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‘They won’t set their charges deeper than the seabed,’ growled the first mate as he realized what his captain was looking to do.
‘No,’ Gemma agreed.
‘If we last that long,’ said the first mate, his eyes settling on the creaking armoured crystal canopy in front of them. A single piece of chemically reinforced glass. If the screen gave way …
‘Yes,’ said Gemma. If we last that long.
All around them, the Princess Clara’s complaints swelled louder and louder as the darkness of the underwater trench swallowed the vessel up. A last wave of depth charges tumbled towards where the u-boat had just been, drums buckling under extreme pressure even as the charges detonated.
Then, as the avalanche into the trench started to rain down onto her u-boat’s hull, Gemma Dark’s luck finally turned.
This wasn’t the normal quality of residence Dick Tull got to stake out. When you worked for the State Protection Board, the preservation of the realm was more often made in the great slums of the capital, blighted tenements their lowlife inhabitants called the rookeries. Where narrow streets and broken gas lamps simmered with the smoke of manufactories, and alehouse talk ran to rebellion and plots.
In the slums, it was easy to surveil such souls as Dick Tull’s masters suspected of treason. Anyone with a room would gratefully accept pennies from a stranger in exchange for an hour or two at a cracked window overlooking a similarly rundown tenement. Peeping Tom, arsonist, murderer, stalker, State Protection Board officer. Owners hardly cared, as long as the coin provided proved genuine. Parliament’s enemies bred like rats inside the filth and the poverty of the slums. But here? Waiting on the pavement of a well-lit boulevard? A long line of almost identical five-storey townhouses behind Dick, the fine wrought iron gates and high walls of Lord Chant’s residence in front of him on the opposite side of the street. Dick could smell their money; smell it as only someone who had never had any could. From the shining copper spears of the railings to the way manservants would imperiously emerge to greet calling guests.
Bugger the lot of them.
Dick Tull was dressed in the dark frock coat of a hansom cab driver, warming his freezing hands on the brazier at the street’s cab halt opposite his cabbie apprentice. That much of his disguise was genuine. Dick Tull was the master, while young William Beresford was standing in the apprentice’s shoes Dick had occupied some forty years before. Eager and stupid and patriotic. Too dull to realize there had never been any shine in the great game; that he and Dick were just the weight of the manacles needed to bind the common people from getting above their station. Glorified watchmen, protecting the shiny bright railings of these expensive whitewashed buildings from the forces of anarchy. And like all good watchmen, Billy-boy had been set to watch, watch with his keen young eyes.
But what about Dick? What good was it being the state’s muscle, when the muscles were growing old, aged and weak? Dick’s thin hands covered with grey fingerless wool gloves, the ageing skin on his hangdog face almost cracking in the late evening chill. Watching, always watching. Just like the State Protection Board’s motto bid them to: See all. Say nothing.
For most of his life, Dick Tull had been seeing all and saying nothing. And now he could see that he wasn’t just training another fledgling officer in the arcania and tricks of the spying trade. He was training his replacement. And where would that leave Dick? Shivering out in the cold, no doubt, like the old nag clicking its horseshoes at the front of their fake hansom cab. One step away from the knacker’s yard, that’s all Dick was.
While Dick Tull’s cheeks were pale and drawn, frigid under the long side burns, young William Beresford’s cheeks were flushed a rosy red by the cold, his eyes eager and bright. Tull could bring a flush to his cheeks too. He drew out the dented brass hip flask from under his coat and downed a burning slug of its bounty, ignoring the disapproving look from his partner.
‘Just my cover,’ said Dick.
‘There’s a lot of cover sloshing about in there, sarge.’
‘It’ll be a long night,’ said Dick.
And he was relying on the boy’s young eager eyes to memorize the faces of any royalist rebels that might come calling at Lord Chant’s place tonight.
‘Jigger this for a fool’s errand, anyway,’ Dick spat.
‘What makes you say that, sarge?’ William asked.
Dick nodded towards the mansion gates. ‘Why would rebels want to infiltrate Lord Chant’s household? If they wanted to assassinate him, they wouldn’t need to go to all the trouble of getting one of their people into his household, would they? They could just stand out here shivering their nuts off alongside us, and the first time his Lordship came out, well—’ Dick patted the side of his frock coat where his pistol was strapped, ‘—a bullet in the head is a lot less trouble than play-acting as a butler and slipping poison into his nib’s brandy glass.’
‘I hear an old man talking, sarge,’ said William. ‘Where’s your sense of imagination? Lord Chant is a force in the House of Guardians, keeper of the privy something or other. He has the keys to the parliamentary chamber. What if that’s what they’re after? The board ain’t going to want a gang of royalist scum slipping a dozen barrels of liquid explosives under Parliament’s floorboards, are they? Or they could be trying to blackmail his lordship, leverage his connections in the house.’
Yes, the boy had a point. Clever. Ambitious. Well educated. All the things that Dick was not. Give it a couple of years, and if by some good chance Dick was still on the payroll of the board, then he would likely be working for Billy-boy here. If not him, someone just like him. They all got promoted over his head. And here he was, shivering on a rich man’s street, all these years later. The quality giving Dick orders, giving him long, tiring night-time surveillances with added apprentice-minding duties.
At some point in this long dirty trade, Dick had turned around, and when he’d glanced back, his life had passed him by. The worst thing was, in retrospect Dick could gaze back and see all the decisions he’d made, settlements that he could have remade, to nudge his life towards the better. The things he should have said, the people he should have talked to, the paths he should have gone down. There was a trend now in the penny-dreadfuls – cheap fiction from the stationers’ stalls – for what were called counterfactuals, invented histories that could have been, but hadn’t. Dick could see the counterfactual for his own life – a career where he had ended up as a senior board officer, with a fat pension and a big house and a plump happy wife, smiling sunny children waiting for him when he got home. And in that counterfactual, perhaps the Dick Tull in that world was dreaming of a thin, hungry doppelganger of himself, his hair running grey beyond his years, and nothing to return to of an evening except cold rented lodgings in one of the least salubrious parts of town. A shrew of a landlady who spied on him just as he spied on the enemies of the Jackelian nation. It’s never made easy. Not for me.
Dick glanced down the street. As late as it was, the street was still surprisingly empty – only a few street hawkers trying to entice householders’ servants to the doorstep for a final purchase of the day. And it wasn’t just because of the thin white layer of snow and frost painting the cobbles and trees along the road. There was something else stalking the streets of the capital, if the newssheets were to be believed. Vampires. Tales like that should have been confined to the pages of the penny-dreadfuls that were one of Dick’s more faithful companions in bed, but now the Middlesteel press was running with headlines as sensational as their editors’ imaginations. Bodies were being discovered in the capital of the Kingdom drained of every last vestige of blood. In the east of the city where Dick’s humble lodgings could be found, the people were patrolling the narrow streets in gangs of vigilantes – although they preferred to call themselves the ‘city militia’. The Circle help anyone that got in their way. For, like Dick, the Middlesteel mob had never seen a vampire. In fact, until now, nobody who wasn’t a fan of inferior literature had ever encountered a vampire in the Kingdom of Jackals. This presented something of a problem for the rough militia rabble … but one that had not proved insurmountable. With the mob’s usual ingenuity, they were now resorting to the simple expedient of hanging any strangers who had the misfortune to be travelling unrecognized through the streets.
Of course, in a rich area like this, no militia had been formed of middle-class clerks, bankers, merchants and their household staff. The rich didn’t get their hand dirty, that’s what they paid their taxes for. Quite literally. For to be made a Lord in the Kingdom was not a matter of birth now, but a matter of money. The industrial purchase system. The revenue service kept a record of how much tax was paid by each citizen. Passing set amounts over your lifetime would automatically trigger a title … a small amount of tax earning a knighthood, a filthily large amount guaranteeing a dukedom.
‘Here we go, then,’ said Dick, the noise of iron wheels rattling on cobblestones given amplification by the cold night air. Around the corner emerged one of the more recent varieties of horseless carriages. Steam-driven, the carriage was wider, taller and a great deal less elegant than the high-tension clockwork driven vehicles that until recently had been the mainstay of traffic running through the capital’s streets. But that was progress for you. Legislation had been passed last year in Parliament allowing these ugly, cheap, steam-driven brutes to share the road, and now the capital’s crowded passages were filled with the smoke and noise of such things. The press had nicknamed them kettle-blacks and already the omnibus companies had pressed them into service for the conveyance of paying passengers. If Dick had been a real hansom cab driver, he might have been retiring in the next few years, he suspected. Always change. Never for the better.
Pulling to a stop, the vehicle’s stacks melted a few flurries of snow drifting in the air. Down below, a heavy iron door jolted open, spilling yellow gaslight from the passenger cabin out onto the pavement. A hunched figure emerged into the light, a dull brown workman’s coat pulled tight over his frame against the cold, the man coughing in the chill air after exiting the heat circulating from the cabin’s boiler.
Dick Tull peered from the cab halt. Damn my tired old eyes. Is that the man we’ve been waiting for, is that Carl Redlin? Ask the boy. The boy will know. ‘Is that Carl Redlin?’
‘I think so,’ said Billy-boy. Surreptitiously, the young agent used the cover of their hansom cab to inspect the images they had been provided of likely callers at Lord Chant’s house. He located the sheet with their mark’s likeness, excitedly tapped it, and then slipped the sheets back under the flap cabmen used to store their street maps.
Well, then, perhaps there was some truth to this nonsense assignment their masters within the board had assigned them. Captain Twist was an old pseudonym used by royalists when they returned to the Kingdom with mischief on their minds. And now Captain Twist was abroad in Middlesteel again, with his rascally minions scuttling about the city. Dick was surprised. After all, nobody knew better than he did how far the card of the royalist threat was overplayed by Parliament to bolster its popularity. Yet here was a known royalist, Carl Redlin, calling at the residence of Lord Chant.
I should be relieved. Now they’ll pull me off this sodding cold surveillance and put someone on the job who counts. Who would’ve thought it, after all these centuries, Captain Twist and his merry men back in the Kingdom?
In the wall by the side of the gate there was a recess with a wooden handle to pull, and the visitor placed his hand into the niche, gave the handle a tug, then yanked his flatcap down tight as the gates moved back on a counterweight. Their mark didn’t wait for the gates to fully open, he was in too much of a hurry. As soon as there was enough of a gap for him to wriggle through the space he did so, and then he was off, down the path that led up to the white marble-fronted mansion, his footsteps dragging against the gravel. The distant barking of a dog greeted the man as the main doors swung open. Too far away for Dick to see who’d allowed him inside Lord Chant’s mansion.
‘Come on, sarge,’ urged William, ‘we can follow Redlin in. We might be able to see who he’s going to meet if we can get to a window.’
‘Are you joking me, boy?’ said Dick. ‘We haven’t been ordered to do that. Now we know that the rebels have business inside the house, there’s plenty of time to get a man inside on the staff. You don’t want to be spotted creeping around the grounds – someone’s likely to take a blunderbuss to you.’
What was the boy like? Plenty of time for an agent with suitable references – perfectly forged, of course – to be inserted as a member of the household. Eager little sod.
It was obvious that Billy-boy was bridling against the older officer’s orders, but he was the junior man on this watch and while he might be giving orders to Dick next year, tonight he had to bite his tongue and keep his peace.
‘So, what do you propose we do, sarge?’
‘We wait. When he comes out, we’ll follow Redlin, see where he goes. Is that enough action for you for tonight?’
William shook his head in disgust, but Dick was beyond caring what the boy thought of him.
You’ll see, Billy-boy. Give it a few decades, and you’ll be where I am. Making some new young fool bite on the bit while you urge caution and pull your tired bones up into the cab of the hansom, lift your boots up onto the seat opposite, and take a few more hits from the flask you’re keeping warm in your coat pocket.
‘Is that it then? You’re just going to sit up there in the cab and watch?’
‘No,’ said Dick. ‘You are going to watch, I’m going to catch up on my shut-eye now that our mark is safely tucked up over there. Just wake me up when he comes out again.’
Dick reached for his copy of the Middlesteel Illustrated Times. The front cover carried a large political cartoon of the head of the government, the First Guardian, bending over at the beach of a seaside resort while one of the underwater races, a gill-neck, was creeping out from behind the shadow of a bathing machine with a trident-like weapon to poke him up the arse. The politician’s buttocks were painted with the Jackelian flag, and he was reaching for a coin washed in by the tide, while the speech bubble rising from the gill-neck’s mouth read, ‘Now, there’s a fine pair of plums for the picking’.
There was still a furore being raised by the newssheets over the new taxes the great underwater empire of the Advocacy was attempting to levy on Jackelian shipping – innocently crossing international waters, or aggressively trespassing across sovereign territory, depending on whether you were human or gill-neck. But however expensive shipments of plums and other fruits from the orchards of the colonies became, this was one conflict the State Protection Board wasn’t going to be called into to provide intelligence for. There were a lot of foreigners an officer like Dick Tull could mingle with undetected, but lacking scales and the ability to breathe underwater, gill-necks weren’t one of them. Dick folded the pages over his face to mask the glare of the gas lamps. With his liquid winter-warmer circulating through his body, Dick let the tiredness slip over him, the wooden curve of the cab keeping out the worst chilly draughts as he drifted off to sleep.
It hardly seemed any time at all until a rough shaking jolted him back into the cab’s still interior. William’s face was flushed, but not this time, Dick suspected, from the scouring wind of a long wait and the rude health of the boy’s callow constitution. He’s panicked.
‘Our mark out of the big house already, is he?’
‘No, it’s not that.’ There was a look on Billy-boy’s face that Dick had not seen before. It was alarm mixed with confusion.
‘I went over the wall—’
‘You fool! If you’ve been spotted, if you’ve blown this job for us …’ Dick jumped out of the cab, nearly slipping on the pavement’s ice. As he angrily steadied himself, Dick saw that his stumble had been noted by a bookseller a couple of houses down the street, the hawker’s tray of cheap novels covered with a piece of cloth to protect it against falling snow. The bookseller hurriedly looked away, no doubt not wanting to test the aggressive reputation a hansom cab driver carried. There was something familiar about that face, something—
‘No, I’ve not been seen, it’s what I’ve seen, sarge,’ continued the young officer, speaking so fast he was almost choking on his words. ‘I was hiding in the formal garden when Lady Florence came running out, our mark Carl Redlin and Lord Chant close on her heels. They grabbed her, pushed her down into the snow, and then stabbed her with some kind of blade. Both of them. It only took a minute for Lady Florence to die, then they dragged her body back into the mansion and locked the patio again.’
‘That doesn’t make sense!’ coughed Dick, all vestiges of drowsiness vanishing as he realized what he’d slept through.
His mind reeled. Lady Florence Chant, if he remembered their briefing correctly, was a forgettable society beauty, a clothes-horse, well mannered, without a political bone in her body. She didn’t have access to Parliament. Access to her husband’s guest lists for the boring suppers she was expected to host, perhaps. Royalist rebels didn’t risk capture in the capital to help errant husbands murder their spouses, and certainly not by such an obvious route as stabbing. A fall down the stairs, perhaps. A heart attack induced by a crafty poison, maybe. But cold-blooded murder in a garden, run down like a fox to hounds when any neighbour could be staring out from one of the houses opposite?
‘Sense or not, I saw it. We have to do something!’
‘Not us, lad,’ said Dick. He felt the lines of his greying moustache, as he was wont to do when thinking or nervous. ‘We report it back up through the board. They notify the police. Let the common crushers go in there and stir everything up. If we charge into the big house, we’ll tip off any royalist inside that we’re onto them.’
‘I’ll send for the police now,’ said Billy-boy.
‘What if they arrest our mark? We need to follow him back to his nest of troublemakers, not have him locked up in Bonegate jail waiting for the noose.’
‘Didn’t you hear me, sarge? Our mark’s helped murder someone,’ said William. ‘Carl Redlin won’t be hanging around the capital after this. He’ll be gone anyway, whatever we do.’
You’ve got a point, damn your eyes. ‘Put up the sign, then,’ sighed Dick.
The sign that would indicate their horse was lame. The sign that would tell their runner on his next circuit past that they needed to send an urgent message to the board. Getting the police involved in their business, garden-variety crushers from Ham Yard, that wasn’t going to be welcome back in the board, back in the civil service’s draughty offices at the heart of the city. What was the nickname that the other civil servants called the State Protection Board? The peculiar gentlemen. And this business was getting more peculiar by the hour.
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