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Carol Jones maintained what she was beginning to realize was an uncommon discipline in the things she remembered. There were, of course, a great many of these things–schedules, stock tickers, phone numbers, the names of all manner of socialite, all of whom bored her to the deep sort of exhaustion that few beyond Wall Street ever have the disprivilege to experience, and lots and lots of maths–and importantly, not all of them benefitted from the mnemonic assistance of paper. Work documentation could cost her a competitive advantage when the rat-nosed would-be partners inevitably came sniffing around her desk after hours, and she couldn’t quite stomach the narcissistic injury of rehearsing her night life contacts on cue cards. But more than anything, it was crucial she never write down–and never forget–that her name was Carol Jones.
She used to be called Charlotte. Charlotte Glossington-Clarke, granddaughter of Edmund Glossington. Before the war, Glossington Industries made a tidy fortune fabricating steam engines. During and after, they consolidated their hold over the entirety of Western Europe’s rail system, pivoted their manufacturing to support combustion engines for aircraft and tanks, and turned that tidy fortune into sprawling, generational wealth and a network of mercantile influence that stretched from London to Delhi. Her mother, Margaret Glossington, was heiress to the entire enterprise. Her father, Samweld Clarke, was a clerk in Parliament and participated in the postwar negotiations with America that birthed the Britannian Confederation. In time, through her family’s connections, Charlotte would have been handed the world. And her parents and tutors agreed: She had the aptitude to seize it.
Her manners and decorum were perfect–albeit, her tutor once remarked, more suited to the station of a young man than a lady–she made friends effortlessly, and her understanding of her grandfather’s business, financial and scientific, rivaled that of both the company’s executives and researchers. Even then, when she would not have the right to vote for over a decade, according to the new 1918 rules, the family was well agreed that she would be their future.
And then they all died. Her parents, her grandparents, her younger sister, some aunts and uncles, family friends and more distant relations–they were gathered at the family estate outside Manchester to celebrate her 18th birthday. And the east wing of the house exploded. And they all died, except for Charlotte. She survived with only a concussion and a migraine, despite the inferno that engulfed her and left charred corpses of her family, despite the debris that buried her for three hours and ought, by the fire brigade’s admission, to have suffocated her. It was a gas leak in the basement, they had said, though they never uncovered more than that. She was numb for months, processing the loss, the new, darker world she wasn’t sure she wanted to live in, the inexplicable, impossible reasons she should have been spared. And while she processed, her family’s empire, logistically unprepared and cut off at the head–at the clavicle, really–crumbled. Eventually, the legal system identified Charlotte as the majority owner of Glossington Industries and its holdings, but by that time the company’s direction had spiraled, and the various arms of the world’s largest rail and military manufacturer had been sold to pay off what should have been routine, operational debts. Most were sold to the heretofore second largest: Hawberk Armoury & Defense. Charlotte received the proceeds, a fraction of what her inheritance ought to have been worth, but her family–and its influence across the civilized world–were gone, vanished in just one fiery, deafening blink.
That was two years ago. Eighteen months ago, defeated and disillusioned, she had decided to kill herself with a bullet to the head from her grandfather’s old service pistol. Once again, she survived, completely unharmed except for a migraine, with a spent and flattened bullet next to her, spat out by her unbroken skull. And then, maths genius that she was, she put two and two together.
She was supposed to be dead, not just probabilistically, but physically. But for some reason her body was rejecting the possibility. She actually couldn’t die. Suddenly taken with curiosity, she quickly differentiated her condition from imperviousness: She could inflict harm on herself easily enough, but somehow, she couldn’t finish the job–and attempting to do so effectively undid some of the injury inflicted leading up to it. Perhaps it was a sign from the universe, or perhaps it was some sort of insane, random happenstance. But either way, it was an option off the table, and the empowerment of that denial of her resignation melded with all of the other emotions that broke, then, through the floodgates of her grief. Her ambition returned. Her determination returned. But neither was toward resurrecting the bones of her family’s legacy. No, she was interested in revenge.
The fire brigade had been unable to conclude anything for certain, but respectfully, they were idiots. She still had the blueprints for the mansion, she knew where the gas lines were, what damage might have resulted from faults in the maintenance, and the explosion, she concluded, was very definitely not a fault in maintenance. A fault in maintenance would have been discovered earlier from the smell or from the small conflagration which would have erupted in the basement–destructively, perhaps, but far less lethally–well before enough methane built up to cause the explosion it did. There was a chance, perhaps, a chance that a small break in the line allowed enough gas to well up over days without leaking or meeting any sort of spark, flame, or current, but that chance was infinitesimal. The civil servants found there was a chance and couldn’t rule it out. But Charlotte knew statistics, and adjusting for some deliberate sabotage, the probabilities worked out much better. The question was who would have done it, and of that she wasn’t sure. But she knew who benefitted from her misfortune: William Hawberk.
To say that Hawberk Armoury & Defense was a competitor to Glossington Industries was technically correct–but only technically. Both companies produced tanks and firearms for the war effort, yes, but due to nigh inexhaustible demand, both were producing and selling at their full capacity to allied governments the world over, with little potential threat each other’s profits. Beyond that, their catalogues had little overlap: Hawberk did not make rail products, and Glossington didn’t touch maritime or naval. More accurately, then, the two were blockades to each other’s growth, each no doubt implicitly interested in the long-run removal or acquisition of the other.
Before the incident, Charlotte was well familiar with the situation. It was one of her grandfather’s most pressing strategic concerns as the war came to its denouement, and he had already made overtures of amicable merger to Hawberk’s representatives. However, the American upstart had rebuffed them. Beyond the background, though, Charlotte knew little about Hawberk or the people behind his enterprise, so when she finally rose from the wreckage of her life, her first project was finding out more.
To her surprise, she discovered that William Hawberk was not an American afterall–at least not by birth. By his admission, he was a British expatriate, though the various exposés she could find stopped there. The man didn’t discuss his former life, it seemed, to the point where he had to explain as much to one pushy reporter in just about those exact words. Moreover, the mother of his daughter, Constance, was pointedly absent from the picture, and whether it was out of good taste or some more intentional behind-the-scenes admonition from Hawberk himself, no source Charlotte could find even touched the question.
This left her with precious few leads on the man or his affairs. The purpose of the exercise, of course, had originally been to get to know the man, to understand the logic by which he operated and to ascertain for certain whether he was capable of killing her family. With the lack of information, she certainly wasn’t going to be able to answer those questions, but the ambiguity prompted a new one: With so much so deliberately hidden, did the man have something to hide? Might as well assume he did.
With this perspective, she shifted her focus. William Hawberk surfaced in New York in 1905 with a small collection of capital that he was able to parlay in a swiftly expanding vehicular empire. On the eve of the European war, he deftly merged those operations with the manufacture of arms and powder, and the rest was history. In the decade preceding, then, where was Hawberk? What crime or scandal might have found him in his homeland and chased him out? There was no shortage of candidates, Charlotte found, over the course of a week of overcaffeinated nights in various libraries throughout Manchester, scrawling reams of yellowed pages of yellow gossip, rumour, and accusation, but eventually, she found the scarcest hint of an answer: a faded, front-page picture of Martin Burke, Marquis of Avonshire, convicted in 1899 for the murder of Baldric Streisand, a minor aristocrat who had made public allegations of salacious indiscretion on the part of the Marquis’ wife. Though differences persisted–from the lines on his brow to the styling of his moustache–Charlotte was certain that Martin Burke and William Hawberk were the same man. And from there, having found the faintest hint of a trail, she began to notice the bodies.
Burke’s wife fell ill amidst the trial and perished before his sentence was even passed–though one particularly bold columnist declared she had died by her own hand–ensuring that rather than being hanged, he would, for the sake of his daughter, be exiled with her to Australia. The official record, a year later, stated that Burke had died in the penal colony at Sydney, but this was where things became murky. The ship captain who had transported him there went missing at sea sometime in 1902. The colony administrator who received him was killed in a riot in 1903, and the doctor who pronounced him dead, Charlotte concluded after some exhaustive research and several telegrams to the other side of the world, was a false identity. Perhaps most brazenly, the judge who presided over Burke’s trial was hacked to pieces in broad daylight in the streets of London by a crazed American businessman who then turned his machete on himself. This was in the spring of 1905, mere months before Hawberk Hull & Armor, precursor to Hawberk Armoury & Defense became an international name.
She’d gone looking for dirt, and she’d damn well found it, but deciding how to use it was a different matter. Exposing the man and his crimes would be nice, but for her, exposure was just a means to an end. It wasn’t necessary, and it wasn’t sufficient–Hawberk would need to die if he killed her family, after all. And besides, the man clearly had more available shears to trim loose ends than she had hands to tug at them. She couldn’t have been the first to notice this connection, and she doubted the dead people she’d found so far were anything more than the most obvious of the lot. She needed more data, so she laid her own ironic designs to get it.
Just like Martin Burke, Charlotte Glossington-Clarke vanished, not in ignominy and cold trails, but with her family dead and her empire liquidated, she was anonymous enough. And just like William Hawberk, Carol Jones arrived in New York, a British expatriate with funds for lifestyle but no personal history to speak of. Because she needed something to recommend her, she established herself trading for Levins & Morris on Wall Street–she had been managing a portion of her grandfather’s portfolio on the London Exchange since she was sixteen, and her returns spoke for themselves–and from there, she worked her way into the city’s social scene. It was touch and go for a little while, a few nights a week of too-sweet cocktails and empty conversation as she scrounged for invites, but eventually, she found the fold. Hawberk, it turned out, was one of the city’s more prolific hosts, and a surprising number of high-profile, semi-public events could trace their finances back to his pocketbook. And he made an appearance at every one.
Carol gleaned fairly quickly that the man’s joviality was artificial. Behind his warm smile and effusive greetings, there was a visible well of fatigue, but she knew why he did it. He was a man who knew reputation was valuable and friends were priceless, though Carol couldn’t say she cared for his friends. He seemed particularly taken with the conversation of Lamont Sterling, son of famed explorer, racist, philanderer, and eugenicist Dick Sterling. While the son was certainly not as toxic as the secondhand reports she had heard of the father, he still seemed like little more than a handsome lush. And then there was Felix Wilde.
From the very first time Wilde’s name came up in conversation, the certainty struck Carol that if anyone in this operation was arranging murder, it was this guy. No one had anything nice to say about him, save perhaps Hawberk himself, who reluctantly described him as “indispensable”. Constance Hawberk, in one of Carol’s first conversations with the girl, referred to him in a hush as “a vicious man”, and Sterling, as well as Hawberk’s other acquaintances, paid their taxes to the man’s presence in rolled eyes and idle wonderings as to what Hawberk saw in him. And yet, despite the nearly ubiquitous misgivings for the man, he seemed to have his disfigured hands in everything. Hawberk’s finances made sense–Wilde was his accountant, after all–but he also seemed to manage Hawberk’s schedule; he booked company travel; and for some reason, he vetted the guests at Hawberk’s parties. Carol had employed some subterfuge to butt her way into her first few events in Hawberk’s circle, but when it came time to show up with her first formal invitation, she was taken aback to find Wilde himself waiting for her at the door, scratching his ill-fitting prosthetic ears.
“A stockbroker, hmm?” he had remarked. “A bit more clever than the usual type. What are you hoping to accomplish?” The way he had intoned the question felt as if it were directed as much at himself as at her, as if he really didn’t care about her input, even on the matter of her own intentions.
“Just trying to enjoy the evening, sir,” she had replied. His response, with a derisive snort:
“I don’t think you will manage it.”
No, this man did not see people as people. But what about Hawberk? While little doubt remained whether Wilde would have been willing to arrange the disaster that killed her family, would Hawberk have actually ordered it? Unfortunately, he was harder to read, not so nakedly unsettling, more genial, more–she hated to admit it–likeable. And despite his nominal presence in the social arena, he was busy even then and spent little time at his events after their commencement. So Carol pursued the next most promising opportunity: Constance.
Constance Hawberk was a charming girl–a phrase Carol couldn’t help but apply in spite of the “charming girl’s” seniority. She was a willful center of conversation, especially at the smaller gatherings where the quality of that conversation had opportunity to outshine the vicarious currency of whom one was conversing with. And perhaps uniquely, especially in contrast to Sterling’s palpable veiled misanthropy, she actually seemed to like most of the people she talked to. Carol had approached her with the intent of worming into her confidence, but it turned out she shared her confidence readily. Moreover, Carol found herself inclined to share some of her own in return.
Despite their different interests–Carol’s in numbers and Constance’s in people–the two had a fair amount in common. They had similar superficial enjoyments–wine, the theatre, automobile drives–a similar uneasy intrigue at the increasingly entangled relationship between Hawberk’s industry and the nation’s politics, and a similar cynicism for the way that high society’s frivolities masked the emptiness of merely being seen, as so frequently seemed to be the goal of the weekly galas and fundraisers. And just like Carol, Constance was rarely content to ride the high of gin through an evening’s pleasantries, instead favoring the anxious brainpower of the portion, like Carol, who found these parties to be an interstitial step toward something more. To which end, Carol had her pegged: Beyond her outward veneer of presentability, Constance Hawberk had much that she worried about and much that she held back. No doubt she was well familiar with the circumstances of her and her father’s arrival in America when she was a child, and though she had been raised American, schooled American–her accent was even American–she clearly knew where she came from and what she had to lose.
Carol couldn’t be sure whether she knew what carnage her father had left in his path across the ocean, but without ever mentioning the particulars, it was sure enough she was uneasy about the whole set of affairs. She had made up her mind some years ago, she told Carol, to find a way that she would no longer have to rely on her father. It was not for lack of affection–she loved her father dearly, and he all but doted on her–but she felt some measure of guilt for living in the shadow of the edifice he had built. Whether she knew of any specific blood spilled upon its foundations was unclear, but she at least had suspicions.
Her efforts had come to fruition last year, though. This fall, she was to be married, dowry-free, to the accomplished Army Major Louis Castaigne. Admittedly, he was only really accomplished on paper. He’d fought on the Western Front, but he’d been late to the game, and Carol knew–as did Louis–that the battles he had been able to claim were really just the Allies’ victory lap. But even so, she believed he would not have shied from real danger, and he seemed like a good man, committed to Constance, to his friends, to the care of his injury-addled brother, all without any guarantee of connection to Hawberk’s largesse. He was a man who believed in himself and the good of those around him, and Carol liked him for it. She also liked him for his affinity for games of chance: His attendance at any gathering was all but a guarantee of a poker game at the afterparty, and she really liked poker.
For her, it was a math game, more contained and manageable than her work in finance, and she was way better at it than the other partygoers. It felt nice. For some few hours out of her week, she was powerful, in control, kicking ass in a male-dominated scene in which she usually felt alone and adrift. And it connected her to them, to Constance, eager to learn the game upon seeing Carol’s success, and to Louis, the rare respectable man in this reservoir of vapid piranhas. The connection was tangible enough that a “Hawberk inner circle” formed about their games, with ancillary regulars like Sterline, some of Hawberk’s business connections, and occasionally, Hawberk himself.
All of this rolled on for months, until last week, when Hawberk elevated his endorsement of their little party tradition to the level of public spectacle. Carol received an envelope at her doorstep containing a boarding pass and an embellished invitation. Some of this had been expected: Hawberk had been planning his celebratory voyage on The Prince’s Emblazoned for some time now, and she had been relatively certain she would be invited. But the invitation she received was not merely for the voyage. It was for a formal game of Five Card Draw the second evening of the trip, a game with a set player list and live music and an audience, staged in the ship’s ballroom. It gave her pause. This started as–had always been about–an effort to get close to Hawberk, to scout her target, to be certain of her ultimate and unexpected revenge. Perhaps the more or less real friendship with his daughter and prospective son-in-law had been a misstep, but it had never actually jeopardized her. This event was an uncomfortable step into the public eye. People whose names she didn’t know and would not learn would be watching her. Journalists–tabloids, but journalists nonetheless–would be watching her. And all of them would have cause to wonder: Who the fuck was Carol Jones, and what was her connection to William Hawberk? Her “mysterious expatriate” backstory had been concocted as something Hawberk himself would not question–the existence of those biographies served his purposes. But she doubted the public had the same respect for that line. And maybe they’d figure it out, maybe they wouldn’t, but the bigger worry was that it might prompt Hawberk to ask questions. Worse than that, it might rouse Wilde’s attention.
But what was the worst that could happen? Even if her identity was exposed, it could raise questions as to possible reasons she associated with the Hawberks, but was it not true enough that she had abandoned her name and homeland to escape the pain of living in the shambles of her family’s former glory in Britain? Might the life and friends she’d found in the States be reason enough to abandon her unexpressed quest for vengeance–vengeance she was, to this day, still unsure that Hawberk even deserved? Cynically, she noted that the answers to these questions depended on who ultimately asked her to justify her deception, if anyone. But one way or another, she wanted to play the damn poker game, so she was going to.
Still, she kept on tracking the possibilities, the lines of risk, the answers she would need to give, depending on who asked, because who found out what. She kept track of them in her head alongside her trading strategies and social webs and the ambiguities of her own damn name, and today, as she met Constance in New York Harbor on the day of their departure with an excited hug and a kiss on the cheek, she remembered it all beside her efforts to solve the day’s newest mystery: Who else was playing in the game?
“I am assuming that you are, Louis,” she said, glancing at the parade of guests making their way onto the ship. “But Constance, dear, do tell, will you be making an appearance?”
“I certainly shall not!” Constance replied with a mischievous grin. “You should’ve guessed I’d go without the courage for it. And besides, a lady like me to be seen playing a miscreant’s game in public? The shame!” The joke prompted a snort from Louis as Carol feigned outrage.
“Alas,” Louis added, “your assumption isn’t as safe as we might have thought. I had been planning to participate, but I relinquished my position just the other day to make up for an unfortunately amusing failure.”
“Well I, for one, am not amused,” Carol sulked, arms crossed with an exaggerated frown. “Tell me, what failure is it that has cost me my primary competition?”
“You see, I–”
“He struck a man with his car, the oaf!” Constance exclaimed. Carol raised an eyebrow, the shock of the statement momentarily breaking her social posture.
“Seriously?” she asked.
“Yes, I’m afraid.” Louis was flushed. “The fellow was uninjured, fortunately. But I felt I needed to make it up to him, both for appearances and for the common decency of it. So I offered him my place in the event, and Bill was kind enough to extend the accommodation. His name is Bennett, and he’s a fine gentleman. A Five Card aficionado by his account as well.”
Carol huffed. That was disappointing. And it prompted wonder at whom it left in the mix. As if in answer, she saw a Rolls-Royce pull up to the curb in the distance. The back door opened, and from it stepped Lamont Sterling, hunched, disheveled, and dead-eyed. It was a sharp contrast to her too-smooth, too-saccharine mental image of the man–he looked like he’d been all but physically assaulted.
“Mr. Sterling will be in it, I believe,” Constance supplied, following her gaze.
“Joy. What on earth happened to him?”
“Haven’t the faintest,” Louis replied. “But he certainly isn’t having his best day.”
“No…” Carol intoned, staring with some incredulity as Sterling flagged down a luggage-laden crewman and hassled him for booze. “Who else, then?”
“Father, of course,” Constance said. “And his friend, Rick.”
“General Barner,” Louis clarified. “The one was stationed in Panama.” Carol smiled. The news was indifferent, of course–she barely remembered Rick Barner and certainly harbored no excitement for his company–but she appreciated that both Louis and Constance understood–and sometimes commiserated with–her despair at the endless revolving door of old, male, military types that paraded through these functions.
“And I know Louis has heard a rumor about the last spot,” Constance needled. Louis looked away, massaging his temples.
“Oh, yes,” he said. “That might be a warning to you.”
“A warning of what?” In the distance, Sterling took a gulp from the flask the crewman gave him, waved a polite greeting to Constance and Louis–that somehow, despite the distance failed to extend to Carol–and beelined for Hawberk.
“Hildred told me that Mr. Wilde has entered someone in the game as well.” Carol turned suddenly on Louis.
“Like I said, Carol, a warning.”
“But why would Mr. Hawberk allow it?”
“I don’t think he wanted to,” Constance said, glancing toward the tree where Felix Wilde waited, observing the boarding process with unnerving fascination. “But you know how it is with Mr. Wilde. Sometimes he insists on things.” Then, as if to change the subject, she added: “I hope that isn’t him.”
Carol followed her gaze toward Wilde’s shaded vantage to see that the short man was accompanied by two others. One she recognized: Hildred, Louis’ brother. He was an aloof, off-putting man, and she didn’t care for his company. She sympathized, though. According to Louis, he had fallen from a horse just over two years ago and fractured his skull, and while he had recovered physically, something had been off about him ever since.
The other man she had never seen before in her life. He wasn’t well-dressed, and this prestigious embarkation of an ocean liner seemed an odd place for him, though she’d seen his type often enough in dive bars the world over. He looked like a poor day laborer, or perhaps a too-old paperboy. Still, she knew well enough that Wilde’s activities were not constrained to–hell, might not even include–traditional accounting. She had heard he maintained a loose network of working class odd-jobbers as messengers, rumourmongers, and amateur spies. What was odd about this one was how much of an eyesore he was making of himself. He was tall, he was staring pointedly at the guests boarding the ship, arriving at the harbor, waiting and socializing. Carol even caught him staring at her, if one can be “caught” in an act they feel no shame for. And what’s more, he was writing, furiously, in a notepad. A notepad! It was so egregiously conspicuous that even Wilde was beginning to notice, and, to Carol’s bewildered approval, he was not pleased. She watched as he snatched the cane dangling from Hildred’s fingers and swatted the tall man in the back of the head, barking something inaudible through the harbor’s bustling din. The man scurried away, toward the gangway, hastily exchanging his notepad for a rumpled boarding pass and stealing one last glance at her. Not at Constance. Not at Louis. Her. Hm.
“Dreadful,” Constance whispered.
“On the bright side, this will certainly be an interesting holiday,” Louis observed. “I wish you the best of luck with that, though, Carol.”
“Ah, yes,” Carol muttered. “Luck.” Not irrelevant in a poker game, but at least it was something she wouldn’t need to remember. Unlike Wilde’s new minion. Wearily, she added him to the list.