26 September 2013

#fridayflash: chlorine and rosewater

Archibald wheezes from his one good lung, makes a half turn and shoots phlegm to the pavement. Not in front of the shop door he's lurching through now: that's the door to Archie's shop, and he's very proud. No, he's deposited the slimy green string on his neighbour's step, the bicycle shop. Archie leaves the street like he doesn't care, but when he shuts his door behind him, he checks his aim. He grins. The gob is right in the centre of the step. Impossible for customers wheeling their machines in or out to miss it.

The sign over his shop door says, "Archibald Grotsky & Sons, Apothecaries," but there are no sons and there never were, no matter what that whore over in Rosewater Lane likes to claim. Old Archie just likes the ring of it is all, same as he likes it when the customers assume he lost his lung in the Great War. Really it was just before — an unfortunate night with some badly-measured chlorine compounds and a bottle of cheap gin. But he can't see that it harms anyone not to know that, so he stays mum.

It's nearly four o'clock, and Archibald thinks he deserves a cup of tea. He's had twice as much custom as normal, and he hasn't even had a chance to check inventory.

He peers at the old brass clock that keeps watch above the door. It tells him there are precisely five minutes before the hour.

All right, Archibald bargains with himself. Five more minutes, and if no-one comes in he'll flip the sign just long enough to put the kettle on.

Four minutes on, and it feels like the entire street has been abandoned. Well then, Archibald thinks, can't cheat the proprietor if that's who you be, and he turns to just nip in back and get the water started...

... when the door clicks and the bell startles.

Archibald wheels around, and for a moment he's certain Jim Fleet's ghost has come to make good at last, because he doesn't see anyone. Then he glances down and spies a small, pinched-looking girl standing a few paces from the counter.

"And where did you arrive from?" he says to the urchin.

"Rosewater Lane," replies the girl.

Archibald frowns and waits a beat to get a better look. The girl is wearing a shabby but unpatched red coat, with an orange muffler round her throat, badly knitted. Her black stockings disappear into little purple boots maybe a dozen years out of fashion.

But the girl's face, the small eyes, large nose, and thin mouth glaring balefully from under a tumble of too-straight dirty blonde hair... An ugly, angry little creature, with far too many features just like his own. The blonde was shifting to mousy brown already, and she couldn't be more than nine.

Damn that whore, Archibald thinks. She always did have a bent sense of humour.

He feels his own nose wrinkling in contempt, which he quickly covers with his best professional smile.

"And what does the little lady need today?" he says.

The girl's scowl deepens. "Mama said to get her some suppression powder. She says she's irregular."

Archie snorts, which to his embarrassment sets off a fresh round of wet coughing. "Irregular? She can just go to a herbalist's for that. Tell her to ask for senna tea."

The little girl rolls her eyes. "Her lunar cycles are what's irregular. That's why I said suppression powder. Don't you know anything?"

Archibald draws himself up straight, and only lets loose one short cough before he gets his lung under control. "I'm the best in the city. That's why you were sent here and all."

"Then the gods help us," the girl mutters, not quite under her breath. "Suppression powder, please." She reaches into one of her coat pockets and stands tiptoe to place three silver coins on the counter.

"Certainly," says Archibald, though all he can think is how badly he wants to toss the little bastard-bitch out the door, square into a patch of horse-dung if he can aim right. He places several brass weights on one side of his balance, and sets to tapping a variety of powders, dried leaves, and crystals onto the other side. When the brass needle points straight up he takes up a small glass jar and pours the mixture in with a flourish. He stoppers the jar and shakes it, then gives it to the girl.

The girl holds the jar against her coat with one arm, working the stopper off and dropping it on the floor. With her free hand she retrieves a lint-specked clay bottle from her pocket. Flicking the cap off with her thumb, she pours clear liquid from the bottle into the mixture in the jar.

Archibald has been too busy checking the coins and throwing them in his till to notice the girl's actions. But now a thin white mist is wafting from the jar, and it's making hissing sounds.

"You little wretch, what did you — " His eyes widen. "You can't add water to the whole lot at once! Just a dose at a time! You stupid little fool, you'll kill us both!" He makes to run around the counter, but fear sets off a paralysing new round of coughing.

"Not both of us," the girl says. "Just you." She sets the jar on the floor, restoppers it, then picks it up and tosses it over the counter with surprising force. She's aimed for the end nearest the back room door. Archibald could have caught it mid-air if he hadn't been nearly doubled over.

The jar smashes against the door to the back room, releasing thick clouds of white smoke. The little girl screams and runs out of the shop in well-practised hysteria.

Later the shop will air out. Later old Archibald will be found. Later the neighbours will learn he never did divorce his wife after all, nor update his will. Later the police will come to Rosewater Lane to relate the sad news to the next of kin, and discover that the poor wee daughter lost her mother but a week before, and is now alone in the world. How fortunate that between Archibald's and her mother's will she's worth enough to pay for her education and housing until well after she's of age.

And once the police leave, after she assures the last of the neighbours that she'd much prefer to sleep alone at home than be a bother, the girl takes a pendant from her night-table drawer and stares at the wreath of hair trapped in its glass dome.

"So, Mama," she says, "what shall we go and do next?"

15 comments:

  1. Sounds like the apple didn't fall very far from the tree! Nicely done (I love a good explosion)!

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  2. I smiled wickedly for her closing question. This was fun, Katherine!

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  3. Really enjoyable! Great opening (it made me cringe a little, having maneuvered around such land mines on the ground), liked the subtle intro of magic/witchcraft by having her ask for "suppression powder". Nice ending. Loved the description of the little girl too. All in all, a really solid story! "-)

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    1. Suppression formulas were real -- "suppression of the cycle" was a delicate way of saying "early stages of pregnancy" in Edwardian times, supposedly. Unlike their herbal predecessors, the medicine was often toxic and often killed the mother as well as the fetus. I don't think any of them quite had properties like Archibald's preparation, though.

      Thank you for the comments and the Google+ mention! I'm glad you liked it.

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  4. Coming away from this, I wonder if old Archibald got exactly what was coming to him. Perhaps the ghost of Jim Fleet made good after all.

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    1. Ooooh, I didn't think of that angle! Good point.

      For some reason your comment double-posted, so I deleted one. Blogger seems a bit flaky in general today.

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  5. Sounds like Archibald had it coming. Cunning girl. Intro provides a great deal of background in a short space. Enjoyed it.

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  6. The first paragraph put me firmly on anyone's side but Archibald's.

    I think that little girl will do okay for herself too. :-)

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  7. Nice work. That Archibald is a wretched creature. Have to wonder how he got a wife and child in the first place.

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    1. It's a love story that would start, "His self-esteem was high and hers was low..."

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  8. Oh wicked girl! Nice story weaved here!

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  9. I hate to think where she learned that!

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  10. Such a combination of freaky and funny, and so well executed. Just a pleasure to read. I loved the daughter.

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  11. Creepers! Excellent characterization and setting. Well told.

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  12. Something very grim about all this. Delightfully so. The gob on the step said so much.

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