Jacob looked up from the intricate gearing he was working on as a shadow passed close to the window of the workshop. It was barely visible against the swirling tendrils of London fog, but close enough. Even in the teeming streets of London’s East End, this ‘London Peculiar’ was so dense that few shapes were close enough to show, and most were not as tall, nor did they seem quite so athletic as the shadow moved swiftly towards Jacob’s door. Jacob waited, but the door didn’t open. Jacob glanced around to make sure the journeymen were all working as they should, and then walked cautiously towards the entrance. The fog leaked in through the warped frame, and his eyes stung as he opened the door.
Someone had their back to him, a well dressed, well built figure, wearing a thick woollen coat and top hat. An expensive cashmere scarf was wound around his neck. He was staring at a patch of cobbles in front of the workshop, but then he turned and tugged the scarf away to reveal a lean, clean shaven face that was thankfully familiar.
“Hello, Mr Farnley, it’s good to see you. Shem, bring a chair for Mr Farnley, and wipe it first.” Jacob smiled professionally at John. “You know young lads need to be told everything. We weren’t expecting you.” He flicked a glance around the workshop, mentally noting all the commissions. Neat racks of gears and machine parts lined the room, and his employees had their heads down, etching the brass and assembling the components. Jacob Aronowitz made some of the best aether flyer parts in England, and John Farnley was one of his best customers. They had collaborated on quite a few designs, but there was nothing currently on the books. “I heard that you were doing great things in Greece. It made the papers, didn’t it, lads?” He looked around at the hunched apprentices lurking in the corners who nodded nervously. “Have you anything in mind after that adventure? I believe there were issues with your landing gear.”
John stepped briskly through the door, ducking his head slightly, and shut it firmly behind him. “Good afternoon, Jacob. I’m glad you spotted me in the Evening Standard.” He looked around at the busy workshop. “Is there somewhere we can talk privately?”
Jacob glanced once again around the workshop and jerked his head. The apprentices and workmen scattered. “You have something particular in mind?”
“It’s not a commission.” John took a breath. “It’s about Lord Nicholas. I’ve been speaking to Scotland Yard, and they say that this is the last place he visited.”
Jacob held up an oil-stained hand, and his smile became more professional. “I didn’t think that you would ask a question like that, Mr Farnley. We haven’t spoken about that, not to anyone. You know that any commission we undertake for you is treated with the strictest confidence, and the same rules apply to any of our esteemed clients. Even when…” Jacob searched for words.
“Even when they have been murdered, John said softly. “I understand. But Lord Nicholas was my brother.”
Jacob narrowed his eyes and took a step back. He tilted his head and angled one of the hissing oil lamps so light fell on John’s face. The face was as enigmatic as ever, but there were lines of tension around the eyes and mouth. As John removed his hat, his hair was as crisp and brown as ever, though slightly better kept than usual, and, while John’s clothes always had an unobtrusive air of good quality, for once, there were no stray oil marks or hints of aether discharge burn. At first sight, there was no resemblance between the two brothers, but the shape of the eyes and the bridge of the nose had the same cast. “You have the look of him, and you have never lied to me yet. You never told me you had a brother who was a lord.”
John’s mouth twisted a little. “I’ve never found it helpful to have a lord in the family. it’s always got in the way. Besides, we have never discussed such things. We have always been too busy talking shop.” He leant forward. “We have always played fair with each other, Jacob,” John said. “I’ve trusted you with some big commissions, and you have never let me down. But this is important to me.” He hesitated. “I understand if you can’t tell me anything, but if there is anything you can tell me, I would be grateful.”
Jacob thought for a moment. “Come with me.” He stuck his head out of the workshop door and into the fog-bound street. The journeymen were barely out of arm’s reach, but the fog softened and distorted their shapes, giving an impression of groups of huddled gnomes at the corner of the building. He quickly glanced around, but the indistinct shapes muffled in the thick air were too far away to make out and seemed to drift past, like lumpen ghosts. The dampening effect of the fog made the bustling streets of the East End seem almost spacious, and the twisted strands of mist made strange shapes in the fitful lamplight. Jacob turned back to the workers. “Get back in here and get working.” He ushered John into a tiny back room. “Come in here, Mr Farnley, and I’ll tell you what I know.”
John looked around as Jacob leant through the gap into what may have been the kitchen. He had seen so many places like this. The slums of Calcutta or Shanghai may be in different climates, and the street cries hanging in the air may change, but there was a depressing similarity. There was the same smell of poor food badly cooked, brackish water and inadequate sanitation for too many people crammed too close together. He had seen it in many foreign cities, but somehow there was a bitter taste to seeing it so close to home. Wooden stools, closely packed, ranged around the walls where they were pushed against the peeling wallpaper and turned towards the tiny, empty fireplace. The air smelled heavy and damp as the fog’s tendrils crept in at the gaping window frame. It was not entirely gloomy, though, as a bunch of cheap chrysanthemums were cheery on the mantelpiece and framed pictures of Odessa and Jerusalem were hung around the walls. It was a room that held too many people with too little air, but they had not given up hope.
“You’ll take a little tea, Mr Farnley?” Jacob asked. He took a seat obliquely away from John and nodded to himself. “And I’ll tell you what I can.”
“I’m grateful,” John smiled faintly. “The police seem to have no clue.”
“Who talks to the police around here?” Jacob gave an expressive shrug. “We are not their people, and we don’t like getting mixed up with lords.” He looked thoughtfully at John. “Are you a lord now, or do you have other brothers?”
“I suppose I am a lord now,” John admitted. “I’ve been more concerned about my brother’s death.” He smiled politely at the young girl who was bringing in a tray. Jacob pulled out a stool for her, and she set down two plain china cups filled with sweet black tea, and then a small plate of sushki.
“This is Henda, my sister. I don’t think you have met her before. She stays out of the workshop and keeps house in the back for us.” Jacob offered the plate of small, slightly sweetened bread circles to John. “Henda, this is Lord Nicholas’s brother.”
Henda had been crying, but she managed a smile. “I am very sorry for the loss of your brother.”
John still didn’t know how to react to sympathy. He was still numb from the last few days. At first he had been too shocked to think of more than the bare bones. There had been the hideous moment of identifying the remains of his brother, and his sister-in-law collapsing. Then there had been the paperwork, and the offices where professional men had offered professional condolences. He had arranged the London house to be opened, then fallen into a maelstrom of office work and memoranda. There seemed to be a hundred and one little things that needed just a moment, but that had dragged him over most of London, from his brother’s club to his library subscription. And when his head finally stopped whirling after five hectic days, he finally managed to recall the brief report from Inspector Halton and realised that his brother’s place of death was unexpectedly familiar. He looked at Henda’s pale, strained face and managed an awkward smile. “Thank you. I miss him.”
“And I am sure his wife also misses him,” Jacob added. “And his sweet children.”
“He didn’t have any children,” John said, “That’s why I’m now a lord. But his wife is as well as can be expected.” He thought about Clara and the initial, sobbing hysteria, his helplessness as she fell to pieces as soon as they returned from the morgue to Farnley House and his admiration as she almost visibly reined in her turbulent emotions, stood straight, held her head up and ordered tea. “She’s keeping herself busy, but it’s a difficult time.”
“Of course,” Jacob said. “Lord Nicholas will be greatly missed.” He watched Henda run from the room, her hand pushed hard against her mouth to stifle any tell-tale sobs. “She was upset by the murder. The death came very close to home, just yards from our door, and he had been visiting my father.”
“Your father?” John put his cup back onto the stool and struggled to remember any reference to Jacob’s family. John had met all of Jacob’s engineering associates as they had worked on the different challenges and commissions, but he had never met his father. “Isn’t your father a rabbi?”
Jacob shrugged and chewed the last mouthful of his sushki carefully. “My father is a man of faith and a man of wisdom. He knows and reads many things.” He glanced around the room. “And he is very respected. Many consult with him. However, I do not know what your brother wanted from him. It was not things from my workshop.” Jacob waved generally at the door. “My father does not take an interest in my work.”
John nodded. “Family can be so different. Since I was a boy, I was fascinated by aether crystals and all of their potential. I studied engineering and the aether flyer construction, I went around the world as a pilot, and I pride myself that I can make the best use of the gears and valves that come from your workshop. Nicholas never understood that. He barely came to London twice a year. He preferred to put our business in the hands of agents while he stayed at home with Clara.” John took another sip of the sweet tea. “Which is why I don’t understand why he was here. It’s not his world.”
“I don’t know.” Jacob looked down at his tea before taking a small mouthful. “Perhaps it was legends he wanted to know. My father is a very learned man.”
“May I speak to your father?” John asked. Nicholas had never been interested in legends. He had been intent on the set of his tie or the cut of his jacket. He had even spent hours poring over farming periodicals. John couldn’t imagine his brother knowing what a legend was.
“He is out at the moment, visiting a Professor Entwistle in Bloomsbury. I do not expect him to be home until after dark.”
“And you have no idea why my brother came here?” John pressed. There were too many oddities. Why was Rabbi Aronowitz meeting with Professor Entwistle? The professor had just come back with him from Greece after a hazardous expedition, which had nothing to do with rabbis. Why had his brother visited a rabbi here, when normally he stayed close to the City and the West End of London on his brief visits from Shropshire. There were plenty of Jewish scholars in the safer squares of Bloomsbury.
“I know he was very uncomfortable when he visited my father,” Jacob said wryly. “He is not at all like you. The slums of the East End are like a different world to him, away from his fancy salons and his fine clothes. I wondered whether to get some of the boys to walk him back to the City, but he had gone without me realising.” He smiled sadly. “This may not be Istanbul or Bogota, but it is not a safe place. Whatever his reason, it cost him and your family.”
“You’ve never offered to get any of the boys to walk me back to the City,” John said, grinning.
Jacob laughed at the thought of it. “It would be you protecting them!” He sobered quickly. “It is not safe here, even though Jack the Ripper no longer haunts us. There are murders all around and every day. It is only because it was the death of a lord that the police take note.”
“You can speak to the police, you know,” John suggested. “It isn’t Russia. They aren’t the Okhrana.”
“For you, perhaps.” Jacob shrugged. “We do not get the same treatment, us Jews from elsewhere.” A bitter shadow crossed his face. “We had money, back in the old country, you know, and respect. And decent homes, not like these. It killed my mother, this house, with its damp and its smoke. But we survive. And we are looking after our own. We stick together. That is our way, and it works for us.”
John felt uneasy. “Like a private militia? That’s a dangerous way to go.”
Jacob shrugged and turned his face away. “My father is a devout man, a man of faith and a man of wisdom. He would not tolerate mob rule here.” Jacob set down his tea with an air of finality and stood. “I will tell my father you wish to speak with him. If he wishes to speak to you, I’ll be in touch.”
“Of course.” John stood up. “And I’ll be down next week anyway. I’ve got some sketches we need to talk through. I’m replacing some of the gearing, and I think I have some ideas on improving it.”
“That sounds interesting.” Jacob steered John out of the back room and into the workshop. “Should I get more materials in? I’ve seen some promising work from tungsten and titanium, though they are hard to work without aether furnaces. And have you heard of what they are doing with vanadium and steel? It’s expensive, but strong. And the latest thing coming from the continent is aluminium. It is becoming more available, it resists rust and wear, and it’s very light. It’s okay to work with, if you have a good forge, something like tin. I haven’t had much experience with it yet as I’m waiting for my cousin in Geneva to send me some samples. It may be the new thing. Or do you hold fast to brass?”
“Brass works,” John stated firmly. “Until I’m sure that the alloys I’m considering will do the same job, I’m sticking to reliable materials. I don’t need frames and levers giving way when I am hundreds of feet above the ground.”
Jacob clasped John’s hand as they reached the workshop door. “Mr Farnley, I am truly sorry about the loss of your brother. I’m sure he was a good man in his own way, and very much missed. Perhaps your Scotland Yard will find the answer to the mystery, and he can rest in peace.”
“Thank you.” John shook Jacob’s hand. “I appreciate that.”
“And I will speak to my father,” Jacob said. Then he closed the workshop door, leaving John alone in the mist.
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