Author: Iain McChesney
Genre: historical mystery / paranormal
Publisher: Wayzgoose Press
Date of Publication: October 1
Those in line to the Malenfer estate are succumbing to terrible ends –is a supernatural legacy at work, or something entirely more human?
Young Irish mercenary Dermot Ward retreats to Paris at the close of World War I where he drinks to forget his experiences, especially the death of his comrade, Arthur Malenfer. But Arthur has not forgotten Dermot. Dead but not departed, Arthur has unfinished business and needs the help of the living.
Upon his arrival at Malenfer Manor, Dermot finds himself embroiled in a mystery of murder, succession, and ambition. Dermot falls in love with the youngest Malenfer, the beautiful fey Simonne, but in his way are Simonne’s mismatched fiancé, her own connections to the spirit world, Dermot’s guilt over the circumstances of Arthur’s death… and the curse.
Dermot Ward (Paris 1919)
On the way to Montmartre, halfway up the Rue des Trois Frères, is a small tight lane to the left. It is poorly lit and uninviting and not obvious to the passerby. If you did manage upon it, you would have to follow it trustingly, for it gives no hint of a thoroughfare, but it would soon reward you and open out, delivering you into a pleasant courtyard.
This cobbled, treed oasis was the home of an old long-established brasserie – Le Jardin des Cygnes. When the weather was good, life took place under the shading poplar branches around the white painted tables of this garden of swans, but in February its patrons stayed huddled and bundled, comfortable behind stained glass doors. There they nested, warm and dry, waiting for spring’s migration.
In the center of the café window hung a large cured ham, smoked in acorns. Propped against it, a dusty chalkboard showed the day’s menu written out large. There were gaps in it, like missing teeth, where popular fare had sold out. And there were two flags, both tricolors, hanging limp in the absence of a breeze. One was most familiar: the blue, white, and red of the French republic, though this specimen had its colors washed soft by time, its cloth worn nightdress-thin. The other flag was new and bright, its fresh dyes almost wet: an independence flag for a pregnant nation, one conceived but not yet delivered. The green, white, and gold of an Irish Free State hung presumptuously from its lanyard.
A local would have noticed Paris was suddenly full of such adornments, totems of petitioners to the battered colonial powers. This new trade in patriotism could be seen almost everywhere; it had arrived in the night only weeks before as the delegations drew nearer. It had started before the appearance of David Lloyd George, Britain’s Prime Minister, who was soon joined by President Thomas Woodrow Wilson, who had sailed from his native Virginia. France’s Clemenceau, the host of the Peace Conference, was flanked by a sizeable contingent, as if in scale he might overawe the charisma of Orlando the Italian. The victors were all now settled in town and eager to slice up the cake.
Why was he so sure, Arthur asked of himself, that Dermot was somewhere near? But was this not Paris and 1919, was the world not gathered today? Everyone to see empires carved up as the treaty was inked at Versailles. History was being made, Arthur conjectured, and Dermot would surely be drawn. He’d fly like a moth to the radiant flame of intrigue and prospect and hope.
Arthur pressed forward in his search for Dermot, now in its fourth day since his arrival, his own sobriety increasingly at odds with the scenes he had encountered. Things had got worse as his route climbed into the hill that was Montmartre. With each step he fought the despondency that grew with the prospect of failure. He had been walking for almost fourteen hours, and the confidence of a noonday sun had dipped with the fading light – doubt had long been plaguing him; it gnawed like a boneyard dog.
What if Dermot died in the war, one amongst the many? Maybe he was wounded and sent home, or he languishes still in a hospital. He could have stayed on with the regiment? It’s not a far-flung idea. He could be anywhere, even gone home, so why am I searching today? Am I wasting time and hope on a friend I don’t know even lives?
But no, Arthur decided. If Dermot was still alive, then he would be here, somewhere, right now. The friend he remembered was a man who could not settle down, a man in search of an elusive peace beyond the conflict of nations. Paris was an island where the flotsam and jetsam of humanity washed ashore. Where a man like Dermot would surface.
Arthur turned left into a narrow alleyway to avoid a ribald group. Drawn onwards by the lilt of music, he continued up the lane. At the sight of a pair of hanging flags and the sign of the hissing swan, Arthur felt as fresh and hopeful as when he’d stepped down from the train.
Dermot, as usual, had come alone. He shoehorned himself into a horseshoe booth across from a boisterous group. Two men of disparate age were pressed round a painted Mademoiselle. The older man was either doing all right, or the younger could be doing much better. The trio were partners in libation, however else things sat; there was a dozen empty glasses on the table.
The Swan was a mixed crowd, popular with the working poor – the porters and the tradesmen. There were students too, and a gaggle of artists, and a diversity of conversations. Only a few of the patrons were in uniform compared to the other bars in the neighborhood. That was another reason Dermot liked the place – that it helped with the forgetting. Dermot was a man on a mission, a one-track mind: he intended to get drunk before sleeping.
“Your best health, father,” he toasted his tablemates, loud enough to be heard above the din. He raised the glass he’d acquired at the bar and saluted their momentary attention. He had been thinking of the letch in La Cousine Bette but the name of Balzac’s old man escaped him.
“Father?” the woman repeated and broke into a hysterical cackle. Her amusement redoubled as the younger man made predictable jest of his accent. Dermot’s labored pronunciation always got a comment from the locals. Dermot took their fun in good stride.
Dermot felt the older man eye him warily. Judging him perhaps. Deciding for himself whether or not the foreigner was harmless. And what did he see, Dermot wondered to himself, how did he look through those eyes?
Dermot Ward was not yet thirty, but the boy had long since left him. Nearly five years in France had gifted him the language and nightmares to last him a lifetime. His arms and legs, once long and awkward, were knitted hard with sinew and muscle. He was animate when he spoke and agitated at rest, which sent his piles of curled hair to bouncing – blond streaked with red, or red bleached by the sun, but already when he shaved he saw gray. His fair complexion, as much as his accent, marked him as a different to the natives.
Annoyed, perhaps, by his interruption, the man begrudgingly returned his salute. The collection on the table grew larger. Dermot cast a look out for the waiter, his mouth already grown dry.
“English?” The older man asked him, uncomfortable in the tongue of that country.
Dermot’s mind was wandering off by itself, as it was wont to do. Two hundred feet in a standard spool. Grade two has one hundred fifty. Continent wire is always in meters: fifty meters to a French blasting spool. Three feet, three and four-tenths inches in every meter is three point two-eight feet. One hundred sixty-four feet – and a hair – in a spool of Frenchy’s best blasting cord. The mathematics gave him comfort. There was a certainty to it he could cling to.
“No, I’m not English, father.” He answered the question in passable French.
Two spools of anyone’s gives you three hundred feet, at least three hundred feet; ninety-one point four four meters. You don’t want to be closer than that.
“I’m from nowhere really, father. Not anymore. This is home now; good as any.”
“But you served?” the older man persisted. He stroked his stiff right arm, as if from habit, and Dermot saw it was unwieldy. A memento, he thought, a souvenir from the war. Such a lot of men carrying those.
Dermot momentarily seemed not to hear the question, his mind once more whirling away.
Treat glycerine with sulfuric acids and nitric and you have yourself nitroglycerine – Alfred Nobel’s precious gift to engineers and warmongers everywhere. Characteristics (remember the manual): high detonation velocity; shattering action; high grades resist water well. Poor fume quality – take extra care underground – sensitive to shock and friction. “You only drop the box once, boys.” Lesson number one well learned.
Where was that short-assed waiter to be found?
“Oh, I served, father. I saw my share. More than I’d care to remember.” The older man waited for more. “I served for France. In the Legion. I was a mining engineer.”
Dermot had eyes like shallow water that you find in warmer seas, an effect enhanced by coral eyebrows that sat high upon his face. Usually they bore a look of incredulity at what the world sent his way. But not always. Sometimes, when the memories returned and he was forced to revisit those days, his eyes would darken, as beneath a hurricane sky, and his eyebrows would draw tight in. The older man caught something of this now and let the topic be. He followed another string.
“So where were you from before the Legion took you? Not American, I think. Australia perhaps? Ireland?” Inspired, he dipped his head to the flag in the window.
Where do you start? What is a nation? How do you define a people? Is it a matter of resistance; is it who you are not? Is it a matter of what you fight against?
“You’re right there, father. I was born in Donegal. It’s a small enough town in Ireland, so it is, if that is important to anyone.”
“Irish. I told you so!” The older man cheerily claimed a victory, but no one but he seemed to care.
Everyone wants a label: “Irish”; “Foreigner.” How do you define a nation? Do you go back before the plantations and the colonization of a country, when the new world was barely discovered? Or does Ireland really start with Oliver Cromwell and his war that killed half of the people? Is it slaughter and famine on an apocalyptic scale that is required to cement an identity? We grew potatoes for an English economy and a million of us died from starvation.
“What did you give your arm for, father? Was it France, perhaps? Or Liberty?” The older man’s interest was sliding away. “Do you have a job yet, father? Are they giving you a pension? How many friends did you lose these past years?” No one liked this sort of talking. “I’m from the same place you are, father. All of us are bloodied together.”
Dermot could see he had lost his attention, and why not, with a handful like her beside him? The bars and streets were full of men being demobilized – carousing before being sent home. Dermot didn’t mind, he bore him no ill will, but he knew the man’s suspicions were wrong. He wasn’t crazy or grinding an axe; he only wanted to forget. But he wasn’t drunk enough to sleep. Not nearly drunk enough. The war would be waiting if he tried too soon, and the tunnel would beckon him under.
Their waiter was an Anjou dwarf whom the patrons called Maximilian.
“My name’s Henri!” He’d get annoyed and somehow that was funnier.
“Two more, Maximilian!” Dermot waved his empty glass as the little man scuttled by.
“Odd nut,” said Dermot. “Hey, you want something else?” The table declined him politely.
A long wooden counter along one wall served up drink to the crowd in the brasserie; here, upstairs, they had the seclusion to indulge in the forbidden drink despite its prohibition four years prior. Wine and beer could be had in the main room, spirits too, or coffee. But if you were known or invited and vouched for, the Swan would admit you back here. A museum of bottles terraced the back, stacked from the till to the ceiling. At its apex hung a tarnished silver tray. It was nailed securely to the beam to fend off boisterous pilferers. It bore an inscription in painted rhyme that Dermot had committed to memory:
Here can be found the men serving absinthe;
Alchemists pour the green into tumblers;
Crowned with a spoon, plated in silver;
One cube of sugar suspended o’er each.
Queued aproned waiters hoist jugs of iced water;
Assemble their trays of lime-colored cordial.
Ethereal creatures, procurers of promise;
Melt round their patrons; together the host!
Dermot loved the enthusiasm of it – Together the host! His people. Exactly. Why would they ban something so good? Not that it did them any good. The dwarf returned. Dermot took two glasses from the attendant Maximilian and settled his account with loose change. Each tumbler held a single finger of absinthe, the color of a rank algae bloom. With a practiced hand Dermot emptied one into the other – the twixt into the twain – and returned one empty glass to the tray. The Anjou waiter knew his customer’s habits and departed following this exchange.
Dermot reached for the jug that bore the ice and topped up his glass with chilled water. The next part he did very slowly. It was the drip, drip, drip he liked the most – a hypnotic dissolution – the sugar cube crumbled and ran through the holed spoon and mixed in the bottom of the solution. It was sheer chemistry. A science of the impossible. Numerology and divination. The mystery of relative gravities. The Philosopher’s Stone in a glass. The color now swirled, thickened and clouded, and spun milky and turgid before him; he watched while the louche effect gradually evened and the potion he’d brewed came to settle. For Dermot, it was like watching a mind churn an infinite computation and decide on a definitive answer. Here was the certainty and the peace of escape. His mouth began to salivate.
“To alchemy.” He raised his glass in a toast to the Fates, and then put his lips to the welcome cold rim.
The cut of alcohol kicked in sharply, a punch behind his ear. The ice water and sweetener was an antidote, and enabled his palate to take the aniseed. A rush of blood surged through his limbs, and his mind slipped from its leash. With the tremulous pleasure of anticipation served, the café faded away. Dermot’s head flopped to the side and he gazed through the colored glass window.
How long had he sat that way? When he looked back on it he could not say. The light at first drew his attention because it appeared strange, clustered as it was around the tree. Dermot pressed his face to the window and squinted to make his view clearer. It was there all right, sharper than before, and the figure began to take shape.
“Jesus Christ!” he exploded, startling the table from its nuptials.
A dish of oily fish was knocked and spilled. It soiled the laughing woman. “What the hell’s the matter with you?” The two men helped to brush her down, which led to lots of slapping.
“I just saw someone,” Dermot explained, putting his hand to his head and wiping a clammy brow.
The drinkers, recovered, laughed at him then, the three of them joined in the joke.
“Feeling all right over there?”
“Back with us, Irish?”
“Want to cut that green stuff out.”
Dermot felt a pall of fear, but he chanced another glance. The man he had seen was nowhere in sight. The tree in the courtyard was alone.
“What’s the fairy brought you tonight, then? What’s hiding there out in the shadows?”
The green fairy. The gift of the absinthe. A foot into another world. Dermot had heard of hallucinations before, but nothing like this had happened– yet the vision had looked so real. Dermot drew his hands to his lap, conscious that they were shaking.
“I just saw a man,” Dermot confessed. “He was a friend from long ago.”
“Then bring him in. What’s all the noise for, Irish?”
“The man I saw died in the war.”
About the Author:
He was born and raised in Scotland. He studied History and Geography at the University of Glasgow.
The World Wars left Iain’s family with generations of widows. As a result, Iain has always been interested in the tangible effects of history on family dynamics and in the power of narrative to awaken those long dead. For the characters in The Curse of Malenfer Manor, he drew on childhood reminiscences and verbal family history—though he hastens to add that his family had barely a penny, far less a
manor, and any ghosts dwell only in memory.
He lives in Vancouver, Canada, with his wife and two children.
What inspired you to write this book?
I had to write a book. What book it was didn’t seem important at the time, strange as that may seem. To get the time to write, I ended up quitting my job and moving with my family overseas. If that seems a little dramatic, it’s because it was. I was in a life – a good life but not a great one – and I had to break the mold.
I had lots of books I wanted to write, one of which an old-style gothic thriller: a bit of adventure, the supernatural, a moral or two, a romance, plot twists, and murder. I wanted something I would happily read on a flight across the Pacific. And I think I got it.
What characters do you connect with most?
You spend a lot of time with all of them when you write them for a year. I consciously tried to make all of them flawed – I’m not one for perfect heroes – so each of them annoy me a little. There was a time when I was writing the book – about six months in – when I had to make a major shift and the protagonist got switched. The ghost used to be the hero – there is a ghost, you find that early on, so I’m not giving too much away – but it wasn’t working. Partly because of that, my connection to the proper hero, Dermot, is not what the reader might think. Instead, I reserve my affections for the villains. After all this time I enjoy their company the most.
3. What’s your favorite book-turned movie?
Ah! Hard question. Hard question. I am usually one of those people that complain how they make bad movies from good books (hint – because they do!), but I really enjoyed the recent Cloud Atlas. The book was by David Mitchell and although the book was better – it is excellent – the movie made a really good go. The best overall? Jaws.
If you could be best friends with one of your characters, who would it be?
I would pick the hero, Dermot Ward. I think he’s got his priorities straight, though when you first meet him in his glasses in Paris, it is obvious this has done him no good. Dermot’s experiences in the war have him questioning what matters in life. I like his answers.
5. Can you tell us about any other books you're writing?
I can. I’m writing two. You are not meant to write two at the same time, so don’t tell anyone, especially my editor, and make sure you block her from this site or I’m bound to get an earful.
I’ll just mention one here, though: A remote Scottish island in the 1920’s owned by a reclusive industrialist. A cast of curious characters arrive, invited, and pretty soon start to be murdered. The supernatural element remains – the sulfuric whiff of satanic worship – and there may be a cameo or two from some of the Malenfer Manor cast. One can’t write mysteries and not be influenced by the late great Agatha Christie.
6. What do you do in your spare time?
Do you have children? Spare time? Actually, besides the kids, we just got ourselves a puppy. This means that in my spare time I walk in the rain with a plastic bag on one hand. It’s great. Everyone should try it.
7. Who’s your inspiration?
I get inspired and downcast every day. I pick up a book by one of the greats, read a few pages, and know I can never write that way. It tears at you and it is true. And then I pick up something by someone else and read a few pages. The thing has sold millions and I think to myself, my kid could have done better. You find inspiration everywhere.
8. If you were stranded on a desert island, which character would you want by your side?
Let me think, let me think. The scarred troubled veteran with clouded judgment and stalled ambition, or the sensual, ever-so-intelligent heroine in the plunging evening gown? Give me a minute…
9. Team Edward or Jacob?
Always take the vampires. Good oral hygiene and eternal life – how can you beat that? Now I recognize that I can’t claim any authority in this department, but if I were an impressionable young lady looking to be swept away by the dark beau of my dreams, I could not overlook the inherent deficiencies in a guy that kept borrowing my razor. Ew. Didn’t your momma tell you anything? Werewolves are just bad news.
10. Team Peeta or Gale?
My guess is that by book 8, Catnip will be shacked up with both of them, or she’ll be with Gale, but heavy with Peeta’s love child, or Peeta and Gale will be shacked up together in District 4 above a 24/7 retro disco club (admit it, you didn’t see that plot twist coming), and Catnip will have to go all alone to the book pre-launch cheese and wine. I could be wrong here, I’m just suggesting.
11. What are you reading now?
Exorcism for Dummies.