Читать онлайн «From the Deep of the Dark»
Dick raised his finger to point out a particular sheet of paper, a rough daguerreotype image with his own features printed across it. Was that his service record, spooled off the turning drums of the transaction-engines below their feet?
‘Why am I down there, sir?’
‘This thread,’ the steamman hissed in satisfaction. ‘To my mind, this thread is the only one I can rely on.’
‘You can always trust in me, sir.’
‘You’re not important enough,’ mumbled the steamman. ‘Not important enough to be bribed, to be turned. Never a double agent, never.’
Dick Tull nodded grimly. That was the sanest thing he’d heard from the head of the board today.
Dick shut the door to the head’s office, finding Walsingham waiting for him with a short broken-nosed bruiser who looked like he belonged in the board’s interrogation section.
‘Apparently there are treasonists everywhere, sir.’
‘I rather hope not. The board is busy enough with the royalist threat.’
‘Nobody has been able to tell me where Lord Chant’s royalist visitor ended up last night, major.’
‘I have other people trailing Carl Redlin, Tull. We wouldn’t want to lose him, eh? Lose him like, say, certain silverware reported missing by Lord Chant.’
Dick attempted to look perplexed and shook his head sadly. ‘And all those policemen at his house last night too.’
‘This is your new partner. Corporal Cloake. Work your informants in the capital. If there are rebels in the city, then they may be spreading money among the flash mob. Find anyone looking for false papers, guns and explosives …’
Dick indicated the corporal. ‘My informants’ll get nervous if I bring along an unknown face.’
‘Your informants belong to the board, not you, Tull. You make sure they are all written up and accounted for in your duty book. You’ll be leaving us soon enough. They’re not your private property. They better get accustomed to meeting the rest of us.’
And that day will come sooner rather than later if you have your way, won’t it, you old sod?
Corporal Cloake was a taciturn bugger, which suited Dick down to the ground. If more employees of the board observed the ‘say nothing’ part of their motto, the service would be a far better place to work. They took the lifting room down to the armoury to pick up the pistols they had to check in when visiting Greenhall’s corridors. The armourer on duty was Haggerston, a gruff old devil – showing about as much care of his guns as he did of his untidy, knotted beard, rubbing his fat fingers on the leather grease-stained apron he wore as he appeared at a desk built into the equipment cage.
‘Sign the chit,’ barked Haggerston. ‘Two pistols, five charges apiece.’
‘Five?’ Dick queried. ‘And what happens if I run into six royalists.’
The armourer pointed to Corporal Cloake. ‘Get him to shoot one of them.’
Dick checked the quality of the pistol he’d been given, working its clockwork hammer mechanism to make sure it wasn’t rusted beyond use.
Skinflint. I bet he’s selling our ammunition on the side, some nice little arrangement with the gun shops along Dawson Street.
‘It fires fine,’ said Haggerston. ‘I passed it on the test range myself yesterday.’
‘You ever done a real day’s work in the field? You’re going to get me killed one day.’
Haggerston mimicked a swift drinking motion with his chubby hand. ‘That gun’s better than your aim, Tull. Now jigger off.’
Corporal Cloake checked his pistol and then slid it into the concealed holster under his black frock coat, adding each charge carefully into his belt. After he pulled his stovepipe hat down he might have passed for an undertaker. But a man like Cloake made corpses, he didn’t care for them.
‘Your informants …’ said Cloake.
Tull nodded. Oh, you’ll meet them today, Corporal. Every penny-ante pickpocket and counterfeiter I have ever shaken down, starting with the most useless first. Let’s see how long it takes before you lose interest. We’ll hide that tree among the forest and see how you sodding like it.
Corporal Cloake, it transpired, didn’t lose interest – possibly because his stubby little skull lacked the imagination to hold much of anything in the first place. It was like dragging a lump of lead pipe around, only useful to slap recalcitrant informants around the head; but Dick didn’t doubt that the dour, uncommunicative little thug was carefully noting all the names and addresses of the contacts they were meeting. Hopefully he lacked the imagination to notice they weren’t shaking anything noteworthy out of the mob of second-raters and riffraff that Dick was leading them around.
After half a day of such profitless encounters, Dick pointed across the street – towards a sign hanging from a building, no words, only a painting of a haunch of lamb on a roasting spit.
‘Lunch?’ Dick started to cross the pebbled street, but the corporal stayed where he was. ‘You eat don’t you?’
‘Not there,’ said Cloake, ‘not serving slop …’
‘That’s value for money, that is,’ said Dick. ‘A couple of pennies for a plate and a draught. What do you want, the headwaiter at Ravelow’s to plump up a cushion and drop gilded gold pear slices down your throat? If you’re going to be working with me, corporal, you can break bread over the table of an ordinary.’
‘See you back here in an hour, sergeant.’
Dick shrugged and cut through the lane’s busy traffic, carts, milk wagons and kettle-blacks hissing steam around the hooves of shire horses. Oddly, the beasts seemed to mind the new steam-driven contraptions less than the old-style horseless carriages driven by high-tension clockwork. Always unsettled by the whine from clockwork engines, the nags were. Dick stepped out of the way of an old man under the sign of the ordinary, a face more wrinkles than skin, his clothes so tatty you could hardly tell where his original tweed began and the patching ended. Well, you didn’t eat in places like this for the company. The lack of words on the sign of the establishment gave the game away that much of its custom came from the illiterate poor. And there were few apartments in the rookeries, the city’s cramped slums, which possessed kitchens, or would have risked the dangers of fire even if they’d had the space. This is where the poor ended up. This is where Dick Tull ate.
Dick looked with approval at the scene inside. Rows of wooden tables and benches, cheap wooden plates with sets of iron cutlery chained to the boards of the table. A choice of – not just one, mind, but two – roasts turning on the spits at the other end of the long room, a haunch of pork and a whole side of lamb. How could you call this slop? It was value, value for money. And there were other things to be had here too, things that Dick had been counting on the corporal turning his nose up at inside an ordinary – its food and the cheap clothes of its patrons. Dick nodded back to a one-eyed man shovelling red meat through his broken teeth by the door. Then he approached the owner. The proprietor was currently ensuring the patrons only dipped their wooden cup once through the open barrel of budget beer, only carved off a single portion – and not too large with it – of meat. For some men, being thin was a matter of build, for Barnabas Sadly, it appeared a natural extension of his pinch-faced demeanour. Other men doing his job might’ve got fat on the greasy leftovers and natural spillage that went with the position. But not Barnabas Sadly, and this was hardly his primary source of income, either. The ordinary he minded was a gateway, a bridge between the normal life of the capital and its criminal underworld. A stroke of genius, really. Most greasers – the fixers and middlemen of the underworld – set up court in alehouse backrooms and eventually attracted the attention of the constables, no matter how dangerous the slum district. But an ordinary? Everyone needed to eat, didn’t they? Among the clank of chained spoons and the rattle of wooden plates, other business was conducted here. Well away from the detectives of Ham Yard and the corporals of the board, who, however poorly paid, were never so humble they would willingly eat in a place like this.
Sadly’s nose twitched like a rodent’s when he saw Dick bearing down on him, nervously glancing to either side of the beer barrel in search of an obvious escape route. Dick cut him off easily, the owner barely beginning to hobble away on his twisted foot and brass-handled walking cane. Dick backed him into a storeroom where long carving knives and spit sharpeners dangled on hooks. The top of Sadly’s head scarcely came up to Dick’s nose.
‘Anyone would think you didn’t want to see me, Sadly.’
‘Don’t say that, Mister Tull. I was just thinking about flagging down a brewery wagon for a fresh barrel, is all.’
‘Fresh?’ Dick growled. ‘There’s not much fresh being served in here. Not unless it’s what’s concealed in one-eyed Osborne’s bag by the door. That’s probably fresh from whichever poor sod’s house he took his crowbar to last night.’ Dick reached out to one of the hooks and lifted a knife off, scraping it along the sharpening block dangling next to it. ‘You’re not keeping this sharp enough.’
‘You’re just like all my customers, Mister Tull. I lay your sustenance down and you carve it off, one slice at a time. No thought for me, no thought for what it costs, say I.’
‘You’re a bad advert for this place, Barnabas Sadly. Customers like to see their hosts jolly and round-faced, not pockmarked and as hungry as a sewer rat.’ He thumped Sadly in the solar plexus and the man doubled up, Dick catching him almost gently before Sadly dropped his cane and then he pushed the informer back against the storeroom wall. ‘No padding around the ribs. You think the proprietor of an alehouse would have even felt that with a decent beer gut? Royalists, Sadly, royalists …’
The informant’s eyes darted away from Dick’s. A little too quick. What do you know?
‘Captain Twist and his noble troublemakers are back on the streets of Middlesteel, Sadly. And the board’s not happy with the thought of it. Because, if Parliament gets a whiff of the royalist rebels’ malarkey, we’re going to get—’ Dick tightened his grip on the man’s shoulder until he winced with pain, ‘—squeezed.’
‘This isn’t the old game anymore,’ complained the rodent-faced little man. ‘Things are going on, that—’
‘They’ve got money this time, the royalists. Normally nobody in the flash mob would give them the time of day, you know that. Blowing things up is bad for business. Leave it to the politicals and the anarchists and the bloody Carlists, say I.’
‘But Captain Twist is being flasher with the contents of his purse this time?’
‘Lords-a’larkey, but I don’t know what’s going on, Mister Tull. There are people getting together with no cause. Foxes and hens, say I. Mousers and mice. What do you think when you see those two dancing together?’
Foxes and hens. Lord Chant and his mysterious royalist visitor, Carl Redlin. Another royalist, Symons, spying on them, snooping on his own people. Strange days, indeed.
Dick brushed the dandruff from Sadly’s patched collar. ‘And what do you think, my limping little friend?’
‘I heard the board is involved, Mister Tull. Your people. And I think I should keep my head down. There’re people being pulled out of the river, and not just tramps accused of being vampires, beaten to death with pipes and sticks, either. Some of the floaters are royalists.’
‘I haven’t heard of any royalists being fished out of the Gambleflowers?’
‘There was another one this morning, Mister Tull. Third this week as I count it. Rufus Symons, a notable rogue. Raised to manhood with the royalist fleet-in-exile and dedicated to the cause.’
Rufus Symons. Sweet Circle, and if I’d followed him for a couple of hours longer, told the board and handed him over, then we would’ve found out who … Dick’s ace-in-the-hole had just been swept off the card table.
‘You look like you knew him, Mister Tull?’
‘I know he shouldn’t have died last night.’ Not until he spilled his guts to me. Not until he made me look good in front of the officer class. Who did it? You, Blacky? Did you put a bullet in his back and then roll him into the river? And now, if I tell anyone about following him out to your house in the hills, I’m going to look like the stupid jigger who messed up everything again. It’s never made easy. Not for me.
‘And this time, the rebels aren’t after guns and explosives. Nobody in the flash mob’s been asked for them. And why is that, ask I? Because the royalists are already being supplied with weapons by the gill-necks. Looks like it could be war, Mister Tull. Us against the Advocacy, and the gill-neck leadership have found some friends among our own dispossessed, dissatisfied nobles, I say. Arm our rebels, stir them up, and set them off against us before war breaks out between the Kingdom and the underwater people.’
The same nonsense that the old steamer was spouting back in the board. Maybe there’s something to it after all, then?
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