It's 1902. London is looking forward to the new King's coronation and ignoring the threat of war from across the sea… Penelope Tredwell, the pen behind bestselling author, Montgomery Flinch, is cursed with writer's block. She needs a sensational new story of her magazine, The Penny Dreadful, will go under.
So when a mysterious letter arrives, confessing to an impossible crime, Penny thinks she has found a plot to enthrall her readers: the theft of the Crown Jewels by the diabolical Black Crow. Ghostly apparitions, kidnap and treason - this is the stuff of great stories. But what if it's all true?
About the Author
Christopher Edge is an award-winning children's author whose books have been translated into more than twenty languages.
Christopher grew up in Manchester where he spent most of his childhood in the local library, dreaming up stories. After studying English at university, he worked in a record shop, mostly listening to Björk, before being led astray by the film Dead Poets Society into a short-lived career as an English teacher. After leaving teaching he worked in publishing in a job that allowed him to read lots of brilliant children's books, and in 2007 went freelance as a publishing and education consultant, working with organisations such as Booktrust and Oxford University Press on resources to inspire children as readers and writers.
His novel The Many Worlds of Albie Bright won several children's book awards and was also nominated for the CILIP Carnegie Medal, as was his novel The Jamie Drake Equation, which was also selected as one of the best new children's books of 2017 for Independent Bookshop Week. His latest novel The Infinite Lives of Maisie Day was recently chosen by The Times as their Children's Book of the Week, whilst his other books include the critically-acclaimed Twelve Minutes to Midnight series. He is also the author of How to Write Your Best Story Ever! and How To Be A Young #Writer, inspirational guides to creative writing for children and teenagers.
Christopher has appeared at many literary festivals including the Hay Festival, Edinburgh International Book Festival, Emirates Festival of Literature, Cheltenham Literature Festival and was also invited to give the keynote speech at the NATE (National Association for the Teaching of English) conference. He has also authored articles on reading and education for publications such as The Guardian and Teach Primary magazine.
Christopher now lives in Gloucestershire with his wife and two children and still spends most of his time in the local library, dreaming up stories.
Read an Excerpt
The Black Crow Conspiracy
By Christopher Edge
ALBERT WHITMAN & CompanyCopyright © 2014 Christopher Edge
All rights reserved.
Fog clung to the Tower, a cloaking mist that shrouded the fortress in a gray-white gloom, its battlements and turrets ghostly silhouettes against the sky. Beyond the bulwarks and ramparts, the Thames lapped at the wharf that lay beneath the ancient keep. The distant creaking of ships at St. Katharine Docks and the clatter of their cargo were the only sounds that could be heard as dusk gave way to darkness. Even the guttural croaks of the ravens guarding the Tower had by now fallen silent.
Beneath the arched gateway of the Byward Tower the glow of a lantern could just be glimpsed through the gloom. With a rattle of keys its bearer stepped forward, the sound of his footsteps almost swallowed by the swirling mists as he strode down the narrow cobbled street enclosed between the mighty inner and outer walls of the Tower of London.
The man was dressed in a scarlet uniform, its flowing sleeves laced around the edges and seams with several rows of gold lace, while across his chest the emblem of a crown was set above a rose, shamrock, and thistle. A low black hat, its broad velvet brim trimmed in a Tudor style, completed his uniform.
Behind his prodigious beard, the man's face was set in a solemn expression, his eyes fixed dead ahead as he carried out the duties of the chief warder. The blank stares of the narrow windows set high on the Bell Tower watched him as he passed, bearing witness to a ceremony that had been performed every night for the past six hundred years: the locking up of the Tower of London.
As the warder approached the archway beneath the Bloody Tower, its name a grisly testament to the fate of the traitors brought through its gates, he could see the shadowy forms of four figures standing sentry in the darkness. These guards were dressed in dark-blue uniforms, rifles shouldered as they stood at attention. The towering shadows cast by their black bearskin hats gave them the look of strange giants in the gloom.
Without breaking his stride, the chief warder handed his lantern to the guardsman at the rear of this small escort then took up his position between the two leading guards. The bark of their sergeant cut through the creeping fog.
"Escort to the Keys! By the center—quick march!"
Marching in step with his escort, the warder led the way across the cobbled stones back to the outer gate. Swinging the towering gates shut with a slam, the guardsmen hefted the huge hasps into place, sliding the bolts across as, with a rattle of his keys, the warder locked and secured the gates for the night. The escort marched on, repeating this ceremony as they locked the great oak gates of the Middle and Byward Towers. Since the first foundation stone had been laid, the Tower of London had been a fortress, a palace, and a prison: the home of princes and kings and the place of their torture. The days when the king took residence here were long gone, but the garrison of soldiers at the base of the Tower remained to guard the crown jewels that were still kept here, locked behind stone walls twelve feet thick in the Wakefield Tower.
As the escort stepped again through the archway beneath the Bloody Tower, a cry rang out from the shadows.
"Halt! Who comes there?"
A lone sentry stood by the guardhouse at the base of the Wakefield Tower, his rifle thrust forward as pale wisps of mist curled round the exposed steel of its bayonet. The warder's heels clicked to a halt as he called out his reply.
"Whose keys?" came the question.
With a solemn authority, the chief warder's voice cut through the thickening fog. "King Edward's keys."
Shouldering his rifle, the sentry snapped to attention.
"Advance, King Edward's keys, and all's well."
The warder stepped forward a single pace, then raised his hat high in the air. "God preserve King Edward the Seventh."
As a clock chimed eleven, the escort raised their rifles in salute, a chorus of "Amen" echoing off the stones. But the sound of this quickly turned to a cry of consternation as a shadowy figure stumbled down the steps leading from the Wakefield Tower. Dressed in a long dark coat, the figure lurched forward as if weighed down by an unnatural burden. At the guardhouse at the base of the tower, the sentry swiveled to face this unexpected intruder.
"Halt! Who comes there?" he called out, a slight tremor of uncertainty in his voice.
The shadowy figure gave no answer as he stumbled across the cobblestones, his heavy coat bulging as if concealing something hidden within. Behind him, unnoticed by the guards, the dark shapes of other figures, similarly encumbered, flitted through the gloom, slipping between the shadows before disappearing into the darkness. As the first figure lurched toward the Byward Tower, the chief warder stepped forward to challenge him, the ring of keys still jangling in his grasp. It was his duty to secure the Tower, and he would make sure that this mysterious interloper passed no farther. His accompanying escort raised their rifles in concert, taking aim as the warder stepped into the intruder's path.
"Halt! I command you to identify yourself."
His path barred, the shambling figure raised his head to meet the chief warder's stern gaze. Beneath a low black cap, his features were hidden behind a muffling scarf, the black material wrapped around his face. In the jaundiced glow of the lantern's light, the intruder's eyes could just be glimpsed, darting nervously toward the locked gates of the Byward Tower, a dozen steps or so beyond the warder's portly frame.
"I said, identify yourself," the warder snapped. He reached out a crimson-clad arm to snatch at the scarf hiding the intruder's features. As the material unraveled in his hand, the chief warder's rasp of challenge quickly turned to a low gasp of fear. Beneath the disguise, the nervous face of a young man stared out, his unlined features barely out of boyhood. But this wasn't the reason the warder stepped back in alarm. Beneath the low brim of his cap, the boy's features shone with a peculiar green glow, a strange luminescence illuminating his skin as if it were lit from within. In the flickering shadows of the Tower, it looked more like some spectral countenance than the face of a mortal man.
"Heaven preserve us," the warder breathed. "What are you?"
In reply, the young man pushed past him, the touch of his fingers sending a burning sensation racing up the older man's arm. Gasping in pain, the chief warder fell to his knees, the embroidered keys on the sleeve of his scarlet uniform scorched beyond recognition.
The guardsmen called out for the intruder to halt, taking aim with their rifles as his shadowy figure stumbled toward the Byward Tower. The broad oak gates there were locked and bolted, their ancient defenses so strong that even an invading army could not breach them. The fleeing figure didn't even slow his step as a second shout of warning rang out, the edge of his shadow almost at the gate.
With a splutter of cracks, a volley of shots cut through the gloom, the smoke from the soldiers' carbines thickening the mist even as the bullets flew. As the sound of the rifle fire faded, a chorus of shouts rang out from the battlements, their echoes heard from every corner of the Tower, raising the fortress from its slumber.
"Sound the alarm! Sound the alarm!"
Their rifles still raised, the guards advanced beneath the archway of the Byward Tower. The huge hasps and bolts of the locked gates were still in place, fresh splinters of oak gouged from the solid timber where the bullets had hit home. As the lantern cast a sallow light across the scene, the guards searched the shadows for any sign of the intruder, expecting to find his body slumped across the cobblestones. But the darkness lay empty, only mocking fingers of mist taunting the guards with their failure. The man had simply disappeared.
As a clamor of alarm bells filled the night air, the sound of an anguished shout turned the gazes of the searching guardsmen back toward the Byward Tower, a sudden look of fear written across each of their faces.
"The crown jewels are gone!"CHAPTER 2
Penelope stared down at the blank sheet of paper in front of her, its expanse of perfect whiteness an unconquered continent of story. She felt like Captain Scott staring out from the prow of the Discovery at the looming Antarctic coastline, strange mountains of ice barring the way to his goal. Penelope sighed, her gaze slipping sideways to the wastepaper basket beside her desk. Balls of crumpled paper spilled out from it, the unfinished sentences scrawled across each sheet a journal of her failure to capture even a foothold in this new tale she was trying to craft from the pen of Montgomery Flinch.
Penelope brushed a stray strand of hair from her eyes. Her long dark hair was piled high upon her head in the very latest style. The exquisite tailoring of her pea-green suit seemed more suited to the salons of high society than this dusty old office, its desks and cabinets piled high with papers. The mocking scratch of a pen drew Penelope's gaze to the rear of the room where her guardian, Mr. Wigram, sat hunched over a ledger of accounts. The elderly lawyer's pen scurried across the page as he calculated items of income and expenditure, the frown lining his brow telling Penelope all she needed to know about the state of the Penny Dreadful's finances.
The halcyon days of the turn of the century were gone, and with them the success the Penny Dreadful had known when sales had topped a million copies and made Montgomery Flinch a household name. Back then his stories of terror and suspense had gripped the nation, long lines of readers queuing at the book stands to get their hands on the next installment of his latest macabre tale. Penelope's mind had been a constant whirl of dark imaginings: A Night in the Gallery, The Strange Fate of Doctor Naylor, The Gravedigger's Revenge—every new tale that she told an even greater success than the last. But then the spark of inspiration had started to wane, her ideas for new stories failing to ignite as soon as she tried to chase them onto the page. Montgomery Flinch's pen had fallen silent at last.
In his absence, the Penny Dreadful's sales had fallen into a sad decline. Penelope had commissioned new writers to fill the void: Oliver Onions, William Hope Hodgson, Edward Benson to name but a few, each author trying to replicate the thrilling mix of mystery and the macabre that Montgomery Flinch had mastered, but the readers had simply moved on. Since the death of Queen Victoria more than a year ago, it seemed as though the public's tastes had changed. Tales of crime and detection were now all the rage, filling the pages of the Penny Dreadful's rivals. Even Sherlock Holmes himself had made a belated comeback in The Hound of the Baskervilles.
Penelope's gaze flicked up to the bookcase behind her guardian's desk, the collected editions of the Penny Dreadful taking pride of place there. If the magazine's sales continued on their downward spiral, the latest annual volume with the dates January–December 1901 picked out in gold letters against its crimson spine might be the very last. The Penny Dreadful needed something big to restore its sales to their former glory. It needed a story from Montgomery Flinch.
Penelope's gaze returned to the page, her mind a similar blank. All she needed was an idea, the spark for a story, but inspiration remained cruelly elusive. With a tut of irritation, she crumpled up the blank sheet of paper and tossed it into the wastepaper basket where it joined the rest of her unfinished tales. At the sound of this, Mr. Wigram lifted his head.
"A problem with the new story?" he asked, fixing Penelope with a solicitous stare.
A frown furrowed Penelope's brow but before she had a chance to reply, the rattle of the door handle announced Alfie's arrival. Swinging the door open, the printer's assistant bowled into the office with a grin, the galley proofs for the latest edition of the Penny Dreadful tucked under his arm.
"Hello, Penny; afternoon, Mr. Wigram."
Alfie stepped toward Penelope's desk, his slicked-back blond hair gleaming in the sunlight that spilled in from the street outside before the front door slowly swung shut again.
"The June edition of the Penny Dreadful," he announced, placing the proofs in front of her.
"You're late," Wigram replied in a reproachful tone. "I sent you out to collect those proofs from the printers over an hour ago."
With a wince, Alfie glanced up to meet the lawyer's gimlet gaze.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Wigram," he began, "but it's really not my fault. The streets are being dug up left, right, and center—Pall Mall, the Strand, Piccadilly—I had to double back on myself half a dozen times before I even reached the printers. It's all for the king's coronation, you see. They want every inch of the carriage route looking spick and span before the twenty-sixth of June."
He turned back toward Penelope, his eyes shining with excitement.
"You should see the decorations, Penny! There are garlands hanging from every lamppost—flags and flowers everywhere. They've even built a huge archway across Whitehall, fifty feet or so high, all lit up with electric lights. It's magnificent. Trust good old Teddie to show the world how to throw a party!"
As Alfie enthused about the preparations for King Edward the Seventh's forthcoming coronation, Penelope stared down at the pile of proofs. On the inside leaf of the front cover, the announcement that she now dreaded stared back at her in bold black type:
MONTGOMERY FLINCH IS BACK!
The Penny Dreadful is proud to announce the long-awaited return of the Master of the Macabre to its pages with a thrilling new tale. This mystery from the pen of Montgomery Flinch, whose absence from the world of fiction has been keenly felt by his many readers, will be found equal, if not superior, in chilling intent to the very best of those tales which first made his name.
"TITLE HERE" will appear in the July edition of the Penny Dreadful.
Penelope sighed. The deadline for the July edition was little more than a month away. Five weeks to conjure a story out of nothing. At the sound of her sigh, Alfie glanced down, following her gaze to the announcement on the page.
"Don't worry," he said, pulling out a sharpened pencil from behind his ear. "That last line is just a placeholder. As soon as you let me know the actual title of your new story I can mark up the proofs and send the magazine to press."
Penelope looked up to see Alfie's eager smile, his pencil poised above the proof.
"There is no title," she replied, pushing herself back from her desk with an exasperated sigh. "There is no new story." Her gaze flicked from Alfie to her guardian, puzzled looks slowly spreading across both their faces. "I've racked my brain trying to dream up a fitting plot, but it's no use. Every thought that I've had has been written a thousand times before: tales of unquiet spirits, omens, and forewarnings. The world has moved on and Montgomery Flinch's fiction needs to as well, but what shape this new story should take is a mystery to me. My fingers itch to write, but my mind remains a blank." With worry lining her brow, Penelope glanced across to meet her guardian's gaze. "What should I do?"
For a moment Mr. Wigram remained silent, his lips pursed in contemplation as he steepled his fingers beneath his chin. Then with a sigh that almost sounded like relief, he gave his reply.
"You must abandon this plan to bring Montgomery Flinch back to the pages of the Penny Dreadful. There really is no need to put yourself under this pressure, Penelope." His wizened features creased in a look of avuncular concern. "Perhaps it is now time to put your writing to one side and seek out other more suitable pursuits. In less than six months' time you will be sixteen years of age and I cannot help but think that your father would reproach me if he knew how I had allowed you to neglect your education to attend instead to the demands of the Penny Dreadful. With the investments I have made on your behalf, you are now a young lady of some considerable means. It will soon be time for you to make your entrance into society. Let us lay Montgomery Flinch to rest at last and leave these tales of the macabre behind."
Penelope scowled at her guardian's suggestion. Her gaze flicked up to Alfie's face, seeking out her friend's support, but she saw instead only a sudden blush coloring his complexion.
"I will not abandon the Penny Dreadful," she replied, her gaze returning to meet Wigram's own. "Besides, the announcement of Montgomery Flinch's return has already been placed in the pages of the Times, the Sketch, and the Illustrated London News. Montgomery Flinch will write again—all I need is a spark of inspiration to set my imagination ablaze."
Excerpted from The Black Crow Conspiracy by Christopher Edge. Copyright © 2014 Christopher Edge. Excerpted by permission of ALBERT WHITMAN & Company.
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