I walk down Sweeps Alley, a small slip of paper in my hand until I find the right place. I am excited to be here, but also a little nervous. Based on what I’ve read, the Black Quarter isn’t the safest place, even in the daylight. The door is weathered and nondescript, the handle scratched from many years of use. I knock, and a young man opens the door. With his pale hair artfully mussed and a stylish bowler hat placed on his head at a cocky angle, I recognize him immediately.
“Ivan,” I smile and hold out a hand. “I am so very pleased to meet you. Do you have a minute to answer a few questions?”
“I always have time for a pretty lady,” Ivan says as he takes my hand and kisses it. He then drops my hand and steps aside to invite me in. The room is sparsely furnished, and smoke leaks from the wrought iron stove in the corner. An older gentleman snores softly from a cot near the stove. “Don’t mind Pop. He’ll sleep through anything,” Ivan says as I settle myself onto the bench by the table and gratefully accept the biscuit he offers me. After reading his stepbrother raving about them, I am excited to try one. “So. I was told you had some questions for me.”
I bite into the biscuit and close my eyes, savoring it. Eli was right, they truly are “pure, fluffy heavenliness.” I take a moment to enjoy the bite and then pull out my pen and notebook. “First of all, my readers are very interested to hear about you and your world. Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and your family?”
Ivan settles across from me, his eyebrows pulling together. “My family? Well, that’s rather complicated,” he begins with a careless shrug. “Are you sure you wouldn’t rather talk about something else? I see you wear a ring: are you married? He’s a lucky fellow.” Ivan winks and seems amused at my reaction… I’m guessing my face is an interesting shade of red. “Oh, fine. I live here in Sweep’s Alley with my father, my little brother Victor, and my stepbrother, Eli. Er, Conrad Ellis the Third. You can’t forget the Third: he gets his knickers in a twist when people do. Victor stays home with Pop most days, or goes to Josef’s smithy to see his friend, Puck. Conrad and I work for the spook yard and that keeps us pretty busy. I do the cooking, and Conrad makes all the rules. He’s always making rules,” he mutters as he removes his hat and frowns at it. “That’s about it, I guess. My mother and stepmother have both passed on. Ever bless them.” His voice trails off into an awkward silence.
I grin at him. He is debonaire and easy to chat with, just like I imagined he’d be. Even his teasing is obviously just in good fun. “Can you please explain what it is you do as a spook? We don’t have those in our world.”
“We spend our evenings searching the streets for creepers. You know about those, don’t you? Oh, well, let’s just say the dead don’t stay dead in my world. And when they come back…well, they don’t remember who they are and can be riled quite easily. We do our best to round them up and release them outside the city, into the Neverway. Conrad is the best spook we’ve ever had. Everyone says so. Somehow he just seems to know where to find the creepers.” It sounds like he admires his stepbrother, even if he doesn’t appreciate all the rules.
I shudder a little at the idea. “So, are the creepers dangerous? You talk about them getting riled… what does that mean?”
Ivan hesitates. “Creepers are like any wild animal. They’re harmless if left alone, but if you frighten or hurt one…they can be brutally violent. I don’t think they mean to be. They just react on instinct. If you ever come across one, especially one that’s riled–” He pauses abruptly, holding my gaze. “Just get out of there as quick as you can. Your life might depend on it.”
I nod, my expression serious to let him know that I’m not going to do anything stupid. I don’t plan on spending much time in this world, but my itinerary isn’t always my own… especially when I’m chasing Mr. Fairchild through the FictionVerse. I take another bite of biscuit and change the subject. “What is the one thing you most want in life?”
Ivan stands up to get himself a cup of coffee and returns with a tin mug for me as well. He takes a slow sip before answering. “Well, now, that’s a hard one. Conrad would say life is hard and it’s not worth wanting things you can never have, but me? I kind of like to think that things can be better. You just have to work to change your circumstances. I think, if I had a choice, I’d like to somehow get a marker and join my other stepbrother Roman in the Citadel. He works for the royal guard. But it’s hard, you know? Markers are really hard to come by. Folks like us don’t leave the Black Quarter often. It’s just the way it is.” He grows quiet again, but then he tosses his bowler into the air with an artful spin and catches it on the way back down. “But that won’t stop me from trying.”
I hold the cup of coffee, warming my hands. Then I take a small sip. Fictional coffee tastes like any hot beverage you want it to… I learned that the first day on the job! “Along similar lines…” I narrow my eyes, pinning him with a thoughtful gaze. “If you could change one thing about your world, what would it be and why?”
Ivan snorts loudly. “Conrad. I mean it. He’s such a crank, so grim and disapproving and always ordering me about like I don’t have a mind of my own. He won’t listen to a thing I have to say. He thinks Victor is too young to work and needs to stay home, but all the other boys his age have been apprenticed for years. He’s doing the boy no favors by holding him back. And he seems to think he’s the head of this house and is always talking over my father like he doesn’t have a say in any important decisions. Yeah, I know Pop isn’t perfect. He’s made some bad decisions, and he used to drink a lot after Mama passed away, but he’s still my father, you know? I just wish Conrad would make peace with him. That we could try to be a normal family for once.” Ivan shrugs again and returns his bowler to his head, carefully setting it into place without messing up his hair. “But I suppose that’s too much to ask for, eh? Conrad is stuck in his ways. I doubt he’ll ever change.”
I grin knowingly. He’s right, Conrad is a grump, but that’s what I love about him, though I probably shouldn’t mention that to Ivan. I’m not sure how he will take this next question, so I ask it tentatively, “Can you tell me about…. Spinning?”
He leans back in his seat and studies me as if appraising me with fresh eyes. “You came prepared, didn’t you?” he asks with a quirk of a smile. He glances toward the door and then leans toward me, hands cupped around his mug of coffee. When he speaks, his voice has dropped to a whisper. “Spinning is illegal in this world so this conversation shouldn’t be taken lightly. Spinners are people with magical gifts. They can do things normal people can’t. Most of these spinners are harmless, just normal people trying to make a living, but every once and a while you find a dark spinner, someone who is trying to use the power of the Underworld to do terrible things.” He stops speaking and stares at me, hard. “These spinners have made life miserable for the others.” Ivan begins to say something else but then gives his head a slight shake. “I’m afraid that’s all I can say on the subject.”
I smile slightly to myself, then push myself away from the table. I am loath to go, as this has been a pleasant interview. “Thank you so much for chatting with me, Ivan, my readers and I really appreciate it. One final question before I go… if you could say something to your author, what would it be?”
Ivan stands slowly and stares down at the coffee cup he left on the battered wooden table. He traces one finger around the rim. “That’s a question I’ve asked myself many times,” he begins quietly. “I know the author often has as little control over the story as I do, but there are times…there are times I wish she could have written my story differently. I mean, why couldn’t she write fluffy unicorn and fairy stories?” He stops with a rueful laugh. “But I suppose there wouldn’t be a place for me in such a story, would there? This is my world, my home, and whatever happens to me and mine, I believe it happens for a reason. To serve a purpose.” He looks up from his cup at last, his eyes intense and filled with hidden shadows. “I suppose I would tell her that I understand. And can she please give Conrad a more bearable personality in the next book?”
Caught between a laugh and a sob, I hold out my hand to him. He cannot know the difficulties that lie ahead, and I cannot tell him. But as he shakes my hand, I try to pass some strength to him, some measure of comfort to help him keep his mask in place as he fulfills his self-appointed role of levity and cheer in this dark place. He shakes my hand, then kisses it once more, sighing regretfully over my ring, which makes a laugh well up within me, chasing away any tears I may have shed for his future.
I exit the cottage and find a small nook where I can use my badge to return home without causing any ruckus, I can’t wait to type up this interview and share it with my readers!