That miraculous note folded up and tucked carefully away in one of his jacket pockets, and the gruesome zombie heart he'd harvested from one of the fallen Mountain Men he prayed to God not leaking through the Witchdoctor's sack an uncomfortable weight in another, Lyfantod set out from The Weird Sisters to find a phone booth. Barrows School was close enough that he could taste it, and he relished the pain he knew it would cause Moira McMorran to tell him how to get there.
His imagination ran wild with possibilities. Would he arrive on an old steam engine after a few dreamy hours spent staring out at the Scottish countryside? Was the the school hidden somewhere in the city, right under his nose? He had theories that it might be hidden under the castle; in Holyrood; or under Duddingston Loch. Perhaps the entrance was in one of the old closed railway tunnels. Or maybe the school was buried beneath Waverley Station, accessible only through some maintenance door that went miraculously unnoticed by all but those who were supposed to know it was there. He'd even considered the possibility that it was on one of the small islands scattered about Firth of Forth. The possibilities were nearly endless, which was entirely the problem. But as soon as he got old Moira on the phone, he'd know the truth. And once he did... well let's just say he had contingencies in case of memory charms. Only the knowledge that it would make him look like a loon kept him from rubbing his hands together in exultation. As ever, he would find that things would not go as he expected.
It was by now seven in the morning, and the city had fully awoken. Lyfantod, in that half-musing, half-manic state of might that can only be achieved through deprivation of sleep and too much excitement—or the right narcotics—observed the people about him only just starting their day. Professional men and women in pressed suits clutching coffee cups for dear life and pressing on to work. Cyclists, zipping through traffic in too-tight pants and peculiar, wedge-shaped sunglasses that shone back in a spectrum of colors, puffing clouds of steam like antique locomotives. Motorists, windows up, insulated from the cold and most of reality, radios and heaters turned to full blast, tapping their steering wheels and honking their horns in restless agitation. Tourists, bright-eyed with excitement, breathing new life into sights which for many had become the mundane backdrop of daily life. Business as usual.
It was hard to believe amid all this normalcy that people were dying. Almost possible for Lyfantod to forget that not far behind him the Daughters of Hecate were struggling with loss. That the Mountain Men, the Nightshade Gang, the Thorne were even now plotting bloody retribution. That Aminus Bones was lurking, and undead fiends lay in wait—biding their time until the moment came to kill again, till whatever violent climax he was building to finally arrived. That Lyfantod himself would almost certainly regret at that particular moment being noticed by the police, for he was not sure how they would take it when he told them that the human heart in his pocket had belonged to a monster, and was merely payment for services rendered.
But of course, that has always the way of things hasn't it? People go about their lives, blissfully unaware of the secret wars being fought beneath their very noses, the wonders hidden in the most unlikely of places. It was a truth seemed preposterous to him now more than ever. In this age of smart phones and viral videos, how is it that the secret fails to get out?
Lyfantod himself had learned that there was more to the world than there appeared, and certainly more than he'd been told, at the ripe age of thirteen. He and two of his mates had found truth in the an unlikely place: a hardbound history of magic in the British Isles from a dusty shelf at a tottery old bookshop in his home town. That book had sparked an adventure that had entirely altered the course of Lyfantod's life, and left him, in the end, with a thirst for the unknown that could not be quenched. He had seen his share of secret wars and hidden wonders, and the longer he lived, the stronger his feeling became that there were mysteries to be found almost everywhere, each one only hinting at more, buried deeper, waiting, as it were, for the right person to uncover them. If he uncovered them all he still might never be satisfied.
These thoughts and more running rampant through his head, mingling with fanciful images: of a twinkling starlit castle on a cliff; stony, soot-stained walls and floating candles; shelves of priceless books, forgotten in dusky corners, Lyfantod distractedly traversed the city's touristy core. He passed a bagpiper warming up on a street corner, a box for donations wedged snugly into the snowfall before him. He was barrel-chested, dressed in a kilt and a ceremonial black jacket with gold buttons, high socks and a tall, woolly black hat. Lyfantod paused only to wonder idly if the man’s knees were cold.
Plodding along through the crumbly powder, dodging inattentively through the crowd, Lyfantod was brought up short by a peculiar sensation. It began in his nose and ended in his belly. He found that he had stopped before a coffee shop, wafting like siren song from whose open door was the smell of freshly baked bread. It smelled of home. Of motherly love, and the laying down of burdens to rest. Lyfantod discovered quite unexpectedly that he was ravenous.
He put a hand to his breast, groping to feel the note through layers of fabric. Go now, or stop for breakfast? Behind him, an elderly man with a piping voice in a drooping tan cardigan begged his pardon—he was standing in the doorway. “Excuse me." Lyfantod stepped hurriedly out of the entry.
“Not at all,” said the old man, entering the shop and paying the vacillating detective no further mind.
“To hell with it,” Lyfantod announced to no one at all, “I’m no use hungry anyway.” Inside, the display case was full of things that looked quite possibly as delicious as they smelled. There were flaky golden croissants, chelsea rolls dripping with icing, chocolate and blueberry scones. Seven different kinds of cake, and donuts—glazed, chocolate, with sprinkles and without, and strawberry crullers. There were apple crumbles and bear claws, and three shelves dedicated just to bread. Wheat loaves and oat buns; rolls topped with bacon and cheese; twelve-grain and sourdough; plaits and—
A prodigious throat was pointedly cleared. “Excuse me sir.”
“Hmm? Oh. Sorry.” Lyfantod turned to find a family standing behind him. Large, red-faced, mustachioed father—owner of the throat; spindly hawkish wife, eyes awash with disapproval; and doughy, flaxen-haired son, entirely uninterested in anything that had not been fried and drowned in sugar. On holiday, no doubt.
“Are you planning to order? Today?”
“You go ahead." Lyfantod waved them on, turning a deaf ear to the man’s provocative tone and stepped out of the way for a second time.
The beefy patriarch eyed him up and down, nodded curtly, and they skirted round as one would a street person that smelled of urine. Lyfantod took a deep breath, let it out in a slow huff. He was afraid he was getting a little scatterbrained. What with the excitement and the worry of the past several days, his injuries, and his lack of sleep, he supposed it was no wonder.
His eyes drifted back toward the bounty of food and he blinked at the discovery of the not-so-little blond boy gazing back at him wide-eyed over a round, ham hock shoulder, trying and failing to be unobtrusive. Lyfantod looked down at himself and considered somewhat belatedly what he must look like.
His warped reflection was faintly visible in the polished glass of the display case. There was blood on his clothes—more than a little, in fact. Some of it was his. Much of it not. His shirt bore three raking claw marks down the front. The bandages on his neck had gone a dingy brown, and there was long orange stubble all over his face. His ginger-red hair, usually combed neatly back over his head, stuck out in half a dozen directions, and there were bags under his eyes that looked like dried-up jellyfish.
It was at that moment that he also realized that he was standing in a coffee shop holding an empty cup from somewhere else—though to be fair he hadn't bought it. Bloody hell. He walked to the nearest bin and threw away the cup. Then he went into the shop’s dingy little toilet to try and do something about his appearance.
Bending over the chipped porcelain sink, he ran splashed cold water over his face. With the water on his hands he attempted to tame his unruly hair, and dabbed ineffectually at the bloodstains before quickly giving up. Until he could get home and find a change of clothes, clean hands and face, pink with cold, and unmitigated disaster everywhere else would simply have to do. The years he'd spent as a vagrant, or near enough as to make no difference, came back to him in a rush. You've looked worse, he reminded himself, though never quite this old.
Thus laundered, he went back out and ordered another cup of coffee and a guiltless sticky bun, for the consumption of which he acquired a plastic fork and knife so as not to render his recent ablutions meaningless. He sat himself down at a little table by the window and savored the caffeine and sugar as they flowed warmly into his bloodstream. This and twenty or so hours of sleep and he'd be almost back to normal.
When he set down his plastic silverware, his wristwatch informed him that it was a little after eight. Outside, it had begun to snow again, the sky one of the many shades of gloom, and the early morning traffic had slowed to a near halt. The impatience was almost palpable. Those unlucky enough to be going about the old fashioned way—which is to say, propelled by nothing more than their own feet—gathered their vestments around them and kept their heads down, every gesture communicating a powerful eagerness to be indoors.
Inside the coffee shop it was warm, and Lyfantod was loath to abandon it for the biting air of early January, but it was necessary if he was going to get where he was going. Barrows School will be plenty warm, he reminded himself, though he could not really be sure of even that. Besides the name of the School and the phone number, he really was entirely in the dark. That was the wonder of the place. Anything wrapped in such absolute mystery could not help but be enticing. The same thing that made Lyfantod a good detective also put him in mortal danger more than anything else: the fact that a lack of knowledge about a thing was as sure to draw him as a moth was sure to be drawn to flame. He returned his plate and his mug, wrapped his coat tighter, and wishing for a scarf, set off once more in search of a telephone box. At some point during his breakfast, a wise soul had decided to shut the door. The bell above the threshold jingled as he left.
Lyfantod consulted his map. He was somewhere near Grassmarket. The nearest box he had marked was a manageable walk, halfway between the University and Holyrood. He had gone no more than a minute or two when he heard the shouting and laughing of teenage boys from around a distant corner. There was a metallic clang, followed by more laughing.
This in itself was not enough to rouse his admittedly robust curiosity, but his path took him past the mouth of alley where they were huddled together, puffy in their winter jackets, sniggering next to a heavy metal bin with the lid down, and the noise was sufficient at least to turn his head. There were three of them, and one was holding a splintered length of two-by-four. As Lyfantod watched, he swung and hit the bin with it, eliciting more laughter and cries of approval. Something howled in terror from inside the bin.
Lyfantod shook his head. He didn’t have time for this.
“Oi!” he shouted, tromping toward the little band of miscreants, putting on what he thought of as his air of authority. Apparently he hadn’t done a very good job of cleaning himself up, because they took one look at him and fled screaming. The expressions on their faces would have been more appropriate if he'd been floating and semi-transparent. Lyfantod pursued them for a few feet making threatening noises, but the gesture was entirely unnecessary. By the time the board settled where they'd dropped it, the boys had long vanished around a distant corner.
Lyfantod turned toward the bin and began to lift the cover. He’d gotten it open no more than a couple of inches when a black blur shot out and over him, leaving a trail of tiny claw-shaped holes up the shoulder of his coat. He fell back with a cry of surprise as the cat used him as a launching pad and scrambled headlong down the alley. It stumbled on the landing. One of its forepaws looked to be injured, and in the short time it took for it to reach the nearest corner, Lyfantod realized that he knew that black ball of fur.
“Peter!” Lyfantod righted himself and took off after the frightened, injured animal. It was Madam Humphrey’s cat. Perhaps she's right to be so paranoid about his wellbeing. He would not have gone after the cat in most situations, but Peter was practically family. Lyfantod had acted truant officer for the creature more times than he could count. Even if it hadn't occurred to him that Madam Humphrey might turn him into something unnatural for abandoning her pet, he’d have tried to help. My kingdom for a can of sardines.
“Peter! Peter, it’s me!” He trailed after the creature, who managed to keep well out of reach despite his injury. Once or twice the cat had looked back to regard his would-be rescuer with round green eyes before vanishing round a corner. Letting me keep up without getting close enough to catch him. Just like a cat.
Peter’s path took Lyfantod in the opposite direction that he wanted to go: away from the phone booth and toward the park. If Peter gets into that tall grass, I'll would never find him.
The park was less than a block away when Lyfantod decided to take a chance. He reached into his pocket and palmed a couple of coins. Peter was hobbling along at a good pace ten yards or so ahead. Lyfantod entered a sprint, jangled the coins in his palm and shouted, “Peter! Sardines!”
The cat stopped and turned just long enough for Lyfantod to conclude that diving was in order. The time that he spent airborne was more than enough for the injured feline to step gracefully out of his path, and the hapless P.I. landed on his face in a pile of dirty snow, all of the air in his lungs forced out in an unseemly “humph.”
When he’d recovered enough to turn himself over, Lyfantod expected the cat to be long gone. Instead, Peter sat a few feet away, twitching his tail and regarding Lyfantod with sleepy green eyes. Lyfantod scowled back at him. He began to clean a paw.
“You planned that, didn’t you?” Lyfantod said tiredly.
Peter walked over and deigned to head-butt Lyfantod's knee, drawing his body along the detective's leg in what amounted to involuntary petting.
“Come on.” Lyfantod grunted, rising stiffly, and Peter allowed himself to be lifted into his arms. “Let’s get you home.”
Peter said nothing.
* * *
Madam Humphrey was a formidable woman. Over six feet tall, with long curling auburn hair, and a large, drooping nose, calling her full-figured would have been generous. Lyfantod placed her in her fifties at a guess. A clothier by trade, she had a penchant for extravagant dress, even at home when she wasn’t expecting guests. If she was in fact a witch as he Lyfantod expected, she was of an entirely different variety than the Daughters of Hecate.
When she came to the door she was wearing a long, black, sequined gown, pearls the size of marbles, a voluminous fur stole, and a matching wide-brimmed hat. After he'd explained how he came to be standing at her door holding her cat, she fawned first over the injured animal, never quite stooping to baby talk, and then over Lyfantod himself, her praise intermixed with curses for the wicked ragamuffins who'd dared to harm her baby.
She wanted to pay him and berated him about the state of his clothes. “All in a day’s work,” was not an answer she was willing to accept, and he was only allowed to leave after consenting to her offer of a few fitted shirts.
“There is simply no excuse for being poorly dressed,” she told him sternly. He agreed, for there was nothing else to do, and she took his measurements then and there. Peter looked on amusedly from atop a plush purple cushion, which, considering the quantity of black hair on and around it, was one of his favorite spots. She demanded he come back in precisely one week, and ushered him energetically out the door.
Lyfantod turned his old silver groat over in his fingers through the familiar ride down the lift to the luxurious lobby of Madam Humphrey's building. The trip to bring Peter home had taken him across town to Stockbridge, and now the nearest phone booth would be at… Dundee. It was a bit of a walk, especially in the snow, but there was nothing for it.
He was humming when he walked out the doors, but he stopped short and fell abruptly silent the moment saw who was outside. Several yards away, a middle-aged man with a combover was shutting the door of a black cab, holding onto the roof as he bent over to stamp out the butt of a cigarette. Lyfantod started toward him, taking long, angry strides.
“Sturgis!” He jabbed an accusing finger through the air. “I’ve been looking for you!”
Craig Sturgis looked up at him and his eyes went nearly wide enough to come popping out of his ruddy face. He stood frozen that way for all of an instant, his mouth a slack-jawed crevice, before flinging the cab door open hard enough to make the hinges creak, diving head first into the back seat, and shouting, feet in the air, “Drive, drive, drive!”
The door closed of its own volition. Lyfantod thundered up to the darkened window. “Don’t you run from me, Sturgis!” The cabby gave Lyfantod one mildly curious look out the window—bored in the way that only a cabby can be—before submitting to Sturgis’s ever more vehement exhortations. He shifted the cab into gear just as Lyfantod reached for the door handle.
Lyfantod stood there red faced and watched the cab drive off—couldn't believe his luck as another just like it came to a stop in the same place as the one that had just left, and with a mechanical clunk, popped opened its door. Not one to question good fortune, Lyfantod dove in and aimed his jabbing finger the other rapidly disappearing taxi. “Follow that car!” He leaned eagerly forward, gripping the back of the passenger seat.
The cabby gave him a brief, speculative look; shrugged to himself as if to say, "Going to be one of those days, is it?" and took off after the car Sturgis was in without even waiting for the door to close. A brief car chase followed in which the two interested parties paid no real part except for shouting. The cabbies, experts at their craft, played an intricate game of cat and mouse at which, Lyfantod was pleased to find, his driver seemed to be the superior.
Perhaps sensing futility—more likely worried about the rapidly increasing fare, Sturgis had his driver lead Lyfantod into the narrow, twisting streets of an old neighborhood in Morningside, and there abandoned his car. Lyfantod and Akash, which was his driver's name, incidentally, rounded a sharp corner to find the other cab idling, door hanging open, exhaust pipe belching a cloud of hot expiration into the air. Further on they spotted Sturgis, pumping his arms, dashing lamely down the street. Lyfantod cursed, threw a couple large bills which he would later regret at his cabby, and jumped out of the car to hurry after the unfit older man.
A good fifty meters ahead, Sturgis stumbled and nearly fell on a patch of ice, arms windmilling comically as he tried to keep his balance. The distance was closing rapidly, and Lyfantod could practically feel his hands wrapping around Craig Sturgis's throat—until he slipped on the very same patch of ice that Sturgis had. Being younger and faster worked against him this time, as he hit the ice at a significantly higher velocity. His rear went one way and his fore another, and Lyfantod went careening face first through a tall, not-quite-as-impenetrable-as-it-looked hedge, on the other side of which he was much dismayed to find was open air. He sailed a few feet before touching down, and tumbling, mostly intact to the bottom of a short slope on his side.
He lay there, breathing heavily and letting out the occasional groan—some of them of pain, some due to the knowledge that he’d lost that damned Sturgis again—for a minute or two before he worked up the emotional energy to push himself up and look around. When he did, he was much chagrined to find that he had landed in some unlucky person's backyard. No one seemed to have spotted him yet, but unless no one was home, that wouldn't last long. He eyed the hedge, considering going out the way he’d come in, but soon decided against it. He’d no desire to add to the scratches already covering his face and hands.
The house was a tidy Victorian, all ivy and grey stone, two-story, and blanketed with snow. The windows were shuttered and Lyfantod decided to try his luck with the garden gate round the side. It turned out to be both too high for scaling and locked—ostensibly from the outside. It said something about his current state of mind that this didn’t strike him as odd.
And so, bruised, tired, and soiled, Lyfantod returned to the rear of the house, rehearsing an awkward apology in his head, and approached the red, wooden, windowless door inside. He raised his hand to knock but the door swung silently open at his touch. It was exactly the sort of ominous thing that happened in movies when things were about to go terribly wrong.
“Err. Hello?” Lyfantod said uneasily to no one.
Behind him, the sun shone brightly off the snow—ought, in all reasonableness, to have cast some light past him through the door—but try as he might, Lyfantod could discern no recognizable detail in the amorphous gloom across that threshold. In an attempt to see he took a step inside and stopped. That isn't right. He frowned. Shook his head. Perhaps he’d concussed himself when he fell.
He took one step back. Then several. Snow crunched underfoot as he backed away from the house, staring upward, looking for signs of corporeal misconduct: Masonry rearranging itself. Windows opening unto exotic vistas. Foliage growing at a perceptible rate. Glowing. That sort of thing.
But there was nothing. Only two stories of perfectly ordinary stone, narrow, rectangular windows, all shut, unmoving ivy, snow. Everything was as it should be. Except...
Ever so slowly, ever so warily, he brought himself back to the doorway; examined the moulding; put a single wavering hand across the threshold to no effect. It remained both visible and attached to his wrist. And he could still see not a damned thing beyond it. He followed it inside. The effect was exactly as before.
He was standing at the end of a long corridor, cavernous in scale—wide, with vaulted ceilings—thirty meters of unadulterated gothic stonework. Large, arched, frosted, diamond-paned windows letting in cool rays of winter sunlight were murky alcoves occupied by cyclopean statuary.
At the far end of the hallway, semi-circular structure of polished dark wood, gilt, and stone, pressed against the back wall, and occupied by a lone, sour-looking old woman with permed grey hair and a scowl that was perfectly legible across even that considerable distance. She stood silent, hands clasped before her, giving the impression of nothing so much as a wife forced to play host to her husband's oldest, bawdiest, most boorish friend, as Lyfantod wandered toward her, drawn as people so often are by the hopeful feeling that they’ve found someone who looks like they might be able to answer their questions.
She did not speak; waiting for him, perhaps, to breach the silence—an act which her expression said she both knew inevitable and held inexcusable.
Lyfantod, at that moment entirely out of his depth—wondering, in fact, if he was not still lying out in the snow, brained and bleeding—opened his mouth and said something which no doubt only helped to reinforce the opinion of him held by Mrs. Moira McMorran: “Excuse me, but I seem to have stumbled into your yard. If you could point me toward the front door, I’ll presently be on my way.”
Her reply, which began, "Oh good," was clipped, and delivered in a tone that left little doubt as to whether she thought anything about the current situation was in anyway good. Which is to say that she did not. And in fact, to judge by the way she said everything but his name—“Mr. Lyfantod,"—it seemed fairly safe to assume that her words meant the exact opposite of the things they usually did. "I'm so pleased to see you made it. Welcome to Barrows School.”