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Authors: F. G. Cottam

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The House of Lost Souls

BOOK: The House of Lost Souls
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The House of Lost Souls
The House of Lost Souls
F. G. Cottam

For my girls and for my boy, with love and pride.

The House of Lost Souls

Hull, October 1995

Nick Mason thought it ironic that he had always been so skilled at the covert aspect of the craft. Not so much skilled, really, as talented. He had a natural aptitude, an instinct for concealment. He watched his sister, pale at the graveside, from his hide a hundred feet away and it never even occurred to him that he might be discovered and compromised there. He knew how good he was at doing this. The proof lay in the fact that he’d done it so often and was still alive.

It was ironic because he had never thought to employ these skills in carrying out surveillance on his own flesh and blood. But there it was. There he was. Here he was, spying on his little sister. His instinct told him there was every reason for doing so. He was doing it for her own good. And ironic or not, it was bloody convenient to possess the sly and patient cunning necessary to do it so successfully.

He’d gained the expertise in the 1980s in Northern Ireland. They loved a burial, the Paddies did. They loved a martyr properly honoured and, to Mason’s mind, were melancholy by nature, always hankering after a proper excuse to mourn. All the major players attended the big ones. And you learned a lot from the body language, watching them pay their respects to one another. You watched them greet one another and offer their condolences and you learned about their hierarchy. And so he’d seen a lot of IRA heroes go to their final resting places, hidden in hides just like this one, sometimes feet away from the boyos posted as sentries, sometimes close enough to smell the breath on them from the steadiers they’d sunk in the pub on the way to the church.

He had to admit that this particular funeral was different from any of those, though. There was his sister, for a start, a pale, broken little presence in her black coat, with her clasped hands and the grief running in raw streams of redness down her face. She’d wanted to come on her own. He’d had to respect her wish to do so. It was why he was smeared in cam cream and wearing enough webbing to conceal a sniper in a combat zone. It was why he was dressed in jungle fatigues and had remained entirely still for two hours now in a narrow depression behind a thick cluster of twigs and thorn bushes adorned by an orange and russet litter of October leaves.

It wasn’t just his sister that made it different, though. Watching the funeral procession walking to the graveside had been for Mason like watching a film with several of the frames missing. The light was odd and there was a jumpy quality to the way the mourners moved that made it hard to keep track of what was going on. Funerals usually had their own morbid choreography. Even when they buried one of the boyos in Belfast, the event had always possessed the same slow, deliberate decorum.

Here, one of the pallbearers had staggered from under the burden of the coffin and vomited with his head twisted away from the procession and his hands on his knees as soon as they exited the church. The other bearers had looked as sallow and nauseous as their colleague had, lurching and struggling on. The parents had not appeared to notice. Mason, mindful of the manner in which the girl had taken her life, tried not to look at the parents. But the priest followed the coffin like a man striding towards his own death, stiff-legged and sweating, gasping out the liturgy in little gulps of breath.

There was something not right about the sound of the ceremony. The church bell was a muffled, sporadic clang, dim-seeming as though travelling an impossible distance before being heard. If he really concentrated, he could just make out organ music, emphysemic from under the church rafters. But odd melodies kept drifting over it, reminding him of the piano rags and vapid crooning his old grandfather had liked to listen to.

The light was odd. Twice, the jump-cut procession of clergy and mourners and undertakers seemed to fade to black and white in their progress and when this effect occurred, it seemed to Mason that he was watching men in top hats and starched collars carry a black casket on a sombre march to oblivion through a throng of mourners massed in broadcloth and gabardine.

He rubbed his eyes. There was nothing wrong, Mason knew, with his eyesight. When he looked again, the procession was normal. And the dead girl on her final journey had reached the edge of her grave. The weather was strange. There was a fitful wind that swirled fallen leaves in cones and eddies like kaleidoscopic little whirlpools on the grass between headstones. This wind was unseasonably warm, as well as capricious. It carried a light scent, too, Mason thought, subtle but rank. Oddest of all, though, were the girls. There were three girls mourning their dead friend. Strictly speaking, there were two girls and a woman, because the American student was a few years older than Mason’s sister and the student from Merseyside. But there should have been three figures recognisable as students in their youth and togetherness and grief, shouldn’t there? Except that Mason kept counting four.

He knew about pattern recognition. It was one of the most useful of the disciplines the army psychologists had drilled into the men operating in the field. Nature was random. Organised human behaviour wasn’t. The IRA liked people to think that their cold assassinations were spontaneous acts of valour, but everyone knew they were rehearsed until perfected. Pattern recognition could enable you to spot the nondescript car you saw too often in your rear-view mirror, or the bland face that passed yours too frequently on the street. It could help you to come out the winner against a fruit machine, or complete a crossword puzzle miserly with its clues. It could also, on occasion, save your life.

Mason’s training insisted that the pattern at the graveside was wrong, that it was somehow out of kilter. But if he tried to concentrate on the mourners he seemed to lose some of the detail in heat ripple, which was ridiculous, because it was a damp day in late October. There was no heat ripple. There were bereaved family members as stiff-limbed as the walking dead, and there was a fearful-looking priest and burial professionals sallow with some kind of collective sickness. And there was a mourner too many among the girls. He risked moving a hand to wipe his eyes, which were gritty now with sweat and leaf fragments blown into his face by the wind. And he began to feel the ground beat underneath him like impatient hands, cold and flapping.

He had never worried overmuch about death. He had killed three men in Ireland and two in Central America and never given any of them another living thought. Colombia had been a contact, a legitimate firefight, ambushed by foot soldiers from the Medellin cartel when the regiment had been helping out the Yanks with their marching-powder problem. The training had kicked in and he’d scored two hits. It had been kill or be killed. Northern Ireland had been what it was, the Province and its long and dirty, often clandestine war. He’d had nothing to be remorseful about. They’d even given him a medal. None of it had ever troubled his conscience. And he could honestly say that he’d never been frightened.

But Mason was frightened now. And he was spooked. He looked up and through dim ripples of light, thought he saw a team of snorting, black-plumed horses crossing the cemetery pulling a glass coffin mounted on a carriage hearse. He blinked and the apparition was gone, but the ground still seemed to throb with horrible life underneath him and he knew that it was his own pulse, thumping, his whole body cold and urgent now with foreboding.

Then he heard his sister scream from the graveside. Sarah screamed. And the sound pierced Mason’s heart in his hide among the tombs with its terror and its bewilderment, carried to him on the stink of the sorry autumn wind.


Paul Seaton knew it was back when a gust of rain lashed with vindictive fury at the windows of the bus he was on. They were halfway over Westminster Bridge in a stalled procession of bleary rush-hour traffic. The squall shuddered at the bus windows and left them dripping without. It rocked the old Routemaster on its springs. And Seaton knew. There was nothing unusual about rain in London on a raw evening early in November. It didn’t signify anything other than itself and the bleakness of the season. But Seaton knew then that the thing he’d almost come to believe he had escaped was back, had returned to seek him out. He stood and threaded through the obstruction of standing passengers there on the lower deck and stepped from the tailboard on to wet London pavement. The wind whistled through the gaps between the bridge balustrades, the rain it drove soaking his trousers from the knee so that the fabric gathered and clung with the rhythm of walking against his shins and calves. The cloth of his trousers felt cold and greasy and he was aware of rain scouring off the river into his hair and the collar of his coat.

Since he was headed south, the famous view, the sweeping fairytale of House of Commons and clock tower was behind him to his right, obscured anyway by the throbbing convoy of buses. The river was to his left. But he resisted any temptation to look at that. He didn’t look at the river until he reached the foot of the bridge and descended the steps to the Embankment under the pale stone gaze of the Southbank Lion. He risked a glimpse at the statue on its plinth, at the lion’s fierce and familiar head. Rain ran through its stone mane and dribbled from the corner of an eye.

The river dimpled under the rain. Seaton shivered, already soaked. He looked up to the lamps strung along the Embankment, for comfort. But there was nothing cheerful this evening about their light. The tide was uneasily high and the water close and pale in the cast of the lamps. There were old mooring rings in lions’ mouths in lions’ heads all along this stretch of the Thames. They were green and imperious with algae and invisible, now, in a strung pride of bronze along the bank beneath him. When the river was high, it rose to reach the rings in the lions’ mouths. It was how you measured the height of the tide. Now, he thought, tonight, the lions guarding the bank beneath him were surely engulfed. The river was drowning them. He fancied he could hear the dim clank of their rings against the current.

He looked at the water. The dark width of it was stippled in ribbons of urgent force. In other places it was black and still. Odd bits of debris carried past him borne on the current, half-sunk, ambiguous in the rain and the cast of light from the lamps on the bridge. As he stood and watched, his eyes were taken by a patch of something on the river surface, its shape shifting, more a contrast in texture than a solid object, whatever it was absorbing rather than reflecting any light. From out towards the far bank, it drifted closer. It began to look like the dark material of a garment, a floating slick of tweed or gabardine, a coat lost on a bad night to lose one. Only would cloth stay on the surface like that, Seaton wondered, as the shape in the water wallowed and shifted, resolved into a meagre body, the scant ballast of the corpse keeping the fabric that wrapped it only just afloat. Then, still thirty feet from him, the shape seemed to sigh in the water and it sank from sight and further speculation. There was an odour on the rain, a long-forgotten river smell of coal tar from chugging funnels and hemp and oil spillage in the lapping scum. Then, like the ghost it was, that odour, too, was gone.

He shuddered in the rain seeping through his clothes and flesh and dampened bones. And he turned away and raised the collar of his own coat hopelessly, about to head for home on foot, with no great distance to travel and everything in the world to try to come to terms with. Except that the music stopped him before he was able to take a step. Seaton stood, quite unable to move, his skin crawling with gooseflesh, listening at the river’s edge to the mournful drift of the song. The melody was old, even elderly. And it was familiar. In a high tenor, with the crisp enunciation of an evening around the wireless, a voice from sixty years ago was singing ‘I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now’.

If I turn around, I’ll see a Thames party boat, Seaton thought, antic figures partying through the glass and condensation in the lights of its long cabin. It was November, after all, and the run-up to Christmas had begun and the works celebrations were already beginning to occur.

Except that he knew in his heart he wouldn’t turn around and see anything of the sort. There wasn’t any party boat. He could hear the shellac of the old recording crackling with static under the needle of an antique gramophone as the song grew louder from behind him through the rain. The song was playing for an audience of one. The last thing he wanted to see was whatever sight might accompany it. And instead of turning around, he found he was able to move his feet away from the river and the sound, and so he answered in his mind the question posed by the title and lyric, instead. I don’t know who’s kissing her now, he admitted to himself. All I know is that it isn’t me and won’t be, ever again.

The feeling of foreboding aboard the bus had been very strong. And when he got home, the message light was flashing on his phone. He got messages very seldom. And so he dismissed all thought of rationalising that gabardine-clad corpse he thought he might have sighted in the river.

Home to Seaton was a one-bedroom flat on the top floor of a seven-storey block in Waterloo. The building was dilapidated, served by a single, piss-haunted lift that seldom functioned for more than a few consecutive days without breaking down. Tonight, though, it was working. He unlocked his door, trying not to be depressed by the smell of stale occupancy familiar to cheap spaces indifferently let. He could see the phone message light blinking out of the corner of one eye as he closed the door behind him. It cast a green, intermittent glow from the sitting room. The wind was stronger up here and he could hear rain spatter hard against the sitting-room window. The view through that window was the principal reason he had taken the flat. The location had appealed for sentimental reasons. The rent had been an important factor. But what he could see from a window the width of the sitting room had been the clincher. He had ignored shabbiness verging on squalor for the sake of his view.

He walked on into the room, past the beckoning phone, looking out and down at the night. The block was at the southern end of Morley Street. Seventy feet beneath where he stood, a neat boundary garden with a low perimeter wall gave on to St George’s Road. Directly opposite, there was a terrace of four-storey Georgian houses. Immediately to the left, the bulk of the Catholic cathedral massed and brooded. A block beyond the terrace, over to the right, he could see the dome of the Imperial War Museum, cleverly lit by its floodlights through the stir of trees surrounding the old building. To the rear of the cathedral, the lights of a bar were a small patch of yellow brightness across from the museum grounds. It was a failed pub, gaudily repainted and rechristened Zanzibar. Seaton went there some evenings. He had preferred it when it had been a pub. But the beer was cold and the staff were friendly enough. This area was strong with associations still familiar from his happy past. Usually, he took great comfort in them.

Behind him, the green glow of his message signal nagged at the gloom. As it would continue to do, until the content of the message was revealed.

Or erased.

I could always erase it, he thought. A swathe of rain bleared the glass in front of his face and made him blink and recoil slightly. And what, precisely, would erasing the message achieve? It might buy him an hour of queasy ignorance. These things were best confronted, weren’t they? You could not hide from them. The decision made, he was trying to will himself away from the window when the phone behind him began to ring.

He ignored it. He just waited until it stopped. And then he turned and went across and played the message.

‘Hello, Paul.’

The voice of Malcolm Covey.

‘What I have to say concerns the Fischer house.’

A few items of dull furniture occupied the room. Two of these were armchairs. Seaton dumped himself heavily in one of them. Covey had paused, perhaps for effect. But more likely it was to allow Seaton to accommodate himself to the shock. It was coming on for twelve years since he’d seen or heard from Malcolm Covey and in nine words, the man had got right to the point.

‘I’m sorry to intrude on you. But there really isn’t a choice. Like you, probably, I was under the assumption that the place had been long demolished. But apparently it hasn’t been. A party of students went there a couple of weeks ago.’

Were lured there, Seaton thought. There was music in Covey’s background. He had Handel on, distinct and plangent in his silences. But then, Covey’s background was plush. In Seaton’s background, there was traffic noise and the distant roar of a 747 slowing in its descent.

‘One of them is already dead. The others are in a desperate situation. Four of them visited the house.’

Five, Seaton thought.

‘Five,’ Covey said. ‘If you count the tutor who was supposed to be monitoring their course. He was the idiot who took them there.’

Seaton had his head in his hands.

‘Paul? I need you. They need you. There is no time for prevarication on this.’

Another silence.

‘There’s a bar, improbably named, not far from where I believe you live these days.’

Zanzibar, Seaton said to himself.

‘Zanzibar,’ Covey said, and he chuckled. ‘Who’d have thought it, Paul, in Southwark?’

But Seaton’s mind was on the Fischer house.

‘I’ll meet you there at eight this evening. Please be there. Be there, Paul, for God’s sake.’

Seaton rose from his chair thinking that God had very little to do with anything that had ever occurred within the grounds or walls of Klaus Fischer’s gloomy domain. He walked back to his window. He turned his wrist so that his watch face showed in the flare of the sodium lights from the busy intersection below. He studied the hurl of indifferent traffic for a moment. It was just after a quarter to eight.

If he thought about it objectively, his life did not amount to very much. He occupied a rented flat in a block that smelled of frying onions and old semen stains and rodent droppings and damp. He commuted by Underground to the British Museum where he scraped a few hundred pounds a month checking facts for writers too idle to carry out their own research. He didn’t own a desktop computer or a credit card or a decent suit of clothes. He didn’t possess a television set. His only diversion in the flat was a second-hand cassette player he’d picked up on a market stall in Lower Marsh, and he didn’t tend to play that often because the tapes he owned brought reminiscences unbearable to him. He’d plugged the machine into a wall socket and put on Everything But The Girl, heard the opening song of the album
and cried salt, self-pitying tears on his knees with his face between his hands. He hid in a part of the city fondly remembered, known from his own young adulthood. He hid there because he’d been confident there once, and happy. He hid there because its familiar streets and tender memories were the only consolation left to him now. It was no sort of a life at all, when you thought about it. But it was the only one he had. He believed that Malcolm Covey’s intervention, now, could take it away from him.

You exited the lift and took your life in your hands crossing St George’s Road against the traffic hurtling from the right. Then there was a gated passage flanking the cathedral that led to the made-over pub. This short walk was always an ordeal, the cathedral’s length a sinister mass in the darkness. He shared the passage with no one. Odd doors and gated entrances punctuated the length of the building to his right. Leaves and city debris stirred and floundered on sets of descending steps and in dark recesses. There was a Gothic, deliberate atmosphere about the place, a sepulchral character to the mass of its stone buttresses and retreats. Shapes snatched inexplicably at his eyes as vagrant shadows shuffled and sulked in the night there. And he heard laughter, high-pitched with contempt or teasing mockery, that made him hurry on, even as he rationalised the sound into the squeal of brakes on the road beyond, or cold wind gusting through elaborate masonry.

Malcolm Covey sat smoking a cigar. Even in the crush, he’d found a table, kept a vacant chair. In the intervening decade, Covey seemed not so much to have aged as to have grown even more comfortably into himself. The hair and the beard were silvery grey rather than salt and pepper. He had looked distinguished before. Now he looked almost eminent. His huge body was buttoned into a dark-grey, three-piece suit. Rings adorned two of his thick fingers. One was plain gold. The other housed a fat ruby. The whole impression was of ease and stature and affluence, until he spoke. The voice was betrayed slightly now by the weight he carried and, Seaton assumed, by the number of Havanas he had burned his way through over the years. There was a shrill, short-of-breath quality to it that Seaton didn’t remember from before and that hadn’t been noticeable earlier over the telephone.

Seaton knew he was someone prey more than most to easy sentimentality and, particularly, to the cheap warmth of nostalgia. But he felt neither sentimental nor nostalgic facing the figure in front of him. He did not even feel the faint pleasure of familiarity assumed lost. This was partly because of the urgency that had brought Covey so abruptly back into his life. But it was mostly because he had always felt ambivalent about the man. It was hard to warm to any person instinct warned you not to trust.

‘You look good, Malcolm. Wish I could say it was good to see you.’

Covey puffed and nodded. He had risen to greet Seaton with a handshake. Now he sat back down. ‘You look pretty good yourself. All things considered. You’ve every right to look like hell.’


‘Which is where they’re going, Paul. Those girls who went to the Fischer house. Unless you can help them?’

BOOK: The House of Lost Souls
2.45Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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