Excerpts from books by Matthew Hughes
Excerpt from ‘Epiphanies’
It was an epiphany: surely, the finest moment of Luff Imbry’s career as one of the premier gastronomes of Old Earth.
He sat in Xanthoulian’s fabled restaurant, imbued with that mellowness of mood that could only derive from having had his vast yet fastidious appetite fully satisfied. And not just satisfied, but unequivocally quenched. The ten-course meal, including eight collateral vintages from the restaurant’s exemplary cellar, two liqueurs, and one final essence, had been a masterpiece of the culinary arts.
Xanthoulian, challenged to meet the standards of one of Old Earth’s most discerning epicures, had compiled a menu that mixed serene balances of texture with daring contrapuntal flavors, sauces that ranged from the fiery to the sublime, and presentations that drew the eye almost as much as the dishes’ aromas coaxed the palate.
At the end of the experience, Imbry sat sated, head lolled back, eyes half-closed, mouth open in the final exhalation of ecstasy. Then he squared his great bulk in the reinforced chair and gazed across the salon to where Xanthoulian himself stood in the kitchen doorway.
“Yes,” the fat man said, with a sigh, “but it raises one question.”
The twin thickets that were the chef’s eyebrows formed a silent interrogation.
“How,” Imbry said, gesturing to the strew of empty plates, bowls and salvers before him, “will you ever surpass this moment?”
At which Xanthoulian twice touched the tip of his finger to the side of his buttress of a nose and said, “With another, I expect.”
“But how can you be sure it will not all be down the slope from here?”
“If I were sure,” said Xanthoulian, “what would be the point of doing it?”
The remark bespoke a life strategy at odds with Imbry’s. “I prefer,” he said, “to minimize uncertainty.”
Xanthoulian’s shrug was a masterpiece of minimality. “Our professions differ,” he said. “I am a simple cook, whereas you are a . . .” He let the sentence die with its last word unspoken.
“I am,” said the fat man, in a reflective tone, “an adjustor. I adjust the ownership of items of great worth. My efforts bring joy to their new possessors while delivering to their late owners valuable insights into the nature of the world.” He considered for a moment then continued, “and yet I charge nothing for those educations.”
The chef said, “Just as well. The fee might be difficult to collect.”
Imbry conceded the point. Then, with another profound sigh of satiation, he heaved himself to his surprisingly small feet and spoke to the establishment’s integrator, bidding it contact his own device and take payment. To the previously negotiated sum, he added a gratuity of twenty per cent, to which Xanthoulian bowed his acceptance. The sum was, to the fat man, now a trifle; having lately won the Murrassey Prize, he was now as wealthy as the upper tier of Old Earth’s magnatocracy. Still, he was almost ready to mount a new operation: a comprehensive defrauding of the Divestment in the County of Sherit. It was not the money that drew him, but the audacity of the swindle and a feeling that if it was something that could be done, then it ought to be done. And that he was the only one fit to do it.
“I hope,” the chef said, as Imbry progressed to the street door that led out into Vodel Close, “you will eventually present me with another challenge, so your original question can be answered.”
Sated though he was, the chef’s hope prompted a frisson of anticipation in the fat man as he descended the three steps from Xanthoulian’s door. Thus distracted, at first he thought he had not heard clearly what the young woman on the sidewalk said to him. So now it was Imbry’s turn to look a question. At the same time, he reluctantly shook off the mellowness that enwrapped him and took detailed notice of his surroundings. For was this not precisely the kind of occasion that his enemies — for no one moved through the halfworld of the blowsy old city of Olkney without incurring enmity — would choose to spring some unwelcome surprise on Imbry the thief, Imbry the forger, Imbry the perpetrator of subtle but lucrative frauds?
Seeing no threat, he looked back to the young woman and said, “What did you say?”
She was thin though not frail, and though she was dressed in a manner by no means too outré for Olkney, the details of her costume said she had acquired it on some other world. Depending from a chain around her neck was a yellow stone carved roughly in the semblance of a human face.
She swallowed and looked straight at him with wide-set pale eyes. “I said, I need your help.” She swallowed again and added, “Uncle Luff.”
Luff Imbry’s antecedents had always been a mystery to him. At an early age, he had been sent to live with two elderly women who said they were his aunts and who were consistently evasive whenever he raised a question as to the whereabouts of his parents and the estimated time of their return. When he was old enough, he was packed off to a boarding school, the question left unanswered, and eventually it became unanswerable: he was called into the chief administrator’s office to be informed that the old women had died, leaving him an annuity sufficient to see him through his formative years.
Later, the fat man made inquiries, both officially through the Archonate’s vastly knowledgeable integrators and unofficially through the channels available to a member of the halfworld. But his efforts availed him nothing. His parents, Traz and Melza Imbry, had been servants to the old women, having arrived, Melza pregnant, from some minor world far down The Spray. They had died not long after he learned to walk. No subsequent documentation about them had ever been recorded on Old Earth, nor had any trace of them been found among the Ten Thousand Worlds of The Spray.
He could not even confirm their deaths as entirely accidental. Like their son, they may have been criminals. If so, they might have run afoul of some personage within the halfworld who dealt with offenses to his dignity in a direct and conclusive manner. He knew of several individuals who had permanently dropped from view; some of them because they had attempted to borrow the shoes, as the expression went, of Luff Imbry.
So when the young woman with strawlike hair and an air of being chronically underfed addressed him as “Uncle,” the fat man’s first reaction was not to embrace her as long-lost kin. Instead, he looked carefully up and down Vodel Close, then even more carefully at the nervous creature before him. Only when he was satisfied that he faced no imminent threat did he speak.
“Who are you? What do you want of me?”
She swallowed again. “I’m . . .” She went dry and had to rally moisture behind her thin lips. “I’m Antheana. Your niece — well, great-niece, really. And I need your help.”
“My great-niece?” He looked up and down the narrow street again. If not an odd prelude to an ambush, it was conceivable, barely so, that he was being positioned as the object of some prank. There were very few participants in Imbry’s milieu that had the required unorthodox sense of humor combined with the untouchable status to attempt such antics, but he could think of two or three.
“Who sent you?” he said.
“Walvern.” She said the name as if it would explain all. It explained nothing.
“Who is Walvern?”
A worm of doubt now showed its tracks on the young woman’s brow. Instead of answering his question, she proposed one of her own. “You are Luff Imbry, aren’t you? I mean, I had only a description and that you frequented this restaurant. I didn’t think there could be two such . . .” Her voice trailed off while her arms spread as if to encompass someone of Imbry’s heroic girth.
“I am Luff Imbry,” he said, “but I know no Walvern. Nor do I know of any Antheana, nor any relative of mine. I am a singular, as all Olkney knows.”
“You’ve never heard of me? Or of Walvern — he’s my older brother. We are the children of Bohdri and Tal Imbry, and Bohdri was the first born of Dai Imbry, your father’s older brother.”
Imbry blinked. For a moment he wondered if Xanthoulian’s daring use of exotic spices gathered from jungles and seacoasts on far-flung worlds had worked a comprehensive illusion on his sensorium. He reached forward with a plump finger and gently poked the young woman’s upper arm, felt scant flesh and slim bone beneath.
“So, you’re real,” he said. He took one last look around the surroundings, saw no one but the alleged great-niece Antheana. There was no use in pointing out that the existences of Bohdri, Tal, and Dai were likewise news to him.
He stood and looked at her while she looked back at him with what could only be innocent hope. Then he said, “We had better go somewhere and talk.”
He could not take her to Quirks, his favorite club and the place he best liked to stay between operations. Non-members were unwelcome if not actively discouraged. Nor could he take her to Bolly’s Snug, the disreputable tavern in whose backrooms he usually met customers, clients, and associates; the security of Bolly’s back chambers put them in constant demand and it would take at least a day’s notice to book one.
He certainly could not take her to his operations center, hidden in a semi-derelict house in a disregarded quarter of the city and inhabited, or at least so it would seem to any burglars who might approach it, by a semi-feral hermit who spent his time ranting and issuing atrocious threats of intricate bloody revenge on the universe and any of its representatives who came within range.
He drummed his fingers on a thigh as he sought an appropriate venue. To get her into Fentle’s, his next favored club, would require tedious formalities and would generate rumors he did not care to have to quash. Bemused, he looked up and saw the palace of the Archon sprawling across the black crags of the Devenish Range north of the city. “Of course,” he said and summoned an air car.
Soon they were high above the domes and spires of Olkney. Imbry had instructed the vehicle to leave its canopy open, counting on the rush of air to discourage further conversation. He wanted no fresh revelations until certain points already raised had been settled conclusively.
They settled on the broad terrace outside the Grand Connaissarium built by the Archon Terfel III, now dead these past many millennia. But most of the great building was still in use and Imbry knew that its integrators were approachable and that their discretion was absolute. Well, not so absolute that they did not report to the Archonate bureaucracy and the Bureau of Scrutiny; but in the present case, he did not mind if those agencies shared in whatever discoveries awaited him in the form of Antheana Imbry.
Taking the young woman by the arm, he entered and led her across the wide foyer and past the current display — mist sculptures of the XVIIIth Aeon, their evanescent shapes and tenuous colors temporarily disarranged by the motions of air that attended the couple’s passage — and came to a row of sealed booths. Imbry chose a larger one, intended for parties of four or more, and gently but firmly eased his companion within. He squeezed in after, closing the door behind them.
Immediately, a voice spoke from the air. “Luff Imbry,” it said. “Always an interesting encounter. What do you seek?”
“Verification,” said the fat man, then with a sidewise glance at the young woman, “or otherwise.”
“Delineate,” said the Archonate integrator.
“This person calls herself Antheana Imbry and claims kinship–”
“I don’t ‘call myself’ anything,” said the person so described. Her earlier apprehension seemed to have been worn away by the brusqueness that had characterized their short journey together.
Imbry ignored the outburst and said to the device, “Are we related?”
“All humans are related,” said the integrator. “Indeed, you are in some degree related to the wistol trees in the park next door, as well as to all the creatures that live in them.”
Imbry resisted the impulse to sigh. The Archonate’s integrators were old, their existence measurable not just in aeons but in geological periods. It sometimes amused them to be facetiously literal. “I wish to know,” he said, “the exact degree of our consanguinity.”
A small tray slid out of the wall and the voice said, “If you will place a finger on the pad.”
Imbry pushed his finger into one of the twin dabs of some yielding substance. With a sniff, Antheana touched hers. The tray disappeared and the integrator said, “One moment.”
During the ensuing silence, the young woman showed the fat man an expression that was oddly familiar, though he could not immediately say where he had seen it again. It was only as the integrator spoke again that the realization came to him that it was exactly the look he wore when his patience was being tried.
That recognition took some of the surprise out of the integrator’s news. “You are,” it said, “closely related. Your father and her grandfather were siblings. You are her great-uncle.”
Imbry now recognized the expression on Antheana’s face. It was the mien he showed the world when a judgment of his, unjustly questioned, was proved correct.
“Thank you,” he said to the integrator and moved to open the door. It did not yield to his touch.
“Colonel-Investigator Brustram Warhanny has been advised of your presence here. He wishes to speak with you and is on his way.”
“I do not care to speak with him,” said Imbry. “Now let me—”
“He is only moments away. He is very anxious to see you.”
“Not as anxious as I am to avoid being seen.” Imbry pushed at the portal but it remained fixed. “This is illegal arrest,” he said.
“Do you think so?” said the integrator. “I will have to review all the relevant statutes. Unfortunately, some of them are impossibly ancient. I will have to wake up one of the Archonate’s older integrators to consult with it.”
The fat man turned pale. The truly ancient sentient devices of the Archonate were notorious for their tendency to wild caprice. People who dealt with them sometimes found their lives permanently altered, and rarely assessed those alterations as net improvements. “I withdraw the allegation,” he said.
“Are you sure?” said the integrator. “I believe the integrator Archon Filidor calls Old Confustible would enjoy discussing the matter with you.”
“I am completely sure,” said Imbry.
“Very well.” The door to the booth opened. Imbry stepped out to find himself in the shadow of a tall man of mature years, possessed of a long nose in an even longer face, whose ingrained aspect betrayed a wide and deep experience with the worst the world had to offer. He wore a black uniform with accents of green and the badges of a Colonel-Inspector of the Bureau of Scrutiny.
“Imbry,” he said.
“Warhanny,” the fat man said.
The scroot rocked backwards and forwards, heels to toes, a number of times, his hands clasped behind his back. “We need,” he said, “to talk.”
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