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Smoking Poppy

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Smoking Poppy

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Author: Graham Joyce
Publisher: Washington Square Press, 2003
Gollancz, 2001

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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
Sub-Genre Tags: Contemporary Fantasy
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Graham Joyce travels to an enthralling, suspense-charged landscape in this hallucinatory novel of a father's quest to save his daughter -- without destroying himself.

Dan Innes has received shattering news from the British Embassy in Bangkok: his daughter, Charlie, whom he hasn't seen or spoken to in two years, has been imprisoned in a Thai jail for drug smuggling. Angry, terrified, seething with reprimands and questions, Dan leaves for Thailand. But the jail at Chiang Mai marks the beginning of his search rather than the end. Following the faintest of trails up into the lawless, dangerous mountain region near Myanmar, where opium grows abundantly, Dan must retrace Charlie's steps -- and brave the same traps that have swallowed her...on a terrifying mission of self-discovery, blind faith, and salvation.


Chapter One

Oh that Charlie of mine, how I wanted her back.

When a baby is born the fontanel at the top of the head yawns open. You fill the hole with shimmering, molten, free-running love, where it sets and hardens over the hole with something like bone. But for the first few weeks of a baby's life, you are intoxicated by the extraordinary scent of its head. The chemical fix. A gift from the gardens of paradise. You want it all the time, and you only get it when you cradle that baby in your arms.

After the first year this perfume thins out, but it never deserts the child entirely. So you keep hugging. Every time you pick up that infant you look for an opportunity to get her hair under your nostrils so you might get a hint, a hit, once more, of the perfume of heaven. It's still there when she's six years old. And even at eleven. And though between the ages of twelve and fifteen she pushes away your fatherly embrace, she still comes to you when she's tired or hurt or unhappy. Then at seventeen it seems she's more likely to come back to you, relaxed in your company again, not afraid to take a hug. And you're still getting it. That scent. That charge. The love amalgam, fixed and hardening there from Day One. It's still there.

And it's there on the October afternoon, with the golden leaves spinning all around you, when you hug her and kiss her and wave her away to her life.

Yes, how I wanted her back. My Charlie. Just for two minutes. Just so I could hold her and sniff her hair to check that she was all right. But I couldn't. I couldn't because she was rotting in a prison cell in some Far Eastern jail. And it made me want to howl like a dog.

I was struggling to assemble a flat-packed chest of drawers when Sheila called to tell me that Charlie had turned up in some place called Chiang Mai. The box contained 133 individual parts, not counting the screws and the small tube of wood glue, and the suppliers had enclosed a Chinese diagram. There were no instructions on the diagram, just pictures, and arrows that made me think of the bowmen of Agincourt. I couldn't make sense of any of it.

"Are you there?" Sheila said.

"Of course I'm here." I was there all right. I was holding the diagram, the wood glue, sections P and Q, and I had the telephone squeezed under my neck. I was there.

"Only you haven't said anything."

"No, I haven't said anything."

Then Sheila dropped silent on me and I felt so angry and confused and upset I clattered sections P and Q back in the box and threw the tube of wood glue against the wall.

"What's that?" Sheila wanted to know.

"I dropped the phone."

"Are you coming over?"

I didn't want to. Go over, I mean. I'd spent the last three months avoiding going over. "Yes." I thought I detected a sniffle at the other end of the line. "Look at it this way," I said. "At least Charlie's not dead."

I did go over and it was terrible. Just terrible. After we'd talked about Charlie and what might be done we had nothing to say to each other, and Sheila spent the whole time sighing heavily.

I looked at my watch. I had to be at The Clipper by eight o'clock. They do a decent pub quiz there. Besides I'm part of a team.

"You don't have to go," Sheila said, getting up.

"I don't want to be here when whasisname comes round." I know the swine's name but I always make out I don't, even though I don't care whether he's there or not.

"He doesn't come here, Danny. I've told you before I've never allowed him here."

"All right," I said, "but I've got to go. I'll give this bloke from the Foreign Office a ring tomorrow morning first thing, and I'll tell you what we can work out." I brushed my lips against Sheila's rosy cheeks and she sighed again.

Chiang Mai? I was very glad when I got to The Clipper.

Halfway through the quiz they stop for a breather. Thirty general-knowledge questions posed at two-minute intervals. Hardly exhausting for the players, is it? The break is annoying because we then have to spend twenty minutes making conversation. I have to point out that the other members of my team, even though we've been playing together for some years, are not exactly choice company. You need a team of three or four, and we got shuffled together when the thing first got launched.

Quite often we win; though we do have our rivals. Among others there's an angry-looking mob of militant college teachers who huddle by the fireside; a team of pleasant lesbians; and a beery group of engineers. All of these come close, and twice a week, Wednesday and Saturday, the quiz provides a diversion. Though, as I say, there are these twenty-minute pauses when we have to make conversation, and Mick Williams always kicks off by asking me what sort of a day I've had.

"What sort of a day have you had then, Dan?"

"Not bad," I always say, and then I try to eavesdrop on the Pleasant Lesbians or on the Fireside Tendency; not to cheat, but to avoid getting drawn in to idle chat. In any event I'm not likely to tell him that today the Foreign Office phoned my now ex-wife at our family home to say that our daughter had been arrested in Chiang Mai for smuggling drugs and was likely to face a death sentence. I wasn't going to drop that little bombshell in the middle of the pub quiz. Apart from which, Mick Williams didn't even know I had a daughter, or a son come to that, since I'd never mentioned either.

At this point in the successfully derailed conversation, Mick Williams normally grunts, takes a sip of his Old Muckster's Jubilee Ale, and moves on to Izzy, to whom he puts the same question. Slightly more talkative than I am, Izzy can be relied upon to keep the pot boiling until the quiz is ready to resume. But Mick was in an unusual mood that evening, and instead of passing on to Izzy he sucked the buttery beer froth from his upper lip and stared me down. "Not bad? Know what Dan, you've been not bad for three years now. Time you were somethin' else."

Izzy snorted and downed her gin and tonic. I laughed off the remark, but Mick wasn't smiling.

"No," he said. "For three years I've asked you what sort of a day you've had, and for three years you've given me the same answer. I tell you about my day. Izzy tells us about her day. But you -- you never part with anything."

His bull-like neck was thrust forward at me across the table's empty glasses. His face was pink, and blue veins twitched on his brow. The half grin on my lips curdled. "You're a skinflint," he said. "A tightwad. A miser with information."

I looked to Izzy for support, but she was on his side. "Splendid," she said in that cut-glass accent of hers. "Pull it out of him, that's it."

I was irritated by Izzy's last remark. A bespectacled elderly spinster with a gigantic bosom and hair fixed in a bun, Izzy was a lecturer at the University across the road from The Clipper. Nylon anorak, tweed skirt, pilled woolen stockings. How she managed to keep her career together was a mystery to Mick and me. Always half-boozed when she appeared for the quiz on a Tuesday night, after several large measures of gin and tonic, she was customarily plastered by the time she left the place. I could have said something nasty about her alcoholism, but I just smiled weakly. "Drinks anyone?"

"No," Mick said, snatching the glasses out of my hands. "It's Izzy's round, and besides you don't cop out of it that easily." Izzy took the hint, and after she'd gone to the bar, Mick stuck his nose right up against mine and said, "Two lines."

"What?" He was pressed in so close I could feel an airstream on my face, warm from his flaring nostrils.

His pudgy forefinger pointed to a spot between his eyebrows, right above the bridge of his nose. "Two thick lines. Right here. You. Worried to death. Now let me ask you again: What sort of a day have you had?"

It was a disconcerting moment. Mick's face, crowned by whispery blond curls that should rightly grace a cherub and not someone resembling a bareknuckle boxer, was so close I could hardly focus. His lovely blue-Curaçao eyes fixed on me without blinking. I could have blurted it out there and then, the whole thing, Charlie and Chiang Mai and the Foreign Office. But I wasn't even sure I liked Mick Williams, let alone wanted to disclose the most intimate details of my life. Come to think of it, I knew as little about him as he did about me, even though he was as proficient at talking as I was the contrary.

A market trader, peddling squashy, overripe fruit and vegetables on Leicester market, he was a big man, a bruiser; but his blond eyelashes, pimento face, and piggy eyes belied an intelligent and lively mind. He was also my snooker partner on Thursday nights at the pool hall, but quite apart from that he was too blustering and noisy to be the sort of person I would want to count as a friend.

He stared at me, waiting for an answer. I thrust my hands deep into my pockets and found there a ball of screwed up paper. "Right," I said, smoothing out the complex furniture diagram on the table. "I've spent the whole day trying to work this one out, and if you can do it you're a better man than I am."

Mick snatched up the diagram and studied it suspiciously. His nose twitched a couple of times as he turned the thing on its side, as if that would help. Izzy returned with the drinks. "What the devil's that?" she wanted to know, setting the drinks down on the table.

"It's an IQ test," Mick said.

"Instructions for sticking bits of wood together," I told her.

"Ghastly things. Too complicated," she said. This was a woman who taught Latin and classical Greek to children with iron rings through their noses and lips.

"Made in Thailand," Mick observed, reading the small print at the foot of the diagram.

"That's funny," I said.

"Why is that funny?" But I didn't have to tell them why it was funny because the quiz got underway again and there were other things to think about. Mick's nostrils twitched. Though I pretended to study the answer sheet I could see him watching me. "I'm not falling for that," he snorted, before question number one got fired across The Clipper's bows.

I kept...

Copyright © 2001 by Graham Joyce


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