Mainly concerning the Exploits of our noted Gentlemen Adventurers as they encounter Wondrous Mechanical Men, defeat a Vicious and Dastardly Criminal, and retrieve an Errant Top Hat from a Most Pernicious and Beguiling Lady of the Night.
Fog draped over Dorset Street, a tangible presence that pressed against her skull and lay thick and acrid over her skin. It had to be past midnight, but the factory chimneys that loomed behind the clusters of dilapidated row houses belched charcoal smoke into a sodium sky. She gathered the folds of her bustle in one hand and hurried through the shadows, her heels clattering over broken cobblestones.
Madame Chadwicke knew very well the dangers she faced, a woman alone in the worst neighbourhood in all of London Town. She was frightened; she would have been a fool not to be, and whatever else could be said of Madame Chadwicke, she was certainly no fool. She kept her hand on the trigger of her aether oscillator where it rested by her hip. Her skin prickled at the slightest movement, the skittering of rats in the gutter.
She picked up the scent of blood before she caught a glimpse of a woman’s legs, stockings torn and yanked down to her ankles. The crimson cobwebs netting the stones were still wet; she hadn’t been dead long. Madame Chadwicke brought her kerchief to her face.
It was Alice, the poor girl, and though Madame Chadwicke hadn’t expected to find her alive, she nevertheless felt the burn in her eyes at the cruel crimson smile that laced the pale, exposed throat. There was little she could do now, beyond the course of action to which she had already resigned herself. The constabulary would do nothing, not for a penniless Irishwoman and a dollymop at that. Nor could she rely upon other means, with Lord Osterman currently occupied in the Crimea and Earl Blake pacifying restless natives in Egypt in the name of Queen and Country, and besides, she thought ruefully, it wasn’t as though they were any more likely to intervene either.
The grief ebbed, giving way to a burning fury. Her girls, it was always her girls, and they were her wards and livelihood both. She would avenge them, even if her means were limited and her options distasteful, to say the least. She had long kept her small corner of the Chapel safe from coppers and magistrates and rivals, and no halfwit bludger would cheat her of the reputation she’d made for herself.
She would send a cable in the morning, then. She knelt by Alice’s cooling corpse, and, in a gesture almost tender, pulled her petticoat back over her knees to preserve something of her modesty. Madame Chadwicke cast one sad glance back at the dead girl, and, spine straightened and oscillator at the ready, made her way home.
I am afraid to say that Walter was not at all amused by our previous encounter, and insists that he simply cannot turn a blind eye to the running of a common bawdy house, nor to the consumption of opium. I must admit that I do share his concern. Is there not some other activity you could find that more befits a lady of your social standing?
In addition, he would like his hat back and was not swayed by my insistence that it is quite smashing on you. I fear he will not look kindly upon my continued association with ‘a brazen strumpet who is no better than she should be’ (his words, dear heart, not mine), and I suggest greater discretion on both our parts.
Same time tomorrow night, then?
Yrs most affectionately,
To Madame Chadwicke’s credit, she was not at all the sort of lady to ask why exactly Professor Dreiberg was building a mechanical man in his cluttered workshop, nor why said construct wore a familiar-looking dun frock coat, violet trousers, and top hat. She cleared herself a seat and watched as he worked, tinkering with the complex array of gears and pneumatic tubes, failing to completely hide her smirk behind an elegant fan. At least she’d had the sense not to bring the apparently controversial topper she had recently acquired in an entirely fair and legitimate skirmish, and as it was winter, wore a plush velvet mantle over her rather revealing corset.
“Perhaps you should leave before he arrives,” Dreiberg suggested. “If you have a message I ought to pass on…”
“If only.” A heavy, exaggerated sigh; she flapped her fan several times for emphasis. “I ought to speak with him directly. You, love, are far too easily swayed by his influence.”
“I’m quite sure I don’t know what you mean,” Dreiberg protested as the object of their discussion rapped loudly on the doorknocker. His relief at the interruption vanished abruptly at the throat-clearing noise his associate made upon catching sight of the notorious Madame.
Dreiberg had first become acquainted with Walter Kovacs nearly a decade ago, and considered the man a good friend; nevertheless, he was unable to suppress the instinctive shudder that everyone felt when Kovacs entered a room. He had no eyes and, in fact, no face at all. Above his cravat was merely a silk mask painted with elaborate clockwork that moved, as if powered by some thaumaturgy, of its own will. It was generally agreed that he was like that Merrick fellow beneath the mask, though naturally Dreiberg had always been too polite to ask. On an ordinary day, this disturbing effect was mitigated by his otherwise quite proper attire, but today, owing to a rather violent misunderstanding between himself and Madame Chadwicke, he was without his top hat and did not look like any sort of gentleman at all.
“And what,” Kovacs growled, “is she doing here?”
“I have a proposition for you,” Madame Chadwicke said, rising to her feet. She stood several inches taller than Kovacs and could be imposing when she chose to be, even without her oscillator.
“Does it involve the abandonment of your life of vice?” Kovacs asked. “And, perhaps, the return of my hat?”
“I could be convinced to negotiate the latter,” Madame Chadwicke said. “The former is much too profitable.”
“The wages of sin are death,” Kovacs muttered, and the gears on his mask spun faster. He tapped his walking stick on the floor impatiently and walked over to examine Dreiberg’s mechanical man.
“Of course, I agree,” Dreiberg said, looking pointedly at Madame Chadwicke. “But we cannot hope to confront the degeneracy of the lower classes without a measure of sympathy and charity.” It was an old argument between them; if Kovacs flinched at his mention of the “lower classes,” Dreiberg attributed it to his associate’s staid old Tory tendencies.
“Which brings me to my point,” Madame Chadwicke said smoothly. “For some months now, a certain nasty character has been preying upon my girls.”
Kovacs stared into the clockwork face of his mechanical double. At least, Dreiberg thought he was looking at the construct. At any rate, he was avoiding Madame Chadwicke’s eyes to the degree to which it was possible for a man with no face to avoid a woman’s gaze. “Your ladies of ill repute, you mean,” he said.
“Good riddance,” Kovacs said.
“Now, you just hold up a moment!” Madame Chadwicke placed her hands on her hips and glowered through the eyeholes in her own feathered mask. “My girls have been kidnapped and murdered, one by one, by this fiend, and you propose to stand by?”
“So long as he restricts himself to battling the forces of iniquity,” Kovacs replied haughtily, “I believe he ought to be congratulated.”
“Walter!” Dreiberg cried; he had been afraid that the conversation might take this particular turn. His friend did tend to have particular reactions to issues of moral propriety. “Of course we’ll help you, my dear,” he said to Madame Chadwicke, and, for Kovacs’ benefit, added: “Won’t we?”
“There’s also the matter of the latest victims,” Madame Chadwicke said. “Three nights passed between the abduction of sweet Alice O’Malley and my discovery of her mortal remains last night. And now another of my girls has been taken, and I fear that there is precious little time to save her.”
“Perhaps the fallen cannot be saved,” Kovacs said, his kid-gloved hand raising and lowering the mechanical man’s arm. Dreiberg couldn’t fault him for his curiosity regarding his latest invention, especially given its appearance, but he nevertheless wished that his friend would turn his attention to the more urgent matters at hand.
“She’s eleven years old,” Madame Chadwicke said quietly.
This, at long last, diverted Kovacs from his staring contest with the mechanical man. He whirled to face the Madame, frock coat flapping, the gears and dials of his mask spinning wildly. “You scoundrel!” His menacing snarl was not softened by the silk that lay over his lips. “You trollop! How dare you condemn a child to such…such depravity?”
Dreiberg half-expected to see a reaction equal in passionate intensity; Madame Chadwicke had already proven that she could hold her own in a scuffle with Kovacs. She knew better than to have brought her oscillator, but she did have her riding crop, and she looked as though she was considering using it. But her voice was very even as she said: “Would you prefer her destitute, Mr. Kovacs? Perhaps she ought to have been sent to the workhouse after her parents died to have her hands crushed in a loom.”
Kovacs drew in a breath, as though he had considered saying something, then thought better of it. “At least, were that the case, it would be only her body in danger and not her mortal soul.” He huffed. “Nevertheless, it appears that both are imperiled now. I will find your girl, Madame, and bring her assailant’s identity to light. And then you will find her a more suitable means of providing for herself.”
“Certainly,” Madame Chadwicke said with a mocking little bow. “Good day, gentlemen.” Sweeping up the folds of her bustle, she sauntered from the workshop.
“And you will return my top hat!” Kovacs called after her.
The two gentlemen adventurers exchanged what would have been glances had one not had gears for eyes and the other were not wearing brass goggles. “That was substantially easier than I expected,” Dreiberg said.
“Madame Chadwicke traffics in opium and young ladies,” Kovacs grumbled. “And I believe her to be a suffragette. A gentleman of your reputation ought to keep better company.”
Dreiberg put a hand on his arm. “I know you’re only acquiescing for my sake,” he said. “I do appreciate it.”
“Poppycock,” Kovacs replied. “A young girl’s life is at stake. Not to mention that we can’t very well have some lunatic enforcing his own version of God’s and man’s law on the citizens of this fine city. If everyone did that, it would lead to anarchy.”
“Most assuredly,” Dreiberg agreed. He fetched his flight hat and cloak from where they lay sloppily on a table and held out his arm. “Shall we?”
Kovacs grunted acknowledgement. “By the way, Professor. Why are you building a mechanical simacrulum of me?”
“To further our efficiency at battling vice and degeneracy. With both Lord Osterman and Earl Blake abroad, not to mention that unfortunate business some years back with Lord Gardner and the zeppelin, I have noticed of late an alarming thinning of our ranks.”
“Very true,” Kovacs mused, and whisked the top hat from the head of Dreiberg’s mechanical man. He was always pinching things from the workshop, though perhaps he still blamed the loss of his hat on Dreiberg’s regrettable dalliances with Madame Chadwicke. “But why not base its appearance on yourself?”
It was a good question, a very good question, and one which Dreiberg very much would prefer not to answer. “You’re much more feared by London’s criminal underworld than I,” Dreiberg offered, and that was probably true as well. At least, it was enough of an answer to satisfy Kovacs, for now.
“To the HMS Archimedes, then?”
“Indeed,” Dreiberg said.