Monday, July 25, 2016

Sublime Electricity: The Illustrious by Pavel Kornev

The Illustrious
by Pavel Kornev





Full release Oct 10, 2016, preorder now




"I will cut out my own heart. I will give my heart to you!"

Phillip August, Steamfonia*

Part One

The Fallen.
Titanium Blade and the Power of Imagination

1

IS IT TRUE THAT ALL WHICH IS BORN TO CRAWL cannot fly? Indeed it is!
People simply were not made for flight. Any flight is doomed to end in a fall. And the faster the ascent, the more disastrous the consequences. Consider, for example, the fallen...
I opened my eyes. I immediately slammed them shut, but it was too late. When I opened them again, I caught a glimpse of the gray-smoke-shrouded sky spinning and whirling above me, creating the illusion that I was lying on a rescue raft in the middle of a giant whirlpool. The mere thought of having to stand to my feet was painful, though, so I stayed where I was, sprawled out in a cowardly fashion on top of the rubbish pile that broke my fall.
I took a careful breath, and my ribs were instantly pierced by a sharp pain. But, when I inhaled a second time, the unpleasant sensations were already on the decline, letting me know that I had been lucky enough to get away with nothing more than a bruise to the back. No pieces of brick, nor broken bottles, as luck would have it, were to be found among the trash heap that took me in its sweet embrace.
That brightened my mood. Overall, I still wasn’t feeling too great, considering the circumstances of my fall but, nevertheless, I did have something to be happy about.
I opened my eyes again.
Gloomy building walls rose up all around me, giving the impression that I was at the bottom of a deep well. Above them loomed a gray sky, hostile and ugly like everything else around. Suddenly, the darkness grew even thicker, foreshadowing the coming of an army dirigible. Its cabin was lined with tightly battened-down square weapons hatches. After that, I saw the tail stabilizers, keel, and Gatling-gun barrels, reflecting back a solar sheen. But next thing I knew, all trace of the airship was gone, as if it had never been there at all.
No matter! It wasn’t as if I’d tumbled out of the cabin of that flying monster. Not at all: I had been sent on a short flight out the snarling maw of a shattered second-story window.
Though, to be frank, saying I was "sent" is rather overstating it.
"Leopold!" the echo of a far off scream rolled over the courtyard. I heard a booming clatter, and a moment later, the voice was closer: "Leo! Curses, where are you?!"
The beam of an electric torch swept over the area; its bright light ran across the walls, sidled off in my direction and went out. Only when my eyes began getting reaccustomed to the darkness did I see the short constable step into the courtyard. He was wearing a police-issue raincoat and service cap. His high-caliber lupara gave me an ugly snarl with the muzzle-end of its quadruple barrels.
"Don’t point that thing at me!" I demanded, frowning in annoyance.
Ramon Miro dallied for a moment, then tucked his weapon into the crease of his left elbow.
"Are you alright?" he asked, looking around apprehensively.
"I will be," I answered tersely but concisely.
"Are you sure?" My hulking black-haired partner doubted, extending his free hand.
I batted it away in annoyance. Mustering my strength, I rolled over onto my side, and even managed to lift myself up on an elbow before hearing the jingle of broken glass ring out above me.
A round-faced gentleman of middling years wearing a three‑piece gray suit and an equally unassuming bowler appeared behind the glass-shard-toothed smile in the window. With the handle of his cane, he knocked one more piece of broken glass from the frame, then looked at me, his face acquiring an expression of extreme disapproval.
"Where is the succubus, Leo?" asked Inspector White. "Where’d she worm off to?"
I turned my head, first in one direction, then the other, surveying the entire garbage mound I was sprawled out on and smirked unhappily.
"Well... I can say for sure that I don’t see her here, inspector."
"Detective Constable Orso!" Robert White rapped off, letting me know that jokes were entirely unwelcome. "Answer me now. Where the hell is she?!"
"I don’t know," I then confessed. "It’s just... I don't remember much after being thrown out that window."
"A particularly regrettable development," the inspector winced, retreating from the window.
I lied back down and sighed helplessly, then looked up at Ramon and asked:
"Well, what are you staring at?"
The constable gave an ambiguous snort and turned away. On his imperturbable ruddy face there was not a sliver of emotion, but his ostentatious indifference could not deceive me – my colleague's disappointment could be felt almost physically.
No matter! There's still the boss to appease...
I sat up among the rubbish and suddenly turned my head. I hadn't yet managed to come to my senses in earnest. Nevertheless, the back door swung open, and Inspector White appeared on a high staircase.
"Leo," he said with uncharacteristic tenderness, looking around the darkened courtyard with a fastidious grimace. "Leo, what the devil happened here?"
I didn't rush to answer. I first stood to my feet and pulled my split-end telescoping stun baton toward me by its rubber-coated cord, then shrugged my shoulders ambiguously.
"A calamitous turn of events," I announced when the extended pause became entirely indecent in length.
"Is that right?" The inspector snorted, and his gray eyes drained of their color, losing the last trace of their already faded coloration.
The Illustrious Robert White possessed a talent that was exceedingly valuable in our line of work: he could smell lies. He couldn't always tell when he was being lied to but, like a trained bloodhound, he could easily sniff out the conscious intention to mislead when being spoken to. His very, very useful talent was left to him by his parents, who had stained themselves with the blood of the fallen...
That was the very reason I didn't even try to wheedle, and simply lifted the stun baton.
"The shock is weak," I told the inspector.
"You don't say?" asked Robert White, perplexed.
Just then, two constables wearing police-issue raincoats walked up to us with their new-fashioned semi-automatic carbines at the ready. The gun's box magazines stuck up in a way that gave them a silly appearance, but people who really knew guns weren't bothered by that in the least; in small skirmishes, the short-barreled Madsen-Biarnoff rifle spoke for itself quite eloquently.
"I think it’s got something wrong with the electric jar," I posited, not paying any mind to the skeptical gazes of my colleagues.
"You've got something wrong with your head, Leo!" the red-headed constable squealed out just then.
"No, no, Jimmy!" intervened the other young man, his teeth brown from chewing tobacco. He immediately clarified his observation, though: "It’s just that his arms are all screwy."
The red-head laughed with a satisfied look:
"Billy, old boy! I see no reason why both couldn’t be true at the same time!"
"I think you've hit the nail on the head there, Jimmy! In this case, they seem to amplify one another!"
I didn't get offended; Jimmy and Billy were notorious wisecrackers. Just give them something to mock, and they're off to the races. But the inspector wanted explanations, so the idea to give Billy a jab with my stun baton and put a cork in his yapper seemed like two birds with one stone.
And I did just that.
A blinding flash of sparks shot forth. The constable jumped back jerkily and rubbed his chest.
"Have you gone totally batty?" he bared his teeth.
"Forget it!" I said, waving it off and turning to the inspector. "Like I said, the shock is weak!"
Infernal beings were particularly sensitive to electricity, but a zap as weak as I was packing would do nothing to stun either a succubus or any other hell-spawn for that matter.
Robert White came down the stairs, his cane hanging from his arm, and set about unhurriedly packing his pipe with strong Persian tobacco.
"This morning, you should have been checking the shock instead of reading your yellow rags!" He reproached me.
"But I checked it three times! It was working fine!"
"Come then, give it here," the inspector demanded, taking the electric jar that I'd pulled from my pocket and looking at the little label on the base. "Des Prez Electrical Machinery?" He read and flared up: "Leo, where'd you dig this clunker up from?!"
I answered with the pure truth:
"I got it from our stockroom."
"Curses!" The inspector cried, ripping the cord out in a fit of anger and tossing the electric jar onto the rubbish heap. "Leo, we'd been tracking that beast for two weeks! Two weeks! And it all came to naught because of this piece of junk!"
"But..."
"Silence!" Robert White demanded and set about taking furious puffs on his pipe. "Ramon!" He raised his voice after a few deep draws. "Who manufactured the electric jar in your lupara?"
His gun, with four short ten-caliber barrels, was manufactured by Heim, and actually used incendiary electric rounds as ammunition, meaning it had no jar. For that reason, after a cursory glance at its folding stock, the constable reported back:
"Edison Electric Lights, inspector!"
"Do you see, Leo?" My superior reproached me. "Remember that for the future: only Edison Electric Lights will do, may Tesla forgive me! Do you understand?"
"Yes, sir."
"And by the way, why did you go in without waiting for the others?"
"The door was open. I decided to do some reconnaissance."
"Oh you did? And how'd that go?" The inspector frowned, shrugging his shoulders in annoyance and starting off out of the courtyard. "Let's go!" he called, but immediately stopped us and patted down his pockets: "Jimmy, where are my gloves?"
"I don't know, inspector," the constable answered, poking his partner in the side. "Billy, where are the inspector's gloves?"
"What are you asking me for?" he snarled, looking around.
"Forget it!" Robert White called for order, creeping under the archway.
Jimmy and Billy sized me up with unkind gazes and rushed off after our boss; I wiped the dirt from my back and shuffled off behind them. Ramon Miro was walking next to me in silence, trying to match my uneven gait.
It should be said that the Catalan constable was a surprisingly taciturn man. Incidentally, he was only Catalonian on his father's side. His mother's origins were among the native people of the New World. As a matter of fact, in temperament, Ramon had more in common with his mother’s people than his Mediterranean side.
Just then, a terrified rat jumped up from under our feet. Ramon just kicked it away with the tip of his boot and kept walking calmly. I went over the heap of rubbish lying in the entryway and ducked my head to avoid the soot-coated underside of the arch.
Being tall isn't nearly as glamorous as some envious shorties suppose. It just is what it is.
That silent courtyard was replaced by another, just as dirty and unsightly as the one that came before it. From there, we emerged onto an unpeopled alley and stopped to wait for further orders from the inspector. He unhurriedly tapped his pipe out on the wall of the building, fished a silver pocket-watch out of his vest pocket and pursed his lips, deep in thought.
Taking advantage of the moment of peace, I stomped the rest of the trash off my rubber-coated raincoat, folded the telescoping stun baton back up and took my round tinted glasses from my breast pocket. I clipped them onto my nose and finally felt comfortable again.
Unlike the inspector, I didn't enjoy attracting the attention of locals with my unnaturally colorless eyes. That was why I found it impossible to bear looking someone in the eyes when talking. Of course, there was also the fact that I didn't especially enjoy people in general. They are usually so obtuse!
"Let's get back to the Box!" Robert White decided just then and, waving his cane unevenly and even nervously, he began walking toward the nearest Underground station.
New Babylon is a surprising city! It is always awake and alive, day or night. Here, the wonderful and the horrible were so closely intertwined as to be indistinguishable. There were no angles or sharp edges, either. It was all just shades and blurred half-tones blending seamlessly into one another.
Ancient palaces, their marbled siding having long since grown dark with soot build-up, butted up against new buildings, which were still clean, though their plainness detracted from any beauty that could have lent them. Avenues, wide in the downtown, got lost in a rat's nest of little winding streets in the outskirts, though it wasn't clear exactly how. Age-old trees in the Emperor's Park were thick with rustling foliage, but their leaves were more-often-than-not yellow and dying from the constant smog. The azure waters of the harbor rolled into shore in unctuous breaks, and the endless sky was constantly packed tight with clouds of smoke from factory smokestacks.
That's how everything was in New Babylon. Even the granite sett paving stones were reddish, not because of the stone's natural coloration, but because of the fact that they were now permanently soaked in the blood of the fallen...
New Babylon was the capital of the Second Empire; at once the heart of government and an ulcer, eating it from the inside.

The narrow little street with soot-covered walls, interspersed with the odd hazy rectangular window led us out to an intersection. There, I could see smokestacks, mountainous and crested with long clouds of smoke. Fortunately, the wind was carrying the fumes away from the suburbs today, so it was less smoggy than usual.
Soon, we'd left the shanties behind. The street grew wider, and the stench of reeking factory runoff began drifting up from the grates of the storm drains. We were now going downhill and, a few blocks later, we were nestling up to Yarden quay. The silvery expanse of water was shackled by a railroad bridge that stretched from one bank to the other; clumsy tugs and barges looked like toy boats on the backdrop of its pillars, making all the freight dirigibles drifting into port also look less striking in comparison.
"Hurry up!" The inspector rushed us along.
I placed my palm on my forehead, noticed a wisp of smoke crawling slowly in our direction and increased my pace, rushing after the others.
With our heels clacking on the paving stones of the quay, we paraded to the train station past the fence and the ticket booths. Fortunately, we didn’t have to wait in their never-ending lines. Once on the platform, it was too crowded to even push our way through the workers from the surrounding factories. Thankfully, the grubby proles gave a wide berth to our well-armed division, no prodding necessary.
A powerful whistle blew, and a gargantuan train rolled in under the awnings, enshrouded in clouds of white steam. The room suddenly filled with the smoke pouring from its stacks. With a metallic clang, the brakes screeched to a halt. The train stopped, and its passengers gushed out onto the platform, pushing against the working rabble on their way home after the night shift.
The inspector was in no mind to knock elbows with commoners, and took a decisive step into a first class train-car; we all followed behind our boss. At the entrance, Robert White used his cane to shoo the conductor, who was taken aback at his lack of manners, then took a seat next to the window with an imperturbable look. There weren't enough seats for the rest of us but, that didn’t stop the Underground attendant from practically having a fit while the distinguished public looked askance at us with barely restrained indignation.
Two short horn-blows rang out, the train shook, and columns and dejected fences began flittering by out the window, gradually increasing their speed. Soon, the tracks dove into a tunnel, and the train bolted beneath the earth, leaving the hustle and bustle of the streets with all their speed‑demon cabbies and day‑dreaming pedestrians somewhere far, far above us. Now, the train was flying along at full steam, shaking us around mercilessly. We had to latch firmly onto the handrail and clench the back of the nearest seat just to remain standing.
A few minutes later, the steam train slowed its pace and, with a deafening blast of its horn, rolled out of the tunnel onto the platform of an underground station, lit only by the uneven flame of gas jets. Some got out, some came in, and the train rolled onward.
The Underground was great! Nothing could compare with it. Not steam trams, and not the new-fangled self-propelled carriages. It did make a lot of smoke, though – it was impossible to breathe...
Three stations later, we got off the train and walked up onto the street. The colossal Newton‑Markt was towering over us on the opposite side of the square. The inspector could only stand to look peevishly at the marble columns of its portico before walking off in the opposite direction.
"I need to wet my whistle," he grumbled, having gotten wind of our inquisitive looks with his back.
No one objected.
And what was there to object to? After such a major fiasco, returning to the Box, as everyone called police headquarters, was something none of us wanted. And me least of all.

We typically wet our whistles at Archimedes' Screw, a small public house, known for its huge selection of Flemish beers and primarily law-enforcement clientele.
"Get your morning edition here!" burst out from the hoarse throat of a boy holding a thick packet of newspapers near the door. "Tensions rising in the Sea of Judea! More troop movements in Alexandria! Get yours now! Only in the Saturday edition! Division in the ranks of the Sublime Electricity! Tesla versus Edison! Big article!"
Robert White threw the lad a ten-centime coin, grabbed an edition of the Atlantic Telegraph and walked into the bar.
"Hello, Almer!" He said, greeting the bar’s corpulent owner, and taking a seat at his regular place by the window. "The usual."
The fat Fleming took out a small decanter of red port and placed it in front of the inspector. After that, he poured a mug of white for Jimmy and Billy, who retired to a far-away corner with their drinks, a plate of bread, and a few slices of spicy pork terrine.
When Ramon Miro walked away with a glass of white wine, which he drank fairly diluted with soda water, I took a seat on a high bar stool and leaned against the bar on my elbows.
"Lemonade?" sighed the barkeep.
"Lemonade," I confirmed, looking with no particular interest over the array of beer bottles each bearing a technicolor label tied around its neck with thick twine and a wax-sealed cap.
"I can't stand this new fashion!" Almer shook his head. "Soon people will be drinking beer mixed with lemonade!"
"I wouldn't even take that as a gift," I chuckled in reply.
"They will, though, mark my words!" the proprietor announced confidently and set off for the ice-cellar. Soon, he was back, and placed a condensation-covered pitcher of lemonade before me with pieces of ice jingling around joyously in it.
I filled my tall glass, took a few sips and nodded:
"Great!"
Almer took the praise as a matter of course and set about drying one of the beer mugs with a towel.
"I can never recall you ever having ordered a real drink," he said, not stopping what he was doing.
"That's right. I've never touched the stuff," I confirmed.
"Surprising."
"Why's that? I would've thought it commonplace."
"For a moral-crazed Mechanist, sure," the Fleming said with a smirk, "but you’d have an easier time finding a churchgoing hooker than a constable that doesn't drink."
"Alcohol gives me sleeping problems," I explained my refusal, not especially bending the truth either.
The owner of the establishment burst out in booming laughter:
"Do you think many of your colleagues are concerned with such trifles?"
I just shrugged my shoulders, not planning on disputing his assertion. To be perfectly honest, I personally knew people, who could only be stopped from drinking by a shot to the head, preferably from a high-caliber rifle.
Talking with my drunk colleagues sober didn't make me feel any less close to them, though. After all, people are usually pretty open and honest after a few drinks.
Alcohol allows people to forget about their fears, at least for a time. Who was I to judge?
I took the pitcher of lemonade and slid off the chair, intending to join Ramon, but I was suddenly called by the inspector, who was leafing through the newspaper.
"Leopold!" He said, not tearing himself from his reading. "Won't you join me?"
Curses! That's the last thing I needed!
I mentally cursed and, in no particular hurry, walked up to the table, taking a seat opposite my boss. When I'd filled my glass with lemonade, Robert White twirled his fingers before his face and asked:
"Would you please remove your glasses?"
After completing his order, I breathed out onto the round black lenses, wiped them with a linen cloth and placed them on the edge of the table. After that, I finished the lemonade and shifted my gaze to a blueprint for an Archimedes' screw that was pinned to the wall, one of many.
"You don’t ever look people in the eyes, do you Leo?" the inspector asked unexpectedly. "Is that right?"
"As a rule, I do not," I confirmed, turning my gaze back from the yellowing drawing to my superior officer. I evaluated the cut of his made-to-order suit, his ideally cropped hair, and the fanciful pattern on his silken handkerchief.
I did not look him in the eyes, though.
Between the inspector's eyes, there was a deep wrinkle. He finished his fortified red wine, wiped his thin pale lips with a napkin and, only after completing the procedure, said:
"I know of your illustrious talent. I'm sure it isn't easy looking in peoples’ eyes, if all you see is fear."
"There's little to enjoy in it," I affirmed. "Looking into someone's eyes is still climbing into someone's soul, after all. I prefer... to keep my distance."
"That won’t work on me."
"Keeping my distance?" I joked.
"Climbing into the soul," Robert White answered, totally serious. He then wiped his chin and remarked in contemplation: "It was supposed that your talent would be a bit more useful around here..."
More useful? His words gave me a nasty impression.
Sure, my talent could have been of more use at work, but I simply couldn't bear digging around in others' fears, allowing them into my own head and bringing them to life. Though I could do it without any particular strain, actually using my talent left me feeling like I'd just had a wallow in a mud puddle.
Then again, this conversation wasn’t about my delicate psyche...
"Inspector!" I shuddered. "With the succubus..."
"Listen to me, Leopold!" Robert drummed his fingers on the edge of the table, calling for silence. "This isn't about the succubus! You just aren't getting it! You aren't settling into the job! You cannot work with people and you don't want to. In our line of work, that is half the battle. What made you want to become a policeman in the first place? You could've been a librarian!"
"I need to pay the bills somehow," I made away with a half-truth, as usual.
If the inspector caught my unstated meaning, he didn’t make it known.
"Well, alright, people!" He frowned, getting to the main point. "This city is so packed with thieves, they’re like sardines in a can. Arresting burglars, robbers and murderers has been business as usual for a long time. Separatists and Anarcho-Christians? That whole restless brotherhood is of little interest to anyone. And the inspector general wouldn't even give you a hand-shake for catching an Egyptian agent. Infernal creatures, though – that's serious business! That’s how you get on the front page of newspapers. We'd been tracking the succubus for two weeks, Leo. For two weeks, we’ve been ignoring all other assignments! And now that's all down the drain. Because of you."
Justifying myself would have been at the very least stupid, which is why I fixed my gaze on my glass and jingled around the pieces of ice that remained.
"I thought it was a coincidence!" the inspector continued his excoriation. "A simple coincidence! But I read the papers and I realized: no, it is no coincidence. Point blank, Leo, you've been nothing but trouble."
"What do you mean?" I grew confused, thrown off by the unexpected turn.
Robert White slid the morning edition of the Atlantic Telegraph to me and hinted:
"The Society Page."
I took a look at the headline he was pointing at and winced dolefully but, all the same, read the article in its entirety, only sighing afterward:
"What a pest..."
Robert White took the newspaper, shuddered, sitting up straight, and read aloud:
"The famous New-Babylon poet Albert Brandt, in conversation with our correspondent, alluded to the fact that, he has recently written a poem for his good friend, the Viscount Cruce, dedicated to his beloved, the Illustrious Elizabeth‑Maria N." The inspector pressed the newspaper to the table with his palm and burned me with his hateful gaze. "Well, Viscount Cruce, what do you think the Illustrious Elizabeth‑Maria N.'s father will do to you after reading that little tidbit?"
"Hold up!" I jumped in. "You aren’t understanding this right at all!"
"Is that so?" the inspector screwed up his face skeptically. "You don't have to have the wisdom of Solomon to guess what it’s talking about. A light-eyed, red-headed girl by the name 'Elizabeth‑Maria N.!' Do you know many people, who fit that description? I know only one! And that is the daughter of Inspector General von Nalz! Curses! That geezer caught many of the fallen himself! Rumor has it that he smeared himself with their blood from head to toe! And now, he is striving with every bone in his body to get his dear little daughter married off to the nephew of the Minister of Justice. If this whole thing goes belly-up over this one little article..."
"You've got it all wrong..."
"No, I haven't!" Robert White frowned. "If this goes badly, the old man will challenge you to a duel, and he will kill you. It wouldn't be the first time for him. And, Leo, are you aware that he would have every right to do so?" The inspector finished his port and threw himself back into his chair. "I personally would like to just wash my hands of this, and would do so with the greatest of pleasure. The problem is that the incident will affect my career in a most unacceptable fashion."
"It’s just a coincidence," I repeated obstinately. "They aren’t connected..."
"Come off it!" Snapped my boss. "Your excuses won't change a thing. By midday, even the floor-waxers in headquarters will know about your affair with the inspector general's daughter. The old man won't even be listening!"
"I could..."
"There’s nothing you can do," the inspector cut me off, but immediately snapped his fingers. "Actually, there is! Disappear for a week. Two would be better. Hand in your weapons, don't come in to work. After that, we can decide how to proceed."
I was categorically not in favor of whatever he meant by "proceed," but any attempt to convince my boss to try another way was sure to fail. He'd already made up his mind. An unpleasant sour sensation appeared in my mouth. My eyes began to sting from the injustice of being.
Albert! What a bastard you are! Well, who was it that got your tongue wagging?
"Disappear," the inspector ordered, putting up his newspaper to shut me out.
I made no effort to carry out that order quickly. I felt like a beaten dog, which was very unpleasant. In a pitiful attempt to retain my last shred of dignity, I first finished my lemonade, only standing from the table after I was done. I then took my rubberized raincoat down from the hook and turned to the bartender:
"Almer, put it on my tab."
"So soon?" confirmed the quirky Fleming, who knew our employees’ payment schedules at least as well as our actual accountant.
I waved farewell to everyone, went out onto the street, and looked up at the sky. In it, there were scant clouds mixed in with wisps of smoke from factory smokestacks. I started shouting curse words helplessly. Next, I snapped my dark glasses to my nose in a habitual motion and started off toward the Newton‑Markt.
I'll hand in my weapons and change clothes at the same time.
Even though, as a detective constable I was not required to come to work in the police uniform like most rank-and-file, I usually did not abuse that privilege. They didn't give me any stipends to clean or mend my own clothes, and the Viscount Cruce hadn't had too much money lying around for a long while.
The wind roared in Viscount Cruce's pockets, as a matter of fact. My home had been remortgaged three times, and the only thing allowing me to look on the future with even cautious optimism was the fund I had been willed by my grandfather on my mother's side.
Why cautious, though? Because the current distributor of the fund, my uncle Count Kósice, was not exactly burning with desire to part with the twenty thousand francs of yearly income it provided him and was drawing out the procedure in various ways, keeping me from me from my rightful inheritance as long as he could. I had turned twenty-one a month ago, but the fiduciaries hadn't even yet managed to compose the asset register, which was to say nothing of material transfers. And it was totally unclear just how long it would be before that confusing procedure was completed. I doubted that my uncle would take it to the point of legal battles, but I was sure I wouldn't be able to avoid the remaining "charms" of splitting up the estate.
On the other hand, what did I need the money for now? I was lucky not to have just lost my head...




2

I ENTERED THE NEWTON‑MARKT, THE WHOLE-BLOCK POLICE headquarters building, through the back service entrance. I let an armored car pass by as it left the garage to the measured claps of a gunpowder engine before rolling unhurriedly down an alley. I took a look around and ran up the stairs. I flung the door open confidently, nodding to the sleepy sentry on my way and walking through the empty halls into the armory.
There, I handed a sergeant my stun baton and took its electric jar from my pocket, still wrapped in this morning’s edition of the Atlantic Telegraph. I threw the crumpled newspaper into the trash can. The item collector handed my things to the arsenal warden.
"Stun baton, one," and made a corresponding note in the registry. "Edison electric jar, one..." And immediately shuddered: "And where is the second one? The Des Prez?"
"Put it down under irrecoverable losses."
"And why on earth would I do that?"
"Any questions should be directed to Inspector White."
"Alright, we'll figure it out," the sergeant frowned, dipping his iron feather back into the inkwell.
I walked away to the table in the far corner and set two loaded cartridge clips on it, then took my Roth‑Steyr from its holster, and removed the bolt all the way from the head, which was affixed with a titanium barrel extension. With its side stock open, I pressed the round eject button, collected the ammunition that flew out onto the table in an empty clip and turned to the sergeant.
"Semi-automatic Roth‑Steyr pistol, model eighteen-seventy-four, one," the man grumbled. "Eight millimeter bullets, thirty. Is that all?"
"That's all," I confirmed and walked to the changing room. There wasn't a single living soul to be found there.
And that was logical. It was the dead middle of a shift right now. Our boys would still be out pounding pavement 'til nightfall.
I opened my locker with a certain amount of relief and kicked off my raincoat, uniform and boots. I changed into a light-colored linen suit and a pair of lightweight half-boots, tied my neckerchief, and smoothed my hair before a mirror. Lastly, I took a cantankerous look at my reflection and donned my dark glasses.
Damn it! Damn all this inner turmoil! I need to live in the present.
After transferring my kerosene lighter and titanium-bladed jack-knife from my uniform to my new clothes, I hesitated briefly, but still clipped my Cerberus holster to my belt. It was a thin and compact pistol. I slipped a backup clip with three ten-millimeter bullets into the pocket of my jacket.
This gun was an invention of the weapons genius Tesla. He had decided that the barrels should be a detachable cluster of cylinders, like a pepper-box. For that reason, the Cerberus wasn't, to put it lightly, known for its accuracy. That said, in close-range firefights, it was simply indispensable. Its firing mechanism used an electric igniter on a gunpowder round, which launched an aluminum-plated bullet. All those bells and whistles were to make sure this weapon would work against both malefics and hell-spawn, alike. Common weapons, due to peculiarities in their design, were of little use against them: over many centuries, evil spirits had managed to develop an invulnerability to iron, copper and even lead, while experienced conjurers had learned to put out the spark of a punched primer and hamper the complex strike-launch mechanisms in semi-automatic weapons with a single wave of the finger. For revolvers, shooting blanks at such monsters was also anything but a rarity.
The Cerberus, on the other hand, was a different story! Its electric jar and total lack of moving components left no chance for either malefics and infernal beasts to prevent a shot getting off. What was more, in comparison with my one-kilo Roth‑Steyr, this pistol weighed practically nothing.
I took a light gray derby hat from the upper shelf of my locker, locked the door and left the changing room. On my way out, I ran into an unfamiliar gray-eared sergeant, who was accompanied by two uniformed constables.
"Detective Constable Orso," the sergeant declared as he walked, "follow me! The inspector general would like to see you."
My heart practically jumped out of my chest, and I took a heavy sigh in a none-too-successful attempt to calm myself down.
The experienced public servant noticed my utter bewilderment and clarified:
"Will you be coming with us, detective constable?"
"Naturally!" I squeezed out a sour smile with a bit of effort and repeated, this time more confidently: "Naturally!"
The sergeant nodded and headed for the stairs. The constables, though, let me go in front of them initially, but moved around behind shortly thereafter, forcing me with their artless maneuver to cast all thoughts of fleeing from my mind, panicked and disgraced.
Calm yourself!
Weren't you expecting this? Well, weren't you?
Yes, devil take me, I was! I was expecting this, but not so soon. The old man was most likely diabolically angry, if he had sent someone to keep watch for my return.

The Illustrious Friedrich von Nalz was old, but not decrepit. Seven decades had done nothing to weaken this veteran of the force. In fact, they had only steeled him; the inspector general looked like a big, strong cluster of pine roots. And his eyes... his deep-set eyes shone back in the partial darkness like two angry flames, like flickering candles in the slits in a wrinkled jack-o-lantern.
His surprising longevity was simply astonishing. Most of those who had actually touched the blood of the fallen had long since bid this world farewell. After all, the Night of the Titanium Blades was fifty-three years ago – in December of the year eighteen hundred twenty-four after the Divine Retribution, or in usual parlance, of the New Era.
Despite his advanced years, the Illustrious von Nalz was not only a leader of the metropolitan police, but also a member of dozens of clubs and charitable societies, and a man who started every morning with a review of the morning's papers, demonstrating an enviable working capacity. And now, there was a towering stack of newspapers on his table but, as could have been expected, he had stopped reading precisely upon reaching the Atlantic Telegraph.
Curses! Ugh, who asked Albert to stick his long tongue out!
When I arrived, Friedrich von Nalz tore himself from the paper and stretched his lips out in something resembling a smile.
"Viscount Cruce! I don't believe I've ever had the honor of making your acquaintance..."
In reply, I could only lower my head.
The old man readjusted the cuff of his black uniform. His wrinkled wrist, which looked like a bone picked clean by vultures, was protruding just barely. He then asked me:
"Are you acquainted with my daughter, Viscount?"
"I was introduced to her at the autumn ball," I answered, struck with horror.
In the office, it became hot and stuffy all at once. And it had nothing at all to do with the fireplace. It hadn't been lit today. Hot air was emanating in waves from the old man sitting across the table from me. It was his illustrious talent revealing itself. I had already seen its terrible effects before, and I in no way wanted to become a victim. A few years ago, I caught a glimpse of the dried-out mummy of an anarchist after he made an attempt on the inspector general’s life. The sight of a man who had been baked alive left me sick for the rest of the day.
"You were introduced at the ball, and that was all?" clarified the Illustrious von Nalz, making no external signs of the rage seething inside himself.
"And that was all," I confirmed, diligently making sure not to make eye contact.
Just looking at him was very, very scary.
But then, the old man suddenly broke out laughing, crumpled the paper and threw it into the paper bin.
"You know, Viscount? I believe you. Implicitly," the inspector general surprised me with his unexpected announcement. "I simply know my daughter too well. Elizabeth‑Maria would never go for someone like you..." He fastidiously cringed and threw himself back into his high-backed armchair. "That isn't important! What is important is that your loose-lipped rhyme-peddler's talk will start rumors. And I cannot have that..."
"Inspector general!" I tried making an excuse. "They were talking about a different Elizabeth‑Maria! Not your daughter! It’s just a coincidence!"
But Friedrich von Nalz could only shake his head, sending another wave of transparent heat wafting toward me.
"Viscount! I can imagine you in the role of a secret admirer, but never that of a lover," the old man cut-in with cold ruthlessness. "Don't lower yourself to such base lies."
"My wife is called Elizabeth‑Maria Nickley. Her family is from Ireland. She gets her name from her grandmother on her mother’s side. I am preparing to present her at tomorrow's ball."
The inspector general started to think, as if solving a complicated charade, then nodded.
"That would be nice," he said slowly, with detachment, but immediately turning his eyes on me in rage. "Just know, Viscount, that if you drag some cheap actress down there and bring shame on my daughter, I will destroy you myself, my-self! I will make your blood boil in your veins and cook you alive!"
"I assure you, inspector general, it will not come to that!"
"If the poem was in fact intended for my daughter, its best to admit it directly, here and now," continued the Illustrious von Nalz, already absolutely calm. "In that case, I would have to challenge you to a duel, though at least you would die with dignity. And not in such torment..."
"There’s no reason for..."
"You could, it stands to reason, hide, but I do not advise that at all. I really do not."
"I wasn't even thinking it!"
"Get out of my face," then rasped the highly placed officer, ending my hearing.
With a furious speed, I jumped out into the reception. The air there seemed simply icy by comparison. A trickle of cold sweat started running down my back. Somehow, I slowed my panicked breathing and went down to the first floor, but before I'd managed to close the entrance behind me, I was called on again.
"Detective constable!"
After shuddering in surprise, I turned to see a constable getting up from his desk with some kind of envelope in his hands."
"Correspondence for you!" he said.
I took the unexpected letter and nodded:
"Thank you," and went out into the colonnade-enclosed portico courtyard, where ancillary workers were trying without particular success to wash away the soot that had accumulated last winter on the white marble of our Themis statues.
With a heavy sigh, I lowered myself onto one of the benches placed around the fountain and took a look inside the thick paper envelope addressed to me only by name, no address, stamps or mention of who'd sent it. After giving an uncomprehending snort, I took my jack-knife from my pocket, cut open the seal and shook out a laconic invitation to visit the Witstein Banking House to discuss the issue of my gaining access rights to my inheritance.
I reread the letter two times and furrowed my brow in consternation. My attorney hadn't managed to beat any paper from my fund in the past month, so why then would my uncle move the situation forward so easily? And what did the Witstein Banking House have to do with my inheritance? The Kósice family had never had many dealings with the Judean community.
After looking at the massive chronometer, new-fashioned, meaning it was worn on the arm, I decided I still had time to visit the Banking House before it closed for lunch, and if I didn't make it, no matter, I could wait. I didn't have anything planned for today that couldn't be rescheduled anyway.
I jammed the envelope in my jacket pocket, and left of police head‑quarters' courtyard. Then, in no particular hurry, I stepped off down Newtonstraat toward Ohm Square.
For the beginning of April, today was shaping up to be an unusually humid day, and the sun hanging over the roofs of the houses was heating up the city everywhere I went, like a steak thrown into a smoking pan. Even the black clouds billowing on the horizon were no guarantee that the freshness of evening would soon be arriving; most likely, they would simply disperse over the ocean.
Ducking away from the muggy air, I turned down a sycamore alley and began walking further into the shade of the trees. Five minutes later, I came out onto the rear of Ohm Square and happened upon a mercilessly smoking steam tram. I was barely able to grab onto the handrail before its iron wheels started clanking around the bend where the rails had a juncture, causing the tram to rock palpably.
On the other side of the windows, buildings drifted by at a turtle's pace. Wisps of smoke came into the open door from time to time, stinging my eyes unbearably. We couldn't even dream of the speeds of the Underground, though. To get from the nearest underground railroad station to the Judean Quarter, you'd have to spend no less than a quarter hour slogging through the confusing little side-streets of the old city.
And what was the point?
Bit by bit, my view of the city was beginning to change as we left the newly constructed high-rises behind us. Dilapidated commercial buildings and office buildings with slanted roofs started closing in on one another while the tram traveled down the narrowing road. The tiny, damp alleys between buildings flickered by, and the steam tram rolled on.
Cabbies looked on with unhidden disapproval at the passengers now filling the tram-car to the brim. Their horses were sneezing and shaking their heads, caught in the smoke trail the tram was leaving behind. A few times, we were passed by open self-propelled carriages, their chauffeurs wearing leather jackets, leggings and goggles that covered half the face. The carriages shot off into the distance, but the loud chirruping of their gun-powder engines continued to carry down the street for some time.
When we reached Mendeleev Boulevard, I jumped out of the steam tram and swerved off the sidewalk into a passage between two buildings, both scuffed and uncared-for with narrow windows on the second story and above. I got a bit lost in the back alleys and soon came out onto a big street. The nearest building on it was sporting a fresh sign: Mihelson Street.
The first floors of the solid stone building were occupied by many shops and stalls, but it all looked like one solid mass now, with the storefronts shuttered behind security doors in preparation for nightfall. Based on my impression, it seemed as if one of the liveliest trading streets of the Judean neighborhood had suddenly died out. I walked a whole block, and not a single living soul crossed my path.
Only on the corner next to a barber shop, did I see someone: a long figure standing motionless in a long-skirted black frock and hat to match.
Sliding my gaze over the dispassionate face framed with peyos and a beard, I walked alone up the stairway of the detached three-story building with a solid signboard reading Witstein Banking House and pulled the door handle toward me.
It didn't yield. I jostled it – still stuck.
Then I gave a few hits of the knocker on the iron sheet door, waited a few minutes and again pulled on the handle, but suddenly froze, struck by an unexpected thought.
"Saturday!" I slapped my palm on my forehead. "Today is Saturday!"
Shabbos!
In our enlightened society, any manifestation of religious ideas was viewed in a dim light, and all forms of mysticism were mercilessly rooted out and eliminated. Orthodox Judeans, though, had been steadfast in bearing the incessant accusations of the Mechanists. As a matter of course, these threats were rarely acted on: the buoyant financials of the group allowed them to grease the right wheels of the state apparatus if need be, so any talk about massacring them remained just that – talk.
Though science had completely extricated religion from mainstream society, our top power brokers had a healthy pragmatism and held holy the principle of "render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's." Money was the lifeblood of the Empire, and everything else came second.
I took a tin of sugar drops from my pocket and threw the first one I came upon into my mouth.
So then, today is Saturday; the Banking House is closed. Tomorrow as well. Sunday is an official day off.
What a shame.
At that very moment, a covered wagon rolled across the intersection with a screech. The driver, his cap thrown down over his eyes, was hurrying the trucks into the barber shop’s back courtyard, and the lanky Judean was rushing to open the gates. As soon as the cart was out of view, the gate closed just as quickly.
Very interesting.
I took a quizzical look around, then pressed down a button on my arm chronometer, setting a countdown, and tossed another sugar drop into my mouth.
I can wait...

The cart rolled back out onto the street twenty minutes later, but this time the haulers were obviously straining themselves, and the cart was leaving a dust cloud in its wake. The lanky Judean stood in front of the gate and tried to unlock the entrance to the barber shop, but the key just didn't want to turn in the lock; he even had to remove his thick canvas gloves and hold them under his armpit.
I popped another sugar drop into my mouth, slipped the tin into my jacket's side pocket and stepped across the road.
"My good man!" hailed the Judean, standing up in the middle of the carriageway.
The lanky one turned, shot me a worried glance and croaked:
"We’re closed!"
"I'm not here for that! Can you tell me where the nearest Underground station is?"
"Over there," the lanky barber waved me down the street with his left arm; his right arm, bearing an old bluing tattoo he jammed into his frock pocket, acting casual.
I bowed my head slightly and pressed the very tips of my fingers to my derby hat.
"Thank you," I smiled and walked off in the direction he pointed, not asking him to clarify the route.
After all, that wasn’t why I was asking.




3

I FOUND ROBERT WHITE IN ARCHIMEDES' SCREW. Based on his untied neckerchief, he clearly hadn't limited himself to just the one little decanter of port. That said, the inspector's drinking had done nothing to improve his mood.
Some people are like that – they know perfectly well that they have no business drinking, but they still drink, and when they do it doesn't make them feel relieved, just all the gloomier. Robert was definitely one of those types, so before my boss had time to open his mouth and have me thrown out by the scruff of my neck, I decisively took a seat opposite him and, without delay, announced:
"A bank robbery is being planned."
"I told you to bugger off," the inspector mumbled, letting my words pass by unheard, as expected.
"I did what you ordered," I reminded him, removing my dark glasses and, exerting a certain amount of effort to look my boss in the eyes. "Inspector, bank robberies are serious business."
"And what of it?" Robert White frowned skeptically. My confidence hooked him in, though. His fire-filled eyes went dull, taking on a colorless‑gray shade. "Tell me about it!" He gasped with a wave of his hand.
"I think there's trouble brewing at the Witstein Banking House."
"You think so? What gave you that revelation?"
I gave a two-word description of what I'd seen in the Judean Quarter and, when the inspector fell into deep contemplation, I turned and called a server over. It was lunch time, and my boss was now being waited on by a couple of fast-moving girls.
"Saturday," Robert White muttered. "An Orthodox Judean cannot work on Saturday, right? So then he must have not been working. Or does opening and closing a gate count as work? Perhaps they're just doing some repairs?"
"So you're saying the Judean brought in outside workers?" I snorted, filling my glass from the pitcher of lemonade placed on the table. "He'd never hear the end of it! No, I think this Judean is not part of Judean society."
"You're thinking again," White screwed up his face.
"The tattoo," I reminded him. "There was a snake on his right fist. Or a long fish, I couldn't quite tell."
"And what of it?"
"Orthodox Judeans are forbidden from getting tattoos. 'You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves.'"
The inspector stared at me with unhidden surprise.
"You know the Torah?"
"No, I just know a lot about tattoos."
"Even if that is so, what makes you so sure that the bank is their target?"
"What other options are there? On one side, there's a grocer's stall, and on the other there's a shoemaker's. It’s got to be the bank."
Robert White finished his port, and barked with his whole throat, drowning out the din that had been ruling over the pub:
"Jimmy!"
The red-head hurriedly stood from his corner table and walked up to us.
"Yes, inspector?" He uttered ponderously, readjusting his uniform. The constable was a bit sotted, but he could still stand up straight and didn't wobble.
"Take a seat!" Robert White ordered him, and asked: "Have you heard any rumors recently about a bank robbery?"
"Nothing, total silence," the constable shook his head after a moment in thought.
"Can you tell me anything about a tall, hunchbacked Judean with a tattoo either of an eel or a snake on his right fist?"
This time, Jimmy answered without hesitation:
"Uri Katz, alias: the Loach. He was sentenced to five years breaking rocks for robbing a store. He might already be out."
"Is that so?" The inspector said in surprise, then ordered: "Find out about him, Jimmy. And that's enough drinking. It looks like we have plans for tonight..."
I took advantage of the pause and started taking sips of my tomato soup. It was salty and hot.

We made for the crime scene with the city already enshrouded in twilight. We walked quietly and unnoticed, like spies from an enemy nation. Our field team was rolling down Newtonstraat, which was illuminated by streetlights. All you had to do was turn off it, though, and the murk grew impenetrable again. The darkness was somehow dispersed by nothing but the meager light of the gas lamps, just having finished being lit by the lamplighters, who ambled with their ladders under-arm from post to post before themselves disappearing. In the dark alleyways of the older neighborhoods, Nix reigned unchallenged, despite the fact that every restaurant was adorned with a flickering lamp, and dull beams of light shot out from the odd slit in cracked blinds.
Jimmy was driving the carriage; he had lit the kerosene lamp, but it wasn't lighting our path so much as it was advertising our coming in the darkness. Without it, we could just run into someone or run over a drunk laying in the street. We also, naturally, were carrying electric torches, but using them would have been equivalent to loudly announcing that a police division was rolling down the street.
And there was no reason to do that. Now, our carriage was visually indistinguishable from a private car. Jimmy had even changed his uniform out for a pair of scuffed-up trousers and a checkered jacket, while the others were hiding inside the vehicle from the immodest gazes of passers-by.
Robert White was sitting on a bench, straight as a bayonet. Only his fingers running incessantly over the top of his electric torch betrayed his discomfort. Ramon set his still unloaded lupara butt-first on the ground, leaned on it and started dozing off. Billy, though, was holding onto the semi-automatic carbines left near the wall, one for him and another for his partner, chewing measuredly on a wad of tobacco, which occasionally gave his already high-cheekbone-d face, with its wide slit of a frog-like mouth, a totally grotesque appearance.
I took a tin from my pocket and threw a sugar-drop into my mouth; it was mint flavor.
"You'll ruin your teeth," Billy smirked, uncommonly calm, like a neurotic after taking opiated patent medicine.
"Look at your own," I retorted, pulling a face.
There was no tooth powder in the world that could get rid of the brownish shade left by tobacco, but aficionados of the simple pleasure were left with no other choice since the manufacturer of patented rubber chewing gum had ceased operation due to lack of raw materials. And there was no reason to expect the rubber supply problem to improve in the next few weeks: the plantations in Ceylon and Zuid‑India couldn't satisfy all the demand, and there was no discussion at all of renewing trade with the Aztecs. What was more, if there was another flare-up in the Sea of Judea, merchant vessels would have to be sent all the way around Africa, because the military fleets of Great Egypt and Persia were capable of covering both the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. Even air-superiority wouldn't be able to provide adequate support to the merchant fleet, in that our dirigibles would need to stay within range of our fortresses on the north of the Island of Arabia.
Billy just chuckled at my remark, opened the curtain and spit onto the street. Ramon took a look over his shoulder, shuddered, chasing off the sleepiness, and snapped open the barrels of his lupara. After that, he removed a solid round from his bandoleer with a lead bullet in an aluminum jacket and slipped it into one of the chambers in a well-practiced motion.
There was no need for such a powerful weapon when arresting every-day burglars, but you never knew who you'd end up coming across on the dark little streets of our restless city. Regardless, fifty grams of white-hot death could bring down even a demon; not for long, but it was something.
The main disadvantages of this four-barreled monster, produced at the Heim Weapons Manufactory, were its strong recoil and considerable weight. In our division, the only one who could handle one comfortably was Ramon.
Just then, a distinctive knock came on the wall, and the flickering of the kerosene lamps was immediately extinguished; Ramon loaded his last round and hurried to click the barrels shut.
"Are we close by?" He clarified.
"We are," the inspector confirmed and, after throwing the tails of his raincoat back, checked to make sure his six-chambered Hydra would come easily out of its holster.
The Cerberus's older brother looked like a many-barreled revolver and was renowned for three reasons: its extreme resistance to malefic spells and the otherworldly attacks of infernal creatures – after all, electricity is stronger than magic! – and its unwieldiness and overly time-consuming reloading procedure. For those reasons, the Hydra did not enjoy particular popularity among policemen. And I generally shared the opinion that it would have been better if the engineers of the Tesla Weapons Factories had stopped at the three-shot Cerberus.
Our carriage began slowing its pace, and then the inspector commanded Billy:
"You, guard the exit. Stay on Mihelson Street."
The constable flung open the doors, handed the second carbine to Jimmy and jumped out onto the paving stones, fading away instantly into the darkness of the night. The red-head took out his rifle, placed it on his knees, put out the kerosene lamp and pulled back on the reins, slowing the horses' pace even further.
I placed my dark glasses into my breast pocket and unbuttoned the clasp on my holster, pulled out my Roth‑Steyr and placed a round in the barrel. But when the carriage turned at the intersection, leaving the barber shop behind, I was first to jump from the running boards and dart off to the gates. In one moment, I slipped between them, flicked the latch and cracked the gate open, letting Inspector White and Ramon Miro into the alley.
Jimmy turned the carriage toward the next building over and stayed sitting in the driver's seat, carbine in hand; keeping watch suited him just fine.
"Over here!" I called the inspector after me, and he immediately hissed back:
"No noise!"
My boss did not turn his electric torch on, and we had to make our way to the barber shop's back alley in the pitch black. Devil take this new moon...
Fortunately, the dark wasn't quite as impenetrable in the back yard, so we were able to find the back door just by crawling over the junk and construction debris that was cast all around.
"Keep quiet!" Robert White warned again when I put my pistol away in its holster and slipped the crowbar I'd brought with between the door and its jamb.
I cautiously pushed, and the door gave a barely audible creak, then opened. Ramon, his lupara at the ready, was first to step over the threshold. The inspector slipped in after him and hurriedly flicked the switch of his torch.
A bright beam ran across the back room of the barber shop – there was no one there.
"Leo, check the room and wait here," Robert White ordered. "Ramon, let's go to the second floor. And keep qu‑i‑et!"
I set my crowbar down on the buffet, held my pistol in two hands and walked down the corridor, trying my best not to upset any of the creaky floorboards. I looked beyond the curtain, and saw the silhouettes of two empty armchairs – it was clear! I turned into the back room to wait for the return of my coworkers from the second floor.
"Clear," I sounded off when the inspector started coming down from the residential area above.
"Nobody up there either," Robert White grumbled. "I hope you haven't led us on a wild goose chase..."
"They must be in the basement!" I retorted.
"Let's search the stairs," the inspector decided, shining his light out on the doors that went back into the entryway.
Behind one was the cleaning room, and the second led us into a room with piles of bags, stuffed full and covered in dust. They almost occupied the entire space. The only part free was a narrow passage next to the wall.
I took out my knife. With a quiet flick, I extended its folding blade and carefully cut into the plain fabric; dirt poured out.
"Bingo!" I then sighed, not hiding my relief.
"They’re in the basement!" The inspector came to life. "We'll catch them red handed!"
We carefully made our way along the passage to a dark hole in the floor and surrounded it, not having any idea what to do from there. After some brief thought, the inspector nudged Ramon in the shoulder and pointed at the floor.
"Come on, then!"
The constable got down on his knees, placed his lupara on the dusty boards and tried to see what was underneath.
"There's a light on," he informed us almost instantly.
"Keep quiet! You’ll spook them!" Robert White gasped with zeal, finally having forgotten all his doubts about me.
As a matter of fact, leaving the light on in the basement of the barber shop was not at all the behavior you'd expect from a pious Judean.
"Let's go! Let's go!" the inspector commanded. "Faster!"
Ramon rolled down first. I darted off after him without delay, despite the fact that I was usually not too fond of basements. They scared me so badly that I got an uncomfortable chill; they made me feel ants on my back and got my knees shaking involuntarily.
But what could I do?
Push on!
Practically stepping on the constable's heels, I ran into a small closet, practically half-way filled up by a huge pile of dirt. Here as well, there were fragments of wall lying everywhere. At the table, in a circle of light coming from a "bat" that hung down from the ceiling, sat the lanky Judean from earlier, his bald head no longer hidden under a black hat.
Having heard the sound of our footsteps, he set a mug down on the table and turned, but when he saw the lupara barrels pointed at him, he froze, not wanting to do anything stupid.
"Hands!" Ramon ordered under his breath, and the Judean obeyed.
I walked around the pile of hauled-in dirt, stepped over the upturned cart and took a seat next to the opening in the torn-down wall. I carefully looked at the wooden-beam-reinforced entrance hole. There was only one thing back there: darkness.
"Clear," I reported to Ramon.
"Inspector!" He called to our boss, not turning his weapon nor his persistent gaze away from our captive.
Robert White went down into the basement in no particular hurry, walked up to the table and picked up the strange-looking pistol that was lying on it. With its bent grip and open cock-hammer, the back part of this strange weapon was reminiscent of a revolver, while the front part of the arrangement was a copy of the Mauser K63, with the one difference being that, here, the magazine was removable.
"Bergman, number five!" The inspector announced, adding tellingly: "A total greenhorn."
He turned the weapon over in his hands and pointed the barrel at our captive, feigning that it was on accident.
"Who else is in on this?" Robert White asked, playing with his thumb on the cock hammer.
The lanky Judean swallowed loudly and hurried to answer:
"No one."
"Two? Three?" Robert clarified, his eyes becoming whiter than chalk and more transparent than the freshest spring water.
"No one!" our captive once again lied.
The inspector, in a rough motion, tore off one of the man’s fake payos, then the other and, with unhidden grief in his voice, said:
"Why are you lying to me, Uri?"
The Judean shook, but found himself not strong enough to rip his gaze from the eyes of my illustrious commander. He tried to turn his head, but was not able and, somehow all at once, collapsed.
"Two," the criminal admitted.
"Are they armed?"
"Yes."
"Ramon, go look for them," White then ordered the constable.
"On your knees!" The inspector immediately ordered. "Hands together on the back of your head!"
Inspector White nodded in satisfaction, set the pistol on the table and walked up to me.
"What's going on with you, Leo?"
I looked into the darkness of the passageway and gave an involuntary shiver:
"Just a touch of claustrophobia." I then asked: "Inspector, shall we call Jimmy and Billy?"
"We'll manage without them," my boss cut me off, turned up the regulator on his electric torch to full power and took his Hydra from its holster. "Let’s go!" he ordered, the bright ray of light sliding over the wooden construction beams and stopping on a dirt wall.
I, with a heavy sigh, crawled into the tunnel, doubled over and, pistol in hand, began moving forward. The inspector tried to light the way, but it did no good, the beam often falling only on the back of my uniform.
Not able to restrain myself, I turned and suggested:
"Let me hold it!"
After that, torch in hand, I got to the point where the tunnel turned to one side and discovered that the robbers had encountered some old stonework there. They hadn't managed to make it through with a direct route, and had to make a turn to the right.
And it was no surprise – New Babylon was almost two thousand years old; there was history no matter where you dug in this city. And though old buildings were being demolished constantly to make room for new ones, the old foundations were typically left below the earth, newer and newer buildings rising up above them.
This was no a city; it was an archeologist's wildest dream. But, given that, trying to dig tunnels was often a ruinous undertaking. Now, it was clear where the whole colossal pile of dirt had come from.
I crept up closer to the turn and licked my dried-out lips.
I was afraid. Very afraid, in fact. In the darkness, the burglars could simply be hiding with pistols at the ready or even...
"Leo!" The inspector pulled me out of my thinking.
His bark shook away my pent-up consternation, replacing it with annoyance and vexation; I felt as if I had been caught doing something unseemly.
I cannot bear basements!
And despite my lame-brained premonition, I stepped around the corner. I walked at a crouch, flashlight held high over my head and pistol drawn, but it just led to another hallway dug out along the stone wall.
"It smells bad, inspector," I whispered.
White reacted as if he didn't hear me.
"Move it!" He hissed at my back.
I ducked down so I wouldn't bump my forehead on a ceiling board, and resumed my movement. I made it to the next turn and took a cautious look around the corner, not noticing anything suspicious. But after I took one more step, my leg immediately caught on an overturned stone from the old wall. I was lucky not to have tripped.
As it turned out, the burglars had been lucky enough to discover a slit in the unfortunate wall, and they had widened it in the hope of cutting a path through the deserted catacombs the easy way. But these fairly heavy stones, unlike soil, were quite difficult to haul out, so they had simply tossed them away from the wall in a semi-circle.
Then I hesitated. The history of the Judean Quarter wasn't very well understood. These housebreakers may have simply hit upon a plague-stricken burial ground, or something worse.
"Faster!" The inspector hurried me along once again.
He was seriously intending to cover up the morning's fiasco by catching a dangerous gang, so there was nothing left for me to do than obey the order and crawl into the opening in the partially removed wall. Beyond it, the corridor darkened. And it was, in fact no longer a tunnel, but a proper corridor.
"Be careful," I warned the inspector, stepping very carefully on the uneven soil- and stone-covered floor.
In trying to make their work easier, the bandits had thrown the loose soil they removed all around, and now my shoes were becoming deeper and deeper immersed in the crumbly mass with every step.
Gasping out a soundless curse, I set off in search of the wrongdoers, but soon stopped at a fork in the path.
"Right?" I turned to ask my boss’s opinion.
The floor was fairly well-trod. There was clearly just one set of tracks going to the left and it turned around fairly quickly. In the other direction, however, a fully-fledged path had been worn in.
The inspector elbowed up to me, looked at the floor and agreed.
"Right!"
Lighting the path with the electric torch, I walked on. Robert White was wheezing noisily behind me, and all that remained for me was to hope that the barrels of his Hydra were pointed at the floor, and not aimed right at my loins.
An uneven floor, a slight descent – should I tell my boss?
"Faster!" the inspector hurried me along once again.
I got distracted by his nervous whispering and slapped my forehead on a stone ledge under the ceiling.
"Damn!" I whispered, crouching down on my haunches from the unexpected nature of my pain.
My thoroughly peeved boss took the torch and, not waiting for me to follow, stomped off decisively down the hallway.
"Stop!" I gasped to his back, finding the derby hat that had been knocked off my head and hurrying after him. But before I'd managed to catch up, Robert White had already found a room with stone columns holding up a high ceiling.
"Uri?" came an uncomprehending shout. "Uri, you putz, what the devil'd you limp down here for?!"
The inspector's arm shot up, putting the unaware criminal right in the sights of his Hydra and commanded:
"Hands up! Drop your weapon!"
In reply, the distinct clink of a hammer being pulled back rang out. And it came from the opposite corner, the one behind the inspector!
"You first!" the second burglar exclaimed hoarsely, stepping out from behind the stone column with a pistol in his hands.
In an instant, his partner filled with enthusiasm and pulled his pocket Colt.
"Gotcha, piggy!" he grinned.
The inspector turned out not to have been prepared for this turn of events and froze in confusion. I, though, did not hesitate.
I stepped out from the corridor and shouted:
"Police!" And, to enhance the effect, fired a shot up into the ceiling.
In response, a pair of shots clapped out; Robert White sank down into a pile of rubble, his chest shot through. Detective Constable Orso dropped his smoking pistol and fell to the floor like a sack of potatoes. There was a black hole gaping in his forehead. He died instantly. The inspector, though, was scraping his feet on the stones, not having any desire to kick the bucket himself. Blood was bubbling up between his lips. The stubborn man was still trying to gather his strength and reach his pistol.
Before he could, though, I shot him through the head. I simply raised my Roth‑Steyr, aimed it, and pulled the trigger. Just like at the firing range.
"Shit," gasped Inspector White.
"Shit," I agreed, pulling a tin of sugar-drops from my pocket and sending the first candy I happened upon down my throat with a shaky hand.
Robert shined his light at the robber on the pile of rubbish. He had returned to his true appearance after death. Robert then shined his torch on the man’s partner. Death had returned him to his original body as well.
"How the hell?! How'd you do that?" The inspector demanded an answer, mechanically patting his chest and finding it utterly unharmed. "How did you force them to kill each other?"
I shrugged my shoulders, faking ambivalence.
"They were afraid. They were afraid of a police raid, afraid of a cave-in, and afraid of being shot in the back by an untrustworthy partner. I simply took advantage of their fears, and got them to see something that was not there. That is my talent, as you know."
"But I saw it, too!" Robert White bellowed, the volume of his breathing drawing attention to its unevenness. "Curses! I saw you shoot me! You! Me!"
"Fear is inside all of us," I confirmed calmly. "You can't be telling me you never considered the possibility that you could be wounded, or even die, right? I'm sure you're afraid of that, just like everyone else. It's one of the hazards of the profession."
"Do you mean to tell me that you are capable of changing reality itself with the power of your thoughts?"
"More like the power of my imagination. I have an extremely active imagination." I looked at the shot-through robber and shook my head. "And no, I do not have the power to change reality. I only gave it a slightly different face, that's all."
I said nothing about how exactly my talent was fed by others' fears. If I had, the conversation may have gone too far; being accused of black magic was serious, even for one of the illustrious.
The inspector just shook his head and placed his pistol in the holster. I followed his example and asked:
"What now?"
"I don't know," Robert White answered, shining his torch all around the underground room. "I don't see a hole leading into the bank."
"Maybe they hadn't dug it out yet?"
"Or maybe it's in a different room," the inspector decided, calling me after him: "Let's go! We can send all this dog meat to the morgue in the morning."
Leaving the stiffs on the bloodied floor, we turned back toward the fork in the path and walked off down the second corridor. Soon, Robert White slowed his pace and raised his torch, aiming its bright beam into the black maw of an empty door-frame. The darkness immediately dashed off into the corners of the small room with a high cupola-ed roof, revealing rows of dusty sculpted stone benches.
"Check them!" the inspector ordered.
After the recent incident, the desire to crawl headfirst into a new assignment had diminished a good amount.
Before stepping inside, I took my Roth‑Steyr from its holster just in case, but I didn’t need it: in the small room there was neither any person, nor any exit.
A dead-end.
A dead-end, sure, but what kind of room was it?
"Strange..." I muttered, returning my pistol to its holster.
"What's up there?" The inspector elbowed his way past me and scanned from side to side with his torch. "It looks like an abandoned chapel," he declared, deeming it, "old news."
"That could very well be," I nodded and agreed. "Would you be so kind as to point your torch over there, though?!" I asked my boss, indicating the place at the end of the room where, according to my suppositions, there had once been an altar.
Robert White swept the beam of his torch along the far wall and turned back around to leave.
"Let's go!" He called, but I couldn't even get a single word out. It felt like I was having an epileptic seizure.
And I might as well have been. Because a fallen one cast its eyes on me.
Right there and then, he looked at me, and his bottomless eyes sucked into themselves all the darkness, rage and injustice of this world; all that and a bit more.
And there’s quite a lot of that around, mind you.
It isn’t clear...

My consciousness returned from a punch straight to the shoulder.
"Detective constable!" The inspector's roar burst into my oblivion. "Eyes open, now!"
I greedily sucked down some air and crawled away to the nearest bench. I sat on the floor next to it and leaned on it back first. I started massaging my temples with my palms in a pitiful attempt to stop my much-suffering head from exploding.
"What's going on with you, Leo?" Robert White got down on his haunches and touched my shoulder with his fingers. "What happened?!"
"A fallen one," I exhaled. "There..."
The inspector turned to the far wall, then stared at me with unhidden annoyance.
"Are you stark raving mad, Leo?" He wondered acridly. "That's nothing but a statue!"
"Not at all! That is a fallen one, I'm telling you!"
Robert White gave a quizzical snort and shined his torch on the wall again.
"That is a statue," he declared after a short break, not quite as certain this time. "A strange statue..."
The sculpture did, in fact, reflect how wrong he was. It was sculpted down to the smallest detail, as if every fiber, hair and wrinkle were carved into its marble skin, but only above the belt. Its legs were hidden in the wall. Beyond that, it didn’t look like it was being held in the wall, it simply made a smooth transition into the unified whole of the wall, as if the fallen one had been bursting out toward freedom, and only something tiny had stopped it from escaping its stony prison.
"Do you not feel that, inspector?" I asked, overcoming my weakness and leaning more upright against the bench. I got up from the floor and repeated my question: "Do you not feel that?"
I was trying not to look at the fallen one another time, if I didn't have to. To be perfectly honest, I tried not looking at all. The fallen one, even in this stony form, weighed on me with a sensation of limitless power and a sharp non-belonging to this world. Every feature of its stony face reflected its perfection but, all together, it formed something so ideal that nothing human remained in its frozen mask whatsoever.
Ideal without the slightest flaw.
A dead ideal.
And that ideal weighed down on me.
"Do I not feel what?" Robert White seethed with anger. "You are stark raving mad, Leo!"
"You're illustrious, though! You cannot tell me you don't feel that!"
The inspector burned a hole in me with his hateful gaze, approached the statue and placed his palm decisively on its stone chest. I unintentionally followed him with my gaze, not noticing how my attention had once again been seized by the marble sculpture; it held me completely. The fallen one increased in dimension, filling the whole space. Its stone wings, spread in different directions, and began glowing from the inside with an amber light, which only made it seem darker in the chapel. And the eyes... Its black eyes were no longer dead, they had been filled with a boundless darkness. Darkness and something else, like scornful incomprehension.
Its alien willpower was again pressing me down into the floor like an unseen hand. It reached my head. With a gust of transparent wind, it upended my memories. I tried to reach the exit, but my hands and feet were numb. I really don't know how it all would have ended if the torch hadn't burnt out. Its wire started smoking, and the room began filling with the smell of burning rubber. The caustic stench helped me master the ghastly apparition, throw off my consternation and flee back into the corridor.
Robert White jumped out behind me, pulled back on my legs, and pressed me to the wall with his elbow.
"What the devil was that?!" growled the inspector, spittle flying from his lips.
"That was a fallen one!" I shouted, tearing my boss's arm from me and carefully, following the wall, continuing away from the ghastly chapel. "I don't know how it was turned into stone, but that is a genuine fallen one! We must tell the authorities. We must plug up this tunnel system before he makes it out to freedom!"
"Come off it!" The inspector gave me a jerk. "Even if that is so, how many decades has he been collecting dust down here? How many centuries? He can't escape, Leo! There's no way."
"I could have returned him to life. And if I could have, that means others could as well!"
Robert White even took a step back.
"You've gone mad!" he announced.
"No!" I assured my boss. "That's all my talent, my cursed imagination! It's enough for me to simply imagine him free! Do you understand? If I simply imagine it, he will burst out of his stone prison! Freeing him would be easy. Too easy. We need to plug the chapel up!"
"What are you on about?!" The inspector walked up to me again and shook me sharply by the shoulders. "You've always spoken of fear! Of the fact that others' fears could feed your talent and give it power!"
"The fallen are that very power! A pure, totally unclouded power!
Infernal creatures are simply energy incarnated into the material world. They generously shared their power with the mortals who swore allegiance to them and began to act as generators for even more power, but they didn't create electricity, they created death, sorrow and destruction.
In the end, the malefics were forced to settle accounts with these hell-spawn at the cost of their own souls and many others' lives. My talent, though, allows me to use the power of these otherworldly creatures directly, because fear and deadly horror walk hand-in-hand with them.
But that fallen one was too strong. It weighed down on me with an unearthly grandeur and rage. It forced all images from my head except its own. I was merely a tool to it, and I was capable of breaking the curse and turning its stone firmament into living flesh; to it, I was a mindless 'master key' and nothing more.
Giving impetus to such an unnatural metamorphosis would be certain to fry my consciousness, but why should the fallen mind that? Tools do tend to break, right?"
All my admonishments did not seem to be convincing to Robert White.
"That's enough!" he ordered.
"No, it’s not enough, inspector!" Having forgotten my place, I walked up to the man. "Do the fallen not hold power over forces that go beyond the limits of human understanding? Curses! Just remember what they did to the Arabian Peninsula! They simply ripped a fair chunk of it off and chucked it half a world away into the Atlantic Ocean! They needed only a single day to create Atlantis, just one day!"
"That's all hogwash!" Robert White cut me off, pushing me back against the wall. "I'm the final say in all matters, got it? Not a word to anyone. Not Jimmy, not Billy and not Ramon. Not a living soul, do you understand, Leo? That is an order!"
"Yes sir," I grudgingly agreed to keep my silence.
"Then let's go."
Robert White headed for the exit, and I shuffled off in his wake, asking:
"Was its heart beating? Inspector, did you feel its heart beating? You did, didn't you?"
The inspector stopped with a fateful sigh and looked at the palm he had placed on its stone heart.
"It was beating!" He suddenly confirmed. "It was beating, Leo. But be nice and hold your tongue. Alright?"
"Alright," I relented, not wanting to get into a senseless squabble with my boss. "Just deal with this."
"Feel free to check, I'll deal with it," Robert White promised.
And I believed him. He'd handle it. The inspector knew where his interests lie, he wasn’t that kind of person.

When we got out of the tunnel into the barber shop's basement, Ramon Miro was standing with his weapon at the ready against the opposite wall, simultaneously watching over the hole and our captive.
"What’s happened to you lot?!" He asked in agitation, lowering his lupara. "I heard gun shots!"
"Nothing’s happened to us," the inspector answered calmly and took the pistol lying on the table. "Nothing at all," he repeated, shooting the kneeling Judean in the back of the head.
Uri fell awkwardly on his side. A very thin trickle of blood ran down his cheek onto the dirty floor. Then Robert threw the pistol back and let out another gasp:
"Nothing!"
"What devilry was that?!" Ramon marveled. "Inspector, what's going on?!"
White grabbed the constable under the arm and dragged him to the stairs.
"Ramon!" He spoke didactically. "Do you have hearing problems? Did you not hear me? Nothing happened and nothing is happening! Nothing! You weren't here at all, Ramon. Leave it to me."
"How do you mean...?" What the constable tried to do was turn to the executed Judean, but the inspector held him in place and pushed him back toward the exit.
"Leave this all up to me," White declared. "Get out! And send Jimmy!"
So we went. We came up from the basement in silence, striding wordlessly through the empty rooms. Only when we’d reached the dead darkness of the back courtyard did the constable decide to express the doubts that had beset him.
"Has the inspector decided to clear out the bank himself?" he asked directly.
"No," I refuted his proposition. My colleague was clearly expecting something more concrete, though, so I shared a partial truth: "Ramon, you should know that complications of a certain nature have arisen, and our boss has taken them... let's say, a bit too close to heart."
"Is that right?" my hulking partner stared at me with unhidden suspicion, beginning to suspect that he'd been tricked.
"That's exactly right" I affirmed. "The robbers didn't even make it to the vault. Don't worry."
"Ah, then what is it to me? The inspector knows best," Ramon shrugged his shoulders and headed off to find Jimmy.
I nodded and went after him.
To you, it's nothing, and to me it's nothing.
We don't have so many responsibilities. Let the higher-ups deal with the headache.
How could I have been so naïve?

Full release Oct 10, 2016, preorder now

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