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Authors: Jordan L. Hawk

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BOOK: Eidolon
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“You have something which belongs to her,” I said, careful
to keep any hint of censure or fear from my tone, lest I set him off. “She
wished to do you the courtesy of not involving the police and asked me come in
their stead.”

“Did she send you with a bag of money? No? Then shut up.”
His mouth twisted into an ugly scowl. “She won’t involve the police. Not after
what I saw in her house.”

The last light from the sun vanished, leaving behind only
the glow of the lantern. “Listen to us—” Whyborne began.

Something giggled on the other side of the window.

It wasn’t the sound of a child’s mirth or a young woman’s.
The laugh was corrupt somehow, cold and sneering and twisted. Every hair rose
on my arms and the back of my neck.

“Wh-who’s there?” Nivens stared at the window. “I’ve got
your friends in here, and if you want to see them alive again, you’d best stop
playing tricks now!”

A scratching came at the shutters, making me think of
broken, dirt-caked nails. The scraping continued, up the window, along the
wall, and onto the roof, as if something outside pried at the tiles in an
attempt to gain entrance.

“For God’s sake, man, give us the talisman!” Whyborne
exclaimed.

Nivens had blanched white, his eyes round and horrible.
“God, oh God, it’s true, it’s true,” he babbled. The gun shook wildly in his
hands.

I lunged at him, wrapping my fingers around the hand holding
his gun and forcing it to the side. My other fist I buried in the soft flesh of
his stomach.

The gun went flying. I shoved him hard into the wall. “The talisman!”
I barked into his terrified face. “Where is it?”

“The green vase on the mantle! I dropped it inside!” he
wailed.

Whyborne immediately snatched the vase in question from the
mantle and thrust his hand inside. A moment later, he drew out a hideous talisman.
The thing looked to have been crudely shaped from clay, and its rough outline
resembled a bat-winged dog. But the leering face had a repellently human aspect,
such that my first instinct was to dash it from Whyborne’s hand before it could
do him some harm.

“Ugh,” Whyborne said, eyeing it distastefully before
depositing it in his jacket pocket. “Plainly, Miss Lester doesn’t wish it
returned for its aesthetic qualities.”

“Come on.” I thrust Nivens away and made for the front door.
“Let’s just take it back where it belongs.”

The scratching sound had ceased, but I paused for a long
moment, listening carefully. Drawing my revolver, I stepped out into the street
and peered up at the roof. Nothing met my gaze, so I motioned Whyborne out
after me. “Quick—let’s find a cab. We’ll return the talisman and still be
in time for the curtain to rise.”

“The what?”

Blast. “Never mind. Just follow me.”

The gas lamps along the street flickered wildly within their
glass enclosures. A freak wind, surely, although how wind would even begin to
suffice as an explanation I didn’t know.

Thank providence, the familiar clop of hooves and clatter of
harness came from the cross-street just ahead. A cab appeared, and I called out
for the driver to wait.

The lights on the street went out all at once. From the
darkness above us, something giggled.

The horse went wild, letting out a terrible sound of fear.
Its eyes rolled, showing white, and it plunged away, heedless of the shouts of
the driver.

No. No, damn it, no! There came a flap from above us, like
the membrane of a vast wing. We had to run, to return the blasted talisman, but
the Lester house lay halfway across the city, near the burying ground on
Cemetery Road. I doubted my ability to run so far, and as for Whyborne, he
already wheezed and clutched at his side.

The cold around us deepened. Frost raced across the glowing
window of a nearby house, and my breath burned in my throat and lungs. My shoes
slid in the ice and slush. The giggle came again, and more street lamps went
out, plunging us into darkness.

Terror rode the night wind above us, and I saw no choice but
to face it. Firming my grip on my revolver, I stumbled to a halt, prepared to
offer whatever defense I might.

“Griffin! Your matchbox!” Whyborne called.

Any other man I would have questioned. Him, I obeyed without
hesitation, pulling out the matches and tossing them to him.

The matchbox brushed his long fingers, before bouncing off
their tips. He grabbed for it and missed, sending the box spinning off into the
snow. The light in the house went out, plunging us into complete darkness.

“Blast it!” he exclaimed.

An icy wind came rushing at us from the sky. I braced my
revolver, desperately wishing I had some target on which to fire. “Duck,
Whyborne!” I shouted. Something evil drew closer, the force of its malevolence
bearing down on us like a freight train. My finger tightened on the trigger.

Whyborne called out a series of arcane words. Fire burst
into being in mid-air, blindingly bright after such utter darkness. An
amorphous shape, like a shadow come to life, flinched back. The giggle turned
into a squeal.

Even as the flaming bits of the matchbox fell to the
sidewalk and went out, the sense of oppression vanished. The light in the house
came back on, and the air lost its unnaturally deep chill.

Whyborne rose to his feet. The wet stains on his cuffs and
trousers showed where he’d gone down on hands and knees to search for the
dropped matchbox.

The theater would never let us inside in such a state. My
heart sank, but I managed a smile. “Well done, my dear,” I said, clapping him
on the shoulder. “Let’s see if we can’t catch a cab now. The sooner we’re quit
of this thing, the better.”

 

V

 

Not long after, a hansom deposited us in front of the Lester
house. An older residence, it obviously dated from colonial times. Dark trees
huddled against it, their branches forming a vast net over the roof. The only
light came from one of the downstairs windows, shining dimly through drawn
curtains. No smoke rose from the chimneys.

Had everyone gone out? Even so, surely some servant should
have kept the fires going.

The door opened even as I reached for the heavy, fist-shaped
knocker. Miss Lester stood on the other side, dressed in a simple white gown.
The candle in her hand cast an almost unearthly glow over her, but failed to
bring forth any color from her pallid skin.

“You’re late, Mr. Flaherty,” she said. Her gaze shifted over
my shoulder to my companion. “Mr. Whyborne, is it not?”

“Dr. Whyborne these days, Miss Lester.”

“Ah, yes. I remember now. It was quite the scandal when you
left for Miskatonic.” Her eyes returned to me. “You have the talisman?”

“Yes.”

“Come with me.”

She led the way inside, and we followed. The house felt no
warmer than the street, and my breath steamed in front of my face. How did Miss
Lester, clad in only a dress without coat or gloves, stand it? Surely, the
mortuary business in Widdershins couldn’t be so poor the family couldn’t afford
to heat their home.

She’d worn a coat earlier, when she came to hire me. Had she
needed it then, or was it simply camouflage of a sort, meant to keep from
arousing too much note when she stepped out on the street?

“You don’t seem concerned about your cousin,” I said. My
voice echoed oddly in the confined space of the hall.

“You returned with the talisman, so you either convinced Mr.
Nivens to give it to you of his own will, or he is dead,” she replied. “Either
state is a satisfactory outcome, I assure you.”

We moved through the narrow hall, the gas jets lining it
unlit. The freezing air smelled faintly of cold dirt, underlain with a whiff of
formaldehyde. Rooms opened off to either side, but in the shadows, I made out
only an impression of bulky furnishings and mirrors shrouded with cloth.

Miss Lester led the way up a sweeping staircase near the
center of the house. Up and up, through the three main floors then to a smaller
staircase, which surely went to the attic. An iron gate barred the stair.

Miss Lester unlocked it and went through without a backward
glance, forcing us to follow. As I’d suspected, the door at the top opened out
into an attic room. Rather than being used to house servants or to store excess
furniture, the single, enormous room contained only a bed, a shrouded mirror,
and a man.

He sat in a wheelchair, his body twisted with age. Thin
white hair clung to his scalp in patches with liver-spotted skin visible
beneath. He didn’t look up or move at our entrance.

What the hell? How could anyone leave an old man, an
invalid, alone in this freezing room without even a candle for company? The
cruelty seemed monstrous, even if his faculties had deserted him entirely.
Surely, this was what Nivens had meant when he said Miss Lester wouldn’t wish
police involvement. If they discovered her heinous treatment of her
grandfather, there would be an inquest and scandal, for certain.

Did she think me too jaded to care? If so, she was wrong. I
would—

The light of Miss Lester’s candle fell over the man’s
features. He had the look of the truly ancient, wrinkles so deeply graven it
seemed his skin sagged off the skull beneath. Glittering eyes stared at nothing.
His mouth hung slackly, and yet something malevolent infused his expression. I
took an instinctive step back, before realizing the source of my revulsion. His
face might have served as the model for the suggestively human countenance of
the talisman.

“These gentlemen have brought your talisman back to you,
Grandfather,” Miss Lester told him. “One of them is Dr. Whyborne. You interred
his great-grandfather, who died of gangrene, if you recall.”

“H-How do you know?” Whyborne asked, sounding shocked.

“It’s our business to know all the dead of Widdershins,” she
replied.

I had the sudden, horrid feeling she could tell me how
anyone buried within the cemetery had died, no matter how old or new the grave.
And, perhaps, whether or not the body still rested there peacefully.

The terrible old man offered no response to her statements,
but she didn’t seem to expect one. “Please give him the talisman, Mr.
Flaherty,” she instructed. “You may simply place it there in his hands.”

I stared at the two upturned hands lying on loosely on his
lap, the fingers gnarled by age until they resembled claws. I had the
nauseating vision of them closing around my wrist if I drew too close.

“Why don’t you wish to touch it, Miss Lester?” I asked,
stalling for time.

“I am of Grandfather’s blood. Handling the talisman after
sundown would be…inadvisable…for me. As it would have been for my idiot
cousin.” Her mouth thinned. “And that is all the answer you shall have. I hired
you for your discretion, Mr. Flaherty. I’m sure Dr. Whyborne will tell you it
isn’t polite to ask too many questions here in Widdershins.”

I held out my hand to Whyborne for the talisman, not wishing
to put him in any closer contact with the old creature in the wheelchair than
need be. He passed it to me. Even though he’d carried it in his pocket, where
the heat of his body should have warmed it, the talisman felt icy cold against
my skin.

I stiffened my spine and stepped forward. The strangely
glittering eyes shifted avidly under their lids as I held out the repellent
object, and followed its progress as I dropped it into the open hands from what
I hoped was a safe distance.

The claws slowly curled around their prize, but the ancient
made no other move. A breath I hadn’t realized I’d held escaped my lungs.

“Thank you,” Miss Lester said. “You may go now. I will send
full payment to your account tomorrow.”

Usually I had more words for a client—thanking them,
perhaps, or saying how pleased I was to have assisted with their difficulties.
Whatever they most wanted to hear. In this case, I merely turned and hastened
for the stair, Whyborne on my heels.

As we started down the stair, the door swung shut behind us.
Just before it closed, a menacing, mocking giggle echoed from the direction of
the old man’s chair.

 

VI

 

I’d never been so glad to return home after a case. After
the hansom let us off, I led the way inside, pausing to light the gas lamps
while Whyborne went ahead to stoke the fire in the study upstairs. Normally, I
would turn to the kitchen to prepare dinner, but tonight I trudged up the
steps.

He looked surprised when I joined him in the study. “Is
everything all right?” he asked as he returned the poker to its place.

“No,” I said, unhappily truthful.

I’d failed. I needed a perfect Valentine’s Day to convince
him I was worth keeping. Instead, I’d botched all of my plans and dragged him
along on an awful investigation. Not to mention the interlude at the Lester
house, which wasn’t precisely the recipe for a romantic evening.

Whyborne’s brows drew together. “Does this have anything to
do with what you said earlier? About missing the curtain rise? Did you plan to
go to the theater?”

“I planned for us to go, yes.” I reached into my coat and
pulled out the card and two tickets. “I wanted to give you a perfect evening
for Valentine’s Day. Dinner at Le Calmar. The theater. I thought it would be a
nice surprise.”

He took the tickets, pausing for a moment to read over the
card. The ridiculous card, which seemed so inadequate to express what I felt
for this amazing, brave man who stood by my side still. I braced myself for
condemnation. He’d point out I should never have agreed to take a case at the
last minute, let alone for one of the old families. I should have thought of us
first. I should have planned things better. He might not walk out over the
incident, but it would always be in the back of his mind now, that I couldn’t
even manage one romantic evening.

BOOK: Eidolon
8.04Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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