Google+ Followers

Friday

Syria and Looking Back on the Spanish Civil War

Guernica by Pablo Picasso
On reading George Orwell's razor-sharp essay Looking Back on the Spanish Civil War, I was struck by the parallels with the conflict in Syria today. Orwell writes: 'The most baffling thing in the Spanish war was the behaviour of the great powers. The war was actually won for Franco by the Germans and Italians, whose motives were obvious enough. The motives of France and Britain are less easy to understand.' Change Franco for Assad, Germany and Italy for Russia and Iran and you get the picture.

Orwell continues: '... the Spanish Civil War demonstrated that the Nazis knew what they were doing and their opponents did not. The war was fought at a low technical level and its major strategy was very simple. That side which had arms would win. The Nazis and Italians gave arms to their Spanish fascist friends, and the western democracies ... didn't give arms to those who should have been their friends. So the Spanish Republic perished.'

Given the many brutalities inflicted on the Syrian people in what has been an almost-constant military dictatorship since the modern nation gained independence from France in 1946, it is difficult to disagree with Orwell: 'War is evil, and it is often the lesser evil'.

The homophobic, misogynist Islamofascists, in this case Syria, Iran and Hezbollah, would keep human civilisation stuck in the 7th century, even as they use the most horrific modern weapons to eradicate all those who espouse democracy, social progress and equal rights. I hope that President Obama decides to use military force to finally stand up to Assad and his bullies. In my opinion, doing nothing would be the greater evil.

Tuesday

Exclusive Extract from Work in Progress: TO EAT THE WORLD

 TO EAT THE WORLD
A Novel by Gary J Byrnes

2013

A Manhattan chef and her ex, an antiques expert, infiltrate a nest of cannibals to find a serial killer and save a horde of art treasures from destruction. But they must fight to save their own lives, kill a fugitive Nazi and save the President from an assassin’s poison.

TO EAT THE WORLD

FIRST DRAFT - EXCLUSIVE EXTRACT



The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is slave to the lender.

The Bible, Proverbs 22:7 (New International Version)



PROLOGUE

GRONAU, GERMANY
AUGUST 1945

A brilliantly bright and hot day, the still air vibrating gently as a thousand cannon fired, far away to the east. Berlin was surrounded, the Third Reich desperate, cornered, dying. A rusty aircraft hangar, a dozen thin men in shabby suits smoked inside, down at the back, beside crates of 500 kg bombs and the Messerschmitt Me 262 A-2a jet bomber. The plane, one of Hitler’s desperate secret weapons, was like a shark out of water. Nerves jangled, some nervous chatter. Each of the scientists had a leather briefcase and a bulging suitcase. But one stood alone, in the deepest shadows. Beside him, a beaten trunk.
The platoon of US Marines sat on aircraft part crates just inside the gaping door. They smoked and drank Coke. They had the easy manner of soldiers on the winning side, far from the front line.
An RAF Dakota came in to land, buzzed back up the runway and stopped at the hangar. The soldiers snapped to attention as a Major left the plane, followed by his aide, who carried a bunch of papers. The German rocket scientists came forward, out of the shadows. The DC3 delivered their salvation. There would be no Russian gulags - or worse - for them. They allowed themselves careful smiles.
Crickets chirped in the yellow grass.
The Major drank a cold Coke and set up at a trestle table, just inside the hangar door. He called the German scientists forward, one at a time. He checked their credentials against the details that had been painstakingly collated in individual folders, then took a new profile page from his aide and paperclipped it to the front of each file. You are no longer Nazi. You are reborn, cleansed, new. Now help us to build our rocket forces so that we may rule the world in your stead.
Finally the last man came forward, dragging his trunk.
The major checked his file, clipped the new data sheet to the front of the folder.
‘No luggage, you knew that, Dr Heim.’
‘If the Major will permit me,’ said Dr Death, making a lid-opening gesture.
The major nodded, looked at his wristwatch.
Dr Death opened the case. What might have been in there? Inside were dozens of paintings and original prints, flat and in rolls, as well as some small trinket boxes. He took a box, opened it, showed the pearl necklace to the major. Then he rifled through the art, grunted, pulled out a canvas that looked like it had lain on the floor of an artist’s studio for a couple of busy months.
‘Please,’ said the German, ‘a gift. Which would you like?’
‘This,’ he said, pointing, ‘this isn't art. But I like the look of those pearls. They real?’
‘Of course, quite natural. Gold detailing, too. Very expensive. Please take them for your wife, your sweetheart. A nice souvenir from this terrible war, yes?’
‘Okay. Get your trunk on board. We’re going to New York.’
So Dr Death put the original Jackson Pollock back with the other works and cornered the American art market.

ONE

NEW YORK CITY, USA
JULY 2013

Speeding, spinning hearts. Thumping as a glorious, bloody chorus. Can you feel it? Faster again, building to some kind of crescendo. So these were as one, connected by dizzy madness. One point six million more beating out there on that tiny and wild and scared and suffering island, once the calm home of the Lenape Indians who met an Italian and the game was up. The Dutch took it, called it New Amsterdam. The British renamed it New York, finally losing it to the New Americans and the beat, the beat it made would shake the planet. Another heart in this drama, Manhattan the nervous ultimate.

***

The Butcher was excited. This was why he did it. The sly thrill, the adrenaline, the aching heart, pulsing blood, tingling palms. He needed this to feel alive. He knew it was wrong, sick, that he should be locked away in a mental institution, put down, even. He knew this yet he still committed the acts. Truly, this is the definition of beyond crazy. He stared at himself in the bathroom mirror, eventually decided that he liked what he saw, smiled.
'I'm coming, sweetheart,' he called over his shoulder.
He admired the ornate mirror, with its blemished reflection.
He washed his hands again, checked his fingernails. He pulled on a pair of non-latex surgical gloves, flexed his fingers. He selected the required items from the tray of surgical equipment, left the bathroom and marched down the brightly-lit corridor, with its early Pollock, dripping red and green and black and white, and its Picasso sketch, a horse. The living room was dark, dominated by a wall of window, the office towers and hotels of midtown Manhattan shimmering in the dying light. The silhouette of a girl tied to a chair, back-lit by the loathed, hating, fighting, conspiring city. He glanced at the clock, one of those old French designs, and saw that it was time.
Once you listened for it, its low tick filled the room.
He found the leader for the intravenous drip tube and jabbed it into her forearm. She recoiled, her eyes pleading, her mouth silenced by the gag. The drug - propofol - had an instant effect and she slumped forward. From now on, everything was timed to the minute. This was what his heart craved. She slept soundly, twitching gently like a newborn.
He took her hand in his and made the first incision.



***

Sophie cursed, but under her breath. She wasn't the kind of chef that gloried in foul language, bullying or ego. It was about the food, not about her. But, Jesus, a New York senator is out there and he's waiting for his pesto chicken a l'orange and what’s with the oven. The oven!
Basil and citrus took their vows and began a beautiful, if short, life together.
'Carl! Can you give me an ETA on the mains for table four? What's wrong with that damned oven?'
Carl knew not to do a visual, not to open the oven door. That would cost an extra two minutes' cooking time. He calculated from experience that they would be ready in three minutes. He also knew that his boss knew. She was just venting. But he would still get the oven temps checked tomorrow.
Three hundred and sixty degrees Fahrenheit - a hot 360 - same temperature as a match igniting.
'Three minutes, chef.'
'Will they be perfect, Carl?'
'Yes, chef,' he said, wiping his sweaty forehead with a filthy-looking towel from over his shoulder. Yes, chef. Your recipe always turns out perfectly. The senator adores it, as do many of the richest one percent of the city.
The food would be great, she knew this, but still she fretted, needed the approval that only a clean plate could deliver and her heart, her heart.
'How are the sides doing, Carl?'
'We're there, chef,' he replied, a bead of his sweat falling, as if in slow motion, onto the vast, bubbling potato gratin dish as he raised it from another oven. The bowls of salad were all set and the broccoli was just gone into the steamer. The broccoli could not be overcooked, that was a sin. Contrary to the Law of Sophie.
Sophie paced the kitchen at Oral Pleasures. She sucked on a stick of celery, fought the urge for a cigarette, made sure that every dish for every diner was perfect. She wondered what it was that drove chefs to seek approval so. Did they all have love-free childhoods like mine?
'Table four?'
'Ready, chef,' said Carl as he carefully took the dishes from the oven, the cherry tomatoes pulsing, the reduced orange sauce honeymooning with the pesto, pulsing, bubbling, to fill the kitchen with the uniquely delicious aroma.
Better than sex? Depends on the lover.
'Good,' said Sophie. 'The senator doesn't like surprises.'

***

Those microseconds of condensed thought, memories that always rested just there at the front of his temporal lobe. 
'Christ,' he thought. 'My heart can't take too much more of this.'
The room was hot and wet and the tension was visible across every face. For Jacob, time dilation had begun with the very first bid. The man with the gavel looked straight at him.
'Do I hear seven point one?'
Seven million and change for a bowl? Okay, it's a French tureen from the seventeen thirties, made by Thomas Germain for the court of Louis XV. So it's a beautiful thing from a very different and unique time, with its delicate silver branches, each leaf exquisite, and its lid handle in the form of hounds bringing down a stag. But it's still a freaking soup bowl.
Jacob nodded. Yes. Seven point one million dollars for the bowl.
'I have seven point one. Do I have seven point two?'
The frozen stag, its scream petrified, looked to the ceiling for mercy.
Jacob’s gaze roamed around the auction room, sought out the other bidders. Rich people spoke on phones, made mental calculations, wondered what their other halves would say if they went any further. What about the economy? The hesitancy stretched and Jacob could finally taste victory.
Seven point one. Bang. The auctioneer confirmed that the sale was done and that Jacob (or rather, Jacob's super-rich client in Shanghai) was now the proud owner of the bowl. So much money to be made in manufacturing the electronic junk that kept the hordes amused. Would the MP3 players and the smartphones be tomorrow's antiques? Hardly - there was simply too much of the damned tat. he looked around the room, almost every person tapping a little glass screen. We are slaves to our gadgets.
His iPhone purred. A message from the office about the article, the damned article.
Jacob's heart relaxed at the proximate reality of his one percent commission, but just a little. As he made his way through the crowded room, people smiled at him appreciatively, some in awe, thinking he was Bill Gates or somebody, with his casually immaculate suede jacket and slightly gawky grin. Spectacles too. Just as he reached the sales office, Sarah, his editorial assistant from the magazine - Antique Guru - appeared at his side. She was young, sharp-minded and, of course, shockingly beautiful, crammed into her charcoal grey suit. She made his forty-something heart skip a beat.
‘Did you get everything?’
She held up her notebook. ‘Every detail, every nuance. I’ll type it up for you tomorrow.’
‘Good. Sorry for being so obsessive. I just need records. I don’t know why.’
'Are you staying on after you've been through the formalities?' she asked.
'Well, I do have an interest, a personal interest, in a lot that's up soon.' He wanted to say that he was shattered, bone-weary, that late auctions were a chore and he so needed to get to bed. But he hoped - 
'Feel like grabbing a drink downtown after?'
'Oh? Where were you thinking?'
'Bleecker Street. A friend's band is playing The Bitter End later.'
Giddy blood coursed through hardening arteries.
Later? It's nine thirty already!
'Sounds great. I used to love Bleecker Street.'
He resolved not to comment on the unnecessarily high music volume when they reached the bar. But that would be a big ask. Always trying to act so young, it’s going to get you into trouble one day. Not your fault dad got Alzheimer’s at forty.
First, a quick double espresso at the bar. Second, business. Back in the sales room, the loud murmurs dropped to a hush, then a gasp, as the white-gloved assistant held up a slim old volume.
The auctioneer said 'Ladies and gentlemen, we are delighted to offer an original work by the famed seer Michel de Nostradame. Published in 1555, the Traite des Fardemens is one his lesser works, containing a variety of beauty treatments and recipes, including his famed recipes for cherry jam which, I am told, has never been bettered. We will start the bidding at $50,000 for what I'm sure you'll agree is a fascinating piece of history, provenance assured.'
You’d be crazy to get involved, Jacob.
He grimaced at the high starting price, which was immediately accepted by a telephone bidder. It jumped, five grand at a time to seventy in under a minute. Christ! Jacob had made seventy-one thousand for winning the bowl and had some more money to spare. One hundred was the limit that he'd set himself, honestly not expecting the book to reach that level. And remember the almost nine percent sales tax on top. He had an overdraft facility of fifty thou at twelve percent, had been living off it, couple of lean months. Forty grand left to play with there. Bank was calling it in, two weeks away. Worry about it then. How would Jacob's generation cope when the easy credit disappeared?
Best to just stay out this time.
At eighty thousand, he made his first bid. Blame the adrenaline.
The telephone bidder dropped out.
But a tall woman in a white Chanel suit wanted the book.
Something about her.
Eighty-five.
Ninety.
Miss Chanel went to the hundred thousand.
Jacob gritted his teeth and went the extra five. Worst case, sell off my art.
Turned out she didn't want the book so badly. Christ. One-o-five. Call it one-fourteen, with taxes. Jesus. That’s it. I’m bust. Sarah appeared at his side and squeezed his hand. Her cheeks were flushed.
'Oh. My. God. That was so exciting! You did it!'
'She almost had me,' Jacob said, nodding towards Miss Chanel, who'd been staring at him.
'She doesn't look overly-happy.'
'Jesus, I do need a drink now. Just let me finalise the transaction. You want to come back to the sales office?'
'Can I? Wow,' said Sarah, giddy like a nine-year-old.
As they walked towards the office, Jacob noticed the woman in the Chanel suit approaching. From a distance she was striking, up close she was as arresting as a Greek goddess, her physical presence preceded by the Sicilian lemon notes of her Annick Goutal perfume. There must be a statue of her somewhere, figured Jacob.
'Mr Summers?'
'Yes?' My God, look at you.
'Might I have a word with you alone, please? It concerns some business that you may be interested in.'
Jacob would have taken time for her if she wanted to talk about paint drying. As it was, he had just created a fatal hole in his finances, so new business was a very good thing.
'Of course,' he said. 'And your name?'
'Jane,' looking at Sarah.
'This is my assistant, Sarah. Sarah, can I see you at the bar in a few minutes?'
Sarah, utterly professional, smiled and left.
'Sorry about the book,' said Jacob.
'Forget the book, I have a copy. I just wanted to get your attention.'
'Wow. Okay. You've got it,' he said.
'Tell me, would like a taste of heaven?'
'I don't think I know - . Ah. Yes. Yes I would.'
'You understand?'
'Goodies from the bottom of the Baltic?'
'Excellent. So, that specific lot is being auctioned here next Monday and I need you to become a member of a bidding ring. I cannot, under any circumstances, lose the auction.'
Jacob appraised the woman again. 'Isn't a bidding ring illegal?'
'Flat fee. Fifty k. Are you in?'
'I'm in.'

***

Where was daddy?
'Daddy?' she cried feebly, but it didn't sound right. Like it was somebody else talking, a little kid maybe.
It was dark, but hazy lights swam into focus. They were outside. Through a window.
'Mom?'
She felt weird, like her body was coated in something viscous, honey or maple syrup. Where am I? A dull pain in the back of her neck began to pulse through her body then, cut through the honey. She became aware of a tightness around her wrists and, yes, also around her ankles. She wriggled, but she couldn't move.
 The tightness turned to discomfort and - what? - what was the sensation in her hand? It began to burn. Then, all at once, the morphine wore off and her heart jump-started back to a fast rhythm, the hurt and the panic consuming her. She wriggled her fingers, felt that honey again, sticky, piercing. A dizzying awareness that her little finger was gone. Gone.
She vomited an acrid bile but the gag in her mouth blocked its escape and she struggled and choked and cried and eventually swallowed it back down. Her tears were hot and salty and she could smell roasted meat then. Like pork or something.
A vague sizzle, a ticking clock.
Her wet eyes saw something else through the distorted darkness, the city half-light. A few yards away stood an old artist's easel, rich layers of burnt umber and raw sienna and sap green on cherry wood, and on it was a picture of her dad. An election poster from his successful senatorial campaign.
'Daddy?'

***

The heart monitor beeped lazily, as if saying Are you sure you want me to bother?
The man lay in a deep sleep, his skin grey and dry as a careless fish, out of water for days. He looked older than his ninety-seven years. Something to do with the quality of his life.
The only window was in the ceiling. The sky was cobalt blue, like a fine evening dress or a high summer’s star-scattered midnight.
The art on the walls of his little room would be changed today.
‘I would like a Van Gogh,’ he muttered.
‘Of course, Doctor,’ she said, occupied.
The nurse fussed over his morning injection, placing the syringe of thick, pink liquid into the metering device. It had been prepared in the adjacent laboratory, a scientific wonderland of the most advanced machines on Earth, a chemist’s candy store of elixirs, stem cells, poisons and explosives. He closed his eyes and thought about the past. Some would say that he’d led a bad life. But he didn’t see it like that. There were so many good memories, such glowing achievements, tantalising glimpses of world-conquering success. We so nearly had it all.
As the liquid oozed into the plastic tube and inched down to his arm, he pondered the future. The plans were perfect, every aspect gently falling into place.
Gently. This was how the greatest deeds were accomplished.
The world would soon be his. It was so close he could taste it.
He licked his lips, so dry. He smiled and they cracked.
His heart rate began to increase as the potion - the sum of his life’s research - did its work. For a few long seconds he felt strong, excited, like he was a young man during the Great Years. To be!
The nurse frowned as she made some notes on a chart. She rubbed some balm on the man’s lips, gently. His smile was easier now. She peeled off her latex gloves, washed her hands, got a fresh pair from a dispenser on a white cabinet. Then she sat in a worn leather armchair beside the bed, carefully took a book from the Rococo side table. He relaxed, stared at the monitor that displayed real time financial data from all the world’s markets.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Good Quarto, printed in 1605.
The old man sat up then, the machines beeping frantically. A figure on the screen, a graph, the tipping point had been reached. The nurse put the book down. What a piece of work is a man!
‘Nurse!’ he called eagerly, some colour in his cheeks, his eyes alive for the first time in weeks. ‘Get me the senator. Get him now. The markets have completed the plan. It is time for us to take the world. To take it.’
The nurse began to dial the number that was written on a card by the phone.
‘Please stay calm, Doctor. Your heart -’
‘My heart,’ he laughed, a cruel cackle. He hissed ‘My heart ceased to exist in 1940. I have a muscle that pumps my vril, my life force. But I have no heart. Now if you do not make that telephone call schnell, you will not see sunset. Is this clear?’
She glanced at his eyes but there was a force in them that she could not comprehend, something black. Her hands shook as she hit the number keys, praying to God that the senator would answer quickly.

Or not to be?


END OF EXTRACT

Representation, Publication and Translation rights available.

Contact the author at GaryJByrnes@gmail.com

Works available in all ebookstores.