“Well, you’d best not hang around outside.” The client stood aside and waved Archcleric Pygram through. “Come in. Come in.”
Pygram had rarely experienced such a wealth of relief since the day he had passed his exams confirming him into the priesthood. He smiled at Vandergut and tipped his hat, causing a large amount of water to run off and splash the man’s feet. Altering his smile to a more apologetic version, he stepped past into the client’s residence.
He cast glances around the gloom-infested hall. Rain-darkened daylight spilling through the open doorway revealed only minimal furnishings – a hatstand, a small bureau, a flattering portrait of the master of the house adorning one wall and the handsome embroidered rug on which Pygram profusely dripped. A staircase spiralled up to his right while a door to his left presumably led to the ground-floor rooms.
It was a curious residence for a merchant. Yet that was what he understood the client to be. Pygram was of the opinion that any intrusions from the Netherplanes or the spiritual realm ought to be dealt with as soon as possible. The Temple hierarchy held that such incidents troubling men of standing and/or wealth were all the more urgent. This man, Mr Vandergut, had quite the mercantile empire by all accounts and whatever he may have lacked in social elevation early in life he had purchased with his successes in trade and commerce. Pygram would be under some pressure to achieve a good outcome here, with some swiftness and no small measure of courtesy.
Vandergut closed the door, reducing the hammering rain to a muffled drumbeat. “Well now,” he said, “sorry about that. Wouldn’t have done to have my priest skewered by a gargoyle’s arm before he’d even gotten started.”
“No indeed.” Pygram’s appointment to the rank of Archcleric had been the reward for his aptitude for handling supernatural phenomena in a calm and efficient manner. He’d earned such a reputation in the field that the Temple granted him the singular privilege of heading up his own department. He was Archcleric Of The Un-Living and commanded a loyal, dedicated staff of one. Himself. Other priests could no doubt cope with a simple exorcism, but Pygram imagined there would be a long queue of hopeful applicants to replace the gargoyle before any lined up to replace him. “Now, clearly we need not wait until sunset to commence our work, but first, uh, I wonder if there is somewhere I might temporarily dispose of my coat?”
Vandergut gestured. “Chuck it on the hatstand.” And gave him a look of no confidence, as much to say any man who couldn’t figure out what to do with a wet coat was likely to have problems banishing a ghost. “I’ve packed most of the staff off for the time being. Didn’t want them getting in the way and most of them weren’t anxious to be here. I daresay screaming maids and fainting butlers would be a distraction, maybe put you off your stride.”
“Perhaps,” admitted Pygram, who’d encountered similar distractions on multiple occasions and was more fazesd by them than he’d ever been by demons and phantoms and the like.
“I’ve kept Shillingsworth on. He’s made of sterner stuff than the rest. If there’s any fetching or carrying to be done, he’ll see you catered for, soon as he’s done stabling your horse.”
“Excellent. Thank you.” Pygram shucked his coat and draped it on one of the hatstand’s hooks, conscious of every drip noisily splatting the floor. He suppressed a shiver that had nothing to do with the haunting and everything to do with the clinging dampness he now wore as an undergarment under his undergarments. “I wonder if I might also trouble you for a towel? I feel I ought to dry off before I make a start.”
Vandergut coughed in a closed mouth. There was every implication of more he wanted to say, but he spent a few moments picking out a few choice words. “I suppose we won’t fare well against the dead with a wet priest. Come this way, you can stand yourself in front of the fire. Shillingsworth got a right roaring one going this morning. That’ll dry you off in no time. If it doesn’t roast you alive first.”
He led the way through the ground-floor doorway. Pygram squelched after him, not forgetting to bring his two bags, laden with the weapons of his trade.
Discomfiting wetness notwithstanding, he offered up a prayer to Meloch that this would be a routine job.
Hovering without wings. Watching without eyes.
Not that he’d had wings in life, but he’d half expected to get a pair when he’d died. That had been a long time ago. He was sure he’d ‘lived’ longer as a ghost than he’d ever done as a man. The thought made him glum and weighed him down like a rock in the pit of his stomach, but his spirits could sink and sink while his spirit remained floating in the air. Invisible to all.
The two men walked through into the living room. The one chamber in this tower that taunted him with its name. He drifted along after them, riding the murmured wake of their conversation.
He’d seeped through the crack under the front door and lingered in the tower hall as Vandergut talked with his visitor. He could have passed through the wood as easily as hot water through a teabag, but he always imagined splinters scratching at his insides. Even though he didn’t have insides. He wasn’t positive he could truthfully claim to have an outside either. Honestly, all the time he’d spent in this sorry non-state and he had so little understanding of what it was actually all about. In that sense, it was a lot like life.
At least, piecing together these men’s words – along with the garb of the visitor and the amulet he wore about his neck – he understood the purpose of this visit. He’d had only a vague impression from high up on the tower roof. Some distant figure painted as a grey smear like a washed-out watercolour in the driving rain.
If only he’d known what the man was when he’d coiled himself around the gargoyle’s outstretched arm and applied his energies as physical strength, breaking the age-wearied stone. If he’d seen clearly as he fell, wound around the limb like an ethereal serpent, it would have been too late in any case. He could break old stone but he couldn’t fight gravity, not when it came to a struggle for ownership of such a heavy object. He wasn’t even sure if he could have nudged the missile from its path.
As it was, all he’d seen was a rush of images, his whole afterlife flashing before those eyes he didn’t possess. A few events jumped out, but mostly it was long – so very long – and dull, like the dreariest carnival procession, an endless parade of too-similar floats. As it was, the man had dodged the potential impact and all had turned out well.
Now he understood. This man – this young man – was a priest. The priest was here as his enemy. His mortal enemy.
He had almost killed his foe. That would have been a tragedy. The priest’s arrival changed everything.
He wished his enemy good fortune and followed him to the living-room hearth.
[To Be Continued…]