Today's Reading

PROLOGUE

June 1843
London


"I'm prepared to pay off all your debts provided that you complete a particular task for me."

The pale-faced, neatly dressed gentleman elegantly seated in one of the Antium Club's armchairs blinked, then stared through the fug of the smoking room at the older gentleman in the armchair opposite— his uncle. "What—all of them?" His tone suggested he was having difficulty believing his ears.

His uncle nodded portentously. "Indeed. And yes, I comprehend that's a significant sum. I also understand that you owe most if not all of that amount to... Shall we say a somewhat notorious lender-of-last-resort?" The older gentleman paused, then continued, "I assume you appealed to me because you're desperate, and you know your brother and brothers-in-law won't lend you a sou regardless of any threats to your continuing good health."

The younger gentleman's lips tightened. "Just so." He hesitated, then asked, "What task do you need attended to?"

What could possibly be worth that much to you? The unvoiced question hung in the smoky air between them.

The older man's expression eased, and he waved a manicured hand. "Nothing too onerous." He paused as if ordering his thoughts, then went on, "You're aware that I invest in various projects, that I lead syndicates who fund enterprises such as railways and gas companies and the like. All very much above board. Unfortunately, these days, there's a welter of upstart inventors pushing wild ideas and making a lot of noise." He frowned. "Steering investors away from such ideas—ideas that will never amount to anything—isn't always easy. Men with money but little sense often behave like children—they get excited over the latest new thing. At present, there's a great deal of talk about improvements to steam engines, the sort that might make steam-powered horseless carriages into a commercial reality. All balderdash, of course, but it's making my life much harder." His frown darkened to a scowl.

After several moments of, apparently, dwelling on the iniquities of any situation that dared to make his life more difficult, his voice lowering, the older man said, "There's one particular invention that I've heard is nearing completion. It's due to be unveiled at the exhibition to be held in Birmingham on the twenty-second of July."

The older man's eyes, their expression shrewd and hard, cut to his nephew's face. "I need to be assured that that invention will fail—or at the very least, that it will not be successfully demonstrated at the exhibition, which will be attended by Prince Albert. I need to be able to hold that failure up to my investors as an example of the dangers of putting their money into such ill-envisioned, poorly designed projects. Projects that are not simply speculative but that have next to no chance of success."

The younger gentleman steepled his fingers before his face. He studied his uncle for several long moments, then murmured, "I assume you're asking me to interfere with—to sabotage—this invention." When his uncle's jaw set, and he returned the younger man's gaze levelly, the younger man asked with patently sincere curiosity, "How do you imagine I might do that?"

His uncle sat back and fussily straightened his trouser legs. "As to that... I can tell you where the inventor lives. His workshop is at his house. As to how you gain access or exactly how to...thrust a spoke in the invention's wheels, I will leave that to you to
decide." The older gentleman met the younger man's eyes. "You are, apparently, a creative person—I'm sure you'll think of a way."

Despite his current situation, the younger gentleman was no fool. The sum of money his uncle was offering was substantial. To pay so much for tampering with a piece of machinery seemed a poor deal. Yet his uncle was known as a shrewd, ostentatiously rigid businessman, one who held on to his coin with a tight grip, and although he was a childless widower, he'd never previously shown any mellowness or warmth toward the members of his wider family.

The younger man leaned forward, his gaze on his uncle's face. "What is it about this particular invention that makes it
so"—threatening—"undesirable?"

His uncle's face hardened. Anger flared, readily discernible in his brown eyes, yet it was not directed at his nephew but, apparently, at the invention in question. "It's...a travesty of an investment project. It shouldn't be allowed—not as a syndicated investment. We don't need bally horseless carriages—we have perfectly good horses, and there's nothing wrong with the carriages they pull. These machines—these newfangled engines—are full of not just cogs and gears but valves and tubing and gauges and pistons. How they work is incomprehensible—for my money, deliberately so."
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