A Kind of Alchemy
by London Lampy
As the ginger haired woman led them inside the flat Fran stared around in astonishment. From the outside the place was a slum, fit for nothing more than the wrecking ball, but the inside was a different story, someone who lived there clearly loved to sew and had an eye for interior décor. The walls were painted a soft cream colour and hanging on them were a number of intricately sewn samplers in glass frames. On the sofa were half a dozen embroidered cushions, each one stitched with a different kind of flower, a needle point fire screen hid the fireplace and a small table was covered with a linen cloth, a delicate pattern of stars worked onto it in silver thread, and on top of the cloth sat a glass vase filled with branches of winter flowering jasmine. The windows had muslin curtains covering them, they let in the light but nothing much could be seen of the street and Fran assumed that this was deliberate, a view of the deprivation outside would not chime well with the pleasant calm of the room. The smell of baking was much stronger in here too, it was clearly emanating from a small neat kitchen that could be spied through a partially open door.
"You thought that everyone in this part of town lived like pigs, didn't you?" The woman questioned Fran when she saw him looking around her home. "Rolling around in their own filth, sleeping wherever they fell, never cleaning or washing."
"No." He replied quickly, he didn't now.
"Huh." She gave him a contemptuous look. "Men like you, you'll never understand."
"Bonnie?" Mulligan said questioningly.
"I won't let you see her for too long, she's been through a lot." She glared at them almost as if this was their fault.
"We aren't going to need long." The magician assured her.
They followed her into a bedroom that was as neat as the rest of the place, again it had muslin curtains blocking out the view, but other thicker curtains were partially drawn too so that the light was dim. The room was dominated by a double bed covered by an beautifully made patchwork quilt, and under the quilt, sitting up in the middle of the bed was a small figure with long wavy brown hair dressed in a high necked white cotton nightgown printed with blue flowers. She had a dark shadow around her bottom lip that could have been a bruise and to Fran's eyes the girl looked no older, and possibly a fair bit younger, than Fudge, and he stared at her wondering if she really was in her early twenties.
"Hello." He said quietly, not wanting to scare her, or irritate the ginger haired woman. "I'm Fran and that's Mulligan."
"I'm Bonnie." Her voice was quiet and husky, as if she had a sore throat. "And that's Alison, if she hasn't introduced herself." She pointed to the woman by the door. "And I'm not nearly as fragile as she'd have you think."
"Don't listen to her." Alison said crossly. "She been locked up, drugged, assaulted then dumped on the outskirts of the city to find her own way back here."
"And I'm home now and still alive." She said this looking at the other woman, who crossed the room to sit on the bed beside her, putting one arm protectively around Bonnie's small shoulders and glaring at the two men.
"I'm sorry." Fran didn't know what else to say, he felt like he was intruding. "We'll be gone soon, but we need to know, was there a boy called Sam with you, and if so where were you taken? We have to find him and get him back to his home."
"Try the city limits." Alison said darkly. "If they return him the same way they returned Bonnie."
"Unfortunately he was sold outright." Mulligan put in. "So it's unlikely that he will be returned in the same fashion. It wasn't something that was meant to happen and it's a longer story than we have the time to tell, if you could just inform us where you were taken to we'll be on our way."
"Poor bleeder!" Bonnie's eyes opened wide. "That's not a good place, I've seen some bad shit in my time, but that place and them people..." She shook her head, Alison hugged her tighter. "There's something really...wrong with them."
Fran could now see a discrepancy between Bonnie's appearance and her demeanour, she was much too self assured for a girl in her early teens and it was now clear that despite her size she was older she first looked.
"Where Bonnie, where is this place you were taken?" Mulligan asked.
"Oh bloody hell, I'm sorry, but you see I don't really know. I was blindfolded all the way there and all the way back, they didn't want me to know, they even tied my hands up." She rubbed one of her wrists and as the sleeve of her nightgown fell back Fran could see rope marks on the pale flesh. "It weren't in the city, that's for sure, we went by coach and it took at least an hour, maybe two." Fran exchanged glances with Mulligan, it felt like they'd hit a dead end.
"What kind of place was it?" Mulligan said softly.
"A big one, really big, but it was kind of old and shabby like no one ever bothered to take care of it. It looked like it used to be all fancy but everything was broken and dirty, and it smelt, you know, like damp and mould." She blinked her blue eyes. "It was bloody creepy, that's what it was."
"And who were the people who took you, what did they look like, what were their names?" Fran prayed that Bonnie would be able to answer this question, because if she couldn't they had no other leads.
"There were two servants I saw and the bloke in charge they just called "Master", the main servant, the one who bought us at the auction, I think he was called "Twist" or "Grist", something like that, I never even heard the other one's name. I never saw two of their face's either, the main servant always wore a mask, it was plain white with just eye holes." Fran nodded, he remembered that and it fitted with what Nate had told them. "He was tall...and." She squeezed her eyes shut, suddenly looking scared.
"She's had enough." Alison said with a scowl as Bonnie took a deep breath.
"No...Al, I've got to help them, they need to find the boy." Bonnie's voice was unsteady. "He was tall and strong...he, he hurt me, they'd made me drink something, the Master found out I wasn't pure, that's what he said, and so he gave me to him to punish me...I couldn't fight back because of how they drugged me..." She sounded like she might cry.
"It wasn't your fault." Alison's voice was fierce. "It wasn't your fault."
"The Master, I think he was old, and sick too. He wore a mask as well, a face like a little boy and he had a bad cough, like someone who smokes far too much. He was...scary, not like the other one, he wasn't powerful but he was...I don't know, it was like I was drunk 'cos of what they gave me, at one point I thought I saw the lips on the mask move, but he seemed, wrong." She frowned. "Do you know what I mean?"
Fran nodded, thinking of Mother. "And what about the third one, you said you didn't see two of the faces, but what about the other one?"
"He was a monkey." She replied, much to his puzzlement as he mentally pictured something small and hairy.
"A monkey?" He questioned.
"Yeah, a monkey, I think he was like a slave. I know they have them them up on the Northern Continent, I've never seem one in real life before but I knew what he was 'cos he had golden eyes."
"You mean he was an echoback?" Mulligan asked, and for Fran the penny dropped. She didn't actually mean a monkey, not the small hairy animal anyway, she meant one of the tailed people who came from the Rhea basin forest, they were often colloquially referred to as monkeys, by humans at least. If she was right and he was a slave he most likely didn't have a tail any more though, part of the process of enslaving them involved brutally chopping their tails off.
"Yeah." She nodded. "One of them."
"Is there anything else you remember that can help us?" Fran knew that they had to get every last bit of information they could.
"No, just..." She put a hand to her face, touching the bruise under her lip. "Be careful...especially of the tall man...he likes to cause pain...he enjoys..." Her face suddenly crumpled and she began to cry, and once again she looked like a little girl.
"Get out!" Alison threw at them, pulling the sobbing Bonnie to her. "Get out of our house."
They left quietly, as they went Fran could hear Alison trying to calm Bonnie, his heart went out to the girl, but at least her ordeal was over and she had someone to care for her. Sam was still there, and he now feared for his safety more than ever.
As Sam lay bound to the bed he wished that he could say goodbye to all the people he cared for. Since coming to the city Fran and Fudge had become like family to him, and he wanted to tell them how sorry he was for all the trouble that he had caused. He longed to see Ed one last time, and he found himself wondering if none of this had ever happened would they have become a proper couple. But the person he wanted to see more than any other was his mother, he ached to hug her one last time, to tell her how much he loved her and how much he had missed her, but it was too late now, his fate was sealed.
Back out on the grimy street Fran looked at Mulligan, Bonnie had clearly told them all she knew, but it wasn't enough. "What now?" He asked, hoping that Mulligan would have made more of what the girl had told him than he could.
"I don't know." He shrugged. "A crumbling mansion somewhere out in the countryside, a tall sadist, a sick old man and an echoback slave. It sounds to me like the "Master" is a once wealthy man living in reduced circumstances, a life crumbling into ruin like the house, a few loyal servants, or slaves, left to do his work and just about enough money to buy Sam and Bonnie. Perhaps if I knew anything about the rich and powerful of Parnell I might have an idea, but I don't, they're hardly the company I normally keep. What about you Frannie, you know anything about those kinds of people?"
Fran thought. "Not personally, but I do know someone who might, and I don't think we've got anything to lose by talking to him."
"Who?" For once it was Mulligan's turn to look puzzled.
"Victor, his father was one of the richest and most powerful men in the city." As they began to walk back toward the city centre Fran explained. "He's a Jonas, they grow and import rubber, all except Victor that is, he wanted to be a painter and refused to work for the family business so his father cut him off without a penny. When he died Victor's cousin inherited everything, he was the golden boy, while Victor was the black sheep. I don't actually think Vic cares much, he might have some deeply immoral tendencies..."
"Deeply immoral tendencies?" Mulligan queried.
"He seduced Sam."
"Against Sam's will?"
"No, very much with Sam's will I think." Fran admitted.
"That's not really deeply immoral then is it?"
"He might have some deeply immoral tendencies, but in his own way he's quite noble, and I think he likes living up to the whole poor starving artist cliché too. But all that aside, he did grow up amongst the cities elite and if you're right he might know who we're looking for, and if he doesn't..." Fran left the sentence unfinished.
"Then we keep going, we find another approach, if necessary we hire a carriage and and scour the countryside around the city for a crumbling mansion. We'll find him." He put a hand on Fran's shoulder, and Fran wished that he felt as certain as Mulligan sounded.
As they explained the whole sorry story to Victor Fran's gaze kept wandering to the half finished portrait of Sam that was leaning against the long strip of windows in the painter's combined studio and flat. In the picture Sam looked relaxed in a post sex sort of way, he was naked and sprawled across a chair with one arm thrown casually behind his head and Fran wondered if the sittings had happened before of after they'd slept together. When Mulligan had finished the explanation Victor shook his head as if he couldn't quite believe what he had just heard.
"Fran, your sister is one fucking bitch." He said eventually. Fran felt the urge to defend Ava, but he knew that she had done the indefensible.
"The thing is Vic, we thought you might know where he'd been taken, we tracked down the girl that went with him and she was able to give us some details, it's not much but it sounds like the person who bought him might be, or have once been, very rich."
"I haven't been part of that world for a very long time but tell me what you can...gods, poor Sam." Victor glanced at the painting too, and although no one said it Fran was sure that they were thinking that it might be all they'd ever see of him again.
Between Fran and Mulligan they went through everything Bonnie had told them as Victor listened intently, nodding at some of the details.
"So?" Fran asked when they had finished.
"An echoback slave, that suggests someone who is, or was, involved in rubber or cocoa. Seeing as pretty much everyone who's in the rubber business in this part of the world is related to me I don't think that can be it. My relatives may not all be the nicest of people but that doesn't sound like any of them, so it must be chocolate money."
"It is possible it's neither though." Mulligan put in.
"Maybe." Victor shrugged. "But it's just rubber and cocoa growers who use slaves because they're the only crops that grow well in the forest area and it would seem odd to have one if you did something else. Back in my grandfather's day it was quite fashionable to ship one or two over here to work in your house, show off how rich you were." Victor said the word "rich" with a sneer. "I remember a few were still about when I was a kid, the last one I saw was..." He frowned in thought. "He was...oh fuck." Victor squeezed his eyes shut for a moment. "I think I might know where Sam is, and I'm afraid that it's not good."
"Where?" Fran leant forward, his heart thumping.
"You might remember this, it was about ten, twelve years ago, a girl who worked in a cocoa processing factory went missing, and when her body was finally found her heart was missing, it had been cut out?"
"I do remember that." Fran nodded. It had been the sort of grisly story the papers loved, an attractive young woman, a brutal murder and a sinister mutilation. "Her body was found in the grounds of the factory owner's house wasn't it, and wasn't he arrested?"
"Yes." Victor nodded. "But he was never charged, he was suddenly released and the story just disappeared. The man's name is Pault and I took an interest in the whole thing because I remembered meeting him when I was younger. He was a strange man even then, and the servants had a lot of odd gossip about him."
"The servants?" Mulligan raised his eyebrows.
"It's not my fault I was born into a wealthy family, but I can assure you I'm not wealthy any longer."
"What odd servant's gossip?" Fran couldn't care less about anyone's wealth or otherwise right then.
"That he practised...I don't know what you'd call it, witchcraft, black magic? He spent a lot of time on the Northern Continent, they go in more for that kind of thing up there, and most of the servants thought that he'd cut the poor girls heart out as part of some sort of dark ceremony then bribed the police into letting him go. Anyway, what is true and not just is gossip is that shortly after the murder his wife divorced him, he sold his business and disappeared. If I remember correctly in the divorce the wife got half his fortune and the house in the city, he kept the country mansion and it was assumed that he'd just holed up there, and that was pretty much the last thing I ever heard about Pault. I haven't even thought about him for years, but he had an echoback slave, if he is still out there in his mansion living off what remains of his fortune it could well be in a bad state of repair by now, and he was, or is, a very strange and possibly dangerous man."
"Shit...it all fits doesn't it?" Fran's fears for Sam had grown exponentially while Victor had been speaking. He'd been working on the assumption that by now Sam would have been forced to give himself to whoever had bought him, and that was bad enough, but he'd never truly believed that his life was in danger until now. If indeed he even was still alive.
"Where is this Pault's country house?" Mulligan asked, even he sounded shaken.
Victor sighed. "I don't exactly know, I'm pretty sure it's somewhere to the west of the city though."
"Shit!" Fran swore again, they were getting so close now but there always seemed to be a detail that alluded them.
"Frannie, it will be somewhere on public record, we've got a name, that's all we need." Mulligan said. "Thank you Victor, we need to go now, I'm sure you understand."
"I do." He agreed. "Look Fran, I know what you think about my relationship with Sam, but I do care for him a great deal."
"I know." Fran conceded. "I'll tell you what happens."
"Thanks." Victor nodded. "Good luck."
He didn't say it, but nevertheless the words "you'll need it" hung in the air as they left.
[For those who use webmail, or whose regular email client opens when they want to use webmail instead: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo etc). Each browser is subtly different, each Webmail system is different, or we'd give fuller instructions here. We trust you to know how to use your own system. If the email address pastes with %40 in the middle, replace that with an @ sign.]