Chapter One: Macon
They say technology will one day appear indistinguishable from magic. I hope every day that magic will remain indistinguishable from technology.
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 apothecary shop.
The door to the street swung open. I didn’t bother looking up. It would either be Solicitor Smyth to collect the rent or one of the protestors who hung around outside the shop. I wasn’t excited to see either.
Noise from Fleet Street flooded the room, the rumbling of hooves and heels against granite pavers, muffled slightly by fresh morning snow. London was never quiet.
A small voice rose above the din. “You don’t have to appear so unhappy to see me, Macon Fry.”
Had I looked up, I would have appeared even more unhappy. I wasn’t in the mood for dealing with fairies.
I glanced over the counter. The fairy I call Puck hovered in a ball of blue light at the middle of the room, looking very much like Cupid on a Valentine’s Day card. That 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 like me.
I went back to stirring my potion. “Would you mind closing the door?”
“Is that how you greet all your customers?” he said, flying back to close the door. “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 somehow managed to deposit a coin there, nearly as large as himself. I hadn’t seen many paying customers since the protestors started convincing everyone my apothecary shop was “a pernicious influence upon the impressionable young men of London.” 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, mildly curious. “Certainly,” I said. “What ails you?”
Puck knitted his eyebrows. “You know,” he said. “I want what everyone is drinking these days.”
I frowned and returned to my stirring. “Does this place look like one of those coffee stalls?”
He knitted his eyebrows. “That isn’t what I meant.” He dropped his voice to a whisper. I could barely hear him over the noise that leaked in from the street. “I want what they call . . . dragon venom.”
I hadn’t expected that. As far as I knew, Puck never messed with it. I had almost respected him for that.
I narrowed my eyes. “You know it’s illegal, not to mention lethal. I don’t sell it.”
Puck cocked his head to the side and arched an eyebrow. “That’s not what I hear.”
“You hear wrong, Puck.”
He flinched whenever I called him that. He must not have known the name was straight out of Shakespeare. As if fairies can read.
Puck 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. “The one I call Pea Blossom is wrong!”
He sat back and crossed his arms, although he wasn’t actually sitting on anything but air.
I returned to my stirring. “Why would you even want to mess with it?”
“It isn’t for me,” he sighed. “It’s for a friend.”
I gave him a disapproving grunt.
Puck watched me a moment, then tried another tactic. He flew closer and let a tear roll over his cheek, then wiped it away with an expansive sweep of his arm.
I wasn’t buying the act. Fairies are good at crocodile tears.
“You ain’t got no heart,” he whined, his hands on his hips.
He thought a moment, then buzzed the counter again and deposited another coin, just as shiny, just as worth a lot of rent.
I must admit. My resolve began to waver. Perhaps I could find a supplier after all. I drew a long breath, considering the options.
Puck watched my struggle silently, his blue orb glowing victoriously.
Irritating as they can be, these fairies are my friends, comrades in arms. The little fairy couldn’t have known what he was messing with.
I backed away from the counter and put up my hands. “Sorry, friend. 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, exasperated. “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 pretended not to notice. “My friend hasn’t been doing well. That stuff he’s been getting lately is making him sick.”
The little guy was worried about his friend. I could almost like him for that. I thought about really making him angry and giving him a hug or patting him on the head.
I glanced out the window to the protestors on the street. Is turning down two gold coins what a truly pernicious influence would do?
I was about to inquire where his friend had gotten this bad batch o 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 din of the street flooded the shop once more.
Max awoke and spread his wings in confusion. He had been a wizard centuries ago, but now he is a raven. The Council assigned me to take care of him, their idea of a retirement plan for wizards. Max bolted out the door.
I followed him as far as the threshold and pushed the heavy oak door closed, thankful Max preferred taking his morning constitutional outside, then returned to my potion.
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 ought to know. But I was only making snake oil really, very popular among young gentlemen who wanted to improve prospects under the mistletoe this Christmas.
I closed the drawstring and returned the herbs to the drawer, restraining myself from making too large a batch. Such economy had been 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.
If the protestors meant to end pernicious influences, they should have gone after the gentlemen who published the penny dreadfuls. Both of us only gave the public what they wanted, but the publishers used enormous printing presses and consumed paper by the mile. I used a shovel and dug roots from the forest. So the publishers attracted the praise of the industrialist tycoons, and I attracted the scorn of the protestors, the bored offspring of the industrialists, each one born with a silver spoon in his mouth.
I didn’t deserve their scorn. It wasn’t as though I was practicing actual magic. If I had been, I could have stopped the protesters with a good old-fashioned hex.
Besides, I had already sold my magic wand last year to pay the rent.
Being sole proprietor of an apothecary shop can be a challenge. I wasn’t proud of selling snake oils like this one, but they paid the rent, or at least partly.
I was about to start pouring the potion into bottles when the door rattled the shopkeeper bell again and someone stepped in, a man much taller than me but with a similarly slim build.
I didn’t know who this man might be, 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 withheld the jeers that usually accompanied anyone who entered my shop, which they had.
My reaction was probably for the same reason the protesters outside had remained silent. The man’s face was ghostly white. So was his hair. But his most peculiar 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.
The man glanced around the shop, and in the shifting light, his eyes changed to the palest blue I had ever seen, nearly translucent. I had read about such an effect somewhere, an old medical book, I believe. I flushed with embarrassment. This man was flesh and blood after all, not some spirit from the never world as I had imagined. He was merely an albino.
I jumped from behind the counter, overcompensating for my reclusant greeting, but the man removed a glove and graciously accepted my outstretched hand.
His hand was white as his glove, his nails impeccably groomed.
He regarded me a moment, then released the handshake and returned to the shelves that spanned the large bay windows at the front of the shop. The bottles there caught the light and their contents glowed, red, yellow, blue.
“You’re younger than I expected,” he said, without turning to me.
I wondered what he had meant by that.
He let one hand trace along a shelf, purising the coarse bags of herbs lined up in a row, though not giving them his full attention.
“May I be of assistance?” I said.
He studyied me, then finally took a step toward the counter. “I need something for . . . “ He thought a moment. “A rabbit.”
I replied dumbly, “A rabbit?”
The man nodded, his face stoic. “Yes. Something is eating all the greenery in my sister’s garden.”
I opened my mouth a moment too soon, unable to think what to say after all.
“I see,” I stuttered. “Your sister keeps a garden in the winter?”
He scanned the jars in the window. “In the conservatory, of course.”
The back of his coat was dry. He had not walked far in the snow.
“Of course,” I said. “How big is it?”
He was examining an alligator in one of the jars. “The conservatory?” he said.
He looked me, perplexed a moment. “Oh, the rabbit.” He turned to the ceiling, tilting his head to one side as he conjured the rabbit in his mind.
According to a trick I learned from a Bobby at Scotland Yard, if a man were right-handed, looking up and to the right, as this man was doing, meant he was lying.
He finally said, “It is very large.” He 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 produced a small burlap bag and set it on the counter.
“This is Belladonna,” I said. “They call it the devil’s plant.”
He remained expressionless, but approached the counter.
I fought to disguise my growing disdain for this man as I realized what his business in my shop must be. “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 had not examined my guise too closely. “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, which confirmed he had been lying. I looked him in the eyes, but he looked away.
“Would it take much?” he said.
I had grown less certain I wanted to continue this transaction.
“It is very potent,” I said.
“I wouldn’t want anyone . . .” He caught himself. “Any of the other rabbits realizing what I had done.”
I needed the business. Barrister Smyth would be there to collect that same afternoon. I considered the situation. I did not know this man from Adam. What difference would it make in the long run? If I refused to sell him the poison, he would simply buy it elsewhere.
I took a slow breath. “I bet you’re a clever enough man that none of the other rabbits will suspect a thing.”
The man grinned. His teeth were yellow.
He reached into 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, and I knew I was to put out my hand.
My hand began to tremble.
The man hesitated before dropping the coins into my hand. He said, “I imagine you will be discrete.” It wasn’t a question.
I knew whatever I said next would commit me.
Without thinking too much about it, I said, “I am the soul of discretion.”
He gave a sly smile and released the coins into my hand. “Yes, I suspect you are.”
I stared at the coins. I understood what the extras were for. 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, jarring the bell and making it ring again. The sound of my heartbeat in my ears muffled the noise outside. I heard nothing but the bell and the pale man’s voice.
“Thank you,” he said.
I could not think how to respond.
The man stepped into the busy street and closed the door, and I wondered if this might be how Judas 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.
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