Mind the Gap Page 1

Author: Christopher Golden

Series: Hidden Cities #1

Genres: Fantasy

Chapter One

little birds

Even before she saw the house, Jazz knew that something was wrong. She could smell it in the air, see it in the shifting shadows of the trees lining the street, hear it in the expectant silence. She could feel it in her bones.

Dread gave her pause, and for a moment she stood and listened to the stillness. She wanted to run, but she told her-self not to be hasty, that her mother had long since hardwired her for paranoia and so her instincts should be trusted.

She hurried along a narrow, overgrown alleyway that emerged into a lane behind the row of terraced town houses. Not many people came this way, out beyond the gardens, and she was confident that she could move closer to home without being seen.

But seen by whom?

Her mother's voice rang through her head: Always assume there's someone after you until you prove there isn't. Maybe everyone had that cautionary voice in the back of their mind; their conscience, their Jiminy Cricket. For Jazz, it always sounded like her mother.

She walked along the path, carefully and slowly, avoiding piles of dog shit and the glistening shards of used needles. Every thirty seconds she paused and listened. The dreadful si-lence had passed and the sounds of normalcy seemed to fill the air again. Mothers shouted at misbehaving children, ba-bies hollered, doors slammed, dogs barked, and TVs blared inanely into the spaces between. She let out a breath she hadn't been aware of holding. Maybe the heat and grime of the city had gotten to her more than usual today.

Trust your instincts, her mother would say.

"Yeah, right." Jazz crept along until she reached her home's back gate, then paused to take stock once more. The normal sounds and smells were still there, but, beyond the gate, the weighted silence remained. The windows were dark and the air felt thick, the way it did before a storm. It was as if her house was surrounded by a bubble of stillness, and that in itself was disquieting. Perhaps she's just asleep, Jazz thought. But, more unnerved than ever, she knew she should take no chances.

She backed along the alley for a dozen steps and waited outside her neighbor's gate. She peered through a knothole in the wood, scoping the garden. The house seemed to be silent and abandoned, but not in the same ominous fashion as her own. Birds still sang in this garden. She knew that Mr. Barker lived alone, that he went to work early and re-turned late every day. So unless his cleaners were in, his house would be deserted.

"Good," Jazz whispered. "It'll turn out to be nothing, but..." But at least it'll relieve the boredom.. To and from school, day in, day out, few real friends, and her mother constantly on edge even though the Uncles made sure they never had any financial worries. No worries at all, the Uncles always said___ Yeah, it'd turn out to be nothing, but better to be careful. If she ever told her mother she'd had some kind of dreadful intuition, even in the slightest, and had ignored it, the woman would be furious. Her mother trusted no one, and even though Jazz couldn't help but follow her in those beliefs, still she sometimes hated it. She wanted a life. She wanted friends.

She opened Mr. Barker's gate. The wall between their gardens was too high to see over, and from the back of his garden she could see only two upstairs windows in her house —her own bedroom window and the bathroom next to it. She looked up for a few seconds, then brashly walked the length of the garden to Barker's back door.

Nobody shouted, nobody came after her. The neigh-borhood noise continued. But to her left, over the wall, that deathly silence persisted.

Something is wrong, she thought.

Mr. Barker's back door was sensibly locked. Jazz closed her eyes and turned the handle a couple of times, gauging the pressure and resistance. She nodded in satisfaction; she should be able to pick it.

Taking a small pocketknife from her jeans, she opened the finest blade, slipped it into the lock, and felt around.

A bird called close by, startling her. She glanced up at the wall and saw a robin sitting on its top, barely ten feet away. Its head jerked this way and that, and it sang again.

Above the robin, past the wall, a shape was leaning from Jazz's bedroom window.

She froze. It was difficult to make out any details, silhou-etted as the shape was against the sky, but when it turned, she saw the outline of a ponytail, the sharp corner of a shirt collar.

It was the Uncle who told her to call him Mort.

She never bothered with their names. To her they were just the Uncles, the name her mother had been using ever since Jazz could remember. They came to visit regularly, sometimes in pairs or threes, sometimes on their own. They would ask her mother how things were, whether she needed anything or if she'd "had any thoughts." They never ac-cepted a drink or the offer of food, but they always left behind an envelope containing a sheaf of used ten- and twenty-pound notes.

They told Jazz that she never had to worry about any-thing, which only worried her more. When they left, her mother would slide the envelope into a drawer as though it was dirty.

But what was this one doing in her bedroom? Whatever his purpose, Jazz didn't like it. They had never, ever come into her room when she was at home, and her mother as-sured her that they did not snoop around when she was out. They were perfect gentlemen. Like gangsters, Jazz had said once, and we're their molls. Her mother had smiled but did not respond.

The Uncle turned his head, scanning the gardens and alleyway.

He'll see me. If the robin calls again and he looks down to lo-cate it, he'll see me pressed here against Mr. Barker's back door.

The bird hopped along the head of the wall, pausing to peck at an insect or two. Jazz worked at the lock without looking, waiting for the feel of the tumblers snicking into place. One... two... three... two to go, and the last two were always the hardest.

The Uncle moved to withdraw back into the room, and Jazz let go of her breath in a sigh of relief.

The robin chirped, singing along with the chaotic London buzz of traffic and shouts.

The Uncle leaned from the window again just as Jazz felt the lock disengage. She turned the handle and pushed her way in behind the opening door, never looking away from the shadow of the man at her bedroom window.

He didn't see me, she thought. She left the door open; he'd be more likely to see the movement of it closing than to notice it was open.

The robin fluttered away.

Jazz did not wait to question what was happening, or why. She hurried through Mr. Barker's house, careful not to knock into any furniture, cautious as she opened or closed doors. She didn't want to make the slightest sound.

In his living room, she moved to the front window. The wooden Venetian blinds were closed, but, pressing her face to the wall, she could see past their edge. Out in the street, she saw just what she had feared.

Two large black cars were parked outside her house. Beamers.

Jazz's heart was thumping, her skin tingling. Something's happened. Rarely had more than three Uncles visited at once; and now there were two cars here, parked prominently in the street with windows still open and engines running, as if daring anyone to approach. They're a law unto themselves, her mother sometimes said.

Her mum had rarely said anything outright against the Uncles, but she never needed to. Her unease was there on her face for her daughter to see. But Jazz could not just sit here and spy on her own house, wondering what had gone wrong.

She and her mum had talked many times about fleeing the house if trouble ever came to the door.

They'd made plans, created a virtual map in their minds, and once or twice they'd pursued the escape route, just to make sure it could really work.

All Jazz had to do now was reverse it.

****

She found Mr. Barker's attic hatch in one of his back bed-rooms. This was a cold, sterile room with white walls, bare timber floors, and only an old rattan chair as furniture. She lifted the chair instead of dragging it, positioning it beneath the hatch, then stood carefully on its arms and pushed the hatch open. It tipped to the side and thumped onto the tim-ber joists.

Jazz cringed and held her breath. It had been a soft im-pact, muffled in the attic. Unlikely it would travel through to her house; these places were solid.

Got to be more careful than that.

Fingers gripping the edge of the square hole in the ceil-ing, she pushed off the chair, trying to get her elbows over the lip of the hatch. The chair rocked, tipping onto two legs and then back again with another soft thud. She let her torso and legs dangle there for a while, preparing to haul herself up and in. Jazz was fitter than most girls her age —others were more interested in boys, drinking, and sex than in keeping themselves fit and healthy —but she also knew that she could easily hurt herself. One torn muscle and...

And what? I won't be able to run? She couldn't shake the sense of foreboding. The sun shone outside, a beautiful summer afternoon. But gray winter seemed to be closing in.

She lifted herself up into the darkness, sitting on the hatch's edge and resting for a moment.

Listening. Looking for light from elsewhere. She still had no idea what had hap-pened. If the Uncles were waiting for her to come home, perhaps they'd also be checking her house. And that could mean the attic too.

When her eyes had become accustomed to the darkness, she set off on hands and knees. Mr.

Barker's attic had floor-boards, so the going was relatively easy. The old bachelor didn't have much stuff to store, it seemed; there were a cou-ple of taped-up boxes tucked into one corner and an open box of books slowly swelling with damp. Mustiness perme-ated the attic, and she wondered why he'd shoved the box up here. She hadn't seen a bookcase anywhere downstairs. There were rumors that Mr. Barker's wife had left him ten years ago, so perhaps these books held too many ghosts for him to live with.

At the wall dividing Barker's property from hers, Jazz crawled into the narrowing gap between floor and sloping roof. Right at the eaves, just where her mother said it would be, was a gap where a dozen blocks had been removed. Lazy builders, she'd said when Jazz had asked. But Jazz found it easy to imagine her mother up here with a chisel and ham-mer, while she was in school and Mr. Barker was at work.

She wriggled through the hole into her own attic. There were no floorboards here, and she had to move carefully from joist to joist. One slip and her foot or knee would break through the plasterboard ceiling into the house below. She guessed she was right above her bedroom.

A wooden beam creaked beneath her and she froze, cursing her clumsiness. She should have listened first, tried to figure out whether the Uncle was still in there. Too late now. She lowered her head, turned so that her ear pressed against the itching fiber-wool insulation, and held her breath.

Voices. Two men were talking, but she could barely hear their mumbled tones. She was pretty sure their voices did not come from directly below. Her room, she thought, was empty —for now.

There were two hatches that led down from the attic into the town house. One was above the landing, visible to anyone in the upstairs corridor or anyone looking up the stairs from below. And then there was the second, just to her right, which her mother had installed in Jazz's bedroom. Emergency escape, she'd said, smiling, when Jazz had asked what she was doing.

Everything you told me was right, Jazz thought. She felt tears threatening but couldn't go to that place yet. Not here, and not now.

She crawled to the hatch, feeling her way through the darkness. When she touched its bare wood and felt the han-dle, she paused for a minute, listening. She could still hear muffled voices, but they seemed to come from farther away than her bedroom.

Jazz closed her eyes and concentrated. Sometimes she could sense whether someone else was close. Most people called it a sixth sense, though usually it was a combination of the other five. With her, sometimes, it was different.

She frowned, opened her eyes, and grasped the handle.

Maybe there was an Uncle standing directly below her. Maybe not. There was only one way to find out.

Jazz lifted the hatch quickly and squinted against the sudden light. She leaned over the hole and found her room empty.

Good start, she thought. Everything her mother had said to her, everything she had been taught, shouted at her to flee. But there was something going on here that she had to understand before she could bring herself to run.

Jazz lowered herself from the hatch into her room, land-ing lightly on the tips of her toes, knees bending to absorb the impact. She remained in that pose, looking around her room and listening for movement from outside.

Her drawers had been opened, her bookcase upset, and clothes were strewn across the floor. The cover of her jour-nal lay loose and torn on her bed like a gutted bird.

Mum! she thought. And for the first time, the fear came in hard. The Uncles had always protected and helped them, even if her mother had little respect for them. But now they seemed dangerous. It was as if their surface veneer had been stripped away and her perception of them was becoming clear at last.

She glanced back up at the ceiling hatch, close enough to her desk that it would be easy to jump up and disappear again.

The voices startled her. There were two of them,*seeming to come from directly outside her door.

She slid beside her bed and lay there listening, expecting Mort to enter her room at any second. He would not see her straightaway, but he would see the open hatch. And then they'd have her.

"We could be waiting here forever," one voice said. Mort.

"We won't. She'll be home soon." This other voice was female.

The only time a woman had ever accompanied the Uncles was the day after their house had been broken into years before. Jazz had been young, but she could still re-member some details about that day.

The woman had tried to soothe and comfort her mother, while all around them the Uncles had been busy packing their belongings. By early evening they were in a brand-new house: this one. And the woman —whose voice was cold and uncaring, even then— had called herself Josephine Blackwood.

"What if she isn't? What do we do then?"

"We stay calm and proceed," the woman said. The same voice; the same coldness. "She's just one girl."

"She's more than that," Mort said.

"Shush! Never in public! Never outside!"

The Uncle sighed. "So, is she definitely... ?" He trailed off, as though there was something he did not want to say.

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