The chimneys of Leeds were cold for the first time in decades. The air were cleaner to breathe than I'd ever known though it were thick with the threat of violence.
We'd rejoiced when Vickery's had won the contract to build an Empress class dirigible for Montezuma, god-king of the Incas. Germany had fallen behind on airship manufacture, they had the skill all right but what use that when you need exotic woods from the India, cotton from Jamaica and metal from the African mines? Not much when good Queen Vic controls them all. So now if you wanted an airship you came to England, and if you wanted the best airship you came to Leeds.
Me, I couldn't even say the name of the airship we built without choking, we called her 'the Popcat'. They'd named her for some dark Inca god and it seemed he'd brought all his ill will to our city. Montezuma wanted her in white, see, and the government – self important, ill informed lugs that they are – promised him just that. Two weeks before the skinning of the Popcat started all industry in the city was shut down. Not so bad for those who run it and can sit back and have themselves a holiday in Scarborough or Brighton but a disaster for the families depending on the wages that wouldn't be paid.
I think it was about the time of the first riots that the kiddies started vanishing.
One of the Lords, some high fancypants adventurer named Lachlan Quellor, brought up a regiment of steam tanks to guard the houses of the rich. Denied a target the hungry masses had started giving dark looks to Dridgers like myself -- even though I was already a known agitator and if I was not such a skilled man Vickery's would have ditched me long ago.
We couldn't stand and watch our brothers starve. When the men decided to strike it was natural they would ask me to lead them.
So I broke me fast on black bread smeared with a thin skin of lard. I would have had nothing but Mary insisted, said I needed my strength to go find Barnaby, our son. He had joined the ranks of the missing four days ago. That was one a week for the last five months. Even before he were gone I were consumed by the need to find our missing childer. When Barnaby went my fervour became a madness that ate me up and sucked the life from me. I had not eaten, slept nor paused to comfort my wife in her worry. Fear makes a man selfish.
We did not speak during breakfast, Mary and I. I had a half remembered vision of being carried back to our damp little terrace the night before by friends who had found me collapsed in the gutter. Mary crying as I were laid out insensible on the bed.
As I ate a voice surfaced, as if it were a ghost. A memory of a soft hand and a whisper into the ear of an exhausted man.
'Mary,' I said, 'one moment.' she stared at me with eyes raw from weeping.
'Do what you must, Husband,' she said. There was no love in her words. There had not been for many years.
My Dridgers coat was a heavy thing, waxed against the weather and with many pockets for the tools of my trade. As a skilled skinner it was mostly filled with the long, sharp bodkins and heavy caulking tools that I carried – Leeds had become an even more violent place recently and they made good weapons. In the lower left pocket, the one in which I usually kept my canvas thread, was a piece of paper folded once with a sharp crease. I took it out and rubbed it between my fingers. Good quality, not the rag parchment most of us used. The words within stole my breath away and forced me back to sitting on the rickety chair I ate my breakfast from.
I believe your son, Barnaby Finlay, has joined the ranks of those missing. I am in no place to act on the information I have but believe it may be of some use to you. I write to say only this, it is possible that your child, and the others who are missing from your community, are within the Vickery factory. Indeed, I believe them to be in the disused undercroft. You will find the key with this letter.
I turned the paper, as if somehow a key could be hidden there without me knowing before feeling foolish.
'Woman,' I coughed out, 'get me my coat.'
'Your coat,' she gave me a look would have withered fruit on the bough, 'I'll not...'
'Do it,' I barked. Harsher than I meant to be and held up the letter, 'it is about the boy.' My voice softened as the tears returned to her eyes, 'may lead me to him, Mary. Him and the others.'
She nodded, kneading her pinafore with hands twisted by arthritis, damp and cold then quickly passed me my coat. Within the same pocket I had found the letter in was a key, an old rusted and ugly thing.
'I must go, Mary. Hope I bring Barnaby back with me.'
'God go with you, Barnabas.'
I nodded but could not reply. I had long given up on a God who seemed to only care for the rich.
Hurrying through the streets to the Vickery factory were heart breaking. A morning mist had slunk up out of the river and the smell of baking, usually so strong in the city, was absent. No one had money for bread. A Steam Dragon coughed in the mist ahead of me and I pressed myself into the walls of the terraces as a column of the beasts steamed past – guns high in the air, engines coughing and hissing. Soldiers little better than bandits rode their iron shells, staring at me with eyes as cold as the wife's. I could smell the liquor coming off the soldiers even above the bitter and cloying stink of machine oil. They could well do with some of my Mary's temperance.
Outside Vickery's factory the picket was already in place. I'd missed the morning jeering at the workers brought in from London who lived in a fenced and guarded campsite up on Roundhay park but heavy stones littered the ground. Hector, one of the union stewards ran up to me. He sported a black eye and held his left arm close, cradled against him to protect it.
'How do, 'Ector,' I said, 'rough night?'
'Aye, some Soldiers decided to 'ave a drink in the Cross Keys,' he smiled, showing a missing tooth. 'We gave as good as we got, Barnabas.'
'Glad to hear it,' I tried to smile but I could tell he weren't convinced.
'Barnabas,' he said, 'I know you feel a debt to us but there's no need for you to picket. Go find your lad.'
'That's why I'm here, 'Ector, he's in there,' I pointed at the massive red-brick building with the only chimney in the city still belching out dark smoke. 'I need to get in there.'
He nodded, chewed his lip.
'Right,' he said, 'there's a back way, pickets thinned a little as people get hungrier. We couldn't guard them all. No one'll see.'
'No,' I said, 'and thank ee, but if I sneak in they'll arrest me as a luddite the moment they see me. I need them to think I'm real. I need them to think I've broken.'
He leaned in close, wincing with pain as he moved.
'Barnabas,' he said, 'if our men think you're a scab they'll rip you apart.'
He was worried for me but I saw no other way. I had to get into the factory and I had to make it look real or before I walked through the factory doors I'd be dragged away to prison.
'Please Hector,' I said. 'He's my son,' and I had to swallow the tears back. Hector nodded.
'Walk with me to the gate,' he said. 'You can be over the gate before they realise. I'll make it look like you let me down.'
'Thank you,' I shook his hand.
It was hard, walking amongst men I had worked with, befriended, talked around to my way of seeing things. Some I had bullied into solidarity with their comrades in the mills and the foundries. They clapped me on the back, asked after Barnaby. Made offers of help, told me they had food secreted away and I was welcome to it. The black iron gates of the Vickery factory grew with every step I took. As cold and unwelcome as the moment coming where I would betray these men and the principles I had held dear for years.
Beyond the gates stood a row of soldiers. Bright red smears in the fog, Martini-Henry rifles on their shoulders, bayonets on. I hoped they wouldn't fire when I leapt the gates. If the men behind me mis-understood and followed me thinking I was storming the place the Martini-Henry's would make short shrift of us all. One bullet from them could pass through three men. A steam Dragon roared behind as it brought round its turret mounted maxim gun.
One deep breath. One jump.
I was up.
There was a moment when nothing happened. The crowd behind me, so lively a moment ago, became silent. The soldiers stared and I brought my foot up onto a crossrail and with a great push forced myself upwards so I was out of reach of the crowd.
'Scab!' I heard Hector's shout and his call was swiftly taken up by the crowd. My heart cracked along the lines scored by the loss of my son. But it was too late now to stop. The soldiers brought their rifles up to aim forward as I went over the top of the gate. A stone bounced off my shoulder and the pain barely registered through the shame. I let myself drop to the floor and raised my arms. The crowd behind me went silent once more. As if waiting for me to speak. To say something that would justify the faith they had had in me.
'I..' the words would not come. I had to concentrate, force them out. 'I need to work.'
I tried to close my ears to the noise, the hate. As the sergeant came forward to march me into the factory I silently thanked him for ignoring the tears streaming from my eyes.
I could not clock in. I'd torn up my clocking card on the first day of the strike. Instead Mr Vickery himself, thin, sonorous, welcomed me back to 'the family' with a clammy handshake and told me how he believed now I had caved the rest would soon follow. He was almost chummy with me. I could not speak but he seemed to think I was being suitably deferential and sent me on my way.
To get to the undercraft I had to pass through the hanger in which housed the Popcat. She'd been a skeleton when I had seen her last and now she was fully clothed – a pure white skin stretched across her ribs, the gondola below carved with the vicious gods of the Aztecs. Her cannon weren't mounted yet but there was already something fearsome about her, something I had not seen in a dirigible before. It was as if all the fear and hate in the city was held within the beast before me. The professional within me wanted to inspect the skinning of the airship as I walked past the gantries and scaffolds to get to the undercroft. But my skin crawled at the thought of touching her and I stayed well away.
The key slid into the undercroft door, it was a place I had only been in once before and it were mostly filled with dirt where the back had collapsed. Then the door had been difficult to open, screeching in complaint as it were forced backwards. But now the door swung open easily and the light intruding showed the debris inside had been cleared away. I made my way further into the place, whispering a silent prayer to a God I no longer believed in as I moved slowly towards a flickering, dismal light.
I found a hell.
Had I believed in God I would have thought Satan had arisen and made this place his home. It hollowed me. Stole the ability to cry out or move. Here were our children, or what was left of them. One look showed the cruel gods of the Aztecs had made a home here. Snarling wooden statues held rotting meat in their jaws. A small hand. A small foot.
Oh my Barnaby.
A sobbing shuddered up from deep within me, bending me over, forcing me down onto a floor dirty with old blood and gobbets of jellified meat. I reached into my coat for a bodkin, I do not know what I meant to do with it, to take my own life or run amok in the factory. I had not thought that far ahead. Before I could do owt a firm hand twisted my wrist and made me drop the heavy needle. Then I was gripped around the neck and the barrel of a gun pushed into my temple immobilised me.
'Get a grip on yourself, Man,' said a voice, well spoken, educated. 'Your boy is safe,' he sounded irritated. 'Boy, speak.'
'Father?' he sounded unsure of himself, but what child would not if he were seeing his father cry. Relief,rushed through me, like water to the thirsty, like faith to the faithless.
'Barny? Barny you are well?'
'Enough,' said the voice, 'Gilroy, take the boy away, the less time he spends in this charnal house the better. Get him a bun or something.'
'What do you want?' I asked and the man chuckled.
'I want for every man to do his duty for England,' the gun dug into my temple, 'not that you are a man given to duty.'
'My duty is to my fellow man, not the rich,' I told him.
'What about your son?'
'You wouldn't hurt a child.'
'Oh I would, though I would rather not. Now listen well. Montezuma himself intends to fly in the Tezcatlipōca back to Texpoco, after a brief stop off to quell the Catalan rebels in Spain.'
'Brave men, we should be standing with them not building machines to stamp them down.'
'Well,' hissed the voice in my ear, 'on that one thing at least we are in concordance my friend. Kill Montezuma and there will be instant civil war in Azteca. This will give the Catalans and Spanish a chance to make their rebellion against Aztec rule work. That is where you come in.'
'Me?' What did he mean? 'I'm no soldier nor a pawn of the ruling classes.'
I tried to struggle to free myself from the grasp of the man who held me, He felt like, like nothing, a skinny thing and yet he did something that caused me such pain I could barely breath.
'Look around you, fool,' he spat into my ear. 'What you see is the everyday life of the Spaniard, their children are food for Aztec Gods and their men and women chewed up in the armouries to supply the jaguar soldiers.'
'I don't understand what you want?'
'It's simple,' he said, 'you're going to blow up the airship when it's over the channel.'
'Me? You kidnapped my son to get me hear? But why me?'
I could hear the smile in his voice. 'Becasue you;re perfect. What a story, a known agitator sneaks aboard the ship and blows it up?' The Aztecs will suspect we had a hand in it but be unable to prove anything. The Empire cannot afford a war with the powers of Mezo-America yet.'
'They will destroy the trade union movement if I do this,' I whispered, more to myself than the man holding me.
'A useful side effect, I admit,' he did not sound concerned, 'and one that will please my paymasters but it is not my intention. I'd rather use a timer but we need a scapegoat. Now, what say you? Your life for that of your child and a generous stipend for your widow?'
'How do I know you tell the truth.'
'You don't,' he was laughing. It was a cynical sound, 'but I've not blown your brains out and I am not completely inhuman. Now, England expects every man to do his duty, what say you, Mr Finlay?'
'Very well,' I said, and then added. 'Which lackey are you? Lachlan Quellor.'
He sniffed, as though he smelt something worse than the rotting flesh around us..
'Oh no,' he said, 'I'm one of the men who actually gets things done. I'm not the sort of man you would read about in the papers.' he leaned in close and whispered in my ear. 'For what it's worth, I'm not unsympathetic to your cause.'
I think I hated him a little more for those words. Rather a man who fights for what he believes than a man who betrays what he knows is right.
They sat me in a packing case, the bomb is below me and the gentle vibrations of the airship run through me. The ticking of the expensive fob watch in my hands seems terribly loud, louder than the voices of the Aztecs I hear occasionally walking past. The watch is engraved with the initials S.W.
In ten minutes I will be dead.
I hope it will not hurt.
There has been too much pain.