Authors: Jon Mayhew
When I am dead and in my grave,
And covered with cold clay,
The nightingale will sit and sing,
And pass the time of day.
‘Bedfordshire May Day Carol’, traditional folk ballad
A Last Message
Josie swept the hair back from her smudged and blackened face and sighed. She heaved the bucket and threw glistening pieces of coal on the kitchen fire. Slumping on to a chair, she leaned heavily on the table. It was hard to keep track of time but Josie was certain that at least five days had passed.
She couldn’t get a moment alone with Cardamom. The Aunts always hovered nearby or appeared from nowhere. They flapped and fussed around him, seeing to all his needs, bringing him tea, fluffing his cushions,
killing him with kindness
, Josie thought. It was all fake: the chirpy brightness, the spoon-feeding smiles, the wrinkled squints and sugary words.
Josie had considered trying to creep out at night but the vision still haunted her: the evil-eyed bird crouching by her bedroom door. Josie could only glance in his bedroom doorway to see his exhausted, pallid face propped up against pillows. One of the Aunts would always bustle her away when she tried to get near his bed.
‘No place for a child,’ Aunt Jay croaked. ‘Too much bother for him. Not nice for you, young lady.’
‘You’ll wear the poor man out!’ Aunt Mag had said, grabbing Josie’s elbow and steering her back downstairs. But
were the ones wearing him down. Cardamom was shrinking by the day.
Now, from a crack in the window, Josie could feel the chill evening air creeping through the streets. She could imagine the people in their homes, stoking up fires and lighting gas lamps.
was out there somewhere, too. The watcher. The Aunts huddled around the other end of the kitchen table, pouring tea, observing Josie, who sat at the table corner close by the fire, chilled by their glittering black stares.
Josie stretched and yawned. She stood up and crept towards the door.
‘And where do you think you’re going, young lady?’ Aunt Jay punctuated the question with a clink of her cup in its saucer.
‘I’m going to bed early,’ Josie muttered, shrugging. ‘It’s been a long day and I’ll need my strength if I’m to black the stove tomorrow.’
‘Very well,’ Aunt Veronica croaked. ‘I shall take you up and tuck you in.’
Doesn’t she mean lock me in?
‘No need, Veronica,’ Aunt Mag said, her cup halfway between saucer and mouth. She didn’t even glance in Josie’s direction. ‘She’s a big girl. She can look after herself.’
‘As you wish,’ Aunt Veronica grumbled, rustling back to her seat. Josie noticed her eye Aunt Mag suspiciously. ‘Goodnight, Josie.’
‘Goodnight,’ Josie replied. She couldn’t believe her luck. This was her chance! She raced up the stairs, careful not to make a noise.
Josie stood in the doorway of Cardamom’s room. It smelt stale and fetid. Thick curtains muffled every sound. The wardrobe, Cardamom’s desk, the dresser – they all seemed to crowd around, crushing the only occupant of the room. The bed was a mess of twisted sheets and tangled blankets. A candle burned feebly in the corner. Josie could hear Cardamom’s breath rattle against his ribs. His cheekbones jutted out and his skin looked parchment yellow.
‘Josie, is that you?’ he groaned, peering through the dim light. ‘Where have you been? I was so worried. I thought –’
‘Don’t worry, I’m here now. I’m getting you out,’ Josie whispered. She ran over and tried to lift him by the shoulders. Cardamom gasped in agony and fell back, panting from the effort. ‘You’ve got to help me, Uncle. I can’t lift you on my own.’
‘No time,’ he wheezed. ‘You must escape . . .’
‘Not without you!’ She pulled at his stick-thin arm but Cardamom slumped down to one side.
‘Josie,’ he whispered. His eyes softened as he ran a hand down her tear-stained cheek. ‘My beautiful girl. So like your mother . . . There’s so much I should have told you and now there’s no time.’
‘Don’t talk like this, Uncle. We can get away –’
‘No.’ Cardamom shook his head. ‘Listen. You must go. You have a brother – he can help. Gimlet knows. Find Gimlet. Destroy the Amarant . . . Find Mortlock. Here . . .’
He reached under a pillow and stuffed a crumpled note into her hand. Josie stared down at it and then back at her guardian.
‘A brother? Mortlock? What do you mean? I don’t understand.’ She hugged Cardamom’s frail body. She felt his breathing become more rapid.
‘Gimlet . . . will . . . tell . . .’ Cardamom panted. ‘Keep the note safe. It will . . .’ Then he gave a sigh, as if he were sick of the world. Josie felt him become heavy in her arms, still and dead, the last breath groaning from his body.
‘Uncle?’ Josie laid him back, sobbing and smoothing his hair. ‘Don’t go, don’t –’
A floorboard creaked behind her.
Turning, she saw Aunt Mag framed by the doorway.
‘What did he say?’ Aunt Mag’s voice was low and threatening. She edged forward. ‘Did he tell you where the Amarant was?’
Josie flinched at the word, struggling not to cry out. Aunt Mag gave a hiss of triumph.
‘He did! He told you! I
if we gave you the chance to speak, he would tell you.’ Aunt Mag’s eyes shone as she stepped closer. ‘And where is it, my dear?’
Josie straightened up by the side of Cardamom’s bed. She turned round, using the movement to disguise the slip of her hand as she hid the note in the waist of her skirt.
‘Tell me, Josie, and I
spare you.’ Aunt Mag gave a crooked, yellow grin and stepped forward again.
As Josie backed away, she found herself pinned against Cardamom’s desk. There was nowhere else to go, and Aunt Mag was moving closer. Josie reached behind to steady herself against the desk and felt her fingers graze something cold and hard. Cardamom’s paper knife. She clutched it instinctively, testing its weight, judging how easy it would be to throw. She could feel that it did not have a particularly sharp edge but she knew that its point could inflict damage if thrown with force.
‘Who are you? Why do you want this . . . this Amarant so badly?’ Josie stammered, trying to distract Aunt Mag as she slid the paper knife up her sleeve.
‘Who are we?’ Aunt Mag gave a twisted leer. She shook herself and lowered her head. Josie stared as Aunt Mag’s outline slowly grew and changed.
Feathers, black and glistening, sprouted from her head. Her black dress fluttered and moulded around her body, sweeping up into a wide fantail and revealing scaly clawed legs. Aunt Mag’s arms flattened, lengthened and expanded into wings which ended in sharp talons. Hardly able to believe what she was seeing, Josie stared into the same glittering ebony eyes, but now they were set into a monstrous, bird-like face with a long, cruel beak. Black feathers fluttered in the breeze from the open window.
‘We are ghuls – ravens of the night, seekers of carrion,’ Aunt Mag cackled, lunging forward.
Josie didn’t have time to throw the paper knife, only palm it from her sleeve and push it forward. With a scream, Aunt Mag fell upon the point of the blade, then staggered back, the knife lodged in her side.
Josie didn’t hesitate. She leapt over the ghul and on to the landing, sending Aunt Veronica, who had just hurried upstairs, sprawling. Josie ran halfway down the stairs as Aunt Jay stepped through the front door. Josie was forced to vault over the banister into the hallway and down towards the scullery. Pausing to grab some steak knives from beside the sink, she crashed through the back door and out into the alleyway that serviced the rear of the houses. Josie panted as she clattered down the narrow passageway and into the street.
Here it was still and calm. The distant sound of rattling carriages, hoofs on cobblestone, echoed in the narrow lane. The houses on either side seemed to huddle together for protection, making the street even darker. A piercing, inhuman scream sliced through the air as a black, feathery silhouette hurled itself out of a window overhead.
The ghul swooped down towards her and Josie launched the first steak knife into the air. The bird screamed with rage, flying out of range, before twisting round to dive at Josie. The second knife missed, forcing the ghul to veer right and circle up again, screeching. Josie steadied herself as, once more, the creature spiralled down.
One knife left. One last chance.
She knew she mustn’t fail. The cruel eyes and spiked beak helter-skeltered towards her. She drew a breath. Then she threw.
A shrill, agonised screech tore at Josie’s ears. She didn’t wait to check the damage she’d done, but ran as fast as she could into the dark night. She felt herself sob with each stumbling step. There were two more birds back there. She knew they would come after her. Every flap and flutter, every dark shape in the shadows, made Josie cry out. Her lungs burned in her chest, but she couldn’t stop running until she was out of the alleyway.
The clatter of Josie’s shoes echoed off the cobbled side streets that led her closer to the safety and crowds of the main street. Mud splattered her heavy dress. She slipped and stumbled in the gutter as she glanced back.
‘Look out there!’
Josie swirled round just in time to see the group of startled gentlemen she was about to run into. She backed away, apologising. Her head ached. She felt sick but the sound of fluttering sent her running on.
The street heaved with people on their way home for dinner. Josie elbowed her way through, hardly caring about her muddy, dishevelled appearance. She ended up crouching in a shop doorway, trying to catch her breath.
I have to think straight
, she told herself.
The Erato theatre.
She had to go there and find Gimlet.
She glanced out into the street and groaned. Aunt Veronica, back in her human form, was pushing towards her, cocking and twitching her head as she scoured the crowds. With an oath, Josie gritted her teeth and staggered to her feet.
A drunken beggar blocked Aunt Veronica’s path, waving a tin mug in her face.
‘Spare a farthing for an old soldier, ma’am!’
Josie leapt from her hiding place, shouldering people out of the way.
Aunt Veronica’s shriek cut through the hubbub: ‘Get out of my way, you disgusting vagabond! I’ll have you horsewhipped.’
Josie pushed her way past angry faces.
‘Stop that girl!’ Aunt Veronica screeched. ‘Stop her . . . She’s stolen my purse!’
Arms snaked out of the throng, trying to grab Josie. She twisted and ducked, dragging herself through the thicket of people. She dropped to the ground and rolled through the feet of strangers, wincing and crying, then pushed herself up again and carried on running. She didn’t dare look back.
Ahead of her, she could see the warm lights of the Erato. Josie sprinted down the side of the building. She squeezed through the stage door and ran along the dingy corridor that led to the dressing rooms, weeping with relief.
Josie had made it. She’d escaped!
, she thought. Aunt Veronica’s shrill cries could still be heard down the street. She had to find Gimlet.
O I shall be as dead, Mother,
As the stones in the wall;
O the stones in the streets, Mother,
Shall mourn for me all.
‘The Cherry Tree Carol’, traditional folk song
There was barely time to acknowledge the familiar smells of damp, mildew, greasepaint, sweat and cheap cigars, no time to listen to the song onstage that the audience was roaring along to. Josie staggered through the narrow backstage passages. Where is Gimlet? He seemed to have vanished. She fumbled with the key to the dressing-room door. If she could just get her throwing knives, she’d feel safer.
Distant applause rippled up from the stage as Josie scanned the room, searching for somewhere – anywhere! – to hide, just in case. The room was neat and tidy, just as Cardamom had left it. Combs lay in rows below the mirror, jars of stage make-up beside them. Behind her stood three or four vanishing cabinets, piled up next to the great man’s wardrobe. On the back wall, the gaslight from the street lit up a large window, the glass panes covered with paper for privacy.
A heavy thud sounded in the corridor outside. Josie wrenched open the door of one of the vanishing cabinets and groped for the lever. The panel opened and she slid into the concealed rear closet of the box. Closing the panel, Josie pressed her body against the back of the box. The darkness of the tiny rear chamber enfolded her, stifling her; she had never been able to help Cardamom with any of the box tricks because of her terror of suffocation. Now her heart pounded.
Josie held her breath as the dressing-room door creaked open. She closed her eyes and listened. The ghul’s talons clicked as it picked up combs and brushes from the dressing table. The wardrobe door shuddered on its hinges, making Josie bite her lip as material swished and hangers rattled. Josie tasted blood in her mouth. The faint sound of applause rippled up from the stage once more. The performers were taking a final bow.
An impatient croak cut over the clapping as boxes were lifted and flung about. Time was running out. The performers would be back soon. Josie tensed every muscle.
The doors of the cabinet crashed open. Josie opened her eyes and saw a thin beading of light around the edges of the panel that concealed her. Silence pressed in. In her mind’s eye, Josie could picture the ghul standing inches away from her, head cocked to one side as it puzzled over the empty cabinet, head feathers floating in a ghostly breeze and those dark eyes, like polished jet, sparkling in the gaslight.
A talon scratched gently down the back of the cabinet and the panel that hid Josie. She could almost hear the ghul’s mind turning over as it tried to solve the mystery of Josie’s disappearance. She braced herself. The talon scratched again.
Then Josie heard the dressing-room door bang open.
‘’Ere, what’s going on? Oh my lord . . . No! NO!’ a familiar voice screamed. Josie recognised the husky tones of Ernie Cumbers, theatre bouncer. He’d obviously come to investigate the noises in the dressing room.
She screwed her eyes tight shut as the cabinet toppled over with a bone-jarring crash. The false back of the cabinet splintered off, exposing Josie. She could see Ernie lashing out at the flapping ghul. A deep gash lined his scalp and blood streamed down his face, blinding him. His swinging fists could have laid any opponent low in a street brawl but the ghul bobbed and weaved in and out of the blows with ease. Ernie panted heavily, wiping the blood from his forehead. But the pause gave the crow its chance, and it darted its head forward, skewering Ernie with its long sabre of a beak. The big man’s eyes bulged and he whimpered as the ghul pulled away. A disgusting squelch accompanied the strings of bloody gut that came away in the ghul’s glistening beak. Silence fell as the foul bird jerked the gory load down its gullet. Then Ernie’s blood-chilling scream shook the theatre as the ghul fell upon him again, lashing with talons, ripping and tearing with its beak. Blood spattered the walls and mirrors and speckled Josie’s face. Something wet slapped against the cabinet and slid down the side. The ghul turned, blood matting its feathers, and fixed its round eyes on Josie.
Footsteps clattered down the passageway. With a scream, Josie stumbled backwards out of the rear of the cabinet, totally at the ghul’s mercy. Angry voices filled the corridor. The creature glanced around, uncertain what to do.
‘This isn’t over, Josie Chrimes. I’ll dine on your entrails before long,’ screeched the voice of Aunt Veronica, as the ghul launched itself out through the window, sending a shower of glass into the street. ‘But another sweet feast awaits me first.’ The sounds of her cackling laughter and beating wings drifted back towards Josie as the ghul made its escape.
Gimlet burst into the room carrying a pickaxe. Over his shoulder peered the red and angry faces of three stagehands, similarly armed.
‘Oh my lord,’ one of the men said. They stopped and covered their mouths, turning away from the mess that used to be Ernie Cumbers.
‘Josie!’ Gimlet cried, kneeling beside her.
As Josie’s vision swam in and out of focus, she saw the room fill with performers and theatregoers. A policeman elbowed his way in.
‘What happened here, miss?’ he shouted above the voices of the others.
‘Did you see anything?’ cried another person.
‘Oh god, is that . . . is that Ernie?’
Josie tried to speak but her stomach lurched and the room began to spin. Her eyelids became heavy and she plunged into darkness as she felt her body slump backwards.
The scent of linseed oil and sawn timber tickled Josie’s nose. She felt the weight of warm blankets pressing down on her. She opened her eyes to see that she was sitting in the corner of a huge velvet sofa, which was bald and leaking horsehair. The sound of sawing and hammering echoed from another room. Gimlet’s studio. As soon as Josie realised where she was, she felt safe and squirmed down into the nest of blankets.
But then memories of the night before crashed into her mind: the chase, Ernie’s dying screams . . . Josie sat up, shivering as the cold air of the studio prickled her shoulders. Cardamom was dead too. Hot tears scalded Josie’s cheeks as she remembered the way he had slumped in his bed for the last time.
She dragged her weary body out of the comfort of the makeshift bed. Josie had always loved this cluttered room; the great desk covered in papers, orders, books, plans, charts, cups, glasses and plates. The bare floorboards felt icy on Josie’s feet as she wandered over to the doorway that led into Gimlet’s workshop.
Gimlet was absorbed in planing the edges of a large trunk. Josie watched the muscles of his brown arms flex and ripple as he moved the plane back and forth over the wood. He reminded her of a circus acrobat, small but wiry, muscles like whipcord. Boxes in various stages of completion lined the room, some brightly painted, some with the names of other stage magicians emblazoned over them. Josie stifled a sniff and Gimlet turned, pushing his mop of black hair away from his thoughtful face and straightening up from his task.
‘You’re awake,’ he said. ‘All right?’
Gimlet scratched his lamb-chop whiskers. ‘You’ve had quite an adventure. The whole theatre was in uproar. Let’s stoke up the fire and you can tell me everything over a hot port.’
Josie’s tale came out in fits and starts. Sometimes she had to stop and catch her breath before continuing. Often, tears took over.
‘He’s dead, Gimlet,’ Josie sobbed when she had told him all she could. Gimlet nodded, his face dark with sorrow. ‘They said they knew him. They killed him but I don’t know why.’ She looked at Gimlet. Her eyes felt tired and sore. ‘He gave me this.’ Josie pulled the note from her sleeve and unfolded the paper, reading it for the first time. As she read, Gimlet gathered her to him in a hug and peered at it over her shoulder. The writing was smudged and scrawling, but Josie recognised her guardian’s hand.
There is so much I wanted to tell you, so many regrets that will now lie buried with me. The truth is always at the end of the next sentence we never say. No one knows where the Amarant lies. Forgive my harsh words in the past, Josie, and the times I neglected you. I always loved you. Now think of my last words and don’t heed the goodbye. We’ll meet again. It is my last wish to be buried in Gorsefields Yard.
Take care, Josie.
Uncle Edwin, your loving guardian
‘Poor Edwin,’ Gimlet murmured.
‘He was delirious at the end,’ Josie said, wiping away another tear. ‘It’s a wonder he could write anything. He was trying to tell me about the past. He said you would know . . .’
Gimlet sighed, taking his pipe out and tapping the bowl on the hearth. ‘I know a little of the past, as much as Cardamom would tell me. He was mixed up with a couple of ne’er-do-wells, Corvis and a cove called Mortlock. You’ve heard these names?’
‘Yes.’ Josie nodded. ‘The Aunts . . . those
. They had something to do with Lord Corvis. I saw Uncle’s diary, some letters. He fell out with this Mortlock. He called Uncle a thief . . . and Uncle said something about Mortlock just before . . .’
‘There, there.’ Gimlet put an arm around Josie’s shoulders. ‘Well, I don’t know a great deal about them two. I’ve heard of them. They travelled the world with Cardamom. He told me some of their tales – far-fetched, I reckon they were. But Mortlock
have a fearful reputation. Obsessed with raising the dead, they said. Always seeking ways to do it.’
‘The Amarant,’ Josie said and gave a shiver. ‘It had the power over life and death. Uncle said we had to destroy it. Mortlock mentioned it in the letter I read. The Aunts were after it.’
‘The Amarant? Never heard of that before.’ Gimlet shook his head. ‘What is it?’
‘A flower. I think the diary said it was a flower,’ Josie replied. ‘How could a flower be so strange and terrible?’
‘I don’t know,’ Gimlet said. ‘But Cardamom told me that Mortlock did some shocking things. Stole bodies from graves . . . sacrifices . . .’
‘Horrible.’ Josie shuddered. ‘And Mortlock just vanished?’
‘Just disappeared, so Cardamom said, never to be seen again. Corvis lived abroad, so Cardamom started his life again. That’s when he took in you and your mother.’
‘The night it all started and later, too, I saw a man watching us . . . D’you think it could be Mortlock?’
Gimlet shrugged. ‘Always possible, I suppose. Secrets from the past have a habit of comin’ back to bite you.’
‘Like my brother?’ The word didn’t sound right in her mouth. How could she have had a brother and never known? Or had she always known, deep down, in some strange way? Was he the ‘someone’ she missed when she imagined her mother?
‘Your twin brother? So he told you about him,’ Gimlet said quietly. ‘He should have done that years ago. Maybe I should have said something, but I didn’t think it was my place to do so.’
‘I have a
? Why didn’t he tell me sooner? How could he have kept that from me?’ Josie felt anguished and deeply betrayed. Then she thought of that last argument with Cardamom.
‘I don’t know why he didn’t tell you.’ Gimlet looked deep into the fire. ‘When your mother died, Cardamom decided he couldn’t look after him as well,’ Gimlet said, tapping his pipe out on the hearth. He sighed heavily. ‘So he split the two of you up. I’m not exactly sure why – he could have afforded to keep you both. I’m so sorry, Josie.’
‘Uncle would never have done anything to harm me,’ Josie said, putting her head in her hands and fighting back tears. ‘He must have had a good reason to separate us.’
‘Well.’ Gimlet looked troubled. ‘Cardamom was like most men, Josie. He’s done some good and some bad things, you have to realise that.’
‘What did he do with my brother?’ Josie asked, struggling to speak calmly. A twin brother, someone like her, someone who would understand how she felt.
‘He gave him to an upright and caring man called Wiggins, an undertaker by trade and an old friend.’
‘And do you know where we can find Wiggins?’ Josie’s excitement grew. Her deep-rooted feeling of loneliness began to lift. She was going to meet her brother. He could help.
‘He’s not too far from here – Seven Dials as I recall,’ Gimlet said, nodding his head.
‘Then let’s not waste any more time.’ Josie jumped up. ‘Let’s go and meet him!’