Author: Chris Cook
Danielle finally trudged into the office, late and dispirited. Her encounter of the night before had left her unsettled, trying to recall the face she had glimpsed for a fraction of a second, a face that tugged at her memory but refused to connect to anything real. Her dreams had been disturbed and disjointed, and in spite of her alarm clock remaining stubbornly silent when it should have gone off, she felt thoroughly un-rested despite the unintentional sleep in.
Remembering her early morning start - already missed - the previous night's mystery didn't seem so important, and when a broken fridge full of thawing food, and taxis that steadfastly refused to pick her up, added their quotients of irritation, she had decided that she had quite enough to worry about without inventing more headaches for herself.
The meeting was still going - Danielle opened the door quietly, casting an apologetic smile at her co-workers as she entered. Her boss ignored her as she pulled a chair over from the side of the room and seated herself, wedged between a fellow programmer and an assistant, both of whom were evidently too absorbed in making the odd note and pretending to listen to make more room for her.
She balanced her laptop on her knees and surruptitiously tried to log in to the office wireless network, only to be met with stubborn refusal from the password prompt. Fortunately her boss had finished his spiel for the moment, and was silent as he tried to bring the next Powerpoint slide up.
"Uh," she raised a hand, feeling foolishly childish. "Is anyone else having trouble with logging-"
"Right, here we are," her boss spoke over her, finally seeing the slide appear on the meeting room's screen. "We're going to be looking at expanding our mobile technology work, so Justine, seeing as you did that Bluetooth security thing a while back-"
"Actually, that was me," Danielle snapped, surprised at how annoyed she was letting herself be, but too irritated by life in general to shut herself up.
"-if you can finish up your work on that, what is it you're on, the database for those video people? We'll put you with Colin on a project I'm hoping to secure this afternoon."
A strange, nervous shiver ran down Danielle's spine.
"Hello?" she asked, suddenly nervous. "Excuse me?" There was a pause in the conversation, a few heads turned slightly, almost looking at her, then everything resumed as before, as if she'd never spoken.
"Hey!" Danielle stood up, pushing her laptop onto the table. "Not wanting to be pushy, you know me, meek and polite girl, but doesn't this strike any of you as being a little rude? Sorry," she added quickly, suddenly aware of the spectacle she was making of herself.
Again, there was a pause, then her co-workers seemed to dismiss her outburst from their attention. Her boss began outlining the new project, Justine and Colin nodded attentively, and the others made vaguely affirmative noises whenever appropriate, and generally waited for something concerning them personally to be said.
"Hello? This isn't funny," Danielle tried, her voice slightly panicked and shrill. She waved a hand in front of Colin's face, but he just frowned as if he had a headache and paid her no attention. Danielle strode around the table, leaning over to look into the faces of her colleagues, none of whom seemed to notice her. Anya was sitting in the corner as usual, contributing nothing and reading some trashy romance novel - Danielle put a hand on her shoulder and pushed gently. The woman swayed with the push, looked up in apparent confusion, then gave a puzzled shrug and returned her attention to her book.
Danielle's breathing came in short, desperate gasps. She turned and fled the room.
Ninety-nine days until the armada.
Danielle ran from person to person on the street. Everyone she stopped, everyone she talked to, even shouted at, seemed to notice her slightly, like a mosquito buzzing near their ear, then put her out of their mind and move on with their lives. She stood firm in the middle of the pavement, and the pedestrian traffic simply flowed around her. She darted in front of people and stopped; just in time to avoid bumping into her they paused, as if a thought had struck them, then sidestepped her and continued on their way.
Danielle stumbled along, confused, frightened, and alone, desperate for some proof that she existed.
Deep beneath the streets of London, two men met in a shadowy tunnel. There was a rhythmic rumbling in the walls beside them, as if just on the other side of the old, crumbling brickwork a river was thundering along its course.
"I really don't have time for fool's errands," the taller of the two, a dandy in a top hat and frock coat, said lightly.
"I'm no fool, and you know it," the other said, squinting with his one good eye, the other covered by a strip of cloth across his face, a makeshift patch.
"I know many things," the dandy smiled, "but if I ever knew such a thing, a lifetime's experience of you would surely have contradicted it far beyond my powers of comprehension. I have business to attend to. You know my master doesn't like to be kept waiting."
"My master ain't the kind to wait," the other said darkly. "You want to hear what I have to say, trust me on that."
"Very well," the tall man sighed theatrically. "Do astound me with your prodigious well of rumour and hearsay."
"I hear say," the short man said deliberately, "that she went above. Last night. Alone."
"Again? I thought the Earl had forbidden it."
"Ar," the man nodded sagely. "You know her, though. The quiet type, but not a woman who'll be forbidden anything if she don't want to be. She went... and she saw Willow."
The dandy's air of complacent calm vanished like water on a hot plate.
"Where?" he demanded.
"Don' be silly, she'd never risk that being overheard," the rumourmonger snarled. "But if I were you, I'd get my boots on. She ain't the only one's been looking - nor are you."
"Indeed," the dandy said, regaining some of his composure.
"Methinks you owe me silver," the other man said out of the side of his mouth.
"For the rumour? Or to see that it stops here?"
"I can't be held responsible for what others say," the short man shook his head. "But you know my price, and you know I'm worth it."
"I doubt it very much," the dandy smirked. "But I have a reputation for generosity to uphold, so..." He held out a hand, and something clinked into the palm of the shorter man.
"Who else knows?" he asked, as they both turned to go their separate ways.
"No-one from me," the rumourmonger shrugged. "But I wouldn't count on the Baron not having his own sources. Better get a move on, 'adn't you - if he finds Willow, I wouldn't give two bob for your life."
"Lucky I'm not selling it today," the dandy said over his shoulder.
Danielle sat dejectedly on a park bench, munching a sandwich and picking crumbs from its crust, absurdly interested in determining whether or not the pigeons could see her. At present she was leaning towards the affirmative, but it was difficult to tell - their attention span seemed limited at the best of times. She was fairly certain they could see the crumbs, because they were eating them, but whether they had grasped any kind of relationship between them and her, she couldn't yet say.
She had tried to call someone - her parents, wherever they were on their lecture circuit, the police, directory assistance for the nearest psychistrist, or possible asylum - but her cellphone refused to connect her with anyone. Payphones returned any coin she tried to put in them. She had returned home to find her swipe card had stopped working. Five ATMs from three separate banks had spat her card back out at her and refused to cooperate. She had no idea what to do next. The waitress at the park cafe had ignored her, just like everyone else, so she had reached over the counter and taken a sandwich, leaving the money for it on top of the cash register.
Danielle jumped and looked up. A boy was standing in front of her, no more than ten years old, with wavy hair that fell to his shoulders, wearing a well-fitting suit and ragged old sandshoes.
"C-can you see me?" she asked, not sure which answer she'd find more disturbing.
"You're Danielle Rosenberg?" the boy asked. "And no-one can see you or hear you, yeah?"
"Yes. Yes!" Danielle yelped in relief. "Who- what- why- how- what's going on?"
"You gotta come wif me," the boy said cheerfully, ignoring her outburst.
"Where? Who are you?"
"I'm Mem," the boy said.
"Mem," Danielle repeated.
"S'right," Mem nodded. "You comin'?"
"Where?" Danielle asked, getting to her feet.
"London," Mem said.
"We're in London," Danielle pointed out, glancing around just to make sure - she wouldn't have put anything past the day she was having.
"Yeah," Mem said evenly. "But not the one you want. Come on."
With a hundred questions warring for attention in her brain, Danielle followed Mem in silence towards the street.
In a dark, quiet place, a huddled form stirred. It stood, though even at its full height it remained stooped over, as if weighed down, and when it shuffled a few steps its motion was jerky and painful to watch. From beneath the black hood and cloak that concealed its entire body, a parched whisper emerged.
One arm reached down, the training sleeve disappearing into the sludge covering the ground. When it lifted up, it brought with it a gnarled old staff.
With considerable difficulty it reached beneath its robes with its other hand, and brought out a bundle wrapped in dirty rags. It brought the bundle to its other hand, and screwed something inside onto the end of the staff. The rags fell away, revealing a bent, rusted scythe blade.