A Kind of Alchemy
by London Lampy
As Fran stepped off the tram and onto the pavement he was almost poked in the eye by a woman raising her umbrella. The rain had started up that morning and was still falling steadily from the leaden sky as late afternoon approached. He stepped clear of the crowded tram stop, opened his own umbrella and pulled his coat collar up around his neck for warmth.
Fran had been putting off this trip for as long as he could, and as he made his way through the rain slicked streets he could feel his heart sinking with every step at what he was about to do. The old phrase "you lie down with dogs, you wake up with fleas" kept running through his mind, although he felt that with Mother fleas would most likely be the least worse thing you'd catch, but lie down with the odious man he had to, at least in the metaphorical sense.
A year ago there had been a series of fires in the city, someone else had attempted to set themselves up in competition with Mother's criminal empire and had gone about systematically destroying his properties. The most famous of the fires had been the one that had burned down a whore house, killing a number of girls who were trapped inside. There was outrage across the city at this, not so much over the deaths but over the ages of the girls, the youngest was only nine years old, and the few girls who survived were swiftly taken away by the authorities and placed in the care of the city orphanage.
Mother, as usual, escaped any form of punishment. He was clever enough that nothing could ever be directly traced to him, although the man suspected of ordering the fires in the first place was found dead, or at least parts of him were, his right leg and left hand were never recovered. One of the lesser fires was started in a drinking club that just happened to be in the basement of the building next door to The Empress Theatre, the fire had quickly spread to the theatre's auditorium, and before it was finally extinguished it had destroyed or damaged much of the seating, carpets and decoration.
Fran owned The Empress, his grandfather had built it off the back of some successful investments, thinking that maybe a theatre would make him a fortune, it didn't. If he done his research the man would have discovered that despite the huge popularity of variety theatre, a theatre's outgoings often eclipsed its incomings and the place was essentially a money pit. However despite all that he continued to run it until his death, passing it onto his son in his will. Fran had pretty much grown up in The Empress, his father had married a singer and he and his sister had spent most of their childhood playing amongst the rows of seats, often bedding down in the evenings in their father's office until the night's final show was over and it was time for him to carry the two sleeping children the short walk back to their house. By the time the fire ravaged the auditorium Fran had taken over the running of The Empress from his father, who had sensibly retired with his wife to a house by some sea some years earlier. Fran's sister was now a successful singer in her own right and spent most of her life away on tour, so he had been left alone to shoulder the burden of the theatre, although he had taken on a business partner, a young visk named Ozzy who took care of the money side of things. It was Ozzy who had first discovered that their comprehensive fire insurance was less than comprehensive when it came to acts of arson, and even the visk's way with numbers couldn't get them out of their financial abyss.
The only solution was to borrow the money to carry out the repairs, but every lender they approached turned their noses up when they saw how little profit the theatre actually made. Fran became so desperate that he seriously considered finishing the job that the arsonists had started and selling the land for what he could get, but he just couldn't. The place was his heartbeat, and a member of his family, he knew and loved every inch of The Empress and privately he believed that it had a soul, although he never said this out loud for fear of being branded crazy. He was in a state of utter despair when Mother turned up not offering to lend him the money, but give it to him in return for a forty nine percent share in the business, letting Fran keep the reins, just.
Fran understood the unpleasant man's motives straight away, although his shares in The Empress would net him very little return it would mean that he now had a serious stake in one of the final large business in the area that he didn't own. Reluctantly Fran agreed to Mother's offer, and although he hated that fact that the man was part of his business it had very little effect on the day to day running of the place, all Mother every really demanded of Fran was use of The Empress' royal box whenever he fancied a night out.
Unfortunately Fran now had another problem, the dressing rooms had begun to flood in bad weather, the bottom level was currently under two foot of filthy water with the occasional dead rat floating along in it. Like most theatres the bulk of The Empress was actually underground, and was also built over one of the tributaries to the city's river so sooner or later flooding was inevitable, Fran just wished that it had been later. He now needed even more money to fix the problem, and the only way he could see to get it was to go cap in hand to Mother, no matter how much the idea disgusted him.
Mother's offices were situated over a restaurant that he also owned, and spent much of his time eating in as his figure attested to. As it was after lunch but before dinner the place was closed so Fran knocked on the glass door to attract the attention of a uniformed waiter who was sweeping the floor.
"We're shut." The waiter called though the door, without bothering to open it.
"I know." Fran shouted back. "I need to see..." He hesitated, not wanting to say Mother's name out loud in public. "...the man upstairs." He concluded.
The waiter pulled a face, put the broom down and made a show of unbolting and pulling open the door. "I'm not his messenger boy you know, I just wait tables here." He grumbled. "Who shall I say is calling?"
"Fran, he knows me."
"Lucky you." The waiter ushered Fran in then disappeared up the back stairs.
Fran sighed to himself, glancing out of the window, hoping that no one he knew would spot him. Although most of his staff were aware that he had some dealings with Mother none of them except Ozzy knew the terms of the contract they had. He'd let them all believe that he'd simply borrowed the money.
"He's very busy, but he'll see you if you wait." The waiter said as he came back down.
"Thanks." Fran replied. He hadn't expected anything less, Mother only ever saw people on his terms.
He climbed the restaurant's back stairs and let himself into the small, grimy room that served as Mother's waiting room, wishing that he had thought to bring a newspaper as he could be there for quite some time. Fran wasn't entirely surprised to find someone else in the room, although the other person was a boy who seemed entirely too young to be there for business purposes. As he sat down he nodded to the boy, taking his his dark blond hair and grey blue eyes. He looked to be around the same age as Fran's niece, about sixteen, and he was quite an attractive boy, but the expression on his face was one of fear, and he was sitting awkwardly, turned sideways against the wall.
"Have you come for me?" The boy asked as Fran sat down. His accent wasn't a local one, it sounded like he came from the sparsely populated countryside that lay to the far south of the city. Putting together the accent with the fear in the boy's eyes Fran began to get the unpleasant feeling that he was something to do with the more unsavoury end of Mother's empire.
"No, I'm here for a meeting." Fran replied.
"Oh. Someone is meant to be coming for me soon, they're going to try me out then take me off to work for them. I was hoping it might be you, you don't look too scary."
"I rarely frighten people." Fran agreed. "But I don't work for him." He gestured toward Mother's office. The boy sighed in reply, and Fran thought about what he had just told him. "What do you mean, try you out?"
The boy blushed, a pink stain spreading across his cheeks. "For the work they want me to do." Fran could guess what he meant.
"And do you want to do that?" He questioned gently, feeling altogether sick at the behaviour of the man who owned almost half of his beloved theatre.
"No." The boy looked to be on the edge or tears. "But I can't leave." He moved enough to show that he was chained to a radiator by a pair of handcuffs. "And even if I could I don't have anywhere to go, and it's cold and wet outside."
"Don't you have any family, or friends?"
"No, my friend has gone, he joined the army." This time the boy did cry, two fat trails of salt water sliding down his cheeks.
"And your family?"
"I left them, I can't go back." He sniffed.
"You ran away from home?" The boy nodded in reply. "Then you should go back. Whatever you ran from can't possibly be as bad as what Mother has in mind for you, and your parents must be worried to death."
"They won't be." The boy insisted. "They won't ever want me back, and I'm not going back."
"What did you do?" Only someone as young as this boy could possibly believe that being prostituted by Mother was a better option than going back to his family.
"I can't say." The boy shook his head. "It was too bad."
"Did you kill someone?"
"No!" He protested.
"Did you hurt someone, or force someone to do something they didn't want to do?"
"Then whatever you did wasn't that bad, because those are the worst things a person can do." Fran thought. "Did you get a girl into trouble?"
"Why do people keep asking if I did that?" The boy frowned.
"Because it's often a reason for a young person to run away. If you did you must go home and face up to your responsibilities, parenthood isn't all that bad, trust me." Fran smiled. Technically he might be an uncle, but he'd raised his niece Fudge since she was a baby, and he was her father in all but name.
"I did not get a girl into trouble." The boy insisted.
"Was there a girl though, is that why you ran?" Fran felt he was close to getting at the truth.
"No, there wasn't a girl." The boy sniffed and wiped his nose on his sleeve.
Fran took a long, hard look at him. "Perhaps there was a boy, or a man?" He asked quietly, and the colour the boy turned was all the answer he needed.
"Oh dear." Fran sighed. "You can't stay here, you do understand what they are going to make you do, don't you?"
"Yes." The boy nodded. "I don't care, I might as well be dead."
"For fuck's sake, no you might as well not be dead, don't be stupid. How old are you?"
"You have an awful lot of life left ahead of you, and nearly all of it will be a lot better than this. Whatever happened with your family was bad, but not the end of the world, and certainly not bad enough to accept Mother's molly house or death as your only options."
"But what else can I do?" The boy asked, his voice breaking with emotion.
Fran was about to answer when the door to the inner office opened and he was told that Mother was ready to see him, he got to his feet, glancing back over his shoulder at the boy as he left the waiting room.
Sam watched the man go, he'd seemed nice, if a little nosey. Sam's mother had always said that men with beards were untrustworthy, but that man had seemed like the most trustworthy person he'd met since he'd left Dovedale, and it was hardly a beard anyway, more like close cropped stubble really. The man's eyes had seemed kind too, soft and brown, they reminded Sam of a spaniel his family had owned when he was a small child.
He wondered how much longer he was going to have to wait to be "tried out". He realised now that he should never have taken up the strange man's offer of a hot meal. He did indeed get a meal in the restaurant downstairs, but then he was brought upstairs by two burly men and chained protesting to the radiator.
The man who called himself Mother had explained what they wanted from Sam, and told him in no uncertain terms that if he tried to escape he'd be beaten to within an inch of his life and brought back. So now all he could do was sit in his still sodden clothes in the grimy waiting room until someone came for him. They'd even taken the small amount of money he had off him, but fortunately they hadn't found his mother's brooch, that was still in the lining of his coat and he now fingered it through the thick material, letting the star points dig into his fingers.
There was no clock in the waiting room so Sam had no way of knowing how much time had passed since the man had gone into mother's office, but it felt like well over an hour before he saw him come out again. When he did he was accompanied by one of the men who had manhandled Sam up the stairs earlier, and to Sam's surprise the burly man came over to him and unlocked the cuff from around his wrist.
"He's all yours." The man said with a snigger, pulling Sam none too gently to his feet and pushing him toward the bearded man. "Enjoy."
"You're coming with me." The man gave Sam a small smile, but something about his spaniel's eyes looked sad. "By the way, what's your name?"
"Sam." Sam replied.
"And I'm Fran, come on, let's get out of here."
Fran led Sam down the stairs and out onto the street beyond, where it had finally stopped raining. Mother had given him the money he needed to repair the dressing rooms, in return for another single percent share, taking his total shares in The Empress to fifty percent. As the new contract was being drawn up Fran had brought up the subject of the boy in the waiting room, he had suggested that the decent thing to do would be to let him go, and at this Mother's piggy eyes had glittered, he then made Fran a second offer, another single percent of his business in return for the boy.
Fran had tried to rationalise the situation to himself, he was only one boy, Mother no doubt had many many more such boys working for him, all kept in a state of virtual slavery. Saving one couldn't possibly make a single shred of difference, and it wasn't like he knew the boy, like he had any responsibility for him, but his conscience wasn't having any of it, and with great reluctance he gave another percent of The Empress to Mother in return for Sam. So now Mother had the majority share of his business, and he had another young person to add to the one he already had back home, and a whole lot of explaining to do to Ozzy.
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