Friday, December 15, 2017

The Sublime Electricity - 4: The Dormant

The Sublime Electricity
book IV
The Dormant

by Pavel Kornev

release - February 19, 2018

New Babylon is the capital of the mighty Second Empire. Dirigibles drift over the city, steam trains race down its tracks, and the factory chimneys never stop billowing smoke, even for a moment. The hegemony of science is unquestioned, and yet magic hasn't disappeared from the world. It remains dissolved in the blood of those who are called illustrious. Hardline reductionists find that hard to accept, but it is not in their power to change the longstanding status quo.
Everything threatens to change with the death of the widowed Empress, and Leopold Orso, an illustrious gentleman, can sense the looming changes clearer than most.
He feels the draw of far-away lands, but a gloomy past holds him in place like a deadly snare. Will the whirlpool of coming events will pull our troubled illustrious hero to the very bottom or throw him up to unimaginable heights? And will anything remain to throw him up to? It's impossible to say. After all, there are highly placed conspirators willing to do whatever it takes just to get what's theirs.
Bullets from hired killers, anarchists' bombs, blood magic of Aztec priests and electroshock therapy in a psychiatric clinic. Leopold will have a difficult time overcoming everything fate has in store for him and remaining himself through it all.


A heart preserved in a tin can,
Begins to beat again.
Steamphonia (Russian Steampunk Band), Heart

Part One
Target. Silver Bullets and a Smokescreen

Any razor, in its essence, is akin to the ritual sickle of the Celtic druids on the holy day of the renewal of nature. A pull of the hand and the skin becomes clean, while the face grows younger as if, together with the stubble, the weight of many days is hewn away.
I appraised my reflection in the mirror and nodded, agreeing with my own judgements. After that, I shook the foam from the razor into the basin of warm water, led the blade along my soaped-up cheek, and again - a strip of clean.
For the last week, I hadn't bothered with shaving, so it was as if the sharpened metal was carrying away time itself. I was growing younger right before my very eyes.
By the way, there’s a good reason people say razors are dangerous: if you get distracted, you’re sure to cut yourself.
I didn't get distracted. Someone distracted me.

"My dear!" I heard from the bedroom. "Have you given any thought to our wedding day?"
My arm quavered and the blade painlessly slit my skin with ease. A droplet of blood leaked out. With a condemned sigh, I stuck a little piece of paper over the cut and continued getting myself in order. After that, I spritzed my hands with cologne, clapped them on my cheeks, then left the bathroom in no rush whatever.
"Did you say something, my dear?" I addressed Liliana with all possible tranquility. She was lying on the bed with a ladies' magazine in her hands.
She tore herself from her reading and repeated the question:
"Have you given any thought to our wedding day?"
"Are you in the family way?"
"Oh, Leo!" my girlfriend rolled her eyes. "You're just like my mom! She asks about that incessently!"
"And are you?.."
"No, I'm not pregnant!" Lily snorted indignantly. "Where do such thoughts even come from?"
"Well, where do your ideas about marriage come from?" I parried.
"You don't want to take me as your wife?"
I did want that. And who in their right mind wouldn't desire to legally marry a pretty and smart heiress to a considerable fortune?
Admittedly, I was rich enough not to take such factors into account. I simply enjoyed the company of the only daughter of the Marquess Montague regardless of mercantile considerations.
Liliana tossed a black lock off her face and grabbed my attention, losing patience:
"I do want to!" I shuddered. "Of course I do. As a matter of fact, I was just thinking about that momentous date..."
"You little liar!" Lily easily sussed out my cleverness.
"In fact, I'm simply lost in admiration for you."
And now that was the purest truth. Liliana and I had been together for three months, and my feelings for her only grew stronger every day.
Sounds like something from a love novel? Maybe so, but I really did... love her? Probably. The most important thing was that, when I saw Liliana, my soul felt warm, and the rest meant nothing. No matter what anyone said...
Liliana caught a pensive gaze from me and adjusted her peignoir, slightly covering her bare legs with the long skirt.
"Leo, don't get distracted!" she demanded.
I took a seat on the bed next to her and gave her a kiss.
"Leo, no!" Lily laughed, moving away. "Not now! My mom keeps saying I'm riding you too hard!"
"She keeps saying that?" I asked, so dumbfounded that I even stopped stroking her lithe feminine leg.
"Well, not to me..." Liliana said in embarrassment. "To my dad. I heard it by accident."
"You were eavesdropping."
"Leo, you're getting away from the conversation!"
I adjusted a lock of Lily's black hair, admired her beauty and classical profile, then admitted with a smile:
"Yes, I've lost weight. And what of it?"
Over the summer, I really had lost fifteen kilograms, but I wasn't even close to my former sickly emaciation, and was still large and powerful. I hadn't become slim, but lean. And our amorous connection had absolutely zero relationship to these changes. A somewhat larger role was played by the fresh air of the mountain resort town, dumb-bell workouts and proper nutrition.
And also, I had stopped being a werebeast.
Yes, the family curse had left me in that ill-fated basement in Montecalida, and my shaving cuts now healed just as slowly as they did for everyone else.
To be honest, I had long forgotten what that is like.
"Leo!" Liliana waved her hand before my face. "Leo, your head is in the clouds!"
"Yes, my dear?"
"We weren't talking about your weight, but our wedding day!"
I got up from the bed and walked over to the window. The hotel Benjamin Franklin was situated atop a promontory and, from its fourth floor, the view over the historical part of town was amazing. To be more accurate, there would have been such a view, if everything around wasn't stretched over with a damp haze. The bad September weather and the capital's usual smog enshrouded the building like a wet towel, from which only the silhouettes of roofs and the high spires of palaces could be seen.
"Our wedding day?" I drew out my words in thought. "You want to know the exact day?"
Liliana swished through the pages of the magazine.
"It says here that Duke Logrin announced the engagement of his eldest daughter to Baron Alston. The wedding will be on the twentieth of October, Emperor Clement Remembrance Day. A very symbolic date, Leo, don't you find?"
I shrugged my shoulders.
"I'm ok with any day."
"Is that so?"
"Yes. But not here, not in New Babylon. Tomorrow, we're flying to the continent, did you forget? We could stop for a week in Madrid, and head to Barcelona from there. How do you like that idea?"
"It's an amazing idea!" Liliana smiled, but then wrinkled her forehead. "Wait, Leo! Did you say tomorrow? Will I have time to see my parents?"
"The flight is scheduled for five thirty in the evening," I reassured her and turned away from the window. "Do they even know we're leaving?"
"There hasn’t been a good time to tell them," Lily answered frivolously. "We'll tell them tomorrow. You are coming with me, after all, right?"
"If necessary..."
"Leo, don't worry! Mom and dad are crazy about you. They won't lock me up at home!"
"I greatly hope so," I snickered.
"Although..." Liliana sighed. "Are you sure you don't want to stay in New Babylon for a bit?"
I did not want that. In the capital, it was far too easy to have a chance encounter with an old acquaintance, and I really didn't want to fall back into the field of view of Department Three or, even worse, people from her Majesty’s inner circle. So, I answered with one short categorical word:
Liliana could perfectly hear the note of annoyance that slipped through in my voice, and jerked her head up.
"Leo, is something the matter?"
I sighed. I really should have told Lily some of the secrets of my past a long time ago, but I simply hadn't had the spirit for it. I was afraid. I was afraid to scare her, afraid to push her away. So I kept silent.
I didn't reveal the true reasons for my worrying now, either. I turned away to the window and looked at the gray city then, with a heavy sigh, I said:
"In the papers, they're writing that her Majesty will meet her maker any day now. Her Highness's health isn't so very strong either. Laborers are striking. The socialists are demanding the dissolution of the Imperial council and the establishment of an elected senate. The anarchists threw bombs at the minister of justice, and he only avoided death by a miracle. There were shots fired at the Judge of the High Imperial Court. Bottles of kerosene were thrown  at the military recruitment station. And it's like that every day. I want to be as far from here as possible when everything goes south."
"If you say so, my dear. If you say so."
I bowed down to kiss Liliana and warned her:
"I'll be back in two hours."
"I'll be waiting," she sighed, laying the magazine open and suddenly wondering: "Do you remember the first time we stayed here, in June?"
"Yes. And what of it?"
"At that time, I was lying in bed waiting for you to knock on my door. But I didn't wait long enough and fell asleep."
"I could knock right now," I offered with a smile.
"No!" Lily did not agree. "Go about your business. And I'll be languishing and waiting for a knock. You will knock this time, right?"
"Most assuredly," I promised, kissing the girl again and going into my own room, which adjoined Liliana's.
I didn't wait around there for long. I just changed into a new shirt, tied on a neckerchief and put on a jacket. I didn't take an umbrella or a raincoat. Although it was cloudy outside, it was dry. The season of autumn rains hadn't yet arrived.
Pulling out the upper drawer of my writing desk, I got my passport, wallet and Cerberus from it, placed them in my pockets and went on my way.
"Leo!" Liliana called out for me.
"Yes?" I glanced into the door of the adjoining room.
"Come back soon. And don't forget, we were invited this evening to Albert and Elizabeth-Maria's!"
"Don't you worry, I'm not planning to take long," I calmly assured Liliana, although the dinner invitation had entirely flown out of my head.
After the triumphan performance in Montecalida, which had ended in fainting and mass hallucinations, Albert Brandt had acquired a scandalous fame as a true wizard of words and become a desired guest at New-Babylon society functions. Instead of heading to the New World, he had rented a place not far from the academy and was preparing to put on a play of his own authorship in the Imperial Theater.
Ignoring the poet's invitation would be at the very least impolite on my part. Who could say when the chance to return to New Babylon would come again? And all that remained was to hope that Albert didn't have the whole capitoline boheme coming over tonight as well.
I took my derby cap from the shelf and went into the hallway. I decided not to use the elevator, instead heading to the stairs and thinking about what little bauble to give Albert as a souvenir.
Passing by the bell-boy's table, I greeted the sleepy clerk with an impolite nod, went down to the first floor and headed to the receptionist's stand, but I was cut off by a sprightly gentleman of middling years, quite gaunt and red of hair.
"I'm here to see Mr. Witstein," he said with a clear Irish accent and, when the receptionist opened his journal, he introduced himself: "Lynch. Sean Lynch."
The clerk looked for the last name in the guest list and pointed to the elevator in silence then, with an attentive smile, he turned to me:
"How may I be of service, Mr. Shatunov?"
I caught myself on the fact that I had been looking just too stubbornly at the redheaded Irishman as he walked away, shuddered and set my room key on the table.
"I just wanted to leave my key!"
"Any special requests?"
"No, nothing," I shook my head and, nervously waving my hand, stepped through the vestibule.
Hearing that family name knocked me off track. After all, he had clearly been speaking about Abraham Witstein, the Vice President of the Banking House of the same name. A chance meeting with him in the hotel vestibule threatened to quickly and definitively upend my anonymity.
Devil! I shouldn't have given in to Liliana and stayed in the Benjamin Franklin again. Devil take this sentimentality!
I winced, threw open the door with a nervous shove and walked outside up to a porter in livery with a flowery pattern. In reply to his business-like grin, I smiled no less formally, threw a quick gaze over Emperor's Square, packed with frolicking public, and clipped my dark glasses on my nose.
I got distracted for an instant, but that short moment decided everything.
"Don't move! Hands up!" sounded out from behind me, and I froze at half step.
My hand jumped to my jacket's side pocket all on its own, and I was barely able to jerk it away before the strong uniformed men all around me opened fire. They were holding their revolvers at the ready, fingers frozen on the triggers.
And the investigator behind me gave another order without delay:
"On your knees! Hands behind your head!"
I hesitated, but immediately decided that not wanting to get my pants dirty on the paving stones was hardly an adequate reason to test out the effects of an electric discharge device on myself. All I allowed myself was to get down on my knees unhurriedly, in a vain attempt to maintain the remnants of my dignity.
Somewhere nearby, a powder engine barked out in rage, and a sluggish police armored car rolled out abruptly onto the square from an alley. Gawkers just gushed in from all sides, and a paper boy was nearly caught under the wheel, hurrying to roll his hand-cart out of the way.
The investigator approached from the back, put my hands behind me, clinked some steel cuffs onto my wrists and, with even a bit of gravity in his voice, announced:
"Leopold Orso! You're under arrest for murder!"
I breathed out a silent curse.
My past had finally caught up to me. And, as is typical, it caught me at the very worst moment.
"On your feet!"
Ungracefully, due to my hands being bound behind my back, I got up from my knees and clarified:
"And who did I kill?"
"You can ask the investigator about that!" came the laconic reply, and I was shoved into the dark innards of the armored vehicle.
An arrestee is a creature without rights. From the moment of detention and until someone of the legal variety comes to the prison, he simply disappears, and absolutely anything could happen to him. Right up to falling off a bridge into the cloudy waters of the Yarden. And nearly every second arrestee gets to experience arm twisting, kidney punches and strangling.
But not in my case. The uniformed investigators who'd shoved me into the armored vehicle didn't ask me a single question over the whole ride, just held me in the sights of their revolvers. It was as if they were afraid I would break the handcuff chain and throw myself at them with my fists.
Fear. I could sense their fear.
There were six guards against one of me, but they were clearly afraid, and that was truly strange.
Had they heard about my talent? I doubted that greatly...
Be that as it may, I didn't make even the slightest attempt to draw the investigators into conversation and figure out the details of the accusations against me, and just sat in silence on the bench. I simply didn't want to give the nervous boys a reason to shoot me full of holes. I know for certain that they would open fire to kill without the slightest hesitation.

The powder engine of the armored vehicle was sneezing measuredly, the powerful wheels smoothing out the uneven paving stones. Only when it hit very serious holes was I shaken on the bench from one guard to the other. And then the light of day went dark, the gray of the sullen sky beyond the side window grates changed into the gloom of a garage, and the heavy self-propelled carriage came to a stop.
The armored vehicle led me into the garage of the metropolitan police headquarters. In the jargon of the New Babylon’s jailbirds, this was called "getting checked into the Box."
The investigator to my right unclipped the chain holding my handcuffs to the floor. The investigator to my left threw open the side door.
"To the exit!" The policeman opposite me ordered.
Whew, so many men just for little old me...
But from there, it only got worse. In the spacious garage, I was awaited by constables armed with semi-automatic carbines and four-barreled luparas. My ankles were immediately clinked into shackles and, to the jingling of a steel chain, I started to amble down the corridor, like an especially dangerous recidivist.
The police administration building, huge and monumental, occupied a whole block and even went a few stories under the earth. A random person might get lost for hours in its confusing nooks and crannies, searching for the right door. In my days as a constable, I'd heard plenty of frightening stories about coworkers who disappeared without a trace by simply turning down the wrong corridor.
To be honest, I was seriously afraid of sharing their fate, but just a couple minutes later, I was led into a small windowless room, flooded with the blinding light of electric lamps.
The search didn't take much time, if what they did could even be called a search. I had to simply remove all my clothes and, in exchange, pull on the striped garments of an arrestee. My personal effects were placed into a canvas bag without a glance and stamped with red wax seal.
The next stop happened in the photo room. There, I was sat in a wooden chair. With its plethora of clamps and fasteners, it bore a certain resemblance to an electric chair, and the phlegmatic photographer clamped my head in a vice so as to take a full face photograph, followed by a profile shot. After that, the photographer captured all of my tattoos, and the police clerk took my finger prints, smearing my skin in black ink and forcing me to place my hand against a sheet of thick yellowish paper.
What followed was a total bore, measuring height and composing a list of distinguishing features. But it took no less than an hour. It became clear that, unlike my previous arrests, this was completely serious, as I was being processed in full accordance with protocol.
What the devil?!
And although I was still shaking from nervous agitation, I was waiting to set upon my former colleagues with questions. Soon. Everything would become clear soon. And, perhaps, I would even have pity for the fact I hadn't remained in blissful ignorance.
But one thing was already clear: this arrest had nothing to do with my troubles this summer in Montecalida, because Thomas Smith had managed to quash all the accusations of my involvement in the murder of the Indian bartender, while the death of the Tacinis was blamed on an accident all the way back at the preliminary stage of the investigation. In the coroner's report, there was nothing about suicide or bullet holes. All that was mentioned were a great many wounds they sustained in the collapse of the ancient building's floor.
My tremors passed, and my fears flooded me with a grievous weight. It was taking me more and more effort to hold back the shaking, but I clenched my teeth stubbornly and started waiting for the end of the formal procedures. One thing was clear, that was totally certain: this was an official arrest, and not done at the behest of her Majesty's inner circle.
This wasn't some Imperial Guard, and that left decent chances for things to end in my favor. And it didn't matter how serious the charges were there was a special way of treating the wealthy. I was no longer a moneyless ragamuffin, I could afford to hire the most famous lawyers in New Babylon. In the worst case, the trial would draw on for years but, in the best, I could be set free tonight.
I really wanted to believe that...

After processing, to the measured knocking of my shackled boots, the guards took me into the interrogation room. There, my leg shackles were clipped onto a ring embedded in the wall, while my handcuffs were connected with a steel chain to the massive table, the legs of which were screwed into the floor.
The lightbulbs under the ceiling were shining right into my eyes, but there was really no reason to look at anything here. The walls were thick and had damp, cracking plaster. The floor was dusty and the furniture was all worn. Discounting the electric lighting, a criminal could have been interrogated in an identical room one hundred, or even two hundred years ago.
The only other thing that stood out was the phonograph machine in the far corner. It was totally inappropriate for the cell.

For some time, I squinted, trying to get a better look at the sound-recording device, then I threw myself back in the uncomfortable hard chair and closed my eyes. I didn't open them even when, to the creak of rusty hinges, the door flew open.
There was simply no need. I recognized the man who entered even with my lids shut. The aroma of his cologne and the subtle scent of expensive cigarettes was just too characteristic, instantly breaking up the musty damp of the chamber.
"It's been so long since we've seen each other, inspector!" I chuckled to my old acquaintance.
"Senior inspector!" Moran corrected me, throwing a fat folder of documents in front of him on the edge of the table. "Senior inspector, Mr. Orso. Senior. Don't you know the difference?"
Bastian Moran hadn't changed one bit since our last meeting. His gaunt face was still marked by an aristocratic pallor, while his pomaded hair, sharply curved brows and thin lips made him look more like a decadent dandy than a policeman. His well-cared-for hands fully conformed with this, and his stylish suit and expensive vest with diamond buttons didn't let me down one bit. But it was all spoiled by the cold gray eyes of a hardened taker of souls.
A cop, that's what he was. That wasn't meant as an insult, it was like a prisoner's brand. Work makes its impression on us all.
"Everything is ready!" the assistant declared, a new roller now in the phonograph.
"Begin the recording!" Moran commanded.
The police clerk started the device and, to a quiet bassy hum, it started to slightly quiver and creak barely audibly. The light in the cell flickered a few times but, to my greatest disappointment, the electric system was fairly resilient and there was no break in power.
The assistant left the chamber and I, perfectly aware that every word I said would reach the report, couldn't hold back a barb:
"You just keep grabbing respectable subjects of her majesty on the street. That's a quick way to a demotion... senior inspector."
Bastian Moran raised a crooked brow in muted amazement.
"Respectable?" he asked with mock surprise in his voice. "There is only one respectable subject of her majesty in this room, and you are not it, Leopold Orso. Or should I say Lev Shatunov?"
The senior inspector asked, taking my new passport from the folder and throwing it onto the table with a contemptuous snort. In reply, I just shrugged my shoulders calmly.
"However you want to call me."
But my calmness made hardly any impression on Moran. He curved his thin lips up into an acrid smile and declared:
"A respectable man has no need for forged documents."
"So, was I cuffed just for that?" I asked, clanking the steel chain. "Shall I remind you of the Imperial law on national passports? Don't forget, senior Inspector, my grandfather was Russian. He took the last name Orso on his induction into the nobility..."
And now, I wasn't bluffing one bit. The name Lev Borisovich Shatunov passed through all registries from the get-go and, as a result, it wasn't particularly difficult for my attorney to draw up an official petition for a new passport and get it attached to the file backdated.
It cost a small fortune, but it was worth it.
I couldn't say that Bastian Moran's faced changed at these words, but he did take on a rarely confused appearance.
"Leopold, are you aware that this statement is extremely easy to check?" the senior inspector asked.
"The sooner you send a telegram to Petrograd, the sooner you'll have your answer," I answered calmly. "And the lower will be my restitution for illegal detention. I have quite a talented attorney, you know."
Moran got up from the table and left the cell but returned very soon, most likely having given his assistant the mission of sending the request to Petrograd. He didn't get right back to questioning. Instead, he took a pack of Chesterfields from his pocket, lit one up and exhaled a stream of smelly smoke at the ceiling.
I winced for show.
The senior inspector didn't pay any attention to my grimace, tapped the ash onto the floor, sat at the table again and started leafing through the file of documents, as if wanting to refresh his memory on the case materials. The ease with which his first charge was overturned was an unpleasant surprise for him.
The tobacco smoke started making my throat itch but, when Bastian Moran put his cigarette out, I wasn't glad at all. With a very sharp and decisive movement, he pressed the butt into the edge of the ashtray, the surface of which was already stained with a great many spots.
"So then, let's get down to business!" the senior inspector declared. "Are you ready, Leopold?"
"Always," I smiled in reply, but my smile was crooked, masking with irony the nervousness of little ants crawling up my spine.
"Where were you the seventeenth of June this year?" the senior inspector asked and even leaned forward, as if trying to catch me unawares with an unexpected question.
And he did. I snorted in reply, totally sincerely:
"I have no idea. Do you remember where you were?"
"I do," Moran confirmed. "Thanks to you, I don't have the most pleasant memories of that day. And, considering my length of service, that is no trivial matter."
"You must be confused. We haven’t seen one another for more than a year."
"Where were you on June seventeenth?" the senior inspector repeated his strange question.
I moved my gaze away and started looking at the uneven cracking plaster on the walls, remembering the events of last summer. June? Where was I on June seventeenth?
It was surprising but, as soon as I thought about it, the event of three months earlier rushed back into my memory. It wasn't so very simple to forget being strangled around the neck by a garotte, and falling into the abyss of unconsciousness.
"No, I don't remember," I shook my head a little while later.
"But you were in New Babyon on that day?"
"That may well be."
"You were," Bastian Moran declared confidently, and took the guest register from the Benjamin Franklin from the folder, with a stamp of affirmation from the hotel manager. "Here is indisputable proof of that fact."
"Allow me..."
"Please," the senior inspector pushed the sheet of paper to me.
Next to the manager's signature was today's date, and that fact forced me to think for a long time. The arrest suddenly stopped seeming like the end point of a prolonged search operation; more likely, I had merely fallen into the field of view of an old acquaintance.
"I hope you will not claim that you were not yet Lev Shatunov then?" Moran chuckled, taking a  new cigarette from the pack.
"You smoke too much," I warned him. "It's bad for the lungs."
"Answer the question!"
"In the middle of June, I did spend a few days in the capital, and it was at the Benjamin Franklin. Was that precisely the seventeenth? I don't remember, but I have no reason to disbelieve the register. Let's suppose that, on that day, I was in New Babylon. What next?"
Not showing any kind of satisfaction with my answer, the senior inspector took a deep draw on his cigarette, then put it out on the tabletop and calmly stated:
"Your fingerprints were discovered at the scene of the crime."
"Sure they were!" I laughed. "You're playing with me!"
"Not at all."
"I don't understand what you're talking about. This must be a misunderstanding."
Bastian Moran was onto my game without a doubt but, because I was not denying or disavowing my presence in New Babylon, I had forced him to lay his last trump card on the table, whether he wanted to or not. To be more accurate, it was a pack of trump cards in the form of a great many spent pistol casings, photo-copies of fingerprints from my dossier and expert reports, reaffirmed by several blue stamps.
"These casings were discovered at the scene of the crime," the senior inspector began laying out his version of events, "and the fingerprints taken from them matched yours, which we have on file. We have an expert report fully confirming that as well as a repeat investigation from today. And what, Leopold, do you have to say to that?"
Sweat washed over me, and holding a composed expression on my face took the greatest effort. And did it even work? I was sure that the man could see straight through me.
Wanting to draw out my time, I extended a hand for the photographs, but the chain was too short, stopping me from reaching them.
"May I?" I then asked the senior inspector.
Bastian Moran slid the stack of pictures over and shot me a relaxed smile.
"No tricks, Leopold! And I'm sure that you will know even without my reminding you, that a full confession will soften your punishment. Think about it! Think well!"
I didn't answer at all, quickly looking at the pictures and moving my gaze to the Senior Inspector, but he had already returned the expert conclusions to the folder, not letting me familiarize myself with them. And that was truly strange: without expert testimony, all these photographs were a simple collection of unconnected shots. So, why then didn't Moran want to to hammer the last nail into the top of my coffin?
I was almost certain I knew the answer, and still my throat went dry, while my soul was pierced by a sharp attack of fear. My ears started ringing. Yes, I was afraid. And who could maintain their presence of spirit in my place? Life at a labor camp was not sweet, and the difference between being sent to harvest timber in snowy Siberia, or shipped somewhere nearer for hellish rock-breaking was not large. In any case, I would hardly be able to survive until the end of the term I would be given for killing six people, even if they were Hindoos. It would not be too easy to prove that they were all Kali Stranglers and had attacked me first...
Devil! Devil! Devil!
Gathering my willpower, I suppressed the panic, turned my gaze away from Bastian Moran’s satisfied countenance and stared at a spot of falling plaster. The phonograph in the corner was humming measuredly as before, so I was in no rush to explain, carefully choosing the right words.
"Leopold," Bastian Moran sighed, having caught the doubts coming over me. "I'll be as frank as possible: I don't fully understand what exactly happened there. I suspect it may have been self-defense. And if you tell me honestly, this case really doesn’t have to reach formal charges. Perhaps you were bewildered by the circumstances of the arrest, but we acted strictly according to protocol. Nothing personal, after all. You've been in such situations before, isn't that right?" the senior inspector reminded me with a conciliatory smile. "Judge for yourself: the deceased were suspected of membership in the forbidden sect of thugees, and clues found at the scene don't leave us with the slightest doubt in that. There isn't a single judge that would charge you with a crime..."
There was a certain rationality in the man's words, but I knew the inner workings of the Newton-Markt too well to accept the senior inspector's admonitions at face value. When they first try hard to back you into a corner, then suddenly open a path to safety, every door left obligingly ajar leads only to a more cramped cell.
And so I preferred remain secretive and put on a surprised look.
"Thugees? What are you talking about? I don't have anything to do with the Kali Stranglers!"
"Leopold!" Bastian Moran frowned in annoyance. "Let's not play these games! This case is hanging around my neck like a stone." The senior inspector even placed a sleek hand on the collar of my shirt. "And I need to close it no matter what. The inspector general is huffing and puffing! Help me, and I promise there won't be a criminal investigation."
"I'm always glad to help an investigation," I said, still looking past the man at a spot of falling plaster, carefully choosing my words. "But it wouldn't be right for me to take the blame for a crime I didn't commit. I mean, I could do that for you but, if I did, the true killer would avoid punishment, and that goes against my principles. Remember that rule, senior inspector."
"Fingerprints!" Moran reminded me.
"And what about fingerprints?"
"Your fingerprints were found at the scene of the crime on the round casings, Leopold. It is senseless to deny that. If you refuse to work with the investigation, this will draw on for months, and you'll have to be under guard that whole time. Do you really want that? I know I am not burning with desire to see your sour countenance every work day for the next year, or maybe even two. I'm sure talking with me won't bring you any particular pleasure either. So, let's help each other out. I won't demand anything supernatural from you. Just tell me what exactly happened!"
The senior inspector's offer to choose the lesser of two evils was definitely not an ad lib; that was exactly what he was hoping for when he ordered me arrested and brought to the Newton-Markt with all the prescribed formalities. The shackles and prison clothes were supposed to show how a refusal to work together with would end. But I knew that excessive openness had never led to anything good before.
That was for certain, so I made a suggestion:
"Let's return to the fingerprints. How confident was the expert report?"
"An error would be impossible!"
"Well, of course!" I couldn't hold back from the open chuckle. "After all, it's business as usual to find a distinct fingerprint on a spent round casing! And now I'm not talking about the effects of powder gases and high temperature, just a casing all on its own... it isn't very large, and the contact area with a finger would be even smaller. An error would be impossible? Just come off it!"
"And nevertheless, that is true," Bastian Moran answered calmly. "The dermal ridge patterns we discovered all correspond with yours."
"The patterns you managed to find, senior inspector. As far as I remember, criminal scientists refuse to take partial prints into consideration, isn't that so?"
"I insisted on dactylographic expertise, and it was undertaken in accordance with all requirements."
I screwed up my face.
"I'm not sure the court will take those results into account."
"There's no need to take this case to court."
"Good!" I relented. "I fully allow that those really are my fingerprints. Around that time, I went looking for a new pistol, and visited several gun stores. I looked over a number of models and, naturally, loaded and unloaded them. Most likely, that explains the coincidence... no! resemblance of the fingerprints."
After finishing my version of events, I moved my gaze off the spot of falling plaster and looked at Moran. He looked like a gourmand who'd just taken a sip of a refined vintage wine with a sour apple flavor.
"Nice try," the senior inspector smiled skeptically "But forgive me if I question your words."
"Doubt them as long as you want. The issue is whether a jury will buy them. When I was arrested, I had a Cerberus confiscated from me. You can check in the sales records from a shop called the Golden Bullet. I bought it there, on one of those days."
"Leopold!" Bastian Moran clapped a palm. "Enough of the lies! The model of pistol the shots were fired from has not been released for public sale! The whole shipment was sent directly to the New World! In the shop, they simply would not have been able to give you such a pistol!"
"And what about the weapons market on Piazza Archimedes?" I squinted. "I recall that, once, during a raid there, we confiscated a high-caliber gatling gun, stolen during the repair of an army dirigible!"
The senior inspector took a loud sigh and started drumming his fingers on the table. Now, I could read open hatred in his gaze. And that was no small wonder. The weapons bazaar I had just mentioned had long been a headache for the metropolitan police and, if the pistols that disappeared on the way to the New World could have turned up anywhere, it would have been there.
"So then, you were at the market..." Bastian Moran said a bit later, drawing out his words. "But naturally, you don’t remember the stall where you looked at the pistol?"
"I don't even know exactly what kind of pistol you're talking about. I spent a few hours wandering around there."
Moran suddenly jumped sharply at me and said:
"I know, Leopold, that it was you!"
"Juries don't normally treat police intuition with the same level of trust," I answered calmly, even though my heart was still skipping beats, and my back had begun to perspire. "And as for the a bias of police against arrestees, on the other hand, they believe that extremely easily. You are treating me with a bias, senior inspector. And now that is established in your recording."
"Balderdash!" Bastian Moran shot out shortly and gave another clap of his palm on the table. "You killed the Hindoos. I know that for certain. And I have the clues to prove it!"
I sat back in my chair and tried to cross my arms on my chest, but was prevented by the handcuff chain, stretched to its limit.
"Allow me to doubt your words. This isn't the first time you're forwarding baseless accusations against me, senior inspector. Isn't that right?"
My words hit square in their target. Bastian Moran went red in rage, but still held back and didn't give me an open-palm slap, which he would have done with a normal arrestee as a matter of course.
"My accusations, Leopold Orso," he said in an official tone, " were not baseless then, and  they are not baseless now!"
"Are you serious?" I asked, startled. "You still suspect me in the murder of Levinson?"
The manager of the New Babylon branch of the Witstein Banking House had been torn to shreds by a werebeast, and Bastian Moran had initially suspected it was my handiwork. Even my iron-clad alibi hadn't been enough to convince the senior inspector otherwise. Only a blood test undertaken by a police doctor had made him refuse to charge me officially.
Back then I was still not a full werebeast, as I also was not now. And no analysis could show otherwise. Even if some of my abilities, like an instinctive dodging of silver, were retained, that noble metal was no longer able to poison my body. My blood would never react to it.
Bastian Moran pursed his lips, but didn't refuse a direct answer to the question.
"Yes, Viscount. I still suspect you of involvement in the death of Levinson!" he declared after a brief pause.
"But I was the one who shot his murderer! That was me!"
"In interrogation, the werebeast may have told us the true motives for his crime, but you killed him. Very convenient, don't you think?"
"His true motives? Did Procrustes ever need a motive?"
"Come off it, Leopold!" Bastian Moran waved it off. "We established the identity of the werebeast you shot and, at the time of several of Procrustes' crimes, he was awaiting the death penalty in Kilmainham. He only managed to escape after!"
"What do you want from me, Senior inspector?" I asked directly.
"The truth!"
"You heard it."
Moran opened the folder and carelessly tossed me one of the photographs laying there. I glanced at the picture and gave an involuntary shudder. The dead black eyes of the Hindoo were staring back at me from the paper. But that wasn't what spooked me. I was beside myself from the dead man's crushed larynx. Crushed by my very hand.
"And who might that unfortunate be?" I asked, suppressing a nervous shudder.
"That is one of the bodies, next to which we discovered the round casings with your fingerprints," Bastian Moran explained.
"Partial fingerprints," I spat out mechanically, but the senior inspector let my remark go in one ear and out the other.
"But this picture," Moran set forth the next photograph, "was taken in Levinson's home. As you can see, the character of the wounds on the deceased Hindoo in June and the banker's guard are very similar. What's more, I took some shots of Procrustes' victims from the archive..."
"Enough!" I couldn't hold back. "What do you want from me? Tell me straight!"
"The truth!"
"I've told you everything."
"I know this was you," Moran declared directly. "It was you, Leopold Orso, who killed the Hindoos and you, without a doubt, were involved in the murder of Levinson. I don't know why or how, but you can be sure, it's just a matter of time. I'll stop you no matter what it costs me!"
"I need a lawyer."
"A lawyer won't help you now!" the senior inspector waved it off. "You'll never be set free, and you can believe that. I'm making sure of it!"
A vile sour taste appeared in my mouth, but I overcame myself and, with the power of my will, drove off the approaching panic.
"You have no clues, and the fingerprint matching was not done by the books. No court will accept this. The tooth imprint of the werebeast I killed lined up with one of the deadly wounds on Levinson's servant girl. And what's more, if you think I am a werebeast, let's take the simplest route and do a blood test. Last time, it didn't show anything!"
"Everything in its time," Bastian Moran frowned. "We'll do tests as well. I'll personally cut you into little pieces, if that's what it takes, but I will get the truth."
"That sounds like a threat."
The senior inspector got up from the table, turned off the phonograph and took the roller from it.
"You don't say?" he turned to me with a foul smirk. "What led you to that conclusion?"
I didn't have time to answer. With a sharp burst, the door flew open and, in an instant, it became cramped and unbearably sultry in the cell, although just one person had joined us.
The inspector general of the metropolitan police, Friedrich von Nalz, was old and his face resembled a pagan idol, carved from the rootstock of an ancient pine. The reflection of his colorless eyes was unmistakable even in the bright light of the electric bulbs, while the ghostly heat emanating from the old man made the air oscillate around him like a red-hot haze.
However, it just seemed that way to me. Fear has big eyes, and I was afraid of the inspector general much more than all of Moran's threats taken together. If von Nalz decided to beat the truth out of me, no lawyers would be able to stand in his way, not even the High Imperial Court.
The inspector general's talent could burn a person in a few seconds but, fortunately, the old man wasn't even paying attention to me.
"Bastian!" von Nalz addressed the senior inspector. "What is going on here?!"
"We're undertaking an investigation," he answered with a composed look, raising a brow. "And what of it?"
"I beg your pardon, Leopold," Friedrich von Nalz sighed and called Moran into the corridor. "Just a minute, Bastian..."
I was finally put beside myself, because the inspector general was perfectly aware of my blood relationship with the Imperial family. Although my mom was not the legal daughter of the Grand Duke of Arabia, Emperor Clement's brother, blood was thicker than water. Von Nalz considered my status fully sufficient to intervene in my fate and, the last time, his intervention had ended in me getting my heart cut out.
How it would end now was frightening to even imagine.
The conversation in the hallway went on for no less than a quarter of an hour, and that was surprising for the simple reason that no one from the metropolitan police could stand up to the inspector general's pressure for that long.
As a matter of fact, I thought the police administration had decided to continue the conversation in von Nalz's office, but then the door flew open, and Bastian Moran walked into the cell, his face pale in rage and turned to stone.
If the senior inspector were illustrious, and had a gaze that could kill, my heart would have stopped at that very moment. As it was, I had ants running down my spine.
But I made it.
"Leopold Orso, you're free to go!" Bastian Moran declared in a voice ringing in agitation, turned around and left the cell, unnaturally distinctly stomping his shoe soles on the stone floor of the cellar.
The constable who came to take his place unlocked my handcuffs and took off the shackles, then the unfamiliar detective sergeant set a whole stack of documents on the table, each of which I was required to sign a box saying I was familiar with its contents.
Among them was one telling me not to leave together with a requirement to inform the police if I changed my residence and to appear at the Newton-Markt on their first demand, which was the very least they could saddle me with in this situation. I wasn't upset.
Devil! I mean, I was practically in seventh heaven!

I was led out of the interrogation cell into a changing room with scratched-up cabinets, damp humid air and faucets that ran with rusty water. I tried to wash the fingerprinting ink off my hands, but I just used up the last of a bar of soap and ruined a handkerchief for nothing. The skin on my palms was still bluish-gray.
But that didn’t really bother me. I got dressed in my returned clothing and, throwing the striped prison clothes on a bench, went out into the hallway, already feeling like a free man but, instead of the exit, the mustached sergeant led me somewhere deeper in the Newton-Markt.
"Excuse me, my good sir..." I said, getting on guard. "The exit is the other way!"
"The inspector general would like to see you," the police-man said and threw open the door to the stairs. "Follow me."
Refuting the order wouldn't have made even the slightest bit of sense so, with a fateful sigh, I started my way up and out of the basement. The sergeant was walking in front. Behind me there wheezed two strong constables.
I was surrounded...

In the inspector general's reception room, an adjunct, fairly intrigued with the proceedings, made me sign for my affects, which had been confiscated on my detention, gave me time to distribute them in my pockets and, only after that, informed von Nalz of my arrival.
"Come in, the inspector general is ready to see you now," he declared, setting the telephone receiver back on the hook.
In some situations, "ready to see" was in no way different from "needs to speak with you immediately," so I suppressed a fated sigh and decisively threw open the heavy oak door.
The Cerberus in my jacket pocket gave me a certain confidence, but there was more significance in the very fact that I actually had the weapon than any benefit I might gain from actually using it.
In the office of the head of the metropolitan police, gloom reigned. The windows were covered with a thick curtain, concealing what little light the already cloudy September day had to offer. A dull flame was dancing on the logs in the fireplace, and gas lamps on the wall burned with a muted light. The lamp on the table, which was inundated with newspapers and correspondence, was not turned on and, on the backdrop of the utterly gray space, the only bright light was the luster of the inspector general's eyes.
"You surprise me, Leopold," von Nalz said morosely, without even offering me a seat. "Do you even understand that, with your behavior, you discredit the memory of your great forebearer?"
"I haven't done anything reprehensible, inspector general."
Friedrich von Nalz winced and asked:
"Why did you get a second passport?"
"I wanted to start a new life," I answered with basically the pure truth. "Is that not allowed? The passport is authentic."
"If it had been forged, I wouldn't have intervened," the old man declared directly. "But the accusations forwarded against you are impossibly..."
"Contrived," I offered.
"Doubtful," the inspector general finished his own thought. "And in that the clues gathered are all of a tangential nature, I don't see any basis to detain you for the duration of the investigation. I hope you won't make me regret that decision."
The fiery gaze of his colorless eyes burned with a fell flame, but here, fortunately, the inspector general got distracted by the ringing of his telephone, and I caught my breath with relief.
"Let them wait, I'll be down in a moment," Friedrich von Nalz answered shortly after picking up the phone, and threw it back on the hook with annoyance. He spent a few seconds sitting, staring forward in agitation, then decisively got up from the table, walked up to me and slapped my back with his palm, which was thin and hard as a board.
"Leopold! My advice to you: stay away from trouble. After all, you aren't just any old citizen. Your reputation must remain flawless for the sake of the memory of your grandfather, the most important political actor of the epoch of the Empire’s foundation!"
I fitfully swallowed and managed to squeeze out only a none-too-intelligible:
"This is all some kind of misunderstanding..."
"I hope that’s true."
Von Nalz's cold tone scared me to hiccups, but I still overcame my hesitation and asked a favor:
"Inspector general! Please don't tell my... relatives. I want to solve my own problems. On my own, do you see?"
"That merits respect," Friedrich von Nalz nodded. "I don't think there's any need to tell them. Her Majesty’s health leaves a lot to be desired. She certainly doesn't need any more reason to worry."
"I thank you," I caught my breath with untold relief.
The inspector general smiled.
"I hope, Leopold, that our next meeting will be under somewhat less disreputable circumstances."
I gave a short burst of quick nods. I was now ready to agree with the inspector general about anything, and I hurried to slip out into the reception. The adjunct, when he saw me, tore himself from the typing machine and asked:
"Should I call a constable?"
"No, I can find the exit," I refused. "Do I need any kind of pass?"
"Just go. I'll call the guard desk."
"Thank you!"
With a sense of unbelievable relief, I left the reception room and, first of all, pulled a handkerchief out of my jacket pocket, but it was all covered in black and blue blotches of ink, so I couldn't wipe the sweat from my face. My heart was beating very unevenly so, on the second floor, acting on an old memory, I ducked into the men's lavatory, washed up and stared at my reflection in the blurry and cracked mirror over the sink.
My reflection looked haggard and fearful.
Curses! Here is how I looked: squeezed out like a lemon, and terrified, like a tiny shepherd boy, his little dying fire surrounded by hungry wolves.
Bastian Moran would not back down. Devil! He would be certain to take the investigation to the end, and dig up all the background information. And the problem wasn't a personal dislike or desire to restore justice devil, I had killed the Thugees! the senior inspector had some kind of personal interest in this case.
Maybe a promotion? Friedrich von Nalz was old, he couldn't stay in the post of inspector general for long, but how would my case help Moran move up? And also, why was he so driven to uncover a crime, if society was sure that the thugees had been shot by the police?
I didn’t understand...

At the guard post, no one even glanced at me. A shift change had begun: some constables were hurrying to work, others were already on their way to the exit. They were all in uniform and, in all the helter skelter, I calmly strolled out of the Newton-Markt.
But when I entered the colonnade-lined portico of the police administration's internal yard, I discovered with surprise that, on the stairs, there was a fairly large crowd. It didn't look much like a demonstration: there was a thin chain of police easily holding back a large number of gentlemen in fancy clothing, armed not with placards and sticks, but notepads, pencils and cameras.
"Newspapermen!" I realized, donning my derby cap and already on my way to the side arch when, from behind me, there sounded out:
"Lev! Lev, wait!"
I almost had a seizure! Mechanically, and totally not thinking about my own actions, I stuck my hand into my jacket pocket but, at the last moment, I came to my senses and just turned around. A black-haired thin young man in an ill-fitting suit and a rumpled gray cap was hurrying after me.
"Lev, I really wasn't expecting to see you here!" Thomas Eliot Smith laughed, the investigator from the Pinkerton Detective Agency.
I unclenched my fingers from the handle of the Cerberus with relief and, removing my hand from my pocket, extended it to Smith.
"And I was not expecting to meet you, Thomas!" I smiled. After exchanging hand-shakes I asked, clipping my dark glasses on my nose: "After all, you were preparing to return to the New World, isn't that right? What winds blew you to the capital?"
"It's all blasted work!" the investigator told me with histrionic pity, stroking his black mustache in a habitual motion and asking: "And what led you to this bastion of law and order? Not more problems with the law I hope?"
"A small misunderstanding," I frowned. "Nothing serious."
"Can I help?"
"No, it's all been solved to the best effect."
Professional mistrust flickered in the investigator's dark eyes. Basically, they only seemed dark because of the colored glass lenses. Thomas Smith was illustrious, but hid that fact very skillfully.
Wanting to distract the investigator from the reason for my visit to the Newton-Markt, I hurried to ask:
"I suppose something extreme must have shaken out, if you were sent across the Atlantic again."
"Lev, I did such a good job this summer, that they decided to let me stay in the Old World!" the investigator laughed. "Now, I am a traveling agent-consultant with a zone of responsibility encompassing half of Europe! Paris, London, Lisbon and Madrid. Where haven't I been this summer! Now something's in the works in New Babylon..."
I had the words "travelling salesman" turning on the tip of my tongue, but I didn’t want to offend the man. I also didn't fish out the details of his new mission, instead pointing at the crowd.
"I don’t suppose you know what all this agitation is about? What's going on? Yet another sabotage at the weapons factory or a loud outing of anarchists?"
A barely visible grimace slid over Smith's face, as if the topic was unpleasant but, instead of answering, he slipped me a morning edition of the Capital Times, a yard-long headline which read:
"Bloody Ritual on Faraday Boulevard!"
"More gossip?" I clarified, skimming the article.
"No," the investigator shook his head. "I’m afraid its all real."
"Is that so?" I asked in surprise, because the headline was talking about a crime that was odd even by New Babylon standards, and all kinds of crimes happened here. Murder was no rarity in the guest houses but, this time, the victim was a young unmarried lady of light scruples, and the murderer had pulled out her eyes and cut out her heart. The police were called by the apartment tenant a floor below, after blood started dripping from his ceiling. A theory was put forward that malefics were mixed up in the case, but there wasn't any evidence of that. The police had announced a search for her procurer.
At that moment, two constables with red department offical bands of on their arms threw open the doors and, just to make sure, held them that way with iron stoppers. The newspapermen moved forward, and the police had to expend a reasonable amount of force to hold them behind the perimeter at the columns of the portico.
"Is the inspector general going to make an announcement?" I guessed.
"That's right," Thomas Smith confirmed. "And here he is now..."
Friedrich von Nalz came out to the press conference in a ceremonial uniform; his adjunct had a folder in his hands and was following the head of the police at some distance. The constables straightened up and started pushing even harder on the now silent newspapermen, but they were holding dead tight on the steps. They only managed to reconquer the first two or three highest rows.
"I suppose I'll be going," I decided. "Glad to see you..."
Thomas Smith extended a hand to say farewell and, at that moment, a disheveled young man managed to jump through the perimeter.
"Die, bloodthirsty satrap!" he shouted and, before any of the policemen, caught off guard by the unexpected attack, managed to get moving, he threw up his pistol. "Freedom to prisoners of conscience!"
He should have just shot silently but, for such individuals, political slogans always came first, so the anarchist first shouted, then opened fire. To be more accurate, he tried to open fire, but didn't find much success: his pistol simply exploded.
Fragments of the weapon flew in all directions as red-hot shrapnel. Fortunately, no one was seriously hurt by that, and the unsuccessful murderer was instantly dog-piled on the ground by quick-moving constables. Now, he was now no threat to anyone and, what was more, he now needed emergency aid himself: there was blood was lashing out ceaselessly from the stump of his mangled arm.
"Doctor!" one of the newspapermen began to wail, but the person who helped the anarchist was no police medic.
Von Nalz decisively pushed away the constables surrounding him and approached the wounded man. I sensed a burning echo of his illustrious talent, then the frightening wound hissed and instantly stopped bleeding. The wounded boy immediately stopped struggling and went limp in the constables' arms. Then, in a senseless state, he was then taken inside the Newton-Markt.
"The press conference is postponed!" the inspector general’s chalk-white adjunct shouted out.
Thomas Smith immediately realized how problematic it would be for us to get stuck here, and pulled me to the side exit.
"Let's go! Otherwise we'll be stranded here until evening!"
By some miracle, we managed to leave the yard of the Newton-Markt before the arch was closed off by the quick-moving constables. Then, on the street, Thomas Smith immediately turned down a side passage where, in front of a grocer's shop, he was awaited by a self-propelled carriage that very same Ford Model-T.
"What was that, devil take me?!" the investigator turned to me, firing up the steam boiler. "Lev, do you understand anything?"
"What's to understand here?" I snorted. "That was either an anarchist, or a gunman from yet another underground socialist cell. Perhaps he was also a Christian, but that is hardly likely. They tend to use different slogans."
"Not that!" Smith turned sharply. "Why did the pistol blow up?!"
"The inspector general is illustrious. He has a very... inflammatory talent."
"Ah, so that was it!" the investigator drew out his words, pulled on his driving gloves and asked: "Do you need a ride?"
I considered it for a moment, then clarified:
"Can you drop me off on Mendeleev Avenue?"
"Where is that?"
"Not far. I'll show you."
"You'll show me? Then let's go!"
I sat down next to Thomas and the self-propelled carriage started off, bouncing on the uneven paving stones of the alleyway. Then, a few minutes later, we came out at the service door of the nearest underground station.
"Take a right here," I told the investigator at an intersection, and he sharply turned the wheel, nearly hitting an old lady standing on the sidewalk.
Curses followed after us, but Smith didn't even cock an ear. He increased his speed, drove around a cart and jumped before the very nose of a police armored vehicle, then drove out onto Mendeleev Avenue with such confidence it seemed he had been driving a self-propelled carriage down the confusing alleyways of New Babylon his whole life.
However, success soon left him. Not risking flying over the rails at full speed, Thomas slowed to a crawl, then the Ford Model-T cut into a dense flow of transportation and, from there, we had to dawdle at a turtle's pace.
There was no wind. The streets were filled with smog. The unpleasant aroma caused a tickling in my throat. My dark glasses did a piss poor job of protecting my eyes from dust, so I was plainly envious of the investigator, who had clip-on goggles that held tight against his face.
"This is my first day in the capital," Thomas Smith told me. "You don't know any quiet and calm hotel near the Central Train Station, do you? Just so I'm not left without pants."
"I can't tell you anything."
"I was recommended the Heinrich Hertz."
"I'm sorry, I've never heard of it."
At one of the intersections, a wheel fell off a cart laden with empty barrels, and it was blocking off half the street. The transporter and a few volunteer helpers were trying to either smooth out the situation or clear the roadway, but they weren't getting anything done. There was a long file of coaches, carts and self-propelled carriages waiting to pass through the still open lanes and, as is usual in such situations, the cabbies and drivers were whistling cursing and promising to tear off one another's heads, if they weren't immediately allowed to pass. Two constables, with the calm of philosophers, were observing the pandemonium from the sidewalk, in no hurry to do anything.
Thomas Smith didn't waste his nerves on empty cursing, pulling a map of New Babylon out of a map case, unfolding it and asking me to show him where we were.
"Aha," the investigator lit up as soon as I did so. "Lev, if I let you out near Brown Bridge, is that alright? I'm thinking of taking it to the other side of the Yarden."
I gave a cursory glance at the map and agreed.
And here, my attention was drawn by a pencil mark at the very border of the Old City. Just a fat dot on one of the residential neighborhoods, but that was enough.
"Were you on Faraday Boulevard?" I guessed.
Thomas Smith started folding up the map with a rustling sound.
"Where'd you get that from?" he asked, looking at me sidelong.
"Just a guess. Is the agency looking into that case?"
Just then, the cart was finally rolled off the roadway, and the traffic started flowing. I decided that I wouldn't be getting an answer to that question now, but the investigator eventually satisfied my curiosity.
"Yes, you're right. I was assigned this investigation," he said with a sigh after a theatrical pause. "But don't go telling anyone that, alright? The agency doesn't bear windbags. It could give me problems."
"Well, you know I'm not a big talker," I answered without any false modesty.
"I'm very much counting on that," the investigator sighed and turned toward the sidewalk in the hopes of driving around a cart, which was dragging along uncommonly slowly ahead of us. He didn't gain anything with that maneuver, though, because there was a slow-moving steam truck rolling along in the far lane.
At this rate, it would take us at least ten minutes to get to Brown Bridge, and I decided to continue my line of questioning.
"As far as I understand, it wasn't a simple murder, seeing how you were drawn into it. Either this involves a malefic known to the Pinkerton Agency, or..."
"Or," the investigator interrupted me. "You've got the right idea."
I whistled. Aztec priests were known for the lovely habit of cutting out their victims’ hearts. But only truly extreme circumstances could drive such savages so far away from their homeland.
"Is this the start of something serious?" I asked.
"I don't know," Smith answered. "No one knows."
"But you're here. And you came to the capital in advance."
"But you know how it normally goes," Thomas snorted. "Someone blabbed to someone else, but the ends cannot be found, so I was sent to figure it all out. It's business as usual but, this time, the rumors were confirmed. Aztecs really are in the city."
I nodded, totally allowing that the investigator was being completely open with me. Any policeman knew perfectly well how difficult it was to track down the person who started this or that rumor.
Just then, Brown Bridge came into view before us; Thomas Smith turned onto it and stopped the self-propelled carriage, letting me out onto the sidewalk.
"Thank you!" I said, giving the investigator a salute.
He threw his hand up over his head in a gesture of farewell, and the Ford Model-T rolled away.
I didn't tarry on the bridge either, running across the street and jumping onto the back square of a steam tram as it made its way slowly up the hill. I rode it to the nearest underground station, transferred and headed to the factory outskirts. I needed to immediately have a discussion with Ramon Miro and figure out what exactly he had done with the rest of the stolen pistols. There was too much riding on this horse to just let the chips fall or trust a telephone call...
It was surprisingly empty in the underground. The train that came into the station didn’t have any first-class cars but, unlike normal, there was a huge number of empty seats on the benches running down the sides of the second-class ones.
And most surprisingly, together with me, just three other people left the train at the Markhoff Steel Factory, even though nearly half the passengers normally got off here.
But as soon as I went up into the station vestibule, the reason for such a strange order of things was explained all on its own: from the street, I could a large crowd shouting in unison.
"Elections! Right to rest! Dignified salary!"
"No lay-offs!"
And again:
"Elections! Right to rest! Dignified salary!"
"No lay-offs!"
"Elections! Right to rest! Dignified salary!"
There was a strike.
I cursed out soundlessly and, feeling a bit of dread, walked over to the vestibule doors, where the station manager was pacing in terror, wearing a uniform pea-coat with railroad patches and a high peaked cap with a gilded insignia.
However, it wasn't all that bad: the workers jamming up the square before the factory administration were being held back by a squadron of constables in formation with shields and clubs in their hands. There was a police armored car not far away from the underground station, and the machine-gun barrel on its tower was swiveling nervously from side to side, keeping watch over the square. Nearby, there stood a few police trucks, in the back of which gunmen awaited their hour with combat-ready semi-automatic rifles.
A sharp whistle sounded out unexpectedly, and a half dozen constables cut into the crowd of protesters with a brisk spurt. The electric charge of their clubs sparked, some shouted out in pain, some cried out holy curses. A moment later, the police took a step back, dragging the desperately wailing agitators with bloodied faces after them.
The workers ran to their comrades for help, but the constables closed their ranks and stifled the onslaught, meeting it with shields held int front of them. Bottles, cobbles broken from the causeway, iron bars and fragments of tile flew from the crowd. One of the stones hit a constable in the face, and the poor bastard collapsed onto the paving stones with a prolonged groan. His colleagues brought him away to the first-aid coach parked near the trucks.
"Free our brothers!" the crowd let out a unified scream. The workers increased pressure, and the police had to retreat but soon, reinforcements hurried in and the situation smoothed out.
But was it for long? From the high porch of the station, it was perfectly clear that the protesters filled not only the square in front of the factory administration, but also the streets next to it.
I couldn't see any more. One of the overly zealous constables guarding the truck turned his attention to me and started off for the station, tightening his helmet as he walked.
I ran off the porch without delay and walked down the street away from the noisy crowd. The constable didn't follow after me and returned to the armored vehicle. He must have taken me for a newspaperman; in my pricy suit, I didn't look anything like a worker.
Now, that factor allowed me to avoid explaining myself to my former colleagues but, in the future, expensive clothing could serve as a reason for all kinds of serious troubles: local workers I passed by looked at me with unhidden suspicion, and some with rage. Last summer, there was nothing like this even in memory, and all I could do was guess as to what had caused such a sharp upswing in the class war.
Having decided not to darken too many proletarian gazes, I turned down the first alley I saw and took a roundabout way to Foundry-Town the private manufactory neighborhood. In the narrow passages, I immediately saw more dirt and trash. More people met the eye but, at the same time, I became invisible. In Foundry-Town no one had anything to say to me.
And it wasn't without reason: there was nothing for right-minded people to do here, and a man of means could be either a thief or a business partner of one of the local entrepreneurs. Meanwhile, the local heavyweights couldn't stand when someone came to poke their nose in their business. And also, the small businessmen didn't seem to experience any class solidary with the factory workers. Ideals like equality and brotherhood were not held in high esteem here. Only money held sway.

It had rained the night before and the roads hadn't quite dried out so, by the time I reached Ramon's shop, my shoes had lost all semblance of dignity. As I waited for someone to answer my knock, I tried scraping the dirt off my soles with an iron brush, but it was wasted effort.
Just before I knocked a second time, the gate flew open and a short boy looked out at the street in work overalls. He was swarthy and had black hair. He was the one who had played a police driver when we shook down the Hindoos in search of the runaway bartender on my last visit to the capital.
"Is Ramon in?" I asked without a greeting.
"Yes," he answered and moved aside, freeing the passage. "He's in his office."
I crossed the yard and went up to the second floor of the wing where my former partner's office was located, which was built on to a warehouse.
Ramon Miro was sitting at the table and taking notes in a thick spreadsheet. The reddish shade of his skin wasn't the only thing he'd inherited from his mother, whose origins were among the New World aboriginals. He had also acquired an outward tranquility but still, when I walked in, he couldn't resist a whistle of surprise.
"Leo?!" Ramon asked in confusion, absent-mindedly stroking his black coarse hair, which he had cut short in a military manner. "What is it this time?"
"Nothing good," I answered, and I saw a flash of annoyance in the former constable's black eyes.
"But what specifically?" he demanded an explanation.
I was standing next to the open window and looking outside. A low cloudiness was poured over the city like a thick gray canopy. Thick wisps of smoke from factory smokestacks wound up into it like huge pillars, and only the wind, which grew powerful way up high, could disperse them, turning them into something like turbid waves painted by a genius artist with carefree broad strokes. Freight dirigibles seemed like trash floating in sewer water on their backdrop.
"Leo!" Ramon began to worry, getting up from the table and starting to smooth out the rolled-up sleeves of his shirt. "What is the matter? Just tell me directly!"
"The stolen pistols," I turned to him, "the ones meant for the rebels in Rio de Janeiro. What did you do with them?"
"You asked me to get rid of them, Leo. Did you forget? I did exactly as you said!"
I sighed.
"Ramon, how exactly did you get rid of them? Did you sell them to someone, hide them or throw them off the docks? It's important for me to know that the pistols will not lead our former colleagues back to you, understand?"
"I threw them down a sewer drain," Miro answered calmly, but a strange smirk ran across his prominent-cheekboned face. "What, not expecting that? Did you think I'd be so petty? No, Leo. You said it was a serious matter, and I got rid of them. I have a serious business venture, and I don't want to get burned over such small matters. What's more, you compensated all my losses."
"I did, that's true," I nodded, catching my breath with relief.
After being fired from the police, the former constable had been working as a private investigator, and, to my significant surprise, had quite a lot of success. It was hard to say just what served as the reason for that: his work experience in the police or useful acquaintances he had made on the job.
The Ramon I'd once known would never have thrown a box of new pistols down a sewer drain, but people do change. At the very least, I wanted to believe that.
"Maybe now you'll tell me what's happening?" Ramon demanded explanations in his turn.
"Pour me a cup of water. My throat is dry," I asked, taking a seat in a rickety armchair for guests and held my hands out in front of me, covered in fingerprinting ink. "So, what do your deductive abilities tell you?"
Ramon Miro poured me some soda water, then mixed it with white wine for himself.
"Tell me!" he demanded, taking a long gulp.
"Do you remember Bastian Moran, senior inspector of Department Three?"
My former partner gave a painful cringe. Ramon had been kicked off the force because of that very man.
I drained the glass in a few gulps, asked him to fill it again with a gesture and took a sigh.
"Moran thinks he can eat me alive," I said slowly after that. "He slightly miscalculated but, if he can connect me with that pistol, I'll be put away for a long time."
"What have you done?"
I didn't lie.
"Do you remember, at the beginning of summer, we paid a visit to some Indians and, at about that time, the police raided the Thugees, shooting six?"
"Yes, that was a highly publicized event. Lots was written about it in the papers. The inspector general was even thanked by the Minister of Justice."
"Well anyway, it wasn't the police that did it, it was me."
"Damn it!" Ramon cursed out, finishing his wine in one gulp and filling his glass again, this time adding a bit less soda water than before. "How'd they pin it on you?"
"Fingerprints on round casings."
"They let you go with clues like that?" the hulking man asked in surprise, and got on guard: "You were released, right? Curses! Leo, tell me you didn't escape!"
"Calm yourself!" I demanded, finishing my water. "The clues against me are purely circumstantial, which is why I was released."
"No, the pistols won't surface," Ramon said thoughtfully and wiped the bridge of his broad nose. "And you know... a week after you warned me about the pistols, there was a raid of Foundry-Town. They were supposedly searching for explosives. Everything I had was turned upside down as well. And now I'm thinking: maybe it wasn't about dynamite at all!"
"Devil!" I shivered, finishing my water and walking to the window. "They took me to task..."
"Calm yourself! The pistols aren't here anymore!"
"At least there's that," I sighed and waved a hand. "Alright, to hell with them! Better you tell me, how are you doing? The strikes aren't bothering you?"
"Some shadowy figures have been gadding about, but you know how it goes. Agitators and provocateurs are not welcomed around here."
"They'll make their noise and calm down, you think?"
Ramon shrugged his shoulders.
"None of this depends on me, I don't see any reason to fill my head with it," he noted reasonably and suddenly he said: "Most likely, quite soon, I'll leave the city."
"Are you planning to move far away?" I inquired.
"To the Caribbean. Cuba, Hispaniola, Jamaica."
"To fight back the Aztecs?"
"No the Aztecs were chased out of there long ago without me. There are now problems with the plantation workers. Have you heard of voodoo? The authorities want to reign in the acolytes of that cult. They're gearing up for a police operation."
"And you?"
"I was offered the chance to lead my own squadron. They're promising serious cash."
"Well, I don't know..." I drew out my words unconfidently. "What if they make a doll of you and stick a pin right in its heart? What if they go lower?"
Ramon looked back at me with such an offended appearance that I couldn't hold back and broke down laughing at my own joke. The hulking man snorted nervously, took a sip of wine and asked:
"What are your plans?"
"I haven't decided yet," I shrugged my shoulders and turned my gaze on my dirty shoes. "Listen, Ramon, is it possible to catch a cab somewhere around here? Because, on my way down, my shoes got all full of mud."
Ramon glanced out the window and shouted to his nephew to send someone for a carriage, then unlocked one of the iron cabinets and set a heavy briquette on the table.
"Leo, I've got something for you. You want some?"
I unfolded the thick gray parchment and whispered in surprise when I saw a dark brown bar. I cut myself a small piece from the corner with a knife blade and, as soon as I stuck it in my mouth, a slightly bitter chocolate flavor dispersed over my tongue.
"Where'd you get this from?!" I was blown away, because trade relations with the Aztecs had been stopped long ago and, due to the corsairs flooding the Atlantic, prices for contraband chocolate, as with all other exotic goods, had simply flown through the roof.
"I have connections," Ramon answered with a satisfied smile.
"In the Caribbean?" I guessed.
"Doesn't matter. You want some?"
"How much?"
"Three hundred. And let's not negotiate. I am not doing this to earn money. I just took it for you."
I counted out six fifty-franc banknotes and gave them to my friend, then hid the parchment-encased bar in my side pocket. It weighed at the very least a quarter kilogram, and my jacket was pulling to the side but, fortunately, not too far.
"The cabby is here!" I heard from the street.
I quickly bid Ramon farewell, went out past the fence and got into the carriage waiting on the road.
"Where are we going?" the middle aged man asked, his peaked cap tilted dashingly to the side.
"One Michelson street," I told him the new address of my attorney.
After improving his financial situation, my lawyer had moved from the tall building on the outskirts of town to an ancient manor on the border of the Judean and Embassy Quarters. His present office was barely larger than his old cell, but the windows looked out on a shady boulevard and arch, dedicated to the semicentennial of the overthrow of the tyranny of the fallen. It was considered quite a dignified and prestigious neighborhood, but it had one very significant fault: there were no steam-trams or underground lines out here.
Which is why I needed the cab.

My attorney was in his office. The doorman told me that, and gratefully accepted a half-franc coin after I asked him how to find the right office; I had not yet made it down here.
I went up a wide marble staircase to the third floor, and found myself in a corridor with all the gas lamps lit except one. The building was properly dilapidated. The stucco on the ceiling needed to be redone, while the parquet was worn down by the feet of an unending number of visitors but, even in such a state, the decor didn't create an impression of desolation, more like a certain noble antiquity.
My attorney couldn’t yet afford to hire a secretary or assistant, so I walked into his small office without a knock. It had a couple of wide windows, a portrait of Empress Victoria over the desk and rows of metal cabinets of cards along the wall. The young rosy-cheeked man choked on his cigarette smoke in surprise and gave a heart-rending cough.
I couldn't resist mocking him.
"Calm yourself, maître. Just be calm. It's only me."
"Viscount?" my attorney asked in astonishment, throwing his newspaper on the table. "I wasn't expecting you today!"
"Extenuating circumstances, I'm afraid," I told him, closing the door behind me. "I need a defense attorney."
"A defense attorney?"
"The best criminal defense attorney money can buy."
"Is it really that serious?"
"It's extremely serious," I confirmed and asked: "Is there a bathroom here? I need to wash my hands."
The chubby face of my attorney stretched out in fearful suspicion, and I couldn't hold back a laugh.
"You should see your face, maître!" I said, shaking my head after I finished laughing. "It isn't blood, just fingerprinting ink."
"I'm not colorblind," The offended jurist puffed out his cheeks in annoyance and pushed out his cigarette in the bottom of a porcelain ashtray. "Blood is red, even children know that!"
"So, have you got a bathroom?"
My attorney pointed me to an imperceptible door hidden between two metal cabinets.
"Right there."
Behind the door, I discovered a tiny washroom with no windows. Standing at the sink, I adjusted the faucets, plugged the drain and spent some time just holding my arms under the warm water, then soaped them up and tried to wash off the ink, but it was to no effect. I just left gray marks on the towel for no reason. My skin didn't change color one bit.
When I returned into my attorney's office, he was standing near an iron filing cabinet, leafing through some papers.
"How soon do you need an attorney, Viscount?"
"Agree to a meeting tomorrow, better in the first half of the day," I answered and gave a fated sigh, because I had only now realized that my plans to leave New Babylon were fated to end in failure. "And prepare a contract for long-term representation."
"I could represent you in court myself!"
"Don't talk nonsense!" I waved it off, sitting on a chair and extending my legs. "You can handle finances quite well, but I don't want to spend one more day behind bars. I need the arrest to be disputed or bail paid immediately. And for that, I need to pull out all the stops. I need connections."
"There's a certain sense in that," the jurist gave in. "What were you charged with?"
I decided not to upset him more than necessary and waved my hand.
"No charges yet. And perhaps none will be made, but I need guarantees."
If my attorney did guess that I simply didn't want to bring him up to speed, he didn't show it in any way. He calmly put the newspaper into the desk drawer and clarified:
"Do you read my monthly reports?"
I considered ordering lunch here from a nearby restaurant, but decided not to tarry in my attorney's office longer than necessary and shook my head.
"No, why? Is everything in order?"
"Completely, don't you doubt it. The manor on Calvary was sold at the end of last month, and the profits were enough to pay off most of your loans."
"Did the auction go well?"
My attorney took on a look of insulted innocence and declared:
"Naturally! Have I ever led you astray before? We made out like bandits!"
"Excellent work, maître!"
"Where should I drop off your affects from the manor? I'm renting a warehouse for no but all the most valuable things are being kept in my apartment. That isn't too comfortable, though..."
"Just bear it a bit longer, maître. We'll sort it all out as soon as I have free time." I got up from the table, looked at my watch and reminded him: "Don't forget about the defense attorney. I'll call after six. I hope you'll have something for me by then."
"Naturally, Viscount! I'll handle it right away!"
I bid farewell to my attorney, went down to the first floor and stopped on the sidewalk, looking in indecision from the arch to the calm boulevard, where wide-branching sycamores were frozen in complete immobility.
There was no good way to go straight from here to Emperor Clement Square. If I caught a cab, he would have to make a hook through the jammed streets. In the end, it would take me even longer to get to the hotel than going on foot through the Embassy Quarter.
And that realization was what decided it. In a tent on the corner, I bought a glass of carbonated water without syrup, sated my thirst and started off toward the arch. There weren't many people on the streets at all, just presentable looking gentlemen hurrying about their business with briefcases and folded newspapers, along with the odd page boy running past in a lather. But there were more than enough police on patrol; what was more, in the quiet yards and alleys, there were also some police armored cars. However, for the New-Babylon police, such extreme measures were hardly surprising. The authorities were expecting serious unrest, and so there were guard units stationed throughout downtown.
The stubborn gazes of the sentries put me beside myself; I stuck my hands in my pockets and involuntarily increased my speed. I slightly calmed down only when the narrow uneven little streets of the Embassy Quarter with colorful flags and coats of arms on the facades of old mansions were left behind me. The buildings grew sparser. A slight breeze was blowing and, although a thick gray bedsheet of clouds was flowing over the roofs as before, it felt like it had become easier to breathe.
The Roman Bridge shone like a beacon before me. That was where I was headed.
At one time, the majestic structure had linked the Old City with the Embassy Quarter but, after this shallow tributary of the Yarden had been paved over, street artists and musicians had taken a fancy to it. I didn't have the most pleasant memories of this place. I didn't like it, and tried to avoid it whenever possible.
To the measured clacking of horseshoes on the pavement, two constables on horseback galloped by. I didn't pay them any mind, just walked and looked at the water pouring out of the huge stone pipe on one side of the bridge and disappearing under the earth on the other side after no more than fifty meters. The recent rain had made the water murky, foamy and seething.
I walked up onto the bridge along a side stair and took a look around. The gloomy weather hadn't scared all the local artists off; vacationing gapers were staring at their works with interest, but few of them stuck around to order a pencil sketch or a full-on portrait. A street band enjoyed somewhat greater popularity, playing the recent hit "Turn off your light, moon man." However, there as well, coins didn't clink into the violin case so very often.
My old friend Charles Malacarre was sitting on a folding chair near the statue of Michelangelo. Now, he was busy with another client; I glanced at my watch and decided to wait for the artist to finish up.
I was in no rush. I still had to decide what I could reveal to Liliana before going back to the hotel, and also think up a believable excuse for such an abrupt change in plans. It wasn't nearly as simple as it might have seemed on first glance.
With a fated sigh, I tossed my gaze on the palaces and towers of the Old City. I leaned my elbows on a fence and looked down into the fast and cloudy flowing water. Not far away, I heard a dull clap, and the bridge was instantly clouded over with thick orange smoke. Figuring it was street comedians fooling around, I straightened up and swore unkindly, pulling my glasses off my face but, immediately thereafter, another clap popped out, somewhat quieter than the first.
My body reacted all on its own. I crouched onto my left foot, lurching, and something hummed past my right cheek.
And right then, another clap!
Instinct threw me aside again but, this time, the invisible gunman was shooting where he thought I’d be, not where I was. It felt like my thigh had been pierced with a red-hot poker. I fell down on one knee and only that saved me from a second wound. The bullet hit the bridge railing. Fragments of stone flew.
With a sharp burst, I got to my feet and threw up the Cerberus I pulled from my pocket but, due to the stagnant air over the bridge, the orange haze was clinging to the air, and I couldn’t see the gunman. But he could see me just fine.
The next clap caught me at half step and, again, only a supernatural knack allowed me to avoid certain death. I stumbled aside, something hit my right arm, and it immediately hung down limp as a lash. The shock of the wound forced me to freeze in place, and the following bullet hit me in the stomach.
My mind went hazy, all my thoughts dissolved into stunning flares of pain. All that remained was a desire to live. Clinging to the stone railing of the bridge, I stood up straight and leaned my chest on it. I took another bullet in the back. I froze for a moment like that, then fell over the granite, polished by the hands of passers-by, and fell down below, into the flowing water rushing under the bridge.
Right into the darkness.

release - February 19, 2018

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