Podcast of this Chapter
London is made for walking, for seeing and being seen. Which is why, after closing the shop early, I paid ninepence for an omnibus to the edge of the city.
The omnibus cad, a dandy in his white top hat and green coat, assured me there was room in the better seats on the roof, but I declined climbing the narrow iron stairs and sat in the cloistered section below, near an attractive woman who wore a red dress and coat.
The omnibus’ velvet seats were deceptively luxurious. They failed to hide how the air inside held you by the throat when you tried to breathe. I ran the risk of getting my pocket picked or my personal space compromised in some other unappealing way, but I didn’t only want to go unseen, I wanted to crawl under a rock.
The cad swung from his leather strap at the back of the bus, packing in more passengers, when a lighted blue orb stopped outside the window beside me, another fairy. Wonderful. It was Pea Blossom, and she looked mad as blazes.
The other passengers couldn’t see her, their eyes unattuned to these things, so they didn’t notice when she buzzed around back, through the door, and hovered three inches in front of my face.
I couldn’t help flinching.
“You stay away from him,” she said. Her voice was stout for such a small fairy. “And you keep that juice to yourself.”
I sighed. This was about dragon venom.
I performed my best ventriloquist act, trying to look like I wasn’t talking to myself. “You got it wrong. I don’t sell that.”
The attractive woman in the red dress gave me a look. I tipped my hat. The cad closed the door, and the omnibus lurched forward.
Pea Blossom persisted. “That’s not what I heard. And it’s not what I seen, either. I seen him at your shop.” She shook her tiny fist. “You stay away from that one.”
“Fairy love,” I mumbled under my breath.
I looked her straight in the eyes, hoping to point out the obvious. “Well, if you saw him in my shop, then you know I didn’t give him anything.”
She remained stumped only a moment. “Don’t matter. Stay away just the same.”
There would be no debating her logic.
The other passengers eyed me with suspicion. I tried to pass it off with a friendly smile, but the little fairy kicked me in the face a few times, so all I could manage was something like a grimace as the metallic taste of blood seeped into my mouth.
Watching me, the attractive woman’s eyes grew round.
“I am warning you,” the tenacious fairy said. “You don’t know whom you’re messing with.”
I couldn’t resist. “That would sound a lot more intimidating coming from someone a bit taller.”
Her eyes flared. She reared back. The blue orb around her grew.
Me and my big mouth. This wasn’t going to be good.
The tiny blue orb crashed through the side of the omnibus like a steam locomotive. Shards of dark wood rained into the cabin. The other passengers didn’t have to be attuned to anything to see that. They panicked, perhaps thinking they were under fire.
The fairy burst through the omnibus wall in another place on her way back, creating another explosion of shattered wood. The bus rocked onto two wheels, and a woman with the voice of a Valkyrie screamed.
I weighed the options, swallowing the blood that had pooled between my cheek and gums, and concentrated to shape the fear and confusion of the passengers into a wall of protective energy around the bus.
When my little friend tried to blast the omnibus a third time, she hit that wall and bounced off it like a shuttlecock.
That’s when Pea Blossom turned her attack on the horses. The horses had no idea what was attacking them, which according to horse logic, meant they should go crashing through the crowded streets of London at full speed.
Pedestrians dove out of the way, and a coffee stall barely avoided a crash that would have reduced it to rubble. The passengers fought towards the door for escape. I wasn’t feeling too calm myself. Then we experienced the sickening feeling of sliding out of control as the omnibus whipped sideways, taking out a vendor or two and grazing an iron lamp post.
When the horses had grown tired of terrorizing the streets of London, they stopped, their nostrils steaming and hooves stomping, and for a moment, the entire menagerie sat in stunned silence.
The cad threw the door open. His face was nearly as red as the rose he wore in his lapel, an unlikely shade against his blue and white gavotte. He surveyed the passengers and the extent of the damage. The driver soon joined him, peering wide-eyed through the door.
The attractive woman in the red dress pointed to me. “It was him,” she said with a heavy brogue. “I seen him. He turned an eye on me, flaming eyes like a demon from Hell, then he whispered an incantation, in Greek, I think it was, and blazed two great holes in the side of the wagon with just his eyes. Then he put a hex on the horses, trying to get us all killed so he could drag our lifeless bodies back to Hell.”
The driver and the cad gaped in awe. So did I.
The driver lifted his whip, hand trembling, choking back his fear. “Get off,” he said. “Get off the omnibus, or I call the police.”
What do you say to a mob of angry Londoners who witnessed you practicing magic in the public streets? You don’t say anything. You leave when you are told, and try to do so with as little fuss as possible.
Christmas may have been coming, but my goose was already cooked.
The Council would hear about a wizard who wreaked havoc on the city’s public transportation system. It wouldn’t take them many guesses to figure who that was.
I walked. I didn’t care where. I wanted to leave before any police might arrive. As I passed under a tree, a familiar little fairy voice drifted through the branches, laughing.
I didn’t look up.
“Don’t think I won’t drag you down with me,” I said. “You know this is going to get the Council’s dander up.”
Pea Blossom stopped laughing and stood with one hand on her hip. “But they’re not going to get reports about a fairy,” she said in a sing-song voice. “They’re going to get reports about a wizard trying to get everybody killed on an omnibus. As far as anybody knows, as far as the Council will hear, I weren’t even there.”
And then she was gone. Fairies are good at disappearing.
What made it worse was that she was right.
As I rounded the next corner, I changed my mind. What made it worse wasn’t that the fairy was right. What made it worse was that my landlord’s attorney, Mr. Smith, approached up the block.
I turned on my heels and retraced my steps, but in doing so I became aware of two men who were apparently following me.
I locked eyes with one of them. The man broke into a dead run. Toward me.
I ran too, back toward Mr. Smith, and tipped my hat as I ran past him. He looked surprised, but probably even more so by the two men chasing me.
I have established London was made for walking. It certainly wasn’t made for running, especially in the snow. I struggled to keep my feet underneath me and hoped the two men faced the same problem.
I rounded another corner onto a less-crowded sidestreet, and three things became crystal clear. This new street was a dead end, the two men were getting closer, and there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in Hell I would get away.
All I could do was brace myself, again.
It started snowing, huge flakes making it difficult to see. I blinked to keep the snowflakes from my eyes.
The two men followed me around the corner, then seeing me, quit running. I wasn’t going anywhere.
I felt my pulse in my teeth. The taste of blood still lingered from the attentions of my little fairy friend. My lungs ached from gulping the cold air.
I had no idea who these men were or what they wanted, but I had given up hope they were collecting for charity.
The shorter of the two men approached. I couldn’t tell if he was smirking because he had me or because his lungs hurt as much as mine.
“Why was you running?” he said in a voice like a snake. “We just want to talk to you.”
When somebody wants to talk to you, the effort they’ll make to arrange it depends upon the urgency of their message. Judging from the effort these gentlemen extended, I guessed they had a fairly urgent message.
“Okay,” I said. “Talk.” I hoped that sounded tough, but really, it was all I could choke out.
“We got a message for you.” The thug’s eyes made him appear even more snakelike. “A message from Bobby Pancrackle.”
That name sounded like someone in a Dickens novel.
“Okay,” I said, thinking I could spit out a full sentence now. “What’s the message?”
The little thug slithered closer. “The message has got two parts to it,” he said. “For the first part, quit trying to take Mr. Pancrackle’s clients.”
I didn’t know who Mr. Pancrackle was, and I didn’t know who his clients were. I just wanted to get the rest of the message and get on with my life, such as it was.
“Okay,” I said. “What’s the second part?”
He pulled out a knife, and I no longer wanted to hear the second part.
I tried stalling. “So who is this Mr. Pancrackle?”
The snake graciously accepted the momentary delay. “Mr. Pancrackle is a businessman.”
“Yeah?” I said. “And what does he do?”
The man frowned. “He provides a service.”
The short thug exchanged looks with the taller thug.
“Mr. Pancrackle supplies his clients,” he said, his voice pointed, “with dragon venom.”
The messenger took another step, brandishing his knife. Its blade flickered. He coiled back an arm to strike.
I had already practiced magic in the streets once today, so what the hell? I prepared to create another protective shield, but to my surprise, the little thug froze, mid-lunge.
I mean that literally. He froze. Not only him, but everything froze. The falling snow froze, mid-air.
And I hadn’t done it, but I had an idea who had. I could hear him breathing behind me.
“Hey, Bill,” I said, tossing a glance over my shoulder.
His real name wasn’t Bill. Like the fairies and any sensible creature from the never world who had the occasion to deal with a wizard, he withheld his real name from me. I called him Bill after Bill Sikes, the bad guy in Oliver Twist.
Have you heard the saying, “Out of the frying pan and into the fire?”
“Fry,” Bill’s voice thundered. “I have been searching for you.”
Bill was a great brooding hulk, everything I imagined his namesake to be, malicious, murderous. Except, he wasn’t a man. I didn’t know Bill’s true form. Like most beings from the never world, Bill took human form when he entered the human world. I imagined he was something like a horse or an ox, something big and a bit slow around the edges.
“Thanks, Bill,” I retorted. “I’ve been missing you too.”
Bill never understood my humor.
“You have been performing magic,” Bill said. “It is forbidden.”
Bill always got straight to the point.
“I know,” I said. “I had to. Pea Blossom was out of control and someone was going to get hurt. I had to do something to protect . . .”
Bill waved my words away like swatting at a slow fly. His face was expressionless, which was how it looked all the time, but I could tell he hadn’t heard about my latest escapade. I shifted gears.
“You know, none of those potions I make are real. They just give people the courage to do what they could have done on their own anyway.”
Bill looked at me like I was a firecracker spinning out of control, which wasn’t far from how I felt.
“Must you always speak?” Bill said.
I responded with reluctant silence.
Bill cleared his throat. “I am here to deliver charges. How do you plea?”
He missed that he hadn’t actually stated the charges. I almost brought that up, but opted for a stock answer. “Not guilty?”
Bill sneered. “Not surprising.” There was almost the trace of an emotion on his face, but I wasn’t certain what that emotion might be. “Then you shall face the judgment of the Council in three days time.”
I needed more information. “Can you remind me what those charges are?”
Bill glanced at me with his customary patronizing look.
“You are charged with practicing magic despite the current moratorium,” Bill said, “thereby jeopardizing the lives of creatures whose existence depends upon the preservation of each remnant of the diminishing magic supply in this and all other realms.” He took a breath. “If you are found guilty, you will be executed. Do you have questions?”
I stood blinking, wondering if Bill understood half the words he rattled off.
“No,” I said. That wasn’t exactly correct, but I wasn’t going to get any real information from Bill.
Bill nodded toward the Pancrackle thug, still frozen and more ridiculous than menacing. “I will give you thirty seconds before action within this realm resumes.” He looked at me, and I thought I saw a gleam in his eye. “We would not want this man exercising justice before the Council had taken the opportunity.”
I sighted the distance back to the main road. Thirty seconds would get me back around the corner, but would hardly give me an advantage.
“Could you make it . . .” I said. But Bill was gone.
I wondered if the thirty seconds had started. I headed out, but stopped after a few steps, returned to Mr. Pancrackle’s messenger, and pried the knife from his frozen hand.
I rounded the corner and blended into the throngs. The world returned to life, but the longer I walked, the less I cared whom I might face.
It was late evening when I faced the truth.
End of Chapter
The preceding is a 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.