Authors: Jon Mayhew
‘I don’t care if I’ve killed him. I want to go now,’ she snapped at Wiggins and Gimlet, who stood gaping at her, wide-mouthed. ‘He
be my brother. He’s too odious!’
Her coffin, it was brought; in it she was laid,
And took to the churchyard, this sorry young maid,
No father, no mother, nor friend, i am told,
Came to see that poor creature put under the mould.
‘The Poor Murdered Woman’, traditional folk ballad
The Ghul at the Window
Gimlet seemed amused at Josie’s outburst, which made her even more furious. She stamped around his cluttered studio, kicking offcuts of wood across the floor, hammering her fists on the arm of the sofa so hard that dust and horsehair flew out of the seams.
‘He was hideous, Gimlet!’ she cried. ‘How could a toady little boy like that help us find this Amarant?’
‘You got on like brother and sister, then?’ Gimlet said, smiling. ‘Don’t be too harsh on him, Josie. He’s had a difficult life. Wiggins is a kindly soul but not strong on discipline and Alfie’s grown up in a notorious area.’
‘Don’t be too harsh?’ Josie stared, clenching her fists. ‘He threw a dead toad at me and then frightened me half to death with an old woman’s corpse! And you’re telling me not to be too harsh?’
Gimlet opened his mouth to reply but the bell on the workshop door gave a muffled tinkle. He darted a glance at Josie, put a finger to his lips and padded over to the door.
‘Two old crones,’ he whispered, peering round the doorway. ‘Looks like those Aunts of yours. Didn’t you say there were three?’
Josie nodded. The anger drained from her and she could feel her face paling. A cold draught prickled her spine.
‘Better stay hidden. Crouch below the window there. If another one’s lurking about, she won’t see you.’ Gimlet stepped through into his workshop, clicking the door shut behind him.
‘Can I help you, ladies?’ said Gimlet. Josie could hear his voice through the door. He sounded cheerful and relaxed but she knew he wasn’t.
‘Mr Gimlet?’ Aunt Mag’s cracked voice drifted into the studio. Josie’s knees felt weak. She glanced around, wanting to run, hide – anything to escape the horror of that voice. ‘We are so sorry to bother you but we are relatives of the late Great Cardamom.’
‘My word. Cardamom? Passed away, you say?’ replied Gimlet. Josie shrank further below the window. ‘A great sadness. He was a good friend.’
A shadow caught Josie’s eye. She pressed herself against the cold wall. Above her was the dark shape of Aunt Jay at the window, her eyes glittering as she scanned Gimlet’s studio through the pane of glass. Josie bit her lip, trembling. The ghul was so close.
‘Which is why we knew that you’d share our tremendous concern,’ came the voice of Aunt Veronica through the door as Aunt Jay’s shadow, black and ugly, stretched across the opposite wall. ‘Sadly, the young girl for whom our late brother was guardian has gone missing.’
‘We are eager to find her.’ Aunt Mag’s voice grated on Josie’s ears. She froze as she saw Aunt Jay’s hooked nose and long fingernails scraping the windowpane, searching for an opening. ‘To fulfil our . . .
‘She has some strange fancies and I fear that the burden of grief has quite turned her poor mind,’ continued Aunt Veronica. Josie screwed her eyes shut and tried to become one with the plaster of the wall. ‘She fled the house with no belongings and we wondered if she’d come to you.’
‘I’m sorry to say I can’t help you, ladies,’ said Gimlet. Aunt Jay rattled at the window frame, testing it. Josie stifled her sobs of terror. ‘I know Josie well and it concerns me that she may be out on the streets unprotected. I will make enquiries myself and if I hear anything I’ll contact you. Are you staying at Cardamom’s house?’
‘No,’ said Aunt Mag. ‘We will be in touch, Mr Gimlet. We’ll send word of where we are staying once we have made arrangements.’
The doorbell rattled again as they bustled out of the workshop. Aunt Jay’s dark shadow slid off the wall, leaving Josie shuddering on the floor.
Gimlet looked a shade paler when he returned. ‘I don’t think they were too convinced, Josie. That was a bit close for comfort,’ he said, sitting down heavily in his chair.
‘Aunt Jay, she was outside the window,’ Josie stammered. ‘I thought she was going to come in!’
‘Don’t worry, girl,’ said Gimlet. She ran to him and he put an arm round her. ‘I’ll keep you safe, but I think we’d better move you.’
‘Move me? Where to?’ Josie said, grabbing Gimlet’s sleeve. She saw Gimlet give a sly grin and she backed away. ‘Oh no! Not back to that bumbling old man. And as for that awful boy . . . The only way you’ll get me back there is in a box!’
‘Just what I had in mind,’ Gimlet said, starting forward.
‘No, Gimlet, I can’t! I hate boxes,’ Josie said, staring at the coffin that lay on Gimlet’s handcart.
‘Look outside,’ Gimlet said, laying a hand on her shoulder. The grey sky was hardening, the brief twilight silhouetting the rooftops. But clearly visible in the gloom were rooks, ravens and crows thronging the slates, all bickering and flapping for space. Josie could hardly see the roof tiles for feathers. ‘Now it might just be me, but I reckon those birds are keeping watch on us for the Aunts. We were lucky this morning, but what better cover than Gimlet taking a few caskets to an undertaker’s?’
Josie grimaced, and reluctantly clambered into the rough wooden box and lay down. Gimlet lowered the lid. The darkness and closeness of the rough wooden sides pressed in on her. There were a couple of bumps as Gimlet placed some other boxes on top and then her stomach gave a lurch as the handcart jolted into movement.
The air in the box became colder. Josie could hear the noises of the street: costermongers selling off the last of their goods before the end of the day, snatches of conversation between passers-by. She bumped and rolled around, scraping knees and elbows as the handcart bounced over cobble and kerbstone. Josie crossed her hands over her chest to stop them from banging against the sides.
She tried to distract herself from the crushing prison of the box. Thoughts and images tumbled over in her head – Alfie sneering at her, the corpse rearing up . . . Cardamom had said Alfie could help her but he seemed beyond awful.
I wasn’t exactly friendly
, she admitted to herself.
But then, he
rude to me!
Perhaps she’d been too hard on him. If he could help her, then maybe she needed to give him a second chance.
The bone-numbing ride trundled on. Josie squeezed her eyes tight shut. Her breathing became shallower. She wanted to scream and kick her way out of the box. She whimpered and curled up as best she could, trying to remember how long it had taken her to get to Seven Dials last time.
‘We’re here,’ Gimlet’s muffled voice broke through the darkness. ‘Wait until we’re inside before you make a move.’
More bumping and the cart tipped, sending Josie rolling to the side. She heard Gimlet grunt and then she flew to the other side of the box, banging her head.
Just wait until I get out
, she thought angrily
‘Mr Gimlet, again,’ Josie heard Wiggins say in surprise. ‘I don’t remember ordering any caskets . . .’
‘Forgive me, Mr Wiggins,’ Gimlet said. Josie heard the other boxes on top of hers being lifted. ‘You can have these, but I have a favour to ask of you.’
Even the yellow gaslight of Wiggins’s shop dazzled Josie as she raised the lid, sat up and peered about.
‘That is the last time I do that, Gimlet.’ Josie rubbed her temples and winced. ‘Did you have to be so rough?’
Wiggins pressed his spectacles to his face and craned his neck forward. ‘Well, I never,’ he began. But Gimlet took his elbow and manoeuvred him to one side as Josie climbed out of the box and leapt to the floor.
‘I do apologise, sir. We find ourselves in a dire situation.’ Gimlet lowered his voice and began to explain. Josie stood massaging life back into her arms and legs. Every now and then, Wiggins would turn round from his conspiratorial huddle with Gimlet and frown at Josie. She gave a tight smile and looked at the floor.
‘It’s very irregular.’ Wiggins stared back at Josie. ‘But it seems that the poor girl is a victim of Cardamom’s past sins. Not her fault, sir, not her fault.’
Josie pursed her lips. What right did he have to criticise her guardian?
Let he who is without sin cast the first stone
, she thought, wondering what secrets
had buried away. And where was toad boy?
Alfie appeared through the curtain to the back room. When he saw Josie his eyes widened and his lip curled.
‘What’s she doin’ ’ere?’ he snapped.
Josie tensed and folded her arms.
Remember to give him a chance
, she told herself.
‘It seems, young man, that your . . . hmmm, yes, your sister is staying with us for a while,’ Wiggins said, pushing his spectacles up on to his forehead.
‘Over my dead body!’ Alfie snarled, whirling back through the doorway.
Josie couldn’t stand it any longer. ‘Do we have to stay here, Gimlet?’ she pleaded.
‘Sorry, Josie, but I have to go back to the studio.’ Gimlet came over and placed a hand on her shoulder. ‘You’ll be fine here. I’ll be back in the morning.’
‘But what about the Aunts?’
‘They’ll be more suspicious if I don’t return,’ Gimlet said. ‘Don’t worry, I’ll be careful.’
He hugged her and Josie watched helplessly as Gimlet disappeared into the foggy night. She wondered if she would ever see her friend again.
A handkerchief she said she tied
About his head, and that they tried;
The sexton they did speak unto,
That he the grave would then undo.
Affrighted then they did behold
His body turning into mould,
And though he had a month been dead,
This ’kerchief was about his head.
‘The Suffolk Miracle’, traditional folk ballad
Josie sat up in her makeshift bed in Wiggins’s parlour. Squeezed on to the sofa, she surveyed the tiny room: one armchair, a small table, an aspidistra by the window. Wiggins had set a fire in the grate and a few feeble flames cast deep shadows.
Josie felt as if a huge hole filled her stomach. Tears forced their way out between her eyelashes. She read over the note in the half-light, even though the words were already ingrained in her memory. Something about it teased at her – like when she couldn’t remember a name, even though she could feel it there, just out of reach.
She stuffed the note down the side of the sofa and stood up, padding over to the door that led down to the shop. A faint light glimmered from below. Someone was downstairs. Josie looked at Wiggins’s bedroom door. He hadn’t come out; she’d have known if he had. It must be Alfie. Josie took a breath and placed a tentative foot on the top step. Then she ran down the stairs.
The shop lay empty. Moonlight gave a silver silhouette to the counter and the coffin lids that leaned against it. But a stronger glow of candlelight shone from behind the curtain to the back room. Josie crept forward and peered in.
The room looked the same as it had that afternoon, only now shadows danced on the walls, so that the potion bottles and instruments seemed to jump about on the shelves.
But Josie’s eyes were drawn to the figure in the centre of the room.
Alfie stood over the corpse, his skin glowing in the candlelight. His eyes had rolled back in their sockets, showing only the whites, and his mouth was set in a snarl. His whole body shook as he pointed a finger at the woman’s corpse. Josie’s eyes widened. She could feel the blood pumping through her temples as, slowly, the corpse’s hand began to rise. Josie wanted to scream out loud, to run away – anything but watch as the dead woman’s arm lifted. Then Alfie gave a violent shudder and collapsed. The arm flopped back on to the table. Alfie lay still on the floor.
Josie leapt through the curtain to her brother as he lay groaning.
‘Did you . . . see?’ Alfie croaked.
‘What in heaven’s name were you doing?’ Josie asked, frowning. Alfie looked feverish, his forehead glistening with sweat, but his shivering had subsided.
‘Raisin’ the dead.’ Alfie gave a snigger that turned into a wracking cough. ‘Did you see? Her arm lifted.’
‘If this is another one of your ridiculous pranks . . .’
‘No!’ Alfie said. ‘No, it’s not a trick. I can do it.’
‘But how . . . why?’ Josie felt certain now that this was no joke. Alfie looked spent, exhausted and terrified by what he’d done.
‘I don’t know.’ He climbed to his feet and dropped into a chair. ‘It’s a curse . . . somethin’ that just happens. Always has but, as I get older, it happens more often.’
‘That toad in the shop this afternoon.’ Josie squirmed, remembering the desiccated fragment that Alfie had been jabbing with his finger. ‘It moved.’
‘I know.’ Alfie nodded. ‘That toad was a bit dried up, like – only his leg would move. There just needs to be a scrap of somethin’ to bring it back, skin or bone, y’know. Small things are easy but a whole cadaver takes some effort.’
‘It’s horrible.’ Josie stared at her brother.
‘I don’t do it for laughs.’ Alfie frowned back. ‘I’m only tryin’ to understand it. I just want to know why it happens and if . . . if I can control it.’
‘Control it?’ she repeated. Her heart was pounding.
‘Sometimes, when I’m walkin’ past a body, I can feel it drawin’ on me, pullin’ the strength from me. It’ll start to twitch or groan.’ Alfie’s face was deathly pale. ‘I tried tellin’ Wiggins about it but he’s never noticed. Blind as a bat that one. He just says it’s all gases and muscle tension. But I know different. It’s ’orrible and I don’t know why it happens. I thought if I could learn more about it, maybe I could stop it happenin’.’
‘That’s terrible.’ Josie laid a hand on his shoulder. Here in this dingy back room, Alfie looked small and pathetic.
‘I don’t need no pity,’ Alfie spat, jerking his shoulder away. ‘Life’s hard but death can be worse from what I’ve seen.’
‘I only meant it must be awful to have that happening all the time,’ Josie snapped back. ‘I’ve got enough to worry about without wasting pity on
‘Yeah, well, I can look after meself,’ Alfie murmured, staring at the floor. There was an awkward silence and then Alfie coughed. ‘Look, I’m sorry I was rotten to you this morning. There was no call for it.’
‘That’s all right.’ Josie gave a tight smile. ‘I expect it was as much of a shock for you as it was for me. I’m sorry I threw that bottle at you. Did it hurt? Must have given you quite a bruise.’ Josie frowned and stared at his forehead where the bottle had struck him. She would have expected a dark bruise to be blooming there, but it was clear and pale as if it had never been touched.
‘It did.’ Alfie gave her a hard stare and rubbed his head. ‘Black as Wiggins’s hat it was . . . but I heal quick.’
‘In an afternoon?’ Josie was surprised.
‘I always ’ave, don’t you?’ Alfie asked.
‘I don’t know,’ Josie said. She’d never really thought about it. She’d had falls when she tumbled across the stage, she’d nicked herself on knives, pinched her fingers in box lids and ropes . . . but there had never been any lasting marks. Some of the acrobats and contortionists she saw backstage bore horrible bruises and scars.
‘I had a fight with Edgy Taylor and we split each other’s lips,’ Alfie said, drawing a knuckle across his mouth as if he could still feel it. ‘Mine was fine in a day; he looked like a codfish for a week! We laughed about it later.’
Josie gave a short laugh, and then felt her frown return. She’d never had a fight like that. She didn’t have any friends to speak of – not ones her own age. The folk at the Erato were nice to her, but they were all much older.
‘It’s very strange,’ Josie mumbled, shaking her head.
‘You’re right there and no mistake,’ Alfie said.
‘Not just that. So much has happened to me over the last few days,’ Josie said, sitting down on a tall-legged stool.
Alfie listened, wide-eyed, as Josie related all that had passed. She ran to retrieve the note stuffed down the side of the sofa, and held it out for Alfie to read.
‘Funny the way he says things,’ he remarked, pulling a face as he handed the note back. ‘Sounds a bit . . . dunno . . . odd.’
‘Gimlet said that, too,’ Josie said, frowning at the scrawl on the page. ‘He tried to tell me something about the note . . . but couldn’t . . .’
She carried on telling her story, pausing every now and then to regain her composure. Alfie looked on, occasionally clearing his throat and trying not to catch her eye.
‘Blimey, you ’ave been through the mill,’ he said after Josie had finished. ‘And you ’ad a picture . . . of my mother?’
mother. She was beautiful, a gypsy queen.’ Josie smiled.
‘I wouldn’t mind ’avin’ a peek at that . . .’
‘It’s at the house still,’ she said, wishing she could get it to show Alfie. ‘Cardamom said that our father died when we were babes. I’ve no idea what he looked like, or even his name.’
Alfie shrugged. ‘No skin off my nose. Never really thought about it before, much.’
Josie nodded. It was true. She thought more about her mother. Was that because Cardamom had talked about her more or because she had a portrait? Josie didn’t know. ‘Before he died, Cardamom said you could help.’
‘I dunno how.’ Alfie pouted and stared past Josie into the shadows. ‘But blood’s thicker than water, I s’pose. He sounds like he . . . well, y’know . . . thought a lot of you, this Cardamom.’
‘He was like a father to me.’ Josie felt her face crumple and she bit her lip. She stifled another sob. ‘I left him lying there with those . . .
. What I wouldn’t give to see him one last time.’
‘Well.’ Alfie pushed his bottom lip out as he thought aloud. ‘Maybe that’s one way I can help.’
‘What do you mean?’ Josie asked.
Alfie gave a broad smile. ‘He’s here!’