Josiah’s spade strikes wood around five feet down.
‘That’s it. Willard’s coffin.’ Standing at the edge, I peer into the pit.
‘I think it is.’ Josiah scoops soil from the lid, adding to the spoil heap. When he’s cleared half of the lid, we swap places and I finish the job. The coffin is still intact and seems remarkably strong. Oak, presumably. Little else would survive as well, buried for so long. It even withstands Josiah’s substantial weight. We clear the clinging earth from around the sides and gradually work the coffin up and out of the grave, laying it on the ground. It’s awkward, slippery work.
Now for what is, perhaps, the grimmest part of the job.
We prise the lid off with the tips of our spades and look upon the withered remains of Willard Steeler. Josiah recoils at the sight. Steeler’s skull leans, jaw yawning, hair fragmented and grey, falling to his pallid brow. He is little more than bones dressed in a gentleman’s fine grey suit and black tie. All silk, of course. What flesh survives is dried out, the skin thin like parchment stretched tight.
There are superstitions surrounding the dead among the threader population, more so than with silkers. There are tales of witchcraft, of ghouls rising from the grave to haunt, drinking blood, preying on the living, but we silkers take a far more pragmatic view. The dead are dead. We observe a simple yet tempered respect for them.
‘It’s all right, Josiah. There’s nothing to fear.’
‘But he looks so… alive!’
‘Yes. He’s half-mummified. But take it from me, he’s thoroughly dead.’
Because the coffin is intact the interior is clean of dirt, except for the partial decay of the body, of course. This will make our job a little more bearable, for now we must search the corpse and the entire box. Unfortunately.
I take a half-crown from my pocket. ‘Heads or tails?’
The Unwanted Letter
In which Banyard receives a letter and Mingle receives a clout
My father’s death was a mystery from the start. He was well one minute. Dead the next. It all happened in such a trice that, before I knew it, at the age of fourteen, I’d become the master of the house, proprietor of the private investigations agency Mysteries Solved, and sole comforter to my bereft and ageing mother.
A Draker, one of our city watchmen, found Father’s body one night at the end of an alley in Old Camdon, not ten minutes’ walk from our home at 96 Bunson Street. Nothing suspicious about that – each of us ventured across Rook’s Bridge into the old town on a regular basis – and, with no visible damage to his body, the mystery was passed directly to our city’s hard-drinking but capable coroner, Myrah Orkney, who quickly labelled it death by failure of the vital organs. I mean, could there be a vaguer cause?
Why had his body upped and failed like that without warning? Yes, he had suffered illness some six years before, but he had fully recovered. I’m no pathologist but it seemed most peculiar.
Among my inheritance came Father’s old tricorn, now my favourite hat. I will not part with it for the world, though in a sea of toppers it is most unfashionable. It carries with it a sense of the man he was, as though all those years of use have imbued it with something of his nature.
Father’s passing left his partner, Jeremiah Shrud, overwhelmed with work so we bought him out with some of Father’s savings. He promptly wrapped up what cases he could before retiring from the business and moving away, leaving my mother and me to handle what remained.
In any case, that was five years ago, and I only mention it here to set the scene because, as I sit in the case room upon this sweltering summer’s morning, my father’s death becomes poignant once more, as you will see.
The office is humming today, a blur of activity. The air is stifling. We have many cases in progress and my operatives race around at a speed unusual for our dusty outfit. To be fair, it’s become less dusty since we employed Elizabeth Fairweather as secretary – Lizzy for short. She sits primly at her desk, as shapely and smart as ever, dealing with a queue of clients. Mysteries Solved has never before been in such demand and we owe it all – well, most of it – to my esteemed partner, Josiah Mingle, and his inclination for excellent ideas.
Ridiculous ideas, more like.
Josiah, now rescued from his previous life as a threader, is gradually settling into the flow of silker ways and often lurches purposefully around the office, dictating, organising, reviewing, interviewing. With the sudden influx of cases, I saw fit to have him manage one – we’ll see how that goes – and I fancy he carries his head all the higher because of it, which is a good thing because it might improve his muscle-bound stoop. He’s still crowing over our successful recovery of Great King Doon’s priceless remains and funerary urn.
Which he stole in the first place, by the way. Did I mention that?
But these new cases lose interest for me when I open the letter delivered to my desk this hour. It’s an unsettling, unwelcome message.
The paper is crisp and creamy. The same flowing script of green ink forms my name on the pristine envelope and the words inside. I unfold it and read as time pauses, my associates dashing in a haze around me. For me, all is quiet, all is frozen, at least on the outside. Within, my heart rises to my throat, pounding like the jibes of a dilapidated steam truck.
My story is long and involved and so I shall strive to remove myself from the episode about which I will here divulge certain facts. I have other reasons for wishing to remain anonymous, reasons that I am not at liberty to share. However, it is imperative that you believe I know the following details to be true and without question.
The first is this. Your father’s death was unnatural.
There are several other similar deaths you may also find of interest, each erroneously pronounced, those of Zacchaeus Mandon, Foster Keen and, lastly, Miss Martha Judd. Those responsible, a secret order of high social flyers, are long overdue their comeuppance.
I cannot name the culprits outright as yet, and I fear I may never do so due to circumstances beyond my control. Yet, suffice to say, I believe a little digging would reveal much.
You should begin at the grave of Willard Steeler.
The moment passes. The world continues to turn as questions flood my mind. I raise the page to my nose and sniff. Foreseeably, it smells of ink and paper. No help there, then.
In our reception room I grab Lizzy’s arm as she passes.
‘This morning’s letter – did you see who delivered it?’
‘No, Mr Banyard. It was on the mat when I opened up. I simply placed it upon your desk.’
There’s an explosion of glass at my side as a large mass enters the room from the street, shoulders first, via the windows to land before me on the floor. Shards rain and settle and, after the briefest silence, a voice of fury follows Josiah’s trajectory.
‘And let that be a lesson to you, sir! I’ve never been so insulted!’
Josiah picks himself up and dusts himself down as, outside, the hulking figure in the top hat and cloak slouches away. Pedestrians on the street stop to watch. Steam trucks and clockwork cars continue to hurtle by. And that’s pretty much how Josiah first entered my life, too; exploding into my world with shattering consequences and heralding a new atmosphere. He’s an expense I can ill afford. Most of the time he’s a kind of idiot. And just occasionally, a genius.
‘Good morning, Josiah.’ I brush a glistening fragment from my shoulder. ‘Who’ve you been insulting now?’
‘It wasn’t an insult. It was a compliment,’ he replies.
Lizzy interjects with a shrewd guess at the truth. ‘You complimented Mr Farringsgate’s wife?’
Josiah nods. ‘A little too highly, I fear. You can take the window out of my wages.’
‘Was it worth it?’ I ask. I’ve noticed that Lizzy has been watching Josiah frequently and, on the odd occasion, has flirted with him. She flashes him a killer smile.
‘You haven’t seen Mrs Farringsgate,’ he says. ‘You’d have complimented her, too.’
Lizzy slaps him lightly on the shoulder. ‘Oh, Josiah…’
I have seen Mrs Farringsgate but I choose not to correct him. ‘Perhaps. Sweep this up and get on to the glazier at once. We have the security of the office to maintain.’
At least the airflow has improved.
‘Right away,’ he grunts.
We’re all good. In fact, we’re as thick as thieves.
‘And work on your client relational skills. I suppose Mr Farringsgate will disengage our services now.’
‘Naugh. He’ll come around. I’ll visit this afternoon and grovel. Farringsgate loves a good groveller.’
‘I’m sure – and you’ll gain another glimpse of the formidable Mrs Farringsgate, no doubt.’
‘Why, Mr Banyard, whatever are you implying?’ quips Josiah.
‘You’re bleeding,’ says Lizzy, placing a hand on his shoulder. ‘Sit down. I’ll fetch a dressing.’
Josiah is one of those people who enjoys life to an irritating extent. He appears to relish Lizzy’s attention as she brings dressings and scissors. She releases his tie, undoes several buttons and draws back his shirt to reveal the cut and several bulges of muscle before swiping the miniscule wound with iodine and taping a cotton wad in place.
‘There. Good as new.’
He lunges to peck her cheek but she shoves him aside before he can strike. She slaps his arm again. ‘Josiah Mingle, I’m not that sort of girl.’
Josiah closes his shirt and re-knots his tie, grinning. Lizzy smiles back at him. As he sweeps glass, my thoughts return to the letter and my father’s mysterious death. Questions float to the surface.
Why has the writer waited until now to send a letter? Who is he? Can any of the information be trusted? If so, it is a report of four murders. Quite a claim, though it seems the author is for some reason unwilling to provide much assistance in naming the guilty.
Several phrases stand out upon a second reading.
Episode: A carefully selected term that conveys much. What this person experienced that led them to their conclusions must have happened over a reasonable period of time. It’s safe to assume, then, that the conclusion was built upon a number of instances and is no mere whim. No reactionary cry, but a deliberated and calculated communication.
High social flyers: Perhaps this accounts for the lack of names as it implies people of influence and, therefore, great power. It follows that they might also be dangerous and fear has curtailed the writer’s words.
Unnatural: The writer has gone to lengths to avoid the term murder and therefore to avoid an outright accusation. Perhaps again the threat of reprisal is the cause. They are not brave or able enough – for whatever reason – to name names.
Two further questions bother me.
Firstly, the author obviously knows more than he’s saying. Is a second letter soon to follow?
Secondly, the message ends with a suggestion although, in keeping with the rest of the letter, an ambiguous one. More so, it’s implied: exhume Willard Steeler’s body from the grave. Is this truly what was meant?
For a while I’m too deeply entrenched to share this new development with anyone. I sit, attempting to digest it, recalling those last days of my father’s life as I witnessed them. I remember him being insular at that time, constantly busy, always out in the field, following one lead or another. He went to work early each morning and came home late, exhausted and looking more haggard than ever before. Shrud, working an unconnected case, was unable to provide answers to the questions left behind. Even my father’s case notes were of little help. It seemed nothing could be done and certainly nothing we could do would bring him back. To compound the general air of hopelessness, both Mother and the Drakers persuaded me to forget any thoughts of investigating. Our efforts soon waned in the overbearing shadow of Father’s funeral and our grief.
This letter, however, has changed all that. One small page has quickly turned the whole thing on its head and now there’s nothing left to do but investigate.
I make a cursory search for the casefile my father was working on when he died. Perhaps there is something in there that may help. From memory it is file number 2216 but the shelf by my desk only holds files as far back as 2300.
I lean through the doorway into reception. ‘Lizzy, where are all the old files?’
Sitting at her desk, she looks up from a clipboard. ‘They’re boxed up, in the store room. Top shelf.’
‘Right.’ I enter the store and rummage until I have the file in hand. I pause, turning back to the boxes to root out a second file, this one fat and bearing no number but instead the word Gawpers written down the spine. It’s an old file my father kept, holding records of every gawper encounter known to him.
Now, gawpers, in case you were unaware, are beings of legendary status. Many believe they exist. Probably more believe they don’t. Gawpers come and go like the mist. No one knows how they do it or where they come from or where they go, but it is thought, by those who believe, that they come with ill intent. It is said that those who encounter a gawper are doomed; that if they do not perish immediately they will die soon after; that, if somehow, they manage not to die, some other tragedy will befall them. A loved one will collapse or become fatally ill with some terrible disease, for example.
Gawpers are tall beings with glowing white eyes of flame with which they probe your thoughts while you tremble, fixed to the spot like a statue. It is impossible to tell how the gawpers move. They appear to glide above the ground, or the water – wherever they happen to be.
You may be forgiven for thinking, ‘My, my, Micky, you seem to know an awful lot about gawpers.’ Well, there’s a good reason for that.
I’ve seen them.
And each time it’s happened, I have sweated blood.
I place the gawper file on the shelf over my desk before returning to my father’s last casefile, wondering. Did he meet his end beneath the flaming white gaze of a gawper?
The file’s rust-red cover is tatty, the edges worn. An elastic band holds it closed and a stamp in faded red ink on the front reads UNSOLVED. With my father’s funeral and everything that followed, I can recall little more about the case other than the number and the general nature. It wasn’t my case, after all. Father was investigating the death of a wealthy man of Highbridge. Even Shrud told me to let it go and, begrudgingly, I had done so.
Now my interest is piqued and I can’t help myself. The name on the spine reads Oliver Ingham. I open the cover and read. Oliver first came to Mysteries Solved with fears for the safety of his daughter, Tillie, who had received several threats in the form of badly written letters. Flipping through the file I soon find them. The writing is as terrible as my father’s notes suggest, the letters poorly constructed, the words irregular, misspelled and speckled with misplaced capitals.
Miss Tillie Ingham,
ShoRt is yoUre time Now. DeAth comeS fore You. OOh, thE wurms wil Taist your Flesh and Go murMur.
I wiL have JustiCe.
Was the hand that shaped these words crippled in some way or perhaps that of a child in early schooling? I take a new sheet of paper and attempt to copy the style. It’s almost impossible, the written formations being so unnaturally peculiar. My closest attempts come when I swap to write with my left hand. All of a sudden a word leaps out at me from the letter.
The first three capitals that are misplaced. Was that the true meaning behind the letter? A clear message in a simplistic code? One has to wonder.
Perhaps not, though. I jot down the rest of the unnecessary capitals.
Surely meaningless. Checking back for my father’s remarks on the letters, I find he recorded no relating comment. It’s frustrating because I’m desperate to know what he made of all this.
I move on to the second letter.
Miss Tillie Ingham,
Die whore. Die. I’m comminG for your hEarT. Black is the cOlor. YoU Traitor! DArkness awaitS You. HOw yourE flesh wil fester wiTh ForGotten wurMs. I wiL have JustiCe.
There it is again! Am I mistaken? The first unconventional capitals! The message is unmistakable.
Wondering who this Dweria Philshaw is, I read and reread my father’s notes but there’s no mention of the threatening letters other than a basic description of their unusual style. It’s so peculiar because I’m sure this is where anyone else would have started. I certainly would have. It’s almost as if some of the notes are missing.
And then it strikes me.