ashley stokes

Ultima Thule, by Ashley Stokes

(Part One of Two)

Ansbro crossed a deserted market square, wary of slush and ice, the weight of his overnight bag and The Product drawing down on his shoulders. In what he assumed was the city’s main drag he passed pubs and bars, all empty. Behind the windows of pizzerias and restaurants untouched wineglasses were arranged in shining squares on circular tables. It was Thursday evening. It was still snowing. The cold latched itself to his face as he paused on a traffic island to check his street plan. According to the chatty buff on the train the whole city had once been an island, an inland island that resisted The Conqueror. After it fell, no later campaigns followed, no skirmishes, uprisings or even an air raid. Ansbro didn’t find this surprising, given its remoteness. It was only surprising, and more so inconvenient that his esteemed client was headquartered up here. Ansbro, representative of Bastion–the publishers of usually low-quality military history books–had left London early for an appointment that had taken over two years to arrange, the breakthrough being the acquisition of The Product. It would have to snow today. The train would have to stop about fifteen times and then, after an incident on the line, huddle for hours at the white outskirts of the city.

Moving off in the direction of his hotel Ansbro thought that if Big Dump, his manager, were here, he’d be too cocksure with The Product beside him. He’d eat a lot now and then guffaw through the appointment. On Monday he would crow that he’d rolled up the flank in a faceless divorcee’s bedroom. He’d boast to Leonard Lovestone, Bastion’s owner, about his acumen in placing The Product. The Product was Big Dump’s name for it. Ansbro wanted to stop thinking about it like this. He wanted to stop thinking about Big Dump as well and Big Dump’s massive bowels. Big Dump and his bowels were envious that Lovestone had given Ansbro this job. This dealer had been out of circulation for years. Lovestone thought he was dead and had taken his lists and contacts with him. Communication with Ansbro had been by letter only, a genteel way of doing business. The dealer had agreed to view The Product tonight, at his premises, a place called Ultima Thule.

The street forked ahead, as if parting for the Hotel Aachen. From this angle it was a triangular wedge that tore the road in two. Snow swarmed in the orange glare of its carriage lamps. It would be a short walk from here to Ultima Thule. There was still enough time to make the appointment, if Ansbro was quick, snappish, sharp, a proper seller.

It seemed hardly warmer inside as he found himself shivering on a thin electric blue carpet identical to those he’d seen before in a hundred or so budget hotels. The carpet and the over-bright spot-lamps seemed at odds with a Victorian staircase with banisters as wide and sleek as funpark waterslides. It was as if the hotel had been only half refurbished. Maybe they had run out of money. Even the canniest of businessmen were running out of money these days, even Lovestone. That’s why Ansbro was here. 

He rested his other luggage in front of the reception desk but kept hold of The Product, afraid that it might walk if he put it down. He rang the bell and waited. He experienced a twinge as he imagined that he’d left The Product at home or in the office, or if after the stupor of the journey he’d abandoned it to some lucky opportunist on the train. Footsteps approached from an outer office. He put the case down and sank to one knee to check on it. For a second he felt that he could no longer remember the combination and only noticed that his teeth were chattering when the number came back to him.

“What are you doing down there, Mister Ansbro?”

When he bobbed up the woman wore a smile she asserted with mind and industry. She was a petite reddish-blonde and probably no older than he was. She wore faded jeans and a black, off-the-shoulder top that overlaid a lacy, turquoise vest. Something–like a crack in the surface of a sheet of ice–glinted in her right, blue eye. 

“I’m Kay,” she said. “Your concierge. I’ve put you in The Salon.”

“The Salon?” said Ansbro. “I didn’t book The Salon.” 

“I upgraded you,” said Kay. “Same tariff.” She placed a swipe-card on the desktop. Her fingers spidered over it. He had difficulty with the eye and focused instead on her unevenly varnished cherry-red nails. “Oh yes, and before I forget, you had a phone call this morning. A Mister…a Mister Tool called for you.”

Resting his knuckles on the counter, Ansbro said, “No, it’s Thule, like hula.” 

She laughed. “I’m sorry, Elliot.”

“It’s not important,” he said, even though it was, and then it struck him. “What did he say?”

“He apologizes, says can’t make tonight, but he’ll be there for you same time tomorrow night.” The crack in her eye shifted. “I am your concierge, though, if you need The Salon for another night, or if you need anything else, Elliot.”

Concierge. She wasn’t a concierge. This was not the sort of hotel that employed a concierge. She’d used his first name as well; she was flirting and dressed like she worked in a smoothie bar. And the room that he stood in now was not a salon, just a room at the top of the hotel with slanting ceilings and a round window like a porthole. When he thought of a salon he pictured a vast, plush-carpeted affair with ornate mirrors and chandeliers and high windows that overlooked a deer park. Evidently, the word meant something else for Kay.

He left The Product on the bed and was now standing by the porthole. Snow thumped against the pane and half-obscured his view of the spires and gables and the lit-up buttresses of the city’s cathedral. He would have to stay here longer than he wanted. The appointment would impinge on his weekend. There was a woman he was supposed to meet tomorrow night. He wondered what was wrong with Kay’s eye. The snow reminded him of a piano tune he could no longer name, music that felt like falling down the stairs in slow motion, painlessly, without impact. He suspected he’d been sent here to fail. This mission was a pretext to get rid of him. That call could have been from Big Dump. This was cross-double-cross. Big Dump was setting him up.

Perched on the bed, he took out his mobile phone and left a message on Lovestone’s ansamachine. Then he took The Product from the case. He’d bound it in a black silk wrap. He suspected that he might unravel it now to find half a paving slab in its place. That’s the sort of thing Big Dump would do, or at least it was the sort of thing he said he’d done in the past. But from under the silk emerged the white custom cloth slipcase. He used the drawstring to coax out the book and then, scared he’d drop it if he opened it on his lap, knelt with it resting on the bed. He’d memorized its vital statistics, its contents, its accumulated sales. Seventeen and half inches by thirteen and a half inches of jacket. Four point two inches thick. One thousand and eighty-eight pages and one thousand and forty six illustrated plates, all by the same celebrated hand and only published within these covers. A uniformologist’s delight, the Holy Grail of Napoleonic Buffdom, it had been much coveted since it first appeared in 1931. It had been reprinted only once, in the late 1980s. A mere two thousand were left. The American publisher had gone bust recently and Lovestone acquired the stock in the fire sale. It would never be reissued. La Roche’s Imperial Codex retailed at £799. This would seem a reasonable price to Mr. Thule, Ansbro was sure of this. 

Everything he knew about Mr. Thule came from Big Dump and Lovestone. Whenever Ansbro discussed sales with the old boss he would mutter ruefully about Ultima Thule. In the sixties and seventies both the shop and the mail order catalogue had sold thousands and thousands of Bastion Books. Lovestone would often pine as if some El Dorado or retail Atlantis still existed up here in the once-island city. He’d collapsed into a sweaty rapture when Ansbro confirmed that a meeting had been arranged. Ansbro was to sell the whole consignment of the Codex, play nice with Thule and suss out whether the shop or the list, or both were for sale. Ultima Thule was to be annexed to the Bastion Imperium. Elliot Ansbro was the outrider.

During an informal man-to-man strategy session in Big Dump’s hutch of an office BD’s Shredded Wheat hair looked especially wheaty and his Barbour jacket was still the colour of duck shit. 

“Don’t get up yourself here,” he said. “The Codex is just another product. Pricey, like, but just product. Product for Buffs.”

For Big Dump the readership was divided in two. There were the Grunts, who would buy anything, literally anything, even SS Underpants and Sock Suspenders of World War II, or Hell’s Coming to Breakfast: Field Catering from White Mountain to Afghanistan. Grunts were, in Lovestone’s words, people who got “hot about nuts and bolts.” Buffs, on the other hand, were more likely to get hot about Sexy Wars. They were of higher rank, rarefied and wealthy readers, attachés and ex-brass, the elite corps, the sort of people on the Ultima Thule mailing list. Big Dump could bollock on all day about Buffs and their buying buttons. He pronounced “Buff” with a hard, punchy emphasis, as if the B was a projectile that wiped out not only the rest of the word but also the whole of the sentence. 

For Ansbro, the word Buff conjured only nakedness. He frequently pictured naked Buffs reading Bastion Books in their shabby armchairs, curtains drawn at midday as they slotted and sliced their way across the ghost battlefields in their heads.

“Thule is the King of the Buffs,” Big Dump had said. “Only met him once. Frankfurt. Weirdo. Must be about eighty now. Told Leonard he’d rather have been one of Napoleon’s generals. Thinks he missed his time. Should have been born two hundred years ago. Don’t go AWOL up there, you. This is the big tickle.” 

Ansbro opened the Codex. The binding creaked. The pages smelled like fresh paint. He felt like a little boy again, kneeling by the bed, nose pressed to an annual or comic. The image on the plate was of General Massena, upright with his palm resting on a globe in a proper salon of hardwood panelling and august bookshelves. His face was stern and inquisitive and his hair short and Caesar-like. Scrupulous brushwork gave a tactile quality to the sash, the sabre and the gauntlets. The intensity of the colours amazed Ansbro, the nobility of the navy blue tunic, the shimmer of the braid and the fluid brown of the general’s pupils. 

Originally, La Roche’s designs had been cigarette cards. During the First World War, all French army issue fag packets included one of these inspirational reminders of the nation’s military past. At first La Roche concentrated on the ordinary soldiers: The Old Guard, Chasseurs, Marines, Lancers, the Elite Gendarmes. Later he painted the more exotic elements of the Grand Armeé: the Squadron of the Mamelukes, the Empress Dragoons and the Vistula Uhlans, and later still, during the twenties, he painted the personalities, the Marshals, Riskepanse and Kleber, MacDonald and Massena. This is what Ansbro had learned about the origins of The Product. You learned a lot when you worked for Bastion Books. 

Massena’s eyes seemed to blink the longer Ansbro stared at them, as if the General conferred some approval or understanding. Was it one of these pictures, or even this picture in the Codex that had once told Mr. Thule that he’d “missed his time,” that he should have been one of Napoleon’s generals spreading Liberté, Egalité and Fraternité by cannon flash and cavalry charge? Was it Massena who made him hear the whisper, or was it St Cyr, The Owl, who smashed two Russian armies one after the other? Or Rapp: so wounded in campaigns that his men called him “the piece of old lace?” Ansbro would ask Mr. Thule. This wasn’t part of the pitch he’d prepared. It was another discussion he was now planning. Most of the dealers Ansbro sold to were arch-Grunts, bayonet-obsessives, bowel-irregulars and para-military fantasists like Wolfgang Carver of the Onslaught Bookshop in The Wirral. Big Dump was right about one thing only. Thule was not a Grunt. But he was not the King of the Buffs either. He was the Emperor. 

Ansbro felt a sudden heat at his temples and dryness coat his tongue. Outside, the snow was still falling, thicker now, creeping up the windowpane. He was going to have to stay inside the Hotel Aachen tonight.

(This ends Part One. Coming December 8, 2011: Part Two)

some authors have really deep meanings behind the names of their characters

then there’s me

i’m writing a novel in which the main character is called Barnaby Trent because i couldn’t think of a name and said to somebody “i’m going to end up calling him Barnaby Trent or something”

then Barnaby’s boyfriend is called Ashley Stoke literally just so the ship name can be “Stoke-On-Trent”

Temple and Space, by Ashley Stokes

The thrumming on her hood merged with the clatter of rain on the vehicles’ roofs in what she realized now was a carpark. Her feet felt raw, slashed. Her suede boots had not been made for hiking, let alone sprinting on wet tarmac. 

She couldn’t believe she’d remained calm on the hard shoulder, in the squall, with the black moor on one side and on the other hundreds of stranded cars. A crash had brought twelve miles of traffic to a standstill. The tailback would only slow him down for so long. She didn’t have time to stand and listen to the rain. Directly ahead was a service station called Pitstop. Someone would recognize her there. 

Blinking, she pigeon-stepped into an octagonal atrium. All of the tables in a seating area were occupied. Travellers lucky enough to get off the motorway were standing in the aisles. Others perched on the edges of tables. At the tables, families hunched over burger cartons and sandwich boxes. Men in sleeveless fleeces huffed and fiddled with smart phones. Fat women jiggled babies on their laps.

If Rufus were here he would complain that fat women should not be allowed to breed. The universal right to have children is a dangerous fantasy. When Rufus arrived he would probably start by reiterating that in strictly philosophical terms no one has any rights anyway.

Only a tall, bald, bespectacled man in a leather greatcoat, three rows back had a table to himself. But he was scribbling in a notebook, and he was bald. 

She’d not pulled down her hood yet. Its fur trim hid her face. Her parka was still zipped. She must look bedraggled, blitzed, crazy. No would realize that Temple was back. She must sort herself out. At least she’d had the sense to whip her bag from the backseat of the car. 

The man in the leather coat had a tattoo of a circuit board on the side of his head. If Rufus were here he would describe a man with a circuit board tattooed on the side of his head as a “dangerous fantasist.” The world according to Rufus is full of dangerous fantasists out to get Rufus. 

She followed signs that led to a ladies washroom. Rufus would no doubt describe the creature that stared back at her from the washroom mirror as a dangerous fantasist. With the hood still pulled up and her black parka sodden she looked half seal, half chimney sweep’s brush. She could imagine Rufus, back out there on the motorway, whispering into his phone that she’d finally become another Christmas cracker. 

She took down the hood. Her hair was dry, thankfully, but sticking out in frightwig tufts. She tried on a few facial expressions: smart-curious Temple, ice-queen aloof Temple, throes of passion Temple. She’d perfected these for her most celebrated role: Angela Taki in Songbirds 2: Adventures in the Sex Capital of the World. She could hold any of them for as long as she liked. They were her Temple emoticons. 

Keep reading

Ultima Thule, by Ashley Stokes

(Part Two of Two)

Later he found the bar at the rear of the hotel, an array of dark green padded alcoves and stained glass partitions that wheeled around a circular serving area. No one was drinking here, no other reps or lorry drivers. Kay was standing behind the counter in front of a wall of shining, yellow-tinged glasses and glimmering bottles and spirits. Around the walls were hung framed images of fairy-winged nymphs promoting aperitifs and infusions. As he approached, he felt that he was somewhere else, some other city and century. Prague maybe, 1921, or Vienna, Montmartre, Bourbon Spain. It was wrong, he knew, to think of the past as a more charged and exciting atmosphere. But what else was there to do with history? He didn’t want to think of it as Sexy Wars. Nor did he want it to be an accumulation of overlooked lives, the biographies of unsung boys and lonely girls in service to this or to that now defunct institution. 

He pulled up a stool and ordered a single malt with ice. He was glad to be alone. He wanted to brood.

“You’ve had a terrible time getting up today,” Kay said. “And all for a cancellation, poor you.”

“Not a cancellation. A rearrangement.”

In the mirror beneath the optics he noticed her hand shake as she poured his drink. The ice cubes clattered against the sides of the tumbler. He had long since ceased to think of these trips as holidays or adventures. He was not Big Dump. All that kissing and telling. The not kissing and still telling. He was not, he hoped, going to park and ride. What were those lines in her eye? Would it be rude, intrusive to ask her? She put the tumbler in front of him and smiled again, this time as if she anticipated that he was going to suggest something. 

“Kay,” he said, poking his finger at the ceiling. “Can I ask you something a bit private?”

“Fire away,” she said. She clapped her palms softly together, then wiped them on her hips and ended up dipping them into the back pockets of her jeans, a motion that pushed out her chest. 

 “You’re the owner, aren’t you?” he said. This had occurred to him earlier, considering that she was so far his small-talking concierge and now barmaid. 

“Sort of,” she said. “Family business. We’ve been here for a hundred and fifty years. Just about.”

“That’s nice,” he said, and sipped as she began to tell him about the history of the Hotel Aachen, its beginnings as a coach house; the haunt of Red Hector, a famous highwayman; an Edwardian heyday; an inter-war reputation for integrity and cleanliness. He wasn’t really listening. He kept thinking back to Massena and the piece of old lace and Thule and manoeuvring Thule around to discussing a change of management.

“These pictures here,” said Kay, “are insured for …”

“Kay,” said Ansbro. “Do you know where Ultima Thule is?” She looked baffled and tapped her cheek with her thumb. “It’s a shop.”

“I could ask Dad?”

“He might know my client.”

“Mr. Tool.” She rested her elbows on the bar and leaned in close to him. The lines in her eyes were tiny lightning strikes radiating from a central core. 

“Thule like hula,” he said. “Vidkun Thule. Like the unpleasant Norwegian.”

“So what does the unpleasant Norwegian do?”

“He’s not unpleasant. Or Norwegian. He’s going to offer me a job.” Staring into her eyes, he tried to catch his reflection there. He shouldn’t be doing this, and wanted to lean back but he couldn’t. 

“Confident,” said Kay. “Like it. So we might be seeing more of you?” She lifted her shoulders and spread her arms along the bar and her knuckles paled either side of him. 

“Maybe,” he said.

“More?” said Kay as she reached for his now empty glass. “Dutch courage for the interviewee?”

The light behind turned her hair to golden coils, and then he was certain of himself, of what was going to happen, and he didn’t care about anything else. 

Upstairs, back in The Salon, he lay face down in the bed with his arm draped over the shape beside him. It was the middle of the night now. He couldn’t sleep. Things that had been said came back to him and he found himself sniggering in the band of grey moonlight that cut across the duvet. He kept mulling over a day in the office a few months ago. Two nights before Big Dump had swallowed a king prawn vindaloo and fifteen bottles of Oranjiboom with someone possibly called Norbert Pogrom from Beer Hall Putsch Books and Figurines in Frisby on the Wreake, Leicestershire. The king prawn then fought a dogged rearguard action in the Wookey Hole-like cave-system that was Big Dump’s bowels, morphing and mutating into a gigantic basalt millipede that slithered out segment by segment all morning and all afternoon, on and on while Ansbro was forced to take BD’s appointments. One of these was the pitching of a new list to Maggie Dunderness of the Broadside Naval History Bookclub in Leigh-on-Sea. When Big Dump returned from sentry duty he looked pinched and peaky. He said, “what you think of Maggie then?” 

“Buff,” said Ansbro.

“No. As a woman. What did you think of her … as a woman?” He made a mauling, claw gesture.

“I was thinking about naval books,” said Ansbro, even though he hadn’t been.

“Wuss,” said Big Dump. “Me? I would have taken her to a lay-by and done her.”

Big Dump and his lay-bys and his stonk-on for Broadside Mags of all people. Even Mrs. Dump was a more attractive proposition, and she was a gas mask fetishist – she’d have to be, wouldn’t she? Each time he replayed the Lay-By Declaration Ansbro cracked up. If all went to plan he would never have to stomach this sort of idiocy again. The Codex was beside him, under the covers, safe and concealed. The Codex would now play a subtler role. He found himself laughing again, then heard something and stopped. Tentative footfalls approached in the corridor outside. He sat up and held his breath. He waited, sensing that the softened dark corners of the room had shrunk in closer to him. He mustn’t laugh. She would go. If it was her. Could be another resident, but he’d seen no one else. And she’d made him stay in the bar for so long and seemed crushed when he went off to bed. The steps trailed away. He started to laugh again. Tomorrow he would capture Ultima Thule.

Then the time was finally upon him. He was about to ring Ultima Thule’s bell, a big stubby black button that had in all likelihood once been the first ever, newfangled doorbell contraption in the once island city. Shoulders back, chest in, he focused on his breathing so he wouldn’t appear nervous or intimidated by Mr. Thule. He held the Codex in his left hand to keep his right one free for the introductory shake. The iron grill across the shop front was still in place, though there was a mess of slushy footsteps and zigzag bootprints around the doorstep. People had come in and out today. Buffs, probably. 

It was dark now. Ansbro could make out even less of the interior than he had this morning. The window was so dusty that he could only imagine the shelves of bulky, cloth-bound spines and showcases for lead soldiers and dress-uniformed dummies that he was sure lived inside. He would get these windows cleaned. It would be the first thing he would do as manager. This had occurred to him during his earlier reconnaissance mission to find the shop. That had been at midday, after his lie-in and after he’d paused on the mezzanine and then tiptoed out swiftly while Kay was in her office, but before Big Dump called with some gruff threat about what would happen if Ansbro was having a day off at Bastion’s expense. To get off this topic Ansbro explained that he’d done the concierge in a lay-by last night. “Good drills,” said Big Dump and recommended a Mongolian All-You-Can-Eat in Crouch End. There was only an afternoon to waste before the launch of Operation Thule.

He’d walked the Codex around a snow-struck, half-hidden city deserted of people. He mooched cathedral cloisters and a covered market where the stalls were all shut for the day. Then in a fresh snow flurry on a hump-backed bridge he watched a wizened woman with her mouth smeared with thick red slap push a tricycle up the slope towards him. He thought then of the girl he was supposed to meet tonight – her name was Selina and she’d been to Peru – and he suspected that she would like him more if he could fix a lawn mower engine. He sent her a text and cancelled. He ate lunch in a pub called The King’s Shilling and pondered the Sexy Wars and how Lovestone thought that some wars were sex: Napoleonic, Zulu, World War Two in the West. And some were like a bad date where you got nothing because you couldn’t fix a lawnmower: Bosnia, Latin American death squads, Nazis off the leash in Belarus and the Ukraine. There were readers who got hot about nuts and bolts: caterpillar tracks and weird bits of kit and special spoons. He would ask Thule all about this. Thule would have an opinion. Thule, he imagined, was tall and lean with a tight slot-like mouth and unruly eyebrows and long, silvery hair. In a local paper Ansbro compared the rents of one-bedroom flats and flicked through stories about the snow and the closure of the schools. Someone had won twenty-five quid for a photo of a red setter going mental on a sledge. The incident on the line yesterday had been a fatality. There were still no trains south. He walked the streets in the late afternoon. The Codex no longer felt heavy.  He’d become used to its weight. As the light began to fade and the sky became a blue screen he stood transfixed by an evening star, delta-shaped, an arrowhead, glinting and distorted. He sat in another pub and drank coffee and waited for seven o’clock and made plans. Now it was seven o’clock and he was outside Ultima Thule, pressing the doorbell, waiting for Mr. Thule to emerge. 

On the yomp back it started to snow again. Unable to see, he nearly lost his footing twice and the handle of the case started to chafe the calluses that had long ago formed around the joints in his fingers. An upwardly swiping ache in his right shoulder blade became a spearhead of pain that had dug in around the top of his spine by the time he stumbled into the Aachen. The lights were off. The reception was unmanned. He dropped the case. The calluses stung and crinkled. His last girlfriend had complained that his hands felt scratchy when he touched her. An occupational hazard, he’d explained, when you heft a load of old cack around all day. When the case banged on the carpet the light in the outer office flashed on. He picked up the case and, head down, strode towards the stairs, his shoes greasy with snow and seemingly pressing on nothing. Halfway across, the spotlights above him sprayed the darkness beneath him electric blue. He kept on walking and didn’t look at her. 

“Elliot,” Kay called out. “Oh Elliot … wait.”

Upstairs in The Salon he sat down on the bed, still in his coat and with The Product lodged between his ankles. He still couldn’t feel his feet and his hand stung. He should run it under the hot tap but didn’t have the energy. Snow pounded the porthole window again. He thought of the piano music, but this time saw himself smashing his elbows and chin on the stairs as he fell. He had rung the bell for an hour. He had thrown snowballs at the dim, upper storey windows. This was all a set-up. Big Dump knew Thule wasn’t here; or that Thule was a crank or dead or bound to muck about any minion of Leonard Lovestone. And all the time he’d thought there was something else over the escarpment, another promontory, something beyond or improved. Better.

He realized that he was going to have to go home. He would have to slouch into the office on Monday and explain this. Even if he didn’t end the day putting his stuff in a cardboard box he would have to keep this up, wander the streets and the shops and talk about books for Buffs and books for Grunts and Sexy Wars and nuts and bolts, and Big Dump would still lie about his conquests and his mobile phone would still have an 1812 Overture ringtone and his bowels would still be massive and Lovestone’s head would always be the shape of a sweet potato. 

He’d left the door open. Kay said something courteous. He didn’t answer. Her footfalls approached and she sat down on the bed beside him. Her feet appeared next to his. She wore cute flat-soled, leopard print pumps. 

“I’m sorry, Elliot,” she said.

“What on earth for?”

“What happened.”


“You don’t know yet?” She took his hand, the left, uncallused one that didn’t throb. “I asked my dad about Mr. Thule this afternoon, and he did know him.”


“I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but Mr. Thule was the man who died on the track yesterday.” 

His ankles clamped against the case. The snow outside the window seemed further away. Kay gripped his hand a little tighter.

“Apparently, he stopped trading ages ago and put all his money into stocks and that. Recently, you know, debts, nothing. Must have got on top of him. I am sorry.” 

He bowed his head. Pressing his knees together compressed the case and hurt his shins. He tried not to, but couldn’t help it and pictured Thule on the track. The barren white expanse on either side. The snow. The oncoming rectangle. The blue smudge. The rails hum. Gravel jitters. Thule in Massena’s uniform as depicted by La Roche. He wondered whether in his last instants Thule considered himself fooled, perverted by spiel and oratory. He must have ended as tatters, wisps. 

“I didn’t want this for you,” said Kay. 

“You couldn’t have known.”

“No, but I didn’t want this for our last.”

“Last what?”

“Guest. We’re going, you know. Going under. All this time we’ve been here, and now …”

“I’m sorry to hear that. It’s a grand hotel.”

“I saw your name in the reservations, Elliot Ansbro. Bookseller. And I just thought, pull out all the stops, Kay. Make sure he has a great time.”

He sensed that she’d turned her head towards his, but he was staring at the case, the black oblong of it. He could sell the thing inside. Pawn it. Flog it to some second-hand merchant in the city. Cut some cash. Stay a few more days. Keep the Aachen open. He turned to her. There was still something in her eye. 

She let go of his hand. They both sat there, hip to hip, and outside the snowflakes swirled, drifting down in the top panel of the porthole and then caught in an updraft in the lower half sped away out of view.