The Last Smile in Sunder City is a brilliantly voiced contemporary fantasy for fans of Ben Aaronovitch, Rotherweird or Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, and the debut novel from actor Luke Arnold. Luke has a huge fan following and is best known for his lead role on Black Sails.
“Do some good,” she’d said.
Well, I’d tried, hadn’t I? Every case of my career had been tiresome and ultimately pointless. Like when Mrs Habbot hired me to find her missing dog. Two weeks of work, three broken bones, then the old bat died before I could collect my pay, leaving a blind and incontinent poodle in my care for two months. Just long enough for me to fall in love with the damned mutt before he also kicked the big one.
Rest in peace, Pompo.
Then there was my short-lived stint as Aaron King’s bodyguard. Paid in full, not a bruise on my body, but listening to that rich fop whine about his inheritance was four and a half days of agony. I’m still picking his complaints out of my ears with tweezers.
After a string of similarly useless jobs, I was in my office, half-asleep, three-quarters drunk and all out of coffee. That was almost enough. The coffee. Just enough reason to stop the whole stupid game for good. I stood up from my desk and opened the door.
Not the first door. The first door out of my office is the one with the little glass window that reads Fetch Phillips: Man for Hire and leads through the waiting room into the hall.
No. I opened the second door. The one that leads to nothing but a patch of empty air five floors over Main Street. This door had been used by the previous owner but I’d never stepped out of it myself. Not yet, anyway.
The autumn wind slapped my cheeks as I dangled my toes off the edge and looked down at Sunder City. Six years since it all fell apart. Six years of stumbling around, hoping I would trip over some way to make up for all those stupid mistakes.
Why did she ever think I could make a damned bit of difference?
The candlestick phone rattled its bells like a beggar asking for change. I watched, wondering whether it would be more trouble to answer it or eat it.
“Am I speaking to Mr Phillips?”
“This is Principal Simon Burbage of Ridgerock Academy. Would you be free to drop by this afternoon? I believe I am in need of your assistance.”
I knew the address but he spelled it out anyway. Our meeting would be after school, once the kids had gone home, but he wanted me to arrive a little earlier.
“If possible, come over at half past two. There is a presentation you might be interested in.”
I agreed to the earlier time and the line went dead.
The wind slapped my face again. This time, I allowed the cold air into my lungs and it pushed out the night. My eyelids scraped open. My blood began to thaw. I rubbed a hand across my face and it was rough and dry like a slab of salted meat.
A client. A case. One that might actually mean something.
I grabbed my wallet, lighter, brass knuckles and knife and I kicked the second door closed.
* * *
There was a gap in the clouds after a week of rain and the streets, for a change, looked clean. I was hoping I did too. It was my first job offer in over a fortnight and I needed to make it stick. I wore a patched gray suit, white shirt, black tie, my best pair of boots and the navy, fur-lined coat that was practically a part of me.
Ridgerock Academy was made up of three single-story blocks of concrete behind a wire fence. The largest building was decorated with a painfully colorful mural of smiling faces, sunbeams and stars.
A security guard waited with a pot of coffee and a paper-thin smile. She had eyes that were ready to roll and the unashamed love of a little bit of power. When she asked for my name, I gave it.
“Fetch Phillips. Here to see the Principal.”
I traded my ID for an unimpressed grunt.
“Assembly hall. Straight up the path, red doors to the left.”
It wasn’t my school and I’d never been there before, but the grounds were smeared with a thick coat of nostalgia; the unforgettable aroma of grass-stains, snotty sleeves, fear, confusion and week-old peanut-butter sandwiches.
The red doors were streaked with the accidental graffiti of wayward finger-paint. I pulled them open, took a moment to adjust to the darkness and slipped inside as quietly as I could.
The huge gymnasium doubled as an auditorium. Chairs were stacked neatly on one side, sports equipment spread out around the other. In the middle, warm light from a projector cut through the darkness and highlighted a smooth, white screen. Particles of dust swirled above a hundred hushed kids who whispered to each other from their seats on the floor. I slid up to the back, leaned against the wall and waited for whatever was to come.
A girl squealed. Some boys laughed. Then a mousy man with white hair and large spectacles moved into the light.
“Settle down, please. The presentation is about to begin.”
I recognized his voice from the phone call.
“Yes, Mr Burbage,” the children sang out in unison. The Principal approached the projector and the spotlight cut hard lines into his face. Students stirred with excitement as he unboxed a reel of film and loaded it on to the sprocket. The speakers crackled and an over-articulated voice rang out.
“The Opus is proud to present . . .”
I choked on my breath mid-inhalation. The Opus were my old employers and we didn’t part company on the friendliest of terms. If this is what Burbage wanted me to see, then he must have known some of my story. I didn’t like that at all.
“. . . My Body and Me: Growing Up After the Coda.”
I started to fidget, pulling at a loose thread on my sleeve. The voice-over switched to a male announcer who spoke with that fake, friendly tone I associate with salesmen, con-artists and crooked cops.
“Hello, everyone! We’re here to talk about your body. Now, don’t get uncomfortable, your body is something truly special and it’s important that you know why.”
One of the kids groaned, hoping for a laugh but not finding it. I wasn’t the only one feeling nervous.
“Everyone’s body is different, and that’s fine. Being different means being special, and we are all special in our own unique way.”
Two cartoon children came up on the screen: a boy and a girl. They waved to the kids in the audience like they were old friends.
“You might have something on your body that your friends don’t have. Or maybe they have something you don’t. These differences can be confusing if you don’t understand where they came from.”
The little cartoon characters played along with the voice-over, shrugging in confusion as question marks appeared above their heads. Then they started to transform.
“Maybe your friend has pointy teeth.”
The girl character opened her mouth to reveal sharp fangs.
“Maybe you have stumps on the top of your back.”
The animated boy turned around to present two lumps, emerging from his shoulder blades.
“You could be covered in beautiful brown fur or have more eyes than your classmates. Do you have shiny skin? Great long legs? Maybe even a tail? Whatever you are, whoever you are, you are special. And you are like this for a reason.”
The image changed to a landscape: mountains, rivers and plains, all painted in the style of an innocent picture book. Even though the movie made a great effort to hide it, I knew damn well that this story wasn’t a happy one.
“Since the beginning of time, our world has gained its power from a natural energy that we call magic. Magic was part of almost every creature that walked the lands. Wizards could use it to perform spells. Dragons and Gryphons flew through the air. Elves stayed young and beautiful for centuries. Every creature was in tune with the spirit of the world and it made them different. Special. Magical.
“But six years ago, maybe before some of you were even born, there was an incident.”
The thread came loose on my sleeve as I pulled too hard. I wrapped it tight around my finger.
“One species was not connected to the magic of the planet: the Humans. They were envious of the power they saw around them, so they tried to change things.”
A familiar pain stabbed the left side of my chest, so I reached into my jacket for my medicine: a packet of Clayfield Heavies. Clayfields are a mass-produced version of a painkiller that people in these parts have used for centuries. Essentially, they’re pieces of bark from a recus tree, trimmed to the size of a toothpick. I slid one thin twig between my teeth and bit down as the film rolled on.
“To remedy their natural inferiority, the Humans made machines. They invented a wide variety of weapons, tools and strange devices, but it wasn’t enough. They knew their machines would never be as powerful as the magical creatures around them.
“Then, the Humans heard a legend that told of a sacred mountain where the magical river inside the planet rose up to meet the surface; a doorway that led right into the heart of the world. This ancient myth gave the Humans an idea.”
The image flipped to an army of angry soldiers brandishing swords and torches and pushing a giant drill.
“Seeking to capture the natural magic of the planet for themselves, the Human Army invaded the mountain and defeated its protectors. Then, hoping that they could use the power of the river for their own desires, they plugged their machines straight into the soul of our world.”
I watched the simple animation play out the events that have come to be known as the Coda.
The children watched in silence as the cartoon army moved their forces on to the mountain. On screen, it looked as simple as sliding a chess piece across a board. They didn’t hear the screams. They didn’t smell the fires. They didn’t see the bloodshed. The bodies.
They didn’t see me.
“The Human Army sent their machines into the mountain but when they tried to harness the power of the river, something far more terrible happened. The shimmering river of magic turned from mist to solid crystal. It froze. The heart of the world stopped beating and every magical creature felt the change.”
I could taste bile in my mouth.
“Dragons plummeted from the sky. Elves aged centuries in seconds. Werewolves’ bodies became unstable and left them deformed. The magic drained from the creatures of the world. From all of us. And it has stayed that way ever since.”
In the darkness, I saw heads turn. Tiny little bodies examined themselves, then turned to inspect their neighbors. Their entire world was now covered in a sadness that the rest of us had been seeing for the last six years.
“You may still bear the greatness of what you once were. Wings, fangs, claws and tails are your gifts from the great river. They herald back to your ancestors and are nothing to be ashamed of.”
I bit down on the Clayfield too hard and it snapped in half. Somewhere in the crowd, a kid was crying.
“Remember, you may not be magic, but you are still . . . special.”
The film ripped off the projector and spun around the wheel, wildly clicking a dozen times before finally coming to a stop. Burbage flicked on the lights but the children stayed silent as stone.
“Thank you for your attention. If you have any questions about your body, your species or life before the Coda, your parents and teachers will be happy to talk them through with you.”
As Burbage wrapped up the presentation, I tried my best to sink into the wall behind me. A stream of sweat had settled on my brow and I dabbed at it with an old handkerchief. When I looked up, an inquisitive pair of eyes were examining me.
They were foggy green with tiny pinprick pupils: Elvish. Young. The face was old, though. Elvish skin has no elasticity. Not anymore. The bags under the boy’s eyes were worthy of a decade without sleep, but he couldn’t have been more than five. His hair was white and lifeless and his tiny frame was all crooked. He wore no real expression, just looked right into my soul.
And I swear.