being a partial, partially abandoned work I may return to at some point
The sky above the tower was that perfect shade of the instant between night and morning, disappearing infinitely up into a blue so deep it was almost purple: it was like standing at the bottom of a drop of water. And the sun was rising, and crystal-blue eyes blinked, softly, and saw that it was good.
The brass of the rooftops caught the light and shared it even-handedly, sparkling into a patchwork of individual little stars, and the corner of a smile lifted. The world was carpeted with light as far as could be seen, monuments and towers peeking heads over the sea of buildings, tied tightly in with the warp and weft of city streets. And the sky was cloudless, and to those eyes, in that moment, there had bever been anything quite so beautiful.
The air was just starting to move, a gentle stirring breeze to brush the dust off the streets: the thermals would be stirring even now, as the world awoke to the sun’s touch. Yes, it was glorious. A slight shifting forward of weight, poised and balanced perfectly, and all was in readiness, breathlessly held for the first headlong instant of motion:
The freedom of falling. Less than a second’s worth, priceless beyond all things, the sheer exhilarating aerodynamic rush as height becomes speed –
And that first marvellous instant of air beneath spread wings, the tiniest flex of wingtips and trailing edge to take that single step from falling to flying and
The sound of music, and crystal-blue eyes flicked resignedly open.
The bed wasn’t the problem. The springs of the mattress had clearly been new once, and not that long ago at that: the sheets were clean, and not uncomfortably thin or coarse: it was neither overly small nor overly large. The nightstand, too, deserved no blame: it was a small and well-made thing of brass and white lacquer, and its feet were little claws as if it were clinging tightly to the floor: and nobody could begrudge it that. There was a glass there and a pitcher, their contents as always untouched, though doubtless perfectly good.
The wireless set, too, was almost the exact opposite of objectionable. Even now, a coiled horn on the far wall was singing in close harmony concerning the subject of flowers, kittens, and other small, cute, sparkly and occasionally edible objects, and how the singers used memory of such as a bulwark against the dark clouds of a world otherwise unreferenced. So much as one might have envied the singers (if singers there were), the object itself was not so much a horn as a window: and for that it was a good thing, rather than a bad, surely.
It was, then, the bars. Co-conspirators, possibly, and one supposes that they never had been asked whether they wished for more (or less, indeed) than their role in life: yet as tools of oppression, one could not have asked for better than the serried ranks of brass and iron that divided the space of the room. The one side, soft carpet, soft furnishings, the bed, the nightstand: the other side, blueprints, instruments, ingredients, a table of the kind confusingly labelled ‘bench’. But it was nevertheless the bars that lent a decided air to proceedings, fault or no, making a cage out of a bedroom and a gaol of a lab.
The door, as well. No true door, of course: by the simple expedient of a wheel it was securely fastened, and a keyhole in the centre gave further hint if hint were needed, and it did not even have the decency to be opaque. Definitely a cage, then, or perhaps – yes – a cell. The cell. The same windowless cell, and the same brass-chased ceiling that sparkled in the arc-lamp like an upside-down carpet of tiny and caged stars. The same cell as last time; the same cell as next time would be. Caught: stuck: prisoned. The only window, the horn of a wireless set.
They sang on, arms linked. (The dress had been a hit: people could see her stockinged knees on occasion, but arguably they were supposed to.) The song, too, a window into a world long-forgotten, Austrian hills that nobody alive had ever walked, flowers that none of the singers had ever seen in the flesh, foods none of them would ever taste. Even paper: who made paper brown, or wasted it on packing material? But the sentiment – ah! – that was as clear to them as if they’d breathed it in with the smog.
I don’t mean to give the impression that these were the singers of the music-hall stage, mind, nor was Vinnie more than peripherally associated with the songwriter – does the exploitation of a strictly one-way romantic interest to get an invitation to the opening night count? – but there’s no tune that carries quite so well as enthusiasm, and in each young mind the drunken chorus was transfigured by the alchemy of camaraderie into the tour-de-force that the morning’s newspapers would be crying to the rafters. The whole evening had been one long litany of success, and here they were working their way from its second act – gin – to the dance-hall where the third act would be undertaken; and Vinnie’s ideas were firmly set on the possibility of – if you know what I mean – a fourth (and fifth, and maybe sixth: she was feeling lucky, and didn’t have the early shift to-morrow). It was good to be alive.
And then they turned the familiar corner and there was the Split Ring, their goal: and the cigarette fell out of its holder.
Vinnie swore like a lady and rummaged. The little case was pewter, but nobody would see that in the street-lighting… Damnation. She raised her voice. “Hey! I’m out.” Waved the cigarette-holder in attemptedly ironic fashion. “Anyone have succour for a damsel in distress?”
“I’ve been one all my life, m’dear.” Biff laughed louder at his own jokes than anyone else: the cigarette-case he casually tossed her was solid silver.
“Cheers.” She flipped it open. Better brand than hers.
“What friends are for. Don’t smoke ’em all at once, hear?”
She laughed and stole a second.
The assistant came at the same time each day.
It was uncharitable to think of him as anything more sinister; the bars of the cage were as much to blame as he, and his superiors paid him the approximate same amount of attention. A mixture needed to be mixed, and added to things, and a procedure followed, every day at the same time. Glassware clinked. Colours changed. Crystal blue eyes dully observed a process that was as familiar as getting dressed in the morning –
No, that was wrong.
Should one say something?
Wrong, wrong, wrong. One supposes that if the assistant is shown no attention, one should not expect attentiveness from him: nevertheless, surely one should realise that the mixture in the flask should go colourless upon addition of…?
He stepped back from the bench abruptly, pulling his hands back as if stung. Cried out a name, an unfamiliar one. Louder, the second time, when there wasn’t an immediate response. Smoke was abruptly spreading. A step backwards. Another. The sound of glass, cracking, slowly, as a noisome beige foam crawled its way up and out of the flask. Without a thought for the cell or its prisoner, the assistant retreated further –
A sudden spilling flood of impossibly caustic foam. The bench wasn’t proof, even, the brass fittings spitting, the marble cracking, another reagent vessel overturned and adding more foam and a horrible smell. The foam washing down off the bench and snarling its way across the floor: the bars smoking and hissing in the foul stuff.
Crystal blue eyes, wide with sudden realisation.
The sound and sense of impact, wild and determined.
Freedom. The sheer exhilarating aerodynamic rush as
This book of matches was quite unconscionably awful and the others and their fancy lighters had gone ahead. If she broke a nail on this perfect evening, then something else was getting broken.
The match caught and the tiny triumph was applied to its proper place in the world with an air of satisfaction and
The sky fell in.
Above her, a loud and splintering bang and a hungry roaring hiss; so close to that as to share the same instant, at ground level and terrifyingly close behind, a sharp and metallic crash, a plume of miscellaneous dust, and the sound of a dozen piles of things falling over.
Now, Vinnie was more than a little soused. And by the time she had registered that her head was still in the place that it usually was, and that all that was in her hair was dust, the little flame of her match had flickered its way out and – horror of horrors – the cigarette-holder and its booty had spun quite out of her hands entirely.
Vain grab, not assisted by an evening’s worth of gin: spin, spin, spin, horror. Sigh.
Well, at least the Floor was still downwards and the Roof was still up, and what had been… that…
So in the alley behind her, down the side of the dance-hall, where one presumes the rubbish went and the musicians arrived and so on, there was really quite a considerable cloud of dust: had something exploded? There was a veritable crater going on over there, a patter of debris, all of the rest of it. And barely audible under the echoes of whatever that hideous crashing sound had been, a voice, a sweet silvery voice.
“…height becomes speed,” the voice said, almost reflectively. An indrawn breath, with a bit of a hitch in it. “Ouch…”
Curiosity met with concern and made alliance. Vinnie tilted her head, squinted against the gloom and the cloud of dust. “Hello?”
“… help?” Eyes, crystal-blue eyes reflecting the street lighting. “Help me.”
A few steps forward. The eyes were set in a face, moon-pale, enviably blonde, pretty as a porcelain doll. Could be as old as eighteen. And the only fashion statement she was wearing was the statement that she woke up looking like this – that wasn’t a daringly fashionable dress, it was a shift. (Shut up, they’re not the same.) No shoes, either. And right in the middle of a crater in the Floor. What?
Vinnie stretched out a hand regardless. “Are you all right? Did something fall on you?”
A surprisingly firm grip. “It is rather, I think -” the girl weighed maybe a hundred pounds – “that I fell on something.” She winced as she stood. “My ankle, my right. I suppose that it may have broken.”
“If you can stand up, it isn’t broken at least.” Further evidence, of course, a few limping steps, though the girl was clearly going nowhere alone.
A face, around the corner. Biff. “You all right there, Vinnie? What exactly -” his eyes caught the girl. “Oh! Good evening! Friend of yours?”
Vinnie shot him a sharp look. “Hurt, Biff. It’s her ankle: no dancing for this one tonight. I’ll run her up to Doctor Goldstein’s, look.”
“You’ll miss the-”
“Back before you miss me.” A flash of a forced grin.
And surely he was enough of a gent to… No. The bloody man nodded and smiled. “Don’t take all night, all right?” Not even his bloody jacket.
“I won’t.” She fished out the little silver cigarette-case. “Catch.”
The girl had hold of Vinnie’s shoulder and arm, leaned heavily, but walked well enough: the ankle could not possibly be broken. “Did I overhear you mentioning a doctor?” Her voice was soft, as if she feared being overheard.
“Quite.” Vinnie kept her smile in place, because it wouldn’t help not to. “I know a good one, friend of my father. She’ll have your ankle right as-”
“No.” They turned the corner. “Doctors are bad for one.”
“Nonsense. Dr. Goldstein has treated me since I was knee-high to a grasshopper.”
“Please, miss.” Her expression was very serious. “If my ankle is indeed not broken-”
“Do I look like a doctor to you?”
“You do not,” she said earnestly. “Else I should have refused to come with you.”
“Then don’t take my medical advice. If you’d like -” heigh-ho, embarrassing admissions – “a seam welding or a sprocket tightening, then look no further, but I hardly know the first thing about sprained ankles, come on. Doctor.”
“No.” The girl didn’t take the next step and Vinnie nearly dragged her over.
Not in the mood for this. “Yes.”
“I shall run away.”
Sheer incredulity sent Vinnie’s eyebrows soaring. “How?”
The girl bit her lip. “I shall scream, then. I shall scream, and people shall hear and come running.”
“And see a lady trying to take her recalcitrant little sister to the-”
Vinnie was not expecting to be hugged almost violently around the midsection. The girl buried her head in Vinnie’s shoulder.
Pause. Frown. “So, um. Where did you think we were headed?”
“Outside.” The girl released her grip and looked up at Vinnie with crystal-blue eyes. “It is where I am headed.”
“What, Upstairs?” Vinnie frowned further. “At this time of night? The Lifts will be-”
A shake of the head. “No, silly. Outside. Outside the Walls. Outside the Roof.”
“Outside Outside? You mean, with all the -” Vinnie groped for things that were out there – “ligers and cameleopards and jackalopes, and, and weather and such?”
“Exactly.” Big smile.
“Is where you’re headed? Barefoot, bare-headed and precious little in between?”
“It is where I am from.”
Their carriage had taken them quite past the pair of young ladies in what passed for fashionable clothing this season, and around the final corner, and they arrived just as the Repair and Rescue were unloading their engine. A hole in the Ceiling, there was, still sullenly oozing with smoke. Something had fallen, and fallen with enough of an impact to make a little circular crater in the Floor: six feet to the left and it would have demolished the dance-hall in which festivities were in the middle of coming to a protracted and crashing halt.
They dismounted. The R and R had the job of stopping that hole and making the smoke go away, but that was by far not the only task here. The measurements, the interviews, the painstaking investigation. What, where, when, how and above all Why.
The crater, discovered: crucial evidence. What had fallen? It, or its wreckage, was absent. But there was a mark at the centre, a depression, irregular but smooth, and one end was rounded. Almost like the print of one bare heel.
New questions, with a distinctly different tenor. Why was dethroned from the top of the list by a quite separately industrious Who. A hundred gin-soused revellers to be questioned, a hundred perfunctory little interviews made and analysed. One doesn’t track footprints in the City, at least not on this Floor – too clean – but names, descriptions, these could and would be of use. Someone saw something. Nobody makes a heel’s print in solid concrete and walks away unaided; nobody comes to the Split Ring alone. A trail can be found.
Brief, misplaced, drunken loyalty can be noted, and the trail can be carefully turned a hundred and eighty degrees until it clicks into place with the evidence.
One name. A name has an address. The mystery promises to be done with before even the R and R have that hole in the Ceiling patched.
Against better judgement, the stairway door clicked open and they took the stairs. Vinnie’s landlady was as bad as the rest of the pack. Yes, technically this place was a Boarding House for the Daughters of the Respectable, and just as technically no questions and no lies changed hands concerning the maintenance of any residual Respectability in the character of said Daughters, and the rent was cheap. Besides, there were no slums on this Floor, so this couldn’t be one.
“So we are underground, then?” The girl, her name still not yet winkled out, leaned on a slightly dubiously verdigrised banister. “And at the top of this stair, daylight?”
“You’d need a marvellously long stair,” quipped Vinnie and the evening’s gin. “It is rather by way of being eleven in the evening.”
“I’m still on my way outside,” said the girl with a slightly snippish air. “Even at eleven in the evening.”
“I suppose that you might find a nightlight instead.” Somehow this pathetic witticism was unutterably hilarious. “We could take you to night school and get you a nightgown and a nightcap to go with it and then at least you wouldn’t be wandering around half naked.” She giggled involuntarily. “Or entirely sober, depending!”
A tiny frown. “Are you quite all right?”
“Nope!” Vinnie fetched up against her front door, put her palm against it to steady herself, started fishing in her bag. “Apparently I need my head examining.” She failed miserably to keep a straight face. “By the mysteriously dubious Doctor Goldsmith!”
“Can that wait?” The girl’s expression was a study in innocence. “Only you did not mention it before, and -”
Sigh. “Do they not have humour, where you’re from?”
She tilted her head. “I do believe I must have forgotten to pack any.”
That got Vinnie to look around and give something within fifteen degrees or so of a level stare. Crystal-blue eyes blinked back. Did she just… really? Bah. “Never mind – Ah.” The key, held up in triumph. Lock tumblers clicked. “Do come in; excuse the…” She waved vaguely. “Everything.”
“Of course.” Another blink. “This is your home?”
Wary of another shortage of sarcasm, Vinnie nodded seriously. “We need to see to your ankle and I at least am tired. Let me sort you a…” She wandered.
The first impression was that this place could have been intended for storage. Shelves on every wall and things – mostly books – spilling from every shelf. A freestanding rack, originally intended for bottles perhaps, and every cubbyhole had its own distinct and different shoe. A washing line emerged from one door and strung its way haphazardly into another. One sad laddered stocking depended lopsidedly from a framed sampler declaiming VIRTUE ALTOGETHER LOVELY (123456789). Not a window to be seen, although that was a wireless set over there apparently wearing a pretty but unfashionable hat.
For want of places where the floor was clear, the girl sat on the shoe rack. “And then we can go Outside?”
“Discuss that in the morning.” From the room Vinnie had wandered into there was the sound of a number and variety of falling objects. “When I’m no longer quite as tired as a newt.” She came back trailing one end of a roll of fabric tape. “Don’t suppose you know the first thing about ankles?”
“They connect feet to legs,” said the girl promptly. “Is what you are doing supposed to provide an alternative mechanism, to take some of the pressure off?”
“Haven’t the faintest; I dimly recall mother doing something like this once, I think it rather applies pressure than relieves it?” She wound the makeshift strapping tightly. “Is there anyone I should contact, perhaps – someone looking for you? -”
The girl flinched, and not from Vinnie’s firm hands. “Yes to the second. I’ve little conception of shoulds, I’m not so terribly certain what they might be. Certainly I’ve no wish for you to contact anyone concerning me.”
“Well, you’re safe enough here tonight. We’ll talk about the rest in the morning.” Tied off the bandage; stood; wobbled. “Little-known fact,” she said to the world at large. “Gin exists in a halo around you: it’s why it has fumes. Move too quickly – especially upwards – and you reconnect with your… higher self.” A grin. “No? Wasted on present company. Wasted on gin. Forsooth.” She turned. “I have excavated the spare bed for you; I’d offer you a nightcap, but I should be in trouble for debauching the respectable. I assume you’re respectable.”
“I am? I’m not sure that anyone much has given me anything by way of respect.” The girl allowed herself to be led into a room that seemed more than half full by volume, not simply books, but things. A half-folded folding table and matching chairs that seemed to be folded into an impenetrable barricade; a sewing machine munching upon a half-finished project; a miscellaneous pile of overalls and leathers; a bucket labelled SOAP and half full of a multifarious array of bottles. And a bed, somewhere in there, somewhat below the average level of the room: a nest, almost.
“There,” said Vinnie, and extricated herself from the room without mishap in a minor feat of drunken dexterity. “The necessary’s across the hall, well labelled; I shall now propose to turn into a pumpkin. See you when next I suffer phantasmagoric hallucinations: thank me, I’ve been a wonderful audience.”
The door closed, or at least, after a production involving kicking at a rebounding and obstructive copper tea-kettle and eventually tossing it into a less objectionable pile it closed.
A little later, with the air of one greatly daring, the girl turned the handle and tried to open the door, just a crack. It moved.
There had never been anything that had been quite so beautiful.
Vinnie opened one eye: the other one seemed to have been glued shut.
The bedroom was upside down. Above her the fan on the ceiling rotated slowly, decorated with something pinkly unmentionable. Her mouth felt as if it had been carpeted in the night, underlay and all; her head wasn’t spinning so much as ringing; and she had a thirst that had crossed long hard deserts to reach the back of her throat. And she hallucinated that polite little throat-clearing sound again.
“Um. Excuse me?” A pretty little face swam slowly into view. “I believe the sun may have risen.”
Blink. Attempted blink. She unstuck her left eye. “… wha’…?”
(From the hall, a quiet and ignored rattle.) “Hello. I should be called Beth; I think you are called Davinia, unless you routinely steal the washing of a lady by that name? How d’you do, and do you have a back door?”
“… d’you do?” Vinnie rolled over in an effort to make the world make a bit more sense, and grappled vainly with wakefulness. “You, uh, the hole in the, not some kind of hallucination.”
“Only, I worry as to the steadfast determination of the furniture I found, and do not know where there is better.” (Rattle.) “I think someone is trying to break your promises.” (Rattle.)
“The everliving what?” There was a definite struggle in the offing, towards upright wakefulness.
“Or possibly to break into your premises.” Beth glanced nervously over her shoulder. “Did you steal all your laundry?”
“… no?” Vinnie hauled herself into a rough sitting position, rough being the operative word – “Excuse me, but I don’t even know you. Would you mind explaining what exactly is-” A distinct banging on the front door.
“Help me,” Beth said, her crystal-blue eyes deadly serious. “Hide me. Take me Outside. No doctors. You promised. You do remember?”‘
Vinnie pinched her brow, grappled for some kind of focus. “The back door is down the hall, to the right of the kitchen. Take some money – my purse is probably somewhere near the table – you want Overlook Gardens. Boyle line, two stops.” She coughed. “Best I can-”
“But you must come with me!” Panic seething behind those eyes now. “I should be quite perfectly lost.”
“Look -” Bang. Bang. “I’ll delay them. Nobody who bangs on my door like that at five in the morning is my friend.” She peeled herself off the bed and rescued her fluffy grey dressing gown. “Have a nice life, miss.”
“Beth.” The young lady retreated, another sidelong glance at the front door. “This door?”
Vinnie nodded, shooing motions, raised her voice. “Keep your hair on, I’m coming!”
The folding-chair-and-table bush had been wedged under the handle; it shuddered again. Vinnie whipped it out of the way to leave it behind her. Double-checked the fastening of her dressing gown. And opened the door a dubious crack.
Tall unsmiling man, blue uniform, brass badge. She went on the offensive. “What sort of time do you call this? I will have you know I’m on a late shift – you’ve woken me quite in the-”
“Public Safety,” he said, as if the words were a magic spell. “Shut yer yap or get yer pretty face redecorated. The girl.”
She was a slightly askew and blurred picture of innocence. “Girl? Which girl? Me?”
“Don’t you try to play clever, missy. The girl. I know she’s here.”
Her eyebrows flew up. “I’m not sure I’m fond of your innuendo, there, my good-”
Her indignation cut off in a squeak as he slammed the door open, and frankly, hangover be damned. He was grabbing for her throat, bulling forward into the hall – hadn’t overly expected the extent to which the hallway was full of assorted junk – she squirmed to the side and ducked as he caught nothing but her wrist, and his momentum and that sudden leverage carried him tripping and clattering into the furniture, abruptly face-first into the point of a protruding chair-leg.
Vinnie’s head spun for any one of half a dozen reasons. Um. Pulse – well, he was breathing, that counted, right? That nose looked quite thoroughly broken. And there he was, laid out on her own floor, his toes protruding out into the Boarding House for the Daughters of the Respectable. And Beth was staring at the two of them sickly fascinated and who exactly would believe that she hadn’t just cold-cocked a peace officer and weren’t concussions dangerous and the man moaned like it was him being woken up with a hangover.
So it was with a cool collection she hadn’t thought she possessed that she took handcuffs from his belt and made his unresisting arm swiftly fast to her radiator. Looked up to see Beth still stood there frozen. “Go,” she said. No movement. “There will be more of them. What are you still doing here? Go!”
Crystal blue blink. “Come.”
Vinnie bit her lip. Looked from the unconscious thug to the doll-like girl and back.
Swore under her breath. “Let me put some clothes on.”
At least Beth was no longer limping so terribly; at least she had been found a hat and a coat and a pair of only slightly overlarge flat shoes. Vinnie was in her work overalls, because you never know. But by the time she had realised she was wearing odd shoes, let alone odd socks, they were too far up the stairs .Hell with it.
The little back stair and then the commuters’ escalator took them straight up to the Third Floor’s mezzanine; five in the morning was a good two hours before shift change, and the great vaulted place stood echoingly empty as Vinnie and Beth came nearly alone up into the concourse. Of course, the girl didn’t see anything odder about this place than any other – but to see the place thus barren of people was unnatural, it was an intrusion, like peeking behind the safety curtain onto an empty stage. The counters were shut, or most of them, as if to reinforce that honest hardworking folk didn’t take the Funicular two hours before shift change.
Vinnie’s pass wouldn’t let her on, of course, not going the wrong way on the wrong line on what was supposedly a worknight, but the clerk didn’t even look at them twice or demand her mentally rehearsed excuse, just went back to knitting. Board said the next carriage was in ten minutes: platform two was sleepily empty. After all, who’d be going upwards at this ghastly hour?
“Do they know where you are headed?” Vinnie’s hushed voice carried on the hard tiles.
“Did you tell them?” Perched on a bench, Beth swung her legs. “I did not. Though guessing that someone might seek to return to their home upon falling to their freedom would perhaps not be a leap of imagination.”
“Who are ‘they’, anyway?” Vinnie sat, with a nervous glance. “The rude man was a peace officer, Beth, badge and all. From whom exactly are you running?”
“I do not know names.” The girl hugged herself. “They kept me in a cage, though it was not like cages in your books. It was warmer. The only rats were in their own small cage, and nobody beat me that I can recall.” She hunched her shoulders. “There was carpet.”
“You read my books?”
“Did I do wrong?”
“No, no. Just -” Vinnie waved a hand vaguely. “Wasn’t it night-time?”
“I could not sleep, and they were diverting.” She shrugged. “And then I could not sleep because I was reading.”
“I’m familiar,” said Vinnie drily. “You can read, at least, then?”
“Oh, yes. I cannot quite recall a time before I learned. But the books where I am from are -” Manuals. Diagrams. Charts on boards. Not entertaining so much as the other thing. “Different. It is difficult to explain.” Beth saw Vinnie about to open her mouth, to ask questions, to say that they had time – “Rather I should say that it is painful. The place that we are going is simply so much less horrible than this one.”
“Do recall that you are talking about my home in those terms, Beth.”
And Beth tilted her head curiously. “You consider this place to be lovely?”
The clattering noise and fuss of the arriving Funicular carriage interrupted.