familiar to her since the age of four. A stabbing in the park. A young woman – apparently a hippie or maybe a Gypsy, judging by her strange clothes – found dead on the edge of a wooded area. The cause of death was recorded as massive blood loss caused by a deep wound across her back and left shoulder, inflicted by some kind of edged weapon, maybe a machete. That was unusual enough. What made it even more unusual was the presence of the six-week-old baby shrieking her little heart out nearby. An elderly man walking his dog had called the police. It was a seven-day wonder.

Miriam knew the end to that story lay somewhere in Morris and Iris Beckstein’s comforting arms. She’d done her best to edit this other dangling bloody end to the story out of her life. She didn’t want to be someone else’s child: She had two perfectly good parents of her own, and the common assumption that blood ties must be thicker than upbringing rankled. Iris’s history taught better – the only child of Holocaust refugees settled in an unfriendly English town after the war, she’d emigrated at twenty and never looked back after meeting and marrying Morris.

Miriam shook out the contents of the paper bag over the not-quite birth certificate. It was a lens-shaped silver locket on a fine chain. Tarnished and dull with age, its surface was engraved with some sort of crest of arms: a shield and animals. It looked distinctly cheap. ‘Hmm.’ She picked it up and peered at it closely. This must be what Ma told me about, she thought. Valuable? There was some sort of catch under the chain’s loop. ‘I wonder…’

She opened it.

Instead of the lover’s photographs she’d half-expected, the back of the shell contained a knotwork design, enamel painted in rich colors. Curves of rich ocher looped and interpenetrated, weaving above and beneath a branch of turquoise. The design was picked out in silver – it was far brighter than the exposed outer case had suggested.
Miriam sighed and leaned back in her sprung office chair. ‘Well, there goes that possibility,’ she told the press clippings gloomily. No photographs of her mother or long-lost father. Just some kind of tacky cloissoné knotwork design. She looked at it closer. Knotwork. Vaguely Celtic knotwork. The left-hand cell appeared to be a duplicate of the right-hand one. If she traced that arc from the top left and followed it under the blue arc –

Why had her birth-mother carried this thing? What did it mean to her? (The blue arc connected through two interlinked green whorls.) What had she seen when she stared into it? Was it some kind of meditation aid? Or just a pretty picture? It certainly wasn’t any kind of coat of arms.

Miriam leaned back further. Lifting the locket, she dangled it in front of her eyes, letting the light from the bookcase behind her catch the silver highlights. Beads of dazzling blue-white heat seemed to trace their way around the knot’s heart. She squinted, feeling her scalp crawl. The sound of her heart beating in her ears became unbearably loud: There was a smell of burning toast, the sight of an impossible knot twisting in front of her eyes like some kind of stereoisogram forming in midair, trying to turn her head inside out –

Three things happened simultaneously. An abrupt sense of nausea washed over her, the lightbulb went out, and her chair fell over backward.

‘Ouch! Dammit!’ Something thumped into Miriam’s side, doubling her over as she hit the ground and rolled over, pulling her arms in to protect her face. A racking spasm caught her by the gut, leaving her feeling desperately sick, and the arm of the chair came around and whacked her in the small of her back. Her knees were wet, and the lights were out. ‘Hell!’ Her head was splitting, the heartbeat throb pounding like a jackhammer inside her skull, and her stomach was twisting. A sudden flash of fear: This can’t be a migraine. The onset is way too fast. Malignant hypertension? The urge to vomit was strong, but after a moment it began to ebb. Miriam lay still for a minute, waiting for her stomach to come under control and the lights to come back on. Am I having an aneurism? She gripped the locket so tightly that it threatened to dig a hole in her right fist. Carefully she tried to move her arms and legs: Everything seemed to be working and she managed a shallow sigh of relief. Finally, when she was sure her guts were going to be all right, she pushed herself up onto her knees and saw –

Trees.

Trees everywhere.

Trees inside her den.

Where did the walls go?

Afterward, she could never remember that next terrible minute. It was dark, of course, but not totally dark: She was in twilight on a forested slope, with beech and elm and other familiar trees looming ominously out of the twilight. The ground was dry, and her chair lay incongruously in a thicket of shrubbery not far from the base of a big maple tree. When she looked around, she could see no sign of her house, or the neighboring apartments, or of the lights along the highway. Is there a total blackout? she wondered, confused. Did I sleepwalk or something?

She stumbled to her feet, her slippers treacherous on leaf mulch and dry grass stems. She shivered. It was cold – not quite winter-cold, but too chilly to be wandering around in pants, a turtleneck, and bedroom slippers. And –

‘Where the hell am I?’ she asked the empty sky. ‘What the hell?’

Then the irony of her situation kicked in and she began to giggle, frightened and edgy and afraid she wouldn’t be able to stop. She did a twirl, in place, trying to see whatever there was to see. Sylvan idyll at nightfall, still-life with deranged dot-com refugee and brown office furniture. A gust of wind rattled the branches overhead, dislodging a chilly shower of fat drops: A couple landed on Miriam’s arms and face, making her shudder.

The air was fresh – too fresh. And there was none of the subliminal background hum of a big city, the noise that never completely died. It didn’t get this quiet even out in the country – and indeed, when she paused to listen, it wasn’t quiet; she could hear distant bird-song in the deepening twilight.

She took a deep breath, then another. Forced herself to thrust the hand with the locket into her hip pocket and let go of the thing. She patted it obsessively for a minute, whimpering slightly at the pain in her head. No holes, she thought vaguely. She’d once worn pants like this where her spare change had worn a hole in the pocket lining and eventually spilled on the ground, causing no end of a mess.

For some reason, the idea of losing possession of the locket filled her with stomach-churning dread. She looked up. The first stars of evening were coming out, and the sky was almost clear of cloud. It was going to be a cold night.

‘Item,’ she muttered. ‘You are not at home. Ouch. You have a splitting headache and you don’t think you fell asleep in the chair, even though you were in it when you arrived here.’ She looked around in wild surmise. She’d never been one for the novels Ben occasionally read, but she’d seen enough trashy TV series to pick up the idea. Twilight Zone, Time Squad, programs like that. ‘Item: I don’t know where or when I am, but this ain’t home. Do I stay put and hope I automagically snap back into my own kitchen or . . . what? It was the locket, no two ways about it. Do I look at it again to go back?”

She fumbled into her pocket nervously. Her fingers wrapped around warm metal. She breathed more easily. ‘Right. Right.’ Just nerves, she thought. Alone in a forest at night – what lived here? Bears? Cougars? There could be anything here, anything at all. Be a fine joke if she went exploring and stepped on a rattler, wouldn’t it? Although in this weather . . . ‘I’d better go home,’ she murmured to herself and was about to pull the locket out when she saw a flicker of light in the distance.

She was disoriented, tired, had just had a really bad day, and some cosmic trickster-god had dumped a magic amulet on her to see what she’d do with it. That was the only explanation, she reasoned afterward. A sane Miriam would have sat down and analyzed her options, then assembled a plan of action. But it wasn’t a sane Miriam who saw those flickers of orange light and went crashing through the trees downhill toward them.

Lights.

A jingle, as of chains. Thudding and hollow clonking noises – and low voices. She stumbled out into the sudden expanse of a trail – not a wide one, more of a hiking trail, the surface torn up and muddy. Lights! She stared at them, at the men on horseback coming down the trail toward her, the lantern held on a pole by the one in the lead. Dim light glinted off reflecting metal, helmet, and breastplate like something out of a museum. Someone called out something that sounded like: ‘Curl!’ Look. He’s riding toward me, she thought dazedly. What’s that he’s –

Her guts liquid with absolute fright, she turned and ran. The flat crack of rifle fire sounded behind her, repeated short bursts firing into the night. Invisible fingers ripped at the branches overhead as Miriam heard voices raised in hue and cry behind her. Low branches scratched at her face as she ran, gasping and crying, uphill away from the path. More bangs, more gunshots – astonishingly few of them, but any at all was too many. She ran straight into a tree, fell back winded, brains rattling around inside her head like dried peas in a pod, then she pushed herself to her feet again faster than she’d have believed possible and stumbled on into the night, gasping for breath, praying for rescue.

Eventually she stopped. Somewhere along the way she’d lost her slippers. Her face and ribs felt bruised, her head was pounding, and she could barely breathe. But she couldn’t hear any sounds of pursuit. Her skin felt oddly tight, and everything was far too cold. As soon as she was no longer running, she doubled over and succumbed to a fit of racking coughs, prolonged by her desperate attempts to muffle them. Her chest was on fire. Oh god, any god. Whoever put me here. I just want you to know that I hate you!

She stood up. Somewhere high overhead the wind sighed. Her skin itched with the fear of pursuit. I’ve got to get home, she realized. Now her skin crawled with another fear – fear that she might be wrong, that it wasn’t the locket at all, that it was something else she didn’t understand that had brought her here, that there was no way back and she’d be stranded –

When she flicked it open, the right-hand half of the locket crawled with light. Tiny specks of brilliance, not the phosphorescence of a watch dial or the bioluminescence of those plastic disposable flashlights that had become popular for a year or two, but an intense, bleached blue-white glare like a miniature star. Miriam panted, trying to let her mind drift into it, but after a minute she realized all she was achieving was giving herself a headache. ‘What did I do to make it work?’ she mumbled, puzzled and frustrated and increasingly afraid. ‘If she could make it – ’

Ah. That was what she’d been doing. Just relaxing, meditating. Wondering what her birth-mother had seen in it. Miriam gritted her teeth. How was she going to re-create that sense of detached curiosity? Here in a wild forest at night, with strangers shooting at her in the dark? How – she narrowed her eyes. The headache. If I can see my way past it, I could –

The dots of light blazed up for a moment in glorious conflagration. Miriam jackknifed forward, saw the orange washout of streetlights shining down on a well-mowed lawn. Then her stomach rebelled and this time she couldn’t keep it down. It was all she could do to catch her breath between heaves. Somehow her guts had been replaced by a writhing snake, and the racking spasms kept pulsing through her until she began to worry about tearing her esophagus.

She heard the sound of a car slowing – then speeding up again as the driver saw her vomiting. A yell from the window, inarticulate, something like ‘Drunk fucking bums!’ Something clattered into the road. Miriam didn’t care. Dampness and cold clenched their icy fingers around her, but she didn’t care: She was back in civilization, away from the threatening trees and her pursuers. She stumbled off the front lawn of somebody’s house and sensed harsh asphalt beneath her bare feet, stones digging into her soles. A street sign said it was somewhere she knew. One of the other side roads off Grafton Street. She was less than two miles from home.

Drip. She looked up. Drip. The rain began to fall again, sluicing down her aching face. Her clothes were stained and filthy with mud and vomit. Her legs were scratched and felt bruised. Home. It was a primal imperative. Put one foot in front of another, she told herself through the deafening hammering in her skull. Her head hurt, and the world was spinning around her.

An indefinite time – perhaps thirty minutes, perhaps an hour – later, she saw a familiar sight through the downpour. Soaked to the skin and shivering, she nevertheless felt like a furnace. Her house seemed to shimmer like a mirage in the desert when she looked at it. And now she discovered another problem – she’d come out without her keys! Silly me, what was I thinking? she wondered vaguely. Nothing but this locket, she thought, weaving its chain around her right index finger.

The shed, whispered a vestige of cool control in the back of her head. Oh, yes, the shed, she answered herself.

She stumbled around the side of her house, past the cramped green rug that passed for a yard, to the shed in back. It was padlocked, but the small side window wasn’t actually fastened and if you pulled just so it would open outward. It took her three tries and half a fingernail – the rain had warped the wood somewhat – but once open she could thrust an arm inside and fumble around for the hook with the key dangling from it on a loop. She fetched the key, opened the padlock – dropping it casually on the lawn – and found, taped to the underside of the workbench, the spare key to the French doors. She was home.

20 Responses to ‘The Bloodline Feud’

Barnesm reckons...

Posted May 13, 2013

Great stuff, I wasn't are of this series, no doubt in part due to the god-awful unicornesque covers that they bore I looked right over them. My favourite Charles Stross work at the moment is his Laundry Files a chulthlu /spy genre mash up which blends the best of both. For those in the know beware CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN.

Dilph asserts...

Posted May 13, 2013

Laundry Files? A mate of mine was trying to get me involved in a pen-and-paper RPG that sounds like it's set in the same universe, a little while back. I thought it was a stand-alone - didn't realise there were novels attached, or that Stross was involved. Colour me a lot more intrigued about Stross in general after that little revelation, and I like the exerpt. Much better than the only Stross I've read so far - Accelerando - which was... dry, to my taste.

I think I need to give him a second chance...

Geoffrey Brent puts forth...

Posted May 13, 2013

Yeah, Stross writes in a couple of different styles. Accelerando is towards the hard-sci-fi-tech-oriented end; lots of interesting ideas but it got a bit confused towards the end and I didn't really warm to the characters.

The Laundry Files series is a lot easier to get into, IMHO. It still requires thought, but more engaging characters and more coherently plotted.

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Bunyip ducks in to say...

Posted May 13, 2013


They may be parallel genre-wise, but I dont think it(if you're talking about the system I'm thinking about) are specifically linked to Stross's IP.

Dilph mumbles...

Posted May 13, 2013

I think I need to do some research to find out - it might have been a homebrew deal or something, because the DM is a pretty hardcore SF/cthulhu nut. Either way, British X-files Cthulhu sounds like fun...

Bunyip mumbles...

Posted May 13, 2013

"...think it(...) are..." FFS.

Boss, I need that edit function.

John Birmingham has opinions thus...

Posted May 13, 2013

Imma get you edit real soon now.

Blarkon ducks in to say...

Posted May 13, 2013

The Laundry RPG I have is definitely the Strossian one.

Anthony has opinions thus...

Posted May 14, 2013

The first laundry novel is more like the Ipcress file than the X-files. Although I'm a sucker for an alternate history series (References to invading space lizards and Harry Turteltaub indeed Mr Birmingham!) I'm also very fond of a ood spy nvel. The only disappoinment with the Laundry series was that the Fuller Memorandum didn't draw on the Quiller novels (apart from the title).

Still, speaking as a former denizen of the scary devil monastery, any novelist who puts in throwaway lines to ASR, Lusers and LARTS (to say nothing of combining USB ports andd sympathetic magic) just has to get my vote.

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Darth Greybeard mumbles...

Posted May 13, 2013

There must be some parallel to a person who gives you a little free taste that gets you hooked and leaves you, wallet open, looking for more. But what could it be?

w from brisbane mumbles...

Posted May 13, 2013

Greybeard. Shame on you!
That's no way to talk about Bait Birmingham.

Darth Greybeard would have you know...

Posted May 13, 2013

(grumble) More like Candy Man J.

Matthew F. would have you know...

Posted May 13, 2013

Candyman? So if I say his name five times into a mirror he'll appear behind me and blurb my book?

damian is gonna tell you...

Posted May 13, 2013

So if I bury a portugese custard tart in the crossroads at midnight, my first book will have Volvo smell?

Bunyip swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted May 13, 2013

Just let us know if it starts raining smartphones...

Matthew F. mutters...

Posted May 14, 2013

If you bury a Portuguese custard tart at the crossroads at midnight, you'll look down to see JB lying quietly in the hole with his mouth open, hoping you haven't noticed him.

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Bunyip would have you know...

Posted May 13, 2013

Might have to buy this to *cough* check it's suitablity for the bibliophile minion *cough*.

Barnesm mumbles...

Posted May 13, 2013

The_weapon is 13 years old and really liked the second book in the series 'The Jennifer Morgue'.

Bunyip would have you know...

Posted May 13, 2013

Ta. Will discuss it with She that wields the Kindle.

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Matthew K mutters...

Posted May 15, 2013

Oh is THAT why that promising series went oddly tits up at the end?

Personally I thought it was Stross suddenly going on a rant to push his unsubtle left of centre Scots views down paying customers throats. Bush and Cheney were the ultimate bad guys mmkay?

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