With one last burst of courage, Captain Robertson swiftly slipped into the room, pistol raised, to find a figure by the window dressed in black as thick as the midnight sky. He was ready to open fire, but something made him hesitate. Unsure of whether it was his keen intuition or if he’d just been out of practice, the Captain decided to go with his gut instinct and held off from pulling the trigger. After the confusing day he just had, he wasn’t sure if he could trust his head anymore.
And oh boy, was he glad he did, for the figure dressed in black was none other than the Eighth Duke of Argyll with his bright orange hair being the only splash of colour to his otherwise rather dull attire.
“Bloody hell! Put the gun down!” hissed the Duke.
Captain Robertson realised he still had his gun levelled with the Duke’s chest and quickly returned it to its holster, “My apologies, Mr Secretary. I’m rather on edge today.”
“Indeed. I’ve read the reports. It seems that our friend, Mr Dame, hasn’t been entirely honest with us, doesn’t it?”
Captain Robertson didn’t answer but didn’t object either. It was somewhat true. He’d been running around with Mr Daim for nearly a month now, and everything he knew about him was dwarfed by what he didn’t.
“We believe it’s time you were filled in on what’s been going on, Captain,” continued the Duke, “and by we, I mean the Prime Minister, the Viceroy and I, but first, why don’t you recount the events of the past few weeks. And please, don’t leave out any details, no matter how absurd they may seem.”
While the Captain conversed with the Secretary of State for India, Mr Daim was downstairs in his hotel room preparing the vial containing Spring-Heeled Jack’s residual aura. He started by removing the vial from the coat that Captain Robertson had lent him. Unlike his companion, Mr Daim could see the aura swirling about inside, a light pinkish-red vapour like the petals of a rose found in the gardens of Damascus. He gave it a quick but gentle flick of the finger. Satisfied with the way the pinkish-red vapour dissipated then coalesced, Mr Daim moved onto the second stage of this well-practised procedure.
Grabbing his battered old briefcase from the opposite side of the room, he unbuckled the clip and rummaged around inside. There, nestled between Hafez and Ghalib, was an old compass, so old it could be no younger than five centuries, so old it was engraved with symbols whose meaning was remembered only by those who engraved it. Mr Daim carefully removed the crystalline glass cover protecting the glinting metal needle beneath, the only part of the device that hadn’t succumb to rust. It was really time Mr Daim got his hands on a new one, but this particular compass had been given to him by a dear friend. Or was it a lover? Truth be told, it was so long ago he couldn’t remember the exact status of the relationship, but he could still feel the remnants of the affinity he had for this long lost person and so opted to hold on to it. At least until it stopped functioning or fate forced him to part with it.
The final part of the well-practised procedure was the one that required the most concentration. Mr Daim placed the compass in the centre of the oak desk beneath the mirror opposite his bed. He looked into the eyes of his reflection, then down to the sprangled inky hairs of his unkempt beard and decided that he’d commit himself to a grooming session before bed, but first, he had to focus his mind and free it from the distractions of the material existence.
Firmly gripping the glass vial, Mr Daim began chanting in a language unknown to the Children of Adam. Continuing the incantations, he tightened his grip shattering the vial into a thousand tiny pieces. The pinkish-red vapour tried to escape but was trapped by the prison that was Mr Daim’s clenched fist. Any small fragments that tried to escape through his fingers were forced back in by the rhythm and tempo of his incessant chant.
The vapour suddenly expanded, engulfing the entirety of Mr Daim’s fist, the pinkish-red now a deep burning purple, but this didn’t interrupt the sweet melody of his tongue. With the vapour reaching a fever pitch, Mr Daim hurled it into the compass, firmly sealing it shut with the crystalline cover. With nowhere left to go, the aura began aggressively swirling around inside the compass like the wheels of the steam engines back in India before being sucked directly into the compass needle itself. It was only once all the vapour was consumed, the needle a glistening violet, that Mr Daim ceased his incessant chanting. He tapped the crystalline glass cover twice, and the needle began spinning rapidly before grinding to a complete halt; however, this time, it wasn’t facing the magnetic north but rather in the direction of his quarry: Spring-Heeled Jack. Convinced everything was in working order, Mr Daim removed a bar of shaving soap and razor from his battered old briefcase and went about his long-overdue grooming session.
Meanwhile, upstairs, Captain Robertson’s jumbled thoughts were finally ordered into something a little more coherent. The mental fogginess that had been plaguing him since he left Lahore for London had faded away, leaving him with a crystal-clear picture of everything that had happened since he met the mysterious Mr Daim. Anything he couldn’t rationalise was packed away in a box labelled “lunacy” and shelved in the recesses of his mind. He was just glad to finally have someone to talk to. Someone who’d actually listen to him and give him straightforward answers. A welcome break from the ambiguity of Mr Daim.
As it turns out, the Eighth Duke of Argyll and his associates, the Prime Minister and the Viceroy, had been keeping tabs on Mr Daim for over a year now. Rumours of an individual possessing extraordinary abilities had been circulating around Lahore for weeks in the monsoon of eighteen sixty-nine. Of course, these sorts of rumours were commonplace in India. Still, they had to be investigated nonetheless should the individual in question utilise the superstition surrounding them to rile up the discontents. After the events of the Mutiny, Lord Mayo, the Viceroy and Governor-General of India, wasn’t taking any chances.
He immediately put Mr Daim under temporary surveillance, as was routine protocol, until it could be determined the size of the threat he posed to the British Raj. Expecting Mr Daim to be deemed a none-threat, it came as quite a surprise when reports started piling in about a disturbance in one of the city’s outlying villages…
The monsoon had arrived late this year but arrived it did, and to the people of Mallianwala, it was most welcome. Harpreet was worried. Local merchants had been speaking of an approaching drought making its way up from the south. Drought meant food would become unaffordable and unaffordable food meant Harpreet and her family would go hungry. But luckily, by the grace of Waheguru, the approaching drought was halted by the cascading rains that blessed the boundless Indo-Gangetic plains of Northern India. No, Harpreet was worried for an entirely different reason.
Aamir, the older brother of Harpreet’s best friend Zainab, was seriously ill. The whole of Mallianwala could hear his panicked wailing at unseemly hours of the night. The first time it happened, Harpreet had mistaken the pain-stricken cries for the local Muezzin. Now it had been a week since, and the poor boy was still unwell. According to Zainab, he had even become uncontrollably violent, forcing her father to make the difficult decision to confine Aamir to his room.
Harpreet had never talked with Aamir at great length. Like most of Mallianwala’s Muslim population, Aamir and his father worked for Harpreet’s father. The daughter of a Sikh landowner conversing with the son of a Muslim peasant would be the scandal of the decade, but that didn’t stop Harpreet from catching a glimpse of the muscular boy with black wavy hair whenever she could. In the real world, a Muslim would never marry a Sikh. However, the real world didn’t apply to Harpreet’s fantasies.
And so, when Zainab told Harpreet about her brother’s condition, it was Harpreet herself who pleaded on Zainab’s behalf, asking her father to see what he could do for the boy. As always, Harpreet’s father gave in to the demands of his princess. That very evening, Harpreet’s father called a village meeting. Women weren’t allowed to attend these meetings but seeing as it was being held in her family’s courtyard, Harpreet eavesdropped from her bedroom. The local Mullah had concluded that Aamir was possessed by a jinni, evidenced by the scars that ran down his cheek after being scratched for reciting his holy book. The men decided that the best course of action would be for Aamir’s father to travel to the city in search of an exorcist. Harpreet’s father generously agreed to accompany him and cover the costs of the journey. They set out the following morning and returned by nightfall.
It wasn’t every day that something this eventful occurred, and nearly the entire village had gathered to witness the exorcism. Harpreet could even spot a few unfamiliar faces in the crowd. Intrigued spectators from some of the neighbouring villages, perhaps. Children watched from the rooftops while men and women crowded around the wall demarking the boundary between the private domain of Zainab’s family and the public domain of Mallianwala. Fortunately, with the help of Zainab, Harpreet was able to sneak in and get the best view in the house: a small window located in the far corner of Aamir’s room.
Harpreet watched Aamir lying face down on his charpai as his father, her father, and the Mullah entered the room along with a fourth man she didn’t recognise. Harpreet deduced that he was the Exorcist her father went to fetch. Aamir let out a long inhuman groan that almost sounded like the whimper of a wounded wolf. Aamir’s mother, who was standing by the door, tried rushing into the room to tend to her only son but was subsequently shooed away by her husband.
The Mullah began reciting verses from his holy book which started to rouse the sleeping Aamir. The four men surrounded the charpai, ready for anything that might happen. Suddenly, Aamir’s back arched upwards, and his head slowly turned towards the newcomer. Harpreet gasped. Aamir’s eyes were no longer the beautiful bright hazel she was used to but instead a deep crimson red like the blood of a slaughtered animal. His pupils were absent, making it impossible to tell what it was he was looking at. For all she knew, he could be staring directly at her. Or rather, it was staring directly at her. This was no longer the muscular boy with the black wavy hair but something else entirely – a demon.
The Demon began to slowly uncurl itself and rise up, like a puppet being lifted by its head, its limbs hanging limp in the candle-lit room until it was levitating two inches above the charpai staring down at the four men. Sweat trickled down the side of Harpreet’s face. She couldn’t believe what she was seeing. Fear forced her eyelids open and froze her to the spot.
The Demon started talking in a language Harpreet had never heard Aamir speak before. A language nobody had spoken before. Except for the Exorcist, for he not only understood what the Demon was saying but was speaking back to it in the same strange language. Harpreet had visited the city often, but she’d never heard a language with a melody quite like this. Everyone was startled yet entirely engrossed in the conversation they couldn’t understand. Even the Mullah’s attention was stolen away from his recitation as he remained fixated on the creature that stood before him.
The Exorcist and the Demon that was not quite Aamir went back and forth like this for several minutes. All was silent save for the whispers travelling through the gathering crowd, the gentle whistling of the wind passing through the trees, a clap of thunder in the far distance and the pitter-patter of the monsoon rain slapping against the ground. The Exorcist let out a sigh of disappointment, the kind of sigh one let out when their hand is forced. With a nod, each father grabbed one of the Demon’s arms, dragging him off the charpai and onto his knees before the Exorcist. The Demon let out a blood-curdling laugh that reverberated loudly into the midnight sky, blowing out the candles, bathing everything in the moon’s glow.
The Exorcist folded up his sleeve, concentration etched into the wrinkles of his face as he forced his hand down the Demon’s throat as it began to violently choke. To Harpreet’s amazement, the Exorcist was almost elbow-deep, something that should have been impossible unless he was able to shrink his own arm on demand. She was either dreaming, or her eyes were deceiving her. The thing began trying to shake free, struggling against Harpreet’s father’s tight inescapable grip, but it proved futile.
The Exorcist began to pull his arm back out, dragging something along with it. Now that it was removed from Aamir’s body, the Demon looked like a dark cloud, and it let out a deafening shriek as it attempted to resist the Exorcist’s grip. Meanwhile, Aamir fell unconscious at the foot of the charpai, his father by his side. The Exorcist walked towards the window, the same one Harpreet and Zainab were crouched behind, the shrieking cloud in hand. As he got closer, Harpreet could finally make out what looked like a face with the sharp teeth and pointed ears of a cat. Once the Exorcist reached the window, he launched the dark cloud up towards the sky, Harpreet and Zainab ducking to avoid the ungodly monstrosity. As the shrieking faded away into the distance, so too did the fear and tension of the past week. The ordeal was finally over.
“And you’re sure this is all true?” asked Captain Robertson.
“It was witnessed by one of our own. The same officer that was assigned to keep an eye on our friend, in fact. An Englishman, so I’m certain we can trust his rational judgement. If it was an Indian, I’d be sceptical too,” verified the Duke.
“I see… so what of Spring-Heeled Jack?”
“That’s what we’re trying to find out. Gladstone says whatever he is, it must have something to do with Mr Dame, hence why he ordered the Viceroy to bring him here.”
“So, where do I fit in in all this?”
“You’re the most important part, Captain. We need you to gain as much information as you can about our friend, Mr Dame, and see if there is indeed a link between him and Spring-Heeled Jack. In essence, your orders are to spy on him. I didn’t tell you this before because I wanted to see, for myself, if the reports were true. Today’s events proved that.”
It was all made clear now. Captain Robertson wasn’t just being brought home to be put on guard duty but was instead being made part of something far greater. But did he really have it in him to be a spy? And could he really betray his friend’s trust?
“Is that clear, Captain?”
“Yes, Mr Secretary.”
To be continued…
This is part of a larger series called Midnights In London