NPR logo Excerpt: 'Johannes Cabal The Detective'

Excerpt: 'Johannes Cabal The Detective'

Johannes Cabal The Detective
Johannes Cabal The Detective
By Jonathan L. Howard
Hardcover, 304 pages
List price: $25.95

The condemned cell stank of cats.

There were no rats and no cockroaches, for which Johannes Cabal – a necromancer of some little infamy – was grateful. But the cost of vermin control was an army of cats who crept in and out of his cell and wandered throughout the dungeons of the Harslaus Castle with complete immunity. Even the cell doors had cat flaps cut into them. It was no secret that the warders had a much higher opinion of the animals than they did of their wards. When Cabal had been given his introductory tour – this had taken the form of being thrown down the stairs and shouted at – he had been left in no doubt that any harm that he might cause the cats would be returned to him plus generous interest.

So now he sat and waited for the authorities to find a window in their very busy schedules to execute him, and he did it covered in cat hair in a cell that countless generations of toms had proudly and extravagantly claimed as their own. Things could probably be worse but, despite some careful thought, Cabal couldn't put his finger on how.

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Strictly, necromancy was the telling of the future by summoning up the spirits of the dead and asking them searching questions. This, believed Cabal, was a singularly poor way of finding out anything. The dead were moderately strong on history, weak on current events and entirely useless for discerning what was to come. They were, after all, dead. Still, that was the dictionary definition of necromancy.

Over the years, however, it became apparent that necromancy, necromancer and necromantic were fine words wasted on useless definitions and the lexicological group consciousness gently slid them over a few notches so that they now pertained to something interesting, i.e. magic involving the dead. This was far more satisfying: summoning up the ghost of Aunt Matilda for an insight into next week's lottery numbers was dull; a maniac with a pointy beard unleashing an army of skeletal warriors, however, was fun. Thus, we see the evolution of a language and a gratifying sight it is to be sure.

Johannes Cabal had no time for the Aunt Matildas of this world or the next. He fitted neatly into the newer definition of necromancer – he dealt with raising the dead (although skeletal warriors he left to those of a more theatrical bent). First and foremost, he considered himself a scientist embarked upon a search for a cure for a terrible disease. Death. This would seem laudable if it was not for his methods, his manner, and his failed experiments, the latter tending to hang around the countryside, dismaying the yokels. Even this might have been forgivable – pharmaceutical companies have done worse – if it were not for the bad reputation that the more melodramatic necromancers have given the profession. Skeletal warriors are all very well when they're chasing Jason and the Argonauts around on the silver screen but when they're battering down your door… Well, it's a different matter altogether. So, the necromancers were all besmirched with the same gory brush and Cabal, who just wanted to be left alone to his research, found himself in a profession proscribed in the most capital terms. It was very galling. Especially when you got caught.

Cabal had been caught trying to take out a book from the library of the Krenz University. The book was in the Special Collection and Cabal had intended the loan to be of an extended, open-ended sort of period. Anticipating resistance from the library authorities, he had made the loan at half past one in the morning of a national holiday and might have got away with it too if it hadn't been for an enormous mastiff that patrolled the corridors and of which his contacts had unaccountably failed to warn him. When the library had been reopened, they'd found Cabal pinned down by 180lbs of over-friendly dog in the reading room, half drowned in slobber. Just out of reach was a well-travelled Gladstone bag that was found to contain an enormous handgun, a collection of surgical instruments, a closely written notebook, a padded case holding several sealed test tubes full of murky fluids, and the library's own demy quarto copy of Principia Necromantica.

Nobody wanted a long drawn out trial. In fact, nobody who mattered wanted a trial at all so Johannes Cabal didn't get one. He was just told he was going to be executed and taken to Harslaus Castle. That had all been almost a month ago and Cabal was getting bored. He knew full well that his execution was unlikely to be any more formal than his sentencing and at any time, probably in the wee small hours, the door would thud open, he'd be manhandled off to some dark cellar, his throat would be cut and his twitching cadaver thrown down an oubliette. But there was nothing he could do about it, so why worry? Still, it hadn't happened yet; they were still feeding him with nearly edible food and the more intelligent cats had long since learned to stay out of his cell. So why were they waiting? He had a vague and uncomfortable feeling that somebody somewhere had plans for him.

Then it happened just as he'd expected after all, in the wee small hours of the morning. He was awoken by the sound of the cell door being thrown open and, before he could recover his wits, a sack was pulled over his head and he was bundled off down the labyrinthine corridors. He didn't try to fight; there were at least four of them and all seemed to eat a lot of red meat. He could only stay calm, wait for any small opportunity to escape should one arise and hope that, if all failed, and he was to die, that the entry procedures for Hell had at least been rationalised since his last visit…

Excerpted fromJohannes Cabal The Detective by Jonathan L. Howard. Copyright 2010 by Jonathan L. Howard. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday.