FUTURE THAT NEVER WAS: CHAPTER ONE

I’ve been putting this everywhere, so here’s a preview of the book. When I get a cover or something I’ll put up more.

1: Albion: The Rogue, the Maid, and the Writer

My first thought upon setting boot in the tavern was a guilty pleasure. Sure, I had seen my share of beautiful bodies and vivacious visage, but those had been limited to lantern-lit shadow play, jasmine-scented nights lingering like incense on the skin.

Almost as a reminder, my reflection stared out at me from a pane of Dublin crystal glass- brown eyes, black hair, a special shade of skin like soy sauce on bean curd.

Whether or not Kowloon still meant home, the girls there were short, slender and demure. They spoke very little, giggled over men who looked like children, and covered their lily-pad feet with silk. I always thought of them as carefully tended orchids, easily plucked or crushed. Girls in this pub looked like a field of sunflowers: gold where Kowloon girls were dark, round where they were flat, some even tall enough to look me in the eye. I felt my back straighten a couple vertebrae just asking for a table. Everywhere they moved they were laughing and joking with the patrons, and what patrons they were: a dirty, drunk, decadent, downtrodden, delinquent, dated, dour, diverse, different bunch.

A few gentlemanly types were trawling through in various levels of stupor. Clinging to the girls and ordering liquor like water, the group inspired me in a most Sherwood Forest kind of way. I was not the only one. A quartet of sailors in waterproof slickers were eyeing the dandies evilly, their coin occasionally drawing attention, but unable to compete with the gold fobs, the expensive cigars lit with shining flintlocks, nor the frilly lace likely to disintegrate at the taste of salt. I sensed an upcoming confrontation; if the dandies left with the whole covey, some would likely see the end of a dagger. Say what you like about the dirigible age, but it does bring people together.

            I slumped onto a bench, choosing a booth with my back to the wall. A polite gesture caught the sight of the nearest barmaid, who was balancing a platter and an inebriate. She was fending off the dandy in an elaborate velvet suit, drunk out of his mind and grabbing for her hip-length pleats. Blondie was a very good actress, having at her disposal an endless array of winks, smiles and flips of her hair. Not only did said skirt never catch on his meat hooks, she came away with a bit of shiny currency as well. Her linen barely creased.

Unable to contain my appreciation, I whistled softly as she came to take my order. At first, she must have thought it more wolf-calls and heckling, but the smile in my eyes soon propagated to the barmaid’s.

“He’s a merchant out of Camden,” she informed me, in the way most working girls have when chancing upon an empathic soul. I remembered dimly a time those two words were scandalous in Britain- a farthing for the man who guesses which two I mean.

“Bit of a run-in with air pirates, lost his entire shipment of fine Caledonia perfume,” she was continuing sympathetically. I noted the slender figure, the modest curves, but also the wide Nordic shoulders and the regal set to her hips. Strange place to meet such a distinct woman, but I supposed anything is possible when one could hop on a dirigible one day and be on the other side of the world in a matter of weeks.

“A shame,” I replied, trying not to stare at the deep bosom peeking out of her frills.

“Isn’t it though? Portsmouth had a reputation for ladies of the evening, even before the airship towers went up. A girl needs to wash between jobs. Lad would have made a killing, pardon my French. Wouldn’t be interested in such things, fine upstanding gent like yourself?”

“You might be surprised.” A glittering bottle of lavender essence appeared from a deep pocket in my duster.

“That’s Caledonian, isn’t it?” she whispered on the sly. “Best not to let too many eyes on it.”

“For you,” I said. “If I can avail myself of one of your hot ciders?”

“Cheeky Monkey. Coming up,” she answered with a wink. I watched her leave, making a subtle show of touching the bottle on her wrists, before vanishing it in the pockets of her apron. I suppose it might have been another of her acts, but the delicate dabs didn’t seem to fit with her character; she looked like she knew what she was doing. I took my pint of cider, and watched her hips sway as she left, putting the disquiet out of mind.

The Jilted Merman was half-full that evening. Night mist snuck in with the soon-to-be inebriates sifting through the plank door, bright with moonlight. Ornaments yet hung on one drooping evergreen in the corner, cheap baubles to wring every last bit of cheer from the salty patrons. Evidently the barkeep preferred the scent of pine needles to his clientele’s breath.

It does the Portsmouth people credit to note their natives were placidly drinking next to unidentifiable scoundrels, air pirates, and jacks of all trades lurking in the dark corners of the tavern. The smattering of locals were well muscled, weather-roughened, and clearly a group not to be fucked with; toughs in tweed, all of them. One particularly ginger fellow, having the slight, rat-like bearing of a no-good cutpurse, attempted to size me up. I simply removed my well-worn duster, revealing aeronaut’s muscles as tight as cord on the wide set of my shoulders, and all was well.

Suddenly, the voice of our friend the dandy merchant rang out in an aria of woe.

“Damn and blast!” He cursed with London airs through a week’s worth of beard. “If it weren’t for the Turkish blockade, my dear Swarthy Wain would yet be riding the gales!”

“You sayin’ them bloody Turks shot down your freighter?” prompted a sympathetic friend, or a curious sadist.

“I’m saying those bloody borscht-swilling swine closed the route over the Ottomans. Great big cannon emptying bandits out of their skies and into ours! I took my Wain over land, avoiding the worst of them in the Channel, when who should I see?” the merchant announced.

“Who?” chirped a chorus of ill-weather friends. Misery indeed loves company.

“The Blasted Manchu Marauder! Albion Clemens! Him and that accursed ship, what was her name, the Gooseberry? The Cloudberry?”

“The Huckleberry!” I called, certain my voice would be directionless in this crowd.

“The Devil take the Huckleberry and her crew! Damn ship just drops out of the sun, she does, and quick as a wink we’re boarded by masked pirates, rounded up by a fence of cutlasses!”

At this point, several patrons were willing to ply the piracy victim with drink, in exchange for details, and his voice fell to a hush. Surely that had been his ploy?

Quietly chuckling in the corner, I turned to receive a steaming flagon of cider from the beauteous barmaid.

“Here you are, Marauder,” she quipped quietly, returning my sass cheek for cheek. Obligingly, I flipped her a coin for her trouble- I was beginning to like her. As she caught the coin, I caught her wrist gently.

“Say, all jibes aside, I wonder if you could help me.”

“Back door is next to the loo. Turn left to get to the docks, right goes by the constabulary,” she supplied, clearly used to her clientele. “If you’re in a carousing mood, I’m afraid the night flowers have all been plucked, and I just serve drinks.”

“How could you think I had such lewd intentions? Betrayal made fouler by beauty!” I feigned a gasp. “No, my dear, I’m looking for a man.”

“Oh my… are you sure?” she pouted, popping out a well-formed Nordic hip.

“He’s…like a father to me,” I obliged, and for a moment it seemed as if the actress had been replaced by a human being. Wry smiles soon masked her again, but at least she seemed sincerely willing to help.

“Sorry, I haven’t seen a cloth button or silk slipper in here for months, not since the Imperial ambassador’s visit. You are a rare sight, Chinaman,” she answered helpfully. Vixen once more, she scented for a tip. “Especially a young, handsome Chinaman…”

“Age is a question of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter,” I said, surprising myself. It had been something Captain Sam said quite often.

“You sound like an old man!” Blondie chortled.

“Might be because I’m looking for one, an American. White hair and beard, bit of a penchant for cigars. Might be wearing a dirty drover’s hat. Likes blondes. Would be carrying a Winchester rifle.”

As I was talking to my barmaid, the rat-like ginger man had resumed eyeballing me from across the pub over rounded spectacles. I didn’t like it very much, especially when I caught the glimpse he gave to two rather unsavory characters in a booth. No rat like a rat with two snakes for backup.

“No, I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone like that,” My barmaid was saying, one lock of hair freed from her bun and chewed on.

“I know him, he would have been through this tavern,” I said placidly. “Thank you anyway.”

“I’ll ask around. If you need anything just call.” She favored me a wink. I turned my attention to the second flagon, always the better of two for its lack of immediacy. Savor is best when thirst comes second.

Master Ginger slipped through the pub and into my booth, even as the maid laid down two more flagons of wondrous cider. He seemed surprised, and impressed, his spectacles highlighting large, dark eyes. At close range, the man did not seem so rat-like; a sparse frame hung on strong shoulders, made deceptively smaller by an overlarge tweed coat. His ginger was fake. Black roots sprouted at eyebrow and hairline over a pasty complexion. Under dirty tweed and threadbare elbows, the man’s clothing was simple linen and canvas, but surprisingly clean. He spread his hands, to show he meant no harm.

Five lead slugs weighed down my hip. I debated muffling the hammer click against my duster, but I doubted murder was on his mind.

“Wotcher drinkin?” he asked in a passable cockney. The voice was surprisingly warm. “Looks good.”

“Help yourself,” I offered generously. Just kill them with kindness. “You have business with me?”

“Don’t mind if I do,” he smiled, and took a long draught, breathing a contented cloud of spirit into the chill pub air. “This is the only thing I get in the Isles.”

“Best cider in the Commonwealth,” I agreed. Lamplight flickered over our faces, giving us merry expressions. It was good warm gaslight too, none of the humming or buzzing from those Tesla or Edison arclights. A good deal warmer than the conversation we were having, certainly.

“The lager is better in Deutschland,” the ginger began. “France has the best wine, and I get nothing but stout on the Emerald Isles. Nothing holds a candle to English cider. My name is Elric Blair, and I need your help.”

“Shaw,” I answered, choosing the name of a friend. Blair’s eyebrow popped up over one lens.

“Never met an Oriental with a name like that. I’m sorry, you’ll have to do better.”

“It’s all you’re getting. You want my help or no?”

“Right,” he sighed, all sign of cockney gone. “I couldn’t help but put two and two together. I’ve a good nose for perfumes, you see. You’re the famous air pirate, the Manchu Marauder.”

“The Scourge of Shanghai, the Hanoi Highwayman, the Bandit of Budapest. In the flesh, nice to meet you.” I clicked the hammer, perfectly audible in our little booth. “Now call off your cronies.”

“They would be why I need your help. If I may?”

Elric Blair slowly opened his large coat, reaching into the inside pocket. He produced a small derringer, the cheap two-shot variety, and placed it on the table. As a show of good will, I put my own revolver on the table. My Victoria gouged a fresh gash in the worn oak, her sleek black barrel and heavy elm grip remaining firmly in hand. Blair’s gun, on the other hand, was well out of his grasp- inexperience with firearms, or a show of honesty?

Fortunately, the pub’s high booth walls and dusky atmosphere gave us enough privacy. It also prevented the two toughs behind Blair from seeing the weapons. Blair whistled gently at Victoria.

“Big gun. A Colt, is it, from the Americas?”

“It was a gift. Now, come clean, Mr. Blair, or you will find my big gun making some big holes.”

“It’s a Marlowe Scheme, Mr. Shaw,” Blair sighed. Ah- a good, old-fashioned mugging, so named because it involved three men and a dagger. A harmless-looking foil selected a green, preferably foreign target, presenting him with some attractive, illicit local consumable, likely a woman or substance. An invitation would be given. A throat would be cut. Simple.

“Only, you picked me instead of an easy mark,” I filled in.

“Right on the money,” he agreed. “Apologies, I believe I’ve forced you into this situation. As I’ve given you no alternative, an air pirate like yourself ought to be able to handle two common thugs.”

“You seem used to this kind of coercion, but unused to violence. I am curious to know, what are you doing with street toughs like Clive and Staples? And in motley, as well.”

“Not my color? Heh. You know them.”

“I know of them. The Lewis brothers made their rounds up and down the coast, and with those ugly mugs it’s hard to mistake them for anyone else,” I remarked. Squatting in their own booth, the two looked like a Bulldog and a Doberman leering at an unfriendly pack, or a fresh bone.

“It was how I found them as well. I’m sorry, Shaw, your speech is so…”

“American?”

“… correct. It is odd, hearing an Oriental with such perfect mastery of the Queen’s English. Your accent is undoubtedly Yankee, but the pronunciation, the grammar, and the diction…” the man seemed bemused, almost academic. His fingers scrabbled at an invisible pen.

“You’ll find many today with the capacity for language, amongst other things, Master Blair. It is the steam age, after all, and a journalist should know the most valuable cargo aboard a dirigible is information.”

Blair sat back at this, seemingly jolted out of his reverie. Credit must be given, for my revelation did not faze him much, only causing him to drop the last shred of pretense.

“You’re right, of course. I’ve written volumes of London’s dirtiest ditches, but I must admit I am out of my element. I fully intended to apply an earlier method, of getting… up close and personal with the unwashed masses, and thus learning something of their plight. I am afraid I’ve gotten mixed up with, quite literally, cutthroats. However hard pressed for one’s living we are, murder is never just. ”

“I think I’ve read your work, actually. Changed my whole attitude towards cigarettes.”

“Don’t believe that was the point of the piece…”

“Hah! I like you, Mr. Blair.”

“I am beginning to be fond of you as well, Mister… Shaw.”

We sat there, two grinning baboons, until our pretty barmaid came to perch at the end of the booth, at the pretext of clearing away flagons.

“When you lovebirds are done, your friends might be wanting a word with you,” she mentioned casually.
One look over her shoulder confirmed the situation: Misters Clive and Staples were becoming uneasy. Clearly, something would have to be done.

“Oy!” I cried, quite loudly. My aim was sure- several locals perked their ears. “You lot, are you going to stand for it? Those city toffs just called you backward, hillbilly wankers!”

Instant flashpoint. Within moments a magnificent bar fight had broken out, stools and flagons and pint glasses flying by overhead. It was dockhands versus dandies, pirates versus bandits, and the Celts against everybody else, laughing like bloody hyenas as their teeth left their faces. The tarts fled for high ground, the pushers for low, and everyone else started dodging. Wisely, Blair, Blondie and I slunk down below the table, our flagons held perfectly level, apple-flavored breath pooling in the tight, safe space.

“Wasn’t that an American insult?” our maid asked, between liberal sips from my flagon.

“Not for anyone living south of Virginia?” I supplied.

“Please, Master Pirate, we should be making for the door!” Blair cried.

“In a moment. Wait for it… now!”

Coarse wood swung shut behind us, casting us suddenly into a dense, brackish fog. Wet cobbles threatened to overturn our raggedy trio onto the road, but it was still better than the crossfire going on inside the Jilted Merman. A dim moon lit just enough of the road, and a gentle sloshing came from the water nearby. Though Blair had hastened us out of the bar, I now took the lead with long strides, trying my best to look like I knew where I was going. Our barmaid stayed behind, intelligently leaning between window and door should either emit a defeated inebriate. She waved a cheerful goodbye as she disappeared behind us; now it was only the two of us old dogs, as my Imperial Cantonese brethren would put it.

“Well now, I suggest you get on with the nature of the help you would like, Mister Blair,” I said casually as we passed the sturdy brick and plaster of Portsmouth’s dockside dwellings.

“I would have thought it obvious,” he answered, “You are an air pirate. Ergo, you possess a ship. I should like passage on said ship, anywhere out of Portsmouth. All the dock’s men were told not to let me through.”

“Why would Clive and Staples pay them off to keep a writer from leaving town? I thought you were working for them.”

“Ah, I should have been clearer; the local constabulary has me pegged for this very reason. The Lewis brothers have tainted me with their brand of devilry, I’m afraid.”

We turned now, into a darker alley.

“And have you committed any crime?” I asked, not really expecting a reliable answer.

“I witnessed a murder, and was seen in the brothers’ company. For the locals, it is enough,” Blair said without malice.

Fog was now blanketing the street, but I knew where the mooring towers would have been, looming over the town like abyssal giants risen from the sea. Dim stars glowed through the fog, the only trace of gaslight marking a low line of quiet seaside buildings.

Of course, the Lewis brothers were waiting for us just around the corner, perfectly at home perched atop some coal pallets. The shorter, bulldog one, Clives, was shuffling his feet, while the taller Doberman Staples was rolling a crucifix-emblazoned cane between his fingers. As soon as we emerged out of the fog, the brothers closed the trap on either side of us, effectively pinning us in with a matching pair of knives.

“Thought you could get away from us, huh, old chum? No stomach for butcher’s work?” Staples leered.

“Maybe he knew all along, steered us a fat mark,” Clives chimed in.

“I’ll take the tall one,” I whispered to Blair, even as the cutthroats circled us. “If you can get Clives.”
“With what? I left my derringer in the pub,” Blair whispered back, clearly panicked. He would have made a terrible cutthroat. We had no time for planning, anyway. The Lewis brothers rushed at us.

Mist flew by, cold and sharp. Sensations of an elm grip firmly weighted my palm, the hammer cocking with practiced speed. A solid kick announced the trigger going, but the snap was lost in an instant, muffled against the mist. Gunsmoke washed out the sweet flavor of apple still clinging to my lips, a scent further diluted by a memory of clear skies, drawling accents, and fragrant wafts of cigar leaf. When was the last time I had fired Victoria and thought of Captain Samuel?

With a sound like a rotted, downed log, Staples crumpled at my feet, but I was no longer looking. My feet had whirled around, knowing the other brother was assaulting Elric. I shouldn’t have bothered. A metallic thud sounded in the misty street, and suddenly Clives had joined his brother, a massive welt rising atop his grizzled head.

“My, you boys are up to no good,” our blonde barmaid remarked, a heavy tea kettle in her right hand. Blair lay crumpled a most undignified pile, attempting to untangle himself from Clives.

“How did you…” Not sure if Blair or I were responsible for the gaping.

“The same way they did- through the back door,” the maid answered. After the initial rush, she turned to look at the prone figures sprawled on the cobbles. Was that shock, or disgust? “Shite, I do believe we’ve committed murder.”

“They’ll live. Staples might lose a couple feet of intestine,” I answered. “But it’s probably safer to leave right away.”

“Agreed,” my newfound companion said. Crikey, what had I done to deserve them? A violently assertive barmaid and a useless writer, both of who knew my identity, now looked to me for guidance. It would probably be best for them to hide out in my ship, never mind what the morrow would bring.

Swiftly, the three of us dashed along the streets of Portsmouth, grand old manors and redbrick dwellings giving way to the trace italien of Southsea Castle. The glow of the castle’s lighthouse beam came through as a giant column of dimly lit mist over our heads. From above, the false moon would be one of three bounding the edge of the city from the wild ocean. Their light served to guide our way now, glinting off the rails set into the stone street. At the docks further north, these rails came together in a spider’s web of tracks, delivering the bounty of the British Empire throughout the homeland from the holds of hundreds of dirigibles.

“I say, aren’t we headed away from the mooring towers?” Blair called.

“You said it yourself, the dock’s men are all alerted to your presence. Besides, there’s a damned Naval base that way.”

We headed down South Parade, making for the pier. In the darkness, the restaurant and shops looked quiet and sad. We made our way along the promenade, suddenly amongst the nickelodeons, deserted fairy floss stands and midget-dirigible rides of the funfair.

“Having a go at us, Marauder? These tiny boats won’t even hold one of me,” our barmaid said, tapping at one of the children’s seats bolted to a guide rail.

“They certainly won’t,” I commented, failing to resist the urge to leer at her ample assets.

“Cad!” she answered with the uncanny observation of her gender. It is a language I have never mastered.

“Never mind those. Come, come,” I gestured.

Past the charming carousel full of gilt horses and carriages, and the calliope with its silent, sentinel pipes, I led my little band toward the small Ferris’ Wheel, perched at the very edge of the pier. Part of me regretted giving up such a good hiding place, but desperate times called for desperate measures.

At the very bottom of the Wheel, there was an iron ring set in the floor. Lifting this up resulted in two very satisfying gasps of surprise, for underneath was a platform leading to a dirigible’s gondola.

“Who would have thought the big, bad Scourge of Shanghai would own such a tiny pirate ship?” Elric Blair remarked. “I suppose you’ll have to cling to the mast after yielding the cabin to the lady.”

“Pirates don’t have to follow etiquette,” I answered, sedately stoking up the modest boiler. With a pop and a sparkle, the embers came to life.

“And the balloon? Ah, there we are,” Blair continued. “Disguised as a child’s flying elephant, how quaint.”

“How absolutely adorable. To think, the Bandit of Budapest dropping out of the sky under a giant pink elephant,” our maid remarked.

As a matter of fact, I had a standing deal with the funfair owner, a rather pleasant Mrs. Bakersfield. The appearance of Jumbo the Pink Elephant had become something of a local mystery, attracting more than its share of curious fair goers. I am sure more than a few disobedient children staying up that night in the South of England would have a new chapter to add to Jumbo’s legend- the sight of him floating up in the clouds, towing what appeared to be a sailing boat under him, ought to bring a neat conclusion to his story. I am sorry to say, Jumbo would probably not be making an appearance much longer, owing to her new guests.
In but a few moments, we were on our merry way, all of Portsmouth spread under us. Southsea Castle and Portsea Island reclined beneath us; we could see as far as Portsdown Hill over the fog.

“This is a load off my mind, Captain Shaw,” Blair said gratefully. “I will be most glad when this ginger hair grows out and I am free of this guise completely.”

“You are most welcome, Misterr Blair. Now then,” I said casually. “If all is in order, I believe I should like for you to tell me what you are doing on my ship, my dear Inspector.”

Turning, I was not surprised to find myself face-to-face with the level, steady barrel of a .22 Tranter pistol, held in the hands of the beautiful blonde barmaid.

 

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