Sample Synopsis: London is just recovering from the brutal war that saw most of the city demolished. Lydia’s life has been upended but much is still frustratingly the same. She still works as a barmaid in her uncle’s pub and she’s still frozen with indecision about what to do with her life, post-war.
Then one night, a man named Nat enters the pub and everything changes. What starts out as harmless flirting, quickly wrenches Lydia into a world where unexplainable things are happening to survivors of the Blitz. In this new world, danger lies around every corner and Lydia must choose whose side she’s on before her beloved city is torn apart once more.
Today was Valentine’s Day. Nat hadn’t shown up at The Huntsman for a week. I’d started making decorations for the occasion days ago, cutting out red and pink paper hearts, buying tissue doilies to serve The Cupid on. But as the days passed and Nat failed to show, I started to lose my motivation.
I half-heartedly taped some paper hearts on the front door and threw the rest in the rubbish bin. I really wasn’t in the mood for this holiday.
Ernest and all the rest were back to being fake-chipper when they greeted me, that pitying look behind their eyes. It was the Colin breakup all over again. Except, this time I hadn’t even gotten as far as being asked out in the first place. How pathetic was that?
Having an audience for my latest failure didn’t help matters. I went about my work, trying not to make eye contact with anyone more than I had to. Nat had probably found a newer pub. One with younger patrons and a cuter girl behind the bar. I bet that’s where he was tonight. Who would want to spend Valentine’s Day in a moldy, centuries-old pub anyway? Better yet, he wasn’t in a pub at all. He’d probably taken the cute barmaid out for a date. Somewhere romantic, beside the water.
I was knee deep in my self-pity daydream when the door chimed. It was to my surprise, and everyone else’s, that Nat walked in. He made his way over to the bar amid stares from Frank and Ernest that were halfway between enmity and confusion. He dropped onto the barstool.
I put a glass under the tap and set it down without a word. The need to be angry with him warred with my confusion over his appearance. He finished his water and the silence grew. The anger started to win out. Not even a, “Hello, sorry I disappeared for a week?”
I stopped myself. Something didn’t seem right. There were dark circles under his eyes and his hair was in need of combing. He was even a little out of breath, like he’d been… running? I wondered if he’d gotten into some kind of trouble.
“I’m… I’m sorry,” he said, looking at my expression. “Sorry I haven’t been aro— I haven’t been coming.” He looked behind him at the door.
“It’s okay,” I found myself saying. I was thoroughly perplexed now. A sheen of sweat dampened his forehead and for the first time, I noticed him holding something against his chest under his coat. The corners of a file folder and some papers were just visible next to his lapel.
“Listen, is everything all right?” I asked.
“Um, yeah. Sort of.”
The lights over the bar dimmed and flickered then steadied themselves. Heads twisted in their direction and the general hum of the pub turned down a notch. Effect of the war— both the lights and the men’s reaction. The wiring had never been the same after the bombs. And I guessed we’d never be the same either after spending countless hours in the nearby Tube station, watching the lights flicker off and on just like that.
Just then, the front door swung open on a pair of unlikely patrons. A woman in a fashionable hat and bright red lipstick flicked her eyes right and left as her companion, a man whose size made him immediately the center of attention lumbered in behind her.
“Lydia!” whispered Nat, tapping the bar to get my attention.
“Hm?” I tore my eyes from the two by the door who were peering through the smoke as if looking for someone.
“Lydia, if I asked you to get me out of here, through a back way, could you do it?”
“What?” I asked. He really was acting strange.
“Could you do it?”
“I— I suppose…Do you know them?”
The woman was saying something to her companion, pointing over towards the bar.
“Time to go,” he said.
“Wha—“ but before I could finish my sentence, Nat had flung himself across the bar, landing beside me. He pulled my hand towards the back room.
“Is it this way?” He asked.
“Yes, but why—“ he didn’t stop, but went through the door, pulling me with him. He closed it and locked it.
“Nat!” I cried. “Stop! Tell me what’s going on! My uncle, he’s going to be furious.”
“I don’t have time to explain.” he pushed his hair back nervously and looked around him, presumably for the exit. It was a maze of boxes back here, the hallways built over centuries by different owners who never seemed to follow what his predecessor had in mind.
“You’ll need me to show you the way,” I said. “But first you have to tell me what’s going on.”
There was a loud knock on the door. “Lydia?” It was my uncle. “Lydia! What are you doing? Are you okay?”
“If I stop to tell you now, I won’t live to explain the rest. But I promise, help me out and I’ll tell you everything.”
The knocking continued. “I’m okay, Uncle Jack. I’ll just be a minute.”
Uncle Jack yelled, “There are some folk here, say they’re looking for the chap you’ve been talking to.”
“Get out of the way!” That was a woman’s voice, the one with the bright lipstick, I assumed.
“Lydia,” said Nat. “Please. Do you trust me?”
“Of course I don’t trust you! I only just—“
And then the door caught fire.
I grabbed his hand, feeling the space where his fingers should be, and took off running. Behind us we heard the crunch of burnt wood as someone kicked through the door.
“This way.” I pulled him left down a corridor lined with crates and boxes. The bare bulbs hanging above our heads flickered on and off again. We were in some of the older parts of the pub now, the ceilings almost brushing our heads, the floor treacherous with large cracks and uneven brick.
We heard voices not far behind. “That way, Croft!”
A box came crashing down behind us, its contents spilling across the floor. I looked back and saw the man rounding the corner, the box behind him on fire. He reached out ahead of him and flames rolled out of his palms and licked the shelves along the wall.
I screamed, but kept running.
We rounded a corner that led into storage. Nat skidded to a halt.
“It’s this way!” I shouted.
Nat ignored me and reached around the corner back towards Croft. The lights above us flickered and went out leaving only an orange glow where one box still burned. I put my hand out to find the wall but before I could touch it, an arc of light crackled in the air, washing Nat’s face in electric blue light.
The current jumped from Nat’s outstretched hand down the corridor to where the Croft was standing. I pressed myself against the wall and screamed.
The lights flicked back on to reveal Croft groaning on his back, his coat lightly smoking.
The red lipstick woman had only been a few paces behind. She stooped to briefly check on her companion.
“Surrender yourself, Nathanial! You know it’s not a choice!” she said, drawing a gleaming pistol from her handbag.
“Is that how you plan on getting me to do your work?” Nathanial asked.
“Put the papers back in safe hands and we’ll forget this little… incident,” she said.
Nat clutched tighter to the folder beneath his jacket. “I’d hardly call your hands ‘safe.’”
Croft was stirring, trying to stand.
I wasn’t waiting around any longer. If anything, I had to get the danger away from my uncle’s pub and all the people inside it. I yanked Nat’s sleeve and we took off running again. The crack of a bullet hitting the stone wall followed in our wake. We were almost there. I lead Nat through Uncle’s office and down one last corridor. I started to reach out for his hand before I remembered what I had just seen and thought better of it.
We reached the door and I unbolted it as quickly as possible with shaking hands. I felt heat on my back as fire roared to life just a few feet away but we were through. Nat kicked the door shut and we picked up the pace now that we were outside.
The back door led to an alley between The Huntsman and a strip of other shops that backed up against a row of houses. The darkness felt almost solid after the fire and blinding light of the chase but I knew my way. How many times had I sprinted through these paths with the sounds of sirens filling my head, my chest?
Nat had a grip on the back of my blouse as I led him through zigzagging alleyways. We heard shouts behind us. Arguing. For the first time since seeing the door catch fire, I thought I might make it out of this alive.
We ran on and at some point it switched from me leading Nat to him choosing which turns to take, which side streets to disappear down. I could no longer hear a pursuit of any kind.
“Need a break,” I gasped. Now that the immediate danger was behind us, I was very aware that it had been quite some time since secondary school gym class.
Nat slowed to a stop on a lonely street lined on either side with abandoned flats, gap-toothed where the bombs had made their selections. He waited for me as I doubled over to catch my breath, but couldn’t stop his head from swiveling left and right and left again, looking for any sign from our pursuers.
I gathered myself enough to rasp out words between breaths, “What. The hell. Was that?”
“Not here,” was all he said. I followed him down the broken street.
After checking once again that no one watched us from the lattice of shadows, Nat pulled me into a gap between the shelled out buildings. I stumbled as my foot caught on rubble hidden in the darkness. Nat caught my arm. “Careful.”
The flat that had been here was nothing but a foundation and a few piles of broken furniture. Where the bottom floor was still intact, you could see the impressions of where the walls had been. We passed through them like ghosts and Nat found the place he was looking for. He crouched down to feel around on the floor. There was a, “Ah!” when he found what he was looking for, a bit of rope among the broken bricks and glass.
He tugged on it and with it came part of the floor— a door that opened onto a set of fully intact stairs. It must have been the cellar. I was surprised to see the faint glow of a light or flame at the very bottom. Nat started down the stairs and then turned back to offer me his undamaged hand.
I didn’t move.
Less than an hour ago, I had been standing behind the ancient bar in my uncle’s pub, serving Ernest and Frank and the rest. Now I’d been chased through said pub by a woman with a gun and a man throwing fire, seen the fellow I’d been flirting with for weeks electrocute someone with his bare hands, and been led to some bombed-out flat in a part of London I didn’t recognize, being asked to follow him down some godforsaken hole in the ground.
“I won’t shock you, if that’s what you’re worried about,” he said. I thought I caught the barest smile on his lips.
I placed my hand gingerly in his. This might be the last decision I ever made, but at least I made one.
We made our way carefully down the tunnel-like staircase towards the light. I could hear voices now as we emerged, echoing against the brick walls of the cellar. They belonged to a group of people I wouldn’t think normally spent much time in each other’s company.
There was a young boy, no older than eight or nine tilting back in a chair so that it balanced on two legs. His mop of curly dark hair was interrupted by an ugly scar the length of a pencil behind his ear.
He was speaking to a woman who could’ve been around my age. She drank something dark and foamy from a chipped glass. In the corner sat an old man doing nothing but staring at the wall blowing smoke rings of differing sizes. It took me a moment to realize he wasn’t holding a cigarette.
The woman and boy turned as we rounded the corner.
“Nat! Where’ve you been?” said the woman. She wore an expensive looking coat but the fur trim looked a bit ratty in places.
“I got into a spot of trouble, but no worries. We’re all right.”
“Who’s this? Did you find someone else? Was she part of the program?” she asked. They boy leaned further back to get a look at me and had to catch himself before he tipped over.
“This is Lydia. She’s not from the program. She’s—“ he glanced at me and hesitated, “— not Blitzed.”
“What?” Lydia’s eyebrows shot up. “Nat! Why did you bring her here? What does she know?”
“She’s the barmaid at—“
“Listen, Sam, it couldn’t be helped. Croft and Odella were on my tail so I ducked into her pub for a few minutes to try and lose them. Only, they must’ve seen me go in because they showed up not long after.” He looked at me guiltily.
Sam crossed her arms. “And I assume that didn’t go too well.”
“Let’s just say Lydia saw some things you can’t exactly unsee.”
You better believe it, I thought. I glanced at his hands.
“Did you get the files?” Sam asked. In answer, Nat pulled out the folder from his coat. I’d almost forgotten about it. He dropped the stack of papers onto the foldout table. The boy dropped all four chair legs to the ground and leaned over to look at the folder.
“Did you see her?” The boy asked.
Nat shook his head. “Once I had the files, I had to get out quick.” The boy tried unsuccessfully to hide his disappointment. The old man in the corner paid no attention to us whatsoever but continued to blow smoke in more and more intricate patterns.
Sam looked at me. “I take it if I asked you to forget what you saw tonight and go home quietly, that wouldn’t have much chance of happening.”
It wasn’t a question.
“Well, you’re in it now. Should you explain or should I?” She directed this question at Nat.
“Here,” he said to me, “you should probably have a seat.” He pulled over one of the dusty looking chairs.
“I’d prefer to stand, thank you.” I felt off balance in this damp room full of strangers that obviously knew more than I did. I felt like I was meeting Nat for the first time. If he felt hurt by my cold formalities, he didn’t show it.
“It might take awhile. Really, sit. We’ve just had a rather exerting jaunt through the city.” I couldn’t argue with that. My legs had started to feel an awful lot like jam.
“Sam, do we have any water down here?”
She reached into a rucksack and pulled out a dented, dark green canteen. She handed it to Nat who passed it over to me, allowing me the first sip. The water had a tang of metal to it but I was grateful. Something about an act as normal as drinking water grounded me when everything else seemed to be coming loose at the seams.
Nat sat across from me, taking a swig once I was done. He tapped the folder between us. “Maps,” he said. “Maps of every bomb dropped during the Blitz.”
He opened the folder and pulled out a map of Greater London. It was covered in a dizzying amount of red x’s. My stomach lurched. I’d never seen such a comprehensive account of the horrors of those months. “Ah, Union Street.” There was a big red X penciled over the street in question. “The street I grew up on.”
He traced the grid to find the coordinates and then rifled through the stack of papers left in the folder. The boy and Sam leaned over to watch him. The papers were organized by the coordinates on the map, followed by a list of addresses and bomb shelter locations. Nat found an address and turned the papers toward me so I could see.
“203-B Union Street. Mr. Richard Harker, deceased. Mrs. Mary Harker, deceased. Nathanial Harker, L&R.”
“L&R?” I asked.
“Located and Retrieved.”
I looked at him, puzzled. He looked up Sam’s address and the boy’s, whose name was James and had been living in a house for children of Jewish refugees. They both had the same L&R signifier next to their names.
“But what does it mean?”
“The government has been very interested in finding survivors of the Blitz, anyone near a bomb site, ever since their intelligence found out that the Germans were doing some experimental things with a fraction of their bombs. The Blitz was a sort of lab test of what the bombs could do. But what the Germans don’t know is that some of their science projects had… unintended consequences.”
I looked over at the old man with his never-ending smoke supply. “Is that why you… how your hands…?”
Nat turned his palm over and a spark arced across his fingertips.
“Stop showing off,” said Sam, though she smirked.
“Can you all do that?” I asked.
“It has manifested in different ways for each of us,” she said.
“But that man, Croft— he had it too. He was catching things on fire with just his hands!”
“Yes,” said Nat, “He’s been Blitzed too. But I wouldn’t call him one of us, exactly.”
“What do you mean?”
“He buys into the whole “it’s our national duty to become the new modern weapon” rubbish they want us to believe.”
“What about that woman that was with him?”
“Odella? She’s not Blitzed. She’s sort of what you would call Croft’s handler. They pair you up when— “
“What in the hell is this?”
Everyone turned to the man who’d spoken. He stood at the bottom of the stairs, his long army-issued trench slick with rain. His sandpaper jaw was rigid with anger as he stared straight at me.
I hope you enjoyed a little look into what some of my work looks like in the early stages. Would you or a friend enjoy a book with this premise? Is it a story idea worth pursuing? Let me hear your thoughts below!