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Bird of Prey

The novella BIRD OF PREY was published in the US by Damnation Books in December 2011 – a contemporary fantasy combining the Russian myth of the Firebird with a hint of darkness, the supernatural, and the odd touch of humour. It’s available in kindle format here as well as in paperback. Also available from other online shops (Abe, iTunes, etc) for Nook, Sony and other e-book formats. The paperback is $12.89 and is available through Barnes & Noble and all the usual online outlets in the USA, UK and around the world. Signed copies are available from this site for 10 euro, 8 UK pounds or 14 US dollars, including post and packing.

For signed copies via Paypal email: dmbc(at)gofree(dot)indigo(dot)ie – or send a cheque or postal order to the Albedo address (2, Post Road, Lusk, Co Dublin, Ireland).

In a review on the British Fantasy Society website, Alex Hardy writes: BIRD OF PREY is a short novella with a very big idea … We are treated to a Tintinesque race across Europe … The author does a wonderful job of building up the suspense …

What if something thought to be myth turns out real? Something so devastating it was kept secret by generations of Russian Czars? Supposing the legendary Firebird appeared on the streets of Moscow today – imagine the intrigue, the mayhem. Such is the premise of  BIRD OF PREY. Read this amazing story through the eyes of Walts Walters, a London auctioneer caught up in extraordinary events.

Another review (Julian White in the July 2013 edition of his Demon’s Bento column: Murphy packs a lot into a slim 86 pages … rapid changes of scene give BIRD OF PREY a brisk, cinematic quality … it retains plenty of grit thanks to the author’s eye for descriptive detail; and there’s a satisfaction to the way the tale goes from small and humdrum to earth-shattering and potentially cataclysmic … a pleasingly individual piece of fiction.

Here is an excerpt from the opening chapter:

Walts cleaned up the feathers first thing Saturday morning. The bird stood on its stand in a slightly different position from the viewing-day. As usual, it did not appear to be shorn of any feathers. He swore the bird looked at him, following him with a steely gaze. He busied himself with all sorts of mundane things until the auction started. He had to push and jostle his way into the showroom. Those shady-looking foreigners, who had hovered near the bird on viewing-day, had returned. They stood together as always, a dubious looking entourage if ever there was one, all four of them. They looked so Russian. They only needed hammers and sickles on their foreheads. They and Walts did not have to wait long for Lot 28.

Mister Fowler took it away in his inimitable style. “Ladies and Gentlemen, feast your eyes on this next lot. It’s most unusual in that this is not your everyday flight of flying ducks. It’s a perched crystal eagle!” After the laughter died down, he went on, “Who’ll start me with fifty?”

Walts’ eyes whizzed in his sockets like electrons around a nucleus seeking out signals to the auctioneer. Nobody bit, from those he could see. The Russians looked edgy.

“Oh come on!” said Mister Fowler. “The crystal work is sublime. Forty?”

He scanned the audience. Nobody …

“Forty we have! Who’ll give me fifty?”

Blimey, someone had taken a dive. Walts could not see who had made the bid. He glanced at the Russians. One of them, a wealthy-looking gangster type, raised his card.

“Fifty!” Mister Fowler stared at a person hidden around the corner from Walts. Whoever it was made a counter-bid. “Sixty we have!”

“One hundred!” shouted the Russian.

The audience gasped. Walts had never seen Mister Fowler look so bemused. You could have knocked him over with one of Theo’s feather dusters. It was so unusual for someone to voice a bid like that.

Mister Fowler recovered quickly. “One hundred we have!”

Walts saw him stare at the under-bidder. He raised the gavel. “Going at one hundred …”

Walts swallowed hard. The original bidder had been scared off by the jump in price. A scene from a James Bond film where Roger Moore outbids the baddies flashed into his head. He was no Roger Moore. He could not act suave, never mind look it.

“Going …”

Walts knew from the telltale arc that the gavel was about to come down. He told himself to get a grip. Do nothing. He thought of his career, his life, his wife Lucy. Most of him thought of those things. Deep down there was another part of Walts, the barmy part. It raced up through his veins as if serpentine. It reached his brain. “Two hundred!” he shouted.

He heard a massive and collective intake of breath. Mister Fowler stopped in his downswing like a disturbed executioner. His eyes glared over the top bars of his half-moons like a pair of wild horses about to leap. Walts stood his ground, though his legs felt wobbly. He saw people strain their necks to see who this latest bidder was.

“Five hundred!”

Heads swivelled to the party of Russians, then back to Walts. Nervous laughter swamped the salesroom. “Ladies and Gentlemen,” Mister Fowler tried to regain control. “We have a bid of five hundred.”

Walts felt Mister Fowler’s glare hot on his face. What saved him was one of Mister Fowler’s failings – greed. What Walts was doing was unethical and would probably cost him his job. He could no longer stop himself. His mad impulse drove him to say, “One thousand.”

“Two thousand!” came the immediate response.

An eerie silence filled the room. Mister Fowler stood rooted to the spot. His eyes, and the eyes of the whole world, turned to Walts. This had gone beyond laughter, beyond breathing. What would Lucy say if she saw this? Probably call him a stupid clot. Things were that bad and wrong between them, just as things had suddenly gone very bad and very wrong in his work. He desperately needed water. He doubted he could speak. He croaked the word “Five”.

All heads turned once more, including Walts. He saw the Russians stare at him, all four of them, as though he were vermin. Their main bidder, the one with the body of a weightlifter, smiled and said with great calmness, “Ten thousand pounds.”

Walts heard a great swish of trousers and skirts on seats, and necks in collars, as the audience turned to face him. He knew it was hopeless, despite the inheritance from Gran due to him shortly. That amounted to twenty grand. He knew that no matter what amount, he would be outbid. He shook his head. Several of the crowd sighed with disappointment.

“Going at ten thousand pounds.” A sweaty-faced Mister Fowler brought down the hammer with the fury of a demented axe-murderer.

Walts stood motionless for a few more lots. People looked at him as he slipped sideways through the main door. Out of the corner of his eye he saw one of the Russians get up out of his seat to follow him. Walts had a head start. He made his way into the laneway to the side entrance of Fowler & Sons where he sat wedged between two wardrobes in the storeroom, trying to make sense of the whole caboodle.

Two of Mister Fowler’s nephews, on hire for the day, came in with some of the sold lots. Theo walked in with the bird on its stand. The caretaker had seen it all happen. “Oh, Walts, what have you done?”

He did not answer because he did not know what had come over him.

“Will Mister Fowler give you a big fat bonus or unemployment?”

Walts snorted, knowing what the answer to that question would be. “What do you think, Theo?” he said, sarcastically.

The caretaker did not answer. He had the bird off its perch, wrapping it for placement in a container. Walts waited until Theo had it boxed. That stupid bald eagle looked so innocent. How could he explain what he was about to do, to Theo? More importantly, how could he explain it in 0.1 seconds – about all the time he reckoned he might have before Theo would react. Sweet Jesus. Act fast. Don’t even think about saying anything. Don’t even think. He walked over, grabbed the package, and said, “You didn’t see this, Theo.” The caretaker stood as if glued to the floor, hands on hips, dumbfounded. Walts winked at him from the back door.

He put his head around the corner of lane and street. The Russian who had followed was standing on the pavement outside Fowler & Sons’ main entrance, stomping out a cigarette, facing the other way. If Walts turned left, it would give him a twenty-yard start.

Whatever madness was in him took over his legs as it had taken over his brain. He scurried headlong down the street. The Russian heard him and turned as he took the corner to the river. Walts overheard him shout to alert his buddies. He had maybe forty yards before the Russian started the chase, his cronies no doubt rushing out to join him. Walts scurried downhill like a headless pigeon at a pace faster than he had ever run before. He held the box before him. The weight of it dragged his head and body forward, adding to his downhill momentum. Junction of street and road zoomed like a close-up lens. Thank God, no traffic. It was as though the box had a life of its own. It pulled him along. He could not stop as pavement ended and road began. He careened across the tarmac. The horn of a big red bus rang out so loud it almost blasted his eardrums to pieces. He felt its menacing shadow. He heard the screech of brakes as he lurched onto the pavement on the far side. He nearly lost the box but clung to it or it to him. He made for the embankment, hoping, praying, that the bus would delay his pursuers.

The river loomed, cutting off his forward rush. He turned sideways and ran to a wharf. He glanced back and saw the Russians take the corner from the street. They were gaining! He ran in panic and caught sight of a pleasure-boat full of tourists about to cast off. If he could make it aboard, he might get away.

In the moment his feet slid from under him, everything slowed down. He saw himself fall headlong, box loosening from his grasp. It hit the wooden jetty in front of him, bouncing and sliding at an angle along the planks. He saw where the angle would take it – a watery grave to match the dead end of his own career with this mad decision to steal a client’s property. They had chased him like a common thief through the streets, his job had slid from his grasp, and now the box slipped away. He could do nothing to prevent any of it. This fall was the worst, most humiliating moment of his life. He’d pushed all the crazy buttons in his head and now the box was going, going …

Time sped up again. The box shot sideways off the jetty. The impetus of his fall carried it off the edge. The lid peeled back as it flew through the air. It hit the surface with a splash. For a moment he thought the box might float – it did not. He watched it sink beneath the water as frantic footfalls surrounded him on the jetty. He raised himself on his hands and saw a forest of legs. He knelt surrounded by four Russians. This was it, he was certain they were going to pummel him into a purple pulp and leave him for dead, perhaps by tossing him unconscious into the tide and letting the Thames finish off their dirty work for them. These massive brutes giving chase all the way to the jetty were not about to let go of their prey now. He buried his face in his hands, expecting them to kick his skull and stamp him to death right there as he knelt before them, as though in prayer. Nothing happened, as if in answer to a silent entreaty he had uttered to a god he had not believed in since he was fourteen, but felt like believing in again now. He stared out through the bars of his fingers. No flaying fist, no kicking leg, neither boot nor knuckle-duster crashed down on his head. He jerked his body up off grazed knees, dusted his trousers down, and looked around.

The Russians stared down at the river. He followed their gaze. Bits of Theo’s wrapping paper floated on the surface. He saw no sign of the box, dragged under by the weight of the bird. He started to get his breath back and noticed the boatload of tourists had not pulled away. The crew had joined the passengers. They stood at the side-rails, their eyes drawn also to the dark water. He looked again. Bubbles broke the surface. A few yards away, more bubbles. More and more until a miniature jacuzzi circled in the river, moving this way and that. In his peripheral vision he became aware of other people rushing onto the jetty. For a moment he thought he saw Theo running along the quayside – but what happened beneath Father Thames distracted Walts. Something dark flashed in the water near the jetty. Its movement reminded him of a salmon’s back seen from above, a big salmon. One moment it was there. Next it disappeared. Whatever was down there zoomed about like a fish. It broke the surface in a sudden glorious splash.

To his delight and amazement, Walts saw a bird take flight from the depths of the river. “Holy sweet cow!” he exclaimed, all fear of attack banished from his head. He put his hands to his face again; this time to cover his mouth to prevent him gasping like a landed fish.

The bird soared skyward, a living, flapping myth becoming visible reality. It spread its wings and levelled off, circling. No fledgling, the giant bird had morphed from a foot-long crystal into a wild creature more than a yard in length with a wingspan twice that, not dull brown any more. The river had washed the rust-dust from its wings. Its plumage, a moving, glittering tapestry of yellow, orange, and blood red feathers, glowed incandescently as it turned in the sky. It moved like a celestial fireball, a sparkler at Halloween, a living elemental force beyond mere Mother Nature. He knew then the answer to Mrs Romanov’s riddle when she had asked him on the phone, “What do birds like?”

Water, that’s what. This magical creature had been trying to get to the river the whole time.

The breath stuck in Walts Walters’ throat not from running, not from the fall, but from the emotion of seeing a newborn bird wheel about above the river, hooting and honking with what could only be whoops of joy. The tourists on the boat cheered and clapped. No one had ever seen a bird so colourful, so divine and awe-inspiring. They witnessed the joy of a new life unleashed. Walts could not believe his luck in sharing with them such a beautiful setting: a bright spring morning, sun glinting on the Thames, air crisp and clean, a cool breeze on his face. Up there, a sublime flying creature, a creature to match the radiant wonder of this day. He started to cry and dance, waving at the circling bird and clapping like the tourists. They gazed up in admiration, spellbound witnesses to a stunning miracle, eyes only for the bird.

An explosion of noise almost shattered Walts’ eardrums. The gunshot startled him, and everyone else.

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