By Rob Francis
The cul-de-sac was shadowed and silent in the December gloom, early evening turned almost midnight-black. Even the commuter rush, so pronounced across the city, seemed to avoid this street that led nowhere, people and traffic alike giving it a wide berth. The streetlamps were on, though it was hard to tell from the meagre light they shed.
Rufus steadied his breathing. He was close now.
A soft light shone from the highest window of the end house, illuminating the Victorian eaves but only emphasising the darkness that cloaked the rest of the building. That was good. Dr Morton must be in his study. Perhaps the old man was holding the fifth volume of the Atlas even now, tracing its detailed illustrations with his wrinkled fingers. Revelling in the secrets within.
With a last deep breath cold in his throat, Rufus crossed the narrow street to the portico and the heavy black door it sheltered. The iron knocker sounded dully against the wood.
It was opened almost immediately by one of the tallest women Rufus had ever seen. Long silver-blond hair spilled over her thin shoulders, a sharp contrast with the trim black suit she wore. A cream blouse and purple-ink velvet tie completed the ensemble. She assessed him through narrowed eyes.
“Hello.” Her mouth twisted in what might have been a smile. “Do you have an appointment?”
Rufus fished a business card from his jacket pocket and cleared his throat. “Oh. No, but…” He passed the card across. “I’m Rufus Pryce, from Senate House. I’m a professor of medical ethics and philosophy. Might Dr Morton give me a few minutes, do you think?”
She took the card, her eyes never leaving his face. “Right now?” She paused as if thinking deeply about the question. “Yes, I think so. Follow me.” She stood aside as Rufus stepped into a large foyer, the gleaming wooden floor reflecting lights from a series of wall lamps and the small chandelier that hung above, as well as the glazed surfaces of half a dozen oil paintings of sombre forested landscapes. A wide staircase stretched to a landing from which two narrower flights projected left and right.
The woman closed the door and moved to stand at the bottom of the stairs, the faint scent of wood polish reaching Rufus as she drifted by. He followed.
She didn’t move. Just stood, waiting, her gaze fixed on the steps before her.
After a long, awkward moment, Rufus started to ask whether he should go on up alone but was silenced as the woman took his hand. Her fingers were long and bony, her palm warm against his skin.
Rufus’s face burned. He focused on trying to keep pace with the woman, who was so much taller than him that he felt like he was being led like a child, hand elevated at an odd angle. He hoped he wasn’t starting to sweat and that the woman wouldn’t be repulsed by his touch.
As he often did when the world acted in ways he wasn’t expecting, Rufus filed away the moment so he could tell his husband later.
She held my hand all the way up the stairs, Marcus. I don’t think I’ve ever held a woman’s hand that long!
Marcus would be wondering where he was. He should’ve called when he’d left work, but explanations would have cost time. And he was so close, now. The end of decades of waiting.
At the first floor landing, the woman turned to the left and Rufus discreetly tugged away, trying to break contact, but her grip only tightened. He sought desperately for something to say.
“A lovely house.” His voice cracked, his mouth dry.
The woman smiled. “Yes. It has a lot of corners.”
Rufus murmured an appreciative noise and made a show of peering about the coving, the alcoves, the doorframes they passed as they climbed, crossing the second and third floor landings and continuing to the top of the house, up a dark final flight that was so narrow that they had to go in single file, the woman’s hand dangling behind her, his stretched out in front, as helpless as a paralysed bird in the grip of a predatory tropical spider. The steps ended at a door. The woman turned to peer down at him.
“The doctor’s study.” She released his hand and knocked.
Rufus examined his fingers surreptitiously, as if to check there was nothing on them. But what would there be? An absurd thought. He wriggled his fingers, jabbed his hand into his pocket, then took it out again.
The woman nodded, opened the door so that light spilled into the stairwell, and slipped by him, heading downstairs without a word.
Beyond the threshold, Dr Morton sat at a large desk piled high with books. More volumes lined the bookshelves that covered two walls of the study, the others sporting leaded windows large enough that someone standing before them could gaze across the rooftops of London all the way to St. Paul’s to the south and the Houses of Parliament to the west.
Dr Morton sat behind the desk, peering through a magnifying glass at a small book bound in brown leather. As Rufus poked his head tentatively into the room, Morton carefully placed the glass on the desk and hooked a thin pair of spectacles over his ears.
“Ah,” he said, scooting his chair back a little and standing. He was a short man, but broad-shouldered and with a somewhat blockish head topped with a grey widow’s peak. He smiled, showing two rows of neat white teeth.
“Ms Portia fetched you up, did she? I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure.”
Rufus strode to the desk, his shoes sinking almost out of sight in the thick carpet pile. Morton’s hand was as dry and warm as the woman’s—Ms Portia’s—had been.
“Rufus Pryce.” Rufus returned the doctor’s smile. “I’m a professor at Senate House. Apologies for calling unannounced like this. Your lady… I mean, Ms Portia was it? She, well, yes, she brought me up.”
“Did she hold your hand all the way?” His eyes shined as at some private joke.
“You’ll have to excuse her. She’s a bit of a recluse, you know. Doesn’t socialise much. But I don’t know what I’d do without her. She’s quite a boon to me, especially now I’m retired.”
“Yes.” Rufus glanced at the book Morton had been studying, but he was sure it was too small to be a volume of the Atlas.
Morton caught the glance and, still smiling, closed the book.
“So. What can I do for you?” He leaned his head back, as if to study Rufus more clearly through his small lenses.
“You’re a retired surgeon, Dr Morton? Spent the last twenty years at St Thomas’s Hospital?”
“Yes.” Morton sat once more, and motioned Rufus to another chair facing the desk. “I’ve performed thousands of procedures during my career. Alas…” He held up a hand that trembled slightly. “Retirement became inevitable.”
Rufus looked around the room, letting his gaze linger on the bookshelves.
“You have quite a collection of medical volumes, I assume?”
“Some of which are very specialist, meant only for surgeons?”
“Yes.” A pause. “What are you driving at?”
“My field is medical ethics. I’ve interviewed several surgeons over the years who have copies of Pernkopf’s Atlas.”
Morton shrugged. “I see. That’s nothing special, really. Even if the books are frowned upon, they are still used. Their accuracy is not diminished by their… tarnished origins.”
“They’re no longer published for a clear reason. Pernkopf’s team mapped the nervous system of the human body using the corpses of executed innocents. Jews, homosexuals, minorities, the disabled.” He lowered his pitch, which had climbed higher than he had intended. “All victims of the Reich.”
Morton nodded sadly. “Yes. But the science can be separated from the morality. The books save many lives today. They should not be discarded. They aren’t banned, after all. Just discontinued, a decision made solely by the publisher.”
“If I may ask, Dr Morton, which printing of the Atlas do you own?”
Morton drummed his fingers on the desk. “An early printing.”
The old man shrugged. “They were the ones I picked up when I was a young student. From a second- hand medical bookshop.”
“Really? Because I spoke to an antiques dealer in Soho a few days ago, after some considerable trouble getting hold of him. And persuading him to talk. Johannes Köhler. He specialises in… well, let’s say war memorabilia. He says that you’ve bought a few things from him over the years, including some very early editions of the Atlas. Two unfinished volumes, in fact. Books One and Three. Penned by Pernkopf himself, and purchased for a fair sum. I wonder why that is?”
Morton smiled and adjusted his glasses again. “I have an interest. Comparison of early drafts with the published versions, that sort of thing.”
Rufus turned to the window, though he was unable to see anything in the darkness beyond. He couldn’t trust himself to look Morton in the eye. He clasped his hands together to keep them still.
“The Atlas has four volumes. The fourth was completed after Pernkopf’s death.”
“Are you familiar with the rumour that there was a fifth volume? One that went… deeper than the others.” He watched the old man’s reflection in the glass.
Morton’s smile didn’t waver.
“Yes, of course. A common rumour. Without foundation, I’m sure.”
“That’s interesting. Because Köhler told me that until very recently he had Pernkopf’s final work. Acquired it from an estate sale over in the Chilterns, some Austrian collector of medical arcana who passed away a few years ago. Köhler had it in storage for some time. Until he sold it to you.”
The smile finally wilted. Morton sat back in his chair. “I see. How much did that information cost you?”
“A lot more than a typical research grant would cover, certainly.”
“Damn Köhler. Such a vulture. I swear he didn’t even know what he had until he saw my interest.” Morton took off his spectacles and carefully polished the lenses on a cloth, then put them back on. “So why are you here? Because you wish to see it?”
“Yes. I need to see it. I want to know if the rumours are true. That Pernkopf somehow found a way to make a metaphysical Atlas. To see something beyond the biology. I’m sure it’s nonsense, but… I must know. I’ve been looking for so long.”
“Even if the knowledge was obtained from the violated bodies of innocents?”
“Yes,” Rufus said quietly. “Not to act on the knowledge, or to show to anyone. Just to know. It’s what all scholars pursue, after all.”
“Quite. Well. There are some gaps in your knowledge. Some things you should know.” Morton walked to one of the windows and a little table that stood by it. Atop the table stood a bottle of red wine and two glasses. Rufus wondered if Morton had been expecting a visitor, or if the glasses were for him and Ms Portia. Dr Morton poured the wine slowly and passed a glass to Rufus. It was dense and silky against his tongue. Just the type he liked.
“Pernkopf had help. With the Atlas.”
Rufus took another sip. The wine was really very good. “Of course. Many students and researchers in Vienna, illustrators to draw and colour the plates…”
“Not that kind of help. Not with his final work. The sort of help that could be considered even more unethical than peeling back a thousand layers of fine, innocent skin.”
“I don’t follow.”
“Metaphysical help. For a metaphysical topic.”
Rufus snorted. “You mean… otherworldly? Daemonic?”
Morton grinned as if delighted at a superb witticism. “A benighted man might put it like that, I suppose.”
In his jacket pocket, Rufus’s phone buzzed. It would be Marcus calling, asking when he was coming home, ready to discuss what they were going to have for dinner. He ignored it.
“You can’t expect me to believe that.”
“Is it any more outrageous than the idea that Pernkopf had mapped something beyond the nature of biophysical reality? Is it so hard to consider that something from beyond our reality had helped him? You’re a scholar of philosophy, after all. Philosophise.”
“What does the book show?”
“Book? Oh, the final part of the Atlas isn’t a book. Something as complex as a soul, as the world beyond, can’t be expressed in two dimensions. Difficult enough to represent it in three dimensions, in fact. As meaningless as a dot on a page.”
“Can I see?”
“Yes. If you are willing to look. But I must caution you. Once you look, you become Caesar, crossing the Rubicon. Once you have seen, nothing can be the same.”
Rufus’s phone buzzed again.
“Would you like to answer that, before you decide?”
“You are willing to see?”
Morton took the spectacles off once more and placed them on the desk. He rubbed tiredly at his eyes for a few moments, then motioned to the spectacles. “There you are.”
“The glasses? These are the fifth volume?”
“A lens, carefully crafted with the right tools and instruction, can show much more than lines on a page ever could. See for yourself.”
The spectacles were almost weightless as Rufus lifted them to his face. There was a jarring moment of pain and disorientation as his eyes adjusted to the lenses, but as he looked around the room he saw nothing different. Until he returned his gaze to Morton.
A dark shadow stood behind the old man, elongated out of proportion, stretching up almost to the ceiling. And from the shadow stretched a slender arm, the fingers of its hand splayed and embedded in Morton’s skull.
“Do you see it now?” he whispered. “Die Marionette und der Meister.”
Now, with these lenses, Rufus recognised Eduard Pernkopf. This was the man whose likeness he had seen on the internet and in countless books on medical history. Pernkopf, who had died almost seventy years ago, aged sixty-six, yet sat before him in this study, surely the same age, his appearance altered only slightly. How had he not seen it before?
The shadowy fingers flexed and Morton – Pernkopf – smiled.
“Only the work matters, my friend. You understand this, of all people. Work will set you free.”
Something whispered against the carpet behind him and Rufus spun to see Ms Portia standing before the door. A vast white spider loomed over her, its bony, hairless legs anchored in the corners of the room, tiny pink eyes watching him carefully. A faint mist steamed from its fangs.
Rufus ripped the spectacles from his face and flung them to the floor, and once more it was just Ms Portia standing before him, her face expressionless.
He ran, prepared to barge straight through the woman if she tried to stop him, but she stepped to one side to let him pass. He stumbled through the door and lost his footing as he passed from thick carpet to polished wooden steps, tumbling down, knocking his head, shoulders and knees as he went and still not stopping as he reached the lower landing, just scrambling up and racing on, taking the steps three or four at a time.
He reached the foyer and, after a moment’s frenzied fumbling, trying to get his fingers to work the latch, he ripped the front door open and fled into the winter night, sweat cool against his forehead.
House fronts passed on either side as he ran aimlessly, concentrating on putting distance between himself and the house, his breath scratching hard against his cold throat, the creep of blood harsh in his mouth. He reached for his phone, but it was gone. Dropped, when he tumbled down the stairs. Left behind with Morton and Portia.
He stopped, shuddering for breath. He should get on the tube, make his way home. Find Marcus and tell him what had happened. But it seemed impossible, somehow. Like something that he might have done before, in another life, but not an option now.
St Paul’s churchyard stretched before him, the illuminated front of the great cathedral looming on his right. He’d run all the way, mindless, and ended up here.
Exhausted, he stumbled to the great stone steps that led to the western door and slumped down, ignoring the coldness, watching his breath steam in the night air.
He sat on the steps of the cathedral, staring at the statue of Queen Anne on her pedestal, oblivious to the couples that wandered past the cafes and restaurants or posed for photos nearby. The sky was cloudless, the moon bright. Limned in its light, he could see a thin line of silvery silk stretching from his hand into the darkness of the side streets. It was tight around his fingers, and unspooled whenever he moved. He knew instinctively that he would never be able to outrun it.
Every so often, he could feel it pull.
Rob Francis is an academic and writer based in London. He mainly writes short fantasy and horror, and his stories have appeared in magazines such as The Arcanist, Apparition Lit, Metaphorosis, Tales to Terrify and Weird Horror. Rob has also contributed stories to several anthologies, including DeadSteam by Grimmer & Grimmer books, Under the Full Moon’s Light by Owl Hollow Press, and Scare Me by Esskaye Books. He is an affiliate member of the HWA. Rob lurks on Twitter @RAFurbaneco