Monday, January 31, 2011

"Sign of the Salamander" by: Joshua Reynolds

"Sign of the Salamander"
A Charles St. Cyprian Adventure
by: Joshua Reynolds

PRO SE PRESENTS Fantasy and Fear #3



It was 1921, and the steamboat Seeley left a trail of white foam behind as it cruised the dark length of the Nile, bound for Cairo. For one poor soul, however, that destination was forever unreachable.
Sunlight streamed through the slats of the window into the tiny cabin, providing a shuddering spotlight for the body on the bed.
The man, if it indeed had been a man, had been burned to a blackened crisp of shrunken meat. The heat that had done the dirty deed had mysteriously touched only flesh, leaving both the bed linens and the man’s clothing untouched.
Charles St. Cyprian wrinkled his nose as he sank to his haunches beside the bed. He extracted a handkerchief from his coat pocket and shook it out, then pressed it to his mouth and nose in a belated attempt to kill the smell.
“Well?” someone said, brusquely.
St. Cyprian glanced over his shoulder at the speaker. “Off hand, I’d say he’s dead, Morris.”
Morris, the senior man from the Ministry, made a disgusted sound. He was egg-shaped and dressed in civil servant white in deference to the heat, and clutched a yellowed pith helmet in his sweaty hands. “Obviously. What I was inquiring, Mr. St. Cyprian, was whether or not you knew the circumstances of said death.”
“Ah.” St. Cyprian turned back to the body, briefly, and then stood, the steel rings which encircled three fingers on his left hand winking in the sunlight as he ran them through his hair. “In that case, no.”
 St. Cyprian, in contrast to Morris, was Mediterranean dark and was dressed nattily in a tailored cream colored suit and waistcoat. The buttons of the latter were polished so brightly that Morris’s disapproving reflection was easily visible in them.
“No?” Morris said. “You have no idea how he died?”
“I didn’t say that.” St. Cyprian brushed a nonexistent fleck of lint from his sleeve. “I said the circumstances escaped me.”
“As do so many things,” another voice cut in.
St. Cyprian turned, lips quirking slightly. “Ambry, old bean,” he said, with patently false cheer. The narrow whip of a man who had entered the room behind Morris flinched slightly at the jocular familiarity.
“St. Cyprian.” Ambry was only a recent addition to Morris’ staff, but he’d already picked up on his superior’s distaste for St. Cyprian and learned to mimic it. “Going to pull a rabbit out of your-”
“Ambry,” Morris chided, though not sternly. “Have you seen to the men?” he continued, referring to the troop of British Army regulars they’d brought on board when they’d arrived.
“All picketed and accounted for,” Ambry said crisply. Like Morris he was dressed in civilian fashion, though much neater. His helmet fairly gleamed, and the polished butt of a service Webley marred the otherwise perfect cut of his coat. “No one is getting on or off this ship without our permission.”
“Boat,” St. Cyprian said. “What?” Ambry asked with a raised eyebrow. “It’s a boat, not a ship. A ship is an ocean going vessel.”
“You have a singular gift for useless information, St. Cyprian.”
“And you are generally useless, Ambry, me old mucker. We make a good pair.” St. Cyprian clinked his rings together idly.
Ambry grinned mirthlessly, his lips writhing back from too perfect teeth. “Harsh words from a second rate Svengali.”
“That’s enough Ambry,” Morris said. “Mr. St. Cyprian-”
“Were those windows always open like that?” St. Cyprian interjected, indicating the wooden blinds.
“As far as I know,” Morris said, blinking. “Why?”
“No reason. Just curious.”
A muscle in Morris’ jaw had a bit of a merry dance, and St. Cyprian felt a flicker of pity for the bureaucrat. But only a flicker. “He burned to death. Several hours ago, at least.”
“Twelve,” Morris grated. “But was it-” He made a sharp gesture.
“Was it what? Painful?” St. Cyprian heedlessly stuffed his handkerchief in the pocket of his coat. “I imagine so, yes.”
“Magic!” Morris barked. “Was it magic?” he said, more quietly.
Ambry made a face as soon as the word escaped Morris’ lips. St. Cyprian smiled. Ambry was a tight button man. If it wasn’t Eton approved, Ambry wasn’t a fan.