From the author: The Royal Occultist confronts some decidedly risible Roman remains in a Maida Vale wine-cellar.
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Robert Gladstone approached the ancient lead coffin that occupied the centre of his wine cellar, the night’s sacrifice of a black rabbit clutched to his chest and the straight razor heavy in his plump hand. He swallowed and licked his lips. The withered thing in the coffin had its eyes closed, but that didn’t make it any more pleasant to look at.
“One more,” he whispered to himself, “Then I’ll sink you and your blasted coffin into Regent’s Canal, where you belong, with no one the wiser.” The thing’s papery eyelids twitched, as if it had heard him. It probably had. The click of a revolver being cocked brought his train of thought shuddering to a sudden stop.
Gladstone whirled, still clutching the rabbit. He stammered in confusion and surprise.
“Sorry to interrupt,” the intruder said and hefted the snub-nose Webley Bulldog he held for emphasis. “Please put the bunny down, there’s a good fellow.” The newcomer was tall and rangy with an olive cast to his features and hair a touch too long to be properly fashionable. He stood between Gladstone and the stairs.
“How did you get down here? Get out!” Gladstone barked, tightening his hold on the rabbit. “Get out of my house at once!”
“No, I’m afraid I can’t do that,” the intruder drawled. He tilted his head to peer past Gladstone at the coffin. “Lead, is it? Likely mined from the Mendips, somewhere on what’s now the border between England and Wales. And the scallop shell motif is definitely Romano-Celtic, if I know my funerary box decorations. Quite a common design, though I daresay what’s in the box is quite unique, isn’t it?”
Gladstone licked his lips nervously. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Who are you? Why are you here?”
“I’m here for the box, chum, and its grisly contents. You’ll get no more use out of your dead friend there, I’m not sorry to say. And the name is St. Cyprian. Charles St. Cyprian, Royal Occultist. Perhaps you’ve heard of me?”
“Oh,” St. Cyprian said, nonplussed, “What, really?”
“No,” Gladstone said. “If you don’t leave, I’ll call the police.”
“No. I daresay you won’t,” St. Cyprian said. “Not with that coffin in your quite well-stocked wine cellar—that Merlot on the third shelf to the left is mislabelled, by the by.”
Gladstone flinched. “What do you know about it?” he said.
“Which, the Merlot or the mummy?” St. Cyprian gestured. “Do come away from that coffin, there’s a good fellow.”
“You can’t have him! I require his services for one night more,” Gladstone said.
“One more night, and one more murder, is that it? You’ve already had your dried-up fig of a friend there top both poor Colonel Warburton and Bertie Moore. Who would it have been tonight then, Gladstone?” St. Cyprian said.
“You’ll never find out!” Gladstone snarled, slashing at the rabbit. But before the blade could bite into the squealing animal, a revolver growled and Gladstone gave a shriek as the straight razor flew from his grip, accompanied by several fingers. The rabbit kicked free of his grip as he staggered back, grabbing at his wounded hand.
St. Cyprian glanced over his shoulder, towards the stairs that led up to the cellar door above. “I never pegged you for an animal lover, Ms. Gallowglass,” he said, addressing the young woman who crouched on the stairs. Ebe Gallowglass was dark, with black hair cut in a razor-edged bob, and a battered man’s flat cap resting high on her head. She also held the heavy semi-automatic Webley-Fosbery revolver that had just taken off Gladstone’s fingers.
“I’m not, but you said not to let him get any blood on the mummy,” she said.
St. Cyprian was about to reply when a squeal from Gladstone caused him to turn back. Gladstone’s wounded hand was held in a leathery grip, and the grotesque maw of the mummified thing was clamped over his bleeding digits as it greedily sucked, its sunken cheeks flaring like a bellows. Gladstone shrilled and tried to pull away. It grabbed his throat and squeezed. Pasty flesh tore and gave way to red ruin as Gladstone’s twitching body slumped over the coffin.
The dead thing turned and gave a rattling hiss. With an almost serpentine motion, it slithered out from under Gladstone’s deflating bulk and leapt from the coffin. It crouched for a moment, fleshless jaws working soundlessly, head cocked. Then, with a scrape of leather on stone, it sprang for St. Cyprian.
The Bulldog made a single bark before a swipe from a bony arm sent the weapon clattering away. Brown teeth snapped together as the mummy crashed into him and knocked him sprawling. Its hands fastened about his throat and began to squeeze. Then, abruptly, it was swatted backwards and off of him.
Gallowglass came down the stairs with her pistol extended, a curlicue of smoke drifting from the barrel. As the mummy staggered to its feet, she grabbed the Webley’s hammer with her free hand and jerked it back. Her trigger finger twitched and the Webley-Fosbery gave a series of rapid barks. The mummy slammed back against its coffin, knocking over the box and the casks that supported it. But it didn’t stay down for long.
Gallowglass cursed and cracked open the revolver, ejecting the spent shells with brisk precision. “I hope you have an idea for how to stop that thing,” she said. “He’s got more bits than I’ve got bullets.”
St. Cyprian stuffed a hand in his pocket and retrieved a flat, circular disk of beaten gold. It was pitted and weathered with age, and as he raised it, the mummy paused, head cocked. “In the name of Dis Pater, I command thee; in the name of Pluto, I bind thee; in the name of Orcus, I blind thee,” he intoned, stepping forward. The mummy made an abortive lunge, but retreated before the amulet. St. Cyprian repeated the intonation, and the thing squirmed as if it were being prodded by a branding iron. With obvious reluctance, it slithered back into its toppled coffin. St. Cyprian gestured to Gallowglass. “Find the lid – hurry!”
Gallowglass spotted the lid leaning against the wall and snatched it up. St. Cyprian stood over the coffin and pressed the amulet to the thing’s head. Its jaws gaped in a soundless scream and it thrashed like a crippled snake. Quickly, he grabbed its bottom jaw and thrust the amulet into its mouth. The brown teeth dug into the soft metal. He hopped back as Gallowglass dropped the lid into place. The coffin shook, shuddered and then went still. Gallowglass, draped over the lid to hold it shut, looked at him. “Is that it?” she said.
“Good enough as,” he said, running a hand through his sweaty hair. “Nasty bugger, wasn’t he? That amulet will keep him snoozing until we can put him back wherever Gladstone had him dug up.” He sat down on the ancient casket.
Gallowglass looked around at the wine cellar. “Think anyone would miss a bottle or two?” she said.
St. Cyprian patted the coffin. “Probably,” he said, “But I’d say we deserve it.”
This story originally appeared in Bento Box.
Jazz Age Britain is rife with the impossible. Fashionable unwrapping parties awaken the dead. Ghouls stalk the Underground. Krampus steals the sinful. Famous magicians are kidnapped by shadows. Only the Royal Occultist can set these right.
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