XIII. Nell

Classified private note, attached to official Admiralty Report XC-V regarding the loss of HMS Warspite

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Feet tickling. A most ungentlemanly practice.

I don’t like robots. Automata. Mechanised palanquins. Coppers. Even those wheezing, puffing, billowing little teapot things you stick on the table to amuse and delight small children. Mankind was, in my estimation, better off before we discovered that a few drops of water heated to point of molecular weakness can cause a dynamo to turn, a piston to raise or a whistle to toot. I am no machine-breaker; I just long for a day when a good rifled bullet was suffice to stop a man. Had that been the case, many a life would have been saved that night in the alleys of Holborn.

Perhaps I am getting ahead of myself, or too maudlin for my task, which is simply to relay the facts as they present themselves. But I feel I must raise this caveat: steam has its benefits and we have made an empire on its bounty, but our enemies use it too, in ways far more diabolical. There are unethical swine in the world, as I had discovered in the China station. It’s why I brought you that monstrous creation, half-automaton and half mystery, a mummified corpse clad in brass armour. I appreciate that storing it in a tea chest was far from ideal, but I had hoped that your masters would at least have listened with such evidence presented to them. I know you did your best to persuade them, especially after the bother at Southend.

It was their stubborn insistence that nothing was amiss that made me go again so soon. You know that. I could not trust another with my mission, especially with the threat so close to home; Her Majesty’s Government had a dagger pressed silently to its neck, so close it couldn’t see the blade. That’s why I volunteered.

The first problem was gaining entry. Any newcomers were spotted out pretty quickly and weighed up for the possibility of being a cuckoo in the nest. I can play any bricky church-bell lass you want, but the Taipangs do not have our falling of looking only at gender, and they’d wonder why a stranger had turned up for nanty-narking on the fly. I needed an entrance, and I chose Mr Franklin Montgomery Skaldon, Esq. He’d made the sheets enough to be known to them, and it wasn’t hard to ensnare my guide to the party. A red-haired wig, an over-exposure of face paint and my best Mile End accent was all it took, along with a few accidental brushes and suggestions beyond propriety. He was an idiot, especially in what occurred later, and kept calling me ‘Charlie’ out of misplaced affection. Still, he did have some wit about him when it came to it. I remember him telling me how his mother had wished him to be a parson, or if not a parson a physician or solicitor. “She must’ve been right disappointed, then,” I replied, forcing another drink in the oaf. But then he turned, and offered up a rakish little smirk. “Hardly, madam,” he replied. “Mothers never are”.

The bar was your typical slipshod gin Palace; mirrored liquor cabinets and warm beer on tap, with sawdust on the floor and the pervasive scent of pipe smoke wafting from the tables filled with revellers. I often wonder how Hogarth would capture today’s London, and whether it he would view it as alien to his own time, or a kindred spirit of wanton depravity. Twice passersby slipped their digits where they were unwelcome, and twice I dislocated an invasive finger to discourage the practice. Skaldon, for his part, did not attempt to force his affections. He is a buffoon, Kyle, but not an atrocious one. I kept pressing him, and eventually convinced him to make for the stairs. Two flights greeted us: up, into a space above that seemed stark and barren, or down, into the seedy realm of vice and hubris. It flight like Jacob’s Ladder, though I confess I doubt we would have found the Sons of Temperance holding a rally on the first floor; indeed, I suspect it no doubt housed chambers where the wealthy and sordid could indulge their more carnal whims, such as foot-tickling or simultaneous vibrations with multiple partners.

At any rate our destiny was downstairs, and thus we took the darker passage. Here we faced a small door, crooked in nature and with a creaking hinge; it was far too small for the corridor, and seemed to have been hastily erected. I continued my overzealous affectations, and pressed “Deargh Montee” to attain entry. Skaldon rapped on the door.

“I say,” he said. Quite why the workshy classes affect that phrase I shall never know – say, as opposed to what, perchance?

The door opened, and a wizened face looked out. A Chinese man, with whisping grey beard and teeth that marked his internal corruption. “What you want?”

“Pipes, dear boy. I have a guinea.”

“Guinea no good, no pipe here.”

“A sovereign, then. And two clean pipes.”

This seemed to afford us entry. The man shuffled aside, and Monty strode forward into a den of pillowed dreams and heavy air. The room was red, covered in stained cloth of a thick, violent crimson, with a low light and thick, intoxicating mist. My cheeks fell numb as we stumbled through, though I continued to laugh and giggle like a fool, hooked to Skaldon’s arm. He guided us to a bed on the corner; a stained mattress dressed with feather pillows and a loose bolt of silk. The old man bid us sit, then procured the pipes and set us down.

Of course I never entertained the notion of taking a puff of that dreadful narcotic; I was too busy scanning the room. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the old man draw the bead of opium latex onto a needle, and slowly roast it on a single, willowing flame in the centre of the room. His back turned, I could see a doorway at the far end of the opium den, on the opposite wall to the stairwell’s passage. This would be the Taipang room, I wagered. The most dangerous room in any lair is always the one deepest in the complex, and an opium den was the perfect illicit cover. All I had to do was wait until Skaldon drew on his pipe and drifted to the realm of the dragon. Then I could skulk across the room, past the old man, and burst in to the true horrors lurking at the heart of our capital.

The old man turned, and dropped the latex ball into our pipes, twisting his needle as one drops honey into tea. He gave a smile, and Skaldon and I both bent toward our pipes; he to draw deep, and I to feign intoxication.

The tubes never reached our lips. For at that moment a cry went up in the Arms, and clouds of dust sputtered from the floor beams above our heads. The old man turned and hissed at the sound, staring up as if his gaze could penetrate the wood. And, booming in sonorous echo from the Gin Palace above, we heard the proclamation.

“Witch finger! None of you sinnin’ bastards move.”

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