The Vanishing Act

Jonathan Strangeweather was, as his name suggested, prone to the most unpredictable changes in temperament. He crossed his arms against his chest in a crushed figure eight and stepped as far back as he could towards the entrance to the narrow close. Ahead of him walked an outline, a box-shaped slender frame which denoted a man. The man’s name was Delaney. Strangeweather watched him haloed in the lantern light, surefooted despite the fog which, today, had not risen higher than his tattered coat tails.

“What in God’s name is taking so long, Delaney?” Strangeweather asked. He tried with little success to transform his feminine voice into a resounding baritone. Delaney was rustling through the innards of his overcoat with some determination.

“Mr Strangeweather…” he paused. The shorter man’s roots were ineradicable; when he spoke the English cadence of his voice was lined with an unmistakeably Irish intonation. “You requested my presence, sir, on this trip.” He added: “If you’ll recall.”

Strangeweather uncrossed his arms and seemed to inure himself of his defensive anxiety. He took a step closer to the Constable’s back, silhouetted still by the wavering lantern-light. “Yes, well,” he said. “I usually confine my research, Mr Delaney, to the library.”

Finally, from within his small, narrow-waisted coat Delaney withdrew a knife. He held it in his right hand, dangling blade-down, whilst he steadied the lantern in his left. The alleyway was far darker than the Mile and Strangeweather’s belligerence disappeared into that dusk and fog as he followed his guide. Delaney said: “The less palatable streets of the city are where you’ll find your fodder, sir.”

As the severe blacks and whites of the alley grew even starker, the pair dove deeper into the crevices between the wood and brick tenements. The stacks seemed to become taller. Several buildings crouched between others appeared to be held up by counterweight alone. Stories above, Strangeweather could hear crackling voices shouting names and messages, violent threats in some quarters were flying from one window to another. Thuds signalled the dropping of objects and people against wooden floors.

“Delaney,” he called ahead. “I thought you told me that the vaults could be accessed in this close. All I hear are the screamings and complaints of your fellow underlings here.” The Constable’s sneer was neither audible nor visible in the thick darkness.

They ploughed on for some minutes before coming to a doorway, the jamb formed from some kind of light-coloured splintered plank, on which Delaney knocked with not a hint of trepidation. A creature drew the door inwards and the protrusions of her face—one could hardly, thought Strangeweather, call them features—extended beyond the limn of the door just far enough to be illuminated by Delaney’s lantern. In the greenish gaslight her jaw and teeth seemed almost to shine through the skin stretched over her mouth.

Delaney asked a question. The crone’s voice was raspy, deeper than Strangeweather’s: “There are parts of toon not sootable to gen’lemen like yerselves, Cunstable.” This seemed less a warning than an admonishment. She produced a key engraved with some indiscernible pattern and proffered it to the policeman. He tucked the short-bladed knife into an outer pocket of his coat and took the key in his free hand. The door was pushed to and Delaney signalled with the key for his companion to stay close.

“I did read your last book, Mr Strangeweather,” said Delaney as his pace increased. “Most intriguing, boss. Most intriguing. Not at all what I’d expect from a man of your means.” Strangeweather trod carefully over what was certainly a dead creature. Something, somewhere in the close behind him, thumped to the paving stone. “The Strange Story…” began Delaney.

“The Strange Tale,” he emphasised, “of the Headless Angel.” He paused. An invitation to hold forth, even from a mere police constable, was difficult for J.F. Strangeweather to decline. “A Mystery,” he concluded. “Based on several murders committed in London around five years ago.”

Delaney prodded at a mound of dirt and clothing which, it transpired, was blocking another concealed entrance. The obstacle unfurled and tripped like an overturned barrel onto what Strangeweather took for its head. A groan emitted from the rags and Delaney rapped on the door.

The Constable continued: “It was a fine book, though somewhat outside the realm of possibility, if you’ll beg my pardon, sir.”

Strangeweather protested: “Police reports, Mr Delaney, evidence gathered, the names and faces of those who were murdered were all provided me for my research. I hardly think that someone engaged in your grim business would doubt the accuracy of either my murderer or my detective!” Strangeweather paused and watched the short, slender outline advance before him.

“You are delving bravely, sir, into the undergrowth,” crowed the Constable over his shoulder. The disdain was now all too audible. He stepped through the door and followed Delaney.

The back of this room was decorated with live bodies sprawled semi-conscious, some moaning, others simply dreaming some elaborate fiction. They all were breathing deep the smoke of opium pipes and the haze was, despite the few gaslights scattered around the room, as impenetrable as the Edinburgh fog outside.

As they reached a second room conjoined to the first Delaney turned and looked up at Strangeweather. “Your detective, sir—I’ll give you that. But the murderer…” He trailed off and turned, shaking his head towards the back room.

“Perhaps this little investigation will sharpen my creative faculties.” Even amongst those drowning in opiate nightmares Strangeweather was drawing disapproving glances. “The murder on the Mile was but a few months previous and I believe the brute is still at large.” He arched his back down and crouched into the backroom of the den. “Meanwhile this Jack fellow has seemingly disappeared.”

Delaney drew closer to a figure sat cross-legged at the back of the room, seeming to breathe into his chest cavity a lungful of grey air.

“Cunstable Deleeny.” The thick voice was muddied against the wooden struts and low ceiling. Delaney greeted the man who, Strangeweather now saw, was hunched over a leather-bound book in the crooked corner of the room. The writer wondered how this fellow could make out the text before realising that he was fingering the raised dots of a Braille-covered page.

He raised his head and fixed upon a point behind and to the left of Delaney’s shoulder. “I havenay heard from ye for sum time,” said the blind man. “Been on one-ee yer trips, Taighe?”

“That’s right, Cirus.” He leaned down and placed the lantern on the floor. It cast a glow over the blind old man and over the uneven planks in the floorboard. Strangeweather wondered how this ancient thing could possibly recognise the Constable from footfall alone; he made a note to use this as a plot device should he ever have the opportunity.

The man Cirus rose and tugged with a gnarled, unkempt fingernail at a point on the ground beneath his book. “What is he doing, Delaney? Are you going to let him scratch around there all night? And where in God’s name are these vaults?”

Delaney maintained his silence, watching Cirus. He lifted from the wooden floor a circular handle fixed to a hinge, and finally he pulled up and arced open a trapdoor roughly three feet by three feet wide. He set it creaking against the back wall of the room. “Sir—the vaults,” said Delaney. Strangeweather suddenly pictured the short man as a magician’s assistant unveiling the prestige to his conjuring trick.

“Anuther satisfeed customer,” said Cirus, before gesturing into the chasm below.

The Constable reached for the lantern and stepped down one-by-one the stone steps which lead to the underground caverns. He seemed to sink into the ground and had, within thirty seconds, disappeared completely. Strangeweather followed him into the pit. Below, the Constable was bathed in gaslight, holding in his free hand the peculiar weapon whilst gazing up at the author impatiently.

“Those who live down here, sir, are glad to have it,” said Delaney. “Many would be envious of such a hideout, what with your murderers.”

“Oh, I’m sure,” muttered Strangeweather, descending. Taking in his surroundings by the light of the lantern, he grimaced and clasped a hand on Delaney’s shoulder. He muttered “wonderful, wonderful” and Delaney cast a glance over his coat collar.

Strangeweather listened. Barely human voices were articulating that which he himself had tried (and, many claimed, had failed) to in words, sentences, paragraphs, whole novels. The green-black glow was muted by the stone and earth of the walls to his left but veering off to the right was a tunnel screaming with the noises of life and death and illuminated from some indeterminate point just ahead.

“This way, I think, Constable.” Delaney smiled and bore right, pointing his blade forward and calling out a ‘hallo’ before stepping into the gash in the wall which signified a corridor.

The lights that Strangeweather had sensed were candles fixed at intervals of around a foot, set in the stone and gravel along the tunnel walls. The cavern led them in a semi-circular arc back towards the Mile. Delaney informed him that the vaults beneath the city, labyrinthine and heaving with rats and faeces and his ‘fellow underlings’, stretched out underneath the North and South Bridges which linked the Old Town to the New.

“A flawed piece of engineering, boss,” he continued. “Much like you and I; and all of these fellows in the under-city, in fact.” Strangeweather’s eyes rolled in their sockets and he wished that he had not requested Delaney’s assistance from his friend Reid. “Building up and under, stacking these folks like so much tinder on top of one another.”

They had reached a cul-de-sac. Somewhere behind them the hum of machinery or perhaps the hiss of train cars (the sound was irregular but constant) made the noise of scavengers and rodents, children’s cries and men’s arguments, seem distant.

Strangeweather stopped. “Where are we, Constable? I hired you on the presumption that you might show me the vaults of the Old Town, not accompany me through these underground tunnels to my own cellar door.”

“We are here,” replied Delaney. He stopped and once again divested himself of the cumbersome lantern. It made a thunk as it hit the dirt at his feet and Strangeweather started as the light dimmed. Into the dirt of the wall Delaney dug the blade of his knife, rustling and tearing a roughly rectangular outline until a thick but clumped layer of earth came free of the wall and collapsed into pieces in the tunnel.

This revealed yet another doorway. The short man withdrew the key from his pocket and fitted it carefully to what must, Strangeweather thought, have been a handmade lock. Delaney turned to the author with a questioning glance then gestured at the door. Strangeweather stepped up to turn the key in the lock, then felt a minute pressure and heard a click. He pulled the door away from its frame towards them and realised at once that it was not the hiss of train tracks that he had heard.

In front of and beneath him flowed water, the gush of the river beneath the North Bridge still near-deafening from this height. “Remarkable, Delaney,” he said, leaning out and catching at the edge of his vision the lights from the castle above. He pulled himself back into the tunnel and turned to his companion. “Remarkable, Delaney, but…”

“Good day, Mr Strangeweather,” interrupted Delaney. “I have been asked to convey to you only the warmest wishes from both Inspector Reid and his good friend, Jack.”

Delaney thrust the knife between two buttons of Strangeweather’s great coat and watched as a tiny sprinkle of dark red crept along the short blade towards his sleeve. He reached with his left hand and exerted the tiniest of pressures on the hilt of the knife. The stretched oblong of Strangeweather’s frame, barely small enough to pass through the door, concertinaed inwards and tumbled out and down, growing smaller and slighter until, finally, mercifully, his body was submerged beneath the white crests below.

Delaney retrieved the gaslight. Shortly thereafter Cirus heard the thud of footsteps at precisely the right volume and intensity—the vibrations sounding through the thin sides of his flanks— to detect the exit of Constable Taighe Delaney. He smiled a smile he had never seen and the sounds and sensations made by the Irishman subsided as the den’s door thumped against the jamb.

Outside the fog had thickened and descended, obscuring the policeman’s feet as he kept a brisk pace in the direction of the Mile. He paused only to rap on the door of Mrs Finnegan, passing back through the opening in the wooden frame the engraved key, for which he received the same white patina smile that gleamed through the bone of her jaw.

Delaney walked towards the mouth of the alleyway, the fog now forking around his pin-like legs, and tossed the lantern behind him. He heard a clatter and the tiny screams of shattering glass before the light was finally, mercifully extinguished. [ends]


3 thoughts on “The Vanishing Act

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