|Crossing Prologue: Silence
Author: Guede Mazaka
"Move. Come on, move for the Inspector. Quit gawking and be about your business." Godley pushed and shoved till the mob grudgingly rippled away from the doorway, then ushered Fred into the house.
Rather finer than the usual Whitechapel dwelling-apparently having only one lodger for the floor-but the rust stains lacing across the walls brought it down to code. Fred absently noted the awful smell of rotting flesh as he nodded to the constables guarding the body. Of more interest was the strange musty scent, not nearly as grit- and shit-laden as the district's standard aroma.
"Book-collector," Godley muttered, stepping up and sweeping a hand over what Fred had at first taken for trinkets, covered up with rags. They were in fact books, and the rags an extremely thick layer of dust. Coughs and sneezes went about the room, and even Fred had to pull out a handkerchief to shield his nose and mouth. The constables grumbled half-heartedly at Godley, but they seemed happy enough to have an excuse to slide into the hallway.
"Odd hobby for someone living here." Fred gingerly edged about the sticky pools of dark red and knelt down by the head. He glanced up to the chandelier directly above. The corpse was suspended by its feet from one of the iron branches, throwing the entire thing off-kilter so it groaned like the dying.
He could hear Godley's shrug, coat and shirt and scarf all rustling like withered grasses in the wind. "Odd death, too. Enrique Taillefer. French. Lived alone, didn't bother anyone up until he got strung up and his throat cut."
"Cut first, then strung up," Fred corrected. A white corner peeking from one of Borje's pockets caught his eye, and he eased out the folded sheet with a pen. "All the spray in the entryway."
"What's that? Did he leave a suicide note?" Godley abandoned his examination of the room in favor of reading over Fred's shoulder. As he did, the humor drained from his voice. "Someone actually expected us to take that seriously?"
"'I have erred, God help my poor misguided soul. 'The Nine Doors of the Kingdom of Shadows'-" marked out in quotations, so probably a book title "-I will burn it tonight, then surrender myself to heavenly judgment.'" Fred scanned the spider-crack lines one more time before handing the letter to Godley. He got up and checked the fireplace in the corner, which had been laid in as if for a substantial blaze, but never lit. No sign of any books, either.
From the other side of the room, Godley gestured at a shelf with one empty space in its crowded burden of tomes. It wasn't very big, but was still sizable enough to be suggestive.
Fred had never been terribly fond of suggestive, and after Victoria's death, he was even less so. All those visions of murders and rapes and other people's troubles, and not a hint of his own until it was too late. All those doctors' theories and medical opinions, and not a sign of a miracle.
"'cuse me, sirs," interrupted a voice from the door. One of the constables, now accompanied by the stretcher men. "Ready t'send him 'round t'the coroners?"
"Might as well. Godley, try to find a sample of Taillefer's writing, and get me when the coroner's report is in." The other man tried to say something, but Fred ignored the concern as usual and buttoned up his coat. He skated around the lingering onlookers and headed for the nearest opium den.
* * *
When the bell above the door chimed, Dean was under his desk, groping for his fallen pen. He smacked his head against the edge as he quickly backed out and stood up. Swallowing a curse, he put on his best imitation of helpfulness and looked for the customer.
A tall man, brown-skinned, lifted his scarred upper lip in what was probably meant to be a smile. He swung his satchel around and withdrew from it a slim volume, beautifully bound in black leather. Its only decoration was a silver pentacle engraved on back and front, but its condition was such that any more would have been superfluous. And when Dean opened up the book, he almost lost grip on his professionalism and gasped. As it was, his voice was slightly strained. "The Book of the Nine Doors of the Kingdom of Shadows. In perfect condition…"
"You're sure that that's what it is?" the other man asked.
"Well, that would be how the title page reads." Recovering himself, Dean assumed the qualified monotone he usually employed in discussing business. "If it is what it purports to be, then you've got quite a treasure on your hands."
Smile like a lightning bolt, and Dean involuntarily took a step back from it. "I see," the other said very slowly. "It could be a fake?"
"Considering how rare this book is, I'm afraid that's a very probable possibility." At this point, the normal procedure would be for the client to inquire about authentication services, and then for Dean to either invite them upstairs for a glass of wine, if they were passable female or forward male, or into the back office, if they were ugly or too straight-laced to risk Rule Victoriana's strict moral code on premarital activities.
To Dean's surprise, the stranger did neither. Instead, the man bid him a good night in a sooty voice, then quietly exited the store. The abrupt silence of the departure took Dean aback for a moment, but as his financial state was quite rosy, he soon shrugged it off and got back to work.
Barely ten minutes later, he was banging his knees on the desk and cursing to himself as he rose, a bit too quickly, to greet the policemen barging inside.
* * *
"As I've said to the other man, I was out of town the day Taillefer died, and in here the entire night. The grocer across the street can swear to you that I never left; he can see me through the windows." Corso's voice was very measured and modulated, but Fred thought he could detect a faint hint of annoyance beginning to emerge.
"He has, and we aren't trying to accuse you of anything. We're simply trying to get all the facts straight." The opium keen was crawling up Fred's nerves, an inch at a time. Odd shadows were fluttering at the borders of his sight, and the fingers of his right hand kept twitching. "You are one of the few book experts Mr. Taillefer seemed to have consulted-in fact, one of the few people he ever seemed to have spoken to. His murder seems to have something to do with a missing book of his, The Book of the Nine Doors of the Kingdom of Shadows."
When he smiled, Corso almost looked friendly. But the way the light glanced off his face, sharpening the angles, slotting sideways through his eyes, was too like the shine on knives for Fred to believe in innocence. He doubted that the other man had had anything to do with the murders-Corso struck him as having the self-preservation of a rat-but he also doubted that none of the business had landed on this doorstep.
"Understandable, I suppose. You mind if I…" Fred shook his head, and Corso lit himself a cigarette before going on. "So, Inspector Abberline. I take it you want to know about the book?"
"It would be helpful. A decapitated body in the back alley isn't going to help anyone," Fred remarked dryly as he got out his notebook and a pencil. The tip had broken off, and he was searching for another when one produced itself under his nose. This time, the curve of the other man's mouth was shaded with quite a bit of humor. "Thank you."
"My pleasure." Smoke ringed Corso's glasses, like an extra frame from a ghost world, and Fred had to clamp down on the surge in the dragon's call. "It's a very rare, very valuable book. Only three copies still exist, though even that's debatable. What is known is that in the mid-seventeenth century, a printer by the name of Aristide Torchia set down a supposed manual for summoning the Devil: the book you're now trying to track down. The Catholic Church was not pleased, and had him tortured and burnt, along with almost all copies of his book."
"Guess th'engravin' pictures were too frisky for 'em," called a constable from outside. From his station by the door, Godley barked out some rebuke, and the movements around the corpse recommenced. Corso didn't seem terribly upset by the interruption. On the contrary, something about it apparently provided a source of amusement for him.
"Ironic. In fact," the other man went on, "Legend says that Torchia's greatest crime was actually reproducing nine engravings in his book, from the Delomelanicon, which was supposed to have been written by Lucifer himself."
That raised an eyebrow, but Fred contented himself with noting down the details and a small comment. "A pity justice is above such matters."
"But is the law?" Corso laughed and took a drag off his cigarette, then twisted in his chair to blow a gray mass of tendrils into the wall. "Honestly, I do wish you good luck in finding whoever did this. As you say, headless coachmen in the streets aren't very good for business."
"Thank you. And if you should come across any more information-" Fred tore off a scrap and scribbled down the addresses to his station office, and to his rooms.
"I'll be certain to contact you." Corso took the proffered paper and stuffed it into a pocket, then gave Fred a perfunctory handshake before ushering him and Godley out the door.
* * *
The door opened, closed, and opened again. From its direction came the irritating tap of a bootheel on wood. "You know, if I didn't know any better, I would say that you didn't want to do this."
"I don't." Ahmed watched the spider on the ceiling connect another strand to the web it'd been weaving for the past two hours. "Books aren't my specialty. Men are."
"Well, luckily for you, that's why we're here." G's shoes clicked their way over to the couch, and her grin abruptly obscured his view. "Two of them are very nice-looking. And one's even psychic."
"Opium addict. The other's so deep in his business that he might as well be an addict to that." For extra emphasis, Ahmed scrabbled his copy of the Qu'ran from the bag on the floor and waved it at her. "The truly religious need no bodily pleasures."
She batted it away and tugged on his shoulder. "If you were religious, you would've died centuries ago. Come on. Those two I told you about? They've just been picked up by the Illuminati."
Damnation. Between them and the Masons, the weft of the world was going to fall apart faster than he could chant praise to Allah. Or the opening lines of the Ragnarok epic.
"All right. Let's go." Ahmed reluctantly got up and grabbed bag and cane.
* * *
Everything had just begun to haze over, and Fred reluctantly put down the pipe in favor of flopping back on his sedan. Except his back hit someone's hands. He glanced up, vaguely feeling like he should apologize, and then his throat choked. Rough cotton, shoved in and tied off, and when he tried to shove away, he only managed to put his head into a dark cloth bag. Struggling against the ropes sliding about his wrists, and the arms hauling him along, was like drowning in molasses.
Then the opium truly hit, and for once, Fred fought the dragon's devouring, fought to stay in the pain and the confusion. His body was too inured to the drowsy bliss, however, and soon he found himself inexorably wrapped in black numbness.
* * *
"Christ…" Dean dazedly propped himself up on his elbows, but a sharp kick to his ribs sent him sprawling back down. He gasped, and the hurt exploded from neck to waist, red streaking over his blurry vision. Glasses…knocked off with the first blow to the head, he suddenly remembered. Hands and ankles…bound.
"It's not here," a voice snarled from the shelves, furious as a wounded boar. "The skinny fucking-"
Someone hauled Dean to his feet, but he had no time to see his persecutors before a gag and blindfold descended on him. "Well, even if he doesn't have it, we can't leave him now. And he's on the police report. The Masons may try to speak with him," replied a second, more gravelly voice. "Take him down to the docks, and sell him with the other one."