Death in the Post, first session
Tobias Gold, a Jewish seller of occult and curious books located in Charing Cross, and his assistant, Owen Davies, who specialises in the preparation and sale of exacting reproductions for the undiscerning collector, are invited by a distinguished client and collector of obscure tomes, Mr George Edmundson, to make a house call. Mr Edmundson has even unbent the laws of class distinction by inviting them to a light supper, indicating that he desires their understanding and confidentiality as well as their professional skills. Mr Edmundson has been given what appears to be a rare Egyptian papyrus by an unnamed friend, and wishes to have it authenticated. For added expertise, Tobias and Owen call in a sometime business partner, Charlotte Winstonthorpe ("Charli Winthr'p"), a genteel student of archaeology who has provided the shop with sufficient mummy cases and stuffed crocodiles to give it that occult Tutmania je ne sais quoi. They are also accompanied by ‘Comtess’ Chatreuse, a French absinthe fiendess who supplies Gold’s shop with books that, for one reason or another, can only be printed in Paris.
After a fine port and an excellent fruit and cheese platter, Mr Edmundson produces the document. It only takes a few minutes for Mr Davies and Miss Charlotte to pronounce it a cunning fake. However it appears to be a copy of a genuine rarity, the Gemhetep Papyrus, a geomantic magical text from the Amarna period, not seen, Mr Gold recalls with a Bibliography spend, since the auction of the late Dr S A Winters’ of Cambridge’s personal effects shortly before the Great War. Charli recalls academic gossip that the Gemhetep was said to be cursed, as the three men who attempted to translate it all met unpleasant ends.
Miss Charli notes that part of the Egyptian manuscript forms a palindrome; not characteristic of ancient Egyptian texts at all, but often found in more modern Occult inscriptions, as are magic squares and the like. A palindromic incantation can indicate a target; perhaps this papyrus is intended to pass on a curse, as did the inscription in M R James’ fantastical story Casting the Runes? The palindromic part, encased in a cartouche (symbolising the name of a god or pharaoh) is the name of the minor deity of darkness Ny-Ha-Rut-Ho-Tep, “the danger beyond the threshold”. Egyptology tells her that Nyharuthotep, who is symbolised by a black panther, is responsible for feeding the souls of the unworthy to the maw of the devouring serpent of darkness Apep.
Mr Edmundson dismisses the notion that someone is trying to either curse him or sell him a forgery. The manuscript was passed to him, he says, by a friend who himself received it in the post, and did not know what to make of it. He is quite sure that his friend bears him no ill will. Mr Edmundson thanks Mr Gold and his colleagues for their expertise, promises to send them the usual finders’ fee, and expresses an interest in the original Gemhetep Papyrus if they should happen to come across it. It would certainly be worth many hundreds of pounds, a prospect which excites Mr Gold somewhat.
While reading the papers the next morning, Mr Gold is shocked, saddened, but not entirely surprised, to read that Mr Edmundson has been found dead, apparently the victim of some sort of attack. That’s the second client these last two months, he thinks. As he is more than half expecting, the phone rings; it is Inspector Carlton of the Yard, who has found Mr Gold’s name in Mr Edmunson’s diary and would like Mr Gold to help them with their inquiries. Mr Gold does not particularly wish to help them with their inquiries, but has previously discovered that the rozzers can be quite insistent.
Mr Gold’s account is plausible and is apparently corroborated by that of Wilkins, Mr Edmundson’s butler. Inspector Carlton lets slip that the body appears to have been mauled by some large animal, possibly a large and savage dog. Mr Gold does not own a dog, but the shop does have Owen’s small cat, who keeps mice from nibbling the stock. The Inspector is not interested in the cat.
After this alarming conversation, Mr Gold leaps to his files. Among his late father’s papers, he finds the auction catalogue of Mr Winters’ estate. It appears the Gemhetep papyrus was bought by a Dr Briggs. The Bookhounds recall a scandal reported in the Daily Clarion, almost a decade ago now, when a Dr Randolph Briggs was struck off the rolls and committed to an asylum after the Clarion revealed that scandalous mistreatment of his patients with quack remedies (including sticking needles in them and making them drink the juices of strange herbs, mixed with their own blood) had led to the death of one of his patients. A little library research turns up more details (and a photograph), including that Briggs, who seemed extremely unbalanced at his hearing, swore to have revenge on the Daily Clarion and the members of the British Medical Association board who struck him off the rolls, and was committed to the Grey Fell Institute for the Criminally Insane in Northhamptonshire. The Bookhounds are puzzled that there seems to be no connection between (ex)Dr Briggs and the late Mr Edmundson and decide to spend the next day visiting Northhamptonshire.
The trip is not made easier by the slight fear of trains shared by most of the party after their unpleasant encounter with the 1893 London-Edinborough Express last month. However, they tough out the trip north regardless. The weather is as pleasant as could reasonably be expected, the rain being quite warm.
At the asylum Tobias Gold claims to be a lawyer who needs to see Dr Briggs over an inheritance left to him by a distant relative. A disapproving secretary imposes a punishing wait over their failure to make an appointment, before eventually condescending to send them through to Dr Mortenson, the Director. Dr Mortenson informs them that Mr Briggs was released from the asylum approximately a month ago, having apparently fully recovered his sanity and ceased ranting about revenge, vindication and the like. The only addresses Dr Mortenson has are for Mr Briggs’ former surgery in Wimbledon in southwest London, and his lawyers, Cratchett, Finchley & Weems.
The Bookhounds return to London in short order, guessing that Dr Briggs intends to use his freedom to carry out his revenge fantasies against the Daily Clarion and the members of the British Medical Association board who assessed him as insane and struck him off: Drs Railton, Colnbury, Masters, Winterton and Lund. Only Lund appears to still be in active practice in London, so Tobias makes an appointment. Dr Lund turns out to be a fashionable Freudian psychoanalyst with a Harley Street practice. He interprets Tobias’ warning about monsters as a sign of a paranoid delusion linked and charges Tobias a swingeing 30 pounds for the privilege. Tobias leaves, muttering about being in the wrong line of business.
That evening, they decide that a discreet snoop around Mr Briggs’ former residence is in order. The house is apparently vacant and empty, though the grounds are well maintained. Ostentatiously calling “Dr Briggs? Dr Briggs?” for the benefit of the neighbours, Tobias wanders around the side and discovers that the back door has become unlocked.
The house is indeed empty, but there is a stair to the cellar in the kitchen. After a certain amount of shuffling and muttering about who will be the first to descend, the Bookhounds descend in a huddle, to discover a baroque scene.
The cellar space appears to have been made over into an Egyptian shrine, complete with a mummy case standing against one wall. A large protective circle has been drawn on the floor, marked with hieroglyphics; in the centre is a small modern writing desk. Tobias and Owen gingerly open the case and are relieved to find only a stack of books, mostly on the subject of Egyptian hieroglyphics, including a rather nice Book of the Dead which they elect to leave. Incongruously, there is also a London Baedecker guide which they hurriedly flip through, noting that several locations are marked; some also have notes referring to “page (number) Darcy”.
Charlotte has been investigating the hieroglyphic circle. It is a scholar’s incantation to a tutelary deity that implores it to watch over his hand and ensure his scribing is without error. Normally the deity Thoth would be invoked, but this incantation places Nyharuthotep in Thoth’s place. Lara surreptitiously erases Nyharuthotep’s name and replaces it with Thoth.
Tired and returning to Gold’s Books and Antiquities on Charing Cross, the Bookhounds are startled to discover a Mr Drieburg waiting nervously on the doorstep. He says he is a journalist from the Daily Clarion and was the person who sent the papyrus on to Mr Edmundson.