1st Elventide, winter 1795 ad (after Doon)
A thick snow carpeted the field, though the fall had ceased some hours before. It now rested like a work complete. Like deep frosting on an endless cake, concealing all. Hiding who knew what beneath.
A boy threw a stick.
His wolfhound fetched it.
A tried and tested game. A scene familiar throughout ages.
And yet, there was something different here. Something wrong.
Over and again, he lobbed the missile to land it in the powdery drifts that marked the start of the Sallow Grove. The devoted hound snuffled in the icy bank, searched, sniffed out the thing, retrieved and returned it, tail wagging with delight. They played so long and hard that, in the end, great furrows of churned snow lay all about and the boy’s feet were damp and numb, his nose rosy from the cold.
His breath fogged the air as he threw again.
‘You there!’ A voice startled him. The hound chased.
‘Me, sir?’ the boy said, although apart from the dog and the newcomer, he was alone. He watched the man approach: a farmhand from the nearby homestead.
‘Yes, you. What’s that you have there?’
It seemed a strange question to the boy. He shrugged. ‘A stick.’
‘I think not.’ The farmhand trudged closer, leaving a trail of large boot prints. He reached the circle of play where his tracks became lost. The hound brought the stick. Dropped it as usual, at the lad’s feet.
‘What, this?’ asked the boy.
‘Here. Let me see.’
The boy stooped to collect the stick and handed it to the man.
‘Lad, don’t you know a bone when you see one? Where did this come from?’
‘Don’t know. The dog found it.’ The boy realised then that on some level he had known all along it was not a stick, and yet, what did it matter? They were on farmland where the bones of livestock were no rarity, nor sinister, nor even mysterious. It was simply less disconcerting in his mind for him to be throwing a stick, and so a stick it had become.
Sensing the end of play, the hound set off once more and padded back through the drifts into the grove. The man looked again at the long bone in his hand before following. Intrigued, the boy tailed after, stepping in the man’s prints as a game.
In the shadows of the great weeping trees, the excited hound dug – turfed up the whiteness of snow, first, and then the dark tones of frosted soil came spewing up behind him to scatter over the seamless blanket. The farmhand stood observing. There was a keenness in the hound, an urgency to unearth its treasure.
‘Here! Fetch!’ The farmhand threw the bone. The hound dug deeper. There was nothing else for it. The farmhand walked in to pull the hound away.
The boy covered his gaping mouth, staring at the dog’s excavation. There, the partial remains of an arm protruded from the icy ground, its blackened hand curled in an eternal wave farewell.
The Sallow Grove
In which Banyard and Mingle visit an extraordinary crime scene
The icy pavement of Bunson Street is patterned with prints. Josiah Mingle, my hulking business partner, whose features might be described as rugged – if one were feeling particularly benevolent – adds the large tracks of his riding boots to the hotchpotch design as he walks at my side, marvelling at the frozen crust. The leather boots creak with each step. I glance down at them.
He shrugs. ‘I need new ones. These leak.’
‘That doesn’t explain the squeaking.’ I frown.
He shrugs again, removes his silken top hat to scratch his thick-boned head. ‘Can I get some on expenses?’
‘No. Use your pay. That’s what it’s for.’
He grunts as the winter wind tousles our lagging scarfs.
I fasten another button of my long coat. ‘Anyway, we don’t have cash to throw around now. Not since the last few threaders we helped. It costs a fortune, as well you know.’
Jemima Gunn, Willow Buxton, Annie Patch, Martha and Seth Landsdale, Mason Pyke: these are but a few of the unfortunates we’ve rescued from the dire circumstances of threader existence, not to mention Old Squeaky Boots himself: Josiah, previously known as Silus Garroway. It’s an expensive business and a stream of overheads – silk wardrobes including hats, boots and shoes, money for subsistence, forged documents and identification papers – has recently depleted our once bountiful funds. In short, a substantial windfall is needed before we might realistically think about resuming our clandestine (and thoroughly illegal) philanthropy. For the poor threaders – who are little more than slaves – are to be kept in their place, according to our government. Noble silkers, like me, are not allowed to set them up as equals.
Airships blot the sky overhead, a dark and ever-present reminder that war is pending. Camdon City is no exception: it’s the same with every city across Londaland, the coasts too. Our country is in a rigid state of vigilance, never sleeping, always watching for the first signs of invasion from Urthia and we, like ants on the ground, are under constant scrutiny from above. Enemy spies are everywhere. Apparently.
The cobbled road at our side – where vehicles soon turned the snowfall to slush – is now icy and too slick for anything besides beasts of burden. A Clansly Haulage steam truck blocks the way, where it slipped and slid into the wall of a tailor’s shop, this side of Rook’s Bridge. A small crowd of spectators watch as troopers work to free it. A warning emblazoned across the side of the truck reads, ‘CAUTION – ARMAMENTS ABOARD’.
Along with the whole of Amorphia, our government has imposed trade sanctions on the Urthian province of Morracib, to the east, and Urthia is, in turn, bristling for a fight. None of this would have happened if Morracib hadn’t invaded Angula. Unrest that’s been brewing for years is now intensifying into a palpable threat. For Londaland a war has yet to begin, but it seems inevitable.
‘Do you think the war will change things?’ Josiah asks, watching the men wrestle with the truck.
‘For one thing, if war is declared, we’ll be called up to fight. I fear it’s only a matter of time, unless, of course, something remarkable happens.’
‘An unprecedented end of the nonsense. Unlikely, I’m afraid.’
‘Are you… afraid?’
‘My, you’re full of questions today. I’m not afraid yet. But I will be. We all will.’
As we approach the Mysteries Solved office a tall figure in the black uniform of a Draker superior steps into our path: reinforced top hat; frock coat with a double breast of shining brass buttons; trousers like a pair of drainpipes. Lord Bretling Draker (the founder of Camdon City’s noble establishment of watchmen, the Drakers) means business and seems keen to engage us before we reach the office.
‘Young Banyard.’ He tips his hat, his face drawn in a tight-lipped expression. His chin is broad and edged by thick sideburns. ‘Mr Mingle.’ For once his pipe is in his pocket and not his mouth. He must be busy.
‘Good morning, sir,’ I say while Josiah offers a simple nod. Our last encounter with Bretling was not entirely amicable, so I’m intrigued to know what he wants with us. ‘May we be of assistance?’
‘That remains to be seen,’ he says, studying the two of us dourly. Deep shadows beneath his eyes suggest he’s not slept for a while.
‘Perhaps you’d like to step into our office.’ I throw a hand towards the door of our private detective agency, over which stretches a large sign in faded golden paint:
BANYARD & MINGLE: MYSTERIES SOLVED
‘I’d prefer not, if it’s all the same. Do you still keep that lantern dog?’
The hairs on the back of my neck rise. ‘Yes,’ I say with a certain reticence. ‘Why?’
Bretling’s left eyebrow twitches, something I’ve not seen before. ‘We’ve two shallow graves on Tinlock’s Farm down in Holloway, and reason to believe there are more. They call the place the Sallow Grove. Out past Harrow’s Copse. Meet me there within the hour. Bring the hound.’
He trudges away to climb aboard a Draker carriage that soon heads southwards at a brisk pace, drawn by a pair of stout black horses.
‘Well, that was odd,’ says Josiah as we watch it go.
‘The mighty Lord Draker must be in a real pickle to have stooped so low.’
‘Are we really going to help that malignant roach?’ Joe’s getting quite creative with his insults these days. His vocabulary’s really coming on!
I dare say Bretling deserves the abuse after his appalling behaviour in that wretched Landsdale case. ‘He’s a powerful roach, so yes, we are.’
We find Bretling puffing on his pipe and pacing the snow to keep warm, looking like a rather frustrated and lanky crow. Behind him, the rime-frosted Sallow Grove provides an ominous backdrop to his staccato gait. The fall is heavier out here in Camdon City’s most rural district of Holloway, a ragged patchwork of industry and farmsteads where the winds blow unfettered by the skyrakers of the inner city. From here southwards, the settlements only become sparser and the land less profitable as the soil grows poorer, until the Borderlands where cultivation is nigh impossible and, beyond that, the barren soil gives way to the poisoned deserts of Mors Zonam.
‘Ah, there you are, Banyard.’ Bretling juts his jaw at our snow-laboured approach.
I hug my winter long coat tighter about me. Josiah has Baker on a chain. The shaggy hound is huge and placid, although fiercely protective of us when threatened. And take it from me: you don’t want to rile a lantern hound if you can help it (on account of their enormous stature and formidable teeth). Baker snuffles around, pauses to cock a leg, yellows the snow and continues his exploration of this uncharted field. Beyond him in the mid-distance, the low shapes of rundown farm buildings and a scatter of cottages darken the landscape and, nearby, a larger strand of trees, Harrow’s Copse, spreads northwards. I don’t know who Harrow is – or was – but he sounds like a grim fellow to me. To our south lies a large fishpond and, a mile on, the edge of Black Down Forest.
With a haunted expression, Bretling gestures for us to follow. ‘This way.’ Clamping the bit of his pipe between his teeth, he rubs his hands together and shoves them into his pockets before passing between a pair of Draker guards, and on into the grove.
The officer to our right salutes his acknowledgment. ‘Lord Draker.’
An almost military respect follows this man around. ‘Take a break, captain. I heard a rumour there’s hot soup in the tent.’ Bretling flicks his fingers to hurry them along. ‘Your men, too.’
‘Thank you, sir.’ The Draker captain nods and waves for his officers as he heads off around the edge of the trees.
The ring of weeping sallows is roughly circular, their whispering branches drooping almost to the snow with a clearing at its centre, so that this space has the feeling of somewhere set apart. We ascend a slight ridge that surrounds the treeline and notice other Drakers guarding the perimeter beyond.
Bretling trudges on. ‘Was a devil of a job to dig them out, on account of the frozen ground and these confounded roots. It’s a poor choice for a place to dig a hole. Whoever this murderer is, he made his job all the harder. They found a third this morning while I was talking to you. A bleak prospect, I think you’ll agree.’
We see them and come to a halt. Josiah makes the sacred sign, tracing a circle on his forehead before touching a point over his heart. I throw him a subtle scowl. Threaders tend to use the sacred sign; silkers more often the godly sign. It’s one of Josiah’s old habits that could raise suspicion in those around us. Bretling doesn’t appear to notice, though. He waves a gathering of Drakers away and they swiftly move out, leaving the three of us briefly alone in the grove. Needlessly, he points to the decomposing corpses that have been extracted from the icy ground and laid out on blankets at the sides of their open graves.
The three bodies form an arching line at one edge of the clearing. The remains are shades of yellow, brown, black and grey. The putrefying flesh, skin and fabrics are stained by the soil and in various states of decay. Next to them sits a small pile of red marker flags set on canes, and nearby, a collection of picks, spades and shovels leans against the trunk of a big old sallow. The open graves are indeed riddled with tree roots. In places the roots have been hacked apart when the graves were cut. Elsewhere, pale marks show where Draker spades have made fresh lacerations.
‘Three silker gents, though there are more here beneath the sod,’ says Bretling. ‘I’d stake my name on it.’
I brush a lock of raven hair from my brow, adjust my old, battered tricorn and turn my collar against the cold. ‘Because?’
‘Six silkers have gone missing from Camdon City over these last months. Six silkers, not three, and each has disappeared on or around the 17th of the month. I fancy this is where their killer disposed of them.’
‘Are you saying a man’s vanished on that day each month for six months? That’s extraordinary,’ I say.
Bretling nods. ‘On that day or close. A boy’s dog turfed up the first of them and we brought in a Draker hound. He sniffed out the other two but there are more. I know it.’
‘It’s consistent with the state of the bodies.’ I indicate the greenish-yellow corpse closest to me, which is dressed in what was once a smart ensemble, complete with leather shoes still in situ and a crumpled top hat, now perched at his side. ‘This one looks considerably fresher than the others.’ The body is a little bloated and stinks, despite the cold. ‘Perhaps he was the last to be buried and has been kept mostly frozen.’
‘Indeed.’ Bretling regards the corpse as officers return to work. ‘This is the Right Honourable Augusto Ritcott. As you can see, he’s still recognisable, which can’t be said for the others. Ritcott went missing on the 17th of Twinemoon, around two weeks ago. He’s the latest to have disappeared – the one the lad’s dog unearthed. We think other animals had already disturbed the grave. What was exposed has been de-fleshed.’
I study the grim sight at my feet. ‘A member of parliament. A political grudge?’
Choosing not to speculate, Bretling takes a puff on his pipe before moving on to the next body, one with sunken cheeks and great patches of flesh withered and, in places, liquified to the bone. The remains have clearly been removed from the ground one piece at a time and reassembled. ‘We think this one’s the investor Uriah Mumford, on account of his estimated height. He was the first. Vanished on the 18th of Thripplemoon. Left his house for his city office that morning. As far as we know, he was never seen alive again.’
‘And this one?’ I ask, viewing the third body: swollen and blackened, still wearing a soiled brown silk suit and a gold wedding ring. I watch the attending officer take a wallet and a gold pocket watch from the clothes to bag them as evidence.
The officer opens the wallet to count the bank notes and informs Bretling. ‘Fifty guineas, sir.’
Bretling nods. ‘That’s John Lancett, mine owner. He was found with a business contract and all his personal effects. It’s the same with the others.’
‘Not robbery, then.’
‘My thoughts precisely.’ Bretling hands me a waxed leather document case that has, to a degree, protected the vellum contract inside. I glance over the faded agreement details and see John Lancett’s signature along with two others and a date of the 16th of Sixthmoon. Bretling continues. ‘It’s deteriorating but mostly legible, otherwise we’d be guessing. He vanished on the 17th or 18th of Sixthmoon. We can’t be sure which as he was away from home at the time. None can verify the exact day, but…’
‘Yes, I see. May we have a list of the missing men?’ I ask.
‘I made a copy.’ He takes a folded page from the inner pocket of his coat and passes it to me. ‘I’d hoped they would turn up alive, of course, but I think we can forget about that. Someone’s killed all six. Someone with a grudge to settle.’
‘I’ve seen nothing in the papers,’ I say, unfolding the list to view the names and accompanying notes in Bretling’s precise cursive script.
‘I’ve had the press keep silent on the matter,’ he says, ‘but it’ll come out one way or another now.’
I glance at the hanging branches that rattle in the cruel wind, and shudder. This place is forbidding. It’s as though a phantasm has settled here. ‘I suggest you keep them quiet for as long as possible. When this reaches the headlines, the killer will be forewarned we’re hunting him.’
‘Of course,’ says Bretling, an edge of defensiveness creeping into his voice.
Josiah peers through the trees, out towards the water. Beyond stretches the dark line of Black Down Forest. ‘Why bury them here? Why not just ditch them in the pond or use the cover of the woods?’
‘A good question, Mr Mingle,’ I say, wondering at the answer. ‘Perhaps the grove has meaning.’
Josiah approaches Bretling. ‘And why us? You could bring in dogs from a hundred other sources.’
I must admit, I’ve been wondering the same thing.
‘Well, now,’ says Bretling, ‘it’s not escaped my notice that you two have an affinity for threader clients. It sets you apart. You know threaders better than any of my lawmen. These silkers were murdered by a threader who resents his position, mark my words. Banyard here has something of his father’s nose for a criminal. I’ve seen it. I want your help tracking this threader down – the pair of you – if that’s acceptable. I need people with real insight into the backward ways of these folk.’
Josiah glares at Bretling. ‘Threaders, you mean?’
Bretling ignores him. ‘This is no run-of-the-mill villain we’re dealing with. Your father was a fine detective, Banyard – I’d have signed him up like a shot if he was interested – but I trust a little of his nous has passed to you. I’m giving you and your team a chance to prove yourselves.’ He becomes pensive and is quiet for some moments. ‘I’ll pay. Whatever your going rate. I admit I’m desperate. I’ve been on this case for more than five months and it’s gone nowhere but down. These bodies confirm my fears. Today’s the 1st of Elventide, so presumably we have just sixteen days before the killer strikes again. There’s pressure from the government – from those who are in the know. I’m expected to sort this mess out and put a stop to it. A murderous threader taking down silkers unchecked? It’s the wrong kind of message. Hapgood is deeply vexed.’ Chivers Hapgood is our esteemed Prime Minister, a flatulent buffoon with the undeserving good fortune to be born rich – my opinion, for what it’s worth. Bretling continues. ‘When the story breaks, every silker in Londaland will fear for his life, and every threader will be encouraged to murder his master.’
Baker strains on his chain. Josiah drags him away from the remains and the hound begins digging in a slight hollow on the undisturbed side of the grove.
While Josiah handles the hound, Bretling steps closer to me and lowers his voice. ‘I want this kept between us, Banyard. No blabbing to the papers. No loose talk. It’s not the done thing, a Draker employing civilians like this. I’ll need you to keep your hound on a short leash.’ He glances across at Josiah. ‘Do you understand?’
I suddenly see the reason for his reluctance to step into our office. ‘Yes. Quite.’
Baker digs earnestly.
‘Sir,’ calls Josiah. ‘I think he’s on to something.’
Bretling moves in to view the spot. ‘Take him on.’ He stoops to take a flag from the pile and thrusts the marker’s cane into the ground where Baker has dug.
Josiah leads Baker past the bodies but pauses midway, heaving on the hound’s lead. For several moments he stares at the nearest corpse. ‘What’s that?’ His face wrinkles and he nods towards the body’s grizzled head.
‘Where?’ Bretling leaves his newly placed marker to stand by Josiah.
‘There, in his mouth. Something black.’ Josiah points with his free hand while Baker threatens to unbalance him.
Bretling stoops for a closer look and plucks the black object from the decaying jaws of the dead man to study it. ‘A piece of coal.’
I’m intrigued. ‘Might it have fallen in from the surrounding soil? A mere natural aspect?’
‘Perhaps,’ says Bretling.
We watch as he checks the mouths of the other cadavers, using the end of a marker to push open their jaws and peering inside. Grimacing, he delves into the third open mouth before straightening to display a small find between a finger and thumb. ‘Another fragment of coal. Strange.’ He strides to the edge of the trees and shouts. ‘Sergeant!’
Josiah frowns. ‘Were they burned to death?’
‘Unlikely,’ I say, but that doesn’t stop me from imagining the torture that may have been inflicted had burning coals truly been forced into the victims’ mouths while they were alive.
Through drooping branches, we glimpse a grizzled sergeant who wears a long moustache and a sour expression on his craggy face. He hands a steaming copper cup to a fellow officer and hurries back into the grove. Bretling meets him as he arrives. ‘Huntly, have your men check the graves for coal.’
‘Sir?’ Sergeant Huntly seems bemused.
‘You heard me. Coal.’ Bretling dismisses the sergeant with a get on with it gesture. ‘And have them dig there.’ He points to the newly marked location, his brow twitching away.
Baker leads Josiah on to trace a line around the inner edge of the grove around six feet from the tree trunks. Again, the dog alerts and paws at the snow. ‘Here!’ says Josiah.
Bretling plants another flag to mark the spot and, before long, the hound indicates a third location. Bretling shoves yet another flag into the ground. ‘Well, that’s it. Looks like we may have all six. Will you wait until we’ve established the graves?’
‘If you wish.’ I watch Josiah and Baker as they continue to patrol the shadowed fringe. The dog sniffs at a spot and moves on, but then returns to thrust his nose back into the soft snow. He scrabbles at the icy ground beneath with his front claws.
Josiah glances from Baker to Bretling. ‘Six, you say?’
Inside the soup tent we huddle around a large pot that sits upon a portable burner, collect hot black bean soup and stand warming our hands on the bright copper cups as they quickly cool. The wind beats against the hastily pitched canvas and moans beyond the entrance, where Josiah has left Baker tethered to a tree. The hound barks at the Drakers as they hack at the ground with picks and spades.
‘I still think it’s odd that the famous Lord Draker would bring us in on an investigation. I don’t trust him,’ says Josiah.
‘Indeed.’ I peer into the dark depths of my soup, which is possibly the worst I’ve ever tasted. ‘Especially after that Landsdale business.’ I refer to an injustice concerning an innocent boy, in which Bretling appeared complicit. I’ve yet to forgive him. In fact, I’m not sure I ever will. The tragic incident sparked the formation of an avenging secret society, a band of outraged threaders fighting the system from the shadows and calling themselves the Landsdale Rebels. ‘If it were any other Draker I’d flatly refuse, but Bretling? He’s a different sort. Complicated.’ In truth, he’s a better silker than most and his reform of the Camdon City watchmen has brought some definite improvements. For one thing there’s less thuggery and corruption among the men – not that it’s gone altogether, but it has diminished, and he does have a good history of policing, for which he’s been handsomely rewarded by the state. The evidence is on proud display around his office walls. ‘Do you think he wants to recruit us?’
Josiah looks doubtful. ‘You, maybe. He wouldn’t want me.’
‘I don’t know. The Drakers like a bit of muscle, don’t they? Handy in a tight corner.’
He purses his lips, cocks his head. ‘Maybe.’
If the Drakers were to learn of Josiah’s true origins, we’d both be hanged in a trice. ‘Listen, Joe. You’ll need to be more careful if we’re to be around these people for any length of time. You can’t go making the sacred sign. It’s a dead giveaway. Try to keep your head up, your back straight, and don’t tread on any toes. It only draws attention.’
He glances at his boots and then at me. ‘Are you saying I have big feet?’
Give me strength. He walks to the entrance of the tent to watch the Drakers dig. He’s sick of my warnings and constant corrections but what else can I do? Poor fellow.
‘Do you think there are seven?’ he asks.
‘We’ll soon know for sure. I can’t shake the feeling that there must be something special about the grove for it to have been chosen for the burials, though what that might be, I can only guess. Who would do such a thing?’
‘Oh, you’d be surprised,’ says Joe. ‘They say everyone’s capable of murder.’
‘Yes, but seven? That’s quite a commitment.’
‘True. And there could be more. Someone must have been seriously vexed.’
‘We’ll examine the facts and see how each victim is connected. That’s where my father would’ve begun.’
Josiah nods as a figure approaches, dark against the snowscape.
The officer pokes his head into the tent. ‘Lord Bretling bids you come. We’ve found another.’