A Kind of Alchemy
by London Lampy
Fran had decided to sort through the large pile of paperwork on his desk as a way of distracting himself from what was happening in his theatre. He supposed that the auction must be well under way by now, but he had no intention of leaving the safety of his office until it was all over. He was reading a letter from Municipal Works, the company who supplied both the water and the electricity to the building and indeed to every other building in the city, telling him about changes to their tariffs which translated as him having to pay them more, when Ava threw open the door.
"Fran, there's something you need to come and see." Her tone was almost seductive, but Fran knew his sister well enough for alarm bells to start clanging, this couldn't be anything good.
"What is it?" He asked carefully.
"I've solved your problem, come and see."
"What the hell have you done?" The bells screeched louder.
"Just come and see." She beckoned for him to follow her out of the office then led him up a small back staircase to one of the upper levels of the theatre that wasn't being used that night, or so he thought. Every single seat was empty except for three in the very centre of the front row, where Mother was sitting flanked two of his minders, men that Fran vaguely recognised from his trips to the the man's office. "Come on." Ava trotted down the steep steps toward them, and all Fran could do was follow with a horrible building sense of anticipation.
"Hello Fran." Mother turned in his seat to look at him, he was dressed for the occasion in an ill fitting evening jacket and he appeared at his most unctuous. "Your lovely sister drives a hard bargain, yes, not like you, not at all." He shook his head. "She used all her wiles to get me to agree to give you back the one percent." He chuckled. "Although she did give me something in return." Mother looked very pleased with himself and he gave Ava what Fran could only assume he thought was an attractive smile, it looked more like a creepy leer. Fran felt both a sense of relief and revulsion, he interpreted this to mean that Ava had given, or had promised to give, Mother some sort of sexual favour and he didn't know how he could ever thank her enough, but before he could say anything Mother spoke again. "Actually maybe that's not quite the right way to put it, perhaps I should say she returned my goods for a refund, so we are all back to where we started, fair and square, indeed we are."
It took Fran a few seconds to sort through Mother's odd way of phrasing things to make any sense of this, but when he had he stared at Ava in horror, his heart plummeting into his shoes. "No...please tell me you didn't give him Sam."
Ava didn't reply, instead she turned to look at the stage where a familiar very blond figure was being led into a spotlight focused tightly in the centre.
"Look Fran." Mother said, pointing down at Sam far below them. "Here comes the final lot of the night."
Sam had heard interested muttering from the audience when the auctioneer had announced him as a special lot, for sale in his entirety. Not just to be taken away for a few nights, deflowered and returned like all the others.
As he stood in the centre of the stage the lights were bright in eyes and he could barely see into the stalls, but what he could see was bazaar. Almost every face watching him was covered in one way or another with a hood or a mask and this simply added to the sensation that he'd somehow found himself caught up in a nightmare. Ava's explanation of exactly what he had cost Fran, and by extension the rest of their family, had turned his guts to ice. When she had told him that if he agreed to Mother selling him off as part of the auction his debt to Fran would be repaid Sam knew that he had no choice but to go along with her. He couldn't carry on living under Fran's roof now he was aware of the whole story, and Ava made it quite clear that if he didn't agree to being sold she would make sure that everybody knew what Fran had done, including their father, who she said would probably never forgive his son.
He thought he heard his name being shouted out from somewhere in the auditorium, but because of the lights he couldn't see from where or by who, and it only happened the once so he wasn't even sure he had heard correctly. Then the bidding began, he couldn't follow the bids, they were coming too fast so he just looked down at his feet and waited for it to all be over. This was nothing more than he deserved, Ava had made that clear, and he couldn't help but agree. His naïvety had cost a good man ownership of his business and he'd never even known it. He didn't deserve to be happy, he'd let his own family down, stolen from them then almost ripped another family apart, as the auctioneer's gavel banged to indicate that he had been sold and he was led off the stage he was entirely resigned to his fate.
The only thing Fran could do was watch in horror as the bidding on Sam climbed higher and higher. He had tried to shout out to him, to tell him to get off the stage to run away now, but as soon as Sam's name was out of his mouth one of Mother's minders, on Mother's instruction, had grabbed him and placed a hand over his mouth, while the other pushed him roughly into a seat and held him down preventing him from moving until the gavel descended and it was all over.
Sam was bundled off the stage and an announcement was made that the proceedings were at an end. Ava had sat herself beside Mother in the row in front of where Fran had been forcibly restrained, she was still watching the stage and he stared at the back of her head in disbelief at what she had done. He had known that his sister wasn't always outwardly the nicest of people, but he had believed, or wanted to believe at least, that she was decent enough on the inside. He didn't believe that any more.
"Ava, I need you to pack your things and get out of the house, go and stay in a hotel, you can afford it." He said as soon as Mother's man had taken his hand from his mouth.
"You care more about the welfare of some boy you found in the gutter than that of your own sister?" Ava whipped her head around and fixed him with her searing eyes. "I did this for you Fran, for you and for Fudge, my daughter. I got you back the family business and her future."
Fran felt sixteen years of unsaid words boil up inside him ready to spill out, he was very good at pushing his feelings down where Ava was concerned, he'd spent so long protecting Fudge from her mother's indifference it had become second nature to him, but he could only be pushed so far. "A business you've had no interest in up to now, and a daughter whose existence you've barely acknowledged, and in doing so you've condemned an innocent boy to the gods know what fate. What do you think your daughter is going to think of you having done this? Sam is her friend, she cares for him a great deal."
"And I'm her mother, she's know that boy two, three months at the most, it hardly compares." She waved her hand as if to dismiss Fran's words. "Tell her he ran away again, after all if you told her the truth she'd have to find out what a fucking idiot her uncle really is."
"Two or three months?" He spat. "That's more time than you've spent with Fudge in her entire life put together, you're not her mother, you're just some woman who appears for a day or two once or twice a year, and I'd rather be a fucking idiot than a callous self centred bitch." The sound of a person chuckling wetly made Fran suddenly remember where he was, and more importantly who was listening.
"Ava my dear." Mother said once he had stopped laughing. "If you'd like you may stay at my humble abode for tonight." He ran a hand across the long strands of hair that he had slicked to his bald pate.
Ava looked him up and down critically. "No, I don't think so. As my brother says, I can afford a hotel." And with that she stood, clacked her way up the stairs and out of the door without looking back. Fran attempted to leave too, thinking that maybe he could get backstage and somehow rescue Sam before he was taken away by his new "owner", but he was once again restrained by the man who had kept him in his seat during the auction.
"Where the fuck do you think you're going?" Mother was clearly irritated by Ava turning down his offer of spending the night with him. "You think you might slip away and get the boy back, yes? You will stay here until he is gone from this building." As if too emphasis his bosses words the minder dug his fingers hard enough into Fran's shoulders to make him gasp in pain. "I'll not have you upsetting my customers. Accept it Fran, your boy is gone." Mother took a deep breath and regained some of his oily composure. "I've plenty more I can sell you if you're interested though, come by the office next week if you're interested, yes?"
Fran had always prided himself on being an honest, law abiding sort of person, but his association with Mother had dragged him down to the man's sewer level without him even realising it. His first thought when Mother and his entourage had finally let him go was the police, Sam had effectively been kidnapped, but then he realised how foolish that would be. How could he explain what had happened without incriminating himself, and by extension his family and his theatre? Even if he was willing to risk all of that he was certain that Mother would take revenge on him for informing the authorities, the man already knew that Fran's weakest point was his niece, and Fudge's safety was the one thing he wasn't prepared to risk, even for Sam. Also telling the police would reveal a large amount of hypocrisy on his part, to a stranger's eyes why would, or should, the well being of Sam matter any more than that of any of the other "lots"?
He simply had no idea where to start looking for Sam though, he was a theatre manager not a detective, the only person he knew who thought that way was Mulligan, so he did something he'd never done before. He went to the small grilled night window at the telegraph office and paid to send a wire to the theatre that his lover was currently appearing in informing him that there was an emergency and he needed to come home as soon as he could. He didn't outline the situation, he was paying by the word and there was no simple way of explaining what had happened, but he hoped that his tone was desperate enough to bring him back to the city. Then he did the only thing left to do, he went home.
For once Ava had done as she was asked, her belongings were gone from his guest room and the only signs that she had ever been there were an unmade bed and a small heap of lipstick stained cigarette butts in an ashtray. He couldn't bring himself to look in Sam's room, the discovery in the kitchen of a long since cooled mug of milk on the table was bad enough, and he'd had to try very hard not to just let his mind spin off into blank despair. He wished he could do something positive, something toward getting the boy back, with every passing minute Sam was likely being taken further and further away, but he couldn't follow when he didn't know where, or by whom.
Fran barely slept at all that night, he was filled with fear for Sam, and guilt at not being out walking the city's pavements looking for him, although he knew to do so would be entirely pointless. Instead of sleeping he tried to work out how to tell Fudge what had happened. She'd obviously been in her room when Ava had come for Sam, most likely asleep, and she was going to wake up into a very different household from the one she'd gone to bed in. He was going to have to find the gentlest way possible to tell her the truth, the truth that he had kept from her the deal he'd made with Mother that gave up full control of The Empress, and that her own Mother, who'd she'd always placed on a pedestal, had colluded to sell her friend into what Fran assumed was a life of sexual slavery. It was going to be an awful lot for the girl to take in at once, and he knew that inevitably there were going to be floods of tears, especially over Ava's part in the whole thing.
He gave up attempting to sleep before the sun had risen, and at dawn he decided he needed to go and wake Fudge to speak to her. He made a pot of tea and took it up to her room on a tray along with two cups, sugar and milk, thinking that one small nice gesture might help somewhat. He put the tray on the floor by the door and knocked softly, calling out her name, not wanting to wake her with too much of a start. When she didn't answer he tried again a little harder and a little louder, and when he no response from this he turned the handle and let himself in.
Fudge's attic bedroom was even messier than normal, draws were left open and clothes were thrown about the room as if someone had been looking through them in a hurry. The top of her dressing table was almost bare, even Fudge's small jewellery box with its spinning clockwork ballerina was gone, and for a split second Fran thought that they had been burgled, until he the reality of what had happened hit him. Along with her belongings Fudge was also gone, a quick check of her wardrobe revealed that the suitcase she took with them when they went of their annual summer visit to his parent's house was missing too.
"No." He heard a voice saying, then realised that it was his voice. He ran downstairs as if somehow he might find her in one of the other rooms of the house. He didn't find his niece, but what he did find, propped up against a clock amongst the family photographs on the mantelpiece, was a pale blue flowered envelope that he recognised as coming from Fudge's writing set, and on the front was written "Uncle Fran" in her neat round writing. He tore it open and read the note inside, his hand shaking so much he could hardly hold the paper still.
By the time you read this I will be gone, Mama is taking me on tour with her so you need not worry about me. She told that she had discovered that you had dishonestly sold over half of our theatre to a very bad man, and that you have lied to everyone about doing it, and that you were so angry at Mama when she found out that you told her she had to leave, so she asked me if I wanted to go with her and I said yes. I want you to know that I'm very angry with you too, how could you do such a terrible thing? And keep it a secret from us all? Please say goodbye to Sam for me, and tell Earnest that I''ll write to him soon. I'll be back to visit next time Mama comes this way so I'll see you then.
He screwed up the note and threw it across the room, Ava had clearly told the girl a mixture of lies and half truths, and not breathed a word about what she had done to Sam. As a child he'd had to learn not to get too attached to his possessions because when she was angry with him she would break or steal them out of spite, now as an adult she'd done the same again, but with much higher stakes. First Sam, now Fudge, he had lost both of them because of her in the space of less than twelve hours.
He looked up at the clock, and something occurred to him. He might not know where Sam was, but Fudge was with Ava and Ava was leaving the city today, and she would almost certainly be leaving by train. The trains didn't run through the night and his sister had never been much of an early riser, he couldn't search every hotel in the city but he could get to the train station and hope that today wasn't the day Ava broke the habit of a lifetime and got an early start. At the very least he'd be able to say goodbye to Fudge in person.
His journey into the heart of the city was a panicked blur, he managed to find a cab and took it most of the way, but then it became snarled up in slow moving morning traffic. He jumped out, throwing a handful of coins to the driver that he was sure would cover his fare several times over, then he began to run in the direction of the station, weaving in and out of people with shouts of "excuse me" and "sorry" when he bumped into them.
Once he was on the station concourse he made his way as fast as he could to the entrance to the platforms and the boards with destinations chalked up on them. He found the first one that was going to where he knew his sister's next singing engagement to be, and he waited. The train arrived, filled up and left without him seeing either of them so he found the next train heading in the same direction and waited by the entrance to that platform. After ten minutes of standing there to his intense relief he spotted two familiar figurers making their way through the crowds, neither of then noticed him and he observed them as they approach the platform. Ava had her luggage piled onto a trolley that was being pushed by a uniformed porter, while Fudge was carrying her own, much smaller case. Even from a distance Fran could see that there was something defeated looking about Fudge, her shoulders were slumped and her footsteps seemed to drag reluctantly.
His niece spotted him first, and even over the hubbub of the station he heard a shout of "Uncle Fran", and she made as if to hurry toward him, but Ava grabbed her by the arm when she too saw him and realised what Fudge was about to do. The pair stopped walking so he approached them, Ava's face was set into an icy glare, while Fudge was alternating between smiling at him and looking anxiously at her mother.
"I found your note." He said to Fudge when he was close enough to speak to her, ignoring his sister completely. "I couldn't let you go without saying goodbye."
"Oh...Uncle Fran." She shook herself free of Ava's grip, dropped her suitcase and threw her arms around him. "I'm sorry."
"You have nothing to apologise for sweetheart." He looked over her shoulder to Ava, who narrowed her eyes at him. "I understand why you were angry with me."
She broke the hug, stepped back and Ava said sharply. "Fudge, we need to board, goodbye Fran."
"Wait." Fran held a hand up. "Fudge, is this really what you want to do? Because if it's not you can come home with me now."
He knew that he could say so much more, he knew he could influence her decision by telling her what had happened to Sam and Ava's part in it, and about how Ava had lied and manipulated her into leaving, but he didn't think that was fair. If Ava was finally offering to spend some time with her daughter after all these years, albeit because she sought to hurt him, he didn't want to take that chance away from his niece. He felt that if he forced Fudge's hand he'd be no better than his sister was.
"Come on Fudge, we really need to go!" Ava snapped, and he suspected that she thought he was about to tell some home truths.
"It's your choice sweetheart." Fran said softly. "What do you want to do?"
Fudge looked at him, then back at Ava. "I...I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry." She said, then she began to cry.
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