. North of the Telford
In addition to the pervasive smell of smoke that permeated every alley, Thomas detected an unpleasant chemical odour carried on the autumn currents. It was a harsh scent he’d recognized as originating from the frozen water factory. The late afternoon sun cast long, finger-like shadows through the increasingly hazy streets. The boy had heard the ferry was on fire and the bridge was being closely monitored by the militia.
This was getting bad. Thomas had been hoping to hide with some friends who lived on that side, but now he was stuck on the northside where he had less business being and nowhere safe to take refuge. If he were caught he could hang and the longer he was out the greater the likelihood of being caught.
The girl he’d met this morning, Nelly Faulkner, had said her sister was getting married at the Royal Oak Inn. She had been odd but seemed interested in him. If she liked him maybe he could nurture that and convince her to help.
The roadway in front of the Royal Oak was a mass of confusion with hansoms dropping off guests who weren’t really sure if they were still expected to be there given the unpleasant circumstances across the inlet. No one paid the boy any mind as he made his way around back and slipped inside the kitchen entrance. The whole basement level had been all but abandoned. Just two servers remained, crying on behalf of their workmates who had already run off on account of being related to those that worked at the frozen-water factory.
“Poor Mrs. Perkins,” he heard them sobbing together as he made his way through the kitchen to the service stairs. The grief downstairs was a relative calm compared to the storm of activity in the main foyer. Through the nervous scurrying of the Royal Oak staff and uncomfortable shuffling of guests, Thomas saw her, Nelly Faulkner. She was standing next to a lady he assumed to be her mother. The lady was engaged in a discussion of an intense nature with the Inn’s manager. Thomas stepped behind a pillar so as not to be seen.
“Who gives a swing of the hammer about the south-side!” Thomas heard Mrs Faulkner shout. “We’ve got our own problems. First you tell me the kitchen matron runs off and now Father Moonwall is late. Blessed Builder, I paid that scoundrel in advance!”
“The poor are going to burn,” said Nelly. “Their skin is going to pop like bacon. It will smell.”
“Quiet child, I’m trying to think.” Mrs. Faulkner put her fingertips to her temples and shut her eyes. “Go stand elsewhere for a moment, I don’t need your distraction.”
Nelly walked directly to where Thomas stood partially hidden. “I saw you.” she said, hardly lowering her voice at all. “You are not very good at being the villain.”
“What are you talking about?” Thomas looked around, self-conscious in his school-boy uniform which he felt made him made him stand out in this crowd. “Listen, I’m in a little trouble.”
“I know,” said Nelly. “I told the militia who you were. They went to chase you. I’m glad you got away. You have potential. Follow me.” Nelly took him by the wrist, the strength of her grip took Thomas more by surprise than her confession, in part because he was slow to process the full meaning of what she said; she told on me?
Nelly led him to the wall, near one of the great mullioned windows overlooking the street and pulled him behind the floor to ceiling drapes. “Why did you sink the ship?” she asked with unconstrained glee. “And how? It was some sort of clockwork boring mine wasn’t it?”
“Are you kidding me?” Thomas was livid “You told on me? Why shouldn’t I strangle you right now?”
“You wouldn’t be able to strangle me. I am stronger than you,” Nelly stated matter of factly. “I also have a high pain threshold. You probably couldn’t hurt me, even if you tried. But there is another reason. Captain Digby and several of his men are here, hiding amongst the guests because they think you will try and contact me. I’m surprised you didn’t see them. I could scream and they would come and kill you.”
“What’s wrong with you?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, you seem really messed up.”
“I can help you escape,” said Nelly. “Wait here for a second. She slipped from behind the curtain. Thomas strained to hear what she was doing. It was difficult because of all the noises and shouts from the street.
A moment later he heard her return. “You need a diversion,” she said, pulling the drape back. In her hand she held a burning lamp. “And a disguise.” She then smashed the lamp against the wall beside his head splashing his face and chest with burning oil and igniting both her arm and the drapes. Thomas screamed in surprise and pain, bringing his hands to his eyes. He staggered back against the windows breaking the glass and falling to the street below. In the parlor, Nelly spared a moment to gaze at her own hand, awash in glorious flame. Satisfied, she doused her hand in her skirts as the curtains blazed about her and the guests began to scream.