602. What Story Next

Every writer writes about writing eventually, and Balfour is my way of doing that. As his name might suggest, he both is and is not Robert Louis Stevenson. In what follows from my novel Like Clockwork, Balfour has just had a vision, and now he is seeking privacy to think about it. The vision was sparked by his visit to Snap’s toy shop, where he has met Snap’s wife Pilar for the first time.

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With the fog and the waning of the day, the streets had become dark. There were lighted windows here and there. Occasionally there were beckoning gaslighted rooms of grog shops, where warmth and noise spilled out into the street, but these were few and widely spaced.

When he walked with Snap through Inner London, Balfour found himself surrounded by friendly faces. Now that he was alone in the fog and dark the pedestrians around him drew back from him. Their movements seemed furtive and the shadows seemed full of danger.

All the things which passed before his outer eye were noted and flagged for memory — peering faces, vendors shouting their wares, signs plastered everywhere with messages like “Now is Forever” and “You Can Turn Back the Clock.” But mostly his mind was full of an inner vision of Pilar which, if nurtured, might become a story.

It was not of the real Pilar which he saw, but a Pilar whom his mind had abstracted and made symbolic. She stood tied between two coarse ropes, fighting both of them. It was not an image of sexual bondage. These ropes were forces, made manifest in his mind, which were tearing her in opposite directions.

Balfour knew from experience that if he could hold the image now, without understanding, it would morph and change over the coming weeks. Pilar herself would probably disappear. Someone else would a take her place, and the forces would be manifested in new ways. When the process had ended, and the story was completed, Pilar would be gone; yet without her the story would never have been triggered.

He walked far and long, mind racing, lost in thought, but eventually the world outside his mind reclaimed him — violently.

A ragged ruffian stepped up to block Balfour’s way.

Balfour had moved on past most of the light, and the few pedestrians who remained nearby were all scurrying for cover as if they knew and feared this man.

Balfour gripped his cane loosely, ready to parry or thrust, and felt a rush of adrenaline that washed away the picture of Pilar.

The man was massive, short, and angry. It wasn’t a transitory anger that could be avoided or worked around. This anger came from deep in his past and now encompassed his entire being. His heavy brows were furrowed above deep-set eyes and his mouth was set in a permanent snarl.

Balfour did not notice those details in the moment, but an internal photograph of the man was burned into his memory. He had a few coins, and he would have gladly have given them up, but robbery was not the reason for this encounter. Robbery was the excuse. The reason lay much deeper, and no amount of money would assuage the hatred in those eyes.

The mouth came open; words came out. Balfour only heard the roaring in his ears and his eyes focused on the man’s right hand as he reached beneath his loose coat and withdrew a blade.

It was a moment of deja vu. Balfour had known that the blade would be there. He was already moving when it emerged.

Balfour was no physical match for the man, but he was well trained in the use of a gentleman’s cane, and he had that momentary advantage conferred by precognition. He did not try to strike at the man’s wrist, but brought the cane across in a swinging, two-handed blow to the temple. The loaded head did the rest. There was a wet crunch of crushed bone as his assailant crumpled to the cobblestones. The blade clattered from his hand.

Balfour was already backing away, but the attack was over.

This man had been too full of wrath to have companions, and the dark street was empty of witnesses. Balfour turned away and walked back toward the gate to Outer London. There would be no outcry. There would be no inquest. Some time in the night, the body would mysteriously disappear.

Balfour knew all this because it had all happened before.

And it would all happen again.

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It’s perversely comforting to find that I am not the only one struggling to find the best next story to tell. If this seems a bit familiar, it is a precursor to my Halloween post last year, October 29 and 31.

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