The book started its life back in 2004 when I began writing a story about a stage magician called Zak Black who’d swapped his soul in exchange for the ability to do real magic. The first draft was about 120,000 words long.
The story sat around for years, was occasionally tinkered with or had scenes rewritten, but it went nowhere. Then the year before last I picked it up again and decided to have another go at it. I must have rewritten the opening chapters three or four times and I still wasn’t happy with them.
Last year was a tough year. Without dwelling on it, I was poorly for a while and couldn’t focus on writing. I got some stuff done, but not this book. Cheerfully come the autumn things started looking up and I got stuck into the story again. Zak Black became Thaddeus Darke and something like ten characters, both major and minor, bit the dust. I must have cut about 100,000 words of the original draft: only a few scenes remain from that version of the story, and they have been comprehensively rewritten. And I finally got the opening scenes in a shape I was happy with.
Darke is much shorter and, I feel, more focused than the original story was. In this case, less is definitely more. See what you think.
‘For pity’s sake, Harry!’
‘Pity is not something for which I am renowned, Thaddeus.’
Thaddeus Darke put his head in his hands, frustration getting the better of him.
‘Give me what I am due, or I will take something from you.’ Harry’s words were measured, his tone implacable.
‘I can’t give you what I don’t have.’
‘You were the worst of investments, Thaddeus. You’ve been an enormous disappointment to me.’
‘So cut me loose. I’m obviously not worth the trouble I put you to.’
‘You owe me,’ Harry repeated. ‘I want a soul, and not just any soul. I want the soul of someone who cares something for you, someone who thinks of you with gratitude and affection. I want you to sacrifice someone to me, to make up for your otherwise shockingly poor performance.’
‘It hasn’t been that poor. You’ve been paid, over the years.’
‘I have not been paid enough.’
‘Harry, there’s no one left. You drove them all away.’
‘You drove them all away.’
‘Either way, they’re gone.’
‘Does no one owe you?’ prompted Harry. ‘Is there really not one single person who is in your debt?’
Thaddeus was about to repeat himself, to say that no, there really wasn’t, but then he remembered. He looked up at Harry. ‘Maybe,’ he said. ‘Maybe there is. But it’ll take time. I need to draw him to me.’
‘Today is the vernal equinox. You have until the summer solstice to make sacrifice. That’s three months. One season.’ Harry stared at Thaddeus for a long moment. ‘And you had better deliver, or you will live to regret it.’
‘I’ve lived to regret many things, Harry. One more may be neither here nor there.’
‘Oh, this regret will be noteworthy, believe me. Deliver or else.’
‘Or else what?’
Harry smiled. ‘Or else I will take Abigail in lieu of payment.’
Thaddeus went cold. ‘Three months,’ he said to Harry. ‘I’ll have something for you. For God’s sake leave my niece alone.’
‘For God’s sake? Since when did He have anything to do with our arrangements?’
‘Just leave her alone.’
‘I will, for now. What happens later is in your hands.’
Later, after Harry had left, Thaddeus Darke sat in a wing-backed leather chair in front of a huge picture window. No lamps burned in the house and the moonlight cast his features in stark relief, made pits of his eyes and the hollows of his cheeks. He had an unobstructed view of the North Sea in front of him, a lit cigarette in his hand, and a glass of whisky on the table at his side. He watched the moonlight as it played on the water, a bright, silver path cutting through the blackness, and he thought about Joe Fox. Wondered how long it would take him to get in touch. Thaddeus didn’t want to push too hard, but he had only a limited time to play with; he couldn’t afford to wait forever.
He closed his eyes and murmured some words, made a sign in the air in front of his face and gave things just a little … push. Then he sat back and smoked his cigarette, drank his whisky, watched the silver ribbon ripple atop the restless sea. By the time he had stubbed out the cigarette and set down the empty glass, Joe Fox was dreaming about his old friend Thaddeus Darke. And for now, those dreams were good ones.
‘So you know this Thaddeus Darke then, do you?’ asked the taxi driver as he drove along the coast road.
‘Yes, we were at school together.’ Joe Fox was still dizzy at how swiftly circumstances had brought him back to the UK, and yet the chance to catch up with his old friend was a welcome one. ‘Mind you,’ he added, ‘I haven’t seen him in ages.’
‘Neither has anyone else.’
The driver indicated when he saw the turning he wanted. The road dipped and the car slowed as it approached ten-foot high, elaborate wrought iron gates. Woven into the design was the word ‘Temperance’. A wall extended in either direction then curved towards the cliff edge, marking the extensive boundary of the property. The gates opened to let the car pass and Joe turned in his seat and watched them close behind him, swinging silently and majestically shut as if by an act of will.
‘I wonder how they work,’ the driver said, as he pulled up outside the large gothic mansion.
‘Must be a sensor of some sort.’
‘Aye, I suppose. It’s a bit creepy, though, don’t you think? It’s like somebody’s watching.’
Joe paid the cabbie then got out of the car. The driver did a U-turn and gave a wave as he headed back down the drive. Joe watched as the gates swung open once more to let him through, then closed to shut out the world.
The doorbell tolled like a harbinger of sorrow, stirring the still air of the house and shattering the early evening silence. Thaddeus Darke looked at his wristwatch: his guest was on time. Not seeing that as a reason why he himself should hurry, he took a final draw on his cigarette before stubbing it out in the large crystal ashtray on the table at his side then, having let the smoke out of his lungs in a steady stream, picked up his glass and drained the last of the whisky it held before striding to the front door and throwing it open.
‘Joe, it’s good to see you again. Welcome to Temperance.’ He held his hand out and Joe Fox clasped it immediately. Thaddeus’s handshake was cool and firm, his long, slender fingers familiar from the close-up work Joe had seen years before in the school playground and more recently on his television screen.
‘It’s good to see you too, Thaddeus. It’s been a long time.’
Thaddeus stood back and ushered Joe in, closing the door behind him. ‘Come on through,’ he said. He led Joe into a room on the opposite side of the house where a huge window looked out over the North Sea.
Joe stopped and stared. ‘My God, Thaddeus, that’s a hell of a view.’
‘Isn’t it? I never tire of it. I love the sea.’
‘How long have you lived here now?’
‘Oh, about seven years, I think.’
‘Brings it home just how long I’ve been away. Seven years, and this is my first visit here,’ said Joe. ‘Mind you, the family always preferred to come and visit me in Spain, make a bit of a holiday of it. I don’t think I’ve been back since I came to see you at the Albert Hall.’
‘What can I get you to drink?’
‘Beer if you’ve got it.’
‘Coming up. Take your coat?’ Joe took his cigarettes out of his pocket and shrugged off his jacket. He handed it to Thaddeus, then turned his gaze back to the window. It was a clear day, fresh and bright, and he could see along the coast as far as Tynemouth to the north and Seaham in the south. When Thaddeus came back with a couple of bottles of beer and some glasses, Joe was still gazing out to sea. Thaddeus set everything down on a table and poured first one glass of beer, which he handed to Joe, then a second for himself. That done, he tipped his glass in salute. ‘Cheers,’ he said.
They sat down in chairs that faced the incredible view, the low table between them. Thaddeus produced a packet of cigarettes and offered them to Joe, and they lit up.
‘You found the place all right then.’
‘I got a taxi, the driver knew where to come.’ Joe drew on his cigarette. ‘Let’s face it, though,’ he said, exhaling smoke, ‘I’d have found it easily enough anyway. Temperance is something of a landmark.’
‘Yes, I suppose it is.’
‘It’s an amazing house. How on earth did you get permission to build here?’
Thaddeus shrugged. ‘I applied and there was no objection. It’s not like I was building an eyesore, after all.’
‘True.’ The house was almost a part of the landscape, barely visible from the road due to the topography of the land and the cliffs. It was three storeys high on the landward side and four where it looked out to sea, the basement level having been fitted into a natural rock ledge. The seaward side was edged by turrets, round and ethereal, topped with pointed copper roofs turned verdigris by the elements. ‘How did the builders manage to cut into the cliff and get the foundations in, so close to the edge?’ Joe asked. ‘It must have been a hell of a challenge.’
‘I believe so, but I hired the best.’
‘Even so, to build a house in this location—’
‘Would you like the guided tour?’ asked Thaddeus.
Joe nodded. ‘Definitely.’ He took a last drag on his cigarette, stubbed it out and got to his feet. ‘Lead the way.’
If that has whetted your appetite, then you can download a longer sample free of charge from Amazon. And if you like that, the book is currently just £1.27/$1.99. Sincere thanks to everyone who checks it out. I hope you enjoy it.