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Posts Tagged ‘gathercole investigates’

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“So there is unpublished work?”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.

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Part One: The Fate of Nyctimus

The door creaked open, swollen slightly in its frame from the wet of the summer storm. The petrichor scent was still rising from the hot streets, strong enough that it even masked the copper-rust smell of the room.

“I’m afraid I’ll get in trouble for this, but I’m fresh out of ideas, and this whole affair made me think of you.”

He was a tall, lanky man, surprisingly graceful and topped with a shock of red hair that – other than its colour – wouldn’t have looked out of place on a negro. It was – somewhat haphazardly, pushed down beneath a rolled derby and otherwise, his appearance was impeccable.

“I’m flattered Detective Constable,” Gathercole smiled slightly and picked his way over the threshold like a ballerina en pointe, careful to disturb little.

“I’m off the clock old boy, call me Charlie,” said the detective, following in Gathercole’s wake.

Gathercole paused and covered his hand with the bright blue handkerchief from his breast pocket, quite the contrast to his pale cream jacket. So protected, he flipped on the electric light and revealed a shocking scene.

The rooms were of impeccable taste, a fascinating – but balanced – the contrast between the old and the new.

There were shelves, heavy with books and ornaments, some of which seemed like nothing but rubbish. There were fragments of broken pot, pieces of stone, a few old coins. These were presented just as proudly as the modern clock on the mantle, or the standing lamps in the shape of half-naked dancers, scandalous – but rendered slightly more tasteful by the angular form of their sculpting.

The furnishings, similarly, were tasteful and modern, sleek and angular. This sense of tension between the old and new, the tastefulness of the décor, the stylistic ornaments, the artefacts upon the shelves, it was all disrupted by just one interrupting element.

Everything had been splashed with blood. It was as though some geyser of gore had erupted in the centre of the room. Blood splatter reached as far as the ceiling, and despite the best efforts of the police thus far, there were still fragments of viscera dashed about the place with the liberal abandon of wedding confetti.

Gathercole picked his way across and around the room, taking everything in with cold and precise detachment. A magician’s flourish and his notebook and pen appeared, conjuring the chicken-scratch shorthand of his notations across the page.

Detective Constable Wentworth held back, letting Gathercole work, following him with his gaze as the man in white went over the room with methodical, mechanical precision.

Finally, Gathercole stepped back to the detective, and his pen paused against the page.

“The body has been removed, but it is clear that this was a particularly violent death. One that would put a frenzied butcher to shame. The room tells me surprisingly little about the victim, though I would guess that they were a man,” Gathercole glanced to the standing lamps. 

“A man who did not hurt for money,” He continued. “I note that the poker is missing from the fireplace and not to be found, suggesting that they grasped it to defend themselves and that it has been removed from the scene with the body.”

Gathercole moved past Wentworth to the door. “I can’t say I’m much of a fan of open-plan living, though of course, the upper floor is more private. A general-purpose room all but directly off the front door suggests certain things about their character, but I do hate to speculate. The windows are all fastened, and there is no sign of damage, at least down here. The front door, however, is a different matter. I see the wood has been snapped where the door has been forced. There are deep scrapes in the carpet and on the back of this kitchen chair. That suggests that it was barricading the door when it was forced.”

“Ah, that was us Gathercole. He had to force entry to get to the corpse.”

“I see,” Gathercole swiftly crossed out several lines of shorthand.

“In which case, I see no sign of forced ingress on this floor. Wait here.”

Gathercole carefully stepped across the bloodstained room and disappeared into the back rooms for a time, then – leaving his shoes behind – he made his way in stockinged feet up the stairs. It was some time before he returned, sitting on the stairs to re-tie his shoes before he continued.

“No forced windows upstairs, no signs of struggle there. Nor at the back door, though another chair is braced against the rear door. They certainly knew something was coming for them. No soot, so nothing got in down the chimney. What can you tell me about the victim?”

Wentworth fetched his own notebook from his pocket and thumbed through the pages. “Professor Noel Bradley, forty-four years of age, the presumed victim as this is his residence and he hasn’t been seen today. A professor of archaeology at Birkbeck College, University of London. This only happened last night, so we’re still phoning around and gathering statements.”

“What can you tell me about the state of the body?” Gathercole’s pen paused again.

“Well, since I know you’re not squeamish… the poor bugger was torn the shreds. Throat ripped out, guts torn open. There were bite marks all over him. Now, I’m something of an amateur naturalist, and to me, I don’t think this was any dog I’ve ever seen. Not at that size and with the shape of the jaw. If it were anything, it was a freakishly gigantic german shepherd, and personally, I’d put money on a wolf.”

“Not your typical murder weapon, d’you have any theories?” Gathercole screwed the cap back onto his pen, tucking it back into his pocket with his notebook.

“Those sorts of things are well above my rank old boy, but between you and me nobody has the slightest clue. So I called you.”

“I think you were right to,” Gathercole stepped past Wentworth and out onto the damp flagstones of the path. It was steamy and humid now outdoors, and he loosened his tie, blinking at the bright sun.

“If anyone asks, you didn’t hear anything from me. Honestly, though, it seems to me that it would take something unnatural to sneak a dog or dogs into a closed house like that anyway, let alone not to leave any paw prints or hair. It’s all yours.”

Crispin was waiting by the Bedford, smoking a cigarette and frowning slightly against the sun.

They climbed into the car and started it up, Crispin tossing his cigarette out of the window to concentrate on turning the wheel. “Something for us then?”

“I think so, though we’ll have to play it carefully. The police aren’t the most understanding of my experiments.”

“Except Charlie there. He seems quite open to your ideas. How do you know him anyway?”

Gathercole glanced across the car and smiled slightly. “Drag ball near White City, you wouldn’t think it for those sideburns, but he makes a halfway decent flapper in the right dress.”

Silently Crispin’s grip on the steering wheel tightened, and the car began to pick up speed.

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Part Four: Freedom Bound

Upon returning to the apartments, the first order of business was to prepare fall-back protection, no matter how inadequate it might prove. Gathercole had trained Crispin in the basics, and inscribing a protective circle was a matter of drafting skill and practice – not a mystical talent. Crispin drew the signs and symbols around Hodgson’s bed and applied the waters and the garlic oil in the way he had been instructed. While he did this, Gathercole set to, breaking apart the radios and the boxes of his devices and working at them in a feverish state of technological possession.

It took almost every moment of the day, a lot of coffee, a great many biscuits and some of Crispin’s special tincture to get the radio-pentacle fixed.

“Má huáng,” Crispin explained, as he so loved to do, though Hodgson was barely paying attention. “Friend of mine in the war was a recruiter for the Chinese Labour Corps, swore by the stuff. Keeps you awake, keeps you sharp, stimulates the senses. Saved my life at Cambrai…”

“Friend, hmm?” Gathercole looked up from the intricacies of his wiring and valves with an arched eyebrow. “Why are you making nice with the uxoricidal spectre bait?”

Crispin paused, mid anecdote. The pause drew on a fraction too long.

“It means wife-killer,” Gathercole broke the silence. “Though how you can forget with the poor woman’s corpse still down there in the floorboards I do not know.”

“Like you, I saw enough death in the war. It’s a familiar friend,” Crispin muttered, resentfully.

Crispin dropped into a sullen, pouting silence after that, grumpily handing over screwdrivers or pliers as Gathercole demanded.

In the end, though, the task was done. While the boxes and aerials of radio-pentacle were not as neat nor as tidy as they once had been, they held a charge and hummed reassuringly. The power to the house had been restored with a judicious re-wrapping of fuse wire. The restored power ran into a rack of squat-looking batteries which, in turn, powered the peculiar devices.

Gathercole sat back on his haunches, legs akimbo, either side of the boxes of exposed wiring, valves and crystals.

“The bloody thing should work again now and should be able to carry more of a charge. If we lose power, the batteries will hold everything together, and I’ve grounded the whole thing more. It’s as good as I can get it in the time we have.”

Crispin checked his pocket watch. “By the almanack, we have about half an hour left before sunset is fully upon us. Is that when the thing will manifest again?”

Gathercole nodded sagely and began to move the radio-pentacle into position, stepping carefully over the chalk pentagram and the symbols and signs that had been employed in the absence of power to secure Hodgson’s person against the spectre.

Hodgson, for his part, had not slept a wink – and without the aid of coffee or tincture. As the sun began to dim and the light through the cracks in the curtains turned a honeyed, smoky yellow his agitation became worse and worse, shaking in terror on the bed he had not left all day.

They checked and re-checked everything, took another dose of the tincture and settled in to wait, standing this time, alert to every creak and rattle of the house as the cooler air of the night set in. Crispin started at every sound, chewing the inside of his cheeks with tension. Hodgson had regressed to the state of a terrified child, huddled under his sheets and blankets, shaking like a bicycle on cobblestones and whimpering from his huddled ball. For his part, Gathercole stood firm, fixated upon his dials and needles, distracted from fretfulness by a screen of numbers, readings and calculation.

Slowly that same sense of pressure and weight filled the room, the sense of an oncoming storm, the air drew tight and oppressive, stuffy. Crispin reached out a hand and squeezed Gathercole’s shoulder, they shared a nod and as a pair swivelled their heads to watch the bed.

Slowly, imperceptibly at first the shadows lengthened, the light dimmed. Coloured bulbs had not been found in time, so they had replaced only a few fittings in the other rooms with the original bright bulbs. They began to flicker and to seem to dim and then virtually the only light remaining was that of the kerosene lamp. Flame, at least shielded flame, seemed resilient to this ab-natural power.

“The flame isn’t electromagnetic, d’you see?” Gathercole whispered to Crispin, who had taken his hand. Gathercole squeezed it, but then unwound his fingers to rend to his dials.

The shadows gathered about themselves in a manner painful to the eye. Not just an absence of light, but a sort of ‘anti-light’ that seemed to pull the very ability to see from one’s eyes. Gathercole swallowed and looked away.

“Crispin, tell me, in as much detail as you can manage, what is happening. I must tend to the radio-pentacle.”

“It’s darker, like smoke, gathering, perhaps more like a storm cloud. Right at the edge of the pentacle.”

Crispin carried on, raising his voice against the increasing hum of the machine and the stifling, leaden air of the room that robbed every sound of its treble.

“It seems more powerful than before, denser.”

“We need more power,” Gathercole twisted the loose, newly installed dials all the way up.

The aerials crackled and sparked, a sickly, violaceous aura surrounded them, flickering and waving like a flame and giving off the stink of ozone that had become all too familiar.

Crispin carried on, in uncharacteristically terse prose, concentrating on the task in hand – his words – much as Gathercole centred himself upon his technical wizardry as a way to displace the creeping horror of facing the ab-natural.

“THOMAS HODGSON! I AM MURDERED! AT YOUR HAND! YOU MUST PAY! YOU DASHED MY SKULL AND PACKED ME IN THE FLOOR THOMAS!” The spectres voice was deafening, shrill, unaffected by the leaden state of the air.

The shadows gathered into a ball of absolute blackness and smashed into the invisible boundary of the radio-pentacle. The violet aura became a crackling blue halo with each strike, and Gathercole feverishly worked his dials, tuning the frequencies against the resistance, finding the frequency of this ab-natural force, finding the settings – as much by art as science – that would most strongly interfere.

For all its hate and anger, this time the force was more methodical, probing in every direction in all three dimensions, but finding no weakness in Hodgson’s protections. Now though, even the chalk and garlic oil were heating up, making their eyes sore with the allium sting and drip tears down their faces. Gathercole dabbed, one-handed, with his blue silk handkerchief as he continued his work.

“It’s stopped,” hissed Crispin, squeezing Gathercole’s shoulder again.

Gathercole looked up, the creeps were stealing over his shoulders and up to his neck. There was the most peculiar feeling of being watched, though the black cloud of ab-natural darkness had no eyes or features.

There was a pulse, like the quake of an artillery shell. It wasn’t heard, but felt, in the thoracic cavity. It robbed them of breath like a punch to the gut, and in that same instant, every bulb shattered, and the aerials of the radio-pentacle glowed red and began to sag.

But they held.

“I think we’ll be alright,” Gathercole allowed himself a smile to Crispin, and at that moment the aphotic force turned on him.

Gathercole was lifted, almost out of his shoes, by force. In an instant frost rimed his suit, spiderwebbing its way across the pale fabric from every crease. He slammed against the wall, against the blood that was drooling from the cornices.

Crispin leapt to his defence, but the spectral form was as insubstantial as smoke, save where it wanted to be. The cold was bitter, though, turning the first joints of his fingers blue. He tried, numbly, to drag Gathercole down from the wall, but there was simply not the strength.

Gathercole clawed at his throat, collar-button flying, gasping, choking, wheezing out with all the volume he could muster, “Turn it off!”

Crispin froze, but then it dawned on him. He snapped the switch off, and the hum of electrical power instantly stopped.

Gathercole fell from the wall, a puppet with his strings cut, gulping for air like a landed trout.

The force moved like lightning, passing through the empty air that had been crackling with occulted electric energy just moments before. A pillow exploded, filling the air with smouldering feathers, the sheets tore. A screaming Hodgson was hoisted into the air and smashed into the ceiling in a shower of plaster.

Gathercole tried to speak, but over the emasculated shrieking of Hodgson, he couldn’t make himself heard. He crawled, past Crispin’s legs as his friend covered his ears with his hands and shrank away from the violent scene.

Suspended on nothing, Hodgson’s helpless body was slammed from wall to wall, leaving dents and impressions in the plaster and paint, splintering boards. His shrieking became more of a frothing wheeze, blood foaming at his mouth as his ribs gave way. With a terrific thud, he was driven down into the bed, so hard that the frame buckled and the mattress was bent and pushed down into it, clear to the floor.

Gathercole hauled himself up the table he had set his machines upon and slammed the switch.

Power surged back into the aerials of the radio-pentagram and Hodgson was dropped. The stygian force rammed against the barrier from the inside. It was unable to pass, though the antennae began to glow and sag once again. Every strike it made it weakened, dissolving, shrinking, losing its mass until finally, feebly, it seemed to fold back in upon itself and disappear.

It was like the moment a storm finally breaks. There was a palpable sense of relief and released tension. Tentatively Gathercole flicked the switch again, turning off the device.

Nothing happened.

Crispin helped him up the rest of the way and cupped his face, kissing his head again and again. For once, Gathercole relaxed into his attentions and threw his arms around him.

“You did it, William! You only bloody well did it. You’re a rum cove William, but by God, I love you for it.”

Hodgson groaned and gasped from the wreckage of the bed.

“What do we do about him?” Crispin’s tender hold of Gathercole’s face hardened in anger before he drew his hands away.

“He’s not going anywhere. We call the police from the first call box we see, tell them he engaged us to cover his behaviour and that we found out the truth. I doubt they’ll question too closely that we beat a wife-killer, but father can intercede if need be.”

“And the poor woman can be put to rest,” Crispin glanced back towards the kitchen.

“Along with her soul. This has given me a lot to think about. Let’s go home, Crispin. I am quite exhausted.”

The End

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Part Three: The Truth Will Out

The rest of the night passed with an air of tension between the men in the bedroom. Crispin couldn’t rest and would sit, brow furrowed for an hour at a time before springing up and pacing about the rooms at a furious pace. Gathercole would pore over his notes and tinker with his machines, offering sighs of frustration at each new failure to bring the aerials back to life. Hodgson, for his part, sulked, curled around himself in the very centre of his bed. Even though the radio-pentacle was defunct, he clung to the idea that it could protect him. It was as though he thought extending the slightest part of his body over the side of the bed would spell his doom.

It wasn’t until the sun rose that the sense of pressure and malevolence lifted – at least slightly. Crispin made fresh coffee. That and a bar of chocolate each had to compensate for the total lack of sleep. They were into their second cup of silent, brooding coffee before Hodgson dared show his face, slinking like a whipped cur into the messy kitchen and refusing both coffee and Cadbury’s on the grounds of an upset stomach.

Gathercole’s temperate nature had been stretched to its limit from the events of the night. His light features were oppressed by a stormy expression and he snapped, loud enough to make Hodgson start and knock a filthy saucer to the floor, breaking into shards.

Gathercole paid the crockery no mind.

“Mr Hodgson, you were not truthful with us. That manifestation was even more powerful than you had intimated and it was utterly fixated upon you, even to the risk of its own dissipation. You know this fiend, and it knows you. This is personal. If I am to save your life and bring an end to this apparition, I need the truth.”

Hodgson still seemed reticent, his lips tightened and lost colour, his tongue moved against his cheek as though considering his options, however few they might be. This went on more than a mere moment, far too long. His fingers twisting a golden ring around and around on his finger.

Crispin’s fist slammed down on the table, interrupting the wait and sending another saucer spilling to the ground to join its shattered brother. “For God’s sake, man! That horrific thing, that shadow, that fiend, will kill you and drag you down to hell! How can this even be a choice!”

Hodgson sprang back from his seat, spilling the chair, almost stumbling on a shard of crockery. Still wordless he pointed, mute, at the floor beneath the table.

Gathercole frowned a moment, but then a slow realisation stole across his face like an over-cautious thief.

“Of course,” he muttered. “I’m such an idiot, always fixated upon the supernatural, blind to the mundane. Here! Crispin! Help me!”

There’s was a shrieking grind as he shoved the breakfast table to the side, the rug gathered in a tangle and shifting with it, sending up a small cloud of grime and dust. Beneath the rug, there were bare boards, darkened and damp. Through the gaps in the planks, there issued a most frightful stench.

“God above,” Crispin thrust his sleeve over his mouth and nose at the reek. “It stinks like a trench.”

Gathercole rammed a filthy carving fork into the gap between the planks and levered, almost falling over when it lifted far more quickly than he had anticipated. The wood was damp, the nails were bent and had obviously already been pulled once before – recently.

“Fuck,” Crispin barked and darted to the already full sink, retching and vomiting into what little space remained.

Gathercole nodded, staring into space beneath the floor and nodded, very deliberately. “Yes, quite.” He drew his handkerchief from his top pocket and, folding it over itself, tied it in the manner of a bandit, its lavender scent guarding him some against the stench.

Hodgson – for his part – cowered in the corner of the dank kitchen, whimpering like a cornered fox.

Beneath the floor, there was the bloated, putrefying corpse of a woman. At least that was what Gathercole assumed, from the clothing and jewellery that was there arrayed. An attempt had been made to hide the very presence of a woman about the house. Every portrait, every piece of womanly attire, had also been stuffed beneath the floor. Perfume bottles had been emptied and deposited with the corpse in a doomed attempt to mask the stink.

“I should have known,” Gathercole muttered to himself as he leaned over the hole in the floor and investigated with his silver pen, poking at the liquefying flesh of the body. “A man of your age, your former station, it would beggar belief that you were a bachelor. The ring, of course, the size of the apartments, the feminine anger of the spectre that pursues you.”

“Have a care, she was a woman, a person. She deserves respect,” Crispin wiped at his mouth but could barely stand from his shock and horror. The same man who stood firm against the fury of the spirit brought low by a rotting corpse.

“The best respect that I know to show her is bringing this bounder to justice. An act that will also discharge our duty to the bounder in question by providing the spirit what it wants.” Gathercole stood up and edged around the hole, moving to where Hodgson was cowering.

With precise, cold anger, Gathercole struck him once, hard, across the face.

“How could you! A woman man! Your wife, presumably!” He gave the man another strike, sending him sprawling and blubbering across the floor.

“Doris, her name was Doris!” Hodgson babbled. “My wife! My God, I didn’t mean to. Married seven years and every day, from the first, complaint after complaint, pricking holes in my every triumph, crowing my every failure! I snapped once. I could not take another harsh word, and I snapped! The paperweight, my God, her head broke like an eggshell and…”

He was cut off, Gathercole had made a fist of his hand and applied it with liberal strength to the man’s mouth, sending him sprawling afresh.

“I will hear no excuse or justification from you, coward! What is a harsh word to you? Nothing! Gnat bites! Gallons of blood have been spilt for flag and country, against men just as devoted to ending their opponent, and you slaughter a helpless woman with a sharp tongue? You disgust me, sir. Where the devil is my pistol?” He cast about, but fortunately for Hodgson, the iron still lay on the floor in the bedroom.

Crispin laid hands upon Gathercole and wrestled him away, wrenching open the door, loaned strength by concern for his friend, and all but dragged him out by the ear into the road. “Pull yourself together, man!”

“He’s a damned murderer Crispin!” Gathercole hissed and spat the words, pacing back and forth in rapid agitation. “He deserves whatever fate that poor woman’s spectre has in mind for him!”

“No doubt,” Crispin offered, quietly. “But let him face the justice of man before he faces the justice of God, by God. You are no judge William, no jury, and certainly no executioner.”

Gathercole stopped short then, and for the briefest of moments that cold anger and fierce intellect gave way to the heart. “You’re right Crispin, you’re always right on these matters.”

“Should I get that in writing William?” Crispin smiled and shook his head slightly, then laying his hands upon Gathercole’s shoulders, placed a soft and lingering kiss against his lips.

Gathercole drew back at that. “Crispin, someone might see us, by God.”

Crispin smiled and gave a slight, cavalier laugh. “Ah, let them. Though perhaps you are right. We are a dishevelled pair after a night with ghosts and a morning with corpses.”

“There is no peace, saith my God, to the wicked. We will get no rest yet if we do wish to save this murderer’s skin.”

“You know it is the right thing,” Crispin affirmed quietly, drawing his hands back from Gathercole’s shoulders.

“That it is,” Gathercole’s face was contorted in fierce concentration. “We shall have to take the motor-car, visit H. Curry’s and a garage. We need replacement radio parts, and batteries – so we can be independent of the house’s power.”

“I’ll fetch the car,” Crispin turned away and touched his own lips with his fingers. Things were back upon their proper course.

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Part Two: Melancholia

Gathercole sat, or rather perched, on one of the kitchen chairs. He looked as though he would much prefer not be sitting there, but was doing it to be polite – however prim he looked. His friend, Crispin St. John, was not so intent on being polite, and stood back from the table, leaning against the wall.

He made a striking contrast to Gathercole. Where Gathercole’s hair was short and dirty-blonde, Brylcreemed back, Crispin’s was down to his collar and a dark chestnut brown. Where Gathercole wore another pale suit, with almost military precision and was fastidious, sitting on a handkerchief, Crispin wore a dark blue suit in a rumpled, casual state. Where Gathercole was clean lines and unadorned, Crispin wore a wilting green carnation and a bright red – if loose – tie. They made strange companions.

The reason for Gathercole’s primness was the execrable state of Hodgson’s apartments. Rusty stains adorned every wall and dripped down to every floor, where they crusted on the carpeting and boards. There was dust everywhere, and it seemed that every pot, pan, plate, knife and fork was dirty and fly-speckled. Even the light was dim and dusty, the electric lights as fly-speckled as the saucer Gathercole was using as an ashtray.

“I apologise for the state of the place. The housekeeper left even before the bank terminated my employment. I don’t know that I can even pay you, but if you can get this… fiend to stop dogging my every… b-bloody move I will find a way to pay you back.”

Gathercole stirred the ashes without raising his gaze to Hodgson. “Never mind all that, knowledge is its own reward. I must, however, know as much as possible about this creature that has destroyed your life. When did it start?”

Hodgson gathered himself, with some noticeable effort, fortifying himself with a nip from a small bottle of gin. “Perhaps a month ago now, I have had trouble keeping track of the days. Any calendar I hang upon the wall is torn to pieces, and I cannot keep a clock or watch wound here. Since I lost my employment it has been even harder, but I think, perhaps a month.”

“A cycle of the Moon, or near as damn it,” Gathercole left the end of his Dunhill smouldering on the saucer and began making quick, neat notes in a small black-leather notepad. “Have you encountered anything strange, a person, an object, an unsettling book or sound?”

“Crossed an angry gipsy perhaps?” Hodgson snort-laughed bitterly and hung his head, taking a couple of deep breaths. “No, nothing of the like.”

“Does the house have any sort of sordid history? Murders, occult activities, criminal enterprises, built upon a burial pit or anything of the like?”

Crispin lost interest and meandered away about the rooms, creating the occasional interruption as he rattled at the grate or opened the windows.

“Not so far as I am aware. I called in at the house agent who sold me the place and they had no records of anything that would explain it. He thought me quite, quite mad.” Hodgson’s head sank lower and lower.

“This manifestation, it is strongest here?” Gathercole’s eyes shifted from the immiserated Hodgson about the room, trying to ignore the filth and to get the measure of the place.

Hodgson looked up again at that. “Yes, but it follows me. It has spilt my drinks at several pubs, threatened me while I have been walking. I was almost shoved in front of a train at St Paul’s. Here though, I have been scratched, bruised, bitten. The house has become unbearably cold, or stiflingly stuffy. There have been the most beastly stinks. Banging on the pipes and walls at all hours of the day and night.”

“It’s quiet now,” Gathercole observed. “And, you’ll pardon my candour, but a stink would be hard to notice.”

Hodgson flushed with shame as Gathercole continued.

“I should like you to stay while I conduct my experiments, the phenomenon seems as linked to you as it is to this place. I shall need you to follow my instructions, however peculiar you may find them. Crispin and I will stay until the morning with you. Heaven help us, but these things seem empowered by night. I believe this creature must tie to an anniversary, and to this place. Some hidden history that has escaped record.”

Hodgson simply nodded and took another gulp of his gin.

Gathercole fetched his canvas kit bags from the car and set them down in the hall with exaggerated care. He then made his way about each and every room with ruthlessly methodical efficiency.

He closed and locked the door, pocketing the key, then applied a two-inch strip of Scotch tape across the keyhole and over to the frame.

He closed every window, sticking them in place with more tape and dusted the sill and jamb with fine talc before closing the curtains.

He circled each room, tapping the wall, the floor, the ceiling, seeking the peculiarities of thickness and thinness, learning the bones of the house beneath.

He took the temperature in each of the rooms and closed the grates in the fireplaces, sealing them up with rubber cement to prevent the possibility of any draft.

Last was the bedroom, which was in a sorry state, even for a bachelor. With Crispin’s reluctant aid, Gathercole dragged Hodgson’s bed into the middle of the room and then unpacked his second bag.

This was a most peculiar apparatus indeed. Five finely made wooden boxes, each trailing a rat’s nest of wiring, each attached to the sixth box with dials, valves and bulbs studded into its front. From the top of each box extended a diamond-shaped aerial, crossbars with a filigree of wiring. With each box precisely positioned, Gathercole plugged it into the bedroom’s power and warmed the valves, tuning each aerial with deft, sure hands.

That done, he circuited the house again, double and triple-checking everything he had done, adding more notes to his book. He scattered more talc on the ground, little worried about dirtying the sordid apartment any more. In each room, he replaced the light with a red bulb, such as those used by photographers. This done he finally retired to the bedroom with Hodgson and Crispin, bedrolls laid out for the two guests, Hodgson sitting uncomfortably, cross-legged on his unmade bed.

Gathercole sat, next to Crispin, on his bedroll. He peered at his instruments, arranging them with all the precision of a Grand Dame’s cutlery.

There was a scientific thermometer, of exceptional accuracy.

There were two cameras and a loaded flash tray.

There was a snuff-box of silver dust, a small bottle of holy water, a wooden cross, a pocket bible and an electric torch.

His old service revolver – loaded but not cocked – was close at hand.

Besides the electrical box of tricks, there were two clocks, one electric, one mechanical, ticking in sync, keeping precise time.

Crispin, by way of contrast, had spent all that time preparing a pair of coffee flasks and fetching his boiled sweets from the motor-car.

“What is all this?” Hodgson asked once they were all settled. None of them were going to sleep, and the silence and stuffiness of the house was unbearable to his nerves.

“He’ll talk your ear off about it,” Crispin offered, taking a sip of his coffee and heaving a long-suffering sigh.

Gathercole chuckled, pausing to re-check his instruments before he began to talk. “During the war, I met a man, a fine man, a fellow officer, a lieutenant in the artillery. He was a peculiar fellow, a sort of chaplain unofficially, to the men. He had some deuced strange ideas about death, spirits and the afterlife but spoke with such damned certitude that you couldn’t help but believe him.”

Gathercole ran his fingers over the butt of his Webley and his gaze unfocussed. “Thomas, he shared your name, was killed before he could satisfy my curiosity. Even so, the things I saw at Flanders made me a believer. I made it my purpose to track down his work after the war. He was a visionary, marrying the mysticism and balderdash of the past with electricity and the scientific method. I took his ideas and built on them, learning all I could, which lead me to this.”

Gathercole’s hand swept across the array of antennae. “The wireless pentacle, a step beyond anything old Thomas ever envisioned. He saw the relation between electromagnetism and the ab-natural, but never took the step beyond the material. These beings, such as your fiend, have no physical form under usual conditions, so why should one need a pattern or a wire? As we sit here, hundreds, thousands or electromagnetic waves are coursing through the air in a finely modulated pattern, creating a constant, vibrational, three-dimensional form of the pentagram. The modern and secular, married to the ancient and profane. Brilliant, though I say so myself…”

“Which you do,” Crispin smiled and popped another sweet into his mouth.

There was a sudden and subtle change in the hum of the electricity coursing through the room. Gathercole raised a finger to Crispin, demanding silence. Hodgson was already silent and stared into the shadows in evident agitation.

Gathercole played the dials of his radio-pentagram like a musician. He squinting at dials and needles, turned their arcane numbers and indications over and over in his mind. “Whatever you do Mister Hodgson, do not leave your bed. The radio-pentagram should keep you safe.”

“What about us?” Crispin observed, wryly.

“The fiend, whatever it is, appears to be focussed on Hodgson. We should be safe.”

“Should be.” Crispin reached across and plucked the cross from amongst Gathercole’s accoutrements.

“I thought you were an agnostic?” Gathercole glanced up from his dials for the briefest of moments, with a wry smile.

“I’m counting on the ghost being a believer.”

“It’s here!” Hodgson’s shaky voice cut through the banter.

The mercury in the thermometer was dropping, sweat began to bed on their skin in spite of the cold. The air got damp, dense, stifling, and beads of water formed on the stained and peeling wallpaper.

The stains and drizzles turned dark, but before any of them could be sure that it was blood – not water – the shadows closed in and thickened. The feeble red lights barely penetrated the gloom, and only their pale faces showed in the dark, picking up the light like the screen of the Astoria.

“It’s stronger, it’s more powerful!” Hodgson cried in terror.

“Stay on the bed! Within the aerials!” Gathercole scrambled to his feet. “I’ve never seen anything like this! The power of it! It shouldn’t be like this from everything I’ve studied, everything Hodgson has told us.”

A muttering sound built out the heavy shadows, rising in volume and intensity to a deafening scream of anger and outrage.

“THOMAS HODGSON! YOU BLOODY BASTARD! YOU WILL PAY FOR ALL YOU HAVE DONE!” It was akin to a choir from hell, many voices as one and seeming to blast from every wall, floor and ceiling at ear-ringing volume.

The aerials began to glow and crackle, the electric blue light mingled with the dark red to turn the room an unnatural flickering purple. Gathercole threw himself back to the floor, twisting the dials to their maximum setting.

The howling darkness seemed to gather and throw itself at the bed. It rebounded from the barrier with a crackling flash, straining, again and again, determined, spending its power to smash at the protective ward. The sparks flew, the aerials crackled and sang. Crispin winced and clutched the cross with white knuckles in one hand, the other flying to his cheek where the electrical ember had burned him.

The shadow billowed like smoke, spiralling around the room in an ever-tightening spiral. With a sharp pop, each of the red bulbs exploded, one after the other. There was a louder snap and crackle and the power coursing through the aerials was abruptly cut. Burning Bakelite and melting vinyl mingled with ozone and every last spark of light was extinguished.

Hodgson screamed in the darkness, and the whole bed began to rattle. Without the barrier of the radio-pentagram, there was nothing left to stop it.

The electric torch flared with a sudden blinding light, revealing Hodgson’s form, suspended in the air and bound by shadows, choking, gasping out his pleas for aid. Crispin was paralysed by fear, pressed back into the wall in a panic.

There were few options left.

Stumbling over his words, Gathercole tried to steel his voice with confidence. The sibilant, long and rolling syllables of the Saaamaaa ritual came halting and slow. Horror shook him, his flesh crept, his voice haltering but somehow they still retained some power, half-remembered and slurred as they were. The dark force, weakened from its exertions, was driven back, dissipating like smoke with a last few hisses and curses before it finally melted away.

The oppressive pressure in the room receded, and Gathercole turned the torch on Hodgson, a sobbing mess of a man, twisted around the filthy sheets of his bed.

“You Sir, haven’t been entirely truthful.”

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seancebannermain

Part One: Madam Sokolev’s Seance

The room was cloaked in shadow, filling every corner with suggestions of motion and giving the room a sense of unearned intimacy. The candlelight flickered with the breath of the guests as they chatted in low, hushed tones or blew the smoke from their cigarettes into the light.

There was a rattle of beads, and with a grand sweep, that set the candles fluttering, Madam Sokolev entered. She was a giantess of a woman, square of jaw and broad of shoulder and hip with a pendulous bosom, buried beneath layers of shawls and beads. Her seat creaked as she set her bulk down into it and leaned into the slender circle of light. The yellow flame of the scented candles did nothing for her face, slathered as it was in thick make-up, nor did the scent of lily of the valley do much to mask the miasma of cheap sherry and cheaper tobacco that followed in her wake.

I vill need zilence,” intoned Madam Sokolev as she laid her hands, palms down, on the black tablecloth.

There was a slight, stifled laugh from the young man in the cream suit. He swallowed it down, shamed into silence by the glare of the other worthies around the table.

I do apologise, a slight cough,” he said, but there was a smug smile on his fresh face, and he used the excuse of stubbing out his Dunhill to look down and away.

Please to be joinink hands,” Madam Sokolev reached out her hands to the worthies beside her and one by one, a little uncomfortable, they all followed suit.

Sokolev began her intonations, her calls to the spirits. She projected an air of seriousness, but the man in the cream suit had to stifle another laugh. He also broke the circle for a moment and wiped his hand against the tablecloth. The man next to him was clammy, pale, trembling as he tried to hold the circle. Sokolev glared, and the man in the cream suit completed the circle once again, sweaty grip or not.

One by one, each person around the table got their moment in the spotlight with Sokolev. She channelled their lost fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters and even their pets – to the extent of barking and yipping like a tiny dog. There were knocks and breezes. The candle-flame flickered in peculiar ways; it was all any of them could ask for – short of ectoplasm. Conspicuously, she passed over the man in the cream suit, eliciting another smirk, and settled her attention on the clammy man.

I am callink on the spirits, any who are here. Those who have passed and wish to speak vis Mr Hodgson.”

The clammy man looked up into the drifting smoke that swirled around the candle, his face a strange melange of hopeful and terrified at the same time.

Madam Sokolev started and twitched in her seat. The pretty young thing on her right squeaked in surprise. “Gosh, that smarts! Please!”

For the first time since the séance had started, Madam Sokolev’s voice changed convincingly. From the thick gipsy accent (in the sense that it was an accent that travelled far and wide, sometimes in a single sentence) to a gruff and brutish East End rumble.

YOU!” The whites of Sokolev’s eyes glared towards Hodgson, the clammy man who was swallowing over and over again. “THOMAS HODGSON! YOU BLOODY BASTARD! I SHOULD…”

The voice cut off, abruptly and Sokolev’s pupils returned to their customary position, leaving her looking dazed and confused. The man in the cream suit had stood, breaking the circle, and had uttered some strange phrase in some arcane tongue, all drawn out ‘ay’ sounds, rolled ‘ahs’ and sibilant hisses. It was like a line, drawn under the whole affair, shattering the atmosphere and mystique.

That is quite enough of that,” the man in the cream suit slid back his chair and stood, adjusting his cufflinks. “And quite enough of this, Madam Sokolev.”

He moved swiftly around the room and flicked the light switch, the electric light plinked on and filled the parlour with an unforgiving light that caused everyone in the room to wince and squint.

A fine show Madam Sokolev, a fine show indeed. However, it is no longer the nineteenth century, and I am not some mince-headed duffer like poor old Arthur.” He flicked aside the heavy drapes with a disdainful sneer across his face. “Holes in the panelling, so a compatriot can create unnatural breezes and whispers – barely audible – to unsettle us. The rest of the trickery is far less glamorous, but you all heard precisely what you wanted to hear, nothing that was real,” he sighed. “Barking? Really? Has the craft sunk so low? As for the knocking, the good Madam clicks her toes as you might crack your knuckles to create the sound. Now that is a skill, genuinely impressive.”

The worthies were in an uproar now, none more so than Madam Sokolev, who looked a damned sight less feminine in the electric glare. Harrumphing and grumbling, full of blind denials, hating being exposed for chumps – such was always the way – they made for the exit.

The man in the cream suit stopped Hodgson short with a hand on his arm. “Not you, what happened with you was something genuine, something real. That’s the real reason I come to these place, not to out frauds like Mickey here. To find people who might be genuinely haunted.” He nodded towards ‘Madam Sokolev, who clenched ‘her’ fists and stomped out with the swagger of a drill sergeant.

Poor fellow, any excuse to wear a dress. I feel for the chap.”

What?” Hodgson was a nervous wreck, slick with sweat, trembling, barely taking in anything that was going on around him.

Allow me to escort you out.”

The summer’s night air was pleasantly fresh after the stifling closeness of the parlour, and the man in the cream suit steered Hodgson down the road like a sober friend shepherding a drunk.

My name is Gathercole, William Gathercole. I am an investigator into the ab-human, the ab-natural and the strange. Amongst which are the things that you would call ghosts. I believe, building upon the work of my predecessors, that these are a natural phenomenon. We once thought lightning to be the work of Thor or Zeus. I think our understanding of these phenomena is also wrong-headed.”

Hodgson made some vague, affirmative noises and seemed to be slowly recovering, though he jumped at the chuntering passage of a motor car down the road.

I’m so sorry, already talking shop. To get, finally, to the point, I believe that you are genuinely haunted. I should very much like to help you and to test out my theories. What do you say?”

Hodgson stopped, unhooked his arm from Gathercole and leant against the wall of the chemists. “I only came here because I was desperate. It is a monstrous thing, a fiend that stalks me. It is pure hatred. I do not think you, or anyone, could stand against it, and it seems to be growing stronger.”

Stronger? Fascinating?” Gathercole stroked his chin as he considered. “Most ab-natural phenomena succumb to the inevitable march of entropy, like everything else. Unless… but no, it’s too early to be speculating. What is the nature of the manifestation?”

Hodgson rubbed his temples with one hand and fished out a hip flask, taking a nip to steady his nerve. “It began as a presence, a feeling. The hairs would stand up on my arms. I would get a creeping feeling at the back of my neck. I put it down to being spooked or nervous or that feeling we all sometimes get, of someone stepping on your grave.”

Gathercole lit a Dunhill and paced back and forth, staring down at his feet, turning on a sixpence to come back, his mind clearly racing.

But it didn’t stop there, right?”

No,” Hodgson took another sip from his flask. “Then I noticed things had been moved when I wasn’t looking. Food was mouldering faster than it should have. The house would be unnaturally cold, or still to the point where I could hardly breathe.”

That’s not the limit of it, is it? Such parlour tricks wouldn’t so shake you.”

I was sure I was going mad. It wouldn’t happen when anyone else was around. It was like it was tormenting me and me alone. There was blood, eventually, and while nobody saw the walls bleed, they saw the stains afterwards. They saw the bruises after the thing attacked me, but they never saw it.”

But you did.”

Hodgson glanced up, and for the first time, Gathercole really saw the black bags around his eyes, and how haggard and drawn he looked. “I did. I saw it. Dear God in heaven, I saw it. If this goes on much longer, it will kill me.”

Gathercole flicked his cigarette into the road, where is scattered and sparked, smouldering and glowing in the dark.

Give me your address. I must prepare, but I shall be there as soon as I can to put paid to your tormentor.”

Hodgson fumbled his calling card from his wallet, creasing it in his fingers in his clumsiness and handing it, shakily, to Gathercole. In that time a two-tone, burgundy and silver Bedford sedan pulled up, idling.

Crispin, my driver,” Gathercole offered as he spirited the card away into his jacket.

I’m not your bloody chauffeur,” offered Crispin – a slight, chestnut-haired man with a dark scowl – out of the window of the Bedford.

You just can’t get the staff these days,” Gathercole offered with a smile as he hauled open the rear door of the car. “I’ll see you soon.”

Hodgson was left shaking, at the side of the road as the car slid away into the night. Its lights reflected in his full, staring, terrified eyes.

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