It was, as far as I can ascertain, an Uber cab that drew up before the door of The Denizen, not quite in the ancient heart of the City of London. The only passenger jumped out as soon as it had stopped. The boy looked about him with the keenest curiosity during the short interval that elapsed between landing on the pavement and entering the building. In those fleeting moments he’d taken in an overscaled luxury apartment block completed in the contemporary London style; the windows of the building were many but most of the flats were dingy. This bland new building overshadowed neighbouring social housing, as well as a park on the opposite site of Golden Lane.
An evening light shone on the building, but not the park opposite it, which had been plunged into darkness because The Denizen prevented any sun reaching it. The park was muddy and its trees had withered since The Denizen began depriving them of sunlight. The huge shadow cast by The Denizen created an altogether unpleasant impression, tinged with sickness and melancholy, all of which was conveyed to the mind of the boy who was waiting for the concierge to usher him up a relative who owned an apartment in the building. but spent most of the year commuting between Athens and Beijing.
A Cathay Pacific flight had brought the boy from Hong Kong, where, some six months before, he had been left an orphan. Now, owing to the generous offer of his elderly cousin, Ho Chung Tao, he had come to live at The Denizen. The offer was unexpected, because all who knew anything of Ho looked upon him as a somewhat austere recluse, into whose steady-going household the advent of a small boy would import a new and, it seemed, incongruous element. The truth is that very little was known of Ho’s pursuits or temper. A Professor of Religious Studies at School of Oriental and African Studies had been heard to say that no Chinese scholar knew more of the religious beliefs of the later pagans than Ho. Certainly his library contained all the available books bearing on the Mysteries, the Orphic poems, the worship of Mithras, and the Neo–Platonists. In his penthouse living room stood a fine group of Mithras slaying a bull, which had been imported from the Levant at great expense by the owner. He had contributed a description of it to Kaos International Magazine, and he had written a remarkable series of articles in Practical Modern Magic on the superstitions of the Romans of the Lower Empire. He was looked upon as a man wrapped up in his books, and it was a matter of great surprise among his family that he should want to take care of his orphan cousin, Lo Meng. The family was frankly flabbergasted that he should have volunteered to make him an inmate of Taylor Wimpey’s The Denizen.
Whatever may have been expected by his family, it is certain that Ho — the tall, the thin, the austere — seemed inclined to give his young cousin a kindly reception. From the moment the concierge called him, Ho was rubbing his hands with delight.
‘How are you, my boy? — how are you? How old are you?’ said he —‘that is, you are not too much tired, I hope, by your journey to eat your supper?’
‘No, thank you, sir,’ said Meng; ‘I am pretty well.’
‘That’s a good lad,’ said Ho. ‘And how old are you, my boy?’
It seemed a little odd that he should have asked the question twice in the first two minutes of their acquaintance.
‘I’m twelve years old next birthday, sir,’ said Meng.
‘And when is your birthday, my dear boy? Eleventh of September, eh? That’s well — that’s very well. Nearly a year hence, isn’t it? I like — ha, ha! — I like to get these things down in my book. Sure it’s twelve? Certain?’
‘Yes, quite sure, sir.’
‘Well, well! My London assistant Miss Skinner will take you to Kennedy’s pie shop on Whitecross Street and buy you your super. Eat whatever you want, although it is the custom of the locals to dine on pie and mash.’
Janet Skinner was the most comfortable and human person Meng had met since stepping off the plane from Hong Kong. She made him feel completely at home; they were great friends by the time she’d ordered his pie and mash: and great friends they remained. Miss Skinner had been born in the Royal London Hospital some twenty-five years before Meng’s arrival in London, and although she’d been hired by Ho mainly on account of the short skirts and tight fitting tops she sported, she was also businesslike and efficient. She’d grown up in a local Peabody Housing Association flat, so consequently, if anyone knew the ins and outs of the district, Miss Skinner knew them; and she was by no means disinclined to communicate her information.
Certainly there were plenty of things about the area which Meng, who was of an adventurous and inquiring turn, was anxious to have explained to him. ‘Who moved William Blake’s headstone so it no longer stood at the end of his grave in Bunhill Fields? Who was the old man whose picture hung in his room, sitting at a table, with a skull under his hand?’ These and many similar points were cleared up by the resources of Miss Skinner’s powerful intellect. There were others, however, of which the explanations furnished were less satisfactory.
One November evening Stephen was sitting by the electric fire in Miss Skinner’s one bedroom flat in St Mary’s Tower on Fortune Street reflecting on his surroundings.
‘Is Ho a good man, and will he go to heaven?’ he suddenly asked, with the peculiar confidence which children possess in the ability of their elders to settle these questions, the decision of which is believed to be reserved for other tribunals.
‘Good? — bless the child!’ said Miss Skinner. ‘Ho’s as kind a soul as ever I see! Didn’t I tell you of the little boy as he took in off the street, as you may say, six months ago? And the little girl, shortly before that?’
‘No. Do tell me all about them, Miss Skinner — now, this minute!’
‘Well,’ said Miss Skinner, ‘the little girl I can’t remember much about. I know Ho brought her back with him one day, and give orders she should be looked after. She lived with your cousin just three weeks; and then she disappeared. There’s been no track or trace of her since she disappeared. Ho hired a private detective to search for her; but it’s my belief ran off with some gipsies, for there was singing round The Denizen for as much as an hour the night she went, and a friend of mine declared he heard them shouting that they were willing to pay cash for old gold and silver all that afternoon. She was so silent and well behaved too.’
‘And what about the little boy?’ said Meng.
‘Ah, that poor boy!’ sighed Miss Skinner. ‘He was French — Gilles Bertin he called himself — he was sitting on Whitecross Street playing a kazoo and begging for money when Ho came across him. Your cousin asked him where he came from and how old he was, and what had happened to his parents. He said he they’d abandoned him in London because they couldn’t afford to feed him. So Ho took him in. But it went the same way with Gilles as the girl. Shortly after Ho returned from Beijing he disappeared. He ran off one morning just the same as the girl. He left his kazoo and all his clothes behind too! He must have run off in the nude!’
The remainder of the evening was spent by Meng in miscellaneous cross-examination of Miss Skinner. When he was returned his cousin’s luxury apartment, he found the kazoo and tried his hardest to get a pleasant tune from it.
That night Meng had a curious dream. In the basement of The Denizen, there was a private cinema that was never used because most of the flats in the block were empty. It was kept locked, but the upper half of the door was glazed, and you could look in and see the cinema screen and bean bags scattered about on the floor.
On the night of which I am speaking, Meng found himself, as he thought, looking through the glazed door. The lights had been turned on in the cinema, and he was gazing at a figure which lay sprawled over a bean bag.
His description of what he saw reminds me of what I once beheld myself in the famous vaults of the round Templar Church near Fleet Street, which possesses the horrid property of preserving corpses from decay for centuries. A figure inexpressibly thin and pathetic, of a dusty leaden colour, enveloped in a shroud-like garment, the thin lips crooked into a faint and dreadful smile, the hands pressed tightly over the region of the heart.
As he looked upon it, a distant, almost inaudible moan seemed to issue from its lips, and the arms began to stir. The terror of the sight forced Meng backwards and he awoke to the fact that he was indeed standing on the cold floor of the passage that led to the cinema. With a courage which I do not think can be common among boys of his age, he went to the door of the cinema to ascertain if the figure of his dreams were really there. It was not, so he took the lift to the penthouse suites and went back to bed.
Miss Skinner was much impressed next morning by his story. Ho, moreover, to whom he confided his experiences at breakfast, was greatly interested and made notes of the matter in what he called ‘his book’.
The spring equinox was approaching, as Ho frequently reminded his cousin, adding that this had been always considered by the ancients to be a critical time for the young: that Meng would do well to take care of himself, and to shut his bedroom window at night; and that Censorinus had some valuable remarks on the subject. Two incidents that occurred about this time made an impression upon Meng’s mind.
The first was after an unusually uneasy and oppressed night that he had passed — though he could not recall any particular dream that he had had.
The following evening Miss Skinner was occupying herself in mending his pyjamas.
‘Gracious me, Meng!’ she spat irritably, ‘how do you manage to tear your pyjams all to flinders this way? What trouble you give me having to darn and mend them!’
There was indeed a most destructive and apparently wanton series of slits or scorings in the garments, which would undoubtedly require a skillful needle to make good. They were confined to the left side of the chest — long, parallel slits about six inches in length, some of them not quite piercing the texture of the cotton. Meng could only express his entire ignorance of their origin: he was sure they were not there the night before.
‘But,’ he said, ‘Miss Skinner, they are just the same as the scratches on the outside of my bedroom door: and I’m sure I never had anything to do with making them.’
Miss Skinner gazed at him open-mouthed, then went to check his bedroom door.
‘Well,’ she said, ‘Meng, it’s a funny thing but for all the world those scratches look like they were made by a man with long finger-nails. Don’t say anything to Ho when he comes back from Athens, Meng; and just turn the key of the door when you go to your bed.’
‘I always do, Miss Skinner, as soon as I’ve said my prayers.’
‘Ah, that’s a good child: always say your prayers, and then no one can hurt you.’
Miss Skinner then addressed herself to mending the injured nightwear, with intervals of meditation, until bed-time. This was on a Friday night in March.
On the following evening the usual duet of Meng and Miss Skinner was augmented by the sudden arrival of the concierge, who as a rule kept himself rather to himself downstairs in the lobby – since he didn’t want anyone to tell his wife he was having a fling with Miss Skinner. Once Meng went to sleep they’d fuck for hours in an empty Denizen flat, and sometimes even at Miss Skinner’s pad. The concierge did not see that Meng was there: he was, moreover, flustered.
‘A ghost flat investor is coming to London for a three day shopping spree and wants to use the private cinema,’ was his first remark. ‘I don’t like it, not at all, Janet. I don’t know what it may be: very likely it’s rats, or the wind got into the basement; but I’m not so young as I was, and I can’t go through with it as I have done. I’m not going down there to the cinema or the games room on my own.’
‘Rats in the basement! How disgusting!’ Miss Skinner said.
‘Many a time I’ve heard tales about the rats that could talk. I never gave it credence before but tonight, if I’d demeaned myself to lay my ear to the door of the cinema, I could pretty much have heard what they was saying.’
‘I’ve no patience with your fancies! Rats talking in the cinema indeed! Next you’ll be telling me they stood on their hind legs when someone played God Save The Queen!’ Janet snorted.
‘I’ve no wish to argue with you: all I say is, if you choose to go down to the cinema, and lay your ear to the door, you may prove my words this minute.’
‘What nonsense you do talk — not fit for children to listen to! Why, you’ll be frightening Meng out of his wits.’
‘What! Meng?’ said the concierge, awaking to consciousness of the boy’s presence. ‘Meng knows well enough when I’m playing a joke on you, Janet.’
In fact, Meng knew much too well to suppose that the concierge had in the first instance intended a joke. He was interested, not altogether pleasantly, in the situation; but all his questions were unsuccessful in inducing the concierge to give any more detailed account of his experiences in the cinema.
* * * * *
We have now arrived at March 24. It was a day of curious experiences for Meng: a windy, noisy day, which filled The Denizen and Fortune Street Park with a restless impression. As Meng stood by the fence and looked into the park, he felt as if an endless procession of unseen people were sweeping past him on the wind, borne effortlessly and aimlessly, vainly striving to stop themselves, to catch at something that might arrest their flight and bring them once again into contact with the living world of which they had formed a part. After lunch that day Ho said:
‘Meng, my boy, do you think you could manage to come to me tonight as late as eleven o’clock in my study? I shall be busy until that time, and I wish to show you something connected with your future life which it is most important that you should know. You are not to mention this matter to Miss Skinner nor to anyone else; and you had better go to your room at the usual time.’
Here was a new excitement added to life: Meng eagerly grasped at the opportunity of sitting up till eleven o’clock. Before retiring he looked in at the third bedroom which Ho used as a study, and saw a brazier had been placed in the room; an old silver-gilt cup stood on Ho’s desk, filled with red wine, and some written sheets of paper lay near it. Ho was sprinkling some incense on the brazier from a round silver box as Meng looked in, but did not seem to notice he was being spied on.
The wind had fallen, and there was a still night and a full moon. At about ten o’clock Meng was standing at the open window of his bedroom, looking out over Fortune Street Park and towards the East End. Still as the night was, the mysterious population of the distant moon-lit cityscape was not yet lulled to rest. From time to time strange cries as of lost and despairing wanderers sounded from across the rooftops. They might be the notes of owls or water-birds, yet they did not quite resemble either sound. They were getting closer. Now they sounded from the nearer side of the park, and in a few moments they seemed to be floating about among the shrubberies on its western edge. Then they ceased; but just as Meng was thinking of shutting the window and resuming his reading of Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils by Jin Yong, he caught sight of two figures standing on the path that ran through Fortune Street Park to Whitecross Street — the figures of a boy and girl, as it seemed; they stood side by side, looking up at the windows of The Denizen. Something in the form of the girl recalled irresistibly his dream of the figure in the cinema. The boy inspired him with more acute fear.
Whilst the girl stood still, half smiling, with her hands clasped over her heart, the boy, a thin shape, with black hair and ragged clothing, raised his arms in the air with an appearance of menace, unappeasable hunger and longing. The moon shone upon his almost transparent hands and Meng saw that the nails were fearfully long and that the light shone through them. As he stood with his arms thus raised, he disclosed a terrifying spectacle. On the left side of his chest there opened a black and gaping rent; and there fell upon Meng’s brain, rather than upon his ear, the impression of one of those hungry and desolate cries that he had heard resounding over the rooftops of EC1 all that evening. In another moment this dreadful pair had moved swiftly and noiselessly over the dry tarmac, and he saw them no more.
Inexpressibly frightened as he was, he determined to go down to Ho’s study, for the hour appointed for their meeting was near at hand. Meng, urged on by his terrors, did not take long in getting there. To effect an entrance was not so easy. It was not locked, he felt sure, for the key was on the outside of the door as usual. His repeated knocks produced no answer. Ho was engaged: he was speaking. What! Why did he try to cry out? And why was the cry choked in his throat? Had he too seen the mysterious children? But now everything was quiet, and the door yielded to Meng’s terrified and frantic pushing.
* * * * *
On the table in Ho’s study certain papers were found which explained the situation to Meng when he was of an age to understand them. The most important sentences were as follows:
‘It was a belief very strongly and generally held by the ancients — of whose wisdom in these matters I have had such experience as induces me to place confidence in their assertions — that by enacting certain processes, which to us moderns have something of a barbaric complexion, a very remarkable enlightenment of the spiritual faculties in man may be attained: that, for example, by absorbing the personalities of a certain number of his fellow-creatures, an individual may gain a complete ascendancy over those orders of spiritual beings which control the elemental forces of our universe.
‘It is recorded of Simon Magus that he was able to fly in the air, to become invisible, or to assume any form he pleased, by the agency of the soul of a boy whom, to use the libellous phrase employed by the author of the Clementine Recognitions, he had “murdered”. I find it set down, moreover, with considerable detail in the writings of Hermes Trismegistus, that similar happy results may be produced by the absorption of the hearts of not less than three human beings below the age of twenty-one years. This should be done above a place of death. A graveyard is powerful but not as powerful as a plague pit, and The Denizen is built above a plague pit. To the testing of the truth of this receipt I have devoted the greater part of the last twenty years, selecting as the corpora vilia of my experiment such persons as could conveniently be removed without occasioning a sensible gap in society. The first step I effected by the removal of one the Phoebe Stanley on March 24, 2020. The second, by the removal of a wandering French lad, named Gilles Bertin, on the night of August 23, 2020. The final “victim”— to employ a word repugnant in the highest degree to my feelings — must be my cousin, Lo Meng. His day must be this March 24, 2021.
‘The best means of effecting the required absorption is to remove the heart from the living subject, to reduce it to ashes, and to mingle them with about a pint of some red wine, preferably port. The remains of the first two subjects, at least, it will be well to conceal: a disused cinema will be found convenient for such a purpose. Some annoyance may be experienced from the psychic portion of the subjects, which popular language dignifies with the name of ghosts. But the man of philosophic temperament — to whom alone the experiment is appropriate — will be little prone to attach importance to the feeble efforts of these beings to wreak their vengeance on him. I contemplate with the liveliest satisfaction the enlarged and emancipated existence which the experiment, if successful, will confer on me; not only placing me beyond the reach of human justice (so-called), but eliminating to a great extent the prospect of death itself.’
* * * * *
Ho was found in his chair, his head thrown back, his face stamped with an expression of rage, fright, and mortal pain. In his left side was a terrible lacerated wound, exposing the heart. There was no blood on his hands, and a long knife that lay on the table was perfectly clean. A savage wild-cat might have inflicted the injuries. The window of the study was open, and it was the opinion of the coroner that Ho had met his death by the agency of some wild creature. But Meng’s study of the papers I have quoted led him to a very different conclusion.