Welcome to The Interactive Novel, the novel that allows you the reader to decide what happens during the novel.
At the end of each weekly instalment will be at least one poll where you will decide either:
• What happens next
• A setting
• A character to be introduced
Whatever option receives the most votes decides what happens. To take part, read the instalment below and then make your vote.
Wednesday, 19th September 1860
With heavy gables and small windows, Church House looked more like a prison than a domestic property. A blanket of ivy covered the front wall, its tendrils growing over the sills and eaves as is it smothered the building. Two brick chimneys rose from each side of the building like horns sprouting from the roof. A pair of jackdaws were perched on the left chimney throwing twigs down the stack.
Waiting for us beside the front gate was a nervous looking man. He held his hat in his hands, wringing it as if trying to extract water from it, while he looked in every direction except at the house behind him. Our cab stopped beside him, and he smiled with relief as we climbed down to greet him.
“Professor Ashcroft,” the man said offering his hand.
“You must be Mr Roth,” the Professor said giving his hand a curt shake.
“Yes, sir. Did you have a pleasant trip?”
“Apart from the traffic. I swear London is getting more and more congested every day. I hope this underground railway they are building works and gets half the people off the road.”
The Professor paid the driver while I unloaded our luggage; my modest kit bag, the Professor case and his small trunk full of books. Then the driver snapped on the reigns and the cab trundled off leaving us in front of our house for the night. The Professor turned back to Mr Roth.
“Now are we all prepared?”
“Yes, sir. Me and my lad, have put some chairs and a table in the front room like you asked. We put some lanterns and candles on the table. We didn’t light the fire not knowing what time you would get here. But…”
Mr Roth wringed his cap tightly in his hands. “We don’t think it’s a good idea you stay the night. Nobody has spent the night in that house for years and the last person that did was found dead the next morning.”
The Professor laughed. “I assure you there is nothing to worry about. It is just an old building. I am sure Nigel and I can cope with one night of roughing it.”
“It’s not that, sir,” Mr Roth said tightening the grip on his hat. “There is something in that house. It gave us the creeps moving the furniture in for you this morning. It’s bad enough going in there during the day but I wouldn’t go in at night.” He pointed to the churchyard over the road from us. “I would sleep amongst the graves, but after dark I would not enter that house for the crown jewels.”
“Then Queen Victoria does not have to fear you claiming them,” the Professor said. “Now in all seriousness my good fellow, we have nothing to worry about. I have been investigating the supernatural for several years and I am yet to see or experience anything that cannot be scientifically explained. You can rest easy knowing that in that house tonight it will only be myself, Nigel, possibly some rats or mice, and our two feathered friends up there blocking the chimney. Now I believe you are going to bring us an evening meal?”
Mr Roth bit his bottom lip and dropped his gaze. “Well we are going to bring you some food but… I can’t go back into the house… so I was just going to knock on the door and pass it to you.”
“I have just told you there is nothing to be afraid of.”
“Maybe your right, but I ain’t going in there after dark.”
The Professor let out an exasperated sigh. “Very well. Knock on the door and Nigel will come and get it. Bring the food about half seven. Until then I would like to settle myself in. Come along Nigel, let us see our room for the night.”
The Professor marched off towards the house leaving me to struggle with the bags. I staggered along the garden path towards the front door. The gardens were just as dilapidated as the house. In the last days of summer, the once green growth of spring had turned into a brown jungle of weeds that grew over the path.
The Professor stood before the heavy wooden door. He had his left hand resting on the flaked paint as if having second thoughts about entering. Entirely understandable as Church House was rumoured to be haunted. Nobody had lived in the house for years. It had been recently sold at auction and the new buyer was intending on demolishing the property and building a row of terrace houses in its place. But then his surveyor had experienced something terrifying within the property. The new buyer being a friend of the Professor had told him the tale. The Professor insisting there was no such thing as ghosts had agreed to a wager to spend the night in the property. Of course, that meant I would also be enduring a night in the haunted house.
I drew closer and saw the Professor was not having second thoughts. He was struggling to turn the key in the rusty lock. Rattling the door, he turned the key and the door swung open to reveal the dark uninviting interior. There was something unpleasant in the stale damp air that wafted from within the house. It smelt of decay and something foul and rotten.
“Just the smell of mould,” the Professor said cheerfully. “Once we get a fire burning it will soon improve the odour.”
I followed him into a house. The hall was devoid of all furnishings, having been stripped from the house long ago. Cobwebs hung from the ceiling and a film of dust and dirt covered the floorboards. Footprints from the men bringing our supplies disappeared into a door on the right and a rickety set of stairs were against the left wall.
I shuddered. The house felt cold. The air was heavy almost oppressive. I felt as if I was intruding, as if I was trespassing. The Professor disappeared into the room on our right, leaving me alone in the hall. I hurried after him having no intention of letting him out of my sight.
The last of the afternoon sunlight shorn through the large bay window at the front of the room. The ivy had been cleared from the window leaving brown streaks and small stems on the thin glass. The large room was dominated by a granite fireplace. The hearth was a colossal monolith that looked as if had been dragged from some Neolithic stone circle. Accompanying a clock, vases of dried lavender had been put on the mantel piece in a feeble attempt to soften the damp stale smell. There also had been a hasty attempt to clean the room. The cobwebs had been brushed aside and the dust swept up, but this did little to brighten the flaking grubby white paint or the huge damp patch on the interior wall. In the centre of the room a stained green rug had been laid out beneath two loungers. They had even hung an old pair of faded mustard yellow curtains in front of the bay window. Against the wall furthest from the window was a small table and two chairs.
“This does not look too bad,” the Professor said. “Once you have got a fire going I expect it will almost be homely.”
Mr Roth had left some kindling already stacked in the fireplace. It was only a question of lighting the fire and then once it had taken hold adding a couple of the logs he had stacked beside the hearth. He had also filled the coal scuttle and provide a kettle to hang out over the flames. Leaving the fire to warm the room I lit the candles and lanterns. Now bathed in light the room felt more comforting. I still had a feeling of unease, but it had been buried beneath the warmth of the fire.
The Professor had a book out and having settled into one of the loungers had made himself at home. Following his example, I sat at the table to read and write notes on the work of the philosopher Thomas Hobbs. Even though I found the subject dull it managed to drag me away from the house and the hour’s ticked by without incident.
At approximately seven thirty there was a knock at the front door.
“That will be our supper,” the Professor said glancing up at the clock on the mantle. He lowered his head back to his book making it clear he expected me to collect it.
Through the bay window the sky was darkening, and it would not be long before night had settled. In the grey twilight the hall would be dark. I picked up a lantern and headed out into the hall. Stepping out of the warm front room was like plunging into a river. The cold oppressive atmosphere felt like a physical barrier reminding me of the house’s reputation. I left the door open behind me, leaving a warm welcoming refuge to flee back to. Then keeping my eyes fixed on the front door, not daring to look anywhere else in case I saw something I wished I hadn’t, I rushed across the hall.
A pale boy, a year or so younger than myself, stood by the front gate with a wicker basket in his hand. He had knocked and frightened of what might open the door retreated to the edge of the property. He didn’t relax upon seeing me.
“Is that our supper?” I said from the door. He nodded but remained at the gate. “Do you want to bring it over?”
“I would rather not, sir,” he said. “Could you come and get it from me.”
Standing with my back in the hall and fearing what could be lurking behind me I was in no mood to argue. I just wanted to grab the basket and get back to the front room. I hurried up the path towards him. Not in the mood for conversation. I muttered a curt thankyou and took the basket from him. I then made my way back along the path towards the dark opening. The entrance was like a mouth threatening to swallow me.
You’re just being silly, I told myself. There is nothing in that house but a few rats and your imagination. With my lantern thrust out in front of me I walked into the hall.
A figure rose out of the shadows in front of me.
My heart leapt into my throat. I nearly dropped the basket, the lantern and ran from the house, but the light illuminated a familiar face.
“Relax, Nigel. There is no need to be so jumpy,” the Professor said.
“I wasn’t expecting to see you there,” I gasped.
“You left the door open. There was an awful draft blowing into the room. I thought I would close it before the room got cold.” He sniffed the air. “Something smells good. I am ravishing. Let us eat before it gets cold.”
I followed him back into the front room. My heart was still pounding. If it had been anybody else, I would have thought they had been deliberately hiding in the dark to frighten me. I placed the basket down on the table and moved my books. The Professor rummaged through the basket and took out a bottle of whisky.
“This will make the perfect nightcap,” he said unscrewing the lid and taking a sniff. He put the whisky to one side and pulled out a large pie and a pot full of boiled carrots, swede and potatoes. He took two plates from the basket and then sat down leaving me to dish the food out.
We ate our meal in silence. I didn’t want to invite conversation. The Professor would have no qualms in telling me tales of the spirits the foolish locals believed haunted this house. He was convinced they didn’t exist and had nothing to fear. I on the other hand didn’t want to feed my imagination.
A flicker of movement outside the bay window caught my eye. Whatever it was it had been too big to be a bird or a bat.
I spun round.
There was nothing there. Just the darkness of the night.
“Is there something the matter?” the Professor asked his folk pausing before his mouth.
“I thought I saw something outside.”
I returned to the game pie with a diminished appetite. I prodded an overcooked carrot with my fork. Something flickered past the window again. I kept prodding at the carrot pretending I had not noticed. I spotted it again out of the corner of my eye. It was the briefest flicker of movement as if someone or something was rushing past the window.
“Would you cut me another slice of pie, please?”
I looked up. The Professor had his plate thrust out towards me. He certainly didn’t have any problems eating and with his back to the window had not noticed the flickering movement outside. I dished out another helping of pie and passed it back to him. The movement flickered past the window again.
“May I be excused to close the curtains?” I asked.
The Professor looked at the window. “Still think you are seeing things?”
He would only ridicule me and insist that I keep the curtains open if I told the truth.
“No, sir, it’s just that I think I feel a draft coming through the window sill.”
“Then you had better close them.”
Looking at my feet I crossed the room. Without looking up I grabbed the curtains and snatched them shut.
I instantly felt reassured. I no longer had to worry what was lurking outside. The warmth of the fire and the glow of the candles had turned the front room in to a sanctuary. I felt confident that as long as I remained in this room I was safe. The ghost or whatever malicious presence haunted this house would not enter and as far as I was concerned it could do whatever it wanted in the rest of the house.
I returned to the table. My appetite had not returned and I passed on the fruit cake that the Professor greedily ate.
“Would you like me to pour you a whisky, sir?” I asked.
“Make sure you put plenty of water in it. I want to keep my wits about me.”
I poured a short measure of whisky, then double the amount of water, and passed it to him. Finishing his slice of cake, he returned to his chair by the fire leaving me to clean away our supper. I tidied away the plates while I waited for the kettle to boil. Once the ketal had boiled I made two cups of tea before returning to my books.
Until eleven I worked away only stopping to add more fuel to the fire. I was just thinking about make another cup of tea when something creaked from the floor above.
I turned to the Professor. “Did you hear that, sir?”
He looked up from his book. “Hear what?”
“The floor above us creaked.”
“It is an old house. They often make creaking noises. Nothing to be alarmed about.” The floor creaked again, and he looked up at the ceiling. “Only the floorboards. I expect the heat from our fire has warmed them and they are creaking as they dry out. Now how about we have another cup of tea.”
The Professor returned to his book and was ignoring the creaks. He had formed his explanation and had no intention of questioning the noise further. I on the other hand glanced nervously upward with every creak. It sounded as if somebody was walking about above our heads.
The creaks ceased as suddenly as they had begun. The house returned to its eerie stillness. All was quiet apart from the cracking of logs on the fire and the ticking of the clock.
I made a pot of tea and poured the Professor and myself a cup before returning to my books. I did another half an hour of working at the table and then finding the chair uncomfortable decided to move to the lounger. I settled in the chair beside the Professor with the new Dickens serial Great Expectations.
There were several thuds out in the hallway. It sounded like somebody was running up the stairs.
“Rats,” the Professor said without looking up.
“Rats?” I said incredulously.
“Yes rats,” the Professor said turning his page. “They can make a lot of noise for such small animals.”
“They would have to be the size of a dog to make that much noise.”
“You are exaggerating, Nigel. It sounded louder because of how quiet the rest of the house is. I suspect the rodents are not used to sharing this property with anybody else.”
I didn’t care what he said. The floorboards creaking above us had nothing to do with the heat from our fire, and whatever had just run up the stairs was not a rat. There was defiantly something else in this house and it seemed determined to not to let us forget it was there. I glanced at the clock on the mantle. It had only just gone midnight. We had at least another six hours until dawn.
The house remained silent until nearly one. Then there was more running on the stairs followed by what sounded like a door slamming shut. I looked at the Professor.
“Just rats,” he said.
“Rats don’t go around slamming doors.”
The Professor lowered his book. “If you do not believe me, go have a look for yourself.”
“You want me to go out there? On my own?” I asked mortified at the suggestion.
The Professor sighed with frustration.
“Very well, it seems I will have to come along and hold your hand.” He placed his book on the arm of his chair, picked up the lantern and crossed the room to the door. He turned back to where I was still sat in my chair. “Come along, Nigel. Let us go and find your imaginary ghost.”
Reluctantly I climbed to my feet wishing I had kept my mouth shut.
Back in the hallway the oppressive atmosphere felt like a physical weight pressing down upon us. I shivered in the cool air.
“Sir, you’re right. It was just rats,” I said. “Let’s go back in the front room where it is warmer.”
The Professor shook his head. “We are going upstairs. Only once you have seen the house is empty will you stop believing in all this ghost nonsense.”
The stairs creaked and groaned as we climbed them. I kept a step behind the Professor not wanting to step out of the light cast by the lantern in his hand. The stairs opened on to a long thin corridor. To our left was a gaping hole in the floorboards blocking access to the rooms at the far end of the house.
“Best not go that way,” the Professor said. He went into the room above where we were staying. Not wanting to be alone I hurried after him.
The room was empty. Like the rest of the house all the furnishings had been long stripped from the room. Broken glass lay in front of the window and the blanket of ivy had curled up into the room, creeping along the walls in stunted vines ending in brown dead leaves.
“See nothing is…”
A door slammed in the corridor.
The Professor frowned and waved for me to follow him. We went out into the corridor and the Professor reached for the door to the room opposite us. I tensed ready for what was lurking on the other side. The Professor swung open the door.
The room was empty.
“Just the wind,” the Professor said. “Now are you happy that we are alone in this house?”
At that moment I would have agreed to anything if it meant getting back into the front room.
The Professor led the way back to the stairs. As I reached the stairs I glanced back at the room we had just left. The door was rattling in its frame. I let out a sharp gasp.
“Now what is it?” the Professor said stopping halfway down the stairs.
The door suddenly swung open.
“Nothing, sir,” I said hurrying after him before something emerged from the room.
We returned to the front room. The Professor sat back down and resumed reading his book. Rattled I picked up my book. I tried to ignore the occasional thud on the stairs, the creaking of the floorboards, and the banging of doors. But I couldn’t relax. I sat in my chair rigid and tense. Then shortly before two the house fell silent again. I hoped that was the end of it, that the ghost had admitted failure in its attempts to frighten us and would leave us in peace for the rest of the night.
I had been staring at the same page for ten minutes with blurry eyes when the Professor rose to his feet. He gulped down the rest of his whisky, put the empty glass on the table, and then picked up the lantern.
“Are you going somewhere, sir?”
“I am going to relieve myself. It is all that tea we have been drinking.”
My bladder felt on the verge of bursting. I was ignoring the discomfort. To empty it meant leaving the room and I would rather wet myself than confront whatever was lurking in the rest of the house.
“You’re leaving the room,” I said.
“I cannot jolly well go in here. I am only popping out into the garden. I will be a matter of minutes.”
With that he disappeared out the door. Seconds later I heard the front door close and I was alone in the house. I swallowed nervously. I just had to stay calm. There was nothing to be frightened of. Besides the house was silent. Eerily silent.
The front door closed again, followed by the light pad of footsteps across the hall. I tensed as the door slowly opened into the room. To my relief in walked the Professor. He had returned quicker than I had expected, but without the lantern.
“Sir, what happened to your lantern?”
“I dropped the blasted thing and broke it,” he muttered.
He poured himself a generous measure of whisky and then returned to his seat. I noticed he had not added water to the glass. Had he witnessed something that had frightened him and wanted a strong drink to settle his nerves?
Except the rest of his demeanour was calm and composed. He certainly didn’t look like a man that had just seen a ghost.
I shivered. I had goose bumps on my arm. The Professor must have left the door open long enough for a draft to chill the room. It would also explain the rotting damp smell that overpowered the smoke from the candles and fire.
The front door rattled. At first it was a gentle shake, but then it grew more and more violent until it sounded like something was trying to break it open.
“The wind?” I cynically suggested.
The Professor shrugged. “Sounds like somebody trying to break the door down to me.”
I forced myself to laugh at his poor attempt at humour. The Professor stared at me stony faced as if he hadn’t meant it to be a joke. I cut my fake laugh short. His comment had to have been made in mirth. He certainly did not believe that there was anybody trying to force their way into the property.
The door rattling in its frame stopped and the house fell silent. The Professor craned his head towards the front door as if expecting something.
There was a loud thud.
The Professor nodded to himself then turned to stare at the flames as the door thudded again. It sounded as if somebody or something was trying to force it open.
“Something is defiantly banging against the door, sir.”
“It’s nothing you need to concern yourself with,” the Professor said as the door thudded again.
“But sir, what if it’s the…” I fell silent knowing he would only scorn me if I suggested it was a ghost. “What if it’s one of the villagers trying to contact us about an emergency.”
He turned to me with a cold stare and with an equally hostile tone said, “I know what it is and it’s nothing to concern you.”
I shrank back. I had never seen the Professor in this frame of mind. Perhaps being confronted with the possibility that there was a ghost had made him confrontational. Not wanting to become the outlet to vent his anger and frustration upon I fell silent. The door continued to thud several more times and then it fell silent as if whoever was trying to break in had given up.
“Why are you here?” the Professor suddenly asked.
“Sorry, sir?” I said wondering if I had misheard him.
There was a tap at the window. The curtains glowed as if there was a light behind them.
“Sir, the window.”
There was a rapid tapping at the window. I turned to the Professor. He could not deny the tapping and the glow of the curtains.
His gaze was fixed on me seemingly oblivious to what was happening on the other side of the curtains. “Why are you here?”
“Sir, what about the window? I think there is somebody out there.”
“Answer the question,” he snarled through gritted teeth. “Why are you here?”
“I am not sure what you mean. Do you mean as in like a philosophical way? Like the meaning of life?”
My response angered him further. In frustration he squeezed so hard on the glass it shattered in his hands, splashing him in whisky and embedding a shard of glass into his palm. He plucked the shard from his pale flesh and flung into the fire. “I will ask one more time. Why are you here? Why are you in my house?”
“But, sir you know the answer to that,” I said confused and frightened. For some strange reason I was more afraid of the man in the chair opposite me than the strange light and constant tapping on the glass behind the curtains. “You made a wager with the owner that we would stay the night in the house and prove…”
I caught sight of his palm and fell silent. There was a gaping hole where the shard of glass had slashed through the skin. But the wound was dry. There was no blood, just torn flesh as if the glass had cut the palm of a rag doll. I stepped away from the man in the chair and then I heard a voice from the window.
The voice was muffled but there was no mistaking that of belonging to the Professor.
“Nigel, I have locked myself out,” the Professor called from the other side of the widow. “Can you hear me? I need you to open the door.”
But if the Professor was out there then who was in the room with me…
I spun back to the man in the chair. Except what was in the chair was not a living man and it looked nothing like the Professor. The spectre had the appearance of a man in his sixties, with thinning hair and a shadow of stubble. Its dark eyes were overshadowed by the bags around them. Its sallow skin was pulled tight and taunt over its skull. It radiated an intimidating aura of hate as if it despised me for living.
“This is my house and you are not invited,” the spectre said rising to its feet.
I backed away to the window as the spectre floated towards me.
“You have trespassed in my property and trespassers must be dealt with.”
Wailing the spectre shot across the room at me. It moved far faster than I could move. It ploughed into me, lifting me from my feet and throwing me against the wall. I slumped to the ground. The spectre loomed over me. Its thin lips pulled back in a snarl of rage. Cowering I waited for its cold grasp…
There was a smash of glass and the spectre vanished. The curtains were flung open and an annoyed looking Professor clambered in through the broken window.
“Did you not hear me calling for you to open the…” He paused seeing me on the floor. “What are you doing lying on the floor?”
“I was err…” My mind was numb. I couldn’t think of any reason apart from the truth which the Professor would not believe.
The Professor frowned. “Why are your trousers wet?”
It was then that I became aware of the dampness in my trousers. At that moment I wanted the spectre to return, or perhaps even the devil itself, anything but deal with the shame of sitting slumped against the wall in a puddle of my own urine.
“You have wet yourself!” the Professor said shaking his head. “I thought you were house trained. I am sure you go to new lengths to test my patience. You had better go and get yourself sorted.”
“And Nigel, next time do not try to hold it in.”
Mortified I retreated into a corner of the room to change out of my wet clothes. My fear had been replaced with embarrassment, although I should have been happy. Losing my dignity was better than losing my life even if it didn’t feel that way.
The Professor pulled the curtains closed. They flapped in the wind from the open window and a cool draft chilled the room. The Professor sat in his seat uncomfortably.
“My chair is damp,” he murmured. Then he looked at me with realisation. “Did you wet yourself in my chair?”
“No sir… I err… spilt my drink accidently on the seat.”
He looked at me suspiciously, but he didn’t question me any further. Picking up his book he moved over to my chair. I sat down in the chair damp with whisky. My hands were trembling. My embarrassment was waning as the fear returned. All my instincts demanded I ran from the house, but somehow, I managed to pick up my book and pretend nothing had happened.
Until dawn I remained in a tense state of alertness. I was constantly aware of the spectre making its presence known in the rest of the house. Doors would bang, floorboards would groan and there would be feet on the stairs. At first the Professor dismissed the noises as the wind and rats. Then he fell asleep and was completely oblivious to the spectre’s rage. While he slept I gripped the arms of my chair tightly bracing myself for the door to open and for the spectre to return. It didn’t and as the dawn light began to filter into the room the house fell silent.
The Professor awoke a little after seven. Yawning and stretching the stiffness from his limbs he rose from his chair. He glanced around the room and then smiled satisfied with himself.
“See there is no such thing as ghosts. You should have made a wager too. That was the easiest twenty pounds I have ever made.”
Thursday, 20th September 1860
On our return journey to London the Professor was in a jubilant mood. He leant back in his seat smiling happily. He had won the wager and even better had not experienced any evidence that the house was haunted.
I stared gloomily out of the window. I had not slept all night, been terrified by a ghost, and endured the humiliation of wetting myself. Not for the first time I was questioning why I remained the Professor’s assistant. In the eight months since I had started my position I had been stalked by a wraith, attacked by a lake monster, chased by a horde of the dead, hunted by a pack of werewolves and now been terrorised by a ghost. It was amazing I wasn’t a traumatised wreck locked in an asylum.
Watching the streets of London pass by I contemplated whether it was time to resign. I suspected I wasn’t cut out for risking my life and living in a state of fear investigating the supernatural. Perhaps it was time to find a safer career like training to be an accountant. It would be less glamorous, certainly a lot more tedious, but at least I wasn’t going to end up being killed by some paranormal entity.
On reaching the Professor’s house, I was excused for the rest of the day. I headed up to my room on the top floor. On the verge of collapsing with exhaustion I took out a pen and paper.
I had to do it now. If I waited until later, I would lose all my resolve. I sat on the edge of the bed and wrote my letter of resignation.
With heavy regrets, I have come to the conclusion that…”
I woke up with my letter stuck to the side of my face. I pulled the sheet of paper from my skin. The ink had smeared and left smudged marks all over the page.
There was knock at my bedroom door. Before I could call out the door opened, and Gertie stepped inside.
“You look awful,” she said. “What have you been doing? Sleeping in your clothes?”
I looked down at my creased clothes and nodded.
“Well you better get yourself cleaned up. The Professor wants you in his study. He’s got a guest.”
“Who is it?”
“I don’t know. I was just told to come and get you.” She turned to leave. “And Nigel…”
“You had better wipe the ink off your face while you’re at it.”
I closed the door and quickly changed into clean clothes and wiped a dry cloth over my face. Hopefully that had removed the worse of the ink or at the very least it meant that I now looked presentable. I looked down at my smudged resignation letter. Once I had seen what the Professor wanted I would rewrite it and hand it in.
I headed to the Professor’s study unknowing that the Professor’s guest had news that would make me question my future like never before…
Thursday, 20th September 1860
Out of courtesy I tapped my knuckles against the study door before opening it. As usual the warmth of the room hit me. It was no surprise that on a damp cold evening the Professor’s study was the warmest room in the house. Unless the Professor was in his laboratory he resided in his study. On days sat reading and writing he demanded that the fire was kept blazing. The walls lined with bookcases full of texts, in four different languages all bound in the same brown leather, acted as insulation turning the room into a furnace.
The Professor sat at his desk, his book and pen in front of him forgotten about. He was warily watching the teenage girl in the chair beside the fire. Mrs Cooper, the housekeeper, was busy fussing over the girl. Despite the heat the girl was shivering. She had been wrapped in a green blanket. Her long lank hair dangled in dark wet strands down over her shoulders. The elongation of her face was more pronounced by her prominent cheekbones. My eyes were drawn to her feet. She wore no shoes. Her filthy feet were covered in mud and dried blood. Whoever she was and wherever she had come from, she had walked here barefoot.
The girl’s gaze flickered over to me. There was a strength in her glare that contrasted with her frail appearance. She tried to rise to her feet, but Mrs Cooper pushed her back into the chair.
“Please, I need to…” the girl said in a weak voice.
“Shush,” Mrs Cooper interrupted. “Don’t speak. You need to rest and get your strength back.”
“Mrs Cooper could you possibly take the girl downstairs to the front room or perhaps the kitchen,” the Professor suggested.
“Certainly not, sir, it would take too long to warm the front room and the kitchen is not comfortable enough. The poor girl is suffering. She is frozen. We have to get her warm before she perishes.”
The Professor looked as if he was about to argue. Mrs Cooper glared at him and he fell silent. At that moment their roles were reversed and the Professor unsure what to make of their change in fortunes just sat at his desk watching the girl as if she was the source of his misfortune. Mrs Cooper returned to fussing over the girl seemingly oblivious to the uncomfortable atmosphere.
Unsure on what was going on, or why I had been summoned, I turned to the Professor. “You wanted me, sir?”
It was Mrs Cooper that answered.
“Don’t just stand there gawping, Nigel, do something useful,” she snapped. “Like go and find out where that girl has got to. I sent her to get some fresh towels and something warm for our visitor to eat.”
Feeling awkward I headed for the study door. “I had better go find Gertie.”
“Be quick about it,” Mrs Cooper barked. “The poor mite is starving. There, there my dear, you have got to rest.”
I found Gertie in the kitchen heating a saucepan of beef broth on the stove.
“Who is the girl and where is she from?” I asked.
“Your guess is as good as mine. Mrs Cooper found her on the doorstep,” Gertie said reaching for a bowl. “Thinks she has been sleeping rough and needs our help before she dies from exposure.”
“Well the Professor is not impressed with her good Samaritan work. He doesn’t know what to do about it. Why didn’t you say about her when you came up to my room?”
“I didn’t know about her at that point. All I had been told was to tell you to report to the study. Can you cut some bread?” she said ladling the brown broth into a bowl.
“Where is Pilcher?” I asked wondering where the footman was lurking.
“He has accompanied her ladyship back to her father’s house for the weekend. It means I get some peace and quiet,” Gertie said. She loaded the bowl of broth and the plate of bread on to a tray. She pointed to a pile of cream towels stacked on the table. “Can you carry those.”
Carrying the towels, I followed Gertie back upstairs to the Professor’s study. As we entered Mrs Cooper rushed over to us.
“What took you so long? She is wasting away before my eyes,” Mrs Cooper snapped taking the bowl off the tray. She held the spoon in front of the girl’s mouth coaxing her to eat. “Now, dear, this is something to help warm you.”
The girl opened her mouth and Mrs Cooper shoved the spoon between her lips. After several spoonful’s had been consumed Mrs Cooper looked over her shoulder at us. “Well don’t just stand there, Gertie. Make yourself useful. Tend to the girl’s poor feet.”
Rolling her eyes Gertie crouched down to clean and bandage the girl’s feet in the towels. I stood by the Professor’s desk feeling like a spare part. Reaching a similar conclusion, the Professor rose to his feet.
“Looks as if I am not needed here. I am going out. Do what you must with the girl, Mrs Cooper, but please have her out of my study when I get back. This is my office not a hospital ward for the strays of London.”
“Don’t go Arthur,” the girl said.
“Hush, you have to eat up,” Mrs Cooper said cooing over the girl. “Regain your strength first.”
The Professor frowned. “How do you know my name?”
“Please, sir let the girl rest,” Mrs Cooper said. “She has been through quite an ordeal.”
“Mrs Cooper let the girl speak,” the Professor said sternly. Mrs Cooper looked at him hurt. The Professor ignored her. “How did you know my name?”
The girl looked at me. “Nigel will tell me.”
Frowning the Professor glanced at me. I shook my head. I had never seen her before in my life.
“Will tell you? You speak in the wrong tense. I think you mean he has told you?”
“No, he will tell me. Nigel and I are yet to have a conversation, but we will. I have come here because he will tell me to.”
“I doubt that somehow. I do not have time for this, or the inclination to listen to such rubbish. Please feel free to have your conversation with Nigel, without me,” the Professor said heading for the door. “It looks as if everything is under control. I will be at the Noscere Society if you need me.”
“Wait,” the girl called out. “I know why you want to go out. You want to collect your wager for staying the night in a haunted house.”
The Professor paused by the door. He stared at the girl. He clearly did not know what to make of her. He looked at her warily as if she was a dangerous creature that might strike if he got too close. He glanced at me. I shook my head.
“How do you know about my wager?”
“I know things.”
The Professor turned to Mrs Cooper and spoke as if she wasn’t in the room. “Where exactly did you find the girl?”
“She was on the front step. I heard the door knock and she was there when I answered. She asked for you and Nigel by name. She was only dressed in that thin dress, certainly not the sort of clothing to be wearing on a night like this. I brought her in to get warm before she caught her death. Poor little thing.”
The Professor rubbed the thin strip of hair on the bottom of his chin. “I will tell you what I think, Miss?”
“Anne Farmer, sir.”
“Well Miss Farmer, I think you have been put up to this by a friend of mine as a jolly good jest. Unfortunately for you and whoever has put you up to this, I am not gullible enough to fool for it.”
“It is no jest, sir. Last night you got locked out of the house and had to break a window to get back in. Nigel also we…”
“I think we have better listen to her, sir,” I interrupted before she revealed my accident to Gertie and Mrs Cooper.
The Professor glanced at me. I gave him a pleading nod. “Very well Miss Farmer. My assistant thinks we should listen to you. A brandy, Nigel.”
The Professor kept a few bottles of spirit and some glasses in a chest of draws beside the door. I rummaged through the bottles of gin, whisky and rum until I found the brandy. I poured a stiff measure and carried it over to the girl.
“No, Nigel, that is for me,” the Professor said.
“Sorry sir.” I passed him the drink.
He sipped it slowly studying the girl as she was a specimen in his lab. “You have ten minutes of my time.”
She shook her head. “I only have five minutes before they come for me. Please Professor Ashcroft you must understand I need your help. You won’t believe me, nobody does.”
“If I will not believe you, then you are wasting my time and yours.”
“Maybe, sir, but not Nigel’s and Gertie’s time. I know they will help me. I have foreseen it.”
Scowling the Professor looked at us. I smiled meekly, and Gertie shrugged her shoulders.
“I cannot see what help they will be. Miss Stubbs is the housemaid. If you are claiming to possess prophetic ability, then Nigel is naïve enough to believe you. Gullibility is one of my assistants many flaws. However, you are right about me. I will not consider such nonsense, but I do love a good charlatan. So, humour us Miss Farmer and tell me what is it that they will believe, and I will not.”
“Sir, we must let the girl rest and get her strength back,” protested Mrs Cooper.
Anne Farmer rose from the chair. The blanket wrapped around her dropped to her feet. All she wore was a thin black dress. Her exposed arms and legs were covered in bruises.
“I don’t have time to rest. They are nearly here. There is an evil at Elmwich.”
“What is Elmwich?” the Professor asked. “Is it a village?”
“It is where I am from. There is an evil at work. It is after something and when it gets hold of it there will be no stopping it. I need your help to stop it.”
“An evil?” the Professor scoffed. “Evil only lies in the hearts of men. Now if you are trying to convince me to help, you will have to do better than that.”
Anne stiffened. Her eyes darted from side to side. I was reminded of a dog hearing something inaudible to human ears.
“They are here.”
“Who is here?” the Professor asked.
On que there was a heavy knocking on the door. I followed the Professor over to the window. He pulled back the curtains, so we could look down on to the quiet road. A horse and carriage were parked in front of the house.
The door knocker thudded impatiently against the door.
“Get the door, Nigel,” the Professor instructed.
I hurried down the stairs and pulled open the door. A man with a protruding overbite looked down on me. His large front teeth give his face a rodent like quality He wore a pair of thick frame glasses on his long nose. In normal circumstances he would have looked of average build, but he was flanked by two burly men in navy uniforms that made him look scrawny in comparison.
“How, may I help you?” I asked watching the hulking men looming behind him. Just their presence was intimidating.
“Is this Nigel Brigg’s house?” the rat like man asked.
“No this is Professor Ashcroft’s house, I’m Nigel Briggs he’s assistant.”
“Then we are in the right place. My name is Doctor James Downer. I am a psychiatric doctor from Elmwich Asylum near Salisbury,” the rat like man said thrusting out his hand. I gave it a curt shake. “We are looking for a girl. We believe she is here?”
I hesitated. I looked at the two burly men and was struck by the impulse to lie to them, to tell them they were mistaken, and that there was no girl here.
“Please, Master Briggs don’t waste our time. We know she is here,” Doctor Downer said. “I must warn you not to be fooled by her appearance. She is dangerous.”
I bite my lip still in two minds whether to let them in. The decision was taken out of my hands.
“Nigel stand aside and let these gentlemen in.”
The Professor stood at the top of the stairs. He had followed me out of his study and hidden from view had been listening to everything that was said. Dutifully I stepped aside. The two burly men filled the corridor. One of them carried a stained kitbag.
“Now Doctor Downer what is your interest in the girl?” Professor Ashcroft said descending the stairs.
“Miss Anne Farmer is a patient at Elmwich Asylum. Unfortunately, due to a lapse of security she escaped three days ago. She is delusional and dangerous. It is important for her own safety and that of the public she is returned to secure accommodation.”
“I have some experience in medicine. Perhaps you would like to share a bit more of her diagnosis.”
“I am afraid I am in no position to comment on a patient’s condition,” he made a gesture of glancing at his companions, then leant forward as if confiding a secret. “Unofficially her nickname is Cassandra.”
The reference was lost to me, but fortunately not the Professor. He spotted my puzzled expression.
“King Priam’s daughter from Troy,” he explained. I shrugged and shaking his head he explained further. “From Homer’s Iliad? She was the princess cursed with the power of prophesy and foresaw the fall of Troy, yet everyone chose to ignore her. The good doctor here is suggesting that Miss Farmer upstairs also has supposed visions of a doomed future.”
“Which of course like Cassandra we do not believe,” Doctor Downer said with a smile.
“I am not surprised. The idea of foretelling the future is absurd. Now gentlemen I understand why you are keen to apprehend her. If she acts on her delusions, then she may cause harm to herself or someone else. Please gentlemen come this way.”
Feeling uneasy I followed the three men up the stairs and into the study. Seeing Anne, Doctor Downer smiled.
“There you are. We have been so worried about you,” he said. There was no sincerity in his voice, if anything there was a sinister undertone.
Instinctively Mrs Cooper stepped in front of Anne Farmer. She also sensed something wasn’t right.
“Step aside Mrs Cooper. You too Miss Stubbs,” the Professor instructed. “These men are here to take Miss Farmer away for treatment. She is very ill.”
They reluctantly stepped aside. The guard reached inside his kit bag and removed a straitjacket. Anne held her head held high almost defiantly as the guards approached her. She looked delicate enough to snap in two between them. Each guards’ arms were thick as her thighs.
“I don’t think the straitjacket is necessary,” Mrs Cooper said looking at the Professor for support.
“It is for her own safety,” Doctor Downer said. “We would not want her hurting herself.”
Anne did not fight or struggle as the guards pulled the jacket over arms. Compliantly she allowed them to buckle the straps tight pulling her arms against her chest. The guard reached into his kit bag and pulled out a leather gag. He lifted it over her head. Anne caught my eye. She did not let her gaze drop as the gag was forced over her mouth.
“Right gentlemen let’s get her back to the asylum,” Doctor Downer said.
The two guards led Anne down the stairs.
“My apologies for the intrusion,” Doctor Downer said heading for the door. “Thankyou for your cooperation and I assure you all that Miss Farmer will be receiving all the treatment she needs for her condition.”
“We are glad to be of assistance,” the Professor said sitting back down at his desk. Now that Anne had been led away he had lost all interest. He picked up his pen. “Nigel, will you show Doctor Downer to the door.”
I followed Doctor Downer to the front door. I looked past him at the carriage. One of the guards had climbed into the driver’s seat and taken the reins. The other guard was pushing Anne into the back of the carriage.
“One question Doctor,” I called out as he reached the bottom of the steps.
He looked up at me.
“How did you know to find her here?”
He smiled at me displaying his large rodent like teeth.
“She had carved your names and address into the walls of her room.” He gave a curt bow and climbed into the back of the carriage. Then with a snap of a whip the carriage pulled forward and disappeared into the night.
Friday 21st September 1860
As part of my normal daily routine I was up with the dawn. After wrapping up against the damp autumn morning I set off for the morning papers. A thick smog had settled in the night, a regular occurrence on a London morning. Water beaded on the black iron fencing in front of the houses and dripped from the lampposts. The odd carriage I passed was a black shadow that clacketed by. The few people out on the street were ghostly shadows that emerged briefly from the smog before vanishing into the gloom.
During the summer I had enjoyed my morning walk to fetch the papers. It was part of the day when I had the time to let my mind wander. Now autumn was upon us and with winter weather on the way I doubted my morning duty would continue to hold the same allure.
My mind was distracted from its usual day dreams, of proving the Professor wrong about the existence of the supernatural, by the previous night’s incident. The mysterious Anne Farmer was playing on my mind. Her arrival at Professor Ashcroft’s house raised more questions than had been answered by Doctor Downer and his guards. My mind kept returning to the same conundrum. How did a patient locked away in an asylum a hundred miles away know my name and address?
After collecting the papers and a fresh loaf of bread I returned to the house. I usually left the papers on the Professor’s desk for him to read where he rose. Professor Ashcroft was partially nocturnal. Most nights he spent out at the Noscere Society discussing the big ideas and gambling late into the night. He rarely rose before midday, but to my surprise I found him sitting at his desk eating a breakfast of boiled eggs, bread and bacon.
“Ahh good morning Nigel,” he said dipping a buttered bread solider into his egg.
“Good morning, sir.”
“Those the morning papers?” he said lifting the soldier coated in golden yolk to his mouth. “Anything happening in the world today?”
“I haven’t checked the headlines, sir,” I said passing him the papers.
The Professor placed the papers down on his desk beside his breakfast tray. He spread the broadsheet out and dipping his partially eaten solider back into the egg scanned the front page.
“I have been thinking, sir.”
The Professor held up his hand for me to be silent while he finished his mouthful. Swallowing he said, “Why is it whenever you say you have been thinking I know you are about to sprout some nonsense? What is it this time Nigel? The world is all made up of tiny invisible particles or are we all just puppets controlled by fairies?”
“No, sir I was thinking about our visitor last night.”
“The poor mite. Such a pity that a young girl can suffer from delusions like that. Well you can console yourself in the knowledge that at Elmwich Asylum she will be receiving the necessary treatment she requires.”
I frowned. I doubted that somehow. By all accounts such asylums were ghastly places.
“It’s not that sir. I just find it very strange that she turned up here,” the Professor looked up from the papers and for a moment I had his full attention. Knowing it would be a fleeting moment I pushed on. “She escapes from an asylum. Then just wearing that thin dress and barefoot she travels a hundred miles in three days, navigates her way across the city and somehow out of all the houses in London finds herself at your door.”
“Quite an achievement I must admit, but there is nothing mysterious about it. Traveling the distance in three days is certain achievable. For all we know she managed to stowaway on a train. Even if she walked here, it would have been just over thirty miles a day. Not humanly impossible to walk. Even at a modest pace it would take her ten hours a day. As for finding us here, she must have known our address and asked for directions.”
“Doctor Downer said she had our address carved into the walls of her room.”
“There you have it. She had our address all along.”
He lowered his head back to his paper. I looked at him with incredulity. Didn’t the fact that she had our names and address carved into the walls of her room arouse any form of curiosity?
“Don’t you find that strange, sir? A patient locked in an asylum, that neither of us have ever met before, just happens to have our address carved into the walls of her room?”
“Not in the slightest. Miss Farmer is back where she belongs receiving the necessary treatment she requires. But if it is bothering you, Nigel, write to Doctor Downer. I am sure there is a perfectly rational explanation of how Miss Farmer had acquired our address. Now why don’t yourself get some breakfast. We have a busy day ahead of us.”
Yet again the Professor bewildered me. This was a genuine mystery, yet he showed not the slightest trace of curiosity. He had closed the matter with dismissing me. I headed for the door.
“You have an hour, Nigel,” the Professor called out without looking up. “I expect you to look presentable and have a hansom waiting to take us to Dower Street.”
I ate a bowl of porridge on my own in the kitchen, Gertie and Mrs Cooper were busy dusting the front room, then went upstairs to my attic room to get dressed. After washing my face in a bowl of cold water I dressed in my best suit. As I buttoned my shirt I looked down at the smeared letter of resignation on the floor.
I should be rewriting it rather than adjusting my collar. Professor Ashcroft’s reluctance to even consider our visitor from yesterday should have been the final straw to stiffen my resolve, yet I found myself dressing up to go out with him on some secretive errand.
Within the hour I had a hansom cab waiting outside and the Professor running up the fare as he dawdled about getting ready. The cab had been waiting for ten minutes by the time he finally emerged. I followed him up into the cab.
“What is on Dower Street?” I asked as the cab turned the corner on to Piccadilly.
“Clements’ & Willatt’s Auction House. They specialise in antiques and curiosities that the other auction houses tend to frown upon. The vast majority of their stock is fraudulent trinkets that is not worth of my time, but occasionally there is the odd marvel that has an interesting past.”
“And they are auctioning such an item today?”
The Professor smiled. “Precisely. Lot number 34 has drawn my attention. It is an artefact with a sinister history. Supposedly it is cursed. A load of nonsense of course. However, I have my winnings from the other night burning a hole in my pocket and it should make a fascinating acquisition to my collection.”
I turned my attention to watching the bustling streets pass by. Little did I know that Lot 34 would be far more than just a little trinket, it would ultimately lead me to Elmwich Asylum…
Friday, 21 September 1860
Clément’s & Willet’s Auction house was a long squat building, built from red brick and terracotta roof tiles. A large dark green sign branding the gold letters “C” and “W” hung above the open door.
I followed the Professor into the bland lobby where a pair of porters in navy uniforms sat behind a desk. Greeting us with a smile one of the porters took our names and address. He passed the Professor a numbered paddle and a catalogue. The Professor thrust these into my hands as the porter directed us to a set of double doors behind him.
“Come along Nigel,” the Professor said marching off. He took hold of the door handle and paused as if struck by a sudden thought. He turned to me. “I want you to watch what you do with your hands in there. Whatever you do, do not start waving them around. No nodding of your head either. Try not to look at the auctioneer and certainly do not make eye contact with him. I do not want you bidding for anything, even by accident. Are we clear?”
Without thinking I nodded. The Professor frowned.
“Sorry sir, it won’t happen again.”
He pushed open the doors and we entered the auditorium. At the far end of the long room was a stage where a stout man stood behind a pulpit. In front of him prospective buyers sat on cream cushioned chairs positioned in rows on either side of a central aisle. The green walls were decorated with pictures of landscapes in golden frames. A pair of chandeliers hung from the white ceiling adorned with plaster flowers and leaves.
Two guards were posted on either side of the stage. Another guard was positioned by the door leading to where the sale items were being stored. Behind us at the doors leading back to the lobby was another guard. He watched us out of the corner of his eye.
The auction was already under away and about a hundred buyers were gathered in the hall. The majority were men and from their dress I suspected most of them were antique dealers hunting for bargains to sell in their shops. There were a few women amongst the bidders, clearly from affluent backgrounds, looking for trinkets to take home.
Off to one side was a beautiful blond-haired woman. The long-nosed gentleman beside her was dressed more like a servant than a husband. As if she could sense I was looking at her she looked over at me. I met her eye and for a moment I had a sense of déjà vu, as if we had met before, then worried she had caught me staring I looked away. When I looked back, she had returned to watching the auction.
“I have sixty pounds. Sixty – five?” the auctioneer called out. He scanned the room hunting for any prospective bids. There was a flicker of a paddle being raised. The auctioneer pointed his gavel to the left-hand side of the stage. “Yes, sir, sixty five pounds. Do I have seventy? Seventy anywhere?”
His eyes swept over me. I dropped my gaze to the porter on the stage beside him. The porter held a rusty brown vase decorated with cartoonish men throwing spears. Rather than risk the auctioneer think I was interested, I flicked through the catalogue. It was Lot No. sixteen, a vase from ancient Crete. The Professor glanced over my shoulder.
“It is probably a fake or perhaps stolen. Whatever it is, it will have a dubious history. If it was genuine, I would expect it to go through Sotheby’s instead of this auction house”
“Professor Ashcroft always the cynic,” said a voice behind us.
We turned to see an elderly man with a thick white bearded hobbling into the room. He stopped beside us and leant on his walking stick, a dark polished wooden pole embellished with a golden dog’s head on the handle. His cheeks were blemished from broken blood vessels giving a red glow to his face. A pair of wiry spectacles balanced on the end of his upturned nose.
“Professor Elman, what a pleasant surprise,” the Professor muttered sounding anything but happy to see the man.
“Likewise,” said Elman with equal warmth. He looked at me. “Is this young man your son?”
“Certainly not,” the Professor said offended. “This is my assistant, Nigel. Nigel, I would like you to meet Professor Daniel Elman. He is a fellow member of the Noscere society, lectures in psychology, and is a firm believer in the supernatural. As you can imagine we rarely see eye to eye.”
“Your master has a rather blinked view of the world.”
“And for a highly educated man, Professor Elman is prone to making some rather amateur deductions.”
There was certainly no love lost between the two men.
“So, tell me Arthur what has caught your interest today?”
The Professor looked in two minds whether to tell him or not. “Lot number thirty-four,” he eventually said.
“Ahh an interesting piece with an interesting history. What draws you to the item? It’s history or the curse?”
“It’s history. There are no such things as curses.”
Professor Elman smiled. “There you go as usual jumping to conclusions without evaluating the evidence. The Amulet of Nergal has a long history of misfortune befalling all those that have possessed it.”
“Nothing more than coincidences and tragic accidents.”
“There have been far too many deaths linked to the amulet for it to be just a coincidence. Perhaps if you are successful in your bidding you may discover more than you bargained for. Although I fear you may find you have fierce competition for the piece.”
“You too are interested in the amulet?” the Professor said. “And why would any believer in the curse wish to purchase such a deadly item?”
“Like you, academic curiosity. But I am not the only interested party. I have heard from Mr Willett himself that has had a lot of enquiries about the piece. He suspects it to sell for double its guide price. Now you must excuse me gentlemen. A man of my age can only spend so long standing before he must rest. Good luck.”
Professor Elman hobbled over to join the left-hand rows of chairs and gingerly lowered himself into an aisle seat.
“Insufferable man,” the Professor muttered. “You cannot take anything he says seriously. Come along Nigel let us find a seat.
On the stage the auctioneer was auctioning a small sculpture of a fat naked woman. According to the catalogue it was an ancient mother goddess from a lost tribe.
We made our way down the central aisle and took a pair of seats on the right of the stage. I flicked through the catalogue to find out what the mysterious Lot No. 34 was.
Lot No. 34 – The Amulet of Nergal. At for auction for the first time. This is your chance to own a piece of history. Believed to originate in Ancient Mesopotamia, the amulet is great piece that will be at home in any collection of antiquities. The Amulet of Nergal is cast from gold and contains a large ruby in its centre. Symbols that some scholars deem to be a lost language adorn the piece.
The gavel banged down. I looked up from the catalogue. The auctioneer was pointing at a man in the third row, the new owner of the sculpture. “Sold to the gentlemen, number forty-eight.”
“My goodness they are all coming out of the woodwork,” the Professor suddenly muttered.
I followed his gaze to the entrance of the auditorium. He was looking at a muscular man in late thirties that had just walked in. The man’s long black hair was slicked back exposing a prominent windows peak. Except for a thin moustache he was clean shaven. His nose was crooked as if had been broken in the past and then not correctly reset.
“Who is he, sir?”
“His name is Reginald Pearce. His is the son of a lord but has been disowned by the family. By all accounts he has a reputation for being a bit of a rogue. A few years back he was caught smuggling artefacts out of China. He only just managed to escape the country. He abandoned his partners to face the penalty. I believe they were executed. He is proof that the saying is true. There is no honour amongst thieves.”
The Professor reached over and snatched the catalogue from my hand. “I wonder what he is after?” he mused flicking through the pages.
“You do not suppose he is also after the amulet as well?” I suggested.
He shook his head. “I doubt it somehow. By all accounts Pearce is always interested in making a quick buck. I bet he is selling some ill got gains rather than buying.”
Reginald Pearce took a position a few rows in front of us. His long black hair had been slicked backwards in a poor attempt to hide a thinning crown. He sat fidgeting in his seat as if impatiently waiting for an item to be auctioned off.
Slowly one by one the various lots were brought up on to the stage. I kept my hands on my knees. After the Professor’s warning I was paranoid about accidently making a bid. Not all the items met their guide price and therefore failed to sell. Other Lots went for what I deemed an extortionate amount of money. A year’s wages on a vase. Some people had money to burn.
The Professor sat next to me giving his own running commentary on the items. Most he deemed were fakes or far too expensive. He gave his most derision for a set of spoons that had once belonged to Napoleon Bonaparte.
“What a waste of money for those,” he chortled quietly beside me.
Gradually the hall began to fill up, until there were only a few empty chairs dotted around the auditorium.
“And now we come to Lot thirty-four,” said the auctioneer. He paused for effect. “The Amulet of Nergal.”
A hushed silence fell across the room. The item’s notorious reputation was well known amongst the prospective buyers.
A porter stepped on to the stage carrying a black velvet tray. I sat upright in my chair and craned my neck forward. I wasn’t the only one. With a morbid fascination the audience leaned forward wanting to get a glimpse of an item that had supposedly caused so much misery. The porter angled the tray so that everybody could see the amulet resting upon it.
I was disappointed. I had expected some shinny golden trinket that glistened and sparkled in the light, instead the Amulet of Nergal was a spade shaped piece of dull yellow metal. It had a large red stone, a ruby according to the catalogue, set in the centre. The metal had been moulded so it had two raised curves either side of the stone. I was sat too far back to make out exactly what they were, but the curves appeared to have created the impression of a socket with the ruby in the middle acting as an eye.
“Gentleman I present you the Amulet of Nergal,” the auctioneer said consulting his notes. “This fabulous item is a must for any collector of antiquities. It is believed to have originated in Ancient Sumeria, but this cannot be verified. Now I am sure many of you have heard of the rumoured curse that have befallen many of its previous owners. This rumour accounts for the very low list price for an item of such value. Now Clément’s & Willet’s Auction House has had the Amulet of Nergal in our possession for the past week and we can reassure you we have not had any ill fortune befall us…yet.” His attempt at a joke was met with stony silence. He fidgeted uncomfortably. “We will continue then. What I can assure you, is that somebody today will be walking away with a bargain. Now the opening bid is twelve pounds?”
The Professor lifted his hand.
“I have twelve pounds, twelve pounds, will anybody give me thirteen?”
A few rows away Professor Elman rose his paddle. The Professor scowled. Before he could make a bid for fourteen pounds, Reginald Pearce entered the race with a curt nod of his head. The Professor took it to fifteen, Pearce to sixteen, and Elman up to seventeen. This was turning out to be a three-way battle that neither party was intent on losing.
There was movement at the front of the hall. The beautiful woman rose to her feet. Having seen enough she made her way up the aisle followed by her servant. As she passed, she caught my eye. There was a flicker of a smile and then she walked past. I turned my head and watched her leave. I was sure I recognised her from somewhere.
The Professor took the biding to eighteen pounds. In response Elman climbed to his feet and requested to have an inspection of the item. Trying to hide his glee at how well the bidding was going the auctioneer invited him and any other interested parties up to the stage. Out of curiosity I followed the Professor and Reginald Pearce to the front of the room.
The porter held the tray out so that the three competitors could examine the amulet in more detail. Up close the stone in the middle was a dirty red, like dried blood in colour, with black flecks of impurities speckled through it. The curves and lines moulded in the metal managed to create the effect of an eye looking up at you. It was a hideous piece of work. Not one that anybody would wear with pride.
Mr Elman reached out with his hand. “May I?”
The porter glanced up at the auctioneer. The stout man gestured for the two guards on either side of the stage to stand beside us before nodding his consent. The porter held the tray out and Mr Elman plucked the amulet into his palm. With his nose an inch above the amulet he studied it meticulously in his hands. Satisfied he passed it back to the porter. Reginald Pearce was next to examine the amulet, followed by the Professor who upon finishing his examination passed it to me.
The amulet was surprisingly heavy. Strangely it felt warm against my skin. I gently ran my thumb over the surface. It was spiked and pitted, in places sharp edged, like running my fingers over the blade of a saw. I turned the amulet over in my hand. The back of the amulet was covered in strange marks which had to be the writing mentioned in the catalogue. I flipped it back over. My eyes were drawn to the red stone in the middle. It certainly looked like an eye. I had the strangest sensation that something was looking at me. I focused entirely on the stone. The black impurities were beginning to…
“Nigel,” barked the Professor.
I snapped my head up. He was looking at me impatiently. Beside him his competitors were also watching me. That explained the sensation of being looked at.
“Pass the amulet back to the porter,” instructed the Professor.
I placed the amulet back upon the tray.
The doors to the auditorium flew open.
Six men charged into the hall. They had scarves pulled up beneath their eyes and bowler hats lowered down over their heads, leaving just their eyes and the hair around their ears exposed.
“Get down on the floor,” yelled one of the men. His voice partially muffed by the scarf.
The guard on the door moved forward to intercept them. He was hit over the head with a short club by one of the men, bludgeoned to the ground for his act of bravery. The two guards stood either side of us rushed to his aide.
“I said everybody down on the floor,” repeated the man. He tore open his coat and pulled out a pistol tucked into the waist band of his trousers. He pointed the pistol at the guards rushing towards him and without hesitation pulled the trigger.
The thunderous bang echoed around the hall. The two guards skidded to a halt with their hands up. The expression of surprise on their faces would have been amusing in a less grave situation. They had been only six feet away, yet the gunman had missed.
A women two rows to my left screamed and pressed her hand against her face.
I turned to the stage behind me. The porter had dropped the tray holding the Amulet of Nergal and was clutching his stomach. The blood soaking up through his clothes was beginning to trickle between his fingers. He staggered backwards and collapsed against the pulpit.
Only the Professor leapt into action. Without hesitation or any concern for his own safety he clambered on to the stage and rushed to the fallen porter. He gently lifted the porter’s blood-soaked fingers from his stomach and removing a handkerchief from his waistcoat pressed it against the wound.
The gunman stepped through the cloud of smoke emitted by the pistol. Casually reloading his weapon, he studied the room. Behind him three of his companions held pistols of their own. Patrolling the room, they pointed their weapons at the frightened audience.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” the lead gunman shouted. “I suggest for your own safety you do exactly what you are told, or you will suffer the consequences. Now everybody lay on the ground with your hands-on top of your heads where we can see them.” There was slight moment of hesitation. “I said now.”
With a scraping of chairs, the men and women lowered themselves to the ground and placed their hands over their heads. I lay down on my stomach with my chin resting on the wooden floor, so I could still see what was happening. Beside me Professor Elman was struggling to lower himself to the ground while Reginald Pearce lay with his face pressed into the wooden floorboards.
“Are you deaf?” one of the gunmen bellowed.
The Professor remained knelt over the fallen porter with his hands pressed against the blood-soaked cloth. He looked up at the gunman defiantly.
“If I take this way he will die. Keeping him alive might be the only thing that keeps you from the gallows.”
The gunman pointed his pistol at the Professor.
“Leave him,” grunted the lead gunman to his companion. “Get the bags ready.”
The gunman leapt down from the stage and sauntered to the back of the room. Happy the auditorium was under control the lead gunman walked down the aisle. He passed within a few feet of me, close enough for me to see his blue eyes, a small scar above his left brow, and the dirty blond hair not concealed by his hat and scarf.
The gunman clambered up on to the stage. He held his pistol pointed towards the floor as he stood over the Professor and the injured porter.
“Keep the pressure tight,” the gunman grunted. “But if you move away from his side, I will shoot you myself.”
The gunman leant around the pulpit.
“Going somewhere?” he asked. The auctioneer had been slithering backwards on his stomach.
“No, I was just…” the auctioneer said his voice quivering. “Please take whatever you want.”
“We intend to. Now stay where you are.”
Kneeling the gunmen plucked the Amulet of Nergal from where it lay on the stage. He studied it for a few moments before lifting the amulet up above his head.
“Gentleman it appears you all have far too much money if you are willing to buy rubbish like this.” He threw the amulet. There was a dull thud where it landed at the edge of the stage. “Listen carefully, you fail to do as you are told, you will be shot. Make no mistake we will leave you here to die. Now I am certain you all want to live, so one by one you will all stand up slowly and as my associates pass, you will reach into your pockets and remove those bulging purses of yours. Drop them into my associates’ bags along anything else of value. You will then lay back down on the floor with your hands on your head. You comply, and you will be safe. You have my word.”
Starting at the back of the auditorium two or the robbers worked their way along the rows. Purses, wallets and jewellery were snatched from hands and dropped into the bags. They worked quickly and efficiently. The other gunmen patrolled the room looking for any signs of rebellion. When an elderly man refused to hand over his purse, one of these gunmen hurried over and punched him in the mouth. From then on, nobody else refused to hand over their valuables. On the stage the lead gunman paced back and forth impatiently checking his pocket watch.
One of the robbers holding a kitbag reached us. He had ginger eyebrows and sideburns. Elman, Pearce, and I were ordered to our feet. Out of the corner of my eye I could see the Amulet of Nergal laying a few feet away at the edge of the stage.
“Hand over whatever you got,” the robber grunted holding open a kitbag full of purses, watches and jewellery.
Reluctantly I took my purse containing a handful of shillings from my inside jacket pocket and dropped it into the kitbag. The robber moved down the line. After taking Reginald Pearce’s purse and watch he spotted the amulet laying at the side of the stage. He reached out for it.
There was a distant bell ringing. The robbers instinctively glanced towards the doors. The sound of the bell was growing steadily louder.
“Leave the rest,” bellowed the lead gunman jumping from the stage.
He waved his arm gesturing for the others to follow. The kit bags were snatched shut as the men ran from the room. The doors clattered behind them and they were gone.
For a moment nobody moved. Everybody was frozen as is they expected the gunmen to return. Then a woman began to sob, and the spell was broken. Slowly everybody climbed to their feet dazed. We looked at each other in stunned silence. Beside me Professor Elman was panting. He leant on his stick shaking. He wasn’t the only one that looked traumatised by the robbery. A few of the men had collapsed in chairs their wobbly legs unable to support their weight, others clutched at their racing hearts.
“Nigel come and give me a hand,” the Professor shouted. He was still knelt over the wounded porter applying pressure to his wound with a handkerchief saturated in blood.
I placed my hands on the stage to hoist myself up. I paused.
The gunmen had fired one shot into a crowded auditorium. He had missed his targets, yet the bullet still struck someone. The porter on the stage holding the Amulet of Nergal. Was it a coincidence that the only person laying in a pool of blood had been in possession of the amulet? Or was he another victim of the curse?
I looked at the amulet on the edge of the stage.
It was gone!
The robber must have snatched it before fleeing. He had been reaching for it when the alarm had been raised. But I couldn’t remember seeing him take it. And he wasn’t the only one with the opportunity to steal the amulet.
Reginald Pearce was already marching for the door. He had been next to the amulet. He could easily have grabbed the amulet in the confusion. Was he fleeing with the amulet in his pocket?
Or perhaps Professor Elman had taken it. He still leant on his stick beside the stage, but he too had been next to the amulet. He could have easily snatched the amulet while we were all distracted watching the gunman flee.
“Quickly Nigel!” the Professor snapped.
I scrambled onto the stage. I had to forget all about the amulet. It had nothing to do with me. It wasn’t my responsibility if it had been stolen. Or so I thought….
Friday, 21 September 1860
I perched on the edge of the stage, my legs dangling a few inches for the floor. The Professor sat beside me smoking the pipe he held in blood stained hands. Behind us lay the steward. Only his legs and feet were visible beneath our jackets. We had tried in vain to save his life, pressing clothes against the wound in a pitiful attempt to halt the bleeding. The Professor suspected the bullet had penetrated his stomach. The porter’s last few moments had been harrowing to watch. In agony he screamed and prayed to God. We forced a hip flask of whisky down his throat to help with the pain and then all we could do was try and comfort him. It didn’t help that the rest of the auditorium watched on with grisly fascination as if attending a gruesome stage production. When it finally came to an end the Professor closed his eyes and we covered him in our jackets. We had then sat down in contemplation at the edge of the stage to wait for the MET to take charge.
To take my mind off the porter’s death I looked around the auditorium. A pair of constables stood by the doors. They had arrived within minutes of the robbers fleeing. Their first course of action was to seal off the auditorium and wait for detectives from the MET to arrive. At first there was anger from a few of the patrons, but then realising their protests were falling on deaf ears they had sat down in resignation.
The auditorium doors opened and in marched a procession of detectives and constables. In charge was Chief Inspector Finch, a hard-looking man with silver hair and a goatee fastidiously cut to enhance his square jawline. He didn’t need to call for attention as all eyes were already upon him.
“Ladies and Gentlemen,” Chief Inspector Finch bellowed like a drill sergeant. “My fellow officers will be taking statements. Nobody leaves here until everybody has made a statement.”
He turned to the officers behind them and pointing his finger conducted them to begin their enquiries in different parts of the auditorium. Once they all started scuttling off to carry out his orders, he walked along the central aisle towards us.
“Good afternoon Arthur,” he said greeting the Professor. The Professor and Finch got on like peas in a pod. Publicly they both shared the same view that any supernatural or paranormal incident were the work of hoaxers or the fantasies of the delusional. Finch offered his hand, caught sight of the Professor’s bloody hands and withdrew it. He looked at me and grunted, “boy.”
I gave a curt nod in response. I had first met Chief Inspector Finch in a cemetery when we have been investigating a spate of body snatching. I had taken a disliking to the man on that occasion. Recently my disliking had turned to suspicion that he was covering up for a secret society using occult powers to influence and dictate the direction of the country. Like the other prominent businessmen and politicians that were involved I had no evidence just my own suspicions.
“What a rotten bit of luck that you got caught up in all of this,” Finch said. “They take anything of yours?”
“No. I think they took something of Nigel’s.”
“My purse,” I said, although Finch wasn’t listening, he was clambering up on to the stage. He knelt by the porter’s head and lifted the corner of my jacket off the man’s face.
“So, we are dealing with a murder as well as robbery,” Finch said dropping the coat.
Always one to share his opinion, the Professor added, “From the placement of the wound I suspect that the bullet wedged in his stomach. I tried to stanch the bleeding, but it was to no avail. He was going to die the second the gun was fired.”
“And they fired just one shot,” mused Finch. “Unlucky sod that it happened to hit him.”
“It wasn’t just bad luck,” I piped up. “He was holding a cursed artefact at the time.”
Both men looked at me with disproval. Professor Ashcroft shook his head.
“It might be important,” I insisted defensively. “What if it was the curse that killed him?”
“Nigel, it was the bullet that killed him,” the Professor snapped. “This is no time for any of your nonsense.”
“This artefact. What is it?” Finch asked.
“It’s an amulet from ancient Mesopotamia. Rumours are it is cursed. I was hoping of purchasing it today,” the Professor said. He looked around the stage. “But it appears to be missing.”
“The robber’s must have taken it,” Finch said. He looked up at one of the constables and waved him over to us. “I need to speak to the auctioneer now. If you could leave a statement with my colleague here and then your free to go.”
* * *
It was early evening by the time we returned to the Professor’s house. Although we had been the first to be given permission to leave the auction house the Professor had been adamant to stay while the MET carried out their investigation. We were not being included with their enquires so the Professor carried out his own investigation. I followed him around the auditorium as he looked for clues to identify the masked gunmen. I suspected his motivation was because an innocent man had died and as he had not been able to save the porter, he somehow felt like he had to make amends by bringing the culprits to justice.
I was not surprised we found no clue to the masked men’s identities. From what I eavesdropped from the police they also were no closer to discovering who the robbers were either.
Returning to the Professor’s house I was instructed to find Mrs Cooper and have a meal sent up to his study. He was planning on cleaning himself up, having a quick bite to eat, before heading out to the Noscere Society. I on the other hand had been dismissed for the night.
I found Mrs Cooper in the kitchen rolling out pastry. Gertie was at the sink washing dishes.
“Is that blood on your shirt?” Mrs Cooper said in greeting. For the first time I glanced at my suit. I had dark stains on my shirt and several patches on my jacket. Taking off my jacket I found brown stains on the cuffs of my shirt.
Mrs Cooper took one look at the stains and shook her head. “I won’t get those stains out?”
That was my best suit ruined.
“That’s not your blood is it?” Gertie asked.
“There was a robbery at the auction house. A porter got shot. The Professor and I tried to…” I couldn’t finish my sentence. I was feeling exhausted. The day had taken its toll.
“Are you alright?” Gertie asked.
“Its been a long day. Is it alright if we give your lessons a miss tonight?”
With disappointment she nodded. Gertie was desperate to learn how to read and write. It was the only reason she persevered with working in the Professor’s house.
“I am going to call it a night. Professor Ashcroft would like hot food sent up to his study.”
I retreated to my bedroom. The attic rooms in the Professor’s house had no fireplace. The chimney from the study and the Professor’s bedroom rose up through my room and some of the heat radiated through the brick work but not enough to warm the room. On an autumn evening the room was bearable. I wasn’t looking forward to winter. I changed my clothes and wrapping a blanket over my shoulders I sat down on the edge of the bed to write in my journal.
I was just writing about what happened in the auction house when there was a tap at the door.
Gertie stepped into my room carrying a plate with cold meat, cheese and a few slices of bread in one hand and a pot of tea in the other.
“I thought you might be hungry.”
She placed the plate on my bed. “Tough day? Do you want to talk about it?”
I had misread her disappointment earlier as concern about my wellbeing.
“I saw a man die today.” It wasn’t the first time I had seen a man die. It wasn’t even the first time I had seen a man shot. But watching somebody die had not gotten any easier.
“The robbery went wrong,” I explained. “I don’t think the robbers meant to shoot him. He just happened to be unlucky or…Do you believe in curses?”
“Nigel, we have seen the dead come back to life. There is nothing in this world I don’t believe in. So, what has a curse got to do with the porter?”
“He was holding a supposedly cursed artefact when he was shot. The Professor was trying to buy it.”
“Then we had a lucky escape.” Gertie said. “What happened to the artefact?”
“It was stolen.”
“Then you can forget all about it. Would you like another mystery to think about instead? It will take your mind off robbers and curses.”
I frowned at her. She reached into her right shoe and pulled out a folded piece of paper. She passed it to me. One side had a ragged edge where it had been torn from the page of a newspaper. Printed on the page was an advert for a pawn shop. Written in black ink over the advert was.
Brown. 22 Pear Lane.
“It’s an address?” Gertie said. “I am right, aren’t I?”
“Yes. Can you read it?”
“I thought we weren’t having lessons tonight,” she said taking the piece of paper off me. Frowning with concentration she held the piece of paper up to the candle light. “Br-rr-ow- n. Brow – n. Brown. What does the colour brown mean?”
“Your guess is as good as mine. What does this bit say?”
“Twenty two. Pp- e- a-r. Per.”
“Try again,” I said. “Think of a fruit.”
“Pear,” she said looking please with herself. I nodded and pointed to the next word. “L-l-a – la-n,e. Lane. The note says Brown. Twenty-two Pear Lane.”
“Very good,” I said. “So, what is the address for?”
“I don’t know. That is why I have brought it to you. Do you know where Pear Lane is?”
I shook my head. “Where did you find it?”
“That is the curious thing,” she said with a smile. “Mrs Cooper asked me to tidy up the Professor’s study. I was folding up a blanket and this note fell out. It had been in the folds of the cloth. The blanket was the one wrapped around the girl from last night.”
With the events of the day I had forgotten all about the mysterious girl that had been in the Professor’s study.
“You think this has something to do with Anne Farmer?” I asked.
“Who else? Its not yours or the Professor’s handwriting. I bet she left the note here for us to find. We need to go to that address and find out why.”
“We don’t need to do anything, Gertie. For all we know it is just a scrap piece of paper floating around the Professor’s study.”
“It’s not his handwriting. It came from Anne. Don’t tell me you’re not a little bit curious about her. What is at Pear Lane? It must be important otherwise she wouldn’t have left this note behind. If you won’t come with me Nigel, I will go on own.”
She was determined to find out what was at Pear Lane either with or without me if needed be.
“Tomorrow is Saturday. The Professor is going out tonight. He won’t be up until late. I will go and check it out in the morning.”
“I’m coming too and don’t tell me no because it might be dangerous.” She had that stubborn look in her eye which meant I had as much chance of telling the sun not to rise as convincing her to change her mind.
I would never tell her, but I was glad for the company. The idea of turning up at an unknown address with no idea what to expect on my own was unsettling. Not wanting to look relived I signed with resignation.
“Very well if you have to come along.”
Saturday 22nd September 1860
Somehow Gertie managed to persuade Mrs Cooper to let her off her duties for the morning. Well that is what she told me. I didn’t put it past Gertie just to sneak out of the house and then deal with the consequences when she got back. It wouldn’t have been the first time.
Not having the faintest idea where Pear Lane was, we walked to the corner of the road and waved down a passing cab. I climbed up into the seat and asked the driver to take us to the address. After a brief look of surprise, he nodded and tugged on the reigns.
The reason for his surprise soon became apparent as the cab turned on to Saffron Hill, a narrow road of slum housing with a reputation for being home to thieves and paupers. Halfway down the road the cab drew to a halt at the entrance to Pear Lane. Marked down as part of the slum clearances for the construction of the new underground railway, Pear Lane was mixture of dilapidated buildings and boarded up workshops. The street ended at a knacker’s yard. Thick plumes of foul-smelling smoke rose from its chimney filling the air with the stench of burnt flesh from rendering down horses. A group of barefoot street urchins were playing in the puddled-up gutters along the side of the street. Beside an old brick kiln a woman was arguing with a man, her voice piercing the air with expletives, while he struggled to stand in his drunkenness.
“Are you sure you got the right place?” the cab driver asked.
I looked down the street in two minds about getting out. Perhaps it would be better to mention it to the Professor and return with him. However, Gertie took the decision away from me.
“This is it,” Gertie said scrambling down from the cab.
With no choice but to follow, I paid the driver and clambered down on to the street. The driver gave us a look of concern then urged the horses on.
“Are you sure this is a good idea?” I asked.
“No,” Gertie admitted. “But we are here now. Let’s take a quick look at number twenty-two and then we leave.”
This was not an area of London you could walk down without being on your guard. It was a den full of thieves and the desperate. Lights from candles glowed faintly through the filth entrusted windows of some of the buildings. A few of the buildings had holes in their roofs and on one property the chimney lay in the road as pile of mossy rubble. We passed a mangy looking cat. It gave us a baleful glance then returned to watching a scrawny pig snuffle through a pile of rubbish, hoping a startled mouse or rat would be disturbed. The argument between the man and woman had ended, with her storming off and the man stumbling after her. Their argument had been replaced by the cries of a baby and the barking of the dog. There was yelling of a man’s voice, several expletives, and a loud yelp before the dog fell silent.
We reached the urchins playing in the blocked gutter. The water smelt stagnant with the slight whiff of sewage. Splashing water, they raced over to us. They thrust out their grubby hands.
“’ave you got any money,” they begged circling us. Weaving in and out of each other and rotating around us meant keeping track of their thieving hands was an almost impossible task.
“All we have is a shilling,” Gertie said. “We will give it to you if you go off and play.”
“You got more than that,” said a boy of five with a runny nose.
“That is all we have. Nigel pass them our only coin.”
Holding my jacket tightly around me I reached inside my pocket. I fingered the coins in my pocket. Certain I had a shilling I pulled it out and handed it to Gertie. She dropped the shilling into the hands of a girl. The children ran off squabbling amongst themselves.
Number twenty-two was a narrow two-story property next to an abandoned workshop. The downstairs window was boarded up while the upstairs window had a hole in the corner of the smoke blackened glass. The side of the wall was damp and growing out of a clump of debris and moss on the roof was a sorry looking sampling. There was no light inside and the property looked abandoned.
“What do we now?” Gertie asked.
“I guess we see if anyone is home.” I gave the door a light rap with my knuckles.
Gertie pushed past me. “That is not knocking. Nobody would hear that.”
She thumped heavily against the door. The door buckled under the pressure and swung open revealing a long dark corridor. Gertie glanced at me. I shrugged. Rolling her eyes, she stuck her head into the house.
“Hello? Is anybody there? Hello?” There was no response. “Guess nobody is home.” She looked down the street. Now the urchin children were gone it was deserted. “Come on let’s have a quick look, nobody is watching.”
Just because the street was empty didn’t mean that we were not being observed. Who knew who was lurking behind the filthy windows of the other properties. Before I could say this to Gertie, she entered the house.
I groaned. Why did she have to be so headstrong with no regard for her own safety? Worse why did I keep following her into danger?
The inside of the house smelt musty and of smoke. It was almost impossible to see anything in the gloom. I took out a candle and match from my coat pocket. After the incident in the Potteries where I had first met Gertie, I had gotten into the habit of carrying a source of light with me everywhere I went. Holding the tallow candle between my lips I struck the match. I lit the candle and then held it between my fingers, so any wax dripped on to the floor.
In the orange light the corridor ended with a ladder going up through a hole in the ceiling to the second floor above. There were two doors leading into the downstairs rooms. The first door we reached had a hole kicked through the rotting timber and the handle missing. I pushed open the door with my foot.
Several stained mattresses and nests made of rotting rags covered the floor. The burnt out remains of a fire was in the hearth. Waxy puddles that had once been candles were on the mantlepiece and sill of the boarded-up window. Beer and gin bottles littered the floor. Gertie moved into the room. I reached out and put my hand on her shoulder stopping her. The rags were probably crawling with fleas, lice, and who knew what else.
The other room downstairs was also filled with bedding and empty bottles. One of the nests of rags ruffled. A large rat its beady eyes reflecting the candle light emerged from the bedding. It looked at us as if we were intruding upon it. Gertie picked up a bottle and flung it at the rat. She missed, and the rat scurried away through a hole in the wall.
“I hate them,” she said. “They used to sneak in the store at the china factory and eat the candles.”
With finding nothing downstairs there was only upstairs to check. As I held the candle I went first. I climbed the ladder one handed with the rungs creaking. I stuck my head up through the hole and froze.
There was a man in the room.
Enough daylight penetrated the smoke-stained glassed window to provide a dimness to the room beyond my candle flame. The room was a full of bedding, rubbish and a pile of clothes. The man lay on his stomach with his feet pointing towards me. He didn’t move. Something wasn’t right.
“What is the matter?” Gertie asked impatiently.
“There is somebody in the room,” I whispered back down to her.
“Are they asleep?” she hissed back.
I shook my head. The man was laying on top of what looked like a dark blanket.
“Hello,” I called out.
The man didn’t respond. There seemed to be something sticking out of his back. I frowned. There were dark streaks on the floorboards leading from the ladder to the man’s feet. I placed the candle on to the floorboards and reached out towards the nearest dark streak. It was tacky to my touch. I held my finger up to the candle light. My stomach lurched. It was blood.
Expecting the worse I climbed up through the hole in the floor. With the candle in my hand I approached the man. It was the hilt of a knife sticking out of his back. What I had mistaken for a dark blanket was in fact a puddle of blood. One of the man’s hand was thrust out in front of him as if he had died while trying to crawl across the room.
There was a gasp behind me.
“Is he dead?” Gertie asked climbing into the room.
“I think so. He’s been knifed in the back.”
I moved closer to the man’s head. He had thinning ginger hair. His eyes were open. The glazed expression was full of accusation as if he blamed me for his death.
“Nigel, he’s got something in his hand,” Gertie said. She was standing over his outstretched hand.
“Don’t touch anything,” I said.
I was too late. Using the tip of her shoe she pushed the arm turning it over to reveal his clenched fist. The man held the last thing I had been expecting.
He clutched the Amulet of Nergal.
Saturday, 22nd September, continued.
“He’s one of the robbers,” I said.
“Are you sure?” Gertie asked. “I thought you said they wore masks.”
“The robber that took my purse had ginger hair. He has also got the missing amulet. He must have snatched it from the stage before fleeing. It is the only explanation.”
Gertie knelt over the amulet. “It doesn’t look very pretty. Who would want to buy this thing?”
“The Professor wanted it.” I looked down at the body. This was another person dead that had been in the possession of the amulet. There had to be a curse.
“Anne sent us here to find him,” Gertie said. “She knew about the robbery and his murder. She must have foreseen it.”
“I’m not sure she can see the future,” I said with little conviction. She had carved my name and the Professor’s address in the walls of her cell. An address that she claimed to know because I was going to give it to her in the future.
“Are you trying to convince me or yourself?”
“Alright, let’s pretend she can predict the future,” I conceded. “Why would she send us here?”
“To find the amulet. We have to take it.”
“It stays here. It is not ours to take. Even if it was do you really want that thing? Everybody that has it ends up dead.”
She looked at the amulet warily as if it might leap up and strike her.
“What do we do now?” she asked.
“We have to report this to the police. They might be able to identify him and find his killers.”
“And when they ask how we happened to find the body what do we tell them?”
The front door crashed open, hitting the wall with a thud. There were voices from the floor beneath us. We looked at each other in fear. We were no longer alone in the house…
What happens next is up to You!
The choices with the most votes will decide what happens next, so choose wisely from the options below.
Who has entered the house?
Professor Elman – Has come to buy the stolen amulet
Reginald Pierce – Has come to buy the stolen amulet
The other robbers involved in the robbery – the property is there hideout
The Police – found the property after following an anonymous lead
Who is the dead man?
An escaped patient from Elmwich Asylum
A guard from Elmwich Asylum
A petty criminal with no links to Elmwich Asylum
What happens next?
Gertie and Nigel escape the house through the window
Gertie and Nigel are caught in the house
Find out what was voted to happen next in the fifth Instalment published on Monday 26th November