Club Arcana: Operation Janus by Jon Wilson by Jon Wilson - Read Online

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Club Arcana - Jon Wilson

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Chapter One

In which Angus Recites a Poem

Miss Oberlan inclines her head, whispering, Granny’s quite asleep.

Her hot breath, wafting under Angus’s chin, prompts him to withdraw the handkerchief from his breast pocket and dab at the sweat beading his brow. He leans away from her, though the settee is small and he can not lean far enough. Please, Matilda, it’s late.

She sits up straight, settling Garretty’s Verses for Good Girls once more atop her thighs. Angus returns the dampened cloth to his pocket, clears his throat, and glances crossly at the old woman seated at the other end of the parlor.

Mrs. Hampshire is definitely dozing. Her knitting needles and the sock, sweater, or scarf she has been fumbling into creation lays dormant on her lap. Her withered chin, with it’s wispy hairs, droops against her chest. Her rocker has ceased its slow creaking. Finding the elderly chaperone thus remiss in her duties, Angus clears his throat again, loudly. But Mrs. Hampshire does not stir.

Miss Oberlan intones, "Of the Mountain in the Mist," her otherwise fair voice falling into a bland monotone. She has clearly grown bored with the lesson, as has Angus—as has, even more clearly, Miss Oberlan’s grandmother. But the Autumnal pageant is a few days hence, and the silly girl has yet to commit even a third of the poem to memory.

"Of the mountains in the Mist

beyond the veil of summer’s glow

Beyond the tiding rampant starlight

nimbus shine for all to know

We speak in subtle rev’rent hymnal

lest the gods who there dwell still…"

She yawns, loudly, giving in to an impulse Angus himself has been struggling to suppress. Despite the lack of a fire, the room is sweltering. Sweat creeps down the nape of his neck, runs in rivulets down the center of his chest. He subdues a second impulse, this time to leap up and throw open the window, recollecting what devilry the summer flaxen can wreak upon Miss Oberlan’s respiration. Her recitation still needed much, but not inflamed nasal passages.

"Lest the gods who there dwell still

should rouse from ancient troubled slumber"

The poem once again puts Angus in mind of the painting by Friedrich—which he knows only in the ekphrastic—showing a mountain peak encircled by wispy clouds. The image, described to him in some detail by his mother who claimed to have viewed it herself at seventeen, had particularly impressed him, even as his dame, with the utter lack of artistic sensibility one must tolerate in women, dismissed the painting as pedestrian and too steeped in mythology to be of any merit.

To wield once more their grievous will

Matilda Oberlan’s voice has begun to grow breathless, reminding him again of the closed window, and his own keen sense that the salon is not properly ventilated. His collar seems to squeeze tighter around his throat. A drop of sweat beads at the interior end of his left eyebrow and hangs, poised like a glistening diamond half an inch from his eye, before falling in a slow, undulating ball to crash against the side of his nose.

And then he feels the faint pressure of Miss Oberlan’s shoe pressing down atop his own. At first, dismissing the sensation as a sign of her growing impatience, he shifts his foot a few inches away from hers. They have sat already three quarters of an hour, and, as Angus knows from previous tutoring sessions, Miss Oberlan’s natural restlessness will not readily tolerate much more. But then the pressure returns, and Angus realizes the shoe coming to rest over his own does so with a sly, teasing pressure. Then the toe of her shoe pivots, catching the hem of his trouser leg. She nudges the garment upward, lightly tracing a quivering line up his stocking.

"What blood, what blood the ancient slumber

Calls from each beleaguered foe"

Miss Oberlan! Angus leaps to his feet, inadvertently knocking the volume of poetry from her lap. The book tumbles across the floor. Matilda gasps and stares up at him as if he’s lost his wits. Granny Hampshire likewise sits forward in a sudden frenzy, crying, A greater age than thine! The ball of yarn, heretofore nestled in her lap, bounces to the floor and rolls toward the window as if intent upon escape.

Seeing the utter terror on Matilda’s face, Angus fumbles to collect himself. Half-formed utterances tussle with one another in his throat, resulting in a short series of stuttered, Hem, I, you, we. He draws his handkerchief and applies it to the back of his neck.

Matilda’s face softens, a smile molding itself seductively across her lips as she angles her head in such a way as to show him her neck. Angus?

He frowns at her and stoops to retrieve her book which lays spreadeagle on its spine. Allow me. The pages flutter as he rises, and a piece of tanned parchment drifts back down to the floor. Closing the book, he passes it to Miss Oberlan and stoops again to retrieve the parchment. It has the feel of vellum, smooth and cool against his fingertips, and droops like fine tissue as he rises holding it. What’s this?

Miss Oberlan’s eyes widen and her strange smile is replaced by a hungry, almost feral expression. Oh!

Angus turns the page over to discover strange markings on the other side. At first the scratches seem utterly incomprehensible, but then he deduces they are some sort of symbols. They appear to be organized in what might generously be described as a pattern. Finally, he realizes they are characters from the American English alphabet, only they do not form readily recognizable words and are drawn crudely, almost carved into the soft piece of canvas as primitive man once chiseled letters into a cave wall.

Poised to repeat his request for an explanation, he angles the strange document toward the light, when Matilda, raising her shoulders and angling her head, giggles. You found my surprise!

He sits beside her on the settee, unable to remove his gaze from the confused jumble of letters. Surprise?

Yes, Angus. You’ve been so wonderfully patient helping me with this dreadful poem, I wanted to do something for you. She leans toward him again, the crinoline of her sleeve rustling against the worsted wool of his jacket.

Intently studying the document, he does not pull away but simply presses his query. What is it?

A poem!

A poem? What nonsense; it is clearly anything but.

Yes. I wrote it myself. It was very difficult. She straightens and tugs the left sleeve of her dress up to reveal her forearm. Several ugly enflamed red scratches crisscross her pale flesh. I used father’s pen knife. She giggles again, and Angus notes for the first time that the giggle is not that of a giddy schoolgirl, but rather like a drunken lecher growling into his cup. She grabs his upper arm. Won’t you read it, Angus? We would surely love to hear you read it.

But it makes no sense. What language is this?

She lowers her face to rub her cheek against his shoulder. Our own secret language. She squirms closer to him, and Garretty’s Verses for Good Girls again tumbles to the floor.

He squints at what he presumes is the first word. There appears to be no punctuation other than random apostrophes scattered willy-nilly. Even the wider spaces between groupings of letters make little sense. As often as not they isolate a T or some other lonely consonant.

Magrath, he says, doing his best to pronounce the jumble of letters phonetically.

Miss Oberlan sighs—a deep, almost crooning expulsion of breathe. She angles her face upward in ecstasy. "Magrass," she corrects him, turning the final syllable into a serpentine hiss.

Korem tul vascoo.

"Koreem thul vescu."

With the last, fading vestiges of his good sense, Angus shakes his head. An earthy odor of loam and mulch and, faintly, fire has seeped into the room. He glances toward the window, thinking somehow it must have opened and a breeze has carried the strange smells in from outdoors. But, of course, the window remains closed.

Matilda, this is nonsense.

She looks up, plaintive. Nearly the whole weight of her presses against his side. Her hands clutch his sleeve. She pleads in the voice of the silly girl he has known since childhood. Oh, Angus, you mustn’t stop once you’ve begun! Start again! Start again!

But having found the wherewithal to disregard the vellum at least momentarily, he looks down at her. She’s grown unnaturally pale, and sweat flows freely down her brow.

On the contrary, I think we should stop for the night, he says. Shall I call your mother?

Her eyes flash. Why do we need her, when I’m right here beside you? Can’t you feel me? As if to ensure his answer can be nothing but yes, she slides nearly into his lap, pressing her thigh right up against his.

Matilda, you’re behaving— But he can not summon the words to explain it. Oddly, when she had coquettishly played her shoe atop his, he’d been readily capable of formulating an objection, but finding her underdeveloped bosom undulating so near his chin, he is rendered quite at a loss.

Oh, please, darling Angus, read, read. A bit more. Just a bit, for me. For me.

He bends his head to the vellum again. Tarn oth.

No! she nearly screams. From the beginning!

He complies, finding himself intoning, "Magrass," nearly as fluently as she had, and then proceeding with a new-found confidence. Gradually, the words grow oddly familiar. Or, rather it is less the words than the cadence, as if he is remembering some ancient lullaby. The odors continue to increase: the smell of wet, upturned dirt, the hint of crushed greenery, churning and composting, and the flame growing less fiery and more like the charged air before a thunderstorm. Pressure seems to build in the room as he nears the end of the carved letters. Matilda pulls away from him, her hands dropping down between her thighs. She bunches her skirts in her fists and slowly begins drawing them up.

Oh, Angus! It’s beautiful! Beautiful and obscene! Don’t stop!

The sight of her white-stockinged knees finally draws his gaze from the vellum and, in a sudden panic, he looks toward old Granny Hampshire as if to cry out for rescue. Much to his horror, he finds the elderly woman not only revived, but watching them. Her great round head, wrapped in its summer bonnet, is cocked at a perilous angle atop her shoulder. Her brow dips threateningly over eyes iridescent with malice, and her mouth hangs open, unleashing a great slavering tongue that uncoils several inches before curving back up to lap at the charged air with a twitching, forked end.

As Angus cries out, the entire house is shaken by a mighty crash. The floor jumps beneath his feet as if the devil himself has shot up from hell to ram his gnarled horns into the foundation. With a pathetic answering squeak, Matilda leaps up and speeds from the room. And Granny Hampshire, as if from a restive slumber, sits forward with another start, looking around with a determined chin to find the culprit guilty of disturbing her. "Charles le Sorcier, indeed! Whatever are you on about Matilda?"

Angus sits helpless, staring from the bewildered old woman to the parlor door which Miss Oberlan has left open in her retreat. He hears her storming up the stairs and the cataclysmic crash of her bedroom door slamming. Mrs. Hampshire, staring woefully at the escaped ball of yarn, her face once again the pale, round, rather stupid one he’s always known asks, Did I dose off?

Finally Mrs. Oberlan appears in the doorway, looking quite bewildered. She glances back over her shoulder. Whatever happened, Angus?

He looks up at her and feels his mouth moving even as no sound issues from his lips. However, she remains too distracted to notice, and simply presses him. Angus?

Something is faintly offensive in her saying his name like that, and, though he can not quite put his finger on it, his annoyance dispels the vestiges of whatever had come over him while he’d tried to decipher the vellum. Latching onto his resentment, as he is wont to do, he offers, somewhat pedantically, It sounded like a gas explosion.

Mrs. Oberlan’s eyes widen in alarm. An explosion? Angus knows she has an exaggerated fear of gas explosions.

What else could it have been?

I don’t know what you mean. An explosion? She paces convulsively into the parlor, crossing halfway to the window.

You heard it, surely. It shook the entire house.

I heard Matilda on the stairs and then her…door.

Mrs. Hampshire, working her way slowly out of her rocker, mutters, I suppose now she’ll start that infernal tapping and be at it all night. She glances at Angus, still motionless on the settee. Perhaps you dozed off. It’s so stuffy in here.

Mrs. Oberlan reaches the window and hoists it up. If one of the neighbors… She listens intently a moment, doubtless for the commotion a gas explosion might be expected to stir. But the only sound is the wanton wail of a molly in her season. And then, closer, the answering cry of a lusty tom. Wretched beasts! Will you give us no peace? She hugs herself and trembles, as if the breeze that creeps into the room is not hot and heavy with the portent of an approaching storm.

Buck up, Mirriam, Mrs. Hampshire says with a sneer. It’s my room’s next to Matilda’s, and me she keeps up all hours with her tomfoolery!

Angus realizes suddenly that the strange amalgam of odors he’d discerned while reading the vellum has dissipated, and, with it, the last of the trance-like malaise that had stolen over him. A kaleidoscope of vague memories flash through his mind. Had Miss Oberlan intimated she’d cut herself with her father’s penknife? Certainly not. Nor had old Mrs. Hampshire glared at him like a slavering jackal. Might he have nodded off? The room was stifling. And the poem they had been working on had been so dreadfully uninspired. The poem! He looks around for the vellum. Had Miss Oberlan snatched it from him just as she’d taken flight? Or had that, too, been part of a dream?

Angus? Are you feeling ill? Mrs. Oberlan, her back to the window, appraises him with some concern.

He does look a bit more pale than usual, Mrs. Hampshire agrees, having retrieved the recalcitrant ball of yarn and settled once again into her rocker.

I hope Matilda wasn’t unpleasant. She’s not been herself lately.

With a last desperate sweep of the room for the vellum, Angus tells her, offhand, On the contrary, I think I overtired the poor dear. Mr. Handy warns me I can be quite the martinet.

You’re still helping out round the library, then?

His head clearer, despite the confusion as to what he might or might not have imagined, Angus realizes what had stirred his resentment earlier. It is quite inappropriate for her to address a man of twenty-two so informally. He would not call her Mirriam. Nor can she be unaware that he is still engaged at the South Providence Library. They had discussed his promotion to first assistant librarian on his last visit. But all he says is, I am, and then, placing his feet firmly upon the floor preparatory to rising, Perhaps I’d best be off.

Certainly, Angus. Mrs. Oberlan takes his arm once he is up and they began the journey out into the hall.

Escorting him to the door, she apologizes twice more for any potential rude behavior on Matilda’s part. Apparently, the poor girl has been under the weather all week. Then, looking rather flustered, she wonders where his coat might be before he assures her, patiently, that it is only September and he has not worn a coat.

Things will go missing! she declares, apparently quite at wit’s end.

Retrieving his hat, Angus continues to reassure her—not only about the safety of his garments, but about her daughter. Seventeen is an age requiring certain forbearances, after all. Then he bows his way out onto the porch, turning to wish her a final goodnight only to find the door closing in his face. The scream of the hinges and the clanging of the latch echo off into the gathering darkness like the sealing of a tomb.

Chapter Two

In which Angus Encounters a Bevy of Extraordinary Characters

Notwithstanding the abruptness of his departure, the fresh evening air acts as an immediate restorative. Even the lingering reminiscences of loam and mulch and electricity vanish. And he tosses his head disdainfully at the notion of the crash he’d imagined shaking the house. Surely he had imagined it. Mrs. Oberland had not heard it. And he knows Matilda’s mother frets daily about the prospect of the new gas lines wreaking havoc, so she would have made much of such a commotion. Gone too is the memory of the unnerving feel of the vellum, like varnished flesh in his hands. And the very idea of unimaginative young Matilda dipping into her own veins for ink. With her father’s penknife! What had put such an idea into his head?

He steps slowly down from the stoop, his shoes grinding loudly against the dry stone.

Upon reaching the garden gate, he pauses again to sample the air and look both ways. Movell Boulevard, the high street, is a half block away to the left, well-lit and quite possibly dotted with a few shops still open for business. The intersection glows with the warm welcoming amber sheen of many street lamps. To his right, a bit farther away, is Carrington Road, which will take him to Fall Street and, a mere half block from that intersection, his own garden gate.

He glances left again, thinking a stroll down the high street really did appeal to him, but then he shrugs and turns right, toward Carrington, telling himself he is being silly and self-indulgent and really should be getting home.

The sky is heavy and low, an unbroken mass of undulating cloud that make the street, the town—indeed, the entire world—look as if it has been swallowed by some impossibly immense creature and is, even now, being slowly digested in its roiling gullet. Lightning flashes within the miasma, like malevolent fairy lights or marauding angels besieging the clouds from above.

Halfway to the corner, he notices how incredibly dark it is and decides the street lamps have not been lit. Perhaps a gas line has ruptured after all. But surely such an occurrence would have triggered a reasonable commotion, and the neighborhood is deathly quiet.

The thought has no sooner formed in his mind, then again arises the anguished wailing of the she-cat, and, in answer, an entire chorus of surrounding males.

He carries on, reassured by the bold, reverberating echoes of his own steady footfalls. Approaching the corner, however, he spies an eerie, glowing ball of light hovering in the air. The street lamp. It has been lit. He moves closer, discovering that even when he stands beside the lamppost with the bulb positioned directly overhead, its illumination does not wash over him. He sees it glowing, plainly burning with its customary ferocity, yet it seems unable to pierce the surrounding gloom. How curious, he thinks before recalling that he has but latterly resolved to discourage his innate tendency to indulge in idle ruminations over the curious. Hadn’t Mr. Handy admonished him that there would be no more distractions when he announced Angus’s promotion?

Suppressing a faint shiver, Angus turns the corner.

The long stretch of Carrington Road toward Fall Street, suddenly seems farther than three blocks. The dark street, lined with darker houses and covered by the dreary sky, has him regretting his decision to forego a stroll down Movell Boulevard. But, no, he knows these streets like the back of his hand. He has roamed them the past twenty-two years, even if the first two or three had been from within the safety of his perambulator. Something has doubtless interfered with the street lamps, possibly a rupture a few blocks over, which would also explain the absence of any nearby signs of life. Everyone has gone to see. Angus resolves to make his way nonetheless.

Another great yowling cry rises from somewhere in the darkness between houses. And, again, an answer. Two. Three. Angus shakes his head. Have there always been so many cats in his neighborhood? But he strikes out once more with purpose, determined to ignore the feline choir.

Reaching Maple Street—one block conquered—he does not pause before stepping off the curb and crossing to the other side, immediately discerning a tall figure approaching him from the far end of the second block. He gives a slight start and then chides himself for more foolishness. He strides on, deciding he will be first to wish the fellow a cheery good evening. That is when he notices the second man, walking along the sidewalk on the other side of the street.

Carrington Road runs north and south, and Angus is headed north along the western sidewalk. The two men are headed toward him, southward, on either side of the street. If he steps off the sidewalk and crosses at an angle to the east side of the street, he sees he can pass safely between them in the middle of the road, attaining the eastern sidewalk behind the man traversing that side of the street. It makes perfect sense, too, since he will turn right toward home when he reaches Fall Street. And why are these two strangers, so nonchalantly strolling the darkened sidewalks, keeping such an uncanny pace with one another anyway? It is undeniably odd.

The moment he steps into the road, both of the other men stop, which prompts Angus to stop and reconsider his plan. Reaching the opposite sidewalk behind the second man will, with this alteration, require him walking a rather protracted distance down the middle of the road and how might that look? Even as he experiences the first stirrings of panic, his constitution is such that he bristles most at the idea of looking foolish rather than cowardly.

Ironically, this leads him to behave most foolishly. He turns and retraces the ten strides to Maple, thinking he might turn there, head toward Movell Boulevard and enjoy the fully functioning street lamps and whatever merchants might still be peddling their wares.

But upon reaching the corner, he sees a third man, standing directly in the middle of the road. This one, silhouetted by the golden illumination of the boulevard behind him, is revealed to carry a cane and is dressed in a cape and top hat. Angus steps off the curb to cross Maple and head back down Carrington to Ash, the street on which the Oberlans live, though he does not know whether he plans to traverse that street to Movell or to seek sanctuary in the Oberlan household. Halfway across the street, his head turned to keep an eye on the dark figure blocking Maple Street, Angus crashes into a fourth man blocking his path.

How he might not have noticed this fellow, after discerning the presence of the other three, Angus can not fathom. To begin with, he is by no means dark. He wears a shining white summer suit, with a vest of silver silk and a baby blue four-in-hand. The pale flesh of his face, flushed with excitement, fairly glows in the suffocating gloom. And a wild shock of golden hair encircles his head like a nimbus. Amid the abysmal cloying darkness, he shines like some earthbound seraphim.

I beg your— Angus starts to say, only to have the words catch in his throat.

For the man is not, after all, a complete stranger to him. Though they have never met, though Angus, in fact, has never imagined he might actually exist, Angus recognizes him. He knows this stranger who stands at the intersection of Maple Street and Carrington Road, holding a sword.

A sword!

Don’t you live in the other direction? Icy flames dance in the man’s bright blue eyes. Pink, rather luscious lips part in a wry grin.

Pulling back, Angus stumbles, prompting the man to leap forward, grab Angus’s lapel and turn him. They move back up the center of Carrington toward the two mysterious dark figures standing on either side of the street.

They’re trying to herd you, the fellow shares confidentially, as if this is a secret he is reluctant to impart. He increases his pace, his hand still tightly clutching Angus’s lapel.

Angus tries to keep up, hampered by surprise, disbelief, and an inability to look at anything but the man’s stunning face. But—

But nothing. The man suddenly stops causing Angus to crash into him again. Here they come!

The two dark figures spring from the sidewalks and sprint toward them. The blond fellow laughs, calling, Stay down! and nearly shoves Angus to the pavement. The fellow bounds forward, leapfrogging over Angus and slashing with his sword. The approaching figures fall back, away from the swinging blade, dividing once again toward either side of the street. The swordsman, standing triumphant in the middle of Carrington Road, hollers to Angus, Run!

Angus finds himself adhering to the command even as a part of him worries he ought not to abandon the blond fellow, sword or no. But once again the echo of his own pounding footsteps, tearing through the preternaturally silent night, seems to encourage him to ever greater speed. He dashes down the center of Carrington Road toward Cedar, one hand settling instinctively atop his Homburg. Behind him echo the taunting shouts of his mysterious savior.

Ha! You think so, you dog? Come on, then, try again! Coward! Fiend! Oh, no you don’t!

Halfway down the remaining block of Carrington, between Cedar and Fall Streets, Angus glimpses one of the caped men running along beside him, not in the street, but through the yards of the dark houses. The man springs with uncanny grace over hedges and waist-high fences, gaining momentum, clearly hoping to head Angus off at Fall Street. Indeed, when Angus reaches Fall, his course has him turning right, directly into the path of his pursuer.

He wills himself to run faster, but he has never been athletic. Despite his long legs and lean physique, he has always disdained the vulgarity of the sprint. Drawing breath is already a struggle and pain tightens his chest as he skids to a halt in the middle of the intersection of Carrington Road and Fall Street.

He stands there gasping, desperate to stoop over and brace himself against his own wobbly knees,