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THE END OF THE SWORD was pointing straight at my heart, and my murderer’s eyes were like black holes threatening to swallow up everything that came too close to them. I knew I couldn’t get away. With difficulty, I stumbled a few steps back.
The man followed me. “I will wipe that which is displeasing to God off the face of the earth!” he boomed. “The ground will soak up your blood!”
I had at least two smart retorts to these sinister words on the tip of my tongue. (Soak up my blood? Oh, come off it, this is a tiled floor.) But I was in such a panic that I couldn’t get a word out. The man didn’t look as if he’d appreciate my little joke at this moment anyway. In fact, he didn’t look as if he had a sense of humor at all.
I took another step back and came up against a wall. The killer laughed out loud. Okay, so maybe he did have a sense of humor, but it wasn’t much like mine.
“Die, demon!” he cried, plunging his sword into my breast without any more ado.
I woke up, screaming. I was wet with sweat, and my heart hurt as if a blade really had pierced it. What a horrible dream! But was that really surprising?
My experiences of yesterday (and the day before) weren’t exactly likely to make me nestle down comfortably in bed and sleep the sleep of the just. Unwanted thoughts were writhing around in my mind like flesh-eating plants gone crazy. Gideon was only pretending, I thought. He doesn’t really love me.
“He hardly has to do anything to attract girls,” I heard Count Saint-Germain saying in his soft, deep voice, again and again. And “Nothing is easier to calculate than the reactions of a woman in love.”
Oh, yes? So how does a woman in love react when she finds out that someone’s been lying to her and manipulating her? She spends hours on the phone to her best friend, that’s how, then she sits about in the dark, unable to get to sleep, asking herself why the hell she ever fell for the guy in the first place, crying her eyes out at the same time because she wants him so much … Right, so it doesn’t take a genius to calculate that.
The lighted numbers on the alarm clock beside my bed said 3:10, so I must have nodded off after all. I’d even slept for more than two hours. And someone—my mum?—must have come in to cover me up, because all I could remember was huddling on the bed with my arms around my knees, listening to my heart beating much too fast.
Odd that a broken heart can beat at all, come to think of it.
“It feels like it’s made of red splinters with sharp edges, and they’re slicing me up from inside so that I’ll bleed to death,” I’d said, trying to describe the state of my heart to Lesley (okay, so it sounds at least as corny as the stuff the character in my dream was saying, but sometimes the truth is corny). And Lesley had said sympathetically, “I know just how you feel. When Max dumped me, I thought at first I’d die of grief. Grief and multiple organ failure. Because there’s a grain of truth in all those things they say about love: it goes to your kidneys, it punches you in the stomach, it breaks your heart and … er … it scurries over your liver like a louse. But first, that will all pass off; second, it’s not as hopeless as it looks to you; and third, your heart isn’t made of glass.”
“Stone, not glass,” I corrected her, sobbing. “My heart is a gemstone, and Gideon’s broken it into thousands of pieces, just like in Aunt Maddy’s vision.”
“Sounds kind of cool—but no! Hearts are really made of very different stuff, you take my word for it.” Lesley cleared her throat, and her tone of voice got positively solemn, as if she were revealing the greatest secret in the history of the world. “Hearts are made of something much tougher. It’s unbreakable, and you can reshape it anytime you like. Hearts are made to a secret formula.”
More throat-clearing to heighten the suspense. I instinctively held my breath.
“They’re made of stuff like marzipan!” Lesley announced.
“Marzipan?” For a moment I stopped sobbing and grinned instead.
“That’s right, marzipan,” Lesley repeated in deadly earnest. “The best sort, with lots of real ground almonds in it.”
I almost giggled. But then I remembered that I was the unhappiest girl in the world. I sniffed, and said, “If that’s so, then Gideon has bitten off a piece of my heart! And he’s nibbled away the chocolate coating around it too! You ought to have seen the way he looked when—”
But before I could start crying all over again, Lesley sighed audibly.
“Gwenny, I hate to say so, but all this miserable weeping and wailing does no one any good. You have to stop it!”
“I’m not doing it on purpose,” I told her. “It just keeps on breaking out of me. One moment I’m still the happiest girl in the world, and then he tells me he—”
“Okay, so Gideon behaved like a bastard,” Lesley interrupted me, “although it’s hard to understand why. I mean, hello? Why on earth would girls in love be easier to manipulate? I’d have thought it was just the opposite. Girls in love are like ticking time bombs. You never know what they’ll do next. Gideon and his male chauvinist friend the count have made a big mistake.”
“I really thought Gideon was in love with me. The idea that he was only pretending is so…” Mean? Cruel? No word seemed enough to describe my feelings properly.
“Oh, sweetie—look, in other circumstances, you could wallow in grief for weeks on end, but you can’t afford to do that right now. You need your energy for other things. Like surviving, for instance.” Lesley sounded unusually stern. “So kindly pull yourself together.”
“That’s what Xemerius said, too. Before he went off and left me all alone.”
“Your little invisible monster is right! You have to keep a cool head now and put all the facts together. Ugh, what was that? Hang on, I have to open a window. Bertie just did a disgusting fart. Bad dog! Now, where was I? Yes, that’s it, we have to find out what your grandfather hid in your house.” Lesley’s voice rose slightly. “I must admit Raphael has turned out pretty useful. He’s not as stupid as you might think.”
“As you might think, you mean.” Raphael was Gideon’s little brother, who had just started going to our school. He’d discovered that the riddle my grandfather had left behind was all about geographical coordinates. And they had led straight to our house. “I’d love to know how much Raphael has found out about the secrets of the Guardians and Gideon’s time traveling.”
“Could be more than we might assume,” said Lesley. “Anyway, he wasn’t swallowing my story when I told him the coordinates were only because puzzle games like this were the latest fad in London. But he was clever enough not to ask any more questions.” She paused for a moment. “He has rather attractive eyes.”
“Yup.” They really were attractive, which reminded me that Gideon’s eyes were exactly the same. Green and surrounded by thick, dark lashes.
“Not that that impresses me. Only making an observation.”
I’ve fallen in love with you. Gideon had sounded deadly serious when he said that, looking straight at me. And I’d stared back and believed every word of it! My tears started flowing again, and I could hardly hear what Lesley was saying.
“… but I hope it’s a long letter, or a kind of diary, with your grandfather explaining everything the rest of them won’t tell you and a bit more. Then we can finally stop groping around in the dark and make a proper plan.…”
Eyes like that shouldn’t be allowed. Or there ought to be a law saying boys with such gorgeous eyes had to wear sunglasses all the time. Unless they canceled out the eyes by having huge jug ears or something like that.
“Gwenny? You’re not crying again, are you?” Now Lesley sounded just like Mrs. Counter, our geography teacher, when people told her they were afraid they’d forgotten to do their homework. “Sweetie, this won’t do! You must stop twisting the knife in your own heart with all this drama! We have to—”
“Keep a cool head. Yes, you’re right.” It cost me an effort, but I tried to put the thought of Gideon’s eyes out of my mind and inject a little confidence into my voice. I owed Lesley that. After all, she was the one who’d been propping me up for days. Before she rang off, I had to tell her how glad I was that she was my friend. Even if it made me start to cry again, but this time because it made me so emotional!
“Same here,” Lesley assured me. “My life would be dead boring without you!”
When she ended the call, it was just before midnight, and I really had felt a little better for a few minutes. But now, at ten past three, I’d have loved to call her back and go over the whole thing again.
Not that I was naturally inclined to be such a Moaning Minnie. It’s just that this was the first time in my life I’d ever suffered from unrequited love. Real unrequited love, I mean. The sort that genuinely hurts. Everything else retreated into the background. Even survival didn’t seem to matter. Honestly, the thought of dying didn’t seem so bad at that moment. I wouldn’t be the first to die of a broken heart, after all—I’d be in good company. There was the Little Mermaid, Juliet, Pocahontas, the Lady of the Camellias, Madame Butterfly—and now me, Gwyneth Shepherd. The good part of it was that I could leave out anything dramatic with a knife, as suggested by Lesley’s remark, because the way I felt now, I must have caught TB ages ago, and dying of consumption is much the most picturesque way to go. I’d lie on my bed looking pale and beautiful like Snow White, with my hair spread out on the pillow. Gideon would kneel beside me, feeling bitterly sorry for what he had done when I breathed my last words.
But first I had to go to the toilet, urgently.
Peppermint tea with masses of lemon and sugar was a cure for all ills in our family, and I must have drunk pints of it. Because when I came in yesterday evening, my mother had noticed right away that I wasn’t feeling good. It wasn’t difficult to spot that, because crying had made me look like an albino rabbit. And if I’d told her—as Xemerius suggested—that I’d had to chop onions in the limousine on the way home from the Guardians’ headquarters, she’d never have believed my story.
“Have those damn Guardians been doing something to you? What happened?” she had asked, managing to sound sympathetic and furiously angry at the same time. “I’ll murder Falk if—”
“No one’s done anything to me, Mum,” I’d said quickly, to reassure her. “And nothing has happened.”
“As if she was going to believe that! Why didn’t you try the onion excuse? You never take my good advice.” Xemerius had stamped his clawed feet on the floor. He was a small stone gargoyle demon with big ears, bat’s wings, a scaly tail like a dragon, and two little horns on a catlike head. Unfortunately he wasn’t half as cute as he looked, and no one except me could hear his outrageous remarks and answer him back. There were two odd things about me, by the way, and I just had to live with them. One was that I’d been able to see gargoyle demons and other ghosts and talk to them from early childhood. The other was even odder, and I hadn’t known about it until under two weeks ago, when I found out that I was one of a strictly secret bunch of twelve time travelers, which meant going back to somewhere in the past for a couple of hours every day. The curse of time travel—well, okay, so it was supposed to be a gift—ought to have affected my cousin Charlotte, who’d have been much better at it, but it turned out that I’d drawn the short straw. No reason why I should be surprised. I was always left holding the last card when we played Old Maid; if we cast lots in class to see who bought Mrs. Counter’s Christmas gift, I always got the piece of paper with her name on it (and how do you decide what to give a geography teacher?); if I had tickets for a concert, you could bet I’d fall sick; and when I particularly wanted to look good, I got a zit on my forehead the size of a third eye. Some people may not understand right away how a zit is like time travel—they may even envy me and think time travel would be fun, but it isn’t. It’s a nuisance, nerve-racking and dangerous as well. Not forgetting that if I hadn’t inherited that stupid gift I’d never have met Gideon and then my heart, whether or not it was made of marzipan, would still be just fine. Because that guy was another of the twelve time travelers. One of the few still alive. You couldn’t meet the others except back in the past.
“You’ve been crying,” my mother had said in a matter-of-fact way.
“There, you see?” Xemerius had said. “Now she’s going to squeeze you like a lemon until the pips squeak. She won’t let you out of her sight for a second, and we can wave good-bye to tonight’s treasure hunt.”
I’d made a face at him, to let him know that I didn’t feel like treasure hunting tonight anymore. Well, you have to make faces at invisible friends if you don’t want other people to think you’re crazy because you talk to the empty air.
“Tell her you were trying out the pepper spray,” the empty air had answered me back, “and it got into your own eyes by mistake.”
But I’d been far too tired to tell lies. I just looked at my mum with red-rimmed eyes and tried telling the truth. Here goes, then, I’d thought. “It’s just … no, I don’t feel too good. It’s … kind of a girl thing, you know?”
“If I phone Lesley, I know I’ll feel better.”
Much to the surprise of Xemerius—me too—Mum had been satisfied with this explanation. She made me peppermint tea, left the teapot and my favorite cup with its pattern of spots on my bedside table, stroked my hair, and otherwise left me in peace. She didn’t even keep reminding me of the time, as usual. (“Gwyneth! It’s after ten, and you’ve been on the phone for forty minutes. You’ll be seeing each other at school tomorrow.”) Sometimes she really was the best mother in the world.
Sighing, I swung my legs over the edge of the bed and stumbled off to the bathroom. I felt a cold breath of air.
“Xemerius? Are you there?” I asked under my breath, and felt for the light switch.
“That depends.” Xemerius was dangling head down from the ceiling fixture in the corridor, blinking at the light. “I’m here so long as you don’t turn back into a watering can.” He raised his voice to a shrill, tearful pitch as he imitated me—rather well, I’m sorry to say. “And then he said, I have no idea what you’re talking about, and then I said, yes or no, and then he said, yes, but do stop crying.…” He sighed theatrically. “Girls get on my nerves worse than any other kind of human being. Along with retired taxmen, saleswomen in hosiery departments, and presidents of community garden societies.”
“I can’t guarantee anything,” I whispered, so as not to wake the rest of my family up. “We’d better not mention You Know Who, or the indoor fountain will come back on again.”
“I was sick of the sound of his name anyway. Can we do something sensible for a change? Go treasure hunting, for instance?”
Getting some sleep might have been sensible, but unfortunately I was wide awake now. “Okay, we can start if you like. But first I have to get rid of all that tea.”
I pointed to the bathroom door.
“Oh, I see,” said Xemerius. “I’ll just wait here.”
I looked better than I expected in the bathroom mirror. Unfortunately there wasn’t a sign of galloping consumption. My eyelids were a little swollen—that was all, as if I’d been using pink eye shadow and put on too much.
“Where were you all this time, Xemerius?” I asked when I came out into the corridor again. “Not by any chance with…?”
“With whom?” Xemerius looked indignant. “Are you asking me about the person whose name we don’t mention?”
“Well, yes.” I would have loved to know what Gideon did yesterday evening. How was the wound in his arm healing up? And had he maybe said something to anyone about me? Like It’s all a terrible misunderstanding. Of course I love Gwyneth. I wasn’t pretending at all when I told her so.
“Oh, no you don’t! I’m not falling for that one.” Xemerius spread his wings and flew down to the floor. When he was sitting there in front of me, he hardly came above my knee. “But I didn’t go out. I was having a good look around this house. If anyone can find that treasure, then I can. If only because none of the rest of you can walk through walls. Or rummage around in your grandmother’s chest of drawers without being caught at it.”
“Yes, there must be some advantages to being invisible,” I said. I didn’t point out that Xemerius couldn’t rummage around in anything because his ghostly claws couldn’t even open a drawer. No ghost I’d ever met could move objects. Most of them, unlike Xemerius, couldn’t even manage a breath of cold air. “But you know we’re not looking for a treasure, only something left by my grandfather that will help us to find out more.”
“This house is full of stuff that might be treasure. Not to mention all the possible hiding places for it,” Xemerius went on, taking no notice of me. “Some of the walls on the first floor are double, with passages in between them—passages so narrow you can tell they’re not built for people with big bums.”
“Really?” I’d never discovered those passages myself. “How do you get into them?”
“The doors are covered up with wallpaper in most of the rooms, but there’s still a way in through your great-aunt’s wardrobe and another behind that big, solid sideboard in the dining room. And one in the library, hidden behind a swiveling bookcase. Oh, and there’s a link between the library and the stairwell leading to Mr. Bernard’s rooms, and another going up to the second floor.”
“Which would explain why Mr. Bernard always seems to appear out of nowhere,” I murmured.
“And that’s not all. There’s a ladder inside the big chimney shaft on the wall next to number 83 next door. You can climb it all the way up to the roof. You can’t get into the shaft from the kitchen anymore, because the old fireplace there has been bricked up, but there’s a way in with a flap over it at the back of the built-in cupboard at the end of the first-floor corridor, big enough to let Santa Claus through—or your weirdo of a butler.”
“Or the chimney sweep.”
“And then there’s the cellar!” Xemerius acted as if he hadn’t heard my down-to-earth remark. “Do your neighbors know this house has a secret, and there’s a second cellar underneath the cellar that everyone knows about? Although if you go looking for anything there, you’d better not be scared of spiders.”
“Then we’d better look somewhere else first,” I said, quite forgetting to whisper.
“If we knew what we’re looking for, of course it would be easier.” Xemerius scratched his chin with one of his back paws. “I mean, basically it could be anything: the stuffed crocodile in the recess, the bottle of Scotch behind the books in the library, the bundle of letters in the secret drawer of your great-aunt’s desk, the little chest in a hollow place in the brickwork—”
“A chest in the brickwork?” I interrupted him. And what recess was he talking about?
Xemerius nodded. “Oh, dear, I think you’ve woken your brother up.”
I spun round. My twelve-year-old brother, Nick, was standing in the doorway of his room, running both hands through his untidy red hair. “Who are you talking to, Gwenny?”
“It’s the middle of the night,” I whispered. “Go back to bed, Nick.”
Nick looked at me undecidedly, and I could see him waking up more and more every second. “What was all that about a chest in the brickwork?”
“I … I was going to look for it, but I think I’d better wait until it’s light.”
“Nonsense,” said Xemerius. “I can see in the dark like a … well, let’s say an owl. And you can’t very well search the house when everyone’s awake. Not unless you want even more company.”
“I can bring my flashlight,” said Nick. “What’s in the chest?”
“I don’t know exactly.” I thought for a moment. “It could be something left there by Grandpa.”
“Oh,” said Nick, interested. “And whereabouts is this chest hidden?”
I looked inquiringly at Xemerius.
“I saw it to one side of the secret passage behind that fat man with whiskers, the one sitting on his horse,” said Xemerius. “But who goes hiding secrets—I mean treasures—in a boring old chest? I think the crocodile is much more promising. Who knows what it’s stuffed with? I’m in favor of slitting it open.”
I wasn’t. I had an idea I’d met that crocodile before. “Let’s look in the chest first. A hollow place doesn’t sound bad.”
“Boring, boring, boring!” repeated Xemerius. “One of your ancestors probably hid his tobacco from his wife in it … or…” Obviously he had just had an idea he liked, because now he suddenly grinned. “Or the chopped-up body of a maid who stepped off the straight and narrow and went astray!”
“The chest is in the secret passage behind the picture of Great-great-great-great-great-uncle Hugh,” I explained to Nick. “But—”
“I’ll just get that flashlight!” My brother had already turned back to his room.
“Why are you sighing again?” Xemerius rolled his eyes. “It can’t hurt if your brother comes along.” He spread his wings. “I’ll just do a round of the house and make sure the rest of the family are fast asleep. We don’t want that sharp-nosed aunt of yours catching us when we find the diamonds.”
“Think positive for once!” Xemerius was already hovering in the air. “Which would you rather, diamonds or the remains of a murdered maidservant? It’s all a question of attitude. We’ll meet in front of your fat uncle on his horse.”
“Are you talking to a ghost?” Nick had reappeared behind me. He switched off the ceiling light in the corridor and put his flashlight on instead.
I nodded. Nick had never doubted that I really could see ghosts—quite the opposite. Even when he was only four and I was eight, he used to stand up for me if people didn’t believe it. Aunt Glenda, for instance. We always quarreled when she went to Harrods with us and I talked to the nice uniformed doorman Mr. Grizzle. Mr. Grizzle had been dead for fifty years, so of course people wondered why I stopped and started talking about the Royal Family (Mr. Grizzle was a great admirer of the Queen) and the unseasonably wet June we were having (the weather was Mr. Grizzle’s second favorite subject of conversation). A lot of passersby laughed, some said children had such wonderful imaginations (ruffling up my hair to emphasize their point), and many others shook their heads, but no one got as worked up as Aunt Glenda. She used to look terribly embarrassed and haul me on after her, scolding if I braced my feet and stood my ground. She said I ought to follow Charlotte’s example (even then, Charlotte was so perfect that she never lost a barrette out of her hair), and worst of all, she threatened me with getting no dessert that evening. But although she carried out her threat (and I loved all desserts, even stewed plums), I simply couldn’t bring myself to walk past Mr. Grizzle without a word. Nick always tried to help by begging Aunt Glenda to let go of me because there was no one else for poor Mr. Grizzle to talk to, and Aunt Glenda cleverly got the better of him by saying, in sugary sweet tones, “Oh, little Nick, when will you understand that your sister is just trying to attract attention? There are no such things as ghosts. Do you see a ghost here?”
Nick always had to shake his head sadly and then Aunt Glenda would smile triumphantly. On the day when she decided never to take us to Harrods with her again, Nick had surprised me by changing his tactics. Tiny and plump-cheeked at the time—he was such a cute little boy, with an adorable lisp—he had stopped right in front of Aunt Glenda and asked, “Do you know what Mr. Grizzle said to me, Aunt Glenda? He said you’re a nasty frowsty old witch!” Of course Mr. Grizzle would never have said such a thing, he was much too polite, and Aunt Glenda was too good a customer, but my mum had said something rather like it the evening before. Aunt Glenda pressed her lips together and stalked on, holding Charlotte’s hand. Back home there had been an unpleasant scene with my mother, who was cross because we’d had to find our way home on our own, and Aunt Glenda had said in icy tones that Mum was responsible for the frowsty witch remark, and the upshot was that we weren’t allowed to go shopping with Aunt Glenda ever again. But even now we liked saying “frowsty.”
When I got older, I stopped telling people I could see things that they couldn’t. That’s best if you don’t want to be thought crazy. But I never had to pretend to Nick, Caroline, and Lesley, because they believed in my ghosts. I wasn’t quite sure about Mum and Great-aunt Maddy, but at least they never laughed at me. Aunt Maddy had strange visions herself at irregular intervals, so she probably knew just how it felt when no one believed you.
“Is he nice?” whispered Nick. The beam of his flashlight danced over the stairs.
“Your ghost, of course.”
“It all depends,” I said truthfully.
“What does he look like?”
“He’s rather cute. But he thinks he’s dangerous.” As we went down on tiptoe to the second floor, which was occupied by Aunt Glenda and Charlotte, I tried describing Xemerius as well as I could.
“Cool,” whispered Nick. “An invisible pet! I wish I had one!”
“Pet! Don’t you ever say that when Xemerius is within earshot!” I half hoped to hear my cousin snoring through her bedroom door, but of course Charlotte didn’t snore. People who are perfect don’t make nasty, frowsty noises in their sleep.
Halfway down to the next floor, my little brother yawned, and I instantly felt guilty. “Listen, Nick, it’s three thirty in the morning, and you have to go to school later. Mum will murder me if she finds out I’ve kept you awake.”
“I’m not a bit tired! And it would be mean of you to leave me out now! What did Grandfather hide in the chest?”
“I’ve no idea. Maybe a book explaining everything to me. Or at least a letter. Grandpa was Grand Master of the Lodge and its Guardians. He knew all about me and this time-travel stuff, and by the time he died, he knew it wasn’t Charlotte who inherited the gene. Because I met him in the past, in person, and explained it all to him.”
“You’re so lucky,” whispered Nick, adding almost as if ashamed of himself, “To be honest, I can hardly remember him. But he was always good-tempered and not a bit strict, just the opposite of Lady Arista. And he used to smell of caramel and something herby.”
“That was the tobacco he smoked in his pipe—careful!” I stopped Nick just in time. By now we were past the second floor, but there were a few tricky steps on the stairs down to the first floor that creaked badly. Years of sneaking down to the kitchen by night had taught me to avoid them. We carefully walked around the creaking places, and finally reached Great-great-great-great-great-uncle Hugh’s portrait.
“Okay. Here we are.”
Nick shone his flashlight on our ancestor’s face. “It was mean of him to call his horse Fat Annie! She’s lovely and slender—he’s the one who looks like a fat pig with whiskers.”
“I agree with you.” I was feeling behind the picture frame for the bolt that started the mechanism to open the secret door. As usual, it stuck a bit.
“All sleeping like babies.” Xemerius landed on the stairs beside us, puffing. “That’s to say, all but Mr. Bernard. He obviously suffers from insomnia, but don’t worry. He’s eating a plate of cold chicken in the kitchen and watching a Clint Eastwood film.”
“Good.” The picture swung out with its usual squealing sound, showing a few steps fitted between the walls. They ended only about six or seven feet away in front of another door. This door led into the first-floor bathroom, and it was hidden on the bathroom side by a floor-length mirror. We often used to come through it for fun—we got our kicks by not knowing if there’d be anyone in there using the bathroom—but we hadn’t yet found out what the point of this secret passage was. Maybe one of our ancestors had just thought it would be nice to be able to get away to this quiet place whenever he liked.
“So where’s the chest, Xemerius?” I asked.
“On the left. Between the wallsh.” I couldn’t make him out clearly in the dim light, but it sounded as if he was picking something out of his teeth.
“Xemerius is a bit of a tongue-twister,” said Nick. “I’d call him Xemi. Or Merry. Can I go in and get the chest?”
“It’s on the left,” I said.
“Tongue-twishter yourshelf,” said Xemerius. “Shemi or Merry—no way! I come from a long line of mighty ansheshtral demonsh, and our namesh—”
“Have you got something in your mouth?”
Xemerius spat and smacked his lips. “Not now. I ate the pigeon I found asleep on the roof. Stupid feathers.”
“But you can’t eat at all!”
“No idea of anything, but always giving us the benefit of her opinion!” said Xemerius, offended. “Won’t even let me eat a little pigeon!”
“You can’t eat a pigeon,” I repeated. “You’re a ghost.”
“I’m a demon! I can eat anything I like! I once ate a whole priest. Vestments and all. Why are you looking at me so incredulously?”
“Why don’t you keep your eyes open for anyone coming?”
“Hey, don’t you believe me?”
Nick had already climbed down the steps into the bathroom and was shining his flashlight along the wall. “I can’t see anything.”
“The chest is behind the brickwork, like I said. In a hollow space, bonehead,” said Xemerius. “And I’m not lying. If I say I ate a pigeon, then I did eat a pigeon.”
“It’s in a hollow space behind the brickwork,” I told Nick.
“But I can’t see a loose brick anywhere.” My little brother knelt down on the floor and pressed his hands against the wall, testing it out.
“Hello-o-o, I’m speaking to you!” said Xemerius. “Are you ignoring me, crybaby?” When I didn’t reply, he said, “Well, okay, so it was the ghost of a pigeon. Comes to the same thing.”
“Ghost of a pigeon—are you trying to be funny? Even if pigeons did have ghosts—and I’ve never seen one—you still couldn’t eat them. Ghosts can’t kill one another.”
“These bricks are all solid as rocks,” said Nick.
Xemerius snorted angrily. “First, even pigeons can sometimes decide to stay on the earth and haunt it, don’t ask me why. Maybe they have unfinished business with a cat somewhere. Second, kindly tell me how you can tell a ghost pigeon from all the other pigeons. And third, their ghostly life is over if I eat them. Because as I’ve told you I don’t know how often, I’m no ordinary ghost. I’m a demon! Maybe I can’t do much in your world, but I’m big news in the world of ghosts. When will you finally get the hang of that?”
Nick stood up again and kicked the wall a couple of times. “Nope, nothing we can do about it.”
“Ssh! Stop that, it makes too much noise.” I put my head into the bathroom and looked at Xemerius reproachfully. “So you’re big news. Great. Now what?”
“How do you mean? I never said a word about loose bricks.”
“Then how are we to get at the chest?”
“With a hammer and chisel.” That was a very helpful answer, only it wasn’t Xemerius who gave it, but Mr. Bernard. I froze with horror. There he stood, only a couple of feet above me on the steps. I could see his gold-rimmed glasses sparkling in the dark. And his teeth. Could he be smiling?
“Oh, shit!” Xemerius was so upset that he spat out water on the carpet over the steps. “He must have inhaled the cold chicken to get it inside him so fast. Or else the film was no good. You can’t rely on Clint Eastwood these days.”
Unfortunately I was unable to say anything but “Wh-what?”
“A hammer and chisel would be the best solution,” repeated Mr. Bernard calmly. “But I suggest you put it off until later. If only so as not to disturb the rest of the family when you take the chest out of its hiding place. Ah, I see Master Nick is here too.” He looked into the beam of Nick’s flashlight without blinking. “Barefoot! You’ll both catch your death of cold.” He himself was wearing slippers and an elegant dressing gown with an embroidered monogram, WB. (Walter? William? Wilfred?) I’d always thought of Mr. Bernard as a man without any first name.
“How do you know it’s a chest we’re looking for?” asked Nick. His voice didn’t tremble, but I could tell from his wide eyes that he was as startled and baffled as I was.
Mr. Bernard straightened his glasses. “I expect because I walled up that—er—that chest in there myself. It’s a kind of wooden box decorated with valuable inlaid intarsia work, an antique from the early eighteenth century that belonged to your grandfather.”
“And what’s in it?” I asked, finding that I could speak again at last.
Mr. Bernard looked at me with reproof in his eyes. “Naturally it was not for me to ask that question. I simply hid the chest here on behalf of your grandfather.”
“He can’t try telling me that,” said Xemerius grumpily. “Not when he goes around poking his nose into everything else. And slinking along here after lulling a person into a false sense of security with cold chicken. But it’s all your fault, you silly watering can! If you had believed me, the senile old sleepwalker could never have taken us by surprise!”
“I will of course be happy to help you to extricate the chest again,” Mr. Bernard went on. “But preferably this evening, when your grandmother and aunt will be on their way to the meeting of the ladies of the Rotary Club. So I suggest that we all go back to bed now. After all, you two have to go to school later.”
“Yes, and meanwhile he’ll hack the thing out of the wall himself,” said Xemerius. “Then he can get his hands on the diamonds and leave a few withered old walnuts for us to find. I know his sort.”
“Don’t be daft,” I muttered. If Mr. Bernard had wanted to do anything like that, he could have done it long ago, because no one else knew a thing about that chest. What on earth could be in it for Grandpa to have wanted it bricked up inside his own house?
“Why do you want to help us?” asked Nick bluntly, getting in ahead of me with that question.
“Because I’m good with a hammer and chisel,” said Mr. Bernard. And he added, even more quietly, “And because your grandfather, unfortunately, can’t be here to help Miss Gwyneth.”
Suddenly I felt it hard to breathe again, and I had to fight back tears. “Thanks,” I murmured.
“Don’t get hopeful too soon. I’m afraid that the key to the chest has … has been lost. And I really don’t know that I can bring myself to take a sledgehammer to such a beautiful and valuable antique,” said Mr. Bernard, sighing.
“Meaning you’re not going to tell our mum and Lady Arista anything?” asked Nick.
“Not if you go to bed now.” I saw Mr. Bernard’s teeth flash in the darkness again before he turned and went back up the steps. “Good night, and try to get some sleep.”
“Good night, Mr. Bernard,” Nick and I murmured.
“The old villain!” said Xemerius. “He needn’t think I’m letting him out of my sight.”
Text copyright © 2013 by Kerstin Gier
Translation copyright © 2013 by Anthea Bell