Steampunk Chronicles 2.5


Kady Cross

Chapter 1

Jack Dandy wasn’t his real name. It had been chosen carefully with another man in mind. This man had earned the moniker “the Dandy” by being a fashion plate, a man of style, breeding and grace. He was Jack’s father, though Jack had scarcely laid eyes on the man, other than when he’d received money for schooling. That expensive education had served no other purpose than to rub Jack’s face in the life that could have been his, if only his father’d had the guts to marry his mother instead of using her and tossing her aside.

Oh, and it had taught him how to use people. How to manipulate, charm and rob them blind. It had taught him how to spot weakness, and how to hide his own. That was perhaps the most important lesson, though learning that he would never, ever be more than an unfortunate mistake as far as his father was concerned followed at a close second.

A most unfortunate mistake indeed—one he intended to see the old man pay for. One day.

But for now he was Jack Dandy, prince of the London underworld at barely one and twenty. He had more “associates” than enemies and more enemies than friends.

And he had no family, aside from that stranger of a father, whom he thought of every time he entertained a new criminal venture. Almost everything Jack did was with his father’s ruination and embarrassment in mind.

So when word reached him that Lord Charles Abernathy—Viscount Breckenridge—wished to set up a meeting, Jack let the viscount know he was available the following afternoon.

Abernathy was a friend of his father.

Most likely his father knew little, if not nothing, of Abernathy’s need for a man of Jack’s particular skill set, but word of the meeting would reach the earl, and he would wonder what his friend wanted with his bastard son. That was good enough for Jack.

He went to the heavy armoire in his bedroom and opened the double doors so that the tidy contents were revealed to him all at once. Most of his wardrobe was black—with touches of white, red and gray. It wasn’t that he didn’t like color—in fact he liked it very much—but he’d worked hard to build a reputation for himself and how he dressed was part of it. It was all in the presentation.

He tossed his black brocade dressing gown on the bed, rolled his neck and shoulders, and selected a pair of black trousers. They slid softly over his naked legs, the fabric cool and sleek. Next, a black shirt, perfectly pressed, followed by a black silk cravat and dark gray waistcoat. Black stockings followed, along with highly polished black boots with a squared toe. A long black velvet frock coat that hugged his back and shoulders topped it all off.

Jack ran his fingers through his long, wavy black hair, set a top hat on his head and collected his gloves. He had shaved earlier in the bath, and he smelled of sandalwood. Abernathy probably expected him to reek of brimstone, as the devil ought.

But Jack Dandy wasn’t the devil. He was just the son of one.

He made his way downstairs. He lived alone, but there were usually a few hangers-on lazing about on his sofas, smoking his cigars and drinking his absinthe. He had a little group of blokes who seemed to fancy themselves “Dandy Boys.” They were petty criminals with piercings in their faces and walking sticks in their hands. Mostly bored aristocratic brats. They were tedious at best.

But they supplied the best information when one wanted to know all the scandals of the Mayfair crowd, of which his father was a part.

Griffin King was also part of that crowd, but there was rarely any gossip about the reclusive young man—not that Jack cared to know it. He hadn’t quite decided if the Duke of Greythorne was friend or foe. Come to think of it, though, the fact that he’d won Finley’s favor made King slightly more likable than others of his kind.

Finley Jayne. The thought of her made him smile. For a moment he entertained romantic thoughts of her, but she deserved better than a debauched cretin such as himself. Tough as she was, his Treasure needed someone strong enough to look after her. Jack was strong enough for the task; he just hadn’t the heart for it. Still, she was possibly his best friend—if anyone could claim that title—and he liked to use their relationship to poke at King, who was entirely too easy to make jealous. It was barely even sport.

And, if he admitted it, she was the closest to love he’d ever come. That was reason in itself to leave her be.

“Brought your carriage ‘round, Jack,” called a young man from his parlor.

Jack turned his head and smiled at the lad. This one wasn’t an aristo’s brat. This was Henry, who had been born into circumstances much like Jack’s. Only, Henry had been tossed out of the brothel when the madam had caught him with one of the girls.

A boy after Jack’s own black heart, he was. Thirteen years old, smart and eager. Someday, he’d challenge Jack’s position in Whitechapel, but for now he was one less boy on the streets.

“Fanks, mate. Help yourself to luncheon in the pantry, but keeps your dirty fingers out of me absinthe, or I’ll cuts ’em off, do you forstand?”

The youth nodded, but he grinned. “Aye, Jack. Be there cake?”

Jack rolled his eyes. Other than girls, all the boy seemed to think of was cake. “On the sideboard. Save me a slab. I’ll be back for tea.” Normally he wouldn’t have dropped that last bit of information, but sometimes Henry worried if he was gone too long. That’s what happened when fathers and whores abandoned their sons.

Jack opened the door and stepped out into the overcast afternoon. A warm breeze kept the damp from seeping into a fellow’s bones.

His motor carriage was indeed waiting for him as he stepped down to the curb. It was a beautiful black-lacquered vehicle that gave him a sense of satisfaction every time he saw it. It looked out of place in front of his home. No one would guess that he lived in relative splendor given the condition of the outer shell of the building, but he preferred it that way. He’d once read that a person’s home was a reflection of his own self. Perhaps there was some truth to it, or perhaps it was all bollocks.

He opened the door and slipped into the carriage. The boiler was hot and the engine keen to go. Sometimes he had a hired driver to squire him about, but not today. Today had to be handled correctly. If he arrived in too much style he’d be seen as trying to outshine his “betters” but if he didn’t display enough style and breeding, he’d be dismissed as uncouth.

Normally, he’d chafe at such strict foolishness, but Jack had not amassed a fortune by letting pride get in his way.

London traffic was always a nightmare, and today was no different. The narrow streets, particularly in the East End, were congested with carriages—both horse driven and steam—velocycles zipping in and out, bicycles, omnibuses, pedestrians, livestock. The air was filled with the scents of flowers for sale by young girls, horse excrement, steam and sweat, and the vaguely damp “chamber pot” scent that could only belong to the East End after a rain.

He loved Whitechapel, despite its poverty and violence. Or perhaps he loved it because of those things. There was a desperation to life that didn’t exist in the West End. A desperation and a sharpness that brought everything into clear focus. You lived or you died—those were the only certainties—and the odds of each changed from moment to moment. That was what made life worth living, wasn’t it? The fact that it could end at any second.

Or maybe he simply hadn’t found anything, or anyone, to live for.

Maybe he should start reading Jane Austen novels so he’d know what young ladies really wanted in a man. Bollocks on that. His head was not going down that road. He was only thinking about it because Finley lived in Mayfair—at Griffin King’s fancy mansion. Self-pity and self-inflicted mental anguish was for poets and artists. Jack had neither the time nor the spleen for it.

And he knew himself well enough to know that part of Finley’s appeal was the fact that she was unavailable. A woman was never quite as attractive to him as she was when he knew he couldn’t have her—or would have to work for her favor. It was the conquest, because after that the shine soon wore off.

A horse-drawn cart cut him off at an intersection. Bloody idiot. Jack blasted the horn of his carriage at the driver as he swerved to avoid colliding with the cart and the dirty-faced children and adults in the back of it, who stared at him with a mix of hostility and vacancy.

The rest of the drive happened without incident and at a snail’s pace. He arrived a few seconds early for his appointment, however, which made him punctual but not overeager.

The gravel drive was equipped with a couple of automaton footmen for guests who were gauche or scandalous enough—which one you were obviously depended on the wealth and connection of your family—to drive their own vehicles. Jack steered his shiny pride and joy onto the special track, got out, and took a punch card spit out by the brass clockwork man standing sentry. There was a clunk followed by a grinding noise, and his carriage began to move along the track, guided and pushed by wheels that fit into the notches on the tires. Ingenious—and entirely pompous.

He slipped the punch card into his inside jacket pocket. Then he placed his hat on his head, straightened his coat and cuffs, and swung his walking stick. It was the ebony-handled one with a blade concealed inside. He never went anywhere without a weapon, and Mayfair would be no exception just because its inhabitants were from old, inbred families with more debt than sense.

Slowly, he climbed the steps, an odd fluttering in his gut. Nerves? Impossible. Nothing unsettled him. Nothing. It was merely digestion; he’d eaten several biscuits before leaving the house.

Jack raised his hand to pull the bell. A loud squawk burst from the wall near his ear. Years of Whitechapel noises—screams and the like—had made him almost impossible to frighten.

“Name and business, please” came a shrill voice that could only belong to a housekeeper of a certain age. Chuckling, Jack removed his hat and looked up. There, just about eye level, was a mirror. No doubt it revealed his countenance to the person on the other side of the door. Since that person was a woman, and a pinched-sounding one at that, he put on his most charming smile—not the flirty one, though. No, he used the one that made him look young, slightly self-deprecating and very, very sincere.

“Jack Dandy, missus. Here to see the master of the house.”

“Good gracious, don’t you know anything?” This wasn’t said with much sting; stung. “Use the servants’ entrance around back.”

Jack’s back straightened. By blood, he was this woman’s social superior. It was only that his father had no honor that made Jack a bastard. Had his father been a better man, Jack would have been raised in a house just as old and imposing as this.

Those were things he made himself remember when shame had him wanting to run off with his tail ‘twixt his legs.

“No,” he said, very calmly. He gazed directly into the glass—could almost imagine the woman’s slack jaw. “I will not go around to the servants’ entrance, for I am not a servant. I am an invited guest of your employer, and you can either open this bloody door or explain to him why the meeting he requested was delayed—by you.”

There was a rather pregnant pause. And then a click as the lock on the door was disengaged and the heavy oak swung open.

Jack stepped over the threshold with a bored air. Of course he’d gotten his way. There was no greater threat to the working class than their employer’s wrath. That was why he hadn’t been in any employ other than his own for the past six years.

The woman who greeted him was indeed pinched looking. She was barely five feet tall—he spied the box she had to stand on to inspect visitors on the step—and just shy of being considered “sturdy.” Her gaze was downcast as she bobbed in a slight curtsy before him. “This way, Mr. Dandy, if you please.”

He did indeed. He walked behind her as she led him from the hall to a corridor lined with portraits that dated back several hundreds of years, given the dress of the individuals. The rich hung on to family as if they were currency—unless they were illegitimate like Jack; then they were tossed away—while the poor couldn’t spend theirs fast enough.