The ShortRead of 17 June
Author: Simon Toyne
What's the story: We're not going to waste any words on Simon Toyne's new thriller.
It's not because we don't like it: it's an enthralling opening to a series we're sure is going to dominate best-seller lists in years to come. We just don't need to give you much of a heads-up on the mysterious Solomon Creed, because there's a trailer to do it for us. A man emerges from the ruins of a plane crash in the Arizona desert, with no memory of who he is or where he's from. All he does know is that he has to save a man - a man who's already dead.
Watch the trailer below, and feast on the opening chapters of Toyne's latest work.
Release date: 10 September
In the beginning is the road – and me walking along it.
I have no memory of who I am, or where I have come from, or how I came to be here. There is only the road and the desert stretching away to a burnt sky in every direction and there is me.
Anxiety bubbles within me and my legs scissor, pushing me forward through hot air as if they know something I don’t. I feel like telling them to slow down, but even in my confused state I know you don’t talk to your legs, not unless you’re crazy, and I don’t think I’m crazy – I don’t think so.
I stare down the shimmering ribbon of tarmac, rising and falling over the undulating land, its straight edges made wavy by the intense desert heat. It makes the road seem insubstantial and the way ahead uncertain and my anxiety burns bright because of it. I feel there’s something important to do here, and that I am here to do it, but I cannot remember what.
I try to breathe slowly, dredging a recollection from some deep place that this is meant to be calming, and catch different scents in the dry desert air – the coal-tar sap of a broken creosote bush branch, the sweet sugar rot of fallen saguaro fruit, the arid perfume of agave pollen – each thing so clear to me, so absolutely itself and correct and known. And from the solid seed of each named thing more information grows – Latin names, medicinal properties, common names, whether it is edible or poisonous. The same happens when I glance to my left or right, each glimpsed thing sparking new names and fresh torrents of facts until my head hums with it all. I know the world entirely it seems and yet I know nothing of myself. I don’t know where I am. I don’t know why I’m here. I don’t even know my own name.
The wind gusts at my back, pushing me forward and bringing a new smell that makes my anxiety flare into blind fear. It is smoke, oily and acrid, and a half-formed memory slides in with it that there is something awful lying on the road behind me, something I need to get away from.
I break into a run, staring forward, not daring to check behind me. The blacktop feels hard and hot against the soles of my feet. I look down to discover that I’m not wearing shoes. My feet flash as they pound the road, my skin pure white in the bright sunshine. I hold my hand up and it’s the same, so white I have to narrow my eyes against the glare of it. I can feel my skin starting to redden in the fierce sun and know that I need to get out of this desert, away from this sun and the thing on the road behind me. I fix on a rise in the road, feeling if I can reach it then I will be safe, that the way ahead will be clearer.
The wind blows hard, bringing the smell of smoke again and smothering all other scents like a poisonous blanket. Sweat starts to soak my shirt and the dark grey material of my jacket. I should take it off, cool myself down a little, but the thicker material is giving me protection from the burning sun so I turn the collar up instead and keep on running. One step then another – forward and away, forward and away – asking myself questions between each step – Who am I? Where am I? Why am I here? – repeating each one until something starts to take shape in the blankness of my empty mind. An answer. A name.
‘James Coronado.’ I say it aloud in a gasp of breath before it is lost again and pain sears into my left shoulder.
My voice comes as a surprise to me, soft and strange and unfamiliar, but the name is not. I recognize it and say it again – James Coronado, James Coronado – over and over, hoping the name might be mine and it might drag more about who I am up from my silent memory. But the more I say it, the more distant it becomes until I’m certain the name is not mine. It feels apart from me though still connected in some way, as if I have made a promise to this man, one that I am bound to keep.
I reach the crest of the road and a new section of desert comes into view. In the distance I see a road sign, and beyond that, a town, spreading like a dark stain across the lower slopes of a range of red mountains.
I raise my hand to shield my eyes so I might read the name of the place on the sign, but it is too far away and heat blurs the words. There is movement on the road, way off at the edge of town.
Heading this way. Red and blue lights flashing on their roofs.
The wail of sirens mingles with the roar of the smoke-filled wind and I feel trapped between the two. I look to my right and consider leaving the road and heading out into the desert. A new smell reaches me, drifting from somewhere out in the sunbaked wilderness, something that seems more familiar to me than all the other things. It is the smell of something dead and rotting, lying somewhere out of sight, sunbaked and fetid and caramel-sweet, like a premonition of what will befall me if I stray from the road.
Sirens in front of me, death either side, and behind me, what?
I have to know.
I turn to gaze upon what I have been running from and the whole world is on fire.
An aircraft lies broken and blazing in the centre of the road, its wings sticking up from the ground like the folded wings of some huge burning beast. A wide circle of flame surrounds it, spreading rapidly as flames leap from plant to plant and lick up the sides of giant saguaro, their burning arms raised in surrender, their flesh splitting and hissing as the water inside boils and explodes in puffs of steam.
It is magnificent. Majestic. Terrifying.
The sirens grow louder and the flames roar. One of the wings starts to fall, trailing flame as it topples and filling the air with the tortured sound of twisting metal. It lands with a whump, and a wave of fire rolls up into the air, curling like a tentacle that seems to reach down the road for me, reaching out, wanting me back.
I stagger backwards, turn on my heels, and run.
Mayor Ernest Cassidy looked up from the dry grave and out across the crowded heads of the mourners. He had felt the rumble as much as heard it, like thunder rolling in from the desert. Others must have felt it too. He saw a few of the heads bowed in prayer turn to glance back at the desert stretching away below them.
The cemetery was high up, scooped into the side of the Chinchuca Mountains that encircled the town like a horseshoe. A hot wind blew up from the valley, ruffling the black clothes of the mourners and blowing grit against the wind-scoured boards marking the older graves that recorded the town’s violent birth with quiet and brutal economy:
Teamster. Killed by Apaches. 1881
China Mae Ling. Suicide. 1880
Susan Goater. Murdered. 1884
Boy. Age 11 months. Died of Neglect. 1882
A new name was being added to this roll call of death today and almost the whole town was present to see it, their businesses closed for the morning so they could attend the first funeral to take place in this historic cemetery for over sixty years. It was the least they could do in the circumstances – the very least. The future of their town was being secured this day, as surely as it had been at the ragged end of the nineteenth century when the murdered, the hanged, the scalped and the damned had first been planted here.
The crowd settled as the memory of the thunder faded and Mayor Cassidy, wearing his preacher hat today, dropped a handful of dust down into the dry grave. It pattered down on the lid of the simple, old-fashioned pine box at the bottom – a nice touch, considering – then continued with the solemn service.
‘For dust thou art,’ he said in a low and respectful voice he kept specially for situations like this, ‘and unto dust shalt thou return. Amen.’
There was a murmur of ‘Amens’ then a wind-shushed minute of silence. He stole a glance at the widow, standing very close to the edge of her husband’s grave like a suicide at the edge of a cliff. Her hair and eyes shone in the sunlight, a deeper black than any of the clothes flapping in the wind around her. She appeared so beautiful in her grief – beautiful and young. She had loved her husband deeply, he knew that, and there was a particular tragedy in the knowledge of it. But her youth meant she had time enough ahead of her to move on from this, and that leavened it some. She would leave the town and start again somewhere else. And there were no children; there was a mercy in that too, no physical ties to bind her, no face that carried traces of his and would remind her of her lost love whenever she caught it in a certain light. Sometimes the absence of children was a blessing. Sometimes.
Movement rippled through the crowd and he glanced up to see a police chief’s hat being jammed back on to a close-cropped salt-and-pepper head as it moved quickly away towards the exit. Mayor Cassidy looked beyond him to the desert, and saw why.
A column of black smoke was rising up on the main road out of town. It wasn’t thunder he had heard or rain that was coming, it was more trouble.
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(Images: Flickr/Kate Hiscock; Rex)