Somebody’s let the zoo animals loose on the streets of String City. Curiously, they’ve filled up the empty cages with mechanical replicas. But that’s not what’s bothering Raymond Lanchester. All his attention is taken up with searching for his wife’s missing soul. As for eccentric inventor Daedalus, he’s just trying to stop the bank seizing all his assets.
It’s an unlikely collision of events. And, with the end of the world looming, it’s up to our dimension-dabbling detective to find some order in the chaos. But there’s bad news. In order to solve the mystery, he’ll have to go up against an animal of a whole different order: a lunatic magpie bigger than City Hall. And, like all magpies, this one like to collect shiny things. Especially the shiniest things of all.
Extract from Lifestrings of the Loving Couple
Rain sluiced down the window, smearing my view of the couple on the street corner. It was dark too, so they weren’t much more than shadows. Strange, given it was just past noon. The rainclouds, maybe.
Still, I could see enough. The man was hunched over, head in his collar like a turtle in its shell. His left hand was clamped to the dame’s waist. With his right hand he was fending off something coming down at him out of the sky. It looked like living fog. I wiped my breath off the inside of the window and saw it wasn’t fog at all.
It was birds.
There had to be a million of them. Starlings and sparrows, eagles and owls, seagulls of every colour. High up, a pair of condors made like airliners. Higher still, a thunderbird threw its shadow over ten city blocks. It wasn’t the rainclouds making it dark after all. It was the wings.
The man made a break for it. Grabbing the dame’s arm, he dashed into the street. An automobile swerved, kicking up spray. The dame didn’t move, just stood there erect in her limp fur coat. He pulled harder and she came.
So did the stampede.
They appeared from every corner: all the animals you can think of and more besides. Buffalo and kangaroos, pigs and alpacas, a white carpet of mice. A griffin and a walrus and, towering over them all, the hundred jostling heads of a hydra. The street filled up with fur and fleeces and black rolling eyes. The ground moved like a drumskin.
Somehow the man didn’t get trampled. Still flapping his free hand against the birds, he hauled the dame through the stampede all the way to my door. She followed serenely, oblivious of the commotion.
I cracked the door open. The man pushed inside. With him came the thunder of ten thousand hooves. Behind him, one robotic step at a time, came the dame.
As soon as they were both inside, I slammed and locked the door. Seconds later, three swans hit the glass head-on. They dropped dead to the ground, necks like noodles. A swarm of sharp-toothed harpies fell on them.
The man was trembling. He slapped the rain from the top of his bald head. His eyes were red-rimmed and wild. ‘Are you the private investigator?’
‘That’s what it says on the door,’ I said.
‘Thank god.’ His accent was British, clipped and precise. ‘I need your help. I need you to find a missing person. You have to hurry – they said there isn’t much time.’
‘The police. And the doctors.’
I nodded just as if this made sense. Out of the corner of my eye I was watching the dame. Since I’d closed the door, she hadn’t moved a muscle. Strike that: her left index finger was twitching. There was a dark spot under the nail, barely visible. Dark as it was, it gleamed.
On the back of my neck, the hairs prickled. For some gumshoes that’s the sign of a hunch. For me it’s different.
Between them, this rain-drenched couple added up to a case, and a case was exactly what I needed. For six weeks I’d been running errands for Isembard Farthing, one of the city’s least reputable lawyers. Six weeks serving writs for a snake like Farthing leaves a man hungry for real work.
Even when the hairs on your neck are telling you to run like hell.
‘Start at the beginning,’ I said. ‘Who’s missing?’
The man took a deep breath, stopped himself shaking. But he was shaking inside.
‘My wife,’ he said. ‘Leonora. She’s gone.’
‘Let’s sit down.’ I made for the desk. ‘You got any ID? A picture, maybe?’
He frowned. ‘Why would you need a picture?’
‘It helps to know what she looks like,’ I said, faking patience.
‘But you don’t need a photo.’
‘No – she’s right here.’ He pulled the dame to him. She didn’t yield, just tilted, like a plank of wood. ‘This is her. This is Leonora. But she’s gone. And I’ve only got twelve hours left to find her. Please – you’ve got to help me. She’s gone. My beautiful Leonora’s gone and I don’t know where to look. You’ve got to find her for me! Please!’
The String City Mysteries