Authors: P. B. Kerr
t’s strange,” said Leo Politi, the Ka servant of the Temple of Dendur. “But you two ghosts aren’t like any dead people I’ve ever had to guide through the spirit world before.”
“Really?” said John. “Why do you say that?”
“Most people are very confused about what has happened to them,” said Leo. “So confused that they don’t suspect the great change they have undergone.”
“How do you mean?” asked John.
“I mean they don’t have any idea that they are dead,” said Leo. “No sooner are they out of their earthly form than they try to live their lives along the old familiar lines. And then they get angry when living people ignore them. The Egyptians knew that. It’s why they created their temples and the institution of the Ka servant. So that there would be someone to gently explain to the spirit what had happened to them. Of course, these days people have no idea where to go when they die. Certainly, they wouldn’t dream of coming to the
Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Temple of Dendur. But you two ghosts seem to know what you are, what you’re doing, and where you want to go.”
“Sure, it’s no use carrying an umbrella if you’ve holes in your shoes,” said Mr. Rakshasas. “We know where we are, Leo, and we’re not the kind to complain about it. You must take the little potato with the big potato.”
The three of them were sitting on a bus heading down to Grand Central Station to catch a train up the Hudson River. John had noticed that none of the other passengers paid them any attention. Like they weren’t there at all.
Like they were ghosts
. Leo was right about that. Apart from that, John thought the spirit world seemed much like the physical one. Except that everything was in black and white. Even the living appeared to be black and white on this side of a temple portal. But he was beginning to think that entering the ethereal world, as Nimrod called it, through the temple had been a waste of time.
John leaned toward Mr. Rakshasas and whispered, “If it’s just a question of getting on a bus and a train, then surely we could have done this by ourselves. I know the way to Bannermann’s Island. Why did we need to go to that temple, and why do we need Leo?”
“For one thing,” said Mr. Rakshasas, “we can see ourselves now, when we couldn’t before, which is useful. And we’ll be able to see Faustina, which will be useful, too. Being invisible is a great disadvantage when you’re trying to have a chat with someone.”
“Yes, I hadn’t thought of that,” whispered John.
“Here’s another,” continued Mr. Rakshasas. “A Ka servant is like any other tour guide in that he knows one or two things that we don’t. Such as which of these people we’re looking at is dead and which of them are properly alive. And of these folk who are dead, he knows those who are to be trusted and those who are not. Sure, there’s many a wolf that’s tried to pass himself off as an old granny. Which is another way of saying that he’s a bit more than just a guide, John. He has power in this world which we do not.”
“You mean he’s like a bodyguard?”
“Since neither of us has a body right now,” said Mr. Rakshasas, “that’s not quite it. He’s more like a guardian angel. Except that he’s not an angel, of course. I’m not entirely sure how it works. Let’s just hope we don’t find out the hard way.”
John agreed. Being little more than a ghost himself, he was beginning to think a ghost was something he could probably deal with; but what Mr. Rakshasas had called
At Grand Central they boarded the same train to Newburgh Bay that John and Philippa had traveled on the first time they’d been to Bannermann’s Island, just a few weeks before. It was getting dark by the time they arrived at the Newburgh Bay Boating Club, where John had told Leo they could probably borrow a canoe to get to Bannermann’s Island. And while Leo went to look for a canoe, John and Mr. Rakshasas wandered over to the old boathouse. From
the outside it looked exactly the same, but the old boatman who lived there seemed younger than John remembered. Younger but somehow sadder, too. As if some calamity had befallen him. What was more, John had the distinct feeling that the boatman could see them, although he knew that was hardly possible. Living people could only see ghosts in what were exceptional circumstances.
They watched the boatman from outside the open kitchen door for a moment as he made himself some tea. Then, muttering to himself, he went through the door and into the living room, slamming the door noisily behind him. John wanted to see if he still had Dybbuk’s friend’s cat, Hendrix, and so, not thinking that this could do any harm, they followed him through the closed door and into the boathouse.
The house seemed very still and quiet and not at all cozy, like the last time John had been there. Of Hendrix the cat, there was no sign. A grandfather clock stood silently in the hall. There were cobwebs on the curtainless windows. And most of the furniture was covered in dust sheets. It was a coolish evening but there was no fire in the living room grate, which struck John as a little unusual. But not as unusual as the two men who were seated at a table in the living room.
The men were both wearing shiny black suits and black shirts, and had black beards and black eyes; in their hands were black books and black beads. Even their socks were black. One of them had a small black valise, like a doctor’s bag, at his feet, and the other a railroad schedule in his top
pocket, as if they had stepped off an earlier train. John decided there was something about these two that he did not like, and it wasn’t just the strong smell of incense that came off their clothes.
Without speaking to either one of them, the boatman sat down in a rocking chair and started to rock himself, and while he rocked, he hummed. As soon as he did this, the two strange men jumped a little as if something had startled them. One looked at the other and nodded gravely. Then they opened their books on the table and started to read aloud and in turn, at which point the boatman in the rocking chair started to moan quietly to himself as if he had a stomachache.
“What’s the matter with him?” whispered John.
As soon as John spoke, one of the men at the table began to read more loudly and the other to splash the room with water from a little bottle he held in his hand, which seemed only to prompt the boatman’s moaning to become rather more doglike.
The volume of their reading aloud increased a second time. Not that it made much of a difference to John, who couldn’t understand a word. The books they were reading from seemed be in a language that was familiar to him and yet not. Then, still reading, the two men stood up, and John noticed something about them he hadn’t seen before. They were scared. But of what?
“Can you understand what they’re saying?” he asked Mr. Rakshasas.
“It’s Latin,” shouted Mr. Rakshasas, for by now the reading was loud enough to make listening uncomfortable.
The noise had summoned Leo into the house. For a moment he stood in the doorway, with a look of increasing horror upon his pudgy face. “Come on,” he said. “We have to leave.
. Don’t you get it? They’re exorcists.”
“Gee, what kind?” asked John.
“Does it matter?” yelled a very agitated Leo. “If we don’t leave something terrible will happen. That’s what exorcists do. They drive the ghosts out of a place.”
Before he could say another word, however, the boatman in the rocking chair screamed loudly and ran through the window. And it was only when the window didn’t break into a dozen pieces that John, with a sense of profound shock, realized the boatman was a ghost.
“He’s dead,” said John.
“That’s right,” said Mr. Rakshasas. “Only I don’t think he’s admitted it to himself. He’s confused. The way Leo said people get confused after they die.”
But if John had thought the boatman was the only ghost in that old boathouse he was very mistaken. As John and Mr. Rakshasas entered the corridor, heading for the back door, yet more ghosts appeared from other floors and rooms. Older ghosts. Ancient spirits. Ghosts who had haunted that part of the Hudson River valley for perhaps hundreds of years. Ghosts who were now yelling and screaming and in a state of some considerable distress to be gone from the house
before the two exorcists could bring down some extra calamity upon their heads.
“I don’t understand it,” shouted Leo. “There shouldn’t be so many ghosts in one house. It doesn’t make sense. It’s like they’ve all been hiding from something in here.”
John tried to get out of the way of these panicking ghosts, but there was no time. One of them, frantic to get out of the boathouse, ran straight through John, so that for a brief moment he was running for his life, too, which was a horrible sensation, and he heard himself cry out to Mr. Rakshasas. At the same time he had a blinding flash of the horror — the
that this other ghostly being had suffered before its death 350-odd years before, and the misery it had endured ever since.
The first time this happened it lasted only a moment. The second time it happened, it seemed to last forever….
He was running through the damp forest for his life. The early morning spring air of the Hudson River valley was thick with the smell of gunpowder, wet underbrush, and the whoops of warlike Mohican Indians who had come upon the little party of Dutch fur-trappers out of nowhere. The Indians’ weapons were crude but effective: war clubs, bows and arrows, and tomahawks. Some of his party had fired their flintlock guns, but for most of them there had simply been no time, and insufficient distance to get off a shot. And now he himself was sprinting for his life although in
which direction, he had no idea. The important thing was just to get away. To escape. To get far enough away from the Mohicans so that he could hide and then, under cover of darkness, find his way back to the fort again. His being just a boy would count for very little with the Mohicans. He ducked quickly under a tree branch and leaped over a small stream. Momentarily, he lost his footing and fell, but let himself roll on his back several times as he hit the ground, crashing down a steep slope, regaining his feet at speed, and then hurdling a fallen log with the agility of a running fox. Something hit the log behind him and he heard the shrieking, birdlike war cry of an Indian in close pursuit, letting the others know where he was and to come and help chase down the “white eyes.” They were closing in on him and all he could think about was the date. The twelfth of May, 1640. It was his fifteenth birthday. Would he ever have another? Would he ever see his mother in Amsterdam again? Crashing through some bushes, he found himself at the steaming bank of the great Hudson River. There was no point in trying to cross the glassy smooth water. It was much too wide. Besides, he couldn’t swim. Which way to run? Upriver or downriver? In the mud of the riverbank, he slipped, crawled under a bush, waded through some water, and then ran around the trunk of a thick tree straight into the outstretched, muscular arms of a large, painted Mohican. The strong-smelling Indian grabbed him by the wrist, grinning a wolfish smile made whiter by the black daub that covered the whole of his shaven head, and then clubbed him on the head with a piece
of brightly colored wood shaped like a pistol, which left him lying stunned on the ground. Looking up at the treetops, the half-naked Indian let out a series of triumphant piercing cries, and dragged him up the riverbank like a sack of potatoes, where he tied the seated boy quickly to a tall fir tree with thin strips of animal hide. Other Mohicans quickly arrived, howling loudly like a pack of excited timber wolves, their heads painted black like his captor, so that these almost seemed to have been stuck on the wrong bodies by some playful child. One of the Indians lit a fire. Another found a hollow log and started to beat on it rhythmically like a drum and to chant a tuneless song. Sensing the extreme desperation of his situation, he looked up at the blue, cloudless sky and began to say his prayers….
hey had flown by whirlwind to a field outside Malpensa, which is located in the heel of the boot that is the map of Italy. And once there, using an ambulance that Nimrod had created using djinn power and with which they hoped to remove Faustina’s body, they drove up a steep hill and into town.
Philippa thought that Malpensa was a curious little place. Built on the top of a high cliff, it looked as if it were growing out of the rock like a tree or a bush. Inside the town, the buildings were in a poor state of repair from the earth tremors that occasionally affected this part of the world. Fearful of the effect one of these might have on their already weakened houses, most of the people in the town now chose to live in the area’s extensive network of caves, like so many bears and bats.
Quite a few of the larger, more important buildings, such as the town hall and the police station, were now propped up by enormous timbers or surrounded by great cages of
scaffolding so that parts of Malpensa looked as if extremely large and fierce animals were caged there.
“Easy to see why this place got its name,” observed Philippa.
“Oh?” said Groanin. “What exactly does ‘Malpensa’ mean, anyway?”
“Bad thought,” she said.
“It does have a certain air of disaster about it,” said Groanin.
The Carthusian catacombs were located in a small church in the Piazza Carthusi, on the edge of the town, opposite a soccer field where, underneath floodlights, a soccer game being watched by the whole population — approximately 825 people — was in noisy progress.
“How is it,” moaned Groanin, “that we always seem to visit these horrible places at night?”
“These catacombs are Malpensa’s only real tourist attraction,” said Nimrod. “So we’ve not much choice to come any other time. According to the guidebook, the place has as many as a hundred visitors a day in summer.”
“There’s no accounting for what folks want to do and see on their holidays,” said Groanin.
“Besides,” added Philippa. “I don’t think they’re going to just let us walk out of the catacombs with one of their main exhibits in broad daylight, do you?”
“I admit,” said Groanin, “body snatching is something that’s probably best left to nighttime. Although I could easily wish otherwise.”
The church door was not locked. They went inside and picked their way between some timbers that were propping up the walls. Several dozen candles burned in an enormous candelabra that hung from the ceiling on a metal trestle in a little chapel. Nimrod brought three candles from a pile stacked, like so many cigars, under the trestle, lit them, and then handed one to Philippa and one to his butler. At the back of the church, behind the altar, a crudely printed sign pointed out the way to the catacombs.
Nimrod had borrowed Silman Franco’s skeleton key for the trip to Italy and he now fed this into the keyhole of a saucer-size padlock that secured the iron gate to the catacombs. The padlock now opened, Groanin hauled the heavy gate open and stood aside while Nimrod and Philippa went down the steps. Of course, he was quite happy to afford them this courtesy, being someone who was more than a little afraid of the dark — and of ghosts, in particular. Not to mention dozens of dead bodies.
He gave a little shudder as the first group of bodies met his eyes. Near enough to touch, these were displayed like the chief treasures in some weird collector’s private museum. Laid out on shelves or propped up against the whitewashed wall, some were very well preserved, perfect in every feature, with hair and eyes, while some were little better than skeletons, with hands and jaws missing. There were dead babies and children, too, since death has little respect for youth. Groanin thought these especially sad and there
were several whose little faces brought a tear to his eye. At the same time, he thought it easy to see why someone might have been unscrupulous enough to steal three wax-museum dummies and use them to replace some of the corpses in the catacombs. For the place reminded him most of a wax museum.
“Blimey, O’Reilly,” he said. “Just look at all these stiffs. There’s thousands of them. It’s like the Houses of Parliament in here.”
Philippa sniffed the air loudly, yet there was no trace of any odor.
“By heck!” exclaimed Groanin. “This one’s been dead since 1599. Strange to think that all of these folk had lives, families, and jobs, like we do. Gives me a funny feeling. Like it won’t be long before I’m ready to be mounted on a wall myself.”
“That’s a cheerful thought,” said Nimrod, and clapped Groanin happily on the back.
“Are you telling me that tourists really come down here?” Groanin asked Nimrod. “It’s not exactly Disneyland, is it?”
“Not exactly,” said Philippa, and pointed to another sign. “But it does say, ‘This way to the Sleeping Beauty.’”
Turning the corner, they found themselves in a room with just one corpse: Lying on top of a glass case, just like the heroine in some cheesy cartoon, was the perfectly preserved body of a girl of about the same age as Philippa. It was Faustina.
“According to the guidebook, the Sleeping Beauty that was in here died in 1920,” said Nimrod. “I wouldn’t mind betting that the original decomposed and they needed to obtain a quick replacement. Most likely they buried the original and then pinched Faustina from the wax museum.”
“That’s a shocking thing to do,” murmured Groanin.
But more shocking to Philippa were the clothes Faustina was wearing. “Oh, my God — look at those clothes she’s got on,” said Philippa. “They’re so old-fashioned. I wouldn’t be seen dead dressed like that.”
“Then it’s just as well for Faustina that she’s merely in a state of suspended animation,” said Nimrod.
“And what happened to her hair?” said Philippa.
“My guess is that tourists have been snipping bits of it off, for souvenirs,” said Nimrod.
Groanin glanced around nervously as he heard something rustle in the darkness. The overwhelming sense of death and decay was beginning to penetrate the marrow in his bones. “Come on, sir,” he said. “I think this place must have mice or rats or something. Zap her inside a Coke bottle or whatever you’re planning to do with her and let’s get out of here.”
Nimrod muttered his focus word. But Faustina did not disappear. Instead, a stretcher appeared underneath Faustina’s body. “What?” groaned Groanin. “You mean we’ve got to carry her?”
“I’m afraid so, Groanin,” said Nimrod. “It would be dangerous to transubstantiate a djinn whose spirit has left
her body.” He put down his candle and took hold of the bottom end of the stretcher. “Come on. Grab hold.”
Handing his candle to Philippa, Groanin took hold of the front end and, lifting Faustina up, they carried her back along the corridor.
“Don’t walk so fast with them candles,” Groanin told Philippa. “You’re leaving us behind here in the darkness.”
Philippa stopped to allow the two men to catch up. The candles cast a warm gentle light over Faustina so that she really did resemble some kind of Sleeping Beauty. “She looks like an angel,” she said.
“I don’t think so,” said a deep and, in the darkness, very masculine-sounding voice.
Groanin yelped and almost dropped the stretcher holding Faustina, and Philippa had to stifle a little scream.
A big burly man wearing an ill-fitting white suit stepped into the candlelight. On his head, which was like a bowling ball, his fair hair was short and uncombed and his face unshaven. His shoulders were as broad as one of the beams propping up the church.
“She doesn’t look like any angel I’ve ever seen,” said the man. “And I’ve met the whole team. Good and bad.” He chuckled in a subterranean sort of way and glanced down at Faustina. “Nothing like. Too skinny for one thing. And a girl, for another.”
“Am I right in thinking you’re an angel yourself?” said Nimrod.
“That’s right,” said the angel. “The name’s Sam.”
“Sam?” Groanin sounded disbelieving. “Whoever heard of an angel called Sam?”
“And who said you couldn’t be an angel if you’re a girl?” demanded Philippa.
The angel advanced on Groanin and Philippa, with his heavily stubbled jaw arriving slightly ahead of him.
“I wouldn’t antagonize him if I were you,” advised Nimrod. “I imagine he’s here to guard something.”
“Sam,” he repeated. “It’s short for Samael. And just so you know, being an angel is man’s work. Always has been.”
“I’m sure it is,” said Groanin.
“Just so as you know,” said Sam. “I’m the angel ruling Wednesday. And I get a bit fed up with all those pictures of angels that make us all look like a bunch of wet girls with big soppy eyes and hairless faces.”
“Um,” said Groanin, “if you don’t mind me saying so, today’s Thursday.”
“Yeah, well, maybe it is,” said Sam. “But I’ve still got to come when I’m summoned. Your boss, the djinn, is right, see? For hundreds of years I’ve been coming here at the request of the monks who run this place, to guard it against intruders.” He nodded at the stretcher bearing Faustina. “So I’d put her down if I were you.”
Nimrod and Groanin placed the stretcher on the floor.
“No offense,” asked Nimrod. “But are you sure about that?”
“What do you mean, djinn?”
“Are you sure you’re guarding the whole place, or someone in particular? After all, a lot of the people who are in here were nobody of any real importance.” He pointed at Faustina. “This djinn girl isn’t even dead.”
“Then why’s she in here?” growled Sam.
“She misplaced her body, that’s all,” said Nimrod. “We’re taking it out of here so it can be reunited with her spirit.”
“That doesn’t alter the fact that I’m supposed to look after this place. So she stays here. End of story.”
“Did they ask you specifically to guard her?” asked Nimrod.
“Ask me to guard some slip of a girl?” asked Sam. “I should say not. Being an angel is man’s work.”
“Yes, you said that,” said Nimrod. “Look here, you said you’ve been looking after this place for hundreds of years. But our friend’s only been filling in here as the Sleeping Beauty for a matter of months.”
“And the real Sleeping Beauty’s only been here since 1920,” added Philippa.
“So they couldn’t possibly have meant for someone as important as you to look after her,” said Nimrod. “They must have hoped you would look after someone else. A saint’s bones, perhaps. St. Bruno, for example.”
“It doesn’t make any difference, pal,” said Sam. “You’re not getting her. Not without a fight.” His eyes brightened and he grinned a big gap-toothed sort of smile. “That’s supposing any of you has got the guts for a fight.”
“Not a very fair contest,” said Nimrod. “Everyone knows that an angel is more powerful than a djinn. Let alone a human.”
“No, no,” said Sam. “I wouldn’t need angel power to beat any of you lot. Djinn or human. All I need is muscle.”
“You seem to have plenty of that,” said Nimrod.
“So how about it?”
“You wouldn’t be the Samael who wrestled Jacob in the Book of Genesis?” asked Philippa.
“Maybe,” Sam said defensively. “What of it?”
“All right then,” said Philippa. “We accept your silly challenge. If you agree not to use your powers as an angel, Mr. Groanin here will wrestle you, won’t you, Groanin?”
“Me?” Groanin’s jaw dropped. “Fight him? Have you gone mad, miss?”
“I had the same thought myself,” admitted Sam.
“And if he wins, we get to take our friend out of here,” said Philippa. “Deal?”
“Could I have a word with you, miss?” whispered Groanin.
Sam’s grin had widened by a couple of feet. “Deal,” he told Philippa. “But it’ll have to be a proper wrestling match. With a ring and a referee and a crowd. Not like that fight with Jacob. That was just the two of us in the desert at night. Not much fun in that. And not much incentive to win. I like a crowd, I do.”
“Yes, I can see that,” said Nimrod, glancing around the catacombs.
“I don’t mean in here,” said Sam. “I mean somewhere you get a decent crowd. Somewhere proper. Like when you see wrestling on the telly. Madison Square Garden. In New York. Agreed?”
“Oh, agreed,” said Philippa.
“I like you,” Sam told Philippa. “You’re all right. For a girl, that is. But you” — Sam pointed a thick stubby forefinger at Groanin — “I’m going to rip your head off and use it for a paperweight.”
Sam snapped his fingers and they found themselves transported into a wrestling ring in Madison Square Garden, in front of a crowd of twenty thousand spectators. There were vendors selling programs and hot dogs, newspapermen and photographers at the ringside; there were even large blond-haired women, dripping with diamonds, who were holding up signs with Sam’s name on them.
“Blimey!” said Groanin. “This feels as real as a rainy weekend in Manchester.”
“It is real,” said Nimrod, who was hardly surprised to see such a display of absolute power as to see it done so easily and so well. And this served to remind him that in spite of his stubbly chin and rather coarse manners, Sam was an angel after all, and a very powerful one at that. “At least it’s real for now. Reality is something that’s easily made by an angel.”
A loud fanfare of music and several bright spotlights greeted Sam’s arrival upon a stage at the back of the audience. He held up his arms in a gesture confident of eventual victory. The fight was about to begin.