Peek into the teen closet

Peek into the teen closet

Terror on the Titanic: A Morningstar Agency Adventure

Samit Basu

Scholastic India

Rs150; 204 pages

Chapter 1

Let us imagine that you had bought, in secret, the world’s most precious jewel, the Eye of Empire, a massive ruby known to have left a trail of lives – violently lost – behind it as it journeyed across harsh lands in the care of desperate men.

Now here is my question: Where would you undertake this transaction? If it were up to me, I would meet the bearer of the ruby in some pleasant spot in the countryside, in daylight, and keep myself surrounded by men I trusted . Why in the name of seven hells, then, had Sir Reginald Pyke chosen to acquire the Eye of Empire in the dead of night in a narrow, winding alley in the East End of London, easily the most dangerous region in all the Empire ?

True, Jack the Ripper had not struck in more than twenty years , but those forbidding lanes were still bursting with thieves, pickpockets and assorted cutthroats always more than happy to carve a passing stranger up into thin, quivering slices just to pass the time and, perhaps, feed their rats. I had never possessed anything of great material value, but I knew, even so, that precious objects were meant to be guarded, to be kept safe – and out of Whitechapel. But then, perhaps, for collectors and hoarders like Sir Reginald Pyke, part of the thrill of possessing a gem like the Eye of Empire was the the danger involved in its ownership.

Not that I had any reason to complain; after all, my task that night was not to ensure Sir Reginald’s safety, but to steal the ruby from him, for Mr. Morningstar had told me to ensure that this jewel was destroyed, and more specifically to see that it never crossed the Atlantic. I was not very sure as to how one destroyed a ruby, but I planned to drop it in a volcano and hope for the best. Not, perhaps, the most economical plan, but Mr. Morningstar had always been most generous when it came to providing travel expenses. Given the nature of my enterprise, I should have been celebrating Pyke’s choice of location, because the Metropolitan police had long ago given up investigating thefts in Whitechapel, but I was troubled. The task was simple enough, but I knew in my heart that complications were inevitable.

In the last few minutes alone, my short walk from Whitechapel Road to Wormwood Street had been interrupted by four attempts on my life. But those malnourished yahoos leaping out of corners were not the source of my growing irritation; I dealt with them easily enough, leaving them moaning and convulsing on the narrow pavement. The rain, on the other hand, I could not dispel, it had no bones to break; it was everywhere, gnawing at my coat and at my patience, dribbling through the cobblestones, dripping into the gutters without so much as a gurgle to indicate it meant business. The waning moon above occasionally cast a little light through gaps in wispy grey clouds. It was the kind of half-hearted weather that I detested above all things.

From Wormwood Street I headed north and west, striding through filthy, malodorous alleys, trying not to listen to the moans and ragged whispers, the dull thuds and muffled shrieks that trickled out of the hovels I passed; there were many secrets all around me, many sorrows, many stories, but I had no interest in them. The darkness grew with every step, and a normal man would have been stumbling, blind, but I had no need of gaslight or candle. I had stalked wild leopards through the trees by night, calling them rude names, and wandered far underground through the lost catacombs of Jungle-conquered cities with the daughters of Kaa. But while I could see clearly, my other senses were in disarray; the smells and sounds of London overwhelmed me, drowned me in filth and sensation. Remembering Mr. Morningstar’s instructions, I breathed quickly, shallowly, trying to focus all my concentration on vision alone. I commanded my nose and ears to believe they were ordinary, that they were not being pulled in a thousand directions by trails that led to madness. It took some time and a great deal of effort, but I calmed myself. I shut London out. A decision I would soon have cause to regret.

I found Sir Reginald soon enough, at the very place I had been told the rendezvous would take place; Falcon Square, a small clearing hemmed in on every side by crooked, shabby houses that seemed to fight one another for space in their crammed rows, like weeds seeking the sun. Four alleys cut into the square, one running off from each side. It would have been difficult to miss him; he was right at the centre of the square, sitting at the wheel of the most ostentatious car possible, a Rolls Royce Silver Ghost that seemed to glow with its own light. I hated all cars, but even I had to admit this one was a beauty, a mighty beast that could roll its way through any trail in this urban jungle unchallenged, a Hathi among automobiles. Pyke, however, commanded no such awe; he was a soft, querulous-looking man whose puffy whiskers did nothing to compensate for his weak chin. I had thought a man capable of such foolhardiness as to sit alone in a magnificent car inviting the jackal-men of the East End to sally forth and strip him to the bone – really, he may as well have been handing out pamphlets proclaiming his desire to be robbed – would at least look like a dashing adventurer. But the man who sat at the wheel of the Silver Ghost appeared to be the sort of fellow who, if placed in a life-threatening situation, would draw in his breath sharply and write a strong letter to a newspaper editor. He appeared to have no illusions about himself either; I could see him clearly as I panther-walked into the square, sliding through the blackest pockets of darkness closer to the car, and he was evidently extremely nervous. He huffed and puffed, his eyes darting from side to side, seeing a thousand demons lurking in every corner of the square.

The task seemed simple enough; whoever Pyke was waiting for would arrive, hopefully carrying the jewel. When their negotiations were concluded – he would take Pyke’s money, or his life, or both – I would step in, retrieve the jewel, and rush off in search of cleaner air. I moved closer to the car, ready for anything, feeling in my coat for my favourite weapon, my father’s old hunting knife.

It was gone. It had been there minutes ago; I had shown it to a drunken buffoon who had been considering attacking me with a club on Whitechapel High Street. What devilry was this?

A quiet grunt of surprise escaped my lips. Pyke heard; he quivered in terror and called out, ‘Bavarian!’

‘Silence...master,’ said a deep, chilling voice from the shadows across the square. I scampered away, belly to the ground, lizard-fashion, my head spinning. How many others were there? Why had I not seen them?

It was a matter of seconds before I was out of the square, lurking in the darkness of an alley. I looked again, harder, trying to remember where the voice had come from. The darkness took on a shape; a giant of a man, clad in a long, shabby greatcoat stretched to its limits by the massive body within. He had been standing so very still I must have taken him for a statue, or a tree. This, then, was Pyke’s bodyguard. I looked closer. He was wearing blackened eyeglasses. At this hour of night! Was he blind? No, there was something strange about him; a faint orange glow behind the glasses, the colour of burning embers. I let London into my nose again, ignoring the churning cries of Whitechapel, trying to find his scent. Beyond the metal and oil of the car, beyond Pyke’s fear and pomade, I sought him out. I found nothing. The bodyguard had no smell at all, and this filled my heart with a nameless dread; he was some manner of unnatural creature. Where, by the gharial’s snout, was my knife?

Under the circumstances, there was only one thing to do. I dropped to the street again, and spoke the Master-words that could find me friends even here, so far from all jungles. I called out to Dog, to Rat, to Bird; Pyke and the Bavarian, now conferring in hushed tones in the middle of the square, must have wondered why a crew of beasts had gathered to observe and criticize their actions. No one replied for a few seconds, then there was a squeak near my feet.

‘Oi!’ said a rat. ‘Startled me clean out of me wits, you did.’

He was a handsome fellow, grey and strong, long of tooth and red of eye. I gave him the Rat salute and he bit my boot by way of greeting.

‘What’s yer game, mate?’ he asked. ‘Been years since I heard the Call. My nan learned it me when I was but a wee pink thing.’

‘Help me, little brother,’ I said. ‘Tell me of those men in the square. Help me find my knife.’

‘Tell you what, guv’nor? You can see them well as me. The big one, he’s all wrong. You couldn’t get me near him, no, you couldn’t, not with a cellar full of steak and ale pies. Hole in his smell. Know where your knife is, though. Girl took it. Whisked it clean out of your pocket while you was prancing about.’

‘What girl?’

‘Your nose needs cleaning, mate. That girl,’ and the rat looked behind me. I spun around.

Standing a short distance further up the alley was a vision of loveliness in full evening dress. Short, slender as a doe, lithe as a young tigress, her right hand raised, a finger to her full lips; in her left hand was my knife. But this did not perturb me at all; frankly, I would not have cared had she been holding a severed head. Her scent had come to me, young and clean and strong, fighting its way up through Whitechapel’s noxious bouquet, and by the quickening of my breath and the sinking of my heart I knew I was suddenly, powerfully in love. An ordinary man might have waited till the light of day, and observed the full bloom of her beauty. And she was, indeed, beautiful; I could tell, in spite of the dark, in spite of the strange contraption she wore on her head, an aviator’s helmet with two jutting cylinders obscuring her eyes – binoculars that let her see in the dark? I did not know or care. An ordinary man might have held his feelings in check for a few years, slowly letting her know of his regard, judging whether she would be a suitable mate. But I was of the Jungle, and I had smelt her; it was enough.

I hoped I would not have to kill her.

She beckoned with an imperious finger, turned and walked off; I trailed in her wake like a love-sick buffalo, casting one despairing backward glance towards Pyke and the Bavarian. They did not look exceptionally desirous of my company. We walked silently southwards, the rat frolicking by my feet, squeaking obscenities. When we were safely out of earshot, she faced me, and this time she smiled.

‘Nathaniel Brown,’ she whispered, ‘I bring a message from Mr. Morningstar.’

‘I knew he was an influential man, but I was unaware he employed angels,’ I replied, ever courteous. At close quarters, her scent was maddening; I considered kissing her. From her accent, she was French, which meant she might not take it amiss. I took a step forward.

She punched me in the face, a surprisingly powerful right cross. My head swam with more than desire.

‘Listen to me, you dolt,’ she whispered, fiercely this time. ‘You’re off this case. There are powerful players at work now; the stakes have risen. Now leave this place at once, report to the Charing Cross office tomorrow, and consider yourself lucky that I found you in time to save your life.’

‘This is my very first case,’ I said. ‘I will not leave until my work is done; I owe Mr. Morningstar that much. I thank you for your concern, miss, but I cannot do as you ask. Instead, I would advise you to seek safety – there are dangerous men abroad. Besides, I have no idea who you are. Who do you work for?’

She stamped her foot in annoyance, and gave me the password. I bowed, and apologized for having doubted her.

‘I understand your enthusiasm, and it does you credit, Nathaniel,’ she said, ‘but this is work for senior agents . You have neither the training nor the skill to deal with the Bavarian – and he is not the most fearsome creature prowling London this night. I have been instructed by Mr. Morningstar to take over. What – ’

I lunged forward, grabbed her and dragged her towards a ramshackle building to my right. She struggled violently for an instant, but then realized this was no assault on her virtue; she followed my gaze, over her shoulder and further down the alley, and froze.

A man had appeared at the other end of the alley. A sinister figure in a cape and hood, striding towards us swiftly, his boots clattering loudly on the cobblestones. He was tall and broad, as formidable a foe as the Bavarian. Like him, this new arrival smelled of nothing but travel, but this man was not wearing dark glasses; his eyes were uncovered, blazing like coals freshly lit beneath his hood. The lower half of his face was lit up, and covered with scars. Under one arm he held a wrapped bundle; in the other was a scimitar, glittering evilly in the light from his eyes.

I took my knife from the girl, and would have sprung at him, but she dragged me back, and threw all my senses to the wind by pinning me against the wall and kissing me roughly. She had flung her strange headgear aside; her hair cascaded over her face. The man was almost upon us now; I saw one of her hands creep into the folds of her dress, and come out bearing a small pistol. He stopped and considered us for an endless minute, his burning eyes not blinking once; our hands were clenched on the hilts of our weapons, pressed tight between our entwined bodies, our breathing feverish as we waited for him to strike.

He grunted and walked on, evidently deciding we were overenthusiastic lovers or that another Whitechapel murder was taking place; either way, he displayed no interest. We waited until he had passed through the alley and entered Falcon Square, and then she knelt swiftly and replaced her helmet. I stayed where I was, back to the wall, breathing heavily. She tapped me gently on the shoulder, and whispered, ‘Go now.’

I waited a while to let my heart stop racing, and shook my head. I had no intention of going anywhere but back towards the square. Flitting noiselessly through the deepest patches of darkness, I followed the hooded newcomer; she sighed and matched me step for step.

The hooded man walked up to the Bavarian and handed him the package. The two giants spoke, and even though I was straining my ears, I could not overhear a word. Most unusual. There was a new scent in the air now; a pungent, acrid stench; I could not tell what it came from, it seemed to be all around us.

‘Is it there, Bavarian? Is it the Eye? Light, damn it!’ cried Sir Reginald, still not brave enough to leave the car.

‘Quiet, you fool,’ rumbled the hooded man. ‘Lie down in your seat, shut your eyes and pray to your God. I was followed. They are coming.’

I turned to my fellow agent to ask who ‘They’ might be, and my jaw dropped.

She was struggling in the arms of a great Beast, the source of the odour that had struck me seconds ago; how had a creature of that size crept up on us so quietly? It was a huge, scaled creature, nine feet high at least, patterned in the manner of a great snake though its shape was more similar to that of a silverback gorilla, standing on stump-like legs with crocodile-like feet, its python-headed arms coiled around her neck and torso. The creature’s head was snake-like; its tongue long and forked, a single eye, slit-pupilled, in the centre of its forehead. I quickly spoke the Snake Master-word, but the Beast ignored me; it opened its great mouth as if it meant to swallow her alive.

Since it was clearly not one for civilized negotiations, I threw my knife, with all the strength I could muster, into its eye. It let go of her, hissing angrily, clutching at the knife; she fell limply to the ground. Behind me, the fiery-eyed men had heard the commotion. They came striding towards us, the Bavarian drawing a pair of hunting pistols from the folds of his greatcoat. I charged at the Beast, leaping for the head, stuck the knife in deeper, twisted it cruelly and pulled it out, and the Beast let out an agonized screech and tottered back. I dodged a flailing arm and somersaulted back, landing on my feet, and the Beast rushed at me. But I had danced rings around charging bull elephants in the mud-banks of the Indus, and my hunting blood was up. I knelt by my fallen comrade and pulled her away, an instant before a massive foot came crashing down where her head had been. I darted at the passing Beast, slashing at its ankles, and it flung its arms at me again – to my horror, they grew longer as I dived, and missed me by a whisker – and then it tottered on, blind and enraged, into the square, towards that friendly pair, the Bavarian and the hooded man, who I suspected would not be the most gracious of hosts.

The Bavarian fired his pistols, and the Beast lurched and swayed. It extended its arms towards the Bavarian, and the Beast’s body seemed to shrink as the great coils emerged from it. But the hooded man was even faster than the striking snakes; the scimitar flashed left, then right, and two great heads fell with heavy thuds, leaving thick stumps thrashing uselessly. The hooded man danced forward and buried his scimitar in the Beast’s chest. It shuddered, convulsed, and fell heavily, quite dead.

A harsh cry rent the air; I looked up, and saw, sitting on rooftops on the other three sides of the square, three more monsters. They reminded me of nothing so much as paintings I had seen of the mythical Harpies, but these creatures did not resemble women so much as giant standing frogs; great, squat hind-limbs and clawed, long forelimbs, with thin membranes joining their paws and feet, veined and ribbed like Chinese fans. They screamed across the square, calling out to one another, challenging the warriors on the ground. What nightmare world had I stumbled into? Was there some magic in the air, giving us all fevered visions?

The Bavarian and his hooded ally stood back to back, their fiery eyes darting from one monstrous form to another. I glanced towards Pyke; there was no sign of him, the fool had probably fainted, and in any case he could see nothing. I gripped my knife-hilt; I would dash into the square, seize the Eye from the Bavarian, and disappear into the night while they were distracted by the Beasts.

‘Don’t do it,’ said a voice by my side. She was standing again, and apart from her slightly dishevelled appearance showed no signs of recently being mauled by creatures from an unknown hell. Truly, the female of the species, as my father once told Mr. Kipling, is more deadly than the male.

‘I could get the Eye and we could be done with this foolishness,’ I growled. The Song of the Seoni Wolf-Pack danced in my throat, urging me to let it out, to bring in the Jungle on this ghastly city.

‘They would kill you in an instant, Nathaniel,’ she said. ‘Your mission will be accomplished, trust me; the Eye will never reach America. But if you step into that square, you will die, and probably get me killed as well.’ I looked into her eyes, and at the grim creatures preparing to do battle in front of us, and knew she spoke the truth.

‘It is just three Beasts against those two; the monsters have no chance,’ she said. ‘I will steal the Eye from Pyke later; this was Mr. Morningstar’s express command. Now I need you to escort me away from this den of filth, because my glasses are broken and I cannot see a damned thing.’

The Beasts leaped off the rooftops and glided around the square, shrieking challenges. A look passed between the Bavarian and the hooded man; the Bavarian leaped into the car, shoved Pyke aside and started it. The Beasts converged on them; the Bavarian shot one, and tossed a pistol to the hooded man, who caught it behind his back and shot another. The third avoided the swinging scimitar and dug its claws into the hooded man’s arm; he dropped his blade with a cry. The Silver Ghost raced out of the square; one of the monsters attempted to give chase, but was stopped by a bullet to the wing. The hooded man threw off the monster on his arm, and its fall shook the street. The car was gone; three Beasts circled the hooded man, and I was torn between the desire to help them and to rush to his aid. The wolf-howl rumbled in my throat; I could not restrain it any longer. She felt me trembling, and tugged sharply on my arm.

‘Please,’ she said. ‘We must go.’

I pulled away. ‘Whatever Mr. Morningstar’s orders, I answer to a deeper call,’ I said. ‘I will not give up a hunt, for any reason. My blood forbids it. You cannot take this case away from me.’

‘It will be difficult and dangerous, and you will be in my way constantly,’ she said.

‘I saved your life minutes ago,’ I replied.

She considered this for a moment. ‘Very well,’ she said. ‘We will work together.’

I suppressed a strong urge to leap on her and cover her face with kisses. ‘Done, then,’ I said. ‘Let us go.’

We glanced at the square; the hooded man had recovered his scimitar, and was celebrating this by sticking it into one of the Beasts. The others circled him in a resigned sort of way, as if awaiting their turns to die. We walked away, out of the alleys of Whitechapel into a world that had suddenly turned a lot stranger. I did not stop until we were out of that accursed maze, and then I paused and clasped her hand.

‘What is it now?’ she asked.

‘I do not know your name,’ I said.

‘Genevieve,’ she said with a smile. ‘Let go of my hand, please. There’s no time to waste, and I have a car waiting.’


The Fang of Summoning

Giti Chandra

Hachette India

Rs250; 272 pages


Iceland, 984 AD

The crags bit into the night sky, the jagged edges of the mountains glittering with ice. As she scrambled up the steep sides, almost invisible in the long hooded cloak, she kept her head down so that the trails of her ragged breath would not give her away. She was swift of foot and sure of her way, but the unforgiving mountainside cut through her boots and tore at her fingers. Crouching behind a tall rock, she paused for the briefest moment and put her hand to her heart, tracing the comforting diamond shape with one gloved hand.

‘Dreki’ she whispered, ‘Dreki.’

Racing now, with no thought of hiding, she knew she simply had to make it to the top of the mountain before her… pursuer. She shuddered as she thought, fleetingly, what kind of description would fit the thing that followed her. But she had been foolish, foolish to let it come to this. Cursing herself and the horror that licked at her heels, she vowed never to allow this to happen again. He would save her, just this once, and devour this... this beast ... that she had allowed to threaten his secret. She cleared the lip of the mountaintop, and knowing she was safe now and protected, she screamed for the dragon.

‘Dreki!’ she cried out in relief and triumph. ‘Dreki!’

And then her voice died in her throat and she saw the destroyed mountainside and the terrible bottomless ravine that had been gouged out of the valley. A mighty torrent raged in the fissure, dividing mountain from mountain, and leaving vast columns and pillars standing in the swirling waters like great fingers of doom upraised, pointing at the sky. As her desperate eyes raked the devastation for any sign of the dragon and the underground cavern in which he had lived for so many years, her blood ran cold.

There, jutting out from the broken wall of the mountain like an enormous arm was a remnant of the cavern. Two huge promontories swept out into the dark, each with a hole in the middle - a hole the size of ten fishing boats laid end on end. A hole through which, centuries later, airplanes would fly, skimming the calm blue waters of the fjord the new-carved chasm was to become. A hole big enough for a dragon to have lain comfortably in.

And then she saw a glint of steel flash in the corner of her eye and spun around, cloak swirling out around her and the hood flying off her face. Instinctively, in the same movement, she reached into the cloak and held the jewel clutched in her hand. The edges bit into her palm as she faced what she knew would be certain death. There was a slimy oozing sound and the beast, only dimly visible, coalesced into the figure of a smallish man, clad in the garb of her people, holding a knife.

‘I will not harm you if you are reasonable. You see that your friend the ... snake ...has abandoned you to your fate. Fled, as ever he has fled before me. Give me the Starstone and I will spare your beautiful face. Maybe you will find yet a man who will have you for your face in spite of your’ - its face twisted with malice - ‘maimed body.’

The voice seemed to her terrified ears to ooze out of him in thick globs, emanating from some hidden core into the moonlight, rather than spoken from the loose lips on the hastily assembled human face. She watched fascinated with despair and horror as it advanced slowly towards her, its shuffling feet making a slurping sound and leaving a trail of slime in their wake. The very air about her grew turbid with the foulness excreted from its pores and she lost her breath in thick, drowning gulps...

...‘Þú nærð þessu aldrei af mér,’ she whispered. ‘Ekki í þessu lífi.’

You will never have it. Not in this life.

The bright colours of the Aurora blazed behind her just then, filling the night sky with brilliance, a beauty too awful to look upon. The beast shied away involuntarily, its murky bulk twisting to escape the pure green lights dancing across the northern skies. The single moment of distraction was all she needed, and when its eyes whipped back to her, it knew she had escaped it and its screech shook the leaping lights.



...‘May I be of any assistance?’

The boys jumped. Adit’s hair prickled on the back of his neck. But it was only the librarian. He was a small, wrinkled man, his thick glasses making his eyes look comically disjointed and large for his bony face. His hair hung over his ears in cobweb like wisps, with similar wisps dripping out of his ears as well.

The boys relaxed.

‘Yes, Sir, we were wondering if we could issue out this book,’ said Adit, handing the little man his book.

Akshat started as the man almost snatched it out of Adit’s hands.

‘Yes, this book, hmm…’

This time even Akshat’s skin crawled. Was he imagining it, or was there just the hint of a kind of disconnectedness in the man’s speech? As if the sound followed a second after the mouth moved? He looked at him quickly. It was true that he had a strangely shaped mouth, almost as if it didn’t belong on his face…

Akshat’s stomach clenched and he lunged for Adit, pushing him out of the narrow aisle between the shelves. Adit crashed into the next row of shelves just as the little man landed behind him on all fours. Books went flying in every direction; Akshat dragged Adit clear of the avalanche from the top shelves, but they fell on the man and all but buried him. As the boys dodged through the stacks down the narrow aisle they heard a snarl behind them. Adit turned to look and the sight turned his stomach.

The little man was still stooped over and seemed to be running on all fours. The snarl had come from him and his face appeared to have elongated, the nose growing out to meet his mouth, the eyes and forehead receding backwards. When Adit caught sight of the long canines protruding from either side of the slavering mouth, he froze, paralyzed.

The thing facing them looked like… a hyena...

...‘It wants the book, Adit!’ screamed Akshat, already running, dragging his brother after him. ‘Don’t let it get the book! And for God’s sake, stop looking at it!’

The boys raced down the aisles, weaving a serpentine path in and out of the stacks, kicking shelves over as they went, sending books flying through the air and thundering down. Shelf after shelf crashed in waves behind them. Soon the screams of other people echoed and bounced off the walls, and running feet pounded around them. People were running in circles and Adit immediately realized that they would trap the boys inside in their fearful panic.

‘Out! Get out!’ he roared at the top of his lungs. ‘There’s a hyena inside! A rabid hyena! Out! Head for the door!’

To his amazement and utter relief, the chaotic confusion of feet headed for the main entrance like a tide turning. As people started pouring out, Akshat realized, in the midst of their heart-pounding escape, that if even one life were lost, it would be their fault. The boys dashed into the open air and he grabbed Adit’s arm.

‘We have to get these people out!’ he panted, his breath coming in great heaving gulps. But Adit pulled him along to the car.

‘He can’t hurt them,’ he said. ‘He’s not allowed.’