Sugar

‘Sugar, my dear?’

A quick nod and Mrs Fitz plinks a lump of Demerara from eagle-claw tongs into the steaming mix of gin and water and swirls the liquid around the glass. Juniper vapours suffuse the dank air as a mittened hand clutches the tumbler.

‘We got troubles Mrs Fitz.’ the man growls in between loud slurps of the toddy.

She flicks her gaze up and down the bar, checking the custom. Just regulars, so no-one likely to run to the peelers.

‘What kind of troubles Mr Casey?’ she whispers.

Casey flicks aside the woollen comforter keeping the winter chill from his throat and reaches inside his shabby, black greatcoat. He extracts a newspaper and crackles it flat onto the wooden counter. A grimy thumb underscores the report in question. Mrs Fitz squints at the page. She can make out that it is The Examiner, and today’s edition – January 6th- but where his jagged, tobacco-stained nail creases the paper all she can make out are the words ‘Confederacy of the Police and Thieves’. A twinge of unease pulls at her guts. She flaps her hands in front of her face, though in truth it is so cold inside the Luke’s Head her breath is misting in the night air.

‘Now then Mr Casey, you knows I ain’t no good with reading them fiddly letters. You just give me the particulars.’

He leans forward so far his stubbled chin is in danger of scraping against her earlobe.

‘Charlie King, our bent copper, he’s been nabbed. That little runt Johnny Reeves squealed when they had him in the Westminster Bridewell.’ he leans back to let the news sink in, and grasps the rough stoneware jug from the bar and sloshes another gin into his glass.

Mrs Fitz’s eyes widen and her thoughts fly to the pile of silk and leather purses sitting on her bedstool; the haul from Boxing Day by the Serpentine when King had stood watch as Mr Casey’s boys did their dipping. Evidence enough to see them both transported to the Colonies. Twelfth Night or not, there is work needs doing.

[alert_standard] [one_fifth_first] This short piece is based on a true story. You can see the original report on the bottom right of this page from The Examiner on Twelfth Night 1855.The gruesome double murder in Warren Street is also fascinating.[/alert_standard]

The House at Mortlake

The man hunched over the ink stained table in front of him, straining to see in the flickering light of the tallow candles that lined the shelves of his book filled study. Tattered manuscripts and leather bound volumes littered every surface and spilled over into chaotic piles across the uneven stone flags of the floor. His dark eyes gleamed from their deep-set sockets as he once again checked the accuracy of his calculations.

He had foretold life and death in all its forms, from obscurity to greatness, from the lingering decline of old age to the sudden violence of murder. Indeed he risked a fiery death himself merely for preparing such predictions. He could see the crackling flames of his execution pyre in the troubled vision of his imagination even now. But some truths required the seeker to risk the valley of shadow before they revealed themselves. The zodiac contained the dark secrets of every man’s destiny, for those with the gift and knowledge to divine the truth. This, however, was different. The chart spread on the table before him was unlike any he had ever seen for a living man.

He pulled the fur of his cloak tighter around his shoulders, the room suddenly chilling him to his marrow. He ran his claw-like fingers through the wisps of his greying hair that poked from beneath the wool of the skullcap that covered his head from the cold. Staring out across the gleaming silver ribbon of the river Thames he saw the dark spire of St Paul’s, a shadow that dwarfed all the other buildings at the heart of the sleeping city of London. His breath frosted in the night air as he scratched figures onto a corner of the rough paper. But both the positioning of all the five planets on the glittering disk of his astrolabe, and the readings from the tables of his almanac were undoubtedly correct. He pushed the diagram away and sank back into the cracked leather of his chair. A dry sickness burned at his throat, and his heart pumped so hard that in the silence of the evening he could hear his blood as it rushed through his veins. The blackness of his silhouette flickered against the walls, the hook of his nose and long straggling braids of his beard wavering in the candlelight. He felt the inky wraiths of the night seeping into his bones as he considered the chart before him.

Filled with an uneasy foreboding he now wished he could escape this task, but he had taken the money. And the taciturn messenger who had commissioned the chart, and sworn him to secrecy as to its results, had not carried the air of a man who enjoyed equivocation. Such characters did not come to Doctor John Dee, foremost scholar and adept of the astrological and magical arts and advisor to Queen Elizabeth herself, without good reason. His mind churned as he considered the enormity of the futures revealed in the horoscope in front of him. For the stars could not lie, and the twisted web of possibilities written in the constellations of the sky had not been seen on earth for centuries.
In the eighth and ninth houses, those that spoke of the individual’s relation to the rest of the world, the eddies of one person’s life on the tide of history, like a pillar of fire, burning the eyes and gripping the heart, was the Alexandrine conjunction. Since the beginning of time he knew of only three men with this most portentous of planetary alignments. Now he held in his hands a fourth. A man who could, by the force of his will alone, reshape the world. But he also saw the dark imprint of powers opposed to that will. His hands trembled as he looked out across the moonlit rooftops of the city. The stars of the night sky glimmered in the velvet blue of the heavens. With a heavy sigh he shifted forwards in his seat, and started to write.

As he did so his mind turned over again and again the same question. Whose destiny did he describe, and could it possibly be the man who would finally unravel the mysteries of the red and the white rose, the eternal alembic, the very secrets of everlasting life? And would this dazzling promise be fulfilled before the looming fates he could see in the horoscope intervened? Doctor Dee’s hand shook as he scribbled his predictions onto the coarse pages of his notebook, and he felt the animal prickle of fear claw at his belly.

Shakedown

Obsidian eyes glint from a face so wrinkled its slow movements seem more those of Tomás de Berlanga’s leathery Galapagos Turtles than a human. A sly grin reveals a serrated battlement of teeth, stained with the juice of the betel nut he is forever chewing, occasioning a regular spume of livid fluid towards the brass spittoon nestling alongside the porcelain lion-dog that guards the foot of his desk.

‘You ready?’ the Chinese asks, chopping the words short as he stuffs another betel leaf into his cheek.

A nod of reply and he is up out of his seat. He sidles towards a concertina of lacquered screens, and for a second it is as though he has stepped into the inlaid scene of yellow cranes and waterside teahouses, as the black of his collarless jacket fuses with the ebony gleam of the wood. He beckons with a gnarled claw and the visitor follows. As they round the last of the concealing barriers the technician’s breath is stolen from his lungs, and a prickle of anticipation plays at the nape of his neck. He knows the faces, and how much the suppression of scandal will be worth to their self-regardingly noble families.

A trio of young white men are sprawled across brocade reclining couches, the gleam of their pale nakedness apparent even through the heavy haze of pungent blue smoke. Each has a pipe snaking between his lips, coiling down to a panchachilam, the five-bowled hookah, and the soft glaze-eyed features of an habitué. From the cloying wraiths of smoke these are no ordinary opium fiends, as the earthy scent of datura, the witches’ weed so often cursed in folklore for driving young lovers to madness, also hangs in the air along with the sensual aroma of the poppy. Each has his own oriental handmaiden swathed in a flowing gauzy shift under which their golden bodies swim in a sinuous mist of suggestion. Cascading hair shimmers in black diamond waterfalls and brushes the welcoming skin beneath, and soft-lipped kisses break the silence as they dance their tongues over the luxuriating forms that are floating in a suspension of languorous, fervid dreams.

The old man hisses an order and the three girls slink out of their flimsy coverings. Two of them straddle a prone body each, their lithe torsos and breasts glimmering in the firelight, whilst the third moistens her lips with a flicking tongue and teases at the hardening flesh of her charge, as she arches her back in a knowing manoeuvre that highlights the delicious roundness of her buttocks.

The visitor has been busy, his trembling hands assembling the equipment. He signals his readiness to the hovering Chinaman who growls another command. The girls freeze in position. The technician removes the cap from the lens of his camera. He is using the modern wet collodion plate, so the exposure, even in the flickering flames, will only be sixty seconds. The only sound he can hear is the thumping of his own heart and the crinkling in his mind of crisp white banknotes.

The Summoning

Cold snakes of fog writhe from the sluggish flow of the Thames, deadening the clip-clop of the carriage horses that trot past in the gloom, harnesses clinking as they dissolve into the mists of Soho.
‘Shilling for one of the Six Hundred Sir? First to the guns for Queen and country.’ As the beggar thrusts a battered army cap forward with a reek of sour ale a grimy eye-patch, set in a sea of scars that disfigure a shattered cheek and jaw, breaks into the flickering glare of the gaslights. Tennyson only published in The Examiner days ago, and surely this wretch cannot have been shipped from the Crimea in six weeks? But he gets a sixpence for sheer gall, and raises a knuckle to his temple as he turns for the gin-shop at the corner of Wardour Street.
A siren voice calls from the warm light under a painted sign announcing Mrs. Dawson’s Dress Emporium.
‘Care for a fitting dearie? You look a well-built fellow.’ she trills, swishing her skirts so the material gleams in invitation. An acceptance will win passage through the veil of heavy velvet curtains at the rear of the shop to the narrow stairwell up which the real business is conducted. Under her feet, in the dripping walls of the basement room two sullen-eyed waifs watch as their mother vomits her life away while Vibrio Cholarae breeds inside her. The industrious Pacini has this same year identified the germ through his microscopical investigations, but what can a subject of that medieval fantasia Lombardy-Venetia know of medicine? Doctor Snow, who cannot be doubted on the grounds of being a feverish Latin, has also produced his outlandish theory of little unseen creatures – but everyone knows the science is settled and a miasma of foul breezes transmit the disease. So although the handle was removed from the pump on Broad Street in September other sources of infection remain. The children will be buried in the same grave, as the parish coffers of St. Luke’s are drained by the epidemic.
Next door to the bawdy den the grey stones and leaded windows are covered in a spreading crust of green algae, as though nature is rebelling against the artifice of human ingenuity and reclaiming the façade. The curious potential customer extracts his handkerchief and wipes clear a viewing hole into the dank interior; he makes out an eccentric jumble of bric-a-brac, furniture and dusty piles of leather-bound manuscripts. A balding toy monkey sits expectantly, cymbals poised to clash, waiting for the maestro’s acknowledgement. A pair of russet enamel vases, one with an umbrella poking out of the top, the other blessed with a cascade of curling, desiccated lilac blooms, the promise of their heady, sultry perfume enticing one over the threshold through the glass. And perched atop a French Empire escritoire, eyes glinting ovals of night in the reflected brilliance of gold leaf patterning, sits a lacquerware demon. His tongue protrudes rudely between razor teeth, lolling down onto his blood-red chest as his gaze sends out an irresistible summons. Entering, as under a spell, the traveller falls into the darkness of another world.

The Ruby Stradivarius

The room fills with the scratching of nib across paper as Jacob prays for his hand to cease trembling and let him sign the contract. He closes his eyes and forces in a ragged breath as he screws the barrel of the pen back into its lid and places it with a solid clunk on the heavy wood of the table. He opens them to see the knowing smile of his new employer breaking across his broad, open face, the greying eyebrows arched above the cornflower blue eyes.

‘Congratulations Herr Shulman! And welcome to our little band.’ Jacob’s hand is wrapped inside the older man’s and shaken effusively.

‘Thank you Herr Direktor, thank you! I hope…that is I know…I mean I want you to know…..’ the words come rushing out until the Direktor shushes him with a wave of his hands.

‘Peace Jacob, peace, or how will you play? For, now we have the formalities over with, it is time.’ As he speaks Jacob follows through the gleaming oak doorway and glides down the scarlet silk carpet, under the opulent glint of gilded traceries and diamond sparkle of teardrop chandeliers, breathing in the history heavy air to the echoes of ghostly applause showering down from the gods. And there it is. Balanced on a single chair, commanding the platform of the gently raked stage, the Ruby Stradivarius, its dark sinuous tones gleaming under the spotlight, throwing down its challenge.

‘As leader it is yours, and only yours, to play as long as you are with us…’ and the gesture is made, inviting Jacob to claim his prize.

‘I can’t believe…..all my life I’ve wanted….how did you come by such a masterpiece?’ and instantly the question is regretted, as the first note of dissonance intrudes. The esteemed Direktor pulls at his cuffs and shifts his glance away.

Jacob feels without being able to say why that somehow a mistake has been made, expectations tarnished, the off-colour joke at a family funeral, or the unwanted advance that hangs in the air long after the rejection.

‘We have been very fortunate Herr Shulman…..after the war….well you know how things were. A generous benefactor, a reparation you might say….’ he coughs into a handkerchief and the words tail off.

And still Jacob stands, disturbed and dazzled by the moment, his limbs chained, until a controlling grip on his shoulder thrusts him forward. Now the instrument is cradled in his hands, nestled to his chin, and with a sweep of the bow is singing, singing with such ethereal sweetness, rise after rise of spiralling cadenzas that flow one upon another as he feels the violin pulse under his fingers, the strings shimmering. Plunged into ecstasy Jacob is lost.

Then in an instant his startled eyes recoil as the polished veneer is now not ruby, but a roiling sea of blood, and the music a despairing, mournful glissando, as cold skeletal fingers entwine with his, falling whispers of ringlets brush his cheek and caress the living wood. Flesh pressing down on the strings, flesh pressing out against the razor-wire, a cremation ash of falling rosin gleaming under the searchlights, as the dogs snarl and the wail of the music is lost in the dead rumble of wagon doors. Sing unto the Lord a new song. Hear me when I call O God of my righteousness. Crimson flames glimmering in its curves, a defiant crescendo spills out, denying death, as a stolen life reclaims a stolen violin and sings its song into eternity.

Cherry Blossom

All composed things are an illusion

A drop of dew, a flash of lightning

Diamond that cuts through Illusion Sutra

Wind cuts at the fleeing samurai’s face, stabbing darts of ice on exposed skin. Rasping breath clouds silver in the moonlight.The crunch of snow beneath his feet is answered by the wail of an unseen owl. Flakes spiral in the gusts, dancing with the scented softness of falling cherry blossoms, their sweetness jarring with his sour sweat. Fear crushes his ribcage as he dodges between headstones. Murmuring in the high cedars is a whisper from the million souls who surround him, ready to spring from their graves and take vengeance for his broken vows. Gripping tighter on the leather handle of his shattered short-sword, he peers into the night seeking out the flickering lanterns that will mark the sanctuary of the temple.

‘Lord Buddha of ultimate compassion help me now…’ the gasped prayer is cut off. He skitters to a dead stop, the bloodied rags wrapped around his feet losing purchase on the frosted stone. His eyes flicker in a desperate search for escape. Then with a dreadful certainty he knows. There will be no sanctuary. He drops to his knees and waits.