A sonorous bell rang out causing the panels beneath the young man's feet to hum rhythmically. The tones chimed for the quarter hour, then a pause before the recognizable voice of Big Ben tolled. It sang in E natural, imperceptibly flat due to a crack it had received before its christening. It reminded him of a musician he'd once known who refused to perform in London again because his well-tuned ears were too sensitive to the strange note ringing at all hours night and day. The clockmaker's apprentice preferred to think of that as one of the Clock Tower's many eccentricities.
The twelfth and final bell hung in the air, filling it with an electric spark of life before finally fading into the void of the night. He stood silently, eyes closed, straining his ears to catch the last whisper of sound. No matter how many times he heard them, the midnight chimes carried a magic that was entirely their own.
"Leo, I should have known you'd be up here," a familiar voice called, causing him to jump, released from his trance. It was Jonathan Raymond, his mentor and closest friend. He was a towering hulk of a man with burly shoulders and a bellowing voice in contrast to Leo's thin frame at least. His fingers could be trusted with even the most fragile thread though; an engineer at heart.
"Where else would I be when I have the best seat in the house?" He replied.
"Oh I don't know, maybe out for a night on the town just like every single other boy your age who lives in the city."
"But if I was like everyone else I would be terribly dull."
Jonathan snorted. "With all your talk of bells and gears it's no great surprise you can't convince a young lady to sit with you for more than a few minutes before she faints of boredom."
"Just because I don't spend my time chatting up women doesn't mean I have nothing to talk about."
"I feel like your old landlord would beg to differ."
Leo's cheeks flushed red as the unwanted memory surfaced. He'd taken to sleeping in his workshop beneath the great pendulum so often, that his landlord started renting out his apartment to a young couple while still collecting his payments. It had taken him nearly a month to spot the ruse.
Jonathan laughed at his obvious embarrassment then clapped him on the shoulder. "The nights still young you know, it's not too late to get a life."
"I have a life!"
"Don't tell me you weren't planning to lock yourself up with your machines for the next few hours."
He couldn't argue with that. "Fine, I'll go out tomorrow." It was the only thing he could think of to get the man to leave him alone about it.
"Tomorrow! Tomorrow is Sunday, no one goes out on a Sunday night. I tell you what, I'll take you with me right now. I might be older than dirt but I still know how to have a good time!" Jonathan declared. He wrapped a massive hand around Leo's wrist and pulled him to his feet.
Begrudgingly Leo allowed himself to be dragged towards the stairwell. Once Jonathan set his mind to something there was no changing it. At the very least he hoped his wrist wouldn't bruise. His friend really didn't know his own strength.
The Masquerade had been a central hub of London night-life for as long as anyone could remember. The food was decent and the music danceable but any number of high-profile clubs could have surpassed it in those regards. What it really offered was anonymity. True to its name, every patron was required to wear a mask. Under the eerie glow of the alchemical lights even the most notorious face was easily forgotten. As a result there were people from all walks of life; rich young dukes basking in the glory of youth, old cut-purses drinking away the bad memories, and women of all ages dressed to show a scandalous amount of skin. Even among such diverse company, Leo was absolutely certain that he was not meant to be there.
He sat at a table in the corner as far from the throbbing mass of bodies on the dance floor as he possibly could. They weren't individual people anymore, one blending into the next. Then again, that was probably why they came in the first place, to forget themselves. Waves of heat radiated off the mass causing his skin to sweat underneath the black velvet of the mask. He took a sip of his drink and it burned down his throat like acid. Disgusted, he pushed it to the side.
Occasionally he would catch a glimpse of him mentor in the crowd. The man had abandoned him the moment they'd arrived. His only company had been a handful of ladies who were apparently intrigued by the "mysterious loner" and were quickly discouraged. For a time he'd entertained himself by making up stories about the club's regulars. The girl to his left was actually a spy seducing a wealthy ambassador in order to learn of Britain's trading plans with Russia, for example. The ear-splitting music made overhearing a conversation impossible however, and soon the masked faces all started to blend together.
No they weren't blending together, they were blurring together. So were the walls, and the floor for that matter. In fact the whole room suddenly seemed very far away, even the noise had been reduced to a manageable throb in the back of his head. It was quite nice actually, and for a moment he drifted peacefully. Or maybe it was an hour? Another lady came to ask for a dance and he watched from a dream as he accepted her hand. Her mask was made of fireflies.
Apparently he could dance. He didn't know how to dance. It was terribly funny- his dancing that was. In fact, everything was rather funny. He laughed loudly, throwing his head back, and so did his companion. He wasn't sure what they were laughing at. He hated dancing though. Wasn't that strange? He hated it but it was terribly funny and-
His drink had been spiked.
The thought struck him in a sudden flash of clarity and he stumbled backwards before almost falling back into the peaceful haze. Then everything flipped on its head. The walls weren't floating away, they were crushing inwards and each note the singer hit was hammered through his skull. He had to get out. He pulled away from his partner and she called out to him but her words twisted away into the air like angry snakes. Out, out, out. That was where he needed to be. The crowd flowed like a living being, a wall of bodies in every direction. He couldn't even tell if the room was shaking or if he was. It didn't matter. He just needed to get out.
A hole opened up in the mass and he threw himself through it into the night. Someone slammed the door behind him. The ground rose up to meet him and he didn't try to fight it. Finally it was quiet. The chill of the night soothed the nausea that had been roiling in his stomach. Then, everything went black.
Briefly he entertained consciousness when a strong pair of arms lifted him; Jonathan finally realizing he'd gone missing. Then it was dark again.
The soft sputtering of a motor was what brought Leo fully awake the second time. He was surprised Jonathan would bother renting a motorized carriage. That was when he realized that the bulky figure sitting across from him was not Jonathan.
He sat up with a sporadic, jerky motion that sent a spike of pain shooting through his head. "Who are you?" Leo asked, but the words came out sounding like garbled gibberish.
The man laughed, a harsh, mirthless sound."Easy there kid, I've never tried it but I've heard Bliss leaves you with one hell of a hangover. I would just be glad you didn't drink more."
Leo's eye's cleared enough to make out the man in front of him. He had the same dimensions as Jonathan but lacked the soft edges and twinkling eyes. He had a strange tattoo on the side of his neck, three concentric gears cut through the middle with one side higher than the other. It seemed familiar but he couldn't quite place it. The man's suit fit in well with the carriages lavish interior but his muscular frame and weathered hands suggested that he was more at home cracking skulls in back alleys than surrounded by opulence.
"You drugged me," he said, and that time the words were understandable.
"Nope." The man grinned. "That was the lovely lady you were dancing with. She has a reputation it seems, doesn't take well to being turned down."
"So you were watching me?"
"Why, yes I was." There was something mocking in the man's tone. "I was hoping to catch you alone and this seemed like the perfect opportunity. I'm Matthew if you were wondering."
Leo tried to sit up again, and was marginally more successful. The pain in his head had been reduced to a bearable throbbing. "And I'm here because?"
"I have a proposition for you, well actually my employer does, but she has plenty of other things to organize."
"No." Leo stated. Before he'd lived in the Clock Tower he'd lived on the outskirts of Whitechapel, and one of the lessons that you picked up early on was that if an offer sounded suspicious you stayed well away from it. Heck, he didn't need that experience to know that whatever deal he was about to be offered was trouble.
"Oh, come on now, just hear me out. It's a pretty great offer. A week or two of work with a large enough pay out for your whole family to live comfortably for a year."
"Then my answer is…no. You can let me off here. I'll walk the rest of the way."
Matthew watched him dubiously. "So you can fall on your face and knock yourself out again? Do you even know where here is? You haven't heard what the job is either."
"Well, what is it?"
"I can't tell you until you accept. It's top secret."
"You're a terrible negotiator. Have you ever done this before?" Leo asked.
"It's the suit isn't it?" Matthew sighed melodramatically, an expression that looked strange on someone so imposing. "It makes me look like some night-club bouncer, but everyone insisted it would be more professional."
The entire conversation had turned from alarming to almost comical, so that Leo didn't know what to make of it anymore. "Well, whether it's the suit or the fact that I still have a half-wit's worth of common sense I really think it's time for me to leave."
"I wouldn't dismiss it so easily," Matthew said, the light hearted air vanishing as quickly as it had come. "We're actually a bit… desperate. Our original contact became indisposed and you were the closest replacement we could find last minute."
"There has to be a few hundred engineers in this city alone more qualified than I am for whatever job this is."
Matthew smirked again, an aggravating, self-important expression. "You would be surprised about that. In any case, you're plenty qualified, and more importantly, you're discreet. It's a rather delicate task and no one would notice if you vanished for a week or so, unlike some of these buffoons who do more socializing than science."
"Desperate, discreet, and delicate" Leo parroted, the sarcasm dripping off his tongue, "This job is sounding more appealing by the second. You obviously know about my family, I have 8 siblings, do you really expect them to keep quiet?"
"I'm also aware that you haven't talked to any of them in months, save the occasional check sent home. No need to bluff. The only one who would notice would be Jonathan Raymond, and one man's silence can be easily guaranteed." The carriage came to a stop with a jolt, and without taking his eyes off the young engineer, Matthew added, "We're here, think about it."
The man didn't say anymore, but the implication was clear. Leo slid out of the open doorway and out into the miserable drizzle without a backwards glance. He wasn't sure if it was the conversation or the last remnants of the Bliss that was making him shiver.