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Authors: Michael Gregorio

Tags: #mystery, #Historical

HS03 - A Visible Darkness

BOOK: HS03 - A Visible Darkness
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A Visible Darkness

 

 

 
MICHAEL GREGORIO

 

M
INOTAUR
B
OOKS
  
  N
EW
Y
ORK

 

 

 

 

Also by Michael Gregorio

 

Days of Atonement
Critique of Criminal Reason

This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

 

A THOMAS DUNNE BOOK FOR MINOTAUR BOOKS.

An imprint of St. Martin’s Publishing Group.

 

A VISIBLE DARKNESS
. Copyright © 2009 by Michael Gregorio. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.

 

www.thomasdunnebooks.com
www.stmartins.com

 

Library of Congress Cata loging-in-Publication Data

 

Gregorio, Michael.

A visible darkness / Michael Gregorio.—1st ed.

    p. cm.

ISBN-13: 978-0-312-54435-5

ISBN-10: 0-312-54435-9

1. Police magistrates—Germany—Prussia—Fiction. 2. Murder—Investigation—Fiction. 3. Amber—Collectors and collecting—Fiction. 4. Prussia (Germany)—History—1806–1815—Fiction. 5. Napoleonic Wars, 1800–1815—Campaigns—Germany—Prussia—Fiction. I. Title.

PR6107.R4447V57  2009

823’.92—dc22

2008042858

 

First Edition: April 2009

 

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

 

 

 

This book is dedicated to
the victims of ‘Operazione Brushwood,’
23 October 2007–‘a farce with devastating effects.’

 

 

 

 

 

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

 

 

We wish to thank the following for their help: our editor, Walter Donohue, at Faber & Faber, UK. In America, we owe much to our editor, Peter Joseph. We are, as always, grateful to our agent, Leslie Gardner, who has encouraged and enthused from the day we met.

 

 

 

This is the way the Germans are made.
There’s no man so mad, but he’ll find
someone who is ready to follow him.

–H
EINRICH
H
EINE
                                                 

 

 

 

A Visible Darkness

 

 

1

 

 


T
HREE OF THEM
can consume a dead horse in three days.

Linnaeus might have been describing famished wolves or bears emerging from the forest in desperate search of winter nourishment, but savage Nature was not the subject of his dissertation.

Flies
. . .

That’s what Linnaeus was talking of.

And as I left the house that morning, I spotted another corpse in the garden.

The lawn and flower-beds had become a cemetery in recent weeks. I had buried a rat, three field-mice and a squirrel, intending to hide them from the eyes of Helena and the children. I knelt down to examine the creature more closely. Half hidden beneath one of the rose-bushes, a fair-sized stoat in what remained of its red-brown summer coat.

It had not been there the previous evening when I returned from my office in town. Yet overnight, it had been reduced to a skeleton, more or less. Four or five bluebottles were fighting over the last shreds of flesh, darting in, teasing at the fat where the ears had been, pulling at the gristle as they flew away, but never going very far.
The bared, pointed teeth made no impression on those ravenous creatures. They seemed to have no notion of fear. Armageddon had arrived for the stoat in some form or other; the flies had done the rest in no time.

It seemed to verify Linnaeus’s claim.

In the past few days I had been reading everything that I could lay my hands on regarding flies and filth. Count Dittersdorf’s library had yielded up Linnaeus, and other useful things as well. But this particular essay was a revelation. Where they came from, what they ate, the cycle of their existence, how fast they could reproduce. They came in all shapes and sizes, and he divided them into a regular army of species and sub-species. The familiar
musca domestica
, the yellow-striped
scathophaga stercoraria
, the larger
calliphora vomitoria
, and a hundred others. The Latin names spoke volumes about their filth, their habits, and the danger that they posed.

Lotingen was infested with them.

My home was besieged by them.

They filled the air, settled on every surface, seemed to multiply like the locusts in the plague that was visited on the ancient Egyptians according to the Bible. They crawled around the eyes and the mouths of my children, and there was nothing I could do about it. I had taken refuge in books, hoping to find some news which would tranquillise my own misgivings, and end my wife’s fears. So far, I had found nothing. On the contrary, what I read called forth questions that I had never previously considered. How many days would it take, for example, for the same three flies to consume the corpse of a man, a woman, or a child?

Each day was hotter than the day before.

Walking along the dusty road to town each morning, I had begun to notice a host of creatures that I had never seen before. Strange winged ants with metallic shells the colour of brass, which attacked and ate the smaller flies and midges. Larger beetles with hard green carapaces lurked in holes that they had dug in the rock-hard banks of the lane, darting out to catch the ants which ate the flies. It was as if Nature had declared a universal war between its constituent parts.

And here was the evidence in my own garden.

It was hard to imagine such destructive ferocity in any creature, let alone one that was so small, but those bluebottles showed no intention of leaving the corpse alone while anything edible was left on the bones.

Had the flies consumed the fur, as well?

Linnaeus had said nothing regarding the horse’s hair.

I made a show of examining the roses, in case Helena was looking out of the window. The blooms were dry, opaque, brittle. At the merest touch, the petals would fall to the ground like autumn leaves. Strands of a cobweb glinted like harp-strings in the sunlight, and, as I looked more closely, something else that Linnaeus had written returned to my thoughts.

He spoke of Nature’s ‘
inevitable revenge
.’

Trapped in the fine silken threads, twisting this way and that, a fly was trying desperately to free itself from the mesh. Rainbow-colours flashed off its shining black armour. One wing was beating in a blur, its tiny legs pushed frantically against the silk restraints.

Like a tightrope walker, a spider ran out to watch.

With a sudden dart, the spider leapt forward. Part of the thorax disappeared inside the spider’s maw, and the victim bounced more furiously on the imprisoning thread. In trying to break loose, it seemed to tie itself up even more securely.

A rose-petal fell to the ground, and the spider pulled back, watching.

The captive fly made one last effort to escape.

With a sudden jerk, it appeared to take flight.

Just as suddenly, it twirled and twisted, spinning round and round the vibrating silk, and all the fire went out of it. I saw the devastating effect that the spider’s attack had had. The part of the body that had been caught for an instant in the spider’s mouth was flaccid and flat, all the colour gone, as if it had been sucked dry.

One rapid final dart, and the fly was gone.

I was tempted to call Helena, and show her what I had just seen.

Would she believe me if I told her that it was the self-same fly
that had caused her to scream the night before? Would she be pleased that it had fallen prey to a more terrible spider?

I dismissed the idea.

The sight of that voracious spider would distress her all the more.

The baby was due in a month, or so.

Since the invasion of the flies three weeks before, Helena had roamed the house with a leather fly-swatter in her hand, her mouth set hard, determined to eliminate every buzzing thing that came within striking distance. The windows were now kept constantly shut, and Helena would reprimand Lotte if a door or window were left ajar. The air inside the house was stale and putrid, as if something organic had been pushed beneath the sofa and left to rot. The children stayed indoors; they were not allowed to play outside. Helena was afraid for them, she admitted.

I was afraid for her, instead, though I could not bring myself to tell her.

One day, while reading an article in a French publication—the writer claimed that one fly alone could hatch a million eggs—I suddenly realised that Helena was standing close behind my chair, and that she was reading silently over my shoulder.

‘Does it mention that they are the eyes and the ears of the Devil?’ she asked, her eyes never shifting from the page.

I threw the article aside, and jumped up. I meant to comfort her, but she shrugged me off, half stumbling away, her left hand on her greatly swollen belly, her right hand holding out the fly-swatter which had become a fixed extension of herself.

‘They
are
, you know,’ she murmured.

Her hand smashed down to take another insect life.

Last night, she had wakened the house with a cry that set my heart racing.

Lotte came running into the bedroom from the nursery, and I jumped down from the bed. Helena was bending over the cot of baby Anders. The night was hot, but Helena was as cold as ice. Her hair was a wild burning bush of chestnut curls. Her expression was that of a Medusa who had seen her own face in a mirror.

‘What is it, ma’am?’ Lotte implored.

I took my wife by the arm, trying to lead her back to bed.

She pushed my hands away. Her eyes were wide and fixed on the baby. She had seen a huge black fly crawl into his mouth, she said at last. And it had not come out again.

Lotte glanced at me, and shook her head.

A nightmare
, she mouthed without speaking.

There was no fly inside the child’s mouth. Nothing had happened, if not for the terrible vision which had wakened my wife. Lotte nodded towards the cot where Anders continued sleeping. He was the only one in the house who did not wake up. His face was serene, his breathing regular. Having finally got Helena into bed again, I searched high and low for the monstrous black fly which had cast its dark shadow on her imagination. I told her that I had killed it, too, but I do not think that I managed to convince her.

As I gazed on that spider in my garden—the leg of the dead fly jutting from its jaws like a bent piece of wire—I had to wonder whether Helena’s dream had been not simply a distempered nightmare, but the vision of a real and terrible danger.

I went to take a spade and quickly buried the stoat, waving off the flies that circled around it in an angry swarm, nipping at my hands and face and neck, as if to take from my flesh the nourishment that I had just deprived them of. Then, wrapping a damp handkerchief around my face, breathing in the essence of lavender in which Lotte had soaked it, I went out quickly through the gate, turning right along the lane in the direction of Lotingen and the procurator’s office.

BOOK: HS03 - A Visible Darkness
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