THE MALTHOUSE FALCON

Word count: | Reading time:
Comedy
Fantasy
General
It's funny how the threat of imminent death makes those life changing decisions so much easier. After surviving two attempts on his life, our hero, a country boggart, decides to head for the big city of Thursday Market where non-humans like himself can only enter to work if they forsake their magic at one of the ironisation units.It is set in a world that is inches from our own; a world that the sprites (elves, dwarves, goblins etc) escaped to when they felt oppressed by the new Roman religion and were made nauseous by the increased use of iron in our world. Think about it...our folklore is full of them but nobody has seen any of them for centuries. Unless you're a pair of Edwardian sisters with a box camera.This world is going through its industrial revolution, humans and sprites are leaving the countryside to work in the industries of the great city of Thursday Market (or ThurMar to its inhabitants). For the sprites it is a greater sacrifice as they have to give up their magic through a process called ironisation (a. because being in proximity to iron makes them nauseous and unfit for work and b. the ruling witches don't want uncontrolled magic in their city).Our hero is a country boggart who is on the run. Someone wants him dead. In his search for a new identity he heads for the big city of ThurMar, undergoes the ironisation process and becomes a foot and a half taller because of it. Much of the novel's action involves 'crossovers' from our own world to this one and thanks to the discovery of a 'magic mirror' and a 'box of wonders', he reinvents himself as Humphrey Boggart. The only trouble is that Thursday Market's number one (and only) private detective finds making enemies a lot easier than solving mysteries.THIS BOOK IS COMPLETE at 83,000 words and the last sentence is "He's looking at you, Kid"

THE LEPPING STONES BOGGART

I’d been expecting Hempen Beeble to call round; looking forward to it, if I was being honest. Living your life as a social pariah has its drawbacks and a lack of good company is one of them. Not that Hempen Beeble could be classed as good company; he was only coming to collect my Good Neighbours subscription. But hey, boggarts can’t be choosers.

‘Has my life come to this?’ I sighed pulling up the bottle of dandelion wine which had been cooling in the water cistern. I dropped the lid back down and placed the bottle upon a table which had more scars than a butcher’s apprentice. A fire blazed in the hearth and above it hung the painting of my mother and father on their wedding day. He, a boggart in a royal household, looking prouder than a peacock with a son at university; she, a water nymph, sitting ill-at-ease, with one eye on the window that overlooked the moat; their coming together made me what I am. The Lepping Stones Boggart. A misfit.

Maybe I was being hard on myself, I thought, as I flicked a feather duster over mother and father. I’ve not done badly. The tied cottage that comes with the job overlooks my place of work - The Lepping Stones. And the job? Well, I have to occasionally make people fall into the water whenever they use the stones to cross the river. Not much of a job I know, but it’s a living. The way I look at it is that for most people their work involves making things. A carpenter makes furniture, an accountant makes sense of numbers, and a guardian makes the town a safer place. Well, boggarts make mischief – an easy job since I’m invisible most of the time.

The knock came a little harder than I’d expected. It hammered the door clean off its hinges and sent it flying over my head like an over-starched magic carpet. Mum and Dad took a direct hit as the door smashed into matchwood against the chimney breast. I had a hunch it wasn’t Hempen Beeble when the light spilling into my little cottage was soon extinguished by the huge frame of an ogre wielding a nailed club. He squeezed through the doorway like he was taking off his coat and stood as upright as he was ever going to get. It was fortunate for my ceiling that his head emanated from the centre of his chest rather than his shoulders.

“Leppintone Mommerhhh!” A roar of bad breath that could have browned the top of a shepherd’s pie filled the room.

“I am indeed The Lepping Stones Boggart. How may I help you?” I stood up to face him and began removing my clothing with as much haste as I could. The ogre’s rheumy eyes made a feeble attempt to focus in my direction. His big nailed club swished in front of me and a table and chair disappeared from sight.

“Leppintone Mommerhhh. You meenh a madh moyhh!” The ogre’s tusks weren’t helping his small talk much.

“How have I been a bad boy?” I removed the last of my clothes and stood naked except for the ‘magic mirror’ I always carried around my neck. I almost started to believe I might enjoy the next ten minutes as the ogre came to a standstill. My disappearance jammed his thought process, but despite the corrugated brow, I knew he was still dangerous. He surveyed the room with the turning circle of a team of oxen, by which time I had tied a length of cord around his feet. Scrambling for the upturned bottle I threw dandelion wine in his eyes and stepped back. With a cry of outrage the ogre rushed to where he thought I was and tripped headlong towards the fire. His outstretched arm complete with club plunged into the roaring flames. Bellowing in pain, he lumbered back onto his feet. His club was now enhanced by a flaming log which had impaled itself onto one of the numerous nails. Despite almost doubling its weight, he swung it around his head as if it was a long loaf. One circuit of flames later and my curtains were on fire. I decided now might be the time to leave. In my invisible state, I slunk by the flailing ogre and headed for the safety of outdoors. As I reached the gaping doorway, I tripped and fell to the ground. Confused, I looked back to see a length of cord tied across the threshold. The appearance of someone in a hooded black robe standing over me left me somewhat bewildered.

“Not leaving already, are you?” he said, “Not when you have guests.” The face beneath the hood confirmed that this was no human. The tell-tale features betrayed his heritage. A single yellow eye glared to make up for its sightless partner which hid beneath a livid scar. This was an ironed-out goblin, one who had forsaken his original magic to take the witches’ mark.

In his hands was a bucket I recognised with increasing horror. “You really should dispose of this more often.” A malicious grin creased his face as he emptied the bucket over where he assumed I lay. I cursed his accuracy as I was bathed in the reeking smell of my own piss. “Oh and I’ve put some lime wash in there as well. Only fair your guest can see you, isn’t it? Now get back in there and …entertain him.” A gun appeared from beneath his robe.

Presented with no choice I edged back into the cottage. The flames had leapt from curtains to beams, filling the room with smoke. The ogre, wheeling around in panic, caught sight of me once more. I cursed my laziness as the fetid covering betrayed my every move and the ogre forgot about the fire around him. He shambled towards me as I positioned myself behind my stuffed armchair. Another sweep of his great flaming club and the armchair was gone leaving me standing there feeling, well…naked.

By now, beyond any control, the fire had destroyed the curtains and the paint on the shutters blistered in the heat like a sun burnt dwarf. I identified the far window as a possible escape route, but as I scampered beneath the ogre’s grasp, the outside shutters were slammed in my face. My goblin friend outside was determined I wouldn’t get out. The smoke became overwhelming and even the smouldering ogre had decided now might be a good time to leave. Crashing into the chimney breast in panic he collapsed to the floor where his small brain clicked into gear. Now on all fours, he scrambled beneath the smoke until he reached the door. As he rose to his feet, I heard the crack of a gunshot followed by what sounded like a wardrobe being pushed over. I crawled over to the doorway and saw the ogre’s inert body blocking my escape. Sure that his murderer lay in wait for me I turned back into the cottage.

*

There are those who think modern conveniences are the beginning of the end of the world, but I am not one of them. Cottages around here with their own indoor water supply are few and far between, but just when it seemed there was no way out of my burning cottage, I crawled to the trapdoor that covered the cistern. With barely the strength to push away the debris that lay across it, I lifted the lid and dropped like a newborn lamb into the cool water below. My ability to become at one with the water offered some relief from the superficial burns I had received. It also gave me plenty of time to try and make sense of what had just happened. Someone had deliberately tried to kill me. And that someone had once been a goblin, a sprite just like me.

As I lay within the dark water, listening to the devastation above me, I searched for reasons why someone might go to such lengths to get rid of me. Wallowing, literally, in self pity, I hadn’t heard the deliberate steps of that same someone negotiating the charred remains of my home. The blast of light and sound that hit me when the trapdoor flew open took me by surprise. Bullets fizzed through the water, passing through me like pennies in a wishing well but this time the assassin’s wish wasn’t granted. He was clearly unaware I was unlike other boggarts due to my mongrel parentage. With sight still useless from the glare, I relied on sounds to tell me he had moved away to thrash around what was left of the cottage in search of my dead body.

A minute or so passed before he returned to the trapdoor. I gazed up into the far from limpid pool of my enemy’s eye, while he gazed down into…well…a limpid pool, I suppose. He stared down into the cistern. Lime wash scum betrayed that I had been there. His mind weighed up the impossibility that I could have used the water inlet pipe to escape. A journey up such a narrow pipe would be a first for me, but impossible for a normal boggart.

The frustration of not confirming my death left the ironed-out goblin seething. He hurled down the cistern lid. I listened as he stamped across the damaged floorboards and waited for the slamming of the door. Then I remembered I no longer had one.

Not knowing whether my one-eyed assassin was still around, I lay as one with the water for a few hours. I pondered the reasons why a goblin might want to forfeit his magic. Once upon a time when witches needed to exert their power over the rest of the population they brought in a scheme where any sprite could earn themselves a whole mark in exchange for the loss of the magic they possessed. In those days a mark was worth a lot more than it is today. Not only would they lose their magic but the process would increase their size to that of a human. At first the scheme only attracted sprites who were down on their luck, ones who were always on the lookout for the next bottle of wine but recently a new trend had developed. News from Thursday Market, the great city of our land had told of disenchanted sprites who now paid to be ironed out just to get themselves employed in the new industries. Inherent magic doesn’t take kindly to the presence of iron; it makes the possessor, if spending any length of time in close proximity with it, feel unwell. Hence the need to get yourself ironed if you want to get a job in the city. Here in the country, sprites like myself didn’t feel the need. Like most sprites, my magic was limited, but the ability to become invisible and take on a liquid form had played a big part in keeping me alive.

When darkness fell, I returned to my bodily form and lifted the cistern lid. Satisfied my assailant was no longer around; I retrieved the ‘magic mirror’ from the water and placed it around my neck – not so much a lucky charm as my only remaining possession. Shamed into invisibility by my lack of clothing I swapped the hot embers of my home for the cool grass beyond. Within ten minutes I was up by the watermill on the road to the nearby town of Glasswell. Looking back I could still see the glowing remains of my cottage. There was nothing for me there now. How could I continue working the Lepping Stones now that I was a marked man? Whoever this ex-goblin was, he wanted me dead. I had to get away.

As I sat there coming to terms with my predicament, a stifled moan broke the silence. My invisibility allowed me to investigate the bushes that lined the high road without being seen. Beneath the branches of one, lay what looked like a large maggot writhing in the moonlight.

“Hempen Beeble!” I gasped, becoming visible once more. The brownie who came once a year to collect my Good Neighbours subscription was staring at me wide-eyed. His hands and feet were tied and a piece of rag had been pulled tight around his mouth. I hurried to his side and untied the gag. “Are you all right, Hempen?”

“I’m fine,” he croaked. “I am just pleased you are in one piece. I overheard the man who did this to me telling the ogre you were not to get out of your cottage alive. It was to look like an accident but I’m happy to see that he failed.” I began untying Hempen and helped him get to his feet.

“Interesting amulet you have there”, said Hempen, his head bobbed in the general direction of my ‘magic mirror’. “Perhaps you should be wearing it a bit lower.” I looked down at my nakedness and nodded.

“You know how it is, Hempen, sometimes you need to get naked to get out of a scrape. Oh, and it wasn’t a man who tried to kill me, it was an ironed-out goblin.”

“A goblin, you say. I’ve heard about this ironing out. You lose all your magic don’t you? Can’t see the point really. It’s very handy being able to make yourself invisib-” I had just bent down to untie Hempen’s feet when a loud crack filled the air. I looked up into his agonised face. A pool of blood filled out across his chest. I was invisible before he hit the ground. I was in the millpond before he gasped his last breath.

*

Having no home to go to and being closely pursued by a one-eyed, hooded, murderous maniac, I pondered my options. It didn’t take me long…I only had one - Aunt Jenny. After the death of both my parents in a tragic drawbridge accident; it was Aunt Jenny who had brought me up. As my mother’s sister, the likeness between them made it much easier for a little ten year old boggart to accept her as a replacement. She had looked after me through the troubled years of my adolescence with extraordinary patience.

When it was time to take on my first posting at the Lepping Stones; she came out with me and helped me get started in the role with kind advice and an unlimited supply of rock cakes...which if left to go stale provided a more than efficient substitute for firewood.

Despite the pair of us both working the same river; we were separated by the town of Glasswell. So, after paying a visit to an unguarded washing line, I headed off downstream. It had been quite a while since I’d last seen her. She, like me, was committed to her job and that quality alone meant neither of us ever found much time for social visits. On the odd times we had met, at child-namings, hand-fastings and funerals, she’d never failed to ask me why I still persisted in pushing people into the river for a living. Jenny was a professional lifeguard, but I knew her family history prevented her from claiming the moral high ground. I told her I was an old school boggart upholding centuries of tradition in tipping people into what was only a rather shallow river at the worst of times. Whereas Jenny, well she had a much more dubious background.

When I arrived at her place of work down by the pack-horse bridge, she was making sure young children kept away from the river. Ironic really as in the old days, before the witches decreed the Better Society Act, water nymphs would drag unsuspecting children to their watery deaths. Parents would warn their offspring that Jenny Greenteeth - the name was still a family tradition - would be lying in wait for them if they played down by the duckweed-covered ponds and still rivers in the area. But ‘Jennies’ over the years ‘saw the error of their ways’ and now my aunt is the first member of her family to play an active role in accident prevention. Her style is unorthodox to say the least. Based on the old maxim that prevention is the best medicine, most of the kids around here are terrified of being rescued by Jenny (would you want the kiss of life from someone with green teeth?). So in a way she is carrying on the family tradition of scaring the local children away from a watery doom...but in a much nicer way.

Waiting for her to finish work meant I spent most of the day skimming stones until I hit her on the back of the head with one. The way she came screaming out of the river at me made me appreciate just how effective she was at doing her job.

Despite her bandaged head, Jenny still gave me a warm welcome. Coming back to the river cave cottage I had once called home, presented me with a great feeling of security both in an emotional and practical sense. The single, well-bolted entrance and the numerous small high windows would prevent all but the most persistent and limber of assassins from entering. The boarded floor, raised above the uneven bottom of the cave made the place seem warm and cheering. Right at the end of the cave was Jenny’s chamber which, despite the fire being in the large kitchen, was the warmest place in the house. We settled down in two comfy chairs and I began to tell her how I had lost both my job and my home due to the fire (I thought I’d skip telling her the bit about the evil assassin trying to kill me). She was genuine in her sadness for me.

Jenny gave the matter some thought as she went through the ritual of putting the many bejewelled rings back onto her fingers; there seemed to be one of every colour. She regarded the wearing of jewellery while on duty as being very unprofessional...and the simple act of watching her perform this familiar routine went some way to making me feel at home...even safe.

“There’s no other thing for it, darling…you’ll have to stay here until you sort yourself out.” With little alternative, I gratefully accepted. “But what are you going to do with yourself, darling?” said Jenny as we sat drinking a fine damson wine. “Your house has burnt down but surely it will be rebuilt as it goes with the job, doesn’t it? I was always led to understand it was a tied-cottage. Can’t they give you a tent or something while they rebuild it?”

I was in an awkward position as I didn’t want to worry Jenny by telling her the full story. I knew I couldn’t go back because of the threat of being killed. I had to move on, but to where?

*

A few days later a letter arrived for me, which came as a bit of a shock as I didn’t think anyone knew I was staying at Jenny’s place. It was officially marked as being from The Druid’s Palace in the great city of Thursday Market, but I got to thinking if they knew I was here then perhaps the assassin did as well. I had little alternative; I would have to move on. I couldn’t risk anything happening to Aunt Jenny.

I opened the letter and found I had been invited to receive the Order of the Four-Leaved Clover for my service to the Massy Witch. It wasn’t such a big deal in my eyes; to be honest, the less who knew about it the better. I do have a reputation to keep up.

This young fellow had been hurtling over the Lepping Stones with an old broom in one hand and a canvas bag in the other. Probably a cleaner late for work, I thought. Then the local blacksmith and his son came hurtling after him. So I just did my job. How was I to know I’d averted a national crisis?

That was the day I found my ‘magic mirror’. I was wading back across the river when I noticed something shining beneath the water. I reached down below the surface and pulled up a perfectly-round mirror and held it in the sun. It had no frame and, for some reason, a finger-sized hole in the centre. What was most strange about it was its lightness. Whatever it was made of, it was not like any glass I had seen before.

A mirror is of little use to a boggart. We’re not big on personal appearance on account of being invisible most of the time…which is something of a boon when you’re having a bad hair day. I did think about throwing the mirror away because, apart from using its reflective glare to blind those crossing the stones on a sunny day, I couldn’t think of a use for it. That was until I turned it over and found the writing on the back of it. In large print it said…THE BIG SLEEP. What did it mean? I was beginning to suspect perhaps this mirror might be magical. Could it be possible that whosoever looked into the mirror would be put to sleep? If so, then why wasn’t I affected?

I read the smaller writing on the mirror which referred to various companies and their numerous badges of office; one of which reminded me of a tattoo I had seen on the young man’s arm. The mirror also carried a dire warning that on no account should I attempt to make a copy of it. To be honest I wouldn’t know where to start making another mirror as fine as the one I held in my hand. Under the Law of Finders Keepers, I claimed it as my own. Until I found out just how it worked, I decided I would keep it on a string around my neck.

And so it was my life carried on as normal. The whole episode of the young man and the broom never gave me a moment’s thought again until the arrival of the letter. Flight for my life had meant I had lost everything...even my name, which I had to renounce when I became the Lepping Stones Boggart, was no longer mine. I had noticed that Jenny had avoided using my birth name since my arrival...as much as I loved her; she was a stickler for tradition. I was unable to use my official name under the terms and conditions of the position I had just abandoned. Give it a month or so and a new Lepping Stones Boggart would arrive to take up his post.

So there I was without a name, a job or a home...but at least I would have a poxy medal for which…and get this, I had to traipse well over a hundred miles to have the pleasure of receiving. When Jenny came home she was a little more excited than I had been.

“Ooh…a trip to Thursday Market. You lucky thing, darling!”

What I really wanted to say was “How am I lucky? I’ve got to pay for the trip myself, just to pick up a useless medal.” But because I was worried about Jenny’s safety, what I actually said was…

“Yes, it’s a marvellous opportunity. I’m heading for the big city and I’m going to get myself ironed out!”

On hearing just how far I was prepared to change my life, Jenny burst into tears. I put my arms around her and as the pair of us struggled to control our emotions, we flickered between substance and invisibility like a guttering candle.

“But taking the witches’ mark is such a big step!” she wailed, “I don’t want to lose my little...er...darling!”

I eased her away from me so I could look into her eyes. “Look, Jenny, I appreciate all you’ve done but it’s down to me to make something of myself in this world. I thought I had a job for life at the Lepping Stones but in the last few weeks I’ve realised that perhaps I’ve just been treading water.”

Jenny wiped the tears from her eyes. “Is that such a bad thing?” she said. I realised she was speaking professionally here. I loved Jenny to pieces but she was very focused.

“Don’t you see, Jenny, I could have remained as mischief-maker at the Lepping Stones for years but would that be any kind of a life? Just waiting there to tip somebody in every now and again? I mean, don’t get me wrong, it still never fails to make me laugh, but would there have come a day when the laughter stopped?”

“You could become a life guard, like me”, said Jenny. “Look at me now! I’m a fulfilled member of society who has job satisfaction coming out of her ears. Look, I’m even rewarded for my work.” She gestured to the framed life-saving certificates lining the walls of the cave.

“What you’re saying, Jenny only makes me more certain I’m doing the right thing. I need to change.”

“But not the ironing, darling! It’s so final.” There was no denying she was right. The process had its drawbacks, but I realised it was a straight choice. As a boggart, who knows, magic could help me survive much longer than a human…but to what purpose? I needed to have some kind of role in life. Boggarts with no purpose are limited to spending their days using their invisibility either to help a household, surviving on the scraps they left out for you, or using it to steal from people. It seemed like no kind of choice at all to me. Taking the witches’ mark meant I might be able to move on and do something interesting with my life.

Once Jenny had realised she wasn’t going to talk me out of it, she wiped the tears from her eyes and headed out into the kitchen. At first I decided to ignore the strange groaning noises. Naturally, it would take time to come to terms with her nephew’s life-changing decision. I felt it best to leave her to get it out of her system. After a quiet spell of half a minute or so, a loud banging noise made me reconsider my inaction. I ran into the kitchen and found her on her knees with a large claw hammer.

“Jenny, what are you doing?” I reached down to her and pulled the hammer from her grasp. I was certain her anguish at my leaving was having an adverse effect on her behaviour. I sank to my knees so I could face her emotions head on. “I realise it will probably leave a kind of hole in your…” I looked down at an actual hole beneath us, “…floorboards?”

“No, it’s all right, darling, I’ll put them back later,” she said, smiling through her glistening eyes. She reached down into the hole and lifted a heavy bag of coins onto the floor. Rising from her knees, with a straight back, she placed the bag in my hands.

“What…?” I was confused and almost fell over with the weight of it.

“There are nearly two hundred marks there. I’ve been saving it for a rainy day, but who worries about rain when you’re a happy water nymph. I’ve kept it hidden under the floor all these years now.”

“But…” I was at a loss to understand.

“I know it costs money to get yourself ironed out and you might need to pay for food and that until you find out what you want to be.” I looked at her and she smiled, her green teeth gleaming in the firelight.

“I’ll never forget this, Jenny. And I’ll pay you back as soon as I can.”

“Just be happy. That’s all I ask,” she said as she reached for another bottle of damson wine.

*

Despite the wine, I slept fitfully that night. My straw-filled mattress was placed far enough away from the kitchen fire to evade the occasional stray spark. With much on my mind regarding the future, I had been turning like a pig on a spit and twice as hot. Thankful the fire had now fallen to embers, a slight change in temperature caused me to shiver as I listened to the night. The hooting of owls and the yelps of foraging foxes became commonplace to me but when they were replaced by a new sound, I spun round in my bed to face the door. It was clear from the shadows cast beneath it by the full moon that someone was standing outside. Hairs rose on the back of my neck as the intruder began to speak in a low voice. Had the assassin returned? If not, who else could it be? My ears strained to make sense of what was being spoken. It seemed to be some sort of incantation in the old language. Magic! My body froze and I don’t mean metaphorically. I couldn’t even move an eyelid. It was an enchantment and it had been aimed at me. Trapped, unable to move from my bed, I watched as the shadow of my assailant dropped to its knees behind the door. The chanting increased in volume; clearly my enemy was confident I was going nowhere. Terrified at my own incapacity, I mentally implored Jenny to wake up. As if to emphasise my vulnerability the low drone of her snores emanating from her chamber increased in volume.

Something landed on the floor a few yards in front of me. The soft glow of the fire lit up the indeterminate shape of a muslin bag shifting its weight on the floorboards. I watched, transfixed, as the shape of the bag began to change, not through impetus but of its own accord. Pulsing with life of some kind, my fear was contained in that bag. Every nightmare of inertia, that inability to remove yourself from your fears, was writhing within it.

I watched as the bag was tugged away from its contents by an unseen string. The muslin danced out of my vision and presumably back through the high window from which it came. The bag’s contents readjusted themselves onto the floor. I peered at the mess anxious to identify the possible threat it would pose. The rank smell of fresh horse manure, blood and other bodily fluids filled the room as I recognised the distinctive shape of a mandrake root before me. Something, a large spider perhaps, stirred amongst the primordial mess. Incongruously, a small, but exquisitely formed knife gleamed red in the glow of the dying fire.

A brilliant flash of light illuminated the room for a second and, unprotected by my frozen eyelids, I could only wait and wonder what might happen before I could make use of my eyes again.

Minutes passed and my worst fears came to fruition as my sight returned enough for me to see a fully-formed homunculus stepping out of the chaos from which it was created. The tiny replica of a human, only about a foot in height, bent down and retrieved the small knife from the floor. It had received its orders in the chanting prior to its conception and its featureless face did its best to show grim determination. Fixed upon its target, it swayed on its newborn legs, each step more accomplished than the last one. Tiny pin-hole eyes gave little away as it bore down on my constrained body.

Step by tiny step it drew near until a scream, the like of which I had never heard before, rendered me insensible.

*

“Darling! Darling! Are you all right?” That was Jenny…my second thought was I really do need to get myself a name. Then I remembered the homunculus.

“What happened?” My mouth was as dry as a glass-blower’s spittoon. I was still in my bed but at least I was able to move now. “Where is it? The homunculus?” Jenny pointed across the room to what looked like the remains of a north country breakfast.

“How did you…?”

“It was the scream that woke me up. I shot into here with my base-ball bat and the little sod had spiked himself on one of the nails from the upturned floorboards. He was busy trying to extricate himself when I gave him my best shot. I was the captain of the Glasswell Lady Sprites base-ball team back in the day.”

“You must have hit it hard.”

“Well…” Jenny looked a little embarrassed now, “I guess I got a bit carried away…but you can’t take chances with homunculi, you know? They’re stubborn little buggers. What I can’t understand is how it got here. It had a knife you know!”

“I think it was probably sent to kill me.” I glanced over at the residual mess smeared against the cave wall if only to reassure myself that it wasn’t coming back. “I think you’d better sit down.”

THE IRONING

The hardest part about leaving Glasswell would be saying goodbye to Jenny. When my life had reached rock bottom she had taken me into her home and provided for me, but because I cared about her I knew I had to leave. If the assassin knew where I was, putting a hundred mile coach journey between us could only be a good thing.

“ThurMar!” shouted the coachman. A tearful Jenny noted my quizzical look.

“That’s what the inhabitants call Thursday Market – these days…I read about it in the society page of The Glasswell Gleaner. Go on, you better get off.” We hugged each other and I climbed up alongside the driver. “And just be careful!” shouted Jenny as the driver chucked his horses forward. I waved with little enthusiasm as I knew it would be a long time before I saw her again.

“Was that your sister who waved you off back there?” said the driver as we left the village. He thrust his big paw into mine and shook the life out of it. “Will Spargo at your service! Yes, she certainly was a bit of a looker that sister of yours. Shame about the green teeth, mind. Still…at least they are all the same colour.” Due to the speed at which I had decided to leave Glasswell, I had only managed to get the last remaining seat on the coach. The last seat was always next to the driver.

“Er…she isn’t my sister, she’s my aunt.” I replied as I made myself comfortable next to him.

“Is she courting at all?” asked Will. I looked up into his wild blue eyes that were framed by a big bush of carroty frizz.

“I don’t expect she’d be interested. She prefers…”

“Sprites, I expect.”

“…blondes.” I opted for diplomacy; after all, I was destined to spend the rest of this week sitting next to the man.

“I expect she’d think I was too tall for her. Still, she could always get herself ironed. There’s a lot of your kind of women marrying older men…you know, human men, I mean. They gets themselves ironed and that makes them taller see and they makes good wives…so I’m told.” Ever mindful of the fact he could pick me up at any point on the journey and drop me down on the road, I bit my tongue.

“Sprite brides, they calls them. Very popular…with the older men. Course, if your aunt ever fancies becoming a sprite bride tell her to let me know. My brother runs an ironisation unit on the edge of the city.” Will must have noted the puzzled look on my face. “That’s what the city folk call ‘the ironing’, you know. They calls it ironisation down there. And my brother does it!”

I spent what must have been the longest week of my life in the company of Will Spargo. Night stop-overs at the coaching inns favoured by the Quite Quick Coaching Company were not chosen for their customer service record. Passengers were left to manhandle their own luggage into an almost secure barn before being shown a room that still reeked of the previous night’s inhabitant. And that was just the first class passengers. For those of us who travelled outside the carriage, well we had to manhandle our luggage into the same almost secure barn and then lie down in the straw piled next to it. Eager for the journey to be over, I would turn in early whilst Will sat at the bar and ingratiated himself with the richer passengers. They, in turn, were quite happy to keep buying him drinks rather than retire to their unmade beds.

On that first night in a strange barn that smelt of horses and stale urine, I longed for the safety of Jenny’s cave-house. In a previous life I had enjoyed the time spent in my own company. Solitude had never been loneliness to me but now I was far from the comfort zone of the river, things were different. Now I had chosen a life of uncertainty, and my brain was working like a commission-weaver’s loom, sleep was hard to come by.

A commotion at the door meant I had to feign being asleep as a drunken Will returned to the barn. I listened as he emptied his bladder in the corner by the horses and then attempted to engage me in conversation once more about my Aunt Jenny. Ten minutes after that, any desire on my part to sleep was blown away by the incessant snoring echoing around the barn.

The following morning of the journey passed in pleasant silence. Will was struggling to cope with a monstrous hangover. He was desperately trying not to perceive anything his senses were trying to tell him – least of all the sound of his own voice. At times, some pungent smell from a nearby farmyard would cause him to haul on the reins and plunge behind the nearest bush. Minutes later the whey-faced coachman would return.

“Better out than in!” said Will as he recovered from the last of his unscheduled stops. He wiped his face with the back of his hand and returned to his seat a different man. From that point until bed time I had to put up with the real Will Spargo.

“Now then, young sprite!” he bellowed, “we’ve been travelling for a day or so now and you still haven’t told me your name!” I eased the bottom half of my face out from under my long woollen scarf. Looking up into his bloodshot eyes, I answered.

“Er…well I was once the...just call me Leppy.”

“Leppy? Here you ain’t got…lep-?”

“No…no…it’s a sort of nickname.”

“Leppy…what?”

“Leppy…er Boggart.”

He raised his eyebrows but said nothing. I suspected Will knew lots of people of whom you never asked questions.

The rest of the week passed in much the same way. It was only spoilt by the time I had to spend up on top of the coach with Will.

From the conversations we had I soon became annoyed by the low opinion he had of the sprite population. At one point I pulled my magic mirror out from under my tunic and held it in front of his face. As expected, nothing happened.

“Here that’s not a bad idea, young Leppy! If you holds it an angle, I can see right behind me. Maybe if we fastened one to each side of the coach, I could watch for highwayman and such. You’re quite smart, for a sprite! Now, what was I talking about? Oh, yes…sprite brides!

“Yes, it’s all the rage back in the ThurMar, your lot getting themselves ironed; or ‘ironed out’ as we like to call it. I mean don’t take this the wrong way because some of my best friends are i-sprites...that’s what they’re calling them now in the city...but it’s a known fact your lot don’t make good workers. You see for hundreds, maybe thousands of years you’ve been what we might call ‘free spirits’. That’s inbuilt inside you. Now they reckon this ironisation takes all that spirit out of you but in my experience a lot of your type still finds it hard to knuckle down and graft. You’re not telling me that sticking you inside a big iron tank for two weeks can get rid of thousands of years of natural instincts. I mean, don’t get me wrong but there are jobs for your sort to do. Dwarves are good down the mines; that goes without saying…Boggarts? Well there ain’t much call for boggarts. One or two have been attracted to the big city from up north so you’re not alone. Course they’ve all been ironed out. I mean there wouldn’t be any point in coming otherwise, would there?”

“That’s why I’m going.”

“I never thought for one minute there was any other reason. So…who’ve you got ironising you?” When I shrugged my shoulders, he grinned. “This is your lucky day, Leppy Boggart!”

I asked him what he meant and he told me that when he finished this trip he was looking after an ironisation unit for two weeks while his brother took a fishing holiday.

“How can you take care of people who are undergoing such a delicate operation?” I asked. “I mean…no offence…but you’re just a coach driver. Don’t you have to be a doctor of some kind to do this sort of thing?” Will burst out laughing and the last remains of his pheasant sandwich flew out from between his teeth.

“Don’t make me laugh, Leppy. My brother is no more a doctor than I am. Delicate operation? That’s just a myth. All you have to do is stick the sprite in the metal tank for two weeks and feed him a regular meal. It’s a bit like those places where you takes your cat when you goes away on holiday. Which reminds me, I’ve got to feed Tiddles as well as all them sprites. There’s nothing to it!”

“Could you ironise me then?”

“Of course…but it’ll cost you.”

“How much?”

“A hundred marks.”

“A hundred marks! I thought you said there was nothing to it. I might as well just shut myself in a metal tank for two weeks.”

“Ah…but who is going to feed you? You can’t come out or it stops working. Besides I’ll be charging you a lot less than my brother would and you’ll be in and out before he gets back.”

On the final morning of the coach journey the passengers seemed pretty cheery; they knew their destination was close. Even Will made an effort to fight off the usual hangover by whistling tunelessly. As we neared the city of Thursday Market the distinct increase in the number of houses and farms we passed became obvious. Other road users stopped becoming interesting diversions and started to become a nuisance as dawdling ox-carts and travelling caravans imposed upon our progress. As lunchtime approached I felt hungry enough to dare to open the packed lunch the last coaching inn had provided for our journey.

“I’d save that if I were you.” said Will nudging me in the ribs. “We’ll be stopping in a minute.” I looked at the scattered houses that surrounded us.

“This isn’t ‘the big city’, is it?”

“No, but I’m nearly at my brother’s place. It makes good sense to set you off on your ironisation. I can deliver this lot into the city after that.”

When the coach pulled up, one or two curious faces peeped out of the window.

“What are we stopping here for, my man?” queried an old druid who blinked in the daylight like an owl waking from a bad dream. From the odd snatches of a conversation that had passed between us I suspected he lived in another world for most of the time.

“I’ve just got to tend to a few things at my brother’s place. I thought you lot could eat your lunch in peace without the coach rocking for a change.” Righteous indignation hollered out from behind the doddering druid as the passengers complained about timetables and how this wouldn’t have happened in the old days. “Look I’ve got fifteen sprites who are going through the ironisation process in there and they need feeding! It won’t take me more than half an hour.” More shouts of anger followed from the coach as I clambered down.

“Bloody i-sprites taking all our jobs!” said an eighty year old man who was visiting his son, a prominent surgeon in the city.

“Send them back where they came from!” said a travel-sore witch who had come from much further north than me.

“Thieves and scoundrels the lot of them!” said the horse dealer who Will claimed had cheated at cards the night before. Marching back towards the coach, Will opened the door.

“Look I have to feed the sprites as it’s my brother’s business and I know you lot like to support the small businessman.” The boiling discontent simmered to a mild muttering as brows were furrowed and bottom lips pouted. “Not only that but I have to feed Tiddles, his cat.”

“Oh well, why didn’t you say so?” said the witch. The rest of the passengers seemed to accept this as fair enough and proceeded to open their packed lunches. Will closed the door and nodded for me to follow him.

Inside the kitchen of what clearly used to be a farm, Will picked up the note his brother had left. He squinted at it for a second before handing it to me.

“You read it out. I’ve left my eye-glasses in the box I keep my gloves in.”

“Dear Will, Got your semaphore message this morning. Tiddles has already been fed today but the sprites will need feeding. Give them three meals a day at breakfast; lunch and tea (see cupboards above). They haven’t had their breakfasts yet so give them a double helping at lunchtime when you get there. I had too much on this morning untangling my keep nets. There are some tins of caviar for Tiddles, just in case he gets a bit moody. Believe me it pays to keep him sweet. Your big brother, Morris. PS Don’t forget the toast supplement.” Will nodded his head in approval and proceeded to open up the cupboards above us.

The one marked SPRITE BREAKFAST was full of tins of baked beans. Another marked SPRITE LUNCH was full of tins of corned beef and the SPRITE DINNER cupboard was full of tins of pilchards in oil.

“Is that all I’m going to get for the next two weeks? I’m led to believe it is quite a draining process. Surely I need a more a balanced diet?” Will looked nonplussed.

“It is balanced” he said. “Meat, vegetables and fish…in oil not brine! My brother has been doing this for donkey’s years now; credit him with knowing what he’s about. In all the time he has been running this ironisation unit there have only been twelve deaths and that wasn’t his fault.” I was just about to ask why when a mangled cry came from behind me.

“Tiddles!” cried Will as he spun round with the can opener. The huge tabby cat curled itself around his legs as he put the large pan on the stove. “Does he want some lovely caviar, den?” He bent down and made a fuss of the cat while I decided to get on with the poor sprites’ meals.

Twenty minutes later and minus one hundred marks of my money I was carrying two huge plates of corned beef sandwiches across a small field. Will had loaded a large pan of beans, a huge tea urn and thirty rounds of toast onto a sort of all-terrain tea trolley that ploughed across the uneven ground. In front of me I could see the tops of twenty metal cylinders that were sunk into the earth. Each one was the size of a large waterwheel and had a depth of about twenty feet. At the first we encountered, I read the card that was fitted into a purpose-built holder. It said ODGERS, GINGER – GOBLIN – FEMALE. According to the date of induction, she was well into her second week.

“I thought goblins had unpronounceable names.” I mused.

“They do but before they get ironed out to work in the city they are given a name that people can say. There’s some office in the City Hall where they are allocated a name. Have you heard them talk in their own language? It sounds like a grasshopper arguing with a wasp.”

Will removed the lid of the cylinder and shouted down to the goblin.

“Yoo-hoo! All right my love. Sorry about the delay over breakfast but you’ve got both meals now”. I looked down the twenty-foot drop and saw the girl sat on the edge of her small bed. As she looked up, her goblin features were plain to see but she was clearly much taller than any goblin I’d ever met. She put down the book she’d been reading and smiled. Will placed the plate of beans, the corned beef sandwich, toast and a mug of steaming tea into a bucket and lowered it down to her. The grateful girl rammed a piece of toast into her mouth before doing anything else.

“How are you feeling?” I asked as she started placing her food on the table.

“Fine.” The reply, muffled by a mouth full of toast was weary.

“I’m starting today. I wondered if you’d any advice for me.” She looked up and swallowed the remains of the toast.

“What do you want to be?” she asked.

“I’m not really sure…”

“If you don’t know, I wouldn’t bother. It’s two weeks of misery but I need to do it because I want to be a dancer.”

“I know I need to do something” was the best I could come up with. I waved and followed Will up to the next cylinder. It was empty.

“There you go, Leppy. Home, sweet home for the next two weeks.” I looked down into the cylinder, at the sparse furniture and shuddered. Did I really need to do this? Did I want to change my life this much? The haunting image of Ginger Odgers looking helplessly up at me from the bottom of her cylinder stayed in my head. Two weeks isn’t that long.

“I’ll just go and get my stuff.”

Will had finished attending to the other sprites when he came back over to me. He picked up the ladder and dropped it into the cylinder.

“You got everything you need?” he asked. I nodded. “Well there’s a bell in each cylinder but it’s only to be used in emergency. It’s not a service bell. I’ll not be best pleased if I come running out just because you’d like a newspaper in the morning. Think on, Leppy. My brother has a system. You ring the bell for no good reason and you misses a meal.” By now I was in the bottom of the cylinder and Will drew up the ladder. “Just remember, Leppy, it’s only two weeks. Before you know it you’ll be almost human.” I guess I gave him ‘a look’ but he hadn’t the sensitivity to recognise it. “Right I’ll just drop that lot off at the coach station and I’ll be back by tea time. It looks like rain so I best put the lid on. There’s a window in the middle that lets a bit of light in for you but you have got the oil lamp.”

“Will?” I looked up at his big moon face peering down into the cylinder. “You know when you mentioned about the twelve people who died and how it wasn’t your brother’s fault.”

“Yeah?”

“Why wasn’t it his fault?” Will’s face disappeared from my sight but his reply hung in the air.

“Because he was away on a fishing holiday.”

It took only two hours for the first symptoms to appear. Just when I was thinking two weeks spent inside a large iron cylinder might not be too bad, the headache started. My initial optimism was dashed in the first moments of boredom. I had started writing a letter to Aunt Jenny telling her all about the ironisation process and how excited I was about my future. With the headache came the first feelings of despondency.

Will arrived at the same time as dusk and sent down my first meal - pilchards in oil…with toast supplement. He asked me how I was and did I need anything as he was going into the city tonight. I told him I’d be fine.

“Have the headaches started yet?” he asked.

“Yeah.”

“That’s good. Shows it’s working...I’ll put the lid back on for the night.” The scrape of metal on metal reverberated around my temporary home until a deafening clang gave way to silence. I clutched my head with the pain and a swooping nausea churned my stomach. It was at that point I realised why the cylinder had two buckets. The cycle of intense headache followed by the violent emptying of my stomach continued through the night. Despondency increased as the darkness filled my metal home; I sobbed myself to sleep.

Another day dawned through the tiny window above me but the lid remained firmly closed at breakfast time. I rolled around in my small bed and tried to shut out any feelings of hunger. My head was still pounding but I felt too cold to worry about anything. Even my letter to Jenny would have to wait as I couldn’t envisage holding a pen in my shaking fingers. Lunchtime came and went before I and Will got out of our respective beds. The sound of the lid scraping above me set my teeth on edge. The careworn face of Will hove into view.

“Sorry…bit of a rough night.” The inevitability that this might be a regular occurrence over the next two weeks depressed me. Will sent down my breakfast and lunch and I fought the nausea to get out of bed. Despite my hunger I found it difficult to eat the food. The hot tea was welcome more for warming my hands than anything else.

Days and Will Spargo came and went. The headaches now replaced by stomach cramps and feelings of extreme cold and heat. One moment I was shivering with cold and the next I was thrusting my blankets away as the sweat poured out of my body. The intensity of the experience drained me of all my energy and at that point I didn’t care too much about anything. There were days of pure paranoia when the unreliable Will would lead me to fear he was never coming back and I was trapped in a hole in the ground from which I would never return. Frequently I begged him to release me but he reminded me of my contract. It said that all those who underwent ironisation understood that no matter how much they pleaded they must stay the course.

“I didn’t sign any contract!” I cried

“Ah…well…technically you’re right because officially you aren’t here.”

“So let me out!”

“Let’s just say you’ll thank me in the long run. Enjoy your sandwiches…oh and don’t worry about that yellow stuff on your corned beef…it’s piccalilli. Honest. It’s to keep your spirits up…all right?”

One diversion in my first week was the appearance of Ginger Odgers at the top of my world. Her vibrant face was in such marked contrast to the pained one I had witnessed only a few days ago. As she stood at the edge of my cylinder and looked down she seemed physically different. She was definitely taller although I was now looking up and not down on her. What appeared to be the greatest change was her attitude and I drew much strength from that. She was almost joyous with her enthusiasm for the future. Even though I felt wretched, I drank in her effervescence. It would be a crutch for me over the next week or so.

“Look at me, Mr Boggart!” she cried as she turned a cartwheel near the rim of my cylinder. Her long legs arced across my horizon and I started to laugh and laugh until my stomach wouldn’t let me laugh anymore

*

In my second week the pain in my head became a background which ceased to concern me whatsoever. My body protested against the demands that sudden growth put upon it and I found myself groaning in agony for much of the time. I noticed Will covered my cylinder whether it was raining or not now. As I struggled with my pain, I began to hallucinate and found myself talking to myself. Not just within my head but to another version of me who sat in the chair opposite my bed.

“You sure you’re doing the right thing here?” said the other me.

“Not really…but I think it’s too late now. Perhaps you could go and get help.”

“How do you work that one out? I’m stuck down here with you.”

“But where do you go to when you’re not here?” I asked in desperation. The other me gave me a look.

“What do you mean…? ‘When I’m not here?’ I think you better start going easy on those pilchards”, he said, pointing a finger at the untouched fish.

These conversations framed the periods of pain I suffered as my body lurched with the growing spasms. The other me came and went and then one day didn’t come again. On that day I felt well enough to get up and stretch my limbs. The very act of standing up came as quite a shock to me. I swayed slightly as I reached my full height. Little things looked different as I came to terms with my new perspective. On the morning of my final day Will opened the lid of the cylinder and peered in.

“Breakfast is served!” He pulled up the dishes from yesterday and loaded the baked beans, toast and tea onto the lift. I felt ravenous for the first time in an age and ploughed into the food as soon as I got it on to my table. “You look like you’re ready to come out today, young fellow. Good job an’ all seeing as my brother’s back tomorrow. You get on with your breakfast and I shall see about kitting you out with some clothing that fits.” With a mouthful of toast I looked down at my ripped shirt and the ragged trousers that finished just below my knees. The waistband had remained unbuttoned for days. As I finished my breakfast and swigged the mug of hot sweet tea, I contemplated the fact I was no longer a sprite, but neither was I human. In searching for an identity, I had probably removed what identity I already had.

*

With only one day to go before my appointment at the Druid’s Palace, I had to find myself somewhere to live. Will ran the new me into the centre of Thursday Market and despite the rest of the coach being empty; he insisted I ride up alongside him.

“That way, I don’t feel as bad for not charging you!” I’d known Will long enough to realise he was finding the whole concept of working for nothing difficult. But any worries about his sensibilities soon took a back seat as I watched the city of Thursday Market grow from smart townhouses and villas to the impressive majesty of its more formal buildings. To a country sprite the city was like presenting a starving man with a banquet. Everywhere you looked seemed to offer something better. Coming from a land where a two storey house was usually a civic building (after all you did need a decent drop for a hanging), the sight of never-ending masonry rising up to meet the sky was beyond my comprehension. And the people! Thousands of them bustled about their business not caring that I was making my first visit to their city. Here I was anonymous. Back home, a stranger making less noise than a flatulent woodlouse would not have managed one step into the village before being noted, challenged or measured up for a coffin. But this was far from being Glasswell.

Will was doing his bit as a city guide. “I’ll run you along the Great Canal that goes right through the centre of the city. That usually gets the tourists going. Me, I can take it or leave it!” he shouted above the competing traffic of horse buses and goods carriers. Aromas produced by street vendors offering meat pies, fried fish and roast chestnuts struggled to compete with the foul whiff of horse muck. Vivid shop fronts and signage vied for my attention amid the noise of trading, construction and above all progress. My senses reeled with delight. This was the city; this was the place to be.

As we rounded a corner, I was presented with an unforgettable sight - my first view of the Great Canal. The traffic I had witnessed on the streets of Thursday Market was replicated here on the water, but for all that, it was bluer than it should have been. Boats laden with goods plied their way up and down the canal as distinctive black craft, piloted by red-hooded water sprites, ferried people from one side of the canal to the other. Just when I was beginning to feel comfortable with my surroundings, Will drove into Mallory Square. Here, the Old Market Bridge that straddled the canal also provided the city’s shoppers with numerous stalls from which to buy.

“Whoah, my beauties!” roared Will as he hauled on the reins. It was fortunate for me that he also thrust out an arm to stop me hurtling over his horses. “Hoo...hoo!”

When I got my bearings back, I saw the reason for Will’s dramatic halt. Heading towards us was a scrawny old man of a somewhat dishevelled appearance. He was hurtling along, twirling and rolling as if he had no control of his body; behind him the crowd on the street became animated, many of them pointing, others were rummaging through their clothes and bags. I turned to Will who was clutching a piece of paper which he unfolded and read; his lips forming the words in front of him.

“Garn!” he shouted aloud.

“What’s up?” I asked.

“The Windblown Lottery...I ain’t won it. I’m too early.”

As the old man ran past the coach and horses, Will threw him a heel of bread which he managed to both catch and acknowledge as he passed.

“Who the trump is he?”

“That’s the Windblown Boy,” said Will. “It’s a sad story, so it is. Whenever the wind blows he has to be blown along by it until it stops.”

“Why?”

“He was cursed by a witch. Whatever he did, she made him suffer for it. He is blown between here and his hometown. People have to hand him food and drinks because once the wind starts blowing he can never stop until he hits the sea or reaches his home town.” I watched the old man as he headed down alongside the canal, spinning and rolling as he moved on. Those with a good chance of winning followed on after him. He lost his footing and fell but it didn’t seem to stop his momentum as he rolled along the road until he managed to get to his feet again. “It’s a shame.”

“Yes, poor old fellow.”

“No...I wasn’t meaning that. It’s a rollover this week.

“What?”

“Well it’s a lottery run by the druids. Nobody has guessed the exact minute for the last three lotteries.”

“Well surely it could be anytime.”

“Don’t be daft! As soon as the wind changes in Cripplesease, they send a carrier pigeon saying he is heading back to ThurMar, The whole city knows he’ll be here in the next few days. You pay your mark piece and guess the time.”

“What time?”

“The time that he hits the sea...the winner gets half of the money collected. The rest goes to charities run by the Druids.”

“But surely it isn’t right that such an old man...”

“Old? He was a teenager when it started; I reckon he’s in his late twenties now.”

“Really?”

“His only respite is when the wind dies down altogether or when he reaches the sea. The curse stops when he reaches the sea until the wind changes direction and then he is off again. So let that be a warning to you young boggart. Don’t you be crossing no witches while you’re here in Thursday Market!”

Will set off once more for a couple of hundred yards before heaving to on the reins with a little less muscle this time.

“Right then, Leppy Boggart. This here’s the centre of ThurMar. There’s a City Information place over there so they might help you find somewhere to stay while you get your act together.” Will jumped down and unpacked my baggage from the back of the coach. Handing it to me, he mussed the thick hair that now covered my head. “Look at you, boy. You’re almost as big as me now! I’m quite pleased with how you turned out.” He held out a hand that resembled a pound of sausages. “Well, all the best now.” I took his hand and, despite him being a big man, I noticed that I now came well up to his shoulder.

“Thanks for everything, Will.” I gushed; excited by the possibilities this city offered me as a born-again sprite.

“You knows where I am if you needs me! And remember me to your Aunt!” he shouted as he remounted his coach and giddy-upped away. It was only then I realised that Will Spargo was the only person I knew in Thursday Market and the possibility of finding a man who made his living by moving around would be nigh on impossible. I looked around and realised I was alone in a very big city.

True to his suggestion the information office was very helpful and when I told them I intended to earn a living in the city, they ceased their talk about luxurious hotels and pointed me in the way of Dunlaying, and its proprietress, Mrs Enid Brazenose.

*

Walking up the front steps of Dunlaying, ‘Guest House for Professional Gentlemen’ I was greeted by a swaying floral-print bottom.

“And where do you think you’re going in those filthy boots?” said the bottom. I looked down at my errant footwear and while admitting they had seen cleaner days, I would hardly call them filthy. I told the swaying bottom as much. “I think I’ll be the judge of cleanliness in and around my own house. Now state your business or clear off and you better not be one of those itinerant brush peddlers because the last brush I bought lost its bristles quicker than a hedgehog baked in mud.”

“I’m here about a room.” I said and the bottom unfolded to reveal its owner; the aforementioned Enid Brazenose, was both small and formidable. Her large bosom moved like two badgers in a floral-print bag until the restraining order of two folded arms brought them to a halt. A petite felt hat was skewered to hair that wouldn’t know what to do if it was ever released into the wild.

“So you want a room, do you?” Her chilled blue stare scanned my uneasy body for reasons to refuse me. I passed muster – but only just. I could have sworn I saw crosshairs on her eyes. “Four marks a week breakfast and evening meal included but I do have conditions.” I nodded, pleased to have got this far. “One, I won’t have strong drink in the house. Two, I won’t have women in the house. And three, I won’t have lewd singing in the house. Mr Brazenose doesn’t like it.”

“Mr Brazenose sounds a man of impeccable manners.”

“Far from it! When I said he doesn’t like it, I mean he doesn’t like it that I keep a respectable house. Wine, woman and song were his passion!”

“When you say ‘were’.”

“Mr Brazenose passed away some years ago…”

“But…”

“His ghost still ‘graces’ us with its presence. You’re not afraid of ghosts are you Mr…?”

“Er…no…and the name is Mr Boggart…until I get myself a new given name.”

“I can think of one…”

Hmm…I think I’d like a nice one…but I will take the room.”

*

My first night at Dunlaying was a pleasant one. It had been so long since I had slept in a proper bed I had forgotten how much I had missed it. A hearty breakfast accompanied by small talk with Mrs Brazenose’s other paying guests put me in a cheerful mood for my visit to the Druid’s Palace.

Cordwainer Cloam, a salesman of ‘Cloam’s Bespoke Footwear for the Malformed and Recently-maimed’ had introduced himself as soon as I’d entered the room, while at the same time sizing up whether my feet may be in need of his services. He was a slight man, probably in his late forties, who might be described as being ‘of a delicate nature’. His handkerchief was never far away from his mouth when he was speaking. He introduced me to Captain Bastard who, with two wooden legs, was confined to a wheeled-chair and “beyond even the services of corrective footwear”. The Captain was a cheery old sea salt who was prone to bouts of sleeping and frequently had to be rescued from drowning...in his morning porridge.

“You have a coincidental first name, Mr Cloam. ‘Cordwainer’...a maker of shoes?”

This brought a smile to Mr Cloam’s face. “It could have been worse, Mr Boggart. My father, who was determined that his two sons carry on the family business, named us with the business in mind.”

“How do you mean it could have been worse?”

“Perhaps you should direct that question to my brother...Cobbler. But the business thrives...Cobbler makes them and I do the books and the selling. I spend half of my time in the city and it suits me to keep a room here.”

“The business certainly must thrive...”

“Thrive it certainly does, sir. In fact...we are in the process of expanding into another field but I’m keeping that under my hat for the meantime.” He turned towards Captain Bastard, who was in mid-doze. He softened his voice a little. “Might be good news for the Captain is all I am saying,” and with that he gave an over-dramatic wink. “Yes, you’d be surprised that there is such a call for what I like to call ‘structured footwear’ amongst the...as I like to put it...the well-heeled members of society.” He stifled a breathless chuckle with his handkerchief.

In the interest of polite conversation, I remarked that I hadn’t noticed many rich people limping.

“Which just goes to show how effective our products are, Mr Boggart!” Cloam burst into a fit of uncontrollable coughing which woke Captain Bastard from his porridge. The old man blinked in confusion as he and I waited for Cloam to regain some composure. “I have a little whimsy which you may find amusing, Mr Boggart”

I was in polite company so I resisted the opportunity to be crude. I just nodded my head intimating that he should continue.

“What did the customer of Cloam’s Bespoke Footwear for the Malformed and Recently-maimed say after trying on his new shoes?”

“I don’t know...” I left it at that.

“I stand corrected!” Another burst of coughing was interrupted by Cloam’s attempt to greet another of the paying guests with a wave. A small bespectacled man, whose white hair failed to circumnavigate his shiny bald head, had entered the room. He climbed into what appeared to be a custom-built chair, not unlike those which a small child might use. Cloam having finally recovered from his coughing bade us both a good day and left.

The new arrival afforded me a cursory nod and straightaway began buttering a piece of toast. I looked up at a painting of a merry-looking fellow with a luxuriant head of hair, a trim moustache and goatee beard. The artist had captured a certain twinkle in his sitter’s eye.

“Who’s the happy guy?” I asked, by means of engaging some kind of conversation. I waited for him to finish his toast.

“That’s the late Randle P Brazenose...” the little man cocked his ear in the direction of the kitchen before adding in a hushed voice “also a renowned gambler, drinker and womaniser and the late husband of our landlady, Enid.” He watched as I gave the portrait another look. “I take it you haven’t had the pleasure of meeting him yet?”

“Well, Mrs Brazenose did mention something about a ghost but I...”

“Didn’t take it seriously? Well it shouldn’t be long before you do. Brazenose loves new inmates.” My guarded look prompted him to introduce himself. “Sorry, how ungracious of me. My name is John Thomas Thumb, Jonty to my friends.” He proffered his hand. “And what have you planned for the day, Mr Boggart?”

“How do you know my name?”

He put a small chubby finger up against his nose. “In my line of business I can’t be too careful about whom I share living quarters with.”

“And that is because you are a...?”

“I’m a...publisher.”

“Oh, I see...” I hoped I didn’t sound too sarcastic. Mr Thumb didn’t seem offended. Note to self...must try harder.

“So you were about to tell me what you have planned for the day...”

“Well, I suppose it sounds rather exciting really. I’ve actually been invited to the Druid’s Palace.” Jonty’s eyes betrayed his surprise.

“Really? Might I ask as to what business you have at the Palace?” said Jonty in the manner of a cross-examination. Sensing my concern, his tone softened somewhat. “If I’m not being too presumptuous?”

“Not at all,” I told him. “As a matter of fact I am to be presented with a medal by the Massy Witch herself.” I sat back ready to bask in the glow of Jonty’s admiration.

“In respect of what?” he continued, keeping the glow of his admiration firmly under its earthenware cover. I recounted the story of the fateful day that had brought me to Thursday Market as an ‘i-sprite. Jonty listened to the story without interruption. He sat in contemplation for a while before asking me a question.

“So, if the broomstick belonged to Avis Davies, why did she send it all the way to Glasswell for a repair that could be done at any reputable blacksmith in the city?” I had to confess the same thought had also crossed my mind.

“Maybe I should ask her?” I said. Jonty beetled his fulsome eyebrows, which isn’t easy for white fluffy caterpillars.

“No offence, Mr Boggart, but why would the Massy Witch, the fulcrum of power in this land consider responding to such a question from…” He left the sentence open out of politeness, I suppose.

“…a simple boggart from the back of beyond?” I finished his sentence out of wilfulness. “Why don’t you come along and ask her yourself? Presumably the Massy Witch would deign to answer the question from such a renowned…publisher.”

“I’m also an inventor,” said Jonty, without the least sense of self-importance, but I was still angry.

“The invitation is for one and a guest. Be my guest!” I thought he would have bitten my hand off but the blanching of his face suggested otherwise.

“Oh…no, I wouldn’t dream of…I couldn’t. It wouldn’t be right...me not knowing you or anything. Questions might be asked about my motives. I wouldn’t want to encourage things like ‘questions being asked’.”

“Please yourself!” I said. The subject was closed and Jonty resumed his previous composure.

“So, Mr Boggart…I feel uncomfortable being so formal with you, haven’t you got a given name?”

“Touchy subject, Jonty. Mr Boggart is fine for the time being.”

“I was going to ask you what you do now…what with the river opportunities….”

“Drying up? Like many before me, I am here to seek my fortune. So any suggestions, recommendations or handouts gratefully accepted. Anything going in your line of business?”

“Not really. Still…” he got up to go and shook my hand once more. “I hope all goes well for you today. Good luck.”

“You make it sound like an ordeal. I’m going to receive a medal for averting a national crisis. What could possibly go wrong?” Jonty stood in front of the door and turned.

“Just be on your guard, Mr Boggart. The Druid’s Palace, despite the picturesque setting, is not a tourist attraction.”

“Oh, and there was me hoping to have one of those new-fangled photographs taken of me with the Massy Witch!”

“The Druid’s Palace is a tower of cards on the verge of collapse. The last thing it needs…is a misplaced joker”, the sudden change in Jonty’s demeanour disturbed me. “Be wary, Mr Boggart, if there is one thing I have learned in this life it is to expect the unexpected.” He turned to go and I watched as he froze in front of the closed door. “Oh!” he said, staring up at the out-of-reach door handle, “you couldn’t open the door for me, could you? Mrs Brazenose doesn’t usually close it after breakfast.” 

THURSDAY MARKET

A chastened Jonty had told me what I needed to know to get to the Druid’s Palace, but his warning accompanied me back up the stairs to my room. I got the feeling that it wasn’t the only thing accompanying me as I shut the door and thought about getting ready. Mrs Brazenose had kindly put a flat iron over my ‘best’ clothes and they were hanging behind the door. I threw my shirt over my head, neglecting to undo the buttons when…

“Knock. Knock!” Unable to thrust my head through the collar of my shirt, I wheeled round in some panic. Was there someone in the room? “Only me!” continued the voice as I threw off my shirt and stared at the top of a rather elegant male head emanating up through the floorboards. “Hope I didn’t give you a fright?” said the disembodied head, looking up at me. “Allow me to introduce myself.” As he rose up to his full height, I could see despite his translucent quality that he was wearing an elegant quilted dressing gown. He offered an outstretched hand.

“Ah, you must be…”, before I could finish…

“…Randle P Brazenose, former proprietor of this lodging house and husband of the very formidable Enid, who currently runs it.” His hand passed through mine. “Sorry, best I can do.” He hung there in anticipation.

“Er…sorry!” Introductions, when you haven’t an actual name, are tedious to say the least. “Boggart!” I waved back at him. “Just Boggart will be fine.” The ghost of Randle P Brazenose, screwed his face up a little.

“Well, you can call me Randle, er…Mr Boggart. I’ve always been a people person.” It seemed strange to me that my discomfort at not having a name had stopped me from realising that I was actually talking to a ghost, the spiritual remains of a dead person. Randle P Brazenose was actually dead.

“Well…hello…Randle” was the best I could come up with and it far outshone the next thing I said, which was… “You been dead long?”

Randle seemed far from offended. “It’s been ten long years now. It’s just I find it so boring. My life used to be filled with so much colour...so much passion!”

“I thought you were a bricklayer.”

Randle stopped in his imperceptible tracks for a second before a knowing smile filled his face. “Ah...you asked Enid why the house was called ‘Dunlaying’, didn’t you?” A ghostly laugh filled the room, which I found a little disconcerting. “The woman I bought it off had once been the madam in a bawdy house. At first, Enid didn’t mind the connotation, but she has changed somewhat for the worse over the years. She wasn’t always the house-proud harridan that she is now. She used to be an exotic dancer when I first met her.”

“Really?”

“What that woman couldn’t do with her body isn’t worth mentioning. Her ‘Dance of the Seven Crochet’d Placemats’ had to be seen to be believed. Stage Door Johnnies used to clamour round to pay her compliments at the er…”

“Stage door?”

“Yes…but once I had set my cap at her, I knew I had to make her mine. She was appearing at my theatre…did I tell you I used to tread the boards?”

“Now you just appear through them...”

“Ah, yes…very good. What was I saying, oh yes, Enid…”

“Look Randle, much as I find this all very interesting…” I knew I would live to regret that statement, “I have an important appointment to meet and I really need to be getting on.” I guess Randle was a little hurt by my need to hurry, but the actor in him hid it well. Despite being transparent…he clearly…wasn’t.

“Well, we’re bound to bump into each other around the place…oh, and be assured, I never turn up unannounced. A body needs his privacy; I above all, appreciate that. If you hear me knocking and you don’t want me there, just say ‘Go away, Randle’. A nod is as good as a wink.” Randle made a short bow and turned to pass straight through my bedroom door.

*

The warm sunny day painted Thursday Market in a cheerful light and I made the most of my walk through the bustling city. As I turned onto the Great Canal I once again admired the fact that people were capable of creating such beauty. In the country we only got to hear the exploits of travellers second-hand and, if the truth were told, eyes would soon glaze over and the tale-teller would invariably mumble… ‘I guess you had to be there’.

Part of me envisaged myself being that tale-teller, bubbling with enthusiasm about what I was currently seeing. Telling Jenny all about the Great Canal appealed to me until I realised I probably wouldn’t get the chance. I wasn’t going home. The reason I had come to Thursday Market was not to be the tourist; I was here to start again.

The direct horse-tram to the seaside town of Yow was Jonty’s final instruction; and this was my first experience of this modern mode of transport. The tram differed from an ordinary coach by the fact the wheels ran on iron track. A team of horses could pull a lot more people when aided by wheels running over smooth rails. The main difference for me was the comfort of the ride. A week of coach travel with Will Spargo left as much an impression on my backside as it did on my mind.

The tram soon left the city centre and proceeded to pass the grand houses of ThurMar’s affluent society. Large formal gardens and well-pruned hedges lined the route until eventually we left the modern avenues behind and ventured upon the small quirky lanes that made up the seaside village of Yow.

As seagulls cried and wheeled overhead, the tram eased into the stand that marked the end of the journey. And then I saw it. At first it was just a glimpse between two small cottages. A still blue wall hemmed in by paler man-made imitations on either side. Mesmerised, I walked down the alleyway and saw the sea in its entirety for the first time in my life.

Minutes passed and tears repressed, I struggled to come to terms with it all. How could I have lived so long and not been witness to such wonder. Above me the sky paled into insignificance, a first in my reckoning. To my right was a small harbour busy with fisherman and tradesmen and to my left was an island, topped by an impressive castle. This was the Isle of Yow…the Druid’s Palace, which was once the home of the founding fathers of our world. All children knew about the discovery of this land; knew that the persecuted druids had to find another home when their very existence was threatened by the Oppressors. They knew the druids were accompanied by the sprites and a good many human people. A story that spoke volumes about what kind of world our people wanted to live in.

Behind me the town clock chimed the quarter hour before my appointment and I realised I still had to get across the water to the Palace. I asked a local who told me I could walk across if I didn’t hang about. My puzzled look made him chuckle as he pointed out the causeway that ran across to the island.

“…go on...but you’ll have to be quick!” he chivvied me on my way. “The tide is on the turn and when you come back you’ll as likely need the ferry.” I thanked the man and started to run towards the causeway. I was only halfway across the quarter-mile road when I noticed the water rising above the well-trod cobbles. The gateway to the Isle of Yow taunted me as I knew I would arrive at the Druid’s Palace resplendent in my best clothes and embarrassed by soggy footwear.

A smirking guard checked my invitation and had me escorted across the courtyard and through the main door. Behind an impressive desk in the huge reception area, a young woman scribbled into a large ledger. Ten minutes passed before she looked up and asked me my name.

“Er…I haven’t really got one.” I shuffled my squelching feet.

“What? What do you mean you haven’t got a name? You’ve got to have a name. How am I supposed to check you in against the Visitor’s List of names if you haven’t got one?” Heads popped from behind doorways as the woman’s strident voice echoed around the large room. “It’s not possible for me to do my job if you haven’t got a name” she continued, bolstered by her sense of righteousness.

All I could do was sigh. “Is there anything there under the name ‘Boggart’?” I asked.

“There might be.”

“Well that’s me.”

“I don’t think so!”

“What do you mean…‘I don’t think so’?” I was beginning to get annoyed with her.

“The only person on this list who hasn’t got a name…” Her use of vocal italics infuriated me even more. “…is ‘The Lepping Stones Boggart, Glasswell’...” I spread my hands with frustration.

“That’s me! The Lepping Stones Boggart, Glasswell!”

“…who, according to the Visitor’s List, is approximately four feet tall!” I guess it was my subsequent verbal explosion, in which I possibly mentioned losing my name, my home, my job, traipsing a hundred miles on an arse-numbing coach, enduring two weeks of torture to arrive here with sodden feet just to be given a flaming useless medal that wiped the smug look off her face.

“Mr Boggart, I presume.” It was the Massy Witch herself who broke the pent-up silence. A familiar-looking woman, dressed in a smart, expensive outfit, walked across the room to shake my hand. “I’m Avis Davies and first let me apologise for neglecting to tell my secretary that you had undergone the ironisation process.”

“Er…well how could you have known? I didn’t really tell anybody.”

“Mr Boggart…this is the headquarters of the All-Seeing Eye. We do tend to live up to our name.

*

Avis Davies escorted me up an impressive staircase then along a plush corridor hung with portraits of druids and witches from days gone by.

“I wanted to thank you personally for saving my broomstick from falling into unsavoury hands.”

“He was just a kid; he probably didn’t mean any harm.”

“On the contrary, Mr Boggart…he is much more than just a kid.”

“No...he was...I can remember what he looked like. He was tall and gangly with a mop of red hair. And he had a tattoo, if that helps at all? I distinctly remember that. It was a shield bearing the initials ‘GB’ above a banner that just said ‘MOTHER’

“Yes, we know. It signifies he is one of the Grimm brothers. You stopped my broomstick being stolen by their youngest, Arnold Grimm. I should think the name might ring a few bells even if his face didn’t.” Avis Davies was right; the Grimm brothers were notorious criminals. Even in our neck of the woods they were infamous. “The fact you prevented one of the Grimms escaping with the broomstick of the Massy Witch is probably more important than you think.”

“Hence the medal, I suppose. It’s just that I find the whole thing sort of embarrassing really because I was only doing my job.” Avis Davies smiled and once again I had the feeling I knew her from somewhere. “Of course…now I haven’t really got a job to do.”

“Yes...I was quite surprised that you chose to have yourself ironised. Fed up of mischief or are you thinking of staying in Thursday Market?”

“Well actually…”

“Your ironisation suggests to me that you have thought seriously about doing something else...which is rather a pity because we were looking for a new lifeguard on the causeway here. It’s a CMO.” Avis Davies caught the uncertainty in my look. Conditional Magic Occupation...the position allows the holder to keep their magical abilities, unlike most other occupations here. The dwarves who work the mines on the city’s outskirts...the water sprites on the canal ferries...lifeguards. It’s a shame but you would have been ideal. It doesn’t happen much but sometimes people get caught by the tide coming in…”

“My sodden shoes testify as much…” Avis Davies shot me a look. “No…sorry, what I meant was that my shoes really are ‘sodden’. Anyhow, I’d decided long before I came here that I need to have a proper life...something interesting. So I am on the lookout for a new career. Something as far removed from water as possible. I wondered if you have any ideas.”

“Well, I’ll have to give it some thought, although I am somewhat under pressure at the moment. What I would be happy to do is all in my power to help you get started in whatever career you do choose. I can’t say fairer than that, can I?” Avis Davies smiled and I had to ask her.

“Where do I know you from?”

“Glasswell, I expect. My brother is the blacksmith there. Why else would the Massy Witch send her most important possession all that way for repair?”

“Of course, because of The Naming of Witches Act, you would have had to rename yourself with a rhyming name. You’re really Myrtle Claridge! Well, well, I’d never have believed it. I haven’t seen you for years!” Well not since I tipped you in the river, some thirty years ago. “Fancy that, Myrtle Claridge…”

“No, I’m her sister, Avis.”

The ceremony was performed on the ornate balcony overlooking the courtyard. A large disinterested crowd had assembled and Avis Davies expressed some surprise so many had come to see a country boggart receive a medal for a hushed-up security breach. She whispered something into the ear of one of her staff, who left to fetch her broomstick.

“It always looks more impressive if I carry my symbol of power. It’s what the people like to see,” said Avis Davies. She clutched her newly-repaired broom and stood on the balcony. After a brief discussion with me about my name (which went the way of all the previous ones), she announced to the crowd that the Medal of the Four-Leaved Clover was to be awarded to an un-named boggart for services to the state.

As I stood on the balcony and received my medal, I had to confess to having mixed feelings about the whole thing. Sure it was a great honour to receive the medal but despite being a national hero (with no name as such for anyone to remember), I also needed to earn myself a living. At the end of the day all I was going to end up with was a useless medal. I mean…what good is a medal to anyone?

Then a loud bang filled the air and everything went black.

*

“It was the medal that saved you. You were lucky.” I recognised the voice of Avis Davies before I realised I was lying in a bed. “The bullet hit the medal at such an angle that it must have deflected it. The doctor reckons you were dead for about 20 seconds. The shock from the bullet stopped your heart.” She pulled up a chair.

“You mean someone tried to kill me again?” I croaked.

“What do you mean ‘again’?”

“I thought you would have known already seeing as you are head of The All-Seeing-”

“Yes, all right…you’ve made your point. It is more likely they were trying to kill me, but I was protected by a hard air spell. Unfortunately, the bullet deflected off the shield created and hit you. To be honest I suspected an attempt on my life. The size of the crowd made me suspicious. Turns out most of them had been bribed to take a ferry trip across to the island.”

“And there’s me thinking I was popular.”

“So I took precautions. Sometimes I astound myself at my own arrogance. The bullet could have killed you. I am so sorry. Now I want you to tell me about these attempts on your life.” For the next five minutes, the Massy Witch listened to the story of my brushes with death at the hands of the one-eyed assassin. She sat in silence for a few seconds before saying…

“When you saved my broomstick, you made a powerful enemy.”

“The Grimms?”

Avis Davies sighed and got up to walk to the window. “No, there is more to it that that. It is somebody quite close to me because firstly, they knew my broomstick would be sent to Glasswell and secondly, they knew you were receiving a medal today.”

“Couldn’t you find anything out from Arnold Grimm?”

“He was spirited away before any questions could be asked.”

“Convenient and, if I may say so…not surprising.”

“Why do you say that?”

“It was when your brother, the blacksmith and his son captured him-”

“-Thanks to your intervention.”

“I don’t deserve the medal really. It was a toss-up whether it was Arnold Grimm or your brother Orson who was going in the river.”

“Why did you choose Grimm?”

“I don’t know. I like to think I was swayed by the crazy cocky grin on his face, a look so smug I just wanted to slap it or at the very least to replace it with one of confusion.”

“You said you weren’t surprised that the boy had got away.”

“It’s just that despite being caught by your brother and his son, he seemed to have an air of calmness about him. It was almost as if none of it really mattered.”

“That just goes to reaffirm my certainty that someone inside the Eye is involved.”

“Any idea who?”

Avis Davies shook her head before changing the subject.

“You had a quite interesting object hanging around your neck.” I pulled down the blankets and found the magic mirror gone. Anger rose up inside me.

“That was my mirror, I found it!”

“By the river in Glasswell, I expect.”

“No, as a matter of fact…” Avis Davies looked taken aback for a second until I continued, “I found it in the river at Glasswell. But you still had no right to take it from me.”

“The doctor removed it as it was getting in the way of his attempts to save your life. It’s there on the cabinet beside your bed. Have you any idea what it is?” Feeling sheepish, I picked up the mirror.

“Well I had hoped it was some kind of magic mirror with the power to put people to sleep. I was sort of hoping if I could find out how it worked, I could at least make a living out of curing insomnia or something.” Avis Davies put her hand to her mouth to stifle a giggle. “Oh and I suppose you know exactly what to do with it, don’t you?” I was pushing it here because she probably did.

“Just wait a minute.”

“I wasn’t planning on going anywhere.” She left the room and a minute later returned with a small silver case.

“Grimm must have let go of his bag before he ran across the Lepping Stones. Its contents had spilled out along the riverbank and my brother and his son collected everything up...well...almost everything. This silver case was inside the bag as well as this very thick book.” She threw the book down onto the bedside cabinet but I was more interested in the case.

“What is it?” I watched as Avis Davies presented it before me.

“Well...there were also a number of those things which you call ‘a magic mirror’ in Grimm’s bag. We’ve had our experts trying to work out the purpose of them. And they found out if you did this…” whereupon Avis Davies pressed some kind of stud which opened the silver case up to reveal a picture frame covered in glass. She then pressed another stud and a thin flap opened up. She took my magic mirror and placed it inside the opening and then shut it again. Then she pressed another stud on the case and waited. “It does this…”

At that point one of Avis Davies’ staff knocked on the door and walked into the room.

“Ma’am…something has cropped up. We think you should come.” She hurried out of the room after the man and left me staring at the picture frame. A sharp picture appeared. The frame filled with a wonderful blue sky image, a huge shield bearing the initials WB which I remembered from the back of the magic mirror stood for Warner Brothers. Then another picture; a man and a woman and guess what? The man’s name was BOGART, Humphrey BOGART. Yes the spelling was a little different, there was only one ‘G’ but how else could you say it? Pass any vegetable stall and you soon realise spelling isn’t an exact science anyway. I stared at the frame for some time but nothing more happened. I reached across and carefully lifted the case onto my bed. I pushed one of the studs in the way Avis Davies had done. Then something magical happened.

Two silhouettes appeared; a man and a woman - then the words ‘Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall’ in ‘THE BIG SLEEP’. Music plays. The man lights a cigarette and gives it to the woman who puts it in her mouth. Then he lights one for himself. They take them out of their mouths and put them into a small glass dish on the table. I thought - what’s that all about then?

The story begins and what a story. It seems to be a different world; the people wear different clothes and the ladies - I didn’t realise their legs could be that long. The man, this Humphrey Bogart; had a long face underneath his unusual brimmed hat. His coat was light and tied in the middle with a belt but the girls just loved him. His world was not like the real world because it was a world without any colour. Everything was black, white or in-between. But despite all this, what happened in the next hour or so left me rapt. The case had performed a play which took place in a different world to mine, but when it was finished, I couldn’t get the things I had seen out of my mind. There were tubes down which you could speak to people in other places and great big iron carriages that wheeled around the place without the need for horses or steam. But what struck me most of all was that the man, this private investigator was a saviour of damsels in distress, a man who wanted to get to the bottom of things, a man to be reckoned with. And this man who played the part of the hero was called Humphrey BOGART. The family resemblance was plain to see. He had obviously been ironised as he certainly wasn’t a looker. This man was a boggart like me. And above anything else I wanted to be a boggart like him.

*

Sometime later Avis Davies returned and sat down next to me. I was reading the book that had been found on Arnold Grimm.

“So you’ve started it then?” she smiled.

“Yeah…have you ever heard of something called a hobbit?” The witch shook her head. I put down the book and changed the subject. “Did you sort your ‘problem’ out?”

“What? Oh, yes. Seems we’ve been inundated with random cases of memory loss around the city. We’re keeping it hush-hush until we get to the bottom of it, so you’ve forgotten it already, right?”

“Hey, I’m just one more case to add to your list!” It was nice to see her laughing. She obviously had a lot of things on her mind at any one time. A good chuckle every now and again probably did her good.

“So!” She clapped her hands together and placed them between her knees. “What did you see in the ‘box of wonders’?” It was my turn to giggle.

“Oh so you can laugh at my ‘magic mirror’ but ‘box of wonders’ is the best you can come up with for that thing.”

“What did you see in…that thing?” She pointed a well-manicured finger at the silver case.

“I think I saw my future.”

“That good, eh?”

“After watching it I think…no, I know what I want to do with my life.”

“It must be good; I’d like to see it.”

“I don’t think you’ll be able to. It sort of died when I started watching it again.”

“Oh, the ‘life source’ must have run out. Fortunately there were quite a few of them in Arnold Grimm’s bag. Our experts are quite confident they can replicate them. So…tell me what you saw.”

And so it was I began to tell her all about the story called The Big Sleep and of the wonderful world that even eclipsed the wonders of living in modern day Thursday Market. I told her of horseless carriages, speaking tubes and women with legs all the way up to…”

“Women do have long legs here, you know? They just have the decency not to display them to all and sundry.”

I pressed on regardless. “It was obviously a story from another world.”

“Yes, that’s what we think.”

“A world without any colours…”

“Oh you got one of the black and white ones, did you?”

“…but it is so much more advanced than the world we live in.”

“You think that was advanced. You should have seen the coloured story I saw. It was called Minority Report.”

“So where do you think they came from?”

“Probably the world our forefathers left behind. The thing is…if someone, and the Grimms look favourite, is bringing this sort of thing into our world then there is obviously a crossing point that needs to be closed up. It also means it is imperative that we keep these ‘magic mirrors’, as you call them, a secret. We don’t want the people to find out that perhaps things might have been ‘better’ if we had stayed in the world of the Oppressors.”

“Hmm, I suppose you are right. Can you imagine the mad dash if they ever found a way back into the old world with its horseless carriages and women with long legs?”

“Having all those things doesn’t necessarily make it a better world…”

Sensing a change of subject was required, I told her about my plan to emulate my new-found hero from the ‘box of wonders’. I wasn’t seeking her approval but her enthusiasm seemed to increase by the minute until she finally made me an offer I would have been stupid to refuse.

“The All-Seeing Eye have a number of properties in the city and providing you with an office is the very least I can do. We’ve been converting an old malthouse in ThurMar into a couple of small…what shall I call them…business units? One of them is still vacant, if you’re interested.”

“That’s fantastic!” I gushed, shaking her hand with perhaps a little more vigour than necessary.

“So you accept? That’s good because there is a little something you might be able to help us with.”

*

Getting shot had been a remarkable stroke of luck for me. Avis Davies made sure I got the best treatment available and, on the frequent visits she made to my bedside, we got to know each other quite well. A week later, I sat in my new swivelling chair and watched the sign-writer as he traced the outline of my name on the glass door of my new office.

The legend…

TARGGOB YERHPMUH,

EVITCETED ETAVIRP

…slowly appeared in front of me. Pouring myself a slug of whiskey, I lifted my feet up onto the top of my pristine desk. All around me the smell of newness and fresh paint filled my nostrils. I was starting my life over again. Sure there had been a price to pay; I could never again become invisible or dissolve myself into the surrounding water but hey, now I had my own business!

I guess when it came to small businesses I was going to be up there with the smallest of them. In my business there was only me. Still, I certainly had big plans. Only that morning I paid to have my name included in the Jelly’s Directory. The editor, Astbury Jelly, hadn’t been too pleased about having to create a new category. I was Thursday Market’s first private detective…and I didn’t even have to wait for my first case to come in. It came with the premises…

Avis Davies had accompanied me to my new office – only this time she assured me her protective spell covered the both of us. She asked me if I had any problems with my new place and I told her that apart from this weird buzzing noise I kept hearing in the evenings, that the place was all I could ask for.

“Probably termites...” said Avis Davies, flashing me a wicked grin. As we climbed the new wooden stairs, I noticed the ground floor of the old malthouse hadn’t any windows. I asked her why that was.

“Oh…we’re just using it for storage,” she replied. “That’s the problem with running a country…so much paperwork. Now if you don’t mind, before we take a look at your office, I want you to come up on the roof.”

Avis Davies pulled out a ladder from against the wall and poked it up through an opening in the hallway ceiling. She beckoned me to go first and the pair of us climbed up and stood looking along a long dark attic, the end of which had been boarded up to protect it from the elements. Avis and I pulled up the ladder and used it to push back a trapdoor that opened out onto the roof. Once the pair of us were out on the slates, I grabbed hold of a tall metal spike that extended about fifteen feet into the air.

“A bit over the top for a lightning conductor, isn’t it?” Avis Davies smiled as she took in the view. The malthouse stood on top of a small hill and the panorama of the city of Thursday Market spread out before us. Still new to me, I savoured the unexpected landscape.

“This used to be all Fields’”, said Avis Davies.

I looked at the mass of buildings that surrounded us and then askance at the Massy Witch. “Yes, I suppose it must have been…once…long ago.”

“No, I’m referring to the building…the malthouse used to belong to Fields Brewery, until they moved to a more central location. She beckoned me to follow her and together we clambered along the top of the ridge until the roof came to an end. A rush of air passed close to my left ear.

“What was that?”

“What?”

“A sort of whooshing noise.”

Avis Davies smiled. That’s probably the optical air spell I’ve employed for my...for our protection. It creates an optical illusion, so that when someone thinks they have me...us in their sights, they haven’t. It does move the air around a bit. ”

“I think I preferred the harder option.”

“Not practical...too unwieldy. You have to keep casting it as you move around.” Avis Davies continued. “What’s that thing there?”

I peered over the edge of the roof to see a large wooden beam sticking out of the side of the building. It had numerous rusting hooks along its length. “As this was once a malthouse, I suspect that it was some sort of barrel-lifting device.”

“Do you think I should have it removed? It looks a bit like a gallows.”

“I kind of like it...and it harks back to what the building was originally used for...and it may come in handy one day.”

“Whatever for?”

“I don’t know...you might want to lift something heavy up to the first floor.”

“But we’ve bricked up the doorway beneath it.”

I shrugged my shoulders. “True. I don’t suppose it matters in the grand scheme of things.”

“Hmm...” said Avis Davies as she moved further along the roof. “As you can see the building used to be a lot larger. This section, in front of us…” I gazed over to where the original building continued, “…burnt down a few months ago.”

“It doesn’t look very safe.”

“It is about to be demolished”, said Avis Davies.

Another whoosh. The Massy Witch’s lack of concern reassured me for a second until I thought I saw movement in the shadows deep inside the building opposite.

She pointed down to the wasteland that lay between the two buildings. It was fenced in on both sides. “This is the place I want you to keep an eye on.”

“What…the bit that’s missing?”

“And the building beyond. We think there may be a portal here, a gateway to the other world, but we haven’t been able to find it.”

“What makes you think there is one here?”

“Our Seers inspected the site after the fire and noted a lot of the rubbish inside was not from this world. Packaged cigarettes, tins that once held drink of some kind; each with an opening device that seems far too sophisticated for our world. Strange crinkly bags that once held…what were they again…? The suggestion is…that they came from ‘somewhere else’.”

“So who burnt it down?”

“Potato Crisps…that was it! One of them was Smoky Bacon flavour… What? Well it we believe it was arson, so the Grimm’s look favourite as it was on their patch.”

“What do you mean…their patch?”

“Two of the Grimm brothers…Wilhelm and Jakob, better known as Billy and Jacky control the sale of unlicensed alcohol and tobacco in the city, amongst other things. Anybody else tries it then they don’t take it kindly. If someone was smuggling then the Grimms would do their utmost to stop them. They must not have known about the portal because that would have been an ideal opportunity for them to exploit.”

“So why do you want me to watch the place...surely you’ve got people who can magic their way in and investigate?”

“Well, in answer to the first part of your question...because of the interest that’s been shown in it lately.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, there have been a number of people snooping round here…”

“…and the second part?”

“A spell of some kind preventing the use of magic in and around the building seems to have been put in place. So we can’t just send light elves in to investigate...or send the guardians in because I want this kept as quiet as possible...so much so that only one other person in the All Seeing Eye knows about this. I’m going to be using kid gloves on this mission.”

“I’ll try and remember the name. But surely the place is just a ruin...just cordon it off. You’ve got the power.”

“Someone has now come up with the money to rebuild it…it’s quite embarrassing really…”

“What do you mean?”

“Well because we wanted to observe the area for any…shall we say… anomalies? I decided that it might be a good idea to buy the malthouse and redevelop it…but we couldn’t contact either of the owners. So after waiting a year we made a compulsory purchase of the site.”

“What’s the problem?”

“Well...one of the owners did turn up; only he was hiding behind his lawyers who claim that...well let’s say that we didn’t play it by the book.”

“You mean their book...that being the law.”

“I told you it was embarrassing! Anyway, we came to an agreement that we could purchase part of the malthouse-”

“The bit that I’m in-.”

“Yes...but the owner claimed that he wanted to sell the rest of the malthouse to another buyer who also wanted to redevelop it. If there is a gateway to another world in the malthouse then the owner must know about it. It literally is a window of opportunity for dodgy business...so much so that I can’t believe that this ‘other buyer’ isn’t just a front for the original owners...a means to give them even more anonymity.”

“And probably the money you paid them means they can now recreate what they had before!”

“There’s no need to smirk…but that’s just the thing…they’re not recreating what they had before...which was a warehouse.”

“Well what are they building?”

“We don’t know...but the plans put forward by a party known only as Merlin Developments suggest that security is a priority...anyway, now you know why I want the place watching. Come on, let’s go and look at your new office.”

“Don’t mind me asking but why did we have to come all the way up here to have a look at what you want me to watch? I noticed there was a gate in the fence that surrounds the space. As the two of us teetered back across the malthouse roof, the Massy Witch replied…

“Risk of falling masonry…too dangerous.” 

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