Being a Ghostbusting Hero Isn’t Easy in Swashbucklers by Dan Hanks

Don’t we all wish we could be the heroes in our own story?

We’re excited to share the cover and preview an excerpt from Swashbucklers, a new novel from Dan Hanks—publishing November 9th with Angry Robot Books.

Author Dan Hanks on Swashbucklers:

“I’m super excited about this book, because if my first was all about my love for Indiana Jones, this one covers literally everything else I’ve ever enjoyed. All the pop culture and folklore and horror I grew up on, genre-mashed into a fictional version of my hometown—with the added excitement of it being set at Christmas. They say to write what you love and I can honestly say this is the most fun I’ve had writing anything. I’m so thrilled it found its perfect home with Angry Robot and can’t wait for everyone to read it.”

Eleanor Teasdale, Commissioning Editor of Angry Robot:

“We first fell in love with Dan Hanks’ characters with Captain Moxley and now we’re delighted to have a whole new cast in Swashbucklers. Dan’s writing is so pulpy and fun, and this one is especially nostalgic. Don’t we all wish we could be the heroes in our own story?”


 

When Cisco Collins returns to his home town thirty years after saving it from being swallowed by a hell mouth opened by an ancient pirate ghost, he realises that being a childhood hero isn’t like it was in the movies. Especially when nobody remembers the heroic bits—even the friends who once fought alongside him.

Struggling with single parenting and treated as a bit of a joke, Cisco isn’t really in the Christmas spirit like everyone else. A fact that’s made worse by the tendrils of the pirate’s powers creeping back into our world and people beginning to die in bizarre ways.

With the help of a talking fox, an enchanted forest, a long-lost friend haunting his dreams, and some 80s video game consoles turned into weapons, Cisco must now convince his friends to once again help him save the day. Yet they quickly discover that being a ghostbusting hero is so much easier when you don’t have school runs, parent evenings, and nativity plays to attend. And even in the middle of a supernatural battle, you always need to bring snacks and wipes…

Cover art and design by Karen Smith

Dan is a writer, editor, and vastly overqualified archaeologist who has lived everywhere from London to Hertfordshire to Manchester to Sydney, which explains the panic in his eyes anytime someone asks “where are you from?”. Thankfully he is now settled in the rolling green hills of the Peak District with his human family and fluffy sidekicks Indy and Maverick, where he writes books, screenplays and comics.


 

 

PROLOGUE

 

Gerald heard the whispering on the baby monitor five minutes before he died.

He dismissed it instantly, of course, and kept drinking as he watched the evening match. The little flash of red blinking from the box on the shelf was just another twinkling light in their very festive living room. Barely even noticeable against the glowing Christmas tree and all the flickering fake candles. It was probably picking up interference from another wireless contraption on their street, the signals cutting into the sweet sound of his daughter gurgling happily to herself as she fought sleep.

Certainly nothing to get him off the couch to check on her. Even if the sound had made his heart race that little bit faster and his hands grow clammy.

Then it happened again.

“Shhhhhhh.”

The light seemed to flash more urgently, as if in warning.

He frowned and hit mute on the remote. The football continued silently, as he fixed his gaze at the bookshelf where the monitor sat, waiting for confirmation he’d heard what he’d heard. For a second, nothing happened.

Then the red light flashed permanently.

“…tubby little…”

Not only had something just shushed in his daughter’s room, but the musical mobile in his daughter’s room had started playing.

The mobile his daughter definitely couldn’t reach to turn on.

“…stuffed with fluff…”

The cushions fell aside as he leapt up and scrambled up the stairs, beer spilling all over the carpet, leaving a trail his wife would later find when she returned from Pilates to discover his eviscerated corpse.

“Sarah!” he cried out, despite knowing full well his four-month old wasn’t going to respond to him. “Sarah, don’t worry, I’m—”

He never got to finish his sentence.

Sliding into the nursery, he ran face first into a wall of fur. Half cursing, half spitting it out, he collapsed backwards and landed on his bum, as the life-sized toy he had bought only last week loomed over him. The soft toy of Sarah’s favorite children’s TV show.

“Let’s see what they stuffed you with,” Daphne the Disco Duck squawked.

He screamed as the thing fell on him and ate.

In the cot on the other side of the room, his daughter gurgled like her daddy was now doing, before she finally drifted off to sleep as the blood rained down around her and the mobile continued to spin and play.

 

 

CHAPTER ONE
Sequels Are Never Quite As Good

 

Dark Peak hadn’t changed in thirty-two years.

Cisco wasn’t sure if he had expected that. Ever since deciding to come back, he’d been playing the scene over and over in his mind, like repeats of his favorite show.

Most of the time the fantasy consisted of a slow summer drive through the high street. He’d stare with distaste at the new buildings where old stone terraces had once stood. He’d shake his head at the high rises going up in what used to be little parks or fields around the town. He’d probably offer a frown as he saw the new bars vomiting up tables and chairs into its courtyard where the old bowling alley had been.

Of course, like a goddamn pro he would take all this newness in and say nothing. He’d channel his unflappable weird-kid-returns-home-as-awesome-adult Grosse Point Blank composure, pull up to the pavement and get out. Heads would turn his way as he slammed the door. Childhood friends who’d never left the town would recognize him and run over and slap his shoulder as though he was some kind of soothing ointment to their tired lives. Old jokes about what had once happened… well, they’d be long forgotten, surely? There would be nothing but respect.

“Cisco Collins!” they’d say. “Great to see you again, mate. Welcome home!”

Maybe they’d go for a beer. Or he’d just give them a cursory nod and slip on past as enigmatically as possible.

Of course, that wasn’t how things ever went in reality. And in this this reality especially, it was clear the timeline’s dial had been knocked from ‘pretty normal’ to ‘perpetually ridiculous’. Which meant he should actually have been relieved his return to Dark Peak was initially met with no more fanfare than the harsh December squall whipping around the town square and a swaying Christmas tree that was spooking the pigeons.

In fact, as he stood there, back in the location where everything had changed – the site of the infamous 1989 Halloween gas leak which had left most Dark Peak residents seeing monsters and several of them dead – he felt a strange sense of happy nostalgia warm his insides.

Because after all this time, nothing had changed.

Same old buildings.

Same old people.

It was almost like stepping back into a cozy memory or returning to a treasured world in a sequel.

Until:

“Oi, gasbuster!” a balding man in a bright yellow puffer jacket yelled across the gardens, as his three screaming kids chased each other around the grass and muddy flowerbeds. Cisco shouldn’t have turned at the name. But there was a sadistic instinct that makes you do those things when a second later you know you really shouldn’t, and he had already locked eyes with the man before he realized his mistake. The man grinned. “Yeahhhhh, I knew it was you! The kid from the gas leak!”

Cisco swore under his breath and let the wind carry it away, as the man grabbed his eldest daughter and pointed as if Cisco was some kind of festive attraction.

“Look, honey, that’s the bloke from the bedtime stories your mum tells you. The gas leak boy. I told you he was real!”

The girl laughed joyously and waved to him. Grim-faced, Cisco waved back.

A hand tugged at his jeans.

“Who’s that?”

Cisco reached down and gently squeezed the mittened hand of his eight-year-old son. “I’ve no idea, George.”

The boy’s flushed face, squashed in between his knitted beanie and the scarf around his neck, tilted up at him with a puzzled expression. “Then why are you waving to her?”

“That’s what you do when kids wave to you. It’s the law.”

“There’s a law about waving?”

“Uh-huh, a parent’s law.” Why did he often find himself lying to his son to get out of answering a perfectly reasonable question. I dont have the energy for the technicalities of a discussion that could spawn a thousand more questions and last forever, came the immediate and well-worn reply from his brain. “When you become a parent, George, you absolutely have to wave when kids wave at you. I would expect the same if you did it to someone else.”

Of course, George instantly began waving to the man. Cisco thought he recognized him now. He fumbled in the closet of his mind where he’d shoved a lot of past trauma. Dean someone?

Most-likely-Dean laughed again nastily and didn’t bother waving back to George.

Cisco gently put the boy’s hand down again.

“Okay, not everyone knows the law I guess.”

George seemed to mull that over for a moment. “What did he mean by gasbuster? Shouldn’t it be ghostbuster?”

“It should have been, but that’s not what everyone ended up remembering,” Cisco said, unable to help the regret seep into his voice.

“Why?”

Cisco didn’t fancy that conversation right now. He looked around for a distraction. Distraction and lying, that was his parenting style.

There was a little cafe on the north side of the square, its windows finely decorated with festive scenes and angels and falling snow. A cozy, beckoning light shone through the steamy glass. The Pino’s Deli sign above the door had been draped with colorful lights that were blinking on and off.

“Need a wee?” Cisco asked, pulling George in that direction.

His son resisted. “No, I’m OK.”

“How about a cake?”

Now George led the way. “Let’s go faster!”

They headed up the uneven flagstones, trying not to slip on the wet brown leaves and fighting the sleet that was now being chucked down from the thick, grey clouds. Cisco could hear the name again ‘Gasbuster!” carried on the wind, but couldn’t tell if it was the man calling him again or his own brain gleefully playing tricks on him.

The trouble wasn’t so much the name, he reminded himself, following quickly after George who was now suggesting that maybe he’d like a hot chocolate with his cake. Yes, living with the moniker ‘gasbuster’ had been annoying in the aftermath of that particular Halloween night. Having it haunt him like a particularly irritating poltergeist, hearing it in whispers behind him in class or in assembly or in the dinner line. Until he’d been able to convince both his mothers that maybe, maybe, they might want a change of scenery for his final year at school? A change that was as far away from his childhood home as possible.

But, really, the name was just that. A name. He’d been called far worse.

What really bugged him was that the name implied his heroic efforts had been for nothing. It suggested something very mundane had actually happened back then. That the monsters everyone remembered for weeks and years afterwards were some kind of mass hallucination brought on by some ridiculously implausible gas leak.

When in fact they had been very real indeed. Real enough he could still feel the manifestations pour through him, after his body had been turned into a gateway to hell. Real enough to have driven him out of his beloved hometown so he could attempt to live a half-decent life away from the whispers and stares and rumors. Real enough to have given him scars on multiple levels.

All those classic movies had led him wrong for so long. Saving the day wasn’t always met with a happy, heroic ending for the teenagers, before the credits played you out to some great song. Sometimes the grown-ups just didn’t understand what happened, made up some more plausible explanation, blamed you for the chaos, and then left you to deal with the fallout. And even though you waited for those damn credits to roll, just to end your suffering, you were left with the horrible realization that they never roll in real life. The treadmill just keeps going. And if it’s smeared with crap you don’t get a chance to step off for a moment and clean everything up… you just have to keep running, getting messier and messier, until you were only age and shit, and there was nothing else left of the person you used to be.

Happy Christmas! the hand-painted sign on the cafe door read, not picking up on his mood at all.

Cisco let George lead him in. The boy saw the cakes on the counter and slipped out of his grasp, leaving him alone to search for a table.

At which point he saw her.

A blast from the past. His very best friend in forever. Until he’d left her behind like he’d left everyone else.

Doc saw him. Her eyes widened. And not for the first time in his life, Cisco wondered if he might be safer if the hell portal he had once helped to close would open up again and swallow him whole.

I should have told her I was coming back, he thought, far too late.

***

“Cisco?” Doc said, removing her headphones and sitting back from her table as if needing more room to take in the unkempt mess he knew he’d become. “Now there’s a sight I didn’t expect to see blowing in on the winter winds like some scruffy, middle-aged Mary Poppins.”

Maybe it was the instant warmth of the cafe after being outside in the winter chill, but Cisco was suddenly aware his cheeks were burning.

“Hey, Doc,” he mumbled.

Dorothy Constance Forbes, Doc to her friends, stood up and walked between the tables, continuing to look him up and down, and still wearing that enigmatic smile of hers.

“I know in these situations it’s usually polite to lie and say you haven’t aged a bit, but man you got old!” She touched a finger to his hair. “Look at those streaks of grey hair. And some kind of beard too. I have to say it suits you. The age and the beard.”

Standing face to face for the first time in a long time, he realized with secret joy that just like the town Doc had held onto all these years, she hadn’t changed much at all either. Still an inch taller than him, vibrant dark curls framing her glowing black skin and mischievous eyes. And there was still a presence to her, an energy that only a few people you ever meet in life have.

They leaned in awkwardly for a hug, before he was immediately pushed back by the point of her finger as she jabbed it in his chest.

“Now what the hell are you doing here?”

“Huh?”

“We haven’t talked in forever, haven’t seen each other in longer, and now you just show up? Waltzing into my favorite cafe without a bloody word of advance notice, even after all the invitations I sent your way to come and see us. Why?”

He glanced around to make sure George wasn’t in earshot. The boy knew a little about what was going on with his mum, but again the warning no energy for questions flashed repeatedly in his head. “It’s complicated,” he said, dropping his voice. “This seemed as good a place as any for George and I to squirrel ourselves away for the winter to survive the transition back home.”

“Like the nuts that you are,” Doc replied good naturedly. She took the hint though, as he knew she would. Any time its complicated reared its ugly head, it was a good idea to nod sympathetically and back the hell away from whatever the real details were – which in this case was Cisco’s soon-to-be-ex absconding with her gym instructor. A cliche, sure, but there was a reason cliches were cliches. They were prone to happening. Especially in gyms with so much spandex and adrenaline.

Thankfully he hadn’t really been all that bothered by what she’d done. There was a part of him that had always known it wasn’t right. They wanted different things, saw the world in different ways. All the usual stuff you discover, before realizing you should have been listening to that gut feeling that kept nagging you all this time, even if that gut feeling had never really settled on anybody else – as though it had been searching for someone it wasn’t even sure existed. A love just beyond touching distance, as though maybe it might just have been from a dream or some movie he saw once.

Now he was here, back home, back with his best friend, there was a sudden part of him that felt maybe he could finally open up. To spill everything out to Doc as he’d always done as a kid. She was always the first person he told when anything remotely interesting happened (which in Dark Peak was rare): getting his first games console, that time he was shoved into the boiler room at school as a prank, the night Rebecca Miller finally accosted him and shoved her tongue into his mouth, whirling it like a washing machine and causing him to gag.

And now he’d returned home because interesting things were happening again. Not the divorce, that was almost mundane. But the recurring dreams of a familiar woman trying to give him a message. The feeling of a threat on the horizon, like grey winter clouds threatening snow.

The murder.

Unfortunately, as quickly as the urge to spill his thoughts and feelings out to her came over him, the adult and responsible part of him pushed it back again. It had been too long since they’d been at that stage of friendship. Too many years had slipped through his fingers before he’d realized what he’d let go.

He didn’t offer any more details, only a tired smile.

“Where are you staying?” she asked. “We have room with us if you need a place to crash for a while? You know Michelle would love to see you too.”

“Oh, thanks, but Jake offered–”

“Wait. That little shit knew you were back before me?”

Cisco couldn’t help it. His smile grew even wider at the stirrings of that old animosity. He’d missed that. “I might have grown old in all the worst ways, Doc,” he replied, “but it’s nice to see that you haven’t changed a bit. Yes, I told him I was coming back. We’re going to be staying at his place with his family. But it was a last-minute thing and… well, I asked him not to tell you or Michelle.”

Doc glowered and she turned on her heels to return to her table. She hadn’t punched him out though and he took that as an invitation to join her. He whistled to George, gesturing for him to stop prodding the cakes, and pulled the seat out opposite her.

“Look, I’m sorry. I should have told you, but I just figured you were busy with work and everything.”

She frowned. “Did you just whistle at your son like a dog?”

As George came running over, Cisco kicked aside the chair next to his and gestured for his son to sit down.

“It’s the only thing that cuts through the excitement in the circus of his mind and I’m at the stage of being a dad where I do whatever gets the job done. Judge all you want.”

She picked up her drink and eyed him over the rim. “Oh, I am.” Then she put it down again and turned to George. It was like switching on a light. Suddenly she was all warmth and a beaming smile and those twinkling eyes again. She reached out a hand and they shook.

“You must be George, nice to finally meet you. I guess you’re here to learn all about the place where your Daddy grew up, huh. Find out anything fun so far?”

The boy shrugged. “He used to have a lot of gas.”

Cisco rolled his eyes, but as Doc began laughing he joined in. A long, loud laugh of letting everything go that turned everybody’s heads and had George shrinking into his coat with embarrassment beside him. And it felt good. As though he hadn’t laughed in years. Which come to think of it he probably hadn’t. He hadn’t found anything this funny in a good long time.

“Ah, that’s fantastic,” Doc groaned, wiping her eyes. She put her hand on George’s arm and leaned in. “Yes, your dad had a lot of gas. You heard the name then? Gasbuster. Like a ghostbuster, but with more farts.”

George giggled.

“Doc, you’re not helping.”

She grinned over the small table. “Then tell me the truth, Cisco. Why didn’t you want me and Michelle to know you were coming back? We love you, you silly oaf. And you would have given us something to get excited about! Not that married life isn’t exciting, of course. That girl still gives me chills in all the right places, if you know what I mean.”

George frowned. “What are chills?”

“Go have a look at the cakes again and pick something nice,” Cisco replied, guiding his son off the chair and scowling at his friend. “I’ll be there in a minute.”

Doc just laughed again as the boy ran off.

“Sorry, I’m usually a little more subtle but yeah. It’s just that, you know, it’s you Cisco. You’re back in Dark Peak! We honestly never thought we’d see you back here again after everything that happened. With the…”

Her voice trailed off.

“Gas leakage incident?” he offered.

She held up her hands in surrender immediately.

“Let’s not get into that again. Whatever it was we went through back then – and thankfully I’ve been able to forget the entire charade for the most part – it’s just good to see you back here where you belong. You fancy joining us for dinner one night, to regale us with tales of your lives and the real reason you’re back here?”

Cisco dropped his eyes away, a little taken aback she’d seen through him that clearly. But before he could reply, the person at the next table got up, folded their copy of the Manchester Evening News and left it on the table as they made their way out of the coffee shop. And there, on the front page, was the real reason he had come back to Dark Peak. The beacon of darkness that had beckoned him to return, instead of escaping to literally any other place on Earth where he might have been safer.

Baby monitor murder, the headline screamed. Costumed attacker at large.

Steeling his jaw, Cisco’s gaze dropped to the nanny-cam image attached to the story. A fuzzy shot of a giant fluffy duck with glowing red eyes fleeing the scene after murdering some poor father in the village just down the road.

Dressed as a popular children’s television character, they’d said.

He thought otherwise.

Looking away from the story, he regarded the woman opposite him. The woman who had once saved his life from a similar fate at the hands of a two-hundred-year-old pirate and all manner of wretched fictional creatures only he seemed to remember.

“Sure,” he replied, wondering how Doc, Jake and Michelle were going to take being told exactly why he had come back and that they might all be in mortal danger once again. “Dinner sounds good. I think we have lots to talk about.”

 

Excerpted from Swashbucklers, copyright © 2021 by Dan Hanks

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