Lovely people, Gobbelino’s sixth book is almost here! There will be scheming mermaids. There will be Prim Reapers (yes, plural). There will be one-eyed, enraged pirate captains (I mean, this is Gobbelino we’re talking about. Of course he’s going to enrage the pirate captain). There will be a parrot, because pirates.
And there will, of course, be strange friendships and stranger happenings, cravings for custard, dubious alliances, and a building danger that means Leeds’ best magical PI team may have escaped Leeds, but it’s a very temporary escape indeed …
Now, if that’s as much as you need to know, I’ll jump straight in and tell you that ebooks are available to pre-order right now at all your favourite retailers (or will be soon – sometimes they take a little bit of time to load up). So head over and get your copy ordered, and it’ll appear on your ereader like the best sort of magic on the 19th of May. Hopefully without too much seaweed still attached.
Paperbacks will also be on the way, but not until on or around release day, as I have yet to find a way to set up pre-orders for them (the only time I tried they went live immediately and a few readers ended up with some very much unfinished covers on their books …).
And if you’re not at all sure quite how a cat and a pirate are going to work for you, read on for the first chapter in A Menace of Mermaids! (If you’re entirely new to the Gobbelino London world, then I recommend checking out A Scourge of Pleasantries, the first book – it’s not required to follow this book, but many things will become much, much clearer …)
I’m not saying the entire magical population of North Yorkshire want us dead. Just the majority of them. Which is why we fled Leeds and have found ourselves working for a one-eyed pirate captain in Whitby.
But when one of our few remaining friends is taken by the sea, we can’t just ignore it. We’ve got to get her back. Especially as her partner is a reaper with a scythe that can slice through reality, and the whole situation might be a teeny, tiny bit our fault …
So, along with our pirate captain, a bloodthirsty parrot, and a deeply dodgy mermaid, we’re going after Emma, and not even the storm of the century can stop us. The Black Dogs, the kraken cult, and the Sea Witch are certainly going to try, though.
Leeds is looking better by the moment …
A Menace of Mermaids
Ch. 1: It’s the Pirate’s Life for Us
The early afternoon light was thin and reluctant, trapped between a lowering bank of heavy dark clouds and the slow roll of the cold green sea that spread out from the shore to chase the horizon. Raw cliffs heaved themselves out of reaching waves like monsters intent on escape, and houses tumbled down scarred folds in the land to meet the enclosed curve of the harbour. Everywhere was the heavy scent of salt and cold wind and restless movement, underscored by the cries of gulls. The ship rolled with the swells, humming with the throb of the engine, and behind us the decks heaved to the stomping feet of a pirate horde.
A parrot screamed from the rigging, using language that would likely be described as authentic, and someone shrieked a reply, waving a cutlass above their head with inadvisable enthusiasm and sending a feathered hat flying into the sea.
“Rum! More rum, me hearties!” someone bellowed.
This was greeted with a cheer and a general exhortation that someone needed to walk the plank, although the who was a little vague. The North Sea in February wasn’t exactly encouraging anyone to volunteer, and our pirate captain – who, as it happened, was the one shouting for more rum – didn’t seem inclined to nominate anyone. Probably be a nightmare for health and safety, although I was unconvinced as to just how much attention was paid to such things around here.
I adjusted my position against the heavy wooden railings that surrounded the decks. After the first couple of sorties I’d kept my tail out of the way of the horde. It turned out that drunken pirates either got alarmingly grabby when confronted with a good-looking black cat (my scars just give me more character and add a touch of realism to the whole pirate boat scene), or careless as to where they put their boots, and neither scenario exactly filled me with joy. So I was currently tucked into a nook where the rigging ran down to meet the deck, the jumble of unused ropes and pulleys and mysterious bits and bobs attached to the planking and railing giving me a good vantage point of the piracy while I could remain mostly unseen.
“More rum, you scurvy dog!” the captain shouted again, leaning out of the wheelhouse. “Don’t make me keelhaul you like the last deckie!” She shook a wooden stick in my general direction before vanishing back inside.
Next to me, Callum adjusted the red bandanna on his head and said, “I’m never sure how serious she is about that.”
“Well, we never met the previous deckhand,” I said. “Take from that what you will.”
Callum sighed. “The pirate with the big hat pinched my bum when I took the last round of drinks out. She asked me if I was an obliging cabin boy.”
I squinted at the sea. “Tell Green Snake to pinch her back.”
The snake in question lifted his head out of Callum’s coat pocket and looked at me questioningly.
“You could do to make yourself useful,” I told him. “We’ve both got jobs.”
“Yes, you’re working so hard at keeping the ship rat-free,” Callum said.
“It’s a delicate process.”
He looked back at the captain, who gesticulated in a way that suggested she was saying more than scurvy dog. “This isn’t.”
“We must be almost done for the day. It’s looking really nasty out there.” I lifted my snout at the clouds that were building up in woolly layers across the sky, stealing the pale winter light.
“Says the experienced ship’s cat.”
“I don’t get seasick.”
“That was once.” Callum pushed off the wooden rail with a sigh. “I almost miss our flat.”
“Oddly, I’m not that homesick for a flat that tried to eat me.”
“Eh. Fair point.”
“Callum!” the captain hissed, then hurriedly added an arr to the end. She’d emerged from the wheelhouse that perched above the main deck where we stood, and she leaned over the poop deck rails to glare down at us with her one good eye and one false one. It was unnerving, that eye, particularly as she changed it regularly. Today’s was a warm brown that wouldn’t have looked out of place on a teddy bear, but looked very out of place on a human. “They’re going to raid the bloody bar in a minute – get serving! And bring me a top-up.”
“No,” she started, and Callum waved apologetically.
“I mean, aye, aye, Cap.” He flipped his eyepatch back down and scowled at me. “I don’t mean I actually want to go back to our flat. And the boat’s not so bad. But this I am not enjoying.”
“I would help, but no thumbs,” I said, raising one paw to demonstrate.
“Convenient.” He mustered a grin from somewhere then turned and edged into the crowd, trying to avoid the grabby pirate in the big hat, and vanished into the forward cabin. He emerged a moment later to a chorus of cheers, carting two big jugs of rum punch.
“More grog!” he shouted, and the captain popped out of the wheelhouse again to yell, “Arr!” while glaring at him furiously.
“Arr,” Callum agreed, with rather less enthusiasm, as the overexcited pirates swamped him and he concentrated on topping up the plastic glasses being waved in his general direction. We went through copious quantities of said grog on every trip, and I had a suspicion that the bit on the dock sign that read ALL YOU CAN DRINK RUM PUNCH INCLUDED!!! was the main reason we were still busy in the depths of a North Yorkshire winter.
I also had suspicions that rum punch was overstating things somewhat, as when Hilda, our one-eyed, white-haired, parrot-owning captain had shown Callum how to make it, it had mostly consisted of half a bottle of dubious spirits with a blurry, misprinted label that might have said something about rum, but also might have said rubbing alcohol; a carton of nearly out of date tropical juice that promised it was made from 100 percent fruit flavourings; and a can of fruit salad with a torn label and a dented side.
Not that our current pirate party were too worried. It was someone’s birthday, or wedding, or who knew what, and they’d evidently been celebrating fairly enthusiastically before they even got on board. And, to be fair, no one ever seemed to complain after the first couple of drinks. Callum had had to half-carry two very drunken sailors ashore last week, and they’d been so delighted they’d promised to give us five stars on TripAdvisor.
A sploosh pricked my ears, pulling my attention back to the muscular sea. We’d only been working on board for a few weeks, ever since the landlord at the boarding house had slapped Hilda’s business card in front of us and grunted, “Job.”
We’d rocked up to the dock expecting another day of cleaning things, which was how we’d been paying our rent since we’d arrived in Whitby. But Hilda had offered us an actual job, accommodation included, and we’d taken it. I mean, job was pushing things a little, as she had yet to actually pay us, but we got a share of tips (more rum punch equalled more tips, we’d discovered, so it paid to be generous), a steady supply of tea, leftover party food, and even the odd tin of tuna, plus a bed somewhere that didn’t have the boiled meat whiff of the boarding house. Although there was a persistent funk of pipe smoke and seaweed, which I wasn’t sure was better.
Anyhow, we hadn’t been here that long, but a few weeks was enough for me to know what were usual boat noises and what weren’t. That sploosh wasn’t usual. I peered over the high, dark-painted wooden sides, down to the water, and met the gaze of a man looking back at me. I blinked at him. He was in a small wooden dinghy that had seen better days, water washing around his ankles, and there was just one oar hanging out the back like a tail. The Savage Squid was not built for speed, but she was still faster than the man should have been able to row, no matter how many oars he had.
Well, man. Male-looking, but likely not human, which probably pointed to unusual rowing methods. He had sharp, bright edges that marked him as Folk, and he spoke directly to me in a way humans rarely do.
“Permission to come aboard?” he asked. His voice was all easy curves, like sun on a windless sea, and he gave the same impression. Hard muscle under the softness of good insulation.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because there’s weather coming in, and I’ve only got a little dinghy.” He indicated it. It seemed to have taken on more water just in the few moments since I’d seen him, and there was sand in the bottom. Also a starfish that was trying to climb his leg. He ignored it, standing straddling the midships seat and clinging to one of the ports as he looked up at me with big dark eyes.
“Should’ve gone out in something bigger, then, shouldn’t you?” I said.
He grinned, a flash of white teeth in the dim day rendered strange by the wash of multicoloured lights coming from the strings that hung over the deck. “If I had something bigger, I would’ve.”
We looked at each other for a moment, then I caught the scuff of worn trainers on the deck, and Callum leaned on the rail next to me, flipping up his eyepatch. “I swear Hilda drinks more of that punch than they do— Hello.”
“Hello,” the man in the dinghy said. “Permission to come aboard?”
“We can’t give permission,” I said, the hair along my spine starting to creep up. I wasn’t sure if it was those wide liquid eyes, or the shiny white teeth, or the fact that I just couldn’t smell him right. He was all muddled up with the diesel fumes of the engine, and the flat salt of the sea, and a fishy whiff that both made my mouth water and made me wish we were back in Leeds, miles from the bloody seaside.
“Of course you can,” he said. “Help a guy out, can’t you? That weather’s looking nasty, and all I’ve got is a little dinghy. I won’t make it into the harbour in time if I have to row.”
“Well,” Callum started, and I interrupted him.
“We’re just crew. The captain has to give permission.”
A shadow of irritation passed over the man’s face, and he glanced behind him at a sudden swirl in the water, accompanied by a deep, hungry splosh. When he looked back at us, the irritation had given way to something with raw, fearful edges. “Please?” he whispered. “I really won’t make it in.”
Callum extended his hand. “Throw me a line.”
The man didn’t. He just grasped Callum’s hand with his own, his grin widening, and there were far too many teeth in it. Sharp ones. And his eyes were too big and round and dark, the whites non-existent, and he was too big, bigger than Callum. He pulled, and Callum slipped, his own eyes widening in alarm. He tried to brace himself against the rail.
“Hang about, I can’t—”
The man reached up with his other hand, grabbing for Callum’s shoulder as if he’d topple him into the water, an offering to whatever was sploshing about down there. He was still grinning, and Callum tried to pull away, but the angle was bad and muscle rolled on the man’s shoulders, raw and powerful.
“Say permission to board,” the man said.
“What’re you doing?” Callum twisted, fighting the man’s grip, but he just pulled harder, and quite suddenly Callum’s toes were barely touching the deck. “Hey!”
Well, there went the pleasantries. I leaped for the rail, touched it as I went over and launched myself at our would-be boarder, baring my teeth in a poor imitation of his own. He gave a startled yelp and shielded his face with one hand, but still clung to Callum with the other. I latched onto his forearm with a growl, biting down hard and tasting the salt on his clammy skin.
“Gobs!” Callum hissed. “Gobs, stop that!”
“Me?” I demanded, spitting out my mouthful of weird sea-man, and at that moment the dinghy surged, as if buffeted by an unexpected swell. The man staggered, and only his grip on Callum stopped him falling. I dug my claws in harder, suddenly not wanting to be any closer to the opaque surface of the cold green sea.
“Please let me up,” the man said, and he looked suddenly no more toothy than anyone else. “Please!”
“Give me Gobs,” Callum said, nodding at me. The man lifted me up, and I scrambled back onto the boat, eyes on the water. There. Another swell, at odds to the first, but whatever caused it was too quick or too hidden. I couldn’t see what might be under the surface, but the hair on my tail took exception and puffed up in alarm.
“Now, please.” The man looked up at Callum pleadingly. “Please. They’re almost here.”
Callum didn’t bother to ask what. I guess he could see those weird movements below the dinghy as well, and he never could resist a good rescue. “Come on,” he said, bracing himself. “Permission to board.”
The man threw himself at the boat, stretching to reach the rail and using his grip on Callum to help lever himself higher. The dinghy bobbed heavily as his weight left it, bouncing once against the hull then spinning away as we kept powering back toward the harbour. The man got one arm over the railing, released Callum so he could use both hands, and muscled himself up until his waist was resting on the heavy wood of the rail. He paused there for a moment, breathing hard, and I had an idea it was less from effort than relief.
“Thank you,” he managed. “Really, thank you so much—”
“No!” Hilda grabbed Callum, hauled him backward, and swung a knobbly walking stick straight at the man’s face. He yelped, dropping down off the rail until he was clinging on by his fingertips.
“What’re you doing?” Callum demanded, trying to put himself between Hilda and our new arrival.
She poked Callum with her stick. “Me? What’re you doing? Did you invite him aboard?”
“Yes! He’s in trouble.”
“He is bloody trouble. They all are.” She poked Callum again, hard enough to force him back, then swung around and slammed her stick down on the man’s fingers. “Permission revoked!”
The man howled and let go with one hand, dangling precariously from the other as he swung away from the hull. He tried to swing back in, scrabbling for another grip, but before he could find one Hilda dealt the same unforgiving shot to his other hand.
“Oh, you savage old—” The rest was lost as the man hit the water, and Callum and I hung over the side, staring into our wake. The man didn’t surface.
Callum stared at Hilda. “What did you do?”
“You don’t invite them on board! You never invite them on board!” Hilda leaned her walking stick against the rail and dug a flask out of her faded waterproof coat, taking a generous swig. “Never! No mermaids on board!”
“What?” Callum and I asked together, because if that had been a mermaid then some old sailors had some serious explaining to do.
“Polly says no mermaids,” the parrot shrieked, swooping down to land on Hilda’s shoulder in a flurry of green and gold.
The crowd cheered, and someone shouted, “Does Polly want a cracker?”
“No, Polly want a bloody holiday and some decent single malt,” the parrot said, but kept his voice low.
“Don’t we all,” Hilda said, and stomped back off to the wheelhouse, lurching slightly. I wasn’t entirely sure if she had a peg leg or not, since she always wore long black trousers that were in even worse repair than Callum’s jeans, and old blue wellies with gaffer tape holding the soles on, but given the limp, I felt the odds were good.
The pirate party was shouting for more rum again, and demanding to know if Polly did any tricks, but Callum and I ignored them, leaning back over the side. There was that sploosh again, and the man – mermaid, whatever – surfaced, keeping pace with us as we pottered back toward harbour. His eyes were even wider than before, and he stuck as close to the hull as he could, moving with it like a dolphin.
“Please help,” he hissed.
“We really can’t,” Callum said. “We’ll get fired.”
“Gods forbid,” I muttered, although it wasn’t like we had any better options at the moment.
“They’re going to kill me,” the mermaid said, and there was a tremor on the edge of his voice.
Callum looked at me.
“No,” I said.
“They’re going to kill him.”
“Maybe he deserves it. We don’t know him. We don’t even know who they are.”
Splosh splash. Harder and sharper this time, and the mermaid cursed in a way that suggested sailors might have picked up a lot of their vocabulary from unexpected sources. Pressure waves ran though the water, suggesting big, fast shapes powering under the surface, bigger than the mermaid. He moaned in fright, scrabbling at the hull, and Callum said to me, “Keep an eye out for Hilda.”
“Sure,” I said. “Great. I’m sure she doesn’t know at all what she’s talking about when she told us that mermaids can’t come aboard. I’m sure it’s just a harmless prejudice. I—” I stopped, because Callum had run back down the deck and out of earshot, to where the rubber-tubed dinghy was tied at the stern. We didn’t technically need the dinghy, since we never put ashore anywhere but the town dock, but Hilda always kept it handy. It seemed that a fair proportion of evening cruises ended up with someone in the water by accident or design, and hefting them into the dinghy was easier than persuading drunk people to climb rope ladders. Which illustrated the health and safety standards aboard The Savage Squid pretty well.
I checked the wheelhouse, but Hilda was arguing with the parrot about something and wasn’t paying any attention to anyone else, and the partiers had discovered the last couple of jugs of rum punch and were helping themselves. I ran after Callum instead, in time to see the dinghy’s outboard start up with a cough of oily smoke. Before I could reach the stern he’d already unclipped the painter line and jammed the engine into gear, roaring up alongside the boat. The mermaid abandoned the shelter of the hull and shot across to him, vanishing under the surface then surfacing in a leap that landed him straight in the dinghy. I had the confused impression of a seal-like, grey body, then he was human shaped again, shouting, “Go, go, hurry!”
Twin swells shot toward the dinghy, like torpedoes racing for a target, and Callum opened the throttle up. The dinghy wasn’t big, and the engine wasn’t either, but the mermaid threw his bulk forward and the little vessel lifted as it sped up, until it was skipping across the water, tearing toward the pincer-like opening of the harbour. Hilda stuck her head out of the wheelhouse and bellowed, “You son of a sea biscuit!” at the dinghy as it vanished ahead of us.
I ran for the bow, trying to get a better view, and poked my head under the rail in time to see two giant fins surface, speeding after the dinghy. Someone was clinging to one of them, and I had that same confused sense of a human/not human shape, this one crowned with kelp-green hair. Dinghy-mermaid obviously spotted them too, because he started shouting and waving, and Callum glanced back. He tried a bit of evasive action, spinning the dinghy in one direction then the other, but all that did was slow the little boat down, and the fins followed effortlessly. Sleek dark backs emerged as the creatures surfaced in tandem, puffing air, then slipped back down, their fins slicing the water as slickly as claws through custard. Kelpy kept pace effortlessly, one moment as indistinct and water-bound as a seal, the next raising smooth bare arms over their head as they dived, hitching a ride on a fin then rolling free on the pressure wave of the creatures’ passage.
Water swirled as the trio closed on the dinghy, then suddenly the surface was empty. I couldn’t see where they were, which was even worse than watching two angry fish-monsters bearing down on Callum. The harbour loomed just ahead of the dinghy, tucked behind the protection of piers, and the lights of the beacons blipped green and red in the dull grey afternoon. Callum and the mermaid were both leaning forward in the little boat, and the engine screamed as they pelted toward shelter, and for a moment I thought they might make it.
Then the fins broke the surface again, bulleting toward them, far faster than the dinghy could hope to outrun.
“Aw, sink me,” I hissed.
I raced back to the wheelhouse, dodging a couple of shouts of “puss puss!” and some cheers, skidded through the open door and gave Hilda my best big eyes.
“I told him,” she said, not taking her gaze off the dinghy scudding ahead of us. “I said mermaids are bad news.”
“You can’t just let those bloody great fish eat him,” I insisted. “You can’t!”
She shot me a glare from her mismatched eyes that would’ve had all the hair on my back standing up if the mermaid hadn’t already seen to that. “I bloody can,” she said, and I was about to see if I could make her eyes match when she glanced at the parrot, sitting on a perch by the door. “But best not. There’ll be questions.”
“Arr,” the parrot said. “Polly doesn’t like questions.”
“No,” Hilda agreed, and snatched something off one of the shelves that ran around the top of the wheelhouse, above the windows. She gave it to Polly, who grabbed it in one claw and launched himself out over the boat.
“Polly want a sodding raise and some mangoes, though,” he shouted as he surged forward with heavy wingbeats, closing the distance to the dinghy rapidly. The fins were criss-crossing its wake, and as we watched one slipped underneath the little boat and rose up again, giving us a glimpse of a powerful piebald body as it lifted the dinghy clear of the sea. Callum and the mermaid were both shouting, the words indistinguishable from here, and the engine screamed as it lost its grip on the water. The little boat hesitated, looking for a moment as if it might flip, then slid off the creature’s smooth back, bouncing violently in the churned-up sea.
“How is the bloody parrot helping?” I demanded, but Hilda didn’t reply. I sprinted back along the deck to the bow, jumping to a vantage point in time to see the dinghy spinning helplessly in a circle, the water boiling as powerful tails worked beneath it. Kelpy was keeping their distance, just visible as a sleek green-brown head and a pair of hands applauding cheerily.
Callum was about to become fish food. And there was absolutely nothing I could do about it.
Lovely people, I hope you enjoyed that sneak peek at the difficulties awaiting Leeds’ scruffiest – wait, sorry, best, I meant best – PI team in the latest book. There’ll be a new chapter up next week, but if you’ve already decided you need bloodyminded parrots in your life, head to your favourite retailer and get your pre-order in now!
And while we wait – have you ever been on a pirate cruise (or any sort of day or longer cruise)? Were there mermaids? A one-eyed captain? What was your highlight? Let me know in the comments!
As for mine – as many of you already know, I grew up on boats, so there was plenty of time for mermaid hunting. But my only pirate cruise would be the time some friends and I entered a Friday night yacht race in full pirate costume – on the slowest, smallest boat, so mostly what we did was wave cardboard cutlasses at people passing us, and drink rum …