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Mortlake (Chapter One)
This is the first chapter of my middle grade time-slip novel for children 'Mortlake' which is the follow up to the first one, 'The Architect's Apprentice'. The story continues with my 17th-century hero and his time-travelling companions as they're faced with further intrigue and murder.
The light from the door startles the boy. He takes a step back.
"Stay." The voice is low and sounds less harsh than before. The boy wonders if perhaps this is someone new, someone who might let him leave this place and go home.
A pause, then the figure moves into the room, the familiar kerr-slap, slap of his footsteps leaving the child in no doubt who the man is, and giving him yet another reason (as if he'd needed one) to fear for his continued existence. Shuffling his feet, he moves back to the space where he's been standing for the last few minutes.
The man with the long nose holds the candle close to the boy's face. "Still ere, then?" He sniffs and wipes a sleeve across his mouth. "Feel anyfing?"
The boy shakes his head.
The man pulls a piece of paper from a pocket and looks at it. "Right, take a pace forward."
The boy does so.
"Now, shift this way a couple of inches..."
"Just do it, will yer? An remember, same as before - if somefing appens, take one step forward then one step back so's ye're in the exact same place ye started from, right?"
The boy nods, his lower lip trembling. He moves two inches closer and a second later he's gone, leaving only darkness in the space where he stood.
Long Nose holds up a finger. "One, two, step. Three, four, step..." The empty space remains in its vacant state. The man closes his eyes, sighs and mutters "God's sake..."
"Lost another one?"
He turns and raises the candle. "Oh, back, are ye?" He casts a last glance at the dusty footsteps on the ground, then walks to the door. "Waste of bleedin time."
The other man hands him a tankard. "That's enough for tonight. We can talk about it in the morning."
Long Nose sniffs. "No reason ter talk about it - I know what we need."
"Indeed. But this time one that knows what he's bleedin doin." He sniffs again. "An I know just where to find one." A smile slides across his face. "Several, in fact."
It is a full minute before she dares to breathe.
Sliding one eye open and resisting the urge to swallow the blood in her mouth, the woman in the chair carefully turns her head towards the corner of the room. Listening hard, she strives to hear the whoosh of the updraft. But there's only the gentle tick of the clock on the mantle. He is gone. At least, for now.
Looking down at herself, she blinks hard, tries to clear her vision. A white handkerchief is spread out across her chest. For a moment, she can't work out what is keeping it there. Then, turning her head slightly from one side to the other, she sees the two beautifully ornate daggers that skewer the material at the uppermost corners, their thin blades piercing through her skin, effectively nailing the fabric to her shoulders. Seeing the wounds, she again becomes aware of the throbbing pain. Casting her eyes downwards, she can make out something written in blood (hers?) A name she has heard before. She bends her head towards the floor, gasping at the hurt from her arms and chest. Trying to follow the line of the ropes, she searches to see where the knots are, but her bonds are too tight to allow further movement.
Gingerly leaning back into a position that's as comfortable as she can hope for, she fixes her gaze on the cupboard door and prepares to wait. Whoever arrives first will be either her saviour, or her executioner.
Chapter One - Taken
It's not that he's ungrateful. He really isn't. After all, they've been more of a family to him in the last few days than anything else he's ever known. No, this isn't about them - it's about work. I mean, he muses, when you get used to something, you ought to keep doing that thing, whatever it is. And Charlie, well, he's used to work, isn't he? Hard work.
Letting himself out of the front door, he recounts the instructions he's been given. Crossing the lane at the end of Church Square, he judges he can get to Mister Deacon's offices in a few minutes if he's quick. Shouldn't take long to pick up the documents and then he can get back to the house, safe in the knowledge that today, at least, he has done something to earn his keep. Staying close to the buildings on this side of the lane, he weaves around the carts and barrows that push their way through the narrow lanes to wherever their owners need to be.
The sun is warm, even at this early hour and Charlie revels in the splashes of sunlight as he passes each corner or gable end. Even the pushing and shoving and occasional knocks that any pedestrian must endure in these busy streets, does nothing to upset his cheerful outlook. Nothing can touch him in this new life - a life that has pulled him from the depravity of the gutter and the horrors of Arthur Batts and his villainous connections. Nothing, that is, except the knowledge that one of those connections may still harbour a wish to do him harm. Simply thinking about the man with the long nose sends a shudder up his spine and he breaks into a run to shake the hideous thoughts from his head.
The doors to the architect's office are open and Charlie hurries up the stairs, then recalling Deacon's directions, turns to the right.
The young man who greets him at the door seems in a rather dour mood.
"Another one of Deacon's urchins, eh?" Godber stands for a moment, staring at the boy. Charlie simply smiles back. Godber steps into the corner and reaches for a bundle of papers from a high shelf. Holding out the bundle, his sneer wider than a cat's whiskers, he waits for the boy to come to him before handing them over. "And if anything happens to these, I shouldn't bother to come back."
"Thank you sir," says Charlie, taking the papers. "They'll be safe wi me, ave no fear." He smiles up at the young man, hoping a morsel of his own happiness might somehow spread to this sour-faced fool.
"Oh, don't worry, the 'fear' as you put it, shall be yours entirely if anything happens to these documents." Godber steps to the door and jerks his head, indicating that the boy should leave.
Charlie steps onto the landing and turns to thank the man again, but the door is already shut. "Suit yerself, then." And with that, he tucks the bundle under one arm and hurries down the stairs. At the door, he looks out into the busy street for a moment, before beginning his journey back to the house.
Less than twenty yards away, two men note the boy's progress.
"Not the one I would ave wished for," mutters the man with the long nose. From his position at the corner of the lane, he watches the boy skipping away. "But he'll do for now." He turns to his companion. "Go an get the cart an leave it where we agreed. I'll make sure he takes a short cut home."
The other man nods. "Don't take all day." He moves off down a side street.
Following at what he considers to be a suitable distance, Long Nose pulls the hat down over his eyes. The boy is walking fast, but he's no match for his pursuer. It takes less than a minute to get close enough to reach out and touch him, but he doesn't want to alert the boy. Not yet. Better to wait until they're near the agreed place, so he can ensure things go the way he wants them to.
Charlie stops for a moment to watch a man and a boy setting up a puppet theatre at the junction of two streets. The gaudy stripes of the booth are inviting, but Charlie knows he can't linger too long, or Deacon and the others will wonder where he's got to. He stands for a moment, as the young puppeteer begins to run through his repertoire with one of the marionettes. The gaily-coloured toy dances a jig on the grimy cobblestones, oversized wooden feet clattering and tapping an infectious rhythm.
Charlie taps his foot in time to the puppet, enjoying the spectacle. It is only when the man behind him touches his shoulder that he realises his mistake. Even before he turns to look up into the stranger's face, he knows who it will be.
"Ello, Charlie," says Long Nose, in that quietly menacing voice he does so well. "Goin somewhere, are ye?"
Charlie runs. Knocking over the puppet booth, he catches his foot in the strings of one of the marionettes and falls to the ground. But he's up again in an instant and with the angry shouts of the owner ringing in his ears, pelts through the crowd and down the nearest lane, skipping around the rickety cart that's waiting for its very special guest.
Even though he sees it coming, Charlie has no chance to avoid the darkness. Whatever it is that's thrown over his head, the boy can say with some certainty that this isn't the work of some street magician showing off his latest disappearing trick. A pair of strong arms enfolds his body and he feels the bundle of documents sliding out of his grip. A hand presses the sacking over his mouth, making it difficult to breathe. The stench of rotten potatoes fills his nostrils and the rough fabric scratches his face. He becomes aware of being hoisted upwards, momentarily floating through the air like a bird diving for its prey, before the hard floor of the cart hits his head and darkness ensues.