Exclusive Excerpt from Lost in Time
by A.L. Lester
In a quiet room the glow of the surrounding circle of candles gave off a dim warm light.
He sat cross-legged in silence on the floor in front of the silver bowl of water in the center of the circle, palms open, relaxed, hands on his knees. The surface of the water was still. Very carefully, he reached out a hand and picked up the small bottle on the floor next to him. Equally carefully, he tilted it slowly until a single drop fell into the center of the bowl.
It was oily and it spread out quickly over the surface, shimmering darkly. It smelled of cedar and cypress and pine; green depths and rich earthy expectations; still and dark as the forest from which it had come.
He replaced the lid on the bottle and put it back on the floor.
Steadily, he drew in a breath. It was make or break time now. He either gave up and never came back to this, or he pursued the path he’d been following for the last fortnight.
With resolve, he lifted his hands and placed them on the bowl, cupping it. He began, very, very cautiously, to open up his Othersense, breathing in the scent of the oil, aware of the light of the candles falling on his skin in an almost tactile way and letting his focus narrow down to the center of the ring of flame, dismissing everything else as superfluous.
He closed his eyes and pictured Mira, the sense of her.
Dark, strong, beautiful. Headstrong. Driven. Self-centered.
There. A twist and a push and there it was. A flash, like the edge of a coat or dress disappearing around a corner. A red dress. He rushed after it with his Othersense, grasping, afraid he’d lose it because it was so faint. As he did so he let go of the bowl—it was only a tool to focus anyway—and reached out with hands, as if that would help.
It was faint, faint, faint, and fading. He took a huge breath in, breathed out, and pushed, grabbed for it, caught the trailing edge in his outstretched hand and closed his fingers, both mentally and in reality.
There was a loud bang and shock of cold as the temperature in the room dropped suddenly. All the candles went out at once. He still had his eyes shut but the glow of light on his eyelids was replaced with darkness. He gasped and started coughing as cold, wet air hit his lungs.
Chapter 1: Coming Home, 1918
The empty police office smelled the same. Dusty formality, sweat, exhaustion, and boredom. The sun came in through the high arched windows and turned the dust motes in the air to clouds of golden haze. The dark wooden desks shone and the chairs were in the same positions they had been in four years ago. Even the paperwork piled on the surfaces looked like it hadn’t shifted an inch.
Alec stood for a moment in the open doorway and took it all in, re-acclimatizing. He still felt odd in his civvies, even more so now he was back at work. For four years, ‘work’ had equaled a uniform, webbing, puttees, a Webley revolver on his hip, and a red cap. Now he was in one of his pre-war suits, slightly too small across the shoulders, and an overcoat that smelled of mothballs. He took it off and hung it, with his hat, on the tall umbrella stand by the door.
“Can I help you?” A pleasant, light voice came from behind him as he turned back. A chap leaned in the open doorway on the right of the room, cup and saucer of tea balanced in one hand. He was wearing an immaculately-cut pinstripe suit. Alec immediately felt shabby. He stepped forward, regardless, holding out his hand.
“Good morning. I’m Alastair Carter. The new inspector.”
The other man smiled and moved to put his tea down and clasp Alec’s hand with a warm, firm grip. “Ah, yes, the Super said you’d be starting today. Will Grant. I’m your sergeant. Very pleased to meet you.” He picked his cup up again. “Come and get a cup of tea and I’ll show you around. We’re rather shortstaffed, I’m afraid. There’s just me, Laurence, and Percy. Desperately glad you’ve arrived. We’ve been puttering along, but there’s plenty to get stuck into.”
He busied himself pouring tea from a pot on the desk in the small office he’d emerged from. “I’ve been in here, but I’ll clear out into the main office. It’s the Inspector’s cubbyhole, actually. You were stationed here before?”
“Yes, for a few months. It’s not changed much.” He looked around. Vesper had been the inspector in ‘14. The old man had retired a few months ago, well past the age he should have been pensioned off. During all his time in France Alec had known he’d come back, but he hadn’t thought he’d come straight in again as an inspector. They were desperately undermanned though, Wolsey had said yesterday when he’d gone down to Scotland Yard to see him.
Poplar had always been Alec’s patch even as a uniformed constable and he was happy to be able to slide back into an area he already knew. It was a distance from his house out at Hampstead, but it was interesting, necessary work that included the docks and some poor areas he considered in more urgent need of policing than the richer areas to the west of the City of London. He’d been offered a choice between his old station at Wapping and a new start somewhere further west. Of course, he’d chosen Wapping. Being handed a promotion as well was a pleasant and unexpected surprise.
“No hurry to move out just now,” he said to Grant. “There’s plenty of space for me to settle in around you whilst you shuffle paper. Have you been here long? You weren’t here before the war, were you? I don’t remember you.”
“No, I got a Blighty in ‘15 and came back here after I got on my feet again. After a fashion. I was only just out of uniform, over in Holborn when I joined up, but they needed the men and I was it, so Detective Sergeant Grant it was.” He grimaced ruefully. “We’ve been doing a lot of learning on the job, but we’ve managed. A bigger team is a huge relief. And a boss here on site.” He coughed apologetically, hand over his mouth. “And someone who can run a hundred yards without expiring.” Alec raised a questioning eyebrow.
“Belgian front,” Grant replied, with economy.
“Ah.” That had been bad. Alec had seen the results of several gas attacks himself and it would go with him to the grave. It was only too easy to imagine what Grant had gone through both during and after the event. That poet fellow, Owen, had had it down to a tee.
Alec had come across a pamphlet of poems one day a
week or two ago, kicking round Bloomsbury waiting for the Met to get back in touch with him. Graphic stuff that had made him even more grateful it was all over. He considered of mentioning it to Grant and then thought better of it. He didn’t want to get off on the wrong foot with the man. If he was as competent as he was pleasant, there was the makings of a good team here.
Chapter 2: The Beginning, 1919
He was cold. And it was dark. Damp, cold air pulling in and out of his lungs. He was lying down, crumpled against cold, wet concrete or brick. He struggled to open his eyes as he pressed himself back against the wall, driven by a terror he couldn’t place as something loomed over him and pushed past. His head was fuzzy, banging with pain, and his body felt like one enormous bruise.
Fear finally drove him to get his eyes open and he relaxed a fraction when he saw he was alone in a small alley, lit only by the hazy glare of a street lamp at the junction with a larger street. He tipped his head back in relief and took a moment to orient himself in the relative safety.
He was unharmed, although his head was pounding and his entire body ached like he had run a marathon or been beaten. But he had no memory of either of those things happening. Bile rose in his throat and he barely had time to fall forward on his hands and knees before he vomited, disgustingly and comprehensively until dry heaves were all he had left.
He rested for a moment, head hanging, the drizzle spattering over him, before he gathered the strength to push himself back against the wall.
What had happened? His mind was a blank. He shuddered.
His name was Lew. What was he doing here? How had he got here? His breathing started to reflect his panicky state of mind and he automatically began counting his in-breath, holdbreath, out-breath before he was even conscious of it.
So, his name was Lew, and he knew how to handle himself when he started a panic attack.
Good. That was good. Useful. Because it seemed like a good skill to have at this particular moment in time.
Time. Time…she’d moved through time. That didn’t make sense. Who’d moved through time? He focused on his breathing again, quietly letting the misty rain settle on his upturned, aching face, trying to pack the panic down deep inside.
There wasn’t anything he could get a grip on. Every time
he reached out to a foggy picture in his head, it moved further away. Memory was slippery and twisted, like silk rope, looping round and leading nowhere.
Finally, the buzzing in his head subsided enough for him to clamber to his feet—with the support of the wall at his back— and after catching his breath, he thought to check his pockets.
Wallet, cards, money. Phone. He switched it on whilst he went through the wallet.
Driving license—Lewis Rogers, twenty-six years old, place of residence London, England. Qualified to drive any category vehicle up to a 7.5-ton truck. A debit card for Barclays. No credit cards. The driving license and a dog-eared organ donor card agreed his next of kin was Mrs. P. Rogers of Brighton, relationship—Mother.
In his jeans pocket was four pounds and twenty-seven pence in small change; and in his wallet, fifty quid in two twenties and a tenner, that looked as if they’d come straight out of the cash-point.
That triggered a little flurry of memory. He’d got it out on his way home, as it was getting dark, from the cash-point on the corner of Garter Row. There was a Tesco Metro there and he’d got out sixty quid and spent some of it on a loaf of bread and some milk. The face of the check-out girl came back to him, her dark hair winging across her eyes as she smiled and handed him his change. He’d shoved it in his pocket, along with the receipt.
His phone had booted and he checked it. No signal.
It was still drizzling, the kind of fine cloud of almost-mist that drenched through clothes in no time.
He drew a breath and started to scroll down his list of contacts—splinters and flashes of memory coming back to him as he did so. Regan, a tall blond with a curling Celtic tattoo over his right bicep. Mark, a laughing face in a pub somewhere, after rugby. Katie, a tiny frame, hands dancing as she waved them to illustrate her point. Mira, green eyes and a red dress, a low singing voice crooning an old song…
…and with a thump, the weight of memory hit him, like a sock full of sand to the back of his head.
It left him gasping and near to vomiting again, desperately sorting through the shattered splinters of imagery falling into place.
A coherent picture began to emerge as he forced his breath in and out, in and out.
The Border. Capital T. Capital B.
Another chunk of memory fell into place. The Border was a tool he used and a threat he managed. The memory made his entire skin twitch and his hands tingle.
He had been working The Border, he was sure. Looking for what?
Mira. He had been looking for Mira. The mental image of the girl with green eyes and sleek bob popped up again. Mira was lost in the Shadowlands—something had gone wrong while she was Pulling the stuff of The Border to her will. She shouldn’t have been doing it.
The Border was power, contained in a matrix no one he had ever spoken to even pretended to understand—they knew it was power, it was danger, it could be worked with; and it should not be misused for your own ends because there was no knowing what would happen. It could quickly leap out of your control, perhaps for its own purpose, perhaps manipulated by those who lived on the other side.
They didn’t know enough about it to do, safely, more than Pull a little of the stuff of it to repair where it seemed to be thinning and to use it for small Workings to make life a little easier.
And Mira had wanted more. She had found…His memory stuttered again, too much too soon…a book…a book of rituals? A book of spells? His mind revolted against the description, but that was what she’d called it. She hadn’t shown it to him, although he’d seen a few pages of it open on her table after he had broken into her flat to search for her; and he had tried to mimic what she had seemed to have done with it.
She had told him she knew how to use the spells inside it. He’d laughed at her words. His father, the person who had taught him what little he knew, would have scoffed at the word ‘spell.’ He had talked of Pulling and Working. Mira though…She wanted to manipulate the tangible fabric Lew had dedicated his entire existence to balancing, to smoothing, blocking the holes and gaps that appeared. She wanted to use it for her own ends.
Lew had told her to be careful. That his experience, and that of the people who had taught him, had made him fear the consequences of trying to take a lot of power for oneself and form it to one’s own will. But Mira was confident she could handle it. She had wanted the new job so badly she simply hadn’t listened.
Lew had had to break down her door to get in. He had felt the Pull of her Working from his flat a couple of miles away—it had been so visceral, so strong. He’d rushed to her flat as soon as he could, but she was gone. The candles had still been burning. The book was open at a handwritten page; instructions for getting the job or work you wanted.
He had no idea what had happened then. His memory told him he had put all possible wards and guards in place before he undertook his search for her a fortnight later; and he had blocked all the loopholes he could think of that might open up and allow anything to ooze through from behind The Border. He had made his ritual as concise and tightly formed as he possibly could, to give less chance of errors. So, where the hell was he?
* * * *
There was no one else about—the alley was deserted. He made his way slowly toward the entrance and realized he was near the river, probably downstream a bit, where there were still warehouses. That explained why it was so quiet. He put it to his back and started walking toward what he assumed was the north. He could pick up a cab and get home then, and work out what had happened. His Working must have fritzed out somehow—unsurprising given what he’d been trying to do.
The streetlights were out and the clouds and drizzle made it even darker. So much so he didn’t see the two men until they stepped out in front of him. He went to move around them, sluggishly, but they were too quick, grabbing him by his arms and slamming him in to the wall. He fought back in a desultory fashion, but he was still too dizzy to defend himself properly. They took his wallet and left him gasping on the ground again with a final punch to the solar plexus. He still had his phone though, that was something. If only he could get signal. He checked again. Not even a bar to call 999.
Finally there were streetlights and one or two people passed him, giving him a wide berth—he probably had a black eye by now and he knew he was limping. Nowhere looked familiar. He kept walking north-east, toward what should be the center of town.
It was all unfamiliar. A couple of vintage cars passed him. Was there a rally or something going on? He didn’t remember seeing anything advertised. Everyone was well bundled up against the rain, heads down, hurrying to get home or to work. He realized it was starting to get light—dawn was breaking. Shouldn’t it be busier? It wasn’t even a Sunday for it to be this quiet.
Finally, he hit an open newsagent and fumbled in his pocket for some change. Perhaps they’d let him use their phone and he could ring for a cab. As he was standing outside, his eye caught the stack of papers for sale. The headline screamed “Mrs. Astor elected as MP” in large letters. The date at the top read “29 November 1919.”
Slowly, he put his change back in his pocket and stepped back a little. He put his shoulder to the damp wall and breathed quietly, taking in his surroundings in a way he hadn’t before.
The clothes. The cars. The horses. The hats. The hats gave it away. Everyone had a hat. Caps, tall homburgs, the occasional bowler. All the women with different headgear. The hemlines. The boots. Everyone had boots on.
He was starting to attract attention. He felt sick. He stumbled down another side alley and crouched in a deserted doorway and tried to gather his thoughts.
He was sure he was in London. The one or two voices he had heard, muted by the rain, gave it away if nothing else, but he hadn’t yet placed where he was. He put aside how this had happened, he needed to work out how to deal with the consequences. No wonder his phone couldn’t get signal. He got it out of his pocket and turned it off. No point.
His inventory was lacking. Phone. A few coins. The clothes on his back. Nothing else. What the hell was he going to do?
* * * *
In the end, he walked and walked. Getting out of the city seemed like a good idea, rather than being picked up as a vagrant. Sleeping rough and stealing food from bins was a bad way to live. He stole an overcoat from a man in a café. It had had a few coins in the pocket and he was able to afford a bit of food.
He put aside the thought he was now a thief.
His vague idea he would be safer if he got himself out of London and found somewhere to hide, away from people, led him to Harlow, following the main road east out of the city.
Going over the bridge at Harlow he came head to head with a bloke on a motorbike, going too fast around the sharp corner. The biker braked hard and slid sideways on the icy road. The man went headlong into the river, head and neck already at an odd angle from the way he’d hit the road under the fallen machine.
Lew ended up tangled under the bike too. He lay there in a distressed heap, legs trapped, feeling the exhaust burning against his calf. Panting and struggling he failed to push it off him.
* * * *
His memory was jumbled, like a dream. He could remember being tangled with the bike, in the ditch. He was muzzy, couldn’t remember how he got there—a recurring theme in his recent life, he thought ruefully. The bike’s engine had cut out, which was a relief; but it was on top of his leg, which was painful. Then his memories came back with a thud.
He was stuck in 1919 and it was raining. It seemed to always be raining in 1919. He remembered it wasn’t his bike he was stuck under; and then there was a man shouting at him from the road, which seemed odd, as earlier there was only him and the biker; and he was fairly sure, from the way the biker had been hurling toward the water, there would be no shouting from him.
He’d jumped into the ditch to avoid the bike. Good. That made sense of his immediate situation, if not the shouting man.
He could smell petrol, which wasn’t all that great.
The shouting stopped after a while, which was nice. Then the bike was moved, which was initially excruciatingly painful, but much better once it was no longer pressing into his knee.
Then unstoppable hands were patting him down and pulling him to his feet, a relentless shoulder was pushed under his arm, and he was hauled without ceremony up to the road again.
“What happened, did you take the corner too fast?
Coming up there to the bridge is a bit sharp.”
He didn’t answer, fighting to catch his breath against the pain in his leg, and his good Samaritan continued, “No, no, don’t try to talk. We’ve got you. Not a good night to be out in it, at all. On your way back home?” There was a pause for breath and then, “Good grief, man, let’s have a look at that leg.”
Then there were more flashes of memory; the recollection of being pulled into a car and a woman’s voice saying, “That’s it, Mac, he’s in. I’m worried about his leg, let’s get him to Grimes’s and then worry about his ‘cycle. We can send Grimes’s man back for it.”
And the man saying, “Mind his head, he’s smashed it properly.”
Then it all went mercifully dark for a bit.
His next clear recollection was of an old-fashioned doctor’s surgery, where he seemed to be lying on a leather couch. An older man with impressive side-whiskers was bent over his leg. The trousers that had covered the leg had disappeared.
Disturbing, but he passed out again before he could query it.