Read The Crooked Sixpence Online

Authors: Jennifer Bell

The Crooked Sixpence (21 page)

BOOK: The Crooked Sixpence
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Instead, she considered the clue to what the Dirge were after.
The Great Uncommon Good . . .
Seb was right: it
did
sound historical – like an ancient legend. She wondered what or who the Great Uncommon Good was.

The East End streets were crooked and winding, littered with plastic packaging, cardboard and beer cans. Some shops had smashed windows boarded up, while others had put up fairy lights and scrawled cardboard signs.

‘One shiny new straddlebroom!' a trader with a thick accent shouted. ‘Only one point two grade, ladies and gents – cheapest in Lundinor!'

‘One grade ha-ats, one grade ha-ats – change your guise in moments, one grade ha-ats!' sang another.

Valian stalked confidently through the crowds and then turned off onto a quiet side street. As she followed, Ivy began to reconsider his motives. She hadn't trusted him, but he'd risked his life to save her from the selkie . . . She had so many questions.

‘What's the Great Uncommon Good?' she asked him.

‘No idea.' He shrugged. ‘Where did you hear that?'

Ivy glanced at Seb. ‘The selkie mentioned it – it asked me where I'd hidden it.'

Valian frowned as he led them into a narrow alley. This one was filled only with shadows, rubbish bins and the putrid smell of rotting fruit. ‘I wouldn't take any notice of a selkie. They've been banned from undermarts for hundreds of years because they like violence.' He stopped and turned to the closest building, exploring the brickwork as if searching for something lodged in the cement. ‘Selkies can read minds; they can tap into your darkest secrets and deepest memories, and you only have to be speaking aloud to give them access.' He glanced at Ivy. ‘You got off lightly. Normally selkie victims look like they've been attacked by a shark. Whatever the thing said, it was probably just trying to keep you talking for longer.'

So it could read my mind
, Ivy thought. But why did the Dirge think she knew where the Great Uncommon Good was? It didn't make sense.

At last Valian's fingers stopped; he pressed his nails into the cement and waited. ‘Try to be nice,' he told Ivy and Seb. ‘Despite appearances, this guy's actually a decent contact. He's a scout like me.'

Suddenly a loud crack reverberated along the alleyway. The bricks trembled, sending out sprays of sand. ‘Stand back,' Valian commanded, shouldering them away.

Ivy stared as a diamond-shaped section of wall dissolved into mist and shadow. She stepped backwards, grabbing Seb's hoodie as she did so. There was a lot of coughing, a loud hiss, and then a dark figure formed in the mist.

‘Young Valian Kaye,' the figure said – it was an amused male voice. ‘Nice of you to stop by for a visit.'

Valian coughed and looked away.

‘How's business?' the man asked, his face still shrouded in darkness. ‘It's got to be a difficult time for an independent scout at the mo. In fact, the last time I saw you, weren't you trying to flog assassin shoelaces to a couple of gwei?'

Ivy listened carefully. The man definitely had an accent, but she couldn't quite place it. All at once he stepped forward into the dim streetlight, grinning. His crooked teeth, sandy hair and pale skin were blackened with something like soot, and beneath a tatty waistcoat he wore a once-white shirt over faded jeans. On his head was a red and blue jester's hat. Ivy looked down at his feet. His muddy trainers didn't touch the ground.

Her stomach flinched. He was floating. Which meant . . .

He's dead.

‘Well then, Kaye, introduce me,' the man said, nodding towards Ivy and Seb.

Valian shifted uneasily. After telling him their names, he pointed at the dead man. ‘You two, this is Johnny Hands – a ghoul with a special gift for matching weapons to owners.'

Ivy shuddered.
A ghoul.
Just like those traders in the tavern.

Johnny Hands smiled wickedly and then made a little bow, removing his jester's hat as he bent forward. ‘Pleased to meet you,' he announced. Ivy caught his eye, and his grin widened.

Valian stepped forward. ‘You know why we've come.' He beckoned to Ivy and Seb. ‘They need something to protect themselves with; something that won't be detected on common land.'

Johnny Hands scratched his filthy chin. He looked Ivy and Seb up and down and then reached into the black mist behind him, bringing out three packages, each wrapped in stained muslin and tied with string.

‘This one for the boy.' He handed Seb the largest of the three packages. It was long and thin, like a ruler. ‘Not very subtle but it'll do some damage if you're attacked.'

Seb took the package and studied it, looking both confused and fearful.

‘You're a little trickier . . .' Johnny Hands narrowed his eyes at Ivy. ‘Something small like you perhaps? Or something quick and lethal?'

Lethal?
Ivy couldn't believe he was saying this. She was
eleven
. What did she want with a lethal weapon? Then again, it would be helpful if she came face to face with another selkie.

The ghoul glanced at Valian for a second. ‘Perhaps . . . something you are familiar with.' He handed Ivy the smaller of the two remaining packages. It was round and fairly heavy, like a cricket ball. ‘And this one's for you . . .' he finished, handing the third package to Valian.

‘I didn't ask for anything,' Valian protested. ‘I just wanted weapons for these two.'

Johnny Hands raised a glove. ‘I know, I know, but you'll understand when you see theirs.'

‘What have you been up to, Hands?' Valian growled.

‘I'll just put it on your tab, yes? Great. No need to shake.' Johnny Hands quickly stepped back into the darkness.

Ivy watched as, one by one, his features were enveloped by the mist. If he really
was
dead, then he might have been trading in Lundinor for decades; centuries even – to her knowledge, there wasn't an expiry date on death.

‘Mr Hands – wait,' she said, trying to keep her voice level.

He paused, only his face still visible. ‘What is it?'

Ivy swallowed. ‘I was wondering, have you heard of the Great Uncommon Good?'

He cocked his head. ‘A whisper here and there, yes. It is a legend. A very ancient one.'

‘Can you tell us anything about it?' Seb asked, stepping forward. ‘Anything at all? It's important.'

‘Alas, no.' Johnny Hands winked as his face was finally absorbed into the shadows, leaving just his lips behind. ‘You'll need to ask something much older than me,' he whispered. ‘And I'm five hundred and forty-two.'

Chapter Twenty-five

The desk bell announced their arrival. ‘
Miss Ivy Sparrow! Mr Sebastian Sparrow! Mr Valian Kaye!
' It paused, and then screeched, much louder, ‘
ETHEL?
'

Ivy heard the clink of metal and the groan of something heavy being moved in the storeroom.

‘Aha!' Ethel came striding through the door. She was wearing a stained cotton apron and held some yellow wadding in her hand. Ivy caught the acrid whiff of chemicals and guessed that Ethel had been polishing her bells. ‘Decided to show your face then, have you, Kaye?'

Valian shuffled in. The bells on the walls immediately started muttering rude things about him. Ivy struggled not to giggle – she didn't want to make it worse; he'd already been cursing her the whole way there.

It was Ivy who had insisted they go and see Ethel. Seb had been right about the Great Uncommon Good – it sounded historical because it was. Ivy didn't know anything older than five hundred and forty-two, like Johnny Hands, but she did know someone who might. She glanced at Ethel's bells as she made her way around the shop. Some of them dated back over a thousand years.

While Ethel made tea, the three of them sat around the desk with their packages from Johnny Hands laid out in front of them. The bells were chattering quietly to themselves, gossiping about everything from Ethel's choice of headscarf to the previous customer. Ivy spotted several that she hadn't noticed on her last visit, all locked away in glass cases. The most interesting were two matte-black ones that looked like they might have been carved from coal. Ivy read the label. It said: hell's bells.

‘Bleedin' selkies,' Ethel cursed. ‘I don't mind the dead, but never been fond of selkies – too many teeth than is good for a person.' She came through the doorway with a tray and gave Valian a sharp look. ‘Still no reason to get them weapons, though.' She pursed her lips but looked down curiously at the three packages. ‘Well then . . . You'd better open them up.'

As Ethel set the cups down on the table, Ivy reached forward and began undoing the string around her package. Seb followed suit.

‘Nice,' he exclaimed when the muslin fell away. ‘That dead guy knows me pretty well.'

Drumsticks. Wooden ones. He picked them up gingerly. ‘What do you think they do?'

Ivy looked at her parcel. In the middle of the cloth lay the pink yo-yo she had used earlier to fight the selkie. She turned to Valian. ‘I thought this was yours . . .'

‘It was.' He glared at his package. ‘I expect that's why I've been given this. Compensation.'

‘Whoa!' Seb cried. ‘Ivy, look!' He was swooshing his drumsticks around, air-drumming over the counter-top. With every beat, a thud sounded on the other side of the room. The blinds in the front window rattled as something wacked them. ‘This is awesome. I can hit something from metres away!' He tried sliding the drumsticks up the sleeve of his hoodie. ‘And no one would ever know I was carrying them.' He dropped them back out again and began slicing them through the air, aiming for different places on the far wall.

‘Careful with those,' Ethel warned. ‘You might knock—'

Too late.

Seb thrust both drumsticks downwards, as if smashing a cymbal at the finale of a particularly long riff. At the far end of the shop, a head-sized hole erupted in the wall, showering crumbs of plaster into the air.

The surrounding bells shrieked.

‘Ah!'

‘Look what you've done!'

Two bells squealed, ‘Our wall!' as if they were about to burst into tears.

Ethel headed over to the hole, tutting and shaking her head. ‘Now you've done it!' she exclaimed. ‘'Ow am I meant to fix this?'

Ivy sighed. ‘Nice one,' she hissed at Seb. ‘We're supposed to be here asking about you know what.'

There was a whispered chorus of ‘You know what' from the bells. Ethel stopped inspecting the hole and turned to Ivy. ‘What's a you-know-what?' she asked, hand on hip.

Ivy hesitated. ‘Er . . .' Maybe she should just come out and say it. ‘Have you ever heard of the Great Uncommon Good?'

‘The
what
?' Ethel frowned and stepped closer. ‘Where did you—?'

Suddenly a furious scratching exploded from the hole in the wall. It sounded like something was stuck inside, trying to get out. The bells squealed and whispered feverishly; Ivy shivered. The noise reminded her of the black feather scratching its message into Granma Sylvie's wall. ‘What's that?' she said. ‘It's coming from inside the wall.'

Everyone turned to look at the hole. After a moment the scratching stopped. They waited a while longer, but nothing happened.

‘Try saying it again, Ivy,' Ethel said, her eyes on the wall.

Ivy wasn't sure what she meant. ‘The Great Uncommon Good . . . ?'

As if on cue, the scratching, shuffling noise started up again.

‘What's going on 'ere?' Ethel asked, pushing a gloved hand into the hole. She grimaced as she reached in, searching. Suddenly she went still. ‘'Ang on. There's something 'ere.' When she pulled her arm out again, she was holding a wooden box.

All around the shop, the bells were silent. ‘Never seen this before,' Ethel muttered. As she headed over to the counter, the box started rocking and shaking in her hands. Ivy realized that the box must have been making the scratching sound; Ethel looked like a juggler trying to control it. ‘There, there now,' Ethel soothed. She set it down on the counter-top and inspected the outside. Ivy did the same.

‘You'd better lean back,' Ethel said. ‘Just in case.' The box went still as she opened it. Inside was a lot of stale-smelling straw, which she pulled out in handfuls. Underneath lay two fragile-looking pottery bells, the red-brown colour of clay. Ivy drew closer to take a look at them. They were damaged – their surfaces were cracked and scratched, and covered in water marks.

‘Must've been 'ere for years,' Ethel decided, scratching her head. ‘Probably something my parents collected.' She looked up at Ivy, Seb and Valian. ‘They ran the 'Ouse of Bells before me.'

Ivy watched as Ethel lifted one of the bells out of the box. It swung a greeting, but no voice rang out. Ivy leaned over and examined the other bell. It looked like it had once been painted, but the design had been washed away. ‘Why can't it talk?' she asked.

Ethel peered inside them both. ‘No clangers,' she said briefly. ‘They've been taken out.'

Ivy brought a hand to her mouth. There was something horrific about a talking bell with no clanger – like a person with no tongue.

‘Tortured,' Ethel murmured as she rested them gently down on the counter. ‘Must 'ave been. I've heard reports of it happening to bells before. The Dirge were known to do it.'

Deep in Ivy's pocket, Scratch shivered. She felt a stab of anger. ‘That's so cruel. Why?'

Ethel ran her fingers across each bell's damaged surface. ‘They must have information the Dirge didn't want anyone else to know.' She looked closer at the decoration on the outside. ‘They look like story bells; they're designed to recount whatever tale is painted on their surface.'

Valian scrutinized them suspiciously. ‘So what story was it? It must have been pretty interesting for your parents to have hidden them in the wall.'

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