Authors: Mark C. King
Once through the door he heard the faint voice of the clerk ask, “What room number?” Sigmund kept walking.
He made his way several blocks before hailing a carriage. Although Sigmund preferred one that was horse pulled, he didn’t have much selection at this time of night. He waved his hand as a steam-carriage made its way up the street trailing smoke. With a quick chug-chug-chug sound it headed towards the curb in front of Sigmund and came to a halt. The driver sat high and in front of the passenger carriage. The vehicle’s engine was in front of the driver, and had a smokestack that reached higher than the enclosed passenger cabin but still not high enough to keep the smoke completely off of the driver’s face and clothes. You could often tell how long one of these drivers had been working that day by the amount of soot on their person – this driver must have been working for a month straight, thought Sigmund, unable to tell the original color of the clothing. On one side of the driver was a bin that contained coal allowing the operator to use a hand-scoop and feed coal into a chute on the other side of him that connected to the engine’s furnace. As a fellow cab driver, Sigmund wondered how this man could stand the conditions day after day.
“Where to, sir?” asked the driver, stifling a yawn.
“Albany Road, please.” And then with a smile, “Don’t spare the whip.”
“Yes, sir” was the only reply. Perhaps the driver was too tired to catch the joke, or perhaps he had heard that one before – more likely the latter, thought Sigmund and groaned at his failed attempt at humor.
The ride ended before very long. Sigmund had paid attention to anyone that might be following, however unlikely that would be, and was satisfied that no one was there. Hopping out, Sigmund paid the driver and walked another block to his apartment.
Home was a first floor flat in a solid stone building. With a living room, bedroom, kitchen, and a spare room for his tinkering, it was everything Sigmund needed, and frankly, everything he wanted. With a fairly simple upbringing, he never really understood the desire for so much more than what anyone needed. His living room was simple, a couple of comfortable chairs, a side table with a lamp, a fireplace, and cabinets that he filled with items that he couldn’t seem to throw out but probably would never need.
With wooden box in hand, Sigmund sat in one of the comfortable living room chairs and paused to savor the moment – the revealing of the spoils was the dessert to his meal of criminal activities. Having poured himself a finger of whiskey, Sigmund was ready to open his recently acquired box and claim the valuable item inside.
Pulling the small teak side table around to the front of his favorite chair, he placed the box on top of it. He took a sip of his drink and then opened a small leather pouch that held his lock picking tools. With these tools he worked at the keyhole for the locking mechanism. The size of the box dictated that the lock couldn’t be too elaborate and before even half a minute had passed, the lock was sprung. Taking an extra second to revel in the anticipation, he slowly opened the box, eager to see the revelation of beauty that the hotel manager had experienced.
First, the black velvet lining greeted him, and on the bed of blackness rested… nothing. Sigmund brought the box closer, as if the necklace was possibly miniscule – still nothing. He lifted out the velvet lining, hoping that maybe something was hidden beneath but there was nothing but the bottom of the box.
Wiping his hands across his face, Sigmund tried to keep himself calm. He had had some capers go wrong, but nothing like this. Looking over every part of the box for a hidden compartment, he eventually threw the box across the floor in disgust, watching it slide into the molding on the wall – it was unquestionably empty.
He didn’t have time for mistakes like this
, he thought to himself
But how could he have known? It didn’t matter, he was running out of time to help Sarah.
Completely defeated, Sigmund sat back and stared angrily at the empty box laying on the floor.
That blasted hotel manager!
He portrayed himself as so honorable but he was nothing more than a fraud.
For some time Sigmund continued to sit unmoving, his mind starting to contemplate the unsavory – could he break into a random hotel, or random house and steal what is needed to help Sarah? He always was able to satisfy his conscience, barely, by knowing that the owner of the stolen items would probably not even notice it missing. People’s apathy was his justification. But to break in and take something that could be more than just monetarily valuable, perhaps a precious heirloom, would be far beyond the limits that Sigmund had self-imposed. However, he often said and believed that he would do anything to help Sarah. Was that just a nice saying or did he actually mean it? These thoughts raced through his mind until he eventually felt a wave of fatigue wash over him as the adrenaline of the night was starting to bleed out. Usually this would mean he would sleep well, but it had to fight against his disappointment and his conscience.
Sigmund dressed for bed and wearily climbed under the covers. He blew out the candle on his nightstand and stared at the dark ceiling hoping for sleep to overtake him. Although sleep did not come easy, it did eventually come – that is until a loud knocking at his door woke him up.
Sigmund sat up in bed at the sound of the knocking seeing nothing but blackness. He wasn’t sure of the hour, but the darkness meant that it had to be what all would consider quite inappropriate. He struck a match on his night stand and lit a candle.
Sigmund rarely had visitors. Even at his most sociable, he was much more of a visitor than a host. Of course, not even the most sociable had visitors at – Sigmund checked his watch – four in the morning. Besides the awful hour, there was another reason that the visit was suspect – regardless of the necklace box being empty, breaking into the hotel safe and taking it was very illegal and he cast no thoughts otherwise. However, if this was in response to his crime, it seems unlikely that the police would knock. The smart thing to do was to run, he told himself. Of course, the true smart thing to do was to not break the law. Too late now.
Sigmund looked at his father’s watch again – as if he misread it a few seconds earlier. Resting on his elbow, watching the flickering candle light play on his walls, he tried to decide what to do – another knock. Eventually, curiosity overcame his concern – how many tombstones could have that etched into them, he idly thought.
He pulled on a robe and, with candle in hand, walked quietly out of his bedroom to the sitting area. Sigmund silently moved to the door and put his ear to it to see if there was any conversation that was going on. He could hear nothing outside the door, only the inside sounds of the ticking clock near the door and his own heartbeat. Sliding a brass plate slowly and quietly to the side, Sigmund peered through the glass of his viewing apparatus. A functional design, it allowed him to see who was on his doorstep and be moved around to see if anyone was perhaps hiding off to the side. His initial fear was that there would be a troop of constables waiting to arrest him but that proved unfounded. All that was there was a lone man, definitely not a constable in his dark gray, tailored suit, black top hat, and what looked like a gold handled walking stick in his gloved hand. A detective perhaps? That didn’t seem likely either, as Sigmund didn’t believe detectives made enough to dress quite this well – also the look on this dark stranger’s goateed face was calm, almost amused. Certainly not the look of someone trying to bring in a criminal.
As another knock sounded, Sigmund unlocked his door, opened it slightly, and greeted the stranger, “Good evening. May I help you?”
“Ah, well put, Mr. Shaw. That is precisely why I am here. I need your help.”
He knows my name, thought Sigmund. Looking intently at the dark eyes of the stranger, he could read little. This man knew his name and yet Sigmund was quite sure that they had never met before. A very sour feeling was starting to well up in Sigmund’s gut. What kind of help could this well-dressed man be wanting from Sigmund – a carriage driver – at this time of night? The words of Lewis Carroll came to his mind,
curiouser and curiouser
. “Sir,” Sigmund said, “you have me at a disadvantage. You obviously know my name, may I ask yours?”
“Knowing my name, Mr. Shaw, is not important.” The dark stranger replied unrelenting with his calm expression. “In fact, not knowing my name is very important, as you shall see. May we step inside?”
The man started taking off his gloves as Sigmund stared in confusion. After a few moments Sigmund decided to try and force things a little, test the resolve of this stranger. “I’m afraid that without a name, I cannot possibly let you in. The hour is quite late, or early, and you see, I consider myself a cautious man.”
A smile broke onto the stranger’s face – the first show of emotion. “Quite so, Mr. Shaw. That is much of the reason I am here.” He looked to the side for a moment, evidently considering something, then looked back into Sigmund’s eyes, the smile gone, “Mr. Shaw, I did want this to go a little differently, but in the end, it probably matters little. Don’t think that I will just turn away as if a salesman who lost a sale. Truth be told, in harmony with my analogy, I believe you will have to buy what I’m selling.”
Still confused, Sigmund was starting to feel anger combine with his other emotions. A stranger who will not give his name and is insinuating – what? Some deal that is too good to refuse? Some deal that
be refused? He did not like to have his hand forced like this and said, “Goodnight, sir.” And started to close the door. To Sigmund’s surprise the stranger put a forceful arm on the door to stop it.
“Mr. Shaw, please. I am aware of your robbery tonight.”
Sigmund froze as his body clenched with surprise. The dark stranger stared at him for a few moments and then continued, “I’m also aware that the box was empty. Shall we talk inside now?”
Sigmund reeled a little. He allowed the possibility, however small, that he could have been found out in his crime. But how could anyone know the box was empty? Did this man work for the hotel owner? Whatever the case, Sigmund’s situation was getting worse by the moment. His sleepy thoughts of returning to bed were becoming clear thoughts of handcuffs and jail.
Interrupting Sigmund’s considerations, the stranger casually said, “Please don’t bother to run Mr. Shaw, I am not alone. But you need not fear. For as I said, I need your help. I think we can both benefit by sitting down and talking.”
Sigmund stopped his thoughts of running as the stranger suggested. Obviously this man was prepared for that tactic – he probably had several associates nearby. Despite all misgivings, there didn’t seem to be a choice. Still, Sigmund’s mind kept saying,
Don’t let him in! Don’t let him in!
Sigmund stepped aside and let him in.
Clicking on his electric lamp, Sigmund put out the candle – the smell of the extinguished wick diffused through the room. The stranger walked in and sat down in one of the plush, cushioned chairs in the living room. This man had complete control of the situation, a situation that Sigmund was still trying to grasp.
Invitingly, as if this was his own home and Sigmund was the intruder, the dark stranger said, “Please sit Mr. Shaw. I have something that I must discuss with you.”
Sigmund slowly lowered himself down in the seat opposite the dark stranger. Despite the calm, almost amused look the stranger kept, Sigmund felt anything but.
The stranger continued, “Ah good. Now we can talk like gentlemen. I understand your hesitancy but believe me Mr. Shaw, as I already said, we can both benefit from this discussion.”
Sigmund said nothing. He unconsciously had taken his father’s watch from his pocket and was rubbing the cover with his thumb, like he often did when he was nervous.
Sensing that Sigmund was not going to ask any questions, the stranger started, “I know you want answers. Who I am? How do I know about the empty necklace box? Why haven’t I had you arrested? And most importantly,” he paused, his face calm but excitement behind his eyes “what do I want?”
Sigmund continued silent, he felt that he didn’t need to speak the obvious. The clock next to his door ticked away the seconds of quietness.
“Mr. Shaw, the necklace that you were trying to steal was a ruse. We knew someone would try to steal it and we have been watching the hotel for over a week now. I was starting to think that our plan was for nothing, until you showed up tonight. On a side note, how did you hear of the necklace?”
Sigmund didn’t want to be too specific so gave a truthful but vague answer, “I overheard a conversation.”
The dark stranger considered this for a moment, then said, “Fair enough. We had whispered rumors of this necklace all around London hoping someone with your kind of abilities would hear it and act. In any event Mr. Shaw… may I call you Sigmund?” Sigmund nodded, not too concerned about formalities at that moment. “You see Sigmund, we have need for someone with your talents. We need someone who knows how to be, what did you say when I arrived, oh yes, ‘cautious’. There is a meeting in two nights that we need you to be at, without you actually being at it, if you understand my meaning. If the meeting proves the claims that are being made are indeed real, we would like you to procure the object of the meeting. Once that is done, we will meet again and you will be rewarded well – somewhere in the realm of what you must have thought you would have received by pawning the necklace.”
Sigmund sat for at least a minute, just trying to comprehend what was being said. Money, a meeting, ruse…. He was very uncomfortable to have so much unknown going around him. He had always been the one who had all possibilities mapped out, something that was required or else he would have been jailed a long time ago. He was still struggling with the basic fact that, despite his best efforts, he was found out. There was much more happening but he had a hard time getting past the one thought,
he was found out
During this time the dark stranger simply looked at Sigmund, not demanding, just patiently waiting for Sigmund to take all this in and ask the inevitable questions. The clock continued to interrupt the silence.
Finally, Sigmund asked, “You keep saying ‘we’. Who is ‘we’?”
“Straight to the heart of things, very good Sigmund. ‘We’ is the British Empire. This would be a service for your country.”
Sigmund had many ideas about who was behind all this – mostly along the lines of some sort of criminal gang – but it would be many guesses before, if ever, he would have guessed it would be for the government. “So you are saying that the British Empire is asking me to spy on a meeting and then possibly steal something afterwards.”
“That is precisely what I’m asking.”
“Why me? Don’t you have people already in your employ who can do this? Why an elaborate setup to catch a common thief?”
“Fair questions. The reason is simply this, the service we are requesting is illegal, even for the government. If you are caught doing this, there will be no trail leading to us – which is why my name will not be shared. As you will find out, the meeting that is happening is between a foreign government and our Empire.”
“You are asking me to spy on and possibly steal from my own government?” Sigmund was starting to get angry again. He knew that he wasn’t the most law abiding citizen but he was not a traitor. “I will go to jail before I betray the Empire!”
“Sigmund, your vehemence and stance are correct. I applaud you! But you do not have the full story. What I am asking is not against the Empire, it is, in point of fact, for it. You see, there is a faction in the Empire that is gaining power and they have highly placed members that are undermining the royalty itself. They are reimagining the Empire as a world conqueror, like the days of less civilized men who thought of nothing but of expanding their boundaries. This meeting is to discuss a purported new invention that would give its possessor an overwhelming mechanical advantage. We believe that this invention will be taken by this faction and used to accomplish their ends. We need to intervene, we are asking
to intervene. If this invention is real then it needs to be known to all, to remove the advantage. Besides the difficulties that would arise from one of our own people being caught, we are also looking to an ‘outside’ person, you, as an impartial party, for I am sorry to say that I do not trust many people these days.”
Sigmund listened carefully. His adamant stance now weakened with this new information. “What is the invention?”
“I do not have all the details but it is claimed to be a revolutionary source of fuel. Small and powerful. Quite a claim! I would wager, however, that it will not prove to be true. But we need to know. If the claim is accurate we are talking about a potential replacement for coal.” He let the last sentence hang heavy in the air.
Even without a lot of thought, Sigmund knew that a replacement for coal would be an event of enormity. An overwhelming advantage? That depended on the composition and mechanism of the fuel. Still, if true, it would be revolutionary. But Sigmund agreed inwardly with the stranger, it was unlikely to be true.
Interrupting his thoughts the stranger added, “Besides the obvious advantages, there is another group that would like very much for it to be false. Can you imagine what would happen to the Coal Union if this claim proved to be true? Some very powerful people would lose a lot of money, perhaps even lead to bankruptcy. This group has close ties with many in the government and may also be in the mix to get exclusive control of this item. You see Sigmund, this meeting may have profound repercussions. Again, if the fuel is real, it must be handled appropriately – not by the war faction and not by the Coal Union.”