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Authors: Jon Mayhew

Mortlock (7 page)

BOOK: Mortlock
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You crave one kiss of my clay-cold lips,

But my breath smells earthy strong;

If you have one kiss of my clay-cold lips,

Your time will not be long.

‘The Unquiet Grave’, traditional folk ballad



The Whispering Corpse

‘After you visited this mornin’, we went to collect your uncle,’ Alfie said. ‘The house was open – ransacked it was, turned upside down, and he was just left layin’ there in the bedroom. Well, Wiggins was proper outraged and we brought him back, meanin’ to give him the right send-off tomorrow. Wiggins is particular about these things, y’know.’

‘Can I see him?’ Josie said, her stomach tightening. But did she really want to see her guardian cold and lifeless?

Alfie nodded. ‘Come on,’ he said. Josie slid off the stool and followed her brother to the back of the room.

Alfie fidgeted beside the shrouded body of Cardamom. ‘Before I uncover him, well, you need to know . . . not to put too fine a point on it, Josie, but he wasn’t in the best condition when we brought him in.’

Josie’s head swam as she steadied herself, holding on to the edge of the table. ‘I want to see.’

‘We tried to tidy him up as best we could. Wiggins is a bit of a maestro at it, but this one was difficult.’ Alfie gently pulled back the rough cotton shroud. Josie drew a deep breath.

Cardamom’s body lay there, his skin marbled and pale. His eyes gaped red and empty; a bloody trail wept down his grey cheeks. His teeth were clenched tight in a snarl and his back seemed arched and tense. He was dressed in his best suit, the one he wore when he and Josie took Sunday walks through town in happier times. But he didn’t fill it. The mid section of his body seemed flat, empty.

‘We considered packin’ him with somethin’ but Wiggins wasn’t sure if that would be dignified.’

‘Packing him?’ Josie whispered.

‘Yeah.’ Alfie fiddled with the button on his coat. ‘Well, there’s no easy way to say this . . . His whole stomach was . . . ripped out. We don’t know what happened to him.’

Josie felt the blood run cold in her veins. The ghul’s words on the night at the Erato came back to her. It said it was going to a ‘sweet feast’.

‘I know what happened to him. It was those frightful creatures. I swear I will avenge him.’ As she spoke, Josie felt different – stronger. Her body shook, but she didn’t feel scared. ‘Can you wake him?’

‘What?’ Alfie stared at her, his mouth wide in astonishment.

‘Wake him,’ Josie said again, cold determination flooding her. ‘He was trying to tell me something. I’m sure it was about the Amarant. You have to try and bring him back.’

‘Well, I dunno.’ Alfie scratched his head with a trembling hand. ‘I’ve only ever made arms or legs move or got corpses to groan a bit . . .’

‘Try it,’ Josie ordered. She folded her arms, blotting out any thoughts of her guardian as he was now, focusing on her hatred of the ghuls. ‘Bring him back.’

‘I’ll ’ave a go,’ Alfie murmured, shuffling his feet. ‘But I can’t say as I like it.’

He stood next to the Great Cardamom’s ravaged corpse and held his hands over the body, palms down. Alfie’s eyes closed and his brow furrowed as his breathing deepened and slowed. Josie’s stomach fluttered as she watched her brother shake and tremble. But Cardamom remained prone on the table. Not a twitch. Alfie threw his arms down with an exasperated gasp.

‘It’s no good,’ he said. ‘I’m spent after movin’ that old lady. I can’t do this, too!’

‘Just try again,’ Josie snapped. ‘Don’t give up so easily.’

Alfie assumed his stance once more and breathed deeply. Josie watched intently as her brother’s eyes rolled back in their sockets and his hands trembled again. Long minutes passed. Alfie’s breathing grew faster. Josie noticed Cardamom’s little finger twitch. Josie wondered if she’d imagined it – but then his hand curled into a fist. She backed away from the table, her newfound courage lost for a moment. Alfie drew a huge breath and Cardamom started up from the table, lifting his shoulders and head. Air whistled from his mouth and the vacant, bloody pits of his eyes stared at the ceiling.

‘Josie,’ Cardamom said, his voice thick and rasping. Each syllable dragged as if it was an effort to pronounce.

‘Uncle,’ Josie said, grabbing his cold, clammy hand. ‘Tell us what to do. Help us – we need you!’

‘Destroy . . . the . . . Amarant,’ hissed the dead magician, red tears of blood trickling down each cheek.

‘But we can’t, Uncle. We don’t know where it is!’ Josie cried.

‘Destroy it,’ Cardamom’s voice grated.

‘Tell us how, Great Cardamom,’ Alfie whispered huskily, his eyes still rolled back in his sockets. He looked like a corpse himself.

‘Sacrifice . . . and . . . a tender heart,’ Cardamom’s voice rumbled. ‘But beware . . .’

‘What do you mean? Beware what, Uncle?’ Josie gripped his hand tightly.

‘Mortlock . . .’ Cardamom jerked forward, then fell back on the table with a heavy thud. In the same moment, Alfie twirled round in a tight pirouette and crashed to the ground. ‘Beware Mortlock,’ Cardamom hissed with a last breath. Then his body lay still on the table once again.

For a moment, Josie couldn’t move. Now, in the dim light, the expression on Cardamom’s face looked peaceful. His teeth were no longer clenched, the frown lines on his brow had smoothed. His whole body seemed slack and loose. Josie covered her face with her hands and wept, shaking with grief.

Alfie hauled himself to his feet, using the edge of the table for support. He looked dishevelled and exhausted.

‘Bloody ’ell,’ he panted. ‘I feel like a coach and four has run over me. Erm . . . You all right?’

‘Yes, yes,’ Josie said, scrubbing roughly at her eyes. ‘What did he mean, “sacrifice and a tender heart”?’

‘How should I know?’ Alfie said, leaning against the table and wiping the sweat from his brow. ‘And who’s this Mortlock cove?’

‘An old friend of my uncle’s.’ Josie shook her head. ‘They had a bitter dispute over something. He vanished years ago, apparently.’

‘But if your uncle’s tellin’ us to beware of ’im . . . doesn’t that mean he might ’ave come back?’ Alfie said, shivering.

‘A strange man’s been following me . . . maybe it’s him.’

A footstep at the door made Josie turn with a start. Mr Wiggins stood, fully clothed for the day, blinking at them.

‘Ah, there you are,’ he said. ‘I wondered where you’d got to. Getting acquainted, I see?’

‘Yes, Mr Wiggins,’ Alfie said respectfully. Josie noticed the difference in his tone when Wiggins was about. Wiggins was like a father to him, she supposed. Cardamom had given Alfie into the care of Wiggins. He must have trusted the old undertaker to give him responsibility for a child’s welfare.

‘Mr Wiggins,’ Josie said, ‘you knew my uncle quite well . . .’

‘Hmmm. I should like to think so, Josie, yes.’ The old man nodded, polishing his glasses. ‘A good man essentially, but fell in with some rum sorts.’

‘Like Mortlock?’ Josie said.

Wiggins stopped polishing. Then he carried on rubbing at the lenses.

‘That particular individual vanished from our lives some years ago, thankfully,’ Wiggins said, his voice very quiet. Josie thought he was going to snap his spectacles in two. ‘You are young and don’t know the hurt that man caused. I’ll make allowances this time but I’ll not have his name mentioned again.’

‘What –’ Josie began to ask, but Alfie placed a hand on her arm and shook his head. Why had Wiggins clammed up like that?

‘Anyway,’ Wiggins continued. ‘We need to get ready, Alfie. We have a grave to dig and a funeral to conduct. Come!’



The lid of the coffin he opened up,

The shroud he folded down,

And then he kissed her pale, pale lips,

And the tears came trickling down.

‘Lord Lovel’, traditional folk ballad



Gorsefields Yard

Alfie and Wiggins stood in the doorway, shovels in hand, wrapped up against the dawning winter day. Outside, shopkeepers set out stalls and the first customers picked their way along the frosty pavements.

‘Right, Josie, we won’t be too long.’ Wiggins scratched his head and stared at the spade. ‘It’s a while since I’ve dug a grave personally, but I want to make sure it is deep enough for Edwin.’

‘Deep enough?’ Josie said, frowning at Alfie. ‘What do you mean?’

‘A city-centre burial ground,’ Alfie said, flashing Wiggins a knowing look. ‘Pretty much full these days.’

‘Forgive me, miss, but I did tell Mr Gimlet. Gorsefields is no place to bury your guardian,’ the old undertaker said, shaking his head. ‘The minister for Gorsefields should close it but they keep taking new burials. Once it was a fine place, fresh and respectable. But now? Not so. Overcrowded. Do you know, I was talking to a gravedigger the other day who accidentally dug up his own father because the graves were so close together. It’s not right.’

‘Oh my!’ Josie brought a hand to her mouth. She wondered whether Cardamom had been in his right mind when he wrote the note.
Perhaps I should ask Wiggins to bury him somewhere else
, she thought. But before she could open her mouth, Alfie spoke up.

‘Well, I’ve seen the note, Mr Wiggins, and it’s plain as day. Gorsefields, it says. He must have had his reasons.’

‘So, Gorsefields it is.’ Wiggins grimaced and shook the spade. ‘We’ll make the grave good and deep. The sexton won’t like it but that’s hard luck for him.’

‘You should tell him you’re diggin’ under the old yew tree. That’d make his day, Mr W.’ Alfie grinned but Wiggins shook his head.

‘No,’ he snapped, frowning at Alfie. ‘That wouldn’t do at all.’

‘The old yew tree?’ Josie said, struggling to keep up with the conversation.

‘An old wives’ tale,’ Alfie snorted. ‘They reckon the ground under the tree is cursed. There ain’t a sexton for miles around who’ll dig in that patch of earth, nor anyone who wants buryin’ there. Load of nonsense if you ask me.’

‘Yes, well, we aren’t asking you, young man, and I’ll thank you to keep such tales to yourself. That’s hallowed ground you’re talking about,’ Wiggins said, jabbing his finger at Alfie. ‘As it is, we’ll be close enough to the yew, which I’m not happy about.’

The bell jingled and Gimlet peered around the door. Josie dashed forward to hug him.

‘See?’ he said, grinning. ‘Told you I’d be fine.’

‘The Aunts?’ Josie asked. Gimlet looked troubled.

‘They were lurking around outside, I’m sure. I can’t say I got much sleep, but they were gone by morning.’

‘Perfect timing, Mr Gimlet.’ Wiggins shook his hand. ‘We are deep in preparations for Edwin’s funeral. I’m sure Josie would like to get ready for what will be a difficult day. If you could stay with her?’

Alfie and Wiggins stamped out into the cold street, each with a shovel over his shoulder, leaving Josie to relate the night’s events to Gimlet.

Josie clambered out of the cab and frowned at the hordes of people congregated around the gates to Gorsefields Yard. Gimlet paid the driver and ran after her, scanning the sky. Josie looked up, too, terrified by what she might see there. She pulled up the cowl of the cloak Wiggins had lent to her, covering her face.

‘If Cardamom’s funeral is meant to be a quiet affair, then it’s failed,’ whispered Gimlet as they approached the churchyard.

Josie smiled weakly at the crowds that milled around them: women with dark, painted eyes and feathers pluming from their hats, men with magnificent waxed moustaches and tall hats. They all stopped talking to stare at the hearse as it rolled into the yard. Mr Wiggins sat at the front of the black cart, his top hat shining in the cold morning sun. The hearse looked like a large coffin on wheels. Josie assumed that the real coffin lay inside the box of the cart. Alfie marched alongside it, ignoring Josie. He gazed ahead, carrying a strange wand covered in black cloth.

Josie recognised most of the mourners as they paraded past, shaking her hand, murmuring their regret: chorus girls, strongmen, comedians and puppeteers. Even in their black clothes, they looked glamorous.

‘Anything we can do, Miss Josie,’ muttered a muscular stagehand. ‘You only have to call on us, you know that.’

Josie hugged the giant. She remembered Ernie’s twisted body and sighed. Even with all his strength, he was no match for the ghuls.

Gorsefields Yard was a dingy, dismal burial ground squeezed between slum dwellings that threatened to burst their ragged edges. Two leafless silver birch trees stood sentry at the gates of the yard, their skeletal branches waving over the monuments and mounds. A small chapel squatted in the corner of the yard, blackened by soot and smog. Josie shivered at the huge gnarled yew tree crouched next to the chapel, its twisted branches casting a shadow over half the yard.

The hearse stopped and Alfie and Wiggins stepped to the side of the carriage as a number of burly showmen in tight-fitting suits prepared to bear the coffin. The rollers at the back of the hearse rumbled as the casket emerged. Josie watched, numb, as the theatre folk carried the coffin towards the deep, muddy hole that was to be Cardamom’s final resting place. She watched Wiggins fussing at ribbons and polishing his hat with his forearm and she felt a glow of gratitude. He’d laboured hard to ensure Cardamom had the right send-off. She could see why folk respected him.

A familiar face appeared beyond the graveside crowd, keeping his distance. Josie took a breath and froze.

He stood, tall and gaunt, behind a weathered Celtic cross. His mass of fluffy grey hair billowed from under his hat, threatening to push it off, and a wispy grey beard framed his wide drooping mouth. Thick brows sat like giant caterpillars above his large, sad eyes.

Josie raised her hand, glancing around for Alfie or Gimlet, but Wiggins took her elbow to usher her into the service. When she looked back, the man had disappeared again.

The chapel was as dingy and cramped as the yard it stood in. The minister’s voice droned on through the service. Would Cardamom find a place in heaven? Was he a good man? Josie would never criticise him aloud but what she’d heard made her wonder. She thought of her guardian, doves flying from his opened hands on the stage, smiling as he produced a penny from a small boy’s ear. Tears sprang to her eyes. Then she remembered him pale and wizened, trapped in his bedroom. He was no thief and he didn’t deserve such an end, she was certain.

Outside once more, Josie watched the coffin being lowered into the ground. He was gone. She threw a handful of earth into the grave. The funeral congregation filed past, rattling a thin scattering of soil over the casket lid.

Most of the crowd had dispersed when an impressive black carriage rolled into the yard, behind the funeral hearse. The red crow on the coat of arms flashed boldly in the winter sun. A stony-faced driver leapt down from his seat and opened the door.

Josie shivered as she watched a tall female figure step out of the carriage. The figure was swathed in a long black coat with a deep hood. Gimlet stepped up beside Josie as the woman approached and paused on the other side of the grave. Her features were lost in the shadows of the hood.

‘Lord Corvis has sent me with a command not to harm you,’ the shrouded figure said. Josie recognised the voice of Aunt Mag. ‘He offers you a chance. Tell us where the Amarant is and you can go free.’

‘You can tell his lordship that –’ Gimlet began angrily, but Josie held her hand up.

‘Tell Lord Corvis,’ she began, feeling her face flush, ‘that I will not rest until the Amarant, and your hideous selves, are destroyed. At my guardian’s graveside, I swear this.’

Aunt Mag stood motionless and silent. Then she inclined her head.

‘You have declared war, Josie Chrimes, and war you shall have,’ she hissed.

Josie caught a flash of Aunt Mag’s black eyes. Then the ghul turned and strode back to the coach. Josie kept watching the creature until the coach door slammed shut.

BOOK: Mortlock
3.54Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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