Victoria rushed out the door, hooking her heel on the hem of her day dress as she descended the steps. She tripped to the bottom before catching her balance. She glared in dismay at the torn hem, but there was no time to repair or even pin it now. Somehow she must make her way clear across the city to Bloomsbury and the Royal Courts of Justice in less than a half hour. Her butler was correct. Even by steam rail it was an impossible feat.
Victoria drew a deep breath of the coal-scented air and exhaled. If she was going to be late, she should at least not arrive sweating and harried. Besides, she was less likely to twist an ankle if she slowed her pace.
As she walked toward the tube station, she slipped her arms into her sleeves but left the light coat unbuttoned. It was a lovely day in late spring. The flowerbeds in the park were in bloom and the sky was a pale blue. Later in the afternoon there would no doubt be rain as Patterson predicted, but for now it was as fine a weather as one could want. Victoria realized she’d become so overworked she’d lost sight of the simple joys of nature. Her crusade for more stringent monitoring of the automaton work force—an untested technology still in its infancy—was important but it wasn’t everything.
There were flowers to be smelled and admired and she rarely took the time these days.
Victoria smiled at a nanny and her charge as she passed them on the walkway. The little girl in a white taffeta frock clung to the hand of the uniformed woman pushing a black perambulator. A closer look at the nanny’s face told Victoria she was nonhuman, her skin slick and her eyes lifeless. No amount of engineering could place true emotions or a soul inside an automated creation. Underneath the frock and the human form, the thing was only mechanical after all.
When Victoria had helped design the humanoid covers for the animatronics, she’d never intended such a scenario. It was one thing to have mechanized workers in hazardous factory jobs or as menial laborers, but designing one to look after children had never been her intent. Little ones were too precious to place in the care of a clockwork figure. What if their caretaker broke down, leaving them unattended? Or in the long term, what if the nanny’s emotionless nature molded the children into remote and detached adults? There was no substitute for real human interaction where children were concerned.
It was Victoria’s opinion society had quickly become far too dependant on cheap animatronic labor at the expense of human workers. But it was hard to prove the dangers she feared. There was no data on the long-term effects of the sudden influx of automatons into society. Since she’d lost her file containing the very few reported cases of automatons run amok, she would be speaking to the Commission today with no facts to back her opinions.
She could recite the tales from memory. A worker that short-circuited on a factory floor and caused hundreds of pounds’ worth of damage to the mill machinery. Another that blew up while collecting tickets on a train. The shrapnel injured several people. There were other cases of automatons simply breaking down and stopping during the performance of their tasks. But the most disturbing case was of a worker in a flower shop that attacked a customer with pruning shears for no apparent reason. When the mechanical body was dissected, they’d found nothing faulty in the complex circuitry to indicate anything was wrong with the automaton. The random attack was a mysterious anomaly.
As Victoria neared the tube station, a shadow blocked the sun. She glanced up at a dirigible gliding almost silently overhead. It was coming into port, flying just above the tops of the buildings. The great balloons captured her attention every time she saw one even though they were no longer uncommon. The majority of people traveled long distances by train so the floating behemoths were still rare enough to awe her every time she beheld one.
Descending the steps to the underground train, Victoria wrinkled her nose at the smells that emanated from beneath the street—coal smoke, of course, but also human smells of body odor, urine and waste. Many of the city’s homeless dwelled in the labyrinth of tunnels, which were sheltered in the winter and a little cooler in the summer. Constables kept them away from the stations and the subway travelers but couldn’t seem to completely chase the poor from the underground kingdom they’d claimed for their own.
Victoria stopped on the platform, fumbling through her handbag in search of her pass while she waited for the next train to arrive. Suddenly she became aware of a presence at her side, the heat of a body, the smell of a man. The platform was almost empty, the other two passengers at the far end faced the approaching locomotive, and the man stood a little too near for her liking.
She sidled away and the man moved with her. She glanced sideways at him, taking in a threadbare burgundy waistcoat, white shirtsleeves rolled to the elbows, a pair of muscled forearms and the V of his shirt where skin and dark hair showed. Her gaze traveled higher to a stubble-shadowed jaw, a grim mouth, high-bridged nose and two glittering dark eyes beneath a shock of rumpled black hair.
“Miss Victoria Waters?” His low voice vied with the rumbling wheels of the oncoming steam engine.
“Yes?” She answered automatically, forgetting the adage about not speaking to strange men.
“Would you come with me, please?” Strong fingers wrapped around her arm, gripping tightly as he pulled her toward him.
“Let go.” She struggled against his grasp, but his hand was like an iron band clamped around her upper arm.
“Sorry, miss.” Before she could open her mouth to scream for help from the other passengers, the man pressed a handkerchief to her nose and mouth. She fought for breath, but one deep inhalation of the sickly sweet, medicinal odor on the cloth was enough to make her vision go dim. A second breath ushered her into oblivion.
The woman’s body sagged against his. Dash supported her slight weight while casting a glance at the other passengers on the platform. Both were looking down the rail toward the train, unaware of the scene taking place behind them. He’d counted on that when he’d followed the Waters woman into the subway.
He knew her destination, had been waiting in the shadows of the park across from her house for her to emerge so he could intercept her on the way. She hadn’t disappointed him as she followed her expected route to the Courts of Justice—a misnomer if ever he’d heard one, for there was no justice in London these days. Never had been for the poor and powerless.
Dash slipped his arm around the woman’s waist and half dragged her from the platform into one of the side tunnels leading from the terminal. His pulse raced and a little voice in his head screamed that he was making a huge mistake. Mr. Brownlow would not have approved. He hushed the berating voice with a punch, knocking it toward the back of his consciousness. No time for qualms now, the deed was halfway done.
The moment they reached the shadows out of sight of the platform—where a casual observer watching them together might simply think the woman had fainted and he was helping her—he scooped up Victoria Waters’s body to carry her. Her head lolled against his shoulder and her hat fell off her high-piled hair. He kicked the hat into the darkness.
Dash glanced into the Waters woman’s heart-shaped face, prettier than in the newspaper daguerreotype he’d seen. Her features were delicate—nose pointed, lips bowed, eyebrows slanted in a questioning tilt. Thick eyelashes rested against her cheeks and he wondered what color her eyes were.
He laid her down on the ground for a moment while he lit a carbide lamp attached to a miner’s cap, which he carried with him for traversing the ill-lit tunnels. Wearing it left his arms free to carry the woman.
Although she was petite, the weight of her unconscious body quickly grew heavy and he sweated from carrying her. Or maybe it was her body heat and her femininity filling his arms that made him perspire. Holy Christ, kidnapping! Anyone seeing him carry her off down this tunnel might think he was the Southwark Slasher.
Really, Dash, does this seem like a good idea to you? Brownlow’s voice, the voice of reason, echoed in his head. Once more Dash punched it in the face and threw it down the cellar steps of his consciousness.
“All for the cause,” he muttered aloud. Sometimes a man had to risk imprisonment or even hanging to draw attention to an untenable situation. That was what all his reading about rebellion and change had taught him. Society needed a slap in the face to force them to listen to the Brotherhood’s demands. Kidnapping the woman who’d helped create the automatons was one way to get the world’s attention.