"No. Best, for now."



Then she had released his hand, and he heard her long skirt rustle against stone; and when he heard a scuff from down in the well, he realized that she had swung over into the shaft and that one of her shoes was on a lower rung.


He was about to call her back and absolutely refuse to climb down - but the tunnel they were in apparently extended on past the well, and now he heard a sort of whistling moan from far away in that direction.


It was answered by a similar sound, but shriller and perhaps not so far away, from behind him.


He was sweating, and now he had to restrain himself from clambering over the well coping until he heard McKee's shoes on rungs a good distance below. Finally he slid one leg over the edge and scuffed around with his boot until it rested on the iron rung, and, trembling and mouthing frightened curses, he lowered himself into the well until he could feel the next rung down with his other foot. As soon as it seemed possible, he let go of the stone coping with one hand and grabbed the topmost rung, and after that he was able to descend steadily.


He had no idea how far behind his back the opposite wall of the well might be, and soon he had lost count of the rungs he had passed. He wondered vaguely if they were below the level of the river.


There were moths, or some other sort of silent-flying insects, in the shaft - the first one that brushed against his face almost startled him into letting go of his perch, but after several softly fluttering impacts against his face and hands, he was able to ignore them. Apparently they didn't sting.


The repetitive motions of descending the rungs became metronomic and almost mesmerizing, and he found himself imagining, very clearly, wooden forts barely crowding back forests along the Thames, the banks of which were notched in several places where wide fresh streams flowed into it.


His thoughts returned to his present situation when he realized that he could see the iron rungs in front of his face - dimly, but well enough to place a hand firmly on one without pawing at the wall first; though he still couldn't see any of the blundering winged insects. The river smell was stronger on the upward breeze, and it seemed to have a sour tobacco-smoke reek in it.


McKee's whisper sounded loud in the shaft: "Last rung - drop from here."


Drop? he thought. And get back up how?


But a moment later he heard her shoes chuff against something like sand, and soon his foot found no more rungs below to stand on, nor, when he swung it back and forth, any more wall.


He lowered himself to the last rung by the strength of his arms alone, and when he was hanging by both hands from the last rung, he opened his mouth to tell her that he was about to drop, but realized that she could tell where he was just by the noise of his breathing. Vaguely he could see the texture of some motionless surface below him.


He let go. For a dizzying second he was spread-eagled in empty air, and then the sandy surface struck his boot soles and his knee chopped him hard under the jaw, and he was sitting in loose, damp sand. The smell he had thought of as tobacco-like was stronger but now seemed more like sour, crushed seaweed.


McKee was standing, so he got to his feet, rubbing his chin and brushing the seat of his trousers, and he was cautiously pleased that there didn't seem to be any of the flying insects down here. His eyes had grown sufficiently accustomed to the dim glow to see that they were in a circular chamber with archways opening at irregular intervals around its circumference; he counted seven of them, and all of them showed blurs of many-times-reflected light in their farther reaches. The distant airy groaning was audible again, and he glanced around nervously, but he couldn't tell which arch or arches it might be echoing out of.


"What is that?" he whispered.


"A noise. Hush."


The caged bird chirped inside its handkerchief several times, and Crawford saw McKee's arm extend toward one of the arches, and then they had stepped through it and he was trudging along after her through the clinging sand, crouching to keep from knocking his head against the wet bricks of the low arched ceiling. To Crawford's relief, the only sound from ahead of them was a muffled chittering like crickets.


This tunnel curved to the left, and kept on curving, and Crawford soon realized that they were tracing an ever-tighter spiral; the light from ahead was brighter and distinctly yellow now, and the cricket sound was recognizable as the cheeping of many birds. A smell like rancid butter reminded him of chicken coops he had visited professionally.


And then McKee's chestnut hair glowed in direct lamplight, and she stepped to the left into a wood-floored circular room no more than fifteen feet across.


Crawford followed her in, and then squinted in the jarring glare of a paraffin lantern - it was mounted on the back railing of a wagon, which was either cut in half and mounted against the brick wall or was completely filling a farther tunnel. Only after he had taken in the cages full of small noisy birds stacked around the walls did Crawford notice the dwarfish, white-bearded figure sitting cross-legged beside the lantern.


"Look at the two of you!" the figure said in a deep voice. "A couple of doomed souls if I ever saw any. Which church did you come down?"


"St. Clement's," said McKee, speaking loudly to be heard over the shrill racket of the birds. "Origo lemurum, oranges and lemons. I'm Adelaide McKee - "


The birds all around them were chattering excitedly.


"You're a prostitute," said the dwarf. His lean old face held no evident expression.


McKee shook her head. "That's old news. I've changed careers. I'm a Hail Mary dealer now. Are you Chichuwee?"


"No, child, you've found the chambers of the prime minister. Of course I'm Chichuwee."


The dwarf swept his long white beard over his shoulder and hopped down from the cart, and the boards of the floor shook and boomed hollowly like a drum - apparently it was just a platform mounted over a deep shaft. Crawford eyed the arch they had come in through, ready to grab McKee and dive for it if the boards under their feet should shift.


He thought he could hear, over the incessant cheeping of all the birds, a clicking and rattling from the farther shadows of the cart.


"This," McKee went on, "is John Crawford."


"Husband, brother?"


"Neither one," said McKee hastily. "But he is the father of a child of mine, a little girl."


The dwarf limped forward and gave Crawford a disapproving look from under bushy white eyebrows, and Crawford met the gaze, reluctantly conceding that he deserved the disapproval - though it seemed unlikely that this creature might be a model of virtuous living himself.


A handshake seemed to be unlikely, so Crawford just nodded. After an awkward moment, he ventured, "Is that an Indian name? Chichuwee?"


The old dwarf just spat, and McKee said, "It's a birdcall. All the great old Hail Mary artists are named for birdcalls." To Chichuwee she added, "We need to get an answer from a person."


The dwarf shrugged. "Not difficult."


"It's a person who's dead."


"More difficult. Newly dead, I hope? Not lost beyond recall in the river?"


"Less than an hour ago, and I may," she said, "have caught her in my linnet." She held out her little handkerchief-wrapped birdcage. "It's Carpace, the old bawd. John here killed her - tricked her into drinking a glass of poisoned wine she meant for me."


"Carpace!" Chichuwee gave Crawford another look, perhaps more respectful. "She panders to a bigger sort of clients these days - ones that particularly like artists and poets. Even before you were born, she was drinking wine from amethyst cups at the Galatea under London Bridge." He frowned at McKee's bird. "She always loved her own self too much to surrender to that unhuman family, and she was savvy enough with her evasion tricks to keep from getting trapped by them. I bet now, though, she wishes she was due to be climbing up out of a grave, even if she wouldn't really be herself anymore."


The old dwarf now gave Crawford a somehow unflattering wink. "You weren't tempted to just take the ghost yourself?"


"He's not a Neffy!" said McKee, apparently insulted on Crawford's behalf.


Crawford blinked at her. "Take it?" he asked. "Neffy?"


"People who have let themselves be bitten by these devils," explained McKee. "They can sometimes catch a very fresh ghost, ingest it, and it supposedly gives them extra psychic strength - lets them control the people around them for a minute or so."


"Come in then," sighed the old dwarf, turning back toward the wagon, "and we'll see if we can get your answer."


"Will you question the bird?" Crawford asked.


"No," said the old dwarf. "The bird doesn't know anything."


McKee was carefully unwrapping the handkerchief from around the birdcage - Crawford saw that the bird had fouled the cloth square - and, holding it by one corner, she stepped after Chichuwee. As they drew closer to the lantern, they threw huge shadows across the tiers of birdcages on the curved walls.


Crawford reluctantly followed McKee out across the creaking floor toward the wagon, wrinkling his nose at the strong smell from all the birdcages.


"Sam!" called Chichuwee. "Get some river water boiling."


Behind the glare of the lantern Crawford now saw that there was a cabin set back on the bed of the wagon, for a pale child was peeking wide-eyed from a doorway in it. The child tossed two tiny white objects to Chichuwee and disappeared back inside.


The old dwarf tossed the objects to the floor, and Crawford saw that they were dice.


McKee turned and caught Crawford's chin in her hand. "Don't look at the numbers on them," she said. "But if you want to be helpful, you could pick them up and throw them, over and over again. Not looking, remember."


Crawford grimaced in anxious impatience but nodded and crouched; he scooped up the two ivory cubes and dropped them, then did it again.


"I'm going to have to be getting back to ... streets, again, soon," he said.


"This water boils quick," said Chichuwee. "It's in a pot that's actually up in the Alps, so the air pressure is very low."


Crawford picked up the dice and let them fall. "But the pot is here - too?"


"Enough of it to boil water in," said the dwarf. "Be quiet now."


Crawford scowled at McKee, who just shrugged.


As he dropped the dice one more time onto the floor, it occurred to Crawford that he had been hearing this repetitive rattle ever since they had entered this chamber. Were these dice thrown perpetually, their numbers never read? Chichuwee must employ a relay of children to keep it up.


Three wooden steps beside the far wheel led up to the wagon bed, and Chichuwee and then McKee climbed up, skirted the lantern, and shuffled to the door the child Sam had peeked out of. Even Chichuwee had to crouch to fit through the open door, and McKee had to crawl through on her hands and knees.


"Dice, dice!" she called back over her shoulder, and Crawford hastily dropped the dice and snatched them up; and she added, "Follow."


The finches and larks around the walls seemed to echo the cadence of "Dice, dice!" and Crawford tossed the dice up onto the wagon bed and hastily scrambled up after them.


A curtain was sliding over McKee's back as she crept forward, and Crawford could see a glow of candlelight on her hands; then he crawled under the curtain too and found himself in a room he could stand up in. He remembered to toss the dice and scoop them up before getting to his feet.


This room clearly extended beyond the wall of the birdcage chamber, and, between shelves that were crowded with ragged books and obscure brass and crystal instruments, closed curtains implied windows in the varnished wood paneling that gleamed in the light of a dozen candles in glass chimneys.


The boy Sam was crouched over a low iron stove, watching water bubble in a glass pot; but when Crawford looked more closely, he saw that there was apparently no pot at all - the flat-topped ball of bubbling gray water was holding its shape with no visible containment.


Sam straightened and crossed to Crawford with his palm out, and then had to nudge him, for Crawford was gaping at the prodigy on the stove; finally the boy pried the dice from Crawford's limp hand and hurried away to resume throwing them in the corner.


"You know how this is done?" Chichuwee asked McKee.


"Yes." She set the birdcage on a shelf near the impossible volume of water. To Crawford, she said, "This will draw the ghost, if there's a ghost there."


Chichuwee nodded to her, and she dropped the soiled handkerchief into the boiling water. Steam immediately sprang up, and at this point Crawford was hardly surprised to see that the vapor didn't dissipate but instead floated over the water in a distinct wobbly oval.


"Lucky," said Chichuwee, shaking his head. "If it's her."


McKee crouched so that her face was level with the blob of steam while the handkerchief spun in the water below. Crawford noticed that, in spite of her show of confidence, she was trembling.


"Carpace," she said.


A whisper bubbled out of the water in puffs of vapor: "None of the officers wear waistcoats in the mornings... I travel with two canes, one for morning and one for evening..."


"Damn," said McKee, "it's that ghost that was buzzing around the bird by the Temple Arch this morning. Carpace!" Sweat gleamed on her forehead in the candlelight.


"... catch me, the ground quakes...! I - Adelaide."


"Got her," said McKee with feral satisfaction; then, to the vapor, she said, "You shouldn't drink."


"Drink," whispered the steam, "the glasses, the man switched them? Am I dead?"


"Yes."

Source: www.StudyNovels.com