The following excerpt is from The Dollmaker by Nina Allan, recently published by Other Press, reprinted here with permission.
How do you go about killing a fairy queen? There are no books on the subject – I know, I searched – and ironically I found myself falling back on Lola’s own. After largely ignoring Lola’s oeuvre for most of my life, I now devoured it eagerly, reading all of her books in sequence right through from her debut – Cousins – to her most recent novel The City Gates, which had been published to ecstatic reviews just six months before.
I found her plots as opaque and dull as ever, but one potentially useful discovery I made, and made quickly, was that Lola was obsessed by detail. Not just the forensic details that are central to solving crimes, but the practical and other mundane details of how they are committed. Toxicology was a favourite subject of hers, as was ballistics. In one novel – End of Service – she even had an excruciating five pages describing the commonest materials for making an effective garrotte, and where best to source them.
I wondered how she knew all this stuff, how much of it was true. I couldn’t see myself wielding a gun, much less a garrotte, because I knew I was almost certain to make a hash of things. If I didn’t get killed myself, I’d almost certainly be caught, and then I’d be sent to prison for life, with the entire courtroom believing I killed my poor disabled aunt because she stole my boyfriend.
It would have to be poison. Aunt Lola’s books furnished me with enough information to begin hatching a plan, but that still left me with the problem that had been bothering me from the start: did what worked for humans also work for the small folk? Would arsenic kill an elf queen, or would she wolf it down like sherbet, and lick her lips afterwards?
I had no idea.
Aunt Lola made the procurement of deadly chemicals sound like the least of a would-be murderer’s difficulties, and she turned out to be right. There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, and a city this size boasts more establishments selling under-the-counter merchandise than you might imagine. Poky little shops in the factory district, hole-in-the-wall outlets down every proverbial back alley, all seeking to do business and all without attracting the kind of attention that might prove harmful to trade. The place I decided to try was called Warbinski’s, a grubby emporium advertising itself as an Ironmongery and General Stores, where the proprietor would weigh out bismuth and antimony by the ounce.
“And you don’t mind working with this stuff?” I asked him, a red-nosed, runny-eyed gnome of a man I presumed must be Mr Warbinski. I wasn’t buying anything that day. I had resolved to use Warbinski’s as a testing ground, to see what kind of reaction I might get when I started asking the kind of questions I needed to ask.
I posed as a radio journalist, of all things. I told him I was researching a programme on old family businesses.
Warbinski shook his head. “Used to it,” he said. “None of these materials are dangerous, so long as they’re treated with appropriate respect. Don’t want strychnine ending up in the sugar bowl now, do we?”
He laughed uproariously, his nostrils flaring wide. I managed a smirk because I knew it was expected but it was difficult for me not to imagine that his supposed joke had been at my expense. When he offered me a cup of tea I quickly refused.
“Just one more thing,” I said, as I was leaving. “Do you sell anything for fairy infestations?”
“Good Lord,” Warbinski said. He was doing his best to look outraged but I could tell it was a put-up job by the way his gaze was momentarily diverted towards the back of his shop. As if he were afraid I might be a decoy, and that even now a team of detectives were trashing his storeroom in search of blacklisted substances. “We don’t go in for that kind of thing here, indeed no. The materials you are referring to are only available under special licence. Cost an absolute bomb and definitely not worth the blowback if some idiot gets their sums wrong, goodness no.”
I decided I would have to take a chance. I took out my wallet and placed a note of a painfully large denomination on the counter, licking my fingertips and staring into his eyes as if we were both actors in some low-rent spy movie. “I’m sure you know where such materials might be available, though,” I said, deliberately. “What with your family ties to this part of the city being so extensive?”
He hesitated for less than a second before grabbing the note. “Zivorski’ll see you right,” he said. “Under the bridge and then right into Gagarin Street. Only I would strongly advise you against. Not to be messed with, those fae buggers. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
“This is just research,” I reminded him. “My enquiry was strictly theoretical.”
“Right you are, then,” said Warbinski, brightening up again. I knew he didn’t believe me for a second, but by his reckoning he’d done his moral duty and that was enough.
Zivorski’s turned out to be a jeweller’s, and judging by the stones on display in the window, quite an expensive one – not what I had expected at all. I peered in through the bowed, nicotine-stained glass, trying to work out if Warbinski had been taking me for a ride after all.
In the end I decided to chance it and went inside, pushing at the peeling door in its warped frame until a bell sounded, summoning the eponymous Zivorski. I was surprised by her youth, I suppose because the shop itself was so decrepit.
What surprised me even more was that she was a dwarf. A human dwarf, I assumed, rather than fae, although the shock of seeing her, given the reason I was there in the first place, almost made me turn around and leave before I got in any deeper.
What did I think I was doing in this part of town, anyway? My mother would have a fit.
“Good afternoon,” said Zivorski. “How can I help?”
She spoke quietly but firmly, without that edge of deference adopted by most service personnel. Her dress – a grey silk shift – was obviously expensive but without looking flashy.
She knew how to play down her disadvantages, that was for sure.
“Warbinski sent me,” I said. That at least was the unvarnished truth.
“Leon? What’s he been up to?” Her guard seemed to drop at the mention of Warbinski’s name. The two were genuinely acquainted then, which at least was something.
“I only met him today,” I said. I was about to launch into my radio journalist spiel but something in this woman’s expression gave me to understand that we were beyond that. “I went to his shop because… I have a problem. Warbinski said you might be able to help.”
“Don’t tell me you’re intending to kill someone? There are easier ways of solving problems, believe me.”
“She’s fae,” I said quickly, my trump card, although I had an idea Zivorski would have worked that out already.
“I’m sure Leon will already have told you this isn’t a good idea,” she said at once. “So let’s skip that. It won’t be cheap.” The figure she quoted was indeed the better part of two months’ wages. Something of my dismay must have shown in my expression because she gave a wry smile. “These family feuds are best forgotten, you know. What was it your father said? Get on with your life?”
I felt the blood drain from my face. “Come on,” Zivorski said. “That’s just ground-level telepathy. It’s perfectly harmless. The things your aunt could do to you are a hundred times worse. If she finds out, I mean. Have you thought about that?”
“That’s why I need her gone.” My voice sounded dry as a rusty hinge. “I can’t go on like this. Always wondering what she might do, what she might be thinking. It’s driving me mad.”
“Well, it’s your funeral.” Zivorski sighed in a way that suggested she dealt with fools like me every day of the week and was getting tired of it. She came out from behind the counter and I had the chance to observe how oddly shaped she was, the trim elegance of her upper body contrasting dramatically with the squat pelvis, the plump bowed legs, the unnaturally tiny feet. There was something powerful about her though, a decisiveness in her movements that said she didn’t care how she might be perceived, her body was splendid to her and she wouldn’t change it even if she could. She bent slightly to unlock the back panel of the window display then reached inside, drawing forth a tray of gemstone rings. She placed the tray on the counter before selecting one, an incredible square-cut topaz set in gold. The stone seemed to wink at me as if it knew something. I shivered. The topaz looked unnervingly like my aunt’s single, all-seeing eye.
“There’s a tiny catch just under the stone, here.” Zivorski pressed lightly against the metal with the ball of her thumb. The topaz sprung open like a miniature door, revealing a tiny golden cavity beneath. Inside the cavity lay a spherical tablet, or capsule. It had the sheen of nacre.
“This will dissolve in any liquid, alcoholic or otherwise. It runs through your victim’s system much like human tetanus, but at a hundred miles an hour. She will curl and shrivel before your eyes. It can be distressing to watch, I warn you, especially as she’ll probably be conscious until the very end.” She paused. “I might be able to give you something back on the ring afterwards, if that’s any help.”
I left Zivorski’s with the ring in a leather casket and my bank account more or less empty. I walked back towards the centre of town, navigating the refuse-smelling backstreets and questionable retail outlets as if I’d lived in the slums of the factory district all my life.
And it may well come to that, I thought, if any single part of this goes wrong. I wondered if it would really be so bad. No one knew me here and rents were bound to be dirt cheap. I could set up a beauty parlour. I’d have clients coming out of my ears in no time at all. I was surprised and a little appalled by how appealing it seemed, the idea of sliding out of one life and into another. I couldn’t help thinking about what Aunt Lola had said when I first went to live with her, about anyone being capable of murder, given the right circumstances.
Did I truly mean to go through with this? I clasped my satchel to my chest, the trick ring inside. Zivorski had told me the poison in the capsule would only work on fair folk.
“Which gives the product an inbuilt advantage, you know, if you happen to have made a mistake,” she added, leaning heavily upon the last word as if she were offering me one last chance to resolve my predicament in a less radical way. And save myself some money into the bargain.
The problem was that I didn’t want to save the money, not any more. I had even lost some of my hunger to see Lola dead. At some point during the planning process, my anger and hatred had reshaped themselves into something less visceral and more chilling: curiosity. I had become like one of Lola’s protagonists: secretive and introverted, obsessed with minutiae.
It sounds incredible I know, but what I wanted most was to discover if I could get away with it.
I waited three days, just to steady myself, then gave Aunt Lola a call. She sounded delighted to hear from me, her voice trembling with emotion. Or was that simply the result of a bad telephone connection?
“Sonia, dearest. I’ve been longing to talk to you. It’s been so difficult to know what to say.”
“I should have called sooner,” I said. My heart was pounding. I couldn’t remember ever having been in a situation where what I was saying felt so violently at odds with the thoughts in my head. The feeling was exhilarating, a sense of being ahead of the game, of knowing something my enemy – for was she not my enemy? – could never have guessed at. It was easy to see how this kind of power might become addictive. “I hate us not speaking. Can we meet?”
“That would make me very happy, my dear. I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to hear your voice.”
She asked if I would prefer to meet up in town – neutral ground was what she meant – but I said no, I would come to the flat, the flat would be fine.
I hadn’t been near the apartment since the day I found Lola in bed with Wil and the thought of going there now made me sick to my stomach. Nonetheless, we agreed that I would call round at three o’clock the following day. I rode up in the lift as normal, the rusty chugging sound so comforting in its familiarity that I could almost imagine calling off the murder plan and agreeing to move back in here, to let bygones be bygones.
Then I remembered the crucial element that had been missing from our phone conversation: Lola hadn’t mentioned Wil, not once, which must surely mean the two of them were still together. If they’d split up she would surely have told me, or at least dropped a hint.
It suddenly occurred to me that Wil might even be living with her now. I’d glimpsed Wil around the studio from time to time but I’d deliberately avoided him as much as possible and those friends of mine who were also friends of Wil’s kept a diplomatic silence. I had no idea how he was or what he was doing, which suited me fine. But this did also mean I’d left myself open to nasty surprises.
I rang the bell. The familiar, harsh buzzing, then silence. I tried to compose myself, to be the person I was pretending to be – the person who had turned up on this same doorstep eighteen months ago with two bulging holdalls and a broken suitcase, in fact. It was only then that I realised that person no longer existed, that whatever happened in the next forty-five minutes she was gone for good.
Then the door burst open and there she was, my aunt, wearing a beautiful hand-finished trouser suit and smiling like a movie star.
Her hair looked as if it had been recently styled, the wispy auburn curls both softer and brighter. She looked radiant. If I’d had any doubts about how things stood between her and Wil, those doubts were gone now.
I wondered if Wil knew what she was, if he even cared.
“Sonia,” she cried. She threw her arms around me, kissed my cheek. “You look lovely, dear. Come inside.”
She didn’t even sound like her old self: mildly sardonic, wryly amused, cautious and consistent. It was as if she believed the whole world must now share her happiness, a joy so pure that its origins in deception no longer mattered.
The truth is difficult, isn’t it? I want to tell you how this story ends, but I’m not sure how to do that. I could tell you about how we sat down together in Aunt Lola’s living room with the photographs and the books and that ugly bronze beetle of hers, how Lola talked and talked, insisting that when she first went for a drink with Wil it was just that – a drink – because they’d enjoyed each other’s company so much the previous evening.
“You have to believe me, Sonia, I didn’t plan any of this.” She even blushed. “I think I might have been a little crazy for a while.”
Just for a while? I thought, but didn’t say. I kept my smile on and said it was all right, I understood, that’s what love does to people. She leaned forward in her chair then – the same chair Wil had been sitting in the night he met Lola – placed her hand on my arm and said yes, that was it exactly, and I did understand, didn’t I, that she loved Wil, that it was the real thing, that she wouldn’t have dreamed of coming between us otherwise.
“I still feel ashamed,” she said. “Not of Wil and me, but of the way it all happened. You finding out like that. I can’t tell you how dreadful I feel. I wish I’d found the courage to tell you properly.”
I patted her shoulder and said she should stop blaming herself, that Wil and I had been on the rocks anyway, that the past didn’t matter now because I was with someone else, a jazz drummer named Marco I’d met when his band played the Maraschino three months ago.
“Really?” gasped Lola. “Oh Sonia, that’s wonderful. When do I get to meet him?”
She sounded genuinely pleased for me, too, suggested we should come round for dinner as soon as possible, me and the non-existent Marco, who I think I might actually have fancied if he’d been real. If Lola thought she had a monopoly on creative invention, she was wrong. I smiled and smiled, all the time thinking that if she said one more word about her and Wil and how maaahvellous they were together then I might just have to kill her.
Which was funny really, because I was going to kill her anyway.
“Let’s have tea,” she said at last. “And you can tell me more about Marco.”
She hurried off into the kitchen. I heard the sounds of running water and the rattle of crockery and at one point I even heard Lola singing although I might have imagined that. I got up from my seat and moved slowly around the room, running my fingers over the spines of the books in the bookcase, gazing at the framed photographs of film stars just as Wil had done and wondering if any of these things would pass down to me when my aunt was dead.
She came back at long last, placed the tray on the low coffee table between us. We waited while the tea brewed, talking of nothing. Lola finally plied the pot, the liquid falling in a perfect amber arc, making that inimitable sound tea makes as it flows into a cup. It was only once she’d finished pouring that Lola realised she had forgotten the milk. Lola always took her tea black, in the Russian fashion, with a lump of sugar. Normally she would have remembered that I prefer mine white. Either she was just nervous or what with me being out of her life for so long she had genuinely forgotten.
“How silly of me,” she said. “I won’t be a moment.” She hurried back to the kitchen. It was now or never. I hadn’t practised the manoeuvre at home because I was afraid it might jinx me. Perhaps I was just lucky, but I needn’t have worried. The whole thing went perfectly, as if I was used to poisoning people’s beverages for a living. A quick movement forward, press with the thumb, a tiny sound – plink! – like a solitary drop of water falling from the tap into the bath. The tablet dissolved so quickly I barely saw it happen. Which made it easier to tell myself afterwards that the horror of what occurred next was not my fault.
Zivorski had warned me that it might be upsetting to see Lola die, to watch her agony, though in fact it was not. Rather I beheld it, as I might have observed something that was happening on a television screen, or the final day’s rushes from whatever film project I was currently involved with. Assessing them for bungled lighting or muffed lines.
I think I would be right in saying that this was a perfect performance. Lola raised her cup to her lips, blew gently on the liquid to cool it as was her habit, took one quick sip and then another, grimaced slightly then replaced the cup in its saucer. I had just enough time – a second or so – to curse myself for not asking Zivorski how much of the liquid had to be consumed before the poison was effective, before Lola began to die.
A look of terrified surprise came into her eyes, an expression I can best describe as acute awareness. Then her muscles went taut, all of them, at once. She jerked bolt upright in her seat, as if she’d been turned into a line drawing of herself, all points and angles. Her fingers gripped her knees like the talons of birds. I could see how she was trying to unclamp one of her hands, to reach for me, for the table, for anything, but her joints were locked tight. She couldn’t speak either, or scream.
Instead, a terrible gurgling, the only sound her constricted throat could now produce.
I sat and watched, gazing at her as the knife-bright awareness in her eyes changed to the dull fog of delirium, as her spine bent itself backwards in a paroxysm of desperation – I heard it crack – and her bent knees beat against her chest like demented drumsticks.
The whole process took less than two minutes. A brief interlude, I suppose you might call it, unless you were Lola. When it was over her whole skeleton seemed to fold in on itself, a bunch of twigs wrapped in soiled rags, that’s what she looked like, her head lolling crazily off to one side like a broken doll.
When I felt able to move I lifted the two cups carefully from the coffee table and carried them through to the kitchen. I emptied their contents into the sink, chased them down with hot water. Then I washed the teacups and carefully dried them, returning my own to the correct cupboard and replacing Aunt Lola’s in its previous position on the tray. I poured her another cup of tea, then dusted the handles of all receptacles with a clean cotton handkerchief I had brought specifically for the purpose.
There would be other prints of mine, everywhere throughout the flat, but then why shouldn’t there be? I had lived there for more than a year, after all. I had visited my aunt this very afternoon, and found her quite well.
Nina Allan is a novelist and short story writer. Her previous fiction has won several prizes, including the British Science Fiction Award for Best Novel, the Novella Award and the Grand Prix de L’Imaginaire for Best Translated Work. She lives and works in Rothesay, on the Isle of Bute. The Dollmaker is her third novel.