The Theft of the Papers, Part 5

We did it! But, wait... what?

In the end, the most difficult part had been finding her works in the hundreds of thousands of texts secreted away in that place.

“Hssst. Merri.” Harry was crouched just ahead of her, moving like a ghost-spider atop the ranks of shelves. She could just see him jerk his head toward a table that was partially shadowed at the end of the hall. Piled upon it were courier’s bags and boxes, all of them stuffed full of newly arrived, freshly confiscated material from the scholars, revolutionaries and malcontents of Fallen London. With a nod, she sidled past him, using a hand signal to tell him to keep watch for approaching guards. Pausing only for a moment to listen to the clotted silence in the room around them, she climbed down the shelves like a ladder, leaping silently to the floor and slipping silently to the table.

“No… no… no…” Bag after box after envelope, she rifled through the pile searching as quickly as she could. Harry gave the alert for the next patrol in only barely enough time for her to clamber back up to a safe perch. The vicious dogs paused, sniffed menacingly, but moved on when the human guard, impatient and bored, yanked on their leashes with casual cruelty.

Merri found the folio of the Correspondence research about halfway through the pile, rivers of relief running through her as she stuffed it into her own courier’s bag. Though interrupted twice more, she continued with dogged determination to find her work on the Parabola equation at least, but it simply was not there. A cold knot in the pit of her stomach, she gave the signal to Harry and they slithered their way back across the tops of the stacks, getting out of the building without even raising a hint of an alarm.

Any elation she felt was short-lived, once she paused back on that familiar nearby rooftop to check the contents of the folio more closely. Her encrypted notes on what had happened with Henrik had been removed. There was a note attached to the last page detailing the destination of that specific section.

“Dear God,” she breathed, leaning back against a chimney stack. “They’ve sent it to the Masters of the Bazaar.”

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The Theft of the Papers, Part 4

Of course one simply does not break into the Ministry of Public Decency on a whim.

Merri knew it was going to require research, inside information, a clearly formulated plan to get in, get what she’d come for, and get back out again. Fortunately her natural charm and easy manner had served her as well during her time in the Flit as did her reputation as a superior runner. She had many favorable acquaintances at this altitude, most of whom were more open since Randall Ross had inexplicably left. Blaggers, toolings, box men, lurkers, bit fakers and dragsmen willingly parted with what they knew for a smile and a bit of conversation, hardly noting the jade or rosty-gold that crossed their palms.

They did notice it though. Merri considered it insurance, a decent way to expect she’d be welcomed back after all this was over.

She went through the Flit like grass through a goose, concentrating on the areas nearest the Ministry buildings, letting it be known she’d pay highest for information that was freshest. It wasn’t long before she had what she needed to concoct a plan to infiltrate the labyrinthine passages of Hookman House itself.

Theodor might term it `foolishly risky’. Narciso might think it crude — in truth it is, but I haven’t time for finesse just now. I can’t afford to wait, too many people I love are depending on this. I’ve got this one chance. I can’t fail. I simply cannot afford to fail.

“Wotcha.” It was Harry of course, back from his errands. He’d found her studying a map fragment atop the flat roof of a nearby warehouse.

“Trying to make out this script,” Merri murmured, squinting in the awful (lack of) light. “Bring that candle closer, would you?”

“Sure.” He did, leaning over her shoulder in an attempt to help. “Looks like chicken scratch to me.”

“Mmm….” she said. Then what he’d said arrested her and she turned to him, smiling. “How would you know what chicken scratches look like? Have you ever seen a real chicken?”

“Seen one on a sign,” he grinned back at her. “Cock o’ the Dawn. I’s a pub down on Pinchpenny Lane. I’s go’ a chicken on it.”

“I see.” Her mouth flickered in one of those smiles. Harry elbowed her in response.

“So, wotcha gonna do? D’ye make it, yet?”

“I think so,” she murmured.

“How we goin’ in?”

Merri sighed quietly. “Harry. This is dangerous. You know this is dangerous. Do you have any idea how dangerous?”

“Oi.” He rubbed his nose with the back of his hand. “True death, prolly. If they catch us.”

“Eventually, yes,” she replied. “They’ll turn us over to the devils for torture first. It could be a long time before we die. Harry, I can’t–”

“Oi!” He glared at her fiercely. “We go’ us an accord! On the cobbles, yer the boss and I listen and do my best to do what you say. Up ‘ere though — ain’t no bosses. I’s you an’ me and we’re in it all togevver! You promised!

Lids dropped over grey eyes dark with concern. She took a deep breath. “I did. And I won’t go back on it. But that doesn’t mean I can’t try to talk you out of coming with me, Harry. If anything happened to you–”

“An’ if anyfing ‘appened to you–!” He stopped abruptly, looked down at his dirty, scuffed up boots.

God help me. No. Scratch that — help him, he’s too young for this. “All right,” she breathed. “We go together. But once we’re inside — I’m the boss again. Make it?”

Harry scowled. “Yer the boss as long as ye don’ try t’ tell me t’ leave you.”

“I won’t.” She shook her head, smiled at him sadly. “I promised. I keep my promises Harry. We’ll do this together, or not at all.”

To her utter, jaw-dropping astonishment, the boy threw his arms about her neck and hugged her. Before she could think to respond he’d stepped back again of course, trying to look as if nothing untoward had happened. After a moment she cleared her throat, unwilling to embarrass him by any further displays.

“All right then,” she said, pointing to the scrap of paper. “Here’s how it’s going down…”

The Theft of the Papers, Part 3

Too late!
Riches yes.. but…

Merri swore sulphurously, in Italian and English, out loud, for several minutes after she and her urchin accomplices opened the box. Amid the glim, gold, jade and pearls there were some papers, yes — but they weren’t hers. Her young friends stood back admiringly as she finished her litany of oaths, then grinned at her and started picking through the take. She couldn’t have cared less, and in fact urged them on. The box was much lighter when she had it sent home, honestly not caring if it made it there or not.

It’s the Ministry of Public Decency, then. That’s where the special constables are, that’s where the papers will go. She sat down atop a gargoyle’s head and thought about what was taken, not liking the implications.

All my equations and notes on Parabola. Who’s in danger from that? Theodor, perhaps, but he’s the only one of my acquaintance who contributed to those notes at all.

The books and pamphlets on devils and hell, all from surface sources, all heavily proscribed. I doubt anyone I know would be compromised by those as I read them and annotated them, but did not discuss them with anyone else in depth. Those will likely be turned over to the Brass Embassy.

Lastly, my Correspondence research. ALL my Correspondence research, including the notes I made after that… experiment… with Henrik. Her full mouth twisted enigmatically. At least I had the sense to encode that last. It won’t stop them, but it will slow them down a little.

I don’t have time to warn them myself. I’ll have to send Harry, then see about breaking into the Ministry personally.

“You ready for another run?” She asked him suddenly, startling him as he “fished” for treasure over the side of the gutter. “Harry, we just earned more money in one night than you’ve seen in one place in your life. Why are you doing that?”

“Because I wan’ a pirate hat,” he grinned. She glared at him for one moment, then gave in and laughed softly.

“All right. I can understand that. I’m afraid I need your help again, though. Let’s duck into this church and see about nicking some paper and ink so I can write a note. You’re going to have to run it to Elderwick, to the book shop where Henrik and Master Theodor live.”

“Right now?”

She cut off a sharp reply. He was an urchin at heart, he was young, he didn’t understand. “Yes, I’m afraid so,” she said quietly. “It could mean the difference between them staying free or getting shipped to New Newgate. Will you do it?”

“Oi, wotcha, i’s all right.” He wound up his line with a shrug; she slung her leg back over the gargoyle’s gaping mouth and made her way to the now-defunct bell-tower.

Dear Theodor and Henrik,
The papers stolen from my home were taken deliberately and are being transported to the Ministry of Public Decency. You are both directly implicated in them, though in different ways. I am not worried about your safety, either of you, but I thought you should be warned so you could take what precautions you deem necessary.

Please contact Narciso to alert him. And someone please stay with Scarlet until this is over. She’s cunning and resourceful, but I don’t know if she’s ready for this or not. The mere fact of our association might be all that’s needed to have her arrested.

I’ll contact you somehow to let you know when all is clear.

Take care. Love to all —

–M

The Theft of the Papers, Part 2

When Carlo and Harry returned two hours later, Merri had changed into Flit-wear (black velvet cat suit, fingerless gloves, silent boots) and knew with certainty just what had been taken. She was only not pacing the floor through an act of iron will. Harry, who had become something of an expert at gauging her mood in the weeks he’d been living in the same house with her, spoke first.

“Lots o’ raggedies seen him,” he said. “‘Nother box-man on the make, sounds like. Hand off was at All-Christs’ spire, headed off toward carnival, like you made it.”

“Better go, if you’re going,” Carlo grunted. He generally spoke better English than he liked to let on. “This wasn’t a general sweep. You were the only target, madonna, they wanted what you had, specifically. That box is headed for the Special Constables, may God roast their testicles over hell’s own hearthfires.”

With a short, wordless nod she pulled the mask over her face and checked her weapons. It was what she’d half-suspected, but knowing that she was under investigation specifically was just about the last thing she wanted to hear.

“Oi. Yer not sendin’ me t’ the kitchens this time.”

Merri glanced at Harry’s determined face in some surprise, then at Carlo, who was suddenly very busy picking his teeth and clearly not willing to get involved. The boy was referring to the visit of the Unfinished Men the month before. Harry still hadn’t quite forgiven her for it. Carlo didn’t want to be in the middle of it.

“I hadn’t planned on it, no. You’re coming with me, I could use an extra set of eyes. Carlo,” she went on as Harry whooped happily. “Take some red gold and spread it around the Docks. I need some toughs here to keep discreet watch on the house. If any `official problems’ show up, I want them dealt with before anyone in the house gets hurt. Do we understand each other?”

His face split in an evil grin. “Sí, madonna. Un piacere.

“Good. Be quick about it — if I can’t retrieve those papers we’re going to have worse problems than special constables before the night’s over.”

Bene. Arrivederci.” He waved, and was off.

Merri and Harry left via the window, finding the closest route up to the Flit and then heading toward Mrs. Plenty’s Carnival at an all-out, hell-bent for leather run. It would be an hour’s journey even at this altitude. Merri found herself hoping they’d be in time.

The Theft of the Papers, Part 1

By the time Merri reached the front door at Cl0ckw0rkings she’d already made the transition from light-hearted socialite to hard-headed, pragmatic airship captain. Esther met her at the door, wringing her hands — but since she was not screaming or fainting or showing other signs of distress, Merri supposed it was simply nervous habit when something upsetting had happened.

“Has anything been touched since the theft was discovered?”

“No, my lady, we left it as it was, but–!”

“Very good. I need to ascertain what was taken. Do not contact the constables, we don’t need them for this. Carlo? Harry?”

“Oi?”

Sí, madonna?

“Harry goes to the Flit, and I want you to concentrate on the flying bridges over the Docks and all the way to the carnival. Ears spread, I want to know what’s up there. Don’t waste too much time on details just yet and get back here with what you can in two hours.”

Their respective responses commingled as they headed for the exit.

“Esther, I’ll want your help to sort through what’s left, as you’ve enough sense not to try to read anything you know shouldn’t. Have Astrid sent up with some tea for both of us. We’ve got two hours.”

“Yes, my lady! Right away!”

.-*-._.-*-._.-*-.

She knew almost as soon as she opened the door that this wasn’t one of the usual thefts that plagued all scholars in the Neath. The papers on her writing desk were still there, largely undisturbed — ever since the first theft, she’d taken to leaving “fake papers” as bait for the unwary. They looked authentic enough and were an easy “grab and go,” things like faked up Correspondence symbols and mathematical equations that, if they were ever solved, would turn out to be attempts to describe the flights of bats in the stalactites above. Or possibly the ratio for a perfectly sweetened cup of tea.

Those were all still where she’d left them. But her locked cabinets had been completely rifled, papers, pens, ink bottles, slide rules and compasses scattered helter-skelter across the floor.

Figlia di puttana,” she whispered. “I think I know what they took.”

Insomnia Is Not My Friend

A restless night, sleep was far to seek. Too many unresolved mysteries to ponder, too many questions (asked and unasked!), too much left undone. I haunt the halls of my own home like a wraith, unable to settle in any one place for long.

I checked on Harry. He was curled up in a little ball on the floor beside his bed but seemed content enough to be there. Doubtless he could not be accustomed to sleeping in a bed! He too seemed restless, but I did not wake him. I dread to think that even children must share the same nightmares we do.

I alleviated the danger of boredom by flirting with a small crowd of assuredly drunken admirers below my balcony sometime later. It’s quite flattering, the attention is, I mean. I almost donned my pirate hat to entertain them, but I feared that might be going a bit far.

When the coffee was finally brewed I settled in to make some notes on a new incarnation of my aetheric transcommunicator. Practical use in the field is ever so much more preferable than toying with something in a lab, no matter how sophisticated the lab; while on expedition I had had several thoughts on how to simultaneously widen its field of functionality as well as deepening the capabilities it already possesses. Now I’m much anticipating access to an aethertronic laboratory so I can build the first prototype. Alas, that will have to wait for some weeks yet.

I’ve heard or seen nothing new on Randall Ross, the mysterious fellow who’s been asking after me in the Flit. I assume it’s only in the Flit, but Henrik has said he’ll check into it when he has time and I’m sure he’ll let me know. In any event I don’t intend to let it impede my normal activities in any way. If Mr. Ross thinks to follow me, he’s going to wear out his boots trailing me from one end of Fallen London to the other and back again, all in the course of a single day.

I have heard nothing else about the iron box. I still cannot get past any of the locks.

I have come to the tentative conclusion that while tea is lovely for socialising, coffee is best for working. It’s a conclusion which requires more testing to verify, of course.

Harry

There was a rhythm to it, Merri thought as she leapt the distance to from one roof to another, dive-rolling to cushion the shock of accumulated momentum. It only seemed spontaneous or chaotic if she thought about it too much; when she just let thought go and moved with that internal flow, the running, twisting, leaping, jumping, swinging — it was all as beautiful and necessarily precise as any Ming vase, mathematical equation or baroque fugue…

Don’t think don’t think don’t think! She’d nearly missed the drop-off to that rope bridge, thinking about not thinking! Move move move just keep moving! Vault over the side of the bridge, catch the rope, swing to the spire atop that tower — let go now! Grab the spire one hand got it! Clutch with a leg spiralling spiralling a slide down the peaked roof and up! Run the roof ledge to the end and dive….!

I’m flying… oh sweet God I’m flying…!

It honestly had not occurred to her that she had no idea whether there was anything to catch once she’d taken to the air — but there was indeed another rope, knotted at its fraying end! Catch it long arc swing and up up up to another roof another ledge another sprint move move move…!

Much as she always wanted it to, it couldn’t last. Lungs burning, muscles trembling, Merri finally forced herself to stop. Laughing again, seated atop some church or other, leaning against the cross that jutted up rather crookedly against the backdrop of the cavernous ceiling of the Neath. All this room to move, space to fly, yet so securely confined by borders both seen and unseen. “Oh dear Lord,” she gasped, not sure if she was truly capable of praying anymore or whether there was a God to hear her or if it was just a way of speaking to fend off the loneliness. ” ‘I could live in a nutshell and count myself king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams…’ .”

“Oy! ‘oo you talkin’ to, lady?”

The words startled her out of her reverie and her little rattus faber gun was in her hand before she registered it was a child’s voice. Merri peered around herself, trying to penetrate the inky black shadows that surrounded her without success. Fine time to regret selling those silly goggles…!

“Ah, no one, I suppose. Or myself, perhaps. Who are you?”

“Ain’t nobody. Wotchu laffin’ at?”

Merri relaxed marginally, but only marginally — the orphans of the Flit were children, certainly, but they were often feral children. She’d made some positive contacts among the Fisher Kings, but they were only one gang of urchins in the Flit and she wasn’t entirely sure if she was in their territory or not.

“Same answer. Why don’t you show yourself? I have some spore toffee to share, if you’d like.”

It was almost unfair bait — all the urchins adored spore toffee. She caught the slightest movement in the shadows under the chimney-stacks to her right.

“Wotchu want fer it? I ain’t got nuffin’ to pay yer wif.”

“You have yourself, don’t you? I’d very much like someone to share the view — and the toffee.”

“Yer a strange ‘un, ye are.” With that preamble, the voice resolved itself into a scruffy, scrawny, half-starved child. Age indeterminate but certainly not yet adolescent, sex completely impossible to divine under the layers of dirt and rags. “If’n yer wants, I c’n eat yer toffee, jus’ don’ try anyfing funny ‘r I’ll ‘ave yer guts in a pile afore ye can say ‘’Bob’s yer uncle’.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Merri told him (?) honestly, patting the stretch of level beaming beside her, simultaneously retrieving the wrapped spore toffee from her pocket. “My name’s Merri. What’s yours?” She asked, offering him a piece as he took a seat — not quite in arm’s reach, but close enough to lean in and snatch the sweet from her fingers.

“Name’s ‘arry,” he replied just before stuffing the toffee into his mouth. The name confirmed her suspicions about gender, not that it mattered. “That ain’t wut they call ye in the Topsy King’s court, eh? Wotcher wanna lie fer? I ain’t got nuffin’ on ye eiver way!”

“Oh.” She giggled a little and popped another piece into her own mouth. “They call me by my alias, I suppose. The one I took when I came here. Clockworks. Would you prefer that to Merri?”

He shrugged, chewing on his toffee. “Makes no never min’ to me,” he assured her, eyes darting nervously all around them. His hair seemed to be fair, as did what skin she could see under the smudges of soot. “Ye c’n call yerself whatever ye like. They say yer a lady.”

“They?”

“Yeah.”

Merri waiting another moment, but seeing as he expected her to know the identity of this unspecified and very general “they,” she was eventually forced to shrug and find an answer. “I suppose I have some ladylike qualities,” she finally admitted. “I hope I do.”

“Oy, watsa lady doin’ up ‘ere anyway?” The toffee swallowed, he turned immediately suspicious. “Yer don’ dress like a lady. Are ye sure yer not a fief like me?”

Something like a smile flickered over her mouth at that, but carefully, as even these young ones could have a fierce sense of dignity and pride. “Oh… I don’t imagine there could be another thief like you up here, Harry.” She tossed him another piece of toffee, not surprised at his ability to snatch it out of the air, skin it of its wrapping and cram it into his mouth in what seemed to be one smooth motion. “Dressing like a lady to run the Flit would be pretty silly though, don’t you think? I mean, just imagine those great skirts and petticoats and bustles flying in all directions, just trying to walk across a rope bridge!”

Harry apparently liked that imagery, for he cackled appreciatively.

“I dress like a lady when I need to be doing ‘lady things.’ I dress like this,” she concluded, extending a trouser-shod leg and booted foot, “when I want to be up here. It seems to work out all right.”

“Been followin’ yer,” he admitted, bouncing the toffee wrapper on an open and horribly filthy palm. “Ye don’ do much up here. Ye just run a lot. I don’ ken it. Wotcher runnin’ from?”

Merri slotted him a look at that, wondering and a little intimidated at the experiences that went into making a child sound like a man. “Not everyone who runs is running away from something,” she told him, taking out her last piece of toffee and offering it to him. He scooted a little closer to take it. “Sometimes it just feels good to run.”

Harry returned that slotted look, disdainful that she could say something so apparently stupid. “Yer runnin’ from somethin’, I c’n smell it,” he said flatly. “But’cher don’ have ter tell me, I guess. I was jus’ wunnerin’, tha’s all.” He nibbled the toffee, making this piece last longer than its predecessors. “Someone’s lookin’ fer ye. Tall gent, pretty words like yers. Dark hair, sharp eyes. Been askin’ about ye. D’ye ken it?”

Obviously she didn’t, and shook her head thoughtfully. “No, I don’t think I know anyone up here that well. I didn’t think I did. Does he have a name?”

Harry shook his head. “I din’ ask. But I c’n fin’ out, if’n ye want.”

“I do. Most certainly,” Merri agreed. “Does he run the Flit? Or just a tourist?”

The lad thought about that for three-quarters of a second. “‘e’s na’ a touris’, na’ quite… I ain’t seen ‘im runnin’ it, but ‘e acts like ‘ e could. Ye get me?”

She nodded. “I think so. I’ll be happy to pay you for whatever you can learn about this man.” She retrieved a couple of pieces of rostygold from her pocket and tossed them to him. “That’ll get you started, I think.”

He clipped them out of the air and caused them to disappear, then got to his feet with a satisfied air. “Oy, I like ye. They said ye’d be all stuck on yerself, but yer not. If ye ask around ‘ere for ‘arry Duffins, I’ll find ye. Ye ken it?”

She chuckled and nodded again. “I do. Thank you, Harry.”

“Never a worry, lady,” he told her with a comical little bow. “Don’ be lookin’ down, now.” And with that parting shot, he disappeared back into the shadows whence he’d come.

Merri sat looking over the lights of the city far below, mulling her encounter with the boy, and the implications of the black-garbed man. Her ties to the surface were cut completely, she couldn’t fathom who from the surface would be here, in the Flit, looking for her. Or why he hadn’t found her, she’d certainly made no effort to hide or disguise herself. Perhaps he’s watching me, too.

Another thought occurred, and this one brought the smile back to her face. With a name and a description, it was completely witihin her talents to begin hunting him. Pleased with that conclusion, she got to her feet and began her descent to the other life, the one she lived on the streets below.