The Ebb Tide
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|Limited Edition||SOLD OUT|
Dust jacket and interior illustrations by J. K. Potter
Subterranean Press is proud to announce the first new Langdon St. Ives adventure in nearly two decades!
A flaming meteor over the Yorkshire Dales, a long-lost map drawn by the lunatic Bill “Cuttle” Kraken, and the discovery of a secret subterranean shipyard beneath the River Thames lead Professor Langdon St. Ives and his intrepid friend Jack Owlesby into the treacherous environs of Morecambe Bay, with its dangerous tides and vast quicksand pits. They descend beneath the sands of the Bay itself, into a dark, unknown ocean littered with human bones and the remnants of human dreams. In this tale of murder, infamy, and Victorian intrigue, the tides of destiny shift relentlessly and rapidly as the stakes grow ever higher and the pursuit more deadly….
Limited: 1500 signed hardcover copies
“Blaylock tips his hat to Robert Louis Stevenson in the afterword (as well as the title), which seems quite right. Cracking entertainment.”
“Alternate history detective Professor Langdon St. Ives returns in Subterranean Press’s The Ebb Tide, a steampunk adventure that includes one wicked cool submarine, a lost (and recently recovered) map, mysterious bad guys with guns and a final confrontation in Morecambe Bay 'with its dangerous tides and vast quicksand pits.' St. Ives continues to be his brilliant deductive self although this time around more of the action is focused on stalwart sidekick (and faithful biographer) Jack Owlesby, who affords himself quite admirably in several dangerous situations above water and below.”
From Publishers Weekly:
“Explorer-scientist Langdon St. Ives and narrator Jack Owlesby (familiar from 2008’s The Adventures of Langdon St. Ives) embark upon a new steampunk adventure in this slight but enjoyable novella. A battered old map, possibly drawn by St. Ives’s long-missing companion, Bill Kraken, displays the location of a strange object that plunged to earth years earlier. Hilario Frosticos [ED: aka Dr. Ignacio Narbondo], longtime nemesis to St. Ives, is also in pursuit, and a series of amusing feints and counterfeints culminates in a frantic race to an underwater grotto.”
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The Ebb Tide: A Langdon St. Ives Adventure
by James P. Blaylock
We were at the Half Toad one evening early in the month of a windy May—Langdon St. Ives; Tubby Frobisher, and myself, Jack Owlesby—taking our ease at our customary table. Professor St. Ives, as you're perhaps already aware, is one of England's most brilliant scientists, and her most intrepid explorer. The Half Toad is an inn that lies in Lambert Court, off Fingal Street in London, frequented by men of science down on their luck: three rooms to let, William and Henrietta Billson proprietors. The inn is difficult to find if you don't know the turning or if you fail to see the upper body of what is commonly called a Surinam toad leaning out of the high window over the door.
The carving of the toad was carried out of Guiana in the mid-century by Billson himself, aboard the old William Rodgers. The nether half of the creature blew to flinders when the powder magazine exploded in the dead of night, sinking the ship and half the crew in a fog off Santo Domingo. Billson found himself afloat and alone with half the toad, and he clung to the remains for close onto a day and a half before fishermen hauled him out nearly drowned. He went straight back to London on a mail packet, only to discover that his old father had died two months earlier and left him something over five hundred a year, and so he counted his many blessings, married his sweetheart, and set up shop in Lambert Court, where he put the heroic toad in the window.
In his seagoing days, Billson had been an amateur naturalist, and had sailed as a young man with Sir Gilbert Blane, popularly known as Lemon Juice Blane, the great anti-scorbutic doctor. Billson's collection of fish and amphibiana was housed in the back of the inn (and still is). It was the man's deep interest in Japanese carp that led to his correspondence with St. Ives in the days following the incident of the break-in at the Bayswater Street Oceanarium in the time of the Homunculus.
St. Ives had recently resolved to keep a room the year round at the Half Toad, despite—or rather because of—its obscure location, so that he had secure digs when he came in from Chingford-by-the-Tower to London proper, which happened often enough. Billson wasn't a man to be trifled with, nor a man to ask questions, both of which attributes suited St. Ives down to the ground. Henrietta Billson, a ruddy-faced, smiling woman, once beat a customer half silly with a potato masher who had put his hands on the girl who makes up the rooms. Her fruit tarts and meat pies would make you weep.
Enough people frequent the Inn to keep Billson busy in front of his fireplace spit long into the evening, and on the night in question he had a joint of beef rotating, done very nearly to a turn, and he was looking at it with a practiced eye, his carving knife ready at hand. Beneath, to catch the drippings, hung a kettle of those small potatoes called Irish apricots by the Welsh, and there wasn't a man among us who didn't have the look of a greedy dog.
This particular May evening at the Half Toad, I'll point out in passing, took place during that lamented period when St. Ives had been forbidden entrance to the Explorer's Club because of a minor kitchen mishap involving refined brandy and the head and tentacles of a giant squid. The great man's temporary banishment and subsequent reinstatement will have to be the subject of another account, but in those dark days St. Ives came to appreciate the homely luxury of the Half Toad, and in the years following his reinstatement he visited the Explorers Club but rarely. I should say “we,” since I was (and am) St. Ives's frequent companion when the great man comes into London.
But as I was saying, I remember that May evening in '82 well enough, for the Phoenix Park murders were being shouted high and low by newsboys out on Fingal Street. That unforgettable joint of beef was turning on the spit, there were kidney pies baking in the oven and puddings boiling in the copper, and, of course, there were those potatoes. The Billsons' halfwit kitchen help, a Swede of indeterminate age named Lars Hopeful, was drawing ale from the tap, and all of us, you can be sure, were looking forward to making a long night of it.
I hadn't so much as put the glass to my lips when the door swung open, the street noise momentarily heightened, and we looked up to see who it was coming in with the wind. Surprisingly, it was St. Ives's man Hasbro, who should have been in Chingford tending the home fires, so to speak, and collecting the post. Alice—Mrs. St. Ives—was in Scarborough with the St. Ives children, little Eddie and his sister Cleo. My own wife, Dorothy, had gone along, the lot of them staying with Alice's ancient grandmother, which explains how St. Ives and I had come to be temporarily bachelorized. Hasbro had the air of a man in a hurry (not his usual demeanor) and you can imagine that we were suddenly anxious to hear him out.
Without a word, however, he produced from his coat a recent copy of Merton's Catalogue of Rarities and opened it to a folded page, which he passed across to St. Ives, who read the piece aloud. There was offered for sale a handdrawn map of a small area of the Morecambe Sands, the location not identified. The map, according to the catalogue copy, was stained with waterweeds, tobacco, and salt rime, was torn, soiled, and ill-drawn as if by a child, was signed with the letter K and the crude, figure-eight drawing of a cuttlefish, and was offered for sale for two pounds six. “Of questionable value,” Merton had added, “but perhaps interesting to the right party.”
Merton had found the right party, and had doubtless expected to find it, because he had sent the catalogue out to St. Ives Manor by messenger, not suspecting, of course, that the Professor was already in London. St. Ives stood up abruptly from his chair and uttered the words, “Kraken's map, or I'm a fried whiting.” He slid the catalogue into his coat and along with the waiting Hasbro strode toward the door, shouting a hasty good-bye to Billson, who gestured his farewell with the carving knife. Never a potato did I eat, I'm sad to say, and the same for Tubby Frobisher, who was fast on my heels, although the man could have had no idea what any of this meant.
Night was falling, and the temperature with it, as if the world had tilted and spring had slid back into winter. Lambert court was deserted aside from a workman in dungarees, who was inordinately tall and sneery, lounging on a pile of excavated dirt and rock with the air of a man having avoided a day's work. Twenty minutes earlier there had been two of them, the other squat and with dangling, heavy arms, and the comical contrast between the two had stayed in my mind. Now the tall one was smoking a pipe over the remains of the day—Balkan Sobranie, my own tobacco of choice, and perhaps a little elevated for a workman's pocketbook, something I remarked to Frobisher when the wind blew the reek past us in a cloud. The man gathered himself together and left just as we came out through the door. He disappeared back through the Court with a certain celerity, as if he had an appointment to keep.
Fingal Street, never particularly active, was possessed of an evening quiet. St. Ives hailed a Hansom cab that happened to be passing, and he and Hasbro climbed aboard and whirled away. “To Merton's!” St. Ives shouted back at us, and Tubby and I were left to follow as best we could. We set out on foot, making our way down toward the Embankment at a fair pace.
“Look here, Jackie,” Frobisher said, puffing along beside me. “What on Earth is this business of the map? That was my kidney pie just coming out of the oven, and now I'm left to starve.”
“I can't be certain,” I said. “I can only speculate.”
“Then speculate me this: a map to what? Gold and jewels, eh? Something of that sort? The problem with all this,” he told me, “is that anything lost in the Morecambe Sands will stay lost. I've heard stories of coaches and four sinking into the quicksands of Morecambe Bay with all hands on board, never to be seen again. A man might as well have a map of the Bottomless Pit.”
“Merton surely knows that,” I said. “His ‘of doubtful value' makes just that point. Do you remember poor old Bill Kraken?”
“Absolutely. Not a bad sort, although half the time off his chump, as I recall.”
“Not so far off as it sometimes seemed, I can assure you,” I said. “The antics of a lunatic are a natural ruse.”
We hailed a passing cab now, which reined up, Tubby cramming himself in through the door like a stoat into a hole. “Merton's Rarities,” I said to the driver. “Hurry!” He hi-hoed at the horses and off they went, throwing us both sideways, Tubby pinning me heavily against the wall. “The point is,” I said, “if Bill drew such a map, and it's come to light, then we've got to take up the scent, or we'll lose it again.”
“The scent of what, Jack? That's the salient point, you see.”
“A lost object. It was what you might call…a device,” I told him.
“Ah! A device. Just so. For spinning straw into gold, perhaps?”
One didn't keep secrets from one's allies, especially from a man like Tubby Frobisher, who did as he would be done by, so to speak. “You recall the so-called Yorkshire Dales Meteor?” I asked.
“Plowed up a meadow owned by a country parson, didn't it? Burnt a hedgerow. There was some element of it that made it worth the attention of the press for a day or two. I seem to recall a ring of floating cattle roundabout a manure dump, although it might have been floating swine.”
“It was the murder of Parson Grimstead that attracted the press. They were more or less indifferent to the flaming object—not a meteor, I can assure you. The Parson found a strange device, you see, in his cattle enclosure, and he hid it in his barn. He suspected, probably correctly, that it wasn't…of earthly origin.”
Tubby gave me a look, but he knew enough about St. Ives's adventures over the years so that the look wasn't utterly dubious. “The Parson sent word to St. Ives,” I said, “whom he had known man and boy, and St. Ives flogged up to Yorkshire to arrive the following morning, only to find the Parson dead on the ground inside the barn door. He was carrying a fowling piece, although he hadn't apparently meant to go hunting, at least not for birds. There was no sign of the device. A local farmer had seen a wagon coming out of the Parson's yew alley before dawn, driving away westward. It turned out that the device had been spirited away to the Carnforth Ironworks. According to a worker, a container of wood and iron had been built to house it, the interior of the container sealed with India rubber. As for the floating cattle, St. Ives found the report vitally interesting, but to my mind it simply encouraged the press to make light of a good man's murder.”
“Spirited away?” Tubby said. “Built to house it? By whom?”
“You know by whom, or can guess.”
“Ignacio Narbondo? What does he call himself now? Frosticos, isn't it?” He was silent for a moment. “We should have fed him to that herd of feral pigs when we had the chance. We'll add that oversight to our list of regrets.”
Fleet Street was annoyingly crowded with evening strollers, and we crawled along now, the cabbie shouting imprecations, our pace quickening again as we rounded onto Upper Thames Street toward the Embankment. “The map, then?” Tubby asked. “You must have found this device and then—what?—lost it again?”
“Just so. What happened,” I told him, “was that we three took the device out of the Ironworks under the cover of night, St. Ives, old Bill, and myself. We were waylaid near Silverdale at low tide, and Bill set out across the sands alone with the wagon despite St. Ives's reservations. He had the idea of fleeing into Cumbria, going to ground, and waiting for us to catch up. If the wagon became mired in the sands, he would draw a map of its exact location, although the odds of our recovering it were small. The virtue was that the device would be out of the hands of Frosticos, who would surely misuse it, whatever it was.”
“It had a use, then?”
“Apparently, or so St. Ives suspected. The long and the short of it is that Bill disappeared. We fear that he went down into the sands somewhere in the vicinity of Humphrey Head. Did he draw his map? We didn't know. All these years we've assumed that the map, if there was one, sank along with the wagon and poor Bill.”
“And so ends the tale,” Tubby said. “Your device is lost, and two dead men to show for it.”
“One last, salient bit. Merton, you see, frequents the Bay, where he has family, and years ago St. Ives asked him to be on the lookout for anything remotely relevant to the case. Lost things turn up, you see, sometimes, along the shore, sometimes in dredgers' nets. This is our first glimmer of hope.”
“Well,” Tubby said gloomily, “give me a kidney pie and a pint of plain over a glimmer of anything, especially if it's buried in quicksand.” But Tubby was always a slave to his stomach, and there he was sitting beside me in the cab as we reined up in front of Merton's, game as ever.
Merton's Rarities, very near London Bridge, is part rare book shop, part curiosity shop, and a sort of museum of old maps and arcane paper goods, scientific debris, and collections of all sorts—insects, assembled skeletons, stuffed creatures from far and wide. Where Merton finds his wares I don't know, although he does a brisk trade with sailors returning from distant lands. In his youth he worked in the stockroom at the British Museum, where he established a number of exotic contacts.
The shop was well lit despite the hour. Tubby and I hesitated only a moment in the entryway, spotting St. Ives and Hasbro bent over the body of poor Merton, who lay sprawled on the floor like a dead man. Roundabout the front counter there were maps and papers and books strewn about, drawers emptied. Someone had torn the place up, and brazenly, too. Merton's forehead was bloody from a gash at the hairline, smeared by the now bloodstained sleeve of his lab coat. Hasbro was waving a vial of smelling salts beneath Merton's nose, but apparently to no consequence, as St. Ives attempted to staunch the flow of blood.
“Back room. Wary now,” St. Ives told us without looking up, and Frobisher, no longer mindful of his kidney pie, plucked a shillelagh out of a hollow elephant leg nearby. He had the look of a man who was finally happy to do some useful work. I took out a leaded cane and followed him toward the rear of the shop, where we came to an arched door, beyond which there was a vestibule opening onto three large rooms: a book room, a storage room full of wooden casks and crates, and a workshop. The book room was apparently empty, although the storage room afforded a dozen hiding places. “Come on out!” I shouted, brandishing the cane at the shadow-filled room, but I was met with silence.
Then Tubby called out, “He's bolted!” which didn't altogether disappoint me. I found Tubby in the workshop, where a door stood open beyond a row of heavy wooden benches littered with half assembled skeletons. We looked out through the door, discovering a pleasant, walled garden with a paved central square surrounded by shrubbery. An iron, scrollwork table lay on the pavement, its feet pushed into the shrubbery along the wall, which the attacker had no doubt scaled, kicking the table backward when he boosted himself onto the copings.
We set the table up, which was very shaky, I might add, with a treacherously loose leg, and while Tubby held it steady, I climbed atop it and looked up and down the empty by-street, which dead-ended some distance up against a shuttered building. It lead away downwards towards the river, winding around in the direction, roughly speaking, of Billingsgate Market.
“Gone,” I said out loud. “No sight of him.” And I was just leaning on Tubby's shoulder to climb back down when I saw a boy come out of an alley down across the way. He stood staring at me, as if trying to classify what species of creature I might turn out to be. To my utter surprise, he headed straight toward me, waving a hand in the air.