by Nijiiro Sumi (虹色墨)
illustrated by mutecornett
The Hyperion would not have been out of place on the side of some Greek vase or urn, well-muscled and broad of shoulder, with strikingly handsome features and a generous mouth well-suited to smiles. His eyes were the colour of good English loam, his hair only a few shades darker than autumn wheat, and he was tall, over six feet, and his very presence made every room too small to contain him. Add to that the blue and red dress uniform of General Hyperion, of the Royal Division of Supermen, with gold epaulettes and the decorations and medals of his feats, and women all but swooned in his presence. The effect he had on others often made him uncomfortable; though he was conscious of his good looks and the effect he had on others, he was a modest man by nature. But as symbol of the British Empire and commander of the Royal Division of Supermen, he must necessarily look and dress the part.
“Ah, we had not expected the Hyperion himself!” Inspector Caldwell exclaimed, standing. He shook Hyperion’s hand quite firmly. “Yes, please, sit down. All went well with the Jubilee celebrations, eh?”
“Yes, no sign of the dynamite outrages that the Fenians threatened,” said Hyperion, seating himself in the chair before the Inspector’s desk and removing his gloves. “Everyone seems greatly pleased, including the Queen.”
“Would you like to smoke? No?” Inspector Caldwell lit a cigar for himself and leaned back in his chair. He was a dapper, dark-haired little man, with something of the dogged ferocity of the terrier about his features. “But I did not ask you here–well, not you, mind, but if you are here then it is all to the better–to discuss politics. I wondered if you might know anything of this man.” He slid a piece of paper across the desk.
It was a crude policeman’s drawing of a man dressed in black evening wear, such as you might find on a man just returned from the opera: frock coat, dark trousers, top hat, nothing out of the ordinary save that his eyes were concealed by a small mask. Hyperion studied it carefully, turning it this way and that. “Seems to me someone that you might find at a masquerade.”
“Yes, but such talents you won’t find at any masquerade,” said the Inspector. “He’s the one the papers have been calling ‘Spring-Heeled Jack.’ He vanishes, Mr. Hyperion. Like a ghost, or so they say.” Caldwell tapped his great, blunt fingers against the surface of his desk. “And he appears just as suddenly. He has singlehandedly defeated four armed ruffians while having no weapon of his own. Supposedly he leaps higher than a man’s head, and knives pass through him as if he were made of smoke.”
“Surely you are not implying that the Division has anything to do with this,” objected Hyperion, not unaware that the Inspector had said “talents”, a word used only to refer to those powers that a superman was born with.
“Are they not? The Yard has no objection save the obvious if the Royal Division of Supermen wish to involve themselves in police affairs, but we would very much like to be informed,” the Inspector replied, with some asperity.
“We would not involve ourselves in police affairs without the consent of all parties involved, and it is insulting to hear such accusations,” said Hyperion, sharply. “As it is, this man is none of ours, and it is inconceivable that there might exist a superman in London without our knowledge. We have our methods, Inspector, as you have yours.” His fingers tightened upon the brim of his hat.
Inspector Caldwell’s brows drew down low over his eyes, and his tone changed immediately to a conciliatory one. “It was not my intention to insult, Mr. Hyperion. Surely you can understand that when a Police Inspector is faced with tales of a man that flaps about the night, leaping buildings and vanishing without a trace, his thoughts must naturally turn toward the superhuman.”
“You are quite certain this fellow exists, then? He is not merely the product of some clever journalist’s imagination?”
“I would not, if I did not have the evidence to show for it.” The Inspector reached forward to tap the drawing, over the masked face. “A dozen thieves and murderers in the dock who would not be otherwise, their stories are all perfectly alike: he appears, and then their senses desert them. When next they wake, it is at the foot of the police-station.”
“He fancies himself some sort of avenger, then,” Hyperion murmured, studying the drawing once more. It did not reveal any new information. “He has harmed no one?”
“Save these scoundrels, if you would call that harm. But not a single one killed, or even grievously injured. Only bruises, and one broken wrist.”
“Hum!” Hyperion rose and put on his hat. “Well, it bears some investigation. We’ll get to the bottom of it, I’m certain.” He shook hands and tugged on his gloves. “Give my regards to your wife, Inspector. And do let us know if there’s any fresh evidence.”
The newspapers relished the exploits of the one they’d christened Spring-Heeled Jack. This was not the Jack of their grandfathers, whose eyes glowed red and jaws spat flame, who was the kin to the devil if not the devil himself, and flapped through the air on leathern wings. This Jack embodied every Christian virtue while robbing from the rich to give to the poor, punishing the wicked and defending the innocent. Angel In Disguise? cried the headlines. Spring-Heeled Jack Strikes Again! Hyperion snorted and threw the newspapers aside.
A fortnight after his conversation with Inspector Caldwell, Hyperion went to see the Oracle.
While the members of the Division lived for the most part in Kensington and Victoria, the Oracle resided in secret in a room in Whitehall, where she could be more carefully protected. No weapons were permitted there, and Hyperion went in only his field uniform, without the sword. He climbed a great many stairs to reach her chambers, and the doors were opened by a sombrely dressed maid with a solemn face. “Hyperion, to see the Oracle,” he said.
The maid nodded and disappeared, shutting the door. It reopened again moments later. “She will see you.”
The Oracle’s receiving room resembled nothing so much as the burrow of some small animal, dark and warm and cosy, the only light from scattered candles. The Oracle, a woman rather closer to the Queen’s age than Hyperion’s, sat near the centre, half-reclined upon a settee, her hands and face pale against the gloom. She could not be called beautiful; though her features were well-formed, her limbs slight, there was some coldness to the set of her mouth, some eerie quality to her grey eyes, that kept her from true beauty. She was dressed quite plainly, in a simple housedress, and was barefooted, her toes peeping out from beneath the cushions. It might have been embarrassing, but Hyperion was accustomed to her ways and regarded her as a sister, and in any case she was extraordinary enough to warrant overlooking any breaches of etiquette.
“Ah, Peter,” she greeted him warmly. “How good it is to see you.” Hyperion bent to deliver a kiss to her brow. “What question have you for me today?”
“You ought to know,” he teased, settling himself in the armchair opposite. “I wondered if you might tell me something of the one they call Spring-Heeled Jack.”
“I know only what others ask me.” She turned her face towards him, eyes as wide and curious as a child’s. “Who is this Jack, and why do his heels spring?”
“We know precious little,” Hyperion confessed. “He appears at night and seems to have an interest in preventing crime. He is said to be a fighter of unparallelled skill.”
“You wish to seek him out,” the Oracle observed.
“I wish to discover his objective,” Hyperion countered. He frowned, lacing his fingers together and resting his chin atop them. “There is nothing to be gained by allowing him to remain a free agent. All men must act within and according to the law. If he is a superman, then he must join us. But if he is not, then he is as lawless a ruffian as those he preys upon and must be stopped.”
“Strong words, O titan of light.” The Oracle fell silent, but briefly. Her eyes shuttered closed. She resumed in subdued tones, the words sticky and slow as toffee, with great, halting gasps between. “These are deep waters. The times are changing, and you and your Jack will go down in history, and it remains to you how you will be received. A sword returns to the stone, and a king rages in sorrow and Bedlam, but the son of Britain will return.” She gave a great, shuddering gasp and opened her eyes again. “That is all I know.”
Hyperion frowned. Her visions were couched in metaphor even at the best of times, but that had been more unhelpful than usual. “What should I do?”
“Why, whatever it was you were doing before.” The Oracle drew her knees up against her body, so that she could rest her chin atop them, and smiled; the dreamy expression had not yet left her eyes. “The future will happen with or without you. It only remains for you to keep pace. Goodnight, Peter. I wish you luck in your search.”
And so, the Hyperion went to Whitechapel, where sightings of Spring-Heeled Jack had been more thickly clustered. He glided low over the rooftops, around the plumes of black chimney-smoke, while from below floated up all the sounds and smells of nighttime in the East End: a shrill, high voice squealing “Wot’re yew lookin’ at?”; the scent of fried fish and oysters and spilled beer; a furious argument over a dice game that would descend into the inevitable brawl; a woman’s low, grief-stricken sobbing; the reek of refuse and sewage; a fishmonger calling out his prices: “Eightpence! Sevenpence! Sixpence!” Hyperion paid no attention. He was looking for only one thing.
He found him, not in Whitechapel, but rather further east, by the docks, standing on the roof of one of the warehouses. How he’d found his way up there Hyperion could not begin to fathom, but he saw immediately that it offered a clear view of anyone or anything approaching by air or by water. All was silent and still, but for the creaking of ships’ timbers and the scuttle of rats. Spring-Heeled Jack–it could be no one but he–was perched at the edge, gazing out over the Thames with the melancholy air of a returned monarch surveying his ruined lands. He was tall and thin, made thinner by the black of his frock-coat and trousers. A mask concealed the upper half of his face; the lower was clean-shaven. He betrayed no surprise as Hyperion descended, and turned to face him.
“I did not think they would send the Hyperion himself,” he remarked. He had a pleasing voice, and spoke as amiably as if they were two friends, meeting in a club for a pipe, with the manner and accent of a gentleman. “This will be quite a challenge for me, and I’m afraid boring for you, as I am hardly your equal.”
“No one sent me,” said Hyperion. “And I have no quarrel with you. I merely wished to talk.”
“Talk, then,” said he. “Doubtless you have a great many questions. Who am I? What is my purpose? I will answer them for you: I am but a man who wishes to better life for his fellow men, in my own humble way, with my own paltry skills, for I haven’t any talents.”
Hyperion was quite at sea, lost in the flood of the other man’s words, and he grasped for the only rope that had been flung. “Then you are no superman.”
“Certainly not.” The man seemed to smile, though it was so brief and the night so dark that Hyperion could not have sworn to it. “As I said, I am a man, and I do only what is within my powers.”
“There are legal avenues for what it is you do,” said Hyperion. “There are charities, and the police. You need not resort to such lawlessness.”
“What have I done that is against the law?” the stranger said, sharply.
“Why, any of those that you’ve roughed up in the past fortnight could have you up on charges!”
“Being thieves and murderers themselves–and now in the dock–I doubt they will find much sympathy with judge or jury,” Spring-Heeled Jack retorted, dryly.
Hyperion struggled to find the words with which to express his objections. Indeed, what wrong was there in punishing the wicked and rescuing the unfortunate? He could not deny that the streets were safer without the men that Spring-Heeled Jack had put away. And yet, utter chaos would ensue if every man behaved so; the common citizenry must trust to authority to right these wrongs, or risk anarchy, and he told Spring-Heeled Jack so.
“And if authority does nothing?” A note of bitterness crept into the stranger’s voice. “What of the children who go barefoot and hungry and ill? What of the farmers who starve in the fields while their cows are led away by soldiers? What if the Hyperion himself flies over Whitechapel and takes no notice of anything save the one he is to arrest? What then? All I have done is bring a little light to East London, and you would condemn me for that?”
Surely the stranger had a talent. It was the only explanation for the sudden tightness in Hyperion’s chest and the way his mouth went suddenly dry as ashes. He swallowed. “You lie.”
“I never lie.” The blithe and amiable stranger was gone, replaced by this cold and bitter man whose every word was a barb that sank into Hyperion’s impenetrable flesh. “If there is any lie here it is yours, you who claim to stand for Queen and country when you will not even stand for her people.”
“But I do!” Hyperion cried.
“Prove yourself with action, not words,” snapped the stranger. “And now I’ll thank you to leave me to my work, as I leave you to yours. If you have any intention of arresting me, then let me know now, so that I may end myself.”
Hyperion started. “What?”
“I would prefer to remain a free agent, but if that is not possible, then death is an acceptable alternative.” The shocking words were spoken calmly, almost coldly. “I do not make idle threats, and my promises are equally sincere, so I would ask you, again, to leave me be. I am no use to you dead, and alive I can at least be of use to someone now.” And with that, he turned his back to Hyperion.
There seemed to be no use in continuing the conversation. Hyperion lifted himself from the roof in reverse, so that he might observe Spring-Heeled Jack as he departed. He continued to stand there at the edge of the roof like a great owl, waiting for the unsuspecting mouse. Hyperion turned and sped for home, flying higher and faster than he had on his way here. He could take the direct route, so that he need not pass over Whitechapel.
Hyperion passed the next week in something very close to agony, Spring-Heeled Jack’s words festering and rankling in his mind. He went over and over the memory of their conversation, thinking of all the ways in which he might have defended himself. It was not his fault that he did nothing; he did only as he was told, and he was only the Queen’s subject. But he could hear the man’s sneering rejoinder to that: he was the Hyperion, and if he did what he wanted, then who would stop him? Indeed, who could stop him? His sin lay in ignorance. He did nothing because it had never occurred to him to do otherwise.
He could not say why he valued the man’s opinion so highly; after all, Spring-Heeled Jack was no one to him. But he could not bear that the man might think so low of him, and it troubled his sleep at night. During the day he often fell into a brown study and would emerge from them snappish and irritable. The others began to give him a wide berth. He dared not speak to the Oracle, for fear she would read too much into his heart. Even without her talents, she knew him the best of all.
Really, he thought, it was a matter of image. It would do nothing but good for the Royal Division of Supermen if he prevented a few thefts or rescued a lady or two, and it would improve the quality of life in London. So he told himself, as he attired himself in his dress uniform and made sure that the sword was secure.
Despite the relatively late hour the narrow streets still fairly teemed with people, many weaving to and fro from the public-houses and the brothels. The tenement-houses were strung all over with unsightly clotheslines, empty now that it was nighttime, and the air reeked with the sweat of unwashed bodies and the lack of sufficient sanitation. The mongers wheeled their barrows back to their hovels with slumped shoulders and bowed heads, their pennies too light in their wallets, while painted faces leaned out the windows of the brothels, cooing to the men below. Here and there one saw signs of life other than the daily struggle for bread: a potted plant teetering on a narrow balcony, a pigeon-coop upon a rooftop, a chicken pecking round in some tiny, clotted garden. A girl of no more than eight years knelt on a stoop, dipping her rag into a bucket as if she were a girl of fifteen, and called up to her mother, “Look mum, ain’t I gettin’ it clean?” Men stood out on the balconies with their pipes, discussing the news of the day, whether it was likely to rain again tomorrow, and how much in wages one had brought in from his work at the docks.
It was not long before Hyperion saw his first opportunity, or rather heard it, for his ears were more sensitive than most. But one did not need talented hearing to hear the wild screams and harsh groans that came from one of the narrow, dark streets, and it amazed him that anyone could feign ignorance of the din. And yet people passed by with only the barest of glances, as if by pretending ignorance they could turn it into truth, and two neighbouring women whispered to one another in low tones. Hyperion himself could do no such thing, and he sailed along until he found a second-storey window where the wailing seemed to be the loudest. The shutters were closed up tight, and he rapped on them with all the authority he could muster. He had to knock several times before they seemed to hear him, and minutes later the door below was flung open. Of course, they would hardly think that someone had been knocking at the window of the upper floor, and so had believed it to be someone at the door.
The man that had opened the door peered about with a sneering expression. He was a large, coarse, powerful-looking man, with lank brown hair and a bulbous nose, and small, watery eyes. His cheeks were flushed as if with heavy drink, his breathing laboured, and his clothes all in disarray, with the buttons only half-done. Hyperion descended slowly, and when the man caught sight of him at last, his eyebrows went up and a dark, ugly delight suffused his features. “Well! Well! Well! And to what honour do I owe this visit?”
Now that Hyperion faced the culprit, he discovered that he had very little idea of procedure. “Sir, I really must insist–”
“‘Oo is it?” came a high, whining voice from upstairs. “Bertie, are you comin’ back t’bed? It’s awful cold.” A woman came stamping down the stairs in only her petticoats, her hair awry and her face and lips still flushed with passion. She stared out incuriously at Hyperion, with no indication of shame, only impatience.
“Be there soon as I can, love,” the man–presumably Bertie–called. He turned his unpleasant face to Hyperion once more. “Now, what was you sayin’?”
Hyperion’s face flushed; clearly what he had taken for a domestic dispute was a wholly different kind of domesticity. He strove to keep the mortification from his voice. “Nothing, sir.”
“Then off wiv you.” And the man slammed the door in his face.
Hyperion all but flung himself to the safety of the rooftops, where he could wait in peace for the hot flush of his embarrassment to pass, fancying that he could hear the people in the streets below laughing at him. A fine way to represent Her Majesty’s Royal Division of Supermen! No wonder all around had pretended to deafness. Did this sort of thing happen often?
He had crouched there for scarce half a minute when one of the shadows by the chimney seemed to shift and come apart, and revealed itself to be a tall, thin man attired as a gentleman, the upper half of his face obscured by a mask. “Well!” said he. “That did not go well.”
Had he seen? Had he come here to mock? Hyperion could scarcely hope otherwise.
“What are you doing here, Mr. Hyperion?” asked Spring-Heeled Jack, laying his fingertips against one another like a schoolteacher awaiting an answer. “It seems unlikely you are here on Her Majesty’s Service.”
“I am here on my own terms.”
“Really? That seems unwise. There is little love here for authority, and you in your dress uniform.”
His throat had closed, and Hyperion found some difficulty in speaking. At last, with great reluctance, he said, “I have given a great deal of thought to what you said, in regards to. . . serving Queen and country, and her people.”
“And so you came here, to Whitechapel, in a misguided attempt to help these same souls that you had so merrily ignored not a fortnight ago.” Spring-Heeled Jack approached Hyperion with the slow, measured strides of a man deep in thought, his hands clasped behind his back. Though his words were cutting, his tone was thoughtful, almost friendly. “And a very pretty hash you’ve made of it, too.”
Hyperion could not hide how the words stung him and stood to face Spring-Heeled Jack with his fists clenched. “You cannot fault my intentions, for they were good,” he cried.
“The road to hell,” Spring-Heeled Jack’s reply was swift, “is paved with good intentions. Your intentions were selfish. You do not desire to help these people any more than you desire to darn your own socks. You only desire to assuage your own guilty conscience.”
Hyperion’s shoulders sagged, and his chin sank nearly to his breast. He could say nothing; it was as if all the breath had been beaten from him.
“Go home.” The stranger’s voice was weary, and almost sad. “You don’t belong here.”
Hyperion nearly turned to obey, and then he recalled that he was the Hyperion, and that Spring-Heeled Jack was not his master. He would not be sent cringing home like a whipped dog, and indeed, if Spring-Heeled Jack wished to press the matter, he had talent enough to stand the man on his head without so much as perspiring. He squared his shoulders, raised his chin, and pronounced: “No.”
“No?” Though one could not see his face, Spring-Heeled Jack gave very much the impression that his eyebrows were raised in surprise.
“No,” Hyperion repeated, firmly. “You are not my master, Spring-Heeled Jack, and I will not go.”
“Well,” said Spring-Heeled Jack, after some deliberation. “That puts us in a fix. What you say is true enough, and yet I can’t leave you here, or you’re likely to run your head into trouble.”
“Then I shall simply have to come with you,” said Hyperion, with great satisfaction. “That will do very well. I am sure that I can provide assistance.”
“Hum! We shall see about that,” muttered Spring-Heeled Jack.
They moved silently and swiftly over the rooftops, from Mile-End to Poplar and back again, and by the end of the night they had prevented one burglary, two robberies, and one rape. Each time, Hyperion flew the culprits, dangling from his arms like so many sacks of meal, to the nearest police-station and returned, but in the case of the last incident Hyperion was loathe to depart; the girl wept and trembled and clung to Jack like a child, and Hyperion feared that Jack lacked the sensibility to comfort her. But Jack behaved not in his usual cold, peremptory manner and laid one hand on the girl’s arm, and stroked her hair as she snuffled and mewled. Satisfied that she would be looked after, Hyperion set off for the police-station, battling all the while with a mighty urge to drop the man in his arms to his death on the cobblestones.
He learned a great deal about Spring-Heeled Jack’s methods that night, which proved to be little more than extremely refined skill. He wore a peculiar kind of soft-soled shoe that allowed him to walk without noise, and he possessed an uncanny ability for scaling walls where no foot or hand hold seemed to exist. He knew every nook and cranny of the East End, and his vaunted vanishing acts consisted of little more than stepping into a convenient shadow, such as in a door or alley-way, and then holding very still, or else making use of the fog that often washed over London. His sudden appearances were accomplished in much the same manner, making use of the rooftops more often than not, raining down upon his prey like divine judgment.
“Why, it’s all so absurdly simple!” Hyperion cried. It was still some hours ’til dawn, and all the doors and windows remained tightly shut, save here and there a man with his collar turned up and hands in his pockets, making for Covent Garden to buy the day’s wares, or to the docks to await the shout of the quay-ganger. Hyperion and Spring-Heeled Jack sat atop one of the warehouses. Jack squatted on his hams, Chinaman-style, smoking a cigarette and gazing out over the river. “Here you have fooled every man in the city into thinking you are some sort of diabolical agent, or at the very least a superman, when really you have no talent at all.”
“Quite so,” said Spring-Heeled Jack, somewhat nettled, and tapped the ash of his cigarette with perhaps more force than was necessary.
“Oh, I didn’t mean it like that,” Hyperion hastened to add. “Really, your feats are quite admirable. It’s simply that,” he halted before he could embarrass himself further. “I’m sorry. I do admire you.”
“Remarkable, for there is nothing admirable about me,” Spring-Heeled Jack replied, and Hyperion could only stare in amazement at how easily he had made the remark. Jack took another draught of his cigarette and blew the smoke out from between his lips. “Well then, Mr. Hyperion, have you assuaged your conscience this night?”
The words were meant to irk him, but Hyperion was feeling far too satisfied to allow himself to be irked. He thought of Mrs. O’Bannon, who had been so happy to retain her purse with naught but sixpence inside, for she needed it to buy some meat come Sunday. He thought, too, of Mr. Swineburn the chimney-sweep, whose lodgings they had prevented being burgled, and whose horse was more well-fed than he himself, and the widow Bailey, who had invited them in for a cup of tea when she spied them lying on their faces on a rooftop across from her window. Good, hardworking folk they were, and if there were evil here, he could well believe that there was more good.
“I feel as if I have done a great deal of good tonight,” Hyperion said, slowly. “It is a feeling I could grow accustomed to.”
Jack groaned. “And here I had hoped to dissuade you.”
“Why?” Hyperion queried, with only sincere curiosity in mind. “You can’t deny that my assistance was invaluable.”
“Perhaps invaluable is too strong a word for it,” Jack said, dryly. “Certainly it was valuable, but you draw attention merely by virtue of being yourself, and it is attention I can do without. If you wish to rectify the wrongs in the world, you had best do it under your own power.”
“Whatever do you mean?” Hyperion asked, bewildered.
Jack gave a sharp bark of laughter. “Look at yourself, man! You possess nearly every talent the world has to offer: strength, speed, flight, at least, and who knows what else? And a natural leader of men, besides: look at how all England adores you, and even the natives of our colonies worship you as a god. If ever there was anyone that could change the course of history, it would be you.” Jack crushed his cigarette out against the stones and stood, beating the dust from his trouser legs with his hands. “And now, here is where we must part ways. You’ll be missed, and I’ve my own duties to pursue in the daytime. It was a pleasure working with you, Mr. Hyperion.” And he stuck out his hand.
Hyperion shook with all the earnestness he could muster. “And with you, ah, it does not quite seem correct to call you Mr. Jack.”
“Jack will do,” said he, and another one of those almost-smiles fluttered across his face.
The next day, the newspapers were all a-buzz with Hyperion’s appearance in East London, apparently colluding with Spring-Heeled Jack in bringing justice to those fiends and scoundrels that plagued its dark, winding streets. One paper carried an artist’s rendition: Hyperion, fair-haired and square-jawed, unmistakable in his dress uniform with sword hanging at his side, hovering in the air like an avenging angel while beside him crouched Spring-Heeled Jack, little more than a hunched shadow with two malevolent eyes peering out from the depths of his mask. Before them cowered a pair of would-be thieves, one of them begging for mercy on bent knee, while the other shielded his face with his arms. “A League for Justice in the East End?” read the caption.
Lord Salisbury threw the Daily Telegraph on the table before him and sat down behind his desk, one hand against his head as if it pained him. His brows were very low, and the edges of his mouth very grim. “Have you some explanation?” he demanded. “Tell me this is not true, and that you have not been gallivanting about in the East End, playing at being some sort of hero.”
Hyperion stood before the Prime Minister’s desk, his hands clasped behind his back and head bowed, though he felt not the slightest bit of remorse. In fact, all he felt was weariness, for he had not had more than four hours’ sleep before his valet had woken him with news that the Prime Minister wished to see him. “It’s true,” said he.
Lord Salisbury thumped one large hand down upon the splash of black ink that comprised the portrait of Spring-Heeled Jack. “And who’s this? Not one of ours?”
“No, he has no talent whatsoever.”
“Then who is he? How do you know him?”
“He is a friend. I cannot betray his confidence.”
Lord Salisbury closed his eyes, every line standing in pronounced relief upon his features. “Then I await your explanation.”
Hyperion drew a deep breath before he commenced speaking and attempted to order his thoughts. “There is a great deal of suffering in the East End, as well as south of the river, much of which could be alleviated with the right pressures. As good Christians and human beings, we could not watch this suffering go unchecked, and so we have taken it upon ourselves to relieve it.”
Lord Salisbury’s features were very grave. “You are aware, of course, that what you do is illegal.”
“Are you going to arrest me?”
“No force on this Earth can arrest you, as I believe you well know,” Lord Salisbury said, dryly. “But I believe Scotland Yard can arrest your friend, and that will put a stop to this.”
Hyperion felt the blood drain from his face. “Surely such extreme measures are not necessary,” he gasped. “We’ve done no harm.”
“None save break the laws of this good country,” Lord Salisbury retorted. “You we can shield, but he has no protection whatsoever. Reflect on that and be more circumspect in the future.”
And with that, Hyperion was dismissed. He returned to his lodgings with all haste, where he slung his sword round his waist, then recalled that it was his appearance in the East End in full dress uniform that had caused this in the first place. He laid the sword in its accustomed corner by the bed and exchanged his attire for something less showy, so that he looked like any other gentleman out on the street, but as he laid his hand on the doorknob he thought better of it, and brought the sword along. Out of place as it seemed, it at least offered some measure of protection.
As his cab rattled through the streets of London, Hyperion meditated on his course of action. Clearly, he must find Jack and warn him. But where to find him? He had never come to East London like this in broad daylight, when the streets burst with more people than even before and washing fluttered from the clotheslines. He did not know where the man lived; indeed, he could not even be certain that he lived in the East End, for while certainly his knowledge of the locale was uncanny, his dress and manner were that of a gentleman. Nor did he know what he looked like, beyond the vaguest details regarding height and relative build and the colour of his hair. But if he waited ’til tonight, it might already be too late, and Scotland Yard would have closed their net round him. Standing at the corner of Whitechapel and Cambridge Heath, he felt utterly lost. How could he find a man whose name, address, and appearance were unknown to him?
The solution, once it presented itself, was pure simplicity, and Hyperion strode down the street with one hand upon his sword, ignoring the street arabs that darted before him, demanding coin, and the incurious gazes of the men and women that he passed. He lost the thread often and would be obliged to stop, listening until he found it again, and at those times he would need beware of his wallet, and the other contents of his pockets, and various drunkards and carmen and others rushing by. At last he found himself on the rather ill-named Bright Street, in Bromley, standing before one of the listing tenement-houses. Hyperion knocked gingerly, afraid that the frail door would shatter beneath his knuckles.
It was answered by a stooped, elderly woman with iron-grey hair, clutching a broom in one gnarled hand. Her housedress was plain, but respectable and clean, as was everything about her person. “What d’you want?” she demanded.
Hyperion removed his hat and held it respectfully in both hands. “I’m ah, looking for. . . Jack,” he said at last. “He is a gentleman about so tall, with brown hair, and a thin build. I am a friend,” he added, desperately.
The woman squinted at him suspiciously. “So you must, to use a man’s Christian name so boldly,” she said. “And oo’re you?”
Here Hyperion was at a loss. If he used his given name then Jack would certainly not know him, and yet he was reluctant to give his title here, without his uniform or any evidence of his powers. But there was no alternative, and he squared his shoulders and said, “If you tell him the Hyperion is calling, he will know who I am.”
The woman seemed hardly impressed, and Hyperion wondered if she even knew who he was. “I’ll see if ‘e’s at home,” said she, and shut the door in his face. Hyperion stood on the doorstep dumbfounded for several minutes, and had begun to wonder whether he might batter the door down, or perhaps clamber in by an upstairs window, when the door opened again, wider this time, and the woman ushered him inside and up the stairs.
There was but one room on the third floor, with a ceiling that sloped to the floor. It was very small, but remarkably clean of filth and vermin, though all together its furnishings could not have fetched two shillings. There was not even a bed–its occupant slept on a pallet on the floor–and all his earthly belongings must be contained in the single chest against the wall, which also served as a rude desk or table. A man sat up in this pallet now, rubbing one hand wearily over his face. Even sitting he was tall, but in every other aspect he was unremarkable: his hair was a completely ordinary shade of brown, and his eyes a perfectly ordinary blue, and while his features were regular enough to be called pleasing, he could not be called particularly handsome. He was clad only in a collarless shirt, with the buttons only half-done, and brown corduroy trousers. Here he looked like any ordinary working man, just roused from bed, and yet there was something of Spring-Heeled Jack in his sharp gaze, and the alert manner in which he held himself.
Those sharp eyes pierced him now. “How on Earth did you find me?” Jack asked, sharply. He must have been exhausted indeed, for all traces of the gentleman were gone from his voice.
“Are you–why, you’re an American!” Hyperion exclaimed.
“Keep your voice down, the walls here are quite thin,” Jack retorted, and with that slipped on the guise of a poor Irish worker as Hyperion might don a pair of gloves. “Now, I’ll be askin’ ye again, how did ye find me? If ye c’n trace me, then another c’n do the same, and me life’s not worth a farthing if–”
“I listened for your heart,” Hyperion said, hastily. At Jack’s raised eyebrows, he continued: “As well as your voice. My hearing is very sensitive–it is one of my talents–and your voice is quite distinctive. At first I listened for that, but then you must have gone to sleep, and so I had to follow the beating of your heart.”
Jack was silent, with a queer expression on his face. Then he swallowed, cleared his throat, arranged his legs so that he was sitting Indian fashion, and said, “What is it, then? It must be urgent if ye’re stickin’ yer neck out like this.”
“Have you seen the papers?” Hyperion asked anxiously, twisting the brim of his hat round in his hands. He looked for a place to sit, but there was nowhere save the floor, for there was not another stick of furniture in the little room.
“Of course I’ve seen the papers. They’re hard ta miss. What about ’em?”
There was no sense prevaricating. Hyperion burst out, “Lord Salisbury has seen them as well, and was quite incensed. He plans to put a stop to the matter, namely by arresting you.”
Jack had been rummaging through a pile of seeming refuse on the floor, and now emerged with a cigarette and a match. He raised one eyebrow at Hyperion, who was staring at him.
“Oughtn’t we plan?” Hyperion cried. Jack lit his cigarette. “Scotland Yard will descend at any moment, and you’ll be imprisoned, sentenced to hard labour, or worse–” He remembered, with a cold, seizing horror, Jack’s words on that night when they first met, and strode forward and knelt to seize Jack by one arm. “You’re not planning anything foolish, are you?”
“Let go o’ me.” Jack skilfully manoeuvred his cigarette so that he would not burn Hyperion’s immaculate frock coat, or his silk top hat. “What in God’s name are ye talkin’ about?”
“That night,” Hyperion said, breathlessly, “when we first met, you said that death was an acceptable alternative if you could not preserve your freedom.”
“Ye should know well enough by now that I c’n make meself scarce for a couple o’ constables,” Jack said, exasperated. “I’ve been expectin’ ’em. Ye said yourself that what I do is illegal, so it was only a matter o’ time afore they came lookin’ for me. But they’ll find they have a bit more ta deal with than a single vigilante, that’s for sure, and I c’n look into a few wee matters o’ me own.”
Hyperion let his hands fall to his sides, feeling not a little foolish. Of course the warning had not been necessary; of course Jack had seen this contingency, and planned for it. “My apologies,” he murmured.
“Ye’ve nothing ta apologise for,” Jack said, and his words were very nearly tender. “I’m touched, I am, but I c’n look after meself. There was no need for ye ta come all this way. Ye shouldn’t have; this is not a place for gentlemen.”
“But you’re here,” Hyperion objected.
That seemed to amuse Jack a great deal, but when he spoke, it was only to say, “I’ll be seein’ ye home now. It’s for the best that ye not come here for a while. If I’ve need o’ you, I’ll send word.”
But Jack does not know where to send word to, Hyperion realised later, in the comfort and security of his home. The servants had been scandalised by the state of his clothing, and the valet had frowned and clucked as disapprovingly as any mother hen. They drew a bath for him right away, which Hyperion was very grateful for, and as he soaked in the pleasantly hot water it came to him that Jack did not know where he lived; he had seen Hyperion to the northern edge of Victoria Park and left him to make his way from there. Where Hyperion lived was not common knowledge, the Crown and assorted other authorities having thought, quite sensibly, that the knowledge could be used against them.
As it happened, Hyperion did not see Spring-Heeled Jack again for several months, and–much to his relief–nor did anyone else. There were occasional glimpses, and brief columns on police efforts to trace, identify, and capture the mysterious masked man, followed by letters to the editor that the Yard ought to leave well enough alone, and did they not have enough to do? Indeed, in the following weeks the constabulary were treated with even more contempt than was usual, and more than one had small stones and rubbish thrown at him.
The Prime Minister had warned him to keep out of the way, for mutinous sentiment ran high, and it was all the Government could do to keep the violence from spilling over. So Hyperion did, but more for Jack’s sake than Lord Salisbury’s. He paced, and ate food he did not taste, and went for walks he did not enjoy, and attended plays he did not remember afterward, and his days were empty of purpose. He rescued a boy’s kitten from a tree where it had become trapped, and it brought him more joy than the entirety of last week. He assisted the fire brigade at the Theatre Royal, entering the blaze to knock out the walls around several of the exits so that more might escape, and assisting the trampled. The papers blazed the next day that the Hyperion’s quick thinking and actions averted many deaths that might otherwise have been inevitable, but Hyperion paid no attention.
Artemis and Orion were dispatched to Ireland to quell a rent strike, and Hyperion read in the Times the next day that three men had been shot dead, and several more injured, and he tore the paper to pieces and burned it in the fireplace. He wondered if this was what Jack had meant when he said that Scotland Yard would find more to contend with than a lone vigilante. He wondered if Jack were part of a labour union. He wondered if Jack were whole and sound.
“Don’t tell me you’ve taken an interest in Irish politics,” the Oracle teased him. “I thought you read the papers only to see if there was news of yourself.”
Hyperion flushed, for her characterisation of him was not entirely without merit. “Those men died needlessly. It would not have happened, had I been there to guide my men; and now what will happen to their widows and children?”
The Oracle leaned back on the settee and regarded Hyperion with a cool gaze. Hyperion shifted in his arm-chair, feeling uncomfortably like an insect pinned to a piece of cork-board. “Your Jack of the spring-heels has changed you,” she remarked.
Hyperion drew in a sharp breath and looked down to study his clasped hands. “He is remarkable,” he murmured. “He has no talent whatsoever, and yet he makes the most of the abilities he was born with–the abilities any man is born with, surely.”
“You were born with more than that,” the Oracle said, softly. “You were born with the talent to build empires.”
“The empire was already here when I arrived,” Hyperion sighed, “and I have done little to maintain it save fly over the natives when they become restless and shake hands with Presidents and Ministers when it is required of me. And now they won’t allow me to do even that.”
“I wasn’t speaking of that,” said the Oracle, and would not elaborate further.
At last, a month later, he put on his hat and gloves and went to see Lord Salisbury.
“You will not put my men out there again without me,” he said to the Prime Minister. “Three men died. They would not have, had I been there.”
“You do not know that,” sighed Lord Salisbury, his hands steepled before his grimly set mouth. He gazed up at Hyperion from behind his desk, his face deeply lined from the pressure of recent days. “But it is as well that you are here. Police Commissioner Warren has asked for a dozen supermen to stand at Trafalgar Square on 13th November. I have agreed, and I leave it to you to select your men.”
Hermes stared across the square and uttered a loud gasp. “There must be a thousand men here!”
“Two thousand,” Hyperion murmured, from his vantage point several feet above the ground. The constables had already driven everyone from the square, so that it was eerily deserted, even with two thousand police there. Gone were the ragged and the destitute, begging for coin; gone were the anarchists and radicals with their pamphlets, and the newsboys crying extra, and the loiterers and promenaders. Now the only living beings in the Square were a ring of special constables, many of them not even in uniform, the only thing distinguishing them from the ordinary citizenry being a striped armlet. There was cavalry as well, and infantry armed with bayonets. Hyperion was disturbed; surely this was too great a show of force to contend with a mob of unarmed men?
“Well, Hyperion?” Hercules called. “Where do you want us?”
Hyperion surveyed the lay of the land. The constabulary were arranged in a rough circle round the Square; “Our goal,” Commissioner Warren had said, “will be to prevent the mob from entering the Square at all, by any means possible. Force is the only language they understand, and you must make clear to them that London will not submit to mob rule.”
“Athena, Banshee, if you will take up a position by the Strand,” Hyperion pronounced. “Hermes, you and Hercules shall take the other side, by Pall Mall East. Lazarus, please will you station yourself before St. Martin-in-the-fields.” And so on, until each superman had been given his orders. “Restrain yourselves,” he warned. “These are not savages but your own countrymen. Be firm, but not brutal, for I want no blood upon the hands of the Division this day.”
They saluted, and each departed to their corner. Hyperion himself flew for the centre, where before Nelson’s column an Inspector was delivering similar orders to a band of eager special constables, some of whom were entirely too eager to begin wielding their truncheons and waved them about in a most reckless manner. Hyperion shot nearly to the tip of Nelson’s column, and from there he could see the demonstrators, who did appear to number in the many thousands, proceeding from several directions. He flew down again and seized the Inspector by the collar.
“They have women and children with them,” he said, breath hissing between his teeth. “The Commissioner didn’t say there would be women and children.”
“Well, we can’t very well throw up our hands and cry mercy because they’ve brought their wives and babes along with them,” the Inspector exclaimed. “I’ll have you know they fight as savagely as any of their men.”
“Are they coming, then?” called one of the special constables, but there was no need for Hyperion to answer, for in the distance you could hear their cries, coming up the Strand. Hyperion could see Banshee take position against them, and Athena weave her threads about her wrists and fingers.
There were indeed women and children, though there were a great many more men. They were ragged and unkempt, their faces contorted in anger as they shouted for work, for the freedom of MP O’Brien, for food. The women clutched their children’s hands and shouted just as loudly. Hyperion could not see anything that could be counted a weapon amongst them, save for their fists, but they surely outnumbered the police by five to one, and it was as if the very heart of London had risen up against them. Did the East End truly contain so many people? Did London truly contain so many people?
They appeared confounded by the appearance of a police line. Then a voice cried out, “Rush them!” The mob roared their approval, and forward they rushed. Banshee’s chest swelled, and she let loose a piercing cry that halted them where they stood, their hands clapped over their ears as their faces twisted in pain. Athena loosed her threads then, which wound themselves about the wrists and ankles of the men, immobilising them. The special constabulary stood foolishly by.
Matters would not go so well for Hercules and Hermes, for though their strength and talents were formidable, they could be overwhelmed by sheer numbers, and this the demonstrators had enough. Hercules had eight men hanging from his limbs, like monkeys from a tree, but dozens more swarmed around him like river currents parting around a stone, only to be beaten back by the constabulary. They had received no such orders to restrain from brutality, for many men were beaten until they fell, and were beaten even then, and one child was separated from his mother and ran about crying for her, bleeding from a cut above his little brow, until he was lost in the crowd.
“This force is unnecessary,” Hyperion protested to the Inspector, who only replied, “Force is all they understand.”
The mob had fallen back. One of them, standing atop a barrel or a box, was giving some sort of rousing speech, gesticulating wildly. And then they charged again, and again they were thrust back, crushed nearly against the walls of Morley’s Hotel, its windows shattering from the violence, the patrons inside taking cover beneath the tables.
“This is intolerable,” Hyperion said through gritted teeth. The Inspector did not reply.
This continued for some time, and might have continued for a while longer had not Hyperion seen a man go down before the hooves of one of the horses. At that point he might reasonably be said to have lost his mind, for if force was all these men would understand, then Hyperion would present them with such a show of force as to be incontrovertible. And then, in a feat of strength that amazed even Hercules, the strongest of the supermen, Hyperion gripped Nelson’s column with both hands and broke it from its base, showering all below with fragments of stone.
All movement in the Square stopped, every man, woman, and child gaping at the General of the Royal Division of Supermen waving Nelson’s column as if it were a sorcerer’s magic wand.
“I see I have your attention!” Hyperion exclaimed, the tendons of his neck standing out in clear relief, his face flushed with anger and anxiety. “Excellent, for I wish to announce my retirement. I’ll have no part of a Government that uses violence against its own people. Now stand clear, I am about to drop this.”
And so he did. Nelson’s column fell straight down, crashing against the pavement, and then toppled to one side like a felled tree, men scattering before it like squirrels. By the time the people in the Square looked up again, Hyperion had gone.
“I believe this belongs to you,” Hyperion spat, and flung the sword, still in its scabbard, upon the Commissioner’s desk. Commissioner Warren stared up at him in wide-eyed disbelief, but Hyperion did not linger; he stormed out without another word.
Where to next? Hyperion stared up and down the street, then hailed a cab and had it take him to Pall Mall. Once home, he dismissed the servants and changed himself into an ordinary black frock coat and grey trousers. He packed himself a valise, then summoned another cab, this time for Whitehall.
They allowed him to enter on sight, news of his sudden resignation not having reached the Oracle’s hallowed grounds. But the Oracle appeared to be expecting him, for she was fully dressed, a bonnet on her head and her belongings packed also in a valise.
“Where are you going?” Hyperion stammered.
“With you, of course.”
“But why? And where? I hardly know where I myself am going.”
“I believe you do,” she said. “For Heaven’s sake, Peter, you aren’t stupid, and neither am I.”
Upon further reflection, Hyperion realised he did know where he was going. Or rather, that there was only one place to go.
“I tell you, ‘e’s not at ‘ome,” said Mrs. Worthington, and she thrust the broom at him again.
“Then we will wait for him,” Hyperion said, wishing only to be off the street, certain a constable would round the corner at any moment with his stick in hand. He had not anticipated being forestalled by an old woman half his size. The Oracle, however, was calm as a butterfly on a stone, peering up and down the street with an interested gaze, now and again falling into a study of something by her feet.
“Oh, no, I’m not lettin’ you into my ‘ouse wi’out Mr. Doyle here,” she retorted.
“But you’ve seen me before!” Hyperion cried. “You know we’re friends!”
“I know nuffin’ of the sort. Now clear off! Shoo!” And she thumped her broom against the step, raising a little cloud of dirt. The Oracle coughed.
“Are these folks givin’ ye trouble now, Mrs. Worthington?”
Hyperion’s heart leapt at the familiar tones of Jack in his guise as an Irish working man, and he whirled with a glad cry that died on his lips. The blood left his face; there was a cut high on Jack’s forehead, his hair was matted with blood, he limped just a little, and he held his left arm in a stiff, unnatural manner. He had lost his hat, and one sleeve of his coat was torn to the elbow. But even despite this he carried himself in his old imperious way, though his eyes widened to see Hyperion there.
“None that I can’t ‘andle, Mr. Doyle,” Mrs. Worthington assured him, with a haughty glare at Hyperion. “This ‘ere gentleman reckons ‘e knows you.”
“That he does,” said Jack. “But I’ve yet ta make the acquaintance o’ the lady.”
“The–this is Miss Grace Potter,” Hyperion forced out.
Jack bowed and kissed her hand with all the courtesy of a born gentleman. “My pleasure. Please, come inside. May I trouble ye for some tea, Mrs. Worthington?”
“Of course,” said she, bobbing, transformed into a smiling, benevolent hostess now that they had Jack’s blessing. She disappeared into the kitchen at the back, whilst Jack, Hyperion, and the Oracle mounted the stairs to the third floor. Jack had added a small, fragile chair to his meagre collection of furniture and bade the Oracle sit in it, and cleared off his chest of belongings so that Hyperion might have someplace to sit as well. Jack remained standing, after locking the door behind them.
“What are you doing here?” he demanded in low tones, apparently too agitated to conceal his American accent. “And who’s she? Is her name really Grace Potter?”
“It’s my true name, the one I was born with,” said Miss Potter. “But within the Division, I was known as the Oracle.”
Jack turned his bemused gaze upon Hyperion, who proceeded to explain: “The Oracle’s talent is that of foresight. She foresees disasters and assassinations, as well as when and where those with talent are born, so that we might enlist them for the Division of Supermen.”
“Fascinating,” said Jack, but his gaze was distant. He had stopped pacing and was now gazing out the small window that faced the street. “Then they will most certainly come after her, if not after you.”
“Yes,” Hyperion admitted.
“And you’ve endangered me, as well as Mrs. Worthington, and all of the East End by bringing her here, for they’ll spare no expense in tearing London apart ’til they find her,” Jack concluded bitterly. “I can’t thank you for the honour. This is quite a fix you’ve put us in.”
“I need your help, Jack,” said Hyperion, spreading his hands before him. “I came here because I believed in your abilities, and that you’d not turn us away.”
“Though I’ve every right to,” Jack spat, pivoting on one foot to face him. “I’ve a mind–”
They were interrupted by a knock upon the door. “Your tea, Mr. Doyle.”
Jack sprang to the door and admitted Mrs. Worthington with a pot of tea and three cracked cups upon a small tray. There was no milk, only a small quantity of sugar in a little pot. There being no place to set the tea service, she gave the tray to Jack and brought up a stool from the kitchen. “Now,” she said, “‘ow much sugar d’you take?”
“None,” said the Oracle.
“You needn’t trouble yourself,” Hyperion said, hastily. “We’ll serve ourselves.”
Mrs. Worthington only tutted and began pouring out the tea. “Any friend o’ Mr. Doyle’s is a friend o’ mine.”
“One,” Hyperion said, meekly.
“She is a treasure,” Jack said fondly, after Mrs. Worthington had given a wobbling curtsey and left. “If it were not for her, Spring-Heeled Jack might not exist.” He leaned against the wall and sipped his tea with perfect aplomb.
“How is that?” asked the Oracle, tilting her head in a manner that might have been coy on a younger woman.
“I have only the one suit,” Jack laughed, “and I can’t mend it myself; I’m afraid that’s a woman’s work. So she does it, and lights the fire for my return, and provides me with hot tea, and all the little things that I’d be thoroughly miserable without.”
Hyperion gulped his tea without tasting it. It had not occurred to him that Jack might turn them away. And if he did–as he was within his rights–what then? There would be no alternative but to turn themselves in, and Hyperion would fling himself upon the mercy of the courts. It was not a pleasant thought.
“We can’t stay here,” the Oracle observed.
“No,” Jack agreed. “Don’t look so,” he admonished Hyperion, who had swallowed his tea too quickly and commenced coughing. “While I’ve half a mind to march you down to the nearest police-station, I’m not so much in love with the law to do that. But one thing’s clear: you can’t stay here in London.”
“America,” the Oracle suggested. “You’re American–surely you have relations there?”
Jack raised his eyebrows, then smiled with a rare and genuine affection that Hyperion had not yet seen, and was at a loss to explain why it affected him so. “You’re aptly named. Yes, that’s just what I was thinking. For now, however, you’ll lay low; the Yard will have all the ports watched. You can bunk here for the time being, and later I’ll see about shifting your lodgings.” He turned to Hyperion. “How much money do you have?”
“Forty pounds,” Hyperion said.
“That should do for passage. Keep it safe; that’s a fortune in these parts, and I haven’t the funds to replace it.” Jack drained his teacup and returned it to the tray. “Sorry to keep you cooped up here,” he said. “This is no place for a lady.”
“Oh, never mind that,” the Oracle replied, stretching her legs before her with a sigh. “I’m hardly a lady, and I hated being shut up in that room anyhow.”
Hyperion was far too recognisable, and Jack began by darkening Hyperion’s hair and eyebrows with an Indian dye made from the crushed leaves of the henna plant. “You ought to shave as well,” he said, referring to Hyperion’s moustache. “Nothing alters a man’s appearance so much.”
So he did, and looking himself in the mirror afterward, with his hair nearly ginger in colour and clean-shaven as Jack himself was, Hyperion felt an entirely different man. He wondered if he might learn to affect his voice, as Jack did.
Jack glanced up as Hyperion re-entered the room. He had cleansed himself in the washbasin in the corner, bathing the grime and blood from his face and hair, and removed his jacket and waistcoat, so that he was attired only in shirtsleeves and trousers, with sleeves rolled up to the elbow. He knelt behind the Oracle with his hands in her hair, which she had let down; Hyperion was aghast at the intimacy of the gesture but held his tongue. “Excellent,” Jack exclaimed. “And now all that remains is a name. Hyperion won’t do, clearly.”
“My given name,” said Hyperion, slowly, “is Peter Huggins.”
“Ah, yes, the rock on which all else is built.” Jack smiled, as if at some private joke. “There are thousands of Peters, so I believe Peter should be quite safe. Huggins I’m less sure about, but as long as you refrain from heroic activity, no one needs to know. And what about you, Miss Potter?”
“Miss Potter suits me fine,” she said, smiling at Jack over her shoulder. “And what of my appearance? Shall I shave as well?”
Jack chuckled and drew his fingers through her hair once more, filling Hyperion with an unreasonable urge to throttle the man. “We can take less care with your appearance, since fewer know your face. A haircut and a change in dress may be all that’s required, and should you need to go out of doors you can wear a black veil and say that you are in mourning.”
“And what should we call you?” asked Peter Huggins. “Surely we can’t go on calling you Jack.”
Jack sat back on his heels, his hands on his knees, and looked up at Peter with an almost impish humour. “Why not? I’m well used to it, and besides, it’s my real name.”
Peter’s lips parted in amazement. “Do you mean to say–”
“My given name is John Patrick Doyle, and very pleased to meet you,” said Jack. “You may call me Jack.”
Jack departed not long after and returned with several worn, but clean–“They shall be free of fleas, at the very least”–blankets, and the evening edition of the Standard, which he gave to Peter. In his absence, Mrs. Worthington had produced a perfectly acceptable Sunday roast. It was quite cold by then, but Jack seemed not to care one whit, as he sandwiched several slices between two pieces of bread and ate with one hand.
“You’ll be sleeping with Mrs. Worthington in the kitchen,” he explained to Miss Potter. “I’ve asked Mrs. Worthington to set up the extra cot. I’m very sorry about it, but Mrs. Worthington will look after you.”
“No, you’re perfectly correct,” said Miss Potter. “It would hardly be proper for us to share sleeping arrangements.”
Peter made a noise of dismay. The main news of the day was naturally the demonstration in Trafalgar Square, and it seemed that Hyperion’s abrupt departure had done more harm than good. The demonstrators, emboldened by Hyperion’s parting words, had seized the moment to overwhelm the police-line. The situation had degenerated quickly into utter chaos, with many hundreds injured, and utter disaster was avoided only by quick thinking and action on the parts of Athena and the Green Man, who held all fast in a web of threads and creepers. “It’s a mercy you were not more hurt,” he exclaimed, his eyes darting up to Jack’s. “It says here that some two hundred have been treated in hospital.”
Jack favoured him with a thin-lipped and ironical smile and shrugged his right shoulder. “I value my limbs very highly in my line of work. I hope you won’t think me a coward for giving them the slip before things got ugly.”
They passed the evening in a desultory fashion. Jack kept little in the way of drink, but he had plenty of tobacco and a deck of cards. Nor was there any lack of conversation: Jack was well-travelled as well as well-educated, and he regaled them with tales of his childhood during the American Civil War, his journey west to California, and his subsequent adventures there. Then, too, Jack had a great many questions for Peter and Miss Potter, and they explained how supermen were sought out soon after birth, and as soon as they reached schooling age were sent to board at the Division school, where they were taught to refine their talents as well as the usual letters and arithmetic. When they reached the age of majority they were then officially enlisted, and stationed where their talents might be most useful, whether it be India, Australia, China, or the West Indies.
At last, however, the hour grew quite late, and Mrs. Worthington came upstairs to scold the gentlemen for not thinking of the poor lady, who sorely needed her rest after so trying a day, and withdrew with Miss Potter to the kitchen. The men stayed up a bit longer, smoking, although Jack had fallen into a brown study, frowning at the far wall. At length, he set down his cigarette and, with the swiftness of a striking snake, lunged forward and seized Peter by the wrist, pinching savagely a fold of skin between his thumb and forefinger. Peter yelped and reached up instinctively to push him away, but Jack had already dropped his hand and sat back, regarding Peter as one might study a horse at auction.
“You seem to have lost all your talents,” he observed. “Or at least, a great many of them.”
“How did you know?” Peter gasped, soothing the sore spot on his arm.
“Please don’t take me for a fool. If you retained full use of your talents, you wouldn’t have come here, and you wouldn’t be in fear of the law. You would’ve flown to France, or Canada, and devil take any that tried to pursue you.” Jack leisurely took up his cigarette again and rearranged his legs Indian-fashion. “Now, explain yourself.”
Peter sighed and hung his head. Some part of him had not wanted to lose Jack’s esteem–what would Jack think of him, talentless and powerless, hiding here in the East End like a mouse? And yet, there was no hope of hiding anything from Jack, who watched him now with an impenetrable gaze.
“Well,” he began, a trifle awkwardly, “there is not so very much to explain. I was born without any talent whatsoever, to a watchmaker and his wife in Kent, and lived all my life with every expectation of taking over the family business. However, when I was sixteen, some gentlemen with the Division came ’round and asked that I try on this sword they had with them. So I did, and found myself possessed of wondrous abilities. They had a word with my parents, and within a week I was in London.”
Jack had drawn one knee up to his chest as Peter spoke and smoked absently. “So it is this sword, then, that bestows these talents upon you?”
“Yes, or something about it; I confess I don’t entirely know the details. I didn’t much care at first, being somewhat young and foolish, and later I didn’t think to ask. The Ora–I mean, Miss Potter probably knows more than I do. She was the one that divined my location, when they needed another Hyperion.”
“So there have been others? What happened to your predecessor?”
Peter was startled by the question; despite his American accent, he had nearly forgotten that Jack was a stranger to these shores, and could not be expected to know what every English schoolchild knew. “Illness. His wife contracted it, and he followed soon after. It was in all the newspapers.” He recalled, quite clearly, his father pacing up and down their sitting room, lamenting the state of Britain’s security without the Hyperion, and his mother shaking her head in sorrow. There had been a state funeral, very solemn, and then the men from the Division had come ’round, not a week later.
“Then this sword does not bestow its powers upon just anyone.”
“Certainly not. If you, for instance, were to put it on, there would be no effect whatsoever.”
Jack’s brows knitted together, but if he objected to this piece of information he did not voice it. He put out his cigarette and stretched both arms above his head, his back arching gracefully and his joints giving the most alarming cracking sounds. “Fascinating,” said he, once he was finished, and then glanced at his pocketwatch. “And now I believe it is long past time for bed. Tomorrow will be a long day, and we’ll both need our rest.”
“Then you’re not going out tonight?” Peter asked, with some relief. He had feared an appearance from the black suit, in part because Jack’s injuries, though minimal, still required rest, and also in part because he had feared Jack might request assistance that he could not give.
“If you mean prowling the rooftops in search of criminals, then no. They’ll keep their heads down after the events in the square, and I need sleep after the excitement I’ve had today,” Jack said, dryly. “After all, not only have I been beaten by police constables in Trafalgar Square, but I’ve had two fugitives from the law foisted on me. No, no, don’t apologise. I wouldn’t dream of it being any other way.”
Peter hardly slept a wink, for the room was warmed only with a small brazier and he was consequently quite cold, and the floor was hard. He fancied he could hear vermin in the walls, and, on guard ever since Jack’s remark regarding fleas, was kept awake by sudden itches for which there was no cause save his own imagination. He worried about Miss Potter, downstairs, and wondered whether he had done the right thing, bringing her here. This was no place for a lady. And what about his parents? They must have heard, by now. It was suddenly very tempting to collect Miss Potter and–and then what? Go home? Go back to the Government? Did he truly think that if he returned to the Division tomorrow, that all would be as it once was?
He must have fallen asleep, for that was Jack’s hand on his shoulder. “Peter. Peter, wake up.” It was the Irish labourer’s voice again.
“What?” Peter rubbed his eyes with his knuckles and reached for his bedside clock. But it wasn’t there, and at once he felt the planks beneath his back and the cold air on his face. He opened his eyes to discover that it was still dark, but for Jack’s lamp. “What time is it?”
“Four o’ clock, if I’m any judge. Come along, or we’ll be late.”
“Come where? Late to what?” Despite his confusion, Peter rose and began obediently to dress.
“Ta work, o’ course. I’ve me rent ta pay and extra mouths ta feed. What, ye think I was lettin’ ye freeload? Not a chance. I expect Mrs. Worthington will be puttin’ Miss Potter ta work with the mending.” Jack shrugged on his woollen coat, frowning at the tear in the sleeve, and then glanced at Peter. “Much too fine,” he muttered, “but ‘tll have ta do. Here, give me your muffler.” He wound Peter’s much finer muffler around his neck, while Peter donned Jack’s brown one. “Better. Let’s be a-goin’, then.”
Jack produced breakfast from the bread and roast beef of last night’s supper, and they made their way to the docks in near silence, Jack communicating with glances, a jerk of the head, or a touch to the arm which way they were to go. They were nearly alone in the streets when they began, the buildings all shut fast against them, but as they neared the West India Docks they were joined by more, shoulders hunched against the cold, faces wrapped in mufflers and cloth caps pulled low. It was not yet half-past four, but a crowd was already formed round the gates. In the main they were men much like Jack and himself, many Irish, but also some dressed in finer clothes, that looked as if they might be more comfortable as clerks, and some with the stubs of failed bets still in their pockets, and also some foreigners, and at least one negro. A great many of them were broken-down and filthy, and these men stared more hungrily through the gates than the rest. Some were lying on the ground, or by the grass closer to the river, as if they had slept there all night.
“This is a small crowd,” Jack remarked. Peter was astonished, for there were at least a thousand men here, and still more gathering at the edges. But no doubt many had been injured at the Square yesterday, or arrested, who might otherwise be here.
They stood there for over an hour. Jack did not seem much disposed to conversation and indeed had his eyes closed nearly the whole time, as if asleep on his feet like a horse. Peter attempted to do the same, but without success, and was glad to be relieved of his tedium when the gates groaned open and the quay-gangers ascended to their pulpits and began to shout the names in their books: “William Howard!” “Charles Kinsey!” “Michael O’Dell!”
And each man whose name was called received a pass and went through the gates. One of the quay-gangers called the name Patrick Mahoney, and Jack seized Peter by the wrist and led him through the crowd, whose hungry eyes Peter could feel on his back. The quay-ganger’s eyes raked over them, they both received a pass, and then they were past the dock police and through.
“Now, just do as ye’re told, and we’ll come out o’ this a’right,” Jack whispered. “It’s easy enough work.”
Indeed it was, in the sense that this was hardly skilled labour. What was needed were a strong back and a steady pair of hands, and little else. Peter might as well have been a dumb animal or a construct, and the end result would have been the same, so long as the ox or the golem could lift a crate of tea, or spices, or china, or whatever else, and carry it to the correct warehouse, and then, once there, deposit its load and lift yet another crate and carry it to the hold of one of the ships. It might be the same ship whose hold he had just emptied, or another one; he would have long lost count. Once in a while a crate would be dropped, or would be broken in the hold already, and he would work with the others to pack it away again, or he might be called upon to lash this or tie that, and he obeyed without question or word. He had kept quite close to Jack at first, working nearly side by side, but at some point they were divided, and now he caught only glimpses of him from afar as the morning wore on. His brow glistened with perspiration despite the chill, and when it began to drizzle, he welcomed it as a relief. His arms had gone numb, and he knew not from where his strength came, or how it remained.
At last, the whistle sounded. All that remained for the men, now, was to file through the offices and receive their day’s pay, and the dock police checked their pockets for stolen wares. Peter was so exhausted that at first he could not count the coins: three shillings. Good heavens, he thought. How do these people live? Not easily, and not well. Peter could recall, all too clearly, Jack’s bare, unfurnished room, and knew that in other rooms there lived entire families whose children went hungry or barefooted for want of a few extra shillings a week, and that a sixpence was all that might stand between them and starvation.
It was now a little after two o’ clock in the afternoon, and those hopeful hangers-on at the gates had slunk away at last, with bent head and heavy tread. Peter hadn’t any notion of where Jack was in this throng of thousands, nor could he recall the way back to Bright Street without him.
He felt a touch at his elbow, accompanied by a low voice: “Well then, me lad, let’s be gettin’ home afore someone tempts you o’ your wages, aye?”
“Aye,” Peter whispered, unaccountably relieved.
Mrs. Worthington had a cold luncheon of last night’s roast beef and bread ready when they arrived home, which Peter fell upon with the ferocity of a pack of ravenous wolves–Jack was much more restrained in his habits, and seemed greatly amused, while Mrs. Worthington watched with delight–then promptly took himself upstairs and fell asleep still in all his clothes. He woke once, some hours later, to find Jack asleep beside him, and nodded back to sleep without much thought. When he woke again, night had fallen and Jack was seated in the room’s lone chair, dressed in waistcoat and trousers, reading the Echo.
“Good evening,” Jack greeted him in the cultured tones of the London gentleman. “I hope I didn’t wake you.”
“Oh, no,” Peter assured him, rising first to his elbows, then to a sitting position with his legs stretched out before him. He was acutely aware that every muscle in his body ached, and that he was in desperate need of a bath.
“You need only ask Mrs. Worthington if you desire a bath,” said Jack, displaying his usual uncanny ability to read Peter’s thoughts. “I am going out, as you’ve probably already inferred.”
“Yes, I had gathered something of the sort.” Peter raked a hand through his hair. Jack had not asked Peter to accompany him. Indeed, Jack probably did not want Peter’s company; he was more than useless, without his talents. “And what shall I do?” he asked, ruefully.
“Whatever you like,” Jack replied. “You may make yourself at home. I shall leave you this newspaper. You may sleep, or you may pass the time in Miss Potter’s charming company. You may, if you’ve the energy for it, seek out one or two odd jobs, although the hour is rather late. You may visit the public-house, although I earnestly discourage you from it. The possibilities are endless.”
“I shall find some way to occupy my time, then.”
“Good man.” Jack set down his paper and picked up his coat. “Then I bid you farewell.” And with that, Jack had scrambled out the window with all the speed and grace of a squirrel, vanishing up to the roof with a flick of his sleeve.
Feeling oddly bereft, Peter made his way down to the kitchen. On the second floor one of the tenants was engaged in a fearful row, the door fairly shaking with the violence of it. Peter paused upon the landing, then hurried past and found Mrs. Worthington and Miss Potter with their heads bent over their mending in the firelight, whispering and laughing to one another in the secret language of women. He had not seen Miss Potter in nearly a day now, and she seemed a wholly different creature, clad in a rough, ill-fitting housedress with her hair pinned carelessly back. Then she turned her head and saw him, and broke into a smile of genuine affection, and Peter was easy again.
“So you’re awake!” she exclaimed. “Mrs. Worthington thought you might not rise again until tomorrow. Come, sit by the fire and tell me all about your day. I’ve spent nearly the entire day indoors, save when we went to buy the bread.”
So he did, and showed them the three shillings he had earned. “And three more tomorrow, I hope,” he said, “though how Jack makes a living at it I’m sure I don’t know.”
“Oh, ‘e has his ways,” Mrs. Worthington said, enigmatically. “Dock work in’t all that ‘e does, and you’d know it if you ‘adn’t slept through half the day like a pig. Miss Potter ‘ere, now, she’s a dab ‘and wi’ the needle an’ no mistake. I kin take in twice as much mending as I usually does.”
“She flatters me,” Miss Potter said, smiling, and Peter realised he had no idea what life she had led before becoming the Oracle, and where she had learned these things. He had never thought to ask. There were a great many things he had never thought to ask, and he wished to ask them now, but how to do so without seeming foolish?
The ladies needed to sleep before long, and Peter excused himself back upstairs. He read the newspaper as best he could by lamplight, for this tenement naturally had no electric lights, and when he gave that up in disgust he took to pacing, ’til a muffled roar from downstairs informed him that his footfalls caused the planks to creak. Then he lay quietly in the nest of blankets that Jack had recently vacated and tried to sleep, but his mind was crowded with thoughts of the Division, the sword, Lord Salisbury, and Jack. Was this how Jack lived, then? He spent all the night defending the weak and punishing the wicked, and from there probably straight to the docks, to break his back under the heavy loads. And from there to any number of odd jobs as a strong man might find, with never a drop of drink in between, or anything that might cause him to spend more coin than he liked. It occurred to Peter that Jack seemed to be entirely friendless, unless one counted Mrs. Worthington as a friend.
Jack returned a little after three o’ clock, by the same window as he’d left. His hat and jacket were slick with water, for a gentle rain had begun some hours before, and he shook it off him like a dog before hanging the suit to dry in a corner. “As I cannot be expected to engage in combat while carrying an umbrella, I really must think of some way to keep the rain off,” he mused. “Perhaps a cape or a cloak of some kind. What are you smiling at?”
“Nothing,” said Peter, though he did not stop smiling. He thought of Jack descending on some hapless would-be thief, his cape billowing around him. What a sight that would be! He averted his eyes as Jack began to unbutton his shirt. “Are we going to work, then?”
“To the docks? Yes, if you’re quite well-rested.” Jack used some of the water in the basin to clean his face, and under his arms. “And are you?”
“Oh, yes,” said Peter. “Yes.”
They passed the following fortnight in much the same fashion. In the mornings, Jack and Peter would put in their hours at the docks, and afterward make their way home for luncheon. Once he had accustomed himself to the lifestyle, Peter would join Jack in his quest for a few hours’ labour that might put another sixpence in their pockets, whether as porter or scenery mover or carman. Then back to Bright Street for supper, and a few hours’ sleep ’til Jack had to be up again. In this manner, Peter calculated Jack’s wages were 20s – 23s a week, extremely respectable for a man of his class and all the more so for his having no family to support.
Existence was almost pleasant. While the labour was hard and the surroundings brutal, never had Peter felt so much his own man. He had lived so long under the yoke of the Division, burdened by his title and class and the weight of the uniform, that it was a relief to be merely Peter Huggins. Oh, occasionally he was tormented by thoughts of his parents, who must be prostrate with anxiety and shame, or he would spy a detective inquiring with some layabouts if they had spotted any persons matching the descriptions of Peter or Miss Potter, and would be forcibly reminded of the danger they were in. But for the most part, he was as content as a man could be, given the circumstances.
There was one incident, however, that reminded him that the one in most danger was Jack, in more ways than one. He returned one morning a little later than usual, not so late as to cause Peter worry, but fumbled at the window for some minutes before entering. Jack was gifted with a catlike delicacy of movement that allowed him to slip in and out of rooms and alley-ways like a ghost, and for him to scrabble at the catch like a rat was unusual enough to cause alarm. Just as Peter began to fear a burglar and thought to search for a weapon, the window gave and Jack all but tumbled into the room. His coat-sleeve was torn and soaked all through with blood, and Peter could not help a cry of dismay.
“Hush,” Jack retorted, though his face was drawn and white with pain, and perspiration stood out on his forehead. “It’s not so bad as all that. Mrs. Worthington will only be displeased at my having gotten blood on the coat. Fetch the light, there’s a good fellow.”
Peter lit the lamp, whilst Jack stripped himself to the waist and withdrew a small kit from the chest, which proved to be such as what one of the field surgeons in the Army might carry. Peter fetched over the washbasin as well, pouring more water from the pitcher into it, and a washcloth.
Jack sat abruptly on the floor as if he could not stay on his feet any longer, and probably he could not. “Have you any brandy?”
“Yes,” said Peter, and brought Jack his flask. Jack unstoppered it and took a long swallow, and Peter inspected his forearm. Some attempt had been made to stop the bleeding, for he had a mass of sodden cloth wrapped round it, which had clearly been torn from his shirt. Peter unwound it gingerly and used a moistened cloth to sponge away the clotted blood. There was a great deal of it.
“What are you doing?” Jack asked in a queer, tight voice.
“I am trying to see. Ah, it is not so bad,” Peter said, relieved. The cut was some four inches wide, but shallow, upon the outside of the arm. “But this will require stitches. We ought to go to hospital.”
“We shall do no such thing. Give me that box.”
Within the box were surgical needles, already threaded, rolls of carbolysed bandages, and a bottle of solution of carbolic acid, which he poured into the basin of water. Peter knelt and held the lamp steady, watching with horror and trepidation whilst his friend pushed the needle through skin and flesh, and then across the ragged gash to the other side, so that the two sides were now knitted together. Then he repeated the ordeal. Time crawled in this fashion, counted in sutures, with a pause every now and then to take another swallow of brandy. The wound bled continuously, and Peter’s hands were soon covered in blood as he blotted it away. The process was long and excruciating, and by the end of it Jack’s breathing was laboured and sweat dripped from his brow. At last he dropped the needle in the washbasin, wrapped his arm with the bandages, and sat for some minutes with his head bowed, the flask dangling loosely from his fingers.
When he spoke, his voice was thick and hoarse. “What time is it?”
“A little after four.”
Jack groaned. Peter was on his feet instantly, one hand on Jack’s shoulder. “Don’t even dream of it. I’ll be Patrick Mahoney today; they won’t question it, if they haven’t questioned you.”
“My dear fellow,” Jack began, with asperity.
“You’ll only burst your stitches and have to do the whole thing over again in hospital,” Peter retorted.
Jack acquiesced, shoulders slumping gracelessly. “All right, then,” he said. “I shall see to matters here.”
When Peter returned, Jack had changed into a fresh shirt and had evidently been out, for he had the Daily News. The blood had been sponged from the floor and the windowsill. A dish and fork lay on the floor beside him, which was heartening, for Jack had a tendency toward nonexistent appetite even when he was whole.
He acknowledged Peter not at all when he entered the room, laden with a plate of buttered bread and fried sausages, and hid behind his newspaper. When Peter inquired after his arm, Jack responded with a curt “It’s fine.” Peter ate in silence, knowing better than to be offended by the other man’s mood; Mrs. Worthington had warned him that Jack was little more than “a big baby, ‘oo doesn’t care t’ be told what t’do. ‘E was orful mad when I wouldn’t let ‘im out, but ‘ow could I, after openin’ ‘is door and seein’ all that blood, and ‘e asleep in the middle o’ it all like ‘e was dead?”
Jack’s newspaper crackled ominously, and at length a hand stole out and took one of the slices of bread. Peter smiled and finished his lunch, and then departed again. Jack had not moved when Peter returned, though he was now reading the Times; there was a pile of newspapers by his feet. One of the sausages was missing, and two slices of bread. Peter ate the rest of them as a cold supper and stretched himself out for a nap.
Peter was woken by a muffled curse. It could be no one but Jack, and then Peter was awake almost immediately.
Jack appeared to be committing burglary in his own room, turning out the contents of his chest and rummaging about in corners and in his bedding, though there was scarcely a place a mouse could have hidden. Peter seized Jack by the shoulders to prevent him from doing himself injury. “What is it?” he asked breathlessly.
“That dreadful woman’s hidden my suit,” Jack snarled. “She knows I can’t go out without it. Oh, you think it’s funny?” he cried, when Peter gave a huff of laughter.
“No, no,” Peter said, hastily. “It’s only–well, I wish I’d thought of it myself.”
“This is no laughing matter!” Jack dashed Peter’s hands from his shoulders and clenched his own hands into fists as he stood, eyes flashing, and when he spoke again it was in a much broader and more Western dialect than before. “I don’t know where you think you get off, but you’ve picked the wrong man to monkey around–”
“We only wish to see you safe. If it’s a fight you’re looking for it’s a fight you’ll have, but I really have no desire to hurt you.”
Jack gave a sharp bark of laughter. “Hurt me? I’d like to see you try!”
Peter had not truly expected Jack to agree to a fight, but the other man was in high spirits, and Peter was hardly able to get his arms up before Jack was upon him. The first blow, to his gut, drove all the breath from his body and sent him crashing to the floor. The next blow was aimed for his face, but all of Peter’s instincts were roused, and he caught that blow with his palm and drove his other fist toward Jack’s throat. Jack knocked it aside with a blade-handed chop, but he could not retrieve his other hand; Peter was grasping it too tightly. At that moment Peter jabbed two fingers into Jack’s bandaged forearm, where he knew the wound to be, and at Jack’s gasp of pain he rolled them both over so that he was on top, pinning Jack with his superior weight and grasping him by one wrist.
Doubtless Jack knew a thousand ways to extricate himself from this situation, but he lay quiescent under Peter with his head thrown back and his breath coming quick and fast. Peter waited, to see if there was some trick, but there did not appear to be one, and he shifted so as to draw away and allow Jack his freedom. Jack gasped, and Peter froze. “Have I hurt you?”
“No,” Jack rasped, eyes tightly shut. “Not yet.”
Puzzled, Peter again shifted his weight to rise, which seemed to cause Jack’s eyelids to flicker and a slow flush to spread from cheeks to collar. Peter could feel a bulge in Jack’s trousers, beneath his thigh, and when he rocked against it deliberately, Jack gave a most gratifying gasp. Several things at once made themselves clear to him and, more aroused than he had ever been in his entire life, Peter leaned down and kissed him.
Jack was slack with amazement at first, but he was swift to recover as always, flinging one arm–for the other was still pinned to the floor–round Peter’s neck, so as to crush their mouths together, and winding one leg round Peter’s leg, so that he could rub up against him. This had the delicious effect of insinuating Jack’s leg between Peter’s, giving him something to thrust against as well, and for many pleasurable moments they rutted against one another like animals, until Peter was almost blind with desire, deafened by the rush of the blood in his ears. He had never experienced this lying with women. It was incredible that this man, whom he had known for the space of two weeks, could inspire such passion, and yet it was so perfectly natural that it was astonishing he had not done this before. He broke off the kiss to press his lips to Jack’s chin, to the hollow of his throat, down his neck to his collar, and revelled in the feel of the lean, hard body that pressed up against his, and the large, scarred hand in his own, and hungered for more.
“I want,” he gasped, and then fell silent; he did not know what he wanted.
“What?” Jack panted. “What is it? You can have anything.” He moved desperately against Peter’s body, turning his head to press small kisses to Peter’s jaw and below his ear. “I will use my mouth on you, if you like. I will put my thighs together and let you thrust between them. You may sodomize me, if that is your desire.”
Lust burned through Peter’s body, incinerating all reason, and he was afraid that he would smother Jack to death, so wild were his movements. Jack did not seem to mind, but matched Peter stroke for stroke, until Peter shuddered to a halt and spent. Below him Jack continued to writhe and buck; Peter thought to take pity on him and reached his hand down, but no sooner had he brushed the tips of his fingers against his friend’s flies than Jack stiffened and came to glory, with a great exhalation of breath.
They lay entangled for many long moments as their breathing slowed. Peter stroked his fingers through Jack’s hair, wondering at how the man appeared so beautiful, and Jack looked at him with such mingled despair and adoration that Peter was compelled to kiss him, long and deep. But the grim look in Jack’s eyes would not fade, no matter how sweet Peter’s kisses.
At length, Jack looked away and flung one arm over his eyes. “I suppose now isn’t the time to tell you that I’ve had a reply from my brother, and if all goes well you’ll be in America before Christmas,” he said, striving for lightness.
“Really?” Peter exclaimed. “Why did you not say something sooner?”
“It put me in something of a foul mood,” Jack said vaguely, and took his arm away, but his gaze remained fixed on the ceiling.
Peter reflected upon this new knowledge, stroking Jack’s neck and the faint stubble at the edge of his jaw. “Come with me. With us,” he suggested.
Jack frowned and drew away, though he could not go very far with Peter lying half on top of him. “I’ve no intention of returning.”
Jack did not respond immediately but freed himself from their embrace and went to the washbasin, returning with a moistened cloth, which he began to use to set themselves to rights. “My memories of those shores aren’t pleasant ones, and I’ve no desire to repeat past mistakes. You’ll have to go without me.”
“Then I shall not go.”
“Don’t be stupid. Think of Miss Potter. Now, it’s been two weeks, and they’ll hardly believe you’ve escaped them in London all this time. They’ll turn to the countryside or the Continent, cease their watch upon the ports, and then you’ll quietly make your escape.”
“Why are you trying to get rid of me?” Peter demanded, sitting up. “Is my company truly so despicable?”
Jack gave him a long, sorrowful look. “No, not at all,” he said, softly, and put the washcloth away.
“Then why will you not even entertain the notion? Is America truly so dreadful?”
“No, and I should know, for I’ve seen a great deal of it,” Jack snapped. “I’ve been an invert ever since I was fifteen, and a shame to my family because of it. I could’ve gone East, but I chose West for the freedom of it, and spent many happy years in San Francisco before my lover was taken from me. I fled to English soil in an attempt to forget. I apologise if I have no desire to undo the fruits of my labour.”
The blood had drained from Peter’s face at Jack’s first words, and now he reached out to place a hand on his friend’s shoulder. Jack did not attempt to move away, which was gratifying, but he remained squatting on the floor like a wary animal, glaring.
“I’m so sorry,” Peter choked out. “Please forgive me.”
Jack softened. “You didn’t know,” he said, looking away. “Let’s go to sleep. Tomorrow won’t be any easier.”
They slept in the same bed that night–such as it was–which was a great deal warmer and more comfortable than sleeping on separate pallets. Peter meant to stay awake, so that he could work some more on the puzzle that Jack presented, but the day’s exertions took their toll on him, and he slipped into Morpheus’ realm.
Peter arrived home after the day’s work at the docks to find Jack seated at the table in the kitchen, once again reading seemingly every newspaper in London, although now he presented The Daily Telegraph to him as if it were a gift: THE SON OF BRITAIN RETURNS! blazed the headline. According to the article, the Hyperion had not retired, but had merely required a fortnight’s holiday in order to recuperate from the effects of overwork and exhaustion. He was very sorry for his rash words and actions at Trafalgar Square on 13 November but was quite prepared to make reparations, and expected to return to active duty as soon as possible. In fact, tomorrow he would escort the Queen to Paddington Station for her journey to Windsor, a duty wholly unnecessary for the General of the Royal Division of Supermen, but one could not expect a convalescent to rush into things.
“Whatever can it mean?” Peter cried in amazement.
Jack drummed the tips of his fingers against the table. Behind him Mrs. Worthington banged away at the stove, whilst Miss Potter sat with them, darning a pair of stockings. “There are several possibilities. One is that a suitable replacement has been found, but that seems highly unlikely without Miss Potter’s assistance.” Miss Potter inclined her head in acknowledgement. “The other is that this is some fraud or imposter, but that they cannot hope to conceal for very long.”
At that Miss Potter laughed, a girlish giggle unsuitable for one of her years. “What they’ve done is disguised a manticore as a lion, and soon enough it will sting them for it. Oh, but where is our St. George to slay it? To be sure, his speciality is dragons, but he should be just as adept at manticores.” With this pronouncement she fell silent, though her shoulders still shook occasionally over her mending. Jack glanced at Peter, troubled, but Peter said nothing; that dreamy tone and absurd language were generally associated with the Oracle, but Miss Potter had had no visions since coming here. Perhaps it was because she no longer existed in her official capacity, or perhaps she’d merely held her tongue all this while.
“With your permission, Mrs. Worthington, I should like to set foot out of doors today,” said Jack, affecting an exaggerated politeness not dissimilar to his spring-heeled persona.
Mrs. Worthington sniffed. “So long as Mr. Huggins goes wiv you, and makes sure you won’t do anyfin’ stupid.”
“It’s just as well,” said Jack, “for I’m going to the ticket-office to purchase your passage, and you may as well come along. Have you your purse? Is it upstairs? No, don’t let me disturb your lunch. I’ll go find it myself. It’s in your valise, is it not?” And away he darted, upstairs. Peter was quick to throw down his bread and follow.
“What are you doing?” Peter demanded, shutting the door behind him.
“I thought I’d put you on the ship tomorrow,” Jack remarked, pausing in the act of violating Peter’s privacy by opening his luggage in order to search through his belongings.
“Tomorrow!” Peter exclaimed.
“Yes, there are steamers bound for America every Saturday. They’ve evidently given up looking for you, if they’ve gone so far as to employ this. . . manticore, as Miss Potter termed it.” Jack’s long, quivering fingers traced along the edges of the valise.
“Jack,” Peter said heavily, not bothering to conceal the grief in his voice.
Jack would not look at him, choosing instead to study the catches. “Don’t say it. Not a word.”
“But,” Peter began.
“You knew it would go nowhere. It was a distraction. A trifle. A way to pass the time.”
“You imply either that I am a brute that uses others towards my own ends, or that you are. Either is a grave insult.”
Jack looked up at him then, with weariness and sorrow stamped on every inch of his features, and Peter thought that if he never saw this man again after tomorrow his heart would break from the tragedy. He had not known men could be beautiful, but Jack was beautiful, kneeling on the floor of an attic room in only his shirtsleeves and trousers, barefooted and his hair disarranged. Swiftly, Peter crossed the room to kneel next to his friend and kiss him, one hand on his chin. Jack returned the gesture in full, tilting his head that they might better fit together, but his hands remained on the valise. Peter drew one of those hands into his, twining their fingers together, and busied his other hand with undoing the buttons of Jack’s shirt. After Jack was bared, they performed the same for Peter, so that they might at last feel each other skin to skin, as they had not been able to last night. Jack did what he had said he would for Peter, using his mouth on Peter’s flesh until he ached with desire, and then slicked his thighs with lamp oil and turned himself round. Peter slid himself between Jack’s tight, hard thighs and felt the prickle of hairs and the weight of Jack’s sac on his shaft, and could have wept. He bent his head over his friend’s back as he thrust, his hands on his friend’s hips, and pressed kisses to the freckles on Jack’s skin. Then he might have wept anyway, for the knowledge that he would never have this again.
It was amazing that neither Mrs. Worthington nor Miss Potter came upstairs to see what had become of them–or perhaps not, as Miss Potter was no fool, and they had not been entirely noiseless. When they descended to the kitchen afterward, Peter flushed and dazed and Jack considerably more sanguine, Peter had his wallet and Jack had his hat. Peter hastily downed a cup of tea and another slice of bread, and then they were off to the ticket-office.
They had not gone very far when a commotion erupted in the street, people crying out and pointing up at something in the air. “What is it?” “Innit a bird?” “Queerest bird I ever saw.” “It’s coming closer!” “It’s the Hyperion!”
It was indeed Peter’s old uniform–and, Peter was shocked to realise, himself inside of it, moustache and all, looking very smart with his hair slicked back with pomade. He passed quite close overhead, gaze sweeping over them, and smiled ever so slightly and raised one hand in greeting. Then he was gone.
“Odd,” Jack remarked thoughtfully.
“How can this be?” Peter gasped.
“Reason it out, man. Have ye any among the supermen that might be capable o’ glamour?”
“Yes–the Wyrd Sister is capable of such an enchantment, and Mister Fox is a master of disguise. But what object could there be in such a deception?”
“Same as whatever object there was in sendin’ him ta fly o’er Bromley. No; these are deep waters, my friend. Best we be stayin’ well out o’ it.”
Peter was in low spirits for the remainder of the day and had little appetite. Jack did not go out that night, though Mrs. Worthington had returned the black suit, and seemed to be in similarly depressed spirits. They retired early, and that night Peter held Jack down by the hips while he swallowed his issue, for it suddenly seemed very important that he should do this for him. They slumbered in one another’s arms, and morning came too early. Jack rose early, for Peter would no longer be able to play the part of Patrick Mahoney, and he would lose his billet if he failed to show; and as for Peter, their ship was an early one. They dressed in silence. Jack asked if Peter had all his belongings. Peter replied that he had, and with no more reason to linger, they descended the steps, Jack first, and then Peter with his valise, his coat over one arm.
Miss Potter was awake as well, and seated at the kitchen table, but still clad in her nightdress, with her hair down.
Peter gaped in astonishment and so far forgot himself as to call her by her given name. “Grace! Where are your things?”
“No, I don’t believe I’ll be going anywhere,” she said in a familiar dreamy fashion. “The Red King and Queen are going to Windsor, and they’ll be needing their Jack, or heads will roll.”
“What–” Peter began, but was interrupted by Jack’s hand hard on his shoulder.
“The sword,” Jack said, urgently. “He had the sword, yesterday. Can any of the other supermen fly?”
“A–one or two,” Peter said, “but what has that to do with anything?”
“It’s too much,” Jack muttered to himself. “The sword does not bestow its powers lightly, and yet we saw him flying, clearly. They might have disguised another superman, one with the talent of flight, but they couldn’t hope to conceal his lack of other talents. But once you’ve eliminated the impossible–”
“He didn’t die,” said Miss Potter, suddenly. Both men turned to look at her, thunderstruck. “He couldn’t die, because he was the Hyperion, and that was the tragedy of it: that this man with the power to leap buildings in a single bound and stop steam engines in their tracks could not keep his wife from dying of pneumonia.” She looked up at them with eyes as large and dark as a hare’s; one could drown in them, if one was not careful. “He was quite mad, and they put him away in Bedlam, and I held the sword and said that there was another that could use it. I should not have,” she added, reflectively, “but I believe we’re past the time for self-recrimination.”
“God save us,” Peter whispered.
“Why did you not say something earlier?” Jack demanded, but then answered himself, bitterly, “No, but of course an oracle never says more than is required.” He darted back upstairs. Peter dropped his valise and went after him; he arrived in the little attic room to see Jack donning a collar. “What are you doing?”
“Going to Paddington Station to see the Queen,” Jack said, grimly. “I must look the part, after all.” He unbuckled his belt and pulled off his corduroy trousers as well.
Peter averted his eyes. “And what do you expect to do there? Tear the Hyperion away from her?”
“I’m sure I don’t know, but it seems pretty clear there’s going to be some danger, and I intend to be there to thwart it, however I may.”
“Single-handed against the Hyperion? He’ll crush you!”
“Would you prefer I stood by and did nothing?”
Jack paused in the act of putting on his jacket, his expression one of studied indifference. Peter recalled, very clearly, the roof of a warehouse in East London, and knew he recalled this because Jack wanted him to recall it.
He took a deep breath. “If you are going, then I am coming with you.”
“You can’t stop me,” Peter said, firmly. “I don’t suppose you intend me to stand by and do nothing while you risk your own safety?”
“No,” Jack said, “I don’t suppose.” He finished dressing with an abstracted air, his lips twitching, and finally he pronounced, “All right, but you must do exactly as I say.”
“Then let’s go. We have a train to catch.”
They took a cab to Paddington Station, and during the journey Jack asked a great many questions about the Hyperion and his weaknesses. Peter answered them as best as he could, but there were not many: besides possessing flight and speed and strength, the Hyperion was also invulnerable, as if his skin were made of steel. There was little two talentless mortals could hope to do against him.
A small crowd had gathered at the station to watch the Queen’s departure, larger than was usual; this being a Jubilee year, perhaps sentiment ran high. One of the platforms had been cleared for the Royal Train, its doors adorned with the royal coat-of-arms and the handles covered with gold leaf, its engine puffing contentedly. The Queen had already made her way down the platform to her saloon, preceded by her ladies-in-waiting and equerries-in-waiting, the Princess Beatrice by her side. The Hyperion walked to her left, an abstracted expression upon his features, attired in his dress uniform, and to his left was the Wyrd Sister, also in her dress uniform, with a look of immense concentration that would not have been discernible to anyone save Peter, who had had many occasions to see her at work. Also accompanying them was the superman Hercules, who towered over all the others by head and shoulders. Too many supermen for what was surely an ordinary departure for Windsor Castle, which occurred many times in a year, but it only brought home to Peter that this was a serious matter, and that they anticipated danger.
“Stupid,” Jack murmured. “Very stupid. What could they be thinking? Come, we must be closer.” He seized Peter by the wrist, and they slipped through the crowd.
The servants vanished to their appointed places within the train, and Beatrice similarly disappeared into the Queen’s saloon. Now it only remained for the Queen to enter, the Hyperion’s hand upon her hand, his foot upon the step. She mounted the steps and vanished with a rustle of skirts, and the Hyperion stepped down and back, then back again, pausing to take one last look at the station and its assembled crowd. Then he stilled, head cocked, like a hound that has just caught the scent. For an instant, instinct and caution and something else warred upon his face; then the confusion cleared, and away he dashed across the platform.
The Wyrd Sister followed, but she could never be match for the Hyperion. He leapt down onto the tracks beyond, dashed across nearly faster than the eye could follow, and bounded up to the opposite platform with the grace and speed of a horse at a steeplechase. There he seized a woman eagerly by the back of her dress and turned her round with a glad cry: “Mary!”
Peter would never forget the Hyperion’s face at that moment, when he saw the woman’s pale, frightened features. His expression was one of blackest sorrow, of hope dashed into pieces against the wall of despair. He let go of the woman, who nearly fell in her haste to get away, and gazed about the station in a daze, as if he was not entirely certain where he was. The Wyrd Sister caught him up then, gasping for breath, and laid one hand on his arm. He seized her casually by the front of her uniform and dashed her up against the side of the nearest train carriage, and she crumpled like a broken doll.
At that the people nearby screamed and scattered like field mice before the harrow, pushing at one another in their frenzy to get away. All at once there was a great commotion, as railway officers attempted to take charge, as heads poked out of the windows of the trains and demanded to know what was the matter. One train, its driver either unaware or unconcerned with the chaos, took its opportunity to depart, belching steam across the platform. The Hyperion’s glamour at first faded, then vanished entirely, and suddenly he was no longer the fair and golden titan the public had known for the past twenty years, but a man over sixty years in age, and yet seeming much older, wisps of snow-white hair standing every which way on his spotted head, clad in an ill-fitting uniform and looking as lost as a child. The Hyperion took no notice, but put his face in his hands like a man overcome with grief.
Peter nearly forgot himself, so absorbed in the spectacle was he, had Jack not touched his hand and said, “Peter. You must see to the Queen. Can I count on you for this?”
“Of course,” Peter said, surprised, “but what are you going to do?”
Jack only pressed his hand in answer and slipped away. At that moment, Hercules leapt down onto the tracks and clambered up the other side in his slow, methodical manner, and approached the Hyperion slowly, with hands held out. “Steady now, old chap,” he rumbled. “We’ll soon have you right–”
The Hyperion looked up, fury written across every feature. “Why are you keeping her from me?” he demanded. He flew at Hercules, faster than a bullet, and Hercules found himself flat on his back on the ground, with Hyperion’s hand pressed down on his neck. “Where is she? What have you done with her?” Hyperion’s fingers dug into the flesh of the strongman’s thick neck, and he smashed Hercules’ head against the cold stone with a sound like an egg flung against a windowpane. He repeated the act, his voice growing more frantic with each repetition, until he was nearly sobbing with fury and rage. “Where is my wife?” he cried at the last, but Hercules was incapable of answering. Hyperion dropped him where he was and glided up into the rafters, peering every which way down at the now-empty platforms, his mouth set in a quivering, unhappy curve.
“Someone must know where my wife is!” he declared, his voice ringing from the high ceiling. “I demand to know why you’re keeping her from me!” When he quite naturally received no answer, he reached up and tore down one of the wrought iron rafters, which gave a terrible groan and then a shriek as it snapped. He dropped the iron fragment in his hands to the tracks below, precisely where it would prevent the Royal Train from departing. “I’ll tear this place apart to find her, if I have to!” he vowed, and began to make good on his threat, tearing down another piece, which landed on one of the train’s carriages and crushed it nearly in half.
Jack appeared atop one of the train carriages, waving his coat, shouting something up at the Hyperion that Peter could not quite overhear, but the Hyperion immediately ceased his destruction to listen. Peter took advantage of his momentary distraction to dash to the Royal Train and fling open the door to the Queen’s saloon. Inside, he found the Queen and Princess Beatrice seated upon the settee, their hands clasped, the Princess very pale but the Queen quite composed. He paused, removed his hat, and bowed, before saying very rapidly, “Your Majesty, I believe it isn’t safe to stay here any longer. If you’ll come with me, I’ll escort you somewhere safe.”
Queen Victoria regarded him with narrowed gaze, and Princess Beatrice exclaimed, “Hyperion! What happened to your moustache? And your uniform? What’s going on?”
At that moment something landed with a thud upon the roof of the carriage, and a face appeared upside-down at the window. It was the Hyperion. He peered in at them, inquiring, “Mary?” Then a pair of arms appeared from below and pulled him down to the platform. Peter rushed to the window and stared in amazement; Jack had both arms locked round the Hyperion’s neck from behind in a move that would have half-throttled any man not the Hyperion, and had both his legs twined around the Hyperion’s waist. Once, he attempted to reach down and snatch at the swordbelt, but the Hyperion smashed them both against the side of the train with enough force that the carriage rocked upon its tracks, and it was all Jack could do to hang on for dear life.
Peter hesitated, two feelings at war with one another in his breast. He had sworn to obey Jack’s orders, and Jack had told him to see to the safety of the Queen. Yet Jack himself was in serious danger, and Peter could not stand by and watch his lover crushed by the Hyperion.
“Stay here,” he commanded breathlessly. “Your Majesty,” he added, and bolted from the carriage to throw himself on the Hyperion and Jack, just as the Hyperion began to rise into the air.
Peter found himself dangling many dozens of feet above the platform, clutching the Hyperion by the legs while Jack clung to his back like a bur. Neither of them would let go, even as the Hyperion began to fly in circles at incredible speeds, attempting to dislodge his tormentors, shouting all manner of vile imprecations. And then, abruptly, he changed tack and flew straight upward, as if he meant to fly straight through the ceiling. Peter realised that this was, in fact, his intention; his talents would allow him to survive the impact, but Jack and Peter never would. He shut his eyes, not wanting to see the end approach, and wished that he were the kind of man that might seek solace in prayer.
The impact never came. The Hyperion abruptly shuddered to a stop, and then, much to Peter’s alarm, they began to descend. It was slow at first, not a true fall, as if the Hyperion were a steam engine with not quite enough coal. He opened his eyes and discovered that Jack had somehow lost one of his shoes and had used his foot to unfasten the swordbelt. The Hyperion’s eyes bulged out from his face, the cords of his neck stood out in stark relief, and foam flecked his lips. The belt came loose and now hung precariously from Jack’s foot, and there was a brief moment of weightlessness before gravity asserted itself and they began to fall.
The Hyperion scrabbled uselessly at the air, as if hoping to find purchase, and the belt slipped from Jack’s foot. Trusting to Providence, Peter let go of the Hyperion’s legs and was only just able to snatch the sword from the air. As soon as his fingers met the tooled leather he felt all his old talents returning, like those first moments of relief after sinking into a warm bath, and knew that gravity had no hold over him. He dove to catch Jack and the Hyperion as they plummeted, fearing not that he would be too late–for there was no such thing as too late, with his talents–but that he would not be able to catch them both, clutching the sword in one hand as he was. Jack looked up at him, his features eerily calm for one that fell toward certain death; their eyes met, and then Jack released the senior Hyperion, stretching up both his arms. Peter caught him, swallowing against a twisting feeling in his chest as the Hyperion went on to land with a sickening thud against the stone.
“You must not blame yourself,” Jack whispered, breath warm against his ear. “He is with his Mary now.”
Peter did not answer, only closed his eyes against the sight that he knew would haunt him for the rest of his life.
“I maintain that this is completely unnecessary,” Jack muttered.
Peter did not bother to conceal his smile as he stood back to admire Jack, who looked very smart in his new suit. It was in fact very like his old one, with black frock-coat and trousers, but the trousers were pinstriped rather than plain, the waistcoat had subtle patterns in pewter-grey, and Jack had a fetching new burgundy necktie. However, the man contrived to look as thoroughly uncomfortable as a cat caught in a downpour.
“Well, if you are going to meet the Queen, you must dress the part,” Peter said. He himself was very comfortable in his dress uniform. “She’s going to give you a medal; one would think you’d be more grateful about it. What are you looking at?”
“As long as I have the opportunity to openly admire you in your dress uniform, I shall do so,” Jack replied, mildly.
Peter flushed. He would never comprehend the effect his uniform had on women–although evidently it was not limited solely to women. “How are your new lodgings?” he asked, in a desperate bid to change the subject, for Jack’s gaze had turned positively avaricious.
“A little crowded, I fear, but Mrs. Worthington is quite pleased,” Jack said, fussing with his cufflinks, which required no fussing whatsoever. “No rats, and she delights in being able to cook meat more than once a week. Apparently the tenements on Bright Street are to be demolished soon, in a project to better East London. Miss Potter is delighted to not have to return to her old quarters, which I understand were very small and dark. Why they all had to come and lodge with me is beyond me; besides being quite scandalous, I fear I shall never have any peace.”
“I hope you were not expecting any,” Peter said, attempting to conceal his smile.
“Harrumph,” said Jack. “I don’t know what I’m going to do with myself. A life of leisure does not appeal to me in the slightest, but Bromley’s no longer safe for me.”
“Well, you know, I have been thinking that the Royal Division of Supermen ought not to be under the purview of the Government anyhow,” Peter said, slowly. Jack’s head came up sharply, and he regarded Peter with keen interest.
“Indeed,” Peter continued, “it might be better if no one had direct control of any supermen at all. Perhaps we all ought to be independent, as you are, interested in the welfare of the people, and not only of the state.”
Jack continued looking at him a moment longer, his expression inscrutable. “And how do you propose to do that?”
“I haven’t given it much thought,” Peter confessed. “It’s only an idea. I don’t know if it’s practicable at all. But I would appreciate your advice on the matter,” he said, earnestly.
“Ah,” said Jack. “Well. You shall have it.”