June 16, 2006
The steady click of high heels was abruptly silenced as Mel stepped onto the thick, soft carpet of the reading room in Thames House. There were no shelves here, no stacks piled with well-thumbed books, no glass-fronted cases for old and fragile tomes – just tiny cubicles housing no more than rather threadbare armchairs and skew-legged end-tables.
She strolled with every seeming of nonchalance to a booth at the far end of the long, vaulted room and slid into the overstuffed chair, kicking off her shoes and tucking her feet up beside her. She glanced briefly at the intrusive red “No Smoking” sign on the wall, then rummaged through her bag, pulling out a softpack of Yeheuan filters and a jiffy bag sealed with thick layers of brown parcel tape. She glared at the sign for a moment, then slipped the cigarettes away again.
The fading scent of cigar smoke from the fabric of the chair made her smile as she gnawed the packet open – she’d always loved the rich, velvety scent of James’s cigars and now she could feel his fondness for it too.
It seemed odd, now, knowing what she knew, to think of him having such an innocent pleasure as the taste and smell of cigars and equally strange to find it such a simple and sincere emotion, untinged by sarcasm or cruelty.
A brief shard of memory struck at her; burning flesh, the sound of screaming, a moment of sadistic satisfaction. She pushed it down again, locked it away in the room in her head she kept for thoughts she didn’t want to look too closely at. A nasty little attic of bad decisions and confusing desires, sadly escaping far too often and too easily for them to gather dust.
A little part of her had wanted to stay with him. Now, she couldn’t get away from him.
She pulled a book from the envelope – a slender paperback, battered and dog-eared, wrapped in a cracked plastic library pocket. The cover read “The Black God of Madness” in stark lettering, somewhat obscured by old stains and watermarks.
Shoving her bag onto the table, she switched on the rather baroque lamp and settled down to read. The gentle fizzing of the lightbulb and the periodic crackle of paper were the only sounds.
The early pages were almost banal, but it saddened Mel a little to know that the days when she could dismiss psychics and mediums as ridiculous hokum were dead and gone. She was startled, too, to find the name of Harry Price so frequently mentioned as a leading parapsychologist of the day.
James sat in the chair opposite, resting one foot on his knee, and lit a cigar with the Zippo nestled in her pocket.
“Price, unfortunately, is just smart enough to be dangerous. We may have to do something about him soon.” He looked straight into her eyes over his sunglasses, crystal blue eyes cutting at her.
She looked back down at her book. “So you and Price didn’t get on. What a shock…”
A small fly alighted briefly on the faded lampshade. Mel snapped a fingertip hard against the taut fabric, flicking the insect back into the air where it resumed its endless zig-zagging in the centre of the room, a small black dot in ceaseless orbit of an unknown sun.
Minutes passed, the clock ticking a heavy, inevitable tempo from its niche under the vaulted ceiling. The sun slipped towards evening, the light climbing higher up the walls, shadows reaching up to chase it. Each turning of a page was preceded by a gentle susurrus as Mel slid her fingers down the dry paper. She found herself reaching into her bag, fingers curling instinctively around the Liber Alii. She lifted it out and settled it in her lap, one hand gently stroking the soft leather as she read.
She remembered vividly the argument with Will about whether it had been human skin. At the time, it had seemed preposterous. Now, it was merely irrelevant. The book had saved her life – and several others – often enough that she was beginning to regard it with some sentimental fondness.
My constant companion. My only friend. She laughed to herself, then looked up, a little startled by the way the soft sound echoed in the long room.
She physically flinched as she came upon the first mention of “Black”, the mysterious entity that had spoken through Alice Knell. She recognised the tone of its rantings, the way it framed conceptions of the inconceivable, and saw again, etched out in the light of the black and broken moon, the chained figure atop the ziggurat.
“Why are you chained?”
“It is my nature to be chained, until I am not. When the Black Sun comes, I will follow my Master to earth…”
The Black Sun…
A long shiver crawled through her skin, raising the fine hair on her arms and the back of her neck. Her pupils widened, spreading like a drop of ink splashing into a murky pool. James quirked an eyebrow and smiled nastily as her nipples hardened in the inner chill.
“Scared, are you? It suits you.”
“Shut up!” That was loud. Far, far too loud. She blushed, fidgeting, brushing her skirt smooth across her thighs and looking intently back at the book, then back at James, laughing mockingly from his remembered chair. “Has anyone ever told you that you’re a total cunt?”
“Only you, actually.” He casually went back to his cigar, flipping through a copy of “Psychology Today” with one eye still on her.
That used to be a real turn-on, the way he watched her all the time. After long sessions talking to the kid’s family, when she was pottering about the house, talking through the results while sorting out the details of her every day life, he would sit like that, leafing through some magazine or her notes, somehow apparently reading them while never taking his eyes off her, aware of every detail in the room. She’d be standing at the sink making a pot of tea, or typing up the details for her final report and she’d feel it, that stare, cool and unblinking, certain as a touch, and it would make her toes curl, raise that same crawling shiver he mocked her for now, though for far different cause.
Lesson 1, Mel. Try not to fall in love with anyone possessed by a sadistic alien moth. She sighed. He’d probably put the house under surveillance – she would have to have it swept for bugs. Then she remembered the placement of the listening device in the hotel and burst into laughter.
“You sad, sad fuck.”
He shrugged, untroubled. After all, he’d played her so very easily. She fought the memories down, didn’t want to know how he’d studied and manipulated her, played upon her weakness – just “something to do” while he hunted his enemies. Her fingers pressed into the cover of the book and she forced her eyes back to it, staring at the words with teeth-gritted focus.
The fly returned to buzzing round the lamp. She tried to ignore it.
There seemed to be a common necessity for violence in the deaths of the so-called souls that could speak through Knell after their deaths. She remembered Godot and his observations on the number of “real” people in the world, the rest being nothing more than fragments and reflections of those people. She mused for a while on how that might work, the concept of an “allotted span” for people who didn’t even really exist, just figments of the imaginations of the few real people who live, again and again, on this plane.
Then she pressed on, and began to understand. Small pieces, and a sense of greater things she couldn’t quite frame thought around. Her hands began to shake, and she fumblingly lit a cigarette to steady them, thoughts ranging in many directions as she tried to pull the fragmentary facts into a coherent image. James knelt at her elbow, running his hand along her goose-pimpled skin in mock-concern. She flinched violently, breaking into a sweat at this dual-fronted assault on her sanity. She pressed a hand across her mouth, hiding, forced herself to stillness, to pick up the book again. She pulled a cold rage from deep inside herself, took anger at her own weakness, self-despite, and twisted it outwards, used it as a shield against the tearing of her heart.
The “spirit”, Black, appeared to be some kind of repository of knowledge, almost a god of the dead. Its attendant Gibber-Jabbers… she had no ideas, but the thought curdled her stomach. There was something too familiar about it, perhaps simply the way they seemed to incarnate the madness she’d seen in the design of the underworld – the roads paved with bones, the eerie sight of that child’s bicycle locked within a cage.
The bluish apport that had manifested during the 5th controlled séance was intriguing; she would have to see if Pisces had obtained the sample, or try to acquire it from whoever held it now. Then the letters on the page resolved into a single name, and everything stopped. No trace of breath passed her lips, no tremble shook her fingers. Only her pupils, flaring wide then shrinking to tiny pinpricks, wanting not to see.
The witness. The voyeur. Orlando’s partner in crime; herald of the Black Sun.
The nasty little fuck who’d been waiting to see her tortured to death.
She couldn’t look away from the page now if she tried. The words scrolled from the page into her memory, one searing phrase at a time. Black’s comment that he did not exist yet, but would in the future, identified him clearly. Orlando.
This was bigger than she’d thought. Black didn’t sound like an assassin, though she could see that Alice Knell was delving where they would not want her to go. It didn’t sound like a High Priest either, conducting its sacrifices in the service of some unknowable god, though again she could see the resemblance. Then she remembered how the creature atop the ziggurat had spoken of its master – perhaps she was simply thinking too humanly?
But you aren’t human, you know…
“Yeah, I am.” She didn’t even realise she was speaking aloud. “There’s more to it than species.”
She flipped forward and read the end notes on the Elohim, the Aryan and the Virl with interest, but a certain amount of puzzlement, turning often back to the main text to try to place the information in some sort of context. The mention of the Aryan race at least explained why the Thule Society were working with Johnny Nero on this, but she’d never heard of the Virl as a race before, though it explained where the word “virile” came from. She couldn’t put it all together solidly, but she was starting to get an unpleasant suspicion… she would need to do more research.
The whispers in the dark: “Doesn’t she look just like her father?”
The sun had sunk too low to cast its light through the windows any longer – the flickering lamp cast a pool of palely orange light across the cubicle, holding the grainy grey shadows at bay. She turned through the pages with a heavy certainty of what was coming. She felt for Alice, and the fragile lives that surrounded her – the ones that would be left behind to deal with the pain.
Nonetheless, when she finally read of it, the shocking nature of Alice’s death left her stunned. There was no mention of the signature skinning, but perhaps Orlando’s methods varied with his whim. She remembered that Jack the Ripper was not notorious for skinning either – removal of the uterus had been his thing back then. Chappletown’s insanely babbled words slithered through her brain: “She was not strong enough to hold him.” Had they been foolish enough to try and summon him?
James leaned across her shoulder, imagined breath tickling her ear as he whispered “I don’t think that’s precisely what he meant.”
She shot forward, out of the chair, turning to face him with eyes wide, hand pressed across her mouth in alarm as she stared at him, then whirled and strode from the room.
Her head dropped as she remembered she couldn’t walk away from him, not any more. Not after what she’d done.
Cordor drew a deep breath from the cigar, letting the smoke curl slowly from his lips, smiling with every impression of warmth. “Emotional torture… I didn’t think it would quite be my sort of thing, but I have to admit, I’m really starting to enjoy it.”
She couldn’t even slap him.