Podcast of this Chapter
I didn’t look up when the door creaked open. It would either be Mr. Smith for the rent or one of the protestors who hung outside my shop. I wasn’t excited about either. The rumbling of hooves and heels against granite pavers filled the room. Although muffled by morning snow, the din of London’s streets never ceased.
“Excuse me,” a young man shouted over the noise. “Is your name Fry?”
Had I looked up earlier, I would have appeared even less interested.
A young constable stepped inside and closed the door, muffling the noise of the street. He wore the high-collared blue coat and tall, rounded helmet of his profession. Beneath the brim, his dark hair dripped with perspiration, despite the cold. He raised a small notebook and scanned his notes.
“Macon Fry, apothecary. 187 Fleet Street?”
“You match the description,” he said, checking off the list with his eyes.
I knew what the list said, brown hair, brown eyes, average height, medium build. I wondered if it included that I was a wizard.
Getting no response, he surveyed the shop. Shelves spanned large windows at the front where bottles caught the light, their contents glowing, red, yellow, blue. He noticed Max stirring in the corner and jumped.
Max was a raven, splendidly large and black. He had been a wizard long ago. Sometimes I wondered if he remembered ever being human. The Council sent him to me, their idea of a retirement spa.
The constable dabbed beneath the brim of his helmet with a handkerchief. “I come with a message.”
I was only a decade or so the constable’s senior, but an air of naivety made him appear much younger. He would have cut a fine figure if not for the look of importance and piety he struggled to convey.
My silence unnerved him, but I was enjoying the show.
“There have been complaints,” he said, borrowing authority from his notes. “Some find this shop a pernicious influence upon the impressionable young men of London.”
The young constable’s gaze darted back to me. He flinched when I spoke.
“Is that so?”
On the street, the young men who congregated daily outside my shop cowered in a conspirators’ huddle, silent and anonymous as they watched the one who did their bidding. My apothecary shop had a reputation for dabbling in the occult. Perhaps the young constable thought I might smite him with a ball of magic fire.
Having nothing else to say, I thanked him and bid him good day.
The constable gathered himself. “Have you no response to the accusation?”
“I believe I responded. I said good day.”
The young man looked like his knickers shrank three sizes. He stammered. “It isn’t that anyone has anything against you or your kind.” He cleared his throat. “It’s just that they wish you would not ply your particular trade here in London.”
I did not respond.
He pressed on. “Some feel it is their civic responsibility to protect the citizens of London.”
I smirked. “You mean, against me and my kind?”
The young constable wrung his notebook.
I stepped from behind the counter, watching the constable’s growing panic.
“May I ask your name?” I said.
His voice stuck in his throat. He choked out, “Farris,” then lifted his chin. “Constable Farris.”
“I assure you, Constable Farris,” I said, trying to sound reasonable. “I am not plying any illicit trade here. If I were actually practicing such a trade as some imagine . . . “ I gave him a sheepish grin. “. . . Couldn’t I simply stop the protests with a good old-fashioned hex?”
The blood drained slowly from Constable Farris’ face.
Max spread his wings and hopped to the counter. He cocked his head, regarding the young man. The constable looked at me with rounded eyes.
“He wants out,” I said. “Would you mind opening the door?”
The young man obliged. Max hopped to the threshold and launched into the street. The constable looked at me again, questioning.
“He prefers taking his morning constitutional outside,” I said.
We exchanged awkward silence.
I added, “Perhaps you might follow him?”
Constable Farris started out the door, but thought again and turned back to me. “You know, of course, that I will be watching you.” He tipped his helmet and followed Max into the street.
I returned to my potion, pretending to myself that his visit had not rattled me. If anyone meant to end pernicious influences, they should also go after the gentlemen who published penny dreadfuls. They traded in superstition and sensationalism, but used enormous printing presses and consumed miles of paper from the industrialists’ mills. I used a shovel and dug roots from the forest. So the publishers garnered praise from the industrialist tycoons, and I garnered scorn from the protestors, the industrialists’ bored offspring, the idle rich, each born with a silver spoon in his mouth.
Everything in the world was about economics.
I dropped a handful of dried leaves into boiling water. The blackened herbs softened to dark green, surrendering to the water and releasing the soft smell of wet grass. The smell nearly masked the mold permeating the dank of my shop.
An actual love potion follows nearly the same recipe as one that causes insanity, but then, love and insanity are about as related as one can get. I should know. But I was only making a snake oil, one popular among young gentlemen who wanted to improve prospects under the mistletoe this Christmas. If I were anywhere else, I could have given them the real thing, but here in London, the Council enforced a moratorium on magic. I was not always perfect about following it. Some say science will one day appear indistinguishable from magic, but often, I hoped magic would remain indistinguishable from science.
I closed the drawstring and returned the herbs to the drawer, restraining myself from making too large a batch. Such economy was a habit hard-won, but in two days time Christmas would pass, and only the most determined lovelorn would venture past the militant protestors outside my shop. I wasn’t proud of selling snake oils, but they paid the rent, sometimes. I was about to pour some into a bottle when the door rattled the shopkeeper bell. Another voice rose above the noise from the street.
“You don’t have to appear so unhappy to see me.”
He was right. I didn’t look happy. I wasn’t in the mood for fairies. The one I call Puck hovered over the middle of the room in a ball of blue light, looking like Cupid on a Valentine’s Day card. Puck wasn’t his real name. Fairies aren’t the smartest creatures of the never world, but they know better than giving their real name to a wizard.
I filled the first bottle with potion. “Would you mind closing the door?”
“Is that how you greet all your customers?” he said. “But then, I suppose you haven’t had much practice with that.”
I shot him a wry smirk. “You’re a hoot.”
He looked proud of himself. Fairies don’t get sarcasm.
“Are you here to buy something?” I said. “Or would you rather just gloat?”
“Oh, I’m here to buy. I’ve got real mortal money and everything.”
He flew over the counter and dropped a coin nearly as large as himself. I hadn’t seen a lot of paying customers since the protestors started hanging around. That coin would go a long way toward rent.
Puck stammered, “I don’t know how this is done. I want to purchase a . . . fix?”
I leaned on the counter, interested. “Of course,” I said. “What ails you?”
He dropped his voice to a whisper. I could barely hear him over the noise that leaked in from the street. “I want that stuff. You know, what everyone is drinking these days.”
I frowned and returned to my potion. “Does this place look like a coffee stall?”
He knitted his eyebrows. “That isn’t what I meant. I want what they call . . . “ He looked around. “Dragon venom.”
I didn’t expect that. Far as I knew, Puck never messed with it. I almost respected him for that.
I narrowed my eyes. “You know it’s illegal. I don’t sell it.”
Puck arched an eyebrow. “That’s not what I hear.”
“You hear wrong, Puck.”
He flinched whenever I called him that, unimpressed the name was straight out of Shakespeare. As if fairies could read.
He persisted. “The one you call Pea Blossom said . . . “
I slapped my open palm on the countertop. Puck jumped. Fairies don’t like being swatted at, but I wanted to make sure he heard me. “The one I call Pea Blossom is wrong.”
Puck sat back and crossed his arms, although he was only sitting on air.
I filled another bottle. “Why would you even want to mess with it?”
“It isn’t for me,” he sighed. “It’s for a friend.”
Puck watched me a moment, then flew closer and let a tear roll over his cheek. He wiped it away with an exaggerated sweep of his arm. I wasn’t buying the act. Fairies are good at crocodile tears.
When he saw it wasn’t working, he wined, ”You have no heart.”
He thought a moment, then buzzed the counter again and dropped another coin, just as shiny, just as worth an awful lot of rent.
My resolve wavered. Maybe I could find a supplier. Puck watched me struggle, his blue orb glowing brighter. Irritating as they can be, these fairies are my friends. He didn’t understand dragon venom was poison.
I backed up and raised my hands. “No, I can’t do it. I’ve got enough problems as it is.”
“Well, from what I hear . . .”
I shot him my best “drop it” look.
Puck blew out his breath. “You can’t stop anyone who is addicted to it. You know that. It’s just that I think he got a bad batch last time.”
“And you thought mine would be better? I could almost take that as a compliment.” I leaned in and grinned. “Are you going soft on me, Puck?”
He ignored me. “My friend hasn’t been doing well. That stuff he’s been getting lately is making him sick.”
Puck was worried about his friend. I could almost like the little guy for that. I thought about really pissing him off and giving him a pat on the head. I glanced toward the protestors on the street. Is turning down two gold coins what a pernicious influence would do?
I was going to ask about this bad batch of dragon venom, but Puck was gone. So were the coins.
If fairies don’t get what they want, they’re out of there fast. He left the door open. The street noise filled the shop again. I was about to close the door when another man came in.
I didn’t know him, but my first reflex was to run. It wasn’t for the shape of the figure standing in the doorway. He was a tall gentleman in a long overcoat with a shoulder cape, gloves, and a silk hat. It wasn’t that he appeared aggressive. He possessed an elegant grace as he removed his hat and tucked it into the crook of his arm. It wasn’t because the protestors outside withheld the jeers that usually accompanied anyone who entered my shop, which they had. My reaction was probably for the same reason the protesters had remained silent. The man’s face was ghostly white. So was his hair. But his strangest characteristic was that his eyes were red.
The man pressed the door closed behind him. It rattled into place, and the shop grew almost quiet.
“Good morning,” he said. His voice was smooth.
The man glanced around. In the shifting light, his eyes changed to a pale blue, nearly translucent. I knew what caused something like that. He was flesh and blood after all, not some spirit from the never world as I had thought. This man was an albino.
I blushed and extended my hand, overcompensating for my embarrassment.
The man removed a glove and shook my hand. His hand was white, his nails impeccably groomed.
He regarded me a moment. “You’re younger than I expected.”
I wondered what he meant by that.
He released by hand and perused the shop, letting one hand trace along a shelf where coarse bags of herbs sat in a row.
“May I help you?” I said.
He studied me, then took a step toward the counter. “I need something for . . .” He smiled as if a new thought occurred to him. “Something is ruining my sister’s garden.”
“I see,” I said. His answer threw me. “Your sister keeps a garden in the winter?”
He returned to the window. “In the conservatory, of course.”
The back of his coat was dry. He had not walked far in the snow. I hadn’t noticed the black carriage pulled by two black horses that waited in the street.
“Of course,” I said. “How big is it?”
He studied an alligator in one of the jars. “The conservatory?”
The man turned back to me, perplexed a moment. “Oh, whatever is ruining the garden.” His gaze followed a beam along the ceiling as he conjured the culprit in his mind.
According to a trick I learned from a buddy at Scotland Yard, if a man were right-handed, looking up and to the right like that meant he was lying.
“It must be quite large,” he said, then looked again at the street. “There are a great many people in the streets of London. Is it always like this?”
I didn’t answer. I had an idea why he had come, and it wasn’t for small talk. I returned to the counter.
The man noticed my silence. He watched my every move as I placed a small bag on the counter.
“This is Belladonna,” I said. “They call it the devil’s plant.”
His face remained expressionless, but he approached the counter.
I fought to disguise my growing disdain for him. “They say the devil travels the earth each day, tending and trimming it. It can only be harvested one night of the year when he is preparing for the witches’ sabbath. That is the only time it is safe to take a plant without running into him.”
The man appeared interested. “Do you believe in such things?”
“I believe in being cautious,” I said. “I only gather it during that one night each year.”
He lifted the bag with his right hand, proving that he had been lying. I looked him in the eye, but he looked away.
“Would it take much?” he said.
I wasn’t certain I wanted to continue, but I needed the business. Smith would come for rent that afternoon.
I said, “It is very potent.”
“I wouldn’t want anyone . . .” He caught himself, but realizing I understood, he continued, “. . . realizing what I had done.”
I did not know this man from Adam. What difference would it make in the long run? Just one of the idle rich killing off another. After all, weren’t they the true pernicious influences? If I refused to sell him the poison, he would just buy it elsewhere.
I knew whatever I said next would commit me. I took a deep breath. “I bet you’re a clever enough man that no one will suspect a thing.”
The man grinned. His teeth were yellow.
He reached into the breast of his coat and drew out a purse, then poured several coins into his hand, far more than the belladonna was worth. He nodded to me. I was to put out my hand.
My hand began to tremble.
The man hesitated before releasing the coins. He said, “I imagine you will be discrete.” It wasn’t a question.
I forced a smile. “I am the soul of discretion.”
He dropped the coins into my hand. “Yes, I suspect you are.”
I stared at the coins. I closed my fist around them. They were still warm from the heat of the man’s body, making me aware of the level of intimacy I now shared with him and with the entire affair.
The man returned to the door and jerked it open. I heard nothing but my own heartbeat and the pale man’s voice.
“Thank you,” he said.
I could not think how to respond.
The man stepped into the street, and as the black carriage and horses drove away, I wondered if this was how Judas had felt accepting blood money.
End of Chapter
The preceding is a weekly fiction series, first-draft chapters of a work-in-progress Urban Fantasy and Suspense Novel set in Victorian London, Chronicle of the Raven, by Terry Heath.
To follow this story as it is written, subscribe at terryheath.com/newsletter and select Early Editions or subscribe to the podcast. Follow Terry’s behind-the-scenes writer’s work through his podcast, Indie Author’s Journey.