Skitter Marshall was cold, wet, and slightly miserable. The rain pelted down unrelentingly as he shivered and stared at an innocuous-seeming building. The townhouse Skitter stood outside of seemed much the same as the others next to it: dark red bricks, flawless white door, and a building number in golden embossed numbers. The only difference, to the casual observer, was that every window had been blacked out. The real difference, as Skitter knew, was that this wasn't a building at all. Behind the brick wall, there was nothing but empty space; a hollow ventilation shaft down into the London Tube. Such was an open secret; it was a curiosity to most, a weird quirk of the city. The truth of the building was available on public file. The door shouldn't even be able to open. By all logic, there was no place for it to lead, beyond a sheer drop. It wasn't marked as an access point.
And yet, for some reason, it had a lock.
Skitter had inspected the building twice before. He couldn't see through the keyhole, as it didn't go all the way through. The gap between the door and the frame was too tight to see through. Yet there was a gap; the door's handle had weight, and could twist a little, the frame could be budged slightly to either side. This was, it seemed, a door to nowhere, and the mystery of the 'why' of this door intrigued Skitter to no end. After his initial discovery, he returned the following day, pushing a pick gun into the lock and firing it while twisting softly. It didn't work, but that wasn't too surprising. It was more likely to have been a wafer tumbler than a pin tumbler, but he had to make sure anyway. Skitter had needed to come back with his full set of lockpicks. Of course, he couldn't do it while other people were around. It could make a scene. Unfortunately, this being London, people were always around, both night and day.
And so Skitter had waited until a dark and stormy night to pick the lock.
He switched a small flashlight on, sticking it into his mouth, then unwrapped his tools. Lockpicks, while not technically illegal in the United Kingdom, were still questionable items in the hands of anyone who wasn't a licensed locksmith. Skitter was not a licensed locksmith. He did have a love for locks though, or rather, he had a love for picking locks. It was something about the twisting of the torsion wrench, the delicate manipulation of each pin one by one. It was the thrill of laughing in the face of people who had dared to squirrel their possessions away. Skitter took every opportunity to pick a lock, and typically liked to reward himself after getting one open. This was normally by claiming physical goods as his own; normally, those that the lock had previously intended to secure. There was no malice behind the theft, it was simply a game. Pick the lock and win a prize.
Skitter started applying pressure to the torsion wrench, poking and prodding the pins with a hook pick. One, two… nine wafers in all. An excessive number, it could take a while. He shivered slightly, moving closer and shielding the lock from the rain with his body. It wasn't much more difficult to pick a lock with more moving parts, simply more time consuming. Skitter bounced the first wafer up and down. It was heavy, with strong spring resistance; a weaker set of tools would likely bend and snap before even being able to-
Skitter placed his tools on the wet pavement, delicately extricating the pieces of broken pick. While he cursed under his breath, his face was contorted into a grin. This was new. This was fun. He pulled a sturdier pick from his set, a thick half-diamond, and started to rake the wafers afresh. He didn't apply torsion at first, checking the resistances before commencing the attempt in earnest.
click click click
The rain hit Skitter's hair, running down and dripping from his chin. The first three wafers were safely wedged in position. The fourth, however, refused to move. Skitter passed it, moving on to the fifth.
The fifth and sixth easily budged into position, with the seventh not moving. Again, Skitter moved to the next.
The eighth and ninth wafers sat on the thin ledge made by the torsion wrench. Skitter had started to lose the feeling in his fingers; icy rain pelting down and dripping into the keyhole. Just four and seven to go.
click click click click
They didn't want to stay in place. Skitter swapped fingers, both applying torsion and holding the diamond pick with his right hand. There was no room for another wide pick in the lock; he picked up a thin hook pick in his left hand, and carefully inserted it. He pushed up the seventh pin with the wide pick, and the fourth pin with the thin one. Carefully, Skitter jiggled them up and down, applying rotational force all the while.
click click click click CLICK
Skitter grinned, pulling the picks from the lock, placing them among the rest of his tools while still holding the lock open with his torsion wrench. He shivered a little more; partly from the cold, partly from the anticipation. He wrapped up his tools, shoving them into his trouser pocket, then stood up, shaking rain from his hair. Skitter glanced to the left, then the right. Nobody in sight. He looked back to the door; holding the wrench in his right hand, he awkwardly twisted the doorknob with his left, then pulled it open a crack. The door ajar, he released the wrench and pocketed it, then opened wide the door.
The first surprising thing, at least to Skitter, was that there was something behind the door at all. He had opened the door expecting an unmarked maintenance point, or some kind of evacuation path. Instead, there was a long, straight corridor, with walls, floor and ceiling made of dark and polished stone. There was no determinate light source within, and yet Skitter had no trouble seeing clearly inside. Warm air billowed out from the passage, overpowering the freezing rain.
The second surprising thing was that there was a young girl behind the door. She carried a thick book in her hands, with several more poking from a messily packed messenger bag slung over her shoulder. Her face was one of intense focus; flipping through the pages of the book forwards, then backwards, then forwards slightly more. The girl walked a few more steps, only metres from the still confounded Skitter, then looked up from her book. She raised an eyebrow.
"I didn't think anyone knew about this one but me."
Skitter blinked twice, then formed a response.
"This shortcut. It was hidden well enough. How'd you find it?"
"I, uh… well, the door had a lock on it. And it didn't make sense, I guess."
"Fair enough. This one leads 'round into the British Library's storage rooms. Good for some light reading, when I don't want to make the trip out to the other Library. No overdue fees this way, either. Anyway, have fun."
The girl briefly popped open an umbrella, jumped past Skitter, and had disappeared into the rain before he could turn around. He turned back to the long passageway, only one thought running through his mind.
This was weird.
In time, Skitter mapped out the London shortcuts as best he could. They always connected one point to another through impossible paths, uniformly separated by long corridors of black stone. The only apparent pattern was where the shortcuts weren't: there were never shortcuts where people regularly gathered, they were never near phone booths, they never seemed to bunch together. While all shortcuts connected points within the greater London area, there were no shortcuts into or out of the City of London, nor did the path of any shortcut ever intersect with its area. Skitter had spent a week wandering around the Square Mile without finding a single suspicious space.
He learned to intuit their locations. Around the shortcuts, there was a certain electricity; it sent strange shivers through the spine, or caused goosebumps up one arm but not the other. And so, Skitter taught himself how to seek out these pockets of strangeness in the world.
Sometimes there were people inside the shortcuts; on catching sight of him, most of them turned and walked the other direction. Some of them chatted to him briefly, then carried on with their business. Some of them talked for a little longer, and so he got to asking questions: how did you find out about the shortcuts? What do you use them for, which ones do you find most useful? Most of the talkative people had simply happened upon them one Way or another; Skitter assumed that the untalkative ones, perhaps, had more to say.
And so it carried on.
On a day like any other, Skitter found a letter. It wasn't delivered to his apartment; he had simply found it wedged in the door of a shortcut he frequented particularly often. The envelope was old trimmed and sealed by red wax, with a cursive Mister Skitter Marshall in deep black ink on the front. Skitter tore open the letter, sitting cross-legged in the dull illumination of the shortcut, and read the message inside:
to the recipient of Skitter Marshall the;
you have been stated Claimwise presently at the hence to forthwith of many am to. via the forthwith, Hence into plain and direct of the subject topic. some rational Inheritance of the company
MARSHALL, CARTER AND DARKE LTD.
is am wish to many. Consumption from the. collection at
from the place of Residents.
forthcoming For incomprehensible, henceways, message from Incipient.
"You have inherited a duty. I hope you can carry the burden well."
from AMOS MARSHALL of death
The A-78xD United Eidolonic Collective
(deepness for incomprehensible)
Skitter had no idea what to think of the note; its incoherence obfuscated any message that was meant to be conferred. He determined it was a request to be at home on the 26th of June. As strange and unusual as the message was, strange and unusual was interesting, and for Skitter, interesting was enough. Days passed, as days do.
On the night of the 25th of June, Skitter Marshall went to sleep in his home.
On the morning of the 26th, he awoke in an unfamiliar bed.