IRON & BLOOD
by Gail Z. Martin and Larry N. Martin
“This would have been simpler if we’d done it my way.” The slender woman lifted her chin defiantly. Dark ringlets framed her face, and her violet eyes sparkled. Her black wool traveling suit was nipped in at the waist, making the bustle in the back more pronounced. Her voice was starting to rise.
“Your way involved dynamite. We wanted to remain discreet.” Jake Desmet tugged at the collar of his suit coat and tried to look nonchalant.
“We’d have been done by now.” Veronique LeClercq fixed Jake with a glare. “Rick’s taking forever to make the deal.”
Jake took a deep breath and counted backward from five. His cousin’s impatience was nothing new, nor was her penchant for more adventure than he fancied. And the dynamite had been a joke—maybe. “Nicki, be patient! Rick’s good at this sort of thing. We’ve got to be delicate about this.”
Jake hoped that passersby would take them for spatting siblings. While their disagreement was real, it was no accident that they were standing where they could keep an eye on the corridor in each direction. Jake smoothed a wavy lock of brown hair out of his eyes. Much as he hated to admit it, Nicki was right. Rick was taking a long time, and the delay was likely to cause trouble.
“Remind me again why you and Rick didn’t just steal the damn urn?” Nicki’s voice had dropped. “It would have been better than standing here like targets.”
“One: I’ve got no desire to see the inside of Queen Victoria’s dungeons for theft.”
“Oh, piffle. Queens don’t have dungeons anymore,” Nicki said with a dismissive gesture.
“Two: The urn is very valuable to our client. It might be dangerous. We don’t need to take additional risks.” Jake could see Nicki’s faint smile, which meant she wasn’t really hearing a word he was saying.
“Tsk. If the urn is that dangerous, why hasn’t it harmed the fellow who thinks he owns it? Eaten him, maybe, or sucked out his soul?” She was clearly relishing the argument, a pattern that hadn’t changed since childhood.
“Andreas impressed on us that it could be dangerous, but he didn’t say how,” Jake responded. “Rick and I take him seriously when he says things like that.” Jake focused on keeping his breathing regular. He’d been awakened in the night by a nightmare, and had had a sickening feeling of impending doom ever since. He’d told Rick and Nicki, but couldn’t give them more details, just a gut feeling. Unfortunately, Jake’s gut feelings were right more often than not.
“Just because your client is a centuries-old vampire-witch with a tendency for drama doesn’t mean he’s always right.”
Andreas isn’t the only one with a fondness for drama, Jake thought. Just as he was about to respond, the door opened. Out stepped a good-looking, young blond man in an impeccably tailored Savile Row suit with a bulky bundle, wrapped in oil cloth and tied up with twine, under one arm. Rick Brand was smiling broadly, and shaking the hand of a man who was hidden to Jake by the door. Their pleasantries suggested a meeting gone well.
Jake let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding as he saw his friend safely back with them. The door closed and the smile disappeared from Rick’s face as he strode toward them. His mouth became a grim line, and his sky-blue eyes flashed a warning. “Let’s make a quick exit before the seller changes his mind,” he murmured as he passed Jake and Nicki, forcing them to keep up.
They strode three abreast down the corridor, as fast as they could go without breaking into a run. Their footsteps echoed on the tile, mocking their desire for stealth. A black carriage awaited them at the curb. Jake gave the driver a hard stare, assuring himself that no substitution had been made. He kept back a pace, watching the street for danger, as Nicki climbed into the carriage, surrounded by her voluminous skirts.
Just as Jake started toward the cab, he caught a glimpse of movement and alerted Rick. Three burly men rounded a corner on the right and headed toward them at a dead run, while from the left, four more brawny strangers stepped out of an alleyway and started in their direction.
“Get in, get in!” Rick gave Nicki an ungentlemanly shove. Her protest was muffled. Rick swung up, handing off the wrapped urn to Nicki as he ducked into the carriage. “Come on, Jake.” Jake already had a Colt Peacemaker in his hand, and was not surprised to see Nicki withdraw a pearl-handled derringer from her purse.
“Go!” Jake shouted, jumping for the doorway of the carriage. His foot had barely landed on the running board before the carriage lurched forward and the horses took off like the start of the Royal Ascot.
A shot splintered the rear left corner of the carriage. “I thought you said this coach was bulletproof,” Nicki snapped.
“Part of it is,” Jake said, ducking out of the carriage door long enough to size up their pursuers and get off a warning shot. Jake saw more men entering a waiting carriage down a side street.
“Only part?” Nicki’s voice rose a few notes.
Rick opened his door, clinging to the carriage frame as he squeezed off two shots from his Remington revolver. An answering shot zinged past, putting a hole in the door just above his head.
“The carriage body is steel-reinforced,” Jake said, before repeating Rick’s move on the opposite side of the vehicle. “About
to the height of the top of your head.”
Nicki ducked. “Why not all of it?”
“Trade off, weight and speed,” Jake replied, getting off another shot through the narrowly opened carriage door.
The carriage careened onto two wheels, taking the corner at breakneck speed as the pursuing carriage struggled to keep pace. Several of their pursuers’ shots missed their marks, clattering against the brick walls of the buildings lining the road. Pedestrians and carts scrambled to get out of the way of the two carriages. Their driver had long been in the employ of Rick’s father, and was one of the best in London, having survived more than one run like this. Still, as the carriage bumped and jostled, throwing them from side to side, Jake could not help wishing he were already safely back home in New Pittsburgh.
“Nearly there,” Rick muttered under his breath, and Jake wondered if his friend had been counting the turns. Another volley of gunfire sounded around them, but this time, it seemed to come from every direction. Jake threw Nicki to the floor on top of the urn and dove to cover her with his body as Rick sank as low as he could into the seat.
A bullet tore through the top of the carriage, just missing the edge of the steel reinforcement. Several more clanged against the body of the carriage, leaving depressions in the metal. The shots were near-misses, despite their driver’s efforts to keep their pursuers at bay.
Pinned between his chest and the urn, Nicki was muttering curses in French. Jake met Rick’s gaze. “Why do our buying trips always end like this?”
Rick shot him his best crooked grin. “Because our usual business isn’t business as usual,” he replied, looking as unruffled as if he had just finished a cricket match back at Eton.
Jake kept his head down. There was good reason why the import/export company owned by his father and Rick’s father employed ex-military sharpshooters for its drivers and secured former cavalry horses for its carriages. This sort of thing happened far too often.
“I thought they weren’t supposed to be able to follow us,” Nicki grumbled.
“Obviously, they’re not as stupid as we took them for,” Jake returned.
“I rather prefer dimwitted henchmen,” Nicki muttered. “And I’ll thank the two of you to mind not to sit on me. It’s hard enough to breathe in this corset.”
A few more twists and turns through the narrow streets, and the carriage finally slowed to a more acceptable pace. Another hail of gunfire sounded close at hand, then silence.
“Do you think we’ve lost them?” Nicki asked.
Jake shrugged. “Either that, or they ran out of ammunition.”
# # #
The carriage slowed to a halt. Rick and Jake exchanged a wary glance, rising carefully, guns at the ready. A sharp rap came at the carriage door. “Safe to come out now, guv,” a familiar voice said.
Jake cautiously peered around the edge of the battered door, the Peacemaker still in his hand. Behind him, Rick also had his gun at the ready, and Nicki was struggling with her mass of skirts as she climbed off of the carriage floor. Jake’s heart was still pounding, but his gun hand was steady. They had arrived in a walled private garden, where they were hidden, at least for the moment, from prying eyes.
“We’ve got a fresh carriage and a change of horses,” their driver said. “Throw them off the scent. Standard operating procedure.” He gestured toward a small, elegant carriage that looked like something a fine lady might use for a day of shopping. “Don’t you worry,” the driver went on, at Jake’s skeptical expression. “It’s reinforced, like the other one. A bit faster and lighter too, just in case they pick up the trail.” Jake cast a backward glance at their carriage. The passenger compartment was peppered with marks where bullets had struck.
The driver waved them on. “Hurry now and get in the new coach. Then we’ll send this carriage on—in the other direction. That should get rid of the blighters, and keep them away from the warehouse. Wouldn’t do for them to catch up to us, or know too much about what Brand and Desmet does.”
Jake, Rick, and Nicki moved at a run to the new carriage, keeping the bundle with the precious urn safely between them. They climbed inside and the carriage took off, drawn by different colored horses than the original coach and with a driver wearing a brand new cloak and hat.
The next time the carriage stopped, it stood in the middle of a loading area for a large, featureless warehouse. At least a score of brawny men greeted the carriage, most holding shotguns that were agreeably pointed toward the ground.
“All clear,” the driver announced.
“Thanks for that,” Jake said, opening the door and swinging down. To his relief, the area around the warehouse did not appear to have been the scene of any recent fighting.
“Think nothing of it, Mr. Desmet,” the driver said with a broad grin. He shifted, and his dark cape gave a tell-tale jingle. “I was glad of the metal plates in my cloak and hat, that’s for certain.”
“Good to know,” said Jake with a laugh. Behind him, Rick helped Nicki down from the carriage as if they were alighting at the opera.
“Guess that ‘gut feeling’ of yours was right again, Jake,” Nicki said. “Now can you get it to be more specific about when and where?” She paused, as her gaze swept over the large warehouse. “Is that building one of yours?”
The driver bowed low and made a sweeping gesture with his hat. “Another fine warehouse of Brand and Desmet, m’lady.”
All across Europe—and increasingly throughout the United States—warehouses were emblazoned with the ‘Brand and Desmet’ name. George Brand and Thomas Desmet—fathers to Rick and Jake—had built their import/export firm into an amazing, if decorously low-key, success story. Discretion was a necessity, given their clientele. Museums on both sides of the Atlantic hired them to bring back the relics of antiquity for their collections. Aristocrats in Europe and the rising elite in the States retained the Brand and Desmet Company to outfit their country houses, or to buy back treasures sold off or gambled away. Hard-to-find antiquities, rare objects, valuable pieces with unusual provenance—Brand and Desmet had built its fortune by acquiring these items for clients for whom money was no object.
Jake had long ago gotten over being star-struck by the names of their clients: dukes, earls, and lords in Europe; Carnegies, Vanderbilts, Goulds, Morgans, and the like in America. But he had not yet grown completely comfortable with their other customers, the ones who came by night to arrange more ‘unusual’ requests, like the immortal for whom they had retrieved the ancient urn and nearly been killed for their trouble.
People say that everything has its price. Mostly, Jake found that to be true. But sometimes, when a piece’s ownership or provenance was in dispute and a buyer was insistent, successful acquisition had more to do with having a fast airship, good aim, cash for bribes, and a monetary relationship with customs officials. Those were the situations in which Brand and Desmet had earned a solid, if hushhush, word of mouth reputation in the highest society circles. The rest of the import/export business was a well-maintained cover story.
“It’s rather plain, isn’t it?” Nicki asked. At first, Jake thought she was talking about the urn, but then he realized that she was staring at the unmarked warehouse.
Rick chuckled, his blood still rushing from the fight. “There’s a reason for that. It’s not just a warehouse, Nicki. It’s also a hangar. Best to keep a low profile.”
There was a hiss of steam, a whir of gears, and the muffled clank of chains. The sloped roof of the warehouse opened like the lid of a box and a large steel door slid back in the side of the warehouse, revealing just a glimpse of the private airship inside and a flurry of activity. Jake thrust his hands into his pockets, enjoying the show that he and Rick had seen before, but which was leaving Nicki, for once, almost speechless.
“Mon Dieu!” Nicki murmured.
“I had your things brought from the hotel and stowed aboard, as you requested, sir,” the driver said. “Looks to be a good idea, since there were sure to be more of those blighters watching your lodging.”
“Very good,” Rick said, as unruffled as if a valet had just brought him his riding horse. “We’d best get going before any more of our ‘friends’ catch up with us.”
Jake looked toward the warehouse, where one of the office clerks was running toward them.
“Mr. Desmet!” The clerk was out of breath when he reached them and his suit was rumpled. “I’m glad I caught you before you got aboard. Mr. Cooper asked to see you. He said it was important.”
Jake shot a puzzled glance toward Rick, who shrugged. “Don’t look at me. I wasn’t expecting anything.”
That wasn’t entirely true. That sixth sense Nicki joked about was right more often than not, and all day, the expectation of bad news had hung over Jake. He feared he was about to discover why.
“Maybe Harold caught wind of what happened in town,” Rick said with a meaningful glance. A telegram certainly could have reached their London office manager while Jake and the others were making their wild escape.
“Or maybe he’s got an update on our next appointment,” Jake replied, making an effort to keep the worry out of his voice. “Our Paris contact may have needed a bit more time to get the artifact, and our man in Krakow doesn’t run on a strict Londonstyle schedule. There could be a delay there.”
“No way to know until you go talk to Harold,” Rick said. “But you know how he goes on a bit. We need to get into the air and out of here before our ‘friends’ show up.”
“I’ll make it brief—and warn him to watch out for trouble,” Jake promised, striding off toward the office next to the warehouse.
The office building was a two-story Georgian-style affair, understated yet dignified. It was all that remained of an old city estate belonging to a minor aristocrat who had owned this land long before the property was parceled off for other uses. Though converted to business use, the offices still had the feel of a stately residence, with beautiful woodwork, embellished plaster ceilings, and fine furnishings. It was every bit as grand as the New York office, and it was the standard the New Pittsburgh office had been designed to emulate.
The office building was unusually quiet when Jake entered. The grand home’s entranceway remained a foyer, with the rooms to either side of the sweeping stairway given over to the use of the clerks, and the upper floors reserved for a meeting room, storage, and the office of their London manager, Harold Cooper.
Usually, Jake enjoyed seeing Harold. Although he looked like the quintessential British accountant, he was quick with a joke and whip-smart when it came to business. A former officer in Her Majesty’s Army, Harold could hold his own on the occasions, like today, when the work got dicey. But he was also just as comfortable lifting a pint at the pub over a game of darts as he was reviewing ledgers and contracts.
“Mr. Cooper’s waiting for you upstairs,” the receptionist said, but for once, she did not greet Jake with her usual smile. In fact, she seemed to take pains to avoid meeting his eyes.
A leaden feeling grew in Jake’s stomach as he climbed the stairs. He knocked once at Harold’s half-open door. “Come in,” a voice called.
“Your clerk said you needed to see me,” Jake said, popping his head around the door. “Can we make it quick? We had a rather rushed departure from town. It would be good to get on to Krakow as soon as we can lift off.”
“I’m afraid there’s been a change of plans,” Harold said. The manager was ten years older than Jake, and while he was still in his mid-thirties, his dark hair had begun to gray at the temples, something he jokingly blamed on Jake and Rick. Now he looked somber, and Jake’s sense of foreboding grew. Jake sat down slowly, and Harold reached across the desk, extending a folded paper toward Jake.
“This telegram came through an hour ago,” Harold said. “I’m sorry.”
Jake stared at the piece of paper in his hands, reading and rereading it as if the words might change their meaning. It took a moment for him to find his voice, and he blinked as his vision swam, then he crumpled the paper in his fist. “Father’s dead?”
He met Harold’s gaze. “How can George be sure it was murder?”
Harold shook his head, and Jake saw loss in his eyes. Harold had worked with Brand and Desmet for over a decade, and his loyalty was absolute. “George sent a second telegram to me with the news, and instructions to have your ship ready to return to New Pittsburgh immediately. I’ve got another crew preparing to go on to Paris and Krakow, and we’ve got your airship prepped to make the Atlantic crossing.”
It was all too much for Jake to take in. Part of him wanted to believe that if he just discarded the crumpled paper in his hand, it would negate the message and return the world to its prior order. But the truth was, the world had changed, and he would never see his father again.
“Ruffians chased us through London,” Jake said, focusing on the immediate danger to avoid thinking about his pain. His voice was constricted as he fought for control. “We don’t dare linger— they could show up at any moment.”
Harold nodded. “The airship is ready. Rick and Miss LeClercq should be onboard by now. I asked Brant to give them the news. I thought that might be a little easier on you.” Brant Livingston was Harold’s long-time secretary, a thoroughly capable man with an almost encyclopedic knowledge of art and, occasionally, a fondness for ribald humor.
“Then I’d better get going,” Jake said, putting on a good front with effort. He met Harold’s gaze. “Someone just tried to kill us, and now this. I’m going to get to the bottom of it.”
“Just be careful, Jake,” Harold cautioned. “Someone out there wants something badly enough to commit murder, and if they didn’t get it from Thomas, they’re going to keep coming after you and Rick.”
Jake closed his fist around the telegram. “That’s what I’m counting on.”