Roland thumbed open his phone to check his email and scowled. There was nothing in the inbox that hadn’t been there the last five times he looked. He picked up his glass as the screen went black again. The whiskey swirled over his tongue. Roland gulped down the burn of the alcohol as he considered the situation. Three months he’d been in London, and he’d not heard a word yet from the Yard about his application.
The money wasn’t what concerned Roland. There were still months of safety net left in the account. The silence, however, made him wonder if he’d made some mistake in the identity he’d created. Maybe the world had already advanced too far for him to fabricate a new reality for himself. Roland took another sip and set the empty glass down on the wooden bar in front of him.
“Another?” The barman asked.
Nodding, Roland held up a single finger, then watched the amber liquid slowly fill the glass. The back of his neck prickled as he started to reach for it. Roland grabbed the phone instead, focusing his attention on the reflection of his face in the dark glass.
This feeling had lingered with him for months. Since his first week back in London he’d been plagued by the increasing certainty that someone was following him. Roland shifted the phone. The reflection of the small room showed dim and shadowy on the screen. He tilted the phone slightly to let himself see as much of the space around him as he could without making it too obvious.
The evening rush hadn’t yet begun. Only a few patrons filled the seats and once more Roland found himself baffled. He couldn’t recognize a single one. The sensation remained, sending unpleasant little thrills along his spine. Roland set the phone back down in front of him. He picked up the glass instead, swirling it once before he sipped.
No one had any reason to follow him. The tiny odd incidents that had plagued him for the last few months might have nothing to do with someone watching him presently. “But one an’ one dinna make three…”
“Beg your pardon?” The barman paused his wiping to stare at him.
Roland shook his head. “Dinna mind me. I’m thinkin’ aloud.”
A woman’s shrill scream cut through the soft hum of sound from outside. Whiskey splashed over his fingers as Roland slammed the glass down. He burst through the doors into the afternoon bustle of the London street, the barman just behind him. Several confused passersby loitered just outside. Pushing carefully through them, Roland scanned the crowd. Concern slowly faded into puzzlement. His heart still pounded in his ears with the echo of that terrified shriek, but he couldn’t see a damn thing to explain it.
Roland lingered moments after the rest of the onlookers moved off, frowning into the slowly sinking dusk. Nothing. He slapped his jacket pocket and then swore, pushing back inside. His phone rested on the bar just where he’d left it. The glass of whiskey, still half full, beside it.
The corner of a slip of paper showed, trapped between the black of his phone and the dark wood of the bar. And odd feeling of foreboding settled in Roland’s chest. He took the steps back across the room slowly, eyes drifting over the faces of the patrons in search of something that stood out. He found nothing unusual.
Roland cautiously lifted his phone. A single line of writing marred the paper, neatly written in black ink. Roland stared at the sweeping curls of the letters. Something about the way it was written struck him; the varying widths of the lines, the way the ink lightened in places. Who the hell still wrote with a quill?
The doorway to the truth is no longer the New Road. Be Not Afraid.
Roland flipped the paper over. The back of the scrap was blank, bare of anything that might have given him further insight into the meaning of the words. He shoved his phone into his pocket. The paper followed. Roland picked up the whiskey. He dropped a few pounds on the bar and gulped down the rest of his drink.
“Be seeing you.” The barman scooped up the money and the empty glass.
Roland nodded.The door thumped softly behind him. He swore under his breath as he took a look around him. The scream had to have been a trick, to draw everyone’s eyes away from his phone and whoever had left the riddle. He should be grateful they were finally doing more than staring. Instead, Roland wanted to hit someone. “The New bloody Road…”
The riddle repeated over and over in Roland’s head. He trudged the steps back to the cheap room he currently called home. The capitalized letters spelled nothing that made any kind of sense. As far as Roland could tell, the paper was a sheet of ordinary printer paper. The words had been written with a quill. He no longer knew any writing experts in London who might have told him more than that. An irritated huff of breath escaped him. He was looking too deep. The answer had to be in the words themselves.
Scowling, Roland twisted the key in the lock, giving it the extra little backwards half twist it took to hear the lock finally click and give. He wondered if this was the only hotel left in London that hadn’t switched to keycards. Weighing the metal in his hand, Roland shoved the door closed behind him. The cards were a sensible change, but thinking about them only served to make him feel older and further behind the times.
The last time he had been in London…
Roland’s eyes dropped to the key in his hand. For a moment he saw another key, heard the cheering and shouting that had filled the streets. The end of the second World War had been a hell of a change too.
“A change–.” His fingers slowly tightened on the metal. “Bollocks!” He shoved the key back into his pocket and yanked out the paper: …no longer the New Road. The New Road? “But there hasna been a New Road in London since…”
Not the last time. The time before the War? Right after India. “The 1850s?” Had there been a New Road then? Roland slumped onto the bed, wincing a little at the rather ominous creak of the worn frame under his weight.
There had been a New Road once, he thought, though damned if he could fish out that one memory among all the rest of them. That last sentence nagged at Roland’s thoughts too. Be Not Afraid. That reminded him of the bible. “Then the Angel said unto them, Be no’ afraid: for behold, I bring you glad tidings of great joy…” That wasn’t the only example, just the first that came to both mind and tongue. “Angels dinna ever seem to stop tellin’ people to be no’ afraid.”
Slapping the paper down beside him on the bed, Roland hastily tugged his phone out. The internet quickly confirmed that there had been a New Road in London. “The Angel said unto them…” There had been an Angel, he thought, an inn. Grinning, Roland entered another search, then another. “An’ that’s your damned riddle!”
The motorcycle dipped and wove in and out of London’s traffic far more easily than a car. Before long, Roland stood outside of the Angel pub watching the beginning of the evening crowd gather. He read the paper once more, suddenly doubting his own deduction. Even if it was the right place, how were they to know when he might show up? Sighing, Roland pushed inside. He could have a meal at the very least, see if there was anything of the familiar left about the place.
The interior was more modern than he’d expected, pleasant and bright. Roland could find nothing to explain the odd shiver he experienced, as though there was something hiding just at the edge of his senses. “I’ll have a pint of Guiness,” He began upon reaching the bar, then paused as a familiar sensation tugged at him.
Someone was watching him. Roland clenched his jaw, watching the dark liquid fill the glass. He waited until his hand had closed around the full glass the bartender gave him before he slowly turned. A man with dark auburn hair smiled at him from a booth near the wall. A cheerful wave of the hand beckoned Roland over.
The glass hit the table just a bit more forcefully than necessary as Roland slid into the booth. Pulling the slip of paper from his pocket, he set it beside the glass. His gaze lifted to meet the strange golden eyes of the man across from him.
To his surprise, the stranger simply smiled, easily and genuinely. “Sure and didn’t I know you’d be after findin’ me before the sun finished settin’.” His voice was a light and pleasant tenor, full of the easy lilt of a thick Irish brogue.
Roland exhaled slowly, fighting down his irritation. “Aye. I found you. Now do you mind tellin’ me who you are? An’ wha’ the bloody hell this is about?”
“That I will do. Especially since you were after makin’ such short work o’ this last little riddle. Sure and ’twas a grand clever one though, wasn’t it?” As though the man read his irritation he hastily added. “I’m Diarmid. Diarmid O’Meara. And you’re Roland MacKendrick.” He stuck out a hand.
Roland stared at the hand for a moment before slowly tugging his from around his glass to take it. “I willna ask how you ken that.” He said as he shook it.
Diarmid’s fingers were lean and almost delicate in appearance, but their grip was deceptively strong. “I’d be just a little disappointed if you did. Now you’re after wonderin’ who is this Diarmid and what does he want with the likes o’ me?”
“Aye. I verra much am.” Roland picked up the glass again as soon as Diarmid had released his hand. He gulped down a swallow along with his rising urge to shake the smug look off of the man’s face.
“Well, sure and a little bird told me you were lookin’ for a job with the Yard.” Diarmid said, then paused, looking around them.
Roland followed the look, frowning as he noticed a few faces turned their way. The soft sound of Diarmid’s fingers tapping the table top reached his ears. Roland swallowed as he watched several pairs of eyes blink and then turn abruptly away. The low murmur of the pub suddenly seemed far softer in his ears.
“Wha’ th’ bloody hell was that?”
“I’ll be after explainin’ that and everything else once we’ve got this all neatly settled between us.” Diarmid said. “Now ’tis true the Yard is a grand fine ambition an’ all, but I think we’ve a job far better suited for a man o’ your unique talents here, Roland MacKendrick.”
Roland’s free hand slowly curled into a fist against his thigh. “Oh, aye? An’ what might that be?” He asked. “I dinna much ken what special talents you mean.”
“Sure and ’tis much the same you’d do for Scotland Yard. Only there’s a wee bit more to it.” Diarmid slid another paper onto the table. Only the edges of the business card showed beneath his fingers for the moment.
“Aye? An’ that might be?”
“Well as your man Shakespeare was fond o’ sayin’ ‘There are more things in heaven and earth…'” Diarmid slid the card toward him, then lifted his fingers away.
Roland sucked in half a breath before he thought to school his features back into calm. Three letters graced the center of the card, worked into a stylish sort of business logo. OIB. But it was the small crest in the corner, almost an afterthought, that had drawn his own attention. He stared at it, trying to ignore the chill that crept the length of his spine. The Latin around the border was subtly different, but Roland had served under a similar seal once, longer ago than he cared to contemplate. The hairs at his nape rose.
Roland picked up the card, covering the offending cross seal with his thumb. “An’ what is the…” He frowned at the words beneath the logo that his initial shock had made him miss. “Occult Investigation Bureau?”
If Diarmid had noticed his reaction to the crest, no sign of it showed in his face. He smiled. “Sure and ’tis a grand thing, our Bureau. But before I tell you too much I’ll need to be after knowin’ if you want the job. Pay’s better than the Yard and so are the benefits. I won’t pretend the work’s safe but it’s not safe work you’re after, is it?”
“No,” Roland said. “I am no’ chasin’ danger, but I willna shy from it either. I want…important work. Protectin’ people. Makin’ a wee bit of difference.”
Diarmid’s smile didn’t change, but something in his golden eyes altered somehow, warmed. “You’re a fine fellow, Roland MacKendrick. Sure and I can promise you, you’ll make more difference here in a year than you would in ten at the Yard.”
“Oh, aye? You can promise that?”
“I can. We’re needin’ a new man or two in London and sure you’re the best fellow I can imagine for the job. Now, will you shake with me on it?”
“Shake? Are there no’ a great sheaf of papers to sign?” Roland frowned.
“Oh sure and there are. Contracts and the like. All legal as you please. But sure, I’ll settle for a handshake to start.”
Roland started to extend his hand then paused, frowning. “My application didna ever make it to the Yard, did it?”
Diarmid reached out to catch his hand in that deceptively strong grip, grinning. “Oh it did, but sure and our lovely little bird skimmed it right off the top for us, she did.”
Roland let the man shake his hand, wondering just what he’d managed to get himself into. “An’ if I’d said no? I dinna suppose…”
Diarmid nodded. “Tis a fine thing how lost things turn up, isn’t it? All th’ same I’m glad you didn’t. Now, drink up. There’s a few things I’ll be after wantin’ to show you.”
“You still didna tell me just what it is exactly tha’ we do.”
“‘Tis just as it’s sayin’ in the finer print. We investigate the Occult. The things that go bump in the night, and the things that are after bein’ far more dangerous because you don’t have a bump to hear them comin’.”
“Ghosts?” Roland gulped down half his glass and wished he’d ordered something stronger.
Diarmid shrugged. “Maybe some. But sure and we’re after much more solid things most times. ‘Tis dangerous work, like I was sayin’. But you’ll be grand at it.”
“Aye?” He stared at Diarmid for a moment. The man had to be crazy. The soft hum of sound around them was still strangely muffled, as though some invisible wall sat between them and the rest of the patrons. Roland took another sip of drink and turned to watch a man’s eyes slide over the two of them as though they weren’t there at all. He suddenly wondered if maybe they weren’t. “There isna any such thing as magic.”
Diarmid let out a small sound that might well have been a snort. “No? Are you not a fine upright man o’ the Church, Roland MacKendrick? Sure an’ I’ve seen you go into the Mass every Sunday and again now and then for confession, haven’t I? Are you goin’ to tell me that a good Catholic man doesn’t believe in miracles?”
“Aye. I believe in miracles. That doesna have a single bloody thing to do wi’ magic!”
“Doesn’t it? Sure and isn’t a miracle a kind o’ magic?” Something shone in Diarmid’s golden eyes for a moment that made Roland look away, unsettled.
“It isna the same thing at all.” He gulped down the rest of the beer. “Now, show me what you’re going to show me.”
“Suit yourself.” Diarmid said. “‘Tis a wee trick o’ the mind then is all. An’ what I’ll be showin’ you is only more o’ the same if you like.” He stood up. “Now, I don’t think a man like you will be after havin’ much trouble if you follow close to my heels. And once we get you your badge it’ll be as easy as a duck to water. But this one time? Let me lead you.” He stood and came around the table to offer a hand.
Roland frowned as took the offered hand. Diarmid tugged him to his feet. The irishman didn’t relinquish his hold afterwards. His narrow fingers gripped just tight enough that pulling away would have been a struggle. Roland was left with no choice but to follow.
They wove through the room. Diarmid led him in a careful dance between patrons who eased out of the way without ever seeming to notice either of them. Eyes slid over them and failed to linger. Roland’s unease grew, yet underneath that sensation was an odd fluttering in his chest, like excitement.
As they neared the back of the pub something changed. Roland blinked, certain his eyes were playing tricks on him. Between the door to the kitchens and the washrooms a section of the wall flickered and melted away. Diarmid guided him unhesitatingly into a narrow hallway that hadn’t existed moments before.
The simple doorway at the end of the hall surprised Roland. He could see cobbled street and close packed buildings beyond it. There was nothing so terribly strange about the scene ahead, yet the whole situation was decidedly not his normal. This was by far the most unusual of all the odd things these last months; keys turning up places he hadn’t left them, sounds that didn’t belong, and the constant prickling of watchful eyes.
Diarmid stepped through the doorway. Roland took a deep breath and followed him through. He expected something to happen, some mark of passage, such as the air to catch him like a cobweb across the face. The cobbles were solid under his feet and no such thing had happened. The doorway was simply that, a doorway. Roland glanced over his shoulder at the stone back wall of the pub. The narrow hallway yawned within the door, leading back to light and familiarity.
Roland frowned at the alley ahead. He was fairly certain this was not what Maps had told him was behind the Angel. “Where is it you’re taking me?”
Diarmid turned to smile at him. “I thought I’d be after givin’ you a little tour o’ the office is all, before we get to that pile o’ paperwork.”
Roland squared his shoulders. “Aye, alright then.” He tugged against Diarmid’s hold. The man released him.
“Just be stayin’ close now. ‘Tis a bit of a labyrinth until you get used to it.”
Roland nodded and followed. Diarmid’s steps were too quick to let him get more than a vague sense of the place. The streets were narrow, the buildings close-packed. They overhung the street until just a sliver of darkening sky was visible overhead. Roland almost lost track of the turns trying to take everything in.
“And here we are.”
Roland stopped to stare. The building was an old one, sturdy stone and brick, the door of solid, heavy wood. A brass plate above the knocker bore the OIB logo, but it was the worn sign in the stone above the door that his eyes lingered on. A single too familiar cross and a circle of Latin around it that was not quite right: Sigilium Militum Solis.
Diarmid stepped inside, leaving the door ajar behind him. Roland stared at the cross a moment longer, then sighed. It was almost like coming home. He lifted a hand to cross himself before stepping inside.
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