I entered the Newton‑Markt, the whole-block police headquarters building, through the back service entrance. I let an armored car pass by as it left the garage to the measured claps of a gunpowder engine before rolling unhurriedly down an alley. I took a look around and ran up the stairs. I flung the door open confidently, nodding to the sleepy sentry on my way and walking through the empty halls into the armory.
There, I handed a sergeant my stun baton and took its electric jar from my pocket, still wrapped in this morning’s edition of the Atlantic Telegraph. I threw the crumpled newspaper into the trash can. The item collector handed my things to the arsenal warden.
"Stun baton, one," and made a corresponding note in the registry. "Edison electric jar, one..." And immediately shuddered: "And where is the second one? The Des Prez?"
"Put it down under irrecoverable losses."
"And why on earth would I do that?"
"Any questions should be directed to Inspector White."
"Alright, we'll figure it out," the sergeant frowned, dipping his iron feather back into the inkwell.
I walked away to the table in the far corner and set two loaded cartridge clips on it, then took my Roth‑Steyr from its holster, and removed the bolt all the way from the head, which was affixed with a titanium barrel extension. With its side stock open, I pressed the round eject button, collected the ammunition that flew out onto the table in an empty clip and turned to the sergeant.
"Semi-automatic Roth‑Steyr pistol, model eighteen-seventy-four, one," the man grumbled. "Eight millimeter bullets, thirty. Is that all?"
"That's all," I confirmed and walked to the changing room. There wasn't a single living soul to be found there.
And that was logical. It was the dead middle of a shift right now. Our boys would still be out pounding pavement 'til nightfall.
I opened my locker with a certain amount of relief and kicked off my raincoat, uniform and boots. I changed into a light-colored linen suit and a pair of lightweight half-boots, tied my neckerchief, and smoothed my hair before a mirror. Lastly, I took a cantankerous look at my reflection and donned my dark glasses.
Damn it! Damn all this inner turmoil! I need to live in the present.
After transferring my kerosene lighter and titanium-bladed jack-knife from my uniform to my new clothes, I hesitated briefly, but still clipped my Cerberus holster to my belt. It was a thin and compact pistol. I slipped a backup clip with three ten-millimeter bullets into the pocket of my jacket.
This gun was an invention of the weapons genius Tesla. He had decided that the barrels should be a detachable cluster of cylinders, like a pepper-box. For that reason, the Cerberus wasn't, to put it lightly, known for its accuracy. That said, in close-range firefights, it was simply indispensable. Its firing mechanism used an electric igniter on a gunpowder round, which launched an aluminum-plated bullet. All those bells and whistles were to make sure this weapon would work against both malefics and hell-spawn, alike. Common weapons, due to peculiarities in their design, were of little use against them: over many centuries, evil spirits had managed to develop an invulnerability to iron, copper and even lead, while experienced conjurers had learned to put out the spark of a punched primer and hamper the complex strike-launch mechanisms in semi-automatic weapons with a single wave of the finger. For revolvers, shooting blanks at such monsters was also anything but a rarity.
The Cerberus, on the other hand, was a different story! Its electric jar and total lack of moving components left no chance for either malefics and infernal beasts to prevent a shot getting off. What was more, in comparison with my one-kilo Roth‑Steyr, this pistol weighed practically nothing.
I took a light gray derby hat from the upper shelf of my locker, locked the door and left the changing room. On my way out, I ran into an unfamiliar gray-eared sergeant, who was accompanied by two uniformed constables.
"Detective Constable Orso," the sergeant declared as he walked, "follow me! The inspector general would like to see you."
My heart practically jumped out of my chest, and I took a heavy sigh in a none-too-successful attempt to calm myself down.
The experienced public servant noticed my utter bewilderment and clarified:
"Will you be coming with us, detective constable?"
"Naturally!" I squeezed out a sour smile with a bit of effort and repeated, this time more confidently: "Naturally!"
The sergeant nodded and headed for the stairs. The constables, though, let me go in front of them initially, but moved around behind shortly thereafter, forcing me with their artless maneuver to cast all thoughts of fleeing from my mind, panicked and disgraced.
Weren't you expecting this? Well, weren't you?
Yes, devil take me, I was! I was expecting this, but not so soon. The old man was most likely diabolically angry, if he had sent someone to keep watch for my return.
The Illustrious Friedrich von Nalz was old, but not decrepit. Seven decades had done nothing to weaken this veteran of the force. In fact, they had only steeled him; the inspector general looked like a big, strong cluster of pine roots. And his eyes... his deep-set eyes shone back in the partial darkness like two angry flames, like flickering candles in the slits in a wrinkled jack-o-lantern.
His surprising longevity was simply astonishing. Most of those who had actually touched the blood of the fallen had long since bid this world farewell. After all, the Night of the Titanium Blades was fifty-three years ago – in December of the year eighteen hundred twenty-four after the Divine Retribution, or in usual parlance, of the New Era.
Despite his advanced years, the Illustrious von Nalz was not only a leader of the metropolitan police, but also a member of dozens of clubs and charitable societies, and a man who started every morning with a review of the morning's papers, demonstrating an enviable working capacity. And now, there was a towering stack of newspapers on his table but, as could have been expected, he had stopped reading precisely upon reaching the Atlantic Telegraph.
Curses! Ugh, who asked Albert to stick his long tongue out!
When I arrived, Friedrich von Nalz tore himself from the paper and stretched his lips out in something resembling a smile.
"Viscount Cruce! I don't believe I've ever had the honor of making your acquaintance..."
In reply, I could only lower my head.
The old man readjusted the cuff of his black uniform. His wrinkled wrist, which looked like a bone picked clean by vultures, was protruding just barely. He then asked me:
"Are you acquainted with my daughter, Viscount?"
"I was introduced to her at the autumn ball," I answered, struck with horror.
In the office, it became hot and stuffy all at once. And it had nothing at all to do with the fireplace. It hadn't been lit today. Hot air was emanating in waves from the old man sitting across the table from me. It was his illustrious talent revealing itself. I had already seen its terrible effects before, and I in no way wanted to become a victim. A few years ago, I caught a glimpse of the dried-out mummy of an anarchist after he made an attempt on the inspector general’s life. The sight of a man who had been baked alive left me sick for the rest of the day.
"You were introduced at the ball, and that was all?" clarified the Illustrious von Nalz, making no external signs of the rage seething inside himself.
"And that was all," I confirmed, diligently making sure not to make eye contact.
Just looking at him was very, very scary.
But then, the old man suddenly broke out laughing, crumpled the paper and threw it into the paper bin.
"You know, Viscount? I believe you. Implicitly," the inspector general surprised me with his unexpected announcement. "I simply know my daughter too well. Elizabeth‑Maria would never go for someone like you..." He fastidiously cringed and threw himself back into his high-backed armchair. "That isn't important! What is important is that your loose-lipped rhyme-peddler's talk will start rumors. And I cannot have that..."
"Inspector general!" I tried making an excuse. "They were talking about a different Elizabeth‑Maria! Not your daughter! It’s just a coincidence!"
But Friedrich von Nalz could only shake his head, sending another wave of transparent heat wafting toward me.
"Viscount! I can imagine you in the role of a secret admirer, but never that of a lover," the old man cut-in with cold ruthlessness. "Don't lower yourself to such base lies."
"My wife is called Elizabeth‑Maria Nickley. Her family is from Ireland. She gets her name from her grandmother on her mother’s side. I am preparing to present her at tomorrow's ball."
The inspector general started to think, as if solving a complicated charade, then nodded.
"That would be nice," he said slowly, with detachment, but immediately turning his eyes on me in rage. "Just know, Viscount, that if you drag some cheap actress down there and bring shame on my daughter, I will destroy you myself, my-self! I will make your blood boil in your veins and cook you alive!"
"I assure you, inspector general, it will not come to that!"
"If the poem was in fact intended for my daughter, its best to admit it directly, here and now," continued the Illustrious von Nalz, already absolutely calm. "In that case, I would have to challenge you to a duel, though at least you would die with dignity. And not in such torment..."
"There’s no reason for..."
"You could, it stands to reason, hide, but I do not advise that at all. I really do not."
"I wasn't even thinking it!"
"Get out of my face," then rasped the highly placed officer, ending my hearing.
With a furious speed, I jumped out into the reception. The air there seemed simply icy by comparison. A trickle of cold sweat started running down my back. Somehow, I slowed my panicked breathing and went down to the first floor, but before I'd managed to close the entrance behind me, I was called on again.
After shuddering in surprise, I turned to see a constable getting up from his desk with some kind of envelope in his hands."
"Correspondence for you!" he said.
I took the unexpected letter and nodded:
"Thank you," and went out into the colonnade-enclosed portico courtyard, where ancillary workers were trying without particular success to wash away the soot that had accumulated last winter on the white marble of our Themis statues.
With a heavy sigh, I lowered myself onto one of the benches placed around the fountain and took a look inside the thick paper envelope addressed to me only by name, no address, stamps or mention of who'd sent it. After giving an uncomprehending snort, I took my jack-knife from my pocket, cut open the seal and shook out a laconic invitation to visit the Witstein Banking House to discuss the issue of my gaining access rights to my inheritance.
I reread the letter two times and furrowed my brow in consternation. My attorney hadn't managed to beat any paper from my fund in the past month, so why then would my uncle move the situation forward so easily? And what did the Witstein Banking House have to do with my inheritance? The Kósice family had never had many dealings with the Judean community.
After looking at the massive chronometer, new-fashioned, meaning it was worn on the arm, I decided I still had time to visit the Banking House before it closed for lunch, and if I didn't make it, no matter, I could wait. I didn't have anything planned for today that couldn't be rescheduled anyway.
I jammed the envelope in my jacket pocket, and left of police head‑quarters' courtyard. Then, in no particular hurry, I stepped off down Newtonstraat toward Ohm Square.
For the beginning of April, today was shaping up to be an unusually humid day, and the sun hanging over the roofs of the houses was heating up the city everywhere I went, like a steak thrown into a smoking pan. Even the black clouds billowing on the horizon were no guarantee that the freshness of evening would soon be arriving; most likely, they would simply disperse over the ocean.
Ducking away from the muggy air, I turned down a sycamore alley and began walking further into the shade of the trees. Five minutes later, I came out onto the rear of Ohm Square and happened upon a mercilessly smoking steam tram. I was barely able to grab onto the handrail before its iron wheels started clanking around the bend where the rails had a juncture, causing the tram to rock palpably.
On the other side of the windows, buildings drifted by at a turtle's pace. Wisps of smoke came into the open door from time to time, stinging my eyes unbearably. We couldn't even dream of the speeds of the Underground, though. To get from the nearest underground railroad station to the Judean Quarter, you'd have to spend no less than a quarter hour slogging through the confusing little side-streets of the old city.
And what was the point?
Bit by bit, my view of the city was beginning to change as we left the newly constructed high-rises behind us. Dilapidated commercial buildings and office buildings with slanted roofs started closing in on one another while the tram traveled down the narrowing road. The tiny, damp alleys between buildings flickered by, and the steam tram rolled on.
Cabbies looked on with unhidden disapproval at the passengers now filling the tram-car to the brim. Their horses were sneezing and shaking their heads, caught in the smoke trail the tram was leaving behind. A few times, we were passed by open self-propelled carriages, their chauffeurs wearing leather jackets, leggings and goggles that covered half the face. The carriages shot off into the distance, but the loud chirruping of their gun-powder engines continued to carry down the street for some time.
When we reached Mendeleev Boulevard, I jumped out of the steam tram and swerved off the sidewalk into a passage between two buildings, both scuffed and uncared-for with narrow windows on the second story and above. I got a bit lost in the back alleys and soon came out onto a big street. The nearest building on it was sporting a fresh sign: Mihelson Street.
The first floors of the solid stone building were occupied by many shops and stalls, but it all looked like one solid mass now, with the storefronts shuttered behind security doors in preparation for nightfall. Based on my impression, it seemed as if one of the liveliest trading streets of the Judean neighborhood had suddenly died out. I walked a whole block, and not a single living soul crossed my path.
Only on the corner next to a barber shop, did I see someone: a long figure standing motionless in a long-skirted black frock and hat to match.
Sliding my gaze over the dispassionate face framed with peyos and a beard, I walked alone up the stairway of the detached three-story building with a solid signboard reading Witstein Banking House and pulled the door handle toward me.
It didn't yield. I jostled it – still stuck.
Then I gave a few hits of the knocker on the iron sheet door, waited a few minutes and again pulled on the handle, but suddenly froze, struck by an unexpected thought.
"Saturday!" I slapped my palm on my forehead. "Today is Saturday!"
In our enlightened society, any manifestation of religious ideas was viewed in a dim light, and all forms of mysticism were mercilessly rooted out and eliminated. Orthodox Judeans, though, had been steadfast in bearing the incessant accusations of the Mechanists. As a matter of course, these threats were rarely acted on: the buoyant financials of the group allowed them to grease the right wheels of the state apparatus if need be, so any talk about massacring them remained just that – talk.
Though science had completely extricated religion from mainstream society, our top power brokers had a healthy pragmatism and held holy the principle of "render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's." Money was the lifeblood of the Empire, and everything else came second.
I took a tin of sugar drops from my pocket and threw the first one I came upon into my mouth.
So then, today is Saturday; the Banking House is closed. Tomorrow as well. Sunday is an official day off.
What a shame.
At that very moment, a covered wagon rolled across the intersection with a screech. The driver, his cap thrown down over his eyes, was hurrying the trucks into the barber shop’s back courtyard, and the lanky Judean was rushing to open the gates. As soon as the cart was out of view, the gate closed just as quickly.
I took a quizzical look around, then pressed down a button on my arm chronometer, setting a countdown, and tossed another sugar drop into my mouth.
I can wait...
The cart rolled back out onto the street twenty minutes later, but this time the haulers were obviously straining themselves, and the cart was leaving a dust cloud in its wake. The lanky Judean stood in front of the gate and tried to unlock the entrance to the barber shop, but the key just didn't want to turn in the lock; he even had to remove his thick canvas gloves and hold them under his armpit.
I popped another sugar drop into my mouth, slipped the tin into my jacket's side pocket and stepped across the road.
"My good man!" hailed the Judean, standing up in the middle of the carriageway.
The lanky one turned, shot me a worried glance and croaked:
"I'm not here for that! Can you tell me where the nearest Underground station is?"
"Over there," the lanky barber waved me down the street with his left arm; his right arm, bearing an old bluing tattoo he jammed into his frock pocket, acting casual.
I bowed my head slightly and pressed the very tips of my fingers to my derby hat.
"Thank you," I smiled and walked off in the direction he pointed, not asking him to clarify the route.
After all, that wasn’t why I was asking.
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