The Curse of the Blue Scarab
An excerpt from the novel by Josh Lanyon
I Am Called In
I remember the fog was particularly thick that February morning.
Pressing its formless face to the steamy window panes, grey and dreary as a specter, it crept down the chimney, dripping and hissing onto the smoking logs.
Drip. Hiss. Drip. Hiss.
An otherwise unremarkable start to the day that was to change my life forever.
Bird, my servant, an ex-sergeant of Marines, was spinning some lengthy and involved yarn about his exploits at Ladysmith while I attempted to read my magazine and finish my breakfast before the business of the day began.
“Those were weary hours. Lying on that hill while the bullets hailed down on us. I can still hear ‘em cutting through the air and clacking on the rocks. You couldn’t hear yourself think...”
“One can only imagine,” I murmured.
My name is Armiston. I’m a physician living and working in the West End. This sounds grander than the reality which is a little flat over a grocer’s shop in a small side-street off Piccadilly. My patients are principally the servants (and principally the men-servantsbutlers, coachmen and such) from the big houses and clubs.
“Nine hours we clung to that pile of stones. Cartridges dwindling and men dying. I can tell you hope was fading…”
“I feel as though I’m there beside you.” I turned the page of the paper, studying the dubious claims in the advertisement for Madam Harper’s hair tonic.
In the street below a couple of news-boys began yelling about exciting information exclusive to the special edition of the Daily Tale. I knew nothing would satisfy Bird till he got a copy. So I sent him out.
Drip. Hiss. Drip. Hiss.
Presently the outer door was flung open, and a man’s voice demanded whether the doctor was in.
“Second door right-hand side of lobby,” I shouted, and the man was in before I could swallow another mouthful.
He was a handsome, well-dressed young fellow, though noticeably lame. He leaned heavily upon an ebony walking stick--I noticed he wore no gloves--and his face was bloodless and strained with pain and shock.
I rose at once, ready to go to his aid, but his words stopped me.
“Sorry to come in on you like this,” he said, “but there has been a sudden death in Albanya man I knowand I--we--need you to come round at once.”
His eyes, dark now with emotion, appeared to be gray in color. His hair was black. He was perhaps thirty.
“I see.” I left the paper-knife to mark my place in the magazine. “Are you quite sure he’s dead?”
“I’m afraid there’s no doubt about it.”
“Poor fellow,” I said, and sat down again. “If he’s dead, I may as well finish my breakfast.”
The young man stared as though he could not believe his ears.
I took another mouthful of kippers.
“You damned cold-blooded c-cormorant,” said the young fellow very angrily. “Will you come or won’t you?”
I studied him for a moment. Too thin, nervy, and young. Younger than I had first thought. Pain and illness had taken their toll.
“Not unless you want me,” I assured him, “but I’m ready if you are--and it seems you are.” I took one final bite, rising and turning into the lobby for a hat, munching the last of my breakfast as I followed my visitor out.
I didn’t mind his remarks, for though my attitude was both logical and practical, his sentiment was natural enough. I observed his awkward gait as he preceded me down the stairs. He managed to move quickly, which must have hurt considerably.
Instinctively I patted my hip-pocket, to make sure that my hypodermic case was there. It is an old servant, and reminds me of a good many queer things if I sit down to overhaul it. But the queerest had not happened when I felt it in my hip-pocket that raw February morning.
A taxi-cab waited at the street door, noxious fumes pooling into the fog. We piled inside and the cab pulled away at once.
Maxwell, as he told me his name was, said that he and another man had gone round to breakfast at the Albany, and had found their host lying lifeless on the ground.
“Poor Scrymgeour’s man Seymour knew you,” he said. “He gave me your address.”
The name Scrymegeour was unfamiliar to me and I could think of no patient named Seymour. I had a number of questions--beginning with why Scrymegeour’s own physician had not been summoned--but it seemed futile to quiz Maxwell when I was about to see for myself.
My companion did not appear to be a talkative man. His profile was grim and withdrawn as he stared at the cab window. The hand clutching his walking stick clenched and unclenched in unconscious anxiety.
In a few minutes we reached the Albany. Maxwell paid the driver and we hurried inside.
All was quiet. There was no sign of life. And by the same token, no indication that a death had occurred. The gas lamps made a valiant effort to challenge the chilly gloom of the day, but the soft light could not dispel the shadows lurking in the corners.
We hastened up the stairs. We had just reached the top of the dimly lit landing when a woman seemed to come out of nowhere, narrowly missing collision. Head down, face heavily veiled, she brushed past us with a breathy wordless apology and disappeared hurriedly down the stair.
I glanced after her. “This way, Doctor,” Maxwell urged, and we continued down the corridor.
Maxwell knocked at A14 and the door opened at once.
A cadaverous-looking specimen stood before us, and I recognized my former patient Seymour. His complaint had been a touch of liver, as I recalled, and in fact his gray and puckered face rather resembled a piece of undercooked liver.
Maxwell and Seymour exchanged a certain and silent look. Without a word Seymour turned, leading the way.
These Albany suites consist mostly of dining-room, bedroom, bathroom, and kitchen, and a pigeon-hole for a servant. The three first are en suite, each opening into the hall or lobby. Seymour took us straight to the bedroom from the outer door. Entering, one faced a high carved mantelpiece over the fire; and above the mantelpiece was the half-length portrait of a man in the dress of Charles the Second’s time.
On the hearth a large, heavy man lay, his head turned a little over his shoulder, his face half-hidden. It was easy to see before handling him, that his neck must be broken, and when I touched him I found he was not only dead, but cold.
Next to his feet lay wooden steps of the sort one uses to reach high book shelves. The right panel had broken off and the stool was overturned.
I glanced up at my companions. Maxwell met my gaze steadily, almost fiercely, as though waiting for me to make some objection. Seymour was staring at his fallen master.
I returned my attention to the unfortunate Scrymgeour. He wore evening-dress, and his face, the face of a man about thirty, was strikingly like that over the mantelpiece. The resemblance was increased by a small pointed beard, and by the dead man’s pale hair being just a little longer than most men wear their hair in town nowadays. What troubled me was his expression. His milky blue eyes were protuberant, as though starting from his head in alarm. His lips were drawn back from his rather pronounced teeth in a grimace of horror.
A young fellow, whom I judged to be Maxwell’s companion to this projected breakfast, joined us through another door than that by which we had entered, and bowed rather ceremoniously to me, without saying anything.
I began to like the situation less and less, though I could see nothing actually untoward in the case. More, it was the peculiar attitude of Scrymgeour’s friends. They were genuinely shocked, as they should be, but they also seemed almost…fearful, and for this I could see no reason.
I became conscious of a strange scent, an undernote to the more obvious odor of death. What was it?
“Your friend is, of course, dead,” I said, rising from my knees, “and he has been dead several hours.”
“And will you be so good as to tell us the cause of death?” asked the young fellow who had just joined us. He was fair-haired with soft brown eyes like a calf. He would have been about the same age as Maxwell, but of a softer and more conciliatory nature. Maxwell, unless I missed my guessed, had seen military service. This young man had never faced a more dangerous enemy than a bill collector. His voice was pleasant, though high-pitched, his manner was polite almost to affectation.
“A broken neck,” I said, “vulgarly speaking. More accurately, there is a separation of the cervical vertebrae, and probably complete rupture of the spinal cord.”
“But would you kindly oblige us with your opinion as to the cause of the broken neck?” At Maxwell’s warning look, he added, “I hope I am not asking too much.”
I looked at the young man, at the body, the steps, and the portrait.
“I cannot take the place of the coroner’s jury, you know,” I said. “The general appearance of things suggests that your friend was using the stepsperhaps examining that portraitand that the steps broke, and the consequent fall did the mischief.”
He offered an uncertain smile. “Quite so. That is what we thought. I am greatly obliged to you for your opinion.”
“But my opinion,” I went on, looking at them both rather sternly, “isn’t of the slightest value, except as to the injury. The police must be told at once, and things had better be left exactly as they are until the police come. There will be an inquest.”
“Is that absolutely necessary?” Maxwell asked.
“Absolutely, as you must surely realize. But the police will tell you,” and I turned to leave the room.
I was thinking about the poor fellow on the floor, whose face was, I dare say, a good deal less grave and dignified then than it had been while he was alive. When death is sudden, in this case almost violently sudden, the victim is sometimes frozen in his final conscious or unconscious act, however ludicrous or embarrassing. The abject terror on the dead man’s features was disturbing even to someone who had not known him, and I wondered if perhaps it was this that was so distressing his friends to the point of addling their wits.
Preoccupied with this thought--or at least that would have been my excuse had either challenged me--I made absent-mindedly for the nearest door which led to the room the second young man had exited in order to join us.
As I reached for the handle I heard the two friends say simultaneously, “Not that door!’’
But they were too late.
The strange scent was much stronger in here and I recognized it at once.
The hair rose on the back of my neck, though there is nothing inherently terrifying about the substance.
The room smelled of other things too. Cedar and candle wax and musty linens, but the acrid smell of bitumen underlay it all.
I pushed the door the remainder of the way open, and my attention was immediately caught by the queerly-shaped something propped against the far wall. It was the size of a small settee.
The next instant Maxwell reached me. He caught my arm. “This is only a dressing room, Doctor,” he said. Though his tone was courteous, his expression was grim.
I glanced down at his hand, raised my gaze pointedly.
Maxwell stubbornly held my stare.
I saw the very moment the thought occurred to him--recognized it because it was the exact same instant the thought occurred to me. His eyes searched mine and then he withdrew his hand.
I said, “I was thinking that if I write a note for the policeI know the inspectorit may save you trouble. I can write it here, I suppose?”
“No,” the other young man said. “You can’t.” He threw Maxwell an impatient look and then turned to Scrymgeour’s man. “Seymour, find the doctor pen and paper. Doctor, there is a writing table right in here.”
I ignored him, nodding at the heavy coffin-shaped container. “What is that?” I asked. I suspected I already knew what it was, though it was difficult to be certain in the poor light. I could see that it was made of dark wood and had been painted with exotic blue and gold designs.
“That?” It was Maxwell who answered. His tone was casual. Too casual. “That’s a mummy case, with a mummy inside. Poor Scrymgeour was interested in such things.”
This was my first introduction to the Mummy.
I wish it had been my last.
Copyright 2000-17, Josh Lanyon.
All rights reserved.