The Ebb Tide (eBook)
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….
'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.”
The Ebb Tide: A Langdon St. Ives Adventure
by James P. Blaylock
We were at the Half Toad one evening early in themonth of a windy May—Langdon St. Ives; Tubby Frobisher, and myself, JackOwlesby—taking our ease at our customary table. Professor St. Ives, as you'reperhaps already aware, is one of England's most brilliant scientists, and hermost intrepid explorer. The Half Toad is an inn that lies in Lambert Court, offFingal Street in London, frequented by men of science down on their luck: threerooms to let, William and Henrietta Billson proprietors. The inn is difficultto find if you don't know the turning or if you fail to see the upper body ofwhat is commonly called a Surinam toad leaning out of the high window over thedoor.
The carving of the toad was carriedout of Guiana in the mid-century by Billson himself, aboard the old William Rodgers. The nether half of the creatureblew 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 foundhimself afloat and alone with half the toad, and he clung to the remains forclose onto a day and a half before fishermen hauled him out nearly drowned. Hewent straight back to London on a mail packet, only to discover that his oldfather had died two months earlier and left him something over five hundred ayear, and so he counted his many blessings, married his sweetheart, and set upshop in Lambert Court, where he put the heroic toad in the window.
In his seagoing days, Billson hadbeen an amateur naturalist, and had sailed as a young man with Sir GilbertBlane, 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 hiscorrespondence with St. Ives in the days following the incident of the break-inat the Bayswater Street Oceanarium in the time of the Homunculus.
St. Ives had recently resolved tokeep a room the year round at the Half Toad, despite—or rather because of—itsobscure location, so that he had secure digs when he came in from Chingford-by-the-Towerto London proper, which happened often enough. Billson wasn't a man to betrifled 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, oncebeat a customer half silly with a potato masher who had put his hands on thegirl who makes up the rooms. Her fruit tarts and meat pies would make you weep.
Enough people frequent the Inn tokeep Billson busy in front of his fireplace spit long into the evening, and on thenight 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 calledIrish apricots by the Welsh, and there wasn't a man among us who didn't havethe look of a greedy dog.
This particular May evening at theHalf Toad, I'll point out in passing, took place during that lamented periodwhen St. Ives had been forbidden entrance to the Explorer's Club because of aminor kitchen mishap involving refined brandy and the head and tentacles of a giantsquid. The great man's temporary banishment and subsequent reinstatement willhave to be the subject of another account, but in those dark days St. Ives cameto appreciate the homely luxury of the Half Toad, and in the years followinghis 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 comesinto London.
But as I was saying, I remember thatMay evening in '82 well enough, for the Phoenix Park murders were being shoutedhigh and low by newsboys out on Fingal Street. That unforgettable joint of beefwas turning on the spit, there were kidney pies baking in the oven and puddingsboiling in the copper, and, of course, there were those potatoes. The Billsons'halfwit kitchen help, a Swede of indeterminate age named Lars Hopeful, wasdrawing ale from the tap, and all of us, you can be sure, were looking forwardto making a long night of it.
I hadn't so much as put the glass tomy lips when the door swung open, the street noise momentarily heightened, andwe looked up to see who it was coming in with the wind. Surprisingly, it wasSt. Ives's man Hasbro, who should have been in Chingford tending the homefires, so to speak, and collecting the post. Alice—Mrs. St. Ives—was inScarborough with the St. Ives children, little Eddie and his sister Cleo. Myown wife, Dorothy, had gone along, the lot of them staying with Alice's ancientgrandmother, which explains how St. Ives and I had come to be temporarilybachelorized. 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 producedfrom his coat a recent copy of Merton's Catalogue of Rarities and opened it to a folded page, which he passed across toSt. Ives, who read the piece aloud. There was offered for sale a handdrawn mapof a small area of the Morecambe Sands, the location not identified. The map,according to the catalogue copy, was stained with waterweeds, tobacco, and saltrime, was torn, soiled, and ill-drawn as if by a child, was signed with theletter K and the crude, figure-eight drawing of a cuttlefish, and was offeredfor sale for two pounds six. “Of questionable value,” Merton had added, “butperhaps interesting to the right party.”
Merton had found the right party,and had doubtless expected to find it, because he had sent thecatalogue out to St. Ives Manor by messenger, not suspecting, of course, thatthe Professor was already in London. St. Ives stood up abruptly from his chairand uttered the words, “Kraken's map, or I'm a fried whiting.” He slid thecatalogue into his coat and along with the waiting Hasbro strode toward thedoor, shouting a hasty good-bye to Billson, who gestured his farewell with thecarving knife. Never a potato did I eat, I'm sad to say, and the same for TubbyFrobisher, who was fast on my heels, although the man could have had no ideawhat any of this meant.
Night was falling, and thetemperature 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 wasinordinately tall and sneery, lounging on a pile of excavated dirt and rockwith the air of a man having avoided a day's work. Twenty minutes earlier therehad been two of them, the other squat and with dangling, heavy arms, and thecomical contrast between the two had stayed in my mind. Now the tall one wassmoking a pipe over the remains of the day—Balkan Sobranie, my own tobacco ofchoice, and perhaps a little elevated for a workman's pocketbook, something Iremarked to Frobisher when the wind blew the reek past us in a cloud. The mangathered himself together and left just as we came out through the door. Hedisappeared back through the Court with a certain celerity, as if he had anappointment to keep.
Fingal Street, never particularlyactive, was possessed of an evening quiet. St. Ives hailed a Hansom cab that happenedto be passing, and he and Hasbro climbed aboard and whirled away. “ToMerton's!” St. Ives shouted back at us, and Tubby and I were left to follow asbest we could. We set out on foot, making our way down toward the Embankment ata fair pace.
“Look here, Jackie,” Frobisher said,puffing along beside me. “What on Earth is this business of the map' That wasmy kidney pie just coming out of the oven, and now I'm left to starve.”
“I can't be certain,” I said. “I canonly speculate.”
“Then speculate me this: a map to what' Gold and jewels, eh' Something ofthat sort' The problem with all this,” he told me, “is that anything lost inthe Morecambe Sands will stay lost. I've heard stories of coaches and foursinking into the quicksands of Morecambe Bay with all hands on board, never tobe 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 BillKraken'”
“Absolutely. Not a bad sort,although half the time off his chump, as I recall.”
“Not so far off as it sometimesseemed, I can assure you,” I said. “The antics of a lunatic are a natural ruse.”
We hailed a passing cab now, whichreined 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 horsesand off they went, throwing us both sideways, Tubby pinning me heavily againstthe wall. “The point is,” I said, “if Bill drew such a map, and it's come tolight, 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 youmight call…a device,” I told him.
“Ah! A device. Just so. For spinning straw intogold, perhaps'”
One didn't keep secrets from one'sallies, especially from a man like Tubby Frobisher, who did as he would be doneby, so to speak. “You recall the so-called Yorkshire Dales Meteor'” I asked.
“Plowed up a meadow owned by acountry parson, didn't it' Burnt a hedgerow. There was some element of it thatmade it worth the attention of the press for a day or two. I seem to recall aring of floating cattle roundabout a manure dump, although it might have beenfloating swine.”
“It was the murder of ParsonGrimstead that attracted the press. They were more or less indifferent to theflaming object—not a meteor, I can assure you. The Parson found a strangedevice, you see, in his cattle enclosure, and he hid it in his barn. Hesuspected, probably correctly, that it wasn't…of earthly origin.”
Tubby gave me a look, but he knewenough about St. Ives's adventures over the years so that the look wasn't utterlydubious. “The Parson sent word to St. Ives,” I said, “whom he had known man andboy, and St. Ives flogged up to Yorkshire to arrive the following morning, onlyto find the Parson dead on the ground inside the barn door. He was carrying afowling piece, although he hadn't apparently meant to go hunting, at least not forbirds. There was no sign of the device. A local farmer had seen a wagon comingout of the Parson's yew alley before dawn, driving away westward. It turned outthat the device had been spirited away to the Carnforth Ironworks. According toa worker, a container of wood and iron had been built to house it, the interiorof the container sealed with India rubber. As for the floating cattle, St. Ivesfound the report vitally interesting, but to my mind it simply encouraged thepress 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 offeral pigs when we had the chance. We'll add that oversight to our list ofregrets.”
Fleet Street was annoyingly crowdedwith evening strollers, and we crawled along now, the cabbie shouting imprecations,our pace quickening again as we rounded onto Upper Thames Street toward theEmbankment. “The map, then'” Tubby asked. “You must have found this device andthen—what'—lost it again'”
“Just so. What happened,” I toldhim, “was that we three took the device out of the Ironworks under the cover ofnight, St. Ives, old Bill, and myself. We were waylaid near Silverdale at lowtide, and Bill set out across the sands alone with the wagon despite St. Ives'sreservations. He had the idea of fleeing into Cumbria, going to ground, and waitingfor us to catch up. If the wagon became mired in the sands, he would draw a mapof its exact location, although the odds of our recovering it were small. The virtuewas that the device would be out of the hands of Frosticos, who would surelymisuse it, whatever it was.”
“It had a use, then'”
“Apparently, or so St. Ivessuspected. The long and the short of it is that Bill disappeared. We fear thathe went down into the sands somewhere in the vicinity of Humphrey Head. Did hedraw his map' We didn't know. All these years we've assumed that the map, ifthere 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, yousee, frequents the Bay, where he has family, and years ago St. Ives asked himto be on the lookout for anything remotely relevant to the case. Lost thingsturn up, you see, sometimes, along the shore, sometimes in dredgers' nets. Thisis our first glimmer of hope.”
“Well,” Tubby said gloomily, “giveme a kidney pie and a pint of plain over a glimmer of anything, especially ifit's buried in quicksand.” But Tubby was always a slave to his stomach, andthere 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 LondonBridge, is part rare book shop, part curiosity shop, and a sort of museum ofold maps and arcane paper goods, scientific debris, and collections of allsorts—insects, assembled skeletons, stuffed creatures from far and wide. WhereMerton finds his wares I don't know, although he does a brisk trade withsailors returning from distant lands. In his youth he worked in the stockroomat the British Museum, where he established a number of exotic contacts.
The shop was well lit despite thehour. Tubby and I hesitated only a moment in the entryway, spotting St. Ivesand Hasbro bent over the body of poor Merton, who lay sprawled on the floorlike a dead man. Roundabout the front counter there were maps and papers andbooks strewn about, drawers emptied. Someone had torn the place up, andbrazenly, 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 avial 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, nolonger mindful of his kidney pie, plucked a shillelagh out of a hollow elephantleg nearby. He had the look of a man who was finally happy to do some usefulwork. 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 ontothree 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 affordeda dozen hiding places. “Come on out!” I shouted, brandishing the cane at theshadow-filled room, but I was met with silence.
Then Tubby called out, “He'sbolted!” which didn't altogether disappoint me. I found Tubby in the workshop, wherea door stood open beyond a row of heavy wooden benches littered with halfassembled skeletons. We looked out through the door, discovering a pleasant, walledgarden with a paved central square surrounded by shrubbery. An iron, scrollworktable 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 heboosted himself onto the copings.
We set the table up, which was veryshaky, I might add, with a treacherously loose leg, and while Tubby held itsteady, I climbed atop it and looked up and down the empty by-street, whichdead-ended some distance up against a shuttered building. It lead awaydownwards towards the river, winding around in the direction, roughly speaking,of Billingsgate Market.
“Gone,” I said out loud. “No sightof him.” And I was just leaning on Tubby's shoulder to climb back down when Isaw a boy come out of an alley down across the way. He stood staring at me, asif trying to classify what species of creature I might turn out to be. To myutter surprise, he headed straight toward me, waving a hand in the air.