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The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep

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The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep

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Author: H. G. Parry
Publisher: Orbit, 2020
Redhook, 2019
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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
Sub-Genre Tags: Contemporary Fantasy
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Synopsis

For his entire life, Charley Sutherland has concealed a magical ability he can't quite control: he can bring characters from books into the real world. His older brother, Rob -- a young lawyer with a normal house, a normal fiancee, and an utterly normal life -- hopes that this strange family secret will disappear with disuse, and he will be discharged from his life's duty of protecting Charley and the real world from each other.

But then, literary characters start causing trouble in their city, making threats about destroying the world... and for once, it isn't Charley's doing.There's someone else who shares his powers. It's up to Charley and a reluctant Rob to stop them, before these characters tear apart the fabric of reality.


Excerpt

I

At four in the morning, I was woken by a phone call from my younger brother. He sounded breathless, panicked, with the particular catch in his voice I knew all too well.

"Uriah Heep's loose on the ninth floor," he said. "And I can't catch him."

My brain was fogged with sleep; it took a moment for his words to filter through. "Seriously, Charley?" I said when they did. "Again?"

"I've never read out Uriah Heep before."

"True, but--you know what I mean." I rubbed my eyes, trying to focus. The bedroom was pitch black and cold, the glow of the digital clock the only fuzzy source of light. Next to me, I heard Lydia stir and turn over in a rustle of sheets. I had a sense then of being suspended between two worlds: the sane one in which I had fallen asleep, and Charley's, reaching to pull me awake through the speaker of my phone. It was a familiar feeling. "That's Dickens, isn't it? You know you and Dickens don't mix--or... mix too well, or whatever it is the two of you do. I thought you were sticking to poetry lately. Those postmodern things that read like a dictionary mated with a Buddhist mantra and couldn't possibly make any sense to anyone."

"There is not a poem on earth that doesn't make any sense to anyone."

Even half-asleep, I could recognize an evasion when I heard it.

"You promised. You promised it wouldn't happen again." "I know, and I meant it, and I'm sorry." He was whispering, presumably trying not to alert the security guards roaming the university campus--or perhaps not to alert Uriah Heep. "But please, please, Rob, I know it's late and you have work tomorrow, but if they find him here in the morning--"

"All right, all right, calm down." I forced exasperation out of my voice. There were times when he needed to hear it, and times when it would only tip him over the edge, and right now he sounded dangerously close to the edge. "You're in your office? I'm on my way. Just try to keep an eye on him, and be down to let me in the building in ten minutes."

He sighed. "Thank you. Oh God, I really am sorry, it was only for a second..."

"Ten minutes," I told him, and hung up. I sighed myself, heard it go out into the darkness, and ran my hand through my hair. Oh well. It wasn't as though I was surprised.

"It's my brother," I said to Lydia, whom I could sense watching me with sleepy concern from the other side of the bed. "He's having a crisis."

"Is he all right?"

"He'll be fine." Lydia didn't know the form my brother's crises took, but it wasn't the first time he'd phoned me with one. It wasn't even the first time in the middle of the night. I had no idea who used to help him while he was living in England, but since he'd come to Wellington, I seemed to be on speed dial. "He just needs some help with a problem. You know how he is."

"You've got a trial this morning," she reminded me.

"I know," I said. "I'll make it. Go back to sleep."

"You can't fix all his problems for him. He's twenty-six."

"I know." She was right; he did need to learn to deal with these things himself.

Uriah Heep, though. I'd never read Dickens myself, but I'd learned to have an instinct for the names, and that one didn't sound promising.

* * *

My brother works as a lecturer at Prince Albert University of Wellington, which I can, as I promised, drive to from my house in about ten minutes, provided I stop only to pull on a pair of shoes and shrug on a coat over my pajamas. It's a tricky road in the dark, skirting the central city and winding up into the foothills of Kelburn. I missed a turn, and found myself on the wrong side of the botanic gardens. Wellington's like that. The city itself is nestled between the harbor and the hills: too far one way, and you hit the ocean; too far the other, and you're facing a wall of impenetrable forest sloping up into the clouds. It's not a good place for my brother, whose relationship with "too far" has never been a healthy one.

The campus is perched halfway up the Kelburn hills, a tumbling assortment of buildings on either side of the road connected by an overpass. They're old buildings, by New Zealand standards, but they probably don't seem that way to Charley. Until three years ago, he'd been at Oxford, where referring to a building as old meant someone was studying in it a thousand years ago. I'd been there on a family visit once, and had felt the dust-stifled weight that comes from centuries of scholarship and ancient stone. I wasn't certain I liked it. It felt too much as though it had come from the pages of a book. The Prince Albert campus, just over a hundred years old, still feels as if it was built by people. Most of its office blocks started life as a settler's house, and even its grandest buildings are infused with the labor of Victorian colonials re-creating England in basic scaffolding. When I think of Oxford, I think of the still peace of the summer air; here, the air is never still, and rarely peaceful. That particular night, it was raining lightly, and the streetlights caught the drops in a mist of silver. When I got out of the car, the haze clung to my face and stung like ice.

I think Charley had the door to the English department open before I could even knock. In the light spilling from the corridor behind him, I could see his eyes huge and appealing, his unruly mess of dark curls and baggy sweatshirt making him look smaller and younger than he was. He's very good at that. It didn't mean I wasn't going to kill him this time--I was--but maybe not when he was completely beside himself with worry.

"He got away from me," Charley said immediately. As usual in a crisis, he was talking almost too fast to be understood. "I tried to stay with him, but I had to call you, and... and my cell phone was in my office, so I had to go there, and then once I called you I tried to find him again, and he..."

"Hey, slow down." My left shoe had a hole in it I hadn't noticed until I ran through the puddles. I could feel my wet sock squelching inside it now. "Take a breath. He has to still be in the building, right? He hasn't got a card to swipe out, and the building locks down after dark?"

"That's right," Charley confirmed. He took a deep breath, obediently, and released it. It didn't help. "Unless he breaks a window, or someone left one open--"

"Any sign of that?"

"No. And I've looked in every room. But I can't find him."

"We'll find him," I assured him. "Don't worry. It's only some nasty Victorian with no eyelashes." I'd Googled the character on the way here, which might have contributed to the wrong turn I'd taken. Apparently he was an ugly redheaded clerk who tries to ruin the lives of the main characters in David Copperfield. Also, there was a rock band named after him, which sounded cool. "Not like that time you brought Dracula out of his book, when you were eight."

"Vampires have weaknesses," Charley said darkly. "Stoker wrote them in. People are far less predictable."

I couldn't argue with that. "Come on. Let's start in your office."

* * *

I'd never been in Charley's office before, but it was exactly how I'd pictured it: complete chaos. Mugs littered the desk and peered out from bookshelves, books spilled from every nook and cranny, and the computer was buried beneath pages of scribbled notes. The battered armchair by the window was the only thing clear of clutter, because it was obviously where he sat in order to clutter everything else. It was a Charley-shaped hole in the mess, like an outline at a police crime scene.

There was no sign of a wayward Dickensian villain, but I could smell the faint tang of smoke and fog that I'd learned to associate with Dickensian England, amid the more usual smells of books and stale coffee.

"What were you doing here at four in the morning, anyway?" I asked. I was out of breath: we'd climbed the stairs to the ninth floor so as not to alert Uriah Heep of our coming. The elevators were notorious for breaking down in this building anyway. I remembered that from my undergraduate days, although my classes had usually been at the law campus in the central city.

I'd never been in the English department, and right now it was eerie in the dark. Reception was locked off, and the corridors were a labyrinthine world of shadows.

"I was finishing an article," Charley answered. "Well, I was starting it, actually. Someone wants it by next week, for an anthology. And I just--I don't know, I'd actually proposed something about the autobiographical form in David Copperfieldand Great Expectations, but I became very interested in how Uriah Heep was functioning as a scapegoat for middle-class anxieties in David Copperfield, and the means by which he's constructed as a threat to the social order, and I was reading and thinking about him quite closely--"

"And he sprang off the page," I finished grimly. I'd heard it before. "You couldn't just put him back?"

"He was too fast. He knew what I was going to do, and he wasn't going to let me."

I shook my head. "You shouldn't be here in the middle of the night."

"I got caught up." He sounded apologetic. "Anyway, it's better to work when no one's around, in case something like this happens."

"I suppose, but you know it's more likely to happen when you're tired. And definitelywhen you're caught up."

"I didn't mean it."

"Never mind." I picked up a paper from the top strata covering the desk, filled with the least legible version of Charley's handwriting. LOOK AT pg. 467, it began. Model clerk--model prisoner--Heep is his own parody--becomes what people expect him to be--commentary on 19thC hypocrisy--fear of squiggle squiggle--shape-squiggle--squiggle David's own squiggle--like Orlick and Pip from GE--Fitzwilliam writes on this in squiggle--"You say you were thinking about him as a threat to the social order?"

He nodded unhappily.

The figures Charley summons from books are always colored by his interpretations. Charley calls it postmodernism at work. The last thing we needed was for this latest one to be colored by danger, however theoretical.

"All right." I tried to think. It was hard, when I had been sound asleep twenty minutes ago. Unlike Charley's, my brain doesn't work well in the hours before dawn. "You know this character. Where would he go?"

"I don't know. He doesn't go near an English department in the book. I suppose we just have to look for him."

"Charley--!" I bit back a surge of temper just in time. It was more than temper, really. I hated this. I'd always hated this, but I hated it more now, here, in my city.

I looked out the office window. Beyond the campus, the ground dropped away dramatically, and Wellington spread out like a blanket. Down in the distance, I could see the glittering lights of the central city, and past them the long curve of the harbor and the dark of the ocean. Outside the mess my brother worked in, it all looked impossibly clean and young and bright.

"Do you think we should check the library?" Charley asked.

I forced myself to focus. "Would he want to get to the library? Is that where you think he'd go?"

"Possibly. I have no idea where he'd go."

I pinched the bridge of my nose. "Charley, I have a big trial coming up in a few hours. I'm expected at the courthouse at nine. It's my job. There are people depending on me. I can't just keep looking all night!"

"I said I was sorry! I knew I shouldn't have called you."

"You shouldn't have had to!" So much for keeping exasperation out of my voice. I had never been very good at that. "How many times does it take? Just keep your thoughts under control when you read a book! It shouldn't be so hard!"

"Maybe you should go. I can deal with this myself. It's not your problem."

"It is my problem, though, isn't it? It's always my problem. You make it my problem when you bring these things into my city and into my life."

"I didn't mean to."

"It doesn't matter what you mean! It's what you do. It's what you always do."

"I said I would deal with it myself," Charley said. His face had hardened. "I shouldn't have asked you to come here. Just go home, Rob. I mean it. I don't need your help."

I might have gone. I don't think I would have--I hope I wouldn't have. But I was furious, and I could already feel fury pushing me to say and do the things I tried to avoid. It just might have propelled me out the door.

Except, just for a moment, I looked at Charley again. There was something there, in the tilt of his head and the lines of his face, that I'd never seen before. Something hard, and cunning. There was a glint in his eyes that could almost have been malice.

All at once, Charley's notes flashed up before my eyes, and I felt cold.

Shape-squiggle. If my brother's handwriting hadn't been so terrible, I might have worked it out sooner.

As I said, my brother's creations are always colored by his perception of them. Sometimes this is slight, and manageable: a shift in personality, or a blurring of appearance. But some colorings are deeper and stranger, and the deeper he gets into literary theory, the stranger they become. Traits that are metaphorical in the text become absurdly, dangerously literal. A shy character may come out invisible. A badly written character might come out flat. The Phantom of the Opera walked in a little cloud of darkness, and all Charley could say about it was that it was a half-baked theory about pathetic fallacy and his concentration slipped.

Dickens, as far as I know, has no shape-shifters in his books. But somehow, Charley's Uriah Heep had come out as one. And he had been standing in front of me from the moment I entered the building.

"Where's my brother?" I said slowly.

The thing that wasn't Charley looked confused. He did it well--he got the nose wrinkle just right--but it didn't matter. I knew now. "What are you talking about?"

"You weren't down at the door because you were waiting for me." I could feel the pieces start to fit, the way they did on a good day in court when a hostile witness said just the wrong thing at the right time. "You were down there trying to get away before I arrived.Sometime after Charley called, you took him out of action somehow and stole his key card. But I arrived too soon, didn't I? You had to let me in, and bluff it out. That's why you told me to leave; that's why you're trying to provoke an argument. You need me to storm out and leave you here alone, so you can get away."

He shook his head. "Rob, you can't possibly..."

"You should have known me better than that," I said. "Or Charley should--I suppose you know me from his memories. I wouldn't leave him in danger just because he was getting on my nerves."

"You've done it before," Charley said. My stomach twisted, because I knew what he meant.

"Yes, I have," I admitted. "And that's why I'd never do it again. Where is he?"

I didn't wait for the impostor to lie this time. I pushed my way past him, out into the corridor. "Charley!"

The corridors were lit only by the light spilling from Charley's office. It might have been my imagination, but I thought I heard a faint sound in response.

"Very well." The voice from behind me wasn't quite my brother's anymore. I turned around quickly, and the face wasn't my brother's either.

For the record, Uriah Heep is a very ugly character. He had a face like a skull--cadaverous, I think the Internet had said--and a skeletal body to match: tall, pale, thin, with red hair shaved far shorter than I'd thought the Victorians went in for, and reddish eyes without eyebrows or eyelashes. His jeans and sweatshirt had changed with him to a black tailcoat, funereal garb. His limbs twitched and writhed, apparently without his input; I thought, inexplicably, of the branches of the tree at the back of our childhood house. I was more interested in the knife in his hand. It was a modern box cutter, and he held it like a dagger in my direction.

"I should have known better, Master Robert," he said, "than to think my umble self could fool a gentleman of your station and fine schooling. Do forgive me, won't you, Master Robert? It was on account of my being so very umble and unworthy."

"Don't give me all that." I mastered my shock, and hardened my tone. "I don't even like Dickens. Where's my brother?"

"Oh, you mustn't think I've hurt Master Charles," Uriah said, with a laugh like someone grating iron. His voice was honey and rusty nails. "No, no, someone in my umble position--"

"God, literary critics must have a field day with you," I groaned.

I saw it then: a flash of hatred, right across his face. And then, all at once, the knife was at my throat, and I was against the wall of the corridor opposite, a bony hand on my shoulder holding me there. It was so quick, I didn't even have a chance to flinch. The blade touched my neck; it stung, but didn't cut. My heart was beating so loud and fast it filled my entire body.

"I never asked for this," Uriah hissed. "I never asked to be poor, and ugly, and the villain of the piece. I never wanted to be obsequious, and insincere, and deadly. I never wanted to fall in love with a woman that was always destined for the hero of the novel."

"I'm sure you didn't," I managed. It was my best attempt at conciliation. It might have been better to keep quiet. "But that's not our fault."

"Master Charley brought me out." His face, inches from mine, melted from the shadows. "And now he wants to put me back in. In my place. Just as everybody's done, all my life. Well, I won't go, do you hear me? I won't. This world out here--it hasn't been written yet. For all I know, I can write it for myself. I don't have to do what the story says. I can do whatever I want."

I couldn't help but laugh at that. "You've got a lot to learn about the world out here, don't you?"

The blade dug deeper. A thin drop of blood was suddenly warm on my throat, like a shaving cut. Whatever Charley had managed to do to Uriah Heep, he was no longer merely a nasty Victorian with no eyelashes.

"Look, fine." I tried to speak very carefully, without my voice trembling. "Go, if you want. Just tell me where my brother is."

"Why should you care? I've seen you, you know, in his memories. You don't like him. You wish he'd never come here."

"That's not true," I said.

"Yes, it is." Uriah shook his ugly head. "You'll be better off without him anyway, with what's coming. He's going to be right at the heart of it. Stay out of it, keep your head down, and don't look too closely at what's going on, that's my umble suggestion, Master Robert."

Curiosity momentarily overcame my fear. I frowned. "What do you mean?"

"Just what I said, Master Robert. You stay out of it. It don't concern you. And you won't want it to."

"What doesn't concern me?"

"The new world," he said. "There won't be a place for you in the new world."

Down the corridor, one of the doors burst open. I turned toward the sound on instinct before I had registered what it was. My brother came out.

It was definitely my brother this time. He was wearing the same clothes as the Uriah Heep version of him had been--maybe those were all the clothes of our world that thing had known well enough to copy. His hair was the same mess of curls in need of a haircut. But I had been right. He did look different. His face was softer, and less sure of itself, and his eyes lacked that touch of cunning I'd seen in the copy. I suppose in a Dickens novel evil is real, and it shines out.

He stopped short at the sight of us. The knife was still at my throat, even though Uriah Heep turned to look at him at the same time I had. Then he raised his head.

"Let him go." His voice had that touch of an English accent I'd noticed at odd times since he returned from overseas. "I'm here now. It's over."

"With all due respect, Master Charley," Uriah said, "you were here at the start. I tied you up and put you in a cupboard."

"Well," he said rather weakly. "I'm back again."

I took a chance then. Uriah was looking the other way; even had he not been, my heart was now beating so fast I couldn't have held still a moment longer. I grabbed Uriah's wrist and wrenched the knife away from my throat.

Uriah lunged forward with a hiss. But I was prepared for his wiry strength this time, and adrenaline was flooding me with strength of my own. I kept a tight grip on his wrist, twisting it farther away from me; at the same time, I grabbed his other arm and clung on for grim life. It really was like holding a writhing skeleton. His bones stood out through his clothes, and his unearthly wail was that of a specter. The knife clattered to the floor.

"Now!" I snapped. "Put him back!"

"No!" Uriah cried. There was hatred there--seething hatred--but also real despair. It made me feel sick, despite myself. "You have no idea what it's like in that book. They always win. They all hate me and I hate them and they always win!"

"I know," Charley said. He sounded unhappy too. "I'm truly sorry."

He reached out and touched Uriah on the shoulder, and deep concentration swept over his face. And suddenly my hands were closed around nothing at all. There was a flare of light, and between one heartbeat and the next Uriah Heep had vanished. His screams lingered even after the sound of them had faded, like the smell of Victorian smoke and fog still clinging to the air.

Lydia was right. I really did need to start letting Charley sort these things out for himself.

Copyright © 2019 by H. G. Parry


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