The Clockwork Wolf
“Morning, miss.” Damp-cheeked and rosy from the steam rising from her cart, my favorite tealass, Sally, handed over a mug of her strongest morning brew. “Sold out me sticky buns early today, sorry. Crumpets are quite nice.”
“Then I’ll have two.” I took a grateful sip of my tea and glanced at a gang of brickies patching the west wall of an assayer’s building. “Business picking up now that they’ve carted out the rubble?”
“Oh, yes, miss. Tho’ even after our boys sunk all them Talian ships what blasted us, me da wanted me to sell from the bakery, but I told him Rumsen’d be back to rights in no time.” She sniffed. “Batty lot, sailing in at dawn, banners flapping bold as you please. What’d they think we’d do, run off to Settle?”
“Well, they certainly weren’t expecting a fight.” Indeed, the Talians had been promised quite the opposite: to find every soul in the city rendered helpless by magic. Fortunately the massive, nightmarish spell that would have enslaved our citizens had never been cast—but if I explained to Sally how I knew those details, she’d think I was the loon. “Morning paper out yet?”
“Just dropped off. Oy, Jimmy.” She whistled to catch the attention of the little newsboy working the corner. “Bring us a daily for the missus.”
Jimmy trotted over and offered me a string-tied bundle. “Couple of beaters were ’tacked last night, miss. Savaged, they were, by the beastie chap again—you know, the Wolfman. S’all front page.”
“I imagine it is.” I handed him some coins. “And did they lock up this beastie chap?”
“Couldn’t catch him.” He scratched the side of his face, connecting some of his freckles with smudges from his inky fingers. “Thing is, they said they had him last Tuesday, and some say he were even kilt.”
I exchanged an amused look with Sally. “Maybe they caught the wrong beastie.”
“Aye. Or there could be two.” Looking hopeful, he touched the rim of his cap before he scurried back to his patch by the lamppost.
“Beastie men my aunt Frances,” Sally said, shaking her head. “Some drunken brave in a fur, more like.”
I watched an elegant young lady and her mother stroll by with a gleaming brass lamb on a tether. The animech bleated and wagged its tail, although it had been placed on a wheeled cart to prevent it from having to be rewound to walk every block. “Maybe it was a clockwork beast,” I joked.
“I don’t think they make them that big yet. Although I did have a gentleman stop yesterday who had a hawk. Covered the mech with real feathers.” She tilted her head to one side. “Miss, you know that grand mage chap all the nobs fancy? The one what can kill with a blink, all legal like?”
“Lord Lucien Dredmore.” I had killed him once, but then had been daft enough to bring him back to life; as a result I couldn’t deny the acquaintance. “He can be a
beast, but I doubt he’s the Wolfman. All that fur, too vulgar for him.”
“I don’t mean the beast, I mean him.” She lifted her chin toward my office building. “He’s standing right over there, watching you.”
So much for my pleasant morning. “Best sell me another crumpet then, Sally.”
I took my time finishing my tea before I bid the cartlass good day and crossed the street. While I should have politely acknowledged the dark and brooding presence of Toriana’s much-acclaimed and endlessly feted grand master of the dark arts, I didn’t care to start my workday by bobbing before Lord Dredmore.
“Morning, Lucien.” I managed a civil nod. “Are you lost, or slumming?”
“I am never the former, and only for you the latter.” He gave my building one of his snide looks before he inspected me. “You’ve been avoiding me, Charmian.”
Once I had, like the plague, until certain events had been set into motion by a phony curse, a nasty possession, and an invasion of the city. Mayhem and magic had solved most of the lot, but since then things between Lucien Dredmore and me had become rather more than less complicated.
“I’ve been busy.” Partly true; now to choose the rest of my words with care. “How may I direct you to a better part of town?”
He took hold of my arm. “We should talk in your office.”
I allowed Dredmore to escort me to the fourth floor but stopped him at the hall entry. “Wait here.”
“Not all the crumpets are for you.” I walked down to where an old woman sat huddled on my threshold. The skirts of her shabby gown had been patched so many times they resembled a mad checkerboard, and they were dirtier than usual. From the whistling rattle of her wheezing, I concluded that Gert had dozed off while waiting on me.
I reached down to give her shoulder a pat. “Come on, love. You’ll get a neck crick, sleeping like that.”
Two bleary eyes nestled in nests of wrinkled skin fluttered and then peered. “What? Where? Oh.” She scowled. “It’s you, demon’s harlot. What vile work have you been at? I’ve been waiting hours, I have.”
“I’m afraid Satan delayed me this morning.” I helped her up and glanced at the glass window that she hadn’t yet defaced. “Run out of death curses, or is this your half day?”
“Lost me grease pencil.” She pushed out her lower lip. “Old tosser at the mission likely nicked it. They’ve all sticky fingers down there.” She fumbled with her reticule before she extracted her wand and gave it a shake. “I cast this spell of doom on you, unwholesome soul, that you be swallowed up”—she trailed off into a damp cough, and had to clear her throat several times before she could continue—“I mean, devoured entirely by the blackest bottomless pit in the Netherside.” She gave my arm a halfhearted swat.
After the few seconds of silence that out of respect I afforded her spells, I handed her the spare crumpet. “Straight from the cart, I promise. Now what are you doing at the mission?”
“Can’t get work, and lost me room in the attack.” She
tore open the wrapping and took a big bite. “Wretched Talians turned half the city into scram.”
The damp cough meant she’d probably been sleeping outside, too. I thought for a moment. “Tinker Elias on Kearney Street always needs good rags. He’ll want clean, but he pays in coin.”
“Does he now?” Crumbs rained from Gert’s chin as she gobbled up the rest of the crumpet. “I’ll get to it, then.” She hesitated before she added, “Might not be here tomorrow, but you’ll not dodge my wrath forever, mind.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it.” I watched her scurry off, feeling satisfied over my good deed until a long shadow crossed my own. “I asked for a minute.”
The black slashes of his eyebrows elevated. “Do you always provide tea to vagrants who wish you ill?”
I gave him my sweetest smile. “You’re here, aren’t you?”
Once inside the office I opened the shades and checked the tube port. Along with the usual pile of post there were some fly-ads from the neighborhood merchants and a small box wrapped in brown paper. I put the post on my desk with the remaining crumpets, tossed the ads into the rubbish, and set the package in my coal bucket before covering it with the lid.
Dredmore watched from the doorway. “No sender’s name on the parcel?”
“On that sort, there never is.” I filled the kettle at the pipe basin.
“Why not open it?”
“I used to. The ones they pack with runes or stones or
spell packets are harmless enough, but occasionally”—I paused as a thump came from inside the bucket—“there’s something with teeth.”
Dredmore glanced at the window. “So the local mages still want you out.”
“Aye, and you’d think they’d occasionally try a bribe. Don’t bother,” I added as he moved toward it. “I give the live ones to Docket when I go downstairs for coal.”
“What does he do with them?”
“You know, I’ve never asked. I worry dining might be involved.” I brought the kettle over to my tea stand and set it on the steamdog. “Now why don’t you tell me what can’t be heard outside my office?”
He joined me. “One of my clients is in need of your services.”
“My services.” I pondered that along with my selection of tea. “Did you eat your breakfast, Dredmore, or drink it from a flask?”
He took the teaheart from me and removed a silver packet from his coat. “Under ordinary circumstances I would attend to it personally.” He thumbed open the infuser and shook in some gray-green leaves. “The lady in question, however, wishes to employ a discreet woman.”
There it was, his real motive. “So you want me because I’m a female.” I watched him place the infuser in my kettle and close the lid. “I can’t believe I just said that.”
He loomed a little closer. “Your gender is a significant part of your allure.”
I could feel his body heat now. “Here I thought you fancied me for my mind.” I switched on the BrewsMaid
and moved to my desk, only to be halted by his hand on my wrist. “Please, Lucien. It’s far too early in the day for a wrestling bout.”
“Stop struggling.” He touched my hair, from which he extracted a small brown leaf. “Your mop is a veritable magnet for detritus. You should wear a hat when you’re out of doors.”
“Ladies wear hats,” I reminded him. “I’m a working gel.”
He smoothed back the tress he’d deleafed before he murmured, “You don’t have to be, Charmian.”
If we continued down this conversational avenue I’d likely hit him, so I stepped away. “Moving back to business,” I said briskly, “I have a full schedule today. Who or what does your client wish dispelled?”
“Your spell-breaker powers are not wanted this time.” He walked over to my window and looked down at the street. “The lady recently lost her husband under abrupt and distressing circumstances. While the coroner ruled his death the result of natural causes, the widow believes it was quite the opposite, and wants proof to that effect. Naturally such an investigation must be conducted with the utmost discretion.”
Oh, naturally. Dredmore moved in the highest and most exclusive circles in Rumsen society, so the lady was likely fabulous wealthy, titled, or both. In the past I’d done some work for his sort of patron, but I always ended up regretting it.
“If she’s your client, why won’t she let you manage it?” Before he replied something occurred to me. “Did you kill him?”
“No.” He gave me an indifferent glance; death was
his business. “And if I had, I might have easily bespelled her to forget the matter.”
He made it sound as if he’d wanted to. “This really isn’t the type of work I do. If the lady suspects her husband was murdered, then she should go to the police.”
“She has, and they are unwilling to pursue the matter.” He came toward me, and now seemed slightly agitated. “I cannot tell you any more than I have; she is adamant about confiding the details of her suspicions only to another woman. All I ask is that you hear what she has to say. If after the interview you still wish to refuse, then I will not press you.” He took my hand in his. “Please.”
Lucien Dredmore did not employ that particular word with any frequency; I could count on one hand the number of times I’d heard him utter it.
“Very well.” I checked my brooch watch. “Have the lady here at noon and I’ll talk to her.”
“The matter requires more privacy than your office can afford,” Dredmore said. “I’ll send my driver for you at four.”
I shook my head. “I haven’t time for tea. Besides, anyone who sees me on the Hill will know I’m working for her.”
“It won’t be on the Hill.” He lifted my hand, and before I could snatch it back brushed a kiss across my knuckles. “Until later.”
He swept out of my office, leaving me alone with my misgivings and whatever was thumping inside the coal bucket.
I glanced down at the rocking parcel. “I should have slipped you into his coat pocket.”
Since I didn’t want to drink whatever potion Dredmore
had brewed with his strange-colored leaves I emptied the kettle into the bucket. As soon as the greenish tea soaked into the box it gave a violent jump and bubbled furiously before going still. From the metallic stink that rose from rapidly blackening tea, whatever was inside the box might have more gears than teeth.
I picked up the bucket. “We’d better pay a visit to the Dungeon and find out just what sort of surprise you are.”
• • •
I went downstairs, nodding to some of the other tenants who passed me as they arrived to begin their workday. Among them was my former ardent suitor and present good friend, Horace Gremley IV. Mr. Gremley, whom I had long ago privately nicknamed Fourth, hardly blinked at the sight of me lugging a smelly bucket of evil-looking tea across the lobby. It was a sad fact that becoming one of my acquaintances meant growing accustomed to such bizarre encounters.
Fourth doffed his hat and grinned. “Good day to you, Miss Kittredge.” He gave the bucket a dubious glance. “Ah, problem with your tea this morning?”
“Yes. I let someone else make it up.” I halted at the basement access door to the understair. “How is your dear lady friend, Miss Skolnik?”
“Wondrous and delightful. A lily truly beyond the gild.” His eyes grew dreamy. “She is teaching me to speak her native tongue, you know. I daresay it is almost as lovely as she is.”
“I wish you all the joy in the world, Mr. Gremley.” Of course I did; I’d arranged the introduction in order to stave off his endless, awkward attempts to court me.
I nodded toward the entrance to the Dungeon. “Would you be so kind?”
He opened and held the door for me. “Go slowly and carefully, Miss Kittredge. You would not wish to spill that concoction on the steps.”
No, but I might save some to pour over Dredmore’s head. “I will, thank you, Mr. Gremley.”
As I took Fourth’s advice and made my way down into the gloom, the sounds of clanking metals and hissing steam enveloped me. The Dungeon, home and business of the Honorable Reginald Docket, also housed the building’s boiler and furnace. The hot, murky air smelled of old grease and well-used tools, with a top-note of new mech.
“Docket?” I called out, lugging the bucket over toward the maze of his workbenches. “It’s Kit. Got a minute, mate?”
“Hang on.” A trolley slid out from under the undercarriage of a decrepit carri, revealing the old man with a wrench in one hand and a hammer in the other. He tossed the tools aside and sat up, sniffing the air as he did. “Phew. What is that stench?”
“I’ve had another anonymous parcel.” I covered my nose and mouth with my hand. “I’ve soaked it in tea but it’s not helping.”
“Park it on the bench there.” Docket brought over a large glass case and lowered it over the bucket, cutting off the stink. “That’s better. Not a gift from a friend, is it?”
I grimaced. “The tea, perhaps. The parcel, doubtful.”
“Let’s have a look.” He perched a battered pair of spectacles on the end of his nose and peered through a
glass panel. “When I was a boy a skunk got in the barn. Our best mouser killed it, but not before it sprayed the cat, the plow horse, and half the bloody hayloft.”
I peered at the tea, which had grown very black. “That must have been . . . aromatic.”
“Not so bad as this.” He reached under the bench, pulled out a pair of noz masks, and passed one to me. “Best put this on.”
I pulled the mask over my head and adjusted the protective lenses until I could see clearly, then tightened the chin strap until the noz sealed off my nose. “Do we need tanks?”
“Got a couple minutes of air in the canisters.” Once he’d donned his mask he lifted the glass cover and used long tongs to remove the soaked parcel. “Put this down and cover it,” Docket said, pushing the bucket toward me.
I found a square of tin and a large rag to drape over the bucket, which I stowed to one side. By the time I returned to the bench, Docket was peeling away the sodden, stained paper from some coiled wires. “It was rigged?”
He nodded. “To explode. The tea saved you from decorating the walls of your office with your insides.” Gingerly he opened the box’s sagging top flap and bent closer. “Well, what have we here?” He used the tongs to extract a dripping, twitching device no bigger than my fist. “Looks to be a rat after all.”
The tiny animech had been painstakingly crafted to resemble the real rodent, from the hair-thin wires sprouting from its riveted snout to the narrow length of leather crimped over tiny rollers.
I knew animech was all the rage in Rumsen now, but
this was a bit too realistic—I could almost feel the bite of the razor blades fashioned into its two long teeth. “Why would you want to make a bomb look like a rat?”
“You’re a female, love.” Docket made my gender sound like an incurable disease. “I’ll guess the villain thought you’d open the package, scream, drop it, and leap onto a chair while it went scurrying about.”
I’d be more likely to trap it under my coal bucket and send for the vermage. “It would have done that without winding?”
“Was wound before it was parceled. Had to, to trigger the boomer. These wires”—he pointed to the outside of the box—“are likely attached to a coil inside wound about the roller shaft. Soon as you opened it they’d trigger the coil to unwind and turn the rollers. Would make it scuttle about like the real thing for a minute or two. And then . . .” His cheeks puffed out as he made an exploding sound.
Docket was a marvel with mech, and what he said made complete sense. It also made me suspicious. “You can guess all that simply by looking at it?”
“I might have seen something like this during the war. Bad times, no one ever questions seeing a rat.” He put down the animech on its back, pressed a rivet by its ear, and a hinged belly plate popped open. “This is where they put the charge.” He frowned. “Hand me those pluckers in the tray, Kit. Yes, the smallest ones.”
I passed him the tweezers and watched him extract a hunk of something pink, torn and definitely not mech. Even with the mask on the smell suddenly became unbearable. “Bloody hell. That’s what stinks. What did it eat, a dead rat?”
“Looks to be a gland of some sort.” Apparently immune to the stench, Docket examined it from all sides. “Not rat, not this big. Not skunk, either. Could be stag.”
“Whatever it is, get rid of it,” I begged.
He took an empty jar from the rack above the bench, dropped the chunk of flesh inside, and sealed it. “Aye, that was the source of the stench. You can take off the mask now.”
I didn’t want to breathe again until I was at least a mile away, but I’d run out of air and had to remove the mask. When I did I could still smell a trace of the noxious odor, but a moment later it seemed to disappear completely. “They needn’t have used a bomb. That reek would have done me in.”
“Might have made you faint, you being a female and all, but it were tucked inside a capsule. Wouldn’t have smelled anything until after you’ve been blown to smithereens.” Docket scratched the three days of beard stubbling his jaw. “You’d have smelled right pungent, though. Or whatever was left of you.”
“Perhaps they wished to spoil the funeral as well as the current arrangement of my parts.” I handed him the mask. “I should take it over to Rumsen Main and make a report.”
“Best I keep it here. Chief Inspector Doyle won’t thank you for smelling up New Scotland Yard.” He studied the animech again. “This didn’t come cheap, neither. Workmanship’s too bloody fine for a toy. To get this detail, whoever put it together had to hand-work the brass while it was heated nearly to the melting point.”
I knew next to nothing about metal workers. “Who would have that level of skill?”
“Someone who works with metals regular, like me,”
he admitted. “A watchmaker or a jeweler might, too; they can do this sort of wee mech. But they likely wouldn’t know how to sort out the charge or the fuse.”
“A mage?” I watched Docket shake his head. “Anyone else?”
“I’d put my coin on a blast master.” He saw my expression and grimaced. “That’s what they called the torpedo makers during the Insurrection. Those lads could make most anything into a bomb—stones, flowers, even shoes.”
“I’ve had no dealings with the militia.” I prodded the rat with a finger. “I’m not a hostile or a rebel. I pay my taxes and my rent on time.”
“This is the sort of thing they do to get rid of turncoats.” Docket was regarding the rat so he didn’t see my expression change. “Give us a day to take this apart, love, see what else there is to it. Might find something useful for the Yard.”
I wasn’t going anywhere near Rumsen Main now. “I owe you one, mate.”
Docket winked. “Let me keep the rat’s works after, and we’ll call it even.”
• • •
I spent the remainder of the day visiting two new clients and solving their dilemmas. The ghost supposedly haunting a cobbler’s shop turned out to be a cat sneaking in at night to escape the cold; I found the felonious feline snoozing in a bin of laces. My proof of his crimes, bits of leather from the shoes he’d scratched and chewed, still lay caught in his claws. The fishmonger who’d hired me to dispel the curse on his dockside stand wasn’t too pleased to learn that the ridiculously high prices being demanded by his avaricious new wife, not evil magic,
were chasing away his best customers. She denied everything and blamed me for trying to swindle her husband and ruin her marriage with my false accusations.
Relocating the cat and mediating a truce between the unhappy couple took more time than I expected, and I had to rush to return to the office in time to meet Dredmore’s driver, who sat waiting beside his master’s finest coach and four, all perfectly matched in the most depressing shade of gray.
“I don’t suppose I could reschedule this for tomorrow.” I stepped aside as Connell, silent and impassive as always, opened the door to the coach. “No, of course not.”
I climbed in and sat down, leaning back against the fine leather cushions as Connell climbed up and started off. Once the horses’ hooves were making sufficient noise I pulled down the window shades and closed my eyes before I spoke the only incantation I ever used.
“Harry, we need to talk.”