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DIZZY CITY: AN EXCERPT

PART ONE

Mr. Benedict Cramb
November 1915

I’m not one of those, thought Ben, looking back along the lines of sameness all dressed as he was, in drab green, dull as you like, a country visit on a day of rain. That’s what they were now, the color of moss and mud, thousands and thousands of soldiers walking in one another’s footsteps. I am different from that lot, thought Ben. If I was back in London, I’d be in a wool suit, the one with the chalky lines down it. I’d have my white shirt on, my shoes gleaming, my hair would be just cut, tapered to the neck and run through with Macassar oil. My mustache would be waxed and the ladies on the Strand, balanced in their heels, would be tapping their pretty little parasols at their sides, pretending not to look at me.

Then I’d be meeting the gentleman I’ve come for, beside his club with its slit-eyed porters. I’d be talking, as ever, and the man I’d be talking up would be nodding in agreement. We’d have met before, but now he’d trust me and he’d be reaching inside his jacket and out would come his wallet. It’d be pigskin, monogrammed and worn down by the passage of pounds, and he’d part that meshy cleft and would dip in and pluck out a dozen notes for me. He’d have that confidence in me and then he’d never see me again. I’d be on the tram to Harrods, going with his money to buy myself a silk tie. I’d not be telling the boys about this little job on the side. This one I’d spend on myself.

The sergeant blew his whistle and Ben breathed in the wet air and stared up from his daydreams at the blank French horizon. What the hell am I doing here? A thousand pairs of boots in the damp mud, the soft pop of their lifting, the slap of their descent was all that Ben could hear. This is tem­porary, Ben swore to himself. War is a passing thing, but other men’s money will be needed every day of my life.