The morning was not yet worn away to noon when Dr Hwangbo approached the mansion. It stood in one of those wide, deeply still streets in the west of the Grange. There was, as there is in many of these structures, something wry to the building’s Victoriana. The mansion presented an immense portico, bay windows huge enough for an elephant to gambol through, and an Italianate tower with rooftops wrapped around its first floor like furs. And then, just as the perfection was rolling without pause, a voice seemed to chuckle, and you would realise that this mansion was actually semi-detached. Next, the mansion is a villa and all of its grandeur is on a suddenly gnomic scale.
The front door opened in Dr Hwangbo’s hands. Without a sound, but as unstoppably as pouring sand, he entered. In the living room, he decided swiftly upon a suitable venue. Overhead, he could hear a door swallowing and then brief pacing in a corridor. From this distance, the movements sounded as simplistic and aimless as the totterings of a toddler.
Dropping to his knees, the doctor set to work.
Money had been evidently spent on this house’s interior, with a carefree hand, but the consequent effect was many centigrade below homely. These were rooms which had been furnished to be glanced at and to not let the eye down. They resembled the antechambers of an expensive Harley Street practice, a calming but ultimately feeble simulacrum of normality.
Dr Hwangbo’s writing hand had sprouted a charcoal wand. Plunging in, without a shiver of hesitation, he began to score a line into the cream carpet.
Archibald Corpusty was finally coming down the stairs. He crashed jauntily and the house seemed to rock around him. He was singing a song as fresh as a dewy rose: “None of the guys go steady cause it wouldn’t be right/ To leave their best girl home now on Saturday night.” He was freshly dressed in a black tunic, beetle black and beetle hard and beetle shiny. The design might have been arcane or, alternatively, in some squeaky-tight sphere, fashionable. He walked into his living room and stopped, genuinely surprised and amused.
Dr Hwangbo was waiting to greet Corpusty and meet his eye. He was standing dead in the centre of a thickly inscribed pentangle. Corpusty took in the lines that were sliced into his carpet and the doctor observed with interest that he did not bother to register the exact pattern of the device. Dr Hwangbo could imagine what the anger of this powerful man would look like, but he could see now that his own actions had appealed, if but for a moment, to an original boyish or waggish setting in Corpusty’s character.
“You must have something big to say,” Corpusty reflected. “Otherwise I would destroy you as soon as you took a step out of that… drawing? You cannot hide from me in hopscotch pal. I could destroy you any time… in your sleep, all the way back to China.”
“You’ve made an estimation of my powers but you do not know them for certain. I would not wish for you to injure yourself in a futile display of…”
The merriment was wiped from Corpusty’s face as quickly as a shark turns in its roamings. “I wouldn’t mess up my house doing that. And I do hope that your powers extend to being able to shampoo my carpet.”
Dr Hwangbo had no answer to this and Corpusty flickered again with irritation. Someone who had been always a name to Corpusty had become, in the last minute, a man of flesh and sinew in front of him. The doctor was a stout middle-aged gentleman, as grey in the face as a washed out pebble, and yet with an indelicacy in his wardrobe that had sparked a tiny crisis, a minor violation of the universe’s peace. The doctor’s face almost had to be found, as it peeked out of an alarming combination of pastel-orange slacks and a pastel-mauve sweater with pie-lattice cabling. Dr Hwangbo otherwise had the wisdom of an ancient bouncer, with the same infinite dignity and smiling inscrutability. He smiled now, but everything apart from this smile was hard and blank, as if he was sheer exoskeleton.
And then the doorbell chimed.
Corpusty and Dr Hwangbo appeared to come to, rather like actors who have been interrupted in the middle of a decisive scene by a shout of fire.
“This is not me,” Dr Hwangbo acknowledged, a touch ruefully. “Nobody knows that I am in Edinburgh.”
From his pentangle, he had no view of the front door.
Corpusty snorted and smiled fiercely, partly with relief. “I’ll deal with it.” He bent his face towards the door, treading so heavily that the house around him seemed to crash like cymbals.
The door opened up to an alert face, a blank face, the face of a tall, middle-aged woman with a beaked nose. She was not a stranger, Corpusty comprehended, but neither was her name leaping to his lips. His eyes fell dully to the knife in her hand and its kitchen ordinariness and then there was a horrible jolt, a blast on the lorry’s horn, and Corpusty tumbled back, as if to wrench himself from being sucked into a vortex. It was too late – he waved his bare arms uselessly, as men wave umbrellas at wasps – and there was a clear moment when he was standing squarely in front of the lady and she stabbed him once in the belly, and then again, and then again.
It was as if they were children who were following a playground game and they grunted together in time to the rhythm of the stabbing. Then the lady stepped back, with the knife poised redundant in her hand, before she turned and flung it into the flowers of the front garden. The knife slithered in lavender and she ran energetically.
Corpusty was bathed in ice. His wounds were cheeping like baby birds in a nest, brilliantly clear points of sensation. He sat on the floor and waited, relaxed and absent-minded. Why was she running… she was running from him… from a procedure that he was expected to perform? His mind felt crystalline and strangely weightless, but, when he tried, he was unable to think about anything in particular. Every available detail was just out of its immediate reach.
He had at last stopped concentrating and he was whispering to himself under his breath, hissing the words steadily until, beneath the swooping blackness, the whole world was reduced to his steady instructions.
In the living room, Dr Hwangbo had made the calculation that it would be to his advantage on this occasion to side with Corpusty. He had his phone in his hand and he was dialling 999.
He listed the full address from memory. “My colleague has been stabbed. Yes. No, I don’t know the attacker. She might be insane.”
He bundled his phone back into the pocket of his slacks as the room shook to an unearthly muffled cough. For a distinct second, Dr Hwangbo listened to the sounds of a vast sliding and then plaster was pouring and pattering all around him like loose soil.
He whipped back his left hand sharply – unconsciously, with arms outstretched, his hand must have strayed over the borders of the pentangle. A brick had wrapped him on the knuckles.
Wondrously, a patch of blue sky had opened up above him, as clear as an angel’s voice. Then the doctor perceived the tree trunk through the dust. An elm tree in the neighbouring garden had come down on the living room like the stroke of an axe, down on to the exact spot where the doctor had positioned himself. Its force had been deflected by the pentangle.
Dr Hwangbo next heard the seagulls scraping together in the air outside. They were cackling bitterly. He knew what was coming, but he was still impressed by the rapidity with which they dived down, like genuine birds of prey, through the hole in the brickwork and into the living room.
He was now newly aware of how tiny his pentangle actually was. The seagulls flung themselves around it, repelled, but churning voluminously. There were more and more of them, more than Dr Hwangbo could begin to count. There were more blades flashing in the air than in an old world fight at the docks. The last pictures were brushed from the walls and a bookcase shuddered so violently that it fell on its face. Dr Hwangbo did not react. He looked upon these birds with such immense love, with such divine pity for their pettiness, that they became sparrows fluttering vainly against a headwind.
I can stand here for the whole of time, Dr Hwangbo thought to himself. The seagulls had now completely enclosed the pentangle, like hands around a snow globe. Yet the doctor at once distinguished the sounds of the ambulance drawing up outside the front door. It was squealing manically, nosing as impatiently as a terrier. To Dr Hwangbo’s annoyance, the birds lifted like a single sheet of linen in response, emptying back through the gap from whence they came. Unwisely, in trying to be helpful, he had summoned the paramedics to their almost certain deaths.
He duly heard roaring and baying outside. He next heard the siren of the ambulance again, but it was drowning within the baying of the seagulls. More sirens, perhaps those of police cars, stopped and started in disjointed bumps. Finally, the baying drained away, as if forever down a plughole, to leave an astonished silence.
Were the birds really gone for good? If Dr Hwangbo left the protection of the pentangle, then he could not enter it again. The whole device would have to be redrawn from scratch.
Had Dr Hwangbo possessed any talent for irony, he would have smiled over how the slivers of carpet contained within the pentangle were, contrary to Corpusty’s previous domestic displeasure, now the only clean surface in this devastated room. Dust rippled on the air like the texture of an enormous flag; the gulls had left a greasy, faintly sulphurous odour behind them.
The doctor waited, listening to the inscrutable silence of the neighbourhood. Eventually the street was back to itself again: he could hear exclamations outside and a dog barking. The threat from the gulls must be deactivated. Dr Hwangbo stepped firmly outside of his pentangle and left the living room. The door of the wrecked room opened on to a kitchen which was contrastingly spotless, as though Dr Hwangbo had passed between two rooms in entirely different houses. Quite characteristically, he did not reflect upon the strangeness of this.
He ventured up the stairs and inspected each room in turn. As with those below, the upstairs quarters were innocuous exhibitions of furnished interiors. Behind the simulacrum, they were as featureless as the rooms of a rabbit’s hole.
Dr Hwangbo knew that Corpusty was a careless man, who would not keep a library or even much by way of records of his affairs. Nevertheless, the doctor had soon located what he wanted. The dressing table in the bedroom was largely devoid of personal effects, with only aftershave and a razor, but there was a lone newspaper cutting affixed ceremoniously, with a crust of chewing gum, to the mirror. Its headline: “Children Killed in Devastating Pentlands Fire.” The article detailed how the children’s grandmother, Beatrix Barton, was suspected of arson and still wanted by the police.
Corpusty had left his phone on the bedside table for Dr Hwangbo to pick up. For a while, he was fazed by its unfamiliarity, but then he had dabbed and wiped and there was a Beatrix gleaming amongst the contacts.
He phoned and the phone rang and rang. No, it appeared that nobody was going to answer.
He returned to the article. A woman named Ellen Stewart was suspected of being in the cottage on the night of the fire; she had been detained by the police.
Corpusty’s phone also contained an Ellen. This time, the doctor’s call was answered on the dot.
“Ellen Stewart?” Dr Hwangbo was trying to sound genial, but so forced was the attempt that his voice had become disconcertingly shrill and energised. “You are a friend of Barton Beatrix?”
“Beatrix Barton.” The lady sounded keenly alert. “I imagine that you have some news for me?”
“I’m sorry but your friend is, I think, dead. She tried to assassinate a very powerful man this morning. You are also in very big danger. You should leave Edinburgh immediately.”
Without anything further to suggest, Dr Hwangbo hung up. He resumed his inspection of Corpusty’s rooms, logging each of the numbers on Corpusty’s phone and auditing the contents of each drawer and cupboard, wistfully tapping for hidden compartments but not disturbing those places which had signs of being protected.
If you have ever resided within a seriously wounded body, then you will be aware of how its energy ranges about. It will sink down into apparent exhaustion, shivering as oblivion steals over it, only to then dredge up some spare vitality from somewhere an hour later, as though it has randomly found and cannibalised a shelf of fat. It was thus with Corpusty. After an hour or so of immobility, he awoke, groggy but determined to act. He managed to manoeuvre himself down from his gurney and totter through the doors of the crashed ambulance. It was so bright outside that the air seemed to bellow all around him with laughter like a studio audience.
The two paramedics had parked the ambulance at the side of the road as they had died. Seagulls had shattered the windscreen with their beaks and then set upon the men, pecking their faces and bodies until, like Humpty Dumpty, they could be never put back together again. A third paramedic, who had tried to bolt out of the back doors, had perished with a similar promptitude.
Two hundred feet back down the road, outside Corpusty’s own house, lay the remains of two police officers who had attempted to beat away the seagulls with their truncheons. The outlines of their soggy uniforms could be discerned lying in the ruins of their bodies, but little else.
Corpusty staggered towards the main road, his feet gobbling for life. He had soon built up a steady rhythm. The next minute he flinched as a police car, as shiny and garishly coloured as a toy just out of its packaging, trundled past him. A policewoman’s bored face rotated in his direction and her eyes widened. The window lowered.
A small “what?” emanated gruffly from Corpusty.
“It’s cold to be out. You should be wearing a coat, or at least a cardigan.”
Corpusty stopped and blinked at the policewoman in disbelief.
The car had not even slowed down, and the policewoman called wildly back at him as it trundled on its way. “The next time we’ll give you a warning, mind.”
As fortune dictated, Corpusty would meet a taxi at the main road. He flagged it down and collapsed inside. “The hospital!” he snarled at the driver.
“Little France or Western General?”
“Whichever’s the best!”
If he had been watching Corpusty on television, this driver would have understood instantly that his passenger had been stabbed multiple times. In real life, however, something in Corpusty’s manner deterred the driver from pursuing inquiries.
At Little France, the driver received a handsome reward. Corpusty marched into the Accident and Emergency unit, snorting impetuously at the efforts to detain and process him. “I’ve been stabbed!” he barked. “Can’t you get it, you clowns?”
Running for her life, Beatrix Barton tingled with glee, an incongruous, clearly inappropriate feeling which had survived, unsquashable, from ancient childhood escapades. Perhaps it is like this for fleeing dictators: whilst the lynch mob is still a few streets away, it seems only like a game of tag and your feet are dancing.
She had made it past the Argyle Bar and she was just in sight of the Meadows, when she was dazzled by the impossible fantasy that she might have got away. It had been maddening and she was amazed by her own ineffectiveness. She knew that she should have stabbed Corpusty in the neck and pierced a vital canal. But somehow she had been dissuaded, even frightened, by the frankness in his face, and this had battered down her blows to lower down his body, to a mud of flesh in which no killer stroke was possible. She had made no plans for afterwards, either to escape from the police or from Corpusty’s vengeance.
As soon as she had crossed Melville Drive, a small dog, a West Highland terrier, scampered straight up to her feet. It bounded two times its own height to seize her right hand in its jaw. Its teeth sank in and held tight, in a crunch which was wet and jawy and then distinctly painful.
Its owner, a woman flouncing in a shawl and silken scarves, ran after it, appalled. “Kitty! Kitty! I’m sorry – I don’t know what she’s doing – she’s never done anything like this before!” Quivering and growling to herself under her breath, the woman knelt at Beatrix’s feet and tried to prise the dog’s jaws back open. The creature’s biscuit of a body did not move; its jaws stayed shut.
The realisation came to Beatrix like a scrap of verse. Her jaws won’t open until I am dead.
She studied the Meadows with a sailor’s eye. Dogs were now running at her from all directions, whilst their indignant owners slowly gathered behind them, forming into a shape as clean as a single dog’s shadow. The owners followed their dogs with a trail of pattering, querulous threats. Many of the owners were doing this thing in which they repeat their instructions ever more loudly and precisely, as if their dogs will magically click at the correct formula and understand English.
The dogs met under the open sky of the Meadows and formed a thick arrowhead which sharpened and bore down upon its waiting target.
Oh, the indignity, Beatrix thought. Their yaps sounded so harmless.
“Baby Berry, stop! You bad boy! You bad, bad boy!”
“I’m so sorry… oh the poor lady… please do something!”
“Cheesy, what are you doing? Heel! Heel!”
“Somebody do something – try to get them off her!”
“Wee ginger dug!”
“It must be something in her clothes – attracting them.”
“Stop filming. Put your phones away and do something!”
Scores of bystanders were standing frozen, like enchanted statues, with dead eyes and their phones raised before them.
“Mocha! Mocha!” The little dog had padded out of the scrum and its owner stepped automatically back from it. Beneath the pleading, idiot-bright eyes, there was a chunk of human flesh hanging from the dog’s jaws. “Drop Mocha! Drop!”
Hitherto adored Chihuahuas were now writhing, blood-begrimed gremlins. The spell of their cuteness was over forever – the owners could not look at them, or approach them, or even comprehend the mountains of treachery which were contained within their weightless miniature bodies. Some owners turned and zigzagged away in despair, fearing to turn back else, like Lot’s wife before the annihilated city, the vision of their cursed dogs might transform them into pillars of salt.
Each dog is now taut and curling and attached to its chosen place like a maggot. A prone human body is just distinguishable beneath them all, static with shock. There are few large dogs in this melee but finally a friendly Pit Bull darts daintily in to administer the coup de grâce. The throat is torn – the body freezes and then never unfreezes again. Mrs Barton is away.