Oliver Lovelock, dead man walking, struggled onwards on leaden legs. He walked home without pause, all through the night and the next day- until his body screamed from the exertion; over the rutted country roads, through tiny villages with their clusters of poor houses, and along the shaded edges of the withered cornfields. The farmers he saw all looked pinched with hunger, and their eyes seemed to stare from vast sockets. He walked, or rather wobbled, until his legs gave out, and then he just sat on the ground, dazed and exhausted.
Part of his brain was telling him that he had better keep moving, while the other part was telling him it didn't really matter. Unbuttoning his jacket and vest, he looked down at what was once a white shirt. It was saturated in sweat.
He felt a little light-headed, a little faint. He swallowed, blinked sluggishly several times and looked around, trying to get his bearings again and shake his growing disorientation. It was then he heard a strange sound, a distant rumble he couldn't quite put his finger on.
Oliver ignored it until his brain- drunk with fatigue, pieced together that the noise he could hear approaching was the growl of an automobile.
That finally did it. Pain or no pain, he was on his feet and scrabbling headlong into the bushes which lined the rural road.
A thought swam uneasily in his mind; perhaps he had been followed, screwing up his bloodshot eyes to peer through the leafy foliage that scraped his sleep deprived face.
None to his surprise, he saw four wheels. The vehicle in question was what looked to be a modified version of a coal wagon, sporting thick rubber tires and otherwise liberally outfitted with rusted automobile parts. It was black and grimy, with fragments of coal still rattling on its deck, suggesting the usual cargo. The huge engine that took up the majority of the wagon bed huffed and groaned as the makeshift vehicle puttered at a snail's gallop.
Oliver eyed the driver curiously. The seat was occupied by a sleepy-looking old man puffing lazily on the pipe perched between his lips.
Oliver let out a sigh of relief. Okay.. So maybe he wasn't followed he thought and emerged from the tangle of bushes. The old man blinked in bewilderment at Oliver."What in tarnation!" he exclaimed and plucked the pipe out of his mouth with sudden energy-"Wha' the 'eck are ya doin' in the bushes lad! Havin' a nap are we?", the creaking wagon slowed to a stop and hot steam and a burning smell buffeted against Oliver's face.
"I'd really appreciate a ride to Shrewbury, if it wouldn't be much a problem to you." Oliver said and brushed a stray leaf off his shoulder, at which the old man raised his bushy eyebrows and scoffed. "I've been walking real far to get home. You wouldn't believe."
The old man clamped the pipe between his teeth again. He went on puffing his pipe.
"Er... hello? ..."
A few more thoughtful puffs before the old man replied, "Nope."
"Jus' left Shrewbury m'laddo, an' I gotta' get me next shipment of coal from Chloride. Can't help yer' son, 'specially with me sick granddaughter relyin' on me an' all. Unless yer' got the coin to reimburse me for 'er medication!"
Digging deeply into both pockets, Oliver's chewed down fingernails scratched metal, he removed the object from his pocket and looked it over. He had stolen it. It was a two-pronged fork, a U-shaped bar of metal, like nothing he'd seen before. He ran his fingers along it's bumpy surface. It looked like two gnarled, bony fingers, joined at the bottom. They were long and scuffed, like the antlers of a massive buck, tipped with nails that ought to have been cut a long time ago. It was apparently some kind of key, valuable enough it was worth killing him for.
"Wha's that doodad?", asked the old man, squinting his eyes at Oliver.
"Nothing," Oliver said as he let the key slide back in his pocket. It felt heavy, its constant presence tormented him, like a ghost breathing down his neck. It served as a grim reminder, a lingering feeling of dread and unease in his stomach-physically weighing him down.
Pulling his empty pocket out with sad shakes he said, "bugger! But I don't have any money on me", and waved his sad inverted pocket again for good measure.
"Mrgh! Well then... I can't 'elp yer. 'Less you wanna' go Chloride. But I warn yer'... It's a right dump! An' be quick 'cause yer' wastin' time lad. I'm in a hurry!"
Oliver said,"no it's fine," waving his hand as if he were driving away the old man's sour breath instead of his bad news. "I understand." He sighed and shook his head.
"Bes' ya be careful though, I 'eard some kinda' trouble was on its nasty way to Shrewbury as I were jus' leavin'," he said, vaguely, with a puff on his pipe and raised a hand in half-hearted farewell as he released the brake lever, leaving Oliver stood really disappointed and a bit worried at the side of the road.
The country was a dirty place full of illness, poverty and a whole lot of despair, undergoing the radical process of change from an agrarian, handicraft economy to one dominated by industry and machine manufacture. The use of new basic materials, chiefly iron and steel, and the use of new energy sources, including both fuels and motive power, such as coal, the steam engine, electricity and petroleum. The country had rich natural resources in the form of coal and iron mines. Coal was a valuable source of energy to fuel machinery, and iron was used to make the machines that drove the revolution that would otherwise stall out.
Oliver popped his collar and up'd his pace down the trail until he came across a stream. He fell beside the river, collapsed to his knees and scooped up handfuls of icy water, sucking it greedily until the fire in his throat had eased. He splashed some over his face, then more over his neck, but he felt no better. What he needed was a nice hot bath, a big fat steak, and a large mug of tea. And not particularly in that order.
Oliver turned his gaze to the sky. The sun was just beginning to set as he neared the village. Its orange light cut diagonally through the trees to cast deep shadows on the woodland floor. When he looked off in the distance toward Shrewbury, the small village town he called home, Oliver noticed thick plumes of smoke rising up into the sky several hundred feet away. He didn't think that seemed right, so he awkwardly scrambled to stand, his feet slipping in the mud as he took off at a jog, a little anxious.
His breathing grew more and more strained as he refused to lessen his pace. The wide column of smoke climbed high over the rolling fells that hid the town from him, but he knew from the sheer volume of it that a house was on fire. He ran through clearings and danced nimbly around briar patches until he hit the well-worn path that led into Shrewbury. Already short of breath from walking, he now panted and gasped for air as he pushed up to the top of the hill. The pipe-smoking old man had warned him of trouble. The sky was darkening now. Perhaps someone was just burning spoiled crops behind a barn. But it was not so, and Oliver knew it. Something was burning out of control.
Whilst he climbed the slope toward the sombre village, he grew more and more anxious and impatient to discover the source and ease his paranoid concern. At the summit, as the white walls and grey slate roofs of the houses came into view, Oliver watched with growing dread.
The dirt path gave way to cobblestone streets as Oliver entered the town.
Oliver had lived his entire life in the small village. He had never married, never gone on recreational holidays- other than work-related travel, and had no friends to speak of... unless you counted his two-legged cat. Oliver was not just a rich man, he was in fact disgustingly, filthy rich. In the various drawers, cupboards and boxes in his house there were hundreds and thousands of bank notes and coins. However he had no bank account or money invested anywhere, hence the disorganised nature of his finance ending up as mattress stuffing. Normally he would have avoided passing directly through Shrewbury village; the less they knew of him, the better. To the people of the village town, Oliver Lovelock was an unemployed man, likely poverty-stricken, like the rest of the world's struggling working class, who contributed absolutely nothing to the local community, keeping strictly to himself; isolated to a lonely, aggressively average cottage situated outside Shrewbury town. Oliver was pretty certain most of them hadn't even seen his face. He meant nothing to them, and they meant nothing to him.
All was silent. No commotion. No nothing, but Oliver was sure he was being watched, curtains twitched as he passed by quiet buildings, but no one came out. Not a soul wandered the narrow streets, lined with rundown, shoddy two-story wood-frame houses, jammed together like upended shoe boxes on a shelf.
Oliver realised that the closer he got home, the cruel reality of his fears were being born in the unmistakable converging of all that dark smoke. Oliver pushed down those worries, shoved them deep into the back of his mind, it simply couldn't be true. There was absolutely no way anybody- detective or otherwise, would ever discover his true identity and or where he lived, or so he thought. Only one man had ever accomplished such a feat. This disturbed him, but as of last night- he was dealt with, Oliver was sure.
He reassured himself of this furiously, slowed down to a jog, yet still afraid, despite his best attempts to calm down.
When he turned the last corner for home, the colour drained from his face, slack with dismay. The sight that awaited him caused him to drop to his knees. At first the smoke was all that filled his view, then a bright glint of orange. The fire screamed as Oliver watched his cottage engulfed in flames that were rapidly eating up the walls and structure. His heart was in his mouth, his throat constricted and a huge sob built up in his chest. For a moment he slouched, frozen and unable to move, only able to stare with a dream-like sense of disbelief.
Oliver saw a dozen masked men, they cheered hysterically as they watched the fiery display, waving lit torches, others gripping guns- if they glanced his way, there was a danger that he might be spotted. As his eyes filled with tears, and his face flushed with anguish, Oliver reluctantly tore himself away and withdrew behind a stout tree trunk in despair, clasping it for support. He watched helplessly, his face a picture of grief. A lifetime's accumulation of stolen wealth and illegal contraband, gone up in smoke.
It was then Oliver saw to his horror, through the roaring flames licking hungrily at the air, a dark hint of a shape materialised. It emerged through the burning threshold that was his front door. He wiped the tears from his eyes when the hulking shape emerged slowly as a broad figure, hood drawn over its head, silhouetted against the flames. The figure moved without any sense of urgency through the hot choking smoke. The man stood tall and wide enough to fill the doorway.
He wore a dark moss green leather trench coat with big metal buttons that ran down the front, and a wide belt cinched his waist of great girth. A gas mask covered his face, and two rubber tubes connected it to a clockwork machine of whirring gears and motors that he lugged on his back, with a hand-beaten canister. The canister was so large Oliver could see it over his shoulder and the contraption, it hissed and wheezed like a dying monster too. His expressionless visage shone like black coins.
The gas mask hid his entire face, but the two hands sticking out the overlong sleeves were massive, and the fingers, thick as blood sausages, held a burning torch- which he discarded behind him into the already screaming inferno. He did so without so much as a backward glance as he took a long, effortless step over the splintered door, lying broken on the unkempt lawn. Looking at him, you got the impression he could bend iron bars and tear telephone directories in half.
"I-Impossible.." Oliver Jabbered.
One of the men stepped forward. In comparison he was small and scrawny, naked from the waist up. His gaunt body was riddled with old scars and streaks of dried blood, smeared on his pale skin like warpaint. Over his emancipated head was a raggedy burlap sack, one you would probably put potatoes in, with wild tufts of matted hair sprouting through the torn holes like weeds, and a greasy welding mask hid his face and made him appear monstrous, despite his small size. The crazed lunatic giggled and threw the hulking man a bag. Oliver immediately recognised it; it was his leather satchel. Oliver lost the bag during the chaos of the previous night. Oliver watched him inspect the bag and reach down into it. The hooded figure produced a rolled-up scroll, Oliver winced, dreading that he would. He looked to be addressing at the psychotic looking men gathered around him, spread the roll of wrapped parchment and peered at the content. Once he'd finished looking over the scroll, he quickly stuffed it back into the bag and to Oliver's surprise, hurled it into the flames through the shattered kitchen window.
Oliver's jaw was set hard, the sinuous muscles in his face like cables beneath his skin. The fierce looking group of men laughed and jeered as they scuttled off, some bouncing on all fours.
Oliver waited with baited breathe in great suspence, peeking behind the tree. It wasn't long before he heard the explosive whoosh of pressurized steam forced through pipes. The noise dropped away briefly, stuttered, and began to crescendo. Suddenly, the sound blared as loud as anything he had ever heard when a cloud of rust, smoke and pounding pistons tore across his trampled lawn, churned through overgrown flower-beds and bumped down a rockery- his timber fence smashed to bits as the automobiles screamed down the country road and thundered past him kicking up mud and dust. Oliver's world shook violently. He shrunk back, his heart pounding, Oliver couldn't hear himself swear, let alone his own thoughts. He had his fingers jammed in his ears as far as they would go. His whole body felt stunned, quaking in his boots as they roared through the silent village which held its breath. They cackled hysterically and barked unintelligible nonsense at the sky.
Oliver didn't get a good look at them, but that didn't matter, he didn't care. The fire was like some creature, greedily eating everything it could. The house was falling apart and the roof appeared to have buckled and collapsed in on itself.
He thought about the bag. There might still be a slim chance it could be saved and gingerly approached his soon-gone house. The only noise to be heard was the roaring fire as it consumed his home; all else was deathly silent. With no way of knowing, and nothing to lose, he became frantic to force his way through the doorway to find out.
Oliver plunged through the narrow hole in the flames. As soon as he was inside the raging hell, he felt the stinging hot air in his lungs, and on his face and hands. He knew he would soon be unable to breathe at all as he frantically looked around him at what was once the kitchen. A dark form on the floor by the pantry door caught his eye through the smoke-filled room.
He tossed his head, his nostrils dilating as he inhaled the smoke. His outreached hand touched hot metal and he screamed in agony, cupping his singed hand over his mouth. The smoke stung his eyes like acid and forced them shut. Blinded, Oliver groped about on the floor, his satchel could not have been far. He began to feel dizzy and lightheaded, but was filled with a sudden rush of hope when his fingers brushed against leather. Oliver grabbed the satchel, slung it over his shoulder and stumbled out the flaming doorway on his hands and knees; barely seconds before he heard the sound of roof timbers crashing to the floor.
Once outside, he tried to draw deep breaths of fresh air into his aching lungs as he laid the bag on the cool ground, then quickly stamped out the flames that were chewing at the edges of the bag. Oliver stiffly lowered himself to the ground to rest and explore the bag on his lap, hardly daring to hope. The leather was blackened and half-burnt, still smoking and hot to the touch. When Oliver opened the bag and dug deep down into the bottom, he pulled out the long roll of parchment. To his relief, it had survived the fire. He unravelled the scroll; it was a map, old, charred and crispy at the edges- but otherwise still intact and quite legible. He rummaged again and found his trusty picklocks. These lockpicks have never let Oliver own, except for the many times they did. It wasn't much, but he scraped together a few measly coins, stuffing them in his coat pockets.
Oliver tossed aside the now empty bag and watched the inferno, his face grim with grief glazed eyes. The fire ate up the house quickly. It had been a place of safety and refuge to him for all of his twenty eight years. It was horrible to watch it burn to the ground. Burn into nothing but a pile of charred wood and grey cinders. His spirit almost crushed by the weight of impending horror and agony.
Having seen just about enough he climbed up to his feet and stood up. Oliver gazed at the bright orange embers drifting upward, accompanied by plumes of black residue. Now there was no turning back, because there was nothing to turn back to.
Oliver took a deep breath and buried his hands into his pockets and walked away, casting a backward glance over his shoulder.
"I'll come back sometime soon, Charlie. I promise."
He hoped his cat survived.