11. Rags to Riches.
The Bonds Keeper was a squat bald man whose appearance reminded Janey of a hippopotamus. His grey skin had a glossy sheen and his bulbous dark eyes were too close together. His lower jaw jutted out and a single tooth protruded over his upper lip. Janey thought it made him comical. The patchwork leather suit matched the steel walls – creased and worn. Two thick plates of moulded rusted iron hung down over his shoulders, again these were studded just like the riveted theme in the arena. Janey took an instant dislike to the Bonds Keeper, his tone of voice suggested they were intruding on his precious time. The way he stared across his desk at them made Janey feel uncomfortable.
“Cat got your tongue, Janey Thomas?” The Bonds Keeper stared at Janey.
“No,” said Janey. “No one has my tongue.”
“Then tell me, why should I help you?”
Janey hadn’t given this much thought. Rickety Jack had been less forthcoming with the actual how when talking about the where, what, who and why. “Because Rickety Jack said you would.”
The Bonds Keeper waited patiently for more.
“I made a deal with him,” she said. “He showed me how I could find the truth behind the jibba-jabba and in return I would bring him the one who crossed him.”
“And who is that?”
Janey shook her head. “I don’t know his name. Rickety Jack said I would know when I met him. He called him the clacker jacker.”
The Bonds Keeper raised one of his eyebrows, a thick wedge of bristles. “The clacker jacker?”
“Yes. That’s what he said.”
The Bonds Keeper frowned and leaned forward. “And what does Rickety Jack want with him?”
Janey was on uncertain ground. She wasn’t sure if Rickety Jack wanted her to reveal his reasons or not. “That’s between Rickety Jack and the clacker jacker,” she said. It was probably best not to give too much away. “Besides that isn’t as important as me finding the truth.”
“Are you sure you’re ready for the truth, Janey Thomas?”
This was a stupid question. “Yes. The truth is what’s real. Being ready for the truth is like being ready to breathe. I just do it.”
“Reality isn’t always linked to the truth,” said the Bonds Keeper. He pointed to the door behind them. “Did you see the truth out there? Did you accept the reality of what your eyes told your brain?”
“I saw lots of people,” said Janey. “And a place that looked bigger than it should be. My eyes don’t lie to my brain, sir.”
The Bonds Keeper smiled and Janey saw his crooked dark yellow teeth. “How can you be sure?”
Janey thought about this. “Because I want to see the truth.”
“You see what you want to see,” said the Bonds Keeper with a sour look.
Until that moment Mojo had been silent. “Will you help her or not?” he asked the Bonds Keeper.
“That depends,” said the Bonds Keeper. He shuffled a pile of papers from one side of his desk to the other. “You and I still have unfinished business, Mojo. Don’t think I haven’t forgotten about that.
“We reached an agreement.”
The Bonds Keeper leaned forward and tapped the inscription on the side his tankard with a dirty finger. “Take the Oath. Accept the Task. Exist in Limbo. You chose Limbo but our agreement goes beyond that and you know it.”
Mojo chuckled. “Freedom earned by accepting the Task yet slavery trumps it with the Oath. I’m not blind like those you trap through the Cog.”
“The Cog,” said Janey. She had no idea what Mojo and the Bonds Keeper were talking about. “Rickety Jack said Mojo would take me to the Bonds Keeper and then I would see the Cog but…what is it?”
With a movement so fluid it surprised Janey, the Bonds Keeper pushed back his chair, rose to his feet and stepped around the desk. Janey took his offered hand and stood, Mojo joined them and gave Janey a nervous glance.
“You intrigue me, Janey Thomas,” said the Bonds Keeper. “Only one before you has followed your path. The clacker jacker took me for a fool. He thought he could outwit everyone, even now his smug arrogance sickens me.” He leaned forward and put his face an inch from Janey’s. “But he still obeys the will of the Cog even if he doesn’t know it. Some say the Cog is just an illusion, the Oath and the Task are just words so they can find fame and fortune. Rags to riches or so they say. Everyone’s pushing for the fortune and fame in one way or another.”
“Sounds like a gamble to me,” said Janey.
The Bonds Keeper straightened up. “I suppose it is,” he said. “I may yet show you the Cog, Janey Thomas. Perhaps you will see why it works so very well.”
12. The Oath & Task.
In the arena the Bonds Keeper took them to Platform One on the lowest level. They waited for the cloaked man to finish his announcement.
“FISH, BUDDY H 01/04/74 TO PLATFORM 1. TAKE YOUR OATH.”
The Bonds Keeper stepped forward and gazed down at the crowds. He pointed to a bearded man Janey thought looked like hippy from the 1960’s. The man approached the platform and the crowd around him backed away.
“Buddy H Fish, why are you here?” asked the Bonds Keeper.
“I want to heal,” said Buddy. His voice was almost a whisper yet Janey heard it clear over the din of the arena. “I want to let go of the pain. I’ve felt the pain for so long and I want to erase it and begin again. I want to feel close to being real again. Something real anyway. I need to find something I’ve wanted all along but never knew it. I need belong somewhere again.”
“Will you take the Oath?” asked the Bonds Keeper.
“Speak your name true, Buddy H Fish.”
“My name is Buddy Herbert Fish and I will take the Oath and accept my Task.”
“So be it,” said the Bonds Keeper. He nodded to the announcer waiting beside them. “Buddy Fish will take the Oath.”
The Bonds Keeper turned and led Janey and Mojo along gang ways to the very top. Janey experienced a moment of vertigo when she looked down at the sea of people flowing on the floor far below. The Bonds Keeper placed his massive hands on the guard rail and stared out across the vast space.
“This is the world no one wants to see because they choose to ignore it,” said the Bonds Keeper. “Every one a lost soul. You might call them the homeless, bums, hobo’s, drifters, beggars, vagabonds or wanderers. You see them but ignore them. These are people the world has forgotten. Sooner or later they all find their way here and I give them a chance to start again with a new life, one with a purpose.”
The Bonds Keeper pointed to a platform directly below them. “The world forgets those without purpose, it casts them aside like trash. I give them a new purpose by offering them a choice, take the Oath, accept their Task or live in Limbo. Few choose the latter. Few have the stomach for a life without hope.” He gave Mojo a quick frown. “For those who choose to pass through the Cog they are given everything they need to begin again. In return they must perform a duty, the Task. Their word is a bond which cannot be broken. I keep that bond.”
“But what is the Oath and the Task?” asked Janey. She thought the Bonds Keeper was being vague just to annoy her.
“Only those willing to speak the Oath may hear it,” said the Bonds Keeper. “And only those who accept the Task are privy to its details.”
“But what happens when they do?” asked Janey. “What does the Cog do?”
“That I cannot tell you,” said the Bonds Keeper. “I will not reveal such secrets. Not again.”
“But you did once, you said so, to the clacker jacker.” Janey turned away from the arena. The thought of homeless people being processed like cattle made her feel sick. “If you told him why won’t you tell me?”
“I have my reasons.”
The Bonds Keeper laughed. “Have you no fear?”
“I don’t fear the truth.”
“You should. The truth is more powerful than you realise.”
That didn’t make any sense. How could the truth be anything more? “No it isn’t.”
The Bonds Keeper turned to look at her. He stroked his chin and smiled. “You really want to know the truth? You want to let it out for all to see?”
“Yes. I want to know why Arcane Town is hiding behind the jibba-jabba.”
“How far are you willing to go?”
“To the very end,” said Janey.
“Then take the Oath and find out for yourself.”
“No!” Mojo lurched forward and stepped between them. “She won’t take the Oath. That is not her path.”
“Rickety Jack put her on the path,” said the Bonds Keeper. “Who are you to deny her from following it to whatever end?”
“She is not a night dweller. nor is she lost with hope or purpose,” said Mojo. He turned to Janey. “Don’t let him trick you, little Janey. He is not interested in your quest, not now, not ever. Forget his offer, let it slip from your mind like rain over wax. This is but one path, there are others you may take.”
“Rickety Jack warned me not to stray from my path,” said Janey. “How do I know which is the right one?”
Mojo gripped her arms. “Only you know that, little Janey. Only you can make that choice.”
Janey looked at the Bonds Keeper. He folded his arms and grinned at her, his jagged tooth prodded his lip. She never expected her quest for the truth to take so many unexpected twists and turns. She had come so far and couldn’t turn back and head home when the end might be just around the corner. Rickety Jack said she would find the Cog, and she had, sort of. But she still didn’t know what it was, not really, and the only way to find out was to take the Oath.
She remembered when Mojo jumped out of nowhere back at the park, his golden eyes wild and frightened. How was he mixed up with the Cog? And why had he chosen to walk in Limbo? He had a strange history with the Bonds Keeper, unfinished business and an agreement that had yet to be fulfilled. Maybe Mojo was right, that the path she had to follow was waiting for her elsewhere. She didn’t think he would be so concerned without good reason.
Janey shook her head at the Bonds Keeper. “I’m sorry. I can’t take your Oath.”
The Bonds Keeper did not hide his anger. “It is too late. Those who come here do so of their own free will, just as you did. You must make the same choice as everyone else. Oath and Task or walk in Limbo.”
“You can’t do this!” said Mojo with sudden fury. “She is not homeless. She has a loving family. Janey does not belong to the Cog.”
“Oh but she does,” said the Bonds Keeper. “I’m surprised at you, Mojo. She has been gone for a long time. Long enough for her family to grieve over her mysterious disappearance. Long enough for her loved ones to watch an empty casket be lowered into the ground. And long enough for her to be forgotten.”
“What?” said Janey. “I’ve only been gone a couple of hours. My parents don’t even know I left the apartment.”
“Here and there are not the same, Janey Thomas. I tried to tell you earlier, reality is not always linked to the truth. Just like Alice you are blind to the dangers of the rabbit hole. Here seconds are hours, minutes are days and weeks, hours are months and years,” said the Bonds Keeper. He raised his eyebrows at Mojo. “Didn’t you warn her about this? Mojo, you have been very naughty.”
Janey struggled to understand what the Bonds Keeper meant. “Warn me about what, Mojo?”
Mojo squirmed. “I didn’t think it would take this long, little Janey. I thought if you met Rickety Jack you’d understand that the jibba-jabba can’t be tossed aside like an old newspaper. Back to the park I would’ve led you, a merry dance and back not a moment before sunrise.”
“What’s the park got to do with anything?”
“A shame on you, Mojo,” said the Bonds Keeper. He chuckled and leaned against the guard rail to watch the show.
“Think of the park like part of an old clock ticking away, wheels rotating and changing the path of time one tick-tock after another. The world is like clockwork. Everything moves to a rhythm, one wheel interacts with another, cogs push against one another and unless you know how it all fits together you can lose your place in time. Day people only see time as a clock on a wall or on a watch, they don’t understand how it really works.”
“Please Mojo, stop talking in riddles,” said Janey. “Just tell it straight.”
“When we left the park we stepped away from the tick-tock of time. The park is connected to Arcane Town just as it is connected to the rest of the world and time as it should be. Here time ceases to have any meaning. It may seem like a couple of hours but the reality is many years have swept by since we left the park.”
Janey tried to comprehend what her friend had told her. It wasn’t possible. Time flowed in one direction. You can’t just avoid it. Why hadn’t Mojo warned her about this? She felt sick. She imagined her family searching for her and the police trying to work out if someone had kidnapped her to extort money from her rich parents. Weeks and weeks of searching, crying, grieving and coming to terms they would never see their daughter again.
She slapped Mojo’s face. “Why would you do that?” she asked as tears fell from her eyes. “You could’ve told me what would happen.”
“Because you wanted to know the truth,” said Mojo. He held his cheek. “Those in Limbo never make connections. They wander without purpose, lost and alone. No one has spoken to me for longer than I remember. You’ve been so kind to me and I wanted to repay that by showing you a bit of magic from my world. I never once thought you would be given a quest by Rickety Jack.”
“My parents think I’m dead, Mojo!”
“I’m sorry. I had a way to get you home, safe and sound, no harm done.”
“How?” said Janey. She wiped tears from her face. “Time has moved on hasn’t it?”
“Yes and no.” He glanced at the Bonds Keeper then leaned into Janey. “I know a secret way through the Grind.”
Mojo tapped a finger against his nose. “Hush.”
“So there we have it, Janey Thomas is stuck in Limbo,” said the Bonds Keeper. “Unless she takes the Oath and the Task.”
“How can that help me get back to my family?”
“Pass through the Cog and you will be given whatever you need to rejoin your world,” said the Bonds Keeper.
“Don’t do it Janey,” said Mojo. “You don’t understand what he’s asking of you.”
“What choice do I have?” she said. Her faith in Mojo had been crushed by his secrecy. She couldn’t trust his secret way through the Grind, whatever that was. There were too many unknowns and she was growing tired of asking questions. She looked at the Bonds Keeper. “I’ll do it.”
“Say your piece, Janey Thomas,” said the Bonds Keeper. “Speak your name true and step forward to take your Oath.”
“Please don’t, little Janey,” said Mojo. His golden eyes locked onto hers and his lips trembled. “I couldn’t bear to see your torment.”
Janey turned away and took a deep breath. “Bonds Keeper. I am Janey Thomas, I will – “
“My name is Mojo and I will take the Oath and accept my Task.”
Janey stared at her friend and The Bonds Keeper laughed as the claxon boomed around the arena.
“MOJO 19/12/1802 TO PLATFORM 1. TAKE YOUR OATH.”
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 just under 3 hours to write, and is a shade under 2,800 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 4. I want to sit and write each piece in one go without any planning, just let the characters go where they will and must.
I have no idea what the Cog is or how it really works, or what the Grind is either. I was very surprised to learn Mojo has been in Limbo for around 200 years or so! I don’t like the Bonds Keeper very much, he is a mean guy who was all too pleased to show Janey around the arena, knowing full well the outcome of their conversation.
This makes me wonder why Rickety Jack would put Janey on the path to find the truth at all, being as old as he claimed he must know about how time works and that Janey had stepped away from that path to follow another. I’m intrigued to know how this works out!
The next Arcane Insane will hit your screens on 26th August. Until then, dear blog reader, clickety-clack keep an eye on the track!