The Devil's Apprentice by Jan Siegel: excerpt
5 months ago
The Devil's Apprentice
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Beyond the Doors
London, seventeenth century
They called him Ghost, because of his colouring, and because he could come and go without a sound. After he had been in the city for a little while he almost forgot he had any other name.
It was a big city – the biggest city in the world – he knew that because they told him so, though it didn’t seem especially big to him. The buildings were huddled into clusters or piled on top of each other, rickety structures of wood and pitch and tumbledown brick, with roofs that gaped between criss-crossed beams, and holes for windows, and doors that sagged from their hinges. Twisty stairs climbed up the walls, and broken ladders climbed down, and the streets and alleyways ran through the cracks in between. People and rats and cockroaches and pigeons all lived there like one big family, squabbling over every inch of space, every morsel they ate. When there was nothing else, they ate each other.
When Ghost first arrived the thing he noticed most was the smells. He had grown up in a world of chemical smells – chemicals that smelt like flowers, and chemicals that smelt like fruit, and chemicals that smelt like chemicals – but here the smells were all human. Human sweat, human dirt, human waste. To begin with, he thought it would make him sick to breathe it in all the time, but he got used to it very quickly, and after a while he didn’t notice it any more.
The boys lived in a kind of loft with a chimney running through it and a creek underneath, a narrow tongue of water that joined the main river several streets away. In flood, it spilled into the cellars; in drought, it shrank and stagnated. Everyone threw their rubbish into it, presumably out of optimism since it had no current worth speaking of and the rubbish simply stayed there, until the rats ate it or it had grown a crust. At the front of the building, or what passed for the front, was a tavern called the Grim Reaper, which added stale beer and vomit to the cocktail of odours. By night it was a gloomy place, with one lamp and few candles, where people could meet other people without revealing any giveaway details, like names or faces or the contents of their tankards. By day it was even gloomier, with no candles to enhance the murk, and the dancers from the theatre would come there, Big Belinda’s girls, drinking to forget their troubles, and laughing even when they had little to laugh at, and making lewd jokes about the men who crowded the stalls to ogle them. The theatres had reopened when the king returned, and now there were women on the stage, though respectable ladies looked down on them, saying they were no better than they should be. But the ladies would say that, since the dancers were pretty, at least to begin with.
Mr Sheen knew them all. He knew the girls and Big Belinda and the faceless, nameless people of the night. He looked after the boys, or so he told them, disposing of the day’s takings and seeing the rent was paid and they got fed and clipping their ears when they spoke out of turn. He was thin and sallow and sinister, with old embroidery peeling from his coat like last month’s scabs and a wig that was too big for him, a monster of a wig that, according to One-Ear, housed mice and spiders and even a nest of small birds. He had a raven which sat on his shoulder picking insects out of the wig and squirting white excrement down the back of the coat; if the boys didn’t work hard and behave he said it would have their eyes. They were all afraid of the raven but Weasel, who was the youngest (or seemed to be), was even more afraid of the wig, and would wake from nightmares screaming: ‘The wig! The wig!’ and claiming it was chasing him. Of course, Snot was younger still, perhaps three or four years old, but he was too young to count, and Mr Sheen only allowed him to stay because his brother, Filcher, stole enough for two.
Ghost was different from the others, right from the start. He could read and write and do sums. He knew how old he was – thirteen – while they could only guess. He stood a head taller than the tallest and although he was skinny he was strong, with arms like knotted wires. His skin was dead white and his hair was so fair it was almost white – even his eyelashes were white – but his eyes were dark and narrow, slots of agate in the pallor of his face. ‘It’s a shame he isn’t pretty,’ Big Belinda said. ‘He might have been an angel, all pale and perfect – only the God of Whores made him into a freak. Haha!’ Ghost knew he wasn’t pretty. His face was thin and pointy, his nose sharp, his ears pixy-tipped after a bully in the Home had called him a Vulcan and nicked them with a pair of scissors when he was eight. He had dealt with the bully a year later, feeding him rabbit-droppings covered in chocolate which he said were real sweets, and after that they’d left him alone. It had taken a long time, collecting the rabbit-droppings, and persuading the cook to teach him how to prepare them, and the children said he was cunning, and revengeful, and patient as the grave (in childhood, a year is an age), and he believed them.
In the city, such qualities were the stuff of survival.
The week he arrived he tried to wash, if he could find any clean water, but then he realised his fairness marked him out, and it was better to hide behind a layer or two of grime like the other boys. He had learned long ago how to fade into a crowd or slip into a shadow, and the city was full of crowds and shadows. On the first day, the boys had found him and claimed him as their own. In the Home, he had had enemies and allies but no friends; here, he had a family. He had Sly, Weasel, the twins, Ratface and Pockface, One-Ear, Maggot, Cherub, Filcher and Snot. There was another boy called Little Jimmy who hurt his foot and couldn’t run fast, so a fat shopkeeper caught him and beat him till he couldn’t walk, then the twins carried him back to the loft and Mr Sheen knocked him down. Two days later, he died. Bad things had happened in the Home, but no one had ever died, not even the bully who ate the rabbit-droppings. Ghost watched, and listened, and said nothing.
‘You’re a smart one,’ Mr Sheen told him. ‘I can make something o’ you. You could be a highwayman like Daring Dick, with the gold chinking in your pocket, and the rich folk shrinking from the muzzle o’ your barker, and you can go up the stairway to heaven like a hero.’ And he cackled a croaking cackle, all brown teeth and bad breath, and the raven cawed an echo.
Ghost stole an apple a day to keep his teeth clean, just thinking of Mr Sheen.
He knew the stairway to heaven meant the gibbet, and Mr Sheen’s praise was more than half malice, but he said only: ‘I can’t ride.’
The next market day, when they brought back their pickings, Ghost said: ‘That lot’s worth eight shillings at least.’ He’d already learned the currency of the city. He was a quick learner, especially when it came to money. ‘We worked hard for it. Harder ’n you. We want some.’
‘Greed,’ said Mr Sheen. ‘Avarice and greed. Two o’ the deadly sins, or so they say in church. I beat sin out o’ my boys.’
He lashed out at Ghost, the way he had at Little Jimmy, but Ghost was faster and stronger. He blocked the blow and aimed a low punch with one knuckle crooked for maximum hurt, straight in the solar plexus. Mr Sheen didn’t know he had a solar plexus, his education hadn’t tended that way, but the punch knocked the breath out of him if not the stink, and he fell back with his wig all awry, and the raven flapped onto a beam, croaking a protest. The boys spread out in a circle to watch, terrified by Ghost’s boldness and what might come of it. Then Mr Sheen pulled the dagger out of his boot, a mean little dagger with a rusty blade, and lunged for Ghost, slow and clumsy from having his breath punched out. But Ghost found the knife he’d brought with him, all new and gleamy, and it snapped out of nowhere into his hand, quicker than an adder’s tongue, and Mr Sheen seemed to lunge himself straight onto it. His eyes opened wide in surprise, and he drew back swearing hoarsely, and there was a redness spreading on his clothes, bright as the paint Big Belinda’s girls used on their lips.
‘Help me,’ he said, but no one moved to help him. ‘Help me, you little buggers – you offspring o’ rats and roaches – you lice in the pubes o’ the city… As a father I’ve been to you, so I have, and now you turns on me. Help me… I’m dying.’
‘Go and die somewhere else,’ Ghost said, tossing him a rag to pad the wound.
Mr Sheen clutched it to his side and gasped: ‘Peck out his glims!’ to the raven, but the bird only squawked, hopping back onto his shoulder and eying the blood like next night’s dinner. Then he stumbled out, cursing.
The injury wasn’t serious but he took himself to a backstreet quack who stitched him with a grubby needle and cupped out the fever, and he was dead in a week.
In the loft, the boys looked at Ghost.
‘What do we do now?’ they said. ‘He took care of us.’
‘We take care of ourselves,’ Ghost said. ‘We don’t need him.’
So Ghost became their leader.
London, twenty-first century
Nothing exciting ever happens in a lawyer’s office. Even criminal lawyers reserve their excitement for visiting their clients in gaol and moments of courtroom drama; in the office everything is staid, respectable, and essentially dull. If they are successful there will be an expensive desk, leather-bound lawbooks, discreet examples of modern technology like telephones and computers. If they are lower down the scale, the furniture will be second-hand shabby or mass-produced modern, with beige filing cabinets. Beige will feature somewhere, whatever their status. Beigeness and dullness are important hallmarks of legal premises, designed to assure the client that their chosen representative is someone who can use words like ‘heretofore’ and ‘howsoever’, when necessary in everyday conversation.
These particular offices were exceptionally beige and dull, even by the standards of the profession. The desk was elderly without being precisely antique, the telephones dated from a previous century (the switchboard operator wasn’t sure which), the files were dog-eared, the lawbooks mouse-nibbled. This was an office where excitement had never intruded, crime had never been mentioned, divorce was another country. Its incumbent dealt exclusively with Wills, and Trusts, and property, which is about as unexciting as the law can get. His name was Jasveer Patel, newest member of Whitbread Tudor Hayle – a very old firm, which had long run out of both Whitbreads and Tudors and was down to its last Hayle. Jas Patel represented Progress, though he did his best to do it in an extremely dull (and beige) way. He was clever, earnest and bespectacled, his jacket blending with its background like camouflage colouring, his manner carefully cultivated to add a decade to his twenty-five years. However just now, despite his best efforts, he was gazing at his visitor in shock, and in consequence looked much younger. One of the things that had always contributed to the safe dullness of his job was that his clients were predominantly dead. He wasn’t used to seeing them in his office.
Particularly when they had been dead for some time.
‘I simply can’t go on like this,’ Andrew Pyewackett was saying impatiently. ‘Flesh and blood won’t stand it. Let’s face it, they aren’t meant to. Look at me, I’m already falling to bits – every time I remove my socks several toes fall off. I need to get out of this body and move on. Arrangements will have to be made.’
He wore a Savile Row suit some fifty years old – ‘I never put on an ounce after I was a hundred!’ – a jaunty little bow tie, and a very tall top hat pulled well down over his cranium. In the street, he had wrapped a silk scarf round much of his face and covered his eyes with tinted glasses, which was just as well, since although the lids had largely shrivelled away the eyeballs remained, round and staring and a-glow with unnatural life. He still wore his false teeth, which were aggressively new and shiny, though they fitted only loosely to his shrunken gums and were liable to become detached while he talked and clatter away by themselves. He had taken off his gloves and tapped with bony fingers on the desktop, shedding flakes of brownish skin like dandruff.
Jas Patel said: ‘Er…’
‘Don’t you er me, young man,’ said his visitor. ‘I’m not having any of your ers and ums. I’ve had nothing but excuses from this firm since I died. It wasn’t like that in Graham Tudor’s day, I can tell you. What’s happened to young Bunny Hayle? Don’t tell me he’s running things now. Not much good at the business – always chasing the girls. That’s why we called him Bunny. At it like a rabbit, he was – up the skirt of any flapper he could find.’
‘He’s ninety-three,’ Jas said, desperately trying to summon up some legal nous.
‘Ninety-three? Huh! A spring chicken. I made it to a hundred and forty: porridge and treacle for breakfast and a glass of port every night. Died in December ’99. Really annoyed me, that did. I wanted to see in the new millennium. If you ask me, it was the quality of the port. Ran out of Graham’s Single-Quinta six months earlier, had to get some new-fangled stuff. Laid down in ’78 – just wasn’t mature. That’s what did for me, I’m sure of it. I’d have made it to the big 2000 if it wasn’t for that.’
‘Well,’ Jas swallowed, ‘you’re – you’re still here, aren’t you? In a way…’
‘I’m dead,’ Mr Pyewackett pointed out unnecessarily. ‘Trust me, it just isn’t the same. What’s more, I want to get on with it. Can’t hang around indefinitely with my bits dropping off. Fetch Bunny Hayle. He’s been dodging my phone calls but he can’t dodge me. Ninety-three indeed! Nothing but excuses.’
‘Mr Hayle’s retired,’ Jas said. ‘He only comes in occasionally to... to consult. I’ve been given some of his cases. The matter of your Will–’
‘It’s you, is it? What are you doing about it, hey? Seven years and you still haven’t found my successor! I can’t wait any longer. If you don’t find him within the month the estate will have to go into the hands of the executors. I’m not one to shelve my responsibilities but I’ve looked after the place for over a century, man and corpse, and it’s time for someone else to take on the job.’
‘I understand the legatee is… is a Mr Bartlemy Goodman, of no fixed abode…’
‘You understand, do you? Glad to hear it. Understanding is a good start.’
‘Is he... is he a relative?’
‘Of course not!’ The dead man rolled his eyes until they spun in their sockets. ‘Ran out of relatives ages ago. Never married, no brats. Maud – m’ sister – had two boys, both killed in the Great War. One at Passchendaele, one on the Somme. Bad show. Broke her heart. M’ cousins went to the colonies – imbeciles, if you ask me. We sent our crooks to Australia and our religious crackpots to America. Who’d want to join ’em? No one left now – no one I can trust. Has to be Goodman. I’m told he’s just the chap.’
‘But s-surely,’ Jas stammered, ‘you know him?’
‘Never met him in my life,’ Mr Pyewackett said blithely. ‘Or since. Doesn’t matter. He’s the man. Got a reputation... in certain circles.’
‘For looking after things. That’s what we need. The house has to be looked after. Can’t have just anyone strolling in, wanting to buy the place, or sell it, or – God help them – trying to live in it. Could be a disaster.’
‘It seems to be a valuable property,’ Jas demurred. ‘Is it... is it in a very poor state of repair?’
‘No idea. Haven’t been inside for years. Don’t want people going inside, do we? Never you mind about value. Has to have a custodian to keep people out, for their own sake. Otherwise... it makes my blood run cold just thinking of the consequences.’
‘Does it?’ Jas asked, unable to refrain. He was beginning to get into the spirit of things.
‘Don’t be impertinent with me, young man. What’s your name? Petal? Know what we would have thought of a name like that when I was a boy. Still, times change. Thank God I’m done changing with ’em. See here, young Petal, we’ve got to get this sorted out now. Till Goodman turns up, the place needs a caretaker. No offence – you seem like a decent chap, even if you are a bit of a wop – but it’s got to be the Tudor girl. Tudors have always handled our affairs: it’s traditional. Goes back a long, long way. Almost to – well, the Tudors. Story goes, there’s some connection with Bluff King Hal, don’t know what. Got the hair, haven’t they? They’ve always been solicitors, managed things for us. That’s the Tudors. Sharp as a thorn, dry as a thistle. Tudors and Pyewacketts. So where is she?’
‘You mean,’ Jas read from the document in front of him, ‘Penelope Anne Tudor, great-granddaughter of Graham Tudor? The… other executor?’
‘That’s the ticket. The new generation. Parents killed in a car crash or something, so it has to be her. Only one left. All the old families are running out, dying off. Bloody depressing. Soon, the whole country’ll be in the hands of young upstarts like you.’
‘My father,’ Jas said, forgetting himself, ‘is a direct descendant of the last Maharajah of Bharatpore. We too are a very old family.’
‘Shame you have to do the lawyering,’ said Mr Pyewackett. ‘Ought to be living in a palace, riding on elephants and all that. Standards declining everywhere. About Penelope Anne –’
‘There’s a problem.’ Jas lapsed from his aristocratic heights. ‘The thing is –’
‘Got the name right, didn’t I? I checked pretty carefully.’
‘It’s not that. The thing is –’
‘There you are then. Get her in here.’
‘The thing is, she isn’t a lawyer. She’s still at school. She’s only thirteen.’
For a moment, the dead man looked nonplussed. His eyes might have widened, but without eyelids it was difficult to tell. Instead, they seemed to pop. From close up – and the far side of the desk was rather too close – this was an alarming sight. Jas swallowed again, and wondered if this was really happening. Nothing in his years of training had prepared him to deal with a corpse, especially one that was still up and talking. He wished the teeth didn’t rattle so much. It was as if Mr Pyewackett punctuated all his sentences with distant gunfire.
‘She was only six when you died,’ Jas continued, hanging on to some shreds of legal sanity. ‘As fellow executors, this firm contacted her guardian and – er – assumed sole responsibility for… Even now, she’s rather young to become involved in these matters. Five years short of her majority.’
‘Piffle!’ Mr Pyewackett leaned forward, jabbing at the desktop with an emphatic finger. Corpse-dust rose in a little cloud and the final joint wobbled dangerously. ‘You send that girl round to see me. Doesn’t matter if she’s thirteen or thirty: she’s a Tudor, she’ll take care of things. Send her round. I can’t be doing with all this nonsense. I’ve got my death to get on with.’
He strode out, hesitated in the corridor, and came back for his finger-joint.
Then Jas was left alone with a little drift of skin-flakes on the desk and a lingering smell of decay, slightly tinged with aftershave. Even so, it was several minutes before he got up to open the window.
Before there was a door, there would have been trees. Two trees growing close together, their branches interlacing into an arch, an arch leading nowhere. Small animals would have avoided the place and birds flown round it, but once in a while some careless or desperate creature, fleeing from a predator, might have vanished between the tree-trunks. Later, when men came, they cut down the trees and built the first door, perhaps just a couple of posts and a lintel made from crudely-shaped stones, with a rough image of one of the oldest gods set above it, as a guardian or a warning. Some said it was the gate to Hell, others, a portal to Fairyland, but few were reckless or foolhardy enough to put it to the test. Of those who did, none returned in the lifetime of kith or kin, but occasionally, a century or more later, a figure would appear with a face from long ago, white-haired, wizened, bewitched to the edge of madness, or mysteriously still young, rootless, muttering of people and places unknown.
Eventually walls came to shield the door, and the gap was closed with boards and rivets and spells, and a knob was set at the centre of the door that should never be turned. Then there were more walls and higher, corridors encircling corridors, rooms guarding rooms, and always the doors led elsewhere, and the passageways became a maze, and none knew what was inside. Sometimes the walls were torn down, or burned to the ground, but the foundations always remained, and the walls would be raised again in a different style, adapting to the changing moods of history, until rumour said they could rebuild themselves, shape-shifting to blend with the neighbourhood. For there was a neighbourhood, a city that grew until it engulfed the place, and it became a house among houses, hardly to be told apart from the others in the street.
The house had, if not an owner, at least a denizen. Legend claimed that when the first door opened he looked through, and saw himself, and the shadow of that bond darkened the house forever. He could not enter, because he was already there, in too many forms, in too many ages; his power and his will crept through every portal, and only the walls came in between. He did not make the house – such things are not made: they are snarls in the fabric of the universe, places where reality is twisted and fractured. But it grew to reflect his many faces, to enmesh his many webs, and those who knew of him said it must be guarded constantly, though they had no clear idea why, or against what.
It was put in the charge of a single family, an ordinary family, at least to begin with, until something infected them from the walls, a treacherous germ of magic or madness. They became eccentric, obsessive, unusually long-lived. But the house was safe in their care, sealed off from the world, and from him. If it had any purpose, it was forgotten. Those who were drawn to it, the curious and the adventurous and the vulnerable – the chosen few, Gifted or cursed – might find a way to enter, from the outside or within, but no one saw them come or go, and the doors seemed shut forever.
However, Time flies – it is well known for that – and at whiles even the immortals cannot keep up. An hour was yet to come when the forgotten Purpose would be remembered, and the doors would open, and all those who were lost in the mazes of the house would come crying into the world…
London, twenty-first century
Penelope Anne Tudor sat in the beige-tinted office while Jas Patel told her his story. Even though the story was carefully edited for her consumption, she found it exciting, although she had no intention of showing it. She was a pale girl with a scattering of ghost-freckles on her cheeks and forehead and straight reddish hair scraped back into a ponytail. Her mouth was small and serious, her other features tidy rather than pretty: grey eyes, neat little nose, small ears. She wore glasses for study and no makeup. In her severe school uniform – grey with maroon piping – she still looked like a child. Jas felt what little confidence he might have had evaporate at the sight of her.
He had been told she was a student who invariably got A-stars and hoped to become a lawyer in the tradition of the family. But she didn’t look like someone who could deal with a walking corpse and, unsure how to broach the subject, he steered clear of it. Perhaps Mr Pyewackett would welcome her in a very bad light, or wearing a mask. Possibly she would think he was merely ill. Very ill. After all, children were supposed to believe what they were told, weren’t they? He had tried to discuss the situation with a colleague and had been informed, in an undervoice, that the company handled some rather unusual cases, and on the whole it was best not to talk about it. Then he had contacted Mr Hayle, who had livened up at the first mention of Andrew Pyewackett.
‘Good old Andy. Bit of a dry stick, mind you, bit of a sharp tongue, but a thoroughly good chap. Good old Andy. Can’t believe he’s still alive.’
‘He isn’t,’ said Jas, but it failed to register with Mr Hayle, and there was no point in making an issue of it.
‘Mr Pyewackett,’ he told Penelope, ‘may seem a little… strange… to you. In fact, he’s at death’s door, which can make people rather… but I hope you’ll manage to be – er – polite to him.’
‘I’m always polite,’ Penelope said. ‘My grandmother’s very particular about it. I’ve never met anyone who was dying before. Is he very old? I looked him up in the file while I was waiting to see you and they’ve got his date of birth down as 1859. That must be wrong, mustn’t it?’
‘Typing error,’ said Jas, chickening out. ‘Are you quite sure you can handle this?’
‘It’ll be an interesting experience,’ Penelope said judiciously. ‘I expect it to be very beneficial for my education.’
Any thirteen-year-old who uses words like ‘beneficial’ is slightly scary. Jas said, in an attempt to lighten the atmosphere: ‘Do they call you Penny?’
‘No,’ Penelope said baldly. After a minute she added: ‘Some people call me Pen.’
She looked like a Pen, Jas thought, not a Penny. As in “the pen is mightier than the sword.”
He said: ‘Well – er – Pen, Mr Pyewackett is expecting you at four o’clock tomorrow. I think it’s preferable he tells you everything himself. It’s Number 7A, Temporal Crescent, Hampstead. Don’t go to Number 7 by mistake. That’s the main property, but it’s – locked up. Mr Pyewackett is nervous of intruders.’
Mr Pyewackett hadn’t appeared to be nervous of anything, but then, being dead would do that for you.
‘I’ll find it,’ Pen said, with the quiet self-possession which appeared to be characteristic of her. She seemed to have no sense of humour, no natural frivolity, no girlyness. While it is impossible to see if someone has an imagination, Jas thought Penelope’s unimaginativity was as obvious as her hair colour. He had always considered himself a serious sort of person, hard-working and conscientious to a fault, but she made him feel like a lightweight for whom legal practice was a jolly little game.
He almost thought he had been more comfortable with the corpse.
After she had gone he succumbed to guilt because he had told her so little, but consoled himself with the hope, based on no evidence whatsoever, that Mr Pyewackett would have the tact to cover his face, not to mention the rest of his anatomy, when Pen came to tea.
Out in the street, Pen waited until she was a safe distance from Whitbread Tudor Hayle before she allowed herself to smile. The knot of excitement and happiness inside her was so tight she couldn’t possibly unravel it all at once – she was far too grown up to skip or dance for joy, had probably been too grown up for such behaviour since she could walk. But the tension demanded some kind of release, so she smiled, and smiled, her pale face alight. She had a real job, a legal job, as if she was a fully-fledged lawyer, instead of a thirteen-year-old who wanted to take her GCSEs early because they were so easy, and spent her spare time reading case histories, and arguing on the Internet about famous miscarriages of justice. She had already decided to specialise in crime, breaking with family precedent, but she knew criminal cases were a long way in the future and the thrill of her first job outweighed all other considerations. It was the most magical thing that had ever happened to her, except she didn’t believe in magic. Unlike her friends, she didn’t read fantasy books – in fact, she read very little fiction at all since she couldn’t see the point of it, though her grandmother had ensured she had a basic knowledge of the classics. But Pen preferred facts. Had Jas told her he thought she had no imagination she would have agreed with enthusiasm. School reports said she had an analytical mind, and she did her best to live up to it. Pen’s best was very good. In her view, imagination just got you into trouble.
At home, Pen told her grandmother all about it, showing the eagerness she would never reveal to contemporaries. Orphaned at the age of two, she had no memory of her parents and had been brought up by her mother’s mother, Eve Harkness, a veteran of flower-power and hippydom, now in her sixties and grown more conventional with time. She was on the small side, still slender, with grey-blond hair in an elfin cut, worry-lines in her forehead, smile-lines in her cheek. Something about Pen’s story made her uneasy, but then, when you are responsible for a budding teenager, practically everything makes you uneasy, so she tried to ignore it.
‘You have to go and see this man who’s dying? I thought... the firm got in touch with me about five years ago. I had the impression he was already dead. Anyway, I don’t think you should be attending deathbeds, not at your age.’ She sounded slightly shocked, as if Pen had said she would be visiting a brothel madam or an East End gangster.
‘I’ll be all right,’ Pen said. ‘Death isn’t contagious, after all.’
‘Well, I suppose it’s okay,’ Mrs Harkness said, doubtfully. ‘I don’t see what harm can come of it.’
Much later, Pen would remember her words.
The next day, just before four, Pen was walking along Temporal Crescent. She had expected it to be a terrace and was surprised and rather impressed to see all the houses were detached, set well back from the road with adjacent garages and bits of tree and garden behind looming walls. Each front door came with a pillared porch and was approached by at least two flights of steps, flanked by stone urns sprouting tasteful vegetation. The red eyes of burglar alarms gazed balefully from every façade and the ground floor windows were covered with painted iron grilles. Pen found Number 7 by deduction, since it preceded Number 8, but it was set even further back, the garden walls surrounded it completely, and all she could see of it was a glimpse of the roof and the second floor. There were no steps, no front door, apparently no way in at all. Every house must have a door, Pen thought, but she couldn’t see one, even when she peered round the side. Number 7A was a much smaller building, perhaps originally a servants’ lodge, set against the wall skirting the main property. This at least had a door, with the number on it.
Pen rang the bell.
The door was opened by a butler. Pen had never seen one, but even for a girl who read little fiction the man was instantly identifiable. Butlers are like dragons and demons and other creatures not commonly encountered everyday: you may never see them, but you know exactly what they look like.
‘Yes,’ said Pen. It made her feel very grand to be called Miss, but she, too, could do impassive.
‘Come this way, please.’
In the hall, he offered to take her coat and the small rucksack she used for school, but she declined. The rucksack contained pen and paper, in case she needed to take notes, and the coat, which was civilian issue, hid her school uniform.
They went upstairs and stopped outside a door.
‘Mr Pyewackett,’ the butler explained, with a diplomatic air, ‘has not been accustomed to the company of young people for some years. Neither of us have. I hope you will be able to make allowances.’
Perhaps he hates children, Pen thought, trying to understand whatever nuances the butler was failing to convey. But then, why make a thirteen-year-old your executor? Of course, by the time she came to do her executing, he would be dead, so it would make little difference to him anyway.
She said: ‘I’m sure I shall.’
The butler opened the door and stood aside for her to enter.
She found herself in a large dark room which, at first glance, resembled a Victorian deathbed scene. Heavy velvet curtains excluded all daylight and there was a fourposter at the far end surrounded by a quantity of dribbly candles and a low-wattage electric lamp. Her host was propped against a mound of pillows like a conventional invalid, but there all resemblance ended. Scattered across the quilt were several books at different stages of being read, a half-eaten packet of Hobnobs, a small tray with stained coffee-cup and saucer, and a couple of used hankerchieves, not paper ones but big squares of spotted silk. What looked like a vintage television set stood on a table beside the bed, and Mr Pyewackett was engaged in changing channels by stabbing at the controls with a very long, very thin bamboo pole, the other end of which had a snuffer for extinguishing the topmost candles on a chandelier.
‘Look at that!’ he said. ‘I can switch channels without moving from my bed. Don’t need to get up, don’t need to ring for Quorum. Clever stuff, hey?’
Pen stared at him. She saw the lidless eyes, the withered face, the detachable teeth. His few remaining strands of hair had gone on growing after death and were splayed across the pillows like a net of cobwebs. He wore a sumptuous brocade dressing-gown and a silk cravat, and the bones protruded from his finger-ends as if from a pair of worn-out gloves.
Pen said: ‘–!’
‘What’s the matter? Never seen a dead person before?’
‘When I was your age, I’d seen half a dozen. Used to get taken to view the corpse every time some relative popped off. Had to kiss m’ grandfather when I was eight years old – they’d baked him in embalming fluid. Disgusting. Couldn’t throw up, either; wasn’t done. No stamina, young people these days. Not asking you to kiss me, am I?’
Pen made an indeterminate noise.
‘It’s that boy Petal, isn’t it? Didn’t really fill you in? Should have thought you’d have realised I’d be dead, since you’re supposed to be dealing with my Will. No need to bother with Wills and probate and stuff when a chap’s still alive.’
‘Mr Patel told me you were dying,’ Pen said carefully, after a brief struggle with her vocal chords, ‘not that you had actually... died.’
‘Silly boy. Pussyfooting round the subject. The firm ain’t what it was in your great-grandfather’s day. Still, we’ve cleared that up now. Sit down. Quorum! get the girl some tea. Hobnob? Got to get this over in time for The Weakest Link. Always watch that.’
‘The thing is,’ Pen said, accepting a chair from the butler, who was evidently Quorum, ‘I thought dead people were more... dead. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of them staying around to watch television.’
‘I’m as dead as you can get,’ snapped Mr Pyewackett. ‘This body won’t last much longer, believe me. I’m only trying to sort things out. Television passes the time while you lawyers are meant to be finding Goodman. Sure you won’t have a Hobnob?’
Pen eyed the flaking fingers clutching the packet of biscuits. ‘No, thanks.’
‘They go straight through me but I still get the taste.’
‘Are you a zombie?’ Pen asked, glad to think she had no imagination, and was therefore unable to speculate about the voyage of the Hobnob.
‘No idea. Thought they were from the tropics – voodoo or something. Don’t have any truck with all that. It’s mostly a load of hocus-pocus, anyway. You don’t want to get mixed up with magic, whatever you do.’
‘I don’t believe in magic,’ Pen said, hanging onto that thought.
‘Good girl. Good girl.’ Mr Pyewackett tried to switch off the television with the bamboo pole, and inadvertently turned up the sound instead. Pen got up and pressed the appropriate button herself. ‘Chip off the old block. Sharp as a thorn, dry as a thistle. That’s the Tudors. Where were we?’
‘Maybe you should tell me what you want me to do,’ Pen suggested, taking out her notebook and felt-tip.
Okay, so he was dead. The situation was... unusual. But at least it wasn’t like some stupid fantasy novel with wizards and flying carpets and talking cats and all that sort of nonsense.
‘Will’s pretty straightforward,’ said Mr Pyewackett. ‘A few conditions but no individual bequests. Everything to Goodman. Have you seen it?’
‘They gave me a copy yesterday,’ Pen said. ‘I read it through last night.’
‘There you are then. Quorum stays on here, wages all arranged. And the cat, of course.’
The biggest cat Pen had ever seen heaved itself out of the shadows and thumped ponderously onto the bed. It was not only enormously fat but its long hair, brindled black, brown and orange, made it appear even larger, with the size and energy levels of a sloth. Cats shouldn’t waddle but it waddled across the coverlet, helped itself to the last Hobnob, and slumped down at its master’s side with its tail twitching like a monstrous caterpillar.
‘His name’s Felinacious,’ Mr Pyewackett volunteered.
‘Does he talk?’ Pen asked before she could stop herself.
‘Shouldn’t think so. Never said anything to me. How old are you? Thirteen? Should have outgrown all that talking cat stuff. Thought you didn’t believe in that sort of thing.’
‘Quorum’ll show you the ropes. Better move in as soon I’m gone. He’ll look after you.’
‘Told young Petal, I can’t wait around any more. Been dead seven years now and m’ body’s pretty well had it. Got to be going soon. You’re the main executor: up to you to take care of things until Goodman shows up. Can’t leave Number 7 without someone to keep an eye on it. Much too dangerous.’
‘Dangerous?’ Pen echoed. It had never occurred to her that her chosen profession might be dangerous, especially not this early on.
‘That’s what I said. Don’t want people trying to get in – or out, for that matter. Your job is to stay here, watch over the place, find Goodman – or wait till he finds you. You’re a Tudor: you can do it. Always trusted the Tudors.’
‘My grandmother will never allow it,’ Pen said, blenching slightly. ‘She won’t let me just go off and live on my own – even with a butler.’
Mr Pyewackett shot her a glare from his pop eyes which would have been terrifying if she hadn’t gone beyond noticing such things.
‘Turning yellow, are we? Showing the white feather? Bleating of grandmothers and other excuses? Not what I expect from a descendant of Bluff King Hal.’
‘He wasn’t bluff,’ Pen said tartly. ‘He was a serial killer with syphilis who created the ultimate religion of convenience – and I’m not sure about being descended from him, that’s probably just family legend. What’s more, I can’t be both white and yellow. Make up your mind.’
‘Aha! Sharp as a thorn –’
‘I meant what I said. I have to ask my grandmother. I’m a minor, and that’s the law. I know about the law.’
‘Running out on your first job! What kind of a lawyer are you?’
‘A legal one,’ Pen said. ‘What’s dangerous about Number 7?’
But that was the moment when Quorum came in with the tea – good butlers always have a sense of dramatic timing – and Mr Pyewackett turned to The Weakest Link and declared the subject closed for the day.