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Fiction

The Commission of The Philosophical Alembic

A dirty little backstreet in London, bordered upon the east by Tottenham Court Road and upon the south by Oxford Street. A dirty little backstreet, shadowed and unfashionable, the walls darkened with unattended soot, the windows blinded with grime. It was home to the backs of restaurants on one side and the rears of glittering retail emporia upon the other, and little else but for a couple of residences, a pawnbroker, and a bookshop.

The sign over the window read “Vesperine & Daughter. Dealers in Rare & Antique Books” and, while this was true, it was also somewhere short of the whole truth.

But attend; a customer approaches.

He was in his middle years, prosperous and sedate, a bowler hat upon his head, a wing collar of decreasing fashionableness about his neck, and an expression of bland benevolence upon his face. He was likely an office manager of a respectable company, and to him all things were equitable. Alas, his equilibrium would perforce suffer, for he paused before the shop’s front, read the sign with the mildest curiosity, peered at the grimy window seeing nothing but grime and his own shadow, and thence passed within.

The interior of the shop was understandably dark, but only towards the front. The area of the floor, some fifteen feet wide by twenty-five deep, was divided by a counter that put two thirds of the shop behind it. Before it was a place of dour shelves of dark wood containing books calculated to be of interest to casual browsers, illuminated by the dim light of the street through the filthy panes of the shop’s front window feebly assisted by gas mantels. The counter, in contrast, was of light elm, and the area behind it was well served by large array of casements—in which the glass sparkled—and that was further lit by electrical lights. The shop, therefore, gave an ineffable sense of being some manner of border facility between light and darkness not merely in a gross, sensual form, but even philosophically. This sense was not wholly fanciful.

Certainly the middle manager to whom we were earlier acquainted had a distinct sense of eccentricity about the establishment. He paused two steps past the threshold and looked about him. He saw the badly illuminated bookshelves, the titles of the books they bore all but illegible in the gloom, he saw the flickering gas lights, one sporting a cracked and smoking mantel that could hardly have been doing the books any good, and he saw the counter behind which a handsome woman in her late fifties or perhaps even her early sixties waited, regarding him with a patient smile. He hurried to her, as a pilgrim hurries from perdition toward a better place.

“Good afternoon,” he began. The woman said nothing, but continued to smile. He had a tiny tingling frisson of a sense that her smile was not merely patient, but perhaps slightly amused. “Good afternoon,” he began again. “I am travelling tomorrow . . . upon the railway . . . and I anticipate longeurs along the way. To ameliorate this anticipated tedium, I thought I might buy a book.”

He looked at her. She looked at him. She said nothing. “To read,” he finished.

“Did,” she began, and then paused. Her eyes slid to one side as if listening. The man listened, too, and made out the sound of soft bumps on the floor above. Shortly these resolved themselves into footfalls that travelled from over their heads and then—judging by cadence and variation—descended stairs towards the door in the far corner of the area behind the counter. Presently, the door opened and a woman with a distinct familial similarity to the first woman entered. She was in her early twenties and pretty enough to set up base camp in the foothills of “beautiful.” It was clearly a path the elder had once walked, for despite her years she was still—vide supra—handsome, which is to say, striking.

The elder woman’s eyes slid back to regard the office manager. “. . . you have anything particular in mind? A particular author? A particular novel?”

“I was thinking, perhaps, of Trollope.” He said it as if making a claim to be a literary renegade.

“Trollope.” The woman repeated it slowly. Behind her, the younger women gave a small sigh and went to the well-lit shelves that filled the domain of the proprietors. “Trollope.”

Her calm smile now held elements of what, to the startlement of the office manager, seemed to be mockery. He must be mistaken, he told himself. So, he persisted. “The Chronicles of Barsetshire, madam. You must have—”

“Hist!” The woman hushed him into silence, a finger raised in admonition. When she was sure he would say no more, she looked off into space, seeking inspiration. “Trollope . . .”

“Madam, he is a famous author!”

This stirred her from her reverie. “He is? You seek a first edition, then?”

“I do not. Merely some reading matter for my railway journey on the morrow. I am travelling to the north.” He added this last datum in a lowered tone, to impress upon her the necessity of carrying culture with him.

“Ah.” Her smile now became purely supercilious. “Then we have been speaking at cross purposes. I naturally assumed that you were seeking a volume that was rare or at least antique. What you require, sir, is W.H. Smiths. I believe most railway stations have branches upon their platforms.”

He looked at her, both thunderstruck and insulted. “You do not wish my custom?”

“I do, but only as it pertains to our stock in trade. Not desultory tales of clerical life written by a Postmaster General. Do you wish to bless your library with incunabula? To delve into esoterica? To collect literary arcana? No, no, and no? Then I fear we have little to offer you at this time. Good day to you, sir. Good hunting at Smiths.”

The office manager went to the door in a fug of astonishment and outrage. There he paused and glared at the elder woman. “A moment! You knew Trollope was a Postmaster General? You know who he is, then?”

“Of course, sir,” said the woman, smiling pleasantly. “It is a bookshop, you know.”

The man vanished through the door, muttering. “Please tell all you friends about us,” said the woman in a mild undertone as it closed with a slam that set the bell dancing.

“Passing trade, mother. Passing trade.” The young woman replaced several volumes of Trollope she had just taken from the shelves before the office manager’s huffish exit had forestalled her intention to offer them. “Money is always nice.”

Elodie Vesperine wrinkled her nose, and slouched against the counter in an indecorous manner, the better to surveil her daughter. Then again, she was possessed of a highly indecorous past, so at least she was practised. “But he was awful. Such a horrid little man, coming in here and pawing at the stock.”

“The stock in the front section is there to be pawed. I chose it myself. There is nothing of any great value, just things for casual browsers.” Elodie made a dismissive noise, and her daughter—Aurelia—looked hard upon her with lowered brow. “Rare creatures though they are when you’re in the shop.”

Any further remonstration was interrupted by the jolly jingle of the bell. Less jolly was the new customer who slid though the door into the gloomy front section and, if anything, thereby deepened the gloom therein. He was tall and pale, perhaps thirty years of age, and the hair that showed beneath the hat in the Müller style he wore was blond. His wardrobe was a study in realised monochromia, a black suit, shoes, waistcoat, gloves, and cravat, his shirt white, the Müller black, his gloves black. The only spark of colour was the pair of blue glass spectacles, and even the baffles they sported at their sides were black. He was a spectre in flesh, a man to make undertakers seem frivolous.

Elodie Vesperine was delighted. “At last! A real customer. Mr. C, it is a tonic to see you.”

The man doffed his hat and half-bowed courteously. “You are always kind, Madam Vesperine.” His accent betrayed a certain Teutonic heritage.

“And how may we help you this fine day?” She smiled and gestured toward the rear windows, where the first drops of a heavy downfall were starting to collect.

“There is a book . . .”

“Good.”

“A rare book . . .”

“Excellent.”

“It is entitled The Philosophical Alembic. I very much require it for my researches to continue.”

“Perfect. And why do you not procure this book yourself, may I ask?”

The man lowered his spectacles sufficiently to fix her with an inquisitorial glare. She was entirely unabashed by this. Indeed, her smile deepened.

“Please, Mr. C, your reputation precedes you. You have shown yourself perfectly capable of acquiring ‘rare books required for your researches’ on many previous occasions. Why do you come to Vesperine & Daughter on this?”

The man regarded her stonily for a moment. Finally, he removed his spectacles and stowed them in his breast pocket. He went to the door, flipped the sign to show “Closed,” and shot home the bolt. When he was satisfied that the shop was reasonably secure, he said, “Three reasons, Madam Vesperine. Firstly, I do not have the time. Secondly, I am not entirely certain of the book’s location or even if it is still extant. Thirdly, if it does still exist, it is likely to be in the hands of a rival with a passion for security. I do not know if I possess the skills to extract it.”

“A moment,” said Elodie. “Are you suggesting that you would like to hire us to steal this book?”

The man considered for a moment. “Yes, madam. I am.”

Elodie turned to Aurelia, glowing with happiness. “You see, darling? A real customer.”

• • • •

“You are a terrible mother,” said Aurelia Vesperine, but she said it entirely without rancour, otherwise distracted by opening the secret compartments in their steamer trunk.

“I am a wonderful mother,” replied Elodie Vesperine, entirely without reproach. She was busily spreading out an Ordnance Survey map of the area on the table of the room they had secured at a country hotel most used to passing travellers and hikers. She weighted the corners and quickly cast an eye upon the lay of the land as presented at six inches to the mile. “Why, wasn’t I always here for you, even after your dear papa’s tragic death?”

Aurelia removed a brace of revolvers from their concealments and placed them on the carpet. “You killed papa before I was even born.”

“Yes. You know the story well enough. He passed away about twenty minutes or so after your conception, in fact. A fine man. Handsome, intelligent, ruthless, a paragon of self-interest after my own heart. But, alas for him, not very adept with a throwing knife.” She paused, remembering. “Not as good as me, at any rate.” She returned her attention to the map.

“And will it be necessary for me to murder the father of my child, too, mother?”

Elodie seemed stung. “Hardly murder, darling. He got the first throw. And, no. I would just rather you didn’t marry. That isn’t our way, and nor has it been for five generations. You wouldn’t want to upset a family tradition, would you?”

“What if I have a boy?”

Elodie laughed at such an absurd notion. “You have the strangest ideas. Positively perverse. Now, did you remember the explosive?”

“Eight sticks of dynamite, fast and slow fuses. Really, mother, I’m not the absentminded one.” She withdrew a stick from its hiding place in the trunk and sat regarding it perhaps a little ruefully. “Are you quite sure this is how one runs a bookshop? It’s not the impression I got before we started the business at all.”

“I can’t talk for bookshops as a whole, of course, only for ours. And in our particular area of the literary market, we lead the field. Now, then. Where’s the ammunition?”

• • • •

Their client had furnished them with a list of likely hands in which the book—The Philosophical Alembic—might be found, and they had spent some time winnowing the list down to one very likely pair of hands indeed, those belonging to one Cornelius Merrow.

Merrow was, ostensibly at least, a successful mill owner in a moderately-sized town in the regions, a local councillor, a philanthropist, and a collector of political works, memoirs, and theses. These he would show visitors to his relatively modest manse at the end of a wooded close on the outskirts of the town, demonstrating his interest in politics and the development of economics.

Far more rarely he might show interested parties to his second, confidential library, and here they might pore over unique manuscripts and codices whose names were rarely even whispered. It would be something to explain that Merrow was, in reality, a dark and terrible magician or even a necromancer, but that would be an exaggeration. He dabbled a little, it is true, but rarely with any measurable results. He was successful in business because he was an effective and shrewd businessman, not because he depended on the patronage of otherworldly entities. Merrow’s main interest in the occult was that it was perversely transgressive, and permitted him a degree of temporal power exerted upon those intimidated by such things. Thus, within this special circle he made a point of maintaining his “studies,” in reality a honing of a weapon more psychological than supernatural.

This had the side-effect of advertising his purchases, albeit quietly; the Vesperines were long practised at hearing such subtle echoes. So, it was a small matter to find a usefully placed hotel in the same outskirt as the Merrow house under the pretence of a few days spent painting watercolours. Indeed, the watercolours were already painted in case friendly inquiries were made as to progress, generic studies of subjects that might reasonably be found anywhere in the British countryside: a tree; a quantity of water bearing weed and a duck; a different tree.

Some casual inquiries confirmed what other sources had already revealed; that Merrow had one servant, a butler called Belker, who subcontracted other staff as and when they were required, but otherwise was the only soul in the building apart from his master. No extraneous persons and no dogs.

The main library was upon the ground floor, and a perusal of some floor plans culled from a gazetteer published some decades previously indicated a second study on the topmost storey that fitted the hearsay pertaining to Merrow’s “secret” library of local legend. A brief reconnoitre on the morning after the arrival of the Vesperines showed this room had no external window, a change in the pattern of bricks in the external wall showing where it had been sealed.

“This all seems very straightforward,” commented Elodie as they promenaded together across an adjacent meadow, parasols upon their shoulders. “I shall make the acquaintance of Mr. Merrow, prevail upon him to invite me to afternoon tea in the garden on this pleasant day, and then proceed to run the legs off his butler with specious requests.”

“And I . . .?” asked Aurelia, although she was already of a certainty as to her role.

“You will enter the house unseen and attain the first floor using any moments of solitude that I can provide for you through the medium of unreasonable demands. There you will enter Mr. Merrow’s second library, locate The Philosophical Alembic and any other small volumes that take your fancy, abstract them, and then remove yourself from the building with an alacrity that is not devoid of caution.”

“So, while you drink tea and eat cucumber sandwiches, I commit all manner of felonies and risk gaol?”

“Of course. Well, really, you can’t expect me to run around like a doe when I am, I fear, in my autumn years. Besides, it is hardly the case that I have not earned a little rest.”

This was true; in her youth Elodie had been a trusted agent for some of the greatest criminal masterminds the world had ever known, as well as at least one slightly underwhelming one. She had more than earned her spurs by any lights. It had been an interesting sort of professional life, unburdened as it was by legality or morality. Aurelia had learned not to press her mother too hard on recounting tales from those days; all too often they caused her to go pale and have to excuse herself.

Her mother looked at her seriously. “If you are uncomfortable with the endeavour, I shall evolve some other stratagem by which I shall relieve Mr. Merrow of his property. I shall not hold it against you. Not everyone is cut of the same cloth.”

Aurelia said nothing, but her expression was unhappy as she twirled her parasol and watched a pair of magpies on a nearby fence. “I shall do it, mother. I am not afraid—”

“I did not accuse you of a lack of intestinal fortitude, dear. You suffer something more pernicious, I fear.” She smiled a little sadly. “Moral rectitude.”

Aurelia lowered her head. “I’m sorry, mama. I do try.”

“I know, I know.” Elodie drew her daughter to her and kissed her lightly on the cheek. “It truly isn’t your fault. These things . . . they can just happen. Poor unfortunate people are born with imperfections, or grow into them. Just assure me on one point; that you shall never become a policewoman.”

Aurelia laughed. “I never shall.”

Elodie smiled and took her daughter on her arm. They walked together until the house was left behind.

• • • •

Mrs. Elsa Carmichael, a widow holidaying in the area for a rest cure and a little watercolour painting—primarily of trees—made the acquaintance of Mr. Cornelius Merrow, mill owner, entrepreneur, and philanthropist via the offices of the small hotel where she was staying. Mr. Merrow, a confirmed bachelor, was pleased to invite Mrs. Carmichael for afternoon tea. He extended the invitation to Mrs. Carmichael’s daughter Emilia who had accompanied her mother, but—hélas—she was unable to accept, having already accepted another invitation that would keep her away for the afternoon. Thus it was that, at precisely 2:45 on a pleasant Wednesday afternoon, Mrs. Carmichael made her way up the gravel drive of the Merrow house and drew on the bell pull.

She heard, quietly but distinctly, the sound of a jingling bell somewhere beyond the door, presumably in the butler’s pantry. Satisfied that she would soon be greeted, she took a moment to step back and examine the house once more.

The building displeased her and, she was dismayed to realise, disquieted her. She had thought the client had overstated matters when he had deferred the book’s collection to her on the grounds of—amongst other things—the level of security under which it lay. Their preliminary investigations had indicated nothing of the sort. She hesitated to liken any endeavour to “taking sweets from a baby” as both an indecorous phrase and one betokening a complacency that could only result in disaster at some point. This particular commission, however, certainly had enjoyed aspects comparable to depriving an infant of confectionary.

Now, however, she began to wonder.

She had not lived as long as she had, surviving any number of perilous encounters and problematical situations along the way, without a certain sense of trepidation troubling her at times when trepidation was called for despite outward appearances of normality and safety. This sense was currently trilling in her breast like an excitable canary. The house, pleasant enough at a distance, seemed now to lower over her like a fragile mountainside or a stuffed grizzly reared upon too small a dais. The sense that it might fall upon her at too heavy a breath dimmed the day and depressed her spirit.

A humble enough mansion of three and a half storeys, one entirely covered at the front of the building but exposed to the rear where the landscaped garden fell away down the hillside, it had seemed nothing so very extraordinary when Elodie and her daughter pored over its plans in their sitting room. Up beneath the ridge of the roof lay a central landing flanked by two rooms, each graced by a single ovoid window in the gable ends. One of these windows was, as earlier stated, now blocked with brickwork. After considering and dispensing with the idea of Aurelia practising her climbing skills to penetrate the other window and thence make her way across to the second library as unnecessarily perilous and fraught with all manner of potential exigencies, a simpler infiltration of the house had seemed much preferable. Close to, the house seeped an indefinable psychic menace. Perhaps their client had been wiser than they had thought in employing them rather than taking the matter into his own hands.

Menace it may well have exuded, but immediate attention it did not. Despite her misgivings, Elodie rang the bell again, waited again, and went unattended again. She checked her pendant watch; she was undeniably on time and certainly expected. She glanced up toward the neighbouring meadow for a moment. She saw no one, but nor did she expect to; Aurelia was far too good at concealment to be detected by a single glance. Aurelia would, however, see that glance and know that it was meant for her—an indication that all was not well. The signal sent, Elodie went around the side of the house to see if there was anyone in the garden awaiting her.

There was not. No host, nor butler, nor table, tea, and sandwiches. The quietness of the place now troubled her. The grass of the lawn trembled beneath a sudden breeze, the rose bushes shook, but there was barely a sound at all. She was considering going around to the servants’ entrance to see if she might find the butler there when she saw the French windows overlooking the lawn were gaping wide. These she knew to open onto Merrow’s study. Perhaps she would find him there?

She entered cautiously. “Mr. Merrow?” she called for propriety’s sake and to afford her a rock upon which to base a defence against claims of trespass should that prove necessary. “Mr. Merrow, are you there? You invited me to tea? This is Mrs. Carmichael. Have I come on the wrong day?”

The study was empty of persons, but not entirely of interest. Elodie Vesperine’s eye quickly took in the open inkwell, the discarded pen, the record book carelessly left upon the blotter and the slip of paper protruding from it. From what she knew of Merrow’s personality, this was tantamount to a mare’s nest of disorganisation. She went to the door, listened at it, and—hearing nothing—quietly opened it and looked out into the hallway. The place was static but for dust in the air, and there was nothing to hear except the steady ticking of the grandfather clock on the first landing. She slipped back into the study, closing the door silently behind her.

The pen and inkwell were witnesses to sudden haste and disruption of Merrow’s routine. Perhaps the record book might provide the cause of it. It opened easily to the last notated page, bookmarked with a telegram. She glanced first at the book entry and was dismayed to see it was a handwritten catalogue of acquired books. The most recent entry was The Philosophical Alembic.

Lips pursed with growing professional dismay, she now turned her attention to the telegram and let slip a small sigh of exasperation. The initialled signature was little clue to the message’s provenance, but its import was clear enough; Merrow had made enquiries as to the bona fides of Mrs. Elsa Carmichael, and they had been found wanting. Elodie muttered something hardly genteel under her breath. A fine state of affairs it was when a gentleman didn’t simply accept a lady’s word. In other circumstances she would have worked harder to create a more resilient alias, but she had assumed it unnecessary in this case. It had been foolish of her, she now realised, but Vesperines are not inclined to cry over spilt milk. Taking a moment to check the toy-like .25 semi-automatic in her reticule and the fierce twin-barrelled Derringer in her fox fur muff, she went to explore.

First, she went to the front door and went out to perform a small pantomime of looking along the drive as if expecting Mr. Merrow to appear there. During this act she blew her nose, a signal to her watching daughter that all was not well. Then she went back in, leaving the door on the latch. Aurelia was more than capable of extemporising as the situation demanded, she knew; she only hoped this didn’t all become terribly messy and strident. That was her usual experience when securing books on the Continent, and she would be unhappy if it were repeated in the more sober land of her birth.

As her alias was already worthless, it seemed pointless to try and maintain it, and so she did not call again. Instead she moved from room to room with a grace and silence born of decades of wandering around other people’s homes without permission. She noted knick-knacks and gee-gaws of moderate taste and worth, paintings of the same sort, and Merrow’s primary library, which heaved with worthiness and little else for the inquisitive, acquisitive, and illicit visitor.

The kitchen was next, and proved home to a plate of small sandwiches under a clean tea towel to keep them moist, and a stand of cakes within a fine mesh cage to keep the flies off them.

It also featured the corpse of Belker the butler, which was a surprise even to a seasoned adventuress. Indeed, she stood shocked for very nearly two seconds before going to examine him.

It had not been an easy death by the look of things, but nor had it been drawn out, to judge by the great pool of blood around the hapless man. Elodie took a moment to examine the edge of the pool and noted that there was no sign of coagulation; this had happened very recently. As for the method used, it showed a peculiar admixture of viciousness and perfunction. It seemed the unhappy Belker had been caught in his shirtsleeves whilst working on the household accounts. With sufficient rapidity to give him no chance of rising from his chair, his assailant had laid into him with a razor, delivering a multitude of wounds that were equally remarkable for their cleanness, their depth, and their length. It must be quite a razor blade, she concluded—at least a foot long and capable of cutting bone as effortlessly and neatly as the skin. Elodie recovered some matting from the boot room and laid them into the pool, hitching up her skirts to cross the impromptu bridge to the body so formed. The sheer ubiquity of gore on and about Belker made observation of the wounds difficult but not impossible, and a little prodding with a wooden spoon from the table showed that, somehow, the wounds extended even to the rear of the dead man’s upper thighs and across his buttocks. This while, presumably, he was sitting.

Elodie retired from the blood pool to consider matters. This put a very different complexion on . . .

She looked cautiously around the kitchen and listened intently. Nothing.

. . . matters. She was coming to the conclusion that she had quoted an insufficient remuneration to the client for taking on the commission. Potential legal entanglements she had anticipated, perhaps even some physical contretemps, but this? Ah, well. Live and learn. With any luck.

She withdrew the Derringer from the muff and instead secreted it within a pocket sewn into the inside cuff of her coat’s left sleeve for precisely such eventualities. Once it was secure, she took the .25 “Baby Browning” pistol from her reticule, disengaged its safety catch, and led with it back into the hallway. All seemed quiet there, so she dropped her bag by the door to facilitate subsequent recovery (likely in a hurry) before making her way upstairs.

Up past the first landing, upon which the grandfather clock ticked sonorously, the heartbeat of the house. She noted the time and paused there while the minute hand clicked to twelve, the hour hand moved to three, and the chimes sang the hour.

As the sound died away, she was moving slowly and stealthily up to the first floor. If she had been intent on searching the whole house, she would have gone down to the lower ground floor. She was not, however. Her driving concern was to gain the desired book, possibly a handful of others if opportunity presented, and then exit the house, the grounds, and the county in rapid succession, leaving the identities of Mrs. and Miss Carmichael blowing tattered in the breeze behind them. Towards this end, she did not care greatly about the state of affairs on the first floor beyond a cursory search to ensure that it was vacant and her retreat would not be cut off there.

She found no one, but she did not find nothing. Or, at least, she suspected she hadn’t. Twice she was startled upon entering a room by a figure in the corner of her eye. Twice she swung her gun to bear upon it. Twice she found herself threatening nothing. While human perception is a long way from perfect and even the sharpest eye can occasionally be fooled, what perturbed her most was that there was nothing on which to blame the illusion. She did not find herself aiming at a suit hung from a wardrobe door, for example, or upon a long mirror in which she herself was reflected. There was nothing there at all, merely some shelves bearing curios in one case, and an entirely blank wall in another. It was not impossible that her ageing senses were proving less reliable these days, but she had experienced no such illusions before. Why should they trouble her now?

She examined her impressions and found them largely consistent; a man standing motionless, a pale-faced man in a dark suit, sans hat. No, not simply pale, but white as snow. He had vanished as she had swung her head, taking him from the edge of her perception to its centre. No, this also wasn’t entirely accurate. The figure had not vanished in the blink of an eye, it had done something more involved even if it still had been in the space of a blink. It had diminished, becoming less in some fashion until it wasn’t there anymore. Not shrunken away, but lessened, diluted, reduced as something to be seen, yet not actually fading away. Elodie was reminded of mice scampering out of view.

She regarded her pistol with an acid eye; she was regretting the practicality that had forced such a small weapon upon her. She permitted herself a momentary pang of envy for the Webley .577 she knew her client preferred. Such a pistol would have done wonders for her confidence at that juncture.

The topmost landing was small, sandwiched in between the “secret” second library and what seemed to be a box room. Elodie tried the latter first, silently opening the door and glancing briefly inside to confirm that its only occupants were tea chests and suitcases. She left the door open; the only light otherwise was through a small skylight over the stairwell. The illumination afforded by the box room’s unsealed and uncovered window was much appreciated.

She turned her attention to the door’s mate. Assuming Merrow was actually somewhere on his own land and wasn’t dead or lurking on the lower ground floor, then here he must be. She considered concealing the pistol, but then remembered the telegram and decided that where guile had failed, threat would just have to prevail.

She moved closer to the door and listened. Beyond the mellowed oak, she could just make out fast breathing, almost panting, intermitted with small wavering groans. It was a sound she had heard before; the sound of somebody in mortal fear of their life.

Curiouser and curiouser. Depending on circumstances, this could be an advantageous thing, or a very unfortunate thing. Only one course of action could define it.

Elodie Vesperine pushed down upon the door handle and, finding the door unlocked, opened it.

Cornelius Merrow was an impressive man by reputation, less so when observed curled in a tight ball, whimpering. Elodie took in the room before entering; all the walls were covered in shelving, and all the shelves were heavy with a wide variety of tomes, including some she instinctively noted to be rarities. Many of the books, however, had been ill treated and recently; they lay scattered on the floor or open on the table, rudely stacked upon one another. There was a small fireplace by the end wall, offset due presumably to the window that once took up the centre of that wall, a table, and two comfortable chairs. An electric light depended from the ceiling, and another stood upon the table. Both were lit. Of any other presence, however, the room was clear. She noticed with a small glow of pleasure that, lying on the thick, rich carpet by Merrow was a demi volume bound in maroon leather. Even from where she stood, she could make out enough of the silvered title upon the spine to identify it as the elusive Philosophical Alembic. The sensible thing would simply be to take it, bid Mr. Merrow a good afternoon, and leave him to his delirium.

“What ails you, Mr. Merrow?” she said instead, curiosity outweighing prudence not even for the first time. Then she added as an afterthought, “Your man Belker’s dead, by the way.”

She did not say it cruelly, it must be emphasised: merely informatively.

For his reply, Merrow reached in a curious reflexive, spastic manner and flicked the book further away from him with the back of his fingertips, as if the thing were hot.

“Take it!” he cried. “Take the damnable thing! Take it away! Take it and its . . .” and here he paused, and gazed fretfully up at his not-entirely-invited guest.

“Its what, pray?” Elodie smiled charmingly as she said it. “What troubles you so, Mr. Merrow? What visited such a terrible fate upon your servant?”

“You wanted it.” Merrow flicked the book another three inches closer to her. “You may have it! With my best wishes! With my blessings! Just . . . take it!”

“I may be able to help you with that, or I may not. In the first instance, however, I would—” A creak on the stairs below distracted her. She leaned out through the open doorway and looked down the stairwell. For a moment she thought she saw someone, but then there was a flickering in the light and the well stood vacant. She frowned. Definitely not an optical illusion. She had just seen a man—hatless, in a black suit and as pale as paper—vanish.

“Who is your guest, Mr. Merrow?” she said with rising urgency. “The man who isn’t there? Who or what is he?”

“This is your doing!” he said frantically, pushing himself away from the door with his heels although his back was already hard against the shelves. “Your fault!”

“Mine?” Elodie admitted to some mild surprise. “I have been responsible and, indeed, guilty of many things in my life, but I doubt that entity may be counted amongst my crimes, moral or judicial.”

“You wanted that book!” Here Merrow glared at The Philosophical Alembic. “It was new to my collection and I had not the leisure to examine it previously. When I discovered you were not who you pretended, I guessed you were after some artefact or book in my possession, and that seemed most likely.”

“And so, out of curiosity as to why I should be so interested in it, you read it?”

Merrow nodded miserably. “Only the first few words. That was all it took. The book is guarded. Ensorcelled. There is a thing that watches over it. Its true owner would know never to read that first page. That damnable first page . . .” Merrow here became quite unmanned, and sobbed miserably at an unkind fate.

Another creak upon the stairs. Elodie Vesperine did what she did best, which was to weigh options, consider stratagems, and evolve imperatives. “I have a little experience of such guardians,” she told Merrow. “They are neither infallible nor unavoidable, believe me. They invariably have a weakness.”

“They do?” He looked up at her with sudden uncritical hope. “You can help me?”

“Quickly, tell me how it is that this creature is unable to attack you? I would have thought its entire raison d’être would have been to do you to death as soon as possible.”

“I know a little of the occult,” he said, waving at his library. “When it manifested, I ran from this room and managed to shake off its pursuit, albeit briefly. You’re right; it is not infallible! Hoping to find some method of defeating it, I returned here and was able to create a protective ward. Then, my prospects dwindled. I could think of nothing that might defeat it, could find nothing. Nothing! I was trapped. I rang for Belker, but he never came. Dead, you say? Poor Belker. Poor, poor Belker.”

Poor, poor Belker, indeed. And poor Madam Vesperine if she failed to solve this little conundrum. So, to consider the parts of the problem, she had the book, the paper tiger of a magician who was naught but a poseur, a slapdash sort of ward, and a frustrated guardian that was more than happy to dispose of anybody else in the environs. She very much hoped that Aurelia was showing enough sense to stay in her covey and not come gallivanting to the rescue. Even with the far more combative .38 revolver that her daughter was carrying, she would stand little chance against this curious creature of the book, the snow-faced man of glimpses and flickers.

Still, even the possibility of it served to crystallise Elodie’s thoughts admirably, and it took her only a moment to conceive a plan, and only a moment more to put it into action. She walked to Merrow and took up the book. “This volume is the author of your misfortune? Then our course is clear. This is the focus of the entity that slew your butler. It is therefore the key to the solution.”

Merrow seemed troubled. “You will destroy it? I considered it, but—”

“Great heavens, no.” She chided him like a slow child. “If it is destroyed, the creature’s servitude is dissolved. What, then, is to prevent it wandering as it sees fit, killing at random?”

She failed to add that nor would she get paid if the book were burned.

“Well . . .” Merrow could see advantage in that, shameful though it was. “. . . as long as it leaves the house.”

“No.” She said it firmly, and hoped it gave the impression of a greater morality than his own. It would be an inaccurate impression, but she couldn’t help that. “We shall not be responsible for such a horror. Imagine! A hapless maiden waylaid upon the lane! A child slaughtered upon the meadow! A . . .” Inspiration deserted her for a moment. “. . . puppy. Killed. No, we have the creature’s leash here, and we may use it to bring the beast to heel.”

So saying, she stepped smartly out onto the landing, taking the book beyond the line of Merrow’s unexpectedly efficacious ward. His gasp of dismay was joined by Elodie’s own as she turned and saw the figure upon the intermediate landing.

This time it did not fold out of sight but stood and watched her, a construct of printer’s nightmares, man-sized in woodcut. It gave the impression of a man one moment, and of a figure constructed from criss-crossed pieces of printed card the next. Its features were as planar as any upon a page, and it seemed to draw from every illustration that had ever felt the touch of an inking roller. No detail stayed the same from one moment to the next, but riffled and altered before the confused eye of the observer, and where the parts of its form were presented edgeways on, they disappeared. Now she understood its nature and its modus operandi; it was a creature of three dimensions but wrought from two, and every surface was infinitely thin and therefore infinitely sharp. This was how Belker had died; opened and emptied by a storm of paper cuts.

“Well.” She spoke as much to herself as to the protean facsimile of a man. “This is a new meaning to a ‘printer’s devil,’ isn’t it?” She turned her head far enough to address the occupant of the second library, but her eyes never left the devil. “Mr. Merrow, it is as I surmised. Used properly, the book controls the guardian. We are safe.”

“We are?” Merrow’s voice was thin and tremulous. “Are you sure?”

She forced herself to smile. “I yet live, do I not? But my control is insufficient to return it to the book. You summoned it, you must dispel it. Please come here so that we may finish the matter.”

One short flight of stairs below her, the devil’s face flickered through a thousand different countenances as a child’s flick book. There was expression there—curiosity, rapacity, and hatred.

Slowly and with the utmost reluctance, Merrow came out of his sanctum, hesitating for long seconds before Madam Vesperine’s impatient imprecations could cajole him from safety. When at last he stood by her, looking fearfully down at the killing thing, she passed him the slim, maroon demi volume. “There,” she whispered encouragingly, “show it who’s boss.”

If Merrow knew one thing, it was showing all and sundry who was boss. He stood at the head of the stairs and raised the empowering book high. “You see this?” he demanded of the devil. “This means that I . . .” He happened to look up at this point, and beneath the better illumination of the skylight, was able to see the book properly. “This isn’t the right book,” he said in wonderment.

A lesser person than Elodie Vesperine might have chosen that moment to say something pithy and moderately amusing at his expense. But, she was in a hurry so she just got straight down to business and pushed Merrow down the stairs.

It wasn’t far, and he would certainly have survived the fall had he not met a triumphant entity at the end of the trajectory that was dedicated to the destruction of whomsoever might be foolish enough to summon it. In this, Madam Vesperine had been nothing but honest; Merrow had summoned it, and so it fell to him to dispel it. She had merely neglected to mention that this would be at the cost of his life.

As for her, she stepped smartly into the second library even as Merrow was still tumbling, all the better to avoid the inevitable arterial spray. Blood is the very devil to get out of lace.

• • • •

Subsequent events unfolded quickly, largely for purposes of avoiding the forces of law and order. Certainly Madam Elodie Vesperine in the company of a baffled Miss Aurelia Vesperine were on the train away from town and heading by degrees—in a deliberately circumspect manner—towards London. In this journey, they were slightly burdened by an extra suitcase borrowed from Merrow’s box room, laden with books and trinkets that he was never going to miss given his present circumstances. Finally they regained the safety and anonymity of the great metropolis, and sent a letter to an assumed name at a poste restante address.

The following day they were blessed by the reappearance of the saturnine Mr. C.

“Excellent, excellent,” he said as he accepted the book in return for an envelope containing a decent bundle of bank notes. “I knew you would be able to find and secure it for me if anyone could. I am in your debt, ladies.” He made to open the book where it lay on the counter.

He was frustrated by the tip of Elodie’s finger coming down firmly on the cover, holding it shut. “No, mein Herr. We have been recompensed for our expense and trouble in gaining this book for you. You are not in our debt. But, if you wish to live for any length of time subsequent to opening that book . . .” she smiled the most charming of her many charming smiles, “. . . you are about to be.”

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Jonathan L. Howard

Jonathan L. Howard

Jonathan L. Howard is the author of the Johannes Cabal, Carter & Lovecraft, Goon Squad, and Russalka Chronicles series, and a BAFTA-nominated game designer and writer. His ninth novel After the End of the World will be released in November 2017. He is currently working on a new novel and an adventure game for Binary Space. He lives with his wife and daughter near Bristol in the UK.