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Authors: Deborah White

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BOOK: Wickedness
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“What are you doing?” Micky had come back into the kitchen and was standing right behind her.

“What does it look like, you idiot? And don’t creep up on me like that again. You frightened me to death.” She felt really odd. Panicky. Like she was in the middle of a bad dream; knew she was, but still couldn’t wake up.

“If I HAD frightened you to death” – Micky had that smug look she always got when she thought she was being clever – “you’d be dead and lying on the floor and…”

“Shut up and get out of my way.”

She flicked water in Micky’s face. She pushed her hard and Micky pushed her back. Then as she tried to get past her, Micky put out a foot to trip her up.

“Nice try,” Claire said, jumping over it and reaching back to make a grab for Micky and pull her down.

“Ginger nut. Ginger nut.” Micky ducked out of the way and pushed past her out into the hall.

Claire had just caught up with her, was holding onto her right arm while Micky was squirming and thrashing about, when the doorbell went.

They stopped fighting and looked at one another for a moment. Then Micky pulled away and ran off. Bang! The back-room door slammed.

Shouting, “I’ll get you later, you little stinker… just you wait.” Claire went to the front door and, slipping on the safety chain, opened the door just wide enough to peek out.

There was a man on the step, turned away
from her, looking back down the street. He was tall and had thick dark hair just curling onto the shoulders of his black jacket. And he was leaning on a black lacquered walking stick.

“Yes?”

He turned and Claire looked up into eyes that weren’t like any she had ever seen before. Such a deep, dark brown, they were almost black.

She stood, not moving a muscle, quite mesmerised by him. She had the feeling that, though she had never met him before in her life, she somehow knew him and he knew her.

She tensed herself, ready to slam the door if he tried to step closer. Felt the ring, hot and tight on her finger.

But he stood quite still, his eyes unblinking, focused on hers.

“Yes?” She was starting to feel anxious now and impatient. Who was he and what did he want? Was he trying to sell something? Claire didn’t think so. He looked too expensively dressed. He was wearing a very finely woven linen shirt under a long black jacket. He had beautifully cut, narrow-legged black trousers and dark, blood red, soft leather shoes fastened with a buckle. He had
a black leather bag slung across his shoulder.

But he looked tired. There were lines and deep shadows around his eyes. Hungry eyes. “I…” He was staring at her with such an intensity that she was starting to feel spooked. “I was hoping to speak to Jill Cottrell. Are you…?”

His voice was deep but soft. She had to lean in towards him to catch what he was saying. And there was something odd about the way he spoke. What was it? Was he foreign? Maybe. She wasn’t sure.

“Jill? No that’s my mum.” And she was about to say that her mum was out, but stopped herself in time. Better not to tell him there were no adults in the house. “She’s in the shower. She’ll be ages yet.”

“Ah. I see. Perhaps you could give her this?”

He held out a card. Small and white, with a gold edge.

As she took it, something scratched her hand. It was then that she noticed not only the perfectly manicured nails, but the ring he wore. A diamond set in sharp claws of gold. On the third finger of his right hand. And there was something else. She couldn’t quite work it out, but he smelled of something familiar. What was it? Her eyes widened
in shock and she shut the door on him quickly, feeling her heart miss a beat.

Oh yes, she recognised it now. The same smell as in Grandma’s bedroom. So sweet and seductive. As if there was an apple-and-cinnamon pie baking in a kitchen full of scented summer flowers.

She could see him through the glass, still standing there. Then, thank God, he turned and walked away.

She looked at the card.

Robert Benoit

Dealer in Antiquities

Darke House

Ivybridge Lane

The Strand

London

Then a phone number.

Benoit. A foreign name? That would explain the way he talked and dressed.

She put the card down on the hall table, next to the phone and a magazine open at the small ads and one circled in red pen.

Then she forgot about it because, not long
after, her mum came in and couldn’t wait to tell her the good news.

“She did leave everything to me. Everything! That is such a relief. Now we can stay here. And I know that I ought to wait for everything to be sorted legally, but I’m going to start having a
clear-out
right now!”

Claire didn’t think it was a relief at all. She didn’t like the house and all of Grandma’s things that filled it up. It was dark and gloomy, and made her feel dark and gloomy too. Pictures covered every square inch of wall; mostly old maps of London. And there were shelves and shelves of books. But even so, it seemed heartless when Grandma had only been dead for a few weeks.

“You can’t do that,” she said. “Sell off Grandma’s whole life just like that.”

“I’m not going to sell it off. Well not until I’ve got everything checked first. There might be some valuable things. Like that Egyptian green box thingy in Grandma’s bedroom. That might be worth something.”

She was trying to sound as if the thought had just popped into her head. Claire wasn’t fooled. She guessed that her mum had had her eye on it
for ages. Maybe even before Grandma had died. Well she wasn’t going to have it.

“That’s mine.” Claire sounded determined. She was.

“And what makes you think that?” Claire’s mum’s voice sounded clipped and controlled. A red flush was spreading up her neck. Always a bad sign. It meant she was getting angry.

Because
, Claire thought,
the ring is somehow the key to unlocking the box.

But if she said that, she’d have to show that it was. And she couldn’t.
Because it isn’t time yet.
A voice, whispering inside her head, but coming from somewhere else. Claire looked around, startled.

“Claire! Are you listening to me?” Her mum was getting impatient, tapping a finger irritably on the edge of the table. Her eyes had narrowed.

“Yes!”

“Mmm. Well, I’ve already contacted someone about it. A specialist. I’ve asked him to come and take a look at it and whatever else there is in the house. If there’s anything valuable, I’m selling.”

Claire thought now about the man who had come to the door. About the card he had given her and the magazine on the hall table, with the ad
circled in red pen. “What does he look like, this specialist?”

“What? How should I know? I just left a message on his answerphone. Now I’m going to make a start clearing out. Want to help?”

But Claire didn’t. The minute her mum was out of the way, she went back and looked at the ad.

Collector seeks early Egyptian artefacts, similar to the one in the illustration below.

She looked at the coloured illustration. She could see why her mum had called the number. It showed a box that looked remarkably like Claire’s emerald-green casket.

Then she picked up the card, re-read and quickly pocketed it. Maybe he wouldn’t call again, she thought, knowing deep down that he would.

* * *

Teatime and they were all squeezed around the little kitchen table. Eating sausage, mash and baked beans.

They had to eat together now. Claire’s mum insisted on it. No more slouching in front of the television. No more taking food up to their bedrooms. No more doing things the way they had in their old life. There was going to be a fresh start. Everything was going to be better from now on.

“Isn’t this nice?”

Claire looked at her mum. Her mouth was smiling, but her eyes weren’t. And she couldn’t really be happy, could she? Because how could moving out of your old house and leaving your husband make you happy?

“The mash is a bit lumpy,” said Micky. She was pushing it around her plate with her fork. “But it’s Okay.”

“I’m not hungry.” Claire looked down at her plate. At the sausages glistening with fat. At the sticky, grainy, grey pile of potato. The scratch on her hand was starting to hurt really badly. It looked angry and red. And the ring was so tight on her finger now it was making it throb.

Micky looked up. “Wow! You’ve gone a funny colour. You’ve gone green. I’ve never seen anyone go green before. Mum, Claire’s green!”

Claire’s head was filling up with noise, like
a great roaring wind. She felt as if she was burning. Now she was floating; drifting up and away like ash from a fire. Someone was shouting, but from a long way away. What were they saying? She struggled to make out the words.

“Put your head down between your knees. Now!” Claire could feel her mum’s hand pressing down on the back of her head. “Micky, get a bucket.”

But it was too late. Claire’s jeans were covered in vomit and she started to cry.

* * *

Now she was lying in Grandma’s bed, curled up on her side, afraid to move in case she was sick again, but wishing she was in her own room. Because, even with her eyes closed and turned away from it, she could sense that the box was there, on the chair by the bed. And the smell. That curious sweet smell. It was still there, faint but insistent.

“You’ll be okay for a minute, won’t you?” her mum was saying. “You don’t mind being in Grandma’s bed do you? Only you can’t share with Micky. Not if you’re being sick.”

Her mum didn’t wait for her to answer. She just snatched up Claire’s clothes, dropped in a heap by the bed, and left.

Now Claire was alone, fear flooded in and washed over her. She felt really poorly and she just couldn’t think straight.

I wish Dad was here
, she thought. He’d be happy just to sit by the bed and he would understand why she was feeling really scared. Couldn’t stop thinking about the yellowing sheaf of papers and panicking stupidly.

“Look,” he’d say, “of course you haven’t got the plague. You couldn’t catch it after all this time. Not from just touching paper!”

But you could
, Claire thought. She was sure that she’d read that you could.

“No,” Dad would say, “It’s just a virus. You’ll get better. Everything will go back to normal, you’ll see.”

But he wasn’t there and she missed him so much. And she didn’t feel better. She felt much worse. Any tiny movement and giant waves of nausea broke over her. She clung to the side of the bed now, like a drowning man desperate to stay afloat. With her eyes closed, pictures flickered
across the inside of her eyelids, like a rolling film. Faces she didn’t recognise peered in at her; voices blurred and distorted, as if the words were spoken underwater. Images of a boy, in costume, dancing fast and furious high up on a wire. He was beckoning to her. Then he swung down and ran towards her. She could see his face. His eyes glittering. His lips moving, but no sound coming out. There was only a background roar and rattle. Like a train hurtling at breakneck speed through a long, dark tunnel. On and on until everything was dazzlingly bright and silent… except for the sound of her mum and dad bickering. Backwards and forwards. Backwards and forwards, just as if she wasn’t there and couldn’t hear what they were saying.

“My God, Jill, I can’t believe you didn’t call the doctor. Just look at her. Don’t you ever listen to the news? There’s been 60 cases of bird flu in London this last week. Supposing she had that? She could have been dead now. And please don’t tell me you were giving her any of your crackpot herbal remedies?”

“Dad,” Claire said, her voice coming out all faint and whispery. “It’s okay. I’m all right.
And Mum hasn’t given me anything, honestly.” Claire reached out to touch her dad’s arm, but her mum snatched at Clare’s hand, pulling it to her and squeezing it tight, saying, “And she isn’t dead. And I’m not stupid. It was a 24-hour gastric bug; that’s all. It’s been going round. She’s fine now. She’ll be up and jumping around in no time. You’re making too much fuss. Kids get sick all the time. And don’t you dare lecture me about taking care of my children. Not now.”

Why does she have to be so horrid?
thought Claire.
I mean, she left him, didn’t she?

Now I see that as I looked down at Nefertaru’s mummy the Doctor bound me to him as he told me his secret, how he had come to find the spells and decipher them. For he said that men would willingly murder for such knowledge. That if anyone knew he had the spells and could decipher them, then his life would be in great danger. And I felt proud that a man such as Nicholas Robert Benedict would place his trust in the hands of a girl, not yet 14 years old. So I promised. I swore on my mother and father’s lives that no living soul would drag his secret from me. He said he was sure that I’d heard talk in my father’s shop of a lost book,
The Hermetica.

I had, for much had been made of it. How it contained the magical secrets of Thoth, Egyptian god of all knowledge. How any man finding it would be privy to those secrets and become supremely powerful. How he would be immortal and have control over all things in
Nature. Every single plant or creature that lives on the Earth. A power not known to any human creature since Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden of Eden. But my father had called it skimble-skamble stuff, saying that if there was really such a book in existence, then surely someone would have found it. And having found it, would have used its power for good or ill.

“That is true, Margrat,” said the Doctor.
“If any man could be master of the universe, would he not be tempted?”

“No!” I said, distressed at his words. “For only God is master of the universe and all things in it.”

His face darkened, as if a cloud had scuttered across the moon. “What comfort is there in that, for the many who will soon die a cruel death from the plague? Do you truly believe that all those who suffer deserve it? Even babies, just as I was, innocent of wickedness, left all alone and crying piteously and uncared for, while their mothers and fathers lie dead beside them?”

I could see that he was in the grip of some powerful emotion and watching his face contort with the pain of it left me shaken. But I answered as I had been taught. That it was not for us to know the ways of God. That there was a reason for everything. That it was blasphemy to question His will.

He smiled. But it was a cold, dark smile. “Then it must have been God’s will that when travelling through the desert near Alexandria, I stumbled upon a stone tablet, carved with a text in three scripts: Greek, demotic and hieroglyphic. I was able to read the Greek and demotic scripts and I could see that they were both the same list, written by Egyptian priests, of all the good things the pharaoh had done for the people of Egypt.”

“Was the text written in hieroglyphics the same list too? For if it was, then you might read it!” A spark of excitement was kindled in my breast at the thought of it.

“How clever of you to see that, Margrat. But I needed to study it to be sure. Back at my lodgings in Alexandria, I set to work translating the hieroglyphics. It was to be a long time before I could manage even a little. But at last I gained mastery over it.”

My hand flew up to my mouth.

His eyes held mine. “And all the while I continued my other work; searching out the tombs of the Egyptian kings. Uncovering their treasures and sending them back to England to be put on show or sold. But then…” He took hold of my hand and, turning it palm up, kissed it.

For a moment I forgot all about the stone tablet and thought only how the touch of his lips made me feel.
A powerful and exciting emotion I had never felt before.

“On the last day of November,” he continued, “I found, buried under the floor in Nefertaru’s tomb, a clay jar packed full of scrolls, each covered in hieroglyphics.”

Nefertaru! The very mummy on show before us now.

“I took the scrolls back to my lodgings and began work at once on their translation. Each scroll contained one part of what I soon came to believe, was
The Hermetica.
As I was able to read each spell, I grew more full of life and energy. I hardly needed to sleep. My aches and pains disappeared. My hair grew thick and dark again. My skin became unlined and smooth. And I have not yet unlocked the secrets of the 21st spell, which I believe to be the most powerful spell of all. The one, I hope, that will allow me to raise the dead. The spell that will not simply keep me youthful… but will make me immortal! Able to live for ever, as God does.” His hand squeezed mine so tightly that I cried out and tried to pull free of him. But he was too strong.

I looked at him then in shock and awe. A man desiring to be God. The breathtaking arrogance of it made me tremble with fear and excitement.

“But whoever had placed the scrolls in the tomb had put a curse on them. For as I worked on the scrolls,
Sekhmet, the Egyptian goddess of pestilence, sent her plague-bearing messengers to find me. All around me, people began to fall ill and I fled from Egypt, carrying the scrolls in my leather bag. But the carriage I took from Chatham to London was set upon by thieves and the bag was taken. Now I did not have the scrolls, I was in mortal fear for my life.”

A leather bag and full of scrolls! But what of the ring?

“Then all is lost, sir,” I said, feeling a curious mixture of fear that I would be found out and excitement at the thought of it.

“I feared that too, Margrat. When the scrolls were stolen from me and I could not recite them every day, I was afraid that I would die. I began to feel deathly tired. My face in the mirror looked sallow and lined. My hair began to streak with grey. But I knew the scrolls were somewhere in London. For the messengers of Sekhmet were still following the scrolls, bringing plague on their heels like a pack of unruly and savage dogs. When the plague reached London, I knew the scrolls must be nearby.”

“Plague is nothing new,” I said quickly. “People have died of it and always will.”

“But this time it is different, Margrat. Mark my
words carefully. It has begun. The plague is already here and will become more virulent. Many will die, as they did in Alexandria. I cannot save them yet.”

“You may die, too,” I said, dread and hope both rising in me at the thought of it. For though his words made me very afraid, unaccountably I still longed to be with him, stand close, breathe in his sweet smell and hear his voice.

“Yes. I was mortally afraid,” he said. “So I went to every bookseller and dealer in the City… finding nothing until I came to your father’s shop.”

I knew my skin was flushed a deep red.

“Your father said I was in luck. A number of scrolls had come into his possession, just that very morning. He showed them to me. And they were my scrolls, still in my leather bag and so I bought them from him.”

“And now that you have them, you may translate them all,” I said hurriedly, for his eyes were still fixed upon me.

“Do not rejoice yet, Margrat. Remember, there is one spell, the 21st, that is still locked away where I cannot reach it. But I have the key now and I mean to use it.” He stroked my hair and let his hand fall to my neck and to the ring. The ring had been with the scrolls, but still he said nothing about that. I could
not hold my tongue any longer. He must know now that I had stolen it.

“And what of my ring?”

His face, for a fleeting moment, had the look of a lost soul shown a glimpse of Paradise. Then he said, “Ah yes, the ring is a powerful charm that will protect you from the plague. I confess: I took it from Nefertaru’s mummy… just as you surely took it out of my leather bag.”

I raised my hands as if to untie the braid and give him back the ring, but he stopped me, saying, “No, you were meant to have it. I see that now.”

But I could not help looking down at Nefertaru’s right hand. I shivered and he saw that I did.

“Come, Margrat, she no longer has need of it. Be grateful I took it and you now have it and are protected from the plague. For until I have the 21st spell, I will not be able to raise the dead and lead them into Paradise. Create Heaven here on Earth, as I believe it was always meant to be. But once that power is mine, I will do it. And would that not be a wonderful thing?”

The Doctor took my hand and led me out into the street. “Look around you, Margrat. Look carefully. What do you truly see?”

To my horror, the hustle and bustle, energy and high spirits of London seemed nothing now but filth
and smoke and noise. It was as if I had tumbled straight into the bowels of Hell.

“There, do not be afraid.” The Doctor turned me to him, enfolded me in his cloak and held me close. “You are safe with me. You will be always.”

His voice, soft as swansdown, heady and seductive as frankincense, mesmerising as the high, pure sound of a boy’s voice singing at Vespers. “Tell me, Margrat.” His voice ever more seductive. “Where is your God in all this? I tell you, if he exists, then he has abandoned his creation to the Devil… and all his priests.”

Pressed in so close to him, I could hear his heart beat clear and sure and strong. Doubt crept into my soul silently, like a rat hiding in a cellar waiting till all is quiet and dark to move up into the body of the house and gnaw through its very fabric.

I ran from it and from him, as fast as the rat runs from the dog. But I knew I could not outrun it, or him.

When I arrived home I had quite forgotten that I had lied to my mother. Told her I had an errand to do for my father, so that I might go to see the mummy,
Nefertaru at the Head and Combe Inn. But my mother had not forgotten. She demanded to know at once where I had been, for it seemed, she said, that my father knew nothing of any errand! Her temper was so foul she did not at first notice my distress.

“I… have… been,” I said, struggling to catch my breath, “to see the mummy on show… at the Head and Combe.”

“You bone-headed, idle…” She raised her hand to slap me.

“Where I met… with the Doctor.”

On the instant, my mother’s hand dropped and her face was all smiles. “Why did you not say that at once?”

He has power over people, I thought, even without his spells. Money. Connections to all the most important people in the land. A fine, upright figure and a handsome face. An unshakable conviction that he is right in everything he thinks and does.

“Such an honest, godly man,” she said and I longed to wipe the smile clear from her face by telling her of his blasphemies. But I had promised not to. Besides, she would not believe me. Worse still, she would rage at my father; say that too much learning had addled my brain.

“I have heard that he is well known at Court and has a fine house, newly built behind the Strand… and lives quite alone there.”

I refused to look at her, for I knew what she was thinking and was ashamed. For even now, when I had heard him question the very existence of God and knew his intentions, I was powerfully drawn to him.

“I will send a note to him directly and ask him to come to dinner tomorrow.” Her temper had cooled and she sounded mighty pleased with herself for having thought of it. “Go and tidy yourself and then come down to the kitchen. We must start preparations at once for tomorrow’s meal.”

I went to bed that night deathly tired, but when I blew out the candle, sleep would not come. Instead I lay there in the dark thinking of the 20 scrolls. How I had held them in my hands and not known the power of them. But where was the 21st spell the Doctor had spoken of? Not a scroll then… for he spoke of a key and seemed sure he would unlock the spell soon. And what of my ring? Though the Doctor said it was just a powerful charm against plague and nothing more, I began to doubt
him. For I have seen in my father’s shop how men behave when they covet a rare and valuable book. They pretend they have no real interest in it. Their eyes look away into the distance. They run their fingers across its cover as if it is nothing, but their breathing quickens and when they ask the price, their voice betrays their excitement.

BOOK: Wickedness
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