A Fragment from the Tales of the Evelyn Bones
“Do you skate sir?” I asked Dr Prest as we both enjoyed a cigar and looked out at the falling snow. He took a few slow puffs, adding to the noxious blue atmosphere that shrouded us both like the white curtain outside. “I’m sorry to say I don’t Bartley. I didn’t see you as the skating type?” I watched the end of my cigar smolder for a moment before tapping the grey ash into the ornate tray that sat atop the beautiful, low, walnut table between our two wingback chairs. “I’m full of surprises,” I replied, “As are you Doctor. I was surprised to learn from the manager that you are not here, as you said, to vacation but you are here on call to see a local patient.”
Dr Prest’s eyes didn’t move from the window and, other than a raised eyebrow that sent creases all the way across his completely shaved head, he gave no reaction to what I’d said before. “You’ve been inquiring after me?” I shrugged, maintaining my composure and, ignoring the knot in my stomach as I smoked next to one of the most dangerous cultists that had ever lived. “You are the only other person of interest in this hotel, and the only gentlemen who I can converse with. People of our intellect are becoming scarcer and scarcer these days.”
My companion re-lit his cigar with a match from out his breast pocket and, exhaling a thick cloud let out a tiny “Ha,” sound by way of a forced laugh and also, I thought, acknowledgement. “I dare say I know what you mean. Well, I suppose there’s no sense in pretending to you is there sir? You being so astute. After all you were schooled at… Oh where did you say?”
He was testing my cover story, but I was practiced and prepared for his probes.
“Eaton, by a former colonel no-less.”
“What was his name.”
“Colonel Franks of the 83rd. You must have heard?” He nodded; his sharp eyes now fixed on my own. I wore my jovial expression like an iron mask. “Colonel Franks; the man who took an entire chateau with a team of just three men armed with pistols as just a corporal. A marvellous strategist and a famously keen critical thinker, it must have been a privilege to be his pupil.” I concurred with a nod and stubbed out my cigar. I was getting nervous and had smoked too quickly. “Another?” I asked, beckoning a waiter.
“I have plenty of cheroot left but you go ahead.” A young well-dressed man approached quietly and opened a silver case. I selected a brown cigar with a gold collar before tipping him and igniting it with my eagle-head lighter.
“So, tell me. It’s just us here now, who is this patient you’ve come to see? What’s their ailment? Why the secrecy?” Smiling and twitching his head he tapped his ash lose into the tray.
“It is a… Delicate matter. I shan’t like to divulge my patient’s secrets, and I have signed an oath to prevent me from doing so. You should know this.” I had been too eager, and he must surely be seeing through me. Dr Prest seemed relaxed however, watching me carefully but maintaining a friendly, jovial expression throughout our discussion. “Of course, of course. It was wrong of me to pry, forgive me. Well, you can at least tell me, are they doing well? Can you see them recovering under your care?”
He was quiet for a long while, watching the snow fall past the window, gathering in small drifts against the frosting glass. “It’s complicated. There have been signs of improvement, but it is too early to tell.” I nodded sagely, hoping he would say more. “Her therapy is… Unique. A trial if you will. I daresay it should be successful but the lifelong effects for her may not be worth the treatment.”
Of course, my initial reaction was revulsion, that anyone calling themselves a doctor would risk a treatment that was worse than the disease they were trying to cure. Fighting poison with poison. But I swallowed my morality and replied, “Sounds like you are taking a huge medical leap.”
He grinned in a way I found chilling then stubbed out his cigar out in the ash tray. “It’s much bigger than her. Much bigger than all of us.”
“Whereabouts does she live?” His grin didn’t falter but his eyes narrowed for a second, and I knew that I was testing him. “Just beyond the lake and over the fell.” I met his gaze.
“Strange. I happen to know the family farm just over the fell. They’ve never mentioned…”
“She is not a farmer.” His reply was sharp, and he rose stretching his neck from side to side and rolling his shoulders to loosen them before turning back to me. His face was grim.
“I must turn in. Goodnight Bartley.” Then he added. “I hope you enjoy the ice.” Before stalking out of the room.
I stayed in my seat, watching my cigar burn down to a stump till the lamps were turned low and the snow had stopped falling. Abandoning by cheroot I stood and looked out on the view below. The drawing room looked out onto lake Metherside, surrounded by beach trees now weighed down with a heavy burden of white snow that shone blue in the moonlight. The frozen lake caught the ethereal light like a mirror and balefully stared back at the sky. Turning away, I traced my steps under the wooden architraves and over the thick red carpet that snaked through the entire hotel up to my room. Entering as stealthily as I could, I walked over to my Portmanteau and scribbled down every word I could remember from my brief interview.
Much bigger than her. Much bigger than us all.
He was clearly conducting an experiment and it was on someone. But who? And Why? I then began to wonder where this woman was. I genuinely knew the family over the fell, from a previous investigation and their knowledge of the area was second to none. There were no other properties apart from this remote hotel in the region. To cap it off, I had never seen the Dr go anywhere. The few times he had left the hotel I had followed him only to find he was taking a walk around the lake. All the evidence so far pointed toward one location, one that I was loathe to explore but knew now it was necessary.
There was a strong likelihood that his “Patient” was in this very Hotel. I shrugged off my smoking jacket and turned to look at my gun case resting on the Chesterton. No more theorizing. Time to act.
Secreting my revolver into its shoulder holster, I slipped into my all-weather coat and slipped out on to the landing. The hotel was of the old kind, with elaborate Victorian swirls carved in plaster and edged in gold, with wallpaper thick with flowers and heavy colors. In the dark, with the gas lamps out the décor seemed to absorb even more of the light as I softly trod step-by-step toward room 4B.
I had been this way several times to go and listen at Prest’s door, and although he said that he was staying alone, I was sure I had heard him talking to someone in a low voice. Stealing round the corner to where his room was, I noticed a tremendously bright light coming from beneath the door sill. White as a dove and yet giving me an uncomfortable dirty impression. I knelt and examined closely. There was no way this light was coming from any of the dim lamps in the hotel. It reminded me of the dazzling electric lights I had seen at fairs, or in science experiments and modern laboratories.
I listened at the door, as I had before, and cut here a faint buzzing sound, presumably from the bulbs and… I wanted to say. A rustle? I tried the handle, but it was locked so I pulled out a multi-tool I kept handy and after some fumbling around, I found a lockpick and started work. It didn’t take long till I felt the tumblers slide into place and with a metallic snapping sound, the lock opened. I tried the handle, and to my amazement it opened. I pushed the door away with one hand, and in a smooth motion slipped my multi-tool away and pulled gun from its holster.
The room inside was, as I’d expected devilishly bright and I squinted in the doorway till my eyes adjusted, my revolver sweeping side to side scanning the room. Inside the room, everything was different to my own. The carpets were stripped away to the bare floorboards beneath which were etched in runes that hurt to look at. Atop those were cables laid in thick, heavy coils that wormed their way from the floor up to a great number of large bulbs mounted on metal stands that were the source of the light. They all shone down on the centre of the room where a mass of ivory and canvas lay in a contorted sculpture on a wooden frame bed.
I entered carefully, checking behind the door and every dark corner. The room hummed, but it wasn’t just coming from the filament lights. I could feel it coming through the floor, a static sensation as I crossed the circles of runes and went deeper into the room. My curiosity was only deepening when suddenly, the sculpture stirred.
It let out a slow, long, guttural gasp, as if it had been holding its breath and then sucked air back in staccato, agonizing, inhales. I realized what I had though was canvas, was in fact skin as it undulated arrhythmically in time with the breathing. Taught, and shot through with red veins, the shadow of twisted bones pushing the skin outward to way beyond its natural limit. An arm flopped free from beneath the veined mass and a human hand smacked to the floor, the fingers worming and pushing it toward me before elevating to a quivering reach. It grasped at the air between me and it, as I recognised more and more human features beneath the deformed mass I saw before me.
“Huuuu…..Huuuuu….Huuuuuuu….” It tried to form its aching exhales into words. “Huuuuu… Huuuuu. Huuuuuelp.” The sounds came out as retching squarks from a throat badly deformed. I was too stunned to notice as the cold barrel of another gun was pressed into my neck. “Let’s have that revolver now, there’s a good chap.” Dr Prest’s voice was as calm, and smiling as it had been in every discussion I’d had with him, even as he jabbed the weapon into my neck. “Now please. It’s taken a long time to get to this point, it’d be a shame to make a mess.” I did as I was told and handed my revolver to him and he pocketed it. “Let’s take a turn about the lake.”
He grabbed me in a vice like grip and without shoving guided me toward the door. “What is that?” I managed to ask in a hushed voice as he slipped his gun under his jacket and pressed it into my ribs like a dagger. “Never you mind Mr Stone. Let’s keep moving.” For just a second the breath caught in my throat like a sour taste as he mentioned my real name. He knew who I was. “If anyone asks, you are feeling unwell after too much tobacco and I am taking you out for some clean air. Am I clear?” I said nothing, setting my face into its iron mask. He took my silence for acknowledgement as we continued down the unlit stairs. I contemplated attempting a reversal on him, but I felt as though his reflexes were sharp and he’d blow my heart and lungs clear out of my chest at the slightest motion.
“How are you concealing all this from the staff?” I asked, “Surely questions are asked? You are using electrics and bright light.” He smiled at me as one might at a naive child.
“You assume that I am acting alone. Hunch over a little more, look unwell. We are passing reception.” I did as I was told, a festering ember of repugnance in my chest at the act as we passed the desk. My captor turned to the bellboy on duty. “Mr Bartley is feeling unwell. I believe he smoked too much this evening; would it be well if I took him out for some clear air?” I met the bell-boy’s eyes for but a second before the gun scraped against my bone and I winced and turned away. “Very good sir take as long as you need I’ll be here till midnight. Will he be alright?”
“Nothing a bit of cold air can’t sort.” My eyes were fixed on the carpet at our feet, thinned and coarse by many years of boots treading over it in and out.
The two doors to the hotel swung open, letting a breath of frozen air into the lobby and Dr Prest escorted me out the door and down the stone steps toward the lake. The moment we were out of sight and the doors had closed behind us, he shoved me in front and angled the gun at the back of my head. “Hands up and keep moving my good man. We’re almost there now.” I raised my hands and walked slowly down the slope, following the moonlit path between the trees that loomed and swayed over us in the wind like waving hands. Like the hand that had reached out to me. I shuddered and not just from the cold. “Do you really think you can get away with this? They will here the gun shot and come running.”
I glanced over my shoulder. Even in the dark he was still smiling. “What gunshot? I will watch your mind suddenly deteriorate and in a mad delirium you will run out into the middle of the frozen lake where the ice will shatter and swallow you with an almighty crash. I will explain how the delirium must have been brought on by the massive dose of opium you took, evidence of which they will find in your room.” I couldn’t help but sigh a laugh. “Ha… You were following me. You even planted evidence for your cover story and there’s me thinking that I was stalking you. How long did you know?”
“Within a day of your arrival. Me and my consorts make it our business to background check any, unexpected, visitors.”
The lake was coming into view now, grey, cold and frozen still. “Can you at least tell me what that thing was. That thing in your room. Is it alive?” He sighed as if I had asked something obvious or inanely stupid.
“In a manner of speaking. I told you. It’s a trial.”
“To do with the bones?” I asked.
“Of course.” He replied condescendingly. “Don’t think you’ll catch me off guard with your knowledge Mr Stone. I know who I’m dealing with almost as well as you do.”
“Do I?” I laughed. “I know you’re not a Doctor. I know your true residence is at the Burnes College and you are operating under the direction of a figure called Penbrooke.”
“And that is all you will know.”
We had arrived at the edge of the lake now and I came to a stop. The cold barrel rested against my neck. “Did I ask you to stop?” I kept my hands up but, from where he stood, he could not see me smiling.
“Do you want me to walk out onto the ice?”
“You said it yourself, you like to skate. Off you go. One last jaunt. I’ll stay here and watch you.” I lifted my foot but just before I put it down, I said. “There is one thing I don’t think you realized about me you know?” I turned to look over my shoulder and stared along the black barrel into the eyes of my would-be killer, who had raised his eyebrows in encouragement. “Go-on.”
“That you were not the only one, who didn’t come alone.”
I took a tentative step onto the ice, as the bell-boy, who had made his way to the top of the hotel and now stared at Prest down the sights of his Lee Enfield Long distance rifle, took the shot.