Read The House of Lost Souls Online

Authors: F. G. Cottam

Tags: #Fiction, #Horror

The House of Lost Souls (7 page)

BOOK: The House of Lost Souls
10.08Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Seaton said, ‘The second consideration?’

Mason looked at him. ‘The kukri knife,’ he said, eventually. ‘Everything you might have heard about Gurkhas and knives, from the trenches in Flanders to Port Stanley in the Falklands, is likely to be true.’

His name was Hindip Roon and he had followed his father and grandfather into the Gurkha Rifles. He was no more than five feet tall and, wet through, wouldn’t have weighed above fifty kilos. Mason watched the trooper walk away, becoming as light and insubstantial as a ghost, until he disappeared completely into the foliage skirting the perimeter of the village. There was a sort of fog, a vapour that glazed the soldiers’ skin and smelled sulphurous and made the branches of the trees and hanging vines gluey against clothing and kit. On the grass, its residue dragged at boots as sticky as the slime that trails a snail. But it was useful, this mist that made phantoms of men and coated the jungle in its suffocating hush. It made concealment easier. According to the priest, the chief of the Tengwai wore an emerald-studded collar as his badge of office. It was not something he would be likely to relinquish willingly. Mason had ordered trooper Roon to bring back the collar when he returned as physical proof of the deed done. Roon might feel compelled, he knew, to take other trophies. It was a grisly and long-cherished custom among the Gurkhas. But he’d volunteered for the task and what he did with the bastard’s extremities was, to Mason’s mind, entirely his own prerogative.

Except that, by midnight, Roon had not returned. Through the weeping mist, through his night-vision binoculars, Mason could discern no movement in the village. But then, since his unit’s arrival and careful disposition around it there had been no sound or visible sign of life in the village at all. The jungle was quiet, too. But that had been a feature of their mission, when he thought about it. They had heard no birds singing or earthbound beasts crashing, startled, through foliage. There were no monkeys capering and calling up above in the trees. They hadn’t seen so much as a squirrel or a bat up there in the canopy. There’d just been biting insects and the odd distant bark of a scavenging jackal and, a couple of hours earlier, the coils of a fat snake wound indolent around a heavy branch a few metres to the left of the path the priest had put them on.

He sent a two-man scout party to assess the level of defensive fortification and sentry disposition at the two entrances to the village compound marked on the Jesuit’s map. And they returned after an hour to report that there were no sentries. There were no defences. The village gave the appearance of being entirely uninhabited.

As commander of the mission, Mason knew he had to go in after their man. Their belief in their own invulnerability could just about explain the defensive laxness of the Tengwai fighters. But Mason’s men were not Kesabi, hampered by bad magic, crippled by juju terror. They’d go in hard and fast and it wouldn’t be subtle or diplomatic and the Tengwai wouldn’t know what had fucking hit them. They’d only hope to Christ trooper Hindip Roon was still in one piece and, if he was, they’d get him out and fuck the French and their fucking colonial games, Mason thought, as he gave the signal to attack.

They found only two men in the village. Both of them were dead. The Tengwai chief lay, headless, in his hut. Hindip Roon sat cross-legged outside the hut with the severed head facing away from him on the ground between his knees. In the grip of Roon’s right fist, the chief’s collar of office glinted green and gold in the darkness in thin beams from the torches screwed to the assault party’s rifles. Roon had a slacker grip in death on the handle of his kukri knife, which he had used left-handed to slice open his carotid artery before bleeding to death in apparent repose.

The chief had not died in repose. Mason settled on his haunches and examined the face of the dead man by torchlight. The sides of the head were dark and bloody and the hair there matted with gore where Roon had sliced off his ears. But you only noticed that after taking in the raw, red nakedness of his skull. Because Roon had scalped him, too. His lips were drawn back in a snarl of agony from his teeth. Worse, though, were his eyes. They were black, dismayed, lost as the life dimmed in them to the dawning consequence, Mason thought, of what his bartering with evil was going to mean for him in death. Mason rose and spat on the ground and went into the dead chief’s hut.

It was more than a hut, of course. It was vaulted, timbered in hardwood, the high dome spreading above a spacious circular room, flagged in smooth stone under strewn rugs, opulently furnished in teak and ivory and marble and blood. The headless torso of the chief lay in a thickening pool of gore, small and still at the carved feet of the ebony throne on which the Kheddi sat, shambolic and grotesque, much worse a sight in the anaemic light of Mason’s torch beam than the priest had led him to believe it could ever be. Its skin was some greyish animal hide, scraped and seasoned, maybe the softened hides of boar or buffalo, crudely stitched over its stuffing in the rough shape and posture of a man. Standing, it would have been about eight feet tall. But it would never have stood, Mason thought, thinking of the priest’s butchered goats. It was a lifeless thing, an abomination slouched on its throne, with its cloven buffalo hooves for feet, with its hands taken from some slaughtered ape and clenched now, the fingernails black with rictus and crafty decay. It was an abomination, right enough, but crudely inanimate.

Mason raised his torch beam and studied the head. It was large and pale and bald, sunken in places in shallow depressions where the stuffing didn’t seem to be sufficient and gave it a deformed and almost sullen aspect. The eyes were blank discs of ivory perforated at their edges and stitched on to the face. And the mouth under them was a black, leering gash. Mason shook his head. He turned his back on the thing. And he felt the hairs rise on his neck in dread as he heard the Kheddi shift behind him in its seat.

‘I was wired anyway, so pumped with adrenaline I thought my heart was going to explode out of my chest. I spun, already squeezing the trigger, and gave it the full mag,’ he told Seaton. ‘High-velocity rounds. Point-blank range. I hit it with a burst that cut the fucking monstrosity in half. Next thing I knew there were half a dozen very jumpy blokes in the hut with me, safeties off, trigger-happy as fuck, shouting their heads off in the dark. It was fucking bedlam.’

‘What did you do?’

‘We buried our dead comrade. We torched the camp. We marched on no sleep for two solid days and were air lifted out at our agreed rendezvous aboard a Chinook.’

‘Did you tell anyone what happened in the hut?’

Mason laughed. A bitter sound. ‘Back in Blighty at the debrief? No.’

‘On the march out of the camp?’

‘I didn’t need to. Like I said, I fired a burst that cut the thing, the Kheddi, in half. And we all saw the contents of its stomach. Straw stuffing, like you’d expect. Other random things, bits of gold, plaits of old rope, rags, coins, what looked like a couple of dozen semi-precious stones. And five small human skulls. And the skulls were partially digested.’

Seaton sat and considered what he was hearing. ‘You mean in a state of decomposition?’

‘No, Mr Seaton. I mean what I say. We all saw it.’ He reached for another cigarette. ‘I can close my eyes and see it now. It’s what makes me broad-minded, you see, about whatever’s going on now with these poor girls.’

Both men were silent for a while. Seaton had questions about the story to which he wanted answers, but he thought Mason looked exhausted in the chair opposite his. So he didn’t ask them. But the silence began to unnerve him with the fitful wind outside and the imagined noises from the room occupied by the sleeping girl upstairs. And so he was compelled to speak.

‘Did the priest give the demon a name?’

‘My name is Legion,’ Mason said. His voice was flat, devoid of emotion, spent after the telling of his tale. ‘He seemed to think it’s always the same demon, irrespective of what it calls itself. But you’d know that, wouldn’t you? So I don’t really know why you bother to ask.’

‘What do you think he saw, the Gurkha?’

‘Roon,’ Mason said. ‘Hindip Roon. Tough bloke. Third generation. His grandfather won the Military Cross fighting the Japanese in the 14th Army counteroffensive at Meiktila. He was very proud of what his granddad did in Burma, was Roon.’

‘What do you think Hindip Roon saw?’

‘I think it’s what he heard, Mr Seaton. We found the ears he took as trophy tucked into one of the ammo pouches strapped to his webbing. He did that, and the rest of his blood work, in the hut. That was obvious from the mess around the chief’s corpse, even to me, wired as I was. But he worked with an audience he didn’t know he had. What I think, is this. I think the Kheddi spoke to him. I think the Kheddi spoke to Hindip Roon. And I think, perhaps, he might have heard its laughter.’

‘You’ve lost me,’ Seaton said.

‘Its glee,’ Mason said. ‘Its happy appreciation of Roon’s craft.’

Eight

A cry from above took them back up the stairs and on to the threshold of the girl’s room. She was propped against her pillows, awake, alert. Her cheeks were flushed above a bright smile which contrasted dismally with the look of sly and ancient mischief dulling her eyes. The nurse, to one side, her back to her patient, busied herself with a glass-topped trolley crowded with the apparatus of the sick room. There were pills in white plastic cylinders and medicine bottles and a thermometer propped in sterile fluid and a thing with rubber coils and a glass gauge for calculating blood pressure. When you looked at the girl’s face, Seaton thought, you couldn’t blame the nurse for turning her back.

The girl clutched a radio in her lap, a portable with the aerial extended. She’d taken it from her bedside table, where Seaton remembered seeing it earlier, behind a box of tissues. The tissue box was now on the floor. He thought the scream they had heard the nurse’s, alarmed perhaps at the suddenness with which her patient had roused to consciousness and moved. The girl blinked and her head snapped back against her raised pillows. She stabbed at one of the preset buttons on the radio and sound assaulted the room at a volume that caused the nurse to jerk and send her trolley crashing side-ways to the floor.

‘I’m so sorry.’

Her voice was audible only because it carried as a whisper under the anthemic assault of Joy Division, the baritone of Ian Curtis incanting ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’.

Mason had crossed the threshold of the room and guided the nurse, with a gentle grip insistent on one elbow, as his sister punched another preset on the radio and Nick Drake intoned something whispery and acoustic that filled the room and with its gentle rhythm and rhymes rocked the girl back and forth against her pillows. The girl was panting, her face awful to look at now, and against the walls and windows of the house the wind had roused itself once more with shuddering, uncertain violence. Things moved in Seaton’s mind, shadowy in the wainscoting. The shadows themselves spread and encroached. Gravel was sprayed against the windowpanes as if in antic glee. Mason had not returned from taking out the nurse. There was a smell of rottenness. Like something stagnant, this dead odour carried on the breath of the panting girl. Seaton had still not dared take the step that would deliver him into her room. But he needed to get the radio away from her. As if reading his mind, the girl punched a preset. He heard Sandy Denny singing ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes?’.

From the bed, the girl leered at Seaton. ‘They know where the time goes,’ she said. ‘They’re so very keen to tell.’ She belched, with a look of surprise, and her breath was the rank air of the crypt. ‘Dying to tell,’ she said.

And Paul Seaton fled.

Mason found him hunched over the wheel of the Saab in the pub car park, his seatbelt buckled but the engine cold when Mason opened the passenger door and sat heavily beside him. Both men were soaked from the hard, heavy rain on their separate journeys there. The car radio was playing. The music was jazz, a weary four-in-the-morning ballad infused with a faint bebop energy. Someone very good was making a trombone sound as subtle and sinuous as a tenor saxophone. ‘My Funny Valentine’, Mason thought. He looked at Seaton. He didn’t think he had ever seen anyone look so frightened in his life.

‘Cigarette?’

‘I don’t smoke.’

‘Me neither,’ Mason said, lighting one. ‘Gave up five years ago. Read the Allen Carr book, but it didn’t work. Not for me. Hypnotherapy did the trick, though. Clinic in London, not far from Regent’s Park.’

‘You must have really wanted to stop.’

‘Oh, I did,’ Mason said, inhaling deeply. ‘Cost me an arm and a leg. But it was worth it.’

‘Congratulations.’

‘Cheers.’ He exhaled. ‘Thanks for waiting.’

‘Just deciding where to go.’

Mason nodded, trying to keep his voice calm, the welling desperation out of it. If necessary he would drag Seaton out of the car, subdue him with the sap he’d put in his jacket pocket on leaving and carry him back to the house on Wavecrest over his shoulder. The fucker was going nowhere, not with Sarah in this condition, not if he had anything at all to offer them. ‘Right,’ Mason said. He kept on nodding. He pushed a hand deep into a pocket and fingered the raised stitching on the leather grip of the sap. ‘Right.’

‘Your sister?’

‘Sedated. Our nurse is a stoic.’

‘I just lost it, briefly,’ Seaton said. ‘I’ll be okay in a minute.’

Mason studied the glowing tip of his cigarette. Wind rocked the car on its springs.

‘The music—’

‘All suicides,’ Mason said. ‘Ian Curtis hanged himself. With Nick Drake it was painkillers. And that singer with Fairport Convention threw herself down a flight of concrete steps.’

‘You know your music.’

Mason nodded towards the car radio. ‘I don’t recognise this.’

‘Frank Rosolino. Trombonist. Big on the West Coast, once. Well, big by bebop standards. Which means he was a virtuoso who just about scraped a living. Pretty much any jazz player’s lot, in the era of James Taylor and the Eagles and the Doobie Brothers.’

Fear took some people like this, Mason knew. Made them loquacious, verbose. Sometimes it was all you could do to shut them up. ‘You a jazz fan, Paul?’

Seaton nodded. ‘Radio turned itself on a second after I got into the car.’

‘Frank Rosolino kill himself?’

‘Late one evening. Shortly after he put a bullet into the head of each of his sleeping infant sons.’

Seaton reached for the switch to turn on the windscreen wipers but his hand gave up before touching it, as though he lacked the will. The trombone died in the speakers and Mason, a pause after, straightaway recognised the mournful Roy Buchanan blues that followed it. He thought that the volume might jump, suddenly. He thought that he might scream if it did.

‘Walking after you in the rain, I wondered about the odds against that kind of thematic coincidence with the songs on the bedroom radio.’

Seaton turned to face him. ‘Outlandish,’ he said. ‘The odds, I mean. I’m not an actuary. And I’m not a betting man. But I would think those odds incalculable.’

Mason nodded.

Roy Buchanan sounded other-worldly, the chords enfeebled now, the strings of his old Telecaster guitar distorted and loose.

Mason had cajoled and caressed and bribed the nurse back into his sister’s charge. She had slumped into unconsciousness again by the time they got back to her room, thin against her pillows, her breath shallow and her face wearing the dead sheen of pewter. The nurse had taken the radio from her sleeping grip and then wrenched the plug that powered the thing from its socket on the wall. She dumped it in Mason’s hands with an expression on her face that was a complex stew of fear and understanding and resolution. She was a Celt, he remembered, the nurse. She was a girl from County Meath and acquainted, perhaps, with talk of magic and certainly with folklore. And the nursing was a vocation in her and so her conscience would resolve her now to stay. With no point in speculative talk he merely nodded his thanks and relief to her and went to find Paul Seaton.

He knew Seaton wouldn’t have got very far. He had cut the Saab’s fuel line while the Irishman was in the Pearson’s Arms lavatory to make absolutely sure of that. Whitstable had become very fashionable over recent years. But it was far too small a place and the trade it attracted was far too smart for it to support a local mini-cab firm. The nearest would have to come from Herne Bay or Canterbury. It was late, and going though the pockets of Seaton’s coat after hanging it on a hook in the house earlier, he’d taken Seaton’s wallet. So getting a lift out would be a problem for him, with the railway station long closed. It was almost 2 a.m. It was dead time in Whitstable.

Mason was almost surprised to find himself descending the cellar steps of the Wavecrest house before going after Seaton. He hated the damp, salt odour of his father’s old refuge from his children, from domesticity. It was the part of the house that most unnerved him. But his thoughts were vague on this, as he reached for the weight and threat of his father’s sap, and felt the scrutiny of the hardwood idols brought back by his father from Africa, as they watched him through their carved, incurious eyes from where they were huddled on their shelves against the far wall.

He heard the rumble of the sea, underneath it now, underneath the heavy reproach of its waves broaching on the shingle above. He slapped the lead shot and leather sap into his palm and cursed himself for the futile bravado of the gesture. Nobody was watching, after all. Nobody was here to be impressed, or daunted.

The truth was, his father’s house had always unnerved him. He had slept under this roof with a night light on until the age of fifteen, despite the old man’s taunting. And it wasn’t just the house. He had always felt the small town of his birth a malign and frightening place. He hated its narrow alleys and the gibbet swing of its pub signs in the dark. He grew up loathing the slither of the wind through its winter nights. He thought there was something odd, unfettered, out of kilter about the place. It was cold, underpopulated, meagre. There was a starkness about the shadows and the light. There was the feeling he always had of being followed. There had been two, really terrifying, childhood incidents he fought not to recollect with any clarity. One had taken place at the tea garden in Tankerton. The other had occurred in the old ice-cream parlour on the front when he’d been ten or eleven years old. It had been a relief when his father had sent him away to the boarding school in Cumbria. He hadn’t minded the dark, there. There was night comfort in the sound of the other boys, breathing, asleep in the dorm they shared. And there was something cleansing about the bleak regime of fell-running and forced treks and orienteering on frozen mornings by torchlight. He wondered sometimes if his whole professional life had not been some sort of reaction to, or compensation for, the fears he felt so plagued by as a child growing up here. Maybe. And maybe not. There were plenty of other men in the regiment, rightfully prone to night terrors of their own. Now, in his father’s cellar, amid his father’s stores and stashes of secret collusive things, he slapped the sap against flesh again and self-consciously chuckled at the bite of pain with the impact into his palm. And something shifted softly over by the shelves against the far wall. And Mason swallowed and sauntered with exaggerated slowness towards the dim flight of cellar steps.

‘The sea,’ Seaton said, in the Saab. ‘They find it more difficult to summon their mischief, near the sea. They’re fierce fond of music, so they are. And, of course, they love to have their little joke. But at the edge of the sea…well, it’s always been safe. Safer, at least. Not entirely safe, nowhere is. But certainly safer. Until now.’

‘You’re going to tell me what’s going on,’ Mason said. ‘You are. Aren’t you?’

‘You look about ready to beat it out of me, captain.’

The Irishman had that right. ‘If I had to, I would,’ Mason said. ‘But I don’t need to. Because you came here to tell me. Didn’t you?’

‘We can’t do much about things, about the prevailing circumstances, until I do.’

Mason waited. Eventually Seaton said, ‘Any of that Joseph Conrad meets Rider Haggard Congo bullshit true?’

‘Not Congo,’ Mason said. ‘It wasn’t the Congo. It was the Ivory Coast.’

‘Just a yarn spun to buddy the two of us up? A grand tale, captain. But that Kheddi stuff was nonsense, wasn’t it?’

Mason seemed to tighten under his sodden clothes. He dripped rain and indignation. ‘Blarney isn’t my style, Seaton,’ he said. ‘I’m sorry to say that every word of it was true.’

Wind rocked the car in a savage upward gust despite the buttressing shelter of the sea wall and, a moment after, a wave pounded like a canon battery against the wall itself and hit the fabric roof of the Saab in a heaving spatter of brine. They saw it gush down the windscreen, a living element, foam-flecked, shaped in sinewy cascades of black water. The radio was quiet now. Roy Buchanan, who had hanged himself in a police cell in America in 1988, had apparently returned to his troubled rest.

‘It began twelve years ago,’ Seaton said. He had extended his hands and his fists were tight on the wheel and his knuckles white in light that glowed like phosphorescence through the dripping car windows. ‘That’s when it began for me. It’s all my fault, really. Everything that’s happened can be brought back to me. And yet, you know, it began with the noblest of intentions.’

Mason crushed the orange ember of his cigarette between finger and thumb. ‘Tell me,’ he said. ‘Come back to the house on Wavecrest and tell me all of it.’

BOOK: The House of Lost Souls
10.08Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

The Black Stone by Nick Brown
Fifth Son by Barbara Fradkin
The Other Woman by Hank Phillippi Ryan
Needles and Pearls by Gil McNeil
The Rules in Rome by A.L. Sowards
Bachelor Unforgiving by Brenda Jackson
Bliss by Kathryn Littlewood
The Guardian by Katie Klein