“This is the third time tonight we’ve driven down this road,” Ebe Gallowglass said. Her petite, lean frame was shoved back as far as it could go in the Crossley’s passenger seat, her feet pressed against the windscreen.
Gallowglass was somewhat feral looking, with black hair cut in a razor-edged bob and a battered flat cap resting high on her head. She wore a man’s clothes, hemmed for a woman of her small stature, beneath a heavy convoy coat. Cairo street-charms and Celtic rune-stones hung from a twine bracelet on her wrist.
“It was your idea to come to Dartmoor in the first place,” Charles St. Cyprian said as he guided the automobile around a curve in the road for the third time in as many hours. “Hairy Hands, you said. It’ll be a public service, you said.”
“I never said that!”
“Something like that, at any rate.” In contrast to Gallowglass, St. Cyprian was tall and rangy with an olive cast to his features and hair just a touch too long to be properly fashionable. He wore a battered officer’s greatcoat over a well-tailored suit straight from Gieves and Hawkes, in Savile Row.
He leaned forward over the Crossley’s wheel, trying to see through the thick evening fog that obscured the road. The Crossley’s headlamps were more hindrance than help, given the viscosity of the weather. The light didn’t pierce the fog so much as splash across it. “It’s hardly my fault the local bogey has gone to ground.” He glanced at her. “It probably heard we were coming and hopped the Channel, what?”
Gallowglass rolled her eyes. “How can a pair of bloody hands hear anything?”
“They certainly know when people are driving along this road, according to the stories. Maybe they hear vibrations in the aether. Theories, Ms. Gallowglass, abound.”
“Theories.” Gallowglass snorted. “You didn’t even know about this one until I told you.”
“No, but I am the Royal Occultist, and as such, capable of formulating theories at the first whisper of a ghost’s shroud across a paving stone,” St. Cyprian said. “I—AH!” He twisted the wheel, nearly taking the Crossley off the road and into a tree in his effort to swerve around a sudden dark shape that had scampered across the road. “What the devil was that? A pixie? A headless horseman? Dear God, was it a black dog?”
“Badger, innit?” Gallowglass said, unperturbed by the near-calamity.
“A black badger?”
“Well, that’s rather disappointing.” St. Cyprian sat back in his seat and sighed. They had been on Dartmoor for more days than he liked to count, investigating a local apparition with the unimaginative, sobriquet of ‘the Hairy Hands’. The entity, which took the form of a pair of disembodied hands, was said to appear on the stretch of road between the hamlets of Postbridge and Two Bridges. The hands were said to appear suddenly, snatch the steering wheel or handlebars out of the hands of the unfortunate motorist or bicyclist, and cause them to crash.
Hairy Hands was only one of Dartmoor’s substantial population of bogeys, bogles, black dogs and beasts unknown to science. Every tor, bog and river had its own cast of diabolical characters attached to it. Most weren’t real. Of the rest, a majority kept to out of the way spots or lonely, unused stretches of ancient road where the average Briton would never run afoul of them. Some, however, were a clear and present threat to public safety, and had to be dealt with as soon as they stuck their knobbly heads over the parapet.
Unfortunately, that was easier said than done. The Hairy Hands were proving to be fairly elusive beggars. They had driven back and forth from Postbridge several times a night, for several nights.
During the day, St. Cyprian had consulted every source of information on the apparition, and on Dartmoor itself, trying to find some thread that would lead to an explanation or understanding of what they sought. Dartmoor was dotted with sites of ancient meaning. None of them seemed to have anything to do with the Hairy Hands.
There were stories aplenty about ghostly escapees from Dartmoor Prison and devils imprisoned in the stones of the clapper bridge that Postbridge took its name from, but the Dartmoor ghosts were bound to the moors, and the only thing in the clapper bridge was a family of river voles.
St. Cyprian wondered if the apparition were bound to whatever path had existed before the road, maybe some old guardian spirit that had grown confused or irritable by the onset of the motorcar. Or perhaps it was a forgotten god, worn down to a miniscule nub of hostility, lashing out at travellers who were centuries removed from the folk who had once paid it homage.
Then, it might also be nothing more than a mass hallucination or a convenient excuse for irresponsible motorists.
The latter didn’t cause him much concern. Dartmoor had been an excuse, more than anything else, to get out of London, and a long overdue one at that. It had been almost two months since he and Gallowglass had put paid to a monstrous doppelganger of Jack the Ripper, and almost died in the process. There had been other cases in the meantime, one after another, all of which had prevented he and Gallowglass from leaving the city, including an incident at the Voyagers Club, of which the less said, the better.
“Think that box of yours will do the job?” Gallowglass said, prodding him from his reverie. She gestured at the back seat, and the square box that occupied it. The box had been crafted from bronze plates that had been decorated with a strange cuneiform script and a profusion of sigils that had gone out of fashion before Atlantis had taken the big dip. It had been made by priests and artisans in ancient Babylon for the express purpose of confining devils, or so St. Cyprian’s predecessor had sworn.
“I should hope so. If we’re to have any hope of corralling our phantasmal phalanges, that devil-box is our best bet.” She looked doubtful, so he went on. “Carnacki used it once or twice, during my tenure as his apprentice.”
“And it worked?”
“Yes.” He hesitated. “Well...maybe.”
“Maybe,” Gallowglass repeated darkly.
“Technically, it did something.” He sucked on his bottom lip and said, reluctantly, “Possibly nothing; this ain’t exactly an exact science, what?”
Gallowglass made to reply, but was interrupted as something dark and hunched was caught by the Crossley’s headlights. “Badger,” she yelled.
St. Cyprian twisted the wheel. The dark shape moved, bounding forward. There was a sound like a weight striking the hood of the motor car and then something wet and foul struck the windshield. A moment later, two impossibly strong, hideously contorted hairy hands fell upon St. Cyprian’s own, like cats pouncing upon mice. They wrenched at the wheel, as if seeking to pull it out of his grip.
“It’s not a badger. Get the box!” St. Cyprian fought for control of the wheel. The phantom hands tore at his own with cracked nails and impossibly strong fingers, but he ignored the pain and held tight to the Crossley’s steering wheel.
He felt a weight on his shoulders, as if something were straddling the steering wheel and shoving its feet against him to push him away, and he thought he could hear soft gibbering snatches of what might have been words or curses, though they were in no language he recognized.
Gallowglass had squirmed into the backseat and retrieved the devil-box. She flipped it open and jabbed it towards St. Cyprian. However, nothing happened. No sudden cessation of the inexorable pressure on his shoulders, no vanishing hands, and the Crossley was still weaving drunkenly back and forth across the road. “It’s not working,” he barked.
“Colour me shocked,” Gallowglass snapped. She banged on the box.
“Why isn’t it working?”
“How the bloody hell should I know? It’s not my box, is it? Is there a magic word or something?” Gallowglass shrilled, still pounding on the box. Something tittered in St. Cyprian’s ear, and the Hairy Hands grasped his wrists. The sharp, ragged fingernails dug into his flesh and he let go of the wheel instinctively. Just as instinctively, he grabbed the rear brake lever and stamped on the pedal that controlled the front. The Crossley juddered to an abrupt halt and slewed sideways across the muddy road.
Gallowglass was catapulted forward by the sudden stop, the box still in her grip. St. Cyprian caught a final glimpse of the Hairy Hands, rising from the wheel like startled, ugly doves, before they were swallowed up by the devil-box, which snapped shut as it crashed through the windshield, bounced across the hood and fell into the road with a heavy thump.
St. Cyprian blinked and exhaled shakily. He looked at Gallowglass, who hung across the back of his seat in an undignified fashion. Her legs began to flail as she tried to push herself up, using his head and shoulder for leverage. “Ow, stop, stop it!” he said, batting at her.
She ignored him, and propelled herself onto the backseat, where she let out a breath of her own. “Think we got it?” she asked, reaching over his shoulder to snatch her cap up from where it had fallen.
Before he could answer, they heard a thump from outside the Crossley. The devil-box bounced and shuffled across the road in front of them, as the entity inside tried to claw its way out. “Yes, I’d say so." St. Cyprian looked at his assistant.
“The only question now is...what the devil are we going to do with 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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