9. Muck & Spit.
The old steel mills stabbed into the night sky like rusting teeth from some long dead mechanical beast. Janey stayed close to Mojo, heeding his warning of things in the darkness that snatch and steal trespassers, even night dwellers. The train tracks wound between old buildings, huts and forgotten steam trains. Janey could almost reach out and touch the rusting hulks and wooden frames that bunched up against the tracks.
“Does anyone live here?”
“Anyone and everyone but at the same time no one,” said Mojo. He glanced anxiously left and right. “Stay close little Janey. Muck and spit and every manner of foulness lurks in the shadows.”
Janey shuddered. She bit her tongue and decided she didn’t want to know what Mojo meant by muck and spit. She became aware of a peculiar smell, old dry wood and rust almost smothered that of damp hair and clothes. She sniffed herself then Mojo. Neither of them smelled bad, Mojo had an earthy fragrance, pine trees, stone and dirt. An odour that made her feel safe.
Ahead the tracks were barred by a set of gates smothered in a patchwork of rusting metal sheets. Janey couldn’t work out if they had been built to keep people out or people in. The gates were far from friendly, their message was quite clear.
G’way. Be you rail rider or trespasser, be gone or be caught! Here you’ll find no welcome, no cheer and no warmth. Turn your heels and hit the tracks, clickety-clack and sling your sack.
Mojo slowed down and they stopped several feet from the gates. He looked behind at the tracks then all around, Janey copied him. The tracks were deserted like the rest of the forgotten industrial town.
“The Bonds Keeper is smitten with his privacy, little Janey. Only those with invites he grants safe entrance. If we bring the muck and spit inside the Bonds Keeper will not bring his fury down on them alone.”
“But there’s only us,” Janey said.
“Us that only you see, but I see more,” said Mojo. “Terrible things that want in. Undesirables. Urchins. Muck and spit, little Janey.”
Janey stopped looking for invisible undesirables in the shadows. “Do we knock?”
“That we do and must,” said Mojo. “The Custodian is wary and distrustful. Be silent little Janey.”
Mojo gripped Janey’s hand and approached the dark rusting gates. With a shaking arm he reached out and tapped his knuckles lightly on the metal. Janey wondered if anyone could possibly hear such a polite sound, she would have given it a good hammering. She was reminded of the scene in Empire Strikes Back and the huge doors of Jabba The Hut’s palace. But no mechanical eye emerged to question then. Instead the left hand gate eased open and a hooded figure peered through the crack.
“Be true with your name, stranger.” A croaked whisper emanated from the hood of the Custodian.
“Mojo and Janey Thomas,” said Mojo. He held Janey’s hand tight. “We seek an audience with the Bonds Keeper.”
“A bold request for a pair of lonesome rail riders under a fat moon. Speak your invite.”
“Rickety Jack told us to come.”
“Did he now? Did he indeed? Strange times are abound when the old Track Master sends night dwellers to my door. What business is it you have with the Bonds Keeper?”
Janey almost yelped when Mojo’s fingers dug into hers.
“That is between us and him,” said Mojo. “It is not for your ears, Custodian, as well you know.”
Janey wasn’t certain if the way the hood twitched meant the Custodian was looking back and forth between them or the breeze teasing his hood. He had yet to reveal his face and Janey thought that was rude. She resisted the urge to yank back his hood.
“Mojo. Yes. I remember you. You took the oath but didn’t have the stomach for the task. Dreadful shame. Limbo was your punishment. Ah how encumbered with those in limbo Arcane Town has become.”
“The Bonds Keeper knows my reasons,” said Mojo. Despite his fears Janey felt a touch of pride for her friend’s defiant tone. “And they are between him and me, like all oaths are. Will you heed our request or not?”
A ragged brown sleeve pointed at Janey. “I have not met your face before, young rail rider. What business with the Bonds Keeper have you?”
Janey didn’t know if she should answer or keep to Mojo’s urgent plea and be silent.
“That is between her and the Bonds Keeper,” said Mojo.
“I will hear her speak or your invite will be spurned,” said the Custodian.
Mojo gave Janey a nudge. “I seek the truth behind the jibba-jabba.” The Custodian scared her and she fought to keep her voice steady. “Rickety Jack showed me the path that would lead me to the Bonds Keeper.”
The Custodian yelped and his hood trembled. “The jibba-jabba? What riddle is this?”
“It’s not a riddle,” said Janey. She was growing impatient. “I want the truth and the Bonds Keeper is going to help me.”
“Is he indeed? A bold statement from a night dweller.”
“I’m not a night dweller.”
The Custodian leaned forward. Janey fancied she could see a pale grey face sheltered inside the hood. “You speak the truth! I can see that in your eyes. Yet you are a rail rider. A puzzlement.”
“Why?” asked Janey. She was no longer interested in keeping quiet. The Custodian was playing games and though Janey liked riddles she didn’t like this kind of stubbornness that bordered on mockery. “Rickety Jack spoke with me even though I’m not a night dweller. I showed him respect because he deserved it.”
“But there hasn’t been a day person here for a long time.”
“So what? Are you going to let us in?”
“Janey Thomas.” The Custodian seemed to taste the words. “I remember a Thomas. Long timer. One of the first but not the last.” He turned to Mojo. “She’s blunt and bold isn’t she?”
“Yes. We have lingered at your gate a while longer than is needed,” said Mojo. “I beg your answer before the muck and spit arrive. I dare not suffer the wrath of the Bonds Keeper. I suspect you care less for such.”
“Mayhap you bring such unsavoury characters inside with you.” The Custodian spat on the floor. “Scroungers and thieves they are. Dangerous scratter-jackers to any rail rider, fat moon or no. The word of Rickety Jack is more truth than muck and spit can manage. I shall grant your invite.”
The Custodian eased the gate open and beckoned them inside.
10. The Bonds Keeper.
Mojo held Janey’s hand as the Custodian led them through dark passageways of creaking wood walls and metal beams. Over head naked light bulbs lingered close to darkness, their light shivered and scattered on the dusty floor. In the distance Janey could hear a claxon honking like a Moose with a sore throat. The Custodian hurried left and right through the maze of passageways. Janey struggled to keep up as their guide quickened his pace.
After sweeping up several flights of stairs the Custodian brought them to a sudden stop at a wooden door. The sound of the claxon boomed on the other side. A loud hailer followed the boom but Janey couldn’t make out the words, they sounded garbled and distorted.
“Word of warning, little Janey, it may sound loud now but your ears will suffer deafness like no other place on this Earth,” said Mojo. “The disorientation will pass. Hold on to me and everything will be fine.”
The Custodian gave a snort and pushed a key into the lock. Janey braced herself for the unknown.
When the door swung open Janey’s senses were bombarded with noises and smells she never knew existed. She almost fainted and clung to Mojo’s arm. The Custodian ushered them through and locked the door behind them. At first all Janey could take in were the lights that hung from long chains suspended from a roof so high she thought impossible. She wanted to hold her hands over her ears but was certain if she let go of Mojo she would pass out.
Mojo spoke into her ear but she couldn’t hear him. He lifted his hand up and down in front of her face and she realised he was trying to tell her to take deep breaths. Even this was difficult because the heat burned her throat. The stench of sweat and hot wet metal invaded her nose. Janey came close to fleeing back down the cool dark passages but as the seconds ticked by the panic in her chest faded.
It was a strange sensation that reminded her of a summer vacation the year before. Whilst snorkelling on a reef in the Caribbean she dove down to follow a school of fish but her goggles came loose. In a panic she kicked for the surface, almost certain she would drown. With her lungs on fire and the salt water stinging her eyes she burst through the surface and sucked lungfuls of air. In truth she had only been several feet down but the panic had overwhelmed her to such a degree the sweet air had never felt so good.
Janey eased her grip on Mojo’s arm as her senses returned to normal. She coughed and wiped her eyes. They were stood on a gangway high above the ground. The building was bigger than anything Janey had ever seen, large enough to fit dozens of football stadiums inside and tall enough to build the highest skyscraper, with room to spare. Such a structure didn’t seem possible, it had to be an optical illusion. But there it was, no jibba-jabba, just the engineered truth laid out before her.
It was difficult to take it all in at once so Janey concentrated on the astonishing sights one by one. The lights at the end of chains shone down under vast grey shields. They stretched into the distance, so far Janey couldn’t see the other side of the building. When she tracked the chains to the ground her mind didn’t want to accept what her eyes told it. Hundreds of thousands of people shuffled along endless queues that made up a sea of grey and brown, when one person stepped forward it sent a ripple along the lines. The volume of voices was terrifying.
Gangways, several stories high, ran along either side and disappeared into the distance. At intervals platforms extended into the arena. These were populated by hooded figures that pointed into the crowds and made elaborate gestures. In between the platforms were gigantic pipes, big enough to sail a cruise ship through. They protruded through the wall and disgorged clouds of steam each time the claxon sounded. That was when Janey became aware of the loud hailer that followed the claxon.
“SMITH, ROBERT J 19/10/88 TO PLATFORM 47. TAKE YOUR OATH.”
Janey scanned the lines for anyone responding to their name. It was impossible. It was organised chaos that made no sense to Janey. Who were these people? What were they doing here? What was the oath? She suddenly wished she’d never left the safety of the park or told Rickety Jack she was seeking the truth. She glanced at Mojo who gave her a tight smile. His golden eyes were shrouded by a deep frown. He looked equally frightened.
“GREEN, EMMA P 05/02/72 TO PLATFORM 12. TAKE YOUR OATH.”
“What’s the oath?” Janey asked Mojo.
Mojo shook his head. “That’s not a question you want an answer to, little Janey.”
“RICHARDS, DARREN H 22/03/1977 TO PLATFORM 71. ACCEPT YOUR TASK.”
“What’s the task?”
“No more questions.” Mojo gave Janey a stern look.
“You’re here to see the Bonds Keeper, not see the sights,” said the Custodian. “Come.”
He strode away and Mojo pulled Janey behind him. They passed barefoot girls and boys dressed in rags. They carried sheets of yellow paper in their arms and stared in alarm as they hurried by. Janey got the impression their arrival had caused quite a commotion. At the end of the gangway the Custodian took them down more flights of stairs until they were one story above the arena floor.
Janey had little time to watch the people on the platforms, pulling levers on strange control boxes made of riveted metal. They spoke into tubes that curled out of their control box and the loud hailers boomed.
“HUGHES, PHILIP 18/08/1975 TO PLATFORM 83. TAKE YOUR OATH.”
Janey thought they had been walking the gangways for hours. By the time the Custodian stopped at a large iron door her feet ached and her eyes were sore. Mojo had been true to his word when he told her she would get used to things but Janey was overwhelmed by the constant noise and movement all around her. She felt as if she had been walking around the arena for months and her enthusiasm for seeking the truth had dropped to an all time low.
The Custodian banged a fist on the iron door waited a moment then pushed it open. Janey was still staring at the arena when Mojo pulled her into the room. She jumped when the door closed behind them with a solid thud but it wasn’t the noise that scared her, rather the opposite. The sudden silence made her feel sick and Mojo eased her into a chair. The dying sounds of the arena rattled in her ears and the cool air chilled the sweat on her skin. She hadn’t realised how hot the arena was.
She took in her new surroundings, the room was lined with metal panels, the same style as everywhere else, old and worn, in a constant state of repair. It reminded her of Captain Nemo’s submarine, The Nautilus. Aside from two chairs the only other furniture in the room was an old wooden desk and a high-backed green Chesterfield chair that faced away from them. There were no windows or pictures. Stacks of dirty yellow paper stood on the desk, like those she saw the runners carrying on the gangways. Janey read an inscription on the side of small silver tankard in the centre of the desk: TAKE THE OATH. ACCEPT THE TASK. EXIST IN LIMBO.
The Custodian leaned over the chair and muttered something to its occupant. Janey strained to hear the conversation but the echo from the arena was still bouncing in her head. The Custodian straightened up and strode out of the room. A shock of noise shattered the peace before the door was closed again. Janey could tell Mojo was trying hard to conceal his nerves. She felt anxious but no longer frightened. Rickety Jack said she would meet the Bonds Keeper so she was one step closer to uncovering the truth, although Arcane Town and it’s mask of paranoia felt like a million miles away.
They waited patiently but as the minutes ticked by Janey became impatient.
Just as she was about to speak the green leather chair swiveled around.
“Janey Thomas, seeker of the truth, bold and true, friend to Rickety Jack, comes to beg help from the Bonds Keeper. Tell me, why should I help you?”
To be continued…
This short story was inspired by Indigo Spider’s Sunday Picture Press – a challenge to write a 1500 word piece of fiction using one of 4 photos as a prompt.
This section took about two hours to write, and is a shade under 2,500 words. Every word, twist and turn has come straight from brain to screen without forethought or planning. Just the way I like it, well, for this ongoing adventure at least!
Just as I have done with the previous instalments, I have not given this piece of writing any thought since Part 3. I want to sit and write each piece in one go without any planning, just let the characters go where they will and must. Half way through writing this my email popped up with a notification from ChesshireCat’s blog, with the latest photo – you won’t believe what it was. Click the link to find out! Creepy!
The next Arcane Insane will hit your screens on 19th August. Until then, dear blog reader, clickety-clack keep an eye on the track!