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…”

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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 Iron Box

Merri sat at her vanity mirror, studying the woman in there who brushed dry a length of chestnut hair. She was a lovely enough creature, one supposed, could certainly be likened so if anything like human emotion enlivened her features, which at that moment were like nothing so much as inanimate porcelain. Still, there was a blessing in the numbness and she was grateful for it.

She’d had quite a variety of pain to divert her in the past 48 hours. Enough trouble, enough heartache.

The scientist in her was already at work identifying the steps which had been taken, the choices made, analyzing the results of each of the processes, looking for changes to make in the event there ever would be a “next time,” At the moment Merri very much doubted there would be, though she dimly recalled making that promise once before, when Gavin had simply disappeared, after the fire in their home and the subsequent death of their child. Scientific method meant little to the heart, it seemed, which had its own agenda, one her mind was not permitted to know…

The heavy knocking on the front door disturbed her reverie. Merri breathed a sigh of relief — she truly did not wish to endure another repetition of her personal recriminations — but her eyes widened at Esther’s subsequent and somewhat muffled scream. She grabbed her little rat-crafted derringer and raced to the stairs, nearly running over her housekeeper in the process.

“Clay men!” Esther gasped, clutching the front of Merri’s dayrobe. “With hammers, my lady! They’re asking for you! Shall I send Jim to the precinct?”

Clay men? “No. Take Harry and the other staff to the back of the house and stay there until I call for you. By no means are any of you to interfere — and if that means you have to sit on Harry to keep him out of this, then do it!”

“Yes, my lady…” Merri barely waited to hear the words though. She ran down to the first landing, then composed herself most carefully to descend to the foyer and the front door. Esther hadn’t let them in, of course; Merri concealed the little gun in her pocket (it would do almost nothing in her defense, but shooting it would certainly alert the neighbors) and went to face her visitors.

She sensed almost as soon as she saw them that these were not actually Clay Men. She hardly knew how she knew it, but her recent work in Watchmaker’s Hill had given her something of an instinct for it. Something was missing from these ambling mounds of earth and stone. These were of the Unfinished.

“Good day,” she told them, taking in their heavy, well-used hammers with a single glance. They were almost twice as tall as she, and far, far bulkier. “I’m Merriwether Fawkes. How may I help you?”

They glanced at each other before one spoke. “We’ve come for the box,” he said, voice sounding like boulders rubbing together.

Merri lifted her eyebrows delicately. “Which box would that be?”

Another shared glance. “You know which box. It ain’t yours. We’ve come to claim it.”

“I see.” She took a half-step back, having fought Unfinished Men several times (most recently in tracking one down as a host for Jack-of-Smiles) and knew that she could not fight two of them and hope to live through the experience. “Are you acting on behalf of its owner?”

Yet a third glance. “We didn’t come here to be questioned,” the other one said, finally speaking up. His voice wasn’t any pleasanter than the first’s. “We came here to get the box. You can hand it over, or we can beat you to death then tear this house apart for it.”

They seemed to be rather eager for that particular outcome, Merri noted. She, however, was a great deal less eager for it, having been an unwilling custodian of the Iron Box, and, in any event, more than willing to reduce the amount of trouble in her life.

“You will tell whomever has sent you that I didn’t want the damned thing to begin with,” she said, moving to ring the bell that would summon Esther. “I’ll have it fetched, it’s quite heavy. Take it and I wish you — and whomever sent you — joy of it.”

The two exchanged another glance, this one openly glum. “Well, if you’re gonna be that way about it,” the first speaker sighed. “I suppose.”

“Wait here.”

Esther crept into the foyer as if terrified at what she might see. Her relief at seeing her mistress whole and unharmed was nearly more than she could bear, apparently. Merri hoped the overwhelm was caused by happiness, but did not ask. She instructed Esther to have her nephews retrieve the box and hand it over to their visitors. “Under no circumstances are they to speak to these men or provoke them in anyway. Make sure they understand this.”

“I’ll see to it, my lady,” Esther nodded, still frightened but able to function in the well-worn harness of obedience. “You might have a word with Mr. Harry, my lady. He’s been cursing up a storm in the kitchens, trying to get to you.”

For the first time that morning, Merri smiled. “I will. Thank you, Esther.”

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

It was only as she exited her home later that day that she realized the troubles related to the Iron Box were not yet over. “Special Constables” lingered about in plainclothes — the strength of their moustaches always gave them away — in greater numbers than she’d ever seen them, all watching the house and its surrounds.

Merri clenched her jaw, but continued walking. She was due at the Shuttered Palace — let them follow her there, if they would. She doubted any of them would gain entreé, moustaches or no.

A Close Encounter of the Unpleasant Kind

Special Constables. I just received a visit from the Special Constables.

Please do pardon me a moment while I give a somewhat unladylike “hmph!”

Betray my friend who is a consummate connoisseur of literary works? Betray him to the special constables under threat of being held under Suspicion as a “person of interest?”

They threatened me. With crooked teeth and bad breath, no less. They wrote down my name, as if that should have intimidated me into immediate compliance. I don’t believe I’ve ever been so offended. And I do mean EVER.

As if I didn’t have contingencies in place to deal with bullies from ALL sides of the game board, here in Fallen London! They hadn’t crossed the street before any “suspicion” they thought to cast on my name was made completely irrelevant.

I believe I’m going to play around in Spite, just to get that bad taste out of my mouth.

Foolish, arrogant bullies with badges. Fallen London USED to be a relatively decent place to live!