Of all the cases that linger in my mind from those early years it is, perhaps, this one that looms largest. I was still studying my trade, one demanding trial by fire or, to put it another way, learning on the job. My father taught me what he could, of course, before passing over, but there is simply no substitute for experience, whatever your elders say.
Truly, it is not one case but many, each one complex and diverse. They rumble together like bones in a sock, a picture we shall revisit before my account is through.
My story concerns a widow, some bad men, a handful of gawpers, a philanthropist – that’s me – and a violent storm. It begins on the twelfth night of Honourmoon, in the Eastern Sea. I was absent, being tucked up in bed, asleep and serenely oblivious to the drama, though others were there. For a few desperate and fleeting moments.
Tossed like a branch in a highland stream, the Dollinger rolled in thunderous waves, hull groaning under strain. The bosun pointed into the rain-lashed night and roared amid the pummelling elements.
‘It’s Burrington Point Lighthouse. Rocks ahead!’ He slipped and slid to the ship’s bell and rang it urgently. ‘Turn the ship! Starboard, full rudder!’
The storm pounded at the stern, flooding the top deck, raking barrels and mariners into oblivion with its greedy reach. Through the maelstrom, Anders also glimpsed the light. He saw it swing and bellowed back across the deck as lightning flashed.
‘That’s a false light. A false light, I say!’
The bosun shoved him aside. ‘Man the rudder! Turn the ship!’
‘The ship is cursed!’ shouted the mariner, Flinders. ‘The sprites are coming for us!’
Deckhands grasped at rigging, at the masts, at anything fixed as the furious ocean swallowed all those who lost hold. The first mate heaved the wheel and, incredibly, the galleon turned. Slowly. Yet it turned.
‘There now. What did I say? We’ll ride out this storm yet!’
Anders could barely hear the bosun’s words over the deafening crash of the waves. Running to the bow, he gripped the gunwale and gaped wide-eyed as the swell ahead yawned apart to reveal the glistening rocks beneath. The ship struck, splintered and pitched portside, its wound mortal. In a matter of moments the ocean swallowed it, bow and stern, welcoming timber, sail and crew down into the hideous black.
A Threader Client
In which Michael Banyard and Josiah Mingle fail to attain employment
The numbers in our case book cannot conceal the truth. My secret philanthropy is fiscally challenged.
Josiah Mingle enters 81 Bunson Street – the office of Banyard and Mingle, Mysteries Solved – and closes the door. Tall and broad for his years, he must stoop or hit the lintel. He is taller than me, although – and I quote him here – he has a face like the sliced end of a turnip. Not entirely accurate, but eloquent enough. I’ll say this much, he looks like a thug. In contrast, I have the distinctive high brow and raven hair of the Banyard line and a nose that is somewhat longer than I should like. All the same, I’m told I’m handsome, though Josiah has on one occasion, rather annoyingly, referred to me as pretty.
The doorbell is silent, the quietness a reminder to me that it needs to be replaced.
On the desk lies a scatter of old copies of the Camdon Herald, the uppermost paper showing a headline in thick black lettering.
THIRTY-THREE DROWNED IN DOLLINGER WRECK
For a moment, Josiah turns and stares at the glass of the front windows. Not through, you understand, as though watching the bustling street outside, but at.
‘What is it, Joe?’
He continues his study.
‘What are you looking at?’ Losing interest, I gaze back at the case book open on the desk before me.
‘It’s fascinating, how glass is solid and yet see-through. How can it be so?’
I smile. ‘The word is transparent.’
‘See-through, transparent, whatever. Do you think it was the same for the Old People, before the cataclysm?’
‘Yes. I’m fairly sure glass has always been glass. It is only melted sand, after all.’ The moment is drowned by the rising troubles in my mind. ‘Well, if you can tear yourself away from the wonders of the universe for a moment, I have something important to discuss.’
‘Oh! Is that Penelope Danton?’ Now he is looking through. He points keenly at a trail of pedestrians passing shopfronts across the road.
My head jerks up and I’m searching from the window when I catch his wicked grin and realise I’ve been duped.
‘This is serious, Josiah. We’re out of work.’
‘Out of work?’ At last he forgets the window and crosses the room to the other side of the desk, grinning no more.
‘It’s not looking good. If we don’t get a client soon we’ll have to rob a bank or something.’ I snort at the notion.
Josiah stares in silence while he mulls this over, his pronounced eyebrows rising together like small mountains.
‘What about the Trevinky case?’
‘Done, dusted, paid. And spent.’
‘Pulled out before signing the contract. Gave the job to Stagnut and Brambles across town.’
‘Apparently, we’re not a big enough outfit.’
‘The Bleakdon case?’
‘They found their missing cash box. Mystery solved. Case closed before it ever opened.’
More silence follows while my faithful assistant dredges his brain for other potentials. Finding none, he allows his frame to collapse into the visitor’s chair, like a physical expression of our impending financial downfall.
He says, ‘Maybe we should rob a bank.’
I offer a tight-lipped smile and a noise that doesn’t quite form a laugh and say, ‘That was a joke, not a very funny one, but a joke, nonetheless.’
‘But why not?’
‘I’m sorry, Joe. Did you just say “Why not?”? As in: Why not rob a bank? Have you lost your mind?’
‘I’m serious. Why not?’
‘Because it’s lunacy! It would be immoral. For one thing, people would get hurt or even die. Robberies generally involve some form of violence, which I’m strictly against, as you well know.’
‘You’re a strange kind of silker, all right. But what if they didn’t?’
I frown. He explains.
‘What if there was a way to do it without endangering a soul? Who else would suffer? I mean, who would it hit financially?’
‘I’m not entirely sure. The individuals whose money was stolen, probably. Perhaps the bank, although I suppose they’re likely insured against such calamities. To be honest, I wasn’t seriously considering…’ I stop midsentence because Josiah has that look about him again, a self-congratulatory expression that heralds doom as surely as a gawper’s gaze. He parts his rubbery lips to expel the inevitable words I’ve heard so many times before.
‘Mr Banyard, I have an excellent idea.’
‘Come on, then. Let’s hear it.’ With a sense of dread I lean back in my chair, interlace my fingers behind my head and cross my ankles upon the desk. The explanation of Josiah’s idea could be lengthy but today there is little else to do.
‘On my way in this morning I stopped for a cup of black soup. Mantrice Borrington’s – you know it. Serves the best black soup this side of Druit’s Lane. Old Mantrice were yacking with a lanky fellow, talking about the bank on Quaffer’s Row. I heard him saying that bank will soon receive a royal visitor into its vaults.’
‘Oh?’ Though perplexed as to where this is going, my interest rises. ‘Who’s the royal visitor? Not King Lychling, surely.’
‘Not Lychling.’ Josiah leans closer and drops his voice. ‘This royal visitor is dead.’
A bent old woman pushes open the door, interrupting him. She wobbles in.
I’m surprised by the appearance of this potential client because the faded sign stretching the length of the building is drab and in need of repair. There’s a temporary board crudely nailed over the surname of my father’s previous partner, Shrud, and the lower corner of the ‘d’ can still be seen protruding beneath. The painted letters were once a golden hue and Mingle’s name is notably a different shade. In any case, the sign has done its job and guided a needful soul to our lacklustre premises once more. I am privately grateful; perhaps Josiah’s train of thought will be lost and his half-explained idea forgotten. I slip my feet from the desk and straighten up.
The woman approaches, tapping her cane across the floor. She’s a threader, though better dressed than most. Threaders are forbidden to wear silk, but her cotton clothes are clean and serviceable. She’s one of the few who have managed to survive well against the odds. When her eyes find mine, I detect a keen intelligence hiding behind the greyness of age and a hint of colour that tells me they were once a beguiling shade of turquoise. She was beautiful in her youth and a little of that beauty lingers still.
I clear my throat. ‘Good day, madam. I am Michael Banyard and my associate here is Josiah Mingle. How may we assist you?’
She views Josiah and frowns, perhaps discerning that something about him is not quite right, yet unable to pinpoint the flaw.
‘I’m a threader.’ With a croaky voice, she floats the words into the air and lets them drift, watching for our reaction.
For a moment I wonder if I’ve been rumbled. I fear she has heard about Josiah’s escape from oppressive servitude and has come seeking the same. I cannot save everyone.
‘Yes. You are. What of it?’
‘Bet you’ve never had a threader client in here before.’ She narrows those eyes at me, a look somewhat close to an accusation. Peering at Josiah and me from beneath her lace-fringed bonnet, she slaps a palm full of dull coins onto the desk.
‘There. That’s everything I have. The rest has been taken by a murderous thief.’
I make a concerted effort not to count the coins and allow myself only a cursory glance. It’s not much, not even enough for a day’s pay, though it could buy a new bell and that would be something.
Josiah is gawking at her as though she is a newly discovered species. I glare at him and clear my throat again. Gaining his attention, I nod to my right. He takes the hint and relinquishes the visitor’s chair.
I rise briefly to gesture. ‘Would you care to sit, madam?’
‘Thank you.’ She sits, folding her frail hands on her lap. Her fingers are narrow, her skin almost translucent and mapped with raised veins and freckles.
‘Will you take a cup of black soup? Josiah here can bring some.’
‘No. Thank you.’
‘Who is this murderous thief you speak of?’
‘That silker rogue named Jacob Cullins. He’s lawfully stolen every penny my dear old Jonty and I saved.’
‘Jonty?’ asks Josiah. At least he is paying attention.
‘My husband. Died last year.’
‘Was it much, your savings?’ I ask.
With great effort, she drags the grand Wexford chair an inch closer to the desk and glances towards the door before continuing.
‘You’d be surprised, sir. Between you and me, my Jonty did all right. He worked hard. He was lucky with his silker master – rubbed along well, they did, had a friendship of sorts. His master was one of the kinder ones. The sum of which I speak – the sum recently taken from me – was six thousand guineas.’
Josiah whistles and drops his jaw. I throw him a disapproving look. He snaps his mouth shut. Six thousand guineas is a considerable sum, even for most silkers to have saved. I forget the paltry pennies on the desk. If Jonty’s life’s savings were reclaimed, a proper payment for our services might be forthcoming.
‘And, may I ask, how did this theft take place? You say lawfully?’
‘Aye, lawfully, for by the silkers’ law a bankrupt business cannot be forced to pay its debts.’
‘So, what? You invested in a business that went bankrupt?’
‘No, Cullins invested on my behalf, for as you know, ’tis forbidden for threaders to do business in that way. I was a fool to trust the old crook. Six thousand he invested in Golden Shores Imports and not a month later they sunk so deep they may as well be at the bottom of the Devil’s Drop. A long list of disasters befell them: first a terrible shipwreck, then thefts, fires and the like. Sightings of gawpers have been reported down by the docks and men have died. ’Tis all in the claims report. I have a copy.’ She places a folded document next to the pennies.
‘How did you come by this?’
‘I may be old and frail, Master Banyard, but I know a trick or two.’
‘Wait. I don’t understand the connection. What has the demise of Golden Shores Imports to do with Mr Cullins, other than your investment? You seem to think he has conned you somehow.’
‘I suspect he owns it.’
‘Really? Then why sabotage it? That’s what you’re suggesting, is it not?’
‘Indeed, I am, though I cannot prove it. I believe he has stripped it of all assets and laid it to waste. He has bankrupted one of his own businesses and in the process stolen my money, along with other investments, no doubt.’
‘I still don’t see why someone would bankrupt their own business.’
‘Cullins is rich. ’Tis merely one of many he owns. Perhaps the shipwreck was genuine and set him thinking. Tax evasion, insurance pay-outs, trading games, politics – I don’t know why – but he did it and gained my savings to boot!’
I lean forward and drum my fingers on the desk, digesting her words.
‘What, precisely, is it you wish us to do, Mrs…’
‘Widow Blewett. Is that not obvious, Master Banyard? I wish you to investigate the matter, find evidence to prove my accusations. Without my savings I have no means to live. I appreciate I have not long to go in any case, but I’m not ready for the grave just yet. Prove Cullins has conned me and have my money returned to me.’
‘Widow Blewett, it would take considerably more than…’ Unhappily I sweep the coins from the desk into my palm and count. ‘Nine pence alone. Regrettably, I cannot take your case.’
With a baleful look, she holds out her hand. ‘Very well.’
I let the coins trickle back to her and she leaves without another word.
This is perhaps an appropriate point to explain a few things about Josiah and me. My father died five years ago and my mother and I fought valiantly to keep his private detective business afloat. When she became frailer we realised we needed help and, six months ago, employed Josiah to assist. Now my mother mostly remains at home.
Josiah is, or was, a threader. That is to say, he was an unfortunate of the lower class, trapped in a cruel world of bondage. Threaders work hard and receive little in return. Frequently they receive nothing. If a threader makes a mistake, he – or she – is ruthlessly punished. Because of their generally poor finances, the punishments mostly take a physical form, a beating, a shaved head or an arm branded with a T to remind them of their place. If the individual has already taken a brand, another T is added to the line, and so on.
If the error or crime is bad enough, a threader may be executed outright. Death also awaits any who talks back to a silker, but only after a grievously prolonged and contrived trial. This they simply call a threader’s doom, a term meaning a prejudiced jury and certain death. If a threader so much as lays a hand on a silker, the killing is more imminent and may be lawfully performed by the offended silker in a manner of his or her choosing.
When guilty of a more serious offence, a quick death is deemed too lenient. The condemned threader is cast out of civilisation beyond the Borderlands, into Mors Zonam, where nothing grows beneath the irrepressible glare of the desert sun and where unnamed beasts lurk among the rocks and caves. No one ever goes there, not by choice, anyway. It is an inhospitable place, damaged by the ancient cataclysm that turned Earth into Earthoria. In Mors Zonam the hapless threader will die a long and painful death, ultimately suffocating in the hot toxic air.
There exist but two classes: the threaders and the silkers. The threaders are little more than slaves and work all manner of jobs from an early age. The silkers are born nobility. It is thought these terms derived from two distinguishable traits.
The threaders make the silk.
The silkers wear the silk.
The words are carved into the stone over the entrance of every threader courthouse in Londaland.
There is no lawful way for a threader to rise into silker ranks.
Where do the gawpers fit in? You may ask. Gawpers are different, creatures somewhere between myth and legend. No one knows what they are. Those who have encountered them believe in their existence. Many, who have not, do not. They slink out from the moon shadows after dark. They climb from the fog in the small hours while we sleep. They come and go like the autumn mists. They are the stuff of a child’s nightmare.
You will know when you see one. A ragged shape will rise from the gloom before you and a pair of glowing white eyes will gawp, two cold points of light that bore through to your soul and steal your breath.
Traditions abound: old wives’ tales, superstitions, preventative measures in chants and charms, doom-saying and bedtime stories. The list goes on. The gawpers are harbingers of death. If you fail to die during an encounter, somebody close to you will soon perish instead. If no one dies, another kind of doom will befall you or those you love. I never gave much heed to all the talk, though I know two things for certain.
Fact one, gawpers are real because I’ve seen them.
Secondly, each time I’ve seen them, a most unsettling phenomenon occurs: I sweat blood.
I’m aware this is odd but it’s also terribly inconvenient.
Now, the silkers in general are a merciless lot, cruel and oppressing. I have several friends among them who are not as bad as others, but mostly we’re a ghastly bunch. I like to believe I am different. I try, at least. I help threaders where I can. Indeed, through clandestine means I have helped Josiah and now he is a silker, though I shall pay with my life should the deed ever come to light.
‘Sit up straight,’ I tell him, for fear he will give himself away. Dressing him in silks and setting him up with a position is one thing, but shaking his threader habits is proving to be quite another. He straightens his back and flashes an uncertain smile across our barren case book. Despite all his base attributes, I have a soft spot for Joe.
I watch silkers pass the windows and worry they may pause to scrutinise him. If they did, they might notice the knot of his scarf is too tight and yet the scarf worn too loosely around his neck. They may see he is so well muscled from lugging barrels in his previous threader employment that I have struggled to purchase a silk shirt that fits. Indeed, he has a neck like a bull’s. Here and there, the shirt clings tightly to his bulges. They could ask why a silker has such weather-tanned skin. And if they heard him speak? Well, that might be the end of it!
To me, he looks awkward, out of water, as my silker friends would say, though I do not pretend to understand the origin of this archaic phrase. I’m sure it is only a surviving element of some ancient saying. When the cataclysm struck, much was lost.