Lara C. Cory
Grant looked long at the corpse before squatting down beside it. While it didn’t look like murder, when a prominent aristocrat is found lying dead on a country lane, logic did not weigh in favour of a natural death.
Grant barked, ‘have the exits been sealed?’
Officer Macready’s voice shouted back from a hedgerow, ‘since about five this mornin’.’
‘Who called it in?’ he asked, whispering to himself, ‘a Goddamned dog-walker I bet.‘
‘Mr Dee, farmer up the way,’ Macready replied, ‘was walkin’ his dog.’
Smiling, Grant wiggled his finger deep into the still-warm mouth of the dead man. He liked being right.
‘Robert Arnold William Kepplar, The 11th Earl of Albemarle, 45 years old, unmarried, lived in the mansion house up the road’ the officer continued in a northern accent that Grant secretly adored.
Evidence suggested that it wasn’t a violent death and the Earl’s face was peaceful, like people who die in their sleep. Grant turned the well-shined brown shoes over in his gloved hands while his shoulder pressed the phone to his ear, ‘But didn’t you think it was odd that he asked to be-‘ he was cut off, ‘really? And you said he left his keys?’
Grant put the shoes down and rubbed hard on his brow, squinting with exasperation. ‘And you don’t think this at all unusual?’ He spoke slowly in an effort to be understood by the terrible liar on the other end of the phone. Terry Smith, man-servant to the earl, felt that admitting how and why he delivered the earl’s corpse to the side of the road was a betrayal of his master’s dignity. Grant felt that it was just good old-fashioned obstruction.
At the age of 71, Coroner Harry Simmons had seen it all. In the cold light of the mortuary, Harry had scrutinised the full spectrum of horrors that humanity continued to offer up year after year. He didn’t like to use the word ‘jaded’ and when the body of the Earl of Albemarle turned up on his table he had to speak to Grant immediately.
Grant smiled at the wrinkled doctor as he pushed through the rubber-flap doors of the theatre. Simmons stood at the slab, hands clasped, returning Grant’s warm regard with expressive brown eyes.
‘I can tell by the way you’re standing there that this is going to be good.’ Grant was always suspicious when Harry was not knuckle deep in cadaver whenever he walked in. The men snapped on their latex and stood beside the mottled corpse. ‘He kept himself well didn’t he?’ Grant offered.
‘Indeed. You don’t often find aristocracy and self-discipline in the same room.’ Harry noted. ‘You were right. As usual. This body is pristine. No sign of violence or struggle, no wounds, no indicators of illness.’
‘Tox?’ Grant asked.
‘We’re still waiting on those’ said Harry, resting a hand on the dead man’s mouth, ‘but I’ve found something that might interest you.’
Grant watched as Harry gently prized open the earl’s teeth, inviting him to look inside. He wasn’t sure what he could see at first, it just looked black inside the mouth. Not like a void, it was rather a black mass that filled the oral cavity. Leaning in for a closer look, Grant reeled back in horror as the thing moved. The engorged black shape turned slowly; languid as a full-term foetus in utero. Grant looked up in revulsion to meet Harry’s laughing eyes. Harry wriggled his eyebrows, ‘didn’t I tell you?’
Skipping lunch in favour of a strong black coffee, Grant put a healthy distance between himself and the clear plastic box that rested on the mess of papers covering his desk. As the office buzzed around him, Grant was repulsed but entranced by the creature inside the box. It hadn’t moved since being removed from the earl, and Grant wasn’t sure that it was still alive. He placed the bagged piece of yellow cloth, that was found inside the pocket of the dead man, beside the box.
Absentmindedly he stared at the two items, trying to make a connection between them, when he noticed the black form unfurl, stretch out and then push up against the plastic and towards the piece of cloth.
It was a caterpillar. Thick like a blackened banana, the creature was velvety and yielding like a silk worm but of the deepest black. Nauseated by the creature, Grant still felt drawn to it, sympathetic almost. He examined the yellow cloth that had been bagged as evidence. It was the finest piece of silk Grant had ever seen.
Later that night, after the office had cleared out, Grant waited while his computer shut down. Sipping the remnants of a cold coffee, he startled when he saw Officer Macready appear at his desk. ‘I suppose you suspect the sister?’ She was always way too chipper.
‘No’ Grant replied without looking up from his mug. He made no apologies for his laconic nature; the result of too many years witnessing human nature at its most disappointing.
Not intimidated, she replied, ‘You’ve spent all week running about after her.’
‘What?’ He looked up finally, trying not to smile.
‘I’ve been filing the paperwork.’
Irked by her insinuation, but only momentarily he replied, ‘she’s hiding something.’
‘But you don’t suspect her?’ Macready was confused.
‘Something shameful perhaps…’ He trailed off and prodded the container holding the caterpillar.
‘Sounds juicy!’ Macready replied, eager to know more.
‘I’ll never know. She won’t talk.’
The young officer sat on Grant’s desk and fumbled with the remnant of silk in the evidence bag.
‘What do you know about bugs?’ He asked.
‘Was it really in his mouth?’ she asked in disgust, looking askance at the large black shape.
‘Yes but it wasn’t there when I first looked over the body on the roadside.’ Grant rubbed his chin in frustration.
‘You think someone put it there?’ she asked.
‘I think it was trying to escape.’ Grant shook his head at the absurdity of it all.
‘That doesn’t make sense.’
‘You always stay this late?’ She asked softly.
‘Only when I’m losing. Want a lift home?’ he asked.
As the car idled on the curb out the front of her apartment block, Macready said, ‘You know…some people find you a little…’
Grant raised his eyebrows waiting for her to complete the sentence.
Rethinking her approach Macready said, ‘maybe you could try another line of attack with Miss Kepplar.’
Grant waited, silent. He enjoyed teasing her.
‘I’m not trying to step on your toes here.’
He gave in. ‘Relax Macready, I’m tapped out. You’re most welcome to try and crack that nut.’
‘Great, because I’ve been reading a bit about the family and they have an interesting footnote in their history.’
Grant couldn’t hear the women above the sound of the boiling kettle. He poured the tea like a good boy wondering if Macready had made any progress. Carrying the hot cargo he paused outside the door. Were they laughing?
‘You found your way back’ called Miss Kepplar. She got up to help Grant with the tray.
Macready chimed in before Grant could ruin it, ‘Kitty was just saying that she’s going to try and think of anything that will help with the case. You know, so I can make detective next year?’
‘Detective?’ Grant repeated, confused.
‘Yes, I was telling Kitty that if I can help you break this case, I’ll be considered for promotion next year.’
While he didn’t approve of lying in most cases, Grant ran with Macready’s bogus cue, admiring her cunning.
After an acceptable pause and a sip of her tea, Macready pushed, ‘Kitty, surely you understand that if nothing else turns up it’ll be deemed a suicide?’
‘I will not have our family name tarnished. It’s not like that.’
‘Then help us. Please.‘
‘I don’t know how,’ Kitty implored with her watery blue eyes.
‘When I mentioned the caterpillar we found, you didn’t seem surprised.’ Macready urged, impatience creeping in. Silence followed for an uncomfortable length of time.
‘He knew if he gave it away then the-‘ Kitty got lost in a stare before regaining her composure, as if something important suddenly dawned on her. She promptly asked, ‘Who found it?’
‘I did. Well, actually the coroner did.’ Grant said.
‘But he gave it to you?’ Kitty asked warily. ‘Where is it now?’
‘At the office.’
Kitty sighed and closed her eyes. ‘When will it ever end?’
Kitty opened her eyes to see both Grant and the kindly young officer on the edge of their seats. She stopped talking.
‘When will what end?’ Grant howled impatiently.
‘I can’t’ whispered Kitty, burying her head in her hands, crying.
Macready eyeballed Grant who was rubbing his eyes in frustration.
‘My pen’s stopped working. Can you see if there’s another one in the car?’ she asked.
‘Are you serious?’ Grant was dumbfounded.
Macready took his arm and pulled him gently into the hall.
‘No, my pen’s fine Grant. It’s you. You’re intimidating her.’
Grant took some steadying breaths and replied, ‘Okay. I’ll look around out here for anything…unusual.’
Macready disappeared into the library and closed the door behind her. Grant sighed heavily as he wandered around the cavernous old house. Cruising the kitchen again, he looked at the space beside the fridge, where there was a collection of old tins lined up.
If it had been anyone else, Grant would’ve been uneasy letting another officer take a witness statement. Inside the first tin were a hoard of silk cocoons, like the ones he used to collect as boy. He opened the other tins and they all contained the same tiny, yellow silk cocoons.
The devil is always in the detail, but he trusted Macready; she was young but smart. And having second-hand information was better than none at all. As Grant snooped about the ground floor of the house he found no less than ten different containers, all stuffed with cocoons. In the laundry room he found a large cardboard box scattered with wilted leaves and two dozen writhing, plump caterpillars gorging on the greenery; silk worms.
Later that evening Grant and Macready sat in the corner booth of the Queens’ Arms. Grant tapped his leg impatiently as Macready explained Kitty’s statement with great flourish.
‘According to family lore, in the year 1846, Claude, aging bachelor and 6th Earl of Albemarle, had squandered the family’s fortune. A hopeless opium addict, he spent what he thought would be his final days on the banks of a Yangztee tributary in an opium-induced daze. While in his stupor he came across a middle-aged woman who also appeared to be in a trance. Dancing around a basket with her hands waving gracefully in the air, she wore nothing but a vacant smile.
The two engaged in an evening of passion and in the morning the woman had disappeared leaving her basket behind. Inside the basket was a black caterpillar surrounded by the discarded wings and broken legs of various insects. Drawn to the lonely black caterpillar, the earl put the creature inside his pocket.
Having come to his senses after this unusual encounter, Claude found his way into the village to seek out the wisdom of the local sage. Claude was shocked to learn that the woman he met was a witch practising the ancient art of ku. The wise man believed that in gratitude for his skillful lovemaking, the witch granted him a gift. The doctor was not learned in the art of ku and so advised Claude to seek out Cixi Chun in the village of Erwi.
Claude did this, using the last of his money not for more opium, but for the journey to the neighbouring village. It was money well-spent because,’ Macready proudly rounded off, ‘what Claude would learn from Cixi would become the Kepplar family legacy and ensure the future wealth of the Albemarle dynasty.’
‘What is it?’ Grant asked.
‘What’s what?’ Macready asked.
‘The thing he would learn.’ Grant urged, ‘the legacy?’
‘Don’t know. Kitty didn’t go into it.’ Macready laughed it off. ‘What does it matter? It’s a ludicrous story to disguise a suicide. I thought you’d find it funny.’
Most people didn’t know that the Chinese restaurant on the corner of Gerrard St. had another door to the right of the main entry that led to a basement; just like most people didn’t know that Grant visited the herbal practitioner in that basement once a month to treat his severe psoriasis. He watched Dr. Lee turn the box over in his hands, examining the caterpillar in silence.
‘Mmm…I’ve never seen one this big. Or outside of China to be honest.’ Dr Lee opened the box and began to prod the creature with his pen.
‘What do you know about ku?’ Grant asked, warily.
‘Ku, Mr Grant? What do you know about ku?’ he asked.
Grant explained the case with Dr. Lee, who listened intently, nodding his head once in a while. As Grant told the story, the doctor selected a book from the shelf in the back of the room. Setting the dusty old volume on the desk in front of him, the old man began to search the index while Grant shifted in his seat.
‘Did you say you found this creature?’ he asked.
‘No. The coroner did. Then he gave it to me as evidence.’ Grant’s arm flung high into the air and dropped heavily on his lap. ‘What does it matter who found it?’
‘Ku or gu as it also called, Mr Grant, is the ancient art of poisoning. This creature thinks you are its master.’ He paused before adding matter-of-factly, ‘you will become a very rich man.’
‘You’re not making sense.’ Grant replied.
‘It must have been a T’ung woman by the river that day, they’re feared for their mastery of ku.’ Chuckling to himself, he added ‘and their appreciation of a good lover it seems.’
‘I don’t see how it’s all connected or why?’ Grant urged.
‘Why else?’ Dr Lee hissed and nodded slowly, looking right through Grant, ‘money‘.
The old doctor continued, ‘to prepare ku, on the fifth day of the fifth month, a T’ung witch must place a selection of venomous creatures into her basket. She dances without dress in the moonlight, while the creatures fight to their death. The last creature left in the basket is endowed with the toxins of all the creatures. And according to folklore, the surviving ‘ku spirit’ turns into a caterpillar whose powerful venom is then harvested for black magic.’
Grant closed his eyes and shook his head.
‘Don’t believe me,’ Dr. Lee said, closing the book firmly. ‘I don’t care. It’s what is written.’
Grant apologised, ‘I’m not dismissing you, I’m just- I’m – stuck. I can’t take this sort of thing to court.’
‘The courts should not be your first worry Mr Grant. You are now the master of this ku spirit. If it is not fed on fresh silk and gains strength from more death, you will fall victim to its poison. But remember ‘ the doctor paused to make his point, ‘the more you feed the ku, the richer you grow.’
‘So I’ll burn the damn thing!’ Grant shouted.
Dr. Lee quietly replied, ‘the only way to be free of the ku is to eat it.’
‘But won’t it poison me?’ he asked.
‘The proverb says that the sincerity of a man can overcome the most poisonous influence. Or…’ he said with a pause and a whisper, ‘you can give it away of course.’
‘But then that person becomes cursed?’ Grant asked.
‘Some might consider it a gift.’ Lee replied cautiously.
Grant drove around on the quiet streets until late into the night; the black creature contained in the plastic box beside him. Despite his disbelief in the fable and in the supposed power of the loathsome, unmoving mass, he struggled with the increasing desire to take it out of its plastic prison and put it somewhere more comfortable. Perhaps even get it something to eat.
When he eventually arrived home, Grant approached the front door with caution because there was a large cardboard box on the landing. He edged closer with his gun in his hand and very slowly lifted the flap of one side. It was difficult to see in the soft glow of the porch light. Leafy branches appeared first. Then as he opened all the flaps he saw a mountain of leaves inside the box and in the dim light more shapes came into focus.
Little white worms wriggled slowly about in the darkness of the box and shapely yellow blotches came into sight in the dark corners. Grant dragged the box into the house, and in the full light of his entry way he saw that it was silkworms munching on the wilted leaves and, lining the box, scattered underneath the greenery were dozens of yellow, silken cocoons. And then a note.
It was from Kitty, and all it said was….
You might need these.
Lara C. Cory is a UK-based music & film writer, co-author of Animal Music: Sound & song in the Natural World, contributor to The Wire, Little White Lies, CRACK and other publications. Recently she made a woven shell amulet for the Art of Magic exhibition, a collaboration between Folklore Tapes and The Museum of Magic and Witchcraft in Boscastle.