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A very peculiar plague, p.1
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       A Very Peculiar Plague, p.1

           Catherine Jinks
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A Very Peculiar Plague



  The City of Orphans series

  A Very Unusual Pursuit

  A Very Singular Guild

  The Paradise Trap

  The Abused Werewolf Rescue Group

  The Reformed Vampire Support Group

  The Genius Wars

  Genius Squad

  Evil Genius

  Living Hell

  The Pagan Chronicles

  Pagan’s Crusade

  Pagan in Exile

  Pagan’s Vows

  Pagan’s Scribe

  Pagan’s Daughter


  First published in 2013

  Copyright © Catherine Jinks 2013

  All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the publisher. The Australian Copyright Act 1968 (the Act) allows a maximum of one chapter or ten per cent of this book, whichever is the greater, to be photocopied by any educational institution for its educational purposes provided that the educational institution (or body that administers it) has given a remuneration notice to Copyright Agency Limited (CAL) under the Act.

  Allen & Unwin

  83 Alexander Street

  Crows Nest NSW 2065


  Phone: (61 2) 8425 0100

  Email: [email protected]


  A Cataloguing-in-Publication entry is available from the

  National Library of Australia

  ISBN 978 1 74331 305 3

  eISBN 978 1 74343 136 8

  Cover and text design by Design by Committee

  Set in Stempel Garamond 11/17 pt

  To Erica Wagner





































  The man stationed at the door was small and stout. He had a red face, blue eyes and wispy grey curls. His satin-breasted coat was trimmed with silver lace. His top hat was the colour of mulberries.

  ‘Walk in! Walk in! Now exhibiting!’ he boomed. ‘The best show in London, ladies and gentlemen! A Menagerie of Mythical Beasts! Living, breathing monsters for only one penny!’

  The narrow shopfront behind him was plastered with brightly coloured advertisements. One of them showed a picture of a very young girl cracking a whip at something that looked like a giant toad.

  ‘See our griffin! See our mermaid! See our erlking!’ cried the man in the purple hat, tapping at the picture with his bamboo cane. ‘See Birdie McAdam, the Go-Devil girl, tame a fierce bogle and a dainty unicorn!’

  Across the road, Jem stopped short. He stood goggle-eyed as the crowds surged past him. In one hand he carried a cheap broom. On his feet he wore nothing but a thick layer of mud.

  For a moment he stared at the man in the purple hat. Then he darted forward, dodging a pile of horse manure and the rattling wheels of a carriage.

  ‘See the world’s greatest novelties, ladies and gentlemen! Marvel at the legendary two-headed snake of Libya! Touch a genuine dragon’s egg for only one penny!’ The red-faced showman raised his voice a little, drowning the chant of a nearby coster selling nuts and whelks. ‘Now exhibiting! Satisfaction guaranteed! The World’s Greatest Wonders, here in Whitechapel Road!’

  He was perched high on a wooden box, with a good view of all the bobbing umbrellas that filled the street. But he didn’t see Jem until the boy tugged at his coat.

  ‘Sir? Hi! Sir?’

  Glancing down, the man saw only a filthy little crossing-sweeper in a ragged blue shirt and striped canvas trousers, torn off at the knee. A cap like a cowpat cast the boy’s gleaming brown eyes into shadow. It also concealed most of his thick, black, glossy hair – which was his best feature, though it made his head look too big for his body.

  ‘Hook it,’ the man growled. ‘Go on.’

  ‘Please, sir, I’m a friend o’ Birdie McAdam. Will you let me in? She’ll want to say hello.’

  ‘Get out of it, I said!’

  Jem flushed. ‘I ain’t gammoning you, sir! Jem Barbary’s the name. Why, Birdie and me – we used to knock around Bethnal Green together when she were just a bogler’s girl. Ask her if we didn’t!’

  The only reply was a quick swipe with the bamboo cane, which left a red welt on Jem’s knuckles. He jumped back, grimacing. Then he retreated a few steps to take stock of the exhibition venue. It was a small, two-storeyed building wedged tightly between a pastry shop and a public house. Over the door was a faded sign, but Jem couldn’t read it. Nor could he see any side-alleys piercing the impenetrable wall of shop-fronts breasting the street.

  But the public house was on a corner, and would probably have a rear yard of some kind. Jem’s gaze moved up a drainpipe, along a brick ledge and across a roof that bristled with chimneys. He’d burgled many a house in the past, and this one was no strong-box. He thought that he could probably find another way in – without paying a penny for the privilege.

  ‘Begging your pardon, lad, but is it true?’ a soft voice suddenly asked. ‘Do you really know Birdie McAdam?’

  Startled, Jem spun around. He found himself staring up at a pretty young woman in a velveteen mantle. She had rosy cheeks, grey eyes, and lots of rich brown hair piled up under a hat that was barely big enough to support all the feathers, flowers, veils and ribbons sewn onto it.

  She was sheltering from the rain under a pink silk parasol.

  ‘What’s it to you?’ he said, wondering why a decent-looking female would approach him in the street like a common beggar. The young woman glanced around nervously before leaning down to address him.

  ‘I’m Mabel Lillimere,’ she murmured. ‘I’m a barmaid at the Viaduct Tavern, on the corner o’ Newgate Street. If you are a friend o’ Birdie’s, and can persuade her to talk to me, I’ll stump up your fee so as you and I both can get in.’ Eyeing his grubby face with a touch of suspicion, she added fiercely, ‘But if you’re lying – why, I’ll box your ears so hard you’ll have your left ear on the right side o’ your head, and your right ear on the left!’

  This threat didn’t worry Jem. He’d suffered worse. ‘Why not talk to her yerself?’ he wanted to know.

  ‘Because she’ll not see me! Or so he says.’ Mabel gestured at the man in the purple topper, who was now reminding all the damp pedestrians scurrying past him that Birdie McAdam was ‘well known to the public’ owing to ‘newspaper reports of her bogle-baiting prowes
s’. ‘Mr Lubbock, he calls himself,’ Mabel continued. ‘Claims he’s in charge. Says Birdie’s not inclined to speak to the public. Says she’s too shy, and needs to rest her voice.’

  Jem snorted. ‘Well, that’s a flam,’ he declared. ‘Birdie’s as forward as they come. Did you offer him extra?’


  ‘Then he’s a-humming you.’ His suspicions confirmed, Jem scowled at Mr Lubbock. ‘I’ll wager Birdie ain’t here. Last time I saw her, she were living with a fine lady near Great Russell Street, eating plum cakes every day and wearing lace on her petticoats. Why would she want to come back to the east and work in a penny gaff like this ’un, when there’s fine folk as think she’s too good for the life?’

  Mabel’s face fell. Her troubled gaze slid towards Mr Lubbock. ‘You think that there feller is lying, then?’

  ‘Why not?’ Jem shrugged. ‘He’s a slang cove. Lying’s what they do best.’ Studying the barmaid with frank curiosity, he added, ‘Why d’you want to speak to Birdie? You can’t be kin – she ain’t got a soul to call her own.’

  Mabel hesitated. At last she said, ‘I read about Birdie in the newspapers last summer, and never thought of her again till I passed this here gaff. Then I saw her name and recollected how she killed them monsters that you find in privies and coalholes and chimneys and such.’ Seeing Jem shake his head, Mabel frowned. ‘Didn’t she?’

  ‘Birdie helped kill ’em,’ Jem corrected. ‘She were bait for the bogles. Alfred Bunce did all the killing.’

  ‘Alfred Bunce?’

  ‘The bogler. Didn’t you read about him too? He were in the papers, same as Birdie.’

  Mabel bit her lip. ‘I daresay,’ she mumbled. ‘But the little girl is what stuck in my head. There was a picture, as I recall. Such a pretty thing, with all them golden curls . . .’

  ‘And Mr Bunce ain’t pretty, which is why there wasn’t no pictures of him.’ By now Jem was feeling confident. He knew that he was onto something, so he fixed the barmaid with a shrewd and penetrating look. ‘You got a bogle problem, Miss?’

  The barmaid sighed. ‘I think so.’


  ‘On account o’ poor Florry.’ Edging further beneath the jutting first-floor window of the pastry shop, Mabel suddenly blurted out, ‘Florry used to be our scullery maid. She went down into the cellar last month, and never did come out. And not a trace of her was left, though Mr Watkins and me looked high and low—’

  ‘Who’s Mr Watkins?’ Jem interrupted.

  ‘The landlord. He keeps the place. And would never have took it on, had he known.’

  ‘Known what?’

  ‘About the beer cellar.’ Mabel shuddered, as if someone had walked over her grave. ‘The tavern’s fresh-built, but the cellar’s old. There used to be a prison on that very spot, for debtors and the like, and our cellar was where they put ’em. I never go down, if I can help it. Not without Mr Watkins. Even before Florry vanished, I misliked the air. It felt . . .’ She paused for a moment, frowning. ‘It felt bad,’ she said at last. ‘Unwholesome. As if someone had died there.’

  Jem thought back to the previous summer. He thought about Alfred and Birdie. He thought about the two bogles that still haunted his dreams: the one he’d glimpsed at a gentleman’s house near Regent’s Park, and the one he’d helped to kill some four months later, in a cutting on the London and North Western Railway.

  ‘How old was Florry?’ he inquired.

  ‘That I can’t tell you. Twelve, perhaps? But she was very small.’

  ‘Then it could have bin a bogle as took her.’ Jem tried to inject a note of authority into his voice. ‘You should talk to Alfred Bunce. Mr Bunce will know what to do. He’s a Go-Devil man. He kills bogles with the same spear Finn McCool used to kill fire-breathing dragons, in times past.’

  ‘But how can I talk to Mr Bunce if I don’t know where he is?’ Mabel objected. Then she narrowed her eyes at Jem, who grinned when he saw her sceptical, measuring look. ‘I suppose you do,’ she said wryly. ‘Is that your lurk? Are you touting for this cove?’

  ‘I’ll take you straight to him for tuppence ha’penny,’ Jem offered. And as she rolled her eyes in disgust, he argued his case. ‘Mr Bunce don’t care to go bogling no more. He changed lodgings a while back, on account of it. Where he is now, there’s no one knows what he used to do, and no one to plague him as a consequence. But he’ll listen to you, I’ll be bound.’

  ‘Why?’ asked Mabel. ‘Why am I so different?’

  ‘You ain’t,’ said Jem. ‘You got a kid gone, same as all the others. That’s why he’ll listen.’ Seeing her confusion, he tried to explain. ‘Bogles eat children. Mr Bunce don’t like that. He don’t like using kids as bait, neither, which is why he stopped bogling. There’s a boy lodging with him now – a mudlark called Ned – who’d be a deal happier bogling than scavenging on the riverbank. Mr Bunce won’t oblige him, though. Thinks bogling’s too dangerous.’ Jem paused, then took a deep breath. ‘But what if someone should come along, a-weeping and a-wailing, asking for help?’ he concluded. ‘Mr Bunce ain’t got it in him to turn ’em down. That’s why he changed his lodgings.’

  Mabel nodded slowly. She seemed to understand. ‘Where does he live now?’

  ‘Near enough,’ Jem replied, ‘if we take a ’bus there.’

  Mabel’s lip curled. She raised one finely plucked eyebrow. ‘Oh-ho!’ she exclaimed. ‘So it’s the omnibus fare you’re after now, is it?’

  Again Jem shrugged. ‘Unless you want to walk to the Strand,’ he said.

  ‘Mr Bunce lives near the Strand?’

  ‘Off Drury Lane. But that’s all I’ll tell you.’ Gazing up at Mabel from beneath his cap, Jem held out one dirty palm. ‘Tuppence ha’penny,’ he repeated. ‘You’ll be needing me there to soften him up, like.’

  Mabel sniffed. Then she grunted. Then she glanced up at the sky, which was low and grey and as wet as a sponge.

  ‘We’ll take a ’bus,’ she remarked, before turning to Jem with a crooked smile. ‘By the by, how old are you?’


  ‘And already you’re bargaining like a Billingsgate fishmonger!’ There was a touch of admiration in Mabel’s tone. ‘I’ll give you a ha’penny up front,’ she said. ‘The rest you’ll get when we reach his crib.’


  ‘And if this here is a caper, my lad, I’ll give you such a hiding – never mind what I tell the police when I’m done!’

  She scowled at Jem, who beamed back.

  But then something else occurred to him, and his smile faded.

  ‘You ain’t acquainted with Sarah Pickles, by any chance?’ he asked, fixing her with with a quizzical look.

  ‘Sarah Pickles?’ Mabel sounded perplexed. ‘Who’s she?’

  ‘It don’t signify.’ Sarah Pickles was a private matter, which Jem didn’t want to discuss. Not in the street, with a perfect stranger. So he flapped his hand, turned on his heel, and made for the ’bus stop.



  Alfred Bunce lived in a narrow lane cluttered with costers’ barrows and piles of rubbish. Mussel shells and squashed cabbage leaves were scattered everywhere. People filled every window and doorway, smoking or chatting or darning socks. There was a strong smell of rotten fruit.

  To reach Alfred’s lodgings, Jem had to lead Mabel up half-a-dozen flights of stairs in a rickety old house that leaned to one side like a drunkard. On the way, he passed a clutch of dirty, barefoot children who taunted him for carrying a broom. ‘Did you come here to sweep the mud from our chimneys?’ they cried. He ignored them, having better things to do than exchange insults with a pack of idle scroungers. Alfred’s room was high up under the eaves. When he answered Jem’s knock, a wave of heat seemed to roll out of the doorway into the stairwell – along with a strong smell of turpentine. Though the day was dank and chilly, Alfred wore his shirtsleeves rolled up to the elbow. A dusting of red powder covered his knobbly hands, his drooping moustache an
d his thick, greying hair.

  He raised his bushy eyebrows when he saw Jem.

  ‘Well, now,’ he said gruffly. ‘You bin quite a stranger.’

  ‘This here is Miss Mabel Lillimere,’ Jem replied, getting straight to the point. ‘She needs help.’

  The barmaid offered up an uncertain smile as Alfred studied her, his dark gaze unreadable. Jem pushed past him without waiting for an invitation. The room beyond Alfred was as hot as an oven, thanks to the fire blazing in the hearth. Dozens of paper strips, each as red as blood, dangled from lines strung overhead. Walls, floor and furniture were smeared with the same reddish powder that clung to Alfred.

  ‘Why, what’s all this?’ asked Jem in astonishment.

  ‘Flypapers,’ said Alfred, ushering Mabel across the threshold.

  ‘You make flypapers now?’ Jem was appalled. ‘That ain’t no job for a bogler!’

  ‘Flies is vermin, same as bogles,’ Alfred rejoined. Then he invited Mabel to sit down, though not before quickly dusting off one of the two available stools with his shirt-cuff. ‘This here is all red lead,’ he explained. ‘For colouring the papers.’

  ‘And what’s this?’ Jem demanded, wrinkling his nose in disgust. He was peering at the gooey stuff that bubbled in a large pot over the fire. ‘Not yer dinner, I hope?’

  ‘That’s what catches the flies,’ said Alfred. ‘I lay it on with a brush.’

  ‘Smells like linseed oil,’ Jem observed.

  ‘There’s linseed in it.’ Alfred turned back to the barmaid, who had seated herself gingerly. ‘What can I do for you, Miss?’

  As Mabel explained her plight, Jem inspected Alfred’s room – which he hadn’t seen for some time. The old table was still there, along with Alfred’s bed and tea-chest. There was a new washstand. Alfred’s brass scissors were also new, as was the framed photograph on the windowsill. It showed a pretty little girl with fair curls and a glazed stare. She was dressed in shiny clothes trimmed with lace.

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