Authors: Malcolm Pryce
‘Maybe it’s just the heat.’
Llunos gave a short sudden shake of the head. ‘It’s the lake. The reappearance of the town has precipitated a spiritual crisis in the town.’
‘My teacher. He says it’s stirring things up, the repressed memories of the townsfolk, it’s like our collective unconscious.’
‘I didn’t know you had a teacher.’
Llunos cast me a sheepish glance. ‘Night school, been doing a course in psychology.’
‘I’m surprised to hear that of you.’
I could sense he was torn between distaste for the confessional mode, and the need to share these thoughts with someone.
‘You have to move on, though, don’t you? Move with the times. The world is changing and you either adapt or get left behind. That’s what they say, isn’t it?’
Llunos was a lawman in the old-fashioned mould, the sheriff of the frontier town whose methods were rough but reasonably effective. He preferred to beat rather than entreat, he liked the old-fashioned certainties of occasional short-term injustice that through the finely grinding mills of time and God ensured a form of justice not perfect but recognised by all as an acceptable accommodation in an imperfect world.
‘These new boys with degrees and stuff, they don’t approve of violence as a means to solving crime, they prefer modern scientific methods, they use psychology.’
I said nothing. Today I had been invited along to listen.
‘Maybe if I can brush up on the textbook stuff I may make a move down to Cardiff, you know, the Bureau.’
Llunos adopted a deliberately casual tone: ‘What were you doing out there anyway?’
‘Like I told you, we just went to look.’
‘Were you on a case?’
He nodded thoughtfully. He didn’t believe me. This was the pantomime we often enacted called Protecting the Client; Vanya’s privacy had been entrusted into my safe-keeping. Maybe he wouldn’t have minded cops asking him his business but most people who walk through my door do and I respect that. Cops, though, they hate it. Llunos knew all this but he still had to ask.
‘You just happened to be going for a walk and found the hat.’
‘No, we found the girl who was wearing the hat. She ran off. Like I told you.’
‘Oh yeah, the girl. I forgot.’
When I arrived at the office the next day there was an overhead projector set up on the desk. I asked Calamity what it was for and a slight air of coyness slipped into her voice. ‘Oh, I’ve been superseding the paradigm.’
‘That’s good. How did you do it?’
She walked over to close the curtains, but it did little to lessen the fierce light from the street outside. ‘I’ve been looking into the bearded lady angle, I think I’ve found something interesting. She flicked a switch on the side of the overhead projector and a wonky square of light illuminated the wall. Dust danced in the well of light above the platen. She placed a transparency down. ‘Take a look at this. This is the area round Abercuawg, this line here is the Devil’s Bridge narrow-gauge railway line.’ She placed another acetate cell over the first. It superimposed a pattern of stars over the map. ‘See these stars? Each one represents the birthplace of a champion on the Pro-Bearded-Lady circuit over the past fifty years. See? Classic clustering pattern. And there’s more—’
‘Could be just a statistical anomaly.’
‘Maybe, but look at this.’ She put a third acetate over the first two and this time a pattern of skulls was superimposed. The skulls clustered in the same patterns as the stars.
‘Same clustering, different occupation. Guess what?’
‘You tell me.’
‘School games teachers.’
‘You can laugh if you want, but the facts can’t be laughed away. These clustering patterns are mathematically significant. Now look at this.’ She put another acetate down, this time showing a series of dots. ‘Each dot represents a parish museum that has a photo or photos of hairy babies born in the neighbourhood. You see? There’s a clear pattern, this area round Abercuawg has a rogue hairiness gene among the populace. Where did it come from? That’s where it gets interesting. This line here is the working of a spur line to Devil’s Bridge that was suddenly abandoned in 1872 after an accident during blasting. The official history of the railway says they hit a pocket of gas, but the oral histories claim the explosion released a “thing” imprisoned in the belly of the mountain. No one knows exactly what it was, but it was pretty angry and very hairy.’
‘So where is all this leading?’
‘Folklore also relates stories of village girls being offered to the “thing” over the years as brides, and there is talk of intermarriage between local women and the “thing”; this may explain the hairiness.’
‘OK, sleuth, what is the “thing”?’
Calamity paused for effect, allowing her gaze to linger on me melodramatically. Finally, she said, ‘Trolls.’
‘There’s a troll living in the mountain near Abercuawg?’
‘It’s a possibility we have to consider.’
‘We have to consider it even if only to eliminate it from the inquiry. The investigator doesn’t get to choose what goes into the pot and what doesn’t.’
‘This one does. If we don’t admit it into the inquiry, we don’t have to eliminate it.’
Calamity looked flustered. ‘Louie, you don’t get this sort of thing just by chance. Maybe one or two games teachers, and one or two bearded ladies, one or two hairy babies, that I grant you. But not this many.’
I threw up my hands in mock despair. ‘Maybe the pattern of hairiness is interesting but what does it mean? We’ve already got a suspect, a flesh and blood guy called Goldilocks who was sentenced to hang for the murder. We just need to find out what he did with her. Why bring in the trolls?’
Calamity’s brow furrowed as she considered the implications. ‘I don’t say I believe it, I do say it has to be checked out and eliminated from the inquiry. I was thinking maybe you could help out on that . . .’
‘I’m not talking to my old school games teacher.’
‘No, I meant with the bearded ladies. I thought you could speak to a few.’
‘Calamity, the world has moved on since those days. We don’t have bearded ladies any more because it’s . . . it’s . . . I don’t know, it’s not right. Competitive bearded ladying went out with all the other freak shows. We don’t laugh at people like that, we try to help them, or at least good people do. I’m not going to remind them of the old days, and if I did they would probably slam the phone down on me. What’s to stop you from talking to them?’
‘I tried but they slammed the phone down on me.’
Calamity sighed. ‘We just need to find a way to crack the culture of Omertà surrounding the bearded ladies.’
‘When can we hear the séance tape?’
‘I’m still trying to get hold of an open reel deck, it should be round later today.’ She opened the curtains again and it was like leaving a darkened cinema for the bright daylit street.
‘I guess there’s not much point me asking you to talk to Meici Jones, either,’ she said.
‘What’s he got to do with it?’
‘Don’t you remember him saying there were four games teachers in his family?’
I said nothing and stared instead at the innocence and candour that played in her eyes. When she came back at Christmas it was with her tail between her legs. She saw it as a failure but in reality it was nothing of the sort. Winter is a bad time to set up a new venture. Because of this I try to bolster her confidence without letting on. But the trouble is, I too suffered in a different way from her temporary absence. In the time she was away I noticed something in my office that I had never seen before. It was surprising how it had escaped my attention all those years but life is like that sometimes: we fail to see things on the end of our noses and it takes a renewal of perspective brought about by a change to make us see. And what I saw was this: the office was empty.
Footsteps echoed up the stairwell, we both looked expectantly at the open door. A small man appeared.
‘Mr Knight and Calamity! I’m so glad I caught you, I was afraid you might be out.’ It was Mr Mooncalf. ‘I have some good news for you.’ He opened his briefcase and pulled out a folder. ‘A very old and dear customer of the firm Mooncalf & Sons living in Romania has requested I courier a certain item to him. If you were to agree to undertake the task it would so defray the cost of your trip to Hughesovka that you would be able to go for about . . . er . . . nothing.’
‘Where in Romania?’ I asked.
‘I believe the town is called Sighisoara.’
‘Wouldn’t it take us out of our way?’ I said.
‘A short detour through a most beautiful landscape, dotted with perfectly preserved medieval villages and abounding in wolves and bears.’
‘Sighisoara is in Transylvania, isn’t it?’ said Calamity.
‘Is it?’ said Mooncalf with feigned innocence.
‘We did it in school for a project.’
‘Who’s the client?’ I asked.
‘Mr V. Tepes,’ said Mooncalf darting a worried glance at Calamity.
‘That means “impaler” in their language,’ she said. ‘It’s pronounced tsep-pesh.’
‘It’s just a name,’ said Mooncalf. ‘Like Smith.’
‘Is he any relation to Vlad the Impaler?’ She turned to me and said, ‘He was the original Dracula.’
‘Of course not,’ said Mooncalf. ‘It’s just a name, like Smith. If someone is called Smith it doesn’t mean they shoe horses, does it? Same with Tepes. It doesn’t mean you are an impaler.’
‘They used a sharpened stake,’ said Calamity showing off her knowledge, ‘and stuck it up your bum.’
Mooncalf looked worried. ‘Did they teach you that in school, too?’
‘Yes. Sometimes they used a horse to haul you on to the sharpened pale.’
Mooncalf put the folder on the desk and stood up with a slightly dejected air. He clutched the briefcase close to his chest. ‘Marvellous what they teach the kids these days,’ he said mournfully. ‘We never had the opportunities when I was young.’
After he left we both stared for a while at the empty doorway as if half expecting him to come back.
‘Oh, I forgot to tell you,’ said Calamity. ‘There was a message for you slipped under the door when I came in. It’s from Arianwen, the girl we saw out at Mrs Eglwys Fach’s cottage.’
‘What does she want?’
‘She wants to see you about a business matter. Doesn’t say what. She works in the witches’ wholesaler on Chalybeate Street.’
I arranged to meet Calamity later at Sospan’s and walked through town to Grimalkin’s.
There was not much room in the shop, just an aisle through piles of stock rising up on shelves. On the left there were building materials: chocolate roof tiles, gingerbread bricks with marzipan cement, and a liquorice hod. Cauldrons in varying sizes hung from the ceiling; and all around there were chalices, gargoyle moulds, wands, crystal balls, candles, toadstool seeds and bric-à-brac for the altar. A sign announced familiars were down in price.
The counter, too, was an untidy profusion of wares: a display of Rune Letraset next to glass jars containing black feathers, quartz, amethyst, agate. There was a stand selling fairy traps and the injunction to bait with shiny things or children’s milk teeth. For pixies, there was a larger trap with a bigger snap spring. Customers were warned not to use them for trolls, except minors. There were phials of blood in a variety of grades: dragon, bat or strangled dove. Behind the counter, through a hanging partition of amber and bloodstone beads, there was an aquarium tank in which newts stared out disconsolately and pondered their fate.
A girl stood with her back to me on a stepladder sticking up a hand-lettered sign with Blu-tac. It said: ‘If you can spell it, we probably sell it.’ She wore a long cloak of midnight-blue velvet surmounted by a red riding hood. Behind her were arrayed tiers of wooden drawers neatly labelled with their contents: dust of tomb, venom of toad, flesh of brigand, lung of ass, blood of infant, corpse grease, bile of ox and finger of birth-strangled babe. Everything for the weekly groceries. They sold things separately, neatly wrapped in plain brown paper; you could buy individual coffin nails in a variety of sizes and cobweb by the yard, from free-range spiders rather than the farmed stuff.