The Gemini Compound
Rain beat a dismal tattoo on the black umbrellas mushroomed above the graveside. As the pallbearers lowered the coffin, someone threw a single red rose onto the oaken lid. Felice Straun, widow of the deceased, gazed stoically at the flower, not deigning to turn and observe who threw it. She stood motionless as a statue, her pale eyes shining beneath the black net veil. Those watching observed her trembling, gloved fingers as they lifted to her lips, and no heart was unmoved. Kind hands led her from the grave.
In her carriage, Felice turned to regard the dispersing mourners. She picked out the solitary figure immobile by the grave. Felice's cousin, Iain, and his wife, Harriet, followed her line of gaze.
'Can you believe the gall of that woman?' Harriet sniffed. 'Coming here and flaunting herself like this, and after the pair of them—‘
'Hush, Hattie.' Iain glared at his wife.
'She's a brazen jilt and deserves to be horsewhipped,' Harriet continued. 'Fancy throwing that rose! Why, in Papa's day, the shame alone would be enough to cloister a woman for life.'
Iain glanced uneasily at Felice. 'Are you alright, Dear?'
'I'm fine,' Felice murmured, her eyes never leaving the figure by the grave. 'Tell Browning to drive on.'
The carriage rolled from the cemetery. Felice, released from formality, allowed herself the luxury of reclining against the satin upholstery. She rubbed her temples, cursing the restraints of etiquette and corsetry. As the vehicle entered the driveway of Straun House, she set her shoulders and lifted her black veiled face.
The funeral reception was a nightmare of polite conversation and benevolent smiles. Tension gouged like a red hot awl behind Felice's eyes as she drifted from guest to guest. She would be glad when the charade was over and she could vent her feelings in private. When the last condolence had been offered and the final, sympathetic mourner escorted to the door, Harriet and Iain made their farewells.
'I do wish you'd reconsider, Felice,' Harriet whined. 'We don't like leaving you like this, do we Iain, all alone and in this huge old house.'
'I need to be alone,' Felice murmured, her eyes giving lie to the softness of her voice. ‘Besides, I have the servants. They’ll look after me, please don’t fuss.’
Harriet and Iain exchanged glances, knowing better than to argue. When they were gone, Felice retired to her bedroom and locked the door. A coal fire burned in the grate, and Felice stood at the centre of the darkened room and stared up at the portrait of her dead husband hanging above the mantel. Then she hissed through her teeth at his image. 'You lied to me!'
Felice strutted forwards, the flames from the fire making a witch mask of her features. Tall and slender, she leaned forwards until the heat of the fire scorched her skirts. 'You told me I was the only one. You promised you'd never leave me. Well, you're not gone far enough, Charles. Not gone far enough.'
Felice's green eyes sparkled like peridot and her beautiful, full lips curled with contempt . 'You were so afraid, husband. Afraid of dying, afraid of living, and always so easy to manipulate.' She turned with a swish of black silk, then peered slyly over her shoulder at the portrait. 'I warned you I would get to you within the hour.'
Felice walked to a mahogany tallboy, opened a hidden drawer and withdrew a small, lacquered box. She stepped up to the long pier glass at the foot of her bed, opened the box, and pulled out a sliver of bone. Then, holding the sliver between finger and thumb, pierced the tender skin at her wrist. 'For conceit,' she murmured, and pushed the sliver home. Blood welled and spilled. Felice watched the scarlet beads splash onto the gilt frame of the looking glass. Dovetailed joints flexed and creaked as she intoned the ancient rhyme learned from her father. At her words, the surface of the glass darkened. She raised her face to the mirror. 'Now,' she whispered, 'you will answer to me.'
The wailing was imperceptible at first, a discordant ululation akin to dying gulls. As the wailing grew louder, Felice scrutinized the bland surface of the glass. Deep inside, a pale figure appeared, weaving from side to side like a blind worm. Felice smiled. 'Welcome home, Charles.'
Charles Straun opened eyes filled with terror and despair, his gaping mouth stretched wide in mute appeal. Two white hands fluttered against the surface of the mirror as though seeking escape and she could hear him breathing, gasping, suffering. Felice stepped forwards, her predatory grin wider, until she was inches from the glass.
'How does it feel to be back, my darling?'
Charles stared wretchedly at his wife and when at last he spoke, his voice sounded bemused and remote. 'What have you done?'
'What I promised, if you ever left me.'
Charles was silent for long time, as though he required great concentration to commune with his wife. 'You said... you would kill me...'
'There are several conditions of death, my love, not just the physical we know and fear so well. I have your soul, bound in this looking glass, and now a means to control you.' Felice smirked. 'Don't believe all you read in the Bible, Charles. There's no such thing as an immortal soul.'
'You'll burn for this!' Charles' hands beat impotently at the glass.; Felice gave an unpleasant, yelping laugh. 'The trouble with you, Charles,'she purred, 'is that you're such a cynic.'
Helen Mercer stood at the graveside and closed her ears to the sound of falling earth. She’d thrown the rose onto the casket as it was being lowered; keeping her promise to her father. At the beginning of Charles's relationship with Felice, neither of them could have guessed the tenacity of her emotions, nor the ferocity of her jealousy for Helen. By the time her true temperament was exposed, Charles was too tightly ensnared in Felice's possessive web and married to her.
'She's been spreading lies about us,' Charles told her miserably one sunny afternoon in Hyde Park. 'She tells...she says my love for you is unhealthy. She implies to others that we...that you and I have…are carnal.
'She's insane,' Helen had cried, dying inside. 'Who would believe such filth and depravation? '
'Felice likes to purchase hearts,' Charles had murmured. 'Her currency is fear.'
Her currency is fear…
Helen shuddered as she recalled those words. At the time so obscure and bereft of meaning, now so clear and pregnant with menace. How formidable an adversary she had acquired was realised one morning three weeks after the wedding when Felice paid her a visit. With typical bluntness, she’d ignored Helen’s attempts at hospitality, refusing to be seated. She’d stood dressed from head to toe in scarlet and black, her chestnut hair dressed in a heavy chignon and fastened with ornate bronze combs, glaring at her daughter in law with the ferocity of a hostile cat.
'You will not see my husband alone again. Unless you have nerves of iron, I advise you to heed my words. If you come to the house to visit, I wish to be informed.'
‘I don’t understand. What right have you—‘
‘I’ve the right of a wife. Charles pays you far too much attention, and quite frankly, it’s unhealthy.’
'Felice, don't you think this is unreasonable?’
'You may feel you have his heart, Madam, but his soul belongs to me.'
‘You cannot come between a father and his daughter!.’
'Stepdaughter,' Felice corrected.
Helen had raised her chin, rallying reserves of dignity. ‘How dare you!.'
Felice had grunted,'Oh, I dare. And mark my words, you'll be sorry if you cross me further.'
'You have no rights.
'I have every right! Your relationship is a product of twisted guilt, my dear. Nothing more. You are young, widowed, vulnerable. He feels responsible, obliged to the child of his dead wife. But I'm his wife now, and as long as I breath you will always come a poor and sorry second.'
Felice had buttoned her gloves primly, her heart shaped face smug and gloating. Then she bared her teeth in a travesty of a smile. 'If you don't believe me, ask Charles, but mind you watch his eyes when he gives you his reply.'
Helen lifted her black taffeta skirts and picked her way from the grave. The hem of her dress was soaked to the shin and rain ran in rivulets down her bodice, the dark chiffon veil covering her face sodden and limp. When she arrived home, she dismissed the servants and nursed herself before a blazing fire, clutching the daguerreotype of her mother and Charles. Her tears, when they came, were desolate.
Felice poured some wine, then raised the glass to watch the firelight glisten through the ruby depths. She was dressed for bed in a cream silk nightgown, her hair tumbling around her shoulders. She turned to the pier glass, calling softly, until her image faded and the mirror darkened. When her husband appeared he was paler than ever.
'What do you want of me?' he asked. 'Why do you do this?'
'Because I can, and because it pleases me to do so.'
'Let me rest, Felice. Release me from this sorcery…'
'And give you the satisfaction of eternity? Why should you cheat me in life and in death. How dare you kill yourself without my permission! I wanted to watch you die, my love, inch by agonising inch. You tried to deceive me. Thought I wouldn’t catch you within that oh so precious hour! But I did, and now I have you, as I’ve always had you. Here to keep me company, or until I choose to release you.'
Felice gave a spiteful snigger. 'Your milksop was at the graveside. Did you see her, weeping bravely .Such...pathos.'
‘You unspeakable horror…’
'Do you miss her, Charles?' Felice observed the bowed head and emaciated form in the mirror. 'Shall I bring her here and show her what you’ve become? Show her what foul fleshly garments you wear cold and stinking as your grave? Didn't I warn you that I would use whatever device it took to keep us together?’ She took a deep draught of wine. ‘Unfortunately, as your interred body rots, so every breakdown of every fibre in that flesh will be experienced by your soul. You’ll smell the decay, feel every worm. ' Felice gave a low chuckle. 'Too bad it was the only way to resurrect you; but the ultimate agony, don't you agree?'
In the mirror, Charles began to wail.
‘She won’t get a penny of your fortune either,’ Felice goaded. ‘Oh, don’t fear. I won’t turn her into a toad, or inflict her with unpleasant diseases…though I can’t promise anything for the future.’
‘You leave her alone!’ Charles shrieked ‘I did as you demanded. I cut her out of my life though it has killed me in the process!’
‘Oh, please, ‘Felice groaned. ‘You were dying when I met you.’
‘You soul is rotten,’ he hissed. ‘Black as the Devil’s shit!’
‘Do you know what she did at the graveside?’ His wife smiled. ‘Threw a single red rose onto your coffin. Isn’t that touching?’
Engrossed in her husband's suffering, Felice failed to notice a sudden light of hope that flickered in the depths of her husband’s eyes. Finally bored she turned her back on the mirror, and with the withdrawal of her will the figure within receded. She walked to the centre of the room, turned to face the fireplace, then raised her glass to his portrait.
Helen Mercer woke from her dream with a start, saw the crimson wink of embers in the grate, and lay back on her pillow with a sob. Her dream had been lucid; more memory than fantasy. She had been taking afternoon tea with Charles; on the day he’d told her of Felice's penchant for the black arts. Her mind rolled backwards, a revolving funnel of dark, dismal memories...
'She'll never leave me, Helen. Nor allow me to leave her. She has complete domination, and calls it love. She asks me to partake of the most unspeakable acts; ceremonies that her father taught her. Jonathan Samuel was a powerful magus and left many books and potions which she believes are genuine. What an evil tyrant he must have been to corrupt her so.'
'It's in her blood,' Helen had assured him, 'and you must refuse to be involved. She can't force you.'
The desperation in his eyes as he stared at her had made Helen blanch. The gravity of his fears were realised two weeks after Helen's first visit from Felice Her lapdog, Millie, had been found dead in the gardens at the back of the house. 'What do you mean, there's no body?'
Helen had stared in disbelief at Mrs Robson, her housekeeper.
'I'm sorry, Ma'am, but...well, there's just a little fur left. We think maybe a dog savaged her.'
All that remained of Millie's snowy coat had been a swag of skin covered in yellowed fur. Helen forced herself to touch the pelt. A warm, meaty smell made her to gag as she turned the pelt over. The inside was black and scorched. When she told Charles, he had not been surprised. 'It's Felice's work,' he conceded. 'A warning.'
'How so? What could she do to leave nothing but burned fur? What is she, this woman you married?'
She's jealous of you, Sweetheart. Jealous of your youth and beauty and innocence, and the fact that I loved you and your mother long before I met her. She has a dark side and is always threatening to place me in spiritual limbo should I ever leave her.’
'This is ridiculous,' Helen exclaimed. 'What has she done to make you think this way?'
'It's what she could do,' he replied quietly. 'She tells me that should I die before her, she has a means to recall me, providing she works her magic within an hour of my death.'
'But you're not going to die,' Helen had cried and that was when he told her of his illness. 'My doctor tells me I have a few months at most,' he explained, 'and so now I must take the initiative. More importantly, Felice must never know. Not until it's over. An hour over. But to cheat her, I need your help, for if I fail and she has her hour, I need a back door through which to escape.'
'Escape from what? You’re not making sense!'
'That doesn't matter now. Trust me, Sweetheart. Felice's magic is a double edged sword, and her spells only remain potent so long as she is alive.'
'You're not asking me to...' Helen had burst into dismal, uncomprehending tears.
'To kill her?' Charles had laughed mirthlessly. 'No. Not that. Helen, you must be strong for me. When I'm...gone, there's something you must do. The day before I take my life, I'm going to give you a talisman to turn evil back on itself, a single red rose which you must throw onto my coffin… don't cry, Sweetheart…before the soil is laid on top. I can't explain, you wouldn't understand, just trust me. Are you listening? This…magic...has a narrow window where it can be reversed. A week after I'm buried she'll come to you. She'll ask you a thing and you must be strong when you answer; be convincing to deceive her.'
'I hate her,' Helen wept. 'Why don't you leave her? Let her spread her lies, let people gossip, I don't care!'
'Helen, have you been listening to me? It’s not about what others think, it’s about what she can and will do to you. You must promise to do as I ask. It's the only way. She may harm you, my darling, if you try to intervene. Please don't cry. Will you do this for me? Brave girl. Now, when Felice comes to you, this is what you must say...'
So she had promised, and he had taken his life, and it had tested all her courage to appear at the funeral, hiding the rose beneath her wrap until the last moment, so that none could snatch it back. Helen stared hopelessly into the dying embers of the bedroom fire, then clasped her hands to her face and wept.
Felice woke groggily. She’d slept badly and her limbs felt leaden. As she swung her legs to the floor, she gasped at the thrill of pins and needles in her feet. Was she getting old? Sweet Satan, she'd have to induce another rejuvenation. Felice smiled slyly; it was the one secret never divulged to Charles how she maintained her youthful looks. Felice grinned as Charles sprang to mind. How best to torment him today? She'd think of something, she wasn't Jonathan Samuel's daughter for nothing. She paced the bedroom until her circulation returned, then walked to the tallboy and took out a faded, leather-bound volume the grimoire with the geriatric spells.
Five days later, Felice stood before the pier glass, perusing her creamy skin and pretty shoulders, nodding with satisfaction at the success of the grimoire. She let the robe slip, stood naked, her eyes bright and hard. Her ego demanded this self-appreciation before summoning Charles; for she wanted to perceive herself as he would. She browsed her flesh, the pert breasts, slim arms, long legs, flat smooth abdomen…
Felice scowled. At first she thought the dark patch was a trick of the light, a dappled shadow on her flawless skin, but as she looked closer, she saw that her belly was stained by a dark smudge, a dirty tattoo,
'What is this? she whispered. 'What is this!'
When Felice looked up, there was murder on her face. She glowered at her image, then clutched her abdomen and howled. When she looked again into the glass, Charles was staring out at her.
'You did something,' Felice snarled.
Charles regarded her solemnly, the ruined flesh of his face sagging. 'What is done, cannot be undone,' he intoned.
'Don't wax lyrical with me, you bastard,' yelled Felice. 'How was it done? Tell me, or by Satan’s cock, I’ll punish you by proxy!'
Felice glared at him, casting about in her mind for an answer to his words. As realisation dawned, her face waxed livid. 'I'll have your body exhumed,' she hissed, 'then cremated. That will destroy whatever you've used. What did you use? Something to make me ill? An empathic poison, perhaps? One of the Gentian Formulas?'
'The Gemini Compound,' Charles answered.
Felice Straun picked up a silver statuette and threw it across the room. For a moment she caught sight of her face superimposed over Charles's, distorted and ugly with rage, then the pier glass imploded in a nova of glittering shards, each shard reflecting a portion of her husband's imprisoned psyche.
Helen was not surprised to see Felice on her doorstep, but she was surprised at her appearance; disheveled, and with a pallid caste to her skin, her eyes wild and insectile rimed with unhealthy dark circles. Helen ushered her into the drawing room and offered tea. Felice ignored the courtesy and came straight to the point.
'That rose you threw into the grave. Did Charles tell you to do it?'
'Don't lie to me. I've spoken with him. He dusted that rose with something he stole from me.'
'It's true then,' Helen said struggling to keep the grief from her face. 'You made good your threats.'
Felice gave a short, unpleasant laugh. 'Oh, yes.'
'Then why are you here?'
'Because, Madam, I want to know when he gave you that rose.'
'What has that to do with you?'
'It has everything to do with me,' Felice barked. Helen stared, transfixed by the uncontrolled menace in the woman’s voice. She watched Felice rub her palm across the lilac coloured fabric of her basque, observed the tiny moue of discomfort and the pinched appearance of her nostrils.
She's in pain, Helen thought. Good!
'That rose was dusted with a compound that ties one soul to another,' Felice continued. 'Binds them so closely that they interact as a single organism. It's a love potion. By doing what you did, you've unwittingly tied Charles to me even closer than before.'
'Isn't that what you wanted?' Helen asked guilelessly.
Felice's eyes glittered. 'I've decided to let Charles go.’
Helen watched as the older woman tried to soften her expression with a smile. It was a gesture that never reached her eyes.
‘I’ve seen the error of my ways,’ Felice murmured. ‘I’ve realised I was wrong to try to bring him back. I can undo the magic. If you want him to rest in peace you'd best tell me what I need to know.'
Helen, her face expressionless, answered in the way Charles had instructed.
Excerpt from Evening Standard © October 7 1886’
Police are investigating the discovery of a body at a grave in Highgate Cemetery. The body appears to be that of a woman of undetermined age, clothed in a gown of violet bombazine but so badly decomposed that immediate identification is impossible. The corpse lay face down in the grave of Charles Straun, who died earlier this year. Pathologist, Mr Evan Humphries, admitted that cause of death was hard to ascertain as putrefaction was far advanced. A puzzling facet of the investigation is that the corpse's garments appear untouched by decay, the fabric pristine and fresh as though purchased and worn that very day. Mr Humphries declined to comment further, but a police spokesman confirmed suspicions that someone had placed the body there in a sick attempt to create sensation. Police Inspector Andrew Harlow commented at the scene;
“Vandalism is an increasingly worrying sign of our
times, though desecration
of this severity is rarely encountered. Whoever did this filled the cadaver's hands
with soil and placed it in the grave in such a way as to make it look as though it was trying to burrow down to Mr Straun's casket.”
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