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Eleven-year-old Jon Whitcroft never expected to enjoy boarding school. Then again, he never expected to be confronted by a pack of vengeful ghosts, either. And then he meets Ella, a quirky new friend with a taste for adventure…
Together, Jon and Ella must work to uncover the secrets of a centuries-old murder while being haunted by terrifying spirits, their bloodless faces set on revenge. So when Jon summons the ghost of the late knight Longspee for his protection, there’s just one question: Can Longspee truly be trusted?
Table of Contents
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I was eleven when my mother sent me to boarding school in Salisbury. Yes, granted, she did have tears in her eyes as she brought me to the station. But she still put me on that train.
"Your father would have been so happy about you going to his old school!" she said, forcing a smile onto her lips. And The Beard gave me such an encouraging slap on the shoulder that I nearly shoved him onto the rails for it.
The Beard. The first time my mother brought him home, my sisters immediately crawled onto his lap. I, however, declared war on him as soon as he put his arm around Mum's shoulder. My father had died when I was four, and of course I missed him, even if I barely remembered him. But that definitely did not mean I wanted a new father, especially not one in the shape of an unshaven dentist. I was the man around the house, uncontested hero to my sisters and apple of my mother's eye. Suddenly she no longer watched television with me in the evenings but instead went out with The Beard. Our dog, who would chase anyone off our grounds, put squeaky toys in front of The Beard's feet, and my sisters drew oversize hearts for him. "But he's so nice, Jon!" I heard over and over. Nice. And what exactly was so nice about him? That he convinced my mother everything I liked to eat was bad for me? Or that he told her I watched too much TV?
I tried every trick in the book to get rid of him. At least a dozen times I disappeared the house keys Mum had given him. I poured Coke over his dentistry magazines (yes, there are magazines for dentists). I mixed itching powder in his beloved mouthwash. All useless. In the end it wasn't him but me whom Mum put on the train. Never underestimate your enemies! Longspee would teach me that later. But I hadn't met him yet.
My banishment had probably been decided after I convinced my youngest sister to pour her oatmeal into his shoes. Or maybe it was the WANTED TERRORIST poster into which I'd Photoshopped his picture. Whatever it was, I'd bet my game console that the boarding school was The Beard's idea, even though my mother denies it to this day.
Of course Mum offered to deliver me personally to my new school and to stay for a few days in Salisbury "until you find your feet." But I refused. I was positive she just wanted to soothe her guilty conscience because she was planning to go on to Spain with The Beard while I, on my own, would have to deal with totally new teachers, bad boarding-school food, and new classmates, most of whom were probably going to be stronger and way smarter than me. I'd never spent more than a weekend away from my family. I didn't like sleeping in strange beds, and I definitely didn't want to go to school in a town that was more than a thousand years old—and even proud of it. My eight-year-old sister would have loved to swap with me. She'd been reading Harry Potter, and she was desperate to go to a boarding school. I, however, had nightmares of children in hideous uniforms, sitting in dingy halls in front of bowls filled with watery porridge, watched by teachers with yardsticks.
I didn't speak a word all the way to the station. I didn't even give my mother a kiss good-bye after she had hoisted my suitcase onto the train. I was too afraid I'd collapse into a sobbing, childish mess in front of The Beard. I spent the entire train ride cutting and gluing ransom notes from old newspapers, threatening The Beard with all manner of terrible, painful deaths if he didn't leave my mother immediately. The old man sitting next to me kept looking over with increasing alarm, but in the end I threw the letters away in the train's lavatory. I told myself that my mother would probably figure out who'd composed those letters and that she would just end up preferring The Beard over me even more.
I know. I was in a pathetic state. The train ride lasted for one hour and nine minutes. That's now more than eight years ago, and I still remember it perfectly. Bristol—Bath—Westbury. The train stations all looked the same, and with every passing mile I felt more banished. After half an hour I had devoured all the chocolate bars Mum had packed for me (nine, as I remember—she'd felt really guilty!). Every time I looked out the window and everything started looking blurry, I told myself it wasn't tears but the rain running down the windowpane that distorted my vision.
As I said, pathetic.
While I was dragging my suitcase out of the train in Salisbury, I felt terribly young and at the same time aged by a hundred years. Banished. Homeless. Mother-, dog-, and sisterless. A curse on The Beard! I dropped the suitcase on my foot, sending a prayer to hell, begging for some contagious disease that affected only dentists vacationing in Spain.
Anger felt much better than self-pity. Also, it was useful armor against all the curious looks.
In contrast to The Beard, the man who was taking the suitcase out of my hand and shaking my chocolate-covered fingers didn't have even the shadow of a beard. Edward Popplewell's round face was as hairless as mine (and caused him much distress, as I was soon to find out). His wife's upper lip, however, was sprouting a dark mustache. Alma Popplewell's voice was also deeper than her husband's.
"Welcome to Salisbury, Jon!" she said, suppressing a little shudder as she pressed a handkerchief into my sticky fingers. "You can call me Alma, and this is Edward. We are the house wardens. Your mother told you we'd be picking you up, didn't she?"
She smelled so intensely of lavender soap that I nearly gagged—or maybe it was the chocolate bars. Wardens… great! I wanted my old life back: my dog, my mother, my sisters (though I could have done without them), and my friends at my old school… no Beard, no beardless warden, and no lavender-soapy housemother.
The Popplewells were, of course, used to homesick newbies. As we left the station, Edward the Beardless placed his hand firmly on my shoulder, as if wanting to squash any thoughts of escape. The Popplewells didn't drive. (There were some nasty rumors that this was due to Edward's great love of whiskey and his firm belief that its regular consumption might yet sprout some stubble on his baby-smooth cheeks.) Whatever the reason, we went on foot, and Edward began to tell me as many facts about Salisbury as could be crammed into a thirty-minute walk. Alma interrupted her husband only when he mentioned dates, for those he confused quite often. But she might as well not have bothered. I wasn't really listening anyway.
Salisbury. Founded in the damp mists of prehistory. Fifty thousand inhabitants and more than three million tourists who come every year to stare at its cathedral. The town welcomed me with pouring rain. The cathedral stuck its tower out from among the wet roofs of the city like a warning finger. Hear ye, Jon Whitcroft and all sons of his world. Thou art fools for believing your mothers love you more than anyone else.
I looked neither left nor right as we walked down a street that had already been there when the Black Death had last come through town. Somewhere along the way Edward Popplewell bought me an ice cream ("Ice cream tastes nice even in the rain, am I right, Jon?"), but in my world-weariness I didn't even manage to squeeze out a "thank you." Instead, I imagined spreading chocolate stains over his pale gray tie.
It was late September, and despite the rain the streets were packed with tourists. The restaurants were all offering fish-and-chips specials, and the window of a chocolate shop actually did look quite alluring, but the Popplewells steered straight toward the gate in the old city wall, which is flanked by little shops, all offering cathedrals, knights, and water-spitting demons cast in silvery plastic. It was the vista beyond the gate that had all the strangers with their garish backpacks and packed lunches filing down Main Street. I didn't even lift my head as the Cathedral Close opened up in front of me. I didn't give a glance to the cathedral and its rain-darkened tower, nor to the old houses that surround it like a clutch of well-dressed servants. All I saw was The Beard, sitting on our couch in front of our television, my mother to his right, my sisters to his left, fighting over who got to climb into his lap first, and Larry, the treacherous dog, rolled up by his feet. While the Popplewells were exchanging words above my head, arguing over the exact year in which the cathedral had been completed, I saw my deserted room and my deserted chair in my old classroom. Not that I'd ever particularly enjoyed sitting on it, but suddenly the thought of it nearly brought me to tears—which I quickly wiped away with Alma's lavender-reeking (and now chocolate-brown) handkerchief.
Most of the memories of the day of my arrival are shrouded in thick mists of homesickness. Though if I try really hard, I can make out some blurry images: the gate of the old boardinghouse ("Built in 1565, Jon!" "Nonsense, Edward, 1685!"), narrow corridors, rooms that smelled of alienness, strange voices, strange faces, food that was so tainted with homesickness that I barely managed to keep even a few bites down….
The Popplewells put me in a three-bed room.
"Jon, these are Angus Mulroney and Stuart Crenshaw," Alma announced as she pushed me into the room. "You'll soon be best friends, I'm sure."
Really? And what if not? I thought as I eyed the posters my new roommates had plastered all over the walls. Of course, there was one of that band I particularly hated. At home I'd had my own room, with a sign on the door: STRICTLY NO ADMISSION TO STRANGERS AND FAMILY MEMBERS. There, nobody had snored next to me or underneath me; there had been no sweaty socks on the carpet (except my own), no music I didn't like, no posters of bands and football teams I despised. At that point my hatred for The Beard reached a level that would have been a credit even to Hamlet. (Not that I knew anything about Hamlet back then.)
Stu and Angus tried their best to cheer me up, but I was too despondent to even remember their names at first. I didn't take any of the gummy bears they offered me from their top secret (and highly illicit) stash of sweets. When my mother called that evening, I left her in little doubt that she had sacrificed the happiness of her only son for that of a bearded stranger, and when I hung up, it was with the grim knowledge that she was going to be spending as sleepless a night as I.
Boarding school. Lights out at eight thirty. Luckily, I'd thought to pack my flashlight. I spent hours drawing gravestones with The Beard's name on them, all the time cursing the hard mattress and the stupidly flat pillow.
Yes, my first night in Salisbury was pretty grim. The reasons for my deep sadness were, of course, pathetic compared to what was yet to come. But how could I have known that homesickness and The Beard would soon be the least of my problems? Since that time I have often asked myself whether there is such a thing as fate, and if there is, whether there's a way to avoid it. Would I have ended up in Salisbury even if my mother hadn't fallen in love again? Or would I never have met Longspee, Stourton, and Ella if it hadn't been for The Beard? Maybe.
THREE DEAD MEN
The next day I got to see my new school. It was only a quick walk from the boardinghouse across the Cathedral Close, and this time I at least gave the cathedral a sleepy glance as Alma Popplewell led me past it. The street behind it is lined with oak trees, and it resounded with the screams of terrifyingly awake first graders. Alma put a protective arm around my shoulder, which was quite embarrassing, especially when a group of girls walked past us.
The school grounds are at the end of the street, behind a wrought-iron gate that could easily tear your trousers when you climbed over it. On that morning, however, it was wide open. The crest on the gate shows just one disappointing white lily on blue ground. No dragons, or unicorns, or lions, like on the crest above the gate to the city.
"Well, this is, after all, also the royal crest of the Stuarts, Mr. Whitcroft!" Mr. Rifkin, my new history teacher observed drily after I complained about it a few days later. He then launched into a torturous hour of explaining how exciting heraldic animals would be entirely inappropriate for a cathedral school.
While my old school had resembled a concrete box, the new one was a palace. "Erected in 1225, as the bishop's official residence," Alma explained in a raised voice as she navigated us through a throng of noisy and disconcertingly large boys.
I was sick with fear, and I got very little comfort from picturing how I would hang The Beard from one of the huge trees that stand on the school's lawn.
Alma continued her lecture while we crunched across the gravel toward the entrance. "The main building was erected in 1225. In the fifteenth century, Bishop Beauchamp had the east tower added. The facade is…" And so on and so forth. She even recited the names of countless bishops who had resided there. One of my new schoolmates later let me in on the secret that pelting the foreheads of the episcopal portraits that line the staircase is supposed to bring good luck on tests. It never worked for me, though. Anyway… of all the information Alma crammed into my weary head on that first morning, the only fact I recall is that behind one of the many windows James II got a nosebleed—so bad that he stayed in bed for days instead of facing William of Orange on the battlefield.
I didn't learn much else on that first school day. I was far too busy trying to remember names and faces and not to get lost in the labyrinth of corridors and staircases. I had to face the facts that my schoolmates did not look starved and that I wouldn't find any of those dark halls I'd seen in my nightmares. Even the teachers were bearable. However, none of that changed that I'd been banished, and so I returned to Angus and Stu in the evening with the same gloomy face I'd put on that morning in front of the bathroom mirror. I was the Count of Monte Cristo, who would one day return from the terrible prison island to take revenge on all those who had sent him there. I was Napoléon, banished to die a lonely death on Saint Helena. I was Harry, locked up under the Dursleys' staircase.
The house in which I spent the dark nights of my banishment could not claim any stories about royal nosebleeds, even though it was also quite old. Its interior, however, had long been taken over by the twenty-first century: linoleum floors, bunk beds, washrooms, and a television room on the ground floor. The girls had the first floor; the boys lived on the second.
In our room, Angus was the uncontested inhabitant of the single bed. Angus was taller than I by at least a head; he was three-quarters Scottish (and never talked about the other quarter) and quite a good rugby player. And he was one of the Chosen, as we less fortunate ones called the choristers. They wore robes that were nearly as old as the Bishop's Palace, they got excused from class to attend rehearsals, and they sang not only in the cathedral but also in such exotic places as Moscow and New York. (I was not surprised when I wasn't picked at the auditions, but Mum was crushed. After all, my father had been a chorister.)
The wall over Angus's bed sported photographs of his dog, his two canaries, and his tame turtle, but none of the human members of his family. When Stu and I finally got to meet them, we quickly realized that they actually didn't look half as nice as the dog and the canaries, though Angus's grandfather did bear some resemblance to the turtle. Angus slept under a mountain of fluffy toys, and he wore pajamas with dogs printed on them. I quickly found out that both of those facts were best left unmentioned, unless you were keen to learn firsthand what a "Scottish Hug" felt like.
Stu occupied the top bunk, leaving me the bottom one, with his mattress looming above. During the first nights the creaks and groans of Stu turning above kept yanking me out of my sleep. Stu was only marginally taller than a squirrel, and he had so many freckles that all of them barely fit on his face. And Stu was such a windbag that I quickly learned to appreciate the moments when Angus would just hold Stu's mouth shut. Stu's passions included neither stuffed toys nor doggy-print pajamas. He loved covering his scrawny body with fake tattoos, which he painted with permanent markers on every accessible bit of skin—although Alma Popplewell would mercilessly scrub them off at least twice every week.
The two of them did their level best to try to cheer me up, but making new friends just didn't fit with my status of being banished and miserable. Luckily, neither Angus nor Stu took my gloomy silence personally. Angus himself still suffered bouts of homesickness, even though he was already in his second year of boarding there. And Stu was far too preoccupied with falling in love with every halfway-acceptable female at the school.
It was on my sixth night that I realized homesickness was going to be the least of my worries. Angus was humming in his sleep, some tune he was practicing for the choir. I lay awake, wondering once again who would be the first to give in: my mother, because she'd finally realize that her only son was far more important than a bearded dentist, or me, because I'd get tired of my leaden heart and beg her to let me come home.
I was just about to pull the pillow over my head to block out Angus's sleepy singsong, when I heard horses snorting. I remember wondering, as I tiptoed toward the window, whether Edward Popplewell had taken to traveling to the pub on horseback. Angus's humming, our clothes all over the floor, the cheesy nightlight Stu had put on the desk—none of those things could possibly have prepared me for seeing something scary in the soggy night outside.
But there they were.
Three riders. Very pale. As if the night air had gone moldy. And they were staring up at me.
Everything about them was drained of color: capes, boots, gloves, belts—and the swords hanging from their sides. They looked like men who'd had their blood sucked out by the night. The tallest one's straggly hair hung down to his shoulders, and I could see the bricks of the garden wall through his body. The one next to him had a hamster face and, just like the third ghost, was so see-through that the tree behind him seemed to grow right through his chest. Their necks were marked with dark bruises, as if someone had tried to slice their heads off with a very blunt knife. But the most horrible thing about them was their eyes: burned-out holes filled with bloodlust. To this day those eyes scorch holes into my heart.
Their horses were as pale as the riders. Ashen fur hung from the animals' skeletal bodies like tattered rags.
I wanted to cover my eyes so I wouldn't have to see the bloodless faces anymore, but I was so scared that I couldn't even lift my arms.
"Hey, Jon, what are you staring at out there?"
I hadn't even heard Stu climb out of his bunk.
The tallest ghost pointed a bony finger at me, and his shriveled lips mouthed a silent threat. I stumbled back, and Stu pushed in next to me and pressed his nose against the windowpane.
"Nothing!" he observed disappointedly. "I can't see anything."
"Leave him alone, Stu!" Angus muttered sleepily. "He's probably sleepwalking. Sleepwalkers go bonkers when you talk to them."
"Sleepwalking? Are you blind?" In my panic I talked so loudly that Stu shot a worried glance toward the door. Luckily, the Popplewells were sound sleepers.
The ghost with the hamster face grinned at me. His mouth was a gaping slit in his pale face. Then he drew his sword, slowly, very slowly. Blood started dripping from the blade, and I felt a pain in my chest so sharp it made me gasp for breath. I fell to my knees and crouched, shivering, under the windowsill.
I can still feel that fear. And I always will.
"Jon! Go back to sleep!" Stu shuffled back toward the bed. "There's nothing out there, 'cept for a bunch of rubbish bins."
He really couldn't see them.
I plucked up all my courage and peered over the windowsill.
The night was dark—and empty. The pain in my chest had gone, and I felt like an idiot.
Great, Jon, I thought as I crawled back under the scratchy blankets. Now you're officially going crazy. Maybe it was all a hallucination because I'd barely eaten anything except Stu's gummy bears.
Angus started humming again. I got up a few more times and crept back to the window, but all I saw out there was the deserted street in front of the floodlit cathedral. Finally I managed to fall asleep, having made myself a solemn promise to try to force down at least some of the school's food from then on.
The next morning I was so tired that I barely managed to tie my shoes. Angus and Stu exchanged a worried look as I went to the window to stare down at the wall where I had seen the ghosts. Yet none of us said a word about what had happened during the night. At breakfast I ate as much oatmeal as I could without throwing up, and then I decided to forget about the whole thing.
By lunchtime I was already back to thinking about The Beard roasting in the Spanish sun with my mum, and by the afternoon a grammar test had made me forget the three pale figures completely.
It was just beginning to get dark when Mr. Rifkin, as he did every evening, gathered the boarders in front of the school to guide us across the sparsely lit Cathedral Close and back into the care of Alma and Edward Popplewell. None of us liked Rifkin. I believe he didn't even really like himself. He wasn't much taller than any of us, and he would always eye us with a sour face, as if we were causing him a permanent toothache. The only thing that made Mr. Rifkin happy was old wars. He'd enthusiastically grind through at least a dozen sticks of chalk as he sketched on the blackboard the deployment of troops in some famous military encounter or the other. That, as well as his vain attempts to comb his sparse hair over his bald skull, had earned him the nickname Bonapart. (Yes, I know there's an e missing—French spelling was not our thing.)
- On Sale
- May 1, 2012
- Page Count
- 352 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers