Authors: P. B. Kerr
THE DAY OF THE
P. B. KERR
For Charlie and Naomi Kerr
efore leaving New York for Iraq to take up her new position as Blue Djinn of Babylon, the most powerful djinn in the world, Layla Gaunt put a Methusaleh binding on her husband, Edward, to stop her twin children, John and Philippa, from following her. Now, Methusaleh is the oldest person mentioned in the Bible. And, as you might expect, a Methusaleh binding causes a person to age and become extremely old very rapidly.
Mrs. Gaunt wouldn’t normally have subjected her husband to such a terrible fate. She had designed the binding only to operate in the absence of the twins. Mrs. Gaunt’s binding was only meant to prevent the twins from gallivanting off to Babylon in pursuit of her. Mr. Gaunt would never have aged quickly at all if his children had been at home. But at the time she made the binding Mrs. Gaunt had no idea that the two figures she thought were her twin children were in fact a pair of perfect imitations, created by an angel named
Afriel, to cover up the fact that the real children were in Nepal and India on an adventure. As a result, by the time the twins did finally return to their East 77
Street home, their poor father was a very old man indeed.
Ancient didn’t begin to describe how he looked when they first saw him again. Human beings — for unlike his wife or his children, Edward Gaunt was a mere mundane, which is to say a mere mortal, and not a djinn — who look as old as he did are usually inside a coffin. Confined to a wheelchair because his spindle-thin legs were now too weak to support him, and wearing a tartan shawl against the cold of the New York spring, it was hard to connect Mr. Gaunt with the father the twins had once known. Indeed, he seemed hardly human at all and more like something from a creaky old horror film.
John thought his father looked about eighty. In fact, he had aged so much that he now looked as he would have if he had been 250. Mr. Gaunt was easily the oldest-looking human being that has ever existed since Methusaleh himself.
Nimrod, another powerful djinn, and uncle to John and Philippa, was of the opinion that so long as the twins stayed close to their father, Mrs. Gaunt’s binding would no longer operate: “After a while,” he said, “this binding will reverse itself and your father will start to get younger again. The important thing is that you remain with him, here in New York. I shall, of course, stay with you instead of going home to London.”
Mr. Rakshasas, also a djinn and quite aged himself, being at least 150 years old — for djinn live much longer than humans — agreed with Nimrod that the binding would reverse itself. Addressing the twins from inside the antique brass lamp in which he lived, he advised them to consult Jenny Sachertorte, a djinn doctor. “Sure,” he said in his gentle Irish accent, “she’ll be able to tell you how some of the more inconvenient effects of the binding might be made less distressing to poor Mr. Gaunt. There’s no remedy for being an old man quite like the care of a younger woman.”
But Jenny Sachertorte was unable to come and, speaking on the telephone, suggested that Nimrod retain the services of a djinn nurse called Marion Morrison. “She’s an Eremite,” said Dr. Sachertorte. “You know, one of those djinn who have dedicated their lives to the benefit of deserving humans. She specializes in helping people who have been the subject of malicious djinn bindings or who have made unfortunate wishes. I’ll get a message to her, only it might take a while. I believe she’s in the Amazon jungle working with some unfortunate natives who found themselves cursed by a monkey’s paw.”
rather urgent, Jenny,” insisted Nimrod.
“I know, I know,” said Dr. Sachertorte. “But I have to be with Dybbuk right now.” Dybbuk was her mischievous djinn son, and friend to John and Philippa. “He needs me, Nimrod. Especially now that he’s found out who his real father is.”
Jenny Sachertorte was a good djinn. So was Dybbuk. At least he had been good until now. Recently, however, poor Dybbuk discovered that his real father was Iblis, the most evil djinn in the world, and leader of the Ifrit, the wickedest of the six djinn tribes. There was some genuine concern among those djinn on the side of good that, unless Dybbuk was handled very carefully, he might easily go to the bad.
“I understand,” said Nimrod. “Say no more, dear lady. Dybbuk must come first, I agree. I shall await the arrival of Marion Morrison here in New York.”
Meanwhile, until the djinn nurse arrived, the family was obliged to entrust Mr. Gaunt to the care of the family housekeeper, Mrs. Trump. And guessing that she would now have her hands full looking after Mr. Gaunt, Nimrod decided to send for Groanin, his English butler.
“Poor old Groanin,” said Philippa. “Doesn’t he hate New York?”
“He loathes everything about it,” said Nimrod, “but that can’t be helped. I think Mrs. Trump has urgent need of his help.”
A former beauty queen, Mrs. Trump was a kind soul, not to mention a wealthy one. The previous year she had won millions of dollars in the New York State Lotto. She remained oblivious of the fact that she owed her good fortune to a wish she made in the earshot of Philippa, who, naturally, had granted it. Despite her riches, Mrs. Trump continued in the service of the Gaunts as their devoted servant. She was
especially fond of the children and of the gorgeous Mrs. Gaunt. But Mrs. Trump soon found her patience severely tried by Mr. Gaunt’s demanding behavior, as she herself explained to Nimrod and the children: “He is very exasperating,” she said. “Sometimes, by the time I get all the way up to his room he’s completely forgotten what it was he wanted. Then, about a minute or two after I’ve left, he remembers what it was after all, and rings the bell again. I don’t mind telling you I’m absolutely exhausted.”
“Poor Mrs. Trump,” said John.
He and his sister had tried to help Mrs. Trump to look after their increasingly cantankerous father, but the old man would only be waited on by Mrs. Trump. This was because he persisted in believing the housekeeper was his wife, Mrs. Gaunt. It was true, there were a few similarities between these two women. Especially of late. Since winning her fortune, Mrs. Trump was much improved to look at. She had been to a dentist to have her missing tooth replaced. She wore nicer clothes. All in all, Mrs. Trump had become an attractive woman again. But she still lacked Mrs. Gaunt’s obvious glamour and personality.
Not that Mr. Gaunt, with failing eyesight and hearing, noticed any of this. And nobody guessed that this case of mistaken identity was based entirely on the simple coincidence that Mrs. Trump wore the same perfume as Mrs. Gaunt. There was nothing wrong with the old man’s sense of smell. So he called her “darling” or “honey” and sometimes “baby” and insisted that she hold his hand.
It was a situation Mrs. Trump found embarrassing. She was able to excuse Mr. Gaunt’s peculiar condition and conduct only because she accepted Nimrod’s explanation that he was suffering from a rare but reversible genetic disease, as well as Nimrod’s assurances that a special nurse would soon be arriving at the house to take care of the old man. It was just as well that she had already become used to strange things happening at number 7 East 77
Street. Indeed, so often did strange things happen in the Gaunt household that many of these no longer seemed strange at all.
“That nurse can’t get here soon enough,” said Mrs. Trump at the end of another long day. “If tomorrow’s anything like today, I’ll need a nurse myself.”
These words proved oddly prophetic. The next morning, Mr. Gaunt clumsily managed to break the string of pearls Mrs. Trump wore underneath her uniform. This was Mrs. Trump’s most treasured possession, which was why she never took the necklace off, not even when she was cooking, vacuuming, or dusting knickknacks.
Crawling across the bedroom floor on her hands and knees, Mrs. Trump recovered nearly all of her pearls. But three rolled under the door and across the landing where, minutes later, she stepped on them, slipped, and fell down a whole flight of stairs with a crash that sounded like a whole building collapsing.
John and Philippa ran into the hall to find Mrs. Trump lying unconscious on the floor. Nimrod called an ambulance and Mrs. Trump was taken around the block to the Kildare
Hospital on 78
Street. But after surgery, she still remained unconscious.
Her surgeon, Dr. Saul Hudson, met Nimrod and the twins with a face that was as grave and full of foreboding as Salem Cemetery.
“I’m afraid we’ve done all we can,” he said. “It’s up to her what kind of recovery she makes. But right now she’s not responding to any kind of stimulation. And the longer she remains unconscious, the more worried I’m going to be. I’m sorry not to have better news for you.”
“Can we see her, Dr. Hudson?” asked John.
Dr. Hudson led them to Mrs. Trump’s bedside and then left them alone. Her head was now swathed in bandages and her face was the color of volcanic ash. She was in a private room with a window overlooking the Gaunts’ own backyard. For a long time no one said anything.
“I think it’s nice that you can see our house from here,” Philippa said eventually. “Mrs. Trump would like that.”
“I’m sure she would,” agreed Nimrod.
“Is there nothing we can do for her?” John asked Nimrod. “I mean using djinn power?”
“I’m afraid not,” said Nimrod. “I wouldn’t know where to start. Brains are complex things and it’s never a good idea for a djinn to go messing around with one. That’s how Frankenstein got started.”
“If only Mom were here,” said Philippa. She smiled sheepishly at Nimrod. “Oh, I didn’t mean that I don’t think
you’re up to dealing with all this, Uncle Nimrod. You are. I know you are. It’s just that I miss her and I’d feel a lot better if she was here with us now.”
“Light my lamp if I don’t agree with you,” said Nimrod. “Your mother, my sister, is a very capable woman.”
The twins stayed at Mrs. Trump’s bedside, holding her hands and talking to her. She remained unconscious. Nimrod waited with them, trying for their sake to seem optimistic about Mrs. Trump’s chances of making a full recovery. But he knew that they knew that things were not looking good for the housekeeper. After a while, John got up and went to the window. Looking out across the hospital’s small garden, and his own backyard, he thought he saw something at his father’s bedroom window. And then, a second or two later, a man’s outline at one of the lower floor windows.
“That’s strange,” he said.
Nimrod joined him at the window. “See something, did you?”
“Something or someone,” said John. “There’s no one else at home. Unless you count Monty.” Monty was their cat. He was an unusual cat in that for many years he had been a human female named Monica Retch. Until Mrs. Gaunt had turned her into a cat. “But I don’t think it was him.”
“I hope everything’s all right,” said Philippa. “I don’t think I could take another disaster right now.”
“We’d better go home,” said Nimrod. “Besides, there’s nothing we can do here.”