So I had these big plans for a blog post this morning, about a novella series I’m reading that has some good promise. But that requires me to finish reading the last two installments. I was going to do that last night, but health issues interfered. No reading. No blog post. I apologize for that, and I promise, I’ll post it as soon as possible.
I hate leaving you with no post. So how’s about a little fiction? Not the whole story, not yet, but just a taste. Tell me you like, and I’ll post the rest!
by A.J. Clarkson
Ellie didn’t recognize the nondescript man who lay amidst the crushed cabbage leaves and rat droppings that littered the floor of the alley. His natty gray suit was slathered in blood from the slash that opened his throat from ear to ear; the blood looked black in the light of the flares that encircled them. At the mouth of the alley, a small coterie of British soldiers and policemen – Ellie couldn’t get used to calling them “bobbies” – kept the public at bay.
“That blood is never going to wash out of that shirt,” Ellie said.
Paul Richmond, Ellie’s partner, looked down at her and raised an eyebrow. “Tact and demure charm. Everything I’ve come to expect from Americans,” he said. His polished Oxford accent was a sharp contrast to Ellie’s southern drawl.
Ellie gave him a dimpled smile. “We aim to please.” Paul’s eyebrow rose even higher, but she saw the corner of his mouth twitch as he hid a smile.
“If you’ve quite finished?” said the third figure standing over the dead man. This was Daniel Salisbury (retired), their handler with the Special Operations Executive. He had recruited Ellie to the SOE, though “drafted” might be a better term. It had supposedly been for just the one job, back in September, at the beginning of the London bombings. But it was now November, and he was still calling her out on “errands.”
“My apologies, Colonel. You were saying?” said Paul, schooling his features as he looked away from Ellie.
“This poor unfortunate’s name is — was — Ianto Llewellyn. He worked for Special Operations Executive, out of our office in Swansea.”
“This guy was a spy?” said Ellie. “He doesn’t look the type.” He didn’t. At home, Ellie’s West Virginia neighbors would have called him a “ridge runner,” which was hardly a compliment. He was small, with narrow shoulders and pinched features. His hands were long and narrow, and looked soft. This was not a man who had ever held a gun or done any physical labor.
“A spy who looks like a spy probably isn’t doing his job very well,” said Paul dryly.
“Speak for yourself, Limey,” said Ellie, without rancor.
Salisbury raised a hand for attention. “He wasn’t a spy. He was a clerk, for the most part.”
“Then this was just a mugging?” said Ellie. “The Nazis wouldn’t target a clerk.”
“Mostly a clerk,” said Salisbury. “He was also in charge of liaising with some of our special domestic assets.”
“Which means?” said Paul.
“Which means he was a contact person for certain people here in the UK. Scientists, criminals, magic practitioners, and otherworldlies. People who might prove useful to the war effort, but couldn’t be recruited or handled through regular channels,” said Salisbury. He glanced at Ellie. “He was the man who pointed out your own value to our work, Miss Waite.”
“Great. Thanks for nothin’, Mister,” said Ellie, scowling down at the body.
“I didn’t know we had otherworldlies in London,” said Paul.
“A few,” said Salisbury. “We track them closely.”
“What’s an otherworldly?” said Ellie.
“I’ll explain later,” said Paul. “What are you thinking, Colonel?”
“Llewellyn here was particularly good at working with the magical practitioners. They trusted him, though I don’t know what made him so special,” said Salisbury. “He had come into London this week to speak to one special asset, a Miss Perdue. She is an unusual case, very difficult to manage, very reclusive. Llewellyn was the only person from our department that she’d even allow into her home. Everybody else who tried, well, we managed to save the sight of the last two. Three others died badly, and one has vanished entirely.”
“You think somebody tried to get to her through Llewellyn?” said Paul.
“And he wouldn’t cooperate, so they killed him,” said Ellie.
“Precisely,” said Salisbury.
“And you want us to what? Find the killers?” said Paul.
“No, actually, that end of things is under control. I want you to contact Miss Perdue.”
“What? No!” said Ellie.
“Ellie, please,” said Paul.
“’Ellie please’ nothing! You heard what he said, people being blinded, being killed, vanishing outright? Sounds like this old girl takes her privacy a little more seriously than your average reclusive eccentric.”
“I have faith in your talents, Miss Waite. Yours and Mr. Richmond’s, of course,” said Salisbury. He handed Paul a piece of folded paper. “Here’s what we know of Miss Perdue’s whereabouts.”
“But what about – “ Ellie started.
“How do you know Miss Perdue was the focus of this murder, Colonel?” Paul interrupted. “You said yourself, Mr. Llewellyn managed a number of assets besides Miss Perdue. Any one of them could have been the target of whoever killed him.”
“True. But the timing is suspect. Miss Perdue was involved in a classified project that is to be tested within a fortnight, something the Nazis would like very much to acquire from us. Occam’s Razor says that it is most likely they wanted Llewellyn to give them the location of Miss Perdue, so they could either assassinate or abduct her.”
“Colonel Salisbury, what are the chances that the same boys who killed this guy are going to try and follow us to this gal?” said Ellie.
Salisbury didn’t answer. He merely raised an eyebrow at her, unconsciously mimicking Paul.
Ellie sighed heavily. “Got it. Extra careful, and looking over our shoulders wouldn’t be a waste of time.”
“Good,” said Salisbury. He looked at them for a second before saying, “Well? Why are you dithering? Go!”
“Gone,” said Ellie.
* * * * *
Paul’s ranking in the Special Operations Executive meant that he was allowed to have a car in the city and petrol rations enough to drive it. Ellie was always relieved by this; riding the tube nowadays was depressing and a little frightening. The platforms were almost always crowded with those who had been made homeless by the bombings that had started in September. Most of the time the people were in good spirits, that celebrated British stiff upper lip that Ellie had heard about since her own childhood in the mountains of West Virginia. But still, it drove home to her that this was not her old life, where eluding the police after some daring heist was a silly game, a lark she embarked on for the sake of a thrill. This was not some game; people were really dying, lives were really being uprooted. This was for keeps.
Paul expertly steered his car onto a side street off Fish Street Hill, and parked it. The street itself was deserted and dark, thanks to the blackout that forced all street lights turned off and even the windows of houses had to be covered, to make it harder for Nazi bombers to see the city. But not completely dark; the moon was full, what the British called a “bombers’ moon,” because the Nazi planes could see better during the full moon. There was no traffic, and no noise; it as eerie, as though the city was holding its breath, waiting for something terrible. Ellie shivered and stayed close to the car as Paul joined her.
“You’re parked illegally, you know that, right?” said Ellie. She pointed to the street, which had double yellow lines painted across it to indicate a no parking zone.
In answer, Paul tapped the windshield. A white placard lay on the dashboard, clearly visible. “Official Vehicle” was printed on the placard. “Our business is more important,” he said simply.
“Fair enough,” said Ellie. Paul turned and started walking up the street, setting a quick pace. Ellie, who was nearly a foot shorter than him at only 5’2”, was hard-pressed to keep up. “Slow down!” Paul slowed his pace and Ellie caught up to him. “Where are we headed?”
“There.” Paul pointed. Ellie followed his gesture. Above the roofs of the buildings could be seen a single spire pointed up at the night sky, its marble surface milky white in the pale moonlight. The top had a balcony caged in black metal mesh, and a golden top gleamed dully in the dim light.
“Yeah, I’ve seen that before,” said Ellie. “I’ve heard it called The Monument, but I don’t really know what it’s a monument to.”
“It’s the Monument to the Great Fire of London,” said Paul. “It was built in 1677, 200 feet from the site where the fire started.” Paul stopped, midstep. “Oh! That makes sense!”
“What makes sense?”
“The location,” said Paul. He resumed walking, increasing his pace until Ellie was nearly skipping to keep up with him.
Ellie growled in frustration. When Paul got like this, she wanted to strangle him with his old school tie. “Hello, Yank here. I need more than two words for an explanation.”
“The Monument was built on the site of St. Margaret’s Church, the first church to be burned down by the fire. It was once hallowed ground.”
“Is it still hallowed?”
“Don’t know,” said Paul. “It might be. But if it isn’t, that makes it powerful, magically speaking. Formerly hallowed ground is rare.”
“Is that good?”
“Maybe. Maybe not. But it explains why Miss Perdue chose this particular site for her residence,” said Paul.
By now they had turned the corner onto Monument Street, and the monument itself was clearly visible in the dim light. The base was square, two storeys tall; the rest of the spire was round. It looked like a Greek column to Ellie, or a bigger version of the more famous Nelson’s Column in Trefalgar Square. The faces of the base were carved with bas relief, and there were words incised below the carvings. So far, the column had been untouched by the Nazi bombings.
Paul led the way to a dark door on the far side of the base. He tried the handle. “Locked,” he said.
Ellie grinned. “Out of the way, Limey. This is my department.” She shouldered past him, and he took two steps back to give her more light. She knelt in front of the doorknob and studied the lock. “Are they serious? The lock’s older than the building. What did they do, salvage it from King Tut’s tomb?”
“Humor. Of course. Exactly what we need at a moment like this,” said Paul. He was turning in place, his eyes scanning the street. “Do you mind hurrying this along? I feel exposed out here on the street.”
“I’m hurryin’, I’m hurryin’!” muttered Ellie. She fished in her pocket for a small leather pouch. She seldom carried a purse or other feminine accoutrements, but she never went anywhere without this little pouch. She opened it to reveal a selection of thin metal rods and hooks; in a separate pocket were a collection of skeleton keys of various configurations. Ellie selected four of the skeleton keys and pushed the first into the lock, trying it. It didn’t work, so she pulled it out and tried the second.
“British locks are different from American ones. Especially old locks that take this kind of key,” said Ellie as she worked. “You know I had to buy a completely new set of master keys when I got to London? That ain’t as easy as popping into the corner shop, you know.”
“How inconvenient,” said Paul, not turning away from his scanning of the street.
“The job is essentially the same,” Ellie continued as she tried the next key. “Get the wards or tumblers into the right position and the door is unlocked.” The key didn’t fit. Damn. She was going to have to do this the hard way. She put the keys away and pulled out the two largest rods in her pouch. She pushed them into the lockhole and began rattling them around in a tight circle, trying to find the wards.
“Do you have it?” said Paul. His voice had fallen to a tense whisper.
“You can’t rush genius.”
“I don’t need genius. I need the door open now.”
“Because we have company,” said Paul.
Before Ellie could turn around, the loud crack! of a pistol shot rang out, and the stone door frame exploded into shrapnel, inches from Ellie’s face.