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A Festival of Skeletons, Ch 1: Murder In Kamphor!

This is a preview of the first three chapters of RJ Astruc’s A Festival of Skeletons. Purchase it now!

Step one: Identify the positive things in your life.

That morning the mortician ate oranges in his kitchen and eavesdropped on the local revolutionaries. The morgue backed onto an apartment complex, and shared its balcony with the residents of the second floor. These were student types for the most part, rattily dressed young alcoholics who attended the university seven blocks south of the slums. From the comfort of their lounge room they plotted to usurp Kamphor’s reigning Emperor, effect complete tax reform, and install a welfare system for the poor. Snatches of their conversations drifted through the hot summer air to the mortician’s ears – words like ‘socio-economic’ and ‘humanitarianism’ and ‘altruism’. The drunker they were, the more -isms they used.

‘A true revolution,’ the students called it, or, if they were in a less optimistic mood, ‘the beginning of the End.’ Either way, they were adamant a change was coming, even if it was not strictly political in nature. It was in the air, it was in the earth, it was in the sea, and even the non-magical could sense it. A build up of pressure, like those minutes of stifled, pregnant silence which preceded a sea-storm. ‘It’s coming,’ the students repeated eagerly amongst themselves. ‘It’s coming;’ ‘It’s almost on us;’ ‘The start of the new world;’ and so on, until the mortician could feel his skin itching from the sheer wretchedness of it all.

It was not that he didn’t understand their discontent. He was simply tired of hearing it – and their blaring music. Asking them politely to quiet down usually had no effect. Neither did bladed threats to call the police. The only way to silence the students for any appreciable length of time was for the mortician to make an appearance on their joint balcony. One step outside, and their political diatribes would stutter to a standstill. They’d watch him, agape, as he strutted back and forth in his heels.

If he were feeling in a sprightly mood he’d flash them a glimpse of taut calf muscle, perhaps even shimmy a little, let the silk ride low over his hips, and tighten against his thighs. They responded best to the skimpier articles in his collection, although he did have some pleasant memories of the day he’d turned out in a white lacey full length skirt, several layers of petticoats, and a corset which cinched his waist to an impressive eighteen inches.

That had shut them up for an hour and twenty three minutes, the mortician’s greatest record so far.

He toyed with the idea of seeking out that particular garment today, but it was too early in the morning to muster the strength required for a good strut. Furthermore, his two apprentices were yet to show their faces, and he needed at least one of them on hand to help fasten the corset’s strings. Still picking at a half-eaten orange, the mortician shuffled out onto the balcony in his nightgown and slippers, in order to better appraise the situation.

To his chagrin he observed that the students had opened their window, but left the curtain down. He rapped his knuckles against the blind. A few seconds later the blind shot upwards and a girl’s flustered face appeared before him, shrouded by a haze of cigarette smoke.

‘What the fuck do you want now?’

Arifia Fawles. A recent student-recruit of the Kamphor guard, her rich father from Sorethar subsidised her second floor rent. Of all the residents of the second floor, she was the only one who wasn’t unnerved by the mortician’s wardrobe choices. Many of their past quarrels had nearly come to blows. The mortician considered her proof positive that people under the age of twenty one should be seen and not heard.

‘Noise,’ the mortician replied. ‘Too much of it. If you would be so kind as to -’


‘In that case, we shall have to register a complaint with -’

‘Who’s complaining?’ Arifia sneered. ‘The dead? They can’t hear us, Benny.’

Used to dealing with hysterical mourners, the mortician did not find her manner jarring in the slightest, but took umbrage in her final word. Benny. The mortician preferred to be known as Mr. Sink, Sink, or – if it was absolutely necessary – Ebeneezer. Evidently, Arifia had been doing some eavesdropping of her own. Given the nature of the activities the mortician enjoyed in the wee hours of evenings, he considered such a transgression both a breach of his privacy and (far more worrying) a potential prelude to numerous lawsuits.

He did the only thing he could think of doing: he slapped her. Hard, across the face. Her neck jerked oddly; her eyes filled with tears, but to her credit the girl didn’t respond in kind. ‘Freak,’ she spluttered instead. ‘Go off and shag a dead person, why don’t you.’

‘I do not shag the dead,’ Sink replied coldly. ‘I merely show them a good time.’

Arifia slammed the window shut in his face, which Sink saw as a victory of sorts. He returned to the kitchen wringing his sore hand. He’d broken a nail – a minor tragedy – but found consolation in the fact that the wicked little Sorethar girl would get what was coming to her. In ten years, six months, and twelve days, to be precise. A nasty incident with a boat, a stoned merkind, and a reef at low tide – if Sink wasn’t greatly mistaken.

He rarely was.

Death-telling was a gift he’d been born to, one of the purer magic abilities that floated through Kamphor’s wretchedly hot air. A pure magic, but not powerful. It was a passive gift, he’d been told. In the grander scheme of things it meant nothing. Nevertheless, it had briefly gained him a position in the household of Gavistan’s Emperor, three hundred miles from his home province. The magical talents of the Emperor’s aides were extensive, but did not include prophecy. The Emperor had jumped at the chance to welcome the young seer into his province.

Sink’s manner, however, swiftly proved unsuitable for the Emperor’s court. He had a tendency to show up in women’s lingerie and make disruptive comments when people were slow in passing him the salt. ‘Twenty two years, six months, four days and counting,’ he’d murmur sepulchrally from his chair at the offending Duke or Duchess, or, ‘Watch out you don’t choke on your dinner, won’t you?’

In three months he’d given the entire court more complexes than the Emperor was able to deal with. The mortician was dismissed without ceremony and sent back to Kamphor, where he learnt – not with much surprise – that his father had recently passed away. Leaving his only son the morgue, a hefty inheritance, and the lifestyle Sink had always dreamed of.

His death-telling ability made his work easier. His other ability, the one he’d made a point of hiding since the Gavistan fiasco, made it fun.

It was the awareness of an impending death that had roused him this morning. Usually the mortician rolled over and ignored these warnings, especially if they happened to occur during the weekend. But today’s death – a local blue-blood – promised to be an exciting one, and Sink didn’t intend to miss it. After finishing his orange, he tripped off to take out his curlers and locate some appropriately deviant attire. A day earlier he’d appropriated a school girl uniform from an unfortunate suicide, an outfit complete with long white stockings and pink ribbons. A small, light man, the clothes fitted as if they had been made for him, but the girl’s shoes gave him a little trouble. He settled for the patent leather six inch heels he’d been saving up for his mother’s funeral (two months, six days, and counting).

Once dressed, and feeling appropriately naughty, he spent a further few minutes practicing a pout in the bathroom mirror. Finally satisfied with his appearance, the mortician swiped his purse from the kitchen table and teetered off into the hallway. One of his prodigal apprentices, Joshua Finkle, was waiting for him in the entrance hall.

‘What’s happening?’ Joshua asked, accepting responsibility for Sink’s purse. ‘Someone dying?’

‘Two hours, seventeen minutes, and counting,’ Sink said briskly.

‘Anyone we know?’

‘A Duchess. Duchess Bettina Degas. So no. Perhaps. Maybe. We shall see – ah.’

He stopped, pressing a hand to his forehead. The mortician swayed dangerously on his heels, until his assistant felt bound to prop him up.

‘Sir?’ Joshua ventured hesitantly.

‘They’re bloody right,’ Sink said, coming out of his reverie with bad grace. ‘Those idiot students – there’s something in the air.’


Kamphor’s westernmost morgue was situated, fittingly, on a dead-end road; it concluded the cobbled alley that led westward from the floating merkind slums. No more than a half-block from the harbour, the odour of rotting fish burdened the surrounding air and the chatter of dockside vendors was audible, if slightly muffled. Piles of detritus (animal, vegetable, and mineral) lined the brick walls of neighbouring buildings, but remained curiously absent from the morgue’s frontage.

A modest, two story edifice, the morgue’s windows were painted black, the stones weathered and frosted with a patina of dust, and only the battered sign swinging from its eaves revealed it to be the occupancy and workplace of a ‘Mr. Ebeneezer Sink, Mortician.’ In concession to the capricious nature of mortality (death waits not for the 9am early shift), the front door was always left ajar.

It was outside this particular door that Vona Urgarth currently knelt, a soap-filled bucket within reach. Due to the perverse whimsy of her employer, it fell upon Vona to clean the cobbles each humid Kamphor morning. Sink had outlined a belt of forty feet about the morgue that had to be kept spotless at all times. With the sun drying out her back, the uneven stones digging into her bony knees, Vona scoured the ground with a salt-drenched scrubbing brush and tried to think happy thoughts.

The previous weekend she had flouted her employer’s orders and attended a motivational course for young and upwardly mobile merkind, an experience that had taught her the profound art of visualising her goals. Although this talent had yet to clarify its relevance to her future prospects, Vona could now vividly picture herself beating Mr. Sink to death with her own broom, a mental image which, if not precisely inspiring, at least made the tedious job of cobble-scrubbing marginally more bearable.

She also had a copy of the local rag at hand to keep her entertained. Today’s issue of the Kamphor Times, a newspaper infamous for its yellow journalists and purple prose, rested against her bucket. The front page article, subtly entitled: ‘Murder in Kamphor!’ epitomised the paper’s editorial style. Vona roved its contents lazily.

Bad news in little Kamphor! Yet another young woman has been found dead in Kamphor’s notorious East End. A guard representative discovered the grotesquely mutilated body of Cassy Ethern during a routine patrol yesterday morning. According to inside sources, the woman was first strangled to death, then shot repeatedly by an unknown assassin.

Is this the work of the Knife? The owner of Kamphor’s recently established eastern morgue, Damien Torvault, had no hesitation in claiming this was another victim of Kamphor’s infamous scourge. ‘The deaths all follow the same pattern,’ Torvault told reporters yesterday. ‘It’s clear the Knife has returned to wreak vengeance on the innocent.’

Whether this is true or not will be up to the palace guard to prove–

She would have read on, but at this moment a smooth brown hand interposed itself between her eyes and the text and shook itself to commandeer her attention. Vona sighed.

‘Good morning, Joshua,’ she said.

‘It’s rubbish,’ said Joshua primly, taking the Kamphor Times. ‘Tabloids. Speculation and hearsay. You’ll rot your brain, reading that nonsense.’ He slapped the paper once, remonstratively, before unfolding it to scan the headlines.

‘And cleaning cobbles is intellectually stimulating?’

Joshua ran a bitten-down fingernail across the print, clicking his tongue at intervals in a way Vona found uniquely irritating. ‘Absolute rubbish,’ he concluded, finishing the article. ‘No understanding of the basic tenements of criminology.’

‘I think you mean tenets. Tenements are what you live in. Tenets are what you live by.’

Joshua’s brow furrowed. ‘No,’ he corrected her. ‘I live by a fishmongers.’

I am far, far too overqualified for this job, Vona thought, not for the first time. Staring blankly at the salty scrubbing brush in her hand, she remembered the mantras of her motivational course. If I put my mind to it, I can be anything I want to be. Great in theory, but impossible in practice. No matter how well-educated and well-spoken she happened to be, no one in their right mind would seek to employ a girl with blue skin, three sets of razor sharp teeth, webbed fingers, gills, and a conspicuous lack of eyelids.

Speciesist stereotyping, her motivational tutor had said. People just didn’t believe merkind could be anything but fishermen and a nuisance. Vona supposed she should be grateful for what she had. If Mr. Sink wasn’t certifiably nutty, she probably wouldn’t even be able to scrub cobbles for a living.

Aloud, she said, ‘Forget it, Josh.’

‘I don’t like it when people get things wrong,’ said Joshua petulantly, huffing at the newspaper.

Vona rolled her eyes. ‘Look, everyone knows these latest East End murders have nothing to do with the Knife. Everyone knows that Torvault is only saying so to get in cahoots with the guard. Everyone knows that half the stuff printed in the Kamphor Times is bullshit. Most importantly, I know it, so you don’t have to keep telling me.’ She sighed. ‘It’s not even happening on our side of the city, so I don’t know why you’re worried about it.’

‘But Mr. Sink hates Mr. Torvault…’

‘Yes, I guessed that after I saw the little Torvault-themed dartboard he has up in the kitchen. Not to mention all those cute Torvault-is-a-bastard poems he comes up with when he’s drunk.’ Vona smirked. ‘How did they go again?

‘There once was a young man named Torvault,

‘Whose ass-kissing never came to a halt,

‘He wore silly glasses,

‘And sought the love of the masses,

‘And was a complete and utter bastard and should die, die, die…’

Joshua curled his lip. ‘That wasn’t one of his better ones,’ he said. ‘Some of them were quite good. It’s very hard to find anything that rhymes with Torvault. At any rate,’ he added, turning up his nose, ‘I think it’s admirable that a man like Mr. Sink isn’t ashamed to express his feelings creatively.’

‘As if his dress sense wasn’t creative enough.’

‘Mr. Sink is unique,’ said Joshua coldly. ‘And I thought the latex corset with the hot pants was very flattering.’

Mr. Sink this, Mr. Sink that. Joshua Finkle, sycophant extraordinaire. Vona couldn’t recall having a conversation with him that hadn’t contained glowing admiration for the ideologies and quirks of their inscrutable employer. Bloody Joshua – now there was a tragic waste of potential. Six feet tall, devastatingly good-looking (albeit in a clean-cut mummy’s boy way), and so devoted to Sink that it would make a dog sick.

He’d shown up on the morgue’s doorstep the previous winter. Public relations, Sink explained, when Vona asked why an essentially one-man and one-merkind operation like the morgue needed new blood. That was fine by Vona. She loathed talking to live customers at the best of times. In addition to his other qualifications (pretty smile, nice hair, great back-patting skills for use on grieving relatives), Joshua fancied himself an expert on the criminal mind. He filled scrapbooks with newspaper clippings and avidly consumed psycho-analytic literature.

From the scattered conversations she’d overheard, Joshua was also a recovering addict of some description. Alcoholic, most likely. She didn’t pick him for a hard drug user or a gambler.

Joshua patted the newspaper again, pushing out his lower lip. ‘Have you finished out here yet?’

‘My sense of self worth has diminished considerably, if that’s what you mean,’ Vona said, rising to her feet.

‘Good. We’re going to make a house call. A Duchess died. Or will in the next two hours and six minutes,’ he added, consulting his watch. ‘Mr. Sink said something about people dying wrong – he wasn’t very clear about the details. Perhaps it has something to do with this Torvault business. He seems upset.’

The poor wee dear, Vona wanted to say, but knew intuitively that the sarcasm would be lost on Joshua. She raised a hand to her forehead. ‘I suppose I have to come along in case there’s anything there that needs cleaning,’ she grumbled. ‘Sometimes I wish the Knife would pay Sink a bloody visit.’

‘Why, Miss Urgarth,’ said Sink. ‘What a very odd thing to say.’

The mortician was sitting – rather sacrilegiously – on a creamy marble altar just inside the morgue’s front door, his long, red-nailed fingers toying with the pleats of his skirt. It was impossible to tell how long he’d been listening to their conversation. Tiny, fragile, with all the charm and grace of a stick insect, he looked like a particularly ugly doll. Nose like the business end of a pick axe, dark-tinted spectacles, frivolous pink taffeta school dress, knee high white socks, and a jaunty pair of curly red pigtails tied neatly into place with pink ribbons. Two round circles of rouge flushed his sallow cheeks, and his thin mouth was outlined with a glaring red cupid’s bow.

‘Joshua is quite right, Vona,’ he said, as the merkind girl gnawed her nails. ‘I dare say that a serial killer who goes by the epithet ‘the Knife’ tends not to murder his victims by strangling and shooting them. And I dare say that Damien Torvault should mind his own business, or at least try his best to remove his foot from his mouth before he chokes on it. Nasty little upstart. We will have words to say to him.’

‘Sir,’ Vona spluttered.

‘We’ve time before we check on the Duchess,’ Sink announced. ‘Bad form, anyway, for the mortician to show up before death. So we’re going to the East End. There’s some body there I need to see.’


June was the hottest month in Kamphor. The days were clogged with a leaden humidity from which the nights provided scant respite. At low tide the waves spat salt-scum onto the beaches, mud brick walls cracked and crisped, and market street vendors were forced to bring their produce indoors before it spoiled in the sun. During the heat wave even the most ‘civilised’ of merkind were seldom seen ashore, and certainly not as far afield as the East End. The heat caused their external gills to flake a salty precipitate, which necessitated regular bathing and often, if left untreated, caused irritation and chaffing.

As discreetly as she could, Vona stuck a hand under her shirt and scratched. From the positioning of the sun she estimated the time was somewhere in the vicinity of eleven o’clock. Most of the East End’s locals were already at work, although a few scuttled past their odd group on the road – usually swapping to the other side of the street if they had a chance to. Sink’s attire had that effect on people.

Fifteen minutes of itching later, they stopped at a crossroads. Vona sat in a horse trough while Joshua helped Sink extract a stiletto heel from a crack in the cobbles.

‘Are we nearly there yet?’ she called, flicking water at Joshua.

‘Yes. I think we are. What I do not know is -’ Sink frowned, turning.

Identical terraced houses lined the East End’s streets. In a small courtyard to the far left a gaggle of domestic staff and street urchins surrounded a young woman in her late teens. She wore a fawn coat resplendent with buckles, ballooning trousers reminiscent of slave girl pantaloons, a gold crown constructed in its entirety of straw and chain, and paraded back and forth across the cobbles, the pink parasol she held thrust forward at intervals to mimic the feinting of a sword. Her audience jeered and applauded in turn.

Squinting against the light, Vona recognised the girl from a short street play she’d watched at the West End docks. Laucett Something-or-other, an aspiring actress from the wrong side of town. ‘If you’re having trouble sensing things, sir,’ she said, climbing reluctantly from the trough, ‘we could always ask.’

They walked over. Vona dripped. Squeezing through the circle’s ranks to the front, Sink loudly cleared his throat.

Laucett paused mid-pirouette, glanced over her shoulder, did a double take, and dropped her parasol. Ever helpful Joshua stepped in to retrieve it for her, while Vona blushed as red as her blue skin permitted. The others gaped in shocked silence.

‘I hate to intrude,’ Sink told them, tweaking at the pleats of his skirt, ‘but could you be so kind as to direct me to the body?’

Laucett blinked. ‘Body?’

‘Body. Corpse. Cadaver. Carcass. Stiff. No doubt getting stiffer the longer you dither.’

‘You’re a bit late, if you wanna see the hooker.’ A stupendously fat red-haired youth in a kitchenhand uniform waddled forward. ‘Cassy Ethern – she’s in the brothel. Number fourteen. They’re preparing for her wake now.’ He looked Sink up and down. ‘You’re the mortician, ain’t you? I hate to tell you, mate, but the weedy guy from the East morgue arrived here yesterday to do the honours. Mr. Torvault – eh, shit, I didn’t mean to -’

‘Twelve years, six months, four days,’ Sink growled at the youth. ‘A very nasty case of syphilis.’

‘There’s a saying, sir, about not shooting the messenger,’ Vona panted, as the three of them marched up the street toward number fourteen. ‘That poor kid won’t go near a whore for the rest of his life, after what you just -’

‘No more should he,’ said Joshua righteously.

The merkind peeled back her blue lips and treated her co-worker to a display of exceedingly sharp teeth, cluttered as the mouth of a piranha. ‘I think you missed the point, Joshua,’ she grated. ‘The point being that it’s not polite to doom someone to horrible fate when all they did was -’

Sink held up a thin, elegantly manicured hand. Vona glared. ‘Oh, forget it,’ she said crossly. ‘I’m going back to the trough. It’s not as if you really need me around anyway.’


The front door of number fourteen was unlocked. Joshua supposed brothels had the same all-hours policy as morgues did. Three scantily dressed young women hovered in the foyer. Tearfully, they directed Sink and Joshua into an adjoining room.

The body of Cassy Ethern lay on a long table covered in white cloth, dressed sumptuously in purple velvet. Unlit candles ringed her body in preparation for the wake. Musk incense thickened the air. It was a fine send-off for a whore. At Cassy’s side stood a thin man with slick blond hair and intense blue eyes, daubing cosmetics on her cheeks. To Joshua’s skeptical eye, Damien Torvault looked more like an accountant than a mortician. Cheap suit, he noted. Inexpensive hair cut. Shaky left hand. Unpolished shoes. At his temples Joshua saw a premature sprinkling of gray.

This was the man who claimed to be a better mortician than his beloved Mr. Sink? The man who purported to know the mind and methods of Kamphor’s most infamous serial murderer? Joshua wrinkled his nose.

‘My word,’ said Sink, sliding into the room behind Joshua. ‘This is turning into quite the event. With my dear friend Mr. Torvault in the thick of it. Making alliances with the guard. Arriving at the scene of the crime before me. Anyone would think he was trying to run me out of business.’

‘Your paranoia is getting the better of you,’ said Torvault, without looking up. ‘If it’s any consolation, you would have been these whores’ first choice of mortician. When you didn’t arrive immediately they assumed you had better things to do and sent for me. I thought it was odd that you didn’t come. You always did have a soft spot for murder victims. This one – Cassy – was strangled to death. At least, that’s what my death certificate says, but you are quite welcome to offer a second opinion. Although I can’t imagine that the guard would be happy to hear it.’ He cupped the corpse’s cheek and tutted beneath his breath. ‘Why didn’t you come, Ebeneezer?’

‘The timing is wrong,’ said Sink coldly. ‘There is interference.’

Torvault whistled. ‘I never thought I’d hear you admitting fallibility.’

‘My timing is off. My timing is never off. Something is gravely amiss and I shall certainly be having words with people. An interference. A weirdness. I have not put my finger on it, but when I do -’

‘When you do I am sure there will be trouble. As if there is not enough in this province already. Merkind insurrection. Unstable politics. And, let’s not forget, the return of the Knife…’

‘Rot,’ said Joshua promptly. ‘I’ve read the papers, Mr. Torvault, and I can assure you that it’s completely ludicrous to associate -’

Torvault raised an eyebrow. ‘Your new assistant, Ebeneezer?’ he inquired. ‘What is this one? An overachiever? An outsider? A necrophiliac? A sociopath? Impotent? Magical? A were-creature? Vampire? Or just plain mad? You always did know how to pick them. That frigid merkind bitch I’ve seen trailing after you, why, she’s positively normal compared to some of the others.’ He rounded the table to examine Joshua. ‘This one seems rather too good, too well spoken, too attractive to be a mortician’s dogsbody… I wonder what unspeakable neurosis led him to you. Quite ordinary on the outside. But see that little twitch developing in his left eye – ah, there it is again! Yes, I think what we have here is an obsessive compulsive with mild anxiety, compounded by a turbulent relationship with an uncaring mother. Perhaps an abusive childhood – an overly affectionate uncle, possibly – prone to fits of violence and a jealous temper – a rapist?’

Joshua blinked. ‘Oh dear,’ he said. ‘That’s an awfully terrible thing to say.’

‘Ah. A fear of confrontation, too. A natural submissive. Possibly a masochist. Or sadist.’ Torvault smirked, turning his bright eyes to Sink. ‘Of course, that’s just my layman’s opinion. No doubt you, Ebeneezer, have found in him far more exploitable weaknesses than I could ever dream up -’

‘How is your family, Damien?’ Sink interrupted.

Torvault blanched.

‘If you are finished intimidating my staff,’ said Sink, ‘I suggest you step aside and allow me to inspect the body.’

‘What if I don’t let you?’

‘Then I’m sure that a certain sadist prone to fits of violence will convince you to reconsider,’ said Sink, with a nod to Joshua. ‘Come to think of it, Damien, you do resemble his uncle.’

‘And my mother,’ said Joshua, casually flexing a bicep.

Glowering, Torvault scooped up his cosmetics bag and stepped away. ‘You won’t find anything,’ he said, as Sink teetered to the corpse’s side. ‘Strangled and shot. But what difference does it make? She’s still dead, whether the Knife did it or not. A dead whore. She doesn’t matter. And you know the courts don’t put much stake in magical expert opinion without solid evidence -’

‘These were the clothes she died in?’

‘You must be joking. I put this outfit together myself.’

‘Her old clothes?’

‘Covered in blood. I burnt them.’

‘Even her shoes?’

‘He shot her a lot.’

The morticians glared at each other over their spectacles. Sink pursed his lips in a moue of annoyance. ‘You did that to spite me, didn’t you?’

‘Maybe. This is my body, Ebeneezer. I won’t have you bullying your way into the Knife investigation. You’ve made a joke of morticians everywhere, and it’s about time that someone in this province does things properly. Someone who analyses evidence, who observes protocol, and above all, conducts a proper autopsy instead of putting on the corpse’s clothes and dancing around in them. No fancy magics and no death-telling and the rest of it. Just good, old fashioned procedure.’

‘Get out,’ said Sink.

Torvault bridled. ‘I’m preparing for her wake, you can’t tell me -’


Clutching his bag to his chest, Torvault stamped off. ‘Don’t look so smug,’ he hissed at Joshua, who was helpfully holding the door. ‘You’re new to his little crew. Just you wait a month, pretty boy. Just you wait until he starts getting weird on you. Then you’ll find out you got more than you bargained for. Much, much more.’

‘Aren’t you forgetting something, Mr. Torvault,’ Sink asked.


‘You’re supposed to end your psychotic rant with fist waving and evil laughter. It’s only fitting -’ The door slammed. ‘That young man has become rather tiresome,’ Sink said, drifting to the corpse to unfasten the elaborate purple bodice. ‘Not to mention pitifully optimistic. It would be utterly impossible for him to run me out of business. Unlike me, he has scruples. Very awkward, especially in our line of work. Ah – light a candle, Joshua, and come over here. Tell me what you make of this.’

Joshua did as he was told. For all Sink’s dispersions, Torvault’s talent – at least as a tailor – was remarkable. The girl had been shot at close range with a rifle. Four crisp lines of stitching marked the entry holes, some equal to the breadth of Joshua’s hand. Joshua looked at her face. Torvault had done a fair job there, too. She looked pretty. If it wasn’t for the heavy bruising about her neck, she could have been merely sleeping.

‘Well, my little criminologist,’ said Sink. ‘Here’s a puzzle for you. What sort of mad man shoots a woman after she’s dead?’

Joshua clucked his tongue. ‘With that sort of aggravated mutilation post… post-um-death, I’d say it was a domestic murder, sir. Temporary insanity, you know how it is. Only there’s been two more before this one. Strangled, then shot. I have all the clippings,’ he added, with no small amount of pride. ‘Exactly the same. And certainly nothing like the Knife.’

‘Have you asked your – ah – Fifteen Step friends?’ Sink pressed.

‘They’re as stuck on this one as the guard,’ said Joshua, turning up his nose. ‘If they knew, they’d have told me. They tell me everything. Our murderer here is a loner. Not a sexually motivated killer, though. No abuse of the victims. Besides the, um, obvious.’ His fingers wandered the dead girl’s torso, hovering a few millimeters above her pallid flesh. ‘It’s fascinating. Strangulation is a very, um, personal way to kill someone. Face to face. A hands-on business. But if you look at the markings on her neck, you can see he strangled her from behind. I’d say he’s some sort of moral freak, out to cull the East End’s whore population. Only -’ He took a deep breath. ‘Only for some reason, I don’t think that’s it, either. He has no emotional investment, that’s the problem. No emotional investment in his victims, at least. He’s just… killing.’

‘That offends you on some level, doesn’t it,’ Sink said.

Joshua sucked in his lower lip. ‘All senseless death offends me,’ he said, in a tight voice.

‘Of course it does.’ Sink pressed a small hand to Joshua’s arm, digging in his red nails a little too hard. ‘I expect that everything about this killer hits very, very close to home. While his methods aren’t similar to the Knife’s by any stretch of the imagination, I can see why Torvault came to that conclusion. There’s a detachment. No real clues. No insight into his character. He’s either very insane or very clever, and I have a terrible feeling it might be the latter. One thing is for sure – the next time he kills, we’re going to get to the body before Torvault does. I need the clothes.’

‘We could just go to the market and buy some,’ said Joshua.

Sink tilted his head to one side and stared at Joshua over the rims of his spectacles. ‘The point, Joshua.’


‘You missed it again.’

Outside they found Vona in the horse trough, squirting jets of water at passing ibis and small children. She swung her blue legs out with a splash, drenching the hems of Joshua’s trousers. ‘If my watch is right,’ she said, ‘you’re overdue for your appointment with the Duchess. I thought that since Joshua is your assistant, I could be – well, like a secretary. I know you might not be keen on the idea right now, but I assure you I’m very good at filing things and I write brilliant short-hand and -’

Sink and Joshua exchanged looks.

Vona threw up her webbed hands. ‘I’ll go home and tidy the kitchen, shall I,’ she said.

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