25 April 2013

Excerpt Thursday: The Ghost & the Machine by Benny Lawrence

This week, we're welcoming author Benny Lawrence with her latest title, The Ghost and the Machine from Bedazzled Ink Publishing Company.   Join us on Sunday, when the author will offer a free copy of the book to a lucky blog visitor. Here's the blurb:

It’s 1838, and Europe is obsessed with mechanical contraptions, and the Rajah is the height of entertainment as the ultimate chess-playing machine. Kit has toured with the Rajah since the age of ten and knows the secret behind the machine all too well . . . just as she knows that people would rather be fooled than have their illusions stripped away.
An eccentric Countess summons the Rajah to her manor house in Vienna for a private engagement. There, Kit meets the inquisitive Eleanor, who tests Kit's ability to tell the difference between truth and illusion . . . Or is it all just another game of chess?
"Written in the first person, The Ghost and the Machine is a smart, cunning, original, and well-written story dotted with dollops of droll observation, dry wit, and gripping pathos. The characters are by turns quirky, insolent, insightful, deceptive, and all together brilliantly flawed. In addition, the storyline is fresh and tight, and manages to surprise, even though the end game is revealed to the reader early in the narrative." -- review by Salem West, The Rainbow Reader
** An Excerpt from The Ghost and The Machine**
People sometimes ask me what it’s like to travel inside a box.
I don’t like to answer with sweeping statements, because I think it depends on the box. Mine was quite nice, as boxes go.
Don’t ask me about measurements. I didn’t have a ruler up my sleeve. But it was long enough for me to lie at full length, and high enough to let me turn over. It was lined with red cloth, like a jewellery case, and there were slits carved in the lid for airholes. On cold days, I was allowed to have a blanket in there.
The box was strapped to the back of the coach, and that was how we travelled. I was packed away with the rest of the luggage, hidden from any curious eyes. Von Hausen was in the coachman’s seat, her face a thundercloud as she whipped along the four black horses. (We went through a lot of black horses over the years, and they never did have names.)
The inside of the coach was reserved for the brains of our little operation, our guiding light and lord protector. That was Diana Rushmore—Rush, we called her. In wintertime, she spent each journey wrapped in furs, with her feet propped up on hot bricks, nursing a flask of the best brandy. In the summer, it was lemonade laced with gin.
Von Hausen’s bull mastiff, Towser, used to trot alongside the coach in his younger days. That was before he aged into a grave and portly dog whose fastest pace was a waddling walk. When he couldn’t run anymore, Von Hausen began to hoist him into the coachman’s seat next to her. She rigged a sort of harness to make sure he wouldn’t tumble off and go splat on the road, and it worked, mostly.
I didn’t spend all my time in the box. I wouldn’t want to give you that impression. When we were into a long leg of a journey—say, if we were driving overland from Brussels to Cologne—we’d rearrange things once we were on a deserted stretch of road, out of sight of any town. The coach would rumble to a halt. Then the carriage-frame would shudder, which meant Von Hausen was swinging down from her seat. I’d hear her heavy tramp as she stomped around the carriage to the luggage rack, and then the scraping sound as she undid the hidden catches. The lid of the box would pop open, and as I rose, blinking, Von Hausen would hold up her heavy black cloak to shield me. The cloak stayed up for the few seconds it took me to scramble down from the luggage rack, around the side of the coach, and in through the opened door.
When I slid onto the bench next to Rush, her hand would come over to rest heavily on my knee. At intervals, while the carriage rattled along, she would give me a pleased, possessive little squeeze.
There were thick wooden shutters nailed across the windows of the coach. Rush kept it dark in there, dark as the bottom of a boot, and that was for my sake.
All of those elaborate precautions were for my sake—the shutters, the box, the cloak. That was the manner of thing that I was: a creature designed to live in dark and secret spaces. For my own safety, I had to be kept tucked away in the black, away from the bustle of the world. What other choice did Rush have, when a breath of open air or a ray of light was enough to wound me? Left alone under the noonday sun, I would have collapsed, broken apart, and blown away.
I know what that must sound like, but it’s not what you think.
You’ll have questions for me, of course.
People have asked me more questions in the past couple of years than in the rest of my life all put together. When I feel like being difficult—and most of the time, these days, I do—I give clipped, inadequate answers, accompanied by a flippant little shrug. I’m sure it’s annoying. It’s meant to be annoying. I spent far too much of my life being eager to please, and now I’m past it.
Who am I? Well, I’m me. Where was I born? Paris. When was I born? Eighteen sixteen. How old was I when I left Paris? Ten. Why did I leave Paris? Long story. Where have I been since then? Oh, you know, around. What have I been doing since then? This and that.
Why am I so angry?
(I’ve been told that when someone asks this question, my eyes glint in a dangerous sort of way.)
I’m angry because it’s the best way to get people’s attention. Nothing else seems to do the trick. Human beings, those shy, retiring things, will go to absurd lengths to avoid noticing anything that might complicate their lives. They won’t just cross the street to avoid a beaten man, they’ll pretend he’s a bundle of rags or a dead dog. Unless you’re angry—unless you’re making a scene, as Rush would put it—people look straight through you, clear out to the other side.
If I could change one thing, out of everything that happened, it would be this: I wish I’d learned how to make scenes earlier in my life. I wish I’d learned how to force people to notice me. If I could have done that, then maybe . . .
Maybe what? Maybe I could have prevented the murder? I don’t believe that, not really. Looking back, I can see how inevitable the whole thing was. During that last week, events were rushing single-mindedly in one direction, like water running downhill. It was all one unbroken chain of circumstance, from the moment that the carriage pulled up outside the manor, right up to the second the Countess unlocked the door to the red room and beckoned me inside.
I don’t think there’s anything I could have done which would have altered the outcome one iota. And in particular, I doubt I could have done anything which would have kept her alive. But it’s impossible not to think about what could have been different, if only I . . .
I’m getting ahead of myself. I do that sometimes.
How am I doing these days?
Fine, I suppose. Considering.
How did all this happen?
It’s complicated. You might want to start by asking how it all began.
How did it all begin?
It began with a game of chess.
Author Bio:
Benny Lawrence lives in Toronto, Canada, where she works as a lawyer while wondering just when in hell she grew up. Occasionally, she dons elaborate hats and sallies out after dark to solve crimes. There being no crimes lying around for her to solve, she mooches off home and eats cookies instead. She enjoys dead languages, not-dead cats, fizzy drinks, preparing for the apocalypse, and board games. She has been told that she takes her board games much too seriously. On a literature front, she is obsessed with mysteries, science fiction, and fantasy books, as long as they involve snappy dialogue and females who can deliver it.

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