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A Festival of Skeletons, Ch 2: Percy

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

Step two: Isolate the negatives.

The rise of the SNAG, or Sensitive New Age Guy, was a fairly recent phenomenon in Kamphor. Over the last two years feminists had slowly insinuated their doctrines into the province’s communal psyche. Equal rights, equal pay, equal power in relationships. No more washing dishes. Women wanted jobs. Women wanted responsibility. Women wanted a life. Most importantly, women wanted sympathetic men who liked listening to what they had to say and didn’t mind doing the cooking or staying at home to look after the kids. Fearing the label of ‘misogynist’, Kamphor’s eligible menfolk had scrambled to conform. It was now not uncommon to find desperate young men browsing needlework magazines or taking up ballroom dancing and ballet.

Sensitive New Age Desperate Young Men. What these wretched bachelors failed to understand, in Percival Holliday’s less-than-humble opinion, was the fundamental character of womankind. While chicks liked to rant and rave about how disempowered they were, deep down all they really wanted was a good root, a reassurance that their butt didn’t look big, and the responsibility of someone else’s laundry. Acquiescing to their demands disrupted the natural order. Women liked men because men were men. Percy was a man, and he was damned if he wouldn’t act like one.

‘I hate to interrupt you during work, but I’ve been thinking about our relationship,’ Laucett Lithow was saying. ‘I know you don’t like it when I bring it up, but I really feel we should have – have dialogue. We’ve had some lovely times together. I feel that I’m finally getting to know you. But you keep – well, I keep hearing that you’re sleeping with other women. And my friends tell me that you’re just using me for sex. I’m not happy, Perce.’

Percy grunted.

‘I did some soul searching and decided that the problem was with me,’ said Laucett. ‘There must be something I’m doing wrong here. Perhaps I’m forcing you into all this too fast. You don’t like commitment, and I guess I can be clingy. I’m an artist. An actress. I can be pretty melodramatic. And when I thought it over, I realised I was concentrating too hard on my problems, and not paying enough attention to your needs. So today I went out and blew my pay cheque on sexy lingerie, a set of fur-lined handcuffs, and a vat of that chocolate body paint you like.’

‘Did you get round to doing me laundry?’ Percy asked, resting his bulk against the kitchen doorframe.

Laucett simpered. ‘I put it in a basket in your bedroom.’

‘Good girl,’ said Percy. ‘Wanna shag?’

He wasn’t tall, or dark, or handsome. That would almost be like cheating. He was five foot seven, paper-pale, freckled, red haired, and tipped the scales somewhere in the area of three hundred pounds. As a kitchenhand in the Degas’ mansion, he made minimum wage. Aside from the pittance he dutifully sent to his family in Gavistan, he spent his money exclusively on food. Considerate girlfriends funded his rent, his wardrobe, and the vast array of sexual apparatus he’d accumulated over the years. In all honesty he wasn’t into kinky shit, but found that humouring their fantasies usually extended the term of their ‘relationship’ by a good few months.

‘You’re working now, aren’t you?’ Laucett asked.

Percy looked over his shoulder into the kitchens. The majority of the staff were female. The majority of the female staff had, at some point, climbed into bed with him, and all had hinted that they wouldn’t mind having another go of it. The likelihood of anyone daring to protest was minimal. Unfastening his apron, he balled it up and tossed it over his shoulder.

‘I can take ten minutes off. C’mon, Etty.’

The Degas’ mansion was a throwback of Kamphor’s gothic era – five stories of motley stone pillars and archways, foreboding iron gates, lavish ballrooms and dining areas, elaborate masonry, and even a spotlessly gleaming dungeon lair. The overall effect might have been intimidating if it wasn’t shouldered in by kitsch pastel-themed East End terraces.

Percy knew the mansion as intimately as the palm of his right hand, and didn’t think much of it. For all its architectural merit, there were precious few nooks and crannies where you could get in a quick, clandestine screw. Worse, those places that existed were known to all the staff. The hallway closet, Percy discovered, was currently occupied by a maid and a butler. The airing cupboard contained a stable hand and the girl who cleaned the privies. Percy declined their invitation to join in – not because he didn’t want to, but because Laucett was giving him dirty looks.

With his aspiring actress in tow, Percy stomped upstairs. There was at least one room up there, he thought with a smirk, which had good mood lighting.

‘Can we pretend that I’m a hooker and you’re a client?’ Laucett whispered, as they stole inside. ‘I’m auditioning for the part of a prostitute in a musical next week. A prostitute with a heart of gold.’ She put on her most winning smile. ‘I can come up to you and act all sultry, and -’

‘I don’t have all bloody day,’ said Percy, elbowing the door shut and kicking off his shoes.

‘Huh. You’re always like that. You never support me. All you want me for is -’

‘You’re such a big nasty poo, Perce,’ Percy mimicked, pitching his voice at a wavering falsetto. ‘I’m going to stamp me foot at you. Oh! Stamp! Take that!’ He rolled his eyes. ‘For goodness sake, take off your bloody pants, woman. Ten minutes, I said.’

‘Oh, sorry. Wait, where are we -?’

‘Heh,’ said Percy. ‘Take a look.’

Laucett peered curiously around, one hand raised to ward off incense smoke. ‘I don’t see what sort of place this is,’ she began, frowning. ‘Just a study of some kind. Or maybe not, with all this chalk on the floor. And all these nice candles. Funny shaped table, don’t you think? If it is a table. Looks more like a coffin – oh shit! There’s a dead body in there!’

Percy pried the trembling girl off his neck. ‘Yeah. Duke Rochare’s aunt,’ he said, grinning. ‘Duchess Bettina. Died this morning. That’s why that Sink guy was hovering around the area. Laid her out nice, though, didn’t he? Woman looks a sight better dead than she ever did alive. I like the mascara. You should try doing your eyes like that, Etty.’

Warily, Laucett followed him to the coffin’s side. ‘You’re sick, Perce,’ she said weakly.

Duchess Bettina Degas. She must have been sixty or so, though pretty well preserved for an old bird. Percy couldn’t really remember what she’d been like when alive. A vague, quiet presence in the Degas mansion. The rest of the staff barely noticed she’d gone. Even speculations on the manner of her death were exhausted within an hour of her passing. The Duchess was found dead in her bed – the best way to go, in Percy’s opinion. Of course, when he ventured from this mortal coil, he intended to have a lot of other people in the bed with him.

A lot of syphilitic people, if that weird, cross-dressing mortician was right.

‘You naked yet?’ he asked, prodding the Duchess’ pallid face with a plump forefinger.

Laucett stamped her foot, diva-style. ‘Perce! I’m not getting undressed with a dead person in the room! That’s just gross. And please, please stop touching her. There’s a name for people who do things like that.’

‘Yeah. Mr. Sink.’ Weak as it was, the line got a smile out of her – a good sign. He slunk over to a comfy couch opposite the coffin and sprawled across it. The springs squeaked. ‘C’mon, girl. I thought you were an actress. Pretend I’m a client, and you’re a whore. Think of the money. You’ve got like, um, kids you wanna feed and stuff. Yeah. Think of little Johnny at home, starving unless his mum takes her kit off and gets all hot and sweaty with Mr. Holliday.’

‘I don’t know, Perce…’

‘Uh-oh.’ Percy unbuckled his belt. ‘You’ll make Mr. Holliday angry. And that means he ain’t gonna be interested in paying the big bucks. It’ll ruin your reputation. Who wants a hooker who don’t put out, eh?’

‘Oh, Perce…’

‘That’s Mr. Holliday to you.’

You had to understand women. It was a form of psychology, Percy supposed. You worked out what made them tick, then you exploited it. When he met Laucett Lithow three months before, she’d been a feminist and, according to local gossip, a lesbian. It had taken him a week’s worth of contrived flattery and casual verbal abuse to bully her into laundry duty.

‘Perce, you’re so…’

‘Uh-huh.’

Stupid men made women feel good about themselves. Clever men made women feel good about being with them.

‘Oh, baby -’

‘Shut the heck up, woman.’

They were working their way to a hot and steamy climax when Laucett froze. Percy bounced at her crossly. ‘Oi, girlfriend…’

‘Look, Perce.’

Percy looked.

The corpse was sitting up.

It sat awkwardly, like someone had shoved a spike up its back. Its hands drooped by its sides, one flopping loosely over the coffin’s side. Its powdered, sallow face looked white as a skeleton’s. The bright red mouth twitched. The perfectly made-up eyes shot open.

‘He comes,’ the dead body of Duchess Bettina Degas intoned.

Needless to say, this ethereal interjection completely wrecked the mood.

*

‘And did you?’ Sink asked.

‘Did I what, mate?’

‘Did you come?’

The youth spluttered hot cocoa out his nose. ‘I don’t believe you just asked me that,’ he said. ‘I don’t believe you even thought that.’

They were seated in Sink’s ‘office’, a spacious second-floor study-cum-library with a view of the floating slums. The kitchenhand wore unlaced boots, roomy green overalls, and an expansive hessian shirt which had undoubtedly been a grain sack in a previous incarnation. The mortician wore a daring denim number with cross-stitched hems, matching heels, a yellow cravat, sheer stockings with a floral motif at the ankle, and a floppy denim hat with a tulip in the band. The fact that the kitchenhand had yet to comment on the mortician’s attire said a great deal about his current state of mind.

‘You’ve dripped all down your front,’ Sink observed.

‘Look, mate, this ain’t a joke. This is bleeding serious. I just got the shock of me life, and me girlfriend is a nervous wreck. I came here ‘cos I figured you’d be one of the few people who might actually believe me. The corpse sat up and talked. Honest. Listen, if you don’t wanna hear it, I reckon I’ll go back to the East End and see if that Torvault guy can’t give me -’

‘Not so hasty, little man,’ said Sink. ‘Finish your story.’

‘That’s about it. She laid down after that – the corpse, not Laucett – and didn’t say anything else. ‘Course, the damage were done by then.’ He rolled his mug nervously between his hands. ‘There was one other thing I thought were a bit funny. Didn’t notice it when I went in earlier. Someone’d drawn something on the floor by the lady’s bed. A chalk circle. Had a doodle in it.’

‘Dare I ask what sort of doodle?’

Percy rolled his eyes. ‘Gimmie a pen and I’ll show you.’

Sink indicated the quill and papers on his desktop. ‘Your girlfriend is the actress we saw outside the brothel?’ he asked, as Percy dithered with the inkpot. ‘If it’s any consolation, you shouldn’t worry about damage to her psyche. It’s not as if your relationship with her has any long-term prospects.’

Percy nodded agreeably, then stopped nodding and gulped. ‘What’s that supposed to mean, mate?’

‘I’ll give you three guesses,’ said Sink.

‘Oi, just you hang on a second. You can’t say stuff like that about people dying. You can’t just know stuff and be right about it all the time. And I’ll have you know I went to the hospital yesterday and got checked up. I may have crabs something chronic, but I sure don’t have the syph.’

Yet. Now let me see that sigil you’ve done – ah, thank you.’

Despite the youth’s shaky penmanship, the symbol was clear enough. Three diagonal lines crossed a vertical one, and beside this was a stylised E, the upper branch of which dwindled into a series of curlicues. Adjusting his glasses, Sink studied it from all angles. The fat kitchenhand fidgeted, trying – and failing – to squish the rest of his left buttock into his chair.

The moving corpse wasn’t the first weirdness that had crossed Sink’s desk today. Only that morning he’d been called out to a cottage by the merkind slums, where a red-faced housewife informed him that she’d seen strange phantasmal faces manifest on her kitchen floor tiles. Being a Kamphorite through and through, her first reaction was to load a pistol and shoot the shit out of them, effectively ruining Sink’s chances of locating the problem and nixing several hundred gold from her home’s sale value. Following this misadventure, Sink trekked off to visit the local sexton, who was having trouble with what he nervously termed ‘seismic upheaval.’ Sink investigated. The graveyard’s earth was undulating like a sea at low tide.

At a loss for an immediate remedy, Sink recommended the sexton drink four neat brandies and went home. On the way he had two flashes of imminent deaths, a series of rapid, confused images so different from his usual premonitions that he nearly considered drinking four neat brandies himself. His timing was off. Everything was off. Somewhere, somehow, something had gone wrong. A disruption of an esoteric nature, a palpable imbalance between the worlds of the dead and the living.

Add this to the serial killer at large in the East End, and you had a surefire recipe for trouble. In regard to the whore murders, Joshua had offered to make further inquiries amongst his associates. Against his better judgment, Sink had let Joshua hold an emergency Fifteen Steps summit in the morgue’s reception room. He had a feeling he’d regret his munificence later, but Joshua reminded him that since he’d assumed control of the group, the Fifteen Steps Program’s drop-off rate was negligible.

‘After all,’ his assistant said cheerfully, ‘I expect you’d be the first to know if it didn’t.’

Possibly, possibly. But with his death-telling on the blink Sink couldn’t be so confident. The only certainty Sink had at the moment was that all this was shaping up to be a bloody awful weekend. Over a dozen Fifteen Steps disciples in the reception room, Vona throwing tantrums, the entire province struck by a severe case of weirdshit, and now this fat pussy-hound with a talking corpse and a chalk sigil that even Sink, with his vast knowledge of applied magics, couldn’t make head or tails of.

‘You know what it is, mate?’ Percy asked hopefully.

‘Not offhand. I’ll look into it.’ Sink shook the paper to dry the ink. ‘Thank you for your time, sir. I hope you enjoy the rest of your day.’

‘Doubt it. Laucett’s at her mum’s and I’ve got bleeding work from now till sundown. Duke Rochare is a right asshole when it comes to shift work. ‘Course, I expect that none of that really matters, if I’m gonna end up dying in twelve years anyway. Might as well just jump off the pier right now and save myself the wait. I were always planning to save up some cash and get meself a nice home and a pretty wife, but hey, looks like that’s not about to -’

‘I’m a mortician. Not your shrink.’

Huffing, Percy levered the right side of his bum out of the chair. ‘Whatever, mate,’ he said, glancing over his shoulder. ‘Hey,’ he added, turning back. ‘Who’s your woman?’

Sink looked nonplussed. ‘My woman?’

Vona stood in the doorway holding a platter. Percy jabbed a fat thumb in her general direction. ‘The blue one. You actually employ merkind? Or is she your bit on the side?’ He grinned broadly. ‘Nice to meet you too, love,’ he said to Vona. ‘Fancy going out back for a bit of fun, eh? I’m told I’m right good with me hands. And with the rest of me, too.’

‘Please stop flirting with my assistant,’ said Sink.

‘Aw, c’mon, mate. She started it. Girl just winked at me. Didn’t you, love?’

‘No, sir,’ said Vona coldly, setting Sink’s afternoon tea on the corner of his desk. ‘I did not wink at you. I’m quite sure of this because I am a merkind, and consequently have no eyelids. But, as you may well be aware, our merkind dating customs are vastly dissimilar from your human ones. If I had in fact intended to flirt with you, I would have first climbed onto your back and jabbed the venomous spines on my knees into your buttocks. Once you ceased twitching in agony, I would insert your sexual organ into the vice-like grip of mine, holding it in place with the six rows of sharp spikes which line my genital region. After a brief and frenzied copulation, I would release you. To sate my post-sex hunger, I might eat one or both of your arms, before departing for my underwater nest, where I would remain for the next three months before laying my eggs. And please, if you catch me performing any of the aforesaid acts, you had best pack me up for a lunatic asylum. Because I’d have to be completely bloody mad to be caught dead with a fat, ugly prick like you.’

‘I like you,’ said Percy. ‘You’re far too smart to work in this place.’

Vona looked torn between another round of verbal abuse and bursting into girlish giggles. Uncharacteristically she opted for the latter. ‘Gosh,’ she said, ‘but you are sweet. I’m free tomorrow night. Hope I catch you then.’

She left. She was skipping. Sink stared at Percy. Percy blew on his knuckles.

‘How on earth did you do that?’ Sink asked.

The kitchenhand grinned again. ‘Wouldn’t you like to know.’

Once Percy Holliday was gone, Sink scrabbled through his study shelves. His personal library was vast, although it hadn’t always been this way. Four years earlier, noticing a sad lack of reading material, Sink had employed a ‘reformed’ kleptomaniac. This decision not only secured a rapid expansion of his book collection, but also left him with six new sets of silverware and forty two extra pairs of shoes.

His magical library was far smaller – half a shelf’s worth of grotty first editions. Not that there were ever any second editions. There simply wasn’t a market for magical literature. Beyond the Emperor’s courts, genuine magic users were a rarity. You’d get the odd healer now and then, a couple of wackos who could talk to animals, and there wasn’t a year that went by that an addled alchemist didn’t wash up on the city streets claiming he’d found the secret of eternal life. But the real magicians, people dedicated to observing and manipulating the flux of the arcane, were few and far between.

Sink pawed through texts. There was nothing resembling the sigil in any of his telepathic primers. He cross-referenced mind control volumes, studied the index of a grimoire on arcane horticulture, and flicked through a tome on advanced telekinesis. Nothing. Fearing the worst, he rooted out a guide to necromancy – the only book he’d nicked himself – and cuddled up with it on the floor.

Necromancy was outlawed in Kamphor, for good reason. The problem with necromancy was that it didn’t work. Or rather, it never stopped working. What budding necromancers discovered early in their careers was that you could not have one zombie. There were always hordes of zombies. Never one undead, but a host of undead. It was like unplugging a bathtub filled with water and expecting only one drop to slip out. You opened a gateway. That was the easy bit. The hard part was closing the blasted thing afterwards.

He found the sigil, or a close approximation of it, on page forty four of the necromancy guide.

‘Shit,’ said Mr. Sink.

It might not mean anything, he reassured himself. Kids played with this sort of stuff all the time. He knew for a fact that next door’s student coterie liked pulling out the old Ouija board every now and again. A bit of fun. Nothing serious. Nothing that would interfere with the balance.

He picked up his afternoon tea platter – shortbread and coffee – and traipsed out onto the balcony to review events. His head hurt. Another disjointed death-flash scuttled unexpectedly before his eyes, three seconds of incoherent images augmented by an abstracted foreboding. Laucett Lithow. Three days, eleven hours, and fourteen minutes. Or was that three years, eleven days, and fourteen hours?

Arifia Fawles was huffing cigarette smoke out her window. Sink purposefully avoided eye contact as he passed.

‘I could sue you for harassment, Benny,’ she called after him. ‘I’m physically and psychologically scarred.’

‘You don’t say,’ said Sink.

Arifia sneered. ‘Lots of funny stuff’s been happening lately, Benny-poo. The guard’s been called in to half a dozen places today. Bodies moving. Phantasms. Possessed wall paper trying to smother small children and family pets. Couple of spirit guides in loincloths were seen hanging around the merkind slums. You wouldn’t have anything to do with that, would you?’

‘Were they designer loincloths?’

‘Now that the Knife is back in business, I thought I’d review our old files on the case,’ Arifia pressed. ‘You were the mortician who dealt with the victims’ bodies, right? Funny that we never caught him, despite you being so ‘talented’. I don’t suppose you can account for your whereabouts Thursday night, between the hours of eight and ten?’

‘I was standing on the balcony, shouting at you to turn your music down.’

‘Oh.’

‘I also threw raisins.’

‘Yeah, um.’

‘And my shoe.’ Sink crunched shortbread. ‘A very nice silver one with sequined straps and a glass heel. There’s no chance of me getting that back, is there?’

Arifia glowered. ‘None at all.’

‘Much as you’re loathe to hear it, Miss Fawles, the killer you’re looking for is not the Knife. The Knife was a true psychotic. The East End murderer isn’t insane. There’s a difference between someone who strangles women from behind and someone who hacks up people with a knife and arranges all their inside bits into pretty pictures.’

‘Strangling someone makes a person less insane?’

‘Comparatively, yes. You know, if you’re really determined to solve the case, you should talk to one of my assistants about it. Joshua Finkle. Fancies himself a criminologist. I think you’d find his ideas enlightening.’

‘He’s the, um -’

‘The frightfully attractive one.’

‘Yeah, him. Nice offer, Benny, but I know you and your hiring policies. Everyone who works for you is a bit addled. Take that merkind girl, Vona. I see her every morning scrubbing the cobbles outside your bloody morgue. On her hands and knees. In the heat. What sort of obsessive compulsive behavior is that? I’m surprised she hasn’t turned to dust yet.’ Arifia chewed a strand of hair thoughtfully. ‘Your Joshua’s an alcoholic, isn’t he? Holds all those Fifteen Step AA meetings in the council hall.’

‘He’s reformed,’ said Sink, finishing the last dregs of his coffee. ‘Very, very reformed.’

*

‘Hi, my name is Andy Karlowsky, as I suppose you all know. I’ve been reformed for exactly three years. At Joshua’s advice, I moved from Gavistan to Kamphor so I could get the support I needed to beat my addiction. Avoid situations which may lead to temptation – step seven, that’s my new motto. I went past a bar the other day. Just filled with beautiful Kamphor women. I very, very nearly went in. I had my hand on the door. But I remembered the Steps and walked on.’

Clapping.

‘Hi, I’m James Dove. Almost five years now on the program. Made a breakthrough last week. I babysat the neighbours’ kids for three hours. By myself. Didn’t feel really comfortable with it at first – I mean, I didn’t want to relapse, and that sort of stress… well, it could trigger it, right? But I’m happy to report that the whole night went past uneventfully. Of course, the kids went a little haywire, screamed and ran around. Nearly drove me nuts. But I made it. I think I’m well and truly on the straight and narrow now.’

Back-patting.

‘Hi, my name is Sally Evans, and I’ve been reformed now for one year, two months and four days. Haven’t slipped up once since I started on the Fifteen Steps. Many thanks to Joshua here for showing me that there is another way, a better way. I guess I should start by telling you all on where I am right now. To be honest, it hasn’t really gotten any easier for me. Some days I wake up and I don’t think I can deal with it. I’m still working up the courage to tell my third husband. I just don’t know how he’ll take the news. Especially given my track record. But I’m determined to stick to the Steps, and with you guys around to support me, well, I guess anything’s possible. Joshua’s living proof of that.’

‘Thanks, Sally,’ said Joshua, over the polite applause. ‘Now that’s everyone up to date, I’d like to talk about something a little apropos.’ Clicking a ballpoint, he examined his clipboard. ‘The first item on our agenda this afternoon is the East End murders. I know I’ve asked you before if anyone had any information, but I’m going to ask you again. My benefactor Mr. Sink, who so kindly allowed us to use this room today -’ scattered applause. ‘- hasn’t been able to make much headway on this one, and I owe it to him to help get to the bottom of it.’

‘All I know is what I’ve read in the Kamphor Times,’ Horace Powell sighed. ‘Bloody journalists, leaving out the juicy bits. There’s nothing about the – about the sex aspects.’

‘Our man here isn’t a rapist,’ Joshua said. ‘Posthumously or not. His victims are all East End hookers, who he strangles from behind, then shoots in the abdomen. He’s killed three in just under three weeks, which definitely qualifies him as serial. I think the guard assumes he poses as a client to lure the girls, but I doubt it. This man takes great pains not to interact with his victims. My gut feeling is that he doesn’t really want to kill at all, but feels – how can I put it? It’s a necessity, but not one he enjoys.’

‘Like a reluctant assassin, then?’ Odiel Gerfon asked.

‘I’d have thought that, but who’d want to kill hookers? They don’t have any money. Our killer is far more complicated than that. It could be that he’s in training for a larger target, but who needs to practice the same method three times? And before you ask, there’s nothing obviously missing from the bodies – no skin, no fingers, no hair, no clothes, according to Damien Torvault’s statement -’

Torvault is taking the case?’ Sally interrupted, horrified. ‘That amateur?’

‘I’m afraid so, Sally. It was in the papers, if you’d read them. Andy, could you be so kind as to pass my scrapbook over to Mrs. Evans? Page forty five, with the heading Murder in Kamphor! Thank you.’ Joshua reshuffled his notes. ‘Now, does anyone here have any suggestions?’

The Fifteen Steps disciples muttered amongst themselves.

‘I heard something about ghosts and ghouls,’ said Klara Pratt. ‘Mrs. Halloway down the road said they manifested on her nice clean floor.’

Joshua clicked his pen in irritation. ‘We’re talking about a serial killer, not evidence of the paranormal.’

‘They could well be connected,’ James pointed out. ‘Lots of second rate necromancers around these days.’

‘All accounted for, however. I hope.’

Horace coughed discreetly into his hand. ‘Necromancers use blood and body parts,’ he said. ‘Part of their rituals, if I remember correctly. There’s a whole list of things you need to raise the dead, long as your arm. Admittedly, there’s a few different variations on the theme. Some want four index fingers from virgins. Others want hearts. Others need a pureed liver and eyeballs. But if nothing’s missing from these corpses, then they’re probably unrelated.’

‘Why can’t Mr. Sink get in on the case?’ Sally complained. ‘He has his gift. If they let him get in -’

‘Not an option. I don’t think he’s going to challenge Torvault for this one. For reasons which currently escape me…’ Joshua chewed the end of his pen. ‘Actually, I should really ask about -’

‘The murderer is a maniac, plain and simple,’ Odiel interrupted. She was leaning over Sally’s shoulder, directing the woman’s attention to the choicest examples of Kamphor journalism. ‘I’ve been scrapbooking this guy too, Joshua, and I’ve never seen anything like him before. There’s no… there’s no reason to it. It’s like he woke up and just decided to take up killing people. Like a day job. Makes me sick to my stomach, and I don’t mind telling you all that. It’s psychotics like him who give -’

‘- who give psychotics a bad name?’ Joshua suggested.

‘That’s not what I meant,’ Odiel said hurriedly. ‘I wasn’t trying to make a joke. I was just saying -’

‘You are getting very, very close to offending me, Miss Gerfon.’

There was dead silence from the company. The colour slowly drained from Odiel’s face.

‘Oh dear, I have put my foot in it. Please, please, don’t mind silly old me.’ Joshua clapped his hands to lighten the mood. ‘Right then. How about we have some tea and biscuits?’

The response was unanimous and relieved agreement. Ever the good host, Joshua padded off to the kitchen. The merkind girl was chopping carrots for dinner and singing to herself in an abnormally cheerful fashion. She scowled when she saw Joshua loitering in the doorway.

‘Could you brew us a pot of tea, and possibly bring in some biscuits?’ Joshua asked.

Vona glared harder. ‘You aren’t my employer. Get it yourself.’

‘I’m not allowed in the kitchen,’ Joshua apologised. ‘Part of my Fifteen Steps. Number seven. Avoid opportunities that may lead to temptation. Mr. Sink says that even if I’m reformed it’s best not to leave matters to chance.’

‘Bloody neurotic ex-alcoholics. You can all kiss my scaly blue backside. I’ll have you know that there are people out there who appreciate me, Joshua. People who don’t just think of me as an elevated slave. People who can see my potential.’

‘I can see your potential, Miss Urgarth,’ said Sink. ‘It primarily concerns tea and biscuits.’

He’d appeared behind Joshua. Vona yelped and spilt her carrots all over the floor.

‘No luck in your inquiries, Joshua?’ Sink asked.

‘Sorry, sir.’

Sink muttered something beneath his breath and teetered on up the corridor. Joshua looked at Vona. The merkind gibbered.

‘I understand,’ said Joshua sympathetically. ‘He scares the shit out of me too.’


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