An extract from the new Felix the Fox book In Numina by Assaph Mehr
A rich landlord finds tenants are abandoning his apartment buildings, spouting tales of horrific events and whispering that the old gods – the numina – came alive and cursed the buildings.
Enter Felix, a professional fox. Dressed in a toga and armed with a dagger, Felix is neither a traditional detective nor a traditional magician – but something in between. Whenever there is a foul business of bad magic, Felix is hired to sniff out the truth. Now he must separate fact from superstition – a hard task in a world where the old gods still roam the earth.
This extract comes at a low point in the case, Felix has broken a leg and is mostly confined to home. He has managed to deactivate some curses (in the form of tabella definiones – curse tablets – but is yet to go after the person who commissioned them. In comes Araxus, his magically talented but mentally unbalanced acquaintance. This is how Felix deals with things, when he gets stuck.
As if to reinforce that point in a grim reminder of my past, the next morning I found Araxus knocking on my door. Bedraggled, stooped, unwashed, unshaven. But his green right eye was looking at me openly, and the mad black one seemingly under his control.
“Do you have a pig?” he asked before I could say anything.
“Never mind, you will. It’s about the tabellae defixones that we disposed of the other day. Do you still have them?”
“Yes,” I replied. “Why?”
“I wanted to check something.”
My hackles rose. “Do you think they are not inert? I thought we disposed of their magia safely.”
“We did, we did. They are nothing but plumber supplies now. Could I see them, please?”
“Did you think of something new?” I asked, and motioned for him to follow me to my study. I dug out the curse tablets and handed them to Araxus.
He took one from my hand and unfolded it carefully. I looked at him examine the engraved signs. As he read, his green right eye clouded, darkened, became as black as his mad left eye. Clouds drifted past my window, and the room acquired a dark chill.
“Well?” I asked. “What is it?”
He raised his head and looked at me, both eyes black and focused on me, his gaze boring into my soul, my spine shivering and broken ankle suddenly aching more. “It’s as I feared,” he said, voice rasping. “There is more baaa to this than a baaa curse. It’s not a mere supplication to the major baaa gods, it’s almost a love sonnet baaa to invite them to procreate. Do you realise what this baaa means?”
“It means you are insane.”
“No! It means that the black sheep has three bags of wool! Baaa!” And with this he broke into a mad little jig, reciting a silly children’s ditty about lambs. After a while I gave up trying to restore his reason, and — somewhat fearful that in his mad state he might reactivate the curse tablets — escorted him out of my house.
I decided I needed some time away from everyone, and that I would not be getting it at home.
My mobility impaired, I could not take on another case. I was in no condition to walk far, but I limped down to the docks between the grain and fish markets, found a good corner, chalked ‘FORTUNES TOLD CURSES IDENTIFIED’ on the wall, sat down on a folding stool, put on airs, and busied myself with a scroll of Assyrican star-gazing that looked impressive with all its strange and foreign symbols.
People being what they are, especially sailors and dock workers, I scraped enough small coins that day to cover a night of drinking. Calculating people’s horoscopes is tedious, but at least cleaner than haruspicy. One sailor wanted me to write a curse against his fellow, whom he swore stole his lucky fascinum when they were asleep. I scribbled a supplication to Hygieia — about as magical as a bucket of piss — to withdraw her protection from the thief’s health. I also sold him a mild laxative in the guise of ‘special medicine’, and told him to slip it in the evening meal whilst at sea to make the guilty party revealed to all. On the off-chance he was wrong about the culprit, the laxative was to go into the main pot, with the supplication into the fire. I taught him a meaningless doggerel to repeat, so I could claim it was his fault for botching it. Thoughts of future winds generated below decks by an overly flatulent crew cheered me up.
A Bite of... Assaph Mehr
Q1: If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?
I’d love to be close to classical Europe again. Hope on a train or a short flight, and visit museum, historical sites and what not. It’s probably the one thing I miss most about moving to Australia – it’s just so far away from everything!
That said, I think I’d also love not just where, but WHEN. When I visit ancient sites, heck even when I walk in the “old” streets of Sydney (with building under 150 years old – practically new), I only half pay attention to traffic. The other half of my mind is always seeing things as they once were. I’d love to visit some of those historical places when they were in their prime, see how they really were and how close my imagination filled in the details.
Q2: Which aspects of you are in Felix and why do you feel it is those ones that came through?
There is a lot of me in Felix. Not surprising, really. He’s more gregarious in social situation, though I’d say he’s probably still just a high-functioning introvert. He likes to solve things by himself, by thinking them through (like me), even though he’s very effective in face to face human interactions (unlike me).
He’s a bit of a jack of all trades, master of none. When I used to role-play, most of my characters were that way. Specialisation, as Heinlein once said, is for insects. Just like in my day job and in my author life I tend to pick up broad knowledge and enough skills to get the job done, so does Felix. He never completed his arcane studies, he didn’t stick long in the legions, he learned the art of investigation but went on his own quickly enough. It’s that unique blend of skills – plus his (unlike mine 😉 looser morals – that make him such an effective paranormal trouble solver.
Q3: Who, outside of family and friends, would you most want to read and enjoy your books?
There are authors I admire, some of whose characters influenced Felix. Steven Saylor, author of the Roma Sub Rosa series starring Gordianus the finder, for example. Mr Saylor was very gracious when I sent him an early copy of my novel, and had some encouraging words. Lindsey Davis, author of the Marcus Didius Falco mysteries, on the other hand refuses to read anything by fans of her works.
Ruth Downie, author of the Medicus Roman Mysteries starring Gaius Petreius Russo, was also very supportive. When Felix needed a medic in my upcoming novel, I borrowed Russo – with Ms Downie’s permission!
And there are others, so many others, who’s work influenced me and my writing. Harry Turtledove (the master of alternate histories), Boris Akunin (with his amazing detective Erast Fandorin), Barry Hughart (whose Number Ten Ox is still my favourite historical-fantasy-detective), and many, many others. I’d like to think it’s only a matter of time till I could hold a discussion with them, with turning into an awestruck, blubbering fool.
Assaph now lives in Sydney, Australia with his wife, kids, cats, and – this being Australia – assorted spiders. By day he is a software product manager, bridging the gap between developers and users, and by night he’s writing – he seems to do his best writing after midnight.
You can catch up with Assaph on his website, Goodreads or on Twitter and Facebook