From the author: The Royal Occultist investigates horrors in the Underground, and worse things waiting in London.
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For Robert Barbour Johnson, HP Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Arthur Machen, HG Wells and all of the things that have learned to walk that ought to crawl.
It was 1922 and the Minister of Transport for the London Underground was at a loss. Sitting in the parlour of a particular house on the Embankment, surrounded by curios from strange shores and books that smelled of unguents and oriental oils, he tried several times to begin. Finally, he simply came out with it.
“Fifteen dead,” the Viscount Peel, the Minister, said as he dabbed his lips with a napkin. He folded the napkin carefully, placed it on his saucer and looked at his host. “We’ve called it a crash and roped off the area, of course.”
“Of course,” Charles St. Cyprian said, sipping his tea. In contrast to Peel’s long, quintessentially English face and aristocratic style, St. Cyprian possessed hard olive features and a Mediterranean exoticism to his dress despite its Savile Row origins.
“It wasn’t. A crash, I mean,” Peel added unnecessarily.
“Of course,” St. Cyprian repeated. He put his cup down. “What does the Tunnel Authority say?”
“They assure me that the-ah-the seals are undisturbed,” Peel said, looking distinctly uncomfortable. “Is that the correct word? Seals?”
“Seals, sigils, symbols, if you will. Runes, even, if you prefer,” St. Cyprian said. He spoke with a certainty that one would expect of a man occupying the post of Royal Occultist. “Care for more tea, Viscount?” he continued, making an offhand gesture with the tea pot.
“No. Thank you, Mr. St. Cyprian. The—ah—the Authority recommended that I contact you. A Mr. Morris, in the Ministry, spoke quite highly of you and you’re particular...talents.”
“Is that what Morris called them?” St. Cyprian said. “Talents?”
“Highly? Us?” said the third person sitting in the study. Ebe Gallowglass was, for lack of a better description, St. Cyprian’s assistant. Dark-skinned and wielding a startlingly white smile, she would have been referred to as an apprentice in earlier centuries. In 1922, she was simply an annoyance of the most vocal kind where men like Peel were concerned, dressed flamboyantly in men’s clothes and bearing a revolver with the smug self-assurance of a merchant seaman. “That’s a laugh and half,” she continued, scrubbing a thumb across the spatter of freckles that occupied the bridge of her nose.
Peel frowned. “Unfortunately, he was slightly more vulgar. Still, I have high hopes you can deal with our little matter.”
“Fifteen people is a little matter?” Gallowglass broke a biscuit between two fingers and nibbled it in insouciant fashion as she met the Viscount’s glare with a bland gaze. “Bloody hate to see a big one.”
“I apologise,” St. Cyprian said, smiling slightly. “Ms. Gallowglass is afflicted with terminal impudence.”
“Impudence is fatal now?” she interjected.
St. Cyprian glanced at her. “For you? Quite possibly.” He turned back to Peel. “Do go on Viscount.”
“Hmp. Yes, well.” Peel looked at St. Cyprian. “Morris said that you would need the area left as is. The Tunnel Authority have seen to sealing it off for you. One of them-Stanhook, I believe his name is-will be waiting on you. Solid fellow. Bit queer, but then all those Tunnel fellows are a bit, you know, eh?” Peel made a shaky gesture and shook his head.
“Considering what they have to deal with, I do believe they’re allowed a bit of oddity.” St. Cyprian snapped a biscuit in half and swallowed the larger piece almost without chewing. “Worm that gnaws, wot?”
“Er, yes, rather,” Peel said hesitantly. From the unhealthy sheen of his face, St. Cyprian figured that the Viscount had only recently been filled in on certain pertinent details regarding London’s Underground. It was a strange world down there, in many ways a funhouse mirror version of the city above. Right down to the inhabitants.
“Have a biscuit, Viscount,” St. Cyprian said kindly, pushing the plate towards Peel in order to hide his shudder. “We’ll have it sorted, never fear. The Office of the Royal Occultist has long had a working relationship with the honourable gentlemen of the London Tunnel Authority.”
After the biscuits were gone and the tea had been reduced to dregs, St. Cyprian and Gallowglass found themselves trooping down the stairs into the maw of the Embankment Underground Station. Two uniformed police constables had been stationed above to turn back the hoi-polloi, but they stepped aside for the duo, nodding respectfully. One tapped the brim of his helmet.
“So,” Gallowglass said as they stepped onto the platform. Colourful posters lined the curving brick walls, boasting the merits of the zoo or Hampton Court.
“So?” St. Cyprian said, stepping to the edge of the platform and peering into the tunnel, his hands in his pockets.
“What’s so scary about the Underground then?” Gallowglass said, joining him. She lit a cigarette and handed him the lighter. St. Cyprian popped open his silver cigarette case, selected one and lit it. The brand was unique; hand-rolled by a Moro woman in Limehouse and delivered to her customers by armed courier.
“Depends who you ask,” he said, blowing smoke through his nostrils. The platform was empty, thanks to the Metropolitan’s finest above, and eerily quiet. Their voices echoed strangely, fleeing into the tunnels and cascading away into unseen depths.
“Funny. I thought I was asking you,” Gallowglass said, snatching the lighter back and bouncing it on her palm. “I’ve never heard of the London Tunnel Authority.”
“Really? Old firm, that lot.”
“Their charter goes back before the Great Fire, I should think.” St. Cyprian glanced at her. “Before you ask, it was the first Great Fire, when our fair city was Londinium.”
Gallowglass whistled. “Old firm too right. So who are they?”
“Canaries in a coal-mine,” St. Cyprian said, smiling bitterly. “Only slightly more expendable.”
“That clears everything up, thank you,” she said sourly.
“Glad to be of service, assistant mine.” St. Cyprian tossed his cigarette onto the platform and crushed it under his heel. “Speaking of assistance...I do believe our ride is here.”
The low little shape scooted up the line towards the platform with a loud clackety-clack, the large spotlights mounted on the front, sides and back railing blazing away despite the relatively well-lit condition of the platform. It paused in a shower of sparks and a metal gangplank extended, connecting the platform with what was revealed as a heavy-duty hand-car with a chugging, chuffling gasoline engine mounted on the rear.
Three men rode the car, dressed all alike in boiler suits and hard-hats with lamps mounted on the brims. Two had Thompson sub-machine guns clutched in their gloved hands, with extra ammo drums clipped to the harnesses they wore. The third man had a Mauser pistol holstered on his hip and a Webley revolver in his hand.
It was the latter who opened the side gate on the hand-car railing and beckoned St. Cyprian and Gallowglass forward. “Mr. St. Cyprian? Ian Stanhook, night-manager for the Thames Section. Glad to see you sir. Damn glad. Care to come aboard?”
“After you, Ms. Gallowglass,” St. Cyprian said. They boarded quickly and the hand-car set off with a squeal even before Stanhook had gotten the gate shut.
“Glad you could come out sir!” Stanhook shouted over the growl of the engine as they whipped through the tunnels.
“How bad is it?” St. Cyprian shouted back.
“Not as bad as Tunnel 18, but worse than Charing Cross!” Stanhook said, holstering his Webley. “Don’t know what it’s all about really though!”
“How are the seals holding?”
“Bit of leakage sir, but that’s natural!” Stanhook said grinning. “We can handle the odd vagrant, no worries!”
“You don’t think this is one of their lot then?” St. Cyprian said, ignoring Gallowglass’ inquiring look. “You’re sure?”
“Sure as we can be where they’re concerned!” Stanhook said. He gestured to the rail. “Hold tight, we’re heading to the sub-platform now!” Abruptly the hand-car took a sharp turn and then it was hurtling down a slope. Gallowglass repressed a squeal of fright. A moment later she glared at St. Cyprian who was grinning openly at her.
The hand-car slowed in a burst of sparks and the engine’s roar died to a grumble. Ahead of them, a solitary underground carriage sat on the track. More boiler-suit men occupied the platform, most carrying weapons. Once the plank was extended, Stanhook led St. Cyprian and Gallowglass up onto the platform. Another man took his place on the hand-car and it reversed course with a shriek, hurtling back up the tunnel.
“We’ve still got a few checks to run this evening,” Stanhook said by way of explanation. “We can’t let anything deter us from our appointed rounds, can we?” He took off his helmet and ran a hand through his sweaty mop of hair. He was a short man and built spare, with a wilting grin and a long face.
“So what exactly is it that you do down here?” Gallowglass said.
Stanhook looked at St. Cyprian, who shrugged. “Well, we see to the integrity of the Underground,” Stanhook said. “Keep the tunnels free of vermin and such.” He lit a foul-smelling cheroot with a match and sucked in a lungful of smoke. “We also see to certain sewer lines and cellars and such.”
“Vermin,” Gallowglass said.
“Mostly vermin,” Stanhook said, nodding.
“Not rats,” Gallowglass said, looking at St. Cyprian.
“Sometimes rats,” he replied.
“Of unusual size,” Stanhook said, spreading his hands. He dropped his hands and nodded to the carriage. “This wasn’t rats of any description though, I’m afraid.”
“No, it wouldn’t be,” St. Cyprian said, striding towards the carriage with his hands in his pockets. Gallowglass and Stanhook hurried to catch up. The doors were open and the smell of carnage was heavy on the recycled air. The guards on the doors steadfastly kept their eyes turned away. St. Cyprian gingerly stepped inside. “Mind the blood,” he said tersely.
Gallowglass cursed as she caught sight of the pitiful, mangled scraps of once-human meat that occupied the length and breadth of the carriage. Instinctively, her fingers found the butt of the Bulldog revolver holstered beneath her frock coat and she stroked the Seal of Solomon carved there on the ivory grips. “What the devil happened in here?”
“The devil indeed,” St. Cyprian said, hiking up his trouser cuffs and sinking to his haunches near one of the more intact bodies. His face had gone gray and assumed a pinched look. Memories of Ypres, never buried too deeply, surged to the surface of his mind like hungry sharks. He closed his eyes for a minute, trying to push back against the flashes of blood and wire. He’d taken two bullets, but there were other wounds than just the physical.
When he opened his eyes, he took a breath and began to examine the corpse. “Parallel slashes. No, more like rips than slashes. This wasn’t done by claws so much as brute strength.” He glanced over his shoulder at Stanhook. “You’re certain there was no leakage around the tunnel seals?”
“Yes,” Stanhook said, nodding jerkily. “They’ve-ah-they’ve been quiet lately.”
“They?” Gallowglass said.
“Good.” St. Cyprian ignored her and looked around, his dark eyes narrowing thoughtfully. “All of the blood is on the inside, did you notice that?” He stood and sniffed the air. “And the smell...”
“It smells like blood,” Gallowglass said, tapping her fingers against her pistol. “Who’s ‘they’?”
“And only blood. No odour of the unnatural. No musk or must or mildew. The doors weren’t forced, the windows are unbroken and the roof hasn’t been breached.” St. Cyprian gestured as he spoke. He blithely ignored the glares his assistant tossed his way and turned to Stanhook.
“What are you saying?” Stanhook said.
“Inside job,” Gallowglass said, shaking her head. “Someone-something was on here with them.” She looked around, her olive features strained. “Christ.”
“Not even close,” St. Cyprian said. He looked at the floor. “Footprints, Stanhook, from bare feet. I assume you followed them?”
“We tracked them to the stairs going to the street. Then they just...stopped.” Stanhook frowned. “They were human enough looking, if a bit big.”
“So where did he-did it-go then?” Gallowglass said.
“Home, I assume,” St. Cyprian said. “He put his shoes on and went home.” He turned in place, patting the air with his hands. “There’s something here. Something we’re not seeing.”
“Shoes?” Stanhook said, blinking.
“Yes. That’s why the tracks vanished, you see. He put his shoes back on.” St. Cyprian waved a hand. “That’s not important. What is important is that we find this individual.”
“You think we’re dealing with a man, then?” Stanhook said. “And not one of them?”
“Them, they, those,” Gallowglass said. “Who are they?”
“They are not our concern,” St. Cyprian said. He cast a look at Gallowglass and her mouth shut with an audible snap. “Double your patrols, Mr. Stanhook. Watch the joins and set up some unscheduled line work in the deeper sections until we get this sorted.”
“And him?” Stanhook said. “What do you think-”
“It’s not one of them. That’s all that matters.”
“What about this?” Stanhook said, indicating the carriage.
“A terrible accident. No survivors.” St. Cyprian paused, and then said, “Destroy the carriage. No sense in riling them up with something that smells, however faintly, of food.”
Stanhook gave another jerky nod. “Right. You’ll call us in if there’s any problem?”
“Indubitably,” St. Cyprian said. “Until then...”
“Double the patrols. As you say, sir. No fears, we’ll see to it,” Stanhook said, pulling his Webley and checking the cylinder. He spun it shut with a slap of his palm. “We always see to it, in the end.”
There seemed to be little else to say. Before they left the carriage, St. Cyprian borrowed a pair of pliers from one of the boiler-men and extracted a handful of teeth from the mess. Borrowing a canteen next, he washed the teeth clean and dried them with his handkerchief. Wrapping them up tightly, he bounced the package on his palm and led Gallowglass up the stairs and away from the platform. More bobbies met them at the exit, looking pale-faced and full of questions. They said nothing however, merely nodding in recognition.
“Good old Metropolitan Section 13,” St. Cyprian said, returning the nods. “They can be counted on to see nothing, hear nothing, and do what’s required.”
“Because if they don’t, Morris from the Ministry and his lot will have them out of uniform and on the dole or in the dock faster than they can spit,” Gallowglass said. “And speaking of hearing nothing...”
St. Cyprian sighed. “I’m sorry. I was hoping not to have to give you this particular low-down until farther along in our association. And in better circumstances.” They stepped out onto the street and St. Cyprian took a deep breath, as if seeking to expel the stink of dark places from his lungs.
“Just give it to me straight, if you would,” she said, her dark eyes boring into his own.
“Straight eh? Fine. Here’s straight...there are things in the deep that walk that ought to crawl. Straight enough?”
“Crooked as a corkscrew,” Gallowglass said, lighting a cigarette. She cast a nervous glance at the station they had just left. “Things?”
“You grew up in Cairo. Surely you heard stories about ghuls?” he said.
“I was too busy scrounging to listen to stories,” she said tersely.
“Ever read any HG Wells then?”
“Yes, I-hnh. Morlocks?” Gallowglass said, her expression moving from curiosity to incredulity. “Really?”
“Very good. And no, not really.” St. Cyprian opened the handkerchief on his palm and spilled the teeth out onto the sidewalk. It was late enough that were no prying eyes to see as he took out a pen-knife and pricked his thumb. “But it’s as good an appellation as any. Morlocks, ghouls, mole people, all names for the same phenomena.”
“What are you doing with those?”
“I thought you wanted to hear about ghouls,” St. Cyprian said. He sniffed. “Just a bit of the old black Kush. Bits of the cruelly dead to roust out a murderer.” Blood welled out of the hole in his thumb and he deftly squeezed several drops onto each tooth. “Their presence has been noted in every country in the world and by every people. The Bible references ‘the ghouls that burrow’, as does a number of other holy-not to mention unholy-books. In Persia, in Russia and in China they hunt them with guns, dogs and fire. Here we have solid chaps like Stanhook and the London Tunnel Authority.”
“So those seals you kept mentioning...”
“One of the original duties of this Office was to the crafting and maintaining of certain wards against unannounced visits from our neighbours far below,” St. Cyprian said. Squeezing out another patter of blood, he swiftly smudged a curving sigil on the pavement near the teeth, followed by three more, one at each of the compass points. “When they began the excavation for the Underground, it stirred the devils up something fierce.” He frowned. “They reported most of the deaths as being due to flooding or tunnels collapsing. Drood—no, Beamish—was Royal Occultist then. I’ve read his notes from that period.” He shook his head. “Not bedtime reading by any stretch of the definition.”
He sat back on his haunches and looked up at her. “They’re everywhere, you see. They’re crawling and creeping right now beneath every major city on Earth, as well as under every hamlet and every backwoods village. Oh, some places are free of ‘em to be sure, but only because something infinitely worse is there instead.” His voice was flat and emotionless. “In the War, they dug up through the trenches and dragged the dead into the depths. That’s where I first saw ‘em. Poor old Carnacki pointed them out to me and showed me how to draw the Caudete Loop to warn them off. Likely they’d never seen such a banquet, the beasts. I-” He stopped and shook his head.
“What are they?” she said. “Really, I mean. Are they people? Or something else?”
“What they are is not our problem,” St. Cyprian said. “Not now. Hopefully never.”
“Sounds like our sort of problem to me,” Gallowglass said.
“Not this. I-Hell.” St. Cyprian stood. On the pavement, the teeth were jumping like droplets of grease in a frying pan. Swiftly, he snatched them up and deposited them back in the handkerchief, tying up the ends as he did so. Then he held the parcel out, letting his arm move back and forth. The rattling of the teeth grew louder or quieter depending on the direction and St. Cyprian set off in the direction that caused the loudest noise.
“So we’re listening to teeth now?” Gallowglass said.
“To tell the tooth, I-” St. Cyprian began, and then stopped when he caught Gallowglass’ flat glare. “Not in the mood for puns?”
“No. How is a colony of mole-people living under London not our problem exactly?” she said.
“Since the Romans enacted the Treaty of Pompelo, to keep our race and theirs from going to war,” St. Cyprian said. “The ones the Tunnel Authority deals with are the equivalent to ye auld Scottish Border Reivers. They raid our world and we deal with them accordingly. Anything more could lead to...unpleasantness.”
“You saying it’s not already unpleasant?”
“I’m saying it could be worse!” St. Cyprian rounded on her, teeth bared. “They were here before our ancestors came down out of the trees and we caught ‘em by surprise once, just long enough to drive them underground, but they’re ready for us now, don’t think they aren’t! There’s an awful secret wisdom down there in those millennia old catacombs...why else would wizard and shaman alike go down into the earth seeking knowledge?”
He shook his head. “We can’t win, don’t you see? The best we can do is hold the line. Once a year I go down with the Tunnel Authority and renew the seals on the walls of the Underground and in the sewers and cellars and we hope-we pray-that there’s no secret incursion in some East End cellar where they’ll gather and breed like rats.”
“And if they do?” Gallowglass said quietly.
“Then Stanhook and his ilk go in with fire and guns and burn them out. They seal the holes with brick and plaster and then I paint a certain marking on the wall and in five or ten or twenty years my successor will do the same again when they’ve worn the seal away or some fool builder has smashed it aside in order to re-do the downstairs.”
He held up the handkerchief full of chattering teeth and smiled thinly. “But that in the carriage? That we can do something about. That is in our remit, most assuredly. Now, do you want to do something worthwhile or would you like to argue some more?”
Gallowglass pulled her pistol and spun the cylinder. “Toothfully?” she said, grinning slightly, trying to lighten the mood. “I’d like a lie-down and a cuppa. But I’ll settle for shooting something.”
St. Cyprian gave a laugh and turned away. “I rather think that can be arranged.”
“Where are we anyway?”
“Highgate, I believe.” St. Cyprian held up his hand. “This way!” They moved at a quick trot through the darkened streets. Gallowglass kept her pistol down by her side, her thumb on the hammer.
The rattle of the teeth grew louder and louder as they moved through the narrow streets of Highgate village. Finally, the teeth became so loud that St. Cyprian was forced to wrap them tightly and stuff them into his coat pocket. “I do believe we’re here,” he said quietly, gesturing to a house on the cusp of the hill.
“You can see the city from up here,” Gallowglass said, gesturing to the expanse of London visible from the crest of the street.
“Like the top of a termite mound,” St. Cyprian said, turning to the house.
“Unfortunate choice of words,” Gallowglass said quietly. She had holstered her pistol, but her hands clenched nervously. “Considering, I mean.”
“Possibly,” St. Cyprian said. “Care to do the honours?” He gestured to the door.
“Well, you are my assistant.”
“And that means I knock on doors for you now?”
“No. It means that you stand in front of me when we’re about to enter someplace potentially dangerous.” St. Cyprian grinned at her, his teeth flashing in the darkness. Gallowglass made a disgusted noise and went to the door. She rapped sharply and stepped back, one hand beneath her coat. St. Cyprian stood behind her and to the side, his own pistol out albeit hidden by her form.
The brief echoes of the knock faded. No lights came on. “Maybe no one’s home,” Gallowglass said.
St. Cyprian held up a hand. “Or maybe they’re watching us through the window there. I just saw the curtains twitch.”
“Want me to shoot the lock off?”
“I believe the lock is on the inside of the door. And no, not at the moment.” St. Cyprian pulled his Webley and rapped the butt against the door. The lanyard ring gouged the brightly painted wood. “Open up in the name of the law!”
“And what law are we, exactly?” Gallowglass said.
“Law of the land. Law of the living. Law of the open the bloody door!” St. Cyprian bellowed. Lights came on down the street and somewhere a dog began to bark.
“It would have been quieter to shoot it open,” Gallowglass said, looking around.
“But less satisfying. Hsst.” St. Cyprian stepped back and holstered his pistol. The door opened. A pale, rotund face peered out at them, owlish eyes blinking behind wire-frame spectacles.
“Dear me, yes-ah-Officer...?”
“Good evening sir. Charles Morris, with His Majesty’s Ministry. May we come in?” St. Cyprian said, smiling genially.
“My assistant, Ms. Havisham,” St. Cyprian said, waving a hand in Gallowglass’ general direction.
“Wotcher,” Gallowglass said.
“Havisham?” The round eyes blinked and the cherubic face retreated. “I-yes-of course, dear me, dear me.”
“Havisham?” Gallowglass hissed, glaring sideways at St. Cyprian.
“I only said it because I fully expect you to be left at the altar some day,” St. Cyprian said in a placating tone. He grunted as her knuckles dug into his arm.
They stepped inside and were greeted by the glassy eyes of shelf after shelf of foreign curios and knickknacks. The owner of said curios was of average height but above average bulk, with an egg-shaped body and bent arms that ended in hands that clasped nervously. Slightly bowed legs added to the general impression of obesity and fragility he exuded.
“What-ah-what Ministry did you say you were with?” he said, lips pursed.
“Just the Ministry, Mr...” St. Cyprian said.
“Dibny. Dibny Bunter.” A wide tongue made a quick visit, dabbing at the plump lips. “Is there some-ah-problem?”
“Nothing a quick chat won’t clear up I shouldn’t think,” St. Cyprian said, patting Bunter on the arm. “I understand that it’s late, but it is urgent sir, very urgent. A matter of national import, in fact.”
“National...? Dear me, dear me. I don’t suppose you’d like a cuppa?”
“Kill for one, Mr. Bunter. Murder a man stone-dead,” Gallowglass said. She was rewarded by a twitch of Bunter’s thick eyebrow. They followed the hobbling figure back through his cramped rat-warren of a home, dodging stacks of newspaper and empty boxes and ill-placed shelves. More ceramic and glass statuary guarded the approach to the kitchen and St. Cyprian caught himself trading stares with a garishly decorated clown for a moment longer than he felt was entirely healthy. The man was a pack rat.
Their host began to rummage around in various cupboards as they took seats at the narrow table. “I’ll put the kettle on, won’t be a minute, no,” Bunter said, waddling back and forth.
“Delightful Mr. Bunter, I’m sure. Now, might I ask whether you were out and about tonight at all?” St. Cyprian said.
“Tonight? Eh? No, dear me, no, I don’t go out, no,” Bunter said, blinking rapidly. “That’s-no, oh no-that’s quite of the question.” He made pushing motions with his hands. Gallowglass glanced at St. Cyprian and they shared a look.
“Mind if I nip to the loo?” Gallowglass said. “Is it upstairs?”
“I-yes, dear me, mind the ah-upstairs, yes,” Bunter said, licking his lips, his eyes flicking back and forth between them. Behind him the kettle began to whistle. “To-ah-to your right? Left.” He turned and plucked the battered old kettle off the hob. “Yes, to your left, top of the stairs.” He looked at St. Cyprian. “Milk, Mr. Morris?”
“No thank you,” St. Cyprian said. “So you say you weren’t out?”
“I don’t go out,” Bunter said, watching St. Cyprian stir the tea to cool it. “It’s the bells, you see. I can’t abide the bells.”
“The bells. This city is full of bells. Clanging and ringing and groaning. There’s so much...noise. So much noise. Even, dear me, even down-ah-down there,” Bunter said hesitantly, gesturing towards a door on the far wall. St. Cyprian looked at the door and frowned. It was, to all intents and purposes a cellar door like any other. Granted, most cellar doors didn’t have padlocks and strap-locks and pinned hinges. A tingle of the old fear rippled through him. The locks were open and there was a smudge of red on the frame.
“Down there...you mean the tube?” St. Cyprian said. Something scuttled behind the plaster of the wall, though Bunter gave no sign that he’d noticed.
“Runs right under the house, you know. Right under the hill. I can feel it, dear me, I can feel it in the soles of my feet.”
St. Cyprian glanced down. Bunter’s feet were crammed into bedroom slippers. He looked up, watching the other man drop five cubes of sugar into his tea. “The iron bells,” Bunter went on. “Poe, you know.”
“The American writer? Dear me, dear me, I do love a bit of Poe. Ghastly, grim and-ah-”
“Ghoulish?” St. Cyprian said. Bunter froze, his face becoming waxy and mask-like.
“Ah, ah, ah, yes, dear me,” he said. “Your tea is getting cold, Mr. Morris.”
“Hear the tolling of the bells, the iron bells, what a world of solemn thought their monody compels...that Poe?” St. Cyprian said, stirring his tea.
Bunter’s head bobbed. “How we shiver with affright at the melancholy menace of their tone,” he said idly, his eyes unfocused. He took off his spectacles and rubbed his face. In the dull light of the kitchen, he didn’t look so much cherubic as simian. He blinked and looked up. “Wherever is Ms. Havisham?”
“Satis House?” St. Cyprian said.
“I said, they that dwell up in the steeple. The bell-ringers, you know.”
“Yes? Dear me, dear me,” Bunter said. “Lovely poem, lovely poem. But he was right, old Poe. Horrid things, bells.” Bunter’s fingers writhed around his cup. “I can hear them when I sleep, tolling up from below. Far below...”
“They are neither man nor woman, brute nor human-they are ghouls,” St. Cyprian said. Gallowglass stood in the kitchen doorway. She held a blood-stained pair of trousers dangling from the barrel of her pistol.
Bunter looked up. “Ghouls? No. Dear me, oh no, I-” He caught sight of Gallowglass and his expression became glassy. “I say, that’s-that’s mine.”
“Ticket stub in the pocket,” Gallowglass said, watching Bunter the way someone might watch a rattlesnake. “He was on the carriage.”
“I know,” St. Cyprian said as he pulled the teeth out of his pocket and unwrapped them. They hopped and bounced out of the cloth, skidding across the table. Bunter shot back so fast his chair fell over with a bang and he backed up against the cellar door.
“What-what-what-” he stammered.
“A bit of the old whatsit,” St. Cyprian said, rising to his feet. “Necromancy, I should say. Bad ju-ju, but efficient enough when it comes to hunting down killers.”
“I-kill? No! Dear me, I-”
“You can’t deny the tooth,” Gallowglass said grimly. The teeth hopped and jumped at the edge of the table like hungry dogs trying to leap over a fence. Bunter’s lips writhed back from surprisingly large teeth and then he was lunging forward, nightshirt flapping. With a bellow, he flipped the table and spun, wrenching open the cellar door.
“The bells! The bells!” he howled, bounding down into the darkness.
“Bells?” Gallowglass said, looking at St. Cyprian after a moment of shock.
“Classical reference,” he said. “I see an electric torch on the icebox there. Grab it and lets go.”
“Down there? With him?”
“No, upstairs. We’ll lock ourselves in the loo and wait for help.” St. Cyprian kicked the table aside and started for the stairs. He stopped just inside the door, listening. Gallowglass flipped on the torch and lit up the stairway.
“Moved fast for a fat man,” she murmured, following St. Cyprian down the stairs.
“Not so fat and not so much a man,” he said. He stopped on the final step and lifted up the ragged remains of a night-shirt. “Naked, though.”
“Oh good. As if this wasn’t unpleasant enough.” Gallowglass panned the torch’s beam across the walls of the cellar. It was surprisingly empty, considering the state of the house above. Heavy bricks and flat paving stones were all that they could see.
There was a soft scratching sound all around them, like the midnight perambulations of hundreds of mice or rats. Gallowglass swallowed audibly. “Rats?”
“Maybe. I think-” St. Cyprian was interrupted by a sudden rumbling. The floor shifted slightly beneath their feet, sending vibrations up through their legs.
“What the devil was that?” Gallowglass said, swinging the torch-beam around.
“The ten fifty-five Northern Line, I believe,” St. Cyprian said. “Poor devil was right...it does run right below his house.”
In the darkness, something hissed. St. Cyprian spun, but too slowly. A pale fist thundered across his jaw and he fell, his pistol sliding away in the dark. Gallowglass swung the torch around, catching the edge of a bestial white shape as it swung across the room towards her. Green cat-eyes glowed in the darkness and something snarled. Gallowglass fired twice, each shot lighting up the gloom.
Bunter yelped and tumbled away. “Find my gun,” St. Cyprian said, rising into a crouch.
“How about I find him first, eh?” Gallowglass snapped. A moment later she grunted as something crashed into her and threw her off of her feet. The torch hit the floor and spun. Worm-white feet danced in the light.
“The bells, can you hear them?” Bunter growled, his formerly breathy voice gone guttural. “The iron bells, ringing in the depths, calling me down. Calling us down. But I don’t go far, dear me, no!”
St. Cyprian listened to the pad of inhuman feet circling them. In a spin of the torch, the light caught his pistol’s lanyard ring and he estimated the distance. “Why did you kill them, Mr. Bunter?” he said, hoping to distract the beast. “You don’t seem a bad sort, percussive obsession aside.”
“I-kill? No. No!” There was a horrid slobbering sound. “When the iron bells ring, I go away! They’re ringing now...it’s so hard to think! Dear me, dear me, DEAR ME-”
St. Cyprian lunged for his pistol. His buttons clattered as he slid across the floor and the butt slapped into his palm. He rolled onto his back and levelled the pistol as the white mass that was Bunter hurtled towards him, teeth bared and eyes wide and blazing. St. Cyprian fired and rolled aside. Bunter fell and stumbled past him.
“I-I feel I’ve taken ill,” he coughed. One hairy hand clutched at his abdomen, where a red patch was spreading with swift finality. “Dear me, dear me...” He staggered back against the loose brick of the wall and toppled into it, rupturing it in a quiet explosion of brick dust and mould. Half in and half out of the cellar, Bunter stretched a hand into the darkness.
“I think I’m dying,” he said, his rough voice pitifully small in the oppressive quiet of the cellar. “I can hear-” His thick fingers twitched and then, with a sigh, he was gone.
“Is he-” Gallowglass began.
“God I hope so.” With the back of his hand pressed to his mouth to stifle a coughing fit, St. Cyprian stepped towards the stunted body. His Webley was extended at the ready, and his eyes were narrowed. “Light, please,” he said quietly.
“I think he’s dead,” Gallowglass said, raising the torch. In the light, more than just Bunter’s shame was revealed. Wiry white hair clung to his body in thick patches. His feet were filthy and malformed, with oddly curled toes and wide soles. Even his face, now caught full in the light and freed of spectacles and shadow, was odd in a distasteful way. The jaw was shaped wrong and the neck was too thick.
“Ugly bugger. No wonder he didn’t go out much,” Gallowglass said.
“He’s not human,” St. Cyprian said. “Not fully anyway.”
“So what is he?”
“A changeling. They do that sometimes.” He swallowed. “They leave one of their own and snatch a child for a...a snack.”
“He killed all those people,” she said. “He killed them, and he didn’t even know why, did he?”
“No he didn’t,” St. Cyprian said, resting on his haunches. “Poor fellow was mad from the start. Trying to fit in, but never quite managing it until...what?” He made a face. “Something set him off. Re-ignited those atavistic impulses. Who knows, maybe they-” St. Cyprian stopped, his eyes widening. The scratching they had heard earlier had become louder now that the wall was down, but it was obvious now that it wasn’t rats of unusual size or otherwise, unfortunately.
“What is it?” Gallowglass said. She ignored St. Cyprian’s frantic gestures to step back and drew closer to the wall.
“Not rats,” St. Cyprian said harshly. In the light of the torch, something gleamed in the darkness behind the wall. Several somethings. The scratching grew louder and there was a flash of worm-pale flesh as something that might have been a hand reached through and tangled stubby fingers in Bunter’s blood-stained flesh. Almost gently, his body was drawn into the darkness where more hands waited. “No, not rats,” St. Cyprian repeated, taking aim with the Webley.
Gallowglass grabbed his wrist. “You’ve got four shots left,” she said softly. She played the torch over the hole. The light reflected on the surface of more than four pair of eyes. Claws scratched on stone and eager panting filled the cellar as the rumble of a passing tube-train caused dust to drift down on their heads. From within the hole came the sound of meat being pulled from the bone and the slurping of marrow.
“Why are they here?” Gallowglass said.
“To take him back maybe. I don’t know. What I do know is that if they get out of there, they’ll kill us...” Slowly, carefully, St. Cyprian sank to his haunches and, with his pistol still aimed at the things beyond the wall, began to draw his finger through the dirt. Swiftly he cut the shape of a sigil in the dirt. From the hole came what might have been a disgruntled sigh.
Licking his lips nervously, St. Cyprian scraped another symbol, and then a third. The sigh rose to a growl. “That should do it. Back towards the stairs; keep the light on them,” he said, rising to his feet.
“Whatever that was you drew, I think you made them mad,” Gallowglass said.
“As long as they stay mad in there, I’ll live with it,” St. Cyprian said. “Keep going. Hop to it.”
“I don’t hop,” Gallowglass said tersely.
“Do you want to be eaten?”
“Look at that! I’m hopping!” Gallowglass scrambled up the stone steps. St. Cyprian followed more sedately, his thumb on the Webley’s hammer and his finger trembling on the trigger. As he stepped through the door, he caught a last glimpse of them, watching him from the darkness, their eyes alight with cool, alien intelligence. Maybe they had been human once, but now...now they were something else entirely. Something malign and hungry.
He had a brief image of termite mound cities, stretching down, down into the depths like a reflection of the city whose underbelly they clustered about. Of dim white ape-shapes bounding through filthy sewer pipes and through jungles of human waste and crouching on the platforms of forgotten ghost-stations. Of pale fingers prying at sewer grates and toilet pipes.
We are here. We have always been here. And we always will be, those eyes seemed to say. Our children are among you already. And we will have back all that you have stolen. Then, one by one, they winked out, leaving him alone save for his fear and the stink of blood on the musty cellar air.
Once they were upstairs, St. Cyprian replaced Bunter’s bolts and locks, his pistol close to hand. Gallowglass watched him, with her own recovered pistol cocked and ready. “We’ll call in Stanhook and the Tunnel Authority. Let them seal it up. Should have probably let them handle it in the first place,” he said. He turned to her, his face pale and sweating.
“Was that them then?” she asked in a low voice, her eyes on the floor.
“Yes.” St. Cyprian collapsed into a chair. His eyes were locked on the door, though his pistol was pointed at the floor. He wondered if they were down there looking up at him. “Yes, that was them. Our delightful neighbours to the far south.”
“What was that he was going on about? Bells?” She looked at him, her eyes wide. “Was that them, do you think? Was that what he was talking about?”
“I don’t know,” St. Cyprian said. He closed his eyes wearily. “But I wonder how many more poor buggers hear the same bells Bunter did...or will?”
This story originally appeared in The Trigger Reflex.
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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