(Origins of a treasure hunt)
Before the arrival of Jonathan Knight, a man who travelled in a style way above his means, Syd wandered to the farthest extent of the gardens hoping to lose her way in the mist and emerge somewhere close to a lamp post and a man with odd legs.
Instead she encountered the buzz of an early morning lawnmower and the hunched silhouette of Halifax leaving a line of asymmetrical footsteps in the ground frost. “Are you supposed to be mowing at this time of year?”
Halifax recognised the voice and powered down the mower. “No.” A phone vibrated in the thigh pocket of his cargo pants. “Yeah . . . yeah . . . no, no, no, I bleedin told you, didn’t I, didn’t I bleedin tell ya, the green ones go to Nuneaton. They’ve come all the way from Hamburg, don’t chuck em out now with hundred yards to go. Ring me back when the postie’s got em.” He stuffed the phone back in his pocket. “So what you doin down ere at this hour. His lordship’s not due until this after.”
“You can elp me if you want to.”
“Mowing the lawn? You can’t see the grass.”
“I’m not mowing the bleedin lawn, am I.” Halifax confided in her, gave her the inside knowledge, the illicit movement of what he called commodities and the need to be doing something outdoors so that her indoors wouldn’t hear him. “If I walk round the grounds without lookin busy she’ll suspect somethin was goin on, wouldn’t she?”
“I doubt that. I clocked who you were the minute I got here. Anyway, I’m not interested in your commodities and your swag or whatever old lags call gold bullion these days.”
“It wasn’t gold bullion.” Halifax rolled a couple of tiny cigarettes, sharing one with Syd. The smoke fell under its own weight to the glazed grass.
“Don’t know what I’m going to tell him,” Syd said.
“Chose the ardest to start with, didn’t you? Why didn’t you start with that Dutch bird. Susan Bekker can’t stand still without talking into a microphone. Woman’s an egomaniac.”
“Jonny wanted to start with Daley, start with a mystery. He thought if we could crack this one it would make the other three irresistible.”
Halifax’s phone vibrated again pushing at his pocket like a concealed rodent. “Yeah, yeah. You’re as bad as Martin. Get the carburettor fixed before you set out. You break down on the A19 with a van full of . . . you know, you won’t be getting towed away by the RAC, will yer . . . I don’t care if Pete the Fish don’t work weekdays, wake the bleeder up, for gawd’s sake. We’re not runnin the Ritz.” He hung up. “Take yer for bleedin mugs some of em.”
“Why’s he called Pete the Fish?”
“Used to buy and sell haddock down Billingsgate. Never got the smell off his hands. Ello, is that what I think it is.” The mist diffused light and softened sound. Jessica Bannister’s car drove away along an unseen gravel track. “She’ll be nippin down the chemist. Somethin for the weekend.”
“Not up there it’s not. Bleedin Saturday every day of the week, up there.”
Up there differed from down here; social class diverging at some undefined point between the tulip garden vases, circa 1826, and the honeysuckle arbour built by Halifax four months after he came out of Pentonville in 2009. Jessica Bannister took him on in an act of charity shared by none of her friends. He was allowed into the scullery and instructed to leave the coal scuttle at the door to the kitchens (referred to as kitchens even though there was only one). But what really stuck in Halifax’s craw was the fact that Jessica Bannister was a commoner and didn’t even marry into aristocracy. Syd’s parents had more money than Jessica.
The wealth of Syd’s parents, when Jessica found out, was the reason for Syd being stuffed into a single bedroom on the third floor of the house. Another eight feet and she’d be in the attic. The tiny room barely contained Syd’s research spread across the bed, table, dresser beneath the window and most of the floor. She opened the laptop and noticed the file size of everything she knew about Elaine Daley: 12kb. And most of it came from the band’s website and Rob Wallet’s blog.
Jonathan Knight arrived in a black Mercedes taxi, a silent spectre rolling to a halt at the portico. Knight stepped out and waited for the driver to collect his cases. Syd observed the ceremony from her near-attic window: the driver glaring at Knight who fumbled in his pocket and fingered a line of loose change. The car boot yanked open and a single suitcase hauled out and dropped onto the ground with the thud of a concealed corpse. Knight offered the driver a fifty pence piece. The driver shook his head.
Examining the front of the house, Knight saw Syd at the window, took off his wide-brimmed hat and waved it flamboyantly. She pulled open the sash window. “You might as well go home, I don’t have anything new to tell you.” Knight laughed. “Honest.” Knight waved his index finger. “And I’m pregnant.”
“Oh, Sydney, sweet Sydney. Your wit cascades upon me like a . . . a something or other. I’m coming in. . . .”
Two minutes later, Syd opened the front door from the inside. “Jessica must have locked it on the way out. She’s gone to the chemist.”
“Not ill is she?” Knight heaved his single suitcase across the tiled entrance hall.
“What’s in there?”
“My notes. And a pair of shoes. I can’t wait to tell you about Christine.”
After dumping his notes in his room (on the first floor and nowhere near the attic) Knight entered the conservatory, writing pad under his arm, hat worn at a jaunty angle, its goose feather looking a bit discoloured. At the window he breathed in, observed the mist and its ghostly gardener then spun towards Syd. “She’s an eccentric. If anyone can speak to Neville Daley it’s Christine.”
“And she’s coming all the way from Germany?”
Knight shuddered like a dog teased by its owner’s promise of a walk. “Bamberg. Can you believe that? Bamberg, the epicentre of Satanic activity, the absolute umbilicus mundi of black magic. I wouldn’t be surprised if she belongs to a coven.”
“I didn’t think witches got involved in that sort of thing. Bit risky isn’t it?” Syd poured Knight his first cup of strong coffee. “Rob Wallet was implicated in the murder of Krimminalkommissar Albrecht Korminsky. Nothing proven. Lena Siebert-Neved was a citizen of Bamberg. And we haven’t even started on the cathedral murders.”
Knight drank with an audible slurp. “Marvellous. She can tell us how it was done. She’ll have a hotline to Bamberg’s dead.”
“I think that’s a bit optimistic, but you never know. How did Christine get in touch?”
“Jess contacted her. Heard about her through a friend. Apparently,” Knight’s head had a habit of wobbling before it revealed some titbit of spectacular news, “she’s causing ruptions on the continent. A spiritualist with an uncanny ability to penetrate the dark veil, even by spiritualist standards. Some say,” Knight glanced around the conservatory and checked the gardener was out of sight, “some say she’s already dead herself.” Coffee bubbled off his lower lip and down his chin.
“What would you do without that imagination, Jonny?”
“I know, I know. I can’t help it. And if I’m not very much mistaken. . . .” he cupped his hand to his ear, “that sounds like Jess now.”
Syd gave Knight a private moment alone with Jessica. Hovering on a bend in the staircase, she listened to Knight’s eccentric whoops of joy met with a taciturn snort of familiarity. Syd’s name was mentioned and Jessica sounded disappointed when Knight said, “She’s around somewhere. She comes and goes like a ghost.”
“For heaven’s sake, she’s an intern. Nothing spectral about a girl who dresses like a terrorist.”
Knight’s chortling trailed away behind the crinkle of Jessica’s stuffed plastic bags. Syd waited a moment and followed, catching up with them in the kitchen where Jessica struggled to find room in the freezer for a lot of fresh red meat. Behind her, Knight maintained a wandering critique of Polidori’s Gothic story. “The central flaw in The Vampyre premise is the melodrama that is at odds with his claim to have invented a new genre. He’s merely rehashing Sartre . . . Syd.”
“What do you think, Sydney?” said Jessica. “Is Polidori rehashing Sartre?”
“Never read either of them.”
“Syd is from the modernist school of reading. Everything on a tablet. Nothing longer than two hundred words.”
“I don’t know why she needs so much meat. She’s only here for one night.” Jessica’s freezer couldn’t take any more.
“Who? Is all that meat for Christine?”
“How do you know about Christine?”
“I told her.” Knight closed his book.
Jessica struggled to react. Flushed with anger and holding two shrink wrapped cuts of steak bleeding into the corners of their plastic pouches she spat, “Well, we’d better get on with it, hadn’t we.”
As the morning went on, the mist thickened surrounding the house with a dense shroud as if preparing it for burial. Hidden in the fabric, Halifax chewed a sandwich in his greenhouse sitting like an air bubble in the opaque gloom.
“You reach a point where you think everyone’s a monster.” Syd sat on a workbench blowing the steam across a cup of oxtail soup.
“They goin a bit stir crazy up there? Does it to you, you know. All this mist, like a wall. Now they know what it’s like to be banged up. Not nice, not nice at all. Especially when the bloke on the bunk below you has epileptic fit.”
“Jessica’s bought half a hundredweight of raw meat for that spiritualist.”
“Freezer’s full of it. She must be anaemic.”
“Anaemic? Sounds more like a bleedin vampire to me.”
“She comes from Bamberg.”
“Oh well, there you are then. All bloodsuckin murderers from Bamberg, aren’t they?” Halifax’s phone buzzed and shuffled across the top of an upturned plant pot. “Ello . . . Where are you? . . . Croydon? What the ell are you doin in Croydon, you’re goin the wrong bleedin way. You’d be no good in a Lancaster bomber, would yer? Arf o’ Sarfampton would be under rubble if it were you navigatin. Turn round and put yer foot down, yer nonce.”
“Do your mates do anything right?”
“They get themselves up in the mornin. They get that bit right. It’s all downhill from there.” Halifax turned off his phone. “This bird from Bamberg. She’s not one of them, is she?”
“One of what?”
“No, no. She’s a crack spiritualist. According to Jonny, rumours suggest she’s dead as well.”
“Don’t like anythin like that, I don’t.”
“You? The great Cedric Halifax, mastermind of the Peckham Premium Bond heist?”
“Don’t you take the piss. Eight undred fousand we got away with. Tidy sum by anyone’s reckoning. No, seances, ouija boards, all that ectoplasm coming out o’ people’s mouths. Not natural. They should leave the dead where they buried em.”
“Not scared are you? You worried something might come creeping out of this mist?”
Before Halifax answered they both watched a swirl of airborne water droplets, displaced by a translucent form, dancing and spinning at the end of what would have been the lavender path if it were visible. For a minute it darkened and faded, hesitant in its choice of direction and when it settled the garden seemed somehow plausible, somehow there, and yet undefined.
“The power of the imagination.” Syd waited for Halifax’s phone to interrupt the eery mood, but it was turned off.
“There’s somethin out there. I’d go ome if I could find me bleedin way out.”
In his attempts to get out Halifax might have met Christine on the way in. Who could know? The late afternoon light succumbed and surrendered to the insistent mist until the darkness was almost thick enough to hold in the hand. Christine arrived in the hallway. Nobody heard the door open.
Jessica found her first and shrieked. “We’d given up. How in god’s name have you got here? You must recommend the taxi service, they’re normally hopeless.”
Syd lingered again on the bend in the staircase. She shared Jessica’s amazement, but with an additional suspicion that Christine may have been hiding in the house all day. The mist was impenetrable; no taxi would have come out in these conditions.
Christine’s voice was breathless and gently decorated with a feint Germanic accent. “It seems to be clear until you approach the house. You can see the house from the gates, but you can’t see the gates from the house.”
Christine leaned back and grinned at Syd. “Hello.”
“Hello.” Syd’s voice broke.
“Have you been sent to bed early?”
“No, I was . . . just on my way down actually.”
“Don’t be shy. I don’t bite.”
Jesus, if ever a woman looked capable of biting. . . . Syd was relieved when Knight bounced into the hallway and dragged his hat off. “You must be Christine of Bamberg.”
Ready to kiss Christine’s hand, Knight stepped back when she kept them both in the pockets of her camel-hair coat. “You must be Jonathan of Shepherds Bush.”
“That’s French, Jonny.” Syd entered a cloud of cold air that Christine had drawn into the house. “Syd Campbell. I’m a researcher. Working for Jonny.”
“Apparently I was conceived in Sydney.” Jessica tutted and headed into the lounge. “Must have been a pretty good business trip.”
“Your parents in business. Doing what?”
“Dad’s an investment banker. HSBC. Mum’s an investment analyst.”
Knight bent double waiting to explode with his habitual anecdote. “You’ve heard Groucho Marx on investment analysts, Christine?”
“An investment analyst is someone who invests your money until it’s all gone.” He clapped his hands. Syd had heard it several times, but Christine simply didn’t laugh. “It sounds better when Groucho Marx says it. Where’s Jess gone?”
He left his audience in the hallway. Christine’s gaze lingered a moment more than was comfortable. Red perimeters, stray capillaries ringed the whites of her eyes giving her a sickly look made worse by the waxy tone of her make-up. “Have you penetrated your mysterious subject, Syd?”
“Elaine? Jessica told me you were investigating Toten Herzen.”
“It’s research, for Jonny. His book. His, you know, book thing.”
“Biographical biographies? What are they?”
Syd threw her arm about. “Biographies. Jonny’s writing the unofficial biographies of the band. One at a time. He’s an authority on vampires. Or so he says.”
“Interesting.” Christine moved closer, bringing the stubborn chill with her until Syd’s nervous breath began to evaporate. “Maybe I could help your research.”
“I’ll tell you later. We’ve got some ghosts to summon.” Christine teased with a smile and her top lip detached revealing a pair of canines hanging in expectation of the freezer and its blood-soaked contents.
Jessica detected Syd’s nervousness. Knight, equally alert, offered his place on the settee. “Something wrong, Syd?”
“No. No. Christine’s offered to help me.”
“Marvellous. Can I warn you first, Christine, this is a project on a shoestring.”
Christine slipped out of her coat in the same movement as sitting down. “Don’t worry. Anything I can do would be my favour.”
For an hour Syd listened to Jessica’s brief and what she was hoping Christine would find and pass on from the other side. At nine o’clock they paused for drinks and Syd dashed upstairs to the bathroom, washed her face and collided with Christine standing like a sentinel on the landing.
“You get everywhere.”
“Sorry if I startled you. People get all kinds of crazy thoughts in the company of a spiritualist.”
“Yeah, yeah I suppose they would, wouldn’t they.”
“What I said earlier, I can help you.”
“How?” Syd had a suspicion. The teeth, the skin, the ever-present weather front.
“I could introduce you to Rob Wallet.”
“Rob Wallet? You know Rob Wallet?”
“We’re good friends. Whether he’ll help you I can’t say, but I can make the introduction.” Christine’s mouth brushed Syd’s neck below her ear. “I think you know who I am.”
“I thought I recognised you. I’m surprised Jonny hasn’t made the connection.”
“He’s obviously not the authority on vampires he thinks he is.”
“There’s a freezer full of raw meat waiting for you.”
“How disgusting.” She stepped away. “I have a rider for all my clients. Call it a curious sense of humour, but it always makes me laugh to see how far they’ll go. One client in Copenhagen bought two live geese. What she thought I was going to do with them, I’ve no idea.”
“Are you really a spiritualist?”
Christine checked the staircase. “Are you really a researcher? Everyone could be anyone in these strange times. Meet me after the seance. Rob will be around at any time. I’ll bring him over here to meet you.”
“Fine. Does he know what you’re doing?”
Christine smiled again. “Rob knows nothing.”
Unlike Christine who appeared to know everything including how to set the atmosphere for a seance. She insisted on holding off until exactly three minutes past midnight, by which time Knight’s eyelids refused to stay open. Christine had changed clothing. Syd hadn’t noticed any travel bags, suitcases, any means of carrying clothes, but here she was in a sleeveless black dress over black leggings and black boots; the whole black ensemble forcing the off-white skin tone to remind everyone assembled they were in the presence of death, of other-worldliness.
In front of Christine, a solitary candle flame added warmth to her face and illuminated the red lines of her eyeballs. “We haven’t even started and I can sense a great deal of activity. We’re joined by several visitors.”
“Can you see them?” Jessica jumped when Knight placed his hand on her forearm.
“There is protection available if you need it, Jess.”
“The dead can’t harm us, Jonathan.”
“Yes, they can,” said Christine. “Place your hands on the table.”
Wide awake now, Knight placed his shaking hands next to Jessica’s. Her giant wedding ring sparkled, activated by the candle flame. Syd’s outstretched hands came finger to finger with Christine’s, frozen as if she had left them in storage with the raw meat.
“No need to be nervous,” said Knight, “in spite of Christine’s positively apocalyptic threat.”
“I’m not nervous, I’m perishing.”
“Hello. . . .”
Knight and Jessica looked straight ahead sharing a common concern located somewhere over Syd’s shoulder.
“Do you have a name?” Christine’s voice dropped to a hush. The thing, the presence, refused to answer.
Jessica stood, fumbling to push her chair away. Against her instincts Syd twisted to look behind her and saw the stretched form of a man, his face drawn to the bone, mouth gaping, eyes closed. Christine concentrated on Knight sat perfectly still as if in suspended animation.
“Can you tell us why you’re here?”
The presence maintained its ghastly form and then emitted a crackling wheeze, a bronchitic gargle. . . .
“Oh, my God.” Jessica grabbed Knight’s arm.
“I can’t breathe.”
“He can’t breathe,” said Jessica. A line of spittle oozed out of the presence’s mouth.
“Christine, make it go away.”
“I can’t breathe.”
Syd glanced at Christine still fixed on Knight. “Well if you can’t breathe how come you can talk?”
The presence vanished. Jessica missed Christine’s sharp grin when the candle flame belched and a choking cloud of smoke blew into her face. She coughed and sat down again.
“What was that?”
“I don’t know. He must be fresh.”
“Freshly buried. Was his mouth open like this?” Christine gasped.
“Yes, yes it was. It was horrible.”
“Freshly buried. He probably doesn’t know he’s dead yet.”
Emerging from his trance, Knight cross-examined Christine on the mechanics of death. What happens to the soul? Does consciousness transfer to the other side? Do the dead maintain their personalities?
“I am merely a vessel of communication, Jonathan. I’m not a pathologist.”
“But you must have spoken to them. Don’t they tell you?”
“They tend not to be the chattering kind. A lot of them are like him.”
“He didn’t look the ticket to me.” Knight wiped his forehead with a handkerchief. “Can’t say I want to end up like that.”
“I can show you.” Christine grinned again.
“Show me? Show me what?”
“How you’ll look in death.”
“I’m not sure I want to know.”
“It could be a comfort to you.”
“What if I look like him?”
“I told you, he’s fresh. He’ll eventually adapt as he recedes from his earthly body.”
“Some other time, perhaps. We’re here to help Jessica.” His wandering hand approached Jessica’s, but she drew it away just before contact was made.
“Strange word to describe a corpse. Fresh.” Syd spoke to Jessica. “Was he a relative?”
“I’ve no idea who he was. Christine, he isn’t in this house all the time, is he?”
“No. Time and space are a little different on the other side. People can come and go.” And turning to Syd, lust and ill intent concentrating her features, “Fresh is the timescale, not the body.”
“Would you like to see how you’ll look in death, Syd?”
At any other time Syd would have risen to the challenge, but previous challenges involved white-water rafting, paragliding, a weekend course in tight-rope walking and belly dancing with a snake. All of them pre-death activities with all the risk stripped away. Knight shook his head and Syd remembered Christine wasn’t Christine.
“Go on then.”
Christine ordered them to place their hands on the table again, focus on the candle, ignore any external sensation, resist any temptation to leave their positions regardless of what might appear. Syd’s life depended on it. The incredible silence was interrupted by the patter of rain on the window behind the heavy curtain. The fabric moved, a slight billow, a bulge of anticipation from which a form appeared, the same translucent form she had seen earlier in the garden. It was nothing and yet something, an effect altering the space within it, the room coming into sharp focus, the colours saturating.
The form solidified and Syd found herself examining her own features examining Jessica who bristled under the influence of Syd’s alternative presence. Knight looked at the form and then at Syd. He leaned back when it stared him in the face. He was on the verge of speaking to it until the form noticed Syd and slipped around the table pushing a bubble of cold air, the same cold bubble that surrounded Christine. It stroked Syd’s face, pulled the collar of her tee shirt away from the skin and searched for a vein, a pulse. Her mouth drooped. Jessica winced, fascinated and horrified. Syd stiffened the way she would when a wasp buzzed around her head and she felt her own teeth touch down on soft flesh before penetrating, a sharp incision and compression as her own jaws clamped around the bite.
And then. . . .
A tremendous force, an agonising sensation, pain tunnelled deep into her body exciting a colossal release of endorphins and a surge of relaxation followed by weightlessness. In her blurring vision she saw Knight and Jessica on their feet, muffled voices pleading with Christine to stop, to make the monster go away, to save Syd. Knight reached out, but his hands went through the presence and he lost his balance finishing on one knee next to the table.
Syd felt her neck. Nothing. A pulse of blood burst into her head and the room came back into sharp focus. She turned to Knight and said, “You’re not proposing to me, are you?”
The unexpected visitor was one visitor too many for Jessica. She asked Christine to submit her invoice and apologised for dragging her over to Britain for nothing. Christine understood.
“What will you do with all the raw meat?”
“I thought you wanted it,” said Jessica.
“It wasn’t to eat. It was meant to generate the energy contained within flesh that is between life and death. It was working.”
“So I can throw it away?”
“Throw away perfectly good meat? Maybe you could give it to charity.”
“Yes. Yes, I’ll take it to the hospice tomorrow. Oh god, what am I saying. No, I’ll throw it out. It’s going out.” She apologised again and rushed upstairs before Knight could place his hands on a trembling limb.
“I always thought seances were a bit twee,” said Syd.
“Obviously not,” Knight said. “Obviously our Christine is something of a firebrand. Jess did tell us you had a reputation.”
“How gratifying. Mr Knight, Syd and I have some private business. We’ll see you in the morning.”
Misreading Christine’s proximity to Syd, shoulder to shoulder, he smiled, bowed, removed his hat, ran his fingers along the goose feather and laughed. “Understood. Girls want to be alone.”
Christine smiled back. “I’m not a girl.”
The rain held off. A brief shower washed away the mist for a few hours, but it was on the rise again and rolling in from the surrounding marshes. Syd followed Christine along damp ground into a skeletal copse of ash trees. “You’ll ruin those boots.”
“Plenty more where these came from. What exactly are you looking for? What do I ask Rob?”
“Rob? Oh yeah, Rob. Well, I suppose I should have asked earlier, but you could have summoned Neville Daley.”
Christine almost laughed out loud. “No chance of that.”
“You haven’t figured yet?” Christine pointed to her left. “I’m not a spiritualist.” The fresh corpse hovered in the canopy of a nearby tree. “Hypnotism, suggestion, call it what you want.
I can’t summon anything or anyone, but I am aware of them.”
“Dead people. They’re everywhere, but who comes forward is out of my control. If you wanted to find Neville Daley you could try visiting one of the places where he lived, or maybe the place where he died, but I don’t summon them. Sorry.”
“Genius. You had me fooled.”
“If I can fool you I can fool anyone. I could stand in a wood like this and wait to speak to someone, but . . . I don’t know. I’m confused.”
“You didn’t strike me as the confused type. I thought you were the rich business woman.”
“That’s not quite the same as communicating with the dead. It feels like it sometimes. You can lose the will to live at board meetings, but I’m stuck in a rut. Mooching from seance to seance, looking for someone. You know how we’re several steps removed from every human being on earth. I was hoping that principle might work with the dead. Someone on the other side knowing,” Christine stopped herself.
“It doesn’t matter.” She made a phone call. “Rob, are you ready?” The conversation was brief. “He’s ready, actually he’s over there.”
Rob Wallet was ready and quick. Dressed for the weather in some hotter part of the world, he wandered amongst the ash trees, studying the canopies. “Where are we exactly?”
“Bridge House,” Christine said. “Big garden.”
“Big enough for a stand of ash trees. How the other half live. What are you pointing at?”
Syd withdrew her index finger. “If you’re real then they’re all real.”
“You. Rob Wallet. I . . . So I was right, you’re Frieda?”
“I thought you knew.”
“I did, but you know, everything’s supposed to be a hoax right?”
“Oh, bollocks to all that,” said Wallet. “Hasn’t the world figured it out yet? The dead walk among us. It’s no big secret.”
“It might not be to you, you’re in the middle of it. Wait, for all I know the two of you could be working together. Hypnosis you said,” Christine, or Frieda, Christine for now, “this could be hypnosis.”
“Hypnosis or whatever, Frieda said you want help. Help concerning Elaine. Well sorry to disappoint you, but I’m not going to dish the dirt on Elaine. Factual stuff only.”
“I don’t want factual stuff, well, yeah, I want factual stuff, but stuff that’s not readily available to just anyone. This is supposed to be a biography.”
“Is he writing it?” Wallet nodded towards the house.
“Jonny, yes. Jonny Knight. How did you come to meet him?”
“Creative writing course.”
“Fuck me. Does he teach the module on melodrama?”
“Stop it. He’s a storyteller. He knows about structure, suspense, conducting the journey.”
“He couldn’t conduct a bus. Why are you wasting your time with him? Some advice, Syd. There’s a lot of bad shit surrounding Toten Herzen at the moment, what with the world tour, Interpol. And Frieda can fill you in on the Malandanti.”
Wallet’s refusal to co-operate distracted Syd from a ghostly figure leaning against one of the trees. A woman watching and listening, arms folded, bored glances at the sky. “That’s Veronique.” Wallet invited her over.
Veronique shook Syd’s hand. “Bon soir.”
“Bon soir. You’re French.”
Wallet sighed. “Everyone’s an expert.”
In the awkward silence Christine suggested they agree on a strategy to help, but Syd’s task, the challenge set by Knight, had been overtaken by the immediate world’s transformation from solid to transient; a rush of baffling questions concerning life, existence, reality. Wallet noticed the distant look in her eye. “You still don’t believe any of this, do you?”
“No. No, I don’t. I think it’s bullshit. I think you’re the arch bullshitter. A third rate Derren Brown-”
“Oh, not the old Derren Brown accusation.”
“Yeah, Derren Brown. At least he admits it’s all trickery. If you don’t want to help fine. Just let me get on with it. You were a failed journalist who spotted an opportunity and good luck to you. But you’re wasting my time.”
“Failed journalist? I found Toten Herzen. Yeah, what a failure that was. Can you hear this?” Two vampires and a ghost lined up in judgement; three against one. “I bet you still haven’t come across the Lincoln Vampire.”
Christine asked the same question. Veronique didn’t look too sure either.
“The Lincoln Vampire. How long have you been round here?”
“Never heard of it.”
“Local legend. And no, it’s not Dee Vincent or Elaine Daley. There’s supposed to be treasure waiting for anyone who finds out where the Lincoln Vampire is buried.”
“Get . . . bullshit. . . .”
“Get bullshit? What does that mean?” Wallet shrugged his shoulders and gripped Veronique by the waist. “I’ll leave you to it. We’re done here.”
“Wait a minute.”
Wallet vanished taking his ghostly partner with him.
Christine tutted. “Like he said. Everyone’s an expert.”
A second uneasy silence attracted a bloom of mist as dense as the smothering cloud that had covered the garden and the house (but not the surrounding area if Christine was telling the truth). “Now what?” said Syd.
Christine’s presence approached, as fluid as the mist, enveloping in equal measure; a formless intoxicating invasion and Christine’s mouth searching the side of Syd’s face, her earlobe, the sweep of tendon where it marries the muscle across the collarbone.
Syd tried to pull away and fell against the fridge door, the sound echoing off the hard kitchen surfaces. Knight angled his head around the door frame. “Syd? You’re up late.”
“Am I? Where’s Christine?”
“I presumed she was with you. I can see the attraction, Syd, but I didn’t know you were that way inclined. I think it’s been a long day for all of us. I was shattered a few hours ago, but now I’m wide awake. No point trying to fall asleep now.”
“What way inclined? What are you talking about, Jonny.”
“Are you all right? You look a bit disorientated. Exhaustion does that to you. Wait a minute.” Knight fumbled in Syd’s hair. “You have leaves in your hair.”
“What?” Syd snatched her head and pulled away two brittle brown leaves, unspeaking interlopers fragmenting in her palms.
“They look like lime leaves. Tilia cordata. Making love amongst the limes, how romantic-”
“Will you shut the fuck up. Christine and I are not lesbians. Well, I’m not a lesbian, I don’t know about her. She keeps looking at me like she wants to bury her tongue down my throat. Where have these come from?” She threw the leaves into the sink and blasted them to mush with a jet of water. “I’m going to bed. I don’t know what the fuck’s going on.”
“Didn’t you go out?”
“I heard the doors sliding, the conservatory doors. Jessica calls it the orangery, but there’s nothing citric about anything that grows in there.”
“Get to the point, Jonny.”
“I know Jess went to bed. She snores like a locomotive, so I presumed it was you two who went outside.”
“I haven’t been outside.”
Knight’s head wobbled. “The leaves? Lime trees don’t grow indoors, Syd. Far too big.”
Lime trees. Syd replayed the hours: Knight arriving by taxi earlier in the day – yesterday – and Jessica coming home with a bag full of raw meat. Christine’s sudden appearance and the encounter outside the bathroom, the seance and the candle flame in the middle of the table.
“How did the seance go?” she asked.
“You were there, you saw the fresh corpse and the thing that came after it.” Knight held up his palm. “Don’t move, stay there, don’t move.” He backed out of the kitchen. Footsteps raced up the staircase and then silence. Syd moved to the drawing room where Christine conducted the seance. Knight raced past, double-backed, burst into the room, out of breath and shuffling papers. He put a book on the table.
“No, no . . . listen.” He scrambled through the papers. “Rob Wallet mentioned it, here, here it is. Susan Bekker, attacked Valentine’s Day, night actually, but let’s not split hairs. To this day she still doesn’t know who attacked her. Who bit. Syd, she can’t remember who turned her.” He dropped the papers onto the table and in a rush of fingers and thumbs opened the book. It was his own novel The Dead Heart Weeps. Syd felt her own heart cracking up. “Here, it’s here here here, here it is. Not even the thunder, an unearthly explosion of violence renting the clouds asunder could jolt her memory. Not even the trauma of the rainstorm crashing across her face, saturating her hair, freezing the living skin on her forehead could penetrate her mind. Not even the explosive gale that picked her up, carried her against her will towards the nectarines, could buffet her inner recollection. . . .”
“What’s the point of all this, Jonny?” Syd sat down and rubbed her eyes.
Knight didn’t answer. He stood frozen by the chilly atmosphere and Christine stepping alongside him. “I heard you rushing about. Is something wrong?”
Knight stuttered. “No. No. Nope. Nothing, were all tickety-boo. Syd, you’re okay aren’t you?”
“Buggered if I know.”
“I’ll go back to bed then,” Christine said. “Looks like the mist is coming down again. I hope we don’t get trapped here.”
“No.” Knight closed the cover of the book and hid the title. “Still, we’re all right for food if we are going to be here a few days.” He laughed alone. “I’ll leave you two . . . to it, whatever.” Before Syd could speak, “I know what you said. My mistake. Goodnight.” He turned to kiss Christine by the hand and failed again. “Goodnight Christine of Bamberg. What a truly mysterious woman you are.”
“Not a girl.”
“I’m not a girl, no.”
“No.” Head bowed, he backed away for two steps and noticed his papers on the table. “Forgot these. Sorry.”
When he was gone Christine said, “Are you okay?”
“Yeah. Why shouldn’t I be.” She pointed at Christine’s dress. “You’ve got blood on the collar. You been at the raw meat?”
“How clumsy. I’ll ask Jessica to recommend a dry cleaners.” She kissed Syd’s cheek and said goodnight. Long after she was gone the cold air lingered, reminiscent of winter days and exposed walks and the time of year when life withdraws into the heartwood abandoning the world to be roamed by the imaginary and speculative, the translucent and unfathomable, unreachable like a forgotten memory that leaves its trace, but not its message. Back in her room Syd surrendered to exhaustion. Too tired to undress she fell onto the bed and felt a lump beneath the duvet. An apple. A gift? A clue? She placed it on the bedside table and wondered if she was about to fall asleep or wake up.