The Second Midnight
It had only been a week since the events at Murdstone & Co, but despite his better senses, duty forced Captain Robertson to stare into the crimson eyes of trepidation yet again. For the past week, he had been in covert conversation with the Eighth Duke of Argyll about the upcoming meeting with Spring-Heeled Jack, unbeknownst to his companion Mr Daim.
Part of him felt guilty about going behind his charge’s back, but the truth was that any loyalty Captain Robertson felt towards Mr Daim was overshadowed by that which he had towards queen and country. After all, the jinni was but a means to an end. If everything went to plan in the coming hour, then Captain Robertson would finally be able to put all this madness about ghuls and jinn behind him. He even considered requesting a leave of absence to visit his parents in Scotland before being shipped off to another far-flung colony.
For Mr Daim, the past week was spent in secluded contemplation on the possible implications of Spring-Heeled Jack’s assertion of innocence. He had assumed that this would be yet another routine hunt, but then again, there was nothing routine about it.
For starters, he had been approached by Europeans. It’s not that Mr Daim didn’t like Europeans; it’s just that they were usually blind to the possibility of the unseen, opting to explain away the existence of jinn with flawful human rationality. So, when that letter arrived from the Viceroy requesting his services, Mr Daim was caught by surprise, his untamed curiosity driving him to comply with the Viceroy’s wishes.
The second red flag was the insistence of a bodyguard. Mr Daim was used to working alone, and governments would usually give him free rein to go about his work unhindered. The Ottomans were so hands-off to the point that Mr Daim felt as though he had impunity. The British, meanwhile, were crippled by bureaucracy. Whenever he requested more information on Spring-Heeled Jack, it was classified. Whenever he wished to leave the hotel alone, it was unsafe. Even when he finally got down to work, there was always the threat of Commissioner Henderson’s interference. The British were indeed a well-oiled machine. They ran an enterprise of such proportions even the jinn were put to shame. But at the same time, one always got the feeling they were being watched.
Then there was his conversation with Spring-Heeled Jack himself. Experience had taught Mr Daim that ghul’s weren’t usually so hospitable. The average ghul would attack you and rip you to pieces the first chance they got. The fact Spring-Heeled Jack was willing to converse instead gave credence to the possibility that he was telling the truth. Guilty people don’t talk; they run. Then again, there was always the chance that perhaps Spring-Heeled Jack was just a particularly cunning ghul. If so, what game was he playing? Regardless, something larger was afoot, and Mr Daim was going to get to the bottom of it.
“Of all places to meet, why here?” Captain Robertson gesticulated towards the large glasshouse bathed in the faint glow of the crescent moon.
“I’m guessing he must be a plant enthusiast,” hypothesised Mr Daim.
The pair found themselves standing amongst the foliage of Kew Gardens. The building that stood before them was made of clear crystal glass roofs pitched by wrought-iron ribs, the penetrating moonlight halted by the thick vegetation that lay within. Just as the Koh-i-Noor was the centrepiece of her majesty’s crown jewels, the building that stood before them was the centrepiece of her majesty’s botanical gardens: the Temperate House.
“How can you be so sure he’s going to show up?” asked Captain Robertson.
“The word of a jinni, ghul or not, far outweighs that of a human,” answered Mr Daim.
This wasn’t true. Jinn were just as cutthroat as humans; he just didn’t want to be made a fool of. Mr Daim was gambling the entire investigation on the word of a ghul. A ghul who was either extremely cunning or extremely honest. He prayed it was the latter.
“If he said he will show, he will show,” insisted Mr Daim, more so for himself than his companion.
A few moments later, Captain Robertson consulted his pocket watch, “it’s midnight.”
“Very well. Let us see what Jack has to say for himself. And, please, try not to shoot him this time.”
Mr Daim took the lead. Captain Robertson followed.
The Temperate House
The Temperate House was packed with flora retrieved from around the furthest extremities of the globe, which together transpired to create its humid atmosphere. There were enough exotic specimens in that greenhouse to rival the grandeur of Babylon’s Hanging Gardens, from the brightest azaleas to the rarest lilium, all of which were towered over by the jubaea tree, primed to burst through the ceiling. Mr Daim was impressed.
Captain Robertson, on the other hand, couldn’t care less. To him, the greenhouse was just a greenhouse. Albeit a large greenhouse – most certainly the largest he’d ever seen – but a greenhouse nonetheless. The variety of flora it exhibited were not rare specimens to be goggled at but rather potential hiding spots from which a ravenous ghul could pounce on you with the ferocity of a panther. Captain Robertson kept his wits about him.
After a few minutes of aimlessly wandering about in the darkness, Captain Robertson decided to snarkily puncture the jittery silence of the night, “it seems as though the word of Spring-Heeled Jack isn’t worth much after all.”
“YOU WOULD DO WELL NOT TO DISHONOUR ME,” bellowed a guttural rasp that reverberated throughout the Temperate House.
Captain Robertson froze to the spot, an unsettling chill running down his spine as he remembered what it was like to be petrified. On the contrary, Mr Daim was unphased, exhibiting the epitome of politeness.
“Jack, it’s good to see you! I’m glad you could join us. How have you been?”
The jinni was staring into the rafters. Captain Robertson tracked his eye line to find Spring-Heeled Jack, donning his mangled tailcoat and contorted top hat, leaning against the balcony of an iron walkway in the moonlight’s bluish tinge. Just like before, his attire failed to obscure the fear-inducing countenance of his crimson fire eyes, resulting in a hauntingly peculiar appearance that made a mockery of the ideal Victorian gentleman.
“I see you brought the human,” averred Spring-Heeled Jack.
“He insisted he come,” explained Mr Daim, “he owes you an apology after what happened last week and wished to express his regret in person.”
“Is that so…”
Within the flutter of an eyelid, Spring-Heeled Jack dived off the walkway, gliding across the ground before coming to a halt, looming his slender frame over the terrified Captain Robertson with the agility of a formless shadow. Captain Robertson could feel the monster’s putrid breath against his forehead as he eyed its menacing claws, his fingers grasping for the clasp of his revolver’s holster.
“I’m waiting, Beni Adam. I believe there’s something you wish to say,” sneered Spring-Heeled Jack, licking his chapped lips.
“S-s-sorry.” Captain Robertson gulped down the urge to scream, “I’m sorry for shooting you. Please don’t eat me.”
Spring-Heeled Jack let out a grisly guffaw, “Oh, aren’t these humans just delightful? For the record, young one, I was never going to eat you.”
Captain Robertson breathed a sigh of long-overdue relief.
“I’m not particularly fond of the taste of Scotsmen.”
The Captain was now confused as to whether he should be relieved or offended after that last remark.
“Okay, great. Now that we got that out of the way, shall we get down to business and discuss what we came to discuss?” offered Mr Daim, attempting to steer the conversation away from Spring-Heeled Jack’s discriminatory diet.
“We shall,” accepted Spring-Heeled Jack as he leaned against the wrinkled trunk of the jubaea tree.
“Very well. Why don’t you begin by telling us how it is you came to be living in Albion?”
“I have always lived in Albion. This island has been my home for millennia, long before the arrival of the Beni Adam.”
“If your claim is true, then explain why we’ve never heard your name until now?” interjected Captain Robertson, immediately regretting his pronouncement.
Mr Daim shot his companion a glare that said: Stop agitating the ghul and let me handle this. The ghul, on the other hand, wasn’t agitated but simply amused by the Captain’s boldness. Especially considering that it was only a moment ago that he was terrified beyond measure.
“Oh, but what you fail to realise, young one, is that I have been given many names throughout the ages. It wasn’t long ago that the people of Albion revered me as a great wizard by the name of Merlin. Of course, this was many centuries before I came to be affected by my current affliction.” Spring-Heeled Jack, formally known as Merlin, stared into the abyss of darkness in abject woe as though he suddenly remembered a life that had been snatched away from him. “I wasn’t always a ghul, Mr Daim. I was once a jinni just like you. But then I was betrayed.”
“Betrayed by whom?” inquired Mr Daim.
“I was approached by The Company in the early spring of seventeen fifty-five. To my surprise, their board of directors were well acquainted with the existence of jinn. I have no doubt that their agents abroad had their fair share of run-ins with the unseen. My job was simple: use my knowledge and power to expand the territories of The Company.
“I set sail for India alongside Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Clive. By this point in his career, the Lieutenant-Colonel had already achieved great feats of warfare over the previous decade, but these would pale in comparison to those he achieved when I was in his service. We arrived in Madras to find The Company’s holdings to the north in a sorry state. Fort William had been captured by the tyrannical Nawab of Bengal, who subjected his British prisoners of war to conditions that violated every modicum of moral decency. With a righteous fury, we made our way to Calcutta and, from the jaws of defeat, liberated the city from the tyrant’s grasp.
“By this point in our expedition, the Seven Years’ War was well underway against our arch-rivals: the French. I remember the time King Richard and I spent fighting Philip Augustus with great fondness and jumped at the chance to wage war against our perpetual nemesis. Together we travelled up the Hooghly and laid siege to their colony of Chandernagore.
“With the French out of the picture, we turned our attention back towards the tyrannical Nawab and dealt him a whopping defeat at Plassey. In time, the entirety of Bengal was liberated from his despotism, and we placed our own puppet on the throne. Clive soon found himself made Commander-in-Chief of Fort William while I returned home with the satisfaction that I had brought honour and glory to king and country.
“You may think my motivation was purely economic, but the truth is that I did it out of sheer love for my people. I have lived amongst this island nation from its very inception. In that time, I had grown to love the British like a father does his children. I was prepared to do anything to help them become the greatest nation amongst the Beni Adam. You can imagine my heartbreak then when I was betrayed by those I had dedicated my life to nurturing.
“As time went on, our rule in Bengal was cemented, and I returned to Calcutta in seventeen seventy. To my dismay, the state of the country was far worse than it had ever been under the rule of the tyrannical Nawab. The streets were filled with starvation, entire towns were deserted, mothers sold their children into slavery, and the land was wrought with vile bandits looking for an easy score. I was appalled by the turmoil I helped create.
“Yes, it was true I wanted Britannia to rule the waves, and I was even willing to do it at the expense of other nations, but the scenes I witnessed during that great famine etched themselves into the deep rifts of my conscience. We were meant to bring peace to that region that had so far been ravaged by ceaseless war. Yet, we depredated that land for our own senseless greed.
“Upon my return to Albion, I left The Company, but of course, they were not willing to let their most valuable asset leave so easily. The directors begged me to stay. After all, I was the real determinant behind Clive’s success and had turned The Company from a group of mercantile holdings into a fully-fledged sovereign state. However, the horrors of famine were a burden too cumbersome for my spirit.
“A month after I left their employ, The Company, on the brink of financial ruin, began sending envoys to my door, each of whom I turned away. Then one day, Clive, now a Major-General, paid me a visit. He had with him a wooden box that I assumed contained some sort of farewell gift. Owing to the fact we had served together on the battlefield, I welcomed him into my residence and poured him a glass of ale. He begged me one last time to return to The Company’s employ. I refused.
“With great remorse, he opened the box to reveal a golden oil lamp carved upon with emerald runes written in the old tongue. Many centuries ago, I had heard tales of such vessels built by the Beni Adam to imprison jinn. How he came to possess one such vessel, I do not know. What I do know is that it is a fate I would not wish on my worst enemy, for it is a fate I was subjected to for over sixty years.
“For decades, I was bound to the will of the directors, forced to do their bidding. I was compelled to commit acts of great evil for the pursuit of wealth, the most wicked of human vices. The only respite I had was the confines of that abhorrent prison. My torture continued until one day a Governor-General, in service of The Company, required my usage in the summer of eighteen thirty-six. He was concerned about recent complications in neighbouring Afghanistan and compelled me to intrude upon the heavens to ascertain the trajectory of future events.
“There is a reason this act is forbidden amongst the jinn. To intrude upon the heavens is no small feat, and it almost cost me my life. I had made it as far the gates before I was struck down by a blazing comet, reducing me to my current ruin. As painful as it was, it did free me from my servitude. I’ve spent the last forty years wandering the streets of London attempting to bring an end to The Company. I even travelled back to India for a short time and instigated the Sepoy Mutiny. As it stands, The Company is still operating, albeit in a vastly vestigial state, but I fear the directors are in the process of attempting one last grab at power, right here in London.”
“Well, that was most certainly a lively tale,” jested Mr Daim, the only laugh being those of the crickets nestled amongst the Temperate House’s collection of flora.
“This is no laughing matter, Mr Daim. If their scheme succeeds, it could spell the end of the jinn,” warned Spring-Heeled Jack.
“You still haven’t explained what happened with that poor lad in the East End,” chimed in Captain Robertson with a renewed interest in the conversation that was slowly dispensing with his fear of the ghastly ghul.
“That’s a good point,” seconded Mr Daim, “I was just about to ask you the same thing. What happened in White Chappal?”
“Whitechapel,” corrected Captain Robertson.
“What happened in Whitechapel?”
“That poor man worked as a clerk at the India House and had some information regarding The Company’s nefarious plans that reached all the way to the top. It was supposed to be an easy, straightforward exchange, but we were intercepted. Just when he was about to give me names, someone attacked him.”
“Did you manage to catch a glimpse of the attacker?” probed Mr Daim.
“No, but he was most certainly a Beni Adam, dressed in all black.”
Mr Daim wasn’t sure what to make of the ghul’s claims. For one thing, they didn’t explain how the body came to be so mutilated. Spring-Heeled Jack seemed the most obvious suspect, given his menacing claws. However, that conclusion seemed to fit a little too easily for Mr Daim’s taste. After all, who’s to say a Beni Adam didn’t take a knife to the body to make it look like the work of a ghul?
“What were you doing at the bottling factory?”
“I was following up on a tip I received from an insider about a new contract The Company had signed. They had ordered a batch of golden lamps studded with emerald inscriptions written in the same old tongue that confined me to my prison. Murdstone was tasked with acquiring those lamps. Mr Daim, I am convinced The Company may be planning to do what they did to me, but on an industrial scale. And I have good reason to believe you have been lured to Albion as their first victim.”
This revelation was met with scepticism from Mr Daim. There was no way The Company had the means to embark on such a venture. In that same moment, Captain Robertson came to a guilt-ridden realisation.
“Gentlemen, I fear I’ve made an egregious error.”
All at once, the western wall of the Temperate House burst into a thousand shards of angry glass that nicked at the Captain’s skin. Chaos filled the empty air as policemen stormed through the thick jungle, firing sporadically towards the jinn. Captain Robertson was caught in the erratic barrage as a stray bullet collided with his clavicle. He instantly buckled over in agony, his consciousness receding.
He spotted Commissioner Henderson, through the smoke of gun barrels, giving orders to secure Mr Daim, who lay on the ground in a befuddled heap. Upon seeing Captain Robertson’s predicament, the Commissioner ordered a medic to be brought forth to tend to his wounds. Once he was turned on his back, the last thing Captain Robertson saw was Spring-Heeled Jack perched atop the jubaea tree. Within an instant, the ghul was gone. And within the next, so was the Captain.
To be continued…
This is part of a larger series called Midnights In London