September 4, 1903
The opium den above the Café du Aleix smelled of clove incense and oblivion.
“Eleanor! Welcome to Paris. I am so glad you came.” Patrice, her docking agent, rose up from the sofa and gripped her shoulders fondly. He was a big bear of a man and the little shake he gave her almost lifted her off her feet.
“Patrice,” Elle said in her best French. “Always a pleasure to see you.” The sweet scent of opium rose up from his clothes as she kissed him—twice on each side, as was the custom on the Continent.
“Sit. Sit. Rest for a moment. I’ll go and see if I can get us some refreshments. Watch my seat for me.” He swayed down the staircase on legs that were not entirely steady.
Elle slung her holdall over the back of a chair where she could keep an eye on it and sank into one of the linen-covered settees that lined the walls. The windows of the café were all sealed up so no sunlight could penetrate its sanctuary. Ornate brass lamps sat against the red chinoiserie wallpaper. The warm glow of their spark cores softened the sordid purpose of this place.
The only other patron in the den was a brawny man in a gray jacket. He hunched over a journal, scribbling furious lines of verse over the pages, pausing only to slam down gulps of absinthe from a greasy glass at his side without even bothering to mix it properly. The murky liquid swirled inside the glass, like an artist’s water jar after too many paintbrushes had been dipped into it.
Next to the poet, a green absinthe fairy balanced en pointe upon the edge of the low table. She arched her arm and swung her leg to and fro, like a little dancer at the barre. The poet cursed, crumpled the page and flung it across the room, where it burst into flames and disappeared.
Poets, Elle thought with annoyance. The poetry had to be supremely rubbish, for the fairy-muse to look that bored. It was almost cruel to watch the poor thing suffer like that.
The man looked up from his work and their eyes met. He smiled at her, his expression lush and predatory.
Elle looked away, denying him the satisfaction of seeing her shudder. A desperate need to rush outside for fresh air and light filled her, but she remained in her seat. To reassure herself, she touched the row of buttons on the front of her shirt. The slim hilt of the stiletto she kept tucked into the front laces of her corset was still there.
She sighed and looked up at the roof. Hopefully this business with Patrice would be brief, so she could be on her way. She hated stepping into the Shadow side. It was odd that even in this day and age there were still places in this world where Reason and Enlightenment had not reached.
Patrice appeared with a tray at the top of the stairs. He walked carefully over to the table and set it down on a clear space with exaggerated care. The floorboards groaned briefly as he sank into the upholstery opposite her.
“I brought tea. Oolong. Have some.” He lifted the teapot and poured the steaming liquid into small ceramic cups. There were dark crescents of dirt at the base of his fingernails when he handed her one.
“So tell me, my dear, did you have a pleasant flight over the Channel?” he said.
“It was fine. Windy, but nothing unusual for this time of year.” She wanted to ask about the assignment, but Patrice was not a man who could be rushed. She would have to go through the ritual of negotiation with him first.
“Would you like a pipe?” He rummaged around the opium paraphernalia on the table. “I’m sure I have a made one here somewhere.”
She shook her head. “Better not. Wouldn’t want to crash my ship and your cargo into the sea, now would I?”
He fiddled with one of the carved pipe stems in a moment of indecision. “I suppose you are right. Might as well do this with a clear head.” He gave her a knowing smile.
“Patrice, what is this all about?” She sat forward, unable to contain her curiosity. “The telegram said that the charter is urgent and to meet you here, but nothing else. Paris is a long way to travel on speculation, so I hope I haven’t travelled here unnecessarily.”
Patrice’s laugh was a sudden burst of noise, swallowed up by the paper screens and furnishings. “Always straight to business, little one. That’s what I like about you. You never get distracted when there’s work to be done.”
At the sound of Patrice’s laughter, the absinthe fairy looked up. She flexed her wings and wisped over to where Elle and Patrice were sitting. Elle averted her eyes. The fairy-muses of Paris were elegant from afar, but, like dragonflies or the prostitutes who prowled dark alleys, they were quite ugly if one looked at them too closely. They said the fairies brought brightly colored dreams from which one never wanted to wake up and which brought descent into complete madness. Much was said about the hideous things they did to their charges—the absinthe drinkers—once held in their spell. And Elle had no desire to be caught by the charms of La Fée Verte.
The fairy shifted form until she was nothing but a knot of gray-green light rising in the direction of the bamboo fairycote that hung from the ceiling. The sound of fairies whispering in the air above washed over Elle. She felt their attention like a whisper of breath against her skin and she shivered.
“So, on to business.” Patrice stroked his broom moustache slowly as he spoke.
“I’m listening.” She was careful to keep her voice even. She needed this charter. She would not have bothered coming to this dreadful place if she didn’t. Patrice was one of the few agents who didn’t mind that she was a woman. She had managed to log some valuable flight hours thanks to the official work he sent her way. In return, she did some of his off-the-books business for him. She owed him that. It was the way the world worked: Everyone owed somebody something in the end and it helped if those you owed were friends.
“Tonight’s charter is a rather delicate matter,” Patrice said, interrupting her thoughts. “The utmost discretion is required. It concerns the conveyance of a very important parcel. You are to fly to England. Someone will be waiting to collect the freight at the Aerodrome. You will receive further instructions upon your arrival.”
“That shouldn’t be too difficult. But . . . ?” There was bound to be a catch somewhere. There invariably was when it came to dealing with Patrice.
Patrice nodded and smiled as if he had read her thoughts. “I need you to look after part of the freight for me this afternoon. Only for a few hours, until you fly tonight. It shouldn’t cause you too much trouble. There is a reason I told you to watch my seat. See, I have it right here.”
He pulled a polished wooden box out from between the cushions behind him and put it on the table between the teapot and the pipes. “No one will even know you have it.”
“That can’t be all of it, surely? They wouldn’t have chartered a whole airship for one little box, would they?”
He shrugged. “It’s an important parcel.”
She frowned and ran her finger along the brass-edged corner of the box. It was roughly the size of a book—a solid block of wood with no obvious hinges or opening. A fine pattern of ancient-looking symbols was laid into the surface.
“Patrice, I am just a pilot. I fly the freight. I deliver it. I get paid. That is all and you know it. You cannot ask me to start carting things around Paris for you. That has never been part of our agreement.”
“Make an exception this one time, please. It’s not as if I’m asking you to guard a warehouse. It’s just one small box.”
Elle looked over her shoulder. The poet on the other side of the room had fallen asleep with his pencil still in his hand. A soft snore emanated from somewhere at the back of his throat.
“What’s inside the box?” she said in a fierce whisper. “There has to be a reason why it can’t be opened, and I’m not going to carry it around in my holdall unless I know what that is.”
Patrice shook his head. “I cannot tell you what is inside the box. I am bound by an oath of secrecy. All you need to know is that it’s extremely valuable, but completely safe. And you are not to let it out of your sight until you get to England.”
“And where is the rest of the freight?”
“The rest of the freight will be waiting for you at the airfield.”
“You will be aware, of course, that this is going to increase the risks I have to take. What if I am searched and they find the box?”
Patrice rested his moustache on his knuckles in measured exasperation. “Anyone who sees it will simply think it’s a jewelry box. My client, Viscount Greychester, is a very powerful man. If anything does happen, he will take care of matters. Just mention his name and all will be smoothed over. Just like that.” Patrice tried to snap his fingers, but no sound came from them. He looked at his hand with the slight surprise of the uncoordinated.
“It’s going to cost more. I’m not doing this for charity, you know.”
That wasn’t completely true. She loved to fly more than anything and she would do it for free if she could, but dreams and dirigibles cost money.
He sat forward and took hold of her hands. “All I need is a standard Channel crossing. Nothing unusual. I am asking that you do this for me. For all the times I have helped you.”
He had a point. There was no arguing with him on that. She gave Patrice a look of extreme dubiousness.
“And before you start complaining about it, here is your fee.” He pulled a dark blue velvet pouch out of the pocket in his waistcoat and placed it on her palm.
Elle’s eyes widened with surprise. It was an eternity bracelet inlaid with gems. Brilliant cut stones, the size of peas, set in a neat row ten or eleven inches long. At each end was one-half of a clasp that intertwined in a Celtic knot.
“Patrice, are those diamonds?”
He nodded. “They are indeed. Your preferred mode of payment, I believe?”
Elle pulled her combobulator optic loupe from her holdall, clicked it open and held the lens up to her eye. The tiny gears whirred and clicked as the image came into focus. She studied the bracelet between her fingers. Even in the dim light of the spark-lamps, she could see that the diamonds were flawless. They shone with a strange but exquisite shade of blue. She would have to take them to a jeweler to be valued, but the bracelet would fetch quite a price if she used the right people.
She had found that jewelry was the perfect form of payment for her services. Diamonds were far preferable to bills that needed her father’s signature for her to draw upon them. Gold was too heavy to carry and too hard to sell when it came to it. But no one asked questions when a lady sought to sell jewelry discreetly. Elle had become very good at spotting paste gems from real ones.
She put away her optics, taking care not to seem too pleased.
“So do we have an agreement?” Patrice picked up his tea and sat back against the cushions.
Curiosity bubbled up inside her. She lifted the box up and gave it a wiggle. It had a heavy, solid feel to it that spelled trouble. She should say no to this charter. She felt the little voice inside her whisper the warning. But doing exactly what she ought not to was one of her very worst habits. And now was not the time to break old habits. Not when her ship needed mending.
“All right, Patrice, I’ll do it,” she said. “But only because it’s you who is asking.” She slipped the box into her holdall and set it on the floor next to her feet.
Patrice raised his cup and smiled. “To a successful flight, then.”
To wealthy eccentric clients with more money than brains, Elle thought to herself as she took a sip of fragrant tea.
“Try the bracelet,” Patrice said. He gestured with his hand for her to try.
She flicked the diamonds over her wrist. They wound around it and the clasp shut with a click. “It’s rather early in the afternoon for diamonds, don’t you think?” She held it up to admire it in the light.
The absinthe fairy drifted down from the rafters and hovered before Elle, as if she was trying to get a better look.
“You like shiny things, don’t you?” she said to the fairy.
The fairy moved up and down in what appeared to be the affirmative. Then, in a green flash almost too quick for the eye to see, the knot of light disappeared into the bracelet.
“Hey! Where do you think you’re going?” Elle wiggled her arm, but the fairy refused to budge. Elle tried to undo the clasp, but it was stuck. “Patrice, I think my stowaway has broken the clasp. Can you help me, please?” She held her wrist out to him.
“Oh! That can’t be good—” Patrice started to say but something beyond her shoulder caught his attention.
“Patrice, there you are!” A man said in English behind her.
“Marsh. You have found us!” Patrice flushed red and half rose up from his seat.
Marsh turned out to be a tall man wrapped in a black carriage cloak despite the mild weather. His dark hair was just that little too long and messy to be fashionable and the finely tailored black shantung waistcoat, visible from between the folds of his cloak, was too expensive to match the rest of him.
“This is Miss Eleanor Chance. The pilot,” Patrice said, emphasizing the last word.
“How do you do.” She hid her arm behind her back. It was never wise to advertise in this type of establishment that one was wearing diamonds.
Marsh barely nodded in reply as he looked her up and down. His fine, regular features creased into a frown. “Patrice, surely you can’t be serious?” he said.
Patrice started to stammer an answer, but Marsh turned on him. “And iron? What were you thinking? Do you realize that I have been looking for you for three hours?”
“It was the safest place I could think of to wait. Besides, there is nothing to worry about. This was merely a diversion, nothing you wouldn’t be able to overcome.” A tinge of obstinacy crept into his tone. “Miss Chance is an excellent pilot. She has top-notch credentials. I can assure you that all will be well.”
Excerpted from A Conspiracy of Alchemists by Liesel Schwarz. Copyright © 2013 by Liesel Schwarz. Excerpted by permission of Del Rey, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.