Authors: Paul Stewart
Also available by Paul Stewart & Chris Riddell:
CURSE OF THE NIGHT WOLF
RETURN OF THE EMERALD SKULL
LEGION OF THE DEAD
Winner of the Smarties Prize Gold Medal
Winner of the Nestlé Prize Silver Medal
Winner of the Nestlé Prize Silver Medal
The Quint Trilogy
THE CURSE OF THE GLOAMGLOZER
THE WINTER KNIGHTS
CLASH OF THE SKY GALLEONS
The Twig Trilogy
BEYOND THE DEEPWOODS
MIDNIGHT OVER SANCTAPHRAX
The Rook Trilogy
THE LAST OF THE SKY PIRATES
THE LOST BARKSCROLLS
THE EDGE CHRONICLES MAPS
have suffered the torments of hell,’ whispered the phantom. ‘Now it is your turn, Barnaby Grimes.’
The pungent stench of sea-coal smoke and scorched chemicals made my eyes water and caught in my throat. There were splashes of a thick, viscous liquid on the floor at my feet, and the ornate brass gas lamp which jutted from the wall was ablaze.
A length of crimson silk had been wrapped round the lamp’s mantle and glass cowl. It dulled the glare of the gaslight, its muted light casting the whole room in a hellish red glow. It shone on the low, flaking ceiling, on
the planks of wood nailed across the single window and on rows of portraits pinned to the walls and hanging from the clothes line above my head.
There were men and women. Old and young. A scrivener with a long quill and inky fingers. A butcher in a spattered apron with a dead rabbit raised in one hand. A milkmaid, a river-tough, a chimney-sweep’s young lad … They all gazed down at me in that crimson light, like the lost souls of the damned.
To my left, a splintered bench ran the length of the room, a sink at its centre and three large zinc trays beside it. Shelves, bowing under the weight of glass bottles of dark chemicals and glittering powders, lined the wall above it. To my right were two worm-eaten cupboards and a rickety table, its warped top overflowing with equipment. Scalpels, shears and a paper guillotine; bottles of ink and goosefeather quills; a magnifying glass, a cracked clay pipe and a towering stack of paper that leaned against a box-shaped contraption with brass hinges and a glass top …
They all gazed down at me in that crimson light, like the lost souls of the damned
Directly in front of me was the huge vat, set upon a tripod, its pungent contents bubbling furiously over a white-hot furnace. Thick clouds of crimson steam poured over the side of the cauldron and spilled out across the floor, writhing and squirming as they snaked towards me.
The toxic red steam coalesced and began to wind itself around my ankles, my calves, my knees. It burned my nostrils and stung my eyes. My head swam; my lungs were on fire. The heat made my skin prickle, and the noxious fumes left me gasping for breath as I fought desperately to free myself from the ropes that bound my hands and feet.
Just then, I felt a hand grasping my throat, pulling me out of the chair and forward onto my knees. A second hand grabbed the back of
my head and thrust it forward until my face was inches above the bubbling liquid in the vat.
‘Oh, how it burns, Barnaby Grimes,’ the phantom’s sinister voice hissed, before rising to a high-pitched crescendo. ‘How it burns …
t was Ralph Booth-Prendegast, gentleman jockey and champion steeplechaser, who introduced me to Clarissa Oliphant. I’d helped him to solve the Hightown Derby doping scandal by catching the organgrinder’s monkey and its hypodermic needle, and ‘Raffy’ owed me a favour.
Clarissa Oliphant had been his governess when he was a lad and, when she came to him for help, Raffy passed the work my way. Of course, if I’d known then what I know now, I would have politely declined. Instead, that first meeting with Clarissa Oliphant proved to be the beginning of one of the strangest and
darkest episodes of my life; one that, like the new fashion for photogravure portraiture that was starting to spread through the city, was to be etched indelibly into my memory.
It all started on one of those crisp autumn mornings, all too rare in the city, when the fallen leaves crunch underfoot, yellow and fringed with frost, and the sky is as blue as a morpho butterfly’s wings – a Friday, as I recall. I highstacked across town, leaping from rooftop to gable, to the outskirts of Hightown.
I’m a tick-tock lad by trade, paid to deliver anything and everything anywhere in this great city of ours and as fast as I can because, tick-tock, time is money. For yours truly, that means climbing up the nearest drainpipe and running across the city’s rooftops – or highstacking – as we tick-tock lads call it.
Taking care as I clambered over a jutting cornice, slippery with frost, I came down from the rooftops at the corner of Aspen Row. According to Raffy, Clarissa Oliphant,
together with her brother Laurence, lived at number 12, and was expecting me.
The house was set in the middle of a terrace of smart town houses, with ornate black railings and white bow-windows. I climbed the marble steps, raised my swordstick and rapped smartly on the shiny black door.