Authors: Oscar de Muriel
‘I will pay you a visit soon,’ Clouston said as he and Tom walked out. He looked directly into Lady Anne’s eyes. ‘To make sure the girl is all right.’
The only reply he received was a groan, but it was enough to tell him that Caroline would be left alone. Clouston had gained some power over the mighty Lady Anne – and he would wield it.
Tom saw that Lord Ardglass was settled comfortably in the carriage and they were soon on their way back, the howling of the hounds fading slowly into the distance.
The doctor finally relaxed.
He thought he was through the worst, but he could have never imagined for how long this night would haunt him, how many lives would be wrecked or how many death sentences he had just signed.
Adolphus McGray felt the pain long before he noticed the soft rocking of the carriage, before he heard the sound of the horses’ hooves, before the morning light filtered through his eyelids.
It was a stinging, burning pain in his right hand. Dr Clouston had said it would go away soon, but perhaps he had simply lied. Adolphus would not blame him: the doctor had tried to make things easier, but there were some blows no kind deeds could soften.
When the carriage finally halted the doctor spoke gently. ‘Adolphus, we’ve arrived. I’ve brought you home.’
Adolphus pretended not to hear. He did not want to wake up to that world. Not yet.
Dr Clouston sighed. ‘All right, I will help Amy first and then I’ll come back.’
Adolphus heard him descend. His little sister – nicknamed Pansy, as her wide, dark eyes and thick lashes resembled her mother’s favourite flower – had travelled in a second carriage, knocked out by Clouston’s most potent laudanum, her hands and feet tied up with bandages.
Just thinking of that made Adolphus weep, and a nasty shudder ran through his body. He instinctively raised his right hand to wipe the tears, but then he saw the bulky bandaging and the blood stains.
He still had that image imprinted in his memory. Not of his dead parents, or of his sister stabbing his hand, but of that – creature.
It could not be real. None of it.
He thought he would wait, just for a moment, to calm down, and as soon as he pulled himself together he would step out and help Clouston carry Pansy into the house. It would take one minute.
Unfortunately he did not get the chance. He heard a third carriage enter the square of Moray Place, its horses galloping and neighing wildly.
Adolphus caught a glimpse through his carriage door, and saw that it was a large coach: an elegant landau, lustre black, with its bellows top folded back. It was, despite his misfortunes, a fine summer morning.
Immediately he heard yelling. George, the old butler, was cursing and even the refined Dr Clouston was shouting furiously.
How dare you?
’ Adolphus heard him yell. ‘How dare you come right now?’
A female voice he knew well retorted, and Adolphus had to shake off his grief.
As he jumped down Adolphus saw the tall figure of Lady Glass, still dressed in mourning. Her adult son had died some six months ago, and even though she conformed to the colour etiquette, she also sported the widest hat adorned with black plumes and stuffed birds.
Alistair Ardglass, her very chubby nephew, was helping her down from their carriage. The old lady seemed as anxious about exposing her ankles as she was about damaging the ostrich feathers of her flamboyant fan.
‘What d’youse want?’ Adolphus cried, even though he knew. He felt a surge of burning rage ascend from his stomach; they were already coming to scavenge his family estate.
The old woman’s eyes fixed on Adolphus’s hand. She fanned herself as if trying to cleanse the air before her nose. ‘Young man …’
‘Don’t give me that condescending shite. I’m twenty-five years old.’
Lady Anne smiled sardonically. ‘Very well,
Adolphus Mc – Oh, silly me! You are now the
Mr McGray.’ She basked in those words. ‘I come to regain possession of this residence.’
Lady Anne faltered, as if the words had been a physical blow.
‘What’s the matter?’ Adolphus said. ‘Have ye been lifting yer flask this early, Lady Glass?’
‘This property still belongs to my aunt,’ Alistair intervened, his tone even more arrogant than the old woman’s. ‘Your father paid her less than half, and since he’s passed away we are within our rights to repossess.’
‘We can afford to pay it off, ye fat bastard!’
‘That is not the point,’ said Lady Anne. ‘I want my property back. I regret ever offering it to the likes of you.’
‘And I’m sorry my dad ever made business with such a drunken bitch.’
Alistair jumped up. ‘Don’t talk to my aunt like that, you filthy shack-dweller.’
Adolphus thrust a punch right into her nephew’s chubby face. Alistair fell backwards on to Lady Anne’s bosom, and would have received a good beating, but Adolphus had thrown the punch with his injured hand.
’ he yelled, feeling the stitches burst. He nearly lost his balance, but Clouston caught him.
The doctor’s voice was a deep, menacing growl. ‘Lady Anne, you had better leave now, if you know what’s best for you!’
‘Doctor, do not force me to be impudent,’ she said, barely noticing her bleeding nephew. ‘This matter does not concern you. As my nephew Alistair said, we are within our legal rights to –’
‘Oh, don’t throw that legal waffle at me again!’ Clouston snapped. ‘If you really thought this was legal, you’d have brought your lawyers to witness it.’
The woman drew her fan close to her chest.
Clouston pulled Adolphus away, staring fixedly at Lady Anne. ‘Go away and do not bother this family any more. I will not have you try anything against them.’
‘Doctor’ – Lady Anne stepped towards them – ‘you cannot interfere in my affairs. You cannot do –’
‘Lady Anne, you know damn well what I can do!’
She stopped, her face livid, as if she’d hit a brick wall.
‘You would never dare,’ she whispered, her chest swollen, her bony hands clutching the black feathers.
,’ Clouston said, edging closer, ‘would not dare risk it.’
Few people had ever intimidated Lady Anne – and she’d been in the world for a good many years – but for the briefest of moments she looked as meek as a cat.
Adolphus let Clouston drag him into the house. He was about to ask what had shaken Lady Glass so badly, but then he saw that old George was struggling to lift Pansy.
Despite the excruciating pain in his hand, Adolphus rushed to lift his sister and carried her inside. He did not want the neighbours to see her in such a sorry state.
The McGrays would not hear from Lady Anne for a good while.
‘There you go,’ Clouston said, tying up the last end of the fresh bandages.
Adolphus turned his head back, for Clouston had made him look away while he worked. The bandaging looked as bulky as before, but the cloth was clean and the bleeding had finally stopped.
It had been the ring finger of his right hand: chopped off less than cleanly, leaving only a phalange. It would be an eternal reminder of that terrible night.
And the news would travel fast, eventually becoming part of the city’s lore. From then on, everyone would know him as Nine-Nails McGray.
‘At least I can still give Lady Glass the two fingers,’ he said, smiling bitterly.
Dr Clouston did not laugh. If possible, he looked even more miserable.
‘What is it?’
Meticulously, the doctor placed his instruments back into his case, and then he looked at Adolphus with almost fearful eyes. ‘I need to take her to the asylum.’
Adolphus could barely reply. His voice came out as a gasp. ‘What? She’s not a lunatic!’
‘Just for the time being. You know she needs proper treatment.’
Adolphus jumped to his feet. ‘Ye cannae take her there!’
Clouston could not look him in the eye. ‘Please, don’t make me say out loud what she’s done.’
Adolphus felt a nasty chill. It was as if those words opened the box he’d been trying to keep locked. He frowned, his lip trembled, and for the first time in his adult life he burst into tears in front of someone else. He sank back into the seat, covering his face in utter shame and sobbing like a young child.
A sharp, cold realization of the full weight of the tragedy had struck him.
Amy had murdered their parents.
It materialized as an icy pain in his chest, a physical distress that would not go away for months.
Clouston squeezed Adolphus’s shoulder and gave him a few minutes to grieve.
‘I will take good care of her,’ he said at last. ‘You know that, don’t you?’
Adolphus used the clean bandages to wipe his tears. ‘Aye, I ken.’ He looked up at the doctor and asked an unnecessary question: ‘When d’ye want to take her?’
‘Right away, I’m afraid.’
Adolphus nodded, his eyes lost, and stood up before the sorrow overwhelmed him again. He realized it would be better not to think.
he told himself.
Don’t think, just move
He dragged himself to the small study, the room where his father had liked to lock himself with a book or a cigar. Adolphus pushed that image away.
Pansy was still sleeping on the sofa where he had carefully placed her. Betsy, their old servant, had changed her into the first clean garment she’d found: a blue summer dress of thin silk, so the girl had curled up to keep herself warm. Her long eyelashes quivered in her troubled slumber.
Adolphus forced himself to look away. If he saw his sister’s young face, he could never let Clouston take her. He steeled himself to pick her up, gently wrapping her in a woollen blanket that George had brought.
The few steps from the study to Clouston’s coach were the hardest Adolphus had ever taken, and when the girl was secured on the seat he did not want to leave her.
Clouston closed the carriage door. ‘Is there anything I can do?’
Adolphus shook his head. ‘Ye’ve done all ye could.’
Again Clouston patted him on the back. ‘I shall come back and check on you very soon. Is that all right?’
Adolphus didn’t really hear the question. He only reacted as the doctor was about to leave. ‘Wait!’ he gasped.
Clouston looked back. ‘Yes?’
‘What was it she said? Before she attacked ye?’
The doctor cleared his throat and swallowed with difficulty. It would be useless to conceal the truth; old George had heard her too.
‘She … Well, she mentioned the Devil.’
‘But she was delirious,’ Clouston had added promptly, almost as a sort of apology. ‘She could have said anything
Adolphus had spent all day in his late father’s study, with nothing in his head but that short sentence.
She mentioned the Devil …
He only became aware of the hour when George came into the room to light the candles, but that was not enough to stir him. He stayed in the armchair, motionless, deep in thought.
What had it been? Had his senses failed him? Had his own mind snapped as well?
He shook his head.
seen it. He knew it so well he could not fool himself; he could see it every time he closed his eyes, as if it were scarred on to his retinae: the silhouette of a deformed, twisted figure, moving spasmodically as it made its way towards a window.
And that silhouette had horns.
When summons come at three in the morning on New Year’s Day, you know that you have hard times ahead.
It took me a while to hear the banging at the front door, for I was sleeping deeply, still recovering from my rushed trip back to Edinburgh. I had spent Christmas at my uncle’s estate in Gloucestershire – a trip which had not ended well at all.
I realized I’d been dreaming of my late mother, something that had not happened in years. We lost her to a virulent bout of typhoid fever. In a blink she was gone. Even though I could not remember the dream itself, I was left with a vivid, lingering sadness. A remnant of the pain we had endured during her last few days, which had become a recurrent ache throughout my life, like one of those memories triggered by a familiar smell.
In the dream I had been in London, which I missed dearly, for I’d not visited my home city since November, when the most ghastly affairs had forced me to Scotland. I had left the capital in apparent disgrace, under direct orders from the prime minister himself, and unable to tell the complex facts to anyone.
The world still thought I had been jilted by my fiancée, demoted and forced to take on the most humiliating and ridiculous post the British CID could offer. I would be assisting the newly formed Commission for the Elucidation of Unsolved Cases Presumably Related to the Odd and Ghostly. Yes, such a preposterous department indeed exists, and it does
what its name suggests.
So there I was, exiled from my beloved capital, in a new post which gave me hardly any joy. A sad resident of
, a city where I knew no one except my younger brother Elgie – who would in fact be leaving in a few months – and where the days were even greyer than London’s. And yes, dear reader, that is indeed possible.
Now I belonged nowhere.
Just as I thought of that, the thumping on the door resounded in my head, like an insisting nagging, telling me exactly where I was: Moray Place, Edinburgh, at the house of Adolphus ‘Nine-Nails’ McGray, lying on a hard bed that was older than my housekeeper, who did not hear my calls.
‘Joan?’ I grunted, rubbing my eyes. ‘
I sat up, suddenly realizing that it was not a usual knocking; someone was desperately hammering at McGray’s door. Why was Joan not answering it? It was not a noise one could easily ignore.
’ I called even louder, but McGray’s ancient butler did not reply either.
A horrendous realization hit me: for the first time in my thirty-one years of existence I would have to descend to the lowest of the low and answer the blasted door
I cursed and cursed as I threw on my dressing robes. The CID clerks were supposed to arrange proper accommodation for me, but now, nearly two months after my initial transfer, I was still sharing lodgings with the most outlandish, vulgar, infamous man that Scotland has ever spawned.
As I reached the entrance hall I saw the man himself emerging from his library: red-eyed and yawning, yet fully dressed in a pair of his gaudy tartan trousers with a mismatched waistcoat. While I am a little taller and perhaps thinner than the average man, McGray is a towering, broad-shouldered, imposing fellow.
The one damned night I manage to drift off!
’ he roared, making me jump. ‘I’m gonnae punch someone to a pulp!’
I could not tell whether he meant that figuratively – mere minutes after I’d first met ‘Nine-Nails’ McGray I had witnessed him break a man’s arm.
‘Frey, where the hell’s yer lazy maid?’
‘Why, this is
bloody household. Where is that old sack of bones whom you call a butler?’
Then we heard a giggle and the swish of clothes. Joan, a stout middle-aged widow, was coming from the back room, wrapping herself in a shawl, with an odd grin on her face. We instantly understood the source of her jolliness: George came right behind her, smoothing out his dishevelled grey hair with one hand and with the other buttoning up his old breeches.
Their smiles vanished as soon as they saw us.
McGray’s square jaw dropped to the floor.
Joan, usually the quickest chatterbox in the house, was paralysed with shock. The very corners of her mouth, however, were still tilted upwards.
‘Sir … shall I get the –’
I snapped, ‘
blasted – bloody – late.
‘Get away, youse kinky rascals!’ McGray yelled, but as soon as they were gone he let out the loudest of cackles. ‘
Joan and auld George!
Frey, did ye ken they were dancing the blanket hornpipe?’
I shivered. ‘Yes. I, well, sort of – sort of saw.’
Another shiver, this time shared by McGray.
The banging had become, if anything, more desperate.
‘I suppose I’ll answer that,’ I grunted, pulling the door handle. Icy wind and snowflakes hit my face. The moonless sky was still pitch black, and the only light was the golden gleam of the street lamps, barely enough to recognize the elongated features of Constable McNair.
The scrawny lad seemed to have one of the most unfortunate posts in the Scottish police, being summoned at the most unearthly hours whenever required. That night he looked positively mortified.
‘McNair! Are you trying to pulverize this door?’
‘Sorry, sirs,’ he said, panting. Despite the flickering snow there were trickles of sweat on his temples. ‘Superintendent Campbell sent me to fetch youse right away.’
‘Someone better be dying, laddie,’ said McGray, making the young officer gulp in distress.
‘Oh dear,’ I groaned, reading his distorted face.
McNair fell silent. We were expectant, but he fixed his eyes on the floor.
‘And?’ McGray urged.
McNair looked at him rather fearfully. ‘It’s a young lass – in the lunatic asylum. She