A Kind of Alchemy
by London Lampy
"That's the place." Fran pointed across the street at the restaurant. The brightly lit interior was bustling and standing out on the cold dark pavement looking in such a place would normally appear inviting to Fran, but on this his second visit to the premises in a single day all he could feel were his guts knotting with worry. "I can't see him." He said as they picked their way between carriages and bicycles to cross to the other side. He counted four men inside dressed in the black and white waiter's uniform, but not a single one of them were the man he was seeking. "Oh fuck." He groaned as they drew closer. "Mother's in there."
"Let me guess, he's the one who looks like he's made out of part baked dough flanked by the two men who you wouldn't want to meet down a dark alleyway?"
"Yeah." Fran sighed, moving so that he was half hidden by a lamp post. Although Mother wasn't directly facing the window he didn't want to risk being seen by him. "That's him, shit! I can't go in with him there."
"I can though, he doesn't know who I am does he?" Mulligan pointed out.
"No, but you don't know what the waiter looks like either, we're just going to have to wait for him to finish and leave." Seeing the large pile of food on Mother's plate and the fresh bottle of wine that had just been delivered to his table that probably wasn't going to be for quite some time.
"For the gods sake Fran, have you forgotten that I can read minds? I'll find him, or at least find out where he is."
"You can't read minds." He replied irritably. "That's just your act."
"And I'm bloody good at it." Before Fran could stop him, not that he was sure he would be able to anyway, Mulligan walked over to the restaurant and let himself in.
After his bath Sam had been handed the sheet that the golden eyed servant had hung onto the door, which had turned out not to be a sheet at all but a white cotton dress like robe that flapped around his ankles as he walked. It had no warmth to it and he was both chilled and very aware that he was naked beneath it, and to add to the chill his hair was still wet, he could feel it flat and cold against his head. The small golden eyed man was leading him through the house's empty passageways, he was finally being taken to meet the man who had bought him although he was struggling not keep up and not to stumble, his recent physical purging and lack of nourishment had left him light headed and exhausted.
The passageways were gloomy, only the occasional light bulb seemed to be working and the shadowy darkness wasn't helping Sam not to stumble either, although the golden eyed man didn't seem to be having any trouble finding his way in the semi darkness. Once again they passed damp walls with rectangular patches that suggested pictures had previously hung there, occasionally there were niches too that looked as if they should contain something the house owner would want to show off, but all of them were empty except one that was filled with rubble where the plaster above had crumbled away.
They also passed at least a dozen doors that didn't look as if they had been opened for many years, dust had built up on the panels and the brass handles and door plates were green with verdigris. Eventually they stopped outside a double door that had the appearance of having been used more recently. "This is Master's room." The small man said by way of an explanation, then he knocked once, a single sharp rap.
Sam tried to swallow but his mouth was filled with dust. "Have you bought the boy?" A dry, papery voice asked from inside.
"Then send him in."
"I'm not permitted to enter Master's study." The small man told Sam, but Sam was too frightened and bewildered to follow his meaning and he simply stood waiting to be let in.
"Where is the boy?" The papery voice sounded irritated.
"Go on, quick." The golden eyed man pushed Sam toward the doors. "You do not keep Master waiting."
Mulligan wasn't gone for more than ten minutes, but for Fran left in the street outside trying to hide behind the lamppost it felt like ten hours. He watched Mother pouring himself a glass of deep red wine then spearing a large piece of potato with his fork and cramming it into his mouth, and he wondered if the vile man ever felt even a single shred of guilt over the things he did, but he supposed not, or he wouldn't keep on doing them.
The door finally opened and the reassuring tall form of Mulligan came out and joined him. "Was he there?" Fran asked as soon as he was close enough to hear.
"No." Mulligan shook his head.
"Shit shit shit!" Fran swore. "Then we'll have to come back again tomorrow."
"Calm down, we won't." Mulligan was sounding very pleased with himself. "Because I've got his address." He waved a piece of paper at Fran. "Shall we take a cab this time?"
It wasn't a long distance from the busy street that the restaurant was on to the one where waiter, who's name Fran had now discovered was Nate, lived, but it could have been in another city altogether. He looked around as they stepped out of the cab, he'd lived in Parnell all his life but had never been to, never had cause to go, to this particular district. The buildings were crowded together as if they were huddled for warmth, most of them were cheaply built blocks that would contain many small flats, families living packed in around one another because the rent was low and money was tight. The people he saw coming and going looked pinched faced and tired, hurrying back from a long day spent in a factory, or on their way out to a night job, anything to keep a roof over heads and food in mouths.
The address they had was for a flat in one of the blocks and they let themselves into the building and climbed a stark concrete staircase until they reached the the third floor. When they found the flat Fran could hear sounds of a baby crying coming from inside, and when Mulligan knocked on the door it was answered by a woman wearing a long, well washed cotton nightgown with a patch of what Fran recognised as dried baby sick on one shoulder. She only looked to be in her early twenties, and with her blond hair washed and brushed and wearing fresh clothes she would probably be an attractive woman, but currently she had blue smudges under her eyes, sallow skin and a look of defeated exhaustion about her.
"Sorry to disturb you." Mulligan tipped his hat to her. "Is your husband at home?"
"Who are you?" Her face took on a suspicious look, and she took a step back inside the flat, the baby's cries growing louder and more frantic.
"We...we urgently need to speak to him." Fran suddenly realised that explaining the situation to her wasn't going to be easy, and he wouldn't blame her if she slammed the door in their faces. "A friend of ours has...has gone missing, and we think your husband might be able to help us find him."
"He doesn't know anything." Her faced closed down. "Just go away."
He felt Mulligan's hand on his shoulder, a small squeeze, then the magician spoke to her. He kept his voice low and soft, and instead of asking her directly about her husband's whereabouts he asked about her and about her baby, and soon she was telling Mulligan that her husband was in bed as he'd only a had few hours sleep between shifts, but he wasn't asleep because the baby had woken him. She explained that she needed to get back inside to feed the baby, but she would get her husband to come and speak to them, and she then led them into her home.
"How the hell did you do that?" Fran asked once the woman had left and they had seated themselves on a pair of upright chairs that were pushed against a small table in the corner of the room.
"A good magician never reveals his secrets." Came the smug reply.
The young couple had made a few attempts to make the cramped place feel homely, at the sole window hung curtains printed with a cheerful pattern of yellow sunflowers, the elderly sofa had a knitted patchwork blanket draped over it and on the walls were a matching pair of prints depicting countryside views, but somehow all this just served to make the dull plaster walls and cheap lino flooring look even gloomier by contrast.
As they waited Fran heard the baby stop crying then a hushed conversation came from the flat's single bedroom. Mulligan took off his hat and spun it on his finger while Fran rubbed his eyes, he was utterly exhausted and they felt like they were filled with hot grit. After a few minutes the bedroom door opened and the waiter came out, he was wearing a thick cream coloured sweater over a pair of striped pyjamas and he looked much like Fran felt. He took in the two men sitting in his living room with a wary glance, he was around the same age as his wife with a pale thin face that was almost grey right now and his light brown hair stood up in tufts from where he had been in bed.
"I know you don't I?" He addressed Fran. "You run The Empress and you sometimes visit...the office upstairs."
"Yes, that's me. I'm Fran and this is Mulligan." He indicated the magician, who gave the man a small salute at his name. "And we desperately need to talk to you, you might be our only hope."
"I'm Nate." He introduced himself, sitting down on the couch. "And frankly I don't know what this is about, or how you got my address, but if it wasn't for the fact my wife wants me to talk to you, although the gods know why." Fran assumed it wasn't anything to do with the gods but more to do with Mulligan. "Then I'd be showing you the door right now."
"I appreciate that, I really do." Fran couldn't blame him one bit. "But someone I have a responsibility to care for is in an awful lot of trouble." Nate looked at him doubtfully, so he decided to start from the beginning. "Let me explain, it's about the auction last night, the one you served drinks at..."
"Shh!" The man glanced at the bedroom door. "Keep your voice down about that, she thinks I catered a late party at the restaurant." He stopped and sighed. "We need the money you see, when the baby came along my wife lost her job, I hate working for that man, but..." He shrugged helplessly. "I don't ever want her to find out though."
"I understand." Fran replied. "Trust me." He went on to tell Nate the whole sorry story, and how he thought he might be able to help. The man listened patiently but at the end he shook his head, making Fran's heart plummet.
"I know the boy you mean, but I'm sorry, I couldn't tell you anything about who bought him, he was wearing a mask the whole time, I never saw his face."
"What sort of mask?" Fran asked, at least Nate knew something, no matter how insignificant, he'd feared that he wouldn't be able to tell them anything at all.
"It was plain white, blank, just two eye holes."
"I remember him." Fran had found something about the blank mask deeply disturbing. "You didn't see him leave, perhaps see him get in a carriage with a livery on it?" He felt he was clutching at straws.
"No..." The man stopped, looking like he was thinking about something.
"You know more." Mulligan said, it wasn't a question.
"I know...you can't tell anyone I told you this."
"We won't." Fran assured him. "I wouldn't want to drag another innocent person into all of this."
"I know that the man who bought your friend also bought another lot, and I know who that other lot was."
"You know...who else he bought?" Fran thought it through, could this help them?
"Yeah, it was this girl called Bonnie, I know her from way back, we used to knock around together when we were little, her and my sister and me."
Fran glanced at Mulligan, the man had to either be mistaken or lying. "I think you've got the wrong girl, the lots were all kids, Sam must have been one of the oldest."
"No." Nate shook his head. "I knew it was Bonnie straight off, she looks like a little girl, but she must be..." He frowned. "At least twenty two by now I reckon, not that I've seen her in years, we moved out of that neighbourhood when I was twelve, thank the gods. My mother never liked Bonnie because her mother was on the game, Old Dot her name was, I think she died some time ago. My mother always said she smoked too much when she was pregnant and that's why Bonnie was so small, don't know if it was true, but she was tiny, looked five when she was ten. I've heard that she makes a living like her mother did, but because she looks younger than she is pretends to be a kid, I guess that's what she was doing last night."
"Do you know where she lives?" Mulligan asked.
"Not exactly, but I think she's still in the old neighbourhood, sometimes I see people from back when and I'm sure someone told me that she was still there."
"Can you write it down for us?" Fran felt a trickle of hope, this was the first really positive lead they'd had in finding Sam.
"Yes, but please, if you do find her don't tell her it was me who led you to her, she must be working for...him."
"Mother?" Fran supplied, wanting to be absolutely sure.
Nate looked at him as if he'd just put a curse on his home. "Don't ever use that name in here please."
"Sorry." He understood, even the man's name was tainted. Nate wrote the details of where he thought Bonnie might be down on the back of an old envelope and handed it to Mulligan, who looked at it then tucked it into his inside pocket. They thanked Nate and left, after once again being made to swear that they wouldn't tell anyone that he'd supplied them with information.
"Let's get a cab and find this Bonnie." Fran said as they exited the building into the street, it had started to rain while they were inside and he wished that he too had a hat.
"No, let's get a cab and go home." Mulligan said firmly.
"Firstly, the details he gave us? That's not a part of the city I want to be in after dark, it makes this place." He gestured at the looming buildings around them. "Look like a paradise in comparison. Secondly, she might not have been returned yet, another night will give us a greater chance of her being there, and thirdly, you look like death and need to sleep."
"We're going home."
Being light headed from the purge and lack of food and drink only served to make the room even more bizarre than it already was. Hung on the walls were dozens of masks, each one a different design, and all of them with silent mouths and empty eye sockets. There were also pictures, paintings of strange creatures, some clearly meant to be evil, all horns and spiked tails while others were white and winged depictions of purity, and some were just odd, something that looked like a rooster but with scales instead of feathers, and man with two faces, one of them growing out of his stomach. On one wall was a case with a stuffed and mounted snake inside, Sam had seen similar things before, usually with fish, but this snake had two heads. Other than the art work the room contained a great many books, many were huge and old stacked on their sides on the shelves, while others were the sort of paperbacks you could buy in any of the city's bookshops. Apart from the bookcases the room contained only a large dark polished wooden desk with a chair behind it, and sitting in the chair was the man who had bought him. Sam stared at him, he had been expecting someone fearsome, a large man, a powerful man, a man capable of destroying Bonnie, but the man behind the desk was small, shrunken and ill looking. His skin resembled old parchment, it was oddly yellowed and deeply creased, and peering out from sunken eye sockets were a pair of pale watery eyes. He had little hair, just a few patches of mottled grey tufts on a scalp that was stretched tightly over his skull, but it's uneven colour and distribution made it look more like creeping fungus than anything that should be growing on a person. The man stared back at Sam, and something was either a smile or a grimace formed on his face.
"You look like an angel, do you know that?" He asked in his thin dry voice.
"An angel?" Sam echoed, aware that he was slurring his words a little.
"Your hair, your skin, so young and pure and unsoiled. You are unsoiled, aren't you? Because the girl..." He suddenly stared to cough, it was a wet gasping cough that went on for quite some time, when he had recovered he wiped spittle off his lips with the back of his hand and began to speak again. "That girl, she wasn't you see, I'm afraid that my man Grist allowed himself to be taken in by her." Sam assumed that Grist was the name of the large servant. "She thought to fool me with a bottle of blood and a sponge, a common whore's trick it was, but I found her trick and I gave her to Grist to be punished for her lies. So young man, it is of the utmost importance that you answer this question truthfully, are you unspoiled?"
Bonnie had been given to the large man to be punished, that was what had happened to her. Sam looked at the shrunken master, he seemed like he'd barely be able to stand unaided and he doubted that he would be capable of harming him in any way. Although the idea of any kind of physical encounter with him was one he found repulsive, it was considerably preferable to being punished by Grist. "I am." He lied.
"Good." The man sounded relived. "I knew it, I knew a shining boy like you couldn't have been sullied by others bodies." The man coughed his wet cough again. "What is your name?" He asked when he was once again able.
"A nice simple honest name, you are perfect for my needs, Grist may have made a mistake with that girl, but he chose well with you. You cost much more than I was expecting to have to spend, but then I thought that I was simply buying a maidenhead when I sent Grist out to attend the auction, and my finances are all but drained. However this time it will work, I can see that you were meant for this purpose, it will work and I will be restored." Sam was finding it increasingly hard to follow what the man was saying, he wished that there was somewhere for him to sit, lights were starting to flicker at the edges of his vision and he hoped that he wouldn't faint.
"Sam, are you a religious boy?" The man asked him.
"Um." He rubbed his hand across his face, trying to focus. "I always went to chapel with my mother."
The man nodded, regarding him seriously. "A god for this and a god for that, like employees in a factory, each turning out their own neatly packaged attribute. It's all nonsense." He coughed. "All nonsense...there are powers, gods if you like, powers that control, powers that can change your fortune if you know how, if you know what they want. I spent many years on the Northern Continent, there are people there who know, who can see beneath and above and I learnt many things from them." Sam was utterly lost now and it was all he could do to remain standing upright. "I learned to control my own fate...I learned that there is no such thing as good or evil, it all amounts to the same thing, a good man dies just the same as a bad one does in the end. Except for me, I'm not going to die, the powers, they have sent me this sickness to test me, to make me find a way to be reborn." The man's watery eyes were shining now, and Sam realised that it was the fire of madness that he could see in them. "The girl, her virginity was meant to restore me, but it would have only have been a temporary thing, just a respite. You my angel boy..." He succumbed briefly to another coughing fit. "You are going to be my cure, your life is going to preserve mine. I have tried before, but the others were wrong, they were tainted or corrupted somehow, but you, you are perfect, and the time is perfect. I am close to death and the moon is close to it's rebirth and you have been brought to me, tomorrow night at the rising of the new moon I will take your life and exchange it for my eternal one."
It took a few seconds for the man's meaning to unfold in Sam's clouded mind, that he had been bought not as a sexual plaything as he had assumed all along, but instead as a blood sacrifice for a dying madman. When the full realisation of the words did hit him his thoughts shut down, and he fell unconscious to the floor.
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