Midnights In London, Part 4

The Visit

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 pistol 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 Exorcism

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 famines to the south. Famines meant food would become unaffordable and unaffordable food meant Harpreet and her family would go hungry. But luckily, by the grace of Waheguru, the famines to the south were 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 yard, Harpreet eavesdropped from her bedroom. The local Mullah had concluded that Aamir was possessed by Jinn, 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 something in Arabic under his breath 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 the Demon 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

Midnights In London, Part 3

The Body

The first thing to hit Captain Robertson was the pungently repugnant smell. The second was the abhorrent sight of what he believed used to be someone’s face. The third was the burning sensation of bile creeping up his oesophagus. The fourth was the sound of the Lorne sausages he had for breakfast splatting against the pavement. The fifth was the bitter aftertaste left in his mouth as he pulled out his handkerchief to plug his nose and wipe his brow.
Whilst serving in China, Captain Robertson had spent time in an infirmary as men of red with holes in their chests were carried out in stretchers of white in wailing fright. To this day, he had yet to distinguish the red of their coats from the red of their blood. But even the carnage in the aftermath of battle wasn’t enough to prepare him for the brutal fate that befell the poor sod lying before him in that hazy alleyway somewhere in the soot-smothered East End.
Mr Daim crouched down beside the body and muttered a few words. Words that he had repeated many times in his long life. Words that Captain Robertson could understand but in a language the Scotsman couldn’t recognise.
“Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un.”
And so, as the angel Azrael guided the soul on its journey to the afterlife, our duo were left to ponder what had happened to its now vacant vessel. According to the officers, who had set up the cordon, the body was estimated to have walked the Earth for a grand total of eighteen years before it was left lying limp in a back alley amongst all manner of gutter trash one would expect to find littering the streets of London. It wasn’t uncommon to see unnamed labourers lying dead in unmarked alleyways. What was uncommon, however, was the nature in which this particular labourer met his fate. Not a victim of the endless march of industrial progress but instead something far more sinister, far more gruesome.
“Ghul.”
“What was that?” asked Captain Robertson, the handkerchief muffling his voice.
“Ghul. The being that killed this young man was a ghul,” answered Mr Daim as he carefully examined the deep gashes that mutilated the body’s face.
“A Ghoul?”
“Jinn that try to intrude on the heavens but are struck by comets for their transgression. They are condemned to walk the Earth for eternity driven mad with insanity.”
“Genie? Like in the Arabian Nights?”
“Those are children tales, my friend. But believe me, the Jinn are more real than you know, and whatever did this was one of them.”
“So you mean to tell me that Spring-Heeled Jack, the criminal who’s been giving us the runaround this past week, is actually a genie gone mad?”
“Yes, Jack is a ghul. If he was scum and villainy of the regular sort, you wouldn’t have been tasked with bringing me here all the way from Lahore.”
Captain Robertson wasn’t quite sure what to make of this. Genies and ghouls were the work of fiction. Mr Daim was treating them as fact. On their journeys, he had come to accept that the mysterious Mr Daim was a keeper of great wisdom. However, this bordered on lunacy.
“Are you sure you’re not just messing with me?”
“Well, I could be wrong. It may have been a mardykhor that murdered this poor child but last I heard, they were hunted to extinction by the Sasanians. Not to mention this climate is far too cold.”

The pair were finishing up with their perusal when they heard the sounds of commotion coming from the cordon. Captain Robertson went to see what was happening while Mr Daim remained to tend to the body. After covering what was left of the young man in a white shawl, Mr Daim left the hazy alleyway to find Commissioner Henderson giving his officers a bollocking.
“With all due respect, sir, they had permits signed by the Indian Secretary himself.”
“I don’t care who signed those documents, sergeant. This is the city of London, not the backwater slums of Delhi. No one is permitted to interfere in police business without my say so. IS THAT CLEAR, SERGEANT?!” Commissioner Henderson admonished the officer who replied with a sheepish yes, sir though you wouldn’t be wrong in assuming the Commissioner preferred to be addressed as sire. He now had his sights set on Mr Daim, “well, if it isn’t the Indian faqir himself. I don’t recall giving you permission to operate in this area. In fact, if I remember clearly, Mr D, I said quite the contrary. I should have you arrested.”
“You will do no such thing. Mr Daim is under my protection and authorised to work here by order of Her Majesty the Queen. You lay a finger on him, and you’ll have to deal with me,” Captain Robertson chimed in to defend his charge.
“Are you seriously going to take sides with this Mohammedan? Disappointing. I expected more from a fellow member of the British Armed Forces,” scoffed Commissioner Henderson.
“Unlike you, I actually saw combat, so I wouldn’t test me if I were in your shoes.” Captain Robertson was in his face now.
“Is that a threat, Captain? Are you threatening an officer of the law? I should have you both arrested. Officers! Arrest them!”
The officers reluctantly obliged, stepping towards Captain Robertson with their batons in hand. The veteran was already bouncing on his toes, ready for a fight, when Mr Daim suddenly appeared beside the Commissioner, firmly gripping his wrist. Locking eyes with his adversary, he sternly dictated the following:
“By the power of the Jinn, as ordained by the almighty, I hereby order thou Child of Adam to let us depart freely from this place without molestation.”
Captain Henderson stopped his struggling, staring straight ahead as though he was hypnotised and gave his men the order to stand down in a dreary, monotonous tone. No inflexion. No intonation. Confused though they were, the officers were thankful they needn’t have to apprehend a member of the British Armed Forces. After all, they were civilian police, not military police.
“Hurry. We must leave. This only works for a few moments,” Mr Daim briskly led the way, the dumbfounded Captain Robertson trailing behind.
“What in the hell was that?”
“You shouldn’t refer to the place of punishment for evildoers when asking for an explanation.”
“Oh, right. Sorry about that,” Captain Robertson apologised and waited for elaboration. Realising none was coming, he continued, “so are you going to explain what just happened?”
“As I said before, you will not be able to fully grasp the extent of my talents.”
“I guess I should take that as a no then.”
“You should.”

The Tea House

That evening, the pair found themselves in one of London’s many premier tea houses, the kind diplomats would use to host foreign dignitaries. Tea had only arrived on the British Isles two centuries prior and had since taken Britannia by storm. Everyone from pauper to prince relished the piping hot beverage that travelled all the way from China, and soon it came to represent the quintessence of British culture. Ever-present at their greatest victories as well as most embarrassing defeats. Some even went as far as to say that to defeat an Englishman, all one must do is dump his tea in the sea. To Mr Daim, tea was just another drink in a long list of drinks consumed by mankind from the mead of the ancients to the sherbet of the shahanshahs.
“Would you like something to eat, Mr Daim?” asked Captain Robertson as he scanned through the menu. He hadn’t eaten anything since those Lorne sausages he had for breakfast. Of course, they were now splattered all over a hazy alleyway somewhere in the soot-smothered East End.
“No, thank you,” replied Mr Daim whilst jotting down some squiggles into a brown leather notebook. At least that’s what it looked like to Captain Robertson. To Mr Daim, it was Persian.
“So where do we go from here?”
“You may order what you please. I do not find myself currently in need of sustenance.”
“You know that’s not what I meant.”
Mr Daim let out a long-drawn-out sigh, the kind an irritated father would when tired of their infant’s endless stream of inquiries and shut his notebook closed before giving Captain Robertson his full attention. He knew the veteran needed answers. The man had just witnessed something that defied the boundaries of his limited knowledge. Like the Mayans when they were confronted with fire-breathing Spaniards riding atop strange four-legged beasts.
This wasn’t the first time Mr Daim found himself with a gobsmacked companion. It always happened the same way. In the heat of the moment, Mr Daim would brashly call upon one of his abilities, usually to get them out of a situation brought about by said companion, leaving them confounded and in need of answers. There was no sure-fire way to give them answers without shattering their very perceptions of the material world. Up until now, Mr Daim had been putting off the inevitable. So he decided this time he’d just try answering the Captain’s questions as straightforwardly as possible without confusing him any further.
“What is it you wish to know?”
Realising he could finally get some answers out of the mysterious Mr Daim, Captain Robertson put down the menu, crossing his arms, “so according to you, genies are real?”
“Yes.”
“And Spring-Heeled Jack is one such genie?”
“Yes.”
“So, where is his lamp?”
Mr Daim burst out laughing, breaking the quiet, relaxed atmosphere of the teahouse and drawing the attention of their fellow diners. One such diner in a black bowler cap, complete with a golden monocle and bristly mutton chops representing the pinnacle of English sensibilities, loudly coughed and shook his newspaper to indicate his disapproval. Captain Robertson was beginning to feel like a fool.
“Oh wow. That’s a new one indeed,” Mr Daim wheezed with laughter before collecting himself together, “not all Jinn live in lamps, my friend. That went out of fashion centuries ago.”
“I see that now. So how are we going to stop him? We barely got anything from the crime scene before that bastard Henderson showed up.”
“Relax. You needn’t worry, for I have everything I need right here,” Mr Daim pulled out a glass vial from his coat pocket, the same coat Captain Robertson had lent him.
“It’s empty.”
“To your eyes, maybe. But I assure you this contains some of Jack’s residual aura, which I can use to track him down.”
“Let me guess, another talent whose extent I won’t be able to fully grasp?”
“Yes.”
“I take it you’re some kind of genie hunter then?”
“Yes, you could say that.”
“And you’ve done this sort of thing before?
“Many a time.”
“What is Spring-Heeled Jack doing in London?”
“My guess is as good as yours.”
“How many other genies are there?
“Millions.”
“Then explain why I’ve never met one before?”
“The chances are, you probably have. Perhaps you just weren’t open to the possibility that they could be Jinn.”
“Are all genies evil?”
“Are all humans evil?”
“You just answered my question with another question.”
“And the answer to both is the same.”
Captain Robertson remained in quiet contemplation after that. Satisfied he’d managed to sate his companion’s curiosity without confusing him any further, Mr Daim went back to writing in his notebook. Unfortunately, Captain Robertson was just even more confused than before, with a multitude of questions bouncing around in his head.
Are genies really real? Can Mr Daim really track down Spring-Heeled Jack using his residual aura? Why did genie lamps go out of fashion? How did Mr Daim even get his hands on Spring-Heeled Jack’s aura? Have I really met a genie before? What did Mr Daim do to Henderson? WHO IN THE HELL IS MR DAIM?
The realisation began to dawn on Captain Robertson that he didn’t really know a thing about the man sitting across from him. But that didn’t matter. His orders were to provide Mr Daim with protection, not wrap his head around the madness the world seemed to have devolved itself into. The more he could focus on his job, on what was right in front of him, the less his head would ache. Speaking of which, it was really time he had something to eat. Captain Robertson called over the waiter and ordered the day’s special. The men spent the rest of the evening in silence before hailing a growler to take them back to the hotel they were staying at. After seeing Mr Daim safely back to his room, Captain Robertson retired for the night.
Ascending the staircase, trying to force the day’s events out of his head, the veteran was met with an uneasy feeling. Something was off. His door was ajar. Adrenaline kicking in, Captain Robertson carefully unclipped the holster strapped to his chest and slowly pulled out his revolver. Staying extra vigilant, he steadily ascended the final steps. A loud creak reverberated from beneath his feet. Curse these rickety floorboards! Pressing flat against the wall, he slowly crept down the hallway, finger twitching by the trigger. Upon reaching the door, he took a deep breath like a diver about to collide with water and, little by little, slowly pushed the door open on its squeaky hinges. 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.

To be continued…


This is part of a larger series called Midnights In London

Midnights In London, Part 2

The Capital

After their long journey westward, Mr Daim and Captain Robertson finally arrived in London, the capital of the ever-expanding, ever-glorious, ever-mighty British Empire. To Mr Daim, like many visitors hailing from the colonies, London seemed a lacklustre cesspit of poverty and desperation. Not the centre of culture, science and wealth, one would expect to be befitting of the globe-trotting Britannia whose trident commanded the waves in pursuit of her god-given right to rule the world: Dieu Et Mon Droit. Wherever Britannia’s trident pointed, her subjects would go. It just so happened that in the case of Mr Daim and Captain Robertson, her trident pointed home.
To Mr Daim, the man who’d travelled as far as the imperial courts of Peking, London was the lump of coal amongst diamonds when it came to seats of power. Babylon had the Hanging Gardens, Baghdad the House of Wisdom, Constantinople the Hagia Sophia, but what did London have? A murky river polluted by the scourge of an industrial revolution, cobbled streets with festering horse faeces interposed between its furrows and a neglected palace disliked by its supposed inhabitants – one of whom tried to pawn it off on his own parliament. Speaking of which, perhaps the macabre Clock Tower protruding into a sky choking on smog was the only redeemable feature of this depressing landscape. After all, it was here that the fate of hundreds of millions of the Earth’s residents was decided.
As the duo made their way across Westminster Bridge in a horse-drawn carriage, the macabre Clock Tower looming over them, it was Mr Daim this time that had trouble adjusting to a foreign climate. He had spent so long in the burn-inducing weather of north-west India that the frostbite-inducing weather of south-east England gave him a chilling shock from skin to bone. To remedy this, Captain Robertson had loaned the use of his winter coat to his charge despite the fact that summer was only right around the corner and ignoring the fact that this must have broken some form of protocol written in some kind of handbook somewhere at some point. Over the course of their journey, he had developed a burgeoning respect for his travelling companion, and his endless stream of ghazals, with the belief that the mysterious Mr Daim was a keeper of untold wisdom. The man carried himself with an aura of easiness that one could only achieve if they were to sever their connection from the pursuit of fame and glory, something Mr Robertson felt incapable of, and it is for this very reason that he began to hold Mr Daim in such high regard.
The pair were due to meet with the incumbent Commissioner Henderson, of the Metropolitan Police, for a top-secret meeting at the India Office that would shed some more light on the letter Mr Daim received from the juxtaposing sepoy back in Lahore. And so off they went, through the dense crowds, past the gothic drab of Westminster Abbey housing the rotting corpses of long-dead kings and queens, past the young boy perched atop an empty crate selling copies of The Daily Telegraph he couldn’t read, and northward towards the offices of Her Majesty’s government. There, sandwiched between the overflowing treasury and the oft-vacant number ten, lay the gears that kept Britain’s imperial machine running: the Home Office, Foreign Office, Colonial Office, and all-important India Office. It was from these very rooms that Britannia commanded her vast empire. Mr Daim was about to enter the belly of the beast.

The Meeting

At the gates to the India Office, Mr Daim and Captain Robertson were greeted by the Secretary of State for India, the Eighth Duke of Argyll, who led them through the building, across the marble Durbar Court overlooked by interlocking crescents and crosses, up the Muses’ Staircase flanked by the fossils of millennia-old sea lilies frozen in stone, and briskly ushered them into his office, where the Commissioner was waiting.
“Pleasure to meet you,” Commissioner Henderson welcomed the men with the shake of his hand. Mr Daim could tell from his vice-like grip that the man that stood before him had spent some time in the military. “I take it you are the fabled Mr Dame who has come to save us?”
“Daim.” This wasn’t the first time Mr Daim had to correct someone on the pronunciation of his name. He was certain it wasn’t going to be the last, so long as he remained on the British Isles.
“We’ll just call you Mr D for the sake of convenience,” tension emanating from the tendons that pulled Commissioner Henderson’s mouth into a tight grin.
“Let’s not dilly-dally, gentlemen. Please, Mr Dame, take a seat,” the Duke motioned for Mr Daim to take the remaining chair beside the Commissioner, while he sunk slowly into the leather armchair located on the opposite side of the large mahogany writing desk littered with theses, pertaining to subjects as wide as ornithology to economics. It seemed to Mr Daim that the Eighth Duke of Argyll shared a greater affinity for science than he did politics. Captain Robertson remained standing by the door with the stalwart grace one would expect from a member of the British Armed Forces.
“Unfortunately, Her Majesty Queen Victoria is indisposed at the moment and will not be able to greet you personally.” Mr Daim wasn’t surprised by that revelation. He had become used to the eccentric procedures of royalty and didn’t expect to be granted an actual audience with Her Majesty Queen Victoria. At least Mr Daim wasn’t being given the same runaround afforded to him by the Emperor of Mali.  
“I must confess that I am pressed for time, and so I’ll try my utmost best to be brief, succinct and to the point.” In Mr Daim’s experience, politicians were rarely brief, succinct and to the point, but he awaited amazement nonetheless. “Recently, there have been… unusual sightings of… some kind of… well to be perfectly candid, I’m not quite sure how to explain it other than as some kind of supernatural phenomenon. Some sort of flying creature, to be precise.”
“It doesn’t fly, Mr Secretary. It jumps. And if I may be so bold as to inquire why you saw it fit to seek the aid of a foreigner in what is clearly an internal matter concerning MY department?” the Commissioner was clearly agitated by Mr Daim’s presence as if it signified the undermining of his authority in some way.
“Well, the answer to that question is quite simple, Commissioner,” the hard C hiding a dozen tales of contempt, “the Met has proved itself to be quite out of its depth and now…” The Duke paused to fiddle with one of the desk drawers before pulling out and slapping the front page of a newspaper onto the ever-increasing bundle of disjointed papers that littered the varnished mahogany. “And now, the tabloids are getting wind of your failure to put an end to this threat. Hence, why Mr Dame, who is specialised in matters like these, has been brought here to see this menace dealt with. Does that satisfy your question, Commissioner?” The Duke accepted the ensuing silence as a sign of his victory. An ever so sly smile flitted across his face as he turned his attention away from his wounded quarry and towards the patiently waiting Mr Daim. “Apologies for my colleague’s rudeness. I trust you know what needs to be done?”
Mr Daim nodded in agreement.
“Great, well, I’ll let you get to work. Captain Robertson will remain by your side to assist you in this endeavour as your personal bodyguard. Should you need any extra support, Commissioner Henderson has been approved to allocate you any resources that could be of assistance. Although I’m not quite sure how effective his help will be. Any questions? No? Very well, I must really be off now to attend to an important matter. Thank you for your time, gentlemen,” the Duke bid his farewell to Mr Daim and Captain Robertson without extending the same courtesy to his now silent rival.
The Duke was just about to walk through the door when he remembered he had one last request for Mr Daim. “I trust you understand how sensitive this matter is and would greatly appreciate it if you’d did everything within your power to keep things quiet.”
“Of course, Mr Secretary. Rest assured that this menace will cease to plague the streets of London.”
“Good man.” And with that, the Eighth Duke of Argyll was off to attend to an important matter.
As soon as the Duke left the room, Commissioner Henderson turned blood-red hostile. “Look here, Mr Dame,” Mr Daim turned to look here, “or however you pronounce it, frankly I don’t care, but what I do care about is the safety of this city and if you so dare interfere with police business at any point during your stay, rest assured I will bring the full might of the law down upon your helpless soul.” The tip of his finger was thrust between Mr Daim’s ribs now. “So you can go out there with your little trinkets and incantations, or whatever it is you Indian faqirs do, while I’ll lead my men in capturing that… that… thing and bringing peace to the city of London. Just make sure you stay out of our way.” Was that spit Mr Daim felt splash against his cheek? “Good day, gentlemen.”
Commissioner Henderson stormed out the door, down the Muses’ staircase flanked by the fossils of millennia-old sea lilies frozen in stone, across the marble Durbar Court overlooked by interlocking crescents and crosses, and briskly through the gates of the all-important India Office. It wasn’t until both men had left that Captain Robertson finally caught a proper glimpse of the newspaper. SPRING-HEELED JACK STRIKES AGAIN.

To be continued…


This is part of a larger series called Midnights In London

Midnights In London, Part 1

The Letter

Dear Mr Daim,

It is with the utmost urgency that I write this letter. Her Majesty The Queen requires your presence in London to see to a sensitive issue in which your particular expertise and discretion are much-needed. An armed escort has already been dispatched from Calcutta to Lahore and is due to arrive in the coming days. It is imperative that you be ready to leave upon their arrival. Time is of the essence.

Yours sincerely,

Lord Mayo

Viceroy and Governor-General of India

Mr Daim was sitting on his charpai reading Ghalib when the sepoy, clad in his juxtaposing redcoat and navy blue dastar, handed him the above letter. The sepoy was most certainly a Sikh, a conclusion Mr Daim arrived at after spotting the cast iron kara encircling the wrist of the hand that graciously gave him the above letter. No more than three decades ago, the Sikhs were at war with the British. Back then, a Sikh serving the British was unheard of. Then again, so was the distribution of the above letter to individuals such as the aforementioned Mr Daim.
Many of the sepoy’s fellow countrymen wanted nothing to do with the British. Not long ago, sepoys, much like the one in the dastar of navy, rebelled against their British overlords. They were joined by the likes of Maharani Lakshmibai of Jhansi and, for a brief moment, even the esteemed Emperor Bahadur Shah the Second. They lost. Why? Well, because anyone that could defeat the Sikhs, India’s greatest warriors, were able to defeat anyone. And that’s exactly what the British did. So as far as Mr Daim and the juxtaposing sepoy were concerned, India’s fate was sealed, and they had no qualms serving Her Majesty The Queen.
“Meharbani,” Mr Daim dismissed the sepoy and went about packing his things. A few days later, two Bengali sepoys accompanied by a certain Captain Robertson arrived at Mr Daim’s charpai to find him reading Rumi. As instructed, the party immediately left for London.

The Voyage

This wasn’t the first time Mr Daim found himself voyaging halfway across the world. The nature of his work had taken him all over the globe, from the imperial courts of Peking to the dense jungle forests of the Amazon. He was sure that he must have ventured to the British Isles before. Unfortunately, the details of his last visit were so long ago that they had escaped his memories.
After arriving at the foot of Mr Daim’s charpai, Captain Robertson and his two Bengali sepoys began the second leg of their long journey, this time with their charge in tow. They took a train from Lahore to Multan in the oppressive heat of India’s pre-monsoon skies which proved far too much for the rosy-cheeked Captain Robertson, who had his head hanging out the window for most of the ride. In comparison, the two Bengali sepoys, one Hindu one Muslim, remained unphased, fingers firmly wrapped around their Enfield P59s with the certainty that they needn’t grease their ammunition in pig fat nor beef tallow.
The coach remained quiet among the four men. The two sepoys could speak neither Hindi nor Urdu, communicating with their commanding officer in an amalgamation of banglarised* English and anglicised Bengali. That was, of course, only when and if communication was absolutely necessary for Captain Robertson was a man of few words.
In contrast, Mr Daim was a man of the world. He could speak many languages, from Xhosa to Danish. In fact, he could speak so many languages he wasn’t even sure which one it was that he spoke first. Unfortunately, Bengali was not one of them. Mr Daim decided then and there that he’d spend a few decades living in the winding streets of Calcutta upon his return so he could add another language to his ever-expanding repertoire.

It wasn’t until they reached Multan and boarded the steamboat to Kotri that the party’s silence was broken when Mr Daim pulled out some Hafez from his battered old briefcase. The Bengali sepoys spotted the poetry and, in their banglarised** English, asked for Mr Daim to read it aloud. He obliged. And so for the duration of their trip down the Indus, past the Tomb of Bibi Jawindi and its glazed tiles of blue and white mutilated by nature’s scorn, past the sand smothered mortared brick of the dead city of Mohenjo-Daro waiting to be found again, the words of Hafez brought a little life into a dying world. The Bengali sepoys, despite not knowing a word of Persian, gourmandised on the sweet ghazals with awe that transcended the borders of language. Even the reserved Captain Robertson revelled in its joy, the ecstasy of Hafez soothing the burden of a foreign climate that refused to bow down to the will of an Englishman.
Before they knew it, the party had arrived in Karachi, the ghazals having carried them off the steamboat and onto the Scinde Railway, all the while blinding the men to the passing of day into night and night into day. At the city’s port, the Bengali sepoys bid their farewell to Mr Daim, Captain Robertson and the sweet ghazals of Hafez. They had served their purpose; Captain Robertson had made it to Karachi unharmed by the disgruntled natives. The Bengali sepoys, one Hindu one Muslim, would return to Calcutta, fingers firmly wrapped around their Enfield P59s with the certainty they needn’t grease their ammunition in pig fat nor beef tallow. The responsibility fell to Captain Robertson alone to see Mr Daim reach the British Isles. And so wasting no time at all, they boarded the first passenger ship leaving port.

The ship sailed westward along the Makran coast before turning southward, weaving around Arabia and slipping into the Red Sea. They were not the first to follow this route, and neither would they be the last. Indian and Roman ships had been making this journey for centuries carrying trinkets and treasures to be sold and bartered in addition to gossip and gospel to be shared and broadened. However, one thing was different: the Suez Canal had opened, bridging the gap between what is Red and Mediterranean, shortening the distance between what is Atlantic and Indian, and more importantly, bringing Mr Daim all the more closer to his destination.
And so as they passed through Sinai, sailing the thin line that divorced Africa from its beloved Asia in the cool ocean breeze, Captain Robertson was cured of his rosied cheeks. The absence of the harsh Indian sun signified the end of the Captain’s conversational reservations. In this relaxed state, Captain Robertson, the man of few words, became a man of many relating the story of his life to Mr Daim amongst a backdrop of long-forgotten kings encased in tombs waiting to be ransacked by ever-enthusiastic explorers.
As it turns out, he wasn’t an Englishman at all but rather a Scotsman born to a fisherman who crossed the boundary of Hadrian’s Wall in search of fame and glory as a rifleman in the British Army. He soon worked his way up to the rank of Captain during the latter half of the Second Opium War and had only been stationed in Fort William for four months when he was tasked with escorting Mr Daim to London. During this time, he learned how to speak his anglicised Bengali and a little anglicised Hindi too. Captain Robertson even went as far as indulging in the local cuisine, something his English colleagues were not too fond of. The one thing he hadn’t become accustomed to was the weather, and he was glad to be out before the height of India’s pre-monsoon season.
A little while after the ship left Port Said, Captain Robertson asked the mysterious Mr Daim a question:
“So, Mr Daim, I’ve told you about me, but what about you? What’s your particular area of expertise?”
“I fear you may not be able to fully grasp the extent of my talents, but you needn’t worry, my friend. All will be revealed in good time.”

To be continued…

Maybe.

*I made this word up, lol. If you know what the Bengali equivalent of “anglicised” is, do let me know.

**Yes, this is indeed a word now.


This is part of a larger series called Midnights In London

Shaheen

Fiction. Its an interesting thing isn’t it? Inherently false yet at the same time often truer than even the truest encyclopaedia. Not quite real yet not quite fake either. A kind of no man’s land between the reality that we witness before our eyes and the jumble of threads that make up the complex machinery behind our hardened skulls. A half-existence.

It is in this land of half-existence that we find our protagonist: Shaheen. A being neither old nor young. Neither bright nor dull. Neither handsome nor ugly. Neither fat nor skinny. Neither fast nor slow. Neither man nor woman. Neither real nor fake. A truly – yet at the same time falsely – half-real half-fake being. Well, that depends if you even consider Shaheen a being. For how can something that only half-exists, “be”?

You see, Shaheen knows that she is merely the product of an author’s imagination. And an underdeveloped product at that. He knows that she half-exists. She knows that what he knows she only knows because the author has decided that he knows. She is aware that the boundary of his half-real half-fake half-existence starts and ends with the page upon which her author has written. He will never be more nor less than that. She will forever remain constant. Trapped by the page never really existing but never really not.

Shaheen got his name from her father. A father that didn’t exist until just now when the author decided they did. The name Shaheen means “falcon” in Persian. However, it is not from Persian that the author got the name but instead another language: Urdu. In many ways, Shaheen is like Urdu and Urdu is like Shaheen. A half-real half-fake language in a state of half-existence. Upon laying their eyes on Urdu, one may be forgiven for mistaking it for Persian. Upon hearing Urdu, one may also be forgiven for mistaking it for Hindi. However, regardless of how one encountered Urdu, they would not fail to realise the beauty of the language. And as with all beautiful languages; Urdu is famous for its poetry.

شاہین کبھی پرواز سے تھک کر نہیں گرتا
پُردم ہے اگر تو‘ تو نہیں خطرہ اُفتاد

Shaheen Kabhi Parwaz Se Thak Kar Nahin Girta.
Pur Dam Hai Agar Tu To Nahin Khatra-e-Uftad.

The falcon is never tired of flight, Does not drop gasping on the ground:
If unwearied it remains on wings, From huntersʹ dread is safe and sound.

Allama Iqbal

The author originally came across this poem from their father. Not Shaheen’s half-real half-fake father but instead a fully real non-fake human being. One not confined to the page as Shaheen and his father are. It is from this poem that the author picked out Shaheen’s name for Shaheen’s father to give to her. Neither Shaheen nor his father would really have any choice in the matter. They thought what the author wanted them to think and did what the author wanted them to do. They were only aware of this fact because the author allowed them to be aware. Perhaps, they felt grateful for being given this awareness? Or maybe they felt resentful? Neither Shaheen nor her father nor the author nor the author’s father knew the answer to this question. Could Shaheen and her father even feel? Nobody knew because the author hadn’t decided yet.

The poet who brought the couplet into existence went by many names. “Shair-e-Mashriq” (“Poet of the East”), “Hakeem-ul-Ummat” (“The Sage of the Ummah”), “Muffakir-e-Pakistan” (“The Thinker of Pakistan”) were just a few of his titles. Shaheen found that last title interesting. It is said that the poet envisioned a nation. One that didn’t exist yet at the same time always existed. Not quite real yet not quite fake either. A half-existence just like him. However, unlike Shaheen, the nation wasn’t confined to a page. In fact, the nation was able to elevate from a place of half-existence to a full existence. And this made her feel jealous.

The author had finally decided to let Shaheen feel. Whether Shaheen’s father could feel or not was a different question. The author decided they’d leave that up to the reader to decide. The author was fond of leaving loose ends after all. What is certain is that the author and the author’s father could feel. They were fully real non-fake beings that lived a full existence. But was this true because it was indeed true or was it true because the author said it was true? This left the author puzzled.

While the author struggled to contemplate the truth of their own existence, Shaheen was well aware of the truth of his existence. She was a half-real half-fake being living a half-existence. He was an idea. But just like a nation, ideas could become a reality.

Perhaps one day, the author may name their child Shaheen. Thus, elevating Shaheen from a half-existence to a full existence. At least in name anyway. Perhaps, the author might invest more time into making Shaheen a more fully-fledged character like in the novels they read as a child. This wouldn’t elevate her to a place of full existence, but it would make his half-existence more bearable.

Unfortunately for Shaheen, she was but a skelf of a thought in the author’s head. They had only bothered to bring him into her half-existence because the very idea of Shaheen was keeping them awake at night. Having done so. Having expunged Shaheen from their mind, the author will move on with their life. Thus, leaving Shaheen to her half-real half-fake half-existence. Whether he would ever become anything more than her current state would depend upon the author’s author. For the author only thought what their author wanted them to think and did what their author wanted them to do.