Excerpt for The Dormant (The Sublime Electricity Book #4) by , available in its entirety at Smashwords







The Dormant



a novel

by Pavel Kornev







The Sublime Electricity

Book #4













Magic Dome Books





The Dormant

(The Sublime Electricity Book #4)

Copyright © Pavel Kornev 2018

Cover Art © Vladimir Manyukhin 2018

Translator © Andrew Schmitt 2018

Published by Magic Dome Books, 2018

All Rights Reserved

ISBN: 978-80-88295-57-0




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Table of Contents:


Part One Target

Part Two Patient

Part Three Oracle

Part Four Arrow

Part Five Anarchist

Part Six Angel








New Babylon is the capital of the mighty Second Empire. Dirigibles drift over the city, steam trains race down its tracks, and the factory chimneys never stop billowing smoke. The hegemony of science is unquestioned, and yet magic hasn't disappeared from the world entirely. It remains dissolved in the blood of those who are called illustrious. Hardline reductionists find that hard to accept, but it is not in their power to change the longstanding status quo.

Everything threatens to change with the death of the widowed Empress, and Leopold Orso, an illustrious gentleman, can sense the looming changes clearer than most.

He feels the draw of far-away lands, but a gloomy past holds him in place like a deadly snare. Will the whirlpool of coming events pull our troubled illustrious hero to the very bottom or throw him up to unimaginable heights? And will anything remain to throw him up to? It's impossible to say. After all, there are highly placed conspirators willing to do whatever it takes just to get what's theirs.

Bullets from hired killers, anarchists' bombs, blood magic of Aztec priests and electroshock therapy in a psychiatric clinic. Leopold will have a difficult time overcoming everything fate has in store for him and remaining himself through it all.





Part One
Target

Silver Bullets and a Smokescreen


1


ANY RAZOR, in its essence, is akin to the ritual sickle of the Celtic druids on the holy day of the renewal of nature. A pull of the hand and the skin becomes clean, while the face grows younger as if the weight of many days is hewn away together with the stubble.

I appraised my reflection in the mirror and nodded, agreeing with my judgement. After that, I shook the foam from the razor into the basin of warm water, led the blade along my soaped-up cheek, and again - a strip of clean.

For the last week, I hadn't bothered with shaving, so it was as if the sharpened metal was carrying away time itself. I was growing younger right before my very eyes.

By the way, there’s a good reason people say razors are dangerous: if you get distracted, you’re sure to cut yourself.

I didn't get distracted. Someone distracted me.

"My dear!" I heard from the bedroom. "Have you given any thought to our wedding day?"

My arm quavered, and the blade painlessly slit my skin with ease. A droplet of blood leaked out. With a condemned sigh, I stuck a little piece of paper over the cut and continued getting myself in order. After that, I spritzed my hands with cologne, clapped them on my cheeks, then left the bathroom in no rush whatsoever.

"Did you say something, my dear?" I addressed Liliana with all possible tranquility. She was lying on the bed with a ladies' magazine in her hands.

She tore herself from her reading and repeated the question:

"Have you given any thought to our wedding day?"

"Are you in the family way?"

"Oh, Leo!" my girlfriend rolled her eyes. "You're just like my mom! She asks about that incessantly!"

"And are you...? "

"No, I'm not pregnant!" Lily snorted indignantly. "Where do such thoughts even come from?"

"Well, where do your questions about marriage come from?" I parried.

"You don't want to take me as your wife?"

I did want that. And who in their right mind wouldn't desire to legally marry such a girl, who was pretty, smart and the heiress to a considerable fortune?

Admittedly, I was rich enough not to take such factors into account. I simply enjoyed the company of the only daughter of the Marquess Montague regardless of mercantile considerations.

Liliana tossed a black lock off her face and grabbed my attention, losing patience:

"Leo!"

"I do want to!" I shuddered. "Of course I do. As a matter of fact, I was just thinking about that momentous date..."

"You little liar!" Lily easily sussed out my cleverness.

"In fact, I'm simply lost in admiration for you."

And now that was the purest truth. Liliana and I had been together for three months, and my feelings for her only grew stronger every day.

Sounds like something from a romance novel? Maybe so, but I really did... love her? Probably. The most important thing was that, when I saw Liliana, my soul felt warm, and the rest meant nothing. No matter what anyone said...

Liliana caught a pensive gaze from me and adjusted her peignoir, slightly covering her bare legs with the long skirt.

"Leo, don't get distracted!" she demanded.

I took a seat on the bed next to her and gave her a kiss.

"Leo, no!" Lily laughed, moving away. "Not now! My mom keeps saying I'm riding you too hard!"

"She keeps saying that?" I asked, so dumbfounded that I even stopped stroking her lithe feminine leg.

"Well, not to me..." Liliana said in embarrassment. "To my dad. I heard it by accident."

"You were eavesdropping."

"Leo, you're avoiding the topic!"

I tousled a lock of Lily's black hair, admired her beauty and classical profile, then admitted with a smile:

"Yes, I've lost weight. And what of it?"

Over the summer, I really had lost fifteen kilograms, but I wasn't even close to my former sickly emaciation and was still quite large and powerful. I hadn't become slim, but lean. And our amorous liaison had absolutely zero relationship to these changes. A somewhat larger role was played by the fresh air of the mountain resort town, dumb-bell workouts and proper nutrition.

And also, I stopped being a werebeast.

Yes, the family curse had left me in that ill-fated basement in Montecalida, and my shaving cuts now healed just as slowly as they did for everyone else.

To be honest, I had long since grown accustomed to my new reality.

"Leo!" Liliana waved her hand before my face. "Leo, your head is in the clouds!"

"Yes, my dear?"

"We weren't talking about your weight, but our wedding day!"

I got up from the bed and walked over to the window. The hotel Benjamin Franklin was situated atop a promontory and, from its fourth floor, the view over the historical part of town was amazing. To be more accurate, there would have been a great view, if there wasn’t a damp haze hanging over the city. The nasty September weather and the capital's usual smog enshrouded the building like a wet towel, so I could see only the silhouettes of roofs and the high spires of palaces.

"Our wedding day?" I drew out my words in thought. "You want to know the exact day?"

Liliana swished through the pages of the magazine.

"It says here that Duke Logrin announced the engagement of his eldest daughter to Baron Alston. The wedding will be on the twentieth of October, Emperor Clement Remembrance Day. A very symbolic date, Leo, don't you find?"

I shrugged my shoulders.

"I'm ok with any day."

"Is that so?"

"Yes. But not here, not in New Babylon. Tomorrow, we're flying to the continent, did you forget? We could stop for a week in Madrid, and head to Barcelona from there. How do you like that idea?"

"It's an amazing idea!" Liliana smiled, but then wrinkled her forehead. "Wait, Leo! Did you say tomorrow? Will I have time to see my parents?"

"The flight is scheduled for five thirty in the evening," I reassured her and turned away from the window. "Do they even know we're leaving?"

"There hasn’t been a good time to tell them," Lily answered frivolously. "We'll tell them tomorrow. You are coming with me, after all, right?"

"If need be..."

"Leo, don't worry! Mom and dad are crazy about you. They won't lock me up at home!"

"I greatly hope so," I snickered.

"Although..." Liliana sighed. "Are you sure you don't want to stay in New Babylon for a bit?"

I did not want that. In the capital, it was far too easy to have a chance encounter with an old acquaintance, and I really didn't want to fall back into the field of view of Department Three or, even worse, people from her Majesty’s inner circle. So, I answered with one short categorical word:

"No!"

Liliana could perfectly hear the note of annoyance that slipped through in my voice and jerked her head up.

"Leo, is something the matter?"

I sighed. I really should have told Lily some of the secrets of my past a long time ago, but I simply hadn't had the spirit for it. I was afraid. I was afraid to scare her, afraid to push her away. So, I kept silent.

I didn't reveal the true reasons for my worrying now, either. I turned away to the window and looked at the gray city then, with a heavy sigh, I said:

"In the papers, they're writing that the Empress will meet her maker any day now. The heiress’s health isn't so very strong either. Laborers are striking. Socialists are demanding the dissolution of the Imperial council and the establishment of an elected senate. Some anarchist threw a bomb at the Minister of Justice, and only a miracle kept him from dying. There were shots fired at a Justice of the High Imperial Court. Bottles of kerosene were thrown at the military recruitment station. And every day it goes on like this. I want to be as far from here as possible when everything goes south."

"If you say so, my dear. If you say so."

I bowed down to kiss Liliana and warned her:

"I'll be back in two hours."

"I'll be waiting," she sighed, laying the magazine open and suddenly wondering: "Do you remember the first time we stayed here, in June?"

"Yes. And what of it?"

"At that time, I was lying in bed waiting for you to knock on my door. But I didn't wait long enough and fell asleep."

"I could knock right now," I offered with a smile.

"No!" Lily did not agree. "Go about your business. And I'll be languishing and waiting for a knock. You will knock this time, right?"

"Most assuredly," I promised, kissing the girl again and going into my adjoining room.

I didn't wait around there for long. I just changed into a new shirt, tied on a neckerchief and put on a jacket. I didn't take an umbrella or a raincoat. Although it was cloudy outside, it was dry. The season of autumn rains hadn't yet arrived.

Pulling out the upper drawer of my writing desk, I got my passport, wallet and Cerberus from it, placed them in my pockets and went on my way.

"Leo!" Liliana called out to me.

"Yes?" I glanced into the door of the adjoining room.

"Come back soon. And don't forget, we were invited this evening to Albert and Elizabeth-Maria's!"

"Don't you worry, I'm not planning to take long," I calmly assured Liliana, although the dinner invitation had entirely flown out of my head.

After the triumphant performance in Montecalida, which had ended in fainting spells and mass hallucinations, Albert Brandt had acquired a scandalous fame as a true wizard of words and become a desired guest at New-Babylon society functions. Instead of heading to the New World, he had rented a place not far from the academy and was preparing to stage a play of his own authorship in the Imperial Theater.

Ignoring the poet's invitation would be at the very least impolite on my part. Who could say when the chance to return to New Babylon would come again? And all that remained was to hope that Albert didn't have all the local Bohemians coming over tonight as well.

I took my derby cap from the shelf and went into the hallway. I decided not to use the elevator, instead heading to the stairs and thinking about what little bauble to give Albert as a souvenir.

Passing by the bell-boy's table, I greeted the sleepy clerk with an impolite nod, went down to the first floor and headed to the receptionist's stand, but I was cut off by a sprightly gentleman of middling years, quite gaunt and red of hair.

"I'm here to see Mr. Witstein," he said with a clear Irish accent and, when the receptionist opened his journal, he introduced himself: "Lynch. Sean Lynch."

The clerk looked for the last name in the guest list and pointed to the elevator in silence then, with an attentive smile, he turned to me:

"How may I be of service, Mr. Shatunov?"

I caught myself on the fact that I had been looking just too stubbornly at the redheaded Irishman as he walked away, shuddered and set my room key on the table.

"I just wanted to leave my key!"

"Any special requests?"

"No, nothing," I shook my head and, nervously waving my hand, stepped through the vestibule.

Hearing that family name knocked me off track. After all, he had clearly been speaking about Abraham Witstein, Vice President of the banking house that carried his family name. A chance meeting with him in the hotel vestibule threatened to quickly and definitively upend my anonymity.

Devil! I shouldn't have given in to Liliana and stayed in the Benjamin Franklin again. Devil take this sentimentality!

I winced, threw open the door with a nervous shove and walked outside up to a porter in livery with a flowery pattern. In reply to his business-like grin, I smiled no less formally, threw a quick gaze over Emperor's Square, packed with frolicking public, and clipped my dark glasses on my nose.

I got distracted for an instant, but that short moment decided everything.

"Don't move! Hands up!" sounded out from behind me, and I froze at half step.

My hand jumped to my jacket's side pocket all on its own, and I was barely able to jerk it away before the strong uniformed men all around me opened fire. They were holding their revolvers at the ready, fingers frozen on the triggers.

The investigator behind me gave another order without delay:

"On your knees! Hands behind your head!"

I hesitated, but immediately decided that not wanting to dirty my pants on the paving stones was hardly an adequate reason to experience the effects of an electric discharge device. All I allowed myself was to get down on my knees unhurriedly, in a vain attempt to maintain the remnants of my dignity.

Somewhere nearby, a powder engine barked out in rage, and a sluggish police armored car rolled out abruptly onto the square from an alley. Gawkers just gushed in from all sides, and a paper boy was nearly caught under the wheel, hurrying to roll his hand-cart out of the way.

The investigator approached from the back, put my hands behind me, clinked some steel cuffs onto my wrists and, with a bit of gravity in his voice, announced:

"Leopold Orso! You're under arrest for murder!"

I breathed out a silent curse.

My past had finally caught up to me. And, as is typical, it caught me at the very worst moment.

"On your feet!"

Ungracefully, due to my hands being bound behind my back, I stood from my knees and clarified:

"And who did I kill?"

"You can ask the investigator about that!" came the laconic reply, and I was shoved into the dark innards of the armored vehicle.


2


AN ARRESTEE is a creature without rights. From the moment of detention and until someone of the legal persuasion comes to the prison, they simply disappear, and absolutely anything could happen. Right up to falling off a bridge into the cloudy waters of the Yarden. And just about every other arrestee is subjected to arm twisting, kidney punches and strangling.

But not in my case. The uniformed investigators who'd shoved me into the armored vehicle didn't ask me a single question over the whole ride, just held me in the sights of their revolvers. It was as if they were afraid I would break the handcuff chain and throw myself at them with fists.

Fear. I could sense their fear.

There were six guards against one of me, but they were clearly afraid, and that was truly strange.

Had they heard about my talent? I doubted that greatly...

Be that as it may, I didn't make even the slightest attempt to draw the investigators into conversation and figure out what I’d been accused of. I just sat in silence on the bench. I simply didn't want to give the nervous boys a reason to shoot me full of holes. I knew for certain that they would fire to kill without the slightest hesitation.


THE POWDER ENGINE of the armored vehicle was sneezing measuredly, its powerful wheels cushioning the uneven spots in the paving stones. It only really shook when hitting very severe potholes, careening on the bench from one guard to the other. And then the light of day went dark, the gray of the sullen sky beyond the side window grates changed into the gloom of a garage, and the heavy self-propelled carriage came to a stop.

The armored vehicle led me into the garage of the metropolitan police headquarters. In the jargon of the New Babylon’s jailbirds, this was called "getting checked into the Box."

The investigator to my right unclipped the chain holding my handcuffs to the floor. The investigator to my left threw open the side door.

"To the exit!" The policeman opposite me ordered.

Whew, so many men just for little old me...

But from there, it only got worse. In the spacious garage, I was awaited by constables armed with semi-automatic carbines and four-barreled luparas. My ankles were immediately clinked into shackles and, to the jingling of a steel chain, I started to amble down the corridor like an especially dangerous recidivist.

The police administration building, huge and monumental, occupied a whole block and even went a few stories under the earth. A random person might get lost for hours in its confusing nooks and crannies, searching for the right door. In my days as a constable, I'd heard plenty of frightening stories about coworkers who disappeared without a trace simply by turning down the wrong corridor.

To be honest, I was seriously afraid of sharing their fate but, just a couple minutes later, I was led into a small windowless room flooded with the blinding light of electric lamps.

The search didn't take much time, if what they did could even be called a search. I had to simply remove all my clothes and, in exchange, pull on the striped uniform of an arrestee. My personal effects were placed into a canvas bag without a glance, and it was stamped with red wax seal.

Our next stop was in the photo room. There, I was sat in a wooden chair adorned with a plethora of clamps and fasteners, which bore a certain resemblance to an electric chair. The phlegmatic photographer clamped my head in a vice to take a full-face photograph, followed by a profile shot. After that, the photographer captured all my tattoos, and the police clerk took my finger prints, smearing my hands in black ink and forcing me to place them against a sheet of thick yellowish paper.

What followed was a total bore, measuring height and composing a list of distinguishing features. But it took no less than an hour. It became clear that, unlike my previous arrests, this was completely serious, as I was being processed in full accordance with protocol.

What the devil?!

And although I was still shaking in nervous agitation, I was in no hurry to set upon my former colleagues with questions. Soon. Everything would become clear soon. And, perhaps, I would even have pity for the fact I hadn't remained in blissful ignorance.

But one thing was already clear: this arrest had nothing to do with my troubles this summer in Montecalida, because Thomas Smith had managed to quash all the accusations of my involvement in the murder of the Indian bartender, while the death of the Tacinis was blamed on an accident all the way back at the preliminary stage of the investigation. The coroner's report contained nary a word about suicide or bullet holes. It just mentioned the many wounds sustained in the collapse of the ancient building's floor.

My tremors passed, and my fears flooded me with a grievous weight. It was taking me more and more effort to hold back the shaking, but I clenched my teeth stubbornly and started waiting for the end of the formal procedures. One thing was clear, that was totally certain: this was an official arrest, and not done at the behest of her Majesty's inner circle.

This wasn't the Imperial Guard, and that left a decent chance this would end in my favor. And it didn't matter how serious the charges were –the wealthy were treated differently. I was no longer a moneyless ragamuffin, I could afford to hire the most famous lawyers in New Babylon. In the worst case, the trial would draw on for years but, in the best, I could be set free tonight.

I really wanted to believe that...


AFTER PROCESSING, to the measured clop of my shackled boots, the guards took me into the interrogation room.

The lightbulbs under the ceiling were shining right into my eyes, but there was really no reason to look at anything here. The walls were thick and had damp, cracking plaster. The floor was dusty, and the furniture was all worn. Discounting the electric lighting, a criminal could have been interrogated in an identical room one or even two hundred years ago.

The only other thing that stood out was the phonograph machine in the far corner. It was totally inappropriate for the cell.


FOR SOME TIME, I squinted, trying to get a better look at the sound recording device, then I sat back in the uncomfortable chair and closed my eyes. I didn't open them even when, to the creak of rusty hinges, the door flew open.

There was simply no need. I recognized the man who entered even with my lids shut. The aroma of his cologne and the subtle scent of expensive cigarettes was just too characteristic, instantly breaking up the musty damp of the chamber.

"It's been so long since we've seen each other, inspector!" I chuckled to my old acquaintance.

"Senior inspector!" Moran corrected me, throwing a fat folder of documents in front of him on the edge of the table. "Senior inspector, Mr. Orso. Senior. Don't you know the difference?"

Bastian Moran hadn't changed one bit since our last meeting. His gaunt face was still marked by an aristocratic pallor, while his pomaded hair, sharply curved brows and thin lips made him look more like a decadent dandy than a policeman. His well-kept hands fully conformed with this, and his stylish suit and expensive vest with diamond buttons didn't let me down one bit. But it was all spoiled by the cold gray eyes of a hardened taker of souls.

A cop, that's what he was. That wasn't meant as an insult. It was more like a prisoner's brand. Work makes its impression on us all.

"Everything is ready!" the assistant declared, a new roller now in the phonograph.

"Begin the recording!" Moran commanded.

The police clerk started the device and, to a quiet bassy hum, it started to softly quiver and creak. The light in the cell flickered a few times but, to my greatest disappointment, the electric system was fairly resilient and there were no power failures.

The assistant left the chamber and I, perfectly aware that every word I said would reach the report, couldn't hold back a barb:

"You just keep grabbing respectable subjects of her majesty on the street. That's a quick path to a demotion... senior inspector."

Bastian Moran arched a crooked brow in muted amazement.

"Respectable?" he asked with mock surprise in his voice. "There is only one respectable subject of her majesty in this room, and you are not it, Leopold Orso. Or should I say Lev Shatunov?"

The senior inspector asked, taking my new passport from the folder and throwing it onto the table with a contemptuous snort. In reply, I just shrugged my shoulders calmly.

"However you want to call me."

But my calm demeanor hardly made any impression on Moran. He curved his thin lips up into an acrid smile and declared:

"A respectable man has no need for forged documents."

"So, was I cuffed just for that?" I asked, clanking the steel chain. "Shall I remind you of the Imperial law on national passports? Don't forget, senior inspector, my grandfather was Russian. He took the last name Orso on his induction into the nobility..."

And now, I wasn't bluffing one bit. Documents under the name Lev Borisovich Shatunov had been passed through all Imperial registries and, as a result, it wasn't particularly difficult for my attorney to draw up an official petition for a new passport and get it attached to the file backdated.

It cost a small fortune, but it was worth it.

I couldn't say that Bastian Moran's faced changed at these words, but he did take on a rarely confused appearance.

"Leopold, are you aware that this statement is extremely easy to check?" the senior inspector asked.

"The sooner you send a telegram to Petrograd, the sooner you'll have your answer," I answered calmly. "And the lower will be my restitution for illegal detention. I have quite a talented attorney, you know."

Moran got up from the table and left the cell but returned very soon, most likely having given his assistant the mission of sending a telegram to Petrograd. He didn't get right back to questioning. Instead, he took a pack of Chesterfields from his pocket, lit one up and exhaled a stream of fragrant smoke at the ceiling.

I winced for show.

The senior inspector didn't pay any attention to my grimace, tapped the ash onto the floor, sat at the table again and started leafing through the file of documents, as if wanting to refresh his memory on the case materials. The ease with which his first charge was overturned was an unpleasant surprise for him.

The tobacco smoke started making my throat itch but, when Bastian Moran put his cigarette out, I wasn't glad at all. With a very sharp and decisive movement, he pressed the butt into the edge of the ashtray, the surface of which was already stained with many dark spots.

"So then, let's get down to business!" the senior inspector declared. "Are you ready, Leopold?"

"Always," I smiled in reply, but my smile was crooked, masking nervousness with irony. In fact, I had shivers running up my spine.

"Where were you the seventeenth of June this year?" the senior inspector asked and even leaned forward, as if trying to catch me off guard with an unexpected question.

And he did. I snorted in reply, totally sincerely:

"I have no idea. Do you remember where you were?"

"I do," Moran confirmed. "Thanks to you, I don't have the most pleasant memories of that day. And, considering my lengthy service, that is no trivial matter."

"You must be confused. We haven’t seen one another for more than a year."

"Where were you on June seventeenth?" the senior inspector repeated his strange question.

I moved my gaze away and started looking at the uneven cracking plaster on the walls, remembering the events of last summer. June? Where was I on June seventeenth?

It was surprising but, as soon as I thought about it, the event of three months earlier rushed back into my memory. It wasn't so simple to forget being strangled around the neck by a garotte and falling into the abyss of unconsciousness.

"No, I don't remember," I shook my head a little while later.

"But you were in New Babylon on that day?"

"That may well be."

"You were," Bastian Moran declared confidently, and took the guest register from the Benjamin Franklin from the folder, with an official stamp from the hotel manager. "Here is indisputable proof of that fact."

"May I?"

"Please," the senior inspector pushed the sheet of paper to me.

Next to the manager's signature was today's date, and that made me think for a long time. The arrest suddenly stopped seeming like the end of a prolonged search operation; more likely, I had merely fallen into the field of view of an old acquaintance.

"I hope you will not claim that you were not yet Lev Shatunov then," Moran chuckled, taking a new cigarette from the pack.

"You smoke too much," I warned him. "It's bad for the lungs."

"Answer the question!"

"In the middle of June, I did spend a few days in the capital, and it was at the Benjamin Franklin. Was that precisely the seventeenth? I can’t say I remember, but I have no reason to disbelieve the register. Let's suppose that, on that day, I was in New Babylon. What next?"

Not showing any kind of satisfaction with my answer, the senior inspector took a deep draw on his cigarette, then put it out on the tabletop and calmly stated:

"Your fingerprints were discovered at the scene of a crime."

"Sure they were!" I laughed. "You're playing with me!"

"Not at all."

"I don't understand what you're talking about. This must be a misunderstanding."

Bastian Moran was onto my game without a doubt but, because I was not denying or disavowing my presence in New Babylon, I had forced him to lay his last trump card on the table, whether he wanted to or not. To be more accurate, it was a pack of trump cards in the form of many spent pistol casings, photo-copies of fingerprints from my dossier and expert reports, reaffirmed by several blue stamps.

"These casings were discovered at the scene of the crime," the senior inspector began laying out his version of events, "and the fingerprints taken from them matched yours, which we have on file. We have an expert report fully confirming that as well as a repeat investigation from today. And what, Leopold, do you have to say to that?"

Sweat washed over me. It took considerable effort to hold a composed expression on my face. And did I even manage? I was sure Bastian could see straight through me.

Wanting to draw out my time, I extended a hand for the photographs, but the chain was too short, stopping me from reaching them.

"May I?" I then asked the senior inspector.

Bastian Moran slid the stack of pictures over and shot me a relaxed smile.

"No tricks, Leopold! And I'm sure that you will know even without my reminding you, that a full confession will lessen your punishment. Think about it! Think well!"

I didn't answer at all, quickly looking at the pictures and moving my gaze to the Senior Inspector, but he had already returned the expert conclusions to the folder, not letting me familiarize myself with them. And that was truly strange: without expert testimony, all these photographs were a simple collection of unconnected shots. So, why then didn't Moran want to hammer the last nail into the top of my coffin?

I was almost certain I knew the answer, and still my throat went dry, while my soul was pierced by a sharp attack of fear. My ears started ringing. Yes, I was afraid. And who could maintain their presence of spirit in my place? Life at a labor camp was not sweet, and the difference between being sent to harvest timber in snowy Siberia and being shipped somewhere nearer-by for hellish rock-breaking was not large. In any case, I would hardly be able to survive until the end of the term they’d give me for killing six people, even if they were Hindoos. It would not be too easy to prove that they were all Kali Stranglers and had attacked me first...

Devil!

Devil! Devil! Devil!

Gathering my willpower, I suppressed the panic, turned my gaze away from Bastian Moran’s satisfied countenance and stared at a spot of falling plaster. The phonograph in the corner was humming measuredly as before, so I was in no rush to explain, carefully choosing the right words.

"Leopold," Bastian Moran sighed, having caught the doubts coming over me. "I'll be as frank as possible: I don't fully understand what happened there. I suspect it may have been self-defense. And if you tell me honestly, this case really doesn’t have to reach formal charges. Perhaps you were bewildered by the circumstances of the arrest, but we acted strictly according to protocol. Nothing personal, after all. You've been in such situations before, isn't that right?" the senior inspector reminded me with a conciliatory smile. "Judge for yourself: the deceased were suspected of membership in the illegal thuggee cult, and clues found at the scene confirm that fully. There isn't a single judge that would sentence you..."

There was a certain rationality to his words, but I knew the inner workings of the Newton-Markt too well to accept the senior inspector's admonitions at face value. When they first tried hard to back someone into a corner, then suddenly opened a path to safety, every door left obligingly ajar could only lead to a more cramped cell.

And so, I preferred to remain secretive and put on a surprised look.

"Thugees? What are you talking about? I don't have anything to do with the Kali Stranglers!"

"Leopold!" Bastian Moran frowned in annoyance. "Let's not play these games! This case is hanging around my neck like a stone." The senior inspector even placed a sleek hand on the collar of my shirt. "And I need to close it no matter what. The inspector general is huffing and puffing! Help me, and I promise there won't be a criminal investigation."

"I'm always glad to help an investigation," I said, still looking past the man at a spot of falling plaster, carefully choosing my words. "But it wouldn't be right for me to take the blame for a crime I didn't commit. I mean, I could do that for you but, if I did, the true killer would avoid punishment, and that goes against my principles. Remember that rule, senior inspector."

"Fingerprints!" Moran reminded me.

"What about fingerprints?"

"Your fingerprints were found at the scene of the crime on the round casings, Leopold. It is senseless to deny that. If you refuse to work with the investigation, this will draw on for months, and you'll have to be under guard that whole time. Do you really want that? I know I am not burning with desire to see your sour countenance every work day for the next year, or maybe even two. I'm sure talking with me won't bring you any particular pleasure either. So, let's help each other out. I won't demand anything supernatural from you. Just tell me what exactly happened!"

The senior inspector's offer to choose the lesser of two evils was definitely not an ad lib; that was exactly what he was hoping for when he ordered me arrested and brought to the Newton-Markt with all the prescribed formalities. The shackles and prison clothes were supposed to show how a refusal to work together would end. But excessive openness had never led me to anything good before.

That was for certain, so I made a suggestion:

"Let's return to the fingerprints. How confident was the expert report?"

"An error would be impossible!"

"Well, of course!" I couldn't hold back a flagrant chuckle. "After all, it's business as usual to find a distinct fingerprint on a spent round casing! And I'm not talking about the effects of powder residue and high temperature, just a casing all on its own... it isn't very large, and the contact area with a finger would be even smaller. An error would be impossible? Come now, Bastian!"

"And nevertheless, it is true," Moran answered calmly. "The dermal ridge patterns all correspond with yours."

"The patterns you managed to find, senior inspector. As far as I remember, criminal scientists refuse to take partial prints into consideration, isn't that so?"

"I insisted on a dactylographic report, and it was undertaken in accordance with all requirements."

I screwed up my face.

"I'm not sure the court will take those results into account."

"There's no need to take this case to court."

"Good!" I relented. "I fully allow that those could be my fingerprints. Around that time, I went looking for a new pistol, and visited several gun stores. I looked over a number of models and, naturally, loaded and unloaded them. Most likely, that explains the fingerprint match... – no! – resemblance."

After finishing my version of events, I moved my gaze off the spot of falling plaster and looked at Moran. He looked like a gourmand who'd just taken a sip of a refined vintage wine with a sour apple flavor.

"Nice try," the senior inspector smiled skeptically "But forgive me if I question your words."

"Doubt them as long as you want. The issue is whether a jury will buy them. When I was arrested, I had a Cerberus confiscated from me. You can check in the sales records from a shop called the Golden Bullet. I bought it there, on one of those days."

"Leopold!" Bastian Moran clapped a palm on the table. "Enough of the lies! The model of pistol the shots were fired from has not been released for public sale! The whole shipment was sent directly to the New World! You simply never could have found such a pistol in a shop!"

"And what about the weapons market on Piazza Archimedes?" I squinted. "I recall that, once, during a raid there, we confiscated a high-caliber Gatling gun stolen during the repair of an army dirigible!"

The senior inspector took a loud sigh and started drumming his fingers on the table. Now, I could read open hatred in his gaze. And that was no small wonder. The weapons bazaar I had just mentioned had long been a headache for the metropolitan police and, if some pistols had disappeared on their way to the New World, that is certainly where they’d have turned up.

"So then, you were at the market..." Bastian Moran said a bit later, drawing out his words. "But naturally, you don’t remember which stall might have shown you the pistol?"

"I don't even know exactly what kind of pistol you're talking about. I spent a few hours wandering around there."

Moran suddenly jumped sharply at me and said:

"Leopold, I know it was you!"

"Juries don't normally treat police intuition with the same level of trust," I answered calmly, even though my heart was still skipping beats, and my back had begun to perspire. "And as for the police having a bias against arrestees, it’s quite the opposite. They believe that extremely easily. You are biased against me, senior inspector. And now that is established in your recording."

"Balderdash!" Bastian Moran shot out shortly and slammed his palm down on the table again. "You killed the Hindoos. I know that for certain. And I have the clues to prove it!"

I sat back in my chair and tried to cross my arms on my chest, but was prevented by the handcuff chain, stretched to its limit.

"Allow me to doubt your words. You’ve forwarded baseless accusations against me before, senior inspector. Isn't that right?"

My words hit square in their target. Bastian Moran went red in rage, but still held back and didn't give me an open-palm slap, which he would have done to a normal arrestee as a matter of course.

"My accusations, Leopold Orso," he said in an official tone, " were not baseless then, and they are not baseless now!"

"Are you serious?" I asked, startled. "You still suspect me in the murder of Levinson?"

The manager of the New Babylon branch of the Witstein Banking House had been torn to shreds by a werebeast, and Bastian Moran had initially suspected it was my handiwork. Even my iron-clad alibi hadn't been enough to convince the senior inspector otherwise. Only a blood test performed by a police doctor had made him refuse to charge me officially.

Back then I was still not a full werebeast, as I also was not now. And no analysis could show otherwise. Even if some things were retained, like an instinctive ability to dodge silver, that noble metal was no longer able to poison my body. My blood would not react to it.

Bastian Moran pursed his lips but still gave a direct answer to the question.

"Yes, Viscount. I still suspect you of involvement in Levinson’s murder!" he declared after a brief pause.

"But I was the one who shot his murderer! Me!"

"In interrogation, the werebeast may have told us the true motives for his crime, but you killed him. Very convenient, don't you think?"

"His true motives? Did Procrustes ever need a motive?"

"Come off it, Leopold!" Bastian Moran waved it off. "We established the identity of the werebeast you shot and, at the time of several of Procrustes' crimes, he was awaiting the death penalty in Kilmainham gaol. He only managed to escape after!"

"What do you want from me, Senior inspector?" I asked directly.

"The truth!"

"You heard it."

Moran opened the folder and carelessly tossed me one of the photographs laying there. I glanced at the picture and gave an involuntary shudder. The dead black eyes of the Hindoo were staring back at me from the paper. But that wasn't what spooked me. I was beside myself from seeing the dead man's crushed larynx. Crushed by my very hand.

"And who might that unfortunate be?" I asked, suppressing a nervous shudder.

"That is one of the bodies, next to which we discovered the round casings with your fingerprints," Bastian Moran explained.

"Partial fingerprints," I spat out mechanically, but the senior inspector let my remark go in one ear and out the other.

"While this picture," Moran set forth the next photograph, "was taken in Levinson's home. As you can see, the character of the wounds on the deceased Hindoo in June and the banker's guard are very similar. What's more, I took some shots of Procrustes' victims from the archive..."

"Enough!" I couldn't hold back. "What do you want from me? Tell me straight!"

"The truth!"

"I've told you everything."

"I know this was you," Moran declared directly. "It was you, Leopold Orso, who killed the Hindoos and you, without a doubt, were involved in the murder of Levinson. I don't know why or how, but you can be sure, it's just a matter of time. I'll stop you no matter what it costs me!"

"I need a lawyer."

"A lawyer won't help you now!" the senior inspector waved it off. "You'll never be set free, and you can believe that. I'll make sure of it!"

A vile sour taste appeared in my mouth, but I overcame myself and, with the power of my will, drove off the approaching wave of panic.

"You have no clues, and the fingerprint matching was not done by the books. No court will accept this. The tooth imprint of the werebeast I killed lined up with one of the wounds on Levinson's servant girl. And what's more, if you think I am a werebeast, let's take the simplest route and do a blood test. Last time, it didn't show anything!"

"Everything in its time," Bastian Moran frowned. "We'll do tests as well. I'll personally cut you into little pieces, if that's what it takes, but I will get the truth."

"That sounds like a threat."

The senior inspector got up from the table, turned off the phonograph and took the roller from it.

"You don't say?" he turned to me with a foul smirk. "What led you to that conclusion?"

I didn't have time to answer. With a sharp burst, the door flew open and, in an instant, it became cramped and unbearably sultry in the cell, although just one person had joined us.

The inspector general of the metropolitan police, Friedrich von Nalz, was old and his face resembled a pagan idol, carved from the rootstock of an ancient pine. The reflection of his colorless eyes was unmistakable even in the bright light of the electric bulbs, while the ghostly heat emanating from the old man made the air oscillate around him like a red-hot blaze.

However, it just seemed that way. Fear has big eyes, and I was afraid of the inspector general much more than all of Moran's threats taken together. If von Nalz decided to beat the truth out of me, no lawyers would be able to stand in his way, not even the High Imperial Court.

The inspector general's talent could burn a person in a few seconds but, fortunately, the old man wasn't even paying attention to me.

"Bastian!" von Nalz addressed the senior inspector. "What is going on here?!"

"An investigation," he answered with a composed look, raising a brow. "And what of it?"

"I beg your pardon, Leopold," Friedrich von Nalz sighed and called Moran into the corridor. "Just a minute, Bastian..."

I started feeling very apprehensive, because the inspector general was perfectly aware of my blood relationship with the Imperial family. Although my mother was not the legal daughter of the Grand Duke of Arabia, Emperor Clement's brother, blood was thicker than water. Von Nalz considered my status sufficient to intervene in my fate and, the last time, his intervention had ended in me getting my heart cut out.

How it would end now was frightening to even imagine.


3


THE CONVERSATION in the hallway went on for no less than a quarter of an hour, and that was surprising for the simple reason that no one from the metropolitan police could stand up to the inspector general for that long.

As a matter of fact, I thought the police administration had decided to continue the conversation in von Nalz's office, but then the door flew open, and Bastian Moran walked into the cell, his face petrified, yet pale in rage.

If the senior inspector were illustrious, and had a gaze that could kill, my heart would have stopped at that very moment. As it was, I had shivers running down my spine.

But I made it.

"Leopold Orso, you're free to go!" Bastian Moran declared in a voice ringing in agitation, turned around and left the cell, stomping his shoe soles on the stone floor of the cellar unnaturally distinctly.

The constable who came to take his place unlocked my handcuffs and took off the shackles, then the unfamiliar detective sergeant set a whole stack of documents on the table. I was required to sign a box on each of them saying I was familiar with its contents.

Among them was one telling me not to leave town, together with a requirement to inform the police if I changed my residence and to appear at the Newton-Markt if requested, which was the very least they could saddle me with in this situation. I wasn't upset.

Devil! I mean, I was practically in seventh heaven!


I WAS LED OUT of the interrogation cell into a changing room with scratched-up cabinets, damp humid air and faucets that ran with rusty water. I tried to wash the fingerprinting ink off my hands, but I just used up the last of a bar of soap and ruined a handkerchief. The skin on my palms was still bluish-gray.

But that didn’t really bother me. They gave me back my clothing, and I got dressed, throwing the striped prison clothes on a bench. I went out into the hallway, already feeling like a free man but, instead of the exit, the mustached sergeant led me somewhere deeper in the Newton-Markt.

"Excuse me, my good sir..." I said, getting on guard. "The exit is the other way!"

"The inspector general would like to see you," the police-man said and threw open the door to the stairs. "Follow me."

Refusing the order wouldn't have made even the slightest bit of sense so, with a fateful sigh, I started my way up and out of the basement. The sergeant was walking in front. Behind me there wheezed two strong constables.

I was surrounded...


IN THE INSPECTOR GENERAL'S reception room, an adjunct, fairly intrigued with the proceedings, made me sign for my effects, which had been confiscated on my detention, gave me time to distribute them in my pockets and, only after that, informed von Nalz of my arrival.

"Come in, the inspector general is ready to see you now," he declared, setting the telephone receiver back on the hook.

In some situations, "ready to see you now" was in no way different from "needs to speak with you immediately," so I suppressed a fated sigh and decisively threw open the heavy oak door.

The Cerberus in my jacket pocket gave me a certain confidence, but there was more significance in the very fact that I actually had the weapon than any benefit I might gain from actually using it.

Gloom reigned in the office of the head of the metropolitan police. The windows were covered with a thick curtain, concealing what little light the already cloudy September day had to offer. A dull flame was dancing on the logs in the fireplace, and gas lamps on the wall burned with a muted light. The lamp on the table, which was inundated with newspapers and correspondence, was not turned on and, on the backdrop of the utterly gray space, the only bright light was the luster of the inspector general's eyes.

"You surprise me, Leopold," von Nalz said morosely, without even offering me a seat. "Do you understand that your behavior discredits the memory of your great forbearer?"

"I haven't done anything reprehensible, inspector general."

Friedrich von Nalz winced and asked:

"Why did you get a second passport?"

"I wanted to start a new life," I answered with basically the pure truth. "Is that not allowed? The passport is authentic."

"If it had been forged, I wouldn't have intervened," the old man declared directly. "But the accusations forwarded against you are impossibly..."

"Contrived," I offered.

"Doubtful," the inspector general finished his own thought. "And in that the clues are all of a tangential nature, I don't see any basis to detain you for the duration of the investigation. I hope you won't make me regret that decision."

The fiery gaze of his colorless eyes burned with a fell flame but here, fortunately, the inspector general got distracted by the ringing of his telephone, and I caught my breath with relief.

"Have them wait, I'll be down in a moment," Friedrich von Nalz answered shortly after picking up the phone and threw it back on the hook with annoyance. He spent a few seconds sitting, staring forward in agitation, then decisively got up from the table, walked up to me and slapped my back with his palm, which was thin and hard as a board.

"Leopold! My advice to you: stay out of trouble. After all, you aren't just any old citizen. Your reputation must remain flawless for the sake of the memory of your grandfather, the most important political actor of the epoch of the Empire’s foundation!"

I fitfully swallowed and managed to squeeze out only a none-too-intelligible:

"This is all some kind of misunderstanding..."

"I hope that’s true."

Von Nalz's cold tone scared me so bad I started hiccupping. But I still overcame my hesitation and asked a favor:

"Inspector general! Please don't tell my... relatives. I want to solve my own problems. On my own, do you see?"

"That merits respect," Friedrich von Nalz nodded. "I don't think there's any need to tell them. Her Majesty’s health leaves a lot to be desired. She certainly doesn't need any more reason to worry."

"I thank you," I caught my breath with untold relief.

The inspector general smiled.

"I hope, Leopold, that our next meeting will be under somewhat less disreputable circumstances."

I gave a short burst of quick nods. I was now ready to agree with the inspector general about anything, and I hurried to slip out into the reception. The adjunct, when he saw me, tore himself from the typing machine and asked:

"Should I call a constable?"

"No, I can find the exit," I refused. "Do I need any kind of pass?"

"Just go. I'll call the guard desk."

"Thank you!"

With a sense of unbelievable relief, I left the reception room and, first of all, pulled a handkerchief out of my jacket pocket, but it was all covered in black and blue ink blotches, so I couldn't wipe the sweat from my face. My heart was beating very unevenly so, on the second floor, acting on an old memory, I ducked into the men's lavatory, washed up and stared at my reflection in the blurry and cracked mirror over the sink.

My reflection looked haggard and fearful.

Curses! I looked squeezed out like a lemon and terrified, like a tiny shepherd boy sitting at a little dying fire surrounded by hungry wolves.

Bastian Moran would not back down. Devil! He would be certain to take the investigation to the end and dig up all the background information. And the problem wasn't a personal dislike or desire to restore justice – devil, I had killed the Thugees! – the senior inspector had some kind of personal interest in this case.

Maybe a promotion? Friedrich von Nalz was old, he couldn't stay in the post of inspector general for long, but how would my case help Moran move up the ranks? And also, why was he so driven to uncover a crime, if society was sure that the thugees had been shot by police?

I didn’t understand...


AT THE GUARD POST, no one even glanced at me. A shift change was underway. Some constables were hurrying to work, others were already on their way to the exit, all in civilian clothing. In all the helter-skelter, I calmly strolled out of the Newton-Markt.

But when I entered the colonnade-lined portico of the police administration's internal yard, I was surprised to discover a fairly large crowd on the stairs. It didn't look much like a demonstration: there was a thin chain of police easily holding back the large number of fancily-clad gentlemen, who were armed not with placards and sticks, but notepads, pencils and cameras.

"Newspapermen!" I realized, donning my derby cap. I was already on my way to a side arch when, from behind I heard:

"Lev! Lev, wait!"

I almost had a seizure! Mechanically, and not considering my actions, I stuck my hand into my jacket pocket. But, at the last moment, I came to my senses and turned around. A black-haired thin young man in an ill-fitting suit and a rumpled gray cap was hurrying after me.

"Lev, I really wasn't expecting to see you here!" laughed Thomas Eliot Smith, the investigator from the Pinkerton Detective Agency.

I unclenched my fingers from the handle of the Cerberus with relief and, removing my hand from my pocket, extended it to Smith.

"And I was not expecting to meet you, Thomas!" I smiled. We exchanged hand-shakes and, clipping my dark glasses on my nose, I asked: "After all, you were preparing to return to the New World, isn't that right? What winds blew you to the capital?"

"It's all blasted work!" the investigator told me with histrionic pity, stroking his black mustache in a habitual motion and asking: "And what led you to this bastion of law and order? Not more problems with the law I hope?"

"A small misunderstanding," I frowned. "Nothing serious."

"Can I help?"

"No, it's all been solved to the best effect."

Professional mistrust flickered in the investigator's dark eyes. I knew, however, that they only seemed dark because of colored glass lenses. Thomas Smith was illustrious but hid that fact very artfully.

Wanting to distract the investigator from the reason for my visit to the Newton-Markt, I hurried to ask:

"I suppose something extreme must have shaken out, if you were sent across the Atlantic again."

"Lev, I did such a good job this summer, that they decided to have me stay in the Old World!" the investigator laughed. "Now, I am a mobile agent-consultant with a zone of responsibility encompassing half of Europe! Paris, London, Lisbon and Madrid. Where haven't I been this summer! Now something's afoot in New Babylon..."

I had the words "travelling salesman" turning on the tip of my tongue, but I didn’t want to offend the man. I also didn't fish out the details of his new assignment, instead pointing at the crowd.

"I don’t suppose you know what all this is about? What's going on? Yet another sabotage at a weapons factory or a flash anarchist operation?"

A barely visible grimace slid over Smith's face, as if the topic was unpleasant. Instead of answering, he slipped me the morning edition of the Capital Times with a yard-long headline reading:

"Bloody Ritual on Faraday Boulevard!"

"More gossip?" I clarified, skimming the article.

"No," the investigator shook his head. "I’m afraid it’s all real."

"Is that so?" I asked in surprise, because the headline was about a crime that was extreme even by the ghoulish standards of New Babylon. Murder was no rarity in our guest houses but, this time, the victim was a young unmarried lady of light scruples, and the murderer had pulled out her eyes and cut out her heart. The police were called by the apartment tenant a floor below after blood started dripping from his ceiling. A theory was put forward that malefics were mixed up in the case, but there wasn't any evidence of that. The police had announced a search for her procurer.

At that moment, two constables with red department-official bands of on their arms threw open the doors and, just to make sure, propped them with iron stoppers. The newspapermen moved forward, and the police had to expend a reasonable amount of force to hold them behind the perimeter at the columns.

"Is the inspector general going to make an announcement?" I guessed.


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