Une courte histoire mêlant momies, loups-garous et félins. Cette nouvelle appartient à l'univers du Protectorat de l'Ombrelle.
Gail Carriger, auteure à succès du New York Times, utilise sa plume comique pour écrire un préquel au Protectorat de l'Ombrelle.
Alessandro Tarabotti et son valet de chambre, Floote, sont en mission en Égypte lorsqu'ils rencontrent des touristes en visite. La situation va les amener à tomber sur des momies. Quelle est la vraie mission d'Alessandro ? Et est-ce que sa tante Archangelica approuvera la façon dont il s'occupe de son chat ?
Si vous vous êtes déjà posé des questions sur le père d'Alexia, cette nouvelle vous donnera un aperçu de ses aventures, de son caractère et de ses intérêts romantiques.
Le Protectorat de l'Ombrelle, une Aventure d'Alessandro Tarabotti, Tome 0,5 : The Curious Case of the Werewolf That Wasn't
THE CURIOUS CASE OF THE WEREWOLF THAT WASN'T, THE MUMMY THAT WAS, AND THE CAT IN THE JAR
Alessandro Tarabotti's forehead crinkled under his gray top hat. Was that some peculiar birdsong ?
"You-hoo, Sandy!" No, it was a voice hallooing at him across the broiling humanity of the bazaar.
Mr. Tarabotti was so thoroughly distracted upon hearing such a name hollered at him in such a place and voice, that he relaxed his grip. The place was Luxor. The voice was just the kind that bled the inner ear, trumpeting out a nasal ode to abundant schooling and little attention toward the details of it.
His loosened grip allowed the scrubby native boy with terrified fly-ridden eyes to rip himself away and scuttle down a convenient alleyway, vanishing round a pile of broken pottery.
"Well, that's torn it." Alessandro threw the scrap of material he was left holding onto the dirt street. He squinted into the alley, eyes adjusting slowly to the slatted light that crept through reed mats stretched far above. High houses and narrow streets – who would have thought Egypt a child of shadows and shade ?
"Sandy, old chap!" The voice was getting closer.
"Who knows you here, sir?" asked Floote.
"More to the point, who would dare yoo-hoo at me?" Mr. Tarabotti turned away from the empty alleyway to glare at his valet as though the greeting were somehow Floote's fault.
Floote pivoted and gestured softly with his right hand. His left was occupied holding onto a large glass specimen jar.
The yoo-hooer hove into sight. Alessandro winced. The man wore the most remarkably bright blue frock coat, double breasted, with brass buttons up the front. He sported a pair of Rumnook's stained-glass binocular spectacles perched atop his tiny nose, and a limp cravat. In Mr. Tarabotti's world, nothing excused a limp cravat, even the dead heat of Egypt at high noon.
"Do I know that repulsive-looking blighter?"
Floote twisted his mouth slightly to one side.
"Quite right, quite right. Someone from my early days. Before I cultivated a brain. School, perhaps?" Mr. Tarabotti awaited his fate, brushing a non-existent speck of dust from the sleeve of his own gold frock coat.
Single breasted, mind you, with pearl buttons and a deceptively simple cut.
"Blasted English, blemishing about the world. Is nowhere safe ?"
Floote, who was, himself an Englishman, did not point out that Alessandro Tarabotti, of a similarly unfortunate over-education as the man approaching, dressed and spoke like an Englishman. He didn't actually look like one, of course, boasting a long line of ancestors who had invested heavily in being dark, hook-nosed, and brooding.
Mr. Tarabotti continued grousing, right up until the yoo-hooer was in earshot. "I mean to say, Floote my man, what are your countrymen about these days? You'd think they'd leave at least one small corner of the planet to the rest of us. But no, here they are, shiny as all get up, ever expanding the Empire."
"We have benefited considerably from integration of the supernatural."
"Well it's hell on the rest of us. Do stop it, will you?"
"Very good, sir."
"You-hoo, you-hoo!" The man came to a wheezing halt before them, sounding like an exhausted steam engine, trailing some species of suitable young lady in his corpulent wake. "Sandy Dandy the Italian ? By Jove, it is you! Fancy, fancy, fancy!"
Alessandro, who did not like the name Sandy Dandy the Italian, lifted his monocle and examined the man downwards through it.
The man said, to the monocle, "Baronet Percival Phinkerlington. How d‘you do?"
At least he had the good grace to introduce himself. Mr. Tarabotti put down his eye piece pointedly. Really, what a thing to do to one's cravat.
"You knew my brother, I believe."
The face above the unfortunate neck cloth did have a familiar something about the eyes and mouth. "Good lord, old Pink's kid brother ?"
The man grinned and doffed his top hat. "Right you are! Fancy I was a bit smaller back when you knew me last!"
"Practically half the man you are now."
"You remember our sister?"
The lady in question went red under Mr. Tarabotti's indifferent glance. He didn't bother with the monocle. She bobbed a trembling curtsy. Ladies always caught the blush-and-flutters upon meeting Alessandro Tarabotti.
He bowed. "Miss Phinkerlington."
"Leticia, you remember Sandy? Mr. Tarabotti, I should say. Italian chappy, went to Oxford with Eustace. Used to bowl for New College. Toddled down for a stopover one term break. The same time Daddy had himself that whole werewolf pack visiting." He turned back to Mr. Tarabotti.
"Fancy meeting you here. In Egypt of all places !"
"Indeed." Alessandro tried to remember why he would bother visiting this man's family. Had it been an assignment? Investigating the werewolves?
Or had he been there to kill someone? Perhaps just a mild maiming? Baronet Phinkerlington leaned in conspiratorially. "You ought to see to your man there, Sandy. You realize, he's got his arm ‘round a jam jar of dead cat ?"
"Mmm, yes, preserved in some of my best formaldehyde."
The baronet gave a nervous laugh. "Always were a bit peculiar, Sandy.
Eustace seemed to like you well enough. I say, this may be Egypt, but trailing about dead cats – not the done thing."
"I have an eccentric Aunt," replied Mr. Tarabotti, as though that were explanation enough.
"Don't we all, my dear fellow? Don't we all?"
"It's her cat. Or it was her cat, I should say."
Miss Phinkerlington noticed the valet with the glass jar full of cat for the first time. She colored a muted sage and turned away, pretending interest in the bustling natives ebbing and flowing around them. A proper Englishwoman must find it a spectacle indeed, that tide of humanity in its multicolored robes, veiled or turbaned according to sex, loud and malodorous regardless.
"Floote," Alessandro used Miss Phinkerlington's discomfort as an excuse, "shove off, will you? Find out what happened to our young friend. I'll see you back at the hotel."
Floote nodded and disappeared across the bazaar, cat in tow.
Baronet Phinkerlington seemed to take that as an end to the business.
"Well, well, well, what a thing to see you here. Been a while, old chap. Came for the climate, myself. Wettest winter in a dog's age, decided on a bit of a change. Thought Egypt might suit."
"Imagine England having a wet winter, remarkable."
"Yes, yes, well, Egypt, here, a bit, eh, warmer, you understand, than I was expecting. But we've been taking the aether regular-like. Haven't we, Leticia? Keeps a body cool, that." The baronet jerked his head up at the three large balloons hovering high above Luxor. They were tethered by long cords to a landing platform dockside. Well, that explained the man's abysmal choice in eyewear. Tinted spectacles were recommended for high floating.
The Baronet persisted in his social niceties. "And are you having an agreeable trip?"
"Can't stand travel," replied Mr. Tarabotti, "bad for the digestion and ruins one's clothes."
"Too true." Phinkerlington looked suitably somber. "Too true." Moving hurriedly on from a clearly distasteful topic, he asked, "Staying at Chumley's Inn, are you, Sandy?"
Alessandro nodded. It was the only place to stay in Luxor. Alexandria and Cairo provided a number of respectable hotels, but Luxor was still provincial. For example, it boasted a mere three balloons, and only one with a propeller. It was a small village, really, in an almost forgotten place, of interest primarily to those with an eye towards treasure hunting. Which didn't explain why Phinkerlington and his sister were in Luxor. Nor, of course, why Alessandro Tarabotti was.
"Catch a bit of a nosh later tonight, old man?"
Alessandro decided it was probably better for his image to be seen dining in the company of British tourists, than to be observed too frequently about his own private business. "Certainly. But now, I'm afraid, I must beg to be excused. My man, you understand, is gadding about Egypt with a dead cat."
"Of course, of course."
Mr. Tarabotti bowed to Miss Phinkerlington, who pinked once more at such direct attention. Not a bad looking chit, really.
As he walked away, he heard the baronet say, in tones of deep censure and insufficient softness, "Really, Leticia, an Italian is most inappropriate. You must stop blushing at him so significantly."
Mr. Tarabotti found Floote exactly where Floote ought to be, at the center of a milling whirl of dark limbs and bright fabric, engaged in a protracted bout of fisticuffs. It was unsurprising that Floote, who had fought werewolves in Scotland and vampires all along the French Riviera, was holding his own. What was surprising was that he did this while still clutching the jar.
Alessandro removed his jacket and laid it atop a low mud brick wall. He rested his hat carefully alongside. The jacket was tailored to perfection, flaring with just under enough fullness so as not to be thought dandified. It had three sets of invisible pockets in the lining, each housing a collection of sharp little sticks: silver, wood, and peppermint. The silver was for werewolves, the wood was for vampires, and the peppermint was for Mr. Tarabotti. Mr. Tarabotti was rather fond of peppermint. He was also fond of that jacket; it wouldn't do for it to be harmed, and he wouldn't need the weaponry, not in the middle of the day. He did transfer the letter of marque from the jacket to a waistcoat pocket next to his monocle and his miniature antikythera device, for extra security. Then he dove into the fray.
Alessandro was not burdened with Floote's sentimental British predilection towards proper violent comportment. When Mr. Tarabotti fought, he used both his fists and his feet, drawing on some spate of skills he'd learned in the Orient. He would have been summarily thrown out of White's, for his technique was, it must be admitted, most ungentlemanly.
He enjoyed himself immensely.
Mr. Tarabotti had always been fond of the occasional pugilistic endeavor, ever since he was a boy – reveling in that delicious slap and crush of flesh against flesh. He relished the heated blood buzzing through his brain, numbing all senses but those vital to security – sight and touch. Any pain was a boon, a reminder of watchfulness that he must keep his mind in play only so much as it did not hinder. It was almost too easy. Floote's attackers were ill prepared for Mr. Tarabotti's sudden appearance. Soon enough, the swirling mix of appendages and colorful flowing robes resolved itself into three local malcontents: one fallen and two running away.
While Floote recovered his equanimity, Mr. Tarabotti sat astride the fallen man. He grabbed at the man's arms, pressing them to the ground.
"Who hired you?" he asked in English.
He repeated himself in Italian.
The man only looked up at him, dark eyes wide. He writhed about in the dirt, shaking his head frantically back and forth as though in the throes of some fit. Then, before Floote could put down the cat and render assistance, the man surged up, shook Alessandro off, and dashed away. When Floote would have gone after, his master stayed him with a touch.
"No advantage in following. We won't extract any information from the likes of him – too frightened."
"Of whoever paid them to engage the foreigner brandishing a dead cat."
"Hired by your contact, sir? Perhaps he changed his mind about notifying the government."
"No, no, I think not. There is someone else in play. Or several someones. Deuced inconvenient. Not to mention, insulting. As if I would gad about town dressed like a manservant."
He went to retrieve his jacket and hat.
"Who might be looking to stop you, sir?" Floote came over and straightened his master's lapel, checking the fit of the shoulders for good measure.
"Much good that blasted cat has done us. I thought it would provide quite the excuse for visiting Egypt. Now it's just making us easy to identify."
The cat had caused quite the flutter at customs. Officials were used to dead animals being transported out of Egypt, usually of the mummy variety, but not in. Luckily for Mr. Tarabotti's aunt, gold worked regardless of country, and Mr. Tarabotti had the gold. The cat had served its purpose, until now.
After all, why else would a rich Italian gentleman be traveling to Egypt during the high season of 1841?
"We must get rid of it, Floote."
Floote shifted his grip on the jar. "Shall I leave it in the street, sir?"
"Good God, no. Aunt Archangelica would never forgive me. Find someone to fix it up as she demanded, and quickly."
Sunset found Baronet Phinkerlington and Miss Phinkerlington awaiting Mr. Tarabotti's presence at dinner in the hotel dining hall. Some crosses were meant to be suffered during one's lifetime, Alessandro supposed. He joined them with a tight little smile, and helped himself to a glass of the mostly empty bottle of wine.
"Sandy, evening!" the baronet squawked.
Miss Phinkerlington blushed and nodded.
"Good lord, man." Mr. Tarabotti sipped the wine. It was cloyingly sweet. "Don't you own any other neck wear?"
The pleasantries disposed of, Mr. Tarabotti settled back languidly in his chair, waiting for the first course of what, he had no doubt, would be an utterly unsatisfactory meal. "What happened to old Pink?" He was only half interested. "I thought he was due for the title, not you."
Out of the corner of his eye, he caught someone watching him closely from a nearby table. He leaned his chair back on two legs, tilting his head about in an attitude of foppish boredom. The watcher was a military gentleman of some breed, stiff about the neck and long about the hair. The man noticed Mr. Tarabotti noticing him and returned to his food.
Baronet Phinkerlington frowned, troubled by the Italian's bluntness.
"You didn't hear?"
"Married beneath his station did he? Go into trade? Die?" Alessandro tut-tutted, and declined to remark that society gossip was not his focus during those few times he'd returned to England.
Miss Phinkerlington put a hand to her brother's arm. "Don't, Percy dear."
He patted her hand. "It's all right, Leticia. Sandy here's an old friend of Eustace's. Eustace always spoke highly of him. Played cricket together. Solid fellow." He leaned towards Alessandro, his breath redolent with the scent of cardamom and burnt eggplant. "Eustace tossed the title over. Gave it up to become claviger to some toothy old fluff of a lone werewolf."
"They always do take the smart ones from a family, don't they?"
"Mother was devastated but, between you and me, it's probably for the best. Wouldn't have gotten any grandkids out of old Eustace. If you get my meaning." The baronet waggled his eyebrows.
Mr. Tarabotti did. It also tickled his memory and explained why he'd visited the Phinkerlingtons all those years ago. Not an infiltration as it turned out, at least not an official one.
"Do I say felicitations?" Mr. Tarabotti sampled a rolled ball of some fried brown crispy substance that in appearance resembled meat and in taste resembled sawdust.
"Only if he makes it through the bite and change. You understand how it goes. Oh, silly me, you don't, do you? Poor man. Italian." The baronet shook his head sadly – demonstrating the pity of the one country that had accepted the supernatural for all the other poor ignorant countries that hadn't. Open acceptance of vampires and werewolves was the thing that kept the British Isle separate from the rest of Europe. Well, that and their cuisine.
Alessandro stroked thoughtfully at the indent above his upper lip. "Ah the English – confident in but two things."
"And what are those, Sandy my lad?"
"The supernatural and cricket."
Baronet Phinkerlington laughed heartily then stuffed his face with a number of the most uninviting-looking little cakes imaginable.
"You insulting the national pastime, old chap?" he said, fortunately after he swallowed.
"Which, the supernatural or cricket?"
"Cricket, of course. You used to bowl a nicely lethal game, yourself, if memory serves. Spinner, no?"
The baronet nodded. "Ah yes, I remember Eustace crowing about how fast you were."
Alessandro raised both eyebrows at that, but didn't reply. Out of the corner of his eye, he observed the blond military man stand up from his table and make his way toward the door, moving behind and around the various chairs in the dining hall with precise little twists. He disappeared, not upstairs to his rooms as one might expect, but out into the cold night.
"Fancy a little stroll, Phinkerlington?" suggested Mr. Tarabotti, pushing his plate away petulantly.
The baronet, whose corpulence suggested he never fancied a stroll, little or otherwise, looked to his sister for salvation. She proved herself of no use whatsoever, a state evidently familiar to all around her, by saying, "Oh yes, Percy dear, do go. You know I shouldn't mind. Some of the other ladies were planning on a game of bridge in the drawing room. I shall be perfectly entertained there until your return."
Baronet Phinkerlington's only possible excuse thus occupied with cards, the poor chap could do nothing but join Mr. Tarabotti on his perambulation.
The hotel was situated near the northern edge of Luxor, the better to take in the view, such as it was: sand and dust on one side and the Nile River on the other. They turned away from the verdant embankment, with its cultivated palm-groves, and headed towards the desert in all its burnt glory. A harvest moon hung low over two sets of limestone mountain ranges, one near and one far. Mr. Tarabotti pulled out his antikythera and confirmed his suspicions – full.
"Crikie, that darn moon's bigger than a bison's bottom."
"Very poetical turn of phrase, Baronet." Mr. Tarabotti put the antikythera away and searched the quiet streets. It was prayer time, so they were mostly deserted; yet he could not spot the missing military man.
They paused at the very edge of town. The baronet took out a large cigar, nipped the tip, and lit it with one of those new-fangled aetherospark distributors. "Tell you the truth, old man, we're here for Leticia's health."
"Can't she withstand the damp?"
"No, not that. Hers is a health that's not quite right about the head, if you comprehend my meaning. Ever since Eustace went over. Chit sees night crawlers everywhere and wakes up screaming. Thought we'd bring her here."
He puffed on his cigar.
"Because there are no supernatural creatures in Egypt?" Mr. Tarabotti moved out of the smoke, coughing delicately. Cheap cigar.
"So they say, so they say. Like no snakes in Ireland. It's one of those things."
"True enough. There hasn't been a werewolf south of Alexandria in living memory." Alessandro thought of the papal letter of marque tucked securely in his waistcoat.
"Make a study of the supernatural, do you, Sandy?"
Mr. Tarabotti said nothing.
"Course you do. You Italians are all the same. Religious fanatics, the lot of you. Church says jump, you bounce about waving silver and wood, hoping it'll rid the world of all that goes chomp in the night."
"And yet I see acceptance of the supernatural has clearly done you and your family proud."
"Touché, touché. Fair enough. I'm not claiming to be a progressive, simply saying as how one extreme don't balance out the other. Far as I'm concerned, vampires and werewolves can do theirs, so long as I'm let alone to do mine. If you take my meaning." He removed the half finished cigar from his mouth and looked at the glowing tip thoughtfully.
"Would you be so magnanimous, Baronet, had you not inherited a title because your brother chose the supernatural over family obligation?"
"Now see here, that's hardly the thing to say!"
Mr. Tarabotti held up a hand sharply, cutting off any possible tirade. He cocked his dark head to one side, listening.
Far away, somewhere in the depths of a desert wadi, something howled.
"Damn this country with all its foreign critters. I'm telling you, it's all very well for Leticia's peace of mind – not a vampire in sight – but all these snakes and camels and jackals are playing hell with my finer feelings."
Baronet Phinkerlington turned away, snorting.
Alessandro frowned. The howl came again. "Werewolf."
The baronet tossed the butt-end of his cigar petulantly to the sandy ground. "That moon may be full, but don't be ridiculous, you just said, remember? There are no supernatural creatures in Egypt."
Floote was waiting for Mr. Tarabotti in their rooms.
"Message, sir." He held out a little wooden tray with two crisp pieces of papyrus on top. Scribbled on the top one was a message in Italian, the tiny, messy script bleeding in places along the lines of the fibrous paper. Alessandro deciphered it while Floote divested him of his coat and hat.
"I'm to go there tonight. He apologizes for the skittish messenger this morning. Apparently, the boy was supposed to deliver this, but was spooked by our cat. Imagine being raised amongst mummies and fearing modern scientific preservation techniques." He switched to the second sheet of papyrus. "And a map. How very thoughtful. I wonder if that's what those bully-boys were after this afternoon? This map."
Lowering his hand, he raised an eyebrow at his manservant. "Speaking of the cat."
Floote pointed to a wobbly reed dresser upon which lay a smallish cat mummy.
"Not your Aunt's feline, sir. The reports were perfectly correct; no one remembers how to mummify anymore. I found a willing apothecary, but the results were, regrettably..." a delicate pause, "...squishy. I managed to acquire that artifact, there, at a reasonable price and in excellent condition as a substitute."
Mr. Tarabotti peered at the specimen through his monocle. "It'll have to do. We'll tell Aunt Archangelica they made it look emaciated and ancient for the sake of fashion."
Floote went to hang up his master's outerwear.
"Don't bother, Floote. I'll need it again directly."
"Tonight, remember?" He wiggled the papyrus with the map on it at his valet.
"Of course, sir, but surely not the gold coat? Most inappropriate for one of your evening engagements."
"Silly me. You packed the burgundy?"
Floote gave him a look that suggested he was gravely insulted that Mr. Tarabotti should ever doubt such a thing.
The burgundy jacket was a comparatively stylish affair, but cut looser than the gold to better hide multiple pockets, and with a full skirt to mask any additional accoutrement secreted about a gentleman's waist. Alessandro slipped it on while Floote bustled about putting various items onto a large silver platter, which he then proffered politely to his master.
Mr. Tarabotti selected from the offerings, as a man will from a particularly delectable cheese plate: a nice bit of garrote there, two vials of quality poison here, a tin of Germany's best phosphorus matches for extra zest, and a flask of turpentine to wash it all down. He chose one of the two pistols, the smallest and his personal favorite, checked that it was loaded, and stashed it inside a pocket over his left hip. After a pause to think, he took three cigars, the tidy little cheroots he preferred, and stashed them in the tin with the matches.
"Will you be requiring my company this evening, sir?"
"I shouldn't think so. After all, he is only an archaeologist."
Floote refrained from comment upon that statement. He had spent over ten years as valet to Mr. Tarabotti and, as yet, no one had turned out to be only anything. He smoothed down the sleeves of the burgundy coat and checked its armament carefully before buttoning it closed. He handed Mr. Tarabotti a matching top hat.
"Will there be anything else, sir?"
Alessandro tightened his lips over his teeth in thought. "Perhaps the other gun as well, if you would be so kind?"
Floote passed it to him. "Try not to kill anyone important, sir."
Stashing the gun up his sleeve in a special quick-release wrist holster, Alessandro grinned. It was an expression that did not sit comfortably on his patrician face.
"Any final orders, sir?"
"The usual, Floote. If I don't come back . . ."
"No record, no witnesses. I am aware of your standing instructions."
"Proceed then, Floote."
There were more people in the streets when Mr. Tarabotti exited the hotel a second time. Alessandro wondered if nightlife had evolved in Egypt due to the lack of supernatural, much in the manner of peculiar animals evolving on islands without natural predators, if one were given to believe Mr. Darwin's outlandish theories. Then, again, perhaps it was simply the coolness of the air that encouraged wide-scale evening socialization.
No one bothered him. No beggars whined for baksheesh. No tradesmen forced their goods in his direction. Alessandro Tarabotti had a way of walking that, even as a conspicuous foreigner in a foreign land, marked him as undesirable. Thus, he could move quickly through the narrow alleys that purported to be Luxor's main streets, passing whitewashed huts and undernourished obelisks, coming finally to a steep slope and sandy shore.
Nearby, the three balloons were tied down, only one still inflated.
It took very little in the way of local currency or time to hire a stunted raft, piloted by a lackluster youngster, to ferry him across the river. It took slightly more to convince the urchin to wait. At two gold coins and twenty minutes, Alessandro considered it quite economical. The boat-boy even pointed out the path he needed to take towards the tombs. Mr. Tarabotti had paid more for less in the past, and probably would again.
The map, it turned out, was not scaled as he might have hoped, and it was a long walk of some four miles before he noted any of the landmarks indicated there. He left behind the lushness of the floodplain for a long limestone canyon where little grew and less thrived. He was grateful for the moon, that he need not carry one of the ridiculous teapot-shaped oil lamps in order to see his way.
It should have been a pleasant walk, but Mr. Tarabotti, whom no one would ever insult by calling anxious, could not shake the feeling that he was being followed. Every time he jerked about and looked behind him, he saw nothing there. Nothing at all. This was compounded by another sensation, one of being repelled, as though he were a magnet too close to another of the same charge. He'd felt it ever since Cairo but here it was worse of all, almost unbearable.
He happened upon the archaeological encampment eventually; a copse of canvas tents nestled at the base of a cliff. It appeared quite deserted, so he clambered up to the mouth of a rock-cut tomb, marked by an uninspired "x" on his little map. As he climbed, a new scent overlaid the clay musk of the cooling sands – tobacco and vanilla.
"I thought you hadn't gotten the message," said a voice in Italian when he reached the top. A figure resolved itself from gloom into a man by stepping forward out of the shadow of the rocks around the entranceway.
Fragments of limestone crunched under sensible boots. "Trouble finding the place ?"
"You sent a map. It had an "x" on it."
The man gripped Alessandro's shoulders, kissing him on each cheek in the manner of old friends. "Giuseppe Caviglia."
"Alessandro Tarabotti." Mr. Tarabotti saw no harm in giving the archaeologist his name, though he objected to the intimacy of the rest of the greeting. "Show me what you found."
Mr. Caviglia tilted his head to one side and took a draw on his pipe.
"You know I can't simply do that."
Mr. Tarabotti smiled tightly. "A rule player." He reached into his waistcoat pocket and pulled out the letter of marque, passing it over.
Giuseppe Caviglia unfolded and read it carefully by moonlight. "The government's full confidence? That must be nice."
"It has its benefits."
"You're authorized to take any action you deem necessary in conjunction with my findings here. What, exactly, does that mean?"
Alessandro ignored the question by asking one of his own. "You indicated in your original missive that this was a supernatural matter."
Mr. Caviglia nodded once, sharply.
"Well, you caught the antiquities ministry's interest. They brought your letter to government oversight, and oversight brought it to the Templars, and the Templars brought it to me."
The archaeologist sucked in on his pipe sharply at that revelation. Mr. Tarabotti waited with ill-disguised impatience while Mr. Caviglia coughed out puffs of vanilla-scented smoke.
Eyes watering, the man looked more closely at Alessandro's face.
"You're one of them, aren't you? I thought they were all dead. Too susceptible to the poisonous humors."
Mr. Tarabotti, who was a bit of a poisonous humor, said sharply,
"Interesting that you even know of my kind."
"My cousin is a Templar," Mr. Caviglia explained hastily.
Alessandro grimaced. That could make things difficult.
Mr. Caviglia recovered his equanimity. He handed back the letter of marque, openly evaluating his visitor's appearance. Alessandro knew what he saw: a man of lean build and patrician nose, tall, wearing a cleverly cut coat and trousers a little too tight. In short – a dandy. He would not see that the coat was cut to hide musculature, rather than exaggerate it, and that the tightness of the pants was to distract from the smooth movements of the legs that wore them.
"You're not what I would have expected."
Alessandro cocked his head. "Well, at least one of us is surprised. You're exactly what I expected."
And the archeologist was – unshaven, undersized, wearing round spectacles and a jacket no decent human would wish upon his worst enemy.
He could be handsome under the grime, in a peevish scholarly way, but there were certain unforgivable flaws. Atop his head rested a battered object that might have started life as some species of hat many years ago and at the bottom of the ocean.
Mr. Tarabotti shuddered. "Shall we go in now?"
Mr. Caviglia nodded, tapping out his pipe on the side of the entranceway. "A remarkable discovery, really quite remarkable." He led the way inside the tomb.
Its ceiling was higher than Alessandro had anticipated. A smoking torch in the far corner cast a dim flicking light. It was as clean as could be expected from a place recently filled with rubble for thousands of years. There were few artifacts left – a broken column, several pottery bowls before an inset shrine, and a pile of digging tools nested at the base of the torch – but the walls were littered with carved and painted images. On one, a jackal-headed man sat at a vast banquet – bread, meat, and fruit laid out before him, a curlytailed monkey crouched underneath his throne. On the other, the same man was shown undergoing various death rituals of a decidedly heathen nature.
"We found the tomb partly looted, of course. Most of them are. Oddly, the looters stopped half way through and not a single person has touched the tomb since. Until we came along." The archaeologist crossed the room, grabbed up the torch, and led the way through a carved opening into a short passageway.
Mr. Tarabotti followed.
The passage turned to the left, and before them stood a huge basalt statue of a mummy, threatening and protective.
The archaeologist ignored this, turning again and leading the way down a steep set of stairs, talking all the while.
"Once we saw the mummy we realized why. The natives are terribly superstitious about these kinds of things. Well, you would be too, if you grew up in a land entirely devoid of supernatural. I mean, our government has been trying for elimination ever since the Inquisition, but the hives and packs will keep springing up. Not here, though."
Mr. Tarabotti placed a hand against the tunnel wall to steady himself as he climbed down the dark stairs. "They're too strong and too well connected."
"Yet the Templars back home keep trying."
"They're believers." Mr. Tarabotti grimaced as his hand came away from the wall filthy with dark brown dust and a fine yellow powder.
Alessandro shrugged. He believed in very little beyond his job and the wealth it generated.
"Well, regardless, this excavation has been fascinating. The sarcophagus has unique hieroglyphics on it. And the mummy – excellent preservation, stunning condition, from flesh to fiber. There."
They emerged into a room slightly smaller than the first, and far less tidy. It was cluttered, with antiquities spread across the floor and nestled into niches in the painted walls. Everything was covered in a thick layer of dust and, while some artifacts had been knocked over and broken, most were intact. The preservation was amazing. Wooden furniture stood in the corners, draped in crumbling textiles with large stone statues of animal-headed gods resting on top. Pots in every shape and size lined the walls, nestled amongst crowds of tiny human statues, piles of copper weapons, and a myriad of other mundanities. In the middle of the jumble, next to the massive hole it had obviously been hauled out of, stood a large sarcophagus of red granite, its lid off and tilted against its side.
The archaeologist tugged Mr. Tarabotti over to it. Inside, a mummy lay partially unwrapped, the looters having started with its head, lusting after the precious amulets of gold and lapis nested inside the linen bandages.
There was no doubt as to why.
"Remarkable," said Mr. Tarabotti in English.
The creature inside was human, almost, but the bones of its face were not. Teeth, jaw, shape of forehead all leaned more toward canine than man. There was even a light patterning of hair in the shrunken wrinkles of the dried brown skin.
"Mummified in half homo sapien, half homo lupis form." Alessandro pulled a small analog aetheromechanical transducer from his jacket pocket and prodded delicately at the mummy, testing for remnant vital aetheromagnetism. Nothing. "They say alpha werewolves can maintain just such a state as this, half in, half out of human form. They use it in metamorphosis rituals. Can you imagine?" His fine upper lip curled.
He investigated further. "Well, I commend you, Mr. Caviglia. If this is a hoax, it is a very good one."
The archaeologist puffed up in outrage. "I assure you, sir – !"
Mr. Tarabotti held up the transducer autocratically to stop any denunciation and continued examining the body. "Don't you think that head shape is a little odd?"
"Aside from it being attached to a human body?"
"We call it Anubis form," said a new voice in old-fashioned Italian flattened out by a British accent.
Out of the staircase entrance came the gleaming muzzle of a nasty double-barreled pistol followed by a blond military-looking gentleman.
"Hello, Curse-breaker," he said to Mr. Tarabotti in English, gun steady.
"You were at dinner earlier this evening." Alessandro switched to the Queen's tongue, out of courtesy for their visitor, at the same time releasing his gun out of its wrist holster. The movement was so subtle as to be imperceptible. The gun slid down toward his hand, almost peeking out the bottom of one burgundy sleeve.
The man nodded. "I followed you from the hotel. As you inconvenienced me by not allowing my agents to steal the map from you."
Mr. Caviglia raised both hands and straightened away from the sarcophagus. His eyes were fixed on the intruder's weapon.
Mr. Tarabotti sniffed. "I knew someone was following me. How did I miss you?"
"You never looked up." The man had a soldier's bearing and a young face, but his eyes were dulled by past lives.
"I'm to old to remember humans have taken to the skies," Alessandro shook his head at himself.
"You're a werewolf," accused the archaeologist, with more power of deduction than Alessandro would have given him credit.
The man snorted. "Not here, I'm bloody-well not." He glared at Mr. Tarabotti as though this fact were somehow his fault. "I hope you know what a bother it has been, traveling through Egypt after you these weeks. I had to learn to shave again, and every little cut takes a dog's age to heal. I don't know how you mortals do it. I really don't. I hope you appreciate the risk I'm taking."
Alessandro licked his lips. This was going to be fun. "Oh, I appreciate it."
The un-werewolf narrowed his eyes. "Don't you move." He glanced briefly at the archeologist. "Is it true what you found? What he said? Is that there a mummy of a werewolf in Anubis form?"
"See for yourself," suggested Mr. Tarabotti, hoping the un-werewolf would come within striking distance.
The un-werewolf didn't take the bait, too old for that. "We used to rule this land. Did you know that?"
Mr. Caviglia gave a little snort of disbelief.
"You archaeologists haven't figured that one out yet, have you? They worshipped us as gods. Turned sour on us in the end. Most things do. The god-breaker plague swept the Two Lands and, within a generation, every werewolf had died. We've not been back since because this," he gestured to himself, "is what results."
"And why would you risk everything to follow me here?"
The un-werewolf looked at Mr. Tarabotti. "Curse-breaker, this mummy is our ancestor. You daylighters," and he included the archaeologist in his contemptuous statement, "have no right. Especially not some crusading religious fanatics. That mummy is the property of the British Government, we have the concession, not the Italians. Ours to study and understand."
Mr. Tarabotti smiled his tight little smile. "Who said we wanted to study it ?"
The archaeologist and the un-werewolf both looked to him in shock.
"But the Templars promised."
Mr. Tarabotti shrugged. "The Templars lied. And we can't very well have the English using it as some kind of pro-supernatural propaganda tool."
No record and no witnesses.
He slid the derringer smoothly the rest of the way out of his sleeve and into his hand, turned slightly in the same movement, and shot Mr. Caviglia in the chest at point blank range. The archaeologist fell with a tiny cry of surprise and lay still against the corner of the sarcophagus, slumped and limp.
"We can't allow you to go babbling about this to the antiquarian community either, I'm afraid." He looked thoughtfully down at the scholar's dead body. "Pity."
The un-werewolf started, but his gun remained trained on Mr. Tarabotti. Alessandro tucked the now-useless pistol into his pocket casually, feeling about for his second one, and narrowed his eyes at the man.
"What it must be like, seeing that," he tilted his head at the fallen archaeologist, "and knowing you could so easily end up the same way."
"Do you really think, after hundreds of years, we immortals fear death ?"
"Do the crazy ones, who have lived too long, travel to Egypt to die voluntarily?"
The un-werewolf shrugged. "Some."
"So, we find ourselves at an impasse."
"Mmm, please take your hand out of your jacket, Curse-breaker."
Mr. Tarabotti did so, tucking his second tiny gun up the end of his other sleeve in a maneuver he'd once learned from a street performer.
The un-werewolf gestured with his pistol for Mr. Tarabotti to move away from the mummy and toward the door. Cautiously, Alessandro did so. But, near to the entrance, as he passed close to his opponent, he pretended to stumble over a fallen urn, lurching violently to one side.
The un-werewolf growled at him and stepped threateningly forward. Alessandro dove, shifting his weight and lashing up and out with his foot, striking the man's wrist where it held the gun.
The double barrel discharged a bullet, missing Mr. Tarabotti by a foot, the slug plowing hard into a support column, spitting limestone shards at both men. The un-werewolf swore and rotated the chamber to load his second shot.
Alessandro rolled, as much as he could, over the small statues and artifacts littering the floor, coming into a crouch covered in thousands of years of dust but with his second gun clutched in his hand.
He fired, hitting the un-werewolf in the shoulder. The shot wasn't deadly, but it did cause the man to drop his own gun in surprise.
Mr. Tarabotti lunged for the fallen weapon at the same time as the unwerewolf, and the two of them scrabbled through the ancient offerings. Alessandro struck out viciously at his opponent, connecting where the shoulder wound seeped old blood, groping for the fallen gun with his other hand.
The un-werewolf backhanded Mr. Tarabotti, handicapped with only one working arm, and that odd British distaste for kicking in a fight.
Mr. Tarabotti had no such compunctions. Crawling as they both were after the fallen weapon, Alessandro kicked out with one foot and managed to shove the man over. Grabbing the gun, he came up triumphant, pointing the weapon at the un-werewolf, who now crouched amongst the wreckage looking as savage as he might have in his lupine state.
Mr. Tarabotti shot the last bullet. But the man was fast, even without supernatural speed, and managed to dodge. Frustrated, Alessandro threw the gun petulantly aside and pulled the flask of turpentine from his jacket.
He scattered it liberally about, making sure to coat the mummy in particular.
The un-werewolf lunged for him, seizing him by the waist and hurling him back to the floor. Mr. Tarabotti pushed against the man's chin, trying to wrench his neck. His opponent howled, an animalistic sound coming from such a human face.
"That was you howling earlier this evening?" Mr. Tarabotti panted out the question, clawing at the creature's eyes.
"Staying in practice, even if I can't change," came the hissed reply, as the non-werewolf struggled to hold Alessandro in a one-armed grip.
"That's rather perverse, you know that?" Mr. Tarabotti uppercut sharply with the palm of one hand, achieving just enough leverage to break the unwerewolf's nose.
Alessandro squirmed away. Coming panting to his feet, he brushed off his burgundy coat with fierce disgusted movements. "Is such dusty combat strictly necessary?"
The un-werewolf only bled at him.
Feeling deeply put upon, Mr. Tarabotti reached once more inside his jacket, pulling out the tin of phosphorus matches. He backed away until he was at the doorway. There, he struck a match and threw it at the turpentinecovered mummy.
Seeing this action, the un-werewolf decided on self-preservation and charged past him up the steps.
The flammable liquid caught easily, the fire quickly spreading to burn away happily at the wooden furniture and textiles scattered about. From the amount of smoke and flames flaring up from within the sarcophagus, Alessandro had no doubt the mummy was ablaze as well. He whirled and ran up the stairs and out of the tomb, coughing delicately.
Outside, things were not as they should be. The un-werewolf was getting away, dangling precariously off the edge of the gondola of a hot-air balloon, floating upwards. A tubby sort of personage was manning the balloon's thermotransmitter and cranking up the hydrodine engine to get a steering propeller moving – a familiar tubby sort of personage, wearing a long scarf wrapped about his throat.
"Why, Baronet Phinkerlington. I see you do own more than one item of neck wear."
"What ho, Mr. Tarabotti? Sad business, this. I did so hope it wasn't you."
"Working for the Crown, are we, Baronet? How menial."
"For the Glory of the Empire, Mr. Tarabotti. Can't expect a Templar's toady to understand. Now can I?" As he spoke, the baronet succeeded in getting the propeller in motion, and then waddled over to assist the unwerewolf in flopping, fishlike, into the safety of the gondola.
The balloon began to rise upwards, its propeller whirling mighty gusts of steam. Soon it would be at sufficient height to set a steady course back to Luxor. Alessandro flicked the air with the back of his hand, gesturing the men away as if they were mere irritations that had been bothering his evening's stroll. No record and no witnesses.
He searched around his feet for a sharp fragment of limestone. The blaze from the lower part of the tomb had extended into the open room at the top. It lit the ridge-side on which he stood with flickering orange. It seemed the dust, itself, was flammable, and fresh air only encouraged the conflagration.
He could hear the faint "poof" sound of limestone spalling in the heat. He found a rock of adequate size. There was enough room on the hillside for him to run up his speed. Not exactly the perfect cricket pitch, but, then, one couldn't be too picky about such things. Mr. Tarabotti may have been born Italian, but he had bowled for New College, and been widely regarded as one of the fastest on record. The stone hit the balloon perfectly, tearing through the oiled canvas right above the engine feed, with immediate and catastrophic results. The hot gas leaked out, deflating the balloon from one side and causing the whole contraption to list dramatically. The un-werewolf let out a howl of mixed anger and distress and Mr. Phinkerlington swore, but there was nothing either man could do to salvage the situation. Moments later the balloon burst into flames, falling to the ground with a thudding crash.
Mr. Tarabotti paused to light a cheroot with one of his remaining phosphorus matches and then walked towards the wreckage.
Both men were lying face down in the sand. Mr. Tarabotti turned the unwerewolf over with his foot, puffing softly. Definitely dead. Then he heard a small moan.
"Still alive, Mr. Phinkerlington?" He pulled out his garrote and tossed the end of the cheroot away.
The fallen baronet turned his head weakly and looked at Mr. Tarabotti.
"Looking less and less likely, Sandy my man," he croaked. "Nice bowl, by-the-by, perfectly aimed and you even got a bit of spin on it."
"I do what I can." Alessandro crouched over the fallen man and reached forward with the garrote.
The baronet coughed, blood leaked out the side of his mouth. "No need, Sandy old chap, no need. Do me a bit of a turn would you? For old Eustace's sake, if not mine."
Mr. Tarabotti sat back on his heels, surprised.
"See Leticia safe home to England, would you? Doesn't know a thing about this business, I assure you. She's only a slip of a thing, good chit, really, can't have her wandering about Egypt on her lonesome. You understand?"
Mr. Tarabotti considered. He'd have had to investigate the girl anyway. This gave him a good excuse to find out what she knew. He'd be terribly, terribly understanding and sympathetic. Tragic accident in the desert. What were they thinking, floating at night ? He'd been out for a stroll and saw the balloon fall from afar. Dashed to the rescue but wasn't in time to save anyone.
Old friend of the family, of course he'd be happy to escort her home. Phinkerlington's watery eyes bored into him. Alessandro pursed his lips and nodded curtly. The baronet sighed, closing his eyes. The sigh turned into a wet rattling gurgle, and then silence.
Alessandro Tarabotti lit another small cheroot off burning balloon basket. What would he put in his report to the Templars? Such an incommodious bit of business. A dead un-werewolf was one thing, but a dead British aristocrat? He sighed, puffing out smoke. They'd not be pleased. Not pleased at all. And the mummy. Did his superiors need to know the truth of the mummy? For the truth was, that was no wolf's head at all. Alessandro Tarabotti had killed enough werewolves to know the difference, emaciated or fully fleshed. No, it had been far more dog-like, small, pointed. A jackal, perhaps?
He smoked his cigar. On the walls of that burning tomb, the jackalheaded god, Anubis, had been depicted assisting a jackal-headed man into the afterlife.
Werejackals? Surely not.
Alessandro snorted. But some twinge of fancy reminded him of the unwerewolf's words. They worshipped us as gods. And Ancient Egyptian gods had other animal heads. Lots of other animal heads. No wonder the Templars wanted to keep such information out of British hands.
Mr. Tarabotti turned to commence his long walk back to Luxor. Baronet Phinkerlington may be dead, but Alessandro had to escort Miss Phinkerlington back to England and deal with a mess of paperwork as a result. He wondered which one of them had gotten the better deal out of the arrangement. Probably Phinkerlington.
"The curious case of the werewolf that wasnt, the mummy that was, and the cat in the jar" est une petite nouvelle sur Alessandro Tarabotti, le père d'Alexia. Il est en Egypte, accompagné de son fidèle Floote, pour une mission secrète sous couvert de l'ordre des Templiers, et il n'hésitera pas à tuer quiconque se mettra sur son chemin. Pendant son voyage il fera la connaissance de sa future femme, la mère d'Alexia, ce qui ne l'emballe pas vraiment. On se demande ce qu'il a bien pu se passer dans le voyage retour à Londres pour qu'ils se rapprochent et finissent mariés. De plus, pendant son voyage en Egypte Alessandro a pour mission de momifier le cadavre du chat de sa tante, qu'il emmène donc partout avec lui dans un bocal...
Une petite histoire qui nous permet d'en apprendre plus sur cet homme mystérieux dont on a beaucoup entendu parler. J'aurais préféré une nouvelle sur sa romance avec le professeur Lyall, mais ça reste une bonne histoire.
Cette petite nouvelle est très, très courte donc je vous encourage à la lire mais je n'ai pas bien compris son utilité. A part nous prouver que Mr. Tarabotti n'a aucun remords à tuer des innocents et nous raconter comment il a rencontré la mère d'Alexia, mais cela n'apporte pas grand chose en fait.
Est-ce qu'il sortira en français ?
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