A MEETING IN BLOOMSBURY
We all retired from the dining carriage. Carnacki strolled off towards his own compartment agreeing to rejoin us once he had improved his appearance to the tune of a shirt and collar.
For myself I had an almost overpowering urge to console myself with a brandy. Perhaps several. Who knows, if I drank enough of them I might even begin to understand the evening’s events.
Holmes was quiet, clearly happy to listen to Silence’s explanation and make his own conclusions. I had no doubt that those conclusions would likely be sceptical, and yet how could he doubt now? This wasn’t the story of a single man, this was a series of incidents witnessed by a whole carriage – albeit bizarrely forgotten by most of them. One man lay dead, a victim of these infernal forces that seemed stacked against us. Surely even a man of logic, such as Holmes, must accept what was going on?
The door to our compartment opened and Carnacki stepped inside, now wearing a shirt and smoking jacket.
Holmes took that moment to stand up, open the window and knock the bowl of his pipe against the frame, tipping the burned embers into the darkness below.
“These are murky waters,” he admitted, “and I must confess I begin to wonder what use a man of reason may be amongst them. I am used to confronting the physical, the well-practiced criminal, the murderer, the thief... I have no experience of devils other than those metaphorical examples who lie behind the bars of our nation’s gaols. Is this something that is beyond my scope?”
“Logic and scepticism are not out of place in the world of the supernatural detective,” said Carnacki, sitting down and removing a cigar from a silver case in his pocket, “in fact I would consider them two of the most important weapons in my armoury. There are many times when I have been consulted on a case – or have taken it upon myself to investigate – only to find a perfectly rational explanation for the reported phenomena. I have thwarted imaginative smugglers, attempting to divert attention away from their store by perpetuating a belief in the ‘Lost Sailor of Lulworth’. I have scotched the plans of no less than three impatient off spring seeking to encourage their parents into an early grave by scaring them to death. I am the man who put paid to the reputation of Stephen Jones, the so-called ‘Wembley Horror’, a man who claimed to channel some of the most infamous spirits of our age.”
Silence pricked up his ears at that, though I must admit the reference meant little to me. “That was you, was it?” he asked Carnacki.
The younger man nodded. “He was merely seeking publicity for a new compendium of supernatural investigations he had edited. He channelled little but his ill-gotten gains into whisky.”
Holmes had refilled his pipe and proceeded to smoke it, a common, if unhealthy, replacement for his forgoing an evening meal.
“Very well,” he said, “so there is still a place for deduction and reason. Perhaps, from what you say, more so than in many of my cases, for mine can be the voice that leads us away from a natural inclination towards the supernatural.”
“I fail to see how else this evening’s events could be explained,” I said, almost with regret.
Holmes shrugged. “It would seem to defy any rational explanation.” He looked to Carnacki. “How did you become involved in these matters?” he asked.
“As you may have gathered my workload is fairly evenly divided between phenomena I choose to investigate and those I am hired to investigate. This was one of the latter, though regretfully I can tell you little about the man who hired me. He went absurdly out of his way to ensure that his identity remained secret.”
“Why would someone do that I wonder?” asked Holmes.
“It’s not uncommon,” Carnacki said, “I face a great deal of scepticism in my line of work —”
“You’re not the only one,” interrupted Silence, casting a slight smile towards Holmes.
Carnacki ignored him. “The people that ask for my involvement are often embarrassed to have done so, or fearful that others will get to hear that they’ve taken such unorthodox steps. My case files are littered with anonymous letters. What is intriguing about this case, however, is that I actually met the man face to face.”
I was first contacted in the Reading Room of the British Museum where I had been reading up on acoustics in the hope of developing a machine with which to negate a banshee’s cry. I am a great believer in the application of science and practical thinking when it comes to combating the supernatural.
I was gathering my papers, meaning to retire to a little place I know in Fitzrovia for a light lunch, when I noticed a small rectangle of black card.
“Do you still have this black card by any chance?” asked Holmes.
Carnacki shook his head. “Now... if you let me tell my story without interruptions?”
Holmes smiled and waved his hand for the younger man to continue.
The note requested my presence at the office of a small publishing house just off Great Russell Street, claiming that it concerned a matter of “intense mutual interest”.
Well, gentlemen, I must confess I am easily swayed by the dramatic and, having already taken a break in my researches, I went straight to meet the appointment.
The office was hidden away in a particularly unloved alcove of Gilbert Place and claimed to be that of the foremost specialist publisher of occult literature in the country. A claim immediately disproved by the fact that I had never heard of it. I entered and rang the bell on the reception desk in order to gain someone’s attention.
Presently a small gentlemen appeared from a rear office. What hair he lacked on his head was more than compensated by that which grew from his chin. In fact the beard was almost an encumbrance, wrapped as it was between the large pile of books he was carrying. When he placed the books on the desk it was with considerable care that he stood up, slowly withdrawing his curly hairs from between the covers of the dusty volumes.
“Can I help you sir?” he asked, in that awkward and croaky-voiced way of the true bibliophile, men who have lost all semblance of human contact between the library stacks. I gave him the card I had found and he ferreted within his beard for a light pair of pince-nez that hung from a chain and had become lost. Popping them onto the bridge of his nose, he scrutinised the card.
“Ah,” he said, dropping the card into his pocket, “yes, I was warned to prepare for that. You will be Mr Thomas Carnacki?”
“I am and always will be,” I replied. “You were expecting me then?”
“Indeed, sir.” As an after thought he extended his hand. He then glanced down at it, noticed it was covered in dust, brushed it against his tatty waistcoat and extended it once more. I shook it, not wanting to be mean-spirited. “I’m Algernon Newman, proprietor, publisher, senior editor and art director here at New Man Publishing.”
“And receptionist?” I couldn’t help but ask.
He had the grace to simply smile. “Times being what they are it’s frightfully difficult to find reliable, economical staff,” he admitted, “especially when working at the more... specialised end of the publishing market.”
“One can imagine.” We seemed to be in real danger of forgetting the purpose of my visit so I reminded him. “You said you were expecting me?”
“Indeed.” Newman gestured for me to follow him behind the desk and out through the door he had just entered from. “One of our authors, a particularly knowledgeable fellow, wished to make your acquaintance,” he explained. “There were, however, some unusual requirements that he wished us to assist him with.”
“Oh yes,” Newman said, “and we do so like to be of service to our authors.”
The corridor we were walking down appeared to be becoming darker and darker the further we moved along it. Navigating the offices of New Man Publishing was an act similar to potholing, for all its apparent modesty, the place was labyrinthine, dark and treacherous underfoot.
“Oh do mind those,” Newman said as I tripped over a small pile of fur-lined volumes, “they are bound in goat hide and quite slippery.”
I managed to avoid asking why a book should be bound as if for cold weather. In truth, as a man who has frequently had to peruse the most bizarre esoteric volumes in the line of his work, goat’s fur was one of the most wholesome binding materials I have come across.
He led me to a small room at the end of the corridor and opened the door onto pitch blackness. “Please sir,” he said, “if you can tolerate the informality I would ask that you take my hand. I fear there is no other way to lead you safely.”
I did as asked and was led, blind, into the room. I could see nothing of my surroundings though I could smell the dusty pages of old books and leather covers, a scent that had been omnipresent though it was much stronger here. Newman moved in a precise manner, like a man learning a complicated dance. I could hear him counting under his breath, so many steps forward, so many steps to the left, then so many to the right. It was quite the most bizarre experience.
“This is our most precious storeroom,” Newman explained, “some of the volumes here are so ancient that the merest touch of sunlight on their pages would likely send them to dust.”
“How then can you read them?” I asked.
Newman chuckled. “Nobody would want to read these books, sir,” he replied, “they’re far too dangerous.”
He halted, turned and sat me down carefully in a small, wooden chair.
“If you could just stay there, sir,” he said, “our author will be with you shortly. I would ask that you don’t try and navigate the storeroom independently, I couldn’t be held responsible for the accidents that would naturally occur.”
With that, either a polite threat or a just another piece of nonsense, he retreated into the darkness and I was left to wait.
While I sat there I endeavoured to sense as much as possible from my surroundings. I have already mentioned the smell of old books, but there were other clues too. There was the smell of something green, a sweet, evergreen scent. After a few moments, being reminded pointedly of graveyards, I realised it was the smell of yew trees. The other smell was less natural: old copper, turned verdigris over time. The sharp smell of old garden ornaments, of public monuments in the rain. Quite what it could be doing in such an environment was beyond me. Though perhaps my senses were beginning to cheat as I could also swear to movement in the room, the sound of tiny feet, such as an animal might make in forest undergrowth, the snuffling of a creature on the scent of its next meal. Perhaps there were rats in the storeroom, I’m sure the proprietor would never have known. At one point I even felt a cool breeze on my cheeks, as if someone had opened a door or window to the outside, after a moment the air was gone and I was plunged once more into the heavy atmosphere of dusty books.
“Mr Carnacki?” a voice asked. I placed it as several feet ahead of me, far enough away to be muffled by the presence of an obstacle between us, likely bookshelves. “Thank you for agreeing to meet with me in such unconventional circumstances.” The voice was not just muffled by the clutter of the room. The speaker was disguising the tone in some way, it had that hollowed-out quality of a voice channelled through a speaking trumpet.
“At the time I wasn’t aware that the circumstances would be so unconventional,” I replied, “though you’ve certainly caught my attention.”
“That is good,” said the voice, “as that is certainly our goal. Tell me,” he continued, “what do you know of the Breath of God?”
“I believe it’s mentioned in some of the more questionable apocrypha?” I replied. “A variation on the wrath of God. Some books claim it is a tornado made from the spirits of the dead. Not much, though,” I admitted eventually. “It’s a reference I’m familiar with, a theological curiosity.”
“It is much more than that,” said the voice, “it is a genuine phenomenon, a force that is on the brink of being released into this world.”
Claims of this sort were unlikely to move me. After all, ancient evils poised to return were something of an occupational clich'e. “Is that so?” I replied. “Well, I’m happy to look into it but I’m rather busy at the moment so I can’t promise that...”
“Do please hush, Mr Carnacki,” said the voice. “I wouldn’t be talking to you unless matters were a good deal more definite than that. I know a great deal about you and would hardly be wasting my or your time on a vague possibility.”
“For someone who claims to know a great deal about me,” I replied tersely, “you appear ignorant of the fact that if there’s one thing I hate, it’s being interrupted.”
“Apologies, but time is precious to both of us and I sought to save some of it.”
“Very well,” I said, “then please continue.”
“You will no doubt have heard of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.” The voice was so confident of the fact – and rightly so – that it didn’t give me time to reply. “There are certain forces within that organisation that are determined not only to break away from the main body of membership, but also to bring about changes to our society that would be disastrous. It has always been an unfortunate truth that people, when faced with the potential for power, often lose what altruistic intentions they may previously have had in order to fulfil their own selfish ambitions. This is the case here, and while a number of powerful and influential members are determined to stop them, this breakaway group is close to fulfilling their lunatic goal. They will let nothing stand in their way, Mr Carnacki, nothing and no one. You will have heard of the death of Hilary De Montfort?”
“That is their first strike, it will not be their last. They seek to kill every member who opposes them, until there is nobody left with the skills to stop them.”
“And what has this to do with me?”
“I cannot be seen to act, I wish to employ you as my agent in the matter. If your reputation is even half-earned, you have the skills and tenacity that may yet see this situation nipped in the bud.”
“I can assure you my reputation is wholly earned. However, yours is nonexistent and yet you’re asking me to place rather a lot of trust in you.”
“I’m asking you nothing of the sort. You can’t take the risk that I’m wrong and once you begin investigating I have every faith that you will learn enough to convince you. I need give you only three names: Lord Ruthvney, Sherlock Holmes and Aleister Crowley. From there you’re on your own.”
With that, the sensation of cool air returned, this time I could have sworn it brought with it the scent of the ocean, that hint of salt and seaweed. When it vanished again, leaving me with that ever-present stench of ageing paper, I knew that the speaker had gone. You will notice that I do not say I was left alone because that would have been far from the truth. I had sensed creatures in the darkness before, you will remember that I described the sound of their feet, the snuffling of their breath as they picked out scents amongst the shelves. They seemed to return in quantity now as a noise that I had first thought to be trickling water clarified itself as the scurry of hundreds of tiny feet.
“Newman?” I shouted. “Newman!”
There was no reply and I decided that I was damned if I was going to sit and wait, and perhaps be a generous supper for the rats, or whatever they might be.
I got to my feet and deciding not to strike a match for fear of what the light might attract, tried to remember the direction in which I had first been led. Slowly, shuffling my feet rather than taking large steps, I began to work my way back the way I felt I had come. It was only a few moments before I came into direct collision with a bookcase. Cursing, I held out my hands and felt my way along it, moving quicker while I had the wooden shelves to guide me. Even then there were piles of books on the floor and frequently I sent them crashing, slipping and tripping over them as I tried to work my way past.
I continued to call for Newman as I walked, undecided as to whether he was deaf or seeking to make life unpleasant for me. He had seemed pleasant enough but the whole business had soured so far that I was no longer inclined to give anyone the benefit of the doubt. It was a contradiction, if these people wanted me to investigate matters then why were they acting as if they themselves were the aggressors? It takes more than the dark to scare me, however, and I continued to make my way as quickly and safely as I could.
It was not just rats that moved in that darkness. I heard something running between the rows. It had bare feet, there was a slapping on the stone floor that could only come from skin rather than shoe leather. I had been calling for Newman, even though I was now quite convinced he would not respond. Still the sound had helped to guide me as I judged the way it bounced back at me from the far wall that must contain the door I had entered by. Now I no longer wished to draw such attention to myself.
I moved as silently as I could, keeping close to the book cases, feeling my way along them in the direction I felt sure led to the exit.
Whatever else that shared that storeroom with me seemed to have much less problem seeing, or certainly it had less fear of hurting itself as it ran up and down the rows. Sometimes it sounded like it might be climbing the shelves, as I heard its percussive grunts rising and the toppling of books spilled by its naked feet as it scaled towards the roof. What could it want in there but me? But why would these people unleash something dangerous on me? If they had wanted me dead then surely they had had ample opportunity to kill me. But perhaps this was not the work of Newman or his secretive author, perhaps this was a foot soldier for the opposition, a creature of those darker forces within the Golden Dawn. Perhaps my faceless informant lay somewhere here, amongst the pages of these forgotten volumes, dead because he had dared to take a stand against them.
These were the thoughts that followed me as I made my way towards the door and the freedom that I hoped lay beyond it.
Behind me the creature was drawing closer. Its breathing sharp but regular as it ran faster and faster towards me. I could tell from the way the noise was dampened and muted then loud and echoing that it was zigzagging up and down the rows. Why it should take such a circuitous route was beyond me. Perhaps, rather than simply running directly to me it wanted to scare me first, build up the tension, force me to crack... It was close to succeeding. Slap, slap, slap came its feet on the concrete floor, ever louder with each passing second. I pride myself on being a man of considerable nerve and yet being cut off like this, disorientated by the loss of one sense and the resultant heightening of the others, I was close to breaking. It was all I could do not to run, panicked, into the darkness.
Nonetheless I moved as fast I could, taking long, careful strides until – with almost a cry of relief – I found myself at the far wall. My hands touched the cool plaster and skimmed along it, hoping to meet the door frame. Behind me the feet cleared the end of a row of shelves, the noise echoing around the end of the storeroom. My fingers met the edge of the door frame just as I became aware that the creature behind me was not re-entering the row of bookshelves, rather it was running straight towards me.
I snatched for the door handle as the sound of its bare feet grew so close I could hardly believe it hadn’t reached me.
It only occurred to me to worry about the door being locked a fraction of a second before I opened it, stepped through and slammed it shut behind me. The weight of the creature hit the solid wood and nearly rebounded me from it. I grabbed the handle and threw my weight back, holding the door closed even as the creature continued to pound against it from the other side. My hands were sweating and threatened to slip from the handle.
I was just preparing for the fact that soon it would manage to tear the door from my weak grip when finally it gave up. Pressing my ear to the wood I could just hear its naked feet running away from the door, retreating deeper into the storeroom.
Perhaps it knew of another way out?
I ran along the narrow corridor between the storeroom and the front office, frequently checking over my shoulder in case the creature had doubled back and was now on my tail. As I reached the door to the office I came crashing to a halt. Something was pushed against it from the other side, keeping it closed. I dropped my shoulder to the wood and charged at it, sending the heavy weight on the other side sliding along a few inches with every shove. Soon the space was wide enough for me to slip past. I clambered around the jamb of the door and stumbled into the front office, toppling over the weight that had kept the door closed. It was the body of Algernon Newman.
I moved to check his pulse, though it was clear from his terrified face that he was dead and had not gained the condition comfortably. As I pressed against the small man’s body it made the most hideous crinkling noise. His stomach, bloated beyond its previous condition, sank beneath my fingers with the slow, crumpled sound of a cheap mattress. From Newman’s lips a couple of compressed pieces of paper tumbled: pages, torn from books, screwed up and then forced past that absurd beard and into the poor man’s mouth. He was full of paper, fit to burst with the pages from his own precious books.
Disgusted, I got to my feet and ran from that man’s offices, back into the cool air of a Bloomsbury afternoon.