amworth

ONE

‘A CURIOUS AILMENT’

The man in the hospital bed looked thin and wasted. Charles St. Cyprian pried open one of the man’s eyes and peered at it. Then he straightened up and said, “Well, he’s definitely unconscious. Or he’s doing a bloody good impression of it, what?”

“Helpful as that diagnosis is, that isn’t why we called you down here, Mr. St. Cyprian,” the burly, be-whiskered detective inspector said, from where he stood at the foot of the bed. He gripped the faded brim of his homburg in his hands and idly twisted the hat back and forth as he spoke. “A Mr. Morris in the Ministry said as you might be of some help in this particular investigation.”

“Surely Special Branch has a surplus of able-bodied ratiocinators, Inspector Boothroyd,” St. Cyprian said. He fiddled with his cuff links. He was tall and rangy, with an olive cast to his features and hair a touch too long to be properly fashionable. He wore a dark grey suit straight from the shops of Savile Row, and had a snap-brim fedora perched on his head. “I hardly think that you require my help—”

“Our help,” said the young woman who was slouched on a chair across from the bed. Her feet were cocked up and crossed on the end of the bed in a manner that had drawn a withering stare from the attending nurse. She was dark and thin and slightly feral looking, with black hair cut in a razor-edged bob, and a battered man’s flat cap resting high on her head. She wore a man’s clothes as well, and there was a heavy Webley-Fosbery revolver holstered beneath her arm.

St. Cyprian looked at her. “What was that, Ms. Gallowglass?”

“Our help,” Ebe Gallowglass said, as she licked her finger and turned the page of the racing post she was keenly scanning. “On account of there being two of us, innit?”

St. Cyprian looked at Boothroyd. “I stand corrected—our help.”

“You’ll have seen the marks sir,” Boothroyd said softly. He gestured towards the bed’s occupant with his hat. “On his neck. Throat, rather, I should say. Like rat bites, or so the doctors say. He’s the third so far.”

“From your tone, I’m guessing that rats are not the primary suspect,” St. Cyprian said. He hooked his thumbs into the pockets of his waistcoat and bent down for another look. The marks were small and ragged, as if some tiny creature had been gnawing on the man’s throat. He could see why the dedicated physicians of Charing Cross Hospital might conclude that rambunctious vermin were the culprits.

Then, it might simply be that the central London hospital was understaffed. It had opened in 1834 with sixty beds and accommodations for medical students, but in 1922 there were more than sixty patients, and few surgeons and even fewer medical students to go around.

“Not as such, sir, no,” Boothroyd said. He frowned.

“Illuminate me, I beg of you,” St. Cyprian said, still examining the unconscious man’s throat. “You said he was the third?”

“Right, well then sir, yesterday morning was the first. A fellow—a clerk—was walking to work in the wee hours when he was accosted and bitten. Two hours later, a second attack took place, in roughly the same area, under similar circumstances.” Boothroyd gestured to the man on the bed again, and said, “This poor chap was brought in late last evening.”

“And he was found in the same area as the other two?” St. Cyprian said.

“Yes, the turning just off Coventry Street.” Boothroyd shook his head. “We’ve got constables out there right now, but no one saw anything. The first fellow claimed to have seen a shadowy sort of shape, ‘like a twist of smoke’ is how he described it, but the other two are still unconscious.”

“Due to blood loss,” St. Cyprian supplied.

“You have the right of it sir.” Boothroyd nodded.

“But no blood found at the scene?”

Boothroyd swallowed and nodded again. He didn’t look angry, which was a wonder. Instead, he looked frightened. Working with Special Branch quickly taught a man that the previously defined limits of his reality were, at best, assumptions. St. Cyprian felt a flash of sympathy for the inspector. He remembered that feeling himself all too well. “I assume that is what prompted your superiors to request my presence?”

“Yes sir,” Boothroyd said.

“Well, I’m big enough to admit when I’m wrong—” St. Cyprian began.

“Ha!” Gallowglass interjected, without looking up from her racing post.

St. Cyprian glared at her and said, “I was wrong. This is clearly my—our—sort of thing. But just what kind of thing it is, is a question best answered quickly, I think.” He reached into the pocket of his coat and pulled out a small disk of tarnished metal. If there had once been an image on the disk, it had long since been worn away. The disk was one of a number of charms and medallions that St. Cyprian made a habit of carrying on his person. Always be prepared, that was the motto of the Royal Occultist.

Formed during the reign of Elizabeth the First, the office of Royal Occultist (or the Queen’s Conjurer, as it had been known) had started with the diligent amateur Dr. John Dee, and passed through a succession of hands since. The list was a long one, weaving in and out of the margins of British history, and culminating in one Charles St. Cyprian and his erstwhile assistant, Ebe Gallowglass.

Their responsibilities included the investigation, organisation and occasional suppression of That Which Man Was Not Meant to Know—including ghosts, werewolves, ogres, fairies, boggarts and the occasional worm of unusual size—by order of the King (or Queen), for the good of the British Empire.

He placed the disk against the wounds in the side of the man’s neck. There was a sound like a kettle boiling over, and a pungent vapour filled the air. The man’s eyes shot open and he wailed like a scalded cat. “Gallowglass,” he snapped, reaching out to hold the man down. “Help me hold him. Inspector—his feet. Get his feet, man!”

Gallowglass flung her paper aside and shot to her feet, even as Boothroyd lunged to grab the suddenly conscious man’s ankles. “What’s going on? What’s happened to him?” Boothroyd shouted.

“Nothing’s wrong, just as I expected,” St. Cyprian said, fighting to hold the man down on the bed. “Everything is perfectly under control, I—oh bugger.” A flailing hand caught him on the chest, and he was suddenly flying backwards, to crash through the privacy curtain and against the bed of the next patient, who immediately began to shout for the nurses. St. Cyprian shoved himself to his feet and lunged back towards the bed, already scrabbling in his pocket for something that might help.

Gallowglass cursed and threw her body over the thrashing man, trying to hold him down. Boothroyd staggered back as a foot caught him on the shoulder, and he lost his grip on the man’s ankles. The latter screamed again, a high-pitched warbling that set the whole ward into uproar. Orderlies and nurses began to flood into the room.

“Keep them back, Boothroyd,” St. Cyprian said. “Ms. Gallowglass, we need to…” he began, a moment before Gallowglass’ fist connected with the screaming man’s jaw. His head snapped back and dropped onto his pillow. “Put this under his tongue,” St. Cyprian finished lamely, holding up the communion wafer he’d retrieved from his pocket. “Or just biff him one. I suppose that’ll work just as well.”

“Always has before,” Gallowglass said as she flexed her hand. She rolled off of the bed and looked at St. Cyprian. “What the hell was that, then? He sat up like you burned him.”

“I did, in a manner of speaking,” St. Cyprian said as he inserted the wafer between the unconscious man’s lips.  He snatched the disk up off the bed where he’d dropped it and bounced it on his palm. “Blessed silver, donchaknow. From the sunken priory at Dunwich. Bit like pouring alcohol on an open wound, in this case. The wafer will keep him quiet, though.”

“What’s wrong with him?” Boothroyd asked. He flashed his warrant card at the gathering hospital staff, cutting the flow of questions short. The staff had been alerted that something untoward might occur, and they dispersed quickly enough. “Is he sick?”

“In a manner of speaking,” St. Cyprian said. He looked at the inspector. “Incidents like this tend to leave the victim in a rather unpleasant state. We’re just lucky these were attacks of opportunity. He’ll be fine, if my instructions are followed to the letter. The same goes for the other two as well. They’re all at risk right now, but if we’re quick and very lucky, we can have this case wrapped up by breakfast tomorrow, what?” He glanced towards the window. The day was overcast, but he could tell without checking his pocket watch that it would be sundown in two hours.

“I can see to that, but what is it? Some sort of poison, like that business in Brichester last year?” Boothroyd looked worried.

“Thankfully no,” St. Cyprian said. “No strange metallic quills or unidentifiable ichors to be had here. No, what we have here is something equally unpleasant, but more easily identifiable.” He pulled a cigarette case out of his coat, popped it open, and selected one. He snapped the case closed and said, “Then, vampires aren’t the subtlest of beasties.”

Boothroyd blinked. “Vampires,” he said.

“I expect you, or your superiors, suspected as much, otherwise we wouldn’t have been called in. Do wipe that worried frown off your face, Inspector. Gallowglass and I have matched wits with such creatures before.” St. Cyprian smiled and snapped his fingers. A tiny flame blossomed on the end of his index finger, and he touched it to the tip of his cigarette. He shook his finger to extinguish the flame, and added, “Rather like falling off a log, what? The first time is a travesty, but you get the hang of it quickly.”

Boothroyd stared at St. Cyprian’s newly-extinguished finger for a moment before he shook his head. “If you say so, sir.” He ran a hand through his hair and stuffed his hat on his head. “What do we do now, then?”

“First, we send someone to the shops for garlic and seeds,” St. Cyprian said. He stuffed the disk of silver back in his coat. “I’ve got more communion wafers as well. We’ll scatter the seeds about the beds of the victims, and hang the garlic over them. That should be enough to keep our phantom nibbler at bay until they’re brought to heel.”

“The garlic I understand,” Boothroyd said. “I’ve read Stoker’s book. But…seeds?”

“They like to count them,” Gallowglass supplied. She tapped the side of her head and made a face. “They’re a bit balmy on the crumpet, innit?”

“Sometimes,” St. Cyprian said.

“Sometimes?” Boothroyd asked.

“Vampires aren’t stamped from a mould,” St. Cyprian said. “No matter what Stoker’s book might have you believe. Trust a playwright to take creative license on something so simple. At any rate, better to be safe than sorry.” He puffed on his cigarette. “Three victims over so compact a period of time implies that our phantom predator is an opportunist, rather than a hunter. And a sloppy one at that.”

“What makes you say that?”

“They’re still alive,” St. Cyprian said, with a gesture towards the bed. “Our vampire should be easy enough to find. We’ll meet you in Piccadilly Circus tonight, Inspector. Ms. Gallowglass and I have a few preparations to make.” They left Boothroyd there, and made their way out of the ward, past the rows of beds and through a gauntlet of glaring staff.

“So, all that business with looking at his neck and the bit of silver…that was just for show, wasn’t it?” Gallowglass said as she followed him out of the hospital. “Only you said it was a vampire before we left the flat.”

“Did I?” St. Cyprian said.

“Yes,” Gallowglass said. They hurried across the street, towards the black shape of the Crossley 20/25 that had carried them from Cheyne Walk to Agar Street and Charing Cross Hospital. The hardy little automobile waited for them like a faithful hound, showing no sign of the numerous accidents it had endured in its three years of service.

As St. Cyprian slid behind the wheel, he said, “Well, I suppose I’d know, wouldn’t I?” She made a face at him as she climbed into the motor car, and he laughed. “Do you recall that business in Drayton earlier in the week? The horrid flapping thing that terrorised the sexton and several policemen in the churchyard?”

“You think this is that?” Gallowglass asked as he started the Crossley, and pulled them onto the street.

“I think it’s possible – the Drayton creature was described as a giant bat, and it displayed definite bloodthirsty tendencies. Might be that our vampire has travelled further afield than the turning on Coventry Street, if he’s one of the sort that changes shape. Then again, it might also be something completely different. But I have a suspicion that they’re one and the same.” He tapped the side of his nose. “Call it an instinct.”

Vampires were, save for that brief, unpleasant incident during Victoria’s reign so inventively described in Stoker’s book, mostly extinct in England and had been since the Twelfth Century; nests of the beasts occasionally surfaced from forgotten plague pits, hidden barrows or decrepit churchyards, but they generally proved no more troublesome than an outbreak of measles, provided you had them contained and weren’t shy about a good bonfire.

But occasionally you got one alone, and, despite what he’d told Boothroyd, a lone vampire was more dangerous than a nest. A solitary beast was one that was either very old, very cunning, or both. As to why such a creature would be attacking pedestrians in Piccadilly Circus, he could only speculate.

Gallowglass snorted. “I call it grasping for straws.”

“Who asked you?” St. Cyprian said. He ignored the rude gesture Gallowglass threw his way, and concentrated on navigating the Crossley through the London streets.

TO BE CONTINUED…

♦♦♦

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