Whom Emperors Have Served, Chapter 6: Interrupting an Insurrection

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“Ladies and gentlemen, as entertainment this afternoon, six of us will be competing in a battle of wits and chance.  The game is Five Card Draw, and the rules are as follows…”

Carol listened idly as Hawberk’s announcer moved through his explanation.  The guy had a showman’s voice, offset by a surprisingly honest manner.  She wondered where Hawberk had found him–she didn’t recall seeing him at any functions prior–but wherever it was, he seemed like a good hire.  Mind, she wasn’t terribly preoccupied with the speech’s content.  She knew the rules of the game better than he did–though the caveat that the audience members were able to place their own bets on the players’ fortunes was a surprise twist.  Instead, she took, the time to consider her opponents.

As usual, William Hawberk seemed distracted.  He was at the announcer’s side, considering the crowd carefully.  Carol didn’t know what he was looking for, but it might have been anything.  This was his party, after all, and he was probably evaluating it continuously, by all manner of measures.

The other four sat at the table with her, and they were certainly motley.  Beside Hawberk’s empty chair, General Rick Barner might have been the least conspicuous.  He was a tall, well-fed man who looked only slightly uncomfortable in his tuxedo.  For men of his station–retired generals and old politicians, broadly–he seemed fairly typical: slightly drunk, happy to be there, and so used to being in control that he had fallen out of the habit of actually checking who held the power in a room.  By contrast, Sterling, to the general’s left, had shown up both out of character and strangely contradictory.  Perhaps it was less apparent to the audience, who were fortunate to have never found themselves trapped by one of the man’s egotistical monologues, but he seemed very off today.  He looked drunker than usual, for one.  His tuxedo was rumpled, he was slouching in his chair, and a vaguely unsettling smile seemed to creep onto his lips every few minutes, disappearing each time he adjusted his posture.  But despite his visible inebriation, he seemed more alert than she had ever seen him  Moving his neck only slightly, his eyes swiveled across the room, drinking in both the table and the crowd with an uncanny hunger.  He had certainly noticed her attention, and she did not care for the look he gave her in return.

Next around the table was Louis’ replacement, Bennett Fontaine.  He was, most assuredly, not from around here, whether she was judging by his American frontiersman’s idea of formalwear, his aloof affability in the catty swarm, or his reasonable, though much-maligned pride in his penniless origins.  She saw why Louis liked him.  Despite Louis’ success and Hildred’s faux-dandy lifestyle, the Castaignes were not a wealthy family, and though Louis claimed half-jokingly that he could trace his ancestry to French royalty if he went back a few centuries, his parents had run a middlingly successful polo ranch upstate until their deaths, and Louis’ inclusion into New York’s de facto aristocracy was by virtue of his courtship with Constance alone.  Louis no doubt saw some of himself in Fontaine, and Carol had to respect that, even if it meant her favored opponent would be absent from this game.

And then there was Beau Pierre.  The man had arrived to the table at the very last minute, delayed, she supposed, following their meeting in the pantry.  He looked simultaneously giddy and ill, a reaction of which she approved, given the content of their discussion, though she very much did not trust it–or him.  She had been steeling herself against the possibility of being found out ever since arriving in America, and it was only because of that preparation that she was not rattled now.  She was glad to have confronted him, even if she was irritated with what he told her.  Perhaps he would be an asset, a window into whatever the bloody hell was going on in Felix Wilde’s ledger, but the more timely question, the one Pierre had not answered in any satisfactory way, was what on earth he was doing at this poker table.  Was he truly some unbelievable card shark Wilde had dredged from an underground Jersey cardhall to fix this silly game?  Or was that some sort of inscrutable headfake?  Pierre had thought it the latter, but this only served to reiterate the question: Who was he?

She had her thoughts organized, answers and confusions notwithstanding, by the time Hawberk sat down and play began.  But the game, she discovered, brought its own share of new information.  Somewhere along the line, she had absorbed that saying that at every poker table, there was a sucker, and at the afterparty games with Louis and Constance, that sucker usually easy to spot.  Generally, it was Sterling, as much for his breezy apathy as for any ineptitude, but here, Sterling included, it was different.  The suckers at the table appeared to number three, each for different reasons.

General Barner was, by all accounts, the conventional case.  The man was careless, probably knew little about probability, and had a tendency to go too deep on too-shallow hands.  As went the stereotype, he was having fun gambling instead of winning.  Carol found it distasteful, but she supposed it was for charity.  To which end, Hawberk himself also seemed to be making a point of losing this game.  His mistakes were not a newbie’s mistakes, though.  They were flashy, the type of blunders one could practically only make knowing they were blunders.  He would bet heavily against anyone displaying even the slightest hint of uncertainty, which would have been good play if he did it with anything other than garbage hands.  He was playing up the crowd, Carol realized, feeding the announcer-turned-dealer opportunities for shock and awe.  The strategy, combined with the band’s swingy background music, appeared to be working, and the crew members working the crowd seemed all but overwhelmed managing the audience’s requests for bets on the meta-odds of the players’ successes. 

Meanwhile, Lamont was still playing the role of the sucker, but this time, he knew he was playing a role.  And he played it with distractingly little interest.  Neither his bets nor his draws made an ounce of sense, and it threw Carol at first.  But maybe ten hands in, she realized: He was playing randomly.  At that point, beating his incomprehensible strategy turned from tricky to trivial, but he didn’t seem to care.  He kept up his reservedly acerbic table talk, kept drinking martini after martini, and continued scanning the table, the room, the situation.  Carol wondered what he was preoccupied with.  She chanced a look into the audience a few times during folded hands but found nothing worth that much edge.  Wilde was there, of course, though Carol avoided eye contact with him.  Her own knowledge that he was aware of her deception was a tepid advantage, but it was one she was going to guard as long as she could.  The only other oddity she could spot was that some of Hawberk’s business connections, including the standoffish bunch of Austrians, were absent from the crowd, but she knew there were some meetings planned for later this evening, so it was hard to think too much of it.  She needed to keep an eye on whatever Sterling was concerned with, but the majority of her attention remained on the half of the table that was actually winning.

Fontaine and Pierre, it seemed, were anything but suckers.  Fontaine in particular was clearly a good card player, and more frustratingly, he seemed to be on an improbably long tear of good draws.  Pierre, meanwhile, was no card shark–he barely knew the rules of the game.  What he was was a cheater.  Carol couldn’t tell how he was doing it, but the man was taking inordinate amounts of time with each bet, draw, and any other decision he made.  He would squint at the deck, at his chips, mouthing words Carol couldn’t quite discern, as if talking to himself.  And then he would make the perfect decision, every time, as if he could see the way the hand would go before it did.  Carol wasn’t the only one who noticed–she saw annoyed glances flash across Fontaine’s, Sterling’s, even Hawberk’s face after a number of Pierre’s highly improbable predictions paid off, but for a time, none of them seemed willing to call attention to it.  This wasn’t a game for winning, as much as Carol wanted it to be–it was a spectacle for charity.  But then, after a particularly long time considering the state of the game, Pierre bet a third of his chips and asked for five cards, prompting a scoff from Sterling.

“Oh-kay,” he said loudly, fully audible to the crowd.  “Tell you what.  If you win this one, I’m walking away from the table.”  A hush spread, and Pierre looked back at him, complexion paled, wearing the expression of a schoolboy caught kissing the wrong businessman’s daughter.  Even the band cut off as the quiet spread.  Before Pierre could respond, though, a series of angry shouts rang through the ballroom, punctuated by three gunshots.  Carol whirled to see the crowd part hastily, panicked, around the group of Austrians running into the ballroom in Prussian military uniforms, each carrying a rifle.  Their shouts were in German, but she could follow their meaning easily enough.  On the ground, hands visible, don’t move–predictable set of demands, though some in the crowd found reason to go into hysterics, prompting the Austrians to enforce their instructions with the butts of their rifles.  She didn’t move, though.  No one at the table did, all watching warily as the soldiers approached, leaving a contingent to wave their guns at the crowd.

One of them, whom she recognized from dinner the previous evening–his name was Adolf, she recalled–gestured at Hawberk, and two of the other soldiers approached and lifted him from his chair, walking him swiftly back toward the door.  As those three exited, the remaining fifteen or so soldiers covered their retreat, keeping their rifles aimed into the crowd as they backed up to the door.  Carol felt the weight of her pistol in her pocket as she desperately calculated the best way to pursue them.  The risks were too great while there were so many in the room, though: Even though she was safe from death, the rest of the crowd certainly wasn’t, and the Austrians had a lot of guns.  With each one that filed out, though, her odds got better and better.

Five left now.  She reached for her gun, but apparently, she wasn’t the only one with the same idea.

***

At-fucking-last.  An opportunity for release, if he could only hold his temper, keep his patience long enough to open a strategic angle.  He didn’t mention it to his fellow guests, his uncle, Hawberk, but Lamont took some care not to go anywhere unarmed.  It was one of the few things in his life he spent the attention on.  Keeping the pistol in his jacket out of sight, keeping it maintained and ready to be used, keeping his unnerving willingness to kill hidden from those close to him–it was concession paid both to the fear that he should ever be taken unaware again and to the knife-edge of his psychology, an ultimatum to himself to not let things get bad.  Because if they did, they would get really bad.

He wasn’t out of practice.  He wasn’t actually sure whether the practice could leave him anymore, not with what Zongchang had drilled into him.  His arm knew exactly the motion he would need to draw the weapon, to flip off the safety, to aim a killing shot at the nearest Austrian.  The range was familiar to him.  He would not need to waste time adjusting for it.  All in all, he was sure he could drop three of them before they registered that he–the disheveled idiot at the central table–had a weapon, had dared to fire.  He just needed to wait until the number remaining after those three was a suitably unfair fight.

The vector was improving.  He could see that those who made it out the door were breaking into a run down the hallway.  Gunshots wouldn’t be drawing them back in–they had somewhere to be.  Lamont figured he would find out where that was very soon.

There were seven now.  He’d done better than that before, back when he didn’t care about anything, about any of the collateral damage he might cause, about what might have happened to him when he was half-hoping he would die.  But he didn’t really want to get the crowd hurt–too much of a headache.  And he did actually want to pry Bill out of whatever trap he’d apparently sprung, which meant he didn’t yet have the luxury of devil-may-care.

Six.  An appropriate handicap for his training and the nature of the ambush.  Despite their uniforms and equipment, these militants were clearly amateurs.  Lamont had seen their mistakes frequently enough before, back in Manchuria.  The militia had pulled in all kinds, and it always became apparent which ones had been trained and which ones had been told about training.  These guys were the latter.  Still, the fight was too close.  Just another few seconds.

Five.

Yeah, fuck’em.

With the motion his mind had rehearsed in the tense moments preceding, nearly the same as the one he’d performed hundreds of times before in hundreds of situations infinitely more horrific, modified only for the particulars of his black-tie fashion, Lamont drew his pistol, aimed, and fired.  The closest militant, the one with his eyes on the main table, took the bullet to his forehead and collapsed.  By the time his knees buckled, Lamont had already found his next target: the soft-faced man in the back, taking one last look at the room, mouth open, shouting his alarm at the sudden assault.  The shot went through his neck, cutting his scream short.  The remaining three were turning now, away from their posts monitoring the ballroom’s cowed socialities, toward the resolving threat.  Lamont had one more shot left before he needed to take cover.  It went to the next closest militant, catching him in the ribs.  Then Lamont hit the floor, alongside his fellow poker players, he noticed, as gunfire filled the air above the table.

The crowd shrieked and surged away from the table, determined, it seemed, to give him as little time as possible before the militants realized they could just fill the entire damned piece of furniture with holes.  Lamont waited only for the slightest break in their barrage and lunged out from the side of the table.  He found one of the gunmen and dropped him.  Then he heard another bang beside him and watched the other collapse.  He turned, expecting to see General Barner.  Instead it was Carol Jones, teeth grit, with her own smoking revolver gripped in clenched but steady hands.  She was an unlikely ally in this effort–at least he would have thought so–but the unpacking would have to come later.

He stood, gun still raised, confirming the room was clear.  The crowd was screaming, all but stampeding to the doors opposite those where the Austrians had exited.  Amidst the din, he could hear Louis’ voice, desperately urging calm, and, confusingly, the warbling of a clarinet, as some contingent of Ira’s band played through the panic.  They could worry about evacuation–his interests lay at the other end of the room.

He jogged to one of the Austrian corpses and knelt beside it, beginning to dig through the dead man’s pockets.  Visa papers.  A knife.  Some dollar bills.  Ammo for the rifle.  But no communication, notes, anything that might tell him what he could expect from pursuing them.  Whatever–it was a long shot anyway.  He glanced up.  Carol had followed him and was waiting over his shoulder, gazed fixed on the roiling crowd.

“I’m going after Bill,” he said, grabbing her attention.  “You with me?”  She nodded, taking one last look at the crowd before following him into the hallway.  They only barely reached the exit, though, before the entire ship lurched, tipping the floor nearly thirty degrees and almost sending both of them sprawling back into the ballroom.

“What was that?” Carol shouted.  Lamont looked down the empty hallway, heaving himself back to his feet.

“Seas were calm,” he replied.  “So we hit something, or something hit us.  By the direction, I’m thinking the second one.”  He stalked down the hallway toward the stairs the Austrians must have taken, as Carol scrambled upright and followed.  “How big of a boat did they bring to this, anyway?”

Furtively, he leaned into the staircase, only to reel back at the sound of shots.  He made eye contact with Carol.  She shook her head, surprisingly calm.  He intuited her meaning and agreed: Whomever they were shooting at, it wasn’t them.  Carefully, aiming his pistol down the stairs, he proceeded into the stairwell and descended toward the echoing gunfire.

They made it one floor down.  Nothing was there, and the gunshots were still lower.  Lamont continued downward, catching sight at last of one Austrian leaning into the exit below, breathing heavily, aiming his rifle away from them.  Lamont shot him in the head, but the shout of surprise from directly below them took him off guard.  Another militant, previously hidden beneath the staircase, stepped into view, firing a mostly indiscriminate spray of bullets in their direction.

Lamont reeled back, grabbing Carol by the shoulder as several shots burst through the floor of the staircase, missing them by inches.  The shots were searching.  The soldier had lost sight of them, and he didn’t seem to be deducing their position very well in his panic.  But his random guesses were pinning them unfortunately well on the mid-flight landing.  As it was, they were trapped against the wall, and this one was staggering his shots well enough that Lamont couldn’t tell when or if he was taking time to reload.  And then, almost in slow motion, Lamont saw something shimmering fall through the gap in the stairwell above them.  He heard the sound of glass shattering, and the shots stopped.

“You okay down there?” called a voice from above.  Lamont took a moment to place it.

“Fontaine?” he called back.  “Is that you?”

“Yep!  Lucky I was in time.  Even if that probably means you had ‘em.”

“Not so sure I did,” Lamont muttered as Fontaine rounded the landing above them.  He was toting a rifle, presumably lifted from one of the corpses they had left in the ballroom.

“He definitely didn’t,” Carol added.

“Oh, well, good.  Have you found out where they’re taking Mr. Hawberk?”

“Up until a minute ago, I thought they were taking him to whatever boat just crashed into us,” Lamont replied softly, moving down again toward the men they’d just taken out.  The one Lamont shot was facedown in the hallway outside the stairwell, his blood staining the gold carpet an ugly brown.  The other was flat on his back, still breathing in spit of a serious-looking gash on his forehead.  Shards of glass peppered the floor around him.

“What did you hit him with?” Carol asked, eyeing the rifle on Fontaine’s shoulder.

“Vase from the table in the ballroom,” he said.  At Carol’s incredulous frown, he added: “I don’t know what to tell you–it seemed like a good idea at the time.”

“You’ll have to explain that one to me later,” Lamont said, stuffing his pistol back in his jacket and picking up the fallen soldiers’ rifles.  He handed one to Carol.  “I don’t know how much time we have or whether whatever schism these guys are having buys us any, but best this guy isn’t armed when he wakes up.  We gotta keep moving.

Carol and Fontaine nodded their agreement as Lamont proceeded into the hallway, freezing at what he saw.

Protruding through the hallway, presumably through the entire breadth of the unoccupied guest cabins on the outer perimeter of the lower deck, was something that Lamont felt forced to describe as a bulwark.  Though he could only see one side, he assumed the variegated surface, the amalgamated combination of so many sheets of welded and riveted scrap metal, made up a portion of a makeshift ramming prow.  But between its ersatz construction and its unscrewed design–hanging on one hinge from a hole in the bulwark were the splintered remains of a door, a fucking wooden door, complete with a knocker and a “Welcome!” sign–Lamont didn’t know whether he was more surprised that this monstrosity of un-engineering had been successful or that someone had tried it at all.

“That’s not good…” Fontaine said, rounding the corner behind him.  Lamont felt that a point was being missed, but the man wasn’t wrong.  Beyond an additional dead Austrian in the hallway, sprawled before the bulwark with what looked to be most of his neck missing, the way forward was clear.  Reading his rifle, Lamont advanced toward the broken door.

He opened it carefully, balancing it against the ragged metal frame along its distended hinge.  As he did, Carol hissed in shock, for good reason.  The interior of the bulwark–it was, as Lamont had suspected, a ramming prow–was a mess of deformed scaffolding, shadows cast in the cavity by the late afternoon sun, and gore.  There were bodies and body parts, all Austrian by the look of it, hanging from rebar, slumped over the tin gangway protruding through the structure, floating in the seawater that sloshed into the unused crew quarters the prow had also penetrated below them.  Lamont could count six bodies among them, but they were all very dead.  Whoever or whatever might have killed them was nowhere to be seen, and what was to be seen prompted many more questions.

Before them, on the opposite end of the gangway, was a pile of trash given form so bewilderingly anomalous that Lamont–otherwise unbothered, even comforted to some unhinged extent by the carnage in the passage–could do little else but stare.  About half of the surface seemed to be black rubber sewn into itself with veritable miles of steel cable, partially entombing all manner of nautical detritus.  There were hulls of small fishing boats, kayaks and canoes, boards, bars, iron rods, and aluminum sheets.  Numerous boat engines of as many shapes, sizes, and purposes protruded from the mass at every angle.  But none of those details threw him so completely as the fact that what waited for them on the other end of the gangway, adhered to the trash heap by untold compromise to structural integrity, was a concrete porch, adorned by another wooden door, two metal buckets–from which drooped two great garlands of seaweed off the sides the concrete–and, above the door, a neon sign on which glared the words, a name, unasked for and without context: “The Nicholas”.

“Is that…a submarine?” Fontaine asked.

“Don’t you fucking dare,” Lamont spat, taking a shuddering step onto the gangway.  “Way I see it, Bill’s either on that thing or he’s still on the ship, and this one’s way more important to rule out.”

“Agreed,” Carol said.  “Let’s go, we have your back.”  Lamont looked over his shoulder, again taken aback by Carol’s lack of apprehension.  He hadn’t floated the possibility of her waiting behind, though given the likelihood of encountering whichever violent maniacs had kill the Austrians, he had expected her to push for it anyway.  Still, he couldn’t say he was upset to have the backup.  Among them, it was actually Fontaine who seemed the most rattled, but he made no attempt to stay behind either.  Slowly, Lamont traversed the gangway, ducked under a hanging, dismembered arm, stepped onto the porch, put his hand on the doorknob, and pushed.  With only slight resistance, the door opened.

Inside was a darkened hallway, lit only by strips of orange light running along the ceiling.  He could see very little as he entered, but as his eyes adjusted, Lamont made out the details of the vessel’s architecture, strangely more practical inside than out.  The floor, clanking against the leather of his shoes, was a grate, and beneath him he could see the wavering surface of water, apparently still, contained purposefully in this hallway presumably as part of some makeshift ballast.  The walls, judging by a cursory prod, were the same black rubber that made up most of the outer hull, though this interior surface–which, Lamont noticed, encompassed the backside of the door they had entered–was mostly covered by a layer of sopping wet algae.  Down the hallway on either end were a number of pipes, tanks, and devices, with apparent purposes ranging from readily intuitive to utterly incomprehensible, and a single similarly rubber-sealed door.  Sweeping the hallway once more with his rifle, Lamont made for it.

At the entryway, he noticed Hawberk immediately.  The man was lying still in his white dinner jacket on the solid floor beyond the second door, but Lamont resisted the inclination to rush in.  He scanned the room beyond carefully: Glowing dials and digital readouts littered the walls before a number of empty chairs.  The room smelled of coffee and mildew but not blood.  And he listened: Beyond a faint digitone and the muted crash of the sea, there was nothing.  Fontaine, either fearless or stupid, pushed past and knelt beside Hawberk.  Lamont and Carol entered after him, guns raised, eyes everywhere else.

“He’s breathing,” Fontaine confirmed.  “Can’t find a wound or anything.  Not even a bruise.  Maybe they drugged him?”

Maybe they did!

The gravelly giggle echoed through the tight, metal chamber, its origin obscured by the resonance as Lamont wheeled, trying to find a target.  Then the door to the room slammed shut, accompanied by the solid thunk of a large deadbolt sliding into place.  He ran to the door, but he knew, even without examining it, that the four of them weren’t breaking out of there any time soon.

***

Beau’s head buzzed.  That was certainly interesting.  And timely!  The Austrians’ interjection had, if not saved his reputation, at least postponed the trouble he was in.  And the suspense after they burst in had been something to behold: The crowds thrummed while the Austrians, Hawberk, most of the center table all followed a defined, low-variance track.  In nearly every world, the stupid mustache-man was going to walk up and grab Hawberk, and everyone else was going to stay still about it.  Except as soon as those two left, Lamont Sterling and Carol–Charlotte?  Charolette?–lit up like violent carnival rides.  The images and scenarios were so complex, Beau actually couldn’t tell when they were going to fire, though it seemed pretty clear that they would.  And when their retaliation resolved, and the room exploded in brilliant chaos, he found his eyes drawn to a particular constancy across the table.  Lamont and Carol–and Fontaine, he supposed–were all about to make their erratically-defined circuit, chasing after the retreating danger, but Hawberk’s friend, this General Barner, was very determined to bolt in the opposite direction.  It wasn’t like the crowds shrinking away from the scary soldiers, either–the path of his possibilities would fray in that case, drawn toward the numerous hiding spots he might seek.  No, he was going somewhere with a plan.

There were lots of bodies going in the same direction, but their eyes were still on Lamont’s pursuit.  Beau figured he was likely the only one to have noticed Barner’s odd behavior, so as the others made off, he made his own chase, eager to find what the general was up to and how it played into Wilde’s web of plans and worries.

As he pursued the general through the crowd, he had to push his way past a number of bodies overwhelmed by stay-or-go confusion as Louis Castaigne attempted to rally them all to a calm and coordinated evacuation.  It was going middlingly, and by the time he reached the hallway, there were not zero hysterical passengers running alongside him and Barner.  It all had an upside, though: In the diminished crush outside the ballroom–and the sparser chaos that emerged as the ship suddenly heaved sideways, throwing Beau, the general, and at least fifteen other passengers forcefully into the opposite wall–Beau’s intentions were thoroughly disguised.  If the general had reservations about being followed, which, judging by his visible agitation, he might have, it was still unlikely he would be able to identify Beau tailing him amidst the masses.

Increasing his following distance as Barner found the stairs, Beau followed him down to the uppermost passenger deck.  Waiting just around the corner of the stairwell, he heard a door slam shut.  Taking the cue, he entered the empty hallway and attempted to discern which door the general had disappeared behind.  It wasn’t especially difficult, considering his abilities.  He simply concentrated on the doors themselves.  The majority remained dull, inert, illuminated only by the most remote possibility that someone–Beau himself, most likely–would try to force them open in the near future.  One fluttered far more than the rest.  Parsing the outcomes that fanned before him, Beau recognized a bell curve spanning seven to fifteen minutes out.  He leaned against the wall, pulled out his notepad, and waited, jotting his impressions of the rapid development of events as the general settled whatever affairs remained in his quarters.

It was a tense wait, his volume of thoughts notwithstanding.  The general was taking longer than the mean outcome, it seemed, and his emergence was now looking closer to–Beau checked his watch–the fourteen-minute mark.  This would not have been especially concerning if not for the gunfire that he was beginning to hear.  It seemed that whatever altercation Lamont and Carol were chasing was not going to be contained to the other side of the ship.  More distressingly, the sounds were getting closer.  Finally, the general’s door opened, and he emerged into the hallway with a satchel slung over one shoulder and a revolver in his free hand, both of them appearing somewhat disjointed in contrast to the tuxedo he had not changed from.  He paused, noticing Beau.

“Son, what are you doing here?”

Beau lowered his notepad, but before he could respond, a pair of Austrians ran into view at the end of the hallway behind the general.  One of them turned, aiming his rifle the way he came, only to collapse backward, blood spattering from his face as a deep blast rang through the corridor.  General Barner whirled, aiming his gun at the remaining Austrian.  The Austrian–Beau realized belatedly it was their mustached ringleader–seemed much more preoccupied with whatever was chasing them.  He raised his own pistol at the unseen assailant, only to be struck by a whirling projectile, pinning him by the shoulder to the wall behind him and knocking the pistol from his grasp.

General Barner lowered his own gun, confused at this development, and Beau took a step forward to view the situation beside him.  The object that had fastened the struggling soldier to the wall appeared to be…a fire axe.  Certainly an unusual throwing weapon.  He wondered which of the combatants from the ballroom might have thrown it, but his wonder was interrupted by a sharp inhalation from Barner.  He turned inquisitively to face the general.

It is a strange thing to watch realization–to which one has no access of his own–dawn on another man’s face.  Beau had seen it once before, at a field hospital just off the Front, but that man had taken his realization to the grave.  Beau had not been sure at the time what emotion had accompanied it, but now, as he saw the color drain from Barner’s face, he recognized it as terror.

The next few seconds were distressingly eventful.  General Barner shakily raised his revolver, moving his thumb to cock the hammer.  At this same moment, a figure in a tan trenchcoat–not Lamont, not Fontaine, and certainly not Carol–rounded the corner, scooping up the dead Austrian’s rifle in a smooth, improbably fast motion.  Before Barner had finished cocking his gun, the newcomer had swept the rifle under his arm one-handed, aimed down the hallway, and fired.  Beau froze as Barner staggered to the floor, clutching his stomach.

“Ricky!” the newcomer called.  “Foundya!  Good to see ye one last time!”  Beau took a step back as Barner groaned but froze again as the man hefted the shotgun in his other hand in Beau’s direction.  “Tsk!  No movin’ now, laddie.  We’ve got business ‘n a moment, we do.”  His accent was thick, a bizarre mix of Irish and Caribbean, perhaps?  Beau couldn’t quite place it.

And now that he had a moment to study the man, he wasn’t sure what to make of him.  His coat was bedazzled with such a multitude of medals, pins, and other miscellaneous adornments that he practically jingled as he approached.  His face, visible, wild-eyed beneath the brim of his fishing cap, was unkempt, dirty, his beard untrimmed and uneven, and his clothes beneath the coat appeared to be a patchwork combination of numerous nations’ military uniforms, right down to the apparently mismatched boots.

“Aug…” the general groaned.

“Y’don’t got much breath left, Ricky.  ‘Sides, I be goin’ by Kneecap now.  Captain Kneecap.”  Barner looked up in pained bewilderment.  Despite his attempts to hold it in, blood was pouring from his wound, running over his hands and spreading across the white of his shirt.  “So…” Kneecap continued, yawning.  He gestured to Barner’s satchel.  “Ye bring the good stuff?”

“Not…for…” Barner wheezed.

“Not for me?  But ye see, it’s all for me, and for all the rest besides!”  Kneecap smiled.  “It’ll do, Ricky.  Bye, now!”  So suddenly that Beau’s sixth sense didn’t even predict it, Kneecap flicked the barrel of his shotgun up at Barner’s head and fired.  Between the sound of the blast and the hot, wet spray of blood, Beau found himself staggering backward.

He took a deep, panicked breath–the air tasted like salt and iron and powder–and refocused his dizzied gaze on Captain Kneecap, who just stared at him quizzically.

“Ye alright there, laddie?”

“You, uh, mentioned business?” Beau stuttered.  The world was pulsing as blood pounded through his temples.

“Aye, we–waitta minute, let me guess…”  Kneecap froze, locking his off-tempo swagger into complete and uncanny motionlessness.  From it, Beau perceived a clear line of consecution emanating from him: In exactly ten seconds, Kneecap would slowly angle his shotgun at Beau and fire.  95% chance.

“Wait, no, please,” Beau objected.  “Let’s t–”  Kneecap laughed as the specters of possibility vanished around him.

“Ye can see somethin’ from that, then?” he asked, either mirthful or mocking–Beau couldn’t tell which.  “Yer one of us, all right.  Come on, then!”  He tossed the Austrian rifle in his left hand to the ground, grabbed Barner’s satchel, and turned back down the hallway.

After a few paces, he looked over his shoulder.  Beau tepidly met his gaze, having not yet mustered the courage to move.

“Ye comin’?”

“I’m sorry?”

“Are ye comin’?  We got places to be!”

Dazed, Beau wandered after him.  Was this a dream?  Had he gotten shot at some point in this process?  Was this “Captain Kneecap” some sort of psychological manifestation of his disturbed subconscious?  He halted abruptly, not realizing Kneecap had stopped to consider the Austrian ringleader.  The man had managed to pry the fire axe from his shoulder and had collapsed, heaving, against the wall, his pistol inches out of reach.  Kneecap did not seem especially concerned about the firearm, however.  Instead, he seemed vexed, peering into the man’s enraged glare.

“I started wondering, since it happened, I don’t know why,” he said.  For a moment, his mercurial, affected accent was gone, and he sounded like an American Midwesterner.  “If I had the opportunity to go back and kill Hitler, would I do it?”

“What…?” Beau asked, looking between the two men.  The Austrian’s rage was now tinged with confusion and some shade of fear.

“I think yes,” Kneecap said.  He pointed his shotgun at the man’s head and pulled the trigger.

Beau winced again as the red and black mist pelted him.  Kneecap looked back, a deranged twinkle in his eye.

“Alright now, laddie–back to the ship!”

“The…ship?” Beau asked.

Top Image: Danger 5

Whom Emperors Have Served, Chapter 5: Gremlins in the Gears

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It was monumental.  It struck awe.  He had gotten many a glimpse of the vessel from his various stations across the harbor, but aboard, inside, in person, The Prince’s Emblazoned was a veritable wonder of human experience.  Beau Pierre was indefatigably thrilled to be here, and not even the other guests’ dismay at his presence could deflate that.  Oh boy were they dismayed, though.  Unfortunately for him, the voyage was not crowded, given the celebratory and exclusive nature of the event, and the lack of crowds meant there was little to obfuscate his presence from the other passengers, who, it turned out, were about as unlike him as people could be.

Beau was not the only person out of place here.  Beyond Hawberk’s insular crowd of Manhattan socialites, there were a number of clear business connections–officers of the Army and Navy, a particularly boozy delegation of Hawberk’s employees from London, a reserved cabal of longtime industry collaborators from Bombay, a set of cagey and rather rude Austrians whose connection to the group Beau could not intuit, and one lost-looking bourgeois gentleman whom he surmised might be the replacement player Wilde was so upset over–but even among them, Beau stood out.  These groups weren’t part of the scene, and their interactions with the New York group were tepid, polite, and experimental.  Beau couldn’t be part of the scene.  Any scene.  His dress, his mannerisms, his social intuitions were all unignorably wrong, and even without accosting a single passenger, he earned a week’s worth of derisive stares each time he stepped into a room.  Hildred’s performative anger the previous morning aside, Beau had been given neither the time nor the resources to craft an upper crust persona, and he would just need to work with what he had.

What he had were out of the way alcoves, a rapport with the crew–which he was nominally a part of–and an evolving dossier of “the situation”.  Between Wilde’s briefing and some pointed questions to his crewmates, he had pieced together a reasonable depiction of who all was here for what.  The New Yorkers and Londoners were here to party, and they seemed to be a mix of the sort of people who made parties–like aviator-turned-playboy, Lamont Sterling–and the sort of employee or connection who might be bribed with an invitation to such a party.  The Indians and Austrians were here for business meetings, whether the kind explicitly scheduled or the kind they were hoping to have ad hoc, Beau didn’t know which, and still others–Hildred’s brother, Louis, and Constance Hawberk–were there just to make the appropriate appearance amidst Hawberk’s display of his empire’s reach.  Most aspects of it made sense.  What still eluded him, though, was why Wilde was so pissed about it all.

The meeting with the little man had been fascinating.  Beau could see well enough why he struck such visceral fear into the degenerates of his King in Yellow society.  The man knew everything: every dirty secret, every guilty pleasure, off-hour schedules, first loves, forbidden loves, your stupid shellfish allergy and the date you learned about it.  It was a crazy array of dirt and data that a well-funded spy network would struggle to collate, all stored in the diminutive crevices between the little gremlin’s brain and his ledger.  Beau found it hilarious.  Threatening, certainly, but he was caught up in the insanity of the ride, consequences be damned.  

What became clear immediately upon Wilde’s explanation of Beau’s responsibilities on the voyage was that his declared reason for being there was bullshit.  The stakes of today’s poker game were $10,000 per player, for a total of $60,000.  The winner would receive half the total pot, and the remainder would be donated to a set of homeless shelters in New York City, meaning the sum total of what Beau could even save the company was…$30,000.  Worth his ticket price, sure, but it was pennies to a conglomerate like Hawberk’s.  And Beau was sure that much more was being spent just taking this ship for a ride in the first place.  It was odd that Wilde would even care about the small change, but whether or not he actually did, he cared about something on this voyage a lot.

It was easy enough to see that Wilde was a…characteristically irritated person, but Beau took note of his particular irritations.  A common theme among them seemed to be xenophobia–he spent nearly an hour the first day at sea interrogating members of the Austrian and Indian groups that were unlucky enough to be separated from their companions at the wrong times–but it could just as well have been a paranoid hatred of surprises.  Wilde seemed every bit as peeved with Mr. Fontaine, the bourgeois late-add, despite him being possibly the most American American Beau had ever met, and this was to say nothing of the man’s preoccupation with the horizon.  Beau had come upon him and Hildred the previous day atop the viewing deck to find the little man perched upon the railing, anxiously scanning the distance with a spyglass.

He inquired as to whether Wilde had concerns as to the possibility of a pirate attack.  The man responded by beating him angrily with said spyglass.

It was all very suspicious, he thought, but it was also frustratingly opaque.  Today, he was trying to glean more from the loose ends that weren’t Felix Wilde himself.  He’d washed and pressed his clothes so as to shrink the gulf between him and the other guests, and now, amidst the post-lunch preparation for the much anticipated poker match, he was lingering by a buffet table in the dining room, trying to eavesdrop on the Austrians, who had not yet left their table.  His German wasn’t great, and he was having a hell of time following the particulars of their dialect, but he was piecing their body language together with the words he did understand as best he could.  They were stressed, that was certain, and it seemed to be a matter of being ready for a meeting this evening–or a boxing match?  The former was probably more likely, but he made a mental note to check the lower decks after the poker game.  He was a betting man, after all, and free money was free money.  At that moment, he caught an angry glare from the one he assumed was the boss–an intense man with side-slicked hair and a square tuft of mustache on his upper lip–and he failed to notice the other individual who took that moment to approach him.

“Tell me what you’re doing here.”

Beau twitched to attention, suddenly registering the woman next to him.  She was pretty, brunette, in a smartly-tailored jacket and skirt ensemble that more closely resembled a man’s business suit than the fashionable, vaguely formless dresses the other female guests wore.  She didn’t seem happy with him, though he had no idea why.

“Sorry, what?”

“I’d like to get it out of the way before the game,” she said, putting a hand on her hip.  She had a British accent, but he didn’t recall seeing her with the London group.  “What does Wilde have you doing here?  What weird thing is that weird, little man trying to inject into all this?”  Beau nodded.  Yes, that was right: She was another of the players.  He glanced down, flipping his notepad to the list Wilde had given him.

“Ah, yes, Miss…” he said, struggling to decipher his chicken scratch under pressure.  “Glossington-Cla–”  He suppressed a yelp as the woman grabbed him by the arm, nearly hard enough to dislocate his shoulder, and all but dragged him from the dining room.  “Wait, Miss, I’m–”

She pulled him around a sharp turn, through the doors, and shoved him into what appeared to be a pantry.  Beau noticed that the color had drained from her face, and a frightening rage had ignited in her eyes.

“My name is Carol Jones,” she hissed, drawing a revolver from her jacket.  “What did you call me?”  Beau froze, eyes fixed on the gun and the spectral possibilities emanating from it.  Odds were…one to two that it fired in the next minute.  Not comforting at all.

“Um,” he searched.  “I’m sorry, uh.  Maybe Mr. Wilde’s list was wrong?”

“FUCK!”

Beau winced as the woman stepped forward, jamming the revolver into his neck.  He looked down, frozen, trying to keep calm.  Carol was still pissed as hell, but her expression was more desperate now, as if she was trying to read something from him.  And the gun…odds were one to five now.  Better, he guessed?

Shaking, he slowly raised the notepad, open to the player list, offering it to her.  She snatched it, taking a step back and shoving him into a rickety, can-laden shelf with the barrel of the revolver.  She glanced at the notepad and, taking the gun off him for just a second, tore the page from it.

“Alright,” she said, pocketing the page and reorienting her aim.  “Tell me everything.  Who are you?  What are you doing on this ship?  What does Wilde want?”

“Uh, my name’s Beau,” he stammered.  “I’m here because Mr. Wilde wants me to win the poker game to save the company money–”  He raised his hands as she put her finger on the trigger.  “And–and I know it sounds stupid and fake, and I think it’s just an excuse, and I’m trying to figure out what he actually wants too!”

He held his breath as she kept the gun trained on him for ten more seconds of silence.

“Fuck!” she spat again, lowering the gun.  She turned, shoving a stack of canned beans to the floor.

“If it helps any–”  He gulped as she turned her gaze back on him.  “If it helps, I think he’s pretty worried right now.  Like he thinks something is about to happen.”

He caught his breath as Carol paused.  She seemed surprised by his conjecture, but it was hard to tell why.

“It’s probably not about me, then,” she said.  “Still, fuck!  This entire time!”  She refocused on Beau.  “Alright, first thing, again: My name is Carol.  Miss Jones, to you.  Forget what Wilde told you, forget what you wrote down.  If you ever repeat that other name again, I will make you regret it.  Understand?”

Beau nodded eagerly, happy at the turn the confrontation had taken and relieved that his chances of being imminently shot had grown remote.

“Second, how much is Wilde paying you?”

“I mean, he’s mostly blackmailing me,” Beau admitted.  Carol groaned.  “But.  But!  I’m totally willing to negotiate if you think you can keep me away from the French authorities.”

“Okay…” Carol mused.  “Okay.  And here I was thinking this trip might be a deescalation, but I guess now’s the opportunity for…something.  We can compare notes at the very least.  If you don’t sell me out, I have some resources that could help you.  And if you do…”

“Regret, yes, got it.”  Carol nodded, apparently satisfied.

“Details then: What is it that has him so worr–”

She was interrupted by a deafening blast of the ship’s foghorn.  The sound resonated through the pantry, shaking the shelves and causing the various stacks of cans and foodstuffs to sway precariously.  Carol sighed.

“Damn,” she said.  “We’ll have to talk later.  That was the thirty-minute warning, which means we’re expected in the ballroom.”  She turned to leave.  “I’ll see you there, I suppose.  And take care with what you report to Wilde–I’ll be listening.”

With that, she exited, hastily returning the revolver to her jacket pocket.  Beau sighed and slumped against the shelf as the adrenaline seeped out of him.  He had no idea how she intended to listen in on his conversations with Wilde, but he didn’t really intend to betray her.  Not yet.  In this mystery of a battleground–or battleground of a mystery?  It was certainly some combination of the two–he was interested enough to just explore the sides.  Still, he made a mental note of one planned transgression:

Charlotte Glossington-Clarke.  He didn’t know the name, but perhaps he should.  If he made it back to dry land, unperforated by any revolvers as it were, he would need to make a point of looking it up.

Whom Emperors Have Served, Chapter 4: Lucky and Listless in a Sea of Loathing

Reminder that some of my work is now available in ebook and paperback form on Amazon. If you like what you read and are interested in supporting my efforts, I would greatly appreciate a purchase and/or review!

For most of his life, Bennett Fontaine had no more luck than he made himself.  Back in San Francisco, he nearly even slipped through the cracks.  This was both literal and figurative: He was the youngest of eleven siblings, and due to space constraints in the family’s tiny, sub-basement apartment, he was forced to sleep in what should have been a utility closet.  The floor of the room was in perpetually poor repair, the foundation beneath it was similarly crumbled, and the number of times he almost fell into a hole in the floorboards to be unceremoniously swallowed by darkness, mortar rot, and the pooling stench of the sewer line beneath them, well, he had lost count before he was seven years old.

Then the figuring: The plague hit in 1900.  His brothers brought it home from the sweatshop, and within the week, the whole family had it.  His father died.  His brothers died.  Two of his sisters struck out too.  In the end it was his mother, his four oldest sisters, and him.  They hadn’t started out on top of the world, but suddenly even more destitute and overwhelmed, his mother reached out for help.  She still had some family in Brooklyn.  With the last of her savings, she moved the family there.

It proved to be a good choice–Bennett considered it luck she made, and it changed the way he saw the world forever.  He resolved to his ten-year-old self that he would take advantage of everything the world gave him, and he would never stop looking for a “lucky” opportunity, even when it was swimming in an ocean of dead ends.

Through a family connection, he got a job as a busboy at Carl’s Pub on the first floor of their building.  His wages went toward the family bills, of course, but his tips went toward…education, of sorts.  At the end of each day, he would take them to the table in the corner, where the same old women–Claudine, Lettie, and Adeline–played cards all night, every night.  And whether it was cruelty or just a lesson in hard knocks, they took every single nickel he had, every single time.

When he was old enough, he bid his mother and sisters a fond farewell and set out to find his own fortune, hopping from town to town all the way down to New Orleans, trying on hat after hat, apprenticeships, sales gigs, a short stint in shipping.  The only thing that took was card playing on his residual wages, but that didn’t turn out to be such a bad thing.  Bennett realized fairly quickly that the old bats at Carl’s must have been the sharpest card sharks east of the Mississippi, and now that he wasn’t playing with them, he was winning a lot.

He wasn’t especially lucky–he could play his way out of his money easily enough if he got sloppy–but he made his own luck.  And when he buckled down, that luck made him enough money to live comfortably if not luxuriously.

Then about two years ago, something weird happened: He became actually lucky.  Aces would crop up in his hand in pairs and threes every other deal.  Throwaway draws would turn into straight flushes.  He would win without even trying, and he wasn’t the only one to notice.  After getting banned from a casino in St. Louis, he learned to tone it down, but now that every low-stakes poker table in the country was just passive income to him, he found himself with a different problem.  His whole life, he’d built himself up as a man who made the best of the odds he was given, but now that he nearly always had the best odds for free, there wasn’t really anything to making the best of them.  There wasn’t any thrill in it.  More importantly, there wasn’t any meaning.

He started looking for higher stakes, partly in desperation, to bring back some of the risk and thrill, partly because, he noticed, his strangely augmented luck seemed less and less present the more he had to lose.  But this was a dangerous game, and he knew it.  Before he burned himself out, losing everything, getting on the wrong side of some riverboat powerbroker, or whichever fate waited on that spectrum, he decided to take a step back.  Think about his life.  Check in with the family and reconsider what was important.

So he came back home, and after a tearful reunion with his mother and fancy brunch with his youngest sister and her husband, he headed to Carl’s to reconnect with his old haunt.  Just across the street, he made a strange mistake: He mistimed a traffic signal and was struck by a car.  Given that the impact propelled him nearly twenty feet into a sprawl on the pavement, he counted himself lucky–go figure–that his injuries were limited to a bruised pelvis, scuffed boots, a small tear in the elbow of his jacket, and a prideful sense of shock.  All told, though, the experience wasn’t entirely negative.  The gentleman driving the car, an off-duty Army Major by his explanation, was quick to apologize, to help Bennett to his feet, to offer him transport to a hospital, which Bennett politely declined.  However, the man–Major Castaigne, he said–insisted that he must make it up to Bennett in some way.  He invited him to lunch, which Benentt accepted despite being in no way hungry, and it was there, over conversation with Castaigne and his friend–a banker named Harold–that it came up that Bennett was a poker player.

“Well, now,” Castaigne had said.  “I would reckon I still owe you for today’s mishap, and it happens that I’m scheduled to play in a somewhat spectacular game this coming weekend.  If you can manage to clear your schedule for the week following, I would be delighted to offer you my spot.”

Bennett was intrigued, of course, but he found his eyes widening to the point of impropriety as Castaigne shared the details.

The next day, the embellished invitation arrived at his door, prompting a nigh-hysterical battery of questions from his mother.  A short few days later of frenzied suit shopping and fretful reading into the respective scenes of New York’s movers and shakers, he found himself aboard The Prince’s Emblazoned, the largest civilian ocean liner ever built, the papers said, watching the hypnotic wave crests of the Atlantic overtake the receding Manhattan skyline, backlit by the setting sun.

Bennett was, he was beginning to realize, out of his element to an almost comical degree.  Despite the care he’d put into planning his wardrobe for the trip, he found that his suit was a season out of style and at least two rungs of formality below the dress of his fellow guests.  He’d shown up to dinner to find himself dizzied by the altogether unnecessary multiplicity of plates, glasses, and silverware–a dizziness which he ameliorated by meekly stealing back to his cabin with a plateful of hors d’oeuvres.  And then there was the discomfort of the scale itself.  Bennett had been on his share of boats before, but The Prince’s Emblazoned was more town than boat.  And the Atlantic was just more than the Mississippi.  He decided to tackle that queasiness head-on.  Take a walk.  Take in the scale of it.  That walk led him to this admittedly breathtaking sunset vista.  It also led him to a certain hint of fascinating malcontent in the form of the two other travelers taking in the view just down the deck.

They were an odd pair, Bennett noticed, instinctively drawing closer.  One of them, dressed in a flawless tuxedo, slouched cartoonishly over the rail, swirling a half-full martini precariously over the deck below.  The other appeared to be a crewman, though perhaps he was on a break.  His jacket was unbuttoned, and he was leaning against the wall opposite the rail, expressively trilling a tune on a clarinet.  The gusts blowing over the upper decks had drowned out the music from Bennett’s earlier vantage, but as he approached, he liked what he heard.  He didn’t recognize the song, but the man was good–really good.  As the musician brought his melody to a dramatic, mournful finish, Bennett’s uncertainty as to the decorum of the situation was all that stopped him from applauding.  Meanwhile, the man in the tuxedo straightened momentarily, taking another sip of his martini.

“It’s a good one, Ira,” he said over his shoulder.  “It’s not going to fix my problems, but it’s a hit for sure.”

“Well, thanks, Monty,” the musician said, “but if you don’t mind me askin’, what’s going on with you?  I tried that one in the club last week, and every hardboiled stiff in the place was cryin’ by the end.  But you’re just shruggin’–oh, sorry, are we in your way?”  Bennett almost jumped, realizing the question was for him.

“Oh, no, not at all,” he answered.  “But I did want to say that was beautiful.”

“Aw, thanks!” Ira said.  “I’ll be here all week.  Literally: I’ll be playing in the dining room every other night, but since tonight’s quartet night…”  His explanation stretched on as the other man turned, adjusting his twisted posture to balance himself on the rail by his elbows.

“Who are you?” he asked, cutting Ira off.  There was a dull intensity to his expression that Bennett found vaguely predatory.  He didn’t love it, but he was intrigued nonetheless.

“Bennett Fontaine!” he replied, mustering a surge of entrepreneurial vigor and offering his hand.  The man eased himself off the rail and took it.

“Lamont Sterling.”  His hand was clammy, but his grip was almost threateningly firm.  “This is Ira.”

“Ira Soskin,” the musician added, grabbing his hand with much more enthusiasm.  “Good to meetcha, sir!”

“So are you the one Louis hit with his car?” Lamont asked dryly.  Bennett scratched his chin.

“I didn’t realize that knowledge was quite so common.”

“Perhaps it isn’t.”  Lamont speared the olive in his drink with a toothpick and popped it into his mouth.  “Louis is a friend of mine, though, and he tells me Uncle Harold was there as well.”

“Oh, Harold,” Bennett recalled.  “And wait, Lamont Sterling–aren’t you Dick Sterling’s son?  He was my brothers’ hero when I was a child.”  He stopped himself as he registered the sour expression falling over Lamont’s face.

“Do you want an autograph?” he sneered.

“It’s a touchy subject,” Ira explained.

“Sorry,” Bennett said.  “And no thank you–they’re all dead anyway.”  Lamont cracked a smirk.  It was a deeply inappropriate gesture.  But somehow, the malice had drained from it, and Bennett found himself more confused than offended.

“If only we could all be so lucky.”  With any other read on the man, Bennett would have thrown a punch, but he kept his reaction confined to a raised eyebrow.

“Monty!” Ira scolded.  “What is wrong with you?”

“It’s…okay, I think,” Bennett said.  “It was a long time ago, and there’s no real story to the plague, far as I can tell.  Sometimes you just get unlucky, and bad stuff happens.”  Lamont snorted.

“You believe in luck?” he asked.

“Well yes, I suppose I do.  For more than one reason.”

“I’ve found that when you look at things closely, luck is never a part of it.  It’s always one thing causing another thing.  Which means when bad things happen, it’s always someone’s fault.  Even if you don’t blame them, it doesn’t mean they don’t deserve it.”

Bennett frowned, pulling a flask from his jacket pocket.  He’d snagged a cocktail before dinner, but he had a feeling a little more haze would make this a better conversation.

“What about the good things?” he asked, taking a sip.

“Those are someone’s fault too,” Lamont replied, downing the rest of his martini.  “And they usually cause more bad things down the line.  I’ve seen much more bad than good, and I’ve seen a lot.”  Bennett offered him the flask.  Lamont eyed him warily but accepted nonetheless.  “Are you trying to cause something of your own here?” he asked, pouring a portion of whiskey into his martini glass.

“Actually, I’m placing a bet,” Bennett replied, he hoped, suitably ironically, taking the flask from Lamont’s outstretched hand and passing it to Ira.

“That’s a good one,” Lamont admitted.  “A bet on what?”

“That you’ll tell me something interesting.  Like what you’ve seen to come to that conclusion.”  Lamont laughed.  The sound was hollow, nauseous, practically the opposite of Ira’s emotional evocation on the clarinet.

“Well, I’ll let you split the pot,” he said at last.  “You see, I spent some time in Manchuria near the end of the war, and I’ve told a whole bunch of people a whole bunch of things about what happened there.  Tonight, I’m going to tell you a new one: Every one of those stories is a lie.  I won’t repeat them now–you can go ask anyone inside, they’ll tell you.  And I’m not going to tell you what really happened, except that it was hell, and none of it was random.  It was always horrible for a reason.  Then those reasons went and became someone else’s reason, and a whole lot more people died than anyone dares repeat over here.”

“Monty, I think your problem–” Ira interjected, taking a swig from the flask, oddly unbothered by Lamont’s macabre allusions, “I think your problem is that you’re wafflin’ between the side of you that says you deserve what happened and the side that says everyone else is to blame.  But nobody is to blame, and it’s nobody’s fault.  It’s like Mr. Fontaine said: Sometimes things just happen.”

“And I thought my booze was the strong stuff,” Lamont mused, sniffing the whiskey before taking a tepid sip.  “You’re right about the two sides, Ira, except they work together.  I am to blame.  And so are all of them, and really, being honest, the rest of you aren’t innocent either.  We’re all fucking connected, and shame it is that New York isn’t quite bubbled enough to let me forget it.”

“Bubbled?” Ira exclaimed.  “What are you talking about?  New York might be the most connected city in the world!”

“I’ve been around the country a fair bit, and I can’t say I disagree,” Bennett added.  “There wasn’t a lot out there the city didn’t prepare me for.”

“Well of course it’s not a real bubble,” Lamont said.  “It’s an illusion.  It’s so many connections that you’ve lost the ability to follow them all.  And since you can’t see ‘em anymore, that makes you think they don’t matter.  But you’re still in the system, and it’s still your fault.”

Silence stretched between them, punctuated by a gust of wind as Bennett contemplated whether the thread had grown too morbid to rescue.  Lamont looked over his shoulder at the rolling waves, much more ominous now in the ship’s white floodlights, with the sun disappeared over the horizon.

“Fontaine,” he said idly.  “Do you know how much a submarine costs?”

“Can’t say I do.”

“Well, guess then.  You’re a betting man, right?”  Bennett thought about it a moment.

“Two million?”  Lamont smiled.

“I see why you believe in luck.  Yes: Bill told me his contracts run between one and three million per vessel.  So for an average of two million dollars, you can seal yourself in a military-grade bubble under the sea.  Occasionally, you can surface to get some sun, recycle your air, distill some fresh water.  With the right horticultural strategy, you can grow your own food and even do some of that air recycling below the surface.  Excepting the need for fuel, it’s about as cordoned off from the world as you can be.”

“That’s pretty expensive,” Bennett remarked.  “And why would you want it?”  A look flashed across Lamont’s face that, Bennett thought, almost seemed peaceful.

“Think of it in small bites,” Lamont replied wistfully.  “I’ve found few things in my life as good as flying.  Hanging there in the sky where no one can touch you.  You can do anything, go anywhere, but for a little while, you don’t even have to make a choice.  But gravity’s a jealous bitch, and she drags you back down eventually.

“Or you can think of it like the rest of high society does.”  He gestured broadly to the boat beneath them.  “Always escaping to the cabin in the mountains, the cottage in the countryside, the pleasure cruise at sea.  Everyone wants out of society a little.  But every escape is temporary by design or because we can’t stand permanence–a little of both?  You’ll probably tell me it’s because we get tired of the isolation and need the connection, but I say it’s because we’re bad at math and too afraid to cut our losses.”

“Bad at math?” Ira asked.  “What are you talking about?”

“I mean a lot of things.  I mean that if we were paying attention, we would notice that the long-term prospects of any old thing we do are straight shit, and any comfort that comes along may as well be opium, keeping us on fuckin’ course and forgetful as hell.”

“Come on, you don’t really believe that!”

“I believe it because I’ve seen it, Ira.  But most never do see it, seeing as we’re all shit with money, too.”  Bennett accepted his flask from Ira and took a gulp.  This had taken a turn.  The sense of Lamont’s argument seemed to be disappearing rapidly into his drink, but given the nature of the argument, that was more entertaining than bothersome.

“I’ll have you know my finances are a work of art, wiseguy!” Ira shouted.  His outburst gave Lamont pause, as he took a momentary glance between Ira and, head-to-toe, Bennett.

“Perhaps you two aren’t the best audience for that accusation,” he admitted, to Bennett’s bewilderment.  “But anyway, my point isn’t about how you spend your money–it’s about how you don’t.  Neither of you have tried two-million-dollar exile before because you don’t have two million dollars–hell, I don’t even have two million dollars to spare.  But you don’t really need an armored hull, a torpedo weapons system, you could probably even save some money on the radar.  All told, the crap you would need to staple together for a seaworthy submersible probably costs less than twenty thousand dollars.  And for that price tag, I’m sure you’d get more takers.”

Lamont stood up and looked out over the water, finally adopting the posture of a normal human being, if only for just a moment.

“Bill wants me to help him design a plane,” he remarked with a dead chuckle.  “I wonder if I could sell him on one that goes underwater.”

“You know, the Lethal Chamber they put up downtown is way cheaper than twenty thousand,” Bennett prodded.

“Dammit, Fontain, I don’t want to die!” Lamont exclaimed.  “I’m just tired of it.  Tired of the people and tired of the guilt.  Guilt for just being part of it–Jesus, it’s madness.”

“Monty…” Ira said.  “Maybe you should get to bed.”

“Maybe after another drink,” Lamont slurred.  Ira rolled his eyes and grabbed him by the sleeve.  Begrudgingly, he acquiesced, and the musician began to lead him away down the deck.

“Goodnight, Mr. Fontaine!” Ira called back.  “It was good meetin’ ya!”

“The pot tomorrow is much more than twenty thousand,” Lamont added.  “Maybe if you win you can try disappearing.  If you’re brave enough…”  His voice trailed off into the sea wind.

“I don’t think I will do that,” Bennett muttered, well out of earshot for Lamont.  But as he stared down at the deep-gray waves, he second-guessed himself.

Whatever guilt Lamont felt, Bennett was a stranger to it.  In his life, he was pretty sure he’d done right by the folks who deserved it, and the folks he’d burned had it coming.  But there was still some logic to the man’s ramblings.  It didn’t seem all that crazy to suppose that every event in his life was connected to something someone had done, and damned if he could keep track of it all.  Maybe if he paid more attention, maybe if his accounting was better, he’d feel differently.  The ocean, the deep wilderness, up in the sky–those places simplified things, and maybe that combination of novelty and simplicity was exactly what he needed, now that his life of hustling for luck had grown too easy.

Lamont was right about another thing too: Before any of that matter, he had a poker game to play, and despite the awkward start to the voyage, he was feeling good about his odds.

He made to retire, following the now-distant pair down the deck and toward the stairs, but he paused mid-stride, taking one last glance at the sea.  No, he thought.  If he were to acquire a submarine, he would definitely spend more than twenty thousand dollars on it.

Whom Emperors Have Served, Chapter 3: An Heiress Unapparent

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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.”

“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.

“What?!”

“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.

Whom Emperors Have Served, Chapter 2: An Aviator’s Afterlife

Let’s see how long I can keep the alliteration rolling. This is the second chapter to this piece, which I’ve recently decided I actually do want to complete. The KiY references continue, except now with additional overtones of Titanic and obscure Alec Baldwin movies.

“I am to understand it arrived in port on Thursday.  Have you been by to see it yet?”

The words breezed lazily across Lamont Sterling’s wavering locus of attention.  He wasn’t especially interested in their meaning, though he could do without the way the fricatives gently pushed their needles into his hungover temples.  Inclining his head, he stared, half-lidded at the fluid parade of foot, cart, and automobile traffic proceeding past the window of his uncle’s Rolls-Royce as it sped along South Street.

“I’d meant to stroll by the harbor yesterday afternoon,” Harold continued.  “But then lunch stretched into a sales meeting, and by the time it was done, I–Lamont, are you quite alright?”

Lamont was not particularly alright, but this was a stable state of affairs.  He was operating–if one could call it that–on his usual four hours of fitful sleep, and he was reeling from the aftereffects of last night’s tonic, the barrage of martinis and Suffering Bastards calibrated precisely to keep him drunk enough to be enchanted by Manhattan’s high society and yet not so drunk as to be gripped by a fascination for its deconstruction.  Not enough, and the hopelessness of postwar life seeped in through even the liveliest party’s atmosphere; too much, and, well, he’d crossed that line only once before.  Appeasing the poor Carnegie boy’s family after that incident had been expensive and exhausting, and Lamont was worried he would not have Harold’s help doing it a second time.  At its best, though, it was a tolerable lifestyle.  But mornings were, quite reliably, not the lifestyle’s best.

“Yes, yes, Uncle,” he mumbled.  “No, I haven’t seen the boat.  I was also busy yesterday.”

“Yes, of course,” Harold said, though Lamont was fairly sure his uncle was aware he had spent yesterday’s daylight hours in his sitting room, curtains drawn, with a glass of seltzer and a plate of sandwiches.  “Well, I think you should perhaps have made an effort.  It would be good for you to take more of an interest in Mr. Hawberk’s affairs.”

“Eh?”  Harold fixed him with an attempt at an even stare.

“He considers you a potential business partner.”  Lamont scoffed.

“Bullshit,” he said.  Harold seemed to start at the coarseness of the retort, but only for a moment.

“I have it on good authority.”

Lamont rubbed the bridge of his nose and blinked before meeting his uncle’s gaze.

“You’re serious?” he asked.  “Who told you that?”

“I heard it from Louis Castaigne,” Harold said.  “He and I met at Delmonico’s earlier this week.  He let slip that Mr. Hawberk was planning an expansion into aircraft and was hoping you would consult.”

“Thought he was smarter than that,” Lamont muttered with an eye roll.

“I think it’s a good opportunity,” Harold affirmed.  “For both of you.  The Post called you ‘an icon of American aviation,’ Lamont.  You are an accomplished man, and I think you would be better served acting like it.”

Lamont felt his eyes snap to Harold almost involuntarily.  He quickly suppressed the rage, but not before some portion of it flashed across his face.  Harold must have noticed–his own expression quickly softened.

“Lamont,” he said, quieter.  “I know, with your father still missing–”

“This isn’t about Dick,” Lamont spat.

“Then what is it about?”

Lamont didn’t answer for a moment.  He put his arm up on the sill and looked out the window.  The car had slowed behind an unhurried horse carriage, and it was drawing stares from nearby pedestrians for whom the opulence of the vehicle was no doubt an uncommon sight.

“Don’t worry about it, Uncle,” he said at last.  “I’ll talk to Hawberk.  See what he wants.”  Then, after a moment: “How is Louis, anyway?  I haven’t seen him since he left for exercises upstate.”

“He seemed well.  A little rattled, I’ll confess.  Apparently, he’d just struck a man with his car, though no one was injured.”

“Thank heavens,” Lamont commented, disinterested.

“He and Constance are engaged now.”

“I’d heard.”

“He seemed excited to share it,” Harold continued.  “I, for one, had not realized how protracted their courtship had become.  Louis put the onus on himself, of course.  He said that Mr. Hawberk had offered his blessing freely, but he was too concerned with his brother’s treatment to commit.”

“Hmm.”

“Apparently, Hildred is doing much better now.  Louis says he has a job working for Mr. Hawberk.”

“I wouldn’t say that,” Lamont remarked to the window, though Harold seemed to hear it well enough.

“What do you mean?”

Lamont meant that he did not consider Hildred Castaigne’s employment at Hawberk Armoury and Defense a job, strictly speaking.  He had little personal experience with the man, but by every account except Louis’, Hildred was either a simpleton or a lunatic, and, with some awareness of the irony, Lamont doubted that such a man would so abruptly be rehabilitated into productive society.  But he didn’t say that.  Harold, by virtue of his own success and his brother’s fame, was thoroughly embedded in New York’s fine-grained upper crust, for whom the notion of a “job” was a signal-frazzling concept.  For reasons entirely divorced from wages and necessity, employment was vitally necessary for a working man’s character and nigh anathema for the elite.  Lamont doubted that Harold cared whether Hildred’s job description was merely to occupy a chair for appearance’s sake, but he knew a detail Harold would care about:

“He works for Hawberk’s accountant.”  Harold’s face fell immediately.

“Ah,” he said.  “I see now why Louis didn’t mention that detail.”

“Indeed.”  Traffic had picked up, and they were once more speeding toward their destination at the harbor.  After a brief silence, Harold spoke again:

“Do you expect Mr. Wilde will be in attendance on the voyage?”

“I doubt the little goblin would let Hawberk out of his sight for a week.”

“Lamont!”  Oh.  Lamont raised an eyebrow at Harold’s show of shock.  If only he’d heard the things his own brother made a habit of spewing from his mouth.

“You brought it up,” he said with a shrug.  “Don’t tell me you don’t feel similarly.”

“Don’t tell me you’ll be speaking like that this week!”

“I’ll speak how I like, Uncle.  Hawberk invited me after all.  And besides, it’s not like Wilde would take offense.  I’ve scarcely met a man with so little ego in my life.”

“How do you mean?”  Harold looked puzzled.  Lamont frowned.  He knew exactly what he meant, but he was disturbed to notice the thought was not his.  It was an observation he had been trained to make for purposes Harold would not understand.  Was better off not understanding.

“I mean the man is goal-focused and cares little for banter,” he clarified.  He declined to add the corollary which had motivated the analysis–Zongchang’s criteria by which he and Lamont knew their enemies: A man without an ego was a man at his most dangerous.  But Harold knew nothing of Feng Zongchang, would be dismayed to learn, likely; and Lamont was eager enough to forget as it was.

“Ah,” Harold acknowledged, probably attempting to square his and Lamont’s clear disdain for Felix Wilde with what had sounded like a compliment.  Oh well, Lamont thought.  His uncle would figure it sooner or later.  Out the window, he watched as Manhattan’s vistas of brick and concrete gave way to the expanse of ocean, sky, docks, and nautical vessels of every kind that constituted New York’s harbor.  All that, of course, and the towering form of The Prince’s Emblazoned, Hawberk’s ocean liner, upon which he would be spending his next week.

Fortunately, the voyage was meant to be leisurely, a celebratory jaunt into and out of the Atlantic for the benefit of Hawberk’s shareholders, New York’s rich and famous, and the skeleton crew lightheartedly waiting on them.  Lamont knew there were mercantile undertones to the affair, that what they were celebrating–perhaps prematurely–was a pivot to Hawberk Armoury and Defense’s postwar future in vehicles and civilian mass transit, a future for which The Prince’s Emblazoned was both an advertisement and a prototype, but he had little interest in engaging with that thread.  If, as Harold believed, Hawberk was going to insist on dragging him in, he would entertain the notion.  Perhaps he would even halfheartedly consult, but Lamont had little interest in a future in commercial aviation.  As far as he was concerned, he was living out his afterlife.  Manhattan’s heaven wasn’t especially enthralling, but it sure as hell beat being Dick Sterling’s errand boy.  And Manchuria…he’d take anything after that, he supposed.

As the car slowed to a halt at the curb before the harbor, the driver called back from the front seat:

“Shall I deliver your luggage, Master Lamont?”

“I’ll get it, Alec, thanks,” Lamont said, pushing his door open and stepping out onto the sidewalk.

“I’m going to say my hello to Mr. Hawberk as well,” Harold said, his voice muffled from within the vehicle.  “Do you mind waiting?”

Alec would not mind, Lamont was sure, but he respected that his uncle gave the help that sort of consideration when his father never would.  Lamont had no mind to wait, though.  He swiftly grabbed his bags from the trunk and headed toward the leviathan waiting in the harbor.  As he neared, and the whites and blues of The Prince’s Emblazoned loomed more and more like a skyscraper, taking on the character of an institution more permanent than mere conveyance, he spotted a familiar party gathered near the gangway.

Tall, broad, and regal despite his effusive charisma, William Hawberk waited beside it in his pristine white suit, greeting a steady line of newcomers–shareholders and business connections, broadly–embarking the monstrous vessel.  By his side, close enough to be considered “involved” in the greeting but just far enough to avoid materially participating, was his daughter, Constance; her fiancé, decorated Army Major Louis Castaigne; and her confidante, Carol, whom Lamont did not know well and trusted even less.  She had the air of someone with something to gain from delving into others’ business, something more than the socialite’s characteristic nosiness.  And of course, in the shade of a nearby tree, separated some thirty feet from the rest of the greeting party, Lamont spotted the aloof, swaying frame of Hildred Castaigne and, beside him, eyes fixed on the procession in the manner of a chef perusing a butcher shop, the short, gnarled, shrunken-headed accountant to Mr. Hawberk’s enterprises: Mr. Felix Wilde, himself.

Catching Wilde’s gaze, Lamont smiled politely if unconvincingly before snatching the shoulder of a passing crew member.

“‘Ey, what’s the bi–oh, hi Monty!”

“Ira.  I see the referral worked.”

“You bet it did!” Ira Soskin replied, hefting an almost comical mass of instrument bags over his shoulder.  “They booked me the whole week!  The accountant fellow said if it goes well there’d be weekly gigs after.”  Lamont glanced back at Wilde.  The dwarf was speaking to a tall, shabbily dressed man whom he did not recognize.

“Well I hope it’s true,” he said.  “You never know with that guy.  Also, that uniform doesn’t suit you.”

“Someone piss in your coffee or somethin’?”

Lamont rubbed his temples.  Perhaps that was rude.  But it was true: The baggy sailor’s uniform was a poor match for Ira’s short, slight, artist’s physique, not to mention its clash with the dark, understated, bespectacled aesthetic Lamont had come to associate with him.  He had met Ira when he had first returned to New York last year.  He’d done his drinking alone then, having not yet discovered the cachet to be won by feeding his liberally edited Oriental exploits to wide-eyed debutantes who had never left the American Northeast.  They had met in a jazz club, New York’s preeminent supplier of social solitude, and by virtue of some careful scheduling, they seemed to keep meeting.  Lamont liked the kid.  He was driven, idealistic, riding the star of his own deserved success.  He was exactly the type of young man Dick had wanted Lamont to be, save for the jazz and the Jewishness–but those ironies, that standing evidence that Dick was wrong, only made their friendship more reassuring.

“Sorry,” Lamont sighed.  “Last night was as bad as usual.  Got any hooch?”

“Monty, it ain’t even 10 AM!”

“You do have it, then?”

“What is wrong with you?”

Lamont again looked back to Wilde.  The tall man was now looking directly at him with an unusual expression, like he was taking notes on something.  Lamont raised a hand in his direction, as if to ask “You want something?”  Luckily, the man intuited the true meaning of the gesture and looked away.  Ira, following his wandering attention, if not its particulars, set his instruments on the ground.  In spite of his care, they still clattered into a chaotic heap.

“Fine,” he said, pulling a flask from a duffel–by Lamont’s estimate, the only non-musical baggage on him.  “I expect a fat tip this evening, though!”

“You know I’m good for it, Ira,” Lamont replied, taking a deep–and not especially discreet–pull from the flask.  Brandy.  It would do.  Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed Harold and Hawberk disengaging from their respects with a boisterous handshake.  “I’ll have to see you then, though.  That looks like my cue to kiss the ring.”

He waved Iron on, grabbed his bags once again, and headed to the gangway, waving his greeting to Constance and Louis.

“Mr. Sterling!” Hawberk called at his approach.  “You look like death!”

“Glad to see it’s not mutual, Bill,” Lamont said with a muted laugh.  “But you know me.  I’ll be fresh as a daisy come sunset.”

“I certainly hope so!”  Then, in a softer voice as he clasped Lamont’s hand: “You and I ought to chat tonight.  It’s something long overdue, and–oh, there’s nothing to worry about…”

Lamont nodded and smiled.  New York was a nice enough afterlife, but even at its pinnacle, it didn’t seem like he would be able to escape the reminders of his sins.  Oh well.  He was sure there would be booze enough for it all at sea.