Friday, February 13, 2009


Free Fiction: "The Funeral Affair"

Two bits of free fiction in two consecutive weeks? What is this, anyway?

This is something of a strange one. Written largely as a warm-up exercise for my novel Voices of Thunder (soon to be republished in a revised edition as Book of Secrets, about which more soon) and trunked after a round of submissions a few years later, I dug it out recently and polished it the tiniest bit. It's more of vignette than a story, but I still like it, for all of that. There are links here between the Taylor clan of Book of Secrets and the Bonaventure-Carmody family of my other novels (both of whom feature heavily in End of the Century), as well as in-jokey references to other people's work that would be more at home in a Wold Newton story like "Penumbra" than in something of my own. But while it's probably "non-canonical" as far as the Bonaventure-Carmody universe is concerned (don't quote me on that), here it is, for your diversion and delectation.

(So, can you spot all the references and easter-eggs in here?)

The Funeral Affair
by Chris Roberson

My brother has always said that funerals, like weddings, are something of a mixed blessing. You see people you haven’t seen for years, whether you want to or not, and you run the risk of getting so caught up in reminiscing, or avoiding, or both, that you forget why you’re there in the first place. He says that people would be better off going to such functions in masks, and staying comfortably anonymous until everything is said, and everything is done. I don’t know. Maybe he just likes to dress up, and is desperate for excuses.

It didn’t matter much, because he was off in Uganda or some such place, while I stood in the rain, my face bare to the world, finishing the soggy remains of my last cigarette, watching the last straggling mourners file into St. Paul’s Chapel. All around, through the rain-slicked streets, New York went about its business, not much noticing me. That was fine with me. I didn’t feel much like noticing New York either. I was too busy looking for people I knew among the attendees, and failing miserably.

With my brother unable to attend, there was only me representing the Finch clan. The deceased, my father’s older brother, had never married, and with my own parents in the ground twenty years now, there was only my brother and me, and our uncle. Now there was just the two of us. Quietly, just days before his sixty-seventh birthday, Sterling Finch had died in his sleep, alone. Now, those few that remembered him had come to pay their respects.

Finishing my cigarette, I made my way inside.


As children, we had seen our Uncle Sterling just once or twice. Our grandfather, who had taken us in after our parents’ death, had never thought too highly of his son-in-law’s brother, and with dad safely out of the way, saw no reason to be civil. Sterling, for his part, seemed more than content to accede to Grandfather’s wishes, and so kept his visits to a bare minimum. He was a busy man, and family obligations tended to get in the way.

My only clear memory of my Uncle from childhood comes from a Christmas when my brother and I were just eight years old. Sterling was in town on business, he had said, and so dropped in to share a family holiday. He only stayed two days, even that over Grandfather’s protests, but in those two days showered the two of us with gifts, and dazzled us with fanciful tales of his supposed adventures. Each of us he presented with matching replica Lugers, which could be loaded with red paper strips of firing caps, that exploded with a bang and a puff of smoke when the hammer fell. Our Grandfather objected, not because they were guns, and guns are inappropriate toys for young boys, but because they were of German design, saying that the only fitting guns for American boys were Colts.

Later while Maria, our maid, got the two of us ready for bed, Uncle Sterling and Grandfather got into some kind of argument in the study. Upstairs we could not hear the exact words they spoke, but the walls buzzed with the sound of their loud voices, and when finally we heard the door slam we knew it was over. Sterling was gone, and we wouldn’t seem him again. Not for long years.


Once inside the church, I found a pew near the back and, shaking off the rainwater from my suit coat and pants, sat down. Running a damp hand through my damper mop of hair, I surveyed the crowd. I didn’t recognize any of them, and had to assume that they were business associates of my uncle. Not a one of them looked a day under sixty, and several looked quite a bit older than that.

At the front of the chapel sat a dark wood coffin, closed in accordance with my uncle’s wishes. There were towering wreaths of flowers around it, looking more like a hothouse garden than a church. As each of the mourners entered, they walked first to the front of the aisles, laid a lily, or a wreath, or a bouquet, beside the coffin, and then found their seats. When the last of them had been seated, making some two dozen in all, the priest took to the lectern, and began to speak.

He said all the expected things, all the pat clichés any priest says when presiding over the funeral of a man he never met. The deceased was much loved and respected by friends and family, made an impact on the lives of so many, will be greatly missed, et cetera, et cetera. He showed as much emotion as he would have reading the ingredients of a box of breakfast cereal, and seemed relieved when he was finally able to call on one of the mourners to speak.

The man who rose from the front pew to walk to lectern looked eighty if he was a day. He walked slowly, deliberately, though out of habit or necessity I couldn’t tell. Finally, glacially, he reached the lectern, and clearing his throat slightly ran a wrinkled hand through his thick white hair.

“Most of you know me,” he began, in a thick Russian accent, “having worked either with me, or against me, over the years. Like you, I had the good fortune to know Mr. Finch, through I regret that it was seldom as an ally. Mister Finch and I had, how shall I say it, differing ideologies, and as such often found ourselves adversaries. Nevertheless, though never close, I always respected him, and I would like to believe that in the end I had earned the right to call Mr. Finch a friend. As time passes, and institutions come and go, the minor differences between peoples seem to blur, until in the end there are only people. No more us and them, only you and me. I regret that I did not know Mr. Finch better, but am grateful to have known him at all.”

The elderly Russian took his seat again, and another took his place at the front. An old British gentlemen this time, saying much the same thing, though a bit more intelligibly. Next went an American, next a British woman. In the end, some half dozen associates of my uncle had spoken, all received with somber smiles and emphatic nods from the rest of the mourners.

Finally, the bored priest, forced once more to stand up, called the ceremony to an end, and directed us to attend a wake at a nearby bar, were we so inclined. Dutifully, we all rose, and made our way slowly to the doors.


Several years before, while in New York researching a story for Wide Open, I ran into my uncle. I had been coming out of a deli in the Village, when I ran headlong into an older gentleman carrying a silver-topped cane. To my complete surprise, it was Uncle Sterling. After a hasty reunion, he invited me to join him at his home in the Hamptons for a few days, and having nothing much better to do, I agreed.

As we rode out from the city to his place, Sterling brought me up to speed on his life. He had been living in New York State for some ten years now, having finally sold his place in London and left forever his native home. England had changed beyond his recognition, he explained, and at least in America he expected to be a stranger. Besides, he explained, the company he had worked so many years for had cut loose most of its agents, and he was out of a job.

Once at his home, far too large for just one old man, we shared a quiet dinner, and then fell to talking about my brother, and me, and even about Grandfather. Sterling seemed especially interested in my career, my years as a reporter, and even my brief time as a burglar in my misspent youth. He seemed to be asking leading questions, directing me towards subjects he wanted to hear, and I had done too many interviews not to know what he was up to.

“What’s the story here, Unc?” I asked him. “You know more than you let on.”

“You’re right, son,” he admitted. “You’ve found me out. I know all about what you’ve been up to these many years. I still have contacts amongst those men and women whose job it is to know things, and I’ve made the occasional discreet inquiry regarding yourself and your brother.”

“So you just didn’t happen to be in Greenwich, did you?”

“Again, no,” he said, smiling slightly. “My contacts had informed me that you were in the city on business, and I thought this the excellent opportunity to catch up in person. You’ll forgive me, won’t you? You can’t blame an old man for playing one last game, can you?”

I explained that it didn’t bother me at all, that I was surprised, even flattered, that he had gone to the trouble of spying on me.

“Old habit die hard, my boy, even when not put into practice. The world has changed, you see, and left old duffers like me behind. We must find our own little divertissements now, and make do as best we can. Men like me never retire, not voluntarily at least. But sometimes the business just goes that way.”

“What business were you in, anyway, Unc?” I asked. “I’d always though that it was some travel agency, or an import/export business, but that doesn’t seem a good enough job to leave you with digs like this.” I paused, and added, joking, “Unless you were really in the mob, that is.”

Sterling smiled, and settled back in his chair.

“Nothing so dramatic, I’m afraid,” he answered. “No, I was only a spy.”

I nearly choked on my wine, and when I had found my voice answered, “A spy?” Just why I need, I thought, another senile old codger in the family.

“Yes,” Sterling replied, “a spy. An espionage agent. An intelligencer. I trust you’re familiar with the occupation?”

“Sure, but...”

“Oh, my boy, it’s just a job as any other. It simply requires a certain set of skills, skills which I was fortunate enough to possess.”

I decided to humor him. It seemed harmless enough.

“How, exactly, does one become a... spy?”

“I began my career with the British Royal Navy, as you may know. I had stayed in England, when your father and our parents moved to America, and with no other livelihood presenting itself, went into the military. I won’t bore you with the details, but after making enough of an impression on my superiors, was seconded to MI8, a branch of the intelligence service devoted to matters of a rather... delicate nature.” He paused, smiling. “Once upon a time, I would have to have killed you, even mentioning the name of the agency. But those days are now passed. It doesn’t exist anymore.

“In any case, after a few years working in the service of my country, I was recruited by United Nations Command: Law Enforcement, and was called upon to respond to matters of a more global nature. I had taken on a code name when first conscripted by MI8, and continued to use it while working for the UN. We all used code names in those days: Solo, Steed, Drake. It made sense, really, as it wouldn’t do to give out your real name to every Tom, Dick and Harry bent on world domination. They might just look you up in the phone book and call upon your mother. No, code names were best, and that’s the way everyone did it.

“John Dee was the first spy, to be precise about it, and a magician to boot.” My uncle was seeming to loose the train of thought, and was barreling headlong down a tangent. “That particular combination was rarely a healthy one, and almost invariably led an operative to a bad end. The best agents tended to be more straightforward, thinking more with their fists than their frontal lobes, leaving introspection for after the bomb was diffused and the girl rescued. The world was a brighter place then, more clearly defined, and it never took long to tell the good guys from the bad. Everything is different now, with spookshows spying on their own, governments keeping their own citizens under constant scrutiny. The only enemies are under own roof now, and the watchword is conspiracy, not invasion.”

He went on in that fashion for some time, recounting story after story, the men he worked with, the men he’d fought against. Finally, long after midnight, he grew tired, and with after a brief embrace, returned to his bedroom. I wished him a goodnight, and went off to sleep myself. I knew from experience that it was tiring dealing with the unhinged, and this time was no different than any other.

The next morning, over breakfast, I thanked him for his hospitality, but begged off staying any longer. I had work to do in the city, and then had to get back to the west coast. A little tearfully, Sterling led me to the door, and made me promise to visit him soon. I did, and then didn’t. I never saw him again.


At the wake, practically all the mourners packed in a bar barely large enough to hold half of them, I worked my way through a gin and tonic, keeping apart from the others. The mourners stood or sat in little groups of two or three throughout the place, the groups drifting slowly around, bumping into each other and then reforming like clouds. I was able to get a better look at them, and they seemed a rather strange collection of retirees.

There was an elderly English gentleman in a bowler hat wielding an umbrella like a sword, a striking woman of middle years at his side. A grey haired American stood side by side with a thin, blond haired Russian in a turtleneck. Nearby stood a giant of a man, every tooth in his head capped in glittering metal. Near the bar there was an ancient man in a wheelchair, his valet standing beside him, the old man with a scraggly white cat sitting in his lap. In hushed tones they all spoke about my uncle, and about each other, and about the old days. I couldn’t hear clearly enough to get any specifics from the conversations, but each seemed to have known my uncle well, if only on a professional level, and had respected him.

Only once did one of them address me. I was on my third gin and tonic, and thinking quite intently about the bed back in my hotel, when a tall, grey-haired Englishman approached me and extended his hand.

“You must be Sterling’s nephew, right? Is it Patrick, or Spencer?”

I took his hand, and answered, “Spencer.”

“Of course, I should have known. Your uncle spoke often of the two of you. I feel I known you for years.”

“Did you work with my uncle?” I asked.

“Not... exactly,” the old Englishman answered. “He and I were both residents for a time in the Village, and often had occasion to talk about the relations we had left behind.”


“Yes. In our line of work it was quite easy to lose touch with the people who really mattered to you, but the best we could hope for was that they knew we still held them in our thoughts, and in our hearts.”

“Well,” I said, more than a little uncomfortable, “I know we’re going to miss him.”

“Of course,” he replied sympathetically. “We all will.” He glanced at his watch, and made a face.

“I’ve got to be going,” he added, extending his hand again. “It was a pleasure to meet you, Spencer.”

“Likewise,” I answered.

He smiled, a strange little half-smile, and gave a little salute.

“Be seeing you,” he said, and then turned to leave.

I finished my drink, had another cigarette, and then shrugged into my coat. With one last glance at the men and women moving slowly around the bar, relics of a time most have forgotten, or never believed to begin with, I turned up my collar, and walked outside.

(c) 2009 Monkeybrain, Inc.


This is also 2:30 in the morning, so may hamper recognition :)

Drake = John Drake, The Danger Man
Solo = Napoleon Solo, The Man From Uncle
Steed = John Steed, the male half of The Avengers

At funeral

Hard to tell with these people who they might be, or if they are some of those already mentioned above or below
Old British Gentleman = Bond?
American =
British Woman =

Russian Speaker = Russian general from Russia With Love perhaps?

Steed and Peel
Solo and Kuryakin
Ernst Stavro Blofeld
The Prisoner
I just saw on Free SF Reader that you've already reviewed this? Dude, you're a machine!
More a case of happening to look at the livejournal feed at the right time. :)

Trying to remember anything I could about The Man From UNCLE took longer than reading it - never watched that much.

I also on't have to write seven novels at once or update gigabyte sized wikis of occult lore about whether you use a sonic or seraphim screwdriver in what instance. ;-)
To be fair, the most novels I've ever written at once is three...
Allow me to say at this time: hahahahahahahahahaha! Whee!

Very nice indeed, Chris. A roman a clef story, the kind men like.
Two bits of free fiction in two consecutive weeks? What is this, anyway?

Trying to keep in the writing business is my guess. These days, you need every advantage you can get.

I am unfortunately not as well versed in the lore as the commenters up thread but I did recognize a few without prompting--Steel and Peel, Number 6 and the Village, Jaws.
Only 3? Ok, well, you were probably publishing/editing a couple and some stories to go along with that. :)
Well, sure, if you want to count that as work...
Well, stuff that keeps you occupied that isn't reading, anyway. :)
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