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Lost in Time

By A.L. Lester


Published by JMS Books LLC at Smashwords

Visit jms-books.com for more information.


Copyright 2018 A.L. Lester

ISBN 9781634865319

* * * *

Cover Design: Written Ink Designs | written-ink.com

Image(s) used under a Standard Royalty-Free License.

All rights reserved.


WARNING: This book is not transferable. It is for your own personal use. If it is sold, shared, or given away, it is an infringement of the copyright of this work and violators will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

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This book is for ADULT AUDIENCES ONLY. It may contain sexually explicit scenes and graphic language which might be considered offensive by some readers. Please store your files where they cannot be accessed by minors.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are solely the product of the author’s imagination and/or are used fictitiously, though reference may be made to actual historical events or existing locations. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Published in the United States of America.

* * * *

To all the Usual Suspects. You know who you are.

* * * *

Lost in Time

By A.L. Lester

Prologue: 2016

In a quiet room the glow of the surrounding circle of candles gave off a dim warm light.

He sat cross-legged in silence on the floor in front of the silver bowl of water in the center of the circle, palms open, relaxed, hands on his knees. The surface of the water was still. Very carefully, he reached out a hand and picked up the small bottle on the floor next to him. Equally carefully, he tilted it slowly until a single drop fell into the center of the bowl.

It was oily and it spread out quickly over the surface, shimmering darkly. It smelled of cedar and cypress and pine, green depths and rich earthy expectations, still and dark as the forest from which it had come.

He replaced the lid on the bottle and put it back on the floor.

Steadily, he drew in a breath. It was make or break time now. He either gave up and never came back to this, or he pursued the path he’d been following for the last fortnight.

With resolve, he lifted his hands and placed them on the bowl, cupping it. He began, very, very cautiously, to open up his Othersense, breathing in the scent of the oil, aware of the light of the candles falling on his skin in an almost tactile way and letting his focus narrow down to the center of the ring of flame, dismissing everything else as superfluous.

He closed his eyes and pictured Mira, the sense of her. Dark, strong, beautiful. Headstrong. Driven. Self-centered. Mercurial. Stubborn.

There. A twist and a push and there it was. A flash, like the edge of a coat or dress disappearing around a corner. A red dress. He rushed after it with his Othersense, grasping, afraid he’d lose it because it was so faint. As he did so he let go of the bowl—it was only a tool to focus anyway—and reached out with hands, as if that would help.

It was faint, faint, faint, and fading. He took a huge breath in, breathed out, and pushed, grabbed for it, caught the trailing edge in his outstretched hand and closed his fingers, both mentally and in reality.

There was a loud bang and shock of cold as the temperature in the room dropped suddenly. All the candles went out at once. He still had his eyes shut but the glow of light on his eyelids was replaced with darkness. He gasped and started coughing as cold, wet air hit his lungs.

* * * *

Chapter 1: Coming Home, 1918

The empty police office smelled the same. Dusty formality, sweat, exhaustion, and boredom. The sun came in through the high arched windows and turned the dust motes in the air to clouds of golden haze. The dark wooden desks shone and the chairs were in the same positions they had been in four years ago. Even the paperwork piled on the surfaces looked like it hadn’t shifted an inch.

Alec stood for a moment in the open doorway and took it all in, re-acclimatizing. He still felt odd in his civvies, even more so now he was back at work. For four years, ‘work’ had equaled a uniform, webbing, puttees, a Webley revolver on his hip, and a red cap. Now he was in one of his pre-war suits, slightly too small across the shoulders, and an overcoat that smelled of mothballs. He took it off and hung it, with his hat, on the tall umbrella stand by the door.

“Can I help you?” A pleasant, light voice came from behind him as he turned back. A chap leaned in the open doorway on the right of the room, cup and saucer of tea balanced in one hand. He was wearing an immaculately-cut pinstripe suit. Alec immediately felt shabby. He stepped forward, regardless, holding out his hand.

“Good morning. I’m Alastair Carter. The new inspector.”

The other man smiled and moved to put his tea down and clasp Alec’s hand with a warm, firm grip. “Ah, yes, the Super said you’d be starting today. Will Grant. I’m your sergeant. Very pleased to meet you.” He picked his cup up again. “Come and get a cup of tea and I’ll show you around. We’re rather short-staffed, I’m afraid. There’s just me, Laurence, and Percy. Desperately glad you’ve arrived. We’ve been puttering along, but there’s plenty to get stuck into.”

He busied himself pouring tea from a pot on the desk in the small office he’d emerged from. “I’ve been in here, but I’ll clear out into the main office. It’s the Inspector’s cubbyhole, actually. You were stationed here before?”

“Yes, for a few months. It’s not changed much.” He looked around. Vesper had been the inspector in ‘14. The old man had retired a few months ago, well past the age he should have been pensioned off. During all his time in France Alec had known he’d come back, but he hadn’t thought he’d come straight in again as an inspector. They were desperately undermanned though, Wolsey had said yesterday when he’d gone down to Scotland Yard to see him.

Poplar had always been Alec’s patch even as a uniformed constable and he was happy to be able to slide back into an area he already knew. It was a distance from his house out at Hampstead, but it was interesting, necessary work that included the docks and some poor areas he considered in more urgent need of policing than the richer areas to the west of the City of London. He’d been offered a choice between his old station at Wapping and a new start somewhere further west. Of course, he’d chosen Wapping. Being handed a promotion as well was a pleasant and unexpected surprise.

“No hurry to move out just now,” he said to Grant. “There’s plenty of space for me to settle in around you whilst you shuffle paper. Have you been here long? You weren’t here before the war, were you? I don’t remember you.”

“No, I got a Blighty in ‘15 and came back here after I got on my feet again. After a fashion. I was only just out of uniform, over in Holborn when I joined up, but they needed the men and I was it, so Detective Sergeant Grant it was.” He grimaced ruefully. “We’ve been doing a lot of learning on the job, but we’ve managed. A bigger team is a huge relief. And a boss here on site.” He coughed apologetically, hand over his mouth. “And someone who can run a hundred yards without expiring.”

Alec raised a questioning eyebrow.

“Belgian front,” Grant replied, with economy.

“Ah.” That had been bad. Alec had seen the results of several gas attacks himself and it would go with him to the grave. It was only too easy to imagine what Grant had gone through both during and after the event. That poet fellow, Owen, had had it down to a tee.

Alec had come across a pamphlet of poems one day a week or two ago, kicking round Bloomsbury waiting for the Met to get back in touch with him. Graphic stuff that had made him even more grateful it was all over. He considered mentioning it to Grant and then thought better of it. He didn’t want to get off on the wrong foot with the man. If he was as competent as he was pleasant, there was the makings of a good team here.

* * * *

Chapter 2: The Beginning, 1919

He was cold. And it was dark. Damp, cold air pulling in and out of his lungs. He was lying down, crumpled against cold, wet concrete or brick. He struggled to open his eyes as he pressed himself back against the wall, driven by a terror he couldn’t place as something loomed over him and pushed past. His head was fuzzy, banging with pain, and his body felt like one enormous bruise.

Fear finally drove him to get his eyes open and he relaxed a fraction when he saw he was alone in a small alley, lit only by the hazy glare of a street lamp at the junction with a larger street. He tipped his head back in relief and took a moment to orient himself in the relative safety.

He was unharmed, although his head was pounding and his entire body ached like he had run a marathon or been beaten. But he had no memory of either of those things happening. Bile rose in his throat and he barely had time to fall forward on his hands and knees before he vomited, disgustingly and comprehensively until dry heaves were all he had left.

He rested for a moment, head hanging, the drizzle spattering over him, before he gathered the strength to push himself back against the wall.

What had happened? His mind was a blank. He shuddered.

His name was Lew. What was he doing here? How had he got here? His breathing started to reflect his panicky state of mind and he automatically began counting his in-breath, hold-breath, out-breath before he was even conscious of it.

So, his name was Lew, and he knew how to handle himself when he started a panic attack.

Good. That was good. Useful. Because it seemed like a good skill to have at this particular moment in time.

Time. Time…she’d moved through time. That didn’t make sense. Who’d moved through time? He focused on his breathing again, quietly letting the misty rain settle on his upturned, aching face, trying to pack the panic down deep inside.

There wasn’t anything he could get a grip on. Every time he reached out to a foggy picture in his head, it moved further away. Memory was slippery and twisted, like silk rope, looping round and leading nowhere.

Finally, the buzzing in his head subsided enough for him to clamber to his feet—with the support of the wall at his back—and after catching his breath, he thought to check his pockets.

Wallet, cards, money. Phone. He switched it on whilst he went through the wallet.

Driving license—Lewis Rogers, twenty-six years old, place of residence London, England. Qualified to drive any category vehicle up to a 7.5-ton truck. A debit card for Barclays. No credit cards. The driving license and a dog-eared organ donor card agreed his next of kin was Mrs. P. Rogers of Brighton, relationship—Mother.

In his jeans pocket was four pounds and twenty-seven pence in small change, and in his wallet, fifty quid in two twenties and a tenner, that looked as if they’d come straight out of the cash-point.

That triggered a little flurry of memory. He’d got it out on his way home, as it was getting dark, from the cash-point on the corner of Garter Row. There was a Tesco Metro there and he’d got out sixty quid and spent some of it on a loaf of bread and some milk. The face of the check-out girl came back to him, her dark hair winging across her eyes as she smiled and handed him his change. He’d shoved it in his pocket, along with the receipt.

His phone had booted and he checked it. No signal.

Typical.

It was still drizzling, the kind of fine cloud of almost-mist that drenched through clothes in no time.

He drew a breath and started to scroll down his list of contacts—splinters and flashes of memory coming back to him as he did so. Regan, a tall blond with a curling Celtic tattoo over his right bicep. Mark, a laughing face in a pub somewhere, after rugby. Katie, a tiny frame, hands dancing as she waved them to illustrate her point. Mira, green eyes and a red dress, a low singing voice crooning an old song…

…and with a thump, the weight of memory hit him, like a sock full of sand to the back of his head.

It left him gasping and near to vomiting again, desperately sorting through the shattered splinters of imagery falling into place.

A coherent picture began to emerge as he forced his breath in and out, in and out.

The Border. Capital T. Capital B.

Another chunk of memory fell into place. The Border was a tool he used and a threat he managed. The memory made his entire skin twitch and his hands tingle.

He had been working The Border, he was sure. Looking for what?

Mira. He had been looking for Mira. The mental image of the girl with green eyes and sleek bob popped up again. Mira was lost in the Shadowlands—something had gone wrong while she was Pulling the stuff of The Border to her will. She shouldn’t have been doing it.

The Border was power, contained in a matrix no one he had ever spoken to even pretended to understand—they knew it was power, it was danger, it could be worked with, and it should not be misused for your own ends because there was no knowing what would happen. It could quickly leap out of your control, perhaps for its own purpose, perhaps manipulated by those who lived on the other side.

They didn’t know enough about it to do, safely, more than Pull a little of the stuff of it to repair where it seemed to be thinning and to use it for small Workings to make life a little easier.

And Mira had wanted more. She had found…His memory stuttered again, too much too soon…a book…a book of rituals? A book of spells? His mind revolted against the description, but that was what she’d called it. She hadn’t shown it to him, although he’d seen a few pages of it open on her table after he had broken into her flat to search for her, and he had tried to mimic what she had seemed to have done with it.

She had told him she knew how to use the spells inside it. He’d laughed at her words. His father, the person who had taught him what little he knew, would have scoffed at the word ‘spell.’ He had talked of Pulling and Working. Mira though…she wanted to manipulate the tangible fabric Lew had dedicated his entire existence to balancing, to smoothing, blocking the holes and gaps that appeared. She wanted to use it for her own ends.

Lew had told her to be careful. That his experience, and that of the people who had taught him, had made him fear the consequences of trying to take a lot of power for oneself and form it to one’s own will. But Mira was confident she could handle it. She had wanted the new job so badly she simply hadn’t listened.

Lew had had to break down her door to get in. He had felt the Pull of her Working from his flat a couple of miles away—it had been so visceral, so strong. He’d rushed to her flat as soon as he could, but she was gone. The candles had still been burning. The book was open at a handwritten page, instructions for getting the job or work you wanted.

He had no idea what had happened then. His memory told him he had put all possible wards and guards in place before he undertook his search for her a fortnight later, and he had blocked all the loopholes he could think of that might open up and allow anything to ooze through from behind The Border. He had made his ritual as concise and tightly formed as he possibly could, to give less chance of errors.

So, where the hell was he?

* * * *

There was no one else about—the alley was deserted. He made his way slowly toward the entrance and realized he was near the river, probably downstream a bit, where there were still warehouses. That explained why it was so quiet. He put it to his back and started walking toward what he assumed was the north. He could pick up a cab and get home then, and work out what had happened. His Working must have fritzed out somehow—unsurprising given what he’d been trying to do.

The streetlights were out and the clouds and drizzle made it even darker. So much so he didn’t see the two men until they stepped out in front of him. He went to move around them, sluggishly, but they were too quick, grabbing him by his arms and slamming him in to the wall. He fought back in a desultory fashion, but he was still too dizzy to defend himself properly. They took his wallet and left him gasping on the ground again with a final punch to the solar plexus. He still had his phone though, that was something. If only he could get signal. He checked again. Not even a bar to call 999.

Finally there were streetlights and one or two people passed him, giving him a wide berth—he probably had a black eye by now and he knew he was limping. Nowhere looked familiar. He kept walking north-east, toward what should be the center of town.

It was all unfamiliar. A couple of vintage cars passed him. Was there a rally or something going on? He didn’t remember seeing anything advertised. Everyone was well bundled up against the rain, heads down, hurrying to get home or to work. He realized it was starting to get light—dawn was breaking. Shouldn’t it be busier? It wasn’t even a Sunday for it to be this quiet.

Finally, he hit an open newsagent and fumbled in his pocket for some change. Perhaps they’d let him use their phone and he could ring for a cab. As he was standing outside, his eye caught the stack of papers for sale. The headline screamed “Mrs. Astor elected as MP” in large letters. The date at the top read “29 November 1919.”

Slowly, he put his change back in his pocket and stepped back a little. He put his shoulder to the damp wall and breathed quietly, taking in his surroundings in a way he hadn’t before.

The clothes. The cars. The horses. The hats. The hats gave it away. Everyone had a hat. Caps, tall homburgs, the occasional bowler. All the women with different headgear. The hemlines. The boots. Everyone had boots on.

He was starting to attract attention. He felt sick. He stumbled down another side alley and crouched in a deserted doorway and tried to gather his thoughts.

He was sure he was in London. The one or two voices he had heard, muted by the rain, gave it away if nothing else, but he hadn’t yet placed where he was. He put aside how this had happened, he needed to work out how to deal with the consequences. No wonder his phone couldn’t get signal. He got it out of his pocket and turned it off. No point.

His inventory was lacking. Phone. A few coins. The clothes on his back. Nothing else. What the hell was he going to do?

* * * *

In the end, he walked and walked. Getting out of the city seemed like a good idea, rather than being picked up as a vagrant. Sleeping rough and stealing food from bins was a bad way to live. He stole an overcoat from a man in a café. It had had a few coins in the pocket and he was able to afford a bit of food. He put aside the thought he was now a thief.

His vague idea he would be safer if he got himself out of London and found somewhere to hide, away from people, led him to Harlow, following the main road east out of the city.

Going over the bridge at Harlow he came head to head with a bloke on a motorbike, going too fast around the sharp corner. The biker braked hard and slid sideways on the icy road. The man went headlong into the river, head and neck already at an odd angle from the way he’d hit the road under the fallen machine.

Lew ended up tangled under the bike, too. He lay there in a distressed heap, legs trapped, feeling the exhaust burning against his calf. Panting and struggling he failed to push it off him.

* * * *

His memory was jumbled, like a dream. He could remember being tangled with the bike, in the ditch. He was muzzy, couldn’t remember how he got there—a recurring theme in his recent life, he thought ruefully. The bike’s engine had cut out, which was a relief, but it was on top of his leg, which was painful.

Then his memories came back with a thud.

He was stuck in 1919 and it was raining. It seemed to always be raining in 1919. He remembered it wasn’t his bike he was stuck under, and then there was a man shouting at him from the road, which seemed odd, as earlier there was only him and the biker, and he was fairly sure, from the way the biker had been hurling toward the water, there would be no shouting from him.

He’d jumped into the ditch to avoid the bike. Good. That made sense of his immediate situation, if not the shouting man. He could smell petrol, which wasn’t all that great.

The shouting stopped after a while, which was nice. Then the bike was moved, which was initially excruciatingly painful, but much better once it was no longer pressing into his knee.

Then unstoppable hands were patting him down and pulling him to his feet, a relentless shoulder was pushed under his arm, and he was hauled without ceremony up to the road again.

“What happened, did you take the corner too fast? Coming up there to the bridge is a bit sharp.”

He didn’t answer, fighting to catch his breath against the pain in his leg, and his good Samaritan continued, “No, no, don’t try to talk. We’ve got you. Not a good night to be out in it, at all. On your way back home?” There was a pause for breath and then, “Good grief, man, let’s have a look at that leg.”

Then there were more flashes of memory, the recollection of being pulled into a car and a woman’s voice saying, “That’s it, Mac, he’s in. I’m worried about his leg, let’s get him to Grimes’s and then worry about his ‘cycle. We can send Grimes’s man back for it.”

And the man saying, “Mind his head, he’s smashed it properly.”

Then it all went mercifully dark for a bit.

His next clear recollection was of an old-fashioned doctor’s surgery, where he seemed to be lying on a leather couch. An older man with impressive side-whiskers was bent over his leg. The trousers that had covered the leg had disappeared.

Disturbing, but he passed out again before he could query it.

* * * *

Chapter 3: Tintin, the Boy Reporter, 1919

When he came around again, it was surreal. He felt as if he was stuck in a silent film. Except it wasn’t black and white. Or silent. These people were as real as he was and he had no idea how he was going to deal with them. He supposed being taken in by a country doctor—that’s what he assumed had happened—was better than dying in a ditch. But he was all over the place, patches of bleary consciousness interspersed with long reaches of even more hazy semi-blackouts. He had been wondering for a while whether he had hit his head back in the alley, or whether the Pull had damaged him in some way. His vague recollection of the doctor’s examination was that he had a concussion—but they thought it was because he’d come off a bike, not been dumped backwards through time.

Whichever the cause, when he finally woke up properly he had a crushing headache and a lump the size of an egg on the back of his head.

He was in bed in an old-fashioned iron bedstead, heaped with sheets of soft, worn, well-washed cotton, scratchy grey blankets, and a lumpy feather quilt in pink silk. He thought he’d been here for a while—he had shimmery memories of people helping him to drink and to wash.

The room was medium-sized, with a large bay window glazed in old-fashioned, wavy glass panes. There were long, dark red curtains pulled back to let in the light and a red, brown, and blue patterned rug on the floor that was worn in patches. There was also a wardrobe with a mirror on the front and a tall chest of drawers with a green china ewer and pitcher resting on top. The furniture was oak or mahogany or some other dark wood. That was all, apart from a few generic watercolors on the walls.

He lay there and sorted through the flashes of memory as if they were filing cards. He remembered when he was—he was in 1919. He’d been Pulling to try to find Mira and he’d ended up travelling through time. He was still having a hard time getting his head round it.

He glanced out the window. Still raining. It seemed to have been raining constantly. Initially, of course, he hadn’t realized what had happened. His phone hadn’t worked…fuck, where was his phone? He wobbled out of bed and searched through the pockets of the coat chucked over a chair in the corner. He sighed with relief. It was still there.

He got back into the bed and tried to gather his thoughts.

He paused and breathed for a bit, clutching the iPhone, letting everything settle.

He concluded he needed to be extremely careful they didn’t think he was bonkers and lock him up. Perhaps the concussion would cover that up—it would be easier for them to interpret his confusion as the result of a head injury than as a symptom of inadvertent time travel. Then he could get away and try to track Mira.

Being warm and dry again was an enormous relief.

* * * *

When the doctor came in to see him again later in the morning, he pronounced the concussion almost gone. He was the owner of the side-whiskers. An older man, with a tired face and kind eyes.

“Take it easy for a few days, young man. You’re a bit beaten up, even though the concussion is better. You were very lucky. Even your ‘cycle escaped more or less undamaged. Where were you headed?”

Lew spoke slowly and reluctantly. “Nowhere in particular. I was just travelling about. I’m looking for work.”

The older man looked at him kindly. “My friends are staying here for a few days. Mrs. Fortune has already been through your saddlebags—” he held out his hand, palm up, “—yes, I know. Gross invasion of privacy and all that. We thought you might not make it though, you were unconscious for so long.” He coughed and stifled a small smile. “And, well. Women. Anyway. She saw your camera. You’re a photographer?”

There was a pregnant pause whilst Lew thought frantically before he opened his mouth and spoke cautiously. “A hobby. I’m not very good I don’t think. I’ve only just taken it up—I thought it might be a good line of work, you know. Now.” He stopped himself before he could say too much. He didn’t want to disown the bike and the saddlebags—but if the rider was dead—and he pretty much thought he had to be, from what he remembered—then he wasn’t doing any harm. But he was going into this blind, with no knowledge at all of what was in there, and who he was supposed to be. Could he feign amnesia?

“Anyway, I’ve asked for them to be brought up. Do you think you can manage to come down for luncheon if you feel well enough?”

Lew nodded.

“Well then, I’ll leave you to it. Maisie will bring you in some clothes if you don’t have enough of your own—we had to cut your trousers off you because of your leg. My son…Raymond. He was killed at Second Ypres. I haven’t had the heart to go through his things yet. You may as well make use of them. The bathroom is across the hall.”

He was dignified in his withdrawal and once again the sense of displacement hit Lew hard. Sneaking about, not talking to anyone, on the edges of groups of the poor and dispossessed, he hadn’t really seen any of these people as people. But now, in a few sentences, the courtly old man had brought home to him that this was real and these humans he was interacting with weren’t paper cut-outs or actors in a film. They were in his past, but it was also his present, and they had their griefs and their worries in the same way he did. This was no flickering black and white clip of film, it was the here and now.

At that point in his musings, there was a tap on the door and the saddlebags and clothes appeared, courtesy of Maisie, who was a neatly dressed woman in her mid-twenties; he assumed she was a servant. He thanked her and also took the tea and toast she proffered, and she disappeared silently.

He opened the saddlebags. He now appeared to own a suit of clothes that didn’t fit him and a ridiculous-looking homburg hat. There was also a tattered brown envelope with some paper money and identification papers along with a Z3 form that said his name was Ellison Tyler and he’d been discharged from the Motorcycle Despatch Corps earlier in the month. Well, that explained the bike. There was also a camera. He examined it cautiously. It wasn’t new. It looked like something from a film. He reminded himself this wasn’t a film, it was real life, and opened it. He felt like Tintin, the Boy Reporter.

He vaguely remembered from some late-night Tumblr tripping that there was a standard type of camera press photographers used for decades at the beginning of the twentieth century. This looked a similar affair. He fiddled with a few knobs, twisted a handle, and there was a popping sound. He hoped that was the shutter rather than a piece falling off. He’d look at it properly later.

The clothes were stiff and new. He supposed they were a demob suit. Or was that a different war? He wished he’d paid more attention at school. Although he was pretty sure the method of putting on this underwear wouldn’t have been covered anyway. There was a one-piece thing that seemed to be an undershirt and briefs combined. With buttons up the front and a flap at the back. Fucking hell. He rummaged a bit more and found a vest and some boxers that looked a bit less terrifying. There was nothing else apart from a bag of washing things containing some soap and a shaving kit.

Across the hall from the bedroom was the bathroom to which he had been directed. He made his way across the hall stealthily, not wanting to meet anyone. He still felt filthy—the long walk and the hiding had given him a ripe smell that hadn’t completely disappeared with the blanket bath they had given him, and he had impressive stubble. He looked longingly at the bath, but confined himself to washing in the sink. There was some sort of contraption that came on with a thump when he turned on the hot water tap. The water that came out was nearly boiling. He managed to shave with the clumpy razor. He worked out how to put a blade in it without cutting a finger off. After all that, he felt considerably better.

Then he retreated to the bedroom again, where he put all the clothes on, bar the hat, and looked at himself in the mirror on the wardrobe door. It was like looking at a picture of his great-grandfather. He pulled his hiking boots on and hoped the trousers were long enough to cover the fact they were too modern. Sitting on the edge of the bed, he leaned forward and rested his face in his hands. What the fuck was he doing? What the fuck was going on? What had happened? Where was Mira?

The sleep hadn’t done much to help him get his head on straight. He was starving. The last thing he could remember eating with any clarity was a hunk of burned bread he’d found behind a bakery closing up yesterday morning and a couple of under-ripe apples from a tree overhanging the road. His head was pounding a little less now he’d drunk the tea and eaten the toast Maisie had brought him when he woke. But he needed a proper meal before he could think straight. He was worried about going downstairs—would he say anything to make them think there was something wrong with him?—but he needed to get a grip and go and get something to eat. He couldn’t Pull to see if he could find a trace of Mira until he was rested and fed.

* * * *

The stairs descended into a parquet-floored hallway with a worn red and brown patterned runner, leading to what he assumed was the front door. There were several rooms leading off the hallway, most with doors ajar. From one of them voices were clearly audible and he followed the sound, cautiously, partly from fear of the unknown and partly because now he was actually on his feet he was a bit wobbly and less likely to diss the doctor’s concussion diagnosis. As he pushed the door fully open, the voices paused. Grouped by the window were three people: the doctor and two others, a woman and a man.

The woman was a cliché. Pretty much everything he had ever pictured when he had given the Twenties a passing thought. She had a dark bob in wisps around her face and was wearing a dress made of some sort of green, heavy, drapey stuff, all layered down to her calves. She wasn’t a flapper—too old, he thought, judgmentally—but she was stunning. She smiled at him. The second man was short and stocky and older. Balding, with glasses. Smart suit, crumpled round the edges. He turned and stepped forward, holding out his hand to shake. “Mr. Tyler! So good to see you vertical!” He was Scottish. “We thought you were a goner the other night! I’m McGovern, Callum McGovern. And let me present Mrs. Ella Fortune.”

Mrs. Fortune stepped forward and shook his hand, too, holding it for a moment. “Very pleased to meet you properly, Mr. Tyler. You worried us for a while, there. Please, won’t you sit down?” She gestured toward the table and there was a little shuffling around as they all took their seats.

“I’m very pleased to meet you both, as well. Thank you very much for your help.” He decided to get his cover in. “I’m so sorry—I’m still a rather fuzzy about what happened and everything is a bit of a blur.”

“Of course, of course,” the doctor chimed in. “You took quite a bang to the head, completely understandable. I’m surprised you’re up and about today, to be honest—we won’t be offended if you disappear again after lunch!”

Mrs. Fortune interrupted. “It was I who insisted Dr. Grimes ask you down to lunch. I overheard him asking Maisie to take you up another tray, didn’t I, Maisie?” She glanced across the room to the young woman who was serving the doctor.

“Yes, ma’am. Dr. Grimes was just reminding me the patient was awake.” She smiled at Lew. “I wasn’t going to leave you with only toast, though, sir. Really!”

“Well, my insatiable curiosity demanded he invite you to join us, and here you are.” She paused for breath and McGovern cut across her.

“Eat your ham, Ella, and leave him be for a bit. The chap is still white as a sheet.”

She laughed and apologized. “I’m so sorry. Please do ignore me, I’m being dreadfully rude!”

“Not at all, Mrs. Fortune, I’m just so grateful you found me. And thank you, Dr. Grimes, for your hospitality.”

“It’s a pleasure, Mr. Tyler. I’m delighted to be able to help. In fact, I believe that may also be on Mrs. Fortune’s agenda.” He turned to the lady again. “You might as well lay it out for him, Ella. You’re going to explode if you keep quiet any longer.” His voice was dryly amused.

“Mr. Tyler, in the course of looking through your possessions to find out who you were, we couldn’t help but notice you have a camera…” Her voice rose in a question.

“Yes, ma’am. A new hobby.” Oh fuck. They were going to expect him to know things and he could hear his accent wasn’t right. He tried to mimic theirs and say as little as possible. He realized he would have to train the twenty-first century out of his voice.

“Well, co-incidentally, Mr. McGovern here is a newspaper man. And he and I are going into business setting up a new paper.” There was a small silence whilst everyone stared at him. “We wondered if you might be interested in coming on board.” More silence. More staring at him. He coughed.

“That’s extremely kind of you both. But surely if you are already in the business you must know people who are already experienced? My interest is extremely new.” He abruptly stopped himself from speaking. This was awful. They were going to suss him out. He gulped. “I spent a lot time travelling overseas in recent years—I’m sure you can hear it in my accent!—and took it up as a hobby on my discharge.” He drew a breath, blinking. Would that be enough? Or would it open up more questions? He forced himself to keep his breathing even.

“I’ll soon decide whether you’ll do or not,” McGovern cut in, seeming to take his words at face value. “I’d like to give you a chance, that’s all, if you want it. You told Grimes you’re looking for work. You have a camera and a ‘cycle: that makes you mobile. You can have a trial and we’ll see if it works out.”

* * * *

Chapter 4: The Temperance Billiard Hall, 1920

Archie had been the first real friend Lew had made since he got himself settled enough to start to build a life. They’d met in the Turkish baths at Bermondsey. Lew had been putting a toe in the water to find someone to hook up with—his vague grasp of the history of queer London had given him that much—and they had recognized each other as Border Workers. He wasn’t sure what Archie had been doing there—looking for sex or someone to blackmail, or possibly both, perhaps. They’d reached a mutually satisfactory friendship, without the exchange of cash or threats, that included both casual sex and discussion about working The Border. It wasn’t anything more than friends with benefits, but it suited them both. Once they had recognized they both had similar secrets, they’d settled into a comfortable and useful friendship, for Lew anyway. He wasn’t sure what Archie got out of it.

To start with, Lew had wandered around in a daze. He’d taken up McGovern’s offer of a job at the paper and for weeks he went from day to day automatically, without thinking about anything other than the immediate moment. Months, even. He occasionally had a rare moment of self-reflection and suspected he was like this partly because of the unexpected, enormous amount of Pulled energy the Working to find Mira had channeled through his body. A lot of the time, his head felt wobbly inside. He sometimes wondered if too much Pulling melted your brain and if it had happened to him. He was certainly careful not to do anything spectacular as he settled into his new life as Ellison ‘Lew’ Tyler. An old army nickname, that followed him into civilian life. He couldn’t answer to Ellison unless he was concentrating hard. Which he wasn’t, most of the time. Of course, that was the main thing making him dazed. He had shot back to a time nearly a hundred years before his own and he was like a fish out of water. He had a very vague grasp of the history of London—just enough to get him into trouble, he thought, wryly, sometimes—and being able to talk to Archie about it and use him as a sort of native guide was really helpful.

Archie was relatively blasé about his time-travelling situation. Despite his ability to Pull energy a little, he was pretty grounded in the here and now. Day to day survival was his priority, rather than listening to wild tales about the future. He had been happy to help Lew. Lew had thought he was probably just that sort of easy-going bloke—driven by chance and luck, good or bad.

* * * *

The Temperance Billiard Hall was quiet at this time of day and he easily made out Archie, sat at the bar with what looked like a cup of tea. “All right?” he asked, as he sat down beside him on one of the bar stools.

“Fine. I think I’ve found something.”

Lew ordered a pot of tea and tossed his cap down, leaning his elbows on the bar, foot on the brass rail. “What?”

“I found Kelly. He’s living with his daughter, up in Camden.” Archie had a nebulous network of contacts in various overlapping underworld webs, Workers, the denizens of various bathhouses and cottaging destinations, and gangsters. There were frequent and complicated intersections between them all and Lew had given up trying to keep track. “He remembered doing a Pull years ago—fifty years or more, he’s on in his seventies—to find someone. A child, I think he said, but that bit’s not the important thing. The important thing is he said it wasn’t all that complicated. It’s not the ritual so much as the intent behind it and the strength of the intent. He said that could explain both how you and your friend moved in time, too. Candles and bowls of water and all that bother are just underlining the need behind the Pull. He laughed when I told him she’d come across a book of spells—he said there was no such thing. It’s not the words. It’s the need.”

“So, this stuff we do, to repair The Border when it gets thin and things try to break through from the other side of it, that’s driven by need, too?”

“So, he said. He’s a nice old codger. He said if you wanted to go up and see him for yourself he’d be happy to chat. I don’t think he gets out much anymore. Any entertainment will do.” Archie grinned at him slightly.

Lew grinned back. “Fuck you, mate. I’m a paragon of social niceties, me. People queue to have me visit them.”

Archie’s smile widened. “Kelly wanted to know if you’d told me anything about the future. I said he’d have to ask you himself.”

Lew felt his face fall. “I don’t know if that’s a good idea. What if I tell people stuff and it changes what happened? I have no bloody idea what’s going on and whether this is something Workers have been doing easily for years or whether it’s a one-off.”

“Kelly said he’d never heard of it. He said he’d worked with a lot of really old, powerful coves back then, they used to track Creatures that had got through, all that malarkey. He’d never heard a peep of it before. He was interested in meeting you because of that, I think. He reckons you must be a really strong Worker to have done it. Or a Creature, of course.” Archie threw that in with a straight face. Lew double-took.

“What? A Creature? Me?”

“Yes. He thought he’d heard stories of Creatures coming through and looking human. Never met one himself. He said the ones he’d come across were all monster-looking. Claws and things. But he’d heard a story about one that looked human and fooled people for years. Workers even.”

“I need to talk to him.”

“I thought you might. He’s at home this afternoon.”

* * * *

Chapter 5: Looking for Mira, 1920

Kelly lived with his daughter’s family in Camden, on Caroline Street. Lew hadn’t been there in this time. He’d spent afternoons at Camden Lock and browsing the market in his own time and thought he knew the area quite well. Physically the streets were laid out in the same way. But everything else was completely different. There were cobbles on the streets, large groups of children playing with hoops and footballs, costermongers with barrows moving slowly up and down the Camden High Street selling vegetables and fruit. He felt dizzy and everything spun around him.

“Steady there, man.” Archie took him by the elbow as he wavered, earning a glare from a large woman pushing past with a wicker shopping basket piled high with what looked like sausages coming out of a newspaper wrapping.

“Sorry. It’s different.”

“Well. Yes. It’s different. Of course, it’s different. Come on. Down here.” He turned left down a side road into a small street with red brick terraced houses. Each of these had a tiny railed front area with a gate opening on to the road. “It’s this one.”

It had a well-kept garden, a few hollyhocks and a rose rambling round the door. The gate squeaked as they stepped up on to the short path and then Archie knocked on the green painted door. He touched his cap as it opened. “Mrs. Finn. I’ve brought Mr. Tyler to see your father.”

“Come on in. He’s expecting you both. Mr. Tyler, hello.”

“Mrs. Finn.” He touched his own cap.

She showed them in to the first room off the short, dark hallway. “He’s in the parlor. I’ll bring you some tea.” Lew ruminated that the 1920s seemed to run on either tea or hard spirits. He was always drinking one or the other.

Kelly was an old man, for any time. He had impressive white side-whiskers and reminded Lew of pictures of Darwin. He rose stiffly to greet them from a leather wing chair by the fireplace. “Mr. Fornham. Mr. Tyler.” He shook Lew’s hand. “To meet a man from the future is a great honor.” He didn’t let go of his hand and Lew felt the cool tingle of power moving over him.

“I’m not a Creature, Mr. Kelly, I assure you.”

“No, you’re not, lad.” He released his hand and stepped back. “Sit down, sit down. Vicky will bring some tea in shortly. And I think she’s been baking. Always baking.” He lowered himself down into his high-backed fireside chair and looked at them solemnly. “How can I help you, young man? You’re a long way from home.”

Lew recounted his story and the old man listened intently, sucking on an empty pipe.

“You have to understand, I was young. Very young. Younger than you—how old are you?”

“I’m thirty-four, sir.”

“Hmmf. You look younger than that.” Another suck on the pipe. “I wasn’t out of my teens when I started Pulling. I was a post boy. Grew up in the Post Office—my father was a postman, too. Started when I was about ten. Worked my way up to clerk before I finished. Where was I?” He fumbled with his tobacco pouch. “Yes, I started working The Border when I was about fifteen. I met a chap whilst I was delivering letters. He had a lot of letters come, and sent, too, and it was on my round. Mr. Bartlett. He lived up West. I can’t remember where exactly now. But one day, he asked me to step inside.” He laughed a gruff laugh. “I wasn’t having any of that, of course. I told him that wasn’t what I was delivering!”

Lew and Archie laughed, too, in unison, slightly forced. “So, what happened? Did you know about The Border already?”

“I knew something was going on. Thought I was heading for Bedlam—I could hear things in the corners of the room at night. And once, when I was about twelve, some older lads set on me and I threw one of them across the street. Just a punch—but he flew. Looking back, I think I was Pulling, to do it. They never bothered me after that, mind.”

He sucked on his pipe some more. “Anyway. Mr. Bartlett turned out to be part of a group of Workers. About ten or a dozen of us, there were, in the end. He taught me to Pull without attracting attention from the Outlands. The Outlands, that’s what he called it. The other side. One or two of the older chaps could pass through The Border, like opening a door. Go through and come out somewhere else. They followed Creatures through to finish them off, once or twice. And some of them could use it to travel. Dangerous, mind. Very dangerous. But I think that’s what you’ve done. Except you’ve done it in spades and moved in time, as well.”

They sat in silence for a few moments, reflecting. Mrs. Finn came in briskly and served tea on the polished wooden dining table and a warm, sticky cake Archie fell upon ravenously and Lew picked at. He couldn’t eat and think. Archie seemed to be the opposite.

“Can you help me?” Lew asked. “Do you know how to do it? To open the doors and travel?”

“No. No, I don’t. And I don’t think there’s anyone still alive who you can ask, that I know of.”

“Did you work with them for long?”

“A few years. When I married Vicky’s mother and the babies started coming, I had more than enough to do to keep us all fed. Hard years, they were. I stopped meeting them when they were working. And, to be honest, we weren’t friends. They weren’t my sort. Gentlemen, didn’t need to be earning. Foolish, sometimes. Took risks. Three of them went to the Outlands, hunting, and didn’t come back, around that time. After that, I decided it wasn’t worth it. They’d taught me a bit—enough to keep myself safe and know I wasn’t going potty. And so, I left it there.”

“How’s it done, then, sir?” Lew leaned forward, elbows on his knees. “How do you open a door? How do you make sure nothing comes through when you do it?” He paused as he looked at the old man. “I’m almost certain something followed me through here. I could feel it. But I thought I must have been mistaken, because there’s none of the chaos a Creature could cause. I joined the police as a photographer so I could keep an eye out for it.” He paused again. “My main concern though, is to see if my friend Mira is here. Her Working was successful, I could feel that, too. So, I have to assume mine was—my intent was to find her, wherever she had gone.”

“It’s probable your intent was so strong that is what drew you through.” Kelly stared at the jumping flames of the little fire in the darkening room as he spoke. “Intent is everything—the ritual is just the way you set the intent out, in your mind. So, if she had a book of rituals, they were simply someone else’s way of setting the intent. Her own intent drove the ritual, you see? In the same way your fear for her probably made your intent to find her extremely strong, so you moved.” He stirred in his chair. “If you form a strong intent to trace her, you should be able to see where she is. Or at least, find yourself a pointer. When we searched for the lost child with Mr. Bartlett, we used a map. We spread it on the table and put a marble on it. Then we did a ritual, candles and bowls of water and whatnot. And the marble moved. It glowed with the energy, the way your hands do when you Pull energy from The Border or from other people for ritual work.” He stretched arthritic hands out in front of him and inspected them. “Heh. Haven’t done it properly for years.”

Lew thought about it. “So, it shouldn’t be that hard?”

“Not for you, I shouldn’t think.” Kelly looked at him, directly. “You’re strong. Stronger than you know, I reckon. You’ve only been dabbling, haven’t you? It’s dangerous to dabble—that’s when they hear you and break through. You’re like a candle to them, lit up in a dark room, seen through a darkling glass. They’ll throw themselves against the glass to get to you. You need to learn to switch it off.” He glanced at Archie, too. “Both of you do. You’re glowing like a gas mantle, young Archie.”

Archie blushed. “How do I do that, Mr. Kelly? I’ve never met anyone who knows enough to teach me anything.”

“Me either,” Lew chimed. “I’ve never heard of any groups working together at all, in my time. Does it still happen here?”

Kelly’s face was sad. “Not that I’ve heard of, since Bartlett. I think the best of them died when the power slipped in a Working they were doing. From what I could make out, they didn’t hold the Pull steady and there was a Creature that broke through. They were all killed. I heard about it in the newspapers—they said a lion or tiger must have escaped from the zoo. It was a massacre. I stopped working for a while after that. Put the wind right up me.”

He looked at them. “Shutting down is easy. Just see a picture in your mind of your candle, or a lamp—tell yourself it’s your candle—and put a shield over it. You don’t need to put it out. But put a shield over it. I see a lamp and put the shutter across.” He squinted at Lew. “Better. Keep doing it.” He turned to Archie. “You need to practice. Both of you.” He sighed. “I can’t teach you much, I can’t remember a lot of it. It was sixty years ago I worked with them. And I get tired. But if you come back in a day or two we’ll work on it. And we’ll see if we can’t find your girl, Mr. Tyler.”

“Lew, please. Call me Lew.” He rose to leave. “Please don’t get up, Mr. Kelly. We’ll see ourselves out.” He shook the old man’s hand. “Thank you for seeing me. I do appreciate it.”

Kelly smiled a little from his chair as they said their goodbyes, looking at Lew through eyes milky with age. “Tell me, Mr. Tyler. Was it worth it? This war we’ve just fought? Was it really the war to end all wars?”

Lew held his gaze, solemnly. “No, Mr. Kelly. It wasn’t. Not at all.”

* * * *

They ended up at Archie’s digs after their impromptu visit to Kelly in Camden. He put a kettle to boil on a small Primus and skimmed his hat over on the cloth covered table in the corner of the room. He grinned at Lew. “Did that sort you out? He’s a rum old cove, but he knows what he’s talking about.”

“Yeah. Seemed to, didn’t he. Are you busy tomorrow? It’s Sunday. I’m off. We could go back.”

“I’ve got to see a man about a dog in the morning, but after that, yes. I’m interested to see what he can teach us. I’m sick of messing round in the dark and not knowing what I’m doin.’ Me mum taught me a bit, but she didn’t know much herself. That shutting down thing is good.” He poured the hot water on the tea leaves, put the lid on the pot, and threw himself back on the bed to rest onto his elbows. He gave Lew a cheeky grin from under his lashes. “Come over ‘ere, then. If you want.”

Lew was leaning against the door frame, still in his leather motorcycling gear, goggles and cap in hand. He grinned back and threw his coat over a chair. “Now? I thought we were having a cup of tea.”

“This first. Then tea.”

* * * *

Sated and dressed again, they sat at the table, mugs of tea in front of them. “How did you know you could Pull?” Archie asked him, thoughtfully. “Have you got a teacher in your time? You can’t have—you don’t know much more than me, do you? And I know damn-all.”

“My father,” Lew told him. “My real father, I mean. He died when I was eleven. His family were Workers, I think. His grandfather certainly was. He was the last of them, though, and after I went into the foster care system I didn’t meet anyone until Mira.” He stirred his tea. “We were placed with a family who kept us ‘til we aged out. Really nice. We still see them a lot. Call them mum and dad.” He passed Archie the sugar. “Mira learned a bit from her grandmother, who learned from her grandmother, in Trinidad.”


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