Precautions

Hughes was shown to Leonard-ffolks’ drawing room to wait. Even here, the ever-present cacophony of sawing and hammering bled through the walls. A maid in mob cap brought the tray of drinks, flanked by the man himself.

“Richard.” Hughes rose.

“Hughes, there’s a stout chap.” The two men embraced. “How like you the wainscoting?”

“Lovely. Forgive a layman’s ignorance: walnut?”

“Poplar.” ffolks’ expression was glum.

“Good heavens. Well, it stains up nicely.”

The other man appeared only half in attendance. He had the air of a man tensed for a catastrophe.

“It was walnut. Had them rip it all out.”

“Oh…” Hughes cleared his throat.

“Bad wood you see. The whorls are too inviting.”

“Inviting to what?”

Instead of answering, ffolks picked up a glass and sipped.

“James,” ffolks said, “what do you know of Hindustan?”

“The colonies? Thuggees, fakirs, that sort of thing?”

“Exactly. Savages to the man.” The hammering ceased for a moment. ffolks half-rose, and the noise resumed. He sank with relief back into the settee.

Hughes sipped at his whiskey. “Does this have something to do with the incident in Khunipoor?”

ffolks tensed again.

“Damn it, man. You can’t just dance around the subject forever. What was it that finally brought you back from the colonies?”

ffolks got up and strode around the room, picking up and making a cursory examination of the various curios that littered the room.

“Have you ever been inside a Buddhist temple?”

Hughes thought before replying. “No, but there was that Japanese gent that held a service for us at the gardens—”

“Pah,” ffolks spat. “a frilly little dress party. True Buddhism is heathen and cruel, unnatural.”

This startled a laugh out of Hughes. “Buddhists? Surely not. They’re funny fellows, go around in yellow pajamas.”

ffolks spoke as if he had never been interrupted. “Suggesting that the immortal soul is tethered to this plain, forever laboring for its misdeeds.”

“Not a spiritualist, then?”

“That parlor game? Mere rookery. I’m speaking of a religion based not eternal reward in the afterlife, but of grinding poverty. Almost as bad as the hindoos.”

“It is true then, about the presence of a thuggee cult in Khunipoor?”

“What?” ffolks shook himself. “tosh. The common worshippers themselves are bad enough. Gods with many limbs and heads.”

“But the dragon in revelations—”

“Is Lucifer himself, man. Don’t split hairs with me in this matter, I’ve studied catechism since before you were out of short pants.” ffolks stopped his pacing. “Not that it helped. You can’t press civilization into them with a trowel, much less a bible.”

“So the uprising had something to do with conversion,” Hughes said, too eagerly. ffolks withdrew into himself.

“All you need know is that Hinnom is on earth, and on the subcontinent.” ffolks stopped to run a covetous hand over a cherry-wood shelf. “I’ve done my time. Paid my dues. And yet this would not be enough by their reckoning.”

ffolks seemed to be taking measure of the room. He spoke his next words with caution.

“Hughes…are you at all familiar with the architecture of the east?”

“Done with Georgian taff, are you?” Hughes needled. ffolkes ignored it.

“Their buildings are as irrational as the people themselves. All manner of useless bends and twists, false doors and functionless hallways.”

Hughes did not jest again. ffolkes’ demeanor disturbed him.

“Can you tell me why, Hughes?”

Hughes slowly shook his head.

ffolkes pointed a finger. “To confuse evil spirits. God! The air must be swimming with them if half the precautions I’d seen were necessary.”

Hughes had a slow, descending epiphany. “Your recent renovations…”

ffolkes pointed. “First boy gets it.” He was nearly excited as he huddled before Hughes. “I’ve researched into this. Dug up all the proper books, even talked to that dull fellow who insists he’s a lobsang rama or somesuch drivel.”

“But for heavens sake—why, man?”

“I don’t need to tell you I left the colonies under a cloud. Who knows what shriveled little fakir is hurtling curses at my back?”

Hughes leaned forward in his seat. “As your dearest and oldest friend, I must ask you: are you out of your mind?”

ffolkes drew back primly. “Just precautious, old man. Here. I must give you a short tour.”

ffolkes led him along corridors painted with trick doors, stairs with odd-numbered steps, windows that opened on a wall. Hughes bit his tongue and stepped over contractors who looked at him with dull curiosity.

The tour ended where it began: in the drawing room. ffolks seemed a little desperate as Hughes cited a long journey back and gathered his coat, but did not entreat him to stay. Hughes noticed an evil eye painted above the lintel as ffolkes showed him out.

“…and for god’s sake, don’t be a stranger,” ffolkes said with forced cheer.

Hughes stopped on the threshold. “Forgive me, I must ask. What happened in khunipoor?”

ffolkes’ eyes were shuttered. “Nothing for civilized men to lose sleep over.”

The door shut with a solid thud.

 

Hughes, through no fault of his own, went some time without thinking of his friend. Business and pleasure kept him away. But, as so often happens, coincidence led him back to it.

The subject was conjured up when he ran into Billings, a fellow school chum. He had to ask whether the other man had heard of Leonard-ffolks and his renovations.

Billings’ face fell. “God, don’t remind me. That poor man…”

“What?”

“You haven’t heard? You, of all…” Billings shook his head. “it was the bloody renovations, I told him to move out while they worked. They say it was probably some spilled tung oil, went up like a flash.”

Hughes set down his fork. “So he…”

“Burned.” Billings nodded grimly. “Terrible way to go.”

“Can’t imagine.” Hughes stared at his plate, no longer hungry.

 

The estate was still well-kept, though its benefactor was gone. Hughes kept an eye out for any wayward gamekeeper that might mistake him for a poacher.

Hughs crested the hill that hid the house from view. He sucked in a breath.

A few support beams stuck up like black teeth. Those were the only part of the structure still standing.

Hughes paced the length of the wreckage, sifting through the ash with his eyes. Nothing recognizable.

The newspapers had said there wasn’t even enough of a trace left for burial. Hughes squeezed his eyes shut.

Hiking back over the greens, he encountered an old woman with a bundle of washing.

“Good heavens! You weren’t up at the estate?”

Hughes confirmed that yes, he was.

The old woman blanched. “Terrible, it is.”

“I agree wholeheartedly, madam.”

“Night after night.”

Hughes paused. “Excuse me?”

“The light. The screaming. The terrible sound of fire crackling.” the old woman actually crossed herself. “Poor man. I don’t care what they say he did, no man deserves that.”

Hughes grew cold again. “Are you saying there are…spiritual visitations where the house stood?”

“That’s putting it lightly. Oh, god! If only he’d stop screaming!”

 

There was room at the inn, even in the middle of the season. Hughes suspected this was the norm rather than the exception. He passed some time in his room glancing unseeingly over his books and, after the sun had gone down, hiked back to the site.

The charred ruins were even blacker in the night. Hughes stood in the yard, stamping his feet for warmth, feeling a fool.

A flash lit his face.

Hughes’s mouth dropped open.

As if viewed through a dirty glass, the house was whole again and being eaten by fire right before his eyes.

Hughes stood rooted to the spot.

Someone screamed.

Hughes jolted into motion, running toward the house. The cries certainly sounded like ffolkes. Hughes ran around the perimeter, afraid to get too close to the apparition.

“Richard!”

Hughes followed the sound.

ffolks was in the second-story study. He did not look out at Hughes,he was merely screaming blindly for help.

“I’m here,” Hughes said. He cupped his hands around his mouth. “I’m here, man!”

“Richard! For God sakes, anyone!”

Hughes’s hands fell away from his mouth. He watched ffolkes scrabble fruitlessly at the wall, grabbing continuously at a doorknob that was painted onto the paper.

“Help!” ffolkes cried, snatching at the flat form, “help!”

Hughes watched until the fire faded, and the lot was empty and dark once more.

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