Pin is determined to discover how the magic works. He cannot believe they are raising the dead. He cannot believe his father is a murderer. Then Pin himself nearly becomes the killer's next victim.
As this mysterious tale unfolds with delicious creepiness, Pin will learn more about the bone magician, the girl Juno, and a hideous creature called the Gluttonous Beast that is kept in a local tavern where people pay for a glimpse of it.
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The Bone Magician
By F. E. Higgins
Feiwel and FriendsCopyright © 2008 F. E. Higgins
All rights reserved.
A corpse on the cusp of putrefaction could hardly be considered the most entertaining company on a winter's evening, but Pin Carpue didn't do what he did for the conversation. He did it for the money. Tonight, however, things were different. If the body he was watching — her name, when alive, was Sybil — had revived and tried to engage him in some sort of discourse, he couldn't have replied even if he had wanted to.
For Pin had just succumbed to a soporific drug.
Hardly able to move, certainly unable to speak, he lay in a semi-comatose haze on a bench in the corner of the dark room. The last thing his soggy brain recalled was leaving his lodgings. As for his immediate whereabouts, it was a mystery.
With a supreme effort Pin finally managed to open his heavy eyes. He stared into the gloom, but it was difficult to make any sense of his surroundings when he had double vision. His thoughts were like clouds floating in the sky, shapeless and gently moving. Overall, he decided, this feeling, this woozy buzzing between his ears, was not wholly unpleasant.
Somewhere in the room soft voices were whispering and, if Pin had allowed them, they would have lulled him back to sleep. But another part of him was conscious enough to know that he wanted to stay awake. For any other boy it most certainly would have been beyond his capabilities to keep his eyes open under such difficult circumstances, but Pin was used to staying awake until the early hours. It was part of the job.
The job of watching corpses.
He also had a powerful ally in his pocket, a glass phial, full to the brim with the waters of the River Foedus. It was a distasteful job, gathering her noxious liquid, but now he was silently thankful that he had filled it earlier. If he could only reach it! His fingers, usually nimble, were like soft rubber and he fumbled just trying to lift the flap of his coat pocket. Eventually he managed to grasp the phial and bring it out. He rested before he engaged in the next struggle, removing the stopper. His hand couldn't do it, so, with a tremendous effort, he raised the bottle to his mouth, though his arm felt as if it was moving through deep water, and pulled the cork out with his teeth. He took a long, deep sniff and immediately his eyes began to smart and the inside of his nose stung sharply as if he had bitten down on a mustard seed.
"Fiends," he exclaimed in his head and blinked. But the brew had the desired effect and a second sniff brought him slowly back to his senses. Thus slightly revived, though quite exhausted, Pin focused his mind on his situation.
Now he remembered where he was. This was the Cella Moribundi, the waiting room for the dead, in Mr. Gaufridus's basement. For some reason he had been drugged by those people, the three shadows that were moving around at the table in the center of the room. He did not think to try to escape, his deadened limbs would not have allowed it. Besides, he had a feeling that they were not interested in him but in the body lying on the table.
"He's waking up."
The girl's voice sent a shot of panic through Pin's veins. He could see a figure moving slowly toward him out of the darkness. Inside he was gripped with fear and tried to cry out, but he was unable. So he closed his eyes tightly. If she thought he was asleep she might leave him alone. He knew when she was right beside him. She smelt of juniper and the sleeping drug, aromas he would not easily forget. Pin felt her sweet breath on his face.
"Give him some more," instructed a man's voice.
"No, I think he is still under," she said finally. Then all was quiet.
Slowly, cautiously, Pin dared to open his eyes again. The waters of the Foedus and the lingering effect of the girl's drug were a potent combination, leaving him in a sort of in-between world. He noticed that the candles had been relit and, from the voices, he knew there was the old man, the girl, and a younger man (he sounded like a southerner). In his present state there was little he could do. So he lay back to watch, wholly entranced, the strange drama that was about to play out in front of him.CHAPTER 2
Only a few hours earlier Pin had been in complete possession of his senses. He left his lodgings in Old Goat's Alley after a small supper of ale, bread, and a piece of fish on the turn and trudged off through a shower of hail that was rapidly turning to snow. Pin was always glad to see the back of the place. Old Goat's Alley was considered the worst street south of the River Foedus which, if you knew what the rest of the streets were like, was a frightening thought. Whereas other streets might have a redeeming feature or two, perhaps a slight slope to allow the ever-present sludgy waters to flow away, or a more even distribution of potholes, there was nothing that could be said in favor of Old Goat's Alley.
The tall, narrow houses were poorly constructed, hurriedly built, and squeezed into any space available. The rooms had been divided and subdivided so many times that each house was labyrinthine within. This made it very difficult for the constables when chasing criminals. As did the numerous exits and narrow alleys behind the houses. The buildings leaned slightly forward, which gave cause for alarm if you looked up. It also meant that large amounts of snow slid off periodically into the street below. Few people did look up, however, weighed down as they were with their cares (and ever mindful of the pickpockets). Old Goat's Alley was badly lit, which made it a haven for every sort of criminal that existed. Some nights the lamplighter wouldn't turn up at all and although this was inconvenient for a few, it must be said that many inhabitants were happy to carry out their business in the dark.
As for the rest of the City, certainly on the south side of the river, most pavements were in a state of disrepair and the streets themselves were little more than a mire of noxious debris, churned up daily by the horses and carts that wheeled through and the herds of cattle, pigs, and sheep that were driven along on market day. Each evening the mire froze on account of the extreme temperatures that were currently being experienced. It was a winter like no other.
Barton Gumbroot's lodging house was toward the end of the alley. It was a filthy hovel which Barton had split into as many rooms as possible to maximize rental income. Pin was always uneasy about returning to his room, day or night. His fellow residents were without exception a strange lot and each had particularly nasty features or habits, often both. As for Barton Gumbroot, Pin wouldn't trust the man as far as he could throw him. It was well known that he practiced as a tooth surgeon, another lucrative profession, down in the cellar. Night and day everyone heard the shrieks but no one had the stomach to investigate. In fact, Barton had intimated on more than one occasion that he would take a tooth or two in exchange for a week's rent, but Pin had refused. All this and more was going around in Pin's head as he hurried along beside the river. Just before the Bridge he stopped at the top of a set of stone steps that led down to the water.
The rich really are different, he thought ruefully as he looked across the water. The Foedus was always a foul-smelling river, but the odor was hardly noticeable on the north side because of the prevailing wind. Thus even the air the rich breathed was better. From his vantage point Pin could make out the silhouettes of their fine houses. He didn't need daylight to know what they looked like: double-fronted with sparkling glass, fancy woodwork and glossy doors, polished brasswork and red tiles and frowning gargoyles.
And he knew what sort lived in them, the sort who spent their money on frivolous things, for idle amusement to alleviate their boredom. And this money was not worked for. God forbid that those perfumed men over the water with their frilled cuffs and silken breeches might have to do a day's honest toil. And as for their good ladies, with their noses in the air and their skirts so wide they couldn't fit though a door, well, by all accounts, daily they took their ease, drinking tea, drawing, and singing. No, their wealth in the main was inherited but that was no guarantee it was come upon honestly. Money wasn't the only thing the rich inherited. The duplicity of generations was in their blood. Perhaps they didn't commit the same crimes as took place nightly over the river — the rich liked to keep their hands clean — but they still stole from their fellow man and murdered, just in a more sophisticated way and usually with a polite smile on their faces.
It might be a fine thing to live over the river, thought Pin, but I wonder, is it better to be in a beautiful house looking at an ugly one, or to be in an ugly house looking at a beautiful one?
Yes, he thought, as he descended carefully to the sticky black mud below, life on this side was harsh and dirty and noisy, but for all its unpleasantness, there was an honesty of sorts among the southerners. You knew what they were from looking at them. They couldn't hide it beneath fine clothes and words.
The tide was out but on the turn. Pin made his way as quickly as he could to the water's edge. It was not unusual to find sailors' trinkets in the mud, fallen from the ships, but tonight Pin was in a hurry and wasn't looking. He took from his pocket a small two-handled glass phial and removed the cork. Holding one handle delicately between thumb and forefinger, he dipped it just under the surface and dragged it along until it was full of the dark water. Then he corked it carefully and ran back to the steps.
The smell of the Foedus was renowned far and wide but, exposed to something on a daily basis, a person can get used to most things. It was a rare day in Urbs Umida that the stench was so bad people actually remarked upon it. There is a theory that over time native Urbs Umidians developed a sort of immunity to the smell. This theory might also account for their apparent ability to eat rotting food with impunity. If you can't smell it, you can't taste it. For Pin, however, this was not the case. He had a sensitive nose and was acutely aware of the most subtle changes in the river's odor.
By the time Pin reached the churchyard it was snowing heavily. He passed through the gates, head down, narrowly avoiding a young girl who was coming out. She held up her pale hands in fright. Pin caught the faintest scent as he brushed past her, sweeter than one would have expected, and felt moved to mumble an apology before going on through.
As a place of burial St. Mildred's was almost as old as the City itself. Like a bottomless pit, it held far more people below than was indicated by the headstones above. This was not as difficult as it sounded, for the earth was unusually wet and acidic. These factors combined to speed up the process of decomposition considerably. Given that the churchyard was on a hill, all these decaying juices seeped underground down the slope into the Foedus. Just one more ingredient to add to her toxic soup. It was not unknown for bodies to be skeletal within a matter of months — a phenomenon that was often talked about in the Nimble Finger Inn by those in the know.
But Pin wasn't thinking of rotting bodies as he made his way between the uneven rows of headstones. He walked purposefully until he reached a small unmarked wooden cross. It was leaning to the left and he tried to right it with some difficulty, for the earth was frozen solid. A small bouquet of dried white flowers, stiff with the cold, lay at the base of the cross and he picked them up before hunkering down in the snow.
"Well, Mother," he said softly, "I haven't been for a while, and I'm sorry about that, but Mr. Gaufridus is keeping me busy. I'm working again tonight. You know, I'd rather do that than spend a night at Barton Gumbroot's. He's a sly one, always asking about Father. Is he coming back? Did he really do it? I don't know what to say."
Pin paused after each question, almost as if expecting an answer, but none was forthcoming. So he sat there shivering, oblivious to the thickening snowflakes, turning the flowers over and over in his hand.CHAPTER 3
A Death in the Family
It was almost two months ago now, back in early January, but Pin still remembered coming home that night as if it was only yesterday. He knew as soon as he went up the stairs that something wasn't right. He could hear excited voices and exaggerated sobbing and when he reached the landing there was a small crowd gathered outside his room. He recognized some of their faces, the lady from the room next door, the chimney sweep from across the corridor, the wash erwoman from downstairs. When Pin saw the looks on their faces he felt cold fear. He pushed through the crowd into the room to see a lifeless figure sprawled on the floor in front of the empty fireplace. A stout man in dark clothing was leaning over the body.
"Father?" Pin's voice trembled.
The man looked up and asked officiously, "Are you Pin Carpue?"
"And is this your father?" He moved to one side and the face of the dead man was fully revealed. Pin swallowed hard and forced himself to look. "No," he said, "it's my uncle, Uncle Fabian. But I do not care for him."
"You're not the only one by the looks of things," said the man as he drew himself up to his full height and coughed self-importantly. He took out a small black notebook and a piece of charcoal. Pin now knew him to be Mr. George Coggley, the local constable.
"What happened to him?" asked Pin.
"Strangled, more'n likely," said Coggley. "His eyes are near out of his head. Where is your father, son?"
"I don't know," replied Pin cautiously. He looked around at the people all staring at him.
"If you know where he is, you must tell me, otherwise you'll be in trouble."
"Cos we reckons it's 'im what done this," chipped in the washerwoman almost gleefully. "'E was seen runnin' orf." She had never liked Pin or his father, the way they considered themselves above everyone else. As for his mother, who did she think she was, God rest her soul, coming over the Bridge to live here? There was no place for northerners on this side of the river. They just didn't fit in.
"Running away from the scene of a crime," admonished Constable Coggley. "He's our man."
"I knew he'd come to a bad end," muttered someone else. "Allus the same wiv these people, ideas above 'is station, never done no one any good."
Pin stood in the midst of the mumblings and accusations, speechless and bemused. Right now he hated them all, with their sly looks and snide remarks. He knew what they thought of his father. It was as plain as the crooked noses and squint eyes on their ugly faces. Pin had learned early that he was different. The children on the street teased him relentlessly, because his mother was from a wealthy family, because she spoke with the soft vowels of the north and not the harsh grating voices of the southerners. But what they resented most of all was that the Carpues claimed to be poor, just like the rest of them. What nonsense, they exclaimed! How could a lady with such manners and airs not have money? And what other reason would Oscar Carpue possibly have for marrying her? It didn't help that Uncle Fabian kept turning up dressed in his finery (though his pockets were empty). Oscar had sent him away time and time again. "We have nothing for you," he said.
The torment had continued even after his mother's death the previous year. After that, people chose to resent the fact that Oscar Carpue wouldn't share his inheritance with his neighbors. "I have no inheritance," he told them more than once. "I'm only a carpenter. We're penniless."
But he never convinced them, and now Fabian was dead, murdered, and once again fingers were pointing at Oscar Carpue. Pin spent the next week scouring the streets day and night, but there was no sign of his father and no word from him. The week after that, Pin had to leave the lodging house. Not only could he no longer afford it on his own, but neither was he welcome. He spent ten miserable days looking for work, finally taken on by Mr. Gaufridus. Thus he was able to take a room at Barton's, though it was his greatest desire to leave there ...
Excerpted from The Bone Magician by F. E. Higgins. Copyright © 2008 F. E. Higgins. Excerpted by permission of Feiwel and Friends.
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