The Cabinet of Curiosities
Jar of eyes

The Crimson Porter

 

The violins looked like the bodies of small, curly-tailed animals, hanging there in the darkened shop window, and they were in a waydeadbecause no one played them.

Henty eyed them through the smudged glass. He felt the two heavy coins rasping together in his pocket. He decided he wouldn’t be sorry. Then he hurried into the grimy alley around the corner of the shop and knelt down.

The air was cold. Across the rooftops, the bells of St. Winnifred-in-the-Oak were ringing nine o’ clock, and the gables glistened with wet and moonlight. He began laying out his sweep-things quickly: a bristly black brush, a filthy oil cloth, an array of shovels and scrapers. He wasn’t a chimney sweep. Crimson Porters didn’t do that. But boys on the streets after dark where almost expected to be doing something illegal, and this way if he were caught he could tell whoever it was that he had gotten stuck in a chimney.

The bells were still ringing. In the distance he heard a rag-and-bone man pushing his cart, shouting as he moved between the buildings, shouting into the dark. Right now everything was green and black. Green moss, black wet, black stone, green chimneys. It wouldn’t be for much longer.

Henty took off his ratty gloves, rubbed his hands together and breathed on them. He tried to concentrate. He would prefer, of course, to be back in the Unders, warming up by a smoldering fire and eating whatever there was to be eaten. But Effie had sent him up into the city, and she would kill him if he came back without doing the job. Now he just had to make sure everything worked out as planned.

The bells rang one last time.

Henty placed his palms against the wall of Mr. Muckpearl’s Marvelous Music Shop and exhaled.

At first nothing happened. Henty shuffled his feet. He swallowed. He closed his eyes.

His breath began to come quickly, though he wasn’t moving. He squeezed his eyes closed. It was starting to hurt a bit, but it always did.

He opened his eyes. The wall where his hands were spread was beginning to smoke.  The stone was turning black as coal. And then, from between Henty’s splayed fingers, came a rush of sound, and suddenly the stones beneath his hands were smoldering a deep, dark red like cooling lava. The stones cracked a little. Fire erupted, devoured the moss, ran right up the cracks and seams in the wall, right up to the roof. . . .

Henty watched it. It was always a sight. A river of red was coming from his hands now, pouring up the stone. The flames caught on the roof beams. Soon the roof was a bonfire, crimson sparks rising into the night sky. The entire alley was awash in a violent, ruddy light.

And then: “Hey!”

A deep yell, too close for comfort. Henty didn’t move his hands, but his head snapped around. A man was coming toward him. A huge man in a bulky black greatcoat.

Uh-oh. . .

“It’s on fire!” Henty shouted. “The shop’s burning, I’m trying- ”

It was a stupid thing to say, but Henty had long ago realized that stupid things seem sensible to stupid people, and so he kept up the charade until the man was only ten steps away. When the man still showed no sign of slowing, Henty began to think about running. But the building wasn’t down yet, and the stone was wet. Burnt to the ground. No foundations. That was the job. If the water-belchers came soon it might still be salvaged.

Keeping one hand pressed to the wall, Henty threw the other one out, sending a spray of red sparks spinning toward the approaching thug. It was only supposed to frighten him. Usually it was enough.

Not this time. The man kept coming. He was bald, his pate glimmering in the firelight, and he had a tattoo of something snaking up his neck. He looked slightly insane.

Henty let go of the wall.

“Mister, you don’t wanna do that,” he started. “You don’t wanna- ”

The fist caught him in the mouth and he reeled back, almost falling onto his sweep things.

Oh, now you did it. Henty was up in an instant. His hands were up. He flicked his fingers toward the blazing wall and a jet of red flew from it and whirled in his palm.

“Give you one more chance,” Henty said, spitting blood onto the cobbles.

The man punched him again, this time in the stomach. The flames in Henty’s hand almost went out. Then he tensed his fingers and let loose, sending a burst of heat strong enough to melt iron swirling around the man.

Normally a blow like that would turn a body to cinders in seconds. But not this time. The blaze surrounded the man, his black coat and his tattooed neck. . . and it didn’t do a thing. The man smiled through the flames, all rotting teeth and cold eyes. He came at Henty again.

Henty’s heart dropped. This was new.

“Whada you want! What d’you-” He barely dodged a fist, only to be caught in the back by another one, and when he leaped back out of range, something long and black detached from the man’s neck and slithered toward him.

Oh.

The man was another one. One like Henty. But grown-up. And apparently immune to heat. This was getting worse by the second.

“Give me the cut,” the man growled. “The pay for the job. I know what you do, give it here- ”

Henty threw out the two silver coins, fast and hard against the wall at the end of the alley. Then he turned tail and ran, leaving his brushes, leaving his gloves.

By time the first men arrived, clanging buckets and shouting, Henty was gone. So was the instrument shop. And so was Henty’s money.

Everything was going precisely according to plan.

 

*

 

Henty half-hobbled, half-ran back to the docklands. It had begun to rain lightly, a cold, disgusting rain that coated his skin. He wiped away the drops and hurried under an archway. In the distance he could still hear the rush of flames. His crow-black hair was much too long and it stuck to his face as he ran, making his sharp, pale face even paler. People used to call him baekir, little devil-boy. In the workhouse the cook would throw pans at him and cross herself when he watched her from around the door-frame. Henty was fairly certain that was exactly what he was, and he had no qualms.

He came to an old leaning house right up along the quays, in earshot of the river and certainly in nose-shot. Music and raucous voices were pouring out of the house, but Henty didn’t go to the door. He went around the back, into a little court where some damp, bone-thin chickens were scratching in the rain. Then he shimmied up a drainpipe, leaped onto a beam, swung once, and he was on the roof, running along the slick slates toward the tip of the gable. Quick as a shadow, he leaped out over an alley. He came down lightly on the roof on the other side and began to climb the peak. This roof belonged to an empty house, a ruin, gutted all the way through. Henty stopped three slates below the great blackened chimney. There was a moldering tile there that someone had scratched with an “X”, and on this he knocked, three times.

Sharp knock. Soft knock. Sharp knock.

Somewhere far below there was a clack, a squeak of turning wheels and racing pulleys. Then the slates beneath Henty boots flipped down and he dropped like a stone, so quick his hair flew up behind him.

He was falling through the gutted house. He saw its empty windows rush past. But instead of hitting the floor, he fell through a hole and kept falling, down, down. He bounced on a stretched sheet, fell another ten feet, bounced again, and landed with a thud in a pile of sacks and damp feather beds and old musty mattresses. He was far underground now. Surely fifty feet from the slate he had knocked on to here. He was in a great cavernous space that was part of the sewer system. There were lanterns lit all up the walls, lining a spiral metal staircase, glowing in the upper archways. Smoke and the smell of cooking meat wafted about and mixed with the stench of the water in the canals. And everywhere there were boys and girls, some in rags, some in what may once have been splendid clothes. They were going here and there, writing, speaking, pondering, sitting sadly.

Henty pulled himself out of the pile of mattresses and bedding and hurried along the edge of one of the canals. Pipes poked out of the walls above, dripping green liquid into black waterways. It was noxious and most likely poisonous, and Henty had once woken to a wart sprouting from his hand where it had slipped into the water. They would all die down here, living the way they were. But they would die either way, and this was a better place to die than elsewhere.

He turned onto a bridge. Halfway across he started climbing a chain, switched onto some pegs that had been driven into the wall, and then leaped out into nothing, over an abyss that went even further down, hundreds of feet into the depths. A greenish waterfall poured into darkness. Nets and lamps reached down a little way and then extinguished. Henty fell for perhaps a second, slid along a rope, and then collapsed with a grunt into a great hanging net a few dozen feet from the edge of the abyss. The net was occupied by a girl and a tiny, frightened-looking boy, and Henty landed so hard that they jolted, and all the little boxes and lanterns leaped an inch into the air.

“Took you long enough,” the girl said, straightening an abacus and ledger, and fixing Henty with a frosty look. “Split the cut, and you can go eat- ”

She must have noticed his bloody lip and the long purplish bruise growing along his cheekbone, because she broke off then. Henty pretended not to notice.

“What happened?” Her voice was sharp. “You better not tell me you’re useless self went brawling and skipped out on the job, or I’ll- ”

Effie was the only person, ever, Henty reminded himself, who would dare talk to him liked that. She was the undisputed mistress of the Unders, the boss, the swanbolly, the leader of these orphans and outcasts. All of fifteen years old, she was grubby and disheveled, and she had a heart of stone. And she was a Blue Pusher. If Henty tried any funny businesssetting her braids on fire, or burning her stockingshe would be doused with black water from the canals quicker than you could say Jack Willard. He knew, because he had tried once, way back when he was just a nipper and didn’t know the order of things. He hadn’t tried again.

“I didn’t skip the job,” Henty said.

Effie waited for him to say more. To the left of him, he heard the other boy in the net lean forward.

“Then what happened?” Effie demanded. “Did someone see you?”

Henty took a deep breath. This would be the hard part. “No one saw me,” he said, but Effie wasn’t stupid. She didn’t have any mind gifts, like the Worms or the Teases, but she had Persnicketythat little boy with his great, disturbingly limpid eyes. Effie always kept him close. When you run a sewer full of children who can kill you easier than tie their own shoe a boy like Persnickity comes in very handy.

As if in response Persnickety’s eyes twitched and he smiled at Henty. Henty glared at him.

“Well, then, Henty. . .” said Effie, noting the exchange. “If nothing happened where’s my cut?”

Henty paused. He looked up toward the lanterns and the ropes. He thought about making a break for it. He had reported in and now maybe he could run off and Effie would forget about the money. But no. Effie wouldn’t forget. Effie would trap him in a bubble of water until he drowned. He started shuffling in his pockets, pretending he’d lost something.

“It’s right- Oh, look at that. I’m sure it was here- ”

“Henty.” Effie’s voice was like nail. Persnickety had crept a little closer. “If you’re thinking of keeping cuts from me, I won’t have it. I’ll- ”

All right, thought Henty. This is it.

“I lost it,” he said, and Persnickety’s eyes went wide. Henty thought of the huge thug, the red heat swirling around him, not even singing him. He pushed the image away quickly. “I tripped in the alley on the way back from Eastbourne and the coins slipped right out o’ my hand. But the house is gone. The job’s done. No one’s going to come asking.”

Effie watched him for a moment. Then she crooked her finger at Persnickety and he came over on all fours. Effie leaned down.

Henty couldn’t be sure if Persnickety ever opened his mouth, but he could swear there was a sudden flurry of whispers in the air, there for an instant, then gone.

Effie looked at Henty again. Her mouth twisted. “The great Henty, tripping over his own toes. My, my. . . Can’t handle your own feet on the streets, what? Double duty tomorrow, and don’t let it happen again or I may be needing a different Crimson Porter.”

She gave him one last look and started clacking beads again and scratching at her ledger with the nib of her pen. Persnickety continued to watch Henty.

Henty bared his teeth at the boy. Then he was off the net, swinging back up toward the lights.

Talk all you want, Effie. You don’t know half as much as you think.

Effie didn’t know, for instance, that there was another Worm down here, an eight-year-old from South Kensington who had run away after making his governess leap from the second story window. Effie didn’t know that that eight year old was fond of chocolate and toy-soldiers, and Effie didn’t know that Henty had struck a little deal with the Kensington Worm. Chocolate and two tin soldiers for a little lessons in protection from probing minds.

Oh, yes, Henty had his own allies. Effie made a point to call every new arrival up to her net for Persnickety to read them. There were few secrets, few terrible pasts and horrid memories that Effie didn’t know. And she thought she knew Henty’s. But she didn’t. There were things in Henty’s mind that had a cage around them, a black spiny cage that the Kensington Worm had set up for him, and everything Henty didn’t want Effie to know, he put inside that cage. Sometimes he felt Persnickty’s fingers, poking at it, but even he couldn’t get in. One of the things in the cage was a box, hidden behind a brick in the south wall of the sewer. A box he wanted to fill with coins. That is where Henty went and that is where he lay down on a pile of straw, looking into a red flame in the palm of his hand and thinking.

 

*

 

“Crimson Porter!” the shout went up, flying from mouth to mouth, echoing through the cavernous sewer. “Crimson Porter to the galley net!”

Henty groaned. There were dozens of Crimson Porters in the Unders, but even though Effie threatened, Henty knew he was still the best of the lot. If she were calling a Porter it was him.

He propped himself up on his elbows, straightened his cap, and then set off at a quick clip. Effie ran a tight business. He had wondered how long it would take her to call him back about last night.

As Henty ran, he saw a girl lifting a wind and blowing it through her hair, swaying, her eyes closed, as if she were imagining herself somewhere else. Another boy had set himself a pathetic fire in his hand and was warming himself by it. By the way the fire flickered and limped Henty knew the boy was no threat to him. There were all sorts of gifted children down here. Ones who could control iron, pull the bolts from a moving carriage wheel, open the locks on near any door. Ones who could control glass, who could slip their hands through a jeweler’s window like it was water and make vases shatter into a a million razor-sharp bullets. There were those who could control water, like Effie, and heat, like him, and wind and trees. And there were ones like Persnickety. Worms they were called, because they got into your mind and wriggled about there, and they were nasty. They were always watching other people, looking for things, things you didn’t want anyone else to see.

Henty had a million of those.

He came to the precipice and swung down into the dark.

“What,” he snapped, when he arrived on the net. “It’s ruddy early in the morning.”

“It’s seven thirty,” Effie snapped back. She was dressed in her cleanest, nicest blue dress, which was still a sorry excuse for a dress, Henty thought. “And don’t give me any of your lip. You were seen yesterday.”

“Was not.”

“You were.”

“By who?” Henty puffed out his chest, but a flicker of fear passed through him.

“Don’t know. Persnickety ‘s only getting a shadow. But someone saw. And if they followed you here, you know what’s going to happen.”

Henty did know. It wouldn’t be the first time. There was a perimeter of Pokers all around the sewer, in the outer passages, children who could sense a living thing from a hundred yards away, from a heartbeat or a breath. Normally all they got were rats and perhaps a poor lost bird, but when a person came there were no exceptions. When a person came those children had orders.

Henty had seen the aftermath. A splatter of blood on the wall where all of it had been pulled from the trespasser’s veins at the same instant. The bloodless corpses would float out into the Thames and the gifted children would be blamed, but no one would be any wiser.

“But he didn’t follow me, did he,” Henty said smartly. “No one can follow me.”

“He?” Effie looked up.

“Well,” Henty started hurriedly, but it was no use.

“Persnickety says you’re lying, Henty. Lying about losing the coins. Persnickety says you might be keeping the cut.”

Henty turned to the little boy. Persnickety looked back, twitching, and suddenly Henty was filled with a loathing for the Worm and his huge, watchful eyes. Persnickety’s twig arms were wrapped around him. His fingers were digging into his shoulders. When he caught sight of Henty scowling at him, he rolled back his lips and smiled.

Henty turned back to Effie. “He doesn’t know a thing.”

“He knows everything. You’re lying.”

“I’m not, Effie, I swear!”

Persnickety began to bounce up and down, making the net judder. Effie put her ear close. Again Henty heard nothing, but Effie’s expression changed.

“There was a man,” she said, slowly.

“No!”

“There was. A man in a black greatcoat with a tattoo up his neck. He attacked you.”

“No!” shouted Henty again. “No one could have- ”

“You listen here, and you listen careful.” All at once Effie had cleared the space between them and there was knife in her hand, right against his ear. “I can handle it if you get robbed, if you get beat up, if you get the cut taken from you. But if you lie to me again just so I think you’re a tough lad, you’re out. I’ll throw your body to the Clowns myself. He stole from you, didn’t he? He stole the cut, and you didn’t have the guts to tell me.”

Henty didn’t say a word. Effie flicked the knife and a bit of his hair went floating through the ropes of the net and down toward the water. “Didn’t he, Henty.”

“All right!” Henty ducked under the knife. “He stole it. Happy? There’s no money either way.”

Effie folded the knife away with disgust. “Go on, then, pansy. Go on.”

She gave him a push, and he pretended to stumble on the netting. In the last instant he caught himself and leaped off, did a swan dive and grabbed hold of a rope, swinging above the water nearly thirty feet below.

 

*

 

It took him almost an hour to climb back up to the Unders. When he arrived, sweaty and tired, he went to a fire pit to grab a bite of bacon and a roast apple for his breakfast. Then, when he had eaten, he walk back toward the precipice and buried his hand in his pocket. He felt two heavy coins there, rasping together. The money from the job. The cut. He glanced out over the edge, toward the net hovering in the darkness like a little glowing island.

He could see Persnickety on it, shaking back and forth. He could see Effie, hunched up over her ledgers.

As far as she was concerned, Henty was a liar and weakling. And she could think that for all Henty cared. But he had just made twice as much he normally would and it wouldn’t be the last time.

Henty tossed the coins up into the air, caught them again. There had been no thug in a black greatcoat, no tattoo, and no flying fists. Henty had done his job and split his lip with the back of his hand. Then he had gone back to Mr. Muckpearl’s burnt down shop, picked up the sweep things and returned to the Unders.

No firestorms. No fights in alleys. No stolen money. All there was was a figure in a spiny cage in Henty’s mind, a figure in a black greatcoat and a tattoo up his neck, a figure who did not really exist unless Henty thought of him.

There were other things in that spiny cage, and as Henty shoved the man inside again, he saw them briefly. Dark things. Sad things. A little boy with crow-black hair and a pale sharp face standing barefoot in a rainy street. A little boy burning, and a little boy crying, and a little boy running. But Henty closed all that away. He felt the coins in his pocket, and he smiled.

4 Responses to “The Crimson Porter”

  1. Lucia says:

    Wow! That was the perfect ending to another fabulous story. A deliciously ominous twist! Here I was, thinking Henty was completely innocent…

  2. Melissa King says:

    Fantastic story! I could have read a whole novel based on that concept! I didn’t see the twist at the end, either! I’m eagerly looking forward to any stories you create in the future! I like exclamation points! Yay!

    • Stefan Bachmann Stefan Bachmann says:

      Exclamation points ARE THE BEST. Also, thank you so much! I’m kind of tempted to write a whole novel based on that concept, just because I have a list on my computer of weird superhero powers I would like to see utilized in action scenes. Maybe in a year or two! 🙂

Leave a Reply

Protected with IP Blacklist CloudIP Blacklist Cloud