Three people stood under the weak light of a streetlamp. The first was a tall young man who stood in a shabby black overcoat with a back straight as a rod. His short, dark hair was combed across his forehead, and each of the features on his long face were angular and very pronounced. He held a battered suitcase in one hand.
The second figure was a woman, not quite so tall and certainly not as thin as the man, wearing a slender dress with high shoulders that hugged her frame. Her hair was braided around her head, so blonde it was nearly white. Her face was round, with small features and a mocking smile.
The last figure was another man, shorter than the first but taller than the woman, whose frock coat, hat, and two suitcases were obviously very expensive. He was a brunette, slightly overweight, with an egg-shaped face and wide, innocent eyes.
Dominic, who had worked on the railroad for years, had made a habit of observing arrivals, and was intrigued by the three of them. They were contrasting in appearance, and the first young man looked very strange standing next to the two aristocrats. The luggage and clothing of the latter two was so prim, and pristine, and fashionable, while his… wasn’t. Despite that, the man was the most confident-looking of the three, and extruded an air of utmost authority. The smile on his face was arrogant and self-satisfied. Why?
It didn’t really matter, and Dom had a job to do. He had unloaded luggage for people coming in on the late night trains for years, and he knew what to do. Get out the bags, call out the names, wait for people to come forward and claim it. The first man was talking with the aristocratic woman, so Dom had to clear his throat several times before they stopped to pay attention to him. The aristocratic man coughed, and wiped sweat from his face with an embroidered handkerchief.
The summer heat was oppressive, and the combination with the smog over London made it hard to breathe. The air stood still and sticky, and here by the train tracks there was smoke and heat pouring off the train. Dom was drenched in sweat, even more so than normal.
He lifted a heavy, beat-up trunk that smelled of chemicals over one arm, and an identical one that was significantly lighter over the other. “Two bags for a Doctor Johann Faust?”
The strange, arrogant young man in the shabby coat raised his hand. “Me.” He had a thick German accent, though he did not look distinctly German.
“Where d’ye want these?”
“I have a cab coming to pick me up.” Johann Faust gave him some kind of foreign coin. “Sorry, I don’t have any English money yet.”
Dom grunted. He could turn the coin in later for a more appropriate one. A carriage soon rumbled up the street, and he passed Dr Faust’s two bags to the driver. He saw a flash of a redheaded man with a cigar before Faust climbed into the cab, which was full of smoke.
He trudged back to the pile of bags. The remaining ones had obviously not been used before. He looked at the tag. “Ernest Janson?” Janson? The Janson? He looked up at the remaining young man, hardly more than a boy, who was standing awkwardly under the streetlamp with his hand up. Surely this could not be Lord Janson, the man who was creating so much trouble for everyone by having his ‘reform’ laws passed. That man would be much older.
“My father’s cab isn’t here yet,” Ernest Janson said. “You can wait to pick them up.”
“Father?” Probably that was Lord Janson, not this boy.
“Yes, my father, Duke Oswald Janson. He’s very important in politics.” Ernest looked very pleased with this, unaware that his enthusiasm made Dom want to put a fist between his eyes.
“Very important, yeah? He’s that one what did them reforms last month, an’t he?”
“Reforms? Oh, you mean the laws he had passed? Yes, and he was very happy to have them done. He said it’ll make things so much better for everyone.”
Dom ground his jaw. “Better? You call passing laws that force anybody not working into work better?”
Ernest stiffened, looking uncomfortable. “Father says people should not be idle.”
“Y- yes, that’s what he says.”
It was that that made Dom explode. “Idlers are not poor men, women and children!” He shouted it loud enough that one of the coal boys gave them an odd look, and that Ernest Janson took a large step back. The woman with him, who had been distracted, now snapped to attention. There was something wild in her glare, something dangerous that made Dom uneasy.
“Please don’t- don’t hurt me. It wasn’t my fault, I’m his youngest son, I’ve never lived in London before. ”
Dom cursed under his breath. If the boy had had nothing to do with the laws, he should never have lost his temper at this one. “Sorry, then, sir, I shouldn’t have shouted. You too, missus.” He nodded at each of them in turn.
“Just a misunderstanding,” Ernest said weakly.
“For the record, we cannot stand Lord Janson any more than you,” The woman said. She checked her watch. “Where is he?”
Dom smiled triumphantly. It felt good to know the gentry hated the man, too. “All of these bags belong to you two? Ernest and… Clarissa?”
“Clara.” The woman – Clara – turned at the sound of a carriage, and nodded to Dom. “Here’s the one you can shout at.”
Unlike the man before, Duke Oswald Janson climbed out of the cab. He was of average height, with slick dark hair, a thick mustache, and a face very much like his son’s. He was dressed in a complicated suit, the jacket, pants, and bowtie of which were black, and his hands were gloved. Janson surveyed the scene, his hawklike eyes landing first on Ernest, then Clara, then Dom, before beckoning his son and climbing back inside the carriage.
Dom wanted to take Clara’s advice and let Janson know exactly what he thought of the reforms, but he had a job to do, and people to support. He couldn’t lose this job, and insulting Duke Oswald Janson was like to lose him his life as well as his job.
Dom carried the baggage to the carriage, and caught a snatch of conversation. Ernest was excitedly telling his father about how a man called Duke Leonard Mephisto had come to pick up the other man on the train. Dom knew that name from politics, too, and knew that Duke Mephisto was Duke Janson’s rival. He was alright, but not Dom’s favorite.
Once they’d gone, Dom heard the clock chime two, so he waved goodbye to the other workers and started home. He lived in an apartment building in a poor part of the city, in a two-room flat shared with two girls who he’d adopted into his care. One, Sylvia, was his daughter by his late wife, Rue, who had died years ago of the consumption that had taken his two young sons as well. The other, Deirdre, was an Irish girl, Sylvia’s friend, who had suffered some great trauma in Ireland that drove her to them for sanctuary. They both worked, Sylvia did “something” he suspected was illegal that took up most of her day, and Deirdre washed costumes for a high-profile theater. Neither of those jobs brought in much money, so on top of his regular work Dom left the girls alone at night and worked late night shifts no one wanted at the railroad.
If need be, Dom could have quit his job, and they could have rented out one room to another person, but what else was there to do but work? He would rather have something to lose in the event of his untimely death.
They were not asleep when he arrived home, they never were, but were sitting at the small table playing a card game. Sylvia was winning by a fair margin, though Deirdre was being rather careful with her cards. When Sylvia turned to greet Dom, Deirdre slid a few cards from the deck into her hand.
“Papa, Deirdre is a terrible cheater,” Sylvia said. Her accent was French, though they were not and had only lived there for a few years when she was very small. “You must tell her off.”
“Alas, if only she were my child. Did the two of you get something to eat?”
Sylvia gestured towards a half-finished loaf of bread. “We ate some of that. It was stale.”
“I’ll buy more tomorrow.”
Deirdre stood up, and Dom realized how pale she looked. “I’ll be going to bed now, Mr. Sapping.”
“Goodnight, Deirdre. There’s medicine in the cabinet if you need it.”
She shook her head and made for the bedroom.
Dom sat with Sylvia for a few more moments, before she, too, went into the bedroom. The girls shared a room, and he slept on the sofa. They were lucky to own two rooms, so that the girls could have their own room, and lucky to not have to share their two rooms with anyone else.
Someone knocked at the door, and Dom got up to see who it was. To his surprise, it was Dr Johann Faust, the man from the train. What was he doing here?
“Good sir,” Dr Faust said. “I have discovered that I am missing one of my smaller bags, a cloth knapsack that contained a series of very important books of mine. I was wondering if you had seen it?”
“Did you follow me here?”
“On the contrary, it would seem you followed me. My new lodgings are on the floor just above yours.”
Dom stared dumbly at him. A doctor? Living here? Why? That would be good for people who had severe medical conditions, at least. “Oh. Well, I can’t say that I have seen your bag. We can go back to the tracks to look if you think that would help.”
Dr Faust nodded, so Dom put his hat and coat back on and led him down the stairs. The tracks were close, and at a fast pace it only took them ten minutes to walk there. Dr Faust was silent during the walk, and Dom didn’t prompt conversation from him. He liked to be alone with his thoughts, which ran wild so late at night.
When they arrived at the tracks, Dom went to unlock the building where any lost luggage would go. Dr Faust paced by the tracks while Dom fumbled with the lights.
“I highly doubt it would be in there, good sir. The bag is of dark fabric, and it is quite late.” Dr Faust had not moved from his position beside the tracks. “In fact, I think I see it there. Would you be so kind as to climb down and get it for me? I have not a light.”
Dom had a small candle in his pocket, which he lit and shone down onto the tracks. He saw the bag Dr Faust was talking about clear enough, sitting slumped onto one of the ties, but was loath to climb onto the train tracks.
“Do you really need it tonight?” In the daytime, the workers could notify the running trains when someone was on the tracks, but now there was hardly anyone working at the station. The drivers of trains passing through would also not be able to see him. Maybe he could dash out and grab it, but the straps looked tangled in the tie somehow.
“I would prefer to not have that specific bag run over, good sir. Here, I can tip you for your efforts, I have English money now.” Dr Faust held up a shiny coin, which glinted like a cat’s eye in the night.
Dom could buy Sylvia a birthday gift with that. He licked his chapped lips in anticipation, looked both ways, and took a tentative step on the tracks. The bag was caught on a tie, tangled around the heavy bolt that kept it in place. Dom squatted down, and jammed his thumbs under the canvas strap. It smelled strongly of chemicals, and made him woozy. Hadn’t Faust said it was full of books? Liar. Something rumbled under Dom’s feet, and he gave up trying to untangle the strap. He took out his knife and sawed, growing desperate. The bag came free with a jerk, and Dom fell forward.
His face smashed into the fabric, and the chemicals contained within made his head pound. There was liquid on the surface; something must have broken. Dom went to grab it, and realized his sleeve had caught on the tie. He pulled, but the scent from the chemicals was sapping his strength. The train was coming, he could feel it in the ground, and Dom was panicking.
Suddenly, Dr Faust was there beside him, sawing at Dom’s caught sleeve. A shrill whistle split the night air, and Dom’s vision swam. His head fell, and he was aware that the rumbling in the ground was enough to make his molar rattle. He reached out for Dr Faust, and found that both the man and the bag were gone. The last thing he saw when he looked up was Faust tumbling across the tracks to the other side, and the frightened face of the driver as the train passed him by.