Thursday, May 29, 2014

(Prose) - Secrets (NUS Literary Society Writing Competition 2013 Entry)

Secrets

As the sun began its slow and hardly-noticeable descent from its peak in the afternoon sky, the bustling streets of London carried on, undeterred, with its hustle and bustle. The shouts of newspaper boys, coupled with the dull thuds of carriage wheels on the cobbled road, contributed to the already-deafening din of office shoes clucking on the sidewalks and the cries of alarm at rude commuters. As young Tim McCarter weaved between the tightly-squeezed bodies of heavily-coated adults, he gasped desperately for air, white wisps of vapour forming around his mouth.

However, unlike the others on the sidewalk who hurried on with their lives, Tim was running away. He had to. If what he had done had been found out, or if he were to be caught, there would be no knowing what might happen to him, and, more importantly, the dire consequences that might follow. He pressed the roll of papers tucked away underneath his ragged coat closer to his body as he quickened his pace through the crowd, the whites of his blackened knuckles showing through the holes in his weathered gloves.

But where could he run to? Tim had never thought up to this point. It was solely in his mind to steal the papers and get away, but he almost regretted his actions now. Tim glanced around furtively even as he continued into yet another unfamiliar street.

The hand came suddenly, and Tim was caught off guard. It came from behind and wrapped itself around Tim’s mouth, silencing him. Tim struggled and writhed desperately, but the rushing crowd hardly noticed as the small boy was knocked out and dragged away.

********************

The jarring difference in environment startled Tim wide awake as he regained consciousness.  Gone were the choking soot-smoke and frantic din of the busy London Streets; instead, the streets were muffled and replaced by a tense silence that filled the squalid room Tim woke up in. Squinting anxiously around his poorly-lit surroundings, Tim’s heart leaped out into his mouth as a burly figure emerged from the darkness.

“Where is it?” the man growled, his black-yellow teeth showing up through a downward frown. The dim light allowed Tim to make out the unkempt features of his assailant, the numerous tattoos engraved onto his arms, and the short, sharp blade he was holding up.

Tim pushed himself upward slightly, feeling the roll of papers squashed flat between the cloths of his coat; the man must have flattened it while he took Tim away and had not managed to find it on him, or any of the other things he had taken. “I…I d-don’t know what you are talking about, sir,” Tim’s voice betraying the fear in him.

“Oh, I bet’cha do, twerp,” the man had a foreign accent, and his clothes led Tim to believe he wasn’t from London. “And I’m gonna count ‘ta three. Your head’s rollin’ after that. One.”

Tim’s heart pounded faster as perspiration dripped down his back, soaking itself into the folds of his pants. The man took a heavy step forward, the wooden floor creaking as it struggled to support his weight. The blade found itself against Tim’s neck.

“Two,”

Tim felt something warm and sticky trailing down his neck, mixing together with his sweat; it was blood.

“Thr—”

A gloved hand pushed the blade away from Tim’s neck swiftly just as the man started to shake violently. A bright flash and bang followed after, and the man crumbled to the floor, out cold. Tim would’ve sunk to the floor out of a mix of fright and relief, if not for the man who supported him up with his strong arms.

“Are you alright there, my lad?” Tim’s rescuer asked, a concerned look on his face as he kneeled down to Tim’s level. “Nothing broken, I hope.”

“None sir,” Tim gasped weakly, still recovering from his near-death experience. “Thank you for saving my life.”

“Ah, it’s my job and responsibility to protect you; if anything horrid did happen to you, I’d be given quite an earful!”

Recovering somewhat from his shock, Tim took a better look at the man before him, as much as the dim light allowed him to; Tim’s rescuer seemed to be rather well-to-do, sporting a bob-hat, a ornate black cane, and a thick, bright-orange moustache.

“Pardon me, I forgot to introduce myself,” the man said, bowing slightly. “Agent 081 from the Society of Secrets, at your service. Now, let’s get you to a safe place, shall we?”

********************

Agent, as the man had made Tim call him, led them to a dockyard, where a huge vessel was in the process of being built. Workmen bustled past them as Agent brought Tim into a small shed in the midst of the dockyard. Tim gasped softly as he took in the contents of the shed: shiny brass parts and objects littered the numerous weathered wooden tables that occupied the shed, lighting up the place like a tiny field of dull glowing stars as the sunlight shone in. Tim went over to a table to inspect them; gears, pistons, pipes, gauges, and other things Tim could not identify.

“We should be safe here for now,” Agent said as he took off his hat and coat and hung them on a rack. “Have a look around; I’ll just be back in a moment.” With that, Agent disappeared through another door at the other end of the shed.

The shed was fairly spacious, with just enough light and air coming in to make it conducive for tinkering, which was what Tim inferred Agent did here. It reminded him of the workshop he frequented ever so often, when his job as a page at the Duberville Estate allowed him the time to. Tim picked up a half-finished structure which looked a lot like a pen. Grabbing a wrench from a nearby tool-box, Tim instinctively got to work.

“Ah, I see you’ve taken the liberty to work on one of my projects,” Agent’s voice nearly caused Tim to drop the pen in fright. “I see it true as they say; you are indeed quite the tinkerer!” Agent laughed heartily as he heaved a bulky squarish bag-like structure onto an empty table, the thin layer of gray dust on the table dispersing into the air as he did so.

“Who would you be referring to, sir?” Tim asked, his curiosity piqued. Placing down the wrench he was holding, Tim turned to face the middle-aged man; he wanted to know who Agent was, and why he had rescued him; Tim wanted answers.

Agent exhaled heavily as he drew out a wooden stool and took a seat. Clearing his throat, Agent spoke slowly. “From times past, even to today, many secrets have been kept and it is quite essential, for some of these secrets, that they remain that way. The Society of Secrets was formed for that very purpose: to guard and protect secrets that will change the world as we know it for the worse, if they are ever to be disclosed. Take that roll of papers in your coat for example—”

Tim stiffened at the mention of the document he was guarding and Agent laughed at this. “Calm down, my dear boy! I have no interest in that paper of yours!”

At that moment, sharp cries of alarm were heard from the dockyard outside. Agent shot up quickly from his seat, and briskly walked over to a corner of the shed. He pulled a lever down sharply, unfolding a brass pipe-like contraption down from the ceiling. Squinting intently into the eye-hole end of what Tim conceived to be some sort of telescope, Agent drew in a sharp breath.

“It seems that mercenary friend of yours is rather persistent, eh?” Agent sighed as he pushed up the telescope, allowing it to retract back to its hidden home in the ceiling. “Quick lad, we’ve got no time to lose. Help me fill up this backpack up with—”

A crashing down of the shed’s door brought a familiar, unwelcome figure into sight. The mercenary took a step in and snarled, his eyes full of menace.

“I ain’t got the time for any niceties, mate, so I’ll come straight ‘t da point: hand ‘t ova!” the bulk of the man roared, as he charged straight for Tim.

Agent moved quickly, grabbing his cane from the top of a table and stretching it out swiftly to the mercenary. The cane crackled into life, static snapping along its elaborately carved length. The mercenary took the full force of the cane’s swing to the shoulder, but he seemed hardly affected as he grabbed the cane and snapped it into half.

“Ol’ tricks aren’t gonna work ‘t sec’nd time, mate. I’ve got rub’er paddings all over.” The mercenary turned with glinted eyes towards Tim. “Mr. Duberville wants his papers back now, twerp.”

Agent threw himself at the bulk of a man, throwing him off-balance and causing both of them to crash to the floor. A nearby table gave way and numerous brass parts fell onto the floor, tinking loudly as they did so.

“Quick lad! Grab that vial on that table over there!” Agent jerked his head towards one of the wooden tables as he forced the mercenary down onto the floor. “Fix it into the backpack! Hurry!”

Tim scrambled towards the vial, a small black cylindrical structure which contained a fluid that gave off an unearthly glow. Tim gave no thought as to what the mysterious substance might be, but hurriedly fixed the vial into the backpack’s one and only indent on its front; Agent’s struggle with the mercenary looked like it was about to end anytime soon, with the latter being the sure victor.

The backpack hummed to life as its numerous pipes and tubes lit up from the fluid coursing through it. Tim turned back to the struggle on the floor, which now saw Agent being held down in a tight head lock. Tim grabbed the pen-like device he had been working on before and threw himself into the fray.

The mercenary screamed in pain as the bright fierce flame of the pen-torch scorched his skin. The head lock on Agent was loosened and he took the chance to land a swift but heavy punch to the mercenary’s face. The mercenary rolled away in pain and Agent scrambled for the backpack.

Strapping it on, Agent grabbed Tim by the waist, ran out of the shed and was up in the air before Tim could finally make sense of what had happened, propelled by the jet-pack on his back. The mercenary’s cry of losing his prey again sharply pierced the air.

“Well, wasn’t that some skirmish!” Agent laughed, the wind carrying his words far off into the bleak London sky. “Hopefully we won’t be seeing him again any time soon!”

********************

The sweet song of a violin rang through the evening air as Agent and Tim took a breather on the rooftop Agent had landed on, far above the busy London crowd. The late-November wind carried with it the faint but significant scent of soot and the familiar chills of the soon-coming winter, but to the pair on the roof, it was a nonetheless welcomed breeze. Tim was preoccupied with a pigeon which stared at him curiously as it perched silently on a nearby stone grotesque.

“So, about those papers of yours,” Agent spoke, breaking the silence of the rooftop. “Mind if you tell me why it’s so important to you?”

Tim watched silently, albeit sadly, as the pigeon flew off, attracted by some new far-off source of food. “These papers contain the plans of Mr Duberville and his associates to assassinate Her Majesty, the queen. I knew of this when I overheard their conversation in between running some errands for the kitchen.

“I had the honour of knowing the queen personally, and I liked her very much. I was five then, and the orphanage was my home for as long as I could remember. I was told by Nanny, our caretaker, that it was Her Majesty who had sustained the orphanage from closing down when it faced monetary problems; we’d be roaming the streets, begging for food if not for Her Majesty.

“Her Majesty had also paid us a visit later on, and I remember her vividly to this very day. She was a kind and jovial lady, and did not mind that we were rather filthy as she beckoned for us to come to her. It is because of Her Majesty that I did not end up on the streets, and I ought to repay that favour by saving her life. I knew I had to take the papers from them, to foil their plan.”

Agent nodded slowly as he listened to Tim’s story, his eyes gazing off into the distant orange-painted sky as he went deep into thought. He cleared his throat after an awkward silence when Tim’s recollection ended.

“Well, lad, the mercenary shouldn’t be catching up with us any time soon,” Agent held up a small circular dial that closely resembled a compass, except a small stringed stone-ball was lodged loosely in its glass-encased center against a papered backdrop of lines, curves and numbers. “I took the opportunity during our earlier skirmish to pocket this from our rather persistent pursuer. It’s a tracking device that can tell the user the whereabouts of the papers you have stolen. Here, let me show you how it works.”

He pushed the sole button sticking out of the device, and the shiny-black stone-ball immediately zinged in the direction of Tim, the string pulled taut over the charted backdrop. The stone-ball swung wildly along the rounds of its case, held down into the device only by its string, when Agent brought the palm-sized device close to Tim.

“The papers you had stolen, I presume, are laced with powder made from the same rock. It has rather queer properties of being strongly attracted to only to itself; in other words, a tracking-device to retrieve the papers in the event of theft or loss.” Agent explained, his eyes shining with a boy-like eagerness; he was indeed an engineer at heart. “Which brings me to another matter at hand….”

Agent got up stiffly and cleared his throat. “We, the Society of Secrets, would wish for you to hand over the papers for safekeeping. We swear, on the founding values and creed of the Society, that these papers will never be disclosed by any persons to malicious ends, but will be instead handed them to the Queen’s Office, that Sir Duberville’s plans may be stopped. Would you agree to this proposal?”

Tim’s heart gripped with anxiety and uncertainty; he knew that he could trust the Society with the papers as Agent had already spared no effort to save his life twice, but another mattered plagued his mind. “If I may, sir, I would not that you disclose these papers to the Queen.”

Agent raised an eyebrow. “And why so, my lad?”

“Sir Duberville has a daughter, Alicia, whom I am very close, but secret, friends with. I know her father would be charged with high treason if the Queen is ever to come to know of his plans, and I wouldn’t want for Alicia to be deprived of her only living parent; I know how it’d feel as I myself am an orphan. Would it be possible then, sir, if the Society destroys these papers for me?”

Agent laughed heartily when he heard this. “Why, the society would respect your decision my boy, but may I propose something even better: Sir Duberville will indeed be back to making plans to assassinate Her Majesty, so the Society will use the papers you have taken from him as a deterrent to prevent him from forming or carrying any of such plans out.  That way, we can ensure that nothing bad will happen to Her Majesty and that Alicia Duberville will still have her father.”

Tim smiled as he heard Agent’s proposal; it was indeed an ideal plan which ensured the safety and well-being of the two women who mattered the most to him in his life. Tim took out the papers, and handed them over to Agent. The red-haired man sealed the papers into the front slot of his bronze-coloured inner coat, which also seemed to act as a wearable mechanical safe, and after doing so gave Tim the device he had taken from the mercenary.

“Take this; you’ll be able to know the whereabouts of the papers, whenever you wish to. And if you ever need me,” Agent handed Tim another peculiar device, a small whistle-like object, and a bronze ring with a prominently-emblazoned “SOS” along its side. “Just blow the whistle, and I’ll be there.”

Agent strapped on the backpack he had laid aside on the rooftop. “Well, I’d be going. The Society wishes for me to report back before dusk. Just walk along the roof and you’d be able to see a flight of stairs you can climb down from. Oh, and about the money you stole from Sir Duberville…”

Tim’s cheeks reddened as he followed Agent’s eyes down to the sides of his coat, where he had hidden the loot he had stolen.

Agent laughed as he stepped off the roof. “Don’t worry lad, your secret’s safe with me.”

















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