Chapter 12 - El Espíritu de la Muerte

Hemlock prodded the corpse of the spider, this time with the poker. It looked like a huge tarantula.
“Is it an African Bird-Eating Spider?” I said, unleashing zoological knowledge gleaned from a trip to London Zoo some years before.
Hemlock levelled her withering gaze at me. “No.”
“Oh.”
“It’s not even real.” She prodded it with some force. I winced in anticipation of a squelchy noise, but heard only a dull metallic clunk of metal striking... metal. “I’m reasonably certain it’s clockwork.”
I leaned closer. True enough, under the black hair of the creature’s thorax, metal wires poked out and cogs spluttered, trying to turn. A leg twitched and I flinched back.
Hemlock laughed and smacked the spider again. There was an industrial crunching and the clockwork motions ceased. Hemlock was still wearing her gloves, so reached down and scooped the spider up in both hands.
“Move the boxes, please. And check in mine for a note.”
I did as instructed, moving the boxes on to the floor and, very gingerly, checking in the tattered remains of Hemlock’s box for a note.
“Nothing,” I said.
“Fine. Let’s see what we can learn here,” she replied.
The spider’s hair was in fact fur that had been cleverly attached. A few quick snips with scissors and it fell away, revealing a gleaming mass of cogs and limbs. Hemlock strapped on her ridiculous goggles and prepared to dive in.
While she began her clockwork dissection, I found myself drawn to the fur. It wasn’t real, at least I don’t think it was real. It was, however, rather pleasing to the touch.
A few minutes later, and Hemlock was muttering, “Nothing here. Clean, no helpful little clues.”
“What about the cog maker? Is there another Van Kaspian cog in there?” I asked, thinking perhaps it was a helpful push in the right direction.
“No, nothing like that in here that I can see,” She replied, before murmuring, “But he must have left something for me.”
“Why on Earth would he leave you something?”
“Why else send the damned thing, Eddie? We’re talking about our Nemesis. He must have sent a clue. Otherwise, what’s the point?”
I tapped my chin with a spider-fur-covered hand. “To kill you? I mean, it’s a giant spider. I saw its fangs.” A horrible thought occurred to me. “Was there poison?”
Hemlock held up a small glass vial, still bent over the spider, her back to me. “Yes.”
“Thank goodness it didn’t bite us. Good Lord, Hemlock, this is really getting serious now. Someone sent that here to kill you. To kill you. Or us! Have I just survived another murder attempt?”
“Yes, Eddie. We survived another murder attempt. Let’s not tell Mrs Figgins, and let’s ensure everything is tidied up before she gets back.”
I nodded. “I think that we know why Nemesis sent the spider. Murder. That’s the motive.”
“Possibly,” Hemlock conceded, but she didn’t sound happy about it. “But, it really feels like he’s toying with us. Like he’s offering up a clue, but we’re too blind to see it.”
“It really is a very odd pattern,” I said to myself. I turned the fur this way and that. “It looks a little like... well, a skull.”
Hemlock paused, tweezers in one hand, a metallic spider leg in the other.
“What? What have you found?” I asked.
“The clue. That’s the clue.”
“What is? A spider leg? Is something written on it?”
“No no. The materials in here are generic, purchasable in dozens of places. Or, to be fair, purchased from Van Kaspian. Either way, nothing new. That, however,” she gestured at the fur with her tweezers, “Is a slap-in-the-face clue.”
I slowly placed the fake fur on the coffee table. “Is it?”
Hemlock swung out of her chair and strode to the bookshelves on one side of the fireplace. She ran her finger along the rows of thick, heavy books until she found what she was looking for.
“It’s in here, I think,” she said, heaving the book to the coffee table and flinging it open.
I tried to read the title upside-down. An encyclopaedia of some kind. Something about an –ology, and pages filled with images of insects.
“Hemlock, are you secretly forty?”
“What?” Hemlock was flicking through the pages rapidly. “No, of course not. Why?”
“It’s just... you’re not really like someone of our age might be expected to be.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. I’m a perfectly normal eleven year old genius with a healthy interest in crime and solving the apparently unsolvable.”
“Quite. So, not ‘boys’, ‘fashion’ or ‘horses’ then.”
The look Hemlock gave me froze my blood.
“Uh. I. Um.” I stammered, looked around for any distraction. “So, what are you, ah, looking for in the book?”
Hemlock continued to stare at me. “Oh, nothing. The latest gossip about town, who is riding which horse wearing what.”
I was too scared to say anything. And not just because Hemlock can be terrifying when angry, but because I was genuinely scared I’d upset her. I found myself keen to win her approval, for some unfathomable reason.
Eventually, her gaze finally dropped back to the book and she continued moving through the pages.
“Here we are. Arachnids.” She turned the pages slowly, examining each image. She placed a finger on one image. “As I suspected!”
“What is?” I asked, timidly.
Hemlock seemed to have forgotten my previous comment, thankfully. “The mechanical spider was a clue. Or a message, rather. From our Nemesis.” She turned the book around to show me the image.
It was a huge spider, hairy and bulbous and wicked-looking. It was black with red and yellow colours, forming what looked like a skull on its back.
I looked from the spider in the book to the fur on the table and back again. “ I see,” I said.
“The spider, Edward. It’s name.”
I looked beneath the image to the small print underneath. “The Guatemalan Snake-Eating Spider, known locally as el espíritu de la muerte.”
“The Spirit of Death.”
“Of course! And they sent my glasses back too! Which means, the person who sent my glasses back also knows about this Angel of Death case we’re on, and has basically said that they are responsible! They’ve all but given us a signed confession!” I was excited, we were finally getting somewhere.
Hemlock’s look wasn’t as jubilant as my own. If anything, she looked a little put out. “Yes, just what I was about to say.”
“So, what do we do now? Contact Trelawny and storm the theatre, apprehend the villains and solve the case?”
“Absolutely not.”
“But, Hemlock, we just escaped death. Again. We can’t keep on doing that. It’s time for us to let the police take over.”
“Eddie, we’re being targeted. Nemesis knows where we live. Telling the police won’t stop that. It’s clear that it’s now Nemesis versus us. Kill or be killed. There’s no way back now.”
I felt sick. “I don’t want to die, Hemlock.”
“Then let’s catch Nemesis and see him put behind bars for a very long time. What do you say, Eddie? There’s still a great deal to be done in order to solve this case.”
I took a deep breath. Hemlock was right. We were being toyed with. Nemesis was telling us he could find us whenever he wanted. We needed to take back the initiative and become the hunters, not the hunted. And telling the police would also get us in a lot of trouble with Mrs Figgins. “OK,” I said. “What still needs to be done?”
Hemlock closed the encyclopaedia and replaced it on the shelf as she spoke. “We need to know what links the two murders and why they were killed. We need to know what Nemesis is up to and why. In fact, we need to work out who Nemesis is. And, most important given our roles as demystifiers, we need to work out how Nemesis has done it all.”
“We know that. You said already: Allergies.”
“Yes, but how did he get to know their allergies? Why did he? And what about this ridiculous Angel of Death nonsense?”
“OK, Hemlock. How do we go about all that?”
“Well, as we know, Nemesis is probably holed up in the theatre. No doubt he expects us to charge down there now that we know he is behind it. However, I think we should still investigate what was taken from the Bantam house.”
“If anything was,” I interjected. “I’m still not sure about that.”
“I am. So, we need to check that out, and of course, we need to go to wherever that card is from. Hang on.” She went to her coat on the hat-stand and fished around in the pockets. She pulled out the small card from the Fern Restaurant. She unfolded it and we both stared at the small golden logo again.
“Any ideas?” She asked.
“Not really. I still think it looks like the Parthenon.”
“It does, but I’m pretty sure this isn’t a special card to gain entry to a Greek tourist attraction.”
“So, what do we do now?” I asked.
I think we don’t have much of a choice. We explore the Bantam house to see what was taken, or what is missing. There’s a motive there, Eddie. I’m certain of it.”
I tried not to look too dubious as I muttered, “It’s Edward.”

****

Hemlock wanted to leave immediately, but I procrastinated. I confess that this feet-dragging was in no small part because I couldn’t shake the feeling that we were contemplating actions that bordered on the really quite illegal (breaking into the abandoned theatre, while against the law, wasn’t really that illegal, but someone’s house...).
So, I insisted on lunch before we left. Furthermore, I insisted on my favourite sandwich of ham and English mustard.
“Is it important to have your favourite sandwich now, Edward?”
“Yes. It might be my last meal before we’re arrested and thrown in prison.”
Hemlock snorted, but I was quite serious. Until meeting Hemlock, I had never even contemplated any sort of illegal activity. Indeed, I was a young man about to begin at a new school, focused on studies and a respectable future in soaps. I was not a poor unfortunate from the East End of London, who had turned to a life of crime. Hemlock was clearly of the opinion that the laws of the land only applied to her if she agreed with them, on a case-by-case basis. While I’m certain she would agree that breaking and entering was wrong, that same ruling wouldn’t apply if it was Hemlock doing the deed. It was early afternoon before we set off to the Bantams’ house on foot, Hemlock having secured the address from Mrs Bantam when she first engaged the demystifier’s services.
 The house was not all that far away from the address of the other victim, Mr and Mrs Lively’s maid, on the other side of Regent’s Park. The Bantams’ home was another large and impressive-looking townhouse, this time tucked away on a quiet residential street.
As we neared the house, Hemlock slowed. Naturally assuming she had spotted or knew something I did not, I followed suit.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Just considering our options for how we can get in.” Her eyes roamed over the building. “Front windows are out, obviously. We could try to find a way around to the back, maybe there’s a window open that we can get through from the garden…” She continued to mutter to herself.
“Or we could maybe knock?”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Eddie. Stealth and subterfuge are key here. The last thing we need is to be wandering up and announcing to the household that we intend to thoroughly examine the property... Eddie, where are you going?”
I strode up the steps to the black front door, grasped the large lion-headed bronze knocker, and knocked loudly.
“Edward Whitlow!” Hemlock whispered harshly from behind me.
I ignored her, bouncing slightly on the balls of my feet as I waited.
“You are a stupid, stubborn –”
The door opened, albeit only a crack. The diminutive form of Mrs Bantam peeked out.
I raised my hat in polite greeting. “Mrs Bantam, I’m terribly sorry to bother you at home, but we have a question. Might we come in?”
“Master Whitlow, Miss Jones. Of course, do come in,” Mrs Bantam replied, opening the door to invite us in.
With a glare in my direction, Hemlock brushed past me and into the hall. I confess I smirked a little as I followed.
There was something odd about the Bantam house. Or rather, about Mrs Bantam’s place in it. She was altogether too small for it. I could see her fitting comfortably in a small cottage, but this high-ceilinged, airy townhouse seemed too big for her. Like a tiny fish in a bowl that is too large for it.
She turned to face us both as we stood in the hall. She was still dressed in black. Her eyes seemed a little less red than they had previously.
“How can I help you both? Have you discovered what happened to George?”
“We are very close, Mrs Bantam,” I replied. “However, we were wondering if it would be possible to take a quick look around your house?”
“Why?” Mrs Bantam asked.
“We believe something might have been taken from your house.”
“I don’t think anything has, but if it will help with catching George’s killer...”
“Thank you. We’ll be as quick as possible.”
I led the way through the house, room by room. Each room we entered I examined, walking around the walls, checking under tables and on mantelpieces. Hemlock followed me, looking bored.
“Why aren’t you looking?” I said.
“Because I don’t need to,” she replied.
I decided that Hemlock was being a pain because she was annoyed with me for knocking on the door rather than sneaking in, and chose to continue the search.
The ground floor failed to yield any clues or reveal any missing objects. I asked if Mrs Bantam would permit us to continue the search upstairs. With her permission I checked the bedrooms and bathroom upstairs. Comfortable beds, fresh towels and interesting floral paintings were all I could find; nothing remotely clue-like.
The final room to search was Professor Bantam’s laboratory and study. It was a cramped, over-full room at the back of the house. A workbench ran along one wall, with various light bulbs and electrical wires littering the thick wooden surface. A small writing desk and chair against the far wall, beneath the small, thick-glass window.
I turned to Mrs Bantam, “I don’t suppose you know if anything was taken from here?”
She shook her head. “I’m afraid not. This was George’s room, so I left him to organise it.”
“It wasn’t,” said Hemlock from behind us.
“Wasn’t what?” I said, frustrated.
“Taken. Not from there.”
“Oh? And how can you possibly know that?”
“I’ll show you,” she said and walked back to the front of the house. Mrs Bantam and I followed.
“You didn’t notice anything missing from the house?” I asked. “Perhaps around the time that Professor Bantam was killed?”
Mrs Bantam pouted. “No, nothing.”
“Oh,” I said, somewhat defeated. “You’re quite certain?”
“I am.”
“Oh.”
Hemlock had stopped in the front all. She pointed at one of the walls. “What was hanging there?”
I looked at the wall, removed my glasses and quickly cleaned them, then peered again. Sure enough, there seemed to be a darker square of wallpaper at about the right height for a large picture.
“Wait, when did you notice that?”
“As soon as we walked in, but you were so insistent on searching the house, I didn’t want to steal your thunder. Now, Mrs Bantam, do you recall what used to be on this wall? A painting?”
“Some drawings, blueprints,” said Mrs Bantam. “They belonged to George. He said they were the plans to a machine. I confess I never paid much attention. Then one day he said he had to sell the sketches.”
Hemlock continued to squint at the wall. “And was that shortly before he was killed?”
Mrs Bantam paused. “Yes, I suppose it was.”       
“And did Professor Bantam tell you to whom he was selling this work? Or why?”
A shake of her head was Mrs Bantam’s only answer.
I piped up, “What are you thinking, Hemlock?”
“I’m not certain, but I think that Professor Bantam was forced to give or sell these ‘plans’ to someone.”
“But who?” I asked.
“Something for us to discuss on the way back I think,” said Hemlock. “But first, are you certain you cannot recall what the plans were for, Mrs Bantam?”
Mrs Bantam frowned, clearly thinking.
“It was something typically silly, like all George's things. The plans for a machine, but not a real machine. I always laughed at him because he was adamant it was based on fact. I think they were some novelty illustrations based on his favourite book, Frankenstein. A joke, really.”
“The machine that Dr Frankenstein builds to bring his monster to life?” Hemlock asked.
“Yes, that’s it.”
“But,” I couldn’t help but comment. “Not only is that fiction, but I don’t think that the details of the machine Victor Frankenstein uses to bring his monster to life are actually in the book.”
“Since when did that matter?” Hemlock asked.
“Well, one can’t rightly have plans to a machine that was made up and never even described in a work of complete fiction!”
“Can’t one? Because, according to Mrs Bantam, that’s precisely what the late Professor Bantam had.”
“Well, yes...” I conceded. “But, unless it was drawn by Da Vinci and hanging in the National Gallery I can’t imagine anyone wanting to buy it.”

“Unless,” Hemlock finally tore her gaze from the wall and looked at me. “Unless it works.”

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