The Theft of Papers, Part 7

It is finished at last.

The party at the Topsy King’s court afterward was nothing short of uproarious.

Giddy and shaking in the emotional aftermath, Merri allowed Carlo and Harry to treat her like a conquering hero, though she knew right well she was no such thing. It took her three tries, finally raising her voice sharply, to get Carlo to send word out through Spite and the Docks to let her beloved friends know they were in the clear — for her part, anyway. Once assured the word would reach Theodor, Henrik, and Scarlet, she relaxed back onto a pile of… well, it was best not to think too closely about what was actually in that soft, welcoming pile. She ate something that wasn’t dead rat. The Topsy King shared a bottle of Greyfields “First Growth” with her — Merri was grateful, for the symbols on those tall black spires still whirled dangerously just beneath the surface of her thoughts.

She reached for her bag repeatedly, looking past the collection of old London street signs to assure herself the folders were still there, and that they were intact. The work on the parabola equation, and the encrypted notes… on the Correspondence. They were there, they were there. She’d make up her mind later if she wanted her notes on Hell and devils back from the Brass Embassy, after she’d rested, eaten properly, and knew that her friends were well.

On reflection, she didn’t know if it confused her or reassured her that the Bazaar’s offices were laid out in such stereotypically human fashion — a bureaucracy by any other name. It was a fairly straightforward caper once she was inside: Find the desk to which the materials had been assigned, recover them, and go. It was the getting in, and back out again, that took a level of mastery she had not been sure she owned.

Well, not before. There in the aftermath, she knew she owned it and was strangely rather proud of it. Walking over rice paper and bat bones without a single sound!! No one would ever know she was coming now, unless she wished them to know!

All the thieves were toasting her, some suggesting other robberies, others talking about courier routes and the like. Merri just smiled and nodded, hardly hearing any of it. When they were all sufficiently drunk, she gathered Harry and Carlo up and, with much relief, headed home. For a bath. And a hot meal. A decent cup of tea! And gentle, lovely music.

And, wistfully, hopefully, word from her dear ones that all was indeed well, before she slept at last.

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 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.”

The Mornings After

The first salon was a qualified success, I do believe. Considering its spontaneous occurrence and that I was more than a little manic to be back in the Neath, it was well attended and quite diverting. I credit much of this to the guests, and the “Shroomgria,” (ETA: this term was coined by the linguistically adroit Dr. Mason) which was a hit. By the time I closed my doors behind the last of the guests I was exhausted and slept dreamlessly, for the first time since shortly after I arrived here months ago.

Yesterday, inspired by the artistic landscaping I’d done for the Duchess, I planted a tiny mushroom garden on my balcony. Strictly ornamental, of course, nothing medicinal or mind-altering at all (well, I think not, anyway). It’s simply a way to have something lovely to enjoy close at hand, reminiscent of the lovely wildflowers I enjoyed during my recent expedition to the surface.

In other news, I took dear Theodor’s instructions to heart about that silly counterfeit head of St. John the Baptist and placed it by my bed as I slept. I awoke with the knowledge of yet one more thing I probably did not wish to know as well as that ravenous hunger that one only gets from nightmares in this place. The last two times I have come away with this voracious appetite I’ve sought the remedy right away. This time I believe I shall live with it awhile and see where it goes. If any of my, erm, delicious friends would care to share their experiences with me, I would appreciate it greatly.

In the meantime my adventures in learning about the Correspondence Stones continue. After the blood running from my eyes ruined three good blouses, I decided to seek out some expert help. The first antiquarian who thought to decipher them exploded in flames right before my eyes — whyever he thought sleeping with them on his chest qualified as a “good idea” I cannot begin to say — but I have found another who also seems quite enthusiastic about the process. It is an intellectually fatiguing study, one that is assisted by the smooth, ordered, crystalline beauty of a good chess game and the liberal application of laudanum before bed. I hope to have some kind of breakthrough with the Stones before my “day” here is done.

Many thanks to all of you who’ve indulged my most recent chess-playing spree. The insights I’ve obtained have been well-employed, I assure you!