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OPIUM HOUSE

 

The heavy, wooden door swung inwards, creaking on rarely used hinges. An old craggy face peered out into the gloom with an expression that objected to the sudden chill of the night air. His eyes were grey and watery, but the gaze was keen, almost intense, as it fell onto the face of a younger, middle-aged man standing outside in the cold.

“Mr Cobbler?” asked the younger man.

Sizing up the tailored suit, and expensive raincoat of the well spoken other, the old man frowned. “That's right,” he said, and then sneezed noisily into a red-spotted handkerchief. “Who's asking?”

“The name's Wingate . . . We spoke earlier? On the telephone?”

“Yes, yes. I remember.”

A ghost of a smile came to Wingate's face as he waited for an invitation to enter the old library; an invitation Mr Cobbler made no sign of making.

Clearing his throat politely, Wingate shivered and made a show of how cold it was. “May I come in?” he asked, amidst rising plumes of freezing breath.

Mr Cobbler shook himself as if noticing the younger man for the first time. “I suppose you must,” he sniffed, and moved back from the door.

Stepping inside, Wingate removed his leather gloves and wide-brimmed hat. He turned to give them to his host, but Mr Cobbler just closed the door and shuffled off down a dimly lit hallway without further word. Wingate smiled, dropped his gloves into his hat, and followed him.

The dark silhouettes of doorways, closed and secretive, lined both walls along the hallway. The acrid scent of burning lamp oil hung slickly in the air, and stung Wingate's eyes slightly. He wrinkled his nose against the musty smell of age and dust. The carpet was threadbare and tacky underfoot, dotted with clumps of cat hair and fur balls.

Another offensive odour kissed Wingate's nostrils, and he guessed Mr Cobbler didn't wash very often.

But these things were of no importance if the old fool could help. Wingate could write a report on his observations later. As for now, worn carpet and unpleasant odours were something he was quite prepared to tolerate.

Suddenly, Mr Cobbler sneezed again, and Wingate had to stifle a chuckle as the old man failed to reach his handkerchief in time.

“Bugger!” Mr Cobbler growled. “Now you've made me catch me death!”

“I do sympathise, Mr cobbler,” said Wingate, “but as I said earlier today, this is a pressing matter.”

“I'm a bit too long in the tooth for dressing things up, sir,” Mr Cobbler replied, as he wiped his nose, and then produced a large bunch of keys from a hidden pocket in his brown, moth-eaten cardigan. “I says what I mean, and I means it, too. Now, if I hadn't opened that door, I wouldn't have a cold in the making, no matter what you says.” He stopped at a door, and began sorting through the keys. “Having said that, if I can help bring this bloody war to an end, I will. But likes I says on the dog , I makes no promises, however pressing the matter might be.”

Wingate nodded, surprised by the blunt words. Mr Cobbler seemed sated by this silent response, and thrust a key into the lock, twisting with a snappish movement. Wingate read the sign above the door – History – and followed the old man inside.

The history room was just as dimly lit and even ranker smelling than the hallway. The ceiling was hidden by the shadows above, and the room's height appeared impossibly tall, seemingly, to Wingate, with no end. Dark curtains covered the tall windows, and were so thick he wondered if the old man ever let the light of day into his home. He doubted it. Mr Cobbler looked as though he hadn't been beyond the library walls for years.

Wingate stopped and his jaw hung loose.

Confronting his attention was a massive bookcase, sitting at the room's centre, and rising high into the shadows. Covered in dust and cobwebs, it was ringed by a deep and gnarly reading table; the whole thing looked to be carved straight from a mammoth tree. Wingate marvelled at the craftsmanship as he walked its circumference, and looked at the books crammed into the misshaped shelves. There had to be thousands! And he wondered how on Earth the old man ever managed to reach them all.

His gaze followed the bookcase's twisted length, and he arched his back, still unable to identify where it ended. He flinched as his eyes met that of a cat's, sitting on a high shelf. Its tail hung over the edge and flicked from side-to-side, almost angrily. It then stretched its mouth in a wide yawn, and ran a bright pink tongue over long whiskers, before returning its stare to the man below.

Wingate flinched again and a chill scratched his spine as Mr Cobbler's grating voice broke the silence.

“Don't mind Merlin, sir. We don't gets many visitors anymore. He's just wondering who you are . . . probably.”

Wingate nodded. “He seems to like heights.”

“Oh yes,” the old man chuckled. “Not like Boudi, mind.”

Boudi ?”

“Boudicca – Merlin's wife. Can't stand heights, she can't.”

“Oh!” Wingate gasped. “You mean another cat.”

The older man looked at the younger oddly. “Of course she's a cat,” he said, and then tsk ed. “Don't know where the bleeder's got to, mind. Out looking for food, probably.” He tapped the side of his head. “The old noggin's not what it used to be. I forget to feed them sometimes.”

Wingate smiled politely. “Yes. Quite. Mr Cobbler, did you manage to obtain the reference I asked for?”

Reference ?”

“Earlier today . . .? On the telephone . . .?” The old man's blank look irked Wingate. “The book I asked for, Mr Cobbler?”

“Oh, the book ,” realised the old man. “Why didn't you say so?”

Wingate waved a dismissive hand. “Did you find it?”

“Yes I did, sir. But I reckon it won't do you much good.”

“Why?”

“It don't really exist anymore.”

“What? The book?”

No .” Mr Cobbler rolled his eyes. “Come on, I'll show you.”

He led Wingate to the deep table surrounding the bookcase. With gnarled and shaky fingers, he adjusted an oil lamp in a hollow, and as the extra light lifted the shadows, Wingate saw a thick book sitting on the table's dark surface. Like everything else in the library, it was old and covered in dust.

Goose pimples tingled Wingate's skin as Mr Cobbler pulled out a chair and motioned for him to sit.

“It's the last translation ever written,” explained the old man. “A devil to find, you know.”

“But is it in English?”

“Oh, yes. Old English, mind.”

Wingate was relieved; at best his Latin was extremely poor. He licked his lips and placed his glove-stuffed hat onto the table.

“The translator was a monk from the sixteen-hundreds,” Mr Cobbler continued. “And if memory serves, got himself burnt at the stake for his troubles, as well. Blasphemer, they said he was, and that's not all they threw at him. Heresy, witchcraft, paganism . . . he never stood a bloody chance.” The old man shook his head and exhaled heavily. “If only they'd known, eh? Still it's all stitched and bound by hand. Beautiful book, it is.”

“Yes. Yes, it is,” Wingate replied, and reached for the book as tentatively as one might reach for a fresh razor blade.

But Mr Cobbler stopped him.

“If you don't mind, sir, I'd prefer if you wore these.” He held out a pair of white gloves. “I'm a bit fussy about me books. I likes to keep them clean.”

Without taking his eyes from the book, Wingate accepted the gloves and slipped them on. They were stale and crusty, but this didn't surprise him, and he ignored the material's grimy-slick feel as it passed over his skin. It seemed to be a trait of the library, and he found himself mildly amused by Mr Cobbler's idea of cleanliness.

Running his hands down the sides of the book, Wingate pulled it towards him. The leather binding was faded and cracked; the remnants of elegant gold leaf writing swept down the spine, the title unreadable now. Taking a deep breath, Wingate steadied his excitement and looked up at Mr Cobbler.

“If you don't mind, I'd rather like a moment alone,” he said.

Mr Cobbler rolled his eyes. “I'll get some tea and biscuits, shall I?

Wingate waited until Mr Cobbler left the room, and the closed door silenced his quiet moans and shuffling footsteps, and then he opened the book to the first page.

Roman numerals ran vertically down the left margin. Next to them was a list of names Wingate had never heard of. The ink was flaking with age; the delicate, sweeping quill strokes crafted with obvious love and care. This had to be the most exquisite piece of literature Wingate had ever held, and his mind was filled with the image of a monk, clandestinely writing by candlelight.

Tracing a finger down the list of names, he stopped as he found the one he recognised: XI – Talisman .

Wingate put a fist to his mouth and closed his eyes. This is it , he thought, you'll never breathe English air now . His heartbeat quickened, and a victorious smile spread across his face. He began turning pages more patiently than his excitement wanted too, seeking chapter eleven.

This discovery would please the War Office so much, his superiors would come to think of him as one of their own. He would be elevated to the higher ranks, and hailed as hero, and his name would be remembered for many years to come. And perhaps his name would even be mentioned favourably in the king's presence, and a royal invitation loomed.

The King , Wingate relished.

His excitement won the day. He began turning pages feverishly, flicking them over two, three at a time. He ignored the creaks and groans of the ancient binding with the simple glee of a child, until he came to the penultimate page. He prepared himself, and slowly turned it over.

Wingate's face dropped to a look of horror.

No ,” he whispered.

At that moment Merlin the cat jumped onto the table, and Wingate flinched. He flinched again as Boudicca appeared from nowhere, and the two cats began fighting playfully. They rolled off the table, taking Wingate's hat and gloves with them, and then fled in different directions as they hit the floor.

Wingate flinched a third time as Mr Cobbler returned, carrying a tray piled high with stale looking biscuits and a cracked pot of steaming tea.

Oblivious to the younger man's discomfort, Mr Cobbler nosily put the tray down, and set out two teacups complete with saucers. He poured a little milk into each cup, and then reached for a bowl of sugar cubes.

He turned to Wingate, a pair of tongs in one hand, the bowl in the other. “One lump or two, sir?”

“What?”

“Sugar, sir.”

Wingate gripped his head. “No! I don't care about the tea. It's not here, Mr Cobbler!” He held up the book, to show the old man the pages for chapter eleven were blank.

“I know, sir. Likes I says earlier: it don't really exist anymore.”

“What on Earth are you talking about?”

“The Talisman, sir. He packed his bags a long time ago, and no one knows where he went.”

“But the pages . . . they're blank!”

“That's right, sir; took the incantation with him, too. You won't find him unless he wants to be found. Now, one lump or two?”

Wingate stared at the book in disbelief, feeling sickened. “But the war . . .” he whispered. His mind began racing with possibilities and alternatives. “I'll have to take this book to my superiors,” he mused, aloud “They'll know what to do.”

Mr Cobbler placed the tongs and bowl back onto the tray, and then raised a hand to his mouth and coughed politely. “I'm afraid I'll need to see your ticket before you do that, sir.”

“Excuse me?”

“Ah, your library ticket, sir. A book can't leave the building without one of valid date.”

Wingate baulked, and then suddenly laughed. “You can't be serious?”

“Oh yes, sir. I'm a stickler for rules, so I'll have to insist.”

“But I don't have a ticket.”

“Then you can't take it.”

“Don't be ridiculous!” Wingate said, his voice rising. “This book could be the only thing stopping German forces landing on our shores!”

“Oh, I doubt that, sir. But rules are rules all the same. And no book leaves the library-”

“Without a bloody ticket! Yes I know! But you don't have a choice, Mr Cobbler. I simply have to take it.”

Mr Cobbler took a deep breath, and his face became stony. “Don't think you can come here with that expensive whistle and well-to-do manner and muscle me around, mister Wingate. I've looked after Opium House longer than I care to remember, and it's not my fault that you lot forgot I was here in the first place. Now we fall into a spot of bother, and the first thing you do is call old Cobbler, eh? That's right: only when you need me.”

Wingate sighed knowingly, and raised an eyebrow. “I understand what you're saying,” he said, sourly. “And I know what your pride really boils down to. Name your price for the book, Mr Cobbler, and I'll see you get it.”

“Money?” Mr Cobbler looked genuinely confused. “I'm afraid you don't understand a thing, sir. It's much too late for money to help you.”

“I'm not bargaining with you here, Mr Cobbler,” Wingate snapped, his teeth gritted against his irritation. “There's nothing you can do to prevent me taking this book. It's too important.” He closed the cracked leather cover, and placed a hand protectively upon it. “Now, I'll give you one more chance. You either name your price, or you get nothing. One way or another, this book is coming with me . . . Mr Cobbler?”

Mr Cobbler didn't respond. His shoulders were slumped in resignation, and his glazed eyes stared into space, dejectedly.

“Mr Cobbler?” Wingate said again. When the old man didn't respond a second time, Wingate's disappointment and irritation boiled over into frustrated anger, and he and slammed a hand down on the reading table. “ Mr Cobbler !”

Motivated by Wingate's shout, the old man slowly took the tray off the table, and sniffed. “It'll do you no good, sir,” he said quietly. “I suggest you let the matter drop.”

Feeling a pang of guilt, Wingate sighed and softened his tone. “Look, I can't promise anything, but how about I try and get Opium House reopened, hmm? I'm sure my superiors will look favourably on you. Especially when they see this book.”

Mr Cobbler chuckled darkly, and a lunatic's gleam came to his eyes. “Libraries are like gods, Mr Wingate; they only exist as long as people need them.”

Wingate frowned, uncertainly. “But we are agreed? The book has to come with me?”

Almost casually, the old man let the tray fall from his grasp. The tumult of shattering crockery singed Wingate's nerves and he held his hands to his ears against the sudden eruption. He looked to the steaming wreckage of wet china and biscuits, and then back at Mr Cobbler with incredibility etched onto his features.

You haven't listened to a bloody word I've said !” Mr Cobbler screeched. His face burning with red fury, the old man stormed from the room, angrily spitting curses, and slammed the door behind him.

Wingate sat motionless for a moment, staring at the closed door. An ugly situation , he thought, and released a breath he hadn't realised he'd been holding.

He turned to the book and stared at its grainy black cover. He should just walk out with it, and Mr Cobbler's feelings be damned. He was a madman! If it came to it, Wingate was ready to overpower him, but he hoped it wouldn't. The country needed this book more than some rundown library. He had every right to do this. Lives depended on it. Didn't they?

As he tried to justify the situation, Wingate couldn't ignore the nagging doubt tapping at his certainty. Nothing much was known about Mr Cobbler, other than he'd been at Opium House since at least the turn of century. Before that, there were no records of him anywhere. But as mysterious as the old man was, he was also right. The library had been forgotten a long time ago, and when Wingate took into account potentially what had been forgotten, he found it incredible.

He shivered. Things were wrong here, and not just because of Mr Cobbler's eccentricities. There was something oppressive about the whole place, like a spectral finger was tracing a line down his back, searching for the point where pleasure would turn into spine-snapping pain. Opium House reeked. It smelled of ghosts.

Lifting the book up before his face, Wingate came to the decision he always knew he would make: confiscating it was his only option; it was as simple as that. But when he placed the book down again, Merlin was there, sitting casually before him on the table. To Wingate it looked as though the cat was frowning, and he leant forward with bared teeth, trying to scare it away.

“Grow up!” the cat snapped.

Wingate jumped back in his chair. Merlin shook his head, disappointedly.

“Mr Cobbler's really quite right,” said the cat. “Bran has gone, Mr Wingate. You'll not find a single word on the talisman in that book. Not any more.”

At that moment, Boudicca jumped up onto the table and muzzled against her husband.

She smiled at Wingate. “But is Bran the true object of your search?” she said.

Unable to believe his eyes and ears, Wingate searched the room for some sign of a trick. When he found none, he turned back to the patiently waiting felines, and leant forward. “E-Excuse me?” he mumbled weakly.

Boudicca rolled her eyes. “So young and naïve,” she whispered. “Mr Wingate, did you really believe it would be so easily found?”

Wingate shook his head and shrugged, unable to reply. Boudicca sighed and muzzled Merlin again, before jumping from the table and sauntering off. “I'll leave you to deal with this one,” she called to Merlin, and disappeared into the shadows.

Merlin took a few steps forward and sat upon the ancient book. “There are many reasons why you cannot take this book,” he said, his face a few inches from Wingate's. “Frankly, you wish to summon something that cannot be summoned. You think you can demand of Bran, perhaps? Force him to protect these lands from an invading army?” He cocked his head to one side. “Maybe rest the cauldron from his possession?”

Cauldron ?” Wingate mumbled.

“Being deceitful will do you no good, Mr Wingate. Boudicca was right to call you naïve. You are immature and infantile. Just look at yourself: here you are, ready to believe in the powers of the Old Gods, yet you cannot conduct a simple conversation with a cat.”

Wingate's shoulders sagged with tired acceptance. How could he report this? The War Office would think him mad as Mr Cobbler. But the cat, or whatever it was, had a point. This project had its head in the clouds from the onset. Wingate had only ever strived to find the book, however slim the chances. He hadn't realised just how much he'd come to believe the legends were true, and a way to end the war could really be found in this library.

Unsteady, unsure, and feeling slightly sick, Wingate spoke to the cat. “If the legends are true,” he said slowly, “Bran's cauldron can resurrect dead warriors – soldiers and leaders. The advantage this would give Britain and all the allied forces would be immeasurable.”

Merlin shook his head. “Your assumption comes from a lack of extrapolation, Mr Wingate. You're referring to warriors that do not belong in this epoch. What advantage could they possibly give you? Fighting with sticks against swords? Swords against guns? Those you seek to restore could never hope to stand the test of modern warfare. They would be cut to the ground as quickly as you could resurrect them.”

“Then the legend is true!” There was an edge of triumph to Wingate's voice.

“Oh, yes. The cauldron is quite real, Mr Wingate.”

“Then you must tell me where it is.”

Merlin clucked his tongue. “A childish demand, don't you think?”

Wingate's astonishment simmered into anger again, and he felt his face flush. “If we could resurrect the greatest historical figureheads, to have them standing under our banner, it would put steal into our troops' spines, and fear into the enemy's. Their very presence would send morale soaring into the heavens. Think on that! The power of morale is not something to underestimate.”

When Merlin replied, his voice was full of sadness. “And what happens when your people see these figureheads for the unwashed, arse-scratching bigots they truly were? Do you honestly believe that Joan could liberate France by waving a sword in God's name again? Or Herne could crush the Nazis from the heart of his forest domain? Perhaps you think the real advantage would come from your troops witnessing the alien concept of machinery driving the Pendragon mad?

“No. Do not try to justify your intentions to me, Mr Wingate. I am not so easily fooled. Morale is not the intrinsic element that you and your superiors wish to raise .”

“That's right,” Wingate replied, heatedly. “Think on the regular troops. Every fallen man resurrected . . . our rate of loss would be nonexistent!”

“Ah - the heart of the matter, at last! And what would follow when the war ends, Mr Wingate? No one need ever die again, is that it?”

Wingate opened his mouth, said nothing, and closed it again.

“Let me tell you,” Merlin said. “Let me tell all your kind. The legend of the cauldron might be true, but you will never get the chance to use it; not in your lifetime, your children's lifetime, or your children's children's. When Bran left this place, his head was cut from his mortal body and buried beneath London's Great Tower. This talisman ensures hostile forces can never invade these shores again.”

“But we have to try,” Wingate said, pleadingly. “You must tell me how to find him.”

“Understand what I am telling you, Mr Wingate! The Talisman already protects you from the men you fear. As long as Bran's head remains under the Tower, it will continue to do so forever more. As for the cauldron . . .” Merlin shook his head. “Bran took it with him. And no one, save himself, knows of its whereabouts. He did this to ensure it was never used for the gains you would now use it for. The cauldron is not a weapon with which other nations can be conquered, Mr Wingate. Nor is it a means to achieve immortality. That would be an abuse of its purpose.”

Silence hung in the air for a few moments, and Wingate found himself unable to pull away from the cat's intense stare.

Merlin then tapped the book with his paw, and grinned eerily. “And furthermore, I think taking this book rather lacks consideration for Mr Cobbler's rules, don't you?”

Wingate narrowed his eyes.

“You do not own a library ticket, Mr Wingate. Now go. Tell the king what you have learned on this day.”

With that Merlin jumped to the shelves of the bookcase, and bounded up its twisted length. Wingate watched as the cat climbed higher into shadows and finally disappeared.

He looked down at the table and blinked.

So had the book.

Rising from the chair, and crunching broken crockery beneath his feet, Wingate turned, and was immediately confronted by Mr Cobbler.

“I do apologise, sir,” the old man said. “Me temper gets the better of me sometimes.”

Wingate dumbly pointed over his shoulder, his mouth open but unable to find the right words.

Mr Cobbler chuckled. “What's wrong, sir? Cat got your tongue?” He stepped in close and lifted Wingate's chin to shut his mouth. “There is one final problem, sir: Merlin tends to talk too much, you see. And you can't leave the House knowing what you knows, if you follow.”

Still confused, Wingate felt a warm, sickly pain flare in his gut. The strength in his legs flooded away, and he dropped to his knees with a groan.

As Mr Cobbler eased Wingate down onto his back, he pulled the thin letter opener from the younger man's stomach, and wiped it clean of blood with his red-spotted handkerchief. “Don't worry, sir,” he said. “It's poison tipped. The pain won't last long.” He smiled sympathetically. “Please understand, we can't have you lot digging up the Great Tower looking for some old cauldron, can we? Stern measures for a pressing situation, you might say.”

Wingate's vision swam. Unable to speak or move, he tried to focus on the hazy image of the elderly figure looming over him. Mr Cobbler gripped the dead weight of Wingate's legs, and began dragging him towards the door, whistling as he went.

His life slowly seeping from his body, Wingate thought of the royal invitation he would never receive, and how the king would never hear of his name. He managed a weak, indecipherable groan.

“Oh, you needn't worry about that, sir,” said Mr Cobbler, cheerfully, “You're first on the list for a new ticket.”

 

 

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