AUTHOR'S NOTE: A Victorian AU with just a hint of steampunk, dedicated to my roommate, who said, "Hey, you know what you should write? Victorian NCIS," and then cackled madly. So—introducing Mr. Timothy McGee, the "mad, bad, and dangerous to know" Mr. Anthony, the inscrutable Mr. Gibbs, the kindly Dr. Mallard, the charming Miss Abigail, and the mystery-wrapped-in-an-enigma Lady David. I've done my best to keep out obvious historical errors—and give full credit to What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew, by Daniel Pool, for the bits I did get right—but there are certainly implausibilities here. I hope you'll enjoy it anyway. Updates every other day.
Also, in case anyone, given my reputation, reads this chapter and wonders where on earth Tony's gotten himself off to, I can guarantee he'll be along shortly.
Gentlemen of Last Resort
If the machinery of the Law could be depended on to fathom every case of suspicion, and to conduct every process of inquiry, with moderate assistance only from the lubricating influences of oil of gold, the events which fill these pages might have claimed their share of the public attention in a Court of Justice.
Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White
It's a sweet faith to have in the world, that it works the way it claims to.
When he was a child, Timothy McGee's nose had always been tipped black with ink. He had kept his head buried in the pamphlets and chapbooks that his father had brought back—some still grainy with soot—from London, and he had read adventure stories and crime stories—both pleasantly lurid and the foundation of dreams and nightmares—but most particularly, he had read the science books. He had read them until the stitching unraveled along the spine and then he had brought them to his mother to sew them into books again—later she had taught him how to do this himself and he had sewn them up to be tight and indestructible, more manuals than chapbooks, and he would line them up along his bed and think that one day—in London—he would have the kind of life where he would buy books—real books, leather books, durable books, thick books—by the pound. And know everything about everything. And still have ink on his nose.
The part about the ink had been true, at least: ink on his nose, and soot in his eyes, and nothing at all in his belly.
Sighing heavily, he gathered up the pieces of the clock once more. It was a truth, he thought, acknowledged by everyone but him, that no one really wanted a steam-powered clock that would most likely cause severe burns. And in truth, he could hardly blame him for that.
Though he could easily blame himself for failing, and having soon to return home with nothing earned and nothing achieved, all his seed money scattered fruitlessly to the winds. His parents would not speak a word of their disappointment, but he knew that sending him to London had been an extravagance that they had been ill-able to afford. Now it was all ruin.
At least he had a place to sleep. He had that much, still—due only to the kindness of his landlord, Mr. Davies, who had marveled at each and every piece of fumbling machinery that Timothy had painstakingly constructed in the rented room that doubled as his workshop. It had been a good long while since he had contributed much in the way of rent, but nevertheless Mr. Davies was always happy to see him as he trod the mire of London into the front hall.
"Ah, Timothy! And how did the day move?"
"In a peculiarly downwards direction," Timothy said, unburdening himself of the clockwork piece. "You may have this, sir, if you like—though I should warn you, it is prone to some spouting-off."
Mr. Davies took the clock in his hands with reverence. "Such a beautiful thing it is," he said. "And what's a little steam, eh? I'll simply keep it well away from anything easily scalded while it's set to ticking."
"Most men are not so willing to compromise for the sake of science."
Mr. Davies blinked owlishly at him. He was near-sighted, and saw all the world, he'd told Timothy, as though through a bit of water. It made his appreciation of Timothy's work both more and less flattering. "Oh, but it's nothing to do with the science of it at all. They're just beautiful things, what you make. Like they're spun out of gold and glass and sugar." He held the clock up to the light and the lamps made it turn almost liquid, like a hazy of stained glass and gleaming metalwork, and for an instant, Timothy could see what Mr. Davies saw in them—the haze of color, of light. "Perhaps you ought to give up peddling them on the street and market them to the quality. As art, eh?"
"Perhaps," Timothy said. "But until then, I give you joy of it—and beg you to keep it far from you if it is keeping the time."
And wearily he went up to bed. Soon—tomorrow, even—he would have to start the letter to his family, telling them of his defeat in London and asking their advice as to when he should make his way back home. And work in a shop for the rest of his days, with no adventure and no science beyond the kind the cheap-inked pamphlets could provide.
He worried himself into sleep, and dreamed thin dreams punctuated by loud noises, like thunderclaps—which were, he thought, the heavy sounds of his hopes thudding to the very bottom of his soul, though as it turned out, the sound was something altogether different.
Timothy breakfasted, as always, in his room—Mr. Davies had urged him more than once to come down in the mornings and have a bit of something, but the burden of his indebtedness to Mr. Davies's kindness already hung about his neck like a millstone. He ate bread and cheese in his room and shed crumbs onto his books. I still have books, he thought, though it would be best if he sold the best of them to either pay Mr. Davies or else repay his parents for their sadly misspent faith in him. He tried to banish the thoughts for the moment, at least, and concentrate instead on a fascinating schematic drawing, but the pleasure had gone out of him the moment he had thought of selling the books. He would have nothing, nothing at all.
The doing of it would be the hard thing—afterwards, he could at least be thankful that he'd summoned up his courage to make the right choice. And so he gathered up the best of his few books in his arms and went downstairs, intending to go as quickly as possible out the door so that he did not disturb Mr. Davies, who, he was sure, would object most strenuously to being paid with the blood money—ink money—from the selling of Timothy's books. So out the door and onwards—
But there was a stillness to the house that it had always lacked before—Mr. Davies was a heavy walker, and besides even that, he whistled and sang and talked to himself, and this morning the silence lay undisturbed.
Timothy abandoned his plans. Settling the heap of books down on the sideboard, he trailed into the back rooms of the house. "Mr. Davies? Sir?"
All this to no answer. His own footfalls were so loud in the silence that he felt clumsy, iron-shod. He stepped around the corner into the parlor. "Mr. Davies?"
When he saw the shape on the floor, he understood at once that he could call and call and never receive an answer—this was no sleep, or drunkenness, or even injury. The whole back of Davies's head—pink-scalped, formerly, under its wispy and golden remaining strands of hair—was gone. It exposed a great clot of blood and splintered bone to the air. His hands—empty and bare—lay at his sides, palms open, unwounded, beseeching. Beautiful things. He'd said that Timothy made beautiful things. Timothy stepped forward, meaning only to whisk the tablecloth from its place and cover Davies sow that he would not lie so naked to whatever passerby might come, but when he got closer, he saw a heavy-bodied black fly crawl across the ruin of Mr. Davies's skull and begin cleaning his legs, as if scraping off the dried blood so he did not track it home, and Timothy turned and vomited onto the easy-chair.
"And you say that you saw nothing, heard nothing?"
Timothy ran his tongue over his teeth. God, the taste was foul. He had rinsed and rinsed and still it stayed stubbornly there, a reminder of his cowardice. "I was asleep." He'd said it twice before already. Whatever the policeman wanted—a spontaneous confession from him, perhaps—he would not get it, no matter how slinking Timothy felt at the moment. "I came home quite late last night—nine, I should think—and we talked." I gave him a clock, a worthless and dangerous present, but he admired it nonetheless, though it spouted off bursts of steam and lagged three minutes of every hour. "And I went straight up to bed and did not come down until this morning, when I found him so and sent for you."
"Why home so late last night?"
"I had hopes of selling a clock I'd made. Things did not go as planned."
"You're a clockmaker?"
"Among other things." At which I have failed. "I'm an engineer, of sorts—I design things, make them. Clocks, for example, steam-powered ones."
"What's wrong with old-fashioned clockwork?"
"Nothing, as it turns out, and also it doesn't scald you, which is why my evening did not align with my hopes." Driven to it, he glanced off to the side, where Mr. Davies most likely would have settled the clock—something pretty for the parlor—upon the table, with—oh, a part of—his collection of trumpery.
It was not there.
Timothy blinked at its absence.
The policeman said, "So if nobody's buying what you sell, how is that you pay your rent?"
"I had a little money saved up before," Timothy said, somewhat absentminded now. Where was the clock? Where had Davies put it? There was even a hole in the bric-a-brac upon the table, a gap like a missing tooth in a smile. "And I depended much upon Mr. Davies's kindness, which was ample. He was convinced that one day I would—make my fortune here. I only lacked the right opportunity, he said, and soon it would come with the rain one morning, and then wouldn't he be sorry if he had turned me out onto the streets? He's a very—was a very—goodhearted man."
As far as he could tell, the policeman had stopped listening to him once he'd mentioned having had some money to his name that was independent of work—he had been searching for either an alibi or a motivation, but if Timothy were a bit of a gentleman, with family somewhere or another, that gave him the former and relieved him of the latter. Young gentleman do not beat in their landlord's skulls over a few paltry month's rent.
"Something happened here that is more complex than you are thinking," Timothy said desperately. "Mr. Davies had no enemies, not a one—I lived in his house for months and never heard a word against him or saw a scowl in his direction."
"Robbery, sir," the policeman said, "does not require enemies as such, only men—the robbers, like, now, is what I mean—unwilling to call a man a friend."
"But nothing is missing!" Except the clock, maybe—but who would take that off under his arm?
"So it went awry, as such things often do. Your Mr. Davies made a fuss and they silenced him, quick as Jack-be-nimble, and then feared the blood, or your waking, and headed straight out again." The policeman gave a brief nod towards the white-sheeted body on the floor. Timothy wondered if there were still flies on it, crawling sluggishly in the dark under that thin curtain. His gorge rose again in his throat and he turned away quickly, his hand to his mouth. This confirmed for the policeman, if nothing else had, that he numbered among or at least near the quality—such sensitivity to a bad smell, to a bad thought, to a bad dream.
I did have a bad dream. The sounds of things falling—of the blows?
"There, sir," the policeman said. "Simple as you like."
Anything was simple if it could be made up almost whole-cloth. Timothy could do so easily himself. Let him do the policeman up a sketch of things that never were and never could be—flying machines, things that dove to the depths of the sea, things that crawled upon the ground like spiders with metal legs—and all of them would be more vivid and more convincing, and far easier to draw, than the interior wheels and pipes and pistons and hammers of clocks or revolvers or anything else real to the touch. Oh, let it go, let it go, the man meant not to help him, not to help Davies, and if he pushed, he would only undoubtedly find himself being led away and taken up to Law.
"Simple," Timothy said.
The policeman took it for agreement.
That night, after they had led the body away on a wagon and he had scoured the house in vain for the missing clock, Timothy bent over his worktable and made, as quickly and best as he could, the few things of his production that would sell: the folding metal blades and loops of chain and bits of danger that had earned him some money and notoriety in a less reputable area of London. He had no intention tonight, however, of trading these unpleasant little toys for money towards his passage home. What he wanted, instead, was information.
Weighed down, his pockets clanking and clanging with the snips and snaps, he made his way down to the slapped-up and shoddy institutions that bordered the Thames. He was well-enough known there now to pass without comment—he was selling these toys to half the men who might otherwise wish him harm, and the other half kept still out of a superstitious fear of the toys themselves—he had, by now, a reputation as a bit of an eccentric, having scalded or pinched or otherwise damaged such a good percentage of his customers, and peddled weapons else for the damage of others, and who knew, after all, what he might have in his pockets or up his sleeve? The truth of it was that the toys did not work half so well as the men imagined, which was why he felt little unease about selling them: they were pretty things, but cumbersome and unreliable, the steam-powered clock's hand-sized and black sheep companions. But this fear kept everyone at bay as he headed to the Green Parrot.
There had never been a parrot inside the tavern, let alone a green one, and Timothy never had puzzled out the name from anyone, as they were unfailingly already too far gone to find the matter of any interest.
He scanned the room. The least drunk appeared to be Smith and Stebbins, constant companions to each other, and invaluable men. They had never bought any of the toys, not being in any particular black-hearted trade themselves, but they were always gleefully acquainted with men who had, and they had a particular fondness for Timothy as something new and bizarre—a green parrot—that had come into their midst. And they knew, always, the business of everyone in the city.
"Mr. McGee!" Stebbins called. "Come, come, buy you a drink."
"I'll buy," Timothy said. He had enough money for that at least. "I have news to tell you and a favor to ask you and I would think both would go down better with something warm."
"Mr. Davies dead, is what he wants to tell us," Smith said.
Stebbins nodded. "Aye, Mr. Davies dead, and it's a misfortune, Mr. McGee, but not news."
"Not to us, at any rate."
"For we've known it, most like, before you did."
"I shouldn't think that possible, in this case," Timothy said. "I nearly stumbled over him this morning."
"Well," Smith said, "we have ways and ways, young Mr. McGee. But a favor, well—"
"That's something new."
Timothy relayed to the potboy what he knew by now to be the standard drink order for Smith and Stebbins—a gin and a brandy—and nothing for himself. "I am glad to be able to surprise you in something, at least," he said, once they were alone again—or as alone as anyone ever got in the Green Parrot, where the tables and chairs were jammed so much together that every word you said tumbled into the ears of at least a dozen. "Though I should ask, first, if you know anything at all about Mr. Davies's murder?"
Smith and Stebbins traded a quick glance.
"Robbery, is what we heard," Smith said.
"Though you and I and him and everyone else knows that most likely isn't so."
"True," Timothy said. "I was wondering if you had something bordering more on the believable."
"No one's laid claim to it," Stebbins said. "But most likely they wouldn't, Davies being well liked as he was, and the body still fresh and the reward notices still hot from the presses."
"Or not yet run off, even."
"Or not yet run off," Stebbins agreed. "But to ask if we knew about Mr. Davies, and who done him in, is not what you came to ask, Mr. McGee, or else you've misjudged us, because to give you the story of a good man's death is not a favor to ask from a friend, but something to be expected."
The drinks came in their dirty glasses. Smith and Stebbins clicked them together in memory of Mr. Davies, and waited for Timothy to make his request.
"The police," Timothy said, "are little interested in the matter, convinced as they are that it's a matter of robbery, as you said. They will post about the rewards and then they will wash their hands of him. I do not feel that I can do the same."
"Talking," Smith observed, "and saying true things, but not yet asking his favor."
"I do not know how to say it, exactly."
He wished for a drink himself. What was he getting himself into? Smith and Stebbins were good, if unscrupulous, men, but he was sure that the question he would ask next would open his door to men less scrupulous and far less good. He had no money. What he ought, sensibly, to do was to thank Smith and Stebbins for their consolations and go straight back to Davies's to gather his things, and from there, straight away to home, without ever stopping to sleep in a dead man's house, let alone mire himself in a dead man's affairs. But Mr. Davies had been very kind to him, and the clock was missing, and Timothy could not abandon this obligation to him so easily as all that.
"I wanted to know," he said, "if you were acquainted with anyone who might be persuaded to take up the matter the police have neglected. The investigation of Mr. Davies's murder. Someone who would work for little or nothing, or at least take my word as bond that I would pay it back. Or else—" And here, he thought, he opened himself up far wider than was advisable. "Or else someone who would take my work as pay." He reached into his pocket and drew out a handful of trinkets. "Someone interested in these, or better things, perhaps—as many as I could make, even, if only they would expend some care in Mr. Davies's direction." Yes, and he would arm such dangerous men, if they asked it, with contraptions loaded with more force than the spindly toys could bear—he understood well enough how it could be done, and simply avoided it, having protection enough on his walks from the flimsies without peddling real death to those would use it cavalierly. Yet now he made the decision, and he could not yet tell if it infringed upon or imperiled his soul.
"Take it up, and for either your thanks, your bond, or something better than those shiny things?"
"They fall apart a bit, with wear," Timothy admitted. "These do, I mean."
"Well, that's known," Stebbins said. "They're bought nonetheless."
"People like the look of them."
"And you charge so reasonably."
"Doesn't know his customers."
"Or knows them all too well—go to high for something pretty, something maybe-deadly rather than sure-deadly, and maybe they'll slit his throat for him."
"Though maybe not," Smith said. "For every now and then he does have a bit of something with more scare to it than pretty."
"So he does."
"We heard rumors of a clock."
"I might have known," Timothy said. "The clock is not for sale. But gentlemen—the question?"
They looked at each other. Smith swirled the last bits of his gin around in the glass.
"Well," Stebbins said, "if you have such a problem as you do, with so little as you've got, then what you're letting yourself in for is nothing but trouble, safe to say, but yes, we do know as to how you might get a bit of help, though pointing it to you is not so much of a favor as you might like."
"I will take my chances."
Smith shrugged. "Well, you're a good lad, and it's none of our concern, not really, but we might say that you should rethink, like."
"I have made up my mind." Though not his stomach, as it was beginning to roil uneasily within him. Smith had washed his hands—their hands, perhaps—of him just now, had he not? None of their concern. Whoever he was being referred to, then, was someone to be feared, if he made Smith and Stebbins—always cavalier, always assured—so anxious.
"Then there's only one thing for it," Stebbins said, "though it's a shame."
"But," Smith said, "you'll have to talk to Mr. Gibbs."