THE BELL RINGER
Perched on the very edge of a ragged cliff, the Terrible House of Strood towered against the summer sky in a mass of dark stone walls and pointed roofs. Far below, waves crashed over the rocks at the foot of the cliff, surging into every crevice and filling the air with spray that hung like salty mist.
The roof of the Terrible House, with its jumble of chimney pots and towers, was familiar territory to Bogeyman Skerridge since his unauthorized entry into the building a couple of days ago, shortly after he had gone rogue and left Mr. Strood’s service forever.
And now he was back again, scanning the rooftops with his sharp red eyes until he spotted the creature he had come to find—the bell ringer, whose job it was to keep watch for the exact moment when the edge of the sun slipped below the horizon and then to ring the Evebell.
Skerridge grinned. It wasn’t a nice grin. In a recent fit of remorse he had promised himself never to harm another living Quick, but this creature wasn’t exactly living and was only slightly Quick so it didn’t count. And, anyway, he was only going to torture it a little.
The creature was not at its post in the weathered stone bell tower that rose high above the rooftops. Sundown was still an hour away, so instead it was perched on an outcrop of roof enjoying the view out to sea. Treading as quietly as only a bogeyman could, Skerridge headed that way. When he was right behind the unsuspecting bell ringer he leaned close and said, “’Ullo.”
The creature hooted through its beak and did a twisting leap that brought it around to face Skerridge, who grinned, taking care to show a lot of jagged teeth.
“Halloo,” said the bell ringer, quickly working out that there was no harm in being polite. He had been sitting with his knobbly back to the beach, looking out over the waves as they dashed themselves on the rocks below and trying to forget about the handful of Quick cluttering up the seashore away in the distance behind him. The sudden arrival of a horrible, hairy, bony figure in tattered trousers and a fancy waistcoat wasn’t an improvement on his day.
Skerridge settled down on the roof next to the gargoyle. “I’m Bogeyman Skerridge,” he said cheerfully. “Wha’s yore name then?”
“Jibbit,” said Jibbit nervously. Being the only gargoyle in the Terrible House, he had the roof all to himself apart from the pigeons. He wasn’t used to people, Quick, Grimm, or Fabulous, and found them untidy and difficult. This one had a definite air of untidy and positively radiated difficult. With extras.
“Bet it’s nice an’ quiet up ’ere.”
“Lotsa time to listen to all the goin’s on, eh? Bet it’s been an excitin’ afternoon, what wiv all the escapin’ and everyfin’! Ninevah Redstone breakin’ outa the ’Ouse like that, givin’ Mr. Strood the runaround jus’ when ’e fort ’e’d won. Not t’ mention rescuin’ ’er bruvver an’ gettin’ ’er mem’ry pearl back.”
“So, what I wanna know is what ’appened next? Fink you can tell me that?”
Jibbit swapped nervously from foot to foot and hunched his stubby wings. He had a bad feeling about what he was going to do, but his duty was clear.
“If you’re Bogeyman Skerridge, then yoo’ve gone rogue,” he said trying not to hoot too much. “And if yoo’ve gone rogue then I mustn’t say anything . . .”
Skerridge shot out a hand and grabbed the bell ringer so fast that Jibbit barely saw it happen. One second he was sitting on the roof, next he was dangling upside down over nothing.
“Fort ya might say that. Now, if ya wan’ my advice, I fink ya should tell me everyfin’ ya know, ’cos if ya don’ then I’ll drop ya.”
Jibbit glared at the bogeyman from underneath his own feet.
“I know,” went on Skerridge cheerfully. “Yer finkin’ that no self-respectin’ gargoyle is gonna be scared o’ heights. And if ya gets broke ya can be stuck back t’gevver again, right?”
“Yes,” snapped Jibbit.
“But isn’t there somefin’ yer fergettin’?” Skerridge leaned over to bring his head closer to the dangling gargoyle. “Look. Down,” he whispered.
Jibbit glared for a second longer then turned his gaze downward. It had a long way to go. The wall plunged away from him. Jibbit followed it with his eyes until he saw where it led. The ground—in this case rather rocky and involving a lot of breaking waves, but still the ground. Jibbit hooted in panic.
“Didn’ fink o’ that did ya?” Skerridge chuckled. “By my understandin’, gargoyles don’ like places what aren’ ’igh, right? An’ ya don’ get much more not ’igh than the ground! So, ’ave we gotta deal?”
Jibbit squeaked pitifully.
Skerridge grinned. “Right oh.” He pulled his arm back and dropped Jibbit on the tiles, wrong side up.
“Thanks.” Jibbit scuffled onto his paws.
“Fink nuffin’ of it. Off ya go, then.”
Staring thoughtfully into space while he got his scattered nerves together, Jibbit settled back on the tiles, making sure he had a firm grip.
“That chimney pot at the back there,” he said at last, “is the one to the furnace in Mr. Strood’s laboratory. I . . . um . . . happened to be sitting next to it just as Ninevah Redstone got away, so I climbed down the flue tooo see what all the racket was about. The furnace has got a glass door, so I could see right into the laboratory. Mr. Strood wasn’t pleased.” Jibbit warmed to his story. “In fact, he was so angry he tripped down a hole . . .”
“A hole. In the ground. Left by the new Fabulous when he came up through the floor to rescue Ninevah Redstone. Yoo know, the mudman?”
“Yeah, Jik, I know ’im. Go on.”
“Mr. Strood was already coming apart on account of the faerie poison getting over him, and his leg broke off and he went down the hole, see?”
“I’m gettin’ the picture,” said Skerridge grimly.
“And then the earth fell in on top of him and he was buried, deep in the heart of the house, far below the foundations.”
“So tha’s what they’ve been doin’ then,” the bogeyman murmured, “diggin’ ’im up. I wondered why they weren’ pourin’ outta the door looking fer us.”
“The servants, the guards, everybody had to dig. It was taking a long time, so the Housekeeper sent for the bogeymen. There’s no daylight in the House, so three of them came to dig even though it wasn’t night.” Jibbit looked at Skerridge thoughtfully. “They can do superspeed, yoo know.”
“Course I know, I am one! Still, superspeed diggin’ ain’t like superspeed runnin’. My guess is it’d still take ’em all afternoon.” Skerridge blew out his cheeks, feeling oddly anxious. “Carn’ ’ave been fun, bein’ stuck down there, buried alive in the earf fer ’ours. Bet ’e’ll be in a good mood after that!”
Jibbit considered. “I wouldn’t call it good,” he said carefully.
“They’ve found ’im then?”
“Yes. He must have been digging upward too, because suddenly the Housekeeper said . . .”
“STOP!” Strood’s housekeeper, Mrs. Dunvice, held up a hand. Everyone stopped.
“There,” she said after a moment, “can you hear that?”
Down in the earth, somewhere below the bottom of the deep well that used to be the laboratory floor, something stirred. It did it with a lot of cursing and unpleasant squashing sounds, but it definitely stirred. The cursing was garbled, as if it came from a mouth that was half missing and choked with dirt into the bargain. Most of the cursing involved unpleasant things happening to somebody called Ninevah Redstone.
Secretary Scribbins gulped. “It’s him,” he whispered hoarsely.
A murmur ran around the gathered workers. Some of them edged away. Even the bogeymen.
“Right,” said Mrs. Dunvice decisively. “Everyone out, except for the bogeymen and guards Stanley and Floyd. NOW!”
Bodies tumbled toward the complicated scaffolding running up the sides of the well. The servants got there first, scampering up and out as quickly as they could. The goblin-Grimm guards followed.
When the others had gone, the werewolf-Grimm Housekeeper pointed at the three bogeymen who had been doing the tunneling.
“Dig some more, but do it carefully, okay?”
One of the BMs, the one wearing a pair of sacking trousers and a bow tie, blew out a slow breath. None of them fancied having to dig out a furious Mr. Strood. But then, on the other hand, they would be HELPING him, so maybe he wouldn’t want to give them the sack. The BM straightened his bow tie and stepped forward, crouching down just about where the muttered curses were coming from. The others joined him.
Now they could hear scraping, scuffling noises, like a giant mole digging its way up toward the light. One of the BMs snarled and jumped back as a hand shot out of the earth. It was a slender hand half covered in scars that made it look like a bad patchwork glove. The other half was still mostly skinned.
“We found ’im!” yelled the one with the bow tie, unnecessarily.
The hand felt around and its owner hissed.
“Ged be oud, you worthlesh bunch of idiotsh!”
Mrs. Dunvice leaned forward and held out a hand, then realized that Mr. Strood couldn’t see it as his head was still below the surface. So she grabbed his wrist instead and pulled. The earth heaved like a small volcano as his head rose slowly from the ground, followed by the rest of him. Or, at least, what was left of the rest of him.
Mrs. Dunvice cleared her throat. “Welcome back, sir. We found your ear. You must have lost it on the way down.”
Scribbins bobbed forward, holding out the ear wrapped in a napkin. Someone had cleaned the mud out of it.
“Don’d bother,” hissed Strood, “I’b growd a dew one.”
“And the arm, sir? And what about . . .”
“The leg? Yesh, yesh, id’sh growd back. Sho has by jaw. Almosht.”
At last, Arafin Strood stood before them, wobbling badly and holding on to the rung of a nearby ladder for balance. Mrs. Dunvice thanked her lucky stars that she had sent all the others away. They could do without all the screaming and throwing up. Scribbins was bad enough.
Several hours had passed since the accident in the laboratory, in which a shattered bottle of faerie venom had showered Mr. Strood with flesh-dissolving poison. Even so, the venom was still at work eating him away and Strood was less than whole. His clothing had suffered too, and he was left with only half a ragged pair of trousers and a badly crumpled shirt collar. Most of his ribs were exposed, giving an interesting view of the workings of a heart and lungs for anyone who liked biology. His lower jaw was trying hard to grow back in spite of the persistent venom, and one hand had just about managed to re-form completely. Because it was new, it was free of the scars that covered the remaining parts of Strood like an insane road map. One leg was mostly bone. One eye socket was busily refilling itself. The other was filled with a horribly gleaming eye. It was a good thing he was immortal, or he’d have been well past dead by now.
Mrs. Dunvice licked her lips nervously. Behind her, Scribbins whimpered, a pathetic sound that made the werewolf in Mrs. Dunvice want to bite him. The BMs gazed on, silent and wary.
Mr. Strood slowly raised his head. His eye was a pool of darkness in his horribly mangled face.
“Guard Shtanley and Guard Floyd,” he said in a voice like cracked ice, “brig be one of by ped digersh and a human Quick. Any Quick will do. Then ged the bordal dishtillation bachine ready. There’sh work to be done.”
“Yesh . . . I mean yes, sir!” Stanley turned smartly and hurried toward the scaffolding, half falling over himself in his eagerness to get away. Floyd followed hard on his heels.
Mr. Stood switched his attention to Scribbins. “A bath. Clothesh. Coffee. Five binutes or you’re doast.”
Scribbins gave a strangled squawk and ran for it. Finally, Strood turned to the BMs and Mrs. Dunvice.
“They were the only ones we could find, sir.”
Strood considered for a moment. Then he leaned forward and smiled a smile that made even the werewolf part of her nervous.
“Id will do for now, we can always ged bore later. The girl may think she’sh shafe for the moment,” he said, his voice strengthening as his jaw finally achieved wholeness, “but nightfall ish on its way.” His chilling one-eyed stare swiveled to the bogeymen, who bunched up together nervously. “So one of you is to bring me Ninevah Redshtone, EVEN IF THERE ARE WITNESSES, understand?”
The BMs swapped a look. Snatching kids in front of witnesses was against the bogeyman code, but then again . . .
“DO YOU UNDERSTAND?” Strood’s eye gleamed feverishly. “I need bogeymen who can be adaptable . . .” He didn’t need to finish the sentence. They knew what he meant. Adapt or be fired.
“Yessir!” One of them even saluted. “I’ll do it, sir!”
Strood’s eye fixed on him, the gleam incandescent. “Remember, I want her alive. I’ve got plans for Ninevah Redstone and they don’t involve an easy end.”
He switched back to the other BMs. “And as for you two, well . . .”
There was a long pause while some old emotion struggled to show on Strood’s ravaged face. Mrs. Dunvice shuddered. She could feel something coming and it was making her blood tingle.
“I’ve let their pathetic leftovers linger on all these years,” Strood hissed at last, “but I know they’ll try to help her. So now the time has come to deal with the last remains of the Seven Sorcerers. These are your orders . . .”
Jibbit stopped. “That’s when I left.”
Skerridge groaned. “Gimme a break! Couldn’ yer ’ang on five more minutes!”
“There was a pigeon,” said Jibbit coldly, “and I was hungry.”
“Sheesh! Which bogeymen were they? D’ya know that?”
“They were just bogeymen. How should I know?”
“What were they wearin’?” said Skerridge patiently. “Ya can always tell a BM by what ’e’s wearin’, even when ’e’s in anovver shape.”
Jibbit huffed. “Erm. Torn red trousers and a rope belt. Ordinary trousers like yoo and a bow tie. And . . . and . . . a pair of blue dungarees with paint on.”
“Bogeymen Rope, Pigwit, and Bale, then. Fanks.”
“No problem.” Jibbit glanced anxiously over Skerridge’s shoulder. Skerridge turned to look. Out across the sea the sun was drowning in a pool of light, sinking lower and lower toward the blue rim of the horizon. The bell ringer began to fidget.
“I got tooo ring the bell in a moment,” he said, hooting nervously. “It’s my job and I got tooo dooo it. Every sundown I ring the Evebell so people know that the day is turning into night.”
Although Skerridge chose to be different, as a general rule bad things didn’t like the light and that included bogeymen. So, even though the BMs would not leave the House straightaway, he knew that Mr. Strood’s instructions would be put into action the moment the sun dipped below the horizon. Which gave him little more than a few minutes to act.
Sending a glance back over the top of the House to where Ninevah Redstone was still sitting on the beach far below, unaware of what was about to happen to her, Skerridge did some fast thinking. He couldn’t superspeed over the roof because superspeed generated a lot of heat and he would simply turn the tiles into blobs of molten lead, which would fall into the attic and do some fairly serious damage to the servants who lived there. But the bogeyman that Mr. Strood had sent to get Nin would be able to superspeed all right.
On the plus side, the girl wouldn’t be alone. Taggit was still there, along with Jonas, of course. Toby didn’t count because he was too small to do anything anyway. And although it was taking a while because he’d been so badly damaged, hopefully the mudman would be done baking soon.
While the bogeyman worked things out, Jibbit was inching toward the bell tower. Just as the edge of the sun touched the dark curve of the horizon, he made a break for it, skittering away over the tiles. Skerridge jumped, landing just in front of the fleeing gargoyle, who darted left to go around him.
“No ya don’t,” said Skerridge. He picked the bell ringer up and held him by his legs, upside down and thrashing wildly.
“I got tooo! I got tooo! IT’S MY JOB!” hooted Jibbit.
“Not today it ain’t,” said Skerridge. “See, I need to send a message and I’m bettin’ that the goblin or the boy will be bright enough, even if the kid don’ work it out.”
As the sun began to slip below the edge of the world, the darkening sky was filled with the bell ringer’s howl of anguish.