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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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