Excerpt - Steampunk Darcy
Alright, Mr. Hoity-Toity. This had better be good. I’m risking skin and bone to get here.
The door opened and she strode into—.
Whatever it was, it wasn’t an office. It was an emporium, a museum and the Great Exhibition of 1851, complete with Victorian gents and ladies who had the glazed look of trophy animals. Except that the Victorians were standing around instead of hanging on the wall.
“Are these actual people? Did you have them stuffed and embalmed?” she asked, by way of greeting, “Or are they wax figures, like Madame Tussauds?”
In the gloomy gas lamp-lit interior, she couldn’t tell which one of them was William Darcy until he stepped forward and bowed.
“Welcome to Longbourn Laboratories, Miss Grant.”
The smirk fell off her face.
Raven black hair with a green swirl draped over his left eye. Silver eyes like the sheen of a dagger.
Gorgeous was not the right word for him. Gorgeous was a word invented for ordinary mortals. This particular specimen was splenderous. She didn’t know if it was a real word but it was the right one.
For just a second, she had a sense of vertigo.
Vertigo? A seasoned aviator like me? To bring herself back down to earth, she focused on the flaws in his appearance. The tailored green frockcoat that skimmed the top of his knees was shipshape, except for the fluffy bits (cotton? Did he manufacture cloth?). His silver cravat would have done the most demanding gentleman proud, but it looked crooked, as if he’d been tugging at it. The silver earpiece with jade stones matched perfectly with his outfit, but it was lopsided as if he’d put it on in a hurry. Everything about him suggested a need to keep moving.
Looking for his flaws hadn’t helped at all. If anything, it had given her a chance to ogle him more closely, which somehow had an undesirable effect on her knees – and other parts of her. Her knees especially.
Nobody turned Seraphene’s knees soggy. Not without her permission.
Her gaze drifted back to his face.
He was scrutinizing her with his right eyebrow slanted arrogantly upwards, a monocle in hand.
She was definitely averse to arrogant eyebrows and she absolutely did not like monocles, no matter how fashionable they might be.
That put some backbone into her knees. She snapped out of it. He could be as splenderous as he wanted. She was here to do a job, and unless he happened to be interested in dead-end scientific research, which was her legal work, then he wanted her for something illegal and she intended to make him pay through his teeth. That meant she couldn’t afford to even look in his splenderous direction or he might just manage to distract her.
She looked at the closest surface to her, which was a shelf, and there, casually cast there – too casually --was a print newspaper with a large headline announcing the opening of the Great Exhibition with a daguerreotype photograph of Queen Victoria.
She examined the newspaper. She could have sworn it was the genuine article. Yellowed pages, jagged edges and all. It would fetch a good price. She wondered if he would notice if she nicked it. Her hand twitched.
“It’s authentic,” said the deep, British-sounding voice. “You may have it if you like.”
It was a bribe. She knew it, and he knew it. He’d chosen that newspaper deliberately to entice her.
“No thanks,” she said, putting her hands behind her back and holding them tightly together. The newspaper was bait but she wasn’t going to play fish.
“Take it with you when you leave, then,” said Darcy, with bored indifference. He took down the newspaper, folded it, and tossed it – tossed it! – onto the neighboring chair. Seraphene cringed. It was like tossing a Spode china cup onto a side table.
She refused to be rattled by his pretentious disdain for valuable objects.
“You sent me an invitation, Mr. Darcy.” A flat statement of fact.
“Call me Darcy. Most people do. May I call you Seraphene? It makes negotiating much less cumbersome. I’m delighted you agreed to see me, Seraphene.”
There was definitely something smug about the way he said it. He was taking her for granted, assuming she’d agree to any terms he set.
He didn’t know her yet.
“I wouldn’t exactly call it agreeing.” Though technically, she supposed she had, just by showing up. “Perhaps I came out of curiosity.”
“Of course. I’d counted on that. It’s every scientist’s weakness.”
She was tempted to point out that it must be his as well, but she bit her tongue. Just because she didn’t like his arrogance didn’t mean she should start being petty. Besides, she was ready to bet he hadn’t invited her here because she was a scientist.
“Let’s get down to business, then,” she said. “If you have cargo to unload I might as well warn you that I charge a high price for anything that involves risk.”
His silver grey eyes glimmered in amusement.
Hades’ hounds! Those eyes could melt whatever was left of the icebergs. They certainly turned something inside her to slush. She struggled to pull her scrambled thoughts together.
At this rate, she’d be selling her soul to him within the next three seconds. Now she knew how he’d earned his reputation for never taking no for an answer. He turned his victims into jelly-legged squat-fish the moment they walked through the door.
He’s probably counting on having this effect on me.
The thought worked like a splash of cold water. It dampened her pheromone-controlled response long enough to unscramble her thoughts into something close to logic.
“I see you like to come straight to the point,” he said. “Good. I like that in my employees.”
“May I point out, Mr. Darcy, that I haven’t agreed to anything, let alone being your employee.”
Darcy was only too well aware of that fact. He didn’t reply, preferring to use his time more effectively by examining her instead. There were too many unknowns about Seraphene, and far too much depended on him getting things right. He couldn’t afford to take any chances.
So far she was living up to expectations. He liked the grit he saw in her face. As for that jutting jaw, it confirmed what he’d originally suspected. He wouldn’t be able to acquire her easily.
Her clothing was another matter entirely. Most of the projections pictured her in a cardinal laboratory coat with a shiny silver collar – trademark of Copperfield Laboratories – that concealed her feminine curves. Today she looked different. An aviator and not a scientist at all. He hadn’t quite expected the tight orange tailcoat with the leather fastenings emphasizing rounded breasts, nor had he anticipated the impact her orange-and-black checkered bloomers had on him, with their frilled black border and ribbons trailing over curvaceous calves as she walked.
Not many women of his class revealed their calves. These particular calves were—alluring.
He curbed his reaction firmly. This wasn’t the time for distractions. What she looked like was irrelevant. He would take her on even if she’d happened to be a squat-fish. She was the right person for the job, which was the only thing that counted.
“Shall we be seated, Seraphene?” he said, in as soothing a manner as he could. He needed her to let her guard down.
As if reading his thoughts, she advanced towards the most uncomfortable seat; a genuine Victorian chair with an elaborate foliage motif. He found it impossible to lean back in that chair without scraping his back. He never sat on it himself. Its purpose was strictly decorative.
So much for getting her to let her guard down.
She sat down, bolt upright, completely alert and most definitely watchful. She really wasn’t going to concede anything, was she?
Darcy realized he was still standing, which wasn’t a good idea at all. It wouldn’t do to loom over her and look intimidating. He sat down in the sofa opposite her and leaned back, bringing his hands behind his head, trying to put her at ease.
He also needed to put himself at ease. If he somehow misjudged, made a mistake…
There would be no mistake.
“It so happens I didn’t bring you here to unload cargo, as you call it,” he said. “I’m not at all interested in you as an aviator.”
He noted the stiffening of her body, the way her eyes grew even more wary.
“What I’m looking for is a scientist with a particular type of training. I picked you out from a list of thirty potential candidates – who were themselves whittled down by my assistants from over four hundred possibilities – because you have several unique traits that make you ideal for the work I have in mind. I should perhaps point out that, brilliant as you are as a researcher, there is a long list of other outstanding qualities that prompted me to choose you.”
He was probably laying it on a bit too thick, though every word was true. He needed her on his side and he was going to use anything that might smooth his way.
“You don’t have to list my qualities, thanks. I’m not susceptible to flattery.”
He grinned because she’d confirmed his suspicions. She was going to fight him all the way. He felt better, now that he could predict her reactions.
“Everyone’s susceptible to flattery, my dear girl. Part of the human condition. It’s just a matter of discovering the chink in the armor. But now that you’ve seen through me, I won’t stoop to such measures with you. From this point onwards, let’s agree that flattery will get me nowhere.”
He unlocked his hands and leaned towards her.
“Do you want to know what the job involves?”
He paused for a long moment, making her wait, arousing her curiosity.
Suspicion rather than curiosity lurked in her eyes. A thundercloud loomed around her, ready to spark lightening.
Faced with her open suspicion, he felt a tiny niggle of guilt. She was right to be suspicious. He intended to hire her under false pretenses. Not that he had any choice in the matter. He wanted her on board and there simply wasn’t any other way. He would bring her round, by hook or by crook. He hoped, for her sake, that the hook would be enough but he suspected it would be more of the latter.
He hated being in this situation, but what was a gentleman to do?
“The job involves researching my ancestors,” he said.
Which said nothing at all, of course. He needed to keep things as vague as possible at this stage.
She bit her lip and shifted in her chair. Her gaze flicked over to the door. He was losing her. He had to reel her in quickly or she would slip through his fingers.
“Give me a chance to explain. As you know, Pemberley was my ancestral home before it was destroyed, first during the Blitz, then by the slime rain before the Uprising. What I require – in a nutshell -- is a detailed record of Pemberley as it was at its height, during the Regency period. I want to know everything about it, from the paintings on the wall to what the servants ate for breakfast. I would also like a detailed rendition of Fitzwilliam Darcy and his wife Lizzy at the beginning of their marriage. I want to know their manners, their personal peculiarities, their interactions with each other, their food preferences, their taste in music -- just about everything there is to know.”
She leaned forward. Aha. She was taking the bait.
“We know very little about them beyond what their biographer recorded,” she said.
“I know you’re already familiar with Jane Austen’s account.” He allowed a heavy pause to fill the air between them. “But there are other records.”
He took out his monocle from his waistcoat and trained it on her as he watched her digest this. He loved a sense of drama.
“Well?” she prompted.
Impressive. She was keeping her options open.
“Well,” he said, tucking the monocle back where it belonged. “You can expect generous compensation.”
Normally people looked eager when they heard the words “generous” and “compensation,” in the same sentence. Seraphene frowned instead. She twitched her fingers as if to drum them against the armchair then stopped herself. He followed the gesture, stored it in his memory. She’d reached the limit of her patience.
“You’re going to be studying daguerreotypes of Pemberley – exact images. The real thing. Retro-vectrographs.”
He realized as soon as he said it that he shouldn’t have used that particular word. It implied too much knowledge of the scientific investigations going on at Copperfield.
A long silence followed, interrupted only by a grandfather clock that sounded the half-hour. Ding. Dong. Ding. Dong. Like the drums just before an acrobat performed her most daring act.
Seraphene struggled to control her expression. She felt as though someone had just thrown her back into the river after pulling her out and saving her. She didn’t want Darcy to know the depths of her dismay, if only because she didn’t want to look entirely naïve and stupid.
Meanwhile, he sat there, waiting expectantly, as if he’d made a perfectly acceptable suggestion.
She’d come to meet Darcy in good faith. Granted, she’d had her doubts. And granted, curiosity had been her main motive. But some part of her had wondered what he’d come up with, hoping it was something that wouldn’t burden her conscience, because she really could do with a halfway legal job that would earn her decent tin. She’d been trying to go straight for seven whole years now and it hadn’t netted her much. With two other mouths to feed, some seriously extra credits would be more than welcome.
She’d hoped he wouldn’t ask her to do something impossible.
She’d hoped he was a gentleman.
He wasn’t much better than a common crook. This, then, was how he’d built his empire on the Charles; not through his own ideas, not through his own designs, but by paying to steal ideas from other people.
“Mr. Darcy,” she said coldly. “You’ve made a serious mistake here. Even if I weren’t committed to a Guild – which I am – I have a strong sense of loyalty towards Copperfield. You’ve clearly failed in your background search if you think I’d quite simply hand over years of scientific investigation to you for what you call so very politely compensation. We’re not living in the pre-Uprising era, when greed and material gain were commonly accepted traits and people were willing to sell anything given the right price. You must know, surely, that I played an active part in the Restoration Movement and that my work comes from a real desire to recapture the positive values of the past.”
“Now listen, old girl—”
She didn’t know which part of the phrase she objected to most. She was definitely not a girl, and she certainly didn’t like being called old.
“No, you listen, old boy,” she replied. “As of this instant, we have nothing further to discuss. I’m off.”
If Seraphene expected him to look the slightest bit upset by her announcement, she was doomed to disappointment.
“You can’t leave,” said Darcy, in a most matter of fact tone.
Was he actually smirking? It was difficult to tell. Anyway, he could smirk all he wanted. It wouldn’t change the outcome.
“Of course I can leave. You’re not planning to keep me here by force, I hope?”
Was he capable of it? Surely not? Fear blew through her like a winter wind. She’d gone and put herself completely at his mercy. Hardly anyone knew she was here.
“Tut, tut,” said Darcy. “I can see we have a misunderstanding. You’ve omitted to read the fine print on your invitation.”
“What fine print?”
“My point exactly.”
Highly apprehensive now, her heart sinking like a mercury thermometer, she took out his calling card. Yes, there was some minuscule print at the bottom, but it was so microscopic, so infinitesimally tiny, it was impossible to read with the naked eye. It didn’t even look like letters. It looked like a line with irregular parts to it.
He opened a drawer obligingly and produced a magnifying glass. “You’ll find this helpful.”
She snatched the glass from his hand and balanced it above the dots. The dots resolved themselves into engorged letters.
Accepting this invitation to visit constitutes a legally binding commitment to become an employee of William Darcy.
She should have known better. She should have checked for small print, of course. The fact that it was miniscule didn’t excuse her.
She examined the words carefully, looking for the tiniest hint of a loophole. For a heart-chilling moment, she thought he had the better of her.
When she raised her gaze to him, she had difficulty holding back her sense of triumph.
“Was your father called William Darcy?”
“And your father before him?”
“Then in that case, this contract is null and void.” She tore the invitation up into pieces and tossed it to the floor. “My commitment was to your grandfather, and since he’s no longer alive to honor it, the contract no longer holds.”
He was silent for so long she allowed the triumph to spread through her, hugging it to herself.
“Several shrewd businesspersons have fallen for that one,” said Darcy, finally. “I’m impressed that you saw through it so quickly. Unfortunately.”
She shrugged and grinned. “You lose some, you gain some. No hard feelings.”
“No hard feelings,” he replied. He reached out for a bell-pull. “Now that we’ve settled things, perhaps we can break for a cup of tea? I’ll ring for a tea tray.”
She had the feeling of being maneuvered into something, but her mouth was dry and she could do with some tea. It would bolster her up for the next round.
Because she had the strongest feeling there was going to be one.
End of Excerpt
It was the ultimate decadence. The real thing. English Tea. As she sipped the dark liquid out of a bone china cup and saucer – a discrete glance at the bottom revealed that it was Spode – she closed her eyes and relished the flavor, rolling it onto her tongue.
Real tea was near impossible to come by.
She opened her eyes to find Darcy watching her, his silver-grey eyes knowing.
Straightening up at once, she chided herself for getting side-tracked. How could she have let herself be sucked in like this? He was having the wrong kind of effect on her. He was weakening her resolve. Come on, Seraphene. You’re not going to let him buy you with just a cup of tea, are you?
She set down the teacup with a clatter.
“Teatime over,” she announced. “Back to business.”
“Back to business,” he echoed. His satisfied smile rivaled the Cheshire cat’s grin. “Shall we return to our discussion?”
“The sooner we finish, the sooner I’m out of here.” In comparison with his carefully polite tone, she sounded churlish.
“Yes, now where were we? You were implying I knew nothing about your background.” He gave her a pained look. “Believe me, I left no stone unturned. I know more about you than you know about yourself.”
“Really? How fascinating.”
“Hardly,” said Darcy. “I know, for example, that you like to eat real eggs, not the runny things you get in little containers. That your favorite scent is jasmine. That you own two pairs of half-boots and three pairs of spats, identical except that they’re different colors. And—”
“No need to go on. I get the idea. Perhaps you’d finally like to come to the point.”
She felt uncomfortable that he knew so much about her. There were things about her past she preferred people not to know. How far did his probing actually go?
“You can see, then, that your accusations on this level at the very least are groundless. As for the wild – and thoroughly naïve, if I may say so – idea that people today are too noble to sell investigative secrets for a price, I can assure you that human beings change very little, and there’s always someone who’ll sell everything and anything, if the price is right.”
“There’s nothing you could give me that would entice me to betray Copperfield Laboratories.”
“Nobody’s asking you to betray anything.”
Seraphene pressed her lips together.
Darcy studied the determined set of her face. That jaw was hard as rock. She’d decided he was the villain of the piece and she’d shut her mind against him. As if he needed Copperfield!
He was getting tired of this little game.
He was tempted to name one or two things that could entice her. Like the fact that he knew where her long-lost brother Geronimo was hiding. Geronimo had been put on the Wanted list during the Uprising and she hadn’t heard from him or seen him since.
He squelched down the impulse. He did have a sense of fair play. Besides, emotional blackmail of any kind sickened him. It was a coward’s device.
In any case, his main intention was to discover how trustworthy she was. That was one of the main reasons he’d picked her, after all. Putting more pressure on her wouldn’t accomplish his purpose. It would simply test her loyalty to her brother.
“I applaud your idealism. It does you credit. But,” he paused to make sure she was paying him full attention, “to put it bluntly, I have no interest whatsoever in what passes for scientific investigation at Copperfield. My research is far more advanced.”
The gasp that came from her told him he’d made his point and didn’t need to belabor it.
“The fact is I don’t need your retro-imaging techniques, even supposing Copperfield had already perfected them, which it hasn’t. It so happens that I – and my carefully selected team, of course – have developed our own mechanical device.” He saw her eyes widen and pressed on. “I have at my disposal a retro-vectograph powerful enough to take an imprint of objects in the past and record three-dimensional images. It’s not seamless yet by any means, but we’ve obtained the first of our images, and we expect to improve on it in the very near future.”
She went quite still, her hands clenched in her lap.
“I fail to see how I fit into your plans, in that case,” she said. “You do realize it’s a conflict of interest for me to work for you.”
He had to admire her composure. He’d just effectively told her that her work at Copperfield was useless but she still managed to hold her own.
“Come, come, Seraphene. Surely you’re intrigued by the opportunity to be one of the first researchers to use a device like this.”
“I am intrigued,” she said, “but my loyalty lies elsewhere.”
“Millions of people would be happy to hand over every credit they owned for the chance to obtain real-life images of the past, if they knew such a contraption existed. In your case, I’m offering to pay you for the privilege – for a chance to revisit the past and to study it, not indirectly through other people’s narratives or paintings, but by being able to look at three-dimensional images. Think, my dear Seraphene. Think of the magnitude of such a thing. You’d have access to knowledge no one else has.”
She was enticed. He could see it on her face, even if she was battling against it.
“And what exactly is my role supposed to be?”
He felt like crowing in triumph. He knew he’d be able to turn her around. She was finally coming to see things his way.
“In return, you’ll help me realize my dream of rebuilding Pemberley. I want to recreate it the way it was in the days of its grandeur, before the costs of its upkeep made it impractical to maintain and before it was destroyed. I want to make it into a living museum, a place where people in love could come to experience the same joy as that famous historic couple. A place for honeymoons, where people can live – for a short time – in an era that has long since disappeared.”
“A theme hotel,” she murmured.
“Nothing as common as that, I promise you. Pemberley will be identical to the original in the smallest detail – with the minor exception of unobtrusive modern conveniences that you have to agree we need. Pemberley is art.”
“Pemberley is the past, and reproducing a piece of art from the past isn’t much better than a forgery.”
“It’s recovering something that was lost to human experience.”
She didn’t seem to have an answer to that one. She sat there quietly, saying nothing, mulling over the enormity of what he offered. Good. She couldn’t possibly say no.
Again, he felt that twitch of guilt. He wasn’t being entirely honest. Unfortunately, he simply couldn’t be, not at this juncture. The important thing was to get her to sign the agreement. The rest would come later.
“It’s a winning formula,” he said, wrapping things up with one of his best smiles and pressing on. “I promise you you’ll do much better working at Longbourn than you could ever hope to do in Copperfield. Shall I have a contract written up?”
Darcy’s smile was the most dangerous thing about him, Seraphene decided. It held eagerness, excitement and a promise of good things to come. It took hold of some tiny string in her gut and tugged at it. She wanted more than anything to say yes.
She had to look away to resist it.
Her instincts were on full alert. Something about Darcy didn’t quite ring true. She wouldn’t have survived the Uprising if she didn’t have instincts she could trust. Her instincts were warning her he was hiding something.
If it’s too good to be true, then it probably is.
For one thing, why was he so interested in hiring her in particular, of all people? She wasn’t the only scientist that was investigating that period of history and she was far from being the only one who had the technical proficiency to work with retro-imaging – or whatever he chose to call it.
For another, he was rushing her into agreeing. He wanted an answer right away and he wanted it to be yes.
He was watching her like a panther eyed its prey.
She rose and examined the portraits on the wall– no doubt the descendants of the original Darcy and Lizzy. To judge by the number of Victorian portraits, the two must have been busy producing offspring.
“You had quite a few ancestors.”
“A prodigious number,” said Darcy.
She could sense his impatience from across the room. She deliberately ignored it.
She picked up a sepia daguerreotype of a man in safari clothing holding up a crocodile. The man’s face looked identical to Darcy’s.
“Your great-great grandfather?” she asked.
He grinned suddenly. “No, that’s me.”
“You hunt crocodiles?” Her voice had gone one pitch higher.
“No need to get all worked up, my dear girl. They’re mechanical.”
Why would anyone want to take a photo looking like a British colonial officer shooting crocodiles? The daguerreotype told her everything she needed to know about him and helped her reach her decision.
“You know the problem with being Boss?” she said. “It makes you lose touch with regular people. The project you’re talking about is a personal project for you. The Darcys were your ancestors.” She waved towards the portraits as she tried to find the right words – words that wouldn’t sound insulting. “All the work I’ve ever done has been aimed at discovering positive things in the past. To revive some of the things that were tossed out like rubbish when technology turned real life into a digital images and scrambled voices. Then someone like you comes along. You’ve discovered one of the most coveted secrets in the world and what’s the first thing you do with it? You use it to research your ancestors so you can make money out of some theme hotel.”
She hadn’t planned to say any of this. It was bitterness speaking. Ultimately, Darcy’s project was a slap in the face. All the hard work they’d done at Copperfield, years upon years of research, was wasted – just dirty water down the drain. He’d beaten them to it. Though to be honest, that wasn’t what bothered her. There was always that risk in science. What really galled her was the idea that he’d use the research for something so trivial.
“It’s hardly a crime,” said Darcy, mildly.
“You don’t see it, do you? You want me to study images of the past for one purpose and one purpose only -- to inflate your ego.” She knew she was going too far now, but she couldn’t stop herself. “Building Pemberley would be like building a monument. We don’t need any more monuments to people who are powerful simply because they were lucky enough to be born that way. We live in a democracy. We don’t have to grovel to the aristocracy anymore.”
Seraphene stopped and took a deep breath.
“That’s why my answer has to be no.”
Darcy’s brow twitched, rising up in aristocratic disdain. She’d been right to distrust that gesture at the beginning.
“Are you certain you’re not turning down this opportunity out of pique?”
There was just enough truth in his question that she winced inwardly.
“So you want to bury yourself in Copperfield, working on a project that’s going nowhere – and may I add, earning a pittance – rather than seizing the opportunity to participate in cutting-edge research? And all for what? Because you don’t approve of my so-called monument?”
His questions hammered at her. His words were mocking. Yes, it sounded ridiculous the way he phrased it, but did he really think he could brow-beat her into giving up her principles just like that?
“You might think my principles are insignificant, but let me remind you that a lot of people lost their lives in the Uprising because they were fighting for a better way of life. Since you hold me in such contempt, I suggest you find someone else to work with, because, believe me, if you were the last person in the world, I still wouldn’t want to work for you.”
Not a muscle in his face twitched. Not an eyelid fluttered. Not a nostril flickered. But his eyes darkened.
“We’ll see about that,” he said, standing up and tugging at the bell-pull. “Until we meet again, Miss Grant.”
Her stomach churned as she walked the length of the room to the door. Had she really said all those things? To Mr. Darcy’s face, no less? She definitely had a self-destructive streak.
She was so distracted that as she entered the corridor she almost walked straight into a man dressed in red Regency-era regimentals. The near-collision refocused her mind and she registered dark brown eyes, a perfectly sculpted face and chestnut hair that fell in layered waves down to his shoulders.
“My apologies,” he said, with a deep bow even though it was all her fault. “Miss Grant, I wonder if I might have a word with you. I’m Wickham, by the way. At your service.”
An exclamation burst from her lips before she could stop herself. “Oh, stars above! Does he really have to rename people around him so they can fit in with his exalted past?”
What name would he give her if she worked for him? Not Lizzy, of course. He’d probably call her Mrs. Hill.
Wickham contemplated her gravely.
“Darcy’s father gave me that name,” he said.
She flushed. Now she’d really been rude. For all she knew, Wickham might be proud of his name.
“I’m very sorry, Mr.. Wickham. I didn’t mean to insult you. I just think Darcy is altogether too obsessed with his ancestors.”
The door behind her opened and Darcy appeared in the doorway.
Talk of the devil.
“You may leave, Wickham,” said Darcy.
Darcy’s eyes narrowed. “I said you may leave.”
Wickham turned on his heels and marched away quickly. Seraphene stared after Wickham, wondering what he’d been about to tell her.
“Seraphene,” said Darcy, looking perfectly urbane and amiable. “You forgot to take your newspaper.”
The Upriver steamboats were elegant creatures, as different from the chunky packet steamers Seraphene normally rode to work as swans were from ducks. This one was called The Mark Twain. Her paddlewheels were painted in pastel bands like confectionary, with two solar-paneled smokestacks made of matching pastel glass.
An old pang twisted inside her. Her father had once taken her to a candy emporium with great gilded columns and pastel colors just like this.
That was before the Authorities killed him.
The Ticket Collector was standing on the deck beyond the gangway. He was dressed in the blue River Guild uniform, his brass ticket machine strapped to his chest. On her way Upriver to Longbourn the Ticket Collector had been different. He’d barely glanced at her ticket.
This one looked like he took his job seriously. He was giving her the eye.
Alright Seraphene. You don’t need to look like a scared rabbit.
She marched up to him confidently and gave him a bright smile.
He didn’t smile back.
“Don’t I know you from somewhere?” he said, peering at her face.
Her heart thumped against her ribcage.
Calm down, Seraphene. Nothing’s going to happen. You’ve got a First Class ticket. First Class tickets aren’t just tickets that get you on boats. First Class tickets are the best protection anyone could have. They put you beyond suspicion.
In retrospect, maybe her aviator’s clothes hadn’t been such a good idea. Seraphene stood out like a sore thumb in this refined group.
She shoved the First Class paper ticket in front of his nose, hoping it would distract him. Not many people used paper tickets, with paper being so scarce, so it had to count for something.
It didn’t. He was clearly immune to the dazzle of real paper tickets. He took the ticket from her with the tips of his fingers as if it was a dead river rat and turned it over suspiciously. Then he fed it into the brass machine and punched several keys. The ticket machine let out a few mysterious clicks then squeezed the ticket back out like a mangle.
She pocketed it carefully. She’d be able to make some tin from it if she sold it as paper.
“Everything seems to be in order,” he said, sounding peevish. “I could have sworn you looked familiar.”
She didn’t think he meant it in a good way.
“It’s the price of celebrity,” she said, winking at him and exaggerating her Bostontown accent. Let him think she was the tart of some rich Upriver toff. “Can’t go nowhere without being recognized.”
She climbed the stairs to the Texas deck with deliberate indolence, the Ticket Collector’s gaze like a suction cup glued to her back. As if for effect, the steamboat threw up a nonchalant puff of steam and the great wheels wheezed into motion. When he didn’t come after her, Seraphene allowed herself a quiet sigh of relief.
At this time of day on a weekday, most of the passengers were students in the striped maroon and white colors of the Harvard Guild; frock-coats and boat hats for the men, long maroon skirts and white blouses for the women. The women’s striped parasols and plumed hats fluttered in the breeze generated by the boat’s movement.
They gave her a wide birth. Don’t see many aviators this side of the river, do you? She ignored their side glances. She had as much right to be there as they did.
She fingered the First Class ticket.
On the Texas deck, she rested her hands on the spotless white rails (no sticky grey goo on these ones) and watched the dominating outline of Darcy’s Longbourn Laboratories grow smaller as the boat moved downstream.
As Longbourn faded into the distance the impact of her interview with Darcy came flooding in. Dismay churned inside her like wash from the boat. What had she done? Had she really turned down an opportunity from the William Darcy himself, no less? The Boss? One of the most powerful men East of the Mississippi?
She knew what she’d done. She’d let her instincts get the better of her. The wrong instincts. The instincts that told her to run because Darcy was an attractive man and she didn’t want anything to do with attractive men.
So she’d gone all moral on him. It was downright embarrassing, the way she’d torn into him for trying to steal the Copperfield secrets (as if she had a leg to stand on when it came to stealing). Not that she was fooled by his claim that he didn’t need information. Why invite her in particular in that case? Surely there were hundreds of scientists doing similar things across the globe.
Eventually someone would have sold him the Copperfield information. Why shouldn’t it have been her?
He’d set her back up, that was what it was. He’d put her on the defensive, and she didn’t like that one bit. With those silver eyes of his that seemed to suck out her brain from right between her ears – well, she wasn’t going to let him get away with that now, was she?
He must have figured she’d be the weak link at Copperfield. She lived in Crooked Lane, didn’t she? She had a sister and mother who depended on her. She needed the tin.
Damn right she did. And what had she gone and done? She’d turned it down.
All because Darcy was too handsome for his own good.
This should be a lesson to her never to act on instinct ever again. Ever.
On top of it, she’d gone and turned down the newspaper.
Well, she’d done what she’d done. It was dead and gone. Time to move on.
The smell of coffee – real coffee, none of that pseudo-brew stuff – reached her, coming from the First Class Saloon. Might as well make the best of the trip, given that she’d likely never experience travelling First Class again.
Following the tantalizing aroma, she turned towards the first class saloon. Someone jostled her shoulder, hard. A pickpocket? Not on a class act like this steamboat.
She coiled round, ready to fight. She wouldn’t put it past the Authorities to rough her up a bit, just to teach her not to reach above her station.
A man in a bowler hat, pin-stripe brown suit and white spats stood a bare few inches away.
The hairs on the back of her neck prickled.
She remembered him at once. She’d seen him on the way Upriver. He’d jostled her that time, too, as she’d stepped from the narrow gangway onto the deck. He’d been lurking in the shadows all through the trip. Most people wouldn’t have noticed him, but he was an anomaly, and she was trained to look for anomalies, and to look in the shadows for danger.
Now he was standing far too close. His hands were resting casually on his walking cane. She didn’t like the opaque green eyes resting on her and she didn’t like the way he handled his cane, but she didn’t step away. You never did that. It was a sign of weakness.
“Did you just come from visiting the Boss?” he said.
Her unease deepened into suspicion. Only a handful of people knew she’d received an invitation, and the man in front of her wasn’t one of them.
“What gave you that idea?”
“It’s an educated guess.”
He’d seen her get off at the Longbourn Pier and she obviously didn’t live Upriver. Easy enough to reach that conclusion. Still, what was he doing observing her in the first place?
“Yes, I did visit Mr. Darcy. Any objection?”
“A word of advice – be careful. He tends not to take no for an answer.”
That was such a cliché she had to laugh.
“Thank you for your incredibly valuable advice.”
She bowed and began to move away.
He clamped his fingers round her forearm.
“I meant it.”
“I said thank you.” She used the warning tone she’d picked up on the streets a few years ago, when she’d learned to fend off attacks during the Uprising. She looked significantly at the gloved hand holding her in place, but the hand didn’t move.
She thought of the small dagger in her half-boot.
As if reading her mind, he smiled, bowed and strolled away, whistling tunelessly and twirling his walking cane in front of him.
Her unease lingered even after the whistling faded. What was he doing there? Had he been sent to watch her? Did he know about her past? Was he following her, hoping to discover her contacts?
Ridiculous. Why would anyone do that? Her past was long behind her. She was an ordinary person now, working shifts between two jobs: scientific research and flying, with only the occasional foray into anything else. Only when she was really short of tin.
Well, he was gone now. Meanwhile, she didn’t travel First Class every day, and she had a voucher for food and drink. There were better things to do than to worry.
They were approaching Harvard Yard Port when Seraphene looked up from a most satisfying luncheon to find the Ticket Collector marching towards her, followed by two River Guildsmen.
“Miss Seraphene Grant.”
She flinched at the official tone. She’d heard that tone too often in the old days, during the Repression. It triggered unpleasant memories.
Though there was every reason to panic, to judge by the determination on his face. The paper ticket must have been in her name. He’d gone to the trouble of digging into her records.
She had no intention of waiting to find out what he wanted. She’d already marked the exits. It took seconds for her to reach the closest one. Once outside, she leapt over rails down to the boiler deck and landed in a crouch. Shoulder-rolling forwards, she swung up to the bannisters and slid down them to the main deck. She ran quickly aft to avoid the paddle-wheel and leaned over the railing to assess her possibilities.
If she swam hard enough, she could get to the river bank before the poison water got to her.
She hesitated at the tell-tale bubbles in the river. Mutant fishobes were trailing the steamboat, hoping for food. Seraphene shuddered as she thought of their swollen mouths and sharp black teeth. They would take a few bites off her.
A few bites wouldn’t kill her.
Better the fishobes in any case than persecution by the Ticket Collector, who didn’t have sharp black teeth, but looked like he’d relish tightening the handcuffs.
She waited until the last possible second. The less time she spent in the water, the better chance she had.
The steam-operated gangways were descending as the steamboat drew closer to the docking pier. Running footfalls sounded behind her. Any second now, someone would grab her from behind.
It was now or never.
She surged forward. Leaping, she drove with her body and legs, jerking as far forward as she could. As she hit the water it burned into her eyes, her skin, her nose, her nostrils. The fishobes swarmed around her, brushing against her legs. She picked up speed, hoping to outpace them. A few years ago she might have, but she was out of practice.
At least she was wearing half-boots. That should protect her.
As if to mock her, something sharp jabbed into her knee. Another sharp pinch followed.
She took the risk of opening her eyes to gauge how far she still needed to go. Water streamed into them, stinging like vinegar and she cried out, squeezing them shut.
She swam blindly on until her shoulder jammed into something hard. Breathing with difficulty now, she felt in front of her and discovered she’d reached the landing pier.
That was not good news.
She’d meant to swim for the river bank, not for the dock right ahead of the steamboat. She’d landed from the frying pan into the fire.
She considered striking off in a different direction but she’d been too long in the water already. Any longer and the effects of the poison water would become more severe. She was already feeling heavy, the first signs of marsh fever. Her hands reached out to catch the wooden edge of the dock. It was covered in slime and her fingers slipped. She splashed back down under the water.
The second time they slipped again but managed to grasp an iron mooring ring. Clinging to it with both hands, Seraphene wedged her knee between the dock and the iron support holding the pier up. Slowly, she started to pull herself out of the water, her arm muscles straining.
A thunderous sound filled her ears. She opened her eyes in time to see one of the paddle wheels coming fast towards her. The exposed section of paddle blades was drawing closer. The blades spun fast, whipping up green froth from the river.
She froze. She couldn’t move for fear the blades would get her.
It would be a perfect way for the Authorities to get rid of her, without the effort of an unpopular trial. WOMAN TRAGICALLY MAULED BY STEAMBOAT. The newscasts would lap it up, no questions asked.
Well, she wasn’t going to make it easy for them.