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Authors: Jennifer Bell

The Crooked Sixpence (9 page)

BOOK: The Crooked Sixpence
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The shop was empty. Or at least – she corrected herself – empty of people. The small room was filled with row upon row of bells – gleaming brass bells, acorn-shaped wooden ones and stone bells with strange carvings on the side. Ivy had never seen so many different designs. She guessed that she was looking at a lifetime's worth of collecting.

She made a hurried search for the silver coin. At the very back of the room, beyond the bells, was a large counter and, behind that, a door. Ivy spotted something glinting on the floor beneath the hinged flap in the counter top.
The coin.
Maybe if she was really quiet, she could just nip over, pick it up and leave without anyone knowing she'd been there.

She tiptoed slowly into the room, gawping at the array of bells. Each one had its own wooden plaque mounted below it. There were tiny silver sleigh bells and huge brass ship's bells; bells from pet collars and bells from musical instruments. Some were extremely old. Ivy read one plaque that said
ALARM BELL
, 1901, but further along she spied a much less familiar
WELL-WISHING BELL
, 1642 and also a
BELL OF TRUTH
, 405
AD
.

As Ivy passed, a few of the bells swayed on their hooks and whispered to each other.

‘
Who's she?
' one asked.

‘
What's she wearing?
'

A clutch of small gold bells twitched as Ivy ran her eyes over them. The plaque below read
SINGING BELLS
.

‘
Any requests?
' they asked, in a single harmonious voice.

She timidly shook her head and scuttled on. At last she came to the desk. Upon it was one more bell – this one larger than the others and so highly polished she could see a perfect reflection of herself in it.

She looked awful. There was mud in her damp, frizzy hair and a web of thin red scratches on one cheek. She turned to read a hand-scrawled sign that was propped up beside the bell.

ETHEL DREAD'S HOUSE OF BELLS
RING FOR TRADE – OTHERWISE GET OUT

Ivy gulped. The owner didn't exactly sound friendly – perhaps that was why the shop had looked shut. As quietly as she could, she bent down and reached for the silver coin.

The bell on the desk twitched. ‘
Ethel!
' it squawked loudly. ‘
Ethel, get out here!
'

Before Ivy had time to run, the door at the back swung open and she heard the screech of a chair, followed by a groan and some footsteps.

‘I'm coming, I'm coming! Bloomin' interrupting my lunch . . . You'd better have a good reason fer—' A sour-faced woman emerged through the doorway. She had dark eyes, a crooked nose and frizzy black hair that sprouted from under a flowery headscarf. She wore leather biker's gloves on her hands, dusty combat boots on her feet, and loose navy overalls covering the rest of her.

Ivy recognized her face immediately.

No, it can't be . . .

She rose slowly from the floor. Ethel took a step closer. ‘And 'oo might you be, then?' she asked, in a thick Cockney accent.

Granma Sylvie's photo.

Ivy couldn't believe it: this was the woman in that picture – the one from Granma's life before the accident; the one she kept in her handbag. Ivy had seen it hundreds of times; this woman looked older, but it was definitely her – the same jaw, the same angular cheekbones, and the same sharp gaze.

When Ivy didn't answer, Ethel's eyes narrowed. ‘Whatcha doing 'ere?' She reached over and pulled Ivy's hood back. Her hair bounced out from beneath it.

Ivy shot a look back at the silver coin. She hadn't been able to grab it. ‘I, er—'

‘Left something down there, 'ave you?' Ethel asked slowly. ‘How's about I get it for you?' She bent down and snatched the coin up with her thin fingers. Standing straight, she opened her palm to take a look at it.

The bells started whispering as Ethel raised a hand to her chest and staggered away from Ivy. ‘Where did you find this?' she hissed. ‘D'you know what it
is
? D'you know what would happen to me if someone found that 'ere, in my shop?'

Ivy stumbled to find words, but no sounds came out. A cold, prickly feeling rose up through her chest and her throat tightened. ‘I don't know anything about it,' she squeaked finally. ‘Please, I'm sorry. I don't mean to be any trouble but I can't leave now. You see, I've seen you before, in a photo with my granma.' She scrabbled through Granma Sylvie's handbag, catching sight of the photo tucked away in the corner. ‘Here . . .' She held out the picture with a shaking hand.

Ethel's cheeks flushed as she saw it.

It was exactly as Ivy remembered it from earlier that morning: the young Granma Sylvie standing with her arm round Ethel, both of them wearing fancy dr—

Ivy blinked. She took the photo back and stared hard at the image. ‘Hang on . . . What was Granma Sylvie doing wearing Hobsmatch?'

Ethel peered into Ivy's face, a frown deepening across her forehead. After a moment's consideration she flapped a hand towards the windows. ‘Shut the blinds,' she ordered. ‘We're closed.' The bells hanging above the main window swung to the side, releasing a venetian blind that was fixed beneath them. It fell to the floor with a dusty thud. Ethel jabbed a finger towards the large silver bell on the desk. ‘You!' she barked. ‘Let me know if anyone so much as thinks about coming in.' She returned the silver coin to Ivy, looking at her anxiously. ‘You'd better take that out back,' she said, pursing her lips. ‘We'll talk there.'

The door at the rear of the shop opened into a dark storeroom. When Ethel switched on a lamp, Ivy saw that on one side were racks of bells padded with foam or cotton wool, while on the other were shelves of other objects – a trombone, an old-fashioned skipping rope, a set of skittles and a moth-eaten teddy bear. The place smelled like the inside of a rabbit hutch, and as Ivy crunched over the floor, she realized why: it was covered with a layer of pale golden straw.

Ethel shut the door behind her. ‘You should sit,' she said, pulling up a velvet-cushioned piano stool.

Ivy took the seat gladly, her legs like jelly. Ethel drew up a wooden dining chair and plonked herself down. She nodded to the photo in Ivy's hand. ‘Let me see it again.'

Ivy handed it over. She couldn't stop staring at Ethel's face. The lines around her eyes were sadder than Granma Sylvie's, but they were probably about the same age, Ivy thought. Ethel had slightly hunched shoulders, a wicked slash of a mouth and callouses on all her fingers. Her eyes were the colour of flint.

‘How do you know my granma?' Ivy managed at last. She couldn't believe it. Granma Sylvie's mysterious past was sitting directly in front of her. This woman actually knew Granma Sylvie. Ivy wondered what her mum and dad would say.

Ethel's eyes were shining. ‘Is she alive?'

The question felt like a punch in the chest. Ivy nodded.

Ethel sighed and smiled. ‘That's good to know. We was friends a long time ago.' She reached across and picked up a steaming bowl of something from one of the shelves. ‘The best of friends.' She slurped up a spoonful of whatever it was. The noise echoed in the small room.

Ivy looked around at all the strange objects stored away in the semi-darkness. ‘Wait . . . Did she know about Lundinor?'

‘
Know
about it? Sylvie grew up in Lundinor, like me. Her family – the Wrenches – come from a long line of powerful uncommoners.'

Ivy sat up straight. ‘But Granma Sylvie doesn't have any family other than us. She's never mentioned the Wrenches . . . She doesn't know about uncommoners.'

Ethel put down her spoon. ‘Look, your gran is an uncommoner and so are you. Ain't she explained all this?'

Ivy's entire body went rigid. ‘I'm—' She couldn't finish the sentence aloud.
I'm an uncommoner?
After what Valian had said, it did make sense – the right to be an uncommoner ran in a family. But Ivy wasn't . . . She couldn't possibly be . . .

She tried to clear her mind. This was too much to take in all at once. She looked back at the photo. Ethel had said that she and Granma Sylvie were friends once, but that was so long ago. ‘What happened?'

Ethel stirred whatever was in her bowl, but she appeared to have lost her appetite. ‘Nobody knows.' Her voice was cold. ‘Twelfth Night 1969, Sylvie disappeared, along with the rest of the Wrenches. The entire family – Sylvie, her three brothers and her mother – vanished in one night. The underguard searched for them all for years afterwards but never found any trace. It became one of the greatest unsolved mysteries in uncommon history.'

‘Twelfth Night 1969?' Ivy repeated. She had never forgotten that date . . .
the night of Granma's accident.
‘There was a snowstorm that night,' she recalled slowly. ‘Granma Sylvie had a car crash that gave her amnesia. She doesn't remember anything about her life before the accident.' She gestured around the storeroom. ‘She doesn't know about any of this stuff.'

Ethel's eyes widened. Her spoon was shaking in her hand. ‘She don't know?' she whispered. ‘But . . . ?' She looked down at the coin in Ivy's hand. ‘Then whatcha doing 'ere, with that?'

Ivy tucked the old photo back into the handbag and unfurled her fingers so that the silver coin was lying flat in her palm. The heat soaked into her skin, making her fingers twitch. She wondered if the sensations were connected to her being an uncommoner – maybe it happened to others as well.

In the low light she could just about see the masked face on the coin. ‘We found it,' she explained. ‘My brother and me. We were at Granma's house this morning and there was this black feather writing on the wall.' She swallowed as her mind took her back. ‘It said
We can see you now
.'

Something flickered in Ethel's stony eyes.

‘What's wrong?' Ivy could tell that the message meant something.

Ethel's jaw was tense. ‘There's only one organization that uses black featherlights: the Dirge.'

‘The Dirge . . . ?' Ivy's skin prickled as she turned the coin over, remembering the creepy dust-puppets she'd seen in the arrivals chamber. The image on the other side of the coin changed to another hooded, masked face, this one with fangs. ‘I read that word on the coin. What does it mean?'

Ethel turned away, staring into the lamplight. ‘It's a long story; one that folk don't talk about no more.' She settled her bowl back on the shelf and sighed. ‘Uncommoners belong to guilds. Each guild 'as a particular responsibility and a particular coat of arms. I belong to the Right Honourable Guild of Bell Traders, for example. The Dirge was an ancient guild of scientists 'oo studied uncommon objects. Their coat of arms showed a coin – an old crooked sixpence.'

Ivy looked down at the silver coin in her hand. When she'd first found it, she noticed that it was bent in the middle.

‘In the beginning,' Ethel continued, ‘the Dirge's research 'elped build Lundinor and many other undermarts around the world. They discovered 'ow to use uncommon colanders to filter the air, 'ow to carry 'eavy loads on uncommon rugs – it made 'em famous. But they soon became obsessed with unlocking much darker secrets – things to do with controlling the very essence of uncommon objects: human souls.'

Ivy had a sinking feeling. She didn't like the sound of where this was going.

‘When everyone discovered what the Dirge 'ad been up to, a new GUT law was passed that forbade anyone from tampering with the uncommon part of an object. The Dirge were ordered to disband and, over time, their story became no more than a page in uncommon 'istory. Then, sixty years ago, when your gran and I were teenagers, they reappeared.'

Ivy gasped. ‘What happened?'

‘It started with the disappearance of a child,' Ethel told her. 'A young boy no older than you was kidnapped in the dead of night from 'is room above one of the shops on the Gauntlet. 'Is parents found a crooked sixpence resting on 'is pillow and a black featherlight from the Dirge 'overing above 'is bed. The message claimed that the boy had been taken for research. When the coin was examined, it showed six disguised faces – the new members of the guild.' Ethel paused. Ivy could see the lines around her eyes more clearly than ever. ‘Within weeks, children were going missing from all quarters of Lundinor. The underguard could find no link between the victims and didn't know where the Dirge would strike next. A campaign of other attacks followed – arson, theft and, finally, murder. A crooked sixpence was found at the scene of every crime. It became the Dirge's calling card.'

Ivy thought back to the black feather in Granma Sylvie's house and her hands shook. It suddenly felt dangerous to hold the crooked sixpence. She flipped her palm over and watched it drop to the floor.

‘Nobody knew 'oo the six members of the Dirge were. They used code-names to keep their real identities a secret: Blackclaw, Ragwort, Wolfsbane, Monkshood, Nightshade and Hemlock; each named after a different poison.'

Ivy shuddered as she remembered reading some of those names on the crooked sixpence.

‘The underguard 'ad difficulty finding 'em because it was said they met in a Hexroom – a chamber that can only be entered by uncommon means. Fear spread through the streets like a plague. In the end people were too scared to even say the Dirge's name and they became referred to simply as the
Fallen Guild.
'

‘What happened to stop them?' Ivy asked. Something must have put an end to it all.

Ethel lowered her eyes. ‘Everything culminated in a huge battle on Twelfth Night – the night Sylv disappeared. The Dirge 'ad rallied certain . . . people around 'em. An army, of sorts. They very nearly won, but at the last minute the tables turned and they were pushed back. Five of the six members managed to flee, but one was caught and unmasked. After that, the other five were never seen or 'eard of again.'

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