The escapists: part 1
DC Styles takes her first case
The Triverse is
Mid-Earth, an alternate 1970s London
Max-Earth, a vision of the 26th century
Palinor, where magic is real
Previously: It’s a new year for the Specialist Dimensional Command. DC Lola Styles has been reassigned as a liaison officer on the other side of an inter-dimensional portal to Palinor (seriously, if you’re new here, read from the start or you’re going to be very confused). Her old partner, DC Yannick Clarke, is getting used to the new status quo back in London. There are more changes coming, but first Styles has her first case to contend with…
There were no telephones on Palinor. That was taking some getting used to, which is why Lola was somewhat startled by the arrival at the window of a glowing red firebird with a package in its beak. She approached it cautiously, only to find it wasn’t giving off any real heat, and gingerly accepted the delivery. As soon as she touched the package, the bird burst into sparkling embers and dissipated into the air.
Startled as she was, Lola had been told how it worked. There were various methods for rapid communication, depending on how deep one’s pockets went and the nature of the correspondence. In the case of the Bruglia city guard, there was a network of magic wielders positioned at towers around the city. Each wielder was a node on an ad hoc communications web, able to send messages through various techniques - in this case it appeared to be either a very clever use of elemental powers or actual physology. Either way, it was very cool and Lola was very impressed. The firebird was presumably the signature of the last person on the chain to have delivered the package, who must have been within line of sight of her office in the palace grounds.
The package itself and the folder of papers within were both very tangible. It was set of case files, which seemed to have been assembled for her in a hurry. The details were scant, the reports barely more than headings and some illustrations. She skimmed through them, one after another, finding them all to be beyond her jurisdiction. They were local affairs, rather than portal-related. Her remit was very specific and, while the SDC back home was often pulled onto tenuously pertinent cases, straying from her role could cause a diplomatic incident. Not something she wanted to risk on day three.
A pencil sketch of a suspect caught her eye. A bald man, perhaps late-forties, thick stubble on his jaw that wasn’t quite a beard, and a scar beside his right eye. It was a distinctive appearance and was peculiarly familiar. She flicked through the description and witness statements: the unidentified man was linked to a series of daring bank robberies, gambling rings, prostitution gangs in the east quarter and more. He’d been busy, yet other than rare sightings he was a ghost, always vanishing when the city guard got anywhere near his operations. Sounded like an empire-builder.
Lola set the files down on her new desk - it had arrived, and was glorious - and opened the door to the palace grounds. It was a cool morning but birdsong filled the air and unfamiliar and sizeable insects buzzed about. Daryla had reassured her nothing was poisonous or deadly, given her previous experience of Palinese fauna. The dinner the other night had been lovely and the perfect welcome to Bruglia - exquisite local cuisine, an actual musician had shown up playing a violin-like instrument and seeing Daryla again had been like meeting an old friend, even though they’d only met once during the escorted deportation the previous year. There was a connection there, but Lola hadn’t had time to even think about it - the previous day had been a swirl of new information and endlessly distracting details. She hadn’t fully considered the combination of starting a new job and a new life.
That’s how it felt. A new life. She was where she was supposed to be, at last. She missed Clarke, even missed the stale beer and damp carpet smell of The White Horse. But that was about it - she’d loved the job as well, but she still had that, enhanced by the fresh context. There hadn’t been much else to leave behind, and so Bruglia was nothing but endless possibility.
Reaching back inside, she picked up the pencil sketch and held it up to the light. Definitely seemed familiar. Which could mean some sort of connection to London, or Mid-Earth. She’d already decided to spend the morning walking the streets of Bruglia, and now she had a reason to drop by the garrison, where she’d find Bruglia’s equivalent of detectives. Perhaps they’d jog her memory. On the way out of the palace gates, she handed the sketch to one of the porters.
“Can you make a copy and send it via portal courier to London?”
The man nodded. “Address?”
“Specialist Dimensional Command,” she said. “Let me write it down for you.”
On duty: DC Frank Holland & DC Yannick Clarke
Clarke’s sandwich was a disappointment. A new cafe had opened up around the corner from the office. It had looked promising. He took another bite, grimaced, and dropped it into the bin next to his desk.
It was a good representation of how the week was going.
Styles had been gone from the country - no, the planet. The universe? - for less than a week, but she’d been gone from the office since before Christmas. That had made it a more dour place. There was the sense of a guillotine hanging over them all. Kaminski and Chakraborty held the weight of all that had happened in the previous year. Holland was proving a more capable partner than Clarke had expected - it was easy to forget that the man was a good detective, beneath all the awfulness - but he was hardly the ray of sunshine that Styles had been. Clarke worried that Holland would rub off on him, like some kind of infection. Perhaps that’s how Clarke had always been, absorbing those around him for better or worse. Give him a Callihan or a Styles and he was a good man, for a time.
Then there were the changes. Everyone knew they were coming, but not when. More money. Rumours of a new office. New hires and transfers. Change was coming, and that made Clarke nervous.
On top of all that, he had a partner once again who didn’t really know what was going on. Bakker and the others were reluctant to bring Holland into the fold, understandably. The man’s moral compass followed some kind of direction, but it wasn’t true north. Changed with the weather. Sometimes it felt like the apparent conspiracy was a figment of their collective imaginations, like it was a group delusion that they should forget about and carry on with their lives as if nothing had happened. Then he remembered that Kaminski had nearly been killed, twice.
And he never forgot John. That was unfinished business, right there, and there’d be no retirement for Yannick Clarke until it was done.
“Got a letter!” came Robin’s voice from the hallway. “Well, several, but this one came by portal courier, so is immediately more interesting than all the others. It’s for you, Yannick.”
Clarke’s head jerked up like a dog being whistled. He took the envelope from her with a nod. It was stamped Palinor, which could only mean one thing. He tore it open, pulled out the contents: a hand-written letter in Styles’ handwriting and a drawing. Not just a drawing - what looked like a police likeness. The face looked familiar.
He held up the sketch to the office. “Frank, any ideas?” Holland glanced up from his desk and shook his head.
“Let me see,” Robin said, standing with her hands on her hips as she leaned in. “Oh yeah, that face looks familiar. Now, where’ve I seen him before?”
While she continued talking to herself, Clarke started reading the letter. A new case. Styles had also half-recognised the face. Suspect wanted for all kinds of increasingly elaborate crimes in and around Bruglia.
“Ah, yeah,” Robin said, “can’t remember his name, but he got put away a couple of years ago for that big bank heist. Nearly got away with a couple hundred million. Everyone said it was the most brilliant bank job they’d seen, except for the bit where he got caught.”
“He still in jail?”
“Couple of bank security guards got killed, so I’d think so.”
Clarke grunted and re-read part of the letter. He grimaced and looked up at the ceiling, then to Robin. “So what’s he doing running around on Palinor?”
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Thanks for reading!
Ah, it’s good to be back! I know, I know, we were here last week, but this chapter feels like the first proper case in a while. A real investigation! The game is afoot, etc.
Chapter 68, eh? That’s quite a lot, isn’t it? One of the growing problems with a serialised novel of this size is that it has an ever-larger barrier to entry. In theory, there’s an entire book’s worth of great stuff to read, for free, but in reality it feels a bit like homework that you have to catch up on to get to the latest stuff. I’m working on some hopeful solutions to that - such as a few different ebook versions for people to catch up on in a more convenient form to clicking through endless Substack pages.
I’m taking part in this year’s Great Substack Story Challenge! It’s a huge collaborative story event and I’m very excited. I missed out on last year’s because I wasn’t paying attention and was determined to play a part this time round.
The first part has been posted already byand is really quite the thing. Please do give it a read:
That, as they say, ESCALATED QUICKLY.
My chapter isn’t up for a while and I can’t wait to see what happens in the meantime.
Right, all you fancy paid subscribers can now enjoy some
It’s 9.45pm on Friday night, which means this chapter is coming in hot and late. Sorry about that. It was always going to be slightly tight this week, and that was before our car decided to blow a tyre.
I also nearly got run over today while walking to my son’s school to pick him up. That was not fun. Quite an odd feeling to nearly have a quite bad injury - but then to walk away entirely unharmed. A good end result, of course, but it activates all of you fight or flight responses and then they have nowhere to go.
Back to the chapter. I’m extremely excited about the ‘Escapists’ storyline. It’s been in the backlog from the very start of writing Tales from the Triverse, but I’ve been holding it until I had a good way of telling it. The critical element was having a main character based on Palinor, so that we could do the dual perspective thing more effectively. This is very much a story that needs to unfold on both sides of the portal.
It’s likely to be a 4-parter, this one, at least, and should be more fun than grim. I think we’ve had enough grim in the story, right? Obviously we’ll be getting back to grim sooner rather than later, but a bit of levity never hurt a story.
I don’t want to say too much about the ‘Escapists’ plot as it’ll give stuff away. Instead, let’s talk about Clarke. I rather liked the notion of Clarke being an emotional and ethical sponge. He’s the product of his surroundings, perhaps more than most people. Growing up in a more prejudiced society, and a culturally unpleasant police force, moulded him into an unpleasant man. Match him up with the likes of John Callihan, and then Lola Styles, and he starts to morph into something else entirely. Finding the real Clarke, underneath all that, is quite tricky.
You may have noticed the real Metropolitan Police being in the news quite a bit lately, and never for good reasons. Triverse was always going to have corruption at its core, but while I’ve been writing and publishing the real world has unfortunately proven itself to be far worse than fiction. The Met seems to have a decades-old culture of horror and looking-the-other-way, which is only now starting to be recognised. It’s horrendous, but it also reminds me of why I didn’t want to make Triverse a ‘Hero Cop’ tale. Despite it being centred around the SDC and our core ensemble of detectives, this was never going to be an uncritical police drama in which the cops are superheroes. That’s been done, a lot, irresponsibly, by books and TV and film since forever.
It brings me back to that amazing lecture at the Noirwich Crime Writing Festival a few years back by Megan Abbott. It’s vital stuff, especially if you write or read crime fiction:
Those concepts, of focusing more on the victims that the criminals, and avoiding fetishising the police, is at the heart of a lot of Triverse.
Plus dragons and portals and spaceships, because it’s me.
Thanks again for reading. Back next week.