Read Shanghai Sparrow Online

Authors: Gaie Sebold

Tags: #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #Steampunk

Shanghai Sparrow (2 page)

Never mind that she’d disobeyed – Ma’d be pleased as punch after this. Eveline could give her the layout, she’d made sure a nosey copper was given short shrift that would have him far less interested in hanging about,
and
she knew when the staff would be away. Always better if the staff were out of the way; Ma wasn’t a one for violence, but it didn’t mean someone wouldn’t do something stupid and maybe get hurt.

Eveline wasn’t bothered about respectability – the respectable world had spat her family out and left them to rot, and cutting a coin or two from its coat-tails bothered her not at all. But she didn’t like violence, and she wouldn’t be party to murder, not if she could help it.

After this, she might get some extra food, or even a word or two of the praise Ma doled out as parsimoniously as she did everything else. But whether she did or not, Evvie knew she’d made a fine job of it. She began to hum the tune to a filthy music-hall song, and dawdled towards home as a smeared red sun struggled to burn its way through the ever-present smog.

 

Shanghai

 

 

“T
HERE
! N
OW THAT
beastly horse had better win, that was my best glove.” The woman – the wife of one of Shanghai’s many prominent businessmen – took her friend’s arm. “I do think betting actual money would be far more exciting.”

“Oh, no, too vulgar. People might take one for any sort of person,” said her friend, adjusting one of the several thick diamond bracelets that adorned her wrists; a present from her husband, and, unknown to her, only slightly more valuable than those he had recently bestowed on his latest mistress, a sixteen-year-old Eurasian girl.

“Who
is
that young man?” the glove-gambler whispered behind her fan, watching a slim, upright figure moving through the racetrack crowd.

“He’s attached to the Consulate, I believe. Hopeforth, I think. Something like that.”

“He’s rather dashing, isn’t he?”

“Oh, really, Elizabeth.”

“Well, he is.”

“Yes, dear, but that doesn’t mean one must
notice
him.”

The roar as the horses were released for the last race covered the rest of their conversation. Thaddeus Holmforth, whose preternaturally sharp hearing was no great advantage in such circumstances, straightened his already-rigid shoulders. Betting, in public, in a place like this – and they were British! They should know better. One couldn’t expect much from the French or the Germans or, certainly, the Americans.

The personal insult was nothing. But they represented the Empire, and should, like Caesar’s wife, be above both suspicion and vulgarity.

Holmforth himself did not bet, nor was he greatly interested in horses; he came to the races only in order to maintain an agreeable appearance. The Chinese, of course, bet like maniacs... but then, they were a degenerate race, in Holmforth’s view. If only his countrymen – and women – would set a better example!

Of course, these were
riches
of the most
nouveaux.
Shanghai was a regrettable example of what happened when business was allowed to take over and good government was sidelined. He had had hopes, at the beginning of his posting, that he might play some small part in things here... but China would have to be left to other men. He had a greater prize in mind, though China would be instrumental in grasping it.

And his contact would be arriving at his apartment shortly. Holmforth did not bother summoning a rickshaw – he could travel more quickly on his own feet.

He moved swiftly along the Bund, where the great banks and manufactories swelled and gleamed, fat with money from steel and tea, opium and porcelain. Shanghai roared and stank, chattering with a dozen languages and two dozen dialects. He had learned to ignore most of the noise, though he clenched his fists unconsciously as he walked.

His looks were European enough that the locals gave him a respectfully wide berth. A velocipede growled past him, the driver clearing the way with his whip. An addled scarecrow in rags barely escaped its wheels, crawled to the mouth of a nearby alleyway and collapsed.
The poor are always with us, but few of them are much use.
They needed a firm hand, to be of any worth. But here, they scrambled like dogs on a dunghill, working for scraps until they dropped, opium-riddled, to death.

Of course, they might be lucky enough to obtain a position with one of the great houses, helping their masters create the glittering social events with which Shanghai abounded. To some, Holmforth would be invited; a ball, perhaps, but not dinner. A charity concert – his money was, after all, the same colour as everyone else’s. Where concerts were concerned, he almost always found a reason to stay away. He hated music. If it was bad it hurt his ears, if it was good... it was unbearable.

Holmforth’s rooms were adequate; he did not care much for such things. His houseboy was reasonably efficient and apparently discreet, which was all that mattered. As the boy – a man of fifty with a manner so self-effacing he was nearly invisible – made him tea, Holmforth paced, checking his watch every few moments, and stared out of the window into the pullulating mass below.

He need not have hurried. He should have remembered these damn Orientals had no sense of time.

Eventually, a rickshaw pulled up outside the building, its ragged and skeletal driver slumping in the shafts. A shiver of anticipation rippled through him.

The figure that emerged from the rickshaw was small, wearing an immense coolie hat that gave him something of the appearance of an animated mushroom. He paid off the driver, and a few moments later Holmforth heard the creaking of the stairs.

Holmforth opened the door carefully, cane in his hand. The man who entered bowed, taking no notice of the cane. Beneath the coolie hat he had a calm face with a slight, permanent smile.

“Well?” Holmforth said. He spoke Cantonese well, having a knack for languages. He avoided pidgin, finding it uncomfortably clownish.

The man bowed again, and extracted from his sleeve a roll of rice-paper.

Holmforth took it, pushing the teapot out of the way, checked that the table was dry, and unrolled it.

Mechanisms curled across the page, carefully drawn in deep blue ink. Holmforth read the notations with growing excitement. There was something here, he knew it. He concealed, with ease, the surge of triumph that rose in him; he had learned young not to show his feelings, and if this smiling devil knew Holmforth was pleased, his price would go up.

“Have you seen Wu Jisheng operating the machine? Does he do it himself?”

“Yes, I have seen him getting into it. But it is not complete. If you will forgive...” He bent over the page. “This, here, is done. But these, this – none of this exists. He is trying to obtain the materials he needs. But since the recent troubles, he is having difficulty.”

Holmforth tapped the page with one finger. This alone would not be sufficient to convince his masters. He needed to have a working device, not these hints, suggestions. He needed his own operator, too. He already had someone in mind.

And it would have to be done here, in Shanghai. He had neither the resources nor the influence to simply appropriate the device, though once he had proved its worth, that should not prove difficult.

The opium wars had broken open China like a child’s piggy bank, but much of the coin had been scooped up by the fat fingers of merchants, instead of going into the Empire’s coffers where it belonged. This... this was a real prize.
If
it could be proved to work. But not yet. Not until Holmforth had all the pieces in place.

He had to ensure that Wu Jisheng did not get any farther, for the moment. And he must not draw the attention of the Imperial court.

“Should it seem that he may start to obtain what he needs,” Holmforth said, “I would like things diverted. Delayed. Can you arrange that? Nothing to draw attention – simply ensure that any supplies he orders for the work are diverted.
That
should not create difficulties.” He was well aware of the healthy trade in ‘lost’ goods that somehow ended up in the households of local mandarins.

The man bowed, and waited.

Holmforth gave him silver, a substantial portion. Not Her Majesty’s money, but his own. “Twice as much again, if I am pleased with the results. Return in ten days.” That should be time enough.

With one final bow, the man was gone.

Holmforth seldom smiled, but he did so now. He stared out of the window, no longer seeing the surging crowd. First, he would book passage home. He would take a zeppelin, though it probably meant a refuelling stopover in Africa, which he loathed; but hang the expense. There was no time to waste. His fingers prickled with impatience.

Before his posting to the Shanghai Consulate, Holmforth had spent the last few years toiling in a Government post whose major purpose, he realised after the first month, was largely obstruction. Yet it was that post which had brought James Lathrop before him, and without Lathrop, the potential of Wu Jisheng’s creation would have passed him by.

Working in a tiny draughty office in an obscure corner of Whitehall, Holmforth had become accustomed to the parade of the deluded, the desperate, and the merely fraudulent who were shunted off onto him – the ones, at least, who, like Holmforth himself, had
connections
, and could not be completely ignored for fear they might prove an embarrassment.

Thaddeus Holmforth treated every single one of them with a precise and unwavering seriousness. He took notes. He recorded their ramblings, pleadings and blatant deceptions. Because it was his job, and if he did it well enough, his worth – one day, despite everything – would be recognised.

Paunchy, sweating, and overdressed, Lathrop had seated himself, without being invited, in the creaking chair in Holmforth’s office; wiped his face with an embroidered linen handkerchief, and looked him over. “Oh, there must be some mistake. I was told I would be speaking to the person in charge of scientific advances.”

“Well, there is no-one with precisely that title,” Holmforth said. “I am, as it were, the first port of call.”

“Really? Well I must say... this is important stuff, you know. And I have responsibilities, serious responsibilities, at home, I can’t be dashing up to town every five minutes just to speak to someone who isn’t in a position to –”

“I assure you that I am the person you need to speak to, Mr Lathrop. My function is to assess the information and pass it on to the proper person.”

“Well, if you’re sure.”

“Unless, of course, you feel you would rather seek private interest?”

“Oh, well...” Lathrop slumped back in his chair, his lower lip protruding. “I suppose it will do.”

At that point it became obvious to Holmforth that Lathrop had already attempted to raise private funding for his venture, whatever it was, and had failed.

“Now, if you would be so kind as to explain?” Holmforth said.

“Etheric Science,” Lathrop said. “The use of sound to, among other things, affect mood and behaviour. My... I have designed a number of instruments, which used correctly have an astonishing ability to tranquilise and pacify.” He began to lay out charts and schematics on the desk, all written in a surprisingly neat, small hand.

Holmforth, against his will, found himself intrigued. Lathrop did not exactly sell it well: he frequently backtracked, muddled his references and at times barely seemed to understand his own discoveries. But there was a persuasive elegance in what he described that was far more appealing than the man himself.

To tranquilise and pacify. If it worked, it was something Holmforth had every reason to believe might hold interest for his superiors.

“And what is this notation here?” he said.

“Oh, that was something to do with... I mean, I made some experimentation with the Folk.” Lathrop gave him a sidelong glance. “They seemed intrigued by the sounds. But I found no profit in taking it further. Should it be of interest, of course, given sufficient investment, I could make further experiments.”

“I see. Well, thank you for bringing this to me,” Holmforth said. “I feel this might well be of interest. I shall contact you as soon as I have a response.”

It took, as expected, another hour to persuade the man out of his office, after which Holmforth wrestled open every window in order to rid the place of the pervasive reek of sweat, over-scented pomade, and self-importance.

Then he took the matter to the head of his department, Rupert Forbes-Cresswell.

“Etheric science?” Forbes-Cresswell said. Sun poured through the high window of his much larger office, haloing his thick blond hair. “My dear fellow, it’s nothing but one of those fads, like the health-giving properties of electricity.”

“I thought there were some interesting points in his work. He appeared to have some evidence for its effectiveness.”

“Oh, it’s obvious people are affected by sounds. Especially weaker minds: women, children, the lower orders. One only has to attend the music hall to see it in action.”

“I haven’t done so.”

“It provides an interesting evening’s study of the vulgar, though I did end up having to throw away a perfectly good coat afterwards. If you want to know more, there’s always old Frobisher. He became interested, briefly. But I can tell you what he’ll say; he gave me quite the treatise on the subject. Sound manipulation of this sort is an ability, not a science. It tends to manifest in certain people, usually women – rather the way some simpletons can calm horses. Possibly because their voices are different, you know. Frobisher thought it might be why lullabies are effective! It could be this Lathrop is some sort of hermaphrodite, and that is why he has the ability? Or he could be simply deluded. Oh, the Higher Folk, of course, have some ability to use sound to manipulate the senses, singing, and so on...” He let the sentence hang, but Holmforth said nothing. “There may be a connection there. Do you have any reason to believe Lathrop may be, ah...”

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