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The Eyeball Collector

F. E. Higgins

  Prodigious praise for previous books by F. E. Higgins:

  ‘This clever, atmospheric debut . . . with its richly drawn and sometimes grotesque characters, its mysteries, its magic . . . is a piece of perfectly constructed, old-fashioned storytelling of the most compelling kind’ Sunday Times Children’s Book of the Week

  ‘A deliciously rich mix of Gothic nastiness . . . and black humour . . . terrific verve, with glittering descriptive flashes’ Guardian

  ‘You are in for a terrific read . . . fierce yet sophisticated’ The Times

  ‘Young readers with a taste for the macabre will find it deliciously scary’ Observer

  ‘Writing so atmospheric that the fumes from the noxious River Foedus seem to seep off the page and swirl round the reader’ Telegraph

  Also by F. E. Higgins

  The Black Book of Secrets

  Winner of a CBI Bisto Book of the Year Honour Award

  The Bone Magician


  First published 2009 by Macmillan Children’s Books

  This electronic edition published 2009 by Macmillan Children’s Books

  a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited

  20 New Wharf Rd, London N1 9RR

  Basingstoke and Oxford

  Associated companies throughout the world

  ISBN 978-0-230-73980-2 in Adobe Reader format

  ISBN 978-0-230-73979-6 in Adobe Digital Editions format

  ISBN 978-0-230-73981-9 in Mobipocket format

  Copyright © F.E. Higgins 2009

  The right of F.E. Higgins to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

  You may not copy, store, distribute, transmit, reproduce or otherwise make available this publication (or any part of it) in any form, or by any means (electronic, digital, optical, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of the publisher. Any person who does any unauthorized act in relation to this publication may be liable to criminal prosecution and civil claims for damages.

  A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

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  To Beag Hickory,

  Here’s to your eyes,

  may they never be in your potatoes

  Juniper Water or Gin

  (Also known as Mother’s Ruin, kill-grief, comfort,

  heart’s ease, Devil’s sweat and diddle)

  At one stage gin was considered safer to drink than water, the city water often being contaminated with disease. As it became cheaper and cheaper, it was not long before this highly addictive tipple became known as Mother’s Ruin. As a result laws were passed that made it more difficult to sell gin openly. There arose the ‘gin pipe’ as a consequence: a pipe in the wall beside which was a slot. For a payment in the slot, gin would be dispensed into the waiting cup.

  from Urbs Umida. A City Beyond Salvation

  by K. B. & G. W. Porter-Scott


  A Note from F. E. Higgins


  Ode to Urbs Umida by Beag Hickory




  Gulliver Truepin




  An Unwelcome Visitor


  Article from the Northside Diurnal Journal


  A Letter to Polly


  Fitch’s Home for Exposed Babies and Abandoned Boys




  The Landlord’s Pickle


  The Devil’s Sweat


  Article from the Northside Diurnal Journal


  A Disturbing Encounter


  A Difficult Journey


  Extract from Myths and Folklore, Flora and Fauna of the Ancient Oak Forest


  Extract from a Letter to Polly




  A Letter to Polly


  A Toast


  Thanks for the Memory


  A Close Encounter


  Extract from a Letter to Polly


  A Tuneful Interlude


  An Interesting Request






  A Premature Arrival


  A Letter to Polly


  Extract from the Menu at Trimalchio’s Feast


  We’re All Going on a Boar Hunt


  Extract from a Letter to Polly


  The Feasting Begins


  A Very Special Gift


  Running with Wolves




  View from the Top




  A Letter to Polly


  Article from the Northside Diurnal Journal

  A Note from F. E. Higgins

  Appendix I

  Appendix II

  Appendix III

  A Note from F. E. Higgins

  Extract from

  A letter from Hector Fitzbaudly to Polly

  . . . It was my father taught me how to kill a butterfly. To take it in your hand, unsuspecting as it is, and to pinch it underneath with finger and thumb, at the thorax, to stun it. Then to place the body swiftly in the killing jar, tighten the lid and allow the fumes to finish it off painlessly. Father often asked me to net the butterflies, because I was nimble and had a lightness of touch; they were never damaged when I caught them. It is still a source of wonder to me that, from a lowly caterpillar, such a beautiful creature can come into existence.

  Then, when I was older, I learned to mount them. We worked in Father’s study, in the comforting glow of the fire and beneath the soft light of the gas lamps. I remember how he gathered together, quietly and unhurriedly, the equipment from shelves and drawers and I laid it out neatly on the desk – boards and pins and paper. Next, with a flourish he would present me with the butterfly, a bright yellow Brimstone or perhaps an Orange Tip, and I would begin.

  I knew Father was ever watching closely from behind me and I was always keen to show him that he had taught me well. Slowly, so slowly, I would push the long, pointed insect pin through the middle of the butterfly’s body, right between the wings – careful not to rub off the tiny scales that gave them their captivating iridescence – and into the mounting board. Next I would position the wings open, exactly how I wanted them, with their patterns matching, before pinning them in place, one at a time, just behind the larger veins. Finally I would place thin pieces of paper over each wing to prevent its curling up while the insect dried. Father wouldn’t say anything, just place his hand firmly on my shoulder, and I always knew from the look on his face that he was pleased.

  Father gave me a gift shortly before it
all happened – a small ebony cocoon to wear on a cord around my neck. I still have it, and every time I touch it I am reminded of those happier days.

  But, Polly, that all seems a very long time ago . . .

  The description above of the process of butterfly mounting, a common hobby of the age in which this was written, is to be found in one of a number of letters still surviving from a correspondence between a young lad named Hector Fitzbaudly and the girl called Polly (her surname is never given). I found the letters deep in the heart of the Moiraean Mountains, tied together by a leather cord with the ebony cocoon mentioned above hanging from it. I don’t think they were all there, and I cannot say if they were ever sent, but I suspect not.

  This revealing bundle is just one of many items I have picked up on my travels since last we met in Urbs Umida, that vile city where I uncovered the mystery of the enigmatic Bone Magician and the Silver Apple Killer. I have travelled further abroad since then and my collection of oddities has grown considerably. It now contains:


  one wooden leg


  some incomplete handwritten documents, being a young boy’s memoirs, and a black leather-bound book of secrets and confessions


  a beechwood box containing a personal journal and articles from the Urbs Umida Daily Chronicle


  a silver apple


  the aforementioned letters and ebony cocoon on a leather cord


  articles from the Northside Diurnal Journal


  one gold-rimmed and diamond-studded cracked false eyeball

  The story that follows relies heavily upon this correspondence. And, together with the false eyeball, what a story they tell! As is often the case, I am left with more puzzles than answers.

  But let us tarry no longer! Hector’s tale awaits . . .

  F. E. Higgins

  Part the First

  A Divided City

  Ode to Urbs Umida

  Urbs Umida, Urbs Umida!

  O City, dark and dank.

  Would that I could call you sweet,

  But by the holy your air ’tis rank!

  I took a boat across the Foedus

  And looked into the water.

  Two fish I saw but dead they were

  And swam not as they oughter.

  I walked across the cobbled Bridge

  Went in the Nimble Finger.

  A fight broke out, I ducked a punch

  And thought best not to linger.

  Urbs Umida, Urbs Umida!

  No matter where I roam,

  The Foedus’s nostril-stinging stench

  Will always lure me home.

  Beag Hickory

  Chapter One


  ‘Tartri flammis!’ cursed Hector as his stomach tightened in a knot and his chest jerked violently with every beat of his heart. He rotated slowly on the spot, panting from the chase. His nose tingled with the stench that filled the air. Already his ears were pricking to the menacing sounds around him: screeches and wails, scraping and dragging, and the ominous unrelenting moaning.

  So this is fear, he thought. In a strange way it excited him.

  He stood at the centre of Fiveways, an open cobbled space where five dark alleys converged. It was late afternoon but regardless of the time of day it was difficult to see anything clearly in the strange half-light that bathed this part of the City. Hector had crossed the river only twice before, but had never ventured this far. His mistake had been to give chase to the thieving vagabond who had taken his purse. In a matter of seconds the light-fingered boy had led him a merry dance down the unlit, claustrophobic streets and lanes until he was completely lost.

  ‘Wait till I get my hands on him!’ muttered Hector. But he knew he wouldn’t. The pickpocket was long gone.

  Or was he?

  A sudden movement to his right caused Hector to turn sharply. He watched with mounting unease a small dark figure slip out of the alley and come silently towards him. He saw another figure, and another. From each alley they came, ten boys in all, creeping closer and closer to surround him. The leader, the tallest, stepped out from the sharp-eyed encircling pack. He lifted his coat slightly and Hector was certain he saw the glint of a blade in his waistband. The boy spoke with the confidence of one who knows he has the upper hand.

  ‘What’s your name, Nor’boy?’

  ‘Nor’boy?’ queried Hector. He was surprised at how feeble his voice sounded. He clenched his fists and held them to his sides to stop them shaking.

  ‘Yeah, Nor’boy,’ repeated the lad. ‘You’re from the north side, ain’t ya?’

  ‘Oh, yes, of course,’ he replied. Then, more boldly, ‘As for my name, it is Hector, like the Greek hero.’

  The leader was unimpressed. ‘So, ’Ector, what else can you give us?’

  ‘Give?’ The sarcasm was lost on the boys.

  ‘I likes ’is boots,’ said one boy.

  ‘And ’is ’at,’ said another, and quick as lightning he produced a long stick and hooked Hector’s hat, tossing it artfully to land on the leader’s head.

  ‘Hey!’ Hector cried out, albeit half-heartedly. He was outnumbered, a stranger in hostile territory. If they wanted to let him go, they would. If not? Well, he didn’t like to think where he might end up. He had not dealt with such boys before.

  ‘Very well,’ he said slowly, but inwardly thinking fast. There must be some way to appease them. ‘You have my purse and my hat. You may have my coat and boots if that is your wish, but in return perhaps you could direct me back to the Bridge.’

  Hector’s accent seemed to amuse his captors and they sniggered. The leader came unnervingly close to Hector and poked him in the chest.

  ‘I ain’t asking your permission, Nor’boy. If I want somefink, I take it.’

  He snapped his fingers and instantly the group surged forward, their eyes shining. Like wild animals they closed in. Hector swallowed hard. He could smell them now, they were so close. He could hear their breathing. His mouth was dry as wood chips. He gritted his teeth and held up his fists, preparing to fight.

  Then he felt their hands all over him and he was overwhelmed, struggling uselessly against the onslaught. They patted and pulled his coat sleeves and tugged at his cuffs, jerking him near off his feet. Helplessly he allowed the coat to slip off his shoulders and into an assailant’s possession. He watched the boy shrugging it on and dancing around, crowing loudly. Someone pulled hard at his bootlaces, unbalancing him, and he landed awkwardly on the ground where he surrendered his boots wordlessly. They took his watch and chain, his silk cravat and finally his gloves.

  ‘Anyfink else?’ asked the leader.

  ‘Only my handkerchief,’ said Hector sarcastically, getting back to his feet. He brushed himself down but knew he looked rather foolish. Inadvertently his hand went to his neck, and the sharp-eyed leader pounced. He reached under Hector’s shirt and pulled at the concealed leather string. It snapped and he held it up. A small black object dangled from the end.


  ‘It’s a butterfly cocoon,’ said Hector slowly. He suddenly felt very angry. He didn’t care about his other possessions, but the cocoon was different. A gift from his father, he couldn’t let it go without a fight. Then he smiled. He had an idea.

  ‘I’ll challenge you for it.’

  The leader raised his eyebrow. The boys looked at each other and readied themselves.

  ‘Not of fists, of wits,’ said Hector hastily. ‘A riddle. You can all try to answer it, ten of you against one of me. If you answer it correctly, you may have the cocoon; otherwise you must allow me to keep it.’

  The boys exchanged grins and winks.

  ‘It’s awright wif me,’ said the leader. ‘Wot’s the riddle?’

  Hector had the sinking feeling that he was merely delaying the inevitable. Did rascals such as these honour deals? No matter. He had to try. It was just not in
his nature to give up easily. He began:

  ‘There was once a kingdom where it was a crime to tell a lie, the punishment being death.’

  His ragtag audience laughed at this. Was that good or bad? Hector didn’t know. He went on.

  ‘A young man travelled to the kingdom and heard about the crime of lying. “That is nonsense,” he declared to the townspeople. “If I tell a lie, I will not be put to death.”

  ‘One of the King’s guards overheard his boast and asked him, “Did you say you could evade punishment for lying?”

  ‘“No,” replied the young man brazenly.

  ‘“That is a lie!” shouted the crowd and he was arrested and thrown into prison.

  ‘The next day he was brought before the King and a jury of twelve.

  ‘“You have been found guilty of lying,” said the King. “You may say one last thing before you die, but be warned: if your statement is true, then you will be given a strong sleeping draught and you will die painlessly. But if your statement is a lie, then you will be burned alive and die screaming.”

  ‘The young man spoke only one sentence in reply and the King had no choice but to release him.’

  The boys were still, listening hard, and Hector felt a brief shiver of something, almost pride. Yes, they held him captive by force, but he too had them gripped, with his words.

  ‘So, what did he say?’ asked a small boy at the front. He was sporting Hector’s cravat.

  ‘Exactly,’ said Hector with a hint of triumph. ‘That is the riddle.’