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zingmagazine10 autumn 1999

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8 poets making it new
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lutwidge finch
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the back of beyond
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chapter six

“Am I being followed, then?”

“You, Mr. Finch? Why would I be following you?” Inspector Jenkins asked. “No, I am here on another matter entirely. Though I must say it is a coincidence, our paths crossing again so soon. Quite a coincidence indeed.”

“I am on holiday,” Finch said, feeling unaccountably guilty.

“Damned funny place for it,” the Baron muttered.

He drew back a curtain to reveal a partially dissected cadaver under glass. The two men stared at the grotesque display, a body multiplying and decaying, transforming itself into something else, a flower from Hell, growing high in places like a termite mound while other sections of the corpse--barely recognizable as the former site of limbs, a chest or abdomen, the repository of a divine soul--were, in their advanced state of decomposition, sticky-looking and black, like tar pits.

“James!” the Baron called, picking up a notebook to record some observations. “I’ll take my supper now. Bring it here, boy.”

“Come walk with me, Mr. Finch.” Inspector Jenkins indicated they should take a turn around the laboratory while the Baron busied himself with his notes and cold pie.

“What is going on here?” Lutwidge demanded.

“The Baron is a working on the cure for a contagion that has been troubling some members of our society,” the Inspector said carelessly. “I come here from time to time, listen to him, report his progress to my superiors. They like a man with a bit of common sense telling them these things, you know. Not some dotty old Lord, even if he does hold the secret of creation in his head. Have you thought any more about what I asked you, back in your rooms the other day?”

“About Bradley’s personal life? I told you, I know nothing.”

“Oh come sir, don’t deny him thrice before the cock crows.”

“He wasn’t my Savior,” Lutwidge said angrily, mopping his brow.

“He was your friend. You knew his habits. And very peculiar habits they were, from what people tell me. I see that, in your capacity as Executor of the Ghoulrich estate, you are seeking the whereabouts of a young woman, a prostitute who disappeared several weeks ago.”

“How did you know that?” Lutwidge asked sharply.

“Let us just say it has come to my attention. I wonder if she might know anything of your friend’s affairs.”

“I hardly think so.”

“Nevertheless, I should like to speak to her, if you do find her. I should like to speak to her very much.”

“Why?”

“Just a matter of tying some loose ends. I am a meticulous man, when it comes to my work. Look out there.” Jenkins, who had obviously been here before, led him on a tour of the glassy maze. “Ants, he uses. And lizards too.”

They stopped before the spectacular cylinder of flame blasting upward with a deafening roar that discouraged further approach.

“Keeps it hot to mimic the inside of the human body,” Inspector Jenkins explained, “so the disease will flourish. Gives me the creeps to think of it breeding here, just a wall of glass away. You should see his laboratory in London, under Tattson House. Big as a railway station it is.”

“The disease is fatal?” Lutwidge asked.

“Invariably,” the Inspector said. “But I would not worry. It is common mostly to freaks of nature like your late friend Mr. Ghoulrich. Though lately there is some evidence it has spread to the lower classes. Still, nothing for you to concern yourself with.”

They turned and began working their way back across the laboratory, where the Baron was still studying the hideous sight before him.

“Finished gawking?” He glowered at the Inspector. “Because I am expecting someone, and I know you don’t like to be seen.”

“Is that true?” Finch asked.

“This is not an official visit,” Inspector Jenkins explained. “If pressed, I would deny ever being here.”

“But you told the Baron it was all right to let me in.”

“Well you are one of us, Mr. Finch.”

“Am I? And what is that?”

“A law-abiding citizen,” Inspector Jenkins said, giving him a level stare. “I know I can rely on you to do the right thing, in a pinch.”

“Do you?”

“Oh, I am quite a judge of character.”

“Games,” the Baron growled, proving he was listening, despite his apparent fascination with the cadaver. “The world is falling down all around you, and you play games.”

“Well sir, one man’s calling is another man’s game, I suppose.” The Inspector gave the laboratory a significant look.

“Off you go, then.”

“It has been an honor, sir--” Lutwidge began, but the Baron waved, or rather pushed them off with his hand, still mumbling to himself.

Once outside, the night air sucked the moisture from their skin. Both men paused a moment, letting the cool darkness rush over them.

“Will you be at the fair tomorrow?” Inspector Jenkins asked.

“Yes,” Finch yawned. “Will you?”

“Oh, I love a good fair,” the Inspector answered, or rather did not. “By the way, we recovered a bird, a tropical parrot of some sort, in the neighborhood where Mr. Ghoulrich used to reside. It speaks like him a bit, I am told. Very high up in the vocal register. Keeps squawking about ’the essential divinity of Christ.’ Wouldn’t know anything about that, would you?”

“The essential divinity of Christ?”

“The bird, sir.”

“No,” Finch said. Some sixth sense told him to deny any intimate knowledge of Ghoulrich at all.

“A pity,” the Inspector sighed. “I will take my leave of you now. Goodnight.” He walked off toward the village, then turned. “You will tell me when you find that tart, won’t you?”
Without waiting for a reply, he went plunging off, leaving Finch to find his own way back to the Hall. When he did emerge, it was at a strange angle to the sprawling house. A late brick addition stretched out like a tentacle while a small tower, obviously older, hung back and stuck its brave, stubby turret towards the moon. A light flickered on the top floor. Finch, looking up, saw a woman stretch her arms out from behind the glass. She seemed frantic, gesticulating, or dancing perhaps.

The distance between them slowed and ritualized her movements. He squinted, trying to make out her features but all he could see was her long hair and that her clothes were in disarray. Indeed, she was practically naked, and beseeching him, he felt. Asking him to believe her. He took another step forward and gazed up. Their eyes met. Then he looked around, foolishly, hoping someone else was here, on the vast lawn at four in the morning, to confirm what he was seeing. But when he turned back to the turret, the light was extinguished. Indeed, he saw now he had mistaken the architecture of this eccentric building entirely, that he was merely staring at the front of the Hall from off to one side. But he had seen what he had seen. It was no illusion.

“Lady Tavis-Ware appears only to the pure at heart,” he recalled, “and proclaims her innocence.”
*

“What are you doing?” Mister MacIntyre asked.

“Seeing myself in the window,” Doris answered. She was down to her camisole. “They don’t give us mirrors in the servants’ rooms so I use the glass at night.”

“But there is a mirror right here.”

“I like looking out on the world naked. Why do you think that is?”

“Come to bed,” he said.

“Ah, the bustling metropolis of Little Dipping,” Colonel Carter sighed, reconnoitering from a hilltop.

Nan’s fear of population centers really was beginning to wear. There were no lights in the tiny hamlet, and the little illumination provided by a cloud-bound moon revealed a line of shacks following the curve of a river. True, there was a field, in which tents and stalls had already been erected in preparation for tomorrow’s festivities, but the general air was one of provinciality and gloom. The Town Hall and a church were the only visible structures of substance. It was well past midnight.

There was a rustling sound behind him. She was back at last.

“How is your friend?” he called over his shoulder.

“Friend?” she asked.

He turned. Lately, shivers had overtaken Nan, a chill picked up on the road, he suspected. She huddled under a tightly drawn shawl. Still pretty, but in a way that no longer interested the Colonel.

Her repeated rebuffs had injured his sense of pride. It was almost, he told himself, an insult to the uniform, the way she refused to be kissed, even. There were times when he felt he was nothing more than a manservant, pitching camp for her, making forays into town for food and other provisions. It was during one of these expeditions he had managed to send off a telegram in response to the advertisement. He hoped there was an answer waiting for him tomorrow, down in that valley. The poor girl’s money was almost gone and while his scruples would never permit him to steal what little remained he saw nothing wrong in turning her over to whatever authorities were searching for her, especially if there was an emolument involved. The child, after all, was cracked.

And he couldn’t go on playing Sancho Panza forever. Back in London, Mrs. Griggs was probably sick with worry. In the privation of his present circumstances the Colonel’s old lodgings had taken on a glow of comparative bliss. He imagined sinking back into the parlor’s overstuffed armchair, rather than sitting uncomfortably on this stony ground next to a loud brook.

“Yes, your friend,” he said irritably. “I don’t see why he could not have put us up for the night.”

“He is not a friend,” Nan said. “He is a great man. He is trying to help me. He cannot be seen with the likes of us.”

“Oh really,” he grunted, removing a large arrowhead that had been indenting his buttock. “And what did this know-all have to say?”

“That I am sick,” Nan said, hugging herself tighter.

“Well I could have told you that. Quinine’s what you need. Three drops daily. Washed down with a tot of Navy rum.”

“He says I am to be careful,” she recited, ignoring Colonel Carter’s suggestion. “That there are men about. They have been asking him questions. He says there is even talk of a reward offered.”

“Rubbish,” the Colonel said, turning away.

“What’s wrong, Johnny?” She reached out, her thin hand finally coming to rest on his sulking face, where it traced over the line of his jaw as if belonging to a blind woman.

“Nothing.”

“You are troubled.”

“Not I.”

“Yes,” she stated, certain. Her hand moved lower and quite casually tugged at his belt. “Come. Let me comfort you.”

I say, steady on man, he counselled. How often had this happened? The unlooked for, appearing. The gift horse, opening its mouth. He felt with a thrill her body move close, saw her take off her shawl and lay it on the ground.

“I have been bad,” she said. “Bad, with bad people. And two wrongs do not make a right, you know.”

“Of course not,” he agreed, not having the faintest idea what she was talking about, or caring, for that matter. Certain operations were being performed, of a delicacy which was best left undescribed in an official report of this nature, he told himself. Suffice it to say...

“Lie back,” she said. “There is only so much I can do. The man I saw tonight, he explained to me how--”

“No need to...muck it up with a lot of talk,” he gasped, staring up at the heavens. The smell of her shawl, not so much perfume as the warm odor of wear, mingled with the dark swaying treetops and the endless gurgle of the brook. It all reminded him of a calendar illustration he had once admired.

“Oh! Jesus, Joseph, and Mary!”

“Hush,” she mumbled, her head bent low. “There are devils everywhere.”

After, as she lay in his arms, the Colonel reconsidered his prospective plan of action. Part of him felt guilty, now that he had, so to speak, taken advantage of the girl, though really it was the other way round. And now to betray her for thirty (if not more!) pieces of silver, well, there was something caddish in it. On the other hand--he raised himself slightly to make sure she was still sleeping, some superstition convinced him she could read his thoughts--having obtained his military objective it was time to move on. He was, after all, a crack fighting unit, not a force of occupation. Soon as bivouacs get set up the men go soft.

He arrived too late. Thank God, the Reverend Belcher thought blasphemously. Deathbed confessions had proved, over the years, the most harrowing of his duties. The understandable desire to make a clean breast of it soon gave way to a peevish retelling of the tawdry, the obscene, the tedious and pedestrian, then, finally, the frankly unbelievable, as the doomed party, convinced he or she would not die until they had truly expatiated themselves, lay gasping from the effort to both breathe and recall minute additional sins which might in some way explain the awful predicament they now found themselves in. “And so to bed,” the Reverend said, closing the eyelids (that was always left him), noting the grainy texture of the pupils, as if worms were already at their work. “I will never know your story.” He mechanically absolved, after the fact, the deceased of any sins, on the dubious theological grounds of the lingering soul, the unspoken intention, etc. etc. Give the poor sick raving tortured sod the benefit of the doubt, he argued. For he had the common habit of silently castigating himself for positions he did not even hold, rather than attack, out loud, the true promulgators of those dogma which disgusted him so.

“Men come for the body yet?” he asked, washing his hands, noting the cowering, frightened...was it sister or wife? He could not remember. He had been rushed out of bed at three in the morning. She stood with her back to the wall, a frail woman, terrified.

“They said to do nothing.”

“They will be here by daybreak. Have you anyone to stay with?”

She nodded.

“Go, then.” He looked to the door. “It is better if there is no one here for them to question. I will wait, tell them I was summoned by a stranger, that the house was empty when I arrived.”

“But...”

“Go! Save yourself, child.”

After she had gathered her few things and fled, the Reverend took out his pipe. Fumigate the premises. At one point the corpse’s hand came loose from its clasped, folded repose and dangled noisily over the side of the bed. He placed it back on the hollow chest, propped it there with a pillow, closed one eye that had partially worked its way open, and sat back down.
Less than an hour later, a soft, furtive knock--not the kind meant to be answered--preceded the door’s slowly opening. Old Tom, his tiny, bright-eyed face wrapped in a black scarf despite the heat, poked his head in.

“Reverend Belcher,” he said.

“At your service,” the Reverend replied. “Are you in need of Holy Office, Tom?”

The petty crook frowned, slipped in and silently shut the door.

“Waiting for the body-snatchers?”

The Reverend nodded. There is nothing more quiet, he reflected, than a room with a corpse. Such a haunting absence renders speech superfluous, inadequate. Their words sounded like pebbles dropped down a well.

“I come to see how he was doing,” Tom lied, looking around.

“Fine now, as you can see.”

Without asking permission, Tom went over and seized one of the cold hands. A band of plain steel was on its finger.

“Folded them, did you?” he muttered in consternation, trying to work the ring off.

“What are you doing, Tom?” the Reverend asked, still not getting up. “It is a crime, you know, stripping a corpse. They will have your head.”

“Well they’ll have to get in line, won’t they?” The little man smiled, sweating now, as he struggled to straighten the curved knuckle. “Those whose ring this is want it back.”

“And they sent you?”

“Have to chop the bloody finger off if I don’t-- There!”

With a final gruesome tug he succeeded and held up the unimpressive ornament.

“I have heard tell of a criminal society,” the Reverend said. “Awfully bold, aren’t you, wearing tokens of your membership?”

“I wouldn’t know anything about that. Just running an errand, I am.” He slipped the ring in his pocket.

“Risky, ain’t it, waiting here for His Majesty’s men? Answering their questions and all?”

“The collar still affords some protection.”

“You have changed,” Old Tom said, studying him.

“From what?”

“From what you was. Ever had word of that tart you were trying to save?” he asked, with strange perception.