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Twist laid aside his cane and moved the palms of his hand over the open pages of the newspaper, as if he was divining for water, humming theatrically as he did so. ‘Ah, the clouds are parting. I see … a robbery. The thief the papers call the Sable Caracal has struck again, leaving her mocking calling card tucked into an empty picture frame.’ He patted his pockets, and with a false look of surprise pulled out an oblong of cardboard with two feline eyes embossed on it. ‘And as if by magic …’
‘Seeing as it’s you that’s carrying one of those, perhaps it’s his mocking calling card?’
Twist spun the card between his long fingers. ‘Well, most people think these cards are just a piece of theatre to taunt the police. But anyone with a deeper understanding knows that it’s actually to announce which criminal lord’s protection the thief is operating under – and which flash mob an interested buyer should contact to obtain a stolen piece. In this case, the Cat-gibbon and her gang of cut throats.’
Charlotte’s heart sank. And only the Cat-gibbon had known she was here tonight for the painting.
I’ve been sold out. But who has the balls to lean on the Cat-gibbon? She’d dump the body of any police inspector who came calling in the river just for the cheek of asking her to give up one of her prize thieves.
Charlotte considered using the jewel nestled on a chain around her neck, the Eye of Fate, but it had been acting oddly ever since these two devils had appeared, throbbing like a piece of cold ice huddled against her skin. It had never done that before.
Scaring my jewel, scaring the Cat-gibbon – okay, consider me appropriately terrified Mister Twist.
‘You’re not with the police.’
‘Certainly not the dull plodding kind that feels the collars of pickpockets for transportation to the colonies,’ said Twist.
‘So what do you want?’
‘You’ve left your calling card,’ said Twist, pushing the oblong of card down onto the reading table. ‘And we’ve come calling.’
His companion was still behind Charlotte, and she didn’t need the cold burning weight on her chest to know that he had his pistol pointed at her spine.
‘An engagement at your gentlemen’s club, perhaps?’
‘A more exclusive venue,’ said Twist. ‘The House of Guardians.’
Parliament! In terms of my usual venues, that’s certainly a move up in the world.
‘Do you think there’s a ward where I could get elected?’
Twist shrugged. ‘The bastard issue of Lady Mary’s affair with the scandalous lord commercial, Abraham Quest. I suspect not, if that fact became known.’
They knew all about her. The Cat-gibbon really had given her up.
Charlotte felt a familiar twinge of old wounds being rubbed raw. ‘I prefer illegitimate and reserve the term bastard for scoundrels like you.’
‘Perhaps I am. Yet, it was your mother who stopped paying your foster parents shortly before she got remarried. Worried about the duke tracing the payments, finding out about you and calling the wedding off, I daresay.’
And hadn’t they been quick to throw me out onto the streets when the baby farming payments stopped.
‘The term for that, Mister Twist, is bitch, not bastard. At least it is, if it’s my mother you’re referring to’
‘Oh, but it must rankle,’ said Twist. ‘You should have been the heir to one of the greatest fortunes in the Kingdom, blood as refined as any inside this house – well, at least on your mother’s side, your father was quite the chancer. And here you are, flashing your legs and bosom on stage among bursts of conjurer’s powder, your hand dipping into the cutlery tray for silver when nobody’s watching.’
‘I get by.’
‘I would imagine that getting by is the thing that weighs most on your soul. Ever a guest, on sufferance at the feast. Have you been inside Parliament, the visitors’ gallery perhaps?’
Charlotte shook her head.
‘You would like it. Its chamber is packed to the gunnels with all the richest and most powerful people in the land. The ones who should have been your peers at some expensive finishing school. Instead, there you were as a child, scraping around for bones with meat left on in the dustbins outside the capital’s hotels.’
I did a little better than that. Eventually. ‘What’s this about, honey? Nobody keeps their valuables in the House of Guardians.’
‘Not quite true,’ said Twist. He pulled a small wooden box out of his jacket, placed it on the table next to her calling card, and clicking open a pair of clasps on its side he opened it, an interior lined with cloth as crimson as the lining of his cape. On top of the cloth lay three or four punch cards, the heavy card edged with gold.
‘To open locks?’
‘Perfectly correct – locks in Parliament.’ Twist lovingly brushed the tattoo of information that would slot into a transaction-engine’s punch card injector, calculation drums turning to the beat of the cipher contained on the cards until heavy bolts withdrew from an armoured door. ‘Enough open doors to create an opportunity for, what is it the Illustrated calls the Sable Caracal, the nation’s most extraordinary and audacious thief?’
‘One of their politer headlines. What’s inside Parliament you want?’
‘A little thing,’ said Twist. ‘A box under the speaker’s chair containing three things. The two amputated arms of the present puppet monarch, stuffed of course—’
‘Of course.’ He’d said ‘puppet’, were these two jokers royalists, then?
‘You can leave those behind. It’s not Parliament’s stooge raising arms against the people that the guardians need to worry about. The other item under the speaker’s chair is far more valuable – the sceptre, the only one of the crown jewels to have survived being melted down and sold off during the innumerable economic crises of the last few centuries.’
‘King Jude’s sceptre!’ Charlotte was incredulous. ‘You think I can steal King Jude’s sceptre? It must be priceless!’
‘Purely sentimental value to me, I can assure you,’ said Twist.
‘So you two are rebels. You must be insane. There won’t be a constable or soldier in the land that Parliament won’t set on the trail of it if it goes missing.’
‘I would be disappointed by anything less. It’s a symbol,’ said Twist. ‘Of Parliament’s hegemony over the royal family. Value far beyond the gold and jewels that the sceptre is composed of, and that value is substantial. Think of it, every First Guardian since Isambard Kirkhill overthrew the rightful king has appointed a speaker to sit above that sceptre, their fat arses sweating and wiggling on top of its jewels and crystals. By such acts are history made.’
‘I thought the crown jewels were kept in a safe room below Parliament?’
‘So they are. When the house is not in session, the box is lowered into a vault, very well protected by guards and traps and doors and thick walls of concrete and metal. We hold the punch cards here to many – but not all – of those doors.’
‘Unfortunately, I don’t work for sentimental or symbolic value.’
‘Nor would I expect you to. You are an artist Damson Shades, and we are asking you to produce your masterwork for us.’ Picking up a pen from an inkwell in the table he scrawled a figure on the calling card’s blank slide, and pushed it across to her.
Charlotte’s eyes widened when she saw the amount, and she worked hard to halt her face from expressing any flicker of interest. The money helped, it always helped. ‘And the painting from tonight?’
‘Already removed from the false bottom of the cabinet you used to saw the duke in half, and returned upstairs. We require the sceptre’s delivery with the minimum of fuss; and the postponement of police interest until later.’
‘The Cat-gibbon will not be pleased.’
‘She is a pragmatist, like all the rulers of the flash mob. We have made, let us say, an accommodation with her.’
That would have been an interesting conversation. Wish I could’ve been there.
‘May I say that one exists between us also?’
Charlotte slipped her calling card back into his lapel pocket. ‘For art, Mister Twist. For my masterwork.’
Charlotte made to leave the room, but the man casually raised his cane blocking her exit.
‘You appear to be practised in the arts of mesmerism, for—’
‘For one so young, Damson Shades. Where did you learn such an art?’
‘An old gypsy woman taught me.’
He shrugged and lowered his cane, disappointed. ‘Well, hold to your craft’s secrets then. We will be in touch through the contact woman you use to intermediate with the Cat-gibbon.’
No, really. A gypsy woman.
Twist’s broken-nosed companion lowered his pistol as the door closed. ‘Do think she believed you, sir?’
‘Not everything, Mister Cloake. I sense there is a little more to her than that which she professes to be. But she will do the job for us. That is all that matters.’
‘We could get the sceptre ourselves, given time. Steal more pass cards; threaten the guards and the people protecting the vaults.’
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