When emotionally tormented actor MONTAGUE PARAGON meets man-beasts and a tentacled prostitute, his interest is naturally piqued. After they are attacked by a masked aeronaut in an ornithopter enforcing ‘The Law,’ Paragon vows to investigate with the aid of his comrades in Lochmoor. Based in London’s Eccentric Club, they are tasked with managing weird events. His task is compounded by nightmares, opium use, and violent Zulu War-PTSD rages. Complicating things further is that his fight trainer/quartermaster, QUEUE, is clearly enamored of him, though she says nothing.
Paragon is attacked by a winged reptilian creature. He is a target, but of whom? Why is RIOT ARMY painted at London crime scenes? And are the visions of his dead mother and sister merely drug phantoms, or perhaps ghosts?
At his theatre he is approached by the alluring LADY AMBERGRIS KALMAAR, wearing red leaves. She warns him that they are both in danger from the aeronaut and seeks his protection. Immediately after, Paragon is stalked by a knee-high tripod with a heat ray.
He and his partner, OSCAR WILDE, investigate the murder of a corrupt politician killed by black smoke. There are signs that the tripod was the weapon. Beneath the body are red leaves, which DR. JEKYLL declares to be of alien origin. Kalmaar unwillingly meets with DNA manipulator and secret London crime lord/RIOT ARMY leader JAMES NAVITA, who is blackmailing her into aiding him in an old love-triangle vendetta against the aviator.
Lady Kalmaar tells Paragon that the aviator is disgraced biologist DR. MOREAU. She reveals that she is his daughter and plans to kill him for turning her into a monster. Paragon finds Kalmaar drinking blood from a soldier with her thigh tentacles, installed by Moreau. She can also change color like an octopus and produce an aphrodisiac scent.
Paragon has a PTSD rage while fight training and nearly kills his partner. Despite this, on Queue’s recommendation and despite her jealousy, Lochmoor sends Paragon and Kalmaar, posing as man and wife, to Moreau’s Yorkshire hideout. He spies on a meeting of Moreau and his world-wide crime lords. Moreau reveals that he is luring Navita to him with Kalmaar and that, unknown to her, she was grown with Martian DNA to be a seductress/spy.
Moreau has a dangerous Martian envoy in his lab. She is unhappy with his progress in helping prepare for their invasion. Paragon flees on an autogyro with Kalmaar, but Moreau’s beast-men capture them. Navita arrives nearby via gargoyle transport to kill Moreau.
They escape with Paragon’s gadgetry but are trapped in a storeroom. He calls in Royal Aero Marines, who glide in on kites. The airship is taken. Moreau escapes and catches Paragon him, but it is a beast-man decoy. Navita’s gargoyle seizes him. Paragon, giving up, nearly gone, sees hallucinations (or ghosts) of his mother and sister who encourage him to resist. This revives him and he wounds the gargoyle with a belt buckle gun. A stranger in black fights it, disables it, vanishes. Navita escapes. Moreau’s explodes his airship. He and the Martian fly away with a rocket suit. The cross that Paragon’s mother was buried with somehow appears around his neck.
Lady Kalmaar is made Paragon’s partner, though not trusted. Paragon discovers that Queue was the gargoyle-fighting stranger who saved him. They go off in search of Navita and Moreau.
Targeted Age Group:: 16+
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
I wanted to combine my affinity for history with my love of science-fiction and Steampunk is the perfect vehicle for it. I also wanted to see what I could do within the constrictions of the standard 'Victorian London secret agents of the paranormal' trope. And I wanted to use the structure of Shakespeare's 'The Tempest.'
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
I began with the need to have characters loosely match up with those in 'The Tempest.' So Paragon had to be a handsome action guy like Ferdinand and Ambergris had to be reared on a remote island with one parent. Dr. Moreau's science equates with Prospero's magic and he has a staff to help him walk. Navita is Antonio because he's a treacherous 'brother.' Oscar Wilde is Trinculo the jester and the automaton valet Mervyn is the butler Stephano.
Above the English Channel, Dorset coast, July 1887
The sturdy fellow rushed to his commander’s side, wobbling as the ship careened again. “Aye, sir!”
His superior turned, glossy black leather coat catching the flash of another tremendous lightning strike. Those disturbing pale blue eyes seemed to spark. “See to your men. You must all do your utmost, or this storm will undo us.”
Saluting, the boatswain hurried aft to secure the rigging. It wouldn’t do to explode now, with land so near.
“Remember who you have aboard,” a tall Confederate captain reminded the commander.
“It is ever in my thoughts, Carter. Precious cargo if ever there was.” He ran nervous fingers through his white-blonde hair. His accent seemed born in Donegal, but hinted also of something else, the flat tones of America, perhaps. “But so is my own arse.”
“I trust a man more who thinks of his own survival ahead of some damn fool mission.” The darkly handsome Carter’s voice was pure Virginia.
“As do I, but if harm comes to our eerie friend, her inbound mates will be spectacularly and gruesomely unforgiving.”
Another blue-white bolt slashed across their bow. “A direct hit will do us for sure.”
“Unlikely. Our metal frame is essentially a giant Faraday cage. The wind is more of a danger. That, and…”
He jerked his head toward the stern. Carter craned his neck to peer out the window. When the next lighting flared, an enormous airship filled the entire sky, several times larger than theirs. “He’s going to ram us!”
“Sebastian is insane, but not foolhardy. He needs to get our prize back from us intact. More likely he’s lowering grapples to snare our rudder.” The commander snapped to his helmsman, “Hard to port!”
The gondola lurched as the little ship swerved, but the maneuver was never completed. Something had jammed the steering mechanism.
“Too late!” Carter growled.
“Damn!” The commander moved in close and whispered to him. “Get our slimy friend into one of the beetles, with a driver. Ensure her enclosure shield is sound, else she’ll hijack his mind. Ready another for you and me.”
Carter nodded and hurried aft, gripping the walls as the ship bucked like a frightened horse. Behind him the helmsman cried, “Controls are lost, sir! I can’t steer her.”
“Very well, son. You’ve done your best. Better brace
yourself. We’ve a hard landing ahead. I only hope it’s a dry one.” He fingered a photograph hung around his neck and muttered, “If you had just let her go, they’d both be alive, and it wouldn’t have come to this.”
Atop the white chalk cliff, a handful of dark figures in oilcloth watched for the result of the chase. For a long time, it seemed that the smaller ship would escape, but then the great Giffard had shot lines down into her tail. Now she fishtailed like a jig in a storm, losing height every second.
“Will she at least make it to land?” asked one in a curiously emotionless tone.
“If she don’t, we all’s lookin’ fer new jobs come mornin’,” another said in the same manner.
Their leader, peering at the oncoming behemoths through binoculars that emitted a greenish glow, said, “She’ll get here. Be a damned near thing, though.”
Tall and thin, in an old plaid coat, his jaw jutted out like the prow of a ship. He turned to his men. Another storm burst showed them to be a pair of most disturbing individuals. One bore an unhealed but bloodless bullet wound above his right eye. His partner’s face was a smallpox-destroyed horror show. Their eyes were mildly clouded.
“Stand ready to get the boss clear if they make it. If he don’t, well…then we scarper off before we’re something’s dinner.”
In the end, the first airship did get clear of the Channel, by a whisker. It struck the muddy ground with a crumping sound. Before its gas bag could begin to sag, two round horseless vehicles burst out of it and bounced inland. Close behind came three eerie figures from the other ship, vaguely human in shape, but running on all fours like predators of the veldt. They swarmed the rear car, rolling it on its back and plucking a large squarish object from it. In another moment, a rotor-aero picked them up and returned to the Giffard, which kept on to the north. As it glided overhead, the lantern-jawed fellow trained his binoculars on its nose, where the name Prosper could be seen for a moment before the darkness absorbed it all.
“Off we go, boys. Let’s hope Jimmy was in that other beetle. But it’s a foul mood he’ll be in.”
1 / “ANY STRANGE BEAST THERE MAKES A MAN
London; October 1887
When a Whitechapel whore waves her tentacles at you, attention must be paid.
Normally he would have passed on by, of course. It would not be wise to permit her to lure him in with her soft words and body. Before he knew it, he would find himself reeled in like a foolish trout. Yanked from his element and skinned. Boned, possibly, if her pimp lurked in the alley and was more than usually desperate. Best to just tip one’s hat and keep on walking, particularly after midnight in such a foul area.
Tentacles, though. Not your everyday dollymop, this one.
He slowed, turned. The gears in his left leg were new and well-oiled, but he could still hear them whirring. Most people could not, but then most people had not spent seven years being hunted across the globe. It had honed his senses, that. And an excellent thing, too, because his pricked ears detected tiny gasps coming from somewhere behind him. Some fellow’s trying to mask his breathing. But this bloody yellow fog is playing the devil with his lungs. He snorts like an animal.
Reserving a corner of his mind for that potential threat, he saluted her with the smooth steel head of his stick, touching it to the brim of his bowler. A few feet away a dim gaslight gave off the feeblest of glows. Beauty did not live in her features, of course. The comely ones easily found indoor work and better pay. This girl — and she was no more than twenty, though she looked twice that — wore the drawn look that spoke of too much gin and too little food. None of her clothes matched, coming from a variety of second-hand shops and trash heaps. Covered in sad, soggy flowers, her hat was a milliner’s nightmare. But even without those disadvantages, she had never turned heads. Her eyes were a trifle lopsided, the nose over-long, the chin too pointed. One canine was missing.
“Evenin’, m’lord,” she croaked, voice as dry as a mummy’s. “Fancy some company? Dreadful night to be alone, ain’t it?”
“Dreadful it is,” he agreed. His eyes scanned her thin form. The tentacles had disappeared, tucked out of sight now that she had hooked him. “But I’m no lord.”
“A gentleman, at least, though, with togs like yours. And such refined speech.”
A corner of his mouth twitched beneath the fair mustache. Oh, you should’ve heard
me at Isandlwana, missy, with my Yorkshire accent and pauper’s manners. I swore like a
thousand demons when the Zulus took my leg. Pissed myself, too.
“Hush,” he said with a smile. “You’ll turn my head.”
“Oh, I can do more than that, love.” She slid toward him, putting on her best
‘come-hither’ gaze. “For the right price Millie can turn yer inside-out.”
Yes, and your partner back there will do the same to my pockets, no doubt.
A brewery wagon rumbled past, empty kegs making a terrible racket as it bounced along the cobbled street. When it had gone, he cocked his head to pick up the suspicious breather again. No sound could be heard now. The man had scooted away under cover of the noise. Ah. Aren’t you the clever one?
“Well, Millie, I must be honest with you,” he told the trollop, “I’m not the sort of man who patronizes a working girl on the street.”
She smiled and waved a dirty hand at him. “Aw, if I had a shillin’ for every time I’ve heard that —”
Returning her smile, he nodded while scanning about for sign of the missing stalker. But the labored breather had gone. No strange odor gave him away, either. Hardly surprising, with the stench of so much filth this near the Thames. Plays hell with one’s defenses.
“I imagine so,” he agreed. “Nevertheless, you intrigue me.” His voice dropped to a whisper. “My Millie can tease her man in a rather unique way, yes?”
Millie tried to wrap her tongue around the unfamiliar word. “Yew-neeke?” She made a sour face. “Don’t know about that one, dearie. Whatever ‘tis, cost yer extra, it will.”
Her new customer did his best not to make an eye-roll at such tragic ignorance. “It means one of a kind. Exceptional. Rare.”
Understanding lit her plain face. “Aw, yer mean me wigglers?”
“Quite. Are they real?”
That earned him an affronted frown. “Course they’s real. I gives honest value. Whaddya take me for?”
“Well, that’s what we’re negotiating, isn’t it?”
“Two bob, love. That includes Millie’s bonus treatment.”
With that she glanced about, then shook her head. Two slim snakes, perhaps eighteen inches long and thick as a thumb, slid across her prominent collarbones. Mottled gray and green, they seemed to grow from the base of her skull. Small pink suckers ran along the undersides. At the end of one was a mouth with tiny, curved teeth, while the other sported a lovely blue eye with a vertical iris. It raised itself up and blinked at him.
“That’s quite the bonus,” he breathed, squinting back at the eye. His callused hand dipped into a pocket of his brocade vest. He held out two silver coins, one on either side of an ivory calling card. “And a bargain, I’d say.”
She peered at the card. Its writing was difficult to see by the muted glimmer of the gaslight. The fog had grown worse. Now it resembled oolong tea tainted with sulphur. A storm-driven south wind was coming in now, but it did nothing to thin the muck. After taking a long moment to sound out the words in her head, she read the card aloud. “Montague Paragon.” Millie raised an eyebrow at him. “This yer name?” He nodded once, still captivated by her wriggling tentacles. “The Ogilvy Theatre.” Her head came up again. “Yer an actor, then?”
“Of modest reputation only. I’m no David Garrick.”
The whore frowned. “Who?”
A sigh. “Not important.”
“What’s this at the bottom? The Eccentric Club, 67b Shaftsbury Avenue, Soho? Sounds dodgy to me.”
He laughed aloud at that. “And to many others, I daresay. That’s where you can locate me tomorrow afternoon.”
She took a suspicious step back. “And why would I do that?”
“Because, my dear precious Millicent — that is your given name, yes? — if you present this card there at two o’clock, I will hand you five guineas for your trouble.”
Her tired eyes grew to the size of carriage wheels at such an immense sum, as much as a tradesman earned in a year. “Pull the other one!”
“You are right to be circumspect.” Paragon produced a gold sovereign. “Here is proof of my good intentions.”
The coin vanished, snatched up by the toothed tentacle, which tucked the loot down her failed bosom. “Ooh! What did I do to deserve meetin’ yer tonight?”
What, indeed? My imagination deserts me. “Promptly at two o'clock ring at the servants’ entrance, show the clockwork man this card, and say ‘Namaste.’ He will escort you directly to me. Can you remember that?”
Her brow furrowed as she concentrated, tongue peeking between her chapped lips. “Nah-mah-stay.” Fresh suspicion darkened her brow. “Yer doesn’t want a tumble tonight? What game yer playin’ at?”
“No game at all. I merely want a professor friend from the Royal Society to examine your, um, wigglers. All very innocent, I assure you.”
Millie giggled. “I ain’t precisely in the innocent business.”
Paragon winced as his mind flickered an image of poor Sergeant Brutte’s pale, dead face on that African killing ground. “None of us is, I fear.” Once more he raised his walking stick in salute.
And in the polished head he saw two rough men with knives creeping up on him.
Ah, well. I came to Whitechapel to be killed. This is as good a spot as any.
The rowdies were stout fellows, but Paragon was no willowy reed himself. Years of wandering Africa and Asia after Isandlwana, working with his hands and back in exchange for the secrets of each new combat master, had hardened his six-foot tall body into oak. It had also taught him to embrace the calm at every storm’s center, to permit the winds to whirl past him. In the seconds before the first attacker arrived, he took a cleansing breath and sank his soul into the earth.
Perhaps Millie was in on the assault from the first. Or perhaps they merely took advantage of the opportunity his whisper of a limp suggested. It mattered not to Paragon. These were just the sort of men he would have sought out anyway. Hard lads who could offer him the kind of atonement he craved.
He shoved Millie back against the wall. Her tentacles jerked back into her hair as if by steam-driven pulleys. From the look on her face, the knifemen were no friends of hers. That’s nice. I’m developing a fondness for the girl. With a wink, he slid hard left just as the lead man laid a heavy hand on his right shoulder and pulled. With his balance too far back, a firm elbow easily shoved the thug away.
The dollymop clung to the grimy wall, too shocked to run. Paragon placed himself in front of her. See, m’lady? Chivalry lives, even here. Exaggerating his limp, he
played the part of a pathetic cripple, just as he had on stage earlier that month in
Avery’s over-written melodrama. Now he played Caliban at the Ogilvy with the stump in plain view.
One man with a blade was a hazard worth avoiding. Two of them were death on winged feet. No sane man would invite them to waltz. But then, all sane men in London were a-bed this night. Only the suicidally guilty walked abroad. Wobbling dramatically, black stick held behind him, Paragon oozed false fear. His opponents looked at one another and smiled. Though he expected them to insist that he empty his pockets, they set their ugly faces into grim masks and advanced.
No robbery, this. Just murder. So much the better. I hope you’re up to it, gents. I grow tired of waiting to join Brutte, but I won’t just lie down for you, either.
The fellow on the right proved to be a bit lighter on his feet than his partner. Less gin in his system, perhaps. He arrived a few steps ahead of the other chap, much to his immediate chagrin. As his knife slashed at the arm Paragon offered, it met only fog. A neat pivot on the front leg had removed the target. With a blurred snap the stick rapped the man’s knife hand. His blade bounced on the cobbles. When he yowled and yanked the bruised member away, Paragon kicked the second rowdy in the knee with his rear leg…the aluminum one. A high-pitched hiss left the killer’s lips. He hopped back out of range, clutching his wrecked joint.
Paragon put his weight on both feet now that the ruse had played itself out. The complex system of gears, chains, and clockwork that Queue had installed in the new limb barely groaned as he pushed off toward the first man. Splendid that it’s worked so well in its first trial-by-combat. The bloody thing’s worth its weight in silver, I’m told. I’ll wager that this strange metal is the coming thing.
Right then the first assassin was the coming thing. He had taken great offense at having his knuckles rapped. He rushed in hard and fast. The actor let him get a good grip on the lapels of his frock coat. Then he thrust his stick between the man’s arms and across his thick neck while twisting the grasping wrist. In a single heartbeat the fellow found himself levered face-first onto the cobblestones, Paragon’s cane grinding the elbow in a direction nature had never intended. His victim screeched and crawled off.
An ornithopter rattled overhead, almost close enough to spit at. Its fabric wings clattered and jangled as they beat back and forth, nearly smothering the sound of the small paraffin engine. Who in blazes is flying in this beastly fog? And so low! Is he mad? Distracted, Paragon learned too late that the man he had kicked possessed great powers of recovery. His wicked blade just missed Paragon’s cravat, and the vulnerable throat beneath it. Hurling himself backward, Millie’s newest friend managed to block the second and third strikes with instinctive flicks of his stick. He skidded backward to gain some breathing space. When his grunting foe kept advancing, though favoring his damaged knee, Paragon sighed and pulled thirty inches of Sheffield steel from the black body of his cane, an advantage he had not wished to employ. Something gave him pause.
Now that the assailant had skidded to a stop, the sword point mere inches from his nose, Paragon took the time to get a good look at the fellow’s face. He had to blink and stare again. There was no mistake. The knifeman did not have a nose per se. Rather, he had a snout. An actual pig’s snout. Oink-oink and all that.
Paragon let out the sort of disbelieving laugh a bloke might make if he had come face-to-face with a unicorn. Edging to his right, he gazed at the other assassin, who held the outraged arm while scrambling to his feet. That man had a normal human nose, but his ears boasted points, while patches of reptilian scales covered his cheeks and neck.
What the devil…? And All-Hallow’s Eve is still a fortnight off. Sorry, Brutte old chap, our reunion will have to be postponed. I simply must know what this is all about.
Scaly-bloke hissed, a forked tongue flicking out of his thin mouth. Grimacing, he hefted his blade with his undamaged arm. With a sideways glance at his fellow
slayer, he began to slide to Paragon’s right. Swine-boy eased around the other way, hoping to position himself where his enemy could not see both foes at once. Paragon kept the sword aimed at the first man and the heavy cane body at the second one. He scooted backward to defeat their plan, keeping his eyes on the lizard and his ears on the hog. This time he would use the new metal leg to put them down for good.
But as he tensed his muscles to interdict the attack, the ornithopter returned. This time it flew much lower. In fact, it landed right on top of them.
The thing was a tiny single-seater, a Hargrave 300. It took up so little space that the pilot almost wore the machine, rather than sat in it. Even with its graceful, curved wings flapping away it still had room to maneuver in the narrow London street. How the operator could see in this abysmal chocolate soup was anyone’s guess. Before diving out of its way to pull the screaming Millie down and cover her, Paragon caught sight of him. A slotted breath shield with filigree silver accents hid his face. Instead of the standard two lenses a single great pane of curved and mirrored glass covered the eyes. One hand worked the stick, while the other brandished a queer-looking pistol with brass fins and a fluted glass barrel.
The animal abominations also launched themselves out of the flying machine’s path. As it lurched to a clumsy stop, they did not run away, nor did they attack the pilot. Instead, each knifeman knelt before the sputtering contraption, placed his weapon on the ground, and then touched his beastly forehead to the stones in a sort of worship.
A metallic whine came from the weapon, connected by a metal hose to a flat wooden box on his back. Its translucent barrel gave off a pulsing aquamarine light. As the stranger unbuckled himself from his seat harness, he leveled the gun at the pig-man. Neither of Paragon’s would-be slayers had raised his head yet. Clearly, they knew this person, to be kowtowing so. The object of their veneration stepped into the murky street, walking with a pronounced and unfeigned limp. Long white hair stuck out beneath the back of the mask. He wore tall boots with puttees, canvas jodhpurs, and a tweed Norfolk jacket with a bandoleer across the chest. It held what seemed to be narrow glass tubes full of a mercury-like fluid.
“What is the Law?” croaked the pilot. His mask garbled the words, making it sound like a speaking tube from one’s servants’ quarters.
The piggish fellow glanced sideways at his partner, then whispered in a growl, “Not to hunt other Men. That is the Law.”
“That is the Law,” the scaly chap echoed, not lifting his head.
“What else?” demanded the stranger with a wave of his pistol.
“Not to shed blood,” the swine-man continued. “That is the Law.”
Again, the reptilian repeated the odd refrain. “That is the Law.”
“For are we not Men?” cried the pilot.
“Are we not Men?” the assassins chanted in unison.
Millie tried to shove Paragon away from her so she could see. “Look here!” she complained. “What’s he on about? Who is that bloke anyway?”
Paragon slapped a firm hand over her mouth. “Shush!” An instant later her toothed tentacle nipped at his fingers. Its teeth felt like straight razors dipped in acid. He released her out of pure reflex.
“Don’t shush me, mate.”
He whispered directly into her ear. “A thousand pardons, my marvelous Millicent. But as this mysterious gentleman is in possession of a firearm I’ve never seen the like of — and I am unusually well-traveled — perhaps it’s best we lie low until we have a firmer grip on the situation.”
She turned up a corner of her mouth at that. “A firm grip, eh? Now yer speakin’ me language, gov.” Her bony hand reached low to give him a rather more intimate squeeze than he might have expected in their present situation.
How can this blasted woman think of coupling in these circumstances? Paragon glared at her. “I meant what I said.” He grabbed her wrist and yanked it from his expensively tailored trousers. Bad enough they’re suffering the indignity of this East End sludge we’re lying in. Soiling them from the inside would be more than my poor valet could bear. It occurred to him that only a year earlier the thought of possessing any sort of bespoke tailoring, let alone a servant, would have been laughable.
Millie’s other tentacle, the one with the eye, jerked back. It tapped her on the shoulder and pointed toward the scene in the street. Both snaky appendages vanished beneath her hat. Paragon looked behind him.
And stared into the glowing maw of the outlandish pistol. Ah. He’s not here to rescue us, then. More’s the pity.
Its unearthly whine grew louder. A blaze like Satan’s flash powder obscured gun and shooter. Instead of a sharp report like a normal weapon, it made a triple boing like a great clock spring snapping. The very air seemed to melt as rings of chartreuse energy burned the stones and wall where Paragon and Millie lay, obliterating the streetlamp. In its place remained a plume of burning gas, throwing flickering lights that made the scene even more disturbing. If they had stayed put, only a scorched shadow would have remained of them.
But Montague Paragon had not survived Zulus, Thuggees, Cantonese Triads, and Parisian Apache by debating with himself on courses of action. With no conscious thought his clockwork leg had kicked against the wall and propelled them both out of range. As masonry rained down upon them, he threw the shrieking and cursing woman into the alley. He pulled himself up with his cane body, useless sword at the ready. Jaw set, he waited for obliteration. No second shot followed, however.
The flyer turned away from Paragon, sensing that Millie’s savior posed no imminent threat. He reloaded with a glass charge from his bandoleer and stared down at the fawning beast-men, who had not stirred from their subservient positions. His voice crackled again.
“When the Law is transgressed, what must occur?” No reply. “Speak!”
“Chastisement,” hissed the reptilian one.
“And why is this?”
“That Chaos may not reign. That Order may prevail in house and field.”
“Is your offense a minor one?”
Neither replied. They only shook their heads in rough unison. The pilot holstered his terrible pistol and approached the pair of unnaturals. He put a gloved hand on each bowed neck, a tender gesture out of keeping with his prior harsh words. “It is a hard thing for a father to lose even a single child, let alone two.”
Paragon blinked. Father?
“Yet an example must be set,” the stranger continued. “No one may override the Law.” His voice seemed to almost break. “For are we not…Men?”
“Are we not Men?” the odd pair echoed again.
They picked up their knives together, as if they had received some secret signal. For the first time Paragon noticed that their blades were not of steel. Rather, they
were some sort of curved animal tusk, each a good twelve inches long, with a serrated inner edge. Rawhide wrapping served as a handle. No animal Paragon had ever seen or heard of produced a tusk of that precise size and shape.
The pilot spoke to each man in turn, saying the same thing in a soft tone. “Go in peace, my son. I do this out of love, not anger.”
The pig-man cut the throat of his partner, just as the snake-man did the same for him. Scarlet jetted onto the filthy cobblestones, collecting in the joints and sliding into the gutter. With their last breaths the dying men staggered toward the pilot, arms outstretched, pleading. They sagged to the ground, still imploring him with those limp hands. He never moved, even when a stream of blood pooled beneath one boot.
Paragon remained frozen, watching, listening. There were times when a man of action needed to embrace stillness. He did not yet have enough information to choose a proper course. All of this will have to be recalled later. I must collect and record, not strike out of ignorance.
But the unknown man did not pause. Once the bodies had ceased twitching, he thrust a hand into his jacket pocket and produced a large steel flask. With an unhurried motion, as if there were neither witnesses nor any potential for a bobby to show up, he shook a coarse powder over the still forms. Then he unholstered the deadly pistol and turned a knob on its breech. A casual shot, much weaker than the one launched at Paragon, sent sparks onto the fresh corpses. Painfully bright blue-white light flared up from them, supremely harsh in the fogged darkness. Paragon clenched his eyes to protect them. His sensitive nose, though, was soon overwhelmed with the sweet stench of roasting pork.
In moments, the street lay dark again. Though the powder burned with a terrifying ferocity, its life was brief. Paragon opened his eyes, but of course his night vision had been destroyed. He might as well have been holding a white cane and an alms cup for all the good looking did him. Realizing his vulnerability, he scooted sideways until he found the alley. The smallsword slid back into its housing with an oiled snick.
In the street the masked pilot let out a metallic wail. He cried to the surrounding buildings, “I know you’re watching, Jimmy! This was your doing! Seducer of children!” He hobbled toward his aero, voice sagging like an old roof. “Dragged them back to the jungle, you did.” Strapping into the Hargrave, he added, “Do you think she would have wanted you to do this? How are you honoring her memory –
their memory – by corrupting our work so? Once you made men, now you make monsters. That must stop. I’m coming to take them all. Even your harmless whore. And then you. Our business will finally be resolved.”
The ornithopter chuff-chuffed into life again. In half a minute the wings began to beat. With a bit more grace than it had shown on landing, the flying machine rattled off and lumbered into the air once more. Moments later the street lay silent. Nothing remained of the two creatures, only heaps of steaming ash.
Paragon looked down, feeling blindly with his stick. The gas flare did his sight no favors. Millie had fled, of course. No one with sense would have remained. Perhaps she might still turn up at the club tomorrow. Five guineas was an unobtainable fortune to her sort. Professor Jekyll would positively coo with delight when she displayed her wigglers for him. After a proper bath, though, so as not to offend the famed physician’s delicate sensibilities.
Blinking as some of his vision returned, the actor brushed off as much street muck as he could. His pale gray kid gloves would have to be seen to by Mervyn, who would give him a disappointed shake of his brass head. Best not to think how he’ll react to the ruined trousers, not to mention the scuffed toes of your boots. Probably a metallic shudder of horror. I wonder, do they build that response into all the artificial valets at the manufactory, or is mine just a bit odd?
A police whistle tweeted in the near distance. Even in crime-riddled Whitechapel the festivities had drawn notice. From inside the frock coat Paragon produced another of Queue’s new toys, a brass wind-up torch. Several strong turns of the crank produced a serviceable light for about one minute. With speed born of urgency he hurried into the street to stand at the blackened site of the beast-men’s immolation. At first, he thought that all remnants of them had been consumed, but upon close examination with his monocle magnifier he spied a sliver of bone with perhaps a square inch of attached flesh. His prize went into a tiny, corked vial. He fled back into the alley before a copper could spot him, head throbbing from having sucked in so much wretched air. Just visible on the brick wall were fresh-painted words that had not been present even two minutes before: RIOT ARMY. That phrase had been cropping up all over London of late. No one knew what it meant. Beneath it, “The red plague rid you….” had been scraped into the wall with a knife. It occurred to Paragon that finding a quote from the play he had performed that very night stretched the bounds of coincidence.
All the way home to Soho his mind tried to juggle what had happened. Monty, Monty, Monty…quite the puzzle, this is. Your alienist will charge you double for tomorrow’s session.
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