The HMS Archimedes floated, silent and shrouded in fog, above the Whitechapel district. The balloon’s occupants were ill at ease with the world and with one another. Dreiberg stood at the steering wheel, his gloved hands grazing over its polished wood. There was barely any wind and he needn’t have been there at all; he could have let the balloon drift along its course while he peered from his spyglass into the tangle of light and shadows below. But Kovacs had possession of the spyglass and Dreiberg needed to do something with his hands in the meantime, so he kept them on the wheel as if guiding it. Though nothing out of the ordinary stirred in the streets and alleyways, Kovacs was intent on pacing the perimeter of the balloon’s gondola, pausing only to avoid the path of his mechanical twin, muttering something indistinct beneath his mask.
Rory (and now Dreiberg couldn’t think of him as anything but) seemed quite intrigued by Kovacs. He had seemingly picked up a few of Kovacs’ mannerisms—the hunch of his shoulders, the tense stillness as if anticipating a scuffle—and shuffled after the man as he patrolled the balloon’s basket until Kovacs spun on his heels and growled out a warning.
“Will you stop it?” Dreiberg tugged at his hair, pressed flat against his forehead beneath his flight hat. It was like watching two tomcats charily circle one another, and it was utterly distracting for reasons he’d rather not dwell upon.
One of the clockwork-faced men gave a muffled cough—he turned from the wheel to see Kovacs following a flicker through the darkness, a starting and stopping that he could only just see through goggle-enhanced vision. He edged closer to Kovacs, who raised a finger to where his lips should have been and wordlessly handed him the spyglass.
He saw the shadow first, cast in the sulphurous glow of a gaslight, looming across the cobblestones. It took him longer to recognize human figures amidst the gloom, a tall profile of a man in a cape and topper, dragging behind him a second form that twitched and struggled against the ground.
Dreiberg and Kovacs exchanged glances and then Dreiberg was turning the wheel again, jolting the balloon to swing above the rooftops in a slow downward arc. He had enough time to think that the angle was wrong, too steep, they were coming down too fast, and he felt something metal barrel into him, pinning him against the side of the Archimedes’ gondola.
“Professor!” He blinked up to see Kovacs gripping the starboard side of the basket, barely keeping a footing as the ship tilted upwards.
“I’m quite all right,” he shouted back, attempting to sort himself out from a tangle of heavy, ill-coordinated mechanical limbs. He might have been imagining it, but Rory’s gears seemed to bear a most perturbed expression.
“I can see that,” Kovacs said dryly, as Dreiberg finally managed to extract himself, and he and the mechanical man lurched over to the side of the gondola to follow Kovacs’ gaze.
In the ring of wormwood green beneath the gaslight, the villain had paused in his tracks. His face lifted upwards.
They had been seen.
Dreiberg swiftly made to anchor, but the Archimedes gave a groaning, grating shudder; it had somehow become wedged in the space between two narrow row houses and was now emphatically refusing to be budged. Dreiberg uttered a most ungentlemanly turn of phrase and climbed onto a rooftop to push it free.
Kovacs, never one to idle away his time with the vagaries of recalcitrant technology, swung the rope ladder over the side of the gondola and disappeared from sight.
As Dreiberg reached the ground, Kovacs was already closing in on the murderer, who stood on the step of an imposing stone building with a knife pressed to the exposed neck of some manner of harlot, her squirms at last subdued by the cold steel. The ruffian was finely dressed in the latest fashion, his cape immaculate but for the slightest dusting of snow; if there was blood upon it, the black velvet hid it admirably. His features were pleasant and aristocratic. If anything, he looked altogether put out to be discovered in his current state, as though he would much rather have been receiving them in his parlor than in the cold and dreary Whitechapel district.
“Ah!” He sounded positively delighted that they had found him. “If it isn’t Professor Dreiberg, doctor of thaumaturgy and creator of modern mechanical marvels.” He glanced disparagingly at the man about to strike him with a walking stick. “And Mr. Kovacs, of course.”
Kovacs ignored the slight and dove at the man, who merely laughed and waved a hand quite merrily. There was a blinding flash, as if he had just taken their portraits, and once Dreiberg’s vision had settled, both the criminal and his unfortunate captive had vanished.
“Devilry!” Kovacs proclaimed, brandishing his cane, ready to strike at the treacherous air itself.
“Mere chicanery,” Dreiberg scoffed in response. “That was far too flash to be genuine thaumaturgy. He can’t have gone far.” He thrust his hands into the pockets of his trousers and frowned. “Perhaps some dark hiding place, or a nearby den of ill fame…”
Kovacs snorted dismissively and tapped the engraved letters on the foundation stone. They stood in front of an abattoir, among the last of its kind as even the long-suffering denizens of the Whitechapel district had complained endlessly about the smell. “Or he might have found an ideal location to dispose of human refuse.” He tried the door, finding it locked.
“There’s a crowbar in the Archimedes—” Dreiberg began, but Kovacs was already bludgeoning the lock with his cane. Dreiberg expected the cane to break before the lock, but evidentially Kovacs was a cracksman in addition to his other dubious talents, because the door swung open in a manner of moments.
As Dreiberg followed his associate into the dank and stifling air of the abattoir, he had enough time to ponder how exactly Kovacs had acquired his particular set of skills. He would have to ask the other gentleman at some future opportunity. But they proceeded in silence now, Kovacs’ slight form swathed in shadows in front of him, pausing occasionally, back pressed against the wall, listening for some clue as to the murderer’s whereabouts. He finally made a vague gesture in the direction of a door leading downstairs.
Dreiberg hesitated. When he held his breath, he too could hear the muffled sounds of a woman’s sobbing. But there seemed to be no other way in or out of the cellar, which meant that the villain was waiting for them, anticipating the attack.
Then again, he thought as Kovacs broke down the door (this time, without even testing to see if it was locked), and barreled down the stairs, sporting the door in front of him as an impromptu shield, no one was ever quite capable of anticipating their attacks.
Dreiberg barely saw the hatchet fly towards them, but Kovacs was as prepared as ever, raising the door in front of them both so that the weapon merely split the rotting wood. Tossing it aside, he launched himself upon the madman, who hid amidst rows of hanging pig carcasses. Dreiberg, meanwhile, bumped up against a large bucket of blood as he searched amid the shadows for the trussed and helpless victim. The stink was ghastly, and he hid the lower half of his face beneath his sleeve, envying Kovacs his mask. He wondered how the killer could stomach the odour.
His goggles, enhanced with anbaric light diodes, afforded him keen vision in the darkness, and he quickly found the harlot, her hands and feet bound with lengths of rope. He glanced nervously to his left, but all he could make out was vague shapes, the black of the killer’s cape against Kovacs’ pale topcoat, as the two figures grappled with one another.
He reached for the pocketknife in his boot and quickly sawed through the ropes. The woman—a rotund dollymop a decade or so older than himself—stared at him through kohl-smudged eyes.
“Up the stairs,” he hissed. “Inform the constabulary at once.” He rushed to Kovacs’ aid as she stumbled free, tripping over the tattered trails of a savaged bustle.
Kovacs, it seemed, could handle himself perfectly well without Dreiberg’s intervention. He had somehow managed to corner the murderer against one of the troughs that held what must have been gallons of recently drained pigs’ blood and was having at him in a flurry of fists. Still, the harder Kovacs hit—and the fiend’s face was now quite unseemly, festooned as it was in violet bruises, and his topper floating discarded in a sea of crimson—the more the murderer laughed.
Dreiberg cleared his throat. “Will you be needing a hand, then?”
Kovacs landed a blow to the man’s jaw. “Unnecessary, Professor.” His voice was a low growl that reminded Dreiberg a little of Rory’s mechanical drone. “The situation is quite—” a twist of his kidgloved hands at the murderer’s wrist, then the snap of bone breaking; an ordinary man might have screamed. “—under control.” He cocked his head to one side, and the gears whirled. “Where is the child?”
Blood seeped from between the killer’s teeth, bubbling as he wheezed out his harsh and mocking chuckles. “What child?”
“The little ragamuffin whom you kidnapped from the employ of Madame Chadwicke.”
“I can assure you, good sir—” He imbued the last phrase with a certain venom and spite so as to imply the complete opposite. “—that I have done no such thing.”
“He lies,” Dreiberg said.
Kovacs was quiet a moment, though he did not loosen his death grip on the murderer. The gears on his mask turned thoughtfully. “He has little cause to do so.”
The murderer arched closer to him, and stage-whispered just loud enough for Dreiberg to catch: “How most intriguing that you should be working for her, Mr. Kovacs. There is somewhat of a family tradition of iniquity, I reckon.”
Kovacs thumped him one so hard that Dreiberg almost expected his noggin to go tumbling off.
“Right, then,” the murderer said, spitting blood as he spoke. “Enough of this rubbish.” He tossed Kovacs aside with a fortitude most unnatural in one so seemingly trounced, and rubbed his hands together, producing an eldritch flame. “I see I’m spoke to, but I don’t see any reason why you bloody buggers ought to escape either.” He hurled the fireball over their heads, where it caught at the stairs and erupted into a great conflagration.
The wall of heat knocked him to the ground, and choking and coughing, he searched fruitlessly for some means of quelling the inferno. There it was—a tap on the far wall for washing down the troughs—if only he could reach it. The ceiling was collapsing, bending and buckling as the flames grew higher. A burning beam crashed in front of him, and he stumbled backwards, heat searing his face. From the corner of his eye, he saw Kovacs grab the bucket of pig’s blood and fling it at the stairs.
He hadn’t thought it possible that anything could reek worse than the abattoir, but the stench, thick and coppery, as blood met fire and crackled and spat and hissed, was overwhelming, all-consuming. He gagged and almost tripped over the prone body of the murderer, who raised his hands to summon another spell.
“We’ll have none of that,” Dreiberg said, and wrestled the fiend’s hands behind his back. He cast a fleeting look in Kovacs’ direction. He appeared to be holding his own against the fire, but the staircase had collapsed and the foul smoke was likely to kill them all in a matter of moments.
An ignoble end, he thought (he was, it had to be said, prone to rather unproductive bouts of melancholy on occasion), and he might have given up altogether had a blast not shredded part of the ceiling above them, revealing the smoking cannon of the H.M.S. Archimedes.
Rory stood on one of the balloon’s gaslights, wielding another of Dreiberg’s inventions. This one looked much like an oscillator, but rather than firing an aether-disruption beam, it launched a miniature harpoon at the end of a rope.
Dreiberg grinned. It appeared that both of his creations had proved to be successful. He forced the murderer to crawl up the rope in front of him as he made his way free of the charred ruins of the abattoir.
Kovacs was the last to escape. He looked a frightful mess, covered in soot, the side of his topcoat drenched in pig’s blood. He kept his eyes on Rory—and the gleaming brass articulations of the weapon in his hands—as he bound and gagged the murderer.
“Another new invention, Professor?” he asked.
“And a grand one, I do say!” Dreiberg exclaimed proudly.
“Harrumph,” Kovacs said, and rapped the murderer on the head with his cane for emphasis.
“Walter,” Dreiberg said—cautiously, it wouldn’t do to further provoke his associate when he was in a violent mood. “Are you jealous? I can make one for you too.”
Kovacs hesitated, and his gears spun clockwise, then counter. “I suppose it might have its uses,” he admitted finally.
The H.M.S. Archimedes rose once again above London’s skyline, and the silence on its deck this time was much more pleasant.