Fiction The Black Book Of Buried Secrets Pdf


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Read an excerpt from The Black Book of Buried Secrets to uncover more 39 Facts dashboard below or click on the excerpt to read a story from the book. And be the first to discover all the secrets on October 26th! Read an excerpt (PDF). Extract from the Black Book of Secrets – Ludlow's Confession Chapter Forty- Three 'I have it on good authority that that young man was buried with a silver . The Black Book of Buried Secrets by Rick Riordan, , Scholastic edition.

The Black Book Of Buried Secrets Pdf

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Description With an Introduction by Rick Riordan, The 39 Clues: The Black Book of Buried Secrets reveals the shocking truth about history's most notorious family. In full, lush color, this title lays bare each hidden fact, concealed strategy, top agent, lost founder, secret base. From the #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series Multiple-award-winning author Rick Riordan brings back. Get Instant Access to The Black Book Of Buried Secrets (The 39 Clues) By Anonymous #2b89b3. EBOOK EPUB KINDLE PDF. Read Download.

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Available at: Find a local library Enter your zip code to find a library near you using Google Maps. Share This. Your First Name Only. Friend's First Name Only. Friend's Email Address. I stopped at an empty building at the top of the hill. It stood alone in the shadow of the church, desolate and separated from the other houses and shops by an alley.

I was looking for a way in when I heard approaching footsteps in the snow. I ducked into the alley and waited.

A man, hunched over, came carefully down the hill. He was carrying a large wooden spade over his shoulder and he was mumbling to himself.

He passed right by me, looking neither to his left nor his right, and crossed over the road. As he melted into the night another figure appeared. To this day I remember the man emerging from the gloom as if by magic. I watched him climbing steadily towards me.

He took long strides and covered the distance quickly. He had a limp, his right step was heavier than his left, and one footprint was deeper than the other. Was it just coincidence had us both arrive here together? I suspect other powers were at work. He had a purpose but he kept it well hidden. His age was impossible to determine.

He was neither stout nor thin, but perhaps narrow. And he was tall, which was a distinct disadvantage in Pagus Parvus. The village dated from times when people were at least six inches shorter and all dwellings were built accordingly. The king at the time issued a decree that every effort must be made to save wood, with the result that doors and windows were made smaller and narrower than was usual and ceilings were particularly low. Joe was suitably dressed for the weather, though unheedful of the current fashion for the high-collared coat.

Instead he wore a cloak of muted green, fastened with silver toggles, that fell to his ankles. The cloak itself was of the finest Jocastar wool. The Jocastar — an animal akin to a sheep but with longer, more delicate legs and finer features — lived high up in the mountains of the northern hemisphere.

Once a year, September time, it moulted and only the most agile climbers dared venture up into the thin air to collect its wool. The cloak was lined with the softest fur in existence, chinchilla. On his feet Joe wore a pair of black leather boots, highly polished, upon which sat the beautifully pressed cuffs of his mauve trousers. Around his neck was wrapped a silk scarf, and a fur hat shaped like a cooking pot was pulled down tightly over his ears.

It could not fully contain his hair and more than a few silver strands curled out from underneath. With every step Joe took, a set of keys hooked to his belt jingled tunefully against his thigh.

In his right hand he carried a rather battered leather satchel straining at the seams, and in his left a damp drawstring bag from which there emanated an intermittent croaking. Quickly, silently, Joe climbed the steep high street until he reached the last building on the left. It was an empty shop. Beyond it was a walled graveyard, the village boundary, within which stood the church. Then the road stretched away into a grey nothingness.

The Black Book of Secrets

Snow had drifted into the shop doorway and gathered in the corners of the flyblown windows. The paintwork was peeling and an old sign in the shape of a hat creaked above the door in the biting wind. Joe took a moment to survey the street down to the bottom of the hill. It was the early hours of the morning but yellow oil lamps and candles glowed behind many a curtain and shutter and more than once he saw the silhouette of a person cross back and forth in front of a window. A smile broke across his face.

The shop itself was quite tiny. The distance between the display window and the counter was no more than three paces. Joe went behind the counter and opened the solid door that led into a back room.

A tiny window on the far wall allowed the dusty moon-glow to lighten the gloom. The furniture was sparse and worn: In contrast the fireplace was huge. At least six feet across and nearly three deep, it took up almost the whole of one wall.

On either side of the hearth sat a faded upholstered armchair. It was not much but it would do. In the depths of the night, Joe busied himself settling in. He turned up the wick and lit the lamp on the table. He unwound his scarf, took off his hat and unfastened his cloak and put them on the bed. Then he opened his satchel and, as a silent observer peered through the window, Joe emptied it out on to the table.

The onlooker never moved, though his already huge dark eyes widened impossibly as Joe pulled out clothes, shoes, a collection of trinkets and baubles, some rather fine jewellery, two loaves, a bottle of stout, another bottle, dark-glassed and unlabelled, four timepieces with gold chains , a brass hurricane lamp, a rectangular glass tank with a vented lid, a large black book, a quill and bottle of ink and a polished mahogany wooden leg.

The satchel was deceptively spacious. Deftly Joe fixed the tank together, then took his drawstring bag and loosened the tie.

He set it down gently on the table and a second later a frog, a rather spectacular specimen of mixed hue and intelligent expression, emerged daintily from its folds. Very carefully Joe picked it up and placed it inside the tank, whereupon the creature blinked lazily and munched thoughtfully on some dried insects.

As Joe dropped another bug into the tank he stiffened almost imperceptibly. Without a backwards glance he left the room, the eyes at the window still following him curiously.

No human ear heard him tiptoe around the back of the shop, where he pounced upon the figure at the window and held him up to the light by the scruff of his scrawny neck. Joe had the boy in such a grip that he was half choking on his collar and his feet were barely touching the ground.

He tried to speak, but fear and shock had rendered him unable. He could only open and close his mouth like a fish out of water. Joe gave him a shake and repeated the question, though less harshly this time. When he still received no answer he let the young lad fall to the snow in a crumpled pathetic heap. He truly was a pale and sorry figure, undersized, undernourished and shivering so hard you could almost hear his bones rattle.

His eyes were striking though, dark green with flecks of yellow, and set in a ring of shadow. His skin matched the snow in tone and temperature. Joe sighed and pulled him to his feet. A blackened kettle hung over the flames and every so often Joe stirred its contents. The boy gulped his noisily in spilling, overfull spoonfuls.

And do you wish to go back? In my experience the City is a rotten, diseased place full of the very worst of humanity. The lowest of the low. Without hesitation he put the stained cloth in his mouth and sucked out the juices. Joe watched unsmiling but with amusement in his eyes. The warming soup had brought life back to his frozen limbs. Can you write and read? If Joe was surprised he did not show it. Ludlow thought for a moment then wrote slowly, in his plain, spidery hand, the tip of his tongue sticking out of the corner of his mouth: A Pome The rabit dose be a gentel creture Its furr is soft, its tale is wite Under the sun a gras eater In a burro it doth sleep the nighte.

Joe stroked his chin to conceal his smile. Your parents? I was taught by Mr Lembart Jellico, a pawnbroker in the City. He resembled so many City boys, dirty and skinny. He certainly smelt like one. His clothes were barely functional apart from the scarf and gloves which were of a much higher quality and he had a distrustful face that gave away the wretchedness of his past existence. He was bruised and his mouth was very swollen, but there was a spark of intelligence — and something else — in those dark eyes.

Now it is time to sleep. He had never felt such soft fur before and it wrapped itself around his legs almost of its own accord. Ludlow watched through half-closed eyes as Joe stretched out on the bed opposite, his legs not quite fully extended, and began to snore. When he was certain that Joe was asleep Ludlow pulled out the purse he had stolen from the carriage and hid it behind a loose brick in the wall. Then he took the paper and read it once again.

What sort of job is that?


But he did not ponder the question for very long before drifting off into a sleep full of wild dreams that made his heart race. As for pawnbrokers, naturally I knew what they were. Whatever Ma and Pa managed to steal and had no use for, they pawned. Or they sent me to do it. There were plenty of pawnshops, practically one on every corner, and they were open all hours. They were busiest after the weekend, when everyone had spent their wages on drink or lost them at the card table.

By mid-morning on Mondays a pawnshop window was quite a sight, believe me. People brought in every sort of thing: Take it or leave it. Of course, you could always buy back what you pledged, but you had to pay more. For a start he was hidden away down a narrow alley off Pledge Street. You would only know he was there if you knew he was there, if you see what I mean. I found him because I was looking for somewhere to hide from Ma and Pa. The entrance to the lane was so narrow I had to go in sideways.

When I looked up I could see only a thin sliver of the smoky city sky. He looked as if he was in a daydream. I coughed. Those were the first kind words I had heard all day. Mr Jellico looked as poor as his customers. His skin was white, starved of the sun, and had a slight shine to it, like wet pastry.

His long fingernails were usually black and his lined face was covered in grey stubble. There was always a drip at the end of his nose and occasionally he wiped it away with a red handkerchief that he kept in his waistcoat pocket.

That day he gave me a shilling for the ring, so I came back the next day with more spoils and received another. After that I returned as often as I could. His shop was rarely busy, the window was dirty and there was never much on display.

Once I saw a loaf of bread on the shelf. I told him what Ma and Pa were like, how they treated me, how little they cared for me. Many times when it was too cold to stay out, and I was too afraid to return home, he let me warm myself by his fire and gave me tea and bread. He taught me the AlphaBet and numbers and let me practise writing on the back of old pawn tickets.

He showed me books and made me copy out page after page until he was satisfied with my handwriting. It has been remarked that my style is a little formal. I blame this on the texts from which I learned. Their authors were of a serious nature, writing of wars and history and great thinkers. There was little room for humour. In return for this learning I carried out certain chores for Mr Jellico. At first I wrote out the price tags for the window, but as my writing improved he let me log the pledges and monies in his record book.

Occasionally the door would open and we would have a customer. Mr Jellico enjoyed talking and would detain them in conversation for quite some time before taking their pledge and paying them. I spent many hours in the back of the shop engaged in my tasks and Ma and Pa never knew. I saw no reason to tell them about Mr Jellico; they would only have demanded that I steal something from him. I had the opportunity, many times, but although I would not hesitate to cheat my parents out of a few shillings, I could not betray Mr Jellico.

The first time I found the shop closed I thought he must have packed up and left. Then a few days later he came back. I was just glad to see him. This went on for almost five months until the night I fled the City. There was little chance I would see him again. So, when Joe said that he was a pawnbroker I was pleased. I thought I knew what to expect. It was a small village clinging for its life to the side of a steep mountain in a country that has changed its name over and over and in a time that is a distant memory for most.

It comprised one cobbled high street lined on either side with a mixture of houses and shops built in the style that was popular around the time of the great fire in the famous city of London. The first and second floors and in the case of the home of wealthy Jeremiah Ratchet, the third and fourth floors overhung the pavement. In fact, sometimes the upper levels stuck so far out that they restricted the sunlight. The windows themselves were small with leaded panes, and dark timbers ran in parallel lines on the outside walls.

The buildings were all at strange and rather worrying angles, each having slid slightly down the hill over the years and sunk a little into the earth. There was no doubt that if just one collapsed it would take all the others with it. The village was overlooked by the church, an ancient building mostly frequented these days when someone was born or died.

Entry into this life and exit from it were deemed noteworthy occasions, but for most villagers the intervening existence did not require regular church attendance. On the whole this suited the Reverend Stirling Oliphaunt very well. Besides, the hill really was unusually steep.

Even before the sun had fully risen behind the clouds, a rumour was circulating that the old hat shop had a new occupant. One by one the villagers puffed and panted their way up the hill to see for themselves. The murky windows were now clean and transparent, although the varying thickness of the glass distorted the display somewhat, and the people pressed their faces up against the panes eager to see what was on show.

A reasonable question under the circumstances, for the contents of the satchel, excepting the food and drink, had been priced with tags and placed in the window. The wooden leg was propped in the corner but there was no indication of its cost. In the daylight it was quite remarkable in appearance: It was most unlike any frog that lived in the soupy ponds of Pagus Parvus.

Its feet were not webbed, instead they were more like longfingered hands with knobbly joints and toes, which would have made swimming quite tricky. He was holding a sign which he placed carefully at the bottom of the display.

It read: Joe then emerged with a ladder which he propped against the wall over the door. He climbed confidently to the top and unhooked the old hat-shaped sign. He fixed to the pole the universal symbol of the pawnbroker: They swung on their chain in a lazy arc, glinting in the low winter sun. Joe smiled benevolently, descended the ladder with remarkable speed and stood before the crowd.

I stand under the sign of the three golden orbs because I am a pawnbroker, a respectable profession in existence for centuries, of Italian origin, I believe. All items accepted: Joe disregarded this interruption and continued smoothly.

You will not be cheated by Joe Zabbidou. Joe took a bow and smiled at his audience. He sat up to find that the fire had been revived and one of the logs was spitting, sending burning sparks on to his cheeks. Joe was nowhere to be seen, but there was bread and milk on the table, and a jug of beer, and Ludlow realized that he was very hungry. He drank some frothy milk and ate a thick slice of warm bread.

He sat back, satisfied, but not for long. Hearing the commotion outside he went to the door to have a look. Joe was still shaking hands with the villagers.

When he saw Ludlow he nodded in the direction of the crowd, who were milling around, loath to leave this object of curiosity.

Few strangers ever came to their village. There was that hook nose again and again, those close-set narrow eyes, the crooked smiles, each in a different combination on a different countenance.

This place could do with some new blood, he thought. He had woken with a pounding headache and a raw stomach. Besides, he despised the other drinkers, most of whom were in his debt.

Jeremiah was happy to take their money but he preferred not to drink with them. And the feeling was mutual. There he drank wine and beer, smoked fat cigars and played cards until the early hours with a motley bunch of fellows: Although he would never admit it, he felt quite at home in the Nimble Finger.

Jeremiah groaned again when he remembered he had lost a considerable sum of money at the card table. Jeremiah liked simple solutions to problems, and rent increases seemed to solve most of his.

He did not care about the trouble this caused his tenants. He turned over in bed, but his attempts to sleep again were thwarted by the foul air that wafted up from under the blankets. Too many onions, he thought as he flung back the curtain and swung his legs over the side. He squinted in the daylight and only then became aware of the noise out on the street.

He stumbled and belched his way over to the window to see crowds of people making their way up the hill. He felt it was a physical measure of his importance. Although he loved to indulge himself in all sorts of extravagances, it galled him to think that others might too.

The Black Book of Buried Secrets ( edition) | Open Library

He shoved his hands deep in his pockets and pulled his collar around his neck. His mood had not improved when Polly reported that she had failed to find his gloves, scarf and purse.

Deserves to be whipped. He took whichever hand they offered and enclosed it in his own. At the same time he leaned forward and said something. Whatever it was, it made the women smile and the men straighten up and inflate their chests. While Joe was still busy shaking hands, a minor commotion started up at the back of the crowd.

I stuck my head out a little further and saw a bulbous man, his face glistening with sweat, pushing his way to the front. The people parted reluctantly to allow his passage. He stood in the snow in a manner that suggested he was supported solely by his own selfimportance.

He cocked his large head to one side to squint at the golden orbs with a yellowing eye. There was something very unpleasant about the man: I was not inclined to make myself known to him so I stayed where I was. I suspect Joe had already noticed him but had chosen to ignore him. Eventually, after the man had positioned himself only a matter of feet away and coughed loudly three times, Joe acknowledged his presence and introduced himself.

The man stared at Joe as if he was a snail on his shoe. Local businessman.

The Black Book of Buried Secrets

I own most of this village. So this was Jeremiah Ratchet, the man who had inadvertently brought me to Pagus Parvus and at the same time brought about a change in my fortunes.

His rather grand statement was greeted with quiet snorts of derision from the crowd, even a hiss, and his wide forehead creased in an angry frown. He put his hands on his hips and sniffed, in the manner of a rooting hog.

If I had been in that crowd, I would have pinched his purse before he could blink. He was the sort of man who deserved to have his pocket picked.

Then again, I thought, as I tried to conceal a smirk, I already had it. Everything about Jeremiah smelled of money: Unfortunately nothing about him smelled of good taste. These people own nothing of any worth. I help people round here. If they need money they know whom to ask. Only one person lingered, a young girl. She looked cold and tired. Her knuckles were red, she wore no gloves and her fingertips were blue.

I felt a little sorry for her, with her stick legs and red nose. Joe was leaning casually on the ladder, watching us, but suddenly he looked away.

I followed his gaze and saw for a second time the small hunched figure with a shovel on his shoulder. He had been right at the back during the whole show, his craggy face expressionless.

Now he was going in the opposite direction to everyone else, towards the church. Joe watched him go through the gates, then beckoned to me. I pulled the door to and a little thrill of excitement made me shiver all over. Chapter Nine Obadiah Strang An ancient graveyard surrounded the church and the slope was such that it was impossible to dig a grave without one side being higher than the other.

Fortunately for its occupants, Obadiah Strang, the gravedigger, was very good at his job and took great pains to ensure that the base of each grave was level, so the poor dead soul in the coffin could achieve peace on his back and not on his side. Whenever there was a funeral the mourners were constantly on the move, shifting from one foot to the other as they tried to stand up straight.

Only mountain goats that wandered in from time to time seemed at ease, able as they were to keep their balance at any angle. The graveyard must have seemed like a home from home. Not only that, the grass was particularly rich.

Joe stepped through the rusting church gates, closely followed by Ludlow, and stopped to listen. The rhythmic sound of shovelling came to him on the wind and when he looked down the slope between the headstones he saw Obadiah Strang hard at work digging a grave.

Stooped even as a youngster, Obadiah had finally reached the age that his bent back had always suggested. He looked like a man who dug holes for a living and over the years his hands had fixed themselves into the shape of the handle of his shovel. He had great difficulty picking up small objects but was thankful that his clawed fingers could comfortably hold a bottle of ale.

Obadiah continued with his task for quite some time before he noticed that he had company. He clambered out with the aid of a small ladder and stuck his shovel into the pile of earth with some force. Sweat congealed in his eyebrows and he wiped his forehead with the back of his hand, leaving a dark smear.

It was not easy to dig a six-foot-deep hole in the winter. Joe greeted him with a warm handshake. Ludlow smiled and put out his hand, albeit hesitantly. Obadiah ignored it. You pay an assistant? You pawnbrokers are all the same. You claim poverty but live otherwise. His ears filled with a soft noise, like the sea on a shingle beach, and he felt his knees tremble.

His fingertips were starting to tingle. Ludlow watched in surprise as the gruff old man seemed to soften and relax. At midnight. No one need know. I knew that some sort of arrangement had been arrived at, but its exact nature escaped me.

As we left the church grounds I suddenly had the feeling that we were being watched. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a figure observing us from behind a tree. From his dress I presumed him to be the local vicar. I nudged Joe. He had seen him too and he nodded a greeting, whereupon the reverend became very flustered, turned tail and fled into the church.

Outside the shop the pavement was empty apart from three young boys who ran away as soon as they saw Joe. He laughed as they skidded down the hill. Once inside we went through to the back and sat by the fire. After a few minutes, when Joe showed no sign of talking to me but all the signs of a man on the verge of a snooze, I asked him about my job.

For the moment just wake me if we have any customers. I went into the shop and leaned my elbows on the counter, contemplating my situation. The frog watched me for a minute or two and then turned away. Although I had always earned a living, I had never had a job before. They made their living from thievery and I had little choice but to follow in their footsteps, even before I could walk.

I was a small baby, and stayed slight. At the age of eighteen months Pa took to carrying me around in a bread basket on the top of his head. He covered me with a few stale loaves. I still remember the terrible swaying from side to side and the fright that kept me rigid. To this day I cannot travel in any moving vehicle without feeling sick. Of course, by the time he looked for the culprits we had long since disappeared into the crowd. This caper brought in a pleasing sum, wigs and hats fetched good prices, but inevitably the time came when I could no longer fit into the bread basket.

Ma suggested that I be sold to a chimney sweep.

My skinny frame more than suited the narrow, angled chimneys. By then I was beginning to understand that when my parents looked at me with their glassy eyes, they saw not a son and heir but a convenient source of income to support their gin habit.

The life of a chimney sweep was harsh and short and I was supremely grateful when Pa decided I could earn more for them if I learned to pick pockets.

Thus, with the minimum of training spurred on by his belt , I was sent out on to the streets on the understanding that I was not to return without at least six shillings a day for the tavern. I had little trouble earning this, and any extra I kept for myself. I seemed to have a natural bent for such work: Sometimes I was a little careless and my victim would feel my fingers in their pocket, but I had only to hold their gaze for a moment to convince them that it was not I who had filched their purse or wallet.

She could cuff me only if she caught me and most days I avoided her and Pa like the plague. Some kind of loyalty perhaps, a blood tie, but not love. But once their desire for gin consumed them, my life became unbearable. I should have known they were up to something. They had started smiling at me. I shivered when I recalled the desperate chase of the previous night. How strange that I was so far away from it all now. Joe was still snoring so I took the opportunity to examine the goods in the shop window.

The jewellery was bright and pretty, the hurricane lamp was polished and looked in working order. The timepieces were wound and ticking. Without a second thought I put two in my pocket, but almost immediately a sharp tap on the window made me jump.

Polly was right outside. She waved and I wondered how long she had been there watching me. I went out to see her. The snow was packed down where the crowd had been earlier and she stood carefully on its icy surface. But this was not the City and Pagus Parvus was almost silent. The frog was watching us when we went in. She really was a marvellous creature, her skin bright and glistening like a damp rock.

There was no sound from the back room so I carefully lifted the lid and reached into the tank. The frog seemed a little agitated as I tried to coax her with a bug and she retreated to the far corner. An icy blast came in from the open door before Polly slammed it shut on her way out. Do you understand? She frowned unevenly to keep it in place. I have an item to pledge.

He shivered. The fire had died down and he could see his breath. Joe put a small log on the glowing embers and lit the lamp. He placed two glasses on the mantelpiece along with a dark brown bottle and then he went to the table and laid his black book in front of the chair.

He picked up the book and examined it. It was old, but well kept, thick and just too weighty to hold in one hand. A piece of red ribbon marked the new page and a quill lay waiting in the crease. He quickly flicked through the preceding pages; they were written with a heavy hand and crackled when he touched them. Ludlow had not been told not to pry, but he had the distinct feeling that Joe would disapprove if he did.

Quietly he put the black book back down as he found it, open on the clean page. Outside the pawnshop Obadiah Strang stood on the pavement wringing his gnarled hands. He wanted to knock but he was afraid. Losing his nerve, he turned around and was about to retreat down the hill when the door opened behind him. Ludlow sat without moving, a little nervous, watching everything closely. Obadiah pushed his knuckles into the soft arm of the chair and Ludlow winced as they cracked loudly.

He took his own and sat down opposite the gravedigger. Obadiah took a tentative sip from his glass, and then another longer one. He savoured the sensation of warmth as the alcohol ran down the back of his throat. Feeling his knotted shoulders relaxing, he leaned back into the chair. A secret that is such a burden it threatens to engulf you. It keeps you awake at night and gnaws at your guts every day.

A small tear squeezed from the corner of one and ran down the lines that scored his cheek. His head felt as if it was slowly sinking underwater. But why? And if you sell it, then it is no longer a secret. If you wish to reclaim your secret, you pay what you took plus a little extra.

If not, I will keep the secret for you for as long as you want, a lifetime if that is your wish. In fact, if you never reclaim it, I will hold it until you are in the grave and beyond, and then I doubt you would care so much. I am anxious to set a mind at ease.

With a shaking hand he raised the quill and dipped it in the ink. He held the quill poised over the pristine page. Joe shook his head solemnly. God knows, no one else can. It haunts my every waking hour, and at night when I finally manage to sleep it takes over my dreams.

I might only be a humble gravedigger but I am proud of it. I have never cheated anyone: I have always led a simple life. I need very little and I ask for nothing. I was a contented man until some months ago when I fell foul of my landlord, Jeremiah Ratchet.

It had been a difficult week, short on gravedigging and even shorter on tips. No doubt you already know of Jeremiah Ratchet. He is a hated man in these parts and I feared what he would do to me. But he surprised me and suggested that I pay double the next week.

Like a fool I accepted his offer. But when rent day came again he claimed that I owed him eighteen shillings not twelve. I paid what I could and tried to reason with him but Jeremiah Ratchet must have a hole where his heart should be.

After four weeks I owed so much I could never hope to pay. That was his intention all along. I will provide the tools. He stood on the path and called back to me. You know where I am if you change your mind. By the time the sun rose I knew that I had no choice. I sent for Ratchet and he came to the cottage to explain what I had to do. He handed me my only tool: That night, some time after one, I went to the churchyard with a heavy heart.

How I hated myself for what I was about to do. I knew the grave in q uestion. And now here I was digging it up again. With every spadeful of dirt I thought of that scoundrel Ratchet. His wealth was made off the backs of the poor. He must have half the village in his debt. It was raining now and the moon hid herself behind the clouds, ashamed to witness what I was doing. The wind whipped around my head.

Water streamed off my hat. The cold froze my hands. The dark clay was sticky with water. It took a supreme effort to raise the shovel; it released only with a loud sucking noise as if the earth herself had come alive and was trying to pull it, and me with it, into the bowels of hell below.

As the earth piled up on the side my sweat mingled with the driving rain. At last I hit wood. I dropped to my knees and scraped the coffin clean with my hands. The lid was held down by a single nail at each corner. I forced the edge of the spade underneath and began to lever it up. The wood splintered and cracked and split.

In its fiery light I gazed down on the poor soul within. Rich or poor, like us all he ended up in the dirt. He was young though, and his handsome face was unmarked by the accident that had killed him — he had fallen under the wheels of a cart. His pale hands were laid across his chest and his ashen face was peaceful. His earthly worries were over. Mine had just begun. I hesitated only a second, then took the poor chap by the shoulders and dragged him out of the coffin and up on to the side of the grave.

I looked up at the heavens and I swore that this was the first and last time I would do this. I thought that, the soul gone, a body would be lighter, relieved of the burden of life, but I felt as if I were lifting a dead horse.

I dragged him across the grass between the headstones to the church gates, where Jeremiah had said there would be someone waiting. I saw them. Two men dressed in black, their faces and heads hidden beneath hoods. Without a word they took the body and threw it on to the back of their cart between barrels of ale. They covered it with straw and then took off. I worked like a man possessed, shovelling with the energy of a demon, and when it was finally done I went home.

I woke the next day convinced I had dreamed it all, but there by the fireplace was the wooden shovel. I could hardly bear to look upon myself in the mirror. Whatever my reason for doing it, I was still no better than a common bodysnatcher. Doubtless the corpse was now far away, likely as not in the City, under the knife of a surgeon in the anatomy school and all in the interest of science. They paid good money for bodies, and Jeremiah was lining his pockets with it, but never had I thought I would be involved in such a grisly, sinful business.

Jeremiah came knocking that night. What are you talking about? Now you want more? Belonged to his father. Strange custom, to bury what could be sold for cash. Ratchet wanted me to be a thief for him as well as a bodysnatcher. Next time you will have to be more careful. That was over six months ago and Jeremiah has called on me again and again to do his dirty work.

All I know is if I am caught, Jeremiah will not be the one to suffer. That man enjoys the fruits of my wickedness and I can do nothing about it. I lie awake until the small hours, tortured by my actions. I am betraying the trust of the villagers, a trust I have built up all my life. If they knew they would string me up as soon as they got hold of me. Jeremiah Ratchet. How I detest that man.

Ludlow hesitated at that last sentence, but he had been instructed to write everything he heard so he did. He stole a look at Obadiah, who was as ashenfaced as the very corpses he unearthed. Then he put down his quill, laid a sheet of blotting paper between the pages and closed the book. Obadiah sat back in the chair, exhausted, and covered his face with his hands. There is a natural justice in this world.

Perhaps it is not as swift as we should like, but believe me, Jeremiah Ratchet will feel its force. Now, go home and you will sleep, and you will not dream. Joe merely blinked once slowly. Be patient. It was after two when Obadiah left and Joe stood at the door and watched him go down the hill and into his cottage. He waited until the lights were extinguished and the place was in complete darkness before coming back in and locking up. I stayed at the table staring blankly at the closed book, my mind spinning at what I had just heard.

Now I understood. It was difficult to believe that Joe had allowed me to touch such a book, let alone write in it. How I desired to throw it open and read it from cover to cover!

What other tales of desperation and despair would I find in there? I could hear Joe moving around in the shop and talking to the frog.

Quickly I opened the book, flicking from page to page, and I read the opening lines of one confession after another: I snapped the book shut and jumped awkwardly to my feet, knocking over the chair. I watched nervously as he examined what I had written.

I was not used to praise. To cover my embarrassment I pointed to the golden words on the cover. People believe what they read, whatever the truth of it. They have confided in me, confessing their deepest secrets, and it is my duty to protect them. Wherever I go, there is a criminal element, loyal to no one, who would pay well for this and use it for financial gain or worse.

But these confessions have been trusted to us, Ludlow, and we must not speak of them outside this room. But just then my hand felt something cold in my pocket and my heart skipped a beat.

The timepieces. I still had them. He must not have noticed they had gone. I resolved to return them as soon as possible. I nodded solemnly. But I also know what it is to be human. Temptation is a curse to all men. I knew a fellow once who only made decisions on the toss of a coin.

Should he get up or stay in bed? He tossed a coin. Should he eat or should he not? He lived thus for nearly two years until he was struck down by illness. So he tossed a coin to decide whether or not to send for the physician and the coin said yes. His diagnosis was somewhat awry and the medicine he gave was rather too strong so the poor chap died the next day. Now, where were we? First, we always start on a clean page.

I make it a rule to go forwards, never to go back. He knew I had looked in the book. Was this some sort of test? Was he tempting me to steal it? As I continued to stare he asked me a curious question. Such as those who are not born in the City.

Most born there die there. But you have managed to leave. Maybe it was Destiny herself brought you here to me. More like my own two feet! As such you control your own fate.

Only one thing is certain: Although it was unexpected I took it. We went to bed soon after that. Then I settled down again, wrapped up in the cloak. Sleep evaded me, for my mind was restless. I turned over and thought of Obadiah and Jeremiah Ratchet. Poor Obadiah, he was right to be disgusted at himself; grave robbers and bodysnatchers were considered below contempt. What a cruel irony, for a gravedigger to have to unbury the dead. As I pitied the gravedigger, my contempt grew for Ratchet.

He might have brought me to the village, but that was more by luck than design. An hour passed and still I was awake. My mind was thick with confusion. I knew that had Ma and Pa been here they would not have thought twice about hitting Joe over the head and taking the Black Book of Secrets. As for the bottle on the mantel, that would have been downed long ago. They would have expected no less of me.

My instincts — to lie, to steal, to cheat — were bred into me practically from birth. But here, in Pagus Parvus with Joe, they seemed wrong. I lay in an agony of indecision. How could I be expected not to do what had come naturally to me my whole life?

Carefully I eased the book out from under his mattress and tucked it in the crook of my arm.

FREDERICA from Virginia
Browse my other posts. I have always been a very creative person and find it relaxing to indulge in shidōkan karate. I do like reading books judgmentally.