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For International Men’s Day (November 19th), I am interviewing a few other men I know who, similarly, have mental health issues. I’m trying to get a perspective on male-oriented mental health needs in our society today. I have edited this interviewees comments a little for clarity, readability and grammar.

Q1: Please tell us a little about yourself. How old are you, where are you from, and what do you do?

I’m 48 years old, from Wollongong, NSW Australia. This is a moderately large city just south of much larger Sydney. It was a steel town but since that became less profitable in recent decades it’s basically a university town these days, with some tourism thrown in.

I’m on the dsp (disability support pension), and have been for going-on ten years. As such I’m extremely fortunate, but one of a dying breed- the govt seems intent on phasing it out for mental illnesses. It has its downsides too. I’m basically institutionalised at this point.

I’m bipolar and have had a whole swathe of former life phases.

I’ve been a Green Peace canvasser, a kitchen hand, apprentice chef, bindery hand, printer, musician, serious drug addict (lucky to be alive, many friends didn’t make it and an) art student. I’ve started, done well with for a time, and eventually abandoned degrees in English, Creative Writing, History, Ancient History, Archaeology. I’ve done aged care work, online research and I used to busk a lot, but no longer.

I have two sons (one 10 one 17), but have been separated from my partner for almost 8 years. Somehow we’re friends still, and I’ve seen her and my boys almost every day in that time. That took serious insight and effort, but I’m also extremely fortunate, because she is extraordinary and never deleted me

Q2: What mental health problems do you suffer from, and how long have you been diagnosed for? Do you attribute them to any particular cause?

These days I have much less trouble, personality wise. I no longer have regular panic attacks either, but I’m still cycling through hypomania and major depression, just differently to before.

My mental health issues are complex, layered and interact with each other.

Where to start? Well, my mother has serious depressive and anxiety issues, so there’s a genetic component to it all. Whilst pregnant with me she suffered severe depression and spent 3 or more months of the pregnancy on Mogadon (a benzodiazepine), a drug she had severe reactions to including aural and visual hallucinations (8 years later when pregnant with my younger sister they wanted to put her on it again, by which time she was more forthright and told the doctor what had happened earlier. They tested her and found she was allergic). So I no doubt steeped in her genetic issues and that potent chemical, which I suppose had an impact.

I spent the first days of my life (having nearly died in foetal distress due to a chemically induced labor) in Gladsville psychiatric hospital with my disassociating and suicidal mum, in an open ward. Mum underwent many brutal sessions of ECT and somehow saved me by bribing a nurse to call my father to drive 2 hours to collect me. I spent the next 4 months in the care of my dad’s aunt. I suspect any useful bonding with mum never occurred, and this too had an impact on me.

My earliest memories are of taking care of my, by now, alcoholic mother. Dad was drinking a lot too and never home. She used to praise/coerce care from me, told me I was a good boy who would always look after mummy etc. This, obviously, is an excellent method for brewing personality disorders.

At four I fell from a ten foot viewing platform whilst dad was buying a horse, fracturing my skull, breaking my nose, and I was in a coma for a week. Many years later I saw a psychologist who’d spent her career dealing with brain injury clients. She tested me and found cognitive impairment from this and other head injuries. This explains my odd dyslexic moments and panic when filling out forms etc, as the impairment triggers fight or flight responses with those tasks.

So yeah, brain injury is a factor.

We travelled a lot. I went to seven schools in 4 years, which left me unable to make friends and cripplingly shy. Eventually I did make a friend at a new school. In hindsight he’d been coached to procure other boys his age, but I at 8, had no idea – obviously. So there was the sexual abuse, with a group of men. They drugged me a bunch of times,- a lot of it I thankfully have no clear recollection of. Eventually I abandoned my ‘friend’, saving myself from further abuse of that kind.

Another friend abandoned me at around the same time, which affected me badly. Years later I discovered he’d been abused by the same ring of people.

With any support at all, I may have been able to somewhat put the abuse behind me. I got none though, and worse was to come. At school, someone or other who knew what had happened spread it as a rumour, and the bullying started.

The wors thing that ever happened to me was the institutional abuse that followed.

My female teacher, as it happens a friend of THAT family, made it her project to torment, humiliate and brutalise me for a year. She egged the other children to bully me, beat me with blackboard rulers daily, and utterly demolished me socially. This harmed me so much worse than the sexual abuse. I have no idea how I survived that year.

So by 10 I was really, personality wise, a write off. I won’t mention too much about my teenage years. D&D completely saved me there, though.

Alcohol, cigarettes and pot from 13 or 14. Years later in my early 20s I was a daily amphetamines user, for perhaps 2 years. I used heroin but circumstances saved me there. My friends that fell badly into that world are all dead. I had easier access to speed so I lived, I guess. Numerous psychotic experiences in this phase caused further psychological issues.

Well I’ve gone on a lot. Basically, severe childhood anxiety (first treated at 10). Borderline Personality Disorder developing from that time too. I was diagnosed with that in my late 20s. Bipolar 2, some years later, after many serious bouts of major depression, self harm, hospitalisation, poor outcome with medication. So, heading towards 2 decades with 3 separate serious diagnosis. I’ve had aural abberations and whispered voices etc since the mid 90s- generally at the tail end of long hypomanic phases.

These days I have much less trouble personality wise. I no longer have regular panic attacks either. But I’m still cycling thru hypomania and major depression, just differently to before.

Q3: What, overall, has been your experience with the mental health system in your country? What resources have you accessed?

My experience with the mental health system in Australia has been mixed, to say the least!

I had a wonderful, calm and caring family doctor really early on, who helped me somewhat with my crippling anxiety, night terrors, sleep walking etc. I was maybe 9?

He died.

His replacement, who I recall confiding in when I was maybe 15 (suicidal), as it turned out, was a drinking buddy of my Dad’s. He accused me of malingering and told me to wake up to myself- then told my father the same thing.

He was embarrassed and resented me for it.

During my writing myself off on drugs phase I saw a few counsellors. They told me to stop using drugs!

The first excellent help I got was when I got clean. I went into rehabilitation at a drug crisis centre. The matriarch of the place was a no-bullshit, former junkie who had seen the worst end of things in the Cross. She was brilliant, courageous, tough-loving and bullshit calling. She’s the first person who got through to me with the idea that I’d better save myself, because let’s face it nobody else was going to. That whole phase of intense group therapy helped me a lot.

Of course getting clean didn’t fix my mental health problems. I had a really brilliant golden phase at art school, then hit the wall badly a few times. Intrusive voices, panic attacks, extremely discreet self harm. I saw a bunch of psychologists in this era. They were universally unhelpful. After the twentieth time being complimented on how intelligent, self aware and articulate I was, I got over paying $40-$60 for compliments and stopped bothering for a while.

Tried a bunch of different anti-depressants in this period. They exacerbated things. Somewhere in there I saw my first several psychiatrists and was hospitalised for the first time.

I loathed my psychiatrists. I still have a dim view of them:

“How have things been since last week? Sleeping? Thoughts of self-harm? Any other intrusive thoughts? What about those voices? Well, I’m putting your dosage up. Try that and see me again in a fortnight…”

I had a really excellent psychologist for almost ten years. He was a University crisis counsellor but liked me and never played the “you’re so clever” game. He was extremely observant,reassuring philosophical and insightful. He helped a lot and twisted his limited reach to help me more. One frustration I’ve had at other universities is the counsellors not being allowed to offer an ongoing service beyond one off crisis sessions. He finegled things to arrange for me to drop in weekly for a “that’s not real, but this is…” session. He really helped me in that regard, in terms of timely, friendly, gentle and pointed intervention.

I’ve been on the psych ward three or four times. I absolutely hate being hospitalised. It’s a limbo state, basically, powerful sedatives, sterile environment, nothing to do. It’s been years now but I’m glad I do Everything possible to avoid those places. I’ve avoided being scheduled each time due to my polite, friendly, manner and ability to think on my feet. If there’s one place where my risk of suicide multiplies, it’s locked up in a psych ward.

Q4: Do you agree that the mental health approach needs to be more tailored to both the individual, and to men as a group? If so, in what ways?

Yes to both.

There’s so much more that I could mention. As I’ve pointed out, I spent decades feeling generally frustrated with psychologists’ apparent expectation that everybody was unable to articulate their issues and with psychiatrists’ being interested basically in what dosage and whether to schedule me or not. I found that very few indeed of either had much patience for my reluctance to just submit to a lifetime of powerful medications.

As for the male issue: it was bad and now is worse.

I’ve caught the end of the stiff upper lip, grin and bear it phase, where talking about my dark thoughts was obviously triggering for doctors, and now we’re at another extreme, where I feel generally unable to express myself for fear of being exposed as ‘toxic’.

One issue I’ve found in clinics and community centres is a generally negative attitude towards males. Whenever I’ve mentioned behavioural issues with my teenage son there’s been an expectation that he’s been violent. This was also assumed of me on a number of occasions when assisting my former partner with accessing care herself- once it became apparent we’d had arguments it seemed a given to them that I’d been violent, when in fact my partner had at times been physically abusive towards me.

Water under the bridge now, but galling all the same.

Whenever I’m in those circles I’m very aware of being seen as a potential postal case. That’s totally tied to me being a dude. I understand why they perform the protocols they do, but I often feel like they’re gaslighting me, trying to get me to admit to being somehow a threat.

So now I avoid them like the plague. It’s been 2 years now.

Q5: How do you feel the mental health system in your country currently fails men?

I answered this somewhat in q4.

Well, I guess there is more to be said.

Personally it seems they have a problem with a ‘one size fits all’ approach. On the one hand it sucks to be perceived always as a potential threat. Thing is, I’m polite, I listen, I don’t abuse staff in any way. This, within their binary framework, merely serves to remove me from the “perceived as a threat” category whilst also removing me from the “needing care and intervention” category.

It’s a squeaky wheel issue.

An old comrade with similar issues but a very different personality has created endless wreckage for others, regularly abuses any worker within earshot, misses appointments etc, yet whilst I’m on the edge of eviction in a decaying private flat (howdy homelessness!), he’s on his 4th dept housing flat, 3 of which he abandoned without notice, one of which he left with fire damage.

Is he more mentally ill than me?

Not really. He’s more criminal. He’s also still using drugs.

I guess my point is the system seems tailored towards ‘fixing’ the obvious problems and ignoring anybody with a complex case that can be delayed without immediate repercussions.

Q6: Why do you think it is that men access these services less frequently, despite being the majority of suicides and other negative outcomes?

Good question.

Not for the reasons they used to.

It’s bizarre and topsy turvy. Where once an earlier ideology invited men to be open to seeking help, let their guards down, now the whole social environment actively discourages that. Men are aware they’re seen as a potential threat. Malfunctioning men much more so.

I’ve stopped calling Mensline in recent months, for fear I’ll have the police at the door and end up either scheduled or dead. Australia has a long history of police shootings that started out as poorly prepared mental health interventions.

Q7: What do you think could have helped intervention, or seeking help, earlier in your illness?

A number of things would have helped.

Relating to the abuse, well, socially it was a fail on every level. I feel very confident that, with the same circumstances today my school would have identified the issue and staged some form of intervention. I feel like cultural factors in the late 70s/early 80s made it simple for me to be revictimised.

Obviously my parents really were no help. Not even 15 years later where, having gone through rehab I confided (not accusatively) in them about the abuse. I was chastised for upsetting my mother. It’s never been discussed again.

The key phase of my D&A recovery should have been a great opportunity for professionals to step in, but it didn’t happen that way, beyond the rehab I went to.

In this phase I was hounded by drug squad detectives seeking dirt on my former dealer, threatened, coerced, forced to make a false statement and then to move away when said dealer put out a contract on my life. In that predicament I failed to meet social security requirements and was kicked off the dole.

Homelessness yay!

None of this was a useful response to a troubled, self-destructive young man who was trying to get well, and very visible within the system.

Somewhere in that phase I did a work for the dole program, restoring the old military harbour defences at Port Kembla, clearing out bunkers and tunnels. This was fascinating work and made me feel useful at the time. The private agency that ran the program were crooks who gave us zero resources.

The supervisor, a lovely Christian man with a real interest in helping this group of lost misfit lads, brought his own tools to work and taught us some carpentry, concreting etc. My interest in a career in archaeology stemmed largely from the real desire of that one guy to help me. More of that kind of thing would have helped me a lot.

So yeah. I guess interested parties who were unwilling to let a young man slip through the cracks, and who offered a pathway to making me socially useful again- that would have helped the most. Very grateful not to have been left to starve, but more help with reentering society and getting work whilst managing my illness would have been better.

Q8: What have been the positives in your treatment through the mental health system?

There have definitely been positives.

As I mentioned earlier, having a good counsellor who I was able to see regularly, at times for long stretches, had a big stabilising impact on me.

The odd professional who was willing to be very honest with me helped a lot here and there. I have no use for a counsellor who, basically, seems to want me to think well of them first and foremost. I’ve had too many pandering psychologists so the straight dice ones were precious.

I’ve had the most success with intensive CBT (weekly sessions for a year) and group therapy around personality issues. Also I picked up many useful awareness tools with an intensive program using theories of Internal Family Systems (basically identifying splintered off aspects of identity that manifest: the abandoned child, the angry child, the punitive parent, the mediator, the medicater etc, and attempting to manage these parts of one’s self by accepting and validating their various conflicting motives whilst imposing a new responsible parent identity to intercede.

Sounds nuts, helps me a lot.

Q9: What would your idea of a perfect mental health system look like?

OK, I don’t believe there could be a perfect system but let’s see if I can make a list of things I’d like to see.

1) Being Useful. A focus on reactivating patients, paths to getting back on your feet rather than a welfare limbo. I’m not against welfare. I do feel I’ve benefited more from people believing in my potential than I have from people feeling sorry for me.

2) Housing. A stable and secure home base is a necessity but one which seems a rarity now. Oh well- only 6-8 more years to wait, if I’m lucky.

3) Routine. I felt a lot of benefit from small things that seemed to foster structure in my chaotic world. Drop ins and call backs from the suicide callback service, weekly sessions of group or individual therapy.

4) Removal of frustrating issues of red tape. Lack of access to medication I’ve been subscribed but which is only on the pbs for schizophrenics, leaving me forking out hundreds of dollars a month for meds (guess what? I went without).

5) Funding.

6) Maybe the odd program focused on responding to the issues many men are facing in the community. That’s not a high priority lately.

7) Maybe a tobacco ban need not be deployed on every square metre of every psychiatric ward in the company.

Q10: What has given you hope and pulled you back from the brink? 

My kids are my strongest protective factor.

Good company and being of use to people really saves me ultimately.

The fact that people have always wanted to be in my game has been a constant source of timely weekly validation.

Also just being a curious bugger. Boredom isn’t a thing for me. Whatever else has occurred, it’s true I’ve had a lifetime of daily reading, and I’ll never get to read everything.

Sometimes you just wake up with a poem in your head, fully formed. Not that I’m much of a poet, as can clearly be seen.

For International Men’s Day (November 19th), I am interviewing a few other men I know who, similarly, have mental health issues. I’m trying to get a perspective on male-oriented mental health needs in our society today. I have edited this interviewees comments a little for clarity, readability and grammar.

Q1: Please tell us a little about yourself. How old are you, where are you from, and what do you do?

I am 47 living in London and now a (sort of) full-time artist. I’m married with a 12-year-old step-daughter, but am currently staying with local friends because the people we lodge with have a two and three year old. Plus I do not want my current mental condition to be around my step-daughter constantly.

Q2: What mental health problems do you suffer from, and how long have you been diagnosed for? Do you attribute them to any particular cause?

I have been diagnosed with BPD, EUPD (essentially the same thing and a catch-all for those that do not quite fit standard issues). Along with Social Anxiety, Chronic suicidal depression, and tentative diagnoses of other more complex issues including PTSD. 

As to cause, I think I have always had these problems. It is more to do with running out of the mental and physical energy to continue to cope.

Q3: What, overall, has been your experience with the mental health system in this country? What resources have you accessed?

Complicated and everything from utterly terrible to extremely good, sometimes on the same ward, during the same admittance.

Night-staff, in general, were the worst and tended to not follow the rules about certain things, like the escalation of emotional behaviour or ignoring patients. Sometimes they were actively rude to patients, including me.

Outside of ward, I found that, generally, the Home Treatment Team were useless other than for bringing medicines. However, places like the SUN Group, which is a twice-weekly mutual support session for sufferers of a variety of mental health issues, have been extremely useful. ADAPT (once they sorted out my Care Coordinator) has also been helpful.

I also undertook Art therapy while on-ward, during the most recent admittance, and also managing emotions as a sort of therapy/workshop. This was, personally, less useful as it told me things that I have known since childhood, but it worked well for the support of others. 

The art therapy is set to continue as soon as a long term placement is available.

Q4: Do you agree that the mental health approach needs to be more tailored to both the individual, and to men as a group? If so, in what ways?

Regardless of gender, there needs to be more money spent on mental health issues. They are closing aspects of the system down quietly, without informing the public. While I was on-ward, the “rest area” for potential patients to wait for beds was scrapped, which would have been a good thing if it had been replaced. Now mental health sufferers in need of admittance have to go to A&E at the main hospital.

Also scrapped was the Day Treatment Team, which normally organised activities and was in charge of running therapies and care groups. Those tasks have now fallen to HTT, more precisely the well-trained ones that are overburdened already.

So the simple answer is more money, more training for staff, better wages for front line staff, and more ward space available countrywide.

Q5: How do you feel the mental health system in this country currently fails men?

There are minimal resources and activities, particularly catering for male patients.

Q6: Why do you think it is that men access these services less frequently, despite being the majority of suicides and other negative outcomes?

Toxic masculinity meaning that males tend to grow up with less confidence to talk about and express the worries they have about mental illness.

Q7: What do you think could have helped intervention, or seeking help, earlier in your illness?

The need for GP doctors to be better trained in spotting mental health traits, particularly in the young and teenage population. Also, active encouragement for men to go to their GP for mental health issues as well as physical problems.

Q8: What have been the positives in your treatment through the mental health system?

I have found new friends in unlikely ways. I have actually encountered some forms of therapy that have the potential to at least help me cope better. Finally, medicinal help which at least partially seems to be of help

Q9: What would your idea of a perfect mental health system look like?

I am not sure, but probably utopian and universal, and as interlinked to each person as education and general health care should be. 

Q10: What has given you hope and pulled you back from the brink? 

Relatives, friends, other people that have shown such unconditional love and care to me. Globally, the continuance of possible care that could make this all easier to cope with, and striving to keep being creative and to push myself to do projects

For International Men’s Day (November 19th) I am interviewing a few other men I know who, similarly to myself, have mental health issues. I’m doing this to try and get a perspective on male-oriented mental health needs in our society today.

It would be unfair to conduct these interviews without answering the questions myself. If you would like to contribute, anonymously of course, feel free to contact me at grim AT postmort DOT demon DOT co DOT uk.

Q1: Please tell us a little about yourself. How old are you, where are you from and what do you do?

I’m in my mid forties, and finally look it. I’ve felt older than I was for a very long time. I live in a small village in the South of England, very pretty, very rural, proper hobbit country. I am a ‘creative person without portfolio’. Primarily I write and make (analogue) games, but I’m doing more video and design work as time wears on.

Two interesting and relevant tidbits of information for you.

First, rural suicide rates tend to be higher. It’s hard to single out why. It might be difficulty of access to services and support. It might be social isolation. It might be the way in which old, rural ways of life have changed or ended.

Second, while the ‘tortured artist’ stereotype is well known, apparently it only significantly correlates with writers. Such is my luck.

Q2: What mental health problems do you suffer from, and how long have you been diagnosed for? Do you attribute them to any particular cause?

I have been diagnosed with moderate to severe depression (with suicidal episodes) since 2007. I can’t remember when I got my other diagnoses, but they include anxiety and dependent personality disorder. My anxiety is mostly social anxiety, which is in a really lovely tension with the anxiety.

Q3: What, overall, has been your experience with the mental health system in this country and what resources have you accessed?

Mixed.

I have been fortunate in that my local doctors have been pretty good and fairly well switched on to mental health issues compared to those of many others. On the other hand I have found the huge waiting lists for mental health provision a constant frustration, and the one-size-fits-all approach in UK mental healthcare provision to be next to useless.

I was able to afford private assistance for a while, with the help of family, but that had diminishing returns in terms of help. I also tried accessing the charity MIND, who were useful in pragmatic but not therapeutic terms, and iTalk, which is convenient but disruptive and has long waiting lists.

After years of illness I finally sought financial aid and it took over a year to finally get any. I’ve also suffered societal suspicion and hostility for even seeking aid. Even without the problems around ATOS (Independent Assessment Services) and others, our society at large is innately hostile to people who need help.

Q4: Do you agree that the mental health approach needs to be more tailored to both the individual, and to men as a group? If so, in what ways?

Yes, which is why I asked the question to others!

I appreciate that the NHS operates a triage system, and that mental healthcare is expensive and long term, and so – brutally put – not great value for money. It is, however, a huge problem and while the NHS as a whole needs more money, we do need to focus on mental healthcare and cost-effective preventative care.

I am not, by any means, a conventionally masculine dude. Being a thensitive artitht and all, but the system as it stands did not suit me, and I have seen how it doesn’t suit other men even more. It’s not just stigma, it’s personality differences (in aggregate), mindset and something as simple as time. Men take more time to open up, so standard appointments for talk therapy, simply aren’t long enough.

There’s other examples, and approaches that could help and do exist on smaller scales, but it’s hard – politically – to get help for men as a group.

Q5: How do you feel the mental health system in this country currently fails men?

Timing, stigma, the lack of tailored provision, the fixation on talk therapy and cognitive behavioural therapy. Things I’ve already mentioned.

I have also found that while people like to blame things like ‘toxic masculinity’ that becomes a blaming of masculinity in general. I also find that while people say they want you to open up and be vulnerable, or more generally that they want men to, the reality is that many people react with disgust at seeing a man be vulnerable or weak. Others exploit your weakness, pretend you’re not ill or are using it for attention.

I think men, in particular, also feel the stigma of incapacity, of reduced or removed ability to work, more. There also seems to be a little more hostility to people with mental health issues and men (not that there’s much in it) when it comes to seeking financial aid and assistance.

Q6: Why do you think it is that men access these services less frequently, despite being the majority of suicides and other negative outcomes?

All the reasons I’ve already stated. We say one thing, we encourage people to open up and then we punish them for it. We discourage people from taking medication or seeking help, we punish them when they do. Family and friends might not, but society as a whole does. Unless you have that direct connection you’re part of that amorphous ‘scrounger’ other.

Self reliance, toughness, stoicism, these are good things, but they’re also being demonised as toxic. As a man, you’re caught between all manner of different expectations and prejudices from all sides and – if you do seek assistance it’s less likely to be helpful.

Once bitten, twice shy.

Q7: What do you think could have helped intervention, or seeking help, earlier in your illness?

My initial symptoms were more like exhaustion, chronic fatigue and so on. I also really, desperately, didn’t want anything to be wrong with my mind – of all things. I’d never been particularly strong, charismatic, good looking or much else, but I’d always been able to rely on my brain.

Feeling like I was losing my mind was devastating more, perhaps, than it could have been for others, because I felt that it was all I had. It also made me very resistant to taking antidepressants, which also affect your mind.

Better to be foggy and alive, than clear and dead though, right?

A more dogged, persistent and forceful doctor earlier on could have helped more, but all things considered I was lucky.

Q8: What have been the positives in your treatment through the mental health system?

Everyone – other than assessment services – really cares and really does their best within the limitations of the system to help you. If you can afford to go private you can find specialised care and different approaches that may help, but it’s just not there as part of the NHS.

Q9: What would your idea of a perfect mental health system look like?

If the system we have were more varied, more tailored and better funded I think we’d just about be there. Cognitive behaviour therapy and talk therapy just isn’t enough and we need individuated care.

Changing societal attitudes is a longer struggle and it’s not really something you can impose.

Q10: What has given you hope and pulled you back from the brink?

Friends and family, and pure stubbornness. Having pets and people who depend on me one way or another. Close run thing, but has been the most effective lifesaver.

Part Three: Blood on the Windows

Gathercole and Crispin marched out of the university building with a purpose, energised by the revelation of another death. The young lady, Ada it turned out, was their sherpa, aiding them to find the exit. It was a shock to them when they stepped outside. The air was fresh and cold, and the sky was dark.

“Bloody hell. How long were we stuck in that bloody office for?” Crispin exclaimed.

“The Moon is out already,” Gathercole remarked, taking note of it. “I wonder…”

Ada hugged her arms around herself for warmth, though the shaking was as much from shock as the abrupt cold. She led them on, though the crowd, down the road, though the shouts of police officers and the rumbling of a crowd could be heard streets away.

‘Willy’ it seemed, had rather pleasant and expensive lodgings off Russell Square, not the sort of neighbourhood to be used to such bloody goings-on. Ada hung back, and Crispin begged off arguing with the police to stay with her. Gathercole, in contrast, marched forward to where the police were holding off a crowd of agitated students and residents with bellowed shouts and red faces.

“I say! Excuse me, officer?” Gathercole pushed his way between a couple of obstreperous young men to reach the front.

“Sir, I’m just going to tell you the same thing I’ve been telling these nosy scallywags. Until the detectives have finished examining the scene and the ambulance has taken the body, you’re not getting in. I will, however, take your name and any statement you might have to offer as a witness.”

“My name is William Gathercole. I’m a consultant on this case for Detective Constable Wentworth. If he’s present, he’ll confirm my bona fides. Please be a brick and ask him.”

The constable gave Gathercole a hard and sceptical stare, and then nodding to his companion went in through the glossy black door and disappeared from sight.

“Alright! Back you lot until the other constable returns! Let’s have some order!” Shouted the other constable and prodded Gathercole in the chest with the tip of his truncheon, pushing him back into the jostling embrace of the crowd.

Gathercole lifted his gaze the several stories of the building. It was at the very top where shadows were flitting, as though several men were moving about. There was even the occasional bright flash of a photograph being taken, and a puff of smoke from the slightly cracked window. The curtain was drawn, but even so, there was a russet splash of drying blood against the pane, the distinctive shape – even from here – of a tremendous dog-like paw print.

The constable reappeared. “Detective Constable Wentworth says to admit you, Sir. I’d best stay to deal with the crowd, you can find your own way up. Stairs on the right, all the way up. Hope you’ve a strong stomach, Sir.”

“That I do,” sighed Gathercole and made his way inside.

It was not so different from the Professor’s house, save for the fact that the body had not been removed. The detectives were so out of sorts from what they saw – unused to animal attacks of any kind in this country, let alone the city – that they barely noticed Gathercole enter.

One, however, did.

Wentworth was even whiter than usual and a little green about the gills to boot, it made his freckles much starker, and the blood on the lampshades picked up the red of his hair and the bloodshot patterns in his eyes.

“Gathercole, you can’t be here!” He whispered. “I only called you up because you’re less trouble here than out there, and maybe I can reason with you. You can come back later.”

“Charlie, I need to see it fresh. I need a feel for it. It’s no good coming after. Is it the same?”

DC Wentworth nodded, grimly. “Torn to pieces, blood everywhere. Bites and claws but no sign of the beast or beasts that did it. Hard thing to stage.” He tapped out a cigarette from its packet and lit it from one hanging out of his mouth.

“Witnesses?” Gathercole leaned around Wentworth, making furious notes in his pocketbook.

“Nothing direct, we had to break the door down. There was a fellow next door, but he’s not exactly coherent.”

“I need to talk to him.”

“I don’t think that’s a…”

“I need to talk to him,” Gathercole insisted.

Wentworth heaved another sigh and blew the smoke from his cigarette up towards the ceiling. “Alright, but then you have to leave before I get into trouble.” He led the way back to the door.

Gathercole paused a moment and crouched down, using his pencil to measure a bloody paw-print on the cream carpet. “Hmm, bigger than a wolf, smaller than a bear.”

“How in the world do you know these things?” Wentworth hung around the door, waiting.

“You think only people leave ghosts?” Gathercole stood again and followed him through.

The witness was another student, huddled in another cramped garret. A full ashtray sat before him, and he was taking frequent nips from a hip flask. He seemed shaken in the extreme, trembling as he sat on the edge of his camp bed, sweat staining the armpits of his shirt – and it wasn’t from the heat.

“Mr McLeod? This here is Mr Gathercole, he’s an… ah, consulting detective with us. Something like Mr Holmes from Conan-Doyle’s books if you will. He specialises in cases like this, the peculiar ones. Would you mind answering a few of his questions?”

The lad nodded slightly, and Wentworth bowed out, leaving Gathercole with McLeod. Gathercole took a moment and then offered his own hip flask. “I’d lay good odds this is better than whatever you’re drinking, help yourself.”

The lad took a sip, then a longer drink and wiped his lips on his sleeve, steadying slightly.

“McLeod eh? Islander?”

He nodded and spoke, though his accent was of a gentler mould, educated Edinburgh more than the highlands and islands. “Yes Sir, though I must say I much prefer city life. I did at any rate, until now. It’s a rum do Mr Gathercole, very rum indeed.”

Gathercole lit one of his Dunhills and took a long, thoughtful drag.

“I want to reassure you, young MacLeod, that I am not the police. If you’ve held anything back from them for fear of seeming mad, or anything the police might not approve of, you needn’t fear that of me. I have seen many uncanny and ab-natural things in my lifetime, and I’m not even talking about the war. I want you to be perfectly honest.”

“I was resting, smoking, reading by the window. It can get stifling up here with the heat from all the other rooms rising up to the roof. I was taking a little break from my studies when all of a sudden, I heard the most terrific crash from the other room. Then screams, snarls, roars, howls and… and poor old Willy shrieking like billy-o. Then it went quiet, terrible quiet Sir.”

“You didn’t go to check?” Gathercole stooped over the ashtray and plucked up one of the newer, fresher butts.

“Not right away, Sir, I was terrified, you see.”

Gathercole lifted the butt to his nose and sniffed slightly.

“Mr MacLeod, I told you, I need you, to be honest. I will neither judge you nor turn you over to the police. Muggle-head or not.” He pointedly dropped the butt back into the ashtray. “Unless, of course, you continue to dissemble.”

The lad hung his head and sighed. “Fine. I was smoking marijuana out of the window when I heard the sounds. That much I haven’t omitted anything about. I did go to the door, though, without thinking, and I looked out.”

“What did you see?” Gathercole leaned closer in anticipation.

“The stairwell was like mist or smoke. I could smell the blood and the way the smoke moved… it was like seeing a face in the clouds. A man, or a wolf, or both. Wolves I mean, men. Two of them. Then they faded away. I blinked, and they were gone. I couldn’t tell the police that.”

“No. If I were you, I still wouldn’t tell them that. Mr McLeod, you’re not mad. Certain vices have a way of opening the mind to other planes of existence, at least for a moment. You saw something real, you saw something true. Just keep it to yourself around the constables. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll leave you to your recovery.”

Gathercole swung open the door and stepped quickly out.

“Anything useful, Will?” Wentworth called after him.

“Very!” Gathercole hopped down the stairs two at a time and back out the front.

Crispin forced his way to the front of the crowd. There were no regrets at the hisses and tuts from his elbow digs. “Progress?”

“Progress,” Gathercole took Crispin’s hand and let him pull him through the crowd. “Methinks it is like a weasel.”

“So, are we hunting some monstrous ghost-weasel or has The Bard himself returned from the grave to torture me for not appreciating Romeo and Juliet in my literature class?” Crispin let his hand linger against Gathercoles and then drew it away, a little too fast, with a nervous glance towards the constables.

“Neither. A witness, a muggler, saw smoky, ghost-shapes fleeing the scene. We need to find young Ada post-haste, we need to know who else was close to the Professor. It’s like they’re being picked off one by one.”

“Fan, as I am, of the Turkish vice, it doesn’t make for reliable witnesses. Ada’s still around somewhere, she should stand out in this sea of handsome young men. Ah, there she is.” Crispin pointed, and the pair of them marched on over.

Ada startled at their abrupt arrival. “It’s horrible, two people I know, dead! I can’t get any sense out of anyone. An animal attack? Both of them? The Professor’s locked house? The attic here, without disturbing anyone else? It’s simply unbelievable.”

Gathercole rested his hands on her shoulders and looked Ada full in the eyes. “Ada, I want to help. Whatever or whoever this is, it’s clearly targeting people who knew the Professor. People who worked on the Coldham site would be my guess. Did you find something there? Something special? If so, who was it that found it?”

Ada leaned back against the wall and lowered her head, fingers to her temples. She stayed like that for a long minute, and Crispin was about to open his mouth and prompt her, but Gathercole quickly waved him down. It was another thirty seconds before she spoke.

“We hadn’t found much that would excite anyone but an archaeologist, until the second to last day. We found coins and jewellery, offerings more typically found in bogs or wells, but much more interesting to find here. Then we found a pair of idols. Wolf heads, carved from stone. The Professor found them I mean, and he and willy conferred over them. I cleaned and catalogued them. That’s what we all have in common. The dig and the heads.” She looked up, crying without sobbing, her make-up running down her cheeks.

“That’s the order? The Professor dug them out, Willy handled them, and then they passed on to you?”

“Yes, and then the porters and staff, I’m sure. I lost track after cataloguing.”

“The professor died last night, Willy tonight…” Gathercole held her gaze.

“Oh, Lord. I’m next, aren’t I?”

Gathercole nodded slowly. “Ada, I know you’re of a scientific mind, but you can’t deny something strange is going on her. I can help, but I need you to trust me and to entrust yourself to me. Myself and Crispin will do all we can to keep you alive and please, believe me, the constabulary are powerless against an enemy such as this.”

Ada simply nodded and took his hands in hers.

***

“Well, this is a much nicer place than the male student’s rooms,” Crispin observed, meandering back to where Gathercole was setting up his radio-pentagram, symbols and wards with his characteristic care.

“A woman’s touch,” Gathercole murmured, checking and rechecking the circuits and the battery charge.

Crispin sniffed, dismissively. “Quite attractive, our Miss Carter, wouldn’t you say?” He nudged the battery pack with his shoe.

“Ada? Perhaps. Quite the ‘bright young thing’ I’m sure.”

“Yes, I thought you’d rather noticed that. Young girl, togs, showing off her legs and all. Probably a bulldyker if you ask me, dressing up like a young man.”

“Crispin!” Gathercole snapped, looking up. “Now is not the time for one of your fits of jealous pique. Yes, she’s an attractive young woman and yes, despite your best efforts, efforts which are very much appreciated, I am still attracted to women. I also like both roast beef and ice cream, but I can’t eat both at once, and I’m rather enjoying my beef. Now, can we please give every effort to saving this young woman’s life?”

There was an awkward silence.

“Fine.” Crispin stalked out, lighting a fresh cigarette.

“I say, is everything alright?” Ada appeared from the tiny kitchenette with a fresh cup of tea, which Gathercole accepted gratefully.

“Crispin is a wonderful man and a loyal friend but given to tempers which he is ill-equipped to express. So, he lashes out. Still, I wouldn’t have him any other way.”

Ada leaned against the wall, nibbling at a biscuit, swallowing and looking away. “The love that dare not speak its name?”

“Oh,” chuckled Gathercole. “I dare not speak it. We have other things to worry about.”

“I’d rather think about just about anything else, rather than this doom you seem to think is coming for me. It would fit the pattern, and I’m given to understand the constabulary are questioning the animal trainers at circuses and zoos. Your ghost story almost seems more plausible.”

Gathercole turned the switch on and closed his eyes a moment, listening to the barely perceptible hum before he snapped it off again. “Miss Carter, whether you believe me or not, I firmly believe you’re safer with two strapping men standing guard than you would be alone.”

“You are not wrong there, and I imagine with you and Crispin I’m even safer on that score.” She poked her tongue into her cheek and quirked an eyebrow.

“Ha! I like you. Can we keep you?”

“I think that depends on your tomfool contraption, don’t you?”

“My tomfool contraption, magic words, garlic oil and the eight signs of the Saaamaaa Ritual.”

“Well, that makes me feel so much better.”

“It should,” Gathercole said with such utmost sincerity and seriousness that Ada fell mute and took her place in the centre of the antennae.

***

Time flew past, the sun set. Crispin got over his fit of pique and returned to help with the preparations, warding the windows and doors with garlic, silver dust and blessed water. He even warmed to Ada, as much as he was able, finding a mutual love of lewd jokes to chuckle over while Gathercole refined his machines.

As soon as it was dark enough to switch on the electric lights, Gathercole became all business.

“Ada, into the circle and please, do not leave it, no matter what. Crispin, please, stay back. I suspect this may be a Saiitii manifestation, stronger than anything we’ve faced before. I do not want to see you hurt.”

Ada scurried into place and sat down, cross-legged in the middle of the chalk, symbols and antennae, seeing how serious they both were. Crispin frowned but backed away, holding Gathercole’s service pistol loosely by his side, for all the good it would do.

Gathercole snapped on the switch, drawing power – for now – from the mains supply to the room. The antennae began to hum, barely discernible against the background noise of the city beyond the claustrophobic walls. The tone changed slightly as he adjusted and tuned, trying to anticipate the precise frequency he would need.

“Anything?” He locked the switches into position with a click.

“Nothing yet,” Crispin crisscrossed the room, pacing, staring into every shadow and every corner in nervous anticipation.

“That gun will likely do no good you know,” Gathercole tapped his thermometer and voltmeter and rechecked his dials.

“It does the good of making me feel better,” Crispin swallowed, drily. “It’s something solid, heavy and real, something I understand.”

“There!” Ada pointed toward the door. “That shadow, it moved!”

Gathercole and Crispin turned as one, Gathercole lifting his flashlight and flicking it on, but there was nothing there that he could see.

“Wait…” Crispin pointed now, inside the room, where the wall and floor joined at the skirting board.

Gathercole saw it then, it was the most peculiar sight that set the creeps twitching across his shoulder muscles and made the hair on his nape stand up.

There was a shadow, as though cast by a light in the very centre of the room. There was no light. Just the side lamps and the shaded bulb hanging from the ceiling. Still, the shadow moved, slunk, spreading across the floor and ceiling wall, distorted like some horrifying shadow puppet.

It was unmistakably a wolf, and it grew and spread like a storm cloud, across and up the wall.

“Another one!” Crispin pointed with the barrel of the pistol towards the other wall where a second great shadow was spreading across the wallpaper, flanking Ada between them.

There was a smell, like a wet dog and a slight mist seemed to fill the room. Gathercole stared in disbelief as the carpet before him appeared to collapse upon itself. There was an indent in the shape of a gigantic paw, then another, and another. The room echoed with a savage growl, resonant and choral between the two shadows, and then a great howl that all but deafened them, forcing them to slap their hands over their ears.

The shadows didn’t attack though, they seemed to pace around the periphery of the antennae, and there was a slight shimmer in the air and a crackle of electricity whenever they got too close, the increasingly familiar stink of ozone briefly filling their nostrils.

“They’re not attacking,” Crispin brought down his arms and shifted the pistol from hand to hand as he wiped his sweaty palms on his trousers.

“It’s the radio-pentagram, they can sense it. They show intelligence, incidental physical effects. I’ve never even heard of anything like it! Not like this. Malevolence, yes, but problem-solving!”

“I’m glad you’re having fun.”

Ada was whimpering, curled into a tight ball, as close to the centre of Gathercole’s markings as she could cram herself. Eyes screwed shut, refusing to even look at the shadow spectres that stalked around her.

As Gathercole and Crispin watched, one of the shadows reached out, and its shadow form seemed to solidify as it’s paw grew closer to the radio-pentacle, darkness and smoke in the shape of an enormous claw. It was like trying to push together two powerful magnets, no matter how hard the creatures pushed – and they saw them manifest as they did, in sections, like a mad jigsaw of giant wolf parts – they could not penetrate it. The lights flickered, the improved cabling taking the strain, but it was a stand-off, and that was not enough, Gathercole returned to his instruments.

“They’re changing!” Crispin called out, raising the pistol again in a shaking hand and pulling back the hammer.

Gathercole looked up again and there, against the invisible field of the radio-pentacle were the two shadow beings, part man now, part wolf, straining against and exploring the field, straining the gear to its limit. The antennae were beginning to glow and wilt from the strain.

“Can’t we dissipate them? Like the Hodgson affair? Lure them in and power the thing back on?”

The sounds of growling and snarling forced Crispin to raise his voice, and one of the things turned to ‘look’ at him when he did so.

“No! it would tear her to pieces in an instant!” Gathercole’s hands moved to the controls, his eyes flickering around as he visualised the circuit diagrams in his head, grasping for a technical solution. “Maybe the batteries as well as the power…”

Gathercole’s head rang, and he swayed away. The report of the pistol was like a punch to the ear, and it brought a momentary flash of the trenches that completely replaced the supernatural scene before him with more mundane horror and familiar horror or yellow-green gas and thunderous artillery.

He shook his head and snapped back to, his heart smashing against his ribs like it wanted to burst out. Crispin was screaming his name as the pistol rang the room like a bell until it clicked on an empty chamber. The shadow-shape that he was aiming at staggered with the blows of the bullets, but didn’t stop. One by one the slugs dropped to the floor, from mid-air, as though the air itself had at first thickened, and then dissipated to allow them to do so.

He breathed in, he breathed out and looked to Crispin, saw his mouth moving, yelling, screaming something at him that he couldn’t read or hear. Until he could.

“WILL! DO SOMETHING! WE’RE NOT PROTECTED!”

He turned back to the Bakelite case and with shaking fingers, turned down the dial.

Sensing the weakness instantly, the shadow became the wolf again, entirely, and leapt, striking the weakened field with a tremendous fizzing crackle like a thunderbolt, the pair of them beating against the invisible pentagram with such ferocity that the floorboard shook and cracked.

“DISTRACT THEM!” Gathercole screamed.

“HOW?”

“SPEAK TO THEM!”

Crispin knew a smattering of many languages, he dropped the useless pistol and clutched his hands to his temples, struggling against his own panic.

“Ah, damn… listen to me! Listen to me, wolves. Ah…” He stumbled over his half-remembered words.

“B-Bleydhes, goslaws orthum!”

Nothing.

“Madadh, east reeum!

Nothing.

“Bleiss, selaouam!” Nothing. They continued their assault on the field.

“Bleiddiaid, grandwich arnay!” He could barely make himself heard over the snarling and electric hum.

“Wearg, heeran mi!”

Then finally, in desperation. “Lupi, audite me!”

The assault stopped, just for a moment and the shadowy figures turned. A great snarling shout filled the room with a force that staggered them both.

“NA HIONRÓIRÍ!”

 “NA HIONRÓIRÍ!”

It was the momentary distraction that was needed. Gathercole slammed the dial and switches over, dumping the power from the batteries into the system and creating a new wave of force. The shadows shook and thinned but did not melt.

Then Gathercole spoke, quietly, the Last Line of the Saaamaaa Ritual and finally, the wolves gave way, like smoke in the wind.

That sense of pressure vanished, the relief like the breaking of a storm. Gathercole physically staggered and flipped off the switches and dialled. He and Crispin crawled, exhausted, across the floor to hold Ada between them, whose sobs were now ones of joy and relief.

Through the ringing in his ears, Gathercole leaned close to Crispin and asked: “What did they say?”

“They called us, the Invaders.”

Part Two: A Failure of Imagination

“Good Lord, this is tiresome.” Gathercole closed the cover of yet another archaeological journal and placed it face down, reaching to the pile for another. “Are we sure this is everything?”

“Everything that’s been published.” Crispin was still in a state of dudgeon from the early morning, but he was dutifully ploughing his way through his own share of the journals.

Gathercole stifled a yawn. “We are looking for something meaningful, something singular, something that speaks to ritual or ab-natural forces. This Professor Bradley seems driven to paroxysms of near sensual joy by a few fragments of pot.”

“Why couldn’t he be interested in the Romans or the Greeks? What I wouldn’t give for a plate illustration of a saucy mosaic or a wall-painting of Apollo about now. Instead, it’s pieces of pot, animal bones and the occasional rusted lump that might, perhaps, in a certain light, be a cloak pin.”

“This is like finding hen’s teeth,” Gathercole harrumphed and turned back a page, having lost focus.

Crispin raised a finger. “All chicks have a special structure on their beak called an egg tooth, which they use to breatk their shell. So a hen’s tooth would be much easier to find than this.”

A white-haired librarian woman with thick glasses appeared around one of the stacks. “Would you mind keeping it down, gentlemen? Students are trying to learn.”

“I do apologise madam.” Gathercole inclined his head slightly.

“Oh, Professor Bradley’s work? Poor man. We’re all quite distraught to hear of his passing. One wonders who could do such a thing.” The woman tutted and shook her head.

“Or what…” Gathercole opined before Crispin gave him a sharp look. “I’m sorry, we’re assisting the police in the matter of his passing. Is this all his work? We’re hoping we might find some clue.”

“Oh, yes, this is everything. Everything that has been published at least. I pride myself on a complete catalogue, at least as it relates to the university and the record of work relating to it.”

“So there is unpublished work?” Gathercole leaned forward in the soft, yielding leather seat, which resisted his efforts.

“Yes, it can take a long time to make revisions and so forth to get published. There’s two or three papers he’s been working on, and everything relating to the Coldham dig site of course.” She couldn’t help herself, and she bent down to tidy the chaotic stacks of journals they had left strewn over the table.

“The Coldham dig site?” Gathercole was standing now, and Crispin reluctantly followed him up to his feet.

“Feelan’s Copse, find of a lifetime he said. Forever harping on about the amateur archaeologists of the past stamping around like elephants. This place was unspoilt, he said. They finished the dig not too long ago.”

“And his work on this site would be where?”

“Well, in his office.”

“Thank you, you’ve been most helpful!” Gathercole strode away on his long legs, leaving Crispin to offer the librarian his hurried apologies before he gave pursuit.

The Professor’s study wasn’t in a position of particularly good standing, tucked away in a warren of rooms and corridors, far from the light of the sun and thick with dust. There was nobody to stop them, and it wasn’t locked, but the state of the room left a great deal to be desired. The police had, clearly, already been here and while they had methodically swept the room for clues, they had not put everything back in the precise order that, presumably, the Professor had kept things in.

Gathercole began to methodically work his way through the papers and notes while Crispin half-heartedly leafed through bits and pieces and ran his fingertips across the folders on the shelves, not entirely sure what he was looking for. It took hours, and even Gathercole’s tenacious and analytical mind began to fray a little around the edges.

“Blast it, Crispin, there’s nothing here about Coldham or Feelan’s Copse other than this near illegible note begging the bursar for some funds. Another blasted dead end.”

“Hmm?” Crispin had fallen asleep a while go, in the battered arm chair that was the only other furniture in the room.

“You could have at least pretended to help for a little longer,” Gathercole snapped at him, reproachfully and got up. The study chair rolled back on its wheels into a stack of books and Gathercole yanked the door to the study open. He almost got a punch in the face, a pair of young men were standing there, one mid-knock upon the door, almost overbalancing as the door opened before him.

“Good Lord!” The first student gasped. “I’m so sorry!”

Gathercole gathered himself with a slight cough, straightening the lapels of his pale suit. “Quite alright young fellow, can I help you with anything?”

The first man looked a little crestfallen at the question, his friend, in a rather natty straw skimmer with a band in the university colours, burgundy and black, spoke up. “We are students of Professor Bradley, old boy. Were, rather, I should say. We’re trying to make do until we get a new Professor and we drew the short straw to look up the lesson plans and the last papers we handed in.”

“Who are you exactly?” The glum-looking, hatless student looked up.

“We’re consultants for the constabulary,” Crispin spoke up as Gathercole was lost for words for a moment. “We’re investigating his death, supplementing their work.”

“We may be able to help you with the papers and lesson plans, we’ve gone through this whole office. One moment.”

Gathercole ducked back into the office and tugged the papers from the shelf, holding them out to the students.

As the hatless young man was about to take them, Gathercole pulled them back, as though changing his mind. “Perhaps you could help us in return? It seems like a lot of the records are missing, particularly about the most recent dig?”

“Ah,” said the skimmer-wearer. “Well, that was only just finished, it’s all still in process. Laid out in one of the storerooms. It’s going to be a bit of a task to get everything in order without the Professor. He was a frightful stickler for doing things properly, the blighter, but a wise old head on matters scientific.”

“You can show me where these finds are?”

“Of course sir, happy to.”

Gathercole gave over the paperwork, and the two young fellows led them through the impenetrably labyrinthine corridors of the university.

Crispin trailed along beside, still thoroughly bored, though he’d seemed to have lightened up a little in the company of the student boys. “This is starting to take me back a bit Gathercole, pair of handsome of bucks like this, almost enough to make me miss it.”

“You’re incorrigible, Crispin.” Gathercole gave him an affectionate biff on the arm as they followed the students into the storeroom.

Electric lights brightened as they warmed up, a series of overhead metal lamps that gave the cement floor and brick walls an even more stark and unforgiving look than they would already have had. All over the floor were crates and boxes of finds, trinkets, broken cloak-ins, pieces of broken pottery, coins, carved stones with spirals upon their surfaces and more.

Gathercole began to move through the finds, mentally cataloguing them as he did, searching for the ineffable something that smacked of the ab-natural.

“The Professor recorded where everything was found in these notebooks, we’d begun double-checking everything. The low numbers are the outer finds, the high numbers are the inner finds. Letters indicate what manner of find it was, roughly most significant to least significant, ‘A’ through ‘Z’. Everything’s labelled too.” Said skimmer-boy.

“I say, William, this crate’s still closed. The label says one-‘A’,” Crispin called out. “I say, fellows, what’s in this one?”

“That’s the chap who was buried in the mound. Fragile skeletal remains, some grave goods. We hadn’t finished indexing them when what happened, happened.” The hatless lad was still rather dour and sad.

“Can we open it up?” Gathercole moved to the crate and rested his hand upon it.

“Na ye bloody-well kin nae open it up!” They all turned and the bellowing shout. It was a short, bald man in red-brown tweed, with a robust scots accent. He puffed on his pipe and growled around it, giving him the appearance of a rather red-faced steam locomotive. “Grey, Winston! Explain yersel, who oor thaese men, eh?”

Skimmer spoke up. “Sorry Professor Sievwright! They’re working with the police on Professor Bradley’s death. They asked to see the finds.”

“And did yae ask for their credentials?” Sievwright’s accent faded as his fury abated, though clearly, it took effort.

“No, sir.”

“Sorry, sir.”

“Away wi’ ye, and as for you two gentlemen. Gae oot!” The accent came back as quickly as it had faded as his face reddened again.

“Sir, if we’re to solve this case we simply must…” Gathercole strove to be diplomatic, but they were all interrupted a second time.

This time it was a young woman, togs and boots, a flowy blouse, a tam on her head, she cut quite the modern figure. She was white as a sheet, though, and her voice was all a-quiver. “Professor, Winnie, Flusher, there’s been another death. It’s Willy. Like Bradders, at his boarding house. The police won’t let anyone see him!”

Gathercole and Crispin shared a glance, that settled it. There were more urgent things afoot than a box. The scots guard dog could wait.

Hypione’s shop squats in a tangle of alleys on the edge of The Briers – an abandoned area where the streets went sour many years ago. The rent is cheap, The Baron often overlooks taxes, and it has the vibrancy of many a poor district in the Infinite City. All this despite its proximity to the poison, horrors and byblows of streets lost to the darkness.

It’s an odd little place, her shop: a schizophrenic space that is neither one thing nor the other.

In the one half of the grubby little storefront, there is a menagerie of creatures — nothing anyone would want as a pet, perhaps. There are insects, rats, mangy curs and battle-scarred cats from the alleys, the occasional lice-infested pigeon. Well cared for, considering, but caged.

On the other side of the store, there is gleaming gold and brass, shining silver. It sounds out with a cacophony of tick-tocking that creates a background hum like the thrum of a cockchafer’s wings. This half is neat and ordered, the smell of oil stronger than the smell of piss, dung and musk from the animals.

It’s not the sort of place you’d necessarily expect to draw children, but there they are every day. The honey-cakes and sweetmeats of the other shops are beyond the street children’s meagre earnings; the other shops are esoteric, obscure, dull or ‘grown-up’. Hypione’s menagerie, and the gilt contents of her glass cases, on the other hand, are endlessly fascinating.

For her part, Hypione welcomes the interruptions, recruits the urchins who genuinely seem to care to feed and help care for the animals. Her few, well-paying, customers are not much company, and the children remind her of her sons, one killed by road-pirates as a child himself, one long gone to find his fortune in the far districts. She more that tolerates them, she loves her little visitors, though she never shows it. She also tolerates their shenanigans, or at least most of them.

Hypione is sat upon her high stool one morning, behind her countertop. She swaps her spectacle lenses back and forth, increasing magnification and clarity. She tinkers with the fine-tooled device in a near-trance. Her tools are even more delicate than the brass-and-silver thing held in the clamp, almost microscopic. All the while, she resolutely ignores the street children as they chase and play about the store.

Then Hox, one of her regular visitors, does something that even she, old and blithe as she is, cannot stand for.

A spider, fat and glossy and beautiful, barely the size of her little fingernail, descends from the ceiling on a fine gossamer thread. She alights on the counter, where Hox notices her. She preens with her forelegs and Hypione is momentarily distracted. In the magnification of the lenses, the little creature is more beautiful, not less, and for a moment she is lost in the predatory perfection of eyes, jaws and carapace.

Then Hox snatches up the tiny seamstress. “Ew!”, and before Hypione can react, he has plucked off one of the spider’s delicate little legs.

“You little fucking beast!” Hypione cries out. “Let that spider go this very instant and get out of my shop!”

Hox jumps almost out of his skin, dropping the spider and fleeing from the store, in shock that Hypione should swear, which she never does. The other children follow in a frenzied train, all flapping rags and chattering.

Hypione picks up the delicate little spider; her legs all curled in against her body. She takes a moment to shut the door and flip the sign before she gives her little sister a closer look.

Her little sister’s carapace is cracked. She leaks a tiny amount of fluid. One of her legs is gone, another has been snapped and is dangling. In the magnification of the spectacles, Hypione cannot fool herself that this tiny creature is meaningless, that it isn’t suffering, that it is just a pest to be stomped or swatted.

“This shall not do little sister. Your weaving keeps the flies from my food and the silverfish from my stores. I apologise for the way my house guest has treated you.”

She carries her little sister back into her workshop and, moving swiftly, immerses the tiny creature in a vat of sparkling, glutinous fluid.

The spider’s carapace begins to melt away, but she is not dissolving. Not completely. As the chitin, muscle and lymph dissipates into the fluid, what remains is replaced. A delicate filigree, as fine as any web she had ever spun, a sapphire net of her ganglia, nerves and brain.

While her little sister is stripped back to her most vital essence in the fluid, Hypione finds an empty shell. A clockwork spider carapace, no bigger than her thumb. Chip-emerald eyes, a body of platinum, palladium with jaws and toe-tips of tungsten.

She unscrews and opens it up with a deft and precise hand. She cleans it, oils it, winds the mechanism until it begins to tick – the only winding it will ever need. She swabs it with a delicate touch, a thin sheen of alcohol removing the oil from her fingers and evaporating into the air, leaving her wanting a nip. Not yet, though.

Tweezers lift the sapphire net from the tub, a squirt of water strips the gel from what remains. She holds her breath as she sets the spider-net on her bench and teases out the hardening sapphire thread to replace the missing and broken legs.

A pair of rubber-tipped, minuscule tweezers lift the little sapphire and nestle it into its body. The faintest dab of glue on the tip of a needle fixes the glittering blue weave in place.

A few twists of the screwdriver and the case is closed shut. Then the switch is clicked into place. The silvery spider flexes its legs and twists over onto its front with a twist and a kick.

She stands there a moment, staring up at Hypione, though there is no way such a little thing can know gratitude.

Tick-tick-tick.

“Gods speed your way, little sister.”

Then the ticker-tack of tungsten feet on hardwood, and she is gone. Scurrying away into the darkness of the workshop.

Hypione heaves herself out of her stool and pauses a moment, running her hand across the front of a much larger tank of the glittering goo.

The size of a child