Last time, Vivienne was given a shocking insight into the fiery secrets of London’s history. This week, as her faith in science and rationality unravels, she seeks the advice of an old colleague from her university days. But is she seeking the validation of her old ideas, or the new ones?
Viv hadn’t smoked a cigarette since university, but tonight it seemed oddly appropriate. The craving must have been related to Ignatius’s weird theatrics, which seemed less like magic and more like flamboyant chicanery the further she got from the penthouse, but doubts still gnawed at her. She caved near Southwark, buying a packet from a kiosk after a meandering walk. The first drag brought a spasmodic cough jolted from her chest when the hot, bitter smoke hit her lungs. The second went down easier, but by the end her head was spinning so ferociously she swore it could have been a joint – how strong were these bloody things? She tossed down the fag-end and stamped it out.
Once home she didn’t smoke any more, but curiously didn’t throw them away either. Instead, lying in bed and staring at the stars through the window, she sent a text message.
In the morning she took the tube to Holborn and sat down in a small Italian café off Southampton Row with a morning paper, a coffee and a cigarette. After a short while a gentleman with a kindly face and a thick, grey beard approached her table and threw his arms open wide.
She stood and accepted the embrace with a smile and a kiss on each cheek. His beard felt soft, reassuringly real. “Hi, Robert. Thanks so much for coming at such short notice. I hope this isn’t putting you out.”
“Not at all, it’s lovely to see you,” he said through a wiry smile. “I’m marking postgrad exams, so any excuse to get out of the office is welcome.” Robert ordered a straight black coffee, folded his thick, hairy arms across his burly chest and screwed his brows into concern. “Though I’ve got to ask: why the urgency?”
Viv winced. “I wanted some advice.”
He opened his arms, showing his boulder of a belly through a gaudy shirt, inviting the question. With his round features Viv always thought him a very huggable, dependable type of man, a rock in a crisis. All of which made the embarrassment already picking at her head more intense, telling her this was a mistake. The image of Ignatius’s bleeding arm, open to the bone, assaulted her. Her jaw clamped in resolve, and she told Robert everything.
Nothing fazed Robert. He’d been a professor of biochemistry at King’s College London for years now, and he listened to the whole story with little more than a polite smile, propped up by those log-like arms. After she’d finished, he called the waitress over and politely asked for another black coffee.
“Are you feeling alright, Viv?” he asked between sips of the drink when it came. “I must admit, it’s a concerning story.”
Viv’s face crumpled. It had been hard to tell someone she respected as much as Robert such an outlandish story. “Concerning in what way?”
He looked incredulous. “I’m concerned for you, Viv. This Ignatius, he sounds a bit cultish if you ask me.”
Viv rolled her eyes, aware how little he probably thought of her right now. “I know. I know it sounds like some Illuminati-type bollocks, but I’m telling you, it was real.”
“Suggestion, Viv. This isn’t like you. You want my advice? Stay away from this shyster. I don’t believe in hocus-pocus, and I know you don’t either. But I do believe in men, and hucksters, shams and fakers. Their currency isn’t discovery, like us; it’s showmanship, and deception.”
“You think I’m an idiot.” The shame made her squirm.
“I do not think you’re an idiot,” he said, taking a hand. “I think you’re brilliant. But I think this Ignatius chap is very clever, and very manipulative. He’s probably strung up people with twice as many brains as you. And believe me, they do exist.”
Viv laughed. Trust Robert not to sugarcoat it. She bit a fingernail. A voice told her he was being unreasonable. What if he saw the things she’d seen; that way he could see it objectively, as a scientist, just like her? “I don’t know what I saw. But I think there’s something weird going on.”
He shrugged. “Weird stuff happens in London every night. It’s not magic.”
What if it is? “No, I know it’s not, but…” She ran her tongue inside her mouth. It was hot and wet. “But what if there’s a story in there anyway? You know, strange cultish leaders, odd rites of passage, powerful people in the city. It’d be a good story.”
Robert huffed. “Viv, why are you asking me this? I teach biochemistry, remember? I’m no reporter. If you think there’s something to be had out of all this, then maybe there is. But let’s say you are right; if you are, these people could be dangerous. It’s high risk for little reward. Are you after a Pulitzer?”
He huffed again. “Then why ask me, of all people? Surely somebody at the paper-”
“I trust your judgment, Robert,” she said. She clasped her coffee cup with both hands to stop them from fidgeting. She looked at her arm, and imagined a flick-knife being plunged deep into it. In the daydream the knife went through nerve, tendon, and scraped right down to the bone. When the knife was drawn out, the wound gushed thick, clear water. When she looked up, Ignatius was standing there grinning waspishly, a flame flapping around the forefinger on his left hand. He leant down and touched her wound, and all the water hissed into evaporation, until vapour clouded her arm and she couldn’t see-
“Vivienne, look at me.” Robert’s face was creased into worry. “You’ve been staring at the table for a minute now. You look bone tired. Go home and get some rest.”
She pressed the heels of her hands into her eyes. “Bloody hell, you’re right, I’m so tired. I’m sorry, Robert.”
“Don’t be. Just promise me you’ll stay away from this bloke. Look, I tell you what: Peter – a colleague of mine in the Biophotonics department – he’s got this crazy new research project about using novel biomaterials for regrowing teeth while they’re still in your head.” Robert was chuckling with excitement. VIv almost balked; what’s so exciting about teeth? He continued, gesticulating with those big hands. “It’s revolutionary. I know he’d be keen to speak to you about a small feature. It’d do you the world of good. Get back in the real world. What do you say?”
Viv nodded, one hand still pressing an eye closed.
“Good. That’s what you’re best at. Stick to that. Leave this mumbo-jumbo out of it.” It was a half-hearted nod of agreement, but an agreement nonetheless. Robert was charming in an old-fashioned way, but couldn’t be charmed himself. He’d always be a rock, good for leaning on but not much else. The truth was she was tired, but sleep seemed inadequate. This wasn’t the tiredness of a hard day’s work; this was a fatigue of the soul, brought on by a lifetime of false belief. And she knew the truth: only fire could cleanse it.