Metamorphosis Part 1

Originally published in Sojourn: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction (Volume 2), available for purchase here 

Spider watched the body hit the cobblestones with a muffled thud.  She recoiled in surprise as it rolled onto the worn toes of her boots.  Death was common in the underground corridors of The Vaults, but bodies usually didn’t fall at Spider’s feet.   She had always found it best to put as much space between her and dead bodies as possible. She darted out from where she was hiding, and blundered into the path of the assailant.  His clean clothes, clean face and hands didn’t belong in these dank corridors.  This young man was a Topsider, but something was different.  He was holding a rusty pipe; no Topsider dirtied his hands if he didn’t have to.  They stared at each other over the body on the ground.  The man seemed shocked as if she had sprung from the cobbles themselves.  

She could hear footsteps approaching much too quickly for her taste.  The body had friends.  Instinctively, Spider pulled the clueless Topsider away from the scene.  He followed her through the labyrinthine passages in silence.  They ran until they reached a slender staircase tucked neatly behind the tanks of a distillery.  She pushed him up the stairs to a narrow grate and out to the Edinburgh streets above.  Tipping back her head, she drank in the fresh spring air.  Even through the low-hanging haze, she could make out the stars and smiled.

“Why did you help me?” he asked, mystified and peering at her incredulously.

Spider ducked her head away from him and muttered “Why not?”  This kind of scrutiny was embarrassing.

“Thank you.” he said humbly.  

The Topsider looked down and seemed startled to still be holding the pipe.  He dropped it as if it was red hot and it clattered to the ground.  Spider noticed his hands shaking as he straightened his top coat.  They looked more accustomed to holding a wineglass than a weapon of any kind.

“I didn’t kill him,” he insisted.  “I just knocked him out.”  

Spider looked sidewise at him as she knelt down.  Busying herself securing the grate, she studied him from under her lashes.  The Topsider seemed so intent on making sure she knew he hadn’t meant to kill the man on the floor.  Whether he killed someone or not was none of her business, but she felt the truth of it.  Spider had seen him before in the sporting room of Madame Rose’s, smoking cigars and playing hand after hand of cards.  He won with good grace and lost with equanimity.  Not at all the type to lose his temper and bash someone in the head.  Might muss up his perfectly combed dark hair.  She suppressed a smirk as she brushed the dirt off her knees. 

“He looked like a bastard,” she said with a shrug.

The Topsider smiled and it was difficult to not smile in return.  “He was.  Did not like me asking questions.  Perhaps you could help me.”

“I thought I just did.”  Spider raised an eyebrow, and gave him a small smile.  He was a typical Topsider asking for a favor when already in debt, but there was something about him.

His eyebrows raised in answer to the challenge.  “So you did.  And I’m grateful.”

“Of course.  So grateful you are asking for more.”  She took a step closer to him, almost as if she had no choice.  The lines she had heard so many times from the girls in the house were coming quickly to her lips.  Ultimately, it gave her an advantage, but…  It was much too easy to smile into those blue eyes.

His brows came together in frustration for an instant, but was quickly replaced by his easy smile. “Let me try this again.  I’m Jax Sinclair.  I write for Edinburgh Gazette.”

“I know,” she said matter of factly.

He seemed taken aback.  Again, just like a Topsider to think Vault Rats don’t have eyes.  The Topsider took a deep breath and gathered himself. “Then perhaps you know this young lady.” He pulled out a tattered drawing of an attractive young woman, and Spider studied it in the flickering gaslight.  Recognition jumped in Spider’s brain and she felt it light up her face.  She tried to pass it off as nothing with a shrug, but she knew he had seen it.

“Think on it,” he said tucking the drawing away in his top coat.  “If you remember anything, please let me know.”  Every instinct Spider had grown up with screamed to give no reply, but she found herself nodding.

“One last question.  Your  name?  Then I can thank you properly for saving me.”  The Topsider smiled again and a dimple deepened in his cheek.

“Spider,” she said, tipping her head and looking him in the eye.

“Spider?  It doesn’t quite suit.”  He cocked his head and gave her a once over.  “Well, thank you for drawing me into your web, little Spider.”  He leaned down to give Spider a peck on the cheek.  She pulled him closer and gave him a real kiss.  The Topsider looked so adorably confused as she disappeared into the traffic on High Street, Spider was almost sorry she stole his pocket watch.

Jax caught a hansom cab on High Street and scanned the crowd unsuccessfully for Spider.  She had disappeared as neatly as she’d appeared.  He leaned back in the carriage seat and lit a cigar.  Listening to the city noise, he dissected the evening.  He was close.  He could feel it.

There was a story here in the maze of tunnels buried under the South Bridge.  A bigger story than the penny dreadfuls he was used to writing.  His reporter’s instincts would have led him here eventually, but Katherine had pointed the way.   Dearest Kit.  Jax closed his eyes and Kit’s mischievous smile appeared before him.  Kit’s visions were the key, but they were taking such a toll on her.  She was pale and drawn with dark circles under her clear amber eyes. 

Kit had told him dreams of dancing filled her nights. Sometimes she was all alone, sometimes with a mysterious man, who Kit had described as ‘being made of ice’. The music was provided by an orchestra of beautiful women. It was a strange tale, but to Jax it sounded like heaven. 

Jax took another puff on his cigar. He would have written it off to her vivid imagination except Kit had spied a drawing of a missing girl in the paper.   She had sworn it was one of the musicians in her dream.  She had begged him to find this girl, prove she wasn’t mad.  He had reluctantly complied.  He’d do anything for that woman, even chase ghosts into the most dangerous underbelly of the city.

Not that it had been his first time down in The Vaults.  Nearly every man and gentleman in the city of Edinburgh had paid a visit to The Vaults at one time or another.  Some came to gamble at cards, some came for exotic drinks, most for the company of young women of loose morals.  Some well-placed questions led him to Madame Rose’s establishment and a run-in with some of her paid associates, and not of the fairer sex.  They were obviously meant to discourage any more questions.  It just let him know he was on the right track, a track that led him directly to Spider.

The name “Spider” truly did not suit her.  He idly called her image up in his mind.  He guessed her as a bit younger than Kit, sixteen or seventeen.  A petite girl swathed in a shapeless coat and dingy hat pulled low over close cropped, dark hair.  A world weary expression and smudges of soot obscured the fine boned, heart shaped face, but nothing could hide those eyes.  He noticed them first, glittering at him in the dark like a cat.  He smiled.  With those cat-green eyes, she was more of a kitten than a spider. 

She knew something.  He could read it on her face. The others he had questioned had given him a uniform stonewall, but he perceived a crack in her.  That made her his best lead.   Some well-placed charm should do the trick.  He brushed his vest to check the time.  Jax laughed aloud when he found his pocket watch gone.  So that’s why she kissed me, he thought. “What an interesting girl.

Finding a way back into The Vaults from The Topside was an easy thing.  Finding a way back without getting knocked out, waylaid, or robbed was the real test.  Spider knew every unseen intersection, every nook and cranny.  That’s why they called her Spider, after all – she could scuttle out of corners unseen.  Not a bad talent for a girl of The Vaults.

She had had another name once, but it was from so long ago she barely remembered it.  No one used it, not even her mother, Eva.  It was from when she was tiny, living with Gran at the farm on the Topside.  Sometimes between sleeping and waking, smears of memory came to her.  The sound of The wind across the moor, snippets of songs Gran sang, how the stars looked in the crisp air, the feeling of being loved and safe.  When she tried to capture them, the memories slipped through her fingers like water.  It was probably better that way.  Eva did not like to be reminded of those days.

Eva had blown into Spider’s sheltered world and taken her away to the city.  They made the transition to the underground once Eva’s taste for whiskey and laudanum ate away at the money.  It had not taken Spider long to bury the memory of The Topside completely.  The Vaults became her world, the only thing she had.

Back in the cubby hole they called home, Eva accosted her.

“How much did you get tonight?” she asked, pulling on a cheap painted floral robe.  Once the robe would have been thought fashionable, but its bright colors were too cheerful and clashed with the dingy atmosphere of the hovel.

Spider mentally tallied that night’s take.  It was enough to get Eva’s next fix.  The pocket watch would provide the next few meals.  By rights, she should tell Eva she’d had bad luck that night, but she knew she wouldn’t.  Eva didn’t get as many customers at Madame Rose’s anymore and was almost out of Dr. Franklin’s Tonic.  Spider would have to get it or her mother would be surly. 

“Enough to hold us for a while.   I’ll get you a new bottle of tonic tomorrow.”

Eva visibly relaxed.  “Good.  I’m not well, you know.”  She coughed to prove her dire condition.

“I know,” Spider said dutifully, her words unable to fully hide her disappointment and frustration at her mother’s obvious lies.

“I’d best get back out there,” Eva said, drawing her robe closed.

Eva had once been beautiful.  However, that had been years ago and time and tide had caught up with her.  Laudanum addiction had played merry hell with Eva’s looks and her sanity, graying her long dark hair prematurely and clouding her lovely, cerulean eyes.  Her breasts now sagged, meeting the roll of fat recently developed under her belt.  As if she could feel Spider’s gaze, she sucked in her stomach pathetically.   Eva shoved her feet into slippers that were too small and sashayed out into the main room of Madame Rose’s Pleasure Hall.

Spider had tried withholding the drug, but the withdrawal was more frightening than the addiction, and Spider was too weak to let her mother suffer.  Eva’s body needed the drug, and her mind craved the euphoria it brought.  That remained its deadly lure.  At first it was escape from the fortunes of lost dreams, and now it was escape from the creature she had become.  She subjected herself to degradation after degradation for its lethal embrace.  Spider sighed.  It rankled her to give the hard earned bounty for Eva’s “medicine”, but Eva was still her mother.

Spider bedded down in the corner to catch a few winks of sleep before Eva came back with a customer.  She might not come back all night, a blessing and a curse.  Before sleep could find her, Jax, the Topsider, drifted back into her thoughts.  He was trouble.  She had recognized Delia from his drawing.  Delia had been missing from Madame’s for weeks, but that wasn’t unusual.  Girls went missing all the time.  Whoring was a dangerous business, and the customers in The Vaults were a special kind of crazy.  There was the moralizing minister who couldn’t perform unless he was beating the girls to “punish them for their sins.”  Then there was the textile mill owner who had a taste for the very young.  Or the upstanding lawyer who locked one girl away for days until someone went looking.  She was lucky she was a good earner, or no one would have cared.  Spider had to keep her head down here, no distractions.  Anything else would leave her vulnerable to the predators waiting at every turn.  The fact women were disappearing from The Vaults wasn’t a surprise; that someone was looking for them was.  If she was smart, she’d sidestep Jax before he pulled her into whatever he was doing. 

Spider kept circling back to him in her mind.  When he had appeared at Madame Rose’s, she could not keep her eyes off him.  He had a smile that could make the sternest harpy titter like a young girl and dark hair that begged to be wound around her fingers.  Eyes like the springtime sky, rich with the possibility of a sudden storm or the promise of a new beginning.  It was his voice that made her weak in the knees.  There was music in it.  She could love him for his voice alone.

Love?  She started at the thought.  Where had that word come from?  This wasn’t love.  It couldn’t be. This was just lust, that’s what it had to be. A few joyless couplings in the dark had taught her about lust.  It would pass, just as everything passed.  It had to pass.  This would be no different, despite how different it felt right now. She just had to keep her head down and wait.  The thought comforted her as she drifted off to sleep.

Phyfe’s was easy to find if you knew where to look.  Tucked neatly under one of the arches in The Vaults, it seemed to fade in and out of view depending on who was around.  The smell of acrid smoke always gave it away to Jax.  He could find his way there by following the stink alone.  A haze billowed out of the back most times, followed by a torrent of the best cursing Jax had ever been privy to hearing.  He always picked up a new phrase or two from Phyfe when the old man’s experiments were going wrong.  The front shop was the domain of Grania, Phyfe’s ancient wife.  She bought and sold with no questions, making Phyfe’s a popular spot.  Jax had the feeling he would find his pocket watch there and possibly a clue to Spider’s whereabouts.   He slipped in the narrow door and could barely suppress a smile when he found his little Spider haggling with the crone over his own watch.

“Give ya five fer it,” she said from between nearly toothless gums.

Spider made a face.  “Now Grania, I came here because we’re friends.”  She patiently ignored Grania’s snort at “friends”.  “It’s worth more than that.”

Jax peered over Spider’s shoulder at his watch.  “It’s worth at least ten.”

Spider looked up at him and a range of emotion flickered over her face, but she kept her voice level.  “See?  The gentleman knows quality.”

Grania fixed her rheumy eyes on him.  “You interested in buying?”

“Could be.” He looked at the array of trinkets at the counter and noticed a metal star charm hanging from a green ribbon.  “How much for this?”

“Don’t know if I can let that go, sir.  Very powerful.”  She nodded sagely at him sending her snaky gray hair every which way.

“Powerful how?”  Jax cocked his head at her.  This story was bound to be good.

“Protective, that is.  Keeps ya safe from all kinds ‘a things – long leggety beasties in the night, pranks from the Fair Folk.”

“Fair Folk.  You mean faeries?” Jax asked.  “Little things with wings?” He raised his hands and imitated faery wings.  He looked sidewise at Spider, and she was trying not to smile.

Grania spat on the floor.  “Don’t be angering them now or even this won’t save ya.”  She glowered at him.  “Laugh if ya want, young sir.  Cause all kinds of mischief they do – replacin’ babes with changelings, stealin’ folk, and that’s not the half of it.  Unless you know their true name, only thing keeps up mindin’ their manners is cold iron.”  She jangled the charm at Jax.  “And this has a little sumpin special Phyfe added on.” 

Spider looked at him with a raised eyebrow.  She wasn’t buying this anymore than he was.  It likely was a story to hike the price up.  Ah well, everyone told stories to eat in one way or another.  He tossed some money on the counter.  “That for both, but give the lady her take.”

Grania bit the coins as her eyes went between the watch and Spider.  “Good nuff,” she said, tossing some coins back across the counter.  Spider’s hand closed over them and they were secreted away before they hit the wood.

There was a bang that rocked the entire shop and made the trinkets jingle and fall to the floor.  Smoke poured from behind the tattered curtain and a flood of swearing followed in a gruff male voice.  

“Yer scarin’ the customers!”  Grania screeched.

“Quiet you!”

Jax took Spider’s arm and propelled her out of the shop.  The door shut on the ensuing argument, and Spider unexpectedly giggled.  They exchanged a look and began laughing like fools as more banging and smoke escaped the door.

“This is for you,” he said.  He held out the necklace to her after they finished laughing.

She narrowed her eyes at him.  “Why?”

“Why?  Is that how you always accept gifts?”

She studied him as if he’d began speaking in tongues.  “I don’t get gifts,” she said finally in a voice so small he had to lean in to hear her.

That took Jax aback for a moment.  “Well, to say ‘thank you’ for saving my life.  Because there is no other lady with eyes that exactly match the ribbon.  As a charming lady said to me once, why not?”

“Why not,” she repeated.  “I can think of a thousand reasons.”

He picked up her hand and closed her fingers over the star charm.  “I wouldn’t want you to get eaten by any long leggety beasties.”

She secreted it away in one of the many pockets of her coat.  “Thank you.  I’ll be going now…”

“How about supper?”

“Supper?”  The question stopped her in her tracks.

“Yes, supper.  You must be familiar with the concept.”

“Yes, but there is no place down here…” she sputtered.

“We’ll head up.  One of my favorite places is just a quick ride from here.”

“Ride?  In a hansom?”  She looked as if he suggested they fly to moon.

“Yes,” he said, smiling into her incredulous face.

Her lips compressed and brows came together into a mask of suspicion.  “Are you paying?”    

He laughed.  “Yes, my little miser, I will be paying.”  He held out his arm.  “Are you coming?”

She studied him, eyes still narrowed into a wary frown.  He stood very still, watching to see which way the decision would go.

“Why not?” she said, throwing his words back at him.   She took his arm and they made their way into the light.