Title: Thefts of Particular Character
Characters/Pairing: Neal, Mozzie, Peter, Diana
Word count: 6400
Notes: The “Thefts” storylet in-game allows you to steal high-level items, with a brief description of where you’re stealing them from. This seemed eminently suited to Neal.
Summary:If you’re in need of particular items, you could go shopping. But who does that? (Or: Five times a heist went as planned, and one time it didn’t.)
- - -
1. Steal Tales of Terror from a Noted Author
It really was almost too easy. They knew which day the courier from the publishing house would arrive, and Mozzie paid a cat to leap down from a low gutter and snatch his expensive hat, just round the corner from the Noted Author's house. Neal easily picked the man's identifying papers in the moment of his distraction, and was out of the way just in time for Mozzie to knock an entire barrel of Greyfields off the cart he was driving slowly up the road. It shattered right at the courier's feet, splattering his previously-immaculate clothing with cheap mushroom wine as he shrieked.
Neal grinned at the torrent of ungentlemanly fury unleashed in Mozzie's direction, cursing Mozzie and his forebears and the dirigible he'd come down from the Surface in. The man would have to return home and change — he would never dare represent his employers in such a state.
Neal briskly turned the corner and climbed the stairs. The door opened smartly to his knock, and a crisply-dressed maid escorted him into the parlour, where the Noted Author was biting into a small mountain of jam and cream, under which it could only be presumed a scone was buried. "Madam," he said, with a small bow.
She wiped cream from her fingers and fluttered at him delightfully. "Please don't trouble with all that formality, dearie! Will you have some tea?" She was a small, grey-haired lady wearing far more shawls and glittery necklaces than one would imagine possible; not at all an image of the sort of person whose writing could inspire even the most dour of society matrons into overwrought gasps of horror and brisk applications of fans. (And that incident at one of her public readings…!)
"I'm afraid I can't stay for tea," Neal said, genuinely regretful. He was already certain that she was the kind of person with whom he got on extremely well. "To my very great loss."
A deep and melancholy sigh was followed by a fortifying bite of scone, which appeared to instantly uplift the Author's mood. "Well, having such a polite and distinguished young man in my front room will have to suffice, I suppose." She tittered, and patted her hair. "And no chaperon! How exciting!"
Neal grinned, her sly charm making him feel quite at home. "Delightful as are the many possibilities open to us, I really am expected back. You know how much your editor hates being kept waiting."
"Dear Lucinda, yes. Marvellous, but so very keen on those deadlines of hers." She bustled around the room, finally locating a brown paper parcel balanced precariously on the edge of the battered pianoforte. "Tell them to send you again. That other man is not nearly as good at flattery."
"I will do my very best," Neal promised, with his best smile and another bow. He patted the Ocular Toadbeast squatting on a lacy cushion, delighting the Author still further. She blew him a kiss and winked as the prim maid showed him out.
He met Mozzie two streets away, as agreed. "Did you get it?" Mozzie demanded eagerly.
Neal handed over the carefully-wrapped manuscript, and checked his fob. "Time to send the bat to let the courier know his services are no longer required. Very impatient, these authors. Speaking of which…"
"Don't worry," Mozzie said. "I'll have the manuscript at the publishing house before the end of the afternoon and they'll never know the difference. This con should be safe to run again."
"You could just wait for the book to be published, you know," Neal pointed out.
Mozzie scoffed indignantly at the very idea. "Four months? Are you serious?"
- - -
2. Steal Journals of Infamy from an Iniquitous Solicitor
Neal wore the same outfit to get himself into the Iniquitous Solicitor's cramped offices, with the addition of a briefcase in one hand and a whole stack of papers under his arm. "He's expecting me," he said, in a harried sort of way.
The young and extremely bored deviless slouched behind the reception desk barely glanced at him before returning to cleaning under her pointed nails with a sliver of brass. "He's at lunch."
"He told me to drop these off at 1pm exactly," Neal protested.
The deviless shrugged languidly. "Come back later."
"Well, I think he wants this evidence before Mr Belldew flees to the surface…"
She perked up instantly, licking her lips. "Ooh. Mr B's running?"
Neal leaned on the edge of her desk and glanced around before lowering his voice conspiratorially. "He purchased a dirigible ticket this morning. Both of his wives are going to be extremely unhappy if their bigamy suit falls through."
She giggled. "You know they're going to marry each other, with the suit proceeds to pay for the wedding?"
Neal grinned, and tucked away that scrap of incendiary gossip for later use. "I'll just drop these in the back for him, then," he said, hefting his papers. "I know where to go."
The deviless waved him through the door.
The journals he was after were exactly where he and Mozzie had suspected, in the locked bottom drawer of the heavy oak desk. It was the work of a moment for Neal to pick the lock, and another to fill his briefcase with them. He left his sheaf of papers behind, since the evidence in them was quite real. (June was well-acquainted with one of the very angry Mrs Belldews.)
"Good luck with the suit," he said to the deviless on the way out.
She smirked wickedly at him, revealing a row of pointed fangs, and he tipped his hat.
They had several buyers already lined up for the wealth of blackmail material in the Solicitor's journals, but Neal took a detour first to the rooms he kept above a bookshop in Veilgarden. He spread the journals on the floor and sat cross-legged on the rug, skimming through them.
There were a lot of mentions of Peter, even more than he had expected. The Solicitor had many unsavoury clients with a great deal of interest in bringing him down.
Neal took a sharp knife and surgically sliced out every page which held a reference to Peter, or Diana, or Elizabeth, or himself. (Mozzie, he was amused to note, was hinted at many times over, but no one had managed to catch his name or link the disparate accounts.)
Then he kindled a small fire in the grate and fed each page to it separately, watching intently as the bright flames licked at the pale papers, burning them away to ash and leaving nothing else behind.
- - -
3. Steal Muscaria Brandy from the Infernal Sommelier
"Peter," Neal said, beaming through a thick amber-coloured haze. A moment later he remembered that he wasn't actually supposed to be happy to see him. "Why're you here?"
Peter had stopped still, and raised his eyebrows. "Neal?" he asked, and then turned his head. The movement sent ripples through the heavy air. "And Mozzie."
"He's asleep," Neal explained. Mozzie wasn't in his sight-line anymore, but was reclining fast asleep in a chair.
Peter took a couple of steps towards where Mozzie was, checking on him, and then came back. "What's going on? Are you alright?"
"M'fine," Neal assured him, blinking up lazily. "Why?"
Peter had his hands on his hips now, standing over him. "Because you're lying on the floor."
Neal wasn't sure what that had to with anything, but he had forgotten how to sit up. All his muscles were too loose and disconnected from each other. "Oh."
Peter crouched down next to him, slipping a hand under Neal's head to lift it. He looked unaccountably worried. "Can you even move?"
"No," Neal said, watching the words swirl currents in the amber.
The frown on Peter's face grew deeper. "Neal! What's going on?"
"I think," Neal said, forcing himself to tear his eyes away from the little eddies whirling as Peter breathed, "It might have been the brandy."
Peter opened his mouth, closed it again, glanced around, and then picked up the small bottle from the side table. The gaslight reflected oddly from the purplish glass. "This?" he demanded.
"Mmm," Neal agreed. He had been jolted about somewhat by Peter's rapid succession of movements, and had to blink several times to refocus.
"Muscaria brandy," Peter said, sounding like he was trying very hard to stay calm. "You drank it?"
Neal grinned widely. "Spoils of war. Wanted t'see what it tasted like, since —" Too late, he cut himself off.
"Neal," Peter said, ominously, "Have you been stealing from the devils again?"
Neal didn't trust himself to say anything non-incriminating, so he just continued smiling.
After a few moment's glaring, Peter broke, with a deep and long-suffering groan. "I can't believe you. It would serve you right if I just left you on the floor." He sighed, looking like he was sincerely considering that option. "C'mon."
He hefted Neal up, but even once he was mostly vertical Neal was incapable of independent movement. The air was all wrong, snatching at him and not letting him through. Peter ended up pulling Neal onto his shoulders and actually carrying him. It was rather uncomfortable; Neal was only too happy to be slung down onto the bed.
Peter sat heavily on the mattress next to him. "I probably shouldn't give you any water, if you can't actually move. I don't want you to choke."
Neal smiled somnolently. "Aww, you do care."
Peter narrowed his eyes. "Want to tell me what your grand plan was? And who's going to be after you now?"
"Don't worry," Neal assured him. "The Infernal Sommelier doesn't know a thing. We only took as many bottles as I could fit under my hat."
"Less obvious than pockets. Mozzie was telling how he'd heard 'bout a genuine saint's soul in Spite, and he never saw me take the brandy. Flawless."
"I see a major flaw," Peter said. "The part where you decided to see exactly why only devils drink Muscaria brandy." Despite himself, he was clearly trying not to look amused.
Neal made a non-committal noise. The amber air was getting heavier by the minute, pushing in on him.
"Are you really okay?" Peter asked, turning Neal's face gently towards him.
"Mmm." The drowsiness was overwhelming now. Neal remembered laughing when this stage had hit Mozzie; then he had tried to take a couple of steps towards him and had ended up on the floor, unable to do more than flail helplessly, and soon not even that. "Tired..."
"Neal?" Peter asked, and put a hand on Neal's shoulder. "I'm going to stay here, okay? Make sure both of you are all right."
"Mmm," Neal mumbled again, and slipped away completely on waves of amber and black.
- - -
4. Steal Brilliant Souls en-route to Hookman House
“If you land wrong you’ll break your leg,” Mozzie reminded him, for the third time.
Neal grimaced, and again tried in vain to find a comfortable position crouched against the exceptionally ugly gargoyle. “Not really helping, Moz.”
“I’m nervous. This is an absolutely ridiculous idea.”
“You’re not even the one doing the jumping.” Neal checked his watch, and then stowed it carefully back in an inner pocket. “Anyway, you were the one who realised the Ministry of Public Decency was stockpiling souls.”
“Not just any souls,” Mozzie didn’t hesitate to remind him. “And I am fully behind any efforts to uncover why, especially when that involves the liberation of the souls in question. Any effort, that is, which doesn’t rely on such an absolutely suicidal plan.”
“Relax,” Neal said, grinning now. Mozzie’s bursts of pre-heist panic tended to have the opposite effect on him, amusing him enough to let go of some of his own nerves. “The plan’ll work.”
He checked his pockets one last time as Mozzie fretted. Knives, a few odd echoes, a dark cloth bag folded small, the weight of the blackjack he didn’t like using but which had got him out of tight corners.
The rattle of the heavy carriage’s wheels was on time to the minute. Neal held his breath as it clattered over the cobbles, waiting for it to pass into the patch of shadow below the gargoyle where he crouched.
He hit the carriage roof and rolled, hands already outstretched and clawing for leverage, his fingers clamping around the metal runner a second before the momentum of the windowless carriage would have sent him crashing ingloriously to the road. He balanced there for a few seconds, getting his breath back.
So far, so good. No broken legs.
The next stage was far more risky. Neal leaned over the side, the top half of his body hanging upside down as he watched the door. One hand on the roof’s runner, the other on the handle, he took a deep breath, yanked open the carriage door, and swung himself down and into its body in one smooth motion, pulling the door shut behind him even as he hit the carriage floor. He was up again almost instantly, hand immediately raised to defend himself.
They hadn’t known who or what would be in the carriage as guards. This was the part of the plan which Mozzie had hated, and had fretted over constantly.
But he needn’t have. There were no devils or Special Constables; no guards of any kind. There were only soul bottles arranged carefully on the black-inlaid seats, shining a brilliant and eery blue. Not just any souls indeed. Their glow was mesmerising.
It was a good couple of seconds before Neal came to his senses, an unthinkingly long time in the middle of a heist. He unfolded the bag from his pocket and stacked the bottles in carefully, hoping that the glass was thick. And he also kept glancing around, waiting to discover -- what? -- in the dark of the carriage. But there was nothing there. The lack of security afforded to these souls was almost laughable. And why was the Ministry of Public Decency collecting them?
This was definitely not the time for those sorts of questions. With the last of the souls stowed away, he cracked open the door, searching for bearings in the dim sliver of view.
They had cased the route extensively, of course, and it only took a moment to recognise the end of Doubt Street. Neal let another road slip past, and then as a dark alley reared up he leapt for it.
This landing was worse than the previous one -- the need to protect the fragile soul bottles prevented him from breaking his fall properly. He hit the cobbles with his feet and let his knees fold instantly, falling to the side so that his upper arm and ribcage took the rest of the impact, the bottles clutched protectively to his chest. The breath was knocked out of him and he wheezed painfully, already trying to scramble up.
“Here.” Mozzie materialised above him, lifting away the bag and then reaching back down to help Neal to his feet. “Are you in one piece?”
“Mostly.” He would be a mess of bruises in the morning, but he’d be fine. His left ankle and knee had taken the brunt of it and he leaned gratefully on Mozzie, limping as they set a brisk pace down the alley. “You got here fast.”
“Cut across on a new rope-way. It only went up last night.”
Neal grinned. Mozzie could speak the language of the Raggedy Men better than any other outsider.
They ducked into Veilgarden, Neal stowing away his mask and gloves as they moved. Now his uneven gait just made him look like he’d had too much to drink and was being helped by a friend. Mozzie angled them towards low windows as the best available reflective surface, but there was no sign of pursuit, or a tail. “I think we’re away clean,” Neal said.
“Unless you’ve broken your ankle. Are you sure you haven’t?”
“It’s my ankle,” Neal pointed out. “I think I’d have noticed by now.”
Mozzie grumbled something. Neal couldn’t quite make out the words, but he caught recklessness as the central theme.
“Where are we meeting your contact, anyway?” Neal asked.
Not far away, it turned out, on the bank of the Stolen River. Mozzie left Neal at a bench and hurried off to make the trade with the sallow, pinched messenger from the Committee for Vital Restitution. There was a gleam of gold as Mozzie showed his CVR timepiece for the briefest of inspections before tucking it hastily away. (He had a reputation to maintain.)
“We’re done,” Mozzie announced, finally returning minus the bag.
“Did he know what Hookman House wanted with them?”
Mozzie shook his head. “I don’t think he was especially curious or imaginative even before he went and lost his soul. But he was pleased with the information. I made a good deal.”
Neal shivered a little. He could remember his brief interlude of soullessness, but the memories were distant, like something he’d watched happen to someone else. It wasn’t at all pleasant to think back on. If not for Mozzie’s information, and Peter’s determination, and help from El and Diana... “Are you still paying off the debt on my behalf?” he asked. “I know you went to the CVR.”
Mozzie cleared his throat, looking faintly embarrassed. “They didn’t actually ask for anything. Said that’s what the CVR was for.” He patted the inner pocket where the timepiece now marking him as one of their Shepherds was hidden.
Neal chuckled delightedly. “So you mean your recent interest in soul-liberation and selling to the CVR below Bazaar prices has actually been out of the goodness of your heart?”
Mozzie scowled deeply. “Be quiet!” he demanded. “Someone might hear you!”
“Your secret’s safe with me,” Neal promised.
- - -
5. Steal an Antique Mystery from Feducci
Diana wasn’t by a long way the last person Neal was surprised to meet on the roof of Feducci’s townhouse, but it was still something of a surprise. From her glare, he assumed that her feelings were similar.
“What are you doing here?” she demanded.
“Admiring the view,” Neal shot back. “Yourself?”
“I’m on business,” she said, a trifle haughtily, and continued to watch him suspiciously through narrowed eyes.
Her shadowy clothes were finely cut, from an expensive-looking material that seemed to almost drink in the light. “Foreign Office business?” Neal guessed.
“It’s certainly none of yours.”
Neal grinned unrepentantly. “One of these days Ill get in there, you know.”
“I doubt it,” Diana countered. “I’ve warned them about you.”
“Is that a challenge?”
“No,” Diana said, quellingly. “And I’m still waiting to find out what you’re up to right now.”
A flock of bats wheeled past; both Neal and Diana snapped to alertness in case they’d been disturbed by someone. They relaxed a minute later. “I’m here to steal something,” Neal said.
Diana did not look in the least bit taken aback by his confession. “Steal what?”
Neal leaned back against one of the chimney-stacks. “A box. Are you going to be reporting on me to your, ah, associates?”
She smiled crookedly. “I think your presence here might slip my mind.”
“So far this an extremely forgettable encounter, yes.”
She chuckled, and jostled his arm. “So, what’s in this box?”
He half-smiled back. “It’s a mystery.”
“Oh, come on.”
“No, really. I don’t know what’s in it. I just know that it’s made of iron, with seven locks.”
Diana’s face was mostly hidden in shadow, but Neal had no doubt that she was carefully cataloguing everything he said. As he was in return. They had been playing this counter-information game for months. “Where’s your backup?” she asked. “I hope it’s not supposed to be me.”
“If you don’t trust me to be prepared, I’m not telling you my plans.”
She sighed. “Go on, get going. I never saw you.”
Neal gave her a jaunty wave as he dropped down from the roof to balance precariously on the narrow ledge of an upper window barely wide enough for the tips of his toes to find support. He worked his kifers in around the edges of the frame, feeling them bite into the wood and metal.
A few minutes; tense work, and the pane slipped out of the window. Neal caught it before it could drop and smash on the floor inside, and climbed in through the gap.
The servants’ rooms here at the top of the house were empty. They were also all coated with a layer of dust. Neal and Mozzie had surmised that most of Feducci’s staff went home at night, but the general household bustle had disguised the fact that they all did. For an individual of his social standing that was all but unheard of.
He knew where the box was. In one of the wide rooms below, where Feducci kept his collection on display. (A part of his collection, at any rate.) Neal slipped cat-silent down the stairs, and tiptoed through a room full of trophies of the Black Ribboners Feducci had fought. A strange, tree-like stand held their ribbons trailing from its branches like long black leaves.
He kept going, to what he knew Feducci called his Room of Mysteries. A moment with his kifers had the lock springing open, and then he was inside.
The box wasn’t.
The room was full of antiquities, darkly gleaming. Impossibly-shaped bones, and fossils made of black glass rather than stone, and scraps of symbols which were not quite Correspondence sigils engraved on ivory and silver and Deep Amber. Three apple pips sat on a mirror-polished plate under a crystal dome. But there was no iron box. Not in the place it was supposed to be. Not anywhere.
The surge of disappointment rocked Neal on the balls of his feet and brought a bitter taste to his mouth. For a moment he wanted to scream at the unfairness of it all. He had been so close. He was absolutely certain of it.
Agitatedly, he paced around and around the room. The pointlessness of searching the entire house was obvious, but he still retreated into the main hall and cracked open some of the other ornate doors leading off from it. None of the rooms rivalled the one he’d left. None of them held the box he was searching for.
And he was running out of time. Mozzie would be twisting with impatience on a nearby roof. Feducci’s absences from his house were common, but their lengths were thoroughly unpredictable.
Mired in the lingering shock of disappointment, Neal almost let himself leave empty-handed. But at the last moment he came to his senses and swiped a small ceder carving of a rose. On its petals the grain of the wood twisted oddly, forming patterns which were beautiful but somehow brought to mind uneasy-half thoughts of menace.
He left the same way he'd entered, balancing in the empty frame of the window and swinging himself up onto the roof. "Diana?" he called, quietly.
There was no answer. Either she'd gone or she'd decided she no longer wanted any part of what he was up to and was keeping quiet. Neal shrugged, not offended either way, and took a running leap from the tiles. He caught the down-hanging rope across the street that he'd been aiming for, and hauled himself up into the Flit.
"Did you get it?" Mozzie asked immediately as Neal stooped to enter the rooftop shack.
Neal put the wooden rose on the rickety table. Mozzie snatched it up eagerly and examined it through his scrutinising lens.
"You're very silent," he said, just when Neal had thought he was fully absorbed.
"The box wasn't there," Neal told him.
Mozzie looked up sharply. "Gone?"
"Unless our information was wrong."
Mozzie shook his head firmly. "It wasn't. Feducci must have moved it. Or sold it."
"Neither of those options is good." Neal sat heavily on the low bench against the wall and uncorked a bottle of Morelways.
"We'll find it," Mozzie said. He reached for a couple of glasses — the fine crystal was mildly incongruous in a place like this.
Neal nodded tiredly. "We have to start all over again."
"But in the meantime, you got us this," Mozzie said, brandishing the rose in a purposely optimistic way which made Neal smile. "So I think we should chalk this up as a preliminary attempt — not achieving all the objectives, but successful nonetheless."
"All right." Neal touched one wooden petal with a fingertip. Curious thing. It looked grown, rather than carved. "Slow and steady, yes?"
- - -
6. Steal a Bazaar Permit from the offices of Baseborn & Fowlingpiece
The window at the back of the offices of Baseborn & Fowlingpiece, Attorneys At Law, was very small, and getting through it without dislodging any of the stacks of paper on the desk below a tricky challenge. Neal took it slowly, ignoring the impulse to rush. He could hear the cadence of Mozzie's voice through the wall, although not the actual words. Mozzie would go on for as long as was needed (and probably longer — it sounded like he was enjoying himself) about the fictional inheritance feud within his equally fictional sprawling family, split between the Surface and the Neath.
Landing finally on the floor with a soft thump, Neal paused a moment, just in case some clerk was about to pop out of the expensive woodwork. But it seemed that the dark-panelled back office really was empty. Well, not empty — there must be enough secrets hidden in here to buy a sizable chunk of the Bazaar. If one could fence them without making instant mortal enemies of every single wealthy, powerful individual in London.
In any case, he had a target. A Bazaar Permit. One already drawn up, but with a name not yet filled in. It would be a tall order if not for the volume of them issued, which fortunately evened the odds somewhat.
He was lucky. There was one on the third desk he checked, ink still drying on the blotter.
Then Mozzie's voice abruptly cut off. A second later, the door handle turned.
There were very few places to hide. Neal dived beneath the least-occupied looking desk, one with a surface so thick with papers it looked more like a collapsed archive than a workplace.
"If you'll come this way," a man's voice said. Neal recognised the dry, precise accents of Mr Baseborn himself, and swallowed. In the slit of room he could see from beneath the desk, Baseborn's pinstripe trousers were impeccably creased, his shoe-leather polished to a mirror shine.
"Very kind, very kind," a whispering, creaky voice replied, and into his narrow field of view appeared the hem of a Master's robe.
Neal froze. His heart was already hammering violently in his throat. He had never been this close to one of the Masters before. He didn't want to be now.
"This document must have put you to some, hmm, trouble," the Master said. Neal didn't know which one it was. There must be some way of telling them apart… Elizabeth or June would know.
"Certainly not," Baseborn replied. "It is never less than a pleasure to do business with an esteemed client such as yourself."
"Well, we are very grateful. Yes, very grateful."
Grateful enough to actually pay? Neal wondered, with the very small part of his brain not engaged in panicking. That would be a first.
There was a brief period of silence, broken only by the infrequent rustle of paper. Evidently the document, whatever it was, was being inspected.
Since there was nothing else interesting in sight for him to distract himself with, Neal stared at Baseborn's shoes. The leather really was quite startlingly shiny. He could practically see his eyes reflected in them…
It was a few seconds before his brain put it together. They were Baseborn's eyes, and they were staring back as the same comprehension dawned in them.
Neal made a run for it.
He rolled out from under the desk and shot past the startled lawyer and frozen Master towards the main, unopened window, snatching the Permit which had been the source of this trouble as he passed. No time for messing with the latch — he sucked in his breath, threw his forearms over his face, and smashed through the pane shoulder-first.
He had been fast enough that neither of the individuals inside the office had had time to react. Neal hit the pavement with a heavy thud, his ears still ringing from the crash of glass, and rolled over — to find that he'd landed in the midst of a squad of Special Constables, all of whom had reacted impressively quickly. There were a lot of weapons levelled at him. Some of them had spikes.
"Damn," Neal said, and barely had time to register the truncheon rushing towards his head.
- - -
He woke… somewhere, with a pounding headache and a vague feeling of surprise that he'd woken up at all. He was in a small room with wooden panelled walls so dark that they were almost black, and no windows. Or furniture, unless he counted the solitary gas-lamp. There was, at least, a door. Closed.
A quick inventory of his pockets revealed the unsurprising fact that his kifers had been taken away. What was surprising was that the Bazaar Permit hadn't — it was still where he'd hastily stuffed it inside his shirt, hardly well-concealed.
It wouldn't be much use in lockpicking, however. And while he was locked in here with it, it was only worth the paper it was written on. Maybe when he got hungry enough he was supposed to eat it.
With a slight groan, he pushed himself to his feet. More out of habit than hope, he tried the door.
It opened silently.
Well. That boded a lot of things, not many of them good. Neal stepped out cautiously into the narrow, seemingly-empty hallway it opened onto, and began walking. He was at one extreme end of it, and there were no doors to either side. And no clues as to where in the Neath he was.
There was another door at the other end of the hall, with a small square mirror set into it at eye-level. Neal felt a sudden rush of deja-vu mixed with anxiety — this echoed some of his nightmares far too closely for comfort. But when he was close enough to look into the mirror it was only his usual reflection staring back at him; pale, hair untidy, some dried blood from scratches he must have obtained going through the window. He watched the reflection for several minutes, but it gave no hint of independent movement.
He let out a slightly shaky breath. That was good. Although, he had to admit, his standards were rather low by this point.
He opened the door. There was another room beyond, decorated in the same style as the one he'd woken in, but decidedly not empty. An elderly woman dressed all in grey was sitting behind a desk, writing in a thick ledger. Behind her, a grandfather clock was the only other piece of furniture. Its mechanism was very loud, drowning the faint scratch of the woman's brass pen. Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.
"Good morning," Neal said, trying to look charming and sincere. "I think I'm lost."
"Not yet," she said, without looking up from what she was doing.
"Would you mind telling me where I am, please?"
The woman frowned at him. Her thin, pinched face and tightly pinned white hair gave her appearance something of the raven. "Either you know that already, or you don't."
"Um," Neal said, after spending a moment trying to parse that, "I don't. Which is why I asked." He glanced around. "This is somewhere in London, isn't it?" he asked, suddenly uncertain. "Not a dream?"
"Does this look like Parabola to you?" she retorted, and sniffed disapprovingly. "No, Mr Caffrey, what this is is a warning. To stay out of things which don't concern you."
Can you be a bit more specific? Neal very nearly asked, but refrained at the last second in favour of nodding in what he hoped was an earnest way.
The woman did not look impressed. "Others, Mr Caffrey, may forgive eventually. Even Feducci, after learning what you were doing in his house, might at length deign to. The Bazaar, however, does not." She forcefully punctuated the end of a sentence with a dot of ink. "Good evening."
Neal waited a moment, but she determinedly turned over a page and resumed writing as if he wasn't there.
Hesitantly, he stepped past her desk to the door beyond it. The handle offered no resistance, and led to an empty atrium which looked very much like it might, finally, open onto the city.
It did. Neal didn't pause on the final threshold, escaping into the maze of dim fog-filled alleys as quickly as he could, not looking back.
It was several streets before he let himself finally stop and lean heavily against a wall, shaking all over. He took several very deep breaths, pushing a hand through his sweaty hair. The Permit crackled slightly beneath his shirt.
He would really have liked longer to collect himself, but he was far too close to the unseen black spires for comfort. He pushed himself off the support of the wall, looking for the quickest way up into the Flit. What he needed was somewhere safe to regroup for a couple of hours, with some really good wine.
All was quiet as he passed through the Flit, taking the rickety ropes and sloping tiles with sure feet, despite how unsettled he was. It was maybe half an hour before he arrived at the rooftop shack, and noticed the light seeping out from under the door and around the window frames (and from some of the joins between planks in the wall).
Even so, he wasn't prepared for how many people seemed to be inside the tiny place, all of whom seemed to surge loudly towards him as he entered.
Neal blinked, mildly stunned, and then Peter was pulling him down onto a chair and shoving a mug of lukewarm tea into his hands. "What happened?" Mozzie demanded.
Neal took several sips of tea, and gave the open wine bottle on the table a longing glance. "What's going on?" he asked. Aside from Peter and Mozzie, both of whom were hovering anxiously, the shack also contained Elizabeth, her notebook open and forgotten on her lap, and Diana, perched cross-legged on the sideboard.
"You've been missing for four days," Peter told him.
"I saw you get grabbed by the Special Constables," Mozzie said, not inclined to wait for the news to sink in. "But then you didn't surface in New Newgate, and none of our contacts among the gentlemen in blue could turn anything up."
Peter coughed. "Our contacts?" He was ignored.
Briefly, Neal described what had happened, leaving out any reference to Feducci and the Permit still in his possession. He also tried to conch the 'warning' in terms as vague as possible — not that that really presented much of a challenge.
Peter, of course, honed in on that point. "What do you suppose she was talking about?"
Neal managed not to squirm. "I really don't know."
"You do have a large pool of options," Diana said, dryly. A sudden speculative look crossed her face. "Waiting to be unlocked, as it were."
Mozzie glared at her.
As much to prevent Peter from latching onto that train of thought as anything, Neal put his empty mug down on the table and reached for the wine. Peter pulled it quickly out of the way. "Oh, no you don't. What have you eaten lately?"
That was a rather good point, bringing him up short. "Uh, I'm not sure?" It was a little unsettling that he was only just noticing his hunger and thirst, four days after his last memory of a meal.
When it came to distracting Peter from any trouble he was theoretically in, that turned out to be the right answer. In short order Neal found himself being given bread with mushroom pate, and more tea.
Elizabeth yawned widely. "It's getting rather late," she said. "Mozzie, does this place have enough blankets?"
Mozzie waved a hand magnanimously towards the chest in one corner. "Help yourself. I'm afraid the walls can be a bit draughty."
"We've slept in worse," she said. "That place we were in when we first arrived…" She and Peter exchanged nostalgic looks.
"Give me a blanket and a book," Diana said. "I'll stay up a while. Someone has to make sure a candle doesn't fall over and send us all up in flames."
"You know," Neal said, "This is my shack."
"Of course it is," El said. "Come on, lie down. You look like you could do with some sleep."
He supposed he ought to be glad they'd at least left him his own bed. Neal kicked off his shoes and flopped down onto it, managing to stuff the Bazaar Permit down against the wall when he didn't think anyone was watching. He had plans for it.
"What was that?" Peter demanded, raising himself up on his elbows suspiciously.
"Nothing," Neal said.
Neal shut his eyes and rolled over, grinning. On balance, although the heist hadn't gone at all according to plan, he'd got what he'd been aiming for. And some interesting information besides. If one was being watched, it was always better to know about it.
He was in for the long game.
Posted at http://frith-in-thorns.dreamwidth.org/97008.html with comments.