more than comfortable around machines. Had that divine touch about him, when it came to cogwork. But still. The Church of the Algorithm didn't just let their people go. A Wright stayed in the Church, or died in its service. Only other way free was to take the pump implant in your head, and since Gray could still talk and didn't soil himself too regularly, I didn't think that had been his path. So. He makes me curious.

We stood around awkwardly until the door opened again, and Mr. Thin came through. For all the movement I heard in the house, I swear I didn't hear him walk away from the door, or approach it again. But there he was. He nodded to us, then disappeared into the hallway. We waited for a second, then followed.

The hallway beyond was narrow and low, like a long wooden tunnel dug in a hill. Doors led off, but none of the rooms seemed to be lit. Occupied, though. That's for sure. People moved in those rooms, light or no light. I had a bad moment about what we were getting into, whether anyone would hear from us again, but none of the doors seemed to have locks. I kept my hand near the revolver, just in case.

Mr. Thin led us to the center of the house, near as I could tell. I had yet to see a stairway, but there was definitely an upper level to this place. It actually sounded like someone was walking the hallway above us, keeping pace. We got to a door that was bigger than the rest, its wide face varnished red, with brass fittings. Light under the sill. Our quiet friend opened the door, bowed, and didn't move. Gray winked at me, then went inside.

The room was warm. Tropical, almost. There was a fireplace on the opposite wall, its roaring light drowning out much of the detail in the rest of the room. Nice furniture, turn-of-the-era stuff. Might be original to the house. This district had been nice, once. Like much of Veridon. Once.

At the center of the room was a table, papers spread out all over it, their curling edges held in place by bottles and candlesticks, and a forest of waxy candles that had melted in place. They were all lit, although the light and heat of the fireplace was a sun to their stars. Facing us was our man, our Mister Crane. He stood hunched over the table, his long arms spread wide across its surface. He had a soft face, the skin white and smooth, his features rather bookish. Neatly trimmed black hair, wire rim glasses that were spotted with the reflections of the sea of candles on the table. He looked lost in thought. Gray Anderson stepped forward and cleared his throat.

'Mr. Crane, is it? We've…'

'I heard you enter, you know.' His voice was soft and precise, much older than his face would claim. He reminded me of a schoolmaster I had in the country, back when the Burn family fortune was enough to afford semesters away. 'I've just been following a particularly elusive thought, and I didn't want to lose it.' He straightened and removed his glasses, folding them in his large hands with a creak. 'Which, sadly, I have.'

He watched us with clinical interest for a dozen breaths, his soft eyes narrowed slightly, as if in concentration. Finally he tapped the table with his glasses, then set them down and straightened even more, standing. He had apparently been sitting on a bench. I leaned back, startled at how tall and how gaunt he was. His neat hair nearly touched the ceiling.

'Bloody hell,' Gray muttered. 'See how you got your name, friend.'

Crane smiled patiently. 'It's quite an old family name, actually. But yes. I do seem to have grown into it.'

He came around the table and motioned to a set of chairs near the fire. Folded himself into one of them. We arranged ourselves opposite.

'So,' Crane said, 'Jacob Burn, yes?'

'And Gray Anderson, sir. Gray's not my given name, of course, but it's what everyone calls me.'

'I was terribly sorry to hear about the decline of your family, Jacob. Politics in Veridon can be a cruel joke, sometimes.'

'Sorry,' I said, arranging myself in the chair so that the revolver wasn't too obvious. 'Gray said that you were from out of town.'

'I am. Very much from out of town. Just came down the river last month. I was very fortunate to be able to secure these lodgings with so little hassle. But I keep track of the doings of decent folk.' He scratched his head and peered pensively into the fire. 'You could consider it something of a hobby of mine.'

'And what brings you to town?' I asked.

'Business. Family business. The Cranes have had very little to do with Veridon for years. Not very fond of this town,' he held up a hand, 'Nothing personal. Not fond of cities in general. Hopefully I won't be long at this.'

'And that's where we come in,' Gray said, trying to edge himself into the conversation. Mister Crane gave him a polite nod and turned his attention back to me.

'You'll forgive me for asking, I hope. Your friend Valentine? He is no longer your friend?'

'You know a lot about Veridon, for being here only a month.'

'I do my research, Mr. Burn. I make a study of things, before I make a plan. So, you no longer work for Valentine. Have no contact with him.'


He leaned back in his chair, looking at me very carefully. Weighing me.

'Fair enough. And your partner here?'

'Valentine doesn't know Gray exists. We're not big enough to draw his attention. Only thing that keeps me alive. Can I ask why that matters?'

'And would you say that you hate him?' Ignoring my question. 'Or that he hates you?'

'There's no love in our dealings,' I said. Not since he'd used me as bait in a bad bit of business, then left me to save my own skin. Stepped back in when it had looked profitable to him, offered his help. I had declined. Violently. 'What are you getting at?'

'I need something done, nothing drastic. But I need it done without Valentine's involvement, and without his knowledge. It's very difficult to find competent people in this town who aren't beholden to that clockwork abomination.'

'He kills folks he doesn't agree with,' I said. A little surprised at the way he'd said 'clockwork.' Like a curse.

'And yet he hasn't killed you,' Crane said, quietly. 'Hm. Well. His business, I suppose.'

'Are you saying you would have, in his position?' I leaned forward in my chair. 'Killed me?'

'My dear Jacob,' Crane said as he folded his hands across his sharp knees. 'I am not in the business of killing. But I find it useful to understand people who are in that business. And not killing you does not line up with what I know of that man. That is all.' He stood and went to the table.

'So, this job…' Gray said.

'This job,' Crane fixed Gray with a narrow eye and picked up his glasses. 'This job is fairly simple. But as I said, it needs to be done discreetly.' He ran his hands over the table until he found an envelope, then turned and handed it to Gray. 'This is the number that was discussed.'

Gray opened the envelope and paled, then tucked it into his jacket. That was all the answer Crane needed. From the table he took another envelope and, once again ignoring Gray, handed it to me. It was waxy, like it had been waterproofed, and was sealed shut.

'Two things I need delivered to an address. This is the first. The second I will arrange for you to pick up, tomorrow morning.'

'What sort of thing is it?' I asked.

'A complicated thing. It is still being built, according to my specifications. I have been assured that it will be finished tonight.' He folded the glasses away and leaned against the table. He was still a good head taller than me. 'Someone will come to you with directions. And you're going to need to make your own travel arrangements. I don't want my name involved in that.'

'Travel? Are we leaving the city?'

'Hardly at all. But you are going to a somewhat difficult place. You will need to get your hands on the appropriate equipment. And soon. I need this delivery made the morning after next.'

'What sort of equipment?' I asked. 'Where are we going?'

In answer, Ezekiel Crane smiled the sharpest smile I had seen in quite a while.

'The river,' he said. 'You're going to be visiting the Fehn.'

'Under the river, hm?' I said, sliding the envelope into my coat pocket. 'Well. I have a friend who can help with that.'

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