“I want the unbent truth, Ozzy,” St. Cyprian said.
“Fine way to treat a man who saved your life!” Rawdon said.
“Ozzy, it’s because you saved my life that I didn’t turn you away the minute a certain word tripped from those bud-like lips of yours.” St. Cyprian frowned. “In itself, that tells me everything I need to know, really.”
“You don’t know anything,” Rawdon protested.
“I know you, Ozzy. And I know what’s after you. What I don’t know is why it’s chosen now to bring you to bay.” St. Cyprian stabbed the poker into the fireplace again. Then he pulled it loose and examined the smouldering tip. “Now, I say again, why exactly is the Krampus after you, Oswald?”
The fire gave a pop, and Rawdon jumped in his chair. He visibly fought to control himself. “It’s obvious, isn’t it? I’ve been bad.” Rawdon stared down at his hands. “That’s why. I’ve always been bad, and it’s always been after me and now, now, it’s finally caught me.
“It was my gran who first put it on my trail, I’m sure of it, Bavarian biddy that she was. Did you know she was a Kraut, Charles?” Rawdon shook his head. “Hardly matters now. Besides, go back far enough, and most of the great families of fair Albion are either Frogs or Krauts.”
“Or Punic, in my case,” St. Cyprian murmured.
“Nothing. Go on.”
Rawdon grimaced. “Jokes on the block, Charles?”
“Not our necks getting the chop, now are they?” Gallowglass said. As Rawdon shot a glare at her, she held up the teapot. “More tea, Mr. Rawdon?”
Rawdon looked at his cup on the floor, and then shook his head. “Gran always told me that the Kra-the gentleman in question-would get me if I didn’t mend my ways.”
“Krampus. You can say it, Ozzy. He already knows where you are, after all.” St. Cyprian stirred the fire again. “The word originates from the Old High German word for ‘claw’, which is appropriate given the demeanour and personality of the fellow.” He looked at Gallowglass. “Anything to add, apprentice-mine?”
“Oberstdorf,” Gallowglass said, tapping her chin. An ability to store and recall seemingly trivial facts was just one of the many talents which she had discovered as she assisted St. Cyprian in his investigations into obscure matters. “They’re supposed to have a similar sort of chap. Except that he doesn’t work for Father Christmas, I don’t think.”
“Neither does this thing,” Rawdon said harshly.
“Is that experience speaking?” St. Cyprian said.
“It’s been after me since I was eight, Charles. I’ve read up on the subject quite a bit.”
“You mean, when you weren’t trying to forget about it with opium, heroin or alcohol.” St. Cyprian raised a hand. “No judgements intended, Ozzy.”
Rawdon made a face. “I’m sorry that I’m not as brave as you, Charles. Not every man can face his demons head on,” he spat.
“Got you there,” Gallowglass said.
“Shouldn’t you be making us some more tea?” St. Cyprian said. “Like a good apprentice?”
“Whoever said I was a good apprentice?”
“You’ll be an unemployed apprentice if you don’t pipe down,” St. Cyprian said, glaring at her. Gallowglass stuck out her tongue and hefted the teapot.
“There’s still a dreg or so in here, milord,” she said. “If you’re thirsty.”
“Stop talking about tea!” Rawdon snapped. “I don’t want to die, Charles!”
“Few of us do, Ozzy.” St. Cyprian handed the fish-headed container to Gallowglass. “Make yourself useful and put this back.” He looked at Rawdon. “You said your grandmother put it on your trail?”
“She’s the one who first mentioned it to me, at any rate.” Rawdon shrugged. “Put the thought in my head. I stole a cookie from the kitchen, and she said the K-Krampus would punish me.” He had to force the word out. His hands clenched and unclenched repeatedly. “That I would know he was coming by the clattering of his bells and the scratching of his-ah-his claws.”
“And?” St. Cyprian said.
“And? And what? And I heard it!” Rawdon said squeezing his eyes shut. He ground the heels of his palms into his sockets, as if trying to wipe the images from his mind. “I heard it. Just a whisper of sound. It might have been anything. Bells on a carriage. Leaves on the roof.”
As if to emphasize Rawdon’s statement, from somewhere upstairs there came the sound of shutters being rattled violently. He started, looking around wildly.
“What was that?”
St. Cyprian glanced at Gallowglass. “We’re edging towards midnight. Get the Pentacle.”
“That old electric thing of Carnacki’s?” Gallowglass said. “Think it’ll be any use?”
“I wouldn’t ask otherwise,” St. Cyprian said. “Go on, Ozzy.”
“The scullery maid.” Rawdon ran his hands through his hair. “I was fourteen. And she was quite pretty.” He looked at them. “It wasn’t my fault she got pregnant!”
“Immaculate conceptions occur where you least expect them, I’m given to understand,” St. Cyprian said. “You heard it again?”
“Gran was dead by then and good riddance. But I heard it all the same. Louder.” He shook his head. “Father put her out, of course. Scandal, you know.”
“Yes. I know.” St. Cyprian’s face was like stone as he turned to the fireplace and jammed the poker into the wood again. Soot tumbled down from within the chimney, and St. Cyprian’s eyes narrowed.