Author Topic: Long Shadows--Prologue: In which a foolish street urchin is marked by Darkness.  (Read 232 times)

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Offline Barrow

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London.

The sun may never set on the British Empire, but it rarely shines on the East End. The fog lies thick around Whitechapel, and in the stillness of night, some say they can still hear the echoes of The Ripper's footfalls in the alleys near Wentworth Street. In the gloom, a perceptive soul may sense the nearness of yet darker things... shadowy menaces drawn here from the extremities of the earth, impurities pulled from the limbs to the heart by the natural gravity of power. There are whispers... whispers of dark things from furthest Asia, from darkest Africa, and even from the wilds of the Americas. Whispers that might drive a man mad, were he to dare to listen.

But the child is not yet a man, and not yet concerned with darkness or whispers. He is concerned only with the rumbling in his stomach, and surviving the mundane threats of the street for another day. Selfish shopkeepers, irritable bobbies, and the malevolence of other street urchins are the real-and-present evils of the child's life, as unending and unchanging as the fog.

So you squat in the alley, with your friend, the girl Clo. She tears the peel off some unidentifiable wrinkly fruit with her teeth, while you watch a baker's stand out on the street. The day-old bread and rolls are out, and from where the baker is standing at the moment, you don't think he can keep an eye on all of his carts.

The street is moderately busy. No bobbies in sight, and you know your way back through this alley well enough to disappear.

Clo nudges you. She's holding out half of the odd fruit, offering it to you. It is small, barely enough for a single bite. You know that she is even hungrier than you are, but she's offering to share her spoils all the same.


Offline Gymnosophist

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With half an eye on the surly baker and his wares, the slightly older boy gently nudges his friend's offering back towards her. Like many of London's destitute street children, Will Roper was uncertain of his exact age. He remembered well the harsh, unforgiving environs of the orphanage. He remembered striking up a friendship with Clo early on; and he remembered running away with her some two winters past. Since then they'd been as thick as thieves -- in every sense -- and he'd done his best to look out for her, often coming to blows with some of the older boys on the street as they struggled for scraps and handouts. At his best guess, he was around nine or so, but life in the East End was pitiless and hard, and one had to grow up fast, or else fall prey to the many dangers which bedevilled that wretched place.

"You 'ave it Clo. You need to keep yer strength up. 'Sides, I ent 'ungry," he lied, his clever, furtive eyes carefully sizing up the baker and weighing the odds of successfully making off with a loaf of bread.

"Look 'ere," he says after a moment's deliberation. "I'm goin' to get us some supper. Reckon you can 'elp me? You don't 'ave to nick nuffink this time. Just kick up a bit ov a stink or sumfink. I dunno, maybe stub yer toe an' start screamin' or bump into one ov dem costers or whateva. That way, everyone will be lookin' away when I lift a loaf ov that loverly crusty bread! Reckon you can do that for me, Clo? If it goes belly up like last time, I'll meet you be'ind the old church in Spital Fields, you know, that one wif that queer lookin' spire an all. Alright?"

The scrawny young boy waits for his friend to nod in understanding, her grimy face grave yet trusting. He screws his worn, threadbare cap down tightly on his head, tucking away his unruly blond fringe. Then, with a surety of purpose born from familiar acquaintance with hunger, and privation in all its forms, he steps quickly and lightly towards the cart furthest from the baker.

His little heart pounds loudly in his chest as he nears the cart and waits for Clo to provide the necessary distraction. Time grows elastic and his senses sharpen. Then, right on cue, barely even conscious of the ruckus starting up behind him, he snatches a loaf of bread, tucks it under his ragged coat and steps swiftly away, ready to bolt at a moment's notice if the need arises.
« Last Edit: February 14, 2020, 09:22:24 AM by Gymnosophist »

Offline Barrow

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Clo may be young, but she is already an old hand at deceit and thievery. She smiles as she nods. It's a charming smile, even with the few teeth she has left. "Alright Ropes," she says. "See you at the ol' spire." Then she's away.

Her diversion is noisy and effective, as she deliberately stumbles into a fruit cart a few yards away from the baker, at the neighboring store. The fruit vendor yells and swats at her, as a dozen or so apples spill onto the street, but she's up and away before he can reach her.

All eyes are drawn to the scene, for a brief moment anyway. But this is the East End, and these are East End Merchants, not the gullible fops of Soho or Newgate Street. So instinctively, they all know what's afoot... they just don't know who has been nicked.

And so, the baker turns quickly. He's not quick enough to see Will tuck the loaf away, but the boy is standing too close to his cart, and the baker wasn't born yesterday.

"You thar! Get away from me cart!"

He snatches an axe handle (with no blade) from somewhere and moves towards Will like a man who is used to beating urchins. He's slow, though, and still out of reach, so Will has a moment to consider his next move.
« Last Edit: February 14, 2020, 09:44:45 PM by Barrow »

Offline Gymnosophist

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From instinct, Will resists the urge to run and thus instantly confirm his guilt. Instead, he wills his grimy face into his best expression of wide eyed innocence, his posture the very picture of artless naivety. He even manages to shrink back a little in a convincing show of fright at the baker’s menacing advance.

“I ain’t touched nuffink Sir, I swear!” He cries, his little chin fairly quivering. Yet inside he is calm, and his sharp eyes have already assessed the chances of upsetting a cart to slow the baker’s approach and make a dash for the nearest alley if his improvised ruse should fail.
« Last Edit: February 15, 2020, 01:26:25 PM by Gymnosophist »

Offline Barrow

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The baker hesitates. He had been expecting the lad to flee.

"You 'eard me, get out of 'ere," he says, waving the axe handle at Will the same way he might shoo a miserable dog. But he remains out of reach, and doesn't advance further.

"Go on, you li'l rat," he prods again, but there isn't quite as much malice in his voice now.

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Will backs away another pace or two, still putting on a show of guileless fright, then turns on his heels and hurries away, quietly breathing a sigh of relief. Once he’s rounded the corner he quickens his pace and begins whistling a spirited tune as he makes his way towards the rendezvous with his friend, the loaf of bread still tucked safely under his raggedy coat.

Offline Barrow

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Will turns another corner and almost runs into a larger boy. He is a foot taller than Will, and about two stone heavier. Even without turning Will is aware that two other large kids have filled in behind him. They're at a distance, but he knows they have probably cut off his retreat.

The East End is a small world. Will knows the boy in front of him. He has the unlikely name of Heathcliff, and is a lieutenant of sorts for the local gang of "organized" thieves.

"'Ello, Ropes," Heathcliff says. "'At were some fine theater, it were. But where ye off to in such a 'urry? Ye know the 'Obbler will 'ave 'is due."

Heathcliff extends his hand expectantly.

Will knows that "The Hobbler" is the miserable gimp-man who runs the East End urchins, and he knows that the expected tribute is one-third to one-half of any theft made in the Hobbler's territory.

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Will had just finished congratulating himself on a job well done as he goes almost barrelling into Heathcliff and his stooges. Now he mentally curses his rotten luck, especially since experience tells him the fat lummox will take all of his ill-gotten gains, not just the portion owed to the Hobbler, and most likely give him a good thrashing to boot!

He slides to a stop a few feet from the larger boy and hefts the loaf of bread in his hand, reluctant to part with it.

“Fair go, Heafcliff! We bofe know you ain’t goin’ to give any of this to the ‘Obbler. Yer just goin’ to keep it fer yerselfs! Tell ya what. Why don’t I just gif you fellas a nice chunk of this loverly crusty bread, an’ I’ll be on me way. Whaddya say?”

As he talks, Will tears off the heel of the loaf. He takes a step forward, gaining momentum, tosses the chunk of bread slightly to the larger boy’s left, hoping he’ll fumble for it, then springs off his planted foot, diving the other way and begins running for dear life.
« Last Edit: February 18, 2020, 11:44:26 AM by Gymnosophist »

Offline Barrow

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Will sees Heathcliff reach for the thrown piece of bread, and then he is past the bigger kid. As he runs down the alley he hears Heathcliff call after him. “Oh come now, Ropes! What manner of...

The rest is lost as Will turns another corner. There’s no sound of pursuit.

(OOC: On to the rendezvous with Clo? Any other business first?)

Offline Gymnosophist

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Will continues running through the alleys and back streets of Whitechapel, first north then west, occasionally switching back and forth to make doubly sure the odious Heathcliff has not followed him; then onwards to his rendezvous with Clo.

Offline Barrow

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Will sees no sign of pursuit. It occurs to him that, from what he knows of Heathcliff, the older lad is not likely to chase him far.

Will makes it to the rendezvous without further incident. Clo is sitting at the entry of an alley, eating a plump red apple with obvious joy.

"'Allo, Ropes," she says, smiling broadly, juice running down her chin. "It were a profitable diversion, it were!" she explains, holding out another apple for Will. He recognizes the apple as one she spilled when she was making the ruckus earlier.

"I nicked two more too, I did. Of course, I had to give one to that 'orrid old 'eathcliff. But I still gots one to spare. Did you 'ave any luck?""

As they share their spoils and talk, the clouds thin and the sun shines through, warming them and chasing the fog away. It's a fine day, for the moment, and the folk are out. Will sees a handful of likely marks moving through the streets, and Clo is going on again about that old building near Soho that she's convinced is haunted... and she's further convinced it's full of treasure.

It's not yet noon, and the possibilities stretch out like the freedom of the open sea.

Offline Gymnosophist

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Will sighs with mock exasperation. "Oh Clo! You do keep bangin' on about that silly ol' 'ouse in Soho! Tell ya what. I'm willing' to go over there wif ya if it'll only shut you up. Who knows? Maybe we'll find a few easy marks up there or somefink. If I can tool a nice silk 'andkerchief or two, it'll very likely keep the 'Obbler off our backs, least for a while."

Offline Barrow

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Clo smiles her broken smile and claps cheerfully. ”Oh William, yes let’s ‘ave a look inside it! I just know it’s a treasure trove!”

And so you weave your way through the alleys and backstreets to Soho, far beyond the Hobbler’s territory and the little world you know. You’ve been here before, of course, but it’s not the East End. It’s different. Better? Worse? Just different.

Soho is, as usual, filled with people, and life, vibrant and exciting. Here there are marks and opportunities, ripe for the plucking. But Will also sees wolves among the sheep... a sweet face cannot always hide a predator’s eye. He will need to be careful if he wants to pluck any pigeons.

Clo, however, has only one thing on the mind now. She’s pulling William by the hand, urging him towards the old warehouse. It’s not in Soho proper, but close enough. It’s down a nameless street not a five minute walk away. ”Oh do hurry Will! Do you really think they’ll ‘ave silk scarves?”

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Will laughs as he carefully pries Clo's grimy hand from his wrist. "Jus' a minute Clo. If it's scarves ya want, then it's scarves yer gonna get. Let's take a look at what these fine gentl'men 'av in their fancy pockets!" He gives Clo a moment for his sarcasm to sink in, knowing as both of them do, that the typical denizens of Soho are neither gentle, fine, nor fancy. Still though, when you often go for days without eating and sleep in a derelict warehouse with a day-old newspaper for a blanket, even the lowliest porter or coachman could appear as a lord of the manor.

With that, Will flexes his fingers to warm them up a little, then wiggles them quickly in the air, as though he were playing an invisible piano. Still from the edge of the street, he casts his experienced eye over the crowd and selects a likely mark. He knows well enough to use a light touch here, and resolves not to push it if in the last moment it doesn't look like a good opportunity. At the very worst, he thinks to himself, he can always disappear down the alleyway and hide in Clo's silly old house. No one will think of looking for them there!.

Offline Barrow

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It’s an easy pull. The jostling crowd makes any artificial distractions unnecessary. Will palms something cold... metallic... heavy... with a chain. He knows a pocketwatch when he feels one.

Then he’s away, and it’s his pocketwatch. He keeps moving, not looking back, but mindful of his surroundings. He hears no cry of alarm, no shouts of “Stop! Thief!”

He slips back into hiding in an alleyway, triumphant. Clo follows at an inconspicuous distance, but with a conspicuous smile. No one noticed them... it was the perfect crime.

So why does Will have the feeling of being watched?

He can’t help but look back into the square. Nothing is amiss... except...

... he is being watched. From across the crowd, a well-dressed gentleman, conspicuously out of place with his attire and bearing, is watching Will like a hawk. He is not the man Will stole from, and he is making no move to raise the alarm or follow Will... but... he saw. He knows. Somehow Will is certain of this.

”Oh Will! What’d ye get? Hurry on now, let’s go find me scarf!” Clo says, her words falling over themselves as she tries to pull Will on towards the warehouse.

Offline Gymnosophist

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"Steady on, Clo!" says Will, a sharp edge to his voice as he glances back over his shoulder again. "D'ya see that queer old toff on the other side of the square? 'E made me Clo! I'm sure 'e did, but 'e didn't spring the rattle or nuffink, just stood there watchin' like it was Sunday matinee at Drury Lane! 'Ave a peek Clo, but careful like, I don't want 'im to know we seen 'im!"

Will slows to a halt once in the shadows of the alley, and doesn't budge until his excited friend stops and does as requested. There was something about the man he found unsettling, not just the fact that he saw him perform such a cleverly executed lift, and he was relying on Clo -- as usual -- to put his mind at rest.

Offline Barrow

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Clo surveys the crowd. Then she sniffs. "Oh Will, yer daft! No one saw ye!" she crows triumphantly. "I see that tosser yer talking about, never were there a more likely mark than 'im. Oh, Will, ye shoulda picked 'is pocket instead! Look, 'e has 'is watch out now! In Soho! He's just asking for it, I tell ye!" She giggles.

Will sees the man in question indeed looking at his own pocket watch now. Perfectly innocent... or is it? Will can't shake the feeling that he's somehow being mocked. Or at least acknowledged.

But before he can consider it too deeply, Clo is tugging on his arm, perhaps misunderstanding Will's interest in the man. "But I don't want 'is old pocket watch! I want me scarf!" she says. 

She's pulling Will towards the warehouse. It's just down the alley, and around a few turns. Behind them, Soho still bustles. The sky is clouding up, though the sun is still peeking through now and then.
« Last Edit: April 17, 2020, 07:12:30 PM by Barrow »

 

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