“What do you mean?” I asked.
“This caduceus,” said Bark, tapping the business card. “You’ve identified it already I should think?”
“One of the symbols of the Black Pharaoh,” I said. “Last used sometime in the fifteenth century.”
“Close.” Bark nodded. “It was certainly used back then, and it did then disappear for a while, but then in eighteenth century Austria it reappeared again. A luthier called Stauffer created certain instruments, one of which was a viol that appears to have made its way to Paris after being purchased by a certain Erich Zann. These instruments were identified by some very strange materials required for their manufacture, and by a chicken-headed caduceus, usually set into the fretboard using bone. Curiously enough, the type of bone used has so far defied analysis; it’s not human, and it doesn’t appear to be animal either. Stauffer had an apprentice for a while, a man called Martin who was German originally and eventually emigrated to America. He built guitars, and although it’s very hard to get confirmation, it would appear that he was aware of Stauffer’s more esoteric methods and took them with him when he emigrated. Again, there are a very few examples of guitars that bear this caduceus symbol; even fewer after one of his great-grand-daughters took fright at something and attempted to burn the family workshop to the ground.”
“So this caduceus...”
“Is associated with musical instruments, yes. These drawings, these designs, they’re incomplete.”
“I can only remember the ones I’ve drawn there,” I said. “I think it’s about a third of them.”
Bark shook his head. “I’ll bring you a book,” he said. “You can’t have access to the Ashton collection, I just don’t know what you’d be taking in there with you. These designs, or ones like them, are in there, you can make whatever notes you see fit. You’ll have two hours, no more, then I’m taking the book back. I’ll be in here the whole time as well, and no you can’t take any photographs. You handwrite what you need, and that’s final.”
The book he laid down on the table fifteen minutes later was iridescent, and the pages had a soft, almost greasy feel to them.
“It’s some kind of treated snake-skin,” Bark said in answer to my unspoken question. “Try not to touch it too much, we think the pages are poisonous over long exposure times.”
There were over fifty pages of designs, with tight little paragraphs of dense text, not always in English. I found the designs that I’d been able to remember, and copied down the text next to them. Much of what was there was, I began to realise as I worked, not commentary but prayer. These chunks of text were intended to be spoken as the designs were applied, and many of them invoked the Black Pharaoh either by name, or through his agencies. My hand began to cramp, and although I shook the cramp out it quickly came back again, and again, and again. When I’d finished copying down the text for the designs I started to look through the rest to see if I could find any that had been on the guitar that I’d forgotten about. I turned the page and looked at one, a repetitive layering of black and white motifs that seemed to move under my gaze like an optical illusion. I rubbed my eyes, and looked at it again, and suddenly
a man sitting at a workbench, bent over a guitar. In front of him was a pot of something reddish-black stood on a metal tripod over a spirit-lamp, bubbling away. He dipped a fine paintbrush into the pot and applied it to the body of the guitar. Under his breath he was mumbling something, a prayer or a chant, something as repetitive as the design. The guitar seemed to stretch as I looked at it, distending until it was almost human-sized, and then twisting this way and that like a corpse turning in the wind as it hangs from the gibbet. As it twisted it seemed to take on a familiar shape, and then, without warning, the Ilmatu was there in front of me, the man at the bench oblivious to the change, still applying the tattoo. She lifted her hands, and there in the left palm was a flickering, hungry red tongue: Guldtronen’s tongue.
I knew it couldn’t be true. Guldtronen’s tongue had been in my palms, embedded in my hand while we travelled home on the trains, crossing through Europe. I’d woken one night in the sleeper carriage, reciting the words of unbinding, my hands pressed firmly over Guldtronen’s face as though trying to suffocate him. I’d had to stamp on my own foot to scream, to stop the chant and keep the Ilmatu imprisoned, but she’d been so close to me, so close to breaking free that I’d stolen Guldtronen’s sense of taste from him. His tongue licked hungrily across my fingers and
Bark closed the book with a clap that woke me. The lighting changed and I was no longer in the train carriage staring in horror at hands I couldn’t trust, I was sat in a chair in a private reading room in the British Library.
“That’s why you can’t have access to the Ashton collection,” he said. “You’re still haunted.”
I gathered up my paper notes, not trusting myself to open my mouth in case I started screaming again. “Do yourself a favour,” he said. “Get away from this. Do something else for a while.”
I agreed with him, but I couldn’t abandon DeeDee; not while this might still be my fault. I let him leave, shaking his head at my stupidity, and then wrote the name of the book down on the top of my pages: the Valgran codex.
I called in at my sister’s on the way home, as I’d promised. She beamed at me as she opened the door and invited me in, ushering me into the kitchen where a cake was sitting on a cooling rack.
“I don’t know how you knew when I didn’t,” she said looking in the drawers for a knife, “but that guitar’s been wonderful for DeeDee. She’s been playing it all morning, she’s really taken to it. And one of her friends from school came over a half-hour ago and is teaching her things now.”
“Is that Jenn?” I said, remembering the girl who’d told me about the guitar and it’s effect on DeeDee.
"Oh, no, it’s a boy,” said my sister cutting the cake. “Michael, I think.”
As she said that Michael, the lead-guitarist from Lady Cthulhu, came out of the living room with a smug smile on his face.