Chapter 1. The Contract
It was a
rare December. Powdered snow lightly drifted across the frozen
pavements of York. The tiny white particles were whipped up in tiny
vortices that encircled the Cathedral. Baverstocks was the only
taxidermist in York with a shop. Half way along Fairfax Street, it
consisted of a single black door between two shops. Above it an
unassuming sign swung backwards and forwards in the cold wind that
cut along the street, only to be brought up short by the city wall.
The door opened onto a simple, narrow, staircase. Ageing paper on the
wall was stained nicotine brown, almost hiding the Victorian style
pattern beneath. At the top of the stairs, the ancient smell of stale
smoke was replaced by the acrid smell of cleaning and tanning
chemicals hinted with the musty smell of wet plaster and the warmth
of wood shavings.
Mr Baverstock could just as easily have been a caretaker as a taxidermist. Tall, thin, his long and angular face gave him the most sombre of countenances. Beneath his bushy eyebrows, two blue-grey eyes looked out. Almost feminine hands handled the skin in his hands as he draped it carefully over the sculpture beneath it.
The man standing behind him was impressed. Anyone else would have leapt out of their own skin, let alone carry on handling someone else's with the care and attention it was currently getting.
"I'm here concerning some work? We spoke briefly over the phone this morning."
The fur on the skin was smoothed flat, as Mr Baverstock stood up from where he was sitting and turned to his newest customer.
"You will be Mr Asquith? A pleasure to meet you sir." A grey skinned hand was outstretched. "What is it that I can do for you?" The other hand gestured to a small desk with a pair of leather-bound chairs. They sat down.
"I have an unusual animal that needs to be preserved."
"Not a Whale I hope. I don't have the facilities for large animals."
"No. Not a Whale, and although it is a fair size it will easily fit in here. And allow you space to work. Although we would prefer you to work at our facilities."
"I don't do Necropsies. I can skin the animal, but you will have to deal with the remains if it any larger than a small dog. If it is as large as you say it is, then it would be best to skin the animal on site and then reconstruct it here. Do you have any photographs of it?"
Asquith nodded, fumbling inside his coat jacket for the small paper folder filled with the photos. He presented them to Baverstock, but kept hold.
"I need your assurance of confidentiality."
"It's not a space alien is it?"
"Mr Asquith, I am an honest person. If you ask me not to divulge the nature of your animal to anyone, then I will not. If you need me to sign an agreement, I will. But I will need your assurance that I will do the work and that you won't go somewhere else."
Asquith let go of the photos. Baverstock opened the folder and lifted the glossy photos out. The first photo was turned, this way and that as Baverstock tried to figure out which way was up.
"Do you know what it is?" He asked.
Asquith shook his head.
"Not really. We've found some references to it in a second century book on demons. It's definitely a polyp of some kind. The samples we have say that it of Earthly origin. So no, it's not a space alien."
Baverstock started flipping through the photos.
"Where did you find it?"
"Antarctica. It was near the surface of a glacier."
"Do you know how old it is?"
"And? How old is it?"
Asquith shifted in his seat.
"Is it still frozen?"
"You've suddenly become very mono-syllabic. Won't it decompose when you defrost it?"
"The samples didn't. I don't see why the rest of the animal should."
"It's not alive. Is it?"
"Mr Baverstock, please, it's been frozen in ice for millions of years. I somehow suspect that it might be quite, quite dead by now."
"Why do you want it mounted? Wouldn't it be better to keep it in the ice? I don't know, use some kind of x-ray thing to see inside it etc... It looks like quite a find!"
"It is to be part of a private collection."
"Although my client is wealthy, he wants to be able to touch the creature, not just look at it through a frozen portal. He wishes to be able to 'experience' the creature. I was told that you would be able to assist. That you would appreciate the need for both anonymity and secrecy and that you have a passion for the art of taxidermy." Asquith leaned forward in his chair.
"Will you do it? I'm sure it would be a crowning achievement, even if you were unable to tell anyone about it. Of course, you will be handsomely remunerated for your time and effort."
Baverstock looked at the last photograph in his hand. The surface of the huge block of ice had been melted to a glassy sheen. Beneath the blue ice, the creature seemed to float above the ground. Various tentacles sprouted from the top. Suddenly the room felt a little gloomier.