Authors: Jonathan L. Howard
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Johannes Cabal didn’t enjoy his little trips into town.
The town had a name, but he didn’t tend to use it, in much the same way that he didn’t tend to refer to the local village by any other name but “the village” and the nearest city as “the city” on those rare occasions when he had cause to mention them at all.
His strange house—tall and soot stained as if torn from the middle of a terrace and placed, brick-perfect, in the valley where nobody else cared to live (once, at any rate, he had turned up) and where no chapel bells could ever be heard no matter what the prevailing wind—his strange house provided him with privacy.
It could not, however, provide him with food. For this he required the shops of the village. There
been that early attempt to poison him but, after the trouble the village had experienced filling the vacancy for grocer, no further trouble had come from that direction. Nor could it provide him with certain supplies more esoteric than Assam tea and crumpets. If he required, for example, a particularly tortuous retort replacing after yet another small disturbance in his laboratory, then there were certain glassblowers in the city who could create it without asking more questions than were absolutely necessary. The city was a faceless place, uncaring and uninterested in the foibles—often unspeakably foul foibles—of its visitors and denizens, a great shuddering ennui that city dwellers call being “cosmopolitan” and believe a virtue. Such are the delusions and madness of crowds.
Cabal enjoyed the anonymity of the city, but was always mindful to keep his visits short. With enough provocation, even the most urbane sophisticate seemed able to lay hands upon a pitchfork and burning torch at very short notice.
This left the town, useful for the intermediate requirements. It is in the nature of towns, however, to throw up the occasional surprise, small hints to their greater metropolitan ambitions. The local town, for example, contained a hatmaker called Jones. While this fact is not so remarkable in itself, this particular hatter maintained a sideline of such startling occultness that the very method by which Cabal discovered it would be a lengthy account in itself. It would not, however, be an engaging one so we must be satisfied that Jones had a sideline, Cabal had an interest, and they both had a financial understanding.
Twice a year Cabal would make his way to town and enter the hattery through the grimy alley backing it. They would meet in the storeroom and, with no pleasantries, Cabal would gives Jones a sum of money, Jones would give Cabal several small paper packages, Cabal would arrange the date of his next visit as he carefully stored the packages in his Gladstone bag, and then he would leave the way he had come, again without pleasantries.
Cabal didn’t enjoy these visits for a variety of reasons. He didn’t enjoy the trip; while the majority was aboard a suburban train, the stretch between his house and the village was four miles along a country road, muddy half the year and dust for the rest. He would have taken his bicycle, but for the fact that the last time he had left it at the station, he had returned to find its spokes kicked out and its tyres slashed. It appeared that the respect the villagers held for him—“respect” here used as a synonym for “fear”—did not extend to his bicycle. He had not yet got around to identifying and formulating a punishment for the malefactor, but when he did he would be sure to make it more than sufficient to prevent any further interference with his property.
Nor did he like the town itself very much. Caught in the sticky patch between a collapse in local light industry and whatever was going to come along to replace it, the place was coasting along on its municipal laurels, if one can imagine such a thing. The streets were swept rarely and with little conviction, the shop windows collected dead flies, and past dignitaries, struck in dramatic poses to exhort a missing populace to greater things, looked down upon an empty town square. But these long dead orators gathered no crowds now, only pigeon guano. Jones insisted that Cabal approach the shop by the alley backing it, an exasperating insistence given the infrequency of passersby on the high street to the front.
Paranoia was the third of the reasons Cabal disliked his visits to Jones’s shop. Not his own; it is not paranoia when one believes people are out to “get” one and one happens to be a necromancer—it is a certainty. No, Cabal harboured suspicions of Jones’s state of mind. On his last visit, Jones had spent almost the entire time at the window, peering through the dusty blinds into the street, impatiently gesturing Cabal to leave the money, impatiently gesturing Cabal to take the packages.
Cabal didn’t take well to being impatiently gestured at and prolonged his stay.
“Why so eager to see me go, Herr Jones?” Cabal had asked, stowing the paper packages into his bag with exaggerated care.
Jones had looked at him, slightly shocked, and Cabal had realised that he wasn’t aware of how obvious his behaviour was.
“The … things I get for you, Mr Cabal, the
. I … you appreciate their rarity?”
“This wouldn’t be an opening to a conversation about rising prices, would it?”
“No! No, but … there is great danger. The things I have to do! Terrible crimes against the Fay! The Seelie and the Unseelie, they have long memories.”
Cabal had joined him at the window and they had looked out together into the withered town. “Not a good location for faerie rings, is it? I daresay the civic fathers overlooked the inclusion of sylvan glades and shady bowers in their municipal planning, too.” He had gone back to packing his bag, this time working quickly, the sooner to be quit of that place. “You worry too much, Jones. I’ve had run-ins with them in the past and they’re all twinkle-dust and no trousers. The Fay, that is—not the civic fathers. The Fay’s powers are on the wane—places like this are crushing the life from them. You’d be wiser to focus your energies upon keeping your customers happy. In
of your lines.”
In hindsight, perhaps Jones had taken that as a threat, and Cabal now regretted his choice of words. He suspected his next visit would be all the less pleasant because of it.
And now, that time had arrived. He stepped out onto his doorstep, checked that the door was locked, picked up his Gladstone bag, and set off.
As he walked down his garden path, he was very aware of countless small eyes watching him from the concealment of the flower beds. The things in the garden were, by strict dictionary definition, fairies themselves, but would have as soon doused themselves in holy water as worn a bluebell for a hat or any of the other mimsy nonsense usually associated with their kith. He didn’t see them often, but the last one he’d caught a glimpse of had been wearing a rat skull as a cap over its sharp little face.
If they had been useful as a source of the specialist materials that Jones supplied, Cabal would have been quite happy—possibly even delighted—to cull the whole snickering mob of them. They were, however, of the basest kind, and any strange essences he might be able to wring from them would be polluted and likely to cause problems with Cabal’s current line of research. All things considered, Cabal was quite happy to let Jones do all the hard work of traipsing around faerie mounds with butterfly net and mangle. Besides, the things in his garden had their uses. Not many salesmen ever reached his door, and the ones who did never made it back to the gate.
Today there were none of the usual tiny good-natured jeers from the things of the garden about his parentage, personal habits, and appearance; perhaps they sensed his business. He closed the garden gate behind him and set off towards the village station.
Walking helped him to think and, today, he was thinking what an unpleasant day it was to be walking. The air hung humid and still and he was disagreeably aware that he was sweating. Cabal regarded sweating as one of Nature’s more subtle revenges upon humanity and its pretensions to Prime Species. It is hard to regard oneself as civilised when one oozes in warm weather. Cabal was doubly cursed by his wardrobe: a black suit and hat—a snap-brimmed thing of American lineage he had bought in a moment of madness at Jones’s shop—black shoes, socks, and thin cravat. It soaked up the sun and Cabal perspired, his habitually bad mood sinking from the dreadful towards the foul.
If the coach hadn’t been such a surprise, he would have been glad for the shade it abruptly cast upon him. As it was, he whirled as the daylight was blotted out and stepped back, causing the sun to fall once again upon his face. Through his blue-tinted glass spectacles, the coach body was black and without detail, a sudden phenomena as unexpected as a rain of fish. He looked up and down the road. How had he not heard its approach? Why was there no dust in the air to mark its passage? He moved off to one side, the better to examine it.
The coach was a well-appointed landau in the Sefton style, sitting motionless on its helically sprung suspension. In the traces were two huge, black stallions. Belgian blacks, unless Cabal was mistaken, a breed often used for drawing hearses.
Black as the horses, black as the livery, was the look the coachman was giving him. There was nothing individually disreputable or malevolent in the man’s clothing—the road coat and cape, the thick scarf over his lower face, the diminished top hat of the Müller sort, all as black as a banker’s soul. But the way they hung on him, gathered on him like crows on a gibbet, was almost unnerving. Cabal felt ill-matched to the weather in a suit, but this man was wearing a coat and scarf. They regarded each other for a long moment, Cabal’s eyes guarded behind blue glass, the coachman’s invisible behind heavy goggles. There was no inkling of intent or attitude in his posture until, finally, he turned away to gaze moodily or philosophically—it was impossible to tell—at the horses’ arses arrayed before him. Cabal felt he should have been insulted, yet somehow, as he looked at the coachman’s hunched shoulders, it seemed like a waste of energy, like taking offence at a weather cock for swinging away.
Actually, now that he looked more closely at those hunched shoulders, he had a momentary impression of movement beneath the cloth, from the shoulders down, under the obscuring mass of coat. As if, fancifully enough, the man had wings.
Not fanciful by nature, Cabal immediately turned his attention to the coach itself. As he did so, the door opened. He noted that it had done so without the door handle moving, which seemed ill-mannered. Inside there was little but gloom, shadows of the bright day. Feeling his usual state of irritation with the world and most of the things in it settle upon him like a cloud of lice, Cabal took off his sunglasses, the better to see within.
The woman was beautiful, of that there was no doubt. She was white and red and black: her skin; her hair and lips; her dress. And her eyes were dark too, and as soulless as a waxwork. To look into them was to look into space. Despite the warmth of the day and the sweat that dampened his shirt, he felt a strange chilling frisson that, while not entirely unpleasant, was still some way short of pleasant. They looked at each other for a long moment, she in her widow’s weeds, he in his disgruntlement.
“If you’re looking for the cemetery,” he said finally, “you’re on entirely the wrong road.” He made a mental note to check the recent burials for likely experimental material.
“Get in,” she said, ignoring the comment. “You and I, we are travelling the same road, at least for a little way.”