Dover Beach

In an America sad and broken by a “limited” nuclear war, no one has much use for a DOVER-BEACH-COVER1Lwould-be private eye like Walter Sands.  No one, that is, except for Charles Winfield, an eccentric doctor who believes he was cloned from a prominent biochemist as part of a top-secret project undertaken before the war.  Sands sets out to find Winfield’s mysterious progenitor, but finds himself on the trails of a killer instead.

Now, in far-away, fabled England, Sands must uncover the facts about the case that has brought him to his promised land, and at the same time confront the unsettling truth about his world, his life, and his loyalties.

A story of love and betrayal, life and death, the future and the past.  A story that will make you laugh, make you cry — and make you think.

The critics say:

“A wry, ingratiating story” — Publisher’s Weekly

“Dover Beach is a hard science fiction, medium-boiled detective story that succeeds in both fields . . . The mystery kept me guessing right up to the end; the science fiction, with its detailed portrayal of the remnants of the U.S., is equally good.  The plot works well, and somehow all the pieces fit together.  I highly recommend Dover Beach.  — Aboriginal Science Fiction

Humanist science fiction of a high order . . . The hero is bookish, the title obviously literary.  Fortunately, the warmth, humor and unquenchable humanity of Sands and friends keep Dover Beach from becoming pretentious or heavily symbolic.  So read this book, then tell your friends. Richard Bowker has earned his place in the limelight.  — Locus

We’ve had future private eye novels before, but there’s something special about this one. Ruined Boston is very well drawn, with some great touches: the scavenger book dealer that sells pre-war porn and collects first-edition nuclear holocaust novels such as The Postman; the gun-toting airline ticket-seller at the airport who isn’t sure what day the one weekly flight to England leaves, but does enquire, “smoking or non-smoking?” The peculiar combination of postnuclear anarchy, detective-story conventions, and innocent but intelligent hero comes together in something of a minor tour de force. — Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine

Readers say:

“What a treasure. Amazing how smoothly this author leads the reader into his jagged, apocalyptic world to reveal what evil lurks in the hearts of men, and leaves you to decide if such a world is worth saving or even living in. I was particularly impressed with his skill at giving you his characters bit by bit throughout to let them become gems of many facets, like a skilled diamond cutter. This is one P.I. whom you will never forget.”

“Richard Bowker presents an awesome look at the role of a P.I. in a post-apocalyptic world. My first reaction was what on Earth would the remains of society need a Private Investigator for—it’s unlikely a P.I. would be hired to checkout phony insurance claims when there ain’t no more insurance companies. Richard builds a compelling plot with polished nuances sparkling for the reader. The plight of the survivors in Boston is rather frightful. The contrast between the shattered United States and merry old England is striking. He provides a nicely developed depth to his cast of players, and with all things considered, their surroundings are believable. I liked how he addresses real world money issues and there isn’t a P.I. with a pocket full of cash—but a meal at a London McDonalds is affordable. Richard did a marvelous job of resolving all the dangling loose ends—including a few dangling parts the reader doesn’t suspect are dangling—so to speak.”

“Walter is a quirky private eye like none you’ve ever experienced! The poor fellow stumbles into one disaster after another, making you laugh, cringe, and pity the lovable, determined character. By the way, Walter is a survivor of the downfall of America so he’s familiar with overcoming challenges. As the story unfolds, tidbits are revealed toward understanding what happened. To assist Walter is an eclectic and interesting collection of friends who assist him along the way. They will become like friends to you also. This book has twists and turns, great wit and humor, and very colorful characters. I loved book so much that I ordered the next novel in the series (A Distance Beacon) right away. Great job!”

Finalist for the Philip K. Dick Award for best paperback original of the year.

Dover Beach is available from all fine ebook vendors, including:

Barnes & Noble
Kobo
Google Play
Scribd
iTunes
Amazon

Here is the first chapter of Dover Beach:

*************

It was one of those gray December days that freeze the soul as well as the body. The stack of unread books grew smaller; the fire in the wood stove was dying; I was thinking (not for the first time) that I was in the wrong line of work. Then I looked out my window and noticed the stranger standing in the slush below.

I quickly looked away. Didn’t want to scare him off. I imagined him staring at the sign in the window and wondering whether to come up; it wasn’t a very good sign, after all. I put the book down and waited. I heard the downstairs door creak open, then slam shut. I heard slow footsteps on the stairs; it was dark out there. The footsteps stopped outside my frosted-glass door. There was a pause, then a loud rapping.

I took out my .38 caliber Smith and Wesson automatic and aimed it at the door. You can’t be too careful nowadays. “It’s open,” I called out pleasantly.

The stranger stepped inside. He stared at the gun. I stared at him.

Tough to make out very much in the semidarkness, except that he was well dressed—absurdly well dressed. “Mr. Sands?” he inquired nervously. The accent was Southern; he managed to make two syllables out of my name.

“That’s right.”

“The private investigator?”

“That’s right.”

“I may have a case for you.”

I motioned to a seat across the desk from me, and I put the gun away. The man sat down. I lit the oil lamp on my desk, and we took a good look at each other.

Straight black hair, eyes the color of my stove. Sloping jaw, good skin—tanned. He was about my age, but I had a feeling the similarity ended there. The hands he was rubbing together were well manicured; the overcoat he wore looked new.

“Now, what can I do for you, Mister…”

“Winfield. Doctor Charles Winfield.”

“Ah.”

Having taken stock of me, his dark eyes darted away and took in my well-appointed office. They glanced meaningfully for a moment at the wood stove, but I didn’t feel like taking the hint. He kept rubbing his hands. “I saw your ad in the Globe,” he said finally.

“Ah.”

“Why don’t you have a telephone? This would have been much easier over the phone.”

“Phones don’t work very well around here,” I said.

“Oh.” He was silent again. He looked as though he wanted to pace, but there wasn’t room. “It’s an absurd profession—private investigator,” he said after a moment. “I can’t imagine there’s any demand for your services.”

“You’re here,” I pointed out.

“I don’t really know why,” he said.

“That makes two of us.”

He glanced at me, then quickly looked away. “Someone tried to kill me yesterday,” he said.

“Ah.”

“But that’s only part of it—that’s not really even why…”

“If you’re willing to start from the beginning,” I said, “I’m willing to listen.”

He nodded. “I’m twenty-two, Mr. Sands.”

My turn to nod. My age. The magic age.

“I was raised in Florida. I never knew my father, and my mother never said much about him. I naturally assumed—” He waved his hand.

“Naturally.”

He took a breath, then plunged ahead. “It was only when my mother was dying that she explained anything, but it didn’t really make much sense to me at the time. She said she had been living up here in Cambridge—she was a graduate student, I guess. She underwent some kind of experimental procedure at MIT that involved making her pregnant. But then, apparently, she left for Florida. Tensions were high, I suppose, and she wanted to go home. I don’t know. She never went back to MIT.”

“Not much of MIT to come back to,” I remarked.

“Yes, I noticed.” He paused. “I never tried to make any sense out of what my mother told me until I was in medical school—until a classmate showed me this.” Dr. Winfield reached into an inner pocket and removed a sheet of paper. He carefully unfolded it and passed it to me.

It was an article from an old magazine. More than twenty-two years old. The title of the article was: “Controversial New Cloning Technique Defended.” It consisted mainly of an interview with one Robert Cornwall, professor of genetics and cell biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. There was a photograph of Professor Cornwall.

He looked remarkably like Dr. Winfield.

“Do you know what a clone is, Mr. Sands?”

“No,” I lied.

“It is a genetically identical copy of a living organism. Many plants generate clones as a normal form of reproduction. Biologists used to know how to clone other species in the laboratory. They did it for bacteria and frogs and such. Techniques for cloning mammals were just being developed back then.”

“You think you’re a clone, Dr. Winfield?”

“Look at the photograph.”

I looked some more. “Uh-huh,” I said noncommittally.

He reached out and took the article back. “One can’t go through life not knowing who—or what—one is. Don’t you agree?”

“Yes,” I lied.

“I had no way of finding out while I was in medical school down in Fort Lauderdale. I had to wait until I was a doctor, until I had some freedom and some money.”

“They let doctors out down there?”

Winfield shrugged. “Of course. They know we’ll come back. It’s letting people in that they won’t do.”

“So you came to Boston to track down Professor Cornwall and uncover the secret of your past?”

“That’s right.”

“And you want some professional help?”

He nodded.

I pressed my hands together and leaned back in my chair. “Well, it’s my professional opinion that you’d be wasting your money, Dr. Winfield. He’s not here. He’s dead, and everything that constituted his life has been scattered to the winds. That’s the way it is.”

“Then why,” Winfield asked, “is someone trying to kill me?”

I rocked a little in my chair. “Oh,” I said. “Right. Tell me more.”

“I arrived here two days ago and immediately went to the Registry. Cornwall is not in their records as being confirmed alive or dead. There was also no record of his prior existence here—he wasn’t in the old phone books they had, for example.”

“None of which means very much.”

“Of course not. So yesterday I went and took a look at MIT. Scattered to the winds, as you say. So what would a professional private investigator do next?”

“Go to someplace that isn’t scattered to the winds,” I suggested. “Like Northeastern. See if anyone there remembers Cornwall.”

Winfield nodded. “Exactly what I did. It was late in the day, however, and there weren’t many people to talk to. So I started back to my hotel. On the way, someone shot at me. Two shots. Both just missed. I ran all the way to the hotel and didn’t venture out of my room. Today I got a newspaper from room service and saw your ad, so I decided to risk a visit. And here I am.”

“I see. It was after dark when you were shot at?”

“Twilight—almost dark.”

“And this was near Northeastern?”

“Yes. Some side street off—what is it?—Huntington Avenue?”

I stopped rocking my chair and leaned forward. Winfield’s face flickered in the lamplight. He started rubbing his hands again. “Dr. Winfield, this is not the South, I’m afraid. We lead difficult lives in a difficult world, and sometimes people get shot at—not because they’re looking for their father or whatever, but because they’re wearing a new coat.”

Winfield’s gaze shifted away from me. His nervousness seemed to turn to excitement. “That’s a possibility, I grant you. But here is a more interesting possibility: ‘controversial new cloning technique,’ Mr. Sands. The technique makes it possible to clone people. That’s quite an important skill, given our birthrate nowadays. What if someone doesn’t want it known that the person who possesses this skill is still alive?”

“Who?”

“Well, for example, our present government, such as it is.”

I half smiled, wondering if that was a joke. Dr. Winfield didn’t smile back. “You mean cloning people to increase the population, rebuild the country?” I said. “Excuse me, but I’m not persuaded. The government would never be interested in that.”

“All right, maybe so. Maybe some other group has Cornwall, and wants to keep the government from finding out.”

My expression was apparently sufficient response.

“You can think it’s farfetched, if you like,” Winfield said. “You don’t have to believe my theory to do your job—if I hire you.”

“True.” I fingered my gun. “You want a bodyguard?”

“Yes. And I want you to find out what happened to Cornwall, and who is trying to kill me.”

“Two new dollars an hour, plus expenses,” I said. “Ten dollars in advance.”

Winfield gazed at the gun. “How do I know you’re any good?” he asked. “You’re just a name in the newspaper. You’ve got a crumby office, and you’ve got a gun. That’s it. Any references? Any satisfied customers?”

I considered. “Forget about the ten dollars in advance,” I said. “I’ll work on the case tomorrow. If you’re not satisfied with my progress, you can fire me—no charge.”

Winfield considered in turn. What was there for him to consider? “All right,” he said finally. “Why don’t you escort me back to the hotel? You can report to me there tomorrow night.”

“Okay. Fifty cents to escort you to the hotel. Refundable if you’re killed on the way.”

Winfield laughed. “You people are tough up here.”

“Gotta be.” I stood up and put on my ratty old parka. I picked up my gun, put out the light, and we left my office. Lower Washington Street was dark and deserted; the ancient, abandoned strip joints seemed to shiver in the chill air. Winfield looked around nervously. “Aren’t there better neighborhoods for your office?” he asked.

“I like the rent. Where are you staying?”

“The Ritz.”

“Ah.” I walked Dr. Winfield to the Ritz. We didn’t say much. No one tried to kill him. He handed over the fifty cents when we reached his room. “Tomorrow night,” he said. “Find out for me about Cornwall.”

“Tomorrow night,” I agreed.

Winfield suddenly smiled. “I bet it will be something amazing.” His gaze hovered somewhere above my left shoulder, and then he disappeared inside his room.

* * *

The Ritz was warm. I hung around the lobby for a few minutes, then left before I wore out my welcome. There was no sense in going back to the office. I wandered over to Charles Street, and on an impulse spent my fifty cents on some bacon. You only live once. Then I walked through the Common to Park Street and waited for the train to come in.

I was a little early. A few people were standing around in the slush. A casual acquaintance nodded to me. “How’s business, Walter?”

“A bit slow there for a while, but it’s picking up now.”

“Good, good.” He had no idea what my business was.

Over by the old cemetery, Ground Zero was sitting on a milk crate, playing the accordion. He was an ancient black man with a keloid-scarred face; I never cared to ask him how he got his name. I went over to him. “Howdy, Ground Zero.”

He nodded. “Howdy, Mithter Thandth.” He lisped.

I rooted around in my pockets and found a penny. I tossed it into his cap. “Know any private-eye songs, Ground Zero?”

He considered. “How ’bout a TV theme?”

“Great.”

His hands moved over the accordion keys for a few seconds, and then he started in. “Theventy-theven Thunthet Thtrip.” He banged the side of the accordion twice. “Theventy-theven Thunthet Thtrip.”

He was a better accordion player than singer. I threw another penny into his cap. “Just play it, Ground Zero. I’ll imagine the words.”

He shrugged, disappointed, and went on with the instrumental version. It didn’t sound like a very good song, but who am I to judge? He was still playing it when I heard the rumble that meant the train was pulling into the subway station below. I waved to Ground Zero and wandered back to the station’s entrance.

The commuters were straggling out the door. Gwen was one of the last of them. Her face lit up when she saw me. “Walter,” she said. “Hi.”

She tilted her head and looked at me for a moment, then took hold of my arm. We started walking. “What’s in the bag?” she asked finally.

“Oh, just some bacon.”

We stopped, and she looked at me again. I tried to keep from grinning. “Bacon?” she repeated.

“I got a case today. Time I started bringing home the bacon.”

Gwen smiled. That’s about the most you could get out of Gwen. “Congratulations,” she said. She squeezed my arm.

“Wanna hear about it?”

“Tell us at dinner. I can’t wait to see Linc’s face.”

I nodded. “Life’s small pleasures.”

She leaned against me for a moment, and that was indeed one of life’s pleasures. Then we walked on through the slush, while I thought about my case.

14 thoughts on “Dover Beach

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