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Authors: Jennifer Bell

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BOOK: The Crooked Sixpence
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There was silence as Ivy allowed this information to wash over her. Ethel reached down and picked up the crooked sixpence, depositing it back in Ivy's lap. ‘But if Sylv 'as been sent that coin, it can only mean one thing.'

‘The Dirge are back,' Ivy finished with a gulp. ‘That's what you were going to say, isn't it?'

Before Ethel could respond, a high screech filled the air. ‘
Ethel!?
'

Ivy flinched.

‘
Underguard Sergeant to see you, Ethel! Ethel? Can you hear me?
'

The bell on the desk
; Ivy recognized its voice.

Ethel sprang out of her seat like a jack-in-the-box. ‘Put it away,' she whispered, looking at the coin. ‘Find somewhere to hide.' She laid a hand on Ivy's shoulder. ‘I'll do everything I can to 'elp you.' She turned towards the shop. ‘I can always bloody 'ear you!' she yelled. ‘And so can 'alf the street!' She switched off the lamp, then marched through the door and slammed it shut behind her. For the second time that morning Ivy was plunged into darkness.

Chapter Twelve

Ivy dropped to the floor, feeling her way forward. Ethel's story about the Dirge was still running though her head, but so was Ethel's last instruction.

Hide
.

She crawled past what she remembered was a row of bells and headed for the furthest corner, disturbing the dusty straw as she did so. She had to pinch her nose to stop herself from sneezing.

Muffled voices came from the front of the shop; she could only make out the odd word.

‘Ms Dread . . .'

There was a rustle and the screech of a chair being dragged across the floor.

‘. . . trespassers. Uncommoners . . . haven't taken the glove. There is a warrant out for their arrest. A girl and a boy. Here are the details . . .'

Ethel muttered a complaint.

‘We still need to search the premises. You never know who or what may stow away.'

Ivy started.
Search the premises?
But . . . they'd find her. She was in total darkness; she had no idea if there
was
anywhere to hide, let alone how to get there. She shuffled forward as fast as she could. Her heart was pounding.

The storeroom seemed to go on for ever. Eventually the underguard's voice faded away. Ivy began to wonder if there was a back door to the room or a hatch in the wall.

Ahead of her, she spotted a sliver of light coming up through the floor, illuminating a narrow shaft of dust. She inched towards it and rummaged around in the straw, to find that one of the floorboards had a hole in it about the width of her thumb. If there was light beneath her, she thought, there might also be a way out. She gave the floorboard a tug and felt it groan, but it seemed to be stuck.

She reached into the darkness next to her and ran her hands over one of the shelves. She needed a tool to lever the floorboard up. Wave after wave of tingly heat flowed into her fingers as they touched a number of oddly shaped uncommon objects. Eventually her hands met something cool.

Something common.

It was long and heavy, with a scratchy fabric covering. Ivy pulled it down to examine it in the shaft of light. The fabric was an old stained piece of canvas tied with string; wrapped inside it was a small paintbrush and a rusty hammer. She ran her fingers across each one. The string felt uncommon, but the paintbrush and hammer were cool to the touch.

She set to work wedging the hammer into the gap in the wood and pushing down on it with her foot, easing the floorboard away. There was a loud crunch and the board pulled free. Ivy hastily wrenched up the next board along, till the gap in the floor was just big enough for her to squeeze through. She swung her legs over the side, peering into the shadows below.

She didn't know for sure that it would be safer down there, but she didn't fancy her chances with the underguard. She dropped Granma Sylvie's bag and Valian's jacket through first, before grabbing the canvas, string, hammer and paintbrush.

I'll return them
, she decided as she tossed them down before jumping through the gap herself. She didn't want evidence of her escape to be left behind.

Her wellingtons thumped as she landed on a hard surface. She appeared to be in the foundations of the House of Bells – a concrete L-shape with bare bricks around it. In one corner, a wooden hatch swung from its hinges allowing a flicker of light through from the street outside.

There it was: her way out. Ivy slid the floorboards back into place over her head. The space beneath the building was tight, but she was small. With Granma Sylvie's bag over her shoulder, she wrapped the tools in the canvas, stuffed it into Valian's jacket and shoved them both under her arm, then dropped onto her hands and knees and shimmied towards the exit.

Before she had made it to the hatch, she heard a voice.

‘Helping, please!' it whispered. ‘Dear oh. Helping, please!' The voice was high pitched and muffled, with a distinctive lisp; it sounded like a little boy trapped somewhere.

Ivy stopped and looked around.

‘Pleases me find you!' the voice insisted, louder. ‘Mud in the stuck! Mud in the stuck!'

Whoever it was, they didn't seem to be talking in coherent sentences. Ivy scanned the ground, looking for mud. The concrete floor finished a short distance from the edge of the building, leaving a few inches of soil. Ivy crawled towards it.

‘Yes, am I here!' The voice was so high now, it sounded like a whistle.

Ivy glanced at the patch of earth. She couldn't see anything trapped in it, but then she didn't know what she was meant to be looking for. She pressed her fingertips into the nearest section. The soil was warm.

Something uncommon? It must be buried
, Ivy thought, prodding it experimentally.

‘Hee-hee! Tickles do you!' the voice said.

Ivy could feel the soil trembling as the voice spoke. She began digging. A metal object the size of a doughnut started to take shape in the earth.

Carefully Ivy picked it up and tried to rub off the remaining mud with her sleeve. There was a small gash at the top and a lever sticking out at the side. She tugged it experimentally. The object vibrated.

‘Goodbye hello,' said the voice.

Ivy frowned and tugged the lever again. There was a giggle. Was she holding a bell? She ran her fingers round it once more. There was only one kind of bell she knew that was this shape. ‘You're a bicycle bell . . .' she realized.

She heard a laugh. ‘Yes, yes, found you. Your name's Scratch. What's mine?'

Ivy tried to make sense of what the bell was saying. ‘Um, my name's Ivy. Do you mean that
your
name's Scratch?'

The bell tinkled. ‘I do not mean what I mean, of course. Scratch got a back-to-fronted problem. Nice to Ivy meet you.'

A back-to-fronted problem? Ivy ran her thumb along the dent on Scratch's top. Maybe the damage prevented him from speaking properly.

Suddenly a creak sounded above her head: someone was walking about in the shop, directly above her. She turned towards the hatch.

‘I've got to go,' she told Scratch. ‘Sorry.'

‘Go, wait! Please Ivy take Scratch! Me don't leavings here.'

‘Shh . . .' Ivy didn't want whoever was upstairs to hear her. She gazed down at Scratch; the warm, tingly sensation in her hand was stronger now, as if she could feel the bell's desperation. ‘OK, fine, I'll get you out of here,' she decided, putting him in her pocket. ‘Just keep your voice down.'

Chapter Thirteen

Behind the House of Bells was a narrow alleyway that smelled of chicken soup and laundry powder. Bin bags were piled at the back doors of shops and dripping Hobsmatch garments hung from washing lines across the path.

Ivy looked in either direction but couldn't see movement. She was safe for the time being.

She paused, trying to decide what to do next. She was worried about what Ethel had said – both about the Dirge and Granma Sylvie's past life as a trader. Ivy didn't know if she should be happy or scared that she was an uncommoner. All she really felt was numb. More than ever, she wished her parents were there.

She tucked all these thoughts away in the back of her mind and tried to concentrate. The underguard station could be in any direction. She wondered if Scratch knew.

‘Scratch, can you help me?' she whispered, taking the little bell out of her pocket. ‘Do you know where the nearest underguard station is?'

‘Of course saviour helping, Ivy.' Scratch shivered. ‘Why go wantings to there?'

Ivy peered down at him as she deciphered what he was saying. His speech seemed to be a mixture of opposites and jumbled sentences. ‘My brother's in there,' she explained. ‘I have to rescue him.'

Scratch went very still. ‘Oh.' After a moment he gave a shudder. ‘I where know Uglies station, but getting not in you out.'

Uglies
. That was one word for them. ‘You know how to get there, but not how to get in or out?' she guessed.

Scratch tinkled.

‘
Right
.' Ivy smiled, pleased she was getting the hang of his speech. She readjusted Granma Sylvie's bag around her shoulder. Judging from the underguard's conversation with Ethel, the streets were packed with people looking for her. She wasn't going to get anywhere without being spotted. ‘I wonder if I can get another invisibility candle . . .' she murmured.

‘Why one another?' Scratch asked her. ‘Again and candle use again.'

Ivy went still. ‘
What . . . ?
' She unzipped her granma's handbag and fumbled blindly for the black candle. When she brought it out into the light, she could see that the wax had regrown. It was now at least half as big as when she'd first been given it. Hope rose up inside her belly, blooming like a flower.

‘What direction for the underguard station?' she asked, blowing out the candle flame.

Scratch squeaked. ‘This corner's round, then wrong.'

Ivy puzzled through his directions.
Round this corner, then right.
She squeezed him gently. ‘Thank you.'

They wound their way through the back streets of the Gauntlet and emerged further up the main road, where a series of cutlery traders were demonstrating the properties of various spoons and forks. Ivy didn't stop to see what an uncommon ladle was capable of; instead, she clutched the invisibility candle to her chest and ducked through the crowd, dodging feet and elbows. As she crossed onto the cobbles, a shadow fell across her path and she looked up to find a tall white obelisk standing proudly in the middle of the road. At eye level was a brass plaque. Ivy stretched up to read it.

The Great Cavern Memorial
In loving memory of the gauntlet
traders who were killed in the
Great Battle against the Fallen Guild
Twelfth Night 1969

Ivy studied the names – at least thirty of them, if not more. She swallowed. It couldn't just be coincidence that the Great Battle had occurred on the same Twelfth Night that Granma Sylvie had disappeared.

As she continued towards the underguard station, she tried to work out how she might rescue Seb, but her thoughts kept slipping back to the Dirge and that crooked sixpence. If the Dirge had sent the
We can see you now
to Granma Sylvie, it meant they'd been searching for her all these years.

Scratch quivered in her pocket. ‘Ivy not almost far now there,' he whispered. ‘Rounding of the corner.'

She made a sharp turn and then came to a halt. The street had opened out into a black marble courtyard filled with . . . Were those
gravestones
?

Ivy examined one nervously. It was engraved with a public notice:

UNCOMMON NEEDLES HAVE EYES.
ASK YOUR LOCAL OFFICER ABOUT NEEDLE CCTV;
IT'S PINPOINT ACCURATE!

The next one along read:

OBSERVE THE TRADING HOURS:
FIRST LIGHT TILL MIDNIGHT.
GUT LAW BREAKERS WILL BE TRACED AND PROSECUTED.

Ivy shuddered. It was eerily quiet. She regarded the surrounding buildings with their smooth granite walls and smoked-glass windows. If there was a design theme here, it was
darkness
. She could see only one set of doors in the entire square and these were iron, with a sign hanging from a hook above them. ‘That's it?' she asked, her voice cracking.

Scratch only shivered. Ivy didn't blame him.

She made her way quickly across the courtyard, her wellies pattering over the marble floor. When she reached the station doors, she paused to read the sign hanging above:

FIRST COHORT UNDERGUARD HQ
COMMANDING OFFICER: LADY SELENA GRIMES,
QUARTERMASTER DE

Ivy grasped the strap of Granma Sylvie's handbag, trying to summon up some courage. She could hear the voices of her mum and dad in her head:
Come on, soldier, you can do this. We believe in you.
She swallowed the lump in her throat and pushed open the doors.

Ivy surveyed the interior of the underguard station with a deepening sense of horror. In addition to the expected underguards, she could see a skull-shaped vase filled with headless flower stems and a collection of large stone urns with the letters RIP etched on the front. There were thick black drapes hanging in the windows and a mahogany picture rail running around the walls from which dangled sepia photos of old bones. The smoke-filled air smelled of strange chemicals, whisky and furniture wax.

Ivy trembled as she went in. Fortunately there seemed to be plenty going on so one noticed when the front doors closed of their own accord.

A dark stone reception desk – unnervingly like a tomb – stood at the back of the room; on it was a black marble cherub holding a silver bell. Behind the desk, underguards in long dark cloaks swished about their business with feathers or toilet brushes.

Ivy felt Scratch shivering in her pocket as she scanned the far wall and counted three doors. The smoked-glass window of the one in the far right-hand corner was engraved with the word
CELLS
.

BOOK: The Crooked Sixpence
7.55Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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