Agamemnon Frost and the Crown of Towers (5 page)

BOOK: Agamemnon Frost and the Crown of Towers
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He stopped on the landing of the stairwell, light from the ornate glass windows casting myriad colours over him. “I could fall into as many loops as Theodora.” He wiped at his mouth. “I
have
to trust her to Beresford. And in reality, there is no other way to draw in the information we need than by examining it in person.”

Mason’s hand tightened around the wooden banister. “Another trap?”

Frost’s smile was wry. “Extremely likely.” He looked up to the ceiling, angled into shadow and for a moment, his eyes closed. “This is our end game. Our last chance to avoid the future.”

Mason’s nightmare, the endless dead future. They had no way of knowing what could tip them towards that outcome, or what they had to do to save humanity from becoming a sea of skin stretched over the planet. His heart was a tight knot in his chest and his instincts pricked at him. To leave Greenbank Hall was a mistake; he could almost taste its wrongness. But to stay—not to venture out into the city and chase down the clues Theodora had left them concerning Lord Dunstone or the numerous deaths—burned equally fierce.

“We’re headed into the slums of Scotland Road, aren’t we?”

Frost met his gaze. “You’re going home.”

5. Scotland Road

The
aeolipile
landed beside the high brick wall of the Athol Street Gasworks. Mason watched the flakes of ash land on the clean curve of its glass screen as the engine thrum died away and there was total silence.

In the scrubbed-clean air of the car his mind teased him with the stink that would envelop him when he climbed out. He’d buried the memories of the area’s squalor. Only once had he returned, for a bitter half a day when he tried, unsuccessfully, to join the police force. With so many soldiers pensioned out of the army, having a connection was the only way in now. Away for so long, Mason had no one left to speak up for him.

Already, gaunt little urchins swarmed over the icy pavement, their eyes wide and more than one set of fingers twitching to touch the gleaming hull of the craft.

“They’ll be all over us. Pick our pockets clean in a heartbeat.”

Frost laughed. “Recognising yourself, Mason?”

Mason stopped the frown that wanted to tighten his face. Here was another barrier between them, one he should hold to as a reminder of how his want for Frost could come from nothing more than a lust-addled brain. He
had
been one of those dirty-faced boys, clad in little more than rags, his feet bare in all weathers. His fingers had been quick and nimble. Frost, in painful contrast, had been born into every privilege.

“Do you think it concerns me?”

And there was yet more of that impossible ability Frost possessed. Mason’s thoughts were always as clear as day to him. But they were not there to pull apart the need, the want that swirled between them. “What are we doing here?”

“Theodora saw a pattern in the disappearances of people in these streets. We’re going to investigate those disappearances.” He opened his hand. “The sixpences.”

Mason dipped into his coat pocket and pulled out the fabric purse heavy with coins. He dropped it into Frost’s palm “This won’t keep them away for long.”

“It doesn’t have to. They’ll know every inch of this benighted rookery. I’m paying for information.” Frost looked out the window, the children having now edged closer, little faces burned red with the cold and full of curiosity. “The air will be thick with stink and noise. Prepare yourself.”

Mason opened the door, the seal hissing, and the first lungful of polluted air caught in his chest. He focused, knowing that the sulphurous fumes rusted his mechanical insides, but willing the tightness from his muscles. So close to the gasworks, the stench of rot and piss swirled around him, edged with ash and the acrid burn of coal.

He slammed the door and folded his fingers into his palms. He was calm. But the noise of the place was something fierce, chasing down his nerves. The riot of industry from the nearby docks, cut through by the cold stir of the wind, mixed with the clatter of the trains and the rumble of the gasworks. The desolate place twisted his heart. He’d escaped. Most people scraping out their lives here would only know the squalor till the day they died.

He looked at the high brick wall surrounding the gasworks, the tall stacks and gasometers, shadows he’d grown up under. As a child he’d hardly noticed the thick smoke it churned out.

Moving to open Frost’s door, he waited still and silent as the man climbed out with fluid ease.

Frost gripped his walking stick and tapped his hat, his eyes sharp. A smile lurked on his mouth and the little hint of wickedness there rushed heat through Mason’s alien-made flesh. His smile deepened into a smirk. “Never fails, does it?”

“No, sir.”

Frost brushed at his greatcoat, flicking away the stain of ash drifting to land on the lapel. Already the children skidded and slid to stand within a foot of them. Frost’s demeanour, almost shining with so much polished wealth, intimidated even them.

“D’you own the gasworks, mister?” One boy stepped forward and tugged his cap from his head, wringing it in grimy hands. “Can you spare some coal for me Mam?”

“What I can give you—” he spilled the little silver sixpences onto his palm and the children almost gawped, every pair of eyes fixed on the pile of coins, “—is a sixpence now and a shilling when you come back to me. I want information.”

“You’re not a Jack.” A girl, small, skinny with hard eyes, frowned and jabbed a thumb at Mason. “Him maybe. But not you.”

“No, I’m not with the police.” Frost offered up the first coin and their attention shifted as one with the movement. “You know these streets better than anyone. I want to know about the burnings.”

“We’re not supposed to talk ’bout them.” A little girl, all ragged clothes and dirty blond hair, squeaked as the nearest girl put a hand over her mouth.

Frost played with the coins in his hand. The tinkling sound of more money than these children had probably seen together had more than one child shifting from foot to foot. They were nervous. Unsure. But the prospect of money that could feed them for a week flared in their hungry eyes.

“A sixpence now. A shilling on your return, and a florin if I consider the information of use. Who wants that deal?”

“I do.” The hard-eyed girl darted forward and snatched the sixpence from between Frost’s finger and thumb.

“Be back here before it turns dark.”

“Deal!” She nodded and ran, her bare feet drumming against the worn cobbles.

The rest of the children surged forward, grabbing at the little coins before disappearing into the dank and smoky streets, back alleys and courts.

Mason glanced left and narrowed his eyes along Hedley Street. His grandparents, both sets, had lived and died on that bleak road. It hadn’t changed, still grimed with smoke from the gasworks and the blackened-brick viaduct that cut into the houses. Women congregated, chattering with a brood of children playing about their skirts, near where the men hung out on the corner outside the pub, raucous and loud.

Nothing in the filthy warren had changed...but there was something in the air. Something he could taste beyond the foulness of industry.

His gut was tight. “What do you expect them to find?”

“And I would ask the same question.” A policeman stepped out from behind the
aeolipile
, his sure gaze sweeping over the vehicle. “What’s your business on Athol Street, Mr...”

“Mr. Agamemnon Frost. And you are?” Frost’s voice had taken on that languid lilt that disguised his true character.

“Sergeant Jones, Athol Street Bridewell.” He straightened and touched his truncheon to the edge of his helmet. “Again what is your business here? That is a very expensive vehicle to abandon at the side of the road.” A dark glint shone in his eyes. “This is not your playground, Mr. Frost.”

“Indeed.” He glanced along to the filthy streets, frosted with dirty ice. His head tilted. “There would be a band. Refreshments.” His fingers flicked to the sooty viaduct built over the cobbled road. “And definitely bunting.
Lots
of bunting.”

The policeman’s mouth thinned. “We can continue this discussion at the bridewell, if you’d prefer?”

The mask dropped away from Frost. “What I would prefer, Sergeant Jones, is for you to share your no doubt copious knowledge of your constables’ beat.”

Jones’s gloved hand flexed around his truncheon. “And why would I do that, Mr. Frost?”

“The burnings.”

Jones’s red cheeks deepened in colour and he shifted his booted feet. But he stayed stonily silent.

“And say I solved the mystery and attributed it to you, then your chance of rising to inspector becomes that much greater.”

“This is not a game.” The words were tight and clipped. But he didn’t deny Frost further. The man before him had obvious wealth and with it came influence. Jones would be a fool to ignore the offer.

“And that perhaps the bridewell at Aigburth Vale would welcome such an enterprising officer.”

The open fields and clean streets of Aigburth Vale would seem a paradise after the industrial grime of his current beat. Mason suspected an inspector’s pay would be welcome too.

The sergeant took a step closer and Mason tensed. Jones pitched his voice low, aware of others passing on the pavement. “The few I’ve seen are not from around here. Or at least no claim is made on them. The rumour goes that they appear in rooms or cellars. Burned. Their skin bubbled and scored.” He jerked his shoulders to deny a shudder. His face was tight. “But they’re not spoken of. Fear. Shame. I don’t know.”

He glanced at the raucous crowd of men on the corner, laughing and jeering at two young women. One woman turned and ripped out a foul list of words that would have shamed a sailor. “With the drunks, the fighting, we have enough to keep us busy here. We find these bodies in the canal or in the locks. Sometimes bundled up, sometimes nothing more than a skeleton held together by its own scorched skin.”

He stared down at the cobbles. “Some of these families have not a stick of furniture. Sleep on straw. They’d not waste a good blanket on an unknown corpse.”

“And you have no leads?”

“My inspector insists they’re poor souls caught in the retort of the gasworks. And the gasworks
does
draw water from the canal...”

“But?”

“The cuts on the bodies. Even rotted in the water, those marks...” Jones’s body shook now with a full shudder. “Those marks are not
natural.

The small blonde girl tripped to a stop beside Frost and tugged on his greatcoat. “Me shillin’, mister.” Two boys barrelled around a corner, swearing as they spied the little girl.

“She don’t know nothin’!” A boy’s cry cut through the noise of the foetid air. “She don’t deserve...” He skidded on the icy cobbles, catching himself before he fell. “She didn’t—”

“Mason. Their shillings.”

Mason placed a clean coin into each grubby palm. The little girl bit it. Something his brother had taught him too when he was small.

“What did you find?” Frost tapped the other, so far silent boy on the shoulder and he flinched. “You.”

“Me cousin Robbie found a body in his cellar a week back. He and his brother...” He cast nervous eyes at the sergeant. “They...”

“Sergeant Jones, here, will not take this further. Will you?”

Jones’s eyes tightened, but he gave a curt nod. He would not let the promise of a new bridewell and a promotion escape him. “Carry on, Mark.”

Mark’s gaunt face flushed. “They went down to the canal. Dropped the bones off the bridge. Robbie said it was nothin’ but bones. Skin burnt black and red.”

“It was on Menai Street,” piped up the other boy.

“And I was there when Robbie said,” added the little girl.

“Their florins, Mason. And one for Robbie.” Frost fixed his gaze on Mark, and the boy paled. “Witnessed by Sergeant Jones, I will know if he doesn’t get his share.”

Mason placed the large coins in their grubby hands and as one they bolted. “We’ll have every child who can crawl here soon.”

Frost gave him a bleak smile. “I have the money to spare.”

More children found them in short order, with tales of bodies found on almost every street, and Frost’s money flowed. Every child got a florin. It didn’t matter if the tale they spun had very little to do with the strange bodies he sought. It eased some of the tension, the tight knot in Mason’s stomach, to hand over money so freely.

Though the generosity was attracting the attention of the men hanging on the corner. One man with a pint and pipe nudged the other, leaning drunkenly to whisper something in his ear. Then both men fixed their attention on Frost. Their intent was clear. A toff in their patch, ripe for picking.

The sergeant had noticed it too. “You should make yourselves less obvious, gentlemen.”

“We’re waiting on one more...”

“The first girl,” Mason murmured. Fresh knots worked themselves into his gut. His instincts were starting to flare. Whether it was something the girl would share with them, or the men loitering outside the pub, he didn’t know. “We should move, though, sir.”

Frost met his gaze and the expectation was there. Again the man was in his head. “Which way?”

Something tugged at Mason, a mixture of rightness and dread. “That way.” He pointed to the road running before the gasworks, one that would take them away from the pub and its corner men.

“Your...” Jones pointed to the
aeolipile
. “Whatever it is, it’ll last no more than a minute. They’ll strip it down. There won’t be a copper stud left.”

“I doubt it, Sergeant.” Frost pointed his walking stick down the street. “Lead on, Mason.”

Mason resisted the need to look behind him, the itch between his shoulder blades telling him that the men had moved off the corner. Another minute would have them surrounding the
aeolipile.
He hoped Frost was right...and that iron-studded boots would do it little damage.

“You ploughed one into the ground and it hardly suffered a scratch.”

Mason winced at the memory. That was true. Still, he didn’t want to witness—or hear—their attempts to tear his engine apart.

“Focus, Mason.” Frost’s murmur wrapped around him and brought his wandering thoughts back to their current problem. “What’s down here?”

The road looked much like the others. Cobbles greyed with ice and a line of tumbledown terraces grimed black from soot, with windows stuffed with rags to keep out the worst of the icy, stinking air. Women wrapped in ragged shawls sat on the steps, chattering as they stitched or rocked a baby. But there was more. A heaviness, a wrongness that had nothing to do with the towering stacks and gasometers laying down thick shadows.

It burned against his tongue, hot and sour, his belly a snake-twist of knots. The noise and smell pushed at him, driving into his altered flesh, his head pulsing with the fearsome sounds...

“Mason.” Frost gripped his shoulder. “Concentrate.”

He blinked and fixed on a blurred figure at the end of the narrow street. “The girl.”

The child ran towards them and rushed almost full-tilt into Frost. He caught her with gloved hands, rocking her back.

“I want extra.” The hard-eyed girl who had first taken Frost’s offer shrugged free of his hold. She pushed back a loose strand of hair. “A crown on top of the florin.”

BOOK: Agamemnon Frost and the Crown of Towers
11.6Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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