Authors: KJ Charles
Tags: #short story, #free, #mm, #gay romance, #ghost stories, #gay ghost story
‘What is the meaning of this intrusion?’ demanded the doctor.
‘Shut your hand and open it again,’ Simon told him.
‘I shall do no such thing.’
‘Do it, and we will leave.’
The doctor glared at him, looked at me. He held out a scrawny fist, turned it palm up, opened it.
A huge, black and white butterfly slowly opened its wings and flew off in a papery flurry.
Simon nodded, then took an unceremonious stride forward, past the doctor, and threw open the study door.
There were thousands of the things in there, crawling and flying and hanging in great heaps and mounds, many smashed to pulp underfoot. I clamped my lips shut and grabbed for my handkerchief.
‘What did you take from the tomb?’ Simon asked.
‘Oh, you are clever.’ There was a fanatic light in the doctor’s pale eyes. ‘It will do you no good, you know. What have you to accuse me of? I have done nothing wrong.’
‘You desecrated a tomb. Two men are dead.’
The doctor gave a shrill laugh. A huge butterfly landed on his head, sitting at a jaunty angle, like a fashionable hat. ‘Superstitious nonsense. You can prove nothing. And the butterflies killed those men. Not me. I had no motive. No intention.’
‘You made the butterflies. You let them go. The deaths are on your shoulders, Doctor.’
‘Well, I could hardly keep the damned things in here, could I?’ Merridew gestured around. ‘Look at them. They get everywhere! You’ll find them in your boots, you know.’ He turned up his palms, appealing for understanding, and gave an involuntary little clench of one fist. A white butterfly appeared on his palm; he glanced at it, and clapped his hands together.
‘A Cabbage White,’ he explained, brushing the broken thing to the floor. ‘Worthless. Look, Mr Feximal, the men were accidents. The butterflies were hungry, they swarmed. A tramp died, and some other fellow. That was unfortunate but it’s hardly my fault.’
‘Why don’t you stop making them?’ I demanded as his hand closed and opened yet again.
The doctor frowned at my failure to understand. ‘I have to keep on. I must have a Cobalt Saturn.’
I looked at his face, so intent, so dedicated, and at his hand, clenching and unclenching, dropping butterflies. I took a step away, towards the workbench, and my elbow hit something. The marble mortar, I realised. It was perhaps the only item in the room on which butterflies did not crawl.
Simon was wearing a singularly intimidating scowl. ‘Doctor Merridew, you are perhaps unaware of what you have done. You must return what you took from the tomb. You are turning a gift to ill uses, and you have awakened something that should be asleep. It must end.’
The doctor laughed again. It was almost a shriek. ‘Return what I took? Oh, that will not be possible, I fear.’
‘It is not yours,’ Simon repeated, voice hard and commanding.
I looked down at the mortar, next to my elbow. I saw the fine yellow-brown dust.
‘What did you take?’ Simon was demanding. ‘Stone of the tomb, jewellery, a piece of the body? What have you done with it?’
There was a feverish glitter in the doctor’s eyes. His hands opened and closed, butterflies rising from them every second. I stared at him, and the mortar, and the words of the old tale were ringing in my mind.
I’ll grind his bones to make my bread...
‘Simon.’ I could not say more.
He turned to me. I pointed at the mortar, and the dust within. He looked down, and up, back at the doctor. Dr Merridew laughed, and laughed, pitch rising, and any lingering doubts about his sanity fled, because no sane man would have found amusement in the expression on Simon Feximal’s face then.
‘You damned fool,’ Simon said, and the commonplace expletive rang out like a funeral bell.
‘I see you understand.’ The doctor giggled. ‘The bishop’s gift is within me now. I have consumed it, and it is mine. Mine.’
Simon’s face was set as he looked at that elderly madman, alight with energy, the fragile creatures rising up in a thin, twisting stream from his clenching hands. ‘Will you cease this?’ he demanded.
‘No. Why should I?’
‘You must. Stop using it. Come to the tomb now, make what apology you can, and hope you may earn forgiveness. This is your only chance and there will not be another.’
‘Certainly not. What nonsense you speak.’
‘Very well.’ Simon turned abruptly. ‘Come, Robert.’
‘Come?’ I echoed. ‘But – ’
‘There is nothing the police can do. Dr Merridew has committed no crime in the eyes of the law, except for desecrating the tomb, which we cannot prove. There is, as he says, no way for him to return the bishop’s bones now. We can do nothing, so let us leave.’
‘No.’ I could not understand this. ‘Two men are dead. Hubert Lord left a wife and a child. More might die if he lets more butterflies go. How can you – ’
‘Come, Robert,’ Simon repeated. He grasped my wrist and pulled me to the heavy door. I pulled back angrily, uselessly. Simon stopped in front of the door, powerful grip still tight on my wrist, and paused, not turning back to face the doctor. ‘I hope you find your stolen gift worth its cost, sir.’
Dr Merridew did not reply. He was batting another Cabbage White off his hands.
I had stopped resisting. We stepped out of the foul, infested room and Simon shut the heavy door, then pushed me gently in the direction of the front door. ‘Leave. Wait outside.’
‘Robert, I must ask you to go now.’
‘No. I saw you take it.’
He looked at me then, eyes steady on mine, and in that long moment of mutual regard, a partnership began.
‘Go on,’ I said. ‘Do it.’
Simon opened his hand to reveal the key that he had taken from the other side of the door. He put it in the keyhole and turned it, and with that act he locked Dr Merridew in that hot little room filled with butterflies of his own creation.
It was Simon who locked the door, but it was I who took the key out of the keyhole, led the way out of the house, and dropped the key down the first drain I saw.
We returned to the inn without a word between us. I don’t know if Simon thought of what we had done as an execution, or a murder, or as justice. He did not speak, and nor did I, but we went together to my room, and there we stripped each other wordlessly and he laid me down on the rumpled bed and took me then, gasping with each thrust as though that was the only way he could breathe.
Afterwards we lay together. I ran my fingers over his chest. I did not attempt to trace the patterns that wrote themselves at a leisurely pace on his skin. That seemed like a very bad idea, somehow.
I said, ‘I should like to meet again.’
Simon gazed at the ceiling. ‘You have seen what I do. My life is not always safe, or clean. I should not like to see you stained by it.’
That was, I observed, not the same thing as a ‘no’.
I had little doubt that he was right. What I had seen of his strange work was frightening and disturbing, and my complicity in the night’s work was something I had yet to allow myself to think of. Any sensible man would have walked away. But I was fascinated.
‘I think I must insist,’ I said. ‘You may refuse, of course, but I warn you, you will be in grave danger of receiving another letter.’
Simon shook his head, but I felt the muscles of his arm tighten around me, and the beginnings of a reluctant smile curved his lips once more.
The next night, with the verger’s permission, Simon and I stood alone in the cathedral, before the tomb. I do not quite know what Simon did, and I could play no part in it, but I held the candles that lit him as he murmured incantations that closed the strange rent that the doctor’s desecration had opened, until the crack in the tomb was no more than a piece of broken stonework, no darker or colder than the rest.
The alarm was raised by Dr Merridew’s housemaid when she could not enter his room the next morning. He was found under a colourful shroud of butterflies more than two feet deep. What made this death different from the others was one peculiar feature. Over the face, in his lungs, every butterfly was of the same type.
Dr Merridew had choked to death on Cabbage Whites.
Thanks for reading! The first Simon Feximal story,
The Caldwell Ghost
, is available from Torquere Press.
The Caldwell Ghost
“There is a definite skill to short story telling, a delicate balance between telling what feels like a complete story, and leaving the reader drooling for more. Well, let me just say, mission accomplished, KJ Charles. Mission accomplished. Go grab
The Caldwell Ghost
in time to round out your Halloween reading list. I don’t think you’ll be sorry.”
The Novel Approach
“This atmospheric and mischievous period piece is a ghost story cleverly told. ... A very good trick for a teasing and delightfully scary Halloween short story.”
Reviews by Jessewave
(four and a half stars)
Other titles by KJ Charles
The Magpie Lord
(A Charm of Magpies #1)