Authors: Derek Landy
This book is dedicated to cover artist
extraordinaire, Tom Percival.
For most people, the cover is the reason they pick up
a book in the first place. The amount of correspondence
I get proves this, as people go on and on about how the
cover caught their eye, made them want to read about a
skeleton detective, how the covers are the best things ever,
how the covers blah blah blah…
I think it’s a generally agreed upon fact that I could draw the
covers if I really wanted to. I have the
raw talent, I have the eye, and I have that one year of art college under my belt.
And I think Tom knows this, which is why he pushes
himself to excel each and every time, why he pushes
himself to make these books stand out from the
others on the shelf. The threat I pose is important.
The threat I pose is a good motivator.
Keep pushing yourself, Tom. My time is coming.
P.S. You’re welcome.
The man with the unfortunate face stood in the aisle…
Through the gaps in the books, Ryan could see someone…
The skeleton’s jaw moved when he talked, but he had…
Deacon Maybury’s apartment was trashed.
Ryan spun, grabbed Francine, tried to drag her with him,…
On the way to see Crasis, they stopped off so…
They drove into Dundrum Town Centre and parked in the…
Ryan backed away. “You’re crazy.”
Valkyrie stepped in front of Ryan, and Skulduggery straightened his…
With Skulduggery’s guidance, Ryan dismantled the Doomsday Machine. He rendered…
he man with the unfortunate face stood in the aisle between the Science Fiction section and Crime, and he seemed to be trying to blend in with the bookshelves. He wasn’t doing a particularly good job of it. When an old woman shuffled too close, he snarled at her – actually
– and the old woman yelped like an injured puppy and hurried away as fast as her little old legs would carry her. People weren’t used to snarling, not in a public library. For as long as he’d been coming here, Ryan certainly hadn’t witnessed any snarling. Until today, of course.
He watched the man out of the corner of his eye, watched him whispering with his companions. They were an odd bunch. The snarling man was the biggest – arms like tree trunks, black matted hair completely failing to hide a face that was in no way attractive.
The smallest one of the group was a middle-aged man who stood very still and didn’t join in with the whispering. He looked like an accountant who’d wandered out of the office one day and had accidentally joined a biker gang. The woman beside him wore battered leather and had short spiky hair. She was pretty, in a sinister sort of way, but she didn’t have a very nice laugh. It carried through the quiet building, unnerving all who heard it. The librarians, usually so strict about things like that, pretended not to notice.
The final member of the gang seemed to be the leader. He was lean and his arms looked strong. He had tattoos curling down from beneath his T-shirt. His jeans were black and his boots were scuffed. He had dark hair that hung over his brow. The big man and the woman would whisper to him and he’d nod. He never stopped looking around, though. Once or twice he almost caught Ryan’s eye.
Ryan sat back in his chair, exited his email account on the computer. No emails. As usual. No one ever sent him emails. Not even spam. Maybe if he made more friends, like his mother was always saying, maybe then he’d at least be sent some junk every once in a while. Fifteen years old and no friends. It was kind of sad, when he thought about it. He didn’t think about it much.
He got up, walked through the Children’s section, running his fingers along the spines of the books he passed. He found himself in History and picked a book at random. Something about the Second World War. He didn’t care. He was just here to waste time, after all – waste time and build up the courage to run away.
It wasn’t his mother’s fault. It wasn’t even his new stepdad’s fault. Ryan didn’t have a problem with either of them. He just missed his father so much, and every moment spent living in that house reminded him that his father was dead and gone and never coming back, and Ryan didn’t want to live like that any more. So he was going to run away to… somewhere. Somewhere else. Just for a little while. Just to get away.
He put the book back and went to take another one, but something fell from the shelf. He saw a flash of silver – what looked like a clasp, or a brooch – and without thinking he reached out and caught it, closed his fingers round it tight. It was cold to the touch, but immediately turned hot. Pain lanced up his arm and he cried out. He opened his hand to drop it, but the only thing he was holding was silver dust. The clasp, whatever it was, had crumbled away in his grip.
The pain was gone too. Not wanting to make a mess, Ryan emptied the silver dust on to a gap in the bookshelf, then brushed at his hand. There was something smudged on his palm. He tried to wipe it away, but it wouldn’t come off. Then he realised his skin wasn’t smudged – it was burned. The clasp had burned itself into his flesh.
“What you got there?”
Ryan turned at the sound of the voice. It was the leader of the gang. The other three stood behind him. They were all looking at him like he was prey.
“Nothing,” Ryan mumbled, closing his hand.
“We heard you cry out,” said the man. “We heard you cry out and Mercy said – that’s Mercy over there – Mercy said let’s see if he needs any help.”
“I said that,” the woman with the spiky hair confirmed, nodding her spiky head. “I was worried. Because I care.”
“She does care,” said the leader. “She wanted to know if you’d hurt yourself. Have you hurt yourself? She wanted to know if you’d hurt yourself and Obloquy said – Obloquy’s the big lad – Obloquy said how is he going to hurt himself in a library? Is he going to paper-cut himself to death?”
The leader laughed, and Mercy laughed, and the big one grinned.
“I’m funny,” he said.
“How did you hurt yourself?” the leader asked, coming down off the laugh with a friendly chuckle.
“I didn’t hurt myself,” said Ryan. “I’m fine.”
“But we heard you cry out,” said the man, suddenly frowning. “We heard you. Didn’t we hear him?”
“I heard him,” said Mercy.
“I heard him too, Foe,” said Obloquy.
The middle-aged man, the accountant, didn’t say anything.
The leader, Foe, examined Ryan curiously. “You don’t have to be scared of us. Is that what’s wrong? You’re scared of us? You don’t have to be. We’re not bad people.”
Obloquy laughed, and Mercy jammed an elbow into his ribs to shut him up.
“I know you’re not supposed to talk to strangers,” Foe continued, “but aren’t you a bit old for that? Isn’t that rule more for kids? You’re not a kid any more, are you? What are you, fifteen or so?” He reached out, dipping a finger into the silver dust on the bookshelf, then bringing it to the tip of his tongue. He tasted it, and smiled at Ryan. “And if you don’t talk to strangers, how are you going to make friends? Friends are important. We want to be friends.”
“We really do,” said Mercy.
“And we were standing over there,” said Foe, “talking about books, because that’s what we like to do, we like to talk about books, and we heard you cry out and we came over because we were worried, and we care, and now we’re here, having a conversation. Having a friendly conversation with our new friend.”
“I didn’t hurt myself,” Ryan said, really wishing he were somewhere else right now.
“Friends don’t lie to each other,” Foe said.
“I’m – I’m not lying.”
“You’re lying a little bit,” Foe said, smiling. “What’s your name?”
“Good to meet you, Ryan.”
Foe stuck out his hand. Ryan hesitated, then went to shake it. Instead, Foe grabbed his wrist and turned his palm to face upwards. The gang looked at the symbol imprinted on to his skin, and Foe released Ryan’s wrist and put his hand on Ryan’s shoulder. “Ryan, my friend. You’re going to have to come with us now.”
Ryan shook his head. “I should be going home. My dad will be here in a minute to pick me up.”
“Ryan,” said Foe. “If you don’t come with us right this second, we’re going to kill everyone in this building and then we’re going to drag you out through the blood and the gore and what remains of their dead bodies.” Another smile, this time with narrowed eyes. “So really, buddy, it’s up to you.”
Ryan wanted to scream for help and run away, but his legs wouldn’t work and his chest was too tight. He looked at them. Foe, with his smile and his eyes. Mercy, an eager look on her face, like she was really hoping she’d get to kill someone today. Obloquy, standing there looking dumb and dangerous. And the accountant, whose gaze had never faltered, who was as still as a statue, completely detached from what was going on. The accountant was the scariest of them all.
And then, whistling.
hrough the gaps in the books, Ryan could see someone in the next aisle over, moving slowly. Someone in black. Someone whistling. Ryan recognised the tune. It was the theme music to
A pretty girl appeared at the corner of the bookcase. Tall, with long dark hair. Maybe a year or two older than Ryan. Wearing a jacket that was zipped up, tight trousers and boots, and a ring on her finger. All in black. All made from materials Ryan couldn’t identify.
And still, whistling. As she whistled, her dark eyes wandered from Ryan to Foe, to Mercy and Obloquy, and then to the accountant. When she got to the accountant, she stopped whistling, and looked back at Ryan.
“Hi,” she said. “My name’s Valkyrie. Are these people bothering you?”
Ryan wanted to tell her to run, but he knew the gang would be on her in an instant.
The girl looked at Foe. “I’m part of Library Security,” she said. “We’ve had some reports of overdue books in this area, and I’m going to need to ask you all some questions. We can do this here or downtown – where we’d actually have more space and access to a coffee machine.”
Something was wrong. Foe didn’t threaten her and Mercy didn’t say anything at all. In fact, Mercy and Obloquy were glancing around, like they expected someone else to show up. Even the accountant looked wary.
“You really want this to happen?” Foe asked, his voice low. “Here? In a public place? Where all these innocent people might get caught in the crossfire?”
The pretty girl, Valkyrie, gave him a shrug. “I’m just looking for a way to spoil your day, Vincent. The choice is yours. Stick around and get beaten up and thrown in a cell, or leave, now. Immediately.”
“Sure,” said Foe. “We’ll just take Ryan here with us.”
Valkyrie shook her head. “Ryan stays, I’m afraid.”
“Ah. Well, see, now we have a problem.”
“That’s too bad.”
“That’s just what I was thinking.”
Valkyrie moved, snapping her palm against the air and the air shimmered and Foe shot back off his feet, colliding with Mercy. Before Ryan could even wonder what had just happened, she grabbed him and then they were running through the aisles. A stream of red energy sizzled by his ear and Ryan shrieked, tried to throw himself to the ground but Valkyrie wouldn’t let him.
“Keep moving,” she snapped.
He stumbled after her.
There was a roar, and the crash of a bookcase being toppled. Ryan glanced back, saw Obloquy go hurtling through the air, and a man stepped into view – a tall man, thin, wearing a dark blue suit and hat, like one of those old-fashioned private eyes.
Another stream of red energy burst through the bookshelf to his left and Ryan forgot all about the thin man and focused all his attention on not dying. Mercy smashed into him and he went sprawling across the floor, the wind knocked out of him. Then Valkyrie was there, running straight for Mercy who turned to her, opened her mouth wide, and let loose another stream of energy. From her mouth.
From her mouth.
Valkyrie dived, rolled, came up and threw herself into Mercy. Mercy grunted, the stream cut off, and they went down. They grappled, throwing elbows and pulling hair. Mercy grabbed a handful of Valkyrie’s hair and yanked and Valkyrie slammed her forehead into Mercy’s face. Mercy screamed with pain and rage and Valkyrie was on top now, Mercy trying to push her off. Valkyrie trapped one of Mercy’s arms and moved up, too fast for Ryan to work out what was happening, but somehow she swung her leg over Mercy and was now leaning back sharply. She snapped Mercy’s elbow and Mercy howled, and then Valkyrie was scrambling towards Ryan, pulling him to his feet.
Ryan wished he could have said something intelligent to her at that moment, but all he could manage was “Muh”. It was not very impressive.
Around them, the good people of the library cowered behind cover or ran for the exits. Ryan would have given anything to be allowed to cower. His entire body ached to find a dark corner and collapse into it like some kind of jelly. But the pretty girl who was gripping his hand kept pulling him on through the stacks, and Ryan was suddenly determined not to embarrass himself in front of her. So he forced his legs to stay strong and when Valkyrie hesitated, he overtook her.
“This way,” he said, and now he was pulling her through the stacks, and she was probably thinking what a great guy he was, and look how take-charge he is, and even though he’s a year or two younger than I am he’d probably make a great boyfriend and when all this is over, I’ll probably want to kiss him or something. Ryan nodded to himself. Yeah, she was probably thinking all that as he led her through the aisles and the stacks, and then they came to a wall with a nice picture on it.
“Moron,” Valkyrie snapped, turning and yanking him after her.
“Sorry,” he said.
“I thought you knew where you were going!”
“I thought there was a door here.”
She stopped suddenly and he ran into the back of her. He was halfway through apologising when he saw the accountant standing ahead of them.
Elsewhere in the library, the thin man was still battling the others. There were a lot of crashes and yells and screams and grunts. But here, with Ryan and Valkyrie and the accountant, it somehow seemed really, really quiet.
The accountant took a step forward. Valkyrie took a step back. She stepped on Ryan’s foot and he said “Ow” and then apologised. She didn’t hear him.
She snapped her hand against the air. The space rippled and a bookcase was blasted back, but the accountant was already moving. Then Valkyrie clicked her fingers and Ryan yelped when fire suddenly flared in her palm. He tore off his jacket and flung it over her forearm, batting out the flames.
“What the hell are you doing?” she raged, trying to push him back.
“You’re on fire!” he squealed manfully.
She pulled away from him, her hand still ablaze, and then she flung the fire, but the accountant twisted, impossibly fast, and the fireball missed him, exploded against the side of another bookcase. The accountant darted out of sight.
“Oh,” Ryan said.
Valkyrie backed up against him. “If you see an exit,” she whispered, “you run to it. Understand?”
Something moved above them and the accountant dropped down on to Valkyrie. She cried out and Ryan stumbled back, watched as the accountant grabbed her and threw her like she was nothing. Valkyrie disappeared among the stacks.
Ryan spun, and ran. He didn’t know where he was going, but anywhere was better than where he’d just been. The accountant was following, but he had leaped back up so he was off the ground, gliding from bookcase to bookcase, like a hawk chasing a terrified field mouse.
Then Ryan saw it – a green EXIT sign over a fire door. He changed direction, almost tripped over a cowering man who was hiding in the Reference section, and ran on. He was almost at the door when he glanced back over his shoulder, saw the accountant leaping for him. Valkyrie emerged from the stacks and something was happening to her right hand – it was covered in writhing, moving shadows. She whipped her hand and a trail of darkness reached for the accountant, wrapped around his leg. Valkyrie pulled back, hard, and the accountant crunched to the ground.
He snarled, sprang up and turned, and Valkyrie sent a wave of shadows crashing into him. He hit the far wall and that’s all Ryan saw, because Valkyrie was pushing him out through the fire door. The alarm wailed as they emerged into the narrow alley behind the library. With Valkyrie’s hand pressing into his back, Ryan sprinted towards the road. A gleaming black car was parked illegally, like it was waiting for them. It looked old, but a brand-new kind of old.
Valkyrie opened the door, bundled him in the back. She got in behind the wheel, leaving the door open. She started the car and the engine roared, and she slipped into the passenger seat and buckled her belt.
“Seatbelt,” she ordered.
Ryan buckled his seatbelt. He looked at the empty driver’s seat. “Does it drive itself?” he asked.
“Don’t be thick,” she replied, looking back at the library. “He just hates it when I drive the Bentley, that’s all.”
The thin man came sprinting out of the library, clutching his hat in one gloved hand. Ryan blinked. The way the sun caught his bald head made it seem almost white, almost like…
Ryan swallowed. It wasn’t the sun. The thin man wasn’t bald.
The thin man was a skeleton.
Ryan screamed as the skeleton jumped in behind the wheel.
“Shut him up, please,” the skeleton said as the car shot forward.
“Shut up, Ryan,” said Valkyrie.
Foe came charging out of the library but the car, the Bentley, was already slicing through traffic. And still Ryan screamed.
“Ryan,” Valkyrie said, “stop that.”
“He’s a skeleton!” Ryan yelled. “Look at him! They killed your friend!”
“No they didn’t,” said the skeleton. “But they punched me. A lot. And one of them hit me with a desk. Have you ever been hit with a desk, Ryan? It’s sore.”
“I was hit with a desk once,” Valkyrie said.
“Oh, that’s right,” said the skeleton. “It really hurts, doesn’t it?”
Ryan sat in the back seat, petrified. Valkyrie turned to him, sighed, and then gave him the kind of smile usually reserved for idiots, or toddlers, or idiot toddlers.
“Hi,” she said. “I’m Valkyrie Cain. My partner here is Skulduggery Pleasant. We just saved your life. The least you can do is not throw up in our car.”