Our Lady of Darkness

Chapter 22

Franz's eyes, engaged in one of their roving all-inspections, got the command to check the glooms and shadows not only for a pale, blank, triangular face with restless snout, but also for the thin, hawkish, ghostly one, tormented and tormenting, murder-bent, of a hyperactive old man looking like something out of Dore's illustrations of Dante's Inferno. Since he'd never seen a photograph of de Castries, if any existed, that would have to do. His mind was busy assimilating the thought that Corona Heights was literally impregnated with Thibaut de Castries. That both yesterday and today he had occupied for rather long periods of time what must almost certainly be the Bishop's Seat of the curse, while only a few yards below in the hard ground were the essential dusts (salts?) and the black ring. How did that go in the cipher in Poe's tale? "Take a good glass in the Bishop's Seat..." His glasses were broken, but then he hardly needed them for this short-range work. Which were worse - ghosts or paramentals? - or were they, conceivably, the same? When one was simply on watch for the approach of both or either, that was a rather academic question, no matter how many interesting problems it posed about different levels of reality. Somewhere, deep down, he was aware of being angry, or perhaps only argumentative. "Turn on some lights, Donaldus," he said in a flat voice. "I must say you're taking it very coolly," his host said in slightly aggrieved, slightly awed tones. "What do you expect me to do, panic? Run out in the street and get shot? - or crushed by falling walls? or cut by flying glass? I suppose, Donaldus, that you delayed revealing the exact location of de Castries's grave so that it would have a greater dramatic impact, and so be truer, in line with your theory of the identity of reality and art?" "Exactly! You do understand, and I did tell you there would be a ghost and how appropriately the astrological graffiti served as Thibaut's epitaph, or tomb decor. But isn't it all so very amazing, Franz? To think that when you first looked from your window at Corona Heights, Thibaut de Castries's mortal remains unknown to you - " "Turn on some lights," Franz repeated. "What I find amazing, Donaldus, is that you've known about paramental entities for many years, and about the highly sinister activities of de Castries and the suggestive circumstances of his burial, and yet take no more precautions against them than you do. You're like a soldier dancing the light fantastic in no-man's-land. Always remembering that I, or you, or both of us may at this moment be totally insane. Of course, you learned about the curse only just now, if I can trust you. And you did bolt the door after I came in. Turn on some lights!" Byers complied at last. A dull gold refulgence streamed from the large globular shade suspended above them. He moved to the front hall, somewhat reluctantly, it appeared, and flicked a switch, then to the back of the living room, where he did the same and then busied himself opening another bottle of brandy. The windows became dark rectangles netted with gold. Full night had fallen. But at least the shadows inside had been banished. All this while he was saying in a voice that had grown rather listless and dispirited now that his tale had been told, "Of course you can trust me, Franz. It was out of consideration for your own safety that I didn't tell you about de Castries. Until today, when it became clear you were into the business, like it or not. I don't go babbling about it all, believe me. If I've learned one thing over the years, it's that it's a mercy not to tell anyone about the darker side of de Castries and his theories. That's why I've never even considered publishing a monograph about the man. What other reason could I have for that? - such a book would be brilliant. Fa Lo Suee knows all - one can't hide anything from a serious lover - but she has a very strong mind, as I've suggested. In fact, after you called this morning, I suggested to her as she was going out that if she had some spare time she have another look for the bookstore where you bought the journal - she has a talent for such problems. She smiled and said that, as it happened, she'd been planning to do just that. "Also," he went on, "you say I take no precautions against them, but I do, I do! According to Klaas and Ricker the old man once mentioned three protections against 'undesirable influences': silver, old antidote to werewolfry (another reason I've encouraged Fa Lo Suee in her art), abstract designs, those old attention-trappers (hopefully the attention of paramentals too - hence all the mazelike arabesques you see about you), and stars, the primal pentagram - it was I, going there on several cold dawns, when I'd be sure of privacy, who sprayed most of those astrologic graffiti on Corona Heights!" "Donaldus," Franz said sharply, "you've been a lot deeper and more steadily into this all along than you've told me - and your girlfriend too, apparently." "Companion," Byers corrected. "Or, if you will, lover. Yes, that's right - it's been one of my chief secondary concerns (primary now) for quite a few years. But what was I saying? Oh, yes, that Fa Lo Suee knows all. So did a couple of her predecessors - a famous interior decorator and a tennis star who was also an actor. Clark, Klaas and Ricker knew - they were my source - but they're all dead. So you see I do try to shield others - and myself up to a point. I regard paramental entities as very real and present dangers, about midway in nature between the atomic bomb and the archetypes of the collective unconscious, which include several highly dangerous characters, as you know. Or between a Charles Manson or Zodiac killer and kappa phenomena as defined by Meleta Denning in Gnostica. Or between muggers and elementals, or hepatitis viruses and incubi. They're all of them things any sane man is on guard against. "But mark this, Franz," he emphasized, pouring out brandy, "despite all my previous knowledge, so much more extensive and of such longer standing than your own, I've never actually seen a paramental entity. You have the advantage of me there. And it seems to be quite an advantage." And he looked at Franz with a mixture of avidity and dread. Franz stood up. "Perhaps it is," he said shortly, "at least in making a person stay on guard. You say you're trying to protect yourself, but you don't act that way. Right now - excuse me, Donaldus - you're getting so drunk that you'd be helpless if a paramental entity - " Byers's eyebrows went up. "You think you could defend yourself against them, resist them, fight them, destroy them, once they're around?" he asked incredulously, his voice strengthening. "Can you stop an atomic missile headed for San Francisco at this moment through the ionosphere? Can you command the germs of cholera? Can you abolish your Anima or your Shadow? Can you say to the poltergeist, 'Don't knock'? or to the Queen of the Night, 'Stay outside?' You can't stand guard twenty-four hours a day for months, for years. Believe me, I know. A soldier crouched in a dugout can't try to figure out if the next shell will be a direct hit or not. He'd go crazy if he tried. No, Franz, all you can do is to lock the doors and windows, turn on all the lights, and hope they pass you by. And try to forget them. Eat, drink and be merry. Recreate yourself. Here, have a drink." He came toward Franz carrying in each hand a glass half-full of brandy. "No, thank you," Franz said harshly, jamming the journal into his coat pocket, to Byers's fleeting distress. Then he picked up the tinkling binoculars and jammed them in the other side pocket, thinking in a flash of the binoculars in James's ghost story "A View from a Hill" that had been magicked to see the past by being filled with a black fluid from boiled bones that had oozed out nastily when they were broken. Could his own binoculars have been somehow doctored or gimmicked so that they saw things that weren't there? A wildly far-fetched notion, and anyhow his own binoculars were broken, too. "I'm sorry, Donaldus, but I've got to go," he said, heading for the hall. He knew that if he stayed he would take a drink, starting the old cycle, and the idea of becoming unconscious and incapable of being roused was very repellent. Byers hurried after him. His haste and his gyrations to keep the brandy from spilling would have been comic under other circumstances and if he hadn't been saying in a horrified, plaintive, pleading voice, "You can't go out, it's dark. You can't go out with that old devil or his paramental slipping around. Here, have a drink and stay the night. At least stay for the party. If you're going to stand on guard, you're going to need some rest and recreation. I'm sure you'll find an agreeable and pleasing partner - they'll all be swingers, but intelligent. And if you're afraid of liquor dulling your mind, I've got some cocaine, the purest crystal." He drained one glass and set it down on the hall table. "Look, Franz, I'm frightened, too - and you've been pale ever since I told you where the old devil's dust is laid. Stay for the party. And have just one drink - enough to relax a little. In the end, there's no other way, believe me. You'd just get too tired, trying to watch forever." He swayed a little, wheedling, smiling his pleasantest. A weight of weariness descended on Franz. He reached toward the glass, but just as he touched it he jerked his fingers away as if they'd been burned. "Shh," he cautioned as Byers started to speak and he warningly gripped him by the elbow. In the silence they heard a tiny, faintly grating, sliding metallic sound ending in a soft snap, as of a key being rotated in a lock. Their eyes went to the front door. They saw the brass inner knob revolve. "It's Fa Lo Suee," Byers said . "I'll have to unbolt the door." He moved to do so. "Wait!" Franz whispered urgently. "Listen!" They heard a steady scratching sound that didn't end, as if some intelligent beast was drawing a horny claw round and round on the other side of the painted wood. There rose unbidden in Franz's imagination the paralyzing image of a large black panther crouched close against the other side of the gold-traced white opacity, a green-eyed, gleamingly black panther that was beginning to metamorphose into something more terrible. "Up to her tricks," Byers muttered and drew the bolt before Franz could move to hinder him. The door pressed halfway open, and around it came two pale gray, triangular flat feline faces that glittered at the edges and were screeching "Aiii-eee!" it sounded. Both men recoiled, Franz flinching aside with eyes involuntarily slitted from two pale gray gleaming shapes, a taller and a slenderer one, that whirled past him as they shot menacingly at Byers, who was bent half double in his retreat, one arm thrown shieldingly across his eyes, the other across his groin, while the gleaming wineglass and the small sheet of amber fluid it had contained still sailed through the air from the point where his hand had abandoned them. Incongruously, Franz's mind registered the odors of brandy, burnt hemp, and a spicy perfume. The gray shapes converged on Byers, clutching at his groin, and as he gasped and gabbled inarticulately, weakly trying to fend them off, the taller was saying in a husky contralto voice with great enjoyment, "In China, Mr. Nayland Smith, we have ways to make men talk." Then the brandy was on the pale green wallpaper, the unbroken wineglass on the golden-brown carpet, and the stoned, handsome Chinese woman and equally mind-blown urchin-faced girl had snatched off their gray cat-masks, though laughing wildly and continuing to grope and tickle Byers vigorously, and Franz realized they had both been screeching "Jaime," his host's first name, at the top of their voices. His extreme fear had left Franz, but not its paralysis. The latter extended to his vocal cords, so that from the moment of the strange eruption of the two gray-clad females to the moment when he left the house on Beaver Street he never spoke a word but only stood beside the dark rectangle of the open door and observed the busy tableau farther down the hall with a rather cold detachment. Fa Lo Suee had a spare, somewhat angular figure, a flat face with strong, bony structure, dark eyes that were paradoxically both bright and dull with marijuana (and whatever) and straight dull black hair. Her dark red lips were thin. She wore silver-gray stockings and gloves and a closely fitting dress (of ribbed silver-gray silk) of the Chinese sort that always looks modern. Her left hand threatened Byers in his midst, her right lay loosely low around the slender waist of her companion. The latter was a head shorter, almost but not quite skinny, and had sexy little breasts. Her face was actually catlike: receding chin, pouty lips, a snub nose, protuberant blue eyes and low forehead, from which straight blonde hair fell to one side. She looked about seventeen, bratty and worldly-wise. She plinked a note in Franz's memory. She wore a pale gray leotard, silver-gray gloves, and a gray cloak of some light material that now hung to one side like her hair. Both of her hands mischievously groped Byers. She had a pink ear and a vicious giggle. The two cat-masks, cast on the hall table now, were edged with silver sequins and had a few stiff whiskers, but they retained the nasty triangular snouty appearance which had been so unnerving coming around the door. Donaldus (or Jaime) spoke no really intelligible word himself during this period before Franz's departure, except perhaps "Don't!" but he gasped and squealed and babbled a lot, with breathless little laughs thrown in. He stayed bent half-double and twisting from side to side, his hands constantly but rather ineffectually fending off the clutching ones. His pale violet dressing gown, unbelted, swished as he twisted. It was the women who did all the talking and at first only Fa Lo Suee. "We really scared you, didn't we?" she said rapidly. "Jaime scares easily, Shirl, especially when he's drunk. That was my key scratching the door. Go on, Shirl, give it to him!" Then resuming her Fu Manchu voice, "What have you and Dr. Petrie there been up to? In Honan, Mr. Nayland Smith, we have an infallible Chinese test for homophilia. Or is it possible you're AC-DC? We have the ancient wisdom of the East, all the dark lore that Mao Tse-tung's forgotten. Combined with western science, it's devastating. (That's it, girl, hurt him!) Remember my thugs and dacoits, Mr. Smith, my golden scorpions and red six-inch centipedes, my black spiders with diamond eyes that wait in the dark, then leap! How would you like one of those dropped down your pants? Repeat - what have you and Dr. Petrie been doing? Be careful what you say. My assistant, Miss Shirley Soames (Keep it up, Shirl!) has a rat-trap memory. No lie will go unnoticed." Franz, frozen, felt rather as if he were watching crayfish and sea anemones scuttling and grasping, fronds questing, pincers and flower-mouths opening and closing, in a rock pool. The endless play of life. "Oh, by the way, Jaime, I've solved the problem of the Smith journal," Fa Lo Suee said in a bright casual voice while her own hands became more active. "This is Shirl Soames, Jaime (you're getting to him, girl!), who for years and years has been her father's assistant at the Gray's Inn bookstore in the Haight. And she remembers the whole transaction, although it was four years ago, because she has a rat-trap memory." The name "Gray's Inn" lit up like neon in Franz's mind. How had he kept missing it? "Oh, traps distress you, do they, Nayland Smith?" Fa Lo Suee went on. "They're cruel to animals, are they? Western sentimentality! I will have you know, for your information, that Shirl Soames here can bite, as well as nip exquisitely." As she was saying that, she was sliding her silk-gloved right hand down the girl's rump and inward, until the tip of her middle finger appeared to be resting on the spot midway between the outer orifices of the reproductive and digestive systems. The girl appreciatively jogged her hips from side to side through a very short arc. Franz took coldly clinical note of those actions and of the inward fact that under other circumstances it would have been an exciting gesture, making him want to do so himself to Shirley Soames, and so be done by. But why her in particular? Memories stirred. Fa Lo Suee noticed Franz and turned her head. Giving him a very civilized glassy-eyed smile, she said politely, "Ah, you must be Franz Westen, the writer, who phoned Jaime this morning. So you as well as he will be interested in what Shirley has to say. "Shirl, leave off excruciating Jaime. He's had enough punishment. Is this the gentleman?" And without removing her hand she gently swung the girl around until she faced Franz. Behind them Byers, still bent over, was taking deep breaths mixed with dying chuckles as he began to recover from the working over he'd been given. With amphetamine-bright eyes the girl looked Franz up and down. While he was realizing that he knew that feline, foxy little face (face of a cat, presently licking cream), though on a body skinnier still and another head shorter. "That's him, all right," she said in a rapid, sharp voice that still had something of a brat's "yah! yah!" in it. "Correct, mister? Four years ago, you bought two old books tied together out of a lot that had been around for years that my father'd bought that belonged to a George Ricker. You were squiffed, really skew-iffed! We were together in the stacks and I touched you and you looked so queer. You paid twenty-five dollars for those old books. I thought you thought you were paying for a chance to feel me up. Were you? So many of the older men wanted to." She read something in Franz's expression, her eyes brightened, and she gave a hoarse little laugh. "No, I got it! You paid all that money because you were feeling guilty because you were so drunk you thought - what a laugh! - you'd been molesting me, whereas in my sweet girlish way, I'd been molesting you! I was very good at molesting, it was the first thing dear Daddy taught me. I learnt on him. And I was Daddy's star attraction at the store, and didn't he know it! But I'd already found out girls were nicer." All this while she'd continued to jog her little hips lasciviously, leaning back a little, and now she slipped her own right hand behind her, presumably to rest it on Fa Lo Suee's. Franz looked at Shirley Soames and at the two others, and he knew that all that she had said was true, and he also knew that this was how Jaime Donaldus Byers escaped from his fears (and Fa Lo Suee from hers?). And without a word or any change in his rather stupid expression he turned and walked out the open door. He had a sharp pang - "I am abandoning Donaldus!" - and two fleeting thoughts - "Shirl Soames and her touchings were the dark, musty, tendriled memory I had on the stairs yesterday morning" and "Would Fa Lo Suee immortalize the exquisite moment in slim silver, perhaps titling it 'The Loving Goose'?" - but nothing made him pause or reconsider. As he started down the steps, light from the doorway spilling around him, his eyes were already systematically checking the darkness ahead for hostile presences - each corner, each yawning areaway, each shadowy rooftop, each coign of vantage. As he reached the street, the soft light around him vanished as the door behind him was silently shut. That relieved him - it made him less of a target in the full onyx dusk that had now closed once more on San Francisco.

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