Dawn, a murky, smog-choked affair, was breaking above London’s grim silhouette as they at last reached the house of ill-fame run by Madame Chadwicke. Kovacs grumbled as a man slipped out from the door, but the fellow took no notice of the two gentlemen adventurers hauling their captive out from the H.M.S. Archimedes.
Inside the lodging house, Kovacs barked at one of the ladies to summon Madame Chadwicke. A few moments later, she appeared from behind a red velvet curtain. It seemed that they had interrupted one of her business engagements, as she wore her corset and garters, and Kovacs’ top hat, and very little else. Dreiberg found it immediately difficult to pry his eyes away from her, whereas Kovacs was suddenly finding the tops of his own shoes most intriguing indeed.
The murderer, wedged uncomfortably between them with his hands and feet bound, made a noise through his gag that Dreiberg thought almost resembled laughter.
“The constabulary has been alerted already,” Dreiberg said, though, he thought, there was every indication that the woman they had rescued had simply run off without doing so. “But I thought you might like to have a few words with this madman first.”
Madame Chadwicke beamed at him. “My dear boy,” she said, and produced her oscillator from some hidden place on her person (Dreiberg would wonder for months later exactly how she had hidden it). She fired once, and a beam of directed particle energy burned a neat hole in the centre of his forehead. He remained kneeling a moment before toppling, face-first, onto the richly patterned carpet. “What makes you think I have anything to say to him?” She canted her head at two of her girls, lounging at a small table as they took long drags from a hookah. “Remove this, will you? And leave his hat; I shall be in need of a new one soon.”
Dreiberg supposed, having spent considerable time around Kovacs, he should not have been as disturbed as he was by sudden outbursts of violence. Still, he shivered as she sidled up to them, twirling her oscillator between her long fingers.
“You lied,” Kovacs hissed. “There was never any girl.”
“Had I told you,” Madame Chadwicke’s voice was a seductive purr, “that the unfortunate soul in question was a fallen woman and not some innocent child, would you have agreed to take up an investigation?” She twirled on her heels, and before he could escape, caught his jaw in her palm. “I believe that her plight might have felt too familiar for you to involve yourself. Isn’t that right, Mr. Kovacs?”
“Familiar?” Dreiberg started, and then stopped at Kovacs’ warning growl.
Madame Chadwicke laughed. “You didn’t tell him, did you? About your mo—”
“I didn’t tell you either,” Kovacs snapped. He turned to Dreiberg. “Vice is a contagion, Professor. I suggest that we don’t further expose ourselves.”
Dreiberg bowed, somewhat apologetically, in Madame Chadwicke’s direction. “Until the next time, darling,” she trilled. “Oh, and Mr. Kovacs?”
He half-turned to face her, gears most perplexed, and she removed the top hat from her head and tossed it at him. “I may be a sinner,” she said, “but I always keep my promises.”
Outside, the lines were forming outside of factory gates, hunched and shrouded figures waited, faces weary and pinched, for the foreman to let them inside. Kovacs passed them without looking at them; Dreiberg followed close behind, the sea of the downtrodden a near-unbearable spectacle.
“I can take you home,” Dreiberg offered, knowing full well that he had no idea where Kovacs lived.
“That’s most kind,” Kovacs mumbled, “but altogether needless. It’s a fine day for a stroll.”
Dreiberg prided himself on an attention to detail, a thoroughly scientific and impartial approach to solving crime and bettering the world, and he found now that the facts he had amassed were at last assembling themselves into something resembling a coherent whole.
Madame Chadwicke was not the only one of his associates who had been keeping secrets.
“I would never presume to…” he started, and then forced himself to stop. He had presumed, and he had been utterly wrong in those presumptions. Kovacs, for one, did not wear a mask to disguise some unseemly abnormality of nature. No, Dreiberg thought, he was concealing a truth much more mundane. Or much more scandalous. “Madame Chadwicke knows more of your history than I do.” He hesitated, then decided that if a thing was worth hiding, it was worth knowing. “You’re not any sort of gentleman at all, are you?”
Beneath the mask, Kovacs inhaled sharply.
“Who are you, then?” Dreiberg asked, his voice less kind than he might have intended. “A common labourer, an Irishman?” He had suspected the latter for some time, but he was met with silence rather than explicit confirmation. “Do you think it matters to me? Do you think I don’t know what proper gentlemen say about Jews when I’m not in the room?”
Kovacs stared. At least, Dreiberg was reasonably certain that he was staring, though it might have been because he had been known to say the same things about Jews on occasion.
“The world is changing,” Dreiberg said. “A man can be what he wants, not what he was born.”
“Ridiculous,” Kovacs replied. “Sentimental Whig nonsense. You’d abolish the Crown and hand the Empire over to suffragettes and Socialists.”
And to sons of the lower classes who stubbornly insist on being Tories, Dreiberg thought, but daren’t say it aloud. “I know that you’re a good man,” he said instead. “You stopped a vile criminal today. The soul of that wretch we saved may not be worth much to you, but to someone…” He shrugged. “Perhaps she has friends, even children.”
For a moment it appeared that he had violated some unseen dictum of etiquette, for Kovacs seemed uneasy. And then he managed, “Thank you, Professor.”
“Daniel,” Dreiberg corrected him. “We are friends and equals, are we not?”
Kovacs paused, and said, “I suppose we are.” They reached, at least, the H.M.S. Archimedes, moored at the end of a blind alley. It was from there that they would go their separate ways: Dreiberg, to his workshop to tinker with Rory’s speech modulator; Kovacs, to whatever obscure place Kovacs haunted when he was not with Dreiberg. They bid one another good day, and Dreiberg stood at the helm of his balloon, Rory at his side.
“Walter,” Dreiberg called out to the retreating figure.
Kovacs paused to look up at him.
“One day,” Dreiberg said, a smile teasing at his lips, “I’ll learn all of your secrets.”
Kovacs made a sound that almost passed for a laugh. “I should certainly hope not,” he said. He raised his hand in parting, and the H.M.S. Archimedes took to flight, another airship among the many that kept watch as London Town stirred, and woke.