The hero is Eberhard Merrin, a wheelchair-bound librarian who lives alone in the house he grew up in, along with his cat Herbert.
The villain is Richard Coventry, a rich property developer. He has bought most of the property in Eberhard’s neighbourhood, and is pestering the remaining property holders to sell.
Our hero has the uncanny ability to communicate telepathically with felines and, to a much lesser extent, canines.
Winter is closing in, and temperatures are dropping sharply. A series of freak lightning strikes have taken out a number of substations in the area, leaving Eberhard and many other residents without light and (more importantly) heat.
Coventry has offered to pay for anyone who agrees to sell in the next week to stay in a hotel until they can move into a new house. He has also offered flats in one of his mid-range complexes at a 20% discount. Faced with cold days and colder nights, several of the remaining residents have already accepted his offer.
Eberhard has managed to borrow a bottled-gas heater from work, and has started sleeping in the living room to reduce the space he needs to heat. He is also staying longer at work to take advantage of their heat, but he knows Herbert is not enjoying being cooped up in one room and is very worried what will happen to Herbert if the temperature drops further.
As the story opens, the Electricity Board have just announced that the surges managed to damage several sections of cabling before the sub-stations blew, making it likely repairs will take many days.
It is cold, yes, but he had been through colder weather. Wasn’t it ten years ago the temperature dropped to zero while the power was out? Outside, it’s as cold as hell, if, you know, hell is actually cold.
Eberhard Merrin sits in his wheelchair in the middle of the room, near his only heat source, watching the grey road outside his house. No one is driving by. No one is out walking. Too cold for that, even if his neighborhood isn’t the type to get out much. His neighbors usually stay home with their cats and dogs. His cat, Herbert, who was named after the American president Herbert Hoover, is nestled in a pile of blankets on the couch.
“Are we going to freeze tonight?” he asks the cat.
“You might,” Herbert replies without moving a muscle.
“I don’t want to live in one of Coventry’s flats,” he mutters, “and this winter isn’t going to force us to.”
Just then, he hears a scratching at his front door. In his mind’s ear, he hears his neighbor’s cat, Oatmeal, saying his human is moving to a new flat at a great price. It’s for the best, the cat says.
“Thank you,” Eberhard replies. “Take care.”
He tells Herbert what he heard. “Silly human,” the cat says.
The night is almost over. Coventry looks through the latest reports. The power outage has provided just the incentive he hoped to motivate the more established residents to overcome their loyalty to the area. And the hotel package appears to be dealing with those who are more particular in their requirements. Which just leaves a few hold-outs.
He grabs a slide rule and paper, and starts doing calculations. The margins are too tight. If he improves the hotel offer, the discount on the flats, or even offers another property, people are going to notice how badly he wants this specific area. They won’t have a clue why, but even a few oblivious capitalists bumbling around trying to work out what he sees in an ordinary neighborhood could delay the project. So he needs a more oblique motivator. There seems to be a pocket of hold-outs centred on the Jensen property.
Locking the door to his office he meticulously checks all of his pockets. Clean. Standing on a chair he removes the light bulb from the ceiling and places it in the safe. After adding the few other things that use electricity, he locks the lead lined door.
Relying on his excellent memory, he extracts a map from his desk, unrolls it on the top, and pins it down, all without needing light. Opening another draw he removes a small bag of thyme and adds it to the desk. His jacket provides a 100 dollar bill and a lighter to add to the pile.
Conscious dawn is approaching, he efficiently removes his clothes, folding them and placing them in a cupboard which he then locks.
Returning to the desk he starts a regular pattern of breaths. Once he is content with the rhythm, he begins to speak in time with the breaths: inhale Jensen… exhale Coventry… inhale Jensen… exhale Coventry…
Just as the sun crests the horizon he reaches forward and, without changing rhythm, rolls the thyme and the 100 dollar bill into a spliff. Lighting the end he draws deeply, then exhales smoke onto the map. He repeats the jets of fragrant smoke until the spliff is completely gone, ignoring the pain as the coal sputters against his fingers.
Closing his eyes, he takes three long steps back, inhaling Coventry and exhaling Jensen. Remaining silent until his breathing returns to its normal speed, he dresses and returns the office to its normal arrangement.
The next afternoon, Eberhard’s attempt to find the source of the odd smell in the children’s section is interrupted by his neighbour, Sandra Wilkes. She is practically incoherent, but he finally manages to calm her down enough to discover Roger Jensen has been gun down in his home by drug dealers. Her cousin, who is dating one of the dispatchers, heard the police think it was mistaken identity. But not everyone thinks it’s worth the risk, so some of them have already accepted Mr. Coventry’s generous offer.
Eberhard spends the rest of the afternoon in a daze. How could anyone mistake a man in his sixties for a drug dealer?
When Eberhard returns home that evening, he sees his neighbor Mary petting and talking to Jensen’s orphaned dog.
“Oh, Eberhard, did you hear about poor Roger? He was shot by some wicked men. I have no idea the reason.”
“No,” he hears from Irish setter beside her.
“It’s just so sad. Did you hear about it? Beverly said they were drug dealers. In our neighborhood, of all things.”
“No,” the dog says again.
Eberhard wheels over to them and begins stroking the dog’s neck. “Yes, I heard, Mary. It’s terrible.” He looks in the dog’s eyes. “Did you see anything, old boy?”
“Olch,” he whimpers and presses against Mary’s leg.
In a loud whisper, Mary says, “I’m not sure I want to stay anywhere there’s criminals roaming about. What if this happens again?”
“I don’t think they’re here to stay, whoever they are,” Eberhard mutters, and he turns away to enter his house. “Stay calm, boy,” he says wordlessly. “Good dog.”
Once inside, he turns the heater on and sets out a plate for his take-home supper, all the while opening his mind to hear what neighborhood cats and dogs are thinking: “Humans are scared… something in the shadow…odd sounds last night… hold me… it’s cold… what’s to eat… Olch.”
Coventry closes his afternoon newspaper and smiles. Using a steel ruler to fold it into exact thirds, he places the paper in the centre of a blank area in the upper left of his desk. A gang shooting was exactly the sort of event that should overcome lingering nostalgia, but it would take days to be certain it had produced enough of an effect. Some days he feels it would be easier just to explain what he was really doing.
But ordinary people were so irrational: the ones who weren’t interested in a new flat to replace their run-down houses; the ones so focused on petty nostalgia, they didn’t want to live in an expensive hotel on Coventry’s money until they could find a better place to live. These were the exact people who wouldn’t see the glory of what he was trying to do.
But maybe it didn’t need them to be logical. Maybe it just needed the right people to see the benefits. He walks out of his office to his secretary’s desk. “Good Afternoon, Greta. How is your mother?”
“Very well thank you, Mr. Coventry. She still can’t believe you offered to cover all the expenses.”
Coventry winks. “If you are distracted, then I get distracted. So it is really a business expense. Although I suspect the taxman would disagree. Can you see if the Mayor has a moment for me later today? His office will be fine.”
“Certainly, Mr. Coventry.”
Three minutes later, he is on his way to the mayor’s office. Leaping from his car, he strides past a startled-looking guard with a cheery wave, leaving Greta to handle explanations. A model of efficiency, she glides after him promising the guard she will make sure he put the visitor’s pass on straight away.
Continuing his deliberately forceful progress, Coventry breezes past both the slightly annoyed looking man pacing in front of the mayor’s assistant, the assistant themselves, and lets himself into the mayor’s office. Somehow neither of them think to stop him – or even comment – until he is gone.
“Mr. Mayor. So good of you to see me on short notice. We’re both busy men, so here’s my thinking. The escalation in gang violence won’t go down well in the elections. And it isn’t good for selling houses either. So, I agree to put in more street lighting as part of the developments. Sound good?”
The mayor wasn’t born yesterday, but appearing to be on top of the problem the same day it happens is political gold, so he nods.
“Excellent. My issue is that these problems tend to get entrenched quickly, and I would need to start making some money from the development as soon as possible to support the extension to the scope. So I would need special permission to start a more aggressive development timetable.”
“Nothing unsafe. I just need a small reduction in the distance from currently occupied properties I can start construction. My workers could still stick to normal hours, so the disruption would be minor anyway.”
“That might be seen as a little excessive. You appreciate I have to—”
“I understand perfectly. I wouldn’t wish you to end up in an uncomfortable situation.” Coventry smiles. “And I know you like to maintain close relationships with constituents.”
The mayor pales. “I meant that I would have to put in a lot of work to make sure it happened; so it might not be for a few days.”
“Well, I am sure I can help there. I will issue a statement immediately indicating you wanted me to make the development safer for ordinary, decent people. That should stop anyone trying to stall anything behind the scenes. And make sure you get credit for the agreement.”
The mayor looks slightly grey. “Thank you. That sounds… ideal.”
Coventry strides back out of the office, starting dictating as he passes Greta. By the time he reaches his car she has already had the release issued. She returns the visitor’s passes, one of which never quite reached its intended wearer, and joins him in the car.
As the car returns to the office he dictates a series of memos detailing exactly where he wishes work to commence as soon as the extraordinary permissions are issued.
Eberhard nods his head as he talks on the phone. “Yes, Mary. This neighborhood is worth fighting for. We can’t afford to move out. Everyone who’s still here owns their homes. We don’t want to pay rent again. So, will you sign the petition? Good. Tell Jo and anyone else you meet. Let’s stick together on this.”
He hangs up the phone as Herbert walks in. “Where were you last night? Have you been out in the cold all this time?”
“Something is afoot,” Herbert says. “There’s talk of flight and fight.”
“I talked to Jensen’s dog yesterday. Buddy’s his name, isn’t it? I couldn’t understand more than a word. I’m bad with dogs, but he said, ‘Olch.’ Do you know what it means?”
“A word dogs use for evil spirits. I heard something like it from others, but Buddy alone saw Jensen die. Perhaps he saw more. Dogs can, you know.”
“But there were people involved, weren’t there? He wasn’t killed by a demon or a ghost.”
Herbert says nothing.
“If we needed to pull together a team of dogs to guard us, do we have enough who would be willing to help?”
Herbert purrs, “If cats are in command, we will have as many animals as we need.”
“Their petition seems to be gathering momentum,” says Greta, laying a perfectly smooth copy of a local newspaper on the bottom right of Coventry’s desk.
“Do we know who started it?”
“Not definitively. However, the article refers to a copy being at the library so I called in there while you were visiting the north site. The first signature on the top sheet is Eberhard Merrin. I also used their printer and photocopier: the petition has the ink irregularities of both.”
“Excellent initiative, Greta. Are there any messages?”
“The mayor called for a meeting. I told him you would be unavailable.”
Coventry nods sharply. “Good. Find me the correspondence file for Mr. Merrin.”
After a review of the file to ensure his recollection is not flawed (it is not), Coventry locks himself in his office. They have already offered to refit a ground-floor flat to accommodate a wheel-chair at no cost, so this is more than a concern about being self-reliant. A donation to the library? No, too obviously a bribe. So what would influence him? Too early in the day for an effective divination of his motives.
Lacking inspiration for the moment, Coventry turns to the site reports from the areas his crews have already been able to start work. The north site contained nothing of use, but one of the others might. He returns to the foreman’s report from the north-west: a surprising level of thick clay. Natural? Or one of the defences his ancestor’s put in place?
Placing the report perfectly in the centre of his desk, he places his hands either side of the footwell. He feels pressure starting to build on the back of his neck. Maintaining a level voice he begins to recite nursery rhymes. After a couple of minutes the pressure folds otherwhere. He presses up with his thumbs and pulls, sliding open a narrow hidden drawer.
Extracting an ancient map he rechecks measurements. His grandfather had calculated the burial site as Cairn Street, right in the centre of the area. And the name of the street was evidence of potential resonance. However, the map itself only showed contours from when the area was still open ground, so it wasn’t accurate.
Comparing the map with his collection of historical utilities maps, Coventry confirms that his grandfather’s measurements were taken while the water pipes were still lead. The combination of Plutonian metal and flow could have been sufficient to transfer the leaking energies, making the resonance appear centred somewhere else.
This would have been so much easier if his great-great-grandfather hadn’t mistaken the rituals his family performed to ensure it stayed buried for demonolatry and tried to burn everything.
Assuming his grandfather had missed the pipes, the actual site would be further to the north. Which fitted with the edge of the clay bed. Adjusting for the degradation of the original ritual, somewhere in that area.
He studies the properties in the new area. Mostly already empty. Maybe he doesn’t need to demolish the whole area. He changes his suit for workman’s attire, places some small packages of magical supplies into a bag, and covers them with tools. Time for a survey of the properties he owns.
Several hours later, supplies severely diminished, he staggers out of the last property. Each ritual had provided only a mediocre response. The clay was much wider than it should be, or was just clay; either way the burial site was to the south. Almost directly beneath Merrin’s house.
Even more worryingly, the rituals had revealed other patterns. Subtle non-random patterns underlying the movement of animals in the area. There wasn’t enough evidence to determine a cause, so it could be something else; however, the fragments that survived from the burial said that it could spread its mind through many things at once, so it might be starting to reinfect the area.
For a moment, he considers just taking direct action. He could boost the charm on his reflective jacket; make people not see him instead of just ignore him. Another death, or even the death of everyone still here, was insignificant next to it breaking free. If it was under Merrin’s house, might even be an act of mercy.
Almost immediately he realises it was just exhaustion talking. Rushing in would not solve the problem. Trying to arrange the bag in a more comfortable position he starts walking home.
With a hot meal inside him he feels much better. And inspiration strikes. He doesn’t need to kill Merrin, just discredit him. He returns to his office and prepares it for ritual.
Carefully unfolding the paper he cuts the story about the petition out with a sharp knife. It is unfortunate it doesn’t mention Merrin by name, but there is enough to plant a connection with the petition. A story on the continuing investigation into the shooting of Roger Jensen joins the pile. It still needs… of course.
Coventry walks quickly out to Greta’s empty desk. As he hoped, she has left her book on business management in the top drawer. He takes it back into his office and relocks the door.
Taking a fine nibbed pen he carefully crosses through half the mentions of Jensen and writes in Merrin. Picking up the two articles he holds one side in each hand and gently twists until they are spun into a single long rope.
Next he takes a small bag of thyme and tucks it into the book he borrowed. Wrapping the rope of newspaper around the book, he eases the ends together until there is enough to knot them.
Now for the tricky bit. Millimetre by millimetre he slides the book out of the loop. Barely avoiding a gasp of pleasure when it slips free he removes the thyme and places it in one pocket. Now to wait.
Calling on long years of practice, he remains focused on his goal until dawn comes. Picking up the book and loop he returns to the outer office. The book goes back in Greta’s desk. The loop goes into Merrin’s file.
An hour later an intern trying to earn brownie points with deep background, notices Jensen and Merrin both had mobility problems, and one lives on Cairn Street the other on Cairn Row. She puts it in as possible human interest.
Two hours later the Mayor tells a business reporter he is baffled why anyone would oppose his plan to drive out the criminal element.
The lunchtime episode of a generic crime drama features evidence hidden in a book.
One hour after that, a crime reporter on the back of a heavy lunch begins to wonder if the gang were only out by one road.
At the library, Eberhard leaves his assistant to finish re-shelving all of the books in 303-368.5 with their spines facing the aisle and returns to his desk. It has already been a full day. He pulls up the digital archive and continues scanning for historic information about his neighborhood. Maybe something of historic significance could be discovered to stop Coventry from taking his house. On the other hand, maybe something in these files will explain his aggressive desire for the land. He has found nothing so far, except that Cairn Street had a nasty reputation 200 years ago for being the first place police looked when hunting a missing person. Many bodies were found in the area, one confirmed ritual sacrifice.
Out of the corner of his eye, he sees someone approach his desk. “Pardon me. Are you Eberhard Merrin?” asks a pleasant-looking clergyman.
“Yes. May I help you?”
“Oh, good. I hoped I would find you here. I’m Rev. John Knox of Christ Church in Berrymore.”
“John Knox?” Eberhard remarks. “I hope you aren’t trying to spark another reformation.”
He laughs. “No, no, not unless the Lord would have it. Heh, heh.”
He nods his head while Eberhard looks about to see if anyone else heard that.
“I know your friend, Mary, quite well,” John continues, “She was telling me about the situation in your neighborhood. She thinks highly of you, you know. I wanted to ask you whether you needed anything to keep warm while the power is still out, and if you don’t mind it, whether I could pray for you and your effort to keep your home.”
Having not heard a sermon in 30 years or a prayer of any kind for about that long, Eberhard sits silently for a moment.
“I would be happy to do it now,” John says, “but I’d like to come by your home this evening to say a sort of Vespers over your efforts. I have found that being on the spot when praying for help in conflicts like this can be important.”
“Conflicts like this?” Eberhard asks.
John nods. “Even in business deals, the parties involved on paper may not be all of the parties involved.”
Eberhard pauses again. “Uh, yes, come over,” he mutters.
That evening, before John and Mary arrive, Eberhard watches the neighborhood out his back door. Many more dogs than ever before walk or run by, some with their owners, none of them aimlessly wandering. They move with an odd purpose. The German Shepherds look like soldiers, the hounds like they’re tracking. An Irish Setter sits, watching every movement.
“I don’t see any cats out, Herbert.”
“No, they won’t let you either.”
Coventry folds his paper carefully and places it on the desk. Without actual drugs there to be found, the rumours remain rumours. But enough coincidences and possibilities exist to support continued investigation by the more salacious type of media. It is not enough to kill the petition completely, but it does give any councillor who wasn’t against—or could be persuaded not to be against—an accelerated development schedule political cover.
But it might all be unnecessary anyway. Another set of visits to the sites more than confirmed odd behaviour in animals. Plotting their movements should—
The entire room flares bright for a moment. Blinded, he hears a series of small pops from in front of him. His heart pounds and his skin feels much too tight.
Gritting his teeth, he forces his senses back to normal. For a moment, he can see again, but waves of energy threaten to overwhelm him again. He fumbles in a drawer for a map of the city.
Grabbing an eraser, he runs it north to south over the location of the hospital. The sudden increase in spontaneous remissions and sudden recoveries will probably attract the attention of every user within a hundred miles, but the alternative is burning out. Eventually, the power returns to normal levels and he is able to walk out of his office. “Greta. Could you have someone replace the bulbs? There must have been a power surge. I am taking the rest of the afternoon off.”
He continues out the door, ignoring her look of surprise.
Arriving home, he immediately heads for the basement. A concealled door opens onto a lead-lined corridor. It should be in total darkness, but, as he feared, the lead door at the far end is glowing. The bleed his ancestors created, the channel that both gave the powers needed to protect the burial site and drew away its occupant’s power before it could start to recover, has cracked wide open.
Forcing his way closer, he manages to get the door open. The simple lead-lined room beyond is filled with light, but he can still just make out the absence at the heart. Now the door is not muffling it, he can also hear chanting. It has been years since he studied it, but he finally identifies it as part of the Vespers ritual. Someone is praying near the burial site. And it is unravelling the defences. Even in the time it took to identify the chant, the light has grown noticeably brighter.
He runs from the house, not bothering to reseal the passage. That stupid fool Merrin. He must have somehow detected its effects and thought religion would make things better.
If the defences were crumbling this fast, there wasn’t time to repair them. Which left only the final solution. Blood sacrifice.
But not the simple sacrifice that sufficed to strengthen the defences. Only the willing sacrifice of an adept would force it back into slumber.
Bones aching with the strain of shaping the roaring torrent of power, he crossed the city on a wave of suddenly green lights and polite drivers.
But avoiding scouring himself out was the easy part. As his car slewed around the corner towards Merrin’s house, narrowly missing several dogs, he still didn’t know how he would convince Merrin to replace him as guardian, and to perform the sacrifice.
“By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes.”
Eberhard shoots a glare at Herbert, who has never quoted Shakespeare before, but his surprise is tempered by the many remarkable things that have happened over the last few minutes. The house has felt very warm since the reverend walked in, so warm he had turned off the bottled-gas heat before they began praying. There is an electricity in the air that feels on the brink of explosion. The air must be thick with heat, because John’s voice sounds muffled even though he is standing next to him. More than anything of this, he can’t stop hearing dozens of dogs repeating “Olch” and other strange words.
When John finishes his prayer, “… one God, for ever and ever. Amen,” he looks pained. “Dear Lord. Mr. Merrin, something feels very wrong here.”
Mary leaves the room, saying she would open a window.
Eberhard almost gasps. “I agree, but I don’t know what. I have felt… something wrong, something evil nearby for days.”
“God of pity, have mercy on us,” John mutters. “Help us,” Eberhard calls out in reflexive telepathy.
Through an open window, they hear the Irish Setter howling as Mary returns. John begins praying again, and the howling gains more voices.
After a few minutes, they hear tires screeching on the street. The air starts to throb. John’s voice sounds as if it were coming from across a large field, but clearer than a bell ringing from a steeple, Eberhard hears the full-throated howl of a wolf.
“The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” John says.
With the scent of fire, the front door crashes open, and Richard Coventry bursts in. “Stop it!” he shouts, sounding as if he were still outside.
“The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” John recites.
“Shut up, you idiot!”
Eberhard puts his hands to his ears. Every dog in the entire city must be howling and barking, wolves and other animals too, back and forth like chant and counterchant. To him, it sounds as if they were all in his house. In the midst of Coventry yelling, Knox praying, and dogs and wolves crying, he squints up to see Coventry punch Knox under the chin.
A blinding light explodes around them, and an enormous shape runs between them, crashing into the front door on its way out. The cacophonous noise blends into a single howl and finally stops.
After several minutes, Eberhard can see again. Mary, seated in the corner, looks undisturbed. Nearby, John is softly murmuring, “Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries…” He breathes deeply, feeling a chill in the air, and just as John sighs, “Amen,” Herbert’s clear thoughts purr into his mind: “The ancient magic prevails over all others.”
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