Yesterday I got my author's copies of FROM RUSSIA WITH LUST: The Nikolai Dante Omnibus. This meaty tome collects all three of my novels featuring the Russian rogue under one cover for the bargain price of $11.99 [about six quid at current exchange rates]. If you don't know Dante, he's like a 27th Century Flashman who first appeared in the pages of 2000 AD, created by Robbie Morrison and Simon Fraser. Below is the first chapter of Honour Be Damned, the final novel in the collection, to give you a flavour of the book...
NIKOLAI DANTE: Honour Be Damned!
“Laws are not written for the lawless”
- Russian proverb
‘2673 AD: King Henry Windsor McKray continues to enjoy his status as ruler of Britannia, despite openly supporting the Romanovs during their doomed revolt against Tsar Vladimir Makarov. It is the first time in Imperial history a monarch has retained powered by pleading insanity. King Henry remains popular among the majority of his people, but the ruling upper class consider his eccentric behaviour a grave embarrassment. They would much rather his daughter Princess Marie-Anne Britannia took charge, but she is still a prisoner in the Tower of London after being found guilty of conspiring against her father. The princess has sworn to avenge herself against Russian rogue Nikolai Dante, who supplied the evidence leading to her incarceration. Meanwhile Britannia remains a nation divided, its parliament stuck in a mire of political manoeuvring, scandal, sleaze and corruption. Some would say it was ever thus. The most popular member of the royal family was the Queen Mother, Barbara ‘Babs’ Windsor McKay. Her title stemmed from the fact she had been queen before Henry was born while acknowledging she was mother of the current monarch. To confuse matters further, she looked younger than her son, thanks to the remarkable effects of ingesting royal jelly…’
Editorial commentary from The Imperial Times
It was one of those days when it seemed to Nikolai Dante that all life, as someone put it, was nothing but a heap of six to four against.
Dante prided himself on being a gambling man. He was prone to taking on impossible odds and winning through, escaping almost certain death to emerge smiling from the other side of any adventure fate might throw in his path. But diving out a stained glass window on the Palace of London’s tenth floor without bothering to look first was pushing even his legendary good luck to its limits and beyond. If he had any doubts about this, the disapprovingly patrician voice inside his mind had little hesitation in confirming it.
Dante, when I said evasive action, I did not think even you would be so foolish as to jump to your own death to avoid an assassin’s bullet!
‘I was improvising,’ Dante replied as he plummeted toward the stone courtyard below.
That much was obvious. The voice belonged to the Weapons Crest, a sentient battle-computer bonded to Dante’s DNA. This remarkable piece of alien technology was created to train its genetic host as a potential ruler of the Empire. My presence may significantly enhance your body’s natural healing abilities, the Crest observed, but even I cannot resurrect the dead. Seven seconds to impact, by the way.
‘At least I’m still alive!’
Only for another five seconds.
‘Shut up, I’m trying to concentrate.’ Dante could see a row of flagpoles below him that protruded from the building below. Wind whistled past his face as he twisted in the air, trying to get close enough to grab one of the poles. Miss these and he would be a red smear in—
‘I said shut up!’ His flailing hands missed the nearest pole, but got hold of the rectangular flag hanging beneath it. Dante’s body jerked to a halt, the sudden deceleration nearly wrenching his arms from their sockets. ‘Gahhhh!’ He hung grimly to the royal standard, his breath coming in short, ragged gasps as the bitter taste of adrenalin filled his mouth.
Gahhh? Not quite what I’d call famous last words, the Crest commented dryly.
‘Why… W-Why should they be… famous last words?’
The flag to which you’re so gratefully clinging was not designed for such violent use. I estimate the fabric will tear itself free any moment…
Dante looked up in time to see the material ripping apart. He tried to grab hold of the flagpole, but that only accelerated the disintegration.
…now, the Crest concluded as Dante resumed his rapid descent.
Mildred Barnstaple despised tourists. For thirty-seven years she had been a guide at the Palace of London, welcoming visitors to its grand halls and galleries, politely answering questions, aiding the helpless, the hopeless and the hapless. But never once in all that time had one of these ungrateful wretches thought to say thank you. An only child, both of Mildred’s parents had died in a freak zeppelin accident over Walthamstow when she was twenty. The resulting inheritance had ensured she never need work, but left the young woman with a lifetime to occupy. A quiet passion for the beauties of the past led Mildred to the Britannia Heritage Society, a voluntary organisation striving to preserve the country’s finest historic buildings. Since then she had more than done her bit – baking cakes, organising whist drives and running raffles. To her eternal shame Mildred had even agreed to pose for a nude calendar. The results had proved an underwhelming failure and so Mildred had returned to her post by the green velvet canopy outside the Palace of London’s entrance, wishing something exciting would happen.
‘Look out below!’ a voice screamed from the heavens. A man was plummeting towards the canopy, his arms and legs flailing violently as if he was trying to fly. Mildred took an involuntary step back and tumbled over, her eyes still fixed on the bizarre descent. The man fell on the taut green canopy, which bounced him towards Mildred. The man landed with a heavy thump, his face burying itself into Mildred’s crotch.
‘Oh my word!’ she shrieked, suddenly aware of hot, masculine breath warming her in a way she hadn’t experienced for at least a decade. At first she was shocked, then affronted and soon rather excited. Mildred craned her neck forward to study the manly windfall positioned between her legs. He was around 30 in age, with a taut, athletic figure and shapely buttocks. Skin-tight grey trousers clung to his thighs before disappearing inside a pair of supple brown leather riding boots, while a crimson jacket with golden braid hugged his back. He had a thick mane of black hair, but his face remained hidden. Mildred felt her inner thighs being tickled by his beard. ‘I say,’ she sighed happily and clenched her legs together.
It took Dante more than a minute to prise apart the thighs holding his head captive. When he succeed, a soft moan of disappointment issued from the middle-aged woman who had cushioned his impact. Dante scrambled to his feet, grinning sheepishly at her. ‘Normally I don’t like to leave any lady unsatisfied, but my presence is required elsewhere – sorry!’ He noticed a line of hover-taxis waiting on a nearby rank and waved at the first one.
‘Take me with you!’ the woman pleaded.
‘Not today.’ Dante made a run for it, diving into the black cab. ‘But thanks for the soft landing!’ The taxi sped into the sky. ‘Can you take me to Nelson’s column?’ he asked the driver.
‘No problem, guv,’ a surly voice replied. ‘They’ve just finished rebuilding it after what happened during the war. Bloody disgrace it was.’
‘That’s where the assassin fired from,’ Dante muttered darkly. ‘Take me there!’
Are you sure this is wise, the Crest enquired. If the sniper was trying to kill you, getting closer only makes you a bigger target.
‘I don’t think they were shooting at me.’
‘You talking to me?’ the driver asked.
‘King Henry suspected someone was planning to kill him,’ Dante continued, ignoring the cabbie. ‘Princess Marie-Anne can’t wait to take his place on the throne. She must have hired an assassin to speed up the process.’
‘What you muttering about back there?’ the driver demanded. ‘You got something to do with what happened at the palace? They was talking about it on the news, some kind of shooting.’
‘I was with the king when he was hurt,’ Dante admitted.
‘Why’d you do it?’
‘I didn’t do anything!’
‘What – you stood by and let somebody murder him? That’s worse, you bloody coward!’ The cabbie twisted round to glare at Dante, not bothering to watch where his hover-taxi was headed. The long, tall erection of Nelson’s Column was looming ahead of them.
‘There were two shots, moments apart,’ Dante protested. ‘By the time I reacted, the king was already down, blood everywhere. I saw what direction the shoots came from, so I decided to go after the shooter. Now, will you watch where you’re going, please?’
The cabbie lunged over the back of his seat to grab hold of Dante’s jacket. ‘Don’t you tell me how to go my job, you bloody foreigner! Look at you, in your fancy clothes! Come over here, telling us how to live our lives. There used to be a British Empire, you know, long before you bloody Russians started sticking your noses in--‘
Dante, this cab is on a collision course with--
‘I know, I know!’ he hissed.
‘I don’t care what you know,’ the driver snarled. ‘I’m going to teach you a lesson!’
The assassin was so intent on watching the palace he didn’t notice the hover-cab careering across the sky. The assassin clung to the statue atop Nelson’s Column, one eye closed while the other peered through a high-powered sniper’s sight. It was only when a dark shape blurred across the assassin’s field of vision that he belatedly realised how imminent danger was. ‘Bloody hell!’ The assassin reached back to pull the ignition toggle on his jetpack but he was too late.
The hover-taxi smashed nose-first into column, neatly severing the replica of Nelson from its base. The sundered statue fell on top of the cab, impaling the vehicle on the specially reinforced column below. The assassin clung on to the statue, but this weapon tumbled to the ground far below. The shooter cursed in frustration, this had not been part of the plan. His client had been quite specific: a single shot, two at most – kill the king and get out of sight without attracting any attention. I doubt this qualifies, the assassin thought ruefully. But when he reached back to fire up his jetpack’s twin engines, another hand already resting on the ignition toggle. ‘Going somewhere?’ a Russian-accented voice asked.
Not for the first time that day, Dante was grateful for the augmentations he gained from being bonded with a Romanov Weapons Crest. Enhanced healing abilities protected him from a brutal concussion when the hover-cab collided with Nelson’s Column. The Crest also gave Dante the ability to extend razor-sharp swords of bio-organic circuitry from his fists. One swipe of these cut a path out of the crushed cab, enabling him to intercept the assassin before they could escape.
The two grappled atop Nelson’s toppled statue, the violence of their struggle threatening to send the golden effigy tumbling from its precarious perch. The assassin was wearing a slate grey bodysuit and mask that hit everything but their eyes. ‘Who are you?’ Dante demanded. ‘Why did you try to kill the king? Who sent you?’
The assassin tried to wriggle free but Dante kept one hand clasped on the jetpack. ‘I won’t let go until you tell me!’ he warned. A lithe foot kicked Dante’s groin with a sickening thud, doubling over in pain, his grip loosening involuntarily. The assassin broke free and ran to the other end of the horizontal statue, one hand activating his jetpack. Still wincing, Dante flung himself at the killer as they lifted off. His clasping fingers caught hold of the assassin’s flat-soled shoes and clung on. Then the two men were flying across London’s twilight sky, the setting sun colouring the horizon in hues of orange and pink.
A magnificent vista, even if it is probably a localised side effect of air pollution levels.
‘Crest, this is no time to be admiring the view!’ Dante snapped. By now the assassin was kicking and thrashing their legs, trying to dislodge his unwanted passenger.
I fail to see what else I can do. You seem determined to kill yourself today, so I thought it best if I savoured my remaining moments. Sightseeing was the obvious option at this height.
‘Diavolo!’ Dante snarled as a knee connected sharply with the side of his head. ‘You could suggest some ways of bringing this bastard down to earth!’
I don’t think that will be an issue for much longer, the Crest replied.
In your earlier struggle you dislodged the jetpack’s fuel line. It’s been venting ever since. I doubt there’s enough left in the tanks to keep both of you airborne for more than a minute.
Dante looked down and realised they were several hundred metres above the ground. If the jetpack cut out now, both of them would fall to an exceedingly unnatural death. He crawled up the assassin’s still thrashing legs and yanked the jetpack sideways, sending them into a rapid, spiralling descent. Below the Thames grew larger as it got nearer. Most of London’s greatest attractions had been relocated to a cluster on the river’s north bank, making it easier for visitors to savour the best of Britannia. As a result the Houses of Parliament, the Tower of London, Big Ben and New Covent Garden all stood cheek by jowl with each another, competing for tourist roubles.
The assassin flailed at Dante with both fists, pummelling him repeated until his tenacious grip began to loosen. When Dante thought he could hold on no longer, the jetpack’s engines began to splutter and cough. Fortunately, they were now less than ten metres above the flower stalls of New Covent Garden. Beneath them a trader was trying to shift a cartload of yellow roses. ‘Five big bunches for a rouble, guaranteed thorn-free!’ she cried out in a gravely voice. ‘Get your roses, show your good lady wife how much you love her!’
The jetpack died completely, sending Dante and the assassin tumbling toward the flower stall. They hit the rose pile with an almighty thump, Dante crying out as his trousers were sliced to ribbons by the foliage. By the time he had extricated himself the assassin was already fleeing on foot. The flower seller stared at her devastated stock. ‘Where the hell do you come from?’
‘St Petersburg,’ Dante replied tersely, removing a sharp triangle of green from his posterior. ‘I thought you said these roses were thorn-free?’
‘Caveat emptor,’ the stallholder said, folding her arms imperiously.
That means buyer beware.
‘I know what it means, Crest!’ Dante snapped, clambering from the cart to pursue the fleeing assassin.
‘What about my bloody roses?’ the flower seller protested as Dante ran off.
‘Try making potpourri!’
The assassin could feel his energy draining away as the chase wore on. No matter how fast he ran, no matter what obstacles he left, the man chasing him kept coming – sprinting through the darkening streets as night closed in, implacable and utterly relentless. Doesn’t this bastard ever get tired? Who the hell is he? There was no choice but to keep running. If I can reach the rendezvous in time, I’ll be fine. Otherwise… No, there was no otherwise, the killer thought. I have to make it. He sprinted round the corner of an old sandstone building.
Dante ran round the same corner, straight into the waiting assassin. A fist punched Dante’s throat, choking him. As he staggered back, a hand smashed into his nose, snapping his head backwards. Blood gouting from the battered proboscis. A knee slammed into Dante’s stomach and he crumpled to the ground, gasping for air. The assassin moved in for the kill but the sound of approaching sirens rent the twilight. The sniper ran off, leaving Dante spitting blood.
Britannia’s law enforcers are closing in on this location.
‘About time. Where were they when the shooting started?’
I also sense a skimmer circling nearby – it could be the assassin’s getaway vehicle.
A few hundred metres ahead, at a river crossing known as Westminster Bridge.
The assassin ran on to the bridge, searching the sky intently. Fog was rising from the sluggish river below, casting a shroud across the city centre. Night had claimed the sky but a few foreign visitors still strolled across the bridge. Those close enough to see the assassin’s curious garb and wounded leg hurried on, not wanting to get involved. Despite the rising mist, the illuminated dial of Big Ben was still clearly visible, its larger hand creeping towards apogee. Within a minute the mighty bell would chime seven times.
‘You left in such a hurry we never got introduced,’ a voice slurred from behind the assassin. They twisted round to see one of Dante’s bloody, bruised fists hurtling towards them. It smacked into the killer’s facemask, sending him sprawling to the footpath. ‘My name’s Dante, Nikolai Dante – what’s yours?’ Dante kicked the assassin hard in the groin, then flung himself on top of them, pinning their arms to ground with his knees. ‘What’s the matter, cat got your tongue?’ Dante punched the crumpled sniper once, twice, then a third time. They grunted in pain but still said nothing, gave no reply.
‘Not now, Crest!’
But you need to—
‘I said not now!’ Dante snarled. Then there was a sharp pain at the back of his head, followed by darkness and nothing more…
Dante was shocked back to consciousness when his body tumbled into the Thames. ‘Bojemoi!’ he gasped, swallowing a mouthful of river water. He spluttered and sank beneath the surface, arms flailing uselessly. Someone had hit him from behind. Now icy water was numbing Dante’s arms and legs, cramping his already exhausted muscles. A glimmer of light danced overhead, pale and inviting. Dante willed his limbs into action, but the Thames seemed determined to hold him with its chilling embrace, extracting the maximum of effort for every stroke.
By now Dante could hear the blood pumping through his ears, while his lungs were screaming for air. He gave another kick and broke the surface, gratefully breathing in something other than water. To his surprise Westminster Bridge was some distance away. The Thames obviously had a powerful undertow beneath its slow moving surface. Rising mist made it hard to see the faces of anyone on the bridge, but Dante could make out a male silhouette watching him. He was talking with another, unseen figure, occasional words and phrases audible across the water. ‘I’ll see you soon… yes, the old man… Hoy…’
A low-flying skimmer dropped to the bridge, catching the man in its headlights. He was quite bald, with a solemn face and curling goatee beard. Then the vehicle’s lights swung left and he was gone, lost in the thickening mist. Dante realised the current was dragging him further away. Treading water, he looked for the nearest riverbank but could not see either edge.
‘Which side is closer, Crest? I can’t tell in this accursed fog.’ Dante waited but got no reply. ‘Crest, this is no time to be sulking!’ Still nothing. He sighed with exasperation. The Crest was the product of a superior alien intelligence, but it was not above extracting petty revenge for having its feelings hurt. ‘Alright, look - I’m sorry I snapped at you before, okay? I realise you were simply alerting me to danger. I promise to pay more attention to your warnings in future.’
The Crest laughed hollowly in Dante’s head.
‘How about if I promise to try?’
That would be more realistic.
‘So – which side is closer?’
Swim to your left, the Crest advised. Your other left, it added a few moments later.
By the time Dante reached the nearest bank the river had swept down to the next bridge. He tried climbing out but this cold, stiffening fingers could not get a purchase on the slippery surface. ‘Fuoco, is nothing ever easy in this country?’ Dante cursed. As if in reply, a red and white life preserver splashed into the water beside him. A rope tied to it disappeared up into the fog-shrouded bridge. Dante grabbed the preserver and was dragged from the water. As he rose Dante could see flashing red and blue lights tinting the air. Britannia’s law enforcement agencies had arrived at last – but were they in time to catch the assassin?
Once the life preserver was level with the bridge’s parapet he scrambled over the edge, shivering in cold early evening air. ‘Thanks for getting me out of there,’ he said. ‘If you’re quick there’s still a chance you can get the shooter. They were on Westminster—‘
The sound of a dozen weapons being cocked silenced Dante. He glanced at the surly faces of the policemen surrounding him and realised something was badly amiss. ‘What’s wrong? You look like you’re ready to kill someone!’
Dante, you might have been better off staying in the river…
‘You don’t think I had anything to do with shooting the king, do you?’
A trench-coated man emerged from the throng. ‘We don’t think anything of the sort.’ The speaker struck a match, its flame briefly illuminating his middle-aged face and receding ginger hair. He was lighting a pipe, its rich, pungent tobacco smoke adding to the mist in the air. ‘We know you tried to murder him.’
‘That’s ridiculous,’ Dante protested. ‘I’ve chased the sniper halfway across London!’
‘An interesting interpretation of reality,’ the pipe-smoker replied. ‘I was told you were fleeing the scene of the crime, trying to make good your escape. Happily, you failed. Another triumph for Rucka of the Yard.’ He gestured to the surrounding policemen. ‘Take him into custody. If he resists, subdue him. Use force if necessary, but he’s to be brought in alive.’
Dante fought like a wounded animal but even with his bio-blades fully extended he could not hold off all twelve of them. The last sounds he heard were his own screams of pain and the thud of boots into his already bruised and battered torso. Then merciful darkness took him. Hard to believe it was less than twelve hours since his arrival in Britannia...