Tightrope Walker

An excerpt from my novel “Tightrope Walker” …

‘Hello, miss Rue.’

This was really something. Hetta had seen people thrust their heads into rubbish bins to avoid their eyes meeting hers, and this person had just spoken to her.

‘Oh, er … hello?’ said Hetta, as if she had forgotten what a proper greeting between two civilised people actually sounded like.

The man was indeed quite short, a fully grown watermelon shorter than her; and Hetta wasn’t considered that tall for her age either. He had upon his shoulders a deeply plum coloured jacket that was fastened with little silver buttons in the shape of some sort of creature that looked a little bit like a bird. Just showing underneath this jacket was a blood red waistcoat, it too festooned with similar bird-like buttons, except these ones were gold. His trousers were deathly black and his shoes the same, although more polished than his trousers. His hat was quite tall and had in fact fooled Hetta, as without it he would certainly be even shorter. His face was bristly and cunning and lined.

‘Are you a gnome?’ said Hetta, not rudely but as a question of general clarification. There were said to be an ancient race of tunnel dwelling gnomes living underneath the city, but Hetta had never seen one.

‘My mother says I’m just small for my age.’

‘And how old are you?’

‘Fifty three.’

‘Oh.’

Hetta looked around a little awkwardly, expecting the man to now run away.

‘I come to you here today on behalf of my employer, miss Rue.’

‘And you’re not scared of me?’ said Hetta, still at a loss as to the origins of her newfound friend.

‘Is that what you would suppose of all of those that would look upon you, miss Rue?’ he asked.

‘Uh … I suppose not … really.’

‘Very well, miss. As I was saying, I have been sent to deliver to you a message, dictated but not written, from my employer,’ the man went on, a carelessness in his words. He didn’t sound pushy, but his manner was clearly designed to get the point across, no matter what.

Hetta’s father had told her stories about lone sharks, animals that roamed around on their own in the sea on some other sea creature’s behalf, collecting things the animal they were working for didn’t necessarily want to get themselves, things that the animals they were trying to get it from didn’t normally want to give up. Hetta had never been to the seaside, but she was pretty sure that sharks couldn’t walk on land. Or for that matter, talk either. Hetta peered back at the short man, and then though to herself that if sharks did walk around on the land, this is what they would probably look like.

‘Miss?’

‘Oh, yes – you were saying?’

‘I work for a gentleman by the name of Threadbare Quickly,’ said the man, then pausing in a theatrical kind of way, peering back at Hetta with his own kind of emphasis, as if the mere mention of such a name should inspire a reaction worthy of such a pause so as to give all those present time to gather their wits before continuing on with their lives.

The name meant nothing to Hetta.

‘Yes?’ she said, eyebrows wandering towards their kin on the top of Hetta’s head. The little man looked a shade perturbed, but only for a moment. He gathered himself again by way of a pronounced ruffling of his waistcoat.

‘Mr Quickly owns a number of interests in This’lldo, and has asked me to put forward a proposal to you.’

That was about as much as Hetta was prepared to hear.

She had begun to pick up an odorous note of burnt Oak Leaf and thirteen day old Beadle Juice wafting up from the little man’s person. It was the sort of smell that didn’t so much drift but elbowed its way up your nostrils when you were unfortunate enough to be walking down the back alleys and side streets of Tinsel Town (a smallish district located in the south eastern part of This’lldo).

Tinsel Town was a wonder to behold in the month of December, when the winter festivals were at their highest and most wonderful peak. Cheery lights and warming glows ebbed out from every orifice available during the month, and there was seldom a citizen of This’lldo not present at the 31 day long celebration for at least an afternoon or a cheeky lunch break. However, for the other eleven months of the year Tinsel Town was a haven for dodgy dealings, smugglers, penny-wheelers, swindlers and all manner of people of variously more exotic persuasions. And the worst of them all, those who worked for the council.

The distinctive smell, which lingered around in the early morning air like a fart in the fog, was a smell that could not be mistaken. Such things smelt of Trouble. And usually Trouble’s older sister Mayhem, as well as their younger brother Mischief too. Hetta had once met Trouble and his other siblings by chance encounter, and they were certainly a family that had a particular odour you never forgot.

Hetta turned to move on.

‘I must be heading off, I have … things to do,’ said she.

‘Oh, yes,’ said the man, and now his voice had changed. His tone had dropped to a hiss, his words seeming to slither across the ground before they slinked their way slowly into Hetta’s ears.

‘We all know what things you do, communicating with the dark powers, reaching out to those from beyond to fuel your strength – but don’t worry,’ tacked on the man, noticing a tightness in Hetta’s expression, ‘my employer values such great attributes, he is most interested in … fostering your skills.’ Hetta took a step back, her body doing its bit towards snapping her mind back into action.

‘I’m afraid you are going to have to tell Mr. Quiggly – ’

‘Quickly,’ corrected the little man.

‘Yes, him. You’ll have to say thank you very much for his … well, thank you, but I need to be going.’ Hetta then took a step sideways and did not look back. The short and well dressed man did not follow her.

‘What a weirdo,’ Hetta said to herself, her small but quickening steps eating up the cobblestones under her feet with ferocious pace. ‘And they say I’m strange.’ SH

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