LACKINGTON'S

speculative prose

Old Fashioned, by Steve Toase

The portraits on the staircase plaster were worn and cracked by age, but Medford guessed not all the scars were caused by the passage of time. He had that in common with them. Someone had taken the time to scratch out the eyes, and gouge some mouths away. Even paintings can spy, and talk if asked the correct questions with the correct method. Whoever had come here before him made sure there were no witnesses. Reaching up, he ran a hand down a bare arm now as flaked as any rotted skin. He would not be asking the painted dead to guide him.

The bar’s air reeked of wormwood, as if all the absinthe sipped in the now-damp cellar had soaked into the cork floor. He glanced back toward the heavy steel door, the rusted slit letting in a sliver of light as precisely as any cathedral. Taking off his glove, Medford ran a single finger across the bar. Yellow tubular flowers blossomed for a moment then died away, and as they withered he was sure he heard traces of music in the air.

When the bar had been serving, access had only been possible with the right card. Rumours were the secrecy had shielded bathtub-gin-drinking patrons from the attention of the police. This was wrong. One glance at the constellations painted on the ceiling was enough for anyone who knew what to look for.

Placing both hands on the bar, Medford calmed his breathing. Letting airborne traces of eighty-year-old alcohol settle in his lungs, his fingers scratched several sigils into the damp timber. Glass rattled against glass and he let the charm play out for a few moments longer before he opened his eyes and walked around to the other side of the bar. With steady hands he sorted through a small cluster of bottles, choosing one. Covered in dust, the label was faded and unreadable. Prising off the lid he poured three drops of the bitters onto his wrist and licked them off, then smiled, and for a moment he thought the mouthless paintings upon the wall smiled back.

*
Fascination

Serve in a champagne glass.
Use 1/3 white Curaçao to 2/3 white absinthe.
Place a single piece of ice in the glass, then fill the rest of the way from the siphon.

*

Medford was no longer a young man, and his chosen interests had long taken their toll upon him. By the time he reached the top of the hill, he struggled to fill his lungs and paused for a moment to catch his breath. Several trees marked the house’s border. He recognized juniper, lemon, Rainier cherries and several pineapple plants, looking out of place, ripe fruit thriving under thin coatings of frost.

The front door was open and he let himself in, trying to ignore the reek of fruit juice. No harsh electric lights lit the way. Gas burning under thin mantels threw shadows across the hallway.

“Who’s there?” a voice said from a distant room.

“You know who it is,” Medford said, running his hand down the wall, feeling the creatures squirm under the paper as they slowly ate the paste.

Elaine sat in the chair staring toward a window obscured by liqueurs and dirty glasses. An open fire would have warmed the room if anyone bothered to place coal in the hearth. Instead any warmth escaped up the chimney. Medford pulled his coat tighter.

“Did you get it?”

“I did,” he said, placing the bottle of bitters on her chair arm. She picked it up, leaning back to better read the label, then handed it back to him.

“You remember how to make it?”

Instead of answering he walked across to the bar, searched for the cleanest glass, and opened the window to grasp a handful of ice from the sill.

“Move, so I can watch you work.”

He stood to one side, finding the other ingredients in the stack of half-empty bottles. With slow deliberate movements he poured and mixed. The drink didn’t have a name, or if it did it was long forgotten by anyone but Elaine. Finishing, he poured the cocktail into a champagne coupe and passed it over, standing a respectful distance while Elaine took the first sip.

“You really have improved, Medford.”

“It’s been a long journey,” he admitted.

“Are you sure you want to continue?”

Reaching into her purse, she started to reapply her lipstick. Something in her stare brought the chill of the outside straight into his bones.

“I’ve come too far to turn back now.”

“The Silver King is not forgiving.”

“I’m not looking for redemption.”

Elaine nodded and reached out her hand. Medford took his notebook out of his pocket and opened it to the correct page.

“I only know part,” she said.

“I will have the rest soon enough.”

She handed the notebook back. A single flat triangle, a line rising straight up from the apex. Even incomplete, he felt the page ripple as if rebelling against its purpose. He closed the cover, strapped around the old piece of elastic, and slid his pencil back in place.

*
Helen Twelvetrees

1 part dry gin
1 part pineapple juice

Shake with shattered ice and serve in a tall glass.

*

Bribery hadn’t worked, so for the first time in decades Medford had resorted to torture. He’d been as gentle as possible, barely binding the man to the chair. Just enough to hold him in place. The restraints weren’t there to cause discomfort, merely prevent him from leaving.

Sitting opposite, Medford opened a container and tipped the food out onto the plate, hesitated over the fork as if forgetting his etiquette in the middle of a formal dinner. He took his time, savouring every mouthful, pausing to mix himself a whiskey sour, letting the man see the cold water in the fridge as he reached for the ice.

“I have no intention of keeping you here longer than I need to,” Medford said, taking his time over a particularly flavoursome forkful of food. “Frankly, it’s inconvenient, but you have selfishly decided to hoard the information.”

“It was the practice. We all kept our parts of the recipe. That way we couldn’t perform on our own. We swore oaths on blood and bones.”

Lifting his glass in the air, Medford dismissed the man’s argument. “No one cares anymore. Not Elaine. Not the Moon Woman.”

“I don’t believe you,” the man said, his tongue trying to find any last moisture that might be condensing on his skin.

Medford glanced at the dehumidifier in the corner and shrugged. “I don’t care if you don’t believe me. You have very little negotiating power. Apart from adding your part of the design.” He paused to take another mouthful of food, closing his eyes in sheer pleasure.

Across the room something in the man’s gaze broke and he slumped down against the hard chair-back. “Pass me the book.”

*
Tantalus

In equal thirds mix:

Lemon juice
Brandy
Forbidden Fruit liqueur

Shake well and carefully strain into a cocktail glass.

*

Medford tried to lift his cheek from the tiled floor, but it was no good. All his efforts were concentrated on preventing the Moon Woman from prising the lens away from his eye with her frost. The floor was freshly swept. No dirt for him to inscribe sigils as protection.

Across the room, she stood leaning against the shelf, splinters of glass around her feet. Several were embedded in Medford’s face. Above them both, the roof lacked slates and the light flooded in, making her far stronger than he expected.

“I don’t want to fight,” he said, feeling his extremities turning black as the cold rotted them on the bone.

She laughed at that. At the idea he was in any position to guide what happened next.

“This isn’t a fight. This is a feast, or will be.” When she spoke her voice was like frozen lakes cracking and he felt as if he were falling through to the paralyzing water below.

Kneeling down, she ran a nail across his cheek and he tasted dust upon his tongue. There was no way to protect himself from her. He was unsure how she’d found out about his persuasion of the man. None of them spoke to each other anymore.

Medford rolled away from her, and opened his pocket, letting the notebook fall to the floor. “I have everything I need. All of you will benefit.”

“By you confronting the Silver King? You are deluded.”

He was deluded, she was right. He watched her move around the room, dressed in a ballgown, pearls and beads still glistening though they must have been a century old. She turned to the wall, hiding her face for a moment.

“I will help you,” she said, kneeling down beside him and lifting his head, nails scratching his scalp as she knotted fingers through his hair. “I will give you my part of the sigil, just so I can look forward to hearing the rumours in several months when I start to wonder what happened to you.”

He tried to move so he could reach his notebook.

“No need for paper,” she said, and slowly and very deliberately carved her share of the symbol upon his arm.

*
Phoebe Snow

Just a dash of absinthe
Equal measures ½ brandy and ½ Dubonnet


Shake well and strain into a cocktail glass.

*

Waiting for the waitress to bring his gimlet, Medford stared at his bandaged fingers. His visit to the Moon Woman had taken a toll, the wounds not healing as fast as they should, and he needed to recharge.

On entering the bar, he’d chosen his seat carefully. A booth far enough away from the small dancefloor so as not to be distracted, and near enough to the bar to see the drinks mixed. He watched patrons enter in groups, coalesce and order, the bartender’s hands moving around the ingredients by muscle memory.

Most of the requests were for pornstar martinis and negronis, with an occasional penicillin or margarita. The bar was a margarita-type place. Too bright and too many mirrors for Medford’s liking, all the music played off a computer hidden away in the corner. Smears of whiskey and vodka appeared in the empty glass cradled in his scarred hands to be replaced by liqueurs as new drinks were created behind the bar.

He almost missed the sour get ordered, but saw the bartender crouch and reappear with the eggs, cracking the shell as she expertly filtered out the yolk, leaving just the white to go into the drink. Each concoction she made he drew the unused power toward him, feeling it creep around in his wounds, repairing the damage. Soon he would be well enough to complete the ritual, but at that moment he luxuriated in the unused magic and settled in for an evening of gin cocktails to block out the rest of the world.

*
Amaretto Sour

2 shots amaretto
1 shot fresh lemon juice
1/2 shot egg white
1 single dash of Angostura bitters

Dry shake to start, then add ice to the shaker, go again and strain into an old fashioned glass filled with ice. Garnish with lemon and maraschino cherry.

*

The preparation for the ritual was almost as strenuous as the ritual itself. As Medford got older he found he needed to eat less, and the gluttony necessary almost broke him. A number of his ribs shattered from the consumption and when he breathed he felt them scrape against his lungs.

The pursuit of the sigil had changed him as much as the invocation would. He sat on the floor, back against the wall and stared at the remnants of the feast around his feet. Fruit coagulating in shattered aspic, salmon bones discoloured with pink flesh slowly turning grey. His jaw ached but he knew he had to complete the next stage before nightfall. With shaking, grease-stained hands, he emptied his pockets into his lap and sorted through the pile of change for the correct tokens. Standing up, he walked across to the small wooden table and cut the lemon in two, rubbing each coin with the swollen punctured fruit until the embossed figures shone in the dim light. Some were emperors no one remembered, others regents whose taste for murder meant they would never be forgotten. Shaking them in his fist, Medford walked across to the mirror.

One by one he placed the coins between his teeth, smeared his lips with pomegranate seeds and grinned.

*
Royal Smile

Start with the juice of 1/4 lemon.

Add:
1/4 grenadine
1/2 calvados
1/4 dry gin

Make sure you shake well and drain into a cocktail glass.

*

Once Medford had all the parts for the sigil, the ritual itself was easy. First he marked the circle with cinchona bark, crushing the wood into the floor until the air filled with the bitter citrus tang. Then he wrote the fifteen names of the Silver King, first with water, then sugar syrup, changing the pronunciation ever so slightly to let the sweetness fill the words.

The sigil he marked out in cheap rye whiskey. First the inverted triangle at the top, then the line joining the two parts, following the not-quite-connected chalk marks he’d drawn to guide him. The second triangle flattened at the foot of the circle, and then the crashing comet entering from the sky to breach the Earth. The return of the Silver King.

Smoke rose around him, scented with burning fields and scorched soil. Medford felt his muscles shudder on the bone as the air in the room rotated away, leaving a gap in the world that should not have been there. A severance from one place to another. He ran his tongue across his lips and wept despite himself.

The sound coming from the shattering eroded away any sense of who Medford was, leaving him little more than a vessel for obedience. He fought it, trying to focus on the words that kept him in control. Something stepped through.

Medford expected the Silver King to be glorious, as shining as any star. Instead he was tarnished and worn, precious metal embedded in his skin blackened with age and damp. Each line engraved was defined by the corrosion, highlighting the scenes of depravity that they depicted. With age-swollen hands the Silver King reached up and unbuckled the cracked leather straps holding his helmet in place.

*
The Silver King

First squeeze the juice from 1/4 lemon.

Add:

One level teaspoonful of sugar
Two dashes of orange bitter
1 glass of gin

Separate an egg and add the white. Shake well and strain into a cocktail glass.

*

There was no face left, cheeks and mouth corrupted and consumed millennia ago. Instead, the exposed hollow was filled with a nest of writhing eggs, barely held in place by the remaining splinters of bones. Medford couldn’t shake the feeling that somewhere behind his own skin similar infestations waited to burrow out, impatient to gnaw through what remained of him.

The noise took his attention once more to the Silver King. At first Medford thought the corrupted regent was trying to speak, the surviving jaw moving up and down in a failed attempt to shape words. When the eggs began to hatch, they did not shatter, but distended the shell away from them as the Revivers grew, stretching out across the remains of the Silver King.

Their cavities were stained with juniper and angelica root, coriander seed blackening the gaps between their incisors. And all their teeth were incisors, patterned with fine cracks that flexed as they bit them together, spraying berry skins and orange rind toward Medford. Climbing down, they devoured what was left of the Silver King, and used their claws to scrub away any protection the sigil might have provided.

*
Snag-Toothed Nell

Start with the juice of 1/4 orange.

Add equal thirds of:
Gin
French vermouth
Italian vermouth
A single cube of ice

Serve in a bar glass after stirring and garnish with a slice of orange.

*

Medford made the flight to Europe and the Revivers caught up with him in Paris. He had hoped the world-famous cocktail bar below his room would give him enough power to keep them at bay. It did not. They gnawed their way through several walls and hotel patrons to reach him. Only due to the noise of shattered plaster and bone was he able to wake and escape before they finally reached the room where he had hidden himself away from the world.

In the Italian Alps, he set up several protections, burying bottles filled with liqueurs, bodily fluids and rotten fruit around the boundary of the small ski lodge. He hoped the cold would slow them down, and if not the cold the low magic marked out in glass and urine. They arrived one evening after the sun had dropped behind the nearby mountains, digging through the mud with nails the colour of old sailcloth until they found his charms and shattered the necks, spilling the contents into the melting snow.

He got to Heidelberg before they picked up his scent again, the defences built into the town’s roads slowing down their progress, until he could reach through and open a gateway back to his own temple, hidden deep in a Yorkshire cave. Knowing he didn’t have long, Medford carved charms into the stalactites, annunciating each one in turn to give them life.

*
Sanctuary

Add:

Two measures of Dubonnet
One measure of Cointreau
One measure of Amer Picon

Shake well and strain into a glass.

*

The cocoons started appearing around the cave, small and fibrous. First they attached themselves to bottles with broken seals or rotten corks, then the stalactites, obscuring the carefully inscribed curses and protections. Medford watched this happening and gave it little thought. The cave was damp and dark, and often played host to far more in the shadows than mere bottles of port or hiding vocatamancers.

The cocoons hatched on a Friday, the insects chewing their way through their silken encasement and gathering on the ceiling, far beyond the paltry light Medford had been reduced to living by. He heard their wings fluttering against the rock, polishing it with each beat. He did not give them much attention. Though he could not leave his self-imposed confinement, all his attention was on stopping the pursuit so he could return to some kind of normalcy.

The noise above Medford increased, amplified by the shape of the chamber. He glanced up, moving a candle to see better. The insects had arranged themselves into two triangles joined by a line, the upper triangle bisected by a single circle with a tail. He tasted wormwood on the air and heard the chattering of incisors grasping for their next victim.

*
Some Moth

Shake together:

1 dash of absinthe
French vermouth and Plymouth gin in the proportions 1/3 to 2/3

Strain into a cocktail glass, and add a single pearl onion.

*

Landing on his chest, the creatures tore through his clothes, too many for him to fight. Each time he backhanded one away another appeared, taking over the task of its injured brethren.

The wounds they chewed open were precise, each one made by peeling back triangles of skin. Once the damp fat underneath was exposed, the creatures gnawed their fill, making hollows to nest within him, pulling back the flesh to cover themselves. Keep warm within his chest.

He felt them moving around within; mating and breeding between muscle fibres. Nursing their young inside his limbs, feasting on him with a precision of agony he couldn’t escape. He tried to rise but they were too heavy, pinning him to the stone floor without further violence, just the weight of their presence, veining him with rare metals.

*
Star Cocktail

Use a mixing glass filled to the halfway point with ice.

Add:

Two dashes of sugar syrup
Three dashes of Boker’s Bitters
1/2 apple brandy to 1/2 Italian vermouth

Mix together, strain into a cocktail glass and garnish with a twist of lemon peel.

*

Inside his chest the creatures agitated against each other, raising the temperature high enough for his bones to smoke and char. He tried to scream but their eggs filled his mouth, pinning his tongue down behind his teeth.

Heated to melting point, the silver within began to fountain from his pores, blistering his skin as it flowed together, cooling in place. In agony he cried beads of pure metal. Once the Revivers settled and the metal cooled, his skin was coated entirely in silver, cheeks decorated with the transgressions from his own past. He knew he had many decades now for more scenes to be engraved into his robes of office, while the creatures within feasted on what was left of his humanity.

*
Plinius Cocktail

Mix:

2 parts good scotch
2 parts Jamaican rum
1 part orange juice

Add ice and shake.

*

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Issue 21 (Spring 2020)

Story copyright © 2020 by Steve Toase

Artwork copyright © 2020 by P. Emerson Williams

Steve Toase was born in North Yorkshire, England, and now lives in Munich, Germany. He writes regularly for Fortean Times. His fiction has appeared in Shadows & Tall Trees 8, Nox Pareidolia, Three-Lobed Burning Eye, Shimmer, and Lackington’s. Three of his stories have been reprinted in Ellen Datlow’s The Best Horror of the Year. His first short story collection, To Drown in Dark Water, is due out from Undertow Publications in 2021. He likes old motorbikes and vintage cocktails.

P. Emerson Williams has an extensive background as a multimedia artist whose work synthesizes alchemical musical expressions with visual art, video, and performance. As a member of UK theatrical company FoolishPeople, his work included the creation of soundscapes and scores, set and graphic design, and live and voice acting. Williams brings his visual work to performing live with Jarboe around the world, expanding these performances with aspects of multimedia, including painted banners, video using footage shot around the world, and animation created from his own visual art.

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This entry was posted on November 9, 2020 by in Stories.
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