Maida Vale, London, 1920
Robert Gladstone approached the ancient lead coffin that occupied the centre of his wine cellar, the night’s sacrifice clutched to his chest and the straight razor heavy in his plump hand. The black rabbit twisted in his grip, its claws digging into the fabric of his dressing gown, but he’d had enough practice by now not to let it squirm free. 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.
From above him, the sound of music drifted down, and the muted noise of the party he was ostensibly hosting. Pyjama parties were in fashion this month, and upstairs everyone was in their dressing gowns and evening wear, dancing to a Christmas tune, several weeks late. The bubbly was flowing freely and the servants were being run ragged, keeping the guests intoxicated and happy. And in the morning, when he claimed that he’d been among them all night, they’d be too muzzy headed to say otherwise.
Gripping the rabbit tightly by its ears, the heavy-set man held it up over the coffin and prepared the razor. One swift slice and the rabbit would kick out its life blood over the mummified shape, awakening it from its monstrous catalepsy once again, to ravage and kill at his behest.
“One more,” he whispered to himself, “Just once more and then I’ll sink you and your blasted coffin into the Thames, where you belong, and no one the wiser.” The thing’s papery eyelids twitched, as if it had heard him. It probably had. “What is not dead, and all that rot,” he muttered.
The double click of a revolver being cocked brought his train of thought shuddering to a sudden stop. “That is not dead which can eternal lie and with strange aeons, even death may die, is the quotation you’re looking for, I believe.”
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.” In contrast to Gladstone’s sedentary bulk, the newcomer was tall and rangy with an olive cast to his features and hair just a touch too long to be properly fashionable. His suit was a Savile Row original, but the battered ‘British Warm’—the officer’s greatcoat—he wore over it still bore the stains it had accrued in the trenches of the Somme. 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!”
“I’m afraid I can’t do that. You’ve been quite naughty, Gladstone. Up to some devilish larks, what?” the intruder drawled. He tilted his head to peer past Gladstone at the coffin sitting on its bier of decorative casks. “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. 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. You won’t, and for a number of reasons,” St. Cyprian said. “Not least of which being the 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. “How do you know so much about me?”
“It’s my business to know,” St. Cyprian said. “Just like it’s my business to know that you’ve hung your cap with the Order of the Cosmic Ram, of late. Do come away from that coffin, if you please. We don’t want the sleeper to awaken, as it were. Quite nasty, your average lemure—hard to control and excessively malignant, even for a cannibal corpse.”
“You can’t have him! Not yet—I require his services for one night more.”
“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 was it tonight then, Gladstone, another of the Order’s enemies?” Gladstone blanched. St. Cyprian smiled thinly. “I told you, Gladstone...it’s my business to know everyone who’s anyone in these circles, especially when something reeking of Regent’s Canal and rabbit’s blood begins throttling them in their own homes. So who was it—Warwick, maybe, or Ogilvy?”
“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, Miss 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 wore a man’s clothes as well, hemmed for a woman of her small stature. Cairo street-charms and Celtic rune-stones hung from a twine bracelet on the wrist of the hand that clutched 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. In his agony, the other man had leaned over the coffin, bracing against it with his wounded hand. Now his wrist was held in a leathery grip, and the grotesque maw of the mummified thing was clamped over his bleeding digits, its sunken cheeks flaring like a bellows as it greedily sucked at the red stumps.
Gladstone shrilled and tried to pull away, but the creature was having none of it. One withered talon still clamped about his wrist, it grabbed his throat with the other and squeezed. Pasty flesh tore and gave way to red ruin as Gladstone’s twitching body slumped over the coffin. “Well, there’s something you don’t see every day,” Gallowglass said.
“Thankfully,” St. Cyprian said.
Covered in its former owner’s life’s blood, the dead thing turned and, as if in reply, 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 as it examined St. Cyprian. Then, with a scrape of leather on stone, it sprang for him.
St. Cyprian stumbled back, and the Bulldog gave a bark before a swipe from a long, 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 as he fumbled in his pockets. Then, abruptly, it lost its grip on him as it was swatted backwards.
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 as the cylinder emptied its final shots into the dead man.
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.”
“Lucky thing one of us read up on what Ovid had to say about Roman revenants,” St. Cyprian coughed as he scrambled to his feet, rubbing his throat. He stuffed a hand in his pocket and retrieved a flat, round 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 amulet thrust out before him. The mummy stepped back, hands raised as if to ward off a blow. Its teeth chattered, as if it were trying to speak. It made an abortive lunge, but retreated before the amulet, falling back towards its coffin.
St. Cyprian repeated the intonation, and at the sound of each name, the thing squirmed as if it were being prodded by a branding iron. With obvious reluctance, it slithered back into its toppled coffin. He gestured to Gallowglass. “Find the lid—hurry!”
Gallowglass spotted the lid leaning against the wall and heaved 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. Then, with a brutal shove, he forced its jaws closed. The brown teeth dug into the soft metal.
He hopped back with alacrity as Gallowglass stumbled forward, unbalanced by the weight of the lid, and dropped it 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. Perspiration coated his features, and he’d gone pale. He looked at Gladstone’s body and shook his head. “Poor dumb fool,” he muttered. It was small consolation that Gladstone had merely suffered the fate he intended for his next victim. Death was never pleasant, regardless of who actually did the dying. The War had taught him that much. With a shiver, he looked down at the coffin.
“Nasty bugger, wasn’t he? That amulet will keep him snoozing until we can put him back wherever Gladstone had him dug up—near Ealing, probably. Lots of Roman remains dug up during the extension of the Central Line, as I recall.”
He reached into his coat and fumbled free a silver cigarette case. Popping it open, he stuffed one between his lips. They were hand-rolled by a Moro woman in Limehouse who only had five customers, one of whom was him, and she charged just shy of a man’s soul for her concoctions. The cigarettes were more than just tobacco, though he hadn’t yet figured out what was in the blend. He had a feeling there’d be dacoits outside his window and scorpions in his bed if he ever did. He sat down on the ancient casket and peered at his assistant. ”I also seem to recall telling you that bullets weren’t going to be of any help here.”
“Didn’t hurt,” Gallowglass said, sliding off the coffin to lean against it. She reached up and snapped her fingers, not looking at him. St. Cyprian made as if to argue but then passed the case to her and released a shaky sigh. He bowed his head.
“No, I suppose not,” he said. His bones ached and his head felt heavier than it ought to have. Magic, even something as simple a binding incantation, was never an easy matter. Sometimes it took more out of him than he expected. Still, it had its uses.
He lit his cigarette, after scraping a match on the coffin. The first spurt of smoke into his lungs soothed some of the aches and pains. The rest could wait until he managed to get his hands on a stiff belt of something suitably alcoholic. Upstairs, the party sounded like it was in full swing. He wondered whether anyone would notice Gladstone’s absence. He decided it wasn’t likely.
“Sounds like the party is still going,” Gallowglass said, lighting her own cigarette.
“Want to go for a tipple?” she asked. He looked at her without replying. Gallowglass looked around at the wine cellar. “In that case, think anyone would miss a bottle or two?”
St. Cyprian patted the coffin. “Probably,” he said, “But I’d say we deserve it.”
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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