I’ve never done NANOWRIMO before and I’m not sure I’m doing it now, but having finally bitten the bullet and pulled the plug on Pankhearst to reboot as Furious with a renewed focus on fiction, I need to get writing again. And 50,000 words in November seems like a decent target so here we go with a month-long writing diary which may or may not culminate in the first draft of a novel.
As is typical, my latest idea is taking me off in an unexpected direction. Here’s my first draft of the first chapter of a novel that might be called Guttersnipe. Possibly I’ll write some more tomorrow.
The old grey men I’m shadowing are beginning to worry me.
Why? They’re not frightened, not at all.
The fog swept in off the dark grey Thames at dusk and my well-developed sense of self-preservation took me to the rooftops for my own protection. Sitting high above the streets astride one of the grotesque gargoyles that guard the domed roof of the Burdett Bank, I watched the dense green-tinted mist smother the heart of the city beneath a frigid blanket of dark and eldritch opportunity.
The two men left the safety and warmth of the International Club thirty minutes later, give or take. They were only halfway across Constitution Square when I decided they were the ones I’d be following tonight. It was an easy call. Members of the International tend to be well-informed and influential. Exactly what I’ve been looking for. And yet. They’ve been walking for almost twenty minutes now and they are not afraid, and that worries me more than I can explain.
Today is Easter Friday, the seventeenth day of the fog. The shadows and depths of our city conceal myriad dangers and they all come out to play when the fog rolls in. Even the brightest street lamps are dimmed by the mist, reduced to ineffective balls of blurred green light, and the city’s cops are helpless, blind, and spread too thin, like the last remnants of butter scraped across too much toast. Murders and rapes are up, the journalists all agree. Disappearances, robberies, and brutal beatings too. And then there are the inexplicable atrocities.
Small wonder Londoners are leaving work midafternoon and scurrying home to bolt their doors and cower behind their curtains with their children and their tea. The streets are deserted long before dark, and TV ratings have surged. Crime shows are more popular than ever before. No need to ask why.
The underworld has risen to occupy the city and nobody is safe, not anymore. But forty feet below me in the heart of Bowden Place, these two old grey men amble on together through the fog, chatting nineteen to the dozen, seemingly without a single care in the world.
They’re safe from me, at least. I have no plans to rob them or do them any harm. I am only practicing my trade. Playing a game my mother taught me many years ago. Follow a stranger, learn his secrets, and never be caught, or seen. Ordinarily, I might pick a pocket or two in my search for information, but tonight that would mean going back down into the fog.
The man doing most of the talking is big and bulky and loud. “This ungodly green shade,” he announces, every syllable booming out into the shrouded night. “It interests me.”
“Oh really, sir?”
“Yes, Fraser, really. And don’t be giving me your famous Cambridge sarcasm.”
“No sir, perish the thought.”
The bigger man snorts. His version of a laugh, I suppose. “Do you know,” he continues, “that in the days of the Ripper and Sherlock Holmes, they called these fogs ‘pea-soupers’? I’ve no idea why, but this color … well, it makes one think.”
“I have read,” the man called Fraser says, “fogs back then were so thick with pollution the people could actually taste them, quite literally. Hence the name, I suppose.”
“Possibly, possibly,” the louder man concedes, “but the only thing I can taste in this damned mist is magic.” He almost spits the final word.
I hop from one Regency rooftop to another, and congratulate myself. I have chosen well after all. These worrisome men know about the magic.
“Yes, sir. Magic, quite so.”
“And so thick in the air, I could eat it myself. With a buggering spoon if I were so inclined.”
Careful to swallow my laughter, I peer ahead through the fog to get my bearings again. The looming darkness in the distance can only be one building—the Mark Hotel on the corner of Canton Square.
We’re barely half a mile from my own home and I know every inch of this neighborhood. The square will be a problem. Unless the men turn left, I will have a choice to make. Stop the game or take my chances in the fog.
The best place to go down into the street is Molly Pike’s baker’s shop, two doors from the corner. I can drop into her blue and white canopy, but not until my targets are out of earshot, and that will make it difficult to catch them up again unless I stay down there on the ground. But that isn’t safe, especially not here. These two old men might not be afraid, but I have every reason to fear. Canton Square marks the southern edge of the Nightshades’ territory and my mother isn’t here to protect me from their blades. Ty Gates, the leader of the gang, is nursing a king-size grudge against my family.
“How much further, sir?” Fraser asks.
“Half a mile, I think, but don’t forget we have to make our little detour.”
“Yes, sir. I mean, no, sir, I haven’t forgotten. Perish the thought, again.”
Half a mile from where? I wrack my brains and come up blank. We’re heading for a mostly residential neighborhood. Maybe the Paternoster pub? I don’t know. And what am I going to do when we reach the square? I want to learn more about these men, who they are, and anything they know about the magic and the fog, but I can’t let Ty Gates’ gang get their hands on me. Perhaps this ‘little detour’ will help me to decide.
Fifty yards before the square, the two men peel away from the road and into the narrow passageway locals call Cutthroat Lane. Citizens know never to venture down there, and even the average tourist has the sense to stay away—Americans excluded, obviously. I drop to all fours and follow cautiously, certain now I understand these men. They do not fear the fog or Cutthroat Lane, because they themselves are dangerous men.
I should have realized from the first.
The International Club opened in the nineteen-eighties after the Diogenes was bombed by terrorists, and my mother says it’s a front for the Secret Service and all their friends in politics and big business. The men below me in the alley are clearly not politicians, bankers, or industrialists.
Up here on the rooftops, that shouldn’t be a problem, not for me. Except. As they stroll side-by-side deeper down Cutthroat Alley, all my instincts start to scream at me. These two old grey men of the Secret Service are more than likely heading for my home.