The Tale of the Ten Teacups
Much can be accomplished in the occult line with a few readily obtainable ingredients.
And so we arrived at the offices of my good friend Pasha Rapley on that cold February morning of last year. Every word we uttered sent spectral speech bubbles into the air and I listened closely as Miss Menzies outlined her story.
We stopped outside the pale grey townhouse in Herne Hill, on the second floor of which Rapley resided.
I pressed the intercom button and waited. A light unnecessary cough crackled through, followed by the sibilant, airy voice of my friend.
'It's open,' he said. And then: 'Tell me, Madam, you are Protestant, are you not?'
Miss Menzies swallowed a large quantity of air too quickly and exclaimed:
'Why, yes ... how did you-?'
'It is of no matter, and of no interest, come to that. Please, come up.'
We ascended to the offices of Pasha Rapley. Two rooms off a communal hallway. In the first were two orange plastic chairs, a low table with a precarious slate mountain of magazines - Hello, Coffee Break, Faith Weekly - balanced upon it, and a school desk which served as a reception area. We moved through the cramped room and I pushed open the door to Rapley's inner sanctum.
The door swung open to reveal a fearsome mess, which caused the demure Miss Menzies to emit a high-pitched scream such as dogs might object to. The floor was strewn with winded crisp packets and doubled-up lager cans. A stained duvet decorated with a Spiderman motif lay twisted into a conical screw, forming a podgy tent in front of the single grimy window. Small pots and ramekins of loose change were scattered about, their brass cargo dully catching the light from the unshielded thirty watt lightbulb that swung gently above (though there was no noticeable draught in the room). And, slumped on a beanbag, his long arms hugging himself, fingers twitching, sat Pasha Rapley. His calm slender face showing no trace of the nervous disorder that seemed to have claimed the rest of his body.
Dressed in corduroy trousers and a bright red plastic mackintosh, he spoke: 'I have all day, so talk slowly if you wish. Or talk quickly and in large quantities.'
'You have an advertisement in the quality press,' began Miss Menzies falteringly. She was thin and as pale as a cloud and as she spoke she looked around her, searching in vain for a clearing in which to sit.
'You advertise your services in the field of ... well, mysteries.'
'Melodrama has always been my weakness.' smiled Rapley, slowly blinking his wide, green eyes like a cat in the sun.
'It is a strange mystery indeed that has driven me here to your door. My grandfather, you see ... and the ten teacups and then, oh, the blood, I ... '
Her hand flew up to her brow as her body began to fall forward, and at that moment I leapt to her side just in time to stop her from collapsing into a pile of half-empty biscuit packets.
Rapley stared on impassively as I helped her to a stool propped against the wall.
'What a wonderful start,' he drawled, 'I'll take the case. Mr Violet, fetch the poor woman some Ribena while she starts at the very beginning.'
'I live in Sevenoaks with my Mother, Grandfather and, of course, a skeleton staff of servants. You may think it antiquated of us. However, that is the way we live. I am, by nature, a homemaker. An oddity in these liberated times.'
Miss Menzies lowered her head, expecting, perhaps, some argument. I felt it my duty to meet the young woman's expectations.
'An oddity! The very idea! You're as normal as the rest of us!' And I even clapped my thigh at the absurdity.
Rapley perked up.
'Normal? Christ, I hope not. A squashed pigeon on the South Circular is normal. An itchy groin is normal. A beautiful young woman muttering about blood and ten teacups is decidedly something else. You were saying.'
'We live in the family home in a sheltered area of countryside. It is a picturesque spot. Not exactly isolated, but certainly left to its own devices. The incident happened last Thursday. I had an engagement chairing the inaugural meeting of our amateur dramatics association, while my Grandfather was hosting one of his rare social gatherings.
'He is housebound?' enquired my friend.
'Yes. Or rather, he was.' At this, Miss Menzies paused to wipe at her eye with the cuff of her blouse.
'I take it he hasn't miraculously regained his health and is, even as we speak, leaping euphorically across the fine fields of Kent?'
'No. He is, as I'm sure you have surmised, dead. I arrived home to find my Mother hammering on the door to my Grandfather's wing. I should explain that my Grandfather had lived in the house for all of his 80 years and had the whole east wing entirely to himself. Our entrance to it is by a single connecting door which leads directly to his dining room. My Mother was hysterical and, between sobs, explained that she had only just returned to the house when she heard a piercing yell coming from my Grandfather's rooms, where he was due to be entertaining a number of old acquaintances. Since then, she had been beating on the door fruitlessly for some minutes. We managed to rouse Mr Lambeth, the butler, and he presently came to our assistance.'
'You said you had to rouse him. Did he sleep through the commotion?' interjected Rapley as he jotted in a Paddington Bear notebook.
Our recently acquired white Fiesta scudded to a stop outside Crystal Palace library
'Mr Lambeth had been given the night off by my Grandfather and was ... I believe the correct expression would be "sleeping it off" when we woke him. He was slurring and straight lines seemed alien to him, so I can vouch for his incapacity if you are suspecting him of putting it on for an alibi.'
Rapley nodded. 'That was to be my next question. But continue.'
'Mr Lambeth is a hardy man and, pulling himself together as best he could, he broke the door down with a series of shoulder charges.'
Miss Menzies stopped and pushed her chin upwards, most prettily, I may add, as she steeled her inner courage to tell her story.
'Inside we found my Grandfather. His throat had been cut, a dreadful white foam also lay upon his lips. He was seated at the large dining table. In all, ten seats were set around with ten place settings and ten teacups, nine of which were half full with tea, still steaming mildly and hot to the touch. My Grandfather's cup was empty. Of his guests, there was no trace. Except, in the middle of the table, next to a tray containing a teapot, a milk jug and spoons, there was a postcard of Paris- a normal busy street scene- with the reverse side left blank. No message, no address, no stamp. The other connecting door from the room, which led to my Grandfather's drawing room, was also locked, and his keys remained in the ticket pocket of his waistcoat.'
Rapley scratched both ears at the same time. 'Any other way in or out?'
'A window, locked, shuttered, curtains drawn. The panes intact, unlike the shattered glass of our family, which lies br-'
'Yes, yes.' Muttered my good friend with the impatience of one who wishes to get to the last page of a book. 'This is a mare's nest and no mistake. We will help you, Mr Violet and I. We shall of course need to see the house itself and ask further, hopefully revealing, questions of the entire dramatis personae. You have a car?'
Miss Menzies shook her fine head. 'Your associate met me off the Sevenoaks train.'
Rapley looked at me, his head cocked to one side. 'Violet, old pal. Steal a car.'
I was glad to be of use.
Having procured suitable transport, we began the journey to the suburban hum of Sevenoaks.
Less than a minute into our travels, however, Rapley abruptly piped up.
'We must make a stop!' he whinnied, pausing from brushing the broken glass off the back seat.
I glanced at him in the rearview as he pronounced the interim destination as if it had seventeen syllables.
His rolled R's made the word an incantation. I stifled tears of respect for the man.
Our recently acquired white Fiesta scudded to a stop outside Crystal Palace library, Rapley leaping out even before the car had stopped its motion. In the flash of a gun muzzle, he was through the double doors and riffling through shelves of reference material, framed by the long side windows of what was possibly the least appealing repository of knowledge in the western world.
Miss Menzies sat stiff and self-conscious in the passenger seat. She looked straight ahead, seemingly oblivious to everything but the guilt-inducing fact that she was encased in a purloined motor vehicle.
The shame that her guilt imposed upon me, dear reader, was piercing and unquestionable, and it was all I could do to stop myself from throwing my body at her feet and crying out an impassioned apology. Yet, as an Englishman, I instead changed the subject from the one occupying our mutual thoughts.
'Pasha Rapley believes in the mind, Miss Menzies ... '
She lowered her head slightly, a crease tracked her brow.
' ... he sees the brain as overused. Good for a crossword or a mathematical exercise, but not, you see, for a mystery. A mystery, he believes, does not have corners or slots or decimal points, but instead has feelings and bad days. Patterns of thought and behaviour that evolve and ... and ... well, it is clearer when he explains it himself ... '
Her face had turned to the side window, through which she gazed blankly.
'My life has a corner, Mr Violet. It has turned that corner, and I see no path back.'
I puffed up my cheeks with air, as if to say 'Well, quite.', but, somehow, it didn't seem to be the right thing to do.
So, I dismounted from the vehicle and lit a Consulate cigarette with a Zippo and a well-practised click of the fingers.
A minute passed. I smoked. Miss Menzies gazed through the quarterlight window, trying to find solace in the gaudy neon decrepitude of a 'Whumpies' burger restaurant across the way. At least, she was staring directly at it. To be perfectly frank, in her present state of blank absence, I fear she could have been staring at the crotch of an aroused hippopotamus and she would not have registered the sight.
And then, with a sneeze and a frantic dashing of legs, Rapley bowled through the library doors, his thick scarf trailing behind him like the furious black smoke of some terrible engine of the intellect.
Rapley shot into the back seat of the car, smiling round his nose at Miss Menzies as I climbed into the driver's seat.
'Synchronicity', he said, 'Is a long word for stupid luck. There are links with the seasons and, oh, other stuff that won't currently make sense to any of us. These-', and here he indicated an armful of leatherbound hardbacks, '-are stolen library books! Drive, Mr Violet! Drive!'
I have never heard a woman snivel before, at least not in such a dejected manner, and so, to drown out the noise, I floored the accelerator.
The Fiesta flew down Gypsy Hill, rattling like a skeleton in a storm.
The rest of the journey passed without undue conversation.
Miss Menzies lifted and lowered her head from time to time, (with great visual effect, I may add) whilst Rapley rustled pages, occasionally murmuring phrases such as 'Well, those sly old dogs.', much to my mystification.
At his insistence, I had inserted one of his tape cassettes into the car stereo, and we sped towards Sevenoaks in the company of the inopportune surges of David Bowie's 'Always crashing in the same old car.'
And then, with a froth of green leaves rushing past us, we reached the edges of the Kent countryside.
The car rolled gratefully to a stop on the front lawn of the Menzies residence, a looming, well-spread, grey-brick house of a certain age, two gargoyles watching from the corners of the roof, faces frozen halfway between snarls and yawns.
Miss Menzies led us to the heavy oak door and slid a brass key into the mortice lock.
As I entered, I glanced back at Rapley, who trailed a short distance behind me.
He had acquired a cat, a small tabby kitten, which lay cradled and purring in the plastic hammock of his folded, macintosh-clad arms.
' ... he says his name is Horace.' , muttered Pasha.
The oak door swung to a satisfied, sealed rest, and we were inside.
Miss Menzies sighed herself onto a wicker chair in the hallway, while I cast my eyes around the lattice work of family portraits which lined the darkly varnished, gloaming wooden walls. Wolfish grins, sailors' hats on gurning children, admirals' hats atop naval adults, square-jawed maiden aunts of an industrial size and quantity, the squirming, swivelling eyes of the richly mad. All peered down at the three of us. Myself gulping somewhat at the attention, Miss Menzies cloaked in her own inner turmoil, and Rapley.
Rapley raised an eyebrow, then let another one join the club. He sat the kitten in the palm of one hand and held it up, scanning it in front of the family portraits.
'Look what you could have become, Horace. Lucky escape, thank your stars you never made it up a tree like the rest of us.'
He knelt in front of Miss Menzies like a suitor.
'The room, if you please. The cat comes too.'
Another door opened, another room revealed ... Jago Menzies, eighty years of age, a widower, late of Northern Kent, died here in this brown, square salon of velvet, brass and leather, in this mysterious circumstance.
The room had a sterling, musty, masculine quality to it. A thick brown rug of colonial vintage, a cowhide five seater couch along one wall, ranks of bookshelves along another, stacked to the ceiling with dense volumes, spines adorned with brass clasps and tattooed with calligraphy of an Arabian flavour.
In the middle, an oblong slab of mahogany on legs lay festooned with tea things, trays, jugs and plates, crumbs, knives and a bowl of plums.
Of Miss Menzies' late, lamented Grandpapa, there was but one trace: a chalk outline on the floor by the table's edge at a strange, unreal angle, the body squashed and foreshortened to an impossibly concertina-ed dimension.
Rapley dangled his eyes over the outline.
'Odd shape, was he?' he said without looking up.
'His body was still slumped back in his chair when we found him' whispered Miss Menzies,' he had evidently started to fall backwards in it ... but his toes had caught on the edge of the table, leaving him teetering, but balanced. The police felt, in the interests of verisimilitude, that they should mark him as they discovered him.'
As I took this in, I found that I had unconsciously leant forward on my tiptoes to view the result upon my own shadow.
A glance to my left alerted me to the fact that my good friend was likewise inclined.
I coughed discreetly. We both ever-so-slowly rocked back onto the flats of our feet.
Horace skirted the chalked-out volume, pawing the air at invisible trouser legs.
'Ah' said Rapley, leaning over into the middle of the table like a wading bird.
His slender fingers closed around a postcard. It displayed a Parisian scene, a market in full Sunday commerce, a high, almost blade-like steeple dominating the skyline behind.
Saint Bougeries, a 14th century suburb of Paris, once a hotbed of Huguenot sympathies and over the centuries a seedbed of various occult splinter groups, also exceedingly well-known for maintaining a class of the saltiest and most willing of all prostitutes. Rather a lot of beds, then.'
He flourished the postcard like an ace. Miss Menzies stared at him with eyes containing the faintest traces of hope. I folded my arms and chewed a bottom lip. The kitten walked into a table leg, and was suitably embarrassed.
'You are of course aware that it is winter! That fact may not have escaped you, but were you also aware that one half of a century ago, a group of prodigiously talented students of the dark, magical arts convened in a filthy garret on the Rue Barnacle in St Bougeries to attempt one of the all-time great crackerjack magical workings, one whose ambition and complexity was matched only by the lunacy of its intent?'
'No.' stated Miss Menzies and I in unison, unnecessarily.
'Well, they did, so there. And they numbered ten ... ', and here he brandished a hardback volume from the library. A thickish tile-red' book, battered with character, the dark Gill Sans type imprinted upon the cover spelt 'Les Tenèbres d'Illumination, une memoire de Paris , 1943-1960'
'Bernard Popin, Jeffrey D'Escale, Mimette Moinier, Al Reveillier, Dustin Monk, Pearl Brown, Jean Curie Piringe, Percival Bunting, Rance Cole ... and one Jago Sage Festivale Menzies.'
Miss Menzies' porcelain hands flew up to her porcelain throat.
'Grandfather! B-but what were their intentions?'
The kitten leapt up onto the table, landing with a clatter in the tin butter dish.
'The Working of the Variant Golem!'
A brace of blank faces triggered an explanation from Rapley.
'These ten fine minds had trawled the grimoires of medieval clerics and pagan witches, of Ostramandian adepts and Wiccan priestesses, magickal spellbooks from Egypt to Leeds in their search for a specific revelation, a recipe for producing living, breathing, thinking copies of oneself! Golems! Doppelgangers! Claypoles! Mirror Kin! D'Escale, Moinier and Popin were the money, minor French aristocrats with a penchant for the shocking, whose daddies, no doubt, simply didn't understand them; Reveillier and Monk, the movers, men of the world who could open all doors with a strong arm or a silver tongue; Cole and Piringe, hangers on, mere adepts on the first rungs of the magickal ladders, making up the numbers, snotty nosed but eager. Which leaves us with Bunting, Brown and Menzies. The knowledge.'
'Why, this is ridiculous!' I said, more to hurry things along than from any true sense of disbelief. 'Why would they wish to produce such ... unnatural specimens?'
'Oh ... ', began Rapley, with a rueful shrug, 'It had never been done before in such extravagant abundance. Ten identical copies of the participants. A feat bound for any books of records. And also, of course, the egotistical mind fancies the arse off itself ... I once had an aunt who painted. Countless watercolours, terrible pieces of tat, but only of herself, face and shoulders with a thick slice of summer light illuminating the right side of her face. I asked her why, and she told me "I have perfect dextral facial geometry, it deserves the limelight. I cry if I don't capture each lunar phase of my physiognomy as it passes through the arc of my life".Mad as a rat. Ended her days living down a manhole on the Edgware Road. The point is that the St Bougeres collective were working to replicate their ideas, their brains, their minds, their bodies, their biases, hatreds, loves, foibles, talents and prowesses; to create a breed of their own. Who knows ... maybe they wanted to go fuck themselves as well.'
Miss Menzies glared from under her finely plucked eyebrows, her delicate voice a-tremble like a vibrato-ed harp string.
'Your language, Mr Rapley! Is it not enough that my logical faculties are under assault from this fantastical tale ... Must my sensibilities be similarly assaulted by such cursing?'
'I apologise for the blueness of the verb.'
He bowed low and long, then straightened, his face serious and set.
'That is the background to the matter. And it brings us to the present.'
He circled the table, drumming his long fingers on the edge as he went.
'Ten teacups, one body, no murder weapon, though he had undoubtedly been both poisoned and throated. And no way out. '
He threw himself down onto the baggy leather couch, which hissed and settled underneath him; then he turned to address Miss Menzies and myself,.
'You see, I know the how, and I could have a pretty darn good stab at the who, but the why is too vague, too hazy.'
Rapley pulled a mint from a trouser pocket and offered the pack around.
'No? Suit yourselves. I wonder how he made them disappear, and also whether they've disappeared for good. It would be a damnable shame if they were to continue blistering this continuum.'
Miss Menzies rose slowly from her chair, keeping her eyes lowered to the chalk outline.
'You talk in riddles, sir. They? Do you refer to these phantasms? Or have I lost myself in this delirium of mirror people ... perhaps you mean the nine woman- born real people who assisted my grandfather in this madness? My ship of thought requires a lighthouse in this fog.'
'Oh, don't fool yourself into thinking of these golems as unreal, Miss Menzies. They are, or were, as real and as solid as you or I. It is simply that they were poured from a different spout.'
Horace mewed softly towards the bookcase.
'Look', I chuckled, appreciating the whimsy amid all the dark talk, 'The cat's clawing the air, he has yet to grow into his paws. It rather makes me think of a child wearing boxing gloves ... '
Miss Menzies looked up, and smiled a most appreciative and angelic smile at, first, the cat, and then at me.
I mopped my brow, my thoughts unseasonably hot.
Air motes crackled in the late afternoon gloom. The windows let in grey dying light.
A bird squawked from the branch of a spindly tree on the other side of the pane and then threw itself hurriedly into the air, flapping madly as if it were an umbrella tossed off a cliff.
Rapley slowly turned his head towards the bookshelves, his eyes expanding and briefly popping with thought. He spoke one word.
The smile flew away more softly from Miss Menzies' face, a dove silently disappearing into a calm summer sky.
'Mr Rapley ... ?'
'MILK!!!' Yelled Rapley, leaping to the tips of his toes, hopping around the table, scattering tea things as he lanced his hand to the centre of the table and grabbed a grand two pint milkjug shaped like a mooing Fresian.
He spun back round to face the bookshelf, picked the cat up smartly by the scruff of the neck and deposited the mewling feline onto a chair with a soft plod.
I took Miss Menzies by the shoulders and pulled her to one side as my good friend drew back his arm and hurled the milk jug at the array of books with a yell of 'Here's mud in your eye!'
The jug smashed roughly against the brickwork wall behind the books, shards of china clinking into the air and against the floor, yellowing spats of old milk dotting the air like fat from a fried egg.
Before Miss Menzies could arrange her obvious shock and distress into anything verbal, Rapley had bounded to the bookcase and shoved his head amongst the books, squashing his face up against the wall behind.
He came away with a light quiff of dust and a broad grin.
'The milk has sunk into the wall, my friends, we have our quarry in our sights!'
He brandished a magician's hand towards the brick wall which was visible behind the bookcase. Where there should have been a dripping pool of thick, sour milk, there was instead a thin cleft between the bricks into which the flung dairy substance had entered, splashes on either side showing the passage of entry.
Miss Menzies gathered her wits and cocked her head to one side.
'Th-there is something behind there ... ?'
Rapley began to yank books from the shelves like a demented dentist.
'A secret room and a secret guest, I should fancy ... Here, help me with these books, there must be a lever attached to one of them.'
Myself and Miss Menzies leapt to his aid, pulling volumes from their oak beds.
'Binary exercises in Calamity', 'Forces Majeures de Loki', 'Skulls for Beginners', 'Cryptohagiography in an Age of Pigs', all went whistling through the air, clapping into a plump pile on the far side of the room.
My hand closed around a thick, maroon copy of 'The Enchanted Station', and I immediately felt a ponderous tug of resistance.
'I-I have it ... ' Said I. And for one ripe second we all froze.
'Then pull, Mr Violet, pull as you've never pulled before.' hissed Pasha Rapley.
And so I pulled.
The book began to inch slowly away from the wall, then the bottom of the outward-facing spine locked up and with a low, vibrating, metallic grind the top of the tall volume started to arc down towards the shelving.
As the weighty tome tipped forward, we peered in to see what resembled a crankshaft and gear system hidden underneath, thin rusty links of chain disappearing into narrow holes in the wall, as taut as rictus grins.
With one final heave the book clumped flat on the shelf and, with a sound like the flapping of mighty wooden wings, the book shelf unceremoniously shunted a foot towards us, scattering the three of us like frightened mice, and then slowly began to open outwards like the fat door of knowledge it unquestionably was.
He wore a velvet suit, close-cut and deeply unfashionable, dark green and purple stripes running from ankle to collar. A loose black tie puffed up from between white shirt collars
It creaked open on heavy hinges, releasing an obscuring gloom onto our eyes and a lurid tang of sharply acidic gas into our nostrils. The dread and anticipation in my heart was simply monstrous.
We stood in a line against the opposite wall, peering into the darkness. A firing line without weaponry, praying for a small, weak target, but fearing something quite other.
'Um. We're here to help ... ?' tried Rapley.
Tendrils of egg white smoke curled into the air, slowly unfurling themselves like a waking beast.
A shape quivered and breathed in the demi-light of the hidden room. Tall, rangy, angle-limbed. It coughed laughter, sniffled liquidly.
Rapley took one step forward, then swivelled back round to face us. In his hands were a metal poker from the fireplace and a fork from the table.
'If he begins to froth at the mouth,' he whispered, handing us each an implement, 'or if his eyes start rolling in different directions, hit him in the balls.'
Some inner rod of steel tensed inside Miss Menzies as she closed her fingers around the handle of the fork.
'Yes, Mr Rapley. In the balls.'
Rapley spun back round to face the music. He snapped his heels together and ran his flat palms down the front of his mackintosh, smoothing his hair back as an afterthought.
'Mr Bunting? Percy? It is Percival Bunting, isn't it?'
All three of us walked slowly towards the entrance of the hidden room keeping a triangular formation, Rapley at the apex.
A dark, shaking shambles of a figure tottered from the gloom, wreathed in parasitically clinging whorls of gas, spiralling smoke rags and furious miniature constellations of dust particles.
The man was above average height, of advanced years, his once matinee-idol cheekbones and high, distinguished brow reduced to mere pegs upon which to hang the sagging features of his face.
A pair of greasy, nocturnal moustaches played out a dark tragedy on his upper lip, and his balding, liverspotted head was punctuated by the sharp, greying prow of a widows peak.
He wore a velvet suit, close-cut and deeply unfashionable, dark green and purple stripes running from ankle to collar. A loose black tie puffed up from between white shirt collars.
Signs of disrepair were immediately apparent: holes in cuffs, moth-snack lapels, stains of a darkness found only at the bottom of the ocean, a gloopy run of dribble caked one side of his mouth. His shoes were sighing bags of leather.
'Please.forgive my appearance', Percival Bunting attempted a creaking bow, 'If I'd have known I'd be... receiving guests so soon, I would have been more rigorous in my grooming..'
A red mist stormed through Miss Menzies as she leapt forward, brandishing a crumpet fork in an alarming manner.
'You ... you ... fiend! What did you do to poor grandpapa ... ? His throat ... Oh ... Devilry!'
'Violet! Grab her, man!' Shouted Rapley as we both lunged after her. But, as the saying surely goes, a woman scorned should not be armed, and the blur of her arm raced past our optimistic fingertips, burying the business end of the fork in Bunting's right breast with a muffled 'fud'.
Miss Menzies stood panting heavily, glaring at the tottering rou, myself and Rapley to either side of her.
Percival Bunting briskly looked down at the protuberance and twanged the embedded handle with a wrinkled, meaty finger.
'Oh now, please. To be blooded by such a vanquished beauty may make the pulse leap in a younger mans loins, but I am made of older and starker material.'
He fixed the young lady with a ghostly, cataract stare and leant in to share the breath of a dead thing.
'I am a beast of an inordinately different stripe.'
Rapley leant his own head forward till their brows touched.
'You are Percival Bunting. Magician, gentleman and murderer. Unless I'm very much mistaken ... '
Bunting and Rapley remained brow-to-brow, the older, taller man's expression softened to one of cordial sincerity as his eyes met Rapley's.
'You have me at a disadvantage, sir. By whom have I the pleasure of being unlaired?'
'Rapley. Of Herne Hill,' smiled my friend, pleasantly.
Foreheads still meeting, the two strange fellows had began to slowly revolve together like a dancing couple, carefully mirroring each others discreet and soundless feline footsteps as they discoursed.
'I am still disadvantaged, but the pleasure, of course, remains. Indeed, it glows ever more tantalisingly in the oxygen of my fascination. May I ask your interest in this matter?'
The pas-de-deux continued with almost infinite grace and courtesy.
'Professional. The lady whose Grandfather you murdered has engaged my colleague and me in attaining a solution to the crime. May we sit? And talk?'
A pause in the music of their intimacy. Their dance ended. Percival Bunting leant back, raising himself with aged effort to something approaching his full height. A muscle in his cheek twitched once and something coughed and gurgled inside his throat.
'Hrrumphgh... ahhm ... Yes. An explanation. Very well.'
Licks of smoke still drifted lazily across the room, a slight smell of gas still hazed the atmosphere, grazing on any slow thoughts it might find. It would find none in the minds of Bunting and Rapley.
The tall man turned his gaze to me, scanning his eyes up and down with his mouth ajar in a way that made me think of lizards.
I fingered the poker behind my back and nodded to a dining chair.
'After you,' said I to the old man, showing my teeth.
'Naturally,' said he, showing his and folding himself down onto the seat.
Rapley took up a seat opposite. I and Miss Menzies - all her passion temporarily spent - lowered ourselves onto the sofa. The cat was nosing the entrance to the hidden room, flame tail a-flicker.
Rapley's attention was locked onto the older man like scaffolding.
'Tell me why you killed him. And who else attended this little soirée,' he instructed.
Bunting raised his eyebrows in a display of indignation at such effrontery, flared nostrils of pride telling Rapley he'd need to try a different tack.
' ... or start wherever you wish and drivel on until we get the picture ... '
The murderer's face relented and he began his tale.
'I gather you're aware of my reputation and standing in the magical community, but for the benefit of your manservant and the hormonal woman, let me circle the main points. I conversed with Aiwass at the age of 13, my guardian angel and the rudderman on this haunted frigate we call existence. This early translation of abstract thought into actual experience made me aware of how little the common man tastes of life. The meat and gristle and plasma doesn't get stuck in his teeth, as it were. I decided to chew upon life, and to never let it chew back. Consensus reality is a dog to be eviscerated and hung upon the walls of public buildings, its entrails assuming new darker forms. New arrangements. Physical graffiti.'
The air thickened in the room, the smoke trails seemed to organise themselves into small, shimmering forms as Bunting spoke. An outline of a building was visible if I squinted, a sense of vaguely human shapes walking and laughing and gesturing with puffs of hands.
'Washed up in St Bougeries in fifty seven, sharp jags of cocaine in the bloodstream, even sharper plans behind my eyes. I fell in with a bunch of frenchies, yanks and even fellow countrymen. Some more talented than others, I'm thinking of Pearl here. Poor, exquisite Pearl ... '
Though Bunting's eyes dampened at his memories, his smile belonged to a feasting shark. The smoke coalesced like coral to form the face of a somewhat haughty, yet undeniably attractive, young woman, wearing Pre-Raphaelite curls and a bow tie. She proffered a hand towards Bunting, her fingers raw and ridged with burns, her wrists bangled with scars.
' ... but I'm ahead of myself. There were ten of us; some had heard of the others; some were attracted by the glamour of the intent; some such as dear, sweet, vicious Al, and that odious, gurning thug Mr Monk simply had jobs to do, dirty francs to earn. Monk, for his whores, mainly. GI's that had remained in France had a particular cachet among the authorities and local girls, you see. Who cared if a couple went missing every now and then. Not the mayor, not with his syphilitic secrets and morphine mishaps, certainly. And, I suppose, not I. I had finer preoccupations. With the incantations formulated and the science in place ... '
Here, he looked around at all three of us with gravity.
' ... for we were scientists, after all, and this was to be mankind's greatest experiment. The atoms that make up any given physical form, including that of the human being, are vibrating at an extraordinary rate, and in utter disharmony. If a structure of atoms could be encouraged through incantation, force, legerdemain or any other method to organise themselves into a willing herd which moves in one specified direction, then you have form, and more importantly, form that operates entirely at one's will. This was the sound yet admittedly experimental basis for our work. Sympathetic magick provided the ignition key.'
The blue smoke forms drifted again and rearranged themselves into the ten figures of Bunting's recollections. About the size of Action Men, they bobbed in the air, sitting in a circle around a vast metal urn, symbols and crescents carved into its sides. They were all quite naked except for various jewels and crystals which glinted cold and obsidian, their bodies glistened with oils and sweat, and one of them, a burly brute I took to be the man Monk, was floating directly in front of Miss Menzies and me, his vast rump displayed to us in all its inglory. I felt my bones turn to ice.
Rapley seemed to be wearing the nebulous figure of Pearl Brown as a hat, and rather enjoying the experience.
'We snipped at our hair and nails, pricked our addled veins for spurts of precious blood, spat and hawked thick gobbets into the crucible, spoke our wildest prayers and most savage fantasies and threw them into the cooking pot for good measure. Our DNA roosted inside the iron womb, boiling in the amniotic broth of our confessions and sins. We had begun.'
The air suddenly turned violent with smudges of incident and movement. Thicknesses of smoke suddenly thinned into screaming faces, before they vanished in a ragged swirl of trace tracks; over Buntings shoulder, a great stream of bubbling liquid splashed down onto the floor of the room before hissing upwards into a veil of nothingness.
'Pearl, your learned Grandfather and I had prepared our work well. Our science was impeccable, our magical research exhaustive, our approach rigorous. Of course chaos ensued. Once conjured, our Variant Golems slewed themselves from the crucible like sausage meat squeezed from the skin. They were raw and squealing in the half-light, ragged red and oozing something like tar from their orifices. All ten of us were suspended between horror and a godlike curiosity at our emerging flock. These creatures' bodies and faces adjusted themselves in shimmers, waves and contractions, seemingly adjusting to the ten of us as irises adjust to harsh light. In a matter of minutes we were presented with ten identical ... versions ... of ourselves. Albeit versions which appeared to have been run over by a fleet of rickshaws.'
A red illumination spread through the smoke wraiths in the air, ten bloodied and animalistic men and women stood like flesh statues, panting and crying softly.
'They turned on us. Whether from hunger, disappointment, rage or some primal destructive urge, I simply do not know. I saw Popin and Mimette Moinier thrashing wildly like landed fish as their counterparts from beyond dragged them into a shadowy corner. I heard them scream and gurgle their last words. Piringe and Cole were consumed by the explosion from a gas lamp hurled at them by their alter egos. The fire spread as Jago, a man I had always held in some esteem, muttered some words of wisdom from a sheaf of notes on the sideboard, lopped his doppelganger in half with a shattered wall mirror and leapt through a window onto the street below. It must have been two storeys, a most commendable effort. D'Escale dived into the crucible to escape the conflagration, I daren't think whether he drowned or found himself in some regressed hellish world of torment under those supernatural waves. I didn't see Dustin Monk die, merely his head in pieces. Alvin Reveiller succumbed to a rain of drillhammer punches, struggling valiantly to the end . I protected Pearl as best as could, I fought like a panther, but...'
Percival Bunting's nails were scratching deep ruts in the wooden tabletop as he paused.
'They caught up with me thirty two years later in Cairo. By this time, they seemed almost civilised. They wore the clothes of civility, I should say. Their conversation, peppered with bon mots, aphorism and received knowledge, could have passed as sparkling, were it not for the dribbling, rampant coughing and porcine squeals which they were, alas, unable to prevent from adversely colouring their speech. The Percival Bunting of their world was clearly their leader, they deferred to him with respect. Perhaps our worlds were not so very different in some ways.They needed my help. Their research into the mystery of their existence had led them to the knowledge that their precarious, spluttering physical bodies had a half-life of some fifty years, if their calculations were accurate, after which their atomic masses would become fatally unstable. My double looked me in the eyes and pleaded with me to help them, begged me to help save my own spectral twin. The experience jangled my senses ... to be staring at and conversing with one's own flipside made me a catalogue of nervous disorders. We fought. The two Percivals, tooth and claw; oddly the others stood clear, with soft grins of approval at this obscene contest.
'I left him dead. His throat slit. I would not say they accepted me as their leader after that day, but they certainly tolerated me and respected my knowledge and ideas. How could they not? They needed me.'
With a start, I noticed that although Bunting's hand had risen from the table to cup his chin, his index finger had remained on the tabletop, nail embedded in the oak. Bunting's cloudy eyes swept over the abandoned digit once, and without missing a beat he folded his four-fingered hand inside his jacket and pulled a doily over the finger.
'With their talent for forcefully acquiring information and resources, I soon amassed a wealth of knowledge on the subject of atomic principles and the depth of my occult learnings deepened commensurately. Through the years, I began to assess them without fear, and they became to me pitiful creatures, whose primal brains and appetites would never let them rise above their base and unholy origins. I no longer felt fear, just revulsion at their iniquity and inferiority.
'They kept me close, the threat of violence unspoken but ever present. I may have killed one of their kind, but I was clear-sighted enough to realise that they were united against me, and that any further action against them on my part would be met by the most brutal acts of retaliation.'
A gentle cloud of gas puffed out from his right ear, bobbed a few feet then popped like a spore.
'I researched and delved into the sciences for ways to prolong their lives, showing them my workings and discoveries at every juncture. However, at the same time, I researched ways to prematurely terminate their existences.
'It took twelve years of furtive learning, but eventually I collated enough information to ascertain that a certain series of ancient glamours, spoken aloud and inserted into the reversed names of these savage creatures, would erase them from this life forever, if one utilised the correct emphases and mantras.
'One piece of information escaped me. One piece to make these instructions complete ... A nugget of knowledge I suspected your Grandfather possessed, making it vital that we tracked him down.
'I also suspected that this spell might, if different emphases were stressed, result in the indefinite extension of their lives. And, of course, this was the version of the truth which I proffered to my bestial companions. The trap set, they focussed their energies and resources to the tracking down of Jago Sage Festivale Menzies.'
Bunting creakingly rose from his chair and walked over to the window. The sky outside was the deepest and darkest of blues, and it seemed to be that we were all encased in some Victorian submarine, at the mercy of terrible undersea pressures.
A loud hiss sounded from his midriff and Bunting appeared to lose three inches of height, his knees met and he tipped up onto his toes, grabbing the wall for support.
'Harruffgh ... mrrgh ... uhhm.ah, yes ... Two days ago, we arrived here en masse. Duping Menzies that we were envoys from the Nobel Committee come to service him for his gifts to the experimental Sciences. Papers, I'm sure I needn't tell you, that he had submitted under an assumed name. The shock of our appearance was overwhelming, all those memories must have fled back and caused him to seek an ending to the nightmare he had initiated fifty years ago. He shakingly made a pot of tea for us all, and this we attributed to his gentlemanly manners. However, when he started foaming at the mouth and spluttering for air, it occurred to me that he must have poisoned the beverage in an attempt to kill himself and the Golems. They, being made of tougher stuff, digested the poison with ease and comfort.
'With his dying breath, Menzies imparted to me the final key, the missing piece of the spell which I knew he had in his knowledge. Those words he had so hastily and effectively read from his notes in that burning French garret.
'The Monk creature slashed his throat and held the razor to my own jugular. I was ordered to read the completed and, to their minds, restorative incantation.
'With the solemnity of a priest and the resonance of a born orator, I intoned the necessary spell, using the correct, life-devouring emphases. There was a roar like dying lions and these eight demonic fools twisted and spun into a blur of features. The air sucked in around them until I could scarcely breathe, my fillings sparked, their forms contracted and lost all semblance of humanity ... and then they were gone, leaving only a smell of cordite and eight wisps of red smoke.'
He leant against the window pane, his knees knocking together, his nine fingers twitching, every breath the slow turn of a wooden rattle.
Rapley hopped smartly out of his own chair and gathered up Horace, who had been lying on his back cycling his paws in the air.
'Well, a fine tale! But more than a little flexible with the truth, I fear!'
'Flexible, sir? Whatever do you mean?'
'Your physical disrepair, for one thing.'
'I have sweated through eighty summers, young man. I have toiled at the edge of things for much of that time.'
'Eighty's the new sixty, so they say.'
'It takes its toll.'
'Forgive me, but you take the piss'
Miss Menzies and I were spectators, our heads whipping back and forth between the two of them.
Bunting let out a tiny piglet squeal and clamped a hand over his mouth.
'I believe you when you say there were two human survivors that night in St Bougeries. But you weren't one of them. Your time is nearly up.
My bet is that Jago and the real Bunting escaped the fire together and agreed to split up, fleeing separately. Bunting was eventually hounded down to Cairo, where it was his blood that was spilt, not the foul concoction that runs through your diseased veins.'
The spectre that was previously known to us as Percival Bunting spread his angular arms as wide as dragons wings and bellowed an alien curse, but the effort of this theatrical display made him crumple to his ancient knees.
'Well, really.' said Rapley, distastefully, and knelt by his side.
'You came here with your little troupe of performing zombies ... and then ... ?'
The Bunting thing rocked from side to side. I thought it was just the occasion getting to me, but I could have sworn that his skin appeared to be melting. His voice grew thicker, as if exhausted from the effort of trying to escape from his throat.
'Oh ... it was true what I said. He poisoned himself, I caught his dying revelation ... Monk slit his throat in fury, and I killed them ... my atrophying brothers and sisters ... I was never one for a crowd ... and their brains and their ... ambitions ... simply ... never grew ... '
He spat half a tongue onto the floor, his right trouser leg deflated, the limb having vanished with a sound like a cushion falling onto a sofa.
' ... they were so ... dull ... the conversation never changed ... it was all disembowelment and hexagrams with them ... '
' ... and the spell to extend your half-lives?'
' ... didn't work ... I tried it, standing here like a ninny, stressing this word, reversing that phrase ... all that happened was that a vase of hyacinths regressed back into sand and seeds - it seems one can't pour any more life into these dead bodies of ours ... if anything it has made it worse.'
The creature blinked and when he opened his lids his eyeballs had shrunk to the size of peas, staring at the three of us from widening sockets.
'I didn't ask to be born ... ' , said the thick trickle of his voice.
Rapley stepped back and covered Horace's eyes. I did the same to Miss Menzies, but she smacked my hand away without anger.
'I must see him out, Mr Violet.'
The husk of a man on the floor shivered and swirled. With a sound of chattering teeth and inhuman engines, he imploded into the ether, a slowly turning flute of red mist in his place.
We dropped Miss Menzies off at the local vicarage. Her mother had spent the previous night there under some considerable medical sedation, and her brave, resolute daughter wished to be by her side.
None of us had any pressing need to trouble the police with the events of the day.
I waved her goodbye from the driver's seat of the Fiesta. Rapley whistled a toodle-pip from the back seats and then turned his attention to the pile of books crammed into a large Sainsburys carrier bag by his side.
'Did you ask if you could take those, old man?' said I.
He pulled the bag closer to his legs.
'Payment in kind...' He muttered. 'Buggered if I'll get out of bed for less than half an occult library and a small cat.'
Horace mewed agreement from the dashboard and licked his arsehole with delicate satisfaction.
I gunned the engine and flicked on the headlights.
Sparking up a cigarette, I peeked at Rapley in the rear view mirror.
A most singular fellow, I reassured myself.
It was late, and it looked like rain.
Copyright © Tom Davies 2009 All Rights Reserved
Date and time of last update 23:47 Wed 17 Feb 2010
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