Authors: KJ Charles
Tags: #short story, #free, #mm, #gay romance, #ghost stories, #gay ghost story
Feximal put down his fork. ‘You’re angry.’
‘No,’ I responded automatically, then, ‘Yes. Yes, I am.’
‘I had no intention of insulting you.’
‘When you waived your fee in consideration of services rendered?’
Feximal reached for a piece of bread, tearing it with his strong fingers, not looking at me. ‘That was not my meaning. I did not think of – that evening professionally. I prefer to remember it as personal.’
‘Oh.’ I felt my face turning hot. I had put the worst possible interpretation on his behaviour. It had not even occurred to me to consider the best. ‘Oh. I thought...’
‘I gathered what you thought.’ His stern mouth relaxed, just slightly. ‘I can see why you are a journalist. You have a gift for self-expression.’
Now I knew I was scarlet, thinking of that cursed note I had sent him. ‘I must apologise – ’
‘You must not. If you misunderstood me, that was my fault.’ He looked for a moment as if he would say more, then turned his eyes to his plate, dropping the crumbled bread sops into the plentiful gravy. He resumed eating, and I followed suit, not quite sure what to say now, feeling a flare of quivering excitement. Surely, if he wanted no more of me, he would have allowed me to dwell in my misapprehension. Was there, perhaps, a second chance?
I had no grand dreams, I need hardly say. I had spent a few hours in his company, during which I could count on one hand the number of his smiles. I had no illusions that there would be more than a repeat of our first encounter – ideally, without supernatural interference this time – since I could not imagine what this strong, remote man would want from me other than physical relief.
But if he wanted that, he should have it, and welcome. I had brought myself off half a dozen times in the last few days with the memory of that first, merciless fuck, Simon Feximal imprisoning me with his powerful grip, taking his pleasure as I cried out under him. The thought made me half-hard now, and I shifted uncomfortably in my chair.
Fortunately, my musings were interrupted by the arrival of the postboy at our table with a note for me. I opened it, and was startled to see a brief handwritten line signed by Dr Merridew, to whom I had written not an hour ago.
‘A problem?’ Feximal asked. He was watching my cursedly expressive face.
‘A rejection.’ I dropped the note on the table. ‘Dr Merridew, the local lepidopterist, declines to see me. He has an ill opinion of journalists, it seems. That’s a nuisance.’
‘Do you need to see him?’
‘Unquestionably. If I’m to write a story on this business, he is a useful source of information, which I will have to travel far to find elsewhere. I can hardly pretend to expertise on butterflies, myself.’
‘Nor I.’ Feximal was regarding me with a slight frown. ‘Why do you want to write the story?’
That would seem an entirely unnecessary question from anyone else. Writing stories was my job. But Feximal wrote stories too, or had them written. His sober clothing hid a constant, moving scrawl of black and red ink, writing itself over his skin in alien alphabets and unknown hands. I had seen the writing resolve itself into English in a mirror as the words of a trapped and angry spirit.
The stories write themselves
, he had said.
I serve as their page
‘Two men are dead,’ I told him. ‘I want to know why.’
‘To know it, or to write it?’
‘Both. My calling is to bring information to light.’ I spoke with all the pride of my journalistic ideals. ‘To tell the world the truth.’
It was twenty years ago. I was very young.
Feximal did not laugh at me, though he might have done. He considered me for a moment, examining my features almost dispassionately. ‘Yes. But what of those truths that should not be told?’
‘Surely knowledge is always preferable to ignorance.’
‘No,’ he said, looking straight at me. ‘It is not.’
I felt the hairs on my neck rise at the bleakness in his eyes. It occurred, belatedly, to me to wonder what he had seen. What he wished he could forget.
‘No,’ he repeated, more gently. ‘But... If I offer you an olive branch, as an apology for my clumsiness, will you take it in the spirit I intend?’
‘There’s no need to apologise. The misunderstanding was mine.’ He looked just a little as though I had pushed him away, his face closing, and I added hastily, ‘But if you have a proposition for me, I shall gladly accept.’
His eyes gleamed at that – I may say that any double meaning was entirely intentional on my part – and what he said then was one of the two things I had most hoped to hear.
‘I have an appointment with Dr Merridew in half an hour. If you should wish to accompany me, as a colleague, and not under the rejected name of Caldwell, I should be glad of your sharp eyes.’
I accepted with thanks, enthusiasm, and hardly any disappointment. He was staying in the same inn, after all. Anything else could wait.
Dr Merridew’s little house stood at the corner of the narrow street, on the edge of a large open ground. Simon and I – I had given up trying to keep my distance by thinking of him by his surname – were shown in by a little tweeny maid, who ushered us down a corridor to face a large heavy door, knocked, and fled.
There was no answer from inside the room. I glanced at Simon and knocked again.
This time, I heard a fumbling, and the scrape of a key in the lock, and the door was pulled open.
The man who faced us was in his fifties, at a guess, with a scholar’s stoop and wire-rimmed spectacles. He looked somewhat gaunt, but not feeble. Indeed, he seemed to be bursting with energy, judging by his little hopping skip back from the door.
‘Mr Feximal?’ he demanded in a reedy voice, looking from one to the other of us. ‘I did not expect two visitors.’
Simon held out his hand. ‘Good day, Dr Merridew. This is my colleague, Mr Robert.’
I held out my hand in turn, and received the most perfunctory grip from the lepidopterist, a flat palm against mine and the merest brush of a couple of fingertips. Evidently the doctor’s energy did not extend to greetings.
He ushered us in, shutting the door and turning the key in the lock. ‘Mr Feximal, you requested my time in the name of the Chief Constable. Without that I should not have seen you. I am a busy man with no time for mumbo-jumbo or idle curiosity.’
‘Then let us get to the point.’ Simon seemed unconcerned by the open rudeness. ‘Why would butterflies attack a man?’
‘They would not.’ The doctor took a tall stool that stood by a workbench, and did not suggest that we sat. Simon stood, impassive. I glanced around.
We were in the doctor’s study. It was a crowded room, very warm thanks to an iron stove. A small, barred window let in a little daylight. Glass cases hung the walls, not displayed but jammed up against one another, and in each was pinned a butterfly.
There must have been hundreds. Huge iridescent blue things, smaller ones in every shade and pattern, some the simple creatures I recognised from my boyhood, others with great sweeping oddly-shaped wings from which tendrils fell. Splayed and pinned, the dead things lined every available wall, each displayed with its accompanying cocoon and labelled in thin handwriting.
A long bench ran around three sides of the room, piled high with the scientist’s paraphernalia: killing bottles, jars, bottles of preserving solutions, pins, haphazard stacks of books and papers. Dirty plates lay out with the congealed remnants of old meals. A large marble mortar, its bowl and pestle stained with yellowish dust, stood at my elbow, next to a pile of local newspapers at least a foot high. The floor was swept very clean, though, except that crumpled at the base of the bench, half under a leg of the doctor’s stool, was a dead butterfly. It looked to me like the common pest known as a Cabbage White.
‘Do you say that the dead men lost their lives to some other agency?’ Simon was asking.
The doctor tutted. ‘No. I say that butterflies are not killers. There is no species that can bite or sting. They did not attack those two unfortunates. They simply sought refreshment.’
‘Refreshment?’ I repeated, feeling a vague horror at the commonplace word. ‘What sort?’
‘Fluids.’ Dr Merridew’s eyes glinted. His hands were splayed flat on his bony thighs as he sat, the position seeming oddly eager, as though he were restraining himself. ‘Butterflies sip solutions of sugars and salts. Sugar water, the nectar or flowers, sweat...’ He looked directly at me. ‘A man’s tears.’
‘You believe that the butterfly swarms descended on those men to drink from them?’ Simon asked.
‘It is winter. Where else could they feed? And one man oozing a drunkard’s sweat from his grimy pores, another in a lather from his bodily exertions – well, that would be a movable feast.’
‘So the butterflies descended for no other reason than to satisfy their thirst – ’
‘And then it is simple enough,’ Dr Merridew concluded. ‘The sight would be startling. The men cry out. The hungry butterflies detect more moisture in their mouths and throats, and they seek it.’
I had to turn away. I could imagine with sickening vividness that multicoloured, paper-winged silent swarm descending on me, the feel of crawling legs in my mouth, the probing of a million probosces at my ears and eyes and nostrils, until every breath I took simply sucked the creatures further in...
‘Robert?’ Simon asked sharply.
I shook my head, waving away his concern, pulling myself together. ‘Please go on.’
‘That is all,’ said Dr Merridew. ‘The deaths were entirely natural, in the circumstances.’
‘And the circumstances?’ asked Simon. ‘Where did the butterflies come from?’
The doctor’s thin hands flexed on his thighs. ‘I cannot say. Perhaps a freak wind. One reads of storms carrying swarms of insects over great distances in the Americas. I have no other explanation. I should know if anyone in England was breeding butterflies in such vast numbers, as it would require a huge and well-heated facility to accommodate so many species. I certainly do not possess such a facility,’ he added with a humourless smile, clearly anticipating the question. ‘I do not breed butterflies. I buy my specimens dead.’
‘I understood from the newspapers that they were varieties from all over the world,’ I put in. ‘Where would the wind have blown them
‘I could not say.’ The doctor’s pinched face was taking on a familiar expression, that of a man tired of questions. He would ask us to leave in a moment, unless greased.
‘You have a remarkable collection,’ I said. ‘I have been advised that it is one of the most impressive in the country.’
‘In private hands.’ Dr Merridew made a poor attempt at a modest look. ‘My life’s work is to acquire an example of each known species. It is my ambition to present my collection to the Museum in Kensington when it is complete. The Merridew Bequest, you know.’
‘A most generous ideal,’ I said warmly. ‘How close are you to completion?’
‘I have much of what I need. This has been my life, Mr Robert.’ The doctor began to lift a hand in a gesture, and slapped it back down on his trouser leg. ‘I have dedicated many years to accumulating these. Some of the rarest, most valuable butterflies in the world are here. I
them. Soon I will have them all.’
‘I’m sure you will. Which is the rarest butterfly?’ I asked the question purely to keep the man on his hobby horse, but his face closed over as if it had been a deliberate dig.
‘The Cobalt Saturn.’ He seemed suddenly to be on the verge of fury. ‘It is found only in a single valley in an island of the Philippines. I have tried to obtain a specimen. I sent messengers. Begged traders. Offered far in excess of a fair price. I have tried, and tried...’ His teeth were set. ‘I will have one. I will.’
‘I’m sure your efforts will bear fruit,’ I assured him. ‘What is so remarkable about this creature? Is it a particularly beautiful type?’
‘Beautiful?’ Dr Merridew turned on me as though I were an idiot, his voice scathing. ‘Remarkable? It’s
. What else is there?’
Simon and I left the house together. I could scarcely contain my relief at escaping the stifling heat.
‘What an odd man,’ I said.
Simon nodded. ‘It seems a strange ambition, to pursue a collection without any pleasure in either the hunt or the beauty of the creatures he acquires.’
‘That is strange,’ I agreed. ‘And so is the fact that his specimens are sent to him dead, yet he has killing jars on his workbench, ready for use.’
Simon looked round at me, his rare smile dawning. ‘Sharp eyes indeed, Robert. I am fortunate to have you with me.’ I looked ahead, trying not to betray my absurd pleasure at that crumb of praise. ‘But, as Dr Merridew said, to breed that quantity of butterflies would require a great expanse of land and equipment, which would not have gone unnoticed by the police in their investigation. Hmm.’
‘Where to now?’ I asked.
Simon’s wry glance suggested that he had noticed my transparent attempt to include myself in his investigation. ‘I must see the corpses. It is unlikely to be pleasant.’
I believed that, and took the warning. ‘I might go and speak to the police, then. Perhaps we could compare notes this evening?’