Chapter 17 - Smoky Back Rooms and Salons
Jean G Hontz
@copyright 2009 all rights reserved
The room was large, dark and dismal. Rain was sluicing down the window panes, leaving dirty streaks which made the room all the gloomier, and killed all hope that one might have found looking out at the garden. It was chilly and the fire in the grate did little to combat the chill air. The furniture, ancient oak, was not comfortable. Castles. Everyone wanted one. They should instead try living in one; that would get them over the thought.
“So where are we?” the personage at the table asked, as he took a cut glass decanter in one hand and poured several fingers of good dark scotch into his crystal glass. He added a splash to the glass belonging to the man sitting opposite him, then puffed on his cigar.
“Chief Inspector Rory’s coded message does not include much new information,” replied the slender man who sat across from the personage.. At the moment he was gray-faced with fatigue.
Lord Laurence Mallister. The long-suffering. He was re-reading the latest coded message from Bermuda, apparently attempting to decipher more information than what the terse language provided on first glance. But then Mallister knew the agent. Perhaps he could read more into the message given that. God knew they hoped for more helpful information than it appeared to convey.
“Tell me about this Rory,” the rather rotund personage directed, staring at his attaché.
“Joseph Rory. London born and bred. His father a good man but of no particular talent, unless one counts a remarkable ability to toss away the family assets on nonsense schemes. Despite such a father, Joseph is practical and imaginative. He’s been with the Met for 5 years, only recently transitioning into Special Branch. Distinguished himself a number of times and that’s how he came to my attention. He’s a good head on his shoulders, not the sort to jump to conclusions. Dedicated, stubborn and brave but not foolish about it. He’s also unlikely to be fanciful.”
The personage guffawed quite loudly.”Yes, why in the world should we be fanciful about a machine that disappeared taking its creator with it.”
“Not to mention taking along several other people and leaving bits of dead men behind.”
“Indeed,” the personage responded heavily, pausing to suck on his cigar and then blow smoke rings. “They aren't dead, are they? The machine didn't kill them too, did it?”
“There is no evidence of such,” Mallister replied. “But we’ve no way of knowing for certain.”
After a time, during which both stared into the fire, Mallister said, “Sir..”
The personage waved him to silence. “Let me think.” He chewed his cigar.
For quite a long time the only sounds in the room were the light taps of the rain hitting the panes, the occasional crackle of wood from the fireplace, and the ticking of a grandfather clock. The attaché drifted off into a semi-doze. He’d been up for something going on 72 hours now. When the Queen showed an interest in something, one tended to devote one’s entire existence to it.
The personage, a frown on his face, envied the man his rest, then turned to stare into the fire.
What did they know? Actually know, as opposed to guessed? He mutilated his cigar further as he put his thoughts in order.
Lady Emiline Hollis-Reynolds had been kidnapped. Interestingly enough, Richard Ainsworth, a long time acquaintance granted, but one she hadn’t seen for years, was with her at the time and was missing now too, if one was to believe his father.
Should one believe Nathan Ainsworth at all? That was the question. The man was ruthless, abrasive, driven, angry and entirely focused on profit. It was highly questionable that the man had a single loyal bone in his body, not even with regard to his own son. Even so, none of those reasons were enough on their own to make them doubt the man’s word.
And what about that son? Richard Ainsworth was an alchemist of some considerable skill. Well schooled, far less public than his father, and therefore a good deal harder to predict or know.
Had Richard Ainsworth kidnapped Lady Emiline? That was his own working theory, but they had no evidence to back it up. Yet. So how did that change things?
If Richard had kidnapped her, could he have since convinced her that he was a fellow victim rather than the perpetrator of the crime? Yes, he had to tell himself, given what he knew about Richard. Richard was handsome, polite, well-read, educated, charming, if one was to believe what society said of him. Unlike his father, he was well-liked by those who didn’t hate him through envy. All of that mostly despite his antecedents.
That he had ever been a friend to Ned Black’s was a surprise. Other than a common interest in science they had little else on which to base a friendship. It was even more a surprise that Richard Ainsworth had palled around with Cyril Hollis-Reynolds at Oxford. Cyril was a nice chap, but hardly the sort to hold someone like Richard’s interest. Therefore it all had to do, somehow, even from the very start, with Benedict ‘Ned” Black. Yes, it was the only explanation of all that, that made any sense at all.
Granted both Richard and Ned were brilliant. Both alchemists. Both somewhat on the outside edges of polite society, Ned because of the accident of his birth, RIchard because no matter how wealthy a father might be, self-made men were not seen as worthy. Nor were their sons. One had to be born into a title for that honor, even if it were a broke one, or an empty one, if honor it be.
All right. If all that were true, where did it leave them?
Ned Black, blamed because he was handy and because his father was the true bastard in the matter, had run rather than trust English justice to unravel accusations that he'd been complicit in an assassination attempt on Queen Victoria. That the entire plot had been cooked up by elements in Her own government was, of course, something one pretended not to be so. Yet they, he too, needed someone to blame publicly and Ned Black was one of the men so blamed.
So Ned had renounced England, left her shores, and lost himself in the world.
Richard Ainsworth, perhaps at the behest of his father, had set out to ... What? FIrst locate Ned Black. Who else to begin with than Cyril Hollis-Reynolds or Emiline Hollis-Reynolds. Then perhaps the plan was to blackmail Ned Black into turning over his machine to Nathan Ainsworth? Hold Lady Emiline, who rumor said had been in love with Ned Black, hostage against Ned helping them with .. What, exactly? That was the rub.
All right, so what did they know about the actual machine, the one Black referred to in his correspondence as “The Assembler.” What exactly did it assemble? How. Why. For what?
Knowing scientists, it wasn't even necessarily a goal of Ned Black’s to create a machine that did anything that might interest Nathan Ainsworth. Probably Black had gotten an idea to create something to perhaps just help him with a problem, gotten interested in the thing, toyed with it, altered it, gotten more ideas and then built the damn thing with no real idea of what exactly he had in hand. Serendipity. Yes, that sounded right.
And somehow or other, Nathan Ainsworth learns of it and wants it, enlisting the help of his son to get it.
Well, they couldn't let Ainsworth have it, and the security services had now made it known that they too wanted this unknown machine - as well, he suspected, as Ned’s head. And that was before they learned the damn thing could disappear. And he wasn't about to tell them!
The spies had told him, and seemed to deeply believe - rightly or wrongly - or so they’d told him, that The Assembler could unravel other countries’ secret codes and give England and the Empire a leg up militarily and financially what with knowing their plans and perhaps thusly having warnings about any future aggressive moves they might be considering against the Empire and Her allies.
“It would be handy,” the personage muttered to himself, pausing in his musing to pour himself another drink, light a new cigar, and smile at his attache, whose head had fallen down onto the table, cradled in his arms. Soft snores betrayed him. Poor Mallister had had a few rough and long days.
All right, at any rate he had a plan. Ruefully he admitted that not all of it would be in accordance with his own security services wishes. Well, too damn bad. He wanted it all to end with Ned Black back in good graces, even if he had to have the Queen knight the poor bugger to manage it.
As for Richard Ainsworth, he needed more information. Was the man worth saving? Quite possibly. Although he had no idea if he’d want saving. Still, it had to be tried.
He just hoped that Chief Inspector Joseph Rory was the right man for that job.
In another house in London, one definitely not a castle, but instead a comfortable, well appointed townhouse in very trendy Mayfair, a man was sitting down to dinner with his guest.
The place was pleasantly lit, the furniture elegant yet snug despite being the latest thing. The fireplace warmed the air just enough, servants waited on their every need and desire, and both the man and the woman sitting down to dinner looked well rested and in good spirits.
The crystal and silver glinted in the gaslight. The porcelain was so thin you could nearly see through it. The damask on the table and the napkins were perfectly white and crisp.
The man poured ruby red wine costing as much as many a man made in a year and smiled at his guest.
She was a bit flamboyantly if richly dressed, even by the latest London standards. Her black as night hair was pulled back into a complicated chignon, and her dress was cut quite low on her bosom. The deep garnet red silk of it set off her milk-white skin perfectly.
“I’m so delighted you could join me... May I call you Abigail?” His voice was deep and confident. His evening clothes screamed of Savile Row.
“Please do, if I can call you Nathan. I’ve never let English conventions limit me. The continent is not nearly so pretentious.”
“I agree wholeheartedly, Abigail. I’m so delighted you’ve agreed to dine with me. It’s quite an honor.”
She blushed. “I’ve not been on the stage for quite some time.”
“Ah, but every lover of the English stage remembers you,” he replied gallantly.
She nodded her head in acceptance of his compliments.
Their conversation was easy, the food perfect, and they both enjoyed the evening.
Later, as they sat in the drawing room with brandy, he commented, “So, tell me, what’s that son of yours been up to? He and my Richard were friends in school, did you know? Richard often spoke of him.”
“I didn’t know,” Abigail Black replied. “But then Benedict has never been the sort who shares things with anyone. He’s always been close with regard to all of his doings.”
Nathan frowned. “That’s a shame, really. You’ve no idea how sorry I am to hear that.”
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