614 South Wussex, London is the residence and office of Winston Alabastor, Esquire, the novelist and journalist famed for his stirring exposes of London-town’s finest in this grand year of 1879. A charitable man, Winston gave much of his earnings to various orphanages and poor-houses around town, and he was always well received at his Anglican communion. Yet, there was something quite queer about Alabastor that one could not quite place.
Many of his hours remained unaccounted for; he had a tendency to simply disappear for days on end, and his friends and colleagues were quite unable to elicit a response from his well-locked door when they sought him. Inquiring as to his whereabouts upon his return, he would say he was off visiting an old friend or perhaps a relative, though no one knew quite for sure to whom he was related, for his parents gave him up to an orphanage at birth; hence the contributions.
He has neither wife nor mistress at the age of 35, nor does he seek any. It is not for the London ladies’ lack of trying, as he is a rather handsome man, but he politely declined all offers of courtship without a word more. Eventually, the ladies cursed their attempts and the talk of the town became that he was “truly queer”, thought he certainly was never seen pursuing gentlemen, if he was. The truth was that marriage or anything of the sort simply did not appeal to Winston; his true love to whom he was married was the pen, and a loyal husband he was. Though, he was not a typical writer - no one had ever actually seen him write. His pieces were always delivered on time bearing his name.
All in all, no one knew quite what he was up to. Unable to find anything unchristian or unbecoming of a Briton about him, the people left him alone.
That is why quite a stir was caused when all of a sudden the London rumor mill started reporting that he was throwing quite the party at the manor of Parliament’s Lord William who confirmed the rousing suspicions himself: Winston Alabastor was indeed throwing quite the party, all on his own dime.
This subject is the one being discussed at Alabastor’s own dinner table, where Lord William, Lady North, the Scottish noble Sir Alasdair and the German explorer Deidrich Steiner.
“Tell me again the occasion for this affair, Winston,” said Sir Alasdair, his Lowland accent peeking through.
“There is no such occasion to be reported, good sir, other than true and simple hospitality. I have invited London’s finest and then some,” replied Winston. His voice was strong, direct, and sure of it’s own intent, the sign of a man with a clear notion of what precisely he is doing, both here and now and in the grand scheme of things.
“But surely, Winston, you must realize that for a man of your stature and reputation, this is a highly unusual act.”
“Is a man not entitled to his own self determination, or is he utterly subject to the opinions and supposed facts of the public? Of the former, our American cousins rebelled against the Crown though their chosen response was, for some reason, the latter. I choose to reject both and say that a man is given what is by God to make of it what he will,” Winston objected. The German chuckled over a glass of wine.
“Those are quite controversial words for a man such as you, Winston. To claim divine sovereignty while publishing tales of which some have led to other ruin and others to estatic social standing,” he said, quite gruffly. Deidrich was never afraid of being direct, for he learned that such a manner is the only acceptable one in directing troops of men through the Congolese jungle in search of rare artefacts.
“I speak the truth, nothing more, Deidrich. Like God, I have given truth to men and allowed them to do with it what they will. If the subjects of London choose to forgive a man his ills, so be it, though I am utterly disgusted to say it is a rarity among both the common folk and the nobility of this supposedly Christian nation.
“My publications are always thoroughly researched,” he continued. “Of telling a purposeful lie, you cannot accuse me, and when there has been misinformation told in my name, it is always corrected in the next edition with a front page notice informing the reader. My dedication is to truth, and to truth alone. For that reason, I am not only a Briton but a Christian and a writer.” He paused his speech as the servants he had hired for this evening’s meal entered the room to take the plates which contained the remnants of the lamb course they had just finished. Other well-dressed servant men refilled their wine glasses, offered a selection of brandy, port, and champagne as well as a selection of tobacco from the West Indies.
Dining is perhaps the least British part of Alabastor as he always took his courses out of order. Before the lamb, they had consumed veal, small salads, cheesecake, and Palestinian falafel. After their pipes, cigarettes, and cigars, Winston expected the final course of soup. He lit a pipe of his own as the servants retreated once more to gossip and dine on the generous portios which Winston had gratefully allowed them to prepare for themselves.
Through puffs of smoke and sips of brandy, Winston spoke.
“The reason I have invited you particular people here to dine with me tonight is to discuss a proper business arrangement.” At this, Lord William raised his eyebrows, the Scotsman choked on his brandy, the German reported a small noise and the Lady, wife of the Lord, politely said nothing but only attentively listened.
“What sort of business arrangement?” asked Lord William. True, he is a man of business, with several investments in the British East India Company. He is, indeed, about to discover that this is the precise reason for his invitation.
“Approximately a week ago, I received a telegram and a letter from a colleague in Darjeeling, India that contained reports of a highly interesting nature. He says that he was invited to a gathering of exiled Persians in Darjeeling, some of the few followers of the teachings of Zarathustra that are left.” He patiently took a long draught of his brandy and a careful drag of the pipe, the earthy aroma filling the room in a haze. The German, foreign matters being his interest and speciality, shifted impatiently in his seat. He was about to nudge the man when he continued without warning, in a tone rather lougher and much more grave than the one used previously.
“Upon arriving at the destination, he found the Parsis all quite dead, their bodies obliterated and left rotting in a circle around a deep stone pit. At first he suspected the Moslems had attacked them out of religious offense and quickly notified the nearest regiment of British regulars. When he arrived back at the location with the soldiers, the bodies were no where to be found, yet the pit around which they had lain was filled with a deep measure of blood.” He took another sip of brandy.
“Well it is clear to me, then! Whomever orchestrated this heinous crime learned that he was discovered, and so removed the bodies, drained them of their blood for some diabolical purpose and fled the scene,” started the German.
“An interesting theory, perhaps, my friend, but with several flaws: there were thirteen bodies in all, yet the pit was previously examined by my colleague to be at least a hundred feet deep and twenty wide, filled nearly to the brim with the stuff.”
“My God...” uttered Lord William. Lady North looked visibly disgusted, while the Scotsman called for the servants to deliver him a flagon of whiskey immediately.
“What is more is that the soldiers utterly failed to understand the gravity of the situation. One of them tossed a rock into the pit, and putrid vapors issued from it which covered the men in a sort of yellow, burning liquid. They were taken to a hospital where for three days they suffered hallucinations and insanity, screaming almost constantly about one ‘Ahriman’ at the top of their lungs. When they died, an autopsy showed that their organs were being rotted from the inside out. If they had sensation to percieve such things, they would have endured a constant, terrifying pain.” The Scotsman had imbibed nearly half of the flagon already, and Winston called for another to be brought to him, much to the nobleman’s delight.
“What, then, is your business proposal concerning this matter, Winston?” asked Lady North gravely. She earned a scowl from her husband which she promptly ignored. Winston admired the woman who dared to speak for herself.
“I propose an expedition,” he said simply. The German suddenly realized his position in this affair, and his heart turned to knots. Winston continued. “My personal research has shown that this ‘Ahriman’ is the Parsi equivalent of the Christian devil, who opposes the ultimate goodness and salvation of their supreme God, Ahura Mazda.
“Further, my colleague was reported dead several months ago due to a bout of malaria, yet these letters and his telegram are dated to the week before last. With these two pieces of information - his death and someone acting in his name - I have constructed the hypothesis that there is something gravely disturbing going on, and the sender of this information wishes to involve me in it.” Winston’s pipe had gone out and he set it down. He sounded almost bitter and callous in his last few words, for Winston led a well-organised, well managed life and he was quite opposed to interruptions in that order. Nevertheless, he could not resist the temptations of a good story; to put this potential tale to paper could give him legendary status amongst an already illustrious career.
He took several draughts of brandy and said nothing more. The servants, who overheard the tail ends of the conversation, were at once greatly disturbed and entirely curious. Their British manners, however, prevented them from inquiring into their master’s business. Rather, they busied themselves with preparing the potato soup which was to be their final course.
“I see now your intentions, Mister Alabastor, concerning this manner,” spoke Lord William after a long silence. “You intend to mount an expedition to be led by Steiner here and financed through my interests with the British East India Company. For Sir Alasdair’s role, though, I am at a loss.”
“You are quite correct, Lord William, your senses are keen. I intend for Sir Alaisdair to accompany our expedition to ensure that it continues to serve personal, rather than Royal, interests,” replied Winston.
“That is nearly treason, Winston! If such a matter should interest the King, the King’s representatives in India must surely have their hands in it. The servants brought out hot bowls of soup and fresh servings of wine and brandy. Lady North quite unconventionally lit an already-rolled cigarette with the strike of a match and proceeded to quietly smoke with a smile.
“I believe it would serve your interests to have your hands in this venture, my love,” she said, her voice velvet smooth.
“What interests?” he said without looking at her, through a mouthful of potato.
“This man, Winston, I have read his works,” she said. She eyed Winston with a careful, devious sort of look, though her husband did not seem to notice, and if he did, he said nothing. “His compositions are stirring, and I particularly enjoy his piece on the American man Rockefeller the industrialist. Winston is a seeker of stories, and I have no doubt in my mind that quite the novel will come of this expedition. If you were to allow him to make use of our business interests in British India, you could certainly recieve key mention, and upon success of this adventure, no doubt our holdings would be expanded even further.
Lord William had stopped eating his soup and took notice of his wife’s salient points. Truth be told, if it were not for her continuing advice, his portions in tea, salt, and spice production would have failed long ago, not to mention the hefty opium distribution deals he had undertaken with the Singaporeans without express notice to the Crown. Before Lord William could speak, it was the inebriated Scotsman, already finished with his soup and requesting another, that spoke.
“And what compensation shall I recieve for my services in this venture, writer, ah-ha-ha?!” the nobleman slurred.
“One thousand pounds upon arrival in London once more. The same for you, Deidrich, and a goodwill gesture of seven hundred and fifty pounds to you, Lord William, for the outfitting of our expedition plus whatever may be required as needed.” Winston’s expression showed that he was gravely serious.
“Your lovely wife is quite correct,” he continued, “as I do fully intend to author a great epochal novel of this adventure to endure through the ages. With such a literary endorsement, success will be quite yours, along with fame and expanded influence in Parliament as a result of your ventures in British India.” Lord William appeared noticeably very pleased, while Sir Alasdair was quickly working down his seconding helping of soup and ordering a third and Deidrich worked the prospect of such an expedition over in his mind.
“Mister Alabastor, you have a deal!” Lord William exclaimed. He had it in his mind that no such events as the fantastic murders that Winston had described had taken place, that it was merely a bold attempt to soil Winston’s good reputation; still, he had no doubt about him that Winston would be able to write such a marvelous tale that his own status among Britons would forever be elevated.
“When do you intend to depart?” Lord William asked before taking a sip of brandy.
“On the morrow,” Winston replied, and the Lord choked as his swallowed his drink.
“You can’t be serious, Winston!” he exclaimed, visibly shocked, though the better part of him told him that such a man rarely joked about these matters.
“I have already made transportation arrangements. A steamer for Alexandria leaves eleven o’clock sharp tomorrow morning upon which I have booked four first class tickets. Upon arrival in Alexandria, a train shall take us to the Red Sea, where a second steamer waits on us to arrive at the west coast of British India,” Winston said quite manner-of-factly, producing tickets from his coat-pocket for each of the mentioned voyages. Additionally, he produced a small purse from the inside pocket of his coast which contained two thousand seven hundred fifty pounds in bank notes.
“You are a mad man, Winston! We have no time to prepare, to gather neither luggage nor to set our affairs in order!” The alcohol was getting to the noble English Parliamentian and he was therefore a slight bit looser with his tongue and his wife could not help but chuckle. “At any rate, I cannot possibly attend this myself; as a member of Parliament, I have many pressing issues to attend to which cannot be laid aside for any amount of time.”
“I neither intended nor hoped for your company, my friend, though I do request and indeed require the good company of your dearest wife,” replied Winston. It was the first time he had betrayed even a hint of a smile during the whole of dinner. She was quite taken aback by surprise herself and smiled quite the flattered smile.
“I will be honored and pleased to attend such a noble venture, Winston. You have my acceptance,” was her reply and it turned her husband the Parliamentian flustered and he became red in the face. The other two were enjoying the exchange and said nothing, and even the servants had stopped eating to peek in and listen to their conversation.
“On what grounds do you possibly require my wife?” said Lord William, almost pleadingly.
“As a security investment to ensure that we are not stranded without aid should we require it, and as an additional measure of diplomatic influence among the Britons of Darjeeling. As you know, there is much that can be accomplished with the few simple words of a woman that cannot possibly be done by men,” replied Winston.
“I recind my offer entirely. I will not fund the expedition. To hell with the notoriety.” Winston, always the careful man, had prepared against such a maneuver. There was little that Winston could not research, whether through his library books or a few pounds slipped to the correct bookkeeper.
“Surely, Lord William, you should not want your opium exports to be jeopardized. I myself am quite impressed with the size of your operation and you have my respect for the distribution of profits in Swiss and French accounts.” Winston smiled, self satisfied. He took up his pipe and relit it, puffing happily along. Lord William quite knew he was beat, as a single mention with adequate documentation of his operations in one of Winston’s publications would be his ruin. But contrary to expectation, Lord William calmly nodded his head and after a moment took a sip of his brandy; if there was anything a British Parliamentarian could respect, it is a man well versed in the politics of negotiation.
“You are a shrewd businessman, my friend. Shrewd indeed. You have my part in this expedition of yours, if not only to protect my own interests. Knowing my wife, there is no turning her mind, and as she has already volunteered herself at your request,” he sighed, “she will accompany you.”
“Excellent!” said Winston. He blew a puff of smoke which hovered over the table. “What of you, gentlemen?” turning towards the Scot and German. Deidrich spoke first.
“I tire of the Congo and am satisfied with my own wealth as of now. As an old friend of yours with a lust for adventure, I accept,” he said, and raised his glass for a toast. Winston met his with a soft clink, and turned towards Sir Alasdair, who was inebriated and had fallen asleep. Winston chuckled.
“I see that the whiskey has finally conquered him. I will assume his acceptance. The lot of you are welcome to my hospitality here in my home for tonight, though I quite insist that you make the arrangements with my servants for your luggage, and in the morning for our arrival in Darjeeling, Lord William.
“It will be done,” he replied with a nod.
“Excellent, Lady, Lord, and gentlemen. I expect this shall be a marvelous adventure.” With that, ordered the servants to prepare his several guest rooms for his guests’ lodging, and rose from his seat.
“But what of this party of yours at our manor, Winston?” inquired Lady North, always the intuitive one. “Surely you know it is only a few weeks from today, and I struggle to think that we shall arrive back in time to recieve our guests, and if we do, it will be quite on the spot.”
Winston smiled and turned to her. “Precisely my point, my Lady. I intend to announce the success of our expedition to the world and entertain our many guests with it’s tale to secure our permanent fame and fortune, along with the announcement of it’s formal publication. Now, if you will all excuse me, I must retire. The servants shall show you to your chambers and shall wake you at dawn.”