Sunday night, 4th Honourmoon
Martha gripped the storm lamp, her knuckles blanching as shadows danced on the stone walls and timbers of the croft. Voices rose from the darkness outside: men approaching along the dry path from the village. A hammering at the door startled her. She spun towards the sound. Bit her lip. Turned on her heel again to sweep her lamp around, searching the kitchen.
She called for the boy with an urgent whisper. ‘Billy!’
More hammering, each strike like a jolt to her heart.
They’ve come for him! Where is he? Find the boy. Run. Hide!
The hammering at the door shook her again, a furious percussion. She glanced from the window out into the night, surveying the dank, leaden expanse of mire broken only by the wavering lamps of the gathering watchmen. She counted half a dozen in the steamy murk that hung over the walkways, the reeds and the water.
‘Open up, Martha, or we’ll break it down!’
The thumping intensified. A boy with crooked teeth edged nervously into the hallway from deeper in the croft, his eyes wide and stark in the lamplight, his hands cradling an injured bird. Martha ran to him.
She knew the man shouting on the other side of the door: Watchmaster of Grayrton, Jan Morecroft. Knew why he had come. Knew he would not stop until he had what he had come for.
She turned swiftly to the child. ‘Run to your room, Billy! Bar the door!’
Billy fled but, slipping in from the back of the croft, a watchman appeared before him. Billy almost ran straight into the man’s arms.
The Watchmaster broke open the front door and entered.
Martha screamed. ‘Don’t take him! Don’t take my boy, please! I beg you. No!’ She planted herself between the Watchmaster and the boy. ‘You can’t take him, Jan Morecroft! I won’t let you.’
The watchman confronting Billy swept the bird from his hands. The creature hit the floor.
‘No!’ Billy ran to retrieve the bird.
The Watchmaster shoved Martha aside. ‘You’re obstructin’ the course of justice. We’re takin’ the boy.’ He gestured to the watchman holding Billy. ‘Bring him.’
‘No! He’s done nothin’ wrong!’ Martha tugged at the watchman’s arms, trying to pull Billy free.
The Watchmaster backhanded Billy across the face.
‘No!’ screamed Martha. Blood ran from the boy’s broken lip. The Watchmaster grimaced at the cut that the boy’s teeth had left on his hand.
Wide-eyed, Billy peered from his mother to the Watchmaster and back again as they dragged him away.
‘My boy’s innocent!’ Martha cried.
‘The courts’ll decide that.’ The Watchmaster threw Martha a backward glance. ‘You can see him at trial.’
In which Banyard and Mingle hear a woeful tale
Monday morning, 5th Honourmoon
Elizabeth Fairweather, exquisite as ever, knocks on the case room door before stepping primly inside. She carries in her arms a hat box, cylindrical in form, which she presents to me.
‘You asked for this.’
Without rising from my desk I take the box, open the lid and peer inside. It’s empty and seems the perfect size. ‘Thank you, Lizzy.’
She nods and glances with interest at an object before me on the desk that’s shrouded by an oil cloth. ‘You’re welcome. Do you mind me asking what you need it for?’
‘Not at all.’ I smile and wait for her to realise I’m not going to tell her. She rolls her eyes and leaves, closing the door behind her.
In the case room today there are two skulls on my desk. One sits in its usual spot on the corner, a remembrance from a past case that happens to make a useful paperweight and, incidentally, a convenient place to rest my father’s old tricornered hat: the hat that has become my firm favourite.
The other skull is the one I’m interested in, though. I unwrap it and lift it from the oil cloth, turning it in my hands. I return it to the desk as it watches everything through empty sockets. It has no lower jaw but is otherwise complete, upper teeth and all. The skull looks like that of a man, only larger and slightly elongated in the face and cranium. Its teeth are longer, too, the canines prominent, though no more so than a man’s. It has cheekbones that are higher and broader than any other I’ve seen.
The skull is not human.
The skull is an enigma.
Lounging in his chair, his ankles crossed and resting on his desk, my musclebound business partner yawns.
I frown at him. ‘Josiah Mingle, you do know it’s polite to cover your mouth when you yawn?’
‘Yeah, why is that?’ he asks, without glancing up from the pages of his penny dreadful.
Lizzy calls through the door. ‘Mr Banyard, a visitor for you.’
I quickly re-cover the skull with the cloth and rise to open the case room door as Josiah puts his reading matter down and slips his feet from his desk to follow me out.
A pale threader woman stands in our reception room on the far side of Lizzy’s desk, silent, like a lost ghost that’s drifted in from Bunson Street’s cobbles. She has a bedraggled, country air about her, homespun clothes all shades of dun except for the pale cream of the lace fringing her bonnet. She looks poor, around forty years of age and lean-faced, her features etched deeply with concern.
Lizzy tilts her head in an attempt to glimpse the object on my desk, so I close the door firmly behind me before gesturing towards the visitor’s chair. It’s an old Grand Wexford, brown leather, its upholstery studded with brass, and is the most comfortable seat in the Mysteries Solved office.
‘Please, sit.’ I draw up a simple wooden chair so that we can talk with ease in the corner of the room. ‘Would you like black bean soup?’ This is a standard approach we take with potential clients. The people who come to us have problems they are unable to solve. They are frequently unhappy, vexed and edgy. Black bean soup can help with all that and it gives them something to focus on other than their worries, albeit briefly.
‘If it’s not a trouble.’ The woman nods, although the notion is clearly distracting. She is here for a purpose. I see it now, in the restless nature of her eyes, the resolute set of her brow. She is neither a ghost nor lost.
‘Miss Fairweather, if you would be so kind.’
Lizzy glances up from our case book and slaps her quill down upon her desk in a mildly irritated manner. ‘Yes, Mr Banyard.’ She leaves to fetch the soup.
Josiah drags another chair across the room to join us. Our other operatives are all out in the field and so, for a time, the three of us are left alone. I imagine we make an interesting trio: Josiah’s considerable frame, hulking in his chair, his brutish face intent upon the visitor; the woman, slight and frail by comparison, and full of fear; and me, a wiry, raven-haired young man with a nose a little on the large side.
‘My name is Michael Banyard,’ I say. ‘And this is my associate, Josiah Mingle.’
Josiah nods. ‘Pleased to meet you.’
Our visitor glances with deepening apprehension at Josiah. I don’t blame her. He has all the physical charm of a thug and, even when seated, towers over her.
‘Don’t mind Mr Mingle. He’s harmless,’ I say, though he’s not. It wasn’t too long ago that I witnessed him strike a man dead with a single blow from a fire iron. Even so, she has no reason to fear him. ‘Please tell us who you are and why you are here.’
‘Martha Landsdale of Grayrton, the village out by the mire. I heard you were a good man, Master Banyard, someone who might help a soul such as me.’ She wears a simple copper band on her wedding finger, the sort threaders commonly use because gold or silver is too expensive for them. The copper leaves a greenish stain on the skin. She turns the ring anxiously, glancing back and forth between Josiah and me.
Her nerves seem to have silenced her, so I attempt to put her at ease with a smile. ‘Please take your time, Mrs Landsdale. We are all friends here. How may we help?’
She sniffs, fighting back tears, and dabs at her reddened eyes with a handkerchief. For some moments she is unable to speak. When words come, they fall from her like sorry rags cast on the wind. ‘They’ve taken my Billy. They’ve taken him and they’re going to hang him for something he didn’t do.’
‘Of what is Billy accused?’ I ask.
‘Murder, they say, the murder of a man found butchered out in the mire, though it wasn’t my Billy who did it. How could he? He’s just a child.’
‘How old is Billy?’
‘He’s fifteen. The Watchmaster took him from me in the night.’ Martha Landsdale pauses to look us in the eyes in turn. ‘There’ve been others.’
‘What others?’ asks Josiah, leaning nearer so that his shadow engulfs her.
‘Others found savaged, just the same. All of them out on the mire, but my Billy’s no killer, I swear. He barely ever leaves the croft.’
‘I believe you, Mrs Landsdale,’ I say. ‘Where are they holding him?’
‘He’s in Grayrton gaol but won’t be for long. They’re taking him to the threader gaol in Camdon later today and soon he’s to be tried for murder. You have to help me, masters. I’ve nowhere else to turn.’ She appears desperate, tears beading in her eyes. ‘Though I don’t have much with which to pay you. I’d sell mysen sooner than see my boy hanged.’
‘I promise that won’t be necessary. Please calm yourself. Perhaps we might discuss payment at a later point. If your son is innocent, I’m sure the court will find him so.’ Even as I say it, I feel the spectre of doubt over us like a gathering storm cloud. The chancel judges are rarely lenient on threaders who find themselves in the dock and, if a case is uncertain, the crueller sentence is more often awarded. ‘It seems to me imperative that we set to work. Please tell us everything you know about these killings.’
‘You’ll help me?’
‘Why, of course.’ Money is really not an issue right now and I’d sooner work for free than see her or her child harmed. ‘We shall do whatever we can.’
Her expression eases, and she nods as Lizzy returns laden with bright copper cups of steaming black bean soup that she’s fetched from a street vendor.
‘Ah, thank you, Miss Fairweather. Mrs Landsdale was about to enlighten us. Please be so kind as to take notes. I’ll fill in the blanks later.’
‘One moment.’ Lizzy passes the cups around and we sip the hot, bitter brew.
‘What, no cake?’ jibes Josiah.
Lizzy scowls at him, fetches a ledger from her desk and sits to record details, all business. ‘I’m ready.’
Martha continues. ‘There’ve been killin’s on the mire going back years. I don’t know much but I’ll tell what I can. There are rumours, y’see, stories about the mire. There were stories long before my time: tales going back to the Old People, even. Ancient bodies found there, preserved in the bog. Dark is the mire.’ The phrase hangs ominously in the air as she sips her soup, gathering her thoughts. ‘The first I remember was around eighteen years back, before Billy was even born. A local girl went missing and a week later turned up dead. Far from the village, it was, a place deep into the mire where no one goes, only there was a search made and it was then they found her. There are dry paths, safe enough if you know your way. Her body was off the path, half sunken in the mire. She’d been mauled by a wild beast. Bitten. Her flesh torn. What skin remained was as wan as the moon.’ She peers up at us with widening eyes. ‘They say she’d been drained of blood.’
‘Wolves, perhaps?’ Josiah shudders and, resting back against his chair, traces a circle on his forehead before touching a point over his heart. This is the sacred sign, a gesture that threaders commonly use in dire moments. I worry about his struggles to kick old habits. It’s been a while now since he was a condemned threader – since I rescued him from the noose and brought him to Camdon, paying for his forged silker papers – though he has made some progress. But back to the now…
‘Did the coroner examine the body?’ I ask.
‘I doubt it. It was probably the Watchmaster because the girl was from Grayrton, a threader girl from a poor family. They wouldn’t have bothered the Drakers.’ The Drakers are Camdon City’s watchmen, named after their founder and chief, Lord Bretling Draker.
‘I see. You said others?’
‘Some years later there was a boy who used to go out snaring birds in the marshes. He didn’t return home one day and they found him the followin’ morning: torn up, bloodless, just like the girl. He was a local, too. Then there was a man found dead out there. A stranger. A threader, though, by what was left of his clothes, so I don’t suppose there was much of a fuss. The next was a woman who used to cross the mire to visit her kinfolk over near Windstrome Bay. She took a basket of food on her arm. Never made it to the bay. They found her three days later, lily-white, her throat torn out.’
‘All of them threaders?’ asks Lizzy.
‘Aye. Though this latest man they found two days gone, the one they’re blaming on my boy, is a silker. He was from Camdon so the Drakers were called. That’s why they’re bringing my Billy for trial in the city.’
‘Quite. Is it known what this silker fellow was doing? Perhaps he was killed elsewhere and his body dumped in the mire.’
‘He was an imographer, by all accounts. Made a hobby of it. I heard he was out taking imographs. There are plants out there that don’t grow elsewhere, and the marshes attract all kinds of birds, you see. Per’aps he was imographin’ those. His name was Winsley Dunn.’
I glance at Lizzy. ‘Winsley Dunn. Be sure to make a note, Miss Fairweather.’ She rolls her eyes again. I turn back to Martha. ‘They must be quite convinced that your son is guilty. Do you have any idea why?’
Martha falls silent. Her troubled eyes roam as though searching for a more appropriate answer than the one in her head, before conceding, ‘It’s because of the legend.’
Josiah leans in keenly. ‘What legend?’
Martha’s eyes glaze over. ‘The legend of the shadow drinker, the Bibit. You will know of it.’
We exchange blank glances.
‘We do not,’ says Josiah, his interest piquing. He loves his penny dreadfuls and this sounds like a story straight from those pages.
‘The legend tells of a spirit creature who dwells in Grayrton Mire, a beast with horns like a stag and the teeth and claws of a wolf. It’s been called all sorts. Sometimes the Soul Stealer. Sometimes the Shadow Drinker. Others name it the Bibit.’
‘The Bibit?’ asks Lizzy, peering up from her notes.
‘It means the drinker,’ explains Martha, ‘for it drinks the blood and thus the souls of its victims.’
‘What nonsense,’ says Lizzy, noting it all down. ‘A beast that lives on the mire and drinks people’s souls? It’s quite preposterous.’
‘I’ve heard of tribes in the east who believe the soul resides in the blood,’ I confess. ‘Though I know nothing of the creature about which you speak.’
‘Well, you might think it nonsense but there’s them who don’t. The story begins with a beautiful girl, married off for silver by her uncarin’ father. She was forced to wed a cruel man, a wicked man who walked among the evil spirits abroad in the marsh, those that wandered at night as ghost lights. The villagers witnessed him dancin’ out on the mire, cavortin’ with unnatural creatures: evil beings in the form of shadow dwellers. The girl bore him seven children but, one by one, terrible dooms befell each one.’
Martha pulls her shawl tighter around her shoulders as though suddenly cold.
‘When the first was found dead, the mother thought it an accident. They buried the child in the marshes. Soon afterwards another child was taken, and another, and still she knew of no reason to blame her husband. At last, only the seventh child remained, but soon the wife happened upon a ghastly scene. She came upon her husband throttlin’ the child. The wife flew into a rage, clawin’ and bitin’ him, drawin’ blood, but the husband was too strong for her. He overpowered her and strangled her, too. In the years she’d been with the man, she’d learned somethin’ of his dark art. With her dyin’ breath she hurled a curse upon him, beseechin’ the wild beasts and the evils of the night to finish what she’d begun: to tear him to pieces and to drink freely of his soul.
‘The wicked husband could do nothin’ more than bury her body in the mire.
‘The villagers then learned of the killin’s, for over time they noticed the absence of the mother and the children. They sent out a party to bring the man in to answer for his crimes but found him dead, his chest ripped asunder, his heart laid bare. ’Tis said the murdered wife rose from the waters of the mire, reborn as the drinker of souls, remade as the Bibit, and has haunted the marshes ever since, seekin’ souls to drink, forever enraged at the killin’ of her young ’uns.’
‘And you believe this old wives’ tale?’ I ask Martha.
She stares into her cup and I fear I’ve embarrassed her. ‘I don’t know what to believe, master. That is why I’ve come to you, that and to help my boy.’
Josiah and I exchange glances. We’ve seen things in the hot, green glow of Mors Zonam’s nights, things as equally terrifying as the Bibit, if not more so.
‘You may scoff,’ says Martha, ‘but somethin’ is out there killin’ folk, though it ain’t my Billy. You must believe me. There is a great evil on the mire.’
I frown. ‘I’m sorry, Mrs Landsdale, I still don’t understand how any of this implicates your son.’
‘You will recall I told you he rarely leaves our croft. Well, there’s a reason for that. It’s his teeth. They’re… unusual. They protrude and he has a few too many. It gives him a look that frightens folk. It’s blighted his whole life. The other children in the village spurn him, call him cruel names. The villagers have always been wary, superstitious. Now they’re sayin’ he is the Bibit, that my Billy is the monster on the mire.’
‘She’s quite the storyteller. The Bibit? I’ve never heard of it. Must be a local myth,’ says Josiah a few minutes later when we’re alone in the case room. He voices questions I’ve also been considering. ‘Do you think it’s some unknown beast that’s strayed from Mors Zonam? Or perhaps a gawper is responsible?’
‘If it’s real, then I doubt very much that it strayed from Mors Zonam, not without help, at least. It’s feasible that someone captured a creature there and released it on the mire, I suppose, but if so, why? And who in their right mind would risk entering a deadly wasteland to attempt such a thing?’
‘A good question, Mr Banyard. A very good question.’
‘It doesn’t sound like a gawper attack to me. I’ve never heard of them drinking blood or even using their teeth. Most deaths attributed to gawpers are recorded as heart failures.’ I know this because I’ve taken a keen interest in the cases, as did my father before me. They are compiled among other gawper encounters in a thick file begun by my father, who passed away some years ago.
Again I consider the strange skull on my desk. I can’t seem to leave it alone. It was given to me by a gawper named Magwitch in a cave in Mors Zonam, way beyond the Borderlands. Mors Zonam is a toxic desert that begins around fifty miles south of Camdon, the city in which we live and run our private investigations agency. It’s a place where condemned threaders are sent to die – a penalty deemed worse than hanging. There, undocumented beasts roam, the air is a sulphurous fume that burns the throat and lungs, and the hot sands are riddled with the bones of the dead. It is also, I have learned, the abode of the gawpers, creatures like men, who steal out from the shadows or the night fog to gawp with eyes of white flame. They are more legendary than the Bibit, mystical in their presence, and many do not believe in them, though I have encountered them on several occasions and bear the evidence before me now. It is not something I am prepared to share with the world of modern science. Not yet, anyway.
‘He said you could use it to speak to them,’ says Josiah, glancing at the skull as he pulls on his long coat.
‘Indeed. Magwitch suggested I’d be able to communicate with him through it, but I still don’t know how.’ My recent gawper encounter left me thinking I’d learned a lot, but truly I hadn’t. I know where they dwell, that they have a form of telekinesis and telepathy, and that they are able to think in conversation with others without uttering a word. They have some kind of mind gate that they can open and close. I’ve tried many things with the skull, have placed a hand upon it and opened my mind gate as best I know how, have used two hands and reached out to Magwitch with my thoughts, silently calling his name. I’ve placed the skull over my heart. Held it beneath water. Warmed it by a fire. I’ve stared into its empty eye sockets for hours on end, but nothing. No gawper voice of reply. Not a murmur nor the squeak of a mind gate’s hinge. It’s as if the way is permanently closed, which leaves me wondering: what was the point of Magwitch giving me the thing?
I wrap it in its oil cloth and stow it away beneath my desk in the hat box. Further analysis will have to wait until later, for now – if Martha Landsdale is to be believed – there is an innocent child speeding towards the gallows and we may be his only hope of salvation.
I grab my long coat and head for the door. ‘Come, Joe. We have a case to solve.’