The Catspaw, Chapter 4: Dead Man’s Blues

Photo credit, author’s own

OK — Listen up. Anna Schwarz has been hired to snatch the Hand of Glory from Edinburgh University Anatomy Museum, see? Only things aren’t going so peachy for her right now. She’s been stuck up, shook down, and last time we saw her, Mickey Finned and thrown in an iron coffin. What next? Read on and find out.

I could hear a voice far away singing sadly and sweetly. It sounded like mine.

“I went down to St James infirmary
 To see my baby there
 She was stretched out on a long white table
 So sweet, so cold, so fair…”

I dreamed I was dead. Poisoned, then dumped in a coffin and served up as the main course at a banquet for upper-class cannibals. A feverish tableau of disconnected images played out before my eyes: a leering face, a jewelled skull, a table piled high with sickening food, a gang of top-hatted ghouls dragging me around and serving me up in a black iron coffin. It was such a shame. I’d been a lovely person really. It had been a privilege to know me.

I slowly began to drift back towards consciousness, relieved to find it had only been a nightmare — until I noticed that back in the real world I was in the grip of a hyperbole inducing hangover. The nightmare seemed preferable. Thinking hurt. My brain was being boiled inside my head like an egg in a pot. I felt it rattle against the bone, the pressure inside threatening to burst my skull open at any second. Every inch of me ached. My back and neck were stiff, my arms and legs numb, paralysed. I felt as though the Scots Guards had been using me for a spot of square-bashing. I’m sure you know the feeling.

I opened my eyes, but no matter which way I looked there was no glimmer of light; the darkness was endless. It hurt to move my head; it hurt to roll my eyes. It was so black I could feel the darkness coating my eyeballs. This wasn’t right. I tried to look at my watch, but my arms were pinned to my sides. I tried to sit up and banged my face against something rough, cold and hard. I was confined inside some sort of small chamber. It was painfully cold, cramped, claustrophobic. Panicking, I discovered that I couldn’t move more than a couple of inches in any direction.

And then I remembered. It hadn’t been a nightmare: I was entombed in the Coffin Club’s mortsafe coffin.

The shock snapped me out of my funk.

Well, I know exactly what to do in situations like this of course. I went berserk. I screamed at the top of my lungs, thrashing around kicking and pummelling at the coffin’s iron lid with all my strength. Eventually, I ran out of breath and my insanity subsided. I had to stay calm, work out what was going on. Was I still in the club? In a crypt? Or was I actually buried alive somewhere?

I screamed for help and hammered on the lid again for another five minutes until I came to my senses. If I was six feet under, nobody would hear me. And more importantly, I would be wasting precious oxygen on a futile gesture. On the other hand, what exactly was I saving my oxygen for? I would have no chance of digging my way out anyway. Panic rose in me again. I quickly stifled it — ‘Stay calm, I said to myself, ‘assess the situation’. And if I really was buried alive? Well, I had a hip flask and a cigarette case, so I guessed I’d just have to make the most of it until the inevitable happened. Christ, what a mess.

I couldn’t tell how long I’d been lying there unconscious. Hours, days, years? I wriggled about a bit until I could see the luminous dial of my wristwatch: a little after 1.30. But what day was it? And was it afternoon or morning?

Practically speaking, I had more immediate concerns. I had a raging thirst, my head was reeling and I felt an overwhelming urge to throw up — which wouldn’t be advisable in my current confinement. Call me old fashioned, but the thought of drowning in a coffin full of my own vomit while dressed in my best overcoat really put a dampener on my evening.

I fought off another wave of panic and claustrophobia. The Coffin Club didn’t want me dead — as far as I knew. This just had to be part of my initiation, surely? I was in the club’s most important relic after all. I doubted that they’d really bury it just to bump me off. And I was still alive. If they had wanted me dead, they could have simply poisoned me at the meal and disposed of my corpse in a far less elaborate manner, though I couldn’t discount the possibility that I was being offered up as a ritual sacrifice to one of their dark gods. The club did have a murderous reputation and from what I’d seen of their macabre sense of humour so far, I wouldn’t put anything past them.

Assuming that I survived my confinement, I’d take immense pleasure in paying MacFarlane a visit and smashing his bloody teeth in. This comforting fantasy motivated me. Whatever sort of hole I was in, I was determined to get out of it.

I pulled off my gloves and probed my prison cell for weaknesses. Fortunately, contortionism and escapology were in my stage repertoire. Unfortunately, these acts need careful preparation and rely on a lot of well-rehearsed trickery. I pushed against the lid — it was incredibly heavy, especially in my weakened condition, but it moved a few inches upwards and I was able to wriggle my fingers out of the gap. I sighed with relief. It wasn’t padlocked, and I wasn’t in the grave.

I found that the lid was in two sections: one covered my head and chest, the other my legs and feet. Each section was attached to the coffin by a set of hinges. I took a deep breath and pushed hard against the top section again. Slowly it started to rise and gather momentum until it fell backwards under its own weight, striking the floor with a ringing clang.

The darkness was still profound. I reached out to my left and touched smooth, cold ceramic tiles. I guessed that I was locked inside some kind of cold store room. I needed to get out, fast. If I didn’t, I risked being discovered somewhere I obviously shouldn’t be, or worse, faced possible death by hypothermia.

It was bitterly cold, I was well wrapped in my fur-lined overcoat. There were all sorts of useful little knick-knacks concealed in that coat of course — namely a straight razor, a lock pick, a pair of pliers, a very thin stiletto blade, a small flexibly cosh and an electric torch. I sat up in the coffin and shone the little torch around. There were glistening white tiles in every direction. Fear took my breath away.

The torch was tiny, not much bigger than a fountain pen, and its little beam only dimly illuminated a few inches of my surroundings. I had pins and needles in my fingers, arms and legs now, so I held it in my mouth as I dragged myself out of the coffin. When my feet hit the floor, I collapsed in agony. I crawled around in dark — looking for an exit. Disorientation — circling around the same small area, I missed the door at first. After 15 minutes or so I wrapped my fingers around a large door handle — the emergency release catch for the door. Still half frozen, I fumbled with it for a few seconds then with relief, I heard a click and the door swung open.

I stepped into the room beyond and looked around, blinking in electric light. It seemed very bright at first after my confinement, but only one small bulb was lit over by a dark wooden door which seemed to be the only exit.

I checked the time again. 2 am. It had taken half an hour to get out of the coffin and break free from the cold store — both major victories given the circumstances. Now I needed to work out where the hell I was, and how to get out. The answer to the first question was clear: I was in a mortuary, probably within a hospital or some other institution given the equipment and general décor.

Contrary to what you see in horror movies, it was not piled high with sheet covered corpses. It was empty, spotlessly clean, rather drab and not surprisingly, slightly chilly. In fact, it rather put me in mind of a butcher’s shop, with its ruthlessly scrubbed granite floor, drains and gutters, wooden counters and the large marble topped dissecting table. I could tell from the placement of the high, frosted glass windows that it was buried deep below street level in the innards of the building.

This was the secret of the Coffin Club’s initiation rite. I had to pass the night in the mortsafe, sealed up in the cold room of a morgue. Just another working day for me to be honest. I was pretty confident then that I was in the University Medical Faculty building. To smuggle initiates (and out again in the morning) they needed to use somewhere where they were well connected.

I had to get moving. I may have been out of the cold store, but I wasn’t in any frying pan. The temperature in the mortuary wasn’t much above freezing. I still had a savage thirst and my headache hadn’t improved any either. I tottered delicately over to a big stone sink where, with relief, I finally vomited, then drank deeply from the tap.

I was suddenly drained, exhausted by the shock and effort of escaping my premature burial and the after effects of the drug, whatever it was. I needed to rest for a moment and gather my strength. I cast a longing eye at the polished slab in the centre of the room. Promising myself that I’d only rest for a moment, I lay down. Within seconds, I was soundly asleep.

The sound of ragged breathing and the smell of stale booze close to my face brought me round again. I waited with my eyes closed for a heartbeat, then suddenly opened them, hissing through my clenched teeth and snatching hold of the lapels of a battered old pea-jacket. I looked up into a pair of bloodshot pop-eyes set in a face riddled with broken veins and upholstered in a ragged, nicotine-stained walrus moustache. A janitor’s cap perched on top of these delightful details provided the finishing touch to a classic caretaker’s ensemble. The comic relief had shown up, just in the nick of time.

Working in the morgue, I must have been his worst nightmare brought to life, or, more correctly, brought back to life. Mindless with fear, he let out a howl, broke free of my grasp and took to his heels. I hopped down from the slab and took off after him. As I ran, I pulled the cosh out of my coat, intending to wallop him on the head when I caught up with him. In the end, I didn’t need to resort to brutality. We were racing down a long corridor and I was gaining on him rapidly. He reached the heavy door at the end, grabbed the handle without slowing and clumsily tugged it open. I heard a terrific crash as he smashed himself squarely in the face with it. Groaning loudly, he slid to the floor in a malodorous, crumpled heap. A quick inspection showed me that he had a large, livid bruise running down his forehead and his nose was bleeding freely on to his shirt, improving it by a considerable margin. The drunken old fool had done my work for me. Unlucky for him, but very lucky for me really.

I couldn’t be sure that there weren’t more night-watchmen lurking around, so reluctantly I decided I better do a bit of tidying up before I went any further. I dragged the old toper back to the morgue and had a look in his pockets to see if there was anything useful that could tell me where I was and how to get out. I turned my nose up at his quarter bottle of rum, but as I’d hoped, he had a nice fat bunch of keys, all helpfully labelled “University of Edinburgh, Faculty of Medicine”. As I flicked through them I saw a tag that made me stop suddenly and laugh: “Anatomy Museum, 3rd Floor”. I gave a little cry of triumph. I took back all the nasty curses I’d been firing off at MacFarlane and the Coffin Club. What a considerate bunch of lads they really were.

Calculating that there was enough anti-freeze in his system to keep him going through the night, I wrangled the caretaker into the mortsafe and closed the store room door, slipping ten bob, a couple of cigarettes and my hip flask into his pea-jacket for his time and trouble.

I walked softly back along the corridor to the stairwell beyond the door, then crept up to the third floor landing. Two gigantic figures loomed down at me out of the gloom, as pale and grey as moonlight. I gasped and flattened myself against the wall, my hands reaching instinctively for the brass knuckles in my pockets. The giants, however, remained silent and impassive. I cautiously approached and inspected the one on my left. It took me a few seconds to realise that it was nothing more than a grotesque skeleton — the remains of an elephant. In the half-light, they had resembled a pair of ossified Cyclops.

I had reached the foyer of the museum. It had a creepy Masonic look about it, all Neo-classical columns, checkered floor tiles, busts on plinths and a massive doorway in the style of a Roman temple. The beeswax scent of well-polished old wood hung in the air. Flanking either side of the doorway stood a pair of glass-topped display tables full of Victorian clutter: whales’ jawbones, moulages, preserved intestines, an amputated bound foot from China, a cast of Robert Burns’ skull.

I unlocked the doors, swept them open and crossed silently over the threshold. Okay. I was in. But where would I find the hand? Fortunately, it was a tiny museum with a single gallery all on one level, so I assumed it wouldn’t be difficult to locate. However, there were a dozen or so free-standing cabinets in the centre of the room and three of the four walls were lined with presses and shelves, each of them crammed with alarming exhibits.

The glow from the street lights filtered in through the harr, bathing everything in the nicotine coloured atmosphere of a Grand Guignol set. I was reminded of the Kunstkammer Museum in Petrograd, though the quiet, sombre stuffiness of the Scottish museum contrasted sharply with the wild theatricality of its Russian counterpart. This place was the Dr Jekyll to the Kunstkammer’s Mr Hyde. I flitted among the well-ordered cabinets, peeping at the jars of pallid, gelatinous carrion. I felt as if I was in the delicatessen of some nightmarish department store, well stocked with unwholesome, ghoulish delicacies. I’m not particularly squeamish, but I admit that my stomach was soon turning cartwheels.

After five fruitless minutes, I thought I heard a faint “clink” somewhere vaguely ahead of me. I listened breathlessly. There it was again. It seemed to emanate from the direction of a tall case standing apart from the others at the end of the gallery. I headed towards it. A card on the glass told me that it had been constructed by Deacon Brodie. I scanned the exhibits inside: the skeleton and death mask of William Burke, a pocket book bound in his tanned hide, the skulls and scalps of a pair of North American Indians, a fine lace handkerchief soaked in the blood of Henry Darnley, and other relics of the city’s gruesome past. Clearly, I was on the right track.

I didn’t recognise it at first. In fact I had been staring right at it for 30 seconds or so before I realised that it wasn’t a gnarled piece of charcoal or a chunk of driftwood. There, beside a jar containing the pickled brain of Dr Robert Knox, was a severed left hand: black, desiccated, paw-like, simian.

It took only a moment’s work with a little glass-cutter and a piece of sticking plaster to spring it from the polished cabinet. Suppressing the urge to make a wish, I picked it up gingerly and quickly wrapped it in a silk handkerchief. As I held it, I felt a fleeting sensation of nausea and distaste. I had expected it to be as light as air, and as delicate as glass. Instead the skin crackled like brown paper, and it had the same texture and heft as a chunk of cured pork. This wasn’t an analogy I enjoyed making with my stomach in its current delicate condition. I’d never be able to eat Spanish ham again.

I reached inside my coat and pulled out my opera hat. With a flick of the wrist, I popped it open, slipped the hand inside it, then set it on my head at a jaunty angle — ta-dah! Now for my next trick: getting out of this Chamber of Horrors without losing any major organs of my own.

I navigated using the keys, slinking back towards the morgue, past store rooms and through cellars, down into a long, dimly lit tunnel that ran beneath Bristo Square and connected the morgue to a side entrance in Middle Meadows Walk. This was really designed for discreet deliveries, but I found it worked equally well the other way around.

I slipped out of the charnel house into the night, looking as furtive as hell. Just around the corner on Lauriston Place I encountered a policeman doing his rounds. My heart flip-flopped in my ribcage for a second. I thought I better be nice to him, so I put a little rubber in my legs, feigned drunkenness and slurringly asked if he had the time. At that moment, the clock of the Tron Kirk down on the High Street chimed three times. I gave him a bashful smile.

‘Are you trying to be funny?’ he asked, eyeing me suspiciously, ‘Sir?’ Obviously, he’d had a lot of experience of the students in the area and wasn’t in the mood to put up with any cheek from another young ne’er-do-well. He probably thought I was on a dare to pinch his helmet.

‘No, no, offisa, I only wanted to pass the time of day with you, honestly,’ I replied adding lamely ‘I’ve only had a few ales.’ I looked shiftily down at my feet. If ever someone deserved a clip round the ear-hole and 30 days in the jug, I was that someone.

There was a note of stern caution in his voice. ‘Very well. Be on your way sir, mind how ye go noo…’ He turned and sauntered slowly off the way policemen always do, hands behind his back, boots creaking. I thanked him as he went, remembering just in time not to raise my hat. Brilliant. Now there were two witnesses who could identify me. At least he hadn’t spotted that I wasn’t a man.

It was a fucking long walk back to Royal Circus. I decided to avoid the backstreets and to stick to Lauriston Place, which I’d follow to Lothian Road in the vain hope that I might be able to catch a taxi on the way. I made it as far as the crossroads with Fountainbridge, before I collapsed, exhausted, outside a little group of mews buildings opposite the meat market. I looked around for somewhere I could rest for half an hour or so, a stable or an outhouse. I looked up, and with horror read the frontage opposite me: “Ronald Stark & Son, Undertakers”. I’d had quite enough of coffins for one night. I’d rather have slept in the sewer.

I was about to gratefully curl up and die beneath the meat market awning when, I heard the clop of hooves and rattle of bottles — a milkman. Saved by the Co-op Dairy. I waved him to a standstill, bunged him a fiver and he agreed to drop me off in Stockbridge, which was on his route anyway. I sat on the back of his float among the crates of bottles and a few minutes later I was on my way to Manderley again…

……Abruptly, I found I was in the parlour of Arnheim’s shop. I was puzzled; I couldn’t figure out what I was doing there or how I’d got in. Looking around, I found I was standing in a corner of the room, hiding amongst a bundle of verminous fur coats. In the dimness, I caught movement at the edge of my vision; things scuttled around among the odds and ends.

As I watched, the dealer appeared, moving jerkily, eyes rolling from side to side, his head bobbing like a laughing policeman’s. He floated around the room searching for something, seemingly unaware of me peeping at him from the fur coats in the corner. Then slowly, deliberately, he turned and pointed directly towards me, leering triumphantly as if he’d known I was there all along. I felt sickening, paralysing terror as he fixed me with uncanny, glassy eyes. Through the forced perspective of the dream, I glimpsed a figure beyond him; a great grey man shrouding the whole scene, reaching across a vast distance, plunging hideous yellow-green talons into the dealer’s scalp, piercing his skull and burrowing them like worms into his brain. Arnheim’s expression was one of pure ecstasy.

With a gasp, I opened my eyes. I was in my room again, sitting up in bed. Relieved to find myself back where I should be, I lay down again to sleep. Before I had the chance to close my eyes, I felt something lift the blankets at the foot of the bed and swiftly strike towards me as fast as a cobra. I heard a hiss as rough scaly skin and claws raked against the sheets, then a cold, hard, irresistibly strong grip caught my right ankle and squeezed painfully tight before violently dragging me from the bed onto the floor.

I awoke in my room, terror-stricken and barely able to breathe. The fire was almost out, but despite the chill, I was soaked in sweat and the bedclothes lay tangled on the floor. I gathered them up and cocooned myself in blankets and lay there uneasily not daring to move, not daring to breath. I watched the glow of the embers in the grate as they sent flickering shadows across the ceiling. Dread hung over me. That dread you get when you’re a child and you wake in the small hours in an empty room and you’re not quite sure if you’re really alone. I lay there in a quiet daze, convinced that there was something twitching behind the curtains. Eventually, certain that I could hear the faint tapping of spectral fingers coming from somewhere nearby, I rose, wrapped myself in a blanket and went over to the window. It was hours before dawn. The last thing I remembered was rocking gently to sleep on the back of the milk float. I’d no idea how I’d got into the house, undressed and into bed.

Shivering fitfully, I watched as the light grew slowly brighter, filling the room with the strange gloaming of a winter morning. It would be another flat, grey Edinburgh day, full of harr and reek. The world outside was silent and still, except for the droplets of mist which dripped from the eaves of the house and the ragged branches of the forlorn willow tree that grew outside my window. It was too early for the whistle of the postman, too dark for the blackbirds that sang in the rowans and hawthorns of the faded Georgian garden that lurked gloomily behind gnarled iron railings in the centre of the avenue. I felt as though I was the only human being in the city.

After a while, I went to the kitchen and made a hot toddy to settle my nerves. As I returned to my bedroom, instinct told me to have a look out of the window one last time. I saw the faint, unmistakable glow of a cigarette in the window of an empty house on the far side of the street. There was someone else awake after all. It was too dark for me to see them clearly, but I was certain that they were looking straight at me.

I sang softly to myself.

‘Get six gamblers to carry my coffin
 Six chorus girls to sing me a song
 Put a twenty-piece jazz band on my tail gate
 To raise hell as we go along…’

I closed the shutters, pulled the curtains and went back to bed.