Monday, April 26, 2010

The Case of the Black Diamond Bride Part VII

An hour later found me ensconced in my laboratory, a plate of half eaten sandwiches and empty tea cups at one elbow and my jotted notes at the other. Shirt-sleeves role up and clear of any staining liquids that I had been using, collar undone, and a disgruntled expression complete my worn ad weary look. The results of the test were not promising, though hardly useless.

The ink was a high quality Indian ink, for sale at a select few shops in London. It was, however, the most popular version of said ink. The paper was exactly what I had taken it for, and could be purchased at almost any stationary story in the city. There were no fingerprints on the paper except for my own and those I judge to belong to Lady Radcliff. The writing itself was blocky and indicated a right handed author, most likely a man. The surety of the script indicated he had been well trained in his penmanship, but had enough years to develop individual quirks that were generally beaten out of a student in primary school.

Some in my profession, at least of the alchemical one, would have scoffed at using the sacred alchemic laboratory for such mundane concerns as crimes and the processing of clues. However, I found that I was most at home here, and could not afford the extra space for a separate lab even if I had wanted. Still, I was careful to shield my will and thoughts, lest it cause one of my more delicate workings to go awry.

Feeling the need to stretch my legs, I walked over to one of the cabinets and opened it. Inside were a wild variety of vials, jars, and other glass containers of multiple colors, each containing a different potion, elixir, or tincture. Alchemic work took time, and those required care and attention ever so often. The cabinet had seven shelves, each one labeled with a weekday, in accordance to the fact that every plant, animal, mineral, and metal was ruled by a planetary body which governed a day of the week. Lemon Balm, for example, was tied to Jupiter, which rules Thursday. To properly use it one needed to work with that plant in the first hour of daylight on a Thursday.

I drew one of the containers and calmed my mind. The process of creating tinctures and potions required that every so often by mixing the herb, in the case of a tincture, or the salt ashes, in a potion, by the light shaking of the mixture. I focused on what I wanted the mixture to accomplish. A potion to clear the mind, another to soothe aches and pains, one to draw out the essences of poison and a second that would cause a minor explosion like a grenade. Each one I place my will into and stirred up the energies, binding them together and making them far stronger than a mere chemical reaction. I took my time, letting each have my undivided attention as I sensed where it was in the process and where I wanted it to go. Some had been there less than a week, tinctures still soaking the essences of a plant into the pure alcohol of red grapes. Others had been in there close to a year, growing ever darker and more potent, till a single drop would accomplish more than a hundred time that which could be done with a mere chemical process.

It took almost an hour to work my way through a single planet’s potions, but by the time I had finished I felt both drained and relieved. It was amazing, how little rituals succeeded in calming the nerves and ordering the mind. I closed and locked the cabinet, glancing over at the next one and considered working on the next group of my workings, but decided against it. There was other work to be done, and a rather harsh deadline at the end.

Instead I left my laboratory and went downstairs, carrying the dishes with me as I would not violate the rule of an alchemist being the only one allowed in his laboratory. After handing the dishes off to Miss Connor, I went into the room next to my library where I kept my Difference Engine. Starting it up, I quickly accessed the TeleNet and sent off a few queries. The first to a professor of Eastern Religions at London University concerning the ritual Lady Radcliff had described.
The second to a contact I had in the police to see if one Rodrigo de la Mancha was in London. The last was to see if I had any messages that had arrived while my DE was turned off.

The DE returned that I had three messages on hold, which were then displayed by the small projector that had connected to the machine. Two were mere advertisements, one for a paten medicine from America promising better health, and the second one from the local booksellers offering me a discount on my next purchase. I instructed the first to be removed and printed off the second on a short strip of tickertape.
The last message was from a charming American alchemist I had taken to corresponding with by the name of Miranda Wolfe. She informed me of the success of her latest experiment involving a tincture made of honey, willow bark, and wolfs bane. She also passed on a rumor involving the latest American president and an anonymous English noblewoman, though she failed to give me a reason for its importance.

I sent back a reply, lightly tapping the delicate ivory keys of the keyboard, congratulating Miranda on her success. I also asked to confirm she would be arriving in England for the Alchemists Conference in three weeks. The message went off in a clatter of gears. When it was done I shut down the Difference Engine. I would go around the police station myself, along with a gift for my contact’s troubles, since such information was best kept between professionals and not upon the TeleNet. I doubted the professor’s information would be all that vital and could wait for the next time I accessed my messages.

Miss Connor was waiting for me when I came back into the library. Her garments were slightly wet, indicating she’d been out in the rain, and the unhappy expression on her young face indicated that either the weather was to blame or whatever had driven her into it. The envelope she was clutching in her small hands was even wetter than she was, but the ink on it remained legible enough to tell me came from the law offices that she was want to sometimes employ.

“Is there a problem, Miss Connor?” I asked.

Her face turned even more rebellious, if possible. “Bloody hell there is!” she snapped, “My Aunt has decided that I am too young to run my own house by myself and that it is disgraceful for me to be living unmarried with a bachelor under my roof!”

I felt my normally pale skin grow a few shades lighter. Megan’s Aunt was a short, stout, angry catholic woman who had been married once, born nine children, put eight in the ground, and disowned the last for taking up with a young man of questionable virtue and unquestionable lack of finances. Her husband had been driven tot eh bottle, then the grave, no doubt by her harping, high toned voice. I had met her but one, and that was enough to tell me that she was more devout than any of the Southern Baptist from the Americas that my adventurous cousin had told me about. She would most likely come after me for being a devil worshiper at best.

I had relied greatly on Megan Connor’s tolerance and understanding of my strange ways during my time as her tenant. Should her aunt arrive to take control I could count only upon a shear lack of that understanding and tolerance. My options were few, and mostly desperate. I would have to find a way to hold off the aged harpy.

“When will she be arriving?” I asked, breaking Megan from her continued ranting.

“Three days,” she replied, crumpling the letter in her hands, “With promises to legally take control of this house! She’s already got a barrister doing the paperwork!”

Three days for Megan’s Aunt. Two days for Lord Radcliff. At least if I failed and the latter got me, I wouldn’t have to worry about the former.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Case of the Black Diamond Bride Part VI

The Telenet was a rather new invention. It began as an experiment of connecting departmental difference engines, which had evolved from simple calculations to being able to process textual documents that were coded into them, so that professors and upper level students could communicate more quickly and share their findings. Swiftly the English Crown had adopted the system to the government, which initially gave the Empire a leg up over the other European nations. This was remedied quickly, mainly by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, then France. Germany was still not unified enough to manage building one, but they had succeeded in mastering the creation of difference engines all the same.

A little over five years after the Telenet being adopted by the British Empire, it had spread to the civilian population. While only the very wealthy could afford it at first, it had trickled down. I personally had a small difference engine connected to the London Telenet, but long distance and international communication was still handled mainly by the telegraph offices, which had the machines and energy to send messages farther.

I pulled my automobile up to the telegraph office closes to my flat and got out. I didn’t put out the fire this time, as sending a telegraph shouldn’t take me long. It was the response that would, though hopefully not too long. The bell over the door rang as I walked in and the operator looked up. A thin, spare man with his sleeves rolled up to the elbow and a pencil tucked behind his left ear, the old man gave me a gap-toothed smile.

“Good day, sonny, will you be sending a telegram of missive?”

I gave him a polite bow of my head as I reached the desk. “A telegram, to New York, care of one Gunnar Erikson,” I replied.

His pencil scratched against the paper as he wrote down the details. “And what will ye be saying, sonny?”

I thought for a second. Since this was mostly involved Amanda’s Tarot reading, I was hesitant to mention Lady Radcliff’s case. While Gunnar’s knowledge of the occult was more expansive than mine for various reasons, I wasn’t sure I’d need his help. I was, after all, hired to catch a blackmailer and a thief, the ring’s past was incidental for all I knew. I’d keep the message on Amanda then, and worry about anything else later.

“Cousin, a Norn plays games. Stop. Requesting aid as convenient. Stop.”

The old man nodded and scribbled. When finished he gave me an odd look. “This all, sonny?”

I nodded, and passed over the required amount. “Yes, and please send it out as soon as possible, if you would,” I said, slipping a few shillings to the man. Bribery wasn’t needed, but it rarely hurt to give someone a little extra when possible. People remember the generous fondly. The gap-toothed smile flashed with reassurances it would go right out.

Giving the man my thanks I left and got back into my automobile. I considered my next step as I put it in gear. The note was in my pocket and testing it at my lab would be a good idea. On the other hand, I could use a bit of food and some more information. If I could find out skilled burglars who were in town, I might be able to narrow down my suspects. Since the list of people who knew Lady Radcliff’s secret was supposed to be short already, narrowing it down further would only aid me. Still, something about Lord Radcliff’s sudden plans to return struck me as odd. I couldn’t rule out that he had some part of this.

I eased the automobile through the London traffic, dodging angry shouts and fishwives. The rain had driven most of the latter under cover, but there were still plenty of the former. I decided that the rain was likely to have driven most of the London underground into various shelters this early in the day, rather than congregating them in a few locations, I decided to turn to home.

I had just pulled up to an intersection and stopped when a figure in a heavy coat and bowler hat pulled low stepped onto the running board of my car. Though I couldn’t see much of his face, I could see the small gun in his hand quite well.
He reeked of tobacco and cheep booze, with the body of a dockworker under the coat.

“Best lay off ‘he Lady Radcliff, mate,” he growled at me, a slight accent of the Australian colonies in his voice. “Roight messy it is, wouldn’t want to see you get ‘urt.”

My hand moved towards one of the potions on my belt, but he vanished into the rain a second later. I bit back a growl, scanning around for him, but then people behind me started shouting for me to move and I had to drive on. Still, while I knew little of my assailant, he had told me more than just to drop the case.

Clearly someone had a vested interest in Lady Radcliff’s blackmail that went beyond getting three thousand pounds. She’d told me the amount would be enough to draw her husband’s attention. Now it seemed that attention was wanted more than the money, since anyone who had researched my client to the point of knowing her secret and where she kept her jewelry so precisely would know she couldn’t pay out that sum. Now, the question was not so much as to who had the skill to commit this crime, but rather who would profit from it the most. I wanted to raise Lord Radcliff’s viability as a suspect, but realized that had more to do with personal feelings towards a man I’d never met rather than evidence, so I pushed it aside. The father of Lady Radcliff’s child, however, would most likely know both her secret and desire revenge for her gaining such a wealthy marriage. Certain members of both her and her husband’s family were also possible suspects, though I knew none of them. Perhaps the Radcliffs had discovered her secret after the wedding and felt that a divorce and Lady Radcliff’s disgrace would free up the Lord Radcliff and permit him to marry a much more wealthy and higher born girl.

I sped up as I headed home, the note weighing heavily in my pocket. It held vital clues and if my brief passenger had been any indication, could be the key not only to the case, but my continued health.