The Darkling Thrush
An excerpt from the novella by Josh Lanyon
The letter was addressed to Mr. Colin Bliss.
It sat on my desk, propped against the framed photograph of me and Antony. This reminded me that, as we were no longer “an item,” I really needed to dispose of that photograph of me and my chief. It was bound to look a trifle kiss-ass, and I’d already done enough of that in every conceivable form.
I picked up the cream envelope, studied it. There was no return address, which seemed curious. Brown ink. Another curiosity. Librivenators like myself -- in fact, most of the Societas Magick -- used blue. Other branches of the Arcane Services used purple. The general populace favored black. I couldn’t think of any particular significance to brown. Perhaps the author simply liked the color. The problem with book hunters is we see a mystery every time pen is set to paper. One of the problems, anyway. I’d heard I had others. In detail from Magister Septimus Marx.
The handwriting was spidery and elegant. Absently, I turned the envelope over and tried to peruse it. I can’t say I felt any kind of premonition. After all, my kind of trouble would hardly announce itself with heavy stationary and a fine hand. Who handwrote letters these days of the Varityper? Let alone letters like this one, which offered fleeting impressions of genteel age and sumptuous living: an elderly person…male…an elegant drawing room with heavy velvet drapes, marble topped chests, and a spread of tarot cards on the table.
I picked up the pearl-handled letter opener and slit the envelope open.
Dear Mr. Bliss,
Allow me to introduce myself. I am Aengus Anstruther, and I have the honor of being the presul of the Museum of the Literary Occult in London. I hope I am not being unduly modest in assuming that you are familiar with our own humble efforts to preserve the written heritage of our metaphysical past.
Amateurs. All too often their helpful efforts were merely a guise for private collectors appropriating magical texts that more properly belonged in the official libraries. I glanced at the bottom of the note to see Mr. Anstruther was requesting a donation. He was not. I continued reading.
You, of course, are the gifted author of Secret Societies and Subversive Movements and the discoverer of Sir Florian Botolf’s memoirs. Recognizing that we share a certain fascination with lost treasures and written lore, and I would very much like to formally make your acquaintance and, perhaps, propose a small but intriguing venture if you will be in town on the afternoon of the 13th of this month. We are having a private showing of the Botolf Grimoire, and I would like to invite you to a viewing here at the museum at two o’clock. If you can attend, please confirm by telecom.
The Botolf Grimoire. Mr. Anstruther certainly knew with what temptation to bait his hook. Not that I wouldn’t have been interested in a peek inside the Museum of the Literary Occult. It was one of several such places I’d hoped to visit when I first arrived in London eight weeks earlier -- before I’d been distracted by other things.
I frowned at the date, double-checked my calendar. The 13th was the following day. Not a lot of warning.
Now that I was no longer in favor, taking off for an afternoon might prove problematical -- or perhaps not. I had the impression that Antony preferred as much as possible to forget I still existed. It was Basil, Antony’s brother and the procurator of Leslie’s Lexicons -- a front for our local branch of the Imperial Arcane Libraries -- who was most likely to pitch a fit if I disappeared for the afternoon when I was supposed to be squirreled away in my cubicle translating and transcribing ancient texts. The least interesting part of the job for me. I liked the hunt.
I studied the number listed and then dialed it on the upright telefon on my desk, confirming shortly after with a curt young woman that I would indeed be available to attend the private showing at the Museum of the Literary Occult. I’d been hoping for just such an invitation, but had never been able to determine who exactly the presul was over there -- not that I confided that to Miss Mildew, nor would she have been interested as she obviously couldn’t wait to get back to organizing paper clips.
Hanging up the telefon, I glanced at Antony’s photo again, and turned it face down on the desk. He’d always looked rather supercilious in that picture, although at the time he’d gifted me with it, I hadn’t noticed -- I’d thought he just looked like his mind was on Important Matters.
When I glanced up again, Antony was standing in the doorway -- and his expression matched the one I’d just buried in papers.
“Basil seems to feel there’s a problem.”
I asked coolly, “With my work?”
“With your attitude.”
Can anything be more awkward than being dumped romantically by one’s superior? This is why one avoids office romance if one has half a brain. Too bad for me my little head got what the big head should have.
I said, “I have no attitude, Antony. I’m here to do a job and I’m doing it to the best of my ability.”
“I’m glad to hear that,” Antony said, looking anything but glad.
He continued to stand in the doorway and frown at me.
“Was there anything else?”
I opened Nesta Webber’s excellent resource, Weird Words, and picked up my pen to make notations. I felt Antony watching me, but still he said nothing. Tall, lean, handsome in an inbred way like so many of the English aristocracy; Antony had sandy-colored, thinning hair, blue eyes, charmingly crooked teeth. What in the Name of All was it about him I found so irresistible? Even now when I couldn’t stand him.
When he finally turned away without speaking, I felt that inevitable lurch of disappointment. “Antony,” I said, and I winced inwardly at the urgency of my tone.
He paused, meeting my gaze. It was not an encouraging look. I said, “I’ve been invited to a special showing of the Botolf Grimoire at the Museum of the Literary Occult tomorrow afternoon. Is it all right if I take off early?”
“You’ve been invited?” He considered this, and said at last, “Of course. If you’ve actually received an invitation, you must go.” He hesitated. “I believe Magister Marx is also attending. You might have a word with him. Perhaps you can go together.”
“All right.” No way on earth was I going anywhere with that arrogant, judgmental bastard Septimus Marx.
Antony went. I rested my forehead in my hand, pretending to stare at the blank pages before me. Two months ago I’d arrived in jolly olde England as part of the colonial exchange program between bureaus of the Societas Magicke. And about four and a half minutes after I’d first arrived at Leslie’s Lexicons -- the dusty and labyrinthine monstrosity which served as the public face of one of the most extraordinary collections of arcane and occult tomes in the Empire -- I’d met Antony Leslie, the presul.
Antony was charming and handsome and knowledgeable -- and I was a long way from home. He took me to dinner, explained and thanked me for the important work we colonials were doing for the society -- and mankind -- and then he’d taken me back to my hotel and treated me to some of the best sex of my life.
Our affair lasted seven weeks. In addition to being charming, handsome, and knowledgeable, Antony was married. It hadn’t seemed like a problem initially. If there was a problem, it was Antony’s, right? But seven weeks later, seduced and abandoned (as they used to say in ye good old days) and having managed to thoroughly isolate myself from my colleagues, I began to understand that it was my problem too, and I had displayed some staggeringly awful judgment. Not least in falling for a man who wore ties as wide as Antony’s.
So I really didn’t need Septimus Marx looking down his long and arrogant nose at me or curling his thin mouth in one of those sneering smiles because he’d turned out to be absolutely right about…well, pretty much everything.
Marx also worked at Leslie’s Lexicon, although I was never quite sure at what. He was a Magister, a master of some field of study within the Societas Magicke, the branch of the Arcane Services that dealt with written magic. I suspected he was one of the dreaded Vox Pessimires, one of those taxed with the terrible job of destroying those magical texts too dangerous or powerful to remain in circulation -- or even on the shelves of the Imperial Arcane Libraries. Even if it was true, no one would admit it. The identities of the Vox Pessimires were protected. Perhaps it was necessary job, but most of us within the Societas Magicke found it despicable.
Which was probably why I was willing to believe it of him. Marx was often “in the field.” Although in his case being in the field seemed to encompass everything from conferring with black market book sellers to retrieving stranded colleagues -- which is how we happened to meet the day I arrived on English soil. Marx picked me up at the aeroport. He had been unimpressed then, and he was -- if possible -- less impressed now.
And I tended to agree with him.
* * * * *
The Museum of the Literary Occult was located opposite Telescope House on Great Lowden Street. It was a grand looking building in the classical style. Lots of fluted columns and sculptured friezes. It looked like the headquarters for the Imperial Arcane Libraries should have looked. It looked much grander than Leslie’s Lexicons, and in fact it was one of the largest private collections of magical and occult texts in the world.
When I arrived a few minutes to two, I was greeted by a very young, very pretty male secretary in a green velvet suit who led me straight upstairs to what I guessed was the presul’s inner sanctum.
“Are the other guests downstairs?” I inquired.
“Oh, the viewing is not until three.”
I puzzled this over as he tapped discreetly on a mahogany door behind an enormous embroidered tapestry of Calistra’s Enchantment of the Infidels.
A voice bade us enter. The secretary gripped the ring of twisted brass and pushed open the door. He stepped to the side. I went past him into a large office. I had a quick impression of long black velvet drapes, wallpaper of gold watered silk, and bookshelves behind leaded glass.
A very large woman sat before a very large desk. The desk was highly polished, the woman was not. She looked liked she’d blown in on a hard wind. Her salt-and-pepper hair stood up in tufts, her blue silk suit looked slightly crooked, and her red lipstick was just outside the lines of her wide mouth. Her smile of welcome seemed too bright in the muted light of the office.
“Mr. Bliss,” she said. The beauty of her voice, a honeyed contralto, was unexpected. “How wonderful of you to come on such short notice.”
Behind the desk sat a small, plump old man. He was quite bald, and resembled a very old baby -- though there was nothing youthful in his glittering black eyes. He surveyed me measuringly, unsmilingly. He did not rise and did not offer his hand.
“I’m Lady Margaret Lavenham,” the woman said. “I am the museum procurator. This is Mr. Anstruther, our presul.”
“How do you do,” I said politely.
Anstruther nodded. “Sit down, Mr. Bliss.”
I took a spindly chair across from Lady Lavenham.
“I thought you would be older,” Anstruther said.
“I’ve been book hunting for three years.”
“Three years is a great deal of book hunting experience,” Lady Lavenham commented.
Anstruther said, “When you get to be my age, twenty-three is very young.” He continued to eye me.
I knew only too well what he saw. I looked quite a bit younger than my age, being small and slender with wide blue eyes and a mop of strawberry blond curls. I’d tried growing a beard at one time, but the result wasn’t worth the crumb-catching.
“Tea, I think,” the Lavenham woman said. She was speaking to the small brownie sitting at the very top of the red lacquered Chinoiserie cabinet in the corner.
The brownie brightened and disappeared in a flash.
A few moments later, the door flew open and the pretty secretary returned with a laden tea tray. Lady Lavenham served hot flower-scented tea in blue and white china cups.
“No biscuits?” Mr. Anstruther objected, scowling at the tray.
“There are the little cakes you like. The ones with the slivered almonds.”
“But no biscuits?”
“No. I’m afraid not.”
Mr. Anstruther expelled an exasperated breath. “Do you like biscuits with your tea, Mr. Bliss?”
“When they’re available.”
“There is no reason biscuits can’t always be available.” Anstruther gave Lady Lavenham a pointed look. She smiled apologetically at me.
“Next time we’ll certainly have biscuits.”
“This is fine,” I said. “The cakes are lovely.”
No one replied. We sipped our tea, nibbled our biscuits. I glanced surreptitiously at the marble clock on the carved bookshelf and wondered what I was doing there.
At last Mr. Anstruther took one final slurp of his tea, rattled the cup back in the saucer and said, “Mr. Bliss have you heard of Faileas a’ Chlaidheimh?”
“The Sword’s Shadow? Yes. Of course. According to legend, it was the great grimoire of the witches of the Western Isles.”
“That is not merely a legend.”
I opened my mouth, but it occurred to me that arguing with Mr. Anstruther would not be useful.
“It is not a legend,” he repeated. “The grimoire exists and I want you to find it.”
Copyright 2000-18, Josh Lanyon.
All rights reserved.