As for the menfolk, their high-hat towers of felt beg to be punctured.
9. Bad Apples.
An Ear-less (cropped for counterfeiting) Scryer.1
Wife-swapping Angels.2 (Yikes!)
Our Abrasive Anti-Hero.
John Dee’s a patsy. He’s off the hook, for now.
Rat City, here we come,” sings Sly. “I am up for this, aren’t you?”
The expression in his eyes belies the carefree tenor of the quip. Actually, the cat is anxious, and irked. He means to encourage, but his next remark is closer to a scolding: “We have two weeks to come up with a plan before the great John Dee has to step out of the shadows and live up to his publicity.
“You’re the number one topic of conversation, judging by the chit-chat in the kitchen. These people have built you up into a modern-day Leonardo Da Vinci. Half think you’ve a mechanical genius, you’ve invented a sure-fire rat-whack device. The rest count on sorcery. One or the other, they’re expecting boffo results.”
Dee groans. “Sorcery! I’m never going to shake that slander.”
“It’s your own damn fault.”
“I’m no sorcerer. I am in touch with certain benevolent forces, a big difference.”
“Yah, save it for the suckers. Listen, if I thought your incantations packed a punch I’d be breathing a lot easier right now. You’re no sorcerer, that’s clear – ha! – crystal clear.”
“While you’ve been hob-nobbing with the Freifrau, I’ve been on the job, poking around. Here’s what I know so far: The rats are everywhere, in numbers never seen. There have been numerous campaigns of eradication over the years, but each time the tribe has rebounded stronger, wilier, meaner than ever. Weak and stupid have been weeded out, leaving cunning and robust to reproduce. The devils have attained an astonishing ferocity.
“When you walk out, you see baskets of plum-sized stones on every street, to be used against beasties that think nothing of assaulting the vulnerable. Children are required to participate in target practice, hurling rocks, winning prizes for accuracy, the ablest given training with bow and arrow matched to their stature. Girls too!
“The town is overrun with midget militias, a few participants, inevitably, hooligans. A female abroad in her smart chapeau risks the arrangement of feathers and ribbons torn away by a bad apple William Tell. As for the menfolk, their towers of felt beg to be punctured. To don a fine bonnet is to ask for trouble. The beret is widely adopted, I shall certainly feel right at home.3 The milliners are furious; their livelihood suffers horrifically. Their guild pushed hard for your hire.
“On the other hand, the manufacture of long bows – a dying craft, on its last legs everywhere – has, locally, a magnificent revival. The remaining practitioners of that ancient industry lobbied heavily against your application. I take that as quite a tribute to you.
“I learned all this while you were schmoozing the Freifrau. What have you discovered, except for she employs a superb cook? That sea bass, yum-yum-yummy.”
“You were allowed to partake? I find that hard to believe. You swiped a taste while backs were turned.”
“I might have, but it was offered me. I am a winsome booger when I want to be.”
“Huh! Use it on the rats, why don’t you?”
“Listen, I’d bet my winsome against your Uriel any day.”
“Do it! Don’t give me an argument, just do it,” says Dee.
He’s unpacked his crystal globe and reverently arranged it on its stand. Having shipped John Kelley off to Poland, he’d been short a scryer until the cat had shown an aptitude.
“Listen, old man, you talk about mystically deranged, you’re the king of mystical deranged.” Sly rests his nose on the crystal and croons, “Uriel! Urie-el-l-l-le, come-out-come-out wherever you are.”
“Don’t get cute, t’ain’t respectful.”
“Nothing. I see nothing. I hear nothing. I receive nothing.”
“Give it time. It worked before.”
“It didn’t work. I made that up, to get you off my neck.”
“You think you made it up because you don’t recall. The receptive never retains the memory. An assistant records the encounter or it is lost. That’s why I hired Kelley, the asshole.”
“You baffle me, sir. At first I thought you used him. Quite an addition to your set-up, the no-ears buzzard, theatrical as all get-out. Now I believe he has you firmly under his thumb. And it frightens the bejesus out of me.”
“Frightens my wife too, the way he leers at her. I tolerate that behavior because he is a true clairvoyant, which I, sadly, am not. Kelley has the knack and no mistake. You have it too. Now shut up and concentrate.”
“Say your damn incantation again. You got it wrong, I’s thinking.”
“I didn’t get it wrong. I know it cold.”
“Well, something’s amiss. You’re positive I have the gift? Then it has to be your fail. Run through that mumbo-jumbo again.” Dee recites a special prayer before each ‘action’.
“That’s the fail right there. Uriel’s ignoring us because of your bad attitude.”
“Bad attitude! How not, pray tell? Uri, the cornerstone of your castle in the clouds? He is, or you wouldn’t be at me to raise him from the dead, or wherever he bestows his behind between consultations. Tell me your plan is to build off your gut ingenuity, excellent. It’s the way I work. Please, no more Uriel, or I’ll . . . I don’t know what I’ll do, but I’ll do something. Something dire.”
Someone is banging on the door. “Enter,” shouts Dee, irritated by the interruption.
It’s the butler. “Fräulein Drusilla requests the pleasure of your animal’s company at dinner, Herr Professor,” he announces, with the slightest crook of a smirk. “I am to convey him forthwith to her apartment.”
Saved, thinks Sly. “I sleep with Dru tonight,” he mutters at Dee. “We both need some alone time, to reflect. See you in the morning.”
“Not so fast.” Dee blocks his exit.
“Fritz,” he tells the houseman, “Kindly inform the Fräulein that I will escort the cat myself shortly. I have a small matter to discuss with the her.”
“What matter would that be?” asks Sly, once the man is gone.
“None, no matter with her, but I do have something further to say to you. Let’s get it all on the table, as you yourself have suggested, once and for all.”
Sly groans. He wants to be away to a more congenial situation and a fine dinner.
“Tell me something. If this is your heartfelt opinion of me, I’m a chump one way or another, no mention of sincere belief, why did you agree to accompany me? We should have long gone our separate ways if you despise me so.”
“I do not despise you.”
“No? Sure sounds like it to me. You mock my spiritualism every chance.”
“Uriel, Bastet, Maahes, Abiona, the wiggy rest. I used to think your whacky assortment of deities was a gag. I have to suspect mental deterioration, but, the gods willing – and you have several to call upon – I believe it may be reversed. My own advice: eat fish. I feel my best and brightest on a fish diet. As a tyke, I consumed tons of that poor man’s staple, herring. I snagged it from the stalls on market day. I guarantee you it is the source of my unusual mindfulness, that you marvel at.”
“A rash claim. On what basis do you make it?”
“My brothers gobbled barn mice, no hike into town, no fishmonger on your tail with a cleaver. An easier get by far. What did mice do for them? No, I won’t wade into that muck puddle, it will only start another argument.4 I confined myself, as much as possible, to seafood, and my capacity expanded a thousandfold.
“I snuck into the schoolhouse on my treks into town. Snuck in! Most of those morons longed to sneak out! I had a pal, I whispered answers to him, he paid me off with herring from his lunch-sack. Brain food on two levels got me where I am. That’s my sincerely held belief. I’d like to hear you try to explain it.”
“Look,” says Dee, “you’re right and you’re wrong, both. Bastet, Maahes, the incense, the ravens, Kelley to some extent, all trappings to keep the imbecile curious knocking on my door. But Uriel, he’s for real. He gives me solid information.”
“How many times do I have to say it? Kelley invents that stuff. It may sound good, but it’s bullshit.”
“I have a theory. Kelley may deliberately give ugly advice, to discredit Uriel, whom he’s terrified of. And Uriel’s fill-in associates are not entirely on the level. Kelley has warned me about that. He begs me to cease all communication with that choir.”5
“It’s an act, you ass, to bolster his credibility. Wake up, old man. No-ears has latched onto a good thing. No one else would hire him, not with his past. Doctor! You have treasures back at Mortlake. I bet if you were to take an inventory you’d find many things vanished. You’ll return from this escapade to find your home ransacked.”7
“Uriel has a plan for me. Kelley is part of it.”
“Hopeless. You are hopeless!” shrieks Sly.
“Why do you stick with me? You must be in a fury with me half the time.”
Sly sits quietly, filled with sour remembrance. Finally, his pain comes flooding out. “Why? I’ll tell you why. You’re the first man I ever met who accepts me as I am. Do you know what a relief that is? Every other association, I’ve had to mince words, a good deal of calculation involved. One old fool back in Haute-Navarre, I felt safe with him. But he was slack of brain, useless for really meaty conversation. I can discuss ideas with you as I never could. I treasure our connection, despite your occult infatuation. Why do you put up with me? We have many areas of contention. I must be an endless annoyance to you.”
“Tit for tat, sir. I had no safe outlet for my disorderly rumination until you blew into my life. You scoff, but you do not report me. The scrying, a fashionable pass-time, is tolerated. To consult the angels is a burning offense. Uriel is especially dangerous, what with his demands for the establishment of a universal religion. No church goes for that, each certain they are the one true path, all others to be wiped off the face of the earth in the name of the Prince of Peace and Giver of Mercy. I despise all sects, truly the work of the devil.”
“We do agree on many things,” says Sly. “Thank you for reminding me of it. I resolve to show more kindliness, to you, to everyone. I am a smug bastard. Who wouldn’t be smug, having achieved as I have? If I am offensive, bear in mind that my behavior springs from an abiding regard for you, though it often may not be discerned. I worship the scientist in you and long to see more of him, and less of the other.”
“The other? You can’t leave well enough alone. You never could.”
“Maahes? Where’s my Maahes?”
Drusilla is in the hall, in a huff. “What’s the hold up?”
“My mistress commands,” giggles the cat uneasily. Dee opens the door. The animal dashes out.
Dru takes him in her arms. “There you are, you bad boy. Your dinner is getting cold.”
“Your timing, m’dearie,” he whispers, “is impeccable. Get me away from that lunatic.”
The vow to be kinder, that lasted, eh?
To be fair, it’s been a rough week, the boat, the coach, way too much togetherness. We all need our space, most especially a cat.
- Scryer: One who divines, sees or predicts the future by means of a scrying tool; especially a crystal ball.
- Eventually, Uriel will be pushing wife-swapping by Dee and Kelley as an avenue to a deeper connection of intellect.
- Sly lived ten years in a sheep-raising area at the neck of the Iberian peninsula. Outside the capital, most men wore berets.
- Back in Borrowdale Parish, Sly’s big brother Bertie had found religion, and had flubbed understanding spectacularly, as many (if not most) do today.
- It was a diverse group: Madimi, a young girl. Murifri, a morose spirit dressed all in red. Ath. Galvah, an old woman, also in red. Jubanladacah and Nalvage, both angels of the Lord, or so they said. Uriel, of course, and once or twice, an appearance by Archangel Michael himself. This is the short list; there were more.