Existence is smoke and all are fireflies in its belly. Time is not so much a thing as a state of mind. There are but membranes between all the worlds and the man whose mind is a knife may travel between them at will. A mind is often a simple thing. Many such minds, like sheep, may be herded. These are the things Vespesian knows.
Rain falls delicate as lace. The sky lowers, a frowning eye. His feet glide, silent, upon concrete, then cobble, then stone, then concrete again. When they strike cobble and lift to fall on concrete a sneaking tendril of thick, yellowish fog occasionally trails in their wake. His shoes are snakeskin, pointed, with steel gilding the soles like armour but Vespesian walks in-between and in absolute control.
Fragile as veils, the membranes move before him. In this place lives upon lives, the scuttling of them like ants within the void, have rendered the membranes thin. Vespesian strolls down Pall Mall toward St James, each step landing in foreign time, on foreign ground. He knows his destination but he is, at the moment, enjoying his little game of wandering.
Eventually he comes to a door that, in this London of the present, is the bland-faced entrance to a residence of luxury flats. Should he step through the membranes and into its history, he’d find but one family in semi-stately residence, making preparation for the short Season. Much like the collection of strangers now courting the halls of this building, they too would be more than a little surprised to find the hulking mass of Vespesian at their threshold. What fortune, then, that he is here for neither household.
Indeed, it is sideways, not through time but through places, nameless and multitude, that he must step to reach the great oak door which is both entrance and shield for the residence with whose inhabitants he has an appointment. It lies in a place between worlds, carefully concealed from prying eyes and, ever-more dangerous, prying minds. Vespesian dances gracefully to his left. Faceless black inset with charmless glass portions shades through a variety of materials, of colours, before it coalesces to ponderous, noble oak, unmarred by brush or glass.
He raises a hand sheathed in the snug grasp of fine leather, knocks thrice upon the solid, ancient face of the hidden doorway. Soft, subtle, in the backs of his eyes, he feels her prying. Their witch. Their seeress. Her touch no more gentle than a needle burns tunnels, blights his sight with lightning flashes of searing pain. Lesser minds would bleed under her vicious ministrations. He stands and endures.
One day, he has promised himself, when all this business is concluded, when he is no longer obligated, he will take her throat within his hands and choke the life, the power, from her body. It will be most gratifying.
Moe reaches again into the pocket of his jacket, tugs out the note. Read and re-read many times it unfolds into his hand elegant as a flower opening to the sun, and he reads again the words written in haste by his good friend and boss, Andreus Witter.
My dear Moe
I have been called away on business of a rather sensitive nature. There is an elderly client of mine who wishes to sell some of her more precious items and I am to help her decide which she will sell. Naturally these items have been in her family for many generations and she is quite unhappy to be forced to such circumstances. What is unfortunate for this client of mine is doubtless to be a boon for us, it is unlikely that we will ever lay eyes upon such precious items ever again in our careers. I will return on Monday morning, no later than 10 am. In my absence I am placing you in command of operations.
Moe’s brows dip as he reads the words over and over. Outside the dim tunnel of the underground blurs past his window. The train bobs to and fro as it races through the darkness, arrows for the light and relief of the next station. Legs akimbo, apt as a sailor on the open sea, he sways in time to the motion, one hand looped about a pole.
‘Monday,’ he murmurs to himself. ‘Definitely Monday. No doubt whatsoever.’ And his face gives way to a full frown of concern natural as the creases in the note itself as this expression has had much cause to sit upon his face of late.
Monday has come and gone, the sun rising and falling sure as it always does and, sure as always, the sun has risen and fallen a full three times since, but there has been no sign of Andreus. A late arriver to the 21st century, Andreus has only this past year owned a mobile. It’s rarely remembered and even more rarely charged but it has rung every time Moe’s called it these past four days, yet never been answered. That alone has his innards tied to a Poacher’s knot.
He’s agonised over what he should do, aware that the circumstances of Andreus’ absence may have affected the length thereof. To choose between treasures is surely a task of no small pain for one who is unwilling to part with said. But fours days and no word. Not even a whisper. A secondary note. Andreus would surely let him know that his client is taking longer than expected to decide?
Moe sighs, refolds the note and replaces it back in his pocket.
‘Of course he’d call,’ he says to himself. ‘And if he couldn’t call he’d send word any way he could. So if he hasn’t then he can’t for whatever reason, and I should worry. I should most definitely worry.’
Which is why Moe is on this foolish quest to Randall’s to hunt down Rolf. If anyone can sift through the world to find Andreus, it is Rolf. Moe’s worried about asking because both Rolf and Margo are different these days. Darker, less stable. The light in their eyes has dimmed as if some secret hand had stolen half their luminance from within. If any harm has come to Andreus it may damage Rolf to witness it, going as he must so deep into the landscape of the mind.
Moe remembers all too clearly how he sat with Rolf rested between his legs in the belly of the Peggy Dunne, his heart twisting to a Gordian knot of confusion, pain, unwilling attraction as Rolf, locked in the minds of those aboard, searched for the angel and wept. Margo would not forgive him if that should happen again and, moreover, Moe would not forgive himself.
He stares blindly out at the pipes of the subway, the tangle of varicose veins carrying electricity deep into the Earth. Watches without seeing as they zip past, are replaced by a collection of archways, at first mere ornamentation, then transformed to eyeless sockets sheathed by dirty lengths of wire fencing. They draw his eyes, unerring, into their depths.
In the gloom red lights appear. Moe leans in to the glass, straining to see as the train rushes onward. Like objects at a distance sprung to definition by a telescope the lights transform to eyes. Despotic orbs of whirling ruby they leer at him. Moe freezes, his heart thudding hard and heavy under constricted ribs as the eyes loom forth, as jaws stuffed with teeth manifest beneath those cruel red glows and drool, steam rising from between fangs and curled lips.
Gradual as a photograph they develop torsos; limbs crouched as if in readiness to leap. Claws sheathed in the dirt, hindquarters bunched. Massive muscles ripple above shoulders in powerful waves but their bodies shudder with more than contained power. Moe is certain that if he could hear them beneath the rattle of the train, the whoosh of walls, they would be growling. Sounds to curdle the blood, to stop the heart’s tympanic beat.
He places his hands on the glass, leans till his nose touches, puffs clouds of white with each heavy breath, watches them with all the concentration they afford him. Though the train speeds past he sees them only in slow motion, even as they collect their limbs beneath them, even as their jaws crack wide and hatred spits from the pits of their eyes.
Then darkness gives way to light. Walls flash to open space. The platform, filled with bustling bodies, ricochets into view. Moe closes his eyes, rests his forehead on the glass, breathing, just breathing, until the train slides to a halt in a slew of screeching brakes, then he leaps for the light, for the platform, for safety.
He swipes his way through barriers and strides on swift feet into the belching roar of the streets above. Sighs with absolute relief as daylight and mayhem swallow him whole, carry him away. He sucks in great cold belts of air, hoping to expunge from his body the after-effect of those moments on the train. But even though he cannot see them, though he checks that they do not follow him, he feels those eyes on the back of his skull all the way to the chiming door of Randall’s book store.
‘It’s a pleasure to see you again, Mr. Vespesian.’
Vespesian inclines his head. He’s no real desire to respond unless absolutely necessary. The witch stands just behind the chair in which his current employer reclines, hungry to hear his voice, to do her job. To pluck from the bones of his voice the meat of his meaning, to suck from thence the hidden marrow. He must be sure he is leached of all nuance before he utters one syllable. Quiet and shielded in an impenetrable barrier of will, he irons out those very few motes that may provide her sustenance.
‘I know you are not fond of being called to our headquarters. I appreciate your concern that it exposes us to possible disclosure. There are some heavy players in this game and some remarkably gifted amateurs. But I would not have called you were it not imperative that I say this direct to your face.’
Vespesian, satisfied that he is empty of any betraying inflection, responds. ‘It is regrettable that you feel the need but I understand the desire to be cogent. Pray continue.’
His employer nods gratefully. The witch, for her part, lifts one corner of a lip, unable to contain her fury at being entirely incapable of gleaning anything from her employer’s new favourite toy. She will be sure to warn her employer later on, in the privacy of his rooms, that this one is far from a toy and is not playing the game he has been set upon.
‘I’m sure you are aware of what happened to Eustacia Hermaini?’
Vespesian inclines his head once more. ‘I am.’
‘To my mind,’ his employer says thoughtfully, ‘that much in itself is a game changer and I should therefore like to be in charge of whatever changes the game should make.’
‘A wise decision,’ Vespesian allows, though he believes that this game lies deep within the smoke and all these fireflies who seek to direct it to their tune will find, to their dismay, that smoke is not a thing to be directed. It billows and rises where it will and only those who become smoke themselves have any hope of surviving.
‘In that case,’ his employer continues, ‘I am retracting the assassination contract.’
Vespesian, under his own tight control, nonetheless cannot prevent an eyelid from twitching oh so slightly. ‘Is that so?’ he asks and it is only the witch, paling in the shadows behind their employer, who catches the violence concealed within that bland utterance.
‘What I have in mind you may find a little more… interesting,’ his employer says, his tone arch and complicit as though he holds some secret delight to share.
‘I have set a little plan into motion,’ his employer says, a ripple of uncontrolled malice running like toxin through the warm river of his voice, ‘and I should very much like for you to conduct the proceedings.’
‘Does it involve the targets?’
‘Oh yes,’ Vespesian’s employer assures him, ‘it could not in fact continue without their inclusion, for they are both cast and victim of my little ploy.’
His employer pulls from his desk a thin, card file and slides it across to Vespesian. ‘Within this file are the specifics, the blueprints if you will, of a little wobble in time I have engineered. The bait has been laid, the cast in is place. You, my good Mr. Vespesian shall play as shepherd and huntsman in a game of time-travelling chess.’
Despite himself, Vespesian is intrigued. The momentary twinge of anger he experienced when he thought himself denied the removal of those more interesting flaws is gone, replaced with a well-controlled elation. The game has in truth deepened, gained far more satisfying dimensions. The flaws are to be used as pawns. There is little doubt that pawns are expendable and, when their part is done, he will have the distinct pleasure of removing them from the board. But before that pleasurable denouement, oh before, there shall be fine sport.
He scents on the breeze the stench of their blood within his nostrils, those finely tuned instruments of deduction, and allows a thin smile to sneak across his face. Both his employer and the witch, seeing it, will experience a seeping of cold terror in their bones, he knows, for his is the face of smoke, the face of their mortality, smiling upon them.
They, too, are but flaws, insignificant fireflies and, when this business is done, Vespesian’s will be the last face they see before they are welcomed to infinity.
© Ren Warom 2011