Hard Light by Elizabeth Hand is the 3rd Cass Neary Crime novel that sees punk photographer Cass Neary hook up with a dangerous crowd in London (Available April 19, 2016).
Fleeing Reykjavik and a cluster of cult murders, Cass lands in London to rendezvous with her longtime lover Quinn, a person of interest to both Interpol and the Russian mob.
Only Quinn doesn’t show up. Alone in London and fearing the worst, Cass hooks up with a singer-songwriter with her own dark past, who brings her to the wrong party. Cass becomes entangled with the party’s host, Mallo Tierney, an eccentric gangster with a penchant for cigar cutters and neatly-wrapped packages, and a trio of dissolute groupies connected to a notorious underground filmmaker.
Forced to run Mallo's contraband, Cass is suddenly enmeshed in a web of murder, betrayal, and artistic and sexual obsession that extends from London to the stark beauty of England’s Land’s End Peninsula, where she uncovers an archeological enigma that could change our view of human history―if she survives.
The coroner’s photographer’s job is gruesome, but it does not affect his appetite because when viewed objectively, his subject is little different from other still life, except it offers more complication.
—William Mortensen, Flash in Modern Photography
A stolen passport will only get you so far. In my case, that was through Customs and Immigration at Heathrow, where I stood in the line for EU travelers, praying I wouldn’t have to fake a Swedish accent as an impassive official ran a check on my documentation.
“You’re here for three weeks.” She glanced at my landing card. “The purpose of your visit?”
There are advantages to being a six-foot-tall blonde arriving on a flight from Reykjavík. The passport official nodded, slid the passport back across the counter, and turned her attention to the person behind me.
In a police lineup you could mistake me for the woman in the Swedish passport photo: we were both tall, with shoulder-length ragged blond hair and gray-blue eyes. The main difference was that Cassandra Neary, of New York, New York, could be charged as an accessory to more than one murder. Dagney Ahlstrand of Uppsala, Sweden, was a junkie, but as far as I knew, she hadn’t killed anyone. Yet.
I’d left Iceland under a cloud: Shortly after takeoff I looked out my window and saw a lurid red eye open then burst in the black wilderness far below. A volcanic eruption, an appropriate sendoff for a thirty-six-hour visit that had begun with me searching for my sometime lover and ex-con Quinn and ended with an escalating body count. The eruption delayed our landing, which gave me a chance to recover slightly from the lingering affects of hypothermia and a near-fatal amount of crank.
I was anxious to put as many miles as possible between me and Reykjavík, and even more anxious to meet up again with Quinn, who’d booked a later flight to Heathrow. We’d agreed to rendezvous at a bar owned by a friend of his in Brixton. I had my share of the blood money I’d earned in Iceland—a decent stash, but I had no idea how long I’d be in London, or how long until Quinn joined me. He’d said a few days. Given that thirty-odd years had passed before our most recent reunion, I could be in for a long wait.
I’d never been to London. Technically, I still wasn’t here. Until recently, I’d spent my life thinking that downtown New York was the center of the known universe. The last few decades had eroded that belief system, as billionaires and chain stores moved in and NYU continued its land grab, converting the Lower East Side into dorms for kids whose dreams of beatnik glory didn’t quite jibe with their eight-hundred-dollar Jimmy Choos and bespoke tablet cases.
The stolen passport belonged to an ex-girlfriend of Quinn’s. Dagney resembled me in that we were both lanky women of a certain age with substance abuse issues. I could only assume I’d imprinted on Quinn back when we first got involved in high school—that would explain his predilection for rogue blondes who could throw a punch then hit the ground running.
I shoved the passport into the battered satchel that held my old thirteen-millimeter Konica, a couple of moth-eaten cashmere sweaters, socks, and an extra pair of stovepipe jeans, all black. That, my leather jacket and ancient Tony Lamas, and a few canisters of Tri-X B&W film were all she wrote. I don’t own much, besides seven hundred vinyl LPs and 45s and an impressive collection of stolen coffee table books on photography, all back in my rent-stabilized apartment on Houston Street. No laptop, no smartphone, no presence on social media. I’m the ghost of punk, haunting the twenty-first century in disintegrating black-and-white; one of those living fossils you read about who usually show up, dead, in a place you’ve never heard of.
I unzipped my battered motorcycle jacket and headed for the exit, glancing back at the people who thronged the queue for non-EU and UK nationals. Three uniformed men were questioning a family group—a man in a rumpled suit, a burka-clad woman, and several small children. The man began gesturing angrily as a cop grasped his arm and dragged him toward a door. The woman began to cry.
I looked away, quickening my pace till I reached the door, where a beefeater on a brightly colored sign proclaimed WELCOME, WE HOPE YOU ENJOY YOUR STAY. I kept my head down and pushed my way through the crowd inside the terminal.
This, too, is what it means to be a ghost: You forever witness your own slow self-destruction, and that of those around you. But no one knows what you’ve seen until it’s too late.
It was mid-afternoon when I trudged into a gray-lit tunnel beneath Terminal Three and made my way to the Heathrow Express platform to catch a packed train into London. I caught fragments of conversation among passengers who’d landed around the same time I had. A plume of volcanic ash from the Icelandic eruption had added to the disruptions caused by torrential rains and wind across the UK. Planes were being rerouted all across Europe. All flights from Reykjavík were canceled. Quinn’s arrival no longer seemed a matter of when but if.
By the time I reached Paddington, the platforms were crammed with grim-faced people dragging suitcases. An overhead flatscreen TV displayed a glowing mountain that spewed magma and flaming contrails across a black sky. The scene switched to monstrous waves smashing into a lighthouse. I stopped to join a crowd reading the news crawler.
MILLIONS STRANDED BY ICELAND VOLCANIC ERUPTION
FLOODING CONTINUES IN SOUTHWEST: RECORD 90-FOOT WAVE DESTROYS HISTORIC PERWITH LIGHT STATION
NO END IN SIGHT TO WORST RAINS IN 500 YEARS
I hoisted my bag and continued on to the Underground. After a few steps I halted, steadying myself against the wall.
The air around me shimmered. I felt dizzy, tasting copper in the back of my mouth. I coughed, touched a hand to my lips, withdrew it, and saw my fingertips flecked with blood. I struggled to remember where I was, stared numbly at an advertisement until Quinn’s face filled my mind’s eye, the shining arc of a metal wire slicing through a man’s throat. I had a flash of the night terrors that had dogged me for months. When I looked up, I saw an armed policeman watching me from across the crowded concourse. I took a deep breath, and kept walking.
An hour later I emerged from the Brixton Underground station. The heavy rain had turned to sleet. My eyes watered as icy pellets stung my face. The cold felt good: Pain I could understand and fight, even if I lost. I hunched my shoulders, pulled up the collar of my leather jacket, and headed for the corner.
The clock inside the station had read 3:35, but outside it was already nearly dark. People rushed past me, half hidden beneath black umbrellas as they shouted into mobile phones. A ululating police siren wailed in concert with the sustained shriek of an ambulance. A guy wearing retro Ray-Bans and a knee-length black kidskin hoodie nearly shoved me off the sidewalk as he loped past.
I whirled, landed a kick just below the back of his knee with the steel toe of my cowboy boot, turned, and kept going. From the corner of my eye I saw him crumple as I turned the corner. I kept to the center of the crowd and after a few minutes ducked into an alcove, the entry to a boarded-up record shop.
A kid in a knitted cap and filthy hoodie leaned against a wall stained with piss. A scrawny dog crouched at his feet. The boy looked at me without interest.
“Wha’ gwarn?” he said. The dog whined softly.
I dug in my pocket until I found the scrap of paper where Quinn had scrawled a name—Derek somebody—and the name of a pub. “I’m looking for a place called the Gambrel.”
The kid blinked, his eyes so bloodshot they looked as though they’d been scooped from his skull. “Dinno.”
“Rawlins Street,” I said. “Know where that is?”
He gestured vaguely toward the corner. “Electric Avenue, ask ’im.”
“I asked you.” I tapped my foot, the tip of my boot ringing against concrete. The mongrel’s head shot up, black lips taut against long yellow teeth, its rolling eyes the same raw crimson as the boy’s. I held its gaze until it turned its head sideways, still watching me.
“He likes you.” The kid grinned. “Or he’d’a tore your throat out. Rawlins off Electric Avenue.”
I nodded thanks. “What’s your dog’s name?”
I tossed the boy a pound coin and headed back out into the freezing rain.
The London I’d always imagined was a mashup of Blow-Up, Thatcher’s teenage wasteland, and the covers of a thousand LPs. Any details of place derived from rock and roll songs: Stepney, Muswell Hill, Knightsbridge, Waterloo Bridge, more soundtrack than landscape. Brixton meant a song by the Clash about the notorious 1981 riots.
Electric Avenue meant another song, and the soundtrack changed every few feet, fading from reggaeton to rap to techno to Abba to West African to Bombay pop. Awnings offered scant coverage from the sleet, but business didn’t seem to be suffering much. I passed halal butchers and a stall selling nothing but pig snouts; open coolers where eels coiled and thrashed; carefully stacked pyramids of durians, melons, multicolored carrots and bundles of what looked like cattail rushes. One fishmonger had more exotic sea life on ice than I’d ever seen in the New York Aquarium. I peered into a basket filled with shark fins still seeping blood. Representatives of the World Wildlife Fund might net enough endangered species here to stock an ark.
I stopped to buy goat kebabs from a woman turning skewers on a hubcap grill, stood beneath a green tarpaulin and gulped down spicy meat hot enough to blister the roof of my mouth. I felt better when I’d finished. I left the shelter of the tarp and walked to a cart where a large umbrella advertised fresh jostaberry juice.
“What’s jostaberry juice?” I asked.
A rosy-faced girl with facial piercings smiled at me from beneath the hood of her anorak. “It’s a hybrid of gooseberry and black currant. You have to pick them every morning before sunrise.”
I paid her and downed the contents of the paper cup she handed me. She pointed to a metal bowl filled with tiny black fruit. “Our farm’s in Devon, if you’d like to come visit sometime. You can even help with the harvest if you like.”
“I’d love that,” I said. “Is there a bar called the Gambrel near here?”
“The gastropub? First right, that way. They do a brilliant ploughman’s; we’re one of their suppliers for nettle chevre. You might not be able to get a table if you haven’t booked. I’ll recycle that for you.”
I gave her the empty cup, sloshed my way past more food stalls, and took a right onto a side street.
The sleet had subsided to freezing drizzle. In the sulfurous glare of sodium lamps, street and sky had the smeared look of a botched watercolor. Metal shutters hid storefronts covered with graffiti and an impasto of gig posters. I saw COMING SOON signs for an organic fromagerie, a Bangladeshi Wi-Fi cafe, and a Bruno Magli shoe store.
The Gambrel occupied a corner at the end of the block, across the street from a monolithic concrete structure I assumed was a public housing project. The pub, however, was well tended. Buttery yellow light streamed from windows hung with baskets of ivy, incongruously verdant in the wintry gloom. Strings of Christmas lights still shone above the door, where a painted wooden sign displayed the image of a metal instrument with the carcass of a pig suspended from it.
I thought of the nickname Quinn had been given by the folks he did business with in Oslo long ago: Varsler, butcher bird. I tightened my grip on my satchel and went inside.
A wave of warmth hit me, redolent of garlic, braised beef, and a sweetly earthy scent that might have been peat smoke. Candles glowed on trestle tables where well-heeled people sat drinking, eating, gazing enraptured at their mobile phones. A young woman in a beautifully tailored jumpsuit and knee-high boots approached me with a concerned look.
“Do you have a reservation?”
“I just want a drink.”
“Of course.” She gazed pointedly at my dripping leather jacket. “Can I take your coat?”
A flicker of displeasure as she gestured toward the bar. “Herman will be happy to serve you.”
I ignored the irritated glances of several diners as I crossed the room, leaving a trail of damp bootprints on the glossy hardwood floor. I knew I looked like shit, and I felt worse, shaky and sick from too much speed and booze. The only thing that would make me feel better was more of the same.
But for the first time in forty years, I was starting to get a bad premonition about that. The incident back in Paddington wasn’t the first time I’d felt a sudden wave of dizziness, or worse. Black flecks in my recent memory. Night terrors, and the even more terrible knowledge that I no longer dreamed when I slept.
Or maybe it was that I could no longer easily distinguish between wakefulness and nightmare. I’d taken a bad blow to the head in Iceland: This on top of a lifetime of more drunken falls than I could count made me wonder if there was some dark spider nesting in my skull, spinning a toxic web of neurochemicals and failed synapses.
I forced aside the thought. I needed to find Quinn.
There’s a bar in Brixton run by someone I know; I’ll give you his number.
I had no mobile and no way to get in touch with Quinn; nothing except the name of the pub and its owner, Derek. I’d found the Gambrel. Now, I’d make contact with Derek, then hole up for a few days, until Quinn got here.
Still, “here” didn’t seem like a place Quinn would be caught dead in. His employment history for the last few decades included selling used vinyl and disposing of body parts for the Russian mob. The handsomely chiseled block of human granite behind the Gambrel’s bar looked more likely to attempt a solo ascent of K2 barefoot than admit to knowing someone like Quinn O’Boyle.
“What can I get for you?”
“Shot of Jack Daniels. And a half pint of—” I squinted, reading the name of this month’s craft beers. “Brambly Willy.”
The bartender handed me a brimming shotglass, pulled my beer and slid it across the counter. I downed the Jack Daniels, asked for a second, then handed him a twenty-pound note. “Derek around?”
“Derek. The owner.”
The bartender frowned. “You mean Derek Haverty?”
“Yeah, that’s him.”
“He’s gone. Up in Camden, I think.” He turned to a dark-haired girl slicing lemons at the other end of the bar. “Hey, where’s Derek Haverty now? Was it the Hobgoblin?”
The girl set down her knife and wiped her forehead. “The Banshee, I think.”
The bartender nodded. “That’s it. The Banshee. Camden Town.”
“Where’s Camden Town?”
“Take the Underground to King’s Cross, transfer to the Northern line northbound. Take you straight there.”
I knocked back the second shot and chased it with the beer. A man stood at the bar with his back to me, a pack of Gitanes on the zinc countertop beside his mobile. I palmed the cigarettes and strode back out into the street.
Around the corner from the Brixton Underground station, the same grimy kid had nodded out on the steps. Ignoring his baleful mongrel, I dropped the pack of Gitanes into the boy’s lap and hurried to catch the subway.
Copyright © 2016 Elizabeth Hand.
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Elizabeth Hand is the author of fourteen cross-genre novels and four collections of short fiction. Her work has received the World Fantasy Award (four times), the Nebula Award (twice), the Shirley Jackson Award (twice), and the James M. Tiptree Jr. and Mythopoeic Society Awards. She's also a longtime critic and contributor of essays for the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Salon, and the Village Voice, among many others. She divides her time between the Maine coast and North London.