I see a great city behind my closed eyes. It is the vision of all my failures of architecture, standing
together against all possibility. I see humanity living on these creations, driven far from the mud of which
they are made. I see our homes and churches broken; I see our God snubbed and ignored; I see our
books rendered unreadable by smoke and by ashes.
A passing wash of smoke hid the platform even as the cable car settled into its berth. Oliver had tied his
kerchief over his mouth and nose before disembarking, but that did little to stop the sudden burst of fire in
his lungs at the first taste of the air. This close to the Stack, breathing and not breathing were of equal
detriment to one’s health.
The Dunbridge Concourse was constructed on a sharply slanting hill with the station at its base. By virtue
of the way the steel girders had grown up, the black cloaks had elected to build only on the west side of
the tower; the east stood open to the air and the rain. The dwellings of Dunbridge rested one atop the
other, with all the order of a stack of rubbish, and for the most part were devoid of light.
Every station and street they’d passed through in Stepneyside and Cambridge-Heath had been crawling
with gold cloaks. Even the women and children members of that bizarre order worked the crowds,
eyeing up the midday commuters as they passed. The burlier and better-armed canaries randomly hauled
people from the crowd to perform searches of their pockets. This had happened to Oliver only once, and
he was able to palm his knife and derringer while the man roughed him over. The cloak had
contemptuously shoved him aside to make space for the next victim, whom his lackeys were already
“This is an affront to basic human dignity,” Hews had said. “What do they honestly expect to find with all
this? In the whole of Whitechapel, we can’t number more than a few dozen.”
“Spreading fear, perhaps,” Oliver had suggested, “to scare the average cove away from helping us.”
Hews had perked up at that, and a little of that prideful red glow came back into his cheeks. “Ha. British
men don’t scare that easily.”
Oliver had thought of Missy. “Neither do the women.”
After that, they’d both lapsed into silence. The constant proximity of Grandfather Clock’s followers and
occasionally the Boiler Men limited the instances of their conversation.
Oliver was dying to know more about this Aaron. He wanted to know how a man who knew so much
could be allowed to fall into enemy hands. When asked, Hews snapped that it was not the time to
discuss it and fell back to his silent worrying.
Hews’ first breath as they stepped out of the car sent him into a fit of coughing. Oliver hooked his arm
and gently drew him out of the way of the rest of the passengers as the coughs evolved into wet hacks. It
was several minutes before Hews regained his composure. He righted himself and wiped the spittle away
from beneath his kerchief. A sudden sheen of sweat mixed with the soot on his face. The man seemed
drained of all vitality and every seeming of health.
“That entertaining, am I?” Hews croaked.
Oliver swallowed. “Is it…?”
“Cancer of the lungs, aye,” Hews said. “The same as took my Barbara.”
“You might have told me.”
“You knew it,” Hews scolded. “As a lad, you were never less than observant. She always told me so.”
“There’s a difference, knowing it and hearing it,” Oliver said.
“You needn’t tell me that, lad.”
They stood in silence a moment, while Hews stowed his handkerchief and tied on a fresh one from his
“She was kind to me,” Oliver said to fill the silence.
“Aye, she was. And her only price was the enduring of her constant sermons, bless her Anglican,
Hews cleared his throat and straightened his coat and hat. “Well,” he said. “Now that I’m done making
a spectacle of myself, let’s get on, shall we?”
“But…are you all right?” Oliver asked.
“Chipper as the day I shot out of my mum, lad. I’ll have none of your pity.” He began a brisk walk.
Oliver scrambled to keep pace.
The station exited onto the lowest point of the concourse: a half bowl of concrete that sported benches,
unconvincing false trees, and dormant wrought-iron lampposts of angular design. It was almost deserted,
owing, Oliver figured, to the choking air. A black cloak scuttled by, moving on all fours like a spider,
emitting an audible mechanical grinding as she moved.
Oliver shied away.
“Sold their souls,” Hews said once she had gone. “Nothing in their hearts now but a few lumps of
burning coal and Mama Engine’s excrement.”
And they’d do it to all of us, if we let them,Oliver thought. The metal grew in a human being as easily as
in a tower or a factory; a man would not know he had it until black iron started poking through his skin.
Thomas was already half a machine, and he had never joined any order.
In a few steps they lost themselves in the fog.
“I hope you know the way, Hewey.”
Hews waved him on. “I know it better than my own wrinkles, lad. Just follow me, and make sure there’s
something under your foot before you commit to the step.”
Oliver halted in midstride, foot hanging above the concrete ahead. The air was so thick, holes in the
concourse would not be readily apparent. He shot Hews a venomous look.
“Did I not look preoccupied enough for you?”
“Not at all, lad. Just wanted to warn you to watch your step, that’s all. One never knows, in a place like
“You’re a fiend, Hewey,” Oliver said. For emphasis, he stomped his front foot down hard. The satisfying smack of rubber on concrete echoed back up.
Hews smiled weakly. “Mr. Savvy today, eh? Well, if you take such pride in your own wit, try to tell me
where we are twenty minutes from now.”
Frowning, Oliver followed Hews’ ghostly shadow through the smog to the start of a rickety staircase.
They ascended several storeys before coming to a landing, then found another stair, another landing,
another stair, and so on for what seemed an eternity. Never could Oliver see more than five paces in
front of him. Soot-stained walls and greasy windows passed by on both sides. The heavy air suppressed
all ambient sound, until all Oliver could hear was his own breathing and footsteps.
Hews paused on a landing to catch his breath. Oliver stumbled up beside him.
“Does it worry you that we haven’t seen another living soul this whole time?” he asked.
Hews panted, and spoke with a scratch in his voice. “All staying inside, slothful buggers. Some buildings
here are connected by tunnels, where the air isn’t so bad.”
“Then why are we out here?”
“So no one can bloody see us. This is asecret meeting, in case you’d missed that.”
The aforementioned twenty minutes passed and Oliver had to admit that he was hopelessly lost. After a
few more landings, Hews led them to a pitted oak door and into a lit parlour.
The air within was almost as smoky as that without. Heat pushed its way past Oliver as he entered, filling
his nostrils with the smells of opium and human sweat.
“Even in Whitechapel you can’t escape these damnable places,” Hews muttered.
A single oil lamp with an Oriental paper shade hung from a hook in the ceiling. Its wan light illuminated a
dozen or more men lying about the room on couches and carpets, twitching in their rumpled clothes. No
one moved. No one spoke. Only a moaning from an area on the left, cordoned off by hanging curtains,
dared break the silence.
Stepping carefully over the still forms on the floor, Oliver followed Hews to the back. Hews rapped on
the door there, to the rhythm of “Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond.” It opened, revealing a squat,
hair-lipped Chinese woman of considerable age.
Hews doffed his hat. “Mrs. Flower, a pleasure, as always.”
She greeted him with a wrinkled smile and some words in a singsong dialect, and ushered them both
inside. She led them through a tiny back room equipped with several short tables and stools and a
potbellied stove. A skeletal Chinese girl laboured over the stove, grating cake opium into a sieve that sat
over a pot of boiling water. Mrs. Flower led them to a stained curtain against the back wall and drew it
“Here’s one more.” It was Bailey’s rough voice. “Is anyone with you, Lewis?”
“Only Mr. Sumner,” Hews replied. “Where are the others?”
The Chinese woman gestured for Oliver to follow.
Oliver turned his attention to the room, to find it lit only by a half-dozen thick candles in the centre of the
room’s circular table. Spots of smoke and grease blackened the plaster walls. Bailey, Sims, and two
gentlemen Oliver had never seen before occupied the table.
One of the unknown men, a red-faced gentleman with precisely cut moustache and sideburns, replied,
“We can only hope for them.”
“Just hurry and seat yourselves,” Bailey barked. “We haven’t a lot of time.”
Hews settled into the last empty chair. Oliver stood at a loss for a moment, feeling more and more the
impatience of those assembled, and finally elected to fetch a stool from the previous room. He seated
himself on it and tried not to look as ridiculous as he felt, a head shorter than all the rest with his knees
pulled up to his chest.
“Thank you,” Bailey said to Oliver, with edged sarcasm. He sucked a moment on his cigar and then
addressed the table. “I see four missing.”
One of the two unknowns, a bald man in an expensive suit and pince-nez spectacles replied, “We got
the word through. Perhaps they are simply tardy.”
“A fanciful hope,” Bailey said. “The canaries have been assaulting our hides since dawn, even my own.
Until they knock at the door, we will assume the others have met their fate, so it falls to us to tackle the
task at hand.”
“The task at hand is escape,” said the unknown moustachioed man. “Grandfather Clock and Baron
Hume won’t soon forget about us, and with everything Aaron knew we’d best vacate the city and get the
Crown to send someone else.”
Bailey’s heavy brows dropped low. His cheeks creased around the edges of his moustache in a scowl.
“Ourtask is to retrieve the ticker tape that was Aaron’s objective. According to our source in Scared’s
organisation, one of Aaron’s crew fell from Aldgate with it in his possession. John Scared is certainly
already looking for it, and perhaps the baron, too. We must move with all possible haste if we are to
discover it first.”
“Why is it important?” Oliver asked, and immediately wished he hadn’t. Bailey glared at him as he might
a child who had spoken out of turn. Only the bald, bespectacled man spoke up.
“Yes, out with it,” the man said. “You’ve kept us all too far in the dark on this. Since Grandfather Clock
and his pet baron almost certainly know by now, your compatriots aught to.”
Sims and the other unknown nodded their heads.
Bailey’s glare lingered on Oliver for a moment, cigar smoke curling up his cheeks.
“Then I will start at the beginning.” He addressed the table again. “Our conundrum has been this,
gentlemen. With careful planning, we could probably assassinate the baron, and with enough men, we
could probably defeat the cloaks, but such acts do us no service as long as the Lord and Lady survive.
Ultimately, we require a method to slay them in order to ensure their influence is gone from England, but
bodiless as they are, we’ve encountered no lack of difficulty with this. Aaron has been, for some years, working on a way to kill Grandfather Clock and Mama Engine.”
“And he found such a method?” the bald man asked, leaning forward.
“No. He told me from the start that the task was beyond him. It was John Scared who found a way.”
Low muttering passed across the table. Oliver reeled a bit on his tiny stool. John Scared was the baron’s
lapdog, his eyes and ears on the Whitechapel streets. Could this be dissention in the enemy ranks?
Bailey continued. “Scared placed the calculations for this method on a coded ticker tape. Aaron insisted
on leading a team to steal it.”
It was the bald man’s turn to reel back. “And you let him? God, with how much he knew…”
“He argued that John Scared would have set out traps too devious to deal with without his…special
talents. From what our source has told me of Scared’s lair, I had no reason to doubt this.”
“But the risks, man!”
“The rewards more than outweighed them, sir,” Bailey said, overpowering the smaller man. “At last a
way to free Whitechapel from these God-cursed machines! What risk isn’t worth that? And the
opportunity is still there. Our task, gentlemen, is to retrieve that tape, implement whatever strategy it
contains, and get it into the Stack to do its work.”
Hews rubbed his muttonchops. “No small order.”
“I don’t anticipate any one of us keeping his freedom very much longer,” Bailey replied. “So we must
abandon the dark lantern shenanigans we’ve been playing at, anonymity included, since it is likely the
baron already knows our identities. Joyce, get your engineering crew ready for anything that tape may
contain.” The moustachioed man nodded. “Lewis, you and Lawrence will need to pull in your
connections in the Stack. We may need access to the Chimney or the Work Chamber.”
Oliver visibly cringed at the mention of the dead man’s name. He inhaled and mentally plucked up his
courage. Now it would come out that Lawrence had met his end at the hands of a comrade, and Bailey
would sack him. Well, then, Oliver would simply run a rebellion on his own again, nervous as that made
Hews just nodded. “We’ll get it done,” he said.
“Good,” said Bailey. He turned to give orders to Sims and the other man.
Hews had lied straight to Bailey’s face. A lie of omission. Oliver was aghast. It wasn’t just for his sake,
surely? But why else would Hews do such a thing?
Oliver snapped to attention to find Bailey glaring at him from behind his thick moustache.
“Do you have Lawrence’s manual?”
“Good. With luck, it will contain a key to decode Scared’s tape.”
Oliver raised his eyebrows.
Hews leaned over and muttered an explanation: “Lawrence was in contact with Scared through
intermediaries. He’d been compiling this for some time.”
“We will be using the Shadwell Underbelly to gain access to the downstreets,” said Bailey. “I want your
people to loiter in the lift station and on the main street and to monitor the activity of cloaks and Boiler
Men. Distract them or assault them as necessary, but keep them away from our point of egress so we
can be certain of a clear path back. When we have obtained the tape, we will pass it into your hands,
and you must see it safely to Joyce’s workshop since we are unable to move freely on the streets now
that our faces are known. If the Boiler Men arrive at Shadwell in force, you are to give us fair warning
and perhaps a distraction while we escape to the Docks Tower.”
Oliver spoke before he’d thought it through: “Watchmen? Is that all, sir? My crew is capable of handling
Bailey bristled. He gestured sharply with his cigar. “Oh? I was remiss, then, in not clearing our plans with
you first. You and your crew—I am placing you where I need you. If you have some problem being
necessary, we can review that at your leisure at a later date. This afternoon you will be watchmen and
Uncomfortable foot shuffling and the quiet clearing of throats followed. Oliver felt heat creeping up his
neck. His hands had at some point balled themselves and now shook with barely contained energy.
Oliver was seized with the sudden urge to leap across the table and throttle the man.Damn the
consequences, damn your rebellion, and damn that old, fat queen of yours.
He caught Hews glancing sidelong at him. Oliver unrolled his fingers, forced a calm, slow exhalation.
The next twenty minutes covered logistics and timing. Bailey’s crew were to leave for the downstreets
within the hour by the “rusted stair” below Shadwell. The crew of the bespectacled man were to set
explosives in Cathedral Tower with the intention of drawing cloaks and Boiler Men out of the Stack if
necessary. Oliver clarified the location of Joyce’s workshop, which turned out to be in Montague Tower,
the tiny ten-dwelling stem growing from the Stack’s base. Talking in specific details about the assignment
settled his nerves a bit.
“Never forget Scared,” Bailey said to the table. “He’s likely to have sent a team already, and will be
watching Shadwell. The man employs children, and if our source is accurate, has pull and clout with both
the golds and the blacks. He’s likely to discover our presence no matter our level of caution.”
The table murmured acknowledgement.
“Bow your heads.”
The men complied, most with genuine reverence, Oliver as a matter of course.
“Lord, you have set these trials before us and we are grateful for the opportunity to do your work,”
Bailey said. “We thank you for all the assistance you have rendered us in the years past and ask that you
aid us today in our battles. With your blessing, we will soon wipe these devils from the face of your good
Earth. In Jesus’ name,amen .”
The table murmured assent. Bailey then looked at them each in turn, as if appraising them, their worth
perhaps, their dedication. At length, Bailey nodded, apparently satisfied.
“Praise to England,” he said. “God save the queen.”
The sentiment was echoed all around, and the men dispersed. The others left one by one, spacing their
exits to intervals of five minutes, as measured by an odd, water-powered clock that hung in the small
kitchen of Mrs. Flower’s establishment. Oliver loathed clocks. The thought of Grandfather Clock staring
out at one’s family or one’s personal affairs kept the majority of homes timeless places, and the majority
of pockets empty of watches. He mentioned as much to Hews, but Hews only shrugged.
“That clock was built in the East somewhere. Grandfather Clock has no influence on it, or so Aaron
seemed to think.”
Another few minutes’ wait brought them their turn at the door, and they tied their kerchiefs over their
faces and braved the exterior once again. Impossibly, the air had grown thicker since they’d last breathed
it. The only things now visible were a two-yard stretch of warped wooden platform all around them and
the dull glow of the Stack, huge and omnipresent, in the sky to the south, and even these were little more
than phantoms in the smog.
When they’d gone some distance and Oliver determined that they were thoroughly lost, he decided a
few words had to be said.
“Thank you,” he began, “for your silence in there. I thought I was going to be sacked for certain.”
“No thanks is necessary, lad,” Hews replied. “It’s a rare opportunity nowadays that I have a chance to
do you a good turn. And in any case, Bailey didn’t need the headache right then and neither did we.”
“But won’t Bailey discover it when Lawrence doesn’t report?”
“Lawrence was a member ofmy crew. Bailey doesn’t know him by face, and so won’t really miss him,
assuming I can hold up my end.”
Hews’ crew.Oliver suddenly felt ten inches tall as the realisation rushed into his consciousness. They’d
killed a man, a good man with friends like Hews and possibly family.
“Er…was he a married man, Hews?”
Oliver could only close his eyes and halt. He steadied himself on the railing. Images played in his mind, of
a mother at home, pacing, fretting, images of children sitting silently at a breakfast table, casting nervous
glances at their mother, porridge untouched.
“You coming, lad?”
Oliver swallowed hard past the lump in his throat.
“Hews…God forgive me. I’m so sorry.”
“I know, lad” was the reply. “You can say as much to his widow when there’s time.”
Oliver longed to see Hews’ face, but the smog rendered him ghostly and insubstantial.
“Let’s get on,” he said. “The cloaks are already moving against us, and we’re a long way from
They called it Sherwood Forest.
The tenement took that name from the branchlike protrusions of steel that poked out of the walls at odd
angles. The building had been constructed around a central set of two spiraling beams that roughly
resembled a trunk, the floors having been constructed at uneven intervals conducive to the use of the
trunk’s branches. Missy agreed that it did look rather more like a tree house than a proper dwelling for
human beings. Parts of it even hung over the edge of the Underbelly, perched with a preposterous slant
above a twenty-storey fall. Oliver had purchased it some years ago, with money gathered through the
ill-conceived thefts of his earlier years.
Oliver Sumner, respectable landowner.One half of her giggled at such silliness. The other half tallied this
as a point in his favour. She had always fancied tall men. And if that tall man had wealth, youth, other
men in his employ, and connections…well, that made him attractive indeed.
Now if only it weren’t for this distracting rebellion, and I could work on him a little harder…
She pursed her lips and chafed inwardly at that sentiment.
Yes, my dear, you are a heartless, calculating shrew, as I made you.
She hiked her skirts just up to the ankles and held them to the right as she climbed the grime-coated
concrete steps to the door. An endless battle raged between organic and mechanical spiders in the brick
door frame, sometimes spilling out of its many holes to harass unwary solicitors. She gently pushed away
some fresh webs and twisted the door handle first left, then right, then left three turns. The lock clicked.
The door opened.
Heckler’s traps lay dormant on the left and right sides of the inner arch. She did not care to muse on
how they worked or their intended result, and brushed past them into the foyer, where the stair twisted
around the steel trunk, and an uneven mezzanine ringed the room on the second floor.
Sherwood Forest had a kitchen, a dining hall, a lounge, a smoking parlour and eight apartments. Oliver
had offered her one of them once and she’d nearly slapped him for it. An unmarried woman living under
a roof with four unmarried men? She knew exactly what people would say about that.
Rumours are vicious little things. What does a lady have if not her reputation?One of Matron Gisella’s
In honesty, she had simply been terrified of the thought of men having uncontrolled access to her
bedroom. Missy had taken her own one-room flat down the street, one with sturdy locks and a fat,
She sat for a moment on one of the foyer’s worn benches and fished her cigarette case from her
Unladylike, those accursed things,the matron had always complained.
Funny how all the girls smoked them anyway, behind your back, you old shrew.
Now, now. Some respect is due. After all, did I not feed you and clothe you and instruct you in all the
fineries of etiquette?
You sold us for two guineas a night, you black-hearted villainess!
The match lit on the first strike and she drew. The acrid smoke that stung its way down her lungs was
really no worse than the air outside; nor was it any more pleasurable.Why smoke them at all, then? She
left the question unanswered.
She found the occupants upstairs, gathered at a small table in the parlour. Thomas, Phineas, and Heckler
lounged in moth-bitten high-backed chairs, drinks in their hands, cigars in a tray on a small side table
made of battered tin. Moderate sums of money were spread on the table, as were several piles of cards
from Heckler’s star-backed fifty-two-piece deck. Portraits of stern-looking, haggard people of both
sexes hung around the perimeter of the room; they had been there at the time of purchase and were now
silent companions to the dwelling’s new occupants.
Thomas wore a beige wool shirt a tad tight on his large frame, revealing the irregularities of his structure,
particularly his metal arm. Missy had never seen him clean shaven, and yet never with a beard; he
seemed to have perpetual stubble. Thomas stared at Heckler with squinted eyes and sweat beading on
Heckler was dressed in a crisp and clean white cotton shirt with tweed slacks and suspenders, looking
dapper as always. Missy secretly suspected he made a point of dressing well to hide his sunken chest
and bony shoulders. His face drooped in that lifeless way he referred to as his “poker face.” Phineas sat
slumped, nestled down in the same filthy black ulster he always wore, with an oversized, crushed top hat
sitting low on his head—like a leprechaun down on his luck. He also wore a thick blindfold across his
Slowly, and with no hint of a smile, Heckler laid his cards solemnly on the tabletop.
“Codswallop!” Tom said. He slapped his cards down as Heckler smugly swept the central pile of coins
to his edge of the table. “Some Yankee trick, that was. I’ll bet those bloody cards are marked.”
Heckler stroked back the corners of his handsome moustache and smiled serenely.
“Bad luck’s the heritage of mankind,” he said, his American accent drawn and smooth like stretched
linen. “You know Ah might have up and shot you, you gone accusin’ me of cheatin’ back home.”
“Cards ain’t marked,” Phin said through teeth clenched on the stub of his cigar. “Bastard’s just better’n
Tom downed the remainder of his whiskey. “And how would you know that, you hunchbacked codger?
Not peeking, I hope.”
Phineas spat the cigar onto the silver tray along with a sizable trail of saliva, where it all landed exactly in
one corner. “I inspected the deck during the first shuffle. You think I trust this Yankee—or you, you pile
Tommy smiled, warming to the moment. “So you were looking at the deck after all, you limp waddler.
Why would one who stinks like a gull-eaten trout think he can one-up me dressed like a Shoreditch
“Ah, you’re one to talk, you chamber-pot reject. Probably spit rust out yer pecker. By the bye, there’s
a lady present.”
Missy smiled innocently as Thomas and Heckler shot out of their seats, faces reddening. They struggled
to hide drinks and extinguish cigars.
“Why,thank you, Phineas,” Missy said, swaying her hips as she stepped into the room. “I was beginning
to wonder if these men hadany manners atall .”
Phineas grunted, and lit another cigar.
“Beggin’ pardon, miss,” Heckler said. He smoothed out his felt vest and tugged his shirtsleeves back
level with his wrists. “Was quite improper of us.”
“Smoking and drinkingand gambling?” Missy said. She sucked daintily on her own cigarette and waltzed
to the table, where she lifted Phineas’ drink right from his hand. “Positively vile activities, the lot. You
gentlemen should be ashamed of yourselves.”
Heckler blanched, then shifted his feet in place like a boy of seventeen. Thomas held a serious
expression on his face for all of two seconds, then exploded into laughter.
Phineas just shook his head and stole Tom’s drink.
Heckler strutted around the table. “Mademoiselle Plantaget,” he said, gracefully sweeping up Missy’s
hand. Missy held his gaze as he lifted her hand to give it a kiss.
His nose came within an inch of the cigarette before he noticed. He coughed and withdrew, retrieving his
handkerchief and stuffing it against his nose as if he could wipe the smoke out. This time both Thomas
and Phineas laughed.
“Poor dear. Lost in my eyes, I suppose.”
Heckler faked a chuckle through his obvious shock.
“Ah, lass,” said Phineas, “stop punishing the pup for being a gentleman. You’ll ruin him for other
“He will develop a taste for it,” Missy said. “I’m certain he left those Colonial homestead girls behind for
a reason.” She raised the glass to her lips and drew the whiskey across her tongue. It slid down her throat like melted chocolate.
Heckler looked as if he was about to say something, then sat down and began to total his winnings as if
that had been his intention the entire time.
Tom gave him a friendly and devastating slap on the shoulder that nearly threw him into the table. “You’ll
get used to it, chum.”
Heckler gasped in his lost breath, his neck turning red above the starched collar. “Certain Ah will, suh.”
“He’s a duck, isn’t he?” Missy said. She settled into the table’s fourth chair, an oak and velvet
masterpiece of comfort that had seen better days. Heckler jumped as if he’d been seized around the
“Beggin’ pardon, m’lady, but that there’s Mr. Sumner’s chair.”
“Oh?” She fixed him with a slow blink and a stare, as an elder matriarch might use to silence her
Heckler flushed fully up to his hairline and squeaked out a response: “He’s real particular about it.”
“God Almighty, let up on him, lass,” Phineas said, refilling his glass from the bottle.
Her eyes never left Heckler’s. “But he is such a charming young man. Shouldn’t I get him under my
thumb as quickly as possible?”Shouldn’t you claim him as one more ribbon in your hat? One more loaf of
bread in your carry basket?
“Ah, Michelle, but you are a cold bitch,” Phineas said.
A stinging in her abdomen. Missy’s composure broke, and she flinched visibly.
Truth is a difficult thing to accept in any guise,said Gisella’s voice.If I recall, you have used such
atrocious language to refer to myself on many occasions.
Her guts clenched and twisted and a horrid, potent loss and sadness gushed up. She pushed it down
with a careful, slow, ladylike inhalation, and painted a smile back onto her features.
“Oh, but I’m very warm as well.”
They chuckled, and the moment of tension passed.
She moulded her face into a scowl for a moment. “And you, sir, are not to call me by my proper name.”
Phineas’ eyebrow snaked out from beneath the blindfold.
A sigh, and Missy elaborated. “The use of such is reserved only for very particular individuals with
whom I share a relationship of a type not to be discussed in impolite company.”
Silence fell for a moment as Thomas gathered the cards and the other men scooped their winnings or remaining capital back into pockets and purses. It was a pity: Missy had always wanted to see how this
American game was played, but the presence of a woman always seemed to bring it to an irretrievable
Missy settled back into Oliver’s chair, doubtless referred to as a “throne” when its king was abroad.
You’ve designs on him. It was no accident you sat in this chair.
Or perhaps it was because it was the only one unoccupied, witch.The rest of the whiskey she tossed into
her mouth without ceremony.
You’re much cleverer than that, my dear. You wanted to announce your intentions to these three.
Romantics that they are, they’ll nudge him in the right direction. You think that and your whorehouse
charms will be enough to land him? It is an insult to both of you.
Gisella’s voice quieted as the alcohol fire bloomed in her stomach. She passed her glass to Thomas with
an if-you’d-be-so-kind. He refilled it to half its previous volume and passed it back to her.
“How were the rounds today?” Thomas said.
And you forgot to do the rounds. Stupid little girl.
Oliver insisted at least one of his crew go ’round the Underbelly every day, chatting, eavesdropping,
mingling. Then the roundsman had to give a report, a long, silly report in exhausting detail about the state
of things, the places people wandered, the things they talked about, the things they needed done. And
with that dutifully categorised and compiled in Oliver’s mind, he would set the crew about helping those
in need and so forth.
Why does the man bother to toss away his earnings on building repairs and doctor’s bills and food
baskets? He must have an angle, a sinister purpose in all of this, mustn’t he?
Missy knew men too well to think otherwise, and yet that assessment fell flat every time she tried to
assert it regarding Oliver.
The others were waiting. She cleared her throat and began with the one piece of information certain to
“The Ironboys are in town,” she said.
The three of them fell instantly still. She continued.
“I saw them marching up the Parade, a full dozen, without cloaks to clear their way. I made some
inquiries. Apparently they entered the Blink from the south and descended into the downstreets.”
Actually, she had overheard it by pure chance on the walk back to Sherwood, but there was no need to
Thomas scraped his iron knuckles over his stubble. “Did they say why they were here?”
“No,” Missy said, sipping daintily at her new drink. “Not that they are the most talkative of gentlemen.”
Phineas, still blindfolded, looked to Heckler. “Lad?”
Heckler nodded. “Ah’ll take a look.” A little smugness showed as he hefted the velvet bag into which
he’d slipped his winnings. “Just a quick trip to mah room first, Ah think.” He strutted from the room.
“The precociousness of youth,” Tommy commented wistfully. “Those were the grand days, don’t you
“You’re half my bloody age, grease-breath. You go talkin’ like that again, I’ll crush out your bile and use
it to polish my shoes.”
Missy sighed. “Charming, Phineas. It has always amazed me that you never married.”
Phineas untied his blindfold and tossed it into the corner. “Ah, I’d have an impossible time slinging the
seed at my age, so what’s the point? Unless I had some o’ that seal-testicle tea they make in Bangkok.”
Missy pointedly dismissed him and turned her full attention to Thomas, who stopped whatever pending
insult was about to escape his lips.
Missy swirled the liquor in her glass. “Is Oliver due back?”
“Yes, ma’am. Should be anytime, I’d say.”
“You’ll give us fair warning, won’t you Phineas?” Missy asked sweetly.
“I’ll hear him before he rounds the block,” Phineas muttered, then paused, regarding Missy from the
dark beneath his hat’s brim. “The lady here’s about to ask us ’bout the chief, brass-balls.”
Thomas fiddled unskillfully with the cards, trying to align them in a single direction. “Well, salt-spit, shall
we wait and see if this is an inquiry that deserves answering?”
Missy leaned forward.
“I want to know about the Uprising.”
Thomas’ hands fell still. Silence. Cold. Suddenly Missy’s breathing was too loud for the room. She
swallowed and pushed on anyway.
“Oliver led it, didn’t he?”
Phineas opened his eyes fully, eyes that might have been blue beneath frosty cataracts. He and Thomas
shared a long look, exchanging an unreadable communication.
Phineas slid his eyes back into a tight squint.
“Aye, he led it,” he said. “Started with a little girl. Chimney gang hauled her right out o’ her mother’s
arms and cut ’em both with a knife when they protested. Ollie was working some angle for Hewey at the
time. Can’t recall, now…”
“Tracking opium,” Tommy said.
They fell still. Missy shifted in Oliver’s chair. At length, Phineas continued.
“Ollie never talks about this, y’see, but the way some o’ the blokes tell it, he just went off. The gang had
a cloak leading it and Ollie went manic and beat his head inside out with a milk jug.”
Missy gasped. The image of it assailed her—the violence of the act.
He wouldn’t. Would he? Is he capable of it?
The man is a criminal and a spy. Of course he’s capable of it.
Thomas took up the thread, staring dully at the unmoving cards. “That might have been the curtain for
him, but when he took his first swing at that canary, all the regular coves and sweaters and coal backers
on the street just charged in. Forty or fifty to hear ol’ Hosselton tell it.”
Phin chuckled. “Wish you could hear Hoss tell this. Now, there was a man with a gift.”
Thomas continued as if Phin had not interrupted. “Ollie did what every red-blooded man in Whitechapel
had always wanted to do. He stood up to the damn cloaks. Those forty or fifty on the street that time,
they were Ollie’s first crew. A week later, they went and blew up a canary chapel in Cathedral Tower.”
“Woulda taken some stones, let me tell you,” Phin put in.
“After that,” said Tom, “word got around. I heard about it through the gossip when I was backing at the
air docks. A heroic young man leading a rebellion, killing cloaks—so many of us had just been waiting
Missy sipped her drink, finding the fire unwelcome. “I remember the rags,” she said. “It went on for
Phin drained his glass with sudden exuberance. “I remember thinking ‘What’s this, a bloody kid’s in
Thomas swirled his own liquor. “I believe your exact words were, ‘Sod it, I’m going.’”
“But there were so many by then, see,” Phin said. “More than a hundred, and they were all reg’lar
coves—family men, and youngsters and the like. And old, useless codgers like me. Ollie had us planting
bombs, ambushing cloaks, cutting trams lines. Everything that happened, he had a plan. Those were the
glory days, eh, clunker?” Tom nodded. “And Ollie took care of us, split us into crews, showed us the
best places to hide. Hell, he had these tunnels built under Shadwell so’s we could move ’round. Never
got caught, ain’t that a lark? Not once’d they get us.”
“Not even the Boiler Men,” Thomas said, finally reviving his smile. “You can’t rightwise kill ’em, but
they’re damned slow.”
They smiled together, and Missy smiled with them. But this was not what she had asked for, and they
knew it. No light anecdotes, but the meat of the matter.
The laughter died away into the same grim silence.
Phin refilled his drink. “The lady, here, knows how it ended.”
Missy nodded. “I read it.”
“Ollie saw it coming,” Phin said. “Wasn’t but a handful that listened to him.”
“All the men and firearms and gumption on the whole of the Earth are not enough,” Thomas said, raising
his glass. “One cannot fight the Boiler Men. They cornered us down here, blocked up the elevator so we
couldn’t get out, and shot every man they could find.”
Phineas finished for him: “And when they couldn’t find the men, they shot the women.”
They sat for some long minutes in silence. Thomas wiped his eyes with a handkerchief. It came away
Phineas set his glass carefully upon the table and slid his chair back. “If the lady would excuse me,” he
“Of course. Thank you, Phineas.”
The old sailor slunk from the room without another word.
Thomas began to work on the cards again.
“So why only three men, now,” Missy asked, “if he could rally hundreds before?”
“Three’s a lot fewer as can be killed, Miss Plantaget—oh, sod these things.” Thomas made a snort of
disgust and scattered the cards over the table. “The Ironboys came down on us with those awful Atlas
guns and steam cannons. You know they’re strong enough to push over a building with their bare
Missy shook her head.
Thomas continued. “Was all we could manage to keep ordinary folk alive. A few of the crews helped
out with evacuating people to the tunnels, but most of ’em were just too angry and…Those sorry
buggers. Makes no damn sense to charge down an Atlas rifle. No damn sense.”
He flicked at the cards with his metal fingers. “We lost a lot of people that day, fighting men and ordinary
folk both. Me and Phin stayed with Ollie, saved whoever we could. Tried to save the women and the
children, at least. We didn’t fight, ’cause what was the use of it?” He sighed. “Ollie’s a clever cove, but I
don’t think he ever realised that no one put the blame on him for what happened. Hell, half the
Underbelly’s just waiting for him to raise the banner again.”
A long pause. The portraits stared down from the walls.
Tom spoke again into the quiet.
“We’re just waiting on him to come back to himself. He’s not been right since that day.”
They sat in silence a long time, lost in their respective contemplations. Missy let her mental rendering of
Oliver stack up against these new images. It was no wonder he did things quietly now.
Except when inept little girls go on murdering his foxes, eh?
She ignored that.
“Why didn’t the cloaks come for him?”
Thomas shrugged. “My guess is that they only cared about stopping the rebellion. Once that was
done…and done thoroughly…”
Thomas’ mounting sorrow filled the room. Missy had what she wanted, but…I can’t simply leave him in
such a state.
“I have one more question, Thomas.”
“Happy to answer it.”
Missy blessed him with a smile. “Why will you drink and smoke and swear in my presence, but never
Tommy fidgeted, but his face had already relaxed some with the change of subject. “Well, it isn’t right to
gamble with a lady present. One has to draw a line somewhere.”
“But you two are atrocious. Why bother at all?”
Thomas worked his tongue inside his cheeks for a moment. “Well, there has to be a line. Wouldn’t be
“Would you like to know what I think, Thomas?” Missy said with a twinkle.
“Certain as sunrise I would, miss.”
“I think that you don’t want me playing this game of yours because you know I would beat you.”
Thomas’ eyebrow crept up. “That’s a mite presumptuous of you, miss.”
Missy placed her drink on the table, then gathered the cards and tapped them into a neat pile. She
passed the deck into Thomas’ meaty palm. “Teach me the game and we’ll see, won’t we?”
Phineas chose that moment to reenter the lounge. He carried in his right hand a velvet bag that looked
suspiciously like Heckler’s, and which jingled suspiciously as if filled with Heckler’s money.
Thomas sipped his brandy. “What did you swap him for it?”
“An ill-tempered rat,” Phin said.
Missy was aghast. “You villain!”
Phin grinned his gruesome gap-toothed smile. “ ’S what he gets for fleecin’ us. If he screams like a girl
we might even give him his winnings back, eh, pewter-pecker?”
Thomas waved the cards in Missy’s direction.
“Still want to learn, m’lady?”
Missy rapped sharply on the table, and Thomas began to deal.