Since ancient days, mankind has raised up walls against the wild at Edinburgh. Castle Rock reared high into fierce wet Scottish winds, a natural fortress augmented by a succession of forts and castles. Below the Rock, a lower, longer wall ringed the Medieval city, and stone houses stacked higher and higher as the people clustered within for protection: protection from the English, from robbers and smugglers, from animals. From other...things, in the wild. Just within this wall sits a bar called the World's End, the first refuge and the last stop.
As the Scottish conquered the wild beyond and made peace with the English to the south, they overspilled their wall and Edinburgh became a sprawling modern city of universities and factories. But still the World's End hunkered in the lowest floor of five stories of stone, half in and half out of the hill it was built on, cheery arched windows bright against the windy night.
Scott DeManincor followed the gleam of electric light and the wail of an abused fiddle to stop at the heavy carved door, straightening his tie and shaking the mist off his umbrella. He wore a battered plaid zoot suit from Cincinnati that broadened his shoulders with pads and tapered at the ankle to show off muddy two-tone brogues, a contrasting bowler hat he'd picked up at a second-hand shop, and a precocious blond mustache. Behind him, a bit wetter because he lacked his own umbrella, ambled his classmate Ashley Williams, who was swarthy where Scotty was fair, gangly where Scotty was tall, and haphazardly covered in a green quilted coat, brown corduroy trousers, and no hat. They both squinted as they entered the pub, as though that would render the babble within more decipherable to their American ears.
“There's the pig,” Ashley yelled, pointing across the pub to a mounted boar's head with protruding tusks. Below it, occupying an upholstered snug, waited a small dark-haired figure bundled to the nose in a faded brown duster and a green scarf.
They crossed the bar. The figure in the booth took no notice of them, so Scotty detoured to the bar and stopped to order a pint of their cheapest. Ashley followed suit. They approached the snug a few minutes later, growing accustomed to the electric lights, sipping the head from their bitter beers to avoid a spill.
“Evening, miss,” Scotty said. “You the secretary from the advert? Doctor Co—Coy—”
“Coello,” the woman said. Co-e-yo. “Doctor Esteban Coello. I am Elisabeth Moreau.” She had a foreign accent, Continental, and a bit of a lisp, but she was easier by far for Scotty to understand than any of the locals who claimed to be speaking English.
Scotty set down his pint across from Miss Moreau and scooted in. The snugs were not at all built for Americans. His knee bumped hers under the table. Ash scooted in after him, and left his legs slanted outside the snug where anyone could trip over his boots. “So as you'd imagine Doctor Coyello's offer's got us real interested,” Scotty set in, “fifteen shillings for a whole week in his hunting lodge, that's pocket money.”
“Twenty shillings up front,” the secretary cut in, her little black eyes narrowing. She had a streak of gray in her hair, but Scotty imagined she was a nice looking bird under all that wool. Well, she had a nice looking forehead. If she'd lose that scowl. “Doctor Coello will return five shillings on receipt of the documentation.”
“Yeah, you mentioned that.” He elbowed Ash, who was taking in the scenery and had managed to spill beer on the tabletop. “What's this experiment exactly? What do we do, how much time does it take?”
“Very little,” Miss Moreau said, the scarf over her face shifting with her lips and chin. She laid her hands flat on the table. No ring. No tan line, though that wasn't as reliable as it was in America with how little Scotty had seen the sun in his time at Edinburgh. “One of you must read a set of nonsense syllables. The transliteration is very clear—even to an American, I trust. The others must listen. Then each tenant must keep a daily diary.”
“But it's our vacation,” Scotty said. “Not to be too crude, but when a fella and his girl take a getaway—”
Miss Moreau hissed something foreign-sounding and rolled her eyes. “Write whatever you would permit an old Spaniard to anonymize for his academic peers,” she said. “Emotional impressions. Unusual events. It is a set of phonemes tuned to cause madness, so write it down if any of you goes mad.”
“Whoa, whoa,” Ash interrupted, stopping his survey of the liquor shelf. “Goes mad? Who goes mad?”
“More to the point, how many diary entries does he want and does it have to be every day?”
The secretary huffed behind her scarf. “Doctor Coello requests that you read aloud a rhyme, claimed by pagan priests of Ancient Sumer to produce insanity. A brief account of the day—a line or two should be sufficient.”
In Scotty's experience, things that seemed too good to be true were usually happy accidents. He elbowed Ash again. “Well, what'cha say, a quarter price stayaway with the girls just for writing a few lines and saying a nursery rhyme? How many rooms, lady?”
“Four, with one outbuilding.”
Ash shrugged. “Say, Cheryl doesn't have anywhere to go for break, think she can come along?”
Scotty swallowed five different snide remarks about Ash's hook-nosed dog of a sister, because Ash had a Scottish uncle whose car they had to borrow for the trip. “Guess there's room.” He drained his pint, then elbowed Ash until he got up from the booth and made enough room for Scotty to pry himself from the upholstered womb. The secretary stayed seated like a clockwork genie, watching them over the top of her scarf.
Scotty knew he had a streak of harmless mischief, an irreverence that drew people to him and upset them and kept them watching. Georgie Porgie, pudding and pie, kissed the girls and made them cry. It came out more when he was frustrated. As he left the snug, he reached out and twitched Miss Moreau's scarf down. She seemed frigid, he'd thought from the start. Bundled up like a Moslem girl from a movie.
She'd clearly been a looker at one time, twenty years younger, and before half her lips and cheek got burned off. A delicate, birdy kind of woman, with her large dark eyes. Now she looked like a skull. Her teeth were long and loosening, too, Scotty noticed. Couldn't be good for them to be exposed like that.
Scotty withdrew his hand and shot a grin at her, shrugging. She tugged the scarf back up over her nose, and if he thought she had the evil eye when they first sat down, that was nothing next to her expression now. “I get curious,” he said. “No harm done.”
“And now you are satisfied,” Miss Moreau said. The lisp in her voice was more obvious now Scotty could imagine the air hissing through her teeth as she spoke. “We are agreed that you will perform the exercises and stay at the cabin?”
“We are, miss. Thank Doctor Coyo for me.”
“You will find the incantation on the table in the front room,” she said. “Take care to pronounce each word correctly.”
“Sure thing.” Scotty inspected his hat as he headed for the door.
Behind him, Ash paused at the table. “I'm sorry about that,” he said. “Scotty can take a joke too far.”
“I have seen many jokes,” the secretary replied.
“Well,” Ash said, and Scotty turned around to see him looming awkwardly in front of the snug. “Good night. Hope Doc Coyo's research turns out.”
“So do I,” said the secretary, with that wasp-like stare.
“C'mon,” Scotty said, collecting Ash. “We gotta tell the girls.”
“Sure, and Cheryl.”
And they ducked out the door into the foggy night.
A loose hobnail in Isabel Maru's left shoe scraped and echoed as she hurried over the marble gallery that ran along the cloistered rectangle of the Old College. Great arches, Italian Renaissance by way of eighteenth-century Scotland, made her feel small and scrutinized. She kept her shoulders straight, her heavy valise awkward under one arm, her face muffled in an embroidered kerchief under her usual green scarf.
She had seen men suffering at her own hands before, screaming with empty eyesockets as they drowned on their own fluids: enemies, but inoffensive enemies who in peacetime would best be let alone to catch fish or pound nails or whatever their trades were. But Scott DeManincor could go to the devil. She would not even lose sleep over not losing sleep over him.
She left the library behind and the gallery took a turn as it passed a series of drawing rooms and faculty offices. She pushed her way into the cramped and cluttered office of Vyvyan Wink, a Doctor of Archaeology and Anthropology in charge of the excavations of the tombs and fortifications of Kan'Dar, an ancient and long-abandoned settlement within the Scottish Borders. Doctor Wink startled as she shut the door, absorbed as he was in marking up an article submitted by a rival Doctor of Anthropology from Glasgow for peer review. His curling white mustache was beginning to come unwaxed and floated a bit in the air with his movements. “Miss Moreau,” he greeted her. “Sit down, girl. I've no tea but I do have biscuits if I can find them.”
“Unnecessary. Thank-you. I came on behalf of Doctor Coello.”
“Of course. I wonder do you have any idea how brilliant a linguist your master is, wonderful lucky that he escaped Spain after that business with Franco. I have asked before—I would so enjoy meeting him, and so would my colleagues. The University would welcome him as an adjunct, I'm sure, nothing too demanding out of respect for his age—”
“Doctor Coello's health does not permit him to leave his apartment. Also he speaks little English and is an inveterate misanthrope.”
“Oh, I could call on him, only briefly—”
“He detests Britannia and everyone in it. Truly, Doctor Coello would be poor company and it worries me that a visit might precipitate a crisis of the nerves. It is ideal that your correspondence continue strictly by letters. Doctor Wink, Doctor Coello wishes to relay his grave concerns regarding the content of the Kan'Dar tome and its implications. He declares the text and its transliteration both are hazardous in extreme and must only be handled with the most vigilant caution.”
“Hazardous?” Doctor Wink echoed.
“In extreme. He is very certain.”
“I wish Doctor Coello would elaborate,” Doctor Wink said, when a knock at the door interrupted him.
A younger man with a deliberately tousled pile of brown curls over his forehead strode inside. Isabel ground her teeth painfully. “Hah!” the other man said, pointing at her. “You! You let that old coot steal my father's lodge in the Trossachs!”
“Mister Muir, have some respect,” Doctor Wink admonished him, as Isabel hissed, “He did not steal it, he found you a renter.”
“For chicken scratch! I don't know what a good hunting lodge goes for in Spain, but in a civilized country, a quid a night! A night!”
“I will pass on your objections to Doctor Coello,” said Isabel, levelly.
Professor Muir blinked at her. “Tell him never do it again!”
“I will pass on your objections.”
“He better not do it again!”
“I will mention it to Doctor Coello when I write him next,” Doctor Wink cut in. “I suppose they do things differently in Spain. But Miss Moreau, you mentioned he had concerns. Its authenticity of course is impossible, but has he deduced what era it really dates from?”
“To the contrary,” Isabel said, “It is authentic.” Doctor Wink looked up at her sharply, and Muir settled in to lean against one oak-paneled wall. “The script differs from Sumerian characters that survive on clay tablets, but it is obviously a variant for brush and ink. The grammar and style all belong to a single era. He assumed at first that it was a contemporary prank, given its perfect condition after your diggers retrieved it from a barrow south of Selkirk, but as a prank it is elaborate: the binding and parchments are all of human origin, the cover obvious and grotesque. But he does not posit a murderous modern bookbinder. The text is indestructible. Doctor Coello tested fire, water, acid, base, ultraviolet light, and pancreatic extract—on an inconspicuous area—and no damage occurred to the parchment or to the ink.”
“So some modern chemist did the tanning,” Muir interjected. Wink shushed him.
“Such a method is not currently known. It could be forgotten, as the Medieval builders forgot the Roman mastery of porphyry and concrete. Because the book is indestructible, it could have passed from conqueror to conqueror through ancient times until the Romans lost it near Hadrian's Wall, no less plausible than an elaborate modern fake written in perfect Sumerian. Doctor Coello's greatest alarm is its content. It purports to be a manual and record of demon summoning, for military applications.”
“I hardly think the Church of England will be as meddlesome as the Inquisition,” Wink said. “Its historic value far outweighs any offense at its pagan origins—whatever its true age.”
“It is authentic,” Isabel repeated. “Fire cannot consume it. Blades cannot cut it. Its content savors of truth. Not a horror story full of order and morality, but a detailed record of questions, work, failures, more questions. It describes incantations to summon predatory spirits from the world of the dead. Methods to contain and dispose of victims of such spirits, with varying success. Methods of recognizing those who are marked for possession, with varying success. Methods of averting the attention of the spirits, again with varying success. The book records an entire village destroyed by fire, and the soldiers who fired the village themselves destroyed by fire, in an unsuccessful attempt to contain the contagion of spirit possession. The book records reliable ways to call supernatural predators into the physical world, but no reliable or practical ways to remove them. It is filled with the bloody testament of eight separate authors.”
She took the opportunity provided by Muir and Wink's dubious silence to heft her briefcase onto Wink's desk with a thud. She pulled out two thick folders of typewritten pages. “You have his fee?”
“Of course,” Dr. Wink said. “Somewhere...ah!” He riffled through a pile of envelopes in a drawer and removed a cashier's check. “With my thanks.”
Isabel traded him the folders for the check. Dr. Wink began paging through them. “Parts are missing,” he said in confusion.
“The transliterations of the invocations to demons, and to create doorways to other worlds and times,” Isabel said. “Doctor Coello forbid me to give them to you yet. He is resolved to demonstrate the extreme hazard these words present so that the university is inspired to take proper precautions with his work. For that reason he has arranged an experiment to take place at Mr. Muir's father's hunting lodge during the May Holiday.”
“I will not have a bunch of deranged Spaniards in hoods trampling around my dad's place hanging dead goats from the trees!” Mr. Muir protested.
Dr. Wink shushed him again, paging from the transliteration to the translation.
“That is the elegance of these invocations,” Isabel said to Mr. Muir with a sardonic smile. “No sacrifice is needed to call demons into the world. But to force them out again? Infinite.”
Scotland's hills bulked close and steep on each side of the primitive road. Green grass and moss, gray sky, black basalt crags, here and there a wildflower or a little red cow, for variety. The wilderness seemed endless, not that it was truly so vast, but from its high and broken horizons and their monotony: this strange, glacier-carved country of sagging valleys and steep little mountains. It had been a long morning already, and it was not yet noon.
Isabel Maru puttered between potholes on a borrowed motorcycle, drenched with mist and splattered with mud. It was a whole week after she should have heard from young mister DeManincor and his friend. No diaries, no furious letters to Doctor Coello, no bodies. She needed documentation of some kind. Therefore she traveled over sixty miles by motorcycle, leaving at first light on a Saturday, to examine the hunting lodge in the Trossachs.
The bridge over the creek was out. That was what the postman had wired to her, but he had not disclosed why he hadn't crossed the little stream by foot to check on the cabin. She watched continually for the damaged bridge, but the roads were unfamiliar; as she took a curve down the side of a crag, the road took a sharp left toward empty air.
She braked and slid. The little motorcycle went right over, and she nearly got her leg mangled under it except for the safety bar. She managed to kill the engine and wriggle out from under it. Her leather boot was scorched where it had brushed the exhaust pipe on her fall, and her duster tore on the harsh gravel. Her elbow was wet under her ragged sleeve, and it stung. She gripped the motorcycle by the frame and heaved, unproductively. The hot useless machine lay stubbornly on its side in the gravel, and she felt very alone: a small woman, nearing forty, of no particular physical gifts, with no family, and in hiding from international justice. If she met some accident out here, no one would miss her any more than they had missed Mr. DeManincor and his friends.
The valley below was steeply grooved, narrow, and deep. A good modern steel-and-plank bridge had once spanned it. The bridge now arched toward the sky from the opposite bank, like a grasping hand; on her own side, it sagged down over the rocks toward the little stream.
She took a short walk back up the roadway on trembling legs. They were weak and stiff from fear and the long ride. She knelt by the motorcycle and removed her portable camera from the saddlebag—thankfully undamaged—and set up to photograph the bridge. She hoped the image would turn out. She was confident in the chemistry of photography, but not the technique or the art.
Checking the light meter and adjusting the exposure took a good ten minutes, and after Isabel had her exposures her legs felt stronger, though her elbow had begun to throb. She packed up the camera, then squatted beside the downed motorcycle and managed to pry it upright on a second attempt.
Leaving the ominously mutilated bridge, she hiked up one of the nearby hills overlooking the gully and settled on a path she ought to be able to cross on foot, where the stream had a broad cataract studded with large stones. Taking the motorcycle was out of the question. A good mule might manage it, but the priests in the book had cautioned that animals would refuse to approach the haunts of the spirits—unless they themselves had succumbed to possession.
She packed up her essential equipment—camera, sketch-pad, electric torch—and picked her way down the mossy damp hill in her stiff boots. The icy stream soaked her feet immediately as she fought the swift shallow current. On the opposite bank, she poured the water out, then squished stubbornly up the hill, back to the road.
The road continued to curve and wind its way through the hills and heather until it dove into dense pine woods. The light poured straight down through the trees, then began to slant: she had been walking an hour. Her feet, wet, stung and chafed within her boots. To pull off her boots and look at them would only force her to confront her blisters. Pain was so inventive, endlessly humiliating. The human body was so fragile. And yet, according to the priests, immortal creatures would cross worlds to possess one.
The cabin rose into view suddenly at the crest of a little ridge, in a clearing between the pines: a low, cheery little building with a rocking chair on the front stoop, and a woodshed at the side. Isabel stopped and stared at it a long while, taking it in.
Two broken windows. Jagged holes through the boards of the front door, at shoulder height. No car; the road continued beyond the cabin, so the students could have escaped deeper into the Trossachs, but Isabel would have expected them to return to Edinburgh by now. Freshly turned earth near the woodshed, a crude wooden cross fallen on its side on one of the two piles. A meat smell. A white sheet.
Isabel turned slowly in a circle, and approached the white sheet crumpled on the pine needles beside one of the earth mounds. It was soaked in blood. Bits of and flesh and long hair had dried into it. She considered taking it with her as evidence, but touching it made her uneasy. The priests never fully understood how the spirits chose their prey, how they transmitted their contagion. She set up her camera and photographed it, a long exposure in the shade of the pines.
A second hummock of disturbed earth, scattered at one end as though heaved up from below. A shovel abandoned on the ground, blood dried on the blade. The woodshed door ajar; she did not go in. Around the back of the cabin, more broken windows, the back door torn violently off its hinges and missing. A large tree stump freshly splintered as though felled by a bombshell, but the crown of the old tree nowhere in sight. A strange set of tire tracks that seemed to scrape sideways over the loam and vanish abruptly. Shingles torn off the roof, nowhere on the ground.
She photographed the tree stump, not knowing what else to do.
Somewhere in the cabin there should be the students' effects, the diary pages. She ought to at least go in and retrieve the slip of paper with the invocation. Burn it.
The trees creaked and sighed in the wind, all around; in other times she would tell herself that that sound was the reason she felt eyes watching her now and again, but not today. She pressed the amulet under her shirt against her skin, a fragment of human skull stolen from the anatomy museum, carved with a jagged pictograph and blackened with a mixture of burnt feathers and feces. It was described in the book as a shield against the attention of demons, with the caveat that the first to teach it to the priests was a demon itself. She told herself that the pinned-down, watched feeling was her own imagination. That the amulet had to work, that she had resolved long before she came that she accepted the risk of being killed, or worse, to prove her suspicions. But no one was truly ready for “worse.”
She lingered for a long time at the empty back door of the cabin. She saw a rug disturbed on the floor. An empty hallway. Gouges on the sides of the walls. The light within was too low for her camera.
Four doors opened onto that hallway from either side. She did not go in, but crept past, around the outside of the cabin.
Large low windows looked out onto the woods, would have shone bold in the night: there were only flimsy gauze curtains. The windows were low enough that Isabel could peer in, if she stood close enough to touch. She peered in, shading the glare of the sun from the glass with her cupped hands. Women's clothing crumpled on a chair. A rather nice grandfather clock, pendulum still swinging. Papers littering the room, mostly blank, a few pencil drawings. Nothing obviously a diary. Nothing worth entering the cabin for.
She looked over her shoulder into the pines before she moved to the next window. Nothing moving, no more piles of earth. Disturbed bracken and those same irregular tire-tracks leading behind the cabin.
The next window was shattered, long daggers of glass littering the interior and shining on the floorboards. Isabel saw a pair of trousers and a silk camisole. No papers, other than a Gothic horror novel bookmarked on the nightstand. Isabel was about to move on, still cautiously, when a man's voice from within said, “Who's there? Please! Help!”
Isabel froze. She saw no one visible. Perhaps they were in the drawing room. Or across the hall. Or the cellar.
“My leg's broken,” the man continued. “I can't move, I've been here for days. Please! Somebody!”
Isabel shot another wild look over her shoulder, careful not to scuff her feet on the pine needles. She squatted below the window, breathing shallowly through her scarf. It was an American accent, or possibly Canadian. It could have been Scott DeManincor.
“I was attacked. With an ax! It was my pal from school, Ash Williams. He just went crazy. Like a devil got into him. He chopped up my girl into little pieces, and then his girl, and then his bitch of a sister, and then he tried to get me.” The voice paused after this story, waiting for a response. “I'm lucky to be alive, you know.”
Isabel would have believed it—this was the reaction the priests described—had not the speaker's voice been so strong after being abandoned alone for a week without medicine.
“I know you're there.” The man's voice turned calculating, rather than desperate. “I just can't quite see you. Say something!”
Isabel clutched the amulet to her chest, heart pounding. Her chest hurt. Her father had died that way, just complained of pain, keeled over, and passed in the night wheezing and gurgling. She struggled to calm herself. She refused to die here. The priests were very clear on this: the spirits entered the dead easiest of all.
“It's okay, I can figure it out. You're that bitch from the pub. You had Scotty here read that paper. I bet you were picturing it, all five of us sitting around the dining table holding hands and lighting candles, big black magic power. Well that's not how it went. Scotty dared Ash to say it as a tongue twister. They said it back and forth. Drunk as skunks, so it took a dozen tries before one of 'em said it properly, and then the sister started screaming. Scotty chased her down the hall chanting it until Ash begged him to lay off.”
Isabel took a long, resigned breath. These were twenty-year-old university students. Of course they would repeat the “aural inducement to psychosis” over and over again as a game. Of course they would leave their diaries unwritten until the night before they returned to Edinburgh for their refund. There was no documentation here to be had, except Scotty, who was too dangerous to be moved, and likely could not be photographed any more than the damned book could.
“So what'd you plan to do with us now you called us here?” Scotty asked, flippant. “Can't exactly fix your face for you, Doctor Poison. You re-entering the war crimes business? Getting revenge on Great Britain for your dead master?”
Isabel moved. She eased away from the cabin on all fours, moving soft and steady, crushing grass and pine needles with shaking limbs.
“He the only man willing to fuck you, was that it? That all it takes for your undying devotion? Hey, Scotty's a man, and he'd fuck anything from behind. You got any clue how low that bar is?” The voice laughed, the register sliding deeper, echoing. But with that idiotic statement, the spirit proved that it could not see into Isabel's mind at all. It had only conjecture, and the advantage of being smarter than its host.
Isabel rose to her feet and scrambled on shaking legs away from the cabin. She got twenty feet before she tripped and landed hard, right into a sprouting pine. With a gasp, she kicked out, losing herself to panic.
There was a loose wire on the ground, tangled around her feet. A slim cable wrapped in grease-paper, running from deep in the woods to disappear through a little hole freshly bored through the wall of the cabin, into the drawing room. It was hung on her clumsy boot, and she had to reach back with her hands to free herself.
Isabel picked herself up and left. Down the road, down the gully, through the stream. Back to the motorcycle, sixty miles over the throat of Scotland, back to Edinburgh. Elbow and feet bleeding. The amulet itching beneath her shirt.
It was sunset when Isabel returned to the garret she supposedly shared with Doctor Esteban Coello, the famous Babylon scholar. He had not, in fact, escaped the recent unpleasantness in Spain. But in a burgeoning civil war, it was difficult for the international antiquarian community to keep track of who had fled and who was dead.
She took her boots off and tracked blood over the floor, made tea, and poured a shot of brandy into the creamer she used to tip liquids into her mouth. Yanked off the revolting amulet and wrapped it in an old handkerchief. Snorted two pinches of snuff, and felt the tobacco soothe her starving nerves. Turned on the radio; a detective story was playing. Soaked her feet in epsom salts and benzalkonium chloride, with a pinch of cocaine to numb them. Cooked her usual supper of rice and cod flakes with canned spinach. Poulticed her dry gums with sorbitol.
When her hands were steady and her feet bandaged, she took the camera into her improvised darkroom and fixed the negatives, then exposed them onto good eight-by-ten sheets of photograph paper under dim red light. A few wasted attempts, and then she had images in reasonable focus and contrast. She hung them up to dry, carefully exited the darkroom, trickled a second brandy into her mouth, and went to bed.
In the daylight, Sunday, the images looked laughably benign. A bridge torn up, out of focus, could be a child's miniature. A hummock of dirt that could barely be seen in the slanting light through the trees, a freshly turned garden bed. A dirty sheet. A tree struck by lightening. A damaged doorway. Perfectly unremarkable photographs except for their poor technique, and the curling, heat-lens orbs that appeared in some of the exposures, in different places even in exposures from the same negative. Isabel knew that she had not wrinkled the paper while she exposed it, nor had the developer chemicals formed drips. They were the same orbs that obscured every image she had attempted to take of the Kan'Dar Tome.
She telephoned the Glasgow police station from a public call box, claiming to be the secretary of a well-known news reporter, and asked whether any bodies or injured persons had come from the Trossachs. Few people were using the call box that day, so she waited an hour for the call back, leaning against the glass in the weak sun. At last the police secretary rang back, and said no, nothing unusual was reported in the Trossachs lately, a few drunkards and a domestic dispute, and could he ask what inspired the inquiry? Isabel hung up. She trudged home and spent the rest of the afternoon studying for her upcoming pharmacology exam. Doctor Coello's translation work was meant only to fund Elisabeth Moreau's studies. Not to endanger Isabel Maru's life and sanity. She had to maintain her long-term perspective.
Lecture, lecture, lecture. Break in the library. Examination—mostly chemistry, thank whatever gods exist, rather than biology: chemistry it was possible to understand, while biology no one understood but plenty would lie and say they did. Lecture. Pitying glances from younger students. Lecture. Sirens: a fire truck screaming by just beyond the campus. Home for supper. An hour reviewing her notes—taken in English, summarized in Spanish. A few minutes in her personal journal, a coded hodgepodge of Akkadian and Urdu. Over the May Holiday I performed a lethal human experiment (5 subjects), and failed to document the outcome.
She woke in the small hours of the morning, unable to sleep. Turned on the desk lamp and composed a letter from to Dr. Wink from Dr. Coello, requesting a meeting via his secretary Miss Moreau. Slipped it into interdepartmental mail the following morning. Two days later, no answer.
She visited the History and Archaeology department, and learned that Dr. Wink was absent with no word on when he would return. His mail box overflowed.
Whatever had happened, had happened at least a week ago. She went to lecture all day, staved off dinner with a bag of roast nuts, and walked East off the University campus. All the buildings in the old town were tall, and their shadows stretched across the narrow brick streets by early evening. She passed through an old stone gateway, a remnant of the Flodden Wall that once curtained the old city, out onto Pleasance Street, where the architecture was marginally more recent.
Doctor Wink rented a townhouse in a very upscale court off Pleasance Street, conveniently near the university but not so near that drunken students had an excuse to holler in the streets below after midnight, as they did below Doctor Coello's garret. Isabel scanned up and down the high row of narrow homes of varying age and style, all packed shoulder-to-shoulder on each side of the street to form a deep shadowy canyon of human habitation. Two bottles of milk sat on the front stoop.
Absent, then. Isabel climbed the front steps, peered into the lace-curtained window: utterly dark. She tried the door: locked. She knocked, so that the neighbors across the street would see her knocking, and stepped down to examine the coal chute. Half-full; it must be piled up in the cellar.
She was about to leave, contemplating whether and how to bring Doctor Wink’s disappearance to the police, when the door swung open. Mr. Muir leaned out, wild-eyed, unshaven, his neck wrapped in a woman’s silk shawl. “You!” he hissed, pointing at her. “Get inside!”
When she backed away, he jumped down the stairway and grabbed her roughly by the upper arm. He hauled her into the townhouse as she pawed about under her jacket with her free hand. As he shut the door behind them, she finally got her .25 pistol unholstered and trained on him.
“Put that away, I'm in no mood,” he said, raising his hands before her snakelike stare. His clothes were torn and bloodstained under the shawl. The house smelled of sulfur and putrescein. “I'm a desperate man today. Whatever that fuckin' book is, it works. Your doctor proved his fuckin' point, now get him for me, he needs to undo it.”
The front windows of the house were boarded up from within, crudely, using scavenged doors and bits of furniture, trapping the curtains against the windows and leaving the house near-normal from without. The entryway and drawing room were all upset, tables and armchairs piled against the walls, carpets in disarray, a mirror and a curio cabinet smashed.
“How,” Isabel demanded.
“Well that's a job for a Middle Eastern scholar with an interest in the unholy, isn't it?” Mr. Muir turned away from her and marched down the hall, checking each corner as he passed it. “Stick close.”
“No,” said Isabel, rooted in the entryway. “How did the effect occur here.”
“Microphones,” Mr. Muir hollered from out of sight. “My brother's an electrical engineer. Was. Fuck it all and God rest. He wired Dad's place, and we took shifts listening, me, Tommy, Wink, Wink's missus. Couple students.”
A scrape and a pounding noise from the floor above.
“That'll be Mrs. Wink now,” said Muir, stomping back up the hall.
Isabel swayed backward and cranked on the front doorknob, losing a fingernail as she struggled to escape Wink's house.
“Funny story with that door,” Muir said, swinging back into view, cornering her in the entryway. He had a blanket over one arm now. “You have to lean on it a certain way.” And he flung the blanket over her head.
Isabel fired, blind. But she seemed to hit nothing; Muir fell upon her, eighty kilos to her fifty, and he immobilized her arm. She fired again, and then his big hand got her pistol and yanked it from her grip, the trigger-guard scraping the skin off her knuckle.
“I told you I'm in no mood,” he growled. He picked her up over one shoulder. Isabel pounded him in the chest, wriggled, panted under the blanket. He carried her down the hall, dropped her on her feet in a cluttered study hung with ceremonial masks. A telephone waited on a desk. “Call your doctor.”
Isabel felt the wind on her tongue, knew her jaw was exposed. Her scarf had fallen down. Muir looked likely to strike her if she moved to fix it. “Doctor Coello does not leave his apartment. His health, and his temper—”
“You'll get your Doctor Coello,” Muir interrupted. “Have your landlord drag him out. Just get him here. Or,” and he dropped his right hand to his cavalry saber, “I'll cut you apart bit by bit. Like I had to do to Tommy. Except I'll stop once the good Doctor walks in the door. Call him.”
“He does not speak English!” Isabel protested, hearing her voice go shrill. “He cannot simply walk here, he cannot call a cab, he has no telephone—”
“Your genius linguist, who translated an Akkadian text as thick as an encyclopedia inside a week, and rented my Dad's cabin to a bunch of dupes the next week, and haggled Wink out of half his consultation budget, is housebound with no telephone.” Muir grabbed a student essay from Wink's piles, licked the nib of a fountain pen, and slashed careless marks over the blank side of the paper. He turned it around and waved it in her face.
It was the same modified Sumerian signs that filled the Kan'Dar Tome. Poisoner will join us now, it read. Our conquest will be eternal.
Understanding shocked her. Muir caught it, and instead of haggard, his expression flashed sharp, vindicated. “Klaatu! Barada!” she cried, backing away, but Muir caught her again—he was fast, not like a mortal man, but like a shadow-puppet. He jammed his fingers between her painful teeth. She bit down to bone. He grinned above her, his eyes rolling white. Something oozed into her mouth, something that was once blood.
“Naughty, naughty,” Muir said. “Well, that's a weight off my mind, how many on this island can read that book. There's dangerous stuff in there.” He gripped her by the jaw like a fish, bruising under her chin, dirty nails tearing under her tongue. Isabel fought as he dragged her up the stairs, with fists and nails. The shawl around his neck came loose, revealing a black and jagged bite wound through his windpipe. When she snatched at his saber, he pounded her head against the wall.
The electric lights tilted and bled. Her efforts faltered.
He marched her through the second floor, toward the bay window at the east end of the house, which was dark: the sun was setting, and the streetlamps below seemed dim, stifled by dense North Sea fog. The smell of rot was stronger up here. A woman fluttered over, hands raised in curiosity—a decaying wolf-fanged crone with fungus instead of eyes, claws raised in anticipation, and Isabel cried out, kicked.
“Just tidying up our loose end, Mrs. Wink,” Muir said. They stopped at the window.
“Look,” Muir said, forcing her face to the glass. “The black. Outside. You fear it, you know it looks for you. It heard the call here. It knows to come, it's done it before; we're outside the wall, see, you're in our territory.”
Isabel shook her head. She could feel eyes on her, the animal stare of Mrs. Wink behind her, but before her, drifting, writhing in the darkening mist, something else, unseen.
Don't look, she knew. The priests repeated this in several chapters: the spirits in the wild could take men whether they looked or not, but always took the ones who looked first. They liked to see them scream. Muir had her by the jaw. Her head spun, her hands were clumsy and slow, she was too far to reach Muir's saber. And she felt the gaze drawing closer and closer. She heard something like a gale howling through distant pines, falling and rising. She felt the chill of the black window before her face. The weight of the spirit's attention made her skin shudder and her bones hum. It was drawing close. It was here.
She looked. She screamed.
The window shattered.