Amid the low-flying zeppelins and sundry airships that patrolled the sky above London, the HMS Archimedes—a stately hot air balloon festooned with a pair of round gaslights—drew no shortage of attention. Popular opinion regarding the activities of gentlemen adventurers was always divided (Kovacs could recall several insulting caricatures that had appeared in Punch as of late—for some reason, he was depicted more frequently in its pages than any other of his associates); but whatever one’s stance, the sight of the balloon, its wooden gondola swaying above the rooftops, was a most intriguing spectacle.
It did not, however, make for a very subtle investigation, as it typically left pedestrians gasping in wonderment and drove the criminal element scuttling into the shadows, but Kovacs knew how much Dreiberg liked to demonstrate his technological marvels. Speaking of which…
“About the mechanical man,” he started, uneasy about bringing up the subject again.
“What about him?”
Kovacs did not at all like that the construct was now a “him.” “You are aware, I’m sure, that the first Lord Osterman met his demise in an uncannily similar manner. His creation, once activated, crushed the very life out of him and devoured his soul.”
“I was aware of that,” Dreiberg replied, though Kovacs imagined that he didn’t need a reminder to be cautious. Last year he’d had another untoward incident with a prototype and had been lucky to escape with only a broken arm. “This said, the mechanical Lord Osterman did absorb his counterpart’s aetherwave pattern in the process, thus becoming him, in a manner of speaking. I could think of worse things than to become immortal.”
“Well,” Kovacs said grimly, “unless he rusts. Or they happen to run out of coal.”
Dreiberg laughed. “That’s quite unlikely. You ought to look on life more cheerily, my friend. We live in a truly magnificent age, one where Science and Reason will soon banish the superstitions of the past. We should embrace such innovations as the latest Lord Osterman as the future of human Progress and Modernity.”
“I shouldn’t want to end up a mechanical monster,” Kovacs said. He had to admit, however, that he liked it when Dreiberg spoke in that manner, all passionate intensity and random capitalization. “Though Lady Osterman doesn’t seem particularly troubled.” He stopped himself before he could go any farther along that train of thought—it brought to mind certain images that he found deeply disturbing and uncomfortable. He tried very hard to never think on carnal matters at all, but in these times of loose morals and often outright debauchery, they were a difficult subject to avoid. “What are we looking for, exactly?”
Dreiberg leaned over the helm, the warren of narrow streets below dark and impenetrable. “All of the victims worked in this district,” he said. “It stands to reason that the murderer also frequents these parts.”
“We should be down there,” Kovacs said. “Soliciting information. Not up here, above the fray.”
“I’m bringing him down. Some restraint would be advisable.”
“Harrumph,” Kovacs replied, straightening his cravat. “We go forth to tangle with opium smokers and purveyors of obscenity. Were we restrained, they would likely be disappointed.”
Kovacs, a lifelong teetotaler and a member of the Temperance Society to boot, was decidedly unsettled upon entering a gin-palace—the fifth such establishment they had visited on what was turning out to be a most vexing evening—and perhaps to compensate for said discomfort, immediately applied himself to the task of beating the nearest absinthe-drinker about the head with his walking stick. The unfortunate called out for help, but Kovacs’ reputation was well established, and neither the patrons nor the proprietor felt much need to risk engaging the HMS Archimedes’ cannons.
“A harlot was murdered last night,” Kovacs announced. “She was not the first. I’m certain that one of you gentlemen—” He glanced around the tavern, and was appalled to see among the ruddy-faced old men and artists and layabouts were more than a few young ladies, some even respectably attired, as though it were a quite proper thing to imbibe alcohol and consort with criminals. “—one among you may possess some clue as to why.”
A man at the other side of the establishment replied with a measure of invective that made Kovacs’ ears burn and contained aspersions as to his mother’s character and profession. That these accusations were not entirely without merit or accuracy merely gave him further incentive to stride over to the ruffian’s table, grab the smallest finger on his right hand, and snap it. The fellow hollered in pain, and, when one of his compatriots rose to his aid, Dreiberg made quick work in restraining him.
“Who killed her?” Kovacs asked again. When the response failed to be satisfactory, he broke the next finger as well. There was something gratifying in the harsh gasp that forced its way through the man’s lips. He wanted to hear it again. He wanted to throttle them, all of them, the knaves and the card-sharps and thieves and whores’ minders, to stem the tidal wave of sin that forever threatened to engulf decaying London Town. Blood sang in his ears, a dizzying, overwhelming euphoria.
“Walter…” His associate’s voice snapped his attention back to the present. Dreiberg added, louder: “He’ll continue this violence into the morning. I highly suggest you—”
“I know one of the girls what got killed.” It was a woman speaking, a rouged barmaid. “She worked in a factory. Took the same route to her lodgings every night. You walk that route past dark and you’ll find your man.”
Dreiberg nodded. Kovacs felt a hand on his shoulder, guiding him gently away from the injured rascal. He shrugged off the gesture—he was in no mood for sympathy or understanding. Dreiberg didn’t know, couldn’t ever know, what it had been that had set Kovacs off, and Kovacs was relieved that Dreiberg had enough discretion not to pry. (Though, he thought, they all had secrets, and as much as he disapproved, he had never inquired as to the matter of Dreiberg’s extensive collection of scandalous daguerreotypes of the Lady Jupiter. Nor indeed that he had discovered the prints at all during an unscheduled visit to the good professor’s workshop.)
It was near dawn, and the murderer had likely been and gone (if, Kovacs thought dourly, he had not been otherwise occupied torturing and killing his young victim), but they still walked the narrow cobblestone streets that the barmaid had described. The night was frigid and crisp, and he shivered, thinking of the unfortunate wretch. She was somewhere in this city, most likely somewhere in this district. Perhaps in one of these very houses, and he had half a mind to batter down every door until he found her. He hunched, hands in his pockets, listening for the slightest sound, for the cry of a terrified child.
He heard only the sound of an airship overhead, the hiss of gaslights, the crunch of their footsteps in the snow. Reluctantly, he followed Dreiberg back to the balloon as the sun rose, cold and distant, behind drifts of smog.
Dreiberg looked exceptionally pleased with himself when Kovacs called on him the following evening. Kovacs was impatient to patrol the Chapel, but Dreiberg insisted that he come inside first. He sincerely hoped that Dreiberg didn’t intend to have him over for a spot of tea.
“I’d like you to meet a friend of mine.” He’d underestimated it—Dreiberg was practically bubbling over with excitement. Kovacs was tempted to remind him that a girl’s life was at stake. Before he could speak, however, a dark shape rose from the workbench in the corner and walked stiffly over to join them. “Walter, this is Rory.”
“Rory?” The ghastly thing was dressed like him—minus the top hat he’d taken from it the previous evening—right down to the mask, its gears no doubt imitating the motion of those on his own mask. He cocked his head to one side, and the monstrosity mimicked the gesture. He found this most disturbing indeed.
“R-O-R-E,” Dreiberg said, which wasn’t much better, and then: “Robotic Oscillating Rogue Eliminator,” which was even worse.
“I’d prefer to call it the Abomination,” Kovacs said.
“Ennk,” the mechanical man said. The voice was quite deep, and, well, mechanical, and Kovacs found himself wondering if Dreiberg thought that he actually sounded like that.
“Not very articulate, is it?” Kovacs would not call it a “he.”
“I’m still tinkering with the speech emulator.” Dreiberg said sheepishly. “However, he should be entirely capable of dispatching criminals.”
Kovacs looked at the machine, then back at Dreiberg. “No,” he said. “No, no, no.”
“If there’s three of us, we stand a better chance at finding our murderer.” Which was perfectly sensible, and Kovacs might have agreed in theory, were he not face-to- face—in a manner of speaking—with his own grotesque doppelganger.
He grumbled assent. At the very least, he thought, Dreiberg’s progress on the machine, coupled with the bags under his eyes, suggested that he hadn’t spent the day engaging in indecent acts with Madame Chadwicke.
“Nrrrg!” the horrid creature said, with somewhat more enthusiasm, and reached out to shake his hand. Kovacs reminded himself that Dreiberg’s inventions had proven useful on more than one occasion, and furthermore, that he didn’t have any other friends and it would be counterproductive to murder the one that he did have. And that Lord Osterman himself was a mechanical man, and could reliably discern between a colleague and an enemy most of the time.
“Very well,” Kovacs said to it. “But keep your hands to yourself. You’re not absorbing my aetherwave pattern.”
“Hurm,” the Abomination replied, and Kovacs was sorry he’d even suggested it.