Agamemnon Frost and the Crown of Towers (6 page)

BOOK: Agamemnon Frost and the Crown of Towers
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Frost lifted his eyebrow. “And why should I do that?”

Mason knew her answer before she voiced it. The snakes fighting in his belly turned in on each other.

“Because I found you one.” Her smile was fierce. “A body. And it’s still hot.”

6. The Body in the Cellar

Mason stopped on the worn steps of the narrow terrace house. The girl trotted ahead, pushing open the house’s boarded door. Hinges groaned and grey light shafted into the grainy blackness of the room beyond, revealing straw, rags and a door laid across the floor as its only furniture.

“It’s in the cellar.”

“Who lives here?” Frost frowned up at the crumbling front of the house. “Do you know?”

“It used to be the Dwyers. Then the O’Malleys. Maybe it’s their cousins now. People move through fast. Mam says it’s an unlucky house.”

The girl moved to cross the threshold, but Mason grabbed her arm. She was human, completely flesh and blood, but still she felt no fear at what she’d discovered in the house. She lived a hard life. He doubted much could shock her.

She was also telling the truth about there being a body. The unmistakeable stench of death threaded through the air and with it came the itch and sourness of
koile
.

“I can give her the money now, sir.”

Frost nodded, staying silent and watching as Mason handed over eight shillings to the girl. She tucked it in a small pocket in the ragged pinafore, glanced back once to the house and then ran. She was a blur of movement and already turning off onto another street within seconds.

“Mason?” Frost’s gloved hand briefly touched his shoulder. The comforting hint of sandalwood and vanilla cut through the stink of burnt death. “You know this place?”

Mason looked up at the street name bolted to the brick on the outer wall. Battered and grimed with soot, the name could still be seen.
Cemaes Street
. No number marked the door, but he knew it was number twenty-two. It felt as unreal as a dream and he knew Pandarus was laughing at them. Hard. “I was born here.”

Frost turned to the policeman. “Sergeant, can you please stand guard at this door? Let no one enter.”

Jones frowned. “Just what
is
your business here?”

“That, I can’t say.” Frost moved ahead of Mason, his shoes and walking stick tapping against the curve of the steps. “Mason?”

He blinked, pulling his thoughts back in. His instincts turned and twisted, caught in the strangeness of standing before his childhood home. He followed Frost and closed the front door behind him.

His vision shifted, finding the distinct grey that cleared the darkness. A cold fire holding nothing but a few scraps of cindered paper and ash said the room had stood empty for a while. Beside the cast iron fireplace stood a stool and on it was a cracked plate smeared with grease and a crust of bread. Would they find the owner of the bread in the cellar? They had nothing. They wouldn’t abandon food.

His chest tightened, the perfect rhythm of his heart faltering. This could’ve been his family, caught, butchered and burnt by Pandarus’s minions. It was strange good fortune for him to have no living relatives. Someone else had not been so lucky.

“We should examine the body.” Frost’s voice was soft, quiet. He’d removed his hat, and the sign of respect unexpectedly choked Mason.

“He’s playing games. This—” Mason waved his hands at the broken plaster on the walls, the black mould creeping out of the corners, “—could’ve been my family.” A caustic laugh escaped him. “If the smallpox outbreak of ‘71 hadn’t taken them all.”

“You didn’t come back?”

Mason rubbed at his jaw, not wanting to remember that bitter time. Only just fifteen, almost a man. He was a young footman in a country house in Lancashire and sending home as much money as he could to support his mother, brother and sister. “Couldn’t come back. Didn’t have the money. And anyway, by the time the news got to me, they were all in the ground. Unmarked.” A soft sigh escaped him and he was surprised to find Frost’s hand on his arm. “There was little point in coming back then.”

Mason dug his fingers into the back of his neck, wanting to ease the strain in his muscles. “The body.”

“Yes, focus on that.” Frost lifted his eyebrow. “Not a pleasant distraction but a distraction, nonetheless.” He rubbed his gloved hands together, the soft leather a quiet rasp. “As little as this room has, it
does
have the touch of the
Marie Celeste
to it. Were they taken from where they lived and...somehow attacked in their home?”

Mason’s instincts, the sure feelings that had guided him for the years before his transfiguration, were a confusion in his blood. Death shrouded the room and bound with it was the hollow flesh that was
koile
, but memories muddled any clear insight. He had sat with his little sister at the fire, warming freezing fingers and toes on the scoops of coal and chips of wood their older brother had scrounged. His mother’s voice, soft and sometimes cracking with sorrow as she sang at the sink, seemed almost to pulse in the air. More than a memory. Something that scraped over his raw nerves.

Pandarus wanted his confusion. He could do nothing for his family now, they’d been gone almost twenty years. Ruthlessly, Mason shoved down his past, swallowing against the ache in his throat. “Perhaps. I need to see the body.”

The empty doorframe in the wall—the broken door was being used as a makeshift bed—was a dark hole going down into the cellar. Mason took to the creaking stairs, the wood bowing under his weight.

The acrid stink of burnt hair and skin flooded his senses and he pressed a hand to his nose and mouth. His boot hit damp dirt and he turned into the cramped room.

The body was curled up on its side on the dirt floor, knees brought up to the chest, hands clenched before its face. Every inch of its skin was blistered and scorched, so it was difficult to tell if it was a man or a woman. One thing he knew. It was most certainly
koile.

With his altered vision, the diamond glitter of exposed bone was obvious. This was something different from other
koile.
Was the nature of their flesh so flexible that Pandarus could easily change it?

Frost stood behind him now. “It glitters like the bones of an automata or
kardax.
Strange.” He handed his hat and walking stick to Mason before he moved past him to squat beside the body. Removing his handkerchief from his inner pocket, he held it to his mouth and nose. The purifiers within the delicate material would drive away the stink of scorched flesh.

He drew a set of silver tweezers from his coat pocket and lifted away a flap of skin. It cracked, flecks of burnt skin drifting up on the damp air.

Mason winced. “It feels different. More than
koile
, less than us. But somehow, not whole...” He scratched at his forehead. His instincts didn’t make sense. “It’s a confliction.”

“This has been put here to taunt us. Something to pull our focus away from finding him.” Frost stood and slipped the tweezers back into their ebony case. “Which means Pandarus has surplus automata. He’s calling them all in.”

“So we’re no nearer to finding him or this mysterious Crown of Towers.”

“It would seem not.” Frost stared up at the low ceiling. “He has to still be here, in the city. Though again he could be anyone and anywhere.”

Pandarus’s latest skin, that of an Irish banker, had not yet turned up in the deadhouse. Though that said little. With the technology available to their enemy, turning a body to little more than unrecognisable ash was certainly open to him.

“So what now?”

Frost took back his walking stick and hat. “We quarantine this house. It’ll keep out the curious until Nestor can assemble a team for removal.” He pulled free the
ektaxis
from his greatcoat’s inner pocket, its alien inner workings gleaming under Mason’s altered vision. Frost drew his thumb over the mechanism. “Nestor. We need a removal unit to Vauxhall Ward. Cemaes Street. I’d also recommend a house-by-house search.”

Nestor’s familiar profile, with his bushy moustache and swept-back hair rose above the thin plate of the device. “
What have you found?

“Some form of hybrid.
Koile
, but hardened by the transfiguration process.” Frost pressed his lips together, anger forming lines across his brow. “We’re no closer—”

The image flickered and another face briefly covered Nestor’s, mouth open, eyes narrowed. Shouting. But no sound broke through, only the hiss of static.

Frost swore, his fingers a blur over the copper. “Where are you? Who are you?”

“...
Diomedes
...”

Mason’s heart tightened and he dug his fingers into the leather covering his palms. Diomedes was Captain Beresford’s designation.


This is Diomedes.
We are under attack.
Enemy forces have taken the house
—”

“Diomedes!” Frost broke into his warning. “Are you secure?”


Achilles
...” There was relief in the man’s voice and he wiped a hand over his mouth. “
For now.
I
lost contact with my men only minutes ago.
Heavy vibrations are shaking the walls.
They have to be bombarding us with
pelekys
weaponry.

“Your charge?”

“Has been drifting in and out. Sometimes coherent—” The captain looked to his left and a light shower of grit and sand blurred his image. “They’re getting closer.”

“Secure the room.” Frost reeled off a list of measures to protect Theodora, to secure the walls, the door, the cache of experimental weaponry in the laboratory. Diomedes moved as the instructions flowed. “Is that understood, Diomedes?”


Sir
—”

The image churned. An arc of moving brick replaced the captain. Sound thundered, a continuous run of explosions that filled the cellar. Mason thought he caught a man’s scream before he pressed his hands to his ears. He tried to deny the riot of noise and the well of panic wanting to drown him. But he couldn’t.

Pandarus had played them. They were nothing but puppets. Stupid puppets. Their former master, their
Ilarches
would always be one step ahead of them. Pandarus had led them out of the Hall like sheep and mobilised his forces to take it. He’d breached the laboratory.

The way was completely clear for him to abduct Theodora. Again.

7. The Destruction of Greenbank Hall

Frost bolted from the cellar. Mason followed, shouting at Sergeant Jones to seal the house and await the arrival of the authorities.

The policeman stared at them, his questions lost as they pounded over the cobbles towards the
aeolipile
. The foul air burned in Mason’s lungs, his heart labouring as it fought against the poison in his body. And as he had feared, the drunks from the pub had surrounded their engine. More than one had a cudgel and were battering the roof, foul curses and anger mounting as they made no dent or scuff on the gleaming, golden metal.

Frost charged forward, obviously in no mood to reason with the men. His walking stick was a blur of blackness, finding an arm, ribs, a jaw. Blood arced. Their quick cries followed with slow agonised moans and they slumped away from the engine. The more sober staggered back from the raging man, faces white and hands held up in surrender.

Frost pointed to his door and Mason moved to open it. Even in the heat of battle, he never forgot the roles they must play.

“Go home,” Mason muttered to the men before he climbed in beside Frost.

The clean, silent interior of the
aeolipile
was a rush to Mason’s senses. He wasted no time and drew on the gyroscope that steered the craft. The machine surged up into the air.

Frost was silent beside him, his gloved hand still holding tight to his bloodied walking stick. A muscle jumped in his jaw, and his pale face was bleak. The cuff of his coat was torn, the stitching ragged. For Frost not to lament the destruction of a favourite coat, to declare its illustrious provenance and how he was going to explain it to his tailor, ate at Mason. He ached to close a hand over his tight fist but Frost’s absolute stillness disconcerted him.

“Beresford is a good man. He’ll protect Theodora.”

Frost didn’t reply, simply fixed his gaze forward as they swept over a railway station and warehouses, heading south. His fingers flexed around the walking stick, dabs of blood visible on the soft leather. They reformed into a fist, the solid wood cracking under the pressure, and his jaw tightened.

The man was blaming himself.

“You couldn’t know—”

“I did know. I knew all along.” Frost bit out the words. “It was why I didn’t go to Dyrford Park. Instead, Pandarus leads me out of the Hall by the nose!” He pulled the
ektaxis
from his coat and brought up the image of Nestor. He didn’t bother with pleasantries. “Did you see Diomedes?”

Nestor ran a hand over his hair, his face worn and crumpled. “
A
unit is on its way.
Did the shield fail?

Frost closed his eyes for a brief moment. “That has to be it.” Yet, more blame for the man to carry. “And I thought...” He drew in a deep breath. “We’ll be at the house in a few minutes—”


Achilles
—”

Frost wiped a bloodied thumb over the device, silencing his commander. His image vanished. “Use the trees for cover. We don’t know if they’ve taken up a position at the Hall, or if they’ve simply...” He wet his lips, his chin lifting. “Or if they snatched Theodora and ran.”

“We’ll find a vantage point in Sefton Park. Close enough to observe but far enough to evade attack.”

“Agreed.” Frost pulled his gloves free of his fingers and pushed them into his coat pocket. He let his walking stick fall against his leg and dropped into silence again.

Mason focused on flying, on speeding the
aeolipile
over docks, warehouses and the belching smoke of stacks. He didn’t know this man beside him. A solid, bleak mask had fallen over every other one Frost wore. Pandarus taking Theodora had torn his heart out. Again.

Mason frowned at the layer of new smoke twisting and curling to disappear into the grey sky. A stone dropped in his belly. The smoke came from Greenbank Hall.

“Stop here.”

Frost’s command jerked him up and the
aeolipile
juddered, protesting at the sudden pressure of his hands. Over the still-frosted canopy of trees, he could just make out the roof of the Hall. Something didn’t sit right. The thin tower with its dovecot was a broken shard, blackened brick and wood stark against the sky, but it wasn’t that. “It’s...lower.”

Mason wished he’d not spoken. Surprise had caught him. The Hall was listing, its foundations obviously damaged. Foundations such as the cellar that had housed Theodora.

Seconds ticked over and Mason stretched his fingers against the gyroscope, his nerves eating at him as he watched for any sign that the enemy still held the house. Nothing moved. Only the spatter of rain and the threads of grey-black smoke that caught on cold winds.

“It looks clear.”

“Wait.” The single word was hard.

Another long minute passed and Mason could see nothing. But then he was not Frost... Yet, his instincts hadn’t flared, giving him a warning that the Hall was still a danger to them. “There could be survivors. Injured soldiers. Your staff.”

“Pandarus will leave no one alive.” His lips pressed together, briefly. “We wait.”

“They’re not there—”

“I can’t risk him taking you too!”

The words burst from Frost, sudden and fierce, surprising Mason. He met Frost’s gaze, seeing something there that he couldn’t name. The worry was not that Frost would lose
him
, but that Pandarus would gain him as a resource. The perfect insider, with the devil squatting at the back of his brain, just waiting to spill every secret.

Frost shut his eyes, his fists pressed hard against his thighs. He let out a slow breath. “I’ve already failed Theodora. I promised to keep her safe. And her mother gave her life for that promise. But to fail you...”

“You haven’t. You won’t.” Mason stared down at the latticework of copper set before him in the gyroscope, counting the precise beat of his pulse. He looked up. “Though no lament over your coat cuff?” He gave him a quick smile. “Shame on you, Mr. Frost.”

Frost blinked, looked at his sleeve and poked his finger through the loosened stitching. A twitch of his mouth brought a shine to his eyes. “I am sorely remiss. I cannot
count
the number of little tailors who fought the ache of cramp to stitch perfection into this cloth, and now a gaggle of street-corner roughs have
ruined
it.”

Mason grinned at him. Frost’s dandy mask lightened his heart. “It is truly shocking.”

Frost’s hand covered his, the touch of skin against skin an electric wire through his flesh. His pulse raced and he darted a glance at the man too close beside him. “Thank you.”

The urge to lean across the narrow space, to taste Frost’s mouth, deepening it into a kiss that would only whet his appetite for more, smashed over Mason. It was inappropriate. He couldn’t satisfy the constant ache that held him. They had their orders. Their mission. “We should land.”

Frost removed his hand and the hollow feeling in his flesh forced Mason to grit his teeth. “From this position, it appears they didn’t attack from the front. Set down behind the kitchen.”

Mason pushed the
aeolipile
low over the line of elms, skirting the lawns. The Hall looked strangely intact, if sunken. Mullioned windows stood empty of their glass, but the brick and lintels were in place...until he rounded the west wing.

Pandarus had attacked from the rear, possibly using the thick line of oak to obscure his weaponry. Whole walls had vanished, leaving scorched brick and the rooms exposed to the wind and increasing rain.

Theodora’s bedroom, with its soft silks and pale colours, was stained with blood, arcs of it covering the wall. Below it, the old schoolroom had its desks splintered and trampled and more than one body lay slumped under bricks and dust. More bricks littered the paths and grass, flattening shrubs. Mason winced as he spied a bloodied arm under the remains of a fallen tree.

Yet...the attack had his gut turning in on itself. “The pattern is wrong.” He landed the
aeolipile
and fixed his attention on the house. “The bricks blew out.”

“Nestor was right. The shield failed and they simply walked in.” Frost pushed open the door of the craft and the action caught Mason by surprise. With it came the lurch in his stomach that there was no one alive to witness their charade of master and valet.

Mason scrambled after him. He believed there was no one in the Hall now, but he couldn’t risk Frost being attacked. “The kitchen door is shut.” He frowned, turned the handle and pushed it open. “And unlocked.” He stopped. Scents mixed in the air, familiar, tantalising. Alice, from the hints of coal, carbolic and a touch of rosewater and with her, a man.

Frost stepped past him in the narrow passage, his boots clicking against the terracotta tile. A bitter laugh broke from him. “Menelaus was here. I can actually smell him.”

Mason pulled in another breath, drawing in more air, until the image of the young girl almost stood there before him. Smiling, her palms damp and the aroma of excitement fairly burned from her.

Frost ran his palm along the wall until his fingers dug through the cracked plaster. He tugged at the copper wiring, yanking it out. “The switch at the door is intact. The wiring undisturbed. How did they break the shield?”

“They didn’t.” Mason closed his eyes, his throat tight. Pandarus had been playing more than him. Poor little Alice and her hunger to be loved. “Alice did. Your brother was her beau.
She
let him in.”

Frost stared at him. “Her
what?

“Mr. Herbert Edward Chase. Alice spoke of him this morning.”

“And you didn’t think to—” The thrum of the
ektaxis
in his pocket broke into his rebuke. “Achilles.”

Nestor’s face lifted into the shadows of the passage. “
Two units are minutes from your position.

“Keep them outside. The structure of the Hall has been weakened. See the utilities are cut. Achilles out.” He fixed his dark gaze on Mason again. A hint of white light shone from him. “What were you thinking?”

Anger swelled in Mason’s stomach. He knew grief and frustration churned within Frost—within both of them—and he fought to push down his own feelings. “The day went to hell, if you’ll remember, Frost.”

The man turned on his heel and wiped a hand across his mouth. “Let’s get this over with.”

The kitchen was almost the same as he had left it earlier in the day, though the usual smells of cooking meats, the hint of flour, of pastries and potatoes were absent. Heat from the range fought with the chill of glassless windows, but the stiff breeze stirred different scents.

Tears pricked Mason’s eyes as he squatted down to find young Mary, the tweeny, under the sink, her limbs splayed like a broken doll. Someone had blasted a hole through her chest, the heat so fierce it cauterised her flesh. He swore and reached out to close her horrified eyes with gentle fingers.

“I have three in the cook’s room, two in the pantry and the stains of three more in the passage to the back stairs.” Frost rattled off the list, the tightness to his words revealing his pain. “They tried to warn of the attack.”

He unbuttoned his greatcoat and threw it across a kitchen chair. His hat joined it. “Menelaus dragged a weapon with him. It scored through the stains. Turned the stairs to ash.”

“Weakened the foundations.”

Frost dug his fingers into the back of his neck. “It has to be done.” He murmured the words almost to himself and strode out of the kitchen.

Mason pulled off his own greatcoat and ran to catch up with Frost. The man stood at the edge of the passage. A huge hole formed where once the stairs had stood. There was only darkness beneath them, with the splash of water and the faint odour of town gas.

“Time to ruin my shoes too.”

He leapt, vanishing into the blankness. A heartbeat later and followed by a splash and a curse, he shouted up, “Jump, Mason.”

Mason squinted down, finding his altered vision. The cellar tunnel was pooled with water, and holes punched through its walls. Taking a steadying breath, he jumped the twelve feet to the stone floor. He expected a shoot of pain, a protest from bones and muscles...but none came. Even after so many weeks, his transfiguration could still surprise him.

Frost’s hand steadied him. “Ready?”

Mason nodded, tugging at the hem of his suit coat to straighten it. “Ready.”

Gas lurked in arches and dips in the cellar ceiling, the stink of it catching at Mason’s throat. But there was no ominous hiss—Nestor had worked fast—and the open walls had dissipated the worst of it.

The walls to his left were now little more than dust, and the ceilings in the network of rooms on the other side of the tunnel dipped dangerously. Some had given way, spewing the contents of the above room into the dank and the wet.

There was no sign of any of the battery of soldiers. The barracks had crumbled to ash. Mason suspected that Menelaus had caught most of the soldiers at rest in their bunks.

Frost stopped. The shattered door of his laboratory stood off its hinges, listing into the tunnel. His head bowed and Mason pressed a hand to his shoulder, unable to stop himself. Everything the man had worked for, every impossible machine had been born in that strange room. Frost covered Mason’s hand with his own, giving a brief surprising squeeze, before he moved forward.

“They were unimportant. Trifles. She...” His voice faded.

Menelaus had blown a hole through to the room that housed Theodora. The Armstrong-Swan cage itself was surprisingly intact, but the door stood open and it was achingly empty.

Something pricked the hairs on the back of Mason’s neck. He turned away from the cage, staring over the debris of the laboratory. Bookshelves had been overturned, sections cindered to blackened shards. Metal formed still molten pools on the floor, dripping over the broken workbench to splash against the tiles. Papers littered every surface.

Under the drip of liquids, there was another sound. Something slow. Drawn, with a slowed beat as a counterpoint. Something
alive.

“Frost! I think the captain is somewhere in here.” Mason worked like a fiend, digging his way through the mass of debris until he spied an arm half-buried under the rubble of bricks and wood. The serge of the blue uniform was only tatters, and blood stained the skin, but there was a pulse beating at the wrist.

BOOK: Agamemnon Frost and the Crown of Towers
13.45Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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