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.”


“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.

Alternative Alternative History

The Sounds Of New York City, Circa 1920 : The Two-Way : NPR

An intro story intended as a direct reference to Robert Chambers’ The Repairer of Reputations. I do recommend the original, provided you can overlook one or two references to attitudes that are justifiably no longer acceptable. Beyond that, though, in the niche of literature that Lovecraft and Derleth came to dominate decades later, The Repairer of Reputations stands out as a particularly subtle example among weird fiction’s supremely un-subtle enclave, with its portrait of a shining, futuristic 1920s New York (from the perspective of its 1895 publication date!), seen through the eyes of Hildred Castaigne, a megalomaniacal but only understatedly unreliable narrator. It also has suicide booths.

The original leaves the open question of how much Hildred’s insanity has affected his perception. There are clear, “onscreen” arguments over whether Hildred’s combination safe is, in fact, a breadbox, or whether the crown he keeps inside it is simply a piece of trash, but those allude to the arguments no one has: How much of the ordered, tranquil, pomp-and-circumstance New York of the future can be real if we are seeing it only through his distorted gaze. It’s an elegant ambiguity, one I ignore entirely in the below. My story is not elegant, and where Chambers’ work was meant to stand alone, mine is intended to introduce an aesthetically similar but larger and (by modern standards) much more conventional interweaving of characters. My version of Chambers’ setting is meant to be unambiguously real (because I like it), but I hope it will pique your interest anyway. The tags/categories are relevant, of course.

Toward the beginning of the year 1920 the government of the United States (and, newly, of Britannia) had practically completed the program adopted during the last months of President Winthrop’s administration.  The country had every appearance of tranquility.  The Great War, despite its ravagings upon Europe, had left no such scars upon the republic, having cemented its mutually agreed-upon annexation of the British Isles and Canada and emboldened its navy, granting it control over a profitable majority of both the Atlantic and Pacific.  The last vestiges of the white separatist movement in Texas had been quelled and its leaders apprehended with the aid of the Venus of the Sinaloa, and with the exception of the Army’s ongoing, troubled campaigns in the Shandong jungle, the country was in a superb state of defense.

Moreover the nation was prosperous.  Chicago, for a moment paralyzed after a second great fire, had risen from its ruins, argent and stately and even more beautiful than the white city which had been built for its people in 1893.  Everywhere good architecture was replacing bad, and even in New York a sudden craving for decency had swept away a great portion of the dingiest existing edifices.  Streets had been widened, properly paved, and lighted; trees had been planted, squares laid out, elevated structures demolished, and underground roads built to replace them.  The new government buildings and barracks were fine bits of architecture, and the long system of stone quays which completely surrounded the island had been turned into parks, which proved a godsend to the population.

The colossal Congress of Religions had convened only a year ago, but already itseemed clear to most that a new understanding prevailed between men and their cultures and creeds, that bigotry and intolerance were to be laid in their graves, that kindness and charity had finally triumphed over that ugly, sectarian will to conflict.  Many thought the millennium had arrived, at least in the new world, which, after all, was a world unto itself.

Many thought as much, yes, but Beau Pierre wasn’t so sure.  He looked down, bleary, from the window of his tenement–one of the few of its hideous kind remaining in the city–upon the newly reconstructed Pell Street, its wide, neat sidewalks, flowering cherry trees, alabaster storefronts opening to the carefully managed calm of a seaside park two blocks down.  People were supposed to like these things, to draw from them the same outward order and organization within their own souls, but Beau found them curiously soulless.  Something was wrong with him, he admitted.

After the war, he had enrolled at Columbia.  Prospects had been bleak at the time for a return to Paris, and he had been eager to resume his studies.  But it didn’t take.  It wasn’t that the faculty weren’t supportive or that they were hostile to expatriates or really any subversion of his expectations for the place.  Beau had changed.  It might have been the war–the Romantics had oft described the change that might occur in man upon his immersion in hardship and violence–but something told Beau that the particulars of the Western Front weren’t what the Romantics had in mind.  Besides, the war failed acutely to provide an explanation for the other changes he’d noticed in his life.

Beau turned to look at the door at the opposite end of his dusty studio and focused, flexing a muscle in his mind which had gradually made itself apparent over the past three years.  Clouds of possibility converged about the door, forming lines and threads stretching into dimensions he could intuit but not consciously fathom, along which the door began to shift.  The vast majority of them–ninety five percent, Beau estimated–were closely grouped, and the majority of what remained did not stray far.  It was a near certainty, then, that the door would open between seven and eight minutes from now.  He checked his pocket watch.  Ten minutes late.  Perhaps it was a power play?

Since his departure from the university, Beau had drifted through a few different arrangements of employment, less for the needs of his lifestyle–he lived cheaply and had been able to extricate an appreciable nest egg from his family’s holdings in France before his crossing–than for an idle fascination with Americana and its trappings.  A store clerk, a carriage driver–a profession swiftly yielding to the automobile traffic coming to dominate transportation about the city–a librarian, a shop assistant to a record seller–it was through this last, oddly, that he finally encountered the grasping fingers of New York’s peculiar underworld.  Out of curiosity, he had accepted an invitation to a secret society dedicated to the King in Yellow, who seemed to Beau to be a sort of cross between myth and metaphor, though he still had little idea what any of the society’s gibberish actually meant.  It was through that bizarre enterprise, however, that he had been recruited by Felix Wilde.

He’d never seen the man–only received messages from the other members of the society.  The employment they offered–periodic requests to deliver cryptic messages and nonsensical objects to individuals across the spectrum of social standing–paid poorly, which was notably orders of magnitude better than it ought to have paid.  It was terribly interesting, Beau felt, made all the more so by the enigma of Mr. Wilde himself.  The man, purportedly a microcephalic gremlin, was the chief accountant at Hawberk Armoury and Defense, the largest arms dealer in the country, but it seemed he had his malformed digits in some great share of New York’s illegal operations as well.  Some small portion–liquor smuggling, forgery–seemed profitable.  Most, like Beau’s errands, did not, but it was clear that Mr. Wilde held a sort of ineffable sway over the city’s miscreants.  Beau dearly wanted to understand why, but salient evidence had thus far eluded him, which was why the development of three weeks ago was so exciting.

Between Wilde’s sporadic requests and his own counter-research, Beau had taken to spending his afternoons at Belmont Park, testing his newfound predictive talents upon more measurable stakes.  Almost to his surprise, they proved quite reliable, and he found himself able to collect margins on small bets placed within ten minutes of a race’s start.  When he attempted to replicate his success with a more substantial sum, his predictions did not fail him, but unfortunately, his lack of guile did.  The track administrators had apparently noticed their novice patron’s perfect betting record and, upon the unfurling of circumstances that might otherwise have garnered the attention of their other clientele, decided to intervene.  Beau’s winnings were confiscated, and he was tossed unceremoniously to the street.

It was a costly error, to be sure: Though he was not currently relying on the extra pocket money, he had entertained hopes that it might provide some assurance of his financial independence in years to come.  A ban from every track in the state of New York complicated things.  Ultimately, though, Beau found it worthwhile, for the very next morning, an envelope arrived at his door, marked in the usual way with the initials “F.W.”  It was a task, of a sort, but unlike previous instances of terse, unadorned instruction, this note took the form of a ledger entry:

Incident recorded for one B. Pierre, student, migrant, amateur gambler.  Incident occurred April 3rd.  Reputation damaged on the racetrack.  Known to track proprietors as a race fixer.  Reputation to be repaired April 23rd aboard the Prince’s Emblazoned.  Retainer to be paid by client’s assistance to Mr. Hawberk on said date.  Entry papers and details to be provided to client by H. Castaigne at 8:30 AM, April 23rd, prior to departure.

-Mr. Felix Wilde

Accountant, Hawberk Armoury & Defense Co.

The mystery had coagulated deliciously. William Hawberk was a pillar of society, and the Prince’s Emblazoned, his ocean liner, was the decade’s crowning achievement in modern nautical engineering–such was the agreement among every sailor Beau could find relaxing outside the cafes which bordered the harbor. That idle engagement with Mr. Wilde’s nonsense had propelled him into such stations was a thrill in itself. That it might finally shed light on Wilde’s intentions–or “repair” Beau’s damaged public character–was a veritable culmination of his atrophied ambitions.

He cut these ruminations short, rising in anticipation of a knock at the door, which arrived precisely on schedule.  Adjusting his sleeves, he breathed deep and opened it to a dandily-dressed young man who sauntered in with barely a glance of acknowledgment.

“Mr. Castaigne, I presume?” Beau asked.  The man delayed his response, surveying Beau’s ascetic lodgings with an almost exaggerated curl of his lip before laying his cane against the windowsill and producing a folio, which he set upon the table.

“Indeed,” he replied, begrudgingly making eye contact.  He did not sit, instead choosing to lean dramatically upon the backrest of Beau’s chair.  “You understand what is at stake here, yes?”  Beau clasped his hands and shook his head humbly, for now content to play along with Castaigne’s overstated theatrics.

“I am afraid Mr. Wilde provided me with precious little context.  What service is it I am to be providing?”

“You are to be controlling damage,” Castaigne said, almost with a snarl.  “Hawberk has decided that he shall jeopardize our finances with his frivolity, and Mr. Wilde finds this unacceptable.  We are to understand your capabilities make you an effective card player?”

“I’ve not made a habit of card playing.”  Castaigne scowled and looked out the window, perhaps to hide his sudden turn of rage.

“My blood boils at the thought that you were chosen, with wits this dim!” he spat, turning back.  “Your role is to ensure that either Hawberk or yourself wins this useless game, so that our work is not imperiled.  Do not fail, or the King in Yellow will surely enlighten you as to the meaning of fear.”

Beau considered the manic threat for a moment but ultimately found himself unable to resist:

“What have I to fear from the King in Yellow?”

Castaigne regarded him for a moment, taut-lipped, knuckles clenching around the top of the chair.  Then, in a low voice, he intoned:

“Mr. Wilde the other day relayed to me the most curious rumor of a certain Benoit Foyer, a French entrepreneur most perturbed by the theft of his family’s fortune by his estranged half-brother, mere hours after their father’s death on the Front.  I understand he is attempting to ascertain the miscreant’s whereabouts.  What do you make of it?”

Despite his efforts, Beau felt his brow raise incrementally.  Mr. Wilde’s attention was more careful than he’d realized.

“I would venture,” he replied slowly, “that Mr. Foyer may overstate his claim.  There exists no record of his parentage prior to his adoption into the Foyer family, making his accusation baseless.”

“Mr. Wilde is quite gifted at finding records, Mr. Pierre.  Hawberk’s former competitors can attest to it.  But let us agree that, in this case, he is surely mistaken in his assumption that such a record might be provided to Mr. Foyer.  And let us agree that his faith in you is not misplaced.”

With that, Castaigne deliberately relinquished his grip upon the chair and fetched his cane.

“Everything else you need should be in it,” he said, gesturing carelessly to the folio on the table.  He paused.  “Except you had best find yourself a tailor.  Even Mr. Hawberk would not suffer your presence on his ship looking like that.”

He strode out, leaving the door open behind him–and Beau to wonder whether his curiosity had been worth it after all.