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The Alchemy Press Book of Urban Mythic

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The Alchemy Press Book of Urban Mythic


  Alchemy Press Book of

  Urban Mythic



  Jan Edwards


  Jenny Barber

  Published by The Alchemy Press

  The Alchemy Press Book of Urban Mythic

  Copyright © Jan Edwards and Jenny Barber 2013

  Cover art copyright © Ben Baldwin

  This publication © The Alchemy Press 2013

  Typesetting and design by Peter Coleborn

  eBook edition

  Print edition: ISBN 978-0-9573489-3-6

  The moral rights of the authors and illustrator have been asserted. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means without the permission of The Alchemy Press.

  All characters in this book are fictitious, and any resemblance to real persons is coincidental.

  Published 2013 by The Alchemy Press, Cheadle, Staffordshire, UK

  Copyright Information

  ‘The Smith of Hockley’ copyright © James Brogden 2013

  ‘Dragon-Form Witch’ copyright © Joyce Chng 2013

  ‘Fish Bowl’ copyright © Zen Cho 2013

  ‘Family Business’ copyright © Adrian Czajkowski 2013

  ‘A Night to Forget’ copyright © Graham Edwards 2013

  ‘Not the Territory’ copyright © Jaine Fenn 2013

  ‘Under Cover of Night’ copyright © Christopher Golden 2007 First published in Five Strokes to Midnight by Haunted Pelican Press. Reprinted by permission of the author.

  ‘An Inspector Calls’ copyright © Catherine Webb 2013

  ‘The Song of the City’ copyright © Alison Littlewood 2013

  ‘The Seeds of a Pomegranate’ copyright ©Anne Nicholls 2013

  ‘White Horse’ copyright © Jonathan Oliver 2013

  ‘The Wizard of West 34th Street’ copyright © Mike Resnick 2012 First published in Asimov’s. Reprinted by permission of the author.

  ‘Underground’ copyright © Gaie Sebold 2013

  ‘Default Reactions’ copyright © Ian Whates 2013


  Copyright Information


  Default Reactions by Ian Whates

  Underground by Gaie Sebold

  The Smith of Hockley by James Brogden

  A Night to Forget by Graham Edwards

  Dragon-Form Witch by Joyce Chng

  The Wizard of West 34th Street by Mike Resnick

  The Seeds of a Pomegranate by Anne Nicholls

  Family Business by Adrian Tchaikovsky

  Not the Territory by Jaine Fenn

  Under Cover of Night by Christopher Golden

  White Horse by Jonathan Oliver

  The Fish-Bowl by Zen Cho

  An Inspector Calls by Kate Griffin

  The Song of the City by Alison Littlewood

  The Authors

  The Editors

  Also available from The Alchemy Press


  As a sub-genre, urban fantasy is frequently said to have begun in the 1980s and many of the landmark urban fantasy books did indeed come about in that decade – books such as Tea With the Black Dragon by R A MacAvoy, Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, Moonheart by Charles de Lint, War for the Oaks by Emma Bull, Weaveworld from Clive Barker and, of course, the influential Borderland series edited by Terri Windling and Mark Alan Arnold.

  The elements of urban fantasy can be found in contemporary fantasy and much horror and Gothic fiction, in pulp fantasy and magic realism, in a variety of forms, from the written word to the big and small screen. But whatever the form of this particular type of fiction, one common factor has become quite apparent: the notion of something otherworldly living just around the corner, a notion that strikes a chord across all cultures and ages.

  Urban fantasy has always had an irresistible appeal for both of us, as editors, writers and readers, so when considering what we could do to follow The Alchemy Press Book of Ancient Wonders, the theme was obvious. We wanted to give you the magic hidden in the modern world, the horror of things that lurk in the dark, and the delightful possibilities of the world seen aslant, in a myriad of stories ranging from action-packed noir through the humorous romp to the mythic resonance of the modern fairy tale.

  Given this open brief we went in search of those fictional gems that will delight, thrill and engross readers from across the field (and into those dark urban streets) and what we have arrived at is a collection from fourteen consummate tale-weavers who most of you will have come across many times before, along with some who are perhaps new to you. So kick off your shoes, sit back, and prepare to read what we feel are some of the greatest tales of urban fantasy that your pennies could possibly buy!

  Jan Edwards and Jenny Barber

  September 2013

  Default Reactions

  Ian Whates

  I exited the tube station and headed right, nearly walking into the woman in front of me as she stopped without warning to do up her coat. A young man in a hoodie, whom I hadn’t even realised was with her until that moment, shuffled half a step closer and glared at me, as if suspecting I was intent on mugging his girlfriend or something. Aggression seems to be the default reaction of so many people these days.

  I gave an awkward half-smile, adjusted my rucksack, and hurried past, seeing no point in causing a scene.

  The year had just tipped from September into October and the evenings were drawing in. A few months back it would still have been daylight at this hour, but now the cars that trailed each other disconsolately along the road did so with headlights on, the beams dappled by droplets of spray thrown up by the vehicle in front, testament to the recent rainfall; and the air carried a bitter edge, heralding the imminence of winter.

  I hadn’t seen George in quite a while, not since he disappeared off to Canada to get married. I had heard via a mutual friend that he was back in London, but that was all. Until today. His message had sounded urgent, not to mention intriguing. The snatch of video that accompanied it sealed the deal. There was no way I could resist his invitation to meet after seeing that.

  Why he’d come to me with this… Well, that’s a little complicated. Let’s just say that George knows I’m one of the few people who wouldn’t dismiss the clip as a hoax, or mistake it for a clever trailer feigning ‘realism’ to promote the next would-be Hollywood blockbuster.

  The restaurant was only a few minutes’ walk from the tube station. One of several eateries in a small arcade, it stood sandwiched between a curry house and a hairdressers – the latter shut at this hour. The flowing white lettering above the door proclaimed it to be The Merhaba, which means ‘hello’ in Turkish, with connotations of ‘welcome’ from the Arabic; a good name for a restaurant by my reckoning. I studied the façade for a moment, which had a traditional feel – all dark wood framing and plate glass windows – but resisted the temptation to go in immediately. Instead I walked on, past the hairdressers and the garish red and gold frontage of the Chinese restaurant beyond, past the pizza parlour, the off-licence, and the darkened windows of a small deli, until I reached the end of the arcade.

  Turning left and immediately left again brought me into a narrow alleyway that ran behind the restaurants and shops, just wide enough to get a car or small van down; at least it would have been had the place not been lined haphazardly with a selection of large industrial bins and assorted black bags.

  Yes, this was definitely where that tantalising snatch of video had been shot.

  A pair of eyes stared at me from among the bins, too
big to be a cat. I froze, hardly believing my luck. Then the headlights from a passing car raced briefly along the alley, revealing a glimpse of ginger fur and white-tipped tail as the creature darted away, melting into the night. I relaxed, realising that I’d just had an encounter with an urban fox.

  I waited for several more minutes but nothing obvious disturbed the silence once the opportunistic scavenger had departed, so I turned round and retraced my steps to keep my rendezvous with George.

  Warmth and the aroma of charcoaled meat welcomed me as I stepped through the doorway. The Merhaba was clearly aiming for a taverna-style atmosphere, and to a large extent it succeeded. Subdued lighting, colourful embroidered table cloths draped over square tables, and Turkish music piped over the sound system: soaring fiddle and the harp-like notes of a multi-stringed kanuns predominant, the sound filled out with the strumming of what was most likely an ud – a traditional fretless fat-bodied guitar. The music was pitched at just the right level, creating ambience without being intrusive.

  Two narrow white-painted columns rose from the floor to meet a single false beam that ran the width of the room. They struck me as a bit over the top, but each to their own. Erkut – who preferred to be called ‘George’, presumably because he thought it easier for us Brits to pronounce and remember – sat behind a long, low open grill at the back of the restaurant, close to the door of the kitchen proper. He didn’t see me immediately, keeping a watchful eye on an assortment of skewered meats and marinated chicken fillets that cooked over the glowing coals before him.

  ‘Cosy’ would perhaps be the best way to describe the dining area, which contained seating for fifty or so covers. Even so it was little more than a third full, which surprised me. I know how good a chef George is.

  A starch-white-shirted waiter came over to greet me, prompting George to look up.

  ‘Chris!’ He was out from behind his grill and across the room in a flash, clasping my hand in his own strong grip. ‘It’s good to see you.’

  I found myself fussed over and ushered to a table. Smiling staff attended me while George returned to his cooking, and I was soon sipping a chilled beer while contemplating a sumptuous meze starter of eight or nine different dishes artfully arranged. They included a generous portion of the lightly battered deep fried mussels that George knows I’m partial to.

  The meze was followed by a kebab of perfectly cooked lamb and a spiced sausage, accompanied by rice – a blend of white and wild – and a bowl of salad laced with crumbled feta. I declined the baklava and ended the meal with a platter of fresh fruit. By the time I’d finished, the restaurant had started to empty out. George joined me, able to leave the grill now that the main courses were out of the way and the last of the diners had moved onto desert. Again, I couldn’t help but note how thin on the ground the patrons were.

  We paid lip-service to the social ritual of small talk, during which I learned of his failed marriage and subsequent retreat from Canada back to London. In turn, he discovered next to nothing about me, but that’s how I like it. Neither of us mentioned the video clip. Since we could easily have spoken quietly enough not to be overheard, I could only conclude that George was waiting for someone. Fine; so was I.

  The others started to arrive almost at once. They came in by ones and twos, most through the front door and a few through the kitchen, but all came over to our table: a deputation, then. George greeted each new arrival warmly and I was introduced by stages to the owners and managers of the various restaurants that formed the arcade.

  With much scraping of chairs and rearranging, the circle around our small table expanded like a lopsided bubble. I took my notebook – or ‘ultrabook’ as the marketing people insist on calling it these days – out of the rucksack in preparation and placed it on the table. By the time the last patrons left – a middle aged couple who stared at us oddly on their way out, as if this multi-national gathering were somehow unnatural – a dozen people sat around me; all men barring one sharp-eyed Chinese woman, introduced as Lin, and a young, dark-skinned and wide-eyed boy, who wasn’t introduced at all.

  The Merhaba’s staff locked the door and put up the ‘Closed’ sign – a little early, surely – before producing several bottles of the house red, some Efes beer, an open bottle of raki, and an array of glasses. One of them, an older man whose right arm was couched in a sling, took a seat beside George while the rest retreated into the kitchen. The clatter of crockery and the occasional raised voice marked their presence beyond the closed door.

  Everyone looked expectantly at George.

  ‘Chris, you realise why we’ve asked you here,’ he said. ‘You’ve seen the video.’

  I nodded, flipping the notebook open.

  ‘I know that you are more … open minded than most,’ he continued.

  A delicate way of skirting around what I knew and what he’d once caught a glimpse of.

  ‘To put it bluntly, we need your help. What I sent you, it’s not faked. We are being troubled – pestered – by a monster.’

  I didn’t comment but simply brought the video up on screen. I’d cleaned the clip up significantly since George sent it over.

  ‘Kirtimukha,’ one of the Indians blurted out.

  ‘Kirtimukha?’ At first I thought I must have misheard, having only come across the term in relation to the sharp-fanged visages you often find carved above doorways in Hindu temples. It means ‘The Face of Glory’ and generally involves a monstrous face eating or swallowing something. I’d never heard the word applied to anything other than a carving before.

  ‘Yes … that’s what it is.’ He turned to the boy. ‘Sagnik, tell him.’

  ‘It’s true!’ the lad said, as if daring me to deny it.

  ‘Did you take the video?’ I asked.

  The boy nodded.

  I returned my attention to the screen, and those around me shifted closer, some standing and coming across to look over my shoulder, though presumably they’d all seen it before.

  The clip, clearly taken at night, opened with darkness and the muffled sound of men’s agitated voices. The glare of lights suddenly switched on to reveal the bins at the back of the restaurants. A figure crouched on top of one; humanoid in a general sense but somehow wrong. Naked and hairless; Gollum from The Lord of the Rings films sprang to mind, but this was bulkier; more muscular. And while it had Gollum’s bulging eyes there was none of the pitiful vulnerability that Tolkien’s character sometimes displayed.

  The picture was a little shaky at first but soon steadied and then zoomed in on the creature. As it did so, that strangely mutable face snarled and was instantly transformed into a thing of nightmare. The bulbous eyes and wickedly pointed teeth would have been unsettling enough, but the scallop-edged neck frill that sprang up around the face completed the job. It was an aggressive display that reminded me of images I’d seen of an Australian reptile, the frilled dragon.

  Voices grew more strident, and now somebody from left of camera threw something – a chef’s cleaver by the look of it – which clattered noisily against the bin a fraction below the creature‘s feet.

  This proved enough to spook the creature, which turned and leapt at the sheer wall behind. Its fingers found purchase where there appeared to be none, and in an instant it was gone, nimbly scaling the wall and disappearing onto the rooftops.

  The film panned out again to show long shadows fall across the bins as men raced forward, some waving torches and knives, at which point the clip ended.

  Conversations broke out around the table in various languages and I heard the word Kirtimukha mumbled again as people returned to their seats.

  ‘Have you ever seen anything like this before, Chris?’ George asked.

  ‘No,’ I confirmed, ‘but I think I may know what it is.’ I pulled up a still of the creature in close-up. ‘Look at the crest when it’s not erect.’ The crest was now lying flat and looked remarkably like a formal collar, appearing to consist of overlapping elements, similar to a reptile’s sca
les, but also... ‘Does it remind you of anything?’

  ‘Not really,’ George said.

  ‘Leaves!’ Sagnik said. ‘It looks like leaves lying one on top of the other.’

  ‘Exactly: overlapping leaves.’ Thank God for the unhampered imagination of children.

  I flicked to another image, and then another and another; a whole series, each showing a stone-carved face peering out from a wreath of leaves, some with twigs and branches apparently sprouting out of the face itself. ‘These are all genuine photos taken in churches,’ I explained, though the last one obviously wasn’t. Instead it was a more stylised illustration, and, whereas the previous images were all cast in the grey or yellow-brown mono-colour of carved stone, this final image was depicted in different shades of…

  ‘Green,’ Sagnik said. ‘The Green Man!’

  ‘Right.’ A number of those around me still looked puzzled, though a few nodded as if they knew what I was on about. ‘The Green Man,’ I repeated. ‘A legend that’s been around for thousands of years – nobody can really say how long – but various archetypes such as the Green Knight of Arthurian legend and Jack in the Green from English folklore are often linked with it. I’ve no idea whether these are all accurately attributed or romanticised associations made in retrospect because people want to see a link, but it doesn’t matter. The Green Man crops up in different forms in the myths of various cultures from around the world, and in Britain it’s most often recalled through the architecture of churches and in the names of pubs. I don’t believe that’s a coincidence. Church and pub: the two traditional centres of community. The Green Man symbolises the spirit of nature and the wild places of the world – a connection to the natural order that modern society has progressively moved away from. I think, deep down at the instinctive level, we recognise this, which is why we see him remembered in the places that have always represented the heart of community.’

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