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The Apothecary's Curse
By Barbara Barnett
Prometheus BooksCopyright © 2016 Barbara Barnett
All rights reserved.
CHICAGO'S NORTH SHORE, PRESENT DAY
Three hours and 125 autographs later, Simon Bell emerged into the unexpected heat of the late-March afternoon, flexing his cramped right hand. His pseudonym, Anthony C. Danforth, swam across his vision, a ghostlike image in red Sharpie; blinking did not vanquish it. His latest novel, another Holmes pastiche, had risen to number fifteen on the New York Times best-seller list. "Holmes resurrected in the style of his times! Danforth channels Conan Doyle with a rare authenticity — again," read the review. Simon might add, Victorian mysteries written by a Victorian mystery.
The Gingko trees along the Evanston shoreline were already green; their cloven, odd leaves provided a momentary distraction as he wove his way through the baby carriages, skateboards, and bicycles. But there it was again: indelible.
The warm breeze washed over him as he dusted off a sandy white boulder above the beach. Simon draped his trench coat over the rock, and he sat, attention riveted on a pair of noisy gulls rowing over a discarded ant-infested hamburger.
Simon reveled in his well-deserved "reclusive writer" moniker, and it was a rare occasion for him to venture into so public a space. The brave new virtual world made for a handy castle keep, with moats constructed of Twitter feeds and Facebook postings manned by battalions of publicists and their minions. None of his affair.
A familiar figure meandered the beach below, silhouetted in the glare, and Simon did a double take. As if reading his thoughts, the man turned, shielding his eyes against the sun as he peered up from the sand. What the devil was Gaelan Erceldoune doing down there at the waters edge?
Simon loosened his tie just a bit, but thought better of laying his bespoke suit jacket beside him on the guano-stained rock. He thought of calling out, but Gaelan was already climbing the boulders, a rare smile creasing the corners of his eyes as he waved.
Breathless and smirking, face flushed with exertion, he dropped to sit cross-legged on a nearby rock. "Typical of you to dress like a bloody CEO on a fine spring day! Decided to descend from your mountaintop to rub elbows with the masses?"
Simon brushed off the remark with a scowl. "What, no warm greeting, then? And you embody, I suppose, the perfect model of a man?" Gaelan appeared much worse off than Simon had seen him in a long, long time: blown pupils, dark smudges below each eye, a slight tremor in his hand, unshaven ... worn and washed out. Lank, greasy hair hung loose to his shoulders; his jeans were threadbare and faded almost white; the last vestiges of a cigarette burned between his lips. His expression, though, was as penetrating as ever.
"I suppose I don't have to point out that you look like hell." A pang of guilt — should he have checked in? Made sure Gaelan was all right? Was he living rough here on the beach, one of those gray, stooped vagrants pushing shopping carts along the park paths?
Gaelan plucked the cigarette from his mouth, holding its nearly burned-out remains precariously between his thumb and index finger. Ash drifted from the stub, glowing red, before fading to gray as it fell to the rocks. He shrugged, staring straight out into the horizon. "You just have. Bad night."
Shorthand Simon knew well.
Gaelan sucked in the last of the hand-rolled cigarette before crushing it on the boulder. "Might I nick a fag off you? I'm out."
"You are aware they're bad for the health?" That drew a raucous laugh. Simon handed him his pack of Silk Cut Purple.
"Want them or not?"
"I asked for one fag, not the whole bloody pack. I'm fine, Bell. And I don't need your bloody charity." Gaelan noticed a battered paperback on Simon's knee, quickly snatching it up. "Scandal in Bohemia. Rereading Holmes? Or pinching his ideas for your next best seller?"
"Have you not yet committed the entire canon to memory after all these years?"
"It gives me pleasure — nostalgia of a sort, I suppose, like having him nearby again. And you are clearly not 'fine.'"
"These fags are shite." Gaelan stared down at the beach, ignoring Simon's assessment. "Will you look at them, those lads down there? And that kite! I've never seen anything its like. And they say dragons are extinct! Brilliant!" He fished a gold-edged iPhone from his jeans pocket and snapped a photograph. "Have you got one of these things, Bell? They're fucking marvelous."
Simon snorted. "How can anything still be marvelous for you? After all you've been through ... we've been through."
"Do you know what your problem is?"
Besides the inability to die? Besides the fact that I am daily tormented by my dead wife? Simon knew what was coming next. "I'm certain you're going to tell me."
"Your imagination is mired in the nineteenth century. You, my dear friend, are two centuries behind the times."
"Says the man with the antique shop."
"Antiquarian books. And I'm quite good at the trade, a noted scholar in some circles." Gaelan thumbed the fragile yellowed pages of the paperback, half-separated from the spine, before fixing his gaze once again out toward the horizon. "The shop is a brisk enough business. With the Internet, eBay ... Even Sotheby's has an online auction with which I've made a fair penny. I still teach the odd class at Northwestern, do a lecture here and there. I more than make ends meet."
"Then what? You look like you've been living on the beach, not just taking a stroll." Even as he asked the question, Simon cursed himself — after seventeen decades, one thing he should have learned was that it was never a good idea to get sucked into Gaelan's chaos.
Gaelan scrubbed the heels of his hands into his eyes, his voice so soft Simon could scarcely discern it above the beat of the waves below. "It's getting worse again. I'm trapped in a fucking labyrinth, and I cannot figure a way out —"
Compassion nibbled at the edges of Simon's irritation. "Nightmares?" He was aware that much of Gaelan's often-acerbic attitude was smoke and mirrors. How many late-night calls had there been over the years when Simon would find Gaelan hiding in the dark of his flat above his shop, cowering beneath a table or in the corner of a closet, panicky and shaken? He would seem better, almost normal for a time, and then something would trigger another bout. What was it this time?
"My hold is slipping these days, more and more. Can't sleep; can't eat." An unbidden admission, and certainly not without cost.
"Why have you said nothing to me? You've not rung me up in more than six months —"
Gaelan shrugged, brushing it off. A harsh breeze rattled the branches, dropping the temperature by ten degrees as tendrils of dark gray cumulonimbus overtook the sapphire sky. Swirls of black-green clouds edged the steel gray above the horizon to the east.
"Bloody hell!" Simon jumped, almost slipping down the steep incline as lightning shredded the sky and hail pelted them, icy marbles lobbed by the clouds. The air froze as the wind blasted, and incongruously, it began to snow. Hard. They made a run for Simon's BMW.
"Drop you anywhere?" Simon asked between gasps.
"My shop will do."
* * *
The doorbells jangled as they entered through the door below the sign: "G. Erceldoune — Rare Books and Antiquities" — a threshold back in time. Simon only wished that Gaelan had not located the shop beneath the Brown Line elevated tracks.
Simon surveyed the shop, its wood and bronze not much different than the apothecary where he'd first met Mr. Gaelan Erceldoune. But instead of jars and bottles were bookshelves; instead of the aroma of cinnabar and citrus, mint and jasmine petal tea, there was the musty fragrance of old vellum and leather.
Booksellers or not, Erceldoune's shop evoked the bitterest of memories — images better left to the cobwebs of time.
Simon drummed his fingers on the counter. "I might have a line on the book. The book."
Gaelan flinched just enough for Simon to notice.
"What? Did you not hear me? I might have located your book."
"Yes, I heard you. How many times is this, then, and each time futile?" Gaelan stepped behind the counter and rolled a cigarette, his eyelids fluttering closed as he lit up and took a deep drag. "Ah. So much better than that shite you smoke."
Simon expected dismissive, but this was complete disinterest. "Really, Erceldoune! What's wrong? I can't help but notice —"
"You will tell me I'm overreacting, Simon. I know you. But it's ... There was an article. In the Guardian. They're renovating the London Imperial War Museum. In Lambeth Road."
Simon was confused, anxiety ratcheting up a notch. "But what has it to do with the book?"
"Nothing at all to do with the bloody book. The Imperial fucking War Museum. Do you not remember ...?" Gaelan drummed his fingers on the counter. "They've torn the place apart —"
"They've unearthed diaries, Simon. Handley's diaries — in the bowels of Bedlam. Extensive journals, dated early 1840s."
The name alone sent a chill through Simon. And Gaelan, even nearly two centuries later, was still tormented by years of torture endured there, under the mad doctor Handley's "care." "So what? There's not the remotest chance they'll —"
"You're not fucking listening. They describe — in detail — experiments and 'private freak shows,' as they are called. You want to know why I'm fucking falling apart? Now you do. And how long will it be, do you think, till they come calling?"
Excerpted from The Apothecary's Curse by Barbara Barnett. Copyright © 2016 Barbara Barnett. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books.
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