Authors: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Signed hardback edition ISBN: 9781783299805
Hardback edition ISBN: 9781783291533
Export paperback ISBN: 9781783298983
E-book edition ISBN: 9781783291564
Published by Titan Books
A division of Titan Publishing Group Ltd
144 Southwark Street, London SE1 0UP
First edition: September 2015
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Anna Waterhouse assert the moral right to be identified as the authors of this work.
Copyright © 2015 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Anna Waterhouse. 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 prior written permission of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library.
For my grandmother, Venus, who spun the best stories and made me proud.
For Eric and Emily Anne, my spirit and my heart.
Outside of San Fernando, Trinidad, 1870
THE OLD MAN HAD HEARD OF THEM, OF COURSE. EVERYONE ON
the island had heard of them. A few had even seen the evidence—imprints in the sand—but he never had.
Not until the children began to die.
Emanuel stood on a promontory overlooking the sea. His mule was beside him, packed and ready to go. The sun was descending, painting the sky crimson as it disappeared below the horizon. A moment before, the humidity had been nearly intolerable, even for him, and he had lived on this island all eighty-seven years of his life. But with darkness came the wind, whistling through the crevices. He took out a handkerchief and wiped the damp sweat off his neck and forehead.
Still it chilled him to the bone.
Behind him stood a dozen small wooden houses. Each of them had once been alive with families. Each was now shuttered and abandoned, his neighbors having fled the horrors they had witnessed. He himself had been stubborn, refusing to turn his back on his home and his land, praying that the
would simply go away.
But they had not gone away. Instead, they had become bolder.
He could still picture the first little body he’d seen, lying on the sand below as if it were still there, as if it hadn’t already been buried in the small white cemetery that would be destined to be filled with more. So many more.
It had been sunset then too, not red like this one but golden and sparkling—a beautiful sky beneath which no one ought to die, especially a child.
* * *
The little boy’s name was André. He had just turned six, an active little rapscallion, with skin as brown as a cocoa bean and curly hair bleached nearly white by the sun.
André had been the only living soul on the beach, a few feet from the underbrush, a tangled jungle mass that the villagers would periodically cut back, only to see it crop up again here and there, unwanted but persistent. He was skimming rocks into the water. Emanuel had been on the headland above, gathering sticks for his pot-bellied stove. No one understood how he could get so cold once the sun went down, but he was the elder of the village. No one there was yet as old as he.
Just wait ’til you’re old and see how it is…
He could not recall how long he had remained at his task, bent over as he collected the kindling into a respectable pile. He was nearly done when he thought he heard a commotion below, by the shoreline.
When he peered down onto the sand, André was no longer visible. Instead, something was thrashing about in the underbrush. He saw, or perhaps imagined, the glint of a knife.
The old man turned and called out for help, but his throat was dry with fear, and the wind simply swept his voice away. He was in no condition to make the winding trek down the steep incline to the shore, but he would have to try.
Carefully, one painful step at a time, he made his way down the trail, past the little white cemetery in its patch of grass that had long since been burnt by the sun.
“I am coming, André,” he called out. “I am coming—do not be afraid!” He wondered if the last few words were as much for his sake as for the boy’s.
Step by painful step he went—
oh, what a madness to get old!
When at last he reached the sand, he was very nearly relieved, for he could see André quite clearly now. The boy was lying face down on the sand.
Perhaps it is the game
, he thought hopefully. It was a favorite game of the children, to lie perfectly still and wait until the old man walked up to them, at which time they would jump up suddenly, to try to scare him. He would always pretend to nearly collapse of fright, and they would laugh and laugh.
But as he approached, André did not move at all.
Then, he spotted the footprints.
At first, it seemed as if some child had simply walked backward away from the body—except that the right foot was where the left foot should be, with the left in place of the right. Small, backward-facing footprints that seemed to lead to the boy and away from him at the same time.
He knew then with terrible certainty that André was dead. The
had called him out to play, and the
had finished him off.
Shaking and crying, the old man turned the little boy onto his back. His skin was white, deadly white. Some blood had pooled in the sand beneath him, staining it an ugly copper, but most was gone, stolen away by the
The old man had cried out again, loud enough at last that he heard voices calling back from the promontory above. They came running then, scrambling down the path and gathering around the little boy’s body, horrified by what they were seeing.
Praying that they and their children would be left alone.
* * *
But that one sacrifice had not been enough. Nor had two, then three, then more. The
had continued to call to the children, enticing them to come out and play. After which the
had done the rest, draining the little bodies of their blood and then leaving them on the sand to be gathered up by their grieving families like so many wilted flowers.
The old man had helped to dig too many graves. He could no longer bear to look at them. This was not the place for living human beings, not any more. The breeze began to blow harder, as if pushing him away. So the old man wrapped his smock-frock around his long, thin body.
“Come play!” he thought he heard the
“There are no more children here!” he called out with the last bit of rage he could muster. “There are no living beings here at all!”
With effort, he mounted his old mule and clopped away.
AS THE REED-GREEN WATER LAPPED GENTLY AGAINST THE BANKS
of the Thames, spectators on Putney Bridge and along the shoreline crowded shoulder to shoulder and craned their necks, vying for a better view. They were mostly boys and men, though the occasional crinoline and parasol could be seen—for the day was unseasonably warm, which prompted even the ladies to venture out, giddy with anticipation.
On this sixth day of April, the great annual race between the Oxford University and the Cambridge University boat clubs was about to commence, as it had without fail for forty years. Both sets of rowers were known as “the Blues”—Cambridge in their light blue and Oxford in a darker hue. “Betting on the Blues” was a time-honored tradition.
Among the spectators was Mycroft Holmes. Boat racing held no intrigue for the twenty-three-year-old secretary to the Secretary of State for War, nor was he keen on some bloke with an errant drink or waving cigar spoiling his brand new topcoat. And he certainly did not think himself a gambling man—a fair assessment, as he’d never made a wager in his life.
Yet today was different.
After a tediously gray and frigid winter, spring was finally in full and glorious bloom, making even the most practical sort of man—and Holmes ranked himself as such—a bit lightheaded.
He heard a voice at his side:
“You have wagered on Cambridge?
He turned to see a string bean of an ancient beadle, pale as milk, gawking at him.
“Beg pardon?” Holmes responded.
“I am asking, young sir, if you are a Cantabrigian!” the churchman repeated in an accusing tone more suited for oratory. “For there can be no other reason for your wager.” He pointed his rather prominent chin toward Holmes’s wager receipt, which peeked out of his lapel pocket, and which was marked with a telling line of light blue.