by Nicki Vardon
A bell on the airdeck chimed for ‘land ahoy’ while I perched on our settee berth. I held my oil cannister poised as not to spill on the luxury sheets, lubricating Mordecai’s joints until his hinged segments slicked past one another, more quietly than a whisper.
Mordecai is my left hand; that’s a simple fact, not a metaphor. An unholy matrimony of brass for bones, wires for sinews and mineral oil as his lifeblood.
“You and me, Mordecai,” I whispered against his digits as I released the leather harness from my little arm. “First heist alone, last one together.”
I let Mordecai complete his test round. A scurry up along the wall, around the pendant lamp, timed tightly against my pocket watch. Every tiniest creak scraped my nerves, and I checked the oil level in the cannister.
Larceny was no longer supposed to be my calling, yet the palm I never possessed tingled as Mordecai traipsed across the ceiling with the grace of a metal tarantula. Even caught myself humming a tune; on better days I’d scold Horace for the same. Already I’ve had to hide theatre pamphlets for Whitechapel! slipped underneath our cabin door, because my husband loved shows in bad taste. What was it? Not ten years since the first Ripper murder?
Instead, I had waved a circular from the Society for the Promotion of Science in his face, bouncing like a giddy school girl. Even though I’d known weeks ahead that the exhibition would be on the Revolution of Communication without Wires with a lecture by Guglielmo Marconi to boot, and my objective had long been predetermined.
It’s what I do. I lie and I steal. I fix clocks and mend watches. I build limbs out of cogs, hinges, and filaments. At first for myself, then for war veterans, factory mishaps, or others birthmarked like me. I created Mordecai. And then I taught him to steal, too.
It’s a living. Or at least it used to be.
I secured Mordecai’s leather straps, covered him with my glove and stepped out onto deck. The considerable wind rustled the petticoats around my legs as the dirigible swept through the sky. My hair at its unfamiliar length stung my eyes and tucking the black strands behind my ears proved futile. I’d never have myself talked into a fringe again.
At front-stern I joined my husband under the ballonet’s shade, where he shied away from other passengers playing shuffleboard among seagull chatter. Sunlight filtered through the grey haze of clouds hovering above the chalk-fronted landmass the airship approached.
“Look.” Horace gestured, resting his other hand on my little arm, where Scarlett ended and Mordecai began. “The white cliffs of Dover.”
“Well, they are white,” I sighed, snuggling against him. “As advertised.”
“Don’t start. You’ll like London, if it’s still how I remember.”
“There’s rain ahead.”
Horace smiled as he gazed out over the sea, steeling himself against the railing. “Exactly how I remember.”
Thankful for the shimmer of joy on his face, I took his hand to silence my worry. His waistcoat flapped in the wind, unbuttoned, so it wouldn’t press against the swelling. He stood on top of his shoes instead of in them and his casual lean against the balustrade would betray to no one else that bending over helped him to breathe. My English Rose was wilting, and I had precious little time to save him.
Horace withdrew and rubbed his fingers. He frowned, puzzled. “You weren’t off powdering your nose.”
Verdammt. My glove dripped with lubricant.
“Is this why we’re visiting the museum?” he asked. “You plan to have your hand drag Michelangelo’s David through the front entrance?”
“Don’t be silly,” I answered. “That’s a cast, it’s not worth stealing.”
Horace tugged his shirt and shook his head.
“I could take his figleaf, cause some uproar.” I nudged him, but he turned away.
“You’re better than this.”
“It’s only tonight, Horace. It’s the last time, I swear.”
“It’s always the last time.” He sighed, then coughed, found his handkerchief, and dabbed his clammy skin. “There’s always one more after.”
If anything could stop me from putting on another heist, it would be my husband’s disappointment. I wished I didn’t have to fight this electric thrill, wired deeply through my being. ‘Cut it out’ may work on a bruised apple, not so much on a person and their proclivities. It would require an invasive surgery that had not yet been invented.
“Scarlett, you heard the physician. I’m a lost cause.” Speaking of surgery... “Don’t let me be the one to have you slip back.”
“If you think I’m going to let —”
“It’s not worth it. You’re young enough, you’ll remarry.” He looked at me, in sorrowful earnest. “I don’t want you to risk your life for mine.”
Still dripping oil, I reached out for Horace. I wanted to say that he wasn’t made of clockwork; I couldn’t slice him open and fix him myself. Moreover, I wanted to shake him and scream: don’t you want to live? Instead, I smeared the droplets on deck with my shoe. “I should change gloves.”
With the ease of a swan landing on water, the dirigible anchored onto the docks at Canary Wharf less than an hour later. The gangplank and the cobbles of the harbour were slick with drizzle and I clung to Horace as he clung onto me. The sky had turned sepia with whatever hellish substance provided the stink from the Thames, discolouring late morning into early night.
If this was London, I preferred Stuttgart. London tried too hard to be quaint. Not a locomobile in sight, but plenty of coaches and wagonettes pulled by automaton horses, steam wisping from boilers in their gunmetal saddles. Everything about them looked uncomfortable; such is fashion over function. Less manure in the streets, but readily replaced by the smell of kerosene.
Horace jogged my arm with his sudden stop in front of a queue of refuse barges loading coal into an industrial incinerator. The sky-high flames engulfed his face in a glow, giving him more colour than he’d sported even before our vows.
The vision recalled me to the day I found Horace, in front of the Kronprinzenpalais set ablaze, a whimpering spaniel in his arms and muttering “Never again,” over and over. I’d hidden him in my workshop from police and former co-agitators, while his burns healed and the dog learned to trot on a mechanical leg. I should have hated this man, the traitor, the English defector. Yet I couldn’t. My mother’s blood called out for the white cliffs.
I’d saved him then because of his soft-heartedness, and now I would save him from the opposite: the shell hardening around his heart until it could no longer pulse. There weren’t many surgeons skilled enough to crack a man open, skin his heart like a snared rabbit, and stitch him back up with the express purpose of keeping him alive. Venturing into the new century, physicians could diagnose disease into next Christmastide, but cures were thin on the ground.
And hope was exorbitantly priced.
“Maybe I should be cremated,” Horace murmured.
“Not on our honeymoon.” I dragged him towards a wagonette. We’d find out together how painful these rides would be.
Quite, was the answer. Suspension must not mean much to the City’s farriers. The heat wafting from the mech-horses scorched one half of my face, while London’s fog and drizzle chilled the other. The harbour rolled past. Bridges rose and lowered for chimneyed paddle-steamers. A crane lifted a storey-high crate into the wharf among gusts of vapour and I squinted at the firebrand lettering on the side.
Aloysius Brecht — Kunsttransport — Art in the best of hands
Gopferteufel! If he was here, I’d have to work fast tonight.
“I thought you didn’t owe him anything.” Horace stared me down, sternly.
“Who?” I snapped down the flap on the tilt and slunk into my seat, wishing the leather cushioning would devour me so Horace couldn’t hear the pulse race in my veins.
“He’s not my—”
“Your brain’s… consort,” he grumbled in a low voice.
I bit my knuckles to suppress what I felt. I hadn’t seen Alois in a long while. I might even have missed him.
These two men could not have been more different if I’d picked them by hand. With Horace, I was the moth drawn to his flame, only to find the flame was a firefly, alight with a cool luminescence that would never scald me.
Around Alois, I walked a tightrope with a knife at my throat, begging for it to never end.
Horace’s disapproval at our past was unsurprising, but convenient. I could not allow him to protest tonight’s plans. If he were to refuse the money for his chance to a cure, it would kill me alongside him.
And so I grabbed hold of the lie he’d proffered.
“He’ll let me go after tonight.” I tucked back one of Horace’s sandy curls and he regarded me with a worry I did not deserve. “Tonight only. This is for me.”
You. This is for you.
My grandfather’s workshop used to be a treasure trove, a jewellery box filled with mechanics big and small, and always steeped under the vibrant cadence of a hundred clocks. The South Kensington Museum dazed me similarly: a building in a mismatch of styles, the result of too many architects spoiling the blueprints, yet filled to the rafters with mosaics, paintings, carvings, and frescos, exceedingly smug about where they’d ended up.
My hand itched. I required more pocket space.
“Scarlett,” hissed Horace from behind his hand when I left him in the refreshment rooms to be seated and to have a proper cup of tea. It had been a long day. “The place is teeming with police.”
“They’re museum warders.” My voice kept steady, although there were more constables around than I had anticipated. I pecked Horace on his ear. “Not to worry. I’ve done the research.”
“You’ll get caught. Don’t do this.”
Even so, I would.
“Can’t we pay him off some other way?”
“You should have stayed at the guest house.” I clenched and unclenched Mordecai as I loosened his leather straps underneath my glove, snapping them like a garter, sending a rush that’d been absent for too long. “I will be back before the lecture starts.”
I slipped into the gallery infused with illumination oil and pipe smoke, and submerged into the throng of mantelets, puffed sleeves and ascots. Making a beeline would raise suspicion, so better to play the fascinated visitor, weaving through cases, pillars, and torchieres.
Now, I’d paid some attention to Hertzian waves and those that took the research further: Braun, Lodge, Bose, and tonight’s speaker, Marconi. Communication without wires had seemed like magic not many years ago, but today it was reality.
The display case of the night’s interest held Marconi’s ‘jigger’. The technical term, I was sure. A simple gadget: a coiled cylinder the size of a fist, but it reportedly improved wireless communication by such measures it made the difference between garbling and speech. Much like a pocket watch where each cog served its mechanics, remove one and it would desynchronize or stop. Much like a human heart. As Horace’s physician had put it, everything collapses once the ‘ticker’ falters. Again, the technical term.
I bent over to inspect the content, slipped my hands underneath the tabletop case, and left Mordecai to his task of sawing a circle through the bottom without touching the baseboard.
As I covered my little arm with the empty glove, I had a gander through the rest of the gallery. In the reflections of the displays with antennae and waveguides, polarisers, and crystal detectors, I scouted for constables moving out of queue and any gimlet-eyed art handlers. Mordecai’s retractable saw rustled evenly while the meandering crowd chattered and clinked glasses.
The silence was too loud for me when Mordecai finished. I pretended to drop my program leaflet near the case, and plunged down my bag, whisking away the sawdust. With Mordecai retrieved and the cut-out removed, stage one was completed, but my evening nowhere near done. Unfortunately, I could not operate my keypunch single-handed, so I sought to refit Mordecai in a secluded spot.
With measured stride I made my way through the next gallery, counting forty-five paces past the opus criminale floor mosaic laid by lady convicts from a nearby prison. That could be me soon, but I’d seen their uniforms. Too matronly for my taste.
The closer I got to the far end of the gallery the more conscious I became of a familiar voice. I refused to be distracted from my calculations, but I did look up after walking into a placard.
For the celebration of the newly elected Lord Mayor, lorimer of the City of London.
A house-high metal horse in vibrant copper-green patina, much like those dragging the coaches through the city, hulked over me through the cloister. Looming in its stance as if it were to plunge forward to devour me whole, its jaw unhinged. Its ears flapped, creaking unoiled. Its eyes blinked with a ruby glow, lighting alternately as if gone rogue. I jolted when it released a stream of vapor from its nostrils with an angry huff, but instead of singeing it sent me into a cough. Powder. A fake fog.
In a fit to breathe, I fled into the gardens. Whoever installed that equestrian abomination deserved a spanking.
At the small respite area, I brandished a fresh punch card for the algorithm I’d named ‘lovelacing’ (See, leave technical terms to me). Move, leap, pause, grasp, hook, push, point; all commands to be finely tickered into a strip of paper. The Enchantress of Numbers would be proud.
When Karoline Eichler developed the first body-powered hand prosthetic in 1836 she probably didn’t envision an entity like Mordecai crawling through museum arches, slitting baseboards and fetching trinkets like the jigger. My stalwart Mordecai, birthed by the minds of three women: Eichler, Lovelace, Haberlin, though I feel I’ve bastardised Karoline’s compassionate designs. I’m not much of a mother, nor that good of a person.
I fed the paper lace through the opening in Mordecai’s wrist. Stage two would be a challenge, but the fading daylight could only aid me. I had wanted to wait until closing, but Alois’ presence complicated matters: he worked nights. Hopefully the warders were on the lookout for leftover refreshments, not disembodied hands.
Mordecai stealthed towards the gallery, a flash of brass amid manicured shrubbery. I followed his moves in my pocket mirror until a tall figure emerged near the entrance. A man with a face so gaunt it could be mistaken for a skull, all cheekbones and sophisticated stubble under the shade of his top hat. The dark coat cloaking his narrow shoulders revealed a vest underneath, embroidered with whiplash cyclamen. How very Jugendstil.
Alois Brecht, handler in arts. The bottom dropped from my stomach as he approached. I didn’t have to imagine the horrors of a Whitechapel! stageplay. I would be living the opening scene.
“Frau Haberlin.” Alois lit a cigarette with the flint lighter hidden in the top of his cane. “Did you like my horse?”
“It’s a grotesque nightmare,” I snipped, clapping powder I’d missed off my dress, and hugging myself to hide my little arm with its Mordecai-shaped void. “And it’s Mrs. Montgomery.”
“Already cavorting with the enemy. Didn’t take you long.” Smoke drifted as he let it escape and obscure his expression. “And you cut your hair.”
“It’s the fashion these days.”
“If you think you have the face for it.”
“I didn’t cut it for you, Chotzbrocke.” I blew the waft of smoke back into his annoyingly unflinching face.
“Between us we could strip this place before sunrise,” said Alois. “Half the constabulary is already inebriated. Worse security than the Glyptothek.”
I could not suppress a grin. I remembered Munich. And Frankfurt-am-Main, Zürich, Basel, the Kunsthalle in Bremen, and the Gemäldegallerie in Berlin. I shuddered and dove into my shawl. “I’m just here for the lecture.”
“Of course you are. Hertzian waves are what makes clocks tick, after all.” Alois regarded me along his nose. “Who are you planning to sell to?”
Really, what was the point in denying?
“The highest bidder.” I snapped my compact shut. “Nothing under three hundred.”
Alois scoffed. “You’ll struggle.”
We’d see about that. With the jigger gone he’d struggle harder.
He lowered his voice, mouth hidden behind another plume of smoke. “Ditch what you’re doing. Meet me after by the Brompton Oratory.”
“How many are in with you?”
“No more than usual.”
That meant two or three. Even if that didn’t mean a paycut, Mordecai had already made it inside. I had nothing that needed sharing.
Alois didn’t need to know that.
“Sure, why not?” I smiled, leaning cheek to shoulder. “For old times’ sake.”
He stepped back for a last drag, not breaking eye contact, then tossed the stub into the gravel path. “Enjoy the rest of your evening, Frau Haberlin.” With a bow he grabbed my wrists and brought them to his lips. He kissed my right hand, and when he straightened the left glove hung limply in his grip.
“Nervous, Scarlett? You clamped your hand so tightly there it fell asleep.” He leaned in towards me with a leer. “Ah! — No, the iron hand never sleeps.” His deep-set eyes narrowed, glinted, before he turned into the gallery.
“Brass, you nitwit,” I uttered under my breath.
I shuddered again, pretending to be cold under the autumnal breeze. It wouldn’t matter if he knew. Mordecai had been programmed to hide in the rafters until mid-lecture, far out of sight and reach. And so should I, away from that walking knife-edge that sizzled my skin at the touch.
Before I went to find Horace, I crossed a familiar face from circulars and posters. Tonight’s speaker himself. Fresh-faced, hair slicked with macassar. He seemed awfully young for someone with as much research to his name.
“Pre-lecture jitters, Signor Marconi?” I asked in Italian. Having a Swiss grandfather helped some days. With the right smile, naturally.
“Perhaps a little,” Marconi bristled, taken aback by the question. “Switzerland? That’s a long way for a lecture.” He looked me up and down, and I wondered if I should whip out my wedding band. Maybe after I’d finished stealing his trinkets…
“Germany. And you’re not the only inventor here,” I said and chanced a wink. “Congratulations on your latest patent. Do you expect speaking wirelessly across the North Sea will be possible soon?”
“I should hope so, we’re close to ten miles already. I don’t want to give everything away, but we’ll be experimenting between ships over the next months.”
War fleets. The arms race carried on. No wonder Alois wanted in on the money. It didn’t particularly matter to me which side would pay for Marconi’s invention as long as they did, though another side of myself wanted to know more. Science was a refuge in many ways, especially those days before Mordecai was a part of me. When little Scarlett Haberlin hid underneath her grandfather’s workbench in tears. Before he’d whittled her a stocky, jointless left hand. Before she began to craft her own versions with leftover hinges and an old army knife.
“Do you think Hertzian waves could do things other than communicate?” I asked. “What about moving an object with a command sent across the aether?” Mordecai, for example. He couldn’t quite do that yet.
“Well, yes, Bose has proven that already, the wireless connection between button and action. Did you not read about that, Signora Inventrice?” He chuckled. “He’s handed me his notes. The man doesn’t care for commercial opportunities.”
“I have my… ambitions.” The word dripped from his lips. “I’d show you his diagrams, but they’re inside —”
He stopped as a flickering light shadowed across his wide-eyed face. I didn’t need to turn to know the gallery was on fire.
Donnerwetter. Just my luck.
Amid the exodus of museum guests and to a concerto of police whistles, I slipped back into the garden. Mordecai lay near the bushes, spasming like a piece of shot game. His hinges squeaked again. His leather was charred and the brass too hot to the touch. At least his failsafe had been successful; he had reversed his last known operations.
I cradled Mordecai in my shawl like a hurt pet, inspecting each of his digits. He’d been targeted. Was this Alois demanding free reign for the night? From what I could gather, the gallery contained a solitary column of flames among the stone pillars. Enough to conjure chaos, but far short of laying the museum in ashes.
One more punch card left. I considered sending Mordecai back. In the current pandemonium, he might go unnoticed. But my answer became clear as a full regiment of Royal Engineers trampled the gallery. There was no chance I could send Mordecai in unseen.
My mission had failed. I had failed.
Dry-mouthed and cotton-headed, I considered Horace to be safely with the hostess at the other side of the building and was grateful he couldn’t see me defeated. He’d be telling me it would be better this way, when it most certainly was not. I blamed smoke and ash for the burn in my throat and the sting in my eyes.
With hanging head, I made my way to the muster point to find him, but as I did, the agitated voice of Marconi emerged, arguing with police and curators in tailored suits, wailing about his things left inside the building.
“What’s the trouble?” I asked him. “It looks like your inventions will be safe.” From the fire as well as myself, regrettably.
“It’s the water from the sappers I’m worried about. And my bag. It holds my latest patent work.” He waved towards the lecture theatre doorway. “They’re saying I might not be able to get to it until tomorrow.”
I dawdled for a moment with Mordecai in my arms. Maybe this was the sign I had been waiting for. My change of ways. At least I could give my husband that. And it couldn’t hurt to help a successful businessman.
“You’re in luck to be among inventors,” I said, pulling out my last punch card. “Do you remember precisely where you left it?”
Marconi looked at me with incredulity while I punched in directions and fed them into my left wrist. This time, stealth was unneeded, so I ramped Mordecai’s speed higher and his directions straight across the floor.
“My word.” Marconi’s wide eyes amused me to no end. He wasn’t the only one with jiggers at his disposal.
“Ah, it seems the police have apprehended a likely culprit.” A curator nodded to the garden exit, where a couple of warders dragged my husband to a police arrest wagon.
Oh, Horace, no!
I pushed through the gossiping crowd until I reached the cordon, where they had Horace sit on the wagon’s steps. “Sir!” I yelled at the sergeant when constables blocked my way. “This must be a mistake. My husband was in the reception area the whole night.”
“I’m afraid that’s not what the facts say, Madam.” The sergeant’s moustache fluttered like a moth when he spoke. “The hostess confirmed he disappeared into the gallery moments before the fire started.”
Horace didn’t look up and it unsettled me. His scarf had slipped open and exposed the old burns in his neck. I didn’t like the pale hint to his skin. An awful thought crawled from the recesses of my brain. He didn’t want me to risk my life for his, so what if he did it for me? What if he went back to his past ways of arson to stop me before I could get caught?
“Please, sir, then… can I tend to him? He’s not well, you must’ve seen.” I’m practiced in the art of eyelash fluttering as much as tinkering with prosthetics and pocket watches. It’s hard to say which skill has paid off more. My teary eyes from the smoke may have helped.
The sergeant hesitated, then waved me through. I dropped to my knees before Horace and muffled my words in his manacled hands. “You unbelievable Holzchopf, you didn’t have to do this.”
“Scarlett, I…” Finally he looked at me. “I didn’t. It wasn’t me.”
“Then why go into the gallery?”
“To find you. I was… worried for you.” He coughed into his sleeve and I rummaged through my bag for his laudanum. “And well… maybe to punch your suitor’s lights out.”
“You couldn’t dent butter tonight, Horace, much less knock anyone out cold.” Though I’d gladly do it for him.
“Don’t believe ‘im, luv,” one of the constables said, startling me, and he waved a cannister in my face, his ill-fitting uniform flopping about. “Found dis on ‘im.”
With his muttonchops thrust forward, he flaunted the container. The label had mostly peeled off, but it smacked me straight in the face with the piney scent of turpentine.
“In ‘is coat pocket ’twas. Caught red ‘anded if I ever seen a case.”
“I don’t know how it got there.” Horace clenched his gloved hands, making the leather squeak. “I must have passed out for a few moments.”
A spark lit my mind. “Horace, have you worn your gloves all evening?”
“I… I believe so.”
With leverage from my little arm, I peeled off his gloves, and smelled nothing on the leather or Horace’s skin except for a faint trail of soap. He had washed after my lubricant mishap.
“What’s going on here?” asked the sergeant, rejoining us.
“Smell these. They’re clean, so are his hands,” I said, thrusting the leather under his nose. “The same cannot be said for your constable. My husband didn’t handle this cannister, someone planted it on him.”
The sergeant wavered and half-heartedly sniffed at the gloves. The face of the constable fell so quickly from proud at a good day’s work to one wasted. I almost felt bad. He sniffed his own palms and recoiled.
Horace did the same, as if he couldn’t quite believe his own innocence.
Cries of excitement came from the direction of the auditorium. Mordecai must’ve found his way out of the building.
“You’ll release my husband, won’t you?” I said to the sergeant, and I patted the constable’s cheek. “I’d like to see him out of chains when I get back.”
Once more I ducked through the police cordon, only to hear a slow clap on the other side. I knew who faux applauded me, but I turned anyway.
“Jubel und Beifall, Frau Haberlin.” Alois leant under one of the barred windows of the police wagon, hat shading his eyes. An art handler, he practically bled turpentine.
I took him in, brow to cane. “Weren’t you wearing gloves earlier?”
“Who can say?” He shrugged, lighting another cigarette. “Or maybe I misplaced them. Silly old me.”
He should be glad I did not carry Mordecai with me or I’d have gutted him where he stood. As I walked away, I imagined the punch card I’d lace for him: leap, grasp, pierce, clench, strangle.
“Enjoy your victory while you can, Herr Art Handler.” I once lived for this cat-and-mouse, racketeering around Stuttgart’s harvest festival, two misfits side by side. Though I had yet to deal with him lighting a match to my hand.
But he still moved: Mordecai crawled from the lecture theatre, dragging Marconi’s bag in tow. I held my arms out like a mother would for a child taking its first steps. This wasn’t Mordecai’s inaugural day out, but it was his first honest job and I was a proud hen nonetheless.
“I can’t believe it. Thank you for your help.” Marconi stood as a nervous schoolboy. He unlocked the briefcase and leafed through the contents. “How strange…”
“What is?” asked the curator.
“Everything is there, except for my latest patent application. And Bose’s diagrams.”
“Couldn’t it have fallen out?”
“Impossible, the briefcase was closed.”
In that moment, I caught his glare and froze.
“That hand, does it apport straight back to you?” Before I’d even had a chance to reattach Mordecai, Marconi had pulled in one of the constables. “Inspect her bag. Her pockets, sleeves. She must have it.”
“I helped you,” I uttered. The downy hairs raised on my skin as the constable rifled through my purse. He dangled Mordecai as though he were a harvestman spider, and I wanted to protest, to cry out as the brute appeared ready to snap off his digits.
“Nothing, sir.” He dropped Mordecai to the flagstones, the clank making me shiver.
Marconi waved his arms. “Then I insist we search the gardens, in case the appendage stashes her loot for her.”
“Don’t be absurd,” I hissed back as I scooped Mordecai off the ground. “Do you know how much ticker tape that would cost? Your patent wouldn’t be worth the mileage!”
How I wished that weren’t a lie. The irony wasn’t lost on me, even while Marconi’s hostility deflated, even while defending everything I would have gladly put to practice.
“Are we done?” I tightened Mordecai’s harness. Was this how we were to retire? “It was an… honour meeting you, signor.”
“Un attimo!” uttered Marconi. “Wait! You’ll understand, as an inventor yourself. I have to protect them. There’s always those on the lookout for a quick coin or to claim my findings as their own.”
How right you are, sir. I nearly walked away with your gadgets and you wouldn’t have known a thing. I make an honest effort and stand accosted.
“Of course.” I rattled Mordecai’s digits near Marconi’s face. “I’d lend you a hand searching the gardens, but… I’ve need of this one. You’ll understand.”
Horace had been released from his handcuffs and a small smile tinted his ashen pallour as I approached. I wished I had enough reason to smile back. Tonight had been a full-powered fiasco.
Someone else had thrown themselves into the fray at the police circle.
“This is a grand shame, the museum in ashes, so many artefacts lost!”
“Lord Mayor, the fire has been contained. No one was harmed and it seems the damages are minimal.”
“You said you had a suspect.”
I sought Horace’s eyes as I readjusted his scarf, as not to betray my nerves or to have him betray his. Mordecai snagged in the wool.
“Yes, well…” The sergeant turned to us. “The lady over there cast doubt on that.”
At the edge of my vision, Alois sidled around the wagon. So cocksure, even if it wasn’t displayed on his face. He stared past me with a raised eyebrow and it made me wonder what I had missed.
Something brushed my shoulder and I caught Horace in time before he toppled into another faint. Heels wedged against the pavement, I stood with him in my arms until he came to, the few counts feeling like minutes.
“Good Lord, I’m such a foozler,” he said while I lowered him onto the wagon steps and sat alongside him.
“Language, Horace,” I tutted. Thankfully, it made him laugh. I longed for the day that I’d quip for his amusement, not to obtain an indication to his health.
And then it hit me: that day would not arrive. Hope, exorbitant or otherwise, had been slashed out of our future. I’d been living with this idea, this fantasy, that I would have what I needed by this time tonight. And here I sat emptyhanded, with Mordecai flame-bitten, and my husband gasping for an ounce of strength. I burrowed my face in Horace’s shoulder, unable to blame ash for my brimming eyes.
“Well, I won’t stand for such atrocities in this city,” continued the Lord Mayor, “I’ll put out a boon for anyone who leads us to the true arsonist.”
Through cigarette smoke, Alois’ stare still pried into my back. It set my whole mood aflame. If Alois hadn’t been so adamant on having first pickings, if he’d left Mordecai alone, if he’d just allowed me this one thing…
If, if, if.
“If things were up to me,” I said aloud, “I would dismantle that giant trojan horse in the gallery that’s now conveniently cleared for the night.”
“The horse?” asked the Lord Mayor. “You think… there could be people stashed inside?”
“Preposterous,” Alois sputtered behind me, German accent slipping through the cracks. “Bit too on the nose, no?”
The sergeant stroked his moustache as he regarded the arts handler Argus-eyed. “Well, sir, the lady may have been right once already.”
I stepped up to Alois. “What will we find within, Herr Brecht? Some accomplices? Pair of stained gloves?”
“Sherlock Holmes has nothing on you, Scarlett.” His smirk restored beneath another smoke curtain. “Well played.”
“This isn’t a game!” My voice cracked at punctuating each word.
Alois reached for my left wrist and drew back the sleeve where Mordecai’s blackened bands had smudged my skin. He rubbed out the marks and peered into Mordecai’s palm as into a mirror. “If it weren’t a game, you wouldn’t have won.”
“Say that again if you fancy a taste of brass.”
“Behave. Your husband’s watching.” He cupped my chin and dipped towards my ear. “Why decline my offer, then, if it’s all business to you?”
I shrugged away right when new tumult emerged from near the museum entrance. Predictably, the police had brought two young lads from the gallery. I didn’t know them. Alois must have roped in some local cracksmen to stuff his horse with.
“At least watching your brain at work is worth the price of defeat.” Alois released me and strode into the police circle. “Always has been.”
All I wanted was to see him squirm, but Alois’ arrest did not bring me the satisfaction I craved. He went without a fight, asking only for a place to put out his cigarette.
It’s not something I’d ever done, or wished to do again. Ever. Alois and I, we used to look out for one another. Still, he had this coming.
“He didn’t make you do this, did he?” Horace took me by the hand as we walked away. “This was all you.”
“I promised you it’d be the last time.” I meant what I said. I just wished that it didn’t hurt so much, on the precipice of losing them both. Who do you listen to when the little angel and devil on your shoulders stand to disappear?
Even at the guest house we weren’t granted much rest. Horace became unwell and was at the end of his laudanum, so I rushed to a pharmacy near St. George’s hospital. On my return, I hugged the fences wrapped around Hyde Park when the daylong threat of rain finally broke out. I’m too proud to take a wagonette by myself and my boots sloshed through puddles, soaking my skirts and stockings. English weather was as deceitful as I.
Around the same time I began to regret the evening. I’d handed my long-time partner over to foreign authorities for a paltry sum. The mayor’s boon wouldn’t even pay for the surgery. It would afford a fine London funeral, though that just felt defeatist. I considered throwing all caution to the wind and robbing a bank, or to return to the pharmacy, drop the medicine to the floor and have Mordecai empty the till during clean-up.
Before I could mould any thought into a plan, a stagecoach slowed as it passed me and stopped a few yards ahead. The rakish figure with the top hat that emerged was as welcome a sight as a bucket of slop water.
“Must I shiv you to be rid of you?” I bellowed over the clamour of rain.
“Have at me.” Alois opened up his umbrella and swerved it overhead. “I probably deserve it.”
I stood and smouldered while my dress clung to my skin. My threat was an empty one and he knew.
“Come along, my treacherous canary. This may not be Whitechapel, but it’s not Stuttgart either.” He’d turned. I’d not made another step. “Or would you rather contract an ague?”
“You sound like my husband,” I muttered, reluctantly finding space under his umbrella. “How come they let you go? It was your horse.”
“Oh, did I say it was my horse? I’m only the handler, content’s nothing to do with me.” He looked down at me with that satisfied crook on the corners of his mouth. “Don’t worry, you weren’t wrong.”
“What? About your gloves?”
“I hate you.” None of this should’ve surprised me. Alois could talk a tiger out of its stripes. “So I have to live on the boon of what — two other arrests?”
“No, they’ll be out soon. They never had the chance to do anything nefarious. Do you think that automaton moves entirely without assistance?”
“The police don’t know that. Besides, I leave no one behind.” It was true: he never did. I had yet to spend a single night in jail because of his code. “My sympathies.”
“You have none,” I bit and stomped my way towards the gate of the guest house.
“What ails him?” Alois called from behind, and it made me stop. “Your husband, what does he need?”
“Heart surgery.” I chewed my lip, tasting the rain and the salt washing from my face. “Only a handful of doctors may be able to perform it, most are in the States. One in Norway. And even then it may not save him.”
It hit me again, how much of a failure this night had been, how much of a crook I was — or wasn’t — and I threw myself against the brick post of the gate.
“I was so close,” I muttered, then raised my voice. “I was so close, du Missgeburt, but you couldn’t let me have it, could you?”
He didn’t answer. It’s a rare thing for Alois to be speechless. I liked to believe he was giving me the space to say what I needed.
“This night, Gott im Himmel, what disaster.” I pushed away from the post and Alois’ umbrella shielded me again. “Neither of us got anything to show for tonight, nothing, not a single thing.”
“Almost nothing.” Alois pulled something out of his sleeve and handed it to me.
“What’s this?” I asked, but even before I unfurled the roll I suspected what I would find. “Marconi’s patent applications?”
“They’ll sell. It won’t bring in as much as the prototype.” Alois looked away. “But you know that, since you’re the one who took these.”
“What?” Where I’d felt myself soften, anger flared up again.
“Well, that’s the tip the police will receive by tomorrow if you were to, indeed, shiv me.” He stood, straight as a whistle, unbothered by the rain or my glare. Lightning cracked in the distance. “Go ahead, sell them if you wish. But be aware, Marconi is particularly litigious when it comes to his patents. And you were last spotted with your hand on his bag.”
“You utter sack of horse manure.”
“I’ll make you a proposition.” Alois held out his hand with a flourish. “I have a buyer lined up and you won’t be linked to the sale. You can use the full amount that comes through to save your husband.”
“In exchange for what?”
Thunder rolled over London’s boroughs.
“You know what I want.”
I shook my head. “Alois, no.”
“You said it yourself, this night was a disaster. We’re better than this, both of us.”
“Alois, I can’t. I promised.” I slumped against the gate. “And I’m tired of fighting you.”
“Then don’t fight me. We shouldn’t be fighting, we should be conquering.” Alois crouched down, and still he towered about two heads above me. “Your iron hand, my silver tongue.”
“And here I thought I’d give the honest life a try. Look where it brought me.” The laudanum looked more tempting by the minute. I twisted the top in my hand. How many sips until this bitter tincture turned night eternal?
“Scarlett, you can’t slop a brick in the dirt and expect people to call it a road.” He stoppered the bottle and in a rare fashion turned my head his way, two fingers pressed to my cheek. “It takes time, and you’ll get there. I ask for once more. It’s nothing you’ve never done.”
He was right and I despised him for it. Once more. Always once more, and alongside Alois again. The excitement made me feel filthy. If Horace knew, he’d hate me, but at least he’d be alive to hate me. My priorities were a nest of riddles, even to myself.
I unscrolled the stack on my lap and wiped away blots of rain. Bose’s diagrams had been stuffed in among the papers, describing how to press a button and have a bullet fired at the other end of the room.
I fiddled with Mordecai, as if he would have any say on the matter. I traced his battered frame, his charred bands and wiring, his creaking joints. He needed a fix up. Perhaps with an augmentation. Lovelacing had turned ancient already and the hunt for the next upgrade would be pointless if unused.
I handed the papers to Alois. “Can you get me a copy of the diagrams?”
“Of course.” He smiled as he tucked them in his inside pocket. It wasn’t as vicious a smile as I had expected, and foolishly it softened me towards him.
“One more thing,” I said. “Don’t ever implicate my husband again.”
“That’s a promise.” He tipped his hat and left me in the rain. “You’ll hear from me soon.”
I had no doubts about it.
Having doubled my weight in rainwater, I ruined the carpet on our landlady’s stairs. Horace gawked at me from across the bed as I put the medicine and Mordecai down on the dresser, and when I caught myself in the window’s reflection, I gawked too. I’d put a drowned kitten to shame.
Amused, Horace wrapped me in a towel, I let my dress slump into a puddle and we cocooned in our blankets, listening to the storm.
Idly, he played with my rain-frizzed hair. “You must have expected more from your honeymoon.”
“Whatever do you mean: my failed heist, your near arrest, a pinch of betrayal, a bottle of laudanum. What else would you have included?”
Horace pulled me closer. “I don’t know. More rampant lovemaking, perhaps.”
I laughed at that and kissed him. “More rampant pneumonia at this rate.”
We tried our best, nonetheless.
By the end of the week, to my deep chagrin, I knew the complete libretto from Whitechapel! by heart, as well I did the vacant plots of every London graveyard. My nails turned chewed to the bone, and Mordecai gleamed, utterly overpolished, as I awaited Alois’ message.
It wasn’t until our last morning that the landlady handed me a brightly coloured carpet bag with the lock on the handles soldered shut. I took refuge on the patio and let Mordecai’s saw do the work. Inside I found three things, and I hadn’t quite expected any of them.
Alois had said the blueprints wouldn’t pay as much as the jigger would, yet there had to be close to £350 in that bag. Enough to convince any surgeon, yet even drunk on relief, I couldn’t imagine Alois as a man capable of feeling guilt. Perhaps he did rob a bank. Or perhaps his buyer was a desperate Marconi. I didn’t feel as sorry about that as I probably should’ve. Rather, I wished I’d thought of that.
Two dirigible tickets to Kristiania, Norway. I hadn’t asked, but he got those, too.
And a key on a chain with a tiny iron hand. It would open a safe deposit box at Stuttgart’s Deutsche Bank. That’s where my copy of the diagrams was, so he could be sure I’d come back.
I didn’t want it.
Alois was right about one thing. We were better than this, both of us. Maybe I’d pay him back some day, somehow, but for now I’d return the key alongside a heartfelt apology. Written on a brick.
It’s what I do. I lie and I steal. Perhaps for the last time. You got it, Alois, my final ‘once more’.
With my stomach aflutter I took to our breakfast, where Horace chewed on marmalade toast with enough effort to break rocks to grit. I plunked the luggage on the table, making teacups jangle. Horace peered into the bag and immediately shut it again.
“Scarlett,” he whispered. “How much trouble are you in?”
“Not as much as you think.” I sighed and threw myself around his neck. “Regardless, let’s not go back to Stuttgart.”
Dutch by birth and British by tea addiction, Nicki Vardon is also a seasoned night owl, part-time catsitter, and full-time skeleton wrangler. Her stories have appeared in Niteblade, The Red Penny Papers, Black Apples, All Worlds Wayfarer, and Strange Religion.
If you like this story, consider making a donation to keep HyphenPunk running.
Make a monthly donation
Make a yearly donation
Choose an amount
Or enter a custom amount
Your contribution is appreciated.
Your contribution is appreciated.
Your contribution is appreciated.DonateDonateDonate