I’d never seen Horace’s peculiar talent in action until, one evening, he began to scream. A bunch of us rushed upstairs to the garret where he’d been on sentry duty to find him rigid in a chair, in the grips of what seemed to be a waking nightmare, clawing at the air in horror. At first his screaming was just that, but then he began to babble, yelling about the seas boiling and ash raining from the sky and an endless blanket of smoke smothering the earth. After a few minutes of these apocalyptic pronouncements, he seemed to wear himself out and fell into an uneasy sleep.
The others had seen this happen before—often enough that there were photos of his episodes in Miss Peregrine’s album—and they knew what to do. Under the headmistress’s direction, they carried him by the arms and legs to bed, and when he woke a few hours later he claimed he couldn’t remember the dream and that dreams he couldn’t remember rarely came true. The others accepted this because they already had too much else to worry about. I sensed he was holding something back.
When someone goes missing in a town as small as Cairnholm, it doesn’t go unnoticed. That’s why on Wednesday, when Martin failed to open his museum or stop by the Priest Hole for his customary nightcap, people began to wonder if he was sick, and when Kev’s wife went to check on him and found his front door hanging open and his wallet and glasses on the kitchen counter but no one at home, people began to wonder if he was dead. When he still hadn’t turned up the next day, a gang of men was dispatched to open sheds and peer beneath overturned boats, searching anywhere a wifeless man who loved whiskey might sleep off a binge. But they’d only just begun when a call came in over the short-band radio: Martin’s body had been fished out of the ocean.
I was in the pub with my dad when the fisherman who’d found him came in. It was hardly past noon but he was issued a beer on principle, and within minutes the man was telling his story.
“I was up Gannet’s Point reelin’ in my nets,” he began. “They was heavy as anything, which was odd since all’s I generally catch out thatways is just tidy little nothins, shrimps and such. Thought I’d got snagged on a crab trap, so I grab for the gaff and poke around under the boat till it hooks on something.” We all scooted closer on our stools, like it was story-time in some morbid kindergarten. “It was Martin all right. Looked like he’d taken a quick trip down a cliffside and got nibbled by sharks. Lord knows what business he had bein’ out by them cliffs in the dead of night in just his robe and trolleys.”
“He weren’t dressed?” Kev asked.
“Dressed for bed, maybe,” said the fisherman. “Not for a walk in the wet.”
Brief prayers were muttered for Martin’s soul, and then people began trading theories. Within minutes the place was a smoke-filled den of tipsy Sherlock Holmses.
“He coulda been drunk,” one man ventured.
“Or if he was out by the cliffs, maybe he seen the sheep killer and was chasin’ after,” said another.
“What about that squirrely new fella?” the fisherman said. “The one who’s camping.”
My father straightened on his barstool. “I ran into him,” he said. “Two nights ago.”
I turned to him in surprise. “You didn’t tell me.”
“I was going to the chemist, trying to catch him before he closed, and this guy’s headed the other way, out of town. In a huge hurry. I bump his shoulder as he passes, just to ruffle him. He stops and stares at me. Trying to be intimidating. I get in his face, tell him I want to know what he’s doing here, what he’s working on. Because people here talk about themselves, I say.”
Kev leaned across the bar. “And?”
“He looks like he’s about to take a swing at me, but then just walks off.”
A lot of the men had questions—what an ornithologist does, why the guy was camping, and other things I already knew. I had only one question, which I’d been itching to ask. “Did you notice anything strange about him? About his face?”
My father thought for a second. “Yeah, actually. He had on sunglasses.”
“Weirdest damn thing.”
A sick feeling came over me, and I wondered how close my father had come to something far worse than a fistfight. I knew I had to tell Miss Peregrine about this—and soon.
“Ah, bollocks,” said Kev. “There ain’t been a murder on Cairnholm in a hundred years. Why would anyone want to kill old Martin, anyway? It don’t make sense. I’ll bet you all a round that when his autopsy comes back, it says he was arseholed right into the next century.”
“Could be a tidy spell before that happens,” the fisherman said. “Storm that’s rollin’ in now, weatherman says it’s gonna be a right bomper. Worst we’ve had all year.”
“Weatherman says,” Kev scoffed. “I wouldn’t trust that silly bugger to know if it’s raining now.”
* * *
The islanders often made gloomy predictions about what Mother Nature had in store for Cairnholm—they were at the mercy of the elements, after all, and pessimistic by default—but this time their worst fears were confirmed. The wind and rain that had pelted the island all week strengthened that night into a vicious band of storms that closed blackly over the sky and whipped the sea into foam. Between rumors about Martin having been murdered and the weather, the town went into lockdown much as the children’s home had. People stayed in their houses. Windows were shuttered and doors bolted tight. Boats clattered against their moorings in the heavy chop but none left the harbor; to take one out in such a gale would’ve been suicidal. And because the mainland police couldn’t collect Martin’s body until the seas calmed, the townspeople were left with the nettlesome question of what to do with his body. It was finally decided that the fishmonger, who had the island’s largest stockpile of ice, would keep him cool in the back of his shop, among salmon and cod and other things. Which, like Martin, had been pulled from the sea.
I was under strict instructions from my father not to leave the Priest Hole, but I was also under instructions to report any strange goings-on to Miss Peregrine—and if a suspicious death didn’t qualify, nothing did. So that night I feigned a flulike illness and locked myself in my room, then slipped out the window and climbed down a drainpipe to the ground. No one else was foolish enough to be outside, so I ran straight down the main path without fear of being spotted, the hood of my jacket scrunched tight against the whipping rain.