Dim gas-light cast an un-natural glow upon the dark, cobbled streets, diffused by the thin fog that had settled down for the evening; a veil that refused to be parted. With a dedicated pace Godfrey Wolesley made his way down the street, his coat pulled close around him. Normally, nights like this were perfect for conducting business, but tonight he preferred a practice of a different kind. The clic-clak-clic-clak of his heels echoing on the cobbles carried into the air. To someone else, he must seem a specter, a distant presence ever moving but always there, just around the corner. The mere thought brought a thin, cruel smile to his lips.
Fingering the keys in his pocket, he thought of changing his plans, of putting the trinkets to use, but he was feeling lustful; not the lust for skullduggery, but good, old-fashioned rutting and grunting. The thrill of a chase was enjoyable from both ends. Tonight, he fancied being a hunter.
Drifting towards a main street produced the usual charmers, though they seemed to sporadically emerge from the fog like phantoms: the lager-louts trickling in and out of the pubs, loud-mouthed lords and urchins alike; the well-to-do couples of Kensington hurrying back to their garden-backed fortresses; the occasional Peeler patrolling the area, sending a shiver down his spine, and not a pleasant one. Turning quickly down an alley he figured that he would head for a seedier area, somewhere the officers would stay away from if-they-knew-what-was-good-for-them. Of course, wandering into such places was something that could ruin him if anyone were to see him, and he had a reputation to uphold.
The closer he got to Scotney the more he felt his skin crawl, the welcome sensation like insects on a march across his arms and back, angry ants with a purpose. When he came across his first lady-of-the-night, he looked her over carefully, criticizing her with his eyes: hips wider than his shoulders and an ass that sagged to her knees. He wanted tighter, younger. Someone whose face didn’t look like it had been stomped on by a horse. Continuing on brought out the real nocturnal beauties, the girls who looked like normal life had deserted them at some point in the not so recent past, their features painted to cover up the regular wear and tear that was making them so greatly unappealing. Wolesley wasn’t just some tramp out committing their daily sin, he was a man of diligence and hard work. This was his reward for being so good, for being perfect in every detail of his work. Any one of these women would easily slobber over him if he wished, with the right amount of money in his lap, but he wanted to be selective. If he was going to treat himself, he wanted to be eating prime cut, not the scraps left over from last night’s service.
Finding a nice place next to an alcove, he stood with his back to the wall, eyes darting about for anyone who might recognize him. Obviously, if they saw him, he could just as well spy them in some darker corner, engaging in the acts that made men of his station quiver with shame, but the fear was creeping in, that he would simply be noticed and would not heed them and in only a matter of days he would be done.
Then, he saw her.
She was slimmer than most of the women, a lithe figure among the more buxom brethren. Her raven hair was pulled back like most of those who shared her profession, held in place with a white feather, the like of which he could not guess its origin. Her lips and eye-lids were luscious ruby, rose petals painted on coffee colored skin. She was not a slight creature by any means, but she was small enough that if she wasn’t interested, he could make her so. Approaching her, he looked her up and down, her body hidden by an emerald dress with black lace and violet under-garments; her brassiere poked out, taunting him. This was the one.
Before he could speak she turned and faced him, a fan whipping out from her hand and hiding her face. He paused, startled by the sudden movement, but let a grin crack his otherwise nervous face. “I’m sorry,” the words blurted clumsily from his shivering frame. “You look…stunning.”
For a few silent moments she regarded him as he had her, perhaps trying to decide whether or not he would be able to pay for her. “You look familiar…”
“Ah…” he pondered whether his name held the sort of gravitas he thought it did.
“You might have seen me about. I’m a bit of a —-”
“Ponce?” she giggled, a school girl in a woman’s body. The word made him wince, but he maintained his composure. She was a cocky one.
“I was going to say baron.” He stroked his chin thoughtfully, gauging her reaction. To his disappointment, not even a ruby eye-lid fluttering. By the end of the night, she would know him. “If you’re worried about whether or not I can pay, do not worry. I am more than able to cover it. I work in the courts, you know.”
“Is that so?”
He took her by the arm and started trying to lead her away, but she seemed determined to stay where she was. Pulling her arm away rather brusquely, she wiped at where he had grabbed her. “I’m going to need to see the money first. I’ve been cheated before.” Her eyes, a cold cobalt, narrowed. “Not again.”
Her persistence annoyed him. Jingling the keys in his pocket, he glanced down a couple of times. The sound seemed to reassure her a bit, and she relaxed, heading off in one direction. She stopped and motioned over her shoulder. Wolesley straightened up and loosened his collar, then hurried after her.
Ducking down an alley, the buildings seemed more uneven, like they were constructed to confuse those unfamiliar with the area, to keep the Peelers at bay and the prostitutes busy. Wolesley smiled. Who knew what kind of things happened behind these doors? The imagination could run wild postulating the possibilities.
Pausing before a black door with ‘3’ scrawled onto it, the prostitute fumbled for her keys from a small bag she had been holding onto. After finding them, she opened the door, glancing back coyly. “You look tense. Have you been with a prostitute before?”
“Yes,” he lied, his fingers quivering. “It’s been awhile…”
“You should relax.” Her voice honeyed over, a welcome change to her previously firm reproach. “Many men engage in this particular activity. It doesn’t make you any less clean, despite what the church says.” Her nose seemed to scrunch up, but he wasn’t sure. Perhaps it was the thought of having to do it with him that made the idea so unpleasant, but surely she had been with much worse. He was only a little dumpy.
The door swung open silently, the hallway inside cloaked in perfect darkness. She didn’t bother turning on a light, just taking him by the hand and leading him up a staircase that groaned impatiently as they ascended. He did not know when they reached the top, stumbling on the landing. She chuckled at his infantile reaction. He would be sure to make her regret doing that.
The upper hallway was faintly illuminated by the moon, but the fog outside prevented anything truly helpful from materializing. Walking only a few feet, they paused before another door. She opened the door, pushing it aside and motioning for Wolesley to enter. Perhaps with a step too expectant, he entered the room, only to hear the door slam shut behind him and a key click the lock.
Like a caged animal, Wolesley turned and began slamming his fist against the door. He shouted curses and obscenities at her, even though he was certain she was no longer on the other side. He turned his back to the door, slumping against it in desolation. She knew who he was. She must have known the whole time. Slowly he slid down until he was sitting on the floor, his head cradled in his hands.
“What is she going to do to me?” he whispered to himself.
“I can tell you it’s certainly not going to be what you expected her to do.” Wolesley’s head shot up, scanning the room frantically for the source of the voice; a higher tenor, almost a weaselly pitch that had a deliberate execution of each syllable; a clean accent, not a midlands or a cockney. His eyes could not discern a figure in the room, until a sudden flash of light in the far corner blinded him, his vision flooded with white for a few minutes. He stayed rooted to the ground, his hands covering his face, but he heard nothing else until his sight returned to him.
In the far corner sat a man in scarlet: a scarlet top hat and cloak, a cane resting in his brown-gloved hands, the handle shining like a miniature sun. Wolesley scanned the stranger, noticing the goggles he wore; large, round lenses that blocked his eyes. He shifted in his seat, noticing that Wolesley was cognizant of his surroundings again. He scratched his cheek, slack jawed as he watched Wolesley squirming. “Back with me? Good.” The stranger waved the cane back and forth, a long brown shaft with a brass tip, but Wolesley was now fixed on the blinding light at its top. “I’ve been watching you, ‘Baron’. You like throwing that title around don’t you? Makes you feel…” he leaned forward, a sinister smirk scrawled across his face. “…untouchable?” He steepled his fingers.
Wolesley was paralyzed, fear freezing his limbs with an impossible weight. “Who…who are you?”
The stranger’s head tilted to one side. “I think, Baron, the more interesting question is…who are you?” He reached into his coat, revealing a three-piece suit of that unsettling scarlet, a pink shirt and red tie peeking out neatly perched in a bow. He withdrew a small pile of papers, dropping them on the ground and sliding them with the tip of his cane closer to Wolesley. The pile sat in the middle of the room between them at the foot of a stained and beaten up bed. “You can pick them up…what, do you think I’m going to hurt you? Please…I’m not sadistic.” He turned his head to the side slightly, as if listening to something beyond the spectrum of human hearing. “Well…not that sadistic.”
Despite his words of attempted comfort, the stranger seemed to notice that Wolesley was unable to look away from the cane. “Are you frightened by this? Dare I say…” he waved the cane back and forth. “Mystified?” He chuckled. “It’s science, pure and simple…a light-bulb. Heard of it?” His face fell when there was no reaction from Wolesley. “Well…I guess…never mind then…” He motioned towards the pile of papers. “Go on.”
With incredible effort and quaking limbs, Wolesley pushed himself along the floor until he could put his foot on the pile and drag it over to himself. He picked the pieces up, looking through them, his brow furrowing with every new piece he looked at. “What…are these…”
“Don’t you read the newspapers, Mr. Wolesley?” He shook his head. “I don’t like that…baron? Hm…I wonder what name you can have with ‘baron’…” He started muttering to himself. Wolesley continued riffling through the clippings, his eyes jumping from the articles to the stranger and back, unsure of where to keep his gaze.
Each article said some variation of the others: ‘Items vanish from Handleholt’s clock-shop,’ ‘Dickinsons of Highmore find paintings missing, no evidence of break-in,’ and others like them. After he finished going through them, he put the articles on the ground. “These are…these are just…”
“These don’t say that they were break-ins.”
“Please! Don’t insult my intelligence. You might as well be listening for the screams of statues, Baron Wolesley. No…that doesn’t have any ring to it at all.” The stranger stood up, walking cautiously closer to his captive. “These are all random to someone with a closed mind.” He stood next to Wolesley, taking his cane and tapping a pocket with them. The sound of the keys jingled out into the otherwise silent room. “You don’t strike me as the kind of man who likes to carry a lot of money with him. Thinks his name is enough to pay the bills where you go, eh?” He tapped the keys again. “So what might that be?”
Wolesley felt that his face must have gone white, for his skin felt suddenly cool. “I carry some change with me…”
“Can I get some money then? It cost me a shilling to collect these papers so I could detail your exploits.”
“MY…my exp-p-ploits?” Wolesley shoved the clippings away. “You’re mad.”
“Mad?” The goggled face became graven, the humor it had been displaying suddenly gone. “I was enjoying our discussion, sir, but I suppose that’s done with now.” He turned the cane over and tapped the pocket with the glowing end, a sudden smack landing across Wolesley’s thigh.
“OW!” he jumped back to the door, terrified. “What is this? What is this??”
The stranger dropped into a crouched position, holding onto the cane to support himself; he smiled. “To answer your question, Mr. Wolesley…I am Dr. Lazarus. Have you heard of me?”
The name was familiar. He was sure he had heard it somewhere…maybe in parliament, but he couldn’t fathom why. “No.”
“Hm.” The answer was obviously unsatisfactory. “I need to expand my advertising.” He took the cane and tapped Wolesley again, another smack landing across his leg.
“You, sir, have been a nuisance. I wouldn’t usually care about you. Petty theft? Please…that’s not an attraction, that’s a Sunday morning for some Royal Court, a grievance passed along for the sake of keeping the public happy, thinking their courts actually care about their situations. Of course, they don’t, but what public wants an uncaring ruling class?” He reached into the pocket, Wolesley too horrified to do anything about it, and produced the keys, tossing them up and down in his palm. “That’s a lot of keys, barely any ring to see. What do you need so many keys for? Don’t answer that.”
“The articles might say they weren’t break-ins, but they clearly are. These are clever burglaries. I know of a man up north…way north…he was a cabinet maker. Do you know how he committed some burglaries?”
Wolesley shook his head slowly.
“He would take the keys from the families he worked for, and make copies. He then handed the keys off to a group of thieves he hired to go into the homes and steal for him. Smart lad, hm?”
The story was all too familiar.
“But you’re a bit different. You wouldn’t want to have someone else do the deed, do you? You like to be hands on, eh? I know what you’ve done though…the downfall of this gentleman was that he held all the keys, and could be traced to each of the victims of his thefts.” The cane dipped towards Wolesley, who winced and winged like a child with a scrape. The cane kept its distance, but was ever threatening another shock. “But you figured a way around that, eh? Threaten legal problems for some key-makers, and if you go to enough random key-makers, there’s no connection…no connection…no motive.” He took his hat off, tipping it towards Wolesley. “Proving it will not be a problem. All I have to do is accuse you and any power you held in the courts will be arrested…as will you.”
The man who had only ten minutes prior been bounding with anxious anticipation for some sordid activity now found himself wallowing in despair. Every word Lazarus had spoken was true, and hearing them made them a reality, something common, something that would be known to many. He was done…finished. “How long do I have?”
Lazarus placed his hat back on his head, standing up to his full height which must have been just less than six feet. He tapped the cane tip against the floor in a steady rhythm, considering his options. “To be honest,” he started after an awkward silence, “I don’t care about you. Not really. You’re a cockroach, an annoyance crawling across the face of London. You’re small scale in the scope of it all. I’m interested in the truly marvelous mad-men, the fantastic freaks who think themselves more than petty criminals. I do not intend to tell anyone anything…yet. I just want some information about your boss.”
“Wh…who?” The muscles in Wolesley’s neck stiffened. “What do you mean boss? I don’t work for anyone! How dare you insinuate—”
“For someone who was just too scared to even move, you’ve gotten very loud and obnoxious all of a sudden.” Lazarus leaned in until the only thing Wolesley could see in the goggles was the reflection of his own bloodshot eyes. “Tell me who the Maestro is.”
“Ha!” the sound leapt abruptly from Wolesley’s throat, a shock even to him. “The Maestro? Do you believe in pixies as well?”
Lazarus’ brow shifted. “Yes. Why?”
What an idiot! To have been discovered, outwitted from such a buffoon…Wolesley chuckled, his sanity beginning to crack. “This is a fool’s errand. There is no Maestro.”
The words sank in, Lazarus unresponsive for some time. “That’s a shame. I hope you enjoyed your fleeting affluence.” He used the cane to threaten Wolesley out of the way so he could open the door.
“Wait! I…I don’t know anything about him. He never deals with someone like me directly. I worked through a middle-man…‘Wyrmwood,’ a demon of a man that walks in mists and tracks the dirt of the dead behind him. I don’t know how to find him…he finds me. He offered me the assistance, the ability to rise above my mundane—”
A brown-gloved hand was held up, silencing the rambling baron. Lazarus reached into his coat and pulled out a knife, tossing it on the ground next to Wolesley with a clatter.
“What’s this for?”
“I wanted the Maestro, not a second-hand source. Consider this…your way out.” He closed the door, leaving Wolesley looking at the knife, sweat dotting his brow. He reached for the knife.
* * * *
Closing the door with ‘3’ scrawled on it, Lazarus looked down both directions of the alley until he found the woman in emerald. “Mariella! I’ve got a lead…though, not the lead I wanted…this night was almost a waste…”
The woman exhaled a silvery breath, stubbing her cigarette on the wall behind her. “You took your time.”
“I thought we had discussed your…habit.” His nose recoiled into an unpleasant scrunch.
Mariella shot him a steely glare. “I thought you were going to stop making me play along with these ridiculous charades. A prostitute? Do you know how many men I had to dissuade from trying to take advantage of me?”
“Consider it a compliment.” Lazarus began walking towards the nearest high street. “You didn’t need to make yourself so obvious.”
“What? The lace? I liked it. It adds some class to the ensemble.”
“Class? For a prostitute?”
Mariella’s fist lashed out, catching Lazarus on the shoulder. “Don’t lump me in with them.” He did not recoil, merely letting her hand glance off him. He rubbed his arm for a moment before continuing.
“Let’s return to the hotel, I need to rest up. Tomorrow I have to start looking for some man known as ‘Wyrmwood.’ I don’t think it will be as easy finding him as it was to find some crony.”
Exiting on the road, the fog had thickened, obscuring their vision more. Lazarus tapped his cane against the ground, the top end going a-light once more. “Stay near me. You never know what kind of people you’ll find on the streets this late at night.”
Begrudgingly, she took his arm and stayed close to him, staying by his side as they made their way through the night-dressed streets of London.