Read a sample from STRANGE PRACTICE Chp 2. by Vivian Shaw

Previous Chapter: HERE

Chapter 2:

Neither Ruthven nor Greta noticed when something that had been watching them through the drawing room window for some time retreated, slipping away before the full light of dawn could discover it; nor were there any passersby there to watch as it crossed the road to the river and disappeared down the water stairs by the Submariners’ Memorial.

In the early hours of that same Monday morning, the owner of a little corner grocery shop in Whitechapel came down to unlock the steel security grates over his display window and start preparing for the day. He had just rolled the grates up when he saw something in the street that at first he thought to be a stolen department store mannequin; on closer examination it turned out to be the body of a naked woman, her eyes nothing but raw red holes, with something pale spilling from her gaping mouth. He didn’t look closely enough to make out that this was a cheap plastic rosary: as soon as he’d finished being sick, he stumbled back inside and rang the police. By the time most people were awake, it was plastered all over the newsfeeds:

A few streets away from the grocer’s shop and his unpleasant early morning discovery was the tiny office sign of Loders & Lethbridge (Chartered Accountants), one floor up from Akbar Kebab and an establishment offering money transfer and check-cashing services. The Whitechapel Road accounting firm predated its neighbors by approximately forty years, but times were tight all over, and it had been deemed wise to move the offices upstairs and let the ground-floor space to other businesses. This meant that the entire atmosphere of the firm was permanently permeated with the smell of kebabs.

Fastitocalon, who had worked as a clerk for the firm for almost as long as it had been around, didn’t really mind the grease and spice in the air, but he did object to taking it home with him in his clothes. He’d made the best of it by demanding of old Lethbridge that he be allowed to smoke in his office. This Lethbridge had grudgingly permitted, mostly because he enjoyed the occasional cigar himself—and perhaps on an unconscious level because he’d found that keeping “Mr. Frederick Vasse” more or less content seemed to be correlated with fewer boils on the back of his, Lethbridge’s, neck.

Lethbridge was actually one of the more accommodating employers Fastitocalon had known in his time. It wasn’t all that easy to find someone willing to hire a middle-aged and unprepossessing person with an oddly greyish complexion and a chronic cough, even if reassured that he wasn’t actually contagious. Lethbridge had overlooked the physical shortcomings and hired him because of his uncanny gift for numbers, which had worked out in everyone’s favor.

As a general rule Fastitocalon did his best not to read people’s minds, partly out of basic good manners and partly for his own sake—most people’s thoughts were not only banal but loud—but he knew perfectly well what Lethbridge thought of him. When he thought of Frederick Vasse at all.


Right now, for example, Lethbridge was thinking very clearly if he can’t stop that goddamn racket I’m sending him home for the day. Fastitocalon’s cough never really went away, but there were times when it was better and times when it was worse. He had run out of his prescription antitussives and kept meaning to call his doctor to get more of them, but hadn’t gotten around to it; the cough had been bad for several days now, a miserable hack that hurt deep in his chest no matter how many awful blue menthol lozenges he went through.

The thought of going home was really rather appealing, even if his flat was currently on the chilly side, and when Lethbridge came into his office a few minutes later scowling intently he argued against it—but didn’t argue very long.

Ruthven moved through the empty drawing room, picking up the debris of first aid supplies scattered on the floor around the sofa, the discarded gauze-pad and alcohol-wipe packaging looking oddly tawdry in the light of day. He was very much aware of the fact that he had not actually been bored for coming up on ten or eleven straight hours now, and that this was a profound relief.

It had become increasingly apparent to him over the past weeks that he had, yet again, run out of things to do, which was a perilous state of affairs. He had staved off ennui for a while this time by first renovating his house again and then by restoring an old Jaguar E-type, but the kitchen was as improved as it was going to get and the Jag was running better than new, and he had felt the soft, inexorable tides of boredom rolling in. It was November, the grey end of the year, and November always made him feel his age.

He had considered going up to Scotland, moping about a bit in more appropriate scenery. Going back to his roots. There were several extremely good reasons not to do this, but faced with the spectre of serious boredom Ruthven had begun to let himself imagine the muted melancholy colors of heather and gorse, the coolness of mist on his face, the somewhat excruciatingly romantic ruins of his ancestral pile. And sheep. There would be sheep, which went some way toward mitigating the Gothic atmosphere.

Technically Edmund St. James Ruthven was an earl, not a count, and he only sort of owned a ruined castle. There had been a great deal of unpleasantness at the beginning of the seventeenth century that had done funny things to the clan succession, and in any case he was also technically dead, which complicated matters. So: ruined castle, to which his claim was debatable, almost certainly featuring bats, but no wolves. Two out of three wasn’t bad, even if the castle didn’t overlook the Arges‚.

Ruthven wasn’t much of a traditionalist. He didn’t even own a coffin, let alone sleep in one; there simply wasn’t room to roll over, even in the newer, wider models, and anyway the mattresses were a complete joke and played merry hell with one’s back.

He took the crumpled wrappers into the kitchen and disposed of them. Having seen Varney properly installed in one of the guest bedrooms, and been reassured that his condition—while serious—was stable, Ruthven had spent a couple of hours looking through his own not inconsiderable library. The peculiar nature of the weapon Varney had described didn’t fit with anything that immediately came to mind, but something about the idea of it was familiar.

Now, having killed a few hours, he judged it late enough in the morning to call August Cranswell at the British Museum, hoping to catch him in the office rather than somewhere in the complicated warren of the conservation department. He was rather more relieved than he would have liked to admit when Cranswell picked up on the third ring, sounding distracted. “Hello?”

“August,” Ruthven said. “Am I interrupting something?”

“No, no, no—well, yes, but it’s okay. What’s up?”

“I need your help with a bit of research. As usual.”

“At your service, lordship,” said Cranswell, a smile in his voice. “Also as usual. What’s the topic this time?”

“Ceremonial daggers. To be more exact, ceremonial daggers dipped in something poisonous.” Ruthven leaned against the kitchen counter, looking at the draining board by the sink: Greta’s surgical instruments lay side by side on the stainless steel, once more boiled clean. It had been a long time since he’d been called upon to sterilize operating tools, not since the Second World War, in fact—but the memory was still vivid in his mind seventy-odd years later.

Cranswell’s voice sharpened. “What kind of poison?”

“We don’t know yet. But the dagger itself is extremely peculiar.”

“You are not being even slightly reassuring,” Cranswell said. “What happened?”

Ruthven sighed, removing his gaze from the probes and tweezers and directing it at the decorative tile work on the walls instead. He sketched out the events of the past night and morning as briefly as he could, feeling obscurely as if the details ought to be communicated in person, as if the phone line itself was vulnerable. “Varney is stable, at least,” he concluded, “and all the… foreign material… has been removed and taken for proper analysis. Greta says he should recover, but nobody knows quite how long it’ll take, and she pointed out the rather obvious similarities between this business and the Ripper cases. But the dagger is why I’m calling you.”

“Wow,” said Cranswell, sounding somewhat overwhelmed, and then rallied: “Tell me everything you can. I don’t have our catalog of arms and armor memorized, but I can go and look.”

“Varney didn’t get a good look at it—he described it as a spike, or a short weapon like a rondel dagger. But the blade itself was cross-shaped. Like two individual blades intersecting at right angles. I have no idea how one would go about making such a thing.”

“I’ve seen something like that, but it wasn’t a knife,” Cranswell told him. “Lawn sprinklers have spikes like that to anchor them in the ground. I’m guessing your friend didn’t encounter a ritual lawn sprinkler stake, however.”

“The likelihood is slim. But if you could look through the daggers you’ve got hidden away and see if anything even close to this exists in your catalog, I’d appreciate it—but mostly I want you to check the manuscript collection.”

“Manuscripts,” Cranswell repeated. “You think this thing might show up in one of them?”

“It’s the monk costumes. I can’t get the medieval warrior-monk orders out of my mind, you know, taking up arms in the service of some flavor or other of god. Varney said they went on a bit about unclean creatures of darkness and purification and so on, which is difficult to credit in the modern age, but then again this whole wretched business is somewhat unbelievable.”

“I’ll have a look,” said Cranswell. “If we have anything it’ll be in storage; none of the manuscripts on display are likely to have anything useful to offer, but I’ll check.”

“Thank you. I… do know you’re busy,” Ruthven said, wryly. “I appreciate it.”

“I could kind of use a break right now, actually. I’ll call you this afternoon if I find anything, okay?”

“Splendid,” he said. “If you aren’t doing anything tonight and feel like being social, come over. I’ll make you dinner in partial recompense for your time.”

Cranswell chuckled. “Done,” he said. “Any opportunity to avoid eating my own cooking, you know. Okay, I’ll go see what we’ve got.”

“Thank you,” Ruthven said again, meaning it. He set the phone back in its cradle, feeling somewhat guilty at having dragged another person into this business but mostly relieved to have Cranswell’s assistance and his access to a staggering number of primary sources.

Greta rubbed at the hollows of her temples, leaning against the lab bench and watching her ex-boyfriend twiddle knobs on his microscope. “Well?” she said.

“Well what?” Twiddle, twiddle. “How do you expect me to do any sort of analysis if you keep interrupting me to say ‘well’? In fact I can’t make out anything useful in this. Just looks like a sharp piece of silvery metal to me. I’ll have to run it through the GC-MS.” Harry sounded interested.

She came forward; after a moment he moved to let her have a look down the scope. As he’d said, it wasn’t much use: a triangular fragment of white metal, presumably the tip of some kind of blade, with a weird greyish coating on bits of it. The coating was what worried Greta. Other than metal and blood, it had smelled sulfur-sharp and familiar, as if she’d been around that scent some time before, but she couldn’t place it. And Varney’s reaction to whatever it was had indicated a fairly complicated inflammatory response.

you?” she asked. “Last time I had to get some spectrometry done I had to wait ages for my samples to be processed, there was a queue of several labs ahead of me, and anyway it must cost something awful.”

“Maybe at King’s College you’d have to wait, but this is the Royal London,” Harry told her with a smirk. “As it happens we don’t have a queue for the mass spec just at the moment and this is weird enough to be interesting, so I’m willing to take it on.”

“You’re magnificent,” said Greta, straightening up. “Completely magnifique.”

Harry laughed. “You didn’t get any sleep at all, did you? I can tell. Go away and let me get on with my work. I’ll ring you as soon as I get any results out of this mess.”

She nodded, stifling another yawn, and collected her vast and untidy handbag. “Right. I’ll be in touch, Harry, and thanks. I really do appreciate it.”

He was already packing up the sample to prepare it for the gas chromatograph–mass spectrometer, and just nodded—the same annoyingly distracted little nod she remembered without love from the time they’d spent together. Greta shoved her hands into her pockets and headed out of the laboratory, making a conscious effort to think about something—anything—else.

Greta’s personal life was practically nonexistent, given the demands of her career, and in any case it had been a losing proposition trying to date someone completely outside the world she worked in. She had had a handful of relationships in her adult life, none of them lasting more than a few months and all of them largely unsatisfactory. It was difficult to keep coming up with new and inventive cover stories for her day job, for one thing, and while she defaulted to
I run a private clinic for special-needs patients
and relied on doctor-patient confidentiality to avoid having to discuss what it was she actually did, Greta found the effort of it exhausting. She had allowed Harry to think that the nature of her clinic tended toward the discreet treatment of diseases one simply did not talk about, but dinner-table how was your day conversations had been a daily minefield to negotiate, and the benefits of being involved with someone had simply not measured up.

He was a useful acquaintance, however, and Greta had from time to time presumed on that acquaintance to get some lab work done—and been very, very glad that Harry didn’t ask questions, particularly those starting with “why.”

She made her way out of the lab building without paying much attention to her surroundings until she was outside again, looking up at the façade.

The original structure of the Royal London Hospital wasn’t a particularly prepossessing building, made out of yellow-brown brick with some cursory pilasters stuck on the front in a stab at classical gravitas. Over the years new bits had been built on here and there, including a vast series of rectangular additions clad in blue glass that contrasted very oddly with the Georgian design of the original building. It was ugly but it was also clearly thriving, busy, and not relying on optimism and duct tape to keep going.

Her own clinic in Harley Street was about as spartan as you could get, and the only reason she was located in that particular hallowed realm at all was that her father had owned the property outright and left it entirely to her on his death, along with just about enough to pay the taxes. These days her neighbors were mostly other specialist clinics rather than the personal offices of famous and/or knighted medical men, but she was still very conscious of her own comparative unimportance. Premises in London’s historic medical VIP area were a bit exhausting to live up to, especially when she couldn’t afford to keep the place looking quite as glossy as the rest of the street, despite the protective illusion wards on the door. What money she could spare after expenses and upkeep went toward helping her more disadvantaged patients with necessities.

Greta let herself entertain a thoroughly idiotic fancy of building some modern blue glass boxes on the roof of the property to create a solarium for her mummy patients, and shook her head. Harry was right. She needed sleep.

She had called her friend Nadezhda Serenskaya early that morning to see if she could possibly take Greta’s office hours for the day; Nadezhda, who was a witch and thus well acquainted with London’s supernatural community, and Anna Volkov, a part-rusalka nurse practitioner, regularly stepped in to help Greta out, but generally with more notice. Now she took out her phone again and dialed the clinic.

It rang three times before Nadezhda came on the line, and Greta knew it would have gone to voice mail if she was with a patient, but there was still a stab of guilt at having to make her friends do the receptionist part of her job as well as the actual doctoring.

“Greta,” Nadezhda said, sounding unruffled. “What’s up?”

“Hey, Dez. At the moment, not a lot.” She couldn’t suppress a yawn. “Thanks again for stepping in on zero notice. How’s it been so far?”

“Hush, you know I like the work, I’m glad to help. Pretty quiet, some walk-ins but mostly I’m amusing myself tidying up your sample cabinets and dusting your office, which is hilariously disorganized. Are you okay? What’s going on?”

“I’m fine,” she said. She could picture Dez bustling and had to smile. “I just didn’t get any sleep last night—house call, and a bad one; it’s something I’ve never seen before. I think we’re out of the woods, but I’m waiting on test results.”

“Which are going to take forever,” said Nadezhda. “So you ought to go home and get some damn sleep while you can manage it. Don’t worry about the clinic, everything’s under control, and Anna says she can take tomorrow and the day after if you need them, I’ve called her already.”

There was absolutely nothing in that statement that should make Greta want to cry, but much like Ruthven’s latte art it tightened her throat nonetheless. She didn’t deserve friends like these. “Thank you,” she said, and was relieved to hear that her voice sounded entirely ordinary. “I’ll… find something to eat, and then yeah, okay, I will go home for a little while. Thanks, Dez.” What she really wanted to do was hurry back to Ruthven’s to see how Varney was doing, but she knew perfectly well that Ruthven would call her if there was any change.

“No worries. You call me if you need anything, all right?”

“I will,” she told the phone, and “Good-bye,” and swallowed hard. This was fatigue and low blood sugar. Nadezhda was right: food first, and then rest.

With a sigh Greta turned and started off along Whitechapel Road. There was a fairly decent pub just a block away, the Blind Beggar, which ought to be able to provide her with some lunch; then perhaps she might actually have a chance to drive home and get some sleep.

It surprised her not in the slightest when this prospect became, once more, totally unattainable.

A familiar rattling cough from behind her made Greta stop and look back to see the grey figure of her most frequent patient: coatless, suit-jacket collar turned up and hat jammed over ears, trudging along glumly against the November wind. She said a few unladylike words and trotted back to Fastitocalon, nudging her way through midday shoppers.

“Fass, what the devil are you doing out in this weather without a coat? You sound dreadful.”

“Thank you, I’m sure,” he said, giving her a look. “What a nice surprise it is to see you, Dr. Helsing, as always you brighten up the day like a little ray of sunshine.” Then he started to cough again, and whatever else he might have had to say was lost. It was an unpleasant sound, bronchial and sharp, almost like fabric being ripped.

Greta put her arm around him. “Right, enough of this, come with me.” She propelled him briskly in the other direction, toward the nearest pharmacy, wishing to God she’d had another cup of coffee. He went biddably enough, although he did point out that people were staring at them. “I don’t give a damn about staring,” she said. “Look, sit down. I won’t be long.”

Fastitocalon subsided into one of the chairs in the pharmacy’s little waiting area. He was glad to sit down; he was, in fact, considerably older than the fifty-something he appeared to be. Greta was saying something to the pharmacist, scribbling on a blue pad and fishing in her enormous handbag for her credentials. He watched her, the pale hair almost colorless under the fluorescent lights, the rapid gestures with which she emphasized her points, and thought how very much she was like her father. Wilfert Helsing had been Fastitocalon’s dear friend as well as his physician, and he’d known Greta all her life—and in the years since Wilfert’s death, had done his best to keep an eye on her.

In a manner of speaking. He really did try not to slip into people’s heads by accident, but Greta was different. He had offered, and she had accepted, the tacit protection of his mental presence: a distant and mostly imperceptible flicker of awareness in the very back of her mind, the sensation that she was not alone.

He thought—not for the first time—about the novelty of being ordered about by the same girl who had, at six months of age, been sick all over the shoulder of his totally irreplaceable 1958 Italian topcoat, the girl he’d once delighted by turning all her plastic play blocks into brightly colored lumbering beetles, the girl he’d tutored with indifferent results in the arcane discipline of sixth-form calculus. The woman who had turned to him on a cold and awful day for what support he could provide, who had said, Fass, help, I don’t know what to do.

Humans lived so fast.

Another fit of coughing shook him and he retreated behind his handkerchief, cursing a number of factors, including London’s weather, his own stubbornness, and the events of the Spanish Inquisition. Suddenly Greta was there, beside him, and she pushed the familiar bright plastic of an inhaler into his hand.

“Here. And there’s a longer-acting nebulizer as well. Why didn’t you tell me you’d run out of meds? And you’ve been smoking. I intend to shout at you at considerable length about that.”

The magic chemicals were doing their job, though. Soon he could stop coughing and wipe at his streaming eyes. “I thought you were already shouting. We’re making a scene.”

“No,” said Greta, helping him up and nodding to the pharmacist. “I have not yet begun to shout, and a scene would involve somebody throwing things and/or being tossed out of a window; this is just a mild disturbance. Come on, I’m making you eat lunch, and after that I can shout at you. And you can tell me all about why you’re walking around in November sans sensible outdoor clothing, and I can tell you about the wretched day… er… night and morning I’ve had.”

The Blind Beggar was crowded, but mostly the patrons were around the bar, watching a football match. Greta was able to find them a table in the back without much difficulty, and ordered coffee for herself and tea with a good slug of brandy in it for Fastitocalon.

“Right,” she said, when the drinks had arrived. “You go first.”

He eyed her. “Can I demur on the basis of a terribly sore throat?”

“Nope. Drink your nice fortified tea and give me the facts. Just the facts.”

“You’re a hard woman, Greta Helsing.” Fastitocalon did as he was bidden, wincing as he swallowed, but the brandy spread a wonderfully heartening warmth through him. “That’s… really rather nice. There isn’t much to tell, anyway. I was temporarily out of ready cash due to an unexpected rent increase last week, and my winter coat was relatively new and still worth a bit.” He shrugged. It wasn’t as if this situation was exactly novel. “I expect I’ll manage.”

Greta pinched the bridge of her nose. “Fass. Really, listen to yourself. You are not living in a Russian novel, okay? You don’t have consumption and your flat’s on the second floor; it’s not remotely mistakable for a garret. Ruthven is going to go absolutely spare if he hears about this, you know.”

“Yes, which is why you aren’t going to tell him,” said Fastitocalon. “Please, Greta, be a good girl and just forget the whole thing; it’s hardly important. Nor the first time it’s happened. You should’ve seen me in the 1820s, stuffing bits of rag round the windowpanes to keep out the drafts. That was proper Russian-novel stuff. This is just a capricious landlady.”

“Maybe if you weren’t old enough to know better and didn’t have COPD and didn’t have any way to cloud men’s minds and fog their understanding of rent increases, I’d say pawning your only winter coat in London in November might be an acceptable course of action.” Greta looked up as the waitress came back. “Same again, and the beef and barley soup and granary roll. Fass?”

“Hmm? Oh…” He shrugged. “What she’s having? I wish you wouldn’t call it that.”

“Call what what?” Greta asked as the waitress finally quit staring at Fastitocalon and retreated, order pad in hand.

“COPD. It sounds like a law enforcement team. In my day we referred to my trouble as chronic bronchitis.”

“Well, it is. Bronchitis is an obstructive pulmonary disorder. Which reminds me, when did you run out of your meds and why didn’t you tell me you’d run out?”

He looked down. “A week ago? Some sort of mix-up. They said there weren’t any refills left on that prescription and they’d call you to get you to authorize it. Didn’t they?”

“Not that I’m aware of,” Greta said, taking out her prescription pad again and writing busily, eyebrows drawn together in a scowl that reminded Fastitocalon once more suddenly and vividly of her father.

“Anyway, it’s fine,” he said. “I’m quite all right. Er. Lethbridge sent me home, though.”

Greta finished scribbling and pushed several blue prescription slips across the table, still scowling. “There. That’s three months’ worth. And good for Lethbridge. I might revise my opinion of him if he goes on showing that level of common sense. You’re going to eat something nourishing and then you are going straight home and…”

She paused and ran a hand through her hair. “You don’t have much heat there, do you?”

“Oh, of course I do. It’s just that most of it escapes up the holes in the ceiling where they didn’t seal it round the drainpipes and goes to heat my upstairs neighbor’s flat instead.”

“Oh, Jesus Christ,” said Greta, despairingly. “What else? Have you got to crawl up the steps over broken glass both ways while carrying weights in your teeth?”

Fastitocalon laughed—and it was a testament to the powers of modern medicine that the laughter didn’t turn into another hacking fit. “Broken glass? Oh, we would’ve killed for broken glass when I was young,” he said in a terrible Yorkshire accent.

Luxury,” said Greta, and this time both of them burst out laughing.

Not so far away at all, in a small room lit with brilliant blue, a naked man-shaped thing knelt, head bowed. Its skin was an angry red that looked dark purple in this light, blotched and shiny with blisters. It was moving very slightly, swaying back and forth with the rhythm of the beating of its heart. Dancing, jumping shadow-shapes played over a concrete floor and metal walls that curved in a low arch overhead. The air stank of ozone: the smell of bright energy, of lightning storms.

The object before which it knelt was squatting in a cabinet like a malevolent deep-sea creature, alien, tentacular, glowing: filled with moving, flickering blue light. Within a thick glass vessel a glaring blue-white spark danced, far too bright to see clearly, accompanied by a strange atonal humming that was both awful and hypnotic.

Distantly, over that humming, footsteps approached; distantly the thing registered that it had heard them. They did not matter at the moment, nothing mattered, not when there was the light to look at, the light, the blue light.

“Every thing that may abide the fire,” said a voice, replacing the footsteps in its awareness, “shall go through the fire, and be made clean; the flame shall burn up their wickedness.”

Slowly it woke into a higher level of consciousness, swimming upward from dark stillness lit only by that blue. It stood with effort, and where it had knelt there was a mark, a stain of fluids soaked into the concrete floor.

It turned toward the voice, still dazzled with blue light, unable to see what it was facing: another man-shaped thing, this one clothed in the coarse brown habit of a Benedictine brother, its own shiny pink and white scars concealed from sight. Beneath the hood there was another gleam of blue: twin blue pinpoints of light.

“In the fire thou shalt be purified, as silver tried in a furnace of earth,” the newcomer said.

There was a pause before the thing remembered speech and how it worked. “I am… purified,” it said, slowly. Its voice was cracked, uneven, as it gave the ritual reply. “My sins are burned with fire.”

The hooded monk inclined his head, once: a nod, or a bow. “Behold, thine iniquity is passed from thee, and I will clothe thee with raiment; let the high praises of God be in thy mouth, and the holy sword of the Lord God in thy hand.”

“Praised be God,” said the thing, completing the ritual, and its knees began to buckle with the unaccustomed strain of standing upright after so long on the ground. The monk caught it easily, lifted it in his arms like a child. There was a soft series of wet little percussions as fresh blisters broke, dragged across the monk’s rough-woven habit, and the thing moaned. Everything was dark, with moving stars.

“Take comfort,” said the monk, and turned, and bore it away into the darkness. “Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see light in the darkness, walk the paths of night without fear. You shall see with new eyes. You have a purpose.”

Only now did the thing realize that the little bursts and sparks of light all around it were not from the tunnel they were passing through. It blinked, and each blink was agony, and it could not see. The blue light had burned away its sight, ablated tissue and nerve and vein, sunk the sun behind the horizon for ever.

Then the monk’s words began to make sense. New eyes.

A new sight with which to see a cleaner world.

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