The Catspaw, Chapter 7: La Main du Diable
With the aid of her new allies, Maggie and Mrs Lovelady, Anna Schwarz has given her enemies the slip and set out alone for Switzerland. As she draws nearer to her destination — the ominously named Schloss Tuefelsberg — she begins to wonder who, and what, she’ll find waiting for her there…
Paris, 23rd of December, 1925
I awoke alone and in my own bed (thankfully), and sans hangover (miraculously). I couldn't recall much of the previous evening, but the memories I did have were vivid and disconnected.
It was dark, so I glanced at my wristwatch. It said 1.35, but I couldn't tell which day it was, or whether it was AM or PM.
What would you have done? I was 26 years old, it was the week before Christmas, I had more money than a horse can shit, and I was in Paris, the cultural centre of the universe. I know what I did. Everything you could possibly imagine, plus all the things you never could.
As much as I loved Edinburgh, its fairy tale streets and castles, its hills and all that nature on the doorstep, I missed the bohemian, avant-garde, political stew of Berlin - not that Germany or anywhere else on the continent couldn’t be dull and parochial of course (Jesus, have you ever seen Duisburg?). But I missed performing for a crowd, and I missed my mad young friends - so when I arrived in Gay Paris, I couldn’t help it - I couldn’t resist the bars, the booze, the music, the hubbub. I needed to indulge myself, let off steam a little, so as soon as I’d stepped down from the train, I went off the rails.
I knew that I'd kicked off my bender with a visit to the Theatre du Grande Guignol, where I saw three plays that contained the recommended daily amount of eye-gougings and tongue hackings for a healthy adult. I was still pretty sober at that point, but pissed enough to find the proceedings hilarious. Then I recalled The Dingo Bar over on Rue Delambre, where I'd encountered a vivacious young American woman and her father who were raising funds for an overland journey to the Himalayas. She challenged me to a drinking contest, drank me under the table and relieved me of a considerable chunk of my walking around money. We became great friends, so we ditched her dad, and I took her over to Le Monocle to introduce her to my old friend Lulu de Montparnasse. Lulu was impressed with her, but Violette Morris was there and started a fight as usual, so I didn’t stay for long. I don’t know where the American ended up. Nepal, I guess. After that, I only remembered faces, laughter, music, dancing, an open palm holding a fistful of coins. My last clear memory is sipping a cold beer in the vaults of Le Cabaret du Neant – The Cabaret of Nothingness. After that, I remembered, well, nothing. I wondered how I'd managed to get back to the hotel and bed in one piece.
I said I was alone. This wasn't quite correct. My bed was empty - but the room wasn't. I heard the shutters being stealthily opened, and the room flooded with white, cold winter light.
Heart pounding in panic, I shot bolt upright, and was halfway towards my revolver when I heard a voice:
‘Don't even consider claiming last night back on expenses, Mademoiselle.’
I blinked in the light, looking desperately around for the owner of the voice. He was sitting on a chair by the sideboard just inside the door. He wore a soft, black velour felt hat with a very wide brim, a midnight blue military cloak, black kid gloves and a black suit and ankle boots. His hands rummaged around beneath the cloak for a second, then moved up to his face to light a cigarette. I took a good look at him in the match light, and soon wished I hadn’t. His face was pallid, wet looking, putty coloured, as if he was painted with a thick coat of grease paint. Perched precariously on the brow of his nose, were a pair of gold rimmed pince-nez, attached to a wide, incongruous, electric blue ribbon.
‘Who the hell are you, and how did you get in here?’ I snapped. Rude, I know, but I’m never at my best when I’ve just woken up.
He exhaled a cloud of smoke, with a weary sigh. He seemed hurt that I didn’t recognise him.
‘My name is Armand Sacquer. I am Paris’s foremost Private Enquiry Agent. Non, that is not correct. I am France’s foremost Private Enquiry Agent. Possibly Europe’s. On my good days, I may even lay claim to the world.’
He gazed intently at me and carried on smoking, He was waiting for a reaction; I should have heard of him, obviously. If he had intended to put me at my ease, he’d failed miserably. There’s something a bit unsettling about waking to find a strange detective in your bedroom, don’t you find?
‘You haven’t told me how you got in.’ I said irritably. At the first sound of his voice, I had frozen in the bed, halfway to reaching the pistol in the nightstand. I’d no idea if he was armed, and I didn’t want to give him an excuse to perforate my pyjamas, so I was stuck there getting cramp.
‘Hmmm, yes, I know. And I won’t be telling you how, either. It’s a professional secret. And please don’t try to take your pistol from the drawer. Relax - you won’t need it. I can assure you I mean you no harm, and I’m not acting in any official capacity for the Sûreté. I’m only here to provide you with your tickets for the Orient Express. And to make sure you get on it.’ His voice was thick and wheezy, as if he suffered from emphysema. I wondered at him smoking, but it was none of my business how he went to the Devil.
I sat back against the pillows, away from the nightstand. He rose and walked with difficulty over to the bed, and placed an envelope in my hand. I took it from him and peeped inside at the tickets and itinerary. Looking up at him, I noticed something awkward about the way he smoked. With shock, I realised that his face was a mask, a prosthetic he wore to disguise a terrible disfigurement. He was missing the thumb and first two fingers of his right hand, both ears were gone, and from the way he walked, leaning heavily on a cane, I could tell that his right leg was artificial. It was then that I noticed the scarlet ribbon of the Legion d’Honneur in the button hole of his lapel. I suddenly felt ashamed and breathless, unable to find anything flippant to say.
Though the mask hid any expression, there was a strange mixture of embarrassment, defiance and pride in his eyes. I looked away again quickly.
‘I believe “merci” is the word you’re looking for, Mademoiselle.’
‘Yes. Yes of course, thank you very much.’
A thousand questions ran around in my mind, like ants on a sugar cube. For the sake of something to say I asked him if he wanted a drink. He said that yes, he did, but not here in my hotel room. That cleared up the question of whether it was morning or evening I supposed.
‘You know, I saw you perform in Berlin just after the war,’ he said. ‘I enjoyed the show very much. You make very incisive observations about the world. Very sanguine, very sardonic. I confess to being something of a fan, Mademoiselle Schwarz. And not just of your stage persona.’
I got up, drew on my dressing gown and wandered over to the window, screaming inside, but trying to maintain a casual, innocent air.
‘I’ve no idea what you’re talking about Monsieur,’ I lied cheerfully. I knew exactly what he was talking about.
He spread his arms wide, then folded his hands across his heart in mock disbelief.
‘Oh come, come! There’s no need to feign modesty on my behalf! I mean your other, less lawful talents. In my opinion, you are one of the finest up and coming young criminal minds in the world. I’ve been following your career with interest. It’s an absolute pleasure and honour to meet you.’
‘Yeah, I’m a real international sensation, Mein Herr.’
‘Look — I’m being serious. The Orient Express leaves Gare du Nord tonight at midnight. You’ll be in Zurich tomorrow morning around 7.30am. We have plenty of time to get acquainted before you leave. I will wait downstairs for you in the café while you shower and dress, d’accord?’
I nodded. ‘Yes, that’s fine. I’ll be there in 20 minutes.’
He limped to the door, then turned back. ‘Please don’t think about running, mademoiselle. There’s nowhere I can’t find you. And honestly, there’s really no need. You have nothing to fear from me.’
He was sharp, this one. Really sharp. My name had never figured in any official criminal investigation. The world at large knew nothing of my double life, yet he’d still managed to piece together my secret identity.
He’d obviously been hired to watch me and deliver my tickets, but I doubted his employer – our employer – had given him any information on my mission. From the conversation I’d had with him so far, I was certain he would know anyway. I imagined him in a rooftop eyrie, never sleeping, sitting late into the night like a spider in the centre of a web, telepathically receiving the shock-waves of crime as they rippled round the globe…
I changed back into my preferred “masculine” attire again. Dark blue suit, scarlet tie, spear-point collar, leather overcoat, black bowler hat, slate grey spats. I was glad to be wearing my monocle again – I’d felt naked without it. I inspected my ensemble in the mirror, confident that no one at reception would blink an eye when the young Flapper in Room 221 checked out as a petite Garconne. This was Paris; I was fashionable here.
I joined Sacquer at a table looking out into the Rue du Chateau Landon. It was a quiet, uninspiring view overlooking the railway lines. The table, however, was laden with pastries, bottles, cups and pots. He lifted a coffee pot and poured for me.
‘Pardon me if I don’t remove my hat at the table…’ he pointed towards it, shrugging diffidently.
‘That’s quite alright Monsieur Sacquer, I understand.’ There were a thousand and one questions I desperately wanted to ask him about himself, but they would have to wait. His was a story for another day.
He handed me a cup and saucer. ‘Since you’ve just arrived from Scotland, I thought at first you might prefer tea, however, the tea here is quite ghastly, and the coffee much better. There is also vermouth, if you would like. I thought that perhaps after last night you wouldn’t really want anything stronger.’
‘No, absolutely not, Monsieur Sacquer. Very thoughtful of you. Be still my heaving stomach! My memories of last night are hazy. I assume that you were following me?’
‘Oui, you are correct Mademoiselle. In addition to delivering your tickets, I was paid to keep an eye on you.’
‘I never saw you. At least I don’t think I did.’
‘Naturally,’ he said in a matter of fact sort of a way. ‘I was hired merely to observe you, but I also ended up having to keep you out of trouble. For the most part. Doing so while remaining invisible was an enjoyable challenge. At one point, you got into an altercation with a Gendarme who took a dislike to you. Do you remember?’
I gave him a blank look.
‘He called you ‘Un cochon Boche’ at one point, and you tried to strike him with this.’
He went into the pocket of his jacket, then opened his hand. Across the palm lay a brass knuckle duster. It wasn’t one of my own. Folded back beneath the usual rings was a small, wicked looking blade, and where your palm would rest, a steel cylinder. He pressed a catch and a spring-loaded mechanism unfolded the whole thing to form a compact, evil looking pistol and bayonet.
‘Jesus Christ!’ I gasped, appalled. ‘Where the hell did I get that?’
‘From an old Apache, down on his luck. He had intended to cut your throat with it, but you managed to persuade him otherwise. By striking him repeatedly over the head with a bottle of pastis. A full bottle I may add.’
He handed the pistol to me, and I quickly pocketed it. The waiter had almost wet himself when he passed our table and got a glimpse of it.
‘Gottverdammt! where did that happen?’
‘Le Cabaret du Neant. The crowd were most appreciative and cheered you on. This was just after Madame Sesostoris read your palm. If you’re interested, she said that you had a very long life line, but that you should avoid journeys by air.’
All of a sudden, that missing hangover walked over, shook me by firmly the hand, and said “Here you are! I’ve been looking all over for you!” I felt as if I’d been kicked in the face by an angry mule with a hot potato wedged up its arse. I put my head in my hands and groaned.
‘I apologise, Monsieur Sacquer. I’ve behaved like kid away from home for the first time.’
He laughed heartily.
‘Pas de probleme, Mademoiselle! It was an absolute pleasure to watch you work! By the way, I made sure to put your young American friend in a taxi and send her back to her father. You’ll be happy to know that she administered a sound beating to Violette Morris before she left Le Monocle. And that reminds me - you stole Morris’s wallet!’ He threw it across the table to me. I picked it up, slipped the cash from it into my own jacket, then tossed it into the corner behind a potted fern. I have no pride, and this made up for the money I had lost to the American chica.
Sacquer complained that sitting for a long time caused his injuries to become painfully stiff, so we decided to take a stroll to a bar somewhere. In the end, we ambled along the Rue de Sebastopol from bar to bar, until we reached the Latin Quarter, where I invited him to join me for dinner. Eating was awkward for him, since he had to cover his mask with his napkin and try to slip his food discretely beneath them both. He didn’t eat much, but picked at his food out of politeness, preferring to talk instead.
‘I was in Berlin at the time of the Spartacist revolt. I believe that you were involved, were you not? And that you narrowly missed being captured and executed by the Freikorps? I heard that you turned on your pursuers, and in the beat of a hummingbird’s heart, three men lay dead.’
‘Two,’ I corrected him. ‘They were no great loss to the world.’
‘Indeed. I feel it would be a far better place with fewer steel helmets in it, but it seems that they are growing in number these days. I fear I see a time when…’
He paused to insert a straw into the mouth slot of his mask, and took a long draught of vermouth.
His eyes twinkled. ‘Mademoiselle, forgive me, I am growing maudlin. I have been paid to do a job. I have almost carried out that job. I may now freely tell you that I feel I have no further loyalty to the man who paid me. I never met him, but I did not like his manner on the telephone.’ The livid skin around his eyes puckered in disgust.
I saw an opportunity to glean a little information from him. ‘Was he Dutch, by any chance?’
‘No, I think not. Scottish, I believe, but hard to tell. His accent was, refined, mannered, washed out, if you see what I mean.’
‘Yes, I think so. But I’m none the wiser.’ Could it have been MacFarlane, I wondered?
‘Did he give you a name?’
‘Yes — Gil Martin. I suspect strongly that this is an alias. I have never come across it before, however. He instructed me to collect the documents I gave you from the ticket office in the Gare du Nord, provided me with your room number and description, then wired me 200 francs for my time. Not normally the sort of work I take on, but this is a quiet time of year, and 200 francs is a nice little stocking filler.’
The name meant nothing to me either. I looked at Sacquer thoughtfully, trying to see behind the mask.
‘I’m wondering why I haven’t heard of you, Monsieur. You’re a remarkable man, and in my circles, even far away in Berlin, I would have expected someone to warn me about you years ago.’
‘For reasons you will appreciate, I don’t court publicity for my work. I assist the police and government on occasion, but I ask them to keep my name out of the papers. Their employees are ambitious, hungry for fame, and are quite happy to acquiesce to my request. I like it that way, as it assists me in my work. You, I observe, employ a different strategy, and allow two different waves of notoriety to cancel each other out. No one would expect the vivacious young stage performer to also be the scourge of antiquarians and museum curators the world over. And rest assured, your secret is safe with me.’
I smiled, and bowed my head to him across the table. We raised our glasses of cognac and drank each other’s health. Then I glanced at my wristwatch. It was 10pm, so we decided to make our way back to Gare du Nord by metro.
We reached the station and located my sleeper carriage. Sacquer turned to me and said:
‘Bon voyage, Mademoiselle. It has been a most diverting, a most interesting afternoon. I was asked to accompany you all the way to Zurich. I declined this request, using the excuse that my current schedule wouldn’t allow me to make the journey. However, the real reason was that I felt it was unnecessary arrangement, and an insult to your integrity. After I refused, I quickly learned that my client had enlisted the aid of another agent, a competitor with less scruples than me. I have made arrangements for him to be detained however, so you will be able to make the rest of your journey unmolested.’
Unable to shake my hand, he saluted me earnestly, then wished me a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.
‘I will now give you my business card. You may need my assistance someday. Possibly sooner than you think. I will give it gladly. But for now, I will give you some free advice. Be very careful. Take great care on the rest of your journey.’
‘Mr Sacquer,’ I said with a touch of irritation, ‘You are very kind, and I like you, I really do. I admire your dramatic flair. But good God, man — I’d already worked that out for myself. I’m not a wilting flower, a damsel in distress. I’m more than capable of looking after myself.’
‘I apologise, Mademoiselle. It’s a strange new world, and sometimes I forget my good sense and my manners — and the evidence of my own eyes.’
I suddenly realised that I had no idea how old he was. I softened, and smiled sympathetically at him. ‘Think nothing of it, please.’
‘Bien sûr’ he replied, gallantly bowing his head, ‘now may I ask one more question?’
‘But of course,’ I said ‘Ask away.’
‘Where do you buy your beautiful ties?’
I settled into my compartment for the night, and looked over the rest of my itinerary. I had a long journey ahead of me. Once I reached Zurich the following morning, I was to catch a connecting service to the Lauterbrunnen region of the Alps. My final destination was a village named Holstenwall, where I would be collected and driven to the nearby Schloss Teufelsberg, named for the lower peak of the Schilthorn mountain which on which it stood. None of the names were familiar to me, so I couldn’t see any significance in them.
I was now alone again with the Hand of Glory.
Locking the door of my compartment, I opened my hat box and withdrew it from its hiding place, unwrapped the Christmas paper and placed it on the lid of the washstand. I gazed intently on the glorified backscratcher and wondered whether or not it would grant me three wishes.
Hand of Glory! I thought. What utter bullshit. I’d heard the legends, everyone in my business had. Many of my competitors had dreamed of getting their hands (yes, intended) on one for years. In general, criminals are a superstitious cowardly lot. They’ll believe anything that they think will protect them and bring them good fortune in their endeavours. They’re always on the lookout for a talisman that they think will bring them luck, or enhance their powers and keep the hand of the law from feeling their collars. A fantasy, a myth, always just out of reach like El Dorado or Atlantis is for straight crackpots.
I’d heard tales from old timers who’d claimed to have been on the verge of finding one themselves, or who had heard tell of friends of friends who had stumbled upon one in ancient curio shops in vague out of the way places. I never ever gave any credence to these tales myself. I was of a different generation — thoroughly modern in so many ways — for me the hand represented a sort of ignorant, backwards romanticism that should have finally died out in the 19th century. The dead hand of the unenlightened past.
My meditations eventually brought me back round to the vexed question of whom exactly I was stealing the hand for, and why did they want it…what use were they going to put it to? In the end, what did I care if some rich dilettante wanted to waste his money on superstitious nonsense?
But the very rich have a way of playing with the lives of the rest of us. When they’re using their power to indulge their eccentric tastes in art and trinkets like the Hand of Glory, they’re relatively harmless — though they don’t care about anyone who gets caught up in the crossfire of their little games. When the same venal, capricious motives are applied to the wider world, then they truly are dangerous. I remembered Sacquer’s fearful vision of the future, and I grew depressed. The influence of the steel helmet was indeed abroad in the world, and it’s power was growing.
Brooding on the hand had made me morbid again. I didn’t like this malign influence it was having on me, and grew increasingly wary of it. Until the job was done and I finally got rid of it, I wanted to see as little as possible of the filthy, fascinating thing. Besides, it was beginning to smell even more strongly, so I re-wrapped it and sealed it up in the hat-box in my trunk. I’d have to fumigate — or burn — half my wardrobe when this job was done. Still, what did it matter? £500 could buy a lot of shirts in those days.
I dozed off in the middle of a page of “The Corpse Wore White Tie”.
From Zurich onwards, I spent the journey snoozing in my First Class compartment. As we travelled overland through Switzerland, the weather closed in, and by the time we had reached Interlaken, it was dark, and we were plunging blindly on through a howling blizzard. The wind screamed and tore at the carriage, snow slashed and hissed against the windows until they were half blocked with ice. By noon, it was impossible to see out into the darkness, and only the rocking motion of the train gave any hint that we were moving at all. At times it seemed brighter in the tunnels, until I was so disoriented that I began to think we’d been swallowed by an avalanche. Despite being designed with Swiss ingenuity and fitted with a snowplough, the train struggled more and more as we ascended into the Lauterbrunnen Valley, until we weren’t travelling much faster than a horse and cart. In the end, a journey of three hours took almost nine.
When we finally arrived, I was the only passenger left to alight at the village of Holstenwall. The station master greeted me as I stepped down from my carriage, and ushered me into the bright, warm safety of his house. He explained to me that there were no cable cars available, but that a sleigh was waiting to take me the two miles to Schloss Tuefelsberg. He peeped out through the shutters of his parlour and his face darkened.
‘The train is snowbound already. There’s no way it can return to Zurich tonight — or for the next few days. I’d offer you a bed myself, but I’ll need to put up the conductor and engineers, and there’s barely enough room for them, my wife and me. I’ve never seen weather such as this before ma’am. It’s as if the Devil ordered it for you especially.’
With this cheery observation, he led me out to the sleigh, wished me Merry Christmas then ran back to the station house, ruefully muttering and shaking his head.
The driver was swaddled against the blizzard, so that I was unable to see his face. He was a mound of dark furs, with a silk scarf wound round and around his face. If it hadn’t been for the two piercing eyes peering out at me, I would have thought the mound was empty. He never spoke, just hoisted my bags up into the sleigh, and motioned me to climb aboard.
I was glad to get under the folding canopy of the carriage, though it provided little protection from the blast of the storm that howled around us. When I was settled, the driver flicked up his reigns and we jingled off into the night.
The narrow, serpentine streets of Holstenwall were dark, silent and sullen. Closed up tight against the tempest that engulfed it, there were no signs of any Christmas festivities to be seen anywhere. It was unnervingly quiet, and I began to wonder if in fact the whole village was uninhabited.
The driver didn’t seem to care a whistle for the storm. He handled the sleigh expertly, and within minutes we were flying along the forest road at a good pace, the dark fir trees providing a little shelter from the icy wind. Since the castle was only two miles away, I expected to be there within 20 minutes. I began to cheer up at the thought of the good meal, long drink, warm bed and sack of cash that were inevitably waiting for me when I got there. It seemed that sometimes bad girls did get what they wanted for Christmas.
Then, through the almost solid wall of snow, I made out the dim lights and vague bulk of the castle, high on the peak ahead. My newfound confidence evaporated. Schloss Teufelsberg was a severe, primitive looking place; squat, dark and massive, and uncannily like Edinburgh Castle. It seemed to hang there in mid-air, teetering on the edge of the cliff, threatening to fall on Holstenwall at any minute. It was no wonder the village beneath it seemed subdued. This was the sort of place that people ride forth from, looking for fresh victims.
As we drove through the gates, a huge oak door opened in in an archway in the wall ahead, and I was greeted by an ancient, decrepit butler who appeared to run on a clockwork motor that was in imminent danger of winding down.
Schloss Tuefelsberg, 11pm — Christmas Eve
I just had time to dress before the butler came back to my room to take me to dinner. No opportunity to snoop around. He showed me in to the library where I was to wait before dinner was served.
‘The master apologises, but he will not be able to join you for dinner,’ he brayed at me in German. ‘He has already dined. He asked me to tell you that he will join you in the library when you have eaten. He hopes that you enjoy his hospitality.’
At first I wasn’t sure if the volume of his voice was due to deafness or hostility, but considering he had the face and and frame of a badly shaved vulture, I decided it was the latter. He pointed sullenly in the direction of a drinks table bearing a bottle of brandy, then span on his heel and stalked off without saying another word. Obviously tonight was self-service night; a small price to pay for being rid of him.
I walked over and took a seat in a group of easy chairs in the centre of the room. I sat and waited. By my left elbow stood an oval table of pale lime wood, stacked high with beautifully patinaed leather bindings.
The library was small, and, in contrast to the rest of the castle, cheerfully festive. It was a very comfortable room, especially on a night like this. Glistening holly boughs hung from the rafters, their berries as dark as droplets of blood. Candles, the colour of old ivory, were everywhere, and the scent of fresh fir needles hung on the air. A tall, dark tree stood in one corner, its red mirror-glass baubles twinkling hypnotically in the candlelight. Book cabinets encircled the room from floor to ceiling, full of secrets, firelight dancing in the glass panels of the doors. The walls were panelled in thick, dark red leather, polished mirror bright; a priceless, ancient tapestry hung above the fireplace, and the mellow wooden flooring was swathed with thick Turkish carpets.
The wall opposite the door was dominated by a gigantic stone fireplace which cast its light and tremendous heat into the room. A well stoked fire of enormous pine logs roared like a furnace in the grate, but the dim candles meant that the corners of the room were in deep shadow, and I was uneasy. The flickering light tricked my eyes into thinking that things were moving in the darkness around me. It was then that I realised there were no windows in the room. This jarring detail spoiled the room’s cosy atmosphere, introducing a sinister, cell-like note to its appearance.
Over in the ingle nook sat a very high winged armchair, facing the fire. I had an uncomfortable feeling that someone was sitting in it, keeping very still and enjoying my unease. There was something familiar about the room, I’d seen it before somewhere, but couldn’t remember it clearly, as if it had been in a dream. For a second I experienced intense déjà vu.
To distract myself while I waited, I picked up one of the volumes from the table and opened it to the title page. I read:
“Daemonologie, in Forme of a Dialogue,
written by the High and Mighty Prince James by the Grace of God, King of England, Scotland, France and Ireland, Defender of the Faith &c.”
I recognised the title from the research I had conducted into the Hand of Glory in the National Library in Edinburgh. It was a rare and expensive tome. I was indeed in the home of a collector of genuine antiquities. Intrigued, I closed the cover, placed it back on the table and picked up the next volume, bound in olive coloured leather. This time I had selected:
“Satan’s Invisible World Discovered; or, A Choice Collection of Modern Relations, proving evidently against the Saducees and Atheists of this present Age, that there are Devils, Spirits, Witches and Apparitions, from Authentick Records, Attestations of Famous Witnesses and Undoubted Verity. To all which is added, The Marvellous History of Major Weir and his Sister: With two Relations of Apparitions at Edinburgh.”
The hairs at the base of my skull prickled slightly, and I felt a chill between my shoulder blades. Both of these books were published in Scotland and had an Edinburgh connection. It seemed as though someone was sending me a very deliberate, very unsubtle message. This was all very theatrical, stage managed to unsettle me. And I have to confess that it was working. At that moment, as if to emphasise my predicament, the walls of the castle shook and rumbled with another great blast from the blizzard outside.
A line of Burns kept running through my mind…
‘That night, a child might understand,
The Deil had business on his hand…’
I picked up the decanter of brandy, poured a generous slug into a huge goblet, swirled it ponderously for a few seconds, then resolutely swigged it down at a gulp. I didn’t gasp, froth at the mouth or keel over onto the rug. So far, so good.
Eventually, the aged retainer returned and led me into the dining room, where I sat down to a traditional Swiss Christmas dinner of Schufeli, chicoree Neuchateloise, gratin de cardoons, with totenbeili for dessert. I ate well, and forgot my anxiety for a while.
When I had finished, I was informed that the master was now ready to meet me, and I followed him back to the door of the library. He knocked, and without waiting for an answer, turned on his heel and left me alone in the hallway outside. It was now close to 3am, the dead time, the soul’s midnight. I stood for almost two minutes, expecting to be called upon to enter. No one spoke, so I turned the handle of the door and entered unbidden.
The candles had been extinguished, and the only light now came from the fire which glowed infernally, casting flickering scarlet shadows on the walls. I cautiously entered and approached the high-backed chair in the ingle nook. At first the room again seemed empty, but I now noticed a soft murmuring sound and smelt the unmistakable scent of formaldehyde in the air…
I listened closely to the sound, trying to recall where I’d heard it before. It had a repetitive, mechanical tone. A droning chant — like someone reciting an invocation, or cantraip… As I drew nearer I made out the words:
‘And there’s a hand, my trusty fere!
And gie’s a hand o’ thine!
And we’ll tak a right gude-willie waught,
For auld lang syne.’
I reached the back of the chair and stopped, glancing over to a small table on the right of the fireplace. On it stood a crudely carved figurine, about 12 inches high; a clumsy representation of a seated man in a conical cap. I’d seen it before. I had never wanted to see it again. Sudden dread overwhelmed me; my skin felt icy cold and the hairs on my neck stood on end.
The voice increased in volume. ‘Come in, come in my dear! I assume — nay I hope — that this is a most unwelcome surprise for you!’ I knew the voice and the hideously gleeful cackle which followed.
‘Ach, scheiβe!’ I said wearily to myself.
A tall, spare, bony figure rose from the chair and turned to face me. It was then that my fears were confirmed — I was now in the clutches of The Nefarious Reverend Hugh MacDhu!