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©2018 Mike Chapman

Volume 2.6: 'Dance of the Shadows'

The off-key whistling of the calliope hurt my head: the worst part about it was that I knew that soon the rotation of its metal music drum would halt and the shrieking brass pipes would fall silent, but the respite would only be temporary. The calliope would only pause long enough for the drum to be replaced with one engraved with different music. Left untended, it would endlessly repeat the same melody until its steam ran out. I would have silenced it immediately if it hadn't been evidence; I had a murder to solve, after all.


Or was it a murder? It was so strange that I couldn't tell.


The late Mr Kaufmann, the proprietor of the mechanical banshee, was slumped up against it, his piggy eyes frozen wide with terror and his white-knuckled hands clenching a lump hammer. The soles of his shoes were heavily scorched and smelled deeply unpleasant: strongly sulphurous with harsh metallic undertones. The constable who'd accompanied me here had speculated that it had been caused by standing on the calliope's furnace, but that only raised further questions and objections, the most important of which being that burning leather didn't produce a smell like that. I didn't know of anything which did.


Thick mist crept in from the Thames to lap gently around the calliope's spoked wheels and the body like they were sinking into a rising tide. Visibility was poor and would diminish further as the night trod on; I asked the constable to find someone to tend to the street lamps. He scurried off, leaving me alone with the staring corpse, the bellowing calliope and street lamps that grasped upwards in the failing light like dark winter trees.


I turned my attention back to the crime scene. Obviously, the calliope was significant. Above the colourful pastoral tableaux painted on the side, the tallest pipe had been repeatedly dented, causing it to wail antagonistically against the others.


Each dent in the bent pipe was approximately the same size as the lump hammer's head.


Clearly, Kaufmann had attacked his machine, damaging the pipe before dropping dead. Perhaps a rage suddenly overtook him and the exertion provoked a heart attack: that expression of terror might be anger instead.


No. Fear alone killed this man. I could see it on his face.


The calliope's pause came again and my jaw muscles stiffened in unconscious anticipation. Its mechanisms clunked in preparation for yet another rendition of that screeching melody. My resolve finally broke. I had no idea what this tune was supposed to be, but it was obvious that even before the pipe was damaged, the music had been discordant and unpleasant. It had no place on a decent London street.


I strode to the calliope's rear and wrenched the metal music drum from its housing before the tune could start again; the mechanisms swung into its void with a disappointed clunk. All was blissful silence, save for the calliope's asthmatic exhalations as the steam died down.


Closer examination of the studded brass surface of the cylinder showed that it was heavily tarnished and the screws securing the end plates were badly rusted. Clearly, the drum had been poorly stored but not by Kaufmann: every inch of his calliope was cleaned and polished – even the pipes around the boiler gleamed. Had he found the music drum on a scrap heap or in some run-down pawnshop? Perhaps. It certainly wasn't his originally.


Turning the cylinder on its end revealed an etched metal plate: it was the music's title - “The Dance of the Shadows” - and an address in Thatcham. A memory, buried by the silt of passing years, stirred uneasily. Decades ago, there had been an unholy cult in that parish, squatting in a ruined church. All manner of profane rituals were rumoured to take place in its name - even human sacrifices, residents had whispered.


I had helped storm their ruined chapel, in the days before I needed to shave. As its doors splintered before the shoulders of dozens of stout policemen and one frightened constable on probation, there had been a strange blast of music from within, followed by a howl that chilled us all to the core. By the time we regained our nerve and entered, every cultist inside was dead: their unmarked bodies scattered around a scorched circle, wetted by drizzle falling through gaps in the rotten ceiling.


It was strange the way the cultists were all positioned evenly around the circle when they died, I had remembered thinking. You would think they would be kneeling or standing heads bowed – at least a familiar religious stance – but they weren't: they looked as if they'd been dancing around the music box at the centre of the circle. Their legs were splayed as if ready to hop and their arms were wide as if to embrace a partner who'd just melted away into the air.


Mass suicide was the conclusion reached by newspapers, but we were all ordered not to speculate when a spate of inexplicable killings radiated away from the chapel over the next week. No-one was ever arrested for them. There were no suspects. Anyone who could illuminate us was already dead.


The more profane of their possessions were discretely burned; the more mundane were sold at auction and the money raised donated to charity. The music box was burned on a bonfire outside the church before a journalist could sketch it. Some things should be seen by the public; the ghastly etching on the side of that music box shouldn't ever have been seen by anyone. Perhaps someone, maybe a fresh-faced constable reeling from a terrifying experience, might have made a poor judgement about what was safe and spared something evil from the flames.


I bit my bottom lip.


Was it possible? Could it have been that music drum, bobbing back to the surface again after so many years submerged in the mundane?


There was a godless howl deep in the swirling mists.


Something awful was abroad in London tonight.


A streetlamp nearby bloomed into light as the lightermen began their slow procession along the streets. By its light, I had gained a shadow. And another and another as more lamps burst into life. In the flickering of the flames, they seemed to dance around me.