There's still a music to this place, Arthur Conan Doyle thought as he strolled into the woods behind the small cottage he had acquired in Cottingley. The forest glowed with autumnal colors and the warmth of the fall sunshine. Yes, things had changed much since the last time he'd visited, but the music was still here. Faint, but here nonetheless.
He breathed in the cool November air, his mind traveling back to the year he'd first visited this quaint English village, situated between the larger towns of Shipley and Bingley in West Yorkshire. It had been warmer then, the gardens and forests lush with summer growth. Conan Doyle smiled at the pleasant memory.
With all the recent supernatural threats to the world and the knowledge that somewhere out there in the cosmos, the ancient evil known as the Demogorgon was even now traveling toward Earth, Ceridwen had convinced Conan Doyle that he needed to recuperate, to rest and rejuvenate himself. Neither of them could think of a better place to do that than Cottingley. It had been here, after all, that Conan Doyle had first encountered the world of Faerie.
He had met seventeen-year-old Elsie Wright and her younger cousin Francis Griffith in 1920 and found himself captivated by the photographs they had taken, and which had caused an uproar among the local populace. Of course, he had known they were forgeries, these fanciful photographs, showing the girls interacting with tiny fairy folk and gnomes, but he played the part of the gullible old man. Conan Doyle had been in his sixties then, his studies of spiritualism and magic beginning to garner far too much attention. He had needed more privacy to continue his studies, and what better way than to be branded a credulous old kook.
Yet his strategy had had unexpected consequences. The trip to Cottingley had been all for show. The last thing he had imagined was that he would encounter actual mysteries in the woods outside the village, or that the playful hoax of two young girls would lead him to a real encounter with the Fey. But he stood now not far at all from the very spot where he'd had his first encounter with creatures from Faerie and discovered in an impossibly hollow tree an entrance into a world beyond his imagining.
The voice of his lover stirred him from his ruminations of the past. Ceridwen had gone on ahead, anxious to view the Cottingley Beck again, the narrow brook fed by a cascading waterfall that ran between two steep banks. That was where Elsie and Frances had chosen to compose their fantastical photos, and the beauty of the place made it simple to understand why.
Ceri called his name again, and he quickened his step. There was a tension in her voice, not one that implied danger, but certainly something had upset her. Conan Doyle conjured a quick defensive spell and felt the magic swirl around his fingers as he carefully descended an embankment that led down to the stream.
He found the princess of Faerie standing beside the stream, not far from the falls, her back to him as she scrutinized her surroundings. Conan Doyle was again struck by the way she was dressed. Her usual couture consisted of silken gowns and wraps in the colors of earth and ocean. Ceridwen was an elemental sorceress and felt most comfortable in the hues of nature.
The colors she wore today were no exception, but rather than a silk gown, she wore stylish khaki trousers and a sky blue blouse. As breathtakingly beautiful and elegant as she always was, it lifted his heart to see her this way, to have an aspect of his home world accepted by her, even if it was something as inconsequential as fashion. Ceridwen had not confirmed it, but Conan Doyle felt certain this was Eve's doing - she had such a taste for style - and he made a mental note to thank her when they returned to the States.
"What is it, love?" he asked as he approached.
Ceridwen cast a worried glance over her shoulder at him. Her thick golden hair was pulled back and knotted. Her alabaster skin glowed in the faint sunlight of the autumn afternoon. In that moment, her beauty would have stolen his breath, if it hadn't been for the sadness in her eyes.
"Ceri, what is it?" he asked, hurrying to her side. "What's wrong?"
She'd dropped the basket they had brought with them for a picnic repast. It had fallen on its side, its contents partially spilling out onto the riverbank.
"Look what they've done, Arthur."
He placed his hands gently upon her shoulders, attempting to see through her eyes - through the eyes of a being inherently connected to the elements.
Where there had once been none, there were now homes built on either side of the stream. Beyond them he saw a fence, likely erected because somebody believed that the site was potentially dangerous for public access, even all these years later. Even though the girls' claims were debunked so thoroughly.
Conan Doyle sighed, wrapping his arms lovingly around her from behind. "It's awful," he said softly. "But we can't expect them to leave it as it was. To them, this is progress."
Ceridwen stiffened in his arms.
"Progress?" she spat. "They're killing it."
She spoke of Cottingley Beck as if it were a person, and to the Fey, that was precisely how it was perceived.
"Houses practically built atop one another, their pollutants finding their way into the stream . . . and somebody actually put up a fence," she said, stabbing a finger toward the offending structure. "A fence, Arthur."
He held her tighter, trying to calm her angry spirit. "This wasn't the purpose of coming here," he said. "To make you angry and bring you that much closer to declaring war on humanity."
She scoffed at his attempt at humor. "And you were appalled by what my race calls your world."
"The Blight," Conan Doyle said, the word sounding incredibly ugly as it left his lips. But true.
"When I see something like this," Ceridwen said, turning in his arms to face him, "it makes it so difficult not to wish them ill will."
Conan Doyle told himself he knew how difficult it must have been for her to leave Faerie in order to be with him in this often cold, ugly, human world. Yet he knew he could never understand the true extent of her sacrifice. It must have been torturous, but here she was, standing by his side. The time that he had spent living in Faerie was no sacrifice at all, in comparison. In truth, he had gained far more than he had lost while residing there. Often he had questioned his decision to leave Faerie and to leave Ceridwen behind. She had refused to come with him, and he had been unable to stay. Now he wondered how he had ever had the strength to turn his back on their love.
That they had been brought together again, found the love growing between them once more, was a greater gift than he had ever deserved. Silently, he vowed to himself that he would never let her go again. No matter the cost. Yet looking back, he knew all too well that had he not made that decision to leave Faerie, humanity would likely have met it demise by now. The world of his birth would have been swallowed up by some horrific preternatural threat if not for his efforts and those of his special operatives - his Menagerie.
He put his mouth close to the delicate shell of her ear and whispered, "Even though it has changed, it is still the place that brought us together. That is what brought us here, Ceri. And even with the way the woods have changed, it is still a beautiful, autumn day. Are we going to allow it to go to waste?"
She wrapped her arms tightly around his waist. "I hope not, Arthur. Somehow I know you'll do your best to ease my mind."
Ceridwen did not wait for his response. She pressed her lips tightly to his in a passionate kiss, her hands leaving his waist to cup his face. He responded in kind, pressing his body tightly against hers.
It wasn't long before they lay beneath the trees, their passions inflamed, and fumbled with their clothing. Conan Doyle could feel the environment around them responding to his woman's pleasure. To the magic in her. The grass grew tall around their entwined bodies, the air filled with the sound of insects and the chirping of birds.
Ceridwen sat astride him, her rhythmic movements sending wave after wave of intense pleasure through them both.
"Though the world may change around us," she breathed, "what we now have together . . . this is something that will forever remain untouched."
She leaned down to kiss him again, her hair brushing his face as their bodies moved together.
A delicious overture, before the inevitable storm.
"So when do the lovebirds get back?" Julia Ferrick asked her son from the stove, where she was currently putting together their evening's meal of Texas chili.
Danny loved his mother's chili, and his empty stomach rumbled just thinking about it. Seated on a stool behind the marble island in the center of the large kitchen, he inhaled the delicious smells of her cooking. The lovebirds she referred to - though the expression made him wince - were Mr. Doyle and Ceridwen, gone to England to spend some private time together.
"I think sometime tomorrow," he said, picking strips of dead skin from around his fingernails. His body was continuing to change, becoming more and more . . . demonic.
"Don't pick," his mother scolded. Julia chopped up an onion on the wooden cutting board, as four strips of bacon popped and sizzled in the frying pan on the gas burner. The air was filled with the delicious aroma of cooking meat.
"It's just dead skin," he said, paying her no mind. His nails had become long, curved, and thick, growing to nasty points, and when he tensed the muscles in his fingers, the nails distended, reminding him of a cat's claws. They could do some serious damage in a fight, he mused, recalling the scrapes he'd gotten into since coming to live in Conan Doyle's Beacon Hill brownstone.
"I don't care," his mother replied. "It could still get infected. Leave it alone."
Danny glared at her. "Have you fucking looked at me lately? An infection is the least of my problems."
Using tongs, his mother flipped the bacon over in the pan. "Language, Danny, please. I didn't let you talk that way in my house, and I don't want you to talk that way here."
He laughed. "Everybody talks that way here."
"Talks how?" asked a voice, and the temperature in the kitchen dropped considerably. The ghostly form of Dr. Leonard Graves slowly materialized.
Danny shrugged. "Y' know, cursin' and shit. Everybody does it."
"Well, I don't, and neither does Leonard," his mother said, sliding the pan over to an unused burner. Using the tongs, she moved the bacon to two sheets of paper towel.
"Your mother's right," Leonard said, in that low voice that somehow managed to be both creepy and comforting at the same time. "There's no reason to speak that way . . .unless you want people to think that you're an uneducated cretin."
Danny chuckled, pretty certain that he'd never been called a cretin before.
Julia came over to them with the bacon on the paper towel, placing it down in front of him. She didn't use the actual bacon in her chili recipe, just the grease. He helped himself to a piece; it was crispy, cooked just the way he liked it.
"I'm making chili," Julia said to Graves. "I'd ask you to join us, but I know you don't eat." She gave a small laugh, smiling at the ghost, as her hands played with her hair.
There it is again, Danny thought, chewing slowly on his bacon. His mother had been acting weird around Dr. Graves lately. Different. Almost nervous. He'd entertained the notion several times that his mom was flirting, but dismissed it as too crazy. Now he wasn't so sure. Did his mother actually have a thing for the ghost of a guy who'd been dead since World War II?
How fucked up is that?
"Thank you, Julia," Graves said. "I'm sure it's delicious. I wish I could try some, but it's just beyond my reach."
With a sympathetic look, she returned to the stove and began to scrape the bacon grease into the large, cast-iron kettle that she'd brought from home.
"Well, you're welcome to hang out with us, of course," she said, turning the flame on beneath the kettle and placing the dirty pan in the sink, filling it full of warm soapy water. "We've got an exciting evening of Battleship and a showing of . . . what's the name of the movie again?" she asked Danny.
"Old Boy," he said. "It's Korean, supposed to be a killer."
"Yeah, that's it," she said, smiling again as she wiped her hands on a dish towel. "Like I said, you're more than welcome."
Danny felt himself becoming perturbed; this was supposed to be their time - just him and his mom. It pissed him off a bit, her inviting somebody to hang, when it was just supposed to be the two of them. He dug at a particularly itchy patch of skin on the back of his hand, drawing blood. The crimson liquid slowly oozed to the surface of the torn, yellowed flesh.
His mother slid two packages of ground hamburger into the iron kettle. It hit the hot bacon grease, and the sound and aroma of it sizzling in the pot filled the air, distracting Danny from his anger. Once the meat was partially cooked, she'd add the tomato paste and then the spices. His mouth began to water, and his gums to itch, another new trait of his continued transformation. Whenever he got hungry, or even thought of food, his teeth grew longer. Danny flicked his tongue over the pointed tips of his prominent incisors. They were sharp, and he had to be careful not to slice his tongue.
"Thanks for the invitation," the ghost said. "But I'm afraid I have some pressing business that must be attended to."
His mother turned from the stove, continuing to stir the cooking beef and spices around in the pot. "Is everything okay?"
Dr. Graves seemed agitated, more distracted than usual. Danny had grown able to read him pretty well. They'd been spending quite a bit of time together lately. Danny couldn't go to school, and so Dr. Graves had been tutoring him a little. He didn't understand what the point was of continuing his education - after all, it wasn't like he was going to have a normal life. But Graves had been able to make him understand that knowledge wasn't just something to be used to impress a prospective employer or a college interviewer . . . it was a weapon. The right piece of knowledge at the right time could make the difference between victory and defeat, between life and death.
On that level, Danny understood. So he went along with the whole tutor idea, most of the time.
The more he learned about Dr. Graves, the more amazed he was at how much the guy had experienced and all the knowledge he had accumulated in his lifetime. Hell, he was still accumulating it, even after his death. Yeah, it was freaky to have a ghost for a teacher, but that was only appropriate, considering he himself was a total freak. He doubted the faculty over at Newton South would be up for teaching a kid with skin like an alligator, claws, and horns growing out of his head.
The anger was back, this time over the changes that were twisting his body. And that in itself was another change. Lately he'd found himself getting angry more often, the littlest things making him want to tear something apart - or tear somebody limb from limb. He grabbed another slice of bacon, shoving the whole thing into his mouth.
The ghost had hesitated, and Danny could see storm clouds of trouble in his eyes.
"Dr. Graves?" he ventured.
"To be honest, everything is not okay," the ghost said. "And it's high time that I devoted my full attention to dealing with that."
"Sounds serious," Julia said, turning the flame down low beneath the kettle, so the contents could simmer a bit before she added the last of the ingredients. "Anything we can do to help?"
"Yeah, what's up?" Danny asked, refocusing his anger into concern for his tutor.
"I haven't spent a lot of time talking about it, but I know you're both aware of how I died. It was murder, and the mystery of my death has never been solved. I think I've waited long enough for answers, don't you?"
Graves didn't talk about this part of his past very often, but Danny couldn't blame him. He couldn't imagine how fucked up it must be to still be around after . . . to know what it's like to be murdered.
"Isn't Mister Doyle supposed to be helping you with this?" Julia asked.
The ghost chuckled, but there really didn't seem to be much humor behind it. "Yes, yes he is. In fact, the entire reason I've stayed here so long, in his house, and taken part in his war against the darkness - been a part of his Menagerie, as he likes to call us - was as payback for his help in finding the solution to my murder."
Danny tore off the end of a piece of paper towel, using it to staunch the seeping wound that he had scratched in the top of his hand.
"All the time you've been working with Mr. Doyle and still . . . ?" he asked, looking into the ghost's nearly transparent eyes.
Graves nodded. "Exactly. It's been a very long time, and I'm still no closer to answers."
Julia returned to the stove, lifted the lid and stirred what was inside. "Why is that, do you think?"
"I can't be certain," Graves said, shaking his head slowly. "There has been the occasional lead over the years, followed with a thorough investigation, but in the end . . ."
"The big donut," Danny said. "Nada. Don't you think it's sort of weird that somebody as smart as Conan Doyle - he created Sherlock Holmes for fuck's sake - couldn't dig up at least a little something that would be useful in solving your case?"
Danny watched as Graves slowly crossed his arms, hovering a good six inches off the kitchen floor. "One would think. To be honest, I've let trust and friendship and sometimes despair get in the way of asking that very question. But after all this time, I'm not sure the answer even matters."
Julia pulled a blender out from beneath the counter, setting it down and plugging it in. A deep frown creased her forehead as she turned to stare at them.
"Are you two implying that Mr. Doyle is purposely not helping? Because if that's the case, I think you're both being ridiculous."
She poured into the blender the contents of another pan that had been boiling on the stove. Bright red chili pods bobbed inside the plastic container. Julia hit one of the buttons on the blender, and the clear water inside turned a dark, churning red, as the peppers were pureed.
"Regardless," Graves said over the roar of the blender. "I can't wait anymore, can't divert so much of my attention to other things. I'm going to start the investigation from scratch."
The kitchen went suddenly silent, as Julia switched off the appliance. "You're leaving?"
Again, Danny saw it in his mother, this affection for Graves.
"If I'm going to do this properly . . ." Graves's voice trailed off.
Though he was only a ghost, a transparent, shifting apparition of ectoplasm . . . not even really there, when you thought about it . . . he seemed weighted with regret. Danny stared at him. It was crazy enough to think that his mother had feelings for a dead man, but now Danny had to wonder if the ghost had feelings for her as well.
Julia detached the pitcher from the blender, taking its contents to her kettle. "How long do you think you'll be?" she asked casually, apparently not wanting to appear upset, but Danny could hear it in her voice.
If there was one thing he'd learned about his mother, it was how to read the tone of her voice.
"I don't know," Graves replied. "And I'm sorry. I know I made some promises about keeping up with Danny's tutoring -"
"It's cool," Danny said, batting a rolled and blood-stained piece of paper towel back and forth between his hands. "Do what you have to."
"And once you solve this case, your . . . your murder, what then?" his mother asked.
Graves was silent for a moment, drifting in the midst of the kitchen, moving as if struggling against a breeze Danny couldn't feel.
"I've . . . stayed here because of this, because I had unfinished business. Wandering spirits find it difficult to move on to whatever awaits after life, because they can't rest yet, because something remains to be done. Once I have the answer, once I know who murdered me, and why, the reason for me to haunt this world will be gone. Gabriella, my wife . . . she died during the years that my spirit was wandering aimlessly, before I was able to focus as a ghost. Somewhere on the other side, she's waiting for me."
His mother's hands went to either side of the sink, as if supporting herself. There was that smile again, and the slow nodding of the head.
"It would be nice for you," she said. "Finally getting to . . . to rest and . . . to be with your wife again."
"Yes, it would," the ghost replied.
"I hope you know how much you'll be missed," she told Graves, and it was painfully obvious to Danny that she wanted to say more, but couldn't bring herself to, maybe because he was sitting there.
From that point on, his mother was silent, going about the business of finishing dinner as if nothing was wrong.
"Will you be all right?" Graves asked, and Danny wasn't sure if the ghost was talking to him or to his mother.
"I'll be fine," he finally answered, wanting to fill the void of silence. "It's all good."
But it wasn't.
It wasn't good at all.
The rest of the evening had been a disaster. He and his mother pretended that everything was fine, but he could see that she was distracted by what Dr. Graves had told them, and the anger inside him continued to fester.
They'd eaten pretty much in silence, neither of them feeling very hungry in the end. After dinner, they put on the movie, but Danny found he couldn't really get into it. Eventually he pretended to fall asleep, and noticing this, his mother shook his leg, saying that she was tired, too, and was going to call it a night.
As far as he was concerned, she couldn't have left soon enough. It was taking everything he could muster not to lose it. Directionless anger and frustration boiled up inside of him, just looking for a target. He'd been feeling this way a lot since getting back from Greece the previous month - since his body had changed even further. It was worst at night; his skin would start to itch, and his temper was like a ticking bomb.
It was best that his mother left Conan Doyle's house and headed home, especially after the kind of night it had been.
Now Danny was lying on his bed, trying to calm down. His head buzzed like he'd drunk five Red Bulls. He was even desperate enough to have attempted some of the relaxation techniques the psychiatrist he used to see had tried to teach him, but it didn't do a damn bit of good. All he could think about was the head shrink's gorgeously blond receptionist, sitting behind her desk, and what he would have liked to do to her.
Vivid images filled his mind, loaded with sex and violence - heavy on the violence. Danny recoiled, the scenes appearing in his head disturbing even to him.
Whoa, where'd they come from? he wondered, sitting up in the bed, the sights inside his skull gradually beginning to fade, but not fast enough.
He guessed that this was all part of the transformation - of becoming what he was - and tried to play it down. Eve and Graves had been telling him all along that whatever his origins, he could choose to be whatever he wanted. Hell, Eve was a pretty damned good example of that.
He scratched vigorously at an extremely itchy patch of skin in the center of his chest. It felt even weirder than the thick scaly hide usually felt, and he got up from his bed and walked across to his bathroom. Flicking on the light, he winced. Bright light was starting to hurt his eyes. On the other hand, his night vision was awesome.
Danny squinted, adjusting to the brightness of the bathroom, and was finally able to look at himself in the medicine cabinet mirror.
What a piece of work, he thought, gazing at his reflection with a mixture of disgust and awe. Every time he looked, there seemed to be something different. For example, he was certain that his horns had gotten longer since that morning.
The irritated patch of flesh on his chest called attention to itself again, and he lifted up his Reservoir Dogs T-shirt to get a look. Every inch of his exposed body appeared dried and irritated. It seemed like he was sloughing off his skin at least once a week, but the spot on his chest looked different somehow.
What's up with that? He leaned in closer to the mirror as he poked and prodded at the area with a clawed finger. Something was growing in the center of his flesh. It was small, about the size of a grape, and if it weren't for the ridiculous itch, he probably wouldn't even have noticed it. It felt different than the rest of his changing skin; squishy, like it was filled with fluid. Danny was tempted try and tear it open. He pressed one of his claws into the little nodule, but then became distracted.
Distracted by a smell.
Danny tilted his horned head back and breathed it in. The scent wasn't from within the house. It came from outside. Leaving the bathroom and forgetting all about the weird growth on his chest, the teenager stood in the center of his room, the enticing aroma luring him. He walked to the door and stepped out into the hall. It was eerily quiet in the house. As far as he knew, nobody else was home.
Danny squinted, realizing that he could actually see the scent writhing in the air like smoke curling from a cigarette. He followed it to another set of stairs that led up to the brownstone's roof and began to climb them. The closer he got to the roof, the stronger the smell became.
Unlocking the heavy wooden door, carved with all manner of bizarre ancient symbols that he couldn't begin to decipher, Danny emerged onto the rooftop. A gust of cold November air blasted him, but he was undeterred. The scent was even stronger now, and he followed it across the rooftop. He sprang up onto the wall that ran around the roof perimeter, perching there, head tilted back, like some kind of living gargoyle.
The scent came from across the way, from a building on Mount Vernon Street, and more specifically, from her.
In the darkness, Danny smiled, feeling the teeth within his mouth grow. The cute girl that he'd seen a few times going in and out of the building over the last few weeks was standing on the steps down below. She was dressed in a leather jacket and a short black dress and was clutching a tiny purse. Waiting for somebody to pick her up, he imagined.
"Ain't it a little late to be goin' out now?" he asked the night, watching as she pulled up the sleeve of her coat to check the time.
Danny inhaled sharply, differentiating between all the different smells that filled the night air of Boston, until he found the one that he was looking for - the scent that had pulled him from his room onto the rooftop.
He had smelled the girl before - a mixture of perfume, body soap, and shampoo - but this was different. The other scents were all still there, perhaps even a bit stronger than usual, almost as if they were there to cover something up. But he could still smell the odor underneath it all, pungent and sharp. It took him a moment to realize exactly what it was.
The smell of blood; a woman's blood.
Danny smiled again, amused by what his heightened senses had revealed to him. He'd wanted to talk to the girl from the first time he'd seen her, but knew it was impossible. The way he looked, she'd probably start screaming the minute she laid eyes on him.
He saw the scenario play out in his head; him going out on the street to just say hi, and suddenly she'd be screaming, running into the house and slamming the door. By the time he made it back to Conan Doyle's, the sound of police sirens would be coming closer.
"Fucking bitch," he growled, the ever-present ball of anger inside him increasing in size as he raked his fingernails over the granite of the wall he was perched upon. He was tempted to jump down there; knowing full well that the fall wouldn't hurt him. It gave him pleasure just imagining the look on her pretty stuck-up face as he came at her, letting her know that he could smell her stink from inside his house.
The muscles in his legs tensed as he prepared to actually carry out what he was thinking, but a silver-gray BMW came roaring down the street, traveling way too fast, and came to a screeching halt in front of the girl's house.
She stood on the steps for a bit, arms crossed, pretending not to notice that her ride had arrived. The guy opened the door, coming around the car to escort her to the passenger side. He was pulling her close to him, whispering in her ear, and kissing on her neck. Danny couldn't quite make out the words, but he heard her call him an asshole. The guy just laughed, returning to the Beemer's driver's seat.
As they pulled away from the curb, tires squealing just to show anybody around how cool they were, Danny came to the conclusion that he didn't like them - the girl or her boyfriend - and had the overpowering desire to share that with them.
In a move that seemed perfectly rational to him at the moment, Danny leapt from Conan Doyle's brownstone, landing in a hunched crouch in the middle of Mount Vernon Street.
Pretty good jump, he thought, sniffing the air, finding what he was looking for.
And he began to follow their scent.