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Grave Importance

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Grave Importance

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Author: Vivian Shaw
Publisher: Orbit, 2019
Series: Greta Helsing: Book 3

1. Strange Practice
2. Dreadful Company
3. Grave Importance

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
Sub-Genre Tags: Contemporary Fantasy
Avg Member Rating:
(6 reads / 4 ratings)


A charmingly witty fantasy adventure in the world of Strange Practice, starring Dr. Greta Helsing, doctor to the undead, who must solve a dangerous medical mystery at a secret French spa for mummies.

Oasis Natrun: a private, exclusive, highly secret luxury health spa for mummies, high in the hills above Marseille, equipped with the very latest in therapeutic innovations both magical and medical. To Dr. Greta Helsing, London's de facto mummy specialist, it sounds like paradise. But when Greta is invited to spend four months there as the interim clinical director, it isn't long before she finds herself faced with a medical mystery that will take all her diagnostic skill to solve.

A peculiar complaint is spreading among her mummy patients, one she's never seen before. With help from her friends and colleagues -- including Dr. Faust (yes, that Dr. Faust), remedial psychopomps, a sleepy scribe-god, witches, demons, a British Museum curator, and the inimitable vampyre Sir Francis Varney -- Greta must put a stop to this mysterious illness before anybody else crumbles to irreparable dust... and before the fabric of reality itself can undergo any more structural damage.



I've just had to rescue a third groundskeeper from drowning in the ornamental lake," said Sir Francis Varney over the phone, sounding put-upon. "I am beginning to suspect the wretched ornamental lake of harboring something unpleasant and tentacular that drags people into it--or possibly with this rain, everyone has become sufficiently wet and cold to develop suicidal tendencies. Also part of the roof's fallen in. Again."

It was pouring. Greta Helsing watched out of her office window as debris bobbed and swirled in the gutters of Harley Street--hardly gutters so much as small rivers, after the second week of practically ceaseless rain. Autumn this year had apparently given up on the mist-and-mellow-fruitfulness bit as a bad job, and gone straight for the Biblical aesthetic instead.

"Which part of the roof?" she asked. Varney's ancestral pile, Ratford Abbey, went by the much more stylish epithet of Dark Heart House, and was in the process of being renovated at considerable expense.

"The part over the green drawing room, which is not exactly benefiting from the experience. I rescued all the bits of jade and malachite that could be moved. At least the wellmonsters seem to like this weather; they're having a lovely time splashing around in the gardens."

"Well, that's something," said Greta. Dark Heart and its park had been pressed into service as a shelter for dispossessed supernatural creatures earlier in the year, and one of the species housed there was somewhat amphibious. "Is--"

Over the phone she could hear someone else's voice, and Varney's inventive cursing. "--Sorry," he said after a moment, "Greta, I've got to go, the stable block is apparently flooding--I'll call you later, all right?"

She could picture it, and bit her lip. "Yes, of course. Go sort things out, don't worry about me."

"I can't help it," said Varney, "I think it's a permanent condition. Talk soon."


She took the phone away from her ear, and it was probably only her imagination that the rain seemed even louder as it spattered against her window. Only her imagination, now that Varney's voice wasn't there with her. When she set the receiver back in its cradle, that sound, too, felt much too sharp.

I could go home, she thought. There weren't any appointments in her calendar, and it was extremely unlikely that anyone would bother slogging their way through this mess to come and see her, this late in the afternoon--

But if they did, she finished, not without bitterness, they' d really need me, and anyway, being out in this weather appeals even less than sitting here and listening to the clock tick.

She watched through the moving blur of rain on the window as a plastic lemonade bottle negotiated a series of rapids across the street, wondering vaguely if it was going to escape the maw of the storm drain in its path or simply vanish into the darkness of the undercity. Into the coigns and brick-arched vaults of Bazalgette's Victorian sewers, where anything might be waiting for it.

I hope the ghouls are all right, Greta thought, not for the first time. They lived in the deep tunnels under the city, in the places rarely if ever visited by humans; she knew they were more than bright enough to have evacuated the lowest-lying tunnels as soon as the weather really turned vicious, but it was still a present worry in the back of her mind. Presumably they could, if necessary, seek shelter in the cellar of Edmund Ruthven's house, as they'd done once before under rather different circumstances. Assuming the cellar wasn't already full of water.

She hadn't heard from Ruthven in several days, and allowed herself a brief flicker of resentment at the fact that he was hundreds of miles away, on the Continent, probably having an absolutely lovely time with his unsuitable boyfriend--and thus not around to let her stay in his Embankment mansion until the weather stopped being quite so vile. Resentful or not, the fact that he was not only traveling, a thing he hadn't done much of for about two hundred years, but doing so in the company of said unsuitable boyfriend, was something Greta found enormously pleasing.

She'd known Ruthven all her life--he was a friend of the family, had extended his generosity to her father before her--and for most of that acquaintance he'd been thoroughly single and stayed firmly ensconced in his large and luxurious town-home, the end of a block of buildings separating Inner Temple Gardens from the Embankment, stirring abroad only very occasionally on some philanthropic venture or other. It hadn't been until the previous autumn that he'd felt up to leaving London, let alone the country, for the first time in decades. Granted, the house had been partially destroyed by fire at the time and he'd had nowhere to stay, but still.

That journey--a holiday in Greece, one which he'd shared with Greta herself, along with Varney and another friend of theirs--had been the first of many, including the trip to Paris this past spring during which he'd met an equally stylish and sardonic vampire who'd come home with him aftersome complicated subterranean adventures. Which she didn't care to recall in close detail. It was much nicer to think about Ruthven's warm bright kitchen and the luxurious spare beds, plural, which he had available for guests; nobody did hospitality like a vampire.

Greta was, in fact, still so wrapped up in the thought of that luxurious home, and the way her old friend seemed to have lost decades off his not inconsiderable age now that he had someone to share it with, that it took her three rings to notice the phone's renewed demand for her attention.

"Dr. Helsing," she said when she picked up, aware that she didn't sound quite as brisk and in charge as usual, not caring enough to really make the effort.

"Greta," said the voice on the other end, warm with relief. "Thank God you're in town. Are you terribly busy?"

She sat up. It had been at least a year since she'd talked to Ed Kamal, at a supernatural medicine conference in Germany; his job kept him too busy for much by way of socialization. "Ed? No, I'm not in the middle of anything, what's the matter?"

"I absolutely hate to spring this on you with no notice whatsoever, and I completely understand if you can't do it," he said, sounding both apologetic and hurried.

"Do what?"

"I--something's come up and I have to go back to Cairo, more or less immediately, and there's--no one I can really leave in charge of the spa, nobody with the experience to oversee the patients we've got, nobody who really understands the therapeutic regimens and the principles we're using--you're so good with mummies, and it'd only be for a few months, four at most--"

Greta stared at the phone, and then at the rain spattering against the windowpane. "Wait," she said. "Let me make sure I've got this right. You want me to spend four months in Marseille overseeing Oasis Natrun."

"I know it's a hell of a lot to ask," Dr. Kamal said, sounding wretched. "I mean--my nursing staff's fantastic, I'd never want to imply they're not competent to keep the place going, but I need a medical director who knows this stuff inside and out and--we have some particularly tricky clinical cases at the moment and I can't leave without being sure they're going to have an expert managing their care whom I trust without question--"

Oasis Natrun. The private and exclusive mummy spa and health resort. Where Greta had sent her own mummy patients who could afford a course of treatment, whenever she possibly could. Where cutting-edge therapeutic, restorative, and cosmetic techniques were being pioneered all the time.

Which was located in the south of France. Where it almost certainly was not currently pouring with rain.

"--Ed," she said, cutting him off in the middle of another compound-complex self-referential loop of apology, "I think the phrase I am looking for here is oh God yes please."

* * *

The mummy Amennakht was over three thousand years old and on his third set of replacement fingers, but this didn't severely impact his typing speed. On a good day he was capable of about sixty-five words per minute.

It was useful to be able to work from home--he hated the word telecommute, he wasn't commuting at all, that was the point--when you couldn't exactly go out in public without people noticing certain peculiarities in your personal appearance. Nobody cared what you looked like when you existed solely as a source of e-mails and completed assignments.

(Sometimes, when he was feeling particularly philosophical, Amennakht reflected that in certain senses the function really did shape the entity: he wasa Thing That E-mailed, and a Thing That Sent in Code, and he could feel the metaphysical parameters of that in a way that people who weren't largely made up of magic would never be able to manage.)

The other benefit of working from home was that you could fuck around on the Internet as much as you liked, as long as you were getting the job done, and no nosy manager could peer over your shoulder to read your RP posts or critique your Twitter banner image design. Amennakht had a couple of Slack channels open almost all the time, while he coded; he was expert at flicking back and forth between windows without taking his hands off the ergonomic split keyboard. Right now he was half paying attention to an ongoing conversation about the likelihood that anyone would ever design a functional fusion reactor while he slogged away in SQL. Not in my lifetime, however long that is, he thought, and smiled a little: his face creaked faintly. He at least hadmost of a face; he considered himself pretty good-looking, as Class B revenants went, even if he did need rewrapping rather badly.

He was halfway through a line when abruptly, viciously, a wave of terrible dragging weakness flooded through him. It felt like being pushed downward by a sudden G-force--the strength he was using to simply sit upright at the desk was not there, and he both felt and heard himself creak as he slumped forward--he felt like he was falling--

And just as suddenly as it had come, the feeling was gone. Well. Mostly gone.

Amennakht sat up again, slowly, with another creak. He still felt faintly weak and dizzy, but the awful sensation of weight had disappeared as if it had never been there at all.

He looked around. Nothing at all had changed: same cluttered apartment overlooking Boston's Mattapan neighborhood, same stacks of magazines, same canopic jars sitting in a neat row on the mantelpiece. Nor did he himself look any different.

He saved his work--that was automatic, a completely ingrained habit--and then after a moment closed out of the fusion reactor discussion channel and opened a rather different one, with a more complicated name. There weren't many people on it at this time of night: mostly his people were either in various parts of Western Europe or in Egypt, and the time difference was kind of hilarious.

Weird question, he typed after a minute of staring at the screen, has anyone else had a kind of... dizzy spell out of nowhere recently?

Nothing. He went on staring, the dim pinpoint reflections of his eyes looking back at him. And then, from his friend Mentuhotep--what he was doing up at four in the morning London time was a mystery in itself--You, too?

* * *

A glossy black sedan slipped out of the usual chaotic honking mess of traffic on New York's Fifth Avenue to pull up precisely within the NO STANDING ANYTIME zone in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the uniformed driver got out, as impassive and impressive as his vehicle, and came around to open the back door.

The woman who got out was no longer young. It was impossible to determine how old she was: behind the enormous sunglasses she had the kind of peculiar agelessness common to wealthy women with high-priced plastic surgeons at their beck and call, and yet the visible parts of her skin appeared neither artificially taut nor sagging. Her hair, cut and shaped expertly, was silver-gilt, the pale shimmer of electrum; her clothes and shoes, in shades of sand and beige, spoke of stratospheric price tags. The bag the driver handed to her, hooking the straps over one negligently outstretched wrist, was a cinnabar-red crocodile Birkin.

Without a word, she turned and began to climb the monumental steps--moving with perhaps more energy and confidence on four-inch heels than might have been expected.

Inside, the security officer whose job it was to peer into people's handbags attempted to stop her, and found himself transfixed with a hazel glare that felt like a physical blow--for only a second or two, before the sunglasses went back on and the bag was opened with an I suppose I must put up with this ridiculous nonsense sigh. He blinked hard, seeing afterimages, squinted past them into her bag, stammered out a thank you, ma'am that shook, and was extremely glad when she reclaimed her property and stalked on past.

Two people were waiting for her at the octagonal information desk in the center of the entry hall. "Ms. Van Dorne," said the taller of them, hurrying forward. "I'm so sorry about that--we do have to make sure no one is carrying anything dangerous--"

The woman cut him off with a gesture of one gloved hand--and did not pause, clearly expecting the others to keep up with her, turning to head toward the Egyptian wing of the museum. She was moving quite quickly, despite the crowd; it seemed as if people simply and instinctively got out of her way, parting to let her through. The others had a little more difficulty shouldering their way past tourists standing in line.

"As I said on the telephone," she said, still walking--stalking was more accurate--"my concern today is the integrity of your security systems in the areas of the museum where my artifacts are displayed. Unless I'm satisfied that they will be completely safe here, I have no interest in going any further with this loan agreement."

"Of course," said the museum's director, the taller of the two staff accompanying her. He glanced across at the chief curator of the Egyptian Art Department, who swallowed hard.

"We quite understand your safety concern, Ms. Van Dorne," she said, "especially in light of the recent series of antiquity thefts. Of course, all the incidents I'm aware of have involved private collections or auction houses, rather than museums... ?"

"Precisely," said the woman, stopping to stare at a statue; the others had to stop as well. "Which is why I believe it's possible that my most valuable items will be safer here. Possible, but not certain. I understand you have installed a particularly sensitive security system for certain new acquisitions?"

"Yes, of course," said the chief curator, "I'd be happy to show you--just this way."

The curator led the three of them past the reconstructed Tomb of Perneb, into the smaller rooms deeper into the collection. They drew stares as they went: Ms. Van Dorne's heels clicked briskly against the terrazzo tile of the floor, and the silver-gilt hair and the huge black shades made a noticeable impression.

It was entirely characteristic of Leonora Irene Van Dorne, thought the curator, not only to keep her oversized Dior sunglasses on indoors, but to wear as her only visible ornament an absolutely exquisite three-thousand-year-old lapis scarab that the curator could not look at for very long without wanting to snatch it away and put it safely in a case. The last time this particular museum patron had been by to inspect the display of a donated artifact, several months ago, she'd worn a gold-and-carnelian pendant in the shape of a falcon, which the curator tentatively dated to the reign of Senusret II, 1897-1878 BCE.

Ms. Van Dorne knew it, too. That was almost worse: she wasn't just the kind of rich that liked to collect ancient Egyptian art and artifacts, she had studiedthem--on her own, of course, as far as the curator knew she'd never gotten a degree in it--and was considered something of an authority on Middle Kingdom jewelry. She knew the absolute irreplaceable importance of the pieces she was wearing, and did it anyway. They were her property: she could do whatever she liked with them, wear them to walk her dog or go grocery shopping or do whatever esoteric kind of yoga she undoubtedly did--no one that age should look that good, move that fluidly. She had to be in her late fifties at the least--the curator knew that for a fact, since the Van Dorne family was sufficiently important to have their own Wikipedia page--but she looked a hell of a lot younger than that.

And now I'm just being catty, the curator told herself. So she looks great, so what? She's the kind of rich that can get her everything lifted, not just her face, which means she's the kind of rich that this place desperately needs, and she just happens to like playing the cultured philanthropist as well as the amateur scholar. You can't argue with endowment support at that level. You have to keep her happy, that's all that matters.

Aloud she said, "And this is our most recently installed case. As you can see, temperature and humidity are under complete control as with all our other installations, but this particular case has certain security upgrades that we believe will meet all your requirements, Ms. Van Dorne, and set your mind at rest."

* * *

"You know," said Edmund Ruthven, leaning against a handy block of two-thousand-year-old stone, "you were absolutely one hundred percent right about this."

He had his hands in his pockets, sleeves rolled up, dark red silk shirt open at the throat, a wing of glossy black hair drooping over his left enormous silver eye, and could have stepped directly out of a fashion editorial; looking effortlessly chic and art-directed was one of the more irritating of the classic vampire characteristics. The Roman Forum provided a particularly effective backdrop at the moment: pale tumbled stone and ruined columns against the racing clouds of an autumn sky.

"Are you perhaps having some sort of cerebral incident?" said his companion, thinking how nice it would be if all the tiresome modern railings--and the tiresome modern human tourists--could be removed for the sake of aesthetics. "You never admit it when I'm right. What am I right about, anyway? Of the many things that come to mind just at the moment."

The companion's name was Grisaille, and he, too, looked intensely stylish with a cigarette carelessly held between two dark fingers and his long black coat rippling in the breeze. Unlike Ruthven's, his eyes had gone bright red during the change, and he didn't bother with contacts to camouflage this fact. He favored one shoulder ever so slightly due to an injury sustained that spring, in the catacombs under Paris, and only partly did so for effect.

"This," said Ruthven, gesturing. Grisaille watched as he flicked the hair back, and as it slipped down over his eye once more, very black against the alabaster of his skin. "Rome. All this. I haven't been here for centuries; I'd forgotten how much I like the place, even if it is lousy with churches. I was having a perfectly lovely time in Bavaria, but I'm glad you talked me into coming here after all." They had been in Italy now for two lazy, self-indulgent, and absolutely wonderful days.

"Oh, that," said Grisaille. "I'd about had enough of the old place, anyway--it was sort of nice to go back there, to see Ingolstadt again, see where it all happened, tying up loose ends, style of thing." He hooked two fingers in a sardonic air quote. "Closure. Consider me entirely closed. Fermé. Chiuso. And I wanted to throw sticks into the Tiber and get riotously drunk on partygoers in Trastevere and make everybody in the world die of jealousy."

His tone was light, as it almost always was; right now the lightness was very deliberate. About two hundred years ago he'd been peripherally involved in a very nasty situation featuring a school-friend's attempts to resurrect the dead, and his own failure to stop this friend from trying the unthinkable had been weighing on Grisaille ever since. This spring's events in Paris had made his life both simpler and more complicated--and introduced him to Edmund Ruthven and his big shiny silver eyes, which was an excellent complication.

Ruthven was watching him, head tilted slightly. "Well," he said. "We can certainly manage two out of those three, although I doubt my capability to make everyone in the world jealous. Just most of it."

"They will be jealous of me," said Grisaille comfortably, "the reason being I'mthe one who gets to go back to the hotel with you at the end of the night and take off all your clothes, possibly with my teeth, and they do not."

Very faint color came and went in Ruthven's face. Grisaille grinned: it was always intensely rewarding to elicit that reaction. "Well," Ruthven said, "if you put it like that. Give me one of your cigarettes and let's move on before another herd of tourists is upon us; this place is filling up."

"Your wish is my command," said Grisaille, presenting his black cigarette case with a flourish. "Back to the hotel? The sun's beginning to get a little insistent, I think."

Ruthven nodded. "Back to the hotel. And... if you were particularly moved to explore the logistical difficulty of undoing buttons with your teeth, I do not believe I would desire to stop you."

That faint brush of color high on his cheeks was back; he smiled, and Grisaille thought all over again, as he had countless times over the past six months, I am in so much trouble here--and a moment later and I so want to be.

Copyright © 2019 by Vivian Shaw


Grave Importance

- Ann Walker


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