More about "Lucille and the Healers"
Lucille and the Healers
a Mushroom eBooks sampler
Copyright © 2010, Anthony J D Burns
Anthony J D Burns has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, to be identified as the Author of this work.
First published in United Kingdom in 2010 by Mushroom eBooks.
This Edition published in 2010 by Mushroom eBooks,
an imprint of Mushroom Publishing,
Bath, BA1 4EB, United Kingdom
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher.
ISBN: 9781843198581 (PDF complete edition)
This is a sampler of Lucille and the Healers by Anthony J D Burns. If you enjoy reading these sample chapters and would like to read the rest, you can buy the complete Mushroom eBook edition from the usual bookshops online, or find more details at www.mushroom-ebooks.com.
ContentsI — Stowaway
Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.
Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
A few hours ago, the two men loitering at the Royal Victoria Dock had been subject to considerable curiosity. Their drab, near-identical clothing — both of them sporting brown trench coats and matching trilby hats — suggested the possibility that they were plainclothes detectives. On the other hand, the heavy leather satchels they carried, not to mention their twitchy air of nervousness, made the conclusion that they were not-very-confident burglars seem more likely. Some bets had even been taken, but the passage of time, not to mention the almost offensive dullness of the figures, had taken effect, and to most of the dockworkers they had now become as natural and uninteresting a feature of the background as the loading-cranes, the rusty barges, and the murky waters of the Thames. The loiterers themselves, however, were becoming more agitated with each passing second, and less cautious in their whispering. If any passing docker had still been curious enough, he might have heard the following without taking any great effort to eavesdrop:
“Damn Yank ship ought to’ve been in ages ago,” declared the younger of the two, glaring almost accusingly at his watch. “It’ll be past sunset by the time it puts in, if it ever does. What the ’ell are we goin’ to do then?”
“We do our job, lad,” answered his colleague, with rather forced calm. “This is your first field euthanasia, I suppose?”
“Yeah, and I ’adn’t expected I’d be doin’ it in the dead of night. If that blasted boat had come in on time—”
“We’d have ’ad an easy time of it, sure. Still, nothin’ like a baptism of fire, eh lad?” he commented, with an unreassuring smirk. “Just think: if you survive tonight—”
“It ain’t funny, you old—”
“Keep a civil tongue, boy. Dunno what you’re so jumpy for, anyhow. You got your Winchester, ’aven’t you?”
“Yeah,” he answered, grasping for the sawed-off shotgun beneath his coat. “But that’s goin’ to be a fat lot of good if we have to deal with it after nightfall, ain’t it?”
“Well, we’ve got the rest of the gear,” the senior man reminded him, hefting his satchel. “Ways and means, lad. Ways and means.”
“And what if it’s expecting us, and gets the jump on us first?”
“Bloody ray of sunshine, you are. The Ligeia ’asn’t reported no trouble, so that means it can’t have been feedin’ off the crew, or they’d have sent out an SOS. Can’t have ’ad more than a nibble, at any rate. So it’s got to be weak by now, right?”
“Right, not to mention bleedin’ ravenous. And what if she puts in after midnight? Didn’t the lady who gave us the briefing say they get stronger then, never mind whether or not they’ve been feedin’?”
“We got hours till midnight, you stupid son of—”
“Oh, you want to bet it can’t take that much longer?”
They both looked to the skyline, now gloriously dappled with rosy tints that the failing sunlight had painted across the vast canvas of London’s air pollution. It was a fit subject for Monet, but to these observers it was an evil omen indeed, and even the older man could not suppress a pang of nauseous dread. In all his days as a Healer, and in spite of his show of confidence, he had never before been required to perform field euthanasia upon a fully active carrier, not to mention a carrier that knew full well it was being hunted. Coward though he was, the youngster had a point, and the senior Healer could not help sympathising with his next wish:
“With any luck, the bloody ship’s sunk in the Channel.”
“God willing. You got any change, lad? I reckon I’ll call Radlett HQ — see if they’ve got any news on it. Meantime, you can chase up the harbourmaster. See what he’s got to say. Be discreet, mind. We’re customs men, remember? Special orders to search her for smuggled goods soon as she comes in. Got your official papers?”
“’Course I ’ave,” he answered, passing a few coins to his associate. “It’ll be alright with the harbourmaster, d’you think? No awkward questions?”
“Don’t fret. Major Drayton’s put the fix in at the Home Office. Getting aboard her’s goin’ to be the easy part, trust me.”
“Or not, as the case may be,” quipped the younger healer, gazing down-river upon a panorama that remained stubbornly free of American merchant vessels.
“Yeah. Well... let’s be about it, then,” ordered the senior Healer, who set off in search of a telephone box whilst his assistant made for the warehouses. When they were both out of earshot, a docker who had been unloading a nearby barge turned to his workmate and gave him his short but concise interpretation of the curious scene:
“Right. You owe me half a crown, mate.”
“Oh, and ’ow d’you work that out, then?”
“One of ’em said ‘Home Office’, that’s how. Means they’re coppers, sure enough, so I win the bet, see?”
“That so? And why would coppers be passin’ themselves off as customs men, or are you pretendin’ you didn’t hear that bit?”
“Well...” he replied, not very confidently. “It might be some hush-hush bit of business. Security, like. Maybe some foreign spy stowed away on the Ligeia, and they’re waitin’ to pick him up before he gets loose in the country.”
“Poor lookout for the country if you’re not talkin’ a load of old rubbish, Bill. The Ligeia stopped early, at Tilbury docks. Engine trouble, or so I heard.”
“Did it? Oughtn’t we to have told ’em, then?”
“Prob’ly,” he answered, without commitment, “but I’ve been hard at it all bloody day and if I don’t get some beer down me throat in the next five minutes I’m liable to bite me own arm and start drinkin’ the blood, like what the Ancient Mariner did.”
“You read too much, mate.”
“Might do, but at least I don’t read no rubbish about foreign spies ’n’ the like.”
“You’re not goin’ to pay up, are you?” asked Bill, slightly forlorn.
“Tell you what, Bill — I’ll stand you a round, then we can drink to your foreign spy. If he ain’t just your fantasy then I say good luck to the poor sod. Give me the pick of any country to be an outcast in, and I sure as hell wouldn’t be putting this one anywhere near the top of me list.”
* * * *
As the evening wore on into night, a crowd of patrons filed out of the Empire Cinema and onto Leicester Square. They had just been watching Hollywood’s Louise Brooks — the current glamorous idol of many thousand starry-eyed teenage girls and at least as many hopelessly infatuated men — being stabbed to death in a squalid attic by Jack the Ripper, in her latest film, Pandora’s Box. In spite of all this glamour and violence, the film had left many of the watchers cold, and very uncertain what to make of it.
“It wasn’t bad,” declared one bowler-hatted city gent to his equally respectable-looking companion. “Downright dismal ending, though.”
“You thought so?” replied his friend. “Well, I’d have said that Lulu got what was coming to her, all things considered. Pretty little parasite though she was... Can’t really say I felt much pity for such a loose woman. Something wrong, Miss?” he asked, in response to the seething, contemptuous glare that had just been fired in his direction.
Its source was a sixteen year-old girl, and all-too-obviously a fashion victim. Her pale skin shone out in contrast to her garish and clumsily-applied make-up. Her dark hair was cut in a voguish style — short, straight and not unlike a German Stahlhelm — but the cut was rather uneven. Her short, low-waisted, emerald-green flapper dress was at least beyond reproach, though it did not exactly coordinate with her battered old brown mackintosh. She had also got rather carried away in dusting down the shine of her cheap rayon stockings, giving the impression that she had been wading through flour. However, her all-too-obvious social inferiority did not discourage her from looking upon the respectable gent with intense disdain; such a look as one might reserve for an ardent supporter of baby-eating as a solution for overpopulation.
“I’m fine, thank you,” she replied, focusing as much malice into that little pleasantry as a fascist dictator might have required for an entire speech. Confused as to what exactly his crime had been, the man decided it would be safer to take her at her word, and turned back to his companion.
“Anyway, where were we?”
“Loose women. Interesting subject,” replied the other man, with a faintly creepy slyness that the girl still did not find as repulsive as his friend’s self-righteousness.
“Right. Now, I think you’d hardly call me a prude—”
“Safe to say I definitely wouldn’t, Cyril.”
“Indeed... but I hardly think you’d compare me with a woman like that Lulu character, just using the men who fall in love with her; going through lovers like a lion through a herd of antelopes, until she finally meets a lover who puts a knife in her. If that isn’t poetic justice, I don’t know what is.”
Don’t you, indeed? thought the girl, as malevolently as one can, while the two gents drifted off across the Square. Well I’d like to see how you’d have turned out if you’d been born into a filthy attic, with nothing but your looks to survive on. And now you mention it, I don’t recall anyone forcing those horrible men to ruin their lives. Poor Lulu’s was ruined for her. Moments later, after the thrill of fury had passed, she wondered at herself for having taken it so personally. An insult against a Louise Brooks character, however, seemed almost a blasphemy against the screen goddess herself, and since Lucille (as the girl — Lucy Kitson — preferred to be known, having long since decided that her given name had no place in the Jazz Age) had spent the last two years painstakingly copying the style of Louise Brooks as far as her scarce means would allow, a certain sense of personal affront was inescapable.
This is not to suggest for a moment that Lucille was shallow, much less stupid. The fact that she was sixteen and still at school, two years beyond the normal leaving age, was proof against that notion, since she was there by her own merits and not by the payment of the tuition fees which her mother certainly could not have afforded. Her father, Captain Thomas Kitson, had fallen foul of artillery fire at the Battle of the Somme, and for as long as she could remember, her surviving parent had encouraged Lucille and her sister to read, write, add, subtract, sew, and sketch as if their lives depended upon it, which was depressingly close to the truth.
The state pension for an infantry captain’s widow was nothing great, and although Mrs. Kitson took in lodgers to help make ends meet, and both of her daughters earned a few shillings for assisting Miss Provine after school and helping her to teach some of the younger girls — experience they would need before going to college to train for their own teaching certificates — they were not a well-off family. They were not quite desperate, although in hard times, such as when lodgers were scarce, they had flirted with desperation, and the dream of seeing both of her daughters qualified to earn a respectable, independent living was Mrs Kitson’s greatest comfort. That dream was now becoming a reality: Eleanor, now eighteen, would be heading for Avery Hill Teaching College this very summer, in expectation of doing very well indeed.
It was rather a lot for Lucille to live up to, although truth be told she did not quite share her sister’s enthusiasm. She had resigned herself to this fate mainly out of the grim knowledge that she was unlikely ever to follow in Louise Brook’s footsteps and be accepted into a major New York dance company. There were fragments of shattered china ornaments to testify to that, the result of her attempts to practice the Charleston and the Shimmy in the limited floor-space of their living room. All the same, she was not resigned to a glamour-free existence, and put a lot of effort into fighting against that dire possibility.
Although she was unable to afford the latest Chanel dresses, she collected patterns and made her own: an activity which her mother allowed was at least constructive, although she did not share her daughter’s admiration for the waifish and in her opinion unfeminine look of flappers in general and of Miss Brooks in particular. Lucille’s pearls were the cheapest of cheap imitations, but the chances of someone casting an expert jeweller’s eye over them in the darkened picture-houses and jazz clubs she frequented seemed pretty slim. Make-up, on the other hand, was a real problem: not because of what it cost, although that was of no great help, but because her mother had an intense, old-fashioned prejudice against the stuff, and had moreover discovered all of Lucille’s hiding-places with the sole exception of the loose floorboard under the bedside table, and that could only be a matter of time. Cigarettes presented her with much the same problem, not that Lucille even enjoyed smoking, but a long cigarette-holder was the essential sidearm of any flapper worthy of the title, and for Lucille to have been brandishing an empty holder would have just looked silly.
Had she been openly rebellious, and indifferent to the feelings of others, keeping up this lifestyle might have presented fewer problems, but such was not the case. It was her narrow prospects for which she had no love, rather than the people who, in all kindness, had arranged them. They, for their part, had not lost faith in Lucy Kitson, though they preferred not to think too much about Lucille. Miss Provine, headmistress of St. Clarimonde’s, was weary with telling her that if she could only refrain from daydreaming with every other thought, she might even surpass the accomplishments of her sister. She had the creativity and the intelligence, and it was a great pity that she chose to channel all of that into such frivolous pursuits.
Lucille, however, had nothing to do with frivolity: she took her escape-routes deadly seriously. The cinema was her temple, and the silver screen the altar before which she could find it in herself to believe that life had beauty and meaning, and the human race had inner nobility and was not just an absurd and rather unpleasant accident of evolution. In spite of the difficulty Lucille had in relating to such everyday characters as that pompous Lulu-hating gentleman, Miss Provine, or — sad and shameful as it was to admit it — her family, she could instantly identify with such “people” as the man-eating yet vulnerable Lulu, the lovesick, vengeful mad scientist from “Metropolis”, or the Phantom of the Opera, condemned to be feared and hated for no better reason than his deformed face (so wonderfully hideous, as she recalled, that the only ones in the picture-house who did not scream at the sight of it were the ones who had been too busy fainting).
She did not identify quite so strongly with the “good guys” of cinema, whom she felt were not only less interesting than the “villains” and “loose women”, but also seemed to suffer a lot less. Would the gallant and handsome Raoul de Chagny, for example, have been such a model hero had he been born with the corpse-like face of the Phantom? She had her doubts. Besides which, it was only natural that she should feel more for the outsiders, considering her own frustration that she had been born into the grimy little brick hell of Stepney instead of the glitzy paradise of Manhattan, or Berlin. Still, if she could not hope to escape the place physically, she would take every opportunity to do so in her imagination.
Tonight’s escaping, however, had been more costly than usual. The East End picture-houses had (cruelly and shamefully) not been screening Pandora’s Box, and having paid the fare into town and the high ticket-price at the Empire, her purse was feeling even lighter than usual. Time was also wearing on, and back home there was an essay on the French Revolution in a depressingly unwritten condition. Perhaps it would be best to call it a night, she thought, walking in the direction of Piccadilly Circus where she could catch a bus or a tram, and avoid straining her dwindling finances with the cost of a cab fare. It seemed a shame to end Saturday night so abruptly, but needs must, and at least her mother would be glad to see her home at a reasonable hour (for once, on this particularly contentious day of the week).
On Coventry Street she was overtaken by a group of young people, some about her age, some a little older. They all looked slightly more prosperous than her, although the girls, in their knee-length shift dresses and cloche hats, had much the same air of economy models of Louise Brooks. The boys, in their pinstriped tuxedos and fedoras, appeared to be a not-very-threatening mob of Chicago gangsters who had left their Tommy-guns at home. As they passed by, she caught the eye of one of the girls, whom she recognised. Vera Alcott had been one year her senior at St. Clarimonde’s, leaving at fourteen to become a typist in some legal firm. She had, since then, married one of the firm’s associate members, who did not, to the best of Lucille’s knowledge, appear to be among the Al Capone lookalikes in the group. Vera had never been a particularly close friend of hers — being, as she was, effortlessly popular and infuriatingly pretty — but they were on polite terms, meeting occasionally in circumstances such as this.
“Hi, sweetie!” declared Vera, as brightly as if she had been greeting some dear relation who had been lost at sea for ten years rather than a casual acquaintance she had bumped into in Charing Cross Road only a fortnight ago. “Long time no see! The Wicked Witch still keeping you hard at it?”
This obscure mythological reference was to the long-suffering Miss Provine, and — whatever her differences with the headmistress — Lucille was forced to consider that it did not do her justice by a long shot. In the interests of friendship, however, she kept her reply simple and affirmative.
“Oh, absolutely, darling. How’s Stuart?”
“Hard at it as well, poor baby. But we’re off to Paris next week. A change of scene’s the best... Anything the matter, Luce?” she asked, noticing her former school-friend wince in obvious pain.
“Bit of a headache,” replied Lucille, extracting her fingernails from her palms (into which she had suddenly and involuntarily sunk them). “Long film.”
“Well, you’d better shake it off quickly, sweetie. Abe Lyman’s playing at the Kit-Kat tonight, and I don’t suppose he’ll ask the band to wait for your head to quieten down.”
“Coupl’a Bloody Marys’ll see that right,” slurred one of the fedora-topped men, sounding very much as if he, if anybody, ought to know.
“I don’t know, really,” protested Lucille, though in the weakest sense. “Perhaps I’d better just—”
“Oh, don’t be a wet blanket, Luce,” urged Vera, not quite unkindly. “This might be the last I see of you for months. Stuart’s business might drag on for simply ages, and I don’t suppose I’ll have much to do in the meantime. Still, if he gets the partnership after all, he’s promised to take me for a proper holiday in Berlin. Isn’t that just the bee’s knees? I... Oh, copacetic, sweetie,” she rapturously exclaimed. “You’ve decided to come after all.”
With gritted teeth and very sore palms, Lucille joined the party. Just for a few minutes, she thought, as they set off for Haymarket. Maybe half an hour. It’s only around the corner, after all, and it wouldn’t be polite to just refuse. Her inner voice was now sounding so pathetically unconvincing that she was only too glad of the opportunity to enter into the small talk when someone was finally considerate enough to aim some in her direction.
Before long, however, all uncomfortable thoughts were drowned in a mixture of jazz music, cigarette smoke, and the cocktail which Vera’s slurring, swaying, altogether “splifficated” friend had pressed upon her, although how he had managed to order it in his condition would have to remain one of life’s mysteries. The huge amount of alcohol consumed by the club’s patrons — of which hers represented a tiny percentage — at least made sure that her dancing was no worse than anyone else’s, and in spite of the trivial conversation and the fact that she hardly knew anyone there, she was actually beginning to enjoy herself. But how much longer could she afford? She stole a glance at her dancing-partner’s watch: past eleven already. Even if she started back now, both her mother and Eleanor would be in bed by the time she arrived. Might as well not disappoint everyone, then. Another hour won’t hurt... any more. With that almost-comforting reflection, she returned to her shimmying.
* * * *
North of London, overlooking the village of Radlett from a wooded slope, stood Serapion Abbey. From the time of King Henry VIII until the reign of Queen Victoria, the medieval abbey had been an empty ruin. Then, a successful city stockbroker had bought it, hired an architect with a fevered imagination to “restore” it, and thus ended up with a looming mass of gothic arches and fairytale turrets that resembled the old Norman building about as much as it did the Statue of Liberty.
When the stockbroker was later obliged to move to less ostentatious premises (namely Pentonville Prison), Serapion Abbey had been placed on the market. It was now the property of the War Office, though they did not use it for official government business. For, in the eyes of the public, the department codenamed “Firebreak” did not exist, and its Healers, researchers, and support staff, down to the janitors and tea-ladies, were sworn to absolute secrecy under pain of severe punishments. Furthermore, they all knew that their boss would take a grim delight in enforcing them.
Major Miles Drayton, thirty-eight and in peak condition, had not volunteered for this unglamorous, unrewarding assignment. He would much sooner have been with his regiment in British-occupied Iraq. Regrettably, his over-enthusiastic tactics in combating the Arab nationalists, to say nothing of their wives and children, had forced his quick, face-saving transfer. Since the War Office did not particularly want those gruesome events exposed to the media, he had graciously been allowed this “second chance” instead of a court-martial. He made the best of a bad lot, however, and the very same night that Lucille was fishing for excuses to extend her visit to the Kit-Kat Club, Major Drayton was giving an unfortunate pair of Healers the tongue-lashing of their lives, although only down the telephone line. What awaited them when they returned...? Well, no doubt something would come to mind, if he gave his boiling anger a chance to coalesce into solid ideas.
“Lazy incompetents!” he spat into the receiver. “If I’d had this information earlier, we might have acted on it. But no. Thanks to your stupidity, that damned creature’s now loose in this country. I trust that your conscience is punishing you, but don’t worry if it’s not — I shall certainly make up for it. Report back here at once!” At this, he slammed down the receiver and looked up at the tall, middle-aged woman in the long white coat and round spectacles who had entered his office unannounced. For anyone else in the abbey, this action would have been career suicide, but Ruth Goldstein — Firebreak’s head of research — was the one colleague with whom Drayton felt compelled to relate on very nearly equal terms. Not that he addressed her with anything that might have been mistaken for politeness.
“What the hell do you want, Ruth? Oughtn’t you to be in bed by now, and leave me in peace to deal with this fiasco?”
“I take it you mean the Ligeia? I heard the news.”
“So I gather. Those cowardly idiots reported it to you first, didn’t they? Thought they might get off lightly, perhaps. I’ll cure them of that delusion, you mark—”
“Never mind the Healers, Commander. It’s the ship I wanted to talk about. I was informed that engine trouble caused her to stop at Tilbury. According to her owner, however, that ship was fully serviced before she left New York. The crew were highly experienced. The chances of her breaking down by herself—”
“You’re suggesting sabotage?” he asked, with vague mockery. “Well isn’t that rather fanciful, considering the ‘intelligence’ of your lab specimens? Hardly master engineers. The only talent that I could ever see in them was senseless brutality.”
“I admit; they do seem to be creatures of instinct, although their brains show no evidence of physical decay as far as I can determine. It might be purely psychological trauma, a shock-induced failure of the higher brain functions, or—”
“Or they just might be subhuman vermin, Miss Goldstein, if that isn’t too obvious an idea for your exalted scientific mind to accept.”
“Well possibly, but this one might be different, Commander. He might be a rational creature, perhaps even receptive to communication. If we could only take him alive... I mean capture him, rather than euthanasia.”
“Is it so important that we risk the lives of our Healers so that you can have a chin-wag with an active carrier, Ruth?”
“Important as in it could potentially lead to a permanent solution to this pandemic, Commander. Of course, I’m working on a purely theoretical basis, but—”
“Very well, then. I’ll give the order — in the increasingly unlikely event that the Healers ever make contact with our lucky little refugee, they’re to use protectives only. No deadly force. If you’re right — and I strongly advise you to be — this might be our first real breakthrough, and my passport out of here and back to where I belong.”
That it might, thought Goldstein, not to mention the means of protecting the future of human evolution itself, you narrow-minded, selfish piece of... But she restrained her fury. The thrill of scientific discovery loomed large before her, and for that she was prepared to swallow far greater quantities of pride. There might even be a Nobel Prize in it, assuming the day ever came when she could publish any of this research. Even if it doesn’t, the achievement alone... A blood-curdling, long-drawn shriek that seemed to echo through all the corridors of the abbey, inhuman yet eloquent with despair, put an end to their reflections.
“Did you forget to shut the lab door, Ruth?” asked Drayton, completely unfazed.
“No, Commander, and it’s soundproofed. This seems to be some lesser ability of theirs: projecting sound along a psychic carrier-wave, like a radio signal. Perhaps it’s connected to their ability to use ultrasonic hypnosis to attract human prey — their ‘siren song’ — though we don’t quite understand how—”
“Well, never mind all of the whys and wherefores. Just find a way to shut the filthy thing up before I attend to the matter personally.”
Aware of the very real danger this posed to her specimen, Major Drayton having a regrettable habit of honesty when it came to making threats, Goldstein quickly withdrew, leaving the commander to enjoy his pleasant daydreams of being returned to active service with honour. The only further interruptions were a couple of repetitions of that piercing, tormented cry, each worthy of some newly-fallen angel on its first day in Hell, but blissful silence shortly followed.
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More about "Lucille and the Healers"