PART 2: THREE BANDAGED FINGERS
On our way to the East End, I thought about stopping at the “Brown Bear” in Leman Street. It was my local haunt and I knew I would meet my old friend Tom there. Tom was a ghost with whom I often had arguments. He had been a heavy drinker in his lifetime and being dead did not stop him from returning to his old local haunt. The members of staff did not see him – or they saw and served him, but then forgot him – and he always wanted a cigarette from me.
The last time I had seen him, he wanted me to buy him a whisky, but I refused. Tom had asked me if I did not feel like a lonely arsehole, which was on the lowest level of the sorcerer’s rank in London. When I had not reacted and simply given him some crisps to calm him down, Tom had told me to fuck myself.
He may not have been the best company for Liz. So, we went past the dubious characters in the dark street where I lived and entered the terraced house with the broken entrance door.
“Do you think we are really safe here?”, she asked.
“Oh yes. Do you want to take the lift?”
“Does it work?”
“Occasionally it does not.”
“Do you want to get stuck with me in the lift?”
I thought about it for a moment, but she already went up the stairs.
“Watch out for dead or sleeping people on the steps!” I shouted. She stopped immediately.
“Are you serious?”
We reached my flat on the highest floor. She looked around. My flat was not big, but had three rooms plus the foyer. The kitchen was to our left, the tiny bathroom to our right. “You can sleep in there.” I pointed at the room reserved for guests.
She threw her bag onto the bed in the room. “Do you live here alone?”
“From time to time.” I went to the fridge and got myself a beer. There were some cold mac’n’cheese on the stove. I opened a window and splashed some cold water from the tap into my face.
“Can I smoke in here?”
I pointed at the full ashtray. She lit a cigarette and walked around the room and looked at the posters and pictures on the walls. Then she came to the vinyl and the books. On my writing desk were piles of books, some of them open, some smeared with coffee stains and spaghetti sauce. Empty beer bottles were standing around. She noticed the magic handcuffs on the table, which will block any magician’s powers once they are put on. I did not know if she knew of their supernatural feature and she did not say anything.
I turned on some music. “Supper’s Ready” by Genesis, live from 1982. On the 1982 tour, the band had played the 23-minute song in full for the last time. The instrumental “Apocalypse in 9/8” part never sounded stronger: Phil Collins and Chester Thompson both on drums, grooving away with the odd time signature; Mike Rutherford and Daryl Stuermer pushed the whole passage with their rhythm guitars and Tony Banks with his keyboard solo showed why he was the soul of Genesis. And then, when the majestic end came and…
“What church is this?” she asked and pointed out of the back windows. A huge grey pepper pot spire loomed into the night sky, lonely and eerie.
“That is St-George-in-the-East”, I explained. “A church designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor. Odd fellow. His buildings have power and a will of their own. And down there is the Highway, where the Ratcliffe Highway murders took place in 1811. The supposed murderer John Williams was buried just up the road there. Poor soul.”
“I never heard of the murders. He was buried at a crossroad? Did you ever meet him?”
“Do you mean his ghost? Or because I look as if I could have been there in 1811?”
“No, never. But if he is around here, he is certainly confused and does not know where to go. At least that is what they wanted when they buried him there. So, tell me a bit about your family.”
“Well, according to legend, the women in my family have always been witches. Some of them were burned at the stake. I think the Witchfinder General personally executed one of them.”
“Let me guess. All of them had red hair, just like you.”
“That’s a cliché and you know it. But you are right.”
“And are you witches?”
“Well.” She hesitated. Then she sighed. “Yes. Yes, we have certain powers. It was natural for me when I grew up and it took me a while to learn that other children were not able to do certain things.”
“Like turning an investigating magician into a frog.”
“It is said that one of the women in my family was on the stake and before burning cursed the man that was responsible. I believe that every man of this family has died under mysterious circumstances.”
“That could be a clue. Maybe the man’s descendants want to take revenge and that is why they kidnapped your mother and grandmother.”
“Yes, but I have no idea who the man was nor do I know anything about his family.”
“I think we can find out more about that in the wizard’s archive.”
She leaned over to me. “But not now. I want to go to bed.”
I lit another cigarette. She got up and went to her room. Then she turned around. “Thank you, Ruben. I have to admit that I was a bit unsure about you being the right man for this job at first. But I feel really safe around you. You are better than most magicians say you are.” She gave me a smile and then she said: “I am not going to lock the door.”
The next day we went into one of the many Chinese restaurants in Chinatown. I thought it was a good idea until I started eating and slurped and made a complete mess with the soup.
She looked at me. “Try to keep it in your mouth, Ruben. I am paying for this dinner.”
“I am trying my best.”
“So, let us go through it again,” she said. “I am going to meet the three guys in the Coach and Horses in Soho. You will hide yourself and watch us to find out if one of them has bandaged fingers?”
“Right. Except that I am not going to hide. I will use my magic powers to change my appearance or make myself invisible.”
“Magic powers? Like a cloaking spell? “Chaeme…lon…din spell” or anything like that?”
“Nah, that would be too difficult. I will use a potion. You will see. Or not see. Because I drink the potion to not be seen.”
“Whatever. Can’t you use your magic powers to eat the noodles without spilling half of it?”
“I will use my magic powers to make you forget this mess.”
“Hey, what exactly are you going to do once you find out who Mr Punch is?”
“I will teach him a lesson. Find out what he has done to the rest of your family. And then I am going to bring him in before the council of wizards. If he is a magical creature, they shall have to deal with him. If not, they will hand him over to the police because of kidnapping.” I looked at my watch. “You better pay, Liz. We should go.”
The Coach and Horses in Greek Street in Soho was a cosy, legendary pub with a warm atmosphere full of references to the artists and theatres in the surrounding area. I sat down at the bar and had a drink while out of the corner of my eye I observed Liz and the three men sitting at one of the wooden tables. She looked pretty and was dressed very elegantly. But I could sense that she felt uncomfortable. She kept looking over at me and I hoped that the others would not notice that we knew each other.
Her brother sat to her left. He seemed quiet, but harmless. One of her cousins, the right-wing bastard, sat with his back to me and I was happy to not see his face because otherwise I would have wanted to punch it. He had a huge pint of ale in front of him, while the others were having a glass of whisky, which the other cousin had ordered for all who wanted. He sat with his left side turned to me. A charismatic man, but his smile was false and his friendliness felt acted. He was good-looking and nice, but there was something about him which did not fit his role. Maybe it was his eyes. They looked like that of a hunted wild animal. Maybe he also felt that something was wrong here, that the whole meeting was staged. And he wore leather gloves.
As far as I could see, the others’ hands and fingers were completely fine. Liz had started a conversation about the disappearances in her family to find out if one of them would accidently confess. And then Michael – Mr Actor – took off his gloves. He did it underneath the table and it almost seemed as if he made it for me. But he could not have recognized me. I had drunk a potion that made me look like an athletic middle-aged man with brown hair turning grey and a strong face.
Three of his fingers were very badly bandaged and he scratched them. I could see some burned skin underneath the bandage. That was proof enough. I gave Liz a wink and she understood. After about one hour, the company got up and parted. Casually I followed them outside and waited in Romilly Street for Liz. She came around the corner a couple of minutes later.
“So?” she asked.
“Michael. Just as I thought. Quick. We have to follow him.”
While we moved through the streets of Soho with a safe distance, she said “I have to say you look good after drinking that potion.”
“Thank you. There is a huge database of faces and looks of people from the past. The potion makers include these when they produce them. On every bottle there is a little photograph or sketch that shows you how you are going to look.”
“So, you look like someone who died years ago?”
“Pretty much so. It can be quite interesting when you meet a person that knew the man whose looks I have now.”
She looked at me with wide eyes.
“Where is he heading?” I asked.
“He lives on a boat in the Limehouse Cut. He is probably on his way home.”
“Ah, Limehouse. One of my favourite areas of London. Did you know that the Chinese community used to be in Limehouse before they came here to Soho?”
She shook her head.
He went into Leicester Square Underground Station.
“I can’t go down there,” said Liz. “He will see me.”
“Yes, but I can. I don’t want to lose him. I can give you a free ride to Limehouse, if you like.”
“A free ride?”
“Do you see the Fish and Chips shop there? Right next to the entrance to the Underground? Just go inside and use the toilet. Take this card that I give you and put it at where you can flush.”
“You can choose the closest station to your destination on a kind of tube map and you will be teleported there. Don’t worry, it is very quick and only a bit shaky.”
“Are you serious?”
“I am! Here.” I handed her a blue plastic card. “That is the card. It is a way of communication in our magical community. And please don’t lose it.”
“That looks like an Oyster Card. Except that it says Öyster Card.”
“Well, actually it is just that. The magical version. If we lose them and someone else finds them, they will think it is just a normal Oyster Card with a spelling mistake. There should still be enough credit on it.”
With a puzzled look she entered the shop and I went down into the Underground.
On the way to Limehouse, he did not notice me amongst the crowds. When we reached the DLR station Limehouse, he walked briskly along Commercial Road and then down Newell Street. I wondered if he would lead me to the den where he kept his hostages. We passed Hawksmoor’s St Anne’s Limehouse, but he moved on and walked along the Limehouse Cut. And then he went onto one of the boats and vanished under deck.
“That was an interesting journey.”
I almost jumped back. Liz appeared next to me from the direction of Ropemakers Fields.
“Where did you come out?” I asked. She handed me the Öyster Card.
“In “The Grapes”, the pub on Narrow Street.”
“Well, it belongs to Ian McKellen. Everybody knows that HE is a wizard!”
“So, what are we going to do now?” She looked at the boat.
“I am going to go inside. But first I am going to change back to my normal look.” I took another potion out of my bag.
“Pity,” said Liz.
I ignored her, drank the potion and within seconds I went back to normal. My looks changed back to that of the man in his late thirties. The greyish hair turned to the usual dark blonde and grew a little longer. My jawline formed back to the rectangular shaped and clean-shaved face that I call my own. The eyes changed back to blue.
“You should be careful that no one sees you doing this,” she said.
“People’s minds can’t handle this. They would not believe it and forget it instantly.”
“That makes sense. But why do you want to blow the surprise for him now? What’s the purpose of shedding your look now?”
“Oh, I want to confront him and I want him to know that I found him!”
I went to the boat and tried to listen. Music was playing inside the boat, but apart from that I could only hear the noises of the Limehouse Cut. I stepped onboard and carefully opened the door. Then I went down.
The inside of the boat was decorated nicely. There were some psychedelic posters on the walls, next to a strange collection of old-time weapons. A fancy armchair was placed beneath the window and an electric guitar and some recording equipment stood next to it. Michael seemed to be in the bathroom. I could hear him inside, but apart from us there was nobody down here. A Punch and Judy show was built next to the recording equipment. The beautiful red-haired lady was tied to a stake. The Mr Punch mask was lying on the armchair.
Iron Maiden’s “The Wicker Man” was blasting out of the speakers. I loved Iron Maiden and “Brave New World”, of which “The Wicker Man” was the first track, was my favourite album. It saw the return of Bruce Dickinson as lead singer and Adrian Smith as third guitarist to the band and the whole 6-man-group produced one of their finest records ever with every one of them showing their song writing and playing skills at their best. The album was also one of the best sounding albums by the band, especially…
I could sense Michael behind me and turned around just in time. He swung an old club at me and I jumped to the side. He hit the Punch & Judy show and all the figures flew through the air. “Jesus Christ!” I cried. “Why are you behaving like Mr Punch?”
He grinned. Then he took another blow. I grabbed a bottle of wine from the table beside the armchair and threw it against him, but he hit it with his club like a baseball and the bottle was smashed into pieces. The wine was going everywhere. He took another blow at me and I grabbed the guitar and without a second thought I threw it against him.
Surprised, he dropped the club and caught the guitar. I went to the ground to get the weapon, but he took the opportunity to run outside.
I got on my feet and followed him. But he was waiting for me outside. With a heavy blow, he smashed the guitar against my head and destroyed it. Dazed and dizzy, I dropped to the ground. Liz screamed. I blacked out for a moment. When I saw them next, he carried her into the inside of the boat. She must have been unconscious. I tried to get up, but with an evil smile he just kicked me lightly and I fell into the water.
The cold water of the Limehouse Cut made me come back to my senses. I surfaced just in time to not be hit by the boat, which was now loose and moved down the Limehouse Cut towards the Thames. I swam to the water’s edge and pulled myself out of the water. Then I just lay there on the pavement and breathed heavily.
People came running towards me.
“Sir, are you okay?”
“He wants to burn them in a wicker man! Just like in the movie! But where?” I muttered.
“What is he talking about?”
“His words make no sense at all.”
“They have built a wicker man in Hyde Park to shoot a movie scene there,” someone said. I got up immediately.
“Sir, are you alright?”
“Yes, thank you. I am sorry, but I have to go. I have to go quickly!”
And so, I made my way to The Grapes to use the toilet.
End of Part 2.