Captain Jim Wedderburn has looks, style and courage by the bucketful. He’s adored by women, respected by men and feared by his enemies. He’s the man to find out who has twisted London into this strange new world.
But in Dream London the city changes a little every night and the people change a little every day. The towers are growing taller, the parks have hidden themselves away and the streets form themselves into strange new patterns. There are people sailing in from new lands down the river, new criminals emerging in the East End and a path spiralling down to another world.
Everyone is changing, no one is who they seem to be.
Crunch crunch crunch. Mmmmm, mmmmm. Crunch crunch crunch.
There was someone in my room, someone crouching at the bottom of the bed eating something. Enjoying it too, by the sound of it.
Mmmmmm, mmmmm. Crunch, crunch.
What time was it?
My mobile had stopped working months ago; I hadn’t bothered getting a clock. The threadbare curtains were lit by the yellow gas glow of the street lamps. I held my breath and listened for the knocking of the heating: the prehistoric machine that slumbered in the cellar woke me every morning, no matter how warm the night had been.
Silence. It could be any time between 10pm and dawn.
The bedroom door was locked, but things change in Dream London. I scanned the dim room through half closed eyes. The ceiling was a little taller, the room a little narrower then when I went to sleep. Ever so slowly, I slipped my hand under the pillow and found my knife, still the same knife, still in the same place.
The city changed a little every night, the people changed a little everyday. Christine had gone, and not one of the succession of women who crept into my bed had ever stayed more than one night.
Had I brought someone back to my room last night? Some woman drawn to the supposedly dangerous charm of Captain James Wedderburn? I had made some increasingly strange conquests in the past months, some I hadn’t always remembered making upon waking. Was one of those women now curled up at the bottom of my bed, crunching and slurping with every sign of enjoyment? I wasn’t going to find out by pretending to be asleep.
“Who’s that?” I said to the room.
The crunching paused, just for a moment, and then the lazy consumption resumed.
“Who’s there?” I raised my head and looked to the foot of the bed. I saw no one. I crept forward, the springs creaking beneath me, took hold of the brass rail and peeped over.
Two salamanders crouched on the floor, their bodies glowing red and gold with their own internal light. They’d got hold of a green beetle the size of a dinner plate and split it in two to lap at the yellow custard inside. One of them looked up at me with little jewelled eyes, licked its lips with a purple tongue and smiled in evident satisfaction.
Two salamanders were worth a fair sum of money. I was just wondering if I could move fast enough to catch them both when someone spoke up behind me.
“Good evening, Captain Wedderburn.”
Startled, I turned to see the fat man lean from the shadows near the wall. He was balanced precariously on a little camping chair, the velvet clad expanse of his ample backside spilling over the sides. He unfolded a handkerchief and mopped at the sweat on his forehead.
“Luke Pennies,” I said. “How did you get in here?”
As I spoke a wave of nausea that had been building almost unnoticed in my stomach rose to overwhelm me. I swallowed hard against the bile that rose in my throat.
Luke Pennies held out a hand. We both looked down to the glass vial in his pudgy palm.
“Two salamanders, one antidote,” he said, and he turned to look at the red stain on the bed where I had been lying. I pressed a finger to my left shoulder and felt the sticky wetness of blood.
The fat man smiled. “One thousand sovereigns and it’s yours.”
“I don’t have a thousand sovereigns. I don’t even have a thousand dollars.”
Luke closed his hand over the vial. He waved a finger at me.
“We both know that isn’t true, Captain. They say you’ve got an interest in every young woman this side of the city.” He winked. “Aye, and a straight twenty percent from every transaction they make.”
“Nothing like so much as that.”
“You don’t deny you have money, though. It’s said that you can find a shop that will sell you anything in this city, Captain Wedderburn. I doubt you’ll find one in time to sell you the antidote you need. May I suggest that now would be the perfect time to start spending some of your ill-earned?”
I felt hot. Hot and sick. My nightshirt stuck to my body with sweat and blood, I had to fight not to throw up.
“Give that to me,” I said, reaching for the vial.
“Careful!” he warned. “This glass is thin. Any sudden shocks and I might accidentally break it.”
Slowly, I lowered my hand.
“This isn’t your style, Luke,” I said.
“Maybe not.” A spasm of anger on his face. “But you really pissed me off the other night, Jim. You crossed a line there.”
“Is there any point me telling you it wasn’t me?” I shook my groggy head. “Probably not,” I murmured. “Especially seeing as you’ve poisoned me.”
“I can see you understand,” said Luke Pennies, coldly. “So, which is it to be? One thousand sovereigns, or a slow death?”
He had a thin smile, a smile weighed out in ounces; it balanced a favour exactly with no warmth to spare. “That fire took half my property, Captain Wedderburn. It took three of my whores.”
The rent on the smile had expired. He leant forward, little eyes hard.
“Don’t play dumb with me, Jim. You could see the blaze clear to the docks.”
“My name is used a lot in this city,” I replied. “Used a lot by a certain sort of person anyway. Everybody knows that I would have chased the whores from the building first. You must know that, Luke.”
My vision was blurring now. I felt my hands starting to shake; the bite at my shoulder was throbbing.
“People change,” said Pennies, but I could hear the edge of uncertainty in his voice.
“People change,” I agreed. “This city makes people change. But not that quickly.”
Again the bile rose. This time I could not choke it down. I spat something yellow onto the bed.
Luke Pennies stared at the spreading stain. Red blood and yellow bile. His voice was cold.
“Time to pay up, Jim.”
“I don’t think so,” I said, my head spinning. “People don’t change that fast. Not even you, Luke. You wouldn’t come to my room to murder me. That’s not your style. You want me murdered; you’d get one of your men to do it. That way, if the police caught up with you, made you read the truth script, you could honestly say it wasn’t you.”
I retched again, caught the vomit in my mouth, gulped it down.
“No, not your style at all. But if you could get your victim to commit suicide? That would be far more poetic. What if you got them to swallow a vial of poison? What a laugh that would be. And much safer, should the police come calling.”
My head pounded, the sweat was cold on my skin. My tongue was thick and coated in bitter bile. Even so, I strove to speak normally.
“I think that the effect off this bite will be wearing off soon. In fact, I’m willing to bet my life on it. So I’m going to give you a choice. You see my jacket hanging on the rack there?”
Through blurred eyes, I saw him turn his head. My jacket hung there in green and gold glory.
“There’s a pistol in the pocket.” I said. “You want me dead so much, take the pistol and shoot me. Otherwise, I suggest you take your camp chair and your vial of poison and you get out of here, right now. Because if you wait too long, I’ll shoot you myself. What do you say?”
Luke Pennies didn’t say anything. Or if he did, I didn’t hear it. My stomach was rising once more and I dropped to the floor and scrabbled under the bed, looking for the chamber pot. I pulled it out and vomited, all in one movement. Curled up over the china pot, stomach heaving, I was only vaguely aware of his leaving, of him trudging past, camp chair in hand. I didn’t care, each spasm brought up more rainbow vomit. I felt as if I was dying.
Eventually there was nothing left in my stomach. Still I retched into the full bowl, until eventually this too ceased. I lay on the floor, waiting for the spinning to stop, lost in the middle of the night.
I forced myself up, looked at the blood stained bed, looked at the two salamanders now sleeping upon it, curled up around each other for warmth.
I needed to get outside. I needed some fresh air.
There used to be an underground station opposite my building. Over the past year it had metamorphosed twice: first into a railway station, and then into an inn. I remember the landlord holding court with his customers, telling us about the staircase leading down from his cellar into the tunnels through which trains had once travelled. The tunnels had shrunk, he said, tightened like sphincters. What remained of those narrowed, fat filled arteries was choked with black and green beetles, walking back and forth in long lines beneath the city, preyed on by silver snakes and cock rats.
“What about the railway lines?” I had asked. “Are they still there?”
That had been a quiet night, the few customers of the Recursive Lion had pressed up to the bar, glasses of gin and porter in hand. One of the other customers, a thin man with a huge red handlebar moustache, had laughed at my question.
“Haven’t you heard?” he said, his moustache dipped in white foam. “The railway lines have surfaced three streets south of here. They’re sliding sideways, heading towards the river. All the tracks in the city are moving!”
That must have been some time ago, I thought. Back when the changes were first taking effect and I was freshly returned from Afghanistan, a relative unknown. No one in that inn would laugh in the face of Captain Jim Wedderburn today.
Standing in the sallow street, gazing at repeated figures on the sign of the Recursive Lion opposite, I felt the nausea receding in the cold night air. I still had no idea of the time. The life of the inn gave no clue.
What is it that gives a building the feeling of life? There were people in there, I could tell, but that meant nothing. In the morning the place is packed with porters from the flower markets and the beery air is heavy with the scent of pollen. In the evenings the clerks and accountants line the tables in neat black velvet rows. The owners of the workhouse round the corner follow them in at about nine o’clock, propping up the bar as they raise a glass to other people’s industry. After midnight the ladies and gentlemen appear, slumming it after the opera or the ballet. Later come the stevedores and the butchers, hooks and cleavers tucked in their jackets, ready for trouble. And at any time there could be sailors and matelots, making the most of their time on land and looking for the sort of produce that Captain Wedderburn supplies.
There was a clock in the bar that hadn’t stopped working, despite the changes. A big white face with black Roman numerals and the name of its maker written on the front in curly script. I could stick my head around the door and see the time. I began to make my way forwards when a triangle of light swept into being across the road.
The door to the inn opened and Christine stepped out into the street. She saw me right away and gave me a tight little smile.
“Hello, Jim,” she said.
“Not you, too, Christine.” I said, tiredly. “Please, call me James.”
We looked each other up and down, checking out how the other looked. She won that battle. Her tailored suit was well made, her dark silk stocking tops visible just beneath her too short skirt. Her makeup was immaculate: bright red lips and highlighted eyes stood out against her smooth, almost imperceptible foundation. And there I stood in my frayed grey trousers, my leaking black brogues and my gaudy military jacket.
“Found a husband yet?” I asked.
“Not yet,” she said brusquely. “But I keep working my way through the list. Still giving candy away?”
“Do you want some?” I asked. “I have some in my pocket.”
I meant the offer kindly, but she gave me a withering stare.
At that point my stomach rumbled, and I realised that I didn’t want her to see me like this.
“Do you know what to do about salamanders?” I asked. “There are two on my bed.”
“Speak to Fran,” she said. “She’s got a shop down on Holcomb street. She’s good with pests and vermin.” She reached into a pocket and pulled out a velvet purse.
“Here, I got you something.” she said. “I was going to leave it with Second Eddie, but as you’re here…”
“I don’t need any money,” I said.
“I wasn’t offering you any.”
She looked so smart and confident, dressed like that with her little piece of parchment in her pocket, ticking her way through the items on the list of men she had purchased, searching for her ideal husband.
She had bought the thing as a joke, back when the little shops were just beginning to appear here and there around the old city. Back when James Wedderburn was trying to live an honest life and had decided that he needed the love of a good woman to save him. Christine had been that woman, an old flame that had reignited.
Back then it was almost a joke to push your way from the summer streets into the dark, poky interior of one of the quirky little shops that seemed to grow in the glass and concrete façades of the city. I remember the little woman sitting in the armchair by the counter, how overdressed she had seemed, with her petticoats, her grubby skirt, her knitted gloves. The effect was exaggerated when viewed next to Christine in her shorts and crop top, her sliver flip-flops; all tanned flesh and confidence. Christine had handed across the money, all in coins, and the woman had given her a sheet of yellow parchment. We pushed our way back into the sunshine and Christine unrolled her purchase.
I remember the look on her face when she realised that my name wasn’t on her list. I was expecting shock, disappointment, annoyance. Instead, she just smiled, rolled up the parchment and slipped it into her shoulder bag. She’d looked at it over the next few weeks, always when she thought I wasn’t watching. I didn’t realise she was taking it seriously, but, little by little, she had been changing even then. We all were: we just didn’t realise it.
Now, one year later, and look at us all.
“What happened to you, Christine?” I said, softly. “You were training to be an actuary. What are you now?” I didn’t say what I thought: more honest than a gold digger, less honest than a whore.
She paused, one hand in her purse, and looked down at herself, her smart suit, her silk stockings.
“I don’t know what I’m doing,” she said, and then she shook her head. “But what about you? What’s happening to you, Jim?”
“I told you, it’s James.”
She shook her head. “James, Jim, whatever. I heard what you were doing now. It isn’t… nice.”
Christine always knew how to push my buttons. If her aim was to lock me up in sullen silence, then she succeeded.
“See?” she said quietly. “Who are you to tell me how to behave?”
“Things have been hard since I left the army,” I said. “I have to earn a living somehow.”
“You could be better than that, James.” She spoke the words softly, and for a moment there was some of the old affection in her gaze.
“I used to feel as if I was, when we were together,” I murmured.
We both stood in silence for a moment.
Then she remembered her purse. She pulled out my gift. A tiny roll of parchment.
“Here,” she said. “This is for you. Don’t dismiss it out of hand. It cost me a lot of money.”
“What is it?”
Something about this gesture hit my like a blow to the stomach.
“Christine,” I said, sadly. “Why did you waste your money on this? You know I don’t believe in that nonsense.”
“Just take it,” she said. She couldn’t meet my gaze.
“Is your name on it?” I asked.
“No,” she said, looking at the ground.
I took the fortune and unrolled it just enough to read the first line.
You will meet a Stranger…
Just as I suspected. People were still preying on Christine’s gullibility.
“It’s so vague, Christine. Of course I’ll meet strangers. This is a city.”
“This Stranger will be special.”
“Can’t you see, Christine? This is all made up. You’ve been going downhill ever since you bought that stupid parchment. Why did you bother? We had everything we needed.”
She looked at me with real pity then.
“James,” she said, sadly. “Don’t you see? I didn’t buy the parchment to confirm that you were going to be my husband. I bought it to confirm that you weren’t.”
I couldn’t meet her eye. I felt sick and lost and detached from everything. She folded her hands over the parchment in my own.
“Promise me you’ll read it, Jim. It will help you. I still worry about you.”
“The parchment is just stories. It doesn’t mean anything!”
She fixed me with a gaze. Memory imposed the blue of her eyes over the dim light.
“Please, James. Promise me you’ll read it.”
“I promise,” I said. Not that a promise from Jim Wedderburn means anything.
She gave me a brittle little smile.
“I have to be off,” she said. “I’ll see you around.”
I watched her walk off up the street, leaving me alone and lost in the middle of the city, uncertain even of the time of night and, now that the poison was sweating from my system, with an empty stomach that was telling me just how hungry it was.
It growled at a changing world, one which was moulding me into someone I didn’t want to be.
I took another look at the top line of the parchment.
You will meet a Stranger.
I shook my head sadly at the words, and pushed the parchment into my pocket.
Just then the door of the inn opened once more, and the stranger who was to change my life stepped out into the night.
The man was unmistakably a Molly. Framed by the light of the door I could see his dark red velvet suit, the striped golden shirt and tie. His red top hat was tilted at a rakish angle, but it was the foundation, the hint of eyeliner and lipstick that confirmed it. He was a good looking man, in an effeminate sort of way. And he was gazing right at me.
“Captain Jim Wedderburn, I believe!” he said, holding out a hand for me to shake.
“It’s James Wedderburn,” I replied, but I took his hand anyway. It was warm and smooth.
“Jim, James, what’s a name to a Jolly Japer like you, eh? Jim, I’d like to invite you to dinner. What do you say? A little convivial company and conversation over comestibles?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I was thinking of heading for bed.”
My stomach rumbled, making its own views known.
“I don’t think so,” he said. “In fact I know that you weren’t. I’ve been watching you, my Jolly Jim. Seven nights now, I’ve come to this pub, sat in the seat by the door through the lost hours, looking through the glass, just waiting to see if you would step into the night. Six whores have come and gone from your room, but no sign of the gallant captain in the night hours. Then finally, this very evening, I saw Luke Pennies enter your building, half hidden by a glamour, and I knew that this night would be make or break. I had a bet with myself that you would survive his dreadful attempts upon your person, and look if I wasn’t right!”
“What do you want with me?”
“I want your help,” he said.
“Help with what?”
The Molly waved a hand around the elongated buildings of Dream London, stretched out thin and sharp against the deep purple sky, the moon an over-large crescent that threatened to impale its horns on the city itself.
“Look at this place,” he said. “I want you to help me to find out what happened to us.”