It may seem that this is the free fiction I alluded to yesterday. In fact that’ll be going up sometime next week – this is a different project, and one that could do with a little explanation before pitching in.
Last month I received an intriguing email from a Napier University publishing student. As part of her course she was required to take a prospective novel through all the stages of publication, all the way to book-on-shelf status. The problem was, she needed a novel. Apparently some online scouting for Edinburgh writers unearthed one Robbie MacNiven.
The pitch she gave me was for an 1840s paranormal horror set in Edinburgh South Bridge Vaults. I was immediately take by the idea (History! Ghosts! Edinburgh!) and she seemed like a great editing partner, so I agreed to write her a sample chapter. Her course involved submitting said chapter, along with her pitch, to her supervisors. There were nineteen other students doing the same, and only four would have their works chosen for publication.
Alas and alac, hers was not one of the four proposals. Thus ended my latest novel-publishing scheme. But two good things did come out of it all – firstly, I now know this whole “writing platform” malarky serves some purpose. After all, she found me and plucked me from the interweb ether. Secondly, I have an opening chapter and the rough plan for a novel. I can assure you said novel won’t be getting worked on anytime soon, but it’s always nice to have stuff stored away, especially when said stuff is a gothic-victorian-based horror piece drawing inspiration from, Jekyll and Hyde, Burke and Hare and Sweeny Todd, all set in grimy 1800s Edinburgh.
It’d be a shame to lock it all away in a dark Word folder though, so here’s the first chapter! Also, all the best to Mairi and her future publishing career!
The wind was whipping in off the Firth when the boy arrived, cold rain scudding across the narrow, cobbled streets and choking up gutters already strangled with refuse and neglect.
“Are you Mister Caldwell?” the young caddie asked the man who’d been waiting for him on the street corner. “James Caldwell?”
The man nodded. “That I am.” He struck a gaunt, bat-like shape in the gloom of early evening, the frayed collar of his double-breasted coat turned up so that only his eyes showed, flint-grey from beneath the dripping brim of a battered old tophat.
“I’m Sam,” the boy said.
“Well, Master Healey, you know what you’re here for. Lead on.”
Sam hesitated, clawing sodden black hair out of his eyes. Normally he’d have little difficulty demanding payment from a customer, but this Mister Caldwell made him uneasy. It was a strange time to be called out and a strange place to be called to, and meeting the man he was supposed to be taking to Greyfriars kirkyard hadn’t particularly reassured him about what he was getting involved in tonight.
“You expect coin before you take me to the church?” Caldwell surmised, reading the pause correctly. “A third now, the rest when we get there.”
“Half,” Sam said, seizing his chance. “And half.”
To his credit, Caldwell didn’t argue.
“Is it far?” he asked as he scooped a couple of coins from his jacket pocket.
“Not if you’re with me,” Sam said. He beckoned his client to follow.
Caddies ran a fine trade in Edinburgh. The city was a warren, even more so since the slum-like tenements with their grimy little windows and refuse-stained walls had burst the banks of the old Flodden wall and spread south and west. The fine, wide streets of the New Town to the north were a world apart from the verminous closes and dank stairways that bristled like thick mould south of the Royal Mile. Newcomers to Scotland’s capital were unwise to to attempt to traverse the bending, fetid alleyways alone, but that was where the caddies came in – as guides and scouts, seeing those who could pay safe through the dark recesses of the old city’s underbelly.
Normally Sam would have taken a more convoluted route than was necessary. It was always best to make the customer feel as though his money was being well spent, particularly given the fact he was taking this one barely four hundred yards across the Grassmarket and up to the old kirkyard. But the shadows were lengthening and the night was filthy, rain stinging the caddie’s cheeks and glistening on the uneven cobbles. The sooner he pocketed the rest of Mister Caldwell’s money and bade him goodnight, the better.
“So what brings you to Edinburgh?” he asked, attempting to dispel the brooding presence the man was affecting.
“You’re accent’s no from around here,” Sam dared to press. “English I’d say. Get plenty of English gentlemen visiting, though I’ll grant not many venture south o’ the Mile.”
“An erudite observation,” Caldwell said. Sam gave up, wondering what erudite meant. Mysterious Mister Caldwell could keep his secrecy, so long as he parted with his money.
As it turned out mysterious Mister Caldwell had a friend. There was someone waiting for them at the kirkyard’s gates.
“Thought you weren’t coming,” the figure said as they approached. “It’s getting late, and you ken I’d rather no do this in the dark.”
“My carriage threw its axil leaving Leith,” Caldwell said. “I elected to walk.”
“Brave of you in this weather.”
“This won’t wait.”
The second man grunted. He wore a short, well-cut coat and riding breeches, and would have effected a wealthier air than his shabby, grim companion had it not been for the age of the garments – even the failing light couldn’t hide how badly faded and patched they were. He wore no hat, and his curly red hair was as soaked as Sam’s. His face was lean and angular, with a crooked mouth that seemed at its most comfortable adopting a sneering expression.
“Couldn’t find your own way?” the man asked, his eyes settling on Sam.
“If you’d come and met me as we agreed I wouldn’t have needed this young man’s services,” Caldwell replied.
“How much did he charge you?” the man said, still looking at Sam. “Too much I’d wager.”
“No more than’s fair!” Sam said, bristling with all the indigence of youth.
“Aye, and who’s the one who judges fairness?”
“Enough, Jasper,” Caldwell said. “We have work to be getting on with. Like you said, it’s getting late.”
“This is the kirkyard,” Sam said, gesturing at the black iron gates. “I’ll have the other half of my payment now, sir.”
Caldwell obliged, but a worn glove on the boy’s shoulder stayed him before he could slip away with his earnings.
“What would you say if I offered tripled that sum, Master Healey?”
Sam hesitated, meeting Caldwell’s stoic grey eyes.
“Go on, sir.”
“I’ll require direction to my lodgings once my business here is concluded,” Caldwell said. “On Nicolson Street. We won’t be long.”
“Four times as much,” he said. “With respect, sir, I’m cold, wet and tired, and I don’t want to know what manner of business you have in there.” The man Caldwell had referred to as Jasper let out a humourless bark of laughter.
“The lad kens a fool when he sees one, James!”
Caldwell nodded, his eyes unreadable. “Very well. Quadrupel it is. You may stay here if you wish.”
“I’m not hanging around out here on my own,” Sam said. “If I can’t come with you, I’ll bid you sirs goodnight.”
For an instant he thought he caught a flash of annoyance in Caldwell’s steady gaze, but it was gone as swiftly as it had appeared.
“Very well. Stay close.”
Sam had never been to Greyfriars, and nor did he intend to return. The old graveyard was the largest and oldest in Edinburgh, a sloping maze of derelict crypts and crumbling tombstones. Gravel crunched underfoot as the three interlopers passed the looming gates, climbing uphill past the dark bulk of the kirk itself. The rain had eased off, and a damp vapour hung in the night air, catching in the back of Sam’s throat. He coughed, the sound echoing away through the graveyard, lost and unwelcome.
“Bit of a macabre place for a meeting,” he said, throwing a glance over his shoulder. The slick gravestones seemed to leer back, cracked smiles and wet, mossy glares slithering like the icy rainwater down the boy’s back.
“It’s a macabre business we’re dealing with, Master Healey,” Caldwell said, ignoring the caddie’s twitching.
“Corpse-digging,” Jasper added, grin as crooked as the headstones surrounding them.
“Apprehending corpse-diggers,” Caldwell corrected before Sam could take fright. There were many things a caddie would do for real coin, but being complicit in body theft generally wasn’t one of them.
There came a clattering sound from one of the mausoleums to their left, a dull echo of stone striking stone.
“What was that?” Sam said, nearly grabbing onto Caldwell’s coattails.
“Ghouls and ghasts,” the man said, his tone dismissive. “They infest places like this.”
“Ghouls?” Sam replied, looking from one man to another. “Ghasts?”
“Nothing a fleet young man like yourself couldn’t outrun,” Caldwell said. “Provided they didn’t catch you unawares.”
“It’s what you can’t run from that should make you afraid, wee laddie,” Jasper leered.
“Enough of that,” Caldwell said. “This is the one.”
The three came to a halt outside a mausoleum lying along the kirkyard’s north wall, its black stone gleaming coldly in the light of a rising sickle moon. Its heavy, iron-studded door lay ajar, the lock smashed.
“Is there enough light for you to work with?” Caldwell asked Jasper.
“Not inside,” Jasper replied. “But I don’t need to go inside to ken what we’re dealing with.”
“It’s as we feared?” Caldwell asked. Jasper had bent to examine the lock’s remains, face inscrutable in the dripping darkness.
“Aye,” he said with what sounded like a hint of relish. “This door wasn’t broken into. Judging by the damage, it was smashed from the inside.”
“From the inside,” Same echoed, feeling his stomach knot. “What does that mean?”
Caldwell said nothing, but Jasper turned back to face them.
“It means, wee laddie, that we’ve got ourselves a resurrectionist.”
To Be Continued?